Weak and stupid men fear being outmatched by women, and therefore they choose the frailest and most ignorant of mates. You are none of these things.
— ERIK ITO, TO HANNA
Erik Ito, the third Prince of the kingdom of Vindur, fingered the long, blonde hair of his traumatized wife, Hanna Ito, who sobbed into his shoulder as he lay on his back. Despite her blood-drenched dress, hair, and flesh, many would have accounted her a beauty. Her blue eyes usually held an element of sadness, but today there was something more, a hint of rage and despair. He noticed when she lifted her head to look at him with a piercing stare.
“You came for me,” Hanna said, clutching at his robe; they matched, both of their blue garments were suffused with scarlet. She pressed her head back into the hollow of Erik’s neck.
The smile frozen on Erik’s lips turned into a grimace as jolts of agony tore through his being. Every part of him hurt, from the tips of his toes to his hair follicles. To better weather the pain, he focused on the low buzzing that came from the earth and from the wings of the glowing insects that hovered around the vaulted cavern.
If not for the domed roof, the massive chamber could have been in an arena, with all the gray-skinned corpses strewn artlessly across the blood-mattered floor, most charred beyond recognition, steaming in their crimson stew. Scarlet liquid still trickled from the mountain of pale flesh that had once been the Great Mrethren, and motes of dust glittered where they hung in their thousands. Heaps of rubble lay scattered from the rock wall that Erik had shattered in his fit of madness. The underground chamber had no windows, and only two entrances—three counting the hole in the wall—one at either end of the room.
“I should have been here sooner,” Erik grunted, behind clenched teeth. “If only I had. . . . Forgive me. I can’t undo what was done to you. I wish. . . .”
Hanna went still in Erik’s grasp. “What do you mean?” Her voice hovered somewhere between a growl and a whisper, punctuated by a throbbing vein of shame.
“I know what they—what he did.”
Hanna scampered back on her hindquarters, sliding across the gore-slicked floor. All red but two points of luminous blue, she glared at him, chest rising and falling with panicked gasps. “How?” she asked. “How do you. . . .”
Tell her we raped her together! That was Saxi, laughing seemingly lost in a bout of rage, the newest voice in Erik’s head. The Dökk’s bitterness stemmed from the fact that Erik had almost single-handedly slaughtered his gray-skinned brethren to a man. His presence hissed at the back of Erik’s skull like a vent in the earth, furious and bubbling.
Shut up! Patrick—another voice in Erik’s head—snarled at Saxi. Do you believe nothing else can be done to you because you’re dead? If so, you’re sadly mistaken.
As if to prove Patrick’s point, another presence rose from the depth of the Prince’s brain, ancient and primeval. The Celestial Dragon. An abomination that had feasted on the carnage of a dozen worlds until it had in turn been devoured at the foot of the Rin Mountains by Erik. Saxi retreated, prideful even in his terror.
Erik pushed himself to his knees, struggling against the black spots that tried to swarm his vision. He gritted his teeth, and the darkness receded. He felt the weight of Hanna’s gaze, but for a moment he said nothing. What do I say?
Anything but the truth, Patrick advised. I might not know a lot about the intricacies of the female mind, but I know this much. If you tell your wife the creature that raped her is now part of you, it won’t end well.
Lie? Erik did not know if he could do that. Secrets had the power to kill. Asbjörn had died the last time he had decided to withhold information from someone he loved. He would not risk that again, not now. Never again.
Why did you stop, came Asbjörn’s deranged voice. We were almost free, son. Free from these chains! Free from this world!
“I saw it all,” Erik said after a moment. “I’m so sorry.”
“How? I don’t understand.” Hanna’s eyes looked thoughtfully inward; an unnoticed tear slipped down her blood-stained cheek as her hand grasped at the holes in her dress. “You weren’t there, how could you know? And stop saying that! ‘You’re sorry. You’re sorry.’ What do you have to be sorry about? I won’t have you thinking I’m weak. I’m not!” The trickle of tears turned into a flood.
Erik reached out to console Hanna, but the fierceness of her gaze made him drop his hand. He turned from her, studying the two dragon-hilts sticking out of the ground, one ebony, the other gold. Asbjörn’s former Tár Guðs weapons, now his swords. He lurched to his feet, tilting to one side until Hanna appeared beside him to steady him with a hand.
“Thank you,” Erik said. Together they limped over to the blades; every step was agony filled, but Erik tried to hide it. Hanna’s long fingers rubbed his back, though she did not look at him. “I don’t think you’re weak. No one would mistake you for one of those fragile and delicate flowers. There is more than one way to be strong. Inside of you lies a gentle wellspring of fortitude and perseverance; I see it every time I look at you.”
