Aug was hazarding another tour of his surroundings, using the branch as a walking stick.
The surface he stood on wasn't solid or soft; he couldn't cause it to make noise by scuffing his shoes against it. It gave under his weight but held him solidly, and the one time he'd put a hand down to take stock of it, he'd been frightened into standing still in that one spot for several minutes. There had been nothing there. He'd crouched down and waved a hand in several directions, and only the spot he was standing on existed. It was like the waterfall. It had no bottom.
When he had finally reached out with the branch, it was solid again. Was the floor shifting, or did he create it as he moved? Would he just fall through at any time? He'd never get out of there if nothing was solid...
He stopped himself. He was thinking too literally. It was easier to stay still and safe like he was supposed to. Maybe this was the 'between' Neal had been telling him about in one of their few conversations about walking. He was neither here nor there and the world was malleable in these spaces. It made sense to put him here, where he couldn't really use the five senses he understood. She had called him sapling. She thought he was too dumb to figure things out.
He had to stop looking for a door and just make one of his own. He was not going to be rescued. He didn't need to be.
* * *
"There's no reason to fight me," Siarion was saying. "What are they? After killing so many, what does it matter?"
They were on the open roof of a highrise not far from where the first of the killing began. Steve thought about the Keepers and who they had turned out to be. He had seen them through Aug's eyes, and known what he had done. Had it been a mercy, to end them the ways he had?
"You were built to do this, and you are a liar if you say these creatures make any difference to you."
She was nothing but background noise.
"You will be lifting a weight off of Neal," she said, and only then did he listen. "A single tree can only handle so many branches."
He thought about the tree in Athyri, the tree that he had created with his own bones. "How many are his?" he asked softly, more to himself than to her.
"You will know them when you see them," she said. "You could reach all of them first, without seeing them. And you know how."
When he looked at it now, it seemed as if everything had been simply coming to this. All he'd learned and experienced had come to a point where he used it to ruin and destroy. The namers had called him destroyer and been right, had demanded that Neal get rid of him somehow, and been ignored. She was suggesting he open his thoughts and wipe the world clean rather than just destroying a few lives at a time. Whole fields of candle-souls blown out at once.
Make a wish, he thought.
"I'm the only branch that needs to go," he said, never realizing he spoke aloud. He'd been doing that suddenly, and was less and less aware of what was inside and out. He was also rocking slightly in place and had no knowledge of it. After everything, Neal had been the last thing keeping him sane.
The descent was quick but not painless.
"You will," she said.
"The Ender will come." Opening his thoughts would be waving a flag. Did he care about that so much anymore? It would be bad for a moment, as bad as this, and then there would be a forever of nothing. Neal was already lost, Aug was lost, Jon would never see what happened but would be loose of all this until the namers called him home. It would be good just to lie down and stop arguing. It seemed fine for now to carry on this awful conversation in a casual tone. So easy.
"When you're weak enough," she said. "And by then he will have nothing but your shell."
I'm not that already?
"The longer you wait, the longer Neal waits," she said. "And your sapling will only bend so far before he breaks."
The threats just didn't panic him the way they had at first. They still meant something to him, but his ability to panic was burning away, like oil wells set ablaze in the desert. Maybe it was only his own candle guttering. He had opened his thoughts to grab Keepers as if they were threads in a tapestry, and could do the same with walkers; maybe he could include himself as well. He must have a thread of his own in all this.
The idea seemed solid.
* * *
Neal felt something shift; whatever it was, it wasn't a physical sensation. He didn't recognize it as from the space he and Steve shared either. He opened his eyes and listened, wondering if it was a trick of the Ender's.
He stopped wondering when the door inches from his shoulder cracked into a spiderweb of shattered wood, yet held in the frame.
He scrambled away, backpedaling until he felt the opposite wall at his back. Nothing had struck the door; there was nothing he could hear that indicated the Ender was anywhere near. The door had self-destructed. It hurt in some intangible way that made him want to huddle in the corner and cover his head; he had lost something he couldn't really feel. An amputation of phantom limbs.
