Van Raighan’s Last Stand
1. I Can See Clearly Now
1. I Can See Clearly Now
Wind blasted up the hillside and shattered into whispers on the hedge that lined the canal path. It was impossible to forget how near the Second Realm was. Rel shifted the leather strap of his backpack, trying to loosen his already-stiff shoulder. His boots slapped in the puddles and sucked in the mud of the path.
Ahead, the canal turned slowly North towards the brow above Federas. Rel blinked, squinting against the wind. There were three - four? No, five - women coming his way along the path. Four wore stout travelling dresses in brown and green, but the fifth looked to be wearing purple. An odd group, and an odd time to be leaving Federas, with the trap awaiting Van Raighan still unsprung. Unless they’d been lucky and he’d come early. Or something had gone wrong.
Rel ground his teeth. Far more likely something would go wrong, even after he’d been right to the Court to hone his Clearsight. Twice. Both times, the Clearviewing had shown Van Raighan’s entry to the town, right through to his capture. It stopped, though, almost the moment that the guardsmen surrounded the master thief. Rel would be there, would have to do something. Clearsight never showed you your own part in events.
So Rel had perhaps another hour - clouds covered the sun, but he thought it was still well shy of noon - to get back to the town, talk Sheriff Pollack around again, and get settled in before Van Raighan was due at the Warding Hall.
He resisted the temptation of using Clearsight to see who the women were. The Second Realm was close enough still that it would be easy, but this close he might see something more than faces. He would see who they were soon enough.
A plastic bottle bobbed in the brown canal water. One of the small, white ones shaped with a handle, and a green lid. Rel thought about stopping to fish it out - it was filthy, but if it was watertight enough to float it was worth at least a good meal and a drink. But he didn’t have his fishing rod with him, and trying to reach it with a broken-off branch would risk falling in. If he turned up in front of the Sherriff sopping wet, he might well get sent to Dora in case he caught cold, and then there was no way he’d get free in time for Van Raighan.
Maybe the bottle would still be there later. Rel glanced at the sky, counting hours of daylight remaining against how long the excitement in town was likely to last. Out across the valley, darker cloud and grey haze spoke of another shower closing in. Maybe the bottle would still be there tomorrow.
He hissed through his missing tooth, then caught himself as he realised how close the women had got. He didn’t know the lady in purple - purple linen, not wool - or the plainer-dressed woman next to her, but the other three were familiar. Dora walked in the middle of the group, tiny and slight, her fair hair straw-like and wild as ever, the Four-Knotted cord cinching her faded green robe almost tight enough to give her hips. The only thing not completely underwhelming about her was her eyes; even as she nodded gently to Rel, cheeks rounding slightly with a smile, her eyes were flint and diamond all at once.
Beris Webberat and Notia Tollan made almost as strange companions for the Four Knot as the two out-of-towners. Both scowled at him as they passed. There was no question of stopping to chat. Maybe on a good day, Dora might have a word for him if they were alone out here, but the Second Realm made more than Clearsight complicated.
If Dora was out here, though, with two women who hated the Second Realm and two strangers, something had probably already gone wrong in town. Rel put his head down and picked up his step -
- and noticed that the canal surface wasn’t rippling with the wind. He froze and watched it start moving again, but not all at once. The still patch was following the women, ripples gently sliding back in its wake. Plenty of Children of the Wild were untouched by the wind. The list of known species that would stalk humans was shorter, but still long.
Rel still didn’t move, trying to breathe without using a single muscle. Whatever it was would be able to sense his Gift of Clearsight, even while he wasn’t using it, but maybe it hadn’t noticed. He turned his head slowly, following the still patch along the canal, and surrendered his eyes to Clearviewing.
Icy cold spread up under his eyelids and round into his eye sockets. Suppressing the urge to blink was second-nature, but he could do nothing about the shiver. There was a slight sensation of tension inside his face as if his eyes were sticking out on stalks, and then he Saw Clearly. The canal looked much as it had, except that he could vaguely make out the shape of its muddy bottom. Sparks glittered from the grass and bushes.
He forced himself not to look up. His gut grumbled just thinking about the Realmlessness above. Instead, he kept his eyes on the still patch - not still, of course, to Clearsight. The air danced above the canal and the path, a jumble of tiny motes of a colour that was almost like green. No two ever seemed to move the same way at once.
Nothing special, then. If there had been no motion at all, Rel would have worried, but wherever the Wilder was, it wasn’t powerful enough to manage negation. Instead, it was breaking the wind’s motion up into eddies too small to pick up a hair. It was the trick most Wildren used. On a good day, with a fresh head on his shoulders, Rel might even be able to manage it himself.
Where was the Wilder? The air danced, the grass glittered, but there were no footsteps - the ground still glowed faintly where the women had set their feet - and none of the strain lines that would betray a Wilder concealing itself. For a second a ripple across the water and the grass by the path formed the shape of a giant noose around the women, but that was just Second-Realm logic pushing at him.
Rel looked at the women, already half-way around the bend in the canal, and his mouth ran dry. There were only four of them; the lady in purple was nowhere to be seen. His eyeballs ached with the cold, fought his eyelids, but he forced the blink and Clearsight fled. The lady reappeared.
Gifts of the Second Realm were given to protect humans against the Children of the Wild, but the Gift-Givers, Wildren though they were, had always insisted on protecting themselves too. Among other things, they were invisible to Clearsight.
