A Broken Circle 1.08 – Erik

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Hope is a waking nightmare.  

— HANNA ITO, FAMOUS LAST WORDS

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

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

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

“My Prince,” they said.

“Did anyone enter?” Erik asked softly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Erik began, “Hanna—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BREED, the monster urged.

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

“Be gentle,” Hanna whispered.

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

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

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

“Erik!” Hanna yelled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Erik, go!”

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A Broken Circle 1.07 – Erik

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

— ANONYMOUS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So I keep being told,” Erik replied.

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

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

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

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

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

“I do.”

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

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

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

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

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

Ypse observed him, mouth agape.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

■■■

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

Freedom will be mine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His body trembled. His muscles strained.

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

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

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

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

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A Broken Circle 1.06 – Erik

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

— NÚMI MAIDA, TO HIS SON

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EAT!

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

EAT!

“Quiet!” Erik barked, shutting his eyes.

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

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

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

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

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A Broken Circle 1.05 – Erik

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The best color to paint with is blood.

— JÖN ITO, FAMOUS LAST WORDS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You love me now?” she asked softly.

Erik frowned.  “Is that all you heard?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Erik wailed. No! STOP!

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

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

The world seemed to grow dull around him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

EAT.

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

EAT!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My Prince, is everything—” Kai began.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Broken Circle 1.04 – Erik

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Repeat a lie often enough, and it becomes truth.

— ANONYMOUS

Erik’s heart pounded as he awoke lying on the cold stone of a man-sized altar, wincing 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 what he had just experienced, if only for a moment.

I know you’re there. I can sense you inside me, hiding, watching through my eyes. The thing in his mind flashed away like quicksilver when he tried to reach for it, but it was there. He knew it was there.

Absentmindedly, Erik fingered the hilt of the longsword resting on his chest, recognizing it as his own by the way the Tár Guðs blade seemed to resonate at the edge of his perception. Something had happened to him, something he could not explain, yet he was not going to unravel the mystery at this moment.

He scrambled upright, longsword tumbling onto the stone floor, and stared in dismay at the painted walls of the Shrine of the Eternal Father. The chamber was a hollowed out hole in the side of the Rin Mountains, illuminated by the light of a hundred candles. Fine tendrils of smoke pooled and swirled like clouds near the ceiling, though, no breath of a breeze entered through the sheet of white paper blocking the doorway.

A gasp drew Erik’s attention to a serving woman standing beside a table with a red vase clutched between her hands. On her forehead, inscribed with black soot was the Tree of Life, a leafless oak tree bound by a circle. A symbol of death and rebirth. Part of the ritual of mourning. She appeared to be moving impossibly slow, dark pupils widening, muscles under her face stretching and flexing while the vase slipped from her fingers, falling with a sluggishness that seemed to defy logic. He could suddenly smell the pollen on her hands from the flowers she had been arranging, he could almost taste the sweetness of her flesh. It made him hunger. It made him. . . .

Erik blinked and time lurched back into its normal rhythm. A shrill shriek echoed through the shrine as the vase crashed to the floor, shattering into a dozen pieces. A second later, the serving woman dashed out of the chamber, tearing a person-sized hole into the paper covering the doorway. The wind whistled into the shrine through the new opening, rippling Erik’s blue robe, which was held in place by the red sash tied around his waist.

After a brief moment, Erik hopped off of the altar. He felt . . . different. His five senses seemed amplified somehow, and there was an aura of a horrible vitality trapped inside him. It made him feel powerful in a way he had not before. He closed and opened his hand. His whole body buzzed as if a swarm of butterflies whirled beneath his skin.

What did you do to me?

Yet again there was no response, nor did he expect there to be. But he sensed an air of excitement radiating off the thing that lurked within his mind, pulsing in chorus with the buzzing sensation. The feeling grew until Erik thought he might shatter like glass. He groaned.

