Saturday, 28 April 2012

The Second Realm 2.1: Wild Hawk Down

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Falling With Style

1. Wild Hawk Down

The cell gave Van Raighan no privacy. Seated opposite him, outside the bars, the bare wooden stool bruising her buttocks and the stone wall cool against her shoulders, Pevan had nothing to do but stare at him. Charged with abetting Wildren, there was always the possibility that the diminutive thief had an ally among them powerful enough to get him out; the law commanded a constant watch kept.

This, despite the fact that the cell was almost directly beneath the dais in the Warding Hall that supported the Stable Rods. Pevan was reasonably confident she could get a Gateway open in the floor, if she didn't hold it long. The wall would be pushing it; it would take a Wilder with a will of steel to do any better.

She shifted on her seat, well aware that nothing would banish the ache short of standing up, and there was a knot in her spine that warned her how bad an idea that would be. One thing she did envy her prisoner was the mattress on his cot in the cell. Hard by mattress standards, certainly, but he showed no signs of discomfort despite having sat there since not long after Pevan's shift started.

He cut an unimpressive figure, hunched and scrawny under a mop of straggly black curls, his clothes rumpled from too many days' wear; he'd had no opportunity to change since his arrest, two days earlier. He alternated between dozing and staring at whoever had guard duty, and spoke only when spoken to. Pevan wondered if he thought the display of calmness helped his case, or whether he was just confident of being rescued.

Sherriff Pollack was no closer to getting to the bottom of the thief's motives, and Notia was too busy getting established as Four Knot to help. Rel and Dora had chosen the wrong time to vanish; calm Van Raighan might be, but he'd melt under Dora's glare if he tried giving her the same treatment he gave Pollack. Again, Pevan found herself biting back the urge to start questioning the man herself. It would only bring her grief from the Sherriff.

So, she sat silently, staring through the bars at the thief, who stared silently back. Occasionally one of them glanced away, but there was nothing else to look at. With the room only lit by a couple of candles, there wasn't even enough light to count spiders. The thought sent a shiver down Pevan's spine, and she sat forward in case there might be a spider on the wall behind her. Her eyes stayed fixed on Van Raighan, though, but for blinking.

He looked down, frowning briefly in contemplation, before a flicker of amusement ran across his face. The gesture was familiar by now, though Pevan had no idea what thought or memory might be provoking it. Van Raighan's normal mien was grim, even angry. Fair enough, since he had to ask permission when he needed the toilet, and be escorted there and back.

You'd be Pevan Atcar, right? The only thing he'd said to her - besides asking for privy breaks - in five shifts still rang in her mind. He'd seemed nervous, asking, but equally poised for attack. She was tempted to brand it a fight-or-flight response, but he'd done neither since. And there was little reason for him to fear her, unless he thought she shared his contempt for the law. Prisoner he might be, but he had rights.

And why did he know who she was, anyway? Until the association with Van Raighan had put his hometown of Tendullor on the map, she'd never even heard of the place. It was almost eight hundred miles away, deep in the safe zone of the South. There were all sorts of reasons he'd know of Federas, but to know her well enough to recognise her on sight?

He was back to watching her, candlelight softening the harsher lines of his face, head tilted ever so slightly sideways. Dark eyes played host to a reflected sparkle, and gave nothing else away. Perhaps Rel might be able to make something of the man just by looking at him, but he was away on a mission to Vessit, of all places.

It was Pevan's turn to smile at a stray thought; Rel would be dumbfounded when he got back and found that Federas hadn't burned to the ground without him. Her smile drew a frown from Van Raighan, though if his features hardened, it was in curiosity rather than anger.

One of them was going to have to speak, sooner or later. Pevan said, "Why do you know who I am?"

"Shouldn't I?" His voice was mild, his speech lazy. Nevertheless, something sharp and serious underlay his explanation. "Everyone knows the Gifted of Federas, and you're the only Gatemaker here."


He sat back, propping himself up on his arms. "You didn't know this?"

"I don't understand." She could feel herself frowning. Well, that was probably the appropriate response. Everyone knew about her? Everyone who?

"All through my training, I was told how brave and skilled the Gifted of Federas were." He sat up again, folded his arms. "Rissad had it worse, being a Gatemaker. Before your time, of course, but your predecessor was a hero to us."

"Well, obviously. Temmer was a hero full stop." Hard to keep from sounding too defensive. It felt odd to hear a stranger call the old Gatemaker a hero, though, as if Van Raighan was taking a piece of her away.

His tone turned conciliatory, apologetic. "Hey, I'm not arguing. Rissad was going to be sent here to finish his training, and the whole town was honoured by it. A great woman. You seem pretty good at turning out great Gifted."

"We have to be." Something about the little man was getting under her skin, making her prickly when she should have been friendly. Well, polite, at least, but maybe if she could manage friendly he'd open up a bit.

"I know, I know. An incident a month, or something, right?" Van Raighan wasn't trying to put her back up. He even managed a smile, and she couldn't fault him for the fact that his Southern accent made him sound so bored and uncaring.

She forced herself to a single chuckle, trying to match his demeanour. "Not quite that bad. Seven last year. Eight the year before. It was worse in Temmer's day."

"Not so bad?" He shook his head, laughing quietly. "Back home we've had one incident in the last three years. I spend most of my time settling arguments for the Sherriff."

Had a flicker of distaste crossed his face? Rel certainly got angry enough when Pollack asked him to help with a First Realm case. It was easy to imagine Van Raighan, proud of his Gift, not much older than she was now, finding that his peaceful hometown had no use for him. Particularly with his being a Witness; not the most useful of Gifts.

