A Monster Inside 1.09 – Patrick

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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.

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A Monster Inside 1.08 – Patrick

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

— VILHELM ITO, TO HANNA

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 always there, day and night binding him with an unbreakable bond. He hated it. He despised the fact that, like every other Lightbender who had sworn an oath to the king, he could always feel the man’s presence. Right now, he could feel him — he was too far away to get a precise location — somewhere off to the south.

Reality slowly began to intrude on his ruminations. He watched as 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 were sharpening their swords with long, slow strokes on a whetstone.

“Don’t keep us waiting. Finish your tale,” Fritz said, bringing an end to Patrick’s 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 dramatically, 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.” He shook his head. “No, in fact, she might have been the ugliest. She had a birth mark the size of an apple on the side of her face and her teeth were so twisted and brown that you could 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 was Ebbi, who sat with his back against the wall and his eyes on his sword. 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 burn wound always led to arguments over drawn swords.

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 truly 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 and seemed 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 woman folk 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 wet blanket on the cheerful atmosphere. His forehead was wrinkled in anger and the puckered skin of the right side of his face was 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,” Patrick said. He looked 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 ended by winking at the two men.

Carl and Fritz straightened in their seats and sheathed their swords. 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.” His eyes said he was confessing his true feelings. “We fear for your immortal soul, men were never meant to lie with animals.” A sense of pride filled Patrick at the sound of laughter that escaped passed Carl and Fritz’ lips. He watched what little color there was drain from Ebbi’s face.

Ebbi jolted to his feet, bringing an end to the laughter. His expression revealed nothing of what he was feeling, but in standing, he had managed to tug 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?”

Patrick’s heart spiked, but he kept the fear he felt under control. Sincerity and openness filled his voice, all efforts at mockery were gone. “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 Patrick’s words. He knew that Ebbi was aware of 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 up and tried to smile affably. “Come now, Ebbi,” he said soothingly. “No need to get all worked up over—”

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

For a moment, Patrick’s attention 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 long swords at their waists. It seemed to Patrick that they were 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 begun to slip 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. He sheathed his weapon and retook his seat. “It was my first week as an official Knight of the Realm. Me, four other Lightbenders and the local Baron 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 to make sure they were all paying attention. “It took us two days but we finally 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 in an attempt to regain some small control over the group and partly because he was genuinely curious. Patrick had long come to the conclusion that his love of women would one day be his downfall.

Ebbi reflected on Patrick’s words for a moment.  “Yes,” he finally responded. “To this day she remains the most beautiful creature that 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—”

It took everything Patrick had for him not to open his mouth and spit out the words on the tip of his tongue. He had to bite down on the bottom of 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 five minutes just to calm her down enough that she would let me wrap her naked body in a wool blanket. That’s when the Cockma returned to its lair. The battle was brutal. Two Lightbenders lost their lives before the Baron used Esoteric Sword Technique after Esoteric Sword Technique to bring an end to the monster.”  Ebbi looked down at the table, breaking eye contact with Patrick. “It was over. I survived my first real battle. I was so happy. But I was wrong, it wasn’t over. It was just beginning,” Ebbi abruptly stopped speaking.

“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. When I turned around, the Baron’s eyes had turned scarlet.”

“No,” Patrick said before he could stop himself. That was every Lightbender’s greatest fear, the attack from behind. The Abyss was a realm of chaos and madness. Every time a Cultivator drew on its power there was a chance he might be corrupted by its influence and turn into a Fiend Lord. When that happens, it is a Lightbender’s sworn duty to put him down before he can cause too much destruction.

“Yes,” Ebbi continued. “He drew too deeply on the Abyss and The Change came over him. When I looked into his eyes I saw 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 sung, “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 he 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 felt like talking. 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.

“Did something untoward happen? All four of you look like someone took a piss in your drinks.” A voice asked from behind Patrick. He did not need to turn around to know who it was, but he stood 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. The sword secured on the blue sash on 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 and was joined by everyone but Ebbi. It’s like a dance, Patrick thought. 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 as if searching for someone. “Is this everyone?” He asked.

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

Erik stroked the hint of a mustache 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 turned 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 out of thick broad strips of the blackest iron and locked shut with a thick bar. The sally gate was scarcely large enough for three men 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 guard against the forest below. The surface of these stone obelisks, 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 that 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 quiet before the storm. 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 true 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 come across. Each of them had a quiver of arrows on their backs, a sword 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 wooden starburst pinned on their left collars.

“Well?” Patrick asked as they gathered around the two men.

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

Patrick turned to Erik and pretended to not notice his knuckles whiting on the hilt of his sword. “What do you think, my prince?” He asked with a wry and humorless smirk. “How much sweat do you feel like working 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 nearly be enough. There was no doubt in his mind that they would be massacred if they attempted to hunt it down.

Patrick prepared himself mentally for the battle ahead as they made their way deeper into the gloom of the forest interior. He reached for his inner void by inhaling deeply through his nose. A sense of flowing inwards took hold of him. Then he became aware of his Ethereal Body floating in the cold emptiness within himself, surrounded by a translucent bubble half-filled with a golden liquid. The void was filled with golden streaks of pulsing light. He looked up just as one of the golden streaks struck the top of the bubble. The light transformed into a drop of liquid prana that fell down to join the golden pool that came up to his waist.

Unlike Cultivators, Lightbenders had no need to force their spirit into the world to ensnare prana. Prana naturally filled their bodies as a matter of course. They could also increase the rate at which prana replenished itself through mediation, something Patrick loathed doing.

Patrick absorbed a drop of liquid prana through the flesh of his Ethereal Body. He allowed the energy to travel along a number of the different bronze colored nadis located in his legs, filling him with a feeling of supremacy. Nadis was the name for the thin channels that crisscrossed the inside of a Lightbender’s Ethereal Body.

Patrick suddenly became lighter on his feet and his pace increased. They were getting closer to the Jade Spider’s location. He could smell the tell-tale odor of rot and decay that seemed to always surround sorcerer’s abominations. He gripped his sword tighter and hopped over a fallen branch that blocked his path.

As his feet hit the needle and cone-strewn floor, more prana filled his Ethereal Body. Like a torrent of light, it raged through him, exalting him with the strength of five men, threatening to consume him with a wave of pleasure.

Fighting the feeling of ecstasy, he paused behind a tree in front of a clearing. Colors were more vibrant and real than they were a moment before. His senses were heightened along with his strength. He could hear the thumping of hearts behind him. He looked back at the warriors gathered around and saw the same fire he felt inside reflected in their eyes. Without being told, they spread out in a circle around the clearing 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 sword in his hand. The clearing 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 attacked from close range. Cultivators, unlike Lightbenders, could not increase their physical strength with the help of prana.

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

As Erik reached the middle of the clearing, 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 over his head and leaped twenty meters into the air. Below Erik, eight large spider legs smashed out of the dirt and rotated. The ground erupted in a shower of dark brown soil, revealing the belly of a twenty-five-meter long monster. Its segmented body and jointed limbs were covered in a dark green exterior that looked hard enough to deflect sword blows. Its abdomen was covered with sharp needle-like hairs that it could use to flick at its enemies. Four pairs of apple-sized eyes sat above a pair of long, deadly looking fangs, staring intently up at Erik. Its eyes glistened like glass.

Still in the air, Erik flipped upside down, disregarding his own safety and the fact he was sailing towards a large pine tree. He made a series of lightning quick motions with his sword. First came a twirl with his wrist as the axis of rotation, and then a jab aimed at the emerging Jade Spider. A rose with the dimensions of a large boulder and petals made of scarlet flames bloomed a meter away from the tip of Erik’s sword. 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 could melt flesh.

Erik slammed into the side of the tree with a loud grunt of pain. He tumbled to the ground with such force that it made Patrick stand up in shock.

“Fuck,” Patrick whispered in disbelief.

At that moment the rose shaped inferno burst like a bubble, bathing the Jade Spider’s belly with the heat of its flames. The Jade Spider squealed like a tortured pig. Two of its demonic looking eyes erupted in a discolored discharge and the hairs on its abdomen were burnt away by the searing heat.

“Fuck,” Patrick said louder. He understood why Erik had done what he did, but he was still not amused. By burning away the hairs on the monster’s abdomen, he deprived it of one of its most impressive weapons. But at the same time, he had also put them in greater danger by acting recklessly and not informing them of his plan beforehand.

Patrick’s arm rose to protect his eyes from the furnace like breeze that blew towards him. He nearly gagged on the stench of burnt hairs that assaulted him. With his arm still blocking his eyes, he drew his sword and charged towards the injured Jade Spider, which was writhing in agony.

Baring his teeth, Patrick dropped his arm from his eyes. He 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.

Suddenly, the Jade Spider spun towards Patrick with rancor burning its remaining eyes. He could feel its hatred as a palpable force that tried to knock the air from out of his lungs. It reached for him with one of its long, spear-like front legs which were as thick as a human body.

Patrick dropped to his knees, sliding in the warm dirt with his sword raised above his head.

His sword struck the joint in between the creature’s claw and tarsus and got stuck, jerking him backwards. He tightened his grip and hung onto his weapon for dear life as the beast tried to fling him away. It howled in sudden, excruciating pain.

“Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!” Patrick gave voice to his frustration. He swung back and forth in the air like a seesaw. He narrowed his eyes as his hands began to grow numb.

An arrow whistled past his head and punctured one of the Jade Spider’s eyes. Its wailing turned terrible and bright as its leg thrashed more violently. Patrick was sent flying with his sword in hand and 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.

Liquid prana drained around his Ethereal Body. A rushing filled his head as prana flowed through his nadis, soothing his need for oxygen and slightly healing his injuries. Then he could breathe again. He savored the feeling of air filling his lungs.

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, another of the monster’s eyes had exploded with pus, leaving it totally blind. He watched, impressed as Carl, Fritz, and Ebbi attacked the joints of its legs with their blades.

The Jade Spider, now frenzied, began digging 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 as much space as possible between themselves and the creature. Mounds of dirt flew into the sky and began to rain down on them.

Patrick backed away on his butt, furiously searching for his sword, which he had somehow lost, with his hands. If they could not stop it, the Jade Spider would unleash its most deadly attack. He knew that as surely as he knew one of his ribs was now broken.

