How I Wrote 100K Words in 2 Months and Why It’ll Never See the Light of Day

2018 was far from my most productive year, all told.

This is due in part to my attempt to taper off some medication I’ve been since I was in grade school. I had wanted to see how I functioned without them back in May, but in the process I spent an entire summer with severe hypochondria where most of my time was dedicated to Urgent Care visits instead of the things I loved. It took until September for a friend to convince me that I wasn’t going to improve without the aid of medication, and at that point it took only a few weeks to stabilize onto that.

You’ll some of that reflected in early chapters of Between Death and Dreams. Early suggestions of “tapering through this” were meant to be a shot at suggested a wrong-headed mentality that Peter would have to grow out of.

The problem was, I realized I wasn’t getting my work out fast enough. I didn’t know if he would have a chance to get stuff done. I’ve always had a tough time sticking to one project, as anyone who’s taking a look at this website’s archive over the past three years can surely attest.

Going into November, I knew I needed to shake things up. I knew there needed to be some way that I could get more material on the page. Someone suggested that I outline my work. This immediately terrified me. As I’d been told all my life that outlines “stifle creativity” or “make the work feel inauthentic.

Curiously, I’d never before noticed that the same people who told me this also never really wound up finishing their stories, either. I decided I would plan out the next week of material for Between Death and Dreams. One problem:

I didn’t know what constituted “a week of material.”

To solve this, I checked my schedule for the next week. This would be the last week of October, and I had more free time than usual due to some cancelled classes. By the end of the day I had a decent amount of the story outlined, and I proceeded to block a certain number of scenes for myself over the course of the next week.

I told myself that I would have twenty four hours to write every scene I had blocked out for each day, and when those twenty four hours were up I had to move on to the scenes that were schedules for the next day, regardless of if I was finished or not.

I got every scene written inside those twenty four hours. And I wrote so much more than I had since before May that over the course of a weekend I plotted everything out up to the end of Between Death and Dreams.

This allowed me to win Nanowrimo in November, and I won my own personal unofficial version in December. It was then that I finished writing the 100K word first draft of Between Death and Dreams.

I realized two things.

One: although I’m currently good at putting scenes together, without an outline, I’m not yet great at making them coherent. A lot of my early material clashed heavily with the latter material. These were problems that I could not untangle from the story, and were crucial to the development of early plot points. The stakes of the story became muddled, and tension in places was almost nonexistent due to the sheer unclarity of it all. I’d written myself into a corner with the unplanned early chapters, so even when I planned things out, there were unclear scenes, stakes, magic systems and worldbuilding that I was horribly dissatisfied with even after I finished.

I am sure that this was the cost of the lack of outlining in the beginning. I just clashed so much with myself, and never looked for the bigger picture until the moment came. I hadn’t seeded anything correctly, so some options were not available to me due to the serialized nature of the stuff I put on this website. I wasn’t sure if I could salvage it.

It was bad, you guys. And I knew I could do better. I knew you guys deserved better. I’m glad I wrote it, I’m glad I discovered how productive knowing what happens next can be. But trust me, you don’t want to see what a mess it turned out to be.

Between Death and dreamed will be going on something of a hiatus on here. I can’t say for how long. I’ll probably take another shot at writing it someday, but for now, unless I’m ready to completely overhaul the entire story to the point that it’s unrecognizable, I doubt I’ll be doing much with it. I wanted to apply these lessons, though. And I wanted to take the time to do it right.

So I put the Mythlings on hiatus for the past few weeks. And I’ve spent that time outlining something new. I want to have an outline for the entire project, and my plan is to be as thorough as possible with the worldbuilding for this story. I know everything that’s going to happen so I can correctly seed the right information. I know how the story is going to end.

I hope you all had some happy holidays, wishing you a fantastic new year–and I hope to see you again in 2019!

 

 

 

Ko-fi

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.

22. Rings of Northron Spearwives

I explain the situation to Anthea and Clarissant once my mind has eased back into my surroundings. That is, I attempt to explain it. There are still gaps that even Anthea with a god in her veins doesn’t understand. And when I’m done they exchange glances.

“Should we go then?” Clarissant asks. She wrings one hand nervously around her crossbow while her other hand goes knuckles-white around her sword-stick. “Can we pass Strand without getting into the village?”

“I don’t know why you’re asking me,” I tell them. “I don’t know shit about this place.” It should be far, far north. At least I think so. It’s been three hundred years. Why would they expect me to know where to go from here?

“We need supplies,” Anthea says.

“There could be a trap,” Clarissant counters. “Who knows how many in that village are loyal to the Imperium.”

Oh no. I realize why Ath dragged that creature into Strand. Gave it to that old man. “Ath’s given their town enough food for weeks at least—and free of charge,” I say. “It’s undoubtedly a trap.”

“Anthea,” Clarissant brushes a lock of Anthea hair behind her ear. “Is there anything you can do?”

“I…I don’t know. Nothing comes to mind.”

“Can you change our faces?” I suggest. “You have to be able to do something.”

“I don’t know!” Anthea rasps. “I don’t know what to do, okay? I’ve got a ruined god inside of me that’s constantly throwing a temper tantrum so excuse me if I don’t have all the answers!” Her face is bright red, and a cord in her neck is taut, and every word scrapes the back of her throat on its way out.

She’s feeling every emotion at its utmost intensity, I remind myself. This isn’t her fault. She didn’t mean to.

She didn’t.

The silence smothers each of us as we tread slowly through the changing land. Clarissant says something quietly about how we’ll be in Strand before the strata sorts itself out. We won’t even know what this change will bring. We’ll be inside the stillzone’s walls at that point.

“Changing your faces could kill you,” Anthea offers, quietly. “It just told me so. If it tries to do that, even the smallest mistake could turn your faces inside out.”

“Well,” I mutter. “At least they don’t know what we look like in there. Right?”

“Only Ath,” Clarissant corrects.

“Only Ath,” I agree.

“It might be better if we wait till nightfall,” Clarissant suggests. “We could maybe…train, until then? Rest?”

“We could do that,” I say. And so we stay in the midst of changing hills, practicing The Thrush Knocks. Swirling wooden imitations until I think Clarissant has the hang of it. But every time I add a step, she tangled something in the buildup. I address the smaller mistakes as the come. And for the larger mistakes? Well.

I start from the foundation. If she keeps making the same mistakes, we go over stance and footwork again. We go over edge alignment, even though our sticks have no edges. We review review review review until I think she can try The Thrush Knocks again.

“Do you want to join us?” I ask Anthea, in the afternoon.

“I’ll be fine,” she says. “I just like to watch. It’s fascinating.” I steal glances at her when I can. And come to realize that feeling fascination is the closest she can come to allowing herself to feel nothing at all. It’s the closest thing to a break that she can allow herself.

And then. As the sun sets. We head into Strand.

The timber gates rumble open, and my heart is hammering as we make our way inside. “All we have to do is grab some supplies and be on our way,” Clarissant says. “That’s all we have to do.”

I can feel all eyes on me. Or at least I think I do. I’m scanning every face for the ones I saw in my dream. I can’t tell if the fact that nobody will make eye contact with me means I should be wary. Maybe we don’t look so suspicious after all?

We pass through the poorer people pressed into the entrance of the village, and when we emerge on the other side, we find the finely-dressed merchants selling supplies. “We need some rations and a better pack. That’s all.” Clarissant says. “I’ll handle this.”

