Sunday, 29 December 2013

The Second Realm 6.2: I'm Not the Man I Thought I Was

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I Sailed Away

2. I'm Not the Man I Thought I Was

"I can only promise you the future I visited." Rissad said it like an apology, hands spread and shoulders hunched. Stood at the head of the table in the boarding-house's common room, he was too wiry to loom over the seated Gifted. Rel, leaning on the mantelpiece by the token gesture of a fire, glared at him over their heads. Of Vessit's Gifted, only Thia was present; she was supposed to be keeping Rissad pinned under Clearsight, but for now she craned to look at Rel.

The older man's defeatism ground at Rel's nerves. Twisting his lip, he worried at the sore where he'd scratched his gum trying to scrub the taste of Taslin out of his mouth. Even thinking about that was like leaning too close to a fire. He clenched his jaw. "You sound like Fate."

Rissad blanched, his head jerking back as if Rel had just punched him. He dragged a heated breath through his nose, then forced through a visible effort to relax. With a bitter chuckle, he said, "In another time and place, that would be a hell of an insult. Particularly coming from you, if what certain people told me in the future can be trusted."

"This is getting us nowhere." Pevan jumped in before Rel could speak. "Rel, unless you can See Clearly enough to check some of Rissad's predictions, there's no point demanding more information. The question has to be whether we're going to trust him or not."

"He hasn't made any predictions!" Rel snapped, pushing away from the mantelpiece. "Just a lot of mumbo-jumbo. There's nothing in any of this that I can put to the test."

Thia half-raised her hand, one thin finger pointing straight up. There was a wry twist to the side of her mouth. "He predicted, pretty much to the minute, your arrival."

"You or I could have done that." He folded his arms. "Rissad could have just asked some other Clearseer. None of this is grounds to trust him."

"You trusted him quickly enough last time you arrived in Vessit." Taslin, sat at Rissad's right hand, glared daggers at Rel. He ran his tongue over his sore gum again, trying to hide the tension her words had seeded. She finished, "Why not this time?"

Sullenly, Rel rolled his eyes. "Last time I was being an idiot, I accept that. You don't need to remind me. Shouldn't that mean it's a bad idea to trust him now?" Taslin gave him such a Dora look that he almost threw himself at her. She had no right to abuse Dora's legacy like that.

"Look, Rissad." Pevan was making no secret of her frustration. Her tone was mild, but Rel could see the cords of her neck sticking out. "Maybe if you could just tell us why you're being so cagey we could be more understanding."

"Haven't we been over this enough?" Rissad spread his hands, palms up. "I'm not sure what else I can tell you all. In the sequence of events that led to my being here, and which I happen to know will lead to a stronger peace between the Realms, Rel came to the future with me without knowing what to expect. That future is entirely changeable, but neither I nor anyone else can guarantee the outcome of any changes."

"And what if that future should be changed?" Rel took another step towards the table despite himself. It was hard to hold back.

Rissad shrugged, maddeningly calm. "I believe it should not. And I believe I'm better placed to judge than you are."

"But to accept your judgement in that, we have to trust the whole story." Thia chuckled. "This is why I don't like to think too hard about my Gift."

Rel bowed his head, rubbing his forehead with the heels of both hands. Thia was being flippant, of course, but this was no time to be taking Clearseeing lightly. "I just don't see how this can possibly help us against the Separatists. Anything we try, they can see coming."

"Well, try this." Rissad smiled. "At any given moment, if you don't come with me, the Separatists know they only have to look for you in the present, right? But if we've got the whole future to lose ourselves in, they've got a much bigger area to search."

"It doesn't work like that." Or at least, if it did, then Rissad somehow knew more about how Rel's Gift worked than he did, and that would mean accepting everything Rissad said without question. "You can't fight Clearseeing."

Rissad rolled his eyes. "Have you ever tried?"

Rel unclenched his jaw, trying not to flush. "I've spent my entire life watching Wildren and humans try. I've never lost yet."

"You got away from Ciarive." Pevan spoke quietly, but there was an edge in her voice, and Rel could see the echoes of old pain in the set of her eyes. Well, he'd apologised for that already, she had no right to throw it in his face again.

He turned his back. "That was different. Ciarive was too arrogant to realise I was better than him."

"So you're saying you're not better than Soan?" Pevan's tone was teasing, and he could picture the snide twist to her mouth even without looking.

He reached out and took hold of the mantelpiece, squeezing until it felt as if the wood would crumble between his fingers. It was that or lash out. Past clenched teeth, he managed. "It's not Soan I'm worried about."

"What was that?" False innocence in Pevan's voice. Were the others really going to let her bait him like this?

"I said it's not Soan I'm worried about!" Rel spun back to glare at her. "We have no idea what Delaventrin is capable of. Anything we think of as a Gift is second nature to a Wilder. However good I am, or any other Clearseer in the Realm, we can't hope to compete with that."

"You forget that Clearsight isn't a Gift of the Second Realm." Rissad spoke before anyone else could, though everyone looked like they were about to start. "And it's been half a century since any Wilder trained as a Clearseer."

Taslin nodded. "You may be right, though my kind are slightly more attuned to the nature of the Lost Realm than yours. The mere fact that the Separatists have not acted yet suggests that we may yet have time and a chance to stop them."

"And you want to squander that on a madcap scheme like this?" Rel spat the words, half-expecting to see the air shimmer, Second-Realm-like, with his anger.

"If you have other options, we're listening." The Gift-Giver kept her tone level, but Rel still had to remind himself that she couldn't really be feeling the emotions she was performing. "So far all you've done is argue against the one suggestion anyone has made."

"Well, yeah, you're not the one he," Rel stabbed a finger at Rissad, "wants to drag through a Sherim to a Realm even more hostile than the one we're used to dealing with."

"Since I've already agreed to go, your argument is moot." Taslin lifted her chin a fraction, and Rel couldn't shake the sudden impression that she was looking down her nose at him, however impossible the angle involved.

"What?" He swung the full force of his scowl at Rissad.

The Gatemaker, or whatever he was now, raised his eyebrows, expression ever so slightly mournful. As if he'd been trying to keep something secret. "Taslin has agreed to come to the future with me already. I know you're not happy about-"

"Are you out of your mind?" Rel took a step forward, then another, and grabbed the back of Atla's chair. Atla twisted uneasily to look round at him, face fearful. "Go alone with you and that creature? Am I the only one who thinks this is insane?"

From the flat, disapproving faces around the table - had Pevan been drilling the others in how to frown like Dora? - he was.

He stalked over to the door and threw it open, not bothering to catch it from banging against the wall behind. "Forget it."

Behind him, Thia started to follow, but Pevan said something condescending about him and then he was alone, out in the Vessit street.

Rel walked hard, hammering at the tarmac roads of the old city with his feet. His mind felt every bit as unyielding, a cold, hard lump that stayed numb to any attempt at thought. He could think only in half-sentences.

Taslin's blithe acceptance of Rissad's...

But all that stuff about the Lost Realm...

Would she make that up just to...

Why was Pevan...

Vessit's Gifted...

Who could he...

How to decide...


It was a loop, more or less. The thoughts seemed to echo, waiting for answers that he had no idea how to provide. The nature of Clearsight meant he couldn't look into the future to see how things would turn out - Taslin would be invisible to him, and his Viewing would lurch to a halt if he tried to peek at himself.

Though the day was warming up, it was still cool in the shade of the crumbling tower blocks. The streets were strewn with rubble from the quake. Rel's own handiwork, after a fashion. Concrete and even lingering glass crunched under his feet, and he picked his way carefully to avoid damaging his boot-soles.

Ahead, a lump of wall higher than most houses leant against one of the towers, its lower edge buried deeply into the shattered pavement beneath. The wind had swept lesser debris into a heap in the triangular nook between fallen concrete and surviving building, but at the top of the crack Rel could still see sunlight from beyond.

A distant roar reminded him that the effects of the quake were on-going. Bits were still falling off the long-suffering towers. One of the first things Wolpan had told them on arrival in Vessit was to stay away from the old city. There had been outright, venomous hatred in her eyes. A tremor ran through the ground as the boulder landed, even though from the sound it was at least a couple of streets away.

Perhaps even if he did try to See a Clear way into the future, past the Separatists, it would do no good. His past attempts had failed to produce much progress. He poked again at the sore on his gum. Taslin had overruled every argument Wolpan had made for locking him and Chag up. Keeping him free so she could drag him to the future, perhaps?

Rel paused and straightened from his hunch for a moment. Beyond the fallen concrete slab, the claustrophobic street opened to run past a park. The pressure of the wind rose slightly as he approached that bottleneck, and its chill tendrils worked their way in through his coat and shirt. His lips were dry, starting to chap, and he could taste the grit in the air.

Taslin had challenged him to come up with another option. Perhaps at least he could make some effort to predict the Separatists' first moves. They'd see any countermeasure he could deploy coming, but there had to be some elements of their plan that they couldn't change. But if he was going to use his Gift that heavily, he'd have to get out of the wind.

Which buildings would be safe? The wind seemed to be blowing in his face whichever way he turned. He blinked a few times, then opened himself to Clearsight as best he could, eyes narrowed for what little shelter that gave. The blur of his eyelashes resolved with a clarity so intense that he could have counted them. Beyond them, the air came alive with dancing, swirling patterns of dust and sea spray.

He turned his attention on the nearest building, the one with the fallen slab leaning against it. The slab must have fallen from somewhere else; the concrete was a different colour, the metal struts poking out from its edges - already rusting - too closely-spaced to match what he could see a hundred feet up where a long crack spread across the building's face. Not going in that one, then.

The building opposite was no better. The top dozen floors or more were a lumpy ruin, the gap left by the fallen section of wall a giant's missing tooth. Rel's augmented vision could pick out the stress-lines racing through the concrete and steel, the tiny and not-so-tiny movements that were grinding the tower steadily to dust.

He pushed his sight out into the future and watched the ghostly images of the two nearest towers crumble, the protracted years of their deaths squeezed into a few chaotic seconds. Other buildings nearby shuddered and shed stonework, too, but one a couple of hundred yards away held more or less firm. Reeling his Gift back in, Rel broke into a jog.

His eyes were stinging by the time he ducked under the broad marquee over the six-panelled glass doors. He could see little beyond the dance of dust motes in his own tear fluid. No way to clear that much water from his eyes without blinking, so he did so. Even then, it took longer than he was happy with, and a damp patch on his coat sleeve where he'd mopped scratchily at his eyelids.

You could go straight back into Clearsight after blinking if necessary, but it was always best to give the eyes a chance to rest. The doorways offered no wind-break. He'd have to go inside.

Even with all that the building had endured since the Realmcrash - and the tidal wave that had hit Vessit then had reached three or four storeys, even a few streets from the beach - the doors had survived. They were nothing more than sheets of thick glass with hinges and handles, and through them Rel could make out a gloomy, dusty atrium with some sort of high desk facing the doors.

For a miracle, the door he tried wasn't locked. Some hidden spring mechanism swung it closed behind him as his feet sank into the soft remains of what had probably once been carpet. Now, it had almost the feel of wet leaves in late autumn, even managing to be slightly slippery. Beneath the layer of dust and decay, the floor was flat and hard, without any hint of rubble. A good sign.

Dismal though it was, the atrium would do for Clearseeing. He swiped his arm over the top of the desk to clean off some of the muck - he could clean his coat later - and hoisted himself up to sit on it, almost banging his head on the ceiling as he did so.

