It’s difficult to speak as to the length of your recovery. You never wake up for more than a few seconds. And every time you do, you see Anthea, half-conscious, across from you. You can’t tell if she can see you.
You’re in an apothecary, you think. There are sharp smells and briny potion-scents. There are words, sometimes. Disembodied voices floating through what remains of your consciousness.
“This is all his fault”
“The Imperium will be upon us. Mayhaps the Majesty himself.”
Some speak of fleeing. They say there are rumors of a rebellion in some far off city. Virengar, they say. They have to go to Virengar.
Others want to fight. Many pray for you, or Anthea to wake up. To help. But you can hardly lift your arms. You’re not even sure where you’re resting.
At length, you can feel again. You can move your fingers and feel the ambient energy in your veins. Your movement returns as you remember what you did to the Harrower, and the wrong of it. We’ve already discussed how you handled that. That most unheroic of actions.
You come stumbling into the apothecary after you’ve wrestled control of yourself, sniffling and wiping the snot from your nose. Anthea is squinting at you as if her eyelids are heavy.
“I’m sorry,” she says. And when you ask her why, she elaborates: “You weren’t supposed to come back. This was an accident.”
A stone sinks in your stomach.
“It’s been three hundred years, Peter,” she says, to fill the lapse of your silence. “If the Higher Powers wanted you back, do you think they’d wait until now to call you?”
Well. At least now you have a date to this. At least you know how long you’ve been gone. “How did this happen?” you ask.
She sits up in her bed, straws crackling under her meager weight. She smooths her dress out as she does this, and pats the side of her bed. “Sit down, Peter.”
You collapse onto it. And she explains. You sit there, staring halfway into empty space as understanding dawns. Slowly, slowly, slowly you begin to understand that every last half-remembered face from this world is dead now. Ash and dust and bones, if that. They’re all gone.
And in its place is something sicker. Twisted. You united all nations against the Great Evil. But you can remember this even before Anthea explains it. Every single person regardless of race and wealth were under your banner, by the end of it. They put aside their petty squabbles in the face of the Great Evil and in one voice they said: “enough”. Every person, in every place and everything. Every rock and stone and single blade of grass. As one: “enough”.
You never wondered in the past five years what inheriting that kind of leadership might do to someone. How did your successor follow up the most peaceful time in all the land?
By beginning the Imperium, and crowning himself the Majesty. To maintain the order you left behind, at first. But order easily corrodes into control. Such control that brings men to salting the earth behind them and terraform the planet. How better to keep your subjects in line if they can’t even travel to the next town without worrying about a mountain cropping up outside their stillzone?
“Geomistry is forbidden by the Imperium,” Anthea tells you. “They created the Ever-Changing Land to on a schedule. In case they need to travel across it. But we’re forbidden to study what that schedule is, or how to spot the signs of an impending change.”
Of course it can be tracked, you think. Like hurricanes, tornadoes or earthquakes. Of course you can measure it. Why wouldn’t you?
She coughs into her elbow. A dry, hacking cough. You think you can see something glow behind her eyes. “Clarissant, though…” she lapses, watching you. She’s gauging your reaction, you realize. After a moment, she swallows and continues. “She and I have been friends since childhood. A pack of geomists came through Strathbury when we were fourteen. She was so enamored with the study that she decided to leave with them. I didn’t think I’d see her again.”
It is only when you feel that your palm is stinging that you realize your nails are digging into them. “Did she…?”
“No,” Anthea said. “That was me.” I brought you here, her too-big eyes say for her. I damned you to this life again.
There’s a twinge of guilt at this thought. Perhaps because you don’t feel damned.
“But it was Clarissant’s return that started this,” Anthea tells you. “She was caught by the Imperium. She was the only geomist in her party to escape. It had been three years, but she managed to track her way back here. They almost brought her to the prisons where they make men into Swarm. She suspects her fellow geomists befell that fate.”
Their eyes, at least, are human, Gormund had said. You ask, “If the Imperium can track across the Ever-Changing Land–”
“She led them to us,” Anthea finishes. “Lord Ath is Strathbury’s district-Lord in the Imperium. And he’s an Imperial Sorcerer-in-training.”
“I keep hearing that phrase,” you say. “What does it mean?”
“It means he was selected to study the Ambient Energies. And when he is old enough he will go to Torre and call a Higher Power into his body and confine it for decades to serve out Imperial orders.”
Decades! You had no idea that was even possible! How do they keep from burning up? How has Anthea kept from burning up? In your panic you ask, “Is it in him now?”
“Now? No. He rules these lands, for now, mastering the Ambient energy, same as you. And he wasn’t pleased to find geomists in his lands. He misliked more that one eluded him. The threat of invasion and Swarm loomed before us. We had to defend ourselves from Lord Ath.”
You want to say you would’ve made the same choice. You want to say it. But. “What did you do?” you ask.
“Clarissant told me not to,” she says. “But I had everything to go, just in case. And when I saw the Swarm over the hill. I just…I had to,” she tells you. “I had to.”
“You shouldn’t be alive,” you say. Your thoughts turn to the man who first summoned you. Blackened and burned on the inside. It had hardly been a day.
“You’re right,” she says. “It’s only by luck I’m still here. Clarissant heard Lord Ath speak of strategies to keep the Power contained. I thought I’d try it myself.” She nods to you, expectantly, but says only, “See for yourself.”
“See? What can I see?” you ask. Her too-big eyes don’t blink. There is a force to that gaze, you realize. More than mere Ambient energy. The ambient is like a sword without a hilt. This has purpose. Direction. Power. And infinitesimally, microscopically, that power should be eating her flesh. Charring her. Corroding.
But it doesn’t. You see into deep spaces inside her eyes, where the power dwells just below the surface.
(You realize, belatedly, that this is not seeing. This is in your mind’s eye. A way to comprehend the incomprehensible.)
Shimmering bands of green and blue and orange made manifest and tying down the flow of power that’s straining to consume her. She’s imprisoned it. Chained it in her soul.
“When it came to me,” she whispers, hoarsely, “My first act was to make my emotions manifest. It fuels the Higher Power. Keeps it from burning through me.”
This rattles you. It shouldn’t be possible. You would have to feel so intensely. For so, so long. Just to keep it contained. Has she had a moment of respite, you wonder? Will she ever?
“It is exhausting,” Something rattles in the back of Anthea’s throat. You think it’s supposed to be laughter. “It’s a lot to sustain. But I have to do it. In case Lord Ath comes back.”
“And where do I fit into this?” you ask. “How did you summon me?”
She exhales, slowly. Her words tiptoe, chosen carefully. “When the Higher Power funneled into me,” she says, “It…it was not unlike your battle with the Harrower. In your panic, and your own desire to live, you made a sudden decision without fully understanding what you were doing. I felt much the same. But the only face I could see in my mind was yours. Not that one,” she waves the notion away. “Your old face. I’ve seen it so much. I couldn’t help but think of it. Your presence here is the result of my momentary panic. I did this to you,” she says. And I’m sorry.”
“How did you know my face?” you ask.
“You’re everywhere,” she says. “Through your sacrifice, we are made safe. You’re the face of the Imperium, Peter. The source through which the derive their authority. The King in the Mountain is synonymous with the Majesty. I never meant to call you back. It’s a wonder my Father didn’t kill you when he had the chance. We talked about it.”
“Did you want me dead?” you ask Anthea. “Don’t lie to me.”
She stares into space like she’s having her own troubles remembering. And then she frowns, her brow a V. “We didn’t know what you’d do,” she says.
That stings. And the hurt of it swells in your throat. But you tamp it back down, and settle your sadness.
Well. At least she’s honest.