However he felt, he was opening up. She found another question easily. "How many Gifted does Tendullor have?"

"Besides me and Rissad? Just the Four Knot and Pamgin, our Warder." He frowned. "You can see why I feel a bit useless."

'Feeling a bit useless' didn't explain the worst crime spree committed by a human since the Realmcrash, but how to draw more out of him? Van Raighan had shrunk inside himself, slouching further, and it was hard to remember how much he'd been feared. How much Federas feared him, probably even now. After the deaths at Af, every Northern town had reason to fear the loss of their Stable Rods.

The man responsible looked up, eyes narrowed. Bitterly, he said, "Go on, ask. You want to know if that's why I did it."

Pevan blinked. "Actually, I was just thinking that couldn't be the whole story. If you were crazy, maybe, but you don't look like it."

"Thank you." The thief's voice wavered close to breaking as his face softened. Very quietly, he went on, "That's probably more faith than I deserve."

"We live by 'the only thing we know is that we know nothing' here, Van Raighan. It comes with the territory."

Just for a moment, as she said his name, his face hardened again, but his eyes dropped quickly back to the floor. "Nobody ever called me Van Raighan until Af. That was where I first heard the rumours about me. Afterwards..." His eyes sharpened, but Pevan could make out the glisten of tears at their corners. "The town was supposed to be safe. They-" He shut his mouth with an audible click, and his face seemed to go to war with itself, sadness vying for dominance with suspicion.

She had to be careful how she handled this. He'd talk to her, she was sure, but only if she avoided reminding him she was his guard. 'They', whoever they were, had to be the key. The townsfolk of Af? The Wildren in the Witnessing he'd shown Rel? Van Raighan had gotten his control back, his face settling into a mask of tension that left it all hard, flat planes. She needed to say something before his walls went up again, or they'd be back to silent staring at each other, but how to put him back at his ease?

Sympathy might do it. Alone with the hatred and fear of the First Realm for so long, he had to feel isolated. Better to keep away from the more direct questions. She said, "How did they know it was you at Af?"

If anything, his frown deepened. He shook his head, slowly. "I don't know. I was in the town, just looking- Well, planning what I was going to do. How to get in. You know what I mean." He looked away, obviously pained by the admission. "The rumours in town already had my name in them before I took their rods. I don't know why. No-one knew it was me before then."

Af had been Van Raighan's third robbery. Before that... Pevan struggled for the memory. Had it been Edarrin before Af? Polten had been the first. She could see the map in her head, the map that the Sherriff had used to track Van Raighan's progress, with its bold pencil line connecting the seven towns he'd hit, but she couldn't make out the names. The best she could do was make a vague gesture and hope he'd fill in. "You're sure you didn't leave any clues at Polten, or...?'

"Fosket?" He shook his head, while Pevan kicked herself. "It would have had to have been Fosket, or word would have reached them from Polten. No, I think I was betrayed."

"Betrayed?" By who?, she didn't add. Too close to what she really needed to know.

His eyes flicked up to meet hers, narrow again with suspicion. "By the Wildren who were Coercing me. Or blackmailing me, whatever you want to call it." At that, his frown turned bitter, outright angry. What could she say to placate him? Before she could think it through, he pushed on. "No-one else knew I was involved. No-one."

"But why would they betray you if you were doing what they wanted?" It was, she reflected as she finished, a stupid question. Asking after a Wilder's motives was as futile as trying to Gate to the moon.

Van Raighan's expression reflected a similar judgement, his frown softening just enough to allow him to raise a sardonic eyebrow. "I don't think they actually wanted the Stable Rods. Or to have the towns made vulnerable. They were making a point."

"What?" Her turn to squint at him. She blinked, tried to relax. "What point? Who to?"

"Hell if I know. I think it was aimed at the Gift-Givers somehow." He pressed his lips into a flat line, cocked his head on one side to inspect her face. "You wouldn't happen to know what 'Talerssi' is, would you?"

"I've never heard the word. It sounds Second Realm-ish?"

He nodded. "They said they were trying to take Talerssi from the Gift-Givers, but they either wouldn't or couldn't explain what it was."

Silence stretched out between them as Pevan tried to figure out how to extend the conversation. These were real answers she was getting, real progress, but was it enough? Would a Gift-Giver be able to explain Talerssi? It sounded like a place name, despite the fact that the Wildren never named places.

It occurred to her that she was taking his honesty for granted, however implausible. Whatever his loyalty to his brother, he was a trained Gifted and he'd turned on mankind in the most dramatic way possible. Could Wildren manipulation explain that? What would she do if it was Rel under threat? Well, that much at least was obvious; he'd have no truck with her breaking the rules for him, and probably wouldn't even thank her for the rescue.

On the other hand, there was no obvious motive for doing what Van Raighan had done, which meant a Second-Realm logic explanation was the most likely. He was staring at her, she realised, waiting for her to ask another question, or maybe to pass judgement. She looked away, in no position to do either, but her eyes went back to his face of their own accord all too quickly. His lips and eyes were tight with some complex emotion she couldn't read or understand.

"I'd like to show you a Witnessing, if I may?" He got to his feet, almost stumbling as he rose, and approached the bars. "Though you'll probably not believe it when you see it."

She frowned. "Why not? Isn't the point of a Witnessing that it can't be false? I'll believe it."

"I'll hold you to that." He smiled and put his hand out between the bars. A bubble formed on it, swelling to a little more than head-sized. "You may want to come a little closer. I can't make it as large as I'd like here." His voice sounded strained already. Probably just the Stable Rods upstairs, unless his Gift was really weak.

