The forest melts behind you, and hills of gray dirt unfolds. The autumn terrain dips downward into a gray waste unfolding before you. You find the rock wall that stretches the border of Snothringham. It’s in pieces, and smothered by the ash that blankets the terrain.
Beyond it, fog has misted in, swaying like dancing specters.
Where it should be, you find a rugged dirt road. Hard packed earth and uneven ground, speckled with ash. There’s no sign of the wooden gate that greeted you your 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,” you say, by way of small talk. “How long has that been there?” Gormund told you this city wasn’t important enough to make it into a map. Yet now he expects you 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 you. You move to dodge it, but your reflexes are all tangled up. You haven’t rebuilt your body yet. You’re too slow, and Gormund has to drag you 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, you worry she will shoot another quarrel. Instead, the rusted iron gates peel open. The hinges let out a bloody wail. You kept your eyes on the ground as Gormund leads you forward, dragged by the coercion of his will.
“When did you guys install a watchtower?” you 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 you first. A death-stink that wafts past the gates. It’s familiar. Like something half-remembered. You 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 you until you notice that her circular spectacles are fogged up. She’s short, and wide with deep brown skin and a belly that hangs over her belt. She sprints for Gormund, calling his name. “Gormund,” she says. “Gormund, you should prepare yourself–”
Something catches you and your take a tumble. You think it’s a tree root at first. The fog is too thick to discern what you tripped over. Distantly, you can hear a woman telling Gormund, “There was a battle.” Your head is swimming with remembrances of your last battle here. The last time you came here.
Gormund had told you the town was full of dead men walking. And the realization of what has happened here narrows your concentration down to a needle’s point. You can only think one thing.
“This wasn’t a battle,” You hardly notice you’ve spoken aloud. You’re 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. You 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. You 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.”
You file that name away for later. “They’ll not blight this town,” you say, belatedly. Clarissant turns to look at you, then. You meet her gaze and swallow a lump in your 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 you, now. So close that when she takes a swing at you, you hardly notice until your temple is throbbing and you’re on the ground.
You should’ve seen that coming. You’ve had better reflexes, in other lives. She’s dredging you up. On the periphery of your consciousness you can hear Gormund telling her, “That’s enough, Clarissant. Take me to Anthea.”
Clarissant isn’t listening. She’s shaking you. “You–” Her fingers curl around your collar. “This is all your fault, Peter!”
You wonder how this could possibly be your fault. You haven’t even been here a week. Haven’t you?
“Clarissant!” Gormund catches the woman’s shoulder and hauls her back. She releases you 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 Snothringham,” you say. A memory creeps up on the border of your 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 your mind suddenly overtakes you:
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 Snothringham 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.
Your first Great Enemy. The Harrower: A red-eyed gray wolf, gigantic and leading the Resolute Nothing in burying Snothringham under ash and stone and dirt. In the end, you 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 you’d Lords and warriors to aid you. But you did it.
These two. Gormund and Clarissant. They’ve taken a woman overstuffed with Higher Powers and led her down, down, down into buried Snothringham.
Into the Harrower’s crypt. With Higher Powers flagging from her body.
“Take me to her,” you say. “Gormund–bring me to Anthea.”
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