What do I do?
I’m no hero. I’m not even qualified to be a police officer, doctor, an emergency worker, or any job that requires sight.
And I’ve never been trained. I have no idea what to do.
So panic grips me as I stumble across the snowy ground, knees still shaking from the avalanche. Part of me doesn’t even really believe what’s happened. After all, the small area of land I can sense hasn’t changed much. But Durene tells me that everything around her cottage is just—gone.
‘I’ll have to see it to believe it.’ Ironic, but in my case I have to feel it, or at least hear it to believe. I walk to the edge of the place where the earth just fades away in my mind, and feel forwards.
Nothing. Well, it’s not as if there would be a wall of ice in front of me. But suddenly I notice the frozen pathway is gone. Instead, there’s only crunching snow underfoot. And as I walk forwards cautiously, feeling my way ahead, I start to stumble as I run into huge chunks of solid snow, torn up. And—dirt? I hit something hard and feel at it.
A tree trunk. Sideways. It’s lying on the ground.
It’s true. I trace my way to the base of the trunk—actually, it’s the top of the tree. I feel branches, and leaves. The avalanche pulled this tree up and tossed it like a twig. And if it could do this to a tree, what chance does a house stand?
The village. My mind goes back to it. What do I do? What can I do? I have to help; that’s the right choice. But what’s the best way? I don’t—
A voice shouts my name and I hear thumping footsteps. Durene rushes after me, fright clear in her voice.
“It’s not safe!”
Rough hands drag me back. Durene is terrified, but she cares more about my safety in this moment than anything else. I let her pull me back into the radius of the cottage. There at least I can tell what’s around me. But instead of being reassured by my mastery of this small domain, I now feel like I’m holding a candle in a—a dark world. I don’t understand darkness that well, but I fear the place where my [Emperor]’s senses fade away and I have to rely solely on remaining senses.
The village. My heart is still pounding out of my chest. The world is too silent. I can hear thunder in my veins, but there is only silence in the air. Compared to the fury of a few seconds ago, this—
I hear shrieking. My head turns, but it’s only Frostwing. She’s scared out of her mind, and I can’t blame her. But her anxiety doesn’t matter—the village—
I can’t think. I’m hyperventilating, gasping for air. Durene trembles as she stops.
“Laken. What do we…? It’s all gone.”
We’re both in shock. I know that. But my mind keeps snapping back to the village. Riverfarm. They were hit. I have to do something.
And like that, the paralysis gripping me ends. It’s not that I’m not still petrified. But I start moving even so. I have to act. It’s either act or keep still, and there is no time.
“Durene, we have to go to the village. The faeries didn’t protect Riverfarm. Who knows what’s happened to them?”
Durene pauses. It’s not even complete thoughts she’s having. She’s not thinking, just reacting. But finally—and it feels like forever although it’s only been a minute or less—my brain begins working again.
Village. Help them. We have to go and check. Can’t stay here.
I feel cold. As if my skin and everything beneath it has frozen over. A chill made of fear is making me shake, but that same terror is electric. I don’t stop and think; I only know that I have to move.
“We have to go! Durene!”
I snap at her. Durene jerks, and then she hesitates.
“It’s too dangerous for you! I’ll go. I’ll help. You stay here and—”
“You are a [Paladin].”
I feel like an idiot saying it, but I grab Durene’s protective hand and try to turn my head towards her face. My gentle giant is shivering with fear, but her being here reassures me enough to keep my voice steady.
“Durene. You are a Paladin. A protector of the weak and innocent. And you are also my guardian, my champion. You have to go. And I have to go. We have to help everyone we can.”
She hesitates, and then I feel a bit of strength return to her hand. She breathes in.
“Okay. Let’s go. I’ll clear a way. The road is—is gone. Follow me.”
She turns, and I hesitate. The village. What will we do there?
Think—it was an avalanche. Buried people, disaster area. Red Cross. Doctors Without Borders. What do they…?
Durene halts in bewilderment. I turn and point towards the cottage.
“A basket. We need all the food we can put in there, towels—clean fabric—um—”
I can’t think of anything else. Bandages, food, what else? The avalanche—
I run back towards the cottage, and Durene rushes into her tool shed for a shovel. I push open the door and hear Frostwing screaming at me. She’s tumbled out of her nest, but fortunately she’s okay. I scoop her up and put her and the nest on the floor. I talk to her as I scramble around the cottage, using the clear image of the cottage in my head to pick up everything we might need.
“It’s okay. It’s okay—shush! We’ll be back, okay?”
To my surprise, the eaglet shuts up. I don’t have time to dwell on that though—six more seconds and I’m kicking the door open. Durene grabs the food and cloth spilling out of my arms and stuffs it into a huge basket she uses to collect produce.
“Okay. Let’s go!”
I lead us both away from the cottage. It’s so easy to move around Durene’s cottage. I’ve seldom ever run—being blind means I’m used to running into things, and I know that I can seriously injure myself running into something sharp at high speed. But in this place I’m sure-footed, and I force my unaccustomed legs to move faster. Durene is right behind me, carrying the basket.
Two steps outside of the circle and I falter. The world disappears around me, my sense of it returning to nothing. It wouldn’t have bothered me, before. But it’s like going deaf or losing my sense of smell. Or going blind, I suppose. The new sense I had is gone, and I suddenly realize how inconvenient it is not to have it.
