Saturday, 21 July 2012

The Second Realm 3.1: A Knot Better Tied

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Staring Into the Abyss

1: A Knot Better Tied

Dora found it easier to be around Rel while he slept. He lay on the hard pallet in the cell Keshnu had carved out of the bedrock, neither arguing nor recriminating. The red haze she saw around him all the time now had dimmed until she could almost pretend it was just a shadow on his blanket. Asleep, he couldn't embarrass her any further, or undercut her attempts to defend him.

Or insult her anymore. Stop pretending you're still my Four Knot, he'd shouted at her last time she'd taken up his case with Keshnu. The Wilder had rolled his eyes in response, a trick Taslin had apparently shared with him after learning it - somehow - from Dora. She didn't think she rolled her eyes all that often, but if a Wilder could work out the pattern behind the gesture she had to be overdoing it.

She put her hand up to rub her eyes, trying not to watch the patterns of spots on the inside of her eyelids. When she opened them again, the room fuzzed and split apart into dancing blotches of colour. The image refocused before it reassembled, leaving her staring blankly at a net of jagged-edged sparks, thrown over a jumble of crates.

Blinking furiously, she focussed on the web of light; not a separate object, but the distribution of the light from the candles across the cell and Rel's sleeping form. Thinking of Rel was a mistake. While the image settled back into something more normal for the First Realm, Rel's body seemed to come alive with swarming insects of Dora's own doubts and fears. A handful noticed her, buzzed across to fly at her face. She buried her head in her arms.

There was no way to pretend the visions weren't getting worse. With her eyes closed, Dora was safe from it, but she found tears escaping her anyway. She slid down the uneven stone wall, letting it tug her dress out of shape, until she sat with her arms curled on her knees. Curled up, it was easier to keep her sobs silent, and she didn't want to wake Rel.

Even if she hadn't been trying to avoid talking to him, it wouldn't have been fair to wake the Clearseer. She might still be in tune with daylight, but the Wildren had insisted on keeping Rel underground. Without the sun to shape his time into days, he'd started sleeping as and when the fancy took him. Dora suspected he was also being perverse, making it difficult for her and Keshnu to speak with him, but she sympathised.

The feel of the room changed, subtly, as Taslin started down the passage that led into the cell. Like the shiver that comes from drinking cold water on an empty stomach, the cell seemed both refreshed and shocked. Rel stirred. Dora blotted her cheeks on her sleeve and stood. She put her finger to her lips as Taslin stepped into the room, the Gift-Giver's thick-soled books rasping slightly on the rock floor.

Taslin nodded and went back the way she'd come. Dora got to her feet as quietly as she could and followed, leaving Rel to stir again as she left. The passage walls, shaped so recently by wild power, were too smooth for their age, every lump rounded and glistening in the torchlight. The contrast was most obvious when they emerged into the natural cavern beyond, the rock becoming a more natural yellow-brown.

"Keshnu asked for you." Taslin actually managed to sound not only kindly, but sympathetic, her eyes soft, the normal harshness gone from her tone. Regular contact with her own kind had only strengthened her resolve to master human manners and mannerisms. Sometimes, Dora could almost believe Taslin was frustrated with Rel too. It was such a human way to feel, but Taslin's grasp of First-Realm emotion bettered even Keshnu's.

Which brought Dora's attention neatly back to the matter in hand. "Did he say why?" She tried not to sound too weary. The senior Gift-Giver among the Wildren in Vessit, Keshnu had given her nothing but pressure for the week since they'd arrived. About the only thing she could agree with him on was that she wasn't a Four Knot anymore, and then only because he was the only Wilder her reputation didn't intimidate.

"No." Taslin frowned. "All he said was that I should return with you."

Dora rolled her eyes. "We'd better go, then. Where is he?"

"He's at the Abyss." Taslin's face shifted, her cheeks lifting and tightening in a wince. "I'm sorry, I know you don't like going down there."

"It's fine. Come on." Dora started down the tunnel toward the Abyss, giving Taslin as broad a smile as she could. "That was a very good 'regret'. Well done."

"Thank you." The Gift-Giver smiled back, but her face fell too quickly. The frown that followed might have been puzzlement, or just the expression she normally pulled when stymied. "You're aware... you know I really care, don't you? I'm not just pretending."

Dora tried to marshal her face flat and expressionless past her surprise. The polite thing to do was phrase her answer as a question, make it neutral. "Can you care? The way we understand it, I mean?" She frowned, "I know you have a practical concern for our well-being, but I don't think that's quite the same thing."

"It isn't." Taslin's voice flattened back to the crisp, brisk tones of a Wilder struggling with First-Realm logic. Despite understanding that, Dora still felt the first shiver through her gut of a worry that she'd caused offence. Taslin went on, "Your language agrees with our communications on that much. I wish you well, as I wish all humankind well, but I also feel a special loyalty in your case."


