19. Dreamwatcher

Am I still dreaming? This is a dream, yes.

The world comes to me in dark hues of green and black. There’s something I’m forgetting. Something I’m not doing. Can I do it?

Breathe! I realize I can’t breathe. I’m kicking, wildly, flailing through dirty water and bubbles as I tear myself up and up and out.

And I suck in a lungful of air as I surface. Is that it? Do I have the right of it? No. It’s not me doing this, is it? I’m staring at a man, sopping wet with swamp-water puddling at his feet. His jet black hair is matted down and his purple cloak clings to him. But I can feel the clothes that cling, squishy like kelp, to him. I am angry, as he is angry. And when a few mouthfuls up bog-water rise up and out of his throat I feel its taste on my tongue.

And I watch.

I watch as his sits, sand stuck to his ass, as he pries off his boots and wrings the water out. Then his cloak. Then his sheath. He keeps his sword out to let it dry in the heat that’s overtaking him now.

“What are you waiting for?” I call across the bog. No, he calls across the bog. The Swarm click and scuttle, edging to its precipice. They’re clicking and scuttling, spiders wheeling across the worn linen of their bodies. “Go around!” he says.

And he waits. Seething and fuming, he waits. “Well this is going great,” he tells himself. “An entire province put to the torch. And I still can’t catch him.” I—he considers forging ahead without his Swarm. But he doesn’t trust them to make it through the Ever-Changing Land without him.

It only takes a minute for him to change his mind.

So he tears after us. Following out tracks through the blistering heat. And at length his Swarm catch up to him. He doesn’t like to look them in the eye. It rattles him. He’s startled every time he hears them scuttling over their linens.

He plods on, trying to keep a pace with us. But he’s tired. Ragged. And as he dries in the sun his lumbering is slower. He’s breathing heavily. “I shouldn’t have done that,” he tells himself. “You’re an idiot, Desmon.”

So he does have a first name…

He jams the palm of his hand into his temple. “Focus, dammit. You have to find him. You have to!” He’ll never get a Higher Power like this.

Wait, what?

“Stupid amateur,” he tells himself. He kicks at the sand. “You aren’t advanced enough for that stupid—what were you thinking?” He breathes deep, exhales. A gust of wind knocks his purple cloak back, splaying it in a crescent behind him. He peels some of the ambient energy off the wind, and I’m not even sure he notices that he does this. He’s too busy panicking. I don’t have to be in his head to see that. It’s clear enough in his eyes.

He plods on, heaving just to take another step. But the more fragments of ambient he pulls into the storecaches of his veins, the quicker he gets. But it’s not long before he depletes what he’s got, and he’s back to his slower pace.

I didn’t even remember you could do that. That should be useful, in the future.

“You can rest when you have him,” he tells himself. “No. I have to rest before I catch up to him. I’ll need my strength back if I’m going to take him in a fight. Elsewise—Lord Uthrik is in Strand.” He looks to the half-dozen Swarm that follow him. “What do you think? Should we meet him there? Let him know what’s going on?”

They say nothing. He avoids looking at their eyes.

“I don’t like it any more than you,” he tells them. “I hate Lord Uthrik as much as the next guy. But what choice do I have?” The thought of failure seeps into his mind, and he seizes up for a moment. Muscles tense and locked-up. It passes as quickly as it came over him.

Mostly because when he hears a ragged roar ahead, his thoughts turn to dread and survival. Something comes ambling toward him. Some ruined creature, half alive, its body a mess of flesh, somewhere between a polar bear and a wolf, like wax figures of each were melted together.

“Hello, beastie,” Lord Ath says, scraping his sword from its sheath. “Did the Higher Power do this to you? Not enough time to change with the land?”

His sword is slick with palm sweat that he wipes on the golden mountain displayed on his doublet.

His doublet! I get it now! I knew I should’ve known that sigil. It had some sort of meaning to me. And an understanding has dawned. The kind that makes my heart both sink and flutter.

Is that?

It can’t be.

It can’t be! That’s his sigil!

The King’s sigil! The True King, who helped me to unite divided lands under my banner. My banner. That my friend took for his own when he renounced his exile in Strathbury and reclaimed his throne, united north, south, east and west under one banner.

That banner.

That’s Toric’s sigil.

“Father’s going to kill me,” Lord Ath mutters.

Lord Ath?

Prince Ath.

He twirls his sword as the beast before him paws the ground. “All right, then,” he says. “Shall we dance?”

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18. Factions All The Way Down

“Peter!” We’ve bedded down for the night, and Anthea has hissed my name. “Come over here.” I’m on the other side of the campfire, and I crawl over to her on my elbows.

“What is it?” I whisper. I flinch under her gaze, and then a pang of regret blossoms in my stomach.

