Monday, 31 December 2012

The Second Realm 4.1: Through the Fire and Flames

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The Rabbit Hole

1. Through the Fire and Flames

The Sherim that served Vessit and most of the rest of the region around the Tuani mountains had been a tree. Rel was sure he remembered Dora describing it as a tree when she came back from whatever it was she'd done here. The tree was gone now, though.

In its place, a pillar of fire roared and spat sparks over a ten-foot ring of scorched grass. The air around the fire wrenched and twisted with far worse than heat distortion. Even in the clouded, dim dusk, Rel could pick out the haze of Second-Realm colours floating on the Sherim's surface like oil on water. In the heart of the fire, flames stretched out into spirals and eddies that no ordinary breeze could create.

Taslin, the limp form of Keshnu tucked under her arm, marched forwards across the clearing. Her violet skirt and white bodice betrayed their otherworldly origins, glowing in the twilight gloom. She left a trail of faint, glittering mist in her wake. The Gift-Giver was even more fatigued and battered than Rel.

It was still less than six hours since they'd fought, teetering constantly on the lip of the Abyss under Vessit, while the First Realm tried to snap itself in two. In the brief pauses between Taslin's Gateways on the frantic trek here, Rel had been able to survey the devastation his recklessness had caused. Here, a hundred miles from the Abyss, a good third of the pines that surrounded them had been toppled or snapped. Before sundown, it had been possible to see the scars of fresh landslides on the faces of the Tuani.

They had passed within sight of no towns since leaving Vessit. The old city had worn its destruction like a ghost's recriminating stare, its once-proud towers blunted and cracked, rubble piled high in its streets. Rel shuddered to think what might have happened to the pre-Crash buildings back home in Federas.

He shook his head and started after Taslin. There would be time for counting the costs later. Now, he had to focus on what he could do, which was help Taslin get Keshnu to the Court for treatment. Save what could still be saved; it served no-one to let the death toll rise by another life. Get Keshnu to safety, then return to Vessit and see what could be done about Dora.

Then turn himself in and face human justice. If the Children of the Wild let him. His step faltered for a moment, but he gritted his teeth and pressed on. The clearing that housed the Sherim was steeper than it looked. The fire hissed, in sharp contrast to the silence he usually associated with the Second Realm.

Taslin stopped just outside the ring of char. Even standing half a pace behind her shoulder, Rel found he could feel the heat rolling off the Sherim. He cleared his throat, his mouth dry. "Can you- Can you still get us across?"

"With your help, yes." Taslin's voice was wooden and stiff. Her knife-blade face was much the same, stripped as it was of shadows that might have softened it. She didn't look away from the fire as she finished, "We will have to re-navigate the Sherim."

Rel rubbed his forehead. There was a lump of lead sitting just behind it, atop his eyes, that spoke of already-dangerous levels of logic fatigue. Any other day, he'd have called it mad to even attempt a visit to the Second Realm in this condition. "Can't you... do whatever it is you do when you take people to the Second Realm to be Gifted? Wouldn't that be quicker?"

"No." It was a relief to hear deliberate sternness in Taslin's voice. Remembering to show a semblance of human emotion couldn't be easy for the Gift-Giver in her condition, but if she could still manage it, then Rel owed her the same effort. "Opening a Sherim puts a lot of stress on the First Realm, and these mountains are a product of the same fault as the Abyss. Fresh strain after the quake could be disastrous."

"Hang on." Rel frowned, massaging the bridge of his nose as if that would help the encroaching headache. "The Tuani have been here for thousands of years. They didn't just spring up during the Realmcrash."

"The Abyss likely also existed before the Realmcrash. Remember that your forebears built a laboratory down there."

That was true enough. But for that facility, Rel wouldn't even be in this part of the Realm. "Sorry. I didn't think of that." He paused, braced for reprimand, but Taslin stayed silent. Had Dora been here... But she wasn't. Rel buried his eyes in his hands, grimacing as he fought down a stab of remorse. When he looked up again, Taslin was watching him, her face divided by a sharp line of shadow, firelight to one side, night to the other. It took all the nerve he could muster to stand straight and meet her eyes. "What do you need me to do?"

"You remember the procedure." The humanity faded again from the Wilder's voice. "We explored Dora's Sherim this way when we fought the Axtli together."

Images from that nightmarish encounter drifted back. Firelight recoiling from the pitch-black torrent of the Axtli as it poured out of Dora's head, insatiable and merciless. The glittering, tingling web of silver thread inside Dora's Sherim that had teased and danced with his Clearsight, until he'd felt almost feverish as he tried to focus on the glowing orb that marked Taslin's progress.

The roaring of the fire all but drowned Taslin's next words. "We must be even more careful this time. I can do nothing to indicate Keshnu's well-being to you."

"I'll do what I can." Rel swallowed. He'd done Keshnu enough harm as it was. He had to get the senior Gift-Giver to the Court safely.

Taslin gave a stiff nod and raised her free hand. An orb of pale yellow light bloomed above her palm, but made no impact at all on the darkness around her. Rel blinked a couple of times, trying to wash away the prickling of the fire's heat, and opened his eyes to Clearsight.

Ice slid thin, metallic fingers around his eyeballs. His eyelids tightened, pulling back to give the claws better access. Taslin and Keshnu vanished, and the air came alive with swirling currents, every eddy wrapping itself around slivers of colour that had no place in the First Realm. The fire of the Sherim surrendered the secrets of its internal structure, knots of tangled Realmspace that tied through each other along dimensions neither Realm had words for. Molecules of air trying to travel those whorls squashed down, rubbed against each other and heated until they ignited. Rel didn't need Dora's strange, heightened sensitivity to know that this Sherim was severely out of balance.

Taslin's orb of light had no such complex internal structure. Clearsight revealed nothing about it that had not been apparent with ordinary vision. The solid, non-particulate mass of light was so obtuse, it seemed more like a problem with Rel's eyes than a part of the world beyond them. He squinted to focus on it as it began to float towards the fire, bobbing with Taslin's steps.