He took a deep breath and blinked a few times, stretching out his eyelids and face. Deep-future Clearseeing could take a long time, and the face has a lot of small muscles that can stiffen up from too long held in one place. Particularly with the chill of Clearsight lodged around them. He was just starting to reach for his Gift when Thia appeared outside the door and pushed inside.

"Trying a long-range forecast?" Her tone was bright and breezy, her prominent, delicate cheekbones rosy. "It won't work."

"What?" Rel mastered his surprise before she could answer, fixed his face in a scowl. "What are you doing here?" Not that it would have been hard for her to follow him. She was no slouch at Clearseeing, and knew the city well enough to recognise any of these buildings. The important question was why she'd come.

She answered with a long, slow blink - the subtle tension of Clearsight flowing out of her face - and began to cross the lobby towards him. "I'm here because I haven't told Wolpan and Pevan where you are."

"And Rissad?"

"I told him you'd come to the old city." Thia's mouth twitched, almost apologetically. "He Gated me out here, but didn't follow. Said he knew when he'd need to speak to you again."

Rel folded his arms. Thia was short even for a woman, and with him sat on the desk, her head was barely higher than his waist. She stopped short, a good half-dozen paces away, neck craned to meet his glare. He said, "But you did offer to find me for him."

Thia's eyes dropped. "You know, I didn't. I didn't even think of it that way. I went to him because I wanted a Gate and I thought he was more likely to know how to handle..." She looked up at him again, sheepish. "Sorry, that sounds awfully judgemental. I mean, I thought Pevan probably wouldn't want you left alone."

"Sounds like you and her would have been in agreement, then." Rel tried to make the words condescending and bitter, but he could hear the sullen undertone in his own voice. He shoved off his perch and landed hard, dropping into a deep crouch for a second before straightening. "Why are you here?"

A frown crossed Thia's face for a second, but she mastered it quickly. Instead, she smiled, a wide but slightly sideways expression that was all professional camaraderie. "Look, can we have a truce for a bit, please? I need to talk to you about Clearseeing, not... all this other stuff."

That stopped Rel short. Whatever he'd been about to say vanished completely from his mind. He folded his arms again and leaned back against the desk, trying not to give away too much of his reaction. The lobby's gloomy interior hid much of Thia's expression, but there was something different about her manner. When she'd visited him in prison during his first stay in Vessit, she'd been relentlessly full of energy. Since his return, though, the joyous edge of that had been missing.

"What's up?" He met her gaze, feeling his jaw loosen slightly with the shift in topic.

She shrugged. "I wasn't kidding when I said a long-range forecast won't work. I've been trying ever since you... since the Realmquake. At first it wasn't too bad, but now... it's like the future fights back when I try to look at it."

"Fights back?" What the hell did she mean by that?

Again, Thia shrugged, a hint of desperation in her face. "When I try to focus on one strand, I can't move backwards or forwards anymore. As soon as I let go of one moment to reach for the next, the whole sequence breaks. It's like... well, I guess you never went through that in training, right?" She gave a slight, hopeless chuckle. "But it's like I've forgotten all my training, like I'm back on day one with Veltsie."

"Didn't know you were one of Veltsie's pupils." Rel dimly remembered Veltsie - she'd been one of the big kids, back when he was about four or five, in Federas for a year and a half to train with Dieni. One of Dieni's first students. The training pedigree spoke well of Thia. "But I know the kind of thing you mean. When you're trying to hold everything at once and your brain starts to feel like it's pulling apart."

"Hehe, yeah, I guess." Thia looked down at her hands, and Rel realised for the first time that she was wringing them, her tiny fingers twisting awkwardly through and around one another. "You don't think... I went back through everything Veltsie taught me. Every exercise." She met his gaze again, tone heating. "I can't just have lost it. My Gift can't be failing. Not now."

What did he say to that? He looked away, studied the gloomy corners of the atrium. "Have you got any corroborating reports?" Any long-range forecast, if it was cause for alarm, had to be checked by other Clearseers. A lone Clearseer was always at risk of getting caught up in a single pathway through the future, however implausible key events leading up to it might be.

"No, I... We don't have a Gatemaker, so I can't travel myself without reason." She folded her arms, leant back slightly. "With everything that's happened, there hasn't been time. I could have asked Rissad, but, well..."

"Too many worries there, I understand." It was hard to put any levity in the words. Rel could tell he came out sounding fiercer than intended. "Okay, let me try. If my judgement's worth anything to you, at least."

"Of course it is." There was a hint of surprised laughter in Thia's tone. "Why wouldn't it be?"

He frowned at her, then looked past her at the rubble visible beyond the entrance. "Here, of all places? I can't imagine Wolpan placing much value on my input."

"It's not Wolpan's business." She straightened. "This is Clearseer stuff. And as far as that goes, your word counts for a lot."

"I don't think Soan would agree. Or Ciarive, if he was still with us."

"Feh. Ancient history." Thia took a step closer, reached up to squeeze his arm. "Whatever happened with your training and whatever, you've been Clearseer for Federas for, what, a year and a half now?"

"Something like that." Only the confusion of the last month stopped him quoting the exact time to the day.

"That's what matters, and the rest of us know it." She smiled. "Even if a few of the fuddy-duddies still don't like the idea of recognising you. And I know that you fought a Gift-Giver with Clearsight. Might not do to spread that one around, though."

Rel's jaw clenched, and it was a moment before he could speak again. "We may have to. We still don't really know they can be trusted." With so much tension in his jaw, his sore gum began to pulse, as if it was bleeding even now.

"You really think so?"

"How could we check?" He shrugged. "Anyone else, in either Realm, we could take a Clear look and see signs if they were lying. I might be able to spot a Gift-Giver throwing a punch, but I'll never be able to read their faces with Clearsight. Pretty much the only thing their stupid invisibility protects is their ability to lie to us."

Thia frowned, dropping her hand back to her side. "But Wildren don't lie."

"We only have their word for that." Some minor tendon in Rel's neck twitched, and he rubbed at it, trying to massage it back to relaxation. The gesture had little effect.

"Pevan said she'd seen what happens to Wildren who lie." Thia glanced back over her shoulder. "In the Court. She said you were there."

The Gallery of Liars, deep in the oldest part of the Court. Row on row of ethereal statues, glowing clouds with lightning hidden in their depths; the bodies of Wildren who had lied and suffered the inexplicable Second-Realm consequences of doing so. At least, that was how Taslin had explained it. Rel's gum ached. "We only have Taslin's word that that was what it was."

"I guess." Thia's eyes came back up, met his, harder this time. "But you can't just rely on Clearsight all the time, even with humans."

"Why not?"

"Seriously? To check everything anyone ever says to you with Clearsight?" She folded her arms again. "That doesn't seem a bit ridiculous to you?"

He swallowed. "Well, not everything. Just important things. Isn't that what you've been doing with Rissad since he came here?"

"Well, yeah, but that's a special case." Her eyes flicked away, came back to his. "Last time he was here, it definitely wasn't as a friend. Using Clearsight with everyone, though, particularly with civvies... That's cheating."

"Cheating?" What was she getting at? "It's only cheating if they're trying to deceive me. What harm can it do otherwise?"

"I-" She stopped, mouth working. Bit her lip and turned away. "Never mind. Whether or not we can trust the Gift-Givers is too big an issue for now. We need to work out what's happened to the future. Or... or my Gift."

Rel nodded, trying to force his face to relax. He had to be glaring something harsh at the back of Thia's head, which wasn't at all fair. He managed to hold his voice level, though. "I'll take a good look. Would you mind... well, I prefer solitude when doing a big Viewing."

Thia turned back to him, clearing her throat awkwardly. "In a minute. There's something... the last few days, it's not just been that I couldn't control anything. I might not have found the nerve to bring it up otherwise. But it feels like something else is controlling what I see now."

An outside influence? Rel couldn't remember any feeling like that from his training. He didn't want to think too hard about a creature that could put so vast a limit on his Gift. Unless... "You think Rissad might be doing it?"

"I hadn't even thought of that." She answered sharply, without a pause to think. "But I did wonder if the Separatists might have something to do with it. Could the way they're seeing their future interfere with our Gifts?"

"I don't see how." Rel bit his lip. "If Rissad has been to the future, though, he's the one who'd have been in a position to affect it. Either way, it's worth looking into."

She nodded, slowly, then looked around. "Are you sure you want to stay here? I know you'd rather not deal with Wolpan, but..."

"I'll stay, for now. The privacy suits me." The words sounded much stiffer than he meant them to.

"Well, alright. But don't stay out too long, okay? Don't leave me worrying about you all over again." Whatever the edge in Thia's voice was meant to imply, she turned and strode out before Rel could get a decent read on her.

He waited until she was well gone before hoisting himself back onto the desk. There was the temptation to move, to find some other location in case Thia actually intended to return with Wolpan or Pevan, but it was probably just paranoia. If Thia had wanted to bring the other Gifted, she'd have brought them already.

Rel took a deep breath and stretched his eyelids out again. Then, fighting a shiver, he let the cold talons of Clearsight slide around his eyeballs. His sight bulged, as if starting to pop out of his skull. The gloomy room in front of him shimmered into ethereal relief, alive in every particle of the walls. He could tell which stresses running through the concrete were a result of damage to the building and which were as the designers had intended.

Outside, he could see the gusts of wind outlined in the dust they carried. Could watch the wildflowers growing in the park across the road. Count the feathers on the birds flitting between nest and tree-branch. Time seemed slowed, weighed down by all the extra detail his Gift revealed.

But the present moment, however rich, was not the subject of this Viewing. He had no specific moment or image to focus on, either. Just the question, What would the Separatists do next? Taslin had said their idea of Separation would be cataclysmic for the First Realm; if so, the cataclysm should be easy to spot.

Like the slow, heavy first strokes of a spinning-wheel pedal, getting the wheel started, he pushed his Sight out into the future. The Separatists would act as soon as they could, he was sure, but how long would it take to shatter an entire Realm? For days, and then weeks, he Saw nothing untoward in the scene before him.

Just as he was starting to wonder whether this building was somehow miraculously proof against catastrophe, unshakeable even by the end of the world, it seemed to collapse around him. It was impossible not to flinch, but he didn't blink. The slight, spectral image of the present day lingered in the Viewing, visible through the snarl of jagged outlines where chunks of smashed concrete and plaster piled around him.

This, then, was the moment to step outside of his own perspective and measure the state of the Realm as a whole. What was the view to be like from the hills above Vessit? Vision fragmented, a first numbing finger of fatigue passing down the centre of his brain. A whirl of impossible images battered at him. Dimly, he could feel his fingers aching as he gripped the lip of the desktop for balance.

The ruined old city seemed to be in two or three separate pieces, wrenched about to stand at disturbing angles to one another. Where the sea should have been, there was a murky smear of brown and grey running along the fragmented coastline. The image hurt to hold, but Rel focussed, and realised the rocky cliffs along the edges of the city-pieces were the sides of the Abyss. In one piece, the vast doorway to the old research facility was visible, though the oversized door that fitted it was gone.

Rel pushed the vision away before his eyes could catch up to the realisation that the gaps between lumps of Realmstuff had to be full of Realmlessness. The nauseating, hungry effect of looking directly at Realmlessness was mitigated somewhat by the temporal displacement in Clearviewing, but with his eyes already rebelling against the image, there was no telling what trying to take in that much Realmlessness would do.

