Erik lead the way, and Nerick followed silently.
An unusual silence surrounding the usually loud and talkative man, glancing back Erik also noticed him gazing off into his surroundings with a blank expression, as if in thought and only following through instinct.
Erik did not know what worried the man, (“Brazath? Or is it Kayle?…”) He pondered, still undecided on how to approach this. (“The party’s weakest link…Why did Kyllix call him that? Each of them could take on a Demon Lord at this point…Shizuka as well with some luck on her side, so why Nerick?…”)
Looking forward as to not walk into a wall, Erik continued to ponder as they silently walked. (“Each of them fights for something…but Nerick only fights for someone? Thea? Kayle? Himself? Maybe his family? Does he have family?”) Breaking that silence then, “Nerick?”
“Yeah?” He responded, seemingly still in a thoughtful daze as he caressed Ivara’s snout while the wyvern slept around his neck.
“From which part of Druvia are you? I realised I’ve never asked.” Erik said, continuing to lead them down the long hallway.
“Ah, I was born at Fort Swain, both of my parents were army and… My aunt ran an orphanage in Ejul where I was raised with the rest of the abandoned. The orphanage was funded by the Selene Family, so I grew up around Thea and Kayle as well since they’d visit often with their caretaker.” Nerick explained.
“Abandoned?” Erik repeated in question.
“Well, that’s what we called ourselves much to my aunt’s frustration, the abandoned children. And I was one of them, since my parents chose the kingdom over me.” Nerick sighed before continuing, “Around ten years after my birth, they were promoted and transferred to Balgor, which was further away so I rarely saw either of them. Less so the both of them at once and…thirteen years after that the…Fort Balgor fell, they both died defending what they loved I guess.”
“I see…” Erik trailed off, unsure what to say as they reached the hall’s end, now standing before a large set of wooden double-doors.
“Ahah, don’t worry about me, I’m wasn’t too affected by their loss unlike Kayle and Thea were with their mother.” Nerick assured sensing the awkward atmosphere he had created, “I never really knew them, so I guess I never really had them to lose in the first place. That’s how It felt.”
“Hmm, that’s…I can’t say I understand. My parents were…always there, always so strict and controlling. When I left them behind to go on my folly of a conquest I was relieved, I felt free. Then when I was reborn…and realised that they were all gone? I wasn’t sure if to be devastated, or guilty.” Erik explained as the two massive doors opened for them, leading into a small hall with five more of the same massive set of doors surrounding it.
“Nerick, who do you fight for? What do you fight for?” Erik then asked, turning to face the Djiin as they stood before the open doors.
Nerick’s eyes narrowed as he faced the Dragon, “Kayle.” He answered immediately, “But I guess I don’t make much of a knight, huh?” a melancholic smirk making up his expression.
(“I see…So this is your hypocrisy then.”) Erik mused, (“Your weakness.”)
“I’m not sure I can believe that. If you fight for Thea’s sister, then why did you come with us? Why did you not stay with Kayle to protect her?” Erik argued, “Just how you did when Thea and the rest of her army platoon chased after those fiends back at Crodor?”
Erik’s words seemed to hit a nerve, as Nerick stopped petting Ivara, lowering his hands to his sides. “I…Back then It was because I knew I could make a difference by being by her side…But how could I compare to professionals like the Crimson Guard? How can I even try to take the spot of the Dreadblades you left by her side? I’m not, so instead I left with you…to find the strength I need.”
“You have that strength now.” Erik added, “You could face off against even the Dreadblade captains and have a fair chance of victory. So, what will you do now?”
Nerick sighed, raising his left hand slightly to gaze at his open palm. “What can I do? I’m still nowhere strong enough…I could barely fend off against that giant of a Bestia at Ai’Sen, and I couldn’t even move a finger against…Delirio…I’m still not worth to stand by her side.”
“Therein…lies more truth than you know…huh?” Erik mused quietly, “You’re afraid, aren’t you, Nerick?” he then asked out loud, seeing him tense up. Erik’s cold gaze focused on the Djiin, as their eyes widened, their walls crumbling to dust beneath his words. “You feel guilty for what happened to Kayle, because you weren’t there. But you’re also afraid, you’re afraid that even if you were there, that there would have been nothing you could’ve done to stop it from happening.”
Nerick’s hands clenched into fists, as his expression trembled. “Yeah…” He hissed back, “What of it!?” all the frustration he had been holding onto…rushing out of him all at once. “Even after…Even after all the training I gained with the army…even after being told I couldn’t learn s*** for magic! I did my best…I became the army’s best bloody spear and sword! But…how…how could an orphaned street rat get into the Slayers? They rejected me, they told me I wasn’t good enough.”