Half submerged, the eight-legged monster’s spinneret, located on the underside of its abdomen just below its anus, began to glow with a frightening orange radiance. At first, the orifice’s glow 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 Red Rose Blooms was the name of an Esoteric Sword Technique, the same Esoteric Sword Technique that Erik had used earlier. He 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 sword. He gripped it tightly and leaped to his feet, chasing after Erik. He knew he should be running in the other direction like Carl, Fritz, and Ebbi, but the fact was 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 with all his might.

Ignoring his call, Erik leaped into the air with his sword twirling in his hand. He came down with his sword jabbing down into the  Jade Spider’s glowing spinneret. Time stood still.

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A Monster Inside 1.07 – Erik

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Hope is a waking nightmare.  

— HANNA ITO, FAMOUS LAST WORDS

A look of horror flashed across Hanna’s face like the shadow of a dark cloud on a bright day, and then it was gone like dead weeds buried beneath the grey of turned soil. It was a surprise that her face revealed that much at all, even if it was only for a moment.

Erik’s hands shuddered, and his eyes focused on her face. “Why?” His voice was brittle with hurt. “Tell me why.” He whispered as he squeezed the wine pitcher in his hand. Deformed silver warped and twisted in his grip. “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. She gave an irritated scowl when her words came out jumbled. Erik rushed over as she once again tried to speak. This time, her utterings sounded even less like words, they were more like the sounds a wounded animal would make.

Kneeling down in front Hanna, Erik removed her gag. “What did you say?” He asked in a more hurried tone.

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

“No”—he touched her lips lightly with a soft fingertip—“you go first. I need to understand why you did what you did. Was it something I have done?” Suddenly 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 fine long eyelashes, studying him like someone might a curious insect. The ends of her eyebrows almost touched. Finally, his hand dropped from her neck as the silence grew too unbearable.

Erik slumped with his head against her lap, squeezing his eyes shut. “It’s only now that I understand what my father meant,” he whispered. “He told me once, ‘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 voice turned cold. “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.” Her eyes moistened and her voice turned fragile like a thin layer of ice atop a lake, ready to crack at any moment. “I promised myself that I would never forget. That one day I would have revenge for the memory of the kingdom that was once named Ógilt… For my parents.”

Erik opened his eyes as a single tear ran down Hanna’s cheek. “Your father had my mother poisoned. That’s the reason why Ógilt is no more. We’ve both lost people who we loved.” He said, straightening up out of the soft comfort of Hanna’s thighs. Erik shook his head in denial. “No, that’s not the reason why. You could’ve killed me a hundred different times before. Something changed between today and yesterday.”

“Yes, you died,” Hanna said with a humorless laugh. Unconsciously she flinched away from the hand raised to wipe away her tear, and Erik winced. Hanna and Erik had never consummated their marriage. Erik had allowed her to keep her maidenhood on their wedding night as an odd act of affection. He had wanted her to feel comfortable and ever since then they had laid next to each other at night not touching. Before today his plan had seemed to be working: every morning she was a little less distant. “I cried when I found out.” She added as though that explained everything. A wry snort from Erik indicated that it did not.

“I still don’t understand.” He explained, halfway through the act of freeing her left hand from bondage. There was a current of growing anticipation moving beneath their conversation.

“Walls can’t stop love,” Hanna muttered. “Not when it’s already inside.” She did not sound like someone who only half a year before had said true love was only found in bards’ tales. “When I saw your lifeless body I wept like a drunken whore at a low melodrama. It was like all the light had gone out of the world.”

Erik began, “Hanna—”

Hanna touched Erik’s face with her free hand and cut him off. “Let me finish. That’s when I knew that…” She took a calming breath. “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.” Bright spots of color blossomed on her cheeks. “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.”

The sight of her inflamed him. She’s insane! But that did not change what he was feeling. His blood boiled and seethed with a want that went beyond the physical. He needed to…

Erik leaned forward and their lips joined in a kiss. His tongue flashed passed Hanna’s 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 as more heat travelled down his spine. It was sinful how sweet her mouth tasted. Only two other women had ever made him feel this way.

He pulled back and gazed at her. The bright spots of color had completely consumed her cheeks and the warmth in her eyes looked hot enough to char flesh. Like him, she appeared half-consumed by passion. Those eyes held him captive in a world of endless blue. He could not escape from them; they held him tight, drawing out his animal instinct. 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 melted in into his arms as he stood.

For an instant, Hanna and Erik stumbled around the room, hands fumbling on each others’ clothes, legs thrashing backwards and forwards. The air of grace and command that usually hung from Hanna’s shoulder like a mantle was gone. She seemed almost awkward as if she was unsure of what exactly came next. She broke away from Erik’s lips, inches away from the foot of the bed. “How are you still alive?” She asked breathless, giving herself a chance to collect her thoughts.

“I can’t die.” He whispered, leaning in for another kiss. He did not want to keep the truth from her. She had finally let him in and he could not bring himself to lie in that moment. Later on, he might regret it, but in this moment it felt like the right decision.

Hanna turned her head to the side, avoiding his kiss and pushed her palms against his chest. The back of Erik’s legs bumped into the bed. “Tell me.” She said, peering up at him. She was tall for a woman; her head came up just past his chin.

“I’m serious,” Erik responded staring down at his open palms. “I think I’ve become immortal.” His gaze rose to meet her eyes. “Do you believe me?”

Hanna’s eyes, as big as saucers, looked surprised and confused. Slowly a smile replaced the look of bewilderment. “I do.” She replied while gradually lifting the hem of her dress with her right hand. Erik could not help but stare.

He blinked, refocusing his eyes away from her legs. “You do?” He asked a little-taken aback.

“Yes,” Hanna said easily. She gripped the back of Erik’s head with her left hand and pulled him into a kiss. Erik did not think it could be. How could she believe it when he did not really believe it himself?

Before their lips could touch, a point of pure agony erupted in Erik’s torso. His hoarse grunt reverberated through the room. Sheshe, he could not complete the thought. Shocked, he stumbled backwards, falling onto the bed. A crimson flower bloomed, leaking out from around the dagger sticking out of his chest.

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

Numbly he looked up at her. More golden locks had escaped the confines of her black shawl. Pain ripped through him, urging him to action. It would be so easy to reach up and tear Hanna’s throat out, but he stubbornly refused to even think about it. Instead, he concentrated on finding a safe place away from the pain, seeking his inner void. The blood filling his lungs would not allow the calmness he sought. With every ragged breath, he could feel the presence of the Celestial Dragon grow more demanding.

Straddling Erik, Hanna leaned over him and yanked the dagger out of his chest. “Show me what you can do.” She whispered in his ear as red fluid stained her dress.  She sat back, her hips grinding against his, with a pensive smile.

Her words suddenly made him angry. He was a grown man, not a trained bear performing tricks for her amusement. If she wants to see, he thought with a growl, then I will show her!

The wound on Erik’s chest healed before Hanna’s eyes, even the hole in his silk robe repaired itself as though a knife had not stabbed through it. The horror that Erik expected to see on her face was absent. Instead, a look of arousal and pleasure pinked her cheeks, leaving Erik feeling a little perplexed.

For some reason this angered Erik more, it was like the wind had been stolen from his sails. Brow wrinkled in a frown, he focused on what he was wearing. His blue robe rippled, becoming an amalgamation of silk and flesh for a moment before the robe completely sank beneath the surface of his pale skin. He shivered; the sensation still felt odd, it was only his second time performing this trick.

“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 said, thrusting the dagger towards Erik’s throat.

“No,” Erik growled ripping the dagger from her hand. He flung the dagger away and flipped her onto her back. She landed with a small puff, displacing a number of feather filled pillows. Erik gazed down at her while he held her hands trapped against the bed. She looked up at him the way he had always wanted her to look at him.

A gentle throbbing filled him as the situation became clear. He was lying naked on top of Hanna and he knew she could feel him aching against her thigh. The throbbing turned violent; it struck Erik with the force of thunder, causing his body to shake with need. He could feel the Celestial Dragon’s arousal mixing with his own, turning the pulsing pangs even more turbulent.

BREED, it urged. Yes, breed, Erik agreed. This was the first time that the Celestial Dragon’s wants and Erik’s wants had ever been in alignment.

Hanna’s breathing quickened, coming in fast shorts bursts. “Be gentle,” she whispered.

“No,” Erik said. He grabbed the front of her dress with both hands, pulled on the material, and watched as her breasts exposed to the air. Hanna’s pink nipples stood erected, enticing him with their appetizing allure. Heart pounding, he took her breast into his mouth like a greedy child at feeding time, sucking and flicking his tongue along her hardened nab. Hanna’s soft moans echoed through the room and her body trembled against Erik’s.

“You’re not even breathing hard,” Hanna muttered, panting like a race horse after its last lap around the track. Her body dripped with sweat and her eyes drooped with exhaustion.

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

“Erik!” Hanna yelled, trying to recapture his attention.

Erik blinked and looked away from the darkness hanging above. He turned onto his side and ran two fingers down Hanna sweat slicked chest. He paused at her navel causing her to shudder with anticipation. Her panting turned desperate as he looked deeply into her eyes with a mischievous smirk.

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

The two fingers at Hanna’s navel began inching lower with the creeping slowness of a caterpillar. Erik’s smile turned perverted. He could feel enchantment damp in between her thighs. “Here—”

“No, you weren’t,” Hanna said, putting a stop to Erik’s nomadic fingers with her own. “Even now your eyes have 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 inside of him. He wanted someone else to understand, but there were so few people he could trust.

“Of what? Of what you’re becoming?” Hanna asked with a frown. “Whatever is happening to you we will face it together.” Listening to her, Erik could not help believing she meant what she said.

He stared at her, then burst out, “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 not good for you. I need to be inflamed. I’m afraid that now that I have you that I won’t want you anymore.”

Hanna hugged Erik’s head to her bosom. “I know what you are. When the rabbit dies, the fox grieves.” She said, holding him tighter to her chest. “We’re different, but the same. I’m afraid too. I’m afraid that I won’t be able to let my revenge go.” Her voice suddenly fell to a tragic whisper. “That one day I will destroy you and everything you love.”

