The Vile Assembly – Part 2 of 2

Isora notices she’s stepped closer to the two men. She can hear the perspiration slithering down Boss Azoc’s face; she’s not sure if it’s him or the rickety chair doing the squealing while he struggles against his bonds. Isora trembles. “Y-y-your Grace,” she says, “What’s going to happen to him?”

“I don’t expect his mind can handle it. Heh. Few could. But we’ll find out.” The two do not see the projection of light filtering through a rainbow of colors, dimmer and brighter, darker and lighter. Boss Azoc still struggles.

“But why are you doing this?”

“Do I detect a note a sympathy?” There is an angry edge to her father’s voice, barely sheathed. “For him?”

“I—”

“Do I?”

“I…no. No sympathy.”

“Good girl.”

They hear Boss Azoc struggling and murmuring. Then all is quiet. They do not see the green fade into his irises. They cannot see the orange gloom, the filtering sunlight, the crow-feathered cloaks on a young girl and an old man with graying temples.

But Boss Azoc does. First he whimpers. Then he screams.

It is a loud and shuddering wail that Isora feels in her bones. She reaches out for something—anything else to listen to. But all she can find is the net of birds taking wing from a tree, fleeing the sound that Isora is stuck with.

Azoc is thrashing while Boss Ivan laughs. Isora stands still, listening to the shrieks. The stomping of feet. She sniffs the air and scowls at the smell.

“The last ounce of courage is trickling down his leg,” she tells her father. “Isn’t this enough.”

She hears her father following his nose toward her, stomping. She takes two involuntary steps backward before he’s holding her hair close to her scalp. She does not move for fear of what he might do next.

“There can be no measure for mercy to monsters! That aside,” his grip on her hair loosens. “This can stop when he tells me who’s next in line to lead the Fangs.”

With a swirl of his cloak Boss Ivan crosses the room toward the screaming, thrashing, Azoc. He cannot see the color in his irises coming and going. He crouches next to him, eyes closed, and whispers: “Where do you billet yourselves. I know you operate out of Sandpiper Quarter. But where do you hide away?”

A muffled scream is his only response.

“You don’t want to disappoint my daughter, do you? Come now. We’re waiting.”

Isora trembles in the corner, reaching out for something else to focus on. But all she finds is a crazed Boss. Maybe two, she wonders. “No sympathy, she tells herself. “It’s only a monster. No sympathy, it’s only a monster. No sympathy, it’s only a monster. No sympathy, it’s only a monster. It’s only a monster. It’s only a monster…”

Her name is Isora. She is the daughter a gang Boss. Her cloak itches.

Today is her birthday.

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The Vile Assembly – Part 1 of 2

Her name is Isora. She is the daughter a gang Boss. And her cloak itches.

Her father holds her hand in his, walking her through a forest of steel that neither of them can see. Twisted, jagged metal spires whose purpose has long been forgotten. They are what remained of the Twenty First age, before the Great Detonations, long ago. The event that blinded the world.

As for the other senses:

She can hear leaves of rust peel away from the steel ruin in the soft breeze. She can smell their parchment-thin sheets as they sway through the air and settle on the ground. She can feel their the tremble of their ever-so-light impact as they hit the ground like a featherfall.

Her father leads her through this terrain. He had awoken her shortly after the morning birds started singing. He had helped her get dressed and clasped the cloak of crow-feathers around her neck. She had wanted to tell him it was itchy at the time, but she’d decided against it. She had to wear it.

And she knew why.

Her father leads her through Muninn Point, now. “I have a surprise for you,” he tells her, again and again. Isora doesn’t answer. She’s never liked her father’s surprises. (Of course, she’d never tell him that).

She can hear someone breathing, far and away. She wipes the sweat from her brow, tells herself it’s just an early riser making ready for the day. “There are no monsters in Muninn Point, her father always tells her. “I do not tolerate monsters in my district.”

Isora does not understand why he calls the place his district. He’s told her before that the Crown itself appointed the House of Em to oversee it. He also tells her she’ll understand when she’s older.

Her Father stops in front of the doors to a basement they cannot see. The structure above it has long since collapsed, though they cannot see that either. He rubs his thumb against her knuckles. “Do you remember my instructions, Isora?”

“Yes, Father—”

“Your Grace.”

“Your Grace,” Isora bows her head. “Yes, your Grace. I do. I mustn’t cover any of the four senses. No matter what happens. I must pay attention.”

“Very good.”

