Friday, 28 March 2014

The Iron is Cooling...

What do you do when you're running up against a deadline and you can't get into the right headspace for writing?

I've had a brilliant start to the year. As I discussed last time out, numbers are up across the board. When I logged in to write this post just now, I discovered that this is the first month I've ever had on this blog where I've had over 10,000 pageviews.

But this month, I've barely written anything. In fact, by the standards of previous years, I've barely written anything in the whole time that things started looking up. It's not quite writer's block; I can write sometimes, but I'm a lot more prone to getting blocked on a scene for a while. Doors (my writing nemesis) are stickier than ever. I've spent far too many hours this week staring at the full stop at the end of the most recent paragraph of The Second Realm (whichever paragraph that happened to be at the time), with my brain feeling Tipp-Exed out between my ears.

There are several factors at play. My imagination just hasn't been as active since getting seriously stuck into the writing of my PhD thesis a couple of years ago. I've thought or dreamt up far fewer new ideas - only two that I thought were any cop in the last twelve months. I'm sure this is just a matter of finding time to properly unwind, but I don't think such time will be available in time (if that makes any sense ;D).

There's also the length of time I've been at work on The Second Realm. This month's episode was the twenty-fifth, spread across twenty-eight months, and through that time, work on it has been fairly constant. I've taken breaks, for NaNoWriMo 2011 and 2013 (in 2012, I wrote Second Realm episodes for NaNo) and for a couple of other hiccups, but for over two years my normal state has been 'working on The Second Realm'. I don't take well to this kind of drawn-out process; I prefer to work in short, sharp bursts with long periods of down-time (more accurately, other projects) in between.

Thirdly, there's everything else that's happened in the last three months, particularly with my day-job. Since there are issues of client confidentiality involved, I shouldn't say very much, but what I will say is that it's been impossible to tell, week to week and sometimes even day to day, when I would be in work and whether I would get paid if there were cancellations. As a creature of routine and habit, I've found this hugely exhausting and disruptive. I am desperate for the Easter break to start, but there's another week still to go even before that.

And I feel like I'm letting an opportunity slip through my fingers. I know that bursts of interest like the one I'm reading to all these sharp spiky peaks on all my graphs need nurturing, that they can drop off very quickly if you don't keep delivering. Ideally, I need a new episode of The Second Realm to put out in no more than about three weeks' time, but my strategy for 'delivering' seems at the moment to be 'hiding from the blank space at the bottom of the page in the next episode' and playing lots of World of Warcraft.

So I'm appealing for suggestions (besides the obvious ones, like 'less internet/gaming/moping') - what can I actually try to rejuvenate my inspiration? How do I tackle scenes where I'm getting stuck every other paragraph trying to work out what a character would say next?

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Wellll... *something* is definitely working...

I like graphs:

That's the graph (which has appeared several times before on this blog) of downloads of Second Realm episodes on Smashwords. Each data point is a week, and I've been tracking since late May 2012, so it's basically two years' worth of data. The particular thing I like about this graph is that bit where it shoots up on the right-hand side; traffic has rocketed over the last couple of months.

Last week, as you can see, was the biggest week ever for the series. That's the blue line, which is the simple 'how many downloads this week' line. Notice too, though, that the red and green lines, which are rolling averages, are up in a big way - that's a measure of  how consistent traffic is, aiming to even out the spikes created by the fact that I only release one episode a month. The green average, which is the longer-term of the two, now stands at almost 150% of its previous peak, in August of 2012.

Hits on this blog are up pretty substantially, too; March is on track to smash the previous record (from last March). This is presumably because I'm updating regularly again - though it's worth noting that I'm blogging half as much as I did this time last year, to significantly greater effect. There seems to be more throughput from blog to downloads, too, so maybe I'm finally getting the hang of this blogging thing. I have tried to change my approach lately - aiming to be less preachy, less pompous, and to write more about my personal experience.

There is, of course, another relevant piece of information:

(Yes, I know I said I'd stop bitching about the damn PhD soon. Obviously I meant 'but not just yet' ;) )

Actually, that graph is slightly misleading, but it is true that the big dead spot which you can see through last summer corresponds to the most intense period of work I've done on the PhD; something similar goes for my failure to capitalise on the massive spike from the summer before. The PhD still isn't quite over, but I'm already starting to feel like I've been unleashed.

To cap it all off, I got a lovely 5-star review on Smashwords yesterday from Rebecca Whitlock (many thanks and I hope you continue to enjoy the series, if you're reading this). All in all, it's been a very good start to the year and I hope I can keep it up. That will, of course, require me to somehow manage to finish the next episode *and* my PhD in the next three weeks or so, but I'm getting there...

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Words that confuse me: 'liberal'

Growing up in the UK in the 90s and 00s, the Liberal Democrat Party was the main option for left-wing voters who didn't trust Tony Blair's 'New' Labour Party. Though (or perhaps because they were) electorally something of a running joke, always third and never in a position to contest for second, they stood for everything that real politicians lacked the conscience to stand for. They were, or at least seemed like, a party of compassion in an age of spin, a party of reason and intellect in an age of populism, the first party beside the Greens to take ecological issues seriously and so on.

