Staring Into the Abyss
2. Mind Over Matter
Bile surged up Dora's throat. She gagged, but managed not to throw up over Thia's supine form. The Clearseer was fine, just sleeping off the worst of her burnout. Dora's stomach convulsed again as the Sherim sent a vicious twist through reality. She pushed unsteadily upright and turned away, a hand pressed to her belly. Beneath her feet, the world wriggled.
"You alright?" Wolpan's voice was as hard as ever, but at least she'd stopped sounding outright angry since Dora had saved her life. If only she'd gotten more careful to go with it. Her words swished straight out at Dora's back, silver blades of sound that Dora didn't even need to turn to see. She waved a hand in automatic self-defence, and the words splintered back to breeze.
The ground spun sideways as Wolpan gasped, and Dora dropped to her knees, gagging again. She fell forward, her hands pressing into soft, damp grass, acrid smells from her own gut filling her nose. A spasm ran through her, trailing a wake of chills, but the nausea subsided. She spat tainted saliva and sat up.
"'Ware the Gate!" It wasn't Wolpan or Thia who'd made the shout. The voice was smooth, controlled. It emerged from a Gateway a little way around the edge of the Sherim clearing, rippling into the air and dissipating before its traces of amusement could strip so much as a leaf from the nearest tree.
Keshnu's silver-haired head rose neatly from the opening, his ever-so-slightly wrinkled face following. His usual simple robe was creased at the shoulders by half a dozen straps; he carried a backpack, and, blessedly, water. Not the plastic bottles from the Sherim chamber in Vessit, but more modern leather. Well, however much better the plastic would have been, Keshnu would not be shifted in his insistence that the Sherim chamber remain undisturbed.
The water might go some way to settling Dora's stomach. She shuddered again as Keshnu let his Gate close. The Wilder turned and began to walk toward them, his robe actually darkening with moisture picked up from the grass. Dora tried to grin at him; this close to a Sherim, that level of detail amounted to showing off, and for a Wilder even showing off was showing off. Taslin more or less understood the concept, but only Keshnu had really mastered it.
His face widened with concern as his eyes met hers, though. She wondered how bad her smile must have looked. Keshnu ignored the startled Wolpan, stepped primly over Thia's legs, and came up to Dora. She took his offered hand and let him help her to her feet. He gave her a brief nod, turned his head slightly to one side, and said, "Good, you're with us. I was worried." His agitation showed as the words spiralled orange light into the trees.
"Worried?" Looking uphill towards the still-seething Sherim, Dora tried to sound nonchalant. Her voice cracked on the second syllable, though, the sound leaping from an indistinct green cloud to a shower of blue sparks as it passed her lips. At her feet, black spots peppered across the grass.
"You're blazing with Wild Power."
There was such concern in Keshnu's voice and kindly face that Dora actually glanced down at her sleeve, half-expecting to see it blackening. "Blazing?"
"Is the metaphor incorrect?" With his head turned to one side but his eyes still on hers, Keshnu almost seemed afraid. "You're aware that to us, and some Clearseers, your Gift appears as a golden aura?"
Like the fatigue-splotched nimbus around Thia, and the fainter one around Wolpan, glimpsed over Keshnu's shoulder. Dora hadn't yet told anyone about seeing auras. She nodded, glad of the opportunity to break eye contact.
Keshnu's pause told her he wasn't completely fooled, but he went on, "The aura is a symptom of the Gift's interaction with First Realmspace. Yours is normally bright, but not normally this bright. If it is true that humans can be blinded by very bright lights, I would caution any Clearseer to avoid looking at you with his Gift."
The Gift-Giver's words stayed gentle, but Dora could see the ripple they cut into the air. The Sherim was still active, still leaking power between the Realms after whatever it was Dora had done to get it open. She'd given up attempting to converse with Wolpan, so hazardous had it become to express any emotion within the clearing. Could some part of that be due to Wild Power pent up within her?
She flinched as Keshnu lifted a hand and cupped her cheek. His skin was dry, just warm enough to be welcome, his touch soft as he lifted her chin. She met his grey eyes, noticed they managed to glitter even in broad daylight. He frowned, pinching his faint wrinkles to sharp lines, then looked away to speak. "Do you feel well?"
Dora's stomach chose that moment to gurgle. She tried to keep from grimacing. Keshnu would know if she lied. "I've been having bouts of nausea and dizziness since we returned to the First Realm." Her words pattered across the grass in thick, heavy black droplets. "I don't think I've noticed anything else."
"No conceptual effects?" Keshnu's eyes narrowed, his head tilting ever-so-slightly to one side. Dora knew the face all too well; it was the one he called 'compassionate doubt'. Over the last week, she'd given him far too many opportunities to practice it, and the result was utterly human.
She looked away, then realised she'd looked straight at the Sherim. The tangled interlock of the ashtmer and ghiten stared back accusingly. To a human, they should be nothing at all, or at most a confusing jumble of intangible gossamers. Dora stopped her mind dead before it could follow through the thought that she could see exactly how the two things should come apart. She could even see where they'd lodged against each other instead of closing all the way back up.
"Dora?" Keshnu refrained from waving a hand in her face, but she could feel the edge that worrying had put on his voice.
She tore her gaze away from the Sherim, not willing to risk her words carrying far enough to interfere with it. "I... When we were leaving the Second Realm, I think I opened the Sherim the way a Child of the Wild would."
Keshnu glanced up at the Sherim and froze. His voice went flat and hard. "What do you mean?"
Dora stuttered, stopped, swallowed and tried again. "When you part the ashtmer and ghiten, do they spin..." No, that wasn't quite the right word. "Do they come apart like this?" She spun one arm around and over the other, and almost jumped out of her skin when her wrists banged together.
Keshnu's features blurred, his entire form losing definition as he absorbed the shock. A chill shot down Dora's spine, even as she sidestepped the razor edge of Wolpan's gasp. An inexperienced Wilder, new to the First Realm, might have such a loss of control if severely startled. For one of Keshnu's powers to weaken like that, Dora knew her interference with the Sherim had to be truly drastic.
The Gift-Giver's face rose back into focus, skin grey, eyes wide and hard. "What exactly did you do?"