Within the bubble, colours sprayed across the surface, swirled, and began to shape themselves. A lumpen green-and-brown blur became a couple, kissing. The woman seemed all straight lines that even her elegant skirt couldn't make shapely; the man was barely taller than her, raven-haired and rodent-faced. Despite the plainness of both figures, ardour radiated from them. Her gaze smouldered as she drew back a little way, lost in his eyes.

Recognition struck like a thunderbolt as the woman turned her head a little way toward the Witness, and the image froze. Pevan knew her own face, and that was it. But she'd certainly never kissed anyone like that. Had she? She felt herself frowning, trying to remember if any of the times she had snuck off with a boy she'd gotten careless. A Witness could only show things he'd seen with his own eyes, but Pevan was good at finding hidey-holes.

Where were the couple in the Witnessing, anyway? The background was an indistinct swirl of silver-grey, and though the couple were seated, she couldn't see what on. It didn't have the precision and clarity of an ordinary Witnessing at all. Pevan glanced up at Van Raighan's face, noted the sparkle of laughter deep in his eyes, and bit back a surge of anger, instead turning her attention back to the bubble.

The man was Chag Van Raighan. Even tiny and blurred, the elfin cast to his features was unmistakable. Trying not to lose herself in the impossibility of what she was seeing - she'd certainly never kissed him! - she reasoned out the rest of the puzzle. If Van Raighan was in the Witnessing, then it couldn't be one he'd seen himself. A Witness could Witness another Witness's Witnessing, with some loss in clarity. That might account for the fuzzy background, though if it did it was a particularly bad case.

But how had anyone Witnessed her kissing Van Raighan? She'd met the man two days ago, and wouldn't have touched him with a bargepole before or since. She met his eyes again, and he lowered his arm, banishing the Witnessing. His gaze wavered first, the tension slowly draining from his face. Slack uncertainty replaced it; he looked like his plans were coming apart. But what plans?

A bell rang, loud and close by. The room seemed to tremble with the peals; vibrations through the floor made her feet itch. The alarm bell, hanging by the entrance to the Warding Hall. A Wilder was attacking the town. Pevan took another look at Van Raighan. His anxiety had vanished under a mask of calm, his narrow eyes resting gently on hers.

She cursed inwardly. With all the questions she needed answering, his rescue chose this moment of all moments to arrive. Her duty to the town came first. She'd be needed in the fight outside, so Dagdan would be coming to relieve her. She focussed, pressing her mind to the floor and reaching outward to the Warding Hall's entrance. Fixing both places in her head, she spun thought into a bridge between the two, felt the whole thing snap into place as the Gateway opened, just behind her feet. The whole process took less than an eye-blink, but her awareness slowed with it so that even after years of practice, it still felt painfully slow.

The Gate would only save Dagdan half a minute, but the sooner she was out there and knew what was going on the better. The Warding of the Stable Rods pressed against the passage she'd tunnelled through her mind, a tingling sensation like pins and needles of the face. Van Raighan's calm hadn't shifted, so she forced her adrenalin rush down. Nothing she could do until relief arrived.

Van Raighan said, "You know the attack must be a distraction for my rescue." A hitch, almost a stammer, marred his placid demeanour. Was he trying to taunt her?

"I didn't exactly think it was a coincidence," she snapped. "Don't think I won't come after you."

"I'm counting on it." He frowned, his face going from rat-like and a little sad to a ferocious intensity that made Pevan's guts quiver. "I mean you to know where my Witnessing came from, why it's important. There isn't time now." Behind Pevan, shouts drifted through the Gateway, Dagdan's voice among them. Van Raighan glanced down, then met her eyes again. "Your town won't be harmed, I swear it. All I ask is a chance to explain myself to you."

"You've had two days already."


"'Ware the Gate!" Dagdan's cheery shout cut Van Raighan off. Pevan spun on the spot, closing the Gateway beneath the Witness as his headlong dive delivered him, upright and almost banging his head on the ceiling, into the jail. His feet landed flat on the paved floor with barely a sound, no sign of the stumble that anyone less experienced would make. Dagdan might be getting on towards forty, but he was barely out of breath. Still smiling, he said, "Wildhawk, Pevan. Get going."

Good job Rel wasn't here to see the man smiling in the middle of a crisis. A Wildhawk was nothing to laugh about, but there was little in either Realm that could break Dagdan's cheer. She pointed over her shoulder at the cell and Van Raighan. "They're here for him. Don't blink."

The Witness - Federas' Witness, anyway - disobeyed her instruction almost immediately as she forced open a Gate beneath herself and dropped away from him, but he'd do his job. All he had to do was see some clue to where Van Raighan's rescuers took him. Her Gateway popped her out into bright spring sunshine and a blast of cold wind, just beside the entrance to the Warding Hall.

Her colleagues were already there, waiting for her. Jashi, Federas' senior Warder, had found time to tie up her rich brown hair in a bun, pulling her face tight to match the tension in her eyes. Kol had excitement written all over his guileless, open face. Despite his being eight years older than Pevan, when he stood next to Jashi she couldn't help but think of him as the younger Warder.

Barrit, the town's stout Guide, stood bent at the waist, his hands on his knees, panting. Probably he'd been heading into the old city when the bell rang. Pevan fought down a twinge of worry. With Rel and Dora away, and Dagdan busy with guard duty, the trio were all she had to work with.