He reeled his sight back in to the darkness of the ruined tower. Whatever its strengths, in death its collapse would be all the more complete. Neighbouring towers had kept half their height, at least, but this one would be reduced to a pile of rubble, an oddly-neat low cone of broken materials, only the odd girder poking out here and there.

This was certainly the grim future that Taslin had predicted. But was it a result of the Separatists' actions, or something else? Dora was trapped in the Abyss, holding it closed with some power he didn't understand. Had she failed?

Sight rebelled at the thought, even as a fresh shiver ran through him. His Gift leapt, wildly, through this frozen moment of future, but though he could see Dora's footprints and fingerprints scattered across the images, she herself was absent. Torn apart when the Abyss finally snapped? Even Taslin had not pretended to know what Dora had done with herself.

It was harder to focus than it should have been. The angles between broken bits of the city seemed to twist at his brain. Was this what Thia had meant? Rel pulled back, disengaging his eyes as best he could without closing them, until the city came back together. Perhaps Thia, as a Vessit native, had been unable to keep control of her emotions when Viewing the ruin of her home. Veltsie's training should have stood her better than that, but Rel's own control had slipped when thinking of Dora-

Quick as thought, he was back in the Abyss, whole now, dark walls descending to the half-felt Realmlessness below. A faint rainbow haze floated in the air from torchlight caught in thousands of tiny waterfalls. To Clearsight, Dora hung, whole and strong, tethered to the straining bedrock on both sides. Normal vision, he knew, would show her only as a faint green shimmer in the gloom.

Faces flickered around the trapped Four Knot. Her own, doubled back on itself - smiling or scowling at memories as they slipped past. Rissad's, with an odd, compassionate expression on his face. Others that might have belonged to Gift-Givers, rippling displacements of the air that he couldn't quite read. For all that he tried to squeeze his focus down to a single moment, Rel had the sense that weeks, months, even years of time were tied up in this single image.

Thia's analogy had been apt. It was a bit like the feeling of being back in training, the whole of the future trying to crowd in through the limited window of his eyesight. Rel's brain felt like it was pressing, chafing, at the inside of his skull.

If one thing at all was Clear, it was that Rissad wasn't responsible. The knotty sensation centred on Dora, and the Gatemaker was trapped in it with her. Trapped, as far as Rel could See, by his own emotions, some bond he felt to Dora. Rel couldn't quite grasp Rissad's relationship to time, but perhaps whatever Dora had done to herself to stabilise the Abyss was related to the Sherim into which Rissad had fled.

So Rissad was an ally. Unless he'd found a way to outright trick as well as distort Clearsight. That didn't bear thinking about. Rel pressed on, looking for the Separatists. Seeing into the swirling mess of Dora and Rissad was like forcing like magnets together - his Sight seemed to bounce off. His attention sprayed across random fragments of the future; Pevan and Chag with a child one moment, lying dead on cracked paving the next, Wolpan watching the towers of Vessit crumble.

Where were the Separatists? If Vessit was to be destroyed - a fragment of Old Federas shaking, too, whirled past - the Separatists would be involved. Rel seized that tenuous link, clung with a squint. Saw Notia Tollan, of all people, Federas' new Four Knot, fleeing in terror of something. Not a Separatist.

The tree that marked the Tuani Sherim, the one nearest Vessit, exploding into silvery fragments. Rel could See the Second Realm tearing away from it, shockwaves rippling through the image. Still not a Separatist.

Vessit Bay, the far shore too high above where the horizon should have been. The bay itself split by a ragged line of churning water above where the Abyss was tearing apart. Rel pushed down, layer on layer of molecules swooshing past him. Down into the darkness that resounded with Dora's desperate screaming. The tethers by which she held the Abyss closed were tearing her apart.

There was no-one there to offer her support. The ledge by the old research facility was bare, its concrete dark and slick with spray thrown off by the apocalyptic cataract. No Separatists there either.

Which Separatists could he focus on? Lienia was dead, smashed apart when Pevan had rescued him from the white cave. He'd seen Delaventrin only briefly during their subsequent flight from the Second Realm. Ashtenzim... Rel's brain swerved, the Wilder's oozing bronze coils slithering across his frozen eyes too fast to grasp.

Soan, though, he knew. He'd met Soan a couple of times, before the disaster at Ilbertin that had cost the rogue Clearseer his old squad. The earlier disaster at Ilbertin... He stopped that will-sapping train of thought dead. The ghost of Soan's craggy face rose from memory, and Rel set his eyes chasing it.

The future rushed past, a whirl of landmarks that probably marked a journey southwards from the Northern Wilds. He tried to slow down, take note of details, but it was a long moment before his Gift answered. There were shapes - Wildren - accompanying Soan towards... it had to be Vessit, shaken to powder. The bay was dry beyond it, but the ground was still spasming.

Dora, somehow, was still holding the Realm together. The image seemed an embroidery, with Dora as the fabric beneath, holding the pattern together. In what was still more or less recognisable as the sky, the sun blazed with midsummer height. This image, still plunging forward with Soan's journey, was two or three months hence. How long had Dora held out? Was she still alone?

Somehow, he kept the image from skipping to her and whatever remained of the Abyss. The sequence slowed further as Soan and his Separatist companions reached the devastated streets. Rel almost lost them as they dropped through a Gateway, but his eyes fell through it in their wake. His head pounded through the freeze in his half-empty eye-sockets.

He recognised the cave instantly; the greenish, milky pool at its centre had lain still as glass when he'd first made his way through here to meet Rissad at the Abyss. Now it looked like a stormy sea in miniature, wracked by choppy waves no more than six inches high. Rel could see the groans of the stressed rock throbbing through the air - and in the way that Soan gritted his teeth and covered his ears.

Good. Suffer, you bastard.

Because Rel could tell that these were the First Realm's last moments. Bitter, self-destructive hatred was written all over Soan's face. Either the Clearseer expected to spend the remainder of his life in the Second Realm, or this was a suicide mission. His companions... what happened to a Wilder exposed to the Realmlessness?

He didn't need to watch them slink down into the Abyss and finish Dora off. If the real future ever got this far, that would be too late. Time to pull away before ghoulish fascination rooted him to this sequence and-

In the vision, Soan turned, looked up, and met Rel's eyes. Well, there was nothing to stop him from having Seen that Rel would peek into this future with his own Gift. Still, it was a disquieting way to leave the Viewing.

If he could leave. Soan's eyes narrowed, and Rel found himself fighting, the future beyond his control. Just like in training, just like Thia had said. Had she, too, seen Soan spot her?

Then, finally, the moment broke and Rel's awareness whirled away. He clenched his jaw and managed not to blink. A new future slammed into place. The Abyss again, but now Dora stood on the ledge with Pevan and Chag. Their faces showed only contentment, patience. Shimmering air beside Dora marked the elusive presence of Gift-Givers, almost certainly Taslin and Keshnu. They were facing the Sherim in the old research facility. Waiting for someone's return?

Taslin's outline burst into motion and Rel grabbed the image, slowed it, trying to measure her pose, her manner. She was running towards the Sherim with arms outstretched. No violence in the movement, no tension. Of all things, it looked like she was rushing to embrace someone.

Her stride checked slightly, and Rel's gut lurched, hard. The image froze right on the point of revealing the incoming person's identity. The bodily sensation was of running into a waist-high fence and full tilt. The feeling of trying to See his own future.

He blinked, forcing the image away, draining the chill from his face. He curled forwards, toppling off the desk, staggering on landing. His knees stung as they struck the mucky floor. He held his gorge down, just, bitter fire billowing up his chest.

Taslin. Rel wiped his mouth on his sleeve, embracing the sting of his inflamed gum. He still wasn't convinced the sore wasn't the result of something she'd been trying to do to him before he'd wrestled free of her at Vessit. Her mouth had been hot on his, her figure pressing against him. He'd felt every curve of her, even through his thick coat.

He bit his lip hard, trying to still the tingling racing through it. If Soan was going to use Taslin's preferred future as a weapon against him, he was going to need every ounce of concentration he could summon. He couldn't even trust his own body in this. The way it had responded when she'd kissed him, even in spite of all the disgust, the spine-shrivelling sick thought of it...

Rel got to his feet. With eyes closed, he probed the lumpy feeling just inside his forehead. Logic fatigue was already setting in; something about fighting Soan had really taken a lot out of him. The other Clearseer had taken control of Rel's Viewing some time before Rel had realised it. It was there in his failure to control the rushed visions of Soan's journey to Vessit, the way he'd been pulled through their Gate to the Abyss despite his own near fumble.

How was the other man doing it? To See the future was to change it, since anything you learned would change how you behaved, but without careful attention to detail, the effects were chaotic and ironically unpredictable. Even with Delaventrin's help, could Soan really have formed so detailed a Viewing in only the fortnight since Ilbertin?

Rel settled himself back atop the desk. Fatigued or no, he had to keep going. He had plenty of strength left. Clearsight slipped icily around his eyeballs, the cold penetrating deep into his skull. A glimpse out through the door suggested the afternoon was older than expected; the feel of the daylight had changed, cooled slightly.

He reached for the future again. Perhaps he could slip past Soan's notice for a while by sticking to the future the other man clearly wanted. Vessit had been in ruins, and the Separatists had been sending assassins to finish Dora. That begged the question of where the rest of the First Realm's Gifted were.

The flattened city was easy to find, which suggested that it was all too likely an outcome. Well, that wasn't news. Rel took a moment to measure the season; the hillside above Vessit had been daubed here and there with glowing patches of white daisies by the time Soan came. In this image, though, the open flowers were fewer, and he could pick out, here and there, dormant buds.

This had to be a month or more before the Separatists went for Dora. Somewhere at the far end of his mind from the chill grasp of Clearsight, Rel shuddered. What the hell was Pevan up to, if not defending Dora?

He didn't allow his mind to leap straight to that question. Every step in this path would create ripples that Soan or Delaventrin might somehow be able to detect. Instead, like tugging at a loose thread in old clothing, he eased his grip back from this scene.

Pevan was in Vessit now. Some path led from that fact to this vision. Slowly, as carefully as he could, Rel edged back along it. The sensation was like flossing between the two hemispheres of his brain, except that it came in fits and jerks. As if the thread was slipping through someone else's fingers, further up the line, but they kept gripping, tighter and tighter.

Rel gritted his teeth and kept pulling. Days shortened, and the weather he Saw grew turbulent. Towering clouds lashed the drained bay with dark rain. Lightning began - or, from a temporally normal point of view, ceased - to flicker. Throughout, the ground shuddered and vibrated. Whatever humans remained, their life would be brutally uncomfortable.

Water began to swell back into the bay, spraying violently up the mud-flats. In reverse, there was an ethereal beauty to it, but even that couldn't prepare him for the storm-tossed wonder of the city rising from its own corpse. Light and reflected lightning danced across an endless ripple of glass fragments. The whole city sparkled as it flowed up into wholeness again.

Carefully, Rel pushed his view closer, into the ramshackle new town, searching for familiar faces. Here, the buildings were still destroyed - the ground still shook with the ongoing Separation, and clearly the new houses were weaker than the ancient towers. It took all Rel's willpower and concentration not to check in on Federas.

There were corpses in Vessit, bloated with days of horrendous weather. Studying them was like looking at the Realmlessness, but Rel forced himself to look closer. No birds fed on the bodies - either they'd been and gone, or they'd all been killed or driven off by the Separation. How long did the body take to decay? These were still recognisably human, their flesh stained a grotesque range of colours but more or less intact. Insects crawled all over most of the faces.

