I do not immediately wake up.
I see Lord Ath first. I’m not sure how long I must’ve been unconscious. But clearly some time has passed between the last time I saw Ath and where he seems to be now. Maybe the ability to pull that much ambient into you on instinct quickened his healing. But it looks like he’s been rescued by Swarm and is traveling—somewhere. He’s in some city. Some stillzone. I can sense he’s thinking about me. He knows I’m awake. And he knows that I know it.
Lord Ath winds down the road of this village, flanked on either side by buildings molded from cooled obsidian, coaxed into a curve at the edge of the roof, hooked so that wraith-lanterns can hang there, swaying in the wind.
He stops outside one of these buildings. He can hear music and revelry within. An inn. But the gate doesn’t open by the roadside. Lord Ath enters down an alleyway, and tries the door.
Locked. But then he notices a bell perched above him, and he raps it three times.
Someone appears at the door, opening a wicket in it. Pale blue eyes peer through. “Name and business?” the man says.
Lord Ath says nothing, but he lets some ambient dribble out of him and pushes it into a wraith-lantern that hangs overhead. Feeding the blue flame so that it grows brighter and the man can get a better look at him. “Oh,” the man breathes. And the wicket slams shut. Muffled, Ath can hear locks turning, slamming back, and the door groans wide. “Prince Hallis,” the innkeep says, sketching a bow. “Come in! Come, come.”
Ath sweeps inside the inn.
“What can I get for you, your Grace? It’s quite an honor to be serving a member of the Royal House of Ath. I—”
“Take me to Valharric.”
The color drains from the innkeep’s cheeks. He mops at his brow with his sleeve. “V-Valharric?” He exhales, mustaches fluttering.
“Let’s not play this game. I’m sure he told you to inform me he wasn’t here. I’m sure you’d remember him, though. Red cloak?” Ath coaxes. “Perpetual scowl? His doublet bears that gaudy sigil—you know the one, yes? His House of Orm’s chained giant in the palm of the Imperial Sorcerer’s own sigil? The red claw with the splayed fingers? Do you know where he is?”
“I-I-I-I,” the innkeep stutters. “I am a leal servant of the Majesty, your Grace.”
Ath chuckles. “That’s good of you, but you have seen him, yes?”
The innkeep squeaks, dabbing at his forehead. And as he opens his mouth a gruff voice calls from behind, “Your Grace!”
Ath whirls, purple cloak fluttering, and sees the gray-haired, wrinkled old man he’s looking for, with the exact scowl he’d described. “My Lord of Orm! Good of you to join me.”
“Ruined Earth, you just don’t give up, do you, boy? Alright them, come with me.” And he trudges into a back room with Ath on his heels.
Wraith-lanterns cast their blue glow over the room. It’s bare and near disuse, save for a bed that it looks like Valharric has spent the past few nights compression under that massive weight, and a desk with a plucked quill and a dried-up inkwell. “You smell like shit, Hallis.” Valharric says, when they’re alone. “What happened to you.”
“I almost had him, Lord Valharric,” Ath’s jaw tightens. “I almost had One Eye!”
Valharric sits on the bed, which squeals under his weight. “And yet here you are,” he casts his arms to either side. “Empty handed.”
“I came to you for help, Lord Orm.” Ath says.
“So respectful now, aren’t we?” Valharric teases. “What’s the matter? Can’t capture one small outpost in the middle of nowhere without my help?”
“They’ve been dealt with,” Lord Ath protests. “They’ll not trouble us any further.”
“Dealt with?” Valharric echoes. And he fills the silence, and the room, with the measured slowness of his rising. Ath is looking up at him. “Do you think that reports haven’t made their way back to me yet? Me? I’m an Imperial Sorcerer, your Grace. These things have made themselves known to me.”
Valharric’s slap sends Lord Ath buckling to the floor. He rises to one knee, rubbing the away sting whose echo I feel on my face. “You call what you did dealing with it?” Valharric rasps. “What were you thinking? Ruined Earth, Hallis, get up—” he hoists Lord Ath into the air, heels knocking where they dangle. “Do you have any idea what you’ve done to the Imperium? Your Father assigns you the most nepotistic task a Prince can do, and you can’t even do that right!” He releases Ath, who tugs on his doublet, and takes a cautionary step away from Valharric. He opens his mouth, but Valharric cuts him off before he can speak. “Think carefully about your next words, Hallis, before you speak them.”
Lord Ath sputters for a moment, and then: “He’s going to Morgad. The King in the Mountain is going to Morgad.”
The tension eases from Valharric’s body, and he allows himself a grin. “Is he now? That’s a long way, your Grace. He could be going anywhere by now. How do you know he plans to meet with the rebels? How would he know that Morgad has rebels?”
“I just—” I can sense in him his thoughts of me. And panic. He doesn’t want to say what’s happened. “I know,” he decides. “If news about Strathbury can make it all the way to you within the span of a few days, you think Strathbury didn’t hear about what happened to us in Morgad? They killed my coz, Valharric! That’s the sort of thing they make stories about, and stories travel faster than news.”
Valharric laughs. “Fair enough,” he tells Ath. “Anything else?”
Lord Ath swallows saliva. “The girl with the Higher Power,” he says. “She’s still alive.”
“Impossible,” Valharric blurts. “A peasant girl in the middle of nowhere, with no training in the usage of ambient energy?” He’s shaking. Trembling. His hand clutches his stomach, and he staggers back for a moment.
“L-Lord Orm?” Ath asks.
“Shut up,” his voice quavers. His movements are awkward, as if he is not fully in control of his body. His hands shake as he rips desk-drawers free and uncorks a bottle of brackish green fluid with crushed red something floating in it. He tilts his head and knocks is down his throat and then drags the back of his hand across his lips. He settles. Breathes. There’s a glint in his eye now as he regards Lord Ath. “Be careful with such new, boy. You wouldn’t want to risk upsetting my Higher Power, would you?”
Factions all the way down.
“I saw her, Valharric. I saw what she did. It’s the same as what you do, just…cruder. She has a remarkable force of will.”
“Admirable enough, I suppose,” Valharric muses. “But force of will only gets you so far with a Higher Power stuffed inside you.”
Valharric shoots Ath a glare. “Don’t say you know, Hallis. You don’t. Once you have a Higher Power in you, then you get to talk like that. But I wouldn’t hold my breath. Until then—” he plods over to the Prince, boots thundering with every step. “Is there anything else you’d like me to know?” He tilts his head. The blue light of the wraith-lantern catches his pupil, makes it twinkle. “You sure you don’t know how you managed to discern that Peter’s going to Morgad?”
“I don’t know how I know,” Lord Ath spits, spittle spraying. “I just—”
Valharric pressed a scratchy finger over Ath’s lips. “Sssh. Come closer.”
Reluctantly, Ath obeys, and Valharric seizes either side of his head, and I can see a familiar glow in the infinitesimal of his Being. “Be silent now, your Grace. We do not know who may be watching.”
The world goes white with heat and pain.
And I wake up screaming.