2. Nameless, Newly Homed

At length, I was brought to a small oak door, and the Lordess stopped dragging me long enough to knock. She didn’t wait for an answer before opening the door. I could hear someone scratching out a letter at the desk on the other side of the room. I smelled the ink, and the heard the writer’s tapping foot. “Lordess?” the letter-writer asked. She had a woman’s voice. “Is that you?”

Lan and Wil started after me, but before they crossed the threshold, the Lordess shouted, “Stay! Stay right there! I’ll be back in a moment.”

They started to protest, but before they could get a word in, edgewise, she closed the door after me. I could hear them fidgeting, shifting from foot to foot on the other side. Exchanging nervous whispers.

The Lordess dumped on the floor between the letter-writer’s desk and the fire the crackled in the hearth. It bathed me in an orange gloom, and chased the cold from me with stinging pains.

The room inside was cramped. Each wall was smothered in shelf upon shelf of books. The whole place reeked of their yellowed pages.

That was new.

I didn’t like it.

“I told you to tell me who was knocking,” the letter-writer said. I could still hear her scratching out her note. “I said nothing about bringing me whatever wretch they brought with them.

I heard the one who brought me here shuffling her skirts, nervously. “Majesty,” the woman addressed to the letter-writer. “You don’t understand–”

“Lordess,” the Majesty interrupted the woman who had carried me here. “Just tell me who this is.” Every word was quick and resolute. Like an owling biting through bone. “Another child dumped on our doorstep? I’m busy. I thought I told you to–”

“He was nearly a Feral, Majesty,” the Lordess said. “If this one shows as much raw potential as the other– ”

The Majesty inhaled sharply, in surprise. “Is that so?” she mused. Her chair scraped back against the stone floor as she stood. Within two paces she was crouching over me. She was younger than the Lordess, and her long black hair tickled my nose as she bent over to get a better look at me. Her fingers whispered across my cheek. Then she tucked them between two fingers and turned my head. “Pieces of his mind are still tangled in the hound’s dead consciousness,” she muttered. “This one will be a handful. And you have your own duties to attend to, Lordess.”

“You cannot mean to leave him, Majesty!” the Lordess said.

“No,” the Majesty replied. “I do not. But we’ll need to make sure he can wake up before we pay for him. She turned my face to look into her eyes. “It should be a simple matter…” I saw something silver flash in her brown eyes. She was telling me something with that look. She just wasn’t using words. It was a reminder to me. A suggestion of something I was forgetting to do. I felt my mind falling up and into her irises with every silver swirl. “…to remind him he’s alive.”

That’s it. That was the command: Be.

The silver of her eyes dominated my vision, and then seeped past my pupils. It yawned through my veins, as warm as heated milk. I felt my fingers twitching. I flexed my hands, just to remind myself that I could.

And as soon as my hands were mine again, I seized the Majesty’s hand and bit, blood welling into my mouth.

She cursed, and pressed my forehead to the floor as I thrashed. Her hand slipped from my jaw.

I was distantly aware of the watchmen knocking. Calling for information as I kicked, uselessly.

I was clawing at her arm, drawing thin streaks of dead skin with my nails. She was wincing at this as she drew my close. Not close enough to bite, but close enough that I couldn’t turn my head away from her eyes.

The silver flashed in them again. I tried to shut my eyes, but she had anticipated that. Something in her wordless command convinced me that I couldn’t blind.

No. That’s not right. It wasn’t that I didn’t think I could blink. Imagine forgetting the very concept of blinking. The idea of blinking even being something I could do just didn’t occur to me.

I would not appreciate her power until some years later, when I had a proper grasp on how it difficult was to wield the Silver to such totality. Just as I had forgotten what blinking was, the very concept of moving was soon wiped from me. My jaw and head fell back and I slumped, as useless as a ball of dough, into her arms.

The Lordess had her back against the door. Her eyes were wide. “What did you do?”

“What does it look like I did?” she spat. “I had to restrain him.”