The light washed out in the glare from the fire, honest, ordinary heat distortion turning it watery and weak. Rel said, "S-stop," then kicked himself for the stammer. Even that small a delay could be fatal in a riled-up Sherim.

Still, Taslin froze in place almost before he'd finished. At least she was on the ball. Sharp-edged, her voice cut through the crackle of the fire, "What's wrong?"

"Could you... Can you make the light a different colour?" Rel paused, and when Taslin didn't answer immediately, explained, "It's blending with the fire, and it's quite hard to pick out."

"What colour would be better?"

The question surprised him. He glanced away at the night, and Clearsight showed him just how much life had been disrupted by the quake; not just the smashed trees, but the thousands of insects and birds and rodents crushed in their dens or chased out into the cold darkness. Though it stung to look at, the fire was a welcome alternative. He said, "I don't know, purple maybe? Something with some blue in it."

He felt as much as saw the orb change colour. It didn't fade smoothly along the spectrum - just one moment yellow, the next a violet stronger than any that appeared in nature. The colour of Taslin's eyes, he realised. Her voice jumped out of the air next to the orb, "Will this do?"

Rel nodded and pushed his eyesight out a little way into the future. A tendril of fatigue crept in through his Clearsight-frozen eye-socket and prodded at the heavy lump behind his brow. He winced, but waved a hand vaguely in Taslin's direction as the orb bobbed. Again, it began to inch towards the fire.

A shuffling half-step to follow brought Rel's foot down on ash that shifted like sand under his weight. He felt his cheeks reddening with heat from the fire, squinted to protect his eyes. Taslin continued to edge forwards, almost directly at the fire. Did she intend to walk straight through it?

Her light stayed bright and strong. Rel pushed another half-second ahead, watching the edges of the orb fuzz and fray as possibilities began to diverge. In theory, if Taslin chose a path which lead to a hazard, the thousands of layered possibilities would begin to wink out, one by one, the overall light fading as miniscule differences between approaches led to deaths at different points in time. No sign of that yet, though.

Taslin moved towards the fire again, and Rel forced himself to match her step. The bare skin on his hands and cheeks began to prickle with the heat, and he had to turn his face down and away slightly for protection, watching Taslin's light through the blur of his own eyelashes at the corner of his eye. Though Clearsight cooled his eyeballs to almost numb, it wouldn't stop them burning with the rest of him.

It took an effort of will not to look down at his own hand to check for burning. Do that, and his Gift would lock up completely. For Taslin's sake as well as Keshnu's and Dora's, he had to keep pushing on, however much it hurt.

The light stopped moving forwards for a blessed moment. There was an instant of confusion, where it seemed to be shrinking and moving while staying in one spot, and then Rel's brain caught up to his eyes; Taslin had turned to her right and taken a step in that direction. He matched her, taking the opportunity to edge a little further from the blaze. Couldn't risk going too far from her path, because she might already be within the Sherim's distorted threshold, but he'd be no use to her if his eyeballs charred.

He flinched as the fire hissed and spat. It seemed to have swelled and grown taller at their approach. A low breeze whispered around his ankles, and the air held the acrid scent of burning pitch. Strange for a Sherim to be so noisy - normally the Second Realm's silence enveloped Sherim completely.

Deep in the belly of the blaze, shapes that could have been faces flickered in and out of alignment. Rel forced himself to look away, to focus on Taslin's steady light, before his enhanced vision could cut the faces free. This was going to be hard enough without ghosts of Wild Power attacking them.

Taslin's next bobbing step brought her closer to the curling claws of the Sherim. Bracing himself, trying not to breathe air already hot enough to parch his throat, Rel followed suit. He still couldn't feel the Sherim tightening around him. On the back of his hands, the tickle of too much heat rose a step, suddenly out-and-out painful.

There was still no sign of Taslin running into any difficulties. Again, Rel gritted his teeth and managed not to try to get a glimpse of his own future, though his hands screamed for attention. He actually gasped with the next step, closer again to the Sherim, and the sudden rush of hot air jabbed sandpaper and knives through the top of his nose and the back of his throat. His sound made a smoke ring for a moment before the fire blasted it away.

Eyes screwed down as narrow as he could hold them without blinking, hands scrabbling for cover in his pockets, he forced himself to match another cruel step. Turbulence in the air, traced in immense detail by the power of his Clearsight, began to obscure Taslin's light. It should have been a breeze, gently drawing the heat away, but no such luck; instead, it just prodded and poked at the most painful areas of his exposed skin.

He covered his left hand, closer to the fire, with his right, and immediately felt the knuckles on his right begin to burn. Under his right palm, the skin of his left hand retained all too much heat. It was like trying to pick up a bread roll too soon after it had come out of the oven. Again, he gave a little gasp of pain, then choked as the air scorched his throat.

Coughing, he staggered, struggling to call Taslin's name as he threw himself away from the fire. He sprawled headlong on the grass, Clearsight evaporating as the impact made him blink. Taslin reappeared, one leg raised half-way through a step, amethyst light held aloft. The grass was dry, rough on Rel's burned cheek, but at least he was outside the reach of the worst of the heat. His nostrils stung with the scent of soot.

"Are you injured?" It might just have been Rel's ears playing tricks, but Taslin's voice sounded softer than he would have expected. Maybe the noise of the fire was concealing the usual sharp edge on her tongue.

Rel croaked, "Burned." He tried to lever himself upright, but his hands stung at the effort, and beneath the stinging was a bone-deep ache. It seeded a sour feeling in his stomach, as if to push himself too hard now would gut him. Instead, he rolled onto his side. The least he could do was look Taslin in the eye as he failed her. "I can't... it's... Is there any other way? Please?"

The Gift-Giver's skirt rustled as she flowed out of the Sherim and knelt beside him, all in one effortless, alien movement. She still held Keshnu, though she'd shifted his limp form to hang over her shoulder. This time, there was no mistaking the concern in her voice as she said, "The fire is a problem for you?"

