Saturday, 1 February 2014

The Second Realm 6.3: When I Don't Need My Eyes to See

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I Sailed Away

3. When I Don't Need My Eyes to See

Thia came at Rel again. With his eyes locked in the chill claws of Clearsight, he saw the incoming blows as hard ripples in the air. He sidestepped once, twice, feet sliding smoothly across the dewy hillside, then had to duck and stumble awkwardly forward to get under a new spray of strikes. A second ahead in time, he saw where Thia's flank would turn, following through the actual punch she'd thrown.

Too late, she tried to compensate, to speed up the motion, but he twisted, spun backwards on one foot with his other leg in the air. The kick took her in the midriff, knocked her off-balance. Rel could hear the wind go out of her. She toppled backwards, and he sprawled over on top of her. They ended up on their backs on the grass, at right angles to one another, his legs across her hips.

They were both gasping for breath. Rel's arms were leaden with bruises from blocking the other Clearseer's attacks. That last bout had lasted almost ten minutes without let-up. He closed his eyes, letting go of Clearsight, and reviewed the last moments of it. Thia hadn't been sloppy; it was just that her right leg had tired too much to let her recover in time from the over-extension.

But could she tell that? The training session would be no good if he just told her every time she made a mistake. Between heavy breaths, he said, "What happened? You were doing so well up to there." It was important not to sound critical - the last thing he wanted was to end up like Ciarive.

"Sorry." Still struggling to breathe, Thia took it harder than he'd meant. "I just don't have... your stamina, I guess."

"It's okay to back off and fight defensively if you start to tire." Rel let his head flop back into the grass. The cooling effect of the dew was most welcome. "You'd be surprised how much time you can buy like that."

She grunted what he took for an assent. Then she lifted her head to look at him. Voice still harsh with breathlessness, she said, "Getting comfortable?"

He was still lying on top of her. "Uh, sorry." He rolled clear and vaulted to his feet, then turned to offer her a hand up. Her fingers were slender and short, almost comically delicate, but the appearance hid tough, hard bones and fierce grip strength.

"Again?" Whether or not she'd been seriously bothered by him lying on top of her, she was smiling an impish little smile as she stood. Even with him slouching, she barely came up to his chin.

Rel looked around, gauging the time. The cloud cover was thick and grey from the near horizon of the hilltop right out across Vessit bay to the point where the eye rebelled at the edge of the First Realm. The town's fishing fleet was visible at the mouth of the bay. They'd still been in dock when he and Thia had jogged out here to train.

He said, "We shouldn't do too much more. Training's fine, but we'll be no good to anyone if we wear ourselves out to the point of injury. I'm not sure there's much more I can teach you, anyway."

She quirked an eyebrow at him. "One more can't hurt, right?"

"Well, okay." He rubbed his arms, measuring the lumps she'd already left him with. His eyes were itching, too - not an effect of Clearsight directly, but of going so long without blinking. It took an effort of will not to rub at them, but there'd be no benefit in doing so.

Thia took a few steps back - up the hill, this time, her eyes twinkling as she met his. She, too, rubbed her arms a few times, stretched them out, then raised them, fists held loosely before her face. Her eyes widened slightly as she slipped into Clearsight.

Rel checked his footing, made sure his back foot wasn't going to slip if he needed to retreat. He rolled his shoulders, blinked a few times, and reached for his Gift. Ice seeped around his eyeballs, cutting through the dense feeling of his brow. He'd pushed his powers to the limit yesterday, trying to get some handle on the future. It had been hard to sleep through the night, and the fatigue wasn't quite as gone as it should have been.

Still, it had no effect on the strength of his Gift. The petite figure of Thia sharpened, the stiff linen threads of her shirt each individually clear in the tight weave. It was a loose-fitting garment, but Rel could, if he wanted, have extrapolated the exact shape of her figure from the way it hung on her. With a little effort he'd have been able to map her skeleton under her flesh the same way, but neither step was necessary. It wouldn't help him predict her attacks.

He pushed out a second into the future, the feeling like leaning his forehead into a padded wall. The air blurred with an overlay of rippling blows, growing steadily fiercer as if the mounting tension in the hanging moment had become visible. It was just that the longer they paused, the more likely the next moment was to include combat, and Clearsight laid every possibility atop the others. Only when one of them actually moved would the possibilities start to fall away.

Rather than wait, as he had the last few bouts, he led off. Two sliding steps forward carried him within striking distance, right up to the whirling maelstrom of potential defences. On the attack, you had to be simple, but aware of all the complex options. Rel held his face stiff, forcing his eyes to stay wide as transient blows started to flicker out at him.

His first punch glanced off Thia's expertly-turned forearm. He twisted with it and followed up with a feint that covered his sudden need to get clear of her scything leg-swing. He danced back a step, followed by spraying air and fingers, then hooked for the back of Thia's leg. She was well clear, but that shortened the range of her next blow and all he needed to do was sidestep the swing.

