23. Shifts and Steel

I’m splashing through gullies that cut through craggy bluffs. The wind whips at my face as I toy with the rings in my hand, shaking them, lightly. Each footstep kicks up sheets of water as I traverse my way through the Ever-Changing Land. It’s been changing around me for half an hour.

The cliffs used to be boulders a few minutes ago, but they’ve torn through the earth as the wind erodes away layer upon layer of sediment deposits.

And I stoop in the moonlight to bury the rings in a patch of mud between two gullies. The ground rumbles all around me. And as I bury the rings, I feel a pang of guilt curdle in my stomach.

Why?

I got what I wanted. They can be at peace now. I’m not sure why I feel so bad to have done this. Anthea and Clarissant couldn’t have understood why I needed to do this. And I wasn’t going to argue with them. Besides, I’m supposed to double back around in just a minute. They’ve got shelter and if the land starts to change we can meet in Strand. The odds of them running into Lord Ath in there would be—would be.

Oh. That’s why I’m feeling guilty. That’s why I have that leftover “got what I wanted” regret sloshing around my brainspace.

I better hurry back, I decide, as I splash through the gullies. My socks are soaked, and my legs are sore, and I’m wishing I had remembered to buy a pair of boots at the market.

And as I’m splashing through, suddenly I can’t move my foot anymore. It sits suspended over a puddle of water. I’m pressing down, but my foot isn’t moving. I whirl, looking all around me for why this might be happening. Rock sheers rock with an awful, screeching scrape. Sparks shower on either side of me. And as a column of rock descends, I see what’s going on.

There’s a reason Lord Ath didn’t find us in Strand.

He followed me here. He wanted me alone. The rings—did he? The merchant—how well will he be rewarded, I wonder?

I realize I’m floating whirling through the air like I’m caught in a wave. I’m twitching, as he summons me towards him. His doublet is stained from his time in the swamp, and his hair is smothered in sand and dried mud. He’s grinning like a crescent as he pulls me toward him. And I realize now how he’s done this.

He’s overstuffed me full of his own ambient, shoved it into me. Made me his marionette. His gloved hand is on my throat as he steps into the ravine. He pushes gently, shoving me floating back, weightless. “Father will be pleased, One-Eye,” he says. “You were a loyal servant to our family, once.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I say.

“Have I asked you to?” He glides me back, back, back through the changing land. “We’ll have to make a few detours to avoid your friends. But I’ve my own ways of dealing with them.”

As if summoned, I see Swarm scuttling across spark-showering rocks that crumble, grinding against one another. One of them dissolves into a limp mass of spiders, and takes shape again at Lord Ath’s side. His eyes form a question. A plea, maybe.

“Send the merchant his reward,” he tells the Swarm. “The rest of you—with me.”

I’m strangely calm as he drags me away. The gullies are drying up as patches of grass weave through them and the dirt eats up their water. Hills and highlands are rising in the night. And Lord Ath is sapping up the ambient energy of their transformation.

But he’s stuffed me full of that power too. And I remember how I reacted when I pulled too much into myself before I fought with the Harrower.

There’s a card game, back in my home world, where you can reverse the order people are people have to deal their cards. And realizing what I’m about to do fills me with a similar feeling as playing that card.

It’s a strange analogy, I know. But this is a strange world I find myself in, and I’ve resolved that I won’t always have a one-to-one for everything I’m feeling.

I push the ambient energy back into Ath, even as he saps up the energy from the shifts all around us. And as he crests a hill of rising sediment underfoot, I make one hard ambient shove. And it’s his turn to spasm. Ambient flags off his body, and in one forceful shake, he expels the excess from his body, faster than I was aware anyone could do that. It flies off to either side of him, blowing holes in the changing stones that were already shrinking around us.

I hit the ground like a sack of potatoes, and rise, unsheathing my sword.