I stumble, and a hand catches me.
“This way. Follow me.”
I take hold of the bottom of Durene’s shirt and begin to follow her. That’s easy—I’ve done that countless times before. But this time, the landscape is totally different.
“So much snow…”
I can feel Durene’s shirt straining as she grunts and pushes ahead. The snow around my ankles rises and shifts, and as I follow in her steps I realize that the snow rapidly becomes waist-deep in places.
No time to stop and think. I try to follow directly in Durene’s footsteps. But even then, the snow is already filling in her steps, and I can’t tell what’s in front of me.
The snow is so deep! Durene wades through it, but I can’t. The second time I trip, something grabs my legs and back, pulling me off my feet. I jerk in surprise, but Durene lifts me into her arms, cradling me with ease.
“I’ll—carry you, Laken. It’s faster that way.”
My mouth opens to object. I’m not a child. But then I close my mouth instead. She’s right. Even if I had sight, this is probably faster.
“I’ll hold the basket. Give it to me.”
I hold the basket on my stomach as Durene carries me in her arms. It is not comfortable, especially since Durene’s running means I bounce around like a rag doll. But she moves far faster than I can, so I hang on to her with all my strength as I feel cold air blowing past my face.
Powdery flecks of ice keep hitting me. Durene is churning through the snow as if it’s not there. I can hear her breathing hard, but she doesn’t stop running.
Riverfarm is about ten minutes away from Durene’s cottage at walking speed. We get there in four minutes. My first instinct when Durene puts me down is to find the wounded. But my weak imagination isn’t enough to predict the reality of what awaits us.
For a few seconds after Durene puts me on the uneven earth, she can’t even speak. When she eventually finds her tongue, it’s still almost too much for her. She describes the scene for me, breathless. Horrified.
Riverfarm is gone. The avalanche poured through the tiny community in one horrific rush. The pounding snow covered entire houses and knocked the walls in on others. There’s so much packed snow that we’re standing several feet above where the ground is supposed to be.
“I can see the roof of Mister Prost’s house from here. It—oh, Laken! It’s all gone!”
“What about the people, Durene? Are they alive?”
I grab Durene’s arm, trying to keep her focused. My voice is urgent, and she starts as if coming out of a trance.
“A few. I can see some, but—”
Some of them are just standing around, motionless. Others wander aimlessly, and I can hear them calling. A few are trying to dig at the ground, but the snow isn’t loose. It’s been packed, and everything is buried. How would they even know where their families and friends are?
And no one’s really that coherent in the first place. Durene is experiencing it and so am I, to a lesser extent.
Shock. But I know—I have to fight through it. I can’t see, but I wasn’t caught up in that maelstrom of death. My head is the clearest right now.
“We have to start digging people out. Durene, where’s the nearest house?”
Again, Durene starts as if I’m waking her from a dream.
“Nearest? Over there—Mister Ballus and Miss Ven’s—”
“Let’s go to it.”
I push at her, and Durene moves forwards. I follow her until she stops.
“What does it look like? Do you see any of the family around here?”
“No—I—I don’t know. They could be over there. That looks like—it’s all buried, Laken. All of it.”
“How much is buried? The front? The back? Could we dig the door out—maybe they’re still inside?”
“I don’t know. It’s buried.”
I clench my teeth in frustration. I can’t see, and Durene isn’t being helpful. I want to shout at her, but in the next instant I feel her moving.
“I’ll dig! Stand back, Laken!”
I take the basket and move back. At once I feel snow flying through the air and hear Durene grunting. Suddenly she’s all motion, and I hear her shouting, the first loud sound in the shocked silence of the village.
“Mister Ballus! Miss Ven! Cinney! Rober! Are you there!?”
The noise does something to the villagers not buried by the snow. After a few seconds I hear movement, and then someone runs over.
“Durene!? And – Mister Laken? You two are alive?”
I don’t recognize the name, but I feel someone rush over to me. A hand seizes mine, rough and callused.
“It’s me, Prost.”
“Mister Prost? Are you okay? Where’s your family?”
“I don’t see them. I don’t—”
Prost is trembling even worse than Durene was. He can barely hold on to me, but that he does, clutching at me like he’s holding on for dear life. I try to calm him down.
“Mister Prost. Listen to me. We have to start digging people out. Durene’s got a shovel. Can you help her? Find other people…?”
We need to get a group of people assembled. Even with Durene’s strength, every house in the village is drowned in snow. Prost nods, and then realizes I can’t see the motion even though I feel him doing it.
“I can do that. But—Durene! My house is over there!”
I feel the man let go, and then hear Durene’s voice. The sound of the shovel scraping the snow stops.
“My family—they were all inside when the avalanche hit! Help me dig them out!”
“But Mister Ballus and his family are—”
Oh no. I hear the two’s voices raised, and then it sounds like Prost tries to grab the shovel out of Durene’s hand. When that doesn’t work, he tries to drag her with him with the same amount of success.
“Please, you have to help. They’re trapped! I need—”
This voice isn’t from a man. It’s female and cracks in desperation. I hear more running and then another villager is fighting with Prost for Durene’s attention.
“Help me! My husband—”
I can see nothing, but I don’t have to see to know that Prost shoves the other woman away. I hear her cry out, and then Durene’s voice.
“Stop fighting! Please! I’ll try to get everyone out. But if you could help me—”
“My family! Save them first!”
