Van Raighan's Last Stand
3. A Hole In Her Mind
Somehow, the fabric of Taslin's close-fitting dress picked up the firelight in just such a way as to mesmerise Rel. The Gift-Giver sat at Dora's back, stroking her hair smooth and glossy using some power of the Second Realm Rel had never seen. Next to Taslin's graceful curves, no amount of hair-care could save Dora from looking scrawny and boyish. It wasn't fair, Rel reflected, to be travelling with such a beautiful lady who might also be a deadly enemy - certainly was deadly dangerous - while the only human woman around was so plain.
Wind whispered over the stones of the old croft-house's wall above them. The building was ancient, an abandoned ruin even before the Realmcrash, its roof long since gone. If it rained in the night, they'd all get wet, but it had been a dry day, the cloud lifting as the sun set, and a cold night promised. Wet blankets would be unpleasant, but the wind had a raw edge that spoke in long sibilance of exposure and hypothermia.
The shelter of the ruined croft meant a fire that wouldn't blow out, even if its plume of smoke vanished into the purple of the late-sunset horizon at an alarming angle. If the floor was hard, it was far from the worst they'd slept on in four days' travel. Rel stretched his legs, working sore feet in his boots and wishing it wasn't too cold to sleep barefoot.
To Taslin, Dora was saying, "Not the sort of use you expected to put your training to, I suppose?" She smiled, broadly and simply, a smile that would have been unthinkable even a week ago; being away from Federas, or perhaps no longer having the responsibilities of a Four Knot, had changed Dora. Unless this was just another strange effect of her second Gift.
"I was taught that power is useless unless used, and dangerous if reserved only for special uses." Taslin's speech had only the faintest hint of the awkwardness Wildren normally showed when speaking in First-Realm language, just the odd out-of-place pause. Somehow, it made her more disconcerting than her kin. The effect nagged at Rel every time she opened her mouth.
It didn't seem to bother Dora, who gave a short, light laugh. "Sounds very philosophical. Your mentor must have been very wise."
"We are not trained as you are, by a single teacher." Taslin paused, glanced into the flames. "Different specialists each teach their particular subject. During training I would usually study with a different teacher each day, in a rotation."
"Doesn't that mean an awful lot of teachers? If each trainee needs so many, I mean?" Dora's frown was puzzled, abstracted, with none of the ferocity Rel was used to.
"We learn in groups, sometimes as many as fifteen with one teacher."
Dora turned sharply, then hissed as the Wilder held onto her hair, pulling it. "Isn't that distracting, with everyone asking questions all the time?"
"Fewer questions are asked." Rel almost thought Taslin was frowning. Clipped though her speech was, for a moment she almost seemed human. He cursed himself under his breath. If Dora wasn't going to be appropriately wary, he couldn't afford to relax even in such a seemingly innocent moment.
"Oh. But what if the trainees don't get on? I always got on well with Tawny when I was training, but I-" Dora caught herself, but Rel knew what she'd been going to say. She made a vague gesture and finished, "I know some people... there can be friction with a teacher."
Rel tossed another branch on the fire, harder than was necessary, and the cascade of sparks gave him emphasis. "Like me, you mean?"
"Sorry, Rel, I didn't mean..." Dora looked at him, brows lowered and pinched in a way that didn't really match her apologetic tone.
He grunted. Better to close the conversation there than have a row. "I'll take second watch." He pulled his blanket out of his pack and started trying to make himself comfortable. "Good night."
For all the world, he thought he saw Dora and Taslin exchange the kind of patronising look Dora used to share with his mother when they thought he'd thrown a strop. He wriggled a bit closer to the fire, closing his eyes and trying not to grind his teeth. The soft hiss and crackle of the flames muted the women's conversation to a strangely pleasant, melodic burbling.
Fire dazzled Rel as he awoke, dragged out of sleep by the hard edge on Taslin's whisper. His first thought was that he was still at home, the house burning. Something of his dream lingered, the sense of squeezing against a wall to escape the flames.
Taslin crouched beside him. Had she been squeezing him? No, shaking him, shaking him awake. He shook his head, as if that would clear his eyes, but his attempt to roll away from the fire only pressed his face up against the Gift-Giver's leg. The fabric of her skirt was luxuriously soft, the flesh beneath firm, curved and warm.
Rel's brain caught up and he jerked back, stammering. Taslin grabbed his head, roughly covered his mouth. "Quiet!"
Her hands were strong, too strong for the humanity they pretended. He struggled, grunting, tangling in his blanket. This wasn't an attack, though. Even muzzy-headed, Rel knew that if Taslin wanted him dead she wouldn't need to wake him. And she'd already had plenty of chances since leaving Nursim.
So, it was something else. Conscious of his breath condensing hot and damp against her hand, he settled, met her eyes. They glittered against the firelight like quartz. Somewhere out in the darkness beyond the croft wall, a sheep screamed, high and oddly human.
