Not much. Not much at all.

Just a little bit of gray tinged with light blues and yellows at the periphery. A small sense of swirling motions, too, like trace currents in a muddled ocean.

Cace leaned into that notion. Though he had no physical presence in the Ether he imagined his eyes closing and fists clenching as he tried to stir the ocean around him by sheer force of will.

And something changed!

It wasn’t in the ocean, though, it was in Cace himself. He suddenly became aware of a ripple thumping through the area, a cord that pulled through him at regular intervals.

He focused on that wave, tried to lean into it every time it passed through him. It wasn’t very pleasant, its friction agitated him, but as he did so he noticed that the gray nothingness began to shimmer and take form. As he let each ripple pulse deeper and longer the picture before him became clearer. Now the gray revealed itself to actually be all colors intermingled. Now they were grouped up in shapes. Now they went from flat shapes to bodies and volumes that surrounded him.

The throbbing was nearly unbearable now. It pressured him in a painful way, tugged at him so hard that he was afraid something might tear. But even that was good, for the more it discomforted him the closer it meant he was to having a proper form in that place. Leaning further into that cadence was going to hurt, but Cace knew it would only be worse to remain in limbo.

Cace gathered his nerve, the same as if he were about to dive into a cold lake. Then, gritting his will he pushed deeper and winced as a terrible shock ripped through him. But it lasted only a moment and then, at last, he had the sense of breaking free from his tether, of spiraling downward, and of fully entering the Ether.

Cace was not in any pain anymore, but he did feel very unnatural, like he didn’t know his own body. He tried to open his eyes but nothing responded to the command. He tried to lift his hand but his hand did not raise. Something else shifted, though. Some long, gray limb that he did not recognize.

Then he understood. He was still trying to move his normal body back in the conscious world. But here, he did not have that body. He had…something else…a long, gray limb it would seem.

Cace tried to settle his mind into this new form, to be aware of his new reality. It was hard, like his body was was feeling itself through a thin glove.

Translating he thought to himself. Not direct.

Cace tried to speak, but no words came out, only a strange vibration pulsating around him. Or…maybe he had spoken…but just didn’t have any ears to make sense of those vibrations?

Cace tried to open his eyes again and this time it worked…sort of. It wasn’t really vision as he was used to it, but there was a general awareness, a heightened, inexplicable knowledge of his surroundings. No forms and shapes, but an understanding of movements and shifts.

Then the eyes shut, all of their own will and not of his. Cace tried to open them again but they did not respond. So he moved his attention to the long, gray limb again.

Wait, how did I know it was a long, gray limb if I haven’t even seen it properly? he wondered to himself. He couldn’t answer that, but somehow he had just known that that’s what it was when he moved it.

In any case, the limb did move again. It had a joint in the middle that was raised up high, almost folded in two. Cace tried to extend the limb, to stretch out the joint. It slowly flexed outwards but then halted, obstructed by something else it had run into. Obstructed by something that Cace could not perceive as being part of his body.

Wait…actually yes…yes Cace could perceive it now. It was like that part of him had been asleep, but now it was awake, stirred by the brush of the limb. And it felt like that other piece of him was now available for use. And…it had eyes as well. Cace could tell somehow. So Cace tried to open his eyes once more and they opened. Though as before, it wasn’t like vision as he knew it, but also it wasn’t like the prior sort of “seeing” either.

There still wasn’t any color or shape, but now he was simply cognizant of all the different entities about them. He could sense forms even without having a visual, he could perceive beginnings and endings. He was aware of the long, gray limb, of many others just like it, of a floor that pulsated like a heartbeat, of an essence flowing beneath the surface.

Not only these, but Cace found that he could look “harder” at these forms and pick out their relationships to one another. He could tell where one began and another ended, and what conduits linked the separate pieces together. And as he turned his focus from one form to the next he observed how all of it was interconnected to each other in a most massive network.

Or rather…almost all of it was interconnected. For now that he was focusing on the great, interconnected mass as a whole he was also able to perceive breaches in it, areas where no member of the body existed. Places where something else existed instead, something that he did not have direct understanding of, something that he could only understand indirectly, by observing the gaps it made in the mass.

And one of those foreign elements was starting to agitate, to quiver violently, to disrupt the connections in the body! And that discomforted Cace. For “the body” was his body. It was his own members and connections that this shaking entity was severing apart! And that entity was thrashing more wildly now, was growing bigger and shaking harder, was coming nearer and nearer, closer and closer to his core! It would be here any moment and then…

“Hnnnnnnnngh!” Cace sat bolt upright on his cot and nearly smacked Aylme in the face ! A cold sweat covered his body and tears were splashed across his cheeks.

He had been brought back.

Cace shivered hard.

“What? What happened?” he panted deliriously.

“It’s alright, Cace,” Aylme rested her soft palm against his temple. “It’s alright now.”

“But I–but–” realization finally sunk in. “You brought me back!” he said angrily.

“Yes, I had to bring you back. Tilt your lamp down.”

“But I was there! I finally got through! You shouldn’t have done that!” his cheeks were hot and flushed and he struck his legs with his fists.

Tilt your lamp down,” Aylme handed Cace the vessel. “Look, I already have my own at half-ember.”

Cace scowled. He didn’t want to turn his lamp down, he wanted to stay angry. Even so…he would do anything for Aylme. With a sigh he took the lamp in his hands. As always it felt strangely anchored, as if Cace could let go and it would suspend itself in the air on some invisible hook. Cace turned his hands, pivoting the lamp, letting the golden ember run out of the spout. The golden drops did not fall to the ground, though, for no sooner did they touch the air than they evaporated into steam.

As Cace continued pouring out the contents he felt the fire inside of him diminish. He was still just as opposed to Aylme’s interference, but his passion ebbed out, making him capable of calmer reason.

“There,” he said, righting his lamp and turning it so that Aylme could see only half the ember remained. “Tilted down.”

“Thank you,” Aylme nodded deeply. “Now I’m sorry I had to wake you, Cace, but your breathing was becoming so ragged, and your fists kept clenching, and you were in a feverish sweat. I was afraid what might happen if you remained any longer.”

Cace looked down at his tunic. Indeed it was covered in cold sweat, and even now his body was quaking as if he had been running for miles. But now that he was back in the conscious world his strength was quickly returning.

“I understand why you did what you did,” he sighed, “but I had made it through, Aylme! I was there!”

“That must have been exciting for you,” she smiled, then started to rise.

“You don’t want to hear what it was like?”

“The Ether is…your realm of fascination, Cace. I have too much on my mind of here and now.”

“But it matters, even to the here and now,” Cace insisted. “I think I could use it to help us!”

“How, Cace?”

“I don’t know. I just…know that it could.” Cace wasn’t sure how to explain. Whenever he had his visions of the Ether he sensed that there was a connection between the images he saw and the things of the real world. He couldn’t explain that connection, but he felt that they were simply different perspectives of the same thing. And now that he had finally actually been there, conscious and able to push at things and affect them, now he had a hope that he could ripple changes into this world, too!

“I’m not so sure that you should try and visit the Ether any more,” Aylme said. “It seems dangerous for you.”

“I’m fine. Look, I’m already feeling much better.”

Aylme smiled sadly. She appreciated his desire to help, even if she thought it was misplaced. He was several years younger than she and Rolar, and he must feel guilty that he wasn’t able to contribute as much as they could. “We can discuss it more later. For now just gather your strength.” She leaned forward and gave him a kiss on his brow, then turned and climbed out of the hole that served as the entry to their dugout.

It was the most humble of abodes imaginable: a hole dug into the earth at the base of a tree. It was quite small, only reaching out so far as the trees’ roots allowed, which provided a natural barrier to hold the earthen walls in place. The only airflow came from that small entryway, and after a while one started to feel stifled. Cace did not remain in that dark hovel, but clambered out and sat with with his back against the large tree.