She approaches a man selling barrels of salted strips of meat, speaks with him quietly. I’m following thoughtlessly. Watching coins with faces I don’t recognize change hands. There are mercenaries in armor with hints of fashion from three hundred years ago. If I think hard enough I could probably name where a lot of their styles of helms originated. There are others wearing silk. Silk! That was damn near impossible in my—

I’m about to call myself a grandpa when I notice something on a merchants table. Three rings inset with crystal-blue stones. Someone’s chipped away a pattern into them. Not just a pattern, I realize. These are symbols. They mean something.

I realize I can read them. Getrun, Ragnild, and Ermund. They’re names. And I know those names. Do they belong to the same northron spearwives, are they just names in common with people I knew?

People I—

—I loved?

What kind of love? I don’t want to think about that. And as I’m drooling over these rings, I remember what they’re for. It was an ancient religious rite to the northrons. They said the stones housed their souls. They each fashioned their own rings to be buried in the earth, far off from human travels. Their closest kin would go into the wild to find a road rarely traveled, and there they would bury them so that the dead could have their rest.

But someone’s exhumed them. Someone is selling them.

I don’t realize I’m reaching for the rings until the merchant is twisting my hand. “Oi!” He’s shouting. “Don’t go stealing my wares, boy!” I can see Clarissant and Anthea whirling. They’ve just finished their trade and are sprinting for me.

“I just wanted to look!” I protest.

“They all want to look,” the merchant says, mustaches fluttering with every word. “That’s what they all say.” He follows my gaze to the rings, splays his fingers out so that his palm is covering them. His grip slackens. “Wait. These?”

“Yeah,” I pull my arm back. “What about them?”

“Well I’m just surprised, is all,” he says. “These things are near worthless. I’ve been trying to sell them for ages. You want them,” he tucks each one into the pad of a finger and slides them forward. “Just one copper each.”

“Guys,” I turn to Clarissant. “Do you see those?”

“What did I say?” Clarissant hisses. She’s twitching in an attempt to contain herself. “We buy only what we need. We have to get out of here.” Her fingers are wound tightly over her purse.

“You don’t understand,” I hiss back. “I need just three coppers and I can—”

“You do not,” Clarissant rasps, “need them. You want them. There’s a difference.”

“If I don’t bury those rings tonight there’s a chance their owners might—”

Anthea pushes past Clarissant face red; her too-big eyes glistening and angry. “Their owners are dead, Peter! They’re dead and they’ve been dead for so long that their rings are worthless. Nothing will happen if you bury them. I need you to understand this. Nothing will happen.”

“They won’t be at peace—” I manage to squeak out.

Behind Anthea, Clarissant rolls her eyes. “Oh, please.”

My cheeks are turning hot, and there’s something brimming behind my eyes that I’m trying to blink away. A sad hole blossoms in my stomach, and then festers into anger. Before I can think about it I’ve snatched Clarissant’s purse out of her hands and jammed three coppers down. “Take them!” I shout. I snatch up the three rings and turn heel to the exit.

They’ll catch up with me, I tell myself, as the gate rumbles open. They peel out just before the timbers slam home, breathless and staring at my back across the distance between us. I can feel their stare.

“I’m sorry!” Anthea calls. “Listen to me, you idiot! I didn’t mean—”

“I don’t care what you meant!” I tell her. “I’m going to bury these. Stay close and don’t leave the path.”

“There isn’t a path,” Clarissant says plainly.

“Then don’t leave the suggestion of one. Jesus!”

Night dawns, and I’m scampering off to find a place to save my friends—all because I couldn’t save them the first time around.

18. Factions All The Way Down

“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.”

“But—”

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.

Table of Contents

Ko-fi

Between Death and Dreams #1-9 Compendium

You know the story, don’t you? You’ve heard it before. We all have. That story is behind you. But it would do you good to remember what has come before.

This’ll hurt. This’ll help:

The Higher Powers choose a young child from another world to save them from a ruthless despot. Maybe you step through a magical doorway. Or a closet. A portal. They put fire and magic in your veins and send you off to stop the Great Evil.

You’d heard about these stories, even as you lived it. They were filled with wondrous creatures. Talking animals. Dwarves. Orcs. The world you save has magic, Witches and Wizards and Banshees of all sorts. You even befriend a few of them on your quest to vanquish the Great Evil.

And you succeed, too! What are the odds? Maybe it costs you an eye. Or your hand. Or friends. But you do it. You save the world and peace and prosperity reign.

(They tend to leave this next part out.)

Your success means one thing: the Higher Powers don’t need you. Not anymore. You’re a warrior, and this is peacetime. And they certainly don’t need someone as powerful as you roaming about.

So they tear the fire and the magic out of your veins, they heal you up and restore your missing hand. Or eye.

(Not your friends, though. They keep those.)

Then they ship you back to your home world, like the whole thing never happened. You haven’t aged a day, and now you have sit still and learn and live in this body that’s too soft and too weak and too complete.

The shriek of chalk on the board reminds you of that Witch’s scream. You’re startled by your own left hand. You can remember it turning to ash when you fought that sorcerer when you were fifteen. And you’re always cold, now. Because they ripped the magic out of you and nothing can keep you warm.

Now imagine, a few years later:

You go back.

And this isn’t your story.

Not this time. Not anymore.

* * *

I don’t remember how I come to be in the cave. It is a beginning, but only inasmuch as dreams can begin.

The fire is inside me again, crackling and cackling. It feels good.

Like a relapse.

“The King in the Mountain,” they’d told me, “is called upon during the Realm’s hour of greatest need.”

Nobody told me that this hour could happen twice.

I wonder if I’m dreaming of the Realm again. It wouldn’t be the first time. But something sets dreams apart to the true travel between realities: memories of my homeworld are muted in the Realm. Like remembrances of childhood. Vague and textureless and ambient.

The fire inside me turns my memories without magic into a smoky haze.

I’m starting to come to terms with my unbelief as I haul myself off the slab of cold stone when a shock of freezing water engulfs me.

I wonder what proclamations they’ll make as I sink down, down down. The King in the Mountain can’t save the world this time, they’ll say. Peter rolled out of bed and drowned in a lake. I’m off to a great start. Great job.

I surface, then, sucking in a lungful of damp cave-air that makes my chest feel like fire.

Then a scratchy, thick hand seizes the back of my shirt and suddenly I’m kicking at empty air as I am dumped face-first into a rowboat.

I’m sputtering and coughing and shivering and I can feel the stranger’s gaze on me. King in the Mountain, indeed, I think.

Not knowing what else to say, I tell the stranger: “The lake is new.” My head is still on the floor of the rowboat. I can feel it rocking. Or am I just dizzy? “It wasn’t here last time. Did you just get that installed?”

The figure who saved me is a silhouette. A massive man who grunts as he rows. I think I can see the head of an axe resting next to his boots.

My own head is still spinning. I’m trying to figure out how I got back. Why I got back. Who brought me back? I wonder if I know this bearded gentleman. Was he here last time?

A list of half-remembered faces spins through my head like a slot machine as I try to match them up with their names.

I think distantly, What’s a slot machine? and my breath catches in my throat as I realize how fast my memories are fading. No, not fading, I think. The smoke’s getting thicker. If I concentrate, I can see through it.

“I’d recognize that purposeful emotional distance anywhere!” I exclaim. I feel a twinge of guilt at how happy you are to see him. To be back. “Toric, is that you?”

“Who’s Toric?” The man asks. “My name is Gormund, King Peter. I’ve been sent to retrieve you.” Three oarstrokes pass before he speaks again. “You’re smaller than we expected.”