“I’m sorry,” she says. “About earlier. That…”

“You didn’t have a choice,” I tell her.

“That doesn’t make it right,” she says. “Dammit. I need you to listen to me. Even if I didn’t have a choice then—which, you’re wrong. But still. I have a choice now.”

The fire is down to its barest embers. Clarissant is the only one who’s huddled by it. She’s the only one who needs it. Anthea and I have fire in our veins. Clarissant snorts in her sleep and swats at empty air. We turn to look at her, and then back at each other. “What are you saying?”

“You need a teacher,” she tells me. “I can be that for you. Using ambient energy is different from a Higher Power though, I think.”

“How so?” My mind is abuzz with the possibilities.

“You already know how the ambient works. Storing energy and movement and redirecting it for your own purposes. That’s an oversimplification, but it works for now.”

I raise my eyebrows. “And how is the Higher Power different.”

“Well for one thing, it’s…alive? I suppose. It has a will of its own, and it requires more coaxing to make it work for you. But the way it works is less in—here.” She draws a line in the sand with her finger. “Say this line is ambient energy. Let’s say a horse leaves it behind as it gallops down the street, and you want to apprehend the horse. People who learn how to see and tap into the ambient—they can redirect the energies as they need to, see?” She swirls the end of her line in loops. “You could lasso it, or throw up a wall. You have options. The Higher Power, though. It functions…differently. It’s sentient. It thinks. It’s shrouded its thoughts from me—or maybe I’ve shrouded mine from it, but—” she pinches her eyes. “It doesn’t matter I suppose. The point is, if you can coax the Higher Power to do what you want—sometimes it’s easy, others it can be a little more difficult. It might threaten to burn you a bit if you use its power in a way it doesn’t like. Sometimes you can make it do—owww!” She clutches her chest, hissing. “It…it doesn’t want you to know this.” The peels the hair out of her face, laughs. “Let’s get back to the line.” She redraws the same line in the sand. “If I wanted to use this, I would have to convince the Higher Power to…change it somehow. Make it different.”

“That may be the most useless way you could have possibly phrased that,” I laugh.

“I know. I’m trying—it’s hard to explain. I wouldn’t be able to lasso the horse or throw up a wall. But I could convince the Higher Power to, say, help me raise a block of strata to box it in. That’s the difference here, Peter. The only thing it knows how to do is violate. It makes minds think things they don’t want to think. It makes bodies move in ways they don’t want to—I didn’t intend to do that, either. When Strathbury burned. You were dragged to me. And then I spoke a Prophecy. That was all the Higher Power’s doing. It wanted you here. It wants us in Virengar. I’m fighting with it, always I’m fighting with it. Making it work for me. Making emotions into something adjacent to tangible thing so I can box it in. The Higher Power makes things defy the laws of nature. All it can do is violate.”

Understanding dawns then, and a pit gnaws at your stomach. “I’m sorry,” you rasp. “How—how can I help?”

She shoves you, playfully. “Dammit, Peter! I want to help you! If I can. The Higher Power knows how to use the ambient in principle.”

“How do you know?” I ask.

“It’s told me, I think. Not like talking told me. But I think I sensed it.”

An understanding dawns then, and ideas flood into my mind faster than I can speak them. “You said it can make minds and bodies think in ways they shouldn’t be able to. If you want to teach me how to use the ambient—or wield a sword—or—or—or—”

Anthea grabs my my face in both her hands and pulls my forehead to hers. “Look at me, Peter. I’ve tried that already. It won’t let me. Usually I can coax it into doing what I want. But when I try to help you learn these things again. It—it hides away in the cage I’ve made for it, deep in the subconscious places where I can’t reach it. The only way I could give this knowledge to you would be to burn myself up. And even then, there’s still no telling if I’d be able to.”

“Oh,” I say. She released my face and I lie down beside her. And, not liking the silence that follows, I add, “Has that ever happened before?”

“I tried to rip the spells from the earth a few days into our journey,” she tells me. “It won’t do that, either.”

“Why?” It doesn’t make sense. The Higher Powers built this world! Why wouldn’t they want to restore the natural order of things? Why wouldn’t it want to help me?

“I can’t say for certain,” Anthea whispers. Her voice drops even lower. As if she plans to hide it from the Higher Power. “But. If this thing is sentient. It’s alive. It has thoughts, feelings, wants, dreams. Plans.”

“Plans? What plans? The Higher Powers don’t have plans.”

“We’re so focused on what we want and what the Imperium wants—and even within those two sides I’m willing to bet there are factions. There are factions in the Imperium and in Virengar and—and—and—and nobody’s stopped to think about the forces that have shaped our world since the beginning! The Higher Powers called you here three hundred years ago. And the past two and a half centuries the Imperium has been calling them down into their Wizard’s bodies to salt the land with spells and maintain order. They say the Majesty himself has used a Higher Power to bring himself unnaturally long life. And these Higher Powers—they can’t die, Peter. Even after this one burns through me—”

“It won’t burn through you,” I interject.

