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.