A Broken Circle 1.02 – Asbjörn

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A Cultivator is composed of three aspects: the first he displays to the world, the second he shows to his family, and the last he reveals only to himself.

— ASBJÖRN MAKI, PERSONAL JOURNAL

The golden dragon-hilted longsword in Asbjörn’s dark hand felt like a block of ice. Despite the sun blazing overhead, the large inner courtyard was suddenly cold enough to make him shiver, and only years of practice kept his teeth from chattering. The chill had nothing to do with the wind blowing down from the snow-covered peaks of the Rin Mountains and everything to do with the prana being siphoned from the air. His white robe offered no protection, and neither did Hjörtur’s black stone ramparts and walls; the former stronghold of the Sorcerer-Kings was both ponderous and ancient, but it could not protect from what was already inside.

Pudgy Baron Sophus stood across from Asbjörn, the source of the sudden chill. Clothed in a ragged looking red robe, frayed at the edges, he clutched a longsword in his sweaty hands while sweat dripped down his chubby chin. And like most people on the island of Daði, he was shades lighter than Asbjörn.

“What is your range?” Asbjörn asked.

Sophus licked his lips nervously. “Two hundred meters, or there about.” He kept his gaze firmly directed at the dirt at his feet, glancing up every couple seconds.

Much too timid for one so large, Asbjorn thought.

Asbjörn nodded. A range of two hundred meters was nothing to scoff at, but it could not compare to his own range of five hundred meters. Then again few Fallnir Menn—or Cultivators as they were known this side of the Howling Sea—had a range so great. The larger one’s range, the more prana they could ensnare to reach into the Abyss and power their Esoteric Techniques. “And your level of cultivation?”

“First Stöðin, Second Stratum,” Sophus said, and his eyes twinkled with a hint of pride. “I. . .” Less confident. “I hope to earn the right to become a Viscount during this year’s Grand Assessment . . . or at the very least win a title to some land. Prince Erik already gave me permission to travel with his entourage; so you will be seeing more of me I’m afraid.”

For the ten thousandth time, Asbjörn marveled at the strangeness of Vindurian society. Everything was upside down compared to what he had grown up with on the Mainland. Here, Cultivators were considered more than just walking volcanoes. Here, they ruled as kings and nobles!

“Proceed.” Asbjörn lifted his longsword, slid his legs apart, turning sideways. A charcoal-colored dragon-hilted shortsword also hung from the sash tied around his waist.

“Don’t you want to ensnare—”

“There is no need. Proceed.”

Sophus hesitated, and then shouted, “The Red Rose Blooms.”

A warning. The name of an Esoteric Sword Technique. Asbjörn appreciated the sentiment behind the act; this was a friendly exchange of pointers after all.

Sophus whirled his longsword, jabbing it in Asbjörn’s direction. A rosebud blossomed into reality mere inches from the tip of the blade; it shot forward, roaring, glowing crimson with opening petals made of fire. The size of a fist, it warped the air with its searing heat. Almost looking bored, Asbjörn thrust his blade into the heart of the Esoteric Creation and turned it. The flames splintered into shards of ivory light and shattered into smaller and smaller pieces until they vanished.

Asbjörn peered at Sophus over the edge of his blade. His gray eyes did not waver, his aged hands held fast. In his calm breaths he took note of the greed that flashed through the Baron’s blue eyes as he gazed at the dragon-hilted longsword. Like the shortsword at Asbjörn’s side, it was made of Tár Guðs, a precious metal valued for both its ability to amplify a Cultivator’s power and its ability to render their Esoteric Creations null. Few but princes and kings could afford to own such a blade. Much less two.

“Again!” Asbjörn smiled, but the hold on his rage began to weaken. His rage was always there, just below the surface, seething, bubbling, ready to explode forth at a moment’s notice. He remembered a time when it was not this way. A time before his soul was stained with blood.

“My Lords,” a woman said.

Asbjörn and Sophus lowered their weapons and turned at the same time. A liveried woman regarded them, pale hands folded in front of her dress.

She curtsied. “Pardon me. Baron Sophus, the Viscount requires your attention.”

“But—” Sophus began.

Asbjörn forestalled him with a raised hand. “It’s all right, go. We will pick up where we left off, tomorrow.” For an instant, Sophus eyes grew unfocused, and his head tilted back; Asbjörn’s hand tightened on his longsword. “Sophus . . . are you well?”

Sophus blinked, eyes growing clear again. He nodded and put away his blade, falling in behind the servant. Asbjörn sensed the woman’s terror, it was in the way she almost ran as she led the Baron away. Asbjörn did not blame her, Sophus’s behavior worried him just as much; use of the Abyss was hard on the minds of Cultivators.

“Now that was anticlimactic,” came another voice.

Asbjörn fought back a groan, and turned.

Ypse, a short, stocky, middle-aged man with a patchy red and black beard and yellow eyes, sat at a small wooden table some meters away. He wore a bright green coat that partly hid the ornate slave collar around his neck. Smiling, he waved Asbjörn over. “Join me for a drink, would you?”

Asbjörn approached Ypse reluctantly. Two towering soldiers loomed behind the Sorcerer’s chair. They were more prison wardens than guards, dressed in conical helmets and golden surcoats over plate-and-mail armor, with longswords at their sides. The black flame on their surcoats marked them as Punishers, an order of soldiers tasked with safeguarding the Sorcerers that Vindur kept as slaves.

Ypse poured himself a bowl of wine. “I was surprised to see you out here. I thought you would be out hunting with the Prince.” He gestured to the unoccupied chair. “Sit.” He leaned back against his cushioned chair and seemed to stare at Asbjörn with an air of indulgence.

Asbjörn narrowed his white, bushy brows and took a seat. He disliked the way Ypse always appeared to be smiling at him as if the Sorcerer knew something he did not. He fought against his indoctrination for Prince Erik’s sake, yet in his heart of hearts, he knew he would always despise Sorcerers and their ilk. They had almost destroyed the world! The Third Apocalypse and the monstrosities that now plagued every nation could all be laid at their feet. They should all be killed. Every last one of them!

“There comes a point when a boy must step into the wilderness on his own,” Asbjörn said after a moment. “It’s how he becomes a man.”

Ypse snorted, yellow eyes alight with mischief. “You sound like a father talking about his much-beloved son.” He tugged at the end of his beard.

“You’re different today. You seem. . . .” Asbjörn allowed his voice to trail off.

“Cheerful?” Ypse asked. “Is that the word you were searching for?”

“Sure, let’s go with that.”

Ypse laughed, and took a sip of his wine. “I am in a good mood. I suppose that I’m even celebrating, but don’t ask what because it’s a secret. Can I ask you a question?”

Asbjörn gave a short nod.

“Are we friends?”

Casually, Asbjörn poured himself a bowl of wine and remembered his promise to Erik. “Yes.” No. “I think we are.” I would sooner be friends with a dead goat.

Ypse smiled. “Good. Good,” he said, bubbling over with a sense of mirth. “I think this too is worthy of celebration. A thousand years after the Third Breaking of the World, a Cultivator and a Sorcerer are friends. The Eternal Father’s ways are truly marvelous, are they not?” He raised his bowl to Asbjörn in tribute and drank.

The muscles in Asbjörn’s jaw twitched. Breathe, he told himself. He’s not insulting you on purpose. Are you sure? Slowly, he returned Ypse’s gesture by taking a single sip of his wine before setting his bowl back onto the table.

A roar shook the firmament and earth. Startled, Asbjörn looked up and saw a comet sailing overhead, trailing luminous gas. He leaped to his feet. His pulse quickened. He watched the fiery ball descend, deaf to the shouts and screams ringing out all over the citadel.

“It’s headed for the forest, I think,” Ypse muttered, inches from Asbjörn’s right ear.

Asbjörn took two quick steps away, uncomfortable with Ypse in such close proximity. Hesitant, he exhaled, becoming one with the air that poured out of his nostrils. The flesh forgotten, he became the earth beneath his sandaled feet, he became the sound of the leaves rustling on the branches of the oak tree. He was a net cast out in every direction, entrapping the globes of prana that lay scattered through the world like a downpour of fiery droplets.

Pain blazed in Asbjörn, and inwardly he cried out. Fire seared his mind as he reached the limits of his range. Breathless, he struggled to draw his consciousness back inward, reeling in all the prana he had ensnared. Light filled him. Mingled waves of spirit and prana rushed into his inner void where they formed his Ethereal Body. It was almost an exact copy of his physical frame, sitting cross-legged, flesh leaking white light, surrounded by a transparent shield.

He drifted through his inner void, calling to the Abyss, a realm of chaos and discord, where the Eternal Father had imprisoned the Dark One and the Death Gods during the First Age. He sought the Four Aspects—Earth, Water, Fire, and Air—to power his Esoteric Sword Techniques.

It was like a whisper at the edge of his hearing, a half-remembered tune. Suddenly, the song of the Abyss came to him, the dread voices of a million wailing souls. He saw it in his inner void, floating below him, a massive roiling vortex of glittering gold and green, with blue and red echoes. The shield around him rippled like the surface of a clear pond.

Well, a voice in his head said, it’s happening again, isn’t it?

No, he told it. He will be fine. I trained him myself.

Laughter.

Ypse stumbled back, shivering, teeth chattering. “What are you—”

Asbjörn bent his knees, thrust his longsword into the air, and furious jets of air exploded beneath his sandals, launching him upwards; the eruption blew Ypse off his feet and flung the table into the two armored soldiers, smashing wood against metal. Panic shouts turned into groans of pain.

Uncertainty and anxiety worked their way around Asbjörn’s heart, pulsing and tightening with every palpitation the higher he climbed. Not fear at what he had done, but fear at where the comet might land. Fear for Erik.

Asbjörn’s Esoteric Sword Technique, Grasshopper of the Stars, took him skyward. Eventually his velocity stalled, and he formed an invisible platform under his feet with a simple working of Air. Sixty meters above the ground, white robe flapping in the icy breeze, the whole of Hjörtur laid out below him, the ancient architecture that usually dwarfed him looked smaller from the air. Huge square banners etched with the symbol of the Royal House of Ito, a red and a blue phoenix joined in a circle, whipped in the wind atop of the towers and battlements below.

Within seconds the comet pierced the forest at the foot of the mountain range, spewing chunks of charred wood, flame and soot into the air. The sky shook with a light thud; the fury was too distant to be truly felt. Asbjörn’s breath caught in his throat.

Eternal Father, please protect him!

■■■

Erik Ito, the third son of King Vilhelm, stumbled, sandaled feet trudging across what sounded like shattered glass. At first, he could not see. When he finally could, he stared in shock at the ebony and gold scaled dragon, with eyes of solid black encircled by a band of yellow. The size of a small mountain, the monster swatted at the two black-coated men who danced around its feet, slashing it with swords. White whiskers hung from the dragon’s elongated jaw like long withered branches, and bright red blood spilled from the glittering bone protruding from its chest. Each scarlet drop caught fire the moment it met the air.

For the life of him, Erik could not recall how he had come to be here. In this place. Then it all came rushing back: the hunting party he led into the Northern Reaches, their battle with the Jade Spider, and his decision to investigate the crash site of the comet. If he had known all of what this morning would entail, he would have stayed in bed. Perhaps spend the day trying to mend the divide with Hanna, but it was too late for that now. Perhaps it would always be too late.

Time creeped forward, and he glanced down at the longsword in his hand. His flesh looked inflamed and blistered, and hundreds of cuts riddled his once elegant green robe from the shards of glass embedded in his skin. He knew of every little slash as hairline fractures on the outside of his inner void; they burned, but the pain was a distant thing compared to the prominence of the massive vortex churning beneath his Ethereal Body. Wounds like that could kill, or leave him a husk of what he had once been, but it did not matter. Not now.

Erik hung balanced on a knife’s edge, between the boundary of the known and the unknown, two paths opening before him. Run or fight. If he continued to battle, defeat was almost a certainty; he had already lost half of his warriors in a handful of seconds. Every instinct urged him to flee!

I’m sorry, he thought, not understanding who the apology was directed to. He would not run. He would not! Asbjörn always said he was too headstrong and impulsive, yet that was not it. He understood the consequence of his actions, not in every case, but certainly in this one. Back in the Vetur, the capital city of Vindur, he had spent years cultivating the image of a playboy to help protect himself from his brothers’ plots. His exile to the citadel of Hjörtur had been a chance for him to re-brand himself, a necessary step in his plan to ascend to the throne. But it was more than that, he was afraid . . . afraid that if he ran now that none of it would have been an act. That everything they whispered about him would be true. He would rather die than have that be the case.

A wave of renewed energy surged into Erik’s tired limbs, and he firmed his wobbly legs, raising his longsword into the air. Muted sounds came roaring back along with the stench of the white smoke swirling around the crater. He ducked his head, narrowly avoiding the severed head flying towards him. A shower of crimson droplets splattered the back of his neck and hair.

His longsword flickered and twirled as he performed Leaves on the Breeze. A single flow of the Aspect of Air rose from the Abyss, rendered obedient by his Tár Guðs blade; the liquid-prana splashing around his Ethereal Body burned to power his Esoteric Sword Technique, further draining his reservoir. Creation fought back against what was being done, but he persevered. A dozen invisible, razor sharp leaves made of Air wavered in and out of existence, then they solidified, whistling towards the dragon. They slammed harmlessly against the creature’s scales as it ripped apart the last black-coat man.