Mouth opening in shock, Erik watched his skin unfold into red petals and fleshy tendrils that latched onto his robe and sandals, drawing them inward. The instant the garments disappeared, the buzzing ceased, and the intricate puzzle of flesh returned to normal as if it all had been a figment of his imagination. And if not for the icy wind blowing across his naked body, he would have believed just that.

A growl roared through Erik’s skull like rolling thunder. Not from him, but from the beast that now shared his mind. The Celestial Dragon. It had to be that, for what else could it be? The monster had eaten him, of that he was certain, but somehow he had consumed it instead. The Devourer of Worlds had been defeated by a mortal man, he would start laughing if he did not fear he would not be able to stop ever again. Madness! This is madness!

At that instant, he became aware of heavy footsteps drawing near. Then four soldiers rushed into the shrine, dressed in blue surcoats—etched with the symbol of the Royal House of Ito—over plate-and-mail armor. They froze, iron-tipped spears gripped in their hands, longswords sheathed at their sides. Not a murmur came from them as their eyes drifted downwards.

With a start, Erik remembered his own nakedness. For a moment embarrassment surged through him before breaking apart under an onslaught of foreign pride; his blood seethed and bubbled with a sickening sense of smugness. It was only natural for these tiny flesh-things to stand in awe and terror in his presence. Their fear bred a need, a hunger.

NO! Erik shivered, feeling violated. He clenched his teeth and balled his hands into fists. This body belongs to me! Do you understand? The only reply came as a distant pang of desire.

“Turn around!” he barked.

The soldiers obeyed, moving as one they spun around, coming to a stop with the butt of their spears slamming onto the stone. And for a handful of seconds, the metallic din of rustled plate-and-mail armor filled the shrine.

Erik jerked around, running a hand through his hair, doing his best to put thoughts of the beast out of his mind. One problem at a time, first he had to figure out how to bring back his clothing. He concentrated on himself and envisioned the blue robe he had worn, remembering the feel of its soft silk against his skin. A burning sensation spread across his body as if ten thousand ants poked and prodded him from within, then his skin oozed, changing until it had transformed into the robe. The garment looked no different, yet it yielded strangely to his touch, almost like it had become a part of him.

Viscount Baldur, a solid, gray-haired man, pushed past the soldiers into the shrine. Despite his old age, there was an air of danger in his brown eyes, and gracefulness in the way he carried himself. Adorned in a dark robe with the Tree of Life drawn on his forehead, he was appropriately attired for the mourning period after the death of a prince.

Erik turned to regard the Viscount’s shocked expression. 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 the Viscount had supported the wrong claimant for the throne—one of Erik’s now deceased uncles—had led to him being stationed kilometers away from civilization.

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

Erik took a slow breath. If handled wrong this could spell disaster. For himself. For his plans. “What are members of my family called?” From his mother, Erik had learned renunciation of excess and acceptance of personal sacrifice, but from his father, he had learned strategy and the act of subjugating others to his will. “What is the moniker of the Royal House of Ito?”

Baldur shoulders sagged as he stared at Erik quizzically. “The Undying.” A whisper that seemed to echo like a shout in the small confines of the shrine.

Erik nodded and fought the urge to smile. None of this was about the Viscount, it was about the soldiers and everyone they knew. If he did not implant them with seeds of a story already rooted in myth and legend, then their own tales of today would grow wilder with every retelling. None of it to his benefit. “Has my father been informed about what happened?”

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

“Good,” Erik said, bending to pick up his longsword off the floor. He hid the shaking of his hand behind the act of securing the weapon on his sash. “The other members of my hunting party, were—are there any other survivors?”

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

Erik bowed his head, ashamed of the sudden relief he felt. But what the warriors had seen would be impossible to explain away. Much better that they were all dead. For him. For his plans. “I didn’t know them all well, but they were good fellows. May the Eternal Father ease their journey along the Great Cycle,” he murmured after a moment.

“Well said, my Prince,” Baldur nodded, then continued in a different tone. “Can you tell me what happened in the forest?”

