Whisper of a Dream 3.05 – Erik

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All I have now are my memories. And my dreams because there is beauty in them, too.


The last remnants of Erik’s bath still glistened on the floor, but his eyes were drawn to a cobweb-like fracture in one of the green tiles at his feet. He sat on a cushioned chair, frozen in the act of putting on a pair of black boots. There was something about the cracks that reminded him of fissures in the earth, of rents that went all the way down to the molten core that slumbered below. They hissed with rage, burned with hatred, called to him with heart-wrenching lamentations.

Destroy it all, they cried. Scour clean the world and start anew.

Erik blinked and lifted his head. “What did you say?”

Dara sat perched on top of a window-seat, sunshine cast through the glass turning her into a shadowy goddess haloed with orange light. A sparkling green stone hung from the silver necklace around her neck, draped over an elegant black and gold gown.

“I said, are you ready?” She studied him with a quizzical stare.

“Yes,” Erik nodded. He forced his hand to unknot and pulled on his last boot. His back ached where Dara’s nails had punctured his flesh, but the pain was a slight irritation compared to the terror flooding through his veins. His grip on reality was slipping away from him. First the talking snake, now a seething crack in the floor? I’m slowly going insane.

Dara hopped down from the window-seat and approached Erik. He dragged himself from his chair and ran a hand down his white coat, which was adorned with golden buttons, across his matching breeches, and stopped with it on the hilt of the longsword at his hip.

“Are you well?” She touched his face. “You look pale.”

Erik gave his best imitation of a smile. “We go to war dressed for a ball?” He was not certain that their current garb was suitable for what he feared was to come, but mostly he did not want to talk about what he was feeling. His worries about his sanity were not something he was willing to share, not now. Not when he wanted to be believed. No. Much better to keep his concerns to himself.

“Would you have it any other way?”

“I suppose not.”

Dara led him out the bath chamber and up a sprawling staircase. They walked in silence, with the sound of boots knocking off of wood and the swooshing of Dara’s dress filling the void. Portraits of themselves hung on the walls, rendered in vivid detail.

Erik was not looking forward to this. His stomach grumbled at him, reminded him he had not eaten all day. He felt about ready to gnaw at one of his leather boots, raw if need be. He sighed silently and allowed Dara to drag him into a room on the second floor. His eyes flew to Elina who slept on top of a blue Utrecht velvet sofa, stamped with a phoenix pattern. The soft snores that escaped from her brought a genuine smile to his face.

Once he had gotten an eye full of Elina, Erik found Kendra looking at him, and shared a smile with her as well. She stood beside the sofa along with ten other women, all of whom wore black dresses and white wimples on their heads. Each woman was armed with a sword at her hip, a bow on her shoulder, and many throwing knives Erik could not see, but somehow knew their clothing hid.

He strolled deeper into the chamber with Dara on his arm, and the maids curtsied as one, then clustered around him, some touching his sleeve as he strode past. He stopped when he came to a large window that looked onto the street and rounded on them. His memories remained fragmented and out of reach, but Dara had coached him on what needed to be said.

“Well, don’t you all look fierce,” Erik joked, pausing for the nervous laughter that followed his words. “I know you have questions, but please save them for later. For now, treat this as a training exercise.”

“Erik.” Dara tapped his shoulder and motioned to the window.

Erik shifted to track the direction of her finger. Hanna stood on the street below, staring up at him with tightness in her eyes. Streams of happy families parted around her, jostling each other in their rush to reach the center of the village. He met her gaze with one just as level and firm, even though it was difficult. She painted an image of stark loneliness.

“Does she always appear so tragic?” Dara inquired.

Erik frowned. “No, not always. Sometimes she forgets that she’s supposed to be sad, and she smiles, but those moments never last long.” He froze. Where did that come from?

“Perhaps we should invite her inside.”

Erik opened his mouth and closed it again when a shout drew his attention to the sofa. Elina tossed and turned on the couch, caught in the grip of a nightmare. Her pale eyelids shook as tears ran down her cheeks. He raced over to her, fear quickening his pace, terror tightening his throat.

“No. No,” she moaned.

“It’s all right. Elina, it’s all right.” Erik took her trembling shoulders in his hands and gently shook them. Her eyes snapped open, and she jerked away. Green eyes looked through him as if he was not there. They blinked slowly overcome by tears. The moisture made them seem formed from glass, or perhaps crystal, catching the sunlight and splintering it into a hundred glittering flashes.

“Why,” she whimpered. “Why did you do it?”

“Do what?”

Elina glared at him. “Why did you kill me? I thought you loved me!”

Her words rocked Erik back on his heels. For a long moment, he could only stare at her, uncomprehending. She sat up in her cream-colored dress and balled her little hands into fists.

“How could you!” she screamed.

“It was a night terror, Elina,” he said finally. “You were dreaming. I would never hurt you. Never! You’re my everything. You’re the blood in my veins and the hope in my heart. I rather die than harm a single hair on your beautiful little head.”

“You promise?”

Erik enveloped Elina in his arms and clutched her to his chest. “I promise.”

The clamor of a ringing bell knifed into the room, shattering the silence. Dread slipped into Erik’s blood, clawed along his veins. Elina shuddered against him, and he squeezed her even tighter before letting her go. The original bell ceased its cry, yet its call was soon taken up by its kin’s deafening clangs.  `

“Da, are we in danger?” Elina whispered. She looked from face to face, her nightmare seemingly forgotten in the fury of the metallic ringing.

“Hush.” Erik flicked Elina’s forehead and gave Dara nod.

Dara cleared her throat and said, “Within twenty minutes—”

“Ten,” Erik corrected.

“Within the next ten minutes,” Dara amended, “Wolfville will be attacked by a herd of four-tusked mammoths and a pack of dire wolves. We assume it’s a Two Stage Beast Swarm, but it may very well be a three or a four.” Surprised mummers rose then fell as she continued. “Secure the downstairs windows and doors and return here. Now go.”

Kendra remained still as the other maids rushed out of the room, heeding Dara silent motion. “Is there something else?” she asked.

“Retrieve the portable wardstones in storage,” Dara said. “They might prove useful.”

“Is it true? Is Ma right?” Elina pulled at Erik’s coat sleeve as Kendra left the room. “Are the monsters coming?”

“Close your eyes. I’m going to teach you a trick.” Elina did as she was told and Erik sat down beside her. “Inhale. Slowly fill your lungs and sense the air travel down into your chest. Taste the salty ocean air on your tongue, feel it tickle the back of your throat. Now can you sense the sand beneath your toes? It’s warm at first, but the deeper you push, the cooler it becomes.”

“Yes!” Elina exclaimed in surprise. “I can.”

The floorboards rattled beneath Erik’s boots, and he leaped to his feet, searching for the source. An instant later, the ceiling tore away from the rest of the manor, launched into the heavens as if by an invisible hand. The building shrieked around Erik. Entire sections of the wall broke apart and hung separated from each other as the wind howled in through the gaps.

Erik threw himself to the floor and landed in sand. Confused, he looked around to discover himself lying on a beach, in front of a placid ocean. The manor was gone, replaced by endless water and the orange sun the hung above it.

Slowly, almost timidly, he grabbed a handful of pink and white sand and watched the granules slip through the gaps in between his fingers. His heart hammered the inside of his chest. W-What is. . . .

Elina raced past Erik, her dirty blonde hair whipped by the breeze. She picked up a sparkling seashell and clasped it to her chest, grinning as if she had found a lost aquatic treasure. “How did you do this, Da? It’s amazing! Can you teach me?” She spun towards him. “Where are we exactly?”

“I think we’re on the coast.” Erik stood and approached Elina; the sand shifted beneath him, almost like he was walking on snow. “That’s the Howling Sea.” He stumbled back as if he had run headlong into a stone wall. He did not know how he knew, he just did.

“Really? B-But I thought it was supposed to be scary? Ma told me one of the Four Great Calamities lives in the ocean. Was she wrong?”

“No, she wasn’t wrong,” Erik said, just as curious as Elina to discover what words he might speak next. “Bahamut lives out there, but it migrates. The Howling Sea is only dangerous during certain times of the year, though there are things out there that would prove just as deadly.”

“And is it true that Bahamut is as big as the whole of Daði?”

Erik laughed. “Not quite, but it’s so large you can’t see all of it. Its scope is beyond a man’s field of vision.”

“Da, look!” Elina said, pointing up at the sky. “It’s the Duke.”

Asbjörn strolled over their heads,  moving towards the ocean, about a hundred meters off the ground, his crimson robe flapping in the wind. He sipped from a bowl and sang a song that became jumbled by the time it reached their ears.

“How’s he here, too? Did you invite him?” Elina went on. “And how’s he walking in the sky?”

Erik froze with his hand on the hilt of his sword. “I don’t know, and no I didn’t invite him. Cultivators are like master painters. Think of their swords as paintbrushes, the world as their canvas, and the Four Aspects of the Abyss as the watercolors they use to form their creations. Through their art, they make the concepts in their mind reality.”

Asbjörn danced above the Howling Sea, a longsword whirling in his hand. Whenever he slashed down at the water, a lance of fire grew from the end of his blade, then the ocean squealed when struck, and a column of thick smoke billowed up into the air.

“Oh,” Elina cooed, “pretty.”

Erik turned from the ocean and searched for a way back to the manor. He guessed that reality lay on the other side, and all he had to do was find a way through, yet there was nothing but an endless beach and a darkening sky.

“Da!” Elina screamed.

Erik spun back around to see a giant ball of fire crash into the ocean. The Howling Sea exploded in a furious blast, and the air shook with thunder. A wall of water rose, blocking out the sun before rushing towards them. He shuddered.

“DA!” Elina shrieked.

Erik clutched her to his chest and ran. “Hold your—”

Mercilessly, waves smashed down upon them, one after another, stealing Erik’s words. Salty water gushed into his mouth, scouring the back of his throat. He choked. He gasped. Then the waves reversed, tugging at Elina, dragging him down, trying to pull them out into the ocean’s depths. He fought against it, struggling, howling, somehow escaping its grip.

Erik flopped on the beach with Elina still thrashing in his arms. He released her, and for a moment they huddled together, spewing the contents of their stomachs onto the damp sand. “Are you all right,” he asked when he could speak.

Elina nodded, then froze; her eyes were pools of midnight terror. He followed her gaze. A four-tusked mammoth rose from the Howling Sea, its long hairs consumed by fire. Undaunted, it charged toward them with tendrils of black smoke belching from its flame-wreathed body. The surrounding air rippled with the heat. Erik closed his eyes.


He opened his eyes to a stinging sensation in his cheek. Dara stood in front of him with her hand cocked back, and Elina sat beside him on the blue sofa. He touched his face, realizing he had just been slapped.

“You’re awake?” Dara said.

