Book 6 update: Cover slowly coming together. Maybe not much longer? Fingers crossed.
Meanwhile, another Ardent story for the War of Memory Cycle. I have 2-3 more to write for her, then I’m planning a series postscript novella to tie up her thread and Sarovy’s. The Temharat stuff is ongoing — I’ll be redrafting the first book soon, and am currently editing the second story chunk of what might be a prequel or might be a standalone. Popping back and forth between projects hasn’t been as difficult as I thought it might be, since the characters are all strong in my mind.
Anyway, on to more Shadow Realm shenanigans! This one is set approximately 17 years before Book 1, when Nemirin was fifteen.
Includes: teen angst, mainly.
Description: Young Nemirin discovers something inside herself.
The arches of the chamber that held the Testing Labyrinth reached so high into the blackness that it was difficult for Nemirin to accept that they were still inside the Spindle. Intellectually she knew that the structure that centered the Shadow Realm was a folded place; private exploration as much as crèche classwork had shown her just how meaningless the concept of spatial continuity was within the Spindle’s deep reaches. Even time seemed to bend in some places.
Still, it was one thing to have crept and climbed and crawled through twisting, looping, overlapping yet person-sized spaces. It was another thing to stare into infinity and know oneself to still be inside.
“I bet I’ll get through it first,” bragged Krilaya, drawing Nemirin’s attention down from the ceiling. Her friend was dressed soberly for once, in a black vest over black tunic and breeches that cut close to their limbs instead of belling out in some froth of lace or sequins. Their long black hair was braided back—elaborately, because Krilaya couldn’t be entirely contained—and they’d limited their makeup to dusky eye-paint. It made those laughing dark circles even starker within the shadow-stitched sclera, with no gold- or rose- or violet tones to soften them.
Nemirin mustered a brittle-edged smile and jerked her shoulders in a shrug. She didn’t want to be here, standing amid the crowd of fifteen-year-olds with their elders at their backs, waiting for the Labyrinth’s gates to open. Didn’t want to be ‘tested’ in this annual ritual of mixed messages and foregone conclusions. Didn’t want that generic check-mark beside her name: participated in the Testing Labyrinth, final rank X.
Didn’t care that it was a requirement for all Enforcement trainees, no matter their specific skill-stream. In a way, that made it worse. Krilaya was going into management, and they still had to be here. What if she, a full-on combat trainee, couldn’t go as far as her friend?
“No one gets all the way through,” said Suyen. He stood at her other side, as stiff as his choice of testing gear was comfortable: sandals, sleeveless top, sarong already knotted up like shorts. He was headed into the surveillance side—had been apprenticed to a kai in Bera for a year already—and she couldn’t help but feel jealous over the spiderwork tattoos that covered his bare shoulders. Nevermind that she had no interest in spiders. The tattoos were a mark of purpose, of experience. Of focus and struggle.
All she’d been doing down here was endless training and arguing with her mother.
“Fine, then I bet I’ll get the furthest,” said Krilaya. “Or maybe you’re wrong and it is winnable. Just because you’re in intelligence-gathering, it doesn’t mean you know everything.”
Suyen cast them a sidelong look, mouth flat, then focused on Nemirin. “Are you all right? I heard about, um…”
Nemirin locked her jaw and clenched her hands together behind her back. Into her silence, Krilaya inserted, “Ignore the rumors, Susu. Anyone who’s been badmouthing her is really just whining about getting thumped. And they deserve it, in my opinion, no matter who got the demerits. People should know better than to mess with Nemi anymore.”
“I was asking about injuries, Kri. I heard someone got a broken hand or something.”
“Just two fingers. And really, that’s what they get for making rude hand-gestures.”
“Well what about that bruise?”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” said Nemirin to quiet them. Every time she spoke, frowned, smiled, she felt the bruise on her jaw where she’d let her smug opponent hit her. In the aftermath, she’d wondered if it was dislocated, the joint hurt so much—but it had been fine, just strained. Her opponent’s hand hadn’t been so lucky.
Just thinking about it made the heat rise up her spine and knot beneath her breastbone. That cheerfully mocking face, that casual gesture of contempt…
“Everyone knows you’re only in this class because of your Regent mother. Trying to make something better of you, right? Something more than an Enforcement meathead? And look how well that’s working! If you can’t keep the pace, dunce, you should just—“
Two of her knuckles popped. She forcibly unclenched her hands, took a deep breath, and blew it out again. To either side, her friends had gone cautiously quiet.
“I’m fine,” she told them. “Everything is fine.”
She thought she heard Krilaya snort softly.
“Well, I’m glad to see you two,” Suyen said after a long moment. “We’ll have to catch up after the testing is done. Maybe we can catch the others…”
“I’ll see to it,” said Krilaya, ever the social organizer of the group.
Nemirin exhaled through her teeth. The instructors were gathering atop the first wall, just slightly below the students on their hill. In the Shadow Realm’s ambient dimness, Nemirin could see past them to the start of the Labyrinth, ridged with crests and valleys like a rumpled black sheet. She couldn’t comprehend enough of it to make a plan, and once the hundred or so Enforcement trainees were inside the structure, they would be the majority of her problem. Still, her restless mind couldn’t help trying to memorize the twists and turns, map the potential paths, project the competition’s future.