"I don't know." Dora felt her voice wavering, and forced herself not to cringe.
"You have been trained better than that, Dora." Keshnu's eyes narrowed, but not nearly far enough to make him look human. "I want your every impression. Every detail."
Dora floundered for the right words. Playing for time, she emptied her lungs, trying to blow her mind clear in the process. She hadn't even mentioned the Lentu that had followed them back from the Second Realm yet. There'd be trouble over that. Remembering the vicious blow with which she'd dispatched the creature finally brought her back round to the memory of it following them as they fled the Second Realm.
She took a deep breath and opened her eyes, forcing herself not to pay any attention to what she saw. "We'd recovered Thia and Wolpan had connected us to the Sherim. We were returning as fast as we could, but we drew the attention of a Lentu and I judged that we'd be unlikely to get through the Sherim without it catching us.
"My impression was of splitting myself into millions of pieces, each matched with an element of the Realmspace around us. The shards buried themselves in the cracks between ashtmer and ghiten. When I pulled myself back together... well, I have no impression of what happened, except that it got all three of us and the Lentu through the Sherim."
Realmspace rippled with Keshnu's stunned curse. Dora's stomach fluttered again in response, and she turned away, gagging and coughing. Wolpan put out a hand to steady her, and she could feel the other woman's trembling through her grip.
"I'm sorry." Keshnu's voice told Dora he'd recovered well before she managed to straighten up and face him. His face still lacked its usual animation, but he managed a weak smile. "You have managed a feat considered a matter of tenuous myth among my kind. I'm surprised you thought we used any technique that drastic to pass between Realms."
"But the Wildren technique is to do with parting the ashtmer and ghiten, isn't it?" Dora rubbed her arms, hugging herself.
"Yes, but only a little way, and carefully." Keshnu raised his arm, jerkily, and pointed uphill. "As you can see, the Sherim has been stretched out of stable. It will be a long time before this area is safe again." Dora flinched as Keshnu's last word sprouted sleek wings and accelerated past her head. The Wilder continued, "I think I should probably take some time to instruct you in safe methods of handling Sherim."
Dora glanced at Thia, still unconscious on the grass. If Keshnu intended to take them back to Vessit by Gateway, it would be a while before they could go. Still, the thought of trying to think like a Wilder, trying to learn a Wilder's way of doing things... Dora found herself wondering if there'd be anything left of her at the end of it. Was this what the Gift-Givers had envisioned for her and the Second Gift?
Keshnu misread her hesitation. "Don't worry, I'll take a look at Thia first." He handed her a canteen and turned toward the Clearseer.
Wolpan said, "Thank you." She sounded as frightened and weary as Dora felt. Good job Rel wasn't here to hear the subservient tone in the other Four Knot's voice. In fact, it was probably better if he never learned how careless and weak Wolpan was as a Four Knot, or none of them would ever hear the end of it.
Dora shook her head, brought herself back to herself. Keshnu was already half-way to Thia, Wolpan hovering behind him. A stray gust of wind blew hair into Dora's face as she followed, getting caught between her mouth and the neck of the canteen. She spluttered, put her free hand up to trap the hair back, and found it too short to reach the back of her head. Her ponytail was completely missing, casualty of her fight with the Lentu. She dragged her fingers through the resulting tangles, wishing Taslin were here to do something about them.
No, that was selfish, with Thia still fighting to survive the cost of Dora's hesitation and Wolpan's weaknesses. The Clearseer lay still, her tiny frame making her seem childlike as Keshnu knelt beside her. He leant forward, studying Thia intently, chest first and then head. He pressed a hand to her forehead, ran it down her face without provoking even the slightest hint of a stir.
Dora resisted the urge to try to study the Gift-Giver's face. It would have been rude enough to do that to a human doctor, and Keshnu's mind would be on anything but the chore of pulling the right human expressions to match his assessment. Instead, she quelled her worries by watching Wolpan gasp as Keshnu laid his other hand across Thia's chest. Had the other Four Knot never seen a Wilder study a human's condition before?
For that matter, would it really have been so shocking for a human doctor to touch a patient like that while checking her condition? Keshnu needed to check how strong Thia's hold on life was, after all. Beneath his palm, Dora could see the translucent tendrils of his questing consciousness dropping through Thia's skin and into her heart, probing the muscles for any sign of strain.
A warning voice that Dora was becoming too familiar with hearing at the back of her mind wondered shouldn't you find that disgusting? She made a show of looking away again, but there was only Wolpan around to see, and the other Four Knot was staring suspiciously at the Sherim. Was there anything there for her to worry about, really? It hadn't changed in the last couple of hours.
But then, Wolpan would be seeing the Sherim very differently. A tree with a doorway hanging in its trunk, the round portal distending the natural growth of the wood until the tree seemed bloated and grotesque. Wolpan would see nothing of the shimmering web of Second-Realm colours where the two opposing layers of the Sherim kissed, breathing each other's air in drifts of shining mist. Despite the queasy feeling in the pit of her stomach, Dora had to admit it was beautiful.
Keshnu straightened, then pushed to his feet, back to his usual elegant humanity. "She'll live. There may be some short-term memory loss, unfortunately, so we may lose the benefit of whatever Clearviewing drove her to take such risks. I can't predict when she'll regain consciousness. Were there problems recovering her?"
Wolpan opened her mouth, but Dora saw the lie coming and got in first. "Yes. We... got in each other's way as we were responding, I suppose."
"If you'd-" Wolpan cut off as her words sent a volley of red darts at Dora. Dora raised a hand, reaching for the feeling she'd had last time she'd had to parry the careless woman's voice. Something bubbled through her skin, and a flash of light hid the moment of contact with the darts. Sharp pain stabbed through the veins down the back of Dora's hands, and for a moment, she thought she'd failed, but the fire died away swiftly.
Wolpan looked away, holding her voice lower but not low enough to hide her anger. "If you'd just left me to do my job it would've been fine."
"By Taslin's account, Dora responded on reflex only." Keshnu's smooth, calm tone cut off Dora's attempt to respond. "We can hardly fault her for that, any more than we can fault you for responding. Thia will be well in time. We should be able to return to Vessit tomorrow."
