24. Hello, Little Enemy

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.

(A what?)

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!”

“Thirty.”

“What?”

“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.

 

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21. Dreams and Dead Oxen

Lord Ath isn’t wandering the path we’ve already taken. It is early morning. I am either glimpsing into tomorrow morning, or I am seeing his day from its beginning.

And he isn’t even in the same shift zone as we are.

He’s already in Strand.

Or entering leastways. It’s a shantytown. A stillzoned outcrop, not much bigger than Strathbury. Minus the watchtower. Their gates are looming large and rumble open upon his arrival. The town has no sentries posted at the gates and beyond is motley mass of greasy flesh and cloaks hemmed with mud. These folks crowd the winding streets of Strand, careful of the shattered shards of obsidian and glass that litter the road.

(Distantly, I came remember a city built close to a volcano in the upper north. Is that how far the plates have shifted since this Imperium salted the land with spells. It took three years before I managed to get far enough north to reach that town. And here I am one day away from it.

I can feel Ath feeling eyes on him. On the sigil on his doublet and his purple cloak.  

“Do you think we’re in trouble?” he asks his Swarm, who are carrying something thick and furry behind them. The thing is a gigantic and dead thing. An animal. A ton of white fuzz mixed with gray, bloody flesh and yellowed fangs and a tongue that drags through the dirt The thing is an odd mishmash of animals. Like a Higher Power made a polar bear and a wolf and mashed them together in a malignant fist.

He leads the Swarm and their beast through ermine-trimmed bliauts of wealthy merchants who were themselves sizing up courtesans in satin chased with cloth-of-gold, with pearl-inlaid broaching winking just above their breasts.

Beyond them re armed men, spiderwebbed with scars, bearing swords and maces and axes and longbows, staring at the dead beast the newly-arrived Prince brought with him. I wonder how hot they are in their wolf-trimmed cloaks. Their ringmail scraps against Ath’s pauldrons as he passes.

And amongst the poorer denizens, Ath finds and old man, red faced and lumbering with an entire cart overstuffed with barrels of dried, salted strapped to his back. Ath sniffs the air and turns to the old man. “Don’t you have an ox for that?”

“My ox died last summer,” the old man tells him. “But a man has to make his wares somehow.”

So Ath fishes into a pocket sewn into his cloak and tosses the man a leathern sack that jingles when the man catches it. “I’ll buy them off you. I’ll send some district enforcers to bring these barrels back to my villa in Torre. It’ll be a few weeks before they get here. And it’s like as not to slip my mind. Do you have paper?”

The man is staring at the sack, nodding his head and biting back a grin. Then he realizes what Ath has asked, and he shakes his head no. “No, my Lord. No paper.”

“Unfortunate. So I’ll have no proof of sale, and I’m like to forget I bought them off you. You could resell them tomorrow and none would be the wiser.”

He winks, and the old man beams. Something like gratitude glitters in his eye. “Th-thank you, my Lord. Thank you.”

“No need to thank me. Although.” He stoops to be at eye level with the old man. “May I ask a favor?”

“Anything, my Lord.”

He guides the old man to the strange beast his Swarm are carrying. “That’s a creature from the Ever-Changing Land. Game from out there is rare nowadays. And even rarer—I caught this in mid-transformation. Have you ever had game from the Ever-Changing Land? In the middle of their changing, no less? Do you know how magic seasons meat?”

“I can’t say I do, sir.”

“No, I expect not. I was going to bring it back to Torre with my after I’ve finished my business here,” Ath says. “But it is a ponderous beast, and it will tax my Swarm to no end to carry it all the way back. And I don’t know this town too well. I trust that you do?”

The old man nods, tears brimming in his eyes.

“I’m trusting you to sell this beast to a merchant you trust. Any one of them will pay a high price for it. I want you to sell it to someone who will share the game with the rest of Strand, do you understand? Now, that may somewhat lessen the price you can get for it. But if you can do that for me, then when my enforcers arrive here in a few weeks to pick up that salted meat—” he winks again—“They’ll bring an ox. And it will only cost half of what that merchant has given you. Can you do this for me?”

