Cace lay very still, waiting until he was sure that Rolar and Aylme were both asleep. Of course none of the children slept very deeply in their small hole beneath the tree. It was stuffy and humid, their sweat would stick to them, the moisture would choke them, there was no such thing as real comfort. They hoped only to get enough rest to less feel fatigued when they woke than when they had retired.
So this was as good a time as any to try and press into the Ether, perhaps Aylme would stir enough to notice what he was doing, perhaps she wouldn’t. It couldn’t be helped.
Before Cace pressed all the way into that other world, though, he decided he had better do some experiments. If he did make it through to the other side, was it still within his power to make it back again? These explorations would go over much better if he didn’t have to rely on one of the others to wake him up each time.
Cace closed his eyes, calmed his thoughts, and focused on his breathing. He listened to the air flowing in and out, noticed the taste of water in it, felt his chest rise higher and sink lower.
One-by-one he let go of his other thoughts, he let them sift to the bottom of his mind and rest. Then he told his mind to drop its connections to his feet and hands, to his legs and arms. An itch on his foot made itself known, but he let that pass without further acknowledging it and it went away. He became detached from those limbs’ sensations, lost his awareness of their weight, became nothing but a head and a body.
Now he let go of his belly and his head. He stopped noticing the grumbling in his stomach, the twitches in his face, the sweat pooling at his back. He was only the breathing, only the steady in-and-out of air.
Finally Cace turned his attention deeper than the breathing. He had learned that there was another rhythm within him, one that rose and fell like his inhales and exhales, but was not actually attached tied to his breathing. It was that rhythm that was his key to the Ether.
But it was a very faint signal, one that he had never been able to hone in on until just recently. Only after the Elders at the House of Olaish had taught him how to quiet everything else, and even then it had remained a rare thing for him to find. Sometimes he laid for hours in his chamber, without so much as a pulse to show for his searching.
That was not the case this time, though. This time Cace found the rhythm almost instantly, as if it was searching for him as much as he for it. Cace was not surprised, even amidst the day’s distractions he had had the sense that the tether to the Ether had not been fully severed when Aylme awoke him. He had walked and talked and moved here in the real world, but a part of him had remained a citizen of the other and it connected him to that place.
This other rhythm was much more rapid than his regular breathing, even more rapid than his racing heartbeat. It was like a strong current, rushing through pipes, throbbing under excessive load. It crackled and stung as he leaned in to touch it.
Even so he pressed into that rippling energy, he attuned himself to its rhythm, he rushed and halted his heart to match its beating. He rose when it rose, he fell when it fell. And in the rises he started to see more. Saw that flat gray tinged with blues and yellow, saw the forms starting to take shape. He was entering far more quickly than he had earlier that afternoon, he was almost back to feeling his different members in that new world.
And then he tried to stop it. Before he pressed all the way into the Ether he wanted to try drawing himself back out. He let go of the connection to its rhythm, tried to move his heart at a different cadence. What cadence though? He couldn’t remember what its usual beating was like… Didn’t matter. Any cadence, just so long as it broke out of the Ether’s.
But it hurt him to try and exit that rhythm. Every time he tried to raise himself out the strong current pushed back, kept him locked within. Still he kept pressing, harder and longer against the walls that confined him. Cace strained his breathing, strained his heart, strained his mind. It hurt, but he let it hurt. It tore, but he let it tear. He kept pressing on in one, unending push…
And sat bolt upright back in the hole under the tree. All the air was expelled from his lungs and his heart wasn’t beating at all. He blinked and gave a push and the heartbeat thudded back painfully. He opened his mouth and his vacuumed lungs sucked in the air with a great, moaning gasp.
It was very loud and Rolar snorted in his sleep beside him. Over on the other side Aylme started to sit upwards and Cace threw himself back to the floor. He tried to hold his trembling body still as he heard her looking left and right, trying to make sense of what was going on while still only half-awake.
“Something there?” she mumbled, then sighed and lay back down.
Back on the other side of Rolar, Cace clutched his hands to his chest and shook violently. He tried to quiet his desperate breathing, but he felt it would kill him if he didn’t get some air flowing in and out of his lungs. Maybe Aylme was still stirred enough to hear his gasping, but he couldn’t hold it back any longer. He opened his mouth and started hyperventilating. In and out, in and out, desperate and greedy. He cupped his hands around his mouth, trying to hold the air into him for longer.
And as the air flowed back into him he felt his body tingling painfully back to life. His lungs ached, his fingers and toes prickled from loss of blood, and his whole body shivered uncontrollably. Not only this, but he became aware of the taste of blood in his mouth. He didn’t know how or where, but he had torn himself.
It was horrible, and Cace wondered if he was dying. Would these pangs escalate until he could bear them no more? Would he keep shaking until he couldn’t hold himself together and things started to tear? Any moment he expected to discover some deep wound that he was bleeding out the last of his life through.
But no. His breath remained ragged and his body continued to shake for a full fifteen minutes, but finally the panic started to subside. Slowly Cace regained the ability to breathe normally. The shivers quieted down, with only a random tremble now and again. And though he spat out two full mouthfuls of blood, he never discovered any mortal wound.
His whole body was drenched in sweat, but now at last he could lean back and relax his shoulders, could collapse against the ground, could actually rest.
Earlier that afternoon he had felt he had no choice but to go back to the Ether. Now, though, he realized that Aylme was right…it was too dangerous. If he kept going back, he wouldn’t survive!