Saturday, 27 October 2012

The Second Realm 3.4: Atlas Never Shrugged, and 3.5: You Held the World in Your Arms

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Staring Into the Abyss

4. Atlas Never Shrugged

It was a lovely morning. Of course, it had rained right through the previous afternoon, and Rel had felt pretty good about that, too. The eyrie Pevan had found for them up in one of Old Vessit's towers had a fine view across the bay, which sparkled under the still-rising sun. The sand of the beach was almost painful to look at, a white-hot crescent stretching away toward the horizon. Gulls flocked out over the water, the chill-edged wind bringing him their calls.

After a fortnight in a cave, with less than a dozen feet to move about in, it would take more than just a cold breeze to spoil the sky for Rel. His clothes were still damp from the previous day's enthusiastic running around in the rain. He sniffled, rubbed a hand across the bottom of his nose. Perhaps he'd been a little careless. Pevan had immediately started trying to mother him, though, and after two weeks of Dora and Taslin talking down to him, he wasn't going to put up with that.

"Morning." Van Raighan's accent made the word twice as long as it needed to be. The southerner's way of speaking still got on Rel's nerves. How did they deal with crises at that pace? They had fewer crises to deal with, probably. Life was easier in the South. Rel looked over his shoulder. The thief - it was still hard to think of him as an ally - stood a pace behind and off to one side, a sandwich in each hand. He offered one to Rel.

"Thanks." Rel took it and peered inside. The people of Vessit had some funny ideas on what a cheese should taste like, and Pevan had just got back from a supply run into town. "Were there any problems?"

"Nah. Nice and easy." Van Raighan gave a feral smile, his dark eyes turning beady. Behind him, the stripped-bare concrete of the walls and floor drained the colour out of both sunlight and the light of the fire they'd somehow kept going overnight. "You don't mind that we stole the food?"

Rel sniffed at the sandwich, but his nose was too thick to smell anything. Probably safe, then. "I don't see how else we were going to eat. We can make amends when we've dealt with Keshnu."

"Pevan was sure you'd throw a hissy fit." The thief stepped up to Rel's shoulder, looking out across the water. He took a bite of his sandwich and glanced at Rel out of the corner of his eye.

"A hissy fit?"

"Her exact words." Van Raighan grinned.

Rel rolled his eyes. "That's younger siblings for you."

"I'm a younger sibling." The thief raised his eyebrow, pointedly, but his smile didn't waver. He took another bite, wiped a smear of chutney from his lip.

"True." Hard to remember the scrawny little man was Rissad's brother. The elder Van Raighan had seemed so straight-backed and dignified as he hobbled away into the unknown of the Sherim beneath Vessit. Chag, by contrast, was half-rat, half-terrier. He gave Rel the impression he never used a door when sneaking through a window would do.

Still, as his gaze went distant, his eyes wandering northward, the thief seemed to age. When he spoke, his voice barely rose above the wind. "You think Rissad will be alright?"

"I wish I knew." Rel managed to suppress the automatic shrug. "He was pretty badly injured when he left, and there's no telling where he ended up. I hope he makes it back, and soon."

Van Raighan didn't reply. Rel grimaced and bit into his sandwich. The cheese was terrible, but the chutney helped. So did the gurgle his stomach gave as the food hit it. The meal the previous evening had been small and rushed.

"Chag?" Pevan called from somewhere behind them. Rel turned to look, Van Raighan mirroring his motion. Pevan crouched by the fire, tidying things into one of their packs. "Are we ready to go?"

"Go? Go where?" Rel turned to face his sister more squarely. With having to evade Keshnu's pursuit, they'd had little time the previous day to talk about what they'd do next. Pevan and Van Raighan presumably had dues to pay to their Wildren allies, but Keshnu was still at large to continue whatever he was planning with the Abyss.

"Back to the Separatists," Van Raighan drawled. "You owe them a thank-you, don't you? They're keen to meet you."

Rel glanced out at the bay. "They'll have to wait. I can't predict when Keshnu will make his move."

Pevan stood, shouldering her pack. "What do you mean?"

"The Realmquake yesterday morning. It was Keshnu's doing."

"You're kidding." Van Raighan folded his arms, slouching lopsidedly, one sceptical eyebrow raised. "Even a Gift-Giver couldn't do something like that."

"Didn't you see the Abyss?" Rel took a few steps away from the hole in the wall, wondering what a Realmquake would do to them up here. "The Realm is close to cracking right through here anyway, just snapping in half. Keshnu's been down there every day, according to Dora. He was down there when the quake hit, and he's barely left since."

Pevan's face fixed in a sceptical frown. "I'm not sure. The Gift-Givers... would they really do something like that?"

Rel clenched his jaw to keep from snapping at her. She could be so naive sometimes. "Who are we to speculate on their motives? Why else would he have insisted on me not having any contact with the locals? All my Clearviewings point to another big quake still to come."

"Whether or not he caused the quake, what would you do about it?" Van Raighan walked around to stand by Pevan. A little too close for Rel's liking, too. Whenever the two of them stood close together, something about the thief's body language set Rel's teeth on edge. He found himself expecting Van Raighan to put his arm around Pevan or take her hand. As it was, the little man just stood there, leaning slightly towards her, his arms loose at his sides. "You can't expect to stop that kind of power, can you?"

Pevan seemed to sense Van Raighan's too-close presence. She picked her hands up, wringing them together in front of her waist. The delicacy of her fingers made a strange contrast with her straight-sided form and ungainly trousers. Had she even brought a skirt or dress with her to Vessit?

Rel put his sister's clothing out of his mind. "We have to. No-one else is going to. No-one else knows."

"But how do you plan on stopping him?" Van Raighan folded his arms. "The Separatists may be able to help. Come with us, you can still be back here tomorrow, with Pevan's help."

"I don't know, Chag." Pevan looked down, away from the conversation. "That Gift-Giver who was with Dora yesterday... Teslin?"

"Taslin." Rel spoke automatically, but Pevan shot him a look as if he'd just thrown a bucket of slops over her.

"Yeah. Her." She jammed her hands into her pockets and turned her attention back to Van Raighan. "She said the Separatists... well, she said they didn't give a damn about us. That whatever it is they're planning to do would be as bad as another Realmcrash."

"Of course she'd say that." Rel lifted his hands, palms up, in front of him. "She's Keshnu's dogsbody. She's not going to let on to his scheme, is she?"

"Maybe so, but Ashtenzim and the others won't even leave the Second Realm." Pevan shrugged, the gesture awkward on her boyish frame. "I just think we're being a bit optimistic if we rely on them to help."

Rel nodded. "Good. We're staying, then."

"No, I agree with Chag." Pevan glanced at the thief, took a step towards Rel. "There's nothing you can do about Keshnu either way. We need to take you to the Separatists."

"For what it's worth, there's reason to think there won't be more quakes if you come North with us." Van Raighan hadn't moved, but he seemed smaller with Pevan stood in front of him.

"How does that work?" Why was the thief so keen to get him away from Keshnu? Rel wondered if he'd misjudged. But his Clearviewings had been pretty consistent - there was a quake coming, and Keshnu was involved. "Who'll stop the Gift-Givers if we don't?"

Van Raighan shrugged. "Delaventrin's Clearseeing was... well, clear, if you'll excuse the pun."

"So was mine. And you've only got this Delaventrin's word for it."

