Chapter Five: Boundary Crossing
Content warnings for this chapter:
Brief description of a sexual assault, and details of a third-party's feelings about it.
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It turned out I’d been worrying for the wrong person.
After I explained everything, Yali took a long time to answer. We were sitting together in her living room, and she looked as stressed as I’d ever seen her, and my chest was tight with anxiety about what she was going to say. But when she finally spoke, it was the opposite of what I was afraid of.
“Rinn… I’m sorry,” she said tensely. “I never meant to make you burn yourself out! I know that’s not good for our relationship, I know I, you, we need to be able to take breaks sometimes –”
I know I need to take breaks, was what she’d almost said.
Suddenly, my chest was tight with a different emotion – concern for Yali. She wasn’t trying to reassure me that we’d have a chance to relax. She was trying to convince herself that it was okay.
“Yali –” I began.
“– because, if we don’t, that could mean we’re too obsessed with the work and we lose the things that are good about our relationship, so, so, making time to relax is more of a necessity –”
I put a hand on her arm. “Yali! It’ll be okay.” I said.
Yali gave me an odd, almost resentful look. “Of course you can tell I’m worrying…” she muttered. She breathed slowly in and out. “I, I, it’s just, I can’t make myself stop thinking about it. You’re on the edge of making progress – like, when you argued with Pèi, that was actually a big breakthrough – but I know that resting is what we need right now –”
I could sense the feeling behind her words. Even as she said we needed rest, it wasn’t sinking in, it wasn’t giving her a chance to actually stop and enjoy herself. But she needed one. I had to find a way to help her get there. “Come on,” I said, “when you think something good happened, that makes you worry more? Forget rest – we ought to be celebrating!”
“You’re not wrong…” Yali’s arm was tense under my hand. “Okay. Okay. Maybe I can make this work. And I do have something I want to share with you…” She paused. She leaned forward a little.
Whatever she was thinking about… I could see a little smile growing on her face. My heart leapt. “What is it –” I breathed.
“This.” Yali surged to her feet.
Yali’s exercising had sure paid off. In the middle of her living room, she spun slowly around, flexing her muscles, letting me see from every side. “By the Stern,” she said, “this is the best I’ve felt about my body in my life.”
I looked her up and down. “Fuck yeah,” I said. “You look ready to kick ass.”
Yali got a weird look on her face. “Fight me,” she said.
I laughed, thinking she was joking. But the next moment, I wasn’t so sure. “Wait, you mean, like, actually fight you?” I said. That couldn’t possibly be right, could it?
“Ooo-kay,” I got up and stepped forwards, “but I’m warning you, I – woOOOAH!!!” As soon as I’d gotten close to her, she’d given me a shove that almost lifted me off my feet. I was totally caught off guard, and I almost stumbled into a wall. Catching my breath, I gasped out, “I didn’t know you were going to be serious!”
“When am I not serious?” Yali looked me dead in the eyes, a hint of smugness on her face. She was already stepping towards me like she was moving in for the kill. My heart leapt into my throat. Was this really happening? Yali never got this energetic, this… physical. A thrill shot through me. Every part of my body was suddenly charged up and ready to go.
I jumped forward to meet her. We collided and grappled our way across the room, bumping into the furniture as we went. She was good at it, too, I couldn’t knock her off balance. I stepped back and lunged at her, but she was as solid as a rock. Then I made one wrong step and lost my footing, and it was her turn to take advantage. She surged forward, bearing my body backwards until I thudded into a wall.
I gasped for breath. Yali was leaning into me, pinning me against the wall with her full weight. When I tried to squirm away, it just made me rub against her even harder. Oh gods, this was turning me on! I heaved left and right, trying to get free, but I was totally engulfed by her huge, warm, powerful body. I couldn’t even breathe all the way in.
“No fair,” I gasped.
In between our heart-pounding movements, she managed to grunt a response. “Unfair, what, because I’m a heavyweight and you’re a, a –”
“No no no I didn’t mean –”
“Rinn, Rinn, Rinn,” she said affectionately, “you don’t have to worry about mentioning my weight. It’s you, I know you’re not being mean about it.”