She had to win. The hot cinder in her chest demanded it.
“If I can’t get the others, we can always go to the management-stream’s after-party,” said Krilaya as Instructor Ghatramani mounted the wall and moved toward the gate. “Are you dating anyone at Bera-kai? Because there’s people I can introduce you to, if not.”
“Do you want to be introduced?” Krilaya sounded amused.
Peripherally, Nemirin registered Suyen’s glance. “I wouldn’t want to intrude. And I’m not going to be here long. I figured, just a small meet-up of our crèche friends…”
“Don’t worry, I’ll make Nemi come too. I’m pretty sure I’m the only reason she ever goes to parties, so it’s my sacred obligation to make sure she socializes.”
Nemirin suppressed the urge to roll her eyes or make an acid comment. She didn’t care much about hurting others’ feelings, but she hated disappointing Krilaya. It was uncomfortable.
“I guess we’ll just have to—“
Instructor Ghatramani began the welcome speech, and Suyen shut his mouth. Nemirin glazed over it, having heard it twice already. As a Regent, Ereshti Anmari was allocated a drift-shadow with which she could oversee the trainees and the Labyrinth event. That she’d dragged Nemirin with her the previous two years had been a source of controversy, given that Nemirin would inevitably participate. Her mother had successfully argued that even if it had been a serious competition, the mutability of the course nullified any advantage of an over-flight.
Nemirin disagreed. She remembered watching the Dark deluge from only yards above, while the normal crowd had to watch from afar. Remembered the cold pull of it in her guts, smothering and quieting the seething coal that her mother’s presence lit in her.
If she hadn’t seen that stage, she wouldn’t have understood. Now nothing would stop her.
As the Instructor rambled on about family, about community, about hopes and fears and opportunities, she focused her stare on the nearest gate. Once it opened, her friends would become competitors, just like the other trainees spread across the hill. It didn’t matter that the teachers said they weren’t being rated—that this was just to introduce them to umbral wall manipulation and the presence of the Dark.
She was going to reach the end.
The three of them went through the same gate at more or less the same time. There was something nice about racing nearly neck-and-neck with old friends, Krilaya’s braid lashing with their footfalls, Suyen’s sandals slapping as he pushed himself into the lead. Nemirin was wearing boots, almost knee-high and cinched like armor, the heels making a hard clack against the false stone as she ran. A warning, like the tap of scorpion-legs.
Two other trainees followed, though she heard more than saw them. More boots. The black walls pinched in, forcing them to single-file, before belling out into the first of the forks. Above, instructors zipped by on drift-shadows or paced atop the walls, which all rose fifteen feet up or more. Too far to leap, too slick to climb, the corners curved to provide no way to shimmy even with the best-tractioned footwear.
The only option was to run, guess, split—picking fork after fork in the early rush, hoping to pull ahead of the competition by sheer chance. Nemirin lost her friends as she chose a short incline, struggling up its slant briefly before flinging herself head-first into the aperture at the peak. The slide on the other side put her on a new path: narrow and serpentine, the floor uncomfortably wavy, the walls pinching in overhead to turn it nearly into a tunnel.
She slowed to catch her breath, running a hand along the neutral substance of the wall. Almost but not quite like the umbral wall, it was translucently solid, giving an alluring sense of depth. If she smushed her face against it, she thought she might see something folded beyond, or hear something from below. The gurgles and whispers of the Dark…
She didn’t linger. This wasn’t a complex situation. There was no way down through the floor, no way up to the tops of the walls. Just the twisting paths and their communal end.
Rumor described tricks one could use to get through faster: following your left hand, listening for the quieter path, sneaking in treats to make the eiyets manifest and show the way. Nemirin didn’t believe them. From above, with her Regent mother, the Labyrinth had seemed straightforward, though there had been areas she hadn’t been able to see into: tunnels, real umbral patches, recursive loops. No eiyets though, and no threats. It wasn’t meant to be dangerous—nor even really a test. Just a teaser of future fieldwork.
The ‘tricks’, in her opinion, were just luck and persistence.
Still, as the gap above pinched to a thread, she couldn’t help feeling constrained. Normally she liked that. Her bodice was laced this tight for a reason, the boning pressed to either side of her spine like reinforcement. The bands she told her mother were bracelets were as close to arm-guards as she could get with civilian-wear, making sure her sleeves couldn’t dream of catching on something. Constraint meant control.
But only when she was doing it—not when it was being done to her.
Beneath her boots, the floor became ever more irregularly textured, the walls showing stud-like protrusions. Climbable if only the tightening ceiling wasn’t there. Jaw firm, she smacked the studs with the back of one hand as she went. They were like hitting a practice bag: not hard, a bit flexible. Her path kept narrowing, from double-file to single. A shadow ghosted above her, someone watching, but she ignored them. The floor rose, the ceiling lowered…
The studs lengthened into spikes. Still flexible for the moment, bending when she brushed against them, but perhaps not for long.