He edged back another day, then another. Some of the faces became recognisable - civvies he'd met since returning to Vessit, their hate-filled glares replaced by frozen expressions of terror and pain. The chill in Rel's eyes was joined by another at the base of his spine. Vessit's Gifted were not among the town's dead. Where had they gone?

It was harder yet, this time, to keep his delicate focus. The sickening image wavered, dancing with spectral reflections of other points in these people's lives, other times they had been in these streets. Travelling to work or to visit neighbours. People they'd known, also dead now. Rel clenched his fists, hard enough that the tendons in his wrists began to ache.

Pevan. Where was she? He slid back another day, hoping that if she'd died, this would spare him the sight of her rotted corpse. If she'd died, she'd have been among the first, he was sure, taking some risk that managed to be both stupid and heroic.

That thought, at last, seemed to do the trick. Obstinate time relented and blurred with a sudden leap across distance. By the time Rel had reacted, remembering the need to evade Soan's notice, the leap was complete.

Corpses lay strewn across the flank of a shallow valley, the wind plucking at loose hair and sleeve cuffs. There was no blood on the ground; no wounds or even bruises on the exposed skin of any of the Gifted. The faces of a few still showed the expressions of agony with which they'd died, but most had slackened into peaceful plainness.

Rel knew that expression. The weapons a Wilder could turn on a human seldom left physical marks, particularly if the Wilder in question was as fully sapient as the Separatists. Gifted who died in action, the joke-if-it-could-be-called-that ran, were a gift to the mortician. So Temmer and Dieni had looked at their funerals, and hundreds more since the Realmcrash.

Never before, though, had so many Gifted worn that expression so close together. Gifted died in action almost every week, but this Viewing could well have represented two years' worth of deaths. An army of Gifted had made their stand here. If they had killed any of the Wildren they had faced, Rel could See no trace - but then, Wildren corpses left no more physical signs than Wildren weapons.

Pevan lay in open space in the middle of the battlefield, on her front, face turned to one side and one arm out-flung. A clear ten yards or more separated her from the nearest corpse - a face he could recognise, but not quite put a name to. Would she die alone then, cut off and surrounded? Perhaps she had died in the act of Gating others to safety.

His gut felt stony and numb. Every other time he'd Seen his sister's death, he'd mastered the experience by throwing himself into preventing its realisation. Scanning back through the time-line for key moments where the outcome might be averted. He'd been very good at it.

But how could you stop the force that had murdered all these Gifted? Too many of the corpses were friends and allies, people whose talents and skills he knew. Thia lay at the bottom of the slope, and Bersh not far from her, frozen-minded agony etched forever into his face. Rel couldn't see any of Federas' other Gifted here, but then, this was only one battleground. He clamped down on that thought before it could send him flying across the Realm in search of others.

There was no point trying to scan back and analyse the battle's tactics. There were plenty enough Clearseers among the dead to guarantee that had been done, as much as was possible. Rel might be the strongest Clearseer, but that didn't make him the equal of any two of his colleagues. Trying to find effective changes would risk drawing the Separatists' attention again.

Rissad didn't seem to be among the fallen. Rel suppressed a surge of anger. Whether or not he'd brought back any new powers from the future, Rissad was among the most powerful Gatemakers in the First Realm. If even Atla was here - sprawled on his back with his face turned skyward in apparent contentment - where was Rissad?

The Gatemaker had been tied up with the Abyss somehow when Rel had peeked in at Dora, but now, as he tried to focus, myriad images of the other man's face burst through like some violently-blooming flower. Here and there were hints of the Abyss, or the harsh, sucking taint of Realmlessness.

Rel tried to focus, but the images skittered away. His mind bounced and stumbled after them. Again, it was like being back in training. Pain seared through the centre of his skull, and even through the ice he could feel his eyeballs throbbing. How was Soan doing this?

For what felt like a long time, Rel forced himself against that squirming barrier. It felt like trying to push his face through a meat-grinder, but without any of the fleshy sensations. When, finally, he blinked, his ordinary vision came back blurry and riddled with spots. It took him a moment to establish that he hadn't strayed into the chaos of the Second Realm.

Outside, the afternoon was definitely getting older. It wouldn't be long before the sun was low enough to come at his face through the doors on the far side of the lobby. Thia would be starting to worry; everyone else would have already started, unless Thia had reported back to them. Somehow, he believed she wouldn't. Did he really care if they worried? They knew he could look after himself.

There were still answers to be found. Rel rubbed his aching forehead and forced himself to count, slowly, to thirty before stretching his eyes open to Clearsight again. This time, the chill was welcome, lifting away a little of his fatigue ache. That was the first bad sign. This Viewing was taking far too much out of him - even without Soan's influence, he'd already locked up once.

He took himself back to the battlefield. Even during the Realmwar, there had never really been pitched battles between humans and Wildren - what had brought so many Gifted together in one place? Had they been the aggressors, or caught on the defensive?

The field was no camp-site, nor was there one in evidence. None of the corpses appeared to have heavy packs, so if they'd been travelling, they'd been travelling light. Where was this? Gently, as much to spare his pounding head as for fear of Soan, Rel pulled his viewpoint back. In the valley-bottom, the grass remained untrampled, but while there were few corpses on the ridge, the grass there was clearly flat.

Rel rose, delicately, as if the image might crumple if he brushed across it too swiftly. Beyond the ridge was another low valley - terrain typical of the central parts of the First Realm - but in the distance he made out the glimmer of sunlight on sea. He lifted further, and sure enough, there was the sweeping curve of Vessit Bay, north of the old city. To see the city itself, he'd have had to twist around quite sharply, but it couldn't be more than ten miles behind.

These Gifted had marched from there, and probably aimed for this specific point. He could have jumped back in time, or at least tried to, to check, but there were hints enough when he dug more deeply into the image. Grass stems miles away leapt into focus as he narrowed his eyes, showing their bruises from passing feet. Here and there, seed-heads had been stripped by the idle and nervous hands of the army.

The fact that they had died, perhaps to a man - Rel didn't dare look for any signs of survivors - could only mean they'd met the foes they sought. Presumably Clearseers had guided them here, in response to... what? A threat to Vessit? Perhaps the Separatists already knew that removing Dora would be the key to their success. But then why wait a further two months to send Soan to finish her off?

No sooner had he had the thought than Rel found himself transported again to high summer and the ruined city. Again, he watched Soan and his cronies slip into the caves. He suppressed the first instinct, to blink and be away. He couldn't stop Clearseeing now, and even the thought of having to re-enter his Gift a third time rammed blunt, hot things through his mind.

Instead, he jerked himself back from the future altogether. The room around him, gloomy though it was, provided anchor enough. He made himself wonder about the composition of the dross on the floor, and the exact moment that the sun would come shining through the door. A simple exercise. One he shouldn't at all have needed.

He couldn't even tell, this time, when Soan had taken control of his Viewing. Had the other Clearseer deliberately shown him the deaths of all his colleagues, or had he not been meant to See that? What about the dead in the ruins of Vessit? And if he had been meant to See it all, was it a warning? A threat? Some twisted by-product of Second Realm logic?

Whatever it was, it was clear he wasn't going to get anywhere by trying to study the future that Soan and Delaventrin wanted. Presumably, if nothing else, they were hard at work mapping it out and threading the path towards it, taking advantage of their head start. But there had been that other future, where he'd glimpsed Dora, free of the Abyss. It was possible there were versions of that in which Taslin didn't somehow brainwash him into her arms.

Rel ran his tongue across the sore in his gum again and stretched out his Sight. He held the memory of the previous Viewing pressed against the wall at the back of his mind. Looking for a future very like one you'd already seen was tricky - the established Viewing could snap back into place at any time. His head pounded.

Slowly, steadily, he pushed through a future that fought back as he'd never experienced before. It was like balancing on tiptoe on a tree-branch while lions below took turns leaping to try and knock him off. The images of dead comrades and smashed homes assailed him. Half-felt glimpses of Realmlessness swung wildly out of time and away again. The trapped memory prodded at him from behind, and others, of Taslin's arms settling on his shoulders, the light in her violet eyes shining as she lifted her face to his.

But then there was Dora. Whole and human, her stony face held in the peculiar, awkward flatness that he knew for her smile. She was wearing her best, her hair for once not only tidied but elegantly bound up. The belt that held her green dress at the waist bore not her old ceremonial four-knot buckle but a design he didn't recognise; a ring woven together from three outstretched branches.

Next to her, in similarly formal dress, was Rissad. He looked far stronger than he did in the present, as if he'd finally recovered from his near-starvation when Keshnu's Wildren had held him prisoner. Where Dora's smile could only be spotted by an expert, Rissad looked almost giddy with joy, more than the hint of a tear in his eye. His arm was around Dora's shoulders, and she was leaning against him in contentment.

Behind and around them were others in smart dress and joyous expressions. All standing in neat rows, facing the same direction. He recognised some faces - families from back home, mainly, and Nursim's Four Knot, Tawny. Some sort of celebration, oddly formal. If it had been a victory celebration, though, surely at least Dora and Rissad would have been before the crowd rather than part of it?

What were they all looking at? On closer inspection, not every face was as unapologetically pleased as Dora's or Rissad's. Some of the crowd had reservations about whatever they'd gathered for. He spotted Beris Webberat, long a thorn in the side of the Federas Gifted, and she had the same look in her eye that she normally reserved for Rel. The look she'd given him ever since he'd left his training with Ciarive.

Rel gritted his teeth and started to turn around. The ceremony was outside, in the square in front of Federas' Warding Hall. Behind the Hall, the old city - bearing a handful of fresh scars - glowed in late-summer sunlight. The outsides of the Hall had been decked with banners of cloth and rose-heads. It looked for all the world like a formal betrothal, though the custom had fallen into disuse long ago in the North. Perhaps this was for Pevan and Chag, and Chag, a southerner, had insisted?

There were gaps in the crowd near the front, gaps that the civvies at least were uncomfortable standing near; gaps slightly wider than the personal space a human person would take up. Displaced air shimmered around the outlines of half a dozen Gift-Givers. A profound honour, if indeed this was Pevan's ceremony. But Rel could feel the stone of certainty settling slowly into his gut.

Mother and Father stood to one side at the front of the crowd. Their backs were to the Hall, but both had turned their heads to look at whatever the rest of the crowd was focussed on. By the door, in what could only be the position of master of ceremonies, stood Willer, Sheriff Pollack's wiry deputy. Presumably full Sheriff now - had Pollack retired, or was he to be a casualty of the war?

There were other faces missing from the crowd, too, people who would have to be dead to miss this - no Jashi, Rel saw with a lurch. She would have been first to the first line of defence. Federas' Warders never lived to see old age. No Thia, even though Bersh and Atla stood proudly in the front row of the crowd.

He could put it off no longer. Just before his Gift locked up, Rel had time to make out Taslin's all-too-familiar, curvaceous outline etched in the air before Willer.

This time, he managed not to retch. Even kept his balance on top of the desk. His head was throbbing hard enough to make his eyes water as the ice of Clearsight faded from them. He swallowed, unable to clear the slimy sensation at the back of his throat. Was surrender to Taslin the only way to secure a better future, or was this another trick of Soan's?

It made no difference. There was no way Rel could manage more Clearseeing right now anyway. Behind his forehead, his brain felt like someone had replaced it with lead-dipped wool. His normal eyesight was blotchy , even after he did his best to dry his eyes.