Erik looked past her to see the maids shooting arrows out of the windows. Abruptly, the women shouted warnings and dashed towards the other side of the room. A second later, something struck the manor hard and the whole building tilted towards the street. The sofa lunged forward, and Dara leaped out of the way, watching Erik and Elina slide past.

“Help!” Elina yelled.

Erik grabbed Elina and jumped off of the sofa. The floor scored his back, and his grip on her loosened as they slid downward. He flung out a hand, caught at her arm, and pulled with all his might. She came back into his arms, her slender limbs snaked around his neck. All around him the walls were busting at the seams and furniture and women were falling. The sofa smashed through the window, and they plunged into the hole it had created.

The world spun and Elina screeched into Erik’s ear as he tumbled through the air. Pain jolted through his spine when he struck the ground back first. Blackness crept into his. . . .

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Whisper of a Dream 3.04 – Erik

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Every ending has its roots in a beginning. Looking back I see ours. He was logic distilled, and I was nature herself. Opposites we were. I felt too much, and he felt too little. 


For a long time, Erik lay on his back with his eyes closed, unable to move, trapped within utter blackness. He did not seem to be dead, he could still sense the echoes of the torment that had ravaged his body. Yet the agony was gone, replaced by something else, by a warmth on his face. Sunlight?

His eyes slid open, and he jerked upright on top of a not-very-wide bed, gasping, half-blinded by the light that fell on his face. He blinked, confused, clutching at his naked thighs until his sight returned. He froze, cold sweat dampening the back of his neck.

Hanna stood with one leg resting on the foot of the bed, rolling white stockings up her exposed skin. A gust of wind passed through the open window and tossed her golden locks back from her pale shoulders. Her blue eyes flicked to the window with a hint of irritation before settling upon Erik.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

“You’re dead!” Erik frantically touched his stomach, arms, and legs, searching for the wounds the dire wolves had torn into his flesh. He found none. Fresh beads of sweat sprouted from his back like new shoots of grass. “I watched you die.” How’s this even possible? Have I gone insane? A stark realization, but not as stark as the reality before him.

“It was a dream, Erik.” Hanna cradled his head to her bosom, soothing his tremors with the warmth of her presence. “How can I be dead? I’m right here.”

Erik gasped, inhaling the fragrance of her naked flesh, sweet despite the hint of sweat. Perhaps she was right, it had all been a dream, a nightmare. For a long moment, he doubted himself and all he had experienced. No! Deep within him remained shadowy remnants of the pain and the horror. It could not have been a dream . . . could it?

Erik freed himself from Hanna’s embrace and scrambled to his feet. “What day is it? Is today the Renewal?” He touched his nose, and his fingers came away soaked in blood.

“Erik, are you,” Hanna began in a voice throbbing with concern.

“Answer me!”

She blinked, surprised. “Yes—what has gotten into you?”

“It wasn’t a dream, H—” Erik’s voice caught in his throat. Terror rose in him anew, and he took a deep breath to bring himself under control. “At least I don’t think it was. I watched you die.” He choked back a sob. “Wolfville was on fire and—I have to warn them. I have to!”

Erik ran out of the room with Hanna’s shouts rising behind him. She was yelling something about “those” . . . or maybe “clothes.” He would have stayed and explained the situation better if he could, but his insides were a boiling cauldron of nerves. The village needed to be warned! Not that he wanted to be the one doing it, but he could not see any way out of it. He had to do what needed to be done, for all their sakes.

Erik dashed through the living room and the kitchen, then leaped out of the house barefooted. He spun in a circle, catching his bearings. Though glimpsed for only an instant, Hanna’s home was as he remembered it, on the edge of the village, next to the wheat field. The sun hung in the sky, a ball of yellow radiance that beat against his bare back, but the touch of warmth was a welcome presence compared to the cold dread pumping in his veins.

He raced towards the heart of the village, heedless of the small stones that cut at his feet. Small gardens surrounded the high-peaked, thatch-roofed homes of Wolfville and red and blue banners hung at their front. “Arm yourselves! A beast swarm is coming!”

Faces shifted towards Erik in alarm before turning scandalized. Goodwives gripped aprons with pink hands and aggrieved husbands covered the eyes of nearby children. Their reactions confused him. Why were they not heeding his warnings?

Erik slowed down “Arm yourselves! A beast swarm is coming!”

“Pervert!” someone yelled at him.

He jerked and caught himself before he could stumble. His gaze drifted downwards, and his cheeks flamed with mortification. Now, Hanna’s jumbled shouts made sense, she was telling him to put on clothes. He blocked his private area with a hand but did not stop running or yelling.

Something hard bashed into the back of Erik’s skull. His vision blurred, and his head rang like a struck bell; the reverberations shivered down into his toes. His legs crumbled beneath him and everything went black.

Erik awoke in complete darkness, groggy and bewildered. He sat up and pressed a hand to the back of his head, wincing at the pain. He dropped his arm and took stock of his situation. His skin itched, and the stink of his surroundings filled his nostrils, salty man-sweat and the reek of decomposing flesh.

Cautiously, he reached out with his hands, sensing damp earth through his fingertips. A growing fear made the hair on the back of his neck stand up. He scrambled to his feet. His heart pounded in his chest like autumn thunder, wet and dreary. All around him was dirt, nothing but dirt.

He was buried alive! He shook his head. With his hands stretched over his head, he touched empty air. No, it’s too large to be a grave. Where am I?

The sudden rattle of a rattlesnake’s tail froze Erik, held him fast in massive jaws of terror. He clutched at his thighs, and his eyes searched around himself as his imagination made monsters out of the darkness. He paused, focusing on a spot that seemed different from the rest. Darker.

“You’ve forgotten me,” hissed a slivering voice.

Erik backed right into the damp earth wall, trembling. “Who are you? What are you?”

“Always you ask the same questions,” answered the voice, drawing nearer. “ ‘Who are you? What are you?’ Twice more shall we meet before you know my name. I am the terror that clutches at your heart. I am the Three, I am the One.”

“D-don’t,” Erik stammered. “I don’t understand.” The rattling increased, and the snake wrapped itself around both his legs, slowly growing larger as it continued to wind its way up his body. He shivered. None of this is happening! I must be dreaming . . . or I’m dead.

Such as you never die, they transform into a clump of earth, into grass, the snake whispered in his head.

Erik opened his mouth to scream, but nothing came out. He choked on fear, gasped on it. The serpent tightened its hold on his body. His eyes watered. His fingers twitched helplessly at his side.

“I’ve come for my husband,” a muffled voice from above declared.

Dara! Dara has come for me. A surge of joy rushed through Erik, pumping hope into his pounding heart. He closed his hands into fists, struggling against the pressure at his sides.

The snake hissed. Your love belongs only to me. Suddenly it sounded almost seductive as its voice rattled through Erik’s skull. Not even death can change that. You are mine. MINE!

The sound of moving furniture descended to Erik, followed by the rumble of booted feet walking on wood. “Always the dutiful wife,” a male voice answered Dara. “You deserve better. Do you know where he was last night?”

“Ebbi—” Dara interjected.

“He was with the Witch!” the Lightbender shouted. “Until this morning when he ran through the streets naked like a lunatic. I would never treat you this way. You need to leave him. Who does he think he is? A nobleman with two wives?”

Erik’s eyes narrowed, and he snarled, even as the serpent brought the bones in his arms and legs close to the point of breaking. Rage seethed and bubbled inside, doing battle with the fear that clenched at his heart.

“And come with you?” Dara asked.

Beloved, long have I waited, the snake said, stopping with its head hovering above Erik’s own. Long have I suffered. Long have I hungered. It flickered its long tongue across his face.

Erik shuddered. Let me go!

You’re mine, the snake snarled. The others be damned, now that I have you I’ll never let you go. MINE!

Yes.” Ebbi’s voice quivered with barely controlled longing. “I would treat you the way you should be treated.”

Dara laughed, a melodious sound despite the biting nature of her amusement. “That will never happen,” she said. “I will never leave him.”

“Why? He—”

“Ebbi, you saved my life. For that, you will always hold a special place in my heart, but when you look at me, you see something beautiful that you want to possess. Someone you hope will ease your loneliness. When Erik looks at me, he sees me.”

“I don’t understand.”

“I know, but that’s all right. All that matters is that you release my husband.”

It will be as it was before. The snake went on, opening its mouth wide enough to encompass Erik’s skull, revealing a flash of color, fiery pink flesh stretching and twisting. You and I together. Forever.

Light flooded down onto Erik from above, a sparkling pool of incandescence. Blinded by the radiance, he blinked, gasped, and shuddered, all the while expecting the worse. When he could see again, he realized he was at the bottom of a tall, wide pit, and the snake was gone. Where did it go? I imagined it. I must have!

Something struck the top of his head, and he jerked back, hissing from the pain. A rope ladder dangled in front of his face and at its other end stood Dara, peering down at him, haloed in light. For a second she appeared transparent, her diaphanous quality revealing the fire at her heart, white and cold.

Erik gulped, touching his skull with trembling fingers. His head was sticky with half-dried blood, but despite the ache he hardly noticed it. Dara held his full attention. She had never looked prettier.

“Husband,” she said simply.

“Wife.” Though neither one of them smiled, he sensed her. . . . Not love, but acknowledgment. She could not feel that emotion, he suddenly knew. The information was just there, in his head, a truth gleamed at the bottom of a pit. She took a step back, and the moment was broken.

Erik climbed up the ladder, and the first sight that greeted him when he made it above ground was Ebbi’s distorted face. He blinked, and the shimmering in his eyes steadied. The Lightbender still loomed over him, a cruel look frozen on his half melted face.

“Erik, come here,” said Dara. She held a wool blanket open in her arms.

He stood and allowed her to wrap it around him. He considered sending the Lightbender a smile, but thought better of it at the last moment and followed Dara out of the village jail. The walls of the two-story building were adorned with many instruments of war as decoration, and a broken ax hung above the door.

Outside, Erik released the breath he had been holding, freed from the hostility of Ebbi’s one-eyed glare. Dara took his hand and guided him home. He clenched the blanket wrapped around his waist and chose his steps with care.

“Ignore them,” Dara said. “They’re all small minded fools.”

For the first time, Erik noticed the looks they were receiving from the men and women they passed on the street. There were disgust and aversion in their faces. “I’m sorry, I acted without considering my options. I should have made a plan.” He gave a nervous laugh. “Or at least put my clothes on.”

“What were you trying to achieve?”

“I think I’m going insane,” Erik said after a moment. “Something is happening to me, or maybe it already has. You won’t believe me, but. . . .”

Dara squeezed his hand. “There is only one way to be sure. Start from the beginning.”

Erik sighed and did just that. He told Dara the tale emotionlessly, his face was stone, and his voice was iron until he came to the dire wolves appearance in front of Hanna’s home. That he rendered with burning passion. “I can almost still sense their teeth tearing into my flesh,” he said, touching his unmarked stomach. Unmarked or not, he winced. “I don’t know why I am not dead, or what happened to my memories. I sense them hovering at the edge of my mind, yet somehow barred to me.”

