Suffering is fire they say. When we burn, we grow stronger.
— ERIK ITO, TO HANNA
“Finish it.” The words tasted like bile on Erik’s tongue. Once Hanna had seemed so innocent in appearance until life in Vetur, the capital of Vindur, had wilted that element away. Yet there still remained the shadow of the little girl she had once been in her eyes and on her lips when she smiled. It repulsed him, but he had to help her destroy that last pure part of herself before grief and rage turned it into something poisonous.
Hanna looked from him to the Gray Skin writhing at his feet. Her arms trembled with barely controlled passion, and scarlet droplets sprinkled from the dragon-hilted shortsword in her hand. The Chosen struggled, trying to climb back to his feet; though bleeding from the wound in his chest, he was far from dead.
“Do it NOW!” Erik commanded in a voice that brooked no disagreement.
Hanna fell upon the Chosen, shortsword rising and falling. The Dökk jerked beneath her, gray body spasming, hash voice squealing. Even when the monster fell silent and still, she kept striking him in the back, wrenching the blade free after every blow.
“That’s it, Hanna.” Erik used his elbows to push himself onto his butt. “Let it all out.” His eyes scanned the chamber for danger; the other Gray Skins appeared oblivious to the violence taking place mere meters away, even the ones he had struck as he skidded across the ground.
Hanna screamed, seeming to have to force herself to go on. Crimson ribbons squirted into the air after her every thrust, drenching her anew. Her blue eyes were the only part of her not covered in blood.
“Die! Die!” she shouted then collapsed, crumbling in on herself, panting for breath.
Erik tried to stand, but his knees gave way, and he sat down hard on the ground. Hanna’s eyes flogged him with concern. He forced a smile and crawled towards her.
“It gets easier after your first,” he said, “like killing chickens.”
“When have you ever killed a chicken?” Hanna asked.
“Never. It’s just something people,” Erik began, but Hanna stopped him with a glare.
“Don’t try to appease me with things people say. Speak your own words or say nothing at all. I’m not some little, lost puppy. I’m your wife.”
Erik fought back a sigh; Hanna made nothing easy. He traced a circle on her forehead. “In some cultures, you save a man’s life, and he gets to bugger you.” Hanna rose an eyebrow at him. “I created that one myself.”
Hanna burst into a fit of laughter and threw her arms around Erik. Slowly, her amusement morphed into sobs. “I love you, you know?” she said. “I really do.”
“Hanna . . . I know.” He rubbed her back. “But we have to go. Are you hurt? Can you stand?”
“No and yes,” Hanna said. She rose a hand to wipe her eyes but reconsidered when she got a closer look at her gore covered limb.
“Good, because I can’t.”
With Hanna’s help, Erik climbed to his feet and retrieved his longsword. Then they moved toward the darkened exit. Each step rocked Erik’s body with a new stab of agony, parts of him hurt he did not even know existed. Bones in his back throbbed. Muscles in his legs screamed.
Your time is at an end, human! Saxi snarled. Even if you leave here alive, you won’t live long. We’re coming! Do you hear me? We’re coming!
Erik’s eyes combed his surroundings, and as he listened to Saxi’s rant, his back straightened. The Chosen’s presence tugged at him, sent rage and hatred roiling along his skull. Because of the Gray Skin, Hanna had suffered pain beyond knowing, pain no woman should suffer. She had been broken, and there was no telling what lasting damage her trauma might leave. But fate had given him the means of retribution, a way to torment his enemy beyond the grave.
Like a black wave we will sweep all the lands to the south, Saxi went on. We will fuck your women and your children still warm in their mothers’ wombs. Not even your dogs will be spared the horror of our cocks!
Claw, Erik told the Celestial Dragon.
His mind seethed with all the violence of a dark storm cloud as the Devourer of Worlds rose within him, its ancient presence roaring, pulsing. Saxi receded, but it was already too late. The Celestial Dragon tore into the Gray Skin’s essence, ripping chunks out of his being. Saxi shrieked as his torn pieces merged with Erik.
Enough, Erik grinned, his head spinning.
“Why are you smiling?” Hanna grunted, struggling to handle his weight.
Erik winked down at her. “I—”
Something warm brushed at the outside of Erik’s mind, a soothing touch like a mother’s soft fingertip running across her child’s face. He spun around, almost lurching Hanna right off her feet as he turned. Mrethren Örk stood in the shadow of the opening through which they had entered the huge chamber, glaring at them.
“Fuck,” Erik said.
“I promised vengeance. I promised retribution!” Örk’s voice echoed through the room, stirring the milling mass of Gray Skins. By ones and twos, they jerked to their feet, dark eyes glowing with renewed purpose, large hands gripping vicious spears.
“Fuck,” Erik said louder.