“What are you talking about?” I ask. “Smaller? I was twelve last time! It’s been five years! That’s not how anything works!”

“Twelve?” Gormund echoes. “You sure about that?”

A hole grows in my stomach as I realize that I’m not quite sure how long I was gone. Time passes like dreams in this place. It’s difficult to get a measure on it. Or maybe my thoughts are just clouded. Maybe they’ll clear up. Maybe.

The boat skids against the rocks at the mouth of the cave. I see Gormund silhouetted against the early-morning light. He’s raising an eyebrow. “I’m going to ignore that you said you were twelve.” He steeples his fingers and rests his elbows on his knees, leaning forward. “Instead, let’s address the fact that you just said you’ve been gone for five years.”

“What about it?” I ask.

Gormund looks at me seriously. “Just how long do you think you’ve been gone, One-Eye?”

“One-Eye?” I echo. Peter, I tell myself. Your name is Peter.

“That’s what you’re going to focus on?” He’s incredulous.

“What do you mean, One–” Shattered shards of memory stab into my brain. I remember a dagger. A rogue ambush. A red-glowing eyepatch snapped over an empty socket. Screaming.

I reach to steady myself and flinch when my left hand touches the rim of the boat. I can remember a wand pressing a hole in that palm, and the ashes that spread out from there.

Oh.

Right.

That.

I check my face. Two eyes. Too complete.

Relieved, I crumple face-first sideways out of the boat.

* * *

You know the story now, right? Surely you know where this is going?

(You think you do, leastways. But you’re not listening, are you? I told you already: this isn’t that story. Not anymore.)

* * *

I awaken, sucking in cold air. There’s a crackling that I think might be a fire. I’m still sleep-bleary, and can’t discern if it comes from inside me or outside. I certainly don’t feel as cold as when I was back in–in–that other place.

Christ, I’m already forgetting. Who’s Christ?

But as the memories of my old life fades, shards of memory fit into place. Memories of this world.

Gormund is standing beside me. I’m sufficiently impressed, now that I’ve got a better look at him. He’s a rippling container of barely-sheathed muscle–discounting his medicine ball of a chest. He’s bald, but his beard is so thick that I can’t help but wonder if the hair on his head simply migrated to his face. “Ruined Earth, but you’re heavy,” he says.

My head is spinning. My fingers are clawing at the stone foundation beneath me. I wasn’t supposed to come back. “Who summoned me?” I ask, absently. I’m not quite sure if I care.

“Nice to meet you, too, One Eye.”

It takes me a moment to understand that he’s using an alias for me. One of my old titles from my last life here. “I’m sorry,” I tell Gormund. “I’m sorry. I just. I…” I clutch my head in my hands. I’m not supposed to be back here. “Who are you?”

Gormund barks a single laugh. “Straight down to business, then?” he says. “My daughter summoned you, One Eye. Her will is almost spent from the ordeal.” He spits, as if in show of his disdain. “You’d better be worth it. Good to see you’re more…put together than the legends have led us to believe.”

I remember the last time someone channeled Higher Powers to bring me here. He had looked fine, laying on the stone slab. Unconscious, I thought. Until they examined his corpse. His insides had been a smoking ruin. I never learned his name. Others—more powerful folk–could have survived channeling the Higher Powers (for a time). Not him.

“I wasn’t supposed to come back,” I tell him, dumbly. “This can’t be real.”

He slaps me. Leaves my cheek stinging and red. I reel back, precariously close to the mountain-ledge.

(Mount Tharum. That’s its name. Mount Tharum).

Gormund catches me as I teeter on the ledge, pulls me forward. I can feel the bristle of his beard. Feel his hot, moist breath on my face. “Did that feel real?”

“I–”

“If I throw you off this mountain, will that be real?” His voice is hoarse and raspy.

“I don’t–”

“My daughter has channeled Higher Powers through her flesh and funneled them onto mortal earth. All to bring you here, King in the Mountain.” My title drips like acid from his mouth. “You don’t get to tell me what is and isn’t real. Now harken to me: we are going to climb down this mountain, walk all the way to Strathbury and you will tell my daughter that you are sorry that the legends of your last life possessed her to do something so foolhardy as to summon a boy so stupid that his first act upon arrival is nearly drowning himself. Do you understand?”

I knock his hand away and shove past him to more solid footing. I lean against the side of the cave. I don’t have vertigo yet, I tell myself. This is a precautionary measure. I focus on my breathing. Five seconds in, five seconds out.

I wonder what else has changed.

“All right,” I tell him. “I understand.”

So we travel down Mount Tharum. There are thick clefts in the rock. A stairway, steep as a leaning ladder. Along the way down Gormund tells me that they should be evacuating Strathbury.

“Most likely we’ll be dead in a few weeks,” he tells me, surprisingly casual. All while he leads me down the clefts in the stone. “Funneling the Higher Powers to this plane doesn’t go unnoticed.”

I remember the last time. Raiders had swarmed down from the north. Unchecked and virtually unchallenged. Strathbury had almost no defenses. It was a town out lying in the middle of nowhere.

It didn’t stand a chance.

This time will be different. I swear it by the God I’ve so nearly forgotten and by the Higher Powers, too. Just to be safe.

I have a second chance here. I’m going to make it right. I shouldn’t even be here. The least I can do is cycle through these motions while causing the least amount of damage possible.

I’m going to survive this. I’m going to build a life here all over again. I’m relapsing, but at least this time, I can taper through this the right way.

The wind has died down by the time my feet hit soft earth and dead leaves crunch beneath my feet.

“How far to Strathbury,” I ask.

“As long as it takes,” Gormund tells me, as we crunch through the autumn waste. His axehead drags lazily through the clusters of dead leaves and grass. “We’ll need to move quickly, though. Mount Tharum is a stillzone, thankfully. It’s a three day march through the Ever-Changing Land to Strathbury. Don’t you worry, though. I know what to look out for.”

I don’t bother to keep track of time. I’m too confused by what he means when he says the Ever-Changing Land.

This land doesn’t change. I know that, even in my limited knowledge of this world. I can remember my first walk to Strathbury. There were no changes.

The world becomes walking. One step and then the next, following the command of Gormund’s back: keep moving or die. He permits no alternative.

I wonder if there will be as many raiders this time. I wonder if I can use the fire in my veins. Did the Higher Powers sew it back into me? I want to call it forth. But not in front of Gormund.

He’s angry enough as it is. Angry that his daughter summoned me. Showing him proof of my power mightn’t be the best idea. I don’t even know if I have this power, either.

So I start to wonder what changed about Strathbury. How have they rebuilt? Who lives there now?

Bored, I examine the ground that drops precipitously mere feet from me in either direction. I walk along a file, sloping down into fields of dead, yellow grass girdled by aspens and poplars.

I hardly notice when Gormund has stopped moving. I nearly plow into his back. He’s hefted his axe, holding it in both hands.

“Don’t. Move.”

Belatedly, I realize I do not have a sword. I freeze and follow Gormund’s eyes from one side of the file to the other. “Is there something down there?” I ask.

His knuckles are white and twitching around the axe-haft. “Might be,” he says. “It’s getting dark. Might be.” Belatedly, he mutters, “I knew I should have brought Clarissant.”

I’d hardly noticed the bruise-colored clouds smothering the sky. “Is it raiders?” I ask. I wish again for my sword. Almost as much as I wish I could remember its name.