He nodded, cringing, awaiting her anger.

"I had hoped we could get deep enough into the Sherim quickly enough that you would be safe from First Realm physics." Taslin's eyes sparkled as she turned from him to glare briefly at the fire. The glare vanished, though, as she looked back down at him. "My apologies. We shall try another route. I'm afraid I can do nothing for your burns."

Rel coughed, somehow found enough saliva to speak. "I'll manage. Sorry for holding you up."

Taslin frowned. "Your fatigue won't be a problem? This will all be for nothing if you burn out while we're only half-way across."

"I'll manage." He gritted his teeth, pushing more force into the words. "I have to, don't I?"

The Gift-Giver nodded and pushed back to her feet. "In the Second Realm, your mind may be free enough to heal you."

Rel gave her another nod. He pulled his knees up and clumsily rolled onto them. That let him straighten to kneeling, and from there he could heave to his feet, flailing for balance and ignoring the aches of strained and tired muscles all across his arms and torso. The bruises Taslin had left him with when she smashed him off the ledge at Vessit made their voices heard, too, but next to the raw, crawling agony of his burns they seemed nothing but ghosts.

He met Taslin's eyes, surprised to see them gently shining. Perhaps there was enough of the Second Realm bleeding through here that she was already beginning to recover. She said, "I will try another route. Do not neglect your own safety in guarding mine."

Again, Rel found himself frowning, and not just from the pain. Yes, Taslin needed his help to reach the Court, for Keshnu's sake, but her own fatigue couldn't be making it easy to show him human kindness. Why was she bothering? He cleared his throat to say something about it, but the motion set a tickle there that drove him into another coughing fit.

By the time he'd straightened up from that, Taslin had reformed her ball of light and was stood facing the Sherim. The faint haze still drifting from her spread out in breathtaking webs, mingling with the disturbed air around the fire as if testing its currents. Without turning, she said, "I might be able to reduce the heat a little with Wild Power, if that would help."

Rel shook his head. "Can you afford the extra strain?" His voice was a little steadier, though it still sounded rough in his own ears, and he coughed again.

"I would be more worried about using such a technique near a Sherim this active." Chiselled out of the gloom by firelight, Taslin's face seemed just short of natural, like a finely-crafted doll's. "With any luck, in a few minutes we will be back in my Realm, and my fatigue will be no problem at all."

"If there's any extra risk, let me shoulder it. You're doing enough."

The Gift-Giver's face leapt back into reality as she turned to study him, eyes wide with surprise. After a moment's pause, she said, "So be it. Are you ready to begin again?"

He nodded and stretched his eyelids back, welcoming the liquid chill of Clearsight settling in. It sucked some of the feeling from his cheeks. Again, Taslin melted away, leaving only the violet globe floating just below head height. Pushing a second and a half into the future revealed a tight, violent spasm in the Sherim, and despite himself, Rel flinched. He managed not to blink, but the snap of tension across his face jabbed clumsy probes into his almost-forgotten fatigue headache.

"I may need to move more quickly on this path." Coming out of thin air, Taslin's voice turned ambient, as if it came from the forest surrounding him. "Stay close, and shout if you begin to take harm again."

"I will." But only, he swore to himself, if he really couldn't go any further. Keshnu's well-being could not wait for Rel's frailties. For that matter, neither could Dora's unresolved fate.

Before Rel could lose himself down that well of recrimination, Taslin's light bobbed once and set off, passing close enough in front of him that, a second and a half later, he felt the brush of her invisible sleeve. The air swirled behind her, and Rel fell into step.

Almost immediately, a tingle ran across his skin, sliding under his clothes and tugging at his hair. The Sherim, beginning to tighten around him. Where it fell on burned skin, it pulled viciously at the cracks already forming. He hissed in pain, wincing, but pressed on. That tingling sensation always made him think of Pevan's strange delight in it, but there was no time for worrying where his sister had fled to after the debacle at Vessit.

Ahead, the light bobbed again, and Taslin took a step closer to the fire. Rel followed suit, and the surface of the Sherim seemed to slough off the worst of the increase in heat. He took a deep breath, and though his throat tickled from the damage already done, there was no new pain. The contrast between firelight and night-darkness deepened, colours shifting through the swirling air. The fire brightened, but Rel didn't even flinch.

Some subtle twitch in the scene drew his eye, and he let Clearsight guide him to the change; Taslin's light dimming. "Stop!" he shouted, the word spinning into the air to be blown aside by a gust from the fire, then coughed again. Immediately as the sound reached Taslin - and Rel's Gift showed him the exact path of the wave through the air - the light jumped a foot to the left, restored to its proper level, as the future adjusted to the shift in the Gift-Giver's intent. A vein at the inside corner of Rel's right eye pulsed once, gently, through the cold haze of his Gift's grip.

The moment the light slid into motion, it faded. Rel stuttered over his warning, but managed not to send another potentially lethal jab of Wild Power at Taslin's back. The light jumped back to the right, further ahead, and Rel hastened his step to match.

His pulse grew heavy as the Sherim tightened again, its membrane seeming to weigh on the insides of his arteries. Soon, he'd have to begin his mindwalk or his body would drag him back to the First Realm. That was going to be a nightmare while minding Taslin's progress.

A few steps later, the violet light dimmed again, and Rel called his warning. This time, it took two more attempts before Taslin found a path through. She led him right up to the edge of the fire, the Sherim stroking his arms with salacious, gossamer fingers, sucking away the logic that would have burned him. The heat became a distant thing, as irrelevant as the pine forest around the clearing, but surrounding him just as much.

How did Pevan enjoy the Sherim's touch? It tore at his burns, pain spreading across his seared cheek and recoiling from the otherworldly ice in his eyelids. At his eyes, the tightness felt much like a fever's heat, squeezing tears up until they threatened to spill over. He squinted, focussing on Taslin's purple orb ahead, to the exclusion of the dazzling firelight.