Erik blinked, faking a look of devastation indivisible from the real thing. “I’d rather not speak on it.” His voice quivered. “Not yet . . .  I . . .  I. . . .” He trailed off, staggering toward the door.

“There’s something else.”

Erik spun around. “What is it?”

“It’s about Asbjörn. He thought you were dead. We all did.”

“What did he do?” Erik’s hand tightened on the hilt of his longsword. A hundred dreadful possibilities flashed through his head, each worse than the last before he stilled them all with a thought.

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

Erik took a deep breath. His face was a block of stone for all it revealed, but inside he burned. “Where is he now?” he asked, surprised at how soft his voice sounded.

“His chamber.”

Erik exited the shrine without another word, stepping onto a gallery that overlooked the citadel. The sprawling edifice of blacked stone below him was as welcoming as a blade darkened by blood. It was as though the builders had imbued the horror of the deepest night into the bricks and the stones. The sight of it scratched at the mind like the knowledge that most of it remained hidden, secreted away in underground rooms and tunnels, much of which had gone unexplored for centuries. Smoke drifted up from chimneys fed by a hundred different fires, all blending together, carried southward past the inner and outer walls, down into the forest of the Northern Reaches.

Erik turned from the view and walked towards the broad stairway that connected the shrine to the rest of Hjörtur. Without being asked, the soldiers fell in around him, acting as an honor guard. Shrouded in silence, he made the long climb down lost in thought. Over the last three months, he had come to love the citadel, but soon his exile would be coming to an end. Then the next chapter of his life would begin, the one for which he had been planning for the last ten years. Things would change, and he might die. Even so, he could not help but look forward to what came next.

At the end of the stairway, he entered the citadel through a wooden door with his honor guard. Liveried servants stopped in the middle of their tasks to stare at him, the Tree of Life symbol etched on their foreheads seeming to glow in the torchlight. He ignored them, cultivating an air regal nobility, but on the inside, the looks made him feel caged him in, trapped within a box.

Erik forced himself to breathe and observed his surroundings, climbing up stairs and traveling through bustling corridors. For all its ugliness, Hjörtur was a well-designed fortress. Murder-holes dotted ceilings and arrow-slits peeked into halls, leaving no place for an invading army to hide. And old tapestries and faded painted screens sparsely decorated the walls, adding the odd flair of color to the endless black.

Down the hallway from his own apartments, Erik stopped in front of a massive door covered in scrollwork. He hesitated, then went in, leaving the soldiers standing guard outside the door. They closed the portal behind him with an echoing note of finality.

It was a small chamber with a pair of narrow arrow-slits looking up at the mountain range. Its only real embellishments, the prodigious bed, a table and chair, and a large wardrobe pushed up against a wall. Fresh logs blazed in the small fireplace, reducing the chill that came from the arrow-slits.

Asbjörn was asleep on the bed. Dark even in the daylight, he 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. And a layer of sweat soaked the white bandage wrapped around his chest.

Erik took a seat on the cushioned chair, facing the bed. Wood creaked beneath him, but he ignored it. Instead, he used his index finger to draw a circle on his own thigh. There was something soothing about circles that always seemed quiet 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, he had always thought.

Asbjörn, I’m sorry. I. . . .

Erik leaped to his feet and paced back and forth. Asbjörn had been a part of his life for almost as long as he could remember, ever since his mother passed away and everything changed for the second time. The Mainlander was a pillar among men, he offered shelter and comfort to Erik when he needed it most. He was more than just a teacher or a friend, he was . . . he was the father Erik always wanted, warm where his own was cold and distant. I can’t lose you, too. I can’t! Not now. Not ever.

The door flung open, and Súla, one of Erik’s wife’s personal attendants, erupted into the room, hair disheveled and out of breath. With her large chest and small face, she looked like a tiny bird trapped within a piece of dark cloth. Her expression wavered between shock, relief, and fear until settling on the second. She curtsied and squeaked, “Forgive me, my Prince.” Then she was gone, slamming the door behind her.

