Miriam still felt the pain of her injuries, but she no longer respected it. Her lightning scars matched the ice crystals forming on her cape, and they itched like hell whenever the winds of Ichor Mountain blew under her shirt. Her legs ached but it was no longer from The Hero’s lightning; The soreness felt frozen into her, like a fish trapped in a icy pond. The things that kept her going were intangible, fuel in her core to make up for the lack of strength in her body.
She’d come as prepared as she could be but her thin coat, perfect for mild Delphi winters, whipped around in the snow as if it would tear itself off her body and fly the way she longed to.
Her broom would be dashed to pieces on the rocks if she tried to fly. Probably take her skull with it. But strangely, horrifyingly, the temptation was still there, to take up into the sky, get the full view of the mountain…
Find her only friend.
That idiot bard likely didn’t have the sense to prepare for the weather, even as tokenly as Miriam had. They’d likely just marched out of the temple with nothing but their caplet and determination not to let everyone down. Langtree had no mountains, and the Bard, though spry, was hardly an athlete. Miriam’s cynical heart beat with a drumming agony, a simple rhythm of twos: They’re dead. They’re dead. They’re dead.
...And it’s your fault.
She was trying to protect herself in that moment when she told the Bard to go on without her, but she regretted it before they were even out of her sight. She could lie to herself. She did lie to herself for quite a long time: she was too hurt, too tired, her grandmother needed her, she couldn’t come with them for these reasons and a million more. Part of her wanted the Bard to resent her, be mad, march off to the nexus point without turning back.
For as much as that thought tightened her chest, what actually happened burned in her throat like smoke.
“You’re special, Miriam,” and a hug as tight and caring as she’d ever received from anyone. And they’d meant it, every word. So had she when she called them gross. That Bard didn’t even have the decency to be ashamed of how overwhelmingly sentimental they were, as if they didn’t know what it did to her.
Things were falling apart, but it became more alarming when they stopped falling apart. Flying to Delphi gave Miriam a startling picture of how bad things really were: the Wind Overseer’s castle loomed over the land, painted into the sky like a page in a storybook, vivid, shining, and completely unreal, part of the world’s dying dream perhaps.
And Miriam hated it. Sitting in bed gave her very little else to do but think and seethe and dig up the thoughts and emotions she’d spent so long burying, and every time her grandmother asked her about her adventure, only stories about the Bard flowed out.
“It sounds like the two of you have had an amazing adventure!” The gravity of the situation seemed to simply slide off Saphy like a greased cauldron.
“More like I was a tagalong on their adventure,” Miriam muttered, bare feet flat on the floor and ready to test the strength in her legs. She was sore in every sense, but all the questing she wasn’t doing now made her itch worse than the scars. Saphy only hummed, stirring a potion, which made Miriam feel ignored. “Why did you send the Bard with me anyway? Even if I could have done it without someone, why them?”
Sapphy didn’t even look up from her pot, but Miriam could have sworn she smiled, as if she was keeping a secret from her. “What do you suppose they’re doing now, dear?”
Miriam grunted and rubbed her eye with her palm. “Climbing Ichor Mountain,” she muttered, “Getting to the next Overseer castle, probably.”
“Oh?” Saphy tapped her wooden spoon against the iron lip. “Climbing? Didn’t you say they were being flown by a witch?”
Miriam snorted, pulling on her cape. “Hardly. I researched the mountain while I was in Mohambui. You couldn’t fly more than a quarter-mile up without losing control. Bard is definitely climbing.”
“And why is that?”
“Wind. It’d shred your bristles. And it basically never stops snowing. Visibility...isn’t great either. And the caves are...well, basically ice crystals that cave in when the weight shifts even a little and...and...” Oh.
‘And I basically left them to die up there.’
The monks at Heart of Eya Temple had been nice to her even though she barged in uninvited, but they were really not much help. The Bard had left to climb the mountain five days ago and she arrived three days ago. No, they didn’t take any food or warm clothes (of course they hadn’t). No, they hadn’t really mentioned where exactly they were going (of course they hadn’t). Oh, and there was a monster stalking any travelers foolish enough to climb the mountain. ( Of course there was ).
Two days felt like an insurmountable head start. Five days with no news felt like an eternity. Eya ending the universe felt cruel enough, how much worse could it be if she took a little Bard and also ended Miriam’s? The last thing her grandmother said to her echoed in her head as she pulled open the massive temple doors:
“Dear, please have faith in your friend!”