Yali pushed herself back, letting me catch my breath. She looked at me with her head tilted, a little smile on her face. I’d never seen her this relaxed. It was working! She was starting to let go of her tension! I couldn’t help wanting more. More. Gods, I couldn’t handle how much I loved her.
“Say, how much do you weigh?” she said suddenly.
“Er – I think I was 45 kilos last time I was at the doctor –”
Yali grinned from ear to ear. “That’s perfect! I’m 90, I weigh literally twice as much as you!”
Yali barked out with laughter. “Ha ha, you’ll never beat me! I lift twice your weight every morning before breakfast! Ha ha ha ha ha!” She grabbed me around the waist, lifted me into the air, and spun me around.
“Aaaaaah ha ha ha ha ha –”
Yali practically threw me onto the couch, then thumped down beside me herself. We were so close. I could feel her heartbeat, her breathing.
“Soo-ooo…” I said slyly, “the two young lovebirds are about to go on a terrible journey… Who knows when they’ll get another chance to be together like this…”
The energy drained out of her. “You want to have sex,” she said neutrally.
“We don’t have to if you don’t want to,” I said hastily. “I just meant, if you wanted to, we could, uh, you know, but if you didn’t want to, that’s fine, I don’t want to push you into anyth–” I babbled, heat rising in my cheeks.
“If I didn’t want to,” echoed Yali, in a strange tone. It was subtle, but did she say it almost bitterly? “But I do want to. I want to so much. I have, I have, wanted, ever since I saw you.”
She was still cuddling up to me, she was still so warm, but something cold was gripping my heart. I didn’t know what to think. “Uh, I thought you always said you wanted to take it slow, what do you mean…? You think it’d mess something up between us? For the Ravelling?” I guessed, hoping it was something that simple. But her face was like a stone wall. I could tell I was nowhere near the truth.
“What I mean is, I mean, I, I, I,” she took a breath. Her calm focus was back again. “I can’t. I’d have to deal with something I’m not ready to deal with yet.”
What? What did she mean by that? A million possibilities ran through my head, but none of them made sense. Was it, like, a medical issue? But Yali always took care of that stuff right away! How could she be “not ready”, unless it was, like, if it wasn’t a physical thing, like…
I blurted it out without thinking. “Don’t tell me someone raped you!”
Yali paused for a long time. I felt like my stomach was going to flip over. Fuck, what if it’s true?! What’s she thinking? Oh gods, I shouldn’t have said that, I shouldn’t have said that…
Finally, she spoke. “If I say yes, will you promise not to bring it up again until I say I’m ready?”
“Of course,” I breathed.
“It was a long time ago. It wasn’t anyone you know. They’re in prison now.”
“Shiiiiiit. Oh gods, I’m so sorry, how did it happen, I have so many questions –” I clamped my mouth shut. Shit, I shouldn’t have said that, I kept saying things without thinking, what if she –
“Don’t ask them,” she said matter-of-factly, thank the gods. “Let’s talk about something else.” And then: “You’re hurting my arms, by the way.”
Belatedly, I realized that I’d been holding her forearms in a white-knuckled grip. With effort, I made my hands unclench. Then I saw the discolored marks my grip had left on her. “Oh fuck, oh gods, I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to –”
“Don’t worry about it,” she said, massaging her arms carefully. Then she shifted and lay heavily on the couch beside me. We were still touching a little, but it wasn’t the same. “Let’s talk about something else,” she repeated.
“Uh, what do you want to…” I tried to think of something to talk about, anything, but my mind was racing, I couldn’t think of anything else.
“How about you tell me more of your irresponsible stories? We never did –”
“Woah, I can’t believe we forgot about that! I never even told you about how I broke my leg!”
“Ooh, tell me!”