Asbjörn sat bolt upright, hands dropping to his bandaged rib cage, gasping in pain and for breath, shuddering, staring with eyes as gray as the billowing clouds of an autumn storm. “You’ve come to haunt me,” he hissed.

“No,” Erik responded incredulously, “I’m no ghost!” He retook his seat, ignoring the chair’s groans. He felt awkward, unsure what to do with his hands, first placing them on his knees, then dropping them to his side.

Asbjörn broke into a fit of coughs. “I failed you.”

“No, you didn’t.” The pain in Asbjörn’s voice wounded Erik like a blade thrust into his chest. All he 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. No matter the pain. No matter how much. . . .

With a loud cracking sound, the chair snapped under Erik, sending tumbling to the floor, shooting broken pieces of wood through the air. He groaned, more in shock than pain.

“Are you all right?” Asbjörn asked, fumbling a hand out to help.

Erik could only gape at him. I’ve gotten heavier. Much heavier, he thought. He 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.”

“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 grunted. “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. I have no doubt that you’ll be ready by then.” Asbjörn’s voice was weak, but his gaze was piercing, filled with enthusiasm and conviction.

Erik snorted. “I have to face up to the truth about myself. Asbjörn, I’m a terrible Cultivator. I have a pitiful small range of sixty meters, and my cultivation has been stuck at First Stöðin, First Stratum for the last four years.”

“Cultivation levels and range are not everything!” Asbjörn growled. “You have a talent with Esoteric Techniques—the way you mind works. . . . You were born for this.”

“That may be so, but. . . .” Erik sighed. “To lie on the bed of purple was always a fools dream.” 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, Erik. I wish you saw what I see.”

The love in Asbjörn’s eyes made Erik feel dirty. I don’t deserve such loyalty and trust. “I should let you rest,” he said after a moment. “My wife probably still thinks I’m dead. I should remedy that.”

“I rarely agree with your father, but he was right about her. She’s dangerous.” Asbjörn lay back down on the bed, wiping sweat from his forehead with a hand that was none too steady.

“All women are dangerous. Your words, not mine,” Erik smiled.

In the hallway, the voices of the soldiers 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 broad shouldered, he loomed large, but like his comrades, he kept his eyes downcast when facing Erik.

“My chambers,” Erik replied, pointing to a door forty meters away. “What’s your name?” he added as an afterthought.

The soldier’s head jerked up, and he blinked. “My what?” His eyes shift to his comrades and back to Erik.

“Your name. You do have one, don’t you?”

“Kai, my Prince. My name is Kai.”

Erik nodded, doing 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, leading the way.

Music spilled into the hallway from behind the closed door to Erik’s personal apartment, the soulful lamentations of a plucked zither. Each note joined together to give the sense of a flock of geese in flight, the image of a tranquil waterfall, the beauty of nature at her most endearing. Yet under it, hid a cord of menace as if at any moment it might all turn violent.

Erik slowed then halted in front of the door. Hanna, he thought. No one but her could play with such emotion. He rose his hand but stopped it halfway, nervousness making his fingers quiver. “Wait here. I won’t be long,” he commanded.

The soldiers bowed stiffly, hand to heart. A sign of acknowledgment and obedience.

Last Chapter                                                                                           Next Chapter

A Broken Circle 1.03 – Erik

Last Chapter                                                                                           Next Chapter

Love will save you where everything else fails.

— LÁRA ITO, TO HER SONS

Smiling under the late-afternoon sun, Erik spun around in ritualistic circles with his arms spread open and his hands filled with sand. He felt odd. Insubstantial like a wisp of smoke or a ray of starlight. Confused, he glanced at his right arm; it was a child’s arm, small and dainty. He could see the beach straight through his golden robe and limb as though through a crystal. A crystal that glittered with refracted light.

Where am I? Why do I look like a child?