His wife did not speak. For a time they walked in silence until the itch at the back of his mind made him wonder if Dara thought him crazy. Then they came to a stop in front of the manor, and she turned towards him. “When are the wardstones supposed to fail?”

Erik looked up at the sky and frowned. “Seconds after the Renewal ceremony.”

“So, we don’t have much time.”

“You believe me?” Erik gazed at Dara with wide, incredulous eyes. “Why? I half don’t believe myself.”

Dara fixed his sagging blanket. “We’ve survived this long not because we’re smarter, though we are that, but because we’re more careful than our enemies. The truth will reveal itself in a short while, until then it’s better to air on the side of caution.”

“And if what I saw never comes to pass?”

“Well then, husband, we will have words,” she said.

“I understand.” Erik made himself meet Dara’s gaze with resolve. It was not easy. There was something in her eyes that made him feel like an insect dangling in a spider’s web. He loomed over her, but at that moment she terrified him. “What now?”

Dara led Erik inside the manor. “Now we prepare for war, but first you need a bath.”

“Is that necessary—” Erik began.

“It’s the small things that keep you going at the end of the world.” Dara picked up a little bell that laid on a table within the front hall and rang it. “Your words husband, not mine.”

After a moment Kendra rounded the corner slightly out of breath and her face flushed with color. She gave a quick curtsy and smiled at them, a lightness in her eyes. “Mistress,” she said. Her voice was soft. Perhaps too soft for all the red in her cheeks.

Dara’s next few words tore the smile from Kendra’s lips. “There has been a change in plans. Gather the hens, we’ve been surrounded by a mountain of daggers.”

“I-I understand.” Face as white as a sheet of paper, Kendra rushed down the hall almost at a run, disappearing around the corner.

Dara looked at him then, with a frown that lasted only an instant before she led him down the hallway. “You really remember nothing, don’t you?” Her voice sank almost to a murmur. “How about the night we first met?”

Erik shook his head.

“How strange this must all seem to you.” She pointed at a painting on the wall, a painting of masked revelers partaking in an orgy. “The night we first met, you were standing in a darkened corner by yourself, a forlorn look in your eyes as you gazed out at the evening sky. Such a tragic. . . .”

Unbidden, unasked, memory returned of that night of debauchery where they first met, images rose within his mind.

A dark-haired woman came to a stop beside him, adorned in a black dress with silver ornamentation and a white spider mask, her green eyes fixed on the world outside the window. Dara. His prey.

The need was in him. Erik could feel it blaze in his blood, the hunger for the chase. He watched the night sky from behind his red fox mask, keeping his eyes from flicking towards her. She had to be the one to speak first; it was part of the game.

“I’ve seen you here before,” Dara said. “More than a few times, but you never partake. Tell me are you afraid of sex or do you just like to watch?” Moans and groans rose and fell behind them.

He drew a circle on the window. “There is no thrill in the hunt when your prey approaches you and places its neck in your maw. Not for me. I’ve grown tired of kittens with pretend claws.”

“I understand.”

“Do you?” Erik turned the circle into a crude rendering of a spider.

“I . . . think I do. You hunt those things that slip through the dark forest. The ones with claws and teeth that stalk you while you seek it.”

“Exactly, I hunt myself. Or something very much like me, a—”

“A predator,” Dara breathed.

Her words turned the blaze into a furnace. Breathe. Erik had to breathe. His chest rose and fell. His insides burned with need. Can’t let her see! his mind howled. Can’t show weakness, not now! Her eyes peered at him, green sapphires bedazzled by lamplight. Heedless of all thought, he grasped her and pulled her closer. Fire trickled down his throat.

Erik tore himself away from the memory; even though they were just images, his skin burned. He blinked and gasped as he realized he was now soaking within the steaming water of the stone bath. The hot water was the reason for the pain.

Dara clutched the back of his head, yanking his attention back onto the present. “That’s when I knew,” she said, “that we were meant for each other. That together we would—”

“Fuck them all,” Erik finished, tugging her into the bath. Warm water splashed onto the green tiled floor as he pulled her into a long, fervent kiss.

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Whisper of a Dream 3.03 – Erik

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If you live long enough, you will see friends turn into enemies, love change into hatred, and all light consumed by the darkness. 


“That was incredible,” Elina whispered, her green eyes sparkling with wonder. “Wasn’t it, Da?”

“Yes, it was.” Erik took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He was unsure what Elina had witnessed, but he was almost positive she had not seen what he saw. For a moment there the whole world had broken apart until the fundamental building blocks of creation had been laid bare.

“How do they do that?”

A movement beside the wardstone caught Erik’s eye—Ebbi sheathing his weapon as he gazed at Dara with an air of longing. “I don’t know,” Erik told Elina as his hands clenched into fists. He did not like the way the Lightbender was staring at his wife.

At that instant, a solitary bell rang, loud and panic inducing, disturbing the steady pounding of Erik’s fury heated blood. People around him rustled against each other, and he turned along with them to find the source of the noise. The vague shape of a man could be seen ringing a bell atop of a distant watchtower. The man stopped after two long rings, then watchtowers all over the village took up the call.

Elina grabbed Erik’s hand. “Da, I’m scared.” Her voice sounded small and fragile as the throng of villagers shifted with growing hysteria.

“You have nothing to be afraid of,” Erik said with more confidence than he felt, “while I’m here I won’t allow anything to happen to you. Do you understand?”

The sound of a loud whistle drew everyone’s attention to Ebbi. “I expect every able-bodied man to meet me at the stockade within five minutes,” he shouted. “Now take your families to safety. I want no one on the street who doesn’t have cause to be. Those who disobey will be punished. Now go!”

Erik picked Elina up and cradled her against his chest to better shelter her from the rush of warm bodies streaming past. “It’s okay,” he said and rubbed her back. “I got you.” The guards formed ranks and rushed towards the stockade in formation.

“You’ll spoil her if you keep babying her,” Dara said, guiding him homeward.

Whispering words of comfort to Elina, Erik kept a worried eye on Ebbi, who hurried over to them, trailed by Carl and Fritz. When Ebbi and his comrades reached them, they jerked to a stop.  Ebbi only had eyes for Dara, gracing Erik with the twisted glory of the melted right side of his face. The milky whiteness of his right eye seemed to stare straight through Erik.

“We’ll escort you home,” Ebbi told Dara without preamble.

“Thank you, but that won’t be necessary,” Dara responded, taking a step closer to Erik. Behind Ebbi’s back, Fritz and Carl shared knowing grins.

“It’s on our way. It won’t be no trouble.” Ebbi grabbed her arm, and her eyes narrowed into two dangerous points.

“She said no,” Erik growled. If Ebbi did not fall back, he would fight the Lightbender, whatever Fritz and Carl had to say about it. Elina whimpered in his arms, and he patted her back as he rocked back her forth. With all his heart and hatred he silently yelled at Ebbi to let his wife go, wordlessly tried to will the man to back down. Let her go! His skin prickled, and his blood simmered as if it was boiling, ready to explode into flames. Release my wife’s arm! And Ebbi did.

“We don’t have time for this,” he snapped, turning away. “Let’s go.” The last part was not a request. It was an order.

Erik pushed down on his rage and raced after Ebbi with Elina still in his arms and Dara at his side. The two other Lightbenders, Carl and Fritz, brought up the rear of their little party.

The streets were already almost empty. Goodwives peered from behind shuttered windows and husbands and sons hurried out of doorways, armed with bows and homemade spears. The once festive air was gone, replaced by a grim ferocity the now imbued the villagers.

On and on Erik ran, with Elina staring over his shoulder at the small militia growing behind them. When they came to a stop in front of the manor, Kendra rushed out of the house with a long blade and a sword belt in her arms. Erik set Elina down beside Dara.

“Go with your mother,” he told Elina. “I’ll be back soon.”

Erik took the sword belt from Kendra with a nod of thanks and secured it at his waist, wondering if he even knew how to use the weapon. Dara interrupted his musings by pulling him down into a passionate kiss.

“Make sure you come back to me,” she said, unbothered by the whooping and howling that followed their public display of affection. She looked up at Erik, the way every wife should look at her husband, like they were the only two living creatures in existence.

Ebbi’s face turned crimson, and his hand clenched the hilt of his weapon. “Let’s go! We don’t have time to be whispering sweet nothings into women’s ears.” He charged off, and the men followed, Carl and Fritz, snickering louder than anyone else dared.

“I will,” Erik promised Dara, then hurried to catch up with Ebbi. The Lightbender fidgeted, and Erik sensed he wanted him elsewhere. Now that Dara was gone, his continued presence was vexing the top-knotted man. Just then a young man wearing a black coat with wooden buttons ran towards them with a loping gait.

“Vakur!” Ebbi hailed the black coated youth approaching from the other direction.

“No,” the young Lightbender grimaced, “I’m Vagn.” He touched the quiver of arrows on his back and spat brownish spit onto the ground. “I left Vakur on top of the watchtower.” He gave a bitter smirk. “It’s been years. You still can’t tell us apart?”

“This is not the time for this conversation.” The half of Ebbi’s face still capable of movement wrinkled. “Report!”

“A herd of four-tusked mammoths has gathered just outside the range of the secondary wardstones,” Vagn said, un-repulsed by the spittle Ebbi splashed onto his face.

“They just passing through?” Ebbi quipped with fake cheer.

Vagn tightened his grip on his bow and shook his head. “Afraid not. They keep staring at Wolfville like they can see it and more are adding to their number every moment. It looks like a. . . .”

“Beast swarm,” Ebbi finished.

“Seems so,” Vagn agreed. “Do you think something is wrong with the wardstones?” There was something like fear in his voice; it made Erik quicken his pace.

“Do I look like a Jain monk to you?” Ebbi shouted. “And where the fuck is the Duke?”

Something wet spilled onto Erik from above. He scrambled sideways, bumping into Ebbi before he could right himself. He looked up as some of the liquid dripped into his mouth. It tasted like wine.

Above, a black man dressed in a red robe, walked across the sky like it was the ground while he sang a song and drank from a bowl. A few of the lyrics drifted on the wind. “Godly is your beauty, honey-sweet. . . .”

“There he is,” Vagn said, pointing at the scarlet-robed man.

Ebbi sent Vagn a withering glance before chasing after the Duke. “Great he’s drinking again.” Louder. “Lord Asbjörn! Get down!”

Somehow one of Asbjörn’s steps equaled ten of theirs. He soon outpaced them, disappearing over the twenty-meter tall stockade. The last they witnessed of him was him drawing his sword, and then moments later a thick column of black smoke billowed up above the vertical logs. Erik could not see what lay at the base of it, but the loud sound of animal squeals gave him an idea.

Ebbi raced ahead, and Erik matched him step for step, even when everyone else had fallen behind. They passed a house that Erik was certain belonged to Hanna and sprinted through the wheat field. Heart pounding, he climbed up a watchtower right behind Ebbi. The two guards already inside made room for them, but it was a tight fit.