“Fuck,” Erik lamented, blood leaking from the nicks on his face. The monster turned towards him, black and gold eyes radiating menace. His legs trembled, and fear crawled down his throat and into his chest. I will not die cowering like a child. I will not!

Erik dropped to his knees and slammed his longsword into the earth, draining every last drop of prana he had within, attacking with The Earth Entwines. Illusionary vines of Earth erupted from the dirt, wrapping themselves around the dragon, flickering like candlelight. He groaned, jaws clenched, fighting against what seemed like a raging river; if his concentration slipped for even a second, he would be swept away, burned to ash. By force of will, he made his Esoteric Creation stabilize. The dragon roared, encased in giant vines of Earth that resisted its efforts to free itself.

Erik stood, laughing in disbelief. It worked! It was the largest Esoteric Technique he had ever performed. A gust of wind caressed his ruined robe, and his knees trembled. He gulped and steadied himself.

The vines snapped like pieces of twine, and the monster exploded forward, maw gaping.

“STOP!”

Inexplicably, the abomination heeded his call. It halted meters from him, towering above him surrounded by choking plumes of ash and smoke.

Erik coughed. “I can’t die here! Do you understand? I sacrificed too much to get this far!” He gripped his thigh with an aching hand, desperate for a way out of this nightmare. “I will be the next king of Vindur. Me, not either of my brothers. Me! For my mother. For my sister.”

The massive creature exhaled, flailing Erik’s robe with its heated breath. It might have been a judge, listening to the testimony of the accused for all the emotion its hideous visage showed.

“But before I can become king, I have to return Vetur to attend the Grand Assessment. It’s the only way to become Prince of the Blood. My party leaves in three weeks.” Even with the terror surging through him, the wounds on his flesh stung and throbbed, cutting across his thoughts. “So you . . . so you see, I can’t die here. My plan won’t allow it.”

Erik blinked, and the monster was upon him. Teeth tore through his spine and punctured into his chest. His skull ruptured like an over-sized grape.

■■■

Asbjörn led a group of ten grim-faced warriors down the mountain trail into the forest. Bald except for topknots bound with red and blue silk, they walked with the casual swagger of men well acquainted with violence. And wore black coats and breeches, with longswords at their waists. Lightbenders, they were called in Daði. Men who fought with the strength of ten. Long-lived warriors bound by a strict code of honor. Across the Howling Sea, they were known as the Twice Born and ruled as nobles, but here they served willingly.

Asbjörn moved through the gloom of the forest interior, uneasy with the worry that gnawed at his stomach. Erik was his student—no! Erik was much more than that, he was his son. Perhaps not of his blood, but of his spirit. Asbjörn had helped raise the boy into a young man. If something happened to him . . . he did not know what he would do.

He looked away from the Lightbenders tracking the hunting party on the ground up at the young boy on the back of a giant White Crane searching from the sky, barely seen through the gaps in between branches. Normally, he would never accept help from one of Ypse’s abominations, but the Air Scouts had been one of Erik’s ideas. And the White Crane enabled them to cover more ground, even as distasteful as it was.

Air thick with the smell of burnt pine and flesh choked them the moment the impact site came into view. All around the upturned earth, trees had been vaporized and scorched into white stumps. He had hoped that the tracks they were following would lead somewhere else.

Anywhere but here, he thought. His heart rose into his throat. His hand tightened on the hilt of his longsword.

Near the edge of the crater, he discovered the body of a black-coated man skewered on a jagged tree stump, next to a patch of dirt melted into glass. His eyes scoured his surroundings. Blood, human intestines, and severed limbs littered the ground.

He’s dead, the voice said with glee.

NO, he yelled at it. The Abyss within churned chaotically.

Laughter.

Asbjörn staggered forward, stumbling from dismembered body part to dismembered body part. No! NO! Under the smell of burnt wood and smoke, the wind carried with it the foul smell of sweet rotting meat, excrement, and memories. The squad of Lightbenders spread out around him, weapons drawn and eyes alert for any sign of danger.

Eternal Father, please . . . not again!

Hot tears blurred Asbjörn’s vision. Hot nails hammered into his chest, he could not breathe without gasping. He could not breathe!

Why must you take them all from me? All the ones I love? I’ve already lost one son, I can’t lose another. I can’t!

“Cultivator!” a top-knotted soldier yelled, peering into the crater.

Asbjörn rushed over, heart racing, renewed hope surging. He skidded to a stop beside the warrior and looked down. Naked, Prince Erik Ito lay on his back, half out of the murky brown water trickling in from an underground stream. With sandy brown hair and youthful face sprinkled with hints of a mustache, he conveyed the frail sense of someone raised in a palace: the unblemished skin of a pampered prince. He looked nothing like a Cultivator should, having none of the warlike bearings of his father. Dirty water had soiled his woundless body.

Asbjörn jumped down, splashing even more muck onto Erik’s skin. He pressed two fingers to the Prince’s swollen throat.

NO! He dropped to his knees.

The Lightbenders stood like silent sentinels all around the rim of the crater, fixed in tragic reveries. More tears leaked from Asbjörn’s eyes. Sorrow tore his heart. Sorrow like molten claws.

Dead. Dead. Dead, sang the voice.

“No,” Asbjörn whispered, giving way to rage, his second, wicked heart. He drew from the Abyss and exchanged the prana he held within his Ethereal Body for the use of its power. Earth, Fire, and Air mixed without the aid of an Esoteric Sword Technique. “NO!”

The very earth trembled and thrashed in a twin song to his hurt, sending the black-coated warriors tumbling into and around the crater. Lightning exploded in the clear sky above, turning the air into liquid fire, and Ypse’s boy on the White Crane fled.

“Take me too!” He begged the heavens, thrusting his sword upwards. For an instant, his gray eyes glittered with motes of red, and his world quivered, convulsing; he was a child again, in agony.

A jagged lance of blinding light struck down, connecting the tip of Asbjörn’s blade to the liquid fire in the sky. It lasted a moment, a blink of an eyelid and ended with Asbjörn slamming into the wall of the crater. He struggled to get up, gasping, groaning as his vision and consciousness left him.

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Courting Death 2.02 – Patrick

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Horrors are like weeds, pull one out and another grows to take its place. 

— NÚMI MAIDA, TO HIS SON

A day earlier

Patrick stood frozen, one foot off the ground, caught in the act of running. Time slide forward, and his eyes widened in sheer and mindless terror, horror creeping along his limbs, knifing through his bones, invading his core. His life flickered in front of him, and the certainty he had made a terrible mistake overwhelmed him.

The Jade Spider’s abdomen thrashed back and forth, and a high-pitched squealing filled the air like crabs boiling in a pan. Erik dangled from his longsword stuck in the beast’s glowing spinneret. He kicked off of its armored abdomen, ripping his blade free just when a jet of red flames erupted out of the orifice. The Prince tumbled through the air as hairline fractures snaked along the monster’s jade-like body.

Patrick closed his eyelids in fright, and a wave of heat and sizzling innards crashed against him. By the time his eyes had blinked open, he was five meters from where he started, on his back, drenched in the vile insides of an abomination. Blood from a handful of nicks and cuts covered him. Painfully, he pushed himself up with one thing in his mind. Erik had been much closer to the blast area than he.

“My Prince,” Patrick croaked in a bruised voice, stumbling to his feet.

Spotting what seemed like a body-shaped lump, he limped over to the stand where Erik rested, and piercing green eyes gazed up at him. The Prince looked remarkably unscathed, even his green robe had somehow remained gore-free. How’d he do that? How else! Damn Cultivators and their fucking Esoteric Sword Techniques. Damn them all straight to the fucking Abyss!

Patrick offered Erik a hand and pulled him to his feet. “Are you injured?”

“No,” Erik replied, a lazy and arrogant grin hanging from his lips. The smile made Patrick’s fingers twitch as he fought back the rage, boiling and seething inside his chest

“Are you sure?” Patrick asked, glancing at the rest of the squad who came rushing towards them.

“I’m certain of it,” Erik laughed.

Something inside Patrick snapped. He smashed his fist into Erik’s jaw, cutting short the Prince’s chortling. Erik staggered back and landed on his ass, caught completely by surprise by the blow. He up looked up at Patrick with blood running down his nose, and for an instant, something flashed through his green eyes. Something dark and glittering.

Silence descended, broken only by the still smoldering remains of the Jade Spider.

Patrick froze, seven pairs of eyes glaring at him, fear once again clawing inside his chest. He shuddered. Shit! Why did I do that? But it was too late for regret, the peerage only respected strength. He had to continue how he began and let the number sticks fall where they may. He stepped forward and shouted, “You could’ve gotten us all killed!”

Carl and Fritz grabbed Patrick and dragged him back while Ebbi, somber-faced, walked away from the commotion, gazing up at the sky. Vagn and Vakur sent each other secret smirks that Patrick did not fail to notice. Stupid shits! They think this is funny, do they?

“Let go of me!” Patrick yelled, struggling against Carl and Fritz. “He needs to hear this, or next time we all may end up dead. This isn’t Vetur. Out here mistakes have real consequences. You can’t just go rogue anytime the mood takes you!”

Erik climbed to his feet, using his longsword as a cane. He wiped his blood on the back of his hand and stared at Patrick, face expressionless. “Release him.” Louder. “I said release him.”

Carl and Fritz let go of Patrick, shooting him apologetic looks as they backed away. Their sympathy did nothing to ease the sense of danger brewing in the pit of Patrick’s stomach. He stood transfixed, eyes locked on the Tár Guðs blade Erik held stabbed into the dirt.

After a moment, the Prince swaggered over towards Patrick, his longsword dragging through the soil behind him. A move meant to intimidate and stoke terror, Patrick was sure. Abruptly, Erik came to a stop and hesitantly stretched out his free hand. “I apologize,” he said. “You’re right.”

“W-what?” Patrick stammered. Whatever he had expected, it was not this. Was this the same smug Prince he had heard so much about? Perhaps. . . . No! He did not trust this, whatever this was. It had to be a trick!

“What I did was wrong. Will you accept—”

“Quiet!” Ebbi yelled.

Surprised, Patrick turned, half fearing to see another monster charging towards them, but the massive pines that ringed the clearing revealed nothing of the sort. His hand grasped for the longsword he had once again misplaced, clutching at empty air.

“Listen,” Ebbi said, pointing at the sky.

It took a second, but eventually, Patrick heard it too. A slight wailing sound, coming from above, that got progressively louder. “What is it?”

“If I’m to guess . . . nothing good,” Ebbi replied as if it was the most obvious thing.

Gusts of air moaned across tree tops, moaned like a dirge, hurling needles and cones into the clearing, forcing Patrick and the others to duck for cover. The wailing built into an ear-numbing roar that struck with the power of a hurricane forced wind when a fiery comet sailed overhead. Moments later, the earth shook like the deck of a ship caught in a storm, and plumes of charred timber and dirt ascended into the sky, above the tree line.

Patrick climbed to his feet, his heart issuing a vague twang of desire. He saw the same hunger reflected in all the eyes of his fellow Lightbenders, all except for Ebbi. Objects that fell from the heavens were usually rich in Tár Guðs, and an ounce of Tár Guðs was worth a hundred times its weight in gold.

Carl turned to Erik, naked greed flickering in his eyes. “Should we investigate, my Prince? If we’re first, we get to lay claim. Those are the rules.”

“What do you think, Sir Patrick?” Erik inquired.

Patrick contemplated the request. The risk was obvious, they might run into another sorcerer’s monstrosity along the way, but the possible benefit left him breathless. If the meteorite contained a deposit of Tár Guðs, the reward they would receive would be substantial. Maybe they would even let me keep a little. Not too much, just enough to make a small blade. As unlikely as the idea was, he could not get out of his head. A Tár Guðs dagger would give him an added layer of protection if a Cultivator ever—

“Sir Patrick?” Erik called, bringing an end to Patrick’s day dreaming.

Patrick blinked, spotting his gore-stained longsword lying in the distance. He limped off towards it, leaving everyone else a little befuddled. Whatever happened next, it was best he had his weapon well in hand. Worse monstrosities were lurking within the Northern Reaches than the Jade Spider. Much worse.

Erik followed him, exchanging bemused glances with the others. “Shall I take your silence for a no?”

“No, forgive me,” Patrick answered, picking up his blade. “We might as well take a look.”

Erik nodded. “Leave the Jade Spider’s chaos stone, we’ll collect it on our way back.” As valuable as chaos stones were, Erik’s command went unchallenged. Perhaps because no one felt like digging into a hole filled with the still steaming carcass of the Jade Spider. Or perhaps like Patrick, their minds were elsewhere.

A short time later, Patrick led the men deeper into the forest in a wedge formation with Erik at the center, Carl and Fritz at the sides, and Ebbi bringing up the rear. Vagn and Vakur had turned themselves invisible and now forged ahead, scouting the path for the rest of the party. The reek of burnt pine became stronger the closer they got to the place of impact, around which several trees had been scorched into stumps. Gusts of white smoke swirled around them, making it hard to breathe and difficult to see more than a few meters ahead.

Patrick raised his hand, and they came to a stop after passing the last overturned tree. Vagn and Vakur reappeared in front of him, and he fought the urge to roll his eyes as they immediately began a game of Frog-Slug-Snake. The twins were barely out of their teens, still little more than teenagers. Not that Patrick was that much older, but he expected nothing less from those two.