He tried to remember how he came to be in this place, but the recent past was shrouded in fog; no matter how he tried, it resisted his best efforts. The sun flared hot behind him, and surging light ripped through him, making his frame pulse and twist like morning mist. After a moment he stabilized.

I’m dreaming.

The scent of the ocean tickled his nostrils. He opened his hands, and the pink and white granules slipped through his fingers. For an instant, they hung in the air, looking as if they had been set aflame by the orange half-light of almost twilight.

No, not a dream. A memory. Erik remembered this moment. Next, she will tell me to sit.

“Sit,” came a woman’s voice, sweet despite its tartness.

With a soft sigh, Erik lurched to a stop so fast he almost toppled over. Wide-eyed, he gazed at the woman who had spoken, Lára Ito, his mother. She watched him behind long eyelashes. He could only stare. She looked even more beautiful than he remembered.

Before whenever he had tried to recall her face, he had pictured her as old and sickly, the way she had looked on her deathbed. Yet there was nothing aged or feeble about her now. Her eyes were dark pools of green that held him transfixed. Mother, he thought and felt like weeping. It had been so long since he had last seen her, and paintings were no substitute.  

Under the guard of a dozen nearby Lightbenders, she sat on top of a blanket next to a small hole dug into the sand. Even seated as she was, she exuded a stern elegance. It was in the straightness of her back and the way she held her chin slightly raised. Raven-black hair fell from her head, draping over a pink dress made of silk with golden leaves, flowers, and butterflies sewn into the sleeves. A necklace of fine silver links, supporting a small, sparkling green stone, hung around her pale neck.

“Do you know why I’m angry with you?” she asked him as he approached her.

Like a puppet with no control over his actions, Erik sat down next to his mother in the swell of blooming shadows. Twilight edged ever closer. “No,” he said, but he did know. He had done a bad thing; he had taken a rock and smashed it over his brother’s pet turtle.

“The greatest danger lies within ourselves,” Lára said. “Our souls are filled with both light and shadows. Each of us, Erik, is responsible for the night which we produce.”

“I’m sorry,” he told her. What makes up the life of a man? If Erik stripped away, all the things that made him who he was, the love for his mother would be all that remained.

“This you’ve said before,” Lára breathed. “Yet, here we sit . . . again.” Her eyes held an element of sadness that made his own itch.

Erik looked away from the repudiation in his mother’s eyes. At the moment, they reminded him of green ice-fire. “Tell me a story,” he begged. He always liked it when she told him myths and legends from the Third Age, called the Age of Man. Her voice brought the tales to life with a magic that no one else had ever matched. His favorites all involved Jön Ito, who escaped the dark bowels of a Sorcerer’s breeding cavern to become the first King of Vindur. Jön was the reason the Royal House of Ito were called The Undying; he was notoriously hard to kill.

Hostile silence was the only response.

Erik’s bottom lip trembled, and he peered into the still waters of the hole in the sand, staring at his reflection. His eyes brimmed over with fat tears. With a start, he realized something unknown lurked within the hole, hidden just below his reflection, something massive and unseen. His stomach churned with a sense of unease.

This isn’t part of the memory.

Suddenly, the water erupted, and he was yanked into the murky depths, howling, screaming.

■■■

Memory Fragment – The Celestial Dragon

It grew as eons passed, trapped within its diamond prison that lay kilometers beneath the earth, surrounded by raging oceans of liquid magma. The heat and pressure aided in the development of its iron bones composed of the dust of exploded stars.

It thought in millenniums and the infinitesimal life-spans of quarks, and the Hunger plagued its every thought. The Hunger was a fundamental ache so old it predated the forming of the universe.

It clawed at the shell of its prison, driven forward by the lamentations of its stomach. Soon. Soon it would break free, and then it would feed.

Tap. Tap.

The slow knock of claw against diamond lasted decades. Each knock was a promise of an end and a hope of a beginning.

