Van Raighan's Last Stand
4. Touching the Void
Rel's cheeks burned. Laughing, Dora skipped away down the brow towards the grey sprawl of Vessit. Skipped, when she hadn't skipped since being Gifted her Four Knot almost ten years ago. Unable to help himself, Rel met Taslin's eyes. Her mirth faded like the pantomime it was, replaced by the kind of blank expression a Wilder should have.
Dora's quip hung in the air between Rel and the Gift-Giver. Aren't you paying a little too much attention to Taslin's looks, Relvin? All he'd done was ask Taslin to cover up a bit more when they went into the town. For the fortnight of their journey, the Wilder had never been without at least some patch of bare skin, always provocatively placed, despite the chill early-spring weather and the obvious discomfort it caused her. It was as if she had given up on trying to win Rel over and instead settled for keeping him constantly uncomfortable.
Heaven alone knew what the people of Vessit would think when she walked into town. The new settlement snuggled colourfully up against the concrete and glass of the abandoned old city. Beyond, the sea glistened under shafts of sunlight slicing through broken cloud, low enough to sting the eyes. But for the faintest hint of a twist where the shore cut up to the horizon, there was no sign that the First Realm ended a bare handful of miles out from the coast.
Rel studied the view, picking out the circling of birds over the water, and nearer but still tiny, the figures of beachcombers, dark on pale sand. Whisper-soft, the rustle of expensive fabric told him Taslin had stepped to his side to share the view. Rel closed his eyes, sighing through his nostrils.
The Gift-Giver said, "Forgive me, I don't understand why Dora laughed." For once she sounded like a Wilder, her voice flat and dead. "It was a joke?"
Rel took another deep breath, relaxed his jaw. "She was teasing. It's... hard to explain."
"I understand teasing. Saying things that make the hearer uncomfortable." Taslin frowned, her acting flawless as she finished, "Why would you be uncomfortable with paying attention to my looks?"
"She's..." Rel could feel his cheeks heating up again. It was all too easy to forget the creature standing next to him wasn't human. Was she, too, poking fun at him? Fists clenched at his sides, he glared down the hill at Dora's retreating back-
- And sight snapped into alignment with a remembered Clearviewing as she turned to look back up at them, laughing. The ribbon Taslin had used to tie up Dora's bouncing ponytail - newly straightened and stretched under Taslin's ministrations - fluttered in the breeze, just as it had in the viewing, two weeks earlier, that had sent them on this journey. At least, as far as Rel was any judge, it had. The odds were good, either way, that somewhere in the city ahead, Rissad Van Raighan was still at large. They were on the right track.
Turning to Taslin, Rel said, "Never mind. This is the first part of my Clearviewing. We'd better get a move on."
Hindered by her scandalous, figure-hugging dress, the Wilder stumbled as she followed him down the slope. "You didn't answer my question."
"It's not important."
Dora, coming back uphill to meet them, frowned as she overheard. "What's not important?"
"I asked why Rel was uncomfortable with the way I look." Taslin's clear, incisive tones cut through Rel's mumbled 'Nothing'.
Dora giggled, "Go on, Rel, why don't you explain? It's a mile or two to Vessit yet."
He stared at her, and it was a moment before he realised his mouth was hanging open. He closed it. Blandly interested, Taslin looked on, her regard heating his cheeks yet again. Rel reached up a hand to the back of his neck, tugged at his collar, conscious of the damp chill of beading sweat. There was a childishness to Dora that he didn't remember even from when she was still a child.
Trying not to mumble, he said again, "It's not important. Let's keep moving." He walked past her, head down. Would she notice the set of his jaw? If she did, was she even still capable of understanding he wanted the subject dropped?
"You can't walk and talk at the same time, now?" Dora bounced along at his side. From behind, he could feel Taslin's interest tickling between his shoulders. In a sing-song tone she must have learned from his sister, Dora said, "Aren't you even going to say why you don't want to explain?"
Rel gave a silent curse. "Why don't you explain, if it matters so much?"
"Oh, no. I couldn't do that." She giggled again, skipping sideways so that she could face him as she moved. "You should never explain your own joke."
Rel saw the opportunity. "Some joke. Jokes are supposed to be funny." It was rude, but maybe if he returned fire she'd shut up. That sometimes worked with Pevan.
"Taslin laughed." Dora's expression was so alien on her face that Rel, catching a glimpse out of the corner of his narrowed eye, had to look again to be sure. She was actually simpering. This from the woman who shouted at Pevan and Rel all their childhood at the faintest hint of a smirk.
"Yes, because Children of the Wild are famous for their ability to understand First-Realm humour." As soon as the words were out of Rel's mouth, he regretted them, his flushed cheeks burning even higher. There was no mistaking the childish tone of the snipe.
To make matters worse, Taslin spoke, in a voice smooth with the assurance of experience. "In truth, Rel's right. I was taught that it's good manners to laugh when humans do."
He couldn't help himself. "Not always." Though he made a deliberate effort to un-hunch his shoulders and walk straight, he knew he sounded sullen.
"Stop changing the subject." Dora poked him, hard, in the arm. The gesture threw her balance off and she stumbled on the thick grass. Automatically, Rel put out a hand to steady her, but as soon as she was on firm footing again, she pouted. "You owe Taslin an explanation."
Too much to hope for gratitude, then. "I don't owe her anything. Why do I have to explain?"
Her glare took on a harder edge. Was she actually serious? "Your mother raised you to be polite, didn't she? I should know. I helped." The smirk she treated him to made it hard to take her seriously, even if she might genuinely think he was being unnecessarily rude.
Rel made a tentative attempt at mirth that rang in his ears like the wheeze of an asthmatic donkey, and cursed himself for the lack of confidence. The same lack sapped the humour from his voice, left him sounding outright belligerent. "Okay, there's no way you're acting like this because of my manners. What are you trying to get me to say?"
"Honestly, Rel!" She tutted him, as if she'd suddenly turned from his sister into his mother. "It's my job as Four Knot to ensure smooth and polite relations between humans and Children of the Wild. Most especially the Gift-Givers. Why shouldn't I take an interest in your appalling manners? It's only a question. Really, I don't know why you're making such a big deal out of this."
Despite the twinkle dancing in Dora's eye, Rel judged it better not to remind her she wasn't a Four Knot any more. Teeth-gritting she might be in this mood, but at least the melancholy that had dogged her through the journey had lifted. He stopped, turning to face her with his arms folded. "Look, if I explain will you shut up about it?"
"So you admit there's something to explain, then?" She laughed, her demeanour shattering instantly as she spun, part-way through a step, to face him. She finished up with a stumble backwards and Rel had to reach out a hand to stop her falling flat on her backside again. However much she deserved the indignity.
"I'll answer the question Taslin asked. That's all." There was no helping it; with Dora stood below him on the slope, he had to bow his head to look at her, and combined with his clenched jaw the effect left him sounding sullen again.
The Wilder had stopped with considerably greater dignity. With the hill on her side, she seemed impossibly tall, and harsh daylight cut her already-sharp features to hawkish wickedness. She said, "Thank you. I apologise for causing such a fuss, but I would be remiss in my duties if I did not continue to seek greater understanding of your people."
Despite the cool, almost affectionate tone of her voice, which surely sounded like sarcasm, she had to be sincere. Didn't she? As sarcasm, her words were impossibly sophisticated for a Wilder, except that nothing was quite impossible. Even by the standards of her species, Taslin set new records for confusing him.
He settled for a stiff nod to acknowledge her apology, and realised he didn't know where to begin. Why had he gotten so upset with Dora's quip? It was rude of the Four Knot to suggest he might find a Wilder attractive, but he couldn't exactly explain that to Taslin. He bit his lip, caught himself doing it, and stopped, feeling the odd urge to cover his mouth to make sure he didn't do it again. Instead, he clenched a fist, and said, "Sorry, could you repeat the question? I've lost track."
Dora laughed. Taslin gave her a brief glance and chuckled. Rel's blood went cold. Had they planned this? Taslin's face straightened quickly, but new suspicion kept Rel unbalanced as the Gift-Giver said, "Why are you uncomfortable with the way I look?"
"I'm not," he snapped. "I just... I think... It might be best if you covered up a bit more when we get into Vessit. We don't want to draw attention to ourselves." A bead of sweat tickled as it slipped down the back of his neck. Still, better than answering the question she could have asked. Rel turned back to the path and started walking again.