Erik frowned at the world outside the walls in puzzlement, then suddenly gasped with shock. Beyond the handful of farms and hedge-bordered fields, Asbjörn walked upon the air, raining down rivers of orange flames onto a herd of four-tusked mammoths, which numbered in the hundreds. The average mammoth was an eight-ton fortress of flesh, covered in dark hairs and equipped with four massive ivory tusks. And as the funnel of flames fell upon them, they burned and screamed like a sounder of swine. Erik shivered.

Instead of fleeing, the herd of four-tusked mammoths charged towards the stockade, undaunted by the dozens of their number that fell, consumed by a blistering inferno with every flicker of Asbjörn’s sword. On and on they came, pounding the earth with their furious stampede.

“What the fuck is going on?” Ebbi whispered as the Watchtower vibrated harder and harder. “I’ve never seen four-tusked mammoths behave like this.”

Erik took it all in, in one deep breath, unsure what he should do, or say. Fear and indecision held him still.

Abruptly Asbjörn changed tactics. Throwing his bowl aside, he climbed higher into the sky and whipped his blade in a circle. The surrounding air flashed crimson, then he fell towards the earth, transforming into a shooting star.

“Get down,” Ebbi shrieked.

Erik dropped to his stomach with his arms over his head. The air roared with the sound of an explosion, and the earth shook. The watchtower trembled around him, and the timber beneath him groaned as a cloud of scorching dust blew into the room, stinging his eyes and nostrils. He gasped and felt dirt on his tongue.

When he stopped coughing, Erik lurched onto his trembling legs and looked outside. A giant crater greeted him, smoke pouring out of its smoldering depths. All but a handful of the four-tusked mammoths had been destroyed. One of the four survivors rose to its massive feet and rushed for the watchtower where he stood. The animal’s long black hairs had almost become a solid flame, and new thin tendrils of smoke added to the cloud that already trailed behind it.

Erik bolted past Ebbi, who was still pulling himself to his feet and jumped out of the watchtower. Terror clawed at his chest. The frightful cracking of wood rose behind him, and for an instant, the world spun. He smashed into the earth, and a blinding whiteness severed his connection to reality.

Choking on droplets of ice cold rainwater, Erik jerked back into consciousness. He stared up at the dark storm cloud filled sky in confusion until the pain brought the memory of his fall back. He grunted and pushed himself onto his knees, aware that at least one of his ribs were broken.

Eyes wide, Erik staggered to his feet and took in the destruction the four-tusked mammoths had wrought. The downpour fought to contain the four smoldering holes in the stockade, and broken timber lay strewn all over the wheat field. Underneath the torn logs that had once been part of the watchtower sat Ebbi’s battered corpse, bright blood flowing from his mangled flesh.

Erik turned from the view, and his mouth fell agape when he saw the village. Thick columns of black smoke rose above rows of burning homes. Frantic villagers ran about with buckets of water, doing their best to put out the fire.

“Hanna,” Erik said, staring at the smoke billowing up from her roof. He broke into a run, pain all but forgotten in his rush to reach her house.

The door to Hanna’s home had caught fire but had been put out by the rain, but it was still hot enough Erik had to yank his hand away after he touched it. He was forced to kick it twice before he could get it open. Dark smoke escaped through the open door, and he stumbled back, a hand going to his mouth.

“Hanna,” he coughed.

The smoke thinned, revealing Hanna sprawled on the floor next to a fallen beam. He immediately dropped to his knees with a grimace and crawled towards her. The air was much cleaner down near the floor; still toxic enough to make him nauseous, but he could breathe it, if barely. A wave of flames burst through the wall nearest Hanna and Erik quicken his already frantic pace. The air simmered with blistering heat and black spots formed in his vision as he reached her and struggled to drag her to safety.

With his lungs burning from the toxic air, Erik pulled Hanna out into the muddy street and collapsed in exhaustion. He opened his mouth and allowed the rain to wet his dry tongue. Then he lifted himself up onto his elbows and scanned Hanna. There was a lump on the side of her head the size of a walnut.

He ran his hand over her soot-stained cheek. “Hanna.”

Thunder shook the air, and a second later the high-pitched reverberation of a howl jolted Hanna awake where Erik’s voice and the din of the storm had failed. Her eyes blinked open, and she looked around in confusion.

“Take it slow.” Erik restrained her with a smile when she sat up too quickly. “You’re safe now. I have you.”

Hanna’s blue eyes searched his face. “Erik—”

Erik’s smile turned into a look of terror as a dire wolf appeared out of nowhere to yank her by the leg. She shrieked, and for an instant, he could see the desperation in her eyes, perhaps even love, and then she was gone, pulled into the giant maw of an apex predator.

Erik chased after her, his heart rising into his throat. Something yanked him back and he fell to the ground, pain like hot acid tearing a scream out of his mouth. He turned back and gave one abrupt shudder when he saw a dire wolf gnawing on his arm like a chicken bone. He pulled back and his limb tore away with a spray of crimson.

Wolves the size of small ponies attacked Erik from every side, with gaping mouths filled with a terrifying array of canines and incisors. He huddled against the wet ground, sensing teeth rip through his chest, tugging at his innards. His eyes rolled back in his head, and his mind drifted.

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Whisper of a Dream 3.02 – Erik

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The greater the intellect, the more one is alone. 


Standing as far away from the small mirror as he was, Erik’s breath should not have fogged the glass, but it had. Vapor climbed up the blue-eyed man’s prison like frost, creeping higher with a crackling that sent a tingle down Erik’s spine. He shivered and balled his hands into fists. His teeth wanted to chatter. The longer he looked at the silent shrieking face, the more he felt his bones might shatter, that. . . .

“Da, what’s wrong?” Elina questioned, her voice rising with a note of worry.

Erik blinked and wrenched his gaze from the mirror. For a second, all he could do was stare at her and weather the violent palpitations of his heart. “What color are my eyes?”

“They’re. . . .” Elina searched his face with her own creased into a frown. “They’re green like mine.”

Erik glanced at the mirror, and his green-eyed reflection peered back at him. Did I just imagine the whole thing? No, it can’t be! I’m sure he was there. He swallowed the sudden lump in his throat. I’m not mad. I’m not! His head spun with a sense of vertigo. What’s going on? Who am I? Why can’t I remember anything?

“Da, come eat.” Elina tugged at Erik’s hand, leading him towards the table.

Dara rose from her seat at the head of the table, her every movement controlled as if that single action had been practiced a thousand times until grace imbued every shift and gesture. She lifted herself onto the tips of her toes when he came to a stop in front of her and pecked him on the lips. It was a kiss devoid of passion, more a ritual greeting between partners. Yet he trembled at the brief contact and his breath quickened. The wonder of familiarity filled him, the wondrous rush of being home after a long absence, shrouding him in the warmth, suffusing him with joy.

“You’re right,” Dara told Elina, “he smells—”

“Pretty,” Elina smiled.

“Yes  . . . very pretty.” Dara guided Erik into her former seat as her eyes shifted to Kendra who still loomed beside the door. “My husband will be taking a bath after breakfast.”

“Yes, Mistress, I’ll have one readied,” Kendra murmured in a grave tone, then curtsied. The twinkle in her eye belied the seriousness of her expression, and she even winked at Erik before she pulled the door shut behind herself.

“I don’t smell that bad? Do I?” Erik took another sniff of himself.

“Of course not, dear,” Dara said, her voice as smooth as the surface of a tranquil pond. “You smell like flowers. This we’ve already established.” She took a seat beside him, and Elina covered her own mouth to stifle a giggle.

Erik looked from Elina’s grinning countenance to Dara’s gentle smile. “I see, you two conspire against me.” It took effort to keep his voice level, but inside he was a trembling twine of joy from head to toe. Familial bonds wrapped ever tighter around his pulsing heart.

“We do, but only ever to your benefit,” Dara said, then gestured at the table. “Now eat, we have a big day ahead.”

“We do?”

“Da, did you forget?” Elina said, staring at him with incredulous eyes. “Today’s the Renewal. You promised we’d go.”

Erik picked up a silver fork and studied the fried eggs, apple slices, and strips of what looked like bacon arrayed on his plate. He sensed Elina’s glare like heat from a fire. “No, I didn’t forget.” I can’t let my daughter think I’m a fool. “I was .  .  . wondering if you’ve kept up with your studies. Explain the nature of the Renewal.”

“It’s the day the Jain monks come to renew Wolfville’s wardstones.” Elina sat up straight and went stiff, peeking at him from the corner of her eyes. “It only happens once every five years. Unlike other towns, Wolfville isn’t wealthy enough to afford a Jain chapter house, so a visit by the monks is always a cause for celebration.”

Silence. Mother and daughter both turned to look at Erik expectantly.

“Fantastic,” he nodded, unsure. “I . . . couldn’t have put it better myself.”

Elina’s face lit up like a torch in a darkened room, and she appeared about ready to dance the jig. Dara, on the other hand, just regarded him with the same calm and serene expression she had worn since he met her. He shifted slightly in his seat and smiled.

When Dara only continued to stare, Erik returned his attention to his plate. He felt like a pretender and believed she could see it, but it did not seem to matter. Erik’s chest clenched and the tension he was only vaguely aware of melted in a sense of bliss. He wanted to remember this moment forever and fear he might forget it too.

“What’s wrong, Da?” Elina inquired.

“Nothing.” Uneasily, Erik looked around the room. “I have this sense of foreboding deep in my bones as if something bad will happen, or maybe it already has. . . .” He trailed off, shivering, and scrubbed his hand through his hair. “Yet, I don’t know if I have ever been happier. I love you. Have I ever told you that?”

Dara stood from her seat. “I think it’s time for your bath.”

“I haven’t finished eating yet,” he protested.

“You’re frightening your daughter.”

The tightness around Elina’s eyes told Erik Dara was telling the truth. He hastily averted his gaze and stood while clearing his throat. “I’m sorry. I never met to upset you,” he told Elina, then followed Dara out the room.

After the door had closed behind them, she led him down the hallway in silence. Lamplight bathed the bright paintings that hung on the dark panel walls with a warm glow. Each new canvas depicted scenes of ever wilder debauchery; throngs of naked men and women, clothed only in animal masks, bodies twisted into impossible positions, lips contorted in pleasure. Erik peered at them doubtfully, then pulled his attention back onto Dara.

“I didn’t mean to scare Elina,” he told her.

“Your problem, Erik,” Dara said, “is that you feel too much, or at least you pretend to.”

“What do you mean by that?” Erik yanked Dara to a stop.

Dara gazed at the hand that gripped her arm, with a broad grin that never reached her green eyes. Despite its broadness, the smile gave the impression of gathering thunderclouds.

“I’m sorry,” he murmured, releasing her arm.

“Do you want to beat me, Erik?”

“What? No!”

