It is my own screams that wake me up. They’re reverberating through the darkness. I realize I’m in the mouth of a cave. I can hear condensation dripping from stalactites somewhere behind me.
I’m still on Clarissant’s sled. My chest is still sore and throbbing. I can see Clarissant stir from beneath thick fur blankets in which she’s swaddled herself and Anthea.
“Took you long enough,” she murmured.
“Is Anthea awake?” I ask.
“You’re welcome,” she groans, massaging her temples. “I dragged you on that sled for two goddamn weeks, King in the Mountain.”
“Sorry,” I say. And then: “Thank you.”
“Anthea won’t be waking up anytime soon. When she realized what happened. It took her a day to coax the Higher Power to obey her. She threatened to keep it caged up forever with nothing to do if it wouldn’t heal you.” Her mouth splits into a grin. “That thing really doesn’t like healing you. I don’t think it even healed you all the way. I had to stitch you up after.”
“Why couldn’t it heal me? Do you know?”
“Anthea said there’s a difference between a small nasal fracture and…well, being gored like that. It was a deep cut. And the amount of power it would have taken to heal you all the way could have killed her. That’s what she told me, leastways. A few days after that she figured out why you were so unresponsive. She told me she could fix it if she…uhm…unthreaded your stitching on her cage? Whatever that means. And that? That hurt her.”
I hurt her, is what she isn’t saying.
“Having to heal you like that, and then having to free you using—whatever she did—it made her Higher Power angry, I think. She didn’t stay conscious for long. I’ve spent the past week carrying both of you on that sled.”
“I’m sorry.” I say. And not knowing what else I can say I apologize again. “I never intended to be that much of a burden.”
“You’re only mostly a burden.” It’s difficult to tell if Clarissant is teasing. “It’s not like I can fault you for what happened. You didn’t cause it. At least as far as I can figure.” She worms out from under the blanket and stretches. I can hear her entire back crack as she bends over. She’s lost a bit of weight. She’s got some pudge to her but after carrying two bodies through the Ever-Changing Land looks like it was…grueling on her.
(Distantly, I can think of a Father who probably would’ve chalked this up to a good thing. But seeing the hollowness that hangs in her eyes, I’m not sure if it was worth it.)
“Why won’t Anthea wake up?” I ask. “Where are we?”
“In a stillzone. This is a cave. We’re on the outskirts of Morten. We’re halfway to Morgad. You excited?”
She doesn’t sound very excited herself. In fact I tell her so.
“Because of Anthea,” she says. “I don’t know how to wake her up. I think she needs medicine. I’ve been force feeding the two of you for weeks but Anthea—her Higher Power isn’t happy with how she’s used it. I think that’s why she’s unconscious. The severity of what she’s making herself feel to cage it is….I can’t even start to think about it. I just…I have to stay calm. I’ve been staying calm. If I start to lose that, everything unthreads.”
“I think I get it,” I tell her. I don’t let her see the panic behind my eyes, and try to affect a voice as placid as hers is. “Does Morten have any medicine for that?”
“I’ve overheard geomist talk about it in theory,” Clarissant tells me. “Do you know what aliantha is?”
“It rings a bell.”
“A special combination of berries and brush. Crush them into a paste and mix it in water and it’s said it can help you close up open wounds three days quicker per daily dose. I’ve heard that it has something to do with the amount of exposure they get to the Ever-Changing Land, but the science there is—”
“…Right. Anyway. I hear Imperial Wizards drink it to settle their Higher Powers.”
I remember Valharric. “They do.” I say.
Her mouth quirks downward. “How do you know that?” I ask.
“There’s a reason we’re not in Morten right now. It’s overrun with Swarm. And Imperial Sorcerers.”
My nails dig into the palm of my hand. I have to help. I have to. “I can get past them.”
“Will Lord Ath know you’re there?”
I steady myself on the side of the cave. It is a precautionary measure. “He won’t,” I tell Clarissant. “I don’t know how I know, but he won’t.”
“What do you mean you don’t know—”
“It’s a gut feeling!” I rasp. “If he knew I’d be in Strand, do you think he would have tried that convoluted trick with that merchant? He gets visions of me at night. And it’s always about what I’m did right until he fell asleep.”
“That means he’ll know we’re here by tomorrow morning.”
“Yes,” I tell her. “So I’ll need to be back by nightfall. Be ready to move at a moment’s notice.”