Dora's voice took on a definite edge. "That doesn't answer the question, Rel."
He sighed, though the sound came out more like a growl, and kept walking.
"Seriously, Rel, what's got into you?" Dora's words chased him, sharp but laced with concern, as if it was he, not she, who suffered the unknown effects of Wilder meddling. "It's just a question. You're acting as if you've something to hide."
Gagged by the turn of the Four Knot's mood, Rel missed the chance to snap the obvious retort - so were you, just a moment ago - and set his jaw. He wasn't about to apologise for her worry, however sincere it was. She had been teasing, after all, every bit as intensely as Pevan could when the fancy took her.
Instead, he glanced at Taslin, settling his explanation into careful order. Then, without breaking stride, he said, "Dora's first tease implied I might be attracted to you, Taslin." He turned his face back to the path as he stumbled over the Gift-Giver's name.
Taslin met his awkwardness with unfazed, uncomfortable clarity of thought. "You are uncomfortable being attracted to me?"
"Of course I am! You're a Wilder!" Turning on his heel to deliver his shouted riposte, he was satisfied to see both women flinch back. Hot shame for his consistent failure to remember Taslin for what she was - lethally dangerous and possessed of unintelligible motives - stifled restraint. "How could I do my job if I let you control me like that? And I'm not attracted to you. The idea by itself's insulting."
"But why? I chose this appearance for its attractiveness. Finding me attractive should be simple sound judgement." Taslin's stiff answer provoked a burst of laughter from Dora. The Wilder shot a puzzled frown at the other woman, but there was nothing stiff or rehearsed in the chuckle she shared.
Utterly bewildered, Rel seized on the one fact he could draw simple anger from. "You are trying to manipulate me! That's-" What? There was no law against it, nor could he accuse her of complex deceit when she could just claim ignorance of the logic that made her behaviour unacceptable. He resisted the urge to curse, or kick the ground in frustration.
"I wouldn't call it manipulation." Once again, the mirth had fled from her face with amphibian, slippery speed. "It's well-established that humans meet us with less suspicion and distrust if we take on attractive guises. Since my assignment with Dora required trust from the first, I attempted to maximise the effect."
"How is that not manipulation?" Rel demanded.
Taslin arched her eyebrow. "It doesn't seem to be working."
Dora laughed, the sound shrill enough that somewhere nearby a bird answered. Rel opened his mouth, then closed it again, riding down the urge to laugh himself. Taslin's accidental delivery of the joke was perfectly timed. More to the point, her argument was unassailable. He wasn't sure whether to be more afraid of the understanding that stood behind her choice of appearance or her apparent fluency in First-Realm logic.
Better not to press the matter. Ignoring Dora, he turned and resumed the walk into Vessit. Somehow, it didn't seem likely he'd be able to get Taslin to dress decently now.
Rel's mood sucked at the last hour of the walk to Vessit like mud. Dry footing, blue sky and the first wildflowers of spring failed to shake his sense that the curious stares of the women drove him forward. At least, for a wonder, Dora abandoned her badgering.
The town they entered was a far cry from neat, tidy Federas. Lacking local timber, Vessit was cobbled together from driftwood, beach stone and scroungings from the old city. The effect was striking, even riotous. A dwelling on the outskirts consisted of a waist-high, flared wall of lumpen stones in a dozen colours, topped by a flimsy structure of red-brown driftwood that rattled enough to make Dora jump when the wind struck it.
Before they could go into the old city in search of Rissad, propriety demanded they present themselves to the local Four Knot, particularly since they had a Wilder of Taslin's prodigious strength in tow - she hadn't even flinched as they came within range of the town's Stable Rods. Finding the official in question looked likely to be difficult, since the streets were all but deserted, so Rel set a brisk pace as they headed for the Warding Hall.
He was stopped short with a sinking stomach as Dora gave a fresh burst of giggles. Not good, if her mania was going to return with strangers around to see. Thinking quickly, Rel turned and said, "What's funny?" The words came out sharper than intended, but perhaps the sense of disapproval would quell her before she got too strange.
No such luck. Her eyes twinkling, she sang out, "Rel and Taslin, sitting in a tree-"
"Stop that!" It was all he could do to keep from jamming a hand over her mouth, so loud did her voice seem in the empty street. It would be a sorry farce if Vessit's Four Knot stumbled on them now and he had to explain that Taslin was a Wilder. Never mind trying to convince someone he'd never met that only a fortnight earlier, Dora had been the most ferocious Gifted in the First Realm.
As if to underline the point, she tittered again. "But it's tru-ue. I've seen the way you look at her."
Rel could feel his cheeks heating. Why couldn't she let it drop? Of all the things he'd had to put up with from Dora, this was the last he could have expected. Digging his fingernails into his palms only served to feed his anger, and he felt his lips twisting in a grimace. Fighting to keep his voice calm, and quiet, he said, "It's not true. You know it, and I deserve better than to have to put up with this from you."
"There's no need to be like that, Rel." Dora's manner had stiffened, but only slightly. Behind her, Taslin stared at him with outright alarm on her face. Dora's tone was reproachful rather than angry as she finished, "It's just a joke."
"No it isn't!" He punctuated the gesture with a sweep of his arm that made her flinch backwards, almost stumbling into Taslin. He stabbed a finger in the Wilder's direction. "She is not human. She is a monster, and the idea that I might be attracted to her is revolting. What the hell is wrong with you?"
"What's wrong with you?" Dora rallied, eyes flashing, cheeks red. "You're the one who's being unreasonable here."
"Yes, because you're well known for behaving like a bratty twelve-year-old." Rel caught himself short, aware that if he gave his anger free rein he wouldn't get it back under control. Trying to work the edge out of his voice, he changed tack. "Dora, this isn't like you. They've done something to you and you need to acknowledge that you've changed." He reached a hand up to squeeze her shoulder. "You need to trust me."
She shoved his hand away. "Trust you? You are in love with her, and you're right, it is revolting. How can you keep up your duties like this? You're supposed to be against the Second Realm."
"You need to remember you're not my Four Knot anymore." As the words left his mouth, Rel realised he'd overdone it. Vulnerable and confused as Dora was, the loss of the authority she'd cherished was the worst of her wounds from the second Gift. If he backed down now, though, it would be to capitulate to the repugnant suggestion about Taslin, and the thought alone left a rancid taste in his mouth. He spun on his heel before Dora's brimming tears washed away his resolve. "I came here to do a job. I'm going to go and do it. You can follow when you've calmed down."
"Relvin-" Taslin's voice lacked its usual sharp edge, but he wouldn't have stopped for her even if she'd tried Compulsion on him. Long, stiff strides carried him down the street towards the dark shape of old Vessit while he tried to get his riled breathing under control. Dora had no right to talk about him like that and in the state she was in, she could hardly be relied on in the upcoming confrontation.
No footsteps followed him, though every dark window lining the street seemed to watch him as he passed, staring in accusatory shock. Loose roof shingles clattered in the wind, keeping him on edge while the wind itself made his skin prickle with cold. Better to hurry into the old city than try to find the local Four Knot, now; he didn't want to be the one who had to explain what had just happened, and without Taslin in tow, the introduction was nothing more than a formality. Rissad could be escaping his captors even now. Time was of the essence.
The streets stayed empty, but for a pair of matrons who treated him to the kind of hostile stare reserved by most people for suspicious strangers. Rel's stride stiffened further under their regard, enough that he stumbled, hating himself for it and cursing Taslin and Dora for making him so jumpy. As the locals turned a corner out of sight, Rel found himself hot-faced again for his weakness to Taslin's manipulation.
Eerie though the cracked streets and crumbling concrete of the old city were, the knowledge that he was alone settled Rel's nerves a bit. Hunger began to tug at his stomach. Stiff as the breeze had been on the hill above the town, the streets of old Vessit funnelled it into a wind that found its way through every piece of clothing Rel had on. Grit stung his eyes and left him spitting the earthy taste from his tongue. The mere act of looking around, trying to spot landmarks remembered from the Clearviewing that had led him here, became a trial.
In the viewing, Rissad had entered the caves leading to the Abyss through a tower that would have seemed modest by the standards of its time, but was now a monolith as daunting as any pre-Crash ruin. Brown and yellow brickwork quickly gave way to concrete and glass as the buildings reared up, higher and higher with each crossroads. Every concrete monster showed the scars of the Realmcrash, their glass cracked or missing, some leaning towards their neighbours, one whose upper storeys had collapsed leaving a shape like an imploring hand, reaching skywards in desperation.