“What a pair we make,” he laughed. “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.” Erik lifted his head and stared into Hanna’s eyes. “I can’t seem to get that idea out of my head. Who would create characters as tragic us?”

Hanna’s eyes looked luminous in the dim light. Her smile was warm as she quietly ran her hand through Erik’s hair. “Someone with real problems. Probably one of those goat fuckers from Eldur.”  She added to their mutual delight.

Erik and Hanna laughed together in the shroud of some unspoken agreement. Their inner turmoil was the core of their new found understanding. “I can’t promise how I will feel tomorrow, but at this moment I love you.” He said inches away from her lips.

“I love you too, but one day I might raze Vetur to the ground, and then sow the earth with salt so nothing will grow there ever again.”

The sound of a ringing bell drifted into the room on a gust of wind past the brocaded curtains that covered the arrowslits. The extraneous noise disturbed the quiet of the room, setting a chill into the budding warmth between Erik and Hanna. 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, searching for his sword. He found it against the wall next to the bed. His skin itched with the feeling of a ten thousand pin pricks as his robe rose to the surface. Not slowing even for a moment, he secured his weapon to the sash tied around his middle and rushed towards the door. He paused uneasily, turning back towards the bed with his hand on the thick wooden door.

“It’s okay. Go.” she said, but she sounded troubled, and she added, “I will be here when you come back.”

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

“Erik, go!”

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A Monster Inside 1.06 – Erik

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

— ANONYMOUS

It began with one man, 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 with a sardonic grin. They were finally showing him the respect he deserved and it felt good. A warm spike of pleasure traveled up his spine. Their whispers and looks of derision had affected him more than he understood. It was hard always pretending to be less than he knew he was.

“Erik! Erik! Erik!” They shouted louder, worried by the look in Erik’s eyes. His eyes had changed, they were now solid black except for a band of gold that the encircled the darkness. All hints of green had completely vanished, adding a savage and menacing element to his visage.

His father was right, he decided, nothing was as seductive as true power. In the back of his head, he felt the Celestial Dragon’s arousal and pride like it were his own. A part of him began to—

“Quiet!” He barked, turning away from the men, smile slipping from his face. The sudden quiet was deafening. Not this again, he thought, gazing down at Númi’s still breathing body. He shut his eyes against a quick and sudden spike of pain and when he reopened them his vision had returned to normal. He was going to have to get used to his new reality… soon.

Númi looked pitiful and tragic, but Erik knew he could be saved if his injuries were seen to immediately. With help from prana, Lightbenders could recover from wounds that would end the lives of most men. 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. He had made a promise to his mother. He had promised her that he would be the light the world needed. He did not think he could ever live up to her high standards, but he would be as good as the world allowed him to be.

Erik walked away, leaving Númi in the care of his comrades. Pushing through a wooden door, he found himself once again wandering Hjörtur’s torch-lit corridors. This time, he had a location in mind. It was time to find some answers about what was happening to him.

Minutes later he found himself moving down a corridor where few dared to travel. At the end of the corridor, four golden surcoated Punishers in conical helmets stood guard in front of a thick iron bound door with a small iron grill set in it. Without having to say a word, one of the Punishers tapped on the door in an odd sequence.

After a brief moment, the door swung open, revealing more Punishers and a stairway. Erik descended the heavily guarded stairway into the depths of one of Hjörtur hidden tunnels. One of the soldiers in clanking armor waited at the bottom of the stairway and led Erik through the dark tunnel with a rush torch. Under the scent of burning wood, he smelled a faint odor of decay that reminded him of an open grave. The smell only grew stronger the further he moved down the tunnel.

The soldier stopped in front of another heavily guarded door. Erik studied the black flame etched onto the Punishers golden surcoats that blocked his path forward. In the half light of the torch-lit tunnel, the symbol of their order suddenly looked sinister. They greeted Erik with chilly nods that he did not return and then they opened the door.

The room was half the size of Hjörtur’s domed Great Hall and 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. A row of four bulbous spherical nodules grew out of the floor like corrupted trees beside a crimson gem the size of a man’s fist that rested at the center of a misshaped flesh pillar. The inside of the scarlet jewel flickered with an inner fire that provided the room with its only source of light. Every flicker was like some strange alien heartbeat. Every flicker was an assault on the boarders of the impossible.

Erik breathed in the repugnant, fishy smell of the room, 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. The sound sent a chill rushing down his spine, but none of it showed on his face.

Ypes stood at the center of the room with his back towards Erik, eyeing the multifaceted jewel which cast his elongated shadow like a cloak of darkness behind him. Two dour-faced Punishers stood with crossbows aimed at Ypes’ back. Their hands were steady on their weapons, but there was something about their expressions that made it seemed like they were uncomfortable about being trapped within the sorcerer’s cavern.

Erik reasoned that, like him, the two soldiers understood that room was one giant death trap. With only a moment’s notice, gallons of hot oil could be poured into the room through specially designed holes in the roof. Then with a single spark the whole room would turn into an inferno, destroying the sorcerer’s abominations that filled the room with the cleansing power of the flame.

“Leave us,” Erik told the two Punishers. He came to a stop ten meters away from Ypes and watched relief flash across the two dismissed soldiers’ faces. It was only there for a half moment before it disappeared behind a wall of professionalism.

Ypes turned away from the room’s only source of light with his eyes downcast and his face illuminated in a blood red radiance. “So much has been lost. Time has robbed us of our ancestors’ greatness.” Ypes muttered mostly to himself. He ran his pale hand along the outer membrane of a nearby nodule. Within the nodule, the underdeveloped fetus of a giant White Crane could be seen floating within a thick fluid. The tiny body of the fetus was animated by a weak heartbeat.

“Perhaps it’s for the best,” Erik responded just as quietly. There 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.

Ypes studied Erik with an unreadable expression. “You really mean that, don’t you?” He asked.

“I do,” Erik responded.

“Oh,” Ypes replied and then returned his gaze back to the nodule. “I thought we saw the world through the same lens, if not what’s the point of all this?” There was an element of hurt in Ypes’ voice that turned into resentment near the end of his statement.

“Vatn, Jörðin, and Eldur have been eyeing Vindur with ill intentions ever since our war with Ógilt. War is coming, Ypes.” Erik paused after he realized that his father had once told him something similar. He moved closer to Ypes and then continued, “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 Ypes’ lips. He looked as if a realization had just dawned upon him. “Just words… words that I’ve heard before from another’s lips. These words may even be true, but they are not the whole truth.” His eyes glittered in the dim red light. “You risk the wrath of the Church of the Eternal Father there has—”

“Fuck the church!”

Erik felt as surprised as Ypes looked at his outburst. Where did that come from? He balled his hands and opened them in an attempt to quiet the sudden frenzy coursing through his veins. The sorcerer’s breeding cavern was humid from the warmth of the flesh made structures, but the sweat on Erik’s brow had nothing to do with the heat.

Ypes stared at Erik with his mouth agape. He shut his mouth and then opened it as if he was about to speak, but no words were forthcoming. He closed his jaw once again and shook his head like a mangy mutt trying to dispel water soaked into its fur.

I’m losing control, Erik thought and the thought terrified him. His hands trembled ever so slightly, if you were not paying attention you would miss it.

“Your name has been connected with the most foul rumors as of late,” Ypes said while studying Erik’s face for a reaction.

“Oh,” Erik turned away from Ypes’ searching gaze and found his own eyes locked onto the red jewel that was the source of Ypes’ power. “What have you heard?”

“Only whispers, less than whispers, noise. The halls of Hjörtur clamor with the noise of your death or at least they did, but here you stand.”

“Here I stand,” Erik repeated absentmindedly. The interplay of light within the fist-sized red stone held him transfixed like a small child staring at the last glowing embers of a dying forest fire. He turned away from the light, letting his eyes fall fully onto Ypes’ visage.

“Why are you here at this moment?” Ypes asked with a puzzled expression. Unconsciously he ran his hand along the collar of his brightly colored green coat, and Erik grimaced. Ypes’ tastes in fashion left a lot to be desired. Erik theorized he did it on purpose. The only area where Ypes had some freedom was in the clothing he wore. The bombastic nature of his apparel was a form of rebellion. “You came down here for a reason, what was it?”

“I used to be fascinated by my dreams,” Erik said. “At night I would escape reality into otherworldly realms, but by morning only fragments of my experiences would remain. I hated that… forgetting. I was convinced all the answers to the questions I held were in my dreams. If only I could remember them fully then I’d know.” He touched his upper lip where a hint of a mustache grew. “So one night I prayed to the Eternal Father. I begged him to allow me to remember my dreams. Do you know what happened next?”

“What does that have to do with my question?” Ypes kept his eyes locked onto Erik’s face as he spoke. Ypes always seemed to be watching Erik these days. His shoulders were relaxed and his back was straight with a confidence that had not been there just a few months earlier. Being sent to Hjörtur had transformed Ypes in subtle ways that Erik was just beginning to take note of.

“I remembered my dreams and I wished I hadn’t,” Erik said tiredly. “I think we lost the knowledge of our ancestors for the same reason that we can’t remember our dreams.” Ypes still did not look away from Erik’s green orbs; he seemed spellbound.  “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.” Ypes said, his voice taking on a slight edge as though he was becoming irritated. “Once again I ask. Erik, why are you here?”

Erik’s right hand gripped the hilt of his long sword. The heat in his gaze could fry eggs. The urge to slash his sword across Ypes’ neck knifed into Erik’s bones and turned his marrow to liquid magma.

Ypes bowed his head in an act of submission. “Forgive me, my prince. I forget my place.” He said as his cheeks pinked.

Erik closed his eyes and concentrated on the rapid and angry thumping within his chest. Echoing splashes of hatred followed every one of his heartbeats as if his pulse was a drum calling others to war. He slowed its pulsing frenzy by controlling his breathing. This was not like him. Erik prided himself on his self-control, but suddenly it was like he was a youth again, plagued by uncontrollable emotions and strange sensations.

Opening his eyes, Erik cleared his throat and released the hilt of his sword. “Let us both agree to this fiction; that I am a magnanimous master and that you’re my loyal slave.” Is this what comes of too much kindness? Disrespect?