“Frog. Slug. Snake,” they whispered in unison, each raising a fist and swinging it down after each word. On snake, their closed hands extending, transforming into one of two gestures. Vagn went with frog, represented by his thumb, and Vakur chose slug, denoted by his little finger. Vakur lost.

“You always win?” Vakur growled.

“Now now, don’t be a sore loser, little brother” Vagn smirked, revealing teeth browned by chewing tobacco.

Wordlessly, Vakur notched an arrow and hiked towards the edge of the earth basin, the air warping around him until he vanished. Patrick sighed, impatient for the day to be over. Even the thought of Tár Guðs no longer held the allure it had moments earlier. Suddenly, he sensed the earth quivered beneath his boots, a slight movement he would have almost believed he imagined if not for the knotting of his stomach.

“Stop!” Patrick shouted.

The tremors increased, and the face of a hideous dragon rose out of the crater, with a head larger than the top of one of Hjörtur’s towers, patterned in an array of black and gold scales. Eyes bulging, Patrick choked on the rest of his words. He had never seen a more gruesome and wicked looking dragon. The darkness at the center of its eyes seemed to peer into his innermost soul and found him deficient.

It lunged forward like a viper, pulling itself out of the massive hole with two dangerous looking front claws—that appeared designed for tearing through flesh—and closed its jaw down on what appeared to be empty air; the wail of pain let them all know it was anything but empty. A pair of thrashing legs materialized, dangling from out of the creature’s mouth, leather boots dripping with scarlet.

“Vakur!” Vagn screamed, notching and releasing an arrow faster than the blink of an eyelid. The iron-tipped projectile smashed against the dragon’s eyelid and ricocheted off as if hitting stone.

Surprised murmurs rose behind Patrick. “Spread out!” he yelled, yanking his longsword free from its sheath as Vagn continued to fire arrows.

Almost casually, the beast swatted them out of the air with the side of its head and pulled the rest of its body out of the crater. A jagged bone protruded from the side of its chest, a bone that sparkled like a diamond, covered in crimson droplets that caught on fire the second they met the air.

“Hold Formation!” Erik shouted, countermanding Patrick’s order. “And fall back!” In response to the furious glance Patrick sent at him, Erik explained further. “It could see Vakur.”

Patrick’s blood ran cold. Fuck, he’s right! How did I

Vagn dropped his bow and charged forward, howling, screaming at the top of his lungs. “Vakur!” Tears streamed down his cheeks as he raised his longsword above his head. “Vakur!” The pain in his voice impaled its way into Patrick’s heart.

“No!” Patrick roared, knowing it was already too late.

The dragon opened its mouth, and Erik pushed past Patrick and drew a large circle in the air with his longsword. Orange flames bellowed out of the animal’s gaping maw with the incessant fury of an inferno, warping the air with heat, charring Vagn into blackened bones before continuing on its way to the rest of the party. Patrick held his breath, watching a two-inch thick dome of ice formed around them, starting from the point of Erik’s blade. There was an unreal quality about the dome that made it hard to look at; it writhed in the surrounding air, struggling against some unseen force, stabilizing just as the flames descended upon them. The ice softened, turning into boiling water that seethed around them.

“Get back!” Erik muttered through clenched teeth. A thin layer of sand melted into glass where the heat touched the earth. “I don’t know how long I can—”

At that instant, the dome erupted in an explosion of intense steam that left Patrick’s exposed flesh reddening in extreme agony. Before he could think to blink, he was sent flying and came crashing to the ground tens of meters from where he started. Blood from hundreds of cuts covered him where shards of glass had embedded into his skin.

Eyes closed, he writhed around on the forest floor, fighting against the pain of his blistering second-degree burns, deaf to everything but the sounds of the hopeless battle being waged around him. He drained his First and Second Sefirot of prana, greedily suffusing his meridians with power until he thought they might burst, until almost nothing remained within the two transparent crystals. Lances of pure agony clashed against waves of soothing ecstasy. He gasped.

Patrick’s eyes snapped open seeing double. Two dragons fought six men in a furious battle of metal swords, claws, and exploding Esoteric Sword Techniques. He shut and opened his eyes while climbing to his feet, hoping to make sense of the jumbled images assaulting his mind. Hearing a noise, he spun around, and the world blurred before him, taking a moment to come back into focus.

Face as white as snow, Ebbi sat with a scorched tree stump protruding from his chest. He fumbled at his exposed large intestine as if he trying to place it back into his stomach. “Dara,” he whispered in a voice filled with grief and longing. “Dara.”

Patrick staggered back, the stench of Ebbi’s tainted bowels striking him like a knee to the groin, to where he thought he might vomit. He spun around, almost tripping over a severed head. Eternal Father, have mercy. I need to get away. I need to get away!

Eyes wide, Patrick glanced up from the battered skull to witness the dragon enclosing the Prince its jaws. The sounds of the beast’s monstrous teeth, shattering bones, ripping through wet flesh, filled the clearing until it turned toward Patrick and swallowed.

Stark breathless terror descended upon him, primeval dread that made his legs quiver with frantic urgency. Warm piss spilled down his inner thigh, draining into his leather boot. He should have felt shame, but he had moved beyond that now. All that was left was the animal inside him. A small, weak thing incapable of thought.

RUN, screamed every part of his body, but he could not. RUN!

Suddenly, the dragon’s scales rippled, and it lurched backward, shaking the earth, howling in anguish and fear. The chaotic blood spilling from the exposed bone in its chest flowed in reverse and out of the chaos of folding and compressing dragon flesh, human arms could be seen trying to emerge from the creature’s side. It rolled, shrieking louder and fell back into the crater with a deafening crash that shook the earth.

Patrick ran, prana and fear giving him strength, somehow keeping his feet on the shifting ground. He waded deeper and deeper into the dark interior of the forest, out of the domain of the well-trodden path. Branches tore strips out of his already ruined coat, adding new layers of cuts to his already ripped skin. When his First and Second Sefirot ran out of prana, his leg collapsed beneath him, and he crashed to the ground with a hollow thud.

For a time, all he did was gasp, too tired do anything else. When he could move again, he rolled onto his back and glared up at the trees that seemed to judge him with their quiet serenity.

Coward, they whispered over and over again, in a menacing voice, he knew was only in his head. Coward. Louder. Coward! Coward! Coward!

“Shut up!” he shouted, launching to his feet.

A gray-skinned humanoid step out from behind a tree. Two meters tall with a dark shard embedded in its forehead, it smiled at Patrick with fused teeth, sucking air through the two slits below its black eyes, one hand gripping a bone spear, the other rubbing at its animal-skinned loincloth.

Patrick spun, reaching for his longsword as more shadows stepped out from behind trees. He froze, hand coming away empty; he had once again miss placed his weapon. The sight of them shattered any hope of survival he had left. He was surrounded by Dökk. There was nowhere to run.

“Fuck,” he whispered.

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Courting Death 2.01 – Patrick

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What are monsters when all men lie dead, but perfect shadows on a cloudless day?  

— VILHELM ITO, TO HANNA

A day earlier

Patrick could feel it in his mind, an oath of loyalty sworn with blood and spirit that connected him to Vilhelm Ito, the King of Vindur. It was there, day and night, binding him with an unbreakable bond. And he hated it. He despised the fact that, like every other Lightbender who had pledged fealty to the King, he could always sense the man’s presence. Right now, the King was somewhere off to the south, too far away to be more than a small pulse of light in his head.

Reality slowly intruded on Patrick’s ruminations. Dark smoke billowed up from Hjörtur’s tall stone chimneys, tainting the crisp morning air with pollutants. The last remnants of night still clung to the stables across from the table next to the sally gate where he sat with three of his top-knotted brothers in arms. All three men sharpened their longswords with long, slow strokes on whetstones.

“Don’t keep us waiting, Patrick. Finish your story,” Fritz said, bringing an end to Patrick skyward gaze. There was something about Fritz’s flat face that made it seem sullen, even when he was grinning, as he was now.

Patrick paused, allowing the rhythmic song of whetstones grinding against metal blades to fill the silence. “Patience, Fritz,” he quipped. “As I was saying, I’ve always had a tender spot in my heart for flawed and broken things. My Christel wasn’t the prettiest girl I ever laid with. No, in fact, she might have been the ugliest. She had a birthmark the size of an apple on the side of her face, and her teeth were so twisted and brown you might be forgiven for mistaking them for the roots of a tree. But her feet were little wings. Every time she opened them, we soared.”

Carl, who sat across from Fritz, roared with laughter. He was squat and stocky, with hints of gray starting to show in his blond top-knot. The only one not amused by Patrick’s tale seemed to be Ebbi, who rested with his back against the wall and his eyes on his longsword. The right side of Ebbi’s face was melted like a piece of wax, and his right eye was milky white. Questions about how he had received the wound always led to arguments over drawn blades.

Patrick loved trading tales of sexual conquests with his fellow soldiers before battle. Each tale was always more exaggerated than the next. The lurid stories always seemed to have a calming effect on his nerves. It was hard to think about your own death when your ribs were bursting with laughter.

“I’ve said this before, but you have a gift with words, Patrick,” Carl said. “I could almost smell your Christel.” He made a face as if smelling fresh horse droppings.

“Carl’s right,” Fritz added. “You’re the only one I know who can make fucking sound like high art.” Both Carl and Fritz roared with laughter at that.

Patrick leaned back, seeming to ponder their words. “It’s a gift and a curse,” he finally said. “Truly, if you were me, you would understand this well. The Eternal Father blessed and cursed me with the cock of a poet. You see, I must write my poems on the wombs of the womenfolk or die from a sickness of the scrotum.”

Ebbi’s hand faltered on his whetstone. He looked up from his weapon for the first time and snarled, “Do you three ever talk about anything else than your little peckers?” Ebbi’s words threw a chill into the cheerful atmosphere. His forehead wrinkled in anger, and the puckered skin of the right side of his face appeared frozen in a permanent look of horror.

Patrick had seen plenty of battle wounds over the years, but looking at Ebbi’s face always seemed to unnerve him. “Forgive us, Sir Ebbi,” he said, looking genuinely ashamed of his behavior, on the outside, at least. You ugly fuck, he thought to himself. “We mean no harm by it. In fact, we do it for your benefit, isn’t that right, Sir Carl and Sir Fritz?” He winked at the two men.

Carl and Fritz straightened in their seats and sheathed their blades. They both assumed the mannerisms of a genteel Knight of the Realm. “Sir Patrick is right,” Carl began. “We do this for your benefit,” Fritz finished.

“We worry about you, Sir Ebbi,” Patrick continued. “All those nights you spend alone with no one but your dog for companionship. We fear for your immortal soul, men were never meant to lie with animals.”

What little color there was drained from Ebbi’s face, and a sense of pride filled Patrick at the sound of laughter that escaped past Carl and Fritz’ lips. Ebbi jolted to his feet, bringing an end to the snickering. His expression revealed nothing of what he thought, but in standing, he had tugged his sword towards Patrick, until it looked in real danger of stabbing him in the face.

“I wonder if your skill with a sword matches your skill with your tongue?” Ebbi snarled.

Patrick’s heart spiked, but he kept his fear under control. Sincerity and openness filled his voice, all efforts at mockery disappeared. “We’re brothers in arms, Sir Ebbi. I would no more raise my weapon to you than I would to my own father.” The implied threat laid naked within his words. He knew Ebbi understood what he meant to his father and just how dangerous his father was when he was angered.

“Are you a man or are you a child?” Ebbi said through clenched teeth. “Stop hiding behind your father’s skirt!”

Carl stood, smiling affably. “Come now, Ebbi. No need to get—”

“Shut up and sit down!” Ebbi barked. His longsword swung towards Carl and stopped an inch from his neck. Carl gulped and sat back down, his eyes never leaving Ebbi’s blade.

For a moment, Patrick’s focus drifted over to the two guards who stood in front of the sally gate. They wore familiar conical helmets and blue surcoats over plate-and-mail armor, with longswords at their waists. They seemed to doing their best to pretend that they were not paying attention to what was going on only a few meters away.

Ebbi slammed his sword down against the wooden table. “Are you listening?”

With a jerk, Patrick focused his attention back on Ebbi. He raised a hand to his forehead to wipe away what felt like sweat. Things had slipped out of his control. He almost regretted his earlier needling of Ebbi. Almost. Jokes were always funnier when made at the expense of someone who did not know how to handle them.

“Since you three are so taken by stories, let me share one of my own with you,” Ebbi added, sheathing his weapon and retaking his seat. “It was my first week as an official Knight of the Realm. Four Lightbenders, a local Baron, and I were tasked with tracking down a Cockma that had gotten past the wardstones of a village east of Vetur and had made off with the mayor’s daughter.” He looked from face to face, making sure all were paying attention. “It took us two days, but we found its lair. This little hole in the ground littered with the bones and the still-breathing body of the girl we were sent to find.”

“Was she pretty?” Patrick interrupted. He asked partly to regain some small semblance of control over the group and because he was genuinely curious. He had long concluded that his love of women would one day be his undoing.