At street level, though, they were all too much alike. Rissad's path could have led through any of them. Rel found a park that might have been the one he'd Seen Rissad crossing, now scattered bright yellow with the first daffodils of spring, but there was no way to tell which way the other man had gone from there. Resigning himself to a frustrating afternoon trying desperately not to blink against the wind, Rel opened his eyes and let the cold fingers of Clearsight pluck at his eyeballs.
The city attacked with a thousand clues to past tragedy. There was a grimy smear along the side of the nearest building, perhaps thirty feet up, and Rel could pick out the silt-swirls left behind when the Realmcrash tsunami receded seventy years before. He shivered, trying not to look at the dents and craters lower down in the concrete; any bloodstains were long gone, but Clearsight ripped away the merciful veil of time.
He pulled himself back to the task in hand, focussed on the tarmac at his feet. It, too, bore the signs of the wave that had killed the city, but searching the whole area for Rissad's footprints was a fool's errand. Nor could Rel find his route by peeking into the future; it would be too close to his own future for him to have any chance of seeing anything.
Instead, he searched for the details that would pull his disorganised memories of the original Clearviewing into coherent order and tie them to the streets he walked through. Where the city had begun to heal, he found clues; a particular weed, grown bushlike and spreading through the shattered paving of a park path; the rusted remains of a car, its wheels nestled amid a blanket of dandelions. A nook where the daffodils were beginning to die back identified this as the park Rel had Seen Rissad crossing.
Led by the sharp edge of trained memory, Rel took up Rissad's trail and headed roughly North, into the sunless grey canyons amid the highest towers. Clearsight remained unforgiving, telling him in exacting detail which cracks in the walls that loomed over him would eventually bring their buildings down. Silence became the ally that steadied his nerves; surely a collapsing building would roar enough warning to let him get away.
Then Rel found himself in front of a doorway whose glass panels were smashed to jagged teeth, the metal frame twisted past moving. The shape matched the memory of Rissad's route. Bending to squeeze between the sharp edges of the entry, he suppressed a shiver and tried to watch the back of his own neck as it cleared the glass. His flinch as his sleeve caught on a shard almost impaled him.
Inside, the lobby was a gloomy hole, speckled with reflections caught on odd shards of glass or bits of useless electronics. Rel's footsteps crunched and slipped on a floor that had probably once been slick marble and now lay hidden under a layer of dank silt. Clearsight showed him a maze of shadowed ridges that were the edges of footprints; Rissad's were easily identifiable for the flat leather soles that had replaced what little rubber scavengers had found and worn after the Crash.
Deeper into the building, light became replaced by the eye-crushing sensation of watching atoms move by their own infinitesimal radiation. The walls swum with nauseating waves of static matter that made him feel as if he was reeling to the sway of a boat. When he came to the staircase down which Rissad's footprints led, Rel almost rolled down it.
Below-ground, if anything, things got worse. As he adjusted to the chill pain of Clearseeing in darkness, Rel began to see the stresses that were slowly grinding the building above him to obliteration. Rogue strands of the future pushed into his vision; this wall would give, dropping that beam. Worse, he knew he could have estimated to the nearest ten how many tons of steel and concrete would fall as a result.
He almost missed the moment when the cellar gave way to caves. A thick steel panel, eight feet high and half that wide, had been torn clean through and bent out of the way; its twin lay on the uncut stone beyond, its microscopic structure oddly quiescent against the surrounding, stressed rock. The footing in the caves was rougher, but at least the lack of straight lines removed the impression that he walked on a floor sloped at angles the First Realm lacked words for.
Rel's footsteps scuffed back from the darkness ahead as drawn-out, bloated whispers. Lack of a breeze made the air lifeless despite a chill that was oddly soothing. It took the worst of the sting from his developing headache. Here and there, water glistened with reflected gloom, running silently down the walls. It was all Rel could do not to hold his breath.
A few signs remained that the tunnels had once seen human use - broken fittings in twisted steel dotted the walls, and in a few places there were still the remains of a crude artificial floor, metal grating wrecked by some effect or other of the Realmcrash. The destruction was too haphazard to have been deliberate, but where had the rest of the wreckage gone? It was unlikely to have been salvaged; any scavenger would have had the hefty doors first.
In tiny clues that would have taxed even most Clearseers, he followed Rissad's trail; a pebble that had scratched the floor as it rebounded from the other man's boot, a drop of water diverted from its path by grease transferred from his skin where he'd stopped to lean on the wall. Rel spared thought for a grim, tight smile. Let Dora and Taslin try to follow his trail this way. Even Taslin probably couldn't manage that.
He'd catch Rissad himself, and then there'd be no need to sort things out with the local Four Knot, and they couldn't humiliate him into apologising. Dora had provoked him. Anger was a fair enough response, even if he regretted lashing out quite so fiercely.
A flash of light - ordinary, honest-to-goodness, real light - brought Rel's mind back to the present. Just for the moment's relief, and to check he hadn't imagined it, he blinked away Clearsight. Darkness was like a warm towel about his face and shoulders, infinitely comforting. Even the strain as his eyes adjusted to pick out the faint glow of a distant, approaching torch was welcome. And torch it was, from the flickering. Where the cave turned the corner ahead, an orange glow began to rise, flecked with glimmers of white-gold where the walls were wet.
Rel took a deep breath and wriggled his feet in his boots to make sure they were squarely planted. No need for this to turn into a confrontation, since his job sent him here, but Wildren were never predictable at the best of times and the Wildren guarding the Abyss were already well outside the terms of the peace. He rolled his shoulders and stretched his arms out, conscious that a fortnight of sleeping rough had left stiffness that might well impair his agility.
He was just reaching the thought that this could be a town guard sent after him at Dora's behest when the torch rounded the corner, in the hands of something unmistakably inhuman. The Wilder moved smoothly across the tops of four stumpy legs that despite their tree-trunk proportions stuck out sideways like a spider's. Above that, a torso leaned forward, topped by an uncanny, triangular, thick-set head. Despite its imposing mass - the head, even bowed, barely cleared the roof of the cave- the creature made little more sound than Rel had.
Rel recognised it; it, or another of its species, had been the Wilder to capture Rissad, perhaps only a few days before. He let out his breath, took another. The Wilder stopped short well shy of looming range, and Rel told himself he wasn't really relieved. It was just nice to be able to look the thing in the eyes, or whatever they were.
It said, "Clearseer." Its voice was flat and bland, the voice of a Wilder not well-practiced at speaking to humans. Looking at it, Rel guessed it rarely needed speech to make its point. It went on, "I apologise. Humans cannot come further here."
The torch probably gave enough light to banish the worst effects of the darkness on his Clearsight. Rel stepped forward, pushing back into his Gift, fighting down the shiver of nerves. The Wilder opposite didn't actually move, but Rel clearly saw caution brace its stance. He said, "I'm acting on a Clearviewing I had two weeks ago. You've taken a human captive here?"
"Yes. He trespassed." It took the Wilder a long moment's pause to find that last word. It continued, "If you do not go back, I must arrest you as well."
Tentatively, knowing the Wilder would sense it, Rel looked a little way forward in time, trying to judge his adversary's capabilities. Clearsight should warn him of a coming attack, but Clearseers had died to sudden attacks before. This Wilder promised little danger, though, beyond the strength written in its frame. Rel said, "You have no power of arrest here. If you continue to interfere with my job, I will be forced to take you in for censure." Better not to think about the tangle that would create, since then he would have to make himself known to the Four Knot.
"You cannot go further. It will not be safe for you."
"So I've heard." The Wilder wouldn't pick up the sarcasm in Rel's acknowledgement. "Still, I'm a trained Clearseer and I know my job. Let me pass."
"I cannot do so." It managed a clumsy shake of its head. Rel frowned, suddenly conscious of how used he'd become to Taslin's fierce grace with the performance of human emotion. Still, there could be no backing down for the sake of this Wilder's awkwardness. Rel steadied himself and leaned forward slightly, braced for the lunge that would have to come next.
He pushed his Clearsight ahead in time again, searching for the direction that would keep him out of the Wilder's crushing grasp. In his previous Clearviewing, the thing had picked Rissad up as if he weighed nothing at all, but Rissad was no Clearseer. The creature in front of Rel would have weaknesses like any other of its kind.
