Courting Death 2.05 – Asbjörn

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My hate beats inside me like a second heart.

— ASBJÖRN MAKI, PERSONAL JOURNAL

Ten minutes earlier

In his darkened bedchamber, Asbjörn tossed and turned on a bed wide enough for three people, held firmly in the grip of a nightmare.

Asbjörn’s heart thundered as he walked, and he stared in dismay at the horror that surrounded him. It was a chaotic battlefield, blood and corpses under a moonlit night, soft groans of pain and pleas for mercy. Blades of green grass crunched under his sandals, somehow heard over the much more terrifying sounds. He wore a scarlet battle robe with its hood pulled up over a faceplate of blackened iron, designed to appear like a demonic entity. The stars were a collection of silver beads above him, bright enough to compete with the radiance of the moon, but stood stark against a horizon leaden with roiling black smoke, fed by fiery hilltops and fields.

Asbjörn looked over his shoulder, his nostrils filling with the rancid glory of charred flesh. A group of prepubescent girls followed him, smiling and laughing, fresh flowers weaved into their hair, pale bodies made ethereal by the glow of starlight. Innocence and merriment distilled.

“Ding-ding,” their voices rang out in a musical jingle.

Asbjörn shuddered and turned back around, tripping over the severed leg of an Imperial Legionnaire still thrashing in his broken armor of iron scales. He caught himself and glared down at the gasping soldier. “When will The Last Emperor and the Old Orthodox Church learn?” he asked. “When will they understand the Twin Towers will not be brought to heel?”

“Ding-ding.”

Asbjörn snarled, fury and hate contorting his hidden face. He spun from the dying Legionnaire, drawing his longsword, staring at the young girls who had joined hands to dance around him. Their smiling faces shivered dread into his bones. The longer he looked, the more he sensed his will to live drain from him. Just a little longer, and he would cease to be. He was sure of it.

“Stop,” he pleaded.

“Ding-ding,” they sang, still smiling, still laughing.

Tears ran down Asbjörn face, and a layer of blue flames sprung along his blade. “Please, don’t make . . . don’t make me do it!”

Muttering, Asbjörn thrashed on the bed, then his tremors stilled, and he dreamed on.

Asbjörn scrambled past trees, thrice as tall as he was; dead vines coated them all as if never a drop of water had reached the dark forest. He looked back often, using his fiery blade to slash through the tangle of vines and branches blocking his path. Dim monstrous shapes and glowing eyes stalked him, guttural voices raised in howls. Thunder rumbled above, and lightning crackled through the sky, sometimes seen through the gaps between leaves.

With desperate haste, he escaped the forest, then fell to his knees with a grunt. In front of him stretched a crystalline body of water, wreathed in roiling mist that seemed to burn and tremble, yet was cool to the touch. From the center of the lake, a slender woman with long, black hair thrust upward, golden brown skin glistening with help from the crackling lightning. Her thin, white nightgown was soaked through, revealing more than it hid. And she wore an expression he hoped never to see on her face again. Fear.

Asbjörn ripped off his faceplate and jabbed his fiery blade into the shore. Nenna!

Eyes wide, Nenna approached him, hurrying to his side. “Look,” she said, pointing behind him. “Look at what you’ve done.”

Confused, he turned and bore witness to destruction. Tall plumes of smoke rose to join the milling clouds above, stirred by a sullen breeze, birthed from the inferno devouring the forest. Gray ash drifted down from the dark sky like flakes of white snow on a quiet winter morning, and the heat of the fire washed over him, singeing his eyebrows. Steaming his tears.

“Beloved, this is what they’ve turned you into.” Nenna caught at his hand, pressing it between her own. “A living fire to consume their enemies. An inferno kindled with rage and hatred. White fire to burn the world.”

Ding-ding.

Asbjörn awoke with a jolt, gasping for breath, ears ringing with the fury of Hjörtur’s bells. His ribs throbbed, and a blanket lay at his knees, where it had fallen while he thrashed on the bed. He pressed a hand to the sweat soaked bandages wrapped around his sides. Nothing but embers remained in the fireplace, and a chill had seeped into the room. He shivered, slowing his breathing.

Weeper, a voice mocked from within his head. Fagot weeper.

Asbjörn jerked upright, rocked by shock. He touched a finger to his cheek and realized the voice was right; his cheeks were wet with tears. His chest was fire, every breath sent agony shooting along his ribcage. The pain was nothing! Less than nothing, or so he told himself. I have more pressing concerns, he thought, turning his gaze inwards.

At the heart of his inner void, his Ethereal Body blazed like the risen sun, suffused with prana, surrounded by a transparent sphere. Below it—him a massive vortex spun, a thousand meters from where he sat cross-legged, vast grim waves of gold, green, blue, and red smashing against each other with earth shattering violence. The Abyss. He had called to it while he slept. That had never happened before. Fear rumbled within the depths of his chest, and pain crackled at the edge of his void, sometimes seen as a flash of white light. Splashes of foam suddenly flared beneath him, then crashed back down into the maelstrom.

Old age has made you soft, whispered the voice in the same condescending tone. I liked you better when you made the world bleed and called it tears.

Teeth clenched against agony, Asbjörn climbed off of the bed, dressed only white, linen smallclothes. The bells had not ceased their clamoring, and he meant to find their cause. He waddled toward the wardrobe on unsteady feet, sweating, grunting.

Are you not ashamed of what you’ve become? the voice asked wonderingly. I am. You ran when you should have fought. Now you weep. Every night you weep. Wheezing laughter, soft. What’s the point? The Dark One’s cold, lifeless cunt will swallow you whole when you die. Your soul belongs to the Abyss. Only to the Abyss. What is madness compared to what will come after?

Asbjörn rifled through his wardrobe, trying his best to ignore the voice. The Abyss seemed to bring it out of hiding more often than not, so it could lash him with its poisoned tongue. They had been together so long, he almost forgot what it felt like to be alone in his own head. And in a way, he considered it a friend. A friend he did not particularly like or care for but had grown resigned to.

There are no such things as sins at the end of the world, Asbjörn, the voice continued in a more serious tone. When no one is left alive, who can judge you? Kill them all and free yourself. It’s the only way to escape the damnation that awaits you at the bottom of the Pit.

Asbjörn made his hand unknot from the hem of a crimson robe with two white towers encircled by a gold serpent sewn into its sleeves. He had not worn that particular robe in years; it hung in his wardrobe as a reminder to what he had once been, to what he had left behind when he crossed the Howling Sea.

He dressed in a clean flowing, white robe, taking more time than he would have liked. Yet the pain in his sides kept his pace from increasing.