Taslin said, "Keep a very tight rein on your fear. I think I detected an Axtli nearby."
A chill ran down Rel's spine. What was an Axtli? Taslin's rock-hard eyes were wide; her breath was tight and shallow, barely clouding the cold air. Wilder she might be, but she'd learned to perform her human emotions better than any he'd ever known.
"How's your logic burnout?" Taslin lifted her hand away from his mouth, just an inch or so. Her other, at the back of his head, stayed where it was, gripping firmly but not painfully. Ready to quiet him again if he made outcry, he was sure.
"Better. Maybe not all the way."
She pointed past the fire, let him turn his head to follow, though all he could make out was the broken wall, and beyond that night. Cold crept into his face, flowing round his eyeballs like a glacier, as he surrendered to Clearsight and studied the darkness.
Dancing flame became something less of a metaphor as he saw through to the complex, beautiful patterns of air movement that shaped the glowing gasses. Mixed and mottled cloud above covered the worst of the Realmlessness, sparkling with waiting dew; the night became a dithering haze of purples edged in silver, framed and shaped by the echoes of centuries lingering in the stone. Taslin, being a Gift-Giver, vanished, though Rel could still hear her breathing, and every so often the air would eddy at the edge of her shape and so reveal some part of it.
There was something out there, where she pointed. He didn't see it directly, and it wasn't the dreaded still patch that marked out a Negation, but the patterns were all wrong for the First Realm. There was a sense of motion, but it seemed to follow his gaze, so that each time he moved, he saw the same vague shape.
Ice seeped through the centre of his face, and for a moment the flickering shadow in a crack in the stonework was a maw, spreading black toothless jaws to engulf the nearest stone. Greater clarity, and the thing outside the walls resolved just a little; a cloud of needles, glossy and black, the firelight spraying tiny glimmers across their million facets. Every needle pointed straight at him, straight at his face, but each bore a shadow trained on Taslin.
Thought of the Wilder pressed up all too close against his neck made his concentration flicker, and there was a sudden sharp pain stabbing through the cold of his eyes, as if something had reached in and pinched his pupils. Panic threatened, and reflex pulled him ahead in time, following with horror as the Axtli's spines shot out and slid into his eyeballs. For just a moment, he had the sense of being sucked out of his own skull, and then control returned. Rel pulled his vision back to the present, fighting to keep his breath steady.
Keep a very tight rein on your fear. Well, he could do nothing about the chills in his spine, the claws squeezed tight around his heart, the slow groan of his swallow, but Wildren had no equivalents to such things. And a whisper would stay well below the fire and the wind. "What is it?"
"It must be an Axtli." The last word came with the awkward distortions of a Wilder trying to translate her own unintelligible communications into human language. "But they were supposed to have become extinct in the Realmcrash."
"It's a predator?" Could it have survived in the First Realm this long? No, it was newly arrived, or it would have been on them already. Instead, its form seemed to ripple like a cat's flank as it moved, slowly. A single step forward?
"Yes. A mind-eater." Taslin was offering no mercy of ignorance; even the most powerful Wildren feared mind-eaters.
Clearsight was beginning to hurt, just the first fingertip of pressure on his forehead. This far from any Sherim, he had an hour, perhaps, before he faced another burnout. The Axtli moved again, and there again was the impression of a short, powerful leg flowing forward to take a step-
"Stop it!" Hissed Taslin. "It will feel if you impose First-Realm logic on it." As if to emphasise the point, the needles that made up the predator stretched, prickling at the edges of the firelight. Rel held himself absolutely still while that same prickling seemed to run up and down his back.
Okay, it was a cloud of needles, floating there. Not even needles, just long, sharp, thin things. From this angle. Had the black spikes retreated a little way? "What do we do?"
Seeing Clearly, Rel saw nothing of the surprise that ran through the Wilder, but her shiver showed in tiny movements of air, and her voice came high and startled. "You trust me now?" It wasn't sarcasm, and yet her tone was far more lively and human than he was used to from Wildren.
"I choose you over that." Rel jerked his head towards the predator, then froze again as its needles twitched to follow the motion.
A weight settled on his shoulder, warm but uncomfortably close to his neck, and he twitched, squirming in alarm, before he twigged that it was Taslin's hand. She said, "We cannot let it roam free in the First Realm."
"Can we kill it?" This far from a Sherim, Rel didn't fancy trying to draw the creature back to its own Realm, but not all Wildren could be killed in the First Realm. How did you hurt a cloud?
"None of my kind will mourn the death of an Axtli." There was another shiver of motion through the needles as Taslin named the thing. Trust her to put Second Realm politics ahead of human life.
Rel began, slowly, to disentangle his legs from his blanket. "With due respect, I wasn't asking whether we're allowed to. Can we? The three of us?"
