06. Ill-Fitting Armor

What happens next is a blur of preparation. Clarissant and Gormund as picking through the corpses. I wonder if there’s anyone left inside Strathbury. I 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 me into a rusted ringmail shirt, and straps a dinted iron halfhelm with peeling, sweat-smothered padding over my head.

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

A sword is belted around my waist. The weight of it is familiar enough. To my mind, leastways.  

As for my body:

My thighs feels red and raw from every step and every step that sends the sword-sheath slapping against it. The pommel prods my upper ribs. I were built for this, once. Maybe I will be again.

But today, I am 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. I can remember this. I can even imagine myself performing those old maneuvers my body doesn’t remember remembers.

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

I’m going to save Gormund’s daughter, I realize. I’m going to be a hero again. Defeat Harrowers and Great Evils and reclaim my place in this land and. And. And?

And then what?

Mist filters through the air. I wonder if they’re ghosts. Does the Realm have ghosts? Is that Toric dancing around my ankles? Or are they mere clouds, like the ones in my 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,” I call into the darkness. I’m not sure why I giggle at this. Some part of me must understand how stupid I seem. Just an ill-equipped boy, in over his dented helm.

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

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

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

Some part of me remembers this trap from my first-ever visit to Strathbury, five years ago. I wish I had remembered it before it came barreling down an underground hall, screaming bloody murder.

Cursing, I pick up my sword, slam it into the scabbard, and try again to unsheathe it. It’s easier this time, though it takes me longer than I’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 my mind, my knees buckle and I fall, ass-first, to the ground. My helmet saves my head from being bashed against the cave wall. My head is spinning. I’m dizzy. I’m crying.

I’m glad no one can see me.

 

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The Vile Assembly (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. Boss Ivan’s fingers whisper over his device. When Boss Ivan flicks it on, it moans to life.

And then 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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05. Memories of Resolute Nothings

The forest melts behind me, and hills of dirt unfolds. The autumn terrain dips downward into a gray waste unfolding before me. I find the scattered remnants of rock wall that stretches the border of Strathbury, blanketed in ash.

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

Where it should be, I find a rutted dirt road. Hard packed earth and uneven ground. There’s no sign of the wooden gate that greeted me my 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,” I say, by way of small talk. “How long has that been there?” Gormund told me this city wasn’t important enough to make it into a map. Yet now he expects me 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 me. I move to dodge it, but my reflexes are all tangled up. I haven’t rebuilt my body yet. I’m too slow, and Gormund has to drag me 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, I worry she will shoot another quarrel. Instead, the rusted iron gates peel open. The hinges let out a bloody wail. I keep my eyes on the ground as Gormund leads me forward, dragged by the coercion of his will.

“When did you guys install a watchtower?” I 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 me first. A death-stink that wafts past the gates. It’s familiar. Like something half-remembered. I 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 me until I notice that her circular spectacles are fogged up. She’s short, and wide with a belly that hangs over her belt. She sprints for Gormund, calling his name. “Gormund,” she says. “Gormund, you should prepare yourself–”

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

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

“This wasn’t a battle,” I hardly notice I’ve spoken aloud. I’m 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. I 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. I 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.”

I file that name away for later. “They’ll not blight this town,” I say, belatedly. Clarissant turns to look at me, then. I meet her gaze and swallow a lump in my 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 me, now. So close that when she takes a swing at me, I hardly notice until my temple is throbbing and I’m on the ground.

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

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

I wonder how this could possibly be my fault. I haven’t even been here a week. Haven’t I?

“Clarissant!” Gormund catches the woman’s shoulder and hauls her back. She releases me 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 Strathbury-below,” I say. A memory creeps up on the border of my 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 my mind suddenly overtakes me:

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 Strathbury until nothing remains.

Only Strathbury-below.

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.

My first Great Enemy. The Harrower: A red-eyed gray wolf, gigantic and leading the Resolute Nothing in burying Strathbury under ash and stone and dirt. In the end, I 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 I had Lords and warriors to aid me. But I 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 Strathbury-below.

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

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

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04. Just a Boy

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

A what? I know what the feeling those words convey, but that actually means eludes me. At some point Gormund wraps me up in a cloak. Crickets were chirping and stars were blazing in the sky, never still, always streaking. The Ever-Changing Land, I think. I forgot about that. Or is that new?

My 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 me. His cloak smells like timber. He smells like timber. “Keeps away the Swarm, too.”

“Are there Swarm here?” I ask. I don’t recall anything called Swarm from the last time I came to 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.”

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

The fire stokes in me memories of magic, besides. I feel aglow with the fire in my veins. Yes, they’ve sewn me up. Good as new, I know now. Good as new. Now all I need is my 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 me, 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,” I say. But I’m not sure I’ve kept the quaver from my 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.”

I’m silent for a long time. And since I can’t think of anything else to say, I 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 me 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?”

I nod. “Not sure I was supposed to come back,” I murmur.

