My betrothed woke me in the middle of the night, breaking into my poorly-pitched tent and flinging herself across my chest. I spluttered and swore breathlessly as she clutched at my pajama shirt and tugged me into sitting up. “Amara,” she cried, “we’ve got to go– the mountain, it’s gone–”
I closed my hands over hers to still them, but she was shaking her head, whipping her curls into both our faces, and refused to calm. “We’ve got to go! There’s no time!” she insisted, finding her feet and pulling herself from my lap, nearly dragging me along by my shirt’s collar. I managed to unfasten her fingers from the warm fabric and stood on my own volition.
“Calm down,” I told her uselessly, my voice scratchy and dry; I felt for the wineskin that normally hung at my hip, but my belt and all its accoutrements were in my knapsack next to my bedroll. Instead, I pushed past her as she knotted her hands and chewed at her knuckles, and I stepped outside into the chill air.
She was right. The mountain was entirely gone. The slope we’d been ascending ended not twenty yards from our camp, exactly at the line that trees could not grow beyond for the sheer altitude and hollowness of the air. The ground looked for all the world like some giant child had taken a paper-cutting knife to it and sheared it eagerly away, leaving the edge rough and jutting into empty space.
Lightning flashed overhead, illuminating the bellies of deeply grey clouds with a peculiar yellow-orange. “The sun’s blood,” I heard my betrothed whisper, and she pressed against my back and buried her face against my shoulder. “We’re dead. We cannot outrun what comes next.”
I didn’t move, bracing my legs against her push, staring up at the dark sky. The lightning flickered again, a lick of color against greyscale; the thick, slow-moving bolts were the color of fire and not proper lightning at all.
“Get your things,” I told her as I turned and kissed her forehead, briefly cutting her off from the constant psychic visions by obscuring her third eye. She hated when I did that, and her annoyance broke her out of her hopelessness and panic; she punched at my arm, then took a deep, shaky breath and fled to her tent a few yards away.
I returned to my own tent and grabbed for my knapsack, wrapping my belt around my hips and sliding my feet into socks and then hiking sandals. By the time I had finished lacing them around my ankles, my lady had returned, her sleeping clothes replaced with sturdier pants and jacket, her own minimal belongings slung over her shoulder in her bag. I shrugged into my insulated vest and hooked my knapsack to the hoops I’d sewn onto the back of the vest.
We left the tents, the bedrolls, and anything that didn’t fit in our packs. The mountain was gone, and I was itching to approach the edge, to see if it was sturdy or crumbling or even real at all, but on a starless, moonless night, it was foolhardy.
“How long will the shadow last?” I asked my lady as I linked arms with her and began a brisk walk downhill.
Not a moment after those words left my lips, the scenery around me was lit as though the very sun dawned at our backs, infusing the slope with orange light. The same color as the not-lightning.
My betrothed and I stopped on the same stride and slowly, almost comically, turned to look behind us. The mountain had gone, and its lingering shadow had worn through, leaving only a mountain-interior-shaped column of yellow-orange light. It towered over us and seemed to reach the low-hanging clouds with its thinnest, highest filaments.
“Flash flood,” she warned, her voice gone brittle, her eyes gone wild. For one long, perfect moment, the formation of glimmering light held its shape, like a crystal lit from within.
Then it crashed down, spilling like water from a vanished glass, throwing orange light-spray in glowing droplets over our head. It splashed onto our clothing, our skin, our hair; it was warm and had the consistency of blood.
I sucked a breath into my disbelieving lungs, locked my hand around my love’s wrist, and ran as quickly as I could down the slope, seeking any rocky outcropping that would afford us some shelter, seeking even a climbable tree that might not break beneath the weight of this swift, thick fluid that poured from the intestines of the mountain that was no longer there.
The light crashed in waves after us, spitting color into the air in heavy droplets, reaching for our heels like hot syrup. It was slick and made the dry ground slippery beneath our woven sandals. We fell more than once, and we pulled each other back to our feet, dripping with light. It was so hard to breathe the hollow air, so empty at such a height, and our lungs burned with futility as we tried to suck nourishment from the chill breeze that held none.
“Here,” I wheezed, seeing an opportunity – perhaps the only one we’d get – in a particularly large rock that was casting a stark black shadow. Up to our calves in flowing luminance, we staggered and sloshed our way to the side of the old boulder, and I helped her scale its rough flank as the flood rose around us. The current was beginning to get dangerously strong; I slid downhill more than once as I waited for her to reach the top safely.