"It's more complicated than that, Rel." Pevan sounded like she was about to start lecturing him. "We've had good reason to trust it. But it's beside the point. If you go back to the Abyss now, they'll find some reason to lock you up again."

"What?" Van Raighan stepped forward, hard lines of concern chiselled in his face.

Rel jabbed a finger in the thief's direction. "You said they wouldn't have any authority over me anymore."

"Keshnu pulled some trick of Talerssi that made Taslin responsible for you." Pevan's glare drilled into him. "It's only temporary, but given how much it cost to get you out this time, I'm not going to let you get yourself locked up again."

"I won't get locked up." Rel set his jaw, ready for an argument. "I can stop him, then we'll make a run for it."

"You can't fight a Gift-Giver!" Pevan's voice shot up, her eyes going wide. "You won't even be able to See him. Or Taslin."

Rel let himself raise an eyebrow. "Yeah, I've been working on that. I can't See them directly, but I can tell where they are by the way the air moves around them. I doubt many Clearseers are powerful enough, so maybe they never thought to protect themselves against that. How long do I have to worry about Taslin for?"

"You attack Keshnu, and I'd be pretty surprised if this Taslin didn't step in regardless." Van Raighan's face matched his pessimistic tone. "You're just going to have to hope that you're wrong about him."

"And if I'm not?" How could Van Raighan be so stupid? His brother had seen the danger of the Gift-Givers. "I've Seen this quake coming, dammit."

"When?" Pevan broke in, her tone still high with alarm. "You're supposed to be the one paying attention to details all the time. When will it happen?"

That wasn't a fair question, and Rel wasn't going to rise to it. "It's not like my Viewings come with the date written on them."

"You got Chag's arrival in Federas down to the hour," Pevan shot back.

"Because we put a clock on the wall." Rel rolled his eyes and sighed. "Look, I don't know when the quake will happen, but I know it'll be soon. It was too close after my release for me to be able to See very much happening around it. How long does Taslin have responsibility for me?"

Pevan swallowed. "Till this afternoon."

"Then I'll give you any bet you want that Keshnu will make his move in the next few hours." Would either Van Raighan or Pevan put the picture together on their own? Probably not. Rel folded his arms again. "Think about it. They'll assume that we'll stay out of the way for fear of Taslin. We know the quake's going to happen soon."

"Maybe." Pevan looked down. She'd never been terribly happy admitting he was right. At least he'd got through to her this time, though. She looked up again, her eyes so hard that for a moment Rel thought she'd changed her mind. "You'll come with us if they haven't done anything by this afternoon, though, right?"

"Why the big rush?" Rel realised he should have asked that earlier. It wouldn't do much good if he stopped Keshnu, only to get blind-sided by some other problem. "Can't we just wait till tomorrow?"

Pevan shrugged and turned to Van Raighan. "I dunno. Chag?"

"It's up to you. We leave late today, we'll be travelling into the night. Tomorrow, we can do it in daylight."

"I just want to be away from here before those Wildren find us." Pevan hugged herself, looking out over Rel's shoulder. "Can we at least camp somewhere else tonight?"

Van Raighan looked at Rel. "You happy with that?"

It would have to do. Not like Pevan to be so afraid. Rel nodded.

They passed the morning in a funk of slow, disjointed conversation. Pevan and Van Raighan had clearly spent too much time together to have anything left to talk about. Rel found himself more than a little angry at how quickly Van Raighan must have escaped. Some of Federas' Gifted were useless without him there to point them in the right direction, but Pevan was usually pretty good at organising things.

Right now, Rel needed his sister on side too much to risk upsetting her sensitive temperament by bringing the matter up. She turned stroppy so quickly whenever he made any comment about her work. And it was possible the others had let her down. Notia Tollan had replaced Dora as Four Knot, after all, and she would be no use to anyone. They'd be lucky if there was a town left to go home to.

Showers passed through periodically, the breeze stiffening until it lashed rain at them through the gaping holes in the walls. Wet clothing made the chill unbearable, so Rel abandoned his watch over the bay to crouch by the fire. Van Raighan was already there, and Pevan joined them soon after, sitting opposite the thief and staring at him through the flames.

Rel resisted the urge to open his Gift and delve into the future. He'd pushed himself hard enough in that regard before Van Raighan had shown up. Keshnu would be making his move now, relying on the assumption that Taslin's authority would keep Rel at bay. The Gift-Givers would cause the quake, however much Pevan doubted him. He'd need all the strength and stamina he could save for the coming fight.

The day wore on into afternoon, Pevan growing fidgety. She worried at a fraying patch at the cuff of her sleeve. For a while, she went and stood in the teeth of the wind, staring out at the sea. Rel watched her carefully, wondering which side she'd settle on when the quake came. When he turned back to the fire, he found Van Raighan staring at him. The thief looked away quickly, but Rel couldn't miss the suspicion in his sharp little face.

Pevan asked for the second time if Rel was reconsidering. He shook his head.

The quake chose that moment to hit. There was a sharp crack of stone on stone somewhere nearby, then the lurch as the floor swayed beneath them. Rel tumbled over, fetching up on his side. Van Raighan shouted in alarm as the fire scattered. Somewhere, tonnes of something hard crashed into something else.

"Rel!" Pevan's shout choked off as the building bounced again. She was clinging to a half-smashed wall on the other side of the room, reaching for Van Raighan. Rel stumbled with the next tremor, let his staggering steps carry him across the floor to a patch of intact wall maybe fifteen feet from his sister.

"Can you get a Gate open?" Rel raised his voice, trying to make himself heard over the grinding noise of the city outside. The floor heaved again, slamming him into the wall and sliding him back, away from Pevan. He gasped and slipped to the floor, winded.

"Working on it." Pevan somehow managed to shout through clenched teeth. Van Raighan clinging to her couldn't be helping. The thief was white as a sheet, his arms tight around Pevan's waist, staring past her toward the hole in the wall.

Suddenly, that hole seemed too large and too close. On all fours, Rel crawled towards his sister. The floor bucked again, sending a sharp jolt of pain through his elbow, but he gritted his teeth and pushed up to kneeling. He wrapped his arms around Van Raighan and pulled, but the thief didn't budge. Pevan grunted.

A crack spidered up the opposite wall with a sound like someone rattling a bag of marbles. The room gave another heave, and something big enough to block out the light fell past the smashed wall. Somewhere far below, it crunched against tarmac.

Pevan's Gateway spun open just in front of them, the view through it an unintelligible mess of concrete against a blue-sky background. Rel's foot slipped into the opening before Pevan could give any instructions. He tightened his grip on Van Raighan out of reflex, but the thief yelped and lost his footing too. Somewhere above him, Pevan cursed.

Tangled together, the three of them tumbled around the edge of the Gate, rolling over one another across... whatever it was they'd landed on. Whatever it was, it was hard and more than a little damp. Pevan's elbow landed in Rel's gut, driving the wind out of him. Somewhere nearby, Van Raighan moaned.

Rel managed to roll off his back and curl around his offended diaphragm. The motion helped a little, but also gave him a twinge of heartburn. Beneath his shoulder, the ground - a black asphalt road surface, now he could actually see it - shivered in sympathy with the constant roar of falling masonry.