It was weird how quickly Yali started acting interested again, like nothing had happened. I didn’t know how to relate to it. But if there was somehow, somehow, a way that Yali would still get to enjoy herself, I didn’t dare screw it up. I did my best to follow her lead. “So, uh, you know the big tree near the elementary school?” I began. “Oh, I guess maybe you don’t, ’cause you only moved in last year. But, you can sort of see it when you walk down the –”
“The one with the fence around it?”
“I’m the reason that fence is there,” I said. Yali’s eyes widened a little. I got a kick out of impressing her, even now.
I went on, “Kids used to dare each other to climb that tree all the time. We weren’t allowed to go near it, but that’s why it was fun. And everyone loved giving me dares, they were like ‘Rinn’s crazy, she’ll do anything’. I did all kinds of stuff, like, I jumped off the swings and everything. So first, they told me to climb the tree, and I was like ‘nought to the Seeking’ and I did it. And the next time, they said to climb out on the big branch, so I did that too. And so on. The adults kept trying to punish me, but as soon as I was done with one punishment I would go right back out and do more dares. They finally gave up and started trying to punish the kids who gave me the dares, but obviously they couldn’t catch them all the time. So finally, someone dared me to climb out on the branch and do a dance on it, and I was like, ‘that sounds awesome!’, so I did it, but I lost my footing and fell out of the tree, and that’s how I broke my leg.”
“That must have been a lot of pain!”
“Oh yeah, it hurt loads. And then I had to wear a cast forever and I couldn’t go running outdoors or anything, and it itched under the cast, it was so annoying –”
Yali started giggling uncontrollably.
“What’s so funny?”
“You were, you were, in loads of pain,” she forced out, “and it isn’t even interesting to you!”
“Uh, yeah? I mean it wasn’t for very long.” That only made her giggle harder. Eventually, she got herself under control and told me to keep going.
“Okay. So… yeah, after that, I didn’t do everything people dared me into. I mean, I still did some stuff, I just didn’t do the stupid ones. BUT!! Okay, so first, after I broke my leg, all the adults were freaking out like ‘oh no, this tree is very dangerous, we have to do someething about the danger to the children’, and I told everyone who would listen that it was just me, like, literally none of the other kids would do something that stupid, but apparently, ‘parents were worried’, so they built that fence around it. BUT ANYWAY, I wasn’t gonna let some stupid tree get the best of me, so the first thing I did after I got the cast off was, I went to climb out on the branch again. And that’s when I learned how to climb a fence, too.”
I pulled up the leg of my pants. “Here,” I said, “let me show you my scar from the fall!”
“That long thin one?”
“Nah, that one’s different, that’s from when I jumped out my window. That’s a good one, I should tell you that next. And this one –” I showed her a scar on my knuckle “– this one’s from when I got bitten by a squirrel. And –”
“You got bitten by a squirrel?”
“Oh yeah, don’t mess with squirrels, they’ll fuck you up. So what happened was, I was a little kid, and my dad saw how much I liked running around outside, so he got me a butterfly net. But there were hardly any butterflies around and whenever I did spot one, it just flew away, they were annoying to catch. So instead I caught a squirrel.”
“You caught a squirrel in a butterfly net?”
“I mean, it tore its way out right away –”
“But… don’t squirrels run away from people?”
“You’ve just gotta sneak up on them. Play it cool, like you’re just passing by. I swear, they can tell if you’re looking at them. Sure, they usually get away, but, this one time, I finally managed to catch one in my net. And then I tried to grab it, ’cause I thought I was going to be able to bring the squirrel home and show my dad and that would be awesome. But it tore through the net and bit half my knuckle off and ran away. Dad made me go to the doctor because he was worried about rabies, even though I was like, ‘look, I attacked the squirrel, not the other way around’. And I was fine, all I got was this scar.”
Yali held my knuckle gently in her fingers and took a close look at it. It was super intimate. “I, I, I don’t have anything with such a cool story, but,” she shifted her arm to show me something. On the heel of her hand, there was a faint scar. Big and blotchy, but faint. “I was five. I put my hand on a cooktop that was still on.”