Through the blur, he caught a glimpse of her face, set in a grin of wolfish concentration. Stung wary, he blocked two blows coming in high and to his right, using the opportunity to circle left, aiming for level footing. A wall of flickering futures cut him off, and he struck out carefully, the edge of his hand catching the inside of Thia's incoming knee.

He lunged forward, aiming to barge her off-balance. Not a hard move to counter, since she was already turning against him, but she must have misjudged. Rather than turn him aside, she spun so that he rammed into the back of her right shoulder. She couldn't have offered him a better opportunity; he grabbed her around the waist and chest, catching both her arms.

They stumbled half a step down the hill, and it took Rel an effort of main strength to keep them both upright. Still off-balance, Thia hung in his arms almost as dead weight. She didn't struggle - there was no denying the mistake had cost her the bout - but she also didn't immediately get her footing back and try to stand.

The bout hadn't lasted long enough to get either of them really out of breath, but he could feel her breathing where she pressed against him. She gave no sign of being injured. What was she playing at? He cleared his throat awkwardly - hard to avoid coughing into her hair, which the wind kept blowing into his face. Better to get on with the lesson. "What was your mistake?"

"Not a mistake at all." She leaned her head back to rest on his shoulder, laid her arm along his across her belly. Where it pressed against his jaw, her dark hair was fantastically soft. He twisted his neck awkwardly, trying to give her space, but she followed the movement. He almost staggered at the shift in balance, but Thia had taken some of her own weight back and somehow they held steady.

"I... what?"

She stepped clear like a dancer, turning daintily on one foot. Somehow, she kept hold of his hand. "Too much?" She was smiling, but it slipped a little as she peered at his face. Clearsight told him her expression was puzzlement, and that she herself had dispensed with her Gift. He blinked, letting the world fall back into the ordinary, plain distance.

Thia leaned forward and caught up his other hand, gently holding his fingertips. The edge of one of her fingernails dug in, just slightly, to the underside of his little finger. Her smile faded further, but her cheeks stayed rosy. She said, "Rel, have you... um, have you given any thought to children yet?"

His chest hardened, cold. He'd always assumed, like everyone else back in Federas, that he and Dora would settle down together, at least once he was better-established as Clearseer. They'd talked about it, a few times, but never taken the matter any further than that. Now... well, even if he'd been sure they could recover Dora from Vessit's Abyss, he couldn't deny that she'd be better off with Rissad. He'd Seen the two of them together in the future, one of the few parts of it that still made sense to him.

And Thia... No-one was likely to object to her as a match. She was strong in her Gift, if not as precociously so as Rel. A tough, staunch defender of her town. And she was quite attractive, too, in her dollish way. The loose-fitting clothes she'd worn to train in did little to hide the elegant curves of the figure beneath. Yes, she was small, but far from weak - his bruises testified to that - and she was well-formed with it.

He met her dark eyes, buried in the shadow of thick eyelashes. Even with the day's gloom, there was a glint there; even with whatever nerves she was feeling, her lips were full and smiling slightly. She was a few years older than him, but then, so was Dora. It wouldn't be long, either, before her lack of offspring became a subject of concern for the town.

The population of the First Realm was still too low to be stable, even three generations after the Realmcrash. There was no explicit law about breeding, but everyone knew you had to do it, and choose carefully. It ran doubly so for Gifted, since many of the traits that made for good Gifted were heritable. Temmer and Dieni had both been mothers by Rel's age. But for the controversy over Rel's training, still officially incomplete, he and Dora would have been all but under censure for not getting on with it.

"I... uh... I guess I haven’t thought about it much lately. It’s been a busy year." He freed a hand to scrub through his own hair. "Um... Have you? I mean, uh, why do you ask?"

A flicker of a smile crossed Thia’s lips. Had he said something wrong? Or worse, assumed too much about what she was getting at? She’d taken his hands, but what if she was actually just wanting to remind him of his obligations? But from the way her face fell... She looked down, at his hand in hers. "I’m sorry. I guess it’s a bad time to ask."

She didn’t let go. Feeling as if his whole body was enveloped in the chill of Clearseeing, the moment heavy with too many divergent futures, Rel held absolutely still. His skin wasn’t quite crawling, but he did feel exposed, like he wasn’t quite wearing enough clothing for the weather. Not that the weather mandated heavier clothing. It was growing warm as the day bit in.

Had Thia taken his stumbling awkwardness for rejection? That wasn’t what he’d meant. Maybe it was a bad time to start a relationship, but that didn’t mean he didn’t want to. After all, the world could end any day. Would it not be better not to face that alone? And it would certainly push Taslin away. Or would it? Rel poked at his sore gum with his tongue. Would Taslin back off, or would she become a threat to Thia?