Dara’s smile widened further as she seemed to transform before his eyes. Her air of calm and reserve melted like ice under the noonday sun, and a note of allure and seductive glamor crept into her being; it was in the way she tilted her head and in the way she stretched each breath until they seemed to simmer. “Are you sure? Tie me up and bend me over your knee.” She leaned into him while running her long nails across his neck. “I know you would like that.”

“Stop!” Erik’s breath caught in his throat, but not with need. He took a quick step back, searching Dara’s face to find the reason for his sudden disquiet. She watched him with slightly parted lips and a hunger that seemed to quicken her pulse. Her metamorphosis was flawless . . . except it was not. There was something about her eyes that remained the same, a coldness that seemed to observe him behind the facade of lust. “You never have to pretend to be other than you are,” he continued after a moment. “Not with me. I love you for you.”

Dara laughed and the longing that had imbued her a second before evaporated. “Is this the part where I swoon?” Erik’s expression soured, but that only appeared to increase her amusement. “What a pair we make, a spider and a fox. How long will we last I wonder?”

“Until all the lights have gone out in the night sky,” Erik replied as if by habit. “Until nothing is left but darkness.”

“There you go being overly poetic again.” Dara sighed and started down the hallway once more. “Let’s get you bathed and who knows maybe when you don’t reek like another woman’s vaginal secretions your words will have more of an effect on me.”

Mouth opened wide, Erik stumbled after Dara, almost tripping over his own legs in his haste to catch up with her. He closed his mouth then opened it again, ready to speak, but at the last instant, he thought better of it. What could he even say in response? Sorry? None of the explanations that rattled around his head felt like they would do any good, and the truth just seemed too fanciful to be believed by anyone.

Shrouded in silence, Dara led him into a green tiled bathing chamber on the first floor. Blue and red phoenixes decorated the white ceiling, beneath which window-seats adorned with cupboards sat. The centerpiece of the room, the stone bath was attached to the wall and was supplied by two large copper taps, one for hot water and another for the cold. In another small room, directly behind the bath, a charcoal- fired stove heated the water for the first tap, glimpsed through the opened door.

Kendra regarded Erik with a smile from beside the bath when he entered. She dropped orange peels into the steaming wash water and approached him, eyes twinkling with mirth. “That was quick, I didn’t expect you so soon.”

“Are you two planning to cook me?” Erik asked, eying the green and orange bits floating in the bath. “It smells good, though. What’s all in there?”

“You would be so lucky,” Dara drawled from beside him.

Kendra laughed. “Sage, marjoram, chamomile, rosemary, and of course orange peels.” She reached out and unbuttoned his coat.

“What are you doing?” Erik grabbed her hand. “I can do that by myself.”

Kendra took a step back, surprised. She gripped her hands and sent Dara a confused look before clearing her face of all emotion. “Since when? Did I do something wrong?” Somehow the last question seemed as if it was directed more to Dara than himself.

“That will be all, Kendra,” Dara admonished, her tone biting. “Elina is still in the dining room, make sure she hasn’t gotten into any mischief.”

“Yes, Mistress.” Kendra curtsied and rushed out of the room, almost at a run.

Guilt made Erik raise his hand to stop her, but she was gone before he could formulate his thoughts into words. He dropped his hand and turned to Dara, shame-faced.

She clicked her tongue on the roof of her mouth. “That was very poorly done, Husband. She deserved better.”

“I’m not a child, I can undress myself,” Erik said, but his heart was not in it. He knew he had done something wrong, but he did not understand why.

“Then why are you acting like one?”

Erik removed his clothing under the glare of Dara’s icy stare. Naked, he gingerly stepped into the bath, winching silently as he became accustomed to the near scolding water. Dara placed a long shaving board across the bath and lathered his face with a brush. His eyes went to the gleaming blade that rested on top of the board, with a hint of concern.

“Kendra is the most loyal person in our employment.” Dara picked up the blade with a slow and steady hand. “She has earned whatever privileges you’ve bestowed upon her.”

“I—” Erik began, then stopped as Dara yanked his head back and placed the blade to his neck. He swallowed the lump of fear in his throat and stared up at the red and blue phoenixes. She won’t kill me, he thought with certainty. Yet there was this nagging doubt. What if I’m wrong?

Dara shaved Erik’s neck with a growing sense of menace. “I don’t know what type of game you’re playing today, and I don’t care. If you ever treat Kendra like that again, you and I will have words, Husband. Very strong words. Do you understand me?”

“Yes,” he grunted as the blade nicked him and a drop of blood ran down his throat.

“Good. Now, hurry up. Elina and I will meet you at the front hall.” Dara cleaned the straight razor with a cloth and placed it back on the board.

Erik put a hand on the cut and watched Dara walk out of the room. Are all women insane? He shook his head and pushed the thought away. He doubted he could unravel the mystery that was the female mind at that moment, so he got back to the business at hand.

A half an hour later, clothed in a blue coat that matched both of his wife and daughter’s dresses, Erik strode down the street with his family. Elina clung to his and Dara’s hand, swinging back and forth, bursting into giggles every time her feet left the ground. Erik smiled down at Elina, then raised his head, and for a moment he thought he saw a woman with blonde hair duck back behind a building at the sight of him, but he could not be sure. There were too many people on the streets, all of them hurrying in the same direction.

“Enough,” Dara said, bringing an end to Elina’s fun.

A transient gust of wind brought the sound of voices raised in a song from the center of the village, and the tantalizing fragrance of freshly baked pies. The celebrations had already begun. A path cleared for Erik and his family without them having to push as they drew nearer to the heart of the village. Above the heads of the throng, a two-story tall obelisk could be seen jutting out from the ground.

Erik frowned at the guards with rusted swords and mismatched armor that had the area around the giant wardstone cordoned off. Behind the armored men, stood three monks, dressed in gray, wool robes. All three were bald except for a ring of hair that wrapped around their heads and, each one’s face was animated by a strange sameness, similar to what plagued those born with mental disabilities. The first monk wore a white cloth over his mouth, the second monk held a walking staff, and the third monk had a strip of linen wrapped around his eyes.

Elina followed the direction of Erik’s gaze. “Did you know Jain monks take a vow of nonviolence? They won’t even kill a fly.” She shuddered, her eyes round with disgust. “Isn’t that gross, Da? Them sitting there covered in flies and not doing anything about it.”

Erik smiled down at her. “You don’t say.”

“It’s true!” Elina dropped his and Dara’s hand and began ticking off points on her small fingers. “And they live in triads. Three men with one name. . . . Or is it three men with one brain? I can’t remember which one it is. Anyway, since the day their order was founded no one has ever been to their main monastery. Nobody even knows where it is.”

“Who told you all this?”

“Ma did. She says it’s important I know things other than how to lay on my back. I don’t get what she meant by that. What’s so wrong with laying on my back? Should I lay on my front?” Elina tugged on Erik’s hand and whispered in a voice that might as well have been a shout, “Da, do you know what she meant by that?”

Erik remained silent and glanced at Dara; she rose an eyebrow at him.

“Da, look it’s Sir Ebbi, Sir Carl, and Sir Fritz.” Elina pointed at the wagon train making its way down the main street, across from where they stood.

A hush fell over the gathering, and it had nothing to do with top-knotted Lightbender sitting atop each wagon. It was the monster each wagon dragged behind it or held caged that caught everyone’s attention.

The ground shook and Erik’s gaze shifted from the one-eyed warrior Elina had said was Sir Ebbi to the young four-tusked mammoth that stumbled behind his wagon. Two meters tall and covered with long, brown hair, its eyes flicked from side to side in terror, but it only held Erik’s focus for a moment. In the back of the second wagon, a wounded dire wolf pup, thinned by starvation and separated from its two front legs, lay chained, whining in a high-pitched voice.

“Ma, what’s that?” Elina exclaimed.

Caged in the back of the third wagon sat a creature with a body of an ox, the face of a dragon, and the antlers of a deer. Partially covered in blue scales, it gazed back at them with an air of pride. It’s thick white eyelashes and gray beard gave it an air of nobility.

“A qilin,” Dara replied. “They’re vile creatures who live alone and mate once every ten years. I’m surprised they could capture it alive. There are some who claim qilins are the ones who instigate the beast swarms. But that is only a rumor. What do we say about rumors?”

Elina looked up at her mother. “T-that . . . only one tenth of what they claim should be believed?”

“Are you asking or are you telling me?”

“Telling!” Elina proclaimed.

The crowd cheered as the wagon train rode into the village center. Guards rushed to unlatch the four-tusked mammoth from the back of Ebbi’s cart, carefully dragging the wounded beast next to the wardstone and chaining it to a large stone post. Then they moved to the other wagons, doing the same thing.

The monk with the staff lifted it into the air, and the crowd quieted. “The price has been paid, and the bargain has been struck.” An instant later, dreadful words of harrowing power spewed from his mouth; incomprehensible and unpronounceable they twisted the minds of all who heard them. None more than Erik’s.

Erik stumbled back. Chaos reigned around him. He clutched at his thigh, trying with little success to steady the spinning world that dragged at his mind. Colors slipped past him until they all whirled into a rainbow. The only two who seemingly had no trouble at all were the other two monks; while their brother continued to speak in the strange tongue, they made bizarre hand signs as they circled clockwise around the wardstone, shifting towards the stone posts. Their hands flashed and flickered in the air like a fish swimming upstream, somehow both fast and slow.

The Lightbenders standing beside the chained monsters dealt the creatures death blows. Then the inscribed runes that covered the surface of the stone obelisks glowed with power, drawing the fresh blood into the air. Like long, scarlet ribbons, the life fluid danced around the wardstone, moving in tune with the monks hand signs until they sank into the surface of the wardstone.

Erik stood stiffly as the world stilled its mad dance. The warm air whipped past, bringing with it the odor of stale sweat, the tang of fresh meat, and the stink of fear. The obelisk seemed to pulse and throb before him, panting, eager for more.

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Whisper of a Dream 3.01 – Erik

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In the beginning, I thought he loved me as I loved myself. That lie is the reason I now lay garlanded in perpetual darkness.


Erik slept on top of a not-very-wide bed as sunlight fell onto his face. His eyes wanted to slide open on their own, yet consciousness was slow in coming, and once it did, he awoke, bolting upright and gasping for breath. Half-blinded by light, he noted his own nakedness.

For a moment he stared unseeing, wondering where he was, then wiped cold sweat from his forehead when he remembered nothing. He had no memory of ever entering this room, of going to sleep, or . . . or even of who he was. Slowly he calmed his breathing.

The bed rustled and Erik blinked. A long, cream-colored leg rested at the foot of the bed as a pair of pink hands rolled white stockings up the exposed flesh. The woman the limb and the hands belonged to was otherwise naked, her golden hair glowing in the morning light. Everything else faded but her; nothing else seemed more important in that instant.

“You’re the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” Erik said.