“What you call fiction is the truth, my prince.” He lifted his head, revealing a look of reverence. “You have no more loyal a servant than I.” There was an element of falseness attached to Ypes’ expression that Erik did his best to ignore.

“It brings me joy to hear you say that.” Erik lied. “Now tell me, what do you know of the Ito bloodline?” He lowered his voice to say that and looked over his shoulder even though he knew there was no one else in the room. He was coming dangerously close to touching upon his secret. “The stories say that Jön Ito escaped the bowels of a sorcerer’s breeding cavern before he founded Vindur. I’ve never given it much thought before, but what exactly does that mean?”

Yellow eyes gleamed in the dim red light like the eyes of a demon cat. “It means, like most life on this planet, Jön Ito was the result of a sorcerer’s experiment.”

“You mean…” Erik’s voice trailed off. He could not bring himself to say the words. He was raised to fear and hate the Sorcerer-Kings of old and what they had done to the world. The idea that his ancestor, someone whom he had grown up admiring was… he could not even bring himself to think it.

“Yes,” Ypes said, once again running his hand along the thin membrane of the nodule. “I can’t be sure, this all happened over two thousand years ago. But I believe Jön Ito was most likely born in something just like this.”

Erik stared at Ypes quizzically. “Jön Ito was born in an artificial womb?” There he said it and the world had not ended. He tried to sooth himself with that fact.

“The clues are all there in the stories if you know where to look,” Ypes said. “Sorcerer-Kings did not just restrict their meddling to animals. The Dökk are ample proof of that. My master once…” Ypes paused and a hint of grief flashed across his face before he could stop it. “It’s possible that the ability to touch the Abyss comes directly from the Sorcerer-Kings’ experimentations.” Ypes continued after a moment.

“No. I… No.” Erik shook his head in denial, but the more he thought about it the more it all made a kind of sick sense. “The Eternal Father gave man that ability to protect ourselves from the Sorcerer-Kings—” Erik stopped when he realized he was just repeating the Church’s teachings.

“The Church also says that the Eternal Father imprisoned the Dark One and the Death Gods at the end of the First Age within the Abyss. Why would he then give man access to it in the Fourth Age?” Ypes asked with his head raised just enough to stare at Erik from under his eyebrows. Somewhere along the way he had stopped running his hand along the nodule.

Flustered, Erik barked, “I don’t know! The Eternal Father’s ways are mysterious and unknowable.” He laughed at his own ridiculousness; it was mirthless laughter that brought him no joy at all. He did not understand why he was fighting against this idea so hard. All he knew was that Ypes ideas made him feel like there was a layer of filth lying atop the contents of his stomach.

“Think, my prince. Think!” Ypes demanded. Erik frowned when he caught a glimpse of the excitement in Ypes’ eyes. “Why are the Four Great Calamities that wander the earth so feared?” Ypes continued without giving Erik a chance to respond. “They can draw power from the Abyss! They’re not the only monsters who can. But they are surely the most powerful. I have a theory—”

Erik listened patiently. The more he listened, the more it started to seem plausible, but there was one question that kept running through his mind. Are the Sorcerer-Kings responsible for what happened to me?

“—I think that the Sorcerer-Kings lost control of their creations,” Ypes continued. “I think channeling the Aspects of the Abyss changed their creations in ways that they never expected which, in the end, led to their ruin.”

“How long?” Erik asked with a lump in his throat. It was getting harder and harder to breathe. He understood this was all in his head, but it did not help. He balled his clammy hands in fists and then opened them.

“What?” Ypes questioned, more than a little perplexed. His pale brow had wrinkled in befuddlement, giving him the appearance of a disgruntled vagabond. At any other time, Erik would have found the sight comical.

“How long do the Sorcerer-Kings’ changes take to come into effect?” He asked. “Can it skip generations?”  There was a slight look of desperation in his eyes that he knew Ypes picked up on.

Ypes did not respond right away. Erik imagined he could see the wheels turning in Ypes’ lopsided head. “There are little patterns in our blood which make us what we are.” Ypes finally responded. “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 as he turned away from Ypes and began to walk towards the door. Erik ignored Ypes’ shouts of, “My prince.” The truth was he never really heard them. He was in a daze of inward reflection.

Erik exited the sorcerer’s breeding cavern and walked 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. But was he really? He now shared his body with something that ate worlds.

All the energy inside his body needed to be released or he felt like he was going to explode. He started walking without a destination in mind. He just allowed his legs to lead him where they would while his mind worked at his problem. He passed saluting soldiers and bowing servants all without any real awareness.

At the end of it all, he came to three conclusions. First, he could not allow anyone to find out about his secret which led him to thoughts of having Ypes murdered. In the end, he decided that Ypes did not know enough to be truly dangerous and whatever risk there was in allowing him to live was outweighed by his usefulness. Second, he had to find time to test his new abilities and come to terms with what he was now capable of. And lastly, Erik came to the conclusion that it was paramount that he learned how to keep the Celestial Dragon’s emotions and urges from bleeding over into his mind.

Erik came to a stop. I can’t allow it to seize control of my body. That would only end in death.

“My prince,” Hailed four voices in unison. The four voices were male, Erik could tell that much instantly. If he had to guess, all four of the voices belonged to soldiers. There was something in the way soldiers projected their voices that was very distinct. He thought it came from them always fighting to be heard in the training yard and on the battlefield.

In spite of everything, Erik found himself grinning affably in an attempt to hide what he was really feeling. Where else would my feet lead me, but here, he mused as he stared at Kai’s square jawline. Kai was just where Erik had left him, standing guard in front of the door to his apartment with three other soldiers that Erik had not yet learned the names of.

“Has anyone entered?” He 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. “My prince,” he added with a smile. The smile even seemed genuine which made Erik take pause.

“Thank you for service.” Erik thanked the men by looking them each in the eye, one by one. “But I no longer have need of you. You may return to your posts.”

Kai bowed easily, hand to heart and led his comrades away looking a little defeated. For some reason, Kai’s disappointment pulled at Erik’s heart strings. His father had always told him that good subordinates were hard to find.

“Kai,” Erik said, “wait.” Kai stopped and looked over his shoulder. “I want you come and see me tomorrow. I may have another task for you.” He finished, turning away from Kai just as his face split into a grin.

After Erik entered the anteroom of his personal apartments he bolted the heavy, iron-strapped door behind. Fewer rays of light fell into the room through the openings in the brocaded curtains that covered the arrowslits. Something hard bumped into Erik’s foot as he walked deeper into the room. He kneeled down and picked up a deformed silver pitcher etched with curling grapevines. The room was just as he had left it. The ornately worked table that once sat in the middle of the room still lay in pieces against the far wall.

Erik stood, turning away from the ruined table and the wine stained carpets with a feeling of anticipation. He felt like a condemned man on the way to his hanging with every step he took towards the bedroom door. This is it, he thought as pushed open the door.

Hanna sat with her arms and legs tied to a cushioned chair with stripes 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 with eyes gleaming like the exposed ice of a glacier. There was more than coldness in her blue orbs, there was a promise of pain and something worse.

Erik gripped the silver pitcher he still held tighter. “Hey,” he said lamely.

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A Monster Inside 1.05 – 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

Born among the white, snow-edged peaks of the Rin Mountain range, the wind descended from its birthplace and howled into a large courtyard without fountains or columned walkways where Erik stood opposite Númi. Cool drafts rippled Erik’s silk robe and kick-started the dance of dust devils in the space between the two men. The Lightbenders, who had gathered in a circle around, Erik and Númi did not seem affected by the wind’s chill.

“Are you sure this is what you want?” Erik hedged, slowly drawing his sword. “You just finished a match. I would not want to take advantage of your weakened state.”

“For someone like you. . . .” Númi shrugged as if that explained everything. He met Erik’s eyes and he flashed him another thin smile. 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 some of the mouths of the watching Lightbenders. He flexed his fingers on the hilt of the sword he held and sought the inner void by closing his eyes and inhaling deeply through his nose. A sense of rushing filled his head, and he felt himself flow inwards, down a dark inner tunnel of glittering night.

He jerked as he became aware of his Ethereal Body drifting through a starless void, surrounded by a translucent bubble large enough for him to extend both arms without touching either side. Tiny jolts of energy pelted the outside of the transparent bubble. At first, they sparked with the power of soft raindrops, but soon the jolts turned violent, hitting with the force of fist-sized hail. The bubble rippled and groaned from the onslaught.

Erik felt himself weaken. Every strike stole some little portion of his vitality. He understood that the assault was a manifestation of his inner turmoil.  If it continued for much longer he would lose his connection with his Ethereal Body sooner rather than later.

I can’t let that happen. I won’t let that happen. How? He shook his head in frustration.  Find your center, he told himself.

Cold soaked into Erik. He looked up at the luminous crackling jolts as numbness crept along his limbs. Something close to panic took hold of him then. How could his limbs grow numb? His Ethereal Body was not real; it was just a joining of spirit and consciousness clothed in the guise of human flesh. That should not be possible.

Stubbornly he fought, struggling against the cold that seeped deeper within. He steadied his mind and focused on the emptiness surrounding him. He found an element of calm in the blissful repose of nothingness. There was something beautiful about the blackness. Where others might have felt horror, he felt a sick fascination.  It was always the same; the void gave birth to a perverse yearning, a need to explore things unknown. The bombardment slowed and then finally ceased. The violent noise of the onslaught was replaced by the quiet of the endless dark. His raging emotions drained out like air out of a balloon. He could still feel them, but they were placed at a distance.

A gentle smile touched Erik’s lips and a feeling of warmth trickled through him as he transformed his Ethereal Body into a ball of swelling gold and silver light. Slowly, ever so slowly, the luminous ball fed on the darkness, growing fat from its gluttony. The outwards expansion seemed to take an eternity until it devoured everything. Until its brilliance was too great to be contained by the void. Suddenly the radiance burst forth from his mind, and he felt himself quickly spreading out in all directions.

Awareness of the world returned to Erik through the tactile knowledge of his surroundings that was most like his sense of touch, but different in a way he could not quite define. He trapped the specks of glimmering prana that existed in the air and the earth within his growing net of consciousness.