Except for Notia, for whose absence Pevan breathed a short sigh of relief. Four Knot the woman might be, officially, but she hadn't nearly the experience needed for this and she'd only try to take charge. It was always the Gatemaker's job to coordinate defence during incursions, even if the town had a spare Clearseer, which they didn't. They'd miss Rel, but she still had the two Warders to call on.

Jashi said, "It's coming up from the South, over the brow. Staying high for now, and we couldn't reach it."

"It's only here as a distraction." Pevan waved a hand at the Warding Hall. Van Raighan had said the town wouldn't be harmed. Could she trust him? He'd seemed so determined. And while a Wildhawk was a nightmare for anyone travelling, it offered little threat to a town where people knew to get indoors during an attack. A shiver ran down her spine, and splashed ice through her viscera. Unless the town lost its Stable Rods.

Barrit opened his mouth to say something, jowls quivering, but she held up a hand to cut him off. She said, "There's still a risk to the Warding Hall, we'll have to be careful how we handle this."

"One jumper, one watchdog?" There was a twinkle in Kol's eye, a wildness familiar from past incursions. He wanted to be the jumper, she could tell, but she didn't fancy having to hang on to him long enough to carry him to the Wildhawk.

Still, the plan was right. She nodded. "Jashi will be jumper." Kol's face fell, but she ignored him. "Barrit, I need you to watch the Stable Rods in case Van Raighan tries anything. He's only a Witness, but shout for Kol if he brings friends. Kol, you'll wait here until we've got the Hawk clear of the town." They couldn't just kill it until they'd at least made the attempt to drive it back to the Sherim.

Pevan scanned the southern sky, squinting against the sun. The hillside above the town sparkled green-gold, rich with spring growth, but she couldn't pick out the Wildhawk. Barrit straightened and walked into the Warding Hall, still looking the worse for wear. Well, he was old for a Gifted, but he'd be a match for Van Raighan. Kos went to the door, leaning against it where he’d be able to see both inside and out. Sound thinking; she'd have to try to remember to commend him for it.

"The Old City?" If anything, Jashi's face tightened further as she spoke.

Pevan nodded, closing her eyes to focus on the gutted old tower block that was her preferred accelerator. She tied it to the wall behind her with the ease of reflex, felt the wind rise as the Gateway opened. The tower would serve to give them the air-speed that would bring the Wildhawk in range; now she just needed to know where the elusive Wilder was relative to the new town. "Where do we start?"

"The Webberats' place."

That explained why Jashi looked so grim, at least. Far too close. Pevan wrapped her arm around the other woman, grabbing a handful of her dress at her hip. She felt her own clothes tighten as Jashi took hold of the leather strap at her shoulder. The harness should provide more strength than plain fabric, but Pevan hadn't tested it yet herself.

Jashi nodded her readiness. Pevan counted, "Three... two... one..."

At 'Go!', the two women charged at the open Gateway. A couple of yards short, they bent as one and dived the last of the way. The Gate swallowed them, as tactile and resistant as air, and they emerged at the top of a four-hundred-foot plummet. Rings of shattered concrete, plaster and steel whistled past, the remains of the building's interiors, wrecked in the Realmcrash. By some fluke of engineering, almost the whole central part of the tower had smashed through, leaving a perfect vertical accelerator for a talented Gatemaker.

While Jashi screwed her eyes tight shut and curled her chin to her chest, Pevan squinted into the rushing air, spinning the Gate with her mind, focussing on making sure it went exactly beneath them. The thought of failure never crossed her mind. Long practice had the Gateway open and waiting before they were half-way down.

Passing through was like putting on a dress made of lead. The reversal of gravity punched down Pevan's throat and into her gut. Jashi gave a strangled cluck, but her grip didn't slacken. Pevan shrugged off the lingering dizziness and turned her eyes to the sky as they rose toward it from the paved patch behind the Webberat house.

Sunlight blazed off the high, white clouds. Pevan resisted the urge to reach out for them, instead shielding her eyes and peering sunward. The back of her mind marked off the seconds; five to the peak of their flight, five on the way back down. She felt the gentle brush of Jashi's Warding reaching out on three. On four, she spotted the Wildhawk.

High above them, a gossamer curtain draped lazily over the sky led the eye gracefully to a sinuous, shining body. The whole thing rippled in the high-altitude wind. It didn't so much fly as swim, maybe even just float. Pevan couldn't judge the size of the creature against the blank blue backdrop, but it was a large specimen. High enough to be no threat to the town for now, but there was no telling when it might stoop.

For a moment, a glorious moment that never lost its magic, the two Gifted seemed to float, eyes on the deadly, shimmering angel above them. With the air almost still, Pevan didn't have to raise her voice for Jashi to hear. "Range?"

"Not even close." The other woman's voice came back breathy, exhilaration mixing with her fear. Leaving Kos behind had been the right choice; he'd have been too excited, not nearly afraid enough. Jashi would stop Pevan taking too many risks.

Her internal count reached six as she shifted her weight against Jashi, letting the resistance of the air they fell into turn them head downwards. Already, she reached out towards the hollow tower in the old city, tying it through her brain to the ground beneath them. The Gateway began to snap into place, but she held back, balancing her Gift against First-Realm logic until she was sure she had the spot exactly beneath them.

She let it open just on the cusp of eight while the air began to harden, forcing her eyes closed. Well, she didn't need them now. The Gateway took her, and Pevan heard as much as felt the pressure change as they passed from ground level to the tower. She wrapped her free arm around Jashi's waist, burying her face in the other woman's shoulder, narrowing them to a more streamlined profile.

