The white of the world fades, and I’m on my back. I can feel the wound on my chest, distantly. It’s a muted dull, throbbing.
I realize I’m lying on my back cool air misting about me. Eyes closed, I feel for the laceration across my chest, and find nothing.
As my senses expand, I find an even field of grass stretching into an empty horizon in every direction. When I stand, I don’t trample the ground so much as I sink into it. The grass weaves like waves and I splash through the tangle of green like water.
And a few yards ahead of me, I hear Lord Ath mutter, “Little enemy?” He stands, rubbing his head and sloshing through the field of grass. It’s glowing, I realize. And I can see Ath’s purple cloak through their waves.
Every blade glows, phantasmal and resplendent. “Where are we?” I ask.
Ath hears me, whirls, and reaches for a sword that isn’t there. “The Higher Power,” he breathes.
I splash over to him. “Where’s Anthea?” I ask. “What did you do?”
“This isn’t—” His pupils dilate. “This wasn’t me, One Eye! This was the god your friend stole.”
“Uh huh. So where is she?”
“Your guess is as good as mine.”
The space between us is silent for a time. I think I can hear a soft hum. The grass casts a blue glow over the two of us.
And then my body begins to vibrate. Like the shock in your hands when you hit something with a baseball bat.
Only all over. Distantly, I feel like I should be convulsing. I check Ath, who wears the same confused expression as me. “I don’t think we’re really here,” he says. “Our minds are here. But are bodies—”
“—Are still in the Ever-Changing Land!” And the land is in the midst of its change. I’m vibrating because my body outside this place is being shaken up by the changing world. “Does this have something to do with the dreams?” I ask. And then my throat drops into my stomach. Does he know about that?
“I—I think so. Our minds are linked, I think.” He digs the heel of his palm into his eye. “I don’t quite know the arcane theory behind what I did in the swamp. I was still learning the trick. I hadn’t yet mastered it. It—something went wrong. When I cut you off from your ambient energy, I stole it from you. But it took a lot out of me. And now I think—”
“I understand,” I tell him, dryly. Sloshing through the phantom grass. “So do you know how to get out of here?”
“I—hm.” He frowns. “I’m not sure. I don’t think so. I haven’t been trained for—”
I wheel around on him. “What do you mean you haven’t been trained. You sap up ambient energy without even thinking. How could you accidentally like us up like this?” Jac warned me not to, I realize. My first time around. I never bothered to try.
“I sap up ambient energy on instinct, Peter,” he spits back. “I’m not sure why you seem to think I’m such a prodigy!” His lower lip is trembling. He’s trying to contain himself. Badly. Is this the kid who’s been hunting us? The one Anthea and Clarissant have been so afraid of? He lowers his head, knuckling at nothing in the corner of his eye. “This wasn’t how any of this was supposed to go.”
I try to be gentle when I ask, “How was it supposed to go, Hal?”
His mailed gauntlet clinks in his tightening fist. “You were supposed to like me!” He roars, and he swings a mailed fist at my head, and even as I flinch it passes through me like it was made of cobwebs. “We’re supposed to be on the same side.”
I’m not sure what to say. So I don’t say anything. And distantly, I’m aware that outside this space, Anthea is trying to whip the Higher Power into shape. I can feel her breath on my chest, and the warmth of her hands on my belly. She’s trying to heal me like she healed Clarissant’s broken nose.
Am I the Higher Power’s little enemy? Or?
And then it dawns on me that Ath wanted me to like him. “A good start would’ve been not burning someone’s village to the ground. Really channeled your inner Harrower there, buddy. Metaphorically.”
“What would you have had me do?” Ath spits back. “Anthea has a Higher Power in her. The closest Imperial Wizard was miles away, and I couldn’t chance her escape. And if the rumors were true of you, then—” he cuts himself off. “Well. I expected you to be a better fighter than you are. You’re still learning how to use swords and ambient energy.”
“That’s not my fault, I—”
“Must be a punishment for turning traitor,” he muses.
“Traitor?” I take my own swing again, passing through his temple like cobwebs. “You want to call me a traitor? I saved this world, Hallis! I didn’t even have to. I’m not even from here! But I did it anyway. You!” I fail to jab my finger into his chest. “You are your kind have spent the last three hundred years perverting everything I spent forty building!”