The Lordess gave situation a once-over. I was dimly aware that Wil and Lan were shouting and banging on the door. “I don’t think they’re going to go away until we pay them. Should I…?” I heard her draw her long sword about three inches from its sheath. An indication of her meaning.

“Yes,” the Majesty hissed. “But give them a warning, first. No use being uncivilized about this.”

The Lordess nodded once. She bowed and then turned to leave. When her hand was on the doorknob, the Majesty added, “Fetch Val for me on your way back. This boy needs someone to clean the detritus of that hound’s consciousness from him. And be quick about it. I don’t want my construct to fall apart before she gets here.”

I stared for hours at the ceiling, listening to the fire in the hearth. To the Majesty’s ragged breathing. To Lan and Wil’s demands for payments, silenced abruptly by the Lordess’s unsheathing blade.

Lan and Wil made wet sounds, then. Like buckets falling into a well. The silence that came after was disquieting.

“Let’s hope that Val can repair you, little one,” she said. “For your sake, at least.”

I can’t say how long I lay there. But after some silence, my head fell sideways towards the Majesty. I saw she sat, crumpled against the wall. It’s hard to say whether I did this on my own, or if it was merely some chance twitch. Regardless, when she saw, her mouth quirked up into a grin.

“You’d better be worth it, boy.”

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C. M. Perry writer and lifetime sword enthusiast. You can find him on Facebook and Twitter.  If you enjoy his content, you can buy him a coffee through Ko-fi to support his work and help him buy sandwiches.

1. Nameless, Memories

“Get the boy on his feet. We’re selling him at sunrise.”

I held those words in my mind as I lay strewn in the garbage, fighting for consciousness.

I cycled through all the ways I would take my revenge when this was over. Only they had broken the bond I’d forged with my hound that had been strengthening for years as a result of the New Gift. She and I had been throwing our minds into each others’ bodies for as long as I could remember.

So when the watchmen had plunged their daggers into her, I couldn’t extradite myself from her dying consciousness in time.

I imagine I must’ve had a life before then. How else would I have known what they were saying? But if I did those memories elude me.

The bigger man prodded my ribs with the toe of his boot. When I didn’t move, he said, “He’s not in any shape to walk.” He bunched my tunic in his fist, the fabric straining when he hauled me up. I could hear the fat, black flies swirling around my head as he lifted me out of the garbage. My neck craned back as the watchman raised me. He held me out at arms length, dangling there like a dead rat. “You sure he’s alive, Lan?

“O’course I’m sure,” Lan answered. “The kid was bound up in that dog. Probably had the New Gift. Must’ve been seven spells of a shock to sever their connection.”

“How do you know he’s not Feral?” Wil asked. “There’s no use selling him if he is.”

“Check his eyes, then.” Lan said.

Wil draped me over his forearm, and then leaned in close to pry one of my eyes open between two fingers. His breath was hot and stinking of braised flamingo tongues. “They’re gray. He’s fine.”

“See? You worry too much, Wil,” Lan said.

Wil tossed me over his shoulders as if I were a sack of flour. My breath caught on the impact. “So what? We take him with us until our watch ends, then sell him to the Magisterium?”

“And split the profit between us.”

“What about the hound?” Wil asked.

“What about it?” Lan answered. “Leave her. She’ll be a feast for the carrions.”

I struggled to remind my flesh that it wasn’t dead. My hound and I had spent ten years tangled up in my untrained magic. We’d grown up living in each other’s’ skins and minds, existing only from moment to moment. I have few memories of these years. They exist only as a thousand contextless images floating behind my eyes.

Stooping over the collapsed corpse of an emaciated beast, hands plunging towards its hide.

A filmy tongue sliding up my face.

Scratching paws against smooth cobblestones.

Weaving through towering adults smothered in cloaks trimmed with ermine fur.

 

My consciousness had been steeped halfway in her body when she died. I felt the daggers as they breached her skin, and though I was unharmed, my body had gone into shock all the same. I knew I was alive, but my flesh had yet to understand this. So I dangled there, carried by Wil the watchmen, waiting for the paralysis to end.

