Horrors are like weeds, pull one out and another grows to take its place.
— NÚMI MAIDA, TO HIS SON
Patrick stood frozen, caught in the act of running. Fear crept along his limbs, knifing through his bones until it invaded his core. Time inched forward and his eyes widened in sheer and mindless terror. His life flickered in front of his orbs. He became certain that he made a fatal mistake.
A high pitched squealing filled the air like boiling crabs in a pan. The Jade Spider’s abdomen thrashed back and forth. Erik dangled from his sword which was stuck in its glowing spinneret. He kicked off of the armored abdomen, ripping his blade out of the spinneret just as a jet of red flames erupted out of the orifice.
Hairline fractures crept along the monster’s jade-like abdomen as Erik hung in the air. Patrick closed his eyes in fright and a wave of heat and sizzling innards crashed against him. By the time his eyes had blinked back open, he was five meters from where he started, on his back, covered with the vile insides of an abomination.
Painfully, he pushed himself up with one thought in his mind. Prince Erik had been a lot closer to the blast area than he had. Blood from a handful of nicks and cuts covered him. “My prince,” he croaked in a bruised voice that was supposed to be a yell.
Spotting what looked like a body-shaped lump, he limped to the stand where Erik rested. Piercing green eyes gazed up at him. Erik looked remarkably unscathed, even his green robe had somehow managed to remain gore-free. How’d he do that? How else, Patrick answered his own question.
He offered Erik a hand and pulled him to his feet. Damn Cultivators and their fucking Esoteric Sword Techniques. Damn them all straight to the fucking Abyss!
Out loud he asked, “Are you injured?”
“No,” Erik replied with a lazy and arrogant smile that made Patrick want to punch him in the face. Patrick had to grip his belt to fight the urge.
Ignoring the rest of the squad that came running up towards them, Patrick asked, “Are you sure?”
“I’m certain of it,” Erik responded with a carefree laugh. There was something about the laugh that snapped something inside Patrick. All his resentment boiled to the surface.
His fist smashed into Erik’s jaw, cutting short the prince’s chortling. Staggering, Erik landed on his ass, caught completely by surprise by the blow. He up looked up at Patrick with blood running down his nose. For a moment something haunting and dark glittered within Erik’s green orbs before it was gone, returned to whence it came. It was as if Patrick had glimpsed the true Erik for the first time. It left him feeling lost and confused. He realized that the man he thought he knew was nothing more than a mask worn by the thing that slumbered inside.
Silence descended, only broken by the still smoldering remains of the Jade Spider. Patrick shuddered as seven pairs of eyes stabbed into him. His comrades looked at him as if asking, why did you do that? Why did I do that? Patrick swallowed the lump in his throat. Shit! 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 glared down at Erik. “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, pushing back against Carl and Fritz. “He needs to hear this. Next time we could all end up dead. This isn’t Vetur. Out here mistakes have real consequences. You can’t just go rogue anytime the mood takes you!”
Using his sword as a cane, Erik climbed to his feet. He wiped his blood on the back of his hand and glared at Patrick. “Release him.” His voice turned cold when they did not listen to his command. “I said release him.”
Carl and Fritz released Patrick and sent him apologetic looks as they backed away. Their sympathy did nothing to ease the sense of danger growing in the pit of Patrick’s stomach. He stood transfixed with his eyes locked on the orichalc made blade that Erik held stabbed into the dirt.
Erik swaggered over towards Patrick with his sword dragging through the soil behind him. It was a move meant to intimidate and stoke terror. Abruptly he came to a stop. He straightened hesitantly and stretched out his free hand. “I apologize,” he said. “You’re right.”
“W-what?” Patrick stammered. He did not know what he had expected, but he had not expected this.
Frowning, Erik looked down at his stretched out. “I don’t often have cause to apologize,” he said. “Will you forgive—”
“Quiet!” Ebbi yelled.
Surprised, Patrick turned half fearing to see a monster charging towards them. His hand grasped for the sword that he had once again misplaced.
Ebbi was looking up at the sky with a puzzled expression. “Listen,” he said, pointing up at the sky.
It took a minute, but eventually Patrick heard it too. A slight wailing sound, coming from above, that got progressively louder. Face dripping with sweat, he licked his suddenly dry lips. “What is?” His view of the skyline was limited by the massive pine trees that surrounded them on all sides.
“If I’m to guess…” Ebbi shrugged his shoulders as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. “Nothing good.”
The wind 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 as a comet-like object sailed overhead. Moments later the earth shook like the deck of a ship. Plumes of charred timber and dirt could be seen ascending into the sky, above the tree line.
Patrick stood up with his heart issuing a vague twang of desire. He saw the same desire reflected in the eyes of most of the men around him. Objects that fell from the sky were usually rich in orichalc and an ounce of orichalc was worth ten times its weight in gold. Orichalc was a precious metal valued for both its ability to amplify a Cultivator’s power and its ability to render their Esoteric Creations null.