The man’s jowls are wobbling as he stifles a cry. He knuckles his eyes. “Thank you, my Lord. Thank you.”

Lord Ath rises, shakes the man’s hand, and wanders back to his Swarm. “Follow this man,” he tells them, “And see that you stick to the instructions I’ve given him. I’ve other matters to attend to.”

(I—I—I don’t know what to say. Wow. I didn’t. I wasn’t expecting something like. Wow.)

Lord Ath freezes, eyes wide. He curses, and his lips curl into a shrimp-shaped scowl. He rubs his temples, exhaling loudly. “I can feel his confusion. He’s trying to remember something.”

(Me?)

“This was a mistake. I shouldn’t have severed him from the ambient. We’re all tangled up now and—” he grunts his frustration. “I hope you’re enjoying yourself, Peter.”

(Me.)

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20. Torren Gauth

Clarissant wakes us up when she fells a wind-chill, though the heat hasn’t lessened. It’s an odd feeling, with air so cold in such baking heat.

She says it means there’s a shift coming. So we march onward as the strata bubbles below us, smoking and hissing and belching up semisolid rock that sprouts grass on contact with air. The air thins out and I don’t realize the ground is rising until I bother to stare at my feet. The slashing wind sweeps the sand away, so that all that’s left in our wake is craggy highlands and islands of rock in a sea of hills and grass.

We’re almost there,” Clarissant huffs as she crests the top of a hill. “One more day, and we’ll be there.”

We travel silently until midday, when we sit down to rest. I can feel echoes of Ath even after my dream. His anger and frustration linger in me. So I decide to unsheathe my sword and work on my forms again. I’m starting to get the hang of The Thrush Knocks, so I switch between that and Break the Clouds.

Breaks the Clouds is an upward cut I can perform if I don’t want to go back to my Thrust Knocks stance, where I started. After I pinwheel my blade, once my hands and sword are parallel with the ground hovering over my midsection, and my right foot is forward, I  can step forward with my left slash diagonally up and to the left, and from there take another step so my right foot is forward again and I can ease into a higher guard on my left side with my sword beside my head, hands just behind my ear and blade levelled between me and my opponent.

It’s harder to master, and I can’t count the number of times I swing too fast toward Break the Clouds, or swing wildly instead of the neat, precise, edge-aligned cut it’s supposed to be. Sometimes I take one step forward and try to pull myself into the high guard without taking that extra step, which tangles me up.

A few times I start with the wrong foot forward, and so when I either tangle up when I pull into my stance at the end, or I switch to a higher stance on my right. Which wouldn’t be so bad if I weren’t trying to train myself to do one thing at a time. If I mix it up while training in some highlands, alone save for a rotund woman and a scrawny woman with a god inside her, then how can I expect to execute it with any efficiency if Lord Ath catches up to us.

One time I execute The Thrush Knocks, take a second step, and perform The Thrush Knocks again. This leaves me blinking and confused as to how I could possibly be that stupid.

And Clarissant taps me on the shoulder. “Peter?”

I whirl. “What’s up?”

She presses her lips together. “I…need your help? I think?”

I frown. “With what?”

She sighs, eyes fluttering closed. “After Lord Ath did that…whatever he did. With my crossbow. I realized I needed a bit better protection.”

“What do you mean?”

She sighs. “Okay. This is hard enough as it is. Please don’t make me say it.”

“I’m genuinely not understanding,” I tell her.  “Do you need me to watch Anthea?”

She drags her palm down her face. “Ruined Earth,” she says. “You’re such a boy!”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Don’t worry about it. I just—ugh. I need you to teach me, Peter. To use that.” She points at my blade.

I’m staring dumbly, trying to piece it together. She’d rarely talked to me our entire trip. I’d assumed she was mad at me about what happened at Strathbury. Not that I blame her. “I don’t have another sword,” is all I can think to say.

So she throws the two sticks she’d been hiding at our feet between us. I scoop one up and she takes the other.

