‘Tis the business of fools to wilt beneath failure, but the wise recognize it as the source of their strength.
— VILHELM ITO, TO ERIK
Erik awoke confused, gasping, struggling to separate the real from the imagined. His head rang, thick with torment pitched screams of the Dark One and the enchanted notes of a plucked instrument. He blinked watery eyes and caught sight of Hanna. She sat etched in the light of golden coals, a gilded zither draped across her lap, a haunting vision of feminine divinity. Her hands faltered, and notes turned sharp and piercing.
“Erik!” The zither tumbled to the floor, and Hanna lurched to Erik, her eyes wide. She grasped hold of his blue robe, buried her head in the hollow of his neck. “You’re awake. Thank the Eternal Father, you’re awake.”
Erik gathered his wife into his arms, murmuring words of comfort he hoped would help. He did not know what had put her in such a state, but for the moment that did not matter. He held her tight, even as his arms tingled with weakness. His innards ached, twisted with a yearning that made his head spin the more he focused on it. The ceiling swayed to and fro.
The Celestial Dragon’s voice hammered the inside of Erik’s skull, and he felt himself unravel. He sat upright and flung Hanna from him. She rolled across the bed, her blonde locks and arms flailing, and fell to the floor.
Erik bent double and clutched at his stomach. He blinked tears from his eyes. His insides were fire. A chorus of wailing serpents. Everything hurt. Even his ears affected a breathless, torment.
Is this what it means to be a beast? Asbjörn asked. To see all of existence as a feast? To hunger without end?
Saxi laughed, and Patrick said something impossible to focus on through the pain. It was such an odd sensation feeling both crowded and empty at the same time.
Erik was not sure how long it took to fight the hunger pangs back, but eventually, he looked up to see Hanna peering at him in horror. “I need to eat.” There were black snake-like tendrils protruding from his chest, reaching for her.
Hanna took a step back. “What?”
Erik forced the tendrils to settled back into flesh and pseudo silk and wiped sweat from his cheeks. He could hear the distant tell-tell din of men in battle, now that he focused on it, drifting in through the wooden door. “I can smell blood. Human blood. Why?” He hoped she was unable to detect the sudden need in his voice, but the apprehension glittering in her eyes told him she had.
Hanna inhaled slowly, bringing her quivering under control. “You’ve been asleep for over a week,” she explained. “The Læknar wished to attend to you, but I refused their aid for obvious reasons. They beseeched the Viscount, and now there are armed men trying to break through our door so they may get to you.”
“A week?” Erik fell back onto the bed, blinking away tears. He could picture Hanna’s scowl in his mind, but for an instant, it did not seem to matter. There was no way he could reach Vetur in time to attend the Grand Assessment now. It’s really over. He had known that the possible existed when he went to rescue Hanna, but he had hoped that. . . . The throne is forever out of my reach now.
“Men are dying in your name as we speak, dying to protect us.”
She was right, Erik knew that, yet. . . . “Where are Asbjörn—where are my swords?”
Erik lurched from the bed, received the dragon-hilted blades from Hanna’s hands and stumbled to the door. They stepped out in the antechamber together, with her hovering by his side, making sure he did not fall, for what seemed the hundredth time.
The shuffling of fabric and feet drew his eyes to a small table beside the fireplace where Súla, Rikka, and Óla rose from their seats.
A chorus of “My Prince” rang out of their mouths before they dropped a curtsy. “You’re awake,” Súla added. Even though she was the shortest person in the room, the light blue cloth of her dress seemed to tighten across her bosom in such a way that Erik could not help but notice.
I like her, the one with the big breasts, Patrick said. What’s her name?
Erik resisted the urge to groan and took in the rest of the room. Gray pre-dawn light fell through the gaps in between the brocaded curtains hanging over the arrow-slits, diminishing the domain of shadows to the margins. The loud sound of raised voices and clanging of weapons from dozens if not hundreds invaded past the closed door.
“Yes, I’m awake,” he answered, “it’s hard to sleep with all the nosi—” He grunted, mentally reeling from the elbow Hanna jabbed into his ribs.
Patrick laughed. Ogling another woman when your wife’s right beside you—the rumors about you are true, you really are insatiable.
I was not. . . . Erik transformed his grunt into a teeth-clenching smile halfway through and kept himself from doubling over by the barest of margins. His vision swam like a mirage, blurred the serving women’s faces into pairs. The elbow to the rib had been no more than tab, a gentle reminder that people were dying, but it had almost reduced him to a sagging heap. I need to eat something before it’s too late.
“Excuse me, ladies.” He nodded his head and for an instant everything tilted toward blackness. Once again, Hanna was there to steady him without prompting. Together they made their way to the thick, iron-strapped door that stood between them and the choir of clanging metal.
With each step, Erik’s stomach contorted in agony, and the Celestial Dragon begged to be fed, urged him to rip into Hanna’s soft meat. Nothing but flesh would dull the pain, he understood. Each pang was like the first, harrowing and severe.
“Súla, the door,” Hanna commanded.
