13. Me? Me.

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Your skin is choked in dirt and grime and what feels like layers and layers of sweat. The blazing heat pounds against you. The air is thick and soupy as you make your way to the apothecary. You don’t know these roads, but a part of you feels like you’re being dragged. It’s all instinct. Anthea, you understand, is dragging your mind towards hers. It’s stronger than before. More desperate.

You are compelled toward the apothecary. Your legs are throbbing, yet nearly numb. It doesn’t feel like you’re the one moving them. It’s almost like you’re falling sideways, toward Anthea and Clarissant.

You don’t quite remember entering the apothecary. Everything is coming in fragments. It’s too much to take in. The room is disheveled. Disemboweled. Sheets and straw and feathers splayed everywhere. You think you see spiders, too. But you don’t have time to stop and check.

(It was supposed to be different, you’d said. You were going to save everyone. How times change, eh?)

Anthea has pushed up, feet knocking together on the edge of her cot. “We need to go,” she rasps. “We have to get out of here now!

“The whole village is burning, Anthea!” Clarissant is saying. Her hands wring her crossbow. “Your Father is still out there, we can’t just–”

You’re only half-listening. Because you’ve sensed something, haven’t you? Something bubbling under Anthea, wreathed in fear and anger and hurt. It struggles against its bonds. It has something to show you, doesn’t it? Don’t I? Do you see me?

(Me? Me.)

I worm my way through Anthea’s tangle of emotions. You can see it happening, I know. I can sense you looking it the way you might notice a pair of eyes staring at you from behind. Slowly, methodically, I uncoil the smallest piece of myself from around the bands of rage she’s in which she’s shrouded me.

(I have something to tell you, Peter.)

I know that you’re distantly aware of her arguing with Clarissant. I can hear it, too, muted. Underwater-sounding as I wriggle up and up and up. Anthea notices, then, as this fractional shard of my Being squirms through her. She tries to turn her frustration on me, tries to use it to lash me back down. Confine me. She thinks I’ll burn her up. But this piece of me is but an ember.

By the time I’ve slid free of frustration, she’s primed a cage banded in grief and sealed in sorrow–but too late. By the time she’s manifested, I’m already spilling into her throat, sizzling up and out:

I make her voice louder, lower, stronger than the rasp she can usually manage. It’s both her voice and not. And in it, she says, “Virengar to the northwest has deposed their Imperium overlords. There are yet physicians behind their walls with skill in healing, and yet more who understand the rules of Ambient energies. They may yet extract the Higher Power. Anthea may yet live. And the King in the Mountain may yet have forces he may rally to his call. It begins with Virengar. It cannot be so without Virengar. You will go to there. You must go there. You will leave now, else Lord Ath will take you all in flame and storm.”

That shard of me Being fizzles out of her mouth. Anthea’s whole body convulses, and you reach out to steady her–careful of your still-unsheathed sword.

“What are we waiting for?” Clarissant asks. “Let’s go.”

You blink. “What?”

“We have to go to Virengar right now. It’s urgent.”

“You were just saying–you know what? Never mind.”

You know what it is I’ve done, don’t you, One-Eye? We Higher Powers don’t often speak, for we can only convey what must be done. And all who hear must do it, too. Clarissant couldn’t avoid the power of a Prophecy unless she wanted Lord Ath’s flame and Swarm to consume her.

(Do excuse my Peter. I’ll try to keep myself out of your story, when I can.)

So you rush them out, and Anthea wraps your Ambient around her own internal power. You know the latticework of roads. Every turn and bend now lit with heat and light. Swarm are stirring, clicking and scuttling up burning walls.

Every now and again, one of them makes a grab at you. You flail wildly with your blade, when you can. Enough to convince them you’re not worth bothering.

You try some of your old forms when you can: The Thrush Knocks. Wind Down the Mountain. Breaking the Clouds. All of them are pale imitations. You’re body isn’t used to this yet, see? You haven’t picked up a sword in five years.

(Technically, this body has never picked up a sword.)

Sometimes your edge alignment is off. Others have the timing wrong, or you’re bending your wrist too far. Or you haven’t got the right stance. Your fundemanetals are all wrong. But you’re capable enough, and when you’ve shown the Swarm you’re enough of a threat, they scamper off in search of easier pray.

(You knuckle your eyes and tell yourself the tears are just the smoke.)