Thia said, "Just... think about it? Please?"

He felt her fingers start to slip through his and grabbed, just fast enough. Met her eyes as they rose to his face. It felt as if he had only one of her fingertips caught between his thumb and forefinger, but he didn’t dare try to get a better grip in case he lost her altogether.

He swallowed, fighting past a hard lump in his throat. "I... uh... I’m not against the idea. Not at all, actually. But, well... I’m... uh..." He didn’t need Clearsight to tell him Thia wasn’t impressed with his fumbling. What was he trying to say? He bit his lip, tried again. "Look, I’m about to put my life in the hands of Rissad and Taslin, neither of whom I trust, for a journey to somewhere I don’t believe exists, that there’s no way of telling if I’ll ever come back from."

"What are you trying to say?" There was a hidden sting in Thia’s tone.

"Well, if I come back... and if there’s a Realm left for me to come back to... I mean, if we both make it through this..." He’d seen her corpse, on the battlefield with almost every other Gifted he knew, in one of the all-too-many apocalyptic futures he’d Seen the previous day. "Let’s try... you know, whatever." He could feel his cheeks heating as he made a vague gesture with his free hand. What did you even call... whatever it was they were talking about?

He found his flapping hand caught and reeled in. Thia placed his hands on her hips and somehow slid up his arms to embrace him. Her nose brushed his cheek, and he felt the silken tickle of her breath. Even with the advantage of the slope, she must have been right up on tiptoes. Her arms tightened at the back of his neck, forcing him to take some of her weight, pulling his head down. Stumbling slightly, he almost missed her whisper of "Thank you."

She smelled of warmth and exertion, her body surprisingly hot against his through their thin shirts. He held her up as she buried her face in his shoulder. Curlicues of breeze lifted fine dark hair into his nose. His hands told him her back was full of tension, probably from straining up to his height. He couldn’t really massage her without letting her weight go.

Rel’s gum throbbed. How was he going to explain about Taslin? Was there anything to explain? Well, okay, he had to make sure Thia knew there was a risk, that the Wilder might see her as a competitor. There was literally no predicting how Taslin might respond to being refused in favour of a human. Could he make it clear to her that he wasn’t interested, without bringing the whole matter up again?

"Do you really think we won’t get through this?" Thia mumbled into his shirt, relaxing her grip so she slid back towards her true height.

This? Did she already know about Taslin? "What do you mean?"

"The... whatever’s coming." She didn’t let him go altogether, her hands resting on his shoulders, her arms lying along his. He didn’t release her either. "The future we can’t See properly."

"The Separation?" Or the Separatists’ attack, at least. What did you say to a question like that? The only futures I saw where we survived had me marrying Taslin. He wasn’t going to say that. After a pause, he said, "I can’t say I like the odds, if that concept even has meaning anymore. They hold all the cards."

"What about Rissad? If you’re going with him..."

Something in Rel’s gut snapped, a tension too long held slipping away. The world seemed to settle a little heavier on him. "I don’t trust him or believe him, but Taslin’s right. I don’t have any better ideas. Taslin..."

"Oh, sweetie..." They pulled back together. It felt almost uncannily synchronised. Maybe that was a good sign. If nothing else, they had plenty of shared understanding to build on. Thia laid the side of her head against Rel’s breastbone, taking a fistful of his shirt in either hand so he could wrap his arms right around her. Faintly, she said, "I trust Rissad to bring you back to me, alright? You’ve got to work with him that far."

Even with the torches Keshnu had installed – still arcanely burning after many months – the caves were gloomy. On Rel’s first journey to the Abyss, he’d found the interaction of the yellow light and sandy cave walls incongruously cozy. Now, though, it seemed to leech more passionate colours from the air. Everything had a sickly tinge to it.

Rissad had handed him a leather pack; he hefted it suspiciously. The light was bad enough that, short of unpacking it in front of the others, there was no way to make out the contents. Watching from a few paces across the cave, Rissad said, "Just a couple of changes of clothing, a razor. You know, the essentials."

"We don’t need to take food?" Rel hefted the bag again. The weight seemed about right. He worked the straps up over his shoulders, then tightened them.

"Shouldn’t do." The other man shrugged. "You don’t take food to the Second Realm, do you? Effectively, if everything goes to plan, we’ll be travelling for no time at all."

"And if things don’t go to plan?" Pevan, standing on the far side of the cave, folded her arms and slouched sideways.

Rissad turned, a slightly fixed smile on his face. Pevan and Thia had been needling him all morning. "If things don’t go to plan, and we somehow still survive, there are ways and means, alright? We might have to improvise a bit, but Dora managed it."

"Not the most reassuring answer you could have given." Rel said it as drily as he could, trying not to let the churning in his gut rule him. "You and Taslin might be able to improvise. Something tells me I won’t."