Tap. Tap

A flaw appeared where before there was none, a small fracture in an otherwise flawless, transparent piece of stone. Liquid magma rushed inwards, baptizing the interior with its unholy glow. Finally, it was free. It escaped the ruin of its former home and swam upward, surrounded by the red inferno of the planet’s inner core. The burden on its body lessened, and temperatures cooled as it climbed higher, motivated by instinct and a promise of an end to the Hunger.

Like a torrent of molten rock, it slashed its way up through the planet’s mantle and crust. Then erupted onto the surface with all the force of an active volcano. Under a cloud of gray ash, it unfolded its great wings and breathed in its first breath of air. Lava pooled at its clawed feet and rained down from the sky.

It surveyed the land from the air and saw a city made of emerald spirals glittering in the distance beneath a blue sun. Its body roared with pleasure that was almost sexual. At long last, it would quiet the rumblings at its core.

It descended from the heavens like the Harbinger of Death while the tiny-flesh-things that ran out of buildings made high-pitched mouth noises. Their lives were measured in half-steps, just so many centimeters until they entered its stomach. It crushed them by twos and threes in the hollow of its jaw. Blue blood squirted and splattered as razor-sharp teeth tore through soft flesh.

It ate its full then ate more; there was no end to the Hunger only a lessening of its pull. The inhabitants of the city attacked it with weapons of light and fire that did little to stop its rampage. Emerald spirals melted like wax under its furnace-heated breath while it hunted long into the night, basking in the aroma of charred bones and flesh. None of them would escape, it promised itself. It would devour them all.

It rested within the corpse of the alien city as the first rays of sunlight touched its scales. The buzzing of machinery in the air enticed it out of slumber. Only half awake, it was unprepared for the annihilating power of the antimatter bomb that exploded against its back. The white fury sent its body tumbling through half-melted spirals.

A growl of indignation filled the air. It was hurt, blood leaked from a gaping hole where a piece of exotic metal had lodged in its side. The pain of the Hunger it knew well, but this was a new sensation. It tried to stand but could not, so it lay on its belly, breathing in the stale musky air of the edifice it lied within.

Motes of emerald dust danced in the air where they hung in front of its eyes as the ground in every direction trembled. Then it remembered something it had forgotten: it was not alone; it was only the first of many. It took courage in that fact and leaped to its feet as the ground shook with even greater intensity. All over the planet, its brothers and sisters were exploding onto the surface of the world, and every one of them was plagued by the same Hunger that haunted it.

In its blood was the knowledge of all those who had come before it. Within that knowledge was a memory of a name that a long dead race had given its kin. They called them Celestial Dragons, Devourer of Worlds.

■■■

Mud slicked, Erik crawled up out of the hole dug into the beach and flopped onto his back. Under assault from the taint of the Celestial Dragon’s memories, his mind rang as if struck. He gasped, rolling onto his front to spew out the contents of his stomach, but nothing came out.

Confusion clouded his thoughts, he understood none of what was happening. The last thing he remembered was hunting in the forest with a few Lightbenders when they were attacked by. . . . His eyes flared in panic. I’m dead! No, that can’t be. If I’m dead where is this? The Pit. He shook his head, forcing down his fear and letting go of his questions.

Erik drew himself up, and he held up a wet hand, a man’s hand. Unless he missed his guess, he had resumed his normal form. He dropped his arm, and noticed a little girl with her back to him, playing tag with the tide. She wore a cream colored dress gathered high in her hands and had long, dirty blonde hair flowing down her back. Giggles escaped her mouth whenever the rolling waves splashed onto her tiny feet.

The sun was a fiery, blood-red orb, hotter than a furnace and bright enough to blind, but despite the heat, Erik shuddered. He spun away from the little girl like the sight of her burned his soul. His heart ached, and for a second he thought he might cry. Then the sound of weeping drew him to a small green-eyed boy with sandy brown hair, seated by himself with his arms wrapped around his knees.

The golden robe the boy wore twisted in the breeze. “I didn’t mean to,” he whispered with tears slipping from his eyes. “You believe me, don’t you?”  His voice turned hostile, and he said, “Tell me you believe me.”