“We’re not at Virengar yet, Peter.” Her eyes are empty as she says this, and I don’t understand why this makes her laugh. “Anyways,” she says, pointedly. “If this one burns through me, I can sense that it knows it will return to…wherever it came from. And maybe be called down again. And we’ve got these thinking, immortal things coming into our world on a cycle to grant Wizards power that I know firsthand isn’t freely given. And you think these things don’t have plans of their own?”

“What would the Higher Powers want?”

“That’s the question,” she says. “But I think they have sides, too. Just like we do. And I think each side has their own factions and infighting among them. And if that’s the case. Well—what does mine want?”

I don’t say anything. I don’t know what I can say.

So Anthea fills the silence. “It’s getting late. You should sleep.”

“But what about Lord Ath—”

“We’ve put enough distance between him and us. Take the moment to rest. Clarissant or I will wake you when it’s time to wake up. We can’t stay here for long.”

“But—”

She raises her hand. “Peter,” she says. “Rest. Please.”

So I lie down, throwing my arm over my eyes. And I fall asleep as the wind blows sand in my face.

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17. Stitching the Cage Closed

It is my turn to help Anthea along. To guide her. She is weary and frail. She looks all-over sharp and pointed. Her nose. Her elbows, especially. And she lumbers through the sand with us. It is hard to get traction, but Clarissant will not slow down.

“We have to keep a pace,” she tells us. “And I have to pay closer attention.”

Half an hour after we’ve started up, Anthea goes slack and slumps into the sand. I call over to Clarissant, who whirls, eyes wide, and bursts over to her.

“Look at me,” I tell Anthea. “Look at me!” I can see the wild magic in her veins. The intensity of her Being at all times is so taxing. It keeps trying to eat her.

“What’s happening?” Clarissant asks. She props Anthea’s head up on her knees. A good call, and one I hadn’t the nerve to think of in my panic.

The Higher Power is sizzling like a glass of Pepsi (I cannot discern if that is a potion from this world, or…something else. From Over There). “She let some of it escape.” For the briefest of moments, she let the intensity of her emotions slip. Allowed herself respite from the sheer force of feeling she’s been employing.

“It hurts,” Anthea croaks. A cord tightens on her neck.

“It’s eating her,” Clarissant says. She looks at me, eyes wet and pleading. “Peter. Do something!”

I turn my head to one side. The Higher Power has filtered through the cracks of her Being. Clarissant cannot see it. Few know how to see someone else’s sheer health. I suspect I can do it as a matter of remembered-training. And it’s hardly as powerful as it once was, I think.

But I can see within the fullness of her, that the Higher Power generates ambient energy as it tries to wriggle free of the cage she’s built for it. “I can’t,” I mutter.

“She’s going to die,” Clarissant screams. Her throat rattles with rawness. “You have to.”

“If I do I’ll tear her in half! I don’t know how to use the Ambient! I don’t have the skill yet—”

Anthea seizes my wrist, and suddenly I’m sinking down, in my mind’s eye. I’m sinking and into her health. Her spirit? Is that what I’m doing?

No. I can feel the sand mushing under my knees. I can feel the sun heating the back of my neck. I’m kneeling over her.

But my mind’s eye is overcome with her health-sense. My mind makes the necessary adjustments to the Higher Power’s own energy. It has made a tear in the fabric of her soul that she has caged it in. And I am using the Higher Power’s ambient to sew it well it back in its cage. And any excess ambient energy is leftover-threaded into a sewn-up patch.

But it’s not me doing this, I realize. I’m not using my own skill. Anthea is utilizing my skill. Using me as a vessel. Guiding my hands, in a sense.

No, that’s not correct, is it? She’s taken control of my own magic. She is my hands. And all I can do is look on as she uses my body to patch hers up. There is a wrongness to it, and I wonder if this is how the Harrower felt.

When it’s done Anthea bolts up, nearly knocking her skull into Clarissant’s chin. It’s enough of a reminder to Clarissant that she should close her mouth.

Anthea is shining with sweat. Her hair is disheveled and her breath is ragged. Almost as ragged as my own. “I’m sorry,” Anthea says. “I had no choice.”

I hadn’t realized how winded I am until I try to stand. I wipe the drool from my face with the back of my hand. What she did was wrong, but I can’t muster up the energy to be angry at her. I can’t make myself care. “You’re all good,” I tell her. “It’s fine. Don’t worry about it.” You just broke into my brain and made me do something I didn’t know how to do. No big deal.

I wonder if she could use that skill to teach me how to use a sword again. And then I feel dirty for thinking it. Wrong. “We should keep moving,” I tell her. “Keep going.”

