It has only been minutes. All of Strathbury is drowned in flames. I’m fumbling through the smoky haze, cloak pulled over my mouth and nose. My other hand grasps Clarissant as she barrels for the apothecary. She knows the way, not me.
I can hear screams in the night. And clicking, scuttling things that I can’t quite see.
I pull my hand free. “Go get Anthea!” I tell Clarissant. “I’ll meet you in the apothecary.”
She narrows her eyes at me. “Why should I trust you?”
It is all I can do to keep my composure. I’m in the middle of a war zone! Strathbury burns and smoke stings my eyes and barrels down my throat. And she wants to talk about trust. “What choice do you have?” I sputter. The smoke makes my ultimatum pathetic.
She grabs my forearm as I move back. It’s squishier than it probably should be. But I turn that thought, and my 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 me to pull my arm free.
“Go!” I say and hurl myself in the opposite direction, unsheathing my sword and whirling it around in a gray arc. I scan through the smoky haze. Ambient energies make themselves known to me like visual snow. It clouds my vision almost as much as the smoke. My steps are hesitant, toward the danger.
Images of the slaughter I arrived to flash through my mind’s eye, and I are suddenly more careful of my footing.
The orange glow bathes me in its light. I 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 me, all browning linens and scuttling spiders. I should have cleft it in two the moment I saw it, but I fumble with my blade–I’m not used to it yet. I haven’t even 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 my throat and I see yet more gray and black spiders worming out of its arm, leaving small depressions in its bandaged form. They’re scuttling toward me as the monster’s grip tightens. I’m lifted, flailing. My heels knock together as I dangle.
I have a sword. I know I have a sword. But I feel like nothing more than a frightened boy attacked by a monster that is made of spiders. I cannot get my arms to work. Just thrust, I tell my arms. Just thrust! The spiders are scuttling, pincers snapping and venom dripping and I think, Just thrust!
And when I manage the simple deed, I see the fear in my eyes reflected in the monster’s. It’s bandages unravel, spilling spiders swiftly decaying. But in that quick instant I see something wet and shiny in their eyes. Something like tears. Or a thank you.
Something tightens in my throat. “Their eyes at least are human.”
There’s screaming, whirling, clanging, clanking, as blurry forces march through the smoke and flames. “Gormund!” I’m howling. “Gormund!” My throat is ripping raw. There are not enough among Strathbury to put up more than a meager defense.
My breaths are quick and rattled, raspy. I cannot focus on anything. I’m just darting around at shapes in the haze. I’m trembling as the fire consumed and blackens every home.
I’m panicking, I realize.
Then something–someone makes themselves known to me through the darkness. A hulking figure who towers over me, charging, charging, charging.
Then someone else seizes my shoulder and throws me on my 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!” I tell him.
“You have to leave,” he tells me. “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!” I 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 I can even discern that they’re there. It’s a practiced skill, I realize.
“I have to try!” I 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 Gormund and I, catapulting head-on for us. Gormund drags me bodily out of the way as the head of my 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 me.
I wonder what I would look like if someone pushed my ambient back into me, but I tamp down on that thought before it can progress further. “Where do I go? What do I do?”
Gormund drags me behind the statue and crouches there with me. Huddled amidst debris and screams and flames and smoke.
I cannot save them.
I cannot save them.
“Out west, there is an old, old place. You remember Virengar?”
The name hasn’t changed since I left. How fortunate. Small victories, eh?
I 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 me. “You have to come out of this alive.” I 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. I 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 me back, toward the apothecary, as he goes vaulting up my statue’s head, boots clanging hollow on the gilded gold. “Strathbury!” He howls, “Strathbury!” And he vaults into the fray.