There were a number of ways Cultivators measured strength among themselves, but one of the most important was something they called range. A Cultivator’s range was fixed at birth and determined how far he could spread his spirit into the world without his mind unraveling. The larger a Cultivator’s range, the more prana he could ensnare.

Erik had long lamented the size of his range. With a range of only sixty meters, he had the privilege of being one of the weakest Cultivators on record. He mentally prepared himself for the pain that was to come as he neared his limit, but it never came. His spirit pushed beyond the sixty-meter mark with ease.

Impossible! Erik felt stunned. This can’t be happening.

But it was. His spirit encompassed ever more territory, easily crossing one hundred meters, and then three hundred meters, and five hundred meters. He could suddenly feel the soldiers who walked on top of ramparts and stood guard in towers. They felt like human-shaped furnaces of fire and ice, all except for the Lightbenders who currently held the inner void. They felt like holes in reality. He knew them only by their absence.

A range of a hundred meters was considered average; crossing four hundred meters put Erik squarely among the ranks of the elite. He felt drunk on the feeling of euphoria. He pictured a look of approval on his father’s face. 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.

How far can I reach? He wondered as his spirit stretched farther afield. The whole of Hjörtur? No, he decided, that was still too small. A foreign sense of pride began bubbling forth. He felt exalted; he was a supreme being of power, and nothing was out of his grasp. I can encompass the world! His spirit boiled as it swelled into almost every crevice of Hjörtur. He felt more alive than he ever had before.

Pain flared white and hot at his core, bringing an end to his outward expansion. He found his limit and it was not the world. It was far less than that. His spirit had not even managed to encompass all of Hjörtur. He estimated his new maximum range as a little over a thousand meters, almost seventeen multitudes greater than his previous limit.

Erik drew his consciousness back inward, dragging along every speck of prana he had ensnared. All over Hjörtur, people stopped at the sudden chill in the air. Power filled Erik, setting his mind aflame with a feeling of glorious might. At the center of the void, he reformed his Ethereal Body and his translucent bubble. Golden liquid-like prana filled the interior of the bubble, reaching past Erik’s head sparkling with an otherworldly ambience.

Suddenly the bubble shook in the turbulence. Erik gasped in shock. The liquid prana roiled and he came face to face with the Celestial Dragon’s hideous visage, looking at him from outside the bubble. Its skin was like that of a lizard patterned in black and gold scales. White whiskers hung like long withered branches about its face, framing its elongated jaw in such a way as to make it seem even more gruesome and wicked than it already was. Its eyes were solid black but for a band of gold that encircled the darkness and from which sprouted twisted bolts of red.

The Celestial Dragon gave voice to its fury with an earth-crushing roar. It launched itself at Erik, ripping into his transparent bubble with its sword-like teeth. The bubble broke apart into infinitesimal pieces.

Back in the courtyard, Erik’s eyes widened in terror. He dropped down to one knee. His heart boomed in his ears, drowning out the sound of everything else. Inside his chest, his organs ruptured from the violent suddenness of losing his inner void, painting his lips in scarlet droplets.

Númi’s lips curled in amusement, “Something wrong, my prince?” He could not keep the contempt he felt for Erik from tainting his voice. Only moments had passed since Erik first reached for his inner void.

Prana leaked out of Erik’s body like smoke slipping through his fingers. He tried to hold it all in, but could not. Cultivators could not hold prana inside of themselves without the aid of their inner void and something told Erik that the Celestial Dragon would always be there waiting to attack him inside his inner void. Without prana he could not safely channel the Four Aspects of the Abyss. That meant he would fail the Grand Assessment and he would never truly join the ranks of the peerage. Erik pictured life as a commoner. No one will address me as “my prince” ever again. That thought filled him with terror.

Looking up at Númi, Erik never hated someone so much as he did in that moment. Númi became the personification for every imagined slight, for everyone who had ever laughed at him or did him wrong. Erik clenched his jaw, belly incensed with rage. His nostrils flared and his hand tightened on the hilt of his long sword. All he could hear was his blood snarling in his eardrums. He launched himself to his feet, swinging his sword at Númi. The world seemed to lurch around Erik. The air turned thick, tugging at his flesh as he attempted to drive his sword onward. It was like all the air in the world had turned to sap.

They think I’m weak! They think I’m undeserving of the greatness of my last name. Rumors said he spent his younger years chasing women and reading books, not practicing the sword like a true Cultivator should. Well, I will show them all just how weak I am!

As slow as Erik was moving, Númi seemed to be moving even slower. It took him what felt like seconds to react to Erik’s attack. Turning Erik’s blows at the last possible instant, Númi was forced back, stumbling under the force of Erik’s strike. Surprise slowly flickered across Númi’s face before disappearing behind a mask of blankness.

Erik did not let the fury he felt control him. Instead, he used it to his advantage, letting the rage propel his sword towards Númi’s face without giving him even a moment to catch his breath. Erik’s thrust changed mid-motion into a swinging slash aimed at his chest.

Wincing in pain, Númi barely blocked Erik’s swinging slash and then used the momentum to spin away. His gray topknot whirled behind him shifting slowly as if being pushed by a strong, yet slow, breeze.

The story of Erik’s incompetence was a fiction created by himself and Asbjörn. After his mother was murdered with poison, Erik came to the conclusion that he was safer if those around him underestimated his abilities. Out in public, he played the part of an inept princeling that was more interested in deflowering young maidens than he was in the Way of the Sword. Yet in private, hidden from view of the world, he had spent countless hours relentlessly practicing the sword with Asbjörn. He had never truly mastered the weapon, but he had become a lot better than most thought.

As good as Erik had been with the sword before, he had never been this good. Whatever happened to him yesterday gave him a kind of enhanced muscle control he could have only dreamed of. His body responded to his thoughts in a way that it had never before. The sword felt alive in his hands. It was a part of him, an extension of his will. He chased Númi across the hard packed earth of the courtyard, slashing and thrusting with the eternal slowness of a falling leaf. He could feel a burning sensation spread throughout his limbs as he pushed himself to his limits. The world resisted his attempt to move faster. Muscles in his arms and legs tore and bones came close to breaking. His body was never meant to operate at the speed that he was now moving at.

Within the crawling frame of time, the ripped muscles healed, allowing Erik to continue pushing his body past what should be possible. Momentum was on his side. Every time their swords clashed against each other, Númi was forced to retreat.

The blank-faced men watching the fight stood straighter, almost as if they were surprised at what they were witnessing. There was no longer an air of disdain about them.

Númi’s expression changed; chinks began to appear in his façade of control. Lightbenders were faster and stronger than ordinary mortals. They used prana to push their bodies beyond what was possible for most. But Erik was faster and stronger still, all without the aid of prana.

Abruptly, the Lightbender dodged a sword slash by leaping backward, reaching twice the height as Erik was tall. The wind rose again, carrying the surprised gasp of a sentry watching the fight from a tower. Erik watched Númi’s body back flip in the air then drift toward the ground. Erik could see the individual strands of gray sweat slicked hair that clung to Númi’s chest.

That was stupid. The thought fluttered through Erik’s brain, weakening the white fury, and as if Númi could read Erik’s mind, his eyes widened in dread. With his feet off the ground, Númi lost his ability to avoid Erik’s attacks. It was the kind of mistake a raw recruit would make, which just showed the amount of pressure that Erik had put the Lightbender under.

Erik charged forward, pushing his body beyond its limits. A roaring crack filled his ears as the bones in his arms shattered with the force and speed of him bringing his sword into position. He could feel the broken bones in his arms repair themselves with each step forward, draining him of something vital. His new abilities were not free, they cost him something he could not quite define. All he knew was that a part of him had been burnt away to power his speed and healing. The sword in his hand reached ahead, glittering under the sun with an ominous grandeur.

The Lightbender seemed to lazily fall towards the dirt, but there was nothing soft or gentle about the sword that slashed—ever so slowly, it seemed to Erik—across Númi’s chest before his feet could touch the ground. His ribs cracked as the blade pierced his skin, leaving a neat line across his chest. He grunted, rolling sideways with a puff of dust blowing leisurely into the air and then blinked out of existence. But first, the air around him seemed to ripple like the surface of a pond and then he was gone.

The world resumed its normal rhythm as Erik paused with his sword lifted in the air to one side. A wave of weariness washed over him with such force that he almost collapsed to his knees. Erik did his best not to panic as his eyes frantically searched for signs of Númi. He tried to calm himself by thinking that he had seen this same trick performed many times before, but it did not help. Lightbenders could bend light and sound waves around themselves, turning invisible at a moment’s notice. When they did, smell and touch were almost the only two ways to detect their presence.

A burning sensation at the back of Erik’s eyes made him shut his eyelids against the sudden pain. When his eyes blinked open, the world had assumed the properties of a waking dream. Colors were twisted and pulsating. The sky had turned from deep blue into a pinkish purple hue and the leaves on a nearby tree looked as white as fresh snow. Most importantly, Númi was once again visible in Erik’s new distorted vision. He was angling himself for an attack at Erik’s back.

This is how the Celestial Dragon sees the world, Erik mused.

Moving by instinct, Erik spun around and slashed downwards, turning the sword that was thrusting towards his back. Númi blinked into existence as the swords clashed against each other, and then disappeared again after they separated. Erik was doing something that was supposed to be impossible. With his naked eyes, he could perceive a vague orange outline where the light bent around Númi and his sword.

Erik grinned; his whole body was bursting with verve. For three long seconds, the swift clang-click-clang of metal swords clashing filled the courtyard. Erik pushed himself faster and faster. His sword became a silver blur.

With a shout, Númi reappeared, stumbling back, falling onto his knees. His sword lay in his severed hand, twitching in the dirt in front of him. Blood squirted out of the place where his hand used to be attached to his arm.

Erik watched the blood arch in the air then land on the dirt with a sick fascination. The red looked vibrant and beautiful. It awoke something in him. A want. A Hunger.

Pain lanced through Númi’s body, twisting his facial features into a look of horror. Disbelief filled his blue eyes as he met Erik’s sinister gaze. He opened his mouth, “My hand… you—”

Erik drove his sword 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 backwards, staring up at the sky, drowning in pools of his own blood. Fat tears leaked from his eyes. The courtyard stilled except for the sound of his gasping.