I was nearly catatonic as I jostled against Wil’s expansive back. I’d just lived through my first Death, but I would not forget those words. They were proof that I could become more myself. Get the boy on his feet. We’re selling him at sunrise. I held them like a precious bauble, sifting through every syllable.

I held my hatred, too. Clutched close my anger and grasped tight to my venoms. These were not good things, but at least they were mine.

* * *

The sun didn’t rise.

Rather, I didn’t see it rise. It was trapped behind bruised, purple storm clouds. But they didn’t let this stop them from selling me. The rain was spilling down by the time their watch was over. Their boots sliced the puddles apart in sheets.

The gates to the Magisterium were banded in burnished bronze that let out a bloody wail as they parted for Wil and Lan. “You see any sentries?” Wil asked.

“Does it matter?” Lan grumbled.

“Well, no but–but who opened the gates, then?”

Lan stopped walking. Wil made it three paces before he stopped and turned around. I imagine Lan was blinking astonishment at him. “Wil,” he said, “It’s the Magisterium. Why would they need sentries to open their gates?”

I’m not sure if Lan had meant that to clear things up. Wil only tightened his grip on me and answer, “Oh. Right.” Absently. I don’t get the sense he’d understood what that meant.

I still jostled against the watchman’s back. I was wet and cold and shivering as I dangled from Wil’s shoulders, unable to see the castle’s architectural wonder. I heard them speak in hushed voices, wondering at the scrollwork chased into the stone. Even as they wound down the path to the front gate, I could hear the muffled wails resounding in their bestiaries. Giant, trumpeting things like nothing else I’d heard in my life.

Wil must’ve heard it, too. “Let’s be quick about this,” he said, and in a moment I was slamming into Wil’s back in wider arcs as his strides stretched even longer.

I heard Lan hammered his fist against the entrance three times. “Open up!” he rasped. “We’re going to catch a chill out here!”

There was no sound. He pounded again. “Open this door!” he shouted.

“Lan,” Wil said. “Try the knocker.”

Lan’s leather gloves squealed over the brass ring set into the door. He rammed it down so hard that I thought I heard the echo on the other side. Then the muffled sound of scuttling boots. A piece of me had wanted to panic, but I was too busy fumbling for my hound’s nonexistent consciousness. My senses grasped at the world uncertainly.

The door shrieked open. Wil and Lan stared at the figure in the entryway. Nobody spoke. Then Lan realized she’d been waiting for him to speak. “Lordess,” he addressed her, “We–we heard the Magisterium accepts children with the New Gift?” He had meant it like a statement, but his voice raised uncertainly toward the end.

“Yes,” the Lordess said.  

Another beat of silence passed before Lan realized she didn’t have anything more to say. He elbowed his partner. “Show her, Wil.”

Wil dumped me carelessly onto the floor, face up. Arrows of rain fell onto my face.

The woman frowning over me had deep-set wrinkles on her brow. She had a long blade sheathed in a leather scabbard hanging at her belt. She rearranged her skirts so that she could crouch over me. She looked like a collapsing tower as she knelt, knees popping. “Where did you find him?”

“On the street,” Lan answered. “He was connected to a hound. Only the New Gift could do something like that.”

I wanted to rage and scream. I strained to bite the nearest scrap of flesh and run. But my limbs would not obey me. Her callused hand scraped across my cheek. “How do you know that?” she asked.

“He was close to Feral when we found him. He’d stolen rations off a nearby merchant’s cart.”

“The hound,” the woman said. “Where is it now?”

“Dead,” Lan answered, frowning. “That shouldn’t matter, though.” There was an angry edge to his voice. “The Magisterium has no use for dogs.”

The woman’s eyebrows travelled up into her bangs. “Our needs are not known to the likes of you,” she said. She lifted me up enough to get a good grip on me before she dragged me through the threshold. Her fingers dug into my armpits as she hauled. Breathless, she said to the watchmen, “Are you coming? I assume you’re wanting compensation!”