Five seconds into the future, the lunge came, made unwieldy by the torch the Wilder didn't drop. Its arm would swipe across the passage, and if Rel didn't cling on it would throw him against the wall and knock him out. Rel took two of those seconds to measure the difference between going for the Wilder's right and left ankles - the right stood on looser footing, as the creature's attack shifted its weight left - then leaned forward, ready to drop.
The swipe came, and Rel threw himself down under it, judging exactly how low to go by the drag of air as the Wilder tried to lower its aim. Just barely, Rel kept his knees off the stone, shifting so he could drive his shoulder forward at the creature's shin. Impact shoved the leg back, twisting at the high arachnid knee, and Rel grabbed, lifting and straining to shift the Wilder's balance further.
It dropped the torch with a clatter and Rel had time to grab the second's future-sight that showed him the next blow chopping down. Above him, the Wilder was still off-balance, and through the shaggy leg-fur Rel could make out the shape of tendons under strain. While air surged in fraught eddies away from the arm descending on him, Rel risked an extra fraction of a second to waiting.
The torch guttered, painting the ankle that was his target a dark cherry-red that the most primeval part of Rel's mind read as purely evil. Just under six and a half feet away. He rolled sideways, feeling the Wilder's instinctive Second-Realm curse twist the Realmspace near the ceiling, and stabbed with straight fingers into the hollow at the back of its heel.
His fingers bent sharply as the shock travelled up his arm, but the Wilder's leg spasmed and gave way. Rel rolled again, came up spitting grit, and hopped backwards, clear, as the creature crashed to the floor with a bellow. Still wary, Rel leapt over the now-outstretched limb and gave himself some distance, ready for another round if the Wilder forced him to it.
The creature knew it was beaten, though, and its struggle to regain its footing was all backwards motion. It swept up the torch and dashed into the darkness with a surprising turn of speed given its limp. Few sentient Wildren were stupid enough to stand toe-to-toe with a Clearseer for long.
Rel let his breathing settle, a fierce, toothy grin on his face. He flexed his wrist and fingers, working the ache loose. It felt good, after two weeks of awkward diplomacy and provocation, to go through the simpler side of his job. He should, technically, be pursuing the Wilder and arresting it, but Rissad conveniently took priority.
The tunnel returned to the shifting, uneasy pattern of hard matter in darkness and Rel pressed on. The Wilder had scuffed some parts of the tunnel that might have hidden clues to Rissad's route, but there were few junctions and Rel only had to backtrack a couple of times. He gritted his teeth against the building headache and tried not to worry about facing Dora again.
Dizziness began to build as the cave walls continued to assail him with the suggestion of ripples and tremors. He focussed on the solid, steady feeling coming up through his boots, all but ignoring the confusing sights piling in through his ice-numbed eyes. Provided he paid enough attention to keep spotting the tiny clues - there, the shimmer of stone was muted by a fine layer of leather particles scraped from the bottom of Rissad's boot - he could maintain sanity by relying on senses his Gift didn't augment.
Clinging to the confidence that came from seeing off the Wilder, Rel went back over everything he knew about what he was walking into. The Gift-Givers prevented humans from coming to the Abyss, Taslin said, because it was dangerous. But the Wilder on guard had said Rissad had been arrested for trespassing. And Rel had seen with his own eyes the mysterious Witnessing that showed Rissad being beaten and left to starve.
Was Rissad really up to no good? All Rel knew for sure was that the other man had come here looking for something. It was easy to think that because Rissad's younger brother Chag had terrorised half a dozen towns on his northward rampage, Rissad had to be bad news. The Van Raighan name was tarnished with all sorts of dark rumours, but no-one really knew what Chag thought he was doing.
And the Gift-Givers were clearly doing far more than preventing humans falling into the chasm here. It was possible that Rissad's incarceration had resulted from a misunderstanding, but you could never rely on the simple explanation with Wildren, and there were too many unknowns to trust so innocent an answer. Rissad clearly knew something important about the Abyss.
Rel fought down a gurgle in his stomach that had nothing to do with hunger, the sound loud enough to echo faintly from the darkness. For the Gift-Givers to keep something like the Abyss so completely secret from humanity suggested there was something here they were really worried about, and whether it was a threat to them, humanity or both, he was walking towards it with only his wit to guide him.
Still, he'd look pretty pitiful going back to Vessit for help now. He had to at least bring back proof that the Children of the Wild were up to something at the Abyss. Resisting the urge to wince as his headache cranked up a notch, pulsing at the back of his eye, he rubbed a hand across his brow. To Clearsight in darkness, his skin was a night sky, sparkling with stars. Could it be very much further to the Abyss itself?
Disoriented as a fresh wave of distortion swept through his Gifted vision of the rock around him, Rel staggered, threw out a hand to steady himself against the wall. Long practice let him resist blinking, so he failed to miss the pattern in the illusion that looked like a curved sword-blade. When it scattered a spray of pebbles from the solid stone of the wall, Rel's blood went cold.
Clearsight revealed the new-cut faces of the chips just dislodged. His chance impression had sliced them effortlessly from the bedrock. It could only be wild power, Second-Realm power mixing erratically with First-Realm logic, and that meant a Sherim nearby. Nothing else could twist First Realmspace like that.
There were all sorts of reasons the Gift-Givers might want to keep a Sherim secret, and a similar number of reasons why Rissad might want to expose them. He was, after all, a Gifted, charged with defending mankind against the Second Realm. And if, unlike his brother, he hadn't betrayed his species, he had information Rel needed.
Light ahead allowed Rel the mercy of blinking away Clearsight again, relieving the growing sense of lifting weights with just his brain. This time, no sound of movement echoed warning to him, so, cautiously, he edged forward until the light revealed itself. The tunnel opened into a cavern whose floor, some fifteen feet below down a tricky, uneven slope, was dominated by a pool of greenish water. Glass-still, the surface of the pool seemed a slice cut out of another world, its edges too precise and eerily circular.
The light came from a torch standing straight up, apparently without support, half-way down to the pool. It looked as if someone had simply balanced it there on the rock, until Rel stumbled and slipped past on his way down the slope and saw that in fact the wooden shaft descended into the stone of the floor. It might have grown there, except that it was - very roughly - carved, and the rock around its base showed no sign of the crack that would give a plant purchase.
Cold, unpleasant things wriggled in Rel's gut as he remembered seeing the Wilder in Chag Van Raighan's Witnessing lowering Rissad into the ledge by the Abyss as if it was liquid. It had been solid rock when the Wilder released him, though, solid enough that Rissad had had no hope of escape save his Gift. Trying to reassure himself, Rel clambered back up the slope and pulled on the torch, almost earning himself singed eyeballs in the process. The shaft wouldn't budge an inch, except to bend close to snapping. His hands came away sticky with something that carried an acrid smell, the kind that seems to wield knives as it pushes up your nostrils.
Wiping his palms on his trousers just left ugly stains on the fabric and bits of fluff on his skin. He guessed the obnoxious treatment kept the torch from burning too quickly; closer inspection showed that there was no rag or straw at the top of the stick; it was the wood of the shaft itself that burned, far brighter and yet slower than a stick should. The whole arrangement suggested frightening new dimensions to the Second Realm danger ahead of him.
Whatever the treatment was, he didn't want it on his skin any longer than necessary. He washed his hands in the pool. Grit in the water stripped the sticky layer off his hands in moments, leaving them red-raw, stinging with abrasion and cold. His fingers trembled, and now he did rub them as he walked on, in a futile effort to get dry.
He passed through more lit caves, none of which had more than one other exit, and came to a tunnel where level concrete replaced bare rock after a few yards. Caught out by the change in footing, Rel stumbled, and suddenly he was looking out into fathomless darkness that could only be the Abyss. A draught that was more like a stiff breeze tugged at the damp cuffs of his shirt. Somewhere, water trickled. Torches, all planted in the now-familiar, sinister way, threw forlorn light against the distance across the void, barely touching the far side with the occasional glimmer.
The concrete clearly hadn't always been just a ledge; the edge was crumbling, as if torn free when the Abyss opened. Just looking at the drop beyond made Rel queasy. The sheer, brutal space of the place crushed him back against the back of the ledge. Nothing in his Clearviewings had prepared him for this - how could it, when two eyes were simply inadequate to capturing the sight?