You can’t ignore me forever, muttered the voice. One day soon you’ll see the truth in what I’ve said.

Never, Asbjörn told it and regretted it almost immediately. By responding he had lost, and he did not need the voice’s self-satisfied laughter rattling through his head to tell him that. Past skirmishes had taught him silence was the only way to win their little battles.

He secured his shortsword on his sash and exited the room, using his sheathed longsword as a walking stick. With every other step down the torch-lit corridor, the wooden sheath knocked against the floor, adding an odd note of contrast to the din of the bells. He focused on the hollow sound, using it to better weather the torment at his sides.

Asbjörn staggered down narrow, curving staircase after narrow, curving staircase, and thought he might die. Sheltered by his inner void, the pain was placed at a distance, even so, it tested his mettle. Without it, he knew he would not make it two steps before collapsing.

So weak. So soft, taunted the voice. This is a bee sting compared to what awaits. It raged with what sounded like real fear.  I won’t go backI’ll burn the world to ash before I let you take me back. Its uttering grew wild and panicked. I am .  .  . d-damned and so are you.

Asbjörn stumbled outside, panting, gasping. He slid down to his knees, leaning on his longsword. His muscles felt like soggy bread, and his lungs were aflame. “Eternal Father, grant me the strength I need,” he prayed, sweat drooping his bushy brows.

An instant later, the bells fell silent. He took it as a sign and climbed back to his feet, meandering through the great square on his toward the inner gate. Hastily gathered soldiers were arranging themselves in rows, armed with iron-tipped spears.

“Cultivator!” they called out when they saw him.

Asbjörn acknowledged them all with a nod and a small smile but did not bother asking them for information. They would know nothing, he was sure, the Vindur nobility loved keeping their subordinates in the dark. Those in his way cleared a path for him to past, falling over themselves in their rush, shooting him furtive glances from the corner of their eyes. The story of what he had done the day before had spread, it seemed.

See, the voice explained, doing nothing to hide its glee. They know what we are.

Asbjörn tightened his grip on the hilt of his makeshift walking stick. Sometimes—no! Most times he wished he could reach inside his head and strangle the voice. Five minutes alone with it would be all he needed. He took a calming breath and hobbled out of the inner gate.

What seemed like ages later, Asbjörn reached the outer wall, wheezing through his teeth. More than a thousand soldiers clustered in front of the main gate, fingering weapons, grumbling to each other in low voices. He seized the nearest man by the arm, an armored giant, and spun him around, lurching the man’s helmet right off his head. Surprised, the large soldier reached for the longsword at his waist, before stopping when he caught sight of Asbjörn.

The man bowed, hand to heart. “Forgive me, M’lord.”

“Your name?” Asbjörn asked, pain transforming his words into a snarl.

“Kai, M’lord.”

Asbjörn leaned over on his blade, hyperventilating. “None of that,” he spat, wiping the sweat from his brow. “I’m not. . . . Never mind. What’s happening here?”

“It’s the Prince, m—” Kai began.

Asbjörn bolted upright, his eyes narrowing. “What about him?”

“W-well. . . .” Kai stammered. “. . . He. . . .” Kai paused, but the look in Asbjörn’s eyes made him find his words again. “The Dökk are assembled in mass at the bottom of the mountain and have taken Sir Patrick Maida hostage. When Prince Erik found out, he leaped off the outer wall and charge down to rescue the knight. By himself. Only a few dozen soldiers were able to follow him out of the sally gate before the Viscount put a stop to it.”

“You mean that Erik is fighting an army by himself, at this very moment?” Asbjörn asked in a voice much too soft, like a thin layer of ice over a well-visited pond, ready to plunge you to your doom at a moments notice. Impulsive and stupid, he thought. One day it will get him killed.

It already has, interjected the voice.

“Yes, M’lord,” Kai replied.

Not again, Asbjörn howled, tentacles of dread oozing down his throat and thrashing inside his stomach. Shocked shouts exploded along top the wall as sentries pointed down at the forest, and he stepped into the sky, using a ladder of Air to climb into the heavens. The soldiers gathered below him, turned and pointed in his direction.

The wind moaned around Asbjörn, fluttering his robe as he rose above the outer wall. He freed his longsword and placed the sheath on his sash next to his shortsword. Then he charged forward, resisting the urge to double over in pain, running across platforms of Air that sprang into being before him then disappeared the second he stepped off.

At the foot of the mountain, forty plate-and-mail armored men and a handful of Lightbenders fought against spear-wielding Dökk, five times their number, in a confusing mix of shouts and howls and clanging steel. And behind them, Erik hung a few meters in the air with his arms pressed to his sides.

Hold on! I’m coming!

Asbjörn increased his pace, panting, hoping he would get there in time. He drew Fire and Air from the Abyss, exchanging some of the prana that swirled within his Ethereal Body to perform an Esoteric Sword Technique called Cyclone Without A Name. Like the brush of a master painter, his longsword whirled around him drawing geometric designs. A pentagon and a circle. The shapes were not really part of the Esoteric Technique, except that if you did not use them, it required twice the amount of prana. Supposedly, the shapes were grooves worked into reality, just like an animal trail in a heavily forested area, following the well-trodden path used less energy.

The end of his sword movements yielded a deafening roar. From all around him furious gusts of icy, mountain wind gathered, churning with him at the center, smashing outward, slowly at first but picking up speed with his every step forward. Thunder rumbled somewhere above, a vague menace in the distance.

You’re too late, Asbjörn, the voice needled as a spear rose and thrust into Erik’s back. You’re always too late. Three more spears soon followed the first, puncturing through blue robe and princely flesh.

“Erik!” Asbjörn shrieked, eyes filling with the nearby horror, taking place only meters below. His heart rose into his throat, choking him on pain. It was happening all over gain. He was losing his son. His SON!

“ERIK!” Tears gushed from his eyes, and the world trembled at the sound of his voice. The surrounding air groaned, turning, even more, tumult, reducing his visibility to near zero with swirling wind. He reached the enemy’s line, and men and Dökk were sucked off their feet, hurled into the heavens by a budding tornado. Trees branches snapped like twigs. Sheets of rain fell sideways, and lightning arched above, illuminating the scene below in brief flashes of clarity.

Burn them all, whispered the voice.

Asbjörn could feel its satisfaction radiating at the back of his mind, but for once he did not care. Burn them all, he agreed.

Hate like a cauldron of acid burned within Asbjörn, bubbling and seething. A blue flame sprang along the blade of his longsword, and he looped it around his head, changing the Esoteric Creation around him. He drew deeper on the Abyss and burnt prana like paper! He left the well-trodden path behind, trying something new. Something different. This Esoteric Sword Technique had never been performed before. Existence itself fought against him! It was like walking barefoot through a field of jagged glass, like swimming upstream in a river of raging magma. Yet he persevered. It needs a name, he thought in a moment of introspection.

