Don’t miss the compendium of King in the Mountain #1-9, with new scenes and edits. New material returns next Friday!
* * *
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 well to remember what has come before.
This’ll hurt. This’ll help:
You are Peter. Peter is you. You are him.
You are Peter, twelve-year-old chosen by the Higher Powers to save Their world from a ruthless despot. Summoned from the Land of Urth.
You are Peter, who had heard such stories before of children stepping through magical doorways and portals. Who had fire and magic shoved in his veins.
You are Peter, who was sent off to stop the Great Evil. Whose quest took four decades to complete.
The world you saved had magic, Witches and Wizards and Banshees of all sorts. You even befriended a few of them on your quest to vanquish the Great Evil.
You are Peter, who succeeded in his quest! What are the odds? Peter, who lost an eye, and a hand, and friends over the treacherous arc of his journey–succeeds. You did it. You saved the world and peace and prosperity reign.
(They tend to leave this next part out.)
You are Peter, whose 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.
Peter, who had the fire and magic torn out of his veins. Who was stitched up with a new eye and a new hand and his old twelve year old body.
(Not your friends, though. They keep those.)
Peter, who was shipped back to his home world like the whole thing never happened. You haven’t aged a day, and now you have to sit still and learn and live in this body that’s too soft and too weak and too complete.
Five years pass 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 are Peter. You are seventeen.
And you’ve come back.
And this isn’t your story.
Not this time. Not anymore.
* * *
You don’t remember how you came to be in the cave. It is a beginning, but only inasmuch as dreams can begin.
The fire is inside you again, crackling and cackling. It feels good.
(Like a relapse. )
“The King in the Mountain,” they told you, “Is called upon during the Realm’s hour of greatest need.”
Nobody told you that this hour could happen twice.
You wonder if you’re dreaming of this place again. It wouldn’t be the first time, but memories of your homeworld are muted, here. Like remembrances of childhood. Vague and textureless and ambient.
The fire inside you makes your memories without magic into a smoky haze.
You’re starting to come to terms with your unbelief as you haul yourself off the slab of cold stone when a shock of freezing water engulfs you.
You wonder what proclamations they’ll make as you 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. You’re off to a great start. Great job.
You surface, then, sucking in a lungful of damp cave-air that makes your chest feel like fire.
Then a scratchy, thick hand seizes the back of your shirt and hoists you into the air, dumps you face first into a rowboat.
You’re sputtering and coughing and shivering and you can feel the stranger’s gaze on you. King in the Mountain, indeed. Not knowing what else to say, you tell the stranger: “The lake is new.” Your head is still on the floor of the rowboat. You can feel the boat rocking (or are you just dizzy?) “It wasn’t here last time. Did you just get that installed?”
The figure who saved you is a silhouette. He’s a massive man who grunts as he rows. You think you see the head of an axe resting next to his boots.
Your own head is still spinning. You’re trying to figure out how you got back. Why you got back. Who brought you back? You wonder if you know this bearded gentleman. Was he here last time?
A list of half-remembered faces spins through your head like a slot machine as you try to match them up with their names.
You think distantly, What’s a slot machine? You realize how fast your memories are fading. (No, not fading. The smoke’s getting thicker. If you concentrate, you can see through it.)
“I’d recognize that purposeful emotional distance anywhere!” you say. You 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?” you 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 your stomach as you realize that you’re not quite sure how long you were here. Time passes like dreams in this place. It’s difficult to get a measure on it.
(Or maybe your thoughts are just clouded. Maybe they’ll clear up. Maybe.)
The boat skids against the rocks at the mouth of the cave. You 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?” you ask.
Gormund looks at you seriously. “Just how long do you think you’ve been gone, One-Eye?”
“One-Eye?” you echo. Peter, you tell yourself. 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 your brain. You remember a dagger. A rogue ambush. A red-glowing eyepatch snapped over an empty socket. Screaming.
You reach to steady yourself and flinch when your left hand touches the rim of the boat. You remember a wand pressing a hole in that palm, and the ashes that spread out from there.
You check your face. Two eyes. Too complete.
Relieved, you 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 want to keep telling this as I have: through the fullness of you. Am I asking too much? Am I being selfish?
(I am. I know. But it’s isolating in here, Peter. I’d like to continue in this way. Through you. If you’ll let me.)
You awaken, sucking in cold air. There’s a crackling that you think might be a fire. You’re still sleep-bleary, and can’t discern if it comes from inside or outside. You certainly don’t feel as cold as when you were back in–in–that other place.