He’s already got his own free of its scabbard while I’m still struggling to scrape out the tip, and I almost trip in my dance away from its edge. His nose is running a red river down his lips. And there’s something furious in his eyes.

“You fucking brat!” He swears, swinging wildly. “Do you know what you almost did?” The Swarm surround me, closing in on all sides. But he shoves them back with a light ambient pulse.

“He’s mine!” Ath growls, barreling toward me. I dodge to the side of his thrust-down, angling my blade up, with the hilt behind my ears, leveled at him. We circle each other, careful of the highlands that are terraforming around us.

I pour myself into this one task of beating him. I study every muscle drawn taught or let loose. Every twinge of his movement. He is the only thing I can allow myself to focus on. If I think about how he just turned me into a goddamn balloon, or how he paid someone to defile a gravesite just to lure me here—I—I—

—can’t think about it. It’s just me and him.

Then he drops his guard and holds out his hand. “One Eye,” he says. “Come with me. Please. I need you to trust me.”

I laugh. I can’t help it. I’m laughing until I’ve buckled over and I’m shaking with some perversion of mirth. I wipe the smile from my lips with the back of my hand. “Why in the fuck would I trust you? You’ve been hunting me from minute one!”

He twirls his blade, flexing his hands on the grip. He runs a hand through his hair, absently. “This wasn’t how it was supposed to go,” he mutters, absently.

I take his distraction as a cue to suck up ambient energy. If I can make it malleable—into something like a rope to snag him—“How is it supposed to go, Hal?” I ask, to keep him talking.

He blanches at the name. Like he wasn’t expecting something so casual. “Hal? He echoes. “That’s new. Usually it’s bastard or monster. Hal. Are you sure that’s what you want—oh, never mind. I’m getting carried away. I just—it’s supposed to go…” He trails off, staring through me. His eyes go wide with understanding.

And all I have time to say is “Shit,” as I toss a lasso corded in ambient energy. But he sinks his own power into the storecaches of my veins, needle-fine. And I feel something snip in the back of my head. I’m buzzing again, and the ambient lasso falls limp and fizzles out as he saps it up.

He’s pressed his advantage, now. He thrums another wave of ambient, knocking me off my feet. It hits me in small bursts, like punches, all over, as I scuttle back. His sword is raised overhead in a high guard.

It bites into the dirt as I scramble away. And the ground crumbles between us, a divot between two forming hills.

He lays out tracks of ambient energy between us and glides on it like he’s done twice before, skating the gap and swinging for me as he passes. The length of his blade travels low to high in a Behead the Daisies maneuver.

I throw up an Iron Bar block, straight up and down in the path of his oncoming swing, and turn my blade into a fulcrum of my footwork as I spine around the length of his skating ambient. He touches down as I throw my blade slicing to his left in something similar to the Heave Ho he used on me a few days ago.

And it connects.

It’s a tiny laceration as he wheels back. But it connects. I’m so surprised that I forget to press my advantage, and he looses an explosion of ambient energy, spraying rocks and dirt in my face as he sends me sailing.

And when I land, I hurt all over, and I can hear him sauntering towards me. “Please,” he’s telling me. “I’m trying to help you!”

Are you?” I ask, rising to one knee. I try for Push the Arrow, with my palm on my pommel and shoving my point forward. But he bats it aside and knocks his fist into my temple. That makes the buzzing worse for a while. Something coppery wells into my cheek and I spit out the blood. “I’m certainly feeling very helped.”

“You know what I mean!” Lord Ath spits, swinging down on me. I tumble back and downhill, where the last of a drying-up gully explodes a shock of freezing water into my back. He’s sliding downhill after me, and I can see ambient coming for me in all directions. He’s going to shove it into my veins and carry me all the way back to that villa in Torre he was telling that old man about—I raise my blade and prepare for the worst.

And then something like a rotted, linen streamer loops around his neck and yanks him back, and he rolls the rest of the way down the hill.