To which Miriam responded.
“I...do. I actually do. What I don’t have faith in is me.”
None of these thoughts were with her as she climbed up the mountain. There was no room for being outside the moment. The snow made the ground treacherous and skittish under her feet. Her boots were inadequate; slopping snow inside them with her clumsy steps had turned tingling to pain. Her eyes watered from the wind, and froze her tears to her cheeks.
She could only call out to her friend in the moments where her throat was warm enough. “Bard!”
There was no guarantee they could hear her over the howl of the wind. “If you’re dead I’m coming back in the next world to kill you!”
This was stupid. Stupid on both their parts. She shouldn’t have left, they shouldn’t have tried to make this journey by themself with no equipment. She should have waited where she knew they’d be going after this: the Dream Overseer’s castle. They shouldn’t have made her care about them. She should go back to the temple and fly to Langtree and just wait and not lose her toes to frostbite-
A carefully piled mound of snow gave way under her foot, and she toppled forward, narrowly avoiding bashing her nose on a stone. She thought she groaned, but the sound kept going after her throat stopped vibrating. It wasn’t her, it was a guttural, animal noise that seemed to shake the earth itself until it gave way to a howl that pierced her more surely than any heroic sword. It blurred her vision.
The beast. There was no way the Bard was safe tonight. The fall had jarred some ignored pain lose in her hip, and she only managed to turn herself onto her back before tears -tears from a very different source than the wind- threatened to spill from her eyes.
“Nasty fall there, Pilgrim. Want some help?”
Miriam trained her blurred eyes on the figure standing over her, but she didn’t understand it at first. A big purple face stared down at her, permanent smile carved into the wood. He extended a rough and calloused hand to her.
“...No.” Miriam pulled herself to a sitting position, testing everything for what felt like the thousandth time. She’d just scratched herself on a branch when she went down, the stinging in her hip was going away already. Or she was losing feeling in her limbs. She could work with either.
The masked stranger simply shrugged and pulled his hand back under his garish poncho. The fabric fluttered like the prayer flags hanging at the mountain’s base.
“You aren’t much for dance. I can tell. Or maybe you are, but it takes something special to bring it out. That’s fine. We all find our inner freedom at a different pace.”
“What,” Miriam brushed snow away with her feet to find purchase on any ground she could.
“You’re looking for something, but I don’t think you’ll find what you think you will. Adventures are less about what we find than what they mean. And they only mean what we make them mean, you know?”
Miriam pulled herself up to look him in the face (well, “face”) instead of his weird fiesta-fringed legs. “I don’t have time for this. Have you seen a bard go by or haven’t you?”
The masked man stood as if the wind blew around him rather than against him, as if he was an abandoned statue of some forgotten guide in a vanished ghost town. Then slowly, deliberately, he raised a finger into the air. Miriam followed it with her eyes.
“A bird in a tree?! That’s all you had to-”
The masked man was gone. Miriam could have sworn she heard a faint laughter in the air.
She looked again. The bird was staring at her.
“I don’t suppose you’ve seen a singer on this mountain?”
The bird ruffled its feathers, and hopped to its feet, calling and crying. The next sound to rise above the wind was a fluttering of wings.
Of course. Of course the Bard had befriended an entire flock of eagles. Of course.
The cave was the same. The troll knew who she was talking about immediately and respectfully stepped aside. The bugs that scattered beneath her feet at first then barricaded one of the cave exits until they could successfully communicate the words “Sing,” “No,” and “Step.” She could see where the rocks had been moved to help the Bard on their way. A thought dredged itself out of the bit of her brain she hated the most: Even bugs are better friends than me.
The cave’s crystal walls reminded Miriam of when she was seven years old and the traveling carnival came to Delphi. They’d set up a house of mirrors in the center, and she remembered bumping through it until she realized, all on her own, that she could keep her hand against the wall to find her way out. She’d been proud of that, even as she looked at her own reflection from all sides and wondered when she would like what she saw. Following the Bard’s obvious handiwork worked much the same way, and she kept her eyes ahead because looking any other direction brought her face-to-face with herself, someone whose company Miriam had become tired of long ago, a fact she’d been content to ignore until that chance encounter with a small, shrill...squawk-merchant.