The near-side wall was kinder, in that at least Rel could see where it curved over at the top. The Abyss had to close up only a few feet below the surface. The wall was scattered with the same snapped-off feet and ends of metal frames that had dotted the passages behind. More than anything else, it was those that showed him where the awe-inspiring concrete door from his viewing stood. Up close, it was even more impressive, a perfect flat rectangle vanishing into shadow along its upper edge.
In front of it, lying on the floor and straining to crawl away from the lip of the ledge, was Rissad Van Raighan. Every part of his twisted posture bespoke pain and desperation, his uninjured leg scrabbling at the concrete while the other, broken, trailed underneath it. As Rel came closer, he realised the Gatemaker's skin was almost grey with malnutrition, exhaustion and shock.
There was nothing wrong with his hearing though. As Rel's footsteps rang back from the chasm, Rissad twisted to look over his shoulder, then rolled onto his back with a cough that turned into a moan. The lie of his right arm betrayed his broken collarbone; an uninjured man only lay like that when pressed up hard against a wall. One side of his face was yellow-brown with the remnants of a bruise.
Rel stumbled, his legs unable to decide between keeping their steady pace to avoid offending the other man's pride or hurrying over to him in solicitude. By the time Rel righted himself, the question was largely moot, and he knelt with as much grace as he could muster at Rissad's side. Awkwardly aware of the frustrated anger behind Rissad's pain, Rel fell back on manners; he gave the injured man a stiff nod. "Gatemaker. I'm Relvin Atcar, Clearseer-"
"-of Federas. I've heard of you." Rissad's voice was hoarse. Rel pondered an oddity; in his viewing, he'd seen two faces for Rissad all the way through his incarceration, the 'hidden' one suggesting the Gatemaker had remained in total control, guided by some plan or other, throughout. There was no sign of that here. With a bitter grin, Rissad finished, "What brings you to my humble abode? Chag?"
Blinking, Rel stopped short of answering and swallowed. Rissad's mind was frighteningly agile, uncomfortably direct. Pain and debilitation made his face unreadable. Was he concerned for his brother? Bitter about Chag's choice of allegiance? How much did he know of Chag's activities? Better to avoid the question and hope the Gatemaker was too pained to notice. "How long have you been down here? I know they were holding you."
"Holding. Hah. Is that what they told you?" His fixed grimace twitched as if he was trying to sneer.
"I Saw it. Thanks to your brother." Watching Rissad's eyes widen, Rel was moved to pity. "He's in custody in Federas."
The Gatemaker managed to lift his head off the concrete enough to face Rel, his eyes revealed as a striking silver-grey. "No more deaths?" At Rel's nod, he laid back, his eyes closing. "I got here four days ago."
Impossible. Rel found himself glaring in anger at the injured man below him. He'd seen Rissad captured, then starving for a long time in Wildren captivity, sunk into the concrete of the ledge. He could see the sheer-sided oval hole where the Gatemaker had somehow used his Gift to cut himself free, and the heap of rubble where he'd smashed the rock still encasing his legs. That much of the viewing had been accurate. Could he have misunderstood the Clearviewing so badly?
Rissad must have seen Rel's consternation. "It's complicated. Which side are you on?" His frown told Rel only that the answer mattered to the other man, but not which 'sides' he meant.
"Why did they..." Rel waved a hand at the rubble. "Whatever it was they did. Why are you here?"
"Uh-uh." Rissad shook his head. "I'm not exactly in a position to make free with my trust. You even know what this place is?"
Rel waited, frowning.
"Go and take a Clear look over the edge. Take it easy, though."
Rel glanced at the lip of the ledge. Was it safe to walk on? A more frightening thought surfaced. If he put any distance between himself and Rissad... "How do I know you're not just going to Gate me out of here?"
The other man's face darkened. "If I wanted you gone, you'd be gone already. You think I couldn't put my Gate under you now?"
Something in Rel's stomach twinged. It shouldn't be possible for a man so badly injured to be threatening. Stiffened with wariness, Rel's legs trembled as he eased himself to his feet. Clearsight, or perhaps just hunger, brought a wave of dizziness with its headache, but he managed not to reel. The far side of the chasm sprang into subtle grey relief, a web of jagged cracks and creases spearing into the depths. At his feet, stress lines leapt out of the concrete, showing him safe footing, and the cracks that wouldn't drop him into the Abyss.
Without looking forward in time, he got the sense of what he was going to see at the bottom before he looked over the edge. The faint, evanescent colours of the rock on the far side twisted into alien spectra the further down he looked. A sensation very like the taste of nausea began to build behind his cheekbones. He started to feel the need to vomit out of his eyeballs.
There was no avoiding screwing his eyes as close to shut as he could without blinking as he knelt on one of the more solid-looking concrete protrusions by the edge and peered over. Realmlessness poured in through the cracks between his eyelashes, miserable, greedy and repugnant. It was like falling face-down in a puddle of stagnant water, but if you had to smell and taste and feel as well as see it with your eyeballs. And it stretched all along the floor - if there was any floor down there - of the Abyss.
Just barely, by some reflex of his lizard hindbrain, Rel managed to sway away from the edge. He prostrated himself on the concrete, forehead and hands pressed to its cool, smooth-worn surface to keep from rubbing his eyes. Coughing did nothing to ease the cramp of revulsion shocking through him, but if he did put his hands to his face he doubted he could keep from clawing his eyes out.
Breathing deeply when the cramps would let him, he counted out how long it took him to settle. The average Clearseer took twenty-two breaths to recover from a direct look at the Realmlessness through a clear night sky, and the bottom of the Abyss felt every bit as bad as that had in training. On the thirteenth inhalation, he was able to push his head and shoulders up off the floor and glare weakly at Rissad. Federas' gifted were the best in the First Realm, and Rel was not about to let Dora down. Well, at least, not in that regard. It was the whole town he wasn't letting down, really.
The anger in that thought got him up into an undignified hands-and-knees crawl across to Rissad. The Gatemaker hadn't moved. Rel said, "That was a dirty trick."
"Would you have believed me if I'd just told you?" The amusement in his voice didn't carry through to his eyes.
"I wouldn't have needed to look right at it." Rel realised he was letting the other man bait him. He clenched his jaw and forced himself to calm down. At least he didn't feel hungry anymore. "What is it down there?"
Rissad's tone turned scornful. "What does it look like?"
"Realmlessness, but..." Rel waved a hand. It couldn't be the Realmlessness. However deep the Abyss ran, there was still a planet below it. Wasn't there?
"You know of anything else that looks like Realmlessness?" Even cracked hoarse with pain, Rissad's voice stayed unrelenting, incisive.
"'What we know is that we know nothing.'" Rel quipped. "Even the Wildren agree on that."
This time, the other man managed a full sneer. "You really are one of theirs, aren't you? Listen to me. The entire First Realm is cracking apart, right here. You know any reason why they would keep that a secret from us?"
Rel managed to keep from saying Rissad's claim was impossible. He repeated the mantra in his head. What we know is that we know nothing. Except, remembered Clearsight robbed him of even the grace of ambiguity. Recalling what he'd seen before looking over the edge with the trained precision of his memory, Rel saw all too easily the colossal strains running silently through the rock of the Abyss walls. Forces alien to gravity twisted the far side, as if the hand of God were trying to break off half the world like a lump of toffee.
Of all things, it was vertigo that hit him the worst. The foot-thick concrete of the ledge suddenly seemed painfully thin to be all that sat between them and an endless plunge beyond the boundaries of the universe itself. His gut wrenched, the chill of the Abyss sinking into his bones and leaving him shaking. Better not to think of the freakish distortion of space that must have separated the thousand miles of the First Realm from the rest of the world. Or was the entire planet split through the middle?
Better not to think on it. Weakly, Rel managed, "You came here to do something about it?"
"Sadly, no." Rissad jerked his head upwards, toward the looming concrete door. "I came here for that. I only found out about the Abyss after I got here."
"The door? What's on the other side?"
Rissad frowned. "Sorry, kiddo. You haven't exactly convinced me yet that I can trust you."
"What do you want from me?" Rel snapped. The other man was in no position to be provoking him, but 'kiddo'? Really? Dora would have burst out laughing.
"Why did you come here?" Rissad tried to lever himself up on his uninjured arm, only to gasp in pain and slump back as his weight shifted onto the mangled shoulder.
Rel looked down at the concrete between his hands, then sat back on his heels, buying time to think. "Nothing in the Clearviewing I had made sense. I wanted - I want - to know what's going on."
"So you can stop me? Or help?"