A fork. In one direction, the path seemed to widen and the spikes soften. In the other, the opposite.
“Remember, it’s random,” she muttered. She’d seen that from above. It wasn’t a judgment test; every path reached the final chamber eventually, even if it merged with others to get there. No real dead ends that she’d seen, no obligation to go the rough route when there was a smoother option. No doubling back either; the passageways closed on a timer, sealing up to force even the most laggardly kids forward. The easiest way was the longest, but the hardest ones weren’t the shortest, and there were no secret prizes, no hidden achievements. No reason to take chances.
A moment’s hesitation, then she climbed in among the spikes anyway.
The going became unfriendly, fast. Within yards she was twisting through a horizontal forest of protrusions, one spike scraping the back of her bodice while two creased the front. Sideways was the only means of progress, and she discovered it was easier to pull herself along: grip a spike far enough ahead, twist and wriggle through the others while dragging with that arm and that leg, wincingly ignore any scrape along a vulnerable shoulder or thigh. Actual armor would have been welcome, since the spikes did bend a bit; she thought she could have bulled sideways with such protection, awkwardly but quicker. It might even have been fun.
Instead she kept getting her scorpion-braid caught, even when she tucked the tail-end down her collar. A spike drew a welt along her cheek and across the back of her neck as she forced past it; another felt like it was trying to carve a groove across her backside. And still the path continued to crimp, making her hunch shoulders and bend knees to keep her scalp from scraping the ceiling.
That finger-width fissure continued above. She stuck a few up there just to see if she could reach the top, but the ceiling was at least six inches thick here.
Why do I do this? her self-disgust muttered as she squirmed and wedged and struggled her way deeper. I could go back and take the easy route. I should go back. It won’t have closed yet. Didn’t we get lectured about this? The fallacy of throwing more effort into a bad action just because you’ve put so much in already? If this was a real tunnel, shrinking and bristling with each step, I eventually wouldn’t be able to get out. And I’m trying to win!
But it’s not real danger. So it’s just annoying. And maybe there is a shortcut…
A spike dragged across her cheek, and she bit down a curse. Her forward motion had become more of a constricted slither, chin tucked to her chest and one arm braced over her head as she pushed with both heels and dragged with the other arm. It felt vaguely like being combed, the spikes running over her, the end of the tunnel still somewhere ahead. Competition buzzed at the back of her brain—the awareness of how much she must be falling behind. Overlaying it, brighter and far more potent, was her war with this stupid spiky gullet.
It won’t beat me. I won’t let it. I’ll destroy it. I’ll—
The outlet came as a surprise, like being birthed. Suddenly her head was free, her elbow impacting a wall to help her push out. She kicked and wiggled and slid the rest of the way through, coming to rest on her back on a slight incline with the spikes caressing her heels farewell. The ceiling was open above her, like she hadn’t just been shat out of a shadowy bowel.
She sat up and stared at the exit, hardly wider than the span of her shoulders.
“Why did I do that?” she asked the silence.
No answer. There’d never been an answer. Even as a toddler, the Oversight analysts had been baffled by her, the crèche teachers concerned. An angry personality. Easily incited. Mood-driven. Aware of own irrationality; cannot explain its source.
Ereshti Anmari thought it was the scorpion-blood. Had said, coldly, that her own lack of that fury—that vicious response to a challenge—must be the Shadow half of her biology. Perhaps thought, privately, that she’d picked the wrong person as Nemirin’s sire. Not that Nemirin could judge, since she’d never met her other parent and maybe never would.
Nemirin gave the spikes a last kick, then rolled down the ramp and to her feet. The path divided here, one way showing straight walls open to the ceiling and weird lumps dotting the path, the other pinched at the top and with an uncomfortably ridged floor.
She picked the open side this time, jumping occasionally at the walls when the lumps rose higher just to see if she could reach. Impossible, of course. If she’d had a companion, maybe they could have boosted or flung each other. Herself and Suyen and Krilaya…
That was a fantasy from crèche, though. They’d both drifted away after her mother’s death, dodging her mounting temper. She didn’t blame them, even as she hated them for it. Hot angry feelings and cold logic could coexist as long as she kept the lid on the first.
She missed them. That was objectively true. But she was an anchor, weighing herself down. Everyone told her so. The cinder, the coals, the roaring flames that rose up her throat and scorched the roof of her mouth sometimes—they all kept her from reaching her ‘potential’. Whatever that was.
Something other than punching training bags, apparently. Something other than chopping dummies apart, or breaking idiots’ fingers when they strained her patience.
She punched the wall, as a test. It rippled like most umbral stuff; her knuckles hurt, but not much. The floor had become more corrugated, and kept hooking at the low heels of her boots. Running would be better than strolling, maybe…?
A few yards of wobbly sprinting almost ran her into a wall. She barked off it, cursing under her breath. Corrugation under the toes was clearly no better than under the heels.