Nerick took a deep breath, as his fury suddenly turned cold. “Then you came around, spouting magic like it was just second nature to you. Turning a lost cause, turning a bunch of afraid villagers…into victors. You, you who saved everyone…I had to follow you, I had to know why you were so strong…I wanted your strength Erik, and you offered me some. Something nobody else ever had done, Erik you gave me strength but…Is it enough? Am I…Am I enough now?”
“At this rate, you never will be.” Erik responded coldly, “You’re weak, Nerick.” He told him straight.
Nerick’s shoulders slumped and Ivara woke, the young wyvern sensing his distress and turning to hiss at Erik.
“That is, what you want to hear though, isn’t it?” Erik then asked, causing Nerick’s eyes to widen anew as his gaze rose to meet his own. “Kyllix was right, I understand now. You are weak Nerick, but not because of what you are, not because of what you think but how you think.”
Suddenly, Erik opened his wings wide, as lightning surged through his entire body. “You’re a coward, Nerick.” He snarled, and his form blurred.
Erik appeared before Nerick, grabbing the man by his neck and raising him off the ground, startling both him and Ivara as he threw the both of them through one of the doorways. Sending them crashing through thick wood and slamming the giant doors open, Nerick held onto Ivara as they soared even further into the cavern.
“You’re a coward, and a fool.” Erik’s voice resounded through the cavern, as he suddenly appeared in Nerick’s path while he still soared from being thrown. Turning in mid-air and kicking him, Nerick groaned in pain as he was shot down into the ground with great force.
The floor quaked and shattered beneath him, as he felt his entire body shuddered, somehow surviving the attack and collision.
Nerick rose shakily, holding onto a confused and terrified Ivara as he met Erik’s feral eyes.
“Nerick, you think you’re weak? Do you think you’re unworthy? Do you think that you’re hopeless?” Erik snarled, rage filling both his voice and expression. As he flew ahead, his large wings beating with a resounding rhythm that filled the cavern.
Erik chuckled coldly, “We have some time before I must check on the rest, and a few days before we move on Lahihr. Let’s make use of this time…well. I’m going to beat some sense into you, because it seems like I was too soft before. So, don’t you dare hold back.” He warned, as the air about him crackled with crimson lightning.
“Because I am going to show you just how wrong you are, Nerick. I am going to show you, what true despair is like.” Erik explained with a dreadfully fearsome tone, “Defend yourself, because I do not need cowards in my ranks. I do not need weaklings. Defend yourself or die.”
Erik suddenly lunged forward, beating his wings once and moving upon Nerick at blurring speed, his white-staff appearing in his right hand and crashing into Ivara as the wyvern morphed into a large shield which Nerick quickly took hold of.
The shield shuddered as it resisted the clash, but as the crimson lightning within rushed through both Ivara and Nerick screamed with agony. Feeling as if they were being burned from the inside out for as long as they retained contact.
Nerick backed away from him, breaking contact and relieving them from the crimson lightning.
But Erik gave them no rest, immediately he lunged again. All too fast, Erik flew around them, coming to suddenly stand behind Nerick as his staff bashed into his side. Sending them both flying, tumbling over the ground hard as they slowly came to a stop.
Nerick lay on the ground, groaning in pain, unable to find the strength to stand.
As Erik appeared above him, his cold, dissatisfied eyes gazing down at him. “Stand up, pull yourself together and fight.” He hissed, unsheathing his Underblade as wailing faces appeared to engulf his form in an emerald flame. Erik stomped his right leg onto Nerick’s chest, sinking him lower into the ground while raising his sword, changing it about to hold it with a reverse grip.
And aiming the blade, down at Nerick.
“I will kill you.” Erik warned, but Nerick did not resist, feeling too broken to move. “Is that what you want? To be released of your pain? Of your guilt? Do you think you will be free then?” Erik coldly asked, as Ivara suddenly shifted back to her true form.
The wyvern hissed wildly as she lunged up at him, claws ready and fangs bared.
But she stood little chance, as Erik simply swatted her aside with his staff, sending the small beast tumbling off into the distance. Erik watched as it still tried to rise again, and he hadn’t held back one bit, he knew many of its bones were broken just from that.
“You’re pitiful, Nerick. Barely a scratch on you, and you won’t even try. Yet that small creature, broken and bruised, has more fight in her than you.” Erik said, lowering his gaze to meet Nerick’s eyes.