No, no, no! But I know even as the voices raise what’s going to happen. The villagers were still shocked when Durene and I arrived. But now that we’ve started moving, the confusion gripping the villagers has faded a bit.
But that only means they’re now desperate, and Durene is the only person that can help them. More people rush to her, an uninjured beacon of hope. But instead of working together, they begin fighting over her!
“Everyone! Please listen! We need to work together!”
I call out, shouting at them, but I can’t see a thing, and Durene is now trapped by the desperate men and women. They’re arguing, not listening to anything. And instantly, a scuffle begins. I even hear what sounds like a blow. Are they hitting each other? But it’s every villager for themselves.
“Listen to me!”
I shout desperately and even try to run towards the fight, but all that gets me is a hard shove as someone knocks me down. I fall onto the ice and hear a scream.
Someone else shrieks, and then I hear the voice moving away. Durene runs towards me. She—threw a villager out of the way. They scatter as she anxiously helps me up.
“Are you okay?”
“I am—but this is insanity, Durene!”
I’m already on my feet. But the sounds of chaos haven’t faded. If anything, they’ve gotten worse. Now the people are fighting over Durene’s shovel. She’s helpless as she looks at the scene and I try to make sense of it all.
“No one’s listening! What should I do, Laken?”
I don’t know. This is a nightmare—two nightmares at the same time! We need order, but no one’s listening. And I have no idea where the buried villagers are, or even how many are still alive. I yell at Durene.
“Just—just start digging! Try to get this house out first. We have to—”
What can I do? Nothing. I could dig, but I have no idea where everything is. And Durene’s the only person with any kind of tool! She moves into action, running back towards the building and I cup my hands to my mouth and shout.
But it does no good. No one will listen to me. Eventually, the fighting villagers stop and return to trying to dig their loved ones out. One helps Durene, and others try to get their friends to work together, but there’s no cohesion. And again, there’s only one shovel and the ice is like stone in places. And no one knows where any of the victims are!
We’re running out of time. People are suffocating down there. I try to think. What can I do? What can any of us do?
What if—I could see? I can’t, but what about my Skill? Yes, that’s right! I saw Durene’s cottage, and even the buried plants in the garden. What if—
I take a few deep breaths. No one is looking at me and Durene is still shouting as she digs. I don’t know what to do exactly, so I point to what the center of the village is. I try to put conviction into my words as I speak.
“I claim this village.”
Nothing happens. Of course not. Would it really be that simple? But then what do I do?
“I claim this village—in the name of [Emperor] Laken!”
“…This village is a Protectorate of the Unseen Empire!”
Nothing. I feel like the biggest fool in the world, and all around me people are screaming, calling for help. Dying.
I have to do something. And this is it. Why can’t I claim this village? I could do it with Durene’s cottage. Think. Why?
Because she let me. Because she gave me the authority to do it. Instantly, I realize what I have to do.
She’s by my side in an instant.
“What is it, Laken?”
“Where’s the village head?”
I know this village has its own mayor, or leader or something. It’s not a very important position—the villagers choose someone every year, but only to negotiate with other villagers, towns, and traders. But it is a leader.
“What? Mister Till? I don’t know. I don’t see him…”
“I need to find him. Or his family. Do you see anyone who knows where he might be?”
“N—I do! I see his wife!”
“Take me to her. Hurry!”
Durene abandons her efforts and leads me across the uneven ground. I keep stumbling, and at one point I hear a shout and feel the packed snow shifting underneath me.
Is this what it’s like after an earthquake? I hear stories of natural disasters, but this—
I don’t know what it looks like. But to my mind, the world is in chaos. Nothing is the same as when I came here a few days ago. It’s like I’ve walked into another world again. A horrible world of death and fear.
“Miss Feya! Miss Feya!”
Someone’s in front of me. I hear sobbing, and then someone’s in front of me.
“Durene? Oh Durene—help me! My poor boy is down there somewhere!”
“I—I’ll try to find him!”
I hear the sounds of Durene digging with her hands. I reach out, and there’s a woman in front of me. My hand recoils as I touch her frozen skin and find sticky blood.
“Who is—oh! You’re…”
There’s no time for niceties. I guide the trembling woman a bit away from Durene and then get straight to the point.
“Miss Feya, do you know where your husband is? He’s the village head, isn’t he?”
She’s in shock too. I want to shake her, but I just wait for her, prodding gently.
“I need to find him. Do you know where he is?”
Even if he can’t transfer ownership of the village to me, he might be able to rally the disorganized villagers. But I can already sense something’s wrong.
Choked words. I reach out and feel her shaking. Miss Feya sobs and I know what’s happened.
“I’m so sorry.”
But there’s no time even for that. I hesitate. Would she be next in charge? I have to try.
“Feya. Miss Feya. I need you to give Riverfarm to me.”
An intake of breath.
“Give? What are you talking about? There’s nothing left!”
“I can’t explain everything, but—I have a Skill. It can help find people, even under the snow, I think. But I need to own this village to use it.”
I sound like a complete and absolute loon in my ears. But to Miss Feya, saying that might have been the best thing I could do. She understands Skills, even if she doesn’t know what I’m talking about. But she’s still hesitating, uncertain.
“You need the village?”
“Can you really save them?”