"It depends. Are you still protecting the First Realm?"
Rissad met the implicit accusation of treachery with a coolly raised eyebrow. "The First Realm? Not the truce?"
"Our duty is to protect mankind," Rel said stiffly. "The truce is one way of doing that."
"Maybe you do have your head screwed on right." The other man's eyebrow stayed up, but the lines of strain on his face might have softened a little. "The door's been closed since before the Crash. We built whatever's back there, and the Gift-Givers are terrified of us getting it back."
That, at least, had implications Rel liked the sound of. "Some sort of weapon? Something we could use against them?"
"It's the obvious conclusion. That, or some piece of knowledge that would give us an edge. This used to be a research and development facility for someone-or-other, dealing with some pretty freaky physics." Again, Rissad tried to rise, and this time his gasp of pain was closer to a quiet scream. "Help me up?"
Rel moved around to take the Gatemaker's uninjured arm, bracing it across his shoulders and trying to lift the other man as gently as possible to a sitting position. Rissad's wrist was all bone, and Rel could feel him trembling. His eyes held a glint of fever, though Rel decided not to pursue the question of whether it was from genuine illness, the combination of hunger and pain, or just eagerness to complete his mission.
Spots of blood marked Rissad's trouser leg where the ugly angle of his knee said the break was. Gingerly, Rel reached out a hand to investigate, but Rissad stopped him. "It's alright. The blood looks worse than it is, and it's not from the break. Get me up."
Rel glanced at the red spots, already drying to brown, that marked the Gatemaker's trail from the rubble. Some wounds could bleed like that without being serious, but in a leg? "I should take a look at it, all the same."
"No time." Rissad shook his head, winced again. "Get me to the door, we can get inside, look around and Gate out. Then we can come back at our leisure."
Rel kicked himself inwardly. Stupid to miss such an obvious point, that getting out would be easy. He'd lived too long with Pevan's obstinate refusal to use her Gateways for convenience's sake. "Alright. Brace yourself."
Rissad's arm tightened across Rel's shoulders, and the Gatemaker drew his good leg up close to his body. As gently as he could, Rel pushed to his feet, bringing the other man with him. It was clumsy and awkward, and Rel found his own legs distinctly wobbly as the two men straightened and clung to each other for balance, but they made it. Rissad cursed with every halting step as they moved towards the door. It might have been faster to crawl.
They were both panting from exertion by the time Rissad leaned away to put a hand on the massive steel hinge - up close, Rel could barely recognise the thing for what it was, what his Viewing had shown it to be. Starting barely a foot above the floor, it loomed a good couple of feet over them, and the bracket that connected it to the concrete was a dozen feet long, several inches thick. There was no sign of wear, though Rel knew if he used his Clearsight he'd see the metal enduring many tons of strain. Just as it had for, what? Seventy or more years. It had survived the Realmcrash without a mark.
Which raised the question of what could possibly need such a tough door. Was it keeping something out, or in? Never mind how they were going to get inside. Rissad clearly hadn't been in there before, so there was no way he could make a Gateway there. Unless he had another new trick like the one he'd used to get out of the concrete.
Rissad dug a hand into his pocket and drew out what looked like a bundle of golden rods, linked by intricate tooling in some darker metal at both ends. It looked like-
"Yeah, it's a Stable Rod." Between gasped breaths, the Gatemaker's voice was grim. "Not one of Chag's, before you drop me. No humans died for this."
It was difficult to be stern with a man still half-dangling from your shoulder. Rel tried anyway, "And Wildren?"
"Who can tell what counts as death for them?" Rissad's scowl went distant for a moment, then came back stronger. "You're on their side, now?"
"I'm on the side of not having another Realmwar until we're sure we can win." Rel's breath was back, and with it some of his confidence. "What good will the rod do, anyway?" He realised he could feel it, ever so slightly, pushing at a point somewhere deep inside his head. Where his own Gift must be, he realised, the bubble of the rod's powerful Warding resisting the tiny piece of the Second Realm that gave him his Clearsight.
Why had he never felt it before when he'd been this close to Stable Rods? It couldn't just be that he'd only recently learned what his Gift was, unless he was imagining the sensation. Though it carried the threat of a fresh new level of headache, it wasn't wholly unpleasant, a dangerous invitation to complacency.
Rissad said, "The Warding is powerful enough to straighten out First Realmspace enough that you get something resembling stable electromagnetics, like before the Crash."
"It's only right up close to the Rod that you have enough effect to be significant." Rissad raised an eyebrow. "You don't honestly expect the Gift-Givers are going to make free with these things for our benefit?"
"Is that why your brother was stealing them?" Rel regretted the words as soon as they were out of his mouth, but it was the obvious question.
Even pained and close to faint with exhaustion, Rissad's glare had a force like a hammered nail to the skull, but it softened quickly and he looked away. "I don't know. Because of me... Chag got caught up in some stuff. I don't know whether he's even really one of us anymore."
"A Gifted, you mean?"
"A human." The other man shook his head, winced again. "It's not important. Let's get this door open."
Rel's mind filled with images of the sheet of concrete sweeping them off the ledge, or snapping its hinge and taking them with it into the depths of the Abyss. "Will the mechanism work?"
Rissad set the Stable Rod down on top of a flange running the length of the mechanism. The soft chink of contact seemed to reverberate long after it should have, a low moan that seemed to fill the entire chasm. "According to the plans. They built it to withstand pretty much anything, for a thousand years or more. And that possibly includes the Realmcrash."
Rel shut his mouth before his brain could drop out of it. Rissad fiddled with a small panel set on the surface of the hinge, scrabbling at it with his fingertips until it popped open. Beneath was a sheet of plastic, covered in symbols Rel didn't recognise, each of which seemed to be on a round-topped bump on the surface. The two largest symbols, next to each other at the bottom of the grid, were coloured red and green. Rissad pushed the green one flat.
Nothing happened, but he held the button down, meeting Rel's worried look with a calm smile. On anyone else - particularly Dora - it would have been knowing and smug. Instead, Rel found himself reassured, until the mechanism let out a whine piercing enough that he almost dropped Rissad to cover his ears. The sound sent a lance of pain across the front of his eyeballs, making him screw his eyes shut in a way he hadn't since before he received his Gift.
The sound dropped sharply into a rumble that carried up through his boots, broken by a series of heavy clonks. Then the whine again, building, pressing against the sides of his brain, making his teeth ache. The door still didn't move, and Rel watched a flicker of worry cross Rissad's face. Clearsight would tell them if anything was happening, but Rel didn't fancy mixing logic fatigue with the pounding headache generated by the wail of the machinery.
Something snapped nearby with a noise loud enough to stagger them backwards, the echoes lost under a metal-on-metal scream. Reeling for balance, Rel could do nothing to cover his ears despite the feeling that he was being stabbed through both eardrums. Rissad seemed even worse off, his chin pressed into his chest while he hissed curses and pressed his injured arm awkwardly to his face.
As gently as he could while still on unsteady footing, Rel lowered the other man to the floor. The distressed-metal groan was starting to die away as, with ponderous grace, the door began to swing open. Even though Rel's entire job was believing his eyes when what they saw was incredible, this sight was almost beyond him. He hoped that whatever had snapped in there hadn't been part of what held the concrete slab up. The torches planted in front of the door broke like twigs, some rolling across the floor ahead of it, some getting caught underneath and pulverised.
"Drag me clear." Rissad spoke through clenched teeth. Glancing down, Rel realised he'd left the Gatemaker lying where the door would soon start pushing him along by his broken leg. The mere thought turned Rel's empty stomach. Given how long it had taken them to get Rissad upright the first time, there was little chance of getting him on his feet now. But there was no way of dragging him short of holding his good arm and pulling.
Rel planted his feet as firmly as he could and heaved. Rissad gasped in pain, but slid a good foot or so away from the door. Hunger had clearly taken a toll on the Gatemaker's already-slender build. Another heave, this time with Rissad's gasp turning into a scream before Rel stopped, saw the other man well out of the way. Assuming the door was going to stop at a right-angle to the opening. With a wall of concrete swinging slowly towards them and only bare rock behind, that was a more disturbing thought than Rel wanted to entertain.
A crunching sound heralded another problem; the door had begun to smash bits of concrete off the lip of the ledge where they stuck up. The ledge itself was completely blocked by the door, and they needed to be on the other side of it. Rissad was lost in his pain, grunting as he poked at his chest.
