I find myself looking with fondness on those harrowing days spent in the wilderness. Horror and danger waited at every turn, but I think we were better for it. Everything since feels like a pale shadow in comparison.
— HANNA ITO, TO ERIK
Erik stood in almost total shock and stared at the behemoth trying to comprehend what lay before him. A sense of otherness oozed from the globs of foul goop that covered and splashed from the unnatural monster’s form every time it moved. Rank, like something dead a year in stagnant mud, the smell of it choked him, the stench growing stronger by the moment. He felt his body gag, but the disgust seemed to belong to someone else.
“Chemosh.” The name made Erik shiver as if ice water had been injected into his veins. The name borne by the most violent of the Four Great Calamities, a monster that had destroyed nations for over a thousand years and had been beaten back but never defeated.
He dropped to his knees, gasping. One hand went to his blade, to the golden dragon-hilted longsword laying on the grass. His Tár Guðs made weapon; with it, he was able to channel more of the Four Aspects—Earth, Water, Fire, and Air—to power his Esoteric Sword Techniques than he could unaided. For a moment, he hesitated, almost reaching for his power, then thought better of it for the same reason he had not in the Dökk’s burrows. It was too soon to safely attempt it, and the idea of touching the same power he had almost used to destroy the world sickened him.
“No, whatever that monster is, it isn’t Chemosh,” Hanna said. “Chemosh is far larger, and it smells nothing like this.”
“How do you,” Erik began, before he remembered Ógilt, Hanna’s homeland, had been attacked by the creature before it fell.
The ground quivered beneath him, and his eyes jumped back to the unknown monster. It tore at the hillside that concealed the entrance to the Dökk’s underground tunnel system. The earth groaned, and large clumps of dirt flew upwards, scattered thin into clouds of dust and grit. The highest level of the sky was one large dome covered in distant points of light, darkened by the flood of soil into the air.
“Let’s go!” Hanna tugged at Erik’s now spotless robe.
Tossing aside his concern, Erik stood up, taking Hanna’s free hand in his own; her blood-soaked fingers were cold and sticky against his palm. Cautiously, he pulled her toward the south and ran. Huge oaks and pines jutted out of the ground in front of them, long branches nimbused by moonlight. After the near darkness of the tunnels, it was almost like day. Nothing moved among the trees, but he could sense . . . something . . . coming closer. He jerked Hanna to the side, and an instant later a large rock tore through the space they had just occupied. The rock slammed into the trunk of a tree and shattered into dozens of ricocheting shards.
Hanna squeaked, the shortsword in her hand slashing out at the fragments. Her feet came together, and she floundered, falling until Erik yanked her onward and she regained her balance. Then, on they sprinted, slivers of stone raining down around them.
Heart pounding, Erik led them on a sinuous path, weaving around and between trees. The fetid odor grew weaker the further they got from the hill, and new scents filled the air. They tickled his nostrils, slinking at the edge of his awareness like moon shadows, warning him of potential danger. With the night’s smells as a guide, he avoided the pitfall of stumbling into another monster’s lair, but they did not go on unobserved. Sometimes glowing eyes flickered open and watched them as they hurried past.
On and on they ran, legs burning, breaths panting until they could move no more. Then they collapsed at the foot of a massive oak and rested for a moment with their backs against the bark, side by side.
Though exhausted, Erik did not relax his vigil, his eyes shifted, scouring the dark for peril. He sensed Hanna’s heartbeat beside him, like a deep drum pounding. Gradually, her heart slowed, and he patted her thigh.
It’s starting to seem like all we do is move from one crisis to the next, Patrick said. Where are the mind-numbing moments of boredom we’re supposed to get in between each crisis? That’s all I want to know.
A break would be nice, Erik conceded.
“What are you thinking about?” Hanna asked.
Erik threw an arm around Hanna’s shoulder, and she stiffed before softening, but only slightly. He did not understand why he felt surprised with all she had already been through today, but the tightness in her body hurt him. If he could take the pain from her, he would, gladly. Without a second’s hesitation.
“Erik. . . .” She allowed her voice to trail off.
“It has been a long day,” he said. “That’s what I’m thinking.”
Hanna nodded, blue eyes distant. “It has.”
Instead of filling the silence with needless words, Erik allowed the sound of the wind rustling through the tops of trees to speak for him. He did not know how else to respond. There was nothing to say, or perhaps there was too much to say. Despite his admiration for their potency, words could not heal all wounds, not even time could do that.
“I remember it so vividly,” Hanna went on after a handful of seconds. “The moment it all changed, the day Chemosh descended upon Ógilt. I can pinpoint it down to the exact instant. My brother and I were in my father’s study when the first reports trickled in. It’s strange, I grew up with my nursemaids’ fireside tales of the horror the Four Great Calamities, but I did not understand the danger they posed. My brother was scared, yet not I.” She gave a bitter laugh, filled with self-loathing. “I was excited. Can you believe that?”