Rel shook his head, glaring at his feet and trying to rub some warmth back into his face as he walked on. The Gift-Giver clearly wasn’t interested in him, and whatever she wanted with Dora, she could do whether he interfered or not. Dora had to know what she was walking with, though, and Rel trusted her. Strange for three women to be called to receive gifts at once, and strange that Beris and Notia hadn’t needed to be dragged. For that matter, strange for Dora to be going with them. The Four Knot was a Gift, a form of Guiding, but Wildren were seldom keen to have one around.
Whatever was going on, though, the women were as safe as anyone could be out here, and Van Raighan wouldn’t wait for Rel to make a fool of himself trying to talk to a Gift-Giver. He stretched out his stride and tried to step faster. It wasn’t that he wanted to get away from the Gift-Giver. He just had to be in Federas quickly.
The canal swung around the hillside above the concrete ruin of the old city and then turned West again where Federas clung to the side of the valley. It was a small town even by modern standards, dwarfed by the old city, though every building was stone and slate, not wood.
Rel took the first track down off the canal path. It had been stepped once, but the paving was starting to disintegrate and the mud made it slick and treacherous. He got both his backpack straps over his shoulders - they pinched at his neck, too tight since his shoulders had started to broaden - and descended with his arms half-extended for balance, leaning slightly backwards.
Pushing Dora and the Gift-Giver from his mind again, Rel threaded his way between the houses and down to Main Street. The streets were bustling with every kind of activity people thought looked normal. No-one wanted to do anything to alert Van Raighan, but everyone wanted to be on hand to see him taken. Every housewife in Federas seemed to be about, standing in twos and threes looking over each other’s shoulders and trying to find new things to say about the weather. Children ran everywhere, apart from the few who hung out of first-floor windows. A couple had even climbed onto rooftops and would have been grounded for a month if their mothers weren’t so distracted.
The Warding Hall was at the bottom of Main Street, the grey hulks of the old city looming behind it like monstrous tombstones. There were fewer people here - maybe the Sherriff had actually managed to get a little way through everyone’s thick skulls on the subject of not alerting the master thief. Still, the way Brea Godin was looking around, you’d think she was out in the wild being stalked by a feral something, not chatting to Meli Tofarn about the other woman’s dress.
Inside was a different matter. There were just the seven guardsmen and the Sherriff, standing quietly by their pillars. At the head of the room, the Stable Rods stood on their bare stone plinth, shimmering even without Clearsight. Good for hundreds of years yet. The Gift-Giver couldn’t have been here about those.
Trying to force himself to focus, Rel walked straight up to Pollack, who said, “No change?” The Sherriff was a broad man, running to fat in places, and round cheeks and a double chin took most of the anger out of his glare.
“None. Sir, if you want things to go according to the Clearviewing, I have to be here, on-hand.” Rel glanced at the clock above the entrance, and chewed his lip. There was no need to sound quite so desperate. Yet.
A sneer pulled at Pollack’s upper lip for a moment. “You’re sure we’ll catch the swine?”
“If I’m here, sir. If not, I don’t know. He may not even come. Deviating from the viewing can produce strange results.”
“Pah! He’s coming here, boy. He’s been coming North for months and not missed a single Hall. We’re next.” Spittle flew as the Sherriff spoke. Rel ground his teeth. He was nineteen, not a boy, and he knew Clearsight. Pollack knew very little, except how to get on Rel’s nerves.
“If he sees me around the town somewhere, he might be able to sense my Gift. It might scare him off.” Rel’s neck hurt, though whether from looking up at the Sherriff or the effort of being reasonable while explaining for the fiftieth time, he couldn’t tell. Stronger Gifted could sense the presence of other gifts, and everyone knew Van Raighan was strongly Gifted. No-one seemed to know which Gift, though.
“Same arguments as before, hum?”
“Sir, you have to let me be here! Do you want Van Raighan to succeed?” It was all Rel could do to keep from begging. Few towns were closer to a Sherim than Federas. Without the Warding, there would be Wildren in the streets, maybe even in the houses.
Pollack made as if to spit, then caught himself. Who knew what would alert the thief? At least he’d got that through his thick skull. Instead he made a sound half-way between a sigh and burp, and said, “Alright then. Take Willer’s place. But leave that bloody bag somewhere out of sight.”
Rel slung the bag off his shoulder. “Um, sir? I saw Dora, with Beris and Notia, up on the canal path. They were heading for the Sherim.” He looked down at his hands and realised they were fretting at the buckle of the bag. Dropping his arms to his sides, he continued, “There was a wilder with them. A Gift-Giver.”
“Not your business or mine, boy. You just get rid of that bag and get quiet behind that pillar. Van Raighan’ll be here any minute.”
Eleven minutes yet. Not exactly hours, but no call to be pushing him around. Rel looked up. The peak of the vaulted roof was twenty feet up; he’d never been in a building with higher, though there were towers in the old city a dozen times that.
He called, “Pevan!” His voice echoed slightly, but he knew his sister was up there somewhere.