There’s hope in her voice as well as doubt. But the world’s collapsed around her, and this poor woman is reaching out for any shred of hope. I don’t want to lie to her, so I tell her the truth.
“I can try.”
One second goes by as she thinks. Two. But she has nothing to lose, and everything to gain.
“It’s yours. If you can do something, please, do it!”
I nod and step back from her. I still feel self-conscious, but this time I don’t waver. I raise my head and speak with all the confidence I can muster.
“I claim this village. I claim Riverfarm.”
Nothing. Again. I curse and hear Feya moan. What’s wrong?
Last time—it took a while before I realized that I could sense Durene’s cottage. Maybe there’s a waiting time? If so, I’m screwed. But maybe it didn’t work because Miss Feya isn’t the next village head. She wasn’t elected, and—does the village head have the ability to speak for an entire village anyways?
Damn it, there’s just so much I don’t know! I feel helpless, and angry as well. I have to do something! But nothing I’ve tried has worked and I can hear Durene. She’s barely excavated more than a few feet of snow, and it’s been over ten minutes since we got here. If anyone’s still alive—
No time. No way. The burning helplessness in my chest intensifies. And I hear the same whispering in my heart that I think everyone’s heard before.
Just give up. You can’t do anything.
It’s the same voice that used to talk to me on the worst nights. It’s the voice that told me a blind kid couldn’t ever do anything. It tries to drag me down.
I am an [Emperor]. But I’m not one, really. I just went through the motions. I’m an actor and I put on a good play, but in the end the genuine article is different from me.
Emperor Norton never questioned himself. Charlemagne, Peter the Great, Leopold—did any of these people ever act like I did? How would I know?
What would an [Emperor] do?
The little voice in my head mocks me as I listen to people cry out. More than anything, I want to help them. But how? I don’t own this village. There’s a wall in my way, a wall I can’t touch or feel or sense. I can’t break it down. And there’s a wall in the ground, a tomb of snow.
My doubts taunt me. But more than anything I want to act. The Emperor does not wait. He doesn’t hesitate. He does what an Emperor does because he is an Emperor. If Norton ever asked questions, he would never have become an Emperor.
I can’t let something silly like rules stop me. I don’t own this village? That’s not something a real [Emperor] would accept.
My heart is pounding. I don’t ask questions. I stop hesitating.
People are dying. I want to help them. Have to. Durene is doing her best, but for all her strength, she’s just one person. The villagers are disunited. There’s no one to lead them. No one but me.
So I draw the biting air into my chest and scream.
“My name is Laken Godart! I claim this village!”
My voice cuts through the other noises, bringing quietus with it. I can tell everyone’s stopped to stare at me in astonishment. But I don’t falter. I don’t wait, either. I keep shouting, so that everyone can hear me.
“Riverfarm is under my protection! All those who live within it are part of my empire!”
What’s this? No one understands. Who’s this blind young man, shouting nonsense? They’re just words. Anyone can speak nonsense. Anyone can claim anything they want.
But who has the courage to shout it to the world? I do. So I shout and tell everyone that I am an Emperor, because it is true. I will make it true.
“I am Laken, Emperor of the Unseen! If anyone would challenge me, fight my champion, my [Paladin]. Durene!”
For a few seconds I think the villagers are too shocked to even respond. Then I hear a shout.
“Are you insane?”
Prost’s voice is angry. I can hear him moving towards me, but my attention isn’t on that. It’s on the snow under my feet. And the faint sense I have—
Below me is ice. Below that is timber. And then stone. A wall. And pressed up against that wall is a child. He barely moves, but he does move. He’s trapped against the wall and the snow is so constricting that he can only breathe and move a tiny bit. I see his chest rising and falling in my head.
“What nonsense are you shouting!?”
A hand grabs me. I hear an angry voice, and then more voices.
“You claim our village? By what right?”
“What are you doing?”
“We need help! Stop shouting and—Durene! Come here!”
The villagers have come to me. Of course they would. Here’s this crazy guy shouting at them as they’re in the middle of their grief and desperation. They want to unload their anger onto me. But I’m too busy to care.
“I am an [Emperor].”
They hear me, but who would believe that? They shout at me, and then I hear Durene’s voice.
“Let him go!”
A massive hand moves, and separates Prost from me with ease. He stumbles back, and I hear shouts.
“Durene! Come here!”
“My children are down there! Come with me!”
“You bastard—give me that shovel!”
Screaming. Fighting. Cries for help. I hear it all and see the boy breathing far below. Is this sight? It’s never been so clear to me. I breathe in and out and the world comes into focus.
This is mine. I claim it. It’s not sharp in my head; it’s not my village entirely. But I will have it.
The villagers are fighting. No one will get any work done. I’m angry at them. I know they’re afraid. So am I! But if they can’t work together everyone loses. Durene is shielding me with her body and shouting at them, but she’s no leader. Not yet.
But I am. I am an [Emperor]. I shout.
And there is. Complete silence. My voice is thunder, and I feel that same sensation in my bones as I did once before, when I shouted at the group of children tormenting Durene, so long ago.
“I am an Emperor.”
My voice is the one sound in the empty world around me. I can feel people staring at me, but they are mute. I keep talking, my voice growing louder.
“Your families, your friends, are all trapped under the snow. I can find them. You will help me. Find something to dig with. We’ll start here. Give Durene her shovel back.”
No one moves. They’re in shock. I don’t have time for it. My hand raises. My voice grows deeper, and it echoes.