“You were young,” Erik said.
Hanna shook her head. “That’s no excuse. Ignorance and youth are no defense, not against monsters. Not from men.” She ran a hand through her gore-mattered hair, emotion raw in her typically melodious voice. “I remember liking how pretty the night sky looked lit up with flames and crackling lightning. It took every Cultivator Ógilt had to beat Chemosh back. Thousands lost their lives that night, and I thought it was pretty. It was only when the sun rose I saw the devastation. Höfn lay in ruins, the city that had protected my family for generations broken like some child’s plaything.”
“Hanna,” Erik interrupted, “none of this has to be said, not right now. Not in this place. I know the story. All of Daði knows what happened that day.”
“The battle never reached the palace,” she carried on as if he had never spoken, her voice lowering to an almost whisper. “And all the hearthfires in the city had been extinguished by decree, in the hopes Chemosh would wander past us. So I didn’t understand the brutality it had inflicted on us, only by the light of morning was that made clear to me.”
Erik opened his mouth, but Hanna was already pushing herself to her feet. Staring at her, he found himself slowly dragging his robe sleeve along the blade of his longsword, but she paced beside him, blind to his actions, clasping her hands to her bosom. Erik had tortured himself with memories before, and seen it done—it never ended well—but instead of what he expected, she never broke into tears.
“We won,” Hanna told him, jerking to a stop, “Despite the fact, half of Höfn lay demolished, everyone was smiling, overcome with elation. That joy soon turned into despair when sentinels spotted your father and his armies cresting over the horizon. That was the first, and last time I ever saw my father weep.”
“We need to go.” Erik stood, doing his best to keep his voice even, but not quite succeeding. “It’s not safe to stay too long in one place, the smell of blood will draw things we don’t want to face.”
Hanna rounded on him. “You knew your father would banish you for marrying me, didn’t you?” Her eyes were daggers, but her heart was not in it, not truly; she could have been talking about the sleeping habits of crustaceans. She was staring through him as much as at him. “You used me,” she said absently. “To what end, I know not.”
“What do you want me to say, Hanna?” Erik placed a hand on her bare arm; she blinked and focused on him. “We used each other to our mutual benefit.” He did not intend to sound as harsh as he did, but his voice raised on its own; they were touching upon a topic best left untouched. “Tell me you did not enjoy the look of frustration on my father’s face when I told him I had taken you for my wife.”
She looked at him with the bewilderment of someone listening to another display their ignorance. “Vilhelm Ito murdered my family,” she told him, “his frustration means nothing to me. His death is the only thing I seek, but you are aware of that. Where does it all end, this grand plan of yours?”
They come, Asbjörn crackled like mad lightning.
The hairs on the back of Erik stood, and a tingle ran down his spine like icy droplets of rainwater. He dropped his hand from Hanna’s arm and spun her around and flung her towards the remote branches hanging above them. She screamed, taken by complete surprise.
“Grab onto a branch!” he yelled but did not wait to see if she obeyed, too busy shifting to scan his surroundings for danger.
A high-pitched howl tore through the darkness, echoing like the cry of a horned owl, changing directions so many times it was impossible to tell from where it originated. Erik’s double hearts quickened, and the world slowed; Hanna hung above him, still drifting upwards, but at a reduced pace. Blood roared in his veins, violent and frantic. His eyes narrowed.
Things moved among the shadows, slowly resolving into two dire wolves, eyes shining silver and big as ponies. Snow and Fang. The last two living members of the Night Echo Pack, who had been slaughtered by Erik only hours earlier. If not for the power coursing through him, he would not even be able to perceive them. Snow’s pure, white fur shifted gently, stroked by the air currents that pounded against her like the deep booms of a drum. Fang was only a step behind her, snarling, his missing eye stained with crimson droplets.
Erik slammed the point of his blade into the earth and took a step forward; the world pushed and pulled at him, trying to slow him to a crawl. He growled! His arms melted, transformed into quivering tendrils, settled into large, black paws. His robe and flesh roiled, fanned across his body. Suddenly the rest of him flowed and merged until he morphed into a midnight-colored dire wolf, slavering and snarling as he launched himself forward.
The world was varying shades of black and white as odors came rushing into his snout from kilometers away. The familiar scents stirred memories, memories of the Night Echo Pack stalking the Northern Reaches for prey. Animal instincts warred with human thoughts.
Mouths agape, the wolves hurtled at Erik from two sides, faster than any galloping horse, but seeming to only be moving at a snail’s pace. He puffed out the hairs on his body and raised his tail, acting from intuition. Snow and Fang paused, a note of worry creeping into their steps.
When they reached each other, they circled, matching each other move for move, as though dancing. Great heads thrown back, their teeth dripping like burnished steel, they communicated without words; through the motions of their tails and the flicks of their ears.