“You built the Imperium in thirty years.”
I run my hands through my hair. “That’s not the point. The point is I have no reason to like you, my dude! I’m not a traitor. I never stood for warping this land and installing a dictatorship in order to keep the peace!”
“How would you have done it, then?” Ath asks.
I blanche. “You’re really putting me on the spot, aren’t you, buddy?”
Ath drops his gaze, knuckling again. “It’s not fair,” he mutters. “You’re not fair. This isn’t how any of this was supposed to go.”
“Did you—did you expect I would return?”
Lord Ath raises an eyebrow. “The whole Imperium has been waiting for it for three hundred years, Peter! Of course we expected it!”
“Hoo boy. Okay. I’m not sure how I can break this to you. But—this was a mistake. Anthea never meant to summon me. This was all one big accident. Like I hate to be the bearer of bad new, but I shouldn’t be there in the first place.”
He’s remarkably expressionless. It’s almost scary. His voice is flat when he tells me, “You can’t mean that.”
I open my mouth to reply, but before I can I’m vaulted into the spectral grass, and Ath clutches his chest and falls to his knees.
Pain blossoms in my head, throbbing, and in my neck and legs. I can fail a dull, throbbing pain everywhere. “What’s happening?” I shriek.
“The land is changing!” Ath calls back. “And we’re caught in the middle of it!”
I crawl towards him as the outside-world pain bleeds into this link of ours. I start to smell spiders and browned rags and I realize that I’m feeling Lord Ath’s pain, too. I thrust my hand out to a fingers’ point. “Take my hand!” I tell Ath. “Come over here! We need to work together if we’re going to get out of here alive!”
There’s a shattering boom somewhere in the outside world, and the two of us are flown through the endless resplendent field. Why is this happening now? We couldn’t feel the pain before. But now we’re more connected to our bodies outside.
And then I see why. The horizon is cracked. cracks, ambient energy spilling in like a flood. “What’s happening?” I ask.
“You think I know?”
“At least you grew up in this world!” I tell him.
“So did you,” he breathes. “In a sense.”
He’s looking at me, but from behind him a spearpoint of ambient energy is hurtling towards him.
He turns in time to see it, and as he realizes what’s happening I reach to pull it into my veins—but it’s hurtling too fast and slipping through my fingers. So I tear at his purple cloak and send him tumbling to the ground with a strangled noise. “Get down, Hal!” I tell him. I reach to touch the ambient energy, but as soon as I can pull some into my veins, it vanishes, and more and more flows in.
My ambient energy flows in.
I know this feeling. I’ve lived this feeling. I know where we are.
“Hal,” I tell him, turning his face to look at me. We’re on the ground in the phantasmal grass. “Listen. Our minds were linked. And when Anthea reached to sever you from your ambient energy, she—it—pulled our minds into its own.
“We’ve linked minds with a Higher Power?”
“Depends. Can you use any ambient?”
“I tried the moment I saw it. The second I pull it in, something else pulls it out.”
“That’s Anthea. This happened before. Our minds are trapped inside her Higher Power. She’s pulling on our minds—both of us, linked—to tear us free of her Higher Power’s link.
“Us? She’s…she’s trying to save me?”
“Why would she leave you to die?” I ask. “Why would anyone do that?”
He swallows hard, and starts blinking faster. Keeping something from bubbling out. I get to one knee to try and get a better look at the phantasmal field crumbling around us. And a wall of ambient is spilling toward me.
I’m about to meet the same fate at the Harrower when Lord Ath pulls me back down. “Stay!” he tells me. “Down! We should be free in a moment, yes?”
“I think so.”
“Then I need you to understand. This changes nothing. You can come to the Majesty of your own accord, or I can drag you there. One way or another, you’ll go.”
“Well. We’ll see.” I tell him. “One way or another, I’ll be seeing you, Hal.”
He chuckles. “Yeah. Be seeing you.”
The field between us splits, and the field is razed entirely, seared to white.
And then, in the back of my mind, quietly: goodbye, little enemy.