Cadence led the way into a coral ravine. Thlib grunted, wriggling his torso to squeeze through a tight spot, and threw a rock at them. Cadence caught it via telekinesis and sent it into an orbit around their head. They then turned on their heel and raised an eyebrow.
“Thlib, we’ve been over this before. You can just say, ‘Hey, Cadence, wait up a moment!'” they said.
“Yes, but then anyone nearby would know that I was asking you to halt,” Thlib said. “You told me to be more tactically aware.”
“Thlib, I have been a psionic for how long?” Cadence asked.
“Well, since I’ve known you,” Thlib said. “Ah, right. I suppose you would know if anyone was nearby.”
“There are two more of those odd sharks trapped in a cavern down and to the right,” Cadence agreed, running their mind-touch over smooth predatory fins and lashing tails, “a whole lot of… oh, well that’s odd,” they said, and trailed off as a swarm of crabs came scuttling up the ravine towards them.
“Cadence, a little help?” Thlib asked. “The suit will protect me and all, it’s just… I don’t like being touched by strangers.”
Cadence chuckled and levitated Thlib off the ground. Appy, predictably, got within a few feet of the oncoming horde and started poking at it as it passed.
“Oh, they start getting heavy when there are enough!” she said, flopping one of her many tendril-arms up and down; three crabs had latched on.
“Most things tend to work that way, sweetheart,” Cadence said. “Put them back with the others and try not to bother them too much, okay? We’re the ones walking through their home.”
“Okay!” Appy said. It soon became apparent that removing the crabs would be its own chore; each time Appy reached for one, it tended to latch onto the new “threat”. At length Cadence sighed and removed them with a psionic flick. After a few minutes the crab-swarm passed, leaving the coral flats quieter than ever.
“Well, that was fun,” Appy observed. “Do you suppose it’ll happen often?”
“On the Fringe?” Thlib said. “Could happen again in a second. Might be we’ll never see it again.”
“Ooh, Cadence, you could make it happen again, couldn’t you?” Appy asked, whirling through the air and snagging herself on a pinkish coral branch in her excitement. The entangled coppery hook promptly ripped it loose. “Oh, no!” she cried. “I didn’t mean to–”
Cadence levitated the piece back in place and focused for a moment. Seconds later, the coral was healed.
“It must be so useful to be a psionic,” Appy said.
“It’s a lot of work and responsibility, Appy,” Cadence said. This was better than telling an effective child “My life is a constant war against the agony of all the emotions people think they’re keeping hidden,” and about as effective a deterrent by virtue of sounding boring. At least, I hope so, Cadence thought. They really had no idea how to be a parent.
Cadence opened their mouth to say something else and heard a low moaning sound. A shadow fell upon the ravine, and soon ran far ahead of them. They looked up.
An enormous chunk of material floated through the Fringe’s upper atmosphere, clouds tearing open and drifting along its contours like a ship’s wake. The Marrow’s blue streamers pushed against it, stopping it from falling into the planet’s surface and spreading out in waterfalls of light over its craggy surface. The rock-planetoid itself, all dull blues and black streaks, streamed sparkling bits and pieces of matter, and occasional gaps let the sun’s violet light peek through. Orderly bulwarks of slate-grey metal gave shape to its underside, with little clusters of orange marking built-up areas.
“Run,” Cadence said.
“But it’s so pretty!” Appy objected, even as Thlib grasped one of her tendril-arms and obeyed Cadence’s order.
“I’m pretty sure that’s Shard Vellica,” Cadence said, “which is about the size of a continent, which means the tide is going to come in behind it. Run!”
Well done, Chaplain Pariah, Cadence seethed at themselves. All your haughty talk about the power and responsibility of a psionic, very impressive, and you let a planetoid take you by surprise!
The howling winds intensified, driving crystalline sand and coral shards ahead of them. Vellica’s main bulk now moved in, plunging them into an artificial night lit only by the distant flickers of the Marrow pushing against the Shard. Distantly Cadence wondered whether it really qualified as “artificial” night when night itself was simply the obscurement of the sun via the movement of celestial bodies.
Stop doing Thlib’s job for him and do your job! they chided themselves. Cadence’s psionic senses didn’t rely on light at all and Thlib’s people could see in other spectrums, but Appy was already getting caught up on coral bits in the darkness.
–Appy, sweetheart, I’m going to help you see, okay?– Cadence sent. They didn’t like using telepathy without permission, but with the pressure-storm building around them it was the only way Appy would hear them. –You have to be calm and let me in or it won’t work right!–
—Okay,– Appy answered, panic radiating through their connection, –I’ll try, Cadence, I promise!–
Cadence fought to parse the kinetic energy and coral shards and thousand terrified animal minds around them to connect with Appy. At last they caught flickers of composite sight, wildly twisting as the storm spun Appy back and forth and she fought to keep herself headed the right way. Cadence fed their own perception through: the ravine, every color stark and over-vibrant with light and darkness alike stripped away.