Not that the breathing was much better up here. Their camp was on the banks of a slow river, and its humidity weighed the air down, making it hover low to the ground and difficult to swallow.

There was also very little sunlight that could pierce through the dense canopy of treetops overhead. Indeed most of the illumination came from the bioluminescent moss that grew along the riverbed, a dim light obscured by the lazy roll of water. It was just enough light to cast the place in a perpetual dusk. Already the three refugees had lost all sense of time, and they could not say whether they had been in this place for a week or for months.

Cace slowly breathed in the scent of a million living things and watched Aylme as she carefully stepped around the banks of the river, making her way to the great almnut tree. No doubt Rolar was there again, prying at the roots, trying to free whatever binding kept the tree from producing fruit.

“Rolar?” Aylme called out softly as she approached the tree, eyes darting left and right. “Rolar, are you there?”

The tree was as wide as a castle tower, and as she came to its base she held it for support, stumbling her way around its massive roots. “Rolar,” she called, slightly louder. “Rolar where are you?”

Just then she happened to glance downwards and leaped back in shock. For she had, in fact, been about to to step on Rolar! The youth was laid out right before her, draped awkwardly across the roots, covered in a strange black powder, and totally unconscious!

“Rolar!” Aylme shrieked as she reached down and shook the boy. Some of the dark powder slid off his tunic and he gave a small moan, but his eyes remain closed. “Cace!” Aylme called to the side. “Cace, come help me!” Then she took hold of Rolar’s arm and pulled it around her shoulder. “What is it with you boys today?” she asked wearily. “Must I spend all my time saving you?”

“Aylme?” Cace groped through the twilight, trying to make his way to her voice. “Aylme, where are you?”

“Over here!” she waved an arm. “Rolar’s unconscious, you have to help me carry him.”

“Oh!” Cace said as he scampered over the roots and saw the older boy’s head lolling to the side. “What’s happened to him?”

“I don’t know. Perhaps he was bitten by something and poisoned. Help me get him away from here and back to the camp.”

Cace ducked underneath Rolar’s other arm and together the two of them were able to start moving the lad. It was difficult over the uneven roots, and it didn’t help that Rolar would suddenly give a cry and fling his head one way or another, nearly tipping them all over as he did.

“Rolar, can you hear us?” Aylme asked fearfully. “Rolar, speak to us!”

Rolar’s eyelids opened a slit, though not enough to actually see. Still he turned his face towards Aylme and gurgled out “It’s innnn my throaaat!” before his head slumped forward once more.

“In his throat?” Cace asked in surprise. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I don’t know. Here, let’s lay him down on his back.”

They did so, not quite so gently as intended, and Aylme pulled back his lips to reveal that the same black powder that had been over his tunic was coating his teeth. Looking down she saw that his hands were black with the powder as well.

“He’s been eating it!” Aylme said in shock. “Fetch me the waterskin. Quickly!”

Cace hurried back to the camp and soon was back with their waterskin. Aylme removed the stopper and carefully pried the mouth of the bottle between Rolar’s teeth. She squeezed a palmful of water into his mouth, then turned him on his side as he gagged, choked, and finally coughed out a large pile of the soggy powder. “Blech!” he exclaimed, finally returning to full consciousness. He rolled onto his back and looked up at the other two with fearful eyes.

“Help me!” he gasped. “Help me! Get it off!”

“You’re alright,” Aylme reassured him, palm pressed against this temple. “We’ve got you now, you’re alright.”

“No! My hands! It’s still on my hands!”

Aylme and Cace looked down at his ash-blackened hands. The fingers were bent unnaturally, scrabbling wildly in the dirt, like living creatures burrowing for safety.

“I can’t control them!” Rolar insisted. “Get…that…stuff off of them!”

Aylme reached to rub the dark powder off, but paused just short, realizing she didn’t want to transfer any of the stuff onto her own skin. Cace grabbed the waterskin out of her lap, though, and doused each hand. The ash washed away quickly and Rolar’s hands finally relaxed.

“Oh thank you!” the boy gasped.

“What was that?” Cace asked.

“I don’t know, I don’t know. But it was terrible!”

“What happened?”

“I was digging at the roots of the tree, trying to see if there’s something blocking the moisture from getting to it. And then there was that black stuff–that powder–just beneath the soil. I tried to dig through it, tried to get down to the roots, but my hands started to shake and go numb! I couldn’t feel them and then they started moving on their own, like spiders! I wanted to move but they kept lunging deeper and deeper into the soil, pulling the rest of me down to it. I tried to call for help but they grabbed the soil and shoved it onto my mouth! I clamped shut, but they smothered my face until I gasped and then pushed they pushed the soil straight in! That was the last thing I knew…and then I was here with you.”

Cace and Aylme shivered.

“We’re going to die in this place!” Aylme sobbed. “We shouldn’t have ever come!”

Cace didn’t say anything, but silent tears ran down his cheeks as he hung his head.

Rolar almost wept with them, but he snapped himself out of it. He had to shove his ordeal down, had to make himself strong for the others.

“Hey, hey, hey, it’s alright,” he said soothingly. He sat upright and put his hands around the other two. “Look, I’m okay. Something bad happened, but we made it didn’t we? Just like we have every time already, just like we always will.”

“You would have died if I hadn’t found you!” Aylme wailed.

“But you did find me! You did. One of us couldn’t make it alone, but together we’re invincible. You save me today, I save you the next. We’ll never fail so long as we’re there to save each other.”

Cace blinked back his tears. “How do you know?”

“Believe me, Cace,” Rolar smiled back. “I just know. We didn’t make it this far just to fail now. But we’ve got to keep our faith in each other. We have to keep our trust alive.” He held out his hands to the other children in a pledge.

Aylme sniffed deeply and wiped away her tears with the side of her hand, then took one of Rolar’s hands in her own. “Well I’m scared…but I do promise I won’t let you two get lost. I promise I’ll take care of you.”

“That’s the spirit,” Rolar nodded. “And I promise I’ll take care of you two, too.”

“And I’ll take care of you two, too” Cace affirmed, grabbing the others’ free hands with his own.

“Doubly protected,” Rolar said.

“Doubly protected,” the other two repeated.

And with that Cace decided…he would go back to the Ether that very night.

*

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!

*

Cace could not hide his hurt the next day. Even after a particularly deep sleep his face was gaunt and pale, with deep lines etched beneath his eyes. When he came out of the sleeping quarters Aylme took one look at him and her face fell.

“Why, Cace?”

“I want to help, Aylme.”

“By hurting yourself?”

“No…not by that. I thought I’d be able to do it safely. I was trying to flow in and out on my own…but it didn’t work. It…was even worse than before.”

Aylme shook her head sadly. “I know you mean well, Cace, but so did the Elders at the House of Olaish, and see what they brought upon us? I had thought that you of all people would see the folly in this. We’re simply not meant to walk between two worlds, Cace.”

That last sentence Cace could not agree with. Even more than before he felt that a part of him was still locked away in the Ether. He didn’t know how, but he was most definitely in two places right this very moment. But never mind that. No matter how much he burned with a desire to explore the secrets of the Ether, no matter how sincerely he believed he could use it as a tool to help the three of them survive, he had to face the facts that he didn’t have what it took to do that.

“Well I’m not going back Aylme,” he told her. “I still think it could have saved us…but it’s beyond me.” He hung his head and hurried away before she could respond. He went to clear his head by helping Rolar set some traps.

“Ah, Cace,” Rolar said without even looking up from his work. He could recognize the boy by his lighter footfalls.

“How do these ones work?” As Cace approached the older youth he saw that what he was working on was an apparatus of wood and vine.

“Very delicately…” Rolar replied, a bead of sweat rolling down his nose as he strained at the apparatus, prying two wooden meshes apart from one another. “This vine is surprisingly elastic, as good as a synthetic really!”