Call it White Fire, the voice whispered.

Yes, Asbjörn conceded; he liked that name. He smiled with tears in his gray eyes as the very air around him began to burn.

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Courting Death 2.04 – Erik

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The greatest danger lies within ourselves.

— LÁRA ITO, TO ERIK

Face wet with gore, Erik blinked, trying to make sense of what he had just witnessed. Patrick shook as the night rumbled with sounds of a fierce battle, groaned as if he could deny what had been done. Rays of moonlight made the scarlet rivers glitter where they pooled around the once-white spear that protruded out of the side of his neck. Fine red cuts crisscrossed the surface of his flesh and soot covered the tips of his fingers and the ends of his blond top-knot. The dead and the dying lay piled behind the Prince, gray-skinned abominations, struck down by Erik’s blade, now facing a wave of armored soldiers and a sprinkling of black-coated warriors.

“Good, more of you have come,” the red cloaked Dökk said in a voice tainted by disdain. “We shall butcher your people as they have done mine.”

A tide of Gray Skins swarmed out of the forest, charging to reinforce their faltering brethren. Erik turned his head to regard them as they streamed past his feet and scarlet droplets dripped into his mouth, sweet beyond knowing. He gasped . . .

“We shall soak the ground in blood,” it continued, walking behind Erik with a new spear in its hands. “Until the Earth Mother weeps. Until the Sky Father begs for mercy. But there will be none. We shall sweep clean the lands to the south. Your time has passed, human. This world now belongs only to us.”

. . . euphoria swelling into him, surging life and energy into his extremities. Erik licked at the blood on his lip, hyper aware of the cold hilt of the longsword he somehow still held, and every torn ligament in his arm, every ripped muscle, every broken bone, every bruise. The sense expanded, encompassing the whole of his body until he became conscious of the individual hairs on his head being rustled by the soft breeze. Suddenly, his lungs were afire. Panting, he looked down as the tip of a spear emerged from his chest. His fingers went limp, and the longsword fell from his hand.

“Now you die,” said the red cloaked Dökk.

Erik groaned, body spasming within the grip of the invisible hand that held him off the ground. Soon after, three more bone spears rammed through his back, transforming human flesh into so much meat. His eyes rolled back into his head, and a bottomless wellspring of hurt hollowed him of all thought and reason. Nothing existed but the torment and the Celestial Dragon’s fury pounding at his skull.

“ERIK!”

Someone or something screamed his name. The voice tickled at his memory but escaped him when he grasped for it like pink and white granules through tiny fingers. He existed among gaseous drums, throbbing against a casing of bone. Every beat a pang of hunger. Every beat a lash of torment.

EAT!

Erik’s eyelids snapped open. The world howled around him. Like a sheet of iron set upon a blacksmith’s anvil, the sky quivered and shook, and the once gentle breeze now roared while lightning danced above, arching from darkened cloud to darkened cloud.

“ERIK!”

There it was again, the voice he should know, filled with anguish and rage. Asbjörn. The thought rose within him. That’s who’s shouting my name. His eyes opened wider. “Asbjörn,” he whispered as screams of terror rose all around him, drowning out his own voice.

Men and Dökk alike floated up into the sky, tossed off their feet, seized by the fury of a budding tornado that sprang into existence as if from nowhere. Erik’s invisible bonds shattered and the typhoon-like winds hurled him into Patrick, joining them in a ghoulish working of flesh, blood, and spears.

TEAR! CHEW! RIP! EAT!

Time slowed to a crawl, and raindrops twirled, lazily spiraling toward the ground. Wide-eyed, Erik watched his chest ripple and unfold to entrap Patrick, drawing him in, devouring him with tendrils and petals of blood-colored flesh. The Lightbender grunted, blue eyes dull. Almost lifeless.

Once in a little village not that far from here . . .” A distant voice tickled Erik’s mind.

■■■

Memory Fragment – Patrick Maida

“ . . . there were two children, a brother, and a sister. Thick as thieves they were, always up to all manner of mischief.”

Patrick sat at a large table, using a wooden spoon to scoop oats mixed with cow’s milk out of a bowl and into his mouth; the wild berries sprinkled into the gruel did little to improve its taste. He fought back a grimace and glanced at his raven-haired father, Lyngar, the one who spoke.

Dressed in shirtsleeves, Lyngar perched at the head of the table, in front of the unlit fireplace, lighting a wooden pipe with a candle. He was a short man with a round belly large enough to rest a bowl upon while he sat, as he often did, but not on this occasion.

“Their favorite capers were all done at night,” Lyngar added, face wreathed in his first puff of pipe smoke. “They loved sneaking out after dark and pretending to be monsters. The first time they did it, the whole village was terrified that the wardstones had stopped working—”

Across the table from Patrick sat Kristey, his hazel-eyed sister, with hair as black as their father’s, which made Patrick jealous whenever he had cause to ponder upon it. His own hair was blond, more bleached than his mother’s own even. At ten, she was two years older than him, a fact she never let him forget.

“—Fathers, sons, and even some womenfolk rushed out of their homes with long blades, knives, brooms. The children thought it all a big joke. They laughed and laughed at the foolishness of their neighbors. Their ma, bless her heart, feared for her little ones’ safety. She lashed them good and proper. The children wept and promised to never do it again, but two nights later do you know what they did?”

Kristey’s small hands rose to cover her mouth. “No,” she gasped in shock, captivated by their father’s tale. “They didn’t?”

“Yes, they whooped and hollered banging on the neighbors’ windows and doors in between fits of giggles. This time, their old ma thrashed them until their bottoms were covered in red welts.”

Patrick’s backside stung at the thought, reminding him of the time Kristey had dared him to drink a bottle of their father’s ale. He did not know what had been worse, the sickness that had followed or the beating Lyngar had given him after. The beating. Definitely the beating.

A smile split Lyngar’s round face, and his eyes twinkled as if he knew exactly what Patrick was thinking. “They promised their ma in tear-filled whispers they’d never do it again,” he said. “They swore sacred oaths, invoking the name of the Eternal Father. Yet a few days later, when their ma had relaxed her nightly vigil at the front of the door, they crept out of the house on cat’s paws. They stalked the darkness gleeful of their own cleverness right up to the moment the little girl shrieked. When the little boy saw what had grabbed hold of his sister, he ran away in terror, bolting through the village, banging on doors, shouting for help. This time, no one answered his call. They all remained in bed, confident in the fact it was the wicked children up to their old tricks again.”

