You know the story, don’t you? You’ve heard it before. We all have. That story is behind you. But it would do you good to remember what has come before.
This’ll hurt. This’ll help:
The Higher Powers choose a young child from another world to save them from a ruthless despot. Maybe you step through a magical doorway. Or a closet. A portal. They put fire and magic in your veins and send you off to stop the Great Evil.
You’d heard about these stories, even as you lived it. They were filled with wondrous creatures. Talking animals. Dwarves. Orcs. The world you save has magic, Witches and Wizards and Banshees of all sorts. You even befriend a few of them on your quest to vanquish the Great Evil.
And you succeed, too! What are the odds? Maybe it costs you an eye. Or your hand. Or friends. But you do it. You save the world and peace and prosperity reign.
(They tend to leave this next part out.)
Your success means one thing: the Higher Powers don’t need you. Not anymore. You’re a warrior, and this is peacetime. And they certainly don’t need someone as powerful as you roaming about.
So they tear the fire and the magic out of your veins, they heal you up and restore your missing hand. Or eye.
(Not your friends, though. They keep those.)
Then they ship you back to your home world, like the whole thing never happened. You haven’t aged a day, and now you have sit still and learn and live in this body that’s too soft and too weak and too complete.
The shriek of chalk on the board reminds you of that Witch’s scream. You’re startled by your own left hand. You can remember it turning to ash when you fought that sorcerer when you were fifteen. And you’re always cold, now. Because they ripped the magic out of you and nothing can keep you warm.
Now imagine, a few years later:
You go back.
And this isn’t your story.
Not this time. Not anymore.
* * *
I don’t remember how I come to be in the cave. It is a beginning, but only inasmuch as dreams can begin.
The fire is inside me again, crackling and cackling. It feels good.
Like a relapse.
“The King in the Mountain,” they’d told me, “is called upon during the Realm’s hour of greatest need.”
Nobody told me that this hour could happen twice.
I wonder if I’m dreaming of the Realm again. It wouldn’t be the first time. But something sets dreams apart to the true travel between realities: memories of my homeworld are muted in the Realm. Like remembrances of childhood. Vague and textureless and ambient.
The fire inside me turns my memories without magic into a smoky haze.
I’m starting to come to terms with my unbelief as I haul myself off the slab of cold stone when a shock of freezing water engulfs me.
I wonder what proclamations they’ll make as I sink down, down down. The King in the Mountain can’t save the world this time, they’ll say. Peter rolled out of bed and drowned in a lake. I’m off to a great start. Great job.
I surface, then, sucking in a lungful of damp cave-air that makes my chest feel like fire.
Then a scratchy, thick hand seizes the back of my shirt and suddenly I’m kicking at empty air as I am dumped face-first into a rowboat.
I’m sputtering and coughing and shivering and I can feel the stranger’s gaze on me. King in the Mountain, indeed, I think.
Not knowing what else to say, I tell the stranger: “The lake is new.” My head is still on the floor of the rowboat. I can feel it rocking. Or am I just dizzy? “It wasn’t here last time. Did you just get that installed?”
The figure who saved me is a silhouette. A massive man who grunts as he rows. I think I can see the head of an axe resting next to his boots.
My own head is still spinning. I’m trying to figure out how I got back. Why I got back. Who brought me back? I wonder if I know this bearded gentleman. Was he here last time?
A list of half-remembered faces spins through my head like a slot machine as I try to match them up with their names.
I think distantly, What’s a slot machine? and my breath catches in my throat as I realize how fast my memories are fading. No, not fading, I think. The smoke’s getting thicker. If I concentrate, I can see through it.
“I’d recognize that purposeful emotional distance anywhere!” I exclaim. I feel a twinge of guilt at how happy you are to see him. To be back. “Toric, is that you?”
“Who’s Toric?” The man asks. “My name is Gormund, King Peter. I’ve been sent to retrieve you.” Three oarstrokes pass before he speaks again. “You’re smaller than we expected.”