Don’t sulk. Shake it off. Use your brain. The others must be running into similar issues, right? You’re not that far behind. Maybe they’ve all been forced to crawl through the shadow’s ass. You still have a chance.
“Self-talk, self-talk,” she muttered. Oversight had pushed that for her after her mother’s successful eiyensuriel adaptation. A part of her felt bitterly proud of drawing her mother’s old personality out, even if she’d done it mainly by yelling. Another part wondered if it wouldn’t have been better to leave Ereshti as that soft, vague, wandering thing.
They didn’t live together anymore. She had her own tiny apartment, where she didn’t throw things and didn’t shout and only broke her punching bags once every three months.
She liked being alone. She did.
Who would come visit anyway? Only Krilaya so far, in the nine months she’d been living there. Krilaya’d brought stuffed pastries from their dad, a bunch of old clothes and gear from their moms—one of whom was a combat Enforcer—and some of their own scarves, “To remember me by.” As if they were going to vanish into the Dark.
She still had all the gear, even the stuff that didn’t fit. Some of it, she thought she might grow into. The other garments and oddments stayed packed in a trunk: precious artifacts from a strange land. When they went out together, she always wore one of Krilaya’s scarves, but otherwise those stayed in containment too, lest her classmates sense a weakness.
Nothing of her mother’s had ended up in her apartment. Neither of them wanted that.
A drift-shadow passed over her, breaking her from rumination. Looking up, she saw only the drifter’s back as the shadow hovered above the wall beside her. They seemed to be staring down into some parallel path. At another trainee?
She paused to listen, but heard nothing. No footsteps, no conversation or cries. It occurred to her that there could actually be a thin membrane of shadow-stuff above, making a real ceiling. Had she heard anything from below when she’d accompanied her mother? She didn’t remember.
You need to learn to absorb those kinds of sensory details, she told herself. They’ll be important when you’re out of training. Hunting our enemies.
“Hoi!” she cried. To her ears, her voice went nowhere—flattened away by the soft walls and the possibility of a glassy ceiling.
The instructor was still up there. Frowning, she pressed her face against the wall, hands shading her brows. The dim translucent material wasn’t that thick—maybe six inches. Was that a shape moving on the other side, slowly as if limping?
Good, she told herself. Someone I can easily outrace.
Still she lingered, trying to decide if it was someone she knew or not. There were a few trainees in her class that she’d punch other trainees for, if it came to that. No one she was close to, but people she didn’t like to see being harassed.
She couldn’t get a clear view, and even if she could, there was nothing to be done. She didn’t think their paths would intersect, not the way the Labyrinth coiled and looped.
But maybe they would.
So she pressed forward.
When she started hearing voices, it had already been so long since her last contact that she had to halt to make sure they weren’t just in her head. After all, she sometimes heard impossible voices in her apartment: murmuring below the thud of her fists on the punching bag, silent when she stopped and tried to listen. There was never anyone around, and the walls were soundproofed, so she just pretended it hadn’t happened.
These weren’t ghosts or mental fuzz. As she paced toward the end of her narrowing and tilting corridor, they came more clearly. A mix of chatter and laughter she recognized from the fringe of hand-to-hand combat class. One of the cliques.
She tucked herself up into the narrowed egress and squinted around the corner there. Two girls and a star were headed away from her, along the crosswise curve of a wide corridor that seemed to collar some chamber ahead. Dim memory sparked: the end of the Labyrinth was a great big circular room with entry-points all along its wall and the final gate as its goal. Perhaps this corridor led to an entry-point.
A glance around gave her no sense of where she was beyond what she’d gleaned. Ideally she’d enter the final chamber close by the gate—but the moment the first person crossed its threshold, the Dark flood would begin. She could get trapped outside if she didn’t hurry.
Why are they clumped up? she wondered as she watched the clique move along. To try boosting tricks? Or do they not take this seriously?
If they didn’t, it pissed her off to be behind them. She’d tried to pick good corridors and squeeze through quickly… But the Labyrinth had no logic, and like with the spike passageway, sometimes neither did she. Certain places just stung her—challenged her—and she couldn’t back down. No matter how much she’d hamstring herself.
The corridor ran both ways, curving into the distance. She slid slowly down the wall from her aperture and slunk off the opposite way from the clique.
Above, the ceiling appeared open, leading into the nothing-darkness of the greater Spindle. She wished she had some little thing to toss and confirm that there was a lid over her, but she didn’t want to take off a boot or a bracelet just in case she lost them to the barrier. She wouldn’t put it past her seniors to make the surface sticky.
If she’d been inside the umbral wall or another enclosed area, she could have reoriented herself. Chosen which surface was up and which was down; flipped gravity in mid-jump and landed on the wall or the ceiling. Provided she was alone, of course. The Realm responded to the will and expectations of its occupants. Here, where the massed awareness of the observing instructors said that down was down, her lone dissenting opinion couldn’t change things.