Ebbi nodded.  “Yes, to this day she remains the most beautiful creature I ever laid eyes upon. And that’s saying something because when I first saw her, she was half starved and covered in the thick white fluid of the Cockma’s emissions—”

Patrick fought the urge to let loose the sarcastic comment on the tip of his tongue. He bit down on his lip and analyzed Ebbi’s attire just to keep his mouth shut. The bronze buttons on Ebbi’s black coat matched the bronze starburst pinned on his left collar which also denoted his rank. And like everyone else around the table, Ebbi’s brown topknot was bound with a blue and a red ribbon; the colors of Royal House of Ito.

“—she was like a frightened little animal. It took minutes just to calm her down enough that she would allow me to wrap her naked body in a wool blanket. That’s when the Cockma returned to its lair. Two Lightbenders lost their lives before the Baron used Esoteric Sword Technique after Esoteric Sword Technique to bring an end to the monster.” Ebbi glazed down at the table, breaking eye contact with Patrick. “It was over. I survived my first real battle. But I was wrong, it wasn’t over. It was just beginning.”

“Don’t stop now,” Fritz said when the silence grew too long. “What happened?”

Ebbi looked up with tears in his good eye. “I heard giggling behind me, and when I spun around the Baron’s eyes had turned scarlet.”

“No,” Patrick whispered. That was his greatest fear, the attack from behind. Every time a Cultivator used the power of the Abyss, there was a chance he might be corrupted by its influence and turn into a Fiend Lord. When that happened, it was a Lightbender’s sworn duty to put him down.

“Yes,” Ebbi nodded. “He drew too deeply on the Abyss, and The Change came over him. When I looked into his eyes, I saw nothing but madness staring back at me. With a flick of his sword, he sent a sea of flames crashing against us. He was laughing and singing while he did it.” Ebbi’s voice turned soft and high pitched as he sang, “Burn! Burn! Burn!” He caressed the burnt side of his face.

Carl leaned forward. “How did you kill him?”

“I didn’t,” Ebbi responded. “It was the girl. Dara. There I was, writhing in pain while the Baron loomed above me giggling like a girl in her teens. ‘The flame sees through you,’ he said. ‘It cleanses you of the dark root without a name. Do you understand?’ She crept up right behind him and smashed his head in with a rock. She didn’t stop until his skull had caved in and his brains had spilled out onto the dirt.”

A somber mood overtook them then, none of them seemed to feel like talking. And no witty retort came to Patrick’s mind. All he could think about was the fact the same thing might one day happen to him. It could happen today. The thought sent a chill traveling down his spine.

“What’s wrong? All four of you look like someone took a piss in your drinks,” a voice asked from behind Patrick.

Patrick did not need to turn around to know who it was, but he rose and did so, anyway. Erik stood a few meters away giving them a slanted, quizzical look. His thin, green silk robe emphasized his lack of well-defined muscles. And the longsword secured at his waist did not seem to fit his image. He almost looked like a boy playing pretend with his father’s weapon.

After a momentary pause, Patrick made a deep, graceful bow and smiled. “But we have no drinks, my Prince.” His smile suddenly made him uncomfortably aware of how easy it was for him to pretend to be other than he was.

“So that’s the problem,” Erik joked, “no drinks?”

Carl shook his head and climbed to his feet. “Too early for drinks, I think.”

“Speak for yourself,” Fritz said with a grin that twisted his features into a scowl. “It’s never too early for a good bowl of wine.” He smacked his lips together and stood up from his seat, making sure he did not trip over his sword.

Patrick forced out a laugh, soon joined by everyone but Ebbi. It’s like a dance, he mused. Each of us is moving in tune to some unseen social instrument. It was strange, Patrick never thought of things in such terms. This was not like him. He shook his head and cut short his laughter while trying to push away the sense of unease that had dogged him since waking.

Erik looked around. “Is this everyone?”

“No, the twins are out scouting,” Patrick answered. “They will meet us at the forest’s edge.”

Erik stroked the hint of hair growing on his upper lip; to Patrick the undeveloped mustache made Erik seem even more like a boy playing at being a man. “Shall we?” Erik asked, turning towards the sally gate without waiting for a response.

Patrick, Carl, Fritz, and Ebbi fell in around Erik as he approached the two guards standing in front of the arched gate. It was made of thick strips of the blackest iron and locked shut with a thick bar. The sally gate was scarcely large enough for three warriors to ride through abreast. The guards removed the thick bar without needing to be told and saluted Erik by bowing while slamming their fists against their plate-and-mail armored chests.

A row of ten meter tall stone obelisks stood arrayed in front of the outer wall, seeming to stand watch over the forest below. The surface of the pillars—more commonly known as wardstones—were inscribed with runes that helped keep the creatures below at bay. They worked, or so Patrick had been told, by creating a repulsive force that tricked sorcerer’s monstrosities into believing nothing existed around them.

The walk down the pitted mountain trail was a quiet one, void of all the previous merriment and jostling for social standing. Patrick always thought of these moments as the stillness before the horror. Each man had their own ways of dealing with the stress of impending battle. His was to reminisce about past sexual conquests and the women he had yet to bed, but even that did not seem to help today. Visions of Erik laughing while he set the world aflame kept intruding on his thoughts.

The timberline ended before Patrick knew it and misshapen pine trees began to extrude from the rock and the earth around him. The actual forest’s edge was about a thousand meters away from the outer wall of the fortress.

As Patrick promised, the twins, Vagn and Vakur, met them at the edge of the forest. For as young as they looked, they were two of the finest trackers Patrick had ever encountered. Each of them had a quiver of arrows on their backs, a longsword hanging at their waists, and a bow in their hands. Their black coats were held closed by wooden buttons with swirls carved onto them—the buttons complemented the brown starburst pinned on their left collars.

“Well?” Patrick said.

“Two choices. We found traces of a Jade Spider and an Imugi.” Vagn spat brownish spit onto the forest floor, his bottom lip packed full with chewing tobacco.

Patrick turned to Erik and pretended to not notice the Prince’s knuckles whiting on the hilt of his longsword. “What do you think, my Prince?” he asked with a wry and humorless smirk. “How much sweat do you want to work up this morning?”

“The Jade Spider sounds promising,” Erik replied.

It seemed to Patrick that everyone released the collective breath they had been holding. An Imugi was rated as a Level Four Hazard, half a squad of Lightbenders and an unranked Cultivator would not be enough to challenge it. They would be massacred if they even attempted to hunt it down.

Open sky gave way to gloom when they journeyed deeper into the forest interior, surrounded by towering pines with massive trunks and hundreds of thick branches. An unknown bird soared overhead, not thirty meters up, nothing more than a blur illuminated by scant morning light. The path ahead was a zigzagging animal trail, large enough for three men to walk abreast. Patrick did not let his mind ponder on what sort of monster might make such a trail. Instead, he focused on his First and Second Sefirot. Malkut and Yesod. The sphere-shaped, egg-sized crystals, located in his gut and behind his navel, churned with collected prana, and then he allowed some of the prana they held to flow into the meridians that crisscrossed his body like blood vessels. Power surged into him, gushed through his meridians like a searing inferno, exalting him with the strength of five men, threatening to burn him to ash in a sea of mind-numbing ecstasy.

Patrick fought back a gasp. The world throbbed in his vision. Colors and sounds pulsed with beauty, and the gloom receded. The forest now seemed as bright as a field of long grass under the noonday sun, and distant sounds boomed in his eardrums. He could hear the excited heartbeats of his fellow Lightbenders and the much slower thumb of the Prince’s own. This was power! This was true life! Every moment spent without prana coursing through him was just a pale imitation.

He quickened his pace, body now as light as a feather. An odor of rot and decay grew stronger the closer they got to the Jade Spider’s location. He gripped the hilt of his longsword and paused behind a tree in front of a clearing. He looked back at the warriors gathered around and saw the same fire he sensed inside reflected in their eyes. Without being told, they spread out in a circle while Erik kneeled down behind him.

“Prepare yourself, my Prince,” he whispered to Erik without turning around. He signaled to Fritz with his hand—

Suddenly, Erik burst past Patrick and ran towards the clearing with his unsheathed longsword in his hand. The open space was covered in uneven, fresh-turned soil as though something massive had recently been buried underground.

Shit! Patrick’s eyes widened with dread. This was not part of the plan! Cultivators did not lead assaults from the front. They launched long range attacks while Lightbenders fought from close range. Cultivators, unlike Lightbenders, could not increase their physical strength!

The ground shook at each step Erik took forward. Dust billowed around him, spreading outward in a ring, and his polished blade glinted in the sunlight. Patrick could not be sure, but he thought the Prince was using an Esoteric Sword Technique called Boar Rushes Down the Hill to create the tremors.

Patrick tried to chase after Erik, but the quivering earth threw him to his knees. He glared at Erik’s receding back. Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!

Erik reached the middle of the clearing, and a meter wide claw jutted out the dirt in front of him. Time seemed to slow as Patrick watched Erik spin his blade in a circle overhead and leaped twenty meters into the air. Below the Prince, eight large limbs smashed out of the earth and rotated, spewing a shower of dark, brown soil into the air and revealing the belly of a twenty-five-meter long monster. With a segmented body, jointed limbs, and needle-like hairs on its abdomen, the Jade Spider’s dark green exterior looked hard enough to deflect swords. And four pairs of apple-sized eyes sat above its long fangs, staring intently up at the Prince. Eyes that glistened like red glass.

Still, in the air, Erik flipped upside down, sailing towards a massive pine tree, longsword twirling and jabbing in his hand. Inches from the tip of his blade, a rosebud bloomed into existence. With petals made of red flames and the dimensions of a boulder, it flew towards the emerging Jade Spider. For a moment, there was a dreamlike quality about the rose. It fell, writhing in the air as though fighting for the right to exist. Whatever battle it was waging, it won and swelled with heat that would melt flesh. The rosebud exploded, bathing the Jade Spider’s belly with the searing heat of an inferno, and the Prince slammed into the side of the tree with a loud grunt of pain. He tumbled to the ground with such force it made Patrick stand up in shock.

“Fuck,” Patrick whispered in disbelief as the air rang with the monster’s squeals.

Patrick rose an arm to protect his eyes from the furnace-like breeze that blew towards him and nearly gagged on the stench of burnt hairs. The Jade Spider writhed in agony, two of its eyes erupting into sizzling innards and the hairs on its abdomen catching fire.

He understood why Erik did what he had done, but he was still not amused. By burning away the monster’s needle-like hairs, the Prince deprived it of one of its most effective weapons. Yet, Erik had also put them in greater danger by acting recklessly and not informing them of his plan beforehand.

Patrick dropped his arm from his eyes and drew his longsword, more prana surging out of his Two Sefirots and pouring into the meridians in his legs. Fire like liquid magma tore through him. Power like a deluge from the sun! Howling, he charged towards the injured monster and became aware of movement all around him, of his fellow Lightbenders stepping out from behind trees and joining him in his mad dash towards the monster.

The Jade Spider spun towards Patrick, rancor burning in its remaining two eyes. He sensed its hatred as a palpable force that tried to knock the air from his lungs but fought against it. The monster reached for him with one of its long, spear-like front legs, a leg thicker than a human body. He dropped to his knees, sliding in the warm dirt with his longsword raised above his head. His blade struck the joint in between the creature’s claw and tarsus and got stuck, jerking him backward. The monster hissed, and he hung onto his weapon, swinging back and forth in the air like a seesaw

“Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!” Patrick shouted.

An arrow whistled past his head and punctured one of the Jade Spider’s eyes. Its hissing turned into wailing, and its leg thrashed even more violently. The blade jerked free, and Patrick tumbled through the air with his longsword in hand and a ringing in his ears. He hit the ground with a muffled thud. Hurt shuddered through his chest, sharp and bruising. He could not breathe! He gasped frantic for the breath that refused to come.

Further draining his reserves, Patrick sent prana flooding through his meridians, soothing his need for oxygen and slightly healing his injuries. Then he could breathe again. He savored the sensation of air entering his lungs, eyes blinking away tears.

When he raised his head—questioning how he was still alive—another arrow was sailing through the air, launched from Vakur’s long bow. By the time he sat up, the monster’s last eye had exploded, leaving it blind. Carl, Fritz, and Ebbi flowed around the Jade Spider, moving so quickly that their limbs blurred, attacking the joints of the creature’s legs with their blades.

The Jade Spider, now frenzied, dug its way into the soil, head first. The earth trembled and shook, throwing Carl, Fritz, and Ebbi to the ground. They desperately rolled away, putting space between themselves and the monster. Mounds of dirt flew into the sky and rained down on them.

Patrick backed away on his butt, furiously searching for his sword with his hands. If they could not stop it, the Jade Spider would unleash its most devastating attack. He knew it deep in the marrow of his bones.

Half submerged, the eight-legged monster’s spinneret, located on the underside of its abdomen just below its anus, glowed with a frightening orange radiance. At first, the orifice’s light was barely noticeable, but as time passed, it became progressively brighter.

A green blur sprinted past Patrick screaming the same phrase over and over again, “The Red Rose Blooms!” It took a second for Patrick to realize that it was Erik. The Prince was warning them.

He’s not going to. . . . Patrick shook his head. He wasn’t that stupid. Was he? Patrick’s hand found the hilt of his longsword. He gripped it tight and leaped to his feet, chasing after Erik. Patrick knew he should be running in the other direction like Carl, Fritz, and Ebbi, but if Prince Erik died while under his charge, his own life was as good as forfeited. He called himself all kinds of idiot and ran faster, boosting his speed with prana.

“My Prince!” Patrick yelled.