Held in rapt attention, Patrick witnessed it all in vivid detail in his mind’s eye. He felt the vibrations of the little boy’s pleas hum into his bones, heard the thunder of the monster’s footsteps, getting closer and closer. It all made his palms itch with anxiety.

“When the children’s ma awoke in the morning, she looked everywhere for her little ones, but couldn’t find them,” Lyngar said with a wry twist to his mouth. “Soon the whole village was searching high and low for them, yet none could find a trace of them. And they never did.”

“What. . . .” Kristey nervously licked her bottom lip. “What got them, Da?”

Lyngar placed his pipe on the table and yanked Kristey into his arm. “A Cockma got them.” His voiced brimmed with dark hostility. “It grabbed the girl first because it likes the flesh of little girls the best.”

Kristey shrieked as Lyngar gnawed on her neck. “Da, let me go!” Mirth escaped Patrick’s mouth at Kristey’s wails of horror. “Da, no!”

“Then it got the boy,” Lyngar said, pulling Patrick into his arms as well. “Because little boys ain’t so different from little girls.”

Patrick squealed, sensing Lyngar’s teeth at his neck. “No, Da! I’ll be good! I’ll be good!” Somewhere along the way, Patrick and Kristey’s screams transformed into fits of giggles.

“What’s the ruckus out there!” yelled a voice from the back of the house, causing all three to pause.

An instant later, a woman with dirty blonde hair walked out of a bedroom, holding a wet rag to her forehead. Swollen with her third child, her old wool dress stretched around her round belly, and her blue eyes promised retribution for any who dared test her patients

“Sorry, Ma,” Patrick and Kristey exclaimed in unison, retaking their seats.

Lyngar sent his wife, Mábil, a rueful smile. “Sorry, love. I’m the one to blame.”

“Who else would I blame, Lyngar?” she asked, sucking air through her teeth. “First, you keep me up with your perversions, and now you won’t even allow me a moment’s respite?”

Lyngar approached Mábil, arms raised in surrender. “Now now, dear.”

“Don’t now-now, me!” she yelled, whipping him with the wet rag; Patrick and Kristey shared amused glances, well-used to their parents’ antics. “Just let me sleep in peace! Is that too much to ask for?”

At that instant, there came a knocking at the front door. Three muffled bangs that shook the old timber of the high-peaked, thatched roof house.

“See who that is, Patrick,” Lyngar said, in between showering Mábil in apologetic kisses.

Patrick walked over to the door, staring at the books that stood in rows on the shelf opposite the kitchen before continuing on his way. It seemed he often fantasized about the wonder found in the pages of his father’s book these days.

He opened the door, and the stern face of a stranger greeted him. Piercing blue eyes were the first thing he noticed, and then the man’s blond and gray top-knot that hung down his back, draped above a black coat with silver buttons. The last was the longsword that hung at man’s side.

A Lightbender, Patrick thought with a sense excitement, but soon the feeling turned sour. There was something in the way the man stared at him that made Patrick’s skin crawl. The Lightbender’s eyes held the same intensity with which his father had once gazed at a prized horse.

“Patrick, who is it?” asked a voice from the kitchen. His mother’s voice. “. . . Patrick?”

He wanted to respond but was held silent by a pulsing little stab of dread. The fear that if he moved, the man might do something unspeakable. What that horrible thing might be he had no idea, but the unknown terror of it made his legs quake. Footsteps rushed toward him.

The Lightbender lifted his gaze, looking past Patrick for the first time. “I’ve come for my son,” he said when Mábil and Lyngar reached the door.

■■■

Erik screamed, whipped by wind and water, his body a hulking amalgamation of throbbing flesh, his mind battered by an onslaught of external memories. He fell to the ground, grabbing onto the wooden post with a deformed hand, the last of Patrick dissolving into his chest. Fleshy petals and tendrils thrashed about him.

He gasped up at the sky, blind to everything but his inner torment. Raindrops flooded his mouth, drowning, choking him. An erotic haze covered his senses, and another rush of memories swept him away, dragging him down into unknown depth.

■■■

Memory Fragment – Patrick Maida

As a strong blast of wind stoked the fire in front of him, Patrick glanced at the Lightbender who claimed to be his father. The man sat on top of a log in front of a shaggy, brown horse, sharping his longsword on a whetstone. It had been mere hours since the stranger had spirited him away from his home. He felt lost and a vague sense hopelessness that the darkening forest that surrounded him made seem more poignant and terrible.

Snarled tree branches half-lit by orange light twisted menacingly in the breeze and sinister sounds reached his ears from the dark. The only thing keeping him from running away in terror was the four little wardstones placed around the campsite. The twelve inch tall stone obelisks gave him a sense of assurance that made everything else bearable.

“You’re confused,” the Lightbender said, not looking up from his blade.

Patrick dropped his gaze, unsure how to respond, this being the second time the man had ever spoken to him. Earlier that day, the Lightbender had smacked Patrick across the head and told him to remain silent. What had followed that was an awkward morning horse ride into the scrolling dawn.

“It’s all there on your face for the world to see. Your confusion. Your hate,” said the top-knotted warrior. “You’ll have to change that. Being easy to read is a weakness that will lead to an early grave.” Abruptly he looked from his blade to stare at Patrick. “Do you dislike me, son?”

Patrick remained quiet. Yes.

The Lightbender laughed. “Good. You’re learning. When you hate someone, they should never know it. That way when it’s time to slit their throat they don’t see the blade coming.”

“You’re not my da.”

“I am. Your mother spent two months with me until she became swollen with my seed. It’s something that common women often do. They receive a stipend for any children they bear from such unions. Lightbenders may not take wives or raise families, it’s part of the Code.” The black coated warrior stood, pausing, thinking. “This probably makes no sense to you, but one day it will. For now, call me Sir Númi if the word father is too difficult.”

Patrick watched, mouth agape, as Númi then lost himself in a dance-like flow of sword forms. He moved, twirling and slashing his blade around the campsite. The longsword seemed alive in his hands, looked a part of him in a way that filled Patrick with longing. All thoughts of home drifted away, listening to the blade whistle through the air.

Abruptly, Númi stopped with his weapon an inch from Patrick’s neck. “What do you think of my sword?”

Patrick’s eyes widen, fear tickling his throat, blood pounding in his ears. His legs shook, and his hands trembled. RUN! Do it now!

“Answer me!”

“It’s . . . it’s beautiful,” Patrick stammered, gripped tight by abject terror. This man who called himself his father was no man at all, he realized, he was a monster that had learned to walk upright.