Taslin looked down, then back up to meet Dora's eyes. "It's one of the few things our ways of thinking have in common. Loyalty to one's own. I never expected to be able to extend such loyalty to a human, but I have managed it. At least, I think I have."

Dora blinked, trying to settle the weight of Taslin's announcement more comfortably about her shoulders. Her voice came out despicably weedy and breathless as she said, "Thank you. I- I hope I can respond in kind."

Taslin nodded her satisfaction with a thin, flat smile. They walked in silence down through the twisting, jagged tunnel. Dora wished her boot-soles weren't so worn-out; every ridge in the floor stood out as if she walked on broken glass. Once they got to the caves proper, the ground alternated between more comfortable, on the washed-smooth shoulders of each ridge, and outright painful where she had to scramble down between ridges. Taslin had enough tact - and familiarity with Dora's moods - to keep quiet when she cursed.

They were climbing down into the third cave when a wave of disorientation broke over Dora. She let out a mortifying squeak and clung to the rock, an angular protrusion jabbing into her belly. Eyes closed, she wished the sensation away. It passed quickly, but not before Taslin had given her a reassuring pat on the back.

Well, the damage was done. Dora clung on a moment longer, making absolutely sure she was steady before lowering her foot to the stone below. She'd just got to her feet when the world reeled, sending her staggering into Taslin's arms. The Gift-Giver held tight, pinning Dora to her shoulder. Though Taslin's skin was warm, Dora found herself shivering.

She would not cry again. Not over this. She pressed her tight-shut eyes into Taslin's collar-bone, focussed on the tickling of the Gift-Giver's immaculate hair by her ear. Her mind filled with that same dark-cherry hair looping over and around and through itself. Taslin never had to deal with such tangles, even on the windiest days. The hair looped over-under-over itself into a perfect, floating knot.

The ends stretched out, began their own loops. Dora caught on with another shiver. Her first thought was But Rel was just in his cell, how can he be in trouble? Then the part of her that remembered being a Four Knot took over. She let the fourth knot of the distress call tie itself together in her mind, pushing away awareness of Taslin's urgent, whispered enquiry. The Gift-Giver would just have to trust her for once.

Dora reached out an imagined hand through the centre of the knot. Taslin's doubts dropped away, leaving only her own. No time for those now, with one of Vessit's Gifted in trouble. The time for doubts had gone when she accepted the Second Gift, even if she didn't remember it. She tried to fold herself through the knot, found it squeezing her too tight.

That wasn't right. How was she to do her job if the four knot itself rejected her? Was it the Second Gift, taking away more of her life? How was she to do her job with a Second Gift, then? She flexed her grip around the knot again, felt something shift, just slightly. Was she to do her job at all? She pushed harder, feeling out the direction the four knot had moved in.

The four knot? That was her, wasn't it? Was she her job? And if she couldn't do her job, was she anything at all?

A burst of nausea ripped through her gut as the First Realm folded away and dropped her into the Second.

By contrast with the whirling in Dora's stomach, the patch of Realmspace she found herself in seemed stable, calm. She caught her balance quickly, on guard with the adrenaline of her emergency response pounding through her. Six black diamonds floating before her had to be the Court, graceful and lethal in the middle distance. It would do for an anchor.

She built her world around it as quickly as she could, sketching out rolling hills from the low, undulating sweeps of green and gold leading up to the Court. Sapphire triangles beyond became the teeth of a mountain range. The sky refused to be rationalised to clouds of any colour; Dora swapped it out for a canopy of dappled leaves and rose petals.

Framework established, Dora sought her charge, tightening her grip on the ethereal knot she still held. With practiced motions, she slipped the twists of the cord through her fingers, letting herself fall through the world as it led her towards the stray Gifted. Behind her, great trees reared up, thrusting aloft the canopy of flowers until it blurred beyond recall.

Familiar sensations assailed her as her feet settled anew into a grey-brown surface easily passed off as leaf mulch. A space opened up in her mind - nothing to do with the Sherim she tried to forget had formed there - and something beyond it tugged her, pressed her to open eyes already held wide. Again, she had the brief glimmer of the thought that it was Rel in trouble. Each Gift had a different flavour in the Second Realm; the Gifted who had called for her was unmistakably a Clearseer.

Thia was Vessit's Clearseer. Dora called up her recollection of the slight, elfin woman. Red hair cascading in enviably neat waves across narrow shoulders that hid stunning strength -

The memory wrenched away. Dora gasped, found herself flailing her arms, scrabbling to get it back. Her hand struck something, which swore. She ducked as the blood-red blur of the word buzzed past, winced at the metallic sound it struck from the tree behind her. An apology, silent but understood instantly, rippled through the Realmspace in the wake of the curse.

Behind the apology, eyes blazing, short-cropped hair standing on end, stood Wolpan, Vessit's Four Knot. Dora's breath caught. She put a hand up to her own hair, then bowed her head. Breaking eye contact helped until Wolpan waved a hand right across her field of vision. The other woman's impatience splashed across Dora as a rush of heat to her cheeks. She cringed, but looked up.