When she did, I began climbing the boulder myself, my sandals drenched in light and glowing like campfires below me. It made finding footholds easier, and I finished my ascent with a gasp and a relieved groan. We were ten feet off the slope now, perhaps high enough to avoid being washed away; the level of the rushing light was still rising, though, and we were getting covered in sprayed drops.
I sat awkwardly on the top of the elongated boulder, one leg dangling over the side to give me a sense of purchase and balance, the other crooked in front of me. I pulled my betrothed into the shelter of my body, shielding her from the light-fall with my back and shoulders; she whimpered and kept her head ducked, wincing reflexively each time an orange droplet struck her face and lit it up like a candle.
I managed to twist my head enough to look at where the mountain had been, its absence partially obscured by the sparse pines that grew small and stubborn on the slope. The column of fire-colored light had fully descended upon the world, and rising waves were still racing downhill, creamy foam hissing as they collided with unyielding tree trunks and particularly large rocks. Thunderless not-lightning kept illuminating the clouds from above, turning them yellow-white when combined with the glow the mountain’s light was casting skywards.
My betrothed murmured something in a distressed voice, and I turned my head again to better hear her over the rushing of the flash flood. “Say again?” I asked, my mouth near her ear.
She was babbling, her eyes squeezed shut and pushing out tears. “I’m so sorry, I knew we would never make it, Amara, ‘Mara, you know I love you, yes?”
“Shh, shh.” I nuzzled her temple and held her more tightly in my arms. Even with her bag, even with her jacket, she felt small. “I know you love me. I love you too. We’ll be okay. We didn’t reach the peak of the mountain in time, but we’ll figure out another way to make it right. For now, we’ve got a high point–”
“No, no, you don’t understand.” She met my gaze, and her eyes glowed orange like the not-lightning, like the light flooding the land around us. I recoiled. “I love you, ‘Mara, and I knew we wouldn’t make it, and I know this is the only way, and I am so sorry, and I love you so much,” she said in a broken voice, then pushed me off the rock. The combination of my surprise and my lifelong training never to harm her meant that I did not grab at her or the boulder; I just tumbled backwards and sank head-first into the waist-deep flood.
The light was moving so quickly, the current so strong, that it whipped my top half down the slope before my bottom half could land and smash my head into the ground. My knapsack unhooked itself from my vest in my tumble and zipped away, and I was left to twist and writhe ineffectually in a river of lumination.
In my panic, I wasn’t thinking at all about her words– I only wanted to get my footing and stop myself before I slammed headlong into a tree and broke my neck. But my lady’s light-stained eyes would not leave my mind, and when I opened my own eyes in the stream of light, I felt like the wick of a candle, surrounded by warm, smooth flame.
I was breathing, and as I stared, momentarily transfixed by the fluctuation of oranges and whites in the light that enveloped me, I realized that light was sliding down my throat like a thousand tiny minnows. It saturated my lungs and slipped into my stomach, and dizziness took me abruptly and forcefully. I spun away from the tree that had given me a glancing blow to the head, stunned and filled with light.
At the top of the mountain, should you reach it in time, you will find the key to reclaiming your kingdom. The seer’s words, useless now, drifted into my fogged mind. I breathed light and it felt like drowning, and the trees were becoming thicker, battering my body as I was swept away from my lady.
Through sheer luck, I scraped across a large rock that made the flood shallow over its bulk, and I found purchase for my fingers so I did not slide away. Feeling sick to my stomach with the luminance I had sucked down, I pushed my head above the surface of the flooding light and tried to breathe unlit air.
The forest around me was cast in such a light that it looked to be afire, long shadows stretching out and blackening the space between branches. I was astride a river of not-lava, and as I coughed color out of my lungs and wiped light from my lips, I felt something stir within me.
This is the only way, she’d said, and it hit me then; all her time spent with the seer before we left, all her strange preparations, the entire point of reaching the top of the mountain. The peak would have had an opening to the light within the mountain, a way for the sun to fill the earth with this fire-colored brilliance, and we would have found it and…
But we found it anyways, and I had drunk of it– I was drunk with it– my betrothed had known all along– I felt like a phoenix, my lungs and throat burning, all the world burning with me.
I spread my arms wide, and they felt like wings, and I saw droplets of light slide from my fingers and etch feathery shapes as they fell towards the flood that was beginning to subside. The brightness inside my flesh glowed so fiercely that my skin looked like the surface of the sun.
This was the power of the old kings; this was what we’d come for; this would save us.