"Tomorrow?" Wolpan's voice climbed half an octave.
"I'm sure the town will be safe, Wolpan." Keshnu smiled, putting a hand on Wolpan's shoulder. "If all else fails, my kin in the caves will be on hand."
Wolpan swallowed. "No, I... well, yes, but what about us? We have no camping gear. Are we just going to sleep rough?"
Dora felt her face twist in the first stirrings of real anger. Keshnu somehow managed to catch her eye, though, and the look in his suggested strongly that she hold her peace. She bowed her head, just slightly. The Wilder said, "It's only ten miles to Dyshan. I'll Gate us down there and we can pick up the basics, at least."
"Thia needs a roof over her head and a warm bed. How will she recover like this?" Wolpan waved a hand vaguely in the direction of the unconscious Clearseer. Behind Wolpan's head, Dora made out the twisting, lens-distortion halo she'd learnt to interpret as a sign the speaker was twisting the facts to her own ends. Wolpan's words rippled across the distortion, dispersing to a pinkish mist before they could trouble Keshnu.
The Gift-Giver squared his shoulders and frowned at Wolpan. "Thia will recover more quickly if we don't try to move her. She needs undisturbed rest, and she's in no greater danger here, with the three of us to watch over her, than she would be anywhere else in the First Realm. A tent will suffice us all for one night." Keshnu paused, and when he spoke again there was a distinct edge on his voice. "Now, if you'll please keep an eye on your colleague, I need to make sure Dora's not going to kill us all by accident."
Dora buried her own flinch under satisfaction at the way Wolpan paled. Keshnu walked past the Four Knot before she'd even managed to close her mouth, smiling at Dora. "Perhaps we can also study your remarkable new ability to parry words."
Warmed by the Gift-Giver's smile, Dora followed, careful to avoid meeting Wolpan's eyes. No point rubbing salt into the wound. What Wolpan really needed was someone to put the finishing edge on her training, and showing contempt for her would just make her hard to reach.
Keshnu's step didn't falter as he approached the Sherim, but the low current of Wild Power flowing from it washed the sense of the Gift-Giver's unease down to Dora. Around the Sherim, she could feel the charge hanging heavy in the air, whispering to her in shades of brown and grey, the scents muted and autumnal and infinitely soft. She felt as though she wore a bubble for a helmet, swimming in a sea of particularly fine honey. Keshnu's worries became transfigured, their sharp tang fading back to a welcome counterpoint to the sweetness that surrounded her.
He didn't need to speak; she raised her hands, held them in front of her with palms a hand-span apart, fingers curved so their tips almost touched. Easy enough to do as he wished and tune herself to the Sherim's off-key music. It would be simplicity itself to slide one hand between the halves of the Sherim, lifting with the other to seat them back together as they wanted to lie. Something tingled across the back of her skull, the sensation of- what? A lover's tender, sleeping breath?
Realmspace rippled as she rejected the thought. If nothing else, it couldn't have been hers.
The ripple turned, splashed back over her, carrying with it a caution from Keshnu. Words failed to capture the Second-Realm concepts the Gift-Giver offered, but she didn't need words. She held breathlessly still while he ran his hands over hers, tapped at the construct held between them which captured the unsettled arrangement of ashtmer, ghiten, shelds and bromor.
For a moment, the visual poetry of the arrangement faltered, her hands sounding a sour note. What had she misunderstood? Her knuckle exploded in sharp pain as Keshnu reached around it and tweaked it back into place. The fit was so natural in the new position that Dora found herself wondering how she'd failed to notice dislocating the joint when she did it. Must have happened while she fought the Lentu.
Keshnu sent more waves of concern at her, each falling in time with the gently-shifting colours of the wind, lulling away her memories of the fight, smoothing the tension out of the grip she held on her identity. Her link with the Sherim rose to the fore again. She exchanged a glance with the Gift-Giver, relishing in the shared confidence that had been so lacking since she received the Second Gift.
For a moment, she allowed the contact to linger, drowning in the compassion of Keshnu's gaze. Warmth suffused her in return, a cascade of feelings that the mongrel logic of the Sherim translated into painfully familiar sensations. The scent of clean homespun and home-made preserves, the peculiarly rich colours sunset always brought in memories from her childhood, the rumble heard through the floorboards as her father talked late into the night.
She nodded - at least, as far as she could tell - and began to twist her hands apart, the ache in her finger slinking back as she did so. The air between her palms stiffened, weight inherited from the Sherim to which she'd bound it. Grunting, she wrenched harder and felt the tangle of fraying Realmspace start to slide apart.
Keshnu's hands on her head were like the bricks of a hearth, unyielding but never unkind. He steadied her as great gales of light spilled out of the Second Realm across them both. The world - the First Realm - roared in answer to the challenge, surging into the shelds of the Sherim and up through them into the fingers of Dora's right hand. She caught the torrent of Second Realmstuff in her left.
It was, she saw in a moment of clarity, a matter of balance. The contact surfaces of the ashtmer and ghiten - the points of interchange between logics and physics, between the world of sensation and the world of matter - had settled together with the realms pressing on them in a particular way. Restore those levels of pressure and the system would stabilise.
Keshnu's shocked admiration blossomed like a lily in a whirlpool, hopelessly adrift. Dora smiled, knowing the Gift-Giver would understand her showing-off, knowing the Gift-Giver better than it knew itself. Steadily, delicately, she began to thread the streams back into alignment. She'd expected it to be like knitting, but it was more like tying a bootlace.
Several bootlaces at the same time. She didn't have enough fingers. Four dimensions of the First Realm wasn't too bad, but even cheating, the Second Realm had four and a half. She tried to take the spare half on her thumb and found the eight threads already pressing against that hand threatening to split her fingers. Lines of pain traced up her knuckles.
She had the threads paired up wrong, but something told her there wouldn't be time to rearrange them. If she could risk letting go of them at all. What would happen if she let Second Realmstuff spill freely into the First Realm? Very little that was biological could endure the proximity of the Second Realm unchanged. It felt like she'd trapped her hand between millstones. How long could she endure unchanged?