They exchanged a look, and scurried inside. The two trailed behind me as I was dragged through dim corridors lit with crystal chandeliers, and reinforced with flying buttresses. They seemed to shrink from the fear of their own echoes as they travelled with me into the depths of the Magisterium.

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C. M. Perry writer and lifetime sword enthusiast. You can find him on Facebook and Twitter.  If you enjoy his content, you can buy him a coffee through Ko-fi to support his work and help him buy sandwiches.

How to Write an Arthurian Urban Fantasy in 800 Words or Less

THE KID WHO WOULD BE KING
Pictured: Louis Ashbourne Serkis (Alex) Hugging Patrick Stewart (Merlin) in the upcoming film, The Kid Who Would Be King (2019). To be fair, that would be my reaction if I got to hug Patrick Stewart.

Happy 2019, folks!

I’m doing something different this year. As some of you may be aware, I wrote 100K words of fiction over the past two months, and learned the value of planning that kind of stuff out. I’ve been a fairly prolific writer since Middle School, and I’m always looking to improve myself.

And after doing some thinking, I’ve decided that this year I’d like to help others get more prolific. To that end, I’m going to be walking you through my process to generate new ideas. Feel free to use any of them. If they work for you, great! If not, there will be another one up on Wednesday!

I’m here, I’ve got my morning coffee, and I’m ready to come up with some ideas. One problem: where do we start?

Well, I’d like to start today with just a concept. I was recently directed towards the trailer for an upcoming film: The Kid Who Would Be King. And while the trailer referencing Night at the Museum and Percy Jackson and the Olympians doesn’t reassure me about that film’s quality, I do like the central conceit: a child from the modern day as a neo-King Arthur.

Side note: neo-King sounds like a really cool title. Someone write a book with that title, stat.

So what can we do with this?

Well we can tweak it a bit to make it our own for a start. (Because as we all know, no writer has ever stolen an idea from another writer….right?)

We can start by aging up the character a bit. It’s one thing for a child actor to portray our neo-King (Queen?). It’s quite another to live in that character’s head. And I can remember being sixteen or seventeen better than I can anything from Middle School.

But hey, if it worked for Harry Potter, I suppose you can make your character younger if you think you can pull it off.

Next, I want to extrapolate on that family theme we see here and there in the trailer. Can we pull from the Da Vinci Code and weave an Arthurian bloodline into this story? Can we have a Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Pendragon? Family has always been an important theme in Arthurian literature. Almost all the knights are somewhat related. There are few among the ranks of the Round Table who can’t also find a cousin or two amongst them. How can we reflect that.

Hell, we’ve got enough conceptual material already for a short story: what does Thanksgiving dinner look like at the House of Pendragon?

How many other knights and/or characters from Arthurian literature survived to the modern day? How messy does that Thanksgiving dinner get? Could that be our opening scene–or somewhere close to the opening. George R. R. Martin began his story with a King dropping by his main characters’ home for a feast. Would we be able to pull off the YA equivalent of that?

I imagine it must be YA. How can draw attention to this as a family drama by-way-of-fantasy that hasn’t been done before? What can we say with this story that hasn’t been said before? The YA genre is infamous for its portrayal of hapless adults. From Gilderoy Lockhart to the districts in the Hunger Games, it’s often teens who take center stage.

Can we subvert this with this story? How long has our main character known about their heritage? Are they next door neighbors with the ancestors of Morgana Le Fay? Or perhaps there are descendants of some more obscure Arthurian villain like King Vortigern or the giant Ysbaddaden?

And finally, how do we approach our villains? For my money, too much modern Arthurian media paints characters like Morgana and other villains with too little sympathy. I’m not a fan of easy answers, and while imagery of skeletons on horseback riding into battle absolutely rocks, it may not make for the most compelling story. It’s an easy way out. How can we make our villains feed into the nature of the familial aspect of this story?

Which isn’t to say you can’t have imagery of skeletons on horseback and moral complexity. In fact you should do that. You should absolutely do that.