The Labyrinth’s structure also blocked such tricks. No rooms, no doors, just a twisting maze, everything connected and flowing onward—everything registering as a single massive room. Strong-blooded kids who were used to Realm manipulation cheats found themselves just as lost as thin-bloods; likewise, the architecture ensured that no one could get caught and drowned in the final flood. All passageways constricted upward, toward air, rather than down.
And all could be replicated within the umbral wall, where gravity, space, and structure could be manipulated from moment to moment. Scrabbling through the spike tunnel hadn’t been dangerous for Nemirin, just annoying and exhausting. With hardened spikes though, and the tunnel seizing like an electrocuted snake…
That was the ‘Testing’ part of the Testing Labyrinth. Not so much of the students but of Realm defense methods—which, as Enforcers, the students would one day control. As far as she knew, no enemy force or power had ever tried to penetrate the umbral wall, but she appreciated the paranoia.
Her current path was just a wide bland curve. No challenge—so maybe a spur of the easy route that coiled around the whole Labyrinth, for those who didn’t care to compete. It pissed her off. If she had intersected with the easy route, then she’d already lost, hadn’t she? If she ended with a similar rank to that lazy trio…
Maybe this was a brief ‘relief’ zone. Maybe those three weren’t actually lazy, but had helped each other through a few hard paths and gotten ahead of the crowd. Or maybe they’d just…not gone down dumb spike tunnels that had lost her more time than they’d netted.
Still, they were unmotivated. In her opinion, the Labyrinth was dull on its own. It needed a living, patrolling threat. Something to galvanize the others toward the center, since competition clearly wasn’t doing it. She imagined shadow-monsters in the halls: something big and bulky ahead of her, muscularly intimidating, or maybe something slinking, crouching, stealthy, following her into the spike tunnel to grab and pull. Making her push through faster, snarl, kick…
She bounced a bit, activated by the thought. Something to beat, yes. To win against; to flee from or disable or drag across the paths of her competitors. To keep her awake long enough to reach an exit-point and face the final race.
Tedium was a test too, she knew. Much of surveillance was just waiting and resisting the urge to fall asleep. It required patience—which was why Suyen had a kai position and she didn’t.
She wanted conflict. Only in fighting classes did she feel properly awake, aware, alive. Sharpened. It didn’t matter whether she was pacing the edges or in the thick of it. The mere presence of violence made her body feel real, from heels to lungs to fizzing brain.
Not that she was wild. She’d never gotten a demerit in those classes, unlike certain students who’d gone overboard. But in sanctioned spars, her low-burning coal became a flowing flame, and she moved within its flickerlight, bright-hot. Fueled, radiant, immortal.
The opposite of calm, no matter what the instructors thought. She didn’t bother telling them that her pressurized temper was just given a release valve here. That she moved smoothly because she could finally let go, instead of staying knotted up until it hurt.
She didn’t control it once it was free. She just aimed it, like a crossbow.
Around the curve, the corridor ended. She almost cursed—then saw the opening in the wall. Circular, large enough to crawl through, just in reach if she jumped.
“All right, again,” she muttered, and hauled herself onto its lip.
It angled upward, which should mean she was going the right way. Passing through on forearms and knees, she had to wonder how far the others had gotten. Direction meant nothing here, which was a boon for Suyen, who’d always been a bad navigator. Krilaya might have met up with others, joined them—that was their way, always schmoozing—but wouldn’t stick with a group too long. Too competitive not to face the final challenge alone.
Halfway up the tunnel, with the end a dim circle against the black walls, Nemirin felt a shudder run through the Labyrinth. The air-pressure changed, like a door had been opened somewhere. Did she taste brine? She licked her lips and decided it was her own sweat, but she could definitely hear a rushing noise. Pressing her head against the wall, she closed her eyes and stilled her breathing.
Yes, there it was. Low and soft, not in the wall itself but reverberating more strongly through the umbral material than through the narrow tunnel.
The Dark flood. Which meant that someone had entered the final chamber.
Annoyance shoved her forward. She nearly ejected herself from the tunnel’s end, and managed not to plunge into the water below by sheer force of reflex. Her tailbone came down on the lip of the opening instead, jarring pain up her spine as she clutched the exit’s edges. Darkness sheeted the ground—thinly yet, with plenty of clearance between her perch and both the ceiling and the water’s surface. The main corridors were a uniform fifteen feet even if the twisty weird side passages varied greatly.
The thing about the Dark was that no matter how much had flowed in, it was nevertheless infinitely deep. An inch was the same as a mile, unless some other force consistently confirmed the presence of the surface beneath. Magic could do that; the Dark could flood a magicked place but not overwrite its physical logic, its essential dimensional reality. When Dark flooded Shadow, though, Dark always won.
That made the flood a floor-is-lava escapade.
Annoyed, Nemirin swept the scene, looking for a route. She’d come out into a triangular area, the far point pitching up into an archway. Through that arch was the empty expanse that signaled the final chamber—so close! But Dark water had already filled the floor, only a few irregular lumps rising from it.
That was fine. She wasn’t afraid to jump from stone to stone. Drawing her heels to the opening’s lip, she steadied her stance, then leapt for the nearest protrusion.