"You," Rissad straightened, slinging on his own pack, "probably have the best chance of all of us."

Rel frowned. "How so? You’ve been to this Lost Realm before. Taslin admitted that it’s easier for Wildren than humans. What advantage do I have?"

"You have a piece of the Lost Realm in your head." Taslin’s voice, stiff and thin, echoed oddly, as if she was in an entirely different cave. She was stood near the passage to the Abyss, true, but it shouldn’t have changed her acoustics that much. Her face was unreadable.

"Fat lot of good that’ll do me. It’s there for Clearsight, not... whatever it is we’re supposed to be doing."

"You never thought that maybe Clearsight basically is what we’re going to do?" Rissad’s mouth twisted sideways in some sort of smile. The gloom hid exactly what kind. "It’s all navigating the future, basically. My brain’s been reshaped a little for the purpose, Taslin by nature has some natural proclivity for it, but you’re the expert."

Rel just looked at him, putting as much scorn into it as he could. It probably wouldn’t have any effect; precious little did on Rissad, but it would be interesting to see how the Gatemaker handled his first encounter with a recovered Dora. Rel turned to the others, the few who’d come to say good-bye.

He met Thia’s eyes first. Quietly, she said, "Be careful." Pevan shot her a puzzled look, but she didn’t notice, her dark eyes drooping. Rel felt her fear as a hard lump just above his diaphragm. But what could he do? He wasn’t going to start whatever it was they were starting by lying to her about their chances.

Pevan said, "Any last advice?" Chag and Atla, huddled behind her, looked on like hungry puppies.

"Didn’t we go through that already?" Rissad drawled.

Rel took a step towards them. "Defend Vessit. Don’t be lured out to battle elsewhere."

"Yes, thank you, Rel." She rolled her eyes at him, as if she hadn’t asked in the first place. Yes, they’d discussed it back and forth right through their final lunchtime planning session, but if she was going to ask for a summary, she really ought to expect one. "Come back safely."

"We shouldn’t be long." Rissad gestured for Taslin to lead off. Rel clenched his teeth and followed her, while Rissad finished, "Equally, don’t give us up for dead if we take a while. And don’t give up hope."

Rel almost managed to keep from looking back, but by the time he caved, the tunnel wall hid the others from view. The average hue of the light shifted as they hunched through to the Abyss, the brownish tinge fading to a cleaner, crisper black-and-white. Moisture glistened on dark stone. It was colder down here, where distant waterfalls in the chasm stirred the air to constant movement.

At the front of the party, Taslin emerged onto the wide, crumbling expanse of concrete which had once formed the atrium to the ancient research facility here. The door to the facility – itself a sheet of concrete almost as large as the ledge – stood open, blocking their path as firmly as any wall. Only the massive steel hinges binding it to the wall proper suggested it had ever moved.

Taslin, though, wasn’t interested in the door. Rissad’s Gateways could get them past it without problem. Instead, the Gift-Giver turned to the Abyss. Despite himself, Rel stood next to her and followed her gaze, knowing exactly what she was looking at.

It was as if a sliver of sunlight had wormed its way down through the sea and bedrock above their heads to illuminate a patch of the mist floating in the chasm. Where there should have been only darkness, perhaps the faint reflection of the sparse torches, there was a blur of indistinct colour. A mottling of greens and browns. The colour of a forest on a dreary northern day.

He could have sunk into his Gift and resolved the blur, if he wanted to – had done so, once before, at Taslin’s insistence – but he preferred to remember what Dora looked like than see the reminder of what she had now become. Clearsight would show him all the stresses and strains that were slowly tearing her apart as she fought to hold the Realm together. It was a fight she couldn’t win alone.

Taslin was watching him, her violet eyes drilling into him, seeing deeper than a human could. He glared at her until she turned away and started moving, then looked back to Rissad just as the other man finished a gesture that might have been blowing a kiss.

Quietly, Rissad said, "Remember, if one thing unites us at all, we all want to help her."

Rel forced a swallow down his tight throat. "Get us a Gate open. There’s nothing to be gained by dawdling now."

"Only because I happen to believe Dora would agree with you." Rissad reached out an arm and flicked his fingers in the direction of the door. An oval hole appeared in the surface, a little higher than a man. The far side was just slightly too dark for it to seem like a natural opening. Taslin stepped through without breaking stride, and for a moment Rel thought he could see a faint haze of deep purple around her.

He picked at his sore gum for a moment, remembering what the Gift-Giver had looked like in violet silk. Since Ilbertin, she’d abandoned her pretence of human beauty. Now, she wore dark, stiff clothes that seemed to flatten out her figure. She’d grown shorter, as well, and he was sure her face looked more alien than he remembered it. Well, she’d as good as admitted that her prior appearance had been aimed at seducing him. She’d come all too close to succeeding.

