Saturday, 20 September 2014

The Second Realm 8.3: Ash

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Logic and Reasons

3. Ash

Along the bottom of the valley, the air rippled with what might at first be taken for heat distortion. The stiff breeze off the sea to the east put the lie to that illusion, though. Occasionally the blurring would tear for a moment, and reveal the unearthly battle within.

Pevan's Clearseers had identified twenty-two individual Separatists in the confusing array of alien forms that had confronted her makeshift army. That many Wildren disrupted First-Realm logic and seeded ample Wild Power for her Gifted to use against them. Whether the Realm could sustain such abuse in the long term remained to be seen.

She was winning, and that worried her. She'd expected a hopeless cause, slowly grinding her numbers away; had dreaded a quick rout. Her forces only outnumbered the Separatists three to one, but they were killing a Wilder for every Gifted lost. It was like bracing to lift a full barrel and finding it empty.

The non-combat Gifted caught up in her recruitment – Guides, weaker Gatemakers and Warders - were spread through old Vessit, watching for a second force. If it came, she had nothing to throw against it, but it felt wrong to leave the city unwatched. What would it say about the Separatists, though, if this was all they had?

Pevan held herself as straight-backed and impassive as she could. Ten yards behind her, Wolpan was watching. Keshnu, too, since his return alongside Atla. She'd asked him to fight, but he'd held back. I don't see Ashtenzim on the field. His words had sent a chill through her despite his mild tone.

So she watched the battle, searching for any sign of the Separatist leader and monitoring her own soldiers. Warders made for an uninteresting spectacle, statue-still as they fenced in the crowd of Wildren. There was little space here for throwing Warding bubbles around the way Jashi and Kos practiced in Federas. Few of these Warders would have the spare strength for such aggression anyway.

It was the occasional glimpses of a Clearseer which Pevan cherished; even the weakest of them moved with the unmistakable grace of living a second ahead of everyone else. When one all but cartwheeled out of the fray, the attacks she dodged followed her like ducklings, obediently trailing their mother. The Clearseer landed in a Gateway that appeared just long enough to swallow her, and vanished back into the action.

Despite the fraying edges, the battle had a discernible shape. It swelled and shrank as if breathing; it drifted ponderously along the hillside like a cloud. It had about the average colour of a cloud, too, a cloud that had promised no good news about incoming weather. Now, though, it was shrinking back up the hillside, taking its threat with it.

Like a single seed plucked from the fluffy head of a dandelion, a small patch at one end of the battle pulled loose. Chilled against the heavy sun, Pevan squinted. She made out the figures of at least five Gifted in there, and something writhing in the middle of their ragged circle. They were Warders, steady and implacable.

The Separatist at their mercy flickered and thrashed, its own movements revealing the spherical boundaries of the Wards that pinned it. As the Gifted squeezed, the haze of Wild Power drew back from them, revealing two more that Pevan hadn't made out at first. One reeled as the Wilder flailed at him – or her; some of the southern women among the Gifted wore their hair that short – and for a moment it looked like the trap might fail.

Another Warder took up the slack long enough to field the recovery. The Wilder was thrown back against the far side of its shrinking pen. Pevan tore her eyes away for a moment to glance at Keshnu. The Gift-Giver could not fail to understand what was happening. Would he object? Demand that the Separatist be captured and held, as protocol dictated? Even winning, her army hadn't the manpower for that.

Down on the field, the Warders pressed harder. In the pen, the Separatist's dull silver skin rippled. It lifted off the grass, the Warders rightly unwilling to trust soil to hold it in extremis. If the creature made any sound, it sank beneath the hubbub of the battle.

Then it had no room to move anymore, its shape defined completely by the transparent walls of its prison. Moments later, it was gone altogether. Pevan shuddered. It was a symptom of success – she'd ordered them to only try it if the Gifted truly held the upper hand – but a chilling one. The Separatist had suffered as it died, slowly dissolving against the bounds of the cell.

"An expedient tactic," said Keshnu, his tone cold. She didn't look at him. "I could wish the Separatists had not driven you to it."

How many lives had it cost them? Unless she'd missed one, four of the Separatists were dead, for still only a handful of Gifted. The team of Warders blurred back into the line, then tore free again with another Wilder pinned between them. Pevan watched with a sudden lightness at her heels, and a rancid feeling in her gut. They were winning, but it was hard to imagine the Separatists surrendering.