I was proud to help my dad campaign for them in the 2001 and 2005 general elections, to support him in his (ultimately unsuccessful) bid to be a Lib Dem councillor, and to vote for them twice myself, at a by-election in 2005 and again in 2010 - though in the latter case, the choice proved profoundly misguided. It will be a long time before I vote for them again, I suspect, but that's a different story.

That was my first experience with 'liberalism'. In college and university, studying philosophy, I had my second, in John Stuart Mill's 'On Liberty' and related reading. As presented in that book (though a broader picture of Mill's work is more complex), liberalism is a primarily social doctrine about ensuring equality of treatment for all and maximising personal freedom, particularly of culture and expression. It fit very well with my understanding of 'liberal'.

So I was very surprised, when working as support in a sociology of education lecture, to hear the lecturer say that the father of classical liberalism is Adam Smith, he of 'The Wealth of Nations', which to me at the time was the founding work of the profoundly right-wing ideology of laissez-faire capitalism.

I was discussing this contrast with a friend a couple of weeks ago (hi Andy!) and he opined that 'liberal' is a meaningless term these days. It's certainly hard to reconcile a term that can refer both to Mill and Adam Smith, or in a more modern frame to both John Maynard Keynes on the left and Milton Friedman on the right.

Partly, it's to do with the growing gap between American and British English. Even Wikipedia has had to admit that there's a split developing. Roughly, in Britain where socialism has always traditionally represented the left, 'liberalism' is generally taken in a more right-wing sense (though this is less true in the middle class, who I think are less influenced by a socialist conceptual scheme), whereas in America, where socialism has been so thoroughly demonised that it's a political smear, 'liberal' is the safe (or at least safer) label for a left-wing politician. It wouldn't be the first time that I've absorbed the American definition of a term over the British.

Anyway, I'm interested to hear if anyone else is as confused as I am by all this. What does 'liberal' mean to you?

(Sidebar: let's keep the - entirely justified - complaints about the behaviour of the lib dems since 2010 elsewhere, please? None of us are happy about it, but it's a debate for a different time.)

Saturday, 8 March 2014

The Second Realm 7.1: Lights in the Dark

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Innocent and Incomplete

1. Lights in the Dark

Chag tried to sneak one last kiss as Pevan pulled back, but all he could manage was to brush her cheek with his lips. He shivered against the sea breeze, conscious of all the hostile eyes at his back. Pevan was leaving him here, almost completely without allies, because even that was better than taking him back with her to Federas. Probably.

Gulls called across the steel-grey sky. Behind Pevan, in the brown grit of the Vessit street, a puddle of that same sky opened up; her Gateway, its far end sat on a hillside somewhere to the North. She still held both of his hands, and he squeezed her fingers, not wanting to let go.

Her gaze flicked across his face, sharp-edged but – he hoped – with an undercurrent of gratitude for his affection. Then she looked past him to the others. All of Vessit's Gifted, even Wolpan, had turned out to see her off, along with the Sheriff and one of his guardsmen. From the look on Pevan's face, that troubled her almost as much as it troubled Chag.

Still, when she spoke she kept her voice bright. "See you in a few days. Fortune favour you all."

Chag heard a quiet, "And you," from Thia behind him, but he didn't turn away as Pevan's hand slipped out of his. She stepped back again, then again onto the empty air of the Gateway. Despite himself, Chag jerked forwards as she fell away. She disappeared from view with mild amusement on her face, the Gate closing before she'd found her feet on the other side.

He looked up, northwards along the coast, straining his eyes for any flicker of movement that might be Pevan. There was no sign at all. Probably she was miles away already. Still, he kept looking, hoping that the crowd would disperse before he had to turn and face them. He couldn't expect them to understand how he was feeling, after all.

"Alright, take him." Wolpan's voice sliced through all the noises of the shore.

Chag turned to find the Sheriff and his deputy advancing on him. Thia and Bersh were protesting noisily at Wolpan, but he couldn't make them out over each other's noise. The grating sound of metal on metal drew his attention to the manacles clenched in the deputy's fist. He started to back away. "What's... what's going on?"

Wolpan brushed off the protests from her squad and stepped around Bersh. "You're still a wanted criminal, Van Raighan. We should have done this when you first appeared."

"Then why didn't you?" Thia grabbed Wolpan's sleeve. The Clearseer was a good five inches shorter than Wolpan, but Wolpan visibly flinched.

"Taslin convinced me to accept the Atcar girl's surety." The Four Knot sneered. "With both of them gone, something must be done to keep him in check."

The Sheriff's expression suggested running would be a bad idea. Numbly, Chag offered up his wrists. The cuffs of the manacles were cold, but quite loose. Not that he thought he'd be getting out of them any time soon. The Sheriff took hold of the chain, yanked it downwards so Chag stumbled forwards and had to stand half-bowed.

Bersh said, "This is Gifted business, Wolpan."

"Quite so." She didn't even look at the burly Guide, instead turning her attention to the Sheriff. "Put him in the Warding Hall cell."

It was the second Warding Hall Chag had been held in. The cells existed so that Coerced humans could be kept free of external influence from concealed Wildren while Gift-Givers were called, but he didn't know of any ever having been used for that purpose. Victims of Coercion were seldom taken captive.