The serving woman strode around Erik and Hanna to fling open the door. As soon as the hallway came into view, Erik’s eyes darted from sword wielding figure to figure. Blood flew as blades slashed through the gaps between plated armor. Fury bubbled up, at himself as much as the ridiculousness of the situation. Not so long ago, these same men had fought shoulder-to-shoulder, had defended Hjörtur against a horde of invading Gray Skins, now they fought each other. To what end? You witless fools! It was a narrow hallway like all the rest, built with seamless black stones, lined with old tapestries and faded painted screens, populated with black coated Lightbenders and armored soldiers. If I hadn’t come back when I had, you’d all be dead! He took a deep breath. Yet instead of celebrating you war among each other. You dare seek entry into my apartments without permission!
“ENOUGH!” Erik shouted.
Within moments the fighting stopped, and more and more faces turned to him in shock. Many soldiers hailed him by name before dropping to their knees—he noticed Kai among their number, his armor dent and face bloody—leaving only the black coated men still on their feet. Among the dead were three Lightbenders, with topknots bound with red and blue ribbons—the last members of his honor guard.
Ubbi. Toddi. Issi, Patrick named his former brothers in arms. They were ugly bastards, but they deserved a better end than this.
Erik shook his head and stepped among the carnage. The stench of voided bowels and dripping lacerations washed over him, mixed with the thumping of racing hearts and the gasps of ragged breaths. His legs trembled. His mouth watered. He was filled with an overwhelming need, a need that sickened as much as it aroused.
Puny juicy flesh-things, eat.
The Celestial Dragon never sounded so intelligent, so reasonable. . . .
Erik looked past the slaughter, forced his gaze away from the appetizing feast. Sir Tandri and Baron Rasmus, a slander, hook-nosed man, stood a few meters down the hallway, observing the whole thing along with three bird masked Læknar. The young Baron wore a flowing white robe etched with a golden sun pattern and peered at Erik, his face emotionless.
“What is the meaning of this, Rasmus?” Erik snarled, stepping toward the nobleman. “Who gave you the authority to trespass on my inner sanctum?”
“We are here by order of the Viscount,” the Baron replied in a tone that was anything but contrite.
“Treason,” Hanna muttered from beside Erik. “What else can it mean to rebel against the king? His sworn knights lie dead behind us, his son’s chamber assaulted.” The Læknar took a hesitant step back, and the very air seemed to go out of the room.
Erik affected an unsurprised expression as if they had planned this beforehand, but inside he seethed. What is she doing? Is she trying to get us both killed? Hands drifted toward sword hilts. I’m too weak. I’m too hungry to battle the entire fortress.
She knows the punishment for treason is to be flayed alive, right? Patrick questioned wonderingly. She has too. There are few things men won’t do to escape such a fate.
“We merely wished to ascertain the seriousness of your illness, my Prince,” Læknir Myrkvi answered in the Baron’s stead. Erik recognized the healer by his voice and his distinctive white-beaked vulture mask; each Læknar’s mask was slightly different.
“I see . . . you murdered Knights of the Realm for my benefit.” Erik patted Hanna’s arm to keep her from saying anything else incendiary and carried on in a gentler tone. “None of you are responsible for what took place here. That blame lies on the shoulders of your master, Viscount Baldur. Tell him I have summoned him to the Great Hall to answer for his crimes.” He allowed that statement to hang and quietly ambled down the hallway.
Sir Tandri stepped in front of him. “I hope you know what you’re doing, my Prince, we’re a long way from the capital. A very long way.”
“We will see about that I suppose,” Erik said, then shifted his attention to Baron Rasmus. “You have something that belongs to me, and you will return it today.”
Rasmus frowned. “And what would that be . . . my Prince.”
“A Tár Guðs longsword gifted to me by my father. I dropped it at the bottom of the Rin Mountains and when I returned I saw it in your hands during the assault by the Dökk. I was too distracted to say anything then, but I’m telling you now, you will return it today, or I will sever your neck from your head.”
Color flared in Rasmus’s cheeks, but he remained silent.
Erik strode past Rasmus and Tandri with Hanna still at his side. What was power without the ability to enforce your will? An illusion. Though all his Lightbender guardsmen lay dead, he had to project the same authority as if they surrounded him now. That’s the reason Hanna had said what she had. Let them all remember the consequence for disobedience. After all, his father was not the most gentle of lambs and distance alone would not protect any of them from his wrath.
“Kai,” Erik called.
Kai hurried to the Prince’s side with a hand pressed to his rib. Erik did not glance at him once, covered in blood as he was, just smelling him proved a temptation to his darker impulses. Not to mention the other soldiers that followed behind Kai in their clanking armor. For a moment, he had to close his eyes to fight off the Celestial Dragon’s cries.
“Kai has proved indispensable over the last week. I don’t know what I would’ve done without him,” Hanna added before Erik had a chance to speak.
“I would expect nothing else from a warrior such as him.” Erik nodded his head. “He was right by my side during the battle against the Gray Skin. He helped me search for you.”
Kai dropped his hand from his rib and held himself straighter. Fear by itself was not enough to keep a soldier’s loyalty, rewards were also necessary, whether they be verbal or material. Asbjörn had called it the Sweet and the Bitter.
