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.
I check my face. Two eyes. Too complete.
Relieved, I crumple face-first sideways out of the boat.