Chapter 42: Shadow of the SpireMay 1, 2020
Her lungs burned and her boots skidded across the rain-slick cobblestones as Vara turned a corner, nearly colliding with a covered cart that pulled in front of her. The driver shouted something in protest, but she was already shoving past him, sprinting deeper into the twisted streets of Argenport.
Vara was running for her life and she didn’t know why.
She remembered standing before the Throne, and the bright light that erupted from the ancient stone as she claimed it and confronted the nightmare within. But there were flashes of other memories too, as she ran—memories that were not her own. Her mother bound in heavy iron chains, and a laugh that sounded almost familiar, but dripped with a bitter cruelty.
Eilyn is at home in the Spire, and father is gone, delving into the secrets of the Shadows and beyond, Vara told herself. These can’t be my memories. So why do I keep seeing them? She heard the driver call out again—a block behind her now—and then there was a crash, and the splintering of wood. Someone was catching up to her. Overhead, the storm clouds darkened, and Vara felt her heart pounding in her ears.
“Run, child!” someone had told her, their voice urgent, desperate.
Or had they? Eremot’s psychic assault had torn open up old wounds; childhood terrors and the fears of the young. But Vara had watched Eremot burn. Behind her, in the distance, a horse screamed, and Vara’s pulse redoubled. She couldn’t stop to think, not here, not while they were after her. But who!? Another memory cut across her mind as Vara ran: the shriek of tortured metal and the glint of silver blades… But was the thought hers, or someone else’s?
Worse yet, she was lost. Lost in Argenport She had been born here, and Caiphus and Eilyn had taken her along when they moved through the city. As a girl, Vara had explored Argenport herself, dogged by her mother’s personal guard. But things were… different here. A road that turned right now snaked left, and the once-clean gutters were choked with mud and refuse. A large marble monument had been replaced by a market square full of stalls peddling jagged-looking weapons and armor. And overhead, the Spire—her home—was… wrong. It had always dominated Argenport’s skyline, but now it loomed, leaning forward with a menace Vara had never felt before.
“I don’t know where I am,” she cursed, panic welling in her chest. In the distance, she could hear the short blast of a hunting horn, and shadows drifted through the clouds above her. This looks like home, but it isn’t. It can’t be.
Twenty minutes, and Vara cautiously emerged from the congested market she had passed earlier. She had thrown her pursuers—whoever they might be—by circling back and weaving her way through the crowd. The merchants at their stalls, and the throngs of customers around them had seemed… larger, somehow. Taller. But their suspicious glares and pressing whispers were better than whoever, whatever had been chasing her.
Vara glanced up and down the dirty street. She had heard the clank of armored boots thunder past, and voices pitched low in hurried discussion, but nothing else. Risking a peek could have got her caught. I need answers… Turning, Vara looked up at the twisted silhouette of the Spire, and one hand fell to her empty belt. She remembered holding a sword, the weight of it in her hands as the nightmare had surged towards her. But she didn’t have it now. Had she lost it?
You are a child, stumbling through the dark. Eremot had said, its voice like a rotten breeze. Too naive to see the horror around you. Her ribs burned. Was that from Eremot’s claws, or her sudden flight? Lost in worried thought, Vara turned onto a side street and nearly collided with a pair of soldiers out on patrol.
Relieved, Vara said, “You two, report. What’s been going on?”
The soldiers’ mouths dropped open. The man on the right looked down at Vara, then over to his companion. This isn’t right, a part of Vara’s mind hissed. They should recognize you. They should bow to you.
“Well isn’t this our lucky day,” the infantryman chuckled. With a flick of his arm, the metal staff he carried sparked and crackled.
“Little girl thinks she owns the place,” his partner sneered, drawing a notched longsword. “Not anymore.”
Anger cut through the mounting confusion. “Excuse me?”
“Let’s take her to the king. It’ll be cushy promotions for the both of us,” the first said, and jabbed the sparking end of his staff at her.
King? Vara thought as she backpedaled. But before she could open her mouth, the second guard came at her. Without her sword, she had to retreat, her aching feet stumbling over the uneven cobblestones. The man’s second swing drew a burning line across one arm, and Vara swallowed a shout of pain. Enough of this. I’m lost, not helpless. And I’m not going anywhere with them.