Neal threw himself deeper, creating door after door that didn't shatter behind him.
* * *
Jon heard Weston scream just before he felt the change in everything; the entire world was suddenly open, and he could have made sense of it if he hadn't been so frantic to get to his boy. He caught Weston in the yard, knowing the boy had his hands clapped over his ears for a reason. He remembered Liz telling him that Weston had known when Neal was walking, and whatever it was that was pressing on him now was only audible to certain ears.
He picked Weston up and stood in the yard, mindful of the startled expressions on the faces of the neighbor kids who had come to play. He laid a buffer over himself and his son with hardly a thought, and let the dam-burst of river-thought sweep around them. The Ender had not done this; he knew instinctively that the Ender didn't have that kind of power. This was less a searching than it was a failure of some kind, and they were accidentally caught in it.
Weston lifted his head, the pain gone for the moment. "Nobody can see us now," he said.
Jon tried to get Weston to look at him. "What do you mean?"
"Hide, Daddy," Weston whispered. "Hide."
* * *
Aug felt the world open and remembered that moment in the desert when they'd been looking for Jon, Ross and Deen; the air had separated into thinner parts while Steve opened his thoughts to 'look'. He didn't understand it any better then than he had before, but things got lighter. Something moved by him and saw him but passed him by, the same hand that had moved him out of the way when the sand had turned to glass. The branch was lighter in his hands and he realized it wasn't a branch at all, not a thing of wood as he'd tried to understand it. This place was not a place at all and not subject to his mind's restrictions. Every thing was only other things that had agreed to adhere to each other, and the spaces between them all had always been open to him. He was already made of water anyway, so when it pooled at his feet and rose to his knees, it was easy to step off the edge and let it close over his head.
I'm already wet, so I might as well go swimming.
He called, and the river came.
* * *
Some - those closest to the event horizon itself - were reduced to dust and water.
* * *
Not even Siarion was prepared when the blaze of blue that meant the appearance of a fully awakened member of the Six hit them; Steve was little more than a rag doll for it to steal.
* * *
It took him awhile to be lucid enough to pay attention to things again.
It was quiet; whatever he'd set loose was still widening away into the gathering dark, rolling along as a shockwave that weakened over distance. It had rebounded only once, ricocheting back to the source, and the source was hanging in tatters from itself, unseen. It hadn't destroyed him, but he could no longer be used. He was warped and unfit now, a sidestep off the rest of Existence. Strangely, there had been no pain; had he been able to consider it, he would have understood he was no longer capable of feeling.
He was still open, and he would never be closed again.
Steve's mouth was too dry, the entire husk of him was too dry now, but he grated the words out anyway. The final and only important thing left had to be voiced. "Find Neal," he said.
"Yes," Theresa said.
He didn't recognize the place she had pulled him to; maybe she knew it. It was miles of waist-high drought-burned grass, bent in a low but continuous breeze.
"No one gains from the Ender's success but the Ender," she said. "That's in no one's best interests. So yes, Neal will be found."
When he didn't respond, she eyed him thoughtfully. She was careful to keep a small physical distance. "You deserve to be punished for what you did to the walkers, now and before. I'll expect you to accept it."
"I can fix it so that Neal doesn't feel any of it," Steve said, no longer hearing the words. It didn't matter to him anymore. There was nothing left to feel. He couldn't see her, he had to look to one side or the other. She felt too much like Neal and he could no longer look on something so perfect, so whole. Something kept flashing at the edges of his vision, and he wondered dimly whether it was just the continued failure of the fabric he was made of. Not dying, no, but splitting down to component parts. Someone had threatened to do that to him, once. It was best just to do it himself.
She tilted her head at him, her expression almost surprised. "You told me that freely," she said. "You could have argued that I would've been punishing Neal, too. Are you just that dumb, or that intent on saving him?"
"You decide," Steve said. "Just help Neal."