She needed help, but Keshnu was completely out of his depth. Small hope Wolpan would turn out be any use, either. Dora couldn't even feel the Four Knot, though Thia's dormant, battered Gift niggled like a fly in the corner of the room. She made a forlorn effort to reach Keshnu, but the Gift-Giver showed no sign he'd felt her appeal. She only had herself to rely upon.
As simply as that, she stepped past herself, aura shining as she lifted the errant threads of the Second Realm. She met her own eyes, felt the smile ripple between herself and herself, reinforcing itself with each echo. I can hold this; I'll do the weaving. There was no ambiguity in the thought. She knew exactly which of her each I referred to.
Four hands met in an intricate dance, weaving back and forth, around and through one another. There was no question of resistance when her hand led three threads of the Second Realm through her wrist. She met her eyes again, a flicker of humour at the lopsided corner of her smile. Her eyes flashed, a warning to concentrate, but there was a twinkle to it that said she understood.
Layered, rich in dimensions neither human nor Wilder had ever seen all of, the knot of the Sherim took shape. It wasn't beautiful, at least in any normal understanding of the term. It looked... well, it looked like the distended tree that housed the Sherim, stripped of bark and the pine blues and greens of its leaves. Where sluggish channels of vegetable life had flowed through the tree, she could see currents of Realmstuff charged with Wild Power.
A final twist settled the balance back together, spinning the world until Dora fell back into herself. The glow of the Sherim faded, vibrant Second-Realm colours receding behind a veil of blue-green pine needles, blue sky and green grass. Dora glanced downhill, checked that Wolpan and Thia were where she'd left them. The Four Knot was staring up at her, jaw hanging open again. They'd have to have words about that. It wasn't dignified.
Where was Keshnu? The Gift-Giver had been stood right next to her. She could see the gap in the air that he should have filled, where instead there hung a sheet of woven First-Realmstuff, a parody of a human. The weaving was fine, highly detailed. Where the threads were brown wool, she could at least trace the basics of the weave, but it vanished below the threshold of sight when she studied the paler, flesh-coloured patches.
Two discs of silver hung before her eyes, glinting in the sunlight. She flinched as the dangling flap of the thing's arm lifted and brushed her shoulder. The touch was warm, firmer than loose fabric had any right to be. Where Keshnu's face should have been, there were just odd patches of darkness floating in front of the facsimile's blank skin. Dora tried to focus on the dark patches, but they just dizzied her.
Something was visible behind the facsimile's face. She leaned to one side, trying to see past it to the tree-line beyond. It looked almost like one of the trees had sprouted an enormous, incongruous flower, but the facsimile of Keshnu moved with her gaze, blocking her view. She leant back the other way, caught a glimpse of the trees, but there was no flower there.
Shouldn't closing the Sherim properly have cut off the flow Wild Power and stopped stuff like this? Ice ran a finger down Dora's spine. She had no idea what she'd done to the Sherim. What if she'd done the wrong thing? She turned to look, but everything looked right, ashtmer and ghiten snugged up tight within each other. She couldn't see even the faintest hint of a sheld poking through.
A cage closed about her, something falling hard across her eyes and forcing her into darkness. She gasped, twisted, but whatever held her had her tight, arms pinned to her sides below the elbow. A kick generated no better result, her foot meeting only air, her hip complaining as it bent the wrong way. The ground dropped away beneath her planted foot.
The disadvantage of sealing the Sherim was there was no Wild Power to give her strength. She could barely even fill her lungs. Gravity whirled. Dora's stomach whirled with it, but she didn't gag. She should be pleased about that, a quiet voice somewhere in the depths of her mind suggested, but instead she inhaled saliva and all but choked.
Her diaphragm spasmed, but she couldn't curl up to ease the tension. Pain shot up her breastbone, and she managed a desperate shout. Would Wolpan hear? Would she understand? For that matter, would she have the wit to be any use? Might as well hope for Thia to have a miraculous recovery.
Dora strained, reached out for the Sherim. She might not be a Four Knot anymore, but she still had the Gift in her head. She should be able to connect to the Sherim, even if the connection would be inert in the First Realm. Maybe she could pry it open a little way now she knew how they worked. She felt her mind press out into the air around her, obstructed by the concrete monolith of her assailant behind her.
Where was the Sherim? Had she been turned around? She couldn't feel it in front of her. Her mind would only stretch so far; trying to reach further would be like trying to lengthen her arm by dislocating every joint in its length. The joints of her strained consciousness began to ache in sympathy with the idea.
A hood dropped across her head, weighing her mind down, netting it and pulling it back inward, back inside her skull. Well, that explained why Wolpan hadn't rushed to her aid. The assailant had help. What if Wolpan was the help? It was possible. The Four Knot had almost killed her a handful of times today already. Where was Keshnu?
Darkness swallowed her. The assailant hadn't taken his hand from her eyes, but the sack over her head tightened all the same. Dora thrashed, but without Wild Power the gesture was foolish. Neither of her captors seemed to have legs for her to kick. Within the darkness, even with the bars of the cage still iron pressed hard into her limbs, she could almost believe she'd been cast adrift in the Second Realm. Blinded, she'd never be able to rationalise the Realm into an intelligible order and get back to safety.
Maybe that was what they'd done; just opened up the Sherim and thrown her through. That meant Wildren. Had Keshnu been one of them? What if Rel had been right about the Gift-Givers? Perhaps they'd realised what the Second Gift enabled her to do and decided to get rid of her.
Well, they'd made their mistake. If this was the Second Realm, then, yes, there was the Sherim. She didn’t need eyes to feel it, somewhere behind her head. Even in the darkness, every tangle of its structure stood out in sharp black-on-black relief. It looked different from this side. Probably what happened when you translated the complicated knot of the thing from four into four and a half dimensions.
Instead of seeming like a tangle of branches or roots, from Dora's viewpoint it looked more... well, intestinal, much as the thought made her slightly nauseous. Still, she could see the ashtmer just fine. A thought brought it spinning out of place and into her hand. Blackness evaporated, replaced by a wild jumble of Second Realm colours. Wild Power boiled up within her, until she could feel herself breathing it out, feel it pouring out of her eyes and ears.
With the Sherim singing for her, perched gently on the palms of her spread hands, Dora spun, all sense of constraint blown away. It was only when she thought of trying to get a look at her assailants that she remembered to open her eyes.
