“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.”
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.