"I don't know." Flat, immediate, for a moment Taslin actually sounded like a proper Wilder. Rel shifted, keeping his eyes on the Axtli but dropping the Gift-Giver's hand off his shoulder. She continued, "I was never trained to fight them. If it's new to the First Realm, that may give us a chance, but how new it can be..."
"It's not used to First Realm logic, or it would be on us by now." Whatever attention the Axtli was paying them, Clearsight showed its hesitation for curiosity, uncertainty. Focussing hard enough that his headache bit deeper, Rel made out a third image of each needle in the cloud, pointing away from them, down the hillside meadow. To the sheep, perhaps? No, it moved too quickly. A fox or bat, maybe.
Taslin's whisper came back to him out of thin air, prickly with arrogant certainty. "It's come this far, it must know something at least. We're more than a hundred miles from the nearest Sherim."
"It can barely tell us from the wall. I'm not sure it even realises we're food."
"Then we should get Dora away from it before it notices." Swirls of gently displaced air in Taslin's wake shimmered in rainbow colours as she moved around the fire to where Dora lay, deeply and peacefully asleep. "Can you wake her without alarming her?"
As well to ask whether Dora could be woken without alarming the Axtli. Rel knew the set of his Four Knot's features all too well; Dora was a punctual waker by force of routine only, and slept like a stone. Since leaving Nursim, if anything, she'd been worse. Getting her up quietly would be a challenge, but promised at least a little revenge for any number of times she'd kicked him awake back home when she'd needed him. He said, "Hold her tightly, cover her mouth. It's the only way we'll keep her quiet."
Taslin pulled Dora up into her lap, the spectacle made eerie as the Four Knot seemed to float there, limp and half-out of her blanket, head lolling to one side. Dora didn't make even so much as a mumble, and when her head turned to face the stars, it was clearly because of Taslin's tight grip. Rel took the canteen from his pack and wetted a corner of his blanket. He couldn't resist a grin.
He reached to bring the damp cloth against the back of Dora's neck, but the back of his hand touched warm, invisible flesh under a thin skirt; Taslin's thigh. He jerked back, trying not to blush, and blinked Clearsight away. The Gift-Giver reappeared, regarding him with a mix of curiosity and amusement that reminded him all too much of Pevan's teasing.
Rel's cheeks heated, and he gritted his teeth. She was getting under his skin, and that was dangerous. He tried again, this time managing to apply the wet blanket to Dora's skin with a minimum of inappropriate contact. Dora stirred, turned slightly before Taslin's grip arrested her. If he could just get the dampness a little further down the Four Knot's back, she'd wake right up.
He glanced at Taslin in apology and regretted it. Beneath the graceful arch of her eyebrow, her eyes were bland, almost as he'd expect from a Wilder, except that a spark of humour danced there, and her smile was all too knowing. She gave him a sharp nod of permission - permission! Rel clenched his jaw to keep back an outburst. The Axtli was still out there, its form indistinct without Clearsight but still felt, a sense of First Realmspace itself under strain.
Keeping his eyes on Dora's face, trying not to think about Taslin, the warmth of her lap on the back of his hand, the sensual slide of her skirt, her arm close to his so that it raised a tingle of static in the hair at his wrist... he tried again. Keeping his eyes on Dora's face, watching for another stir that would bring her to wakefulness, he slid the blanket down the back of her dress.
She gasped, writhed, and Rel pulled back sharply, almost toppling back into the fire. His eyes met Taslin's for an unwelcome moment, and the Gift-Giver's amethyst stare brought a fresh burn to his face before she turned her attention to the wakening Four Knot. Rel turned, half-rolling away before the real, ordinary heat of the fire could burn him. Turning the wall, the night air cooled his face a little. A drop of sweat tickled his spine, sent a shiver through him. He cursed, but silently, wary of the monster only feet away.
Clearsight didn't clear his mind, but it did at least allow him to focus on a more immediate problem than Taslin's manipulations. As the Wilder exchanged urgent whispers with a bewildered, sleepy Dora, Rel opened his eyes and let the cold of Clearseeing flow into his face like the icy impact of standing under a waterfall.
The Axtli was barely recognisable, now a bristling black lump, its spikes all trained on Rel. It was as if each tiny needle had swelled and stretched until they'd merged together at the edges. And the spikes were still growing, reaching out towards him. He didn’t need Clearsight to see that the creature was close to noticing them; his eyes itched at the presence of it, until he had to blink back to normal vision.
This time, when his eyes met Taslin's, there was no teasing, no pretended humanity. Just the hard focus of desperation. She reached out a hand to him, and he grabbed it almost without thinking. The Axtli boiled into the croft, black fog that brought with it a wrenching sense of nausea. Then, suddenly, falling, tumbling, through where the floor should have been, and something caught him across the belly, flipping him over. Dora screamed in pain, drowning out Taslin's curse, and there was darkness.