He clenched his fists despite the pain of cracking burns on the back of his fingers, holding his arms at his sides. If he tried to dash the fluid from his eyes, his Clearsight would lock up the moment he saw his own hand. He couldn't wipe his eyes.

Why not? If he still had eyes, he ought to be able to wipe them-

Taslin's light dimmed again, snapping Rel out of his mindwalk. It took him a precious half-second to shout warning - Clearsight showed the complex causal ripples of the delay, a spray of smaller light orbs vanishing into the fire in all directions. Still, Taslin stopped in time. She didn't change tack immediately, and the delay reassembled Rel's mind.

The night was gone, consumed by white-orange walls of turbulent flame. He was standing in the middle of the fire, but it had grown, higher and higher until only a narrow disc of black sky remained above him. He fought down panic, wiggled his fingers to reassure himself of the Sherim's protection. The motion sent fresh cracks through his blistered skin, but he ignored the pain.

The Sherim tingled all the way down his gullet. Breathing didn't seem to create any more of a problem than standing in the fire, however much his brain protested the thought. He could barely feel the heat at all; Clearseeing was sucking the warmth out of him more efficiently than the fire could get it in through the Sherim's skin.

A second and a half in the future, Taslin started forward and died almost instantly. Rel's shout of warning emerged as a garbled mess of compromise between 'Stop!' and 'Help!', but he got the message across. Taslin's voice, battered by the Sherim's fury, drifted back to him with a mute "Thank you". This close to the Second Realm, she was probably sensing his mind, and his confused, desperate emotions, more than his words.

That made him pause, frowning. A week ago, the thought of a Wilder, even a Gift-Giver, listening in on his thoughts would have brought him to a state of rich fury. Here, though, with too many lives in the balance, it didn't bother him at all. Weak of him to surrender principle so easily. He gritted his teeth, trying to hold back the memory of Dora's... whatever she'd become, trapped in the Abyss.

Taslin's sign reappeared, right in front of his face. He flinched, but managed to keep his eyes open. He couldn't feel anything from the sign at all. Again, it vanished almost the moment the Gift-Giver started moving.

This time at least, he managed not to garble the warning. It came out as a black crescent that shattered almost the moment it met air. He felt as if he could almost sense Taslin's frustration at yet another path coming to nothing. Keshnu could ill afford these delays.

Rel bowed his head slightly and looked away to one side. "Should we try the other route again?"

"I cannot afford to lose you." Taslin spoke quickly, her words thick and heavy. There was nothing of the Second Realm in her voice at all. "The risk is too great. I will find us a way."

"But Keshnu..." He couldn't bring himself to complete the thought. Instead, he flexed his hands again, forcing himself up against the pain of his burns.

"Keshnu is still here. I can shield him for now. You are more vulnerable. You must begin your mindwalk before we go much further."

"I know." Rel hated himself for the sound of the mumble, and the dingy blob of tar that the words turned into as they left his lips. "But what if there's no way through this route?"

The light bobbed, interference from the Sherim sending evanescent glints of not-quite-yellow and not-quite-turquoise slithering towards its core. Taslin's voice, when it came, sounded so like a knife being drawn that Rel flinched. "I will find a way."

It took another failed attempt before she managed to lead him past that knot. He followed her with the bitter taste of relief in his mouth. The writhing sheets of fire around him stretched out higher, the draught growing past gales to an almost tidal force. Through the protection of the Sherim's tightening grip, the wind did little more than ruffle his hair, but he could see it in the gyration of the flames.

His eyes were freezing despite the fire. Was he really in danger? If Dora found out how much Keshnu had been put at risk for the sake of sparing Rel, she'd be furious. She'd developed a strange attachment to the Gift-Giver back in Vessit. He needed to ask her about that when she was free again. Had to get her free first.

Taslin's sign vanished, and he called her back. If only things could be so easy with Dora. For that matter, he needed to restore contact with Pevan. Dora wasn't the only one with strange attachments. She'd been cagey about what happened, and Rel doubted it was anything he'd approve of, in either case.

Tracing the ripples of Taslin's path, he took a few long strides' run-up and ran up the curve of one of the fire-walls. Running up. Until he got Keshnu to safety, he was still running up obligations. Probably running up more debt to Dora, given her attachment. Given her attachment to Van Raighan, Pevan would probably not come running to help him either, but he needed her.

Needed her? Again, he called a warning as Taslin's future began to fade. He needed her, that was for sure. She could help Keshnu in ways far beyond him. She made her way down against the flow of the fire as if skiing, and he followed her. Perhaps not all her ways were beyond him.

Some were way beyond him. In total disconnection from the Sherim's rage, a chill ran through him. What if Dora couldn't forgive his shortcomings? He'd done such a bad job of Seeing. His eyes had produced only meaningless gibberish, like the way Taslin's footprints made ripples across the tips of the flames, as if she was dancing across them.

He followed her, warned her to go up, not down at the far end. His sight had been so useless, but it was all the use he had.

From the Second Realm, a voice echoed, splitting over itself until it became a chorus of thousands. "Close your eyes and mindwalk!"

Yes, if his sight was so worthless, he was better without it. Better without.


Then, gently, a voice that settled in his ears like eider-down. "It is good to be home."

Home? They'd arrived?

Scattered thought failed to fit that image. Inconsistent sensation protruded first - lumpy ground against his back, the sting of burned hands and cheeks, the absent sound of a crackling hearth or mother's hissing and bubbling cooking pots. On the other hand, the headache fit, if he'd been away from home for a while.

How had he gotten burned? There had been a fire, a big one, but it hadn't burned him. His memory was playing tricks, but he remembered it surrounding him, embracing him. Some sort of illusion, maybe. From the feel of it, it would be a bad idea to reach for Clearsight and try to sort out the truth. He needed rest.

He opened his eyes, all the same. The brightness stung, the world seeming to be made out of jagged colours from an alien spectrum. He blinked a few times, but his pupils felt like someone had taken a rasp to them. Maybe there had been a fire.