He took a deep breath and ducked through the Gateway, Rissad close on his heels. The Gatemaker seemed to linger over closing the Gate a moment longer than was necessary, but he didn’t look out to the Abyss as it closed. Then, of all things, he lifted his nose as if sniffing the air.

After a moment, he said, "Good, the Sherim seems pretty calm."

"You mean it works like normal Sherim?" Rel glanced into the old research facility. It was almost completely dark in there, but he could pick out occasional metallic glints. The tangled mess of staircases, catwalks and storage racks which spiralled out to the Lost Realm was hidden, too daunting to think too much about right now.

"In almost no particular at all," Rissad grinned, his tone lazy. He sounded altogether too pleased with himself. "Except the ones that really matter. We’ll cross it much as we would an ordinary Sherim. Your mind-walk will feel a little different to normal, of course, but by the time you notice you should be deep enough in that all you need to do is not panic and drop out."

"And on the far side?" Rel folded his arms, ignoring the look Taslin shot at him. She was already hovering on the edge of stepping onto the facility’s metal floor. "Will we even know when we’re through?"

"Sure." Rissad matched Rel’s pose, but didn’t seem to notice he was doing so. "I can’t really make any promises past that point, though. Last time I did this I was in no fit state to be observant. I’d say go for your Gift as soon as you’re through. We may yet end up following your lead."

Taslin turned back from the darkness to face them, her expression a picture of anxiety. Important to remember it was only a picture. She said, "What about within the Sherim? How do we navigate?"

Rissad shrugged, sobering. "All I can offer is that I don't remember making any choices of direction. I don't think any of the walkways cross over. We'll pick one and stick with it."

"You go first, then." Rel tried to make it a joke, but the humour stuck in his throat and made him sound angry instead.

The other man didn't seem to notice or care. He took a deep breath, bent down to rub his leg – where it had been broken last time he'd come this way, Rel realised – and started forwards. Taslin turned on her heel to follow him, the gloom in the laboratory swallowing her dark hair and dress. All that was left of her were two triangles of white skin, the back of her neck either side of her gently-swaying ponytail.

Rel looked over his shoulder at the Abyss. Knowing that Dora was up there, somewhere, made it seem very much less dark than the way Rissad had gone. Could Dora tell what he was about to do? Would she approve? He didn't feel like he was being any less rash than he had been in coming to Vessit, or any of his other mistakes.

He carried the worries into the old lab. Rissad was already leading Taslin up one of the steel staircases. Rel couldn't tell if it was the same one he'd guarded the bottom of during Rissad's escape – there were two near the entrance, with a third barely visible further back into the room. Racks filled with large plastic water bottles and other survival equipment formed the pillars supporting thin catwalks overhead.

There wasn't enough light anymore to see the shape of the structure, but Rel could still picture the spiral. He was sure that somewhere deep inside the cave, there were stairs and walkways that were upside-down relative to where he now stood. He set off up the stairs after Rissad. Not like he wasn't used to Sherim that played hell with gravity.

Dora, after all, had spent weeks teaching him how not to fall out of Sherim when gravity said he should. At Federas, there were no stairs, but the path through the Sherim lifted you slowly into the sky. Here, at least, there would probably always be something under his feet if he looked down.

Half-remembered impressions flickered past his eyes. Looking down to see the grass standing up straight beneath his feet. Dora's tricks, bouncing pebbles off his shoes, or using finely-handled Wild Power to throw flickers of colour across the bottom of his peripheral vision. Rel stumbled on the stairs, remembering the lurch as the Sherim had dropped him loose. Dora had never made him fall from higher than a couple of metres, but the threat had always been there.

Here under Vessit, there was less chance of distracting himself with anything seen out of the corners of his eyes. He had to feel every footstep out with his toe, the space was so dark. He didn't dare risk Clearseeing this close to a Sherim, even if Rissad was right about his Gift. And despite the fact that there were plenty of people here who might be out to trick him.

He could feel Dora at his back, willing him on. Her tricks had been played to teach him, to prepare him for his Gift and his role as Gifted. Taslin, on the other hand, had tricked him left, right and centre. A sting traced the edges of his sore gum. Squinting, he could still pick her out by normal light. Would her eyes be hampered by the darkness at all?

If she turned to face him, he'd probably be able to see her violet irises, shining in the darkness. Rel caved to the instinct that was screaming at him to put his hands on the handrails. If he turned to face Dora, would she see him, somehow? How would he face her, when next they saw each other?

It had been hard enough to look her in the eye last time. Her eyes were always hard. Taslin had some of the same quality, but more ostentatious. Without Clearsight chilling and lifting them, Rel's eyes felt heavy, leaden, but lead was a soft metal. The gantry turned a sharp corner, then another. He wasn't convinced that one of them hadn't been horizontal-vertical rather than left-right.