Rel slid himself off the desk, knees shouting complaint as he landed stiff-legged. Outside, the colour of the light said twilight. Unsteady on his feet, eyes half-closed, he made his way out into a breeze that had sharpened since the morning. Thia must have kept faith; no-one waited for him.

What could he have said to them if they had come for him, anyway? The bitter reward of being right - that you couldn't fight Clearseeing - wasn't going to help in explaining that he'd Seen them all dead on the battlefield. Pevan wouldn't be bothered by it, but Vessit's Gifted were probably less used to having their deaths feature in Viewings.

The only thing he'd learned that might conceivably be of any use was that Dora, somehow, could fight back against Separation, and the Separatists knew it. Given how much strife Rel had already brought to Vessit, the townsfolk were unlikely to take that warning in good cheer. Like it or not, it would be this old city, not the North and Federas, which formed the final battleground.

At least it confirmed that Dora was in some sense still alive, down in the Abyss. He could have used her advice. She was always better than him at managing other Gifted, helping them respond to his Viewings.

Almost without thinking about it at all, he found himself drifting towards the building that hid access to the Abyss. If Dora was alive, there was nothing to stop him seeing if perhaps she could offer some advice. He'd Seen her there, before Taslin had rushed him off to his trial in the Second Realm. The Gift-Giver had said she's not moving through time normally, but some part of her awareness had to remain present, surely?

Instinct and half-remembered Viewings from the spring guided him. Vessit's streets were a patchwork of golden evening light and steadily-deepening darkness. The battered towers seemed to loom at once taller and more precarious, the fallen rubble growing more sinister as shadows shifted. At least there were no distant crashes of falling masonry, though Rel still found himself watching the heights, just in case.

He turned into the street where the building he was looking for stood and stopped. Rissad stood between him and the fallen sheets of concrete that had buried the entrance. The Gatemaker was alone, his face hidden in the gloom. Rel reached for Clearsight, but his mind rebelled. A spike of pain shot through the centre of his skull, and he wavered for a second, dizzy.

Rissad said, "I'm sorry. I knew you'd come here."

"Well, uh." Rel closed his eyes and rubbed his aching forehead. "I'm not exactly looking for conversation."

"Believe me, if I thought I could risk giving you the time to yourself, I would." The Gatemaker took a long, slow breath. "You want to see Dora?"

"How did you-?" Rel paused. There was no threat in Rissad's offer, at least as far as he could hear. He bit his lip, trying not to poke again at his sore gum. "I Saw you... with her, in the better futures I could find."

"I love her." Rissad shrugged. "Probably seems strange from your perspective."

Did it? Dora was closer to Rissad's age than Rel's, for all that everyone back home had assumed they'd settle together someday. "This future you're pushing us towards... what happens between Taslin and me?"

"I told you before, you're thinking about the enemy wrong if you think she's your enemy." Rissad folded his arms.

"I'll be the judge of that."

"Yes, you will." The other man straightened up and took a few steps closer. He waved, vaguely, at the building. "Look, you've Seen how I feel about Dora. I happen to know just how much you'd like to see her freed, too. That, above all else, is what I'm working for. Can we at least find common purpose in that?"

Rel looked away. He owed Dora a lot, but to submit - forever, by the look of it - to whatever Coercion the Taslin of the future would place on him, for her sake? Was a future in which a Gift-Giver could get away with such an abuse better than one in which the First Realm was shattered for good?

Quietly, Rissad said, "To the best of my knowledge, every decision you make that leads to that future was or will be made freely."

That couldn't be true. Could it? Rel tried to swallow, but his gullet was a rock, choked and unmoving. He wanted to vomit, or to beat his fists bloody on the nearest wall. No force on Earth was going to convince him to even trust Taslin again, never mind...

"You accepted her as an ally before." It sounded almost as if Rissad was pleading, not patronising.

At last, Rel found his voice. "You can't be suggesting that worked out well."

"At Ilbertin?" Rissad's tone rose in reproof. "You helped put an end to one of the most serious acts of treachery committed since the drafting of the Treaty of Peace."

"The Treaty isn't worth the paper it's written on."

Rissad seized Rel by the shoulder. Before Rel could react, he was slammed backwards into the nearest wall, pinned against it by Rissad's hand on his chest. The Gatemaker snarled, "Then go back to the Separatists! Because that worked out at least as well as anything you did at Ilbertin, didn't it?"

For a moment, Rel glared into the shadowed hollows of the other man's eyes. Then, very deliberately, he gripped Rissad's wrist, squeezed slightly, and pushed clear. Rissad might be a powerful Gifted, but he was still haggard with malnourishment, and anyway no Gatemaker needed the kind of physical conditioning Rel maintained.

He stepped around Rissad, then a few paces away. "Is that your point? That none of my decisions have ever or can ever work out well? I might as well go with you, because it's as bad an option as any other?"

"Once before you trusted me, and with less grounds for it." Rissad stood slightly slouched, rubbing his wrist. "You've found you can't See the future as well as normal. No, let me finish." He held up a finger to forestall Rel's automatic response. "But I know you Saw, as much as your Gift allows, yourself getting betrothed to Taslin. You've told no-one, and I won't ask you to. Nor will I breathe a word of this. I mention it only because it may help persuade you that I know what you're talking about."

Rel shut his jaw before it made him look too gormless. Instantly, his teeth clenched. He nodded.

"So trust me in this; the options aren't all as bad as each other. Could you but speak to the you you've Seen, he might be able to do a great deal more to convince you, but I'll give you any oath you want that he was not Coerced. Can you really reject that future, just because you doubt me in this?"

Could he risk trusting Rissad? Or, if he didn't trust the Gatemaker, would he then spill the beans on Rel's Viewings? And how would Pevan respond? How, god help him, would Wolpan?

Rissad pressed on, "You told me - will tell me, depending how you look at it - that you Saw Dora at the ceremony, as happy as you've ever seen her. If you can't trust me, can you trust her?"

Rel closed his eyes. His head and the sore on his gum pulsed in time. There was no denying Dora's face from the vision. And it wasn't like there had been Wildren surrounding her, forcing her to smile, which is what it would have taken to Coerce her. He said, "I can't explain that to the others."

"I predicted to them that you'd refuse to discuss your reasons for going with me." Rissad chuckled. "Which sets up an interesting paradox for you, doesn't it? If you really don't want to trust me, you can throw off my whole plan, just by explaining. But they'll accept your decision if you don't."

"I'm trapped, then?" He couldn't summon up any anger. Had Rissad manipulated him into this position? And if so, had he done it deliberately?

"Only by your own pride." Rissad folded his arms again. "Only by your belief that there's nothing in the world that could ever change your mind about anything." After a long pause, Rissad turned on his heel and set off back towards the new town. Over his shoulder, he called, "I'll let you make your own way home."

* * *

Next Episode

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

The Second Realm Season 3: The Lost Realm

(Season 1 hub - Season 2 hub)

Final Episode:

The Separatists are defeated. The First Realm is saved. But the fear that brought war remains, now focussed on Rel. Given one last chance to prove himself, he sets out to capture the last fleeing Separatist, the Clearseer Soan. But Soan's Gift is the equal of his own, and if Rel fails, no-one else is strong enough. And if he succeeds, he must still face his own reckoning among the Gifted.

Previous Episodes:

Episode 8.3: Ash (or at Smashwords - pay what you like)

The Separatist invasion of the First Realm has begun. Leading her makeshift army to fight them, Pevan has never seen so many Wildren in one place at once. Her troops are undertrained and inexperienced. Keshnu is the only Gift-Giver who can be spared to join her. And Rel is still missing, long overdue to return from his time-travelling adventure with the secret weapon he promised..

Episode 8.2: Mother of Fate (or at Smashwords - pay what you like)

Traveling to the future has not provided the answers Rel was looking for. Rejecting the unthinkable cost of Fate's plan, he turns to the one person he has always been able to trust. But Dora has been reshaped by three centuries among the Threekin, and even she can only offer Rel lessons that are hard to swallow.

Episode 8.1: The Future I Saw (or at Smashwords - pay what you like)

Rel travels into the future believing he will finally unlock the secrets of Fate's plan. Before he can confront Fate, though, he must adjust to a new time; a time of complex electrical devices, strange architecture and the half-human, half-Wilder Threekin. And when the truth about Fate does emerge, the hope he offers may come at too high a price.

Episode 7.4: Homeward Bound (or at Smashwords - pay what you like)

The Separatists have finally launched their attack on the First Realm. In Vessit, Atla raises the alarm, and discovers that Pevan has special plans for him. She sends him to the Court with a desperate appeal to the Gift-Givers for help, but the journey will force him to confront every fear he has about his relationship with his Gift - and what the Gift-Givers' plan for humanity might be.

Episode 7.3: Three Small Words (or at Smashwords - pay what you like)

Touring the South to raise an army of Gifted, Pevan can't hide from Chag's questions about their relationship. But, far from the front lines of the cold war against the Second Realm, a terrible corruption has taken root among the Gifted. A trap has been laid for Pevan and Chag that will push them closer than ever before - or leave them to fall apart once and for all.

Episode 7.2: Burning in the Home Fires (or at Smashwords - pay what you like)

The once-backwater fishing town of Vessit has become the epicentre of the First Realm's growing crisis. Only Pevan has the experience to turn the town's defenders into an army matched to the Separatist threat. To Vessit's Gifted, though, Pevan stands for everything that has brought destruction to their doorsteps, and before she can face the Separatists, she'll have to master her allies' hostility.

Episode 7.1: Lights in the Dark (or at Smashwords - pay what you like)

The Gifted of Vessit have no reason to love Chag Van Raighan, so when the last of his friends leaves the town, they waste no time locking him up. But Vessit will be at the centre of the coming war with the Separatists, and every Gift, no matter how minor, will be needed in the town's defense.

Episode 6.3: When I Don't Need My Eyes to See (or at Smashwords - pay what you like)

The only way to defeat the Separatists requires Rel to follow Rissad and Taslin into the future. He trusts neither the Gatemaker nor the Gift-Giver, but he's out of options. Before he confronts the perilous crossing through the Lost Realm, though, Thia drops a bombshell that gives him every reason to return safely - if he can return at all. 

Episode 6.2: I'm Not the Man I Thought I Was (or at Smashwords - pay what you like)

Before his mistakes almost destroyed the First Realm, Rel helped Rissad Van Raighan escape the Gift-Givers. Now Rissad is back, claiming to have been to the future and learned of how to save the First Realm once and for all. But Rel's own ability to see the future is blinkered. He can't check if Rissad's telling the truth - or if Rissad might be the one blocking him... 

Episode 6.1: Take Me to the Sea (or at Smashwords - pay what you like)

Atla has come home, but Vessit is a town still reeling from disastrous Realmquakes and the reappearance of the man blamed for them; Rissad Van Raighan. Rissad claims extraordinary new powers and knowledge, but no-one can tell if he can be trusted. Worse, Rissad has somehow learned Atla's deepest secret: his experience in the Second Realm has left him and his Gift irrevocably changed.

The Second Realm 6.1: Take Me to the Sea

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I Sailed Away

Prologue: A Step Sideways Through Time

He cannot remember time. It feels like the eyeholes of a mask, narrow and constricting. Senses that he can remember, but cannot remember remembering, tell him that this Realm is a dark place, and he moves ahead, to see if the sun will rise.