Hanna shuddered at his side, and he pushed her back, stepping to the forefront. How much good would that do when they were surrounded? He did not know but had moved by instinct, trying to protect what he held dear.
A hundred and twelve, Patrick said. That’s how many there are, if you were wondering.
Sweat rolled down Erik’s face as he lifted his longsword. No breath of air stirred through the windowless chamber, but his perspiration had nothing to do with the heat and everything to do with his dread. At the moment his body was his most dangerous opponent, the Dökk did not scare him, no matter their number. Only hours earlier he had killed them in their tens of thousands. What was a hundred and twelve compared to all those he had already slain?
Erik charged forward, thrusting his blade through the neck of a Dökk climbing to his feet. His weapon slid into gray flesh like a finger pressed into an overripe fruit. He jerked his longsword free and flung himself at Hanna. “Down!” he shouted.
Hanna dropped to the ground without protest, her eyes round. Erik passed over her, slashing another Gray Skin who was still disorientated. The monster stumbled back, spewing blood, but Erik had already forgotten about him, moving on to the next victim. Lungs burning, he danced around Hanna, longsword blurring, footwork sloppy and slow; the only reason his attacks worked at all was that the Dökk were disorganized and muddleheaded. It would not last for much longer, he could see that. He had only a handful of seconds until they overwhelmed him or his body collapsed, whichever one happened first.
The Celestial Dragon stirred, spreading through hidden crevices in his mind, offering a wellspring of untouched strength. Erik rejected it, that way led to destruction. With Hanna here, he could not risk himself losing himself in the dragon’s form. Far too dangerous. Better he battled the Dökk on his own than chance eating his own wife.
Dead is dead unless you’re mad, Asbjörn snickered. Then you end up a voice in another’s head. Calmer, almost lucid. Are you real? Am I?
A scowl twisted Erik’s face. A spear turned his blade, leaving him open to a counterattack. He spun, dropping a hand from his longsword to block the other spear trying to impale him. His hand smacked the weapon aside.
“Erik!” Hanna yelled from behind him.
Hanna! Erik’s eyes widened in terror. Blood roared in his ear. Fear clawed at his throat. He turned, but a snarling Gray Skin punctured his stomach with a spear, wrenching him to a stop. Then another spear entered him from the opposite direction, then another and another. . . . Each wound flared with agony. HANNA!
Rage coursed through Erik’s veins, hot and acidic. Muscles in his legs and arms bulged, flooded with new body mass; it came pouring into him from this other place—this other dimension he could only half perceive. He growled, shifting towards Hanna, dragging the Dökk gripping the other end of the spears of their feet.
Hanna crouched on the ground as a grinning Gray Skin stabbed at her face. Erik pulled his arm back and hurled his longsword, blade first. The sword flashed through the air and lanced through the monster’s skull, flinging him back from the force of the blow. More Dökk rushed Hanna from every direction, howling, screaming in their gray multitudes.
Erik took a step forward, grunting as more spears skewered him. Slowly, his body devoured them, breaking the weapons down, transforming them into fuel; not even the blood that mattered his skin was spared. Energy trickled into him like a stream from a small puddle and vitality came roaring back into his being. The Gray Skins around him stumbled back, watching in horror as their weapons disappeared into roiling flesh.
“Don’t touch my wife!” Erik bellowed.
Not understanding how, he converted his arms into long, black, scythe-shaped blades made of the same material as the Celestial Dragon’s claws. Danger lay everywhere. Nothing that could threaten him, but Hanna was a different story. He had to protect her. He had to!
“Stay on the ground,” he told Hanna.
An instant later, Erik spun in circles, scythe-shaped arms screeching as they cut through the air. He was a blood-soaked tornado. He was a churning maelstrom. Fine red strings torn from severed body parts, ruptured organs, and slashed chests unspooled like scarlet embroidery. Yelping, moaning voices rose around him, but he was deaf to their pleas. Blind to their torment filled faces.
When he stopped, he and Hanna were surrounded by a short wall of twitching meat. Beyond the dead and the dying, the living looked on in dismay. Erik had eyes for none of them. He gazed only at Mrethren Örk, who still stood where she first appeared, limbs trembling.
“Leave or die. There are no other options than that,” Erik proclaimed. “I’m death! To stand before me is to end.” The floor quivered ever so slightly beneath his feet.
“Erik,” Hanna said, tugging at his robe and pointing at the exit.
Two giant Gray Skins pushed their way out of the tunnel, three meters tall with potbellies and massive forearms, each dragging a tree trunk sized club behind it. The other Dökk banged their spears of the ground in a rhythmic pattern while clearing a path to Erik for their much larger brethren.
“You might be death, human,” Örk’s voice rose above the din, “but your woman is not. We may not be able to slay you, but she we will kill.”
Yes, wept Saxi. Murder her for the Great Mrethren. Murder them all!