"I'll help myself," she said.
"The fuck you will," a low, breathless voice said to their left.
Aug stood with the branch in his hands, his feet braced at shoulder width, looking as if he'd been dragged through the desert. His dark eyes snapped with rage. "Good boys are taught not to hit women, but you know what? I'm done being a good boy. Nobody needs your kind of help."
The anger was so foreign to Aug's face and voice that Steve didn't register that it could really be him. Not at first. They were messing with him, this was one more way to get him to -
"You're out of your league." Theresa was staring at Aug with almost comical amazement. "You're a fledgeling, you don't have anything to threaten me with."
"Last warning," Aug said, his face twisting into a snarl. "We don't need you, or any of the Six, for anything."
"The Er Rai is - "
"You should have just stayed a regular person," Aug said. "Too bad you woke up."
Theresa opened her mouth to laugh, but it ended in choking. Her look of surprise turned to horror, eyes bulging when water began gushing out of her nose and mouth. It soaked her clothes, beginning to pool at her feet as she leaned over to choke. Without waiting to see if she was going to drown right there, Aug grabbed Steve's arm and pulled him away, across the placelines.
* * *
For a long moment, he just held on to Aug's arm.
The jump from despondance to confusion and relief back to anguish was so abrupt that all he could do was hold on. "Aug," he said.
"I got away," Aug said, knowing it was unnecessary but unable to help himself. Saying it aloud helped it sink in. Plus, he had to distract himself from the possibility that he really had done that woman in. Whatever she was now, she had been dear to someone, and he couldn't shake that off. "I heard you, like when we were in Athyri and you opened your thoughts," he said. "That's how I figured out where you were and how to get here. I don't know when or if this wears off, so we gotta do what we can, while we can."
Everything has a price. Steve remembered those words clearly, and felt the truth in them. There was something important about Aug using his powers, though, and after a moment he found it. "I don't want this to kill you," he said. I don't want to kill you but maybe I should.
"I'm fine," he said. "I think."
Steve should have had something smartass to say, but there was nothing beyond an internal acknowledgement that his thoughts could no longer be heard. There was not enough left of him for more.
Aug didn't have time for more than an understanding that Steve was only a dull jumble of feeling with no coherent thoughts attached, and what little he could hear carried a sour burning feeling that he wanted to reel away from. It would have been important any other time. "I found Neal," he said bluntly.
Steve leaned away a little to stare. Aug could feel nothing from the other singer beyond a scattered pain. He hadn't had a chance to look at Steve, and now that he could he began to realize something had happened while he was gone, something to hollow the other singer's eyes. Not just missing Neal. "We don't need anybody else," Aug added. "I found him. I think I can get us there. It's just Athyri. Probably because the Ender...wants to be found. Steve, where's Jon?"
"They won't touch him," Steve said, and Aug figured he meant the Formless as a whole. If not Jon, then what else had gone wrong while Siarion had him?
"Are you okay?" Aug said.
Whatever Aug expected, it wasn't what happened. Steve reached for him and rested fingertips on the side of his face. Aug would have recoiled if he could; the skin-to-skin contact burned. But he was frozen. "He won't remember," Steve said, then leaned forward as if to embrace him. Instead, there was a kiss.
It was a kiss by physical description; there was some small, distant memory of affection in the pressing of lips, but the creature touching him didn't truly know him anymore. The burning became intolerable for an instant so brief that Aug didn't even have time to react to it. Then it was all gone, and some dim part of him watched Steve back away, knowing and recognizing that he was only dealing with the Er Rai now, and a mad one. The burning is Steve, just burning away. Worse, much worse than dying in the river.
He took an instinctive step away before realizing there was only the one thing left that might save the other singer. Neal would fix it. Aug would get them together again, and it would be that simple. Steve would save Neal and Neal would save him back. He made a conscious effort to take Steve's arm again, even though touching the singer's shell was suddenly against everything in him that was walker.
Still, it was easy to pull him away.
* * *