So we plod on through the white-hot waste, leaving deep indentations in the sand that I hope whoever is following you won’t be able to track. By nightfall, the heat has faded, and I’m thankful that it has sapped the moisture from my cloak as we sit huddled by a dune that Clarissant assures us will not change for the night.

Clarissant’s rations are running low. And it’s all the same. Dried, stringy I-don’t-know what. Every bite tastes subtly different. It has the texture of jerky and the flavor of broccoli, sometimes. Clarissant claims that the Majesty commissioned these a couple decades ago. Set up some camps to farm on the Ever-Changing Land. It compacts all the food that’s farmed into a brown-green sludge that they can dry to jerky and ship out to Imperium colonies for the cheapest prices.

“Interesting,” I tell her between tearing at mouthfuls of the stuff. It makes an audible ripping sound when I break off a chunk. My ‘Interesting’s punctuate her explanation. But it’s only a formality. I’m only half listening, because Anthea is eyeing me from where she sits shivering in her cloak, hair sweat-plastered to her face and using Clarissant’s shoulder as a headrest.

There’s a wet sorrow in her eyes. I’m not sure if she should feel particularly bad about what she did. It’s not like she had a choice. But then I remember that she can’t allow herself to scale down the intensity of anything she feels—including her regret. Or shame. She knows the sheer violation of what she has done.

She stole my power and what little skill I had and she thrust my mind headlong into the most inward sliver of her Being, where all I could do was watch as she used my power to stitch herself back together.

I felt like I couldn’t move. I couldn’t blink. I was stuck gazing on the fullness of her Being as she used me to sew herself up again.

And despite the sheer Wrong I felt when she did this, I can’t blame her. Was what I did to the Harrower any different? I imagine this must be taboo, but I’d rather she had done it than let the Higher Power consume her. Even if I shrink from her gaze for a few days.

And still Clarissant explains. And still I’m nodding and adding my absent ‘Interesting’s as Anthea bores her apology into my countenance. Does Clarissant know? Can she see this? Can she even fathom it? Does she know of the utter Wrong her two companions have done? But we didn’t have a choice.

We didn’t have a choice.

We didn’t.

Did we?

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16. Lord Ath

“Stay away,” I tell the man in the purple cloak. I adopt my Thrush Knocks stance.

He rips his own blade from his scabbard, all confidence and straight-backed pride. The Swarm hang back, waiting. He grins, baring his teeth. “Or what?”

Clarissant spits another quarrel at him, and I can see him seized on the force of her crossbow and propel it back into her face. She collapses, blood gushing from her nose.

Anthea scrapes Clarissant’s name from her throat and throws herself to her side.

“Alright,” I say. “That’s cool. Keep her safe. I’ll just…shit.” When I turn back his sword is on a path for my skull. My head is still buzzing, but I through the din I can tell he’s performing a Breaking Firewood Maneuver. He’s quick—no flourishes or hesitation. The maneuver’s been honed to a needle’s point.

(Just like Toric taught me.)

I’m less graceful, simply putting a steel bar sideways between Breaking Firewood and my skull. I try to execute a one hundred and eighty degree tear my hilt diagonal toward my left hip. It’s a clumsy Heave-Ho execution that this dude steps back to avoid. I try to angle my sword far enough to catch him, but he slips outside my reach. He smiles, laughs. Twirls his blade as we circle the ice outside the other’s reach. He chuckles, and says, “I expected more from you, Peter. Come on. The blood is rushing and the steel’s ringing. Let’s go, shall we?”

He presses forward, slashing on both sides in a figure eight as I back away. As he gains momentum I pull out of the my downguard and throw the point of my blade into his path.

His lips tighten into an o as he realizes what’s happening and shoved my blade aside, sheering his own steel down the length of my own. I realize something then, with my sword angled awkwardly and my hands almost too-far twisted: even as he fights, this guy has been sapping up the most minute of ambient energies we’ve been generating. He’s mopped up every footstep and blade-crash and tightened grip.

And as he raises his boot parellel to my chest and I see the snarl forming on his face, I realize that this dude is hardly older than I am! Eighteen—nineteen, maybe? Even when I was nineteen the last time around—I’d spent seven years here and that point and I had nowhere near the level of skill and precision it would take to sap up minute energies like that while locked in combat.

Though I suppose I hardly gave him so much of a challenge that he would need to break the kind of concentration he’d need to pull all that ambient into himself.

I realize all of this in the space it takes to think: oh.

And then his boot has collided with my chest and all the ambient he’s been storing up hits me with it. It should have broken my ribs.

It should have.

But.

Anthea has Clarissant on her feet. The blood on her face has crusted over but her nose looks fine. Which I don’t even have time to think about because I realize that Anthea has buffeted wind in between this dude’s foot and my chest, which cushioned his blow. Even if it did send me skimming up to the shoreline with Anthea and Clarissant.