A point of chill sank into his eyes, right in the middle of his vision. He blinked, but all that did was leave a line of ice up the inside of his eyelids. Ahead, the darkness rippled around Taslin's figure. He blinked again, harder, knowing that this was somehow a product of his Gift. You didn't risk your Gift in a Sherim. That had been one of Dora's first and sternest lessons.

Of course, that hadn't stopped him when necessary. The first time he and Taslin had dared a Sherim in pitch darkness together, it had been inside Dora's head. Her rippling outline shifted ahead of him, and memory showed him the exact expression on her face – just how she'd looked at him as the Axtli had slid its spines in after them, sensing only that they were food of a sort.

The glimmer of torchlight from on high recalled their other lunatic crossing, too. That time there had been no darkness at all, the Sherim itself a pillar of fire. Taslin had placed her life in trust to his eyes, even though his Gift couldn't see her. She was fading out even now, wrapped in shifting gloom.

Rel blinked again, then rubbed his eyes hard. He stopped after a moment, staring in horror through his hands. Layer on layer of cells peeled apart, an intricate multidimensional map floating at the ends of his arms. He flexed his fingers. No pain; this was all Gifted perception, processed by his mind as bizarre illusion because it was the only way to handle all that information.

His Gift was out of his control. The cold that had been so tightly concentrated in his eyes flooded through him, as if he'd walked under a waterfall. He turned to Dora, far behind –

The facility wasn't empty anymore. Behind him, it seethed with activity, thousands of ghosts coming and going through one another. Some of them were unmistakably human; others had the elongated figures and ethereal grace of Wildren. In some cases the two seemed to blur together; creatures that were undeniably solid humans but bizarrely tall and thin, or shimmering displacements of Gift-Giver-shaped air whose faces he could recognise.

And Rel was among them. His gut clenched in anticipation of a seizure that never came. This was Clearsight, but he could see himself just fine. In some scenes, he was heading into the Sherim, in others leaving it, back to the real world. Sometimes, he looked as grim as a cliff wall, others silly with happiness.

One future he recognised stood out. He returned to Rissad and Dora at the Abyss, with Taslin beside them. The Gift-Giver's invisibility was preserved, but he'd recognise that particular hole in the air anywhere. She broke into a run to greet him, and even at this spatial and temporal distance he could feel her joy. Could see it mirrored in his own future face, for that matter. Where was Thia?

He squinted, searching for any signs of Coercion, but other futures blurred across that one. Something tripped him – the staircase he was still climbing, backwards – and he fell against a firm, supple body. An arm seized him across the chest, and he felt breath on his ear as Taslin whispered, "Rel, are you alright?"

The moment splintered, just as futures did in a Clearviewing when an important choice was reached. He could feel a dozen different responses piled up in his throat – a dozen different copies of his throat. It was enough to make a man choke.

Somehow, he managed, "My eyes..."

"Your Gift's gone active," she hissed back, futures scattering before her anger and fear. "You must control it. Let me guide your body."

His skin crawled at her touch. Looking through the place where her arm should have appeared, he could see his shirt squeezed flat against his chest. It looked almost smooth enough to be skin. Images of that fine, delicate hand running over his skin rose and he had to bite hard into the inside of his lip to banish them.

When he tried to stand, though, too many different nows spun him apart. He felt as if his frozen eyes were steaming, spreading out into the darkness. He could see nothing but himself, everywhere.

Her voice echoing with other things she could have said, Taslin growled, "Master it!"

"How?" Rel felt his own response split – he could say it in fear, or frustrated anger. Her responses were laid out an arm's reach into the future. She'll meet his anger with her own contempt, telling him he's supposed to be the expert. Or she, too, could respond in fear, because if even he is lost, what chance does she stand? Or, if he showed his fear, either her desperation will overwhelm her or she'll find some reservoir of strength from which to reassure him.

Branching and branching, Rel spread out through the future, mind numb where it should have been tearing apart. Ghosts flickered through the myriad pathways, some recognisable – Rissad, Fate, Taslin – and others utterly unfamiliar. Here and there, they make – will make – attempts to reach out and steady him. They might as well try to catch water in a net.

Shattering further, he'll rebound upon himself, a spray of pebbles across the rippling weft of the Realm. The process dilutes him, thinning his awareness, distant futures blurring like landmarks on the horizon. Still, though, he feels Taslin's arm across his chest, her grip under his armpit pinching sharply.

He tries to pull himself together and discovers that he never came apart. In the future he is diffuse – of course, spread out across all those possibilities – but here, now, there is only one of him. Taslin's grip relaxes, then fades altogether, replaced by a constant, steady pressure over every inch of his skin, as if he's trapped inside a block of something smooth and immobile. For a moment, he has to fight the reflex to breathe. This is not the First Realm anymore. Physical sustenance is, for present purposes, a thing of the past.