Ivan opens the door. Its hinges let out a bloody wail. His hand finds Isora’s, and she is led down wooden steps that groan like she had when Ivan had roused her from sleep that morning. The room smells musty, which doesn’t help her mood. She already has so few distractions from how itchy her cloak is. Now she can’t even smell anything without gagging. So instead, she listens to her father’s blade-sheath slap against his thigh as he walks.

“My Crows have brought me something remarkable today,” he tells her. “Consider this a rite of passage.”

She hears her father’s hand on rattling on a doorknob, then something on the other side of the door. She wonders if it is a dying hog. It certainly sounds like it. Isora swallows, thickly. “Your Grace. I’m afraid.”

She hears her father’s knees protest when he crouches, places his hands on her shoulders. “You’re twelve years old now, Isora. You’ve long since had your blood. You’re almost a woman already.” His first two fingers draw a line down her face. They’re rough as leather and not comforting. “How fast you’ve grown. Soon you’ll be the Boss of my gang. And you must learn a Boss’s resolve.”

She hears a sound, and cannot decide if it is her Father’s joints sighing as he stands. Perhaps he merely adjusted his cloak. (He did.) With a sharp intake of breath, he swings the door open and leads Isora inside.

They do not see the early-morning light filtering through the window, nor the fire in the hearth built to keep the dying-hog-sounding creature from freezing. They cannot see the orange gloom that bathes the room. Isora cannot see that the creature is tied to a chair with a sack over its head, or the projector Ivan has positioned on a table, facing the thing making the unsettling sound.

Ivan spreads his arms wide in a theatrical gesture that benefits only him the same way you might smile even if no one is looking. “Welcome,” he says, “Azoc: Boss of the Fangs!”

“The Fangs of Sandpiper Quarter, where the monsters dwell,” Isora says. She’s not sure if it’s a question. She doesn’t know why she said it. She only knows that she’s heard it so much that she can’t not say it at the mention of Fangs.

“The very same,” Ivan tells her, grinning a grin that Isora can’t see. But she hears how the volume of his voice changes as he faces away from her, toward the bound Fang Boss Azoc. Ivan sniffs audibly, follows his nose, hands outstretched until they find the obscured face of the masked thing.

The unsettling screams turn to quick, frightened pants. Muffled breaths. For a moment, Isora thinks she’s the source of them.

“My lieutenants will be well rewarded for your capture. I’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time, Boss Azoc. Now what sort of monster are you.”

Isora hears the sack fwoosh off his head. Boss Azoc gasps as the gag is removed. “Boss Ivan,” he growls, “Your Murder of Crows ambushed me in my district! Release me, or you and your gang will suffer—” Azoc chokes on the gag as it’s stuffed back down his throat.

Isora smells sweat on Boss Azoc. And blood. She hears her father’s fingers tracing his flesh. There’s a soft rustle.

“It’s got fur, Isora.”

“What else is there?” she asks.

Boss Ivan feels his way around the edges of Azoc’s eyes, his mouth. “It’s marked itself with strange runes. Doubtless for the purposes of black arts. Dark magic. Wait. What’s this?”

Isora hears the slick sound of her father’s fingers sliding through sweat, smells blood on them as they come away from the monster’s head.

“It’s got scales, too. It’s like the Nailed God made a dozen creatures from clay and mashed them together in His divine fist. Oh, but to have the Sight right now. To see the despair on your face, Boss Azoc.” Ivan pauses, tilts his head, stalks his way round the monster.

“Do you know of the Sight, Boss Azoc? When the perfect culmination of light and color allows us to see as are ancestors did? How many times have you had it? Surely the ailment has afflicted you at least once. And as much as I’d love to stick a blade in your gut…”

Isora hears her father loosen his blade in its scabbard.

“…I’ve thought of a better use for you.” He stalks over to the table, where the projector sits, waiting. “Imagine if someone could force the Sight on you. Imagine if they had something that filtered through light and color until it found the combination that could color your iris. I hear it’s a form of temporary insanity.”

Isora hears metal filing against wood as Boss Ivan drags the rough hooks into position. They are corded around the back of the chair, and filed into a point on the end. He inches them slowly forward, until he feels their sharp ends faintly prod his captor. Then he drags them back, touching Azoc’s face, then the hooks, making measurements, until assesses they are in line with his brow.