Númi nodded. “She is that, beautiful and deadly. Remember this, nothing in the world has as much power as the sword. Sometimes I stab a man, and I watch him until his eyes lose their shine.”

A burst of pain erupted along Patrick’s cheek, and he tumbled backward, falling off the log he used as a seat. His hand rose to touch his face and came away stained with crimson. He could not believe it. He . . . cut me.

“Consider this your first lesson, son. Soon you will have a blade to call your own,” Númi said, sheathing his weapon. “When you draw her, she must always taste blood, whether it’s your own or your enemy’s it matters not. This is my way. Few still honor this tradition, but these new generations of Lightbenders have become soft. I will not have you picking up their terrible habits, so remember this well. My way is the Old Way.”

■■■

Erik howled louder, his voice drowning in the roar of the wind, churning around him. Every fiber of his being burned, soaked in moments that twisted and changed like a living shadow. The Celestial Dragon climbed to ascendance while he battled back the assault of images.

RIB! CLAW! TEAR! DEVOUR

He lay on the ground next to the wooden posts, his body a roiling and turbulent mess. An unstable dragon claw pushed its way out of his chest before collapsing and rejoining the seething ocean of red and black flesh. Erik clung on by a fingernail, but it was a losing battle, he knew that. The Celestial Dragon was finally breaking free!

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Courting Death 2.03 – Erik

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In the end, it is not truth that matters, but only victory.

— ERIK ITO, PERSONAL JOURNAL

Erik could not understand Baldur’s reaction when he turned from the mountain trail to regard him, though the Viscount was not the only one who stumbled backward. They all did, all those he now faced on the torch-lit rampart. Lightbenders and armored soldier alike, hands drifting toward the hilts of longswords. Apprehension tinged with confusion marred the Viscount’s weathered visage as the wind rippled the black robe he had worn since morning, although the Tree of Life that once marked his forehead was now gone. A few scant clouds drifted overhead, and the pale light of the fragmented moon shined down upon the forest below.

“What . . . what are you?” Baldur snarled, giving the hilt of his blade a twitch.

Erik stood straighter, chin slightly raised. My eyes, he thought, panic stirring. They are afraid of my eyes. They must have changed when I. . . . Fuck! Nausea encroached, battling a wave of excitement swelling at the aura of danger.

The eyes were the gateways into a Cultivator’s soul, and if perceiving the world the way the Celestial Dragon did had transformed his own scarlet then. . . . No! They could not be red. Otherwise, the Viscount would not have hesitated. None of them would have! Fiend Lords were to be murdered on sight, no matter their former rank.

“I am Erik Ito,” he began, balanced on a knife’s edge, blinking as agony bloomed at the back of his eyes, returning his vision to normal. “The third son of Vilhelm Ito, King of Vindur. Long may he reign.” This better work!

“Long may he reign,” a scatter of voices took up the call.

“While I do not claim to know Sir Patrick well,” Erik continued, turning from face to face, pretending nothing strange had happened. “I fought shoulder to shoulder with the man. I found him loyal and steadfast in his service to the crown. What I do now I do for my honor.” His voice boomed in a way that seemed tailor-made to address throngs of men. “Sir Patrick risked his life to save mine, I can only but do the same.” He paused on the Viscount. “Lord Baldur, you are not mine to command, that right belongs only to my father. But I beseech you send no one after me.” His voice lowered to an almost perfect whisper. “What I do now, I do for myself.”

Without giving Baldur a chance to respond, Erik leaped from the wall, flinging himself toward the mountain trail and freedom. Surprised gasps rang out behind him as the rush of air flared his robe like a banner. He ignored them, focused on the pointed tip of the wardstone rising up to met him. Shit. Shit! Perhaps this was not one of his brightest ideas. He should have at least looked before he jumped. Yet it was too late for regret. Much too late.

He leaned forward, flipping upside down, muscles tensing, heart thumping. The pointed tip flashed past his head, and he avoided impalement by a hair’s breadth. His body continued to turn, and the back of his legs jolted the wardstone. Eyes widening, he lurched, belly flopping onto the ground. Pain bloomed in his chest like flowers made of iron saws. Broken bones punctured their way into his lungs, and blood, darkened by the swelling gloom, spewed out of his open mouth.

Erik lay in the shadow of the ten-meter tall pillar, blocked from the reach of torchlight, distant shouts of concern cascading down upon him. He prayed the darkness was enough to keep the extent of his injuries hidden from view. Any second now soldiers would burst out of the sally gate and they would see a man who should be dead but was not. Not even he would be able to explain that away.

I have to get up. I. . . .

Erik struggled to his knees, a hand going to his chest. Scarlet wounds ripped wider, and fresh blood trickled past the hand meant to stop the rush of gore. Teeth clenched, he looked up at the pale light of the moon; it hung in the sky in segmented pieces, a few long destroyed chunks missing. Once, in ages past, the moon had been whole, or so some claimed, he did not know if he believed that. He could not imagine it any other way. It fit this place. A broken moon for a ruined world.

The sound of a gate opening pulled his attention back onto more pressing concerns. He reached out with his mind, seeking to establish a connection with the little droplet of himself, but it was like grasping at smoke. No matter how hard he tried, they slipped through his fingers. No.

He laughed, or at least he attempted to. His amusement was thwarted by pain, transforming chuckles into agony filled grunts. It was all over, he could see that. The clamor of running feet approached him from behind. No! I refuse to give up! Not now. Not ever! He jerked himself upright, swaying on his legs.

Abruptly, the connection tying Erik to all his wayward pieces firmed. Sluggish and slow. Much diminished from what it had been in his personal apartments, but it was better than nothing. He called to his separated parts, understanding that his reckless use of his new abilities had drained him of much of the energy needed to power his healing. The blood stopped escaping past his fingers, reversing its flow, and the gore pooled at his feet crawled toward him like dark, red worms maneuvering through the dirt, rejoining his body, making him whole.

Erik groaned, weakening further, dropping his hand from his now repaired chest. Everything spun before him, and the Celestial Dragon rose from the depths of his mind, shuddering with pangs of desperate hunger. The desire swelled into every crevice of his being, vibrating with a thousand pieces of isolated sound, forming into one endless drone that burnt its way into his very bones until he thought they might shatter. Until he thought the world might burst!

RIP! CLAW! TEAR! DEVOUR

Erik shut his eyes and roared at the moon. The sound tore its way out of his throat, exploded into the air like thunder, stalling the soldiers rushing towards him in their tracks. He opened his eyes, eyes that once again bore bands of gold around pupil pure blackness. Outline in orange, a squad of Lightbenders stared up at him, from half way down the mountain trail. Below them, scores of Dökk charged out of the forest, forming a spear wall in front of Patrick’s suspended body.