This is the Lost Realm.

Rel blinks, his Gift locked firmly in place, beyond his ability to deactivate. His eyes are spheres of perfect cold, spreading numbness through the front of his face. Despite the trauma of the crossing, there's no sense of fatigue at all. And he realises, how can there be fatigue without the normal passage of time?

And yet, he's not exactly seeing anything. He still can't move, but there's no sign of what's holding him in place. Shapes surround him, filled in, for the most part, in non-colours. He's sandwiched tightly between Rissad and Taslin, though they can't be all that's holding him fixed in place.

From the shape frozen onto Rissad's face – his every muscle locked – the Gatemaker is used to this. Even Taslin is still recognisably human in form. She'd said that the physics here were kinder to Wildren than humans, but he can tell she's not comfortable. Can see it in the way she'll react if he asks how she's doing. To hell with her feelings. He snatches his Gift back before it can scuttle away into the messed blur of futures.

Are you stuck? The understanding dances into Rel's head almost without him noticing that it is Rissad's. It's like the feeling of putting a sentence into order before writing it down, but as if someone else is writing through him. Rel's arms tingle with muscles trying to shape the words. A shiver runs through him and thumps into dead weight at the boundary of his being.

He tries to think back Yes, but it doesn't feel like Rissad hears. The other man somehow managed to transfer his thought across into Rel's head. How did he do that? Taslin had heard him, too; her affirmation washes back in the opposite direction, layering atop the question, still trapped in the now.

Something reaches past him and pulls the question and response apart, sets them next to each other in the proper sequence. Rel sees the gap where his own answer should go, but his Gift starts to slide off the now. He scrabbles at it, runnels of ice that have nothing to do with Clearsight spreading into his gut. If he loses his precious, static balance, how will he keep from shattering across the endless plain of the future? He can feel it out there, waiting to dissolve him as it almost did in the Sherim.

Taslin's intervention had saved him then, but now she fills the next space in the sequence. The one where his answer was supposed to go. He slides further, unable even to grunt or whimper. Is she pushing him out of equilibrium? Does she realise what she's doing?

Of course she does. This Realm is more amenable to her kind than his. But why choose now to attack? She could have left him to fall apart in the Sherim. Or has something she's seen warned her about Thia? Rel can't remember if he's seen Thia in any of his futures. He'd seen her dead on the battlefield, from back in Vessit, but what about on this trip? Had she been in any of the futures he'd almost lost himself in?

A jolt runs through him, like a rope slipping, or a drainpipe starting to pull out of the wall under strain. Now someone really is trying to pull him loose. There's another gap along the sequence, beyond Taslin's words. He can't see that far. Wildly, he flails his mind, trying to fend off encroaching sentences. Even if she does mean him well, she's going to break him.

You have to move yourself into the future here. Taslin's advice – in that useless, patronising tone she sometimes falls into – arrives in one piece, not really like a spoken sentence at all. Again, there's that feeling that it assembled itself in his mind, ready to be let out one word at a time. Somehow he's strayed into the next place in sequence. Beyond, Rissad is busy filling the next, despite still being locked in place next to him.

The other man's communication begins to pull at Rel. Maybe he can trust Rissad. Or at least, maybe he'd rather trust Rissad than Taslin. There's no telling what Taslin's motivations might be, but Rissad was human once. Rel stops fighting the strange feeling of slippage, his muscles still locked immobile. As if in direct answer, the Gatemaker's communication wells up inside him: You can't move physically here, Rel.

Fire burns through his chest and throat as his body tries to speak the words, but Rel endures. And he's still here. He's survived two jarring steps into the future without ripping apart. Actually, it doesn't feel like the future at all. That makes sense, he guesses; it's become the present. He manages – sort of – to relax as he's moved forward again. More from Rissad: Just let me take the lead for now.

Shift again, and the new moment is at a slight angle to the old. I know where we're going.

Ordinarily, this would be a very complicated process. It's still Rissad talking – or at least, communicating – and the line of moments is developing a slow curve.

Another moment. Fortunately, Fate was able to give me precise instructions for this journey.
There might not be much for you to look at.

That might be for the best, though, given how easily distracted your Gift seems to be.

Rel wants to snap back, but the jibe cuts a little too close to the bone, and he still can't tell how Rissad is communicating. He settles for allowing himself to be slid into the next place, and the next. He gets the hang of it, begins to make his own way after Rissad. Burying his mind and his Gift in each successive now, he can almost ignore Taslin's approval.

There are flickers at the corners of his vision at each step, but he's trained for years to stay focussed in his Gift. No matter how tempting the future – was that a glimpse of Thia? – he has to keep to the route that matters. More so here than ever before, given the risks.