By the time Rel got his wind back, Pevan was already on her feet, bending down to help Van Raighan up. The thief's eyes were vacant and bewildered, as if he'd got a bump on the head while they fell through the Gate. That still didn't excuse Pevan helping him before Rel, but a crisis the size of the quake was always going to turn people to some odd decisions.

Getting up proved tricky. Rel was halfway to standing when the road threw him a good foot into the air. He landed badly and ended up back on hands and knees. Movement caught his eye, a shadow on the pavement less than fifty feet away. He had time to turn his head away before the descending hunk of concrete smashed into the paving, pelting him with sharp chips of stone. Pevan hissed a curse that would have earned her a reaming from Dora if the Four Knot had been on hand.

So easy to fall back into old modes of thought. Rel made a second attempt and this time managed to stand. The way the ground moved beneath his feet made him feel almost drunk, but he swayed over to where Pevan still wrestled with Van Raighan. The thief was definitely out of it, whimpering something as he clung to Pevan's sleeves.

Rel reached over Van Raighan's shoulder and grabbed his shirt under the armpit. The little man twisted, but Rel held firm, turning with Van Raighan's motion to all but tear him away from Pevan. She staggered free, and Van Raighan, off balance, became dead-weight in Rel's arms, almost dragging him back to the floor.

With a grunt, Rel steadied himself and got Van Raighan's centre of mass back over his feet. The ground trembled again, less sharply this time, and Rel shared a grim look with Pevan. He shouted, "Get us out of here!"

Pevan nodded and opened a Gate directly under her feet. Rel stepped forward, trying to drag Van Raighan with him. The thief somehow kept his feet planted, and the ground chose that moment to lurch again. Rel's knees buckled, and he pretty much fell through the Gate, fists clenched in Van Raighan's shirt. The shirt ripped open, then started to tear at the shoulders, before the little man's balance finally gave out and he toppled after Rel.

Rel's head swam as gravity and the spin on their fall up-ended him, but Pevan grabbed him as he emerged from the Gate, letting it snap closed beneath him. His feet landed in soft grass, Van Raighan's weight driving him into a backward stumble. Pevan yelped as Rel barrelled into her, and for a moment he thought they might all end up on the floor.

Somehow, Rel got a foot far enough back to catch the stagger, just as Pevan got a firm grip on Van Raighan's ruined shirt. Gasping for breath, they straightened up. Van Raighan's head lolled forward, his eyes wide and distant. Rel shifted position to take more of the thief's weight and lower him to the grass. Beneath them, the ground gave another, gentler kick.

They were half-way up the long, slow hill that rose westward away from Vessit. A mile or two away, the tower blocks of the old city were visibly wobbling, like tall grass in the breeze. It seemed almost elegant, but Rel could make out the lumps of concrete crumbling off them and smashing into the street. Intermittent wind carried the distant, thunderous noise of the city's death throes.

Beyond the city, the sea looked much as it had earlier, but choppier, feathered with the white tops of a thousand little waves. Seabirds swarmed over the water in numbers Rel could barely believe. They almost blocked out the truly impossible view of the North side of the bay.

Where there had been a swathe of low fields almost to the horizon, there was now a slow, endless rise. Looking at it, Rel could guess where the Abyss lay belowground. From horizon to horizon, the North half of the Second Realm rose at a steady gradient for mile after mile after mile, until the haze of distant showers finally concealed it.

Pevan had crouched by Van Raighan, shaking him, talking to him, peering into his face. She looked very clinical, brows pinched in a frown, lips pressed flat. The thief seemed unresponsive, his wrist flopping back to the ground when Pevan released it. He was breathing, clearly conscious, but something had gotten the better of him. From the sweat on his forehead and the grey tone of his skin, probably panic. Maybe fear of heights. Were all Southerners so easily broken?

"Uh, Pevan, I hate to say I told you so, but..." Rel pointed North.

Pevan turned to look, swallowed, and glared at him. She had to swallow again before she managed to speak. "Yeah. I was trying not to look at that."

"We don't have time. We need to move now." He walked around to stand over her. "Leave him. He'll live."

"We can't just-!"

"Yes, we can." Rel cut her off, bent down to take hold of her arm. She shrugged him off. He rolled his eyes. "Come on, Pev. If we don't stop Keshnu now, it won't matter anyway."

She shot him a look that had knives in it, then took a deep breath and turned back to the thief. Rel opened his mouth to speak again, but all Pevan did was straighten out Van Raighan's arm and pat him on the chest. Then she stood, her face hard but her eyes showing only focus. "The Abyss?"

"Where else?" The ground might still be trembling under them, but it felt good to be working together, properly, again. Rel looked out at the bay and opened his eyes to Clearsight. Ice poured into his skull in striking counterpoint to the shiver of adrenaline running through his body. No more staring impotently at Keshnu from behind bars.

The view across the water, enhanced by his Gift, was dazzling, a chaos of molecular turbulence and motion. On the miles-distant horizon, a trawler heeled wildly, fishermen clinging to its railings like rags. The sky filled with strain lines as the Realmspace above the Abyss crumpled. A bird caught as the fold spread further - Rel felt the lurch as the Realm shook again - imploded, its crimson remains weaving wildly as they fell through conflicting gravities.

Pevan's Gateway spun open in the grass at their feet. To Clearsight, its rim sparkled with Second-Realm colours while the First Realmstuff of the grass crackled and recoiled in revulsion. The other side of the Gate was dark, with nothing to light the Abyss but a couple of torches. A torrent of water hid the far side of the chasm. Pevan must have placed the Gate in the back wall, facing the edge of the drop.

Rel couldn't see Keshnu - Gift-Givers were invisible to Clearsight - but he could see power of some sort spooling up into the Abyss. That settled that question, then. The distorted Realmspace of the Gate blurred the details of what the Gift-Giver was doing, but it was a bit late to be giving him the benefit of the doubt. Close by, a couple of lesser Wildren stood staring at the Gate, their faces inhumanly static.

Rel glanced at Pevan. She nodded. "Get Keshnu. I can take care of the others."

He took a deep breath, let it out heavily, rehearsing how he'd cross the Gate in his head. If Pevan said she'd take care of the other Wildren, he didn't have to worry about them. It was hard to take the moment he wanted to focus without blinking, but he needed to keep his Clearsight. The sky roiled too much with the effects of the quake to offer him any tranquillity.

Rel stepped forward and let himself drop through the Gate. His vision clouded for a moment as the threshold of the Gateway closed over him, too much chaos too close up for his mind to process it, but he held his eyes open by will and long-ingrained training. The dead, still air of the Abyss welcomed him, ever so slightly warmer than the wind on the hillside.

Arching his back as his legs emerged from the wall, he bent so that his feet hid the ground first. He let his momentum stabilise him and threw himself forwards, carrying his body over his feet and allowing him to break into a staggering run. He got his balance and his stride on the third step, while the two lesser Wildren were still standing, perplexed, to one side. Their lifeless expressions told clearly of alien thought-processes churning behind their faces.

Keshnu was a different matter. With the Gate out of the way, Rel could see the swirls and scattered glimmers of the Gift-Giver's power rising up into the dark ceiling of the Abyss. Great gales of Second-Realm power, spreading until Keshnu seemed to be holding the world aloft. No, not quite; Rel's Gift showed him the limits of Keshnu's range, less than a mile in either direction. The Wilder seemed to stand at the root of a vast tree of power, spreading its branches into the disaster above.

