Eric took a deep breath and exhaled.
His eyes shifted towards his wrists. The cut reached deep into his flesh. The red took a dark hue, yet the blood flowed at a slow and steady pace.
Shouldn’t it be gushing out and sullying the temple? Under normal circumstances, he would be dead within a minute total. But now, his Fylgja controlled the blood flow. If he willed it, he could hasten his death. So how long did he have? An hour, two? Thirty minutes?
“I don’t need your power; they do.”
The Fylgja laughed. “Keep insisting, and you will die. Why do you lie to yourself? They are not here, so end the charade. You don’t do it for them. Only for yourself.”
Eric raised his eyebrow and stood up. “I’m merely repaying my debt to Altera and Ragna. I’ve no personal stakes here. It's their heroic tale and journey. I’m merely supporting cast.”
“Oh, please. You know very well that this isn’t true. The two tried to get out of the Rising Forest alive, and you merely tagged along. All these ramblings about your life debt is merely an excuse.”
“What can I say?” Eric shrugged his shoulders, not letting go of his smile. “I like a good adventure. It's kinda a requirement in my profession.”
“What do you mean?” Nephtys asked.
Eric turned around.
Nephthys took a step back. Her expression had darkened, and she looked at him perplexed. “You left your life behind for no reason at all?” She waved her hands around the temple. “All of this? All the dangers you’ll face, all the suffering you’ll experience, all because you felt like it?"
Eric looked away. He had never seen her like this. Somehow, he had always thought of her as this bundle of silliness. It was arrogant of him to assume that she couldn’t possess other character traits or have depths. But that his attitude angered her, he must have hit a nerve.
“Don’t you have any friends? What about family? What would they think about this?”
“Bravo. I like that girl.” The Fylgja clapped his hands. “Well, Nephthys. You must understand. It was an easy decision for Eric to make because he had nothing to leave behind. He had abandoned his life once. And he can do it a second time.”
Nephthys grimaced and shook her head. “That can’t be true. There has to be something.”
The Fylgja chuckled. A tentacle extended from his body and wrapped around Eric. “You would think so. But the truth is that he is empty. There is nothing. He is less a human being and more like a doll searching for a puppet master who can control his strings. I mean, look at him.” The tentacle caressed his cheek. “He didn’t even react. You had to defend his life. Our Eric-boy just stood there and endured. He didn’t protest; he didn’t try to deny it. Because he long ago had just accepted the sad reality that he was nothing. He doesn’t even register it as an insult. Isn’t that true, you pathetic puppet?”
Eric didn’t give a response.
What could he answer? Would it matter what he said? He couldn’t deny it either. The Fylgja insulted him, and his tentacle slithered around his. And he didn’t do anything. What could he say to him? That the Fylgja was wrong? If Ragna were here, she could retort. No matter the situation, she would try to argue her case even if it was on principle alone. How did she do it? He would never know, and thinking about it made him dizzy. It had gotten noisy. How annoying. At least the blood was warm. What if he went to bed. Didn’t that sound good? Wait, no…
The Fylgja’s tentacle whipped against his face. A cracking sound came forth, and Eric's fingers touched his reddened skin.
Nephthys clenched her fist and looked to the side. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be.” The Fylgja smiled. “Puppets are meant to be played with, and your presence is most welcome here. As proof, I will tell you how he became this pathetic shadow of a man. You know it all started-“
“No. Stop!” The Fylgja’s words disrupted Eric’s trance and catapulted him back into reality. He reached with his hand, and the Fylgja faced him.
“So, now you protest. Know your place.” His tentacle rose to the sky, and within the same instance, it lashed against Eric’s back. Eric screamed as the whip cut through his clothes and ate into his skin. The construct splashed from the impact, and Eric crashed against the ground.
“Be careful. I’m using your blood here.”
Nephthys covered her mouth; her body arched up.
Eric winced on the floor, whimpering as his hands pressed against his back. Blood stained his clothes, and a red line drew on his exposed skin.
“Now, where were we?” the Fylgja continued. “Ah, right. It all started when he entered the military academy. Did you know that Eric had an older brother? What was his name again? It’s on the tip of my tongue.” He snapped his fingers repeatedly. “Well, if I had a tongue…Ah, right. It’s Jerry. Jerry Mort. You remember Jerry?”
“You…” Eric raised his head. He barred his teeth and snarled. And as he tried to get up on his feet, he glared daggers at him.
The Fylgja chuckled. “Oh, now you are showing some defiance.” His body twisted around itself and turned into a helix-like form, its tip dangling over Eric’s body, like a sword about to strike a heretic because he dared to stand up, or a worm about to burrow itself inside its victim. Fissures drew through its shank. The Fylgja's head split apart, and the opening started to move as if it was a mouth.
“Young Jerimiah was a splendid man, was he not? You idolized the ground on which his feet walked on. And while he could not obtain the famed rank of a Valkyrie, he had a promising career ahead of him.”
Eric grabbed the Fylgja’s body, rattled against it, tried to rip it apart. He couldn’t let him talk. To listen again, letting Nephthys know. He couldn’t bear it. He couldn’t allow it.