“Some things never change,” Hanna said, her Ógilter accent strong. “You always told the most beautiful lies.”
Erik tore his arm away from Hanna and dropped to his knees. He reached out and caressed the protruding dragon-hilts. In his Abyss fueled madness, he had used the Tár Guðs blades to amplify his power as he tried to destroy the world. And if not for Hanna, he would have succeeded. His hands spasmed with sudden terror. I almost ended it all!
Hanna placed her palm on Erik’s back, and he realized he was weeping. His body shook as he gasped for breath. Inky, black sadness swelled, trying to drown him, trying to strangle him with hair-thin threads of despair.
“That was unkind,” Hanna whispered. “I’m unkind. Forgive me.”
“I watched Saxi rape you! I saw it all through his eyes, felt it, too. It was as if I was the one. . . .” The words came out of Erik all in a rush, syllables jumbling together near the end. He calmed himself with a breath, sensing the trembling of Hanna’s hand through his back. “It’s one of my new abilities.” Slower. “When I devour someone I steal their memories. You must understand, I was desperate to find you. I ate Saxi because of you.”
“I ate him, Hanna!” Erik yanked the swords out the ground by their hilts, leaping upright. The chamber seemed to quake around him, but he kept his feet. He could not bring himself to turn around, too fearful of what he might discover. “Now he’s a part of me. Another voice in my head.”
“Erik!” Hanna shrieked.
Erik spun around, his vision blurring as fear climbed down into his throat. A terror-filled moment later the world firmed, and he followed Hanna’s finger. A few meters away, Mrethren Örk rose from a pool of scarlet gore, black hair slicked back, her eight spider-like appendages twitching in the surrounding air. She snarled, revealing fused teeth.
“Get behind me!” Erik yelled, pushing himself ahead of Hanna. She complied, if reluctantly.
“You’ll pay,” Örk said. “One day you’ll all pay for what you’ve done here. This I swear!”
Erik took another step forward, fighting against the rising bile in his stomach. He was in no shape for combat, he could barely find the strength to keep his swords elevated. Yet he kept his concern hidden behind a mask of blankness, this was not the time to show weakness.
Örk hissed at them and bolted in the opposite direction, skidding and slipping on the wet floor. The instant she disappeared through the doorway, Erik collapsed to one knee, huffing and puffing. Hanna was by his side a second after, helping him back up.
“Are you all right?” She asked.
Erik shook his head. “We need to get out of here.”
“Which way is out?” One corner of Hanna’s mouth quirked in what might have been a snarl or a grimace. “I was dragged through so many tunnels, I have no idea where we would even begin.”
“Leave it to me.” Erik handed Hanna his shortsword and limped towards the hole in the wall, dragging her along. After a few seconds, he was forced to lean on her for support, carefully navigating around charred corpses and past rubble.
They stepped out of the large chamber and into a tunnel lit with glowing gems embedded in the ceiling. Hanna stiffened, her brow wrinkling with stubbornness as she glanced over her shoulder.
“Are you sure,” she pressed.
Erik plodded onward, overcoming Hanna’s resistance. “We’re in a labyrinth of twisting pathways and rooms, built to confuse any intruder. But I know the way out. It’s one piece of information that came over after I devoured Saxi.”
Silence fell at the mention of Saxi. The creature was a monster—he had been trying to stop Erik from reaching Hanna when he met his end—yet that was not what stilled her tongue. Erik imagined having your rapist trapped within your husband must be the deepest anathema for any woman; protecting wives from such criminals was the primary duty of every spouse. But now they stumbled forward, not meeting each other’s eyes.
Through endless tunnels they wondered, always climbing upwards through long, curling corridors, stopping when the earth’s slight tremors quickened, in short, violent bursts. Gray Skins lay piled around every corner, ugly faces twisted in death, in their thousands. Some half-flayed into ash, others half-sank into the floor, but most they encountered were thin and wasted, bodies stabbed and slashed. Blood flowed in streams, splashing against their feet.
“You did this? All of this by yourself?” Hanna questioned.
Erik diverted his eyes from the cadaver-strewn ground, the sight of which awaken opened within him a cavernous hole. His stomach throbbed with murderous pangs. The world warped and distorted at the edge of his vision.
The Celestial Dragon repeated that one word like a blacksmith’s hammer pounding at the back of his skull. Each repetition brought his bones closer to rupture. Each repetition added another hairline crack in his control.
NO! Erik yelled at it. Never again! The thought of feeding on the corpses made him queasy. Never again would he feast on a creature with conscious thought; it was too risky. How many more voices would it take until he was no longer himself? Until he was nothing but a lunatic? Never!
