Saturday, 23 February 2013

The Second Realm 4.3: Did You Never Dream of Flying?

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The Rabbit Hole

3. Did You Never Dream of Flying?

Atla jumped back from the Gateway as it snapped open, an oval puddle of sky suddenly replacing the paving just in front of him. The movement drew puzzled looks from Pevan and Chag, and he felt heat rush into his cheeks. It was hard not to feel like an idiot child in front of Pevan's frown. Probably all northern Gifted were that intense.

She waved him towards the Gate, and he stumbled, almost complying on reflex. His blush got so hot that it sent shivers crawling through him, but he made himself face her. "I... uh, I don't..."

"You've never used a Gate before?" She rolled her eyes, and Atla's spirit sank into the pit of his guts.

"I have, but, uh, not for a while." They were both glaring at him. If anything, Van Raighan seemed more disappointed than Pevan. The thief had recovered disconcertingly quickly since they'd found him, semi-conscious in the basement of a ruin by the shorefront, though he still looked haggard and gnomish. Atla cringed. "I'm sorry."

"Not your fault, kiddo." Pevan punched Chag on the arm, not hard enough for the little man to object. To him, she said, "Wipe that look off your face. Have you ever worked with a Guide before? Or a Clearseer, for that matter?"

The thief shot her a sullen look. "Kind of. Not much, I guess."

"Right." Pevan's tone hadn't lost its sharp edge, but Atla thought he could hear a bit of lightness creeping in underneath it. "Well since you're so knowledgeable, you get through and be ready to catch the poor boy." She turned to Atla, face softening. "You know what to do, right? Just lean through and let Chag worry about getting you straight."

Atla managed to nod as Van Raighan dropped into the Gate, rolling half-way down so he'd be the right way up on the far side. The movement seemed to come naturally to him. Atla's throat tightened.

Pevan clapped him on the arm. "Go on. Just go for it. Chag's brother was a Gatemaker, he knows his stuff."

He swallowed, the motion painful and cold, and walked round to stand at one end of the Gate. The sky above it was blue, patched with clouds that were more grey and drab than white and fluffy. Van Raighan looked up at him from a wide-legged pose along one side of the opening, and some trick of perspective made him seem squashed, his head only a few inches beyond his knees. Atla gave up squinting to try to make sense of the illusion, and started to lean forwards.

He held his knees straight, reaching down with one arm until his weight began to topple into the Gateway. Chag reached up toward him, an up that became down as he let his knees give out and his head plunged through the surface. There was no sensation as the Gate swallowed him.

Then there was the wrench on his arm as Chag caught his wrist and heaved, and the clumsy scrabble of feet that got him round to standing. He swayed once, leaning on the thief for balance, then managed to step away from the Gate. Clear and safe, he bent double, panting. By the time he'd straightened up, Pevan was standing by Van Raighan and the Gateway was gone.

They were on the hilltop above Vessit, with the old city sprawling before them. From the view, you'd hardly imagine that yesterday the far side of the bay had been sticking up at close to vertical. The clues were there, though - the battered shapes of the new town, the lack of trawlers out beyond the bay's mouth. This high up, the wind was vicious, and he had to grab at the tie of his makeshift cloak to stop it slipping.

"The nearest Sherim's the one in the Tuani, right?" Pevan asked.

Atla nodded.

"Okay, we've got a lot of ground to cover. Let's get moving." For a moment, he thought she meant they'd walk, but then she turned and waved a new Gate into being at her feet.

Van Raighan turned to face him. "Should I take that?" He gestured at the half-loaf, all that was left of their meagre lunch, now slowly being squashed in the crook of Atla's arm.

"Absolutely not." This time, there was definitely mirth in Pevan's tart tone. "You'll nibble it 'til there's nothing left. Get moving."

The thief shot her a look, but dropped through the Gate anyway. Atla followed, a little less clumsily this time. The Gateway brought them out in the lee of a small wood, alive with birdsong, oddly incongruous with the devastated town on the other side of the hill. Pevan closed her Gate before her boots had even struck turf, and the next blinked open right on its heels.

They fell into a rhythm as they headed East, broken by Pevan's bantering at Van Raighan. Both of them occasionally paused to offer Atla some tip or pointer on smoothing out his Gating technique, and before long he was jumping through unaided. If he lacked the practiced grace of the others, at least he didn't have to deal with the hot, shameful feeling of slowing them down.

Not that he didn't make occasional mistakes. After a stumbled landing toppled him back into the Gate to zig-zag back and forth between gravities, Pevan had to drag him free. She called Chag back through while Atla lay down and tried to settle his churning stomach. The thief muttered something to her and she thumped him, then offered Atla the canteen she'd guarded jealously since Vessit.

He took a sip, rinsed his mouth and spat on the grass. It seemed to help. She helped him up, waved away his mumbled apology. "Everyone makes mistakes. Don't let Chag get to you."

"I'm not. I mean, uh-" He bit his lip. "You must find it annoying to have to wait for me. I should be better than this."

"That's why you're training, dummy." She grinned and clapped him on the shoulder.

"Training? He's not qualified?" Van Raighan scowled as if someone had just kicked him in the shins.

Pevan's face darkened. "If I was in a position to be picky about who I work with, neither of you would be here. Now get moving." She waved her hand, and Chag yelped as the Gate opened right underneath his feet. Pevan's scowl lasted only a fraction of a second past the thief's departure, and then she shot Atla a smirk. "Like I said, don't let him get to you. He's as bad as Rel sometimes."

Atla jumped through, barely noticing the twist in his stomach as the Gate flipped gravity upside down. Van Raighan looked a lot older than Pevan, his face lined and almost shrivelled, but it was hard to believe it from the way she treated him.

The landscape grew steeper and the wind colder as the afternoon wore on. Here and there, he saw signs of the quake; downed trees, mainly, and one or two old pre-crash buildings that had crumbled. For the most part, though, the Realm looked untouched. Sheep grazed on the rolling slopes, and there were already flowers in many of the hedgerows and copses.

Progress slowed as they ascended the foothills of the Tuani and entered pine forest too thick for Pevan to sight through; she made them walk and scramble the rest of the way. It was dark under the trees, but enough of the cold late afternoon sunlight got through that, after a fashion, it felt comfortable and sheltered. Bluebells nestled in the crooks of tree roots, and if they couldn't see the squirrels and other creatures that were busy at work, they could hear them.

They passed a pine that had fallen in the quake, but been caught half-way down in the branches of its neighbour, so that it put Atla in mind of a man helping a drunken friend home. Not long after that, they caught their first glimpse of a fire through the trees.

The first time he saw it, Atla's heart caught in his throat. The Ralbas had lost their house in Vessