You know the story: 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.
(That was your story, then. Not anymore.)
The Higher Powers put fire and magic in your veins and send you off to stop the Great Evil.
You’d heard about these stories. Filled with wondrous creatures. Talking animals. Dwarves. Orcs. The one you save doesn’t have those, though. There magic, to be certain. Witches and Wizards and Banshees.
You tell them about those old stories, though. You make friends 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.)
Now the Higher Powers don’t need you. You’re a warrior, and this is peacetime. And they certainly don’t need someone as powerful as you.
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 the Witch’s scream that one time. You’re startled by your own left hand. You can remember it turning to ash when you fought that sorcerer. 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.
* * *
You don’t remember how you came to be in the cave. It is a beginning. But only inasmuch as dreams can begin.
The fire is inside you again, crackling and cackling. It feels good. Like a relapse.
“The King in Mountain,” they told you, “Is called upon during the Realm’s hour of greatest need.”
Nobody told you that this hour could happen twice.
You wonder if you’re dreaming. You’ve certainly done that before. But memories of your homeworld are muted, here. Like remembrances of childhood. Vague and textureless. Ambient.
The fire inside you makes your memories without magic into a smoky haze.
You’re starting to come to terms with your unbelief as you haul yourself off the slab of cold stone when a shock of freezing water engulfs you.
You wonder what proclamations they’ll make as you 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. You’re off to a great start. Great job.
You surface, then, sucking in a lungful of damp cave-air that makes your chest feel like fire.
Then a scratchy, thick hand seizes the back of your shirt and hoists you into the air, dumps you face first into a rowboat.
You’re sputtering and coughing and shivering and you can feel the stranger’s gaze on you. King in the Mountain, indeed. Not knowing what else to say, you tell the stranger: “The lake is new.” Your head is still on the floor of the rowboat. You can feel the boat rocking (or are you just dizzy?) “It wasn’t here last time. Did you just get that installed?”
The figure who saved you is a silhouette. He’s a massive man who grunts as he rows. You think you see the head of an axe resting next to his boots.
Your own head is still spinning. You’re trying to figure out how you got back. Why you got back. Who brought you back? You wonder if you know this bearded gentleman. Was he here last time?
A list of half-remembered faces spins through your head like a slot machine as you try to match them up with their names.
You think distantly, What’s a slot machine? You realize how fast your memories are fading. (No, not fading. The smoke’s getting thicker. If you concentrate, you can see through it.)
“I’d recognize that purposeful emotional distance anywhere!” you say. You 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?” you 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 your stomach as you realize that you’re not quite sure how long you were here. Time passes like dreams in this place. It’s difficult to get a measure on it.
(Or maybe your thoughts are just clouded. Maybe they’ll clear up. Maybe.)
The boat skids against the rocks at the mouth of the cave. You 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?” you ask.
Gormund looks at you seriously. “Just how long do you think you’ve been gone, One-Eye?”
“One-Eye?” you echo. Peter, you tell yourself. 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 your brain. You remember a dagger. A rogue ambush. A red-glowing eyepatch snapped over an empty socket. Screaming.
You reach to steady yourself and flinch when your left hand touches the rim of the boat. You remember a wand pressing a hole in that palm, and the ashes that spread out from there.
You check your face. Two eyes. Too complete.
Relieved, you crumple face-first sideways out of the boat.
Special thanks to my patron on Patreon, Alicia Cameron