Her boots hit it and slid to either side—expected. She pulled her knees in as she dropped, catching the lump with them and both hands. It hurt, and her feet dipped into the Dark water for a moment, but she was secure on the weird dome-top of the first ‘rock’, and after a moment to swallow the pain, she heaved up. Squinted. Picked another target.
She managed to stay upright on that one by windmilling her arms madly. Other posts and knobs presented options, but the Dark flood wasn’t quick, the water just creeping up the ramp, and she trusted her leg strength. She lunged straight for her goal and hit the ramp scrambling, cursing the stiffness of her boots until they gained traction. At least they weren’t slippers.
Up the ramp, through the arch—
The final chamber was already an archipelago, a few inches of water blotting out the floor to leave knob-like islands scattered across its Dark expanse. She spotted three figures on the flooding course, two behind and one ahead of her according to proximity to the gate, which was a considerable distance to her right and more than halfway across the chamber. Still, she was starting near the middle.
Cursing under her breath, she slid down the short incline to the lip that loomed over the water. Most of the islands had at least a foot of clearance above the Dark, like weird rock formations she’d seen in pictures of deserts, but already some of the lower protrusions were being swallowed up. Stepping-stones vanishing. She leapt to the nearest large mass, clamping her hands on it for stability, then surveyed for a possible path. The further forward she moved, the higher her targets needed to be, so they didn’t vanish beneath the water ahead of her.
It looked like the stepping-stones reached all the way to the gate and its high ledge, but very few of them sat at the gate’s own level. Most were several feet lower, useful only to the fleetest of contestants.
More students were emerging from the other entry-points: gasping, shouting, starting to tackle the event. Nemirin clenched her jaw and hopped across two low stones, lunged to pull herself onto a high one, surveyed again, and picked a new direction. The very tall spots were sometimes too far from each other; they relied on low points that would vanish soon. Medium spots, threatened but not yet vanishing, might be the way to go…
A black-clad arm flagged at her. She glanced over, recognized Krilaya at a competitive angle, and flashed her teeth in half-greeting half-ire. Even at a distance she heard the star’s bright laugh.
More leapfrog, stone to stone, her foot coming down on a film of Dark at the last jump and almost passing through. She flung herself up that island, surmounting it more by shock than strength, and kicked her boot as if to shake off the nonexistent wet. Dark water wasn’t actually water, after all. It had an enclosed scent of caverns and depths, a chill, a silky texture, but no true substance. One couldn’t cup up a handful of Dark any more than one could grab the Void.
It reminded her of the combat-flame. Intangible and uncontrolled, a filling absence, a burning emptiness. Maybe inverted; maybe the same thing, just cold.
The floor is lava, indeed.
More shrinking path-islands, unpleasantly smooth. More competitors emerging from the woodwork. Some shouting, flailing, falling—to be retrieved swiftly by the drifting instructors. A glance backward showed students already stranded at their archways or on isolated islands, shaking their fists or sitting dejected. Others hesitated, considering a dangerous jump or perhaps a brief swim. They’d all been told not to mess with the Dark, but also not to fear it so much that the fear became an entry-point. It was survivable so long as they got out fast.
She’d never really wondered what it did to those it drowned, until now.
She still had chances ahead. The low stepping-stones had been flooded, and the mid-risers were being threatened, but she had strength left in her legs for leaping and climbing. Again and again, she took the jump, sometimes sliding half-into the Dark but always pulling out of it. Her legs were getting cold—chilled from repeated contact—but her boots still looked fine, her leggings undamaged. It wasn’t hurting her.
Two students converged, one from each side. Suyen to her left; an unfamiliar girl to her right.
She glanced back, saw Krilaya waving tiredly from an isolated island.
Glanced forward to see Suyen getting ahead, pulling himself onto another atoll. The girl had found some lucky small chain of stones and seemed to dance forward, but the Dark water was still rising, beneath and ahead of all of them. The tall islands shrank closer, the mid-level ones sinking.
The gate still loomed ahead, and the wall it occupied. Drift-shadows flitted there, instructors lining up—those who weren’t rescuing stranded students. Other observers had been there for a while, she realized. Regents, perhaps her mother among them. She didn’t want to seek Ereshti out, didn’t want to look into her eyes.
Focus. Lunge. Grab. Climb.
Suyen was still ahead, but running out of options. The only islands she saw for him now took him away from the gate before looping toward it in the distance. The unfamiliar girl drew further ahead as she dared a nearly-sunk stone and a half-sunk island before gaining better ground on a tall, flat atoll; however, she paused there, clearly having problems seeing the road forward. As for Nemirin…
She straightened from her newest lunge and saw nothing ahead. Just blackness.
Fury surged up her throat. She tried to swallow it, knowing it availed her nothing, but a glance back showed her the trail vanishing, the side paths sinking away. She’d picked a dead end. Tall stones still stippled the waters ahead of her, but their interstitial links had vanished, lower than she’d thought. Or else the waters had risen faster than she’d guessed.