Erik stared into eyes that matched his own. They are my eyes. “I believe you.”

“Liar!” raged the boy. “You’re just like them! None of them like me. Not really. Not like mommy.”

Erik enveloped the princeling in his arms and shivered  “Hush now.” He sounded weary and felt it too. “It gets better. Trust me it does. The pain never goes away, but when you get older, you’ll learn to grow strong in broken places.”

The boy’s fingers dug into Erik’s back. “I didn’t mean to kill her. I didn’t mean to kill—”

The sky darkened as if a hand had covered the sun. Erik spun back around and stared at the colossal wave billowing towards him. For a moment two large wings made of water rose from its surface before collapsing back down.

Erik’s blood went cold. I’m dead, and this is the Abyss, he thought with certainty. “Hold on,” he told his younger self. He closed his eyes shut and clutched the boy tight.

The ocean crashed down on him, doing its best to scour his flesh, but it did not have the power he believed it would. He opened his eyes to find himself sinking to the unknown depths of a vast body of water. The princeling struggled at the end of his right arm, dragging him down faster. He sensed the foulness of the ocean stirring against his skin, trying to burn him to ash, surging to obliterate him out of existence.

A single drop of the vile water slipped into Erik’s mouth, and images flashed through his mind, leaving a little interval between each new onslaught.

. . . blue blood squirted. . . razor-sharp teeth tore. . .

Erik struggled against the alien memories, but he could still smell the victims who had been burned, the blood of those who had been chewed, even the ones already swallowed, mingled with the aftertaste of raw flesh. He shuddered at the monstrous efficiency of the Celestial Dragon’s death-harvesting. Not even the Sorcerer-Kings of old had conceived of such a beast in their mad race to create ever more horrifying creatures.

. . . and the accumulated filth. . . clung to its scales. . . glittering in the half-light of dusk. . .

More water forced its way down Erik’s throat, and the great floodgates swung open, and the onrush of memories turned into a deluge. Gagging, he swam upwards, but the weight of the boy stole any momentum he had. His heart thundered in his ears. He understood he was in a battle for his very soul. For the right to exist!

A part of him whispered, Let the boy go. Let the boy go. He glanced down and witnessed the fear and hopelessness on his younger self’s face, and knew he could not do it. He would rather die than abandon this child.

Clutching the boy until his fingers ached, Erik forced himself to hold on, forced the images back. He refused to listen to the whispered thoughts in his head. Instead, he concentrated everything he had on his sense of self, on methodically building a wall to stop the endless processions of phantom pictures that crashed into his mind.

. . . from its vantage point. . . world grew smaller. . .  from the empty blackness of outer space. . . once green planet. . .  skies gray with ash. . . turned away. . . lava covered ball was its past. . .

Tired and eager for sleep, he drifted in a tide of blood and hunger and tried to find purchase, raging against his unraveling, but it was useless. He sank down deeper into the ocean, he now understood to be the Celestial Dragon’s consciousness.

. . . quiet, too quiet. . . dark went on forever pregnant with a profound stillness. . . solar wind inflated its wings, turning them into light sails. . . it watched the stars and chose one it admired. . . endless night filled with misery and anguish. . . the Hunger plagued its complex trajectory through space. . .

A darkness weighed on him, twisting his thoughts. The beast has existed for eons and has traveled the vast emptiness between stars. What am I compared to that? I’m just a candle trying to stay lit while floating in the middle of the Howling Sea. Cold seeped into his limbs. And his heartbeat slowed. He fantasized about letting go, about sinking beneath the Celestial Dragon’s unfathomable depths.

The ocean of otherness rippled with anticipation.

No. Erik’s closing eyelids snapped back open. He would not let that happen. He decided to fight! But he had no weapons, all he had was his memories. The entirety of his life wheeled before him. Half-forgotten conversations and moments trapped in amber flickered past.

Mother, forgive me.