Of course, she chose to step out of the pillar behind him. He yelped as she dug her fingers in under his ribs. “Tut, tut, Relvin. Keep it down! Van Raighan might hear you.” She put her hands on her hips and cocked her head at him, grinning. Clearly she’d talked Pollack, and mother and everyone else involved, into letting her wear trousers. She was boyish at the best of times, all straight lines and narrow bones, and why was he thinking about this? Trousers made her look stupid, but she did need to be able to grapple with Van Raighan. Her Gift gave her an edge no-one else in Federas had when it came to sneaking up on people.
He shoved the bag at her, hard enough to make her stumble backwards. At least she caught it. “Put that back at the house. There isn’t time for me to walk there and back.”
She glared at him, but made a Gateway on the pillar and slung the bag through. Rel couldn’t quite stop himself twitching at the thump, but nothing in there was really breakable. He opened his mouth to speak, but the Gateway flickered and Pevan stepped through before he got a sound out.
With that done, all they had to do was wait. Rel took Willer’s place behind the pillar furthest from the door - the scrawny guard slouched out, doing an excellent impression of a bored guard making the rounds - and tried to focus on keeping his legs awake without moving. The only sound was the clunk of the clock’s minute hand. Rel tried counting the minutes in his head, but lost track around... six? Seven?
Van Raighan’s footsteps were like a feather falling on linen, only audible because there was nothing else to hear. This time, Rel managed to keep count, edging ever-so-slowly around the pillar, keeping it between him and the thief. The other guardsmen did likewise. Then there was a series of grunts and muffled curses, and it was time to move.
Pevan had Van Raighan in a hug, of all things, her arms wrapped around him, pinning his to his sides. He was even smaller than he’d looked in the Clearviewing, scrawny enough to make Pevan look sturdy. The guardsmen surrounded them quickly, and Van Raighan stopped struggling as soon as he spotted them.
Rel stood slightly back from the huddle as the Sherriff grabbed Van Raighan’s arm, holding it up so the thief was almost lifted off the floor. So far, everything was going as predicted.
Pollack said, “Chag Van Raighan, I arrest you for grand theft and abetting Wildren.”
Van Raighan gave a sharp, bitter chuckle. “Abetting, huh. When did I do that?”
“Two people were eaten at Af, boy. Or was that beneath your notice?” Pollack’s face had gone red.
“I appeal on grounds of Coercion.” Van Raighan spoke quietly, but Pollack exploded all the same. Now he actually did hoist the thief off the floor, slamming him against a pillar, one hand planted firmly on his chest. Van Raighan grimaced, and Rel found himself stepping forward, pushing between the guards.
“People died, boy,” Pollack growled. “Seven towns without their Stable Rods. We were lucky it wasn’t worse. And you dare make jokes about Coercion?” The law was clear. If a criminal could prove he’d been the victim of Coercion by a Child of the Wild, he was exonerated. A victim in truth.
“If I might... have a moment... to explain?” Van Raighan gasped.
Pollack actually snarled. Pevan and a couple of the guardsmen stepped back, but the Sherriff knew the law. He let Van Raighan drop to the ground. The thief staggered slightly, but straightened with a glare at the big man. He glanced at the circle of guardsmen, raising an eyebrow when he saw Pevan, then raised a hand in front of him. That was where the Clearviewing had ended. Rel took a clumsy step forward on legs suddenly stiff with anticipation.
A bubble formed in air above his hand, growing until it settled into his palm, less than a foot in diameter. Rel caught his jaw as it dropped open. Van Raighan’s Gift was Witnessing? Not even a strong Gift, by the way the bubble seemed to flicker occasionally. Witnessing was the most useless Gift, certainly not of any use to a thief. How had he pulled off seven robberies?
Colours burst across the inside of the bubble, grey, black, yellow, orange, green, spreading out into vague shapes and starting to resolve into focus. A huge, dark space, a ledge overlooking a chasm, underground somewhere. Tall, narrow patches of colour that had to be brightly-clad people. Sweat rolled down Van Raighan’s brow. The Gift must be weak indeed in him.
The people were Wildren; one had silver skin, another a face far too long and aquiline to be human. At their feet lay a human in tattered grey wool, a huge bruise visible on his cheek. Someone gasped as the silver-skinned wilder kicked the man on the floor, sending him sliding into the wall. Rel realised the wall was artificial, not bare rock. Concrete. Something from before the Realmcrash.
There was no sound with the Witnessing - just as with Clearsight - but the figures clearly exchanged words. One grabbed the human, pulled him to his feet, then lowered him slowly into the floor as if it was mud. He ended up buried to the waist in solid stone, pawing frantically at it. The Wildren turned to leave, and the bubble popped neatly.
Rel jumped. What was he supposed to have done? He’d been too surprised by Van Raighan’s Gift to pay attention. Fortunately, the Sherriff was still focussed on the diminutive thief.
Pollack said, “What was that supposed to prove?”
“My brother Rissad.” Van Raighan cringed slightly, then shot a frown straight at Rel. “Those Wildren will kill him.”
“That’s not Coercion and you know it,” Pollack’s voice rumbled until Rel was sure he could hear it in his own gut. Or maybe that was just the nagging suspicion he’d messed things up. He should have stepped in by now, surely? What could he have done?
Van Raighan gave him a longer frown, then turned back to the Sherriff. The thief’s face was red, twisted with emotion, maybe even terror. “He’s my brother, Sherriff! What else could I do? They said I could have him back if I got them twenty rods.”