I find my footing, as I realize that the streamer is made of rotten linen, and it’s impaled with dead spiders.

“Hal,” I say as he rises shakily to his knees, rubbing his throat and coughing. “You can’t—”

He lunges for me, his downcut wild and untrained as mine should be. “Don’t tell me what I can’t do,” he tells me. “You don’t get to tell me that!” He tears the Swarm-bandage off of his throat and stomps it into the dirt, kicking up droplets of the remnants of gully-water.

I try for The Thrush Knocks, but he knocks that aside and throws Break the Clouds at me. Which tears deep into my chest. I can feel warmth welling into the open cut. And suddenly I’m looking skyward. My head is buzzing and my chest is buzzing and Lord Ath is standing over me.

And then a crossbow bolt fizzes through the air and smacks him hard in the shoulder.

“Clarissant…Anthea…” I can hear myself muttering.

I can hear them, distantly, but I don’t have the energy to turn my head. I can smell the rotten Swarm stench of the linens Anthea tosses at Lord Ath like her own sort of streamers. She has him on the ropes. He’s throwing all the ambient he can sap at her. And she’s ripping up ground and rock and whipping her Higher Power into obeying her.

The two are dueling, something like spells kicking up clumps of dirt and lashing each other. Clarissant’s hands dig into my armpits from behind. And I feel her breath hot in my ear.

“Ruined Earth, you’re an idiot,” she mutters. I’m dumped face-first, unceremoniously into a sled.

“Where did you get this?” I ask.

“We figured we should get more supplies while we could,” she said. “We needed to blow off some steam. You were obviously upset,” she whispers.

“How did you find me?” I ask.

“I’m a geomist, Peter. I know how to track people through the Ever-Changing Land. We overheard that merchant talking about Ath’s promised price, and we knew we had to find you. Figured you might need some help. Didn’t know he would hurt you this bad.” Her fingers brush my chest, near where I’ve been gored. My head is buzzing too much to feel much besides a slight sting. “That’s bad, Peter. That looks real bad.”

She’s tugging on the straps and I’m being carried through the mud, weaving between clusters of hills as ambient energy throws up showers of dirt and spray and Anthea is digging into anything her Higher Power will touch, looking for ways to warp and weave it into projectiles or heat or something else she can use. I can see her faintly in the distance. She’s got a black eye and one arm is hanging limply by her side. Though Ath is only looking marginally better. Surprising, considering he’s dueling someone with a goddamn god stuffed into them.

When Anthea sees I’ve been retrieved, she shouts for Clarissant to go. But Ath makes his own lasso and loops Anthea inside it, pulling it tight around her neck.

In my haze, and the buzzing, I manage to push what little power that Ath hasn’t severed (I wasn’t aware I even had any before I tried, in desperation, to push through the buzzing and the snipped ambient in the back of my brain).

And while I’m trying to sap Ath’s ambient energy that he has tied around Anthea throat. Well.

Her Higher Power decides to act without her permission. A piece of it fizzles through her, and her cry rips through the night as this ember of a god burns through the emotion’s she’s made manifest to restrain it.

It is a band of argent spilling from her fingertips, lashing Ath’s ambient at the focal point where his and mine connect. I can feel the Higher Power surging through my connection to them. I can feel the sheer scale of Ath’s own ambient, storing more than I was aware was possible, and I can feel Anthea, screaming and writhing at Ath and me and the Higher Power acting against her will.

And through it all the Higher Power is burning bright with something greater than ambient energy. It sears my brain and Ath’s brain. I’m dimly aware that he’s dimly aware that his grip on Anthea has fizzled out, and that Anthea is on her knees coughing and sputtering.

The Higher Power sears its bright and white-hot pain into my head, until the world is gone and the only thing left is the white-hot brightness floating the void.

And through that void, it speaks:

Hello, little enemy.

Author: C. M. Perry

Writer and lifetime sword enthusiast.

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