Hollow eyes, Nerick’s expression seemed empty as he gazed back.
(“Do you truly think, what you feel now is despair?”) Erik thought in annoyance, as he gripped his sword more tightly before suddenly lunging it down into Nerick’s shoulder.
Blood splattered out, but was suddenly absorbed into the spectral flames, as the wound shuddered.
Nerick’s eyes widened, and he wailed as well, agony rushing through his entire body from simple contact with the cursed blade. “Do you feel it? That is pain, but it is nothing still. You’re afraid to feel it Nerick, but you don’t know real pain. You don’t know true agony.” Erik hissed as he pulled the blade out, leaving Nerick as a shuddering mess beneath his boot.
“I-I d-don’t?…” Nerick managed to say through quivering breathes, “W-What do you know!? What do you know of pain!?” Nerick exclaimed with anger, grabbing onto Erik’s knee-pads. “You who had it all! What do you know of how I feel!? You’re strong, too damn strong and I’m too damn weak! So how can you understand!?” Suddenly pushing Erik’s leg off, “How could the strong understand how the weak feel!?” Nerick exclaimed as he rose to his feet, lunging at Erik as he was pushed out of balance.
But Erik quickly recovered, stomping his foot down into the ground and grabbing Nerick’s lunging fist with his gauntlet. The ground shuddering beneath them both as their hands collided, and Nerick suddenly felt himself rise, as Erik quickly spun him about before letting go.
Nerick was once more sent flying. He tried to regain his balance and stop by putting his feet down into the ground, but that only unbalanced him further as he tumbled the rest of the way. Coughing and out of breath, he found himself lying next to Ivara, who crawled to try and reach him.
“I know much of pain, Nerick. And I might not know what you feel, but I understand. As much as you don’t want me to, I understand your pain. I understand that you’re drowning yourself in pain, in despair you made for yourself. But if only you stood up you’d see, that the waters are shallow.” Erik said, as he approached.
“You’re weak, but only because… I understand now, I can see right through you, it is akin to looking through glass really.” Erik chuckled coldly, “That is why you’ll never be able to protect anyone.”
“S-Shut…up…” Nerick tried to say, as he forced himself to stand up.
“That is why you’ll never be able to protect even yourself.” Erik ignored and continued to admonish him.
“That is why, you’ll never be able to protect Kayle.”
“Shut up!” Nerick exclaimed as he stood weakly, meeting Erik’s empty gaze with his own frustrated expression.
“Why? Is it not what you want to hear? Is it not what you tell yourself every passing moment? That you’re too weak, too magicless, too powerless to do anything!?” Erik bellowed, “Like you are now, you are right. So why not just give up? Why not just lay down and die? Don’t worry, I’ll take care of Kayle myself.” Erik said, growing a snide smirk as Nerick’s eyes widened.
“Maybe I’ll make her mine too, just how that demon did, while you were off elsewhere. Do you even really care about her, Nerick?” Erik rambled on, as Nerick’s fury rose and rose…
Until he reached his breaking point.
“No…I care…Damnit I care…” Nerick whispered at first, as he felt a dark energy rush through his own body, as he heard his own bones snap back into place.
As did Ivara’s by his side, the wyvern rising to its feet and gliding up to climb his arm.
As a dark swirling energy, formed around them. His ring, the chain and her collar, fading into almost being visible.
“Do you even care at all? It is a lie, is it not? Of course, it is, you would have been there if you truly care-” Erik continued on, until he was suddenly cut off.
“I care!” Nerick shouted at the top of his lungs, “F****** hell do I care…Every day, she’d be there…Even when Thea wasn’t with her, even when her caretaker didn’t know she’d sneak in to be there with me…When I had nobody else…When no one else cared…she was there…” He spoke with an enhanced voice, as dark mana filled his body.
“Do you wish you were there?” Erik asked.
“Yes! Of course I do!” Nerick responded, his tone turning pained as he did.
“Do you wish you were strong enough to stop it?” Erik asked, as he approached Nerick.
“Y-Yes…Yes I want to be stronger…” Nerick answered with stutter.
“That is not what I asked.” Erik said, as he came to stand before Nerick who’s wounds were healing through the dark energy that surrounded him. “I asked you, do you wish you were strong enough to protect her?”
“Yes.” Nerick, did not falter this time, as he met the Dragon’s golden eyes.
“But you are, you are strong enough you bloody fool. What kind of weakling would risk their souls? What kind of weakling would risk their very humanity to gain strength?…Blind idiot.” Erik sighed, “Stop focusing on how much stronger you want to be, and think of how far you’ve made it. I didn’t offer you this power so you could underestimate it. I offered you this power because I knew you’d have no qualms with abusing it.”