Christ, you’re already forgetting.
(Who’s Christ?, a piece of you wonders)
But as the memories of your old life fade, shards of memory fit into place. Memories of this world. Again: you know the story. You know what this world is capable of.
Gormund is standing beside you. You’re sufficiently impressed, now that you’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 you can’t help but wonder if the hair on his head simply migrated to his face. “Ruined Earth, but you’re heavy,” he says.
Your head is spinning. Your fingers are clawing at the stone foundation beneath you. You weren’t supposed to come back. “Who summoned me?” you ask, absently.You aren’t sure if you care.
“Nice to meet you, too, One Eye.”
It takes you a moment to understand that he’s using an alias. One of your old titles from your last life here. “I’m sorry,” you tell Gormund. “I’m sorry. I just. I…” You clutch your head in your hands. You’re 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.”
You remember the last time someone channeled Higher Powers to bring you here. He had looked fine, laying on the stone slab. Unconscious, you thought. Until they examined his corpse. His insides had been a smoking ruin. You 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,” you tell him, dumbly. “This can’t be real.”
He slaps you. Leaves your cheek stinging and red. You reel back, precariously close to the mountain-ledge.
(Mount Tharum. That’s its name. Mount Tharum).
Gormund catches you as you teeter on the ledge, pulls your forward. You can feel the bristle of his beard. Feel his hot, moist breath on your 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.” Your 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?”
You knock his hand away and shove past him to more solid footing. You lean against the side of the cave. (You don’t have vertigo yet. This is a precautionary measure.) You focus on your breathing. Five seconds in, five seconds out.
The town’s name is not Strathbury. It’s Snothringham.
You wonder what else has changed.
“All right,” you tell him. “I understand.”
So You travel down Mount Tharum. There are thick clefts in the rock. A stairway, steep as a leaning ladder. Along the way down Gormund tells you that you should be evacuating Strathbury.
“Most likely we’ll be dead in a few weeks,” he tells you, surprisingly casual. All while he leads you down the clefts in the stone. “Funneling the Higher Powers to this plane doesn’t go unnoticed.”
You remember the last time. Raiders had swarmed down from the north. Unchecked and virtually unchallenged. Snothringham had almost no defenses. It was a town outlying in the middle of nowhere.
It didn’t stand a chance.
This time will be different. You swear it by the God you’ve so nearly forgotten and by the Higher Powers, too. Just to be safe.
You have a second chance here. You’re going to make it right. You shouldn’t even be here. The least you can do is cycle through these motions while causing the least amount of damage possible.
You’re going to survive this. You’re going to build a life here all over again. You’re relapsing, but at least this time, you can taper through this the right way.
The wind has died down by the time your feet hit soft earth and dead leaves crunch beneath your feet.
“How far to Snoth–Strathbury,” you correct yourself. “How long?”
“As long as it takes,” Gormund tells you, as you 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.”
You don’t bother to keep track of time. You’re too confused by what he means when he says the Ever-Changing Land. This land doesn’t change. You know that, even in your limited knowledge of this world. You can remember your first walk to Snothringham. There were no changes.
(Strathbury. It’s called Strathbury. You have to remember that.)
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.
You wonder if there will be as many raiders this time. You wonder if you can use the fire in your veins. Did the Higher Powers sew it back into you? You want to call it forth. But not in front of Gormund.
He’s angry enough as it is. Angry that his daughter summoned you. Showing him proof of your power mightn’t be the best idea. You don’t even know if you have this power, elsewise.
So you start to wonder what changed about Snothringham. Why would they change the name? How have they rebuilt? Who lives there now?
Bored, you examine the ground that drops precipitously mere feet from you in either direction. You walk along a file, sloping down into fields of dead, yellow grass girdled by aspens and poplars.
You hardly notice when Gormund has stopped moving. You nearly plow into his back. He’s hefted his axe, holding it in both hands.
Belatedly, you realize you do not have a sword. You freeze and follow Gormund’s eyes from one side of the file to the other. “Is there something down there?” you ask.
His knuckles are white and twitching around the axe-haft. “Might be,” he said. “It’s getting dark. Might be.” Belatedly, he mutters, “I knew I should have brought Clarissant.”
You’d hardly noticed the bruise-colored clouds smothering the sky. “Is it raiders?” you ask. You wish again for your sword. Almost as much as you wish you could remember its name.
You think you can pull the fire out of your veins, if it comes to it. You can remember your training from last time around. It took you months to learn how to control the Higher Powers’ magic. But eventually you wrestled it into your grasp. You’re not quite certain how the fire works. Not yet, at least.