“You and you, find something to dig with. You! The shovel! The rest of you, start digging right here. Move!”
They move. They can’t help it. But they want to move as well; I’ve given them purpose. I’ve given them hope. I look down with my head and sense the small body beneath me. Growing colder. Growing weaker.
So many. So still. I sense tiny bodies and large ones, motionless beneath the snow. Some still move. Others lie at odd angles, in pieces.
There’s no time to grieve. I point and shout.
“Start digging there! And there!”
It’s like a game. An awful game where each second counts and the prize isn’t measured in points, but real lives. But there are ways to be more efficient.
“There are two shovels here. Dig them up!”
They’re nearest to the surface. If we have those, the villagers won’t have to use the branches and broken bits of wood. Durene is already clearing snow with her spade. I’ll have to stop her from hitting the boy when she gets close.
“Over there! She’s right beneath the snow! Dig with your hands and pull her out!”
I run, and people follow me. I shout, and they listen. There’s no little voice in my head. There’s only a screaming idiot, moving too fast to doubt himself. Every step I take in the snow is sure; my blood is electric. I dash over to the spot and people begin to dig.
“Follow me. Find something to dig with!”
Onwards. I let the villagers dig out their friends and run on.
I’m going to save everyone I can. This—
This is my village now. And I will protect it. I am an [Emperor].
I run and run, and forget that I’m blind. I forget everyone else. I reach down, and pull life out of the ground.
He only knew it hurt. He had tried screaming, but there was blackness all around him. Cold. It was so cold, and he knew he was buried. His head was full of pain and he knew he was bleeding. It was cold—
But also hot. The air in the small pocket where he was trapped was getting warmer, and every time he took a breath, his head spun.
He was dying.
He wanted to struggle, but he couldn’t even more. He cried and screamed, but no one had heard him. And now he was going to die.
That’s what he knew. He knew it even as he shouted for salvation. And then he heard the scraping.
Someone was digging! Towards him? He shouted desperately, barely daring to hope. But the sounds—they were coming from below him! They were going the wrong way! He screamed again, telling them to come back.
No! Had they missed him? The young man shouted desperately, and then realized the sound was getting louder, not softer! It was coming towards his head!
And then he realized something was off. Snow was breaking around his legs. He could move them! He wriggled with mad desperation, not caring if he hurt himself. He had to get out!
“Don’t worry. I’ve got you.”
A voice pulled him out of the madness. The young man froze, and then realized what was happening.
“You’re upside down. Don’t move and we’ll dig you out.”
The world turned over. Suddenly, the pounding in his head made sense. He waited, unable to bear the waiting but waiting nonetheless, and then felt a warm hand on his leg.
“You’re safe. Hold on just for a second longer.”
He didn’t know the voice. He knew everyone in the village, but he didn’t know the voice. But the hand was warm, and the voice was full of so much confidence—
He cried like a child as the warm hands dug the snow away and then came for him. He was still sobbing as more hands righted him and he was pulled out of the snow and back into the world of color and light.
For a little while he couldn’t see. Tears made his vision blurry and he could only gulp in air, the sweetest, purest thing he’d ever felt in his life. He didn’t want to grow up anymore. He didn’t want to become a famous adventurer or leave this small village. He didn’t want to marry his childhood crush.
He just wanted to be alive. And he was. The young man wept and clutched at the cold ground, and then remembered his name.
When he could finally think again, Gamel looked around and saw what had become of his home. Ice and snow had buried Riverfarm, the only place he had ever known. His house, his father’s home that he had lived in and hated for being so small, was gone.
And so was the rest of the world. Gamel looked, but he couldn’t see anything familiar. Where was the forest? Where was the river? Where were the road and the other houses?
He saw nothing familiar, save for a few rooftops and broken wood. But then he saw the people.
The villagers of Riverfarm numbered little over a hundred. He knew all of them by name, if not as friends. He recognized over thirty of them now, digging up the snow in teams. But one person stood out among the frantic workers, one person Gamel didn’t recognize.
It was another young man, like Gamel. He had to be the blind man, the one who was staying at Durene’s cottage. The one who liked the half-Troll.
But then the blind man turned and pointed. His eyes were closed, but he seemed to know where things were. He shouted, and Gamel realized that he was the owner of the voice and the warm hands.
And when he heard the voice, Gamel stood up. He ran over to help, even before he quite knew what he was doing. And when he did know, he only ran faster. His friends were buried. His family! His love.
The blind young man had found a woman trying to excavate her house. Her hands were raw and bleeding from digging. But she still turned the snow crimson as she searched for any clue, any hint of her child.
The young man pulled her away. She resisted, but two other villagers pulled her back. She was sobbing, crying out for her missing child. Gamel looked at the ground, but he could see nothing but packed snow. Where would you even begin searching for a missing kid? He could have been swept away, or buried in a pocket. You could dig for hours and not find him.
But the blind man only hesitated for one second. He seemed to search the ground and then pointed.
Gamel stared. But men and women rushed forwards with hoes, shovels, even a board of wood, anything they could dig with. They began to send up flurries of snow where the blind man had pointed, digging with all their strength, totally confident in his prediction.
“Fifteen feet down. He isn’t moving.”
The blind man was supervising the work. He was also speaking to the mother. Gamel stared, and then saw two closed eyelids swing towards him. The not-gaze made him freeze. He couldn’t see him. But—
“You! Find something to dig with! Hurry!”