Ignoring his call, Erik leaped into the air with his longsword twirling in his hand. He came down with his weapon jabbing down into the Jade Spider’s glowing spinneret. Patrick blinked in shock, and time seemed to freeze.

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A Broken Circle 1.08 – Erik

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Hope is a waking nightmare.  

— HANNA ITO, FAMOUS LAST WORDS

Erik exited the sorcerer’s breeding cavern and wandered through Hjörtur’s hidden tunnels—and up the heavily guarded stairway, too—all without saying a word to the soldiers he passed along the way. Back above ground, he started to come to terms with his new reality. What does it matter? So what if my ancestor was a sorcerer’s experiment? Does it change who I am? I’m still me. He closed his hands into fists. But . . . am I really? I now share my body with something that ate entire worlds.

He meandered through the citadel, working his way to his apartment through a roundabout route. As long as I learn how to control it, none of that matters. He unclenched his hands. The only thing that’s important is the plan. I have to focus on organizing the trip back to the Capital and training for the Grand Assessment. I only have three weeks.

Erik came to a stop in front of the four soldier standing guard outside his apartment. In spite of everything, he grinned affably at Kai and his comrades, finding solace in his goals.

“My Prince,” they said.

“Did anyone enter?” Erik asked softly.

Kai’s eyebrows twitched, and his chest puffed out. “We turned everyone away who sought entry as per your orders.” His voice was a deep earthquake rumble.

“Thank you, that will be all. You may return to your posts” Erik said.

Kai bowed easily, hand to heart and led his comrades away. Erik watched them go with a frown, and then entered the anteroom of his personal apartments, bolting the heavy, iron-bound door behind. He leaned against the door and released a sigh.

The room was just as he had left it. The ornately worked table that once sat in the middle of the chamber still lay in pieces against the far wall, and the fire still roared in the fireplace. But now fewer rays of light fell into the room through the openings in the brocaded curtains that covered the arrow-slits.

Erik straightened and strode forward, feeling like a condemned man on the way to his own hanging. Something hard bumped into his foot. He kneeled down and picked up a deformed silver pitcher etched with curling grapevines. His distorted reflection stared back at him. How am I going to fix this mess with Hanna?

The thought made him snarl, and he stood up to distract himself. It was impossible to predict what was going to happen, so there was no point stewing about it. Besides, the answer was in the next room. He gave his head a shake and entered the bedchamber.

Hanna sat with her arms and legs tied to a cushioned chair with strips of a pink garment. Her head lay slumped forward, and more golden hair had escaped her shawl to fall over her face. She lifted her head, eyes gleaming like the exposed ice of a glacier. There was more than just coldness in them now, there was a promise of pain and something far worse.

Erik squeezed the silver pitcher in his hand. “Hey.”

A look of horror flashed across Hanna’s face like the shadow of a dark cloud on a bright day and then disappeared. It was a surprise to Erik that her face revealed that much at all, even if it was only for a moment.

Erik’s fingers quivered, and the wine pitcher warped and twisted in his grip. “Why? Tell me why.” His voice wavered between pleading and demanding. “Please, you owe me that much.” He opened his hand, and the ruined pitcher clattered to the carpeted floor.

Hanna tried to speak past the gag in her mouth and scowled when her words came out jumbled, but she did not stop. Her mutterings sounded less like words and more like the noises a wounded animal might make. Erik rushed over, kneeling down to remove the cloth from her maw.

“What did you say?” he asked in a gentler tone.

With a voice tainted by annoyance, Hanna responded, “I said okay!” She blew on a lock of blonde hair that had fallen across her eye; it moved away from her face before falling back into the same position. “How are you—”

“No”—he touched her lips with a soft fingertip—“you go first. I need to understand why you did what you did. What did I do?” His voice rose. “Tell me”—his hand wrapped around her throat—“or I swear I’ll rip your head from your fucking neck!”

Hanna watched him from behind her beautiful, long eyelashes, studying him like someone might a curious insect, the ends of her eyebrows almost touching. Finally, his hand dropped from her neck when the silence grew too unbearable.

Erik slumped over, resting his head on Hanna’s lap, squeezing his eyes shut. “It’s only now I understand what my father meant,” he whispered, half to himself. “He told me, ‘Love is a fortress whose gates are barred behind you after you enter. Even when you need a way out, it won’t let you pass.’ ”

“I made a promise to myself,” Hanna said slowly. “After your father invaded my country, butchered my parents. . . .” Her eyes narrowed into slits and her breath caught in her throat for a second. “Scooped my brother’s eyes out with a hot spoon and took us both as hostages while he seized the kingdom that my family had run for centuries. I promised myself that I would never forget. That one day, I would have revenge for Ógilt . . . for my parents. For my brother.”

Erik opened his eyes. “We’ve both lost people who we loved, Hanna. Your father had my mother murdered. Had her poisoned. That’s the reason Ógilt is no more.” He straightened, noticing a single tear running down her cheek. “No, that’s not the reason. You could’ve killed me a hundred different times before this. Something changed between today and yesterday.”

“Yes, you died,” Hanna laughed, flinching from the hand Erik raised to wipe away the tear.

Erik winced inside, blaming himself for the fact that she pulled away from his touch. They had never consummated their marriage. On their wedding night—three months ago—he had allowed her to keep her maidenhood as an odd act of affection. And ever since then they had laid next to each other night after night, never touching. It was a mistake. He saw that now.

“I cried when I found out,” she continued, as though that explained everything.

A wry snort from Erik indicated that it did not. He freed her left hand from bondage and began on the right.

“Walls can’t stop love,” Hanna retorted. “Not when it’s already inside.” She did not sound like someone who only half a year before had said true love was found only in bards’ tales. “When I saw your lifeless body, I wept like I’ve never wept. Not in years. It was like all the light had gone out of the world.”

Erik began, “Hanna—”

Hanna touched Erik’s face with her free hand. “Let me finish. That’s when I knew that . . . that I loved you.”

“You tried to kill me because you love me?” Erik asked, hoping it would make more sense if he said it out loud. It did not. All his confusion was there on his face for her to see.

Hanna gripped the back of his neck, desperate to be understood. “I made a promise to my ancestors. That means something to me. When Súla ran in here with news of your resurrection, I knew I didn’t have the strength to do what I must. So I made a compromise. I decided we would die together.”

Erik licked his dry lip. She’s insane, he thought, but that did not change what he felt. The sight of her inflamed him, made his blood seethe and bubble. He needed to. . . . He pulled Hanna into a kiss. His tongue flashed passed her parted lips and flickered against her wet tongue. Pleasure blazed in him, he groaned, a groan that rose from his depths, a groan he could not stop even if he wanted to. His heart pounded, doing its best to smash its way out of his chest, and every pulse stoked the flames of the inferno raging in the area between his abdomen and thigh. The taste of her filled his head, shooting, even more, heat down his spine. It was sinful how sweet she tasted.

He pulled back and gazed at her. Bright spots of color had consumed her cheeks, and the warmth in her eyes looked hot enough to char flesh. Like him, she appeared half-consumed by passion. Helplessly, he reached down, ripping the strips of cloth that still bound her legs to the cushioned chair. Her arms wrapped around his neck and she seemed to melt into him as he stood, fingers clawing and scratching.

For an instant, they stumbled around the room, hands fumbling at each other’s clothes, legs thrashing backward and forward. The air of grace that usually hung from Hanna’s shoulder like a mantle vanished, making her appear almost childlike—unsure of what came next.

“How are you even still alive?” Hanna broke away from Erik, inches from the foot of the bed, her breath coming in rushed gasps.

Erik paused, mind running with a dozen possible responses. “I can’t die,” he said, settling on a version of the truth. He pulled her in for another kiss.

“Tell me,” Hanna demanded, avoiding his lips. She pushed her palms against Erik’s chest, and the back of his legs bumped into the bed.

“I’m serious,” Erik responded. “I think I’ve become immortal. Do you believe me?”

Hanna peered up at him, not speaking, blue eyes unblinking. She was tall for a woman, he realized; her head came up just past his chin. Slowly, a smile replaced her look of bewilderment. “I do,” she said, lifting the hem of her dress with her right hand.

“You do?” Erik blinked, dragging his eyes away from her legs. How could she believe him when he did not even believe it himself? Not really.

“Yes,” Hanna smiled, using her left hand to pull him down into another kiss.

Before their lips touched, a point of pure agony erupted in Erik’s chest, and he grunted, eyes widening as the harsh sound reverberated through the room. She . . . she. . . . He could not complete the thought. Shocked, he stumbled backward, falling onto the bed; the wooden frame the mattress rested upon groaned as if it might rupture. A blotch of crimson bloomed, trickling out from around the dagger jutting out of his flesh.

“I trust you,” Hanna said, climbing on top of him. “You wouldn’t lie me.”

Confused, Erik looked up at her. The Tree of Life that once marked her forehead was now nothing more than a smudge, ruined by perspiration. Pain ripped through him, hot and cold where the blade lay within the cavity of his chest. His fingers twitched, it would be a simple thing to reach and tear out Hanna’s throat. Stubbornly, he forced his mind away from that idea and concentrated on keeping the Celestial Dragon’s growing presence at bay. It roared, ringing his skull with images of mountains of uncooked meat, dripping with tantalizing droplets of scarlet that pooled into rivers, and from rivers joined into an ocean of red.

Hanna yanked the dagger out of his chest, and blood gushed into his lung. “Show me what you can do,” she said, grinding her hips against his, lips curved in a pensive smile.

Erik glared at Hanna, gasping, drowning. Her words filled him with fury, a fury that burned with a hunger for blood. He was a grown man, not a trained bear. He did not perform tricks!

If she wants to see, he thought with a growl, then I will show her!

The crimson blotch reversed its creeping expansion and Erik’s flesh re-knitted into a seamless whole, even the tear in the robe repaired itself. Hanna’s face blossomed with wonder, contrary to the horror he had expected. That angered him more. His hands closed into fists, and he focused on his robe. It rippled, becoming an amalgamation of silk and skin for a moment before completely sinking into him. He shivered; the sensation seemed odd, almost like droplets of icy water dripping onto his spine.

“How is that. . . .” Hanna paused and tried again.  “How is that possible?” She touched Erik’s bare chest, circling a fingertip around his dark nipple. “Do it again.” She raised the dagger.

“No!” Erik ripped the blade from her hand and flung it away, flipping her onto her back. He straddled her, pinning her arms to the bed. She looked up at him, face flushed, eyes wide. Suddenly, he realized he was lying on top of her. Naked. A burning need filled him, and he knew she could sense him against her thigh, throbbing, aching. The need turned violent, mixing with the Celestial Dragon’s own arousal, striking him with the force of thunder. Every inch of his body trembled.

BREED, the monster urged.

Yes, breed, Erik agreed, his head filling with images of the beast’s own past conquest. Of two massive bodies thrashing among pools of searing magma, copulating with a violence that shattered scales and broke claws. Of roars and howls of pleasure joining beneath a sky of burning purple clouds.

“Be gentle,” Hanna whispered.

“No,” Erik said. He grabbed the front of Hanna’s dress with both hands and tore it apart, exposing her breasts to the room. Her pink nipples stood erected, enticing him with their appetizing allure. Heart pounding, he took her nipple into his mouth like a greedy child at feeding time, sucking and flicking his tongue along her hardened nub. Hanna moaned, grabbing the back of his neck, body shuddering against his own, hot and pulsing.

“You’re not even breathing hard,” came Hanna’s panting voice.

Erik lay on his back, staring at the blackness above while the last rays of dusk fell into the room through the narrow arrow-slits that acted as windows. He felt like he existed in some little hollow of non-time, thick with the enthralling musk of fornication. It was as though something precious had been lost, stripped away from him like the pink and white sand escaping through his fingers.

“Erik!” Hanna yelled.

Erik blinked, turning from the darkness hanging above. Hanna’s body dripped with perspiration and her eyes drooped with exhaustion. He ran two fingers down her sweat-slicked chest, pausing at her navel; she quivered with anticipation. Eyes sparkling, he looked into her eyes with a mischievous smirk.

“Where were you?” she asked, controlling her breathing.

Erik’s smile turned perverted. His two fingers inched lower with the creeping slowness of a caterpillar, and suddenly he could feel enchantment damp in between her thighs. “Here—”

“No, you weren’t,” Hanna said, putting a stop to Erik’s nomadic fingers. “Even now your eyes hold an element of remoteness in them.” Her voice became gentle and beseeching. “What’s wrong?”

He kissed the middle of her chest and whispered, “I’m afraid.” Why did I say that? Because I am. There was something restless fluttering around inside of him. Not the Celestial Dragon, but something that had always been there.

“Of what? Of what you’re becoming?” Hanna inquired. “Whatever is happening to you, we will face it together.”

“No, of what I’ve always been. I’m not like everyone else. There is something broken inside me. I’m afraid I’ll break your heart.” I’m afraid you’ll bore me.

“What do you mean?” She said stiffly. “Why would you break my heart?”

“I’m afraid that now that I have you, I won’t want you anymore.”

Hanna hugged his head to her bosom. “I know what you are, Erik. I’ve watched you from the shadow for years, as you have me. You’re driven by unbridled ambition. Everything you do, every step you take is aimed at the throne. The day I conflict with that goal, is the day you discard me.”

“It’s not like that.” Erik grimaced, fighting the horror tainting his stomach. “My brothers despise me! If one of them becomes king instead of me, they will destroy me. The only way I can protect those I love is to become king.”