Hollowed out, Erik gasped, fighting against the incessant drum beat that prodded at his mind, demanding to be fed. Images of raw meat fluttered through his head space, bringing with it the taste of blood. The. . . .

EAT! CHEW!

Erik bolted forward, charging down the mountain. We will! Later, he promised the beast. Now was not the moment to war with the monster. Much better to appeased it and focus all his attention on the battle yet to come. Its presence receded, but not far. Waiting.

The air turned thick around Erik, resisting his attempts to run even faster. The invisible Lightbenders hundred of meters below him, scatted out of his way, appearing to move like pollen drifting on a sluggish breeze. It took what seemed like seconds for him to reach and then speed past them while they tumbled away.

Tentatively, Erik tested his mind, but it would still be a few more minutes until he would be able to ensnare any more prana. All Cultivators were limited in the number of times they could siphon energy from the world; on average most were constrained to once ever six to eight hours. Those who ignored this restriction, soon had their brains destroyed by their own power. That meant he would have to do battle armed only with his longsword.

There will be a slaughter done here as savage as anything that can be imagined. They will whisper of this day for generations to come, he whispered to the thing inside him.

The Devour of Worlds shuddered with anticipation.

Up head, a hundred Dökk stood in rows, snarling through fused teeth, black eyes scanning the night. And still more remained hidden, cloaked in the shadows of trees, all revealed by Erik’s strange vision. The dark shard embedded in their foreheads caught and glittered moonlight. The purple sky pulsed. Snow white pines rustled in the wind.

Erik glanced at the wooden sheath secured at his waist, painted black and carved with soaring phoenixes. It, along with the blade, had been a gift from his father, but now the sheath was battered and cracked, ruined by his fall from the outer wall. A tinge of melancholy touched him before he shook it off and drew his longsword while tossing the sheath forward. It drifted up into the sky as though it were a kite being pulled by a long piece of string. What seemed like an eternity later, it landed behind the enemy’s line.

Startled, Gray Skins spun around, searching for the source of the noise, creating a slight opening in the spear wall. Then Erik was upon them, crossing the invisible boundary that marked the edge of the wardstones’ influence. His foot slammed into a Dökk caught in the act of turning. The force of the blow lifted the creature off its feet and sent it flying.

Pivoting on his back leg, Erik used his momentum to flow into his next attack. His longsword whirled, slashing through the neck of a Gray Skin beside the one he kicked. Eyes alight, he pushed himself faster, chasing after the Dökk floating backward, smashing into its comrades. He ducked down as he ran, extending his blade to the left, dodging a severed head and a fountain of blood. The trick he realized was to keep moving, the second he stopped they would be all over him.

His longsword chopped through two sets of ankles and the spray of crimson strings followed him like hounds on the hunt. Then he was behind the enemy’s line, turning left, still slicing through limbs. Twisted shouts and howls rang out around him, the chorus to his ballad of blood.

As the spear wall began to collapsed, Erik jerked right, running towards Patrick. Blue eyes alight with dread and hope, the Lightbender hung naked in between two wooden posts, face swollen and body riddled with half-healed wounds. Erik imagined Patrick thought he had come to rescue him, but nothing could be further from the truth. He had come to kill!

Erik smiled. Now all he had to do was wait for reinforcements to arrive as he put on a valiant effort to defend Patrick while surrounded by enemies. Sadly, he would fail, and Patrick would die in the ensuing struggle, but everyone would witness how hard he had fought. They will write tales about this night. They will sing

Suddenly, the world lurched back into its normal rhythm, and Erik’s feet left the ground without his own volition. He hung suspended in the air, arms pressed tightly to his sides as if gripped by a giant hand. At that instant, the Dökk he had kicked—what felt like ages ago—crashed into the trunk of a tree with two of its brethren, bones breaking, skulls rupturing like melons.

Inches from where they struck, a Gray Skin far larger than the rest stepped out of the shadows, dressed in a tattered red cloak with more holes than fabric. It moved towards Erik with its hand outstretched, seeming to exist in his own little hollow of space and time. A wolf among sheep. A god among weeds.

Eying the red cloaked Dökk, Erik struggled to free himself, but it was like trying to move a mountain with his bare hands. What is this, he wondered, sensing no fluctuations from the Abyss. Panic trickled through him like droplets of slick scum, making his skin crawl and itch. His eyes darted back and forth, looking wild and crazed.

“LET ME GO!” Erik roared.

“No.” The creature’s voice was low and severe. “You mean to save this one,” it said, looking at Patrick. “He is destined to die here . . . and so are you.” It closed its extended hand.

Erik screamed as the invisible hand squeezed at his body. Muscles and ligaments in his arms ripped and tore and bones shattered as though struck by an anvil. He clenched his teeth, cutting short his howls, refusing to give his captor the pleasure of hearing him scream. He glared down at his enemy, his throat wet with the taste of his own blood.

“Every five years, your kind slivers across our land and steals members of our Kvik,” it continued, dragging Erik through the air until he floated in front of Patrick. “Then you bleed them to death on your great glowing stones. No more. We will stand for this no more.”

Face to face with Patrick, the sounds of the battle raging behind faded away. Patrick appeared much how Erik imagined Númi looked in his youth. Blue eyed and handsome. Even covered in gore, Erik was sure he would still break the heart of many a woman.

This is the man I’ve come to kill?

It all seemed so stupid. He and Patrick had shared laughs and drinks together, had fought shoulder to shoulder against the horrors that inhabited the world. Yet, he knew he would kill him to protect his path to the throne. Hanna was right, there was nothing he would not do to reach his goal.

“As you can see I’m here to rescue you,” Erik told Patrick, smiling even though it felt forced.

The Lightbender shook his head. “No. You’re dead. I saw you—”

Patrick’s eyes bulged, and the rest of his words turned in a wail. He thrashed back and forth as the Gray Skin made a woman out of him, impaling his anus with a spear. The rope tied around his hands and arms tore into his flesh, drawing blood.

Erik watched, eyes widening, heart pounding, as the tip of the spear broke out of Patrick’s neck and a dark jet of life fluid splashed onto his face.

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A Broken Circle 1.09 – Erik

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To secure victory, sometimes it is necessary to first remove all avenues of retreat. Until one is forced, there is always a hesitancy to commit to a single path.