For a second, the water seemed to pull back from him as if his skin burned and it was living tissue. Erik grinned. That’s it! He closed his eyes and concentrated on the image of his mother, on his cheek pressed against her chest, on the sound of her heartbeat. When he opened his eyes, the ocean shook with a booming lub-dub-LUB-dub resonance. The echoing churned the water like the fury of a storm; Erik pulsed in tune with it. Love filled him with warmth until he floated upwards. A spot of brightness the size of a golden coin grew above him the higher he climbed.

The ocean roared, guttural and cutting. Then a whirlpool formed beneath Erik, drawing him in, pulling him back down, ripping the memory in his mind to shreds. He came to a halt, and the light above dimmed, dwindling into almost nothing.

He closed his eyes and reformed the memory. The image came slower this time. He knew the little boy’s hatred was holding it back. If he wanted to survive, he would have to let him go. I can’t do it. Let him go. I don’t want to. Mother, there has to be another way. He blocked out the boy’s whimpers that somehow reached his ears through the water, and opened his hand one finger at a time. Hot tears leaked out of his eyes, and he grimaced, unable to . . . force himself to . . . open his last finger. It had to be done, but he could not do it, even if the price were his continued existence. He would die for this child and the whole world pay.

The hint of light above faded, and Erik stared down at his younger self. “I won’t abandon you.” Bubbles escaped his mouth as well as sound.

Water entered Erik in waves, viler than a city’s sewer, powerful enough to overturn ships.  He gagged and thrashed, but refused to let go. His insides burned. His insides. . . .

The Celestial Dragon howled, not in triumph. In frustration. It pounded at Erik, tore desperately at him in its watery form, yet love kept it at bay. Not love for Erik’s mother, but love for the boy. They hung in perfect balance, Erik and the beast, until the ocean boiled into steam, until light became all-consuming.

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A Broken Circle 1.01 – Prologue

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RIP! CLAW! TEAR! DEVOUR!

— THE CELESTIAL DRAGON, TO ERIK

The Celestial Dragon fell through the cloudless sky. Imprisoned in a sphere of rock and ice, it streaked across the snow-edged peaks of the mountains, above the blackened battlements of an ancient fortress. The sky shuddered in its wake as ever more chunks of the dragon’s prison broke apart and burned. Throughout its endless journey, it had dreamed of liquid flames, flames hotter than magma, running down its scales, pooling at its claws, and it hungered—always it hungered. For the taste of blood, for the feel of its teeth tearing through flesh.

The entity descended, incinerating the crowns of stalwart pine trees. Then it struck the earth, liquifying dirt and wood and living things into molten slag and ash, splintering countless branches, skidding a crater into the ground. The Celestial Dragon roared; pain flared like the sun, bloomed within its thick metallic chest plating.

As the wind took away the impact clouds, rays of sunlight glittered off of its gold and ebony scales webbed with tiny cracks. Its skull throbbed, pressed into the dirt, and its limp wings cried out in pain. A massive bone jutted from the wound in its chest, gushing scarlet liquid that caught fire the instant it touched the air.

A lightless world opened before it, luring away its consciousness, enticing it, pulling it deeper into slumber. A gush of water ran along its claws from an underground stream, and it sagged further into the ground. It felt itself slip deeper. . . .

Its nose twitched; the wind brought a wealth of information. A tree burning. Ash swirling. The sweet aroma of fat, delicious creatures. Fresh blood drying.

The Celestial Dragon’s eyes snapped open. A cavernous hole opened up inside it, a need so powerful it could shatter mountains, lay waste to continents. Its blood boiled! Its stomach ached!

Wind carried to it the raised voices of the tiny flesh-things moving in its direction. Memories began to bubble to the surface, memories of it and its kin growing fat as they devoured all those things that soared and slipped and stalked through the lush interior of a now dead world. Soon. Soon it would begin to quiet the torment at its core. It would feast on blood and flesh. It would rip, and it would claw!

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