You think you can do it again if you have to. Probably. Maybe.
(Time will tell, you suppose.)
You can feel your heart hammering in your neck. Images flash through your 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.
Your left arm tingles where a spear caught you, 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. You think you see shadows moving between the trees. As a bluster of air rattles through you, you understand you’re still a little damp. Sweat-slick and lake-slick and slippery. Vertigo opens wide, threatens to consume you.
You aren’t supposed to be here. Your muscles twinge with long-forgotten maneuvers. Newly-remembered exercises. Drills. But your body is soft and stupid.
You tense up, ready. You’re still not sure if you see anything. Perhaps just trees. Or perhaps something darker.
Gormund uncoils, wraps his hand around your wrist. “We have to move,” he tells you.
“Did you see anything?” you ask.
“Move!” He shoves you forward, sloping down. There’s a sound behind you like a giant’s groan. There’s thunder, you think. And something behind you cracks. Gormund is right behind you, nearly stomping on your heels as you push through the tall grass that rises up to your waist.
The forest envelopes you, trees rising like the black spears of the army that surrounded you when the Great Evil captured you five years into your quest the last time around.
You 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 you. Blood had dried on you and them, red-brown like lacquer.
(You’re getting distracted, you realize.)
Gormund’s hand presses onto your back. “Don’t slow down!” he tells you. “Don’t look back, you idiot!”
Thick trees snap behind you like breaking bones. You pushed yourself on. You were so tired that you hardly noticed the blisters on your feet from the hours of working until they pop and sting as you push yourself forward. There’s a stitch in your side.
You grit your teeth and fight through the pain. Walls of stones emerge all around you like teeth to maw of a gaping giant.
“You’re not running fast enough.” Gormund growls. “Move! Move!”
Gormund seizes you by the back of your neck and hauls you forward. You sail headlong over a hill and out of the forest.
Forests should be bigger than that, you think.
Gormund follows close behind. He dives down just next to you, 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?” you ask. When you looked, 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.
You’re not sure how long the silence lasts before you 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,” you tell him. You seize his arm, and a warning flares in his eyes. You 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 his, 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,” you 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.”
You’re numb. Following blindly, not thinking anything. You hardly notice when Gormund has stopped to set up camp. Your thoughts are a blur. Just aching feet and passing trees and shuffling through leaves. It feels like you’re on a treadmill.
A what? You know what the feeling those words convey, but that actually means eludes you.
At some point Gormund wrapps you up in a cloak. Crickets were chirping and stars were blazing in the sky, never still, always streaking. The Ever-Changing Land, you think. You forgot about that.
Or is that new?
Your remembrances fill the silence. Gormund doesn’t seem to mind. He humms to himself as he stokes broken twigs and branches. He strikes flint and tinder. “Fire keeps the bugs away,” he explains to you. His cloak smells like timber. He smells like timber. “Keeps away the Swarm, too.”
“Are there Swarm hereabouts?” you ask. You don’t recall anything of Swarm from you last time in 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.”
You ask what Swarm are. You can only remember humans in the Realm. Witches and Warlocks, to be certain. But you can recall nothing of monsters.
The fire stokes in you memories of magic, elsewise. You feel aglow with the fire in your veins. Yes, they’ve sewn you up. Good as new, you know now. Good as new. Now all you need is your 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 you, 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,” you say. But you aren’t sure you’ve kept the quiver from your 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.”
You’re silent for a long time. And since you can’t think of anything else to say, you 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 you 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?”
You nod. “Not sure I was supposed to come back,” you mumble.
Gormund regards you seriously from across the fireplace. When he speaks, his voice is grating. Like he’s taken a drag of a cigarette.
(You know what those words convey. The action is foreign to you.)
“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,” you tell Gormund.
“You should do as I say, boy.” There’s a goading edge to his voice, barely sheathed. You don’t want to argue with him. Your head’s still spinning. You’re still tired. You still have so many questions that swirl through your mind as darkness plays across your vision and sleep takes you as you curl into Gormund’s timber-smelling cloak.
* * *
You 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 you two from across the path, and signals for you and Gormund to stop.
Gormund tells you to stay where you are. “Watch,” he says, “But don’t come any closer.”
You did, eyes wide at the sight of the dying man. Shatter shards of memory stab into your brain. A million deaths. A 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. You’re familiar with this red-weeping. Vaguely familiar. You push the thoughts from your mind.
You 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, you realize.
“I’ll send the others out to look for it. You did well, soldier.”