Beyond him, the usual blackness of the Abyss was covered by a curtain of white water. Tracking the exact effects of Keshnu's efforts against the visual noise of that background was beyond even Rel's enhanced vision. It was all he could do to make out the halo of disturbed air that marked out the Gift-Giver's stance on the lip of the Abyss, arms upraised.

"Keshnu!" Rel shouted, hoping to see the words transform into hazards. There was, after all, a Sherim just behind the hundred-foot slab of concrete beside them. Nothing happened; again, the mysterious Sherim failed to produce any Wild Power at all. Keshnu ignored him completely, or at least didn't stop whatever it was he was doing.

Rel pushed his sight forward a second into the future, watching for hard patches in the air. It was the only warning he'd get if Keshnu moved to attack. Even then, if the Gift-Giver used some Second-Realm power - and he had to be powerful enough to pull off Negation, even if he had no skills the Gift-Givers had kept secret from mankind - a second's warning might not be enough.

But the air stayed clear. Rel barrelled onward, the edge of the ledge now only a few strides away. He checked his run before momentum could pitch him over into the endless chasm. It would be easy to throw Keshnu off the ledge, but the Gift-Giver would recover before the Realmlessness claimed him and just fly straight back up. Rel would have no such luxury if he fell off.

Still, there was no sign of reaction from Keshnu. Rel couldn’t look at how the Wilder would react to being attacked – it was too close to trying to see his own future, which would lock down his Clearsight instantly. He had to make his decision now. He planted his leading foot hard to bring him to a stop, and it slipped. For a moment, adrenaline raced through his chest, so cold it burned, but the slide stopped short of the edge.

Below, the glare of the Realmlessness, sucking and sickly, reached up for Rel’s eyes, but he tore his gaze away. Up close, the ripples in the air around Keshnu’s invisible form were like the swirls of an oil slick on the surface of a puddle, intricate and elegant. Rel focussed his gaze and let his mind spread out, following the currents that shaped the air into the coming second.

For such a small interval, and such a small area, at the very limit of his abilities, Rel could see all the options. Three different body-sized tubes sent Keshnu flying backwards. Careful to keep his mind and his eyes separate, Rel worked them out. The one that dropped the Gift-Giver to the floor almost immediately had to be some sort of trip-and-shove. One leading directly away from Rel, through where Keshnu stood, would be a basic, if brutal, punch. The third lifted the Wilder into the air, but a second of the future wasn’t enough to see where – or if – he’d land.

The trip-and-shove offered the most certain outcome. All Rel needed to do was absorb Keshnu’s attention to the point where the Wilder couldn’t concentrate enough to use any of his powers. Keep him off balance long enough, and it would boil down to a test of endurance between Rel’s muscles and Keshnu’s mind. It was the best chance the First Realm was going to get.

Somewhere at the edge of his vision, Rel could make out the hint of motion as Pevan disposed of the other Wildren. That was a weight off his mind. Hopefully she’d have the sense to come back and cover him in case more arrived. Keshnu still hadn’t moved, hadn’t given any indication at all that he was aware Rel was there. It went beyond arrogance. Whatever he was doing, the Gift-Giver was completely absorbed in it.

That meant Rel could take his time preparing his stance. Underfoot, the concrete trembled constantly, but Rel bent his knees slightly and ignored it. He placed his ankle just behind where Keshnu’s would be in a second – it was there now, but to think of it that way brought Rel’s thoughts too close to himself, his throat and eyes tightening as he teetered on the edge of locking up.

The shaking of the floor made it slippery, he saw as his foot bounced, came down not quite where he’d planted it. He shifted his weight, leaning closer to where Keshnu would be. It was a compromise, and he wouldn’t be able to shove as hard, but if his foot slipped he might not manage to topple the Gift-Giver at all.

No time for a deep breath to settle his nerves, in case Keshnu chose that moment to emerge from his trance. Rel looked past where he hoped the Wilder would end up, and threw his body into the shove. He twisted, keeping his weight firmly on his front foot, and felt the Gift-Giver’s leg catch on his own. The plain wool of the Wilder’s robe tickled under Rel’s hand.

Realmspace rippled with Keshnu’s shocked curse, and the web of snaggles in the air that marked his boundary toppled. Rel stepped back, carefully measuring the distance, and lashed out with his foot. His ankle protested as the kick fell short; Keshnu was already moving. He needed more future.

Pressure settled in just behind Rel’s nose and the knife-sharp edge of clarity came off his perception of the swirling breezes as he pushed out another half second in all directions. That was going to hurt his stamina something fierce, but Keshnu was already half-way to upright. The air around Rel came alive with dense patches . Incoming blows. Keshnu trying to finish him off without resorting to drastic measures. Mockery, given how far in breach of the treaties the Wilder already was.

Rel advanced, twisting at the hips and ducking his head to thread his way between the blows – some, he could see, were fainter than others, less probable outcomes. A few winked out altogether as he weaved out of their reach. He lunged, fist outstretched, and caught Keshnu in something hard. Breastbone, probably, from the height.

Not as hard as he’d hoped, though. The Gift-Giver was reading his attacks well. Rel reminded himself that Keshnu’s invisibility didn’t mean the Wilder couldn’t see him. Simple moves weren’t going to cut it. Keshnu kept the air busy with his whirlwind of attacks, leaving no clear angle to his body. Rel ducked as the air ahead of him blurred opaque.

With any other Wilder, he could have grabbed Keshnu’s arm as, a second and a half later, it passed over his head. But if he tried to hold the Gift-Giver, it would probably cost him his Clearsight, and a moment later, his life. The Abyss was still right there. Instead, he punched upward, fist square atop his wrist.

Contact across his knuckles stung hard enough to make him hiss, and he squinted to keep his watering eyes from clouding his vision. Either he’d caught Keshnu’s narrow arm bone-to-bone, or the Gift-Giver had done something to harden his skin. Still, the cloud of incoming punches thinned. Rel dropped his shoulders, threw his weight forward, and brought his knee up.

This time, he hit something soft, but his eyes were already on Keshnu’s elastic recovery. The Gift-Giver must have flipped or rolled with the knee, to come back at Rel so quickly-

The ground flickered out of position, so quickly even Rel’s enhanced sight almost missed it. The quake, still on-going, which meant either Rel wasn’t doing enough to distract Keshnu, or Pevan wasn’t covering him and some other Wilder – probably Taslin – had taken up the slack. He couldn’t deal with that right now. Off-balance, trying to ride his lunge on past Keshnu, it was all Rel could do to keep his knees off the concrete when the tremor hit.

He turned his shoulder down as both feet lifted off the floor, turned the wild stagger into a roll. It put him too far from Keshnu for comfort, but the alternative was to be right next to him and face-down, flat-out on the floor. Rel squinted tight to avoid blinking as his weight pushed his chin into his chest.

Then he was over, rising, turning with the last of his momentum, scanning for the next blow. Something splashed at him, and he flinched hard to the side, only to catch himself as the spray of water hit. Nothing to do with Keshnu, just some new leak in the top of the Abyss. The cascade poured down mere inches from the ledge, misting the air with spray that cast rainbows from the torchlight.

Perfect. Water made a denser medium than air, much easier to track. The mist rippled as Keshnu spun through it to attack, a second and a half ahead of time. Rel side-stepped, threw his arm out at the Gift-Giver’s flank as it passed. The blow sent a sharp jab of pain through his fingers and wrist, but the whole pattern of Keshnu’s next moves changed – he’d been thrown badly off-balance.