A visualisation fell into place almost instantly, before she even had time to go through the normal motions of finding a horizon or the Court. She walked along a narrow wooden bridge, dense forest greenery concealing the cliff that had to be just to her left, the sea stretching away to her right, far below. A pair of birds tumbled and played in flight, swooping down to the wooded, hidden shore.
Dora knew she could expect a headache to start any time soon, with this being her second foray into the Second Realm today. She needed to find and finish her assailants fast, then get out. Disorientation assailed her as she checked she could still find the Sherim - it hung behind her, but she felt an ineffable echo somewhere above her head, in among the branches of the precarious tree-limb from which the bridge hung.
A vast, bloated flower hung down from a limb of that tree, petals more jaundiced than golden, withered grey-brown vines dangling from it like tattered rags. The flower struck a memory, and she looked closer. Keshnu? The Gift-Giver's logic was badly battered, a mess of writhing filaments at the core of the flower, trying to rebuild itself. There weren't words - at least, not any Dora knew - for the intricate processes of his consciousness, but she could tell there wasn't much of it left.
There was still no sign of her assailants. Maybe they'd assumed her beaten and just left her here? She looked around as thoroughly as she could, but aside from the swaying of the bridge and the rustle of leaves in the wind, everything seemed inert. She couldn't even make out waves on the sea. If she was safe, then she needed to get back to the First Realm.
She reached up a tentative hand towards the flower, desperately trying to think of some way she could help Keshnu. She just didn't know enough about the minds of Children of the Wild. Why hadn't her training gone into it in more detail? The Gift-Giver might die without aid.
Dora took a deep breath, ignoring the fact that the Second Realm had no air - the wind tasted sweet, dry and fresh - and closed her eyes for a moment, measuring her own condition. Did she have the stamina for a trip to the Court? The insides of her eyelids were a steady, even, calming grey. In the darkness, she probed for any hint of fatigue headache.
There was none. She must have racked up some fatigue, but perhaps whatever she'd done - twice now - with the Sherim had restored her. Perhaps the Second Gift had strengthened her. It was about time it was good for something. Feeling the tingle of skin-to-skin interference with another mind run up her arm, she cupped her hand around Keshnu and braced to lift him.
In the final instant before contact, the flower unfolded, the world collapsing in its wake to smother her out of thought. Darkness rushed in, Keshnu dwindling ahead to a small golden globe. Dora stretched out a desperate hand towards him, but where her fingers should have brushed the orb, her vision doubled. Her straining hand went between the two Keshnus, and consciousness abandoned her.
Dora's eyes opened to pale brown canvas. Her head ached. Beneath her, thick grass and a blanket absorbed only the very worst of the ground's lumpiness. The tent smelled faintly of disuse, tempered by the chill edge of the mountain air, the canvas rippling gently with the breeze. Keshnu must have made his trip to Dyshan. The honey quality of the light suggested it was day outside, but which day?
Her eyes weren't sticky, which suggested she'd not been asleep a full night. She rubbed them anyway, hissing as her touch found what felt like nasty bruises. Her whole eyeballs felt swollen, like they'd pop if she pressed too hard. Something was wrong with one of her fingers, jagged pains shooting through the knuckle with everything she touched. She could feel the coarse cloth binding the splint to the joint, forcing her hand into an awkward strain just to be at rest.
"Oh, hey. Afternoon." Breezy and delicate, the voice couldn't belong to Keshnu or Wolpan. "Dora, right?"
Dora turned her head, found her neck in little better condition than the rest of her, and groaned. Blinking, she identified the blurred figure sitting next to her as Thia. "Yes." Her voice came thin and hoarse, and she stopped short of trying to say more.
"Here." A canteen flopped down on Dora's blanket, setting off a row of aches in her arm. "How are you feeling?"
With another groan, Dora levered herself up onto one elbow. Her blanket slipped off her shoulders, but whoever had put her to bed hadn't undressed her. She wriggled her toes, discovered one part of her that didn't ache. Her boots, now she bothered to look around, stood at the foot of the bed. Clumsily, she opened the canteen, splashing water down her face as she drank.
Thia looked on, her hair dishevelled from the rough pillow but still lush. Dora swiped a hand across her mouth and met the Clearseer's gaze. "I'm aching all over, but I think I'm all here. Shouldn't I be asking you that question?"
Thia chuckled. "I feel about how you'd expect after burnout. Not all here. Actually, I feel worse than normal."
"The rescue... wasn't straightforward. I'm sorry." Dora looked down, fumbled another swig from the bottle.
"Well, I assumed as much, what with waking up next to you." Thia smiled, but her face fell almost as fast. "Were there any casualties? Wolpan?"
"Wolpan survived the rescue. But..." Dora frowned, pressed a hand to her eyes despite the ache. She could remember everything that had happened before she blacked out, a sequence of crystal-clear images in perfect order, but she couldn't make sense of any of it. What had been going on, in her head and outside it? "Something strange happened once we got back to the First Realm. I remember being attacked, but I have no idea what by. Or how we escaped."
Thia frowned. "Wolpan?"
Dora blinked at the Clearseer for a moment before her brain caught up to the question. "I don't know. I lost track of her during the attack, and then I got knocked out. You haven't seen her?"
"Haven't even gotten up yet." There was levity in the other woman's voice, but none in her face. "I've not been awake long."
"Hm. I wonder where we are." Dora ran a hand through her hair, wincing as it ran into a hard knot of tangle. They'd been talking for a good minute or more without the faintest flicker of danger. The Sherim wasn't anywhere nearby then. Who had moved them?
Thia cracked a smile, one eyebrow raised. "Feel up to finding out?" She slid herself forward to the tent flap, began to push it open. Dora made a last futile gesture at her hair and pushed herself up to sitting. Thia poked her head out and called, "Hello? Anyone out there?"
A muted voice answered, just too low for Dora to make out the words. Canvas slapped back against itself as Thia drew back inside. The Clearseer grinned over her shoulder at Dora. "You look a state. Must have been a pretty disastrous rescue."