—That pinnacle ahead!– Cadence ordered, even as the wind moved on ahead of them and eerie silence descended. The worst, they knew, was soon to come. “When you get there, I want both of you to climb, and don’t you dare stop!”
“Cadence, you’d best not be planning anything foolish!” Thlib called over one rubbery shoulder.
“I’m making a calculated decision based on the information I currently have–you can call it foolish after the fact if you like!” Cadence countered. For a few seconds the quiet persisted while they rushed towards the pinnacle, which at high tide would make for a lovely little islet with just enough room for a cottage.
Then, in the darkness far behind them, a new roaring sound rose into being. Even as they continued feeding their perception to Appy and they scrambled over submerged boulders, Cadence channeled more power to speed the trio’s steps.
“You’re doing well, both of you!” Cadence lied. “Just a little faster and a little farther!” They blasted apart some ancient galley’s hulk as it loomed before them, scattering barnacles and flotsam to either side. The roaring grew louder, and the pinnacle was still so far away.
Time to use that forbidden knowledge, Cadence thought. It wasn’t as if there was anyone here to see them doing it, and neither Appy nor Thlib would be able to tell what was going on.
Cadence expanded their mind, shifted their perceptions, and saw the surrounding matter for what it was: an accretion of molecules conforming to but one possible mode of space. The Tundra-Chaplain, with a mental snarl, shifted that mode. Reality warped beneath their feet, jagged stones bending into smooth platforms, tiny gaps between reef-outcroppings becoming wide enough to pass a horse-cart through, and the pinnacle’s oncoming sheer face becoming an even ramp.
Cadence now glowed cerulean with their efforts, and spiderwebbing sears expanded beneath their skin. Their will and spirit were strong; their body was not. Disintegrating seams opened along Cadence’s back. It took the last bit of their concentration to stop the new agony from spreading along the connection to Appy.
“Don’t either of you look back!” Cadence shouted. Thankfully, they obeyed. The roaring became cacophony even as they started up the ramp to the pinnacle. Is it that time again already? Cadence thought. They sighed and turned to face the wailing blackness. –Both of you grab hold and start climbing,– Cadence sent. –I’ll be right behind you, but the ramp has to go.–
–What do you mean the ramp–very well, as you say,– Thlib agreed.
—Okay, I will!– Appy said. –Race you to the top, Cadence!–
“Sure thing, hun,” Cadence muttered, letting reality resume its normal shape and staggering a little. The tidal tsunami hurtled in, a distorting wall within the Chaplain’s senses. Past that mass of energy and destruction, they could sense nothing. Cadence chose their moment, clutched their amulet, and then, for the second time today, called upon the Boreal Lady. Frost-scalding unfolded through their body for a moment. White light flared out and met the oncoming waves, and Cadence briefly thought that might be enough as a great hemisphere of ice froze into being.
An instant later it cracked and would’ve broken apart had Cadence not bent all their will into holding it together. Even so, gouts of water broke through. They hazarded a shift in attention: Thlib and Appy were no better than halfway to the pinnacle’s top. Damn it all, Cadence thought, and fed their frustration back into their efforts. They called on more of the Lady’s immutable power, driving the glacial bulwark deeper into the onrushing tide, building it higher to match the incoming waves.
Frostbite, its purplish-black all the more sickly to Cadence’s mind-sight, etched into their outstretched fingers and crept slowly inward. All the while, Thlib and Appy climbed–until the exact moment that Appy looked back down.
–Cadence, c’mon!– Appy thought, frantic. –You have to follow us up! If you don’t–
—If you want me to start climbing, you have to finish first!– Cadence all but screamed at the poor being through their connection. –I’m a Tundra-Chaplain! No one on this fucking rock gives a damn if I die, including me, so fucking climb, Appy!–
The shock radiating along their connection broke Cadence’s concentration for a moment, and the tsunami took advantage, driving their frozen barricade further apart in the eyeblink before they regained their senses. Appy, terrified and ashamed, was climbing again, and that was all that mattered to Cadence right now. The Chaplain’s body buckled slowly inward, muscles starting to twitch and seize, bones lashed by aches.
Finally, they sensed first Appy, then Thlib, reach the pinnacle-islet’s top. Cadence back slowly towards it, sensing both of them looking down from on high. It was a sham, of course; the Chaplain knew their power was expended. An instant later the ice-wall shattered open, and the abyssal waters hammered Cadence into the pinnacle’s coral base–then nothing.
As always, I’d love to hear thoughts from any of you down in the comments! Otherwise, please leave a like, share this episode with your friends wherever you may go online, and follow me on Twitter if you’d like to keep up with my day-to-day musings.