Too many things didn’t add up, and Rel could see it as clearly as he could see that the Sherriff wasn’t buying it either. The Wildren made Stable Rods. And why hadn’t they used actual Coercion on Van Raighan? His Witnessing couldn’t be false - that was the point, a reliable record so that human grievances could be brought to Second Realm justice - but could he be lying about it?
Rel pushed in between Pollack and Van Raighan. “Show me the Witnessing again.”
“What are you playing at, boy?” The Sherriff tried to brush him aside, but Rel held his ground.
“Something strange is going on here, sir. I’ll use Clearsight on it, and we’ll get to the truth.” The thief had to be lying. Rel thought he heard Van Raighan sigh, but the his face was strangely neutral. Not the face of a man about to be caught in a lie.
Rel let the icy claws of Clearsight slide around his eyeballs as the bubble appeared between him and Van Raighan. The thief had the faint glow of the Gifted around him - brighter than Rel expected, though not as bright as Pevan’s aura - and the bubble glittered, but little else changed. Pevan’s aura blended at the edges with Van Raighan’s; what on Earth did that mean? The dancing colours in the air were less pronounced in town than they had been up on the canal path, but still there like a whisper on the edge of hearing.
The figures appeared in the bubble again. Through Clearsight, Rel could clearly see the resemblance between the human and Van Raighan; the same thin face and pointed features. The man in the bubble was taller and broader than his brother, but brothers they were. So where was Van Raighan’s lie?
The angle was strange. Witnesses could only record what they’d seen, but if Van Raighan had seen that view with his own eyes, he’d been dangling from the roof of whatever the cave was. Clearsight pierced the depths of the abyss, but only enough to reveal just how far down it went - miles, if not more. Again, Van Raighan’s brother - Rissad? - slid across the rough stone floor and slammed into the back wall, and Rel’s enhanced sight told him something broke in the man’s shoulder. Rissad was Gifted, more strongly than his brother; to Clearsight, the rock behind him shone with the reflection of his aura.
There was some sort of old machinery on the back wall, a hinge of some sort, surrounded by rods and piping. A hinge meant a door, but there was no door, unless the entire back wall... Even as he thought it, Rel saw the shape of the concrete slab that would slide out and swing open. It had to weigh tons. If it opened, it would sweep Rissad and the Wildren clean off the ledge.
One of the Wildren was missing, Rel realised. Clearsight revealed one fewer than had been present in Van Raighan’s original Witnessing. But a Gift-Giver would never extort a human into stealing Stable Rods. Would they?
The bubble flickered as the Wildren turned to leave Rissad trapped in the stone, and Rel flicked a glance at Van Raighan. The thief was staring at him, face pale. Clearsight revealed every line of his frown. Rel couldn’t quite read Van Raighan’s mind, but his emotions were written all over his face. For a fraction of a second, Rel even caught a glimpse of a second face hovering just behind the first. Not that he needed it to tell him Van Raighan was still hiding something.
The Witnessing kept playing out between them, past the point at which it had stopped the first time. Rissad squirmed in the stone, then pounded on it, obviously screaming. Suddenly, he stopped, folded his arms, and seemed almost to relax. Rel concentrated on the man’s face, trying to read it as he had Van Raighan’s.
Rissad’s eyes were half-closed, his brows level, his lips straight. No, not quite straight. A twitch tugged at the corner of his mouth, the vaguest hint of a smile. It was impossible to squint while Clearviewing, but Rel felt his own eyelids pressing at his eyeballs as a dim pressure through the ice. What was he seeing?
He jerked back as the bubble burst, but his eyes felt frozen open. The sensation of losing touch with the Witnessing was of the front of his brain running into a stone wall, but the figure of Rissad still hung in the air. Rel tried to grab at it with his eyes, pushing away the niggling worry that this was impossible. Little was known about how the Gifts interacted, and if he’d never heard of a Witnessing turning into a Clearviewing, it didn’t seem completely unreasonable.
The stable image of the Witnessing had vanished with the bubble; Rissad was surrounded by flickering ghosts of the Second Realm, swirls of colour that vaguely outlined the shapes of the ledge and chasm, and the vaguest sense of a creature hulking over him. The abyss exuded a light uncomfortably similar to the colour of the Realmlessness, a sickly effect that lay across the image like oil.
Rel fought the waves of confusion and distraction and brought his attention back to Rissad’s face. Three faces, one of top of another. Rel saw each of them through its fellows, clearly provided he didn’t try to focus on two at once. The first bore the relaxed expression from the Witnessing. The second was smiling, eyes narrowed and teeth showing slightly, the face of a predator about to strike. The third was twisted to the point of comedy with faked terror, nostrils flared, trembling, neck muscles twitching.
Taking control of the Clearviewing - as much as such things were ever controlled - Rel went looking for what Rissad was up to. The faces flickered, growing vaguer, and hunger ate at them. The fake-terror face vanished, and the other two became gaunt. Moving into the future, then.
The aura around Rissad flared, and he vanished through a Gateway. His own? He reappeared standing by the hinge, his legs still buried in a cylinder of stone. The sides of the stone were glass-smooth where the Gateway had cut them. The image flickered, and Rissad was falling from the ceiling, legs still encased in stone. Rel had to fight not to wince as he slammed into the ledge and the stone shattered. For a moment, it looked like the fall had killed the elder Van Raighan, but he started crawling towards the machinery of the hinge, favouring his injured shoulder and dragging a leg bent the wrong way at the knee. Despite the injuries, though, a smile spread across his angular face.