The Bard’s handiwork was present all over the mountain. The wind was somehow even colder and harsher outside the cave, but the flying seals that called it home didn’t seem to have a problem staying aloft. They gave her only sidelong glances until she sighed and struck a singing pose.
The seals recognized it immediately. Of course they did. One seal in particular, in a fit of excitement, had practically tried to pull Miriam up by the scruff of her neck before it’s energy gave out. It was undernourished and sickly and very likely to be the one Bard had taken up the mountain. Miriam felt like she was figuring out their methods by this point.
Flying over the revines was slightly terrifying for Miriam when she wasn’t in control. She gripped her broom as if it were a safety harness, even though she knew she’d just be tossed into the side of the mountain if she tried to use it.
Fear was somehow less easy to defy than pain. Miriam had never had much of a relationship with pain. Being a witch meant brewing up a healing potion for everything from skinned knees to broken bones. Physical hurt never stuck around for very long. Ingredients for such potions had become too scarce at the end of the world to be viable and Miriam found gritting her teeth and bearing the sting a more appealing option than staying in bed until the world ended. OIr until the Earthsong was sung, failed to work, and the world also ended.
Fear, on the other hand, was what had drove Miriam to bed in the first place. Fear had caused her to abandon the Bard. Fear had been entrenched in her heart for her entire childhood, until the day she realized her parents were never coming back. She knew fear. She knew that it could curdle into sorrow. And she knew just what she was afraid of now. Hopefully she’d realized it before it was too late to make up for her mistake...
“We’re outsiders together!”
“I’m glad that we’re friends!”
“I’m really gonna miss you, Miriam...”
That cave wasn’t natural. It looked like something had taken a bite out of the mountain or...no, more like burst out of it like an egg. Obviously the work of an Overseer, but Miriam still couldn’t make heads or tails of it. Had it come through the rock? Or caused a cave-in? There was nowhere else to go. And if the Bard had encountered the Overseer, how likely was it to respond to a song -barely audible over the wind, no less- before ripping their little head off like cork in a bottle? She just didn’t know anymore.
It was hard to breathe for more reasons than the mountain gale. Miriam couldn’t clear the lump in her throat and if she started crying, whatever came out of her nose was going to freeze solid, especially with the breeze coming out of the hole-
...A breeze. That could only be possible if-
Miriam jumped off the seal and circled the hole carefully. Surviving one fall made her cautious about taking any more. She peered down into the cavern from every angle until she saw it: the crystals had been shifted like the ones before, creating an opening.
There was an opening, a tiny chance for the Bard to not have been crushed to death in a cave-in. Miriam didn’t realize how cold her knees were until she looked down and found she was kneeling in the snow. Her eyes were wide open, but all she could see for a long minute was her own frozen breath in the air.
The howl again. A distant crackle of lightning cut through the fuzz in her eyes.
“Take me there!” she yelled, grabbing the seal’s flipper. But it pulled away from her, fleeing the way they came and leaving Miriam behind. She watched it go, blowing into her hands to warm them until the fire in her belly could do it for her. Fear was a parasite, but anger was hers to burn.
Her hands were so chapped that just holding the broom felt like a million splinters in her fingers. Her common sense screamed that this would end with her exploded across the mountain like an overripe tomato, but she wasn’t listening to that voice anymore. She parked herself on the ragged rim of the hole and waited. The lightning seemed to come in familiar beats, as if Audrey was attacking the moment her sword was charged. The combination of strobing lights and wind was hell on her eyes, but if she was right she’d have to time this perfectly.
The fight in the distance had silenced itself, and Miriam briefly wondered if she was wrong before-
The next flash was blinding, and deafening, as if a hole had been ripped out of the sky.
The Overseer was dead.
Miriam held her breath, mounted her broom, and stepped off the ledge.
She’d never felt such a powerful pull, the gentle breeze turning into a raging squall in the blink of an eye. It wasn’t wind, exactly, but a force that pulled from all directions toward empty space in the universe where the King of Hearts used to be. Just as Miriam thought it would, the cave acted as a perfect funnel, keeping her on track as she whipped through the sharp turns and sharper rocks.