That cut through the haze. He catapulted up to half-sitting, eyes scouring the chaos for something recognisable. He lay on what seemed to be a petrified forest floor, leaf shapes vaguely visible in the hard grey mass. Here and there roots ran, gnarled and knobbly, across the ground, but there were no trees. The sky shifted and oozed, a mix of green and orange and something else.

Instinct led his gaze to the line that divided colour from greyness, stark and clear as a horizon. Sure enough, off to his right somewhere were a cluster of thin black diamonds, stuck deep in sky and earth. The Court.

The Second Realm, then. Home after a fashion. At very least, he felt more at home here than he had for a month. Had he really been away from home so long?

Yes. Vessit. Dora and Keshnu. He blinked, shook his head even though he knew it was a mistake. The resulting thump from his fatigue headache centred him. He'd have to be careful what he stared at while he was here. Certainly avoid Clearseeing.

Taslin stood a few feet away to his left. Oddly, she looked no more natural here than she had in the First Realm. Her return home had clearly done much to restore her - she seemed a creature of flesh and blood again, rather than mist and magic. Even if she was actually a creature of mist and magic. Somehow, it was reassuring to have her seem so solid in such a strange landscape.

A chill ran through Rel. He cleared his throat, and when the Gift-Giver didn't look round immediately, asked in a small voice, "Keshnu?" The name flitted out on butterfly wings, circled his head once, close enough to have him flinching, and fell twitching to the floor.

Fine silk hissed gently as Taslin turned. She wore a wise smile, a light in her violet eyes. Nothing could soften the angles of her face, but her compassion made them passionate rather than fierce. She lifted her arm, twisted her hand through some hidden fold in Realmspace, and produced a perfectly-formed yellow flower-bud, petals curled tightly together. It filled her palm, and the air around it seemed alive with subtle motion.

Rel frowned. What was she showing him? If they hadn't managed to get Keshnu through the Sherim... He tried again. "Where's Keshnu? We didn't lose him?"

"This is Keshnu." Taslin shook the flower. "Here, he can begin his own healing, and I can carry him by our logic rather than yours."

"Oh. Um..." Rel got his thoughts back together while the dark smoke of his meaningless noise dissipated. "He's alright, then?"

For a moment, Taslin's face turned stern. "For now. He is on the path to recovery. We must still get him to the Court."

Rel leaned forward, pushed himself to his feet despite the pain in his hands. His head spun as he came upright, vision clouding with crazier spots of colour than any the Second Realm had produced so far. A hand on his arm steadied him, and when he managed to blink his eyesight back to life, Taslin was peering at him with tension in her face. The flower - Keshnu - was nowhere to be seen.

She said, "How is your logic?"

"I don't know if I'm going to be much use from here on." Rel rubbed his forehead. "If I'm to make it to the Court and back, I'm going to need some help."

"Once we get to the Court, I can help you. I've found a route which will not tax you too much, I hope."

"Help me? How?" Despite himself, Rel knew his tone was harsh, incredulous. The only thing we know is that we know nothing, he reminded himself. He needed to trust Taslin, not to mention stop wasting her time.

Again, the Gift-Giver treated him to a kindly smile, a gentle reminder of her vast and unfathomable age and wisdom. "It is not knowledge we make widely available, but it is possible for a human to sleep in the Second Realm, if one of my kind watches over your dreams. The rest is not perfect, and certainly not a long-term substitute for sleeping in the First Realm, but it should be enough to steady you."

Rel took a deep breath of the Second Realm's tasteless not-air. His eyes prickled and threatened to cloud over again, but the sensation passed. Sleep in the Second Realm? Slowly, he bowed his head. Get Keshnu to the Court. Start to make amends. Then worry about his own well-being. Speaking to the floor to keep the words from launching at Taslin, he said, "Alright. Lead on."

The Gift-Giver nodded. "My turn to watch over your journey. Follow exactly."

She set off at a steady walk across the dreary plain, stride sure and head held high. Pale skin and white corset seemed to shine in the ambient, sunless, directionless light of the Second Realm. Her skirt, tightly-fitted across long, fine legs but stretching smoothly to accommodate her step, shimmered as it moved, and her lustrous crimson hair swayed to match her hips.

Rel knew it was dangerous to let her appearance fool him - she'd as good as admitted to designing herself to manipulate human males - but he had to stare at her feet anyway to make sure he trod exactly in her footsteps. It was impossible not to admire the shape of her when you watched her this closely.

Guilt rose alongside the inevitable comparisons to the real women in his life. Mother, and half of Federas besides, had been so sure that he and Dora would eventually get together, but the Four Knot was too tied to her work. Too bony, too angry. Uncharitable to think of her that way, after all she'd given, but it wasn't like he didn't respect and admire her in every other way. She just wasn't attractive.

She'd probably have laughed in his face at the thought of settling down with him anyway. It wasn't often that she laughed at him, but usually there was a woman involved. Even Taslin had drawn her mirth, now he came to think of it. For a moment he smiled, but the memory turned sour too quickly. Without that row he might never have helped Rissad escape and set off the chain of events that had left Dora trapped.

That had led to this weary journey, too. The ground had begun to turn into a slope, curving up and growing gradually steeper. Taslin handled the shift in terrain with effortless grace. The way she leant into the hill gave her the air of a predator on the prowl, her shoulders and back rippling like a cat's. Rel managed not to curse as he stomped over the surprisingly treacherous ground.

The sky was changing too, heading for a dark blue. As they climbed, it grew deeper and deeper until the edge where it met the rising ground grew difficult to pick out. The hill grew steeper, until finally even Taslin had to lean down and scramble with hands as well as feet.

Out of the corners of his eyes - and he tried not to look, focussing hard on the next step instead - Rel could almost feel the land beginning to curve away from him. The edges of the sky pressed the world away. Not downward, because gravity was still pulling him back downhill, but in much the direction gravity would have been pulling if gravity in the Second Realm made sense.

