Hannah’s feet found firm ground as they emerged from the gate, but the two splashes behind her suggested that the others had not been so lucky. Simon’s blood was still warm against her skin, her mother was dead and all she wanted to do was curl up in a ball and cry until she ran out of tears. Unfortunately, she knew she couldn’t do that until they’d reached safety. Wiping her eyes on her sleeve, she looked around and realised just how far from the heart lands they were.
The small outcrop of rock she was standing on was surrounded on all sides by a silvery sea of raw mabain and was the only significant piece of land nearby. Here and there she could see occasional banks of varicoloured sand emerging from the fluid, only to dissolve back into it when a wave broke over them.
Tara was kneeling nearby in the shallows of the mabain. The slump of her shoulders and head suggested she was already succumbing to the exhaustion.
Tara gave her a tremulous smile and scrambled to her feet and up on to the rocks. And the rocks seemed to be growing noticeably, Hannah realised after a moment, rather than being eroded away by the Mabain as she would expect.
Collette was doing better; she was still standing on her own and was picking her way towards the rocks. In fact, the expected exhaustion was affecting her so little that Hannah narrowed her eyes and hummed to herself.
“What’s wrong?” Tara asked. She’d sat straight down when she reached the rocks and was watching her daughter paddle through the silvery mabain with her brother in order to reach them.
“Wrong?” Hannah asked. “Not wrong exactly. It’s just that she’s staying on her feet on her own. And that’s kind of odd for an ordinary Astral. You don’t happen to know if she’s like us, do you?”
Tara frowned over at her daughter. “You know, you’re right; except from what I know of this place, kind of odd is sort of an understatement. But if she is one of you, I’ve never had any visions about it like I did with Sean and…” She trailed off.
“And?” Hannah prompted.
Tara looked at her and sighed. “Oh hell, if I can’t trust you I can’t trust anyone. I found Martin because I had a vision about him just after Sean died. He’s S-Sean’s successor.”
Hannah stared at her for a moment and wondered what she’d been going to say when she stumbled over her son’s name.
“Ah, I see,” was all she said, though. The woman would talk about it when she was ready.
Meanwhile, Collette had reached the rocks and was standing at the base, obviously wondering how to get up without putting her little brother down. Hannah hurried down to her and held out her arms for the boy. Collette handed him over with a smile and used her now free hands to pull herself up on to the rocks.
“What the heck is this silvery stuff?” She sat down beside her mother and began shaking the mabain of her feet. The rock hissed and bubbled where the droplets struck.
“Mabain,” Tara replied. “It’s kind of like this world’s equivalent of the primordial soup.”
“If primordial soup was highly corrosive to terrestrial life forms because it was always trying to reabsorb them,” Hannah added. “Fortunately Mabain is safe for humans to touch, since we don’t come from here.”
She turned her eyes eastward and stared at the mountains in the distance. “We’re right out on the edges of the reaches. It’s going to be a long walk to get to firm ground and an even longer one through dragon territory to safety. And we have no equipment.” She sank to her knees as the enormity of that task came to her. Tara reached out and squeezed her shoulder.
“Focus on one step at a time if it seems overwhelming,” she said. “Let’s just make reaching firm ground our task and worry about what comes after that once we’re done.”
Hannah rubbed at her eyes and nodded. “Ema’s on her way to find us anyway. She’ll be able to bring some stuff to help.” If she can get through, she appended mentally. She must have thought that out loud because Collette thwapped the back of her head lightly.
“Stop being so negative! It won’t help.” She shook her head and frowned in confusion. “Someone else is coming as well.” She stared in the direction of the mountains. “And I feel like I recognise those mountains.”
Hannah and Tara shared a look.
“Ah!” Hannah said. “I thought as much!”
“Ah?” Collette asked. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing’s wrong, Coll,” Tara said. “It’s just you haven’t fallen over yet and you’re sensing stuff about this place. You know enough about this place to know what that means. It seems you’re a warrior like Sean.”
“Er…” Collette stared at them both open-mouthed. “Are you sure?” She collected herself slightly and nodded. “It does make sense though, doesn’t it.” She tutted to herself. “Just confirms I was right to side with you. And I’m used to people who know about me thinking I’m evil just because.”
“What?” Hannah asked.
“It’s her primary affinity,” Tara said. “People jump to conclusions about her based on it.”
“What’s your primary affinity?” Hannah frowned. The girl was obviously luminokinetic, but from the weakness of the light she’d produced that was only secondary. “I don’t think anyone’s ever mentioned it?”
“I â€“ ah â€“ I’m necrokinetic,” she said softly. She was staring at the rocks rather than Hannah, probably expecting a horrified or disgusted response to that. Hannah just sat down next to her and put an arm around her shoulders.
“Death affinity? That’s rough.” It was rare as well. Hannah had only met a couple of astrals with a primary death affinity before. They were generally asocial and seemed to struggle to understand people â€“ the very opposite of Collette, from what she’d seen.
“No, it’s not! It’s really cool! It’s not quite as much use as healing or life weaving but it’s a lot more versatile than people think.” She bounced a little. “Doctor Tyler has been teaching me to recognise and kill just certain things in a body like pathogens or cancer cells. She says I’m safer than chemotherapy and more reliable than trying to use life affinity to retard or stop growth of unwanted cells. She thinks I might be useful for pest control as well. And I can make things out of dead stuff â€“ though that does creep people out!”
“Oh! That’s clever! I wouldn’t have thought of that,” Hannah admitted. She decided not to ask what sort of things Collette could make of dead material. She suspected that she wouldn’t like the answer.
“Yeah,” Collette said. “Most people think a death affinity is only useful for killing people.” She gave a disgusted sniff. “It is useful for that of course, but you can kill as easily with a life affinity as death. You saw what aunt Marian did with hers.”
“Yes, I thought Marian was a pyrokinetic,” Hannah said.
“She is,” Tara said. “Life is a strong tertiary and no more for her. When she was young she used to play with flowers and insects with it, but now she mostly uses it to remove traitors. That’s how she killed Simon so â€“ hum -” She broke off and sobbed. “Well you saw. He should have stayed out of touch range. She can’t damage anything larger than a frog without contact â€“ and then only when she’s furious.” She punched the rocks. “Damn it, he was a good kid! Never afraid to ask questions even after Marian cowed most of the other cousins.”
Collette got up and hugged her mother. “It wasn’t your fault, mum. He knew what he was doing,” she said. “He wanted to be sure that we would have chance to get out.”
“I know.” Tara wiped away the tears from her face. “And that just makes it worse. But we should honour his memory by getting to safety. Which I believe you said is that way.” She pointed towards the mountains.