Carl turned to Erik with naked greed glittering in his too dark eyes. “Do we investigate?” He ran his thin tongue along his dry lips. “If we’re first we get to lay claim. Those are the rules.”
“What do you think, Sir Patrick?” Erik inquired.
Patrick contemplated the idea for a moment. The risk was obvious, there was a chance that they might run into another sorcerer’s monstrosity along the way, but the possible benefit left him breathless. If the meteorite did contain a deposit of orichalc, the reward they would receive would be substantial. Maybe they would even let me keep a little bit. Not too much, just enough to make a small dagger. As unlikely as the idea was, he could not get out of his head. An orichalc 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.
At that moment, Patrick spotted his gore stained sword lying in the distance. He limped off towards it, leaving everyone else a little befuddled.
Exchanging bemused expressions, Erik, and the others followed after him. “Shall I take your silence for a no?” Erik asked.
“No, forgive me,” he answered, picking up his sword. “We might as well take a look.”
Erik nodded his head, rightfully resuming the mantle of command that was his as a Cultivator. “Leave the Jade Spider’s chaos stone,” he said. “We’ll collect it on our way back.”
As valuable as chaos stones were, no one questioned Erik’s order, probably because no one felt like digging through a hole filled with the still steaming carcass of the Jade Spider, Patrick mused.
Just like that, Patrick found himself leading 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 foraged ahead, clearing the path for the rest of the party.
It was times like this that Patrick hated the fact that Cultivators did not have the ability to turn themselves invisible. Instead of all of them slipping silently and unseen through the forest they had to play nursemaid and stand guard around Erik, making themselves targets in the process. On second thought, Patrick was glad that Cultivators did not have that ability. Horrific images that would be caused by Fiend Lords with the power of invisibility floated through his consciousness, filling him with anxiety.
The reek of burnt pine became stronger the closer they got to the place of impact. Gusts of white smoke swirled around them, making it hard to breathe. Up ahead, a number of trees had been scorched into white stumps near the edge of the crater. Patrick raised his hand and they came to a stop just after passing the last overturned tree.
Vagn and Vakur reappeared a few meters in front of Patrick. He rolled his eyes as they immediately began a game of Frog-Slug-Snake. They were barely out of their teens, still more boys than men, Patrick expected nothing less from them.
“Frog. Slug. Snake,” they whispered in unison. The brothers each raised one hand in a fist and swung it down after each word. On snake, they both changed their fists into one of three gestures of the game and extended it towards the other. Vagn went with frog represented by his thumb and Vakur chose snake represented by his index finger. Vakur lost.
“How do you always win?” Vakur growled.
Vagn smirked, revealing teeth browned by chewing tobacco. “One day maybe I’ll tell you,” he said. “But for now, let’s get this over with. I’m starting to get hungry.”
Ignoring his brother, Vakur notched an arrow and hiked towards the edge of the freshly made earth basin. The air around him warped for a moment and then he was gone, disappearing into thin air.
Patrick was beginning to get restless. They had already been out here longer than he thought they would. This better be worth it, he thought. Suddenly the earth quivered beneath his feet.
“Stop!” Patrick snapped out loud, hoping Vakur heeded his warning.
At that moment the face of a hideous monster rose up from out of the carter. Its head was as large as the top of one of Hjörtur’s towers, patterned in a puzzling array of black and gold scales. White whiskers hung from its elongated jaw like long withered branches and bright red blood leaking from one of it skull-sized eyes.
The rest of Patrick’s words got stuck in his throat like a fish bone. Eyes bulging, he choked on them. He had never seen a creature as gruesome and wicked looking as this. The darkness at the center of its eye seemed to peer into his soul and found him wanting. It reminded him of a dragon, but all the dragons he had heard of were much smaller, only being as large as a pony.
The creature pulled itself partly out of the massive hole in the ground with the help of its two deadly looking front claws which appeared designed for tearing through flesh. Its head lunged out like a viper and its man-sized teeth closed on seemingly empty space. The wail of a man in pain let them know that the area was anything but empty. As if by magic, a pair of legs materialized, dangling from out of the monster’s mouth. Little rivers of blood ran down the leather boots attached to the thrashing legs.
“Vakur!” Vagan screamed. He notched and released an arrow faster than most people could blink. The iron-tipped arrow launched through the air aimed at the creature’s one remaining good eye. Its gold and black eyelid closed and the arrow bounced off as if hitting a stone.
Surprised murmurs rose up behind Patrick. “Spread out!” he yelled, yanking his sword free from its wooden sheath as Vagan released another arrow.