That was a thought too far. Rel winced as a hot line of fatigue burned through his brain. A warning shot from impending burnout. He gritted his teeth and concentrated on finding the next safe hand-hold on what was rapidly becoming a cliff-face. Taslin went up it like a spider, joints poking out at odd angles and fingers gripping effortlessly.

Still, she did an admirable job of holding to Rel's struggling pace. His hands ached, and every time he reached upward, he caught a glimpse of the already-cracking burn-blisters on their backs, glistening with lymph. It made it very hard to ignore the pain, but at least the calluses on his fingertips were holding up.

Just as the 'ground' began to reach vertical, Taslin leaned into the face and vanished. Her impeccable dignity broke for just a second as her legs wriggled above Rel's head, but then she was gone. There was no obvious hole in the rock, but it wouldn't be the first time a route in the Second Realm had required him to push through a cliff. The question was where exactly the right spot to try was.

A pale hand, somehow both strong and as delicate-looking as Pevan's, reached out of the grey rock. Taslin's voice, steady but potent, said, "Take my hand. Be careful."

Rel found firm footholds, suddenly conscious of a hot ache in his Achilles tendons and a sickening tingle across the soles of his feet that warned of slipping. The hand he reached up towards Taslin's trembled.

Her wrist made tiny ripples in the stone of the surface. When Rel's straining fingers reached her palm, she lowered her hand awkwardly and seized his wrist. Her grip seemed to mould itself to his bones, bending in ways no human hand could. She pulled upwards and forwards, and Rel did his best to launch himself to follow.

The cliff face splashed over his head like a gust of strong wind, leaving his hair tingling. With Taslin's help, he found himself belly-down on the ledge, legs still dangling over the cliff. The surface was smooth and cold, the cave dim and claustrophobic but natural in appearance. Looking back, there was no sign that the cave mouth was invisible from outside. He couldn't even feel the membrane of it where it had to be bisecting his waist.

Taslin was hunched on hands and knees in the passage ahead. She had perhaps a foot of clearance above her head, a little more than a foot either side of her shoulders. Her hand slipped from his wrist, trailing along the outside of his hand and his fingers - he winced as she stroked his burn - before letting go.

He pulled himself the rest of the way into the cave, mirrored Taslin's pose as best he could. The weight on his hands was uncomfortable - beneath the sting of the burns, there was an ache that felt like his bones were all fusing together at the wrong angles. Still, they needed to keep moving. He gestured for Taslin to lead on, and she nodded.

Watching her turn around in such a cramped space was eye-opening, and close to nauseating. Somehow, she twisted and crawled under her own armpit, her back wriggling like an eel's. For a few moments, she almost seemed to walk her legs around the ceiling of the cave until they came back to the right way up. Somewhere in the middle of Rel's brain, his logic groaned under the strain.

Progress down the passage was surprisingly easy, though. It tilted forward slightly so that they were gently descending. The floor grew smoother and smoother, and if Rel's knees started to ache, at least they didn't get any more scraped from rough stone.

The walls of the tunnel bulged out and contracted back in along its length, so that sometimes Rel and Taslin could almost have stood, and sometimes they were unpleasantly close to having to squeeze through bottlenecks. Rel tried not to watch the stone too hard - it would be shifting, however subtly, and his logic was worn enough as it was. It was harder to not stare at Taslin's behind, directly in front of him. The Gift-Giver really did move like a cat when it came to crawling on all fours.

As the light from behind them faded away, the rock began to show truer, stranger colours. They shifted over the lumpy surfaces of the stone, sometimes like reflections, other times like shadows. A few times, a glint of some particularly alien shade stuck a rough probe into his brain, testing his fatigue, but the sensations passed quickly.

Abruptly, the tunnel began to ascend, much more steeply than it had descended. Ridges began to form in the smooth surface under Rel's hands, giving him the grip he needed to keep climbing. Despite her confining skirt, Taslin seemed completely comfortable as the slope sharpened. The ridges lifted up from the rock underneath, became the steps of a ladder.

Rel made the mistake of glancing down. He could count all too many steps already below, and the tunnel seemed to have stood on its end beyond them, a speck of pure blue that might have been the sky outside held in its eye. The rungs of the ladder chose that moment to start bloating out, growing difficult to hold. His hands came afire with fresh pain as he scrabbled and clawed for better purchase, aches and stinging burns blurring together.

Taslin slowed above as Rel struggled. Her motions grew fluid and sluggish, but it seemed deliberate rather than any effect of the slope. Probably this didn't even seem like a climb to her. Rel's foot slipped, and he cursed, the exclamation flying as a lightning-blue arrow and stabbing into the rock in front of his face.

With his hands growing slippery with sweat and tremors starting to run through his knuckles and shoulders, it took a long time to regain his footing. The rungs were growing wider, their tops flattening and turning smooth as if polished by too many feet. The concept stuck despite the fact that probably Rel was the first human ever to come this way or think of this route as a tunnel.

Reaching up for the next handhold, Rel missed and stubbed his fingers on its lip. For a moment, he thought the steps had to be getting further apart, but as he blinked his eyes to better focus, it looked more as if the next step was twisted back slightly out of line. Up above, where Taslin was still ascending with effortless grace, the whole tunnel seemed to follow that twist, steadily turning into a helix.

Rel grunted and forced himself up the next step. A tingle shot up his arm as his fingers slipped, but he managed to keep his grip. His head throbbed in time with his thumping heart, his pulse rising. Clenching his jaw did nothing to help. Still, he pushed on up for another step.

From above, Taslin's voice reached down, her tone warm and strong. "Not far now. Keep going." Somehow, the reassurance worked even as leaning forward to reach up again made Rel bang his knee on a rung somewhere below. He choked back another curse, distracted himself with trying to think how to respond to the Gift-Giver.

Whatever pride suggested, the best response was to get to the Court and sort it out there. Rel heaved himself upwards again, the steps beginning to press cold ridges across his chest and legs. He rested his chin on the one at his neck. Up close, the stone looked like it had been finished, maybe even fitted, as if this was some particularly torturous staircase. The Court had been designed, after a fashion at least. Perhaps this was some defence mechanism.