“Would anyone else like a lesson in etiquette?” When no one responded, Erik lifted his gaze from Númi and studied the Lightbenders that stood in a circle around him. “Answer me!” His blood burned like forgotten oil in a pan. He wanted someone else to step forward. He needed an outlet for the rest of his aggression.

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A Monster Inside 1.04 – 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. Four women sat on top of cushioned chairs before an unlit fireplace dressed in dark gowns. The music stopped and four pairs of eyes turned towards him.

Despite himself, Erik slowed, and then stopped. 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. She was enjoying the musical performance of her three personal attendants before he had interrupted their recital. Súla held a zither in her pink hands, and for some reason, the names of the other two noble ladies escaped him. Their names would come to him later, he knew.

“That will be all,” Hanna said. There was a cold edge to her soft voice.

Erik stood as still as a stone. The attendants placed their instruments down on top of a small table and curtsied deeply as they passed him on their way out of the room.

The silence stretched into uncomfortableness as Erik studied his wife. Her golden hair was hidden under a dark shawl; the period of mourning after the death of a husband called for the formality of a shawl. There had always been a sadness trapped within her blue orbs, but today the sorrow seemed more salient. Has she been crying?

Unlikely, Erik shook his head. She would no more shed a tear over me than a stone would bleed.

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

“Perhaps. . . .” Hanna shrugged as if he had a point. “But then again if I had been born a boy I wouldn’t still have my eyes.”

Suddenly Erik felt weary to the bone, 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 arrowslits. 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 briskly. She rearranged a strand of hair which had fallen across her apple shaped face.

Mother, she’s beautiful. Erik watched her with a frown. His heart ached with longing; she never looked more radiant and seductive. All the things he could not say ran through his head, but none of it showed on his face. “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. — “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,” he asked with an almost formal air.

“You’re right,” she said 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.” She spoke submissively in a gentle way that almost seemed lovingly, like an adolescent girl to her first sweetheart.

As Erik followed Hanna to the table, he wondered what emotion she was truly feeling now. She was better at the Game of Faces than he was. He only ever saw what she wanted him to. 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 that he did not mean to repeat.

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

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

“You’re welcome, Husband” she replied as she set the pitcher back down on the heavily built table. “I live to serve.”

Ignoring her last comment, Erik picked up the bowl with both hands and brought it to his lips. The scent of fermented grapes assaulted his nostrils. He imagined he could smell that soft earth of the Vindurian vineyard that grapes were grown in. The smile slipped from his face. Under the aroma of dirt and grapes was another fragrance, a hint of decay.

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

Erik extended his arms towards her. “Drink,” he said while closely observing her face.

Amusement curved her pink lips. Hanna took the bowl from Erik and drank.

Time and motion slowed; appalled, Erik watched droplets and little rivers of wine lazily fly towards his face from Hanna’s mouth. Caught by surprise, he closed his eyes, protecting them by instinct. He felt the wine hit his closed eyelids and cascade down his face, sluggishly making its way to the carpeted floor without a care in the world.

Erik’s eyes snapped open in panic when he felt a knife slash across his throat, painting his chest bright red. From the way the blade burned, he knew it was made of orichalc. Nothing else wounded Cultivators and sorcerers the way it did.

Erik winced from the blow and fell backwards overturning his chair. His leg banged against the bottom of the table, launching something that three strong men would have had trouble lifting into the air. The table slammed into the tapestried wall behind Erik and then came crashing to the floor in a shower of splinters.

Hanna’s eyebrows lifted in surprise. She looked away from the ruined table and moved towards Erik with her knife at the ready, traveling over the now wine stain carpets.

Erik tried to speak but only blood came out. He could feel it spew out from the wound on his neck, roiling and chaotic. The agony brought tears to his eyes; it was a sharp pain that only grew worse as moments slipped past.

Rikka and Óla. Those were the names of Hanna’s other two personal attendants. Their names suddenly appeared in his mind. He started to laugh at the ridiculousness of it all, but the hurt turned the laughter into a groan.

Hanna kneeled down in a pool of growing fluid and ran a blood-soaked hand through his hair. He watched her desperate for an answer. Why? His lips opened and closed like a fish trapped on land. Why?

Hanna peered down at him with torment filled eyes. “I made a promise to myself,” she said. “Do you understand?”

No. He did not understand. What she had done did not compute, it did not make sense. Strangely, he thought he loved her more in that moment than any other time before. She looked so luminous and complicated. He wanted to understand. He wanted to envelop her in his arms and shield her from the world.

Hanna pressed her lips to his forehead. Tears leaked from her eyes, mixing with the droplets of blood that stained her pale cheeks. She straightened and pointed the knife at her heart. “Goodbye, Erik—”

That was only the third time she had ever referred to him by his given name. The first time was ten years ago when he found her crying in a darkened hallway. She used to be one of those silent feral children who always seemed glued to the shadows. The second time was three months ago on their wedding day. He remembered it started to snow as they huddled together in that little chapel.

“—the Eternal Father willing we will meet again in another life,” she continued morosely. Hanna closed her eyes and drove the blade towards her own heart.

No! Erik reached out and grabbed her hand, stopping the knife an inch away from her heart. Hanna’s eyes snapped open in horror. She struggled against him, trying to impale herself on the knife. He wrapped his free hand around her neck and kept her chest separate from the pointy end of the blade.

Tiny blood bubbles ballooned and popped as air escaped from the slit on Erik’s throat. He squeezed the hand wrapped around Hanna’s long neck. Watching the light go out of her eyes hurt him more than his wound. He sobbed like a beaten child when she lost consciousness.

Erik cradled Hanna on his chest while he peeled the knife from her unconscious fingers. His heart thumped like a race horse. He dropped the blade onto the carpeted floor and stared up at the ceiling. He was dying… again.

Hanna’s weight on his chest began to become unbearable. He rolled her off with a wretched gasp. They lay there, side by side, as husband and wife in a pool of cooling scarlet.

As Erik’s chest rose and fell at an ever slower pace, he reached out and took hold of Hanna’s hand, intertwining their fingers. He remembered the mournful song Súla, Rikka, and Óla were playing from earlier. It was a fitting piece of funeral music, he decided. He played it in his head as his body shredded from the sudden chill. He could no longer feel his fingers. He could no longer feel his hands.

Erik drifted away and lost awareness of his surroundings. He focused on the taste of blood in his mouth. The copper tang grounded him in the now. A teaspoon of the crimson sea in his mouth slid down his throat and oozed its way into his stomach.

The blood set his insides on fire and awakened the Hunger. He jolted back into full consciousness, gaping like a hung man. It felt like liquid magma was rushing through his veins setting aflame everything it touched.

In the midst of the agony, Erik became aware of distant droplets; little islands of infinity that once were a part of him. No, they were still part of him. He called to the separated parts and the spilled gore that had pooled around him began to crawl up his body, similar to tiny red ants, marching their way home. Like spilled ink in reverse, the once blood-drenched carpet became almost spotless. After the last drop of darkening vital fluid crawled its way into Erik’s throat, his flesh rippled and healed without scarring.

Whole again, Erik stood up, with his belly churning with hunger, and gazed at Hanna with a growing sense of horror. He gripped his aching stomach as the Celestial Dragon rose to the surface of his mind.

EAT.

No! Erik yelled in his head. She’s not food.

EAT!

Erik wrapped his mind in the feeling of love he felt for Hanna. The Celestial Dragon wailed in pain; love was the antithesis to its very existence. It sank back down below the depths of Erik’s conscious mind. He could feel its hate like burning coal at the back of his brain. It had been repelled, but not defeated. He knew their war was not over.

Erik opened the eyes he did not realize he had closed and did his best to still his thundering heart. It felt like it was trying to escape from his chest. He frowned down at Hanna with his hands resting on his knees.

“How did we get here?” He asked no one in particular.

After a moment or two spent in self-repudiation, he picked up Hanna and carried her into the bedroom. He marveled at how light she felt in his arms, it was as if he was carrying 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 arrowslit, a massive wardrobe crowded half the room, and through a closed door opposite the wardrobe was a bathing room.

Erik sat Hanna down in one of the room’s three cushioned chairs. He left her slumped over in the chair as he frantically searched through the wardrobe. He ripped a pink garment into strips and used the strips to bind Hanna’s legs and arms to the chair. Lastly, he gagged her so she could not scream for help.

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! In a daze, he drifted into the anteroom and then out of the apartments. 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 told them to wait. Why had he asked them to wait in the first place? It was not like he needed them for protection. He was a Cultivator, he could rip through ordinary mortals like sheets of paper. Did I see this coming?

Ignoring the question on Kai’s face, he said, “Remain here with your men and guard this door. Do not allow anyone to enter without my permission, and I mean anyone. Do you understand me?”

“Yes, my prince. You can count on me and my men,” Kai replied. “No one will enter while we still draw breath.”

Leaving the soldiers, Erik walked down the corridor. The moment he disappeared from view he leaned against the wall and tried to take comfort in the hard stone under his shoulder. Eyes blank, feeling lost, he stared at the empty corridor and replayed the scenes from his anteroom chamber. She tried to kill me, really kill me. What has changed between now and yesterday? He closed his eyes, but he could still see her looming over him with erotic drops of his own blood dripping from her chin. I died, that’s the only thing that changed from her perspective. Why would finding out I was still alive make her want to kill me and herself?

Erik opened his eyes and tried to walk naturally down the corridor like someone without the weight of the world on his shoulders. None of his self-reflection was really helping. The only person 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 citadel still bustled with news of his resurrection; he saw it in the faces of the liveried servants who bowed and curtsied as he traveled past. He heard it the excited din of voices and clattering pots that filled the kitchen once people returned to their tasks.

He pushed his way through an iron-bound door and found himself in a large courtyard that the Lightbenders used for their sword practice. A group of twenty Lightbenders stood in small knots, dispersed throughout the courtyard as they watched 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 two men’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. The faint smell of burnt wood in the air made Erik’s nose twitch.