Casually, the Celestial Dragon swatted the arrow out of the air with the side of its head and pulled the rest of its body out of the crater. One of its wings laid ruined on the side of its back and a jagged bone protruded from the side of its chest. The bone sparkled as though it was formed from some type of diamond-like material. Steaming crimson ribbons of blood ran down the exposed bone and caught on fire as it dripped onto the dirt.
“Hold Formation!” Erik shouted, countermanding Patrick’s order. “And fallback!” 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—
At that second Vagan dropped his bow and charged forward, screaming at the top of his lungs, “Vakur!” Tears streamed down his cheeks as he raised his sword above his head. “Vakur!” The pain in his voice impaled its way into Patrick’s heart.
“No!” Patrick roared, caught in the realization that it was already too late.
The Celestial Dragon opened its mouth. Erik pushed past Patrick and drew a large circle in the air with his sword. Orange flames bellowed out of the dragon’s gaping maw with the incessant fury of an inferno. The oppressive power of the monster’s furnace-heat breath charred Vagan into blackened bones as it blew past him on its way to the rest of the party.
Erik completed his Esoteric Sword Technique by jabbing the point of his sword into the circle he had just drawn. Patrick held his breath as a two inch thick ice dome formed around them as though it had always been there and he was just noticing it for the first time. For a moment there was an unreal quality about the dome that made it hard to look at. It writhed in the air around them, struggling against some unseen force.
The stinging heat of the orange flames descended upon them just as the ice dome stabilized. The ice melted, 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 it. “I don’t know how long I can—”
The bubbling dome of water erupted in an explosion of intense steam that left Patrick’s exposed flesh redden in a frenzied and fanatical agony. He 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 the sounds of the devastatingly hopeless battle being waged around him.
He stuffed his Ethereal Body with prana, greedily sucking in as much as he could handle safely until nothing but a small puddle remained within the translucent bubble. Lances of pure agony melted in waves of soothing ecstasy until he did not know which was which.
His 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 clamping to his feet, hoping to make sense of the jumbled images assaulting his mind.
Abruptly, he realized he could hear a soft sound coming from behind. Half fearing to see another monster, he turned and the world blurred around him. It took a moment but the world finally stilled.
Face as white as snow, Ebbi laid on the ground with a scorched tree stump protruding from his chest. His hands gripped his exposed large intestine as if he was trying to put himself back together again. Eyes filled with tears, he looked at Patrick as if seeing a ghost. “Dara,” he whispered in a voice that one might use to talk to their beloved. “Dara.” The stench of Ebbi’s tainted bowels struck Patrick like a punch in the gut, staggering him.
Stumbling back too confused to feel much more than revulsion, Patrick spun around at the sound of something hitting the ground. A severed head rolled by his feet. The head was too battered for him to know who it belonged to.
Looking up from the deformed skull, he saw the Celestial Dragon close its maw on Erik’s body. Scarlet jets squirted through the gaps in between the monster’s ivory teeth. It casually turned towards Patrick as it swallowed. There was a self-assured arrogance in each one of its actions as if it were king and everything else was just worms beneath its clawed feet.
Stark breathless terror descended up Patrick as he locked eyes with the beast. Primeval dread chewed at him with a frantic urgency that set his legs to quivering. Warm piss spilled down his inner thigh, draining into his leather boot. He should have felt shame, but he had moved beyond all rational thought. All that was left was the primal animal inside him.
RUN, screamed every part of his body, but he could not. RUN!
Suddenly the Celestial Dragon’s scales rippled. It lurched backwards. The chaotic blood spilling from the exposed bone in its chest began to flow in reverse. Howling in anguish and fear, it rolled its massive body. The ground shook, throwing Patrick to his knees.
The surface of the Celestial Dragon’s body folded and compressed, and then it bubbled like boiling water. Out of the chaos, human arms made of dragon flesh could be seen trying to emerge from the creature’s side. Shrieking like a thing possessed by the madness of the Abyss, it fell back into the crater with a deafening crash.
Heart thumping in his chest, Patrick ran like death was on his heels. He ran without a particular direction in mind. He just allowed his legs to lead him away from the horror. In his mad panic, he waded deeper and deeper into the dark interior of the forest. Branches tore strips out of his already ruined coat, adding new layers of cuts to his already ripped skin.
When there was no more prana to use and his leg muscles had been spent, he came smashing into the ground with a hollow thud that left him feeling numb. He looked up at the massive trees that surrounded him, which seemed to be judging him with their quiet serenity.
Coward, they whispered over and over again, in a menacing voice, he knew only he could hear. Coward. Their voices rose louder. Coward! Coward! Coward!
“Shut up!” He shouted, launching to his feet. “Shut up!”
He stopped, hand reaching for a sword that was not there when he spotted shadows moving from tree to tree. He spun around. He was surrounded. There was nowhere to run.
“Dökk,” he whispered as the shadows stepped out from behind trees, gripping bone spears. The sight of them shattered any hope of survival he had left.