Rel glanced across the ledge as he turned, but there was no sign of anyone. The other Wildren had to be keeping Pevan pretty busy. He finished his spin and stepped to the side of Keshnu’s next lunge. Fast as the Gift-Giver was, no speed could catch up to Clearsight. And the Gift-Giver’s form was sloppy, as if he understood the concept of combat but had never practiced it. Well, he’d probably never needed to.

Eyes narrowed, a fierce grin on his face, Rel watched the spray of water where Keshnu would reel backward. He stepped forward to press the attack before the Wilder could regain his balance. The fight was just a formality now.

3.5: You Held the World in Your Arms

Gasping for breath, Dora ran down the tunnel to the Abyss, heedless of the bucking floor that threatened to turn her ankle with every step. Ahead, she could hear only the roar of falling water. She’d been in the old city searching for Rel when the quake hit, had seen with disbelieving eyes the northern horizon leap upward. Keshnu had said his fix was only temporary, but for it to have come undone so quickly... What had Rel and Van Raighan done?

The ground pitched again, violently, as she reached the end of the tunnel, and she staggered, leaning forward to manage her balance. Her foot tingled as it slipped on the concrete, while the lip of the ledge – the edge of the world – swung across her field of vision. For a moment, fear ran chill claws through her, the thought of the Realmlessness below irresistible, but she caught her slide and her concentration steadied with it.

Rel and Keshnu were a blur of motion right on the edge of the precipice. Well, Keshnu was a blur. Aura blazing like low sun reflected on the sea, Rel’s movements seemed languid by comparison, a slow dance that wove him between the Gift-Giver’s desperate attacks. The only thing aggressive about Rel’s movement was the way his fist, and then his hard-toed boot, snapped up at Keshnu’s torso.

Keshnu staggered back, lunged again. Rel just stepped to one side. It was only as the Clearseer ducked a high punch Keshnu was nowhere near throwing that Dora realised he was using his Gift. But Clearsight wasn’t supposed to work on Gift-Givers. Had Van Raighan or the Separatists enhanced Rel’s Gift somehow?

It didn’t matter much right now. If Rel was using his Gift, she wasn’t going to get near him to stop him. She dug her fingernails into her palms in frustration, her skin gritty where she’d fallen however-many times during her frantic race through the caves. The air seemed hard with the sound of the waterfall, and Dora could tell just by looking at it that it was already far worse than it had been during the last quake. Why had Keshnu’s work come undone so quickly?

Her head swam for a moment, the scent of bile rising up the back of her throat, as space twisted with a Gateway forming nearby. She managed to fight down the nausea with a swallow and a grunt, digging her fingers into her abdomen. At least that was an improvement. The Gate would do nothing to help the stresses on the Abyss, though.

It opened in the middle of the ledge, First Realmspace pulling into tight pleats around its perimeter. Pevan gave no warning shout before emerging, head-first. She landed in a ready stance, feet wide, knees bent, her neck seeming twice as long as normal as she looked around. Everything about her screamed readiness for a fight, but with who? It was a moment before she turned around and spotted Dora.

Pevan’s aura flared, the Gate behind her snapping shut. Dora’s gut roiled, but she took the warning and leapt sideways. The concrete where she’d been standing vanished beneath an image of the sky, somewhere near the fault. Dora could tell, because looking at the twisted shapes of the clouds made her eyes water.

She jumped back as Pevan cursed, and this time the sensation of the Gate closing and another opening was like an uppercut to the bottom of her ribcage. Her eyes bulged and welled over, and she made a noise that was half-gasp, half-choke. She had to keep moving. Somehow, as her feet hit the floor, she managed to change direction, heading for Pevan.

Heading for Pevan’s ankles. She couldn’t get her arms out in time to keep her upright, and the ground chose that moment to give another heave, slamming into her knee. The fiery edge of the pain told her there’d be blood, and probably a hole in her stocking. She plowed into Pevan with a grunt. Say what you like about her choice of allegiance, you couldn’t fault the girl’s technique. Her feet barely shifted with the impact, her shin like an iron fence-bar against Dora’s shoulder.

Still, the collision distracted her enough to buy Dora a moment. Head still reeling, she grabbed Pevan’s ankle and lifted as best she could. Dora’s elbow ground into the rough concrete, but Pevan staggered back a step. Dora curled up and tried to lever herself to her feet against the Gatemaker.

The result was that she ended up with her face buried in Pevan’s blouse somewhere just above her waist while the girl stumbled again. Dora grunted, pushed away and got herself squarely upright.

“What the hell do you think you’re playing at, Pevan?” It was no challenge at all to find the anger to put real heat into the words, but even shouting, Dora felt as if she spoke into a blanket, the noise from the waterfall smothering all other sound.

Pevan heard, at least, and the question seemed to snap her out of her blood-lust. She steadied herself, her posture angular and stiff, and glanced over her shoulder. Behind her, Rel was still gliding casually around the forest of motion that was Keshnu’s wild assault. Pevan cleared her throat, not quite meeting Dora’s eyes. “You weren’t here to see, Dora. We came down here just after the quake started, and Keshnu was doing... something to the Abyss.”

“I’ll bet he was.” Dora folded her arms, clenching her jaw to harden her face. This was more like it. She was back in control. “He was trying to stitch the Realm back together.”

“Rel said-“

“Rel be damned!” Dora slashed a hand through the air between them, then caught herself as Pevan flinched. Keep control. Anger was good, but too much would rule her, open her Sherim. No telling what that would do to the Abyss. “You took his judgement over mine. When has that ever been the right thing to do?”

Pevan looked away, lips twitching, scowl sullen. Dora took the opportunity to look up at the Abyss. Or rather, at the wall of water filling it. She couldn’t see the strains pulling on the rock this close up, but she could feel them, slung like great ropes along and around the cracks.

She pointed up into the darkness at the top of the cascade. “Look at it, Pevan. Look up there. If Keshnu were causing this, wouldn’t it have stopped by now?”

The girl glanced after Dora’s finger, then back at the floor. She muttered something.

Dora rolled her eyes. “If you’re going to doom the entire Realm, the least you could do is face up to it.”

“I-“ For a moment, there was a spark of anger in Pevan’s eyes, a glimmer of light in her aura, but both faded as she dropped her head back down again. When she looked up, her eyes were watering. “What do we do?”

Rel was showing no signs of wearying. How long had he been fighting? If Pevan had brought him here near the start of the quake, it must have been the better part of half an hour. The Clearseers' fighting style was efficient, and Rel was a consummate master of it. Keshnu would be tiring, too.

Dora turned the full force of her glare on Pevan. “Can you get Rel away from Keshnu?”

“I can.” The words came hard and flat, clipped short, from somewhere behind Dora’s back. She spun to find Taslin standing there, in plain trousers and a loose blouse instead of her normal elaborate style. The Gift-Giver was ready for combat, her eyes fixed on the fight. Her eyes didn’t even flicker to Dora as she asked, “Can you hold the Realm up, like you did before?”

“I’ll try.” The strain on the Abyss seemed so much worse this time, the crack that much wider. With her Gift still dormant, Dora could barely even understand her memory of what she’d done.