The mountain was so barren of trees that when the cave finally spit Miriam out she flew straight ahead with no fear of a crash, even as the suction that drew her towards the Overseer faded. She still knew where she was going, and she kept low to the ground to take advantage of both the speed she’d gained and the dying wind. It only be a matter of time before the mountain regained its roar and she’d be back on foot. There’d be no hope of catching up with the Bard then, but if she found them while they were getting the song piece, getting back to the Dream King’s castle would be-
The name jumped out of her mouth before she’d fully understood what she was seeing. There was no mistaking the scarf and sword, but it seemed as if Audrey had simply appeared out of thin air. Was that a power you got for being The Hero or just something she could already do?
Audrey whipped around to stare at her, gritting her teeth.
“Oh no, not this time. That stupid Bard alrea-”
Miriam plowed her broom straight into her. She felt the impact of the handle landing square in Audrey’s gut, but her own momentum didn’t stop. Audrey’s eyes were wide, and she belched a pink mist as the wind was knocked out of her. Later, Miriam would remember the fake Potion of Power, but for now her only thoughts were in her improvised lunge towards Audrey’s neck. Her fingers only found purchase on her scarf, which came loose as the two of them tumbled head-over-heels in the frigid snow. Miriam felt the impact harder than Audrey, but she was still gasping from the broom in her stomach. For a few moments the only sound was a chorus of familiar mutual gasping.
Audrey spoke first, words coming between greedy gulps of air. “I’ve fought...an army of monsters…I’ve killed corrupted Overseers...I’m the Hero, chosen by Eya! How is that a hedgewitch and a stupid singer are what I’m having the most trouble with?!”
The stars were clearing from Miriam’s vision far too slowly. Was all the crap she was putting herself through building up in her somehow? She laboriously pulled herself to her feet. “Where’s the Bard?”
“Gimme back my scarf!”
Miriam growled. “I’m not playing around! Where’s the Bard!?”
“Oh, where do you think ?”
Audrey snagged a loose tail of the scarf in Miriam’s hand and pulled, which only caused Miriam to dig her heels in and pull back. A pointlessly petty action, prolonging her encounter with someone she didn’t want to see but had just attacked anyway. Not for the first time since meeting the Bard, Miriam felt like she was losing her wits.
“I don’t know, what am I supposed to think? I saw you kill an Overseer, I see you here, I don’t see the Bard and I know you don’t have any problem using that sword on innocents!” Miriam’s hands chafed even further against the rough wool, but something in her -something she was only just becoming aware of inside her- refused to let go.
“Oh, now you think you’re ‘innocent?’” Audrey’s fists tightened around her scarf. “Then I guess there’s a totally innocent explanation for that ‘Potion of Power’ you gave me! I guess you had a totally innocent reason for poisoning the Hero!”
Miriam should have spoken immediately, but her mind was blank. The self-assurance that had carried her through the decision to make the potion in the first place seemed to have deserted her, and the moment was all Audrey needed.
“I don’t know who you think you are,” she said, “but the fun’s over. OK? I’m calling it. You have no idea what it’s like to be the Hero, picked by Eya, and have two complete nobodies run roughshod over you! I’m not going to tell you what I was just saved by, but the cracks it’d leave in my reputation-!”
Audrey took a step forward. Miriam, instinctively, took one back, and cursed herself for it. It was weakness, something she couldn’t afford to show now.
“Oh, what, a little Bard saves you and that’s all it takes to wreck” -she spat as she said it- “The Hero?”
“Not the Bard!” Audrey sniffed” “Well, kind of the Bard but I mean the...you know what, forget it! I still want an answer about the potion!”
“Well, you aren’t getting one! Except maybe Bard and I are trying to save the world over here! Or did you forget that’s what’s on the line?!”
Audrey suddenly yanked as hard and sharp as she could, and the scarf ripped out of Miriam’s hands. A little bit of Miriam’s skin went with it, and the blood trickling down her palms stung against the pins-and-needles cold. She yelped, and drew her hands into her chest.
“Oh, I didn’t forget.” Audrey hissed, her breath coming in angry clouds. “But I think you missed a memo. I know Eyala’s been palling around you two, but apparently she was just as honest with you as she was me!” Miriam’s eyebrows shot up in surprise, and Audrey took that as her cue to continue. “The Earthsong is fake. Made up. Pretend. It’ll never work! You are not the Hero, or the sidekick to the Hero, or whatever you think you are!”
“Yes, the sidekick! You think that Bard didn’t tell me everything? About how you follow after them like a little lapdog, doing whatever it is they tell you to do? And how every time you make your own decisions it’s always to destroy something or poison someone or do something else that’s nasty?”