In Federas, at least, the cell had been well-maintained. The bed had been recognisably a bed, not a barely-padded plank mounted to the wall, and someone had swept the place since it had been built. There had been no privacy – one wall of the cell, by law, had to be bars only – but at least his company had normally been Pevan.

But then, Federas saw enough action that perhaps Coercion was a real threat. It was clear that no-one in Vessit felt the same way. The first time Chag had sat down on the cot, it had shaken off so much dust that his eyes and nose were now streaming. Bersh had insisted that a fresh candle be found for the wobbly sconce on the opposite wall, but all that did was add the faint hint of singed grime to the air. The cell was gloomy as a crypt.

He couldn't tell what time of day it was. Pevan had left in the late morning, on some sort of bet with Thia that she could make it across the five hundred miles to Federas before sundown. She'd seemed confident, but so had Thia. And Thia could See the future. Chag had had to worm his way out of the question of who he was backing.

His sleeve was sodden from dabbing at his eyes. His cheeks stung from all the chafing. That had to indicate he'd been here a while, at least, right? Maybe it was worth trying to sleep. At least it wasn't too cold in the cell. He stretched out on the pallet. Even as short as he was, he could put his toes on the wall at one end and feel his hair catching in the rough stonework above his head.

Perhaps a third of the candle was gone. Chag stared at it, patiently waiting as the image lifted itself through the bars and into his Gift. The illusory motion as he froze the moment for safe-keeping was perfectly smooth, but carried with it the suggestion of immense weight, like a pallet of bricks being winched up to the top of a high wall. How fast did a candle burn? At least with it Witnessed, he'd have some measure of the time if he did manage some sleep.

He needn't have bothered. There was nothing else in the cell to look at. He stared at the dwindling candle, a chill seeping into his spine. If he couldn't keep track of the time when staring right at it, it didn't seem likely that Wolpan would remember to come down and put a new one in its place. What would the cell be like in total darkness?

There was a rustle, and for a second he thought of rats. His skin tried to climb off and press itself into the cracks in the wall. Then a sharper sound, a foot falling on stone, dispelled that fear. Chag wasn't sure if that was an improvement or not.

The next footstep was quieter, slower. Nervous breathing hissed down the stairs in faint echo. The door shut, its thud low and heavy under the clash of the latch. There had been no spill of light while it was open – did that make it night-time? Vessit's Warding Hall wasn't the brightest of rooms.

Chag levered himself upright on the bench, wincing as it pressed against his hip, which had clearly bruised in the night. Keeping his voice low, trying to hide his unease, he called, "Who's there?"

The footsteps paused, and so did the breathing. For a moment, the only motion was the flicker of the candle. Chag felt as if a great chasm had opened in his chest, and his heart was dangling over the edge of it. He wanted to shiver.

"It's Atla." The boy must have been barely moving his lips. He finished descending the stairs and stepped into the feeble haze of candlelight. It made him little more than a tousle-headed outline in the gloom, but at least Chag could tell he wasn't an impostor. Probably not a Wilder in disguise, either, this close to the town's Stable Rods.

"What are you doing here?" Chag found himself whispering. Forcing himself to speak up, he finished, "What time is it?"

Atla jumped at the words, glanced back over his shoulder. "Um... it's night. I'm not sure... uh, early morning, I guess. I, uh, I've been asleep. But..."


"Uh..." The boy visibly swallowed. "My Gift woke me. I, um, think there might be Wildren nearby."

Chag frowned. "Why come here?" Could Guides sense Wildren? He thought he remembered something about that.

"Well, uh, you're a Witness, right?" Atla looked away again, then shook his head. "You can check and bring back proof. I mean... well, and then they'll trust you again. Um."

"You were planning to break me out of here in order to earn Wolpan's trust?" It was hard to keep a straight face. Was it even a good idea to break out at all? Wolpan wasn't likely to give him much of a second chance.

"Not- uh, no, I mean..." The lad looked down, darkness swallowing his face. When he spoke again, his voice was very small. "I hadn't even thought about getting you out."

Chag pressed a hand to his forehead. Of course it couldn't be that easy. He took a deep breath. "Look, I wouldn't be much use anyway. You should just report to Bersh. Then he can check and take it to Wolpan."

"But-!" Atla's voice choked off in a squeak. He cleared his throat and tried again. "I don't think Bersh will, um, believe me. I mean, uh... I don't think his Gift is as sensitive in this way."

"Thia, then. She seems pretty reasonable."

Atla straightened, almost as if in shock. "Good idea." He turned and sprinted at the stairs, setting the candle flame guttering.

"No, wait, Atla!" Chag called, too late. His shout disappeared into the thunderous slam of the door. The noise lingered, rolling around the hall above and roaring distantly through the floor. The candle wasn't recovering. Its puddle of light was drying up, flickering and stumbling against the darkness.

Chag reached out, took hold of the cell's bars. He gripped hard, willing life into the flame even as it dipped again. It rallied once, held for a moment, and then the only light was the ember at the tip of the wick. That, too, faded, and the dark was absolute.