A Gateway opened on the Separatists' side of the valley and a human figure emerged, behind the tearaway Warders. Pevan drew breath, useless breath, to shout, but Soan – it had to be him – swiped an arm smoothly through the air, and a blade of Wild Power spread from it.

That first, white-light slash cut through human and Wilder alike, breaking only against the fronts of those Wardings that faced him. That spared three of the Gifted; two reacted fast enough to bubble themselves away and block the next, descending blow.

Pevan screamed, waving them back towards the unity of the battle, the only place that looked safe. Whether or not they heard her, one moved. The other hesitated, standing her ground. Soan stepped effortlessly through her Warding, slammed her sideways ahead of her clumsy attempt to dodge, and caught her in a web of Wild Power that ripped her to shreds.

And in the horrible, mathematical moment where the casualty counts were back in proportion, a bronze shape tore through the centre of the battle-line. How many died to Ashtenzim's first strike, Pevan couldn't say; she saw two fall at the spot, a Gatemaker drop away to safety only to be struck through his own Gate half-way up the hill, and a Clearseer spinning free.

The sound of the battle changed pitch. Ice flooded Pevan's veins, and she drew strength from it, rooted herself to the ground to stop from charging in. Dora would have been proud of the edge she put on her voice. "Keshnu?"

"I cannot handle them both."

Down in the valley, the tiny shape of Thia whirled around Ashtenzim, black lashes of Wild Power sprouting from her wrists. The Separatist's tree-trunk swipe broke across someone's heroic Warding, and Thia danced through the gap. Her dark wires wrapped around Ashtenzim, holding back a fluid limb that would have speared half the Gifted left.

Then she faltered, seeing something coming that she could not turn to, and was gone, lifeless body flopping to the ground. Realmspace bubbled in the wake of Ashtenzim's blinding stab.

"Soan is Gifted business." Pevan spoke over the noise of someone behind her throwing up. Keshnu was already gone when she turned to the rest of her command. To the two Gatemakers she'd kept here as runners, both too young for this, she said, "Get everyone you can out of here." Then, to the Warders who shielded this spot, "You four, with me, like in the drills. We trust our people down there to hold, clear?"

Chag and Wolpan would just have to take care of themselves. Even through all the cold, hard armour of battle, Pevan felt something twist under her diaphragm at that thought. Putting the feeling at a distance, she pushed a Gate down into the valley. The far end came out behind the largest remaining clump of Gifted; she put the near end a good few yards from her feet, where hopefully no Separatist could reach her through it.

"Ward it." She indicated the Gateway. An active warding was difficult to squeeze through an open Gate with enough size left to protect anyone, but they could at least make it safe to approach the opening. The army would have to provide the first moment's protection on the other side.

She sent two of the Warders through ahead of her, emerged into the shell of their collective efforts. Here, where Realmspace itself was wrenched out of shape by the battle, the Wardings were visible as spherical gaps in the distortion. Not large gaps, either, compared to what Federas' Warders could do. She managed to find space to stand where she wasn't obstructing the Gate for the two following behind.

The noise of the battle – all human, since Wildren fought silently – was reassuring. Devastating as Ashtenzim's and Soan's attacks had been, there were still a lot of Gifted here. Pevan didn't try to make herself heard, couldn't think of anything to say to those holding the line. Soan was the priority. She pointed up the valley, to where she'd last seen him.

Hunched, heads instinctively ducked despite the Warding, the Warders moved with her. Pevan kept herself on tiptoes, letting her skin crawl with hair-trigger awareness. She felt none of the excitement she normally felt in meeting an incursion head-on, but she still needed that edge on her reflexes.

The flank they headed for was shrinking back towards them. Gritting her teeth, Pevan held her pace. Coordinating Wardings together was hard enough for the inexperienced Gifted around her without making them do it at a run. Even a momentary falter could cost all five of them their lives.

Finally, Soan came into view. He stood, leaning slightly forward as if tensed to pounce, locked in a staring contest with two of Pevan's Gifted. Clearseer on Clearseer, the Gifts they used to guide their combat would be paralysed; each seer's future shaped too much by what the others did, which would shift constantly as the others responded, or tried to, to their own Sight.