Dora tried to scowl, but it just made her head ache that much more. It was hard to be angry with Thia, particularly when she gave such a warm laugh. "Sorry, not the time. Keshnu and Wolpan are coming."
As if summoned by her words, two shadows fell across the front of the tent. One dropped to a crouch, and Keshnu's head poked through the flap. The Gift-Giver was back to his usual, graceful self, the slightest of smiles fixed on his distinguished features. He glanced from Thia to Dora. "Good, you're both awake. How do you feel?"
Dora and Thia spoke at the same moment, froze and shared a glance. Thia laughed again, gesturing for Dora to go ahead. Dora frowned. Surely Thia was the more critical patient? She looked up to find Keshnu watching her expectantly. It wasn't like him to err over something so important, particularly when a clear protocol existed. Maybe he thought she was worse off than Thia? That was a troubling thought.
Which wouldn't help her think of how to answer. How was she feeling? "Sore. What happened?"
Keshnu's face darkened a shade. His eyes flickered to Thia and back. "That's a very complicated question. Can you get up? Thia, Wolpan will see to you."
The Clearseer shot a troubled glance at Dora, then smiled and nodded to Keshnu. Dora reached for her boots, groaning as the motion squeezed her bruised midriff. Even age-worn, the boots were tough to pull on, and her shoulders were limp by the end of it. Her head felt suddenly heavy. Too enervated to bother tying her laces, she tucked the trailing ends into the tops of the boots and crawled to the flap.
It was cold without her blanket. Well, if Keshnu already thought she was weaker than a Clearseer mere hours after logic burnout, there was no point keeping up appearances. She dragged the blanket clumsily up over her shoulders and struggled outside on her knees.
Keshnu helped her to her feet, his touch gentle and precise as ever. His hand lingered on hers for just a moment after she straightened, and she glanced up at his face in sudden alarm. He was probably just making sure she didn't fall straight back over again, but there was something almost tender in the touch.
The tent stood a dozen yards or so below the edge of a forest draped like a cape around the harsh peak of the mountain. Dora guessed the Sherim must be up there somewhere, but she couldn't make out the clearing. The sun hung low but strong to the West, the sky just beginning to shade to gold above miles of open downs, rolling and falling away to a horizon blue-purple with heather.
Nearer at hand, a tidy little fire burned in a neat ring of stones. An ordinary fire, not the strange chemical fire that Keshnu had developed to light the catacombs under Vessit. The air carried such a spicy scent that Dora wondered if Keshnu might have added some incense. It wouldn't be the oddest thing a Wilder had ever done.
A blanket lay on the grass by the fire. Keshnu directed Dora to sit, then crouched down nearby, balancing effortlessly on the balls of his feet. Dora hunched her blanket tighter around her shoulders and looked the Gift-Giver straight in the eye. To her surprise, he looked away, gazing toward the horizon for a moment.
It was the first time Dora had made anyone nervous in far too long. If her head hadn't ached so much, she might have smiled. Except that if Keshnu was nervous, it could only be because he knew what he had to say would hurt her. Still, she found her voice level and quiet despite the tightness of her throat as she said, "What happened?"
"You remember nothing?" Keshnu's eyes flicked to hers, then down to the fire.
"I remember everything, I think, but I can't understand any of it." Dora glanced over her shoulder toward the tent. "Just images."
"Well, I don't want to speculate on what happened to your logic without questioning you in great detail." The Gift-Giver brightened, his shoulders lifting slightly as he turned his full regard on her. "You put the Sherim back together more neatly than I would have believed possible. I am a little worried I may never get it open again."
"I'm sorry." Dora caught herself just short of fiddling with her bandaged finger. That could only bring pain.
"There are others. And if the abilities you showed can be developed further, there's every reason to think you may be able to reopen it." Keshnu smiled. "That, of all things, you need not worry about."
Dora frowned. A gust of wind ran its bony fingers up inside her sleeves and across her back. She pulled the blanket tighter yet around herself. "What should I worry about, then?"
"If you must ask in such unforgiving terms, the answer is everything that happened after that." Keshnu's face hardened, his laughter-line wrinkles smoothing away to something more like the look he normally reserved for Rel. Dora suppressed a shiver. "I think you experienced some sort of systemic logic breakdown. You became violent when I tried to intervene to stabilise you."
"I must have panicked." She was glad Wolpan wasn't around to hear her say that. She shivered again. "I'm sorry."
"Panic is understandable, at least insofar as I can understand the state at all." Keshnu managed to make his smile both gentle and sad, but she could read the uncertainty dancing behind his eyes. "I had to resort to drastic measures when your mind started to drift out of your head. Does any of this make sense to you?"
Dora drew her legs into her body, hugged them with the blanket wrapped around her arms. "After that, all I can remember is darkness. It's as if... I... I can remember the things you've said, and match them up to my memories, but only the bits you've described make sense. I think I remember trying to kick you."
"Your Sherim - your Gift - opened somehow while I was trying to get you back inside your head. The Wild Power you unleashed was beyond anything I've ever seen. It was all I could do to preserve my own identity. I have no words for what you did to the First Realm, but I suspect it will have been felt all the way to Vessit."
Dora remembered the thrill of breathing pure power, the Sherim a bottomless reservoir in her hand. Quietly, she said, "I was in the Second Realm. Under attack. I think I was just trying to get home."
"To all appearances, you remained in the First Realm. You fell over in the course of our struggle." Keshnu matched his tone to hers, barely above a whisper, but nothing could hide the honesty in his face. Almost before he spoke, she heard the worst of it. "Whatever you did, or thought you were doing, it made gravity behave as if you were still standing. Wolpan and Thia were lucky to escape without serious injuries."
A shiver ran through Dora, and she found tears in her eyes. The wall of green to her left, blue sky and sea to her right, the forest hiding the shore below. If she'd lain on her left side, she could see how the world might have appeared that way. The trunks of the trees round the edge of the clearing, and the shade between them, might well have blurred together into the planks of a bridge.
She clenched a fist in reflexive frustration, only to receive a sharp reminder of her damaged finger. The pain pushed the tears out to run down her cheeks, and she buried her face as best she could in her shoulder. Despite squeezing her eyes shut against the prickling of the rough wool, she couldn't shut out the awareness of Keshnu, right there, aching in literal and figurative sympathy with her.