Again without so much as a glance, Taslin stabbed a finger at Pevan. “You. Dora will need support while her mind spreads out. Find some of my kin and bring them here. They should all be approaching the surface entrance to the caves by now.”

Pevan opened her mouth, then closed it again. Dora shot her a glare and a nod, then grabbed her belly as it heaved; Pevan dropped out of sight through a Gateway. Somewhere up in the darkness, something cracked, loud enough to break through the endless din of the waterfall. A moment later, the floor bounced, but Dora managed to keep her balance without leaning on Taslin.

The Gift-Giver said, “Be as quick as possible. I suggest you sit down before trying anything. Last time you almost fell.”

Dora swallowed and managed to croak, “Good luck.” She lowered herself down to sit cross-legged. The concrete sent a low hum up through her spine, an oddly warm sensation. In the back of her mind, the Gift waited. Dora turned her thoughts toward it and felt it pick up the vibrations of the world.

Taslin burst into motion, her human form blurring at the edges and leaving a trail of violet mist in her wake. Her movements became fluid, all semblance of a skeleton disappearing as she cast off First-Realm limitations and enveloped Rel and Keshnu. Whatever technique she thought she’d found for fighting a Clearseer, Dora could make no sense of it.

She put the Gift-Giver out of her mind and grasped her Gift. Time was of the essence. Letting her eyes half-close and her vision blur, Dora slipped a crack between the halves of her Sherim. Her logic strained at the inside of her eyes for a moment, then split, the fuzzy image of the fight and the curtain of falling water coming apart. Light filled her, a mix of amber and a Second-Realm colour that brought with it the high shine of polished brass.

There was no time to relish the power, nor the shivers of blissful tension fluttering up and down her arms and deep into her chest. Deep in her abdomen, a fire took root that threatened to force a shout of pure joy out of her. In the whirling chaos of her visual field, she saw the ghosts of the Second-Realm patterns that were ripping the world apart, great gruesome pulsating tubes that showed the unruly forces rippling through the rocks of the Abyss.

She was as ready as she could make herself. With less effort than a single coherent thought, she moved her consciousness out into the middle of the Abyss. Stone vanished behind torrents of water in every direction – even bursting with Wild Power, Dora didn’t dare look straight down at the Realmlessness. Above, she could feel the cracks spreading through the ceiling along ancient fault-lines, burrowing up towards the sky. The sides of the chasm seemed miles apart, so far had they shifted.

As slowly as she dared with the walls of the Abyss standing almost at right-angles to one another, Dora began to spread her Wild Power over the rock. It pooled on the surfaces like thick honey, seeping into cracks and crevices, spreading steadily out as she increased the flow. Gently, the shape of the rocks impressed itself on the contours of Dora’s mind. The rock absorbed the force with a low moan, deep below the threshold of bodily hearing.

The not-yet-sound spread out along the length of the Abyss, radiating into the roots of the mountains to the southeast and spreading through the whole First Realm. Other things – trees, buildings, even people – took up the vibration in sympathy, bone-deep where the shaking of the Realm hid it. Dora did not relent. However much the additional strain told on mankind, it was nothing to what would happen if the Realm snapped.

Dora spread herself yet further, opening her mind until she became nothing more than an aware conduit for Wild Power. The haze of intoxicated, feverish bliss washed away rational thought even as the slabs of Realmstuff she held began to lift back into place. Her grip spread downwards as well as along the Abyss walls, but she barely felt the sickly, slimy caress of the Realmlessness.

On the ledge, tiny by comparison with the scale of the forces Dora managed, the cloud of violence and desperation where Taslin and Keshnu surrounded Rel thinned. Dora’s breath clouded the air in front of her, the golden haze of her power in it cancelling out Rel’s aura. He danced, slow and smooth, at the centre of a storm of purple and grey, his movements so precise, so careful, that he almost seemed to be conducting the cloud rather than reacting to it.

Taslin’s joining the fight didn’t seem to have slowed Rel at all. He was magnificent, invulnerable, everything his Gift and his devotion had always promised. Dora could remember when Federas had boasted Temmer and Dieni among its Gifted, and Rel outmatched them both just as much as he outmatched Taslin and Keshnu.

The boy she had helped train, sheltered from the furore when he’d fled his mentor, worked and fought alongside for half a decade in the crucible that was the defence of Federas, had become the greatest Gifted Dora had ever seen. Hybrid logic and altered perception showed Dora Rel’s emotions, but she didn’t need to see them to understand the savage pride surging through him.

He deserved it. All his anger, everything that kept him childish and petulant when off-duty, came back to that last undignified clash with Ciarive. The cantankerous old Clearseer wouldn’t believe his eyes if he saw what Rel was doing here. Rel might even have earned an apology, except for the fact that he was fighting on the wrong side.

Keshnu was fading, the grey cloud of his being streaming away into rags. Where the tendrils touched the torrent of water still pounding down only inches from the ledge – Dora could do nothing about that – they were sucked down into the Abyss. A part of Dora’s mind tried to dive after them, catch them, but her better judgement held her back with iron fists. Though the Gift-Giver’s slow demise twisted blades through Dora’s heart sharp enough to cut through the bliss of her power, she had to stand firm, for the sake of the Realm.

Through the hundreds of miles where her mind pressed against the rock, Dora felt the moment when the quake stopped. Like silence after a distant child’s crying, the stillness was somehow more unsettling. It was the non-sound of someone, somewhere, beginning the long and terrible tally of the costs.

The fold in the Realm had not flattened out completely, but she’d at least stopped it putting any more strain on the rock over her head. The world hung heavy across what her mind insisted on thinking of as her shoulders. She tried not to think about the mad tangle of crumpled space in the air just above the fault. Just keep lifting, steadily, until it all straightened out.

Steadily was the word. Dora couldn’t feel any progress at all, but she didn’t dare risk forcing the pace. Too much force might twist the two halves of the Realm against each other or even just push them apart. She needed to distract herself until there was measurable movement she could check on.

Rel was still dismantling Keshnu and Taslin. Within the moil of purple that was Taslin, Dora’s hybrid-logic-enhanced awareness showed the patterns of mounting fear. Fear for Keshnu, for the First Realm if she failed, and fear for Rel, oddly. Why did the Gift-Giver fear for the renegade she was trying to stop? What made Rel important, even after all he’d done?

It seemed like Taslin’s fear for him was unjustified anyway. Even working together, the two Gift-Givers couldn’t touch him. Unless Taslin had something up her sleeve, but if she did, why was she waiting to use it, while Keshnu frayed ever closer to annihilation? Taslin had never struck Dora as the merciful type. If she feared for the Clearseer, her plan had to be beyond horrific.

A ribbon of purple smoke drifted away from the fight, caught the edge of the torrent and vanished into the depths. If Taslin did have a trick, she needed to use it soon. Dora tried to reach down, to hold Rel, or distract him, or maybe just to stop the Gift-Givers getting sucked over the ledge. It was no use. Every time she shifted her grip on the world to free up concentration, she felt jags of tension shoot through the stone.

Taslin’s patience ran out. The Gift-Giver billowed out from the fight suddenly, away from the edge. Rel lunged for Keshnu, then broke his stride and stumbled. Dora watched his eyes go wide as some realisation dawned. Keshnu, little more than a dull patch in the shimmering spray thrown off by the waterfall, rose. The Gift-Giver managed more than a drift, but he wasn’t moving fast.