The tactic only worked if the Clearseers were allowed space for total concentration. Pevan directed two of her Warders to cover their backs, pushing up a wall between them and the battle. How much the rest of the fighting had been jeopardised to hold Soan here, Pevan didn't want to think.

To the remaining pair of Warders, as quietly as she could, she said, "Ward him." They barely needed telling; the haze of Wild Power around Soan cleared as twin Wardings caught him in their bubbles. It was testimony to Soan's skill that he didn't even flinch. But now, with his Clearsight pinned down and the bulk of the battle's Wild Power beyond his reach, he was just an old man.

Up close, it showed, too. His face was lined, anger etched into skin and bone. He was tall, but the hands he raised before his chest were leathery, his wrists narrow. His mop of unkempt brown hair was speckled with grey, leaving it the colour of dry, dead wood.

Before stalemate could freeze the moment solid, Soan's attention jumped over the heads of the two Clearseers. They leapt at him in tandem, just as the ground convulsed. A wave of air slammed into Pevan as her feet left the grass. She, and every other Gifted there, went flying.

Dry grass rasped at her exposed skin as she landed. Her stomach felt like someone was trying to wear it as a glove. Another pulse hit her as she rolled over, and she was able to watch it flow up her body, through her body. Her flesh bulged with it, a bubble of fire rising within her skin. In its wake, it left jelly-like weakness.

Ice and lightning in her blood urged her to her feet, but she stopped as soon as she'd got her head up enough to see the battle. What was left of it, anyway. Gifted lay like broken trees all around, some obviously injured, others curled up with nausea, a few hauntingly still. The Separatists were an incomprehensible mess of shapes and textures, smeared up the hillside away from Vessit.

Between the two shattered armies, Keshnu and Ashtenzim duelled. Quicksilver shone in the sun as the Gift-Giver attacked; dull bronze ate daylight and spat out moody orange dusk as Ashtenzim replied. A rod of dark, fluid Wild Power slammed through the centre of Keshnu's defences, pierced where his still-almost-human form had hung. Silver globules sprayed out from the impact.

Instinct started Pevan scrambling backwards, but Keshnu wasn't beaten; the spreading droplets of his human form swung around in flight and shot back at Ashtenzim, into the centre of one tangled knot of bronze. Another wave of distortion – clearly visible in the air and turf – slammed outward, kicked Pevan hard in the heart.

She flopped forward, gagging, and by the time she righted herself, the duel had changed. It was as if Keshnu had Ashtenzim by the throat, slowly strangling him; while bronze limbs flailed at the grass, arcs of silver reached down from the sky, smothering the Separatist's core. Steadily, Ashtenzim shrank back into itself, just like the Wilder her Warders had crushed earlier.

Finally, when the last wriggling bronze appendage had withered away, Ashtenzim was wrenched from the ground up towards where Keshnu hovered. Sunlight blazed off the Gift-Giver's skin, too sharp to look at. There came the ineffable, Wildren equivalent of final words, and then Keshnu slammed the Separatist against Vessit's Warding.

One last time, the Realm rippled. Veins of crackling blackness spread over the surface of the Warding, hungry fingers thwarted as it held firm. Someone, somewhere nearby, tried to cheer and choked on it.

Keshnu descended, a grey phantom shrouded in sparkling mist, his human form blurred with injuries. Wild Power still shimmered in the air around him, bouncing out toward the huddled Separatists and back again. Then, one by one, he lashed out at them, a single silver tendril each. A moment later, he could almost have passed for human. The far hillside was bare.

Why couldn't he have done that before? Hot anger burned away every other sensation in Pevan's body. She was on her feet, marching through the fallen Gifted – not so easily cleaned away – before she knew what she was doing.

Keshnu turned to face her, his expression indistinct. The battle had clearly taxed him; he couldn't hold to human form, his essence spilling out of his outline. But by Rel's account, the Gift-Giver had been in worse shape than this after their duel at the Abyss. The one part of him that was well-formed was his hand, wrapped around a bunch of metallic flowers that looked suspiciously like the remains of the Separatists.

"Keeping trophies?" Rage made her scornful.