Gamel was running before he knew what had been said. He came back with a pitchfork someone had found. The tines could lift chunks of ice out. He began digging with the others, widening the hole.
The voice halted them and everyone froze as one. The young man leapt into the hole. Without looking he seized a spade.
“He’s a foot down. Give me some room!”
Gamel stood back and watched. Carefully, quickly, the young man dug. He paused, and then shoved away more snow. Then he lifted something out of the ground.
Gamel recognized Sic, one of the boys who belonged to the mother. She rushed forwards, and then screamed again.
“He’s not breathing.”
The young man—Laken, that was his name—was calm. Or rather, he wasn’t panicking. He shouted at the woman.
“Move back! Get me a clear space above!”
Hands pulled him and the still boy out of the hole. Gamel watched, numb horror in his chest. The boy was dead. But Laken wasn’t done yet.
“Breathe into his mouth. Like this. Steady breaths.”
He was doing something, showing the woman something. Then he put his hands on the boy’s chest and began to pump, as if he was trying to push something back into the child.
“Compressions. Place your hand on his chest like this. Now—”
The woman breathed and Laken pressed on his chest. Gamel watched without hope. Nothing was going to happen. This was no spell or [Healer]’s Skill. It was just air and some weird motion. It couldn’t—
The boy gasped. He choked and his eyes flew open. The mother fell backwards, but then she shrieked and threw herself at her son. Gamel stared. His eyes stung as the boy breathed again.
“Give him air!”
Laken forced the mother back a bit. Then he stood up and ran to another body being pulled out of the snow. Gamel followed. Laken showed the rescuers what to do.
“Five minutes. If they don’t wake up by then—”
It didn’t work. Gamel stared at the cold body of the girl he’d always thought was too ugly to dance with and felt a hole open up in his chest. Laken moved on. The next body they brought up was cold as well, and Laken didn’t even bother with it. The next was also dead. The next was alive and the woman clung to Laken even as he shouted.
The dead couldn’t be brought back so easily. But the breathing and compressions—helped. It gave people hope and they tried it until Laken told them it was too late. It was a last-ditch effort he said; they were already dead. It was too late.
But it worked. Once, twice. Out of the many casualties, Gamel saw two cough up ice and snow and breathe again. A child, practically blue and still bleeding, opened her mouth and wailed after her breath had stopped. A young man inhaled, and nearly choked again as his family threw their arms around him.
And many who came out of the ground were still alive. They had clung to life, trapped in tiny places, hoping, begging silently for rescue. And it came, with precise accuracy and no shortage of willing hands. Gamel dug to save people trapped like him. He threw away the pitchfork and grabbed a proper shovel when one was found. He dug and pulled out his best friend, the [Blacksmith].
Gamel stared down at the empty gaze and snow-covered beard. Snow hadn’t filled his lungs like the others. But his neck had snapped as he had tumbled. It was twisted the wrong way.
The young man reached down with trembling hands. He had to fix it. He tried to turn his father’s head back the right way. Gently at first, and then with more strength. It was no good. He felt something shifting beneath his hands and stumbled away to vomit.
When he was choking and wiping at his mouth, someone touched his shoulder. Gamel spun, and looked into closed eyelids.
Laken only held his shoulder. He had never met Gamel’s father. He didn’t know the man. But he looked in Gamel’s eyes with his sightless ones and said only one thing:
“There are more people to save.”
So Gamel left his father on the ground. He dug and dug until his hands blistered and bled and pulled up more bodies. A little girl who’d always gotten on his nerves. Dead. A husband who everyone knew beat his wife. Alive. He was sobbing like Gamel had been and he dug with his bare hands to pull his living spouse out of the ground with their dead baby in her hands.
There was no sense to it. No justice. There were only places where the cold hand of fate had taken lives, and miracles where that boundary had not been crossed.
Yet with every second they spent under the snow, the villagers would have died. And there were so many. If the others had been digging with no idea where they were, how many would have died?
But Laken pointed and the villagers were found. Within the hour, everyone had been found, and for a miracle, the living outnumbered the dead. Those who were alive were injured yes, some badly. They were all close to or frostbitten in places, and many were exhausted from digging. They were homeless. Hungry.
But they were alive. And though Gamel’s hands bled, he held the girl who he’d dreamed of marrying as she cried and the [Midwife] bandaged her bleeding leg.
They were alive. Gamel had to keep wiping away tears, and his nose was stuffed. He didn’t care.
They were alive. After the last body had come up, the villagers just sat on the snow, crying, tending to injuries, hugging each other. Being alive.
Somehow, there was even food. The half-Tr—Durene had brought food with her at the blind man’s orders. And there was cloth to bandage wounds, even! As more and more hands were free, Laken directed them to dig up stores of food, buried in store rooms and cellars.
Gamel hadn’t seen Durene before now. He’d been too busy digging. But he saw her tossing a massive amount of snow as she continued to dig, tirelessly.
Part of him was afraid of her. Part of him could still remember the Troll and the way the adults had been so frightened of her. Part of him remembered throwing things at the Troll-girl when he saw her. He saw her dig up food to hand around and the countless people she had saved by herself, and part of him felt ashamed.
Laken didn’t just know where the bodies were. He found root cellars, and knew which ones were the most well-stocked. He had them dug up, and immediately had the food passed around to the starving people.