“Man was not meant to see the world in such a way,” Ivan continues. “That’s why the Nailed God sent down the Detonations. Imagine what it would do to a man’s mind if he had fits of insanity forced on him at the whim of his captor.” He seizes Boss Azocs face, jerks it toward him and whispers: “I’d advise you keep your eyes open. If you close them I’m going to nail them shut. If I don’t hear a scream, you see, I’ll shove those hooks through your eyes. I’ll know if you’re faking. I know how folk scream when they get the Sight.”

He stalks away from Azoc, toward his device. The way Boss Ivan touches the projector reminds Isora of the way he used to touch mother: gentle strokes, soft and affectionate. When Boss Ivan flicks it on, it moans in much the same way.

Until the machine whirs. Then it clanks. Like a trash bin tossed down a flight of stairs.

She does not see the beam of light as it is activated.

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06. Ill-Fitting Armor

What happens next is a blur of preparation. Clarissant and Gormund as picking through the corpses. You wonder if there’s anyone left inside Strathbury. You try to trace the battle in the footprints of the ashfall. But they’re well-trodden to make much out.

At one point, one of them helps you into a rusted ringmail shirt, and straps a dinted iron halfhelm with peeling, sweat-smothered padding over your head.

“It gets cold in the Snothringham tunnels,” one of them tells you, as an ash-colored, ash-smeared cloak is broached over one shoulder.

A sword is belted around your waist. The weight of it is familiar enough to your mind.

As for your body:

Your thigh feels red and raw from every step that slaps it against your thigh. The pommel prods your upper ribs. You were built for this, once. Maybe you will be again.

But today, you are a small and awkward seventeen year old boy, gangly and angled and scrawny, with a fog-shrouded mind addled with the commandment of great armies and large forces and pitched battle. You can remember this. You can even imagine yourself performing those old maneuvers your body remembers.

(You realize, at some point, that a tunnel has swallowed you, and that your footsteps echo down, down, down, into the Snothringham tunnels below Strathbury. The town swallowed up by the churned ash and dirt conjured by the gray wolf–the Harrower’s Resolute Nothing. You do not remember Gormund and Clarissant leading you to these tunnels. Neither of them accompany you. Distantly, you think one of them had said something about defending the town.)

You’re going to save Gormund’s daughter, you realize. You’re going to be a hero again. Defeat Harrowers and Great Evils and reclaim your place in this land and. And. And?

And then what?

(Distantly, you understand that you’re a fool. Distantly. For now.)

Mist weaves about you like dancing specters. You wonder if they’re ghosts. Does the Realm have ghosts? Is that Toric dancing around your ankles? Or are they mere clouds, like the ones in your mind.

Then something wails, loud and bloody and almost inhuman. More like rusted hinges than a voice.

The silence that follows is suffocating. “H-hail and well met,” you call into the darkness. You’re not sure why you giggle at this. Some part of you must understand how stupid you seem. Just an ill-equipped boy, in over his dented helm.

A battering ram of smoke and ash and thick, gray curls screams toward you. Maybe this is Toric, you think, and smile at the thought. A twisted suggestion of a face opens its maw inside the oncoming cloud.

You go to rip the longsword from its sheath. But when you go to free it from its scabbard, you angle it too early, and the last of its length tangles in the sheath and it clatters to the floor.

The cloud billows into you, with the same bloody wail as before, writhing about you as you stumble, swiping at it until it dissipates.

Some part of you remembers this trap from your first-ever visit to Snothringham. You wish you had remembered it before it came barreling down an underground hall, screaming bloody murder.

Cursing, you pick up your sword try again to unsheathe it. It’s easier this time, though it takes you longer than you’d like to clear the blade from its sheath.

(Not to mention the embarrassment of trying to align it for re-sheathing.)

The moment the suggestion of I can’t do this tickles the back of your mind, your knees buckle and you fall, ass-first, to the ground. You helmet saves your head from being bashed against the cave wall. Your head is spinning. You’re dizzy. You’re crying.

You’re glad no one can see you.

 

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05. Memories of Resolute Nothings

The forest melts behind you, and hills of gray dirt unfolds. The autumn terrain dips downward into a gray waste unfolding before you. You find the rock wall that stretches the border of Snothringham. It’s in pieces, and smothered by the ash that blankets the terrain.

Beyond it, fog has misted in, swaying like dancing specters.

Where it should be, you find a rugged dirt road. Hard packed earth and uneven ground, speckled with ash. There’s no sign of the wooden gate that greeted you your first time around. The ground slopes into  the lip of Strathbury, where large, dense bushes smother either side of an iron gate.

“The watchtower’s new,” you say, by way of small talk. “How long has that been there?” Gormund told you this city wasn’t important enough to make it into a map. Yet now he expects you to believe they have need for a watchtower.