"Captives." Flat and bland, Keshnu's voice emerged from somewhere not quite by his mouth. "They agreed to surrender."

Pevan's gullet locked up. She managed, "And Ashtenzim?"

"Destroyed. With Lienia obliterated by your hand and Delaventrin trapped in its Shtorq, the Separatists are beaten." The Gift-Giver's attention shifted, and though his eyes were only dark gems floating amid grey smoke, Pevan felt them land on her. "If I could have spared your dead their battle, I would have, but I would not have been able to fight Ashtenzim for you as well."

Pevan let herself deflate. Pain seeped back in. Not the bumps and scrapes she'd taken being knocked to the grass, which stung a distant part of her, nor the low burning in her flesh and bones left by the pulsing waves of Keshnu's power. This was pain that a wall of ice had kept at bay, that screwed her eyes shut with damp lashes, gritted her teeth for her and made it hard to breathe.

Somewhere in that, there was a familiar feeling. One that could not encompass so many fallen, but one that she could hold onto. She forced herself not to gasp, to draw a long, unsteady breath. To look Keshnu in the ghost of his face again.

He said, "You must attend to your army, commander. I will see to it that these Separatists are brought to justice at the Court. Soan I leave as a human affair, as the Treaty dictates."

"How fast can you get back?" Pevan kept her voice brisk. They were going to need a Gift-Giver around for all sorts of things, Soan's trial foremost among them. Convincing the civvies that they were still safe with half their Gifted gone would be hard enough even with the benefit of a Gift-Giver's authority, too.

"It will take time to arrange the trial, and I would have you there as representative of your kind, if possible." With so little inflection, it was hard to judge the significance in Keshnu's pause. He went on, "The Separatists can be placed in holding with no great delay, and I need only a few moments to myself in my Realm for restoration. I can return within the day, if you feel I will be needed."

"I could use ten of you, I'm sure." She took another breath, steadier this time. "Rebuilding after this..."

"You have proved yourself more than adequate to the task." Keshnu's smile was something felt rather than seen. "I look forward to working with you on my return."

Pevan nodded. "Safe travels."

The Gift-Giver floated before her a moment longer, then shot off towards the sea, a streak of silver too fast to catch the sun. Hugging herself, Pevan faced the battlefield. There was movement among the fallen, at least; some few had found their feet, others were sitting or crawling. She tried to count the unmoving, but couldn't see clearly enough. Here and there, the air still whispered of Wild Power.

"Pevan!" Chag's shout called her attention up the slope; he was running down to her, the flailing, awkward run that comes from trying to travel downhill at speed on foot.

She decided to be kind, and stepped into his path to catch him. He managed not to tumble her off her feet, spinning around her instead. Holding him tightly, Pevan felt a rush of immense gratitude. His arms closed around her shoulders, his hand coming to rest at the back of her neck. She turned her face in to his hair and just breathed.

The bubble of the embrace couldn't last long. For a wonder, Chag sensed it too and didn't try to hold her when she pulled back. In his face, she saw none of the laughter he usually turned to for relief after combat; but then, she felt no such release herself. Solemnly, he said, "We won, then."

"Yeah. You stayed to Witness it all?" Pevan swallowed, not waiting for an answer. "Idiot."

He turned dry. "Of the two of us, who was in more danger?" Then, more seriously, "Keshnu?"

"Taking his captives back to the Court." Over Chag's shoulder, she could see some of the Gifted drifting nervously towards them. "He'll be back later. We'll need him."

"Why, when we have you?"

For the mix of cheek and loyalty in his face, she could have kissed him. She settled for poking him in the chest. "Then I say we'll need him, and if my leadership really counts for so much you won't argue. There's still Soan to deal with."

Who, it turned out as the afternoon wore towards evening, had escaped. Chag replayed his extended Witnessing and spotted the Clearseer slinking away under cover of Keshnu's charge. Next to the strained business of clearing the field, it felt like a minor concern. Pevan sent out messages warning the nearby towns and got on with organising the care of the wounded.

The Gifted dead numbered twenty-three. One for each Separatist that had taken the field, the quiet mathematician at the back of Pevan's brain noted. Few of the survivors talked of going home. Vessit laid on an evening meal; after some prodding, Pevan accepted the burden of a speech. There was too much fatigue, logical and physical, among the army to allow for cheering.