You want to tell Gormund to use this man’s name. Every fiber in you burns with that desire. But you tamp down on it. The soldier needs to die. No use delaying it.
(Things will be different this time, you had said.)
“I don’t suppose you know how to use that axe?” the man asks. He laughs, then winces.
“I do.” Gormund’s 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, you want to tell this man. You have fire in your veins. Fire burns. But this man is too far gone. All your 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.”
You’ve already seen your share, you 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?” you 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?” you ask. “What’s wrong with you?”
Gormund says nothing. And then: “We should keep moving.”
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 a belly that hangs over her belt. She sprints for Gormund, calling his name. “You should prepare yourself–” she says.
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.”
What happens next is a blur of preparation. Clarissant and Gormund as picking through the corpses. You wonder if there’s anyone left inside Strathbury. You try to trace the battle in the footprints of the ashfall. But they’re well-trodden to make much out.
At one point, one of them helps you into a rusted ringmail shirt, and straps a dinted iron halfhelm with peeling, sweat-smothered padding over your head.
“It gets cold in the Snothringham tunnels,” one of them tells you, as an ash-colored, ash-smeared cloak is broached over one shoulder.
A sword is belted around your waist. The weight of it is familiar enough to your mind.
As for your body:
Your thigh feels red and raw from every step that slaps it against your thigh. The pommel prods your upper ribs. You were built for this, once. Maybe you will be again.
But today, you are 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. You can remember this. You can even imagine yourself performing those old maneuvers your body remembers.
(You realize, at some point, that a tunnel has swallowed you, and that your footsteps echo down, down, down, into the Snothringham tunnels below Strathbury. The town swallowed up by the churned ash and dirt conjured by the gray wolf–the Harrower’s Resolute Nothing. You do not remember Gormund and Clarissant leading you to these tunnels. Neither of them accompany you. Distantly, you think one of them had said something about defending the town.)
You’re going to save Gormund’s daughter, you realize. You’re going to be a hero again. Defeat Harrowers and Great Evils and reclaim your place in this land and. And. And?
And then what?
(Distantly, you understand that you’re a fool. Distantly. For now.)
Mist weaves about you like dancing specters. You wonder if they’re ghosts. Does the Realm have ghosts? Is that Toric dancing around your ankles? Or are they mere clouds, like the ones in your 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,” you call into the darkness. You’re not sure why you giggle at this. Some part of you must understand how stupid you seem. Just an ill-equipped boy, in over his dented helm.
A battering ram of smoke and ash and thick, gray curls screams toward you. Maybe this is Toric, you think, and smile at the thought. A twisted suggestion of a face opens its maw inside the oncoming cloud.
You go to rip the longsword from its sheath. But when you go to free it from its scabbard, you angle it too early, and the last of its length tangles in the sheath and it clatters to the floor.
The cloud billows into you, with the same bloody wail as before, writhing about you as you stumble, swiping at it until it dissipates.
Some part of you remembers this trap from your first-ever visit to Snothringham. You wish you had remembered it before it came barreling down an underground hall, screaming bloody murder.
Cursing, you pick up your sword try again to unsheathe it. It’s easier this time, though it takes you longer than you’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 your mind, your knees buckle and you fall, ass-first, to the ground. You helmet saves your head from being bashed against the cave wall. Your head is spinning. You’re dizzy. You’re crying.
You’re glad no one can see you.
Your senses expand, and a warm, blue light swirls in sconces on the walls. You put them there, long ago. So, so long ago.
Wraith-lanterns. Servants of the Harrower you trapped to light your path through his havoc. It was a simple magic, if difficult for at that point in your journey. You wonder if you could do it now.
The small sins trapped inside were weaker creatures, after all. Easily tamed into nothing but unconscious light. But you had been practicing for months to do this.
Do you need practice now? The way you ripped that sword from your scabbard, you’re not sure if you want to know the answer.
You hardly notice that you’ve regained your footing. You wander, aimless, through the caverns of the town that once saved you, so long ago, bathed in the blue light of your own creation. At length, you reach the lip of a black iron archway. Something tickles the back of your mind. It used to be a gate, you realize. Shorn to ruin, like everything else.
“Toric,” you marvel, “If you could see what’s become of everything. Would you…?” You’re not sure how he would feel. Would he hate you for leaving them? For letting this–this–whatever this is–happen?
Time and place, you remind yourself. Time and place.
The descent into Snothringham proper is steep and treacherous. You can hear folk talking in the distance. You hear no voices. Just hissing. Like wind. But there’s no wind down here. Not that you can feel.