The food was meant to last a family the entire winter, but no one said a word, even if it was their stocks being opened and shared. Or rather, who would even think about something like that right now?
They were alive. That was all that mattered.
Gamel tore at some frozen bread someone had warmed up and saw there was a fire going. Someone was making a soup out of vegetables, but Gamel could have eaten the loaf with only snow and dirt as seasoning. He shared the frozen piece with the girl sitting next to him and stood up.
Laken was standing in the center of the village, still ordering people about. He wasn’t shouting—his voice was hoarse and raw and the—Durene was standing next to him anxiously. Gamel hesitated, and then brought Laken a bowl of soup when it was done.
The blind man took the bowl and thanked Gamel. But that was all wrong. Gamel’s throat closed up. He had to say it.
That was all he could say. What he had to say. Other villagers heard Gamel and came over. They said different things, used different words. Some hugged Laken. Other found more food, kissed him, just cried. They all meant the same thing.
I pulled up dead people. I pulled up living people. Now, I can barely move my arms to lift the spoon. But I eat because I have to. I have to keep going. There’s tragedy around me, but if I stop to stare at it I’ve made a mistake. My heart’s too busy beating to stop and weep. That’s how it should be.
“Anyone who can—we need houses.”
The snow is so deep. But I’m already thinking about tonight. The villagers—they’re all out, living and dead. And while the dead will keep for a while, the living are freezing. And it’s going to be dark and cold tonight. It’s barely mid morning despite the herculean efforts of the day, but we need to get as many houses out as possible.
“Durene, can you start clearing snow out over here? There’s a barn—if we empty it, we could have a place for everyone to sleep at least.”
I look at Durene, although I can’t see her. But I can sense her, and touch her, and feel her beside me. That’s more than enough. I know she has to be tired, but she doesn’t show any of her exhaustion.
“I can do that. If someone helps get rid of the snow…”
“Is there anything better than a shovel? Pickaxes, maybe?”
Do they even have those? A young man hovering by me—the one who gave me the bowl of soup—offers a suggestion.
“What about magic?”
I’m caught totally off-guard. But as it turns out, the young man knows a very weak flame spell. And so do other people in the village! It’s a bit better than digging, but not by much.
“Hold off on it. Wait until we dig out a building and then you’ll defrost it.”
I keep ordering people about. They obey as if it’s natural and I don’t question it. They need a leader. And I’m the best choice.
Only I can sense the entire village. It’s almost all under the snow, but I can sense which houses are intact, which ones have valuable items, and most importantly, which are closest to the surface. It is like a game, and I organize people as best I can.
What’s the first and most important thing? The elements. There’s already a small fire going.
“Get someone with wood chopping skills and find some trees! I want two—no, four big fires going!”
Those with fire magic can light what wood we have. That’s not enough of course. I ask around and find who might have the most clothes. We get that excavated and blankets, clothing—all go to children and those with injuries first. Bandages come from recycled cloth first boiled and dried by a fire.
What else? While I’m doing that I wonder about animals. I look—but they’re all dead. We dug up the people first. Still, I know where they are. All of that is frozen food that can be retrieved later.
“Mister Laken? Emperor Laken?”
A voice. I turn. Prost is standing before me, humble.
I sense him bowing his head.
“Yes sir. Durene’s dug up a good part of the barn, but she says it’s not stable.”
I couldn’t tell when it’s all buried.
“Can it be fixed? Who has skills in…carpentry?”
People around me provide answers. I choose three of the best builders to take a look at the building. Someone calls out to me. One of her sons—a teenager—was injured badly. His foot was broken. It needs to be set, but the [Midwife] has no potions.
I find some. By that point several people are telling me they need weapons. For Durene?
No. For wolves and monsters that might attack the injured. I find a sword buried deep and cast about. Broken bows…I find a few locations and have people start digging.
People ask me whether they should cook more soup. I ask and find out what the best recipes are. I direct them to a dead cow.
More work. It’s getting dark apparently—I can feel the chill on my skin and the feeling of sunlight is gone. People need light, but torches are in short supply. And the team working on the barn and other buildings don’t want the badly-directed torchlight to mess with their work.
I have an idea.
“Wait a second.”
I pull out a rectangle of metal. It’s always in my pocket although I haven’t turned it on until now. I push the power button.
“Siri? Turn on flashlight.”
“Sorry, but I’m not able to do that.”
People around me exclaim in awe, but I just scowl. I have to find the flashlight app buried among the various ones I’ve downloaded and press it manually. I hate doing that.
Then again, I don’t exactly need a flashlight app, do I? It was put on my iPhone as a joke by my best friend. After Zoe installed it on my iPhone she told me it would help other people if they got lost, since I can find my way around in the dark just like the light. It would make them feel better, she told me.
And now? My iPhone glows with light. I can’t tell, but people around me are shouting ‘magic’. I give it to Prost and show him how to use it.
“Can I really use an artifact like this?”
“Just don’t drop it.”
I smile and turn away. The iPhone’s batteries probably don’t have that much juice in them in this cold, but the light helps. Prost and the others find the fault they’re looking for and fix it.
Durene has the iPhone in her hands. I turn from having more blankets dug up and take it back from her.
“Is that the ‘phone’ you were talking about?”
“It is. Does it look interesting to you?”
