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.
“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.
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.
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.”