No, that wasn't right. How did she know what Keshnu was feeling? For that matter, how did the Wilder know what she was thinking? How were they even thinking in the same language? The questions gaped like an abyss in her mind, a great dark monolith of wordless horror. She wrestled it, her grip fragile and weak.
Keshnu's hand fell on her shoulder like snow, and the empathy that seeped through the touch did nothing to warm her. His words shimmered faintly as he said, "They were not seriously harmed. And you'll learn to control this power."
"What if I kill someone first?" Her voice squeaked and then broke outright, ending in a hoarse whisper.
"I will not let that happen." Keshnu's voice came with a conviction and a force that stunned. He kept it quiet, but his words tunnelled through the desperate edge of Dora's fear. Her mind cleared. She glanced up and met his eyes, but they were opaque silver once more.
The snap of canvas flapping in the wind announced Wolpan's exit from the tent. Keshnu twisted to look over his shoulder, frowning. The Four Knot straightened, and approached the fire in swift, straight-legged strides. The lines of her face grew deeper as her gaze fell on Dora, but she addressed Keshnu first. "Thia will be fine. She fell asleep as soon as her head hit the pillow, daylight be damned."
"That's good to hear." Keshnu's voice held as steady and gracious as ever, but his eyes flicked to Dora's for a moment. She found herself wondering what had passed between Gift-Giver and Four Knot while she'd been unconscious. Maybe Keshnu had learned how bad Wolpan was at her job.
The Four Knot looked down at her. "Are you all caught up?"
"I think so." Dora stared into the fire. Looking up at Wolpan was too much of a reminder of how pitiful she must look, curled up in a blanket in broad daylight. It was all she could do to keep from mumbling, "At least, as much as I ever will be."
"Good." Wolpan knelt to Dora's left, a little in front of her, and leaned in to look into her face. "Dora, I don't want to be cruel or blunt about this, but- Dora? Are you alright?"
Dora glanced up, then back to the fire. She tugged at her blanket again, but it wasn't going any tighter. Her jaw tightened, Wolpan's attitude getting far too much under her skin. Rather than speak and risk ranting at the Four Knot, Dora gave a single mute nod.
Wolpan's hand landed on her shoulder, hard and bony. Her touch wasn't cold, exactly, but Dora felt less warm for it. Her tone sharper, the Four Knot said, "Look at me, please, Dora. This is hard enough without me having to repeat myself."
"I'm listening." Dora muttered the words, fighting to keep her voice low.
"Then show it, girl." Wolpan's tone narrowed further. Good job they were nowhere near a Sherim, or the contempt in the other woman's words would have cut Dora to shreds where she sat. "Look at me, please."
But they were near a Sherim. Dora had one in her head. Why weren't Wolpan's words coming to life? Dora could tell by the pain behind her eyes that she wasn't cured. Her Sherim had to be tightly shut, but who could have shut it? She'd been unconscious when it closed. Hadn't she? What if it slipped open again? Sherim were unpredictable. She'd never be safe around Wolpan again. Well, maybe that would give her an excuse to avoid the Four Knot.
"Dora?" Wolpan accompanied her question with a squeeze of her hand. An ache welled up through Dora's shoulder, spilling down into her chest. She grunted quietly. Wolpan said, "Are you sure you're alright?"
"You're hurting her." Keshnu reached across and lifted Wolpan's hand away. For all his compassion, Dora felt the first stirring of a blush of shame. He finished, speaking over Dora's head. "Say your piece."
"What good will that do? She's miles away." Wolpan sat back on her ankles. The sun caught her hair, bleaching it almost the colour of her skin. "She needs more rest. Maybe even one of your doctors, I don't know. I don't want to have to do this more than once."
"I'm right here, and I'm fine." Dora couldn't keep the bitterness from her voice, her words emerging barely above a growl. "If you have something to say to me, say it."
"Don't be petulant, dear." The Four Knot's voice softened a touch, but not far enough to sound genuinely concerned. "This is for your own good."
"What is?" Dora's eyes welled up as she narrowed them. She needed to get her emotions under control or she'd never get through to Wolpan, but how was she supposed to do that with the Four Knot intent on treating her like a bratty child? She rubbed her eyes before the tears could spill, though more welled up when she caught her injured finger on her nose.
"What do you mean?" Wolpan's voice jumped half an octave, but at least she seemed to be taking Dora seriously.
Dora turned to glare at Wolpan, brushing aside the thought that that was probably what the other woman wanted. "What's for my own good? We'd get there a lot faster if you just came out and said it."
"Really, there's no need to be like that, Dora." The Four Knot's tone turned conciliatory again. "It isn't my fault you're sick. I know it's not pleasant, but it's not anyone's fault, really. We'll get you sorted out as soon as we can."
"Wolpan, I'm-" Dora cut off as Keshnu gave her shoulder a warning squeeze, then hated herself for the obedience of it.
The Gift-Giver spoke before she could line up her sentence again. "Wolpan, something about the way you're behaving is upsetting Dora." There was heat in his voice, and Dora could feel a pressure almost like anger coming at her from that side. Was Keshnu actually angry? Was that possible? "I don't understand how or why, but you should either say your piece or leave her alone."
Wolpan flinched as Keshnu finished. Scowling at the Gift-Giver, she said, "I'll say what I have to say when I can be sure she's listening."
"I am listening! I've been listening all along." Dora gave into her anger, watched herself lean forward, voice raised. "I'm not insane and I'm not a child. Will you please just tell me what it is you're so fussed about?" She could feel the Sherim in her head, suddenly, clearly. The complete system, knotted into and through itself, just waiting for her to open it if she ever needed the power. Choosing not to open it was a surprisingly calm sensation. A simple decision, simply made. However annoying Wolpan was, she wasn't actually a threat.
The Four Knot had gone white, mouth hanging open. Dora rolled her eyes. The woman simply couldn't handle surprise at all. At least she jumped back to anger quickly enough, her face contracting into a petulant scowl. "Very well. I don't want you living in Vessit when we get back. You're too much of a liability."