Wolpan gestured Your purpose? at Dora, pointing at her then making a walking motion with her fingers.
Dora blinked, sure she'd understood the message before Wolpan had finished signalling. Though the other Four Knot's wide eyes and flat brow spoke more of surprise than anger, her disapproval was palpable.

Of course she'd have it covered. There was no need for Dora to be here at all. She shook herself and pulled herself up straight. A hand pressed to her bowed forehead gestured Sorry to Wolpan, and Dora followed it with the signs for Four Knot - me - overreacting.

Wolpan's face darkened. She gestured I don't understand - speak.

Dora swallowed, her shoulders tensing at the suggestion. She took a step closer to the other woman, touched her forehead again in apology, looked away to one side and said, "I answered the Four Knot call on reflex." She held her voice as low and level as she could, but the words still struck sparks from a nearby tree-trunk.

"You didn't make the call?" Wolpan's surprise sprayed from her mouth in a web of red lines. Dora had to duck, reeling as the spike of fear upset her balance. Wolpan's hand steadied her.

Dora straightened up, fists clenched against a lingering tremble. She shook her head. Not knowing what symbol Vessit used for Thia, she formed an eye with her thumb and forefinger, then traced a circle in the air around it: Clearseer.

Wolpan blinked and put her fingers to her forehead. The apology was automatic, insincere. Dora found herself frowning. Wolpan signed Are you sure? At Dora's nod, the other Four Knot twined her thumbs and spread her fingers; Dora took that for Thia's sign. Wolpan finished by gesturing wait here and I'll take care of it.

Dora felt her cheeks redden, her jaw clench tighter. She sketched the signs for I can help, aware as she did so that the Realmspace around her was heating up. Time seemed to slide backwards as the mulch on the ground flared from dull brown to autumn reds.

Are you up to it? Technically, the translation of Wolpan's gesture - thumb up, thumb down, thumb up - was 'are you well enough to continue?', but Dora and Rel had always used the shorter phrase. Dora almost drove her fingernails through her palms, unable to un-hear the teasing tone the memory of Rel's voice brought with it.

She stuck her thumb up, knowing her face would not reflect the assertion that she was fine. Behind her, something rustled as a breeze rose. If Wolpan didn't back down soon they could be in real trouble.

The other Four Knot paused, her face locked in doubts that attacked Dora as a row of itches down the inside of her ribs. Dora braced for another round of argument, wriggling her feet to settle them better in the leaf litter against the rising wind, but Wolpan gave a short, grim nod. She waved to her left, and Dora took it as an instruction. Much as it galled her to take a summary order, Dora found she couldn't grit her teeth any harder. She gave no acknowledgement, instead going straight to work.

Wolpan walked a dozen feet or so away and knelt on the ground, hands pressed to the floor. Dora shrugged at the curious ritual - how was it supposed to help? Thia wasn't buried - and closed her eyes. The image of the compact, highly-strung Clearseer came to Dora more easily this time. She could feel Wolpan's thoughts tugging at the same concept, oddly weak.

Dora bent to the task of filling in the rough form of Thia. Think her body and identity clearly enough, and the Clearseer's broken consciousness would come back to roost. Some details came easily; tiny nose, vibrant smile, restless energy that meant the slight woman seldom sat. Dora tried to fix Thia's eyes - blue, she was sure - but the moment she moved on they fuzzed back to an indistinct grey.

She tried again, with the same result. Wolpan swore, and Dora had to throw herself flat as the cloud of black motes buzzed past. When the sound had faded, Dora lifted her face and shoulders out of the muck with one hand, and flapped the other at Wolpan in a clumsy version of the Be careful! gesture.

The other Four Knot blanched as the ripple effect of the rebuke hit her. Leaves swirled as the rising wind circled back for another blast. Wolpan opened her mouth as if to speak, then closed it again, scowling. She gestured Stop interfering.

Interfering? Dora's awkward shrug made the gesture a question. She pushed herself up to a sitting position.

"With my image of Thia, you daft-" Wolpan cut off sharply, but the insult speared out in coils of red thread. Seated, half-way through the act of crossing her legs beneath her, Dora could do little more than topple herself over to get out of the way. Most of the coils passed over her, curving round until they burrowed into the earth behind her. The bottom few in the tangle slid softly into her arm, sending hot lines of pain through from her eyeball to the crown of her head.

Dora pressed her face into the dirt, hands wrapped around her skull, determined not to scream. Wolpan's anger raced like wildfire through her vulnerable synapses, scattering her concentration. Despite her best efforts, a whimper escaped her lips, slithering away under the carpet of leaves.

She'd only caught a fraction of the insult's force. She clung to that thought as Wolpan's frustration with this underaged, half-mad upstart smashed through her brain. The likelihood of serious permanent damage was small, and she was interfering where she wasn't needed and messing things up. Thia would be in real trouble if they didn't get their act together quickly.