“Erik,” Hanna said, her crimson dripping face tilted in concern.
He looked down at her in what he hoped was a smile, but feared might have been a sneer. “I told you, ‘For you, I would murder the world.’ Did you not believe me?”
“You love me that much?”
“For over a thousand years Fiend Lords have plagued mankind and never had anyone been able to reverse the corruption of the Abyss after it took hold. Not once, until today. Until you saved me from myself. What does that tell you?”
Hanna shifted a lock of hair that had fallen over her eye and smiled, though it seemed forced. “Sometimes I forget I need to protect my heart from you. Then I remember her and the others, and the long procession of women you’ve been through in your life, all convinced they were different from those that came before them.”
“I was young and a fool,” Erik breathed.
“Perhaps.” Hanna nodded, considering. “And what are you now?”
Erik pondered her words, feeling the strain from their journey in his long limbs. His eyes flickered close before jolting back open. I need to sleep. “Older, but still a fool,”
Hanna snorted but said nothing.
Seconds turned into minutes, and still, neither one of them spoke. It was all Erik could do to keep putting one foot ahead of the next. Eventually, they ascended into a massive, circular chamber with a roof that ended in a point. It was cruder than the rest of the labyrinth had been, with walls made of a mixture of dirt and rock. And scattered throughout the room was a small army of Dökk, clustered in knots, weapons discarded, eyes despondent, staring off into nothingness. It was as if the will to live had been drained from them.
“That’s our way out.” Erik pointed to the dark opening on the other side of the room, sensing Hanna shudder in terror as her eyes roamed over the Gray Skins.
“Is . . . there no other way out?” she whispered.
Erik’s face twisted into a frown. He often had to act cautiously out of necessity—the world was a dangerous place, filled with all manner of horrors—but he had never feared conflict with anything or anyone. Now, he feared, not for his own sake but Hanna’s.
“Yes, there are many, but none closer,” he said. “We need to leave now, this much carnage will draw monsters from kilometers away. They will come to feast, and we won’t want to be here when it happens.”
Hanna hesitated, then nodded; there was a note of anxiety around her eyes, but other than that she looked resolute. It surprised him, how easy her moods were to read today. This was never the case, Hanna was a master of the Game of Faces, never revealing iota more than she wished; which showed how much the last few hours had affected her.
Erik led the way with his slow lumbering gait, Hanna a step behind. He clasped his longsword with both hands as his eyes darted around the chamber, searching for danger. The drying blood on his skin was sticky and made him want to itch, but he resisted the urge. His foot knocked into a small rock, and it clattered across the ground, booming with all the fury of a rockslide.
Erik and Hanna froze.
A gray face turned towards them, its large, black eyes unblinking. Other than that the creature continued to lie curled on the ground, chest rising and falling. It was as if it could not see what was before it, or perhaps it did not care to. Either way, they were safe for now.
Rise brothers! Saxi yelled. Rise and defend our Kvik. Destroy the murderer and his whore!
Shut up! Patrick told the Gray Skin.
Erik sent Hanna a strained smile, then they continued, sneaking their way past the bewildered Dökk dispersed throughout the crude chamber. A slight sound drew his attention to the left.
A large Gray Skin with a headband made of a tattered red fabric rose among a cluster of his prone brethren, gripping a bone spear. The dark shard in his forehead glittered with scant light falling from the gems embedded in the pointed ceiling.
“RUN!” Erik shouted, running towards the enemy. Toward the Chosen, a class of Dökk with powers to rival those of Cultivators.
Erik sprinted, trying to quicken the two hearts pumping in his chest. The world slowed then jerked back into its normal rhythm, leaving him unbalanced and stumbling. Wide-eyed, he watched the Chosen flung a hand out towards him.
The air distorted in front of Erik—he had no time for shock or fear—and the next thing he knew he was tumbling through the air, twisting desperately, ears ringing with thunder. He crashed to the ground, slamming into prone Gray Skins, skidding until his head smashed into a wall. His skull rang. Pain exploded into his being.
Erik gasped, blinking away tears; it was all he could do to breathe. His muscles spasmed out of his control. His hand twitched, searching for the hilt of his longsword.
Die! Die! Saxi shrieked.
The Chosen strode toward Erik, spear first. “She’s gone. Gone!” Tears leaked from the creatures large eyes. “It’s so quiet. So lonely. I’m all alone!” He stopped inches from the Prince.
A quick shiver ran through Erik.
The Chosen jerked, falling to his knees, empty hand touching the point of the blade jutting from his flesh. He blinked, not understanding. Then he crumbled to the ground.
Hanna stood behind him, peering down at Erik, a blood-stained shortsword in her hand.