A noise startled him, before he realised it was his own breathing. His chest hurt, a stiff feeling round the edges of his breastbone, as if something was wrong with his heart. In his hands, the iron bars were icy, the chill spreading out into his fingers and beginning to crawl up his sleeves. He let go and edged backwards, reaching for the bed. At least there he could press his back against the wall.

Without the hint of burnt dust from the candle, the air was dank, like wearing slightly-damp clothing. Chag's eyelids were rigid with tension, his eyes aching as they pressed against the gloom. He found the wall, the stones cold enough to feel slick under his hands. He put his back to it anyway – much though it made him shiver, the primal edge to his fear receded a touch.

The twinge in his back from sitting so straight and stiff for so long was well past agonising by the time anything happened. When the door at the top of the stairs banged open, he tried to get to his feet and stumbled. Unfolding his waist seemed to take a very long time, and he was conscious of his groan drowning out an angry voice from the top of the stairs.

A woman's voice. Wolpan's? Chag managed to straighten, but the darkness held. Somewhere out in it, Atla gulped a breath and stuttered short of speech.

"Chag?" Wolpan had never sounded so genuinely concerned, but the voice was too high for Pevan's.

He cleared his throat, almost choking at how dry it was. "Yeah? Who is it?"

"Bloody hell, I'm going to kill Wolpan." It was Thia. Marit, the only other female Gifted in Vessit, would never have spoken so freely. "Hang on, I'll get you out of there."

Now he knew it was Thia, he could hear something dainty about the approaching footsteps. Even Atla, who generally looked as if he tiptoed everywhere, sounded clumsy by contrast. Thia spoke again, "Wait up there, Atla. No point you getting lost down here too." The cell annexe was a single room, but Chag could understand what she meant. The darkness seemed larger than the walls could ever have contained.

"Uh... can you see?" Atla asked. "I mean, I could go get a candle..."

"I can manage with my Gift." The jingle of keys as Thia reached the cell door was one of the sweetest sounds Chag had ever heard. "We're not going to be down here long. Chag, where are you?"

"I'm here," he said, then realised how helpful that was. Arms held out in front of him, he found the bars, worked along them to the door. It swung open as he reached it, and he fumbled towards where Thia had to be.

His fingers touched something warm, and Thia squeaked. "Watch it! What would Pevan think of you?"

She cut off his stammering apology with a gust of laughter that brought a blush to his cheeks. Her hand closed over his still-awkwardly-raised wrist, a narrow band of cold, bony pressure. Almost like a shackle, but he let her draw him away towards the stairs.

He tripped twice, ascending, but Thia caught his weight both times, without apparent effort. Slight though she was, Chag felt brittle as a twig wedged between rocks in her grip. She seemed to be on his side, but it was hard not to feel as if he was being dragged to some sterner fate as she hauled him along.

The Warding Hall was barely brighter than the cell had been, an oil lamp burning wanly by the Stable Rods its only illumination. Even then, Chag had to blink a few times to avoid being dazzled. A dizzying, almost drunken sensation pinched at his eyes as they stopped straining at nothing. Shadows oozed across the corners of the room, lurking behind the pillars.

He took a deep breath. "What are you doing?" It was easy to take Thia as an ally, but who knew what use she might have Seen for him in the immediate future?

"Proper procedure dictates that wherever a Witness is available, one should accompany any response to a Wildren incursion." There was laughter in Thia's voice. She bent over to retrieve some sort of stick from the floor – a weapon, Chag guessed. "Whatever Wolpan thinks, you're still a Gifted and this is still your job. Let's get going."

It took him a moment to find words. "You know where the incursion is?"

"No. My Gift isn't working too well." Her grimace was clear even in the gloom. "Rel blamed your brother, but I think it's probably the Separatists. Either way, I trust Atla."

The Guide gave a squeak from where he stood by the moonlight-edged exit. "You... um, you do?"

"Not much gets you out of bed in the middle of the night, Atla." Laughing, Thia walked over to join the boy, her stride stiff and fast. "Lead on."

Atla cocked his head as if listening. The pale light made it hard to read his face, but a good deal of his anxiety seemed to disappear. Perhaps there was a bliss or solace in his Gift, or just in the feeling of being useful. Chag suppressed a twinge of bitterness. His own Gift had never offered any of those things.

He followed the other two outside into the teeth of a sea breeze sharpened by the clear night. Above, stars glittered with menace, as if the Separatists had scattered extra eyes across the sky. The low, rickety buildings around the Hall were jagged, awkward holes in the darkness. Now and then, one rattled, loud enough that it was hard to imagine anyone inside was asleep.

Still listening to a secret inner voice, Atla led off towards the waterfront. Thia prowled in his wake, hunched forward in hair-trigger readiness. Her head swung back and forth constantly, flicking to every noise, every murmur of breath from the Guide, every new alley and corner. Chag followed, trying to emulate her alertness. His pulse rose in his ears, his chest tightening.

Stiffly, he hissed, "Shouldn't we get, uh, the Warder?" Thia's stick seemed a token gesture in the face of a concentration of Wildren large enough that Atla could sense it from so far away, even if she had her Gift to help her.