“Send someone to the kitchen,” he told Kai, “have them ready the Great Hall with food, with meat. Lots of meat.”
“My Prince.” Kai bowed stiffly, hand to heart, and turned to the soldiers that trailed behind. Before long one man broke from the squad and rushed ahead of Erik and Hanna.
“The Viscount won’t take this slight lightly,” Hanna said as they watched the soldier disappear down the staircase. “In fact—”
Erik waved her concern away. “One problem at a time. Right now, I need to eat. After that, all things become possible, if necessary I’ll bring the citadel down around his head.”
Hanna remained silent, and for that Erik was thankful. It was hard enough keeping his body from unspooling into a hundred hungry tendrils without her talking in his ear. The hallways they traveled through were absent of the usual activity that would consume them only a few hours hence. Though the handful of liveried servants they did pass, stared at them wide-eyed as they bowed and curtsied.
Erik threaded his way carefully down winding staircases, stomach aching. By all reason, he should have collapsed from the agony—he should have—yet somehow he put one foot in front of the next. When he reached the Great Hall, he dropped onto a seat reserved for the Viscount in front of a long table looking over the rest of the hall. Plates laden with glistening roast meats and whole chickens wafted with an aroma that made his innards purr with need.
He ripped a chicken in half with his bare hand, opened his mouth and almost inhaled chunks of meat whole. Each bite poured life back into his starving limbs. Releasing a long groan, he attacked the rest of the chicken. The heat in his hand and his mouth hammered him; he lost awareness of anything else but the next bite. He could still hear the Celestial Dragon’s cries, but they were fainter.
Erik took hold of himself again, tempted down on that raging fire of desire, glanced at Hanna’s horrified expression. “Want some?”
Of course she does, Patrick snorted. Who wouldn’t after watching such a display?
Hanna looked past Erik to Kai and the rest of the soldiers gazing up at the high table. “Excuse my husband,” she said, “he hasn’t been able to eat anything but sips of soup in over a week.” No one said anything in response, but there was a slight lowering of tension.
“So is that a no?” Erik burped, playing up his uncouth manner. Better that than him revealing his true secret to the peering crowd.
“What’s the plan?” Hanna inquired, lowing her voice, so it did not carry. “I assume there is one?”
“Eat and wait for our enemies to come to us.”
“That seems a little—”
“Reckless.” Erik interrupted. “Perhaps, but Viscount Baldur overstepped his authority when he decided to order an assault on our apartments. He can no longer be allowed to keep power. Plus, you know what I’m capable of.”
“I have an idea. . . .”
“But,” Hanna said, “those were monsters, and these are Lightbenders, and you won’t be able to use all of your abilities.”
At that moment, the large double doors of the Great Hall was thrown open, and two rows of black coated men filed into the chamber led by Sir Tandri. Kai and his comrades formed a defensive line in front of the high table, tense hands on the longsword hilts hanging at their waists, they were ready to fight if the need arose.
The thumping of wood knocking off stone signaled the arrival of the Viscount. He limped into the room leaning on his cane, half of his face hanging lifelessly. He stopped before the armored men and peered past them as if they were so much wheat. “I’m glad to see you awake, my Prince.”
“Finally.” Erik wiped the grease from his face with the back of his sleeve and smiled down at the Viscount. “I was afraid I was going to have to personally go drag your filthy carcass out of your hole.”
“I’m placing you under arrest for rebelling against the authority of the crown,” Erik carried on with fake cheer, allowing his voice to boom through the chamber. “And conspiring with a Sorcerer to seize control of a direct fiefdom of the King.”
Baldur laughed, a dark, humorless sound. He rose his free hand and flicked it forward. A large rosebud roared into existence mere inches from his fingertips, opening to devour the high table. In one seamless movement, Erik unsheathed his shortsword and threw it point first. The Tár Guðs blade shattered the bright, red flames of the Esoteric Technique into shards of ivory light, then flew toward the Viscount. Sir Tandri was beside Baldur in an instant, deflecting the shortsword from its target.
The room exploded with shouts and the sound of drawn swords before quieting to a low murmur. Baldur stumbled back, allowing Tandri and a handful of Lightbenders to place their bodies in front of his.
“Remember you chose this path.” Erik stood and unsheathed his longsword. “I was willing to give you a quick death.” He leaped over the table to land behind Kai and the armored soldiers, who quickly opened a path to the front for him.
Erik strode forward with all the swagger he could manage and reached for his power, the one that made him more than a man, the one that made him a Cultivator. A sense of flowing inward overtook him, a sense of—
Erik stumbled. For an instant, he saw triple; the chamber seemed to tilt beneath him, and webs of fire crackled through his mind. He collapsed to his knees and fought the urge to hurl up every meal he ever consumed.
“Erik!” a voice shouted indistinctly, distantly.
Hanna’s voice, Erik was almost certain, but it was hard to tell. Everything was suddenly obscure. Sounds distant. Colors faded, tainted with throbbing black threads. Staring up at the Viscount’s leering visage, the fear that his ability to reach the Abyss might have been burnt from him hammered his chest. He wanted desperately to deny the idea, laugh it out of existence. Yet never had his power not come when he called it.