Rel’s stumble continued even as he landed on all fours. Ahead of him along the crumbling edge of the concrete shelf, the research facility door blocked his path. What had he seen? What was he suddenly running from? Taslin was hanging back, unrecognisable as human, a boiling, muddled cloud of confusion and distress, spreading out in all directions. Flattening out, too, as if she was trying to wall Rel into that narrow strip of floor.

Taslin swept forward, smashing into Rel’s flank as his outstretched fingers clawed at an iron rod poking out from under the door. Clearseer and Gift-Giver vanished into the hammering cascade of water. Dora’s scream rang from the rocks, louder than the waterfall, more agonised than the grinding, terrible crash as her reflexive grab for the falling figures shook her grip on the Abyss.

Somehow, Dora got herself back under control, dimly conscious that her body was reporting battered joints and aching bones from the latest tremor. She steadied the sheets of bedrock in her grasp and pushed her consciousness down, searching for an angle that would show her Rel’s fate. She squinted with her mind’s eye against the terrible suction of the Realmlessness, and the darkness began to peek out through the curtain of water.

Far below, too small even to seem doll-like, Dora made out two tumbling bodies. How deep down in the Abyss did the Realmlessness start? Rel couldn’t be far above it, and Taslin was pursuing him hard, not just falling. The Gift-Giver spun through a sequence of distorted forms that set her flowing along hidden convoluted folds in Realmspace, faster than Rel could fall.

To push the limits of logic so hard, even with Dora’s open Sherim saturating the air with Wild Power, meant Taslin must have some serious reason for needing Rel. Maybe that explained why she’d been so troubled around him during his imprisonment. The Gift-Giver seized Rel like a hawk stooping on a sparrow, and for a moment they fell together, the Realmlessness boiling upward in hunger for them.

Taslin unfurled her might, and the two of them reversed direction as if hung on a spring. Rel dangled, spasming, from her arm. Dora recognised the whole-body nausea; he must not have shut off his Clearsight before catching a glimpse of the Realmlessness. The void outside the universe was bad enough as an invasive tickling at the underside of Dora’s mind. Rel would have had it full-force in the face.

He’d be out of action for a while, but at least he was secure. Taslin looked a little frayed around the edges, but she had more than enough strength to keep Rel under control. Keshnu, though, looked in serious trouble. For all his power and compassion – for all his humanity – the Gift-Giver was little more than a grey cloud, floating in defiance of the downward draught through the Abyss.

Dora flinched as a web of Taslin’s power reached up towards her, but the net fell short, draping itself over Keshnu and gathering him in. Dora waited for the little voice of normality at the back of her mind to point out that you couldn’t catch a cloud in a net, but it had apparently given up. Taslin reeled Keshnu in gently, despite the miniature storm of emotion that Dora could see crashing around inside her.

With Rel held firm under one arm and Keshnu in a tight bundle floating above an upraised hand, Taslin landed on the ledge. She drew Keshnu down to hang by her side, then threw Rel onto the concrete. He flopped flat, arm twitching as if he was still struggling to rise. Probably just lingering tremors from the Realmlessness. He couldn’t have any fight left in him, could he?

Taslin pushed out a bubble of force that pinned Rel down, then turned to look up at Dora. “Are you alright?”

Dora tried to speak, found herself not breathing. How long had that been going on? Long enough that it was far too late to be panicking about it. To Taslin, she sent, I’m fine. Will Keshnu survive? Second-Realm communication came to her naturally, as easy as speaking had become hard.

Taslin rippled with amusement at what she took for Dora’s showing off, until the question about Keshnu darkened her mood. He needs immediate help, and a long convalescence in the Second Realm.
What are you waiting for? The thought spread out of Dora as soon as her fear drove it to the surface. That was going to be a problem. No wonder Wildren tended to be more honest with one another.

How long can you hold the Abyss? Taslin’s tone was stern. Dora could conjure up the exact angle of the Gift-Giver’s eyebrows, the axe-blade intensity of her face, without having to look. The expression brought with it the undercurrent; the Abyss was more important than any one Gift-Giver, no matter how powerful or loved.

But Keshnu was right there, probably fading even further as they argued. Let me worry about the Abyss. It was hard to fill the message with conviction. Dora felt like she could hold forever, but she wasn’t breathing. Would her body start to protest?

Dora, your body is gone. Taslin answered the question while Dora was still pondering it, the brush of her ‘voice’ the caress of a down pillow, scented with the lavender soap Dora’s mother had always used for laundry. How long can you hold?

Dammit, I feel better than I have in a month. Save Keshnu! Dora caught the train of her thoughts short, aware she was doing the equivalent of raging at Taslin. More subdued, she finished He’s more important than me anyway. Only then did Dora take on board what Taslin had said. Her body was gone? Gone where?

It wasn’t on the ledge. Dora could see roughly where she’d been sitting, but there was no sign of her. Pevan clearly hadn’t brought back any Wildren to help her. Had the damn girl bolted again? She was turning as unreliable as her brother. If she’d cost Dora her body, they were going to have words. At least the lack of a body explained why she wasn’t breathing or asphyxiating.

On the ledge, her slender height for once making her seem fragile, Taslin stood gazing up at Dora. There were tears glinting in the Gift-Giver’s eyes. Behind the artificial projection of a face, Taslin’s emotions were too complex for Dora to make out, but there was a kind of grim resignation there, a surrender that went far beyond and cut deeper than merely losing an argument. Though she didn’t speak, Taslin’s tone was quiet and hoarse. What about Rel?

Just for a moment, Dora found her thoughts turning inward. The Clearseer could have been the greatest Gifted of his generation. Her brother-in-arms. To Taslin, she sent He’s under your authority now. Not the authority of mankind, or of the treaties. Rel would answer to Wildren justice on Wildren terms. Dora wished she could swallow, to settle the phantom of nausea rising from her phantom gut.

I can’t just leave you to hold the world together. Taslin had let her face fall blank, but she couldn’t hide the despair washing through behind it.

Save Keshnu. Dora put as much thought into the force as possible. From somewhere, she dredged up a tired, strained smile. I’m leaving you with Rel. When you get back, and I’ve fixed the Abyss, we can argue over who had the harder job.

Taslin’s affirmation came laden with the hot-eye sense of impending tears, an undercurrent of trembling shame. Dora understood; she had to treat Keshnu without risking moving him any further, but she didn’t want to be aware of Dora’s sacrifice. Inwardly, trying to keep it from Taslin’s notice, Dora found herself irritated. It wasn’t a sacrifice. It was her duty to protect the First Realm. Not like there was much else she was good for.

On the ledge, Taslin bent over Keshnu, her awareness narrowing, focussing on the battered Gift-Giver. The sense of nearness that had stripped Dora’s emotions so bare began to fade, and she turned her attention back to the Abyss.

Water still poured through the fissures above her head. Would the flow shut off if she lifted high enough? The fold was still sharp, and there was still a long way to go. Perhaps by the time Dora was finished, Keshnu would be well. He still had to take her to the crèche, show her their child in its natural home.

If Dora held up that long. If she really didn’t need to breathe. Or eat.

Well, the sooner she fixed the Abyss, the sooner she’d be able to eat again. She drove her mind, with its gales of Wild Power still flowing, up into the rock, prying loose the tendrils of attention that had gotten stuck to Rel and Keshnu. Her world narrowed and darkened, until there was just the roar of the water and the slow, grinding upward creep of the Realm.