— VILHELM ITO, TO HIS SONS

The bedchamber was loud although no one spoke, filled with the clatter of distant bells, ringing with a sense of urgency. The sky outside the arrow-slits was just turning dark, and the mountain air added to the night’s chill blowing past the brocaded curtains, kept at bay by the fire crackling in the fireplace. Erik stood frozen in a moment of indecision, staring at Hanna with a hand on the door. She lay upon satin sheets, stained with droplets of crimson, clothed only in the shadows, peering back at him, eyes suffused with a history of pain and ruin.

“Go!” she urged, her voice and the bells joining into one seamless sound.

Erik frowned, dropping his hand from the door. The sight of her reawakened the fire in his blood, made his breath catch in his throat. He moved toward her, a smile springing to his lips.

“Erik Ito, I told you to go. . . .” Hanna paused, going on in a more hesitant tone. “And why are you looking at me like that?” She pulled the bed sheet above her waist, hiding her exposed womanhood to Erik’s dissatisfaction.

“Like what?”

“Like . . . your eyes are those of wolves,” she said, “and I’m your latest meal. I don’t like it.” Something in her voice told him the last part was not necessarily true. “Plus, haven’t you had your fill?”

“Never. I could dine on you forever.” Erik climbed back onto the bed, his inner desire shining through his flirtatious eyes. “Tell me, what does it feel like when I’m inside you?”

Hanna blinked, breathing fast. “I don’t know if I can explain it. You fill this space inside me, I didn’t know was there, and it’s as if you’re meant to be there. It’s hot just there, where you are. And it feels good. So good.” A touch of crimson crept into her cheeks, and her blue eyes glowed with heat. “I sound stupid.”

“No. You don’t. That sounds—”

Suddenly, Hanna shook with mirth as the bed groaned under Erik’s weight.

“Pray tell, Wife,” he said, “what amuses you so?” His look of confusion only seemed to add to her amusement, increasing the volume of her laughter.

“You. Us.” Hanna replied, taking Erik’s head in between her hands and kissing his forehead. “Hjörtur may well be burning around us, and here we lie ensorcelled in darkness like two star-crossed lovers.”

“Let it burn,” he whispered, and meant it, pressing his lips down against her own.

Hanna ran her hand through his hair. “First, you were afraid that I would bore you, and now you mean to ruin me. Is that the plan, Erik?”

“How else am I supposed to stop you from setting my home aflame and salting the earth?” Erik joked. “I must ruin you for my country. Repeatedly if at all possible.”

The smile slipped from Hanna’s face; the witticism seemed to cut a little too close to home. “Go,” she said in a more somber tone. “I will be here awaiting your return . . . and if anyone dares stand in between you and your way back to me, kill them. Kill them all.”

“For you, my dear, I would murder the world,” Erik promised, saddened by the sudden change in mood. He wanted to say more, but instead he gave her one last kiss. A kiss full of the burning passion of tragic beginnings.

Reluctantly, Erik climbed off the bed and hurried out the door, imagining there were tears in Hanna’s eyes, but he never turned back to look. He liked not knowing for sure, finding comfort in an element of doubt. Holding his longsword still to keep it from tripping him, he quickened his steps. The faster gone, the sooner he would be back.

The hinges creaked as he opened the antechamber door to slip outside and closed it behind him. The hallways near his bedchamber were empty, void of their usual bustle and din. When Hjörtur’s bells rang, servants were to secure themselves within their bedchambers. It was something they had spent months practicing at his insistence. He felt a vague sense of accomplishment that his innovation had taken hold and then felt stupid for feeling anything at all. What did it matter?

It’s the small things that keep you going at the end of the world, he told himself. It was something that Asbjörn had once said to him. He did not understand it then, but now he thought he did. Small victories kept you from losing hope.

Erik increased his momentum, and his legs exploded with power that whipped the air around him. The rush of speed was invigorating, but he kept waiting for the onset of tiredness. It never came, Erik felt as if he could run forever at this pace without experiencing any form of weakness. He pushed himself faster, curious to see just where his new limits lay. The air roared around his blue robe, tightening the material against his form. Faster. He needed to go faster!

Physical feats of strength had never been his forte. His mind had long been his greatest tool and weapon, yet now, he tore through the torch-lit corridors with all the ferocity of a four-legged predator of the Northern Reaches. He took a sharp corner.

Up ahead, three serving women knelt—moving ever so slowly, it seemed to Erik—throwing spilled laundry into a basket. He leaned forward and angled for the wall, the thin legs hidden under his robe swelling with new muscle mass. He leaped into the air and ran across the wall, dashing past the upturned faces of the liveried servants, causing their long hair to flair out behind them.

Distorted gasps rang out when Erik flipped over a lit torch and landed on the floor with a loud thud a moment later. Not pausing even for a second, he ran on, fighting against what seemed like a mountain of slush. He smiled, muscles in his legs constantly ripping and repairing themselves, speeding down hallways, gliding down the walls of narrow, curving staircase after narrow, curving staircase, packed full with plate-and-mail armored soldiers who shouted in surprise when he wheezed over their heads.

Bursting out of a side door, he jogged along the columned walkway that led out of the inner gate. “Make way!” he bellowed at the soldiers blocking his path.

The row of armored men jumped sideways, creating a tunnel for him to pass through the inner gate. Too slow, Erik thought—catching a whiff of fresh sweat and hints of fear—as he was forced to push a few stragglers out of his way. Men were sent tumbling into each other, chaos forming in his wake.

Between the inner and outer walls, all manner of buildings sprawled, intersected by dirt streets, creating a small town in itself. Erik trotted past the armorer’s forge where all work had ceased, the woodyard where split firewood lay stacked under long sheds, and the large stable where the White Cranes were kept. Soon, the dark stone of the outer wall came into view, and a ridiculous question took hold of him. How far could he push his new abilities?

Heart thumping in his chest, he stopped and stared up at the ancient barrier of midnight colored stone, noticing the bells had fallen silent. Seconds ticked past, and a great many eyes turning in his direction. Perhaps this was not the right place or time to test himself, but the exhilaration of the last few moments still surged in his blood. His fingers twitched.

Fuck it, he thought, charging forward, running up the wall. Sounds faded away, replaced by the roar of the wind and the groan of his muscles, straining in his legs. His body sang with power, and his blood thundered in his eardrums. It was wonderful and terrible all at once.

Howling in joy, Erik flipped over the edge of the wall. His longsword flashing out in front of him as he landed in the midst of a group of high-ranking officials, blocking the blade slashing towards his neck. Shocked voices rang out, and Viscount Baldur stumbled backward with his weapon rattling in his hand. A look of pain tracked across his face, gone in an instant.

“Forgive me, my Prince,” Baldur said. “You surprised me.” He sheathed his blade, gingerly rotating his wrist as if it hurt. Something vile sparkled in his brown eyes. Displeasure.