It’s nothing impressive. Hastily built, by the look of it, and little more than a logs leaning against each other, up and up and up.

A crossbow bolt spits toward you. You move to dodge it, but your reflexes are all tangled up. You haven’t rebuilt your body yet. You’re too slow, and Gormund has to drag you out of the way. He cups his hands over his mouth: “The boy is with me!” he shouts into the fog-smeared watchtower.

(Ash-smeared, too.)

“Identify yourself!” It’s a woman’s voice.

“You were supposed to warn me about incoming shifts, girl! You told me there would be safe traveling! The Ever-Changing Land will be dormant for the next few days, you said. There was a mountain. A mountain, Clarissant! How the fuck did you miss a goddamn mountain growing under the earth?”

The crossbow-wielder curses under her breath. “Gormund! I didn’t think…There’s been an incident. Stay there.”

For half a heartbeat, you worry she will shoot another quarrel. Instead, the rusted iron gates peel open. The hinges let out a bloody wail. You kept your eyes on the ground as Gormund leads you forward, dragged by the coercion of his will.

“When did you guys install a watchtower?” you ask again.

“When the Swarm roamed in from the east,” he says. And then: “Come. I’ll take you to my daughter.”

The smell hits you first. A death-stink that wafts past the gates. It’s familiar. Like something half-remembered. You can hear Clarissant above stomping down the watchtower, cutting a path through the mist that mats down her cloud of ringleted hair. Her hands are splayed out in front of her when she walks. This confuses you until you notice that her circular spectacles are fogged up. She’s short, and wide with deep brown skin and a belly that hangs over her belt. She sprints for Gormund, calling his name. “Gormund,” she says. “Gormund, you should prepare yourself–”

Something catches you and your take a tumble. You think it’s a tree root at first. The fog is too thick to discern what you tripped over. Distantly, you can hear a woman telling Gormund, “There was a battle.” Your head is swimming with remembrances of your last battle here. The last time you came here.

Gormund had told you the town was full of dead men walking. And the realization of what has happened here narrows your concentration down to a needle’s point. You can only think one thing.

“This wasn’t a battle,” You hardly notice you’ve spoken aloud. You’re standing, now, to better assess the damage. “This was a disaster.”

The citizens of Strathbury lie straggled about the city. The dead and dying are cold and clammy. You can discern bodies strewn about the town, limp as discarded tunics. Slumped over red-tainted troughs and mills and dead archers hanging from windows.

“Is this King Peter?” Clarissant asks. She’s pushes a pair of spectacles up the bridge of her nose and wraps her cloak about herself like a shield. You realize she’s talking to Gormund, who’s picking his way around the bodies that scab the streets. “You’re late in retrieving him. This was a mistake, Gormund. Anthea shouldn’t have done this.”

“I promised her that I would get him.” He looks around, sadly. “Looks like we’ve angered the Lord Ath.”

You file that name away for later. “They’ll not blight this town,” you say, belatedly. Clarissant turns to look at you, then. You meet her gaze and swallow a lump in your throat. “I won’t let it.”

“Let it?” Clarissant asks. “You started this. The Swarm will return. They’ll be back to finish off the rest of us.” She’s squaring up to you, now. So close that when she takes a swing at you, you hardly notice until your temple is throbbing and you’re on the ground.

You should’ve seen that coming. You’ve had better reflexes, in other lives. She’s dredging you up. On the periphery of your consciousness you can hear Gormund telling her, “That’s enough, Clarissant. Take me to Anthea.”

Clarissant isn’t listening. She’s shaking you. “You–” Her fingers curl around your collar. “This is all your fault, Peter!”

You wonder how this could possibly be your fault. You haven’t even been here a week. Haven’t you?

“Clarissant!” Gormund catches the woman’s shoulder and hauls her back. She releases you in her shock and stumbles, and then catches herself. 

“Where is my daughter,” Gormund asks her. “Where is Anthea?”

“We took her to the tunnels. Along with the men, women, and children who couldn’t fight.”

“To Snothringham,” you say. A memory creeps up on the border of your mind’s eye. Gray fur and Resolute Nothings.

Clarissant spits. “Better that than let the Swarm bring them back to Torre.”

Then the memory that crept up on your mind suddenly overtakes you:

A dark cloud over a town much like this. Girdled by the same aspens and poplars and rolling hills and yellow grass. 

And a black cloud looming high above.