He noticed the problem quickly enough, though, and lifted his good arm towards Rel for a hand up. Rel eyed it dubiously. "You're sure?"
Rissad nodded, his jaw set. It took two attempts to get him vertical, a twinge on the second try telling Rel he was beginning to strain his own arm. The other man gestured at the door, and a gateway appeared on the surface, its edges crackling and unsteady. Because of the Stable Rod, or the nearby Sherim? Were they even still near the Sherim Rel had felt on the way in?
The Gateway seemed to open into a whole new cave, dark and vast, lit fitfully from below, until Rel realised he was looking up at the ceiling of the Abyss. Well, he should have expected that; it was after all the only place on the other side of the door that Rissad had either seen or been before. The other end of the Gate had to be in the floor of the ledge, a difficult enough proposition to get through without Rissad's injuries. Rissad met Rel's worried frown with a raised eyebrow that eloquently underscored Rel's lack of better ideas.
"If you don't feel up to it, I could drop us through." Rissad's voice managed to be lazy and mocking even though it was his injuries that would suffer.
"Are you mad?" Rel couldn't keep the anger from his voice. "How are we going to run like this?" Normal procedure would be to run hard at the Gate and dive head-long through it, thus arriving vertically out of the floor on the other side. But even if Rissad's leg could stand the landing, there was no way they could move fast enough to manage the dive. Even without Rissad, Rel wasn't sure he could manage it past his current robe of aches.
The other man's eyebrow climbed higher. "I thought your sister was a Gatemaker?"
"What's that got to do with anything?" Were all southern Gifted this well-informed? Maybe having so few incidents down there meant they all had too much time on their hands.
"She hasn't told you everything she trained for?" Despite the pain, there was mirth in Rissad's tone, gentle and reflective. "Chag never shut up about it."
Rel worked the tension out of his jaw. "Pevan can be... recalcitrant sometimes."
"Hah. She'll grow out of it." Rissad's face fell somewhat as he saw Rel's scowl. "Sorry, forget I mentioned it. There's a way that doesn't need us to run, is what I'm trying to say. Designed for moving casualties in extremis."
The grin returned, far too smart for its own good. "I hope you don't mind getting a bit cozy."
Following the Gatemaker's instructions, Rel wedged himself into the oval aperture of the Gateway, his back to the bottom of the opening and tingling with the contact, his foot against the top. That left his head and body upright on the far side, facing the Abyss. Though he twisted as best he could, all he could see of what the door had hidden was darkness. His free leg trailed across the concrete of the ledge, sliding slowly with the swing of the door.
Rissad lay down on top of him, holding himself in place with a tight one-armed hug, his face pressed to Rel's shoulder. Rel wrapped his arms around the other man, trying to tell himself he wasn't really that relieved there was no-one around to see. Before the discomfort could turn physical, he heaved backwards, using his braced leg to lift the rest of their weight out through the Gateway. The back of his skull bounced off the floor, hard, and Rissad let out another harsh gasp, but the trick worked.
The two men disentangled themselves and fought their way up to standing. In front of them, the darkness was filled with faint glimmers where torchlight reflected from immaculate plastic and metal. The vague shape of the room was visible, enough to make out that it matched the door for size, but the space inside was so tangled with racks and walkways that making sense of it became impossible.
As they limped across the threshold, the quality of the air changed; the Abyss felt damp, ever so slightly redolent of mould, but here the overwhelming impression was of cleanliness. No dust caught the unsteady light of the few remaining torches behind them, and there wasn't the bright scent of life that came from clear days in the open air. There was just the sense that whoever had built the place had controlled every aspect of it to perfection, and nothing had changed since.
Rel helped Rissad prop himself up against a rack of bare metal shelves and went back to collect a couple of torches. At the Gatemaker's suggestion, he popped back through a much simpler Gateway - nothing stopping Rissad making Gates in the back of the door now - and collected the Stable Rod too. The door ground to a halt with a fresh teeth-wrenching scream
When he'd recovered from the echoes, Rel took the rod and torches back to Rissad, his hands already coated in the vile stuff the Wildren had infused the wood with. More light didn't help much with making sense of the room, but at least they could see what was on the nearby shelves. Row on row of plastic bottles, all full of water, caught the light immediately in front of them. A wire mesh, wrapped tightly around the whole shelf, must have protected them through even the most violent upheavals of the Realmcrash.
With good, watertight plastic so scarce these days, Rel counted the bottles as raw wealth. There were enough for every town in the First Realm to get a few, and he thought he could see another rack deeper in the darkness. He said, "Do you think they know all this stuff is in here?"
Rissad grunted. "Everything I've heard suggests the Wildren have never been through the door, for whatever reason. They could have broken in if they'd wanted, I'm sure."
"What's it all for?"
"You're the Clearseer. Take a look around, see if you can spot anything that might say." The Gatemaker's stiff tone made the instruction peremptory, and Rel bristled. Still, despite the headache he knew he was inviting, it was the best way to figure out what they'd found.
The first instant of cold as he embraced Clearsight was welcome, refreshing, numbing to the anxiety of being so far in conflict with the Wildren. It didn't last; the cold sharpened, pushed hard fingers through the centre of his forehead, and pain returned. At least he stayed distracted from worrying about Dora and Taslin. Even without the pressure between his eyes, the room revealed by his enhanced vision made sure of that.
It was a room of straight lines and crisp angles, vertical supports and horizontal catwalks broken only by the occasional dramatic slash of a staircase. Somehow, though, the shapes conspired together to form a spiral of such perfect natural grace that the eye was sucked along it, round and round and unmistakably upward into darkness. Rel got the sense that he saw far beyond the confines of any physical chamber; right at the edges of vision, there was a sense of pressure that might have been Realmlessness pressing in, but it was shielded in some way.
Rissad's hand closed tightly around Rel's upper arm, and Rel realised he'd been leaning forward, his body following his eyes up into the well of strangeness ahead. He held back from blinking, but every way he looked at the room led his gaze back to the same point. Details began to stand out, though; a staircase with steps on the underside, a rack of shelves which had a catwalk running vertically up the face of it. Clearsight made some of the more distant metalwork seem thinner, ghostly, and he started to see where one beam was a copy of another, or a rack repeated itself higher up the spiral.
Despite utterly paradoxical geometry, the whole structure resonated with stillness, Realmspace held steady under strain by the physical framework. Even where seeing into darkness rendered everything down to a grainy, dancing grey of faint particulate motion, there was stability. Rel handed one of the torches to Rissad and walked a little deeper into the room, ignoring the other man's uneasy question. It was no surprise when his skin came alive with the gossamer-soft tickle of the Sherim enveloping him.
And yet, something was different. Emboldened by the stability of everything around him, Rel shot out an arm, looking for the whisper of wild power that should come with the gesture. The Second Realm, so close by, failed to respond. He tried again, focussed on binding First-Realm logic across the divide, but even with his Clearsight active, his waving arm failed to twist Realmspace. Only air moved, swirling into fleeting, pathetic eddies.
"What's up?" Rissad hobbled around the corner of the shelving, using his torch as a crutch, the still-burning end pressed to the floor and in danger of igniting his trousers.
"It's a Sherim, but I can't reach the Second Realm through it." Rel turned to the other man, but Clearsight caught on a detail behind him. With most of the torches on the wrong side of the door, the Abyss was little brighter than the Sherim room. No obstacle to Seeing Clearly, though, and he could make out the glittering, energetic wake of some Wilder which must have just flown past the opening. "We need to get out of here."
Rissad was snapping his fingers, frowning, but he responded instantly to the edge in Rel's voice. "What's wrong?"
"Wilder just spotted us." Rel rubbed a hand over his forehead, all too aware of his mounting fatigue. "I don’t know about you, but I'm close to burning out already."
"I don't know if I'll burn or bleed out first." The Gatemaker's face was grim. "This close to a Sherim, wild power or no, I don't think I could hold a Gate steady, not now I know it's here."
"At least we got the door open." Rel blinked Clearsight away; it would be no use to him now, and if he was going to end up in Wilder custody, he didn't want to go comatose from burnout.
"Maybe." Rissad's face, cadaverous in the torchlight, pointed the other way, his eyes lost in the jungle of the Sherim. "You give up pretty easily, for a Federas Gifted."
Rel shivered. "You can't seriously want to risk an unexplored Sherim in your condition!"
