Darkness. He was stumbling in the darkness. The ground was slippery and he would trip over things. Eirick took two steps tenderly across the moist ground. Slowly he tried to move in some random direction in hope of finding something he could understand.
“You do not belong here.” A booming voice made him freeze and almost cower as he heard it. He tried to speak, but no words came out. “You will speak when I ask.” A burning set of eyes appeared above him and regarded him with a piercing look. All secrets were revealed and Eirick felt naked as the eyes stared at him. He fell to his knees.
The eyes moved closer and closer. Soon they were so close that he could feel the heat from the fire. His face started to burn.
“Aaaargh!” His scream filled the void and darkness descended on him again. He heard steps on stone and the ground beneath him felt solid again. Was he on stone ground again? He felt the ground and there was a mix of straw and sand on top of sand. It felt like the floor of a cell.
The steps had stopped and the sounds of metal on metal like someone handling keys started. Eirick tightened up as the sound of a door opening and light streaming into his cell made him cower. A huge man entered the frame of light and Eirick could not make out his features, but the shadow of a Sorian noble armor could be made out.
“Boy, what are you doing here?” Eirick backed even more away as he recognized the voice. “Why is my champion in chains?” The face was younger and his frame was more muscled, but it was definitely Xen. Eirick started to stand up, but his armguards were fastened to chains on the floor.
“What has happened to me?” Xen’s face became clear as the light hit it. He was pale as a corpse and a wound across his neck was surrounded by dried blood. His eyes were milky white, but he could clearly see Eirick.
“What did you do to me, boy?” He spoke with Xen’s voice, but it sounded like Glenn’s words. Why did he call him boy? A hand with slightly rotting flesh reach for him and Eirick cringed and closed his eyes as he could feel the touch of death come over him. The feeling surrounded his heart and he felt like he was falling.
Eirick gripped the chains in panic and used all his strength to break the chains. The sound of metal creaking and screaming sounded like the screams of thousands of souls. Xen started to laugh.
“You cannot escape this.” The voice had changed to the voice of the fiery eyes. Finally, the chains broke and Eirick ran for the door. The laughter did not stop. Instead it became more maniacal.
Eirick ran through the door and out into a stone corridor. He ran down it listening to the laughter and the echo of his footsteps. The laughter changed one more time and as Eirick reached the light at the end of the tunnel, he could hear that it was his own voice.
The vast forest he ran into was not like the ones he had spent the last weeks, but a young forest with lightly leaved trees. Eirick looked around and wondered if he had awakened in some other reality. This did not feel like the dreams he had before. A wind passed by him and he smelt the wind. It smelled like honey and he wanted to walk here forever.
A growl from an animal woke him from his bliss and he turned around to where he had heard the sound. He did not think and simply started to think. It was mere instinct.
The trees passed by him at lightning speed and it felt like he had run like this all his life. Sunlight broke through the trees and felt like a sweet touch of a lover.
Eirick stopped at a cliff and beneath it he could make out a huge cat creature growling at something beneath him. It had clearly cornered something, but he could not make out what it was. As it jumped towards its prey, Eirick dove from the cliff without thought and crashed into the cat just before it hit whatever it was hunting. He and the cat tussled around on the ground and the cat snapped and growl at him, but he felt stronger he had ever done. It was not a struggle, but it was not easy either. Finally, his curved knife slit the throat of the cat.
Laughter made him turn to where the prey stood. It was not the laughter of mockery, but that of a loved one laughing at your silliness without making you feel bad. The laughter belonged to Skathi. She was dressed in her hunter garb with a knife drawn. Eirick felt embarrassed that he believed he had thought he could rescue the goddess of wilderness.
Skathi walked over to Eirick and smiled kindly at him like a mother smiled at his son. She leaned over and whispered into his ear.
“Go into the sunset, my child.”
His breath was labored, as though he had been running. The smell of vomit and campfire hit him as he took a deep breath to calm himself. He felt the hand of Nora on his arm and he turned to her. She smiled and spoke.
“Did they speak to you?” Eirick nodded.
“What did they say?” The worried voice of Aasmund sounded on his other side.
Eirick tried to make sense of what he had seen. The fiery eyes, Xen’s young form asking him strange questions and him making a fool of himself in front of the goddess Skathi.
“I am not certain. The vision was not clear on everything.”
