You know the story now, right? Surely you know where this is going?
(You think you do. But you’re not listening, are you? I told you already: this isn’t that story. Not anymore.)
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.
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 pale 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.”
“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.”
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?”
“If I throw you off this mountain, will that be real?” His voice is hoarse and raspy.
“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 the 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 like 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. I permit 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.
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, 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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