All around, options were eclipsing. More students and their rescuers drifted over her, to be deposited above the finish line. The majority had been stymied at the archways, but others were no doubt treed in the main bulk of the Labyrinth—unable to go further down the flooded main paths.
You’ll be third in rank, pragmatism told her. Not bad for a class of a hundred. A bit unlucky, a bit lacking in foresight, but you got this far. It’s good enough.
Her jaws locked on that thought, teeth grinding. No. She hadn’t come this far just to sit and wait to be rescued.
The Dark water was just coldness. Condensed, formless substance; empty liquidity; paradoxical something underlain by the Void’s nothing. It hadn’t yet hurt her. Therefore, it couldn’t. And anyway, she could swim.
Deliberately, mouth pressed flat, she undid the laces of her boots. Slipped her feet free. Placed them carefully at the peak of her island so they couldn’t be swept away.
Moved to the verge, below which the Darkness still rose incrementally.
Heard her name cried, dimly, from behind. Krilaya, of course. Krilaya would see exactly what she was doing.
It didn’t matter.
A step, a push, and she dove headlong into the Dark.
A memory: screaming down the hall at her mother, who stood with hands on black-gowned hips in the archway that led to the kitchen, irritated but by no means impressed. Slamming the door, because that was what the rage required, then tearing everything off her bed and pulling it all down over herself as if to hide in the wreckage.
She couldn’t recall what she’d been mad about. Her mother had needed to go to a diplomatic function, and she…
Was drifting, surrounded by blackness. Not yet chilled, though it was cold against her skin; not drowning, though her mouth had opened at some point. Her lungs felt neither full nor empty, just…satisfied somehow, as if whatever made them function was fulfilled, or perhaps no longer necessary.
Does Ereshti feel this way? she wondered.
She was supposed to be doing something. What was it?
Darkness eclipsed her view in what seemed like all directions, no up or down, no light in this flooded world. She flipped over, just to get a full view—and there was the surface high above, like a black mirror reflecting her floating figure. Dimly, other shapes moved beyond her image. Birds?
No, this was the Dark that underlay the Shadow Realm. She wasn’t outside, sunside. She’d been…
The recent past flashed behind her eyes: Suyen, the other girl, Krilaya behind her. They might be passing her position even now, approaching the gate—
That should have made her angry. She’d blacked out down here, somehow. Been delayed. But she didn’t feel angry. Didn’t feel compelled upward, either—toward that second self who looked down at her as she stared up. That girl’s face was sober, bland, eyes hooded as if maybe a little sleepy. No tension in her jaw.
Not smiling. If it had smiled, Nemirin would have known it for another person—some Void effigy making an effort to mock her. No one told her to smile anymore. They knew better.
No, just…a mirror. A mirror, which meant her expression was like that too. She touched her face to confirm, and saw the reflection do the same. Realized that for the first time in forever, she wasn’t clenching her teeth.
Her image did nothing, said nothing. Just floated there opposite her, existing in tandem, at peace.
Some lingering stress drained from her spine. If it was just her and her in here, then she didn’t need the mask, the wall, the shield. No one would ask her questions she couldn’t answer. No one would intrude, their presence just a tarnish on the silver surface behind her doppelganger. No mother, staring, scolding, shouting; no instructors with their needling questions; no friends with puzzled brows and bent smiles. No minders, whom she’d never talked to before and didn’t care to talk to now.
What’s the problem, Nemirin? Where did this come from? Why are you like this?
She breathed in the stuff that was not water, feeling its cold slip down her throat and fill her lungs. The hot core that she’d always considered her self—her shining bright compacted rage, her endless faint dismay and disgust at the world as she found it—shivered slightly, as if touched by that chill. It wasn’t a frightening sensation. More like realizing, upon slipping into the bath, that she’d been bruised up by her day’s exertions and now needed some care. An awareness of vulnerability that didn’t translate into a threat.
When she exhaled, some of the heat went with it.
The activity of the mirror-tarnish was becoming more agitated. She watched it past her duplicate’s shoulder, contemplating whether she should care. She was fine down here. It wasn’t forever; they would drain the Dark flood at the end of the event—or very soon, most likely, if they couldn’t pull her out. They were all so scared of the Dark, sometimes.
She wasn’t afraid. She wasn’t hurting. The jumble in her head had quieted too, and as she exhaled another gust of warmth, she felt the shivers in her chest fade and vanish. She’d equalized with the Darkness, just a solid girl-shaped bubble of it now, floating face-up and watching as some conflict escalated above.
Her mother, probably.
Her mother would demand that she be dredged out. Would drag her somewhere to be talked at, like so many times before. Like that memory. She recalled the rest of it now: Ereshti’s irate voice beyond the door, scolding, guilting, bargaining, threatening. Whose house is this, young lady? Who gave you all those nice things? Who gave you life itself, and how dare you choose to curl up like a snail in its shell rather than experience anything? Come out right now, and in your good clothes. We will not be late to this event.
The bitter anger that normally answered that tirade didn’t come. She tried a few other memories: Ereshti’s ill-omened return from death, the disintegration of her briefly known eiyensuriel friend, the many frustrations and slights and obligations that had made her flame up in the past. No fire caught this time. Her lungs were full of water, incapable of burning.