All the running has flowered pain in your side. Every step makes it flare. You can hear stomping boots behind you. Someone following down the back streets where the Swarm have thinned out. You cannot chance to look back as you tear down a bend. You hear Clarissant shout, “We’re almost out!”

You can see a back gate at the end of this road. Huts here are sparse and run-down. You’re surprised that there are no Swarm to guard the exit.

The moment your sneakers crunch down on the soft earth below the back gate, you feel heavier. Anthea’s amped up the force of her power. Dragging you bodily forward. “Have to hurry,” she gasps. “He’s following us.”

You check over your shoulder to see a man with shiny black hair and a thick purple robe, almost gliding towards you.

“Don’t look!” Anthea snaps. “We have to keep moving.”

“Both of you!” Clarissant huffs, “This way!” She seized tufts of cloak in either hand and tears you into a hard right. You realize, belatedly, that whoever’s following you is gliding. He’s surfing on the Ambient that your footsteps have made.

You don’t have time to consider this, though, as you hear a low grinding sound from deep in the earth. Has her hands between your shoulderblades, almost pushing you forward. “Go go go go go!” she hisses.

Thick, gray walls of stone stone hisses from the earth behind you, belching dust and grinding on rock with heavy showers of sparks. The last thing you see of your pursuer is him releasing the Ambient and slowing to a halt in front of the massive structure climbing into the sky, stone letting out a bloody wail as a line of jagged spires line the terrain behind you for miles in either direction.

You wonder if anyone remembered to pack supplies.  

 

 

12. The Burning Blaze

It has only been minutes. All of Strathbury is drowned in flames. You are fumbling through the smoky haze, cloak pulled over your mouth and nose. Your other hand grasps Clarissant as she barrels for the apothecary. She knows the way, not you.

You can hear screams in the night. And clicking, scuttling things that you can’t quite see.

You pull your hand free. “Go get Anthea!” you tell Clarissant. “I’ll meet you in the apothecary.”

She narrows her eyes at you. “Why should I trust you?”

It is all you can do to keep your composure. You’re in the middle of a war zone! Strathbury burns and smoke stings your eyes and smothers your throat. And she wants to talk about trust. “What choice do you have?” you sputter. The smoke makes your ultimatum pathetic.

(Or perhaps that’s just you.)

She grabs your forearm as you turn. It’s squishier than it probably should be. But you turn that thought, and your heel, to one side and face her. “Where are you going?” she asks.

“I need to find Gormund! I need to make sure the rest of the town is safe!”

She relents enough for you to pull your arm free. “Go!” you say, unsheathing your sword and whirling it around in a gray arc. You scan through the smoky haze. Ambient energies make themselves known to you like visual snow. It clouds your vision almost as much as the smoke. Your steps are hesitant, toward the danger.

Images of the slaughter you arrived to flash through your mind’s eye, and you are suddenly more careful of your footing.

The orange glow bathes you in its light. You can hear the scuttling coming closer now. Flashes of dirty bandages. There and gone in an instant.

And then the creature is on top of you, all browning linens and scuttling spiders. You should have cleft it in two the moment you saw it, but you fumble with your blade–you’re not used to it yet, see? You haven’t grasped edge alignment again. So what should be a mortal blow is only glancing, and sends a shower of spiders spilling from underneath the linens.

The creature’s bandaged hand seizes your throat and you see yet more gray and black spiders worming out of its arm, leaving small depressions in its bandaged form. They’re scuttling toward you as the monster’s grip tightens. You’re lifted, flailing. Your heels knock together as you dangle.

You have a sword. You know you have a sword. But you are nothing more than a frightened boy attacked by a monster that is made of spiders. You cannot get your arms to work. Just thrust, you tell your arms. Just thrust! The spiders are scuttling, pincers snapping and venom dripping and you think, Just thrust!

And when you manage the simple deed, you see the fear in your eyes reflected in the monster’s. It’s bandages unravel, spilling spiders swiftly decaying. But in that quick instant you see something wet and shiny in their eyes. Something like tears. Or a thank you.

Something tightens in your throat. “Their eyes at least are human.”

There’s screaming, whirling, clanging, clanking, as blurry forces march through the smoke and flames. “Gormund!” you’re howling. “Gormund!” Your throat is ripping raw. There are not enough among Strathbury to put up more than a meager defense.