That thought made him peer upward, unease crawling down his spine. How easy it would be to pour a few gallons of water down here and wash him out completely. Taslin surely wouldn't have brought him this way if there was a risk of that, as long as she was being honest about needing him. Wildren were honest, particularly in their own Realm, but Taslin was more human than any Wilder Rel had ever known. And maybe she'd only needed him for the Sherim...

Well, his options were still trust her, and take the risk for the sake of the chance to make some amends for Vessit, or not trust her and burn out or die on the way home. The Gift-Giver was powerful enough not to need elaborate traps to kill him, anyway, particularly in his current state. He closed his eyes for a moment, and despite the shudders running through his exhausted arms it was hard to open them again.

"Rel?" Nothing hostile or irritated in Taslin's tone. Dora would have climbed back down and started hauling him up by his ears by now. "Are you alright?"

He looked up. Taslin was a good twenty feet above, the curve of the passage beginning to obscure her, but she hung out from the stairs, craning to look down at him. She had one hand on the opposite side of the tunnel, braced with an air of durability that the girders of old Federas would have envied. Rel drew strength from the sight and levered himself into position for another step.

Taslin smiled at him, and light spilling down from somewhere above haloed her head. She called, "If you need a rest, I think you'll do better a little bit further up."

Somehow, he found breath to speak. "I'll be fine." The words sounded like a snarl in his ears, but left his mouth as a spray of dark, lumpen pellets that ignored gravity and ricocheted from the walls as they climbed towards Taslin. They vanished before reaching the Gift-Giver, who nodded and turned back to the ascent.

Rel pulled himself up another step, then another. The ladder was definitely turning into a spiral staircase, inhumanly steep but steadily becoming manageable. After a few more moments he was able to spread his forearms across the top of a step, elbows pressed to the sides and chin resting on his wrist. His forehead pressed against the welcome relief of cool stone, and the steps below gave enough purchase to take his weight off his fingers and toes.

He hung there, breathing hard, for a moment. A dithering cloud of black and white spots passed across his vision. Maybe he did need that rest Taslin had offered. Despite the weird angles involved, his perch was oddly comfortable. At very least, he could almost pretend his fatigue was entirely physical instead of mainly mental.

No. He'd said he didn't need a break. Getting Keshnu to the Court came first, however close they were to doing so. He levered himself up and pushed on. As the steps broadened, his arms seemed to forgive him. He could feel the unsteady tiredness in his shoulders, but it was beginning to be possible to climb using mainly his legs, keeping his arms ahead for balance.

Taslin let him catch up, so that he climbed just behind her heels. There were hypnotic patterns stitched impossibly small on the hem of her skirt, drawing the eye to deeper and deeper levels like a fractal. That, too, helped him ignore his headache, until the stairs grew shallow enough to lift his head-height past Taslin's waist.

Even then, it was hard not to become absorbed in the Gift-Giver's grace. Sure, she was back on home turf and already recovering from her fatigue, but the level of detail she seemed to put into projecting humanity to him was stunning. Every hair in her high ponytail swayed perfectly, no two making quite the same movement.

Only when the tickle of a stray hair against his nose almost made him sneeze, sending a fresh thud of pain through the space just above his eyeballs, did he realise how close to her he was following. He let himself fall back a step, then another. However much he'd tied his fate to the Gift-Giver's, there was no reason to stand where she would sense his thoughts whether she liked it or not.

The diffuse light that had bathed them through the ascent grew more focussed, stronger and more natural, but Rel was still surprised when they rounded the spiral again and passed a window on the outside wall. The glare from it was fierce, the scene outside typically chaotic, but having a window there was so right, so normal, that Rel paused to savour it.

Taslin glanced back at him, eyebrows raised in curiosity. He shrugged and gestured for her to keep going. A few steps later, they passed another window. This one sat at the boundary where rough stone walls gave way to shaped and finished blocks. The stone was dark, with flecks of colour sparkling in its illusory depths.

Rel took a deep breath and let it out in a long, relieved sigh. They'd made it to the Court. At least here there would be some semblance of sanity to succour his fatigue. He rubbed his brow and picked up his feet. Somewhere outside, a voice called some phrase that distance and the wall mangled, but it was the first noise Rel had heard since the Sherim which hadn't come from him or Taslin.

Well, there were always a few humans at the Court. The Realmquake ought by all rights to have sent more here to see if the Gift-Givers knew anything about it. Rel frowned to himself. On the one hand, if he knew any of them - and it would be the northern towns whose Gifted reached the Court first - the emotional support could be welcome, but on the other, he had enough explaining to do as it was.

An archway in the outside wall of the staircase opened to one of the Court's many yards. Taslin stepped through, and Rel followed, blinking against the glare of the pink sky. Today, kites in dark shades of red and green danced and twirled up there. The high walls of this yard hid two of the Court's spires, but the rest stood proud. No sign of damage from the Realmquake, though there was no telling how the quake would have affected the Second Realm, if at all.

The ground crunched under Rel's boots like snow, though it looked like packed grit. Taslin picked up her pace and Rel stretched his stride to match, trying to catch up and walk alongside her rather than following. The Gift-Giver maintained her lead, though, and Rel's fatigue forced him to relax.

Narrow windows fitted with crystal glass, arrayed in neat rows, notched the inner wall of the courtyard, pale brushstrokes on the dark canvas of Court stone. A door that seemed to be a single, knotless plank of fresh-cut wood, unstained but somehow smoothly finished, swung open at Taslin's approach. The room beyond was candle-lit and welcoming.

Rel followed Taslin inside, caught off guard as he always was by the homely atmosphere after the irrational Realm outside. The room wasn't quite square, but whoever had designed it had made a valiant attempt. A pair of trestle tables with benches tucked neatly beneath made an aisle leading to a braced and iron-bolted door opposite the entrance.

