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.”
“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.