Quin floated on a dark ocean, unconscious of anything. Then, by slow degrees, she became aware of herself. There was light coming from somewhere, blue-tinted and dim. She was lying down, and the surface beneath her was hard and uneven and cold.
Someone was there. A warm touch on her lips, so soft and fast, she wondered if she’d imagined it. Noise surrounded her, a sound like a distant deluge of rain, but much too fast, as fast as the breeze across her face.
She remembered. She and Shinobu had gone There, but she was losing herself, and he was begging her for help. She had to claw her way back to him. Right now!
Quin sucked in a lungful of air and lunged to her feet.
“Take me out, Shinobu!” she said. “Carve an anomaly!”
Her voice was slow and rusty, and she was no longer There. A moment ago there had been the glow of a lantern, and Shinobu’s dark form in front of her, and beyond that the deepest blackness. They’d discovered that the Middle Dread had been turning Seekers against each other for hundreds of years, while keeping himself “blameless” in the eyes of the other Dreads by getting others to do the actual killing for him. Quin and Shinobu had gone There to find whatever the Middle had been using to sow discord. But where was she now?
Somewhere new. A cave, rough surfaces colored by bluish illumination from an opening high up in one of the walls. The light was changing, as though it came from a sky with fast-shifting clouds. The noise was still there, far away and close, the sound of rushing water.
She could see Shinobu’s silhouette. He was here with her, wedged into a corner of the space, as confused as she was.
Quin stumbled toward him, discovered that her body wasn’t working properly. The walls lurched and teetered, but it was her own muscles that weren’t functioning. She recalled the Old and Middle Dreads closing in on her on the Scottish estate, months ago. Their movements had been uneven, out of sync with the world around them, because they’d been lost in the hidden dimensions for years. She was like that now, buffeted by the stream of time.
“Shinobu! How long were we There?”
She laid her hands on the dark form in the corner. It turned toward her. Too fast. Everything was too fast.
A face she didn’t know, a young man, towering over her. Unruly hair and eyes that were dark in the cave’s dim light. He was wearing a focal; his expression was wild. This person wasn’t Shinobu at all, and he was reaching for Quin.
“It’s good you’re awake.” He spoke so rapidly, Quin nearly missed the words.
She’d lost herself There when she was supposed to be keeping an eye on Shinobu. Had they run into this man? Had he taken Shinobu’s focal and spirited Quin away? She lurched backward, trying to pull herself properly into the world. Her hand found the knife at her waist.
“Shinobu? Shinobu?” Maybe he was nearby.
The strange young man came for her, moving so much faster than she could move.
“It’s all right,” he said.
It was not all right. What had he done to them? How much time had passed? Quin felt his hand grip her elbow. She wrenched free, drew her knife--slowly, too slowly. The walls moved by in fits and starts as she pushed herself away.
“Shinobu, are you here? Answer me!”
The cave was small, more a widened channel through rock than an actual chamber. She blundered down the only route available.
“Stop, stop!” the stranger called, sounding both angry and afraid.
The channel narrowed dramatically after only a few steps, but it then opened up again. Quin squeezed through the tightest spot, moving as if in a dream, and found herself in another chamber. She heard him behind her at the narrow neck, too big to follow her easily.
The noise was louder here, a thundering of water in the rocks, so rapid it was like hearing a recording on fast-forward. There was less light. Quin felt her way along the darkened channel for several yards, and the air around her changed, became moist as the noise drummed harder into her ears.
“I can’t follow you!” he called. “Please!” There was something awful, desperate, in the way he said it.
“Shinobu, are you here?” Her voice was still slow and heavy.
The channel narrowed again, and now the floor beneath her was dark with water and the air full of mist. Quin stepped around a sharp bend and found herself abruptly washed in early dawn light and staring directly down the face of a cliff. The channel had ended in open air, and her front foot hung several inches out over the ledge. Droplets festooned the atmosphere, dazzling her with rainbows. She was behind a waterfall, at the edge of a sheer drop, the cascade thrumming and reverberating as it launched itself over the craggy headland above her and out into the sky, where it plummeted down and down and down.
With a nauseating jolt Quin felt herself rejoin the flow of time. For one moment, she was whole; she then lost her balance in a rush of dizziness. The height . . . the height . . . She dropped her knife, grabbed for the walls of the crevice in which she stood. The stone was solid beneath her fingers, but her foot, hanging over the edge, gave her the sensation that she was falling. Her knees buckled. She clutched her meager handholds as hard as she could, overcome by vertigo, pleading desperately with herself not to let go.
Hands were on her arms, drawing her away from the ledge. “I’ve got you,” the stranger said, his voice no longer fast but natural. “You’re all right.”
Her companion held her up, and together they staggered back the way she’d come. When they reached the narrow spot, Quin slid through, and with difficulty he squeezed himself through after her.
She collapsed where she’d woken up, head against the wall as she hugged her knees. “Oh, God,” she muttered, pressing herself into the rock hard enough to ward off the memory of her foot hanging out over that edge.
It took her some time to recover her wits. She focused on her breath, following it in and out until she returned to herself. When she opened her eyes and the cave came into focus, she discovered the mysterious young man crouching a few feet away, watching her anxiously.
“There you are,” he said. “I’d hoped you would wake up all right, but that didn’t go so well.”
Quin’s eyes shut again. She found her knife on the ground by her leg. He must have retrieved it for her. Why would he do that? She gripped the hilt and drew strength from it; Shinobu had given her this blade.
Quin opened her eyes to discover that the light in the cave was growing brighter, showing her new details. Her companion was young, but older than she was, perhaps in his midtwenties. He wore something like a monk’s habit, made of a coarse brown material. His curly hair was brown as well, as were his eyes. He would have been handsome except for those eyes, which were large and distorted by some power that had him in its grip. They made his face dangerous.