With Thia's unresolved fate a second anchor, Dora found herself sympathising with Wolpan's view. After all, the Clearseer's well-being was probably the only care Dora shared with the other Four Knot. Looked at from that point of view, Dora could see how her intervention, however accidental, might look like a criticism or showing off rather than a blunder. Even if Wolpan's carelessness spoke ill of her.

The fire lancing through Dora's brain dived down her spine, flowing into warmth that pooled in her gut, fuelling her. She took Wolpan's anger and made it her own. If Wolpan had responded more quickly, Dora would never have been sucked in here. Then, twice in only a handful of minutes, Wolpan had almost killed her with unguarded words. She was a terrible Four Knot.

Dora pushed aside the question of whose thought that last comment had been and let the web of pain shatter away from her mind. She rolled upright, willing the worst of the dirt out of her dress. Wolpan, kneeling nearby with her face grey and her mouth hanging open, stared up at her. At least this time she managed to look away and keep her voice quiet as she said, "I thought I'd killed you."

Close. Dora made the gesture and watched Wolpan apologise in response. The other Four Knot started to gesture something, but Dora waved her down. She made the spread-fingers gesture Wolpan had used for Thia, shook it up and down for urgency.

Wolpan nodded, then made the apology gesture again.

Dora rolled her eyes. She gestured You search - I'll guard. The other Four Knot's face stiffened, which was an improvement, and she bent back to her work. Dora turned her back and made a cautious start at patrolling the clearing. Ahead, the gnarled, ancient roots of one of the vast trees rose in colour from brown through red and into a fleshy pink, beginning to glisten as they did so.

Dora's mind slid instantly into recognising them for giant entrails, and she stumbled backwards, gorge rising. A gust of wind from behind brought her Thia's fresh, sea-salt scent, laced with Wolpan's irritation. Dora glanced over her shoulder, but Wolpan still knelt alone. Fresh worry hit Dora's already-riled gut. Had they taken too long bickering? Had Thia sunk past recovery?

Training told her to mark off time taken through the rescue, but short-term memory eluded her. She'd arrived, started visualising Thia - was that when Wolpan had interrupted, or was that later? How long had Dora followed the distress call before coming to the forest floor? Her argument with Wolpan was a blur of panic and aggression. She hadn't been aggressive, had she? That had all been the other woman, afraid of a more competent, practiced Four Knot invading her patch.

Hopefully Wolpan could at least keep track herself. Dora left her to it and paced out the distance to the point where the roots began their transformation into viscera. Stopping short, she turned to put them to her left and walked on, dividing her attention between watching her feet and the roots, in case they started changing again. Maybe if she went this way the shapes would change instead, and give her more to work with.

The colours faded slowly from the woodland as she walked, the crisp, clear edges of leaves and branches blurring together. Not knowing quite why, Dora spun neatly through two steps, enjoying the feel of her ponytail swinging out. As the forest whirled, it flicked back into focus as a simple concrete-and-plaster room, the walls sculpted into elegant, abstract swirls. Wolpan nestled in the core of one curl, barely three inches high.

Letting her body sway to match the pattern on the walls, Dora made her way back to her colleague's side. To her surprise, Wolpan didn't swell up to normal size; instead, Dora was able to cup the Four Knot in a protective hand. Wolpan shivered and looked up, but didn't seem to realise what had happened. Shielded from the truth by her own visualisation of the forest, probably. She'd be much easier to protect like this, provided she didn't panic at Dora's disappearance.

A tingling spread through Dora's hand, as if a net of impossibly fine threads trawled her. Of course. Wolpan's search for Thia. Dora shifted her hand, trying to get out of the way, but the tingling stayed. She wondered if Thia felt the same sensation. Maybe that was why she could never sit still. Certainly, the tickling gave Dora the inescapable urge to shake her hand. Or scratch her nose.

Her thoughts went back to Thia, pulled by some twist of the Second Realm. They'd met only a couple of times, both encounters brief, but Dora had been instantly drawn to the Clearseer's intensity. She was like Rel, focussed on her work, but more willing to trust her colleagues to share in the labour. Less proud. Why had she come to the Second Realm today?

Clearseers went to the Second Realm to make long-range or particularly detailed Clearviewings, usually to expand on a more cursory First-Realm viewing that promised major danger. Back home, Rel went to the Second Realm three or four times a year, but Vessit was a much safer town than Federas. On the other hand, Thia wasn't as strongly Gifted as Rel.

Vessit's Gifted had all been shaken when Keshnu explained about the strange Sherim beside the chasm that ran under the town. Thia must have spent a good deal of time immersed in the future, trying to map out the effects. Perhaps she'd found something that bore further investigation. A shiver ran through Dora. Rel's cell was very close to that problematic Sherim. Tiresome as he was being, she still didn't want to lose him. What had Thia seen?