Pevan released the Gateway behind - above - them and immediately spun another in its place, the other end on the ground below. It opened before her count reached eleven, while the wind tore at her clothes, punctuating the rushing in her ears with the snapping sound of her skirt flapping. They passed through just short of thirteen, still accelerating. Pevan resisted the temptation to let her mouth be dragged open.

She had less than a second and a half to realign her Gateway and get them back to the Wildhawk. She placed the other end of the Gate by the Webberats', though she knew she could get closer to the Wildhawk than that. One thing at a time. The corners of her eyes cooled where tears squeezed out between her tight-shut lids. The Gateway opened with a fraction of a second to spare, tight on the margin as ever.

The switch in gravity as the two women burst out of the ground was no worse for the greater speed, but repetition gave the wave of nausea greater punch. Small chance of actually throwing up; for the instant of transition Pevan could feel the contents of her stomach forced hard towards her feet, enough to make her regret the extra sandwich at lunch. She pulled her wits and breath back together, picking up and resetting her lapsed count. Eighteen seconds this time, nine up and nine back down.

By five, it was safe - more or less - to open her eyes. Air swiped the moisture from them instantly, left her blinking, but she picked out the Wildhawk more quickly this time. They hurtled upward, Jashi's Warding racing ahead. This time as they approached the peak of their arc, almost four times as high as their first attempt, Pevan saw the Wilder's scintillant wing twist as the Warding washed over it.

The snake-like body rolled back over itself, away from Jashi's bubble, turning East. The sky itself seemed to ring with the creature's trumpeting challenge as it flowed around and began to descend. Pevan's count hit nine, and their moment of hanging motionlessness seemed a breath held by the world itself. Would the Wildhawk stoop?

She needed to turn their heads down before the fall began in earnest, which took away the option of waiting to see what the Wilder would do. Pevan led the turn again, trying to guess where the creature would be in another eighteen seconds. Federas spread beneath her, clearer and more accurate than any map. Her next Gateway moved them a hundred yards up the street, right to the south-eastern corner of the town.

The guess held good. The two women speared upward almost directly underneath the Wildhawk. The creature had twisted into a lazy descent, far from a full dive but enough to be a warning. Its wings had narrowed to faint lines of glitter along its flanks, a spray of membrane fluttering in its wake. For a moment, Pevan got the distinct impression the Wildhawk pulled the sky down behind it.

Jashi pushed her Warding ahead of them and again Pevan could watch as the Wildhawk slammed into it. No mistaking the greater force of the collision this time; no lazy roll from the Wilder. Instead, the thing's body spasmed, its shining wings snapping open as it trumpeted again. Pevan felt Jashi shudder as the Second-Realm part of the creature's scream brushed over them. The sound pressed on her brain, clouded her vision, dizzied her for an instant.

Then the sensation vanished, leaving only the cold fingers of the wind, stinging eyes, and the realisation, as they rose towards it, that the Wildhawk was even bigger than she'd thought. Her count reached seven. The Wildhawk seemed a net, trapping them against the ground. Or holding the whole sky up. It had levelled out, drifting south-east, but the way its body still writhed warned of just how riled it still was.

Eight. How close was it? What would happen if she'd misjudged, and they ran into its wings? Or, God forbid, it decided to roll over and they were caught up in it? Pevan counted nine, resisting the urge to reach out a hand, to see if she could touch the Wildhawk.

"Ground us." Jashi's voice held steady despite the hundreds of feet of air between them and the ground. Technically, it was Pevan's call to bring the jumping to an end, but the Warder was right. If the Wildhawk didn't turn back towards Federas, there was nothing more they could do. She gritted her teeth as she turned them over for the descent again. Fat chance the Wilder would leave the town alone, but it wasn't worth risking the peace to pre-empt it.

Still, it had turned away more easily than expected. Easily enough that stopping was going to be the hard part of this jump. Pevan tightened her grip on Jashi, burrowing tightly against the other woman, pressing into her shoulder for the sense of comfort. It was a psychological trick; she'd feel safer, and so concentrate harder.

Her count passed ten. The first Gate was easy, snapping into place beneath them, opening in the floor of the hollow tower block. That would take care of the first half of their deceleration. Eleven. Holding the open Gateway tightly with her mind, Pevan thought her way into an image of the North Field barn. It was easy to spin a Gateway between the floor and ceiling; much harder to balance it shy of slipping into place and obliterating the Gate they were currently falling towards.

Thirteen. Holding the unopened Gateway felt like trying to hang on to a wet bar of soap. She reached for another, connecting the ceiling of the tower to the same spot on the floor of the barn. As soon as the two Gates touched, end-to-end, they came alive. Pevan counted off fourteen, barely registering the sting of the wind as her brain wrestled with the snake of Second-Realm power the proto-Gateways had become.

By the time she got a firm hold, her awareness drawn in tightly to bear down on her writhing Gift, she was up to sixteen. Just enough time to settle her thoughts and focus. The ground swallowed them, spitting them out with the same lurch of the guts, hurling them up the tower. Pevan killed the extant Gateway, ripped the two squirming Gates-to-be apart and slammed the second into place.

It took less than two seconds to fly the whole height of the tower, but the crescendo of adrenaline slowed it down, prickled her to distraction with unnecessary sensations, sensations she couldn't afford; the wrinkle in Jashi's dress that was going to leave an angry red line across her cheek, the ever-so-slight tingle of pinched circulation where the other woman's arm pressed tight against hers.

The Gate in the ceiling delivered them into a twelve-foot-high room at close to a hundred miles an hour. Pevan folded her mind back over itself, flicking from the old Gateway to the one she needed. It was more like releasing a caught bird than imposing her will on the world, the Gates leaping from her mind into the ceiling-and-floor positions that gave them infinite height to slow down into.

