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.
“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.
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’s Toric’s sigil.
“Father’s going to kill me,” Lord Ath mutters.
He twirls his sword as the beast before him paws the ground. “All right, then,” he says. “Shall we dance?”