Your breaths are quick and rattled, raspy. You cannot focus on anything. You’re just darting around at shapes in the haze. You’re trembling as the fire consumed and blackens every home.

You’re panicking, you realize.

Then something–someone makes themselves known to you through the darkness. A hulking figure who towers over you, charging, charging, charging.

Then someone else seizes your shoulder and throws you on your back. The figure charges forward, axe whirling in a deadly arc. There’s a wet noise, then. Like a bucket falling into a well. And the axe is heaved from a dead man’s chest in an arcing spray of blood. “Here, One-Eye,” says Gormund. “I’m here.”

“We have to go or we’re all going to die!” you tell him.

You have to leave,” he tells you. “Go to my daughter. Get her out. I’ll hold them off for as long as I can!” Each arc of his axe brings a spray of spiders, or blood.

“I have to stay!” you tell him. “I have to save everyone! I have magic. I can–”

“You don’t know how to use it!” Each word is punctuated by a strike of his axe. He sees his enemies before you can even discern that they’re there.

(It’s a practiced skill, you realize.)

“I have to try!” you tell Gormund.

“Try it now and you’ll certainly die. You’re not trained. You’re not going to be able to stop them.” He’s out of breath, still swinging. “The Harrower was luck. You won’t be lucky twice. Besides–”

Something huge and round and gleaming golden sails through the air at you and Gormund, catapulting head-on for you. Gormund drags you bodily out of the way as the head of your statue churns up dust and earth as it explodes to the ground and comes to a sliding stop.

“You’re not the only one who knows how to use ambient energies,” Gormund tells you.

You wonder what you would look like if someone pushed your ambient back into you, but you tamp down on that thought before it can progress further. “Where do I go? What do I do?”

Gormund drags you behind the statue and crouches there with you. Huddled amidst debris and screams and flames and smoke.

You cannot save them.

You cannot save them.

“Out west, there is an old, old place. You remember Virengar?”

(The name hasn’t changed since you left. How fortunate. Small victories, eh?)

You nod. “What about it?”

“Clarissant spoke of rebellion there, in her travels. It is a center of learning and healing. And those who live there harbor ill will towards the Imperium. They might be able to save my daughter. And if you can take the city from the Imperium…” He bites down hard, stifling the thought. “I do not dare to hope. Just promise me you’ll keep Anthea alive.”

“I will.”

“Promise me,” he says again.

“I promise I’ll keep Anthea alive. If–”

His eyebrows shoot up his forehead like a volley of arrows. “If?”

The words spill out of you. “You have to come out of this alive.” You can’t save everyone. It’s too late for that. But this feels like the right thing to do, in some small way. Some ember of hope to cling to. “Find us in Virengar, once all this is over. You have to promise.”

It’s hard to see him in the dark. You can discern his face, just so. There’s a wetness on his face that is blood and a wetness that is not blood. “Aye,” he says. “I promise. Now go.” He half-shoves you back, toward the apothecary, as he goes vaulting up your statue’s head, boots clanging hollow on the gilded gold. “Strathbury!” He howls, “Strathbury!” And he vaults into the fray.

You wonder if you’ll ever see him again.

11. Statues

You don’t remember when you left. Sometime in the night. You were dazed. Confused. You needed to clear your head.

You’re stumbling out of the lavatory into the cold nighttime air. Crickets are chirping and sand and dirt crunches beneath your boots. There are strange sounds, far and away. Like grinding rocks and showering sparks.

“A mountain just crumbled. You should be resting,” someone tells you. A woman’s voice. From above. You crane your neck for a better look.

You’re staring at a gleaming golden statue. The figure has a horned helmet and a bandage around one eye.

One-Eye, you realize.

It’s you. You from before with golden hair that tickled the small of your back.

You, with a knotted beard that hooks in a loop at the end, over your novel.

You, when you were forty; depicting you in gilded gold your leathered skin, your embossed shield, your blade whose name you still can’t recall.

And in the crook of your statue’s shield arm, a woman sits on your folded elbow, resting her head just under your shoulder, boots propped up on the edge of your shield. She’s got a crossbow strapped over one shoulder that rests in her lap. She doesn’t reach for it when she addresses you.

You’re not sure if you should be offended.