The swift clang-click-clang sound of swords meeting grew louder as Erik moved closer to the combatants. He knew one of the men well, Sir Númi Maida. He had led Erik’s honor guard from the capital. The kingdom of Vindur was founded as a meritocracy; all Lightbenders held the rank of Knight, the lowest level of nobility. During the Third Apocalypse, only Cultivators and Lightbenders were able to protect humankind from the hordes of marauding monsters. As such they occupied a place of power and respect within society, then and now.

Númi’s gray topknot bounced off his heavily muscled shoulder as he blocked the sword thrust of his much younger opponent. The scars from countless previous battles crisscrossed Númi’s puckered skin with white lines. His sword danced in his hands as he moved sideways, meeting his opponent’s attacks with perfect stance and form.

Erik marveled at Númi’s skill with the sword. It was commonly said that one Lightbender was the match for ten ordinary soldiers and that one Cultivator was equal to ten Lightbenders. Erik did not necessarily agree with the latter, especially applied to low-level Cultivators. From his personal experience, ten well-trained Lightbenders could easily take apart most Baron ranked Cultivators, himself included.

The eyes of the watching Lightbenders prickled Erik’s skin as they scrutinized him from the corner of their eyes. None of them turned to face or acknowledge him. It was a form of subtle disrespect that his father would never have accepted. They thought less of him, but this was nothing new to him.

Númi swung his sword around himself in a circle and then aimed it at his opponent. Blinding white light flared from the tip of the sword and flew through the air with the speed of an arrow.

First Ray of Morning Light, Erik named the attack in his mind. It was an attack solely powered by prana. When done successfully it separated Lightbenders from their inner void by overwhelming them with emotion.

The wave of glaring white light crashed into the young Lightbender’s chest like a tidal wave against the shore and then faded away like a mirage. Dazed, but otherwise unharmed; the young Lightbender stared lost in some inner turmoil that brought tears to his eyes as the flat of Númi’s sword slammed into his chest. The young man’s legs crumbled as though they were weeks old bread smashed against an anvil.

Númi turned to face Erik with a thin smile that did not quite reach his eyes, leaving his opponent on all fours gasping for breath. “So the rumors are true,” he said holding Erik captive with his icy blue gaze.

Númi had reason to hate him, Erik realized. His son, Sir Patrick Maida, was one of the men he took hunting in the forest the day before. Erik could sense the tension in the bodies of the Lightbenders who watched from the sidelines.

“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 ninety years old this winter. I’ve lost children before, my prince, to sickness, to hunger… The world is cruel. It makes meals 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 paused. He looked like he gave the question some serious thought. “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 participate in the Grand Assessment and earn a place among the peerage.

As tall as Erik was, Númi stood taller still and far more heavily muscled. The sound of wood popping within a nearby brazier filled the sudden silence as Númi’s body seemed to tremble with a palpable menace.

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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A Monster Inside 1.03 – Erik

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Repeat a lie often enough, and it becomes truth.

— ANONYMOUS

Lying on the cold stone of a man-sized altar, Erik winced as he squinted his just opened eyes. Partly to protect them from the sudden brightness, but mostly to block out the smiling countenance of the Eternal Father that stared down at him from the center of a once-bright mural. He had always hated the image of the Lord of the Hosts and it had nothing to do with the blood-stained cloth tied around the god’s eyes. It was the smile, always depicted much too wide, as if the Eternal Father was laughing at him. Idly he wondered whether artists purposefully tried to make all images of the Eternal Father as disconcerting as possible. At least the mural kept him from thinking about how he could sense the Celestial Dragon lurking within his mind.

I suppose in the end there are only two choices: laugh at the absurdity or cry. He stopped fingering the hilt of the sword resting on his chest.

Taking a deep breath, Erik sat up and the sword tumbled to the floor. From the corner of his eye, he saw the blur of a female servant arranging flowers on top of a small wooden table. The woman froze, and their eyes met in a quarter second of a shared glance. Her pupils widened, and the muscles under her skin stretched and flexed. She moved as if trapped within a jar of molasses. A red vase slipped from her fingers, falling with an eternal slowness that seemed to defy logic.

There was an essential banality to the shape of the woman’s face that made her seem forgettable, just another one of the hundred liveried servants who worked within Hjörtur. Her odor assaulted him, adding an odd intimacy that went beyond sight and touch; he could taste the stain of her personal dirt on the tip of his tongue. She smelled like pollen and fornication.

The expansion of Erik’s lungs ceased and time lurched back into its normal rhythm. A shrill shriek echoed through the shrine—a hollowed out hole in the side of the Rin Mountains—and the falling vase crashed to the floor. Broken pieces scattered into every direction.

Before Erik could more than blink, the woman had dashed out of the room, leaving a person-sized hole in the piece of white paper that covered the opening of the shrine.

Confused, Erik hopped off of the altar. He felt. . . different. Minutes passed as he observed himself, touching his arms and chest through his blue robe held in place by the red sash tied around his waist. He could sense an aura of a horrible vitality trapped under his skin, composed of all the lives the Celestial Dragon had devoured. It made him feel. . . powerful.

He closed and opened his hands, ignoring the sound of heavy footsteps rushing towards his location. His mind grasped onto the strange sensation writhing and shifting beneath his flesh. Mouth opened in shock, he watched his skin unfold into red petals and tendrils that latched onto his robe. The intricate puzzle of flesh drew his silk garment inward, then settled back down. Now, even the leather sandals he had worn were gone.

At that moment four soldiers rushed into the shrine. Erik squinted at them. Early morning sunlight streamed through the door, glittering off of armor and the iron-tipped spears pointed in his direction. Not a murmur came from the soldiers. They stood frozen in a moment of incomprehensible terror as their eyes fought with their intellects, trying to make sense of such an impossibility.

With a start, Erik remembered his nakedness. He watched the eyes of the armored men drift downwards. A fleeting sensation of embarrassment touched him before breaking apart under an onslaught of pride. His blood roared with a sickening smugness. It was only natural for others to stand in awe and terror in his presence. Their fears bred a sense of arousal. A part of him began to grow—

“Turn around!” Erik barked.

Years of ingrained training asserted its self, and the soldiers obeyed, moving as one. For a moment the sound of rustled plate-and-mail armor filled the room with a metallic din. Then the armored men came to a stop with the butt of their spears slamming down onto the stone floor.

Erik shivered. Pride warred with embarrassment for dominance and embarrassment won, pinking his cheeks with mortification. He could feel the Celestial Dragon’s emotions bleed over, making him feel things he would rather not.

This body belongs to me, Erik raged at it. Do you understand?

The only reply came as a distant pang of hunger.

Erik jerked around, grunting at the Celestial Dragon’s response, to stare at the broken pieces of the red vase that littered the floor in an odd pattern. The beauty of their arrangement filled him with a sense of loss and longing. Sadness pooled in his eyes until he thought he might cry.

Startled, he gave his head a shake. I have to keep it together. I can’t let myself fall apart, not now. Not here.

He concentrated on his body and envisioned the blue robe he had worn, remembering the sensation of its soft silk against his flesh. A moment later his body itched and burned like ten thousand ants poked and prodded him from within. Surprised, he watched the impossible happen. His skin oozed, changing slowly until it had transformed into the robe.

Erik’s heart roared at the strangeness of it all. The silk garment looked no different, yet it yielded strangely to his touch, almost like it had become a part of his body. Was that because it was? Or because he could not remember how real silk should feel? Hastily, he spun back towards the door at the sound of rushing feet.

Viscount Baldur, a solid, gray-haired man, pushed past the soldiers into the shrine. At sixty-five years old, he still looked as lethal and dangerous as any man in his prime. Dressed in a green robe that did little to hide his bulging muscles, he held himself with a grace one would expect from someone given command over Hjörtur.

Behind a mask of apathy, Erik gazed at the Viscount’s shocked face. According to the information, he had received before setting out for Hjörtur, Baldur had a perverse fascination with little boys. Erik had witnessed nothing that gave weight to the rumors. But that along with the fact that Baldur had supported one of Erik’s uncles for the throne had led to him being stationed kilometers away from civilization. The struggle for the throne was always a brutal and bloody, leaving many suffering from its after-effects long after the succession ended.

“How?” Baldur asked. His hand drifted towards the sword at his waist. “You were dead. I’m sure of it.” A hard edge had crept into his voice.

Erik took a slow breath. This was a dangerous moment. If handled wrong, it would spell disaster. The four warring nations of the island of Daði were all united in their fear of the unknown. And the rank of Viscount signified that a Cultivator could channel any two of the Four Aspects of the Abyss at the same time, which made Baldur much stronger than him.

“What are members of my family called?” Erik asked. He understood that answering a question with a question was a good way of disrupting the flow of someone else’s thoughts.

Baldur shoulders sagged as he stared at Erik quizzically.

Perfect, Erik thought. He turned his back to the Viscount and picked up his sword. From his mother, Erik had learned renunciation of excess and acceptance of personal sacrifice. Yet from his father, he had learned strategy and the act of subjugating others to his will.

Erik pulled the blade an inch out of its sheath and studied its razor-sharp edge. “The moniker given to the Royal House of Ito, name it,” he said, trying again.

“The Undying,” Baldur replied in a cold voice. He frowned, seemingly perplexed by Erik’s line of questioning.

“Louder!” Erik slammed his sword back into its sheath. This was not about Baldur. Erik needed the soldiers to hear so they could share the knowledge with their comrades in arms. From them, the story would spread like poison dropped into a well, tainting the whole of the citadel with misinformation.

Baldur’s lips thinned and his eyes shimmered with a dangerous light. “The Royal House of Ito is known as the Undying,” he said, not a decibel louder.

“Has my father been informed about what happened?” Erik asked quickly, not giving Baldur a chance to pick at the seeds that had just been planted.

“No,” Baldur said. “I was just penning a letter to him when—”

“Good,” Erik said, masking the shaking of his hand behind the act of securing his sword on his sash. “The other members of my hunting party. . . w—are there any other survivors?”

Baldur lowered his eyes. “I’m afraid you’re the only one.”

Erik bowed his head to hide the relief that flashed across his face. He grieved for those who lost their lives, but what they had seen would be impossible to explain away. Self-preservation always won out in the end.

The alien consciousness inside him rippled with amusement.