The meal wound up, the civilians who had attended drifting away. A group of Gifted came to Pevan, asking her to take permanent command of the army. She told them, and the opposing voices, to get some sleep, but no-one did. Keshnu returned, quietly. The sun went down, and torches were found to light the food hall. It was into that room of shaded, weary Gifted that Rissad led Rel and Taslin.

Pevan felt the stir spreading through the gathering before she saw them. Skin prickling, she looked up, half-standing with her legs trapped between bench and table. Even across the room and in the dark, she could read the unease in Rel's stance. There were two strangers with him, both of whom looked even less comfortable.

Other Gifted were starting to react, too. Out of the corner of her eye, Pevan made out Wolpan, extracting herself from some muted conversation with a thunderstorm on her face. Trying to forestall the Four Knot, Pevan called out, "Where have you three been?"

Tiredness made her voice harsher than she'd intended. Rel's face sank further, and it was Rissad who answered. "How long were we gone?"

"Four months." Pevan got her legs free and marched around the table. She reached Rissad just ahead of Wolpan. "What went wrong?"

"Fate interfered in our return journey." There was a deep fire that could have melted rocks in Rissad's normally-lazy voice. "We don't know why. We got out of the Sherim a few minutes ago."

"I thought you were following Fate's plan." Pevan kept her voice stiff. She wasn't sure whether she wanted to hug Rel or punch him, but it was definitely better not to do either in front of so many other people.

"So did we." Rissad brightened slightly, looking around the room. "What did we miss?"

Searching for words that would encompass it all, Pevan said, "Everything. It's over."

"The Separatists are defeated." Keshnu's voice at her shoulder was a welcome prop. The Gift-Giver's eyes glowed gently in the dark, his face ageless and impassive. Chag stood behind him; Pevan managed to catch her man's eye, tried subtly to beckon him closer. Keshnu finished, "There is much yet to be done to repair the damage of this incursion."

Rel looked around the room, and Pevan could see him re-evaluating what he saw. Quietly, he said, "How many died?"

"Twenty-three." Pevan cleared her tight throat, decided not to try telling him about Thia right now. There had been more to their training together than just training, before he went away, Pevan was sure.

"How many Separatists?" It would have been just like Rel to ask, to seek justification for the losses in a kill count, but the tone was nothing like Rel at all. He sounded on the edge of heartbreak. Did he still harbour some sympathy for the Separatists?

"Eight, including Ashtenzim, died on the field." Keshnu offered, while she was still trying to puzzle Rel out. "The remainder of the Separatist Children of the Wild are in custody at the Court. In fact, the only Separatist still at large is Soan Ialvas."

Why bring up Soan now? Pevan glanced at the Gift-Giver, resenting the implied criticism until she saw that his attention was going slightly over her head. He was watching Wolpan; had taken a step forward and turned slightly. Placid though his expression was, he took on a posture of formal dignity. Setting himself up as arbitrator.

Of course. Wolpan still wanted Rel's blood, and with some justification. Other Gifted were gathering around them now, too. Marit, Vessit's Warder, appeared out of the gloom at Wolpan's side; Bersh, Pevan was glad to see, loitered in the crowd away from them both. A hand brushed Pevan's arm, and she looked round to see Chag taking up what had been Keshnu's space, with Atla beside him.

Pitching her voice to cut the hanging moment loose, Pevan said, "Can you handle Soan? I don't have another Clearseer here who could equal him."

"There aren't many in the Realm." Even focussed on a mission, there was a new patience to Rel. He paused in thought for a moment. "If he's not still working with Delaventrin, I can find him for you. How do you want to handle him?"

"I'm open to ideas." Pevan folded her arms. Rel presumably knew that pitting one Clearseer against another would lock up their Gifts, could construct for himself the tactic they'd almost held Soan with on the battlefield. She wanted to see if he'd suggest something more violent. That would be the old Rel's answer, given free rein.

He put a hand to his forehead, rubbed it as if logic fatigued. "I'd need a Gatemaker to get me to him, maybe a Warder or two if he gets close to a Sherim. And I guess I should have a Witness there, too. Give me those, and I think I should be able to bring him in."

"You want us to put you in charge of a squad?" Wolpan's tone could have flayed a mountain.