It is a Resolute Nothing, this cloud. Dark and black with flashes of prismatic reds and blues and greens with swirling inky columns burrowing down into the land. Spilling ash and dirt-spray high into the air, tumbling down, down, smothering Snothringham until nothing remains.

You never call down the Higher Powers without someone else noticing. Remember? Sometimes it’s Swarm that come and lay waste to a town you know nothing about and leave stinking corpses rotting in the streets mere days after your summoning.

And sometimes it is a Harrower for a Great Evil; as it was those long-ago five years.

Your first Great Enemy. The Harrower: A red-eyed gray wolf, gigantic and leading the Resolute Nothing in burying Snothringham under ash and stone and dirt. In the end, you had imprisoned him inside the Resolute Nothing of his own creation. Trapped him there forever and ever. It had taken months of fighting to get to him. And you’d Lords and warriors to aid you. But you did it.

But.

But.

But.

These two. Gormund and Clarissant. They’ve taken a woman overstuffed with Higher Powers and led her down, down, down into buried Snothringham.

Into the Harrower’s crypt. With Higher Powers flagging from her body.

“Take me to her,” you say. “Gormund–bring me to Anthea.”

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04. Just a Boy

You’re numb. Following blindly, not thinking anything. You hardly notice when Gormund has stopped to set up camp. Your thoughts are a blur. Just aching feet and passing trees and shuffling through leaves. It feels like you’re on a treadmill.

A what? You know what the feeling those words convey, but that actually means eludes you.

At some point Gormund wraps you up in a cloak. Crickets were chirping and stars were blazing in the sky, never still, always streaking. The Ever-Changing Land, you think. You forgot about that.

Or is that new?

Your remembrances fill the silence. Gormund doesn’t seem to mind. He hums to himself as he stokes broken twigs and branches. He strikes flint and tinder. “Fire keeps the bugs away,” he explains to you. His cloak smells like timber. He smells like timber. “Keeps away the Swarm, too.”

“Are there Swarm hereabouts?” you ask. You don’t recall anything of Swarm from you last time in the Realm.

“Not as yet,” he says. “I thought I saw them, but…” he lapses. “They appear suddenly. But they don’t like the light. We’ll be safe, so long as the fire burns.”

You ask what Swarm are. You can only remember humans in the Realm. Witches and Warlocks, to be certain. But you can recall nothing of monsters.

The fire stokes in you memories of magic, elsewise. You feel aglow with the fire in your veins. Yes, they’ve sewn you up. Good as new, you know now. Good as new. Now all you need is your sword…

Gormund’s mustaches flutter as he exhales. “Best keep a watch tonight,” he explains. “The Swarm aren’t friendly folk. They were once men, to be certain. Before the Imperial Wizards caught them. Some still look like them, from a distance. The recently-turned. In the dark, leastways. But when they open their mouths to speak…”

Another lapse. He hrms and haws a bit. “I think they’re asking for help. But their voices are so crushed. So broken. Anything they say just sounds like clicking and scuttling. They’re wrapped from head-to-toe in rotting linen bandages. And when you cut them open,” he tells you, He leans forward, the bathing in the fire’s orange gloom.

“The only thing that comes out is spiders. Spiders and spiders and spiders…except for the eyes. Those are wet and scared and pleading. The eyes, at least, are human.”

“They’d blacken and burn as soon as touch me,” you say. But you aren’t sure you’ve kept the quiver from your voice.

“You’ve no sword. And don’t you think to burn them. You’ll have to trust me, One-Eye. It won’t work. The spiders just..heh…they swarm you. They’d be on top of you before you can set them to sparking. Fire against Swarm is as useful as nipples on a breastplate.”

You’re silent for a long time. And since you can’t think of anything else to say, you mutter, “This is going to sound strange, but where are we? Where is Strathbury? Whose land is this?”

“Too small for any Imperial records if that’s what you’re asking. We’re a backwater. Were, rather. They’ll notice us now.”

“Do you have a King?”

He stares at you seriously. “We’ve the Imperium. And the district governor they’ve appointed.” He swallows hard. “You have been gone awhile, haven’t you, One-Eye?”

You nod. “Not sure I was supposed to come back,” you mumble.

Gormund regards you seriously from across the fireplace. When he speaks, his voice is grating. Like he’s taken a drag of a cigarette.

(You know what those words convey. The action is foreign to you.)

“Well,” he says, “My daughter saw to it you did. Best get some sleep. I’ll watch for Swarm. Keep the fire going and we’ll be fine. I’ll wake you in the morning.”