She locks eyes with this guy. He tilts his head and says her name. “Anthea?”

A trickle of blood drools down her nose, and this man’s smile vanishes. “What are you doing?” He looks up at the sky as the clouds part and the air thickens, heat waves pouring down. “Stop. No!

One moment the bog is ice-over. The next the snow and ice has melted and the man is simply consumed by the swamp.

The Swarm watch us from the other side, not moving.

“Come on,” Clarissant helps me to my feet. “We have to go. Now.”

White hot, all-over pain sears me, as my body adjusts from freezing cold to thick, soupy heat. And even though I can hardly bend my fingers as I adjust, and even though my ears are still ringing and the back of my head is still buzzing with an absence of ambient, I retain enough presence of mind when Clarissant says, “Wet your cloaks. Quickly.”

So I throw mine into the melted swamp, and drag it, drenched, out and around me. I’m still shivering as I drape it over my shoulders.

The snow doesn’t melt. How do I describe it? It…crisps? I suppose? It dries to sand as the land changes. But as the heat blazes on as we tear through the sandy waste, I grow to appreciate it.

“Who was that?” I ask Anthea and Clarissant, when we’re far enough away to slow down for a walk.

“That,” Clarissant murmurs, “Was Lord Ath.”

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15. Thin Ice

I collapse, folded into a sitting position. I’m staring at the ground and the gleam of the blade I can see between slivers of grass. I let my frustration come to a boil, and then I exhale it.

I have to try. I have to succeed to taper through this and return home. I have to get home. I have to.

(I think.)

Again, says Toric’s ghost. And I obey. I execute The Thrush Knocks again and again and again. I’m tempted to include Raising the Bar, but I decide I won’t try that until I can execute The Thrush Knocks three times with good form.

There are a few moments where I manage to get two in a row. But that makes me overeager and screws it up on the third try. I rush through it, or forget to go back into my stance once I’m done.

There are a few times when the sweat pouring in sheets down my brow spills into my eyes, and I have to blink it away in the middle of my form. One time this happens as I’m about to pinwheel my blade and I nearly tear it through my shin.

I resolve to be more careful in the future.

The days continue on this way. Stumbling through the Ever-Changing Land. From dry and arid air to snow-chilled cold. Sometimes the snow will melt as the land changed and I can hear the last of it sizzling into vapor. Clarissant decides when to move and for how long. What pace to keep. When to change direction. She has a map she made herself. It’s crude and hand-drawn. But she says it’ll get the job done. “We’re looking for Strand,” Clarissant tells me one day, as we wade through a swampy muck. I have my sword raised over my head and she has her crossbow tucked under her one arm. Anthea is on the other.

The mud suckles at my boots, and the water bubbles every time I tear them free with a soft pop. “We have a few days. It’s the closest stillzone. We’ll can get a better map there. And some supplies.”

(My stomach grumbles at that. I’ve been living off of tree bark and plants I can’t identify that Clarissant assures me are safe to eat for at least a few days now. Before they change. The rations are running low. Clarissant barely had time to pack them as we fled.)

“How close are we?” I ask, trying not to sound too eager. I’m not sure why. After all, who wouldn’t be eager to get out of this place?

“Tomorrow, probably,” Clarissant says. She swats at bugs that are too small to see, frowns, and then says, “We need to get to dry land. This swamp is about to freeze over.”

She’s surprisingly casual about it all as she half-herds Anthea and me back, back, back. “Will you two please hurry up we don’t have time to lose if you could just–” She continues on like that. I suspect she keeps speaking so that we don’t have time to think or freak ourselves out. Pushing through the mud and muck as the water temperature plummets.

I lose my footing more than once, and almost drop my sword a few times. At one point I meet a slick patch of mud that I’d already stepped in. It’s slippery and nearly pulls me under. But I recover at the last and push off, half gliding through the peat-bog stench.

The swampy muck is beginning to chill as I haul myself up into the mud, spilling thick clumps of black dirt into the now-freezing water. I haul Anthea out easily enough, and the two of us help to haul Clarissant out, shivering.

“Peter?” Clarissant says, teeth knocking together.

I nod, too weak for words, shivering as I peel my cloak out of a rucksack that Clarissant built for the three of us.

“About Strand?”

“Uh huh?”

“Two days.”

“What?”

“It’ll be two days before we reach Strand.”

I turn and gaze at the patterned ice crystallizing across the bog. My breath mists in front of my face. “Fair enough,” I mutter.

Anthea doesn’t need a cloak. Or at least that’s what she says. Her Higher Power keeps her warm in her threadbare clothes as Clarissant and I shiver on the shore. My fingernails are purple and I’m almost certain that my lips are blue.

(They’re not.)