And I show her how to execute the Thrush Knocks. And as I pause to fix her posture or kick her heel into the correct positioning, or argue over edge-alignment when the edges are imaginary, I realize a few things about my own forms. I know how to execute these in theory well enough that as I teach her I patch up weaknesses in my own stance that I didn’t even realize were there before. The desire to teach her helps me perform better. Because if I can’t do it myself, how can I expect her to follow my lead?

But I’m still making mistakes. And those mistakes keep piling up. So I do the only thing that there is to do: I keep going. And Anthea watches the two of us, sprawled out on a stretch of rock in the hill’s descent. The hood of her cloak covers her eyes, but her smile is the giveaway. I need to get better. We need to get better, in case Lord Ath catches up to us again.

(When he catches up to us. Because he’s going to catch up. I know because I can feel his emotions in the back of my mind. His anticipation seeps into my own and melds with it. I wonder if it’s still an echo. He’s close, so I tell the others we should start moving.)

We’re still marching by nightfall, plodding forward up and down and up and down the endless sea of hills and rocks and inset-staircases built in clefts into the hills.

And as we go, Clarissant calls my name. And I’m wondering if she wants to stop again and ask me to teach her. She hasn’t dropped her stick, and I have mine lashed to my pack. “What happened at the Battle of the Red River?”

I filter through my mind, through contextless images and dates and names. “When was it.”

“The third year after you arrived in the Mountain. You were fleeing the Stronghold of Torren Gauth?” with the exiled King Toric and a party of stragglers. The Great Evil had sent a small army of minions after you.”

“Stop.” I hold up a hand, which then finds a rock cleft and hauls me up the steep slope of our latest hill. “Did you just say we had a party of stragglers when Toric and I left Torren Gauth?”

“Is that not the case?” Anthea calls from ahead of Clarissant.

“That’s how Gormund told it to us.” Her voice shrinks after she says his name. Regret shriveling her last four words. We each take a moment of silence to let our grief sizzle out. We don’t have time for such things. We have to keep moving.

“Guys,” I tell them when the silence is over, “We had, like, an entire army. How could we have had stragglers? Toric had just convinced a horde of northrons to rally to his cause when we reached the westward capital in Torre—”

“Wasn’t it the Battle of the Red River that convinced them? I thought that happened afterward?” Anthea says.

“No. We had them first. And then the Great Evil’s minions ambushed us.”

“What was that like?” Clarissant asks.

Screams, sheer bloody screams tear through my mind. Bright lights and ambient ambient ambient spilling and swelling—so much and so many were sapping it up that nobody could pull a useful amount into them.

I had been standing atop a cleft of rock like—like—“Like this,” I say, and I brace myself atop the hill, overlooking the descent and the hills that rise again below. I can imagine the soldiers strewing the battlefield. Choking the river and running it red. Some fell in without so much as a scratch and never surfaced.

I point westward. “The river was there. And on it, the Great Evil’s Shade turned the river to ice in its crossing. Nobody else saw it coming.” I unsheathed my sword. “So I had to do something.”

I spill down the treacherous descent, sword drawn, rushing for the imaginary river, calling back. “It had a sword of black ice that seemed to wink out of existence when he turned it sideways. I met him on the banks of the river. I—what did I do?” I pause, clutching at my head. “What was it?”

Anthea and Clarissant shadow me, hinged on my every word. I try to speak, but my throat closes up at the memory of the creature. “It had a language like cracking ice,” I tell them. “And it made the first blow. It was my worst scar to date.” The memory of it aches dully just above my left eye. There’s nothing there, not now. It hurts the same way a visceral image can make the site of the injury hurt on your own body. “It should have ended on the banks of that river.” I fall to one knee. “I couldn’t perform my footwork like Toric taught me to,” I tell them. “The ground was soaked with mud and blood. The river was overflowing form all the bodies. But I sloshed through it.”

“This is my favorite part,” Clarissant squeaks.