“We’re different, but the same.” She clutched him tighter as if fearful he might slip through her grasp. “I’m afraid, too. I’m afraid that I won’t be able to let my revenge go. That one day I will destroy you and everything you hold dear.”

“What a pair we make,” Erik sighed. “The Cult of Night believes that all of this, that all of us are just a part of a fiction brought to life in the mind of a poet.” He lifted his head to stare into her eyes. “I can’t seem to get that idea out of my head. Who would create characters as tragic us?”

“Only one of those goat lovers from Eldur would dream up such as us.” Hanna ran her hand through Erik’s hair, and they laughed together in the shroud of some unspoken agreement.

“I can’t promise how I will feel tomorrow,” Erick said after a few seconds, “but I love you. Right now. In this moment.”

“I love you too,” Hanna replied. “But one day I might raze Vetur to the ground and sow the earth with salt.”

At that instant, the sound of a ringing bell drifted into the room on a gust of wind past the brocaded curtains, shattering the budding warmth between the two. Erik froze, listening, hoping it was a false alarm; Hjörtur’s bells were used to alert its inhabitants of danger. After a brief pause, bells all over the citadel took up the call to arms, ringing with a panic-inducing clamor.

Erik rolled off the bed, blue robe rising out of his flesh, searching for his longsword. He found it against the wall next to the bed a second after his skin ceased itching. Not slowing, he secured his weapon to his red sash and rushed towards the door. He stopped, turning back towards the Hanna with his hand on the thick wooden door.

“It’s okay. Go,” she said. “I will be here when you come back.”

Erik looked from Hanna to the door and back again. He was torn. Hjörtur might be under attack, but he could not bring himself to leave her. For some reason, he felt that if he walked out that door, he might never see her again.

“Erik, go!”

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A Broken Circle 1.07 – Erik

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The love of power is the demon that eats at the hearts of all men.  

— ANONYMOUS

Minutes later, Erik found himself moving down a corridor where few dared to travel, void of even the occasional serving woman, hurrying past on unknown errands. He was grateful for the isolation, though, he knew it would not last for long. Despite the few tapestries that decorated the walls, the flickering torchlight made it seem a cavern. A dangerous cavern.

Four golden surcoated Punishers in conical helmets came into view at the end of the corridor. They stood guard in front of a thick iron bound door with a small iron grill set in it. Without Erik having to say a word, one soldier tapped on the door in an odd sequence. A moment later, it swung open, revealing more armored men and a stairway broad enough to accommodate five people abreast.

Erik nodded his thanks and descended the stairway into Hjörtur’s depths surrounded by darkness and ancient stone weathered by countless years. The scent of burning wood and a faint odor of decay hang in the air, growing stronger the lower he climbed. His nose wrinkled in disgust.

I won’t allow you to succeed, he admonished the monster within. You must understand that? I will do whatever it takes to stop you. The only response came as a pang of hunger; Erik shivered.

Another soldier in clanking armor waited at the bottom of stairs illuminated by flickering, far-spaced torches on the walls. Erik passed the armored man without a word and strode down a feebly lit tunnel with several branching pathways all blocked by rubble. His footsteps echoed strangely within the enclosed area, making it sound as if something sinister trailed him just beyond the reach of the torchlight. He forced himself not glance back.

The door to the sorcerer’s cavern stood just as heavily guarded as the one above. Erik studied the black flame etched onto the Punishers golden surcoats that blocked his path forward. In the half light, the symbol of their order suddenly appeared malevolent. The armored men greeted him with chilly nods that he returned and then they opened the door.

There was a chamber beyond, half the size of Hjörtur’s domed Great Hall. The floor was covered with a swelling and pulsing pale meat-like substance. It looked like the inside of a living organism, veiny and flecked with green and yellow mucus. And a row of four bulbous spherical nodules grew out of the ground like corrupted trees beside a crimson gem the size of a man’s fist that rested at the center of a misshaped flesh pillar. Scarlet light grew and sprang from the jewel, flicking like a thousand fireflies, providing the room with a touch more illumination than the torches dotting the walls.

Erik breathed in the repugnant, fishy smell of the chamber, and the taste of it rose in his throat, rancid and pungent, like something spewed out of a dead dog’s stomach. He fought the urge to vomit and stepped into the sorcerer’s cavern. The door slammed shut behind him with the finality of a condemned man’s cell, sending a chill racing down his spine.

He looked up more closely at the ceiling and saw the vents through which gallons of hot oil could be poured into the chamber at a moments notice. If that ever happened, fire would swell, expanding in a furious cloud, heat searing, flames devouring the unnatural workings below. Then there would be nothing left of the sorcerer’s cavern but charred husks of flesh.

For a moment, Erik refused to look toward the center of the room. Ypse was there, gazing at the multifaceted jewel; it cast his elongated shadow like a cloak of darkness behind him. At the edges of his vision, the two dour-faced Punishers with crossbows aimed at the Sorcerer’s back seemed to shift and change with the pulsing of the light.

Erik forced himself to stroll forward, his sandals slipping on the moist and uneven terrain. He sensed the heat of life pumping beneath his feet. His breath caught in his throat and his heart raced as he approached Ypse. He feared the answers the Sorcerer might hold.

“Leave us,” he told the Punishers. The soldiers bowed, a look of relief flashing across their pale faces, and they made their way out of the room.

“You are dead,” Ypse whispered. “Or you are supposed to be.” The Sorcerer did not look from the gem as he spoke; Erik understood Ypse’s obsession with the jewel, it was the source of his power, without it, he was nothing.

“So I keep being told,” Erik replied.

Ypse was clad in a red coat and black breeches. “I don’t suppose I need this anymore,” he said, using his sleeve to wipe away the Tree of Life etched on his forehead.

“No, I don’t suppose you do,” Erik chuckled.

“So much has been lost. Time has robbed us of our ancestors’ greatness,” Ypse muttered mostly to himself it seemed. He ran a hand along the outer membrane of a nearby nodule that housed the undeveloped fetus of a giant White Crane. Its tiny body was animated by a weak heartbeat.

“Perhaps it’s for the best,” Erik responded just as quietly. There was something about the sorcerer’s breeding cavern that made others want to pitch their voices low as if ensnared within a prehistoric temple of some unholy god of flesh and corruption.

Ypse finally turned to regard him. Light from the jewel cast a bright red glow across his hawkish face and yellow eyes.“You really mean that, don’t you?”

“I do.”

“Oh, I thought we saw the world through the same lens, my Prince.” His voice held an element of hurt that quickly turned into resentment. “If not, what’s the point of all this?”

“Vatn, Jörðin, and Eldur have been eyeing Vindur with ill intentions ever since our war with Ógilt. War is coming, Ypse. Perhaps not today or tomorrow, but it is coming. When it comes, we will need every advantage unless we want to share Ógilt’s fate.”

A bitter smile curved Ypse’s lips. “You risk the wrath of the Last Empire and the Old Orthodox Church—”

“Fuck the church! And fuck the Last Empire!” Erik snapped, surprising himself. A sudden frenzy coursed through his veins like a river of glowing magma, hollowing him with fury, suffusing him with hatred.

I’m losing control, he panicked, balling and un-balling his hands. The sweat on his brow had nothing to do with the heat radiating from the floor and everything to do with the fear now clawing at his chest.

Ypse observed him, mouth agape.

“I think. . . .” Erik swallowed the lump in his throat. “We lost the knowledge of our ancestors for the same reason that we can’t remember our dreams. We forgot to protect ourselves from the horror.”

“We live in the Fourth Age, the Age of Monsters. Humanity clings to life by its fingernails. The horror is already here.” Ypse paused. “Why have you come here, my Prince?”

“I have a problem you may be able to fix,” Erik said. “What do you know of the Ito bloodline? The stories say Jön Ito escaped the bowels of a sorcerer’s breeding cavern before he founded Vindur. I’ve never given it much consideration before, but what exactly does that mean?”

Ypse snorted softly, turning back to the red jewel. Erik followed suit, watching the red light twist and flicker. Every flash was like some strange alien heartbeat. Every twinkle was an assault on the borders of the impossible.

“You won’t like my answer,” Ypse breathed after a moment, “in fact I’m certain of it.”

Erik said nothing, allowing the Sorcerer to formulate his thoughts.

“I think—and there is substantial evidence to suppose so—like most things in this Age, Jön Ito was the result of a Sorcerer’s experiment. Perhaps all Cultivators were.” Ypse ran a hand along the thin membrane of the nodule. “I can’t be sure of course, this all happened over one thousand years ago.”

Erik blinked in shock. “You mean he was grown in an artificial womb?”

“The Sorcerer-Kings did not just restrict their meddling to animals. The Dökk are ample proof of that. My master once. . . .” A hint of grief flashed across Ypse’s face. “It’s likely that the ability to touch the Abyss comes directly from the Sorcerer-Kings’ experimentations.”

“No. I. . . . No.” Erik shook his head in denial. It can’t be! The idea that his line may have begun in chamber very much like this one sickened him. Made him want to spew out whatever remained in his stomach.

“When you stop to analyze it, the New Orthodox Church’s teachings on the subject doesn’t make sense. Why would the Eternal Father imprisoned the Dark One and the Death Gods within the Abyss then give man access to it in the Fourth Age?”

Flustered, Erik’s heart pounded in his ears. He laughed, a mirthless sound. “I don’t know.”

“Think, my Prince. Think!” Ypse demanded. “Why are the Four Great Calamities that wander the earth so feared? Because they can draw power from the Abyss! They’re not the only monsters that can, but they are the most powerful. I have a theory. The Sorcerer-Kings lost control of their creations; the Abyss changed them, making them impossible to control. That’s one of the reasons they fell.”

“How long . . . does their tinkering take to come into effect?” Erik asked. “Can it skip generations?”

Ypse dropped his gaze. “There are little patterns in our blood that make us what we are. If the Sorcerer-Kings made a change in the pattern, it’s possible that the result wouldn’t show up until hundreds of years later in the subject’s great-grandchildren’s offsprings.

“Hundreds of years. . . .” Erik mumbled, walking towards the door in a daze.

“My Prince! My Prince!” came Ypse’s shouts of concern.

■■■

Bracing himself against a throbbing nodule, Ypse allowed his voice to falter as the Prince left the chamber in a daze. He was unsure what to make of this new twist, or how to turn it to his advantage. But given enough time he was certain he would. He touched his slave collar and chafed at his thralldom, as only one born out of bondage could.

Freedom will be mine.

The strange, half-remembered dreams that had plagued him since he pledged his soul to the Dark One promised as much. For a moment, he wondered if he had not simply traded one form of servitude for another, but pushed it aside. It was too late for second thoughts. His fate was tied to this throw of the number sticks.

He turned from the door. A symphony of ruby light bathed the room from the large jewel full of brilliant fluorescence and beautiful, swirling infinities. His Sál Ijós. It fluttered at the edge of perception like a mother’s comforting murmurs, seductive and haunting. The danger of losing himself to its siren-like call remained and ever present risk and temptation.

Tiny droplets of sweat stung his eyes, warm as fresh piss. He dabbed at his brow with a multi-colored handkerchief. The air was humid with the heat of pulsing life beneath his feet.

Ypse dropped his gaze. He wished he remembered more of his dreams, eager for the knowledge of forgotten sorcery the Dark One held. This Age was frightfully lacking in living teachers of the deeper mysteries, and he had already scoured the book the agent of the Dark One had given him for his oath. Still, what he had already received was useful. Nothing in comparison to what the Sorcerer-Kings had known, but enough to form an outline of a plan.

Only three weeks left. I’m running out of time. He balled the handkerchief in his hand. It should have at least sent a party of Dökk to investigate. I know it felt my intrusions.

The sound of the door opening and closing reminded Ypse where he was. Two Punishers armed with crossbows hurried to him, boots slipping on the pale meat-like floor. He affected not to notice them until they came to a stop.

“Are you finished?” asked a soldier with a thin black mustache above a nervous smile. Square and towering in his surcoat and armor, he fingered his crossbow.

“Just about.” Ypse folded his handkerchief with a flourish and placed in his coat pocket. He refused to learn his jailors’ names, not out of arrogance. But because knowing the names of the men he meant to kill might make him hesitate when the time came. “Another twenty minutes.”

The soldier nodded and took a step back, never lowering his weapon.

Ypse stroked the thin outer membrane of the nodule without taking his eyes off the pair. The warmth flowing into his hand was a comfort. Not that he wished for comfort, but he would need his strength for what came next. “What do you think of the Prince’s resurrection?”

The men shared a fear-filled stare but said nothing.

I can use this. But how? Ypse laughed. “Smart. It’s better for such as us to hold no opinions about our betters.”

“Get on with it,” the man with the mustache said. “Whatever it is.”

Ypse tapped into his Sál Ijós, using its power to extend his reach. His mind sank into the earth, left the world of men behind to enter one of darkness. He fumbled through emptiness, traveled through hundreds of meters of dirt and rock, grasped at something out of sight.

His body trembled. His muscles strained.

Then there was light. A hundred thousand spheres of baleful light, connected by golden filaments into a complex network, impossible to behold all at once. Each sphere was the brain of a life-form stained with the mark of sorcery. At the center of the web lay a mind far older and larger than all of the rest combined, wreathed in hatred. Hatred for all things that yet breathed.