“What are you talking about?” I ask. “Smaller? I was twelve last time! It’s been five years! That’s not how anything works!”
“Twelve?” Gormund echoes. “You sure about that?”
A hole grows in my stomach as I realize that I’m not quite sure how long I was gone. Time passes like dreams in this place. It’s difficult to get a measure on it. Or maybe my thoughts are just clouded. Maybe they’ll clear up. Maybe.
The boat skids against the rocks at the mouth of the cave. I see Gormund silhouetted against the early-morning light. He’s raising an eyebrow. “I’m going to ignore that you said you were twelve.” He steeples his fingers and rests his elbows on his knees, leaning forward. “Instead, let’s address the fact that you just said you’ve been gone for five years.”
“What about it?” I ask.
Gormund looks at me seriously. “Just how long do you think you’ve been gone, One-Eye?”
“One-Eye?” I echo. Peter, I tell myself. Your name is Peter.
“That’s what you’re going to focus on?” He’s incredulous.
“What do you mean, One–” Shattered shards of memory stab into my brain. I remember a dagger. A rogue ambush. A red-glowing eyepatch snapped over an empty socket. Screaming.
I reach to steady myself and flinch when my left hand touches the rim of the boat. I can remember a wand pressing a hole in that palm, and the ashes that spread out from there.
I check my face. Two eyes. Too complete.
Relieved, I crumple face-first sideways out of the boat.
* * *
You know the story now, right? Surely you know where this is going?
(You think you do, leastways. But you’re not listening, are you? I told you already: this isn’t that story. Not anymore.)
* * *
I awaken, sucking in cold air. There’s a crackling that I think might be a fire. I’m still sleep-bleary, and can’t discern if it comes from inside me or outside. I certainly don’t feel as cold as when I was back in–in–that other place.
Christ, I’m already forgetting. Who’s Christ?
But as the memories of my old life fades, shards of memory fit into place. Memories of this world.
Gormund is standing beside me. I’m sufficiently impressed, now that I’ve got a better look at him. He’s a rippling container of barely-sheathed muscle–discounting his medicine ball of a chest. He’s bald, but his beard is so thick that I can’t help but wonder if the hair on his head simply migrated to his face. “Ruined Earth, but you’re heavy,” he says.
My head is spinning. My fingers are clawing at the stone foundation beneath me. I wasn’t supposed to come back. “Who summoned me?” I ask, absently. I’m not quite sure if I care.
“Nice to meet you, too, One Eye.”
It takes me a moment to understand that he’s using an alias for me. One of my old titles from my last life here. “I’m sorry,” I tell Gormund. “I’m sorry. I just. I…” I clutch my head in my hands. I’m not supposed to be back here. “Who are you?”
Gormund barks a single laugh. “Straight down to business, then?” he says. “My daughter summoned you, One Eye. Her will is almost spent from the ordeal.” He spits, as if in show of his disdain. “You’d better be worth it. Good to see you’re more…put together than the legends have led us to believe.”
I remember the last time someone channeled Higher Powers to bring me here. He had looked fine, laying on the stone slab. Unconscious, I thought. Until they examined his corpse. His insides had been a smoking ruin. I never learned his name. Others—more powerful folk–could have survived channeling the Higher Powers (for a time). Not him.
“I wasn’t supposed to come back,” I tell him, dumbly. “This can’t be real.”
He slaps me. Leaves my cheek stinging and red. I reel back, precariously close to the mountain-ledge.
(Mount Tharum. That’s its name. Mount Tharum).
Gormund catches me as I teeter on the ledge, pulls me forward. I can feel the bristle of his beard. Feel his hot, moist breath on my face. “Did that feel real?”
“If I throw you off this mountain, will that be real?” His voice is hoarse and raspy.