Frozen from the chest down in a pose that had to be agonising, up on the balls of her feet and leaning far ahead of them, Thia still managed to glare over her shoulder at him. "I doubt she'd come for Atla's word. But if I do get into trouble, your first job is to run and get her."

Chag conceded to the edge in the Clearseer's voice. Her levity had vanished. More than the night's wind, that chilled him. It would have been Pevan's job if she'd been here, but if she'd been here, he was sure he wouldn't be needed for anything. Even tonight, there was every chance Marit would ignore him, even if he did manage to Witness anything. Wolpan would probably claim he'd found some way to fake a Witnessing.

They were heading towards the old city. Chag folded his arms, trying to protect the last spark of his body heat. Off to the left, Vessit Bay offered up a low, constant counterpoint to the high whispering of the wind; ahead, the towers of the old city brooded. They weren't even quite shapes in the darkness, just half-sensed presences, laden with imagined anger and very real danger.

Through the noise of the wind and the waves, he made out a ringing sound, as of metal on stone. Several ringing sounds, in fact. It sounded like someone had set up a quarry somewhere ahead. In the ruined city, in the middle of the night. Thia's head snapped up, focussed stiffly at a point somewhere beyond Atla's shoulder.

The towers rose around them. Moonlight cut the streets into broad stripes of light and dark. Only the movement of the air and the distant clangour kept the shadows from feeling as oppressive as the cell. Atla's stride never faltered, clearly totally buried in his Gift.

"Is it them, Atla?" Thia's tone sliced through the night. "I can't tell where it's coming from."

Atla didn't answer, but maybe he'd nodded or something. Chag could barely pick the shape of the lad out of the dark even when they weren't in the shadow of a building. It was hard to place the sound, though; as they passed another street, it swung from up ahead to the right, then back to the left. Probably just echoes, unless there was Second-Realm weirdness at play.

They took the next turning, away from the waterfront and into the city. The wind rose as the sound of the sea receded. Grit replaced salt in the air, and fragments of rubble skittered down the road. A couple more turns robbed Chag completely of his sense of direction, left him totally reliant on his companions.

Just as he was starting to worry, Thia straightened right up and shouted, "Atla!" Chag's gut lurched – where was the Guide? – but then the boy stepped back into the light, face frozen in alarm. Thia said, "How close are we?"

Atla squeezed his eyes shut, head twitching. After a moment, he relaxed. "Close. Uh... it doesn't... It's hard to think of it in measures."

"Can you point to the Wildren? Straight at them, I mean?" Thia stepped forwards, closing the awkward gap. Chag followed.

Without a hint of his usual hesitancy, or even turning to look, Atla raised his arm, pointing diagonally behind himself, across the street. "Beyond that block."

"Thought so." Thia broke into a run. "That's the way to the catacombs. Come on. Chag, be ready!" Her voice rose as she finished, the instruction thrown over her shoulder.

Atla frowned at him, then nodded and turned to follow. It took Chag a moment to understand. Dora. Rel had said the attack would focus on her, and the entrance to the caves that led to the Abyss had been buried in the Realmcrash. If the Separatists couldn't Gate down there, they'd need to dig. Chag broke into a sprint, his first few strides flat-footed and painfully noisy.

He was just catching up to Atla when the lad veered across his path. Chag windmilled his arms and kept his balance, falling back a few paces. Cold air rasped the inside of his throat. His Gift was going to be hard to reach. It was hard enough just holding his eyes open.

Ahead, Thia hauled herself to a sharp halt just shy of the next corner. Chag did his best to stop quietly behind her, but his breathing sounded like thunder in his own ears. At least Atla seemed little better off, bent halfway over with his hands on his knees.

Thia made a gesture of some sort, but in the gloom Chag missed it. The noise was much louder here; someone was definitely breaking stone. Well, probably concrete, given where they were, but it was that sort of sound. And there was light, too, a steady silver glow too bright to be mistaken for moonlight.

Chag leaned forward to try to peer past Thia, but her arm rose in his path and pushed him back. She made the sign for hold here, shaking her arm for emphasis. That must have been what the first gesture had been. He backed up, waiting for further instructions.

Voice a hiss that barely cut through the ringing of the picks, Thia said, "Atla, any others around?"

"Hm? Uh, no, I don't think so." Pause, with the boy's breath whistling one note above the wind. "No. The only place I can feel Wildren is just round that corner."

"Okay. Ready, Chag?"

He took a deep breath, scrunching his eyes closed for a moment, clenching his fists. Focussed on the faint halo thrown off where Thia's windswept hair caught the alien light. Glimmers of silver lifted like wind-caught feathers into his Gift, bringing the rest of the image with them. Sluggish and heavy, time flowed behind, pushing instant after instant into storage. Past the effort of filing it all clearly, he grunted an assent.

Thia's sudden absence ahead of him drew him instinctively to the corner. The Clearseer sprinted faster than the weighty flow of time suggested should be possible, her odd half-spear held low, point away from her ankles. With eerie synchronicity, the quarrying fell silent.

Down the street, a group of people – human people – stood around a fallen slab of wall that leant against the remains of the nearest building, blocking the door. Had they just been clearing the debris? Was this a misunderstanding? Atla had been so sure...