Ypse attacked a random sphere. He used every tactic he knew and subdued the creature to his will, branding it with his mark. The monster sent a wave of terror along the web, and the filaments broke away from it, leaving only the one that now connected it to Ypse’s Sál Ijós.

The mark would not last long before it was co-opted. The ancient entity that slumbered beneath the Rin Mountains could not let such a desecration stand. It would send its progeny to attack Hjörtur, or that was the hope. Everything depended on that.

When glimpsed from a particular perspective, all of Ypse’s problems became simple. To free himself from bondage, he needed more power. To rescue his daughter held hostage in Vetur, he had to reclaim his birthright. To create a world where they could be safe, he had to become a Sorcerer-King.

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A Broken Circle 1.06 – Erik

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Nothing in the world has as much power as the sword. Sometimes I stab a man, and I watch him until his eyes lose their shine.  

— NÚMI MAIDA, TO HIS SON

Finally, the top-knotted warriors turned to regard Erik when he followed Númi into the square, some with pity in their eyes. Doubtless many knew what it meant to be at the other end of Númi’s ire and blade. Though, none of the commiseration touched any of their faces. Númi wore a smile, if it could be called that, probably imagining the pain he would inflict on the Prince. At least he would not try to kill Erik, not with these many witnesses. Or would he?

Erik swallowed, second-guessing his decision. Although some claimed a single Cultivator could defeat three Lightbenders in combat, that was not necessarily true, and most definitely not in his case; he was an unranked Cultivator with a pitiful small range. And Númi was a Silver Ranked Lightbender; he had the power to explode forth with the strength and speed of ten men. This close to each other, by the time Erik blinked the Lightbender would already be upon him, longsword slashing and thrusting.

Yet, Erik would not back down. Not because of his pride, but because of the path he had chosen to walk. He was here to redeem his image in the public eye, showing weakness now would do irreparable damage to all he had already achieved over the last three months.

Cool drafts rippled his blue robe and kick-started the dance of dust devils in the space between him and Númi. The top-knotted warriors dispersed throughout the courtyard gathered around the four knee-high braziers that marked the corners of the square. Faces blank, they seemed unaffected by the wind’s chill, but a hint of excitement animated their steps.

“Are you sure this is what you want?” Erik hedged, drawing his longsword. “You just finished a match. I wouldn’t want to take advantage of your weakened state.”

“For someone like you. . . .” Númi shrugged as if that explained everything. His voice was cold, dark and dripping with sarcasm. “I think I will be able to manage, my Prince.”

Erik shivered at the sound of laughter that escaped from a handful of the black-coated warriors. He flexed his fingers on the hilt of the longsword he held and inhaled deeply through his nostrils. A sense of rushing overtook him, a feeling of folding inward—collapsing down into a single point in both time and space. A world filled with glittering prana opened before him, and he reached out to ensnare them, expanding in every direction. Where he expected almost immediate pain, there was none. He pushed past the limits of his former range without molten metal searing his brain, entrapping more prana than he had at another other time.

Impossible! A Cultivator’s range did not change! It was fixed at birth. An adult could no more grow a second pair of hands than a Cultivator could increase his range. Yet . . . Erik had. Inexplicably.

His consciousness continued to grow, swelling larger and larger, capturing more and more prana until he found the ceiling of his new range. Pain flooded into him like a torrent of magma, halting his expansion. His mind groaned. His soul strained!

Erik drew his awareness inwards, dragging along all the prana he had ensnared. Power and light surged into him. A deluge like a flare from the sun, coming together to assemble his Ethereal Body at the center of his inner void. A golden pool of liquid-prana whirled around him, reaching past his head, kept from floating away into the endless dark by the shield that surrounded him.

For a moment, he marveled at how much prana he held; the barrier around him bulged on the point of bursting. It was hard to quantify the amount by which his range had increased, but it was now massive. Perhaps larger than Asbjörn’s own.

Erik pictured a look of approval on his father’s face and felt a sense euphoria bubble in his chest. A slight nod of the head would be enough, he had long ago decided. Just a single nod would let him know he was worthy to take his place. Just one.

Suddenly, a point of brilliance flared from the tip of Númi’s longsword and flashed towards Erik. Erik froze, blinking, thinking Silver Sword Light could not hurt him, but it could . . .

NO! Erik howled, trying to move, but already knowing it’s too late.

. . . sever him from his power. The bar of dazzling light struck his chest, thicker than two fingers, it entered him like a dagger, cob webbing his inner void with hairline fractures. He collapsed to his knees, head ringing as his inner void popped like a soap bubble, spewing all the prana he had ensnared back into the air. The world wobbled in front of him.

“One must always be aware of their environment, even during a friendly exchange, my Prince,” came Númi’s smug voice. “Consider it your first lesson.”

Looking up at Númi, Erik never hated anyone so much in his life. The Lightbender became the personification of every imagined slight, the amalgamation of everyone who had ever laughed at him or did him wrong. “You. Would. Instruct. Me?” he asked. Every word came out punctuated by a deep exhale of fury heated breath.

Númi smiled wider in response, eyes alight with a mocking glint.

Erik clenched his jaw, belly incensed with rage. His nostrils flared, and his hand tightened on the hilt of his longsword. All the world had become a dull throbbing, snarling in his eardrums. He launched himself to his feet and ran forward. Time and motion lurched, and the air turned thick, tugging at his flesh as he drove himself onward, longsword thrusting. The world had turned to sap, or so it seemed. His sandals scraped softly across the packed earth, and his blade moved with the slowness of a falling leaf.

It took Númi what seemed like seconds to react to the attack, turning the thrust at the last possible instant. Erik whirled his blade around, watching Númi stumble back with a look of surprise. He was moving so quickly that the top-knotted warriors surrounding him almost looked like statues, some still shivering from the prana that had been siphoned from the air.

Not letting his fury control him, Erik propel his longsword towards Númi’s face without giving the Lightbender even a moment to catch his breath. His thrust changed mid-motion into a swinging slash aimed at the Lightbender’s chest. Wincing, Númi barely blocked the blow, using the momentum of the attack to spin away. His gray topknot whirled behind him shifting slowly as if being pushed by a strong, yet slow, breeze.

The longsword felt alive in Erik’s hands; it was a part of him, an extension of his will. He chased Númi across the square, without thought, flowing from stance to stance, weapon always striking or slashing. He should not be able to match a Lightbender’s speed and strength. Yet he was. Somehow.

Slowly but surely, the confident etched into the hard lines of Númi’s aged face began to waver and doubt crept into his icy gaze. Erik smiled, revealing clenched teeth. Momentum was on his side. Every time his blade clashed against Númi’s own, the Lightbender was forced to retreat.

Only a handful of heartbeats had passed since the battle began, but Erik felt a strain on his body. Spikes of pain lanced through his limbs. Muscles in his arms and legs tore, and bones came close to breaking; his body was never meant to operate at such speeds. But within the same crawling time frame, the ripped muscles healed, allowing him to continue, if barely. His longsword nicked Númi’s cheek, drawing blood, almost splitting the Lightbender’s face open.

Abruptly, Númi dodged another slash, leaping backward, reaching twice the height as Erik was tall. The wind rose, carrying the sound of a distorted gasp. Erik charged forward as Númi flipped in the air, noticing the individual strands of gray, sweat-slicked hair that clung to the man’s chest. He fought back a scream, the bones in his arms shattering from the force and speed of him bringing his weapon into position. Almost immediately, the broken bones began to mend, draining him of something vital with every step forward. His longsword inched towards the Lightbender, glittering under the sun with an ominous glimmer.

Númi gently fell towards the earth, but there was nothing soft about the longsword that slashed—ever so slowly, it seemed to Erik—across his chest when his feet touched the ground. Erik’s blade pierced the Lightbender’s skin, leaving a neat line across his chest. A line that leaked scarlet. Númi threw himself into a sideways roll, barely avoiding being run through. The air warped around him like a ripple on the surface of a pond and then he vanished.

Erik paused, longsword lifted in the air to one side, eyes searching. A wave of weariness and fear washed over him, almost slamming him to his knees. Unfair, he lamented. He hated the fact Lightbenders had the ability to bend light and sound waves around themselves, turning invisible at a moment’s notice. How am I supposed to fight an enemy I can’t see or hear? Stay calm. Focus!

A flash of pain exploded at the back of Erik’s eyeballs, hot like glowing needles, searing like third-degree burns. He shut his eyes, blinking away tears. When he could see again everything had changed; the world assumed the properties of a waking dream. Colors twisted and pulsated all around him. The deep blue of the sky transformed into a pinkish purple hue and the green leaves on a nearby tree now looked as white as untouched snow. Most importantly, Númi was once again visible in Erik’s new distorted vision, outlined in orange where the light bent around him and his sword, angling to attack Erik from the side.

Erik spun around and slashed downwards, moving by instinct, turning the blade that was thrusting towards his waist. Númi blinked into existence when the longswords met and disappeared again after they separated. Erik grinned, eyes glowing with triumph, pursuing his opponent. Fighting against what felt like a raging river, he pushed himself faster and faster. The distorted clang-click-clang of metal swords clashing filled the courtyard.

With a shout, Númi reappeared, stumbling back, falling onto his knee as time snapped back into its normal rhythm. His longsword lay in his severed hand, twitching in the dirt in front of him. Crimson splattered out of the wound, arching through the air in fascinating streams and droplets. The red looked vibrant and beautiful. It awoke something in Erik. A want. A hunger.

Númi’s features twisted into a look of abject horror. “My hand . . . you—”

Erik drove his longsword forward, performing kissing-the-button, a derogatory term for a harassing sword thrust aimed at the opponent’s mouth. The blade entered Númi’s orifice and then exited by slashing through the side of his jaw. Númi fell backward, staring up at the sky, gurgling blood. The courtyard stilled except for the sound of his gasping.

“Would anyone else like a lesson in etiquette?” Erik asked, lifting his head to regard the black-coated warriors. He sensed the Celestial Dragon stirring within, scratching, clawing, screeching like a Witch on a pyre, begging to be freed, demanding to be fed. “Answer me!”

It began with one warrior with a three-day-old beard beating his fist against his chest, and then it spread like the coughing sickness in winter. Soon all the Lightbenders were doing it. The courtyard filled with noise. “Erik! Erik! Erik!” They shouted in unison, a chorus to the steady thrum-thrum-THRUM-thrum of hard fists meeting muscled chests.

Erik watched them, his stomach boiling and seething with an ache. A need! His eyes were pure blackness encircled by a band of gold. They seemed to glitter like glass, now. Hard and unyielding. His heart boomed in his chest. His knuckles cracked around the hilt of his longsword.

EAT!

“Erik! Erik! Erik!” They shouted louder, voices touched by fear.

EAT!

“Quiet!” Erik barked, shutting his eyes.

A second later, the chanting came to an abrupt end, and the Celestial Dragon receded from the forefront of Erik’s mind, howling, screeching. Erik’s harsh breathing cut through the sudden silence. The burning sensation returned to his eyeballs, twice as fierce, but gone in an instant. He opened eyes, eyes that were once again green, eyes that no longer saw the world the way the alien monster did. Everything seemed duller and flat. He hated it. He wanted to. . . . What’s happening to me? He closed his free hand into a fist, turning his focus to his opponent.

Númi still spewed scarlet, gazing up at the vault of heaven, painting a sad and tragic image. With immediate medical help, he would survive. Without any, he may still survive; Lightbenders regularly recovered from wounds that would end the life of any other man. The question was should he allow Númi to live or should he end him now. He knew what his father would have done.

“See to his wounds,” Erik finally spoke. I’m not my father, he thought, understanding he may come to regret his decision, but he had made a promise to his mother. He had sworn to be the light the world needed. Undoubtedly, he would never live up to her high standards, yet he would be as good as the world allowed him to be.

Erik strode away, back straight, eyes fixed on some distant point, leaving Númi in the care of his comrades. It was time to find the answers to what was happening to him before it was too late. Before he lost control. And there was only one man that had the knowledge to help: Ypse.

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A Broken Circle 1.05 – Erik

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The best color to paint with is blood.

— JÖN ITO, FAMOUS LAST WORDS

Erik opened a heavy, iron-strapped door into the anteroom of his personal apartments and stepped inside. So intent was he on what he intended to say he did not notice the four women seated beside the lit fireplace until the music stopped. They turned to regard him, foreheads marked with soot, dressed in flowing dark gowns.

Despite himself, Erik slowed and then faltered. He looked down at the brightly colored carpets that covered the floor in layers and then back at the women. Furthest from the door sat his wife, Hanna Ito with a gilded zither draped across her lap and her golden hair hidden behind a dark shawl. Her eyes held him captive in oceans of blue. There had always been a sadness trapped within them, but today the sorrow seemed more salient. More. . . .

Has she been crying, he wondered. An instant later, he dismissed the idea. Hanna remained a mystery, to him at least, but he was certain she would not cry over his death. Would she?

He pulled his eyes away from her and scanned the three other women who sat cast in the red and orange light of the hearthfire. Súla, he recognized immediately, and the two other ladies were named Rikka and Óla. Both were thin women with angular faces, but the first had freckles and the second a small mole on left side of her cheek.

Hanna rearranged a strand of hair that had fallen across her face. “Thank you, that will be all.” Notwithstanding the look in her eyes, her voice was soft and almost warm. Not for Erik’s sake, or not solely; Hanna always sounded gracious and heartfelt while in the presence of others.