“My daughter has channeled Higher Powers through her flesh and funneled them onto mortal earth. All to bring you here, King in the Mountain.” My title drips like acid from his mouth. “You don’t get to tell me what is and isn’t real. Now harken to me: we are going to climb down this mountain, walk all the way to Strathbury and you will tell my daughter that you are sorry that the legends of your last life possessed her to do something so foolhardy as to summon a boy so stupid that his first act upon arrival is nearly drowning himself. Do you understand?”
I knock his hand away and shove past him to more solid footing. I lean against the side of the cave. I don’t have vertigo yet, I tell myself. This is a precautionary measure. I focus on my breathing. Five seconds in, five seconds out.
I wonder what else has changed.
“All right,” I tell him. “I understand.”
So we travel down Mount Tharum. There are thick clefts in the rock. A stairway, steep as a leaning ladder. Along the way down Gormund tells me that they should be evacuating Strathbury.
“Most likely we’ll be dead in a few weeks,” he tells me, surprisingly casual. All while he leads me down the clefts in the stone. “Funneling the Higher Powers to this plane doesn’t go unnoticed.”
I remember the last time. Raiders had swarmed down from the north. Unchecked and virtually unchallenged. Strathbury had almost no defenses. It was a town out lying in the middle of nowhere.
It didn’t stand a chance.
This time will be different. I swear it by the God I’ve so nearly forgotten and by the Higher Powers, too. Just to be safe.
I have a second chance here. I’m going to make it right. I shouldn’t even be here. The least I can do is cycle through these motions while causing the least amount of damage possible.
I’m going to survive this. I’m going to build a life here all over again. I’m relapsing, but at least this time, I can taper through this the right way.
The wind has died down by the time my feet hit soft earth and dead leaves crunch beneath my feet.
“How far to Strathbury,” I ask.
“As long as it takes,” Gormund tells me, as we crunch through the autumn waste. His axehead drags lazily through the clusters of dead leaves and grass. “We’ll need to move quickly, though. Mount Tharum is a stillzone, thankfully. It’s a three day march through the Ever-Changing Land to Strathbury. Don’t you worry, though. I know what to look out for.”
I don’t bother to keep track of time. I’m too confused by what he means when he says the Ever-Changing Land.
This land doesn’t change. I know that, even in my limited knowledge of this world. I can remember my first walk to Strathbury. There were no changes.
The world becomes walking. One step and then the next, following the command of Gormund’s back: keep moving or die. He permits no alternative.
I wonder if there will be as many raiders this time. I wonder if I can use the fire in my veins. Did the Higher Powers sew it back into me? I want to call it forth. But not in front of Gormund.
He’s angry enough as it is. Angry that his daughter summoned me. Showing him proof of my power mightn’t be the best idea. I don’t even know if I have this power, either.
So I start to wonder what changed about Strathbury. How have they rebuilt? Who lives there now?
Bored, I examine the ground that drops precipitously mere feet from me in either direction. I walk along a file, sloping down into fields of dead, yellow grass girdled by aspens and poplars.
I hardly notice when Gormund has stopped moving. I nearly plow into his back. He’s hefted his axe, holding it in both hands.
Belatedly, I realize I do not have a sword. I freeze and follow Gormund’s eyes from one side of the file to the other. “Is there something down there?” I ask.
His knuckles are white and twitching around the axe-haft. “Might be,” he says. “It’s getting dark. Might be.” Belatedly, he mutters, “I knew I should have brought Clarissant.”
I’d hardly noticed the bruise-colored clouds smothering the sky. “Is it raiders?” I ask. I wish again for my sword. Almost as much as I wish I could remember its name.
I think I can pull the fire out of my veins, if it comes to it. I can remember my training from last time around. It took me months to learn how to control the Higher Powers’ magic. But eventually I wrestled it into my grasp. I’m not quite certain how the fire works. Not yet, at least.
I think I can do it again if I have to. Probably. Maybe. Time will tell, I suppose.
I can feel my heart hammering in my neck. Images flash through my mind’s eye: men in ringmail atop mighty destriers; rippling containers of barely-sheathed muscles; pink-scarred faces that contorted with snarls; axes, swords and spears whirling through the air.