Clarissant doesn’t ask before she hugs Anthea tight. She shivers, and I see her bite her lip as Anthea rubs her back. She shudders, tears welling in the corners of her eyes.

She reaches over Anthea’s shoulders. “Come on, Peter,” she says. “You too.”

“I don’t–I’m–I’m fine.” This woman blames me for everything. It is my fault, isn’t it? She shouldn’t have to share the heat with me. I’ve done enough.

“I’m fine.”

So Anthea grabs me by my shirt and, with surprising strength, drags me into their embrace. Anthea’s touch is hot enough to burn at first. I realize why Clarissant was crying. It hurts to go from cold to warm so quickly. But when the hurt burns away I’m left with a comfort I could melt into. We three lie there for the night, huddled against each other.

Guilt and shame spill into my stomach at all the things I’ve stolen from them. More than just this heat. The feeling curdles, burrowing a big hole right in the middle my belly. I bite down on my lower lip and hope that neither of them can hear me weeping.

We huddle shivering and cold, maneuvering around our entwined limbs to tear dry cloaks free from where we’ve packed them away. Anthea, Clarissant and I stay locked in our embrace, lost to the cold numb.

And then.

Then.

Anthea screams.

It is a bloody wail that brings all three of us to our feet at once. We’re huddling against the warmth of our cloaks, Anthea still screaming. My sword is free of its scabbard. Clarissant has her crossbow ready.

Then I feel something.

It’s a small snap in the back of my head. I feel suddenly heavier with something almost like drowsiness. I can only hear something buzzing in my ears at first. I swat at nothing, absently. My head feels like it’s going to split apart.

I can see a figure gliding for us on a wave of ambient energy. Clarissant spits a bolt at something in the trees. Looking up, I can see Swarm scuttling down from the treetops.

Before I have time to assess the damage, I see a man coming up the path wrapped in a thick, dark purple cloak. His doublet displays a golden hand holding a silver sword on an azure field. He has shiny black, neatly-trimmed hair and a clean-shaven face.

(That’s supposed to mean something. I’m sure of it. But my memories are so scattered that it’s hard to say exactly what.)

He hits the ground, and, a wave of ambient spills out of his impact and hurls the three of us into the air and scraping across the frozen-over bog. I reach to steal some of the ambient energy, but what doesn’t sift through my grabbing mind is yanked back forcibly by this purple-cloaked man.

I reach for the ambient I already have stored in my veins to find—nothing? My mind is groping at nothing but emptiness where my ambient should be. It feels like that step you take when you’re expecting an extra stair in the middle of the night. I remember the small snap.

Did he?

Did he just—?

There are scattered Swarm huddling around him as he calls out to me on the ice. “King in the Mountain! I didn’t expect you’d surrender your ambient so easily.”

That’s not possible. That shouldn’t be possible. How did he do that?

I’m staggering to my feet, putting the point of my sword between myself and him. He’s stolen my ambient. It’s like hitting a pressure point that makes my arm tingle. But all over. I can’t even pull any back into me. He’s severed me from my abilities.

“Stay away,” I tell the man in the purple cloak. I adopt my stance, ready to execute The Thrush Knocks.

He rips his own blade from his scabbard, all confidence and straight-backed pride. The Swarm hang back, waiting. He grins, baring his teeth. “Or what?”

 

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14. The Thrush Knocks

 

“What was that?” I ask. It’s not the first time I’ve had that question. It is, in fact, the only thing I had been asking all night.

As if emphasizing a different word might produce a different answer.

Anthea is stumbling along, slumped heavily against me as she lurches forward. The ordeal has drained her. But she manages to rasp, “We told you. It was Lord Ath.”

I’m not sure how long its been since we lost him. Most like because of the fact that the sun hasn’t made up its mind on whether to be day or not. Or perhaps the fact that Clarissant keeps nudging us away from small clefts of rock or clusters of trees. Her sudden change in direction has made it hard to measure how far behind us Lord Ath truly is.

Presently, the air is hot and soupy as she shoves my right shoulder. “Turn,” she snaps, and the movement is echoed in Anthea, who is using me like a walking stick. I get the sense that Clarissant is herding us.

The ground fissures at my back with an ear splitting grumble, spewing up clumps of dirt and tufts of grass as it peels apart. Clarissant has already explained that we are outside of its–what had she called it? The zone of transformation? Even a few steps shy of a zone will keep us safe. It’s why Clarissant is calling us away from landmarks she deems dangerous.

When the dust behind us has settled and the ringing in my ears has finally faded, I decide to ask her, “How do you do that?”

“Training,” she breathes. She’s huffing, mopping at her brow with an equally-sweaty forearm.

I wish I could say I were in better shape. But. Well. Look at me. I’m a slippery sweaty mess. My clothes are soaked through and I can feel rivulets of sweat, long since turned cold, running in rivulets down the back of my shirt. I’m still not conditioned for this world.