Epilogue: Ashes from the Blaze of Glory

The trembling stopped, and for a long time Rel couldn’t tell whether it was the end of the quake or just his Realmlessness-induced paroxysms fading. Taslin’s will held him flat against the concrete like an iron bar lying along his spine. He could still smell his own bile.

He couldn’t twist his head far enough to see what the Gift-Giver was up to, but he knew she couldn’t be far away. Keshnu had to be somewhere nearby too, whatever was left of him. Rel might have a solid bruise on his left flank from his shoulder to his ankle, where Taslin had smashed him off the ledge, but he knew he’d left Keshnu far worse.

Dora. The thought intruded like a hammer through the dough of Rel’s recovering mind. He’d seen glimpses of her during the fight, lingering in the background, and later taking up Keshnu’s work. With his eyes open to Clearsight, Rel had been unable to miss the moment when her power had bloomed, day-bright and cataclysmic.

And yet, but for a handful of bad shakes, the quake had quieted, not continued. Rel hadn’t been able to watch what Dora was doing – even he wasn’t that good – but she’d unleashed strength beyond anything he’d ever seen. If she had been trying to finish what Keshnu started, why was there still a world at all? But Keshnu wouldn’t let her go against his will unchallenged.

She’d been sat by the tunnel leading away from the Abyss when last Rel saw her, but the tunnel was about all he could see clearly, and Dora wasn’t there. His eyes were still uncomfortable from his brush with the Realmlessness, in a way he couldn’t quite characterise. His vision split everywhere he could see a hard line, and it reminded him of nothing so much as a tangle of loose hair floating on water. He squinted and looked around as best he could, but there was no sign of Dora.

Automatically, he tried to push to his feet and get a better look around. Taslin’s power kept him pinned, but his elbow wobbled so much with the strain that he wondered if he actually could make it upright even if he were free. He steered himself away from the question of why the Gift-Giver hadn’t just let him fall into the Realmlessness. Better not to think of the fall. His skin still crawled with the remnants of the sensation of being pulled apart, one cell at a time, from the inside out.

The pressure across Rel’s back tightened, spreading out to pin his arm painfully across his ribs. He grunted, but Taslin didn’t relent. Her power scooped him up, twisted him upright sharply enough that his gorge rose, and turned him round to face her. She stood close to the lip of the ledge, and even without Clearsight, Rel could see the violet haze around her that betrayed her exhaustion.

At her feet, Keshnu lay in funereal pose, arms crossed on his chest. His outline was secure, but within it his features were blank, crudely formed in contrast to the Gift-Giver’s normal flawless performance of humanity. Still, he was much better than Rel had left him. Grimly, Rel met Taslin’s glare.

Taslin didn’t speak. She just lifted a finger and pointed at the Abyss, her arm spear-straight. Rel looked. The Gift-Giver looked like she’d just point his head in that direction by force if he didn’t. There was a cloud of something , diffuse and only vaguely human-shaped, hanging up there in front of the worst of the waterfall. Rel squinted, trying to work out if the fall had slowed. If the damage was fixed, the fall should have stopped.

“Use your Gift.” Taslin’s voice, flat as a blade, cut through the noise of the water.

Rel blinked a few times. Trying to use Clearsight with his eyes in this state was going to be unpleasant, but even exhausted, Taslin could probably snap him like a twig. His feet tingled, and he wriggled them in his boots, wishing he could stamp them on the ground. It was hard not to swallow or clench his fists. The Gift-Giver’s eyes, hard and narrow, never wavered from Rel’s.

He blinked a few times in a futile attempt to clear the worst of the moisture from his eyes, then pushed through his reluctance and opened himself to his Gift. His tears seemed to freeze on his cheeks even as worms of pain and fatigue burrowed through the back of his eyeballs and headed for his throat. Taslin and Keshnu vanished, both of them so exhausted that they no longer made clear distortions in the air.

The Abyss split apart, Rel’s image of it coming in separate layers. Hard ridges, a network of fine lines and dark planes, shaped the rock that the waterfalls hid. There was less water pouring in, though the fissures in the sea-bed above were still too wide for Rel’s liking. The world was in a better state than it had been before he attacked Keshnu.

Only one thing offered explanation. Dora hung in the middle of the Abyss, the aura of her Gift shining bright enough that Rel had to squint to look straight at her. Her body had blurred like a dying Wilder’s, but Rel could follow the shape she was clearly thinking of as her own. One of her fingers, stretching up into the darkness like a gnarled tree-branch, bent at an angle that couldn’t be natural.

“What have you done to her?” Even with his breathing restricted by Taslin’s grip on his chest, Rel managed to put some heat into the words.

Taslin kept her voice cold. “She did that herself. To fix problems you created.”

Rel opened his mouth to protest, but every detail he could make out cut him off. He couldn’t see Dora’s face, per se, but she was broadcasting assurance and focus. However alien she appeared, she looked more like herself than she had since receiving her second Gift. Where her arms stretched up to the straining Realm, they were not being pulled apart. They were anchors and cables to make the builders of the pre-crash cities weep.

He could see the shape of her Sherim, too, coiled up and looped through her arms. Dora had made herself the knot that tied the Realm together. She didn’t seem vulnerable, either, though Rel was in no doubt Taslin could have killed her if she’d wanted to. So why hadn’t she?

Rel swallowed again, his tongue seeming suddenly to fill his mouth, cutting off his windpipe. His jaw and gut tightened, but he couldn’t curl himself to ease the tension on them. Fire blossomed just under his heart, driving tears out onto his cheeks. That at least made him blink, freed him from having to stare at the truth any longer.

“Look at her!” Taslin shouted, and it didn’t matter if she was just performing or she really felt the anger written in the merciless lines of her face. “Look at what you’ve done!”

The roar of falling water swallowed the echoes of Taslin’s outburst, but her words hung in Rel’s mind all the same. He gasped a breath and tried to speak. For a moment it felt like Taslin was just going to crush him, but if anything her grip had slackened. His breath caught again, his nose tickling as a drip ran down it.

Finally, he managed, “Will she be alright?” The words silvered into the air, curling back on themselves and stroking Rel’s face with lines of paper-cut pain.

“I have no idea.” Taslin hadn’t moved, one finger still stabbing out toward Dora, every joint of her pose as unyielding as the bedrock surrounding them. “She’s tied herself to that Sherim you opened. I don’t know what it’s done to her, but she’s not moving through time normally. She may be able to keep lifting the Realm indefinitely, but she is out of our reach.”

“Out of our reach?” This time, Rel’s voice barely managed to scatter a handful of silver flakes into the air in front of him. Forever?
“I intend to see her free again.” The Gift-Giver lowered her arm, her voice picking up a strident edge. “And you are going to make amends by helping me.” Rel let his head hang, wishing he could turn, escape Taslin’s eyes. His stomach twinged, and a shudder ran through him, taking a long time to die away. The pressure of Taslin’s grip warmed him, supported him, as his feet and his heart began to go cold. Finally, in a voice so thin that it barely touched the air, he said, “Just tell me what to do.”

* * *

This marks the end of Season 1 of The Second Realm. Season 2 will begin in December. If you've enjoyed Season 1, please consider leaving a review at Smashwords or your preferred vendor.

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