I think I can pull the fire out of my veins, if it comes to it.  I can remember my training from last time around. It took me months to learn how to control the Higher Powers’ magic. But eventually I wrestled it into my grasp. I’m not quite certain how the fire works. Not yet, at least.

I think I can do it again if I have to. Probably. Maybe. Time will tell, I suppose.

I can feel my heart hammering in my neck. Images flash through my mind’s eye: men in ringmail atop mighty destriers; rippling containers of barely-sheathed muscles; pink-scarred faces that contorted with snarls; axes, swords and spears whirling through the air.

My left arm tingles where a spear caught me, hundreds of years ago. Five years ago.

Gormund’s teeth are knocking together as he wrings his hand around the length of his axe. He watches the horizon, implacable. I think I see shadows moving between the trees. As a bluster of air rattles through me, I understand I’m still a little damp. Sweat-slick and lake-slick and slippery. Vertigo opens wide, threatens to consume me.

I’m not supposed to be here. My muscles twinge with long-forgotten maneuvers. Newly-remembered exercises. Drills. But my body is soft and stupid.

I tense up, ready. I’m still not sure if I see anything. Perhaps just trees. Or perhaps something darker.

Gormund uncoils, wraps his hand around my wrist. “We have to move,” he tells me.

“Did you see anything?” I ask.

“Move!” He shoves me forward, sloping down. There’s a sound behind me like a giant’s groan. There’s thunder, I think. And something behind me cracks. Gormund is right behind me, nearly stomping on my heels as I push through the tall grass that rises up to my waist.

The forest envelopes me, trees rising like the black spears of the army that surrounded me when the Great Evil captured me seven years into my quest the last time around.

I can’t remember the name of the army. Just the flash of steel and the ash-coated spears that smeared onto the gloves of the warriors that surrounded me. Blood had dried on me and them, red-brown like lacquer. I’m getting distracted, I realize.

Gormund’s hand presses onto my back. “Don’t slow down!” he tells me. “Don’t look back, you idiot!”

Thick trees snap behind me like breaking bones. I push  myself on. I’m so tired that I hardly notice the blisters on my feet from the hours of walk until they pop and sting as I push myself forward. There’s a stitch in my side.

I grit my teeth and fight through the pain. Walls of stones emerge all around me like teeth to maw of a gaping giant.

“You’re not running fast enough.” Gormund growls. “Move! Move!”

Gormund seizes me by the back of my neck and hauls me forward. I sail headlong over a hill and out of the forest.

Forests should be bigger than that, I think.

Gormund follows close behind. He dives down just next to me, twisting so that his back feels the brunt of the impact.  He sits up, rubbing his lower back. “Knees hurt. Back hurts. You’re lucky, One-Eye. At least you go back to your younger years when you return.”

“What was that?” I ask. “What was that?” When I look, the forest is gone. A mountain rises from the earth, dirt and soil spilling over, churned-up as the gray stone rises, higher, higher, higher.

I’m not sure how long the silence lasts before I say again, “What was that?”

“Something Clarissant should have warned me to look out for.” Gormund curses under his breath. “You might feel some vibration when we sleep tonight. Don’t worry. It’s just the strata sorting itself out. I’ll wake you up if we need to move again.”

“Uh uh,” I tell him. I seize his arm, and a warning flares in his eyes. I  don’t let go. “Nobody’s going to pull the whole dark and broody and mysterious on me. Not this time! What. Was. That?”

He turns to me, his face implacable. “The Imperium salted the earth with spells after you left. Too many uprisings. They needed to impede communications. Hard to stage a revolution when you can hardly make it to the next town.”

“About one-third of those words made sense to me,” I tell him. “What Imperium? Revolution? Uprising?”

He pulls his arm away, turns. “You’ve been gone longer than I thought,” he says. “There will be time to explain later. We have to get back before the land moves again.”

I’m numb. Following blindly, not thinking anything. I hardly notice when Gormund has stopped to set up camp. My thoughts are a blur. Just aching feet and passing trees and shuffling through leaves. It feels like I’m on a treadmill.

A what? I know what the feeling those words convey, but that actually means eludes me. At some point Gormund wraps me up in a cloak. Crickets are chirping and stars are blazing in the sky, never still, always streaking. The Ever-Changing Land, I think. I forgot about that. Or is that new?

My remembrances fill the silence. Gormund doesn’t seem to mind. He hums to himself as he stokes broken twigs and branches. He strikes flint and tinder. “Fire keeps the bugs away,” he explains to me. His cloak smells like timber. He smells like timber. “Keeps away the Swarm, too.”

“Are there Swarm here?” I ask. I don’t recall anything called Swarm from the last time I came to the Realm.

“Not as yet,” he says. “I thought I saw them, but…” he lapses. “They appear suddenly. But they don’t like the light. We’ll be safe, so long as the fire burns.”

I ask what Swarm are. I can only remember humans in the Realm. Witches and Warlocks, to be certain. But I can recall nothing of monsters.

The fire stokes in me memories of magic, besides. I feel aglow with the fire in my veins. Yes, they’ve sewn me up. Good as new, I know now. Good as new. Now all I need is my sword…

Gormund’s mustaches flutter as he exhales. “Best keep a watch tonight,” he explains. “The Swarm aren’t friendly folk. They were once men, to be certain. Before the Imperial Wizards caught them. Some still look like them, from a distance. The recently-turned. In the dark, leastways. But when they open their mouths to speak…”

Another lapse. He hrms and haws a bit. “I think they’re asking for help. But their voices are so crushed. So broken. Anything they say just sounds like clicking and scuttling. They’re wrapped from head-to-toe in rotting linen bandages. And when you cut them open,” he tells me, He leans forward, the bathing in the fire’s orange gloom.

“The only thing that comes out is spiders. Spiders and spiders and spiders…except for the eyes. Those are wet and scared and pleading. The eyes, at least, are human.”

“They’d blacken and burn as soon as touch me,” I say. But I’m not sure I’ve kept the quaver from my voice.

“You’ve no sword. And don’t you think to burn them. You’ll have to trust me, One-Eye. It won’t work. The spiders just..heh…they swarm you. They’d be on top of you before you can set them to sparking. Fire against Swarm is as useful as nipples on a breastplate.”

I’m silent for a long time. And since I can’t think of anything else to say, I mutter, “This is going to sound strange, but where are we? Where is Strathbury? Whose land is this?”

“Too small for any Imperial records if that’s what you’re asking. We’re a backwater. Were, rather. They’ll notice us now.”

“Do you have a King?”

He stares at me seriously. “We’ve the Imperium. And the district governor they’ve appointed.” He swallows hard. “You have been gone awhile, haven’t you, One-Eye?”

I nod. “Not sure I was supposed to come back,” I murmur.

Gormund regards me seriously from across the fireplace. When he speaks, his voice is grating. Like he’s taken a drag of a cigarette.

(I know what those words convey. The action itself is foreign to me.)

“Well,” he says, “My daughter saw to it you did. Best get some sleep. I’ll watch for Swarm. Keep the fire going and we’ll be fine. I’ll wake you in the morning.”

“You should let me take a watch,” I tell Gormund.

“You should do as I say, boy.” There’s a goading edge to his voice, barely sheathed. But I don’t want to argue with him. My head is still spinning. I’m still tired. I still have so many questions that swirl through my mind as darkness plays across my vision and sleep takes me as I curl up into Gormund’s timber-smelling cloak.

* * *

I come across the dying man in the middle of the next day.

He’s slumped against the bottom of a hill, his cuirass is bloodied and one arm is swollen and disjointed. The man sees me two from across the path, and signals for Gormund and I to stop.