"Nothing good." Tiredness gave the Clearseer's voice an almost southern drawl. The words fell out of her as a shower of embers, and Dora jerked her foot back out of the way. Thia stood before her, the top of her head barely higher than Dora's chin, her eyes glazed, her hair wisping out in the first stage of what would become chaotic tangles.

She'd appeared at Dora's scale, not Wolpan's. The other Four Knot still knelt, cupped in Dora's palm, staring about in confusion. Without thinking about it, Dora spun Wolpan's visualisation through some peculiar angles and wound her up to the right size. Wolpan staggered, gagging, and Thia caught her. The Clearseer's strength remained, then, despite her dazed demeanour. Logic burnout seldom overwhelmed physical training.

Wolpan got her wits back, just managing to keep from speaking until she'd looked away. "What? What did you do?" Her voice became a single sharp-tipped rod of silver, arcing away to a tree in the distance where it drilled a hole right through the wood.

Thia turned to look at Dora, her eyes still unfocussed. Dora frowned at her, then realised Wolpan hadn't been addressing the Clearseer.

What had she done? "I... Thia came back together on this scale rather than yours. I was using the larger scale to stand a better guard. I'm not sure... I wonder if maybe we interfered with one another when we were following the distress call and got settled in the wrong place."

Wolpan's face hardened. Stiffly, she made the gestures for More explanation needed - Not here.

Dora nodded. She pointed to Wolpan, then traced a circle in the air with one finger - You find the Sherim - and put her arm around Thia's back. The Clearseer gripped Dora's dress at the opposite shoulder, pulling it uncomfortably tight across her throat, but she supported most of her own weight.

Already disturbed, Realmspace folded back around them as Wolpan cast out in search of a route to a Sherim. The towering trees shrank sharply to freakish shrubs, some fat-trunked but tiny, others with broad-spreading canopies hiding trunks that had diminished to twig-thickness. The veil of flowers tore away from the sky, leaving an angular, fractal scar behind. It mesmerised, drawing the eye down through illusory spirals to a point at which conscious thought began to fade.

Dora pulled her attention back and covered Thia's eyes. The Clearseer didn't protest. Her skin was cold to the touch, clammy despite the complete absence of sweat. Dora managed not to swear out loud, feeling her fears for Thia's well-being running through their wavering reality as tremors. She should have been able to work out how long Thia had been under. She should have been able to save the Clearseer more quickly.

The ground convulsed, bouncing Dora off a high bush that left prickling leaves tangled in her sleeve as she reeled to steady Thia. They needed to move, and soon. Two angry, frightened people in this patch of Realmspace had been dangerous enough. With Thia's wandering, burnt-out mind in tow, they were hopelessly vulnerable. What was taking Wolpan so long? The Four Knot's face could have been carved from stone, her cheeks reduced to flat, severe planes. Her eyes were closed.

Her mind pressed out into Realmspace as a taut line, tying her to the distant Sherim. Dora watched, fascinated beyond horror, as Wolpan pushed out further, the straight edges of the scene twisting and distorting under the spell of the Four Knot's Gift. The world began to align with Wolpan's intent; a simple path for them to get Thia to safety. They'd all pay for it in fatigue later, but home was the first priority.

Dora squeezed her eyes shut as logic yielded, her stomach turning one way and her balance the other. Her knees gave out as the ground beneath her feet rippled again, and a blast of wind slapped her forward. Thia yelped, limp in Dora's grasp as they staggered and fell. Dora forced herself to look up as they passed through where the ground should have been.

Colours and shapes danced around them in kaleidoscopic chaos. No amount of rationalisation would make sense of the sensations. Nausea rose just high enough to put a sour taste in the back of Dora's throat before giving up altogether. Wolpan leaned down with a hand outstretched, her Gift a blue, metallic rope tethering her to the distance. The Four Knot's eyes were wide, her lips pulled back in a snarl.

Dora managed to overcome the shiver that shot through her - what was Wolpan so angry about? Was it really human to get angry in a situation like this? - and, straining at the limit of her reach, got her fingers into contact with the other Four Knot's. Contact sucked them together with an odd popping noise that burst through the surrounding storm as a thick spray of violet.

Acceleration stretched every joint in her body as Wolpan's connection to the Sherim reeled them in. Behind, Realmspace exploded out of itself, the pent-up emotions of the confrontation in the clearing released as barbs of light that dazzled with menace. Dora curled herself tighter around Thia, clenched her grip on Wolpan's hand until the other Four Knot grunted.

The grunt Dopplered past in a shimmering array of red crystal, lost as soon as seen amid the chaos through which they plunged. Dora fought the urge to seek First-Realm patterns in the confusion. Any part of it might be a hostile Wilder, whose attention they could not afford to draw. She let the colours whirl in silence and tried to keep her mind only on her sense of touch.

