The thing on the other end of the Strathbury-below’s main street is a wolf with fur of gray shadow and eyes, blue-black and glowing. They’re twinkling with the hellspecks of starstuff. The glow of its eye is tamped out every few seconds by a nictitating membrane. You thought you killed me, mountain-king. Can you remember my name?
No. I bite back my grin.
Its anger rattles the wraith-lanterns. They dim for a moment. His servants that I trapped in there years and years ago still shudder at his name. You served the same Great Evil that gives you this power to wring the silence from Strathbury-below. You served the Despair in the dark places between the stars.
The Harrower lets a long sigh whistle through its nose. Something like snot dances on the end of its snout. And thanks to the woman with the Higher Power in her veins, my time shall come again. These stragglers will be mine, One Eye. Just as the last time. I trust you remember Toric’s betrothed. You met her, yes? These new humans will become my thralls, just as she was. I will replace my master in title and ambition. It is only a matter of time.
I don’t know why I start laughing.
It’s eerie. I’m convulsing with it, but the sound isn’t passing my lips. When I manage to get it under control, I think, do you plan to conquer the world with an straggling of women and children.
Strathbury-below’s structures tremble in the aftershock of his ambient rage. This is but a start, he tells me. Soon you too will be mine. As your former friends are now mine and as these new stragglers will be mine. In this place, the servants of Chaos have power. In this place, I am King.
No, I tell him, and for the first time in at least a hundred years I feel something like myself again. You’re not.
The Harrower still hasn’t moved. It’s saving its strength. Trying to draw on Anthea’s power. I must find a way to put a stop to this before he reaches a power I cannot put down.
I don’t remember how I did it last time. Was it difficult? It must’ve been.
You will speak to me with respect, One Eye the Harrower snaps.
My name is Peter! I have to remember that. Peter. My name is Peter. Not One-Eye, not King in the Mountain. It’s Peter. Peter Peter Peter.
I won’t let them make me the hero they think I am. No matter what happens, I have to keep my name. And my hatred, too, if I must. Hold fast to my anger and drink in my venom.
These things are not good things, but at least they are mine. We’re done here, Harrower, I tell him. Strike me, and be damned!
The Harrower launches at me. It springs into the air, jaw open impossibly wide.
The fire flares up in my veins, on instinct. I can see the Ambient—the energy—that the Harrower generates; sizzling and gray like TV static. And the wolf’s left me a lot of it. He’s big, and that pushoff requires a lot of force—force I can use.
I start to siphon it into myself, but the strange-familiar bloating sensation that follows tells me that’s a bad idea. It’s too much, but by the time I understand that I’m already spasming, each twitch ejecting some of the Ambient I’ve pulled into me.
But not quick enough. It threatens to shred me, and in my panic the only thing I can think to do is to push that power.
Back. Into. The Harrower.
I shove the overflowing Ambient toward the Harrower—I force it up and up and up. Into tendons and ligaments and fast-twitching muscles. Anywhere but here because I have too much and it’s killing me slowly and I have to get rid of it I have to force it into the Harrower inside inside inside until the Ambient is spilling into it—
The Harrower’s whine twists my stomach and splits my ears and for one moment that is the worst thing that has ever happened in my life.
Until I watch the Harrower overflow with energy, simply streaming apart. Mudlike ash and prismatic hues of orange and green and blue fly off of in bands from its body. What’s left of it lands wetly, like gray vomit, spraying across the cave floor and onto my boots and hemming my cloak.
The Ambient has left my body, but I’m still shaking. I feel hollowed-out down to my very bones. A light breeze might send me floating on its current. Absently, I pick through the ruin of the creature, stabbing, like an afterthought, at what pieces of it have retained their solidity.
Not out of malice—it’s a mercy.
I pick through the remains, steeped in the utter Wrong of what I’ve done.
The whole thing lasts six seconds.
Ambient power swirls around me. Some of it is the wraiths that the Harrower has collected over time. Through laying waste to Strathbury-below and countless other territories I have yet to remember. They’re being freed, I realize, as the ambient energy of the Higher Powers leaks from the wolf’s wound like lifesblood. The wraith lanterns buckle under the ambient energy.
I cover my face with my cloak and shield my eyes from the dust that kicks up. There’s enough of it nearly to send me into the air. I dig my heels into the street and stand my ground, as the last of the Harrower’s sapped-up power drains from him. The wraith lanterns crumble like tin cans in a fist.
Their lights are snuffed, smokelessly.
I sit alone in the dark, heaving heavy breaths. And through the dark, I hear infants crying. People whispering. And someone padding toward me.
“So it’s true,” the voice says, as she comes into view: Anthea.
Anthea, with a mane of springy, coily hair and skin that shivers.
Anthea, with gangly limbs as flat as wooden boards, all prickling with gooseflesh.
Anthea, with sunken eyes, a too-wide mouth that click-click-clicks and chatters.
Anthea, who even now is fighting off the Higher Power inside her that threatens to consume her very Being.
When she speaks, her voice is hoarse and croaking. It reminds me of something called cigarettes. “You’re not supposed to be here. This was a mistake. I’m sorry”
The weight of these words collapses me. And if it wasn’t so dark, perhaps I would’ve noticed when I lost consciousness.
* * *
So passes my first trial. And what has come of it? An Utter Wrong, and a feeble woman who can hardly stand hauling my unconscious body back to the surface.
(Later, so much later, I will hear the stories of this day. And all of them will end before I wake up. Because the first thing I did after that was sneak off to the nearest lavatory, where I spent the next hour positively drenched in tears, sweat, snot, and vomit. And this is not a thing that heroes do.)