“They did give you credit, though, you’re apparently a great chauffeur. And you know what else the Bard told me? They told me that they were jealous of me being the Hero! And I’m starting to think that maybe, just maybe, you are too! Why else would you try to get rid of me in such a cowardly way?”
“Oh gee, I dunno! To save the world maybe!? Maybe that’s a little bit more understandable a reason than just hating your guts!” Miriam’s voice cracked on the last word, but she couldn’t tell if it was from thirst or something else. Coward was easy to shrug off, but jealous hit too close to her heart to hide.
“Heh!” Audrey threw her scarf around her neck with an obnoxious flourish, “You know, I think I finally get the real reason why that Bard let you hang around them.”
Miriam glanced behind her. There was a tone in the air, like someone playing an other-worldly bass. The Bard was alive and getting the Earthsong piece. Had Audrey told them that thing about the Earthsong? Had they believed her?
“And why is that?”
“Because the two of you are birds of a feather! You want to save the world yourselves, but you don’t care how you do it! You think you can blast and poison me! That Bard tried to leave me in a cave to die unless I promised to stop being the Hero! The two of you are completely unfettered by rules. Honestly, if there’s any part of your situation that I envy, it’s that.”
Miriam’s spine went stiff. “Are you kidding me? The very first time we met you you blasted the Bard with lightning! For no reason!” She snarled at Audrey, who smirked in response, which only enraged Miriam further.
Audrey shook her head. “You just don’t get it. I thought that one harmless blast would be enough to keep them away from what they could never understand. Everything I did was to save the world. Everything I do, I do for that reason! I’m the Hero!”
Audrey had said a lot, things about the Bard that Miriam felt slicing at her heart. Assuming, that is, they were true. Miriam had been so ready to believe it was true, that the Bard was only hanging out with her out of convenience, that they’d been talking out of the side of their mouth the whole time-
“I love you, Miriam!”
-she was surprised to find herself doubting.
“I don’t believe you.”
Miriam felt magic crackle through her veins, traveling to her finger. Audrey clinched her sword.
She let her magic blast fly, hand jerking backward from the force. Audrey was quick with the dodge, practically pirouetting to the side. In the distance, the sound of the Earthsong piece had died.
“I don’t believe you!” Miriam was shouting now, “If you were a real Hero, you would have worked with us to save the world! If you were a real Hero, you wouldn’t care how many rules you had to follow! If you were a real Hero-” Oh Eya, please don’t let Audrey notice the tears in her eyes- “you wouldn’t be making up lies about my best friend! You seriously want be to believe they’d be willing to leave you to die in a cave? The Bard? That’s the biggest load of crap anyone has ever tried to shove down my throat!”
Audrey’s nostrils flared. “You...you have no idea...you don’t know anything! And I’ve had enough!”
Miriam braced herself, digging her soaking boots into the snow. Would she have enough time to get on her broom if Audrey decided to attack? “What are you going to do? What great heroic action are you planning to take? Kill me? Kill the Bard?”
“...No. No, I’m going to show you what makes me the hero and you a nobody. I’m going to kill the Dream King, end the world, make way for Eya’s perfect universe, and do what I was chosen to do! ” Audrey turned her back, but Miriam felt a small swell of pride to note that she kept an eye on her. “Come watch if you want, I don’t care anymore. You’ll see it anyway.” And then, in a flash of light, Audrey was gone.
Miriam spent a few seconds just breathing, filling her lungs with frigid air and letting it out warm, getting her emotions back under her control. She shoved her wounded, frostbitten hands between her arms and wiped her cheeks with her shoulders as she sniffled. There wasn’t going to be much time to beat Audrey back to Langtree, especially not if she could teleport. And it was likely she wouldn’t be able to find the Bard until they got back either.
Miriam looked up into the sky, watching the snow, which was falling far more peacefully now. She hadn’t actually accomplished much in coming here but...she didn’t feel ashamed of that either. The normal narration of her mind, the one that would be yelling about how fruitless this was and how much time she’d wasted and how useless she truly was…
It was gone. The phantoms of those thoughts had vanished as if the Bard sang it away themselves. Audrey was wrong. About everything. That knowledge was as good to Miriam as any destined prophecy.
She looked down the mountain, and listened to the snow crunching under her boots.