A flicker of light that he had not noticed does grow brighter, but it is not the sun. It is... approaching, as if space itself were passable. He does not understand this. Time has not moved as expected.

Then, without any intent on his part, time does move, and he falls. The ground is hard and rough, and scrapes the skin off his palms. The stinging, too, is a remembered sensation. He recoils...

The light of the Wildren torches threw flickering shadows up the looming sheet of concrete ahead of him. His trouser leg clung to blood seeping - flowing, probably - from whatever he'd done to the limb beneath. Hopefully the cut was a separate injury to the snapped bone. Pain from his shoulder overwhelmed any attempt to judge how bad the leg was from internal sensation alone, and he didn't dare look back at it.

To avoid putting weight on either injury, he had to prop himself up on his good arm, half-twisted at the waist. Every foot of gained ground scraped skin off the heel of his thumb, and he could already feel the strength going out of him, the bone turning slowly to jelly just below his shoulder. He'd done his best to prepare, but it had still been days since he'd eaten.

He only had to reach the door, open it, and he could hop back to his camp in the old city. The Stable Rod was a reassuring weight in his pocket. Another thirty feet to crawl.

Hard, slapping footsteps cut through the trickling of the distant water in the chasm behind. He twisted, dreading the sight of another Wilder, but the tall, scruffy figure approaching was human. The one he'd been expecting. He let his arm sag, rolling awkwardly onto his back...

He relaxes, regaining something like his balance. Another mind brushes past his own. Another sensation he doesn't remember. Not being alone - he remembers that, though it comes back slowly. In this dark place, there is another being, questing, reaching out tentatively, then receding towards the distant, dancing lights.

He throws himself after the fading awareness... a point where he'll stand, with the aches of age in his joints and his arm around a woman. He will not need to see past her face to recognise her as the other mind. The recollection of now will reach forward to... now? It'll be brighter, the torches all restored. The recollection will reach forward to tickle his memory, and he'll say, "It's now."

He'll turn and look at the woman. Study her face as if seeing it, as he does now, for the first time. Eyes so pale blue as to be almost silver. No, steel. Age will do nothing to soften her there. He won't think of their age, but it will not have taken any of the hardness out of her. She'll be thinner, the skin tight over her bones. The strength of three Realms will sparkle in her eyes.

And she'll smile up at him. Even after ten thousand such private smiles, it will still touch something very deep inside of him. To see all her strength relaxed, unguarded for the simple fact that he'll be there. She'll tell him, "I love you."

The script that he knows they must follow, to complete the last of the loops that will rule the life they will have shared, tears him away. It will only be for a moment, but still, he'll feel the moment's coolness as he takes a step back...

The sense of the twists in her stays with him, catches his attention for a crucial moment, and he's lost. He flounders, searching for contact with a whirl of world-like-but-not-quite sensations. There is nothing to touch here, and a wrongness hovering at the edges of awareness that turns his gut across several eras.

Then, a memory he recognises of a stranger he doesn't. Impressions spin - a golden flower, robed in white silk, smiling with the benevolence of a deity. The promise, that this would become a memory to cling to in the temporal storm of his return to familiar time.

Pain surges through his leg and shoulder again, hotter than before. He can almost feel it sucking at his spirit. It sits about him like a weight. His good arm and leg, too, are flagging. Limping through the stairs and gantries of the Sherim - if that was what it was - was too much. Wherever he has come to, he doubts he will leave.

It is the jumble of words that saves him. A vast spray of webworked letters through which his mind at least can hop and jump as fluidly as he normally could. The paths, somehow, form intelligible patterns, clumsy with First-Realm meaning, but he does not choose alone. His will is overwhelmed by his emotions, and the stranger in white and honey manipulates the course, too.

Fighting, he veers along a question and directs it at the stranger. "Who are you?"

"For now, I play the part of Fate." The web shakes at the name, and he believes the stranger instantly. New paths opened up to reveal the words, with star-flecked glimpses behind of deep secrets that fold away before he can see them. Then they are drilling down through the web. "You will come to recognise me when we meet in ordinary time."

Yes, this is not ordinary time. His surprised understanding ripples back, connecting the now of memory with the now of experience, completing the loop which in the past tied the fish-hook to Fate's line, but is now his own anchor. This is not ordinary time, but ordinary time is nearby. He collects himself and steps sideways...

For the first time, or at least something very like it, he feels the loops twisted around him. Loops of trapped time, endless circles that coil through each other, with hair-fine choices each time they touch. Some few of them are memories, not his, that could be lived endlessly. More, at this point, are futures. Some stretch off far into the distance, but he can tell where they return, tied through this nexus. He begins to understand.

The loops lock away parts of his past, as long as he tries to cheat his way out of navigating them. But he does not have infinite time. Things he should be remembering are important, he remembers that much. The ribbons of time feel like tamed winds, dancing as they wait to be played with. Somewhere in there is the memory he needs.

At the far end of time, where the last loop spears out into the darkness and does not return, is the woman with the steel eyes. He would think of her as a key, but that would be trite. She is a drill, or a sharp pick, to shatter the lock that bars him access to the normal flow of time.

But where to begin looking for her? Some of the swirls are infinite. He raises a hand to touch the nearest one...

"Time bends to our will," he'll say, to the assembled students. Outwardly, they'll look as human as Gift-Givers, but he'll be able to see the swirls of time spilling out of their heads. This time, he'll ignore the tickle of his past self - this lesson is too important.

That's signal enough that this is not the place to start. He tries another...

Lauryle's pretty eyes darkened as she frowned. "I Saw you going through some pretty brutal stuff. Don't think you have to be a hero."

He could hear the possessiveness in her tone. Well, they'd joked a couple of times in the quiet aftermath of passion about settling down together. It wasn't something they could let rule them now, though. She was the fourth Clearseer to have reported frightening and destructive Viewings, and the figure in white and gold who would cause or perhaps already had caused them.

Shared anxiety made the gloomy Warding Hall oppressive. Definitely not a place to think about flirtation. He said, "I'm going to step up my rounds. I'll see about sending a messenger North, too. We don't have enough to go on yet."

"Rissad..." She stepped closer, put her hand up to his face. Her fingers were so fine that his cheek tingled, almost itched, at her touch. She really was gorgeous.

Still, he captured her hand, pressed it briefly to his lips and let go. "This is too big for us, Laur. Even if you're right and we've got 'til Spring, there's a lot to get done."

Her eyes narrowed. "You'd better come back soon."

"I said I'd step up my rounds, didn't I?" He gave her a quick smile. Neither of them really pretended to expect faithfulness from the other. They could make that decision some other time.

He pulls back, finally, from the pleasure of that past moment. Rissad. He knew that, didn't he? At least, he can't remember ever having forgotten. He had forgotten Lauryle, her heart-shaped alabaster face all but swamped in the great black waterfalls of her hair. Will she have settled down with someone else by now? And does he care?

He knows who he wants, now. Thinks he feels her, briefly, spinning around a nearby loop. He reaches...

The Abyss gapes wide beneath them. They are glad they are not a Clearseer, to see the Realmlessness in the distance below. He remembers directing an unsuspecting Clearseer to look over the edge of the ledge. From somewhere in what feels very much like the future - further around the loop, he realises - the thought drifts back that the Clearseer probably deserved it. There's affection in the thought. He's not sure he likes that.

Time here feels like honey, flowing lazily off a spoon. They drift with it, and the clashing logics of three Realms spread the warmth of a mother's embrace across them. He recognises the clue, but cannot summon up the urgency to tackle it.

Well, there is no shortage of time. Languid, they drift forever, awarenesses content to be at rest together. Here, they could choose - do choose, many times over - stillness, but for the sluggish flow of the river. They ignore for the most part the painful memories that the sights of the Abyss bring.

On the ledge, there are dull brown flecks marking where blood spilled from Rissad's leg after his treatment at the hands of the Abyss' Wildren stewards. Closer to the tunnel that leads to the caves, no physical residue marks Pevan's betrayal. Both of them regret the memory of Taslin sweeping Rel into the Abyss, sealing his fall from grace.

They contest, briefly, the issue of blame, but to do so is a distortion. Neither of them rules Rel, though he can tell that she wishes she could. He reaches for her in conciliation...

She stared at Rel. "What?"

"Ciarive won't pass me. So I came back to get Dieni's opinion." Rel shrugged, as if it was the most logical thing in the Realm.

"Do you have any idea what the last week and a half have been like?" She put enough venom in her voice to poison a small town, but Rel barely flinched. "Every Gifted from here to Katrel has been out looking for you! I've had six insulting messages from Ciarive alone about your note."

"The man's a stubborn ass." Rel's face hardened. He'd been expecting more support, she could tell. Maybe he had been away too long. "All discipline, no sense. And not half the Gifted he thinks he is. I should have trained with Dieni."

Which said nothing of how proud he'd been to be sent to Ciarive when he went. He-

The memory melts away as she senses the unfamiliar presence. Rissad feels the hot rush of shame and fear, unsure if it is his for snooping or hers for failing to control her Clearseer. So closely synchronised are they in the tangled skein of their shared time that there may be no difference. He sees just how deeply this cuts her, still.

She lashes out at him with the emotion. He can offer nothing but apologies. It was not his intention to pry. They are too close for her to deny the honesty in his appeal, but his concern for her puzzles her. Do they know each other?

They have drifted through this gentle figure-eight of time timelessly. He tries to offer her the memory of it, but it is not hers. Her memories are of stitching herself into the fabric of the Realm and slowing her awareness to preserve herself. Time may well be her enemy.

Automatically, he finds himself vowing to free her. His fervour disturbs her enough to draw words from her, her accent harsh and northern. "Are we fated to this, then?"

He can barely suppress a bitter laugh at the thought of Fate's role. Who knows? But he senses behind her words that she too has seen them together at the end of time. With a gesture of mind, he encompasses the whole tangle. "You could still choose a different path."

"Does time really work like that?" Her voice gives the tiniest of wavers on the last word, and he knows that this is, in real terms, the first time she has ever let her guard down.

He thinks of all the explanations he could offer, but says, "Yes, I promise."

"Then it means something." It is relief, not wry teasing, that he hears in her tone, a quiet pleasure at finding her fears unjustified.

He says, "Yes," and lets her slip away around the loop that will send her back to brush past him as he was flailing his way back to the First Realm. The sense of her presence fades, and with it his connection to the knot of her. He stands in the darkness of the Sherim chamber beside the Abyss, the almost-comically oversized concrete door blocking his access to the caves. His memories file themselves back into order, far from quiescent but at least now rational.

He has returned home. For a moment, he waits, staring up at the faint, ghostly blur over the Abyss that is Dora's temporally diluted presence. She is unlikely to feel his smile, he knows, but he sends it to her anyway. Then, having to think a moment longer than usual about how to, he spins a Gateway in the floor and jumps away, back to the old city above.

1. Take Me to the Sea

Atla's Gift was trying to whisper to him again. It seemed to be growing weaker, as they neared the end of their trek to Vessit, but it was also growing more desperate to get through. He gritted his teeth and closed his eyes, forcing the sensation - like a sheet of fine paper sliding between the vertebrae of his neck - away. There were no Wildren nearby, except Taslin, and they were almost a hundred miles from the Second Realm. His Gift ought to be completely dormant.

