Hears? Is this hearing? You’re not sure.
The thing on the other end of the Snothringham’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 things it has seen. 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. Its anger rattles the wraith-lanterns. They dim for a moment. His servants that you trapped in there years and years ago still shudder at his name. You served the same Chaos that wrings the silence from Snothringham. The despair in the dark places between the stars. I conquered you.
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.
You don’t know why you start laughing.
It’s eerie. You’re convulsing with it, but the sound isn’t passing your lips. When you managed to control yourself, you think to the best, do you plan to conquer the world with an army of women and children.
Snothringham’s structures tremble in the aftershock of his ambient rage. This is but a start, he tells you. 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, you tell him, and for the first time in at least a hundred years you feel something like yourself again. You’re not.
The Harrower still hasn’t moved. It’s saving its strength. Trying to draw on Anthea’s power. You must find a way to put a stop to this before he reaches a power you cannot put down.
You don’t remember how you did it last time. Was it difficult? It must’ve been.
Confess to the crimes of your last life, and I will give you a swift end, The Harrower tells you. Then, a command: Grovel.
Crimes? You wonder. Crimes? What crimes had you committed last time?
You destroyed civilizations One Eye. Entire races were ground to dust under your heel. The Higher Powers’ holy fire destroyed them utterly. Who gave the Great Evil its name? Not you or I. Do you remember? Do you confess?
Unbidden, memories swirl. You stagger forward toward the Harrower, who waits, gray shadow-fur constricting. Muscles tense. Shard of memory have stabbed the back of your mind. You nearly lose your footing. At the last you catch yourself, and stumble forward. A confession? You want a confession?
The memories are still swirling. You know of what he speaks. Very well, I confess: I’m guilty. Guilty! There. Is that what you want to here? I. Am. Guilty. I did everything the Higher Powers asked of me. Everything and more. I should have died in battle with your master!
You confess you incited the war? Laid low countless civilizations? You confess to your genocide?
Oh? You smile. Is that what we’re talking about? I’m sorry. I’m afraid I don’t know anything about that. I thought I was being judged for something far worse, you see. Is my sentence not for being chosen? That’s all this is. That’s all I am. Let’s not play out this farce any longer than we must.
Have you any defense of your actions?
Only this: I did not do it. I did not bring cultures to ruin.
(Even you wonder as to the authenticity of this.)
You continue: However much I may have liked to. You let that sting the HArrower. Then you’ll give him a real sting. I had the means. All I had to do was push for it. Oh, but for a second chance. How I would have taken it! But isn’t that what I’ve been given.
One Eye! the Harrower snaps.
My name is Peter! You have to remember that. Peter. Your name is Peter. Not One-Eye, not King in the Mountain. It’s Peter. Peter Peter Peter.
You won’t let them make you the hero they think you are. No matter what happens, you have to keep your name. And your hatred, too, if you must. Hold fast to your anger and drink in your venom.
These things are not good things, but at least they are yours.
So you continue: You want a confession, Harrower! So I confess to you that I regret that I was not the one to commit these crimes. I wish I was the monster you call me! The weight of my crimes might then be easier to bear! I have killed, maimed and murder in the name of you and these Higher Powers. And if this city stood on a hill, then upon their command I might take up my blade and cut the angels down from their Heaven! I care little and less for accusations Judgement leaves a sour taste. There will be no justice if I leave you to preside over my fate. So I will put it in the the Higher Powers’ bloody hands. Let Them guide the sword of he who speaks truly. I demand trial by battle.
The Harrower launches at you. It springs into the air, jaw opening impossibly wide.
The fire flares up in your veins, on instinct. You can see the Ambient—the energy—that the Harrower generates; sizzling and gray like TV static. And the wolf’s left you a lot of it. He’s big, and that pushoff requires a lot of force—force you can use.
You start to siphon it into you, but the strange-familiar bloating sensation that follows tells you that’s a bad idea. It’s too much, but by the time you understand that you’re already spasming, each twitch ejecting some of the Ambient you’ve pulled into you.
But not quick enough. It threatens to shred you, and in your panic the only thing you can think to do is to push that power. Back. Into. The Harrower.
You shove the overflowing Ambient inside you toward the Harrower—you force it up and up and up. Into tendons and ligaments and fast-twitching muscles. Anywhere but here because you have too much and it’s killing you slowly and you have to get rid of it you have to force it into the Harrower inside inside inside until the Ambient is spilling into it—
The Harrower’s whine twists your stomach and stings your ears and for one moment that is the worst thing that has ever happened in your life.
Until you 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 your boots and hemming your cloak.
The Ambient has left your body, but you’re still shaking. You feel hollowed-out down to your very bones. A light breeze might send you floating on its current. Absently, you 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.
You pick through the remains, steeped in the utter Wrong of what you’ve done.
The whole thing lasts six seconds.
Ambient power swirls around you. Some of it is the wraiths that the Harrower has collected over time. Through laying waste to Snothringham and countless other territories you have yet to remember. They’re being freed, you 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. You cover your face with you cloak and shield your eyes from the dust that kicks up. There’s enough of it nearly to send you into the air. You dig your heels into the street and stand your ground, as the last of the Harrower’s sapped-up power drains from him. The wraith lanterns crumble like tin cans in a fist.
(Tin cans? you wonder, absently.)
Their lights are snuffed, smokelessly.
You sit alone in the dark, heaving heavy breaths. And through the dark, you hear infants crying. People whispering. And someone padding toward you.
“So it’s true,” the voice says, as she comes into view: Anthea.
Anthea, with a mane of springy, coily hair, and and pale brown 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 you of something called cigarettes. “I called the King in the Mountain back to this world. I did it. We’re saved.”
The weight of these words collapses you. And if it wasn’t so dark, perhaps you would’ve noticed when you lost consciousness.
So passes your first trial. And what has come of it? An Utter Wrong, and a feeble woman who can hardly stand hauling your unconscious body back to the surface.
(Later, so much later, you will hear the stories of this day. And all of them will end before you wake up. Because the first thing you did after that was sneak off to the nearest lavatory, where you spent the next hour positively drenched in tears, sweat, snot, and vomit And this is not a thing that heroes do.)
Special thanks to my patron on Patreon, Alicia Cameron