“You should let me take a watch,” you tell Gormund.

“You should do as I say, boy.” There’s a goading edge to his voice, barely sheathed. You don’t want to argue with him. Your head’s still spinning. You’re still tired. You still have so many questions that swirl through your mind as darkness plays across your vision and sleep takes you as you curl into Gormund’s timber-smelling cloak.

* * *

You come across the dying man in the middle of the next day.

He’s slumped against the bottom of a hill, his cuirass is bloodied and one arm is swollen and disjointed. The man sees you two from across the path, and signals for you and Gormund to stop.

Gormund tells you to stay where you are. “Watch,” he says, “But don’t come any closer.”

You did, eyes wide at the sight of the dying man. Shatter shards of memory stab into your brain. A million deaths. A million memories to remember. All too familiar.

Gormund tramps off the path, drawing his half-moon axe, and crouches at the foot of the hill where the man lays wounded. He inspects his wounds. The man has cut down to the collarbone, and every breath wept blood. You’re familiar with this red-weeping. Vaguely familiar. You push the thoughts from your mind.

You don’t want to remember.

“That’s not going to get better,” Gormund says. The man nods. “What did you in, soldier?”

“A pack of Swarm caught me without a fire. I was on patrol, Gormund. Just one. A scout, I think. I put a rondel in its back, but it shambled off. It’s probably dead by now.”

They know each other, you realize.

“I’ll send the others out to look for it. You did well, soldier.”

You want to tell Gormund to use this man’s name. Every fiber in you burns with that desire. But you tamp down on it. The soldier needs to die. No use delaying it.

(Things will be different this time, you had said.)

“I don’t suppose you know how to use that axe?” the man asks. He laughs, then winces.

“I do.” Gormunds whiskers stir when he smiles.

“You going to keep Strathbury safe?” The man asks.

“I will.”

“Is that your boy?”

“No,” Gormund says. “Just a boy.”

The King in the Mountain, you want to tell this man. You have fire in your veins. Fire burns. But this man is too far gone. All your revelation would offer him is a funeral pyre.

“But you’re looking after him?”

“For now.”

“How’d you find him?”

“Does it matter?”

“I suppose not,” the man says. “Don’t suppose you want to bring the boy here? He ought to get used to the sight of corpses.”

“He’ll see his share yet.”

You’ve already seen your share, you want to say. A million shattered shards.

“Are you ready?”

The man nods. “Strike true.”

Gormund raises the axe, and it falls with a wet sound. Like a bucket falling into a well. He cleans the bloody axe on a timber and sea-salt-scented cloak, and then throws it through a loop in his belt.

“Who was that?” you ask.

“It doesn’t matter,” he says. And then: “I’m sorry.”

“Why?”

“Because my daughter called you here. And I’m sorry I was the first person you’ve met here.”

“You?” you ask. “What’s wrong with you?”

Gormund says nothing. And then: “We should keep moving.”

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03. The Ever-Changing Land

You can feel your heart rippling in your neck. Images flash through your mind’s eye: men in ringmail atop mighty destriers: rippling containers of barely-sheathed muscles. Pink-scarred faces that contorted with snarls. Axes, swords and spears whirling through the air.

Your left arm tingles where a spear caught you, hundreds of years ago.

(Five years ago.)

Gormund’s teeth are knocking together as he wrings his hand around the length of his axe. He watches the horizon, implacable. You think you see shadows moving between the trees. As a bluster of air rattles through you, you understand you’re still a little damp. Sweat-slick and lake-slick and slippery. Vertigo opens wide, threatens to consume you.

You aren’t supposed to be here. Your muscles twinge with long-forgotten maneuvers. Newly-remembered exercises. Drills. But your body is soft and stupid.

You tense up, ready. You’re still not sure if you see anything. Perhaps just trees. Or perhaps something darker.

Gormund uncoils, wraps his hand around your wrist. “We have to move,” he tells you.

“Did you see anything?” you ask.

“Move!” He shoves you forward, sloping down. There’s a sound behind you like a giant’s groan. There’s thunder, you think. And something behind you cracks. Gormund is right behind you, nearly stomping on your heels as you push through the tall grass that rises up to your waist.

The forest envelopes you, trees rising like the black spears of the army that surrounded you when the Great Evil captured you five years into your quest the last time around.

You can’t remember the name of the army. Just the flash of steel and the ash-coated spears that smeared onto the gloves of the warriors that surrounded you. Blood had dried on you and them, red-brown like lacquer.