My left arm tingles where a spear caught me, hundreds of years ago. Five years ago.
Gormund’s teeth are knocking together as he wrings his hand around the length of his axe. He watches the horizon, implacable. I think I see shadows moving between the trees. As a bluster of air rattles through me, I understand I’m still a little damp. Sweat-slick and lake-slick and slippery. Vertigo opens wide, threatens to consume me.
I’m not supposed to be here. My muscles twinge with long-forgotten maneuvers. Newly-remembered exercises. Drills. But my body is soft and stupid.
I tense up, ready. I’m still not sure if I see anything. Perhaps just trees. Or perhaps something darker.
Gormund uncoils, wraps his hand around my wrist. “We have to move,” he tells me.
“Did you see anything?” I ask.
“Move!” He shoves me forward, sloping down. There’s a sound behind me like a giant’s groan. There’s thunder, I think. And something behind me cracks. Gormund is right behind me, nearly stomping on my heels as I push through the tall grass that rises up to my waist.
The forest envelopes me, trees rising like the black spears of the army that surrounded me when the Great Evil captured me seven years into my quest the last time around.
I can’t remember the name of the army. Just the flash of steel and the ash-coated spears that smeared onto the gloves of the warriors that surrounded me. Blood had dried on me and them, red-brown like lacquer. I’m getting distracted, I realize.
Gormund’s hand presses onto my back. “Don’t slow down!” he tells me. “Don’t look back, you idiot!”
Thick trees snap behind me like breaking bones. I push myself on. I’m so tired that I hardly notice the blisters on my feet from the hours of walk until they pop and sting as I push myself forward. There’s a stitch in my side.
I grit my teeth and fight through the pain. Walls of stones emerge all around me like teeth to maw of a gaping giant.
“You’re not running fast enough.” Gormund growls. “Move! Move!”
Gormund seizes me by the back of my neck and hauls me forward. I sail headlong over a hill and out of the forest.
Forests should be bigger than that, I think.
Gormund follows close behind. He dives down just next to me, twisting so that his back feels the brunt of the impact. He sits up, rubbing his lower back. “Knees hurt. Back hurts. You’re lucky, One-Eye. At least you go back to your younger years when you return.”
“What was that?” I ask. “What was that?” When I look, the forest is gone. A mountain rises from the earth, dirt and soil spilling over, churned-up as the gray stone rises, higher, higher, higher.
I’m not sure how long the silence lasts before I say again, “What was that?”
“Something Clarissant should have warned me to look out for.” Gormund curses under his breath. “You might feel some vibration when we sleep tonight. Don’t worry. It’s just the strata sorting itself out. I’ll wake you up if we need to move again.”
“Uh uh,” I tell him. I seize his arm, and a warning flares in his eyes. I don’t let go. “Nobody’s going to pull the whole dark and broody and mysterious on me. Not this time! What. Was. That?”
He turns to me, his face implacable. “The Imperium salted the earth with spells after you left. Too many uprisings. They needed to impede communications. Hard to stage a revolution when you can hardly make it to the next town.”
“About one-third of those words made sense to me,” I tell him. “What Imperium? Revolution? Uprising?”
He pulls his arm away, turns. “You’ve been gone longer than I thought,” he says. “There will be time to explain later. We have to get back before the land moves again.”
I’m numb. Following blindly, not thinking anything. I hardly notice when Gormund has stopped to set up camp. My thoughts are a blur. Just aching feet and passing trees and shuffling through leaves. It feels like I’m on a treadmill.
A what? I know what the feeling those words convey, but that actually means eludes me. At some point Gormund wraps me up in a cloak. Crickets are chirping and stars are blazing in the sky, never still, always streaking. The Ever-Changing Land, I think. I forgot about that. Or is that new?
My remembrances fill the silence. Gormund doesn’t seem to mind. He hums to himself as he stokes broken twigs and branches. He strikes flint and tinder. “Fire keeps the bugs away,” he explains to me. His cloak smells like timber. He smells like timber. “Keeps away the Swarm, too.”