“My friends paid the price for teaching me,” Clarissant continues. Her voice is low, almost inaudible. The lessons she recounts seem rehearsed. I’m not sure if she knows she’s speaking. “A stray orange leaf on a popler. Clumps of silt and wet clay in a desert. Nimbostratus clouds on a hot, dry day. Small signs like the deep breath before the plunge.”

I think I understand what she’s talking about. Maybe. “I’m sorry,” I say.

“It’s fine,” she tells me, and she quickens her pace, ahead of Anthea and I. Her back says, It’s all your fault. But it’s fine.

“Don’t blame yourself,” Anthea says. Something rattles in her throat with each exhalation. Anthea seems to sense my thoughts. I wonder if she’s used the Higher Power to read my mind.

“We’re a few days away from the next stillzone,” Clarissant calls back to me from her vantage on a rock spearing the apex of a crested hill. “But we can bed here for the night.” She bites back a grin, and I can see her eyes on Anthea. “There’s enough Ever Changing Land between us and Ath. We can afford some time to rest.”

The sun is still smothering the air in its heat, making my clothes cling to me, sopping wet. I’m not sure how she knows what time it is. But when she mentions bedding, I feel suddenly heavier. Is this how Anthea feels? I wonder.

Anthea, who is looking at Clarissant hungrily. Or perhaps I’m reading too much into it. I’m not sure. So I decide not to say anything.

Clarissant, it would seem, makes the same decision. She cannot meet Anthea fast enough, and her attention is only of her as she pares her away from me. “I’m here,” she tells Anthea. “I’m here. I’m here.” as she leads her gently leading her into the shade beneath the hill. I reluctantly follow. Do they need time to themselves? I wonder.

When I finally sit underneath the stone, cooling in its shadow along the hill’s descent. The process of peeling off my shirt is more alike to the picking of dead skin. It hits the ground with a wet slop. I sit on the edge of the shade, watching the horizon buckle and spew into ash. I resist the urge to look behind me. I try to give the two of them their privacy.

(At first.)

Anthea and Clarissant are curled up behind me, higher up on the hill in the spearing rock’s shadow. Their limbs are entwined, draped lazily over the other. Their noses touch as they whisper things against each others’ lips in hushed voices. Clarissant’s crossbow sits behind her.

It’s not about you, I tell myself. Don’t be so arrogant, Peter.

I decide need some time to myself. Or perhaps they need me to need it. So I grab my sword and sheath and fumble my way downhill. It is treacherously steeper than I anticipated.

This feels familiar, I realize. Having to leave two people to their…intimacy? Is that it? Someone else has done something similar to me, back on my homeworld, haven’t they? Who was it? My brother? Do I have a brother?

(I have a brother. Huh. I suppose this should shock me. It probably would, if I could remember anything outside of the fact that he exists.)

Which leaves me with two options: stew in my sadness, my loneliness; and bask in this temporary ostracization.

Or

I can do. Something. To get my mind off of it. And Anthea and Clarissant will come for me when they need me.

(If they need me.)

I can remember the sword-forms Toric taught me years ago. He was a King, I think. Exiled to Strathbury after an uprising in his distant lands. After I helped him reclaim his throne, his help became instrumental in uniting the farthest flung regions together against the Great Evil. From the lands of the Far East to the boiling heats of the Far South to the sea-faring lands to the Far West.

He helped unite them all. His word as the True King restored to his throne. He pledged on his honor that all Kingdoms should trust me. That he was my friend. And that they should unite under my banner to defeat the Great Evil. Unite under the King in the Mountain, my friend had said.

He took my sigil as his own, in later years, when all nations had united under his rule. His and mine. It was our sigil. Our sigil—

What was our sigil? What did Toric and I choose? I can’t remember.

I realize that my hands are curling around my sword’s leather grip. I adjust my stance. I can remember the forms Toric taught me. I just need to train my body to execute them. My body still needs to catch up to my mind.

I put my right hand close to the guard and cup my left palm around the pommel. Just shy of holding it. It will steer your attack, Toric had told me. You’ll have more point control this way.

I try to execute The Thrush Knocks like I did back in Strathbury. I adjust my stance, making infinitesimal tweaks in preparation. This foot farther back; bend that knee; left hand over right, arms crossed on my right side. The form is just a pinwheel from my stance. Easy enough. Bring it up and down on an imaginary head, get back into my stance and stay light on my toes.

But the edge alignment is off. If I was in a real battle, it would’ve glanced off to the right of my enemy’s helm.

I’m so frustrated at this–so focused on my first mistake that instead of recovering, I tangle everything else into my fear of making another one. When I pull back into my stance I’m leaning too far forward. The left-hand-on-top is at eye level instead of aligned with my breast, which is almost parallel to the ground as I lean heavily on my forward foot.