No, not quite darkness. The fire was still there, dimmer than it had been, as if the Axtli had obscured it; the creature clouded the air less than an arm's length away. Rel's skin prickled. Why didn't it move? Why didn't it attack? Without Clearsight, the thing was only indistinct, unreadable, but he didn't dare activate his Gift in case the Axtli sensed the distortion.
"It's not as close as it looks." Taslin's sharp voice startled him, pressed into his back like a knifepoint. She'd stopped whispering, but the Axtli seemed deaf.
"What? What is this?" Rel turned, but behind him there was only darkness. The air was still in a way that the shelter of the ruin couldn't explain, and there was a faint, damp scent he couldn't quite place. Whatever it was, it left a rancid taste in his mouth, sloshing around in his thin, gruelish saliva.
"We're in a Sherim. I sensed it while we were waking Dora."
Dora still sounded half-asleep. "There's no Sherim near here." She finished with the soft moan of a yawn, and Rel thought he could make out the motion of her arms as she stretched.
"I don't pretend to understand it." This close to the Second Realm - if indeed they were close to the Second Realm at all - Taslin's speech became stiffer. With her acting hidden by the darkness, it was easier to remember what she was. "But it's still possible we haven't found every Sherim."
Rel looked back at the Axtli, dubiously. Could evading the creature be any worse than trying to navigate an unknown Sherim?
A whimper emerged out of the darkness, and Dora's voice cracked as she spoke. "What do we do?"
More than the black cloud of malevolence hunched by the fire, or the yawning void of the Sherim at his back - he could feel it now, tugging at his mind, testing his logic - it was the raw fear in Dora's tone that got to Rel. He shivered, trying to think of a way to comfort her while still confronting the problem. Nothing came except a few false starts that made him sound as if he was stammering.
"We get a little further away from the Axtli, first." Taslin sounded about as scared as a stone, and Rel fought down a hot surge of anger at his own weakness.
"Deeper into the Sherim?" Even to his own ears, Rel knew he'd failed; he couldn't manage more than a thready whisper. He was glad the two women couldn't see his face.
Darkness answered in a voice barely recognisable as the Gift-Giver's, merciless. "I can get us out again, with the benefit of your Clearsight."
A chill shot through Rel, and a pang of nausea followed it. "I can't See Clearly in a Sherim!"
"The alternative is to spend the rest of the night here and hope that daylight gives me enough light to work by." That was the contempt Rel was used to from Wildren. He gritted his teeth and glared at the gloom where Taslin must be. She could sneer at him all she liked, but Clearsight there and then could only make the situation worse.
Another whimper from Dora served only to underline their plight. Not much chance of any support from that quarter, then. At least Taslin was distracted for a moment; some of the uncanny warmth came back to her voice as she said, "Are you alright?"
"Headache." What the hell was wrong with her? So much for a Four Knot's duty to protect humans from Wildren. Dora grunted in pain and shook her head - somehow the Sherim, already gently tight around them, carried the motion to him. "Rel, I can't stay here long. It hurts."
"Why are you so afraid?" Directed at him like a thrown stone, Taslin's voice went back to alien tonelessness.
The Gift-Giver's mockery made opening his jaw to speak a trial. "You can't not know how dangerous this is. Sherim and Clearsight do not mix."
"If there was a less dangerous alternative, wouldn't I choose it?"
"I'm not asking you to risk anything I won't share. If you die, we're all lost."
"Alright!" Rel's outburst surprised him almost as much as the trembling of the Sherim suggested it did the women. At least they shut up. "Alright, I'll try. But I don't know what I'm looking for."
"Nor do I. Every Sherim is different." A reminder he didn't need, but at least Taslin didn't sound like she was instructing a child. If Dora had been herself, Rel knew she'd be lecturing fit to irk the pride of a mountain. The Gift-Giver finished, "Just keep a tight grip on your thoughts. If your attention wanders and you start applying First-Realm logic to anything, blink right away. That should keep you safe."
Automatically, he said, "I know." It wasn't true, but he wasn't going to let the Wilder think she'd taught him something useful. And anyway, if the Gift-Givers knew how to handle Clearsight in a Sherim, Rel should have heard about it in training.
He took a deep breath and the sound - all too coldly clear in the dead air of the Sherim - betrayed his nervousness in its tremor. Some way to die, humiliated in the darkness by his own breathing. Not that it should be shaming to be afraid in this situation, but he doubted the women would see it that way.
Against the muted quality of the firelight through the threshold of the Sherim, Clearsight was like opening a pair of eyelids he didn't have. In place of light, chaos and cold poured in. The Sherim was a tangle of silver threads, tinged blue or pink or purple by lights he couldn't see. Every thread was taut - it was this web that had transmitted Dora's trembling to him - but none were straight. Paradoxical, impossible, but Sherim were like that.