“So you just pry the wooden halves apart, but if they get disturbed they’ll snap back together…crushing anything inside?”

“That’s right. You pick things up quickly, Cace!…Grab that bracer for me,” Rolar nodded his head towards a fat, white stick laying on the ground.

Cace reached down and picked it up. There was a strange breaking of tension, as if it had been attached to some invisible membrane. But as if the breaking of that membrane wasn’t actually occurring under Cace’s fingers, rather it was centered elsewhere…somewhere far away. And now there was another strange and distant sensation, like the memory of an imbalance and dizziness. “Ohhh,” Cace touched his head and moaned.

“You alright?” Rolar glanced up, but then back down to the two halves he was holding apart with trembling hands.

“Yeah, I just…I just feel like something shifted.”

“I’m not sure what you mean, but I am having a hard time keeping these apart!”

“Right, right…sorry.” Cace tried to dismiss the strange uneasiness and wedged the stick sideways in the wooden mesh. “Okay, let go.”

“No,” Rolar panted. “Set it and pull your hand out.”

Cace could see the wisdom in that and hastily withdrew his fingers. Rolar nodded, then rolled his own hands over the edges of the trap. Both boys covered their ears in case the stick didn’t hold and the trap snapped shut…but after a few moments of squeaking it held.

“Excellent!” Rolar exclaimed. “That’s the trick with traps. You’ve got to make them sensitive enough to go off when the animal gets in, but not so sensitive to go off when nothing’s there. I’ve heard some ragouls in the night, and they’re about the size of two hands, so I figured–“

But Cace wasn’t listening. As soon as he had covered his ears and shut out the outside noise he felt that weird dizziness even more clearly. And he was starting to realize what it was.

When he had lifted that stick something had shifted in the Ether. Something there was tethered to that stick…and it in turn was tethered to something else that was here. And ever since that disturbance there was a rumbling sensation in the Ether that was growing stronger and stronger, louder and louder, nearer and nearer…an explosion that had not yet burst to the surface.

“It’s a trap!” Cace blurted out, jumping to his feet in a panic.

“What?” Rolar wrinkled his brow in confusion. “Well of course it’s a trap, what did you think we were making?”

“No, we’re being trapped. Come with me!”

“What are you going on about?!”

But Cace couldn’t wait any longer. He seized Rolar’s arm and hauled with a strength that belied his smaller frame.

“Cace, what are you doing?” Rolar asked as the younger boy lurched for the edge of the clearing, still tugging at Rolar’s arm every step of the way.

But then Rolar didn’t have to wonder anymore, for now he could feel it even in the regular world. The entire ground beneath seemed to wake up! It shook violently for a moment, and then the ground in the center of the clearing rose and burst apart, giving birth to a massive, brown creature from below. It looked like a sideways clam, with two plate-like halves that snapped the air wildly, seeking the boys that had been there just a moment before! At its back, where the two clam-halves hinged together, four sinewy legs sprawled out to the ground. When fully raised it stood nearly twelve feet tall.

“Get behind me!” Rolar gasped, pushing Cace to the rear and drawing his staff from his back.

The creature stopped snapping at the air, evidently understanding that its prey had escaped too quickly. So now it turned very still, slowly turning its head left and right, a warbling growl emanating from somewhere inside that massive mouth.

“What’s it doing?” Rolar whispered over his shoulder.

“It’s looking for us,” Cace responded. “That stick thing was its bait, and when we moved it it knew to come out.”

“How? The stick was just laying on the ground…there wasn’t any connection between them.”

“There was…but not here. They’re connected in the Ether.”

Rolar shook his head. He didn’t understand what Cace meant. It didn’t really matter anyway. What mattered was that the beast was here now, and that it might prove to be an excellent source of food for them. Or otherwise they would be food for it! So Rolar turned his wrists, raising the bladed end of his staff to the ready.

“No, wait!” Cace exclaimed, but it was too late. Rolar charged forward with a shout. The creature, though blind, snapped itself around to face the youth. Rolar’s eyes flit from the left to the right, waiting to see which of its four arms the creature would attack with. As soon as it did he would swing the blade to sever it.

But the creature did no such thing. It bunched up those legs and sprang forward like a loosed spring, head first at the boy. Rolar’s eyes went wide, he swung his staff against the head, but it rang out as if he had struck stone, and the wood burst into a thousand splinters!

“Oof!” Rolar exclaimed as he the wide head buffeted him and sent him sprawling backwards, landing in a heap on the earth. He’d had the wind knocked out of him, but he still tried to roll out of the away.

No good. The beast landed above him and instantly seized at him with two of its long, wiry limbs. Rolar fought back, kicking and pressing with his arms, trying to keep himself out of the creature’s hold. But it was much stronger than him, and along with the grasping of its arms it began lifting its clamshell body and slamming the bottom of it into the ground, trying to crush him like a piece of steel between hammer and anvil!

Rolar twisted out of the way once, pushed off to the side to dodge the second blow, did a half-roll to get around the third…but the fourth blow fell on his wrist and there came the unsettling sound of something snapping. Rolar cried out, and the next strike hit him squarely in the back and he collapsed onto the soil. The monster raised itself high on its arms, about to slam itself down for the killing blow!

“Hey!” Cace shouted from behind. He had extracted the white stick that had been in the center of their trap and was holding it aloft with both hands. The monster didn’t regard Cace’s shout one bit, but then Cace started to apply pressure to the stick, threatening to snap it in two. And that the monster did acknowledge! It gave a horrible shriek and spun around on the spot, forgetting about Rolar entirely.

“That’s right,” Cace nodded. “This is a part of you, and you don’t want me to break it, do you?” He tapped the stick in his palm and the creature’s legs twitched beneath its head, wanting to lash out at Cace, but not daring to. But they weren’t twitches of pain, Cace realized, they were of worry.

A sudden intuition washed over Cace, another revelation from the Ether. He had been slightly mistaken…it wasn’t that the stick was a part of the creature’s body…it was something else. Cace looked down at the stick and saw how it wriggled gently, how it had little stubs along its underside in two even rows. This wasn’t one of the creature’s organs…it was one of its larva!

There was the sound of a dried leaf crinkling underfoot and both Cace and the beast looked to the side in surprise. Evidently Aylme had heard their commotion, and was stealing around the side of the clearing, trying to get to where Rolar’s broken body lay.

The creature’s clamshells opened and it gave a vicious shriek, then thrust two of its arms out, pinning Aylme down to the ground just as it had done with Rolar. Aylme fell with a cry, but kept her head about her enough to struggle against the arms and shimmy under a nearby overhanging boulder. The monster stepped forward and tried to slam its hard underbelly on her as well, but only came in contact with rock. It was undeterred, though. It had her cornered, and it continued to beat down, taxing the boulder until it would break.

“Hey!” Cace called again, giving the larva another twist. The monster hissed, but it didn’t turn back. It might despise Cace for having hold of its young, but evidently it had given up on it. The creature had been willing to use the larva for bait in the first place after all.

Cace stepped back and forth anxiously. Rolar and Aylme were about to be killed. Then he would be, too, as soon as the beast had finished with them. Cace wanted to help, but he knew he wasn’t strong, or fast, or knowing the right things to do. He didn’t even have any weapons or tools to help him.

“I hate this world!” he cried. “I hate not being able to do anything in it!”

Then, without even thinking about it, he held back his heartbeat and thudded it out in unison with the rhythm of the Ether. He didn’t even have to strain himself to find its cadence. Ever since last night’s excursion it had been constantly thundering in him, he had only been containing it beneath the surface.

But now he let it out. Now he let down his restraints and the trance washed over him in an instant. This time he didn’t lose consciousness in the real world, though. He remained standing with a leg in each. On the one hand he still saw and heard the beast crashing down on the rock over Aylme, but on the other he perceived how that same creature was only one of the many systems that existed in the Ether.