Erik waved his left hand through the swirling tendrils of darkness, grinning as he aimed his palm flat towards Nerick. “So abuse it, let yourself go and let it take you over. Or are you truly a coward? Are you too afraid, to become a monster? I already told you before, to fight the monsters we’ll have to face, you had to become one of us first. Let go, Nerick.” He told him, as a blast of draconic energy suddenly burst out of Erik’s palm.
Crimson lightning alongside a blast of flame, each lashed out upon Nerick as he stepped back to get out of the way…But he was too slow, and the magic hit him straight on.
Pain, like he had never felt before, filled him.
It coloured his sight, played his sound and filled his body. Pain became his world for as long as the magic surrounded him, it became his reality.
“You think I’m strong?” Erik asked in draconic, as the words started making sense in his head. “And you think you’re weak? Let go Nerick, allow yourself to be engulfed in the darkness, gain your wings.”
Nerick felt it, as he did every time he used his magic. An encroaching darkness plaguing his mind.
“Out of all of us, Thea, Shizuka, Makaela, Pyra, Zentha, Ascal and even me…You have the most potential. You’re a blank slate, an empty canvass that this power will colour and form. If you let it.” He heard Erik’s voice through the ringing, until the sound changed from that of a small bell to an ear-piercing screech.
He feared it, before he’d push it away and struggle against it.
But this time…he did as he was told.
Nerick let go.
“Become the monster you’ve always wished to be.”
And that darkness, as it had with his body long ago…engulfed his mind.
Nerick opened his eyes, to see a whole new world before him. He saw colours and shapes he had never seen before, a swirl of colours beneath caught his attention and he glanced down to see Erik…
But Erik was small, suddenly so tiny that it confused Nerick, he took a step back from surprise. Then realising…Erik hadn’t become small, but he had instead grown massive.
“What you see before you, is energy I can only sense. What you see Nerick, is magic itself.” Erik explained, his voice enhanced to reach the giant’s ears.
“B-But what-” Nerick spoke, finding that his voice was much deeper than before to equal his size, “What happened to my body?” Nerick asked, as he glanced down at himself.
Noticing for the first time, that he was suddenly wearing armour. Almost a black but dark green scaly suit of armour, covering his body’s every inch.
“You let go, and the ring granted your wish. I explained before that the ring allows you to change your partner’s form as you wish, but the same goes for vice versa if you allow it. That is a strength the previous owner never achieved because they never trusted their partner. You though trust Ivara, but never fully let yourself go to the ring’s power.” Erik explained further as Nerick stomped about, “You wanted to become stronger, so through Ivara’s simple mind you became larger. Ivara wanted to protect you, so through your mind she became your armour.”
“Before you relied solely on Ivara’s strength, now I will teach you to rely on both her’s and your own. First, think of shrinking back.” Erik told him.
And Nerick thought so, suddenly feeling both his body and the armour he wore shrinking down. Until he was back to his normal six feet tall height. Facing Erik who grinned widely at him.
“Well? Compared to the taste you had earlier, how does it feel now?” Erik asked.
“I…can’t explain it but…Ivara feels part of me, more than before…more than just our thoughts.” Nerick said while his suit of armour suddenly blurred, shifting back into the small wyvern which took rest around his neck. “Erik do you…really think that I’m strong enough?” He then suddenly asked, glancing between his hands where pitch black darkness swirled, then over to Erik who had three energies swirling about him. A bright gold, a warm crimson and a tinge of dark violet.
“What you lacked in the magical department, now makes up your entire existence. What you had in weapon mastery, only makes you stronger. Don’t you dare ever cut yourself short again, Nerick, this power you have is only as strong as you think yourself to be.” Erik said, as he bumped his fist into Nerick’s chest, “So know that you are, you are strong.”
Nerick grinned, “Yeah, yeah I think you’re right…”
“I’m rarely wrong, and I’ll never admit it when I am.” Erik joked back.
“Did you really have to stab m-” Nerick was about to ask, then hearing Ivara’s thoughts he tried to back away…
But it was too late, Ivara’s fangs had already sunk into Erik’s arm.
Ivara growled and hissed as she hung off the leather part of Erik’s bracers, her fangs piercing through but not quite biting into his flesh. As he raised his arm to glance at her, “Yeah…I don’t think she liked that part either.” Nerick pointed out, his eyes widening from surprise as he listening to her through their bond.
Ivara knew more insults than he thought even existed.