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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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 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?”