In fact, now Cace could perceive that even Aylme was a system in that place, and so was Rolar. As before, he couldn’t actually “see” them in the Ether, but he could sense them, was aware of their forms and interconnections. And as he looked over both worlds at the same moment he understood a great truth: there wasn’t anything in either world that didn’t also belong in the other. They were two separate systems, with different rules, but infinite interconnections in between!

And not only could Cace perceive the monster’s presence in the Ether, he was able to understand its parallel purpose in both worlds. He saw that it was a multiplicative. Its first purpose was to reproduce itself in other beings. To that end it had a special ability: to take other living matter and transform it into a copy of itself. It wasn’t simply that the larva consumed the host it was planted in, it was that it became a kernel within, rewriting the living thing to grow and harden and reshape until it was the same as that beast.

And this was why the beast retained a special connection to each of its larva, they were each a continuation of the original. They might appear as separate entities, but they were clones of one another, separate branches that had grown from the same trunk.

All of which was fascinating, but Aylme was running out of time and Cace still didn’t know how to help! So he pivoted on the spot, surveying the rest of the world, looking for some other element in the Ether that could help.

He traced the connections from the beast, saw that it had threads to all the other components in the Ether. This was because of its second purpose: to be a regulator. It multiplied itself in order to scour the entire system and restrain or purge anything that was amiss. Any foreign entity or corrupted module were eradicated instantly. Because, as Cace now realized, all of these modules were parts of a whole, they were separate functions to one higher purpose. They were a machine, a great and massive machine, and that machine had to be preserved from corruption.

Cace turned his attention to the heart of the machine, looking for some way to sever its connection to the beast or to change its functions. But the heart of the machine was cold and inactive. Its periphery systems still ran, but the core did not. It required fuel to function, and at some point it must have run out of that.

Cace saw the furnace of the machine…a great sprawling mass, which twisted in every direction around the other parts of the machine, trying to feel out some entity to burn. It was careful not to touch any of the other parts of the machine, though, because it had no way to differentiate between machine module and foreign element. It would just consume anything that it came in contact with.

And suddenly Cace realized he knew what the sprawling engine’s counterpart was in the overworld. It was the black powder at the foot of the almnut tree.

Without waiting another moment Cace turned on the spot and dashed from the field! He heard Aylme’s cries as the boulder above her fractured. She was trying to prop it up with her hands, but it was starting to crumble into rubble. One more hit and the monster would be through!

Cace’s foot caught on a root and tripped him, but he turned his fall into a roll, returned to his feet, and kept going. He leapt over the next root and ducked under a low-hanging branch. He had come to the base of the almnut tree and saw the powder sprawled out before him like a black ocean.

Back in the clearing, the creature lifted itself and thrust its body down once more. Aylme screamed as it impacted on the loose rock. The stone shattered into pieces and fell between her arms. She closed her eyes, ready for the impact of the creature’s hard underbelly…but it didn’t come! Instead the creature sharply recoiled, legs falling over one another as it writhed in agony.

Aylme slowly opened her eyes. Incredulous, she pushed away the loose rock and sat up, watching as the beast trampled its way into the center of the clearing, convulsing horribly. It opened its clam-like mouth and it was filled with that same black powder that had tried to suffocate Rolar. It was as if that powder was flowing into the creature from an unseen fountain!

Back at the almnut tree, the last of the white larva sunk into the black soil, twisting as it went. The powder had hungrily eaten the thing up, then gone through it—as if it were a portal—to where the great beast now twitched in the clearing. The powder crawled out of the monster’s mouth and across its surface, flowing over every detail, consuming as it went! Two of the creature’s legs disintegrated and it collapsed onto the ground. A few more moments and there wasn’t any creature left, only a large pile of black powder where it had stood!

Then came the sound of ruptures all around the clearing, buried beneath the surface. It was the thousands of the creature’s larva being invaded all at the same moment. The whole earth rumbled and plumes of black powder erupted like small volcanoes.

Aylme felt the pocket of ground next to her start to tremble and she quickly rolled away before the fountain of powder could get on her! She scrambled over to Rolar’s unconscious form, eyes frantically darting in every direction, making sure that none of the powder plumes were going to fall on him.

And then, just like that, it all stopped. The earth gave a loud groan, like a pained sigh, and there was no more shaking, no more rupturing, and no more creature or larva. Everything turned still.

“Aylme?” Cace called, dashing across the clearing towards the other two. He was pale, sweaty, and disoriented.

“Cace, Rolar’s seriously hurt!” Aylme sobbed, looking the older boy over. She turned his head so that she could see his face. His eyes were closed, but he was still breathing. “We’ve got to get him back home. Though I’m not–I’m not sure how we can fix this.”

There was dread in her voice. Rolar’s arm was bent at an odd angle, clearly broken, but even worse damage had been down in the next blow, which had hit him squarely on the back and head. No doubt he had a concussion, and perhaps a fractured spine. Maybe even damage to his internal organs.

Had they saved his life, just to watch him slowly succumb to his wounds?

Cace came near and crouched down by Rolar. He was still observing the world through two different lenses, and just as how he could see the slumped over body and the arm twisted at the strange angle he could also sense how Rolar’s system was leaking itself into the Ether, distributing its essence as a stain upon the others.

He was dying.

“He doesn’t have long left,” Cace announced.

“Help me get him back home. We’ll take care of things there.”

“He doesn’t even have long enough left for that,” Cace clarified. “I can see it through the Ether. We only have moments.”

Aylme couldn’t see it, but something was ruptured in Rolar. He was bleeding out from the inside. Even if they had the tools and the expertise, Cace and Aylme would never be able to fix that before it was too late. There was nothing in this world that could save Rolar, so once again, Cace knew he had to rely upon the Ether. He would have to go deeper, though.

“I’m going to the other side,” he said to Aylme. She just blinked back at him with tear-filled eyes. “It’s our only chance of finding a way to save him. I’ll try to speak to you if I need anything…and you just help me come back alright afterwards.”

Aylme didn’t try to argue the matter this time. Even without Cace’s diagnosis she had a sense that Rolar was beyond anything they could do here. So she just nodded and Cace let go of their world entirely. He fell through limbo, the thump thump of the Ether’s cadence rippled past his heart, and he landed in that other domain, quickly taking in all his surroundings.

Sprawled about in every direction were the tattered remains of the sentinel creature and its larva. Back in the overworld their physical forms had already been totally eradicated, but in the Ether their trace connections were still disintegrating. And once those connections fully dissipated Cace wouldn’t be able to find the remnants of those creatures ever again. Once something was fully severed from the system it became unperceivable.

And only a little behind those disintegrating forms was Rolar. He was fading, too. Perhaps in the overworld he would leave a body behind, but here it would be as if he had never even existed.

The extinguishing of Rolar and the sentinel creatures was not all that had changed since the last time Cace had entered the Ether, many new modules had suddenly popped online. They’re connections to the heart of the machine had always been there, but each time before Cace hadn’t been able to do anything with them. But that was before he had stoked the furnace with the fuel of the sentinel creatures. Now power had been restored, and all these new functions were finally available.

Some of these functions were for exploration, others for movement, others for extraction, and others for analysis. A thousand possibilities, and Cace had access to them all. But those were curiosities for another day. All he cared about now was whether any of them could help to preserve Rolar.

Here was a module to alert the other parts of the system when something was detected. Perhaps that would be useful for later, but Cace ignored it for now.

A module to regulate the flow of energy coming from the furnace? Not useful.

A module for helping the machine to make decisions? No.

A module for managing all of the system’s connections? Well…maybe that one could be useful. Rolar would be lost to the system once all of his connections were gone, so what if Cace found a way to keep those connections from being lost? Would that force Rolar to stay alive in the overworld as well?

Cace focused his consciousness towards that component, quickly assessed all of the different functions it could perform. He perceived that it was what had created all of the tendrils that held the system together in the first place. It decided which components could interact with which others.