Gormund tells me to stay where I am. “Watch,” he says, “But don’t come any closer.”

I do, eyes wide at the sight of the dying man. Shatter shards of memory stab into my brain. A million deaths. A million-million memories to remember. All too familiar.

Gormund tramps off the path, drawing his half-moon axe, and crouches at the foot of the hill where the man lays wounded. He inspects his wounds. The man has cut down to the collarbone, and every breath wept blood. I’m familiar with this red-weeping. Vaguely familiar. I push the thoughts from my mind.

I don’t want to remember.

“That’s not going to get better,” Gormund says. The man nods. “What did you in, soldier?”

“A pack of Swarm caught me without a fire. I was on patrol, Gormund. Just one. A scout, I think. I put a rondel in its back, but it shambled off. It’s probably dead by now.”

They know each other, I realize.

“I’ll send the others out to look for it. You did well, soldier.”

I want to tell Gormund to use this man’s name. Every fiber in me burns with that desire. But I tamp down on it. The soldier needs to die. No use delaying it.

Things will be different this time, I’d said.

“I don’t suppose you know how to use that axe, Gormund?” the man asks. He laughs, then winces.

“I do.” Gormunds whiskers stir when he smiles.

“You going to keep Strathbury safe?” The man asks.

“I will.”

“Is that your boy?”

“No,” Gormund says. “Just a boy.”

The King in the Mountain, I want to tell this man. I have fire in my veins. Fire burns. But this man is too far gone. All my revelation would offer him is a funeral pyre.

“But you’re looking after him?”

“For now.”

“How’d you find him?”

“Does it matter?”

“I suppose not,” the man says. “Don’t suppose you want to bring the boy here? He ought to get used to the sight of corpses.”

“He’ll see his share yet.”

I’ve already seen my share, I want to say. A million shattered shards.

“Are you ready?”

The man nods. “Strike true.”

Gormund raises the axe, and it falls with a wet sound. Like a bucket falling into a well. He cleans the bloody axe on a timber and sea-salt-scented cloak, and then throws it through a loop in his belt.

“Who was that?” I ask.

“It doesn’t matter,” he says. And then: “I’m sorry.”

“Why?”

“Because my daughter called you here. And I’m sorry I was the first person you’ve met here.”

“You?” I ask. “What’s wrong with you?”

Gormund says nothing. And then: “We should keep moving.”

* * *

The forest melts behind me, and hills of dirt unfolds. The autumn terrain dips downward into a gray waste unfolding before me. I find the scattered remnants of rock wall that stretches the border of Strathbury, blanketed in ash.

Beyond it, fog has misted in, swaying like dancing specters.

Where it should be, I find a rutted dirt road. Hard packed earth and uneven ground. There’s no sign of the wooden gate that greeted me my first time around. The ground slopes into the lip of Strathbury, where large, dense bushes smother either side of an iron gate.

“The watchtower’s new,” I say, by way of small talk. “How long has that been there?” Gormund told me this city wasn’t important enough to make it into a map. Yet now he expects me to believe they have need for a watchtower.

It’s nothing impressive. Hastily built, by the look of it, and little more than a logs leaning against each other, up and up and up.

A crossbow bolt spits toward me. I move to dodge it, but my reflexes are all tangled up. I haven’t rebuilt my body yet. I’m too slow, and Gormund has to drag me out of the way. He cups his hands over his mouth: “The boy is with me!” he shouts into the fog-smeared watchtower.

“Identify yourself!” It’s a woman’s voice.

“You were supposed to warn me about incoming shifts, girl! You told me there would be safe traveling! The Ever-Changing Land will be dormant for the next few days, you said. There was a mountain. A mountain, Clarissant! How the fuck did you miss a goddamn mountain growing under the earth?”

The crossbow-wielder curses under her breath. “Gormund! I didn’t think…There’s been an incident. Stay there.”

For half a heartbeat, I worry she will shoot another quarrel. Instead, the rusted iron gates peel open. The hinges let out a bloody wail. I keep my eyes on the ground as Gormund leads me forward, dragged by the coercion of his will.

“When did you guys install a watchtower?” I ask again.

“When the Swarm roamed in from the east,” he says. And then: “Come. I’ll take you to my daughter.”

The smell hits me first. A death-stink that wafts past the gates. It’s familiar. Like something half-remembered. I can hear Clarissant above stomping down the watchtower, cutting a path through the mist that mats down her cloud of ringleted hair. Her hands are splayed out in front of her when she walks. This confuses me until I notice that her circular spectacles are fogged up. She’s short, and wide with a belly that hangs over her belt. She sprints for Gormund, calling his name. “Gormund,” she says. “Gormund, you should prepare yourself–”

Something catches me and I take a tumble. I think it’s a tree root at first. The fog is too thick to discern what I tripped over. Distantly, I can hear a woman telling Gormund, “There was a battle.” My head is swimming with remembrances of my last battle here. The last time I came here.

Gormund had told me the town was full of dead men walking. And the realization of what has happened here narrows my concentration down to a needle’s point. I can only think one thing.

“This wasn’t a battle,” I hardly notice I’ve spoken aloud. I’m standing, now, to better assess the damage. “This was a disaster.”

The citizens of Strathbury lie straggled about the city. The dead and dying are cold and clammy. I can discern bodies strewn about the town, limp as discarded tunics. Slumped over red-tainted troughs and mills and dead archers hanging from windows.

“Is this King Peter?” Clarissant asks. She’s pushes a pair of spectacles up the bridge of her nose and wraps her cloak about herself like a shield. I realize she’s talking to Gormund, who’s picking his way around the bodies that scab the streets. “You’re late in retrieving him. This was a mistake, Gormund. Anthea shouldn’t have done this.”

“I promised her that I would get him.” He looks around, sadly. “Looks like we’ve angered the Lord Ath.”

I file that name away for later. “They’ll not blight this town,” I say, belatedly. Clarissant turns to look at me, then. I meet her gaze and swallow a lump in my throat. “I won’t let it.”

“Let it?” Clarissant asks. “You started this. The Swarm will return. They’ll be back to finish off the rest of us.” She’s squaring up to me, now. So close that when she takes a swing at me, I hardly notice until my temple is throbbing and I’m on the ground.

I should’ve seen that coming. I’ve had better reflexes, in other lives. She’s dredging me up. On the periphery of my consciousness I can hear Gormund telling her, “That’s enough, Clarissant. Take me to Anthea.”

Clarissant isn’t listening. She’s shaking me. “You—” Her fingers curl around my collar. “This is all your fault, Peter!”

I wonder how this could possibly be my fault. I haven’t even been here a week. Haven’t I?

“Clarissant!” Gormund catches the woman’s shoulder and hauls her back. She releases me in her shock and stumbles, and then catches herself.

“Where is my daughter,” Gormund asks her. “Where is Anthea?”

“We took her to the tunnels. Along with the men, women, and children who couldn’t fight.”

“To Strathbury-below,” I say. A memory creeps up on the border of my mind’s eye. Gray fur and Resolute Nothings.

Clarissant spits. “Better that than let the Swarm bring them back to Torre.”

Then the memory that crept up on my mind suddenly overtakes me:

A dark cloud over a town much like this. Girdled by the same aspens and poplars and rolling hills and yellow grass.

And a black cloud looming high above.

It is a Resolute Nothing, this cloud. Dark and black with flashes of prismatic reds and blues and greens with swirling inky columns burrowing down into the land. Spilling ash and dirt-spray high into the air, tumbling down, down, smothering Strathbury until nothing remains.