“I tried for—for—what was the form. Think, dammit! Wind Pushing the Arrow! That was it!” I mimic the form. I’d forgotten it up until now. I’m not great at it. But I brace the palm of my left hand on the bottom of my pommel and drive the sword spearlike forward. “And I…missed?” I hadn’t remembered this. “He sidestepped me, backhanded me and sent me sailing across the river. I struggled to even stay conscious for the rest of the battle. I could hear the song of slaughter from across the river. If the brute hadn’t misjudged its own strength I would have died. They almost had to amputate that ear. Its very touch nearly gave me frostbite. But it was only the fact that I was so far away from the battle that saved my life. I never saw the person who killed the thing.”

Clarissant and Anthea exchanged confused glanced. “But…” There’s a disappointing edge to Clarissant’s voice. She doesn’t bother to sheath it. She lets it cut me. “You killed it. Are you sure you’re not remembering things wrong?”

“I’m not sure,” I tell her. “I could be. I don’t know. I don’t think so, though. I think it was a northron that killed the thing, if that matters. Funny that. Those people worshipped winter. Their whole religion was structured around these blue crystals and—and—and—well…I suppose it doesn’t matter now.”

“There were other religions?” Clarissant asks. “What—since when?”

“I—”

“I mean I know there were. Thousands of years ago. But three hundred?”

“Why not?”

“Because everyone’s been worshipping you and the Higher Powers for…millenia. Your coming was foretold thousands of years before you came.”

I stop walking. “Okay. I am certain I would have heard something about that by now. Like one of my memories would include someone telling me that the first time around. There’s no way that’s true. Where’d you hear that?”

“It’s…it’s in all the books?” Anthea says, since Clarissant is just gaping. “Peter, your memory isn’t the best right now. I think you might be remembering things wrong?”

I start to challenge that. I want to challenge that. I know I should. There’s something wrong about letting that slide. But then I see the hurt on their faces. The questioning that’s already there. If their favorite battle is a lie and what they know about religion is a lie. Well. How much truth do they really know?

“Yeah,” I say. “Maybe.”

When we bed down for the night, I can hardly sleep in anticipation of Lord Ath. I’ve been feeling what he feels, but shoving it to the back of my mind. But all day his anticipation and excitement has been kindling my own. And I wonder if it isn’t mutual. Does he know where we are? Is that how he’s following us?

What did he do to me? When he pulled the ambient out of my veins, my head was buzzing. Did he do something to me? To us?

I fall asleep to these questions, and I dream.

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19. Dreamwatcher

Am I still dreaming? This is a dream, yes.

The world comes to me in dark hues of green and black. There’s something I’m forgetting. Something I’m not doing. Can I do it?

Breathe! I realize I can’t breathe. I’m kicking, wildly, flailing through dirty water and bubbles as I tear myself up and up and out.

And I suck in a lungful of air as I surface. Is that it? Do I have the right of it? No. It’s not me doing this, is it? I’m staring at a man, sopping wet with swamp-water puddling at his feet. His jet black hair is matted down and his purple cloak clings to him. But I can feel the clothes that cling, squishy like kelp, to him. I am angry, as he is angry. And when a few mouthfuls up bog-water rise up and out of his throat I feel its taste on my tongue.

And I watch.

I watch as his sits, sand stuck to his ass, as he pries off his boots and wrings the water out. Then his cloak. Then his sheath. He keeps his sword out to let it dry in the heat that’s overtaking him now.

“What are you waiting for?” I call across the bog. No, he calls across the bog. The Swarm click and scuttle, edging to its precipice. They’re clicking and scuttling, spiders wheeling across the worn linen of their bodies. “Go around!” he says.

And he waits. Seething and fuming, he waits. “Well this is going great,” he tells himself. “An entire province put to the torch. And I still can’t catch him.” I—he considers forging ahead without his Swarm. But he doesn’t trust them to make it through the Ever-Changing Land without him.

It only takes a minute for him to change his mind.

So he tears after us. Following out tracks through the blistering heat. And at length his Swarm catch up to him. He doesn’t like to look them in the eye. It rattles him. He’s startled every time he hears them scuttling over their linens.

He plods on, trying to keep a pace with us. But he’s tired. Ragged. And as he dries in the sun his lumbering is slower. He’s breathing heavily. “I shouldn’t have done that,” he tells himself. “You’re an idiot, Desmon.”

