I realize something, then, as more knowledge of the Higher Powers makes itself known to a: a secret regarding the fire in my veins. The magic.
The fire inside me is in its starting embers. But the Harrower threatens to snuff them before it bursts aflame. But it is not fire exactly inside of me, I realize. Though that is perhaps a more eloquent way of describing it.
Poetic. But misleading.
It isn’t inside me, either. Rather, I can pull it into me and make it dance to my will. But what is “it”?
I’m raking through my fragmented memories, when a word makes itself known to me: Movement. Movement and heat and force and energy, made Ambient and funneled into the storecaches of my veins.
I reach out to sap the pressure from centuries of sediment pressing down above me. But I withdraw, quickly. If I pull on even a little of that pressure I could bring the whole cave down in my folly. I’m powerful enough, anyway.
(I’m not sure how I know this.)
There’s sound, then. It draws me out of my own remembrances. No, not sound. It’s in my head, I realize. The pounding of hooves down the cobblestone street. I’m not hearing it. It’s being projected into my mind.
I swivel to look down the adjacent path, and I feel bile rising up in my throat.
The rider’s mount is a dead thing, dragging the coiled gray ropes of its own organs down the street and painting a single bloody line.
The rider is a woman who’s missing the flesh of half her face. The left half. The muscle is exposed and the eye is gone, and dry, pink gums are visible where her lips should be. The teeth below are brown and rotten. She smiles at me, and I can see the muscles constrict on the missing portion of her face. Red rivulets drool down her neck.
“King in the Mountain,” her voice rings in my head. Throbbing in my skull. “Well met!” she calls.
I can feel the back of my throat scrape out my scream, but the sound doesn’t pass my lips.
The mutilated rider swings down from her horse. I stumble away, my back flat against the gigantic door. “Do you recognize me, Mountain-King?”
I shake my head no.
“You were supposed to save me. You were supposed to save all of us.” I wonder if this is Anthea. I pray to a God I can hardly remember that it isn’t.
“Toric promised he would aid you. Even after you let me die,” she says. “Even after the Harrower killed me. He possesses me now. I was supposed to wed Toric. You understand that, don’t you? He should have been mine. But you had to save him. Him! Not me!”
She’s closer, now. I see her eyes, black and shining. Her form flags off her own body. Unraveling like streamers in the wind.
Her corporeal form sprays off itself like sea-foam, swirling into gray-blue ash and smoke. “I hate you, Peter,” she says, hurling toward me in a spray of dust. It’s changing colors, I realize. Like the funnels that descended from the gray wolf’s black cloud.
She is a part of him, I realize. He owns her. No, not her, I think. It isn’t her. This is a Wrongness wearing her face.
“I hate you, Peter! I hate you!”
A wraith-lantern flickers in the corner of my eye. I’m not sure if I reach for it out of desperation, or…well:
When I unlatch it, the blue flame sputters and dies. It rattles. I remember that it is supposed to make a humming sound. It cannot, as yet. There is no sound here. The cloud of the woman’s body sloughs off itself, whorling into the wraith-lantern. The glass slams against my chest, sending me stumbling. It tries to fly upwards, half-dragging me to the tips of my toes as the rider’s form is sucked into the lantern I created so long ago. It makes one final attempt at escape, shoving against the glass with enough force to send me sprawling to my stomach, arms outstretched.
I close and bolt the latch and a moment later, all has returned to the unsettling stillness from before. There a thousands of wraith-lanterns here. Thousands of souls trapped in these rusted boxes. How many of these creatures did I kill?
I can remember leading armies to war from atop a black destrier, my mentor Toric by my side. I razed as many towns as I raised. And anyone aligned with the Great Evil was not permitted to survive. There was no trial. Only executions.
And here I am wondering how that sort of reign of terror might feed into a populace looking for more security in the wake of a devastating war after I left. Hell, the mere act of my leaving must have terrified them enough as is. The Higher Powers chose me as a savior. And if they didn’t bother to tell anyone what happened to me when I first left…I can only imagine the terror that resulted.
Did I…did I cause this? Truly?
Then, inside my head:
That was mine. I don’t like people who steal my things.
I reach for my sword when I hear the same low boom inside my head. It will do you no good.
It’s as low and grumbling as a rockslide. I think back to the voice, You don’t know that, Harrower.
Down the road from where I stand, two eyes emerge. Inky black darkness descends around two glowing ovals.
Remain incorporeal, you tell it, and I’ll pass through you. Take form and–I draw my sword. And I will cut you down. Make your choice, Harrower.
The Harrower doesn’t heed me.
I can smell your fear. You are ripe with it. Even in my current state I can smell the rank terror of you, One-Eye.
So he’s not at full power. That’s good. I can use that. I try not to let myself feel relieved. He might sense that.
Do you think I don’t see how your hands tremble on that sword? Do you remember how to use it? Do you remember how many people your swords have killed? How many have died at your command, One Eye?
One more, when this is over, I think. Then I realize I’ve given him his own measure of me. I curse, inwardly, and wonder if he hears that too.