The maze of reflected glimmers dazzled, too complex for the eye to pick out patterns, even with the benefit of Clearsight. Dimly, Rel could sense the ceiling of the Sherim above him, a squashed dome rendered vast by the intricacy of everything within it. Dora, ahead, seemed only half there, as if her very fabric had tangled in the web. No, as if she was woven together with it. Perhaps that explained why she felt such pain. Only long training allowed Rel to suppress the wince that almost closed his eyes as he saw with sympathy how tightly the Sherim already held his Four Knot.
Beside her, the threads writhed and snapped around an invisible form that had to be Taslin, the only actual movement Rel could see. Instinct had him seeking to map the shape of her for a second before he realised it, and he forced himself to relax, let his eyes glaze and de-focus so that the image with its dangerous burden of First-Realm logic dropped away. Under the bridge of his nose, an ache pulsed, just enough to warn him of his building fatigue.
Some fold or twist of the Sherim put the image of the Axtli and the croft just to his left, even though by the lie and curve of the threads around him Rel could tell that the monster - and the way back to safety - was behind him. The creature was a cloud of needles again; three sets, all pointing identically at Dora, and yet two of the sets pointing beyond her and around through the convoluted structure of the Sherim to Rel and Taslin. By the length of the needles, the thing knew where they were, but could no longer identify them as food.
Rel resisted the urge to close his eyes before speaking. "What do you need me to see?"
"I'm going to start moving deeper into the Sherim, very slowly. Look ahead of me and see if you can see me dying." With the task right in front of her, there was no human fear in Taslin. Nor did any reluctance make her falter.
"How can I, when I can't see you?"
There was no mistaking the hissed curse that whispered through the net of the Sherim to him. "I'll make a light. Watch for it going out."
Put so bluntly and in a Wilder's flat tones, Taslin's statement became crushingly morbid. Rel felt himself grimace. "Wouldn't it be better to look for the path where you live?"
"The path on which we survive is likely to require some action on your part."
Which would block his Clearsight completely, maybe before they'd gotten anywhere at all. "Good thinking."
"Part of my training." Did the pattern of squirming threads around her settle a little? "This is how all the Sherim that have been were first mapped."
Another thing he should know already, if true. Still, it was reassuring to know the plan had worked in the past. Better not to ask how many of the hundreds of failed attempts to map Sherim had used this strategy.
No, that was his thoughts wandering again. Focus. "Okay. Go ahead."
A light, glimmering in one of those Second-Realm colours that wasn't quite yellow, appeared just above Taslin. Rel pushed his vision a little way into the future, watching the light move forward. Too far - all too easy to do - and the light winked out in stages, multiple overlapping lights disappearing into the sparkling background or fading as Taslin died in different ways.
He pulled back until his eyes rode time only a second or two ahead of the rest of him, feeling the whole Sherim pulling at his eyeballs, as if it threatened to tear them out. Gloved in ice, his eyes already felt detached from his body, but at least the discomfort had washed away awareness of the smell of the place. Off to the side, the Axtli's spines turned through no dimension the First Realm had words for as they tracked Taslin.
Taslin said, "Follow close. Anything could separate us."
Her light made no effort to move around any of the threads, but then with the way Taslin disrupted them perhaps she didn't need to. Dora walked - better not to think what on - straight through the tight bundle of silver strands, and though she moaned softly as she did, her pain didn't seem connected to the obstacles.
Still, Rel felt another surge of nervous nausea and a shiver as he reached out to touch the thread immediately in front of him. Though it looked cold and metallic, to the touch it was warm, the slick surface fleshy. Gruesome. His fingers tingled, just ever so slightly, at contact, then went through. The thread didn't snap, but Rel could feel it inside him, in between the bones of his hand, a light pressure and building pins and needles.
Eyes on the task. Taslin showed no sign of slowing to wait for him, and Dora was close on her heels. He pushed forward, watching the light, holding his Clearsight just that second ahead of him against the ache between his eyes. It was like leaning heavily on a spring, pressed into his forehead.
Lose focus, push out in the wrong direction, and the light spread out into a field, dimmer near danger, but too even and broad for him to tell where Taslin was. He struggled forward, wanting to look down at his feet - the floor felt uneven, treacherous - but knowing that was the surest way to lose contact with the Sherim and fall out, right next to the Axtli.
The light dimmed, and he called out, "Stop!"
Taslin adjusted whatever she'd been doing and tried again; this time, the light stayed.
With a scream, Dora vanished. The entire net of the Sherim shook, and the floor became elastic, stretching and bouncing under Rel so he stumbled. Reflex made him grab at the strand by his shoulder, but his hand went straight through it.
Mustn't fall over in a Sherim. A step that was half a leap got him his balance back, but the ground stayed unsteady and strange. Taslin shouted Dora's name. She hadn't planned this, then. Or she had, but she still needed his trust for something. Getting through the Sherim?
His first duty was to protect. Sorting the Gift-Giver out could wait. Find Dora, first. He turned to look behind, towards the threshold of the Sherim. Angles stretched, so that he might have turned all the way round by the time he caught up to what he wanted to look at.