So he does have a first name…

He jams the palm of his hand into his temple. “Focus, dammit. You have to find him. You have to!” He’ll never get a Higher Power like this.

Wait, what?

“Stupid amateur,” he tells himself. He kicks at the sand. “You aren’t advanced enough for that stupid—what were you thinking?” He breathes deep, exhales. A gust of wind knocks his purple cloak back, splaying it in a crescent behind him. He peels some of the ambient energy off the wind, and I’m not even sure he notices that he does this. He’s too busy panicking. I don’t have to be in his head to see that. It’s clear enough in his eyes.

He plods on, heaving just to take another step. But the more fragments of ambient he pulls into the storecaches of his veins, the quicker he gets. But it’s not long before he depletes what he’s got, and he’s back to his slower pace.

I didn’t even remember you could do that. That should be useful, in the future.

“You can rest when you have him,” he tells himself. “No. I have to rest before I catch up to him. I’ll need my strength back if I’m going to take him in a fight. Elsewise—Lord Uthrik is in Strand.” He looks to the half-dozen Swarm that follow him. “What do you think? Should we meet him there? Let him know what’s going on?”

They say nothing. He avoids looking at their eyes.

“I don’t like it any more than you,” he tells them. “I hate Lord Uthrik as much as the next guy. But what choice do I have?” The thought of failure seeps into his mind, and he seizes up for a moment. Muscles tense and locked-up. It passes as quickly as it came over him.

Mostly because when he hears a ragged roar ahead, his thoughts turn to dread and survival. Something comes ambling toward him. Some ruined creature, half alive, its body a mess of flesh, somewhere between a polar bear and a wolf, like wax figures of each were melted together.

“Hello, beastie,” Lord Ath says, scraping his sword from its sheath. “Did the Higher Power do this to you? Not enough time to change with the land?”

His sword is slick with palm sweat that he wipes on the golden mountain displayed on his doublet.

His doublet! I get it now! I knew I should’ve known that sigil. It had some sort of meaning to me. And an understanding has dawned. The kind that makes my heart both sink and flutter.

Is that?

It can’t be.

It can’t be! That’s his sigil!

The King’s sigil! The True King, who helped me to unite divided lands under my banner. My banner. That my friend took for his own when he renounced his exile in Strathbury and reclaimed his throne, united north, south, east and west under one banner.

That banner.

That’s Toric’s sigil.

“Father’s going to kill me,” Lord Ath mutters.

Lord Ath?

Prince Ath.

He twirls his sword as the beast before him paws the ground. “All right, then,” he says. “Shall we dance?”

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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.

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17. Stitching the Cage Closed

It is my turn to help Anthea along. To guide her. She is weary and frail. She looks all-over sharp and pointed. Her nose. Her elbows, especially. And she lumbers through the sand with us. It is hard to get traction, but Clarissant will not slow down.

“We have to keep a pace,” she tells us. “And I have to pay closer attention.”

Half an hour after we’ve started up, Anthea goes slack and slumps into the sand. I call over to Clarissant, who whirls, eyes wide, and bursts over to her.

“Look at me,” I tell Anthea. “Look at me!” I can see the wild magic in her veins. The intensity of her Being at all times is so taxing. It keeps trying to eat her.

“What’s happening?” Clarissant asks. She props Anthea’s head up on her knees. A good call, and one I hadn’t the nerve to think of in my panic.

The Higher Power is sizzling like a glass of Pepsi (I cannot discern if that is a potion from this world, or…something else. From Over There). “She let some of it escape.” For the briefest of moments, she let the intensity of her emotions slip. Allowed herself respite from the sheer force of feeling she’s been employing.

“It hurts,” Anthea croaks. A cord tightens on her neck.

“It’s eating her,” Clarissant says. She looks at me, eyes wet and pleading. “Peter. Do something!”

I turn my head to one side. The Higher Power has filtered through the cracks of her Being. Clarissant cannot see it. Few know how to see someone else’s sheer health. I suspect I can do it as a matter of remembered-training. And it’s hardly as powerful as it once was, I think.