The first second or two was a blur as the barn streaked by, over and over again, but gravity took hold soon enough. Pevan got one last brush with the miracle as they topped out, hanging close to the barn's roof, the sense of danger flickering for a moment. She banished the Gateway beneath them, pushing Jashi away so that they wouldn't tangle as their boots hit the packed dirt of the floor.

Even with that precaution, Pevan's landing was flat-footed and clumsy enough to make her hiss. She flexed her ankle and shot Jashi a rueful glance.

"You alright?" The Warder sounded shaken, breathless.

Pevan nodded, spun up a Gateway back to the South side of town and waved at it. "What do you bet it's turned back for the town already?"

"If it has, Kos can do the next jump." Jashi's frown was at least part humour, Pevan was sure. She followed the other woman out of the gloomy barn, blinking against the sunshine. Jashi looked skyward straight away, and lasted all of half a second before she looked back down, pressing a hand to her brow and wincing.

Taking it slower, Pevan let her eyes adjust before turning them upward. Overhead, there was nothing but deep blue and a sprinkling of white. The Wildhawk had kept its south-eastern course, already little more than a black thread dropping towards the horizon. Pevan left Jashi with a curt instruction to keep an eye on it and opened a Gateway beneath her own feet. Her call of “’Ware the Gate!’ drew a yelp of surprise from Kos, but she dropped through anyway.

He caught her arm to steady her as she came through; courtesy she didn’t need, but she wouldn’t fault him for it. Behind him, the door stood open, and a metallic glint from within reassured her the Stable Rods were still in place. She barrelled past and into the Hall, met Barrit's eyes. He flinched, glanced away.

"Pevan!" Notia didn't need to shout, but her voice rang back from the roof of the Hall, harshly reminiscent of a pick breaking stone. When Pevan didn't stop, the other woman scuttled up alongside, fell into an uneven, sideways walk to keep pace. "Who gave you authority to go into action without me?"

"It's my job to run defensive operations." Pevan couldn't help the curt tone clipping her words. She kept her face forwards, fixed on the door to the cell, trying to ignore Notia.

"You still should have waited for me."

"You should have got here faster." Pevan grabbed the door-handle, her speed almost carrying her shoulder-first into the frame. She checked her stride just a little too late to spare the wrench to her wrist, but barely slowed as the door swung open, banging hard against the wall behind. The stairs were narrow enough to keep Notia behind her, and she took them two at a time.

The Four Knot - in training - yelped as she stumbled, but didn't relent. "Don't talk to me like that. I'm in charge here!"

"Not during operations." Pevan rounded the corner, hand out to steady herself against the back wall, and plunged down the last steps. "Will you please just let me get on with my job?"

The cell stood empty, Dagdan resting his head against one of the bars. He turned as Pevan and Notia entered, little of his usual cheer in evidence. His years seemed to have reclaimed him.

Before Notia could make another grab for the conversation, Pevan said, "What did you see?"

"Not much. Mostly sky."

"Show me." She stepped closer to him, dimly aware of Notia hovering behind her, radiating pique in what she probably thought was an imitation of Dora's intensity. The Witness raised his hand, palm up. The bubble of his Witnessing seemed stronger than Van Raighan's, less cowed by the Stable Rods' proximity. But then, Van Raighan's hadn't actually been a Witnessing. Couldn't have been.

In Dagdan's bubble, the burst of colour resolved quickly into the familiar outline of the cell. Dagdan must have waited more or less where he'd been standing when they arrived, right up against the bars; Van Raighan filled his view, standing in the middle of the cell until, almost too fast to follow, a Gateway opened under his feet and swallowed him. Dagdan looked down to see the Gate already closing.

"Sorry I couldn't get any more than that." Dagdan held the Witnessing frozen, the last hint of the Gateway caught inches from vanishing. "It happened so quickly... I thought I'd have more time."

Pevan spoke quickly, before Notia could lay into him. "Don't worry about it. Back it up a bit, please?"

Inside the bubble, the image blurred as the Gateway spiralled open again. Van Raighan's head appeared in the aperture, eyes wide, mouth open in a shout of alarm. Pevan stuck up a hand, and Dagdan held the image. Behind Van Raighan, the sky shone blue; the back wall of the cell bathed in a shaft of sunlight cut to the thief's silhouette.

The only sign of the Wilder responsible for the Gate was the glimpse of a forearm and wrist, too long and slender to be human, reaching towards where Van Raighan's legs would be. They weren't making any of the obvious mistakes, leaving landmarks Pevan could use to locate the other end of the Gateway.

"How long since this happened?" She hadn't been out of the cell for more than five minutes. Focussing on the easy, First-Realm connection between the Witnessing and the room they stood in, she could feel the ruffled edges of Realmspace where the Gateway had been.

"A minute thirty-eight." Delivering the clipped, exact answer seemed to rally Dagdan's spirits a little. In her head, Pevan took up the count; nine, forty, one, two...

She could feel the shape of the Gateway, the length and width of the oval that had fitted so neatly between the cot and the bars. Grunting as she focussed, stretching out with her mind between those bars and into the cell, she resisted the urge to reach out a hand as well. Pevan closed her eyes, holding the image from Dagdan's Witnessing in her mind, her speech slowing as she concentrated. "Everyone be... quiet. I can... follow, but need to... think hard."