And saw the last thing he wanted to see. Long, black spines, following the impossible twists of the Sherim's internal structure, reaching for him along what he knew had to be the shortest route. Clearsight at least told him how far away the Axtli was, let him judge how long he had. Seconds.
"Relvin! To me!" Taslin's voice, wild and high, was almost visible as the Sherim thrummed with harmonic echoes. The Axtli blocked any view that might have told him whether Dora was outside by the fire. He backpedalled, still close to falling, while the Axtli's spines stretched, reached.
Something closed over his chest, a tightness from right shoulder to just under left armpit, pressing him back into soft-but-sturdy flesh. He gasped, struggled, thought. Caught up; Taslin. At the edges of vision, threads of the Sherim writhed. Rel forced himself to breathe. Relaxation was too much to ask with the terrible spikes sliding silently at them. They picked up none of the Sherim's pink-and-purple lighting, and suddenly the rancid smell had a new, metallic edge; blood. Dora's?
With a wrench, Taslin leapt upwards - for relative definitions of upwards, at least - and there was a confusing moment of too many directions. Panic receded before his brain relaxed; why had the fear gone?
His fatigue headache had grown, spreading across his forehead, reaching for his temples. There was no sign of the Axtli. No, not quite; below - he had to be careful with that term; it was a bit too First-Realm for this deep in a Sherim - below them was a mat of parallel black lines, thin and perfectly straight. Rel could feel the Sherim on his skin now, tighter than clothing, cold where Taslin's embrace was warm.
Blushing again, he pulled himself off her as much as Sherim-wary prudence and her grip would allow. Still unable to see her, sight befuddled by the flapping of loose strings of Sherim, the task proved a challenge. Rel found he couldn't actually tell if he'd made the situation any better. Taslin wasn't letting go, either way.
Her breath was warm by his ear as she hissed, "Stay still!"
"Be very careful. We're a lot deeper in the Sherim than we were." Her voice had a ragged edge, and Rel realised that not all the trembling he could feel was his. "I took a shortcut."
The Axtli slid along beneath them, emaciated. But Rel could See its spines, pointing deeper into the Sherim yet also all pointing out to the threshold. The tangled threads within the Sherim made a rough, fraying weave through and around the Axtli. Would it sense the roiling mess Taslin was making of the threads nearby? Rel tried to follow the line of a nearby strand, to see if it led down to the monster below, but the folds in the Sherim's structure made it impossible.
Taslin said, "Relax. Your tension may draw the Axtli's awareness."
Rel's attempt only brought a different kind of tension, a frown exchanged for a clenched jaw as he tried not to think about what they were lying on. If they fell out of the Sherim now, they'd fall right on top of the Axtli below. But then, if they didn't, it would make its way through whatever part of the Sherim Taslin had cut across - must learn how she did that, since shortcuts were supposed to be anathema to Children of the Wild - and come upon them.
Letting his thoughts wander while Clearseeing was a bad plan. The web within the Sherim made all too many shapes that he could pick out, that a careless thought turned into monsters. Focus, and if concentration alone wasn't enough, make something to focus on. "What do we do now?" He managed to keep his voice to a whisper, but Clearsight showed him the wet shimmer of the words slicing through the air for a moment - would Taslin recoil?
He didn't feel any flinch in her arm, still tight across his chest. Her whisper came back, "Wait for it to go past, then drop out of the Sherim. Dora should be out there waiting for us."
"Yes, but I think it was just for her headache." If there'd been a human at the other end of the voice, Rel would have heard frightened uncertainty in it, perhaps even desperate hope. Tasteless to put on an act like that, but would a Wilder realise? Maybe she'd trained to navigate Sherim instead of training for the finer points of First-Realm manners.
"A headache doesn't make you scream." No point trying to disguise the grim edge in his voice. Let Taslin take offence if she wanted to.
"Shhh." Some subtle shift in her position told him to look down. The main body of the Axtli was gliding slowly past. Its spines all pointed forward or back, and Rel finally got a clear look at the creature within.
A hole, swirling with black-on-hungry-black patterns, and Clearsight showed the sucking vortex of the air - of Realmspace itself - that pulled at everything nearby. He could feel it through the tightness of the Sherim, he realised, now he knew what to feel for. Some trick of the light that wasn't light at all said that the hole, the Axtli, was spherical, at least for a Second-Realm value of 'sphere'.
There was no motion to its movement; no legs, no arms, the spines that must be eyes and ears and fingers all in one utterly static. It moved as if a statue on a cart. Or, perhaps - yes; Clearsight turned the spherical void into a marble, its surface so perfect that its roll was invisible.
Something tickled his eyelashes as it pressed onto his face, and no strength of will could keep him from blinking. Clearsight departed and only then did the light disappear. The pressure on his face was warm, a hand covering his eyes, but his nerves were so raw that he didn't notice the panic until it was past. Taslin had covered his eyes, forced him to break out of Clearvision.