Nora put a hand on his shoulder in an effort to reassure him and he felt a security around his thoughts. He dug into his mind.
“I am sure you will find the answers.” Her voice filled him with calm and suddenly the first rays of sunlight hit him.
“West. We need to head towards the sunset.” The answer came to him as though given to him by the gods.
He felt strangely secure as they walked alongside the river that morning. The trees did not seem as alien or as menacing as they had when they had camped earlier that night. He could see farther and even sunlight broke through as they walked further west. The river was as vast as it had been at the cataract further upstream, but it seemed less violent and calmer now.
“Do you remember the stories we used to be told around the campfire as children?” Aasmund had been walking behind him for most of the morning, but now he came up next to him. The path was for once wide enough for two.
“Yes, I do.” He smiled as he remembered how Rolph would make the stories come to light by waving his arms and changing his voice.
“Do you remember the one about when Erik and his people were lost at sea?”
Eirick nodded and thought once more about how they would tell stories like that on with hushed voices so not to make the guards aware of what story they were talking about.
“It was my favorite. They were trapped by the lack of wind, food and water, and then Skathi told Erik that he was selected by her and her father to lead them and that the gods would provide food for them.” Aasmund smiled as he told the story. He had a tone of voice that made everyone listen to him. Eirick smiled at his friend.
“Then she made the leviathans chase up a school of fish so they had food. She made it rain so they had water and then a wind guided them to the shores of Ismark.” Aasmund turned to Eirick. “Maybe that is what she is doing to us now. We were hungry and tired when we came out of the mines. There we found a place to rest next to water and food. Maybe the gods are watching over us and guiding us where we need to go and not where we want to go?”
Eirick thought about his friend’s words. They felt wiser than he thought of the older troublemaker that he had once known.
“You may be right, my friend.” Eirick hacked away at some bushes in front of him. His dreams started swirl in his head. He had been guided out of Barkoth after the tunnel collapsed under the Arena.
“I did have a dream about the mine tunnel out of the city.” He stopped hacking as Aasmund cleared away some branches. The trees closest to the river were covered in a moss that hung from the branches.
“How else would you have known about the tunnels? They were a secret to most in the city.” Nora came up on the two from behind. She was putting another bunch of herbs in her satchel. “You have a gift, Eirick.” She took Eirick’s hand. “It would be a shame upon the gods if you denied it.”
“Why did you…” Eirick was interrupted by a growl in the distance. It sounded like the animal growl from his dream.
Eirick started to run without thinking, leaving Aasmund and Nora wondering what he was doing. Trees went passed him like a blur and he could feel when he needed to change course. It felt like he was acting without thought. Almost like when he was fighting in the Arena. He knew what was coming and he knew how to avoid it.
A second scream broke through the sound of birds and other animals, but this was not one of a cat creature. It sounded human and Eirick ran even faster to reach the person in distress. He ran on top of a small cliff looking out on a clearing in the forest. He could see a black cat-like creature circling something beneath him, but he could not make out what it was. His body tensed up almost as though he knew what was coming.
Eirick jumped just as the cat jumped towards whatever prey was beneath him. They met in mid-air and Eirick grabbed the large cat by the throat and they tumbled around on the ground. The cat tried to bite at his neck, but he used his strength to keep the vicious teeth away from his own throat.
“Eirick!” He could hear the voice of Aasmund calling for him on top of the cliff, but his focus was only on keeping the snapping mouth of the cat away.
It was a strong creature with a slick fur of jet-black color, but the head was covered in a slightly thicker fur, making it look like a Sorian desert lion, like the ones he had seen portrayed in art in Barkoth.
The black cat creature bit into his left arm as he protected himself. He screamed out in pain. Unlike the fights he had been in before, it did not take the time to gloat over its victory, but went in for a second bite. This time he had it. As it went for his face, he let it in just enough and then used one of his short swords to pierce it under its jaw and through its skull. The blood squirted out of its mouth as it gave its last breath.
Eirick lifted the cat creature off him and got up. He was covered in blood and felt like he was coming out of a trance. Why had he run so fast without thinking? Then he remembered his dream. He looked for the prey that the cat had been chasing. At the end of the cliff he could see something that looked like a human body that had collapsed. It looked like it was covered in fur. He walked towards it and after a few paces, he saw that it was not a human at all.