(You’re getting distracted, you realize.)

Gormund’s hand presses onto your back. “Don’t slow down!” he tells you. “Don’t look back, you idiot!”

Thick trees snap behind you like breaking bones. You pushed yourself on. You were so tired that you hardly noticed the blisters on your feet from the hours of working until they pop and sting as you push yourself forward. There’s a stitch in your side.

You grit your teeth and fight through the pain. Walls of stones emerge all around you like teeth to maw of a gaping giant.  

“You’re not running fast enough.” Gormund growls. “Move! Move!”

Gormund seizes you by the back of your neck and hauls you forward. You sail headlong over a hill and out of the forest.

Forests should be bigger than that, you think.

Gormund follows close behind. He dives down just next to you, twisting so that his back feels the brunt of the impact.  He sits up, rubbing his lower back. “Knees hurt. Back hurts. You’re lucky, One-Eye. At least you go back to your younger years when you return.”

“What was that?” you ask. When you looked, the forest is gone. A mountain rises from the earth, dirt and soil spilling over, churned-up as the gray stone rises, higher, higher, higher.

You’re not sure how long the silence lasts before you say again, “What was that?”

“Something Clarissant should have warned me to look out for. Gormund curses under his breath. “You might feel some vibration when we sleep tonight. Don’t worry. It’s just the strata sorting itself out. I’ll wake you up if we need to move again.”

“Uh uh,” you tell him. You seize his arm, and a warning flares in his eyes. You don’t let go. “Nobody’s going to pull the whole ‘dark and broody and mysterious’ on me. Not this time! What. Was. That?”

He turns to his, his face implacable. “The Imperium salted the earth with spells after you left. Too many uprisings. They needed to impede communications. Hard to stage a revolution when you can hardly make it to the next town.”

“About one-third of those words made sense to me,” you tell him. “What Imperium? Revolution? Uprising?”

He pulls his arm away, turns. “You’ve been gone longer than I thought,” he says. “There will be time to explain later. We have to get back before the land moves again.”

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Special thanks to my patron on Patreon, Alicia Cameron

02. Well-Trodden Roads

You know the story now, right? Surely you know where this is going?

You think you do, leastways. But you’re not listening, are you? I told you already: this isn’t that story. Not anymore.

I want to keep telling this as I have: through the fullness of you. Am I asking too much? Am I being selfish?

(I am. I know. But it’s isolating in here, Peter. I’d like to continue in this way. Through you. If you’ll let me.)

You awaken, sucking in cold air. There’s a crackling that you think might be a fire. You’re still sleep-bleary, and can’t discern if it comes from inside or outside. You certainly don’t feel as cold as when you were back in–in–that other place.

Christ, you’re already forgetting.

(Who’s Christ?, a piece of you wonders)

But as the memories of your old life fade, shards of memory fit into place. Memories of this world. Again: you know the story. You know what this world is capable of.

Gormund is standing beside you. You’re sufficiently impressed, now that you’ve got a better look at him. He’s a rippling container of barely-sheathed muscle–discounting his medicine ball of a chest. He’s bald, but his beard is so thick that you can’t help but wonder if the hair on his head simply migrated to his face. “Ruined Earth, but you’re heavy,” he says.

Your head is spinning. Your fingers are clawing at the stone foundation beneath you. You weren’t supposed to come back. “Who summoned me?” you ask, absently.You aren’t sure if you care.

“Nice to meet you, too, One Eye.”

It takes you a moment to understand that he’s using an alias. One of your old titles from your last life here. “I’m sorry,” you tell Gormund. “I’m sorry. I just. I…” You clutch your head in your hands. You’re not supposed to be back here. “Who are you?”

Gormund barks a single laugh. “Straight down to business, then?” he says. “My daughter summoned you, One Eye. Her will is almost spent from the ordeal.” He spits, as if in show of his disdain. “You’d better be worth it. Good to see you’re more…put together than the legends have led us to believe.”

You remember the last time someone channeled  Higher Powers to bring you here. He had looked fine, laying on the stone slab. Unconscious, you thought. Until they examined his corpse. His insides had been a smoking ruin. You never learned his name. Others–more powerful folk–could have survived channeling the Higher Powers (for a time). Not him.

“I wasn’t supposed to come back,” you tell him, dumbly. “This can’t be real.”

He slaps you. Leaves your cheek stinging and red. You reel back, precariously close to the mountain-ledge.

(Mount Tharum. That’s its name. Mount Tharum).