With the front of his brain stunned numb by conflicting sensations - ache, cold, warmth, receding fear - he reconsidered his last thoughts, the details of what he'd seen. As he'd mused on marbles, the Axtli's spines had begun to thicken.
"Sorry. You were drawing its attention." Taslin's whisper came, barely louder than her breathing.
He tried to match it, but found his voice loud and clumsy in his own ears. "It's fine. Can we get out of here yet?"
"Another thirty seconds."
She took her hand away, but it was still night-time, and cloudy, moonless. Only the distant fire, somehow now high above them, shone muted by the Sherim's depths. Better not to twist around and try to get a look at their predator; doing so would only risk his place in the Sherim. Still, he could at least do something about Taslin's embrace.
She was a dim shape, felt as much as seen, and he seemed to be lying across her waist and hips, his head cradled in the crook of her elbow where her arm turned across to hold him. He tried to turn his shoulders, and sit up, but the Wilder kept tight hold.
"Let me go." He wasn't trying to sound belligerent, but the words came out as a harsh hiss.
"Stop fidgeting. I know it's not comfortable, but it's only another moment."
Rel was starting to understand why Dora got on so well with Taslin.
Immersed in darkness, every sense seemed muted. The sickly air was still; Rel realised he was holding his breath, decided to hold it a little longer. Under his shoulder, Taslin's chest shifted only slightly with each breath - just enough that he couldn't forget the femininity of her. Lips sealed, Rel wondered if the sound of his teeth grinding would carry outside his head.
"The way is clear. Brace yourself." Taslin held her voice so low Rel almost missed it.
They fell backwards, and the fall turned into a twisting, sliding sensation that all but threw the contents of Rel's stomach out of him - he gagged it back down, coughing - and then they were spilling out, upright but stumbling as feet hit the ground and there was a body there. Somehow, Rel managed to stagger into a leap that took him across the fire; Taslin fell to her hands and knees where she landed.
The fire was higher than it had looked from within the Sherim, and Rel beat embers from his trouser-legs, cursing. Then thought caught up; Dora.
She lay, clearly unconscious, facing the fire. That was the lip of the Sherim, then. Taslin turned, rising to a kneeling crouch, reaching for Dora, but already there was a dark, shapeless cloud around the back of her head. Rel's blood went cold even as he engaged Clearsight. The cloud became thick black spikes, shining in the firelight, stretching up from Dora's head as if they were coming out of her ear.
The Axtli fixed on all three of them, bristling with spines that promised unknown horror.
"Clearseer! First-Realm logic!" Taslin's shout broke his hypnotised terror. What did she mean?
No time to do anything but trust her. Find the shape that the spines made as they twisted through the threshold of the Sherim and back into ordinary dimensions. They could almost be tall grass, razor sharp and deadly to walk through.
He shook his head and tried again, keeping his mind off the thought of what those spines might do if they touched flesh. How sharp were they?
No, something spiky but harmless. Mother's pin-cushion. No, the shape was more like one he'd once seen Mrs. Tofarn using, an ugly thing that was supposed to be the shape of a dog's head. Yes, the shape fit. Rel concentrated-
- And leapt back with a yelp as Taslin swiped an arm through the air and a razor-edged gust of wind tore through the Axtli. The flinch made him blink - Clearsight lost - but the First-Realm image lingered. Severed and scattered pins bounced off Dora's arm, vanishing before they could roll to a stop. The Axtli made no noise, but there was no mistaking the way the dark shape receded behind Dora's head.
In the seized moment, Rel took stock. They needed to move Dora away from the Sherim, and fast. His head ached. The skin on his hands prickled, warning him he was too close to the fire, and he stepped sideways around it while Taslin gathered Dora's arms, began to lift her.
The moil of darkness burst into a fountain, black gouts shooting ten feet up before curving round and driving down at the women. Rel lunged, hand outstretched, and this close to a Sherim, his Gift became wild power. With Clearsight deactivated, he couldn't see the sheet of reality that scythed from his fingertips into the stream of Axtli, but the flow stopped, almost before Taslin had time to give a raptor-like scream.
In the dark beyond the crumbling wall, a forlorn bleat answered her. Trusting in his subconscious to work out the logic his front brain couldn't hope to grasp, Rel pushed against the Sherim, fighting against the Axtli almost bare-handed. Beneath him, Dora stirred, whimpered, began a soft moan. Taslin gasped, each shallow breath a dagger through the night air.
But whatever the Axtli's touch had done to her, it hadn't crippled her. She met his eyes, face unreadable but far from impassive. Then Rel felt the pressure against his hands lift as she turned her gaze on the darkness. His fingers tingled, not unpleasantly, as the bubble-skin edge of her Warding dropped through them onto the Axtli. Voice low, she said, "I've got it. Move Dora."