What do you think? Am I copying too much from the trailer? Have I made it sufficiently original? Have you written anything Arthurian? Got any ideas from this article? Let me know in the comments below!

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C. M. Perry writer and lifetime sword enthusiast. You can find him on Facebook and Twitter.  If you enjoy his content, you can buy him a coffee through Ko-fi to support his work and help him buy sandwiches.

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!

 

 

 

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26. Aliantha

It is my own screams that wake me up. They’re reverberating through the darkness. I realize I’m in the mouth of a cave. I can hear condensation dripping from stalactites somewhere behind me.

I’m still on Clarissant’s sled. My chest is still sore and throbbing. I can see Clarissant stir from beneath thick fur blankets in which she’s swaddled herself and Anthea.

“Took you long enough,” she murmured.

“Is Anthea awake?” I ask.

“You’re welcome,” she groans, massaging her temples. “I dragged you on that sled for two goddamn weeks, King in the Mountain.”

“Sorry,” I say. And then: “Thank you.”

“Anthea won’t be waking up anytime soon. When she realized what happened. It took her a day to coax the Higher Power to obey her. She threatened to keep it caged up forever with nothing to do if it wouldn’t heal you.” Her mouth splits into a grin. “That thing really doesn’t like healing you. I don’t think it even healed you all the way. I had to stitch you up after.”

“Why couldn’t it heal me? Do you know?”

“Anthea said there’s a difference between a small nasal fracture and…well, being gored like that. It was a deep cut. And the amount of power it would have taken to heal you all the way could have killed her. That’s what she told me, leastways. A few days after that she figured out why you were so unresponsive. She told me she could fix it if she…uhm…unthreaded your stitching on her cage? Whatever that means. And that? That hurt her.”

I hurt her, is what she isn’t saying.

“Having to heal you like that, and then having to free you using—whatever she did—it made her Higher Power angry, I think. She didn’t stay conscious for long. I’ve spent the past week carrying both of you on that sled.”

“I’m sorry.” I say. And not knowing what else I can say I apologize again. “I never intended to be that much of a burden.”

“You’re only mostly a burden.” It’s difficult to tell if Clarissant is teasing. “It’s not like I can fault you for what happened. You didn’t cause it. At least as far as I can figure.” She worms out from under the blanket and stretches. I can hear her entire back crack as she bends over. She’s lost a bit of weight. She’s got some pudge to her but after carrying two bodies through the Ever-Changing Land looks like it was…grueling on her.

(Distantly, I can think of a Father who probably would’ve chalked this up to a good thing. But seeing the hollowness that hangs in her eyes, I’m not sure if it was worth it.)

“Why won’t Anthea wake up?” I ask. “Where are we?”

“In a stillzone. This is a cave. We’re on the outskirts of Morten. We’re halfway to Morgad. You excited?”

She doesn’t sound very excited herself. In fact I tell her so.

“Because of Anthea,” she says. “I don’t know how to wake her up. I think she needs medicine. I’ve been force feeding the two of you for weeks but Anthea—her Higher Power isn’t happy with how she’s used it. I think that’s why she’s unconscious. The severity of what she’s making herself feel to cage it is….I can’t even start to think about it. I just…I have to stay calm. I’ve been staying calm. If I start to lose that, everything unthreads.”

“I think I get it,” I tell her. I don’t let her see the panic behind my eyes, and try to affect a voice as placid as hers is. “Does Morten have any medicine for that?”

“I’ve overheard geomist talk about it in theory,” Clarissant tells me. “Do you know what aliantha is?”

“It rings a bell.”

“A special combination of berries and brush. Crush them into a paste and mix it in water and it’s said it can help you close up open wounds three days quicker per daily dose. I’ve heard that it has something to do with the amount of exposure they get to the Ever-Changing Land, but the science there is—”

“Clarissant.”

“…Right. Anyway. I hear Imperial Wizards drink it to settle their Higher Powers.”

I remember Valharric. “They do.” I say.