“Quite alright. It’s my fault. I should have taken the stairs.” Erik gave Baldur a rueful smile and turned from him, sheathing his blade, ignoring the looks from the armored soldiers and the Lightbenders that lined the rampart.

Baron Rasmus, a skinny, hook-nosed man in his early twenties, stood just behind Baldur. He wore a flowing pink robe etched with golden lotus patterns and peered at Erik with an expressionless face.

“Rasmus,” Erik greeted.

The Baron nodded, blue eyes cold and distant.

Across from Rasmus, Baron Sophus stared up at the darkening sky, clothed in a tattered red robe, whispering to himself with an absentmindedness that stroked Erik’s fears. “… leftovers… the polluted…” His large head shook, and sweat dripped down his pudgy chin

Erik frowned, fearing it might be an early sign of madness. The Abyss fed on the weak and the gentle hearted, seeming to only leave the cruel and the arrogant untouched by its corruption. Sometimes he wondered if it was by design. He fought back a sigh. Baron Sophus was the closest thing to a friend he had made during his time at Hjörtur.

“Sophus,” Erik called out softly.

Sophus blinked, noticing the Prince for the first time. “Erik . . . when—”

“Remember the Code, Sophus,” Erik said. Cultivators who allowed The Change to overtake them brought shame to their House and forever had their names stricken from history. The Code demanded ritual suicide of all those who sensed the approach of madness. “Remember your honor.”

Sophus’ bottom lip trembled, and his eyes moistened. Those around him looked away, pretended not to notice, but not Erik. “What are you saying. . . . You can’t mean, can you?” he asked, voice soft despite his obvious discomfort.

“It’s better to die as a man and be remembered,” Erik said, “than to live as a monster and be forgotten by all those you love.”

Sophus shut his eyes and balled his hands into fists, arms and legs trembling. When he reopened his eyes, confidence shined through where before there was only weakness. “Thank you, Erik, you’re a true friend.” His words radiated with sincerity.

“When?”

“Tomorrow at sunset,” Sophus replied. “Will you be there?”

Erik nodded. “Tomorrow then.”

Sophus gave Baldur a short bow. “Excuse me, my Lord.” Then he was gone, walking towards the stairs, moving with all the regal dignity befitting a man of his rank and position. It made Erik proud, and for a moment he hoped when his own time came he would show such grace.

Immediately, Baldur motioned to a group of ten Lightbenders. The top-knotted warriors nodded and then chased after Sophus, the air warping around three of their members until they vanished.

“You did him a kindness,” Baldur told Erik.

“Did I?” Erik wondered out loud.

“I have no doubt about that. The Abyss is an enemy each Cultivator must face alone, but he has been fading for weeks. We could all see it. He was the only one who couldn’t or wouldn’t.”

Erik took a slow breath, pushing his worry for his friend out of his mind. “Why were the bells sounded?”

Baldur walked to the edge of the rampart and drew a large circle in the air with his blade. Within the circle, water appeared, rippling and deforming until the forested region below became magnified as if seen through a giant looking glass. A naked, top-knotted man could be seen hanging, with his arms and legs tied in between two wooden posts. Blood from countless nicks and cuts marred his skin. The man lifted his head, revealing blue eyes.

Erik froze. Shit!

“It seems Sir Patrick Maida also managed to survive whatever happened to yesterday,” Baldur murmured, studying the Prince’s face.

Sir Patrick was alive? “Who’s holding him captive?” This was not good, if the Lightbender lived to tell what he had seen then Erik’s life and goal would be in grave danger. Especially, if they believed Erik was a sorcerer’s abomination masquerading as the Prince.

“Keep watching.”

Erik did. A milling mass of gray-skinned Dökk hid behind tree trunks, white, bone spears clutched in large hands. The sight of them calmed him, though, it had been over three hundred years since the Dökk Wars, stories of their cruelty were legendary. If they held Patrick captive, the chances of him surviving were close to zero.

“When were the wardstones last renewed?” Erik asked.

“Two years ago,” Baldur replied in an almost bored tone. “I know what you’re thinking, but it’s not that. The wardstones are fine. They can’t see us.”

Erik stroked his mustache. “Then how. . . .” he began then paused. “Patrick. They used Sir Patrick to find what they were unable to see.”

“Clever buggers, aren’t they?”

“Now they’re using him as bait,” Erik said, thinking out loud. “We’re meant to rush down there and try to rescue him.” I have to make sure nothing of that sort happens.

At that moment, a slightly overweight armored man with beady eyes came running up to Baldur. Out of breath, the man bowed, fist to his chest and stammered, “My . . . my Lord. . . .”

“Spit it out,” Baldur barked, irritation flashing across his wrinkled face.

The overweight soldier straightened. “Sir Númi just led a group of Lightbenders out of the sally gate. I think they mean to—”

“He what?” Baldur roared.

Panicked, Erik rushed over to peer down the rampart, blood rushing to his ears. His eyes burned for an instant as if hot coal had been thrust into them and then the world changed before him, assuming the characteristics of a waking dream. The dark sky pulsated with a pinkish purple hue, and distant tree tops glowed like untouched snow in sunlight. It was beautiful in a way that touched the soul, but he had no time to admire it. He focused on a group of ten Lightbenders rushing down the mountain trail, once invisible, now outlined in orange where the light bent around them.

No. No! NO! Erik raged at himself. I should have killed Númi. This is what comes of kindness! He would not allow the rescue to succeed. He would not! For the throne to stay within reach, Patrick had to die. He had to kill him.

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Courting Death 2.02 – Patrick

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

— NÚMI MAIDA, TO HIS SON

A day earlier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m certain of it,” Erik laughed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Quiet!” Ebbi yelled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You always win?” Vakur growled.

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

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

“Stop!” Patrick shouted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fuck,” he whispered.

Last Chapter                                                                                           Next Chapter

Courting Death 2.01 – Patrick

Last Chapter                                                                                           Next Chapter

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

— VILHELM ITO, TO HANNA

A day earlier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Erik looked around. “Is this everyone?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well?” Patrick said.

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

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

“The Jade Spider sounds promising,” Erik replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!” Patrick shouted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My Prince!” Patrick yelled.

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

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A Broken Circle 1.08 – Erik

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Hope is a waking nightmare.  

— HANNA ITO, FAMOUS LAST WORDS

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

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

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

“My Prince,” they said.

“Did anyone enter?” Erik asked softly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Erik began, “Hanna—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BREED, the monster urged.

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

“Be gentle,” Hanna whispered.

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

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

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

“Erik!” Hanna yelled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Erik, go!”

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