I wasn’t sure how to respond. It felt like she was trying to open up to me, but I just didn’t know what to say. The moment passed. “Tell me another one,” Yali said.
I told her my stories all evening. She was totally into it. I completely lost track of time, I was so caught up in telling her about all the fun times I’d had. Finally, Yali had to remind me that I’d planned to go home with enough time to get at least some sleep for the next day.
On my way home, I realized I haven’t even remembered to get back to telling her the one about how I jumped out a window. Stern take it, that was a good one! Well, we’d have plenty of time for me to tell that on another day.
But when I was at home, getting undressed and ready for bed, it came back into my mind.
It was a long time ago. It wasn’t anyone you know.
Images sprang unwanted into my head, my brain trying to picture what it must’ve been like. A much younger Yali, naked and scared. A strange man, holding her down. Forcing himself on her. Violating her.
I felt like my head would split open. A chaos of feelings ripped through me. Disgust. Horror. And finally, rage, uncontrollable rage. I wanted to murder the man in my head. I wanted to feel my fists sink into his flesh, to beat him and beat him until he was a bloody mess on the floor. Where was he now?! If I just knew where he was, I would make him pay for what he did! I’d go there tonight –!
They’re in prison now.
I knew there was nothing I could do. I knew it was already over. But the images kept coming back, over and over, as if they were permanently stamped into my head. The man raping Yali. Me brutalizing the man. Every fresh image slammed into me with a crash of pain, of knowing that nothing I could do would change anything.
It was a long time ago. It wasn’t anyone you know. They’re in prison now.
She’d planned for this. Of course she had. She knew what I’d think – first, who was it?!?, and then, I’ll kill them!!!. And she’d known exactly what to say to deny me. With those two short sentences, she’d ripped away everything I was reaching for.
It wasn’t anyone you know. They’re in prison now.
Why the fuck did it have to be that way?! I mean, I obviously wasn’t mad that they were in prison. But I couldn’t stand not being able to do anything. And if they were already in prison, it was just… over.
Wait… She’d said “they”. Not “he”. Was she trying to leave out their gender? Maybe it wasn’t a man? Or were there more than one of them?!?
The rage surged through me again. I slammed my fist into the wall, putting a new dent alongside all the old ones. I slammed it again and again, splitting my knuckle on the broken-up wallboard. But the pain didn’t end. Gods, what was I supposed to do? What the fuck what was I supposed to do?
Wait. What would Yali want me to do?
Well. First of all, she wanted me to not bring it up again. I would absolutely do that, she was the victim here, I would do whatever it took to make her feel better. But what would she want me to do with my own feelings? I couldn’t just not feel them!
Or… could I?
The terrifying thing was, there was already a part of me that was saying, Calming Game. Already a bit of my rage that was fading into doubt. Was it even right? Should I be able to know something like this, and not be driven senseless by rage? But… that was what she’d want. She’d want me to know that someone raped her, and just not put holes in the wall. Just not murder anyone. Just… keep going on.
The tension left me. I flopped down on my bed. Fuck.
Lying limply on my back, I stared up at the ceiling, letting the cold truth sink into me. Someone had raped Yali, and I knew now, and the only thing I could do was… nothing. I felt empty. Drained. Helpless.
Anger turns helplessness into strength. Bullshit. It hadn’t turned my helplessness into anything but pain.
How was I supposed to handle it? I’d never had to deal with something like this before.
It’s not like I didn’t know about rape. There was a guerrilla feminist club at school who’d posted flyers all over the place with the statistics. I’d freaked myself out plenty of times thinking about how many of my friends must’ve had somebody do that to them, or worse, done it to somebody else. But to actually know… and about someone so close to me…
I wasn’t the kind of person who really had people confiding in me. I was the “fun friend”. Or if I did get into serious stuff, half the time I’d make a mess of it, like I did with Tierze. But this wasn’t just some random person I knew. This was Yali.