"How about giving the mission to Taslin, with me as her subordinate?" Rel offered the suggestion too blandly. Pevan narrowed her eyes at him for a moment while Wolpan recovered from the shock. Had he reached some sort of peace with Taslin? How far did it go? And if, as she'd been denying to herself ever since Ilbertin, he'd somehow fallen for her, where did his loyalty now lie? Taslin she trusted, but only if the Gift-Giver remained unchanged by her experience in the future.

"None of this matters, anyway." Wolpan drew herself up and took a step forward. "You were granted the freedom to make your little excursion on grounds of the claim that you would return with some tangible advantage for us against the Separatists. What have you brought?"

Pevan forced herself to let the question stand. Soan's capture was more important than Wolpan's vendetta, but it possibly wasn't as important as measuring the new Rel's intentions. She watched him master the initial rush of self-righteous anger at Wolpan's attitude. He turned to shrug at Rissad.

The elder Van Raighan acknowledged with a nod, and beckoned forward the two strangers they'd entered with. The man responded immediately, with the woman trailing behind him. Rissad said, "I present Sevitz-Anwar and Mag-Ridon. They're here to free Dora, and take her station in the Abyss. Had we returned in time, we hoped they would make a considerable difference on the battlefield, but it's hardly fair to hold us responsible for Fate's mischief."

Neither of the strangers looked up to any such remarkable feat – in fact, they both looked rather sickly – but Pevan wished she could freeze the conversation in place and study them for a while all the same. No such luck, though; voice dripping with scorn, glare fixed on Rel, Wolpan said, "Small reward for allowing you to avoid justice so long."

"Justice would be none of this having happened." Rel met the Four Knot's anger without flinching. "Not this battle, not anything that I did under your city. If I could take back the last five years of my life, too, I would."

Pevan could have cheered. From the rustle around the crowd, Rel was winning them over – Rel, with the approval of other Gifted! – but Wolpan was unmoved. "Since you can't, the crimes you committed here stand. I'm placing you under arrest."

The collective attention of the army closed around Pevan like a fist made of pins and needles. As far as legal procedure went, this was Wolpan's town, and Pevan had no authority to challenge the Four Knot. If she stood up for Rel now, and the surrounding Gifted supported her, the law would have to change. She took Chag's hand, hoping the gloom would cover the gesture.

"Locking Rel up now will solve nothing." Pevan kept her voice level. Maybe the law needed to change, but what would Dora have thought? "As long as Soan is on the loose, he's a danger to the Realm and the Treaty, and to the civilians we are, all of us, sworn to protect."

She paused, holding the moment by force of glare alone. "As long as Soan is free, the Separatist incursion is not over." Then, picking her words carefully, resting her eyes on the Four Knot, "You agreed, Wolpan, that I should command against the Separatists. I am doing so."

More murmuring from the army, conflicted. Pevan didn't dare take the deep breath she wanted, lest it be seen as a sign of weakness. "Rel, you and Taslin will bring Soan in, as you suggested." She held up her free hand, and by some magic forestalled both Wolpan and her brother. "But there are still questions hanging over you."

Slowly, Rel bowed his head, lining his face with shadows. Wishing against the necessity, Pevan let go of Chag's hand and walked the three steps to stand right in front of Rel. She took hold of his arms just above the wrists and looked up into his face. "As your sister, I want to trust you. You understand that, right?" He made no move in response, but that was telling enough. "But as commander of the Gifted here, which, however briefly, I am, I have to know."

"What are you suggesting?" Rel sounded as if he was trying to swallow a frog.

"You and Taslin will bring Soan in." Now Pevan stepped back again, tried to encompass the whole crowd in her stance. "Chag will go along as my Witness, with Keshnu to convey him and observe as impartially as, I think, anyone can." She turned to Wolpan. "We shall see if Rel has learned from his mistakes. Justice is better served by his spending his life in service to the Treaty than in jail, as long as he's learned what that truly means." For a long time, everyone was still. Pevan's heart seemed to stiffen, a hard lump rising into her throat. Would anyone else see or care how much hung on this one decision? Marit put her hand on Wolpan's shoulder. The Four Knot and her Warder exchanged a look, and then, finally, Wolpan nodded.

* * *

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