The viewing froze, lingered in the air for a second, and faded away. Rel blinked in surprise, then blinked again and again, trying to clear the cold from his eyes and convince himself they were still attached to his face. The Clearviewing ending like that could only mean he’d be there when Rissad escaped.
Someone jostled him, almost knocking him off his feet, and he looked around. Two of the guardsmen were running for the door and Pevan was gone. So was Van Raighan. The Sherriff was shouting. The front of his brain felt like frozen fog. What was going on?
Pollack grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him. “What the hell was that, boy?”
“What?” Rel’s voice sounded distant in his own ears, but the inside of his skull felt a little warmer.
“That... vision. What did you see?”
The vision, right. Rissad Van Raighan, and a huge door that a Gift-Giver wanted to keep him from. Well, if Chag Van Raighan was a master thief, what must his elder brother be like? Rel explained as quickly as he could. If it was possible, Pollack’s face seemed to get darker with every word.
Rel finished, “I need to know how long I’ve got. Where’s Pevan?”
“What do you need her for?”
“I need to get to the Sherim. I may not have much time. Sir.”
“Get running, boy. Pevan’s chasing Van Raighan.” Pollack pushed Rel towards the door, swinging open on its creaky hinges. Something exciting was definitely happening outside, by the shouts that drifted in.
Rel said, “Sir, you don’t understand. I may be our only chance to stop Rissad, and for all we know he could be crawling towards that door right now.”
“And right now, Van Raighan is getting away because you distracted us all. You’d better hope your sister’s more useful, boy.”
“Maybe you should have paid more attention, then!” Rel snapped. Like it was his fault if the Sherriff’s men had let the thief get away.
“You shouldn’t shout at the Sherriff like that, Relvin,” Pevan’s voice cut through Pollack’s growl as the big man raised a hand to strike Rel. “It’s disrespectful, and you did distract everyone.” Pevan was stood in a Gateway in the wall by the door, holding Van Raighan’s arms pinned behind his back. The thief wore a grimace, and a dark mark above his right eye that was probably a new bruise. Pevan shoved him forward and stepped out of the Gateway, letting it slide closed behind her.
Rel opened his mouth to protest, but she beat him to it, “You want me to Gate you to the Sherim? We’d better get moving.” She pushed Van Raighan forward again and he stumbled right into Pollack’s chest. The Sherriff grabbed him clumsily. Pevan continued, “Try not to lose him again, Sherriff. I won’t always be here to clean up your mess.”
Van Raighan yelped as Pollack’s eyes bulged, the Sherriff’s arm tightening across his captive’s chest. Pevan gave them a sweet smile, head tilted to one side, then took Rel’s arm and pointed at the rough stone of the nearest wall. “You need your bag, Rel?”
Rel was always surprised by how soft his sister’s hands were, even through the fabric of his shirt. And small, with fine fingers. The only feminine feature she possessed, he was sure. He swallowed. “No time.”
Pevan nodded, and a Gateway appeared on the wall. They stepped through and out under a bridge. In front of them the canal surface rippled with rain. Rel knew where they were - still a good mile and a half from the Sherim.
“You know it’s a bad idea to Gate directly to the Sherim, Rel. For that matter, you know it’s a bad idea to go twice in the same day.” Pevan put her hands on her hips again, fixing him with a glare as if he was just out to make mischief.
“It’s not like I have a choice.” He looked around nervously, but apart from a faint shimmer around Pevan’s head, there was nothing to worry about. If that was all her disapproval, then either the Sherim was quiet today or she secretly approved. And Pevan never approved of anything he did, even when it was obviously the right thing to do. At least a quiet Sherim meant it was safe to talk for a moment or two.
She winced, “I know. Will you go all the way to the Court?”
“Better safe than sorry. Can’t you get me any closer to the Sherim?”
“Be careful.” She put her arms around his neck and hugged him tightly, and Rel found himself clenching his fists as he grabbed her. Too late to back out now, but this was stupid. If the Second Realm itself didn’t find some inventive new way to kill him, the Wildren would get him, and if they didn’t he’d have to come back to Dora. If he was lucky, she’d only skin him alive metaphorically. If she came back herself from whatever she’d been doing.
In the wall of the bridge, the Gateway twisted. The swirling wrongness of the Sherim was visible beyond the opening, but the surface of the Gate rippled, distorting the image. Reluctantly, Rel let his sister go, and pointed at the Gateway.
“Is that normal?”
“Up here? That’s calm. Get going, I feel like my brain’s turning to soup.”
Rel took a deep breath and took a step towards the Gateway. Normally, stepping through was like stepping through a doorway, but his hair stood on end just being close to it. He closed his eyes and walked through, trying to fight down a shudder.
The Sherim looked like an ordinary wooden door, standing upright without a frame on the wind-swept grass. To either side, the ground fell away, to the Federas valley on one side and towards Nursim on the other. Ahead, the brow climbed to the low top of Aruls beyond the Sherim. Not that you could walk a step past the Sherim in that direction.
The Gift made Rel’s eyes ache as he walked down to the door, and he stifled a yawn. Focussing on the door kept his attention off the strangeness at the corners of his vision, but he was used to it anyway; the slopes to either side, if glanced at carelessly, seemed to ripple, almost to flap like wings.