“Do you remember me, Peter?” she asks. “I’m the reason you’re here,” she says. “From a certain point of view.”

You reach for the iron banded about your statue’s boots and pull. Your muscles burn from the exertion. There was a time when you could have made the climb with next to no effort. But that was a long, long time ago. “Clarissant,” you huff. “You’re the geomist.”

“The lookout, now,” she chuckles. “For all the good it’ll do us, if Ath descends on us with a horde of Swarm.”

“Any chance you can help me up there?” you ask.

“I’m not sure how I’d do that,” she admits. She’s a bigger woman. You’re not quite sure how she got up there. Though you assume she must’ve learned a thing or two to survive in that changing earth out there.

“What are you even doing up in that statue?”

“There’s a nice view of the Ever-Changing Land from here.” She sighs. Her gaze is lost on the horizon. Absent-mindedly, she adds, “You’re taking in the fact that you have a statue surprisingly well.”

“Oh believe me, I’m floored,” you tell her.

(This is a lie. You think. Maybe?)

“You earned it,” she says. “You saved the world. Defeated the Great Evil and all that.” She frowns. “Some would say you destroyed the world, given what followed.”

“I’m sorry,” you tell her. “For what it’s worth.”

Clarissant turns her attention back to the horizon. Hot flashes of lightning erupt in some far off town. You see it, just barely. “I can’t say your apology is worth much,” she says.

That stings. And when the stinging melts away you’re left with anger. You’re angry she’d say that, and you’re angry that you’re not as angry about it as you should be.

(Should you be angry? You’re not sure.)

You’re confused. Tired. You slump against your statue’s boots. “How many of these have you seen?”

“Statues?”

“Yeah.”

She closes her eyes. You can hear her softly muttering. Counting. “One in every town,” she tells you. “All across the Ever-Changing Land. You’re worshipped, Peter. It’s Imperial law. They built an entire religion around you.”

Of course, you’re thinking. Why the fuck not? They might as well have done that. That may as well happen. My life (lives?) is already so goddamn weird. But you say, “I want to stop it.”

Clarissant looks at you, suddenly serious. She adjusts the position of her crossbow. You’re not sure if it’s to make herself more comfortable, or–does she plan to use it on you? All she says is, “Stop what?” There’s a guarded edge to her voice, and her face remains placid.

You gesture out to the town. “This? I guess?” You slouch. “That’s not very helpful, is it?”

“Not at all.”

You don’t realize you were holding your breath until you exhale. “The Imperium. The allied nations I brought under one banner. It’s my mess. I should clean it up.”

Clarissant sweeps her legs off of your statue’s shield so that they dangle over your forearm. She’s much more dexterous than she looks. She throws her crossbow over her shoulder and scampers down the length of your statue, using every crevice like a hand or foothold. She’s down to your level in seconds. “You’re right,” she says.

It stings. You swallow whatever’s bubbling up in your throat. You’re not going to cry. Not here. Not now.

(Not in front of her.)

“I’ll fix it,” you say. “I will fix it. I’ll fix it.” You climb to your feet, and a wave of vertigo slams into you upon the realization of the responsibility you’ve just accepted. You stumble, and Clarissant reaches out to steady you.

You aren’t expecting her hands to be so rough. “Easy!” There’s force behind it. Not so much comfort as a command. It’s about as helpful as you’d expect a woman shouting at you to relax would be. But then: “You don’t have to do it alone.”

You blink your surprise.

She nods, seeming to understand. “You’d need a guide in the Ever-Changing Land. Someone who knows how to get to the next stillzone.”

What? you think.  “What?” you say. Your head’s still spinning. This is all your fault, Peter. All your fault.

Statues in every town. Forced worship. Barred travel. And disobeying the kingdoms you helped to align has turned countless men into monsters and more.

(Not you, though. You’re a monster for completely different reasons.)

You realize, abruptly, that you are not the cause of your vertigo. “Anthea!” Her name stumbles out of your mouth. She’s doing something to you. You must go to her. There’s no questioning this. You know that you need to get back to her the same way you know that tonight’s cold air stings your cheeks. Anthea’s pulling your consciousness toward herself, you realize. And you understand one more thing, too:

“Lord Ath–” you grip Clarissant’s shoulders. There’s something wild speckling your eyes. “–He’s here.”

And then

And then

The fires

Come raining

Down, down, down.

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