A Gift-Giver in a long, billowing robe of green silk stood behind the table on the right. Short-cropped corn-yellow hair crowned his head, framing a wide face whose mouth and eyes seemed stretched and straining to fit. Rel judged the Wilder more or less male from the figure, or rather the lack of it, revealed by the fit of the robe.

The Gift-Giver's expression flickered rapidly through a handful of different shapes, as did Taslin's. Without Clearsight, Rel couldn't hope to read anything into their expressions, but at least the change told him they'd communicated. A necessity, probably, in this case, but he couldn't help a tingle of dread at the nape of his neck.

He jumped as Taslin turned and grabbed him, one hand on each of his shoulders. In a voice like an iron bar, she said, "Sit." Carefully but not gently, she pushed him down onto one of the benches. He hadn't even noticed her pulling it out from under the table. Her face was set in a scowl that for once could have rivalled Dora's.

She knelt in front of him, amethyst flashing in her eyes. "You need to rest. Now."

"I'll be-"

"Rel, you're one logic shear away from total burnout." She grabbed his head in both hands, forced him to look at her. It took his eyes too long to focus on hers. "You've fought two Gift-Givers to a standstill, mapped a Sherim and journeyed to the Court. No more pride. I can't get you back if you burn out, and you don't want to end up in Wolpan's care."

That was true enough. With Dora trapped, the Four Knot at Vessit would be the only one able to come for him, and she'd never liked him, even before he brought catastrophe down on her town. What would the damage there have been like? The people of Vessit needed their Four Knot right now, and he couldn't take her away from them for his own hubris. He tried to nod, and got the uncomfortable sensation that his brain might fall out if he finished the motion.

Again, Taslin lifted his head up. Her eyes outright shone as they bored into him. "The fatigue's catching up to you, isn't it?"

"Uh-huh." It was the best Rel could manage. He could barely hold his head straight even with Taslin's help.

"I need to get Keshnu to the ward. It won't take long, and then I will do something about your fatigue. Until then, though, you must stay awake. Cintalo will help you stay upright, but there's little else he can do for you. I will not be long." She paused, and he could feel the desperate appeal in her face, the brush of her mind as her eyes reached for him. When she spoke again, there was a stiffness in her voice that he couldn't fathom. "Rel? Are you still able to hear me?"

Clumsily, hardly feeling the pain from his burns, he lifted a hand, thumb upraised. Taslin, her skin soft and warm, captured the hand and laid it down in his lap. He felt another hand grip the back of his head, its bones more angular. A brief flourish of purple announced Taslin's departure, and the other Gift-Giver - Cintalo? - seemed to appear on the bench next to Rel, his free hand taking firm hold of Rel's upper arm.

Rel tried to get a look at the fish-faced Wilder, but the hand on his neck held him too strongly. He could feel Cintalo studying him, though, and something about it made his skin crawl. Well, Taslin had probably told Cintalo to watch for any change in his condition, and Cintalo clearly wasn't as good with humans as her. Perhaps nervous energy from the Gift-Giver's scrutiny would help him stay alert.

His brain felt like it was turning to lead. The table opposite was bare, the wood only crudely finished. His vision danced in and out of focus as he tried to count the planks making up its top. Every time his focus came back, flecks of Second-Realm colours skittered through the shadows for a moment before vanishing.

There was little in the room to hold his interest, and his eyelids were heavy. He tried to count the bare bricks of the wall opposite, but they seemed to undulate as his gaze moved across them. It took him a long time to spot the candles that gave the light its well-judged yellow-orange colour. No hearth and fire in this room, but it had clearly been designed with sparing human guests' fatigue in mind.

He clenched his fists, trying to stretch the skin so that his blisters would crack again, but when the pain came it was a distant thing, happening to someone else. Lifting his hands to stare at them turned out to be a bad idea - his fingers made ugly spasms, refusing to stay still long enough for him to get a good look at them. He dropped them back to his lap and looked around again. When his eyes couldn't settle on anything, he blinked. No sooner had his eyes reopened than they slid closed again.

Something shook him, hard, and he jerked upright. A shudder ran through him. Where Cintalo held him, he could feel new bruises starting. The Gift-Giver was not going to be gentle. It seemed strange after his month in prison in Vessit to be so grateful for the stubbornness of Gift-Givers. Yet more for him to pay back, he supposed.

He missed the moment that Taslin returned. Only dim consciousness registered her arm slipping around his back, her other hand locking onto his wrist and dragging it over her shoulders. He dangled from her, legs obeying some other power, as she led him out into the familiar space of the Great Hall, with its tree-canopy roof, sun glinting through the precious little gaps.

They crossed the Hall, or at least he thought they did, and then there were some stairs. He had a moment's clear sensation - an ache just at the bottom of his thighs - while candles drifted past and downwards to either side. Then a door, and a room. White. Tiled. Pristine.

Then a bed, and Taslin lowering him carefully onto it. Her voice, fuzzy in his ears, something about not being alarmed as she changed... something? He could see her eyes, though her face seemed to fade from view. A perfectly-finished violet crystal hung in the air above him, smoky shadows dancing in its depths.

He stared up at it, and a voice came to him that had nothing to do with sound. Give me your dreams to hold.

A concept in the sentence snagged a piece of his mind back, bringing with it a rush of bright pain and spots across his vision. Bad idea to let a Wilder near your dreams, or your consciousness in general. Fundamental training for any Gifted. Even the gentlest Wildren could do devastating damage.

Please, Rel, I've trained for this. You'll come to no harm.

And there was the issue that not all Wildren meant well to humans. After what Rel had done, could he really afford the risk?

No, trust me. Fear in the voice that wasn't a voice. Pain, even. Where had that come from? I need you for more than stopping the Separatists.

An undercurrent in that last sentence spoke of more than his tired mind could encompass. Taslin hardly seemed a Wilder at all, sometimes. No disputing the power he could sense in the gem above him, with its swirling facets and infinite complexity, but the compassion she'd shown him on the journey here - more than he deserved - was an indelible memory. They'd worked together before.

He took one last long look into her violet heart, and closed his eyes.

Thank you.

* * *

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