A few feet short of the door, Rel stopped, turned to his right, and began to circle it. This wasn’t the only Sherim to be marked by a door - the clash between first- and second-realm logic threw up some strange patterns - but at none of them did one open the door to pass through. Some doors simply didn’t open; some, like this one, would, but all anyone would tell Rel was that there were dire consequences for doing so.
He let himself dwell on that as he passed round the back of the door. Sometimes Dora still treated him like a child, to be scared into obedience by monsters under the bed. He was a grown man, and she only a handful of years older than him.
He passed in front of the door again, feeling the Sherim start to tighten around him. If he looked down, he knew, his feet would already be a few inches above the grass. Of course, if he looked down his own internal logic would reassert itself and he’d fall back to the ground. Dora used to find all sorts of ways to trick him into looking down when she was training him. She had no right treating him like a child when she was so childish herself.
Pressure built at the back of his neck, like one of those itches that moves when you try to scratch it. Pevan said she liked the feel of the Sherim, something about the way it touched her skin. It had no right to behave like that with his sister. He was all the way around the back of the door again and coming back to the front. He couldn’t feel the lean, but he knew he was almost eight feet off the ground, and leaning far enough over that, if normal gravity still held, he’d fall flat on his face.
Something about Pevan. His... sister? Or was that Dora? With the way she was always teasing him, she might as well be. Which of them was he thinking about? Dora, with her boyish body but oh-so-feminine hands. No, that was Pevan. Dora had the eyes. His eyes were boiling. Third time round the door. Did he have eyes? Surely if he did, they’d be open, and he’d be able to see the hillside a hundred feet below, and Nursim in front of him if he raised his head a little.
So, no eyes. Did he at least still have a body?
Nothing was ever still in the Sherim. Right on the brow, the wind was always strong. The wind was cool on his brow. Except that it couldn’t be, because his eyes that he didn’t have were hot. No body then. He didn’t have a body, or he was nobody?
He opened his eyes. Rel. That was him. Rel was somebody. Rel was in the Second Realm, now.
Slowly, his brain erected a semblance of first-realm logic between him and the world. Up was the direction his head was pointing. That meant that the big green thing in front of him was a plain. Other features resolved themselves into the sky, trees, the far-distant towers of the Court. Rel allowed himself to relax when he managed to pin down the red flower that grew out of the sky about half-way across the plain. Going through the Sherim was never pleasant, but if you knew what you were doing it could at least be made more or less consistent.
The Court was a jagged interruption of the flat horizon, six dark spires stabbing into the yellow fringe of the sky, a day’s walk or more distant. You could walk there across the plain if you had the time and stamina; this close to the First Realm, things were relatively stable and even the predatory Wildren were wary of humans. There were a few pitfalls, but it was easily the safest way to reach the Court.
Unfortunately, Rel didn’t have a day to walk to the Court. He turned to his left, feeling the dull ache of logic fatigue settling somewhere behind his forehead. A path, paved in red brick, led along the side of the plain, up to a small stone bungalow. Rel took the path, trying to ignore the green of the plains grass shifting slowly to grey, until only a fool could see anything other than a steep, unforgiving stone hillside falling away to a precipice far below.
A thin trail of smoke wound up from the bungalow’s chimney. That was good - the mad child was in - but also bad; the mad child was in. Rel ignored the cheery red door and smashed his way through the sole window.
Inside, the bungalow’s single room was neatly organised, with pans hanging from a rack on the wall, powdered spices in little jars on a rack, and a fire roaring in the hearth. The mad child sat with a blanket wrapped around her in a rocking-chair by the fire, her face so folded with wrinkles that you could almost convince yourself she had eyes and a mouth.
Her voice was a rustle of autumn leaves as she said, “Bravo. You’re just in time for dinner. Would you like something to drink?”
Rel climbed over the stone sink and let himself down onto the floor, carefully avoiding the white tiles. With his boots on, he had to place his feet diagonally across the black tiles. He said, “Sorry, sister, I came to feed you, I don’t really have time to chat.”
He expected her to protest, but instead she simply said, “You’d better get cooking, then, hadn’t you?”
Rel took a deep breath, then walked over to the hearth and sat down on the fire. He stared at the mad child’s face; if you thought about the fire too much, first-realm logic took over and you burned. Flames rose around the hearth, though, eating at the walls and floor of the bungalow but not touching anything alive.
Rel closed his eyes, sat back, and took a step forward. He almost imagined he could hear the mad child’s scream of frustration in the rush of air that carried him up the chimney, but even that was strangely muted. When he opened his eyes, he was walking along the narrow plume of smoke from a chimney and hearth that stood, bereft of their house, on the edge of a cliff. The smoke blew out across the chasm - the bottom was covered in what looked like a lush, dark-blue carpet - and Rel blew with it, each step carrying him dozens of feet.
The far side of the chasm passed by beneath, and Rel let himself lean backward until he drifted in a river of the fine strands of smoke. The river parted and he fell towards the stony ground, but all it took was remembering that he had done this before, and he landed in a pool of water - First Realm logic said that if he’d survived the fall first time, he had to survive it this time.
Logic fatigue made his head throb as the well started to drain, sucking him down with it, and then there was just the breathless rush, half-drowning as he shot down the pipe, sometimes smothered by the water as it fell with him, sometimes floating on it. Twice he bounced hard off the side of the tube in sharp corners, but if anything that made the headache recede slightly.