But all of Eric’s attempts were for naught. He couldn’t silence his Fylgja. The blood construct continued to tell Eric's tale and ignored him as he continued to stop the Fylgja.
“Indeed, not everyone possessed the desire to bask in the sun ray’s glimmer. Young Jerimiah enlisted into the Einherjar, but one fateful winter’s night, he and numerous comrades disappeared during one mission’s outing. And our Eric-boy? He was devastated. Grief had been carved into his heart. Yet, he wished not to despair. Hope was inside him.” He pointed at Eric. “Hard to imagine this shell once possessed such quality. But indeed, he had it. Hope: That he would find his brother and uncover the circumstances behind his disappearance. He entered the academy, and would you know it? It became apparent that he would surpass his brother. Such a delicious irony. For the sake of his brother, Eric-boy achieved a level his idol could have never obtained. But that all changed.” The worm’s head descended and leaned close to Eric’s face, and as it opened its mouth, his breath spread over Eric’s face. “I presume it is better if you finish this tale of yours.”
Eric growled, refusing to say a word. His hands reached for the worm’s throat, and he twisted it apart, strangling his Fylgja.
“I would reconsider your choice,” the Fylgja said. ”If you want to live, that is. Refuse to cooperate, and I will cancel the trial.”
“You can’t do that. You had a deal!” Nephthys screamed at the Fylgja, and the rune on her earring started to glow.
The Fylgja turned around. “I can, and I will. It is erroneous to assume that I am bound to the rules you humans adhere to. If I wish to lie, I will lie. If I wish to betray, I will betray. And if I wish to break my word, I will break my word. Such concepts lose their meaning outside the human habitat. As such…” He faced Eric again. “What will you choose? Death or reveal your greatest shame?”
Eric let go of the construct. “I…I…”
“Rather would you fail than confront your failings.” The Fylgja cackled. “So much for everything being for their sake. That was just another lie you told yourself. Why should I give power to a coward who would rather die than face shame? If you can abandon the mission of your friends so easily, then clearly it wouldn’t be worth it.”
Eric rubbed his eyes. Listening to him became a hassle. His thoughts started to speed up to the sound of his heart. It beat and drummed and pumped blood into his body. A desperate attempt that decreased the amount of blood in his body and shortened his life span even more.
What was he talking about? His head hurt. Fuck, fuck. He had to do something. Why couldn’t he just shut up and let him be? Why did he have to go through this? Fuck. Was he losing his mind? He was complaining about everything. Fuck. His throat was sore. He needed something to drink. He needed some water. Noisy. It was noisy. White noise was buzzing in his ears. It made his skin crawl. Cold.
“Guess, I will take the rest of your blood then. Compared to drawing it out, bleeding out in an instant is much more pleasant, is it not?”
“We…” Eric hawked. He tried to swallow his spit multiple times until it ran down his throat, and he could clear it. “We were on a mission. Vaixian soldiers had blocked a sea trade route, and we had to eliminate them. And we did. But as one of them was dying, his mask fell off. It was my brother.”
Nephthys gasped, and the Fylgja grinned. “Indeed, indeed. Our Eric-boy has his brother’s blood on his hands.”
“He betrayed his kingdom?” Nephthys asked.
Eric chuckled. He sat down and stared at the sky. His skin had gotten pale. Beads of sweats formed on his forehead, his shirt stuck to his skin, and his breaths increased. “All the soldiers we had killed that day. They all had disappeared along with him.”
“But why?” Nephthys asked again.
Eric dropped his shoulders and buried his hat in his head. “I asked him the same thing. He told me he learned the truth.”
“About the war, our kingdoms, our history. My brother died before I could ask more.”
“I’m sorry,” said Nephthys.
“When I sometimes think about it, I wonder if Midgard knew. My brother and I just happen to clash? Too much of a coincidence. Did they send me to lower his guard? Did it even matter? I quit and started to search for the truth.”
“So, that’s why…?” Nephthys made big eyes. One could see the lightbulb inside her turn on. She had reached the punch line of his tale and uncovered his secrets. He might as well be naked before her eyes.
She saw what a loser he was. Was anything more pathetic than him? Thinking about it hurt. It felt like his brain was dying. Fuck.
“I don’t give a shit about this war.” Eric stood up and leaned his body against a pillar. “Trying to make a better world? Please.” He chuckled and rubbed his arms. “I don’t even want to know if he was right.”
“You don’t?” Nephthys asked. “But then why?”
“He wants an excuse, that he was justified in killing him.” The Fylgja unwinded its body and splashed as a blob on the floor. And the humanoid body emerged from the resulting pool. “You have nothing more in your life. Trying to search, always questioning. It might be an endless search, but isn’t that what you want? The more you seek, the less you have to think about your pathetic existence.”
“Are you happy?” Eric widened his arms and walked towards the temple’s center. “You revealed my great secret. Is that what you want? Do you want me to say it? I’m a pathetic loser who's nothing to live for. My entire life’s a farce. Here, I said it. Are you happy?”
The Fylgja shook his head. “You do not want to live, yet you fear death so much that you would rather reveal your deepest secrets than to die. Why should I lend my power to a coward like you?”