Despite grime picked up from the search - why had she felt the need to kneel and press her hands into the ground, anyway? - Wolpan's hand was soft in Dora's, the skin chill enough to seem damp. Well, perhaps there wasn't a lot for a Four Knot to do in a town like Vessit. Maybe all Wolpan's other activities were gentle on the skin. No point jumping to conclusions until they were safe.

Dora found her breath coming more easily. Thia's grip must have slackened, though Dora could tell by the hot feel of the chafing in her armpit that the Clearseer hadn't let go completely. Still, she had to be fading. Dora hefted the other woman's weight, her shoulder and upper arm complaining sharply. Her own eyelids grew heavy.

A bad sign; Thia's mind starting to bleed out into the Realm around them. Dora had no free hand with which to try stuffing it back into her head. She watched, helplessly, as platelets of grey-pink and a Second-Realm colour that made her want to retch flickered in response to the Clearseer's wavering logic. Bathed in the glow of Wolpan's raging aura - a quiet voice in the back of Dora's mind screamed warning; you can't normally see auras! - the flecks began to draw in towards them, hungry and seeking.

In four neat, straight, spiralling lines, the fragments of whatever identity it was flowed into their wake, sucking in more and more of the Realm around them until the Realm itself became an anchor. Wolpan dug her fingers into Dora's palm. Dora reciprocated, knowing the pain would help them both focus. Her grip on Thia allowed no such aid, though she twisted her hand in the fabric of the other woman's dress in case she'd respond to the added tightness.

Thia's aura already looked like little more than a faint sheen of oil on water. It spread a slick of hues Dora didn't want to think about over the unintelligible view. Dora could feel it lying over the bare skin on the back of her hand. Her own revulsion pulsed out in a wave, driving the aura back and eliciting a sound half-way between a whimper and a mumble from Thia. Her aura spread back the other way, back into their wake where the emerging Wilder waited.

Wolpan shouted, her words lost in a buzz of displaced air as they scythed past. The Wilder billowed, shrugging off the anger like hair in a stiff breeze. Stealing a quick, hopeful glance ahead, Dora could make out nothing that might be an oncoming Sherim. Would the Wilder be able to? Without the benefit of a stable visualisation, it was impossible to recognise its species, though their continued survival ruled out most of the worst possibilities.

The creature seemed content to follow them for now, making no attempt to close the last handful of inches. Dora shivered as she realised her trailing feet would be the first thing it touched. She curled her toes, pulling her knees up as best she could despite the obstacle of Thia's limp form. Dora stopped herself, feeling her face set hard in an inward scowl. She couldn't risk exposing the Clearseer for the sake of her own safety.

Tangled between Thia and Wolpan, Dora could do nothing in defence. They spun too quickly for her to be able even to shout, though Wolpan's efforts in that direction were bearing no fruit. Another glass-edged burst of desperation speared past, framed in the Four Knot's high tones, but the Wilder barely flinched. At this rate, Wolpan would just convince it to try eating them all the sooner.

Again, Dora tore her eyes away from the thing's rippling tendrils. Ahead, sensations danced in wait for them, their motions outlining the nine half-dimensions of the Second Realm. She felt her consciousness splinter, suddenly, shattering to shards that shattered again and again until a tiny Dora caught the reflection of each moment of consciousness that awaited them.

She didn't try to rationalise it. She didn't panic or die. She didn't, in fact, exist. She smashed her own internal structure and sent the pieces of herself spinning into the cloud of chaos ahead. The shockwave of tension released through the fabric of the Realm bore her on, with Wolpan's sudden terror a sour note flooding through the memory of Dora's tongue.

Realmspace folded her into new shapes. Concepts discussed in her training leapt out of the storm. She'd been taught that a human couldn't understand or recognise the ashtmer and ghiten of a Sherim, but there they were, locking together under the force of the fast-approaching consciousnesses of two humans, a Wilder and a thousand-million Doras. The Doras burrowed into the membrane between ashtmer and ghiten, ferreting out the tiniest of cracks with preternatural ease.

She needed to separate them to allow Thia and Wolpan passage, but what human force could exert such strength in the Second Realm? The vision of the other two women turned at bay with their backs to the wall of the impenetrable Sherim almost pulled Dora back to herself. The human part of her registered the shiver that ran through Realmspace as a creaking sound. Light - real, honest, First-Realm light - peeked around the edges of the ghiten.

Infinite Doras gave an infinite sigh of relaxation while the tangled bundle of Thia, Wolpan and a lump of flesh she had to avoid identifying dropped out of the sky toward them.

Then she let herself fall back into herself, screaming every thought she could think of that offered her some semblance of identity. The ashtmer lifted, spinning apart in an oddly mechanical motion while cold daylight burned through, bleaching the dnimric shelds to tefxor.

Impact with the grass slammed Dora back to herself, alien thoughts and alien language bouncing clear out of her head.