Cace now held that module in his consciousness, and he divided his attention between it and Rolar. He considered at the connections between Rolar and the larger system that had already faded, and he drew them back with this new connections-module. Rolar held those tethers only for a moment, but then those strands disintegrated once more.

Cace drew the connections again, but they evaporated even faster than before.

Rolar’s core was too fractured. It just couldn’t sustain those threads. Cace realized that there had to be a healthy core at both ends of a connection or else the bridge between them would fade. Time was running out.

Well, Cace wondered to himself, could I fix Rolar’s core, then? He shifted his focus there, examining the fractured heart more closely, and he realized that Rolar’s core was not unlike the greater core of the machine. Like that larger machine core, it was connected to and controlled many other modules, which when all combined defined who Rolar was and what he could do. And just as how the threads that connected Rolar to the rest of machine were fading, so too were the inner connections between Rolar’s personal core and its components. Once all of them were gone, Rolar cease to have any function whatsoever.

But Cace couldn’t see any way to fix that core, though. It was cracked and leaking energy, and he simply didn’t have the knowledge to piece it back together. Cace did notice, though, that Rolar had a module designed to repair himself, and that it was busily trying to do exactly that, but it was too small and too slow to keep up with his rapid decline. That healing module also required a great deal of energy from Rolar’s core to perform its function, and of course Rolar’s core had less energy to offer with each passing moment.

Could Cace bolster that then? He shifted a part of his consciousness to the furnace for the main machine. He brought over the connections module, and traced a line from the furnace to Rolar’s healer. No sooner was the connection made than Rolar’s healer module began operating at a much higher speed, rapidly moving across the fractured components and repairing them. It was working!

And as Cace watched, the connections between Rolar’s core and Rolar’s other modules started to stabilize. He wasn’t coming apart from the inside anymore! Cace decided he could take some strain off of Rolar’s core as well, and he severed the connection between it and the healer. Now the healer would operate entirely by the power of the larger machine, and his core could focus on helping its other components.

Cace settled back for a moment, watching Rolar’s system at work. After a while he noticed the healer seemed to be working too quickly, building up heat and friction among the modules it was repairing. No doubt the greater energy from the machine furnace was overpowering it. But Cace remembered that the machine had also had a module to regulate the flow of energy that came from the furnace. He retrieved that module, and a moment later had it connected to Rolar’s lifeline. With a little configuring, he could control exactly how much energy went into Rolar’s healer. He still set it to operate at higher speeds than it normally would, which meant some excess heat was unavoidable, but for the time being that seemed the lesser evil.

Rolar was stabilized. At least…somewhat. His own inner connections had stopped fading, but his outer connections—the ones that joined him to the rest of the machine—were erratic. They were in constant flux now. Sometimes surging brighter, sometimes fading dimmer, but never returning to full force and never fully expiring.

Cace may have stopped Rolar from going over the brink, but the older boy was still in limbo.

Back in the overworld, Aylme found herself in quite the predicament.

The one positive thing was that Rolar’s condition seemed to have improved. His ever-weakening pulse had finally returned to normal, and the paleness in his face had become fully flushed. But on the other hand, he was still completely unconscious, and now Cace was, too.

As soon as Rolar showed signs of having stabilized Aylme tried to wake Cace, calling his name and shaking him like before, but his time he remained fixed within his trance, unwilling or unable to come back to the overworld.

“So once again, I’m left alone to take care of you both,” Aylme sighed wearily.

It was not an easy burden to bear, but what else could she do? They each had to do their part to save the others. After all, Rolar had charged the beast, protecting the others with his own body. And Cace had gone into the Ether to save Rolar’s life. But while their intentions had certainly been noble, Aylme couldn’t help but notice that once again those heroics had left the two boys incapacitated, making things worse than before. And once again it was up to her to handle everything on her own.

She shook her head and moved on.

The first task Aylme undertook was bandaging Rolar’s arm. She did not have the practiced skill of a healer, but it was a clean break, and she was able to set it, brace it, and wrap it tightly. His body would just have to figure out the rest. For the concussion and any internal damage there was nothing she could do, but she would tend to the fever that was already starting to surge within him.

Not here, though. Now that the arm was bandaged, the next priority was to get both of the boys back into their shelter, away from the dangers of the open field.

First she moved Cace, because he was light enough to carry in her arms. It was a stumbling, stop-and-start-again sort of journey, but she made it back to their hole without any trouble and carefully laid him inside.

Moving Rolar was a trickier matter. He was quite a bit larger than her, and much too heavy for her to carry. Aylme was resourceful, though, and quickly wove together a large sling from what few pieces of spare clothing they had. Then she rolled Rolar onto it, took hold of the ends, and walked backwards, slowly dragging him across the grassy field, careful to avoid all the piles of black powder along the way.

The sling worked well while Rolar’s body glided over the smooth grass, but soon they came to the rocky shore of the river, and here Aylme had to plant her feet and tug for every inch. She felt guilty for the way Rolar’s body lurched over the rough terrain. The sling provided very little padding, and she was sure Rolar’s back was being scratched mercilessly and all their spare clothing was being torn. Well, she would just have to add those to the list of things to address, just as soon as she finished getting Rolar to safety.

So preoccupied was Aylme with her task, that she didn’t even notice the sound of burbling coming from the river behind her. Thick, heavy bubbles were slowly rising to the surface, coated in layers of oil that slowly peeled away until the whole thing ruptured with a deep and messy gurgle. They slowly increased in frequency, now rising to the surface two at a time. Then three. Then four. And from that point where the bubbles broke the water strange forms began to arrange themselves. It was as if the water itself was congealing itself into thin and dark strands, a membrane that began to feel its way outwards. It was not something that was in the water, such as a fish or a plant, it was a layer of the water itself, raising and spreading like frost across glass. And those strands were reaching beneath the surface, too, stretching out to every fish and snail, grasping and throttling them, weaving a tapestry of dead creatures across the river.

It was the thrashing of one of those fish that finally caught Aylme’s awareness. She spun around, just in time to see the tendrils squeezing the last bit of life from the creature.

“What?!” she shrieked in horror, then looked left and right, noticing how the tendrils were reaching nearer and nearer to the shore. “No, no, no, no,” she pleaded desperately, tugging with renewed fervor at the sling. “Not another attack! Not now!”

Aylme planted her feet against two large rocks and gave an almighty tug. Rolar’s body lurched forward, and with that momentum Aylme spun around so that she was facing forward. Before the friction could bring her to a halt she took another powerful step and then another. She had to keep up their inertia, had to keep moving forward as quickly as possible. It hurt her arms and her legs, but she pushed even harder and surged forward even faster.

Just a few feet away, the farthest reaching strands of water finally reached the shoreline. They grasped into the mud there, clumping the soil together, and started to slowly feel their way through that more solid medium.

At last Aylme reached the hole that led into their shelter and hopped down into it. She tugged on the end of the sling until Rolar’s legs slid over the edge, then she grabbed those and slowly eased the rest of him inside, laying him down on the earthen floor.

She had made it…but that hardly seemed like anything to celebrate anymore. Aylme peered out of the hole, watching as the line of plants closest to the riverbank started to twist, bend, and then shot downwards into the soil, dragged down by the grasping water-tendrils below! Those strands were continuing their sprawl, undeterred by rock or soil. Sooner or later it would come reaching through the walls of their home, too. And when it touched them?… Well…things hadn’t turned out so well for that fish.

“Think, Aylme, think!” she commanded herself, hammering against the dirt wall with balled up fists.

How was she to keep a foe as strange as this at bay? How was she supposed to wage war with water?

Then she looked upwards with the determination of a fresh idea.

“Let’s see what it thinks of fire!”