Only Strathbury-below.

You never call down the Higher Powers without someone else noticing. Remember? Sometimes it’s Swarm that come and lay waste to a town you know nothing about and leave stinking corpses rotting in the streets mere days after your summoning.

And sometimes it is a Harrower for a Great Evil; as it was those long-ago five years.

My first Great Enemy. The Harrower: A red-eyed gray wolf, gigantic and leading the Resolute Nothing in burying Strathbury under ash and stone and dirt. In the end, I had imprisoned him inside the Resolute Nothing of his own creation. Trapped him there forever and ever. It had taken months of fighting to get to him. And I had Lords and warriors to aid me. But I did it.

But.

But.

But.

These two. Gormund and Clarissant. They’ve taken a woman overstuffed with Higher Powers and led her down, down, down into buried Strathbury-below.

Into the Harrower’s crypt. With Higher Powers flagging from her body.

“Take me to her,” I say. “Gormund—bring me to Anthea.”

What happens next is a blur of preparation. Clarissant and Gormund are picking through the corpses. I wonder if there’s anyone left inside Strathbury. I try to trace the battle in the footprints of the ashfall. But they’re too well-trodden to make much out.

At one point, one of them helps me into a rusted ringmail shirt, and straps a dinted iron halfhelm with peeling, sweat-smothered padding over my head.

“It gets cold in the tunnels of Strathbury-below,” one of them tells me, as an ash-colored, ash-smeared cloak is broached over one shoulder.

A sword is belted around my waist. The weight of it is familiar enough. To my mind, leastways.  

As for my body:

My thighs feel red and raw from every step that sends the sword-sheath slapping against it. The pommel prods my upper ribs. I was built for this, once. Maybe I will be again.

But today, I am a small and awkward seventeen-year-old boy, gangly and angled and scrawny, with a fog-shrouded mind addled with the commandment of great armies and large forces and pitched battle. I can remember this. I can even imagine myself performing those old maneuvers my body doesn’t remember.

I realize, at some point, that a tunnel has swallowed me, and that my footsteps echo down, down, down, into the dark, dark tunnels. The town swallowed up by the churned ash and dirt conjured by the gray wolf—the Harrower’s Resolute Nothing. I do not remember Gormund and Clarissant leading me to these tunnels. Neither of them accompanies me. Distantly, I think one of them had said something about defending the town.

I’m going to save Gormund’s daughter, I realize. I’m going to be a hero again. Defeat Harrowers and Great Evils and reclaim my place in this land and. And. And?

And then what?

Mist filters through the air. I wonder if they’re ghosts. Does the Realm have ghosts? Is that Toric dancing around my ankles? Or are they mere clouds, like the ones in my mind?

Then something wails, loud and bloody and almost inhuman. More like rusted hinges than a voice.

The silence that follows is suffocating. “H-hail and well met,” I call into the darkness. I’m not sure why I giggle at this. Some part of me must understand how stupid I seem. Just an ill-equipped boy, in over his dented helm.

A battering ram of smoke and ash and thick, gray curls screams toward me. Maybe this is Toric, I think, and smile at the thought. A twisted suggestion of a face opens its maw inside the oncoming cloud.

I go to rip the longsword from its sheath. But when I free it from its scabbard, I angle it too early, and the last of its length tangles in the sheath and it clatters to the floor.

The cloud billows into me, with the same bloody wail as before, writhing about me as I stumble, swiping at it until it dissipates.

Some part of me remembers this trap from my first-ever visit to Strathbury, five years ago. I wish I had remembered it before it came barreling down an underground hall, screaming bloody murder.

Cursing, I pick up my sword, slam it into the scabbard, and try again to unsheathe it. It’s easier this time, though it takes me longer than I’d like to clear the blade from its sheath. Not to mention the embarrassment of trying to align it for re-sheathing.

The moment the suggestion of I can’t do this tickles the back of my mind, my knees buckle and I fall, ass-first, to the ground. My helmet saves my head from being bashed against the cave wall. My head is spinning. I’m dizzy. I’m crying.

I’m glad no one can see me.

My senses expand, and a warm, blue light swirls in sconces on the walls. I put them there, long ago. So, so long ago.

Wraith-lanterns. Servants of the Harrower I trapped to light my path through his havoc. It was a simple magic, if difficult for at that point in my journey. I wonder if I could do it now.

The small sins trapped inside were weaker creatures, after all. Easily tamed into nothing but unconscious light. But I had been practicing for months to do this.

Do I need practice now? The way I ripped that sword from my scabbard, I’m not sure if I want to know the answer.

I hardly notice that I’ve regained my footing. I wander, aimless, through the caverns of the town that once saved me, so long ago, bathed in the blue light of my own creation. At length, I reach the lip of a black iron archway. Something tickles the back of my mind. It used to be a gate, I realize. Shorn to ruin, like everything else.

“Toric,” I marvel, “If you could see what’s become of everything. Would you…?” I’m not sure how he would feel. Would he hate me for leaving them? For letting this–this–whatever this is–happen?

Time and place, I remind myself. Time and place.

The descent into Strathbury-below proper is steep and treacherous. I can hear folk talking in the distance. No clear voices, though. Just hissing. Like wind.

Each domed building is made of neither brick nor mortar. Every hut and house is molded from smooth, shining black metal. The wraith-lanterns’ reflections dance, prismatic in their polish.

There’s no sign of wear, after all these years. Not a single scratch. I try to dredge up memories of how they made this. But those thoughts are hidden from me. For now, at least.

Forever, maybe.

Every sound tamps down into silence the moment it arises. My footsteps do not echo through the caverns of what remains of the small town. Some vile force wrings Creation at the neck, undoing every evidence of life the moment it noises itself.

I wonder what noises these hisses might be. I know it’s not wind. But the women and children of Strathbury are down here. And no noise can yet be uttered.

They can’t even scream. Is that what this is? Dozens of helpless women and children, crying out, and silenced?

It’s perhaps best to table that thought for the time being.

I descend into the smothering shadow of the old Mair’s office: a single sheet of black metal wrought into the visage of a tower small tower. Like the Citadel of Virengar, in the west, constructed in miniature.

I climb the steps to the double doors, sheath slapping on my thigh. My mailed fingers reach out to stroke the smooth black walls, just beneath the sconces fill with wraithlight.

White pain sears my hand and mind. I yelp and draw back. The shattered shards fit into place:

The wolf–the Harrower–was charged by the Great Evil to remove this place from the Order of the world. Such concepts walked the land as bare as my own flesh, long ago. The Harrower had tried to dig up this town to deliver them and its denizens to the Great Evil. He meant to punish me for daring to be called here by the Higher Powers.

I stopped him.

I stopped him.

But Anthea—Gormund’s daugher—if she’s not dead, then vestiges of the Higher Powers still echo inside her. And if she was dragged into these tunnels when the Swarm came, then that power was still flagging from her body. She has to be strong, to have survived this long.

All it would take is a single strand—a streamer–scented by the Harrower—something he could latch onto to draw his own power.

The gray wolf is awake.

And the gray wolf is angry.

I realize something, then, as more knowledge of the Higher Powers makes itself known to me: a secret regarding the fire in my veins. The magic.

The fire inside me is in its starting embers. But the Harrower threatens to snuff them before it bursts aflame. But it is not fire exactly inside of me, I realize. Though that is perhaps a more eloquent way of describing it.

Poetic. But misleading.