For a wonder, Notia did as bidden. Pevan pushed the Four Knot from her mind, quickly followed by Dagdan. The world came down to the image of Van Raighan's sleek, lean face disappearing into a circle of sky and the unseen but instinctively known outline of the Gate's residue.

Any number of places for miles around could have been under that patch of open, blue sky, but only one of those places held the afterimage of this Gate's twin. She checked, first, to see if the Wilder had gotten lazy and aligned both Gates the same way around; no such luck. They were too clever for that. How had they known when she was out of the way?

In all likelihood, they'd just watched for the first sign of humans attacking the Wildhawk, which meant being somewhere with line of sight to the town. On the hills around the Federas valley? Nothing in Dagdan's Witnessing showed the kind of strain that came from Gifts employed close to a Sherim, so they were probably somewhere to the North.

Pevan's hold on the remnants of the Gateway started to slip as she pondered the location of the other end. She rode the panicked mental grab down, then relaxed and slipped her mind back around the disturbed patch of floor. Rather than try to figure out the alignment of the Gate's other end by turning it on the spot, she spun the world around herself in a dizzying wash of power, rushing out to the shores of her brain and receding only slowly.

The slightest hitch as the Gate met the orientation of its twin let her fix the whole arrangement in place, and for a second the world bent to her imagination, the cell and the building above it rotating in place through seventy or eighty degrees. Dimly, Pevan heard Dagdan's queasy gulp. Stresses wound up by the outright violation of physics gushed to ground themselves down the path of least resistance; the tunnel cut through Realmspace by the fading Gateway.

The whole structure lit up like alcohol catching fire, and Pevan struck, her own Gateway a whirlpool spinning down through the fabric of the world, drilling through to a mossy patch on a ridge almost eight miles away. As it opened, the Gateway became a hot wire of pain through her brain, right at the limit of what she could hold. She reeled, grabbing one of the bars to steady herself.

There was no way she could hold it open for long. Desperately, she wrapped her mind around the sense of the Gateway's other end, feeling the hill, committing it to memory. Before fatigue tore her skull apart, she let the Gate go, gasping with relief, grasping for the slippery image of the far side. The pain dropped from a fire to a low, throbbing ache, warning Pevan just how close to her limit that single Gateway had taken her.

Behind her, Notia said, "What happened? Where'd the Gateway go?" Her tone made it an accusation.

"Shut up and let me concentrate." Pevan filed the memory of her destination away in a quiet corner of the back of her mind where Notia's pestering couldn't dislodge it. On a good day, she'd be able to make the eight-mile trip in only two Gates, but logic fatigue sent a steam-hammer pound through her head at the mere thought. Better to use three, maybe even four stages. She said, "Dagdan, with me," and dropped through a short Gate to the North side of town.

The Witness followed without question. Unfortunately, so did Notia. Pevan resisted the urge to let the Gate close with the woman still inside.

Notia said, "Hold on, Pevan, what-" and cut off sharply, her teeth clicking together, as Pevan dropped through another Gateway, moving North again, testing her impaired range. She emerged, Notia hard on her heels, into a sharp blast of wind, exposed on the brow two shallow valleys over from the old city.

Dagdan followed through, and Pevan made another jump, bringing them out within striking distance of their destination. Trees dotted the dell before them, giving way to gorse, heather and low shrubs in the bottom where a hidden stream burbled. The far slope rose markedly higher than their current vantage, steep and broken with patches of bare grey-brown limestone, ugly, lumpen scabs on the landscape.

Somewhere on the far side of the vale beyond that grim scarp, Van Raighan fled with his secrets. Notia was saying something, but Pevan blocked her out, reached for the nook at the back of her mind where she'd stored the memory of the previous gate. She cringed at the throb of her head as she spun the final Gate in the sequence, but it opened in the untamed grass at their feet without a hitch.

She hesitated, expecting Van Raighan's Wilder ally to be waiting in ambush, but no attack came. Might the Wilder have a reason to wait, get her isolated? If it was powerful enough to stretch a Gateway across eight miles of the First Realm, her Gate would pose it no obstacle at all. On the other hand, if she went through first and got hit, she might lose the Gate, stranding her with the Wilder, and Dagdan and Notia five miles from a town that might still be under attack from the Wildhawk.

Better to play it safe. "Dagdan, take a look."

The Witness lay down beside the Gate and tucked his chin around the edge. After a moment lying still, he pulled himself through, rolling around the lip of the opening in a slide that looked oddly like falling out of bed. At least, it did until gravity on the far side of the Gateway pulled Dagdan back against the ground, upside-down relative to Pevan.

"All clear." Inverse gravity did nothing to muffle Dagdan's call; he was confident in his judgement, and far too experienced to be confident without total certainty. And he'd spoken quickly enough that there hadn't been time for any Wilder to Coerce him into speaking. Where was Van Raighan's ally? Why not cover the thief's escape?

Pevan took a deep breath and dived head-first into the Gate. It wouldn't help much, but moving faster would make her a harder target. Through the most vulnerable part of the jump, as gravity netted her plunge and hung her for a second in mid-air, she screwed her eyes shut and bowed her head to her chest, arms ahead of her for futile protection. Navigating purely by the feel of the Gate beneath her, she realised Notia had hesitated, and seized the moment to let the Gate snap shut.

The Four Knot would be furious when Pevan collected her again, but at least Pevan had a moment for concentration. Her boots thumped into a carpet of moss coating a slab of stone almost broad and flat enough to be a table, except that it rose less than a foot out of the thick grass around it. She took a few seconds' thought to properly memorise the place; a convenient spot for a Gate next time she needed to travel North in a hurry.