"Better than another day in their hands." He glanced back towards the doorway, his pallor turning his face to stone. "Look, there's stuff I haven't told you. I have an idea of what I'm going into, but there's no time to explain. You coming?"
"I wouldn't last five minutes. I'll take my chances here." The mere thought of entering the Second Realm now left him wincing, his eyes screwed shut. When he opened them again, there was a figure stepping out of a gateway in the door. Silver skin caught glints of yellow and orange from the remaining torches, and no human ever had a neck so long.
Rissad held out the Stable Rod. "I'll fill you in when I get back, then. Can you buy me some time to get away?" Beneath cold ferocity, there was a haunted touch to his eyes, almost but not quite lost in the haggard slackness of the skin of his cheeks.
"I-" Rel cleared his throat, finding it suddenly tighter than expected. He took the Rod from Rissad's hand, his grip gentle enough that he almost dropped it. The flicker of concern that danced across the other man's shadowed eyes almost brought tears to Rel's. He managed, "I'll do what I can."
"Yeah." Rel grappled with a hundred things he wanted to say, and all that came out through the storm of warnings, well-wishes and goodbyes was, "You too."
Rissad glanced past Rel's shoulder once, then turned, leaning heavily on his torch. Telling himself it was just because he needed to watch the approaching Wilder, Rel turned his back on the Gatemaker, but the shuffling sound of Rissad's uneven step stayed with him. Ahead, the silver-skinned Wilder glided forward, its feet spread wider than its shoulders as it walked.
Rel's head ached. His empty stomach clenched his gut like a fist. His wrenched shoulder held the tight sensation that presaged pain at the slightest hint of sharp movement, not helped by the stiff wrist from the earlier fight. The front of his brain felt cold and vacant, the back like a lump of wool. But the shining figure bearing down on him poured the warmth of familiar anger across everything, gave him strength. The Stable Rod, warm in his hand, promised a major advantage if it came to a fight, and he still had some Clearsight left, even with the Sherim pressing chaos against his mind.
Better to get the first word in. Rel said, "I'm censuring you and any collaborating with you for the unlawful abduction of and assault on Rissad Van Raighan. Stop where you are."
To his surprise, the Wilder planted its feet and froze, shadowed eyes fixed on his. Maybe it was obeying, but more likely it was just too shocked to respond. Behind it, movement caught Rel's eye as half a dozen more figures Gated in. The poor light made their features indistinct, but the tall, shapely one had to be Taslin, the shorter, plainer figure at her side Dora.
That left him with a quandary; if he used his remaining Clearsight now, he'd be unable to watch Taslin, but without it the fight would be a much harder proposition. In theory it was possible to fight a Gift-Giver with Clearsight, but no-one had ever tried. The Stable Rod bucked in his hand as it tried to bleed off the strain of their approach.
Dora broke ranks and ran up to him, brushing past the silver-skinned Wilder without a glance. "Rel, what have you done?" The Four Knot's - the ex-Four Knot's - eyes were wide, and more than a little red-rimmed. Rel reminded himself he'd had every right to say the things he'd said. She glanced past him, and when her eyes met his again, there was no trace of her old intensity. "What is this place?"
"I don't know," he said, heavily. "What I've done is my job."
"Where is Rissad?" Taslin's sharp tone knifed through the air, but the Sherim failed to respond. Sweat glistened on her face as she pushed her way deep into the Warding around the Stable Rod. Where the silver-skinned Wilder showed no sign of human discomfort in its fight to withstand the Ward, Taslin's face twisted, and her voice came muffled by a clenched jaw.
Rel jerked his head at the Sherim. "He's as safe as I can make him. Don't come any closer."
"Rel, what are you doing?" Dora's voice held fear, not scorn.
"Look around yourself, Dora." Raising his voice, Rel drowned out whatever Taslin was trying to say. "This is the First Realm. It's our business. They've kept everything here a total secret from us. Is that right or fair?"
Her eyes flicked sideways, to Taslin, and she gave what might have been a hint of a cringe. "No... I mean, we need to work out what's happened."
"Yes, but only when I know Rissad is beyond their reach." He couldn't help glancing over his shoulder. "It's our job to protect him."
Taslin delivered a vicious Second-Realm curse, long and fluid. "That's a Sherim, isn't it? Where does it go?"
"Not the Second Realm." The silver-skinned Wilder finally spoke, its voice toneless and stiff. "We have been unable to discover what it connects to."
Impaled on the points of Taslin's violet glare, Rel took a step back. "Rissad chose the risk over staying to accept another round of your handling. Don't dare deny your kind have a lot to answer for."
Their eyes stayed locked for a long moment, but it was Taslin who looked away first. "First you must answer for your belligerence."
"Belligerence?" Rel almost choked, his chest and throat tightening in outrage. "I'm not the one violating the peace!"
"And what of the guardian you attacked?" The other Wilder forced a step forward, leg shaking.
"He attacked me. It was a clear attempt to impede my performance of my duties as a Gifted."
"Relvin, you will stand down." Dora spoke as if the last fortnight had rolled back and she was Four Knot again. Rel found a little piece of himself trying to agree with her and stamped it down, mercilessly. She went on like a bow shot. "You've been rash and aggressive. I don't believe for one second you needed to fight that guard, self-defence or not. You've messed with dangerous forces that could have gotten everyone in Vessit killed."
Rel held steady while every muscle in his body tensed, shuddering as he suppressed the urge to lash out. "Do you even know what those 'dangerous forces' are? Do you know the secrets they've kept about this place?"
"The situation was under control." The voice that flowed out from the Abyss held the laziness of a southern drawl, welcome in its humanity. It sounded more than a little like Rissad. A willowy, slender man followed it out of the gloom, wrapped in a loose brown robe whose v-neck accentuated his thin neck and bony frame. Short-cropped silver hair fuzzed his crown, his hairline receding towards his ears. His eyes sparkled as he went on, "Those who needed to know knew. Spreading the truth would have spread panic, perhaps even led to the abandonment of the North, something neither Realm can afford."
The man's act was perfect; teacherly calm, the friendly pose of an old man's wisdom, a hint of an underlying ferocity of devotion to peace between the Realms. But even with his head pounding, trying to watch every other figure before him at the same time, Rel didn't miss the man's shiver as he stepped into the close embrace of the Stable Rod's effect. A Wilder, one even more potent than Taslin.
"I am Keshnu, and the Children of the Wild here are under my command. The concrete door was left undisturbed because we could not tell what was behind it, beyond the fact that Realmspace here is twisted. There was and still is no way of knowing how this Sherim will interact with the stresses on the Abyss. Had you but approached Vessit's Four Knot, as the law requires you to do, all this would have been explained. This is the transgression you must answer for."
Rel could feel the heat rising in his cheeks. Maybe he should have talked to the Four Knot, but Rissad had been getting away. Someone needed to confront him, learn what drove him. Never mind this Keshnu's power, he had no right to lecture Rel like that. "What about Rissad, then? What excuses his treatment?"
"Mistakes were made." A look of regret slipped across the Wilder's face, then vanished just as quickly, as if he realised how inappropriate his insincerity was. "I was away when he was taken, and only returned this morning. Had I been here, the confrontation would have been handled better. But Rissad, too, neglected to inform the Four Knot he was in Vessit. The laws exist for a reason."
"In that case the Four Knot should be here," Rel snapped. "You can't arrest me without him in the First Realm."
Dora stepped forward, half-raising a hand, her eyes telling him just how much a Stable Rod wouldn't protect him from her. "Am I invisible? Am I not here or something?"
Through clenched teeth, Rel said, "You're not a Four Knot anymore." It wasn't going to knock her back this time the way it had earlier, but if they were going to stand on the formalities of the law then so was he.
"We can stand here and wait however many hours it takes Wolpan to return from her call-out if you insist, Relvin." Keshnu's voice hadn't changed, exactly, but Rel couldn't shake the sense of being twelve again, on the wrong end of a telling-off from his father. "Or you can resist us and give up your last chance at a fair hearing. Or you can cooperate, accept your friend as stand-in Four Knot, and we'll discuss these important matters with the detail and gravity they deserve."
Rel set his jaw, met the Wilder's eyes. Even in the darkness, they were a clear, deep blue; not glowing or shining, but rich enough in colour to show despite the flickering yellow of the torches. "I stand by my decisions. If you're going to bring me up on a technicality, then we'll wait for all the technicalities."
He held Keshnu's stare while Dora turned away, trembling, into Taslin's embrace.