How many horrors was she fighting through? Not only this, but also the other things… I didn’t know the details, but there were the people she had to hide her Chosen-ness from… there was the reason she lived alone…
Another cold realization washed over me.
“It’s the Stern Temple that pays for me to live here,” she’d said. Well, the Stern courts decided payments to victims of crimes. So if there was a crime that meant she needed a new home… a crime involving her parents… could they be dead? Could they have been her abusers?
And had she had to go through a trial? Of her own parents? Of their killers?
How many layers of badass was she?
My mind turned these worries over and over, late into the night, until sleep was finally heavier than they were. There was nothing I could do to loosen the cold grip on my heart, to make it seem like it wasn’t so bad. And my image of Yali kept shifting and changing, my mind trying to piece together both the Yali who was isolated and suffering, and the Yali who had emerged from it, grimly ready to defy the gods.
As I slipped into unconsciousness, the only thing I knew for sure was that I was up against something much, much bigger than me.
The day finally came.
I rose with the dawn. The sun glowed like in my dream, filling my blood with energy. I was ready.
I went through my morning routine on autopilot, my mind racing ahead to what was coming. Yali had told me all about it. Normally, even the high priests didn’t know exactly what day the Ravelling would start, although obviously it was usually during the official Ravelling Week holidays. But Yali, as the Farseer, was able to sense when it was coming, a few days ahead of time. By now, she’d told me the exact day and hour it would happen. We were going to meet up this morning, and in a few hours, we’d be pulled through to the Otherworld.
I had planned to leave in the morning as if I was going to school like normal, so Mom and Dad wouldn’t see the shift in the Waiting. I almost did it, too. But as I was stepping out the front door, I felt like I was crossing a point of no return. I hesitated and turned around.
“Hey Mom. Hey Dad. I love you so, so much.”
Mom sighed. “What do you want?”
I almost laughed. Somehow, I hadn’t expected her to turn my heartfelt emotions into regular annoyance. “I just want you to know how much I love you! Is that so wrong?” She didn’t look very convinced. “You too –” I jabbed a finger at Dad “– get over here!”
I grabbed them and hugged them both tight. They exchanged a look, but went along with it. Oh, they had no idea what was coming. But I knew.
“Bye! Love ya!”
I took off running down the road to school. But as soon as I was out of sight of my house, I turned and took a different road.
On my way to clover square eta 20min
I’ll have something for you
Don’t tire yourself out on the way here, we’ll have a lot more walking
on my way! see you soon!
I snickered at “more walking”, as if I was actually going to walk this first part. I was itching to run, to get there as soon as I could. But just for her, I held myself to somewhere in the middle, and settled into an easy jog.
It was the last time I was going to be running these streets for a long time. I lovingly landed my feet in every familiar pothole and crack. Over there was the first bar I ever got kicked out of. A few blocks down, the corner store where Pèi stole most of her jewelry. The old half-a-basketball-court where I used to play with the neighborhood kids until the hoop fell down and people started dumping their trash there, haha.
And then, the gate. As I passed, the wall’s mighty sorceries buzzed in my mind, reminding me that I was leaving the Fifth Ring, leaving my home.
In the Fourth Ring, where I was supposed to meet Yali, the memories really started to hurt. Would I ever be back to that pawnshop near the library, where I used to stop and flirt with the owner’s bored daughter? Would I ever race someone down Draegel Street again? Half my life had been here. The skate park. Carminh’s house. The road leading to Layo’s… Stern take it, I had to get back from the Ravelling alive, just so I could see him again when it was over.
I stopped thinking and just jogged. Cold wind blew over my face and arms, but the exercise warmed me from the inside. And then, I was there.
In Clover Square, I didn’t see Yali at first. But just as I was pulling out my phone to text her, I felt her hand land on my shoulder. She led me into a corner and handed me a shapeless gray hoodie that was a couple sizes too big for me. Obediently, I pulled it over my head and wriggled my arms into the sleeves. Yali was wearing one just like it, keeping her face well back under the hood.