"I-" What? Dora looked back at the fire, her mind cold and empty. She should be angry about that. No, the Four Knot was right, and it was her job to defend the people of Vessit. The decision probably was entirely within her remit. She could have been nicer about it. But then, Dora had pushed her to speak. She tried to nod, make some sort of acknowledgement, but she couldn't tell if it got through.
"See?" Wolpan's words went straight past Dora, aimed squarely at Keshnu. "She's out of it. I'll see about some food."
The Four Knot stood, straightened her skirt fussily, and walked back toward the pile of packs near the tent. Dora hunched down deeper, squeezing her eyes shut against the wind and more tears. Keshnu leaned closer, his hand sliding across her shoulder and down her back. A shiver ran through Dora, but she held herself steady.
"I need to show you something." The Gift-Giver spoke quietly, and glanced after Wolpan.
Dora let her eyes fall closed again, put her free hand up to cover them. She took a breath that wobbled all the way in and out. "Can it wait?"
"I feel quite strongly that it shouldn't." Keshnu's tone, flatter and less human than she was used to, drew Dora's eyes to his face. There, too, he seemed more the Wilder, his cheekbones ever so slightly too high, his eyes shining. "I'm sorry, I know you want to rest, but it is important. It is something we both have a personal stake in."
Rel? It had to be. What else might Keshnu think she shared a personal interest with him in? But then, the Gift-Giver had no reason to take a personal interest in Rel. Or at least, Dora hoped not. Still, if it concerned Rel, it was unmistakably part of her duties. Whatever her duties were supposed to be. Pressing her forehead into the heel of her hand did nothing to help her headache, but it did at least cover the worst of another tremor. "Alright. Where is... whatever it is?"
"I can show you anywhere, but it would be best to avoid Wolpan seeing." That settled it, then. Rel had done something else to get himself in trouble. Wolpan had nothing but contempt for the Clearseer.
Dora let Keshnu help her up, leant on him when the world tried to sit her back down again. Her head felt light, her attention wandering ahead of them towards the tree-line. Keshnu exchanged muted words with Wolpan, still crouched by the packs. It would be a chore lugging all that stuff, plus tent, home with them.
The sky overhead was dropping swiftly through shades of blue found nowhere else in nature, blending seamlessly and cloudlessly to orange to the West. Dora held her blanket tight around her shoulders, but nothing could stop it snapping in the wind or snagging on the low branches of the young pines at the edge of the wood. Stepping in among the trees changed the quality of the air completely; the wind splintered to nothingness, leaving the scent of needles hanging heady around them.
Something skittered away under a bush, the sound lost as soon as heard under the constant rustling of foliage. Dora peered after it, but the gloom got the better of her, sunset afterimages dancing against the delicate ranks of leaves until her sense of what really was a part of the First Realm threatened to shatter yet again. She blinked, dimly heard Keshnu say something. It took her a moment to realise he wasn't talking to Wolpan again.
"Sorry?" She turned to look at him, found him shrouded in shade.
"Your attention was wandering again." Dora was so used to Keshnu sounding perfectly human that the flatness of his voice seemed stern. Either something had weakened him, and there'd been no sign of that earlier, or he was seriously distracted by something. He went on, "The less focussed on the First Realm you are, the more activity I see in your Sherim. Practice concentration."
Dora gave him a tired frown. "Easier said than done."
"Yes." Keshnu's smile didn't quite connect with the rest of his face.
Dora glanced back toward the fire. Wolpan was leaning over it, fiddling with something. She turned back to Keshnu. "What do you need to show me?"
The Gift-Giver's face went completely blank, so still it could have been a mask. Sure sign that he felt uncomfortable about something. Or he simply didn't know how a human would feel about what he was about to say. His motions awkward, he lifted a hand in front of himself and twisted it in the air. As he did so, a ball of gold appeared, cupped in his palm.
She recognised it even before she saw the faint, tightly-closed edges of the petals. "It's... you." The image leapt out of memory from the last moments before she'd blacked out, her fingers straining to reach the battered flower of Keshnu's consciousness, to rescue him from... whatever had been attacking them.
"It is our child." Keshnu's sole lingering concession to humanity was the way his voice dropped almost to a whisper. Dora didn't dare look at his face, hovering as a pale blur at the edge of her vision. The orb - the child - seemed to float separate from the reality behind it. She put her hands up to the sides of Keshnu's, too afraid to touch either him or the child.
"What do you mean?" She whispered.
The Gift-Giver brought his free hand up to hers, his touch wooden but so careful Dora found herself fascinated. "When you reached out to me just before you lost consciousness, some clash of our logics caused a neonatal shear."
"I saw you split..." Very faintly, she could feel the warmth of the neonate on her skin. Why hadn't she thought of that when she saw it? She'd thought she was seeing double, but Wildren reproduced by splitting off copies of themselves. She hadn't meant to cause a shear in Keshnu, but she hadn't been in control of her actions at all.
"It should not have been possible, in the First Realm."
"But I'm a Sherim." The shiver that ran through Dora wasn't cold, not this time. "What do we do now?"
"I have no idea." A little of the life came back into Keshnu's voice, but, thinned by the strain, he sounded ancient. She found the courage to look up at him, and if the calm in his face was fixed and awkward, she read the light dancing in his eyes perfectly. "I feel that the child should live in the Second Realm, but my kind may know no more than yours."
Dora shifted her hand to hold Keshnu's. "Your kind will know more than anyone I can think of. I'd sooner trust the child to them. But... you will allow me to be there when it chooses a name?"
"Of course!" That, finally, seemed to snap the Gift-Giver back to himself. "You're the father, after all."
"Mother." The correction came automatically. Maybe she was getting better.
Keshnu smiled. "No, I thought about that. In humans, the child is attached to the mother before birth. The analogy fits better this way around." "I suppose it does." Dora watched as Keshnu repeated whatever trick he'd used to hide or store their child. So strange to have no name, not even a gender, for the little one. She held onto the Gift-Giver's other hand long enough for another smile.
* * *
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(Cover distributed under a Creative Commons Attribution - Share Alike 1.0 Generic license; based on a photo by Wj32 )
(Cover distributed under a Creative Commons Attribution - Share Alike 1.0 Generic license; based on a photo by Wj32 )