It was when he found himself floating, upside-down, in water that flowed along the top of the pipe while the bottom half opened to show the field below that the ache at the front of his brain started to pound. The pipe curved around through about half the required dimensions, and suddenly he was stumbling onto a tiny ledge, staggering forward and pressing himself to the cliff face as gallons of water lashed at him.
Behind him was an open expanse of blue that could only be called sky, except that it went all the way round from above his head to below the ledge. In front, the cliff went on as far as he could see in every way, broken only by the plain steel door that opened onto the ledge.
You could open the door, according to Dora, but that way didn’t go to the Court. Instead, Rel spread his arms and reimagined them as wings. A handful of feathers, freckled with brown spots and tipped with shimmering green - he had to work to get that colour; Dora’s feathers were an exquisite iridescent blue naturally - drifted to the floor as he flexed, then sprang forward, straight at the cliff.
Air caught his pinions as the cliff ghosted past, as solid as mist, and he swooped with the feeling of great bags of wind hanging from his shoulders. For a blessed moment, there was no Second Realm, no Clearsight, no headache; just a slow, spiralling glide down to the Court. Rel fought the desire to climb a little and prolong the flight. There wasn’t time. There never was, but someday...
Landing snatched the thought away from him, as he stretched his feet down towards the weathervane on the Tower of Birds. Boots struck iron, wings became arms, and swoop became fall. He tumbled down the sharply-sloping tiles and caught the edge. His head chose that moment to throb, and he dropped to the walkway with enough force to drive him to his knees.
Doubling over, Rel pressed his forehead to the cool stone and clamped his hands over his ears. He didn’t have time for this. Rissad could already be freeing himself. He clenched his teeth, lips pulled back in a silent snarl. Focus returned enough to get him back up to a sitting position. Did he need to go inside? No, the battlement would be enough. Would have to be enough; he was too close to losing his battle with the Second Realm’s logic to risk the impossible maze of the Court’s halls.
Clearsight spreading around his eyes was ice, but it failed to soothe the ache just behind them. The two sensations warred over Rel’s consciousness as he tried to pull Van Raighan’s Witnessing from his memory. Images came and went; Rissad’s hungry face, Dora’s eyes, still diamond-hard but wide with pain and fear, a group of Wildren talking to the younger Van Raighan.
There were other pictures too, either too strange to recognise or gone too fast to place, but Rel pushed his groaning brain through the haze and confusion, chasing Rissad. His eyelids tightened, fighting to close against his flagging drive to keep Seeing. Then he caught Rissad’s trail in a glimpse of the man walking through a ruined city. By the language on the signs, not old Federas.
The image skipped along as Rel tried to force his way forward in time. In fits and jerks, Rissad moved through the city, in through the shattered glass doors of a monolithic concrete tower, down into the basement. And from the basement into a cave. Rel could see the outline of the huge rift through the stone of the passage Rissad took; it ran clear under the city, thousands of feet deep, miles long.
Rel’s head pounded. His eyes felt like they were about to burst. Dimly, he was aware of stone against his cheek; he must have fallen over. In the Clearviewing, Rissad turned a corner and a Wilder, a brutish four-legged creature Rel didn’t recognise, grabbed him around the waist. Rissad kicked and thrashed, but the Wilder didn’t even flinch. Silence made the struggle comic.
There was a second Rissad in the thing’s arms, too; one that hung limp and compliant, smiling. Still nothing told Rel when this was happening, but the Wilder had to be taking him to the strange door. Rel pushed forward again, but his mind was numb, a useless lump of damp fluff refusing to break new ground.
He changed tack, pulling back in time, searching the city for clues. None of the old clocks worked, of course, but there were weeds grown to large bushes whose leaves were bright green with new growth; Clearsight picked out a lone daffodil growing in a park as Rissad walked past. Spring. But spring was just hovering on the edge of breaking, and Rissad couldn’t have survived starving for ten months.
Further back, and the pounding in his head became a thrashing, writhing thing, knifing between his frontal lobes. He couldn’t feel his eyes anymore. He couldn’t see anymore. No, he had his hands clenched to his face, holding his eyelids apart. But he pushed back, and suddenly he was seeing the ruined city from the crest of a low hill, the sun rising behind it, and Dora skipping - skipping?! - down the hillside towards it. She turned as if listening to someone out of sight, and laughed.
He fought for a last moment of focus as his brain tried to escape his tortured skull, but there was a swirling distortion around Dora that stacked image on top of image to a depth beyond even what Clearsight could sort out. A single detail remained; Dora’s hair bounced and swung from the crown of her head in a ponytail, bound by a bright yellow ribbon.
Dora had never had hair that long. Everything he’d seen was the future. How had Van Raighan Witnessed it?
Logic fatigue became a saw, rasping through the centre of Rel’s skull, and he released his eyelids. The end of the Clearviewing was a hammer to the forehead and a kick to the guts all at once, and still blessed relief for all that. He rolled onto his back, clutching at his head.
It took a minute before he could open his eyes again, and even then light was all prickle and heat. The grey shapes around him might have been the dark stone of the battlement and walkway, but he felt like he was standing on air with a wall at his back. Which way was up? The fragile image of the Court as a building shattered as Rel’s internal logic failed.