Rel knelt, trying to work out how to carry the Four Knot. If she woke up and he was holding her wrong, he'd be bearing the hand-print for a week. She might very well slap him regardless, but it was a risk he was going to have to take. Gingerly, he tried to roll Dora onto her back.
She spasmed, and Rel jerked back as she curled tight, letting out a prehuman howl. The black fringe of the barely-restrained Axtli moved with her.
Taslin cursed. "It's in her head!"
"Get it out!" Rel snapped, then caught himself. "No, hold it a moment. I have an idea."
"Make it fast," she said, through gritted teeth.
As it had sprayed out of the Sherim, the Axtli had been pitch black. And you use a rag soaked in pitch to make a torch, so pitch must burn. Not even sure what pitch was, Rel grabbed a stick from the fire, burning along half its length. Taslin's eyes were round with fear as she watched him. There was no way she could understand what he was about to do.
He said, "Let it go."
"You're sure it will burn?"
"First-Realm logic. Just shield Dora."
The Gift-Giver nodded, leaned back, and with a sharp gesture released the Warding. The Axtli sprang forth, and Rel told himself no, pitch sprang forth. He thrust out with the burning brand, felt the charred tip snap in the sticky, hard impact. Fire licked at the blackness, even as the top of the spray began to curve back to earth, back to claim them.
Every muscle in his body tense, Rel forced First-Realm logic onto what he saw. The Sherim twisted his efforts, but he concentrated, feeling the surge of heat as the flame caught. Then, with a whumph that washed his outstretched arm in boiling air, there was a fifteen-foot pillar of fire climbing into the night, turning, falling, sticky and deadly.
Rel jumped back, slapping at his smoking sleeve. Something very like light, but not quite, flashed as Taslin swiped aside falling fire, spraying it across the wall. Even burning to destruction, the Axtli - pitch, a fountain of pitch - made no sound, but the pitch hissed and spat as it flared out.
As panic faded, pain rose in its place. His head ached, both from tired muscles clenching his jaw and the logic-fatigue effort of making the Axtli burn. The hand he raised to knead his forehead stung with the onset of the inevitable burns. And he was cold. Cold even though he stood right next to the fire. Shaking, he met Taslin's eyes.
Her smile was weak, but warm. "Good thinking. Whatever it was you did."
It took morning to reveal the mess they'd made. Rel found himself deeply glad of even the broken sleep snatched in singed blankets as he stepped out of the croft to relieve himself. The meadow below the ruin was littered with headless sheep corpses that left no space to think the Axtli a nightmare. The wind, if anything stiffer than the night before, brought the raw-meat smell up the hill, and Rel averted his eyes before he could look too closely at the red mess of the nearest ewe's neck.
Returning to the croft, he found Taslin had stirred in his absence. Numb, closer to nauseous than he wanted to admit, he gestured outside.
The Wilder actually managed to look sympathetic as she said, "The flock?" Rel found himself comforted, the sick tightness in his throat letting go. He dug his fingernails into his palm, fist clenched. She was still what she was. No Child of the Wild could understand the First Realm well enough to empathise with waking up to this kind of shock.
Still, at least anger had returned his power to speak. "It ripped the heads off the sheep. Not all of them, but..."
"It will have sensed their fear there." Taslin glanced across the ashes of the fire at the still-sleeping form of Dora. "How will she react?"
"She's pretty tough." Maybe tough enough not to throw up, at least. The Four Knot was about as far from squeamish as a woman could get. A sudden bitter thought pulled his brow down into a frown. "I don't know, though. Since you messed with her head, she's been..." He waved a hand vaguely.
Taslin waited politely, but Rel couldn't find the right word. Eventually, the Wilder said, "Would it help if I told you what's happened to her? I realised last night what it is."
"What is it?" Would she lie to him? Even a lie might help, in the long run.
The Gift-Giver actually went as far as to pantomime a nervous swallow. Rel resisted the temptation to call her out on the bad taste of the gesture. She couldn't really think he was fooled. She said, "The Sherim we were in last night is in Dora's head."
"What? That's impossible!"
"'What we know is that we know nothing', Clearseer. It was our saying before it was yours." Taslin shook her head sadly. "The Gift must have become unseated inside her and come into physical contact with her brain."
Rel sat down, aware that his legs were giving him no choice in the matter. "The Gift?"
"A Gift is a tiny piece of the Second Realm, lodged inside the head of the Gifted. Most of the Gift-Giving process is concerned with making sure it is isolated from any First Realm-matter. One Gift by itself shouldn't be enough to cause a Sherim to form, but with a second..." She tailed off. Dimly, Rel realised he was letting himself be taken in by her performance, but he was too stunned to stoke his anger and rise above it.
"What do we do about it?" The words twisted through the air, a razor-sharp silver ribbon in the steam of his breath. Dora might be sleeping, but her Sherim - if Taslin was to be trusted - was far from quiescent. The Wilder looked down at Dora, her eyes watering. "First we need to see if she can wake up."