But I can see within the fullness of her, that the Higher Power generates ambient energy as it tries to wriggle free of the cage she’s built for it. “I can’t,” I mutter.

“She’s going to die,” Clarissant screams. Her throat rattles with rawness. “You have to.”

“If I do I’ll tear her in half! I don’t know how to use the Ambient! I don’t have the skill yet—”

Anthea seizes my wrist, and suddenly I’m sinking down, in my mind’s eye. I’m sinking and into her health. Her spirit? Is that what I’m doing?

No. I can feel the sand mushing under my knees. I can feel the sun heating the back of my neck. I’m kneeling over her.

But my mind’s eye is overcome with her health-sense. My mind makes the necessary adjustments to the Higher Power’s own energy. It has made a tear in the fabric of her soul that she has caged it in. And I am using the Higher Power’s ambient to sew it well it back in its cage. And any excess ambient energy is leftover-threaded into a sewn-up patch.

But it’s not me doing this, I realize. I’m not using my own skill. Anthea is utilizing my skill. Using me as a vessel. Guiding my hands, in a sense.

No, that’s not correct, is it? She’s taken control of my own magic. She is my hands. And all I can do is look on as she uses my body to patch hers up. There is a wrongness to it, and I wonder if this is how the Harrower felt.

When it’s done Anthea bolts up, nearly knocking her skull into Clarissant’s chin. It’s enough of a reminder to Clarissant that she should close her mouth.

Anthea is shining with sweat. Her hair is disheveled and her breath is ragged. Almost as ragged as my own. “I’m sorry,” Anthea says. “I had no choice.”

I hadn’t realized how winded I am until I try to stand. I wipe the drool from my face with the back of my hand. What she did was wrong, but I can’t muster up the energy to be angry at her. I can’t make myself care. “You’re all good,” I tell her. “It’s fine. Don’t worry about it.” You just broke into my brain and made me do something I didn’t know how to do. No big deal.

I wonder if she could use that skill to teach me how to use a sword again. And then I feel dirty for thinking it. Wrong. “We should keep moving,” I tell her. “Keep going.”

So we plod on through the white-hot waste, leaving deep indentations in the sand that I hope whoever is following you won’t be able to track. By nightfall, the heat has faded, and I’m thankful that it has sapped the moisture from my cloak as we sit huddled by a dune that Clarissant assures us will not change for the night.

Clarissant’s rations are running low. And it’s all the same. Dried, stringy I-don’t-know what. Every bite tastes subtly different. It has the texture of jerky and the flavor of broccoli, sometimes. Clarissant claims that the Majesty commissioned these a couple decades ago. Set up some camps to farm on the Ever-Changing Land. It compacts all the food that’s farmed into a brown-green sludge that they can dry to jerky and ship out to Imperium colonies for the cheapest prices.

“Interesting,” I tell her between tearing at mouthfuls of the stuff. It makes an audible ripping sound when I break off a chunk. My ‘Interesting’s punctuate her explanation. But it’s only a formality. I’m only half listening, because Anthea is eyeing me from where she sits shivering in her cloak, hair sweat-plastered to her face and using Clarissant’s shoulder as a headrest.

There’s a wet sorrow in her eyes. I’m not sure if she should feel particularly bad about what she did. It’s not like she had a choice. But then I remember that she can’t allow herself to scale down the intensity of anything she feels—including her regret. Or shame. She knows the sheer violation of what she has done.

She stole my power and what little skill I had and she thrust my mind headlong into the most inward sliver of her Being, where all I could do was watch as she used my power to stitch herself back together.

I felt like I couldn’t move. I couldn’t blink. I was stuck gazing on the fullness of her Being as she used me to sew herself up again.

And despite the sheer Wrong I felt when she did this, I can’t blame her. Was what I did to the Harrower any different? I imagine this must be taboo, but I’d rather she had done it than let the Higher Power consume her. Even if I shrink from her gaze for a few days.

And still Clarissant explains. And still I’m nodding and adding my absent ‘Interesting’s as Anthea bores her apology into my countenance. Does Clarissant know? Can she see this? Can she even fathom it? Does she know of the utter Wrong her two companions have done? But we didn’t have a choice.