It isn’t inside me, either. Rather, I can pull it into me and make it dance to my will.

But what is “it”?

I’m raking through my fragmented memories, when a word makes itself known to me: Movement. Movement and heat and force and energy, made Ambient and funneled into the storecaches of my veins.

I reach out to sap the pressure from centuries of sediment pressing down above me. But I withdraw, quickly. If I pull on even a little of that pressure I could bring the whole cave down in my folly. I’m powerful enough, anyway.

(I’m not sure how I know this.)

There’s sound, then. It draws me out of my own remembrances. No, not sound. It’s in my head, I realize. The pounding of hooves down the cobblestone street. I’m not hearing it. It’s being projected into my mind.

I swivel to look down the adjacent path, and I feel bile rising up in my throat.

The rider’s mount is a dead thing, dragging the coiled gray ropes of its own organs down the street and painting a single bloody line.

The rider is a woman who’s missing the flesh of half her face. The left half. The muscle is exposed and the eye is gone, and dry, pink gums are visible where her lips should be. The teeth below are brown and rotten. She smiles at me, and I can see the muscles constrict on the missing portion of her face. Red rivulets drool down her neck.

“King in the Mountain,” her voice rings in my head. Throbbing in my skull. “Well met!” she calls.

I can feel the back of my throat scrape out my scream, but the sound doesn’t pass my lips.

The mutilated rider swings down from her horse. I stumble away, my back flat against the gigantic door. “Do you recognize me, Mountain-King?”

I shake my head no.

“You were supposed to save me. You were supposed to save all of us.” I wonder if this is Anthea. I pray to a God I can hardly remember that it isn’t.

“Toric promised he would aid you. Even after you let me die,” she says. “Even after the Harrower killed me. He possesses me now. I was supposed to wed Toric. You understand that, don’t you? He should have been mine. But you had to save him. Him! Not me!”

She’s closer, now. I see her eyes, black and shining. Her corporeal form sprays off itself like sea-foam, swirling into gray-blue ash and smoke. “I hate you, Peter,” she says, hurling toward me in a spray of dust. It’s changing colors, I realize. Like the funnels that descended from the gray wolf’s black cloud.

She is a part of him, I realize. He owns her. No, not her, I think. It isn’t her. This is a Wrongness wearing her face.

“I hate you, Peter! I hate you!

A wraith-lantern flickers in the corner of my eye. I’m not sure if I reach for it out of desperation, or…well:

When I unlatch it, the blue flame sputters and dies. It rattles. I remember that it is supposed to make a humming sound. It cannot, as yet. There is no sound here. The cloud of the woman’s body sloughs off itself, whorling into the wraith-lantern. The glass slams against my chest, sending me stumbling. It tries to fly upwards, half-dragging me to the tips of my toes as the rider’s form is sucked into the lantern I created so long ago. It makes one final attempt at escape, shoving against the glass with enough force to send me sprawling to my stomach, arms outstretched.

I close and bolt the latch and a moment later, all has returned to the unsettling stillness from before. There a thousands of wraith-lanterns here. Thousands of souls trapped in these rusted boxes. How many of these creatures did I kill?

I can remember leading armies to war from atop a black destrier, my mentor Toric by my side. I razed as many towns as I raised. And anyone aligned with the Great Evil was not permitted to survive. There was no trial. Only executions.

And here I am wondering how that sort of reign of terror might feed into a populace looking for more security in the wake of a devastating war after I left. Hell, the mere act of my leaving must have terrified them enough as is. The Higher Powers chose me as a savior. And if they didn’t bother to tell anyone what happened to me when I first left…I can only imagine the terror that resulted.

Did I…did I cause this? Truly?

Then, inside my head:

That was mine. I don’t like people who steal my things.

I reach for my sword when I hear the same low boom inside my head. It will do you no good.

It’s as low and grumbling as a rockslide. I think back to the voice, You don’t know that, Harrower.

Down the road from where I stand, two eyes emerge. Inky black darkness descends around two glowing ovals.

Remain incorporeal, I tell it, and I’ll pass through you. Take form and–I draw my sword. And I will cut you down. Make your choice, Harrower.

The Harrower doesn’t heed me.

He laughs.

I can smell your fear. You are ripe with it. Even in my current state I can smell the rank terror of you, One-Eye.

So he’s not at full power. That’s good. I can use that. I try not to let myself feel relieved. He might sense that.

Do you think I don’t see how your hands tremble on that sword? Do you remember how to use it? Do you remember how many people your swords have killed? How many have died at your command, One Eye?

One more, when this is over, I think. Then I realize I’ve given him his own measure of me. I curse, inwardly, and wonder if he hears that too.

The thing on the other end of the Strathbury-below’s main street is a wolf with fur of gray shadow and eyes, blue-black and glowing. They’re twinkling with the hellspecks of starstuff. The glow of its eye is tamped out every few seconds by a nictitating membrane. You thought you killed me, Mountain-King. Can you remember my name?

No. I bite back my grin.

Its anger rattles the wraith-lanterns. They dim for a moment. His servants that I trapped in there years and years ago still shudder at his name. You served the same Great Evil that gives you this power to wring the silence from Strathbury-below. You served the Despair in the dark places between the stars.

The Harrower lets a long sigh whistle through its nose. Something like snot dances on the end of its snout. And thanks to the woman with the Higher Power in her veins, my time shall come again. These stragglers will be mine, One Eye. Just as the last time. I trust you remember Toric’s betrothed. You met her, yes? These new humans will become my thralls, just as she was. I will replace my master in title and ambition. It is only a matter of time.

I don’t know why I start laughing.

It’s eerie. I’m convulsing with it, but the sound isn’t passing my lips. When I manage to get it under control, I think, do you plan to conquer the world with a straggling of women and children.

Strathbury-below’s structures tremble in the aftershock of his ambient rage. This is but a start, he tells me. Soon you too will be mine. As your former friends are now mine and as these new stragglers will be mine. In this place, the servants of Chaos have power. In this place, I am King.

No, I tell him, and for the first time in at least a hundred years I feel something like myself again. You’re not.

The Harrower still hasn’t moved. It’s saving its strength. Trying to draw on Anthea’s power. I must find a way to put a stop to this before he reaches a power I cannot put down.

I don’t remember how I did it last time. Was it difficult? It must’ve been.

You will speak to me with respect, One Eye the Harrower snaps.

My name is Peter! I have to remember that. Peter. My name is Peter. Not One-Eye, not King in the Mountain. It’s Peter. Peter Peter Peter.

I won’t let them make me the hero they think I am. No matter what happens, I have to keep my name. And my hatred, too, if I must. Hold fast to my anger and drink in my venom.

These things are not good things, but at least they are mine.

We’re done here, Harrower, I tell him. Strike me, and be damned!

The Harrower launches at me. It springs into the air, jaw open impossibly wide.

The fire flares up in my veins, on instinct. I can see the Ambient—the energy—that the Harrower generates; sizzling and gray like TV static. And the wolf’s left me a lot of it. He’s big, and that pushoff requires a lot of force—force I can use.

I start to siphon it into myself, but the strange-familiar bloating sensation that follows tells me that’s a bad idea. It’s too much, but by the time I understand that I’m already spasming, each twitch ejecting some of the Ambient I’ve pulled into me.

But not quick enough. It threatens to shred me, and in my panic the only thing I can think to do is to push that power.

Back. Into. The Harrower.