She put her back to the grass and surveyed the world. Ahead, a great dome of blue filled her view, smudged here and there with white and grey. Its periphery vanished at the edges of her vision behind a ring of half-seen greenery. Easy enough, then, to think of ahead as up, the blue dome as sky. Dora closed her eyes for a moment, then lifted her head and looked around.

Common sense caught up, reminded her that the First Realm had gravity to select up and down for her. For a moment, she panicked, worried she might have visualised wrong and even now be plummeting to her death, but no. She was lying on grass. Grass was very rarely anything other than the ground. The angular shapes of the dark-needled trees backed up the impression, arrows pointed at the sky.

It still took a moment for Dora to find the courage to sit up. She grabbed tight handfuls of grass to hold her to the planet, but managed not to whimper when a few of the fine stalks snapped. The feeling of the series of tiny pops reminded her of dragging a hairbrush through bed-ruffled hair in the morning. A problem of the past, thanks to Taslin. She pushed to her feet, reaching out to steady herself against a nearby tree. Her fingers touched flat, finished board where bark should have been.

The Sherim stood behind her, a round doorway cut into the bole of a gross, fattened pine. No branches grew on this side of the tree, and the bark showed the strain of the Sherim in craggy, distended lines, as if the tree had grown around the Sherim. Fungi marched in wobbly ranks up the flanks of the trunk, but they, too, gave the Sherim a wide berth. The door itself shared the mottled blue-green of the needles, as if it had been painted in deliberate mimicry.

Dora spun the world around her, stumbling as a lump hidden in the grass tripped her. The Sherim stood in a generous clearing that fell away towards the darkness of the forest proper. Up-slope, a dark crag reared out of the trees, bare and hooked, stark and ominous despite the warmth of the untrammelled sunlight.

She couldn't see the sea. Well, that made some sense; there were no mountains this big visible from Vessit. They must have come out of the wrong Sherim. How long would it take them to get back? Rel would be without her help - however much he thought he didn't want it - for far too long. Vessit would lack both its Four Knot and its Clearseer.

Well, the seaside town seldom had serious Second-Realm problems. Perhaps if there was a crisis, Keshnu might allow Rel to help them. Perhaps the Gift-Giver would even step in himself. None of that would help Rel face his trial, though. She needed to get Thia and Wolpan back to Vessit as soon as possible.

The Clearseer lay only a few feet away, a hand pressed to her forehead, mumbling to herself. Wolpan, further down the hill, looked as if she hadn't yet regained consciousness, her face buried in the grass, one arm out-flung. Probably just logic shock from the Sherim. Dora still wasn't sure what she'd done to get it open, but at least she'd known she was doing something. Heaven alone knew what Wolpan had thought of what she saw.

Movement flickered at the bottom end of the clearing. Dora studied the treeline, hoping it was just a spasm of the destabilised Sherim. Squinting, she made out a shape cast in shimmering lines like spider-silk catching the sun. Its limbs flickered in and out of visibility too quickly to count, but she knew there would be nine of them.

Now she could see it in a First-Realm context, it was easy to recognise the Wilder as a Lentu. She could even see how it had appeared as four trailing streamers in the Second Realm, one of the simpler quirks of a human attempt to translate nine half-dimensions into four whole ones. The Lentu would be no problem if Thia could recover quickly.

Stupid thought. Dora resisted the urge to slap herself. The Clearseer needed at least a day's rest before she could even hope to use her Gift again, and even then she wasn't Rel. There was no guarantee she was strong enough to attempt mixing her Clearsight and her martial training. Wolpan would be no help either. The Four Knot was taking a frighteningly long time to recover.

The Lentu stirred, its legs finally marshalled into an order that enabled it to move. It solidified suddenly, the mottled brown and green of the forest behind it becoming a rippling pelt sliding over freakish but graceful limbs. The Wilder's shape left it without a head, but Dora could see the pines trembling in reflexive fear as it tested the air.

Nothing for it but to fight, and hope the Sherim at her back was riled enough to offer some serious Wild Power. Ripped as it must have been from symbiosis with the rest of its pack, and freshly arrived in the First Realm, the Lentu shouldn't be too dangerous. It wasn't even strictly a predator; its consciousness was too simple.

None of that stopped the rush of adrenaline that shook through Dora with the chill of the breeze. She began to walk towards the Lentu, watching its uneven, liquid prowl and trying not to let it mesmerise her. It missed a step as it identified her - she could almost see the thought food run through it - and stumbled, rolling right over and through itself before regaining its footing.

Dora stepped past Wolpan, one fist clenched, her other hand held in a flat blade. She wouldn't know until she attacked whether there was Wild Power available to make her strikes count, but letting the Lentu come to her was too risky a strategy. Theoretically, Dora knew, she should make some attempt to drive it back through the Sherim rather than kill it, but that would mean shepherding it past the two unconscious Gifted. The briefest of touches with the Lentu would be enough to kill either of them. She bowed her head and broke into a leggy lope downhill. The Lentu reorganised itself, twitched, and charged.