Her mouth quirks downward. “How do you know that?” I ask.

“There’s a reason we’re not in Morten right now. It’s overrun with Swarm. And Imperial Sorcerers.”

My nails dig into the palm of my hand. I have to help. I have to. “I can get past them.”

“Will Lord Ath know you’re there?”

I steady myself on the side of the cave. It is a precautionary measure. “He won’t,” I tell Clarissant. “I don’t know how I know, but he won’t.”

“What do you mean you don’t know—”

“It’s a gut feeling!” I rasp. “If he knew I’d be in Strand, do you think he would have tried that convoluted trick with that merchant? He gets visions of me at night. And it’s always about what I’m did right until he fell asleep.”

“That means he’ll know we’re here by tomorrow morning.”

“Yes,” I tell her. “So I’ll need to be back by nightfall. Be ready to move at a moment’s notice.”

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25. Princes and Imperial Sorcerers

I do not immediately wake up.

I see Lord Ath first. I’m not sure how long I must’ve been unconscious. But clearly some time has passed between the last time I saw Ath and where he seems to be now. Maybe the ability to pull that much ambient into you on instinct quickened his healing. But it looks like he’s been rescued by Swarm and is traveling—somewhere. He’s in some city. Some stillzone. I can sense he’s thinking about me. He knows I’m awake. And he knows that I know it.

Lord Ath winds down the road of this village, flanked on either side by buildings molded from cooled obsidian, coaxed into a curve at the edge of the roof, hooked so that wraith-lanterns can hang there, swaying in the wind.

He stops outside one of these buildings. He can hear music and revelry within. An inn. But the gate doesn’t open by the roadside. Lord Ath enters down an alleyway, and tries the door.

Locked. But then he notices a bell perched above him, and he raps it three times.

Someone appears at the door, opening a wicket in it. Pale blue eyes peer through. “Name and business?” the man says.

Lord Ath says nothing, but he lets some ambient dribble out of him and pushes it into a wraith-lantern that hangs overhead. Feeding the blue flame so that it grows brighter and the man can get a better look at him. “Oh,” the man breathes. And the wicket slams shut. Muffled, Ath can hear locks turning, slamming back, and the door groans wide. “Prince Hallis,” the innkeep says, sketching a bow. “Come in! Come, come.”

Ath sweeps inside the inn.

“What can I get for you, your Grace? It’s quite an honor to be serving a member of the Royal House of Ath. I—”

“Take me to Valharric.”

The color drains from the innkeep’s cheeks. He mops at his brow with his sleeve. “V-Valharric?” He exhales, mustaches fluttering.

“Let’s not play this game. I’m sure he told you to inform me he wasn’t here. I’m sure you’d remember him, though. Red cloak?” Ath coaxes. “Perpetual scowl? His doublet bears that gaudy sigil—you know the one, yes? His House of Orm’s chained giant in the palm of the Imperial Sorcerer’s own sigil? The red claw with the splayed fingers? Do you know where he is?”

“I-I-I-I,” the innkeep stutters. “I am a leal servant of the Majesty, your Grace.”

Ath chuckles. “That’s good of you, but you have seen him, yes?”

The innkeep squeaks, dabbing at his forehead. And as he opens his mouth a gruff voice calls from behind, “Your Grace!”

Ath whirls, purple cloak fluttering, and sees the gray-haired, wrinkled old man he’s looking for, with the exact scowl he’d described. “My Lord of Orm! Good of you to join me.”

“Ruined Earth, you just don’t give up, do you, boy? Alright them, come with me.” And he trudges into a back room with Ath on his heels.

Wraith-lanterns cast their blue glow over the room. It’s bare and near disuse, save for a bed that it looks like Valharric has spent the past few nights compression under that massive weight, and a desk with a plucked quill and a dried-up inkwell. “You smell like shit, Hallis.” Valharric says, when they’re alone. “What happened to you.”

“I almost had him, Lord Valharric,” Ath’s jaw tightens. “I almost had One Eye!”