Rissad's prediction proves perfectly accurate. There's nothing to the journey but the steady progression of future moments. They fall into a rhythm, like strides perfectly matched to the lengths of paving slabs back home in Federas. The monotony makes it difficult to maintain the hard edge of focus, but a steady tingle of fear holds Rel sharp.

And yet, when the end came, he barely noticed it. It was only a small step from having nothing to look at to darkness, and his eyes were too numb to pick up the lights in the distance. He stumbled forwards a few steps, but it was blinking that woke him up. The chill of his Gift vanishing lifted a haze. He got a hand onto the railing, guided entirely by instinct, before his legs gave out under him.

Ahead, Rissad did little better, almost toppling over the lip of the staircase. There was no sound from Taslin, and when Rel looked back she was standing pristine and tall, her perfect Wildren image intact. Her black gown had developed shimmering purple embroidery across the bodice, one of those inexplicable shifts in outfit that he'd never quite managed to decode.

He rubbed a finger over his chin, poking at his sore gum. The catwalk they were on and the staircase descending from it looked very like those in the old research lab under Vessit. This room, though, was empty by comparison; just this gantry and another parallel to it. There was only the faintest hint of the Sherim at his back, a slight tension pulling on the back of his eyeballs.

Wherever they were, it was vast. Harsh, white light framed an opening into darkness straight ahead, yards high and wide. The walls stretched up to a ceiling which had to be as high above him as the catwalk was above the ground, and there was a probably-fatal fall over the railing. If anything, the space was wider than it was tall. There was the faint whisper of moving air, made deep and hoarse by the size of the space.

Rissad's footsteps rang from the metal walkway and echoed back two or three times each. Rel followed him, trying to resist the urge to tip-toe. Empty though this room was, it had the definite sense of being in use. The dazzling lights could only be artificial, and the fact that they were lit bothered him.

Under the far staircase, hard-edged shadows almost hid familiar-looking steel-grilled storage racks, laden with big plastic water bottles and other containers. There were only a couple of racks, and he couldn't see them too clearly, but they looked exactly like the ones from Vessit. Probably there were two more beneath them right now, but he couldn't twist to peer between the steps without getting in Taslin's way. Her footsteps were even sharper and louder than Rissad's.

Below, Rissad paused and turned. "Worked out where we are yet?"

Rel stopped, then had to take an extra step down when he felt Taslin's breath tickling the back of his neck. "Has something gone wrong? We're not... back where we started?"

"Back where, but not when." Rissad grinned, the expression carved into a mask of hideous evil by the shadows. "This is Vessit, about three hundred years after the Realmcrash."

"Oh. Uh..." Rel frowned. "Why have we come back to Vessit, though?"

"At a guess," Taslin cut in, "because spatial movement isn't possible in the Lost Realm. There's no room for it."

"Top pupil." Rissad's grin was still unsettling. "Come on. There are people expecting us, but I'm glad we're here ahead of them. I want to show you something. Maybe then you'll be suitably impressed." He said the last with a hint of pique that had to be put-on. Didn't it?

He led them to the bottom of the stairs and opened a Gateway whose far side faced a glass-clear night sky, generously sprinkled with stars. Rel watched him drop through, feet first, twisting in flight to bring him out upright, and followed the motion. He barely noticed the disorientation of the swing in gravity, but landing on a slope caught him out. The grass he landed on was damp, and slippery with it. Rissad had to catch his sleeve to steady him.

The view, when it stabilised, was baffling. Moonlight rippled across the bay, painting the horizon with the deadly gleam of a knife-blade. Before that, where the dark shapes of the battered old city should have been, there was a second sky, blazing with starlight. It took him a long moment to place the lights into their graceful rows and chains, up and around the sides of buildings.

"They flattened the old city." Rissad's whisper barely carried over the night's breeze. "This is the capital of the First Realm, now."

"That's not torchlight." There was a heat in Taslin's voice that Rel had to brace himself not to cringe away from.

"Look at the horizon." A patch of darkness against the glittering city, Rissad raised his arm. "I don't know all the details, and I'm not the one to try to explain anyway, but the First Realm is a lot bigger now than in our time. The Second, too. One of the effects was that pre-crash physics has stabilised in this central region."

Rel squinted at the silver glare. No matter how he tried, he couldn't snag his eyes on the slight hitch that you normally got looking at the edges of the Realm. Better not to risk using his Gift; there was presumably still some Realmlessness above them somewhere, and he was tired enough for peering into the Realmlessness to be a very bad idea.

Rissad turned and set off towards the lights, stumbling slightly as his first step slipped. "Come on, let's go and meet your grandchildren."

What did he mean by that? Was he just being metaphorical, or was this a future in which Rel had had children? With Thia? There had been no hint of that on the journey. And what if Rissad had meant it collectively – Rel's and Taslin's children? Gritting his teeth, all too conscious of the Gift-Giver at his back, Rel followed.

* * *

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