Even new to the First Realm, its grace translated into ferociously fast motion. Dora shouted an incoherent string of syllables and let the glowing web of her anger race ahead of her. The Lentu flowed around the shape, swallowing it, and came on. Aiming just to one side of the Wilder, she shouted again, putting in more venom this time.

The Lentu swung sideways, two of its left legs flailing at the air, and again the shout vanished. Dora adjusted her charge ever so slightly as the Lentu reeled, flailed legs and attacked the slope again. It didn't try to turn to meet her, instead heading for the two unconscious Gifted further up the hill. Dora faced its flank, close enough now to see the ripple of muscles under the sleek, beautiful hide.

It was almost a shame to kill the creature. Unfair. Dora added that injustice to her anger and slashed out with her arm, praying she wasn't wrong about the Sherim. Wild Power answered. Air flashed into a blade, the spark of reflected sunlight drawing the Lentu's attention. Legs windmilled, punching distortions into the fabric of the world, and the Wilder began to turn. Dora's blade sliced into its pelt with a sound like fabric ripping.

Blood, or some Second-Realm analogue of it, sprayed bruise-purple across the grass. Still charging, Dora felt her balance shift as the Lentu's pain rippled through the world. It rolled again, and somehow managed to get its limbs organised to point it in Dora's direction. Reassured, feeling the adrenaline burning with Wild Power inside her, she lashed out head-on.

The wind parted before her as her punch drilled into the Lentu, driving it backward. It clawed furrows in the grass, its rage manifesting a dual-voiced howl, one part scream and one part guttural roar. Dora checked her run only a handful of yards from the creature. With a heave that rippled the length of its body and sent clods of earth flying up behind it, it pounced.

Dora threw herself sideways, whirling the world around to swing the Lentu away. Even the faintest brush of physical contact while it was on the attack could be fatal. She rolled sideways on landing, put her back to the ground and vaulted upright, reflexively wrenching the grass up to steady and catch her.

With a hawk's cry, the Lentu flickered around to bring its charge at her again. The ground beneath her feet settled into order too slowly, and she stumbled half a step backward. Animal hate and pain washed over her as the Lentu closed, its feelings a bow wave through the First Realm. Dora cried out herself, but the blue-silver arc of the sound failed to turn the predator.

She threw up an arm loaded with fear, trailing hardened air as Wild Power resonated with the emotion. Desperate, she let herself fall after the arm, knowing it could not be enough. Something crunched as the Lentu hit her crude shield, and she winced, waiting for the creature's ice-cold touch. Sharp pain answered instead, slicing through her dress and into her shoulder, snicking her ponytail short.

The ground walloped her, dazed her. Instinctively, she shoved it away, then gasped as she found herself flying in a high tumble, the planet swinging past above her. The Lentu roared, rearing up, but she was well out of its reach. She lashed out a foot as it spun past, throwing out a scythe of Wild Power that burned a long, dark line in the grass before smashing the Wilder to the floor.

Again, she found the planet at her back. The impact knocked the wind out of her, but anger gave her the strength to force a breath past the crushing weight on her chest. She threw herself back to her feet. Up-slope, now between her and the other Gifted, the Lentu struggled to rise. Dora had seen trapped rats with broken legs make similar hopeless motions. She began to walk towards the Wilder.

She could almost see the bar of the trap pinning it to the floor, a dip in the once-straight line of its spine. The place where her kick had struck, pulverising whatever passed for the Lentu's skeleton. Holding to that visualisation kept the creature pinned. How could it move without the right bone structure? The force of Dora's First-Realm logic flattened the Lentu's confused mind into obedience.

Still, it would take a strong blow yet to kill the thing and render it safe to touch. Dora turned her foot on her next step, pirouetting to add more of her body's momentum to the blow, filling herself with as much Wild Power as she could handle. Her spin drove a lance of pain through the corner of her eye and into the centre of her brain, but a rod of hardened air swept out from her outstretched fingers.

It caught the Lentu near what she'd been thinking of as its head. The Wilder flew into the air, already a ragged mess, and smashed into the trees fifty feet or more away across the hillside. With a heavy crash, a tree snapped, and the Lentu's corpse bounced and rolled to the floor. Dora stared, mouth hanging open. Her arm tingled.

She'd expected to smash the creature, true, but not send it flying. Had any Gifted ever struck such a powerful blow? What had she done to the Sherim? She glanced back at the distorted tree, but while there was a crack between the ashtmer and ghiten, leaking the glowing-amber influence of the Second Realm, it was no more than normal.

Thought caught up with itself, stroking a finger of ice down Dora's spine. She'd been able to recognise the ashtmer and ghiten while in the Second Realm, and that was just about credible; she was good at Second-Realm logic, when she saw it in context. To be able to see them from this side?

She looked away, hurried over to check on Wolpan. Better not to think of where her sudden burst of power had come from.

* * *

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