“That was not very ordinal, Erik. You can do better.” Blue eyes rose to meet his own, shivering joy into his bones. She talked in a dismissive tone, but the fire in her eyes spoke of delight. “I was hoping to make breakfast before you awoke, but now you’re out of luck.”

“But it’s true,” he said, “you are the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”

“You and that silver tongue of yours.” The woman shook her and returned to the task of getting dressed.

What’s her name? Erik’s expression soured. He sensed the knowledge floating just outside of his grasp. Spots shimmered in front of his eyes when he reached for it, then he fell back onto the bed, struggling to breathe, drifting within an ocean of never-ending black.

Hanna. Louder. HANNA!

Erik jerked back into consciousness, ears ringing with a mental tone. Hanna loomed above him, lips moving without sound, eyes frantic. He rose a hand to touch her wet cheek and sensed her heart racing through her skin.

“Erik. . . . Erik!” Hanna’s voice finally reached him as if it came from a great distance, desperate and pleading.

“Hanna,” he breathed, happy at putting a name to the enchanting face

“Are you all right?”

“Yes,” he laughed. His hand fell from Hanna’s face to circle her pink nipple, pinching, squeezing. His breath caught in his throat at the softness of her flesh. Hot blood pumped into his chest, legs and. . . .

Hanna’s elbow slammed down onto Erik’s stomach, driving all air from his lungs. He gasped, and his eyes watered.

“You think scaring me is funny? Do you?” Hanna rained blow after blow down upon Erik. “Answer me!”

Erik groaned and wrapped Hanna in arms, holding still against his chest. Pain flared where her elbows had landed. “Stop it, Hanna.”

“Release me!” She struggled to break free, but could not pry herself from his grasp.

“I will,” Erik promised in between fits of wheezing laughter. The whole situation just seemed so ridiculous. “Right after you—”

Erik flung Hanna aside as if she had turned into a bag of vipers and pressed his hand to his shoulder. His fingers came away dripping with scarlet fluid. He stared at them incredulously.

“Your head’s hard as a stone.” Hanna wiped the blood from her lips. “But I’ll train you to listen, one way or another.”

“You bit me!”

“And I would do it again.”

Erik regarded Hanna with a queer expression frozen on his face. She rolled off the bed, and a donned a blue dress embroidered with golden flowers. There was something sensual about watching her put on clothes; every inch of covered flesh became more forbidden, enticing the imagination.

“Do you mean to spend the whole morning peering at me like a pervert?” Hanna ran her hands down the side of her dress and raised an eyebrow at him, glancing at his manhood.

Erik’s face burned as blood rushed to his face. He scrambled off the bed and searched for his clothes, finding them scattered around the little room. Morning brightened the bedchamber’s only window decorated with brocaded curtains; the sun was well up, round and radiant. He rubbed a sore spot on his stomach after putting on a green coat elegant enough to be worn by a wealthy merchant.

“I didn’t hurt you, did I?” Hanna inquired, a slight note of worry coloring her voice.

For an instant, a vague sense of trepidation coursed through Erik and he felt there was something important he should be doing, if only he could remember what. His insides knotted. His hands closed into fists. What happened to my memory? I was doing something. I. . . .

“Erik!” Hanna shouted.

Erik blinked and sent Hanna a flirtatious smile. He felt like a pretender. “I’m fine,” he lied.

“Are you sure? You. . . . I don’t know.”

He nodded and turned from her searching gaze. “Now what?”

“Now? You go home,” Hanna replied.

Angry with himself for his lack of memories, Erik ran a finger along his mustache and avoided Hanna’s eye. He strode to the window and peered outside. Behind a curving wheat field, a twenty-meter tall stockade jutted out of the ground, made of large, worn logs. None of it stirred even the hint of remembrance; he was sure he had never seen this place before. He turned back to Hanna and said, “And where is that exactly? Home?”

Hanna studied him for a long moment, then smirked. “Do you want me to show you?”

“Could you?” Erik pushed down on the thrill spiking through him. “That would be wonderful.”

“I’m not sure what game you’re playing today, but okay let’s play.” Hanna took Erik’s hand and all but bounced towards the bedroom door. Invigorated and bubbling with enthusiasm, she led him through the small but tidy house.

Outside, Erik dropped Hanna’s hand and took in his surroundings. Hanna’s home sat at the edge of a small village, encircled by a stockade with evenly placed watchtowers; between the houses and stockade stood the curving wheat field he had seen earlier. Beyond the wall, an ancient forest of redwoods stretched in every direction just past a handful of farms and hedge-bordered fields.

“This way.” Hanna clasped at Erik’s hand, pulling him along a narrow path, leading towards the heart of the village. “And please stop walking with your mouth open. Wolfville is nothing to be amazed about.”

Erik closed his mouth, but he did not stop taking in his surroundings. High-peaked, thatch-roofed homes rose around him, decorated in red and blue banners. Every piece of available land that surrounded them was cultivated with crops, except for the pathway they walked. A group of small children swarmed around them a few minutes later, chased by playful dogs. Hanna yelled at the youngsters, bringing an end to their game of tag.

“I don’t care if today is the Renewal,” she told him after they ran off, “that’s no reason for them to be causing this much noise this early in the morning.”

The Renewal? Great, something else I don’t know.

Erik plodded on beside Hanna, not raising any of the questions that prodded his mind. Then he noticed the glances from the neighbors; goodwives with aprons tied around their middles stood at windows and in doorways, faces twisted in displeasure as if the sight of them together was an affront to their eyes. In contrast to the women, the husbands sent him knowing grins and laughed until chastised by their wives.

“Why are they looking at us like that?” Erik asked, perplexed and hating it. The hostility prickled his skin, raising the hairs on his arms.

Hanna’s lips curled into an almost smile. “Jealousy? Fear? Who knows?” She pointed at a large house in the distance. “That one is yours.”

Jealousy? Fear?

Erik did not understand what she meant by that but thought he should. He followed her finger and shouted, “Race you!” He bolted forward, eager to get away from the stares.

“Wait!” Hanna gathered her skirts high in her hands and chased after him, ignoring the growing murmurs of the goodwives at the exposure of stockinged legs.

Erik pulled ahead of her, his long legs blurring as he ran, filling him with a sense of sweetness that bordered on pain. After a few dozen meters, he jolted to a stop and laughed at the sight of Hanna racing towards him. She barreled into him, and he stepped back, reeling.

“One of these days,” she gasped, “I swear I’ll beat that smile right off you face, Erik Ito! Just you wait!”

“Don’t be a sore loser,” Erik grinned. He pulled Hanna into his arms and kissed her, sliding his tongue inside her moist mouth. Her fingers intertwined at the back of his head and she melted into his arms. He pulled back and asked, “Are you coming inside?”

Hanna peered up at him, her blue eyes brittle with an emotion he was unable to name. She pressed her palms against his chest and pushed him away. “Go home to your wife, Erik,” she whispered, voice pulsing with heartache. Then she left, walking back the way she came.

Erik watched Hanna leave, uncomprehending. My wife? I have a wife? He could almost picture a face, but as he focused on it, the image faded and left behind a name in its place: Dara. My wife’s name is Dara? It left right, but there was a sense of wrongness to it.

He turned towards his supposed home, not knowing what else to do. Where other homes were only one or two stories tall, his was three and made of plastered brick, sharing more in common with a nobleman’s manor than a villager’s dwelling. Broad shutters were thrown back from the house, revealing a large window, and a pink, youthful face peeked out at him. He waved.

The front door swung open moments later, and the same woman stepped outside. She wore a black dress and white wimple on her head, which only seemed to add to the allure of her symmetric facial features.

“Are you my wife?” Erik questioned her.

“Are you trying to get me murdered?” The woman’s eyes flared in panic, and her small hands pressed down against her black dress. She laughed nervously and glanced behind her to make sure no one had overheard. “I’m your maid, one of the many women you employ. I know my place.”

“What’s your name?”

“Have you been drinking again?” Her young face flashed with irritation, and she tugged him into the house. “I’m Kendra. Come on, you’re late for breakfast.”

In the front hall, the stone floor was polished to a bright gleam, but Erik did not have time to notice much more than that before Kendra hurried him into a large dining room where every piece of furniture looked like it just had been cleaned. Bright mirrors and exquisite paintings hung on the walls, illuminated by the soft glow of lamplight.

A thin woman with green eyes and long flowing black hair sat at the head of the table. Dara. It had to be her, who else it possibly be? Her eyes held an air of brooking little nonsense, even so, she was dazzling to behold. The sight of her made Erik’s mouth dry and his palms damp.

My wife, he thought and found himself smiling.

“Look who I found wandering outside like a vagabond,” Kendra declared to the room, drawing the attention of all eyes.

“Da!” squealed a young girl—the chamber’s only other occupant—who could be no older than eight. She leaped from her seat and charged towards Erik. “Da!”

The little girl flew at Erik with her arms open wide. She looked ethereal, her dirty blonde hair swaying back and forth while her emerald eyes glowed with a power that stole his breath. She was a chartreuse rose growing in the middle of a salt mine. Something that should not be yet was.

“Elina,” Erik muttered as melancholy swelled within him. Before Elina’s arms could wrap around his waist, he lifted her off of her feet and swung her around in a circle. “Elina,” he laughed, joy overcoming his sadness.

Elina rubbed her nose when Erik set her back on the ground. “Pa, you smell foul.”

“Elina!” Dara reprimanded.

Kendra laughed behind her hands and Erik sniffed himself, looking from face to face. He realized that Elina was right. He stank like stale man sweat and another odor he could not quite place. A look from Dara stilled Kendra’s laughter in its tracks.

“What?” Elina turned to Dara, her small face contorted in confusion.

“You never tell your father he stinks,” Dara said. “This is something you must never do.”

“Even when he does?”

“Especially when he does.” Dara nodded her head.

Looking aggrieved, Elina wrinkled her nose and grudgingly said, “I’m sorry, Da, I didn’t mean it. Not really. You smell like flowers.” She gave him a quick hug then backed away.

Erik did not know whether he should laugh or cry. He opened his mouth but closed it again when he caught sight of a nearby mirror. Where he expected to see his reflection, a blue-eyed man with a blond topknot stood, banging on the other side of the mirror with his fists. The man seemed to be screaming, but all Erik heard was the sound of his own blood pounding in his ears.

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Courting Death 2.10 – Númi

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My way is the Old Way.


As Númi came to a stop outside Viscount Baldur’s private audience chamber, his eyes went to the two top-knotted warriors that stood on either side of the doorway. They had not moved an inch when he arrived, except for their eyes which flickered to watch him like birds of prey, judging, weighing. He understood what they saw. They saw a warrior past his prime, a man who had recently lost a hand, covered in half healed nicks and cuts. Yet, inside he was ice, ice cold enough to burn.

“I was summoned,” Númi said in a voice void of all emotion.

The warrior on the right, a man with narrow blue eyes and a brown topknot, banged on the door without look away from Númi. “To hear them tell it, you’re three meters tall with a golden cock, but here you are standing before me, and I’m not so impressed.”