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 danced, prismatic in their polish.
There’s no sign of wear, after all these years. Not a single scratch. You try to dredge up memories of how they made this. But those thoughts are hidden from you. For now, leastways.
Every sound tamps down into silence the moment it arises. Your 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.
You wonder what noises these hisses might be. You know its not wind. But the woman 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.
You 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.
(The structure comes back to you suddenly and without warning: ancient spires of stone and causeways, white-marble, uncracked, towering high so high that it fills the planes for miles in its shadow. Those twisting, towering structured are echoed here, in miniature.)
You climb the steps to the double doors, sheath slapping on your thigh. You mailed fingers reach out to stroke the smooth black walls, just beneath the sconces fill with wraithlight.
White pain sears your hand (and mind). You 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 your own flesh, long ago. The Harrower had tried to dig up this town to deliver them and its denizens to the great evil: Chaos. He meant to punish you for daring to be called here by the Higher Powers.
You stopped him.
You stopped him.
But Anthea–Gormund’s daughter–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.
You realize something, then, as more knowledge of the Higher Powers makes itself known to you: a secret regarding the fire in your veins. The magic.
The fire inside you is in its starting embers. But the Harrower threatens to snuff them before it bursts aflame. But it is not fire exactly inside of you, you realize. Though that is perhaps a more eloquent way of describing it.
Poetic. But misleading.
It isn’t inside you, either. Rather, you can pull it into you and make it dance to your will. But what is “it”?
You’re raking through your fragmented memories, when a word makes itself known to you: Movement. Movement and heat and force and energy, made Ambient and funneled into the storecaches of your veins.
You reach out to sap the pressure from centuries of sediment pressing down above you. But you withdraw, quickly. If you pull on even a little of that pressure you could bring the whole cave down in your folly. You’re powerful enough, anyway.
(You’re not sure how you know this.)
There’s sound, then. It draws you out of your own remembrances. No, not sound. It’s in your head, you realize. The pounding of hooves down the cobblestone street. You’re not hearing it. It’s being projected into your mind.
You swivel to look down the adjacent path, and nearly vomited everything (if anything) that’s in your belly onto the street.
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 you, and you 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 your head. Throbbing in your skull. “Well met!” she calls.
You can feel the back of your throat scrape out your scream, but the sound doesn’t pass your lips.
The mutilated rider swings down from her horse. You back away, your back flat against the gigantic door. “Do you recognize me, Mountain-King?”
You shake your head no.
“You were supposed to save me. You were supposed to save all of us.” You wonder if this is Anthea. You pray to a God you 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! Only you and he escaped the destruction of Snothringham.”
She’s closer, now. You see her eyes, black and shining. Her form flags off her own body. Unraveling like streamers in the wind.
(Streamers. What are those?)
Her corporeal form sprays off itself, swirling into gray-blue ash and smoke. “I hate you, Peter,” she says, hurling toward you in a spray of dust. It’s changing colors, you realize. Like the funnels that descended from the gray wolf’s black cloud.
She is a part of him, you realize. He owns her.
“I hate you, Peter! I hate you!”
A wraith-lantern flickers in the corner of your eye. You’re not sure if you reach for it out of desperation, or…well:
When you unlatch it, the blue flame sputters and dies. It rattles. You 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 your chest, sending you stumbling. It tries to fly upwards, half-dragging you to the tips of your toes as the rider’s form is sucked into the lantern you created so long ago. It makes one final attempt at escape, shoving against the glass with enough force to send you sprawling to your stomach, arms outstretched.
You close and bolt the latch and a moment later, all has returned to the unsettling stillness from before.
The contrast is startling. You can feel your pulse in your neck. Slowly, you push up onto your arms.
Did you grab the lantern out of desperation, or did you know that would happen? You’re not sure.
Then, inside your head:
That was mine. I don’t like people who steal my things.
You reach for your sword when you hear a low boom inside your head. It will do you no good.
It’s as low and grumbling as a rockslide. You think back to the voice, You don’t know that, Harrower.
Down the road from where you stand, two eyes emerge. Inky black darkness descends around two glowing red ovals. They blink sideways. The town descends into darkness.
Remain incorporeal, and I’ll pass through you. Take form–you draw your sword. And I will cut you down. Make your choice, Harrower.
The Harrower doesn’t heed you.
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. You can use that. You try not to let yourself 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?
Let’s find out, you think. Then you realize you’ve given him his own measure of you. You curse, inwardly, and wonder if he hears that too.
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 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 this. I’m sorry”
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.)