Around the fire to his right, Chag and Pevan seemed absorbed in each other, silently huddled with their heads touching. They'd had little chance to enjoy their new happiness, with the mood over camp each night so frosty and sullen. Taslin, stubbornly maintaining a facade of business-as-usual, was sorting through their meagre remaining supplies, packing stuff away for an early start come morning.

Rel lay wrapped in his blanket beyond a low shrub break, apparently happy to sleep in the cold. Since Ilbertin, he'd refused to share a fire with Taslin, and had treated even his sister as an enemy for tolerating the Gift-Giver's presence. Atla still didn't know what had happened between them, but the real mystery was why Pevan wasn't siding with her brother.

Tomorrow, in theory, it ceased to be his problem. He'd go back to his training in Vessit and leave the wild adventure behind. If Pevan was as good as her word, and remembered to pass on a good report to Bersh, he might be finished with training soon, too. Then he could go back to Lefal. Home. It would be good to see his family again. The Separatists' looming schemes rose to mind like bubbles of swamp gas. Even if he did finish training soon, there might not be time to get home before they struck.

He blinked and looked up from the fire to find Taslin's eyes on him, their faint purple glow cutting through the firelight. She could tell something was amiss with his Gift, he was sure. He wanted to take her continued silence on the matter as evidence that there was no danger in... whatever had happened, but that seemed too good to be true. More likely she wasn't saying for incomprehensible Wildren reasons.

What if Bersh could tell? Neither Pevan nor Rel had said anything about it, but though they were strong Gifted and probably could sense his Gift at least vaguely, they weren't Guides, so perhaps they didn't know what a Guiding should seem like from the outside. Bersh, though, knew Guiding better than anyone south of the Tuani. Maybe it wouldn't matter-

Now Pevan was looking at him, concern and curiosity on her face. Atla could tell he'd done something to draw her attention, though she hadn't disentangled herself from Chag. Probably he was getting twitchy with the fear of discovery, and giving himself away. She turned back to Chag after a moment, but Atla didn't doubt she was still worrying about him.

In the late-evening gloom behind, Rel shifted. Atla's Gift had registered him as a dense, white-hot ball of emotions too tightly-held to burn for the last week. It was hard just to stand near him when he was awake. Now, Atla couldn't tell if the Clearseer was doing a bad job of feigning sleep, or genuinely struggling to rest.

What he could tell was that Rel blamed himself for some bad call or other at Ilbertin, never mind the series of terrible misjudgements that had led to it and given the Separatists such an advantage. Atla couldn't do much for the others, was barely part of their idiosyncratic, fractious squad to start with, but maybe that meant if he offered Rel an olive branch, the man wouldn't be too proud to take it.

Holding his blanket around his shoulders like a cloak, Atla stood. Pevan started to say something, but he waved a hand vaguely and turned away, and that seemed to satisfy her. As quietly as he could, in case Rel really was asleep, he walked around the bush and sat again, just a few feet from the Clearseer.

After a fraught, cold moment, Rel's eyes opened, and he muttered, "What do you want?"

"I, uh..." What did Atla want? He didn't want anything from this conversation really, except possibly to have started better. "Well, I thought... I mean, maybe we shouldn't sleep quite so spaced out? Uh, not that there are Wildren about or anything, but there might be wolves or whatever."

"And you want to know what happened at Af." Rel built the sentence like a wall, one heavy brick after another.

"No, I mean... well, if you want to say... uh, I mean, I'm not going to deny I'm curious, but..." He bit his lip, forced himself to stop. Pevan scolded him all the time for stammering. "Is it any of my business? I mean, if it's something to do with Wildren, shouldn't all Gifted know? I... uh, I know I don't really count yet, but Pevan said, well..."

Rel's eyes narrowed. "Did she put you up to this?"

"No. I... well, no, she didn't. I'm here on my own initiative, uh, whatever good that does me, heh?" Atla tried to lighten his tone a bit, as he finished, but the result just sounded pathetic. "I'm sorry, I'll, uh, I'll go."

"You ask the right questions, kid." Rel's tone was still hard, but it sounded a little less angry than it had. He pushed himself awkwardly up to sitting, blanket across one shoulder. "You're right, you ought to know what happened. Most of it, anyway. We're fighting a war here, and you need to remember who the enemy is. You especially."

"Me?" A chill slipped along Atla's veins. "Why?"

"Your Gift is a Wilder, remember?"

"What?" Rel had said it with such certainty, but... what? His Gift a Wilder? That didn't make any sense, however much his Gift protested to the contrary, writhing and bubbling at the bottom of his brain. Wildren were complex creatures, intelligences in their own right. How could one be a Gift?

"You didn't know?" Consternation in Rel's voice. His gaze dropped to his hands for a moment, then came back to spear Atla again. "I assumed it was just something Guides didn't talk about. The Separatists told Chag, apparently, and Taslin... well, I guess she could have been lying as well."

At the back of Atla's head, his Gift reared up, hissing and trying to cry out. He fought it back, unable to hide the shiver that ran through him. Had Rel seen? The Clearseer seemed preoccupied, working his knuckles against each other. Atla watched him, dreading what he might say next.

When Rel spoke, he did so without looking up. "We walked straight into a trap at Ilbertin. Just like we did at the White Cave, and the Court, and Vessit. And when Van Raighan came to Federas, I guess. They've had the edge on us all this time, and now they have a human Clearseer to help. I don't know if we can stop them now."

Quiet and mournful as they were, Rel's words slid through Atla like daggers of ice. Doubt was the one emotion he'd never expected to see in the Clearseer, particularly not behind all that anger. His Gift thrashed again, sending a chill down his spine, but this time he managed not to twitch. He exchanged a single, short, grim glance with Rel and then, almost as one, they lay down. Atla had to squirm quite clumsily to get his blanket covering most of his body.

He could tell he was going to regret moving away from the fire tonight.

Only the stiff wind blasting up from out of the bay kept the sun bearable as they crested the hill and sighted Vessit for the first time. The climb - latest in a too-long series of hills - had been a slog, but Rel refused to use either Taslin's or Pevan's Gateways, and they refused to leave him behind.

Still, the town was a welcome sight. The scars from the recent Realmquakes were still obvious, the towers of the old city cracked and crumbled, a half-dozen new houses still under construction. But there were masts on the horizon, new trawlers already at sea to replace those lost a fortnight earlier. Probably work hadn't even started on houses until the ships were built.

The hillside was carpeted in dandelions and buttercups, fairly glowing in the glorious spring weather. There were showers in some of the clouds north of the bay, but above them the sky held only a few tufts of white. It was likely to be the only welcome home he was going to get. Bersh would be glad to see him safe, but none of his companions would be greeted kindly.

Sweat earned climbing the hill cooled as he descended, for all that he found himself hurrying to keep ahead of the others. Maybe if he could get to Wolpan first he could at least get her to listen to Taslin. Four Knots were supposed to always give a Gift-Giver fair hearing.

Atla's heart almost stopped when he made out a row of figures at the bottom of the hill. Too distant to recognise them, but there were seven, clearly waiting for someone. He squinted, trying to ignore the chill in his gut. If Thia's Clearsight had predicted their return, what would Wolpan have planned for them? And the town would have a new Sheriff, too. Who would that be?

It was the Gifted. Or at least, there was no mistaking the mismatched pair of tall, bulky Bersh and tiny Thia. Marit and Wolpan would be the two next to them. A small but significant gap between them and the next two figures meant those were probably guards - the new Sheriff and a deputy. Some tensions were instantly recognisable. Who would the last man be?

Chag, of all people, burst into a run, sprinting past Atla straight at the waiting Gifted. Atla shared a perplexed glance with Pevan, then stumbled to keep up as she followed her lover. Maybe Rel and Taslin would follow, maybe they wouldn't. He put it from his mind and tried to make out Wolpan's expression. It might be all the warning he got.

The Four Knot's attention was focussed on the stranger, the seventh man. A Gift-Giver himself, maybe? No, Atla's Gift told him he'd be able to feel if there was another Wilder present. The stranger was tall and gaunt-cheeked, weathered but far from old. Of the waiting group, he was the only one with a smile on his face.

Chag ran up to him and stopped dead at arms-reach. "Rissad?"

Atla could see the family resemblance, sort of. Rissad was much taller than his brother, almost comically so, but had the same wiry quality, the same sharp features. He stepped forward and pulled Chag into an awkward bear hug. "Good to see you, spud."

Time seemed to freeze around the embrace for a moment, as Wolpan's glare stopped Pevan in her tracks. Atla pulled up short, too, feeling suddenly isolated. Thia threw him a quick wave, followed by a wink. It took an effort of will to draw breath.

Heavy, dull footsteps announced Rel's arrival at a run. Rissad disentangled himself from Chag and stepped forward to intercept the Clearseer with an outstretched hand. Rel gaped at him and received a jovial clap on the shoulder.

To Pevan, Rissad said, "I hope my brother hasn't worn too much on your patience."

She laughed. "Give him time."

"There will be time enough." Rissad raised his voice. "Welcome, all of you. Before everything collapses into recriminations, I would like to call a truce. We're embroiled in matters that are bigger than any of us, bigger than any one town or loyalty. We all need information others present have." His face hardened, already-narrowed eyes glinting like dark gems. "I can offer you some hope for the future, but only if you can all work together."

The words hung in the air. Though the wind still fluttered waves in the grass on the hillside, it felt as if it must be passing them all by. It was a heavy stillness, reflected in the faces on both sides. Only Thia seemed happy about anything, but she was always pretty upbeat.

Atla looked back to Rissad to find the man's eyes on him. Had his sternness relaxed a little? He gave Atla a gentle nod.

"How did you know we'd be here?" Atla let the question out before it could smash through his teeth. They'd stopped briefly in a couple of towns on the way here, but neither had had a Gatemaker who could have sent a message on ahead. That had been a deliberate choice. Had Thia been scanning the future for signs of their return?

No, from the look on her face as she glanced at Rissad. Her expression registered... exasperation? Amusement? Either way, she seemed inwardly pleased. Probably something to do with Wolpan's ever-stormier scowl.

Rissad's mouth spread into a wide, satisfied smile. "I have stumbled into a way to test the future independently of Clearsight. It will help us circumvent the Separatists' Clearseers. Your arrival today was one of a number of predictions I offered to back my claim when I reported to Wolpan three days ago."

While Rel gaped, and Pevan glared sceptically, Taslin moved. She crossed to Rissad in strides that flowed over the grass, fast as the wind, and seized his head. Her grip was hard enough to bring a flush to the gaunt man's cheeks, and Pevan shot out an arm to keep Rel from leaping to Rissad's defence. Rissad made a gurgling noise as if trying to speak, then waved an arm as if to warn everyone off.

After a moment of squinting into Rissad's eyes, Taslin straightened and released him. Her voice came softly and reverent. "The touch of the Lost Realm is on you."

He nodded and stepped back. When he spoke, it was past Taslin's shoulder. "You'll all have learned by now that Gifts are fragments of the Second Realm, right?" Atla flinched, drawing a sharp look from Rissad. "It's true. You should listen to your Gift a bit more." The weight in Rissad's glance sent a shiver through Atla. No doubt, whatever his future-sight was, it had revealed Atla's secret.

Atla could almost feel Rissad's attention leave him. He hugged himself, trying to break the wind that seemed suddenly to have found every loose stitch in his clothing. Rissad went on, "Among Gifts, Clearsight is unique. No Gift of Clearsight originated in the Second Realm."