Stranger. Non-stranger, they sent to Erik. Trespasser.
Erik’s every action conveyed dominance; he towered over Snow and Fang like a black mountain, unfolded with the menace of a dark storm cloud, bristled with all the heat of forked lightning. Great puffs of soil and dirt billowed into the air as his paws tore through the earth.
Mine, he told them. Territory mine. Pack mine. Submit.
Yours, they acquiesced, their aggression turning to capitulation in the blink of an eye. They backed away, heads and tails lowered, eyes downcast.
Go, Erik said, pride flaring within him, warm and pulsing.
Hunt, Snow and Fang begged. You lead hunt. We follow.
For a moment, Erik hesitated, overcome with the need to do just that. His blood sang, cried out for the exhilaration of stalking prey, moaned for the. . . . He shook his head and freed himself from the pull of the dire wolf instincts that tried to overpower his own wants.
GO! He commanded the dire wolves.
Snow and Fang retreated, fading from view, sulking into the darkness.
“Erik . . . is that you?”
He spun at the sound of Hanna’s voice; engrossed with the dire wolves, he had not heard her fall back to the ground. She lay on her stomach, peering up at him, face lost in shadow. She would have not been able to see most of what had transpired but to know it was him she must have witnessed enough. “Yes, it’s me.”
Hanna tensed, and Erik realized what she heard and what he believed he said were two very different things; his current throat was not meant for the intricacies of human speech. He took a step forward to comfort her, then thought better of it when she backed away in terror.
Instead of attempting to speak again, he transformed; this time the change was slower and harder to manage. Huge bones broke, and fur and flesh shifted, like boiling oil, like wailing worms. He collapsed to the dirt as human arms pushed out of twitching meat, then all colors returned as he assumed his original form.
Erik gasped, pain like a furnace flaring in his chest; it was a challenge just to breathe. Tremors shook his body, and weakness swept through him, leaving no nook or corner untouched. Sleep called to him, a lover’s murmur enticing him into warmth.
Across from him the shuffle of feet drew his attention. Hanna stood clutching her dress with one hand and the shortsword with the other, staring at him, face consumed by indecision.
“Help,” he grunted.
An instant later, Hanna was by his side, helping him to his feet. “Are you. . . .” She shook her head and allowed him to lean on her. “Stupid question. This is my fault. I should have. . . . I’m sorry.”
Erik did not have the energy to respond. After retrieving his longsword, he used it and Hanna’s shoulder to stay upright. Somehow he kept the black motes that sparkled at the edge of his vision from overwhelming him, but it was a struggle he knew he would eventually lose. It was just a matter of time.
“You don’t look well,” Hanna said.
“We need to go,” he told her. “No more talking. Just walking.”
“I understand,” Hanna began, but he was already leading them forward as hard as he could manage, ignoring her cries to slow down.
Down small slopes, through darkened woodlands where sleepy creatures, roused by the noise of their passing, peered at them in consternation from moonlit lairs. Along narrow animal trails, where giant pines stood restlessly on either side, branches whistling above their heads, making the night ring with the song of the trees.
“We can take a break if you need it,” Hanna breathed at Erik’s side, but he lurched onward without replying.
The hunger in his stomach clenched like a vise, Hanna’s voice he was only vaguely aware of outside the pain, by the time he reached the bottom of the Rin Mountains. Hjörtur’s mighty black walls stood framed against the brightening radiance of the approaching dawn. The reek of thousands of gray-skinned corpses wafted down upon them, along with the sounds of unknown creatures feeding on the carnage.
Careful, Patrick cautioned, the mountain is filled with Nætstalkers.
Erik grunted, noting the indistinct shapes feasting upon the remains strewn over the rocky pathway to the citadel. Refusing to cower, or submit to his body’s efforts to stoop down, he carried on, Hanna’s worried face at his side.
Nætstalkers screeched at them from their mounds of rotting meat. The size of deformed dogs, their large eyes, and piranha-like teeth glowed in the dim light. No two exactly alike, their small twisted, green-colored humanoid bodies scampered around on all fours, circling the duo.
“Erik,” Hanna hissed.
“Keep. Have to keep,” he squawked, his eyes drifting close.
A two-headed Nætstalker lunged, stopping short as Erik’s longsword snaked out to meet it. Hissing, spraying foul spittle, it backed away, rejoining the rest if its kin that trailed the pair. Hanna shuddered against Erik.
I have to stay awake. I. . . . Just a little bit. . . .
Once the wardstones standing outside the walls had been imposing and tall; now they were reduced to heaps of rubble, encircled by piles of dead Dökk. In their shadow, beneath the wall, Erik’s legs gave out, and he dropped to the ground. The stench of decaying flesh and the cutting nature of Hanna’s cries for help stabbed into his mind as his consciousness faded.