Again, Toric’s voice tells me.

(This is supposed to be easy, I think. One of the easiest forms. One of the first I ever learned. Why can’t I do it? I’m not sure.)

I spare a glance back to Anthea and Clarissant. Anthea’s shivering. A movement which sprinkles ambient in a blanket about her that only I can see. Clarissant is telling her something, softly.

It’s his fault, I imagine her saying. It’s all his fault.

(I really should be focusing on my forms, I realize.)

Left hand over right. Breast level, sword pointed down. One foot forward. Not too much weight. This time when I pinwheel the blade I think I’ve got the edge alignment right. I make a few last minute tweaks as I fall back into my stance that I know could’ve gotten me killed in a real fight. It would’ve been better to let the mistakes happen instead of trying to fix them halfway through.

It helps to know what you’re doing wrong before you try to fix it.

So I try again, and accept my mistakes through gritted teeth as my muscles hesitate to go back into their stance. I hold back from overcorrecting or throwing the blade into the grass and storming off.

When I try again, I don’t make any big mistakes. Noticeable ones.

The Thrush Knocks. Weakly, at least. But it knocks.

It wouldn’t have cleft through anyone’s helm, but it would’ve made my enemy’s ears ring. And if they riposted, I would’ve been ready to deflect it.

But because I’m impatient, I decide that this time I’ll add a defensive maneuver onto the end of The Thrush Knocks. Raising the Bar is supposed to put my blade flat at eye level so that I can peel a thrust away from its course.

But because I’m not used to executing The Thrush Knocks, and because I haven’t tried Raise the Bar in five years, after I pinwheel half of my brain tries to go back into my stance, while the other half goes to Raise the Bar.

The result is a twitch. A sword-spasm. My hands flail, unsure of what to do. That’s when I throw my blade into the grass and curse. I turn back to my companions to make sure they didn’t see. But when I do, they’re upright and staring downhill at me. I can’t tell if they started looking before or after I cursed.

I collapse, folded into a sitting position. I’m staring at the ground and the gleam of the blade I can see between slivers of grass. I let my frustration come to a boil, and then I exhale it.

I have to try. I have to succeed to taper through this and return home. I have to get home. I have to.

(I think.)

Again, says Toric’s ghost. And I obey. I execute The Thrush Knocks again and again and again. I’m tempted to include Raising the Bar, but I decide I won’t try that until I can execute The Thrush Knocks three times with good form.

There are a few moments where I manage to get two in a row. But that makes me overeager and screws it up on the third try. I rush through it, or forget to go back into my stance once I’m done.

There are a few times when the sweat pouring in sheets down my brow spills into my eyes, and I have to blink it away in the middle of my form. One time this happens as I’m about to pinwheel my blade and I nearly tear it through my shin.

I resolve to be more careful in the future.

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13. The Higher Power

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

I am compelled toward the apothecary. My legs are throbbing, yet nearly numb. It doesn’t feel like I’m the one moving them. It’s almost like I’m falling sideways, toward Anthea and Clarissant.

I 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. I think I see spiders, too. But I don’t have time to stop and check.

(It was supposed to be different, I had said. I was 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–”

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

The Higher Power.

It worms its way through Anthea’s tangle of emotions. I can see it happening, It knows that I know. It can sense me looking at it the way I might notice a pair of eyes staring at the back of my head. Slowly, methodically, it uncoil the smallest piece of itself from around the bands of rage she’s in which she’s shrouded it.

It have something to tell me, I understand.

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

By the time the mote of Higher Power has 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 it, the Higher Power is already spilling into her throat, sizzling up and out:

It makes 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 I reach out to steady her–careful of my still-unsheathed sword.

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

I blink. “What?”

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

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

I know what it is the Higher Power has done. They don’t often speak, I know, for they 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.

So I rush them out, and Anthea wraps my Ambient around her own internal power. I 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 me. I flail wildly with my blade, when I can. Enough to convince them I’m not worth bothering.

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

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

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

(I knuckle my eyes and tell myself that the tears are just the smoke.)

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

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

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

I check over my shoulder to see a man with shiny black hair and a thick purple robe, almost gliding towards us.

“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 me into a hard right. I realize, belatedly, that whoever’s following us is gliding. He’s surfing on the Ambient that our footsteps have made.

I don’t have time to consider this, though, as I hear a low grinding sound from deep in the earth. Clarissant has her hands between my shoulder blades, almost pushing me forward. “Go go go go go!” she hisses.

Thick, gray walls of stone stone hisses from the earth behind me, belching dust and grinding on rock with heavy showers of sparks. The last thing I see of our 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 us for miles in either direction.

I wonder if anyone remembered to pack supplies.  

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