“Are there Swarm here?” I ask. I don’t recall anything called Swarm from the last time I came to the Realm.
“Not as yet,” he says. “I thought I saw them, but…” he lapses. “They appear suddenly. But they don’t like the light. We’ll be safe, so long as the fire burns.”
I ask what Swarm are. I can only remember humans in the Realm. Witches and Warlocks, to be certain. But I can recall nothing of monsters.
The fire stokes in me memories of magic, besides. I feel aglow with the fire in my veins. Yes, they’ve sewn me up. Good as new, I know now. Good as new. Now all I need is my sword…
Gormund’s mustaches flutter as he exhales. “Best keep a watch tonight,” he explains. “The Swarm aren’t friendly folk. They were once men, to be certain. Before the Imperial Wizards caught them. Some still look like them, from a distance. The recently-turned. In the dark, leastways. But when they open their mouths to speak…”
Another lapse. He hrms and haws a bit. “I think they’re asking for help. But their voices are so crushed. So broken. Anything they say just sounds like clicking and scuttling. They’re wrapped from head-to-toe in rotting linen bandages. And when you cut them open,” he tells me, He leans forward, the bathing in the fire’s orange gloom.
“The only thing that comes out is spiders. Spiders and spiders and spiders…except for the eyes. Those are wet and scared and pleading. The eyes, at least, are human.”
“They’d blacken and burn as soon as touch me,” I say. But I’m not sure I’ve kept the quaver from my voice.
“You’ve no sword. And don’t you think to burn them. You’ll have to trust me, One-Eye. It won’t work. The spiders just..heh…they swarm you. They’d be on top of you before you can set them to sparking. Fire against Swarm is as useful as nipples on a breastplate.”
I’m silent for a long time. And since I can’t think of anything else to say, I mutter, “This is going to sound strange, but where are we? Where is Strathbury? Whose land is this?”
“Too small for any Imperial records if that’s what you’re asking. We’re a backwater. Were, rather. They’ll notice us now.”
“Do you have a King?”
He stares at me seriously. “We’ve the Imperium. And the district governor they’ve appointed.” He swallows hard. “You have been gone awhile, haven’t you, One-Eye?”
I nod. “Not sure I was supposed to come back,” I murmur.
Gormund regards me seriously from across the fireplace. When he speaks, his voice is grating. Like he’s taken a drag of a cigarette.
(I know what those words convey. The action itself is foreign to me.)
“Well,” he says, “My daughter saw to it you did. Best get some sleep. I’ll watch for Swarm. Keep the fire going and we’ll be fine. I’ll wake you in the morning.”
“You should let me take a watch,” I tell Gormund.
“You should do as I say, boy.” There’s a goading edge to his voice, barely sheathed. But I don’t want to argue with him. My head is still spinning. I’m still tired. I still have so many questions that swirl through my mind as darkness plays across my vision and sleep takes me as I curl up into Gormund’s timber-smelling cloak.
* * *
I come across the dying man in the middle of the next day.
He’s slumped against the bottom of a hill, his cuirass is bloodied and one arm is swollen and disjointed. The man sees me two from across the path, and signals for Gormund and I to stop.
Gormund tells me to stay where I am. “Watch,” he says, “But don’t come any closer.”
I do, eyes wide at the sight of the dying man. Shatter shards of memory stab into my brain. A million deaths. A million-million memories to remember. All too familiar.
Gormund tramps off the path, drawing his half-moon axe, and crouches at the foot of the hill where the man lays wounded. He inspects his wounds. The man has cut down to the collarbone, and every breath wept blood. I’m familiar with this red-weeping. Vaguely familiar. I push the thoughts from my mind.
I don’t want to remember.
“That’s not going to get better,” Gormund says. The man nods. “What did you in, soldier?”
“A pack of Swarm caught me without a fire. I was on patrol, Gormund. Just one. A scout, I think. I put a rondel in its back, but it shambled off. It’s probably dead by now.”