It was nice.
She wanted to stay here.
There were drift-shadows hovering above now—six of them. Shapes crouching as if emboldening themselves to plunge in and drag her out. She felt nothing about that, not even the grudging resignation that had eventually pushed her from her room, in her good clothes. In Ereshti’s house, she’d been trapped by expectation. Here, if she wanted to, she could just dive.
Down and down and down, into Darkness without end.
But that wasn’t productive either.
She turned her head, scorpion-braid floating slowly with the motion. The Dark was another realm within the Shadow, intersecting more than intruding; the chamber floor was gone, as were the stems of the archipelagos of stepping-stones. But she could still see the lumps their tops made beyond the Dark membrane, dimpling it with surface tension for the brief moments before they were swallowed and displaced. She could see the gate’s ledge.
With the instructors still arguing somewhere above, she began to swim.
Her doppelganger mirrored her stroke-for-stroke, which was a strange thing to watch. She didn’t want to turn face-down. It was possible she could forget the existence of the surface, could find herself diving without meaning to do it. The cold erased more than just anger—or perhaps anger had been her only motivation, the thing that drove her to every act. Spiting her mother, beating her opponents, cold-shouldering the friend she hadn’t seen in a while…
Why had she been angry at Suyen? She didn’t want his job.
His freedom, maybe…
Focus, she thought. Self-talk still worked down here, even if it felt like raising her voice in an empty room—full of weird echoes, some sense of lack. She’d never thought the rage was her, just a component. The furnace, the fuel. But what else was in this quiet basement when the furnace was cold?
Stroke after stroke. Her legs looked nice in these leggings. Krilaya had helped her pick them, she remembered, after luring her from her apartment with promises of tea and gossip. It was easy to be with Krilaya. They were so willing to fill the air with their own voice, their opinions, and let others be silent.
Easiest to be in a crowd with them, though. No matter how respectful of her internalism, Krilaya still couldn’t help asking those old questions now and then. How are you? What have you been up to? Are you feeling all right?
Fine. She was fine. Nothing changed in her routine. She made progress according to her plans; she set fire to the empty place at the center, and fed it everything she didn’t care to keep. The flames pushed her forward. If she was pressurized, it was on purpose, self-done. Steam-powered, a kettle too polite to shriek.
What was this propulsion, in her flame’s absence? Just reflex? The skeleton of the plan? She wasn’t sure why she felt the need to win. It wouldn’t change anything. As much as this was called a test, it was more of a recreation day—a challenge meant to be a little bit scary but a lot of fun. She wasn’t a fun person, but even she’d kind of enjoyed it.
The drive to win overshadowed that fun. Spoiled it, scorched it to ash in her mouth. If she wasn’t winning, then she wasn’t…
Worthwhile? Making good use of this life?
The mirror-self stared down at her, brows slightly furrowed. Still swimming, the shadows flitting behind her. An atoll stone passed to her left—a big one—and her face pinched in thought. It took Nemirin a moment to realize that her own face was doing that too, and another to remember that she was the person and her other self the reflection.
Nothing changed in the hollowed-out space of her emotions, but she thought, simply, This is no longer safe.
Which meant getting out.
She tipped her head back and focused upward. There was the ledge, its odd out-thrust rippling the Dark around it. She turned over in the water, going back-to-back with her doppelganger as she swam toward it. The surface gleamed closer, promising nothing but a return to the fire—that pointless inferno that consumed all in its path.
It was fine. She’d lived with it for this long.
And she knew where to find the Dark.
Her head crested the surface, and she gasped, lungs sucking in briny lukewarm air and expelling nothing. She flung one arm and then the other up onto the ledge, dragging herself out with a will that strengthened even as her briefly-weightless body remembered gravity. As the flame at her core rekindled, her teeth clenched, lips peeled back in something neither grin nor snarl. The gate loomed just ahead, no one in front of her, just the crowd on the wall above.
A drift-shadow scraped across the stone in front of her, Instructor Ghatramani stumbling off of it. Three more instructors followed, filling the air with concern, confusion and judgment.
On her knees at the lip of the ledge, clothes stuck to her skin despite being perfectly dry, hands curling from flat-palmed to fists against the stone, Nemirin considered pushing herself backward. Splashing, twisting, diving down to find some other way out.
But there wasn’t one. Not that would leave her still resident in this life, in this body, as herself. And she liked herself just fine, no matter what others said.
So she stood instead and let them rant. Let them draw in her mother, as Ereshti drifted down from above. Pasted her listening face on over her mounting annoyance, nodded at their stressed ramblings, and took the occasional impatient step toward the gate when she thought they’d lost the plot.
At last, she set a hand on it: cool and translucent-black like every other part of the Shadow Realm. Then she glanced back, past the forest of adults, and saw Krilaya and Suyen still on their lonely islands: Suyen shaking his head, Krilaya miming belly-laughter.
Through the simmering fire, Nemirin smiled.