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

(I know what those words convey. The action itself is foreign to me.)

“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,” I tell Gormund.

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

* * *

I 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 me two from across the path, and signals for Gormund and I to stop.

Gormund tells me to stay where I am. “Watch,” he says, “But don’t come any closer.”

I do, eyes wide at the sight of the dying man. Shatter shards of memory stab into my brain. A million deaths. A million-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. I’m familiar with this red-weeping. Vaguely familiar. I push the thoughts from my mind.

I 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, I realize.

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

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

Things will be different this time, I’d said.

“I don’t suppose you know how to use that axe, Gormund?” 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, I want to tell this man. I have fire in my veins. Fire burns. But this man is too far gone. All my 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.”

I’ve already seen my share, I 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?” I 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?” I ask. “What’s wrong with you?”

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

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03. The Ever-Changing Land

I can feel my heart hammering in my neck. Images flash through my 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.

My left arm tingles where a spear caught me, 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. I think I see shadows moving between the trees. As a bluster of air rattles through me, I understand I’m still a little damp. Sweat-slick and lake-slick and slippery. Vertigo opens wide, threatens to consume me.

I’m not supposed to be here. My muscles twinge with long-forgotten maneuvers. Newly-remembered exercises. Drills. But my body is soft and stupid.

I tense up, ready. I’m still not sure if I see anything. Perhaps just trees. Or perhaps something darker.

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

“Did you see anything?” I ask.

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

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

I 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 me. Blood had dried on me and them, red-brown like lacquer. I’m getting distracted, I realize.

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

Thick trees snap behind me like breaking bones. I pushed myself on. I’m so tired that I hardly notice the blisters on my feet from the hours of working until they pop and sting as I push myself forward. There’s a stitch in my side.

I grit my teeth and fight through the pain. Walls of stones emerge all around me like teeth to maw of a gaping giant.  

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

Gormund seizes me by the back of my neck and hauls me forward. I sail headlong over a hill and out of the forest.

Forests should be bigger than that, I think.

Gormund follows close behind. He dives down just next to me, 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?” I ask. “What was that?” When I look, 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.

I’m not sure how long the silence lasts before I 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,” I tell him. I seize his arm, and a warning flares in his eyes. I  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,” I 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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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 awaken, sucking in cold air. There’s a crackling that I think might be a fire. I’m still sleep-bleary, and can’t discern if it comes from inside me or outside. I certainly don’t feel as cold as when I was back in–in–that other place.

Christ, I’m already forgetting. Who’s Christ?

But as the memories of my old life fades, shards of memory fit into place. Memories of this world.

Gormund is standing beside me. I’m sufficiently impressed, now that I’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 I can’t help but wonder if the hair on his head simply migrated to his face. “Ruined Earth, but you’re heavy,” he says.

My head is spinning. My fingers are clawing at the stone foundation beneath me. I wasn’t supposed to come back. “Who summoned me?” I ask, absently. I’m not quite sure if I care.

“Nice to meet you, too, One Eye.”

It takes me a moment to understand that he’s using an alias for me. One of my old titles from my last life here. “I’m sorry,” I tell Gormund. “I’m sorry. I just. I…” I clutch my head in my hands. I’m 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.”

I remember the last time someone channeled  Higher Powers to bring me here. He had looked fine, laying on the stone slab. Unconscious, I thought. Until they examined his corpse. His insides had been a smoking ruin. I 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,” I tell him, dumbly. “This can’t be real.”

He slaps me. Leaves my cheek stinging and red. I reel back, precariously close to the mountain-ledge.

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

Gormund catches me as I teeter on the ledge, pulls me forward. I can feel the bristle of his beard. Feel his hot, moist breath on my 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.” My 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?”

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

I wonder what else has changed.

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

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

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

I 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. I swear it by the God I’ve so nearly forgotten and by the Higher Powers, too. Just to be safe.

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

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

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

“How far to Strathbury,” I correct myself. “How long?”

“As long as it takes,” Gormund tells me, as we 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.”

I don’t bother to keep track of time. I’m too confused by what he means when he says the Ever-Changing Land.

This land doesn’t change. I know that, even in my limited knowledge of this world. I can remember my first walk to Strathbury. There were no changes.

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.

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

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

So I start to wonder what changed about Strathbury. How have they rebuilt? Who lives there now?

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

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

“Don’t. Move.”

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

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

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

I think I can do it again if I have to. Probably. Maybe. Time will tell, I suppose.

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01. Relapsing Return

You know the story, don’t you? You’ve heard it before. We all have. That story is behind you. But it would do you good to remember what has come before.

This’ll hurt. This’ll help:

The Higher Powers choose a young child from another world to save them from a ruthless despot. Maybe you step through a magical doorway. Or a closet. A portal. They put fire and magic in your veins and send you off to stop the Great Evil.