Chag's attention slid inexorably toward the source of the light. It clung to the fallen slab, perhaps twenty feet up, a tangle of almost-fluid metallic legs holding it perpendicular to gravity without apparent effort. Though it glowed white, almost too harshly to look at, there were hints of bronze at the ends of its limbs.

Ashtenzim. So the Separatist leader had survived the destruction of the white cave. Come to think of it, had the creature even been there? There hadn't been much time for a roll call. Chag forced himself to look away, to scan the rest of the street. He could see no other Wildren. Who were the humans?

Some half-hidden appendage of Ashtenzim shifted, and the men – they looked like Vessit civilians – moved as one to intercept Thia's charge. Chills shot down Chag's spine, and he gritted his teeth to keep from twitching and ruining the Witnessing. Only Wildren Coercion could produce such sharp changes of mood. The wills of the men were now slaved to Ashtenzim's.

And the Wilder wasn't making the mistake of less sophisticated predators, trying to control their every motion. They still moved like humans, like creatures with a deep, innate understanding of First-Realm physics. The one nearest Thia took two steps towards her, pickaxe raised to his shoulder.

Thia adjusted her run, stick coming up to turn aside the man's pick-swing. The pick ended up buried inches into the road surface, the man grunting in pain as Thia moved past. Chag craned his neck to get a clear view, but she moved too fast, and then she was rising over the heads of the men, spear whipping round towards Ashtenzim.

The Wilder split sickeningly away from the glinting point. Thia hit the slab where Ashtenzim had been, seemed to hang there for a moment. The light shifted as Ashtenzim swooped across the street, figures that had been clear becoming silhouettes. Witnessing weighed Chag's brain down as the men piled in towards Thia.

She emerged from the crowd with the hard-edged shadows hiding any effort involved. It was like watching a dancer step out onto stage. The moment hung, bloated, and Chag had to wrestle it to keep his Gift flowing. Time, or at least the stream of images he was taking from it, slowed.

Ashtenzim swelled, his usual tendrils merging together into a blob, then spreading out wide and flat. Ice slid down Chag's spine; this was the trick Taslin had used to knock Rel into the Abyss. If the Separatist spread himself wide enough, Thia wouldn't be able to dodge. She wasn't even looking the right way; her hair seemed to float as she checked over her shoulder, began to turn back, too slowly.

And yet, when Ashtenzim moved, Thia's spear flicked up in an arc ahead of her. She gave a raw-throated shout and Wild Power answered, the silver crescent of the spear-point's path lashing out ahead of her. It sliced through the top two-thirds of the Separatist, who reeled like a rag caught in a sudden gust of wind. Thia let the motion continue, somehow meeting a descending pickaxe behind her head.

She pirouetted, twisted her stick and disarmed the man. An oddly gentle kick pushed him, staggering, back into two others as they advanced. Ashtenzim flapped in the wind and began to knit back together. Coercing this many humans this close to Vessit's warding must have sapped most of the Wilder's strength, from the way it shrank back towards the gloom.

Thia was moving again, Witnessed images skittering through Chag's grasp as the sense of weight vanished from his Gift. The Clearseer pressed her advantage against Ashtenzim, driving him away from his Coerced victims. They were growing confused as the Separatist's grip slipped. The three who had collided were down, grappling limply on the paving.

The light vanished. Chag's stomach lurched, primal fear rushing in. But no, that meant Thia had won, didn't it? Or was this a tactic of Ashtenzim's, making her fight by a starlight that now seemed almost nonexistent? Mere darkness wouldn't slow a Clearseer much, surely?

Grit swirled in the wind. One of the fallen men groaned. Freed from Ashtenzim's control, their wills would be shattered. They'd die to a man if a Gift-Giver couldn't be reached in the next day or so. If Pevan were here... but then, there would have been no problem in the first place. Chag felt frozen in place, as if the flow of time into his Gift had stalled. There was no sound of struggle from farther down the street.

Finally, Thia emerged from the gloom. "It ran off. I don't know whether I hurt it much." She raised her stick, but Chag could see no change in it. He screwed his face up in a scowl and rubbed his forehead, squeezing his Gift still. Barely out of breath, Thia finished, "We need the others here." Her voice was leaden, her eyes dark holes in her face, pointed at the collapsed civilians.

Chag swallowed. "Is there anything I can do?"

"Go get them!" Thia's voice hitched, something that in a weaker person would have been a sob. She gulped a breath. "I need Atla here with me, he can warn me if the Wilder comes back."

"Um... what if, uh, there are more Wildren?" Atla's breath sounded even tighter than Thia's. "I mean, what if this was a diversion or something?"

"Feel anything?" Thia straightened up with a weary shrug.

"No, but..." The boy waved a hand awkwardly.

Thia shook her head. "If you can't feel them, they're either not there or it'll make no difference anyway. You stay here. Chag's best-equipped to get the others anyway."

"If Wolpan doesn't just lock me up again." The words were out of Chag's mouth before he could catch them.

"I don't care if she does, provided she comes out with the others." There was an edge to the Clearseer's voice that warned Chag not to push his luck any further. "Those men are going to die!" She took a step back, and a deep breath. "Sorry. I just... start with Bersh. He'll listen, and Marit will listen to him."