Erik straightened with an almost lugubrious solemnity and murmured, “I didn’t know them all well, but they were good fellows. May the Eternal Father ease their journey along the Great Cycle.”

“Well said, my prince,” Baldur nodded in approval. “Can you tell me what happened in the forest?”

Erik blinked as if remembering a terrible spectacle. “I’d rather not speak on it. Not yet. . . it’s too soon, the memory is still too fresh. I. . .  I. . . .” He trailed off, staggering toward the door. Looking hurt or bewildered was never a challenge for Erik; he had years of emotional trauma to call upon. There was nothing fake about the pain in his eyes.

“There’s something else,” Baldur added.

Erik stopped and turned back towards the Viscount. “What is it?” His mind ran with a hundred different dreadful possibilities before he stilled it with a thought.

“It’s about Asbjörn,” Baldur said. “He thought you were dead. We all thought this.”

Erik’s fists tightened until his knuckles cracked. “What did he do?” He asked. He had an idea, but he hoped it was untrue. Please, let me be wrong.

“He tried to kill himself,” Baldur responded and continued by telling Erik the story of what happened in the forest. “Only Asbjörn has been severely injured,” Baldur finished.

The news struck Erik hard. He closed his eyes against the sudden pain. Asbjörn had always been touched by a profound sadness; this was what had drawn Erik to him. Erik had seen in him what he felt in himself: loneliness.

Erik opened his eyes. “Where is he?”

“His room,” Baldur replied.

Erik exited the shrine onto a gallery that overlooked most of Hjörtur. 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 whipped in the wind atop of the towers below him. Despite the view, he knew most of the citadel remained hidden. Like many former sorcerer strongholds, Hjörtur had countless tunnels and rooms built underground, most of which had gone unexplored for centuries.

Over the last three months, Erik had done his best to bring Hjörtur back to working order, turning his banishment from the capital into a positive. It had been over three hundred years since the Dökk Wars when the half-human creatures called Dökk had tried to swarm the lands to the south, and the citadel had fallen into disrepair. His father wanted him to suffer, but he had grown to love the fortress. It moved him in inexplicable ways, touching on a darkness he had always done his best to keep locked away.

Erik turned from the view and glanced back at Baldur standing inside the shrine. He shook his head and walked towards the broad stairway that connected the hollowed out hole in the side of the mountain to the rest of Hjörtur. Without being asked, the soldiers fell in around him, acting as an honor guard. They made the long climb down in silence and pushed their way through a wooden door at the end of the stairway.

The rough stone walls of the halls of Hjörtur were sparsely decorated with old tapestries and faded painted screens. Servants in blue-and-red stopped in the middle of their tasks to stare at Erik as if seeing a ghost. With every look of surprise, the ground seemed to shift beneath Erik. The eyes caged him in, trapped him within a prison. He did his best to keep his back straight and his face blank, but he was secretly overjoyed when they reached the men’s apartments.

He entered Asbjörn’s room, leaving the soldiers standing guard outside the door. It was a small chamber with a pair of narrow arrow-slits looking down on one of the inner courtyards. Its only real embellishment, the prodigious bed which Asbjörn lay upon and a large wardrobe pushed up against a wall.

Dark even in the daylight, Asbjörn seemed made of shadows; there was an unstableness to his form, like a gust of wind would be enough to make him dissipate. His large forever drooping eyes lay closed, and his chest rose and fell with a rugged sounding breath. A layer of sweat sat on top of the white bandage wrapped around his chest.

Saddened, Erik took a seat on the cushioned chair next to the bed. He lowered his arms, which he had hidden in the opposite sleeves of his blue silk robe, and leaned forward on the chair. It creaked dangerously under him.

Old friend, what have you done? Erik used his index finger to draw a circle on his own thigh. There was something soothing about circles that had always quieted his raging passions. A circle was a complete entirety all on its own; it needed nothing but itself to be whole. There was something beautiful about that Erik thought.

He stood up and began pacing back and forth at the foot of the bed. He imagined he could see the invisible thread of his life stretching off into the distance. It was all by its self, separated from all the other threads that made up the Grand Tapestry.

I will not lose myself in a roiling sea of self-pity, he told himself.

The wooden door flew open, and Súla erupted into the room out of breath. She was one of Erik’s wife’s personal attendants. With her large chest and small face, she looked like a tiny bird trapped within a piece of dark cloth. Sweat dripped down her painted cheeks, making a ruin of her otherwise dazzling countenance.

Erik watched the different emotions play across her face. First came shock, then fear, and finally relief. Each emotion was like its own distinct portrait. Ever since waking up, time seemed to move at a slower pace, allowing Erik to analyze others with a kind of clarity he had not had before.

Súla curtsied and squeaked, “Forgive me, my Prince.” Then she was gone, slamming the door behind her in her mad rush to exit the room.

The noise jolted Asbjörn awake, snapping his eyes open with the sudden clamor. He looked around the room in confusion until his eyes settled on Erik.

The sound of Asbjörn’s panicked heartbeat filled Erik’s ears. He turned and looked into Asbjörn’s gray eyes. It had only been a few minutes but the looks of fear and shock on the faces of others had become tiresome. The novelty of their expressions had grown dull through repetition. Erik wished Asbjörn’s face revealed something new.

“You’ve come to haunt me,” Asbjörn said, as if in a nightmare.

“I’m no ghost,” Erik responded, taking a seat once again. The chair creaked under him, but he ignored it. The Prince felt awkward and did not know what to do with his hands. First, he placed them on his knees, then dropped them at his side.

“I failed you,” Asbjörn muttered in between a fit of coughs.

“No,” Erik replied. The pain in Asbjörn’s voice cut through him. All Erik wanted to do was reach out and console him, but he did not. He was not a child any longer; he was confined by the expectations of his caste and his sex, even in private. Men did not hold each other’s hands to shelter them from hurt.

With a loud groaned, the chair snapped under Erik’s weight. His back met the floor with a dull thud, sending pieces of wood tumbling through the air. Splinters poked into his back but did not cut into his flesh.

“Are you all right?” Asbjörn asked.

For a moment Erik could only gape at him. I’ve gotten heavier. Much heavier. What else would explain this? The chair was made of thick mahogany; it should not have broken under his weight.

Erik stood up and gave a bark of laughter. “No, I’m not fine. I don’t understand why I’m still alive. I should be dead, Asbjörn, but here I am. The thing that attacked us was a breed of dragon I’ve never seen or heard of, not even in the Encyclopedia of Named Beasts.”

“Describe it,” Asbjörn said.

“It was as large as one of Hjörtur’s ramparts. Its scales were gold and black, and its jaw was filled with man-sized teeth. We were too weak. Our attacks did it little damage.” Erik paused as if catching his breath and then continued. “It was a mistake coming here. I see that now. I thought I was so smart. Hjörtur was going to be the answer to all my problems.”

Asbjörn sat up with a grunt of pain. “It was a good plan. It still is a good plan. Out here you’re protected from your brothers’ plots, and you have time to train.”

“The Grand Assessment is in forty-two days,” Erik whispered to himself, less as a reminder and more to divert from the conversation about the attack. Asbjörn seldom seemed willing to let any investigation lie until he had learned all you knew unless you distracted him.

“Plenty of time.” Once a year in Vetur, the capital city of Vindur, any Cultivator above the age of twenty-five could compete for rank and lands during the Grand Assessment. “I have no doubt that you’ll be ready by then.” Asbjörn’s voice bubbled with forced enthusiasm.

“I have to face up to the fact that my abilities lie elsewhere. I’m a terrible Cultivator.”

“That’s not true, and you know it,” Asbjörn growled. “You can draw from the Abyss. Do you know how many would kill for that ability?”

“Barely, not enough to. . . .” Erik sighed.  “To lie on the bed of purple was always a fools dream.” On the island of Daði, the color purple was reserved for Kings and Princes of the Blood; it meant death for anyone else to wear it.

“You are the best of them, no one else but you should inherit the throne,” Asbjörn told him.

The conviction in Asbjörn’s eyes made Erik feel dirty like he had covered himself in a layer of filth. He turned away from Asbjörn’s piercing gaze. I don’t deserve such loyalty and trust. “I should let you rest. My wife probably still thinks I’m dead. I should remedy that.”

Asbjörn gingerly lay back down on the bed. “I rarely agree with your father, but he was right about her. She’s dangerous.”

Erik paused with his hand on the door. “All women are dangerous. Your words, not mine.” He turned around long enough to see Asbjörn’s lips twist into a rueful smile. Then he hurried out the room.

The voices of the soldiers who stood guard outside the door were pitched low in a quiet conversation. “He was naked. . . how did he. . . .” They straightened and fell into silence as Erik walked out among them.

“Where to next, my prince?” asked a square-jawed soldier with high cheekbones and thin lips. Almost as tall as Erik and twice as board shouldered, he loomed large, but like his comrades he kept his eyes down when facing Erik.

“My chambers,” Erik replied. “What’s your name?”

The soldier’s head jerked up, and he blinked, looking surprised by the question. “My what?” he asked.

“Your name.”

“Kai, my Prince. My name is Kai.”

Erik nodded and did his best to seem appreciative. “Would you and your men care to accompany me for a little while longer?”

“We would be honored to,” Kai said. “Isn’t that right, men?” The three other soldiers replied with loud affirmations.

Erik allowed Kai to lead the way. As they navigated their way through the torch-lit corridors, he reflected on how the smallest things seemed to please people who were starved for appreciation. That’s part of the reason we keep ourselves at a distance from our servants, the Prince mused, doing his best to distract himself. He did not want to think about what had happened in the forest the day before. The impossibility of the situation grated at his sensibility, but now was not the time for such questions. He had always been able to separate his mind into different boxes, which allowed him to approach anything with a degree of calm.

It worked. Full of inconsequential thoughts he arrived at the door to his personal apartment. The soulful lamentations of a zither, flute, and plucked lute emanated from behind the closed door. Erik paused, savoring the judicious ornamentation that washed upon him. It filled him with a sense of nervousness.

“Wait here. I won’t be long,” Erik commanded. The soldiers bowed stiffly, hand to heart. A sign of affirmation and obedience.

Ignoring them, Erik stilled the shaking of his fingers and reached for the door.

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