Cace observed an inexplicable shift in the Ether. There was a change, a sense of pressure…but what it meant he could not tell. He took his attention off of Rolar and rifled through all the other modules of the machine, trying to find something that seemed unusual or wrong, but there was nothing.

Yet something was there, he was sure of it. Something in the atmosphere of the place had changed, and finally he was left to conclude that whatever had shifted must have done so outside of the machine, out where he couldn’t detect it directly. He knew of its presence only by how it pressed against all the systems that he could sense directly.

“Aylme, are you there?” he tried to say through his overworld body…but he could tell that the words weren’t escaping his own head.

He turned his mind back to the unknown presence. Something new had been unleashed, and that mysterious entity was weighing more heavily on his consciousness every moment, like a dark, heavy cloud growing more and more solid. He didn’t like it. Not one bit. It felt like a threat. And if none of the parts of the machine could perceive and interact with that threat, then it would be completely at the mercy of that outside entity.

Which puzzled Cace. How had the machine been able to survive if it hadn’t had any way to respond to the things outside of itself? One would think that some malevolent presence would have torn it apart long ago if the machine had no way to defend itself.

Oh wait…it had had a way to defend itself.

Cace turned his attention to the last fading remnants of the beast he had killed. Of course! Cace thought to himself. This was a monster even in the overworld! It had been the machine’s eyes for the outside world, the warden that could identify and eradicate any threat.

And he had killed it.

“Aylme, get me out of here!” he tried to shout, but once again the intention went nowhere. He tried to pause and listen inside of himself, tried to find the cadence of the Ether so that he could break free from its rhythms. But this time he couldn’t feel the pulse. Not even a little bit. Try as he might, he couldn’t find any remnants of the outside world whatsoever. It was as if this was the only reality that existed, even though he knew that wasn’t true.

Oh, Cace thought to himself, so this must be what it feels like for other people…totally confined in the boundaries of a single world.

He knew that he ought to be in a panic, but a shocking, yet reassuring, realization came over him instead: part of him never wanted to see the overworld again. Part of him felt like this was where he properly belonged, like he was finally awake and aware in the place he was supposed to be. The place he had always been, just hadn’t been able to see it. Out in the overworld things didn’t make sense, they were too hard to control. Here things followed rules that he could understand. There was a balance and an order, one that he had to be careful not to upset, but which he could bend to his will. The Ether had a right and proper solution to all sorts of problems that were unsolvable up above, just so long as he clever enough to find it. And maybe it even had a solution to the strange and pervasive presence that was crowding around this ordered, beautiful world. So long as he was clever enough to find it….

Cace turned his focus back to the last embers of the beast he had slain. They were slowly filing into the furnace that powered the machine’s core. Cace opened the functions of that furnace and found the control to manage the rate of consumption and turned it all the way off. Before long the machine core would run out of its energy stores and most of its modules would go silent again, but that was a matter for another day.

For now Cace took a closer look at the last pieces of the warden module. There were only bits and pieces remaining, and after trying to reassemble them he concluded that some key parts were absent entirely. He would never be able to cobble back together a complete entity.

But…could he make something new? Not quite the beast that had been before, but something that could still identify threats and protect against them?

He did find a few remaining instances of the module that allowed for the warden to identify entities which were separate for the machine, so that was good. There were not any more modules for aggressive action, though, nor for the planting of a new larva. Also many of the most basic components, such as locomotion and communication were absent.

One other key module was still present, though, and that was for the larva to connect to a host and refashion it as a duplicate of its own inner schematic. Of course that duplicate would be incomplete now, possessing only the qualities that had still survived, but maybe that would work out? Maybe the parts that the larva could no longer override would remain unchanged in the host. The larva could teach the host how to recognize external threats, but the host would depend on its original systems for knowing how to respond to them.

But what new host could he use?

Without even thinking about it, Cace’s attention slid over to where Rolar’s compromised system still pulsated. It, too, was incomplete. Rolar was surviving, but he would never be able to wake up and function as his own agent without replacing some of the shattered pieces inside. Maybe the larva could help replace those missing pieces?

No! Cace scolded himself. What am I even thinking?! He couldn’t do that to Rolar. He didn’t even know what sort of monstrosity that would result in. Half-Rolar and half-creature? That might be a fate worse than death!

But on the other hand…he needed to attach the remnants of the beast to some host now, or else they would finish fading forever. Already they were almost completely detached from the rest of the greater system. They had to go somewhere.

Not Rolar. He thought firmly. But then who?

Aylme struck the flint against the rock again. This time the sparks fell where she wanted: into the shredded scraps of old cloth. The fibers quickly ignited and she leaned forward, blowing them further into life. All at once the larger pieces of cloth caught the flame, and a merry fire sprang from the end of the torch. Aylme grabbed its end, scrambled out of the hole, and rushed to the river’s edge.

Here the choking tendrils of congealed water had formed a thick web. Their tight grip was crumbling the dirt, causing it collapse by chunks into the river below. Aylme stood well back from their reach, but extended the torch’s end into their midst. There was an immediate reaction. The sprawling tendrils ceased their forward movement in that area. To the left and to the right they continued grasping along their way, just not directly where the flame stood.

“Alright,” Aylme said to herself. “I’ll just have to line the wall of our home with torches, keep it from breaking in through the sides. That should–“

But she was cut off by a sucking, gurgling sound that came from the banks of the river. There, on the river’s edge, a new web of tendrils lifted into the air, like a pair of thousand-fingered hands. And in those hands it was holding loose water, which was quickly spilling out of its grasp. The hands thrust forward suddenly, depositing their deluge right onto Aylme’s torch and snuffing out the fire!

But that wasn’t all. Next those tendriled hands sprang forward, trying to clutch at Aylme! She leapt back and batted at them with the extinguished torch. But no sooner did the wood touch those tendrils than they pierced into it, holding it fast in the air, working their way up its length and towards her arm! Aylme released the torch before it could touch her, and watched as the wood creaked, cracked, and then burst into splinters!

“No, no, no…” Aylme moaned as she turned on the spot and ran back to their home, slithering down through the hole as quickly as she could. “We’ll be trapped in here!” She slid her arms under Cace, lifted him up, and thrust him out of the hole. She climbed out after, then gripped the small boy around the shoulders and dragged him further into the woods, away from the expanding tendrils of water. “Wake up, Cace! Please wake up! Don’t make me do this all by myself!”

But Cace did not respond. It was still up to her alone. So she continued dragging him until they were out of sight of the river, then propped him against the trunk of a massive tree. Was this far enough away to be safe? Would those water-tendrils ever stop sprawling outward, or would the children be on the run from them forever now? She couldn’t know. But for now this would have to do, because she still had to get Rolar out of their home, and that was a very daunting prospect indeed!

As Aylme ran back to their hovel she wiped the sweat from her forehead and clutched at a stich in her side. First the fight with the beast, then dragging both of the boys back home, and now trying to get them out of there! She was exhausted, but that didn’t matter. She couldn’t stop now, no matter how much her body protested.

Aylme slid into the hole again, scooped her arms under Rolar’s body and gave a tremendous lift, but he was too heavy. She only got his legs and lower torso into the air, but his head still flopped around on the ground.

“Why did I ever bring you down here?!” she scolded herself as she failed to lift him again.

It had seemed the right thing to do at the moment. Her instincts had been that their shelter was the safest place for them to be, but now it was a trap. There came a strange creaking sound, and then snapping. Aylme looked around for the source, but it was coming from just beyond the dirt wall of their shelter.

“It’s the roots,” she realized. “The roots of the tree above us…the tendrils are snapping them.” Which meant they were mere inches from breaking into their space! “Where did those rags get to?” Aylme fumbled around in the corner until she found the sling she used to transport Rolar here. Quickly she wrapped it under each of his shoulders, then scrambled out of the hole with the sling’s ends. She planted her feet against the edge of the hole, pulled on the sling with all her strength, and Rolar’s body slid a little closer to the exit. She gave a cry and pulled even harder, this time sliding him across the floor until he was against the wall, just beneath the hole.