Númi stilled, heat melting the ice inside of his chest. There it was, one more indignity heaped upon him. He wondered if the Lightbender would have had the courage to say those words only twenty-four hours earlier. He doubted it.

Númi turned his attention to a tapestry of colored spirals that hung on the wall across from him, pretending the blue-eyed Lightbender no longer existed. His action had the desired result, the warrior’s hand dropped to the hilt of his longsword.

“I know what you’re thinking,” Númi said. It hurt to speak, every time he opened his mouth the half-healed wound along his jaw throbbed. “He’s a cripple, he almost lost his life to the Third Prince. How strong can he possibly be? But . . . if you draw that blade, you will die.” He returned his icy gaze to the warriors. “Both of you.”

The door opened, and a gray-headed liveried servant stepped out into the hallway. “Sir Númi, this way,” the man said after giving a short bow as etiquette demanded. Without waiting for a response, he turned and walked back the way he came.

For a second Númi stood there, face unreadable behind a mask of blankness. Then, slowly, he followed, noticing the tightness with which the warriors gripped their weapons. He thought of sending them a smile, but could not muster the effort it would take. The things that once brought pleasure no longer held any appeal. He was numb to it all, numb to the pain throbbing under the blood-stained bandage that covered the nab at the end of his right arm. Numb to the world.

A larger oval chamber greeted Númi after he passed through the doorway. At the center of which stood a statue of a woman on her knees, her arms stretched out to the heavens; whether in pray or beseechment was not clear. Brightly colored carpets covered the floor, and the walls were consumed by tall shelves filled with books, only interrupted by the room’s three doors. The servant led Númi around the statue and towards a door across from the one he entered, then he held the door open with a smile.

Númi stepped inside, and the door closed with a bang behind him. The private audience chamber was a large, windowless room, lit by lamplight and the orange and red flames of a hearthfire. Tattered wall hangings and ancient paintings dotted the walls, stone walls overlaid with dark wood paneling. Behind a mahogany table, Viscount Baldur sat on the room’s only chair—a high-backed monstrosity that was almost a throne—writing a letter with a molted eagle feather. The Viscount did not look up from his desk or acknowledge Númi’s presence in any way. Seconds slipped into minutes with nothing but the sound of the quill scratching against rough paper to break the silence.

Great, Númi thought with more than a little bitterness. He stood as still as the stone he cooled his heels upon, doing his best not to sulk. He did not waste any time wondering what Baldur was up to; he had experienced this many times before. Nobles had their subordinates wait at their pleasure to reinforce the power they held over them.

By custom, Baldur had little power over him. He was appointed by the King to lead Prince Erik’s honor guard to the Rin Mountains and fell outside the regular chain of command of Hjörtur. But now that his charge was missing and most likely dead, things were different. Without the Prince here, he became the Viscount’s to direct as he saw fit.

“Who gave you permission to lead a rescue party out of the sally gate last night?” Baldur asked, breaking the silence. He dipped his quill into an ivory inkwell, without glancing up and continued to write even as he spoke.

Númi’s fingers twitched before he could stop them. “No one.”

Baldur froze, brown eyes rising to meet Númi’s own. The fire crackled to Númi’s left, but the room suddenly seemed as cold as his insides. Two. Those were the number of steps it would take him to plunge his longsword into the Viscount’s throat, but he doubted they were alone. Most likely, there were at least two Lightbenders cloaked in invisibility, ready for any attack.

“My Lord,” Númi added as if it were an afterthought.

Baldur’s ancient brow wrinkled into a frown. “Do you understand what I’m doing?” When Númi did not respond, he continued, “I’m writing a letter to his Majesty, the King. In this letter, I explain that his son is dead. This is the second time I’ve had to write this in two days.”

“Is he?” Númi asked, his voice so cold it could freeze running magma in its tracks.

“Is he what?” Eyes narrowing, the Viscount stared at Númi as though he was trying to peer inside his skull.

“Is he dead?” Númi said. “From what I understand no body was found.”

“Don’t.” Baldur flung up a hand, his irritation showing on his face. “I have heard enough stories and theories for one day. You were much closer to the battle than I was. I know you saw the spears that entered his body.” He lowered his arm back to the table. “This is not why you’re here. You’re here because you put the whole citadel in danger with your reckless actions. Men died last night.”

“This I know, my Lord,” Númi grunted. The image of his son’s throat erupting with blood flashed through his vision, making his fist tighten in rage.

“Men who had no need to,” Baldur continued as if Númi never spoke. “Men who had sons and wives. Their loved ones weep for them now. Your son should have been the only one to die last night.”

Númi took a menacing step forward and stopped when he caught sight of the slight smile curving the Viscount’s lips. This was a trap! He could see it now; Baldur wanted him dead so he could place Erik’s death squarely on his shoulders.

Baldur’s smile disappeared when Númi moved back to his original position. “You’ll be escorted to a cell where you’ll spend the night,” he told Númi. “In the morning you’ll receive ten lashes in front of an assembly of your fellow Lightbenders. This shall be your punishment. Questions?”

“None, my Lord,” Númi replied.

“Good. See yourself out,” Baldur said, returning his to the letter.

Númi saluted by slamming the stump of his right arm against his chest. Intense and nagging pain bloomed at the end of the limb, but he ignored it and walked out of the door, once again passing through the room with the statue of the woman on her knees. This time, he did not bother to give it a glance.

In the hallway, the number of Lightbenders had increased by four. They fell in around Númi as he stepped into the corridor, destroying all thoughts of escape, not that he had any to begin with.

“This way, cripple,” said the warrior with the brown topknot from before. He gave Númi a cruel smirk and gestured down the hallway. “You’re palace awaits.”

It doesn’t matter, Númi thought. Nothing matters anymore. Nothing! He pushed his regret away and allowed himself to be led, without responding. From the corner of his eyes, he graded the skills of the rest of the knights that traveled with him, running different simulations in his head. All outcomes ended with his death, the only variations being the number of Lightbenders he took to the grave with him.

The hallways were mostly empty, but those that were not soon found their inhabitants scurrying away to find somewhere else to be when they caught sight of Númi’s party. He did not blame them, it was the sensible thing to do; the air around Númi reeked with the promise of violence. A promise that might just come true.

Before long, he stopped in a passageway beneath Hjörtur, in front of a door made of iron bars, with a lock as big as his fist. A potbellied man on the other side, the jailor, unlocked the door and Númi and his entourage spilled into the chamber. Whips and more insidious tools of torture hung on the walls, but he did not spare them even a glance. He undid his sword belt and let it clatter to the floor.

“This way, Sir,” the jailor said, motioning to a smaller iron gate.

Without a word, Númi followed the potbellied man into a corridor lined with thick, iron-bound doors and lit torches suspended from metal brackets; he felt a sense of relief at seeing where he would be housed; he had seen much worse places in his long life.

His cell was unlocked, and he stepped inside. The room had enough space for him to pace back and forth without feeling too cramped. There was a pan for his waste, a bed, a long slit in the wall through which he could see a glimpse of the night sky, and a small, wooden table with a lamp.

“I put an oil lamp in there in case it gets too dark,” the jailor pointed at the table. He turned to leave when Númi did not acknowledge him.

“Thank you,” Númi said, taking a sit on top of the dirty, little bed.

“You’re welcome, Sir,” the man said, shutting and bolting the door. “I’m sorry for your loss.” The last part was muffled but still understandable.

Númi closed his eyes and forced his breathing into a controlled pattern. Prana flowed into his Three Sefirot—Malkuth, Yesod, and Tiferet—from all around him. With every breath they pulsed with more power, replenishing what he had used to heal himself. It was a sighing breeze filling the sails of his ship, suffusing his Sefirots with untapped potential.

A bug flew in through the slit in the wall, buzzing, circling in the air. Númi’s eyes snapped open, just in time to witness the insect fly into the lamp’s orange flame. It burned to a crisp and fell onto the table, dead. Captivated, he sat up straighter, not understanding why. Soon another winged insect charged into the room and then another. One by one, he watched them all seek their deaths in the flame. Hours passed, and still, he observed, trying to find meaning in their suicidal actions.

Númi blinked, turning to face the door. It opened, and Asbjörn entered, dressed in a scarlet robe. Númi brow wrinkled. “Is it time?”

“Not quite,” Asbjörn responded, the door slamming shut behind him. “I’m here for another reason altogether.” He took a seat on the empty air, across from Númi.

The casual display of power made Númi’s skin prickle with revulsion; the Abyss was not a toy and should only be used when in dire need, or so he believed. He turned back to the lamp and the bugs swirling around it. “I’ve been watching them for hours now,” he said. “At first, I was curiosity. Why do they keep flying into the flame? What do they get out of it? It seems so pointless.” He paused, gazing at Asbjörn with a serious expression. “No, I’m not going insane.”

“I never said you were.”

“I’ve seen insects do this before,” Númi murmured. “But. . . . It’s strange the way we can go our whole lives never seeing what is right in front of us.”

“Closeness makes wonders commonplace,” Asbjörn replied. “We all have a tendency to look outside of our circles for revelations, thinking what is near holds little meaning.”

Númi touched his cheek and was surprised when his fingers came away damp. He could not remember the last time he cried, it had to be over ten decades at least. Tears were the currency of women, and those too weak do battle with the unknown. Lightbender never cried, not even when. . . .

“To lose a son is no easy thing,” Asbjörn said with a sad knowing smile. “To grieve is not something to be ashamed of.”

“Tell me why? Why do they do it?” Númi demanded, a hint of desperation creeping into his voice.

Asbjörn sighed. “I don’t know. . . . They’re drawn to the flame because it’s their nature. Because they’re just bugs and there too stupid to know any better.”

“If they’re stupid what am I? Am I not just like them?” Númi laughed, sobbed. “To seek the flame, isn’t that what it means to court death?” He wiped his tears away. “Why are you here, Asbjörn?”

“I plan to lead an expedition in search of Erik,” Asbjörn answered, “and I want you to join me.”

“Why would I do that? I blame him for the death of my son.”

“I know,” The Mainlander growled, eyes gleaming in the dim lamp light. “That’s why I’m here. What I lead is not a rescue mission, it’s an execution. I plan to kill the thing that now wears Erik’s face.”

Stunned, Númi searched his face. He realized this was the first time he had ever seen Asbjörn dressed in red.

Abruptly there came a knock at the door. “It’s time!”

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Courting Death 2.09 – Asbjörn

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Chaos reigns.


Asbjörn’s breath rasped in his chest as he limped down a columned walkway just outside Hjörtur’s inner wall, using his sheathed longsword as a walking stick. He scrambled past wooden buildings two-stories tall, muttering to himself with each new gust of air. The sun drifted above him, bathing the ancient fortress with delicate light beams that did little to combat the chill of the mountain air. His gray eyes wanted to slide close, but the icy wind and the ache in his ribs kept his tiredness at bay. With all that had happened the night before, sleep had evaded him.