Taking another step back, she rolled her wrist in a quick gesture. Nothing happened. The man with sword strode forward, and Vara barely ducked beneath another swing as she made the same movement again. This time, a dark mist did rise from the cobbles, but instead of the hissing cloud Vara had expected, it was a thin, wispy stream that quickly faded. What is happening?
“Cute trick,” the guard snorted. Out of options, Vara did the one thing she hoped he wouldn’t expect: she charged. Before he could bring his blade down, she slammed a shoulder into his breastplate. It hurt like hell, but it knocked him off-balance. Vara followed it by stomping on his foot, putting her entire bodyweight into the motion. She felt something crack, and the man screamed, shoving her backwards.
Vara hit the ground hard, something small and heavy clutched in her left hand. Struggling to catch her breath, she pushed herself to her feet and heard the soldier with the sword snarl, “Go get help.” The other man nodded and turned to leave, and Vara hurled her right hand forward. She had intended to stop him in his tracks, but again, nothing happened. Something is wrong. She had always been adept at magic, even before her aunt's tutelage. No time to worry now… she thought as the remaining guard turned his attention back to her.
“You’ll be in chains by nightfall,” he spat, voice full of hate. Vara’s eyes narrowed. Her lungs were burning, and her arms and legs ached with bruises, scrapes, and still-bleeding cuts. But he’s slowing down too. Smiling slightly, she raised her left hand to show what she had taken: a small, iron knife from the soldier’s belt.
“You little-!” the soldier cursed, stepping off the curb and into the street, his sword held low in a now-cautious guard. Vara knew she couldn’t outrun him. If she wanted time to flee, to disappear into the alleys and dark corners of this city, she had to stop him or slow him down. The soldier moved first, feinting to her right and then whipping his sword around in a flat arc. Vara raised the knife to block it, but he was tall, much taller than her, and the blow was strong. Her arm went numb from the force, and Vara barely sidestepped the next swing as the man brought the sword down in a two-handed chop. Sparks flew as metal struck stone, and Vara darted inside the man’s reach. He reacted quickly, but the knife still cut deep into one bicep as he jerked away.
Vara stayed with him, kicking at his injured foot as he tried to back up. The man stumbled into her, snarling in pain. With a grunt, he backhanded Vara with a gauntleted fist, and she felt her legs give out, her vision blurring. As she fell forward, she reached out and buried the knife in the soldier’s thigh. The man screamed, pitching forward, and Vara narrowly rolled out of the way as he fell, cracking his head on the ground as he landed.
As the soldier hit the ground next to Vara, the clang of his armor sounded just like… just like the marshal. When her uncle had sicced Crownwatch and bounty hunters alike on her trail. The memory hit her low in the gut. Hot sand, fear and anger bitter in her mouth, and Azindel's soothing voice behind her. This wasn’t just similar, it felt identical. Worse, it felt real.
When she had claimed the Throne, she had seen flashes of other landscapes. Other worlds, like Xulta? She had used the Throne’s power, wielding it to defeat Eremot and its whispers. Like Caiphus had with Traver before her. And he had been taken… somewhere new.
Ears ringing, Vara tried to stand, and caught her reflection in the back of the soldier’s burnished armor. She froze. The face staring back at her was not her own. Or rather… Vara raised a bloody hand, and watched the young girl in the reflection do the same.
She knew that face. It was hers… but from a lifetime ago. I must be what, ten, maybe twelve years old?
A chill ran through Vara’s veins as she recalled Eremot’s final words. She had thought them a hollow threat at the time, but now, as she looked down at herself, they felt like a curse.
Fear will haunt your every step!
Somewhere above her, something winged and metallic shrieked through the storm clouds. And behind her, down the warped, unfamiliar street, she heard heavy footfalls of pursuit.
“This isn’t my world,” Vara breathed, her voice was higher pitched, and shaking. “This is my nightmare.”
Thunder rolled across the darkening sky overhead. As the sound rang in her ears, it sounded oddly like laughter.
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