I can’t imagine how the screen and the display looks to someone who’s never seen a light bulb. There’s awe in Durene’s voice.
“Yes. It’s like a star is in your hands.”
A star? I smile.
“Would you like to use it?”
“Me? No! I would never dare. What if I broke it? I’ve never seen magic like that before.”
“This is no magic. Anyone can use it. Here.”
In the lull of the night as the immediate worries of the villagers are temporarily alleviated, I show Durene how to work the controls.
“You see that little triangle at the bottom? Press it. Now—”
Durene jumps as music begins to play from the iPhone. I take it from her and turn up the volume. Heads turn. I walk towards the villagers, holding a glowing star in my hands that sings with a woman’s voice. I walk among them, reassuring, checking on the wounded, finding things for those with energy to do. They’re warm, fed, alive. For some reason they still keep thanking me.
I keep walking, and a woman sings about love in French, a language none of the villagers know. But her haunting voice brings life to a frozen world. So the villagers listen to L’hymne à l’amour as their loved ones lie in the falling snow. And they cry although they don’t know what the song is about.
And at the same time, they know what the song is. The singer conveys all they need to know. When the song ends I check the battery. Durene sees a single digit and a red sliver of a bar. So I play one last song.
It’s not a song about love. It’s not even in French. It’s a song about family and home and regret. A man called Reinhard Mey sings in German, Viertel vor Sieben, a song never heard before in this world. And that too speaks to the villagers.
The last echoes of the song die out. I turn off the iPhone and find a place to sleep. There’s already a space cleared for me, and Durene as well to my surprise. We could have gone back to the cottage—we will, if only to pick up Frostwing. But for now I sit, and find once I’m sitting that I’m out of energy.
I put my head down and I’m out like a light in moments. I rest and the villagers around me live another night, crying themselves to sleep. And I am still an [Emperor] when I wake up.
[Emperor Level 9!]
[Skill – Empire: Blessing of the Hearth Obtained!]
When I woke up, I felt rested. Which is odd considering that I woke up just after six in the morning. I know I got substantially less than six hours of sleep considering how late I worked. But that was probably due to the Skill I received.
A skill for an empire. That’s the only way I can look at it. And the blessing—it’s powerful, I know that.
Most of the villagers did indeed sleep in the barn Durene helped dig up with the rest of the villagers. It was the best choice. And though my beautiful and courageous friend kept working after that, even Durene has her limits. A few more houses were uncovered and more bodies fit in there, but most slept in cramped conditions in a patched-up building surrounded by snow.
Under such conditions, where no fire could be lit and most of the heat came from blankets and body heat, you could normally expect a lot of discomfort. But that night the grieving slept like logs and woke up just as refreshed as me. And better—they were healed by their rest!
Somehow, minor cuts had scabbed over and healed almost overnight. The larger injuries weren’t gone—but neither were they as bad as yesterday.
“It’s totally overpowered.”
That was my only comment when Durene told me about the healed people. It must be that I can only have one blessing, or that only one empire skill will work at the same time. Or…maybe [Emperors] are just that powerful.
Regardless, everyone knows it was due to me. The villagers woke up and made breakfast—helped change bandages—they’re self-sufficient and intelligent. But they all look to me as I sit with Durene, eating some soup greasy with fat and chunks of meat.
Here’s an irony: because all the animals were killed in the avalanche, the villagers are now eating a meaty broth, a rare treat for them in the winter or any other time, really. The warm, rich food warms my chest.
I look around and find that eyes are on me. I can feel them, even if I can’t see them. Plus, Durene lets me know.
For once, the gazes aren’t filled with petty concerns about Durene. I haven’t heard a bad word for her since I took charge, and indeed, no one’s busy enough to get into quarrels over anything except how to do things more efficiently.
After some thought, I stand up. I don’t make a speech. I don’t talk about yesterday, or my class. People have heard what I said; word gets around even in a disaster situation. But I still don’t mention it.
I turn towards the doors. I know the bodies are still out there. And the houses are still buried in the snow. Scavengers are going to come soon, if they haven’t already. The dead need to be buried with respect, and I’m still worried about monster attacks.
“Let’s get to work.”
So saying, I walk towards the doors. And the villagers follow me without question. Durene’s walking by my side, and I’m comforted by her. She whispers to me.
“I leveled up. Five times!”
“And I got two Skills! Two!”
I don’t smile. There’s still so much to do, and there’s been too much loss for that. But I keep walking forwards. Riverfarm needs all the help it can get. And it is mine now. My responsibility.
I feel sunlight on my skin. I look up, and know every inch and crevice of the village. I walk forwards, ignoring hands reached out to help me along. In this place I am even more sure-footed than people with sight. And it occurs to me, that despite all the things I’ve been through, I have been so lucky since I came to this world.
In little over a month I found someone to love. I found a way to see without seeing, I obtained a noisy pet, and I was in the right place to help save lives. I might have even changed a few minds about judging the girl who walks beside me.
Back home I was happy in my own way. But here I can see. Here I have a purpose. So as I walk and begin ordering people about, I wonder. Is this world meant for me? Is this destiny or chance? And is there any way I could possibly one day call this place…?
I don’t know. But I’ll take it all one day at a time. As I am. Not Laken, but Laken Godart, Emperor of the Unseen. Protector of Durene’s Cottage. Ruler of Riverfarm Village.