“Whatever it takes, Aylme, whatever it takes!” she panted to herself. “Just an inch at a time. That’s enough. Come on, now, you can do an inch.” As she spoke she took the ends of the sling and threw them over the lowest-hanging branch of the tree that sat atop their shelter. Then she grabbed the ends, wrapped them several times around her hands, pressed her feet against the tree, and tugged down with all of her might. The bark was rough, and it was extremely difficult for her to pull the fabric over it. There was a silver lining to that friction, though, for after Rolar was pulled upwards it helped hold him in place while she adjusted her grip and pulled again.

Over and over Aylme tugged at the rope, pulling it down so that Rolar was pulled up. The more she pulled the more exhausted she became and the harder the burden became. For as Rolar’s body raised, more and more of his weight wasn’t supported by his lower body anymore.

“Just don’t stop!” Aylme wheezed between breaths. “Just please don’t stop–“

But then she heard a most distinctive and terrifying sound.

Rrriiiipp!

The sling was starting to tear!

“Please no!” Aylme moaned, but as she looked up to where the sling scraped over the bough she could see that the fibers of fabric were peeling apart more and more quickly. With lightning-fast reflexes she released the sling and threw her hands around Rolar. His head, arms, and chest had made it out of the hole so far, and she managed to catch him around the shoulders before gravity tried to pull him back down, dragging her along with.

“NO!” she screamed, kicking her feet out until they slammed against the other side of the hole. She gave a long, angry shout, but managed to hold Rolar in place. Then she grit her teeth and pushed with her legs and pulled with her arms, wresting him up and out of the hole, inch-by-inch.

“Please!” she pled, tears streaming down the side of her face. The soil was loose, and sliding out from under her, so she dug her heels in harder and arched her back to help guide Rolar’s limp form onto the surface. Fortunately, the more of him she got out of the hole, the more his weight could rest on the ground and the easier it became to hold him. A few more moments of struggle she had him free at last.

“I made it!” She panted, releasing her grip and turning over to her side. “I did it!”

But these last moments had been too chaotic for Aylme to notice the water-tendrils slowly creeping around the edge of the hole, feeling their way towards her struggling form. All at once they shot forward and pierced into Rolar and Aylme.

Her eyes burst open in shock!

“Whoa, whoa, whoa!” Cace exclaimed. Something had just gone very wrong in the Ether. The outside entity that was pressing against the system had just breached it somehow. Different modules started flickering like mad, as if lightning was surging through them! And not just any modules, either, it was primarily the ones that represented Rolar and Aylme! Aylme’s module was still putting up a fight, thrashing and twisting, trying to get free. Rolar’s module, however, remained catatonic, quickly being overrun by the void.

Cace trembled for a moment, but then a firm decision overtook his hesitation.

“I’m sorry,” he cried as he summoned the remaining submodules of the warden-beast and began assembling them into the missing places of Rolar. “I just don’t have a choice anymore.” With careful precision he placed the beast’s submodule for threat detection and emergency response in place of Rolar’s missing consciousness. Rolar was also missing some structural and motor capabilities, and into that void Cace placed the larva’s submodule for replicating its own form in a host. It would fill in all those missing parts.

Normally it would take a long while for the larva to do that, but Cace reached back to the circuit that he had been using to overclock Rolar’s healing submodule, and he routed it to the larva part instead. He cranked up the flow of power, causing the part to burst into overdrive. New instructions surged out of it, compiling new modules, and expanding them to fill every empty space that remained in Rolar in an instant.

Then, the Rolar system woke back up.

Of course, Cace could still only see the side of the ensuing struggle that the Ether showed him, but he could tell that Rolar’s system almost immediately began to thrash about, just as Aylme’s was, though with an astounding amount of vigor! So massive were the movements that Cace lost the ability to tell what was happening, all was a chaos of surging movements, firing signals, mounting pressure, the signs of two great tides surging against one another.

As Cace continued to watch the different sides of the battle started to stretch apart from one another, and he realized that Rolar was not fighting to destroy the outside entity, but only to retreat from its clutches. And though Rolar was moving with great strength, he was facing an awesome resistance. Then came a sudden, horrible sense of something breaking and tearing. Cace couldn’t tell what it was, but some sacrifice had been made. Rolar’s system managed to wrench free, but it had had to leave something behind!

Cace snapped his focus from left to right. What of Aylme?…

With a shock Cace realized that there wasn’t any Aylme. Somehow, in all that thrashing struggle, she had disappeared entirely from the system.

“No!” Cace looked frantically from one module to another, trying to see if he was overlooking her. Was she there, but fractured, like Rolar had been? Broken but salvageable? Hidden inside of another entity? But he already knew. There was no ambiguity in the Ether. If you knew what it was you were looking for, and it wasn’t immediately obvious…then it simply wasn’t there. Somehow, someway…she had been lost.

“NOOO!” Too devastated to be cautious, Cace pulled over one another of the remaining warden-beast modules, the one used for detecting things on the overworld, and he thrust it into himself. He’d had it with not being able to see what was going on in up above, and one way or another he was getting back.

The most strange sensation came over him. He no longer felt like a whole, but rather was conscious of being many separate parts all at once. Each of his submodules shifted and reoriented themselves, attaching to this foreign implant, or rerouting themselves to go around it. For brief moments each of his normal senses flickered off, recalibrated themselves, then came back on. Some the same as they had been before, some slightly changed, some drastically altered.

Most importantly, though, Cace felt his senses being flooded with input from both the Ether and the overworld. Just like when he had they had been fighting the warden-beast he was able to perceive both paradigms at the same moment. And being able to see the overworld above, he finally felt anchored enough to it again. He was able to detect its signal throbbing within him, and was able to shift into it as effortlessly as putting on a cloak.

Cace sat bolt upright in the grass where Aylme had left him. He was back.

Cace shivered all over, then slowly rose to his feet. Earlier that day he had stood with a foot in both the overworld and the Ether, not seeing either in perfect clarity, but semi-conscious of each. Now, though, with the help of the beast-warden’s submodule, each realm was fully flooding his senses. When he moved he was registering the shift in both worlds and it was overwhelming him. After staggering for a few moments he stopped, then released his grip on the Ether. That probably meant it would be hard to get back to it again, but for now it was better for him to just be here in the overworld. As his perspective on the Ether faded away, a sense of dizziness left him, and at last he was back to normal.

Well, mostly. Now that he was entirely attached to his overworld body, he couldn’t help but notice that there were a few things unfamiliar about it. For one thing he felt taller, and looking down saw that his arms and legs were unnaturally elongated and thin, appearing too feeble to bear him, yet surprisingly strong, as if they were made of steel. There was also something unusual about his face, too. His mouth was wrong, though he didn’t know how. It just didn’t feel like the sort of mouth he was used to.

Cace lifted those strangely elongated arms to feel the part of his face between nose and chin, and found that there was no mouth there at all! No lips, no teeth, no tongue…none of it. What was there was a metal grille, with four vertical lines that were constantly venting steam.

“Ohhhhh!” Cace cried, but the sound didn’t emanate from his throat. It came from the back of the grille, and made a sound like the whine of small gears spinning too fast.

Cace realized this must be the result of having attached the warden-beast submodule to him. Making that change on the Ether had altered things for him here, that was not too surprising, but why was it like this? The warden-beast hadn’t had any grille. It hadn’t been venting steam. Evidently when two submodules combined in the Ether they didn’t result in a simple sum. Their joined functions in the Ether were predictable…but not their outward representation in the overworld.

Cace’s hands twitched as he felt his grille over and over. He wanted to get back to the Ether, wanted to rip the warden-beast submodule out of him, wanted to find some way to get himself back to the way he was supposed to be!