Chag nodded stiffly and left. Fraught as the assignment was likely to be, at least he was contributing something.

And the upgrade – or downgrade, depending how you looked at it – in his sentence reflected that contribution pretty well, he felt. In return for raising the alarm, bringing back his Witnessing and dragging Bersh and Marit out of bed to respond, Wolpan had allowed him to stay out of the Warding Hall cell. He was under house arrest in his room in Vessit's boarding-house, but it was better than the indignity of one of the Sherriff's cells.

Now, he stood by the window, peering awkwardly to try to catch a glimpse of the wake procession as it crept towards the sea. No-one had come to let him out, but then, he couldn't really object to that. He was probably the only person in Vessit who didn't know the five sailors lost to Ashtenzim's coercion.

They'd all died through the long, grey hours of the previous day, the strongest holding out almost until sundown. There had been no chance of help for them; without a Gatemaker, the nearest Sherim was a week away or more. If Pevan hadn't been away, or Rissad hadn't left in such a hurry, it would have been different, but all Chag could do was apologise for not being his brother.

His window didn't overlook the procession's route; instead, he had to look along the alley to the narrow opening onto the main road. The biers – no coffins, since the sailors were all to be given to the sea – shuffled past, their cargo unrecognisable at this distance and angle, just dark-shrouded lumps. None of the bearers seemed to want to reach their destination.

Behind them, Vessit's Gifted marched stiffly, heads bowed. Being in front of the whole town with only their terrible failure to look at had to be brutal. For a moment, the end of the alley framed all five of them; Marit and Wolpan, stick-like next to tiny Thia, the rotund shape of Bersh behind them. Atla trailed his mentor like the child he still really was, clinging to the circle of adults to which he didn't truly belong.

At least the lad was out there. The trail of black-clothed townsfolk followed the Gifted, and Chag turned away from the window. He'd done everything his limited powers made possible, and the town was secure. Atla and Thia had swept the old city and made sure Ashtenzim was gone. There was no point dwelling on the five dead, but then there was nothing else to dwell on at all. For that, the plain inn room was no better than the dark cell.

"I have had it up to here with uppity Four Knots!" Chag jumped as Pevan stormed into the room. She hadn't knocked. Still, he'd been confined to quarters – which was at least better than the cell – for two days. It was nice to see a friendly face, even one as twisted by frustration and anger as Pevan's was now. How long had she been back?

He pushed himself out of the chair and caught her charge in his arms, staggering as she hit. She was too tall to bury her face in his chest, but her fists tightened in his shirt and he felt her breath on his neck. When he pressed his hands to her shoulder-blades, he got the definite sensation she was fighting a tremble.

Stray hair climbed into Chag's mouth as he drew breath, but he spoke through it. "What's up?"

"What else?" Pevan's voice was muffled, hot where it touched the corner between his neck and shoulder. "Wolpan."

"Well, yeah." He rubbed her shoulders. "What specifically about her?"

"Oh, just..." Pevan's tone rose, her voice turning nasal in cruel mimicry of Wolpan's. "Welcome back, we lost five civilians" – he couldn't identify the significance of the emphasis – "while you were gone, and by the way if you'd been here maybe we could have saved them."

"She said that?" Chag tried to keep too much of the incredulity from his voice. Wolpan was blunt, but... He twisted to kiss Pevan's neck, since it was the only bit of her he could reach, and got another mouthful of hair for his troubles.

"Well, not quite." Arms slid around Chag's waist, and he had to fight a shiver as the tingle spread through him. Still talking to his collarbone, Pevan said, "But she went on and on about not having a Gatemaker. As if it's my fault this rickety backwater can't produce its own Gifted. Or that the Gift-Givers have all vanished back to the Second Realm."

"We did kinda wreck the Court..." Chag tried to make it a joke. With sunlight streaming through the window from the glorious spring day outside, it didn't seem right for Pevan to be so upset.

"We did what we had to." She shook him, pulled back a little way. "It's not like we wanted things to work out like this, is it? But everywhere I go, it feels like it's being rubbed in my face."

He frowned. "It's not just Wolpan? The others haven't been that hostile to me. Marit, maybe, but..."

"Notia bloody Tollan is who it is." Now Pevan did step clear, turning her back and drifting slightly towards the door. "Three days back home and she didn't give me ten minutes' peace the whole time. I know everything went wrong and they were desperate to replace Dora, but could they not have done better than that? Tawny can barely control her, never mind train her. And the look Jashi gave me when I said I wasn't staying could have flayed rocks."

Gingerly, Chag put a hand on Pevan's shoulder. "Well, at least you're back here now. I won't do any of that stuff, I promise."

"Yeah, back here where it took a trainee to raise the alarm on an incursion that killed five civvies." She pushed his hand away, took another step towards the door. "And with my hometown left in the tender care of an idiot. You know they've still not had an incursion since we left? They're not ready if one does come."

"Federas Gifted are the best in the Realm." He matched her step, but didn't try to touch her again. "Have faith in your colleagues. I mean, when was the last time you lost a civilian up there?"

She rounded on him. "And if the price is Jashi's life? Or Kol's? What if Rel's wrong about the Separatist invasion and they do come through the North? I can't be everywhere!"

"No-one said you had to be, did they?" Trying not to sound too petulant, he folded his arms. "I mean, we stopped Ashtenzim without you, didn't we? Or do you think he got what he came for?"

"Who knows?" Pevan's tone rose another notch, and despite himself, Chag flinched. "Five people died, you can't count that as much of a victory."

"And if we hadn't stopped him?" This wasn't helping Pevan feel any better, he could tell. But they had stopped Ashtenzim, and that had to count for something. "People are going to die before this is over, Pevan. We could be looking at another Realmwar."

"I know that." She lifted her hands, and he braced for some sort of violent gesture, but then the wind seemed to go out of her. "I just... If people are dying, that's where I should be. On the front lines. I hate that I don't know where that's going to be."

Chag stepped forward and caught her wrists. "Even if we did, you can't be on duty all the time, sweetie. Don't beat yourself up over it."

Pevan lifted her head and looked him square in the face, one eyebrow raised. "Sweetie, huh?" Her expression was stiff, eyes narrowed, mouth flat. For a moment he felt a chill of worry, but... was that a light in her eyes or just a reflection from the window?

He took it as a good sign. If he could just distract her for a few minutes, maybe that would be enough to cheer her up. He changed his grip, slipping her hands into his as he took a half-step back towards the bed. She watched him, stock-still. He swallowed. "What- What can I say? I love you."

"Stop saying that like it's a demand!" She shook him off, so violently that he staggered back and toppled onto the bed. For a moment, she just stared at him, mouth hanging open, shoulders heaving with hard breath. "This is about more than you. Us. Whatever. Other things in the world matter!"

"I didn't... I didn't mean-" What? Where had this come from?

She slashed the air between them with her hand. "I should have guessed you'd be no use. Just... I'm just gonna go." The door slammed behind her before Chag even managed to sit up. The whitewashed walls of the little room seemed to ring as much with Pevan's anger as with the door's noise. He felt cold, wondered for a moment if Pevan had slammed the door hard enough to open up a draught. There were scratches on his fingers where she'd thrown his hands away.

* * *

Next Episode

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

What do horror films and sitcoms have in common?

I was chatting to somebody about this on Facebook the other day and realised I don't think I've ever blogged about it before (if I have, I'm sorry). So here goes. One thing that horror films and sitcoms have in common is that I can't stand to watch them. I will do everything in my power to avoid sitcoms and horror films. They give me nightmares.

(Actually, it's not so much nightmares - it's not things that happen while I'm asleep, it's while I'm awake, but most potent when I'm trying to *get* to sleep).

And yes, I do mean sitcoms as well as horror films. The cringe-comedy ones, at least (which, in my experience, is all of them, though I've been told many times that such-and-such a sitcom isn't cringey). Horror films (and horror generally) are about powerlessness and being trapped, and I'd argue that there's an important sense in which cringe comedy works the same way.

There's a theory of comedy that says we laugh when relieved, and whether or not it's true for all laughter (I think not, personally), it certainly applies to your average sitcom. When your average sitcom protagonist talks his foot into his mouth or stumbles out of a long chain of misfortune into a public place with his trousers round his ankles, it's the fact that a TV show can cut away from the aftermath that enables laughter as a response. It's getting out of that cringey situation without having to face the things about it that are making us cringe that makes it harmless enough to laugh at.

The problem for me is that I take the situation with me. If it's the trousers-round-his-ankles kind of comedy, I start worrying about the possible (or inevitable) public indecency charge. If it's the foot-in-mouth kind of cringe, it more directly triggers my social anxieties and I become unable to think of anything except how much all the other characters will now loathe and reject our unfortunate hero.

With horror films, I have the same can't-stop-thinking-about-it response. I get sucked in too deeply to the protagonist's perspective and I can't find my way through to that relief which must be a part of the entertainment value of horror (it may not be the only entertainment value in effective horror, though there is at least one theory which says that it is).

So, when I see a horror film or a sitcom, I spend the next howeverlong - it can be anything from a couple of hours to a couple of weeks - trapped in empathy with the protagonist, feeling whatever they would be feeling, whether it's shame as in a sitcom or fear as in horror. It's not pleasant.

Worse, it works even with ineffectual comedy and horror. Whether or not something is actually funny, or actually scary, I have the same problem. For a week after I saw Evil Dead 2 (which certainly isn't scary by the standards of any adult I've ever asked about it, though it's very effective as a pastiche), it took me 2-3 hours extra to get to sleep because I was busy actually feeling the fear that Bruce Campbell was hamming up so thoroughly.

Maybe this makes me a coward in some way, or maybe it's a symptom of a mental condition (the thread on facebook which prompted me to write this was in response to an article about 'Highly Sensitive people', and I've also seen things linking it to anxiety). All I can really say about it is that I've had this response for as long as I can remember - in fact, it used to be rather worse; any film or TV show that portrayed danger of any kind would trigger the problem, and even some that didn't. Things mellowed a bit at some point in my adolescence, but have been pretty constant since.

Anyway, if we're ever hanging out and you put on a sitcom, please don't be offended if I bolt like a startled horse.