“I don’t want anyone to recognize us on our way to the fountain,” she said.
The fountain was where we needed to go. It was in the First Ring, the top of the hill, the center of the city. That was where the boundary between this world and the Otherworld was the thinnest. Yali had told me about it: When the gods pulled us through the boundary, it was going to be a really weird experience, and if it didn’t go just right, we might end up getting flung to faraway parts of the Otherworld, instead of staying together. But it would be easier if we were near the fountain, instead of some random other place.
“We’ll take a bus up to the Second Ring, then walk from there.”
“Why not all the way?”
“Buses don’t go up there.”
So we waited at the nearest bus stop. It was cold, cloudy, and damp, and it felt like it could rain at any moment. I fidgeted with my hood. I didn’t like how closed-in it felt, hiding my head like that.
“Keep your hood up,” Yali hissed. “And put your phone on airplane mode. We don’t want them to find us that way.”
I did what she said. “What’s up with all this secrecy, though?” I said. “Aren’t we about to leave this world anyway?”
Yali whispered back, “I don’t want anyone to be sure that we’re Ravellers, even after we get back.”
“But… we’re going to disappear now, then reappear then. Won’t it be obvious?”
“It’s not just the Ravellers who disappear on Ravelling Week. There’s –”
“What? There’s more magic stuff?!”
“No, I mean… Kidnappings. Runaways. Star-crossed lovers. Anyone who wants to create some doubt about why they disappeared. Who’s going to look for you if they think you’re not in the world anymore, right? Realistically, there’s more fakers than actual Ravellers. So with us –”
“Haha, yeah, how likely is it that we’d both be chosen? Everyone will think we’re the star-crossed lovers for sure.”
“Actually, I think we might literally be star-crossed lovers.”
“‘Star-crossed’ means the fates are against us. That definitely fits. Ironically, because –”
“But, don’t you have to, uh, have sex, to count as ‘lovers’?”
Yali blinked, flustered. “What? The word is ‘lovers’, we love each other, that should be enough! Besides, we’re probably going to eventually, I, I, I –”
“But by then, we might not be star-crossed anymore! This is very important!” I joked.
It took Yali a moment to realize that I was joking, but then she laughed loudly. Then her eyes darted around the square, hoping no one had noticed. But in the damp of the oncoming rain, everyone was hurrying to where they were going. No one was watching us.
“I think that’s our bus,” muttered Yali.
I held Yali’s hand for the whole bus ride there. Neither of us spoke, not with the other riders close by. We just huddled together, as the rain began, a loud patter on the metal roof above us. The Third Ring passed by us, dull through the rain-streaked windows. There was nothing out there I hadn’t seen before. The dull, square Stern buildings. The menacing walls of the prison off in the distance. Was that where…? No, it wasn’t time to think about that, not with Yali right beside me.
Finally, we reached the last stop and shuffled off the bus with everyone. By the time Yali stepped out into the rain, she already had her phone out, sheltering it under her body, showing our route on a map she’d downloaded ahead of time. She waved for me to follow, without saying a word.
The Second Ring didn’t quite look how I remembered it. The last time I’d been here, I was a little kid, and I was amazed by the big, brightly colored buildings, all completely mismatched with each other. On one side of the street you’d have a worn-out old brick storefront, and on the other, you’d have some modern-art sort of building with weird angles and glass-panelled walkways sticking out all over the place. Even now, my eyes couldn’t help but wander as we walked. But every time I glanced back at Yali, she was still buried in the directions on her phone. Which, to be fair, was the only reason we weren’t getting lost.
“Yali?” I said. She didn’t look up from her silent concentration. “Hey, Yali!”
“Shhhh.” She still didn’t look up at me. A few paces later, she continued, “Don’t say my name.”