The serving women rose from their seats with a flutter of dresses, faces affixed with pleasant looking smiles. They took the zither from Hanna’s lap and placing it on top of a small table. Then they curtsied first to Hanna then Erik, passing by him on their way out of the room.

The anteroom fell silent. Hanna had been peering into the fire, but after the door had closed behind the serving women, she turned to regard Erik once again. Her expression was unreadable, revealing nothing of what she thought or felt.

Erik stood as still as a stone, thinking. Beautiful. She’s so beautiful. His heart ached with longing; she never looked more radiant and seductive than at that moment half pitched in the flickering light. All the things he wanted to but could not say ran through his head, yet none of it showed on his face.

“I think you would have been happier if you were born a man,” Erik joked, continuing a conversation they had from the day before.

“Perhaps. . . .” Hanna shrugged as if Erik had a point. There was not even the hint of humor in her voice, though, just cold evenness. “But then again if I had been born a boy I wouldn’t still have my eyes.”

Her words struck Erik like a blow to the gut. He suddenly felt bone-weary and drained of all vital verve. Every conversation with Hanna was like a pitched battle. He turned away from the hurt in her eyes and listened to the wind whistle past the brocaded curtains that covered the arrow-slits masquerading as windows. The apartment had been beautified by her feminine touch, a far cry from the way it used to look when they first arrived.

“Can we not . . . please, just for the day. . . .”—his knuckles whitened on the hilt of his sword. I can’t change what was done. — “Loving you is like embracing a cactus. The more I pull you close, the deeper you wound.”

“You love me now?” she asked softly.

Erik frowned.  “Is that all you heard?”

“Isn’t that what I was meant to? I’m not one of your. . . .” —she left the word ‘whores’ unsaid, but it rang through the room louder than if it had been spoken. — “Pretty words won’t make me swoon.”

Erik strode forward and ran the knuckle of his index finger along Hanna’s cheek. “You thought I was dead, isn’t that a cause for some kind of celebration.”

“You’re right.” A little less petulant, she gestured to a broad table in the middle of the room. “Come, Husband. Sit and allow me to serve you.” Her voice was now submissive and loving, like an adolescent girl to her first sweetheart. And her eyes sparkled with all the warmth of the crackling fire.

Erik followed Hanna to the table, wondering what emotions her facade concealed. She was better at the Game of Faces than he was, having mastered the art of hiding her true self behind a permanent mask. He knew he only ever saw what she wanted him to, and at the moment that was the image of a dutiful wife.

Hanna pulled the chair out from the table and its stout legs scratched against the carpet with something of the sound of a sword scraping off armor. Erik sat down behind the ornately worked table, making sure he did not allow all of his weight to rest on the cushioned seat. The ruined chair in Asbjörn’s room had taught him a valuable lesson he did not mean to repeat.

Hanna poured wine into a bowl from a silver pitcher etched with curling grapevines. For a moment Erik could almost pretend she loved him. He wished it was true. He wished she did not hate him deep in the marrow of her bones.

“Thank you,” he said, trying his best to sound genuine and heartfelt.

“You’re welcome, Husband.” Hanna set the pitcher back down on the table. “I live to serve.”

Erik snorted and picked up the bowl with both hands. He brought it to his lips, inhaling its aroma. The scent of fermented grapes assaulted his nostrils, and Erik imagined he could almost smell that soft earth of the Vindurian vineyard that grapes had been grown within. He frowned, fear rising. Under the aroma of dirt and grapes was another fragrance, a hint of wrongness. A hint of decay.

“Something wrong?” Hanna asked. She stood with her hands folded in front of her, calm as the surface of a tranquil pond, all her murky depths hidden from view.

“Drink.” Erik extended his arms towards her, closely observing her face. Hanna laughed, amusement curving her pink lips as she took the bowl and drank.

Time and motion slowed; appalled, Erik watched droplets, and little rivers of wine fly towards his face from Hanna’s mouth. Caught by surprise, he closed his eyes, protecting them by instinct. Wine struck his eyelids and cascaded down his face, sluggishly making its way to the carpeted floor. What is she doing? Did she just try to poison me?

Something that burned with the coldness of winter slashed across his throat, and a wave of pain traveled through him. It was as if he had swallowed a vat of burning oil. His eyes snapped open, blood spewing from the wound on his neck. He gurgled in shock and agony, overturning his chair, banging his legs against the bottom of the table, launching something that three strong men would have had trouble lifting into the air. He collapsed to the carpeted floor, and a moment later the table slammed into the tapestried wall behind him, crashing to the floor in a shower of splinters. Fingers trembling, he pressed a hand to the gash, gasping, blinking.

Hanna looked away from the wreckage and down at him, frowning. Blood dripped from her cheeks. Red dripped from the dagger clutched in her fist. Another wave of pain surged through him.

He blinked up at her, mouth opening and closing. Why? Why?

“I made a promise to myself.” Hanna kneeled down in the pool of growing crimson and ran a hand through his hair. “A promise. Do you understand?”

No. He did not understand. What she had done did not make sense. None of it made any sense,  yet strangely, he thought he loved her more at that moment than at any other time before. She looked so luminous and complicated. He wanted to . . . he wanted to. . . .

Hanna pressed her lips to his forehead, tears leaking from her eyes. “Goodbye, Erik—”

Something cracked within him. That was only the third time she had ever called him by his giving name. The first instance was over ten years ago, shortly after she had been brought to the Vetur as a prisoner of war. He had found her with her arms wrapped around her legs, weeping in a darkened hallway. She had once been one of those quiet, feral children who always seemed married to the shadows. Now . . . now she was so much more.

“—the Eternal Father willing we will meet again in another life.” Hanna closed her eyes and gripped the dagger with both hands, pointing it at herself.

Erik wailed. No! STOP!

Hanna plunged the blade forward. Erik grabbed her wrist, halting it an inch from her heart. Her eyes opened in horror, and he wrapped his free hand around her neck, preventing her from impaling herself, easily ignoring her struggles. She loomed above him, eyes bulging from the hand gripping and choking her. He could sense her pulse quicken beneath his blood-slicked fingers and watched her drift deeper into unconsciousness.

“Why.  .  .  .” he whispered, tiny blood bubbles ballooning and popping as air escaped from the slit on his throat. Hanna slumped, and he rolled her onto her back with a wretched gasp. And for a time that seemed like an eternity, but could only have been an instant, they lay there, fingers intertwined, side by side, as husband and wife in a pool of cooling scarlet.

The world seemed to grow dull around him.

This can’t be happening! It can’t all end like this.

Pain made his vision blur with dark spots. His hand grew cold; then the sensation vanished, and suddenly he no longer sensed anything at all. Not pain. Not sorrow.

At that moment he grew aware of distant droplets. They were like little islands of infinity, whispering, murmuring just at the edge of his hearing. He reached for them, calling them with his mind.

Abruptly, the trickle of blood still flowing from the gash slowed; then it stopped as the surrounding gore boiled and churned, crawling back towards the wound, oozing inside him. Like spilled ink in reverse, within moments, the once red-drenched carpet became almost spotless.

Erik lurched to his feet, hand touching his throat. The wound had healed without scarring, but he did not have time to marvel at the miracle. A second later, a bottomless pit opened in his stomach, wobbling him with need. Staggering him with hunger.

For an instant, the world spun before him as the Celestial Dragon rose to the surface of his mind. He gazed at Hanna and found himself filled with an alien desire. An image flashed before him, a picture of himself ripping through Hanna’s flesh with his teeth and his claws.

EAT.

No! Erik yelled at it. She’s not food.

EAT!

Erik quivered, wrapping his mind in the sense of love he felt for Hanna. Energy surged through him, a torrent of power that swept the Celestial Dragon away. The monster howled, sinking back from where it came. Yet he could sense its hate like burning coals at the back of his brain. It had been repelled, but not defeated. Not yet. Perhaps not ever.

Heart thundering, Erik opened eyes he had not realized he closed. Hanna lay on the floor, chest slowing rising and falling, next to the dagger that had almost taken his life. He sighed.

“How did we get here?” he wondered out loud.

Erik lifted Hanna into his arms and carried her into the bedroom, marveling at how light she seemed in his arms. It was as if he was hoisting a feathered pillow. The bedroom was just as elaborately decorated as the anteroom, if not more so. A bed large enough for four sat on a red-and-blue tiled platform. Next to an arrow-slit, a large wardrobe crowded half the room, and through a closed door opposite the wardrobe lay a bathing chamber. And a crackling fire blazed within a small hearth.

Ever so gently, he placed Hanna in the room’s only chair and searched through the wardrobe. He ripped a pink garment into strips and used the sections to bind her legs and arms to the chair, making sure to gag her so she could not scream for help. He straightened, studying his work. Hanna sat bond, eyes closed, head slumped forward, golden locks escaping her dark shawl to drape across her face.

His hands shook. He felt overwhelmed; everything was falling apart. All his perfectly arranged plans were in disarray. He needed to get away and clear his head. He needed to get away!

Dazed, Erik drifted into the anteroom and then out of the apartment. He stopped, blinking in surprise as he came face to face with Kai and the other three soldiers. In the mad intensity of the last few minutes, Erik had forgotten he had instructed them to wait. Why had he told them to do that? It was not as if he needed them for protection. He was a Cultivator, he could rip through ordinary mortals like sheets of paper. Did I see this coming?

“My Prince, is everything—” Kai began.

“Guard the door,” Erik said, “and allow no one to enter. No one. Do you understand me?”

They bowed, hand to heart, faces marred by worry.

Erik leaned against the hallway wall the moment he rounded the corner, and the soldiers disappeared from view. Eyes blank, feeling lost, he stared at the empty corridor, replaying the scenes from his anteroom chamber. She tried to kill me. Why? What changed between now and yesterday? I died. But why would that make her want to kill herself and me?

He ran a hand through his hair and continued his journey. None of his self-reflection was actually helping. The only one that held the answers to his questions was Hanna, and at the moment she was not talking.

He wandered through the citadel, paying no mind to where he went, so long as it was in the opposite direction from where he came. The fortress still bustled with news of his resurrection. He saw it on the faces of the liveried servants who bowed and curtsied as he traveled past and heard it the excited din of voices and clattering pots that filled the kitchens and hallways.

Erik pushed his way through a door and found himself in a large courtyard without fountains or columned walkways, where the air rang with the swift clang-click-clang of swords. A group of twenty black-coated warriors stood in small knots, dispersed throughout the courtyard, watching two shirtless men, one young and one old, swing swords at each other. Stripped to the waist, a light coat of sweat glistened on the duo’s chests and arms as they danced on top of the hard-packed earth, encircled by four knee-high braziers that blazed under the afternoon sun.

He approached the combatants, keeping his face impassive, nose twitching at the scent of burnt wood. He knew one man well, Sir Númi Maida, the aged Lightbender who led his honor guard from the capital. As tall as Erik was, Númi stood taller still and far more heavily muscled. His gray topknot bounced off his shoulder, and scars from countless previous battles crisscrossed his puckered skin. He moved like a dancer, longsword flowing in his hands, meeting his opponent’s attacks with perfect stance and form.

Erik marveled at Númi’s skill with the sword while the black-coated men scrutinized him from the corner of their eyes. None of them turned to face or acknowledge him. It was a form of subtle disrespect, or perhaps fear, either way, he ignored them.

Númi swung his longsword around himself in a circle, stopping with it aimed at his much younger opponent. A bar of silver light, thicker than a ribbon, flared from the tip of the weapon and flew forward with the speed of an arrow. It struck the young Lightbender’s chest and then faded away like a mirage. Dazed, but otherwise unharmed, the young man staggered, lost in some inner turmoil that brought tears to his eyes. The flat of Númi’s longsword slammed into his chest, and he collapsed to his knees, gasping.

Númi turned to face Erik. “So the rumors are true?” He flashed a thin smile that did not quite reach his blue eyes. The sound of wood popping within a nearby brazier filled the sudden silence as his body seemed to tremble with a palpable menace.

Erik realized that Númi had reason to hate him. His son, Sir Patrick Maida, was one of the Lightbenders he took hunting in the forest the day before. He sensed the tension in the bodies of the nearby Lightbenders who watched from the sidelines and chose his words with care. “I’m sorry for your loss, Sir Númi. Patrick served—”

Interrupting, Númi said, “How old do you think I am?” Without giving Erik a chance to respond, he continued. “I’ll be a hundred and ten this winter. I’ve lost children before, my Prince, to sickness, to hunger. . . . The world is cruel. It makes a meal out of the weak.” The hate in his voice grew stronger. “The Eternal Father blessed me with twenty children, nineteen girls, and one boy. What I don’t understand is how you’re still alive, and my only son is now dead?”

“I’m not sure I know how to answer your question,” Erik breathed. “Luck. . . . I stand here because of luck.”

“Would you do me the honor of sparring with me, my Prince?” ‘My prince’ was made to sound like a slur. The truth was the honorific ‘my Prince’ was nothing more than a courtesy given to Erik because of his father’s status. He had yet to take part in the Grand Assessment and earn a place among the peerage.

From a young age, princes and princesses were taught the Game of Faces. They would spend hours in front of mirrors learning to move their faces into the semblance of real emotions. It was not difficult for Erik to keep the fear he felt from touching his face. “It would be my pleasure,” he replied as if there was nothing else he would rather do.

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