Grass rippled up and down the hillside, soft footing beneath warning that the valley bottom would be marshy. The wind was stiffer here, smelling of a raw, dry cold; the hill was too exposed for much in the way of flowers this early in spring. Clouds scudded across the sky, thicker than back above the town.

"Take a look at this, Pev." Dagdan had walked a little way up towards the crest of the hill, studying the grass.

It wasn't hard to spot what had earned his attention. The grass was bent flat in clumps, green stems silvered by moisture, reflecting daylight made grey by the cloud cover. Footprints, spaced wide. It could just have been the Wilder, long-legged and striding as it arrived for the rescue. But why not arrive by Gate? Or, if the trail was left by someone leaving, why not leave by Gate as well? Rel would have been able to tell.

"What do you think?" Dagdan looked up, his cheery face awkwardly out-of-place on the dreary slope. "Van Raighan?"

"Probably whoever came for him." Pevan thought for a moment. "I'll follow it up once we know the town's safe."

Which meant collecting Notia. Steeling herself, pressing a hand to her brow as if she could push the headache out through the back of her head, she opened a Gateway back to the hill where they'd left the other woman and dropped through. A yelp of surprise answered her feet as they narrowly missed delivering a much-needed kick to the trainee Four Knot's backside.

Pevan used the moment while the Four Knot recovered to get herself upright and steal the first word. "Come on, we need to get back to town." Dagdan emerged from the Gate and she let it close beneath him, spinning open the next one in sequence as fast as she could.

Notia rallied too quickly, though. "What the hell do you think you're playing at, Pevan? You had no right to strand me here!"

"You're not stranded." Pevan waved a hand at the Gate. "Get going."

"Now hang on, missy." It was hard not to blink as Notia waved a finger in her face, almost sticking it up her nose. "I am your Four Knot. We need to have a long talk about your discipline."

Pevan fought down outrage, snapped her gaping mouth shut. She drew strength from Dagdan's quiet obedience as he dropped gracefully through the Gate. "Great. We can do exactly that just as soon as we know the town is safe and Van Raighan's back in custody."

Turning away from the other woman, she stepped off the edge of her Gateway, pulling her knees up to her chin in the drop so that she spun heels-over-head, backwards, to land on the far side. It was cheap showing off, but she felt better at the end of it, sharing a quick, snatched grin with Dagdan. She managed to get her face straight again as Notia emerged from the Gate's mouth in a flurry of skirts and irritation.

Pevan's lip curled as she realised the other woman had jumped expecting Pevan to close the Gate beneath her, not bothering to choose an arc that would bring her to safe ground of her own accord. They certainly would need to have a chat about discipline. Still, there was no time for the horseplay of letting the Four Knot fall back through again. She snapped the Gate shut, and even then Notia stumbled on landing.

The Gate back to town was easier than the rest of the trip. Her head barely throbbed. She brought them out in front of the Warding Hall, hopping neatly out of the way as Dagdan followed. Barrit and Kos were waiting for them, leaning on the wall by the door to the Hall, at ease. The two men straightened as she appeared, though Barrit's face lost its cheery cast when he spotted the look on Notia's face.

"Situation?" Pevan kept her voice terse, hoping to stave off Notia's inevitable tirade.

"All clear." Kos smiled. "Jashi's watching the hawk back to the hill-top, but she sent Hullen down here saying it's shown no sign of turning."

"Good. The Stable Rods?"

Kos glanced over his shoulder at the hall; she could almost see the shiver run through him as he remembered what he'd been placed to watch. Barrit showed no such unease, crossing in a few brisk steps to the door and looking inside. "Still there." He turned back, a hint of reproach in his eyes. "I did check when Hullen appeared, but if they were going to filch the Rods, they'd have done it when we were at our most distracted, I'm sure."

Pevan treated him to a quick nod. "Good. Kos, run and help Jashi. I'm going after Van Raighan."

"Hold on a minute." Notia was trying to sound like Dora, but the attempt just left her sounding nasal, a hornet where Dora would have been a hawk. "You'll be needed with the Wildhawk. You can't run off and abandon the town like this."

"The Wildhawk is no danger." Pevan fought back the urge to scream at Notia. Kos hovered at the edge of vision, poised on the cusp of running. Defying a direct order because of the would-be Four Knot's meddling. "The Wilder that can make an eight-mile Gateway into the Warding Hall itself, that's a danger, and that's what was helping Van Raighan. Never mind that he's at large again, and his trail is going cold." She turned to Kos. "What are you waiting for? Move!"

He did so, without even an apologetic look for either woman. Pevan spun up the first Gateway, its gyre rippling in time with her headache. As it burst open behind her feet, Notia's eyes widened. "Don't you dare, Pevan. I order you to stay!"

"You don't have the authority."

"We'll see what the Sherriff has to say about that." Notia folded her arms. "Don't make me do this."

A twinge ran through Pevan's gut. Pollack should take her side, but he was so used to being brow-beaten by Federas' Four Knot. Would he remember Notia was only a trainee? "The Sherriff knows the law." She glanced at Barrit and Dagdan, received cautious nods in return. "I'll only be gone as long as it takes to find some definite hint where Van Raighan's headed. An hour, I hope."

"Don't think that we'll welcome you back." Notia held her voice steady and quiet, almost managing to be menacing, but the petulant set of her eyes, the twist of her lip, betrayed her.

"We'll see about that." Pevan let herself fall backward into the Gateway. Maybe Notia really would go to the Sherriff. Maybe Pollack would have the sense to shut her up until someone could come and take her in hand, or Dora got back.

* * *
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