Rumors of what Asbjörn had almost done had spread like ash on the breeze, tainting many with its reach. The evidence was present in the faces of the liveried servants that scurried around the buildings, watching him past with wary eyes. He ignored them or tried to, but the looks brought his shame bubbling up again.

You lost control, Asbjörn berated himself for the hundredth time that day. He could no longer continue as he was, it was not safe, not for him. Not for anyone. It’s time for you to die. Not yet! First, I have to uncover what happened to Erik. I owe him that much. I owe him so much more. My son. My. . . .

Asbjörn blinked away tears and came to a stop. He gazed unseeingly at the golden surcoated Punishers arrayed on the sunlit flagstones of the stable-yard. The soldiers slammed their fist against their chests, and the sound pulled him back to the matter at hand. He nodded, pretending not to notice the fear in their eyes as he strode past them on the way to the large stable they guarded. The wind gusted higher, full with the rancid odor of the stable muck.

From inside the building, he could hear Ypse whispered voice, “You’re afraid, but the thing you must understand is adults don’t respect when a child says, ‘Don’t touch me.’ ” Asbjörn slowed then stopped at the sliding doors, listening to the conversation. “The only thing that gives them pause is when a child says, ‘If you touch me I will kill you.’ I know from personal experience.”

“I just want it to stop,” returned the voice of a young boy.

“This is the only way. You must put your trust in me. I will—”

“My lord,” asked a soldier from behind Asbjörn. “Is everything okay?” Asbjörn spun and gave the man a look that made his face turn pale with fright.

Asbjörn grimaced, turning away from the Punisher’s countenance, the sight of which churned his stomach. Am I that terrifying? He pushed the thought to the side and entered the stable.

Face expressionless, Ypse shifted to regard him, dressed in a better-fitting coat than he usually wore, bright red and embellished. Next to the Sorcerer, stood Leon, a child who could be no older than ten. Despite his young age, Asbjörn remembered, he was the one who had piloted the White Crane when they had searched for Erik’s missing hunting party. And like then, Leon wore his Air Scout uniform, a light blue coat with red embroidery on the cuffs, lapels, and black boots and breeches.

“Asbjörn, what brings you here?” Ypse asked with a smile. A smile that seemed forced.

“A private matter.” Asbjörn looked to the side as he spoke, his attention drifting to the stable’s other occupants. Five White Cranes, the size of horses, watched him from within their stalls, yellow eyes glaring. Their plumage was the color of untouched snow, their faces brick red, and their long legs a light pinkish hue. Unnatural monstrosities!

Ypse nodded and said, “That will be all, Leon.”

Leon absentmindedly fingered the crane-shaped pin pinned on his chest, his eyes unfocused. The sight of him made Asbjörn heart twang with a pang of sympathy. The world took advantage of the weak and the powerless, and none suffered more than the young.

“Leon,” Ypse called again, jolting the boy out of his inward wandering. Leon gave a half smile in apology, then rushed for the door.

Asbjörn grabbed the boy’s arm, pulling him to a stop. Leon froze like a deer caught in the glare of a wagon’s torchlight. The Mainlander opened his mouth, sensing the boy’s pulse quicken through the tips of his fingers. He abruptly realized he did not know what to say; the words on the tip of his tongue seemed false and trite.

“My lord?” Leon whispered, voice trembling, eyes widening. He appeared about ready to gnaw off his arm to get free.

“It gets better,” Asbjörn muttered, the words sounding even stupider as he said them. It gets better? No, it doesn’t. We are all monsters, and this is the Pit. From here your life will only get worse. Die now and save yourself!

“My lord. . . .” Leon spat out in panic, ripping his arm free, bolting out the building. The doors slammed shut behind him, vibrating with something of the note of a wooden barrel smashing against stone.

Asbjörn sighed, turning to face Ypse. “Will the boy be all right?”

“Is that the reason you’ve come,” Ypse grinned. His upturned lips seemed a provocation.

“No,” Asbjörn replied.

“Then forget about the boy,” Ypse said. “I already have this matter well in hand.” He strode over to a nearby stall and ran his hand along a White Crane’s long beak. “Why have you come?”

Asbjörn hobbled over to Ypse, leaning heavily on his longsword. His ribs throbbed with agony, but he refused to pant in the Sorcerer’s presence. “I’ve come because of Erik,” he hissed, behind clenched teeth.


“I’ve been interviewing people all morning, trying to make sense out of what happened last night.” Asbjörn shook his head and sighed. “Yet, the deeper I dig, the more bizarre the story becomes. I need your help in finding clarity.”

“Did you know birds have hollow bones?” Ypse asked, meeting Asbjörn’s blank stare with a curious frown. “Their hearts are also disproportionately large compared to their body size.”

“What does that have to do with anything?” Asbjörn said, trying but failing to keep the irritation out of his voice.

Ypse dropped his gaze. “Nothing. I find bird anatomy interesting. I suppose it comes with the territory.” He returned to petting the White Crane, seeming to find joy in the simple act. “You fear them, don’t you? I see it in your eyes.”

“I fear . . . nothing,” Asbjörn grunted, standing straighter.

“I stand in awe of you,” Ypse laughed. “I’m always gripped by terror. It follows me around like a shadow during the day, and at night it climbs into my cell and smothers me. I pray one day to be like you, Asbjörn, a man without fear.”

Asbjörn fought the against snarl that tried to twist his face. He’s making fun of me. Are you sure? Yes! “Are you done or are you finished?” he said, the softness of his voice belied by the tightness of his grip on the hilt of his longsword.

“What did you discover through your interviews?” Ypse questioned.

“Odd things. Strange, puzzling things. The soldiers who found Erik yesterday morning in the Shrine of the Eternal Father swear that he was naked when they first entered, and then moments later when Viscount Baldur arrived on the scene he was clothed. None of the soldiers heard him getting dress, plus there wasn’t enough time to before Baldur walked into the room. If that were it, I wouldn’t think much of it, but. . . .”

“But,” Ypse added.

“But later when the Prince fought Númi his eyes turned golden, or so the witnesses claim. Then it happened again on the outer wall.”

“What did?”

Asbjörn’s expression soured. “His eyes changed color, aren’t you listening?” He did not think he needed to explain the significance of a Cultivator’s eyes changing color. Any child would understand its importance.

“I am,” the Sorcerer replied. “Please continue.”

“Then there is the episode of him running up the outer wall.” Asbjörn paused, rubbing at his forehead, sensing the approach of a migraine. “None of the Cultivators on top of the wall felt any fluctuations from the Abyss. Not to mention that he was dead. He didn’t—”

“Tell me what you saw last night,” Ypse demanded, cutting Asbjörn off. “Rumors are going around.”

“It’s not what I witnessed that matters,” Asbjörn answered. “It is what others say they saw. Three different soldiers claim they bore witness to a gold and black scaled dragon climbing out of Erik’s chest. How’s that even possible?”

“Do you believe them?”

“I saw the dragon so that part I know is true,” Asbjörn said after a moment. He wanted to deny it but did not see the point.

Ypse tugged at his own patchy red and black beard and moved away from the stall. He paced back and forth, murmuring to himself in a small voice. “Yes . . . maybe,” he muttered a little louder.

“What is it?”

“I have a theory. The Prince Erik we know and love died in the forest two days ago. The thing that was placed in the shrine of the Eternal Father was a pretender.” Ypse waved away Asbjörn’s question before he even had time to open his mouth. “Let me finish. I believe Prince Erik was replaced by the same monster that killed him and his hunting party. The same creature you saw last night. It’s the only thing that makes sense.”

Asbjörn stumbled back, jolting the stall behind him. “No,” he whispered. He did not know what he had expected Ypse to say, but it was not this. Not this! That an abomination could have been masquerading as his—as Erik filled him with revulsion. “How is that even possible? I’ve never read of such a beast.”

From the corner of his eye, Asbjörn saw a white blur lunge toward him. With desperate haste he jumped back, spinning around, moving by instinct. His hands twitched, freeing his longsword from its thin, wooden sheath. The Tár Guðs blade rose . . .

“No!” Ypse shrieked, but it was already too late.

. . .  and fell with one seamless movement, slashing through the long, neck of a White Crane. Blood exploded into the air like hot water from a geyser, splattering Asbjörn, staining his robe. Ypse charged past him, throwing himself into the stall. The Sorcerer clutched the headless bird in his arms, weeping as its body thrashed with the last vestiges of life.

“I’m sorry. . . . Did it have a name?” Asbjörn inquired, skin prickling with a tinge of regret. For a second, his own emotions confused him; he had been attacked, he had every right to defend himself. Yet his justifications did not relieve the sense of guilt.

Ypse looked up, tears spilling from in his yellow eyes. “Just go! And leave me in peace.”

Orange last light blinded Asbjörn as he trudged into an opulent courtyard. When he could see again, he took in his surroundings in surprise. Men and women stood in rows facing an empty wooden platform, their voices pitched low, and their faces mostly blank. Liveried servants moved among them, offering sweetmeats and nuts. The gathering was the opposite of what he would call festive; a somber mood hung in the air.

Asbjörn could hardly believe it had already been hours since he left the stable-yard, it seemed like only a moment ago. A moment since he had wandered the fortress to help clear his mind. He still wore his scarlet-stained garment, though, he had taken the time to clean his face and hands; he hated the way dyed blood itched his skin. His breath came in shallow gasps, yet he felt nothing in his ribs, except numbness, just dull numbness in his sides, in his heart.

Jenny, a beak-nosed woman who was one of Viscount Baldur’s two wives, approached him from out of the crowd. She greeted him warmly, and they exchanged a few pleasantries until she noted the blood stains on his robe and then excused herself in a hurry.

At that instant, Baron Sophus entered the courtyard with Viscount Baldur at his heels, and every eye turned towards them. Sophus walked up onto the raised platform and knelt down on a mat, peering beyond the muted assembly, gazing at the setting sun. He allowed his loose, white robe to fall from his shoulders and gather around his middle, exposing his bare chest. The Viscount positioned himself behind Sophus and drew his longsword.

The crowd had fallen silent some time before, and Asbjörn could now hear the wind batter against the Baron’s clothing. He had seen this ritual performed a time or two, but it still mystified him. The Vindurian nobility made a spectacle of their deaths and monument of their final words.

Sophus picked up a shortsword that had been placed in front of his mat and without hesitation plunged it into his own abdomen, making a slow cut to the left. “Grass has but one spring,” he grunted, blue eyes locked on the dying sun. “Men have but one life.” He made another cut, this time to the right. Fresh gore spilled from his open wounds, but somehow he smiled.

Suddenly Baldur’s blade sliced through Sophus’s thick neck. Asbjörn’s stomach twisted into knots as he watched Sophus’s head float up into the air. Time seemed to slow, and he noticed that the Baron was still smiling.

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