Interlude: The Falls
Streets and arches flew by as Numbers raced the oncoming dawn. Her sibling was close by, waiting as promised. Her trail took her northward, toward the light that slowly faded in the approaching sun. But invisible as it soon would be, she could never have ignored it. It pulled her as surely as the pole pulls a magnet. It reached out to her with a cold song of love and togetherness, the call of her family. Her mount felt it too, and he raced on to the riftward districts. The streets narrowed, the pink dawn blocked out by overhangs and balconies, the squeezed together dwellings of those too unfortunate, too thrown aside in life, to afford a safer place to stay. Already a few people were out, some trudging back to their beds after a long night, some already beginning a day that would be too long, and for too little reward.
Her horse navigated the walls and the downtrodden like a wood hawk through a thick forest, his pace barely slowed by the obstacles. People saw them, turned their heads as they ran by, but she knew they were no danger. There were no Ferhases or Tilreves here. This close to the rift, people never asked questions.
She could see the white walls, in little glimpses through the alleyways, stained red with the dawn light, but more than that, she could feel what lay beyond. If she let her being spread away from her, in the wake of her mount and before it, she knew exactly where to go.
Her siblings were here. She could feel them calling her closer. They stretched themselves thin to reach out to her form and beckon her home, and her teeth grated. She had been putting this off for too long, but they would want to know what work she had done for them. She didn't fear what they had to say, because how could she? She had done plenty for them. But their presence ground her down.
Some people spent their whole lives searching for their own kind. Some people found them, and discovered they were never theirs at all...
Kae was waiting for her, leaning in an alleyway, inconspicuous amongst the other near-rift dwellers, but for when she smiled. Then, her teeth caught the light just as the rift wall did, and they too were stained in red. They greeted one another, though Numbers did not dismount, their beings intertwining for a moment, pushing and pulling against one another as they had during their negotiation.
"This place," Kae said, her dark eyes sparkling in the morning sun. "It makes me so sad."
"You and me," Numbers said. Her horse didn't wait for any more. He turned with the slightest of provocation, west now, to chase the fading night. Kae followed, running and leaping by their side. Her form shimmered, the stone distorted behind her faint shadows, and she nearly cast off her body in her haste. They thundered into the square leading into North Cascade, all the smells and heat and squalor gone in an instant, to be replaced by the sting of fire and chants that stood between them and their parent. Onward they pushed, through open gates and into the serene garden beyond, the guardian trees shining the last of their blue-green light before the day. The rang through waterfall spray, and in one leap they cleared the waters themselves, Kae's form looping and twisting around Numbers and her mount. Into the mossy caverns beyond they ran, deeper and deeper, their reactions and reflexes perfectly timed between the pair of them. Down and down, darker and darker, until their path opened up. They came to a halt in a cavern, slick with dampness and shining with quartz and limestone, to meet their siblings.
There was no Karos, but no, he was elsewhere. But a different brother, and a sister, waited for them, she cloaked in her form of a sweet old woman with a fine net of drapes covering her shoulders, he unfamiliar. It was only when their forms touched in greeting that she recognised him, wrapped in this tall, thin man, and underneath it all. "Someone else in there with you, is there?"
"He is a scholar. He gave himself away. It was his choice."
"I should imagine he did," Numbers said, her memory tingling with half remembered coffeehouse gossip from a few years back, of a scholar rumoured to have shot down his own family to save them from the rift. Damn load of good that would have done anyone, she thought. She regarded her brother's new skin with some interest. The years had left him drawn and thin, skin stretched over bones, hair greying and going sparse, yet still draped in the heavy robes of a Sia Marhu scholar. Numbers wondered how he even managed to move, dressed like that. "Well, it would be nice to say that the family is all here," she said, "but I suppose not."
Nobody laughed. Nobody so much as smiled, not even Kae. Numbers had spent so much of her life coiled up tight inside herself, as Karos once said. This was no way to address her family. She touched her hand to the horse's neck, and he went quiet and still, holding his head low.
She opened up, spread out beyond her form, beyond the inquisitive little shadows. The cavern rumbled with the shades of their selves, mingling between one another. The lake shore shimmered and rippled, and turned to ice. She unravelled and reformed. Every tendril of her being, locked up inside her, pulled itself free, and found her siblings. She felt Kae, hot and jagged at the edges, their sister soft and firm all at once, their brother slender and stretched out. They greeted one another again, tested one another, dancing around their empty and sloughed off bodies and entwining themselves around one another. And she was aware, too, of the world around her, of the icy lake, of every vein of quartz, every spray of mist. In the distance, the rift beckoned as always, more intense and loving than ever before. Her siblings were drawn toward it, their dance leaning towards the cold light.
They spoke to each other in pure knowledge.