Gormund catches you as you teeter on the ledge, pulls your forward. You can feel the bristle of his beard. Feel his hot, moist breath on your face. “Did that feel real?”

“I–”

“If I throw you off this mountain, will that be real?” His voice is hoarse and raspy.

“I don’t–”

“My daughter has channeled Higher Powers through her flesh and funneled them onto mortal earth. All to bring you here, King in the Mountain.” Your title drips like acid from his mouth. “You don’t get to tell me what is and isn’t real. Now harken to me: we are going to climb down this mountain, walk all the way to Strathbury and you will tell my daughter that you are sorry that the legends of your last life possessed her to do something so foolhardy as to summon a boy so stupid that his first act upon arrival is nearly drowning himself. Do you understand?”

You knock his hand away and shove past him to more solid footing. You lean against the side of the cave. (You don’t have vertigo yet. This is a precautionary measure.) You focus on your breathing. Five seconds in, five seconds out.

The town’s name is not Strathbury. It’s Snothringham.

You wonder what else has changed.

“All right,” you tell him. “I understand.”

So You travel down Mount Tharum. There are thick clefts in the rock. A stairway, steep as a leaning ladder. Along the way down Gormund tells you that you should be evacuating Strathbury.

“Most likely we’ll be dead in a few weeks,” he tells you, surprisingly casual. All while he leads you down the clefts in the stone. “Funneling the Higher Powers to this plane doesn’t go unnoticed.”

You remember the last time. Raiders had swarmed down from the north. Unchecked and virtually unchallenged. Snothringham had almost no defenses. It was a town outlying in the middle of nowhere.

It didn’t stand a chance.

This time will be different. You swear it by the God you’ve so nearly forgotten and by the Higher Powers, too. Just to be safe.

You have a second chance here. You’re going to make it right. You shouldn’t even be here. The least you can do is cycle through these motions while causing the least amount of damage possible.

You’re going to survive this. You’re going to build a life here all over again. You’re relapsing, but at least this time, you can taper through this the right way.

 

The wind has died down by the time your feet hit soft earth and dead leaves crunch beneath your feet.

“How far to Snoth–Strathbury,” you correct yourself. “How long?”

“As long as it takes,” Gormund tells you, as you crunch through the autumn waste. His axehead drags lazily through the clusters of dead leaves and grass. “We’ll need to move quickly, though. Mount Tharum is a stillzone, thankfully. It’s a three day march through the Ever-Changing Land to Strathbury. Don’t you worry, though. I know what to look out for.”

You don’t bother to keep track of time. You’re too confused by what he means when he says the Ever-Changing Land. This land doesn’t change. You know that, even in your limited knowledge of this world. You can remember your first walk to Snothringham. There were no changes.

(Strathbury. It’s called Strathbury. You have to remember that.)

The world becomes walking. One step and then the next, following the command of Gormund’s back: keep moving or die. He permits no alternative.

You wonder if there will be as many raiders this time. You wonder if you can use the fire in your veins. Did the Higher Powers sew it back into you? You want to call it forth. But not in front of Gormund.

He’s angry enough as it is. Angry that his daughter summoned you. Showing him proof of your power mightn’t be the best idea. You don’t even know if you have this power, elsewise.

So you start to wonder what changed about Snothringham. Why would they change the name? How have they rebuilt? Who lives there now?

Bored, you examine the ground that drops precipitously mere feet from you in either direction. You walk along a file, sloping down into fields of dead, yellow grass girdled by aspens and poplars.  

You hardly notice when Gormund has stopped moving. You nearly plow into his back. He’s hefted his axe, holding it in both hands.

“Don’t. Move.”

Belatedly, you realize you do not have a sword. You freeze and follow Gormund’s eyes from one side of the file to the other. “Is there something down there?” you ask.

His knuckles are white and twitching around the axe-haft. “Might be,” he said. “It’s getting dark. Might be.” Belatedly, he mutters, “I knew I should have brought Clarissant.”

You’d hardly noticed the bruise-colored clouds smothering the sky. “Is it raiders?” you ask. You wish again for your sword. Almost as much as you wish you could remember its name.

You think you can pull the fire out of your veins, if it comes to it.  You can remember your training from last time around. It took you months to learn how to control the Higher Powers’ magic. But eventually you wrestled it into your grasp. You’re not quite certain how the fire works. Not yet, at least.  

You think you can do it again if you have to. Probably. Maybe.

(Time will tell, you suppose.)

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Special thanks to my patron on Patreon, Alicia Cameron