They know each other, I realize.
“I’ll send the others out to look for it. You did well, soldier.”
I want to tell Gormund to use this man’s name. Every fiber in me burns with that desire. But I tamp down on it. The soldier needs to die. No use delaying it.
Things will be different this time, I’d said.
“I don’t suppose you know how to use that axe, Gormund?” the man asks. He laughs, then winces.
“I do.” Gormunds whiskers stir when he smiles.
“You going to keep Strathbury safe?” The man asks.
“Is that your boy?”
“No,” Gormund says. “Just a boy.”
The King in the Mountain, I want to tell this man. I have fire in my veins. Fire burns. But this man is too far gone. All my revelation would offer him is a funeral pyre.
“But you’re looking after him?”
“How’d you find him?”
“Does it matter?”
“I suppose not,” the man says. “Don’t suppose you want to bring the boy here? He ought to get used to the sight of corpses.”
“He’ll see his share yet.”
I’ve already seen my share, I want to say. A million shattered shards.
“Are you ready?”
The man nods. “Strike true.”
Gormund raises the axe, and it falls with a wet sound. Like a bucket falling into a well. He cleans the bloody axe on a timber and sea-salt-scented cloak, and then throws it through a loop in his belt.
“Who was that?” I ask.
“It doesn’t matter,” he says. And then: “I’m sorry.”
“Because my daughter called you here. And I’m sorry I was the first person you’ve met here.”
“You?” I ask. “What’s wrong with you?”
Gormund says nothing. And then: “We should keep moving.”
* * *
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.”
What happens next is a blur of preparation. Clarissant and Gormund are picking through the corpses. I wonder if there’s anyone left inside Strathbury. I try to trace the battle in the footprints of the ashfall. But they’re too well-trodden to make much out.
At one point, one of them helps me into a rusted ringmail shirt, and straps a dinted iron halfhelm with peeling, sweat-smothered padding over my head.
“It gets cold in the tunnels of Strathbury-below,” one of them tells me, as an ash-colored, ash-smeared cloak is broached over one shoulder.
A sword is belted around my waist. The weight of it is familiar enough. To my mind, leastways.
As for my body:
My thighs feel red and raw from every step that sends the sword-sheath slapping against it. The pommel prods my upper ribs. I was built for this, once. Maybe I will be again.
But today, I am a small and awkward seventeen-year-old boy, gangly and angled and scrawny, with a fog-shrouded mind addled with the commandment of great armies and large forces and pitched battle. I can remember this. I can even imagine myself performing those old maneuvers my body doesn’t remember.
I realize, at some point, that a tunnel has swallowed me, and that my footsteps echo down, down, down, into the dark, dark tunnels. The town swallowed up by the churned ash and dirt conjured by the gray wolf—the Harrower’s Resolute Nothing. I do not remember Gormund and Clarissant leading me to these tunnels. Neither of them accompanies me. Distantly, I think one of them had said something about defending the town.
I’m going to save Gormund’s daughter, I realize. I’m going to be a hero again. Defeat Harrowers and Great Evils and reclaim my place in this land and. And. And?
And then what?
Mist filters through the air. I wonder if they’re ghosts. Does the Realm have ghosts? Is that Toric dancing around my ankles? Or are they mere clouds, like the ones in my mind?
Then something wails, loud and bloody and almost inhuman. More like rusted hinges than a voice.
The silence that follows is suffocating. “H-hail and well met,” I call into the darkness. I’m not sure why I giggle at this. Some part of me must understand how stupid I seem. Just an ill-equipped boy, in over his dented helm.
A battering ram of smoke and ash and thick, gray curls screams toward me. Maybe this is Toric, I think, and smile at the thought. A twisted suggestion of a face opens its maw inside the oncoming cloud.
I go to rip the longsword from its sheath. But when I free it from its scabbard, I angle it too early, and the last of its length tangles in the sheath and it clatters to the floor.