Valharric sits on the bed, which squeals under his weight. “And yet here you are,” he casts his arms to either side. “Empty handed.”

“I came to you for help, Lord Orm.” Ath says.

“So respectful now, aren’t we?” Valharric teases. “What’s the matter? Can’t capture one small outpost in the middle of nowhere without my help?”

“They’ve been dealt with,” Lord Ath protests. “They’ll not trouble us any further.”

“Dealt with?” Valharric echoes. And he fills the silence, and the room, with the measured slowness of his rising. Ath is looking up at him. “Do you think that reports haven’t made their way back to me yet? Me? I’m an Imperial Sorcerer, your Grace. These things have made themselves known to me.”

Valharric’s slap sends Lord Ath buckling to the floor. He rises to one knee, rubbing the away sting whose echo I feel on my face. “You call what you did dealing with it?” Valharric rasps. “What were you thinking? Ruined Earth, Hallis, get up—” he hoists Lord Ath into the air, heels knocking where they dangle. “Do you have any idea what you’ve done to the Imperium? Your Father assigns you the most nepotistic task a Prince can do, and you can’t even do that right!” He releases Ath, who tugs on his doublet, and takes a cautionary step away from Valharric. He opens his mouth, but Valharric cuts him off before he can speak. “Think carefully about your next words, Hallis, before you speak them.”

Lord Ath sputters for a moment, and then: “He’s going to Morgad. The King in the Mountain is going to Morgad.”

Fuck.

The tension eases from Valharric’s body, and he allows himself a grin. “Is he now? That’s a long way, your Grace. He could be going anywhere by now. How do you know he plans to meet with the rebels? How would he know that Morgad has rebels?”

“I just—” I can sense in him his thoughts of me. And panic. He doesn’t want to say what’s happened. “I know,” he decides. “If news about Strathbury can make it all the way to you within the span of a few days, you think Strathbury didn’t hear about what happened to us in Morgad? They killed my coz, Valharric! That’s the sort of thing they make stories about, and stories travel faster than news.”

Valharric laughs. “Fair enough,” he tells Ath. “Anything else?”

Lord Ath swallows saliva. “The girl with the Higher Power,” he says. “She’s still alive.”

“Impossible,” Valharric blurts. “A peasant girl in the middle of nowhere, with no training in the usage of ambient energy?” He’s shaking. Trembling. His hand clutches his stomach, and he staggers back for a moment.

“L-Lord Orm?” Ath asks.

“Shut up,” his voice quavers. His movements are awkward, as if he is not fully in control of his body. His hands shake as he rips desk-drawers free and uncorks a bottle of brackish green fluid with crushed red something floating in it. He tilts his head and knocks is down his throat and then drags the back of his hand across his lips. He settles. Breathes. There’s a glint in his eye now as he regards Lord Ath. “Be careful with such new, boy. You wouldn’t want to risk upsetting my Higher Power, would you?”

Factions all the way down.

“I saw her, Valharric. I saw what she did. It’s the same as what you do, just…cruder. She has a remarkable force of will.”

“Admirable enough, I suppose,” Valharric muses. “But force of will only gets you so far with a Higher Power stuffed inside you.”

“I know.”

Valharric shoots Ath a glare. “Don’t say you know, Hallis. You don’t. Once you have a Higher Power in you, then you get to talk like that. But I wouldn’t hold my breath. Until then—” he plods over to the Prince, boots thundering with every step. “Is there anything else you’d like me to know?” He tilts his head. The blue light of the wraith-lantern catches his pupil, makes it twinkle. “You sure you don’t know how you managed to discern that Peter’s going to Morgad?”

“I don’t know how I know,” Lord Ath spits, spittle spraying. “I just—”

Valharric pressed a scratchy finger over Ath’s lips. “Sssh. Come closer.”

Reluctantly, Ath obeys, and Valharric seizes either side of his head, and I can see a familiar glow in the infinitesimal of his Being. “Be silent now, your Grace. We do not know who may be watching.”

The world goes white with heat and pain.

And I wake up screaming.

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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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