“Should I take it personally that you prefer to plunge to your death rather than sit in a room with me?” he asked. It was a joke, though he didn’t look amused or relaxed.
“Did you take me from There?” she asked him, coming back to herself more with each moment that passed.
“You were stranded in no-space.”
She’d never heard that term before, but she knew immediately it must be another word for the hidden dimensions.
“Shinobu was with me.”
“He wasn’t. I know no-space better than the back of my hand. He was gone before I found you.” His voice shook, but whether with fear or anger, Quin couldn’t tell. Something was wrong with him.
He was a Seeker, obviously, and she was going to find out what he’d done. Was he a pawn in the Middle Dread’s scheme to turn all Seekers against each other? “Did you take his focal?” she demanded, meeting his wild eyes with her own. “Did you leave Shinobu There, helpless?”
“If he was there, he left before I found you. And you--” He looked upset, wounded by her question. “It’s my focal. It’s always been mine. I rescued you.”
Quin walked herself through the hazy, slow last moments with Shinobu. He’d been in trouble. He’d wanted her to take off his focal, but she hadn’t been able to move by then.
She studied her volatile companion in silence, realizing that it was entirely possible that Shinobu had gone off on a fool’s errand. It had been her job to keep an eye on him, to make sure the thoughts from the focal didn’t overpower his own. If this stranger was telling her the truth, then Quin had lost herself, and after that she’d lost Shinobu somewhere as well.
“Where are we, then?” she asked, trying to take the accusation out of her voice. Maybe this person had rescued her.
“We’re in the world,” he answered in tones of awe, as if he didn’t quite believe in the world. As if this were his first visit.
She said, “And where--”
“You want a place name, something specific.” He was shaking his head. “I can’t think that way. Give me time!”
His voice trembled badly. She saw that he was making a great effort to hold himself together, but he looked ready to jump out of his skin at the slightest provocation. With a sweeping glance, Quin estimated him as an opponent. He was big, perhaps twice her weight, and agile. She’d grown up around fighters and knew a dangerous man when she saw one.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” he said, as if reading her thoughts. “You’re welcome to that knife you’re clutching. I don’t mind. I waited here with you for hours until you woke up. If I’d meant to hurt you, I would have. I don’t like fighting.”
The words carried a ring of sincerity. Despite his feral look, she was inclined to give him a measure of trust. Unbalanced did not necessarily mean evil.
“Who are you? Which house?” she asked him. “Where did you train to be a Seeker?”
“I don’t know specifics so quickly.”
“But your name--?”
“I saw your clothes and your food and I knew it was time,” he said angrily. Apparently she had pressed him too hard. She watched him master himself, but his voice quavered as he added, “Your clothes and that food are modern. As modern as I needed them to be.” He gestured at a wrapped food bar lying on the floor, which Quin vaguely remembered stuffing into her pocket at some point. He edged closer to her, on his knees. “Would it offend you if I took your hand?”
“What?” Was he asking to hold her hand, or was he so crazy that he was asking permission to remove it? She tightened her grip around the knife hilt.
A surprised laugh escaped him. “Held your hand,” he corrected himself. “I didn’t mean I wanted to cut it off. I only ask because I’m not used to this much light. I--I haven’t got any weapons on me, though there are a few in the cave. And wonders.”
What did that mean? As if the sky had heard her question, the light shifted abruptly. Clouds outside had parted, allowing a glow of yellow to flood through the high, natural window in the rock and show Quin her surroundings clearly at last. The space where the two of them sat was large enough for six or seven people crammed in at close quarters. There was no way out except the cliff plummet off to her left. And she could now see a couple of whipswords lying haphazardly nearby, along with a few other objects--strange items that she didn’t recognize, made of stone and glass, items that looked both ancient and intriguing, like things the Young Dread might carry, like things her father should have taught her about during her Seeker training. Wonders, he’d said.
The young man was still moving closer, avoiding a beam of sunlight as though it were poison. In the brighter light, she saw his focal more clearly, and could hear the crackling of its electricity. It was not Shinobu’s helmet. That was the truth. It was quite different, larger, maybe cruder, and there was a D melted into the temple, by a child, she guessed, looking at the rough design of the letter.
“I told you it was my focal,” he said, noticing her gaze. “It’s the oldest one there is.”
His large hand enclosed her own, and Quin allowed this because she was pondering what he’d just said: His focal was the oldest focal? What family did that put him in? And how had he come by the artifacts on the floor?
“I need your steady hand,” he said. He glanced at the sunlight, which shone on the wall only a few feet away from his shoulder.
“Are you worried it’s going to burn you?”
“A little bit.” He took a deep breath, in and out, as he pressed her hand between both of his. “Will you pull off my helmet? There’s no escaping it--it’s got to come off. And then we can get out of here.”
The thought of leaving was plainly terrifying to him, but it energized Quin. She had no athame and therefore must cast her lot with this unpredictable companion if she wanted to get somewhere--anywhere--familiar and begin looking for Shinobu.
After extricating her hand from his, she gently removed his focal while he watched her with tortured eyes, bracing himself for pain. He collapsed the moment it was off, and with a deep groan pressed his forehead into the floor. When she set the helmet aside, she could hear the buzz as its streams of energy severed themselves from him like a swarm of dying bees.
Quin caught only a few of the muttered words that flowed through his gritted teeth: “. . . It’s supposed to focus . . . I never wanted it to tear . . . should have done better . . .” He spoke as though he had a long and rough history with his focal, and she wondered if it affected him in the same way Shinobu was affected.
“Stop! Come here,” she told him. He’d made a gash across his temple against the jagged floor. She pulled his head up, and when he felt her touch, he clutched her, a drowning man holding a piece of driftwood.