He squeezed his eyes shut again, and sensation ceased. At least if he couldn’t feel anything, he couldn’t feel the chaos around him. Even the feeling of sinking below the murky waters of sanity faded and he became nothingness. Stable.
Without using anything so substantial as hands, he found a short rope. It hovered in the void where Rel should be, and he began tying knots in it, looping one end over-then-under the other. The first thing any Gifted learned; tying a Four Knot. The first three knots were easy. You tied them just like you would in the First Realm. The splitting ache hovered at the edge of consciousness as he manipulated first-realm logic into those first three knots.
The last knot was pure Second Realm, though. You tied it backwards, then pulled the whole thing through itself, and somehow the ends of the rope joined inside the knot. What remained was a loop of rope with four knots in it that could never be untied, short of cutting. You made a four knot to summon the Four Knot. Dora would come for him. She was in the Second Realm anyway. Nearby. Rel let Rel go and waited for the Sherim to carry him back to himself.
Dim awareness marked time poorly, but suddenly there was a second nothing next to the first. The dividing line was the skin between two pairs of eyes, one flint-grey and hard, the other green but icy cold. Someone knew something about those eyes. They looked a bit like his sister’s.
But the eyes looked nothing alike, so whoever the sister was, it wasn’t either of them. Besides, none of these eyes glittered with malice. No, the malice was in the Van Raighans, and he needed to stop Rissad.
‘He’ was a good start, he knew. He had a sister, with green eyes. And a... friend? Could eyes that hard ever be friendly? No, Dora was a friend, definitely. Not a nice one, but a friend. Just like his sister was a sister but not a nice one. Even if she did have nice hands.
Somewhere in the tension between Dora and Pevan, Rel found himself. Slowly, he began sifting the jumble of mental noise for sensations that belonged to him. The splitting headache was obvious, and the damp cheeks felt right, too. Gritty eyes went with that. Overusing Clearsight tended to make you tear up. There was a stiff ache in his neck and something uncomfortably pointy poked into his cheek.
He brushed water off his face - more than just tears - and opened his eyes. They immediately filled with rainwater and left him blinking and spluttering. It was hammering down; he could hear the splashes and trickles up and down the cliff he was apparently lying at the bottom of.
Wherever he was, it wasn’t anywhere near the Sherim. He lay on the gravelly bottom of a narrow gorge, his boots and calves in the swelling stream. The sky above was grey, dark with fading light. Dora lay half on top of him, her head on his chest and her leg tangled with his. Her hair, normally so wild, was plastered flat against her skull, and her robe was dark with moisture, almost black in this light.
“Dora? Where are we?” Gently, Rel touched her shoulder.
She lifted her head and their eyes met. Rel’s headache flared and his eyes stung as they widened; where Dora’s eyes had been grey, now they were closer to silver. Even in the dim gorge, her irises shone gently, revealing a tracery of red on white. She’d been crying too.
“Rel?” her voice was hoarse and thin. “Your logic... Does it hurt?”
She blinked at him and lifted a hand to his face. She touched his forehead, and jerked her hand back. More firmly, but still distant, she said, “Your head. Right.”
“Dora, what’s going on? Where are we?”
She looked to one side, then back at him, and quickly pushed herself up to half-sitting. Her head jerked nervously as she looked around. “I’m not sure. How did we get back to the First Realm?”
Rel frowned, “You don’t know? You did it.”
“I went to the Court for another Clearviewing, but fatigue got the better of me. I managed to tie the knot, but I was nothingness by the time you came.” As Rel spoke, he watched Dora’s lips thin with a sinking heart.
To his endless relief, she said, “As soon as we know what’s going on, we are going to have words about that, young man.” As if she was his mother. Her eyes flashed in the gloom - literally - and she snapped, “Don’t give me that look, Relvin.”
“Just provided you wait until we’re safe,” he grumbled, pushing to his feet. His head swam, and he let himself lean against the cliff. “There must be a Sherim somewhere nearby, and it’s nearly night.”
“Rel, I didn’t take us through a Sherim.”
“That’s impossible. You have to have done.” Frowning made the headache worse, but he couldn’t help it.
“I can’t remember much after I got to the Court, but I know I was in no fit shape to handle a Sherim.” She pushed herself to her feet and put a hand on his shoulder, “Besides, I think I know where we are.”
“Where?” Standing was getting easier, but Rel didn’t quite dare let go of the cliff wall. He blinked water out of his eyes and tried to see past the end of the gorge. It really was getting dark quickly.
“We’re out beyond Nursim. I went walking in these hills a few times when I went there for training.” She frowned, her eyes flicking down to her hands and back to his. “There’s no Sherim nearer here than ours.”
“I know. Come on, if we hurry we can make it into town in time to grab some food.”
Rel nodded. He let her take his hand - her skin was slick with water, but warm - and stumbled after her down the gorge.
I hope you've enjoyed this episode. I'm hoping I'll be able to put episode 2 up before the end of October, but it's not looking all that likely, and with NaNo in November it could be a full month yet before you get episode 2. If you'd like to receive The Second Realm by email (or just to receive an email when there's a new episode available in the Kindle store), drop me an email at rdavnall AT googlemail YOUKNOWHAT com stating your preference.
Episode 2 is here.
Episode 2 is here.
Thanks for reading!