"The First Realm is not the first Realm to which the Second has been attached." Taslin took up the thread of Rissad's explanation as if they had rehearsed it, her tone precise and formal. "Long ago, what you would reckon as thousands of years before the Realmcrash, there was another First Realm to which ours was Second. For reasons lost to memory, the link was broken, and our Realm was set adrift in the Realmlessness.

"Our earliest histories record little of the Lost Realm. Children of the Wild treated with the inhabitants of the Lost Realm, but as helpless infants before titanic powers. Like your Realm, the Lost Realm had four dimensions, but unlike yours, three of the dimensions of the Lost Realm were temporal. A traveller who left my Realm and journeyed through the Lost Realm could under some circumstances return to my Realm in their past, or even deep into their future.

"The inhabitants of the Lost Realm generally frowned on such behaviour." Taslin paused and stuck Rissad with a glare that even he had to cringe at. "I take it that you won their favour somehow?"

"I..." Rissad's confident smile failed to reappear. "I am not sure I met any. The creature I met introduced itself as Fate, but I got the distinct impression it... he was human."

"Fate again?" Rel's tone stung. "I do not trust him."

A raised hand from Rissad forestalled Chag's agreement, but the younger Van Raighan's expression left his view in no doubt. Voice stiff, Rissad offered, "You don't have to trust him. But without him, I would never have learned to navigate the Lost Realm."

"How does that help us?" Rel again, clearly unconvinced. Though maybe he was just objecting because Taslin had turned to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Rissad.

Rissad raised an eyebrow. "Seeing the future is enough to make you the most powerful Gifted in the First Realm. I can take you to visit it. If I've earned any foundation for your trust, trust this: the solutions we need are there."

"This is stupid!" Rel looked around the gathering, from the frosty, silent faces of Wolpan and the Sheriff, to Thia's and Bersh's stalwart patience, and finally to Pevan. "We can't afford any more wild ideas. If we run off to visit the future now, there may not be a now to come back to!"

Taslin started to say something, but clammed up at a wave from Rissad. The rapport between them was uncanny. It sent a tickle down Atla's spine as Rissad said, "You don't have to take me at my word now. The truce holds, on my guarantee, until you've had a chance to rest and get a proper meal or two. Sleep on it. By all means ask me for more information. You may find something to convince you." Rissad's eyes flicked to Atla and back again, so quickly he almost thought he'd imagined it, but something about the gesture was too deliberate.

You should listen to your Gift a bit more
. Despite Rissad's words ringing in his ears, it was evening before a hot meal and a wash lent Atla the courage to face the... warning? Advice? His cot in the back room of Bersh's house didn't offer anything like the privacy he needed, and the town stayed bustling well past dark with the effort of recovery. For solitude, he had to make his way up to the edge of the old city, where he could perch on the concrete above the beach without being in the way of the trawlermen working at the new docks.

Clouds had blown in from the bay, leaving sea and sky a black, featureless hole in the world in front of him. The wind bit at his cheeks, exposed between his turned-up collar and the folded wool of the hat he'd borrowed from Bersh's rack. The day's warmth had long since scattered.

Atla closed his eyes, the difference barely noticeable, and wondered how to begin. His Gift lay supine, somewhere at the bottom of his skull. Barely noticeable, as it should be while he was in the First Realm. For the first time, that worried him. It had stopped struggling for his notice. Had the journey, and the distance from its natural habitat, weakened it? If his Gift was alive, could it die?

Out loud, but quietly, he said, "Are... are you there?"

A sudden swell rushed up and swallowed him, turbulent water smashing his poise. He flailed his arms, tumbling, the surge ephemeral, exerting no pressure on his limbs. Only when hot joy followed the leading edge of chaos and drove a burst of mad laughter out of him did he realise that this was not the sea down beyond the beach, thrown up by some new disaster to seize him.

In the Second Realm, when he searched for Routes through his Gift, it felt like this, like his mind swam with impunity through a world that was all ocean. Sometimes, it felt as if some vast creature stirred in the depths, in agitation, or sometimes anger or fear. Now, that creature recognised itself in his regard, shook its long, shimmering body in pleasure.

He reached for it, instinctively, to brush a hand - inside his mind? - along its scales. The creature spun in a circle, around his wrist and up his arm, then darted away. Teasing. Playing. He reached again, let it slip through his fingers. The water flooding through him carried the creature's delighted hiss. Its exuberance was infectious. Atla could feel a fool's grin on his face.

Could this really be a Wilder? It left him with no cold sense of menace, such as always came when his Gift warned him of hostile Wildren nearby. It felt like a puppy, full of energy and guileless excitement. Where it drew back from him, it was only in play; it made no pretence of fear, gave no support to the idea that humans and Wildren were irreconcilably different. Whether or not there could ever be peace between the Realms, this creature offered hope.

Laughing, Atla let the Gift swirl around him. It wasn't just the half-felt eel, squirming and wriggling. Its awareness encompassed the water that suffused him, too. Small and simple as the creature was, its survival-trained senses were its foremost asset. Its joyous soul and straightforward character would, in its natural habitat, have laired at the centre of a network that resonated to the unpredictable currents of the entire Second Realm.

Here, ensconced in safety inside Atla's skull, the creature knew its good fortune, to have been asked to accompany him, half-hidden, as Guide. Revealed at last, it embraced him in gratitude. It knew him, sat closer to the seat of his being, in some ways, than he did. Like a puppy, it viewed him as master, parent and brother all wrapped into one.

And, almost before his thoughts could stumble over the awkwardness of having no name for the Gift, it sent one; Caelni. Even those Wildren who were only half-sapient, aware but not thinking, named themselves. Unable to touch Caelni physically, Atla stroked with his mind, wrapping his arms around himself as a poor surrogate.

The Wilder's response touched off the missing sensations anyway. Warmth filled the empty space caught in the circle of his arms, and what felt like warm, dry wool brushed his cheek, at welcome odds with the tides still surging through him. He felt Caelni wriggling, still playful, as if to climb up his shoulder. Tickled under his ear, he yelped and squirmed, hearing laughter as he almost slipped off the promenade to the sand below.

Concrete roughened his palms as he steadied himself. He owed Rissad thanks for encouraging him to seek this discovery. If he'd understood the older Gifted's hints correctly. If he still, in fact, held true to his oath to serve human interests. If Rel was wrong that Atla had something to fear from Caelni. The Gift's vigorous shake at that thought held a tinge of anger. He soothed it with a touch. Rel had to be wrong. There could be no harm in this, surely?

Atla took a deep breath and forced himself to knock on the door. Another minute in the gloom of the boarding house's first-floor landing wouldn't make him feel any less nervous. Caelni brushed a tingle down the outside of his arm again; she'd discovered in the night that the occasional illusion of touch would drain a little of his anxiety. His mood distressed her.

The latch clunked just as a yawn caught him. Pevan's face appeared at the crack of the door, her features almost hidden by the glare from open curtains in the room behind. Belatedly, he found himself worrying whether she was alone. What if she'd shared a room with Chag? Would they have done that? They'd slept curled up together all through the journey, but maybe - hopefully - they'd decided it would be improper now they were back in civilisation.

He almost missed her curt, "Come in." She stepped back, pulling the door open as she did. Once his eyes adjusted, her room was revealed as poky and bare, with only a small cot bed and a washstand. The cot was immaculately made, as if it hadn't been slept in. Pevan looked more or less as she had the previous morning, except that her hair was yet unruffled by the wind, her clothes slightly less rumpled. Early though it was, she'd clearly been up for some time.

When her eyes found his, Atla spotted the cost of that. The slight squint of her glare couldn't hide the hints of red at its corners, nor the swelling of her eyelids. He opened his mouth to ask if she'd slept, but she beat him to it, weariness blunting the harsh edge of her northern accent. "Rissad said you'd be coming to see me. Predicted, even."

Atla's mouth ran dry. Rather than risk speech, he nodded.

"Are you alright?" Pevan's attention sharpened. "He's not... forcing you somehow?"

He shook his head. "I think we can... should trust him. I..." and there he froze up again. How did you break a subject like this? Caelni gave a frustrated shake at the bottom of his mind.

"You're going to have to give me something more than that to work with, Atla." Pevan folded her arms. "You look like hell. Are you sure you're okay?"

Not that he'd been trying to hide it, but hearing her point it out suddenly made the tiredness overwhelming. He screwed his face up, put a hand up to massage his eyes. His voice came heavy in his own ears. "I didn't sleep much."

When he didn't say more, Pevan took a step closer and reached up an arm to squeeze his shoulder. "I'd say go back to bed, but somehow I think we need to have this conversation before that's a possibility, right?"

The hint of wry humour in her voice brought his head up. Again, though, it was all he could do to nod.

Gently, she said, "What convinced you to trust Rissad? Something he said?"

Caelni wriggled, excited. Buoyed, Atla said, "He said I should listen to my Gift more."

"It told you something important?" Head tilted to one side, Pevan frowned.

"She-" Atla's breath caught, a painful clench in his throat. He forced himself onward, though his voice came out very small. "She told me her name."

"What?" Pevan's puzzlement sent chills through him. "She? Who?"

"My Gift." Atla shivered as Caelni embraced him, but the admission did strengthen him. "Caelni. Uh, Rel said Chag told you that Guiding... the Gift is a Wilder, right?"

Pevan's eyes shot wide. "And it... she talks to you?"

"Not, uh, exactly." He made a vague gesture with both hands, trying to shape a thought that wouldn't quite go into words. "I don't think she has quite as, uh, complex awareness, I guess, as a Gift Giver or whatever... Uh, I guess it's a bit like having a really clever tracker dog?" Low in his mind, Caelni gave a shiver of pleasure for the compliment.

"And Wildren do choose their own names..." Abstracted for a moment, Pevan's attention sharpened. She gave him a wry smile. "We probably shouldn't tell Rel about this. It might convince the others, though."

Cold fingers seized unpleasant parts of Atla's gut. "Convince? No, I mean... uh... you want to tell everyone?"

"We have to give them some reason for trusting Rissad."

"But what if..." The night's fears surged back, over Caelni's indignant thrashing. "What if this is some sort of trick? What if I'm actually, uh, compromised somehow? I, uh... I didn't really come to you to speak for Rissad." He took an awkward, thin breath. "Someone should keep an eye on me, uh, in case I... you know..."

Pevan's face hardened. She turned away, walked over to the window. "What should I look for? I can't see your Gift, can I now?"

He bit his lip. "Just... if I start acting strange or anything. Maybe don't let me stand watch for anything alone."

"Heh." The sting in Pevan's chuckle wasn't pitched to hurt. "Anyone else, I'd suggest this was an elaborate ruse to get out of the midnight shift. You're really worried?" She turned, eyebrows raised.

"I..." Atla frowned. "There's nothing in my training to prepare me for this."

"You say that as if you think I'm any better off." She smiled. "Your Gift is in your head, Atla. If it- if she has complete access to you, you probably have the same to her. You're probably best-placed to judge if anything's amiss."

Caelni surged up, the bow wave of her appreciation for Pevan racing to the front of Atla's mind. Grudgingly, he nodded. "Keep an eye on me all the same, though. Please?"

Face and tone stern, but not unkindly, Pevan said, "I will. And I'll keep your secret for now, as best I can. We are going to have to trust Rissad, though."

Atla nodded again. Shivers rippled up his arm as Caelni danced around him. "Relax." Pevan's smile, this time, was straightforward and open. "Just because all Wildren are dangerous, it doesn't mean they're all the enemy. Even now."

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