We didn’t have a choice.

We didn’t.

Did we?

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16. Lord Ath

“Stay away,” I tell the man in the purple cloak. I adopt my Thrush Knocks stance.

He rips his own blade from his scabbard, all confidence and straight-backed pride. The Swarm hang back, waiting. He grins, baring his teeth. “Or what?”

Clarissant spits another quarrel at him, and I can see him seized on the force of her crossbow and propel it back into her face. She collapses, blood gushing from her nose.

Anthea scrapes Clarissant’s name from her throat and throws herself to her side.

“Alright,” I say. “That’s cool. Keep her safe. I’ll just…shit.” When I turn back his sword is on a path for my skull. My head is still buzzing, but I through the din I can tell he’s performing a Breaking Firewood Maneuver. He’s quick—no flourishes or hesitation. The maneuver’s been honed to a needle’s point.

(Just like Toric taught me.)

I’m less graceful, simply putting a steel bar sideways between Breaking Firewood and my skull. I try to execute a one hundred and eighty degree tear my hilt diagonal toward my left hip. It’s a clumsy Heave-Ho execution that this dude steps back to avoid. I try to angle my sword far enough to catch him, but he slips outside my reach. He smiles, laughs. Twirls his blade as we circle the ice outside the other’s reach. He chuckles, and says, “I expected more from you, Peter. Come on. The blood is rushing and the steel’s ringing. Let’s go, shall we?”

He presses forward, slashing on both sides in a figure eight as I back away. As he gains momentum I pull out of the my downguard and throw the point of my blade into his path.

His lips tighten into an o as he realizes what’s happening and shoved my blade aside, sheering his own steel down the length of my own. I realize something then, with my sword angled awkwardly and my hands almost too-far twisted: even as he fights, this guy has been sapping up the most minute of ambient energies we’ve been generating. He’s mopped up every footstep and blade-crash and tightened grip.

And as he raises his boot parellel to my chest and I see the snarl forming on his face, I realize that this dude is hardly older than I am! Eighteen—nineteen, maybe? Even when I was nineteen the last time around—I’d spent seven years here and that point and I had nowhere near the level of skill and precision it would take to sap up minute energies like that while locked in combat.

Though I suppose I hardly gave him so much of a challenge that he would need to break the kind of concentration he’d need to pull all that ambient into himself.

I realize all of this in the space it takes to think: oh.

And then his boot has collided with my chest and all the ambient he’s been storing up hits me with it. It should have broken my ribs.

It should have.

But.

Anthea has Clarissant on her feet. The blood on her face has crusted over but her nose looks fine. Which I don’t even have time to think about because I realize that Anthea has buffeted wind in between this dude’s foot and my chest, which cushioned his blow. Even if it did send me skimming up to the shoreline with Anthea and Clarissant.

She locks eyes with this guy. He tilts his head and says her name. “Anthea?”

A trickle of blood drools down her nose, and this man’s smile vanishes. “What are you doing?” He looks up at the sky as the clouds part and the air thickens, heat waves pouring down. “Stop. No!

One moment the bog is ice-over. The next the snow and ice has melted and the man is simply consumed by the swamp.

The Swarm watch us from the other side, not moving.

“Come on,” Clarissant helps me to my feet. “We have to go. Now.”

White hot, all-over pain sears me, as my body adjusts from freezing cold to thick, soupy heat. And even though I can hardly bend my fingers as I adjust, and even though my ears are still ringing and the back of my head is still buzzing with an absence of ambient, I retain enough presence of mind when Clarissant says, “Wet your cloaks. Quickly.”

So I throw mine into the melted swamp, and drag it, drenched, out and around me. I’m still shivering as I drape it over my shoulders.

The snow doesn’t melt. How do I describe it? It…crisps? I suppose? It dries to sand as the land changes. But as the heat blazes on as we tear through the sandy waste, I grow to appreciate it.

“Who was that?” I ask Anthea and Clarissant, when we’re far enough away to slow down for a walk.

“That,” Clarissant murmurs, “Was Lord Ath.”

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