“Oh, right. Sorry, I didn’t think of that.” Ugh, it felt weird that I wasn’t getting a reaction out of her. It was like the bond between us had somehow been cut when I wasn’t looking. I tried to be patient, because I knew she was stressed, just like me. But at least she knew what it was going to be like when we got sucked into the Otherworld. All I had was her descriptions – and she had said it was “mindbending” and “not actually dangerous”, which wasn’t very reassuring. Whatever, I could put up with it. I gave her a little space, looking around at the buildings we went by, my hoodie slowly getting more damp in the rain.
At last, the First Ring’s wall loomed above us. The one place I’d never been.
At first glance, the gate didn’t look like much. It was pretty small, only wide enough to fit one car at a time. But once I got close, I could see the details. Every part of the stonework around the gate was carved into finely shaped curves. The shapes looked somehow geometric and organic at the same time. And at the top of the gate, they all intertwined into a big version of the Waiting God’s symbol, the Watchful Eye.
I paused under the gate to run my fingers through the grooves in the carvings. They were way smoother than I expected. “Wooaah…” I said. “I can’t even feel the gaps between the stones.”
Yali stood ahead of me impatiently, putting away her phone. I hurried to catch up.
On the other side of the gate, the city looked totally different, as if the Stern itself had divided the rings from each other. The roads around here weren’t even paved normally, they were all cobblestones instead, with barely a car in sight. And all the buildings were kind of… shorter than usual. Not just fewer multi-story buildings, but lower roofs and shorter doors as well. The kind of place where Dehel would be hitting his head all the time. And a lot of them had stone carvings like the ones on the gate. I would’ve expected that kind of thing from a temple, but even regular shops and stuff had them.
“Ugh, my legs are tired,” I said. They weren’t that tired, but I was itching to say something.
“Do I need to slow down?”
“No, I’ll be fine.” I sped up a little, because screw that. “Seriously though, I’m supposed to be the athletic one, what happened? First you beat me at wrestling, now you’re beating me at walking…”
Yali half-laughed. “Maybe we didn’t need to do anything with your emotions. Now I can just beat you in a fight.”
“Come on, we can’t really count that. Ya know, ’cause usually I fight against people I’m willing to hurt.”
“What, don’t you play-fight with your friends?”
“More like with randos in the schoolyard. Like, I don’t care if they get a few bruises, they’ll be fine.”
“If I get a few bruises,” said Yali irritably, “I’ll be fine.”
How had that even offended her?! I scrambled to think back to what I’d said. “It’s not the same!” I complained. Yali ignored me. “Come on, you’re my girlfriend! I’m allowed to be protective!”
“I was joking, anyway,” she said wearily. “With the powers you’ll have as the Blood Child, I wouldn’t have a chance against you.”
“Way to kill the mood.”
We walked on in silence for a while. Finally, Yali muttered that we were getting close, and picked up the pace. It shouldn’t have been hard for me to keep up with her, but I kept stumbling over the uneven cobblestones. By the time we got where we were going, my legs really were sore, from all the times I’d had to catch myself.
And finally, the fountain loomed before us. Now, all we had to do was wait. For the gods to do… whatever they were going to do.
I’d expected the fountain to have a big jet of water shooting up into the air. But instead, it had thousands of little channels of water, flowing along more stone engravings like the others I’d seen around here. There was a wide, shallow basin in the middle of the city square, with a big carved stone sticking up in the middle, and more carvings around the edges. All the little channels of water flowed peacefully into the basin, with hardly even a splash. If it wasn’t for the rain putting ripples all over the water’s surface, it would probably all be a steady, continuous stream. It’d look like the water wasn’t moving at all.
I settled in with Yali on one of the stone benches around the fountain. For a solid piece of rock, it was surprisingly comfortable, nestling the curve of my back as I curled up and leaned into Yali’s shoulder. And we didn’t need to worry about people watching us. The square was oddly deserted, even though this was the center of the First Ring. Most of the time, it was just me and Yali, huddled together in the cold rain.
“How are you holding up?” said Yali softly.
After a long pause, Yali said, “If you don’t mind, I’d like a more detailed answer. Your feelings will soon be our battlefield. The more we know about them, the better.”