Erik shoved Hanna to the ground hard as a club hurled through the space they had occupied, whooshing over their heads. Screams rose behind them, and the banging of spears turned erratic, replaced by the sounds of splintering wood and bone.
There is another one, Patrick cautioned.
Erik quickened his hearts, sensing Hanna shudder beneath him. Time and motion slowed; the second club flying towards them decelerated until it almost looked stalled. It hung suspended in the air, crawling forward. He rolled Hanna out of the way and lunged to his feet. Eyes narrowing into slits, he leaped into the air and landed on the wooden club; it sagged toward the floor immediately even as he vaulted back into the air. His enemies were half-frozen statues, unable to even perceive movement at such speeds. He drifted over the heads of a dozen Gray Skins and then rolled across the ground, slashing through the kneecap of the first giant Dökk, then the second.
The muscles in Erik’s thighs spasmed and motion came rushing back. Distorted sounds sped up, and the two massive mounds of gray flesh crashed to the dirt behind him, wailing. He dropped to his knees, gasping, watching ruby droplets sink into his scythe-like arms until they were spotless. Each drop added a little strength and something else. Something undefined.
Indulging himself in one last deep breath, Erik stood and turned, baring witness to the slaughter. The giants writhed back and forth, striking out randomly as blood gushed from their parted kneecaps. His eyes found Hanna climbing to her feet, then went to Örk. He gave the black-haired Gray Skin a disparaging smirk.
“Kill her! Kill her!” Örk yelled before fleeing back where she came from.
Erik exploded into action. Arms opened wide to help keep his balance, he ran across the mass of twitching flesh. Hanna spun, fending off the approaching Dökk with the shortsword. Erik was beside her in a second, slashing and hacking, his razor sharp limbs humming.
“Hold onto me!” he told her when they received a small moment of respite.
Hanna stood with her back against his, leaning slightly forward, turning when he turned, shortsword slashing and thrusting. “What?”
Erik ripped his limb from the warm, juicy innards of his newest victim and shifted until he and Hanna were face to face. She wrapped her legs around his waist and her arms under his shoulder and around his neck. The hard hilt of her shortsword pressed into his back, but it was one torment among many.
“Hold on tight,” he said.
Hanna shifted, throwing Erik out of equilibrium as he chopped through a cluster of wayward spears. He stumbled, caught himself and whirled with his scythe-like appendages extended. The quickest Gray Skins leaped back, and the unfortunate ones fell beneath his blades, only losing hands if lucky. Hot blood hissed into the air, and Hanna screamed into his ear.
He jerked to a stop, his green eyes searching the carnage. There it is, he thought, locating his longsword protruding from the skull of a dead Dökk. Black limbs transforming back into human arms, he darted for it, weaving in and out of the reach of stabbing weapons, leaping over the palpitating forms of the wounded.
Erik’s legs ached. His back burned. And Hanna’s warm, sticky presence pressed tight against his chest made it all worth it. He wretched his longsword free, slid in a pool of gore and raced for the exit, trailed by a howling mob of Dökk.
“Faster!” Hanna said, tightening her hold on him.
Erik slashed a thrown spear out of the air, ducked to avoid another coming from the other direction, then hopped over one of the giants’ severed limbs. “What am I? A horse?” he huffed in between panted breaths.
“Yes! Yes!” Hanna’s wet body quivered in terror against him, but her voice was as merry as Renewal Day bells.”Faster my, little horsey!”
Erik twisted to the side and beheaded a kneeling Gray Skin, all the while choking on laughter. “Are you trying to get us killed!” Eyes watering, he dashed into the exit, a large tunnel that ended in a massive boulder wrapped in cordage.
He halted in front of the boulder and touched the rope.
Hanna slapped Erik’s back. “Hurry up! They’re coming!”
Her words were unnecessary, Erik could sense the approaching horde, could feel them through the shaking of the dirt beneath his feet. He pushed against the boulder, straining his muscles. His arms shook. His head throbbed.
“Hurry!” Hanna screeched.
Erik roared and shoved with all his might. The tunnel groaned, and the boulder rolled away, then they were free. Chilly night air wafted against them, but he did not have time to notice, half-blinded by dazzling starlight as he was. He kept himself from sliding downward and ran on until the quivering ground tossed him off his feet.
They landed in a jumble of limbs, somehow avoiding being wounded by the swords. Erik groaned, looking back to see a massive hand scooping up half a dozen Dökk from the entrance of the lair. A large hill covered in grass and stunted trees.
Erik gulped. The hand belonged to a monster the size of the mound of dirt, three stories tall at least, covered in dripping brown-green goop that almost looked black in the darkness. A row of triangle-shaped spikes jutted from the creature’s back and forehead. It threw the Gray Skins into its mouth, staring at Erik with eyes that glowed like scarlet bonfires.