You’d heard about these stories, even as you lived it. They were filled with wondrous creatures. Talking animals. Dwarves. Orcs. The world you save has magic, Witches and Wizards and Banshees of all sorts. You even befriend a few of them on your quest to vanquish the Great Evil.

And you succeed, too! What are the odds? Maybe it costs you an eye. Or your hand. Or friends. But you do it. You save the world and peace and prosperity reign.

(They tend to leave this next part out.)

Your success means one thing: the Higher Powers don’t need you. Not anymore. You’re a warrior, and this is peacetime. And they certainly don’t need someone as powerful as you roaming about.

So they tear the fire and the magic out of your veins, they heal you up and restore your missing hand. Or eye.

(Not your friends, though. They keep those.)

Then they ship you back to your home world, like the whole thing never happened. You haven’t aged a day, and now you have sit still and learn and live in this body that’s too soft and too weak and too complete.

The shriek of chalk on the board reminds you of that Witch’s scream. You’re startled by your own left hand. You can remember it turning to ash when you fought that sorcerer when you were fifteen. And you’re always cold, now. Because they ripped the magic out of you and nothing can keep you warm.

Now imagine, a few years later:

You go back.

And this isn’t your story.

Not this time. Not anymore.

* * *

I don’t remember how I come to be in the cave. It is a beginning, but only inasmuch as dreams can begin.

The fire is inside me again, crackling and cackling. It feels good.

Like a relapse.

“The King in the Mountain,” they’d told me, “is called upon during the Realm’s hour of greatest need.”

Nobody told me that this hour could happen twice.

I wonder if I’m dreaming of the Realm again. It wouldn’t be the first time. But something sets dreams apart to the true travel between realities: memories of my homeworld are muted in the Realm. Like remembrances of childhood. Vague and textureless and ambient.

The fire inside me turns my memories without magic into a smoky haze.

I’m starting to come to terms with my unbelief as I haul myself off the slab of cold stone when a shock of freezing water engulfs me.

I wonder what proclamations they’ll make as I sink down, down down. The King in the Mountain can’t save the world this time, they’ll say. Peter rolled out of bed and drowned in a lake. I’m off to a great start. Great job.

I surface, then, sucking in a lungful of damp cave-air that makes my chest feel like fire.

Then a scratchy, thick hand seizes the back of my shirt and suddenly I’m kicking at empty air as I am dumped face-first into a rowboat.  

I’m sputtering and coughing and shivering and I can feel the stranger’s gaze on me. King in the Mountain, indeed I think.

Not knowing what else to say, I tell the stranger: “The lake is new.” My head is still on the floor of the rowboat. I can feel it rocking. Or am I just dizzy? “It wasn’t here last time. Did you just get that installed?”

The figure who saved me is a silhouette. A massive man who grunts as he rows. I think I can see the head of an axe resting next to his boots.

My own head is still spinning. I’m trying to figure out how you got back. Why I got back. Who brought me back? I wonder if I know this bearded gentleman. Was he here last time?

A list of half-remembered faces spins through my head like a slot machine as I try to match them up with their names.

I think distantly, What’s a slot machine? and my breath catches in my throat as I realize how fast my memories are fading. No, not fading, I think. The smoke’s getting thicker. If I concentrate, I can see through it.

“I’d recognize that purposeful emotional distance anywhere!” I exclaim. I feel a twinge of guilt at how happy you are to see him. To be back. “Toric, is that you?”

“Who’s Toric?” The man asks. “My name is Gormund, King Peter. I’ve been sent to retrieve you.” Three oarstrokes pass before he speaks again. “You’re smaller than we expected.”

“What are you talking about?” I ask. “Smaller? I was twelve last time! It’s been five years! That’s not how anything works!”

“Twelve?” Gormund echoes. “You sure about that?”

A hole grows in my stomach as I realize that I’m not quite sure how long I was gone. Time passes like dreams in this place. It’s difficult to get a measure on it. Or maybe my thoughts are just clouded. Maybe they’ll clear up. Maybe.

The boat skids against the rocks at the mouth of the cave. I see Gormund silhouetted against the early-morning light. He’s raising an eyebrow. “I’m going to ignore that you said you were twelve.” He steeples his fingers and rests his elbows on his knees, leaning forward. “Instead, let’s address the fact that you just said you’ve been gone for five years.”

“What about it?” I ask.

Gormund looks at me seriously. “Just how long do you think you’ve been gone, One-Eye?”

“One-Eye?” I echo. Peter, I tell myself. Your name is Peter.

“That’s what you’re going to focus on?” He’s incredulous.

“What do you mean, One–” Shattered shards of memory stab into my brain. I remember a dagger. A rogue ambush. A red-glowing eyepatch snapped over an empty socket. Screaming.

I reach to steady myself and flinch when my left hand touches the rim of the boat. I can remember a wand pressing a hole in that palm, and the ashes that spread out from there.  

Oh.

Right.

That.

I check my face. Two eyes. Too complete.

Relieved, I crumple face-first sideways out of the boat.

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