The cloud billows into me, with the same bloody wail as before, writhing about me as I stumble, swiping at it until it dissipates.
Some part of me remembers this trap from my first-ever visit to Strathbury, five years ago. I wish I had remembered it before it came barreling down an underground hall, screaming bloody murder.
Cursing, I pick up my sword, slam it into the scabbard, and try again to unsheathe it. It’s easier this time, though it takes me longer than I’d like to clear the blade from its sheath. Not to mention the embarrassment of trying to align it for re-sheathing.
The moment the suggestion of I can’t do this tickles the back of my mind, my knees buckle and I fall, ass-first, to the ground. My helmet saves my head from being bashed against the cave wall. My head is spinning. I’m dizzy. I’m crying.
I’m glad no one can see me.
My senses expand, and a warm, blue light swirls in sconces on the walls. I put them there, long ago. So, so long ago.
Wraith-lanterns. Servants of the Harrower I trapped to light my path through his havoc. It was a simple magic, if difficult for at that point in my journey. I wonder if I could do it now.
The small sins trapped inside were weaker creatures, after all. Easily tamed into nothing but unconscious light. But I had been practicing for months to do this.
Do I need practice now? The way I ripped that sword from my scabbard, I’m not sure if I want to know the answer.
I hardly notice that I’ve regained my footing. I wander, aimless, through the caverns of the town that once saved me, so long ago, bathed in the blue light of my own creation. At length, I reach the lip of a black iron archway. Something tickles the back of my mind. It used to be a gate, I realize. Shorn to ruin, like everything else.
“Toric,” I marvel, “If you could see what’s become of everything. Would you…?” I’m not sure how he would feel. Would he hate me for leaving them? For letting this–this–whatever this is–happen?
Time and place, I remind myself. Time and place.
The descent into Strathbury-below proper is steep and treacherous. I can hear folk talking in the distance. No clear voices, though. Just hissing. Like wind.
Each domed building is made of neither brick nor mortar. Every hut and house is molded from smooth, shining black metal. The wraith-lanterns’ reflections dance, prismatic in their polish.
There’s no sign of wear, after all these years. Not a single scratch. I try to dredge up memories of how they made this. But those thoughts are hidden from me. For now, at least.
Every sound tamps down into silence the moment it arises. My footsteps do not echo through the caverns of what remains of the small town. Some vile force wrings Creation at the neck, undoing every evidence of life the moment it noises itself.
I wonder what noises these hisses might be. I know it’s not wind. But the women and children of Strathbury are down here. And no noise can yet be uttered.
They can’t even scream. Is that what this is? Dozens of helpless women and children, crying out, and silenced?
It’s perhaps best to table that thought for the time being.
I descend into the smothering shadow of the old Mair’s office: a single sheet of black metal wrought into the visage of a tower small tower. Like the Citadel of Virengar, in the west, constructed in miniature.
I climb the steps to the double doors, sheath slapping on my thigh. My mailed fingers reach out to stroke the smooth black walls, just beneath the sconces fill with wraithlight.
White pain sears my hand and mind. I yelp and draw back. The shattered shards fit into place:
The wolf–the Harrower–was charged by the Great Evil to remove this place from the Order of the world. Such concepts walked the land as bare as my own flesh, long ago. The Harrower had tried to dig up this town to deliver them and its denizens to the Great Evil. He meant to punish me for daring to be called here by the Higher Powers.
I stopped him.
I stopped him.
But Anthea—Gormund’s daugher—if she’s not dead, then vestiges of the Higher Powers still echo inside her. And if she was dragged into these tunnels when the Swarm came, then that power was still flagging from her body. She has to be strong, to have survived this long.
All it would take is a single strand—a streamer–scented by the Harrower—something he could latch onto to draw his own power.
The gray wolf is awake.
And the gray wolf is angry.
I realize something, then, as more knowledge of the Higher Powers makes itself known to me: 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 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, I 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.
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 a 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 prickled 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 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.)