I shove the overflowing Ambient toward the Harrower—I force it up and up and up. Into tendons and ligaments and fast-twitching muscles. Anywhere but here because I have too much and it’s killing me slowly and I have to get rid of it I have to force it into the Harrower inside inside inside until the Ambient is spilling into it—

And then

the Ambient

spills out.

The Harrower’s whine twists my stomach and splits my ears and for one moment that is the worst thing that has ever happened in my life.

Until I watch the Harrower overflow with energy, simply streaming apart. Mudlike ash and prismatic hues of orange and green and blue fly off of in bands from its body. What’s left of it lands wetly, like gray vomit, spraying across the cave floor and onto my boots and hemming my cloak.

The Ambient has left my body, but I’m still shaking. I feel hollowed-out down to my very bones. A light breeze might send me floating on its current. Absently, I pick through the ruin of the creature, stabbing, like an afterthought, at what pieces of it have retained their solidity.

Not out of malice—it’s a mercy.

I pick through the remains, steeped in the utter Wrong of what I’ve done.

The whole thing lasts six seconds.

Ambient power swirls around me. Some of it is the wraiths that the Harrower has collected over time. Through laying waste to Strathbury-below and countless other territories I have yet to remember. They’re being freed, I realize, as the ambient energy of the Higher Powers leaks from the wolf’s wound like lifesblood. The wraith lanterns buckle under the ambient energy.

I cover my face with my cloak and shield my eyes from the dust that kicks up. There’s enough of it nearly to send me into the air. I dig my heels into the street and stand my ground, as the last of the Harrower’s sapped-up power drains from him. The wraith lanterns crumble like tin cans in a fist.

Their lights are snuffed, smokelessly.

I sit alone in the dark, heaving heavy breaths. And through the dark, I hear infants crying. People whispering. And someone padding toward me.

“So it’s true,” the voice says, as she comes into view: Anthea.

Anthea, with a mane of springy, coily hair and skin that shivers.

Anthea, with gangly limbs as flat as wooden boards, all prickled with gooseflesh.

Anthea, with sunken eyes, a too-wide mouth that click-click-clicks and chatters.

Anthea, who even now is fighting off the Higher Power inside her that threatens to consume her very Being.

When she speaks, her voice is hoarse and croaking. It reminds me of something called cigarettes. “You’re not supposed to be here. This was a mistake. I’m sorry.”

The weight of these words collapses me. And if it wasn’t so dark, perhaps I would’ve noticed when I lost consciousness.

* * *

So, passes your first trial. And what has come of it? An Utter Wrong, and a feeble woman who can hardly stand hauling your unconscious body back to the surface.

(Later, so much later, you will hear the stories of this day. And all of them will end before you wake up. Because the first thing you did after that was sneak off to the nearest lavatory, where you spent the next hour positively drenched in tears, sweat, snot, and vomit. And this is not a thing that heroes do.)

Table of Contents

Ko-fi

DIY Dante

We’re taking a break from King in the Mountain this week to do a project I like to call DIY Dante.

I call it that because that’s the project a professor assigned me while reading Dante’s Inferno, that I decided to replicate this year due to my frustration with various people I’ve met who are unwilling to vote on November 6th.

Feel free to do your own. I’d love to see what you come up with. Pick a sin, a punishment, and a creature-guard for your invented circle of Hell.

Here’s what I came up with:

THE SIN – Apathy/Complacency

THE PUNISHMENT – Those who are complacent in life and never strive or hope for anything better are frozen in place, feeling but unable to move or blink, perched on a hill and watching the apathetic in the valley below—those who in life and refuse to show interest in the lives or well-beings of others are now hunted by Winged Terrors and Blue Horrors with whips crackling with sizzling sparks that chase them atop spiders as big as war-horses. The Apathetic are permitted to attempt to climb the hill toward the complacent, though their touch will burn them and the complacent will still never be able to move, speak or even scream.

THE CREATURE-GUARD- The Winged Terrors and the Blue Horrors that ride the spiders are big as war-horses are girdled into the hill and valley by gigantic Termagants—hulking beasts with two huge boots capped with worn steel atop legs as large and long as a ship’s mast. Their mail is stretched thin across their chests, and cinched about their waists by a belt twice as wide as a man’s palm, overstuffed with swords that look like daggers when pinned against their massive frames, rusted in places like an old man’s liver spots. Their fingers were crusted with rings inlaid with stones that wink in the sparks of the Blue Horrors’ whips. Their eyes are gray like two chips of dirty ice, and in either hand they hold circular shields befitting their titanic size that are red-hot and glowing, as if always fresh from a forge fire. The largest of these Termagants is the Grand Termagant, who is the Lord of this circle.

Regards of Great Forgotten Things – Day 17

Anthea wanted to convene in the temple in a nearby city to commune with her gods.

So you two marched in. The deadciv had rusting iron gate that drooped in places as if it was melting. The city beyond stank of sawdust and vomit. And all around were giant statues of once-great men, quartered and crumbled to bits. What few denizens still remained scabbed the shadows and alleyways, watching with eyes too big for their skulls and holding their tatters close to their sallow, gray flesh. You heard that foreign word. The one that the boy had used, so long ago.

“Food,” they were muttering. “Food. Food.”

You spent most of the day alone. Wandering the city. Dispensing what corn you had left on your person to the few who dared to approach you. There was a woman with cotton for hair who had no teeth, and made a suckling noise on the corn you gave her. You weren’t sure if you needed to correct her on how to eat it. For all you knew, mayhaps she was doing it right.

There were masses of children, all bone and gristle and tatters hanging off them. It looked like their clothes had been discarded onto them. Like a rich man had dropped a dirty cloth and it happened to settle over their shoulders.

They pressed at you, and you tossed them bits of corn. Did you even know you have corn, Carth? I suspect not. You might find one or two still left in your tunic. Or mayhaps in your satchel, where you keep these journals.

At length, Anthea found you in an alleyway between two scorched homes. Tattered children watched you from a hole on the left wall.

Anthea hadn’t cleaned up since the battle with the sentry. Blood had dried onto her clothes (and other things that looked like dry, red leaves You didn’t want to think about what else they might be).

I’m warning you: don’t try to imagine.

“I missed you in the temple,” she said.

“I know no gods,” you told her. “I can’t remember them.”

Anthea’s linens were pristine as ever. Not a fold out of place. She watched you intently—like something you side reminded her of the your life she knew—that you can never know (do you find that as frustrating as I do, I wonder?) “Do you have any idea how important that temple is?” she asked.

“Should I?” you laughed.

“That’s the temple of Lord Grumlow.”

“Who’s Grumlow?” you asked. You snickered. It was a funny name.

“A servant of the Nailed God,” Anthea said. “A heavenly child, made a lord of heaven after his untimely death at three days old.”

You furrowed your brow at that. “What can one man do in three days that gets them crowned a lord in heaven?”

Anthea grinned like a curved dagger behind her linens. There was a goading edge to her voice, barely sheathed. “Well you see—” she began. “He was a miracles,” Anthea finished first. “They say Grumlow sang praises to the Nailed God whenever he was set to suckling. He was more pious in his short life than most are well into manhood.”

You laughed. The lines of Anthea’s brow hardened. The wrinkles of her linens shifted. “What’s so funny?” she asked.

“I’m much the same whenever I touch a tit. When do I get to be lord of heaven?”

Anthea’s mouth twitched. “That’s not funny,” she said through a clenched jaw.

You kept laughing. Anthea turned red.

“It’s not!” she insisted.

“Crown me a lord of heaven next please!” You wheezed.

And then Anthea was laughing, too.