“It’s okay if you’re scared, or overwhelmed, or…”
“Nah, it’s not any of that.”
“If you’re ever not comfortable sharing, you can just tell me, I’ll –”
“Yeah, yeah. Honestly, the main thing I’m feeling right now is that I’m soooo glad we don’t have to walk any more.” I rubbed my legs. Now that I wasn’t using them, they’d decided to get even more sore. “Maybe that sounds kinda stupid, but like… it all doesn’t feel real to me, still. All the god stuff. I mean, I know it’s real, but it just feels like it’s in a movie, like it’s happening to someone else, not me, you know…? Stern take it, even my feelings don’t feel real.”
“You do? It’s super weird.”
“Yes.” She didn’t elaborate.
“So…” I said, “How are you holding up?”
Yali laughed a little, but didn’t answer.
And then it was back to waiting again. A few people walked past without really noticing us. At one point, an elderly couple paused on one of the benches across from us, to observe the fountain, but they moved on before long. Once they were gone, I asked Yali what would happen if someone was looking at us when we disappeared. But Yali said they wouldn’t notice. She started trying to explain the magic behind it, but I didn’t really follow it, so we dropped it.
Time passed. The rain slowly drained my body heat. I rested against Yali’s body and let my mind tune out.
Yali’s voice broke the silence. “It’s coming,” she said hoarsely, straining to speak at all. “Look into the fountain and think of me.”
Her voice jerked me awake. I stared into the fountain, unsure what I was looking for. The stone carvings and rippling water were as pretty as before. I squeezed Yali’s hand, and felt that she was trembling.
It was hard to explain when it began. The soft sound of the fountain never changed, but now it was a clock ticking down the hours. The water was a rippling sheet of glass. Deep in the reflections, I thought I glimpsed fragments of ancient writing, stone tablets carrying long-forgotten histories, half-seen shadows of unknown souls. The stones were still the stones of the fountain. The shadow was still the shadow of a rusted signpost. What had changed?
Think of me.
I tried to turn my head, to see Yali again, but my muscles ignored me. The fountain was everything. The splatter of reflections was pulling me inward. I thought of my hand, still intertwined with Yali’s. Let us both be pulled in the same direction, I begged, to any god that would listen. The raindrops glittered in the grayish light, fragments of a shattered world, an unclean kill prolonged beyond all dignity, falling but never landing. They fell, they fell, swirling and amassing in the shape I knew was inescapable, the tunnel stretching out before me. My body was already plunging down the tunnel, the bottomless pit, down into a void of stars.
The world was gone. Yali was gone. I was suspended in the void, with nothing but the stars in every direction around me.
Think of me.
My eyes hunted the stars for her sign, and found it with terrible ease. Her eyes were cold pinpricks of light. Her hand was a constellation reaching out towards me. She was crowned with grim fire that shone from an eternity away.
I fell for centuries, drifting through nothingness, never getting closer or further from the stars. Gears the size of galaxies stood motionless, as if the clockwork of the universe had long since ground to a halt. This great monstrosity watched me with indifference, sixty eyes peering into every tangle of my soul. What was I? I was a floating speck of dust, that would eventually, a million years later, settle in a corner and be forgotten.
At last, I felt a looming presence, like a giant hand hovering over me. Maybe Yali’s, or maybe something else’s, I had no way to tell. The hand slowly descended over me, forming a vast and empty enclosure around me, shutting out the stars one by one.
In the emptiness of the hand’s embrace, I somehow knew that my time had come, that the hand was waiting for my move. I reached out, not knowing how, into the expectant void. I had no arms to crawl with, no voice to yell into the darkness, no mind to constrain it with ideas. Yet somehow I still reached out, as if with my life force itself, to scratch a foothold into the fragment of the universe that was being offered to me.
As my life force breached the void, it all began to break. The hand, the stars, and even the void itself, they fell away like disjointed images, like waking from a troubled dream. I found myself sprawled on a hard surface, blinking into a different light that was much closer, much more real and mundane.
I was in another world.