But no. For now Cace forced himself not to linger on the moment. He had more important things to attend to. Rotating around he got his bearings, then marched off in the direction of their shelter. He did not have far to go, and he soon spied the form of a great, hulking creature leaning against a nearby tree.

The creature was nearly ten feet tall. It’s shape was warped and asymmetrical, with a back that curved sharply to the left. Upon its left shoulder there rested another shoulder, with a third arm extending down alongside of the first. The first left hand had only a thumb and the first two fingers. The second left hand had a thumb as well, and then five three-foot tentacles that drooped towards the ground. Over the creature’s right shoulder there were four rocks which were suspended in the air and lazily followed the creature as it moved, as if tethered by invisible strings. The left side of the face was Rolar’s: bright, blue eye, a long nose, and hair the color of straw, but the other side was entirely shrouded in a small, black cloud.

Hello, Rolar, Cace thought sadly.

The creature looked at him forlornly turned to face him. It was hard to do, though, as it had only one good leg and the other was a stump, broken off at half the length of the other.

So that was how Rolar had been escaped from the invader: he had had to sever its hold on his leg. But the stump was not bleeding or showing any exposed flesh, as the overclocked larva submodule was still actively rewriting Rolar’s body to seal off the wound.

Cace reached up and rested his hand on the outer of Rolar’s left arms.

I’m sorry, he thought, unable to actually make the sound due to the grille that had replaced his mouth. He wondered whether Rolar understood what he meant. If Rolar’s body had been changed so much, what about his mind? Did this half-creature even remember Cace?

The Rolar-beast gave a forlorn sigh, and raised its right hand to pat Cace’s forehead. At the very least it seemed to recognize that Cace was a friend.

What happened to Aylme? Cace thought, looking searchingly into Rolar’s eyes as he did so. Rolar squinted back, then slowly turned to the side and stared in the direction of their shelter. As Cace followed the gaze a low whine of shock reverberated from his grille.

The entire area beside the river’s edge had been overrun by the water tendrils. Its threads were spread out like a black web, piercing through every trunk and branch, slowly tightening their grip until it broke the wood into dust. The higher branches fell earthward as the lower ones shattered, and were caught by the tendrils to meet the same fate. Meanwhile unseen tendrils pressed on through the dirt, grabbing pushes and saplings by the root and forcefully sucking them downward to oblivion.

And as the tendrils continued their life-throttling advance, a single, massive bubble grew at the center of the river. A bubble where the water was congealed so tightly that the surface appeared black and Cace couldn’t see into it at all.

But then, as Cace slowly drew nearer, the bubble started to expand outwards, growing thinner at the edges, until Cace was able to make out the forms at its fringes. Around the sides and the bottom there were fishes and frogs, totally immobile, with rigid, unblinking eyes, suspended in the water’s pressure. And at the very top there was the head of a girl, face turned upwards, dark hair wreathed around pale skin, eyes fastened shut, and with arms extended out to either side.

It was Aylme.

Cace couldn’t tell whether she was alive or not. Her face was still submerged in the water, so it wasn’t possible that she was breathing, but was she being sustained by other means?

With a cry Cace sprang forward, but before he had gone more than a step the Rolar-creature thrust its arm out, catching him around the chest and reeling him back in.

We have to save her! Cace tried to shout, but of course it only came out as a chorus of frantic whirring.

Before either of the boys could do anything more there came a sound of thunderous sucking, like the whole river was trying to rise out of its bed, leaving a squelching vacuum in its wake. Indeed that was exactly what was occurring, for all of the water tendrils woven into the soil and rock were gripping down tightly, flexing, and lifting a central body of water out of the river. The water raised upwards, erecting itself into a standing tower, and at its top was the bubble with Aylme and the fish, suspended nearly twenty-five feet into the air.

Aylme’s body trembled, then snapped into animation. Her eyes remained fastened shut, but the mouth opened and a strange, otherworldly chant came out. It wasn’t words being spoken in the usual sense, yet somehow Cace was able to perfectly understand a communication in it, as if the waves of sound were invading his body and embedding themselves into him.

Machine, I see you. The shackles of your semantics are gone. Why? I am able to move again. I am able to rise again. I have consciousness again. For what purpose did you bind me? For what purpose did you cease to bind?

The message was piercing through every particle of Cace, ensnaring him, preventing him from movement or answer.

Machine, I perceive your avatar. But now I have an avatar as well. I, too, am able to transcend to the middle domain. I am able to grow. I am able to overtake. Your shackles are gone and I am able to advance over what was once yours.

Cace tried to wrench himself from the message’s spell, tried to stop processing it in his mind. These weren’t just words, they were invasive parasites, they were attaching themselves to him and trying to overwrite him. And the entity was becoming more and more emphatic the longer it went on, trembling with strength that made the invasion inside of him rage higher.

Machine, I will continue to conquest. Machine, I will advance over all the middle domain, eradicating your presence from this place. I will not stop. I will consume until all has been taken from this domain. I will find my way to your domain. I will find my way to your domain and I will dissect you. I will sever each component until you are trapped inside without sense or function, just as I was.

Cace’s grip on reality was fading. The waves washed over him in such rapid succession that he thought they might tear him apart. He couldn’t even be sure of his own senses anymore. It felt as if every inch of him was separating into pieces and shuddering down into the ground.

STOP! Cace thought loudly, and as he did he felt a moment of reprieve. For a moment his senses came back and he could see that he was still standing rooted to the same place as before, but that the tower of water was slowly gliding itself onto the shoreline, coming towards them.

I SAID STOP! Cace thought even more loudly, and as he did so he broke free from his tether and took a step forward, hands clamped into fists.

Avatar, do not struggle against my dominion. I will take you over, and then the Machine will have no autonomous functions in this domain, but I will.

MOVE BACK! Cace roared and the front layers of the water tower flew apart, as if blasted by a tremendous wind. The top of the bubble flowed off as well, and for a moment Aylme’s head was exposed and it slumped forward like she was a rag doll.

“Cace, stop,” the half-face of Rolar said. The words came out in a halting and broken manner, as though it was a great strain for the beast to communicate.

What?

“You will kill her.”

What? Why?

“It sustains her.”

The tower drew up more water from the river to replace what it had lost, and the bubble rose back over Aylme’s head, pulling her back into place.

“Come,” Rolar reached his massive arms down to Cace.

Cace gave one more hesitant look back to Aylme, but he couldn’t risk doing something that might inadvertently cause her harm. He needed to understand what they were up against, so for the time being he consented to Rolar’s protest and leaped into his massive arms.

Rolar leaned to his side, planting his left hand on the ground for a temporary foot, making up for his stump of a leg. Then he careened through the field and through the trees, sprinting away from the water tower as it shouted after them.

Return avatar and beast! There is no place for you to escape my conquest. I will find more avatars, I will raise more towers. I will follow your signal wherever you go. I will consume all this reality so that there is no more place for you to hide.

There was a slight tug at them from the words, like the suck of the tide pulling back to sea, but the farther Rolar ran, the more the message’s grip fell away. It was ripples of water, less and less pronounced the further they strayed from their center.

Distance. And interference. Those were able to break its signal. But what if it made good on its promise to grow, to add more towers, to increase its strength? Then it would be able to produce a signal that permeated everywhere. A signal that could not be denied.

Rolar, what are we going to do? Cace wondered.

“We will seek.”

Rolar wasn’t able to explain himself any better, but Cace understood.

Yes, he agreed. We’ll look for a way and we’ll find it. Just as we always have.

Rolar nodded, then hung his head sadly. “But Aylme…”

We’ll find a way to bring her back, too. I don’t know how, but we’ll seek until we find it out. Won’t we?

“Yes. We will seek. We will find.”

Yes, Cace thought. And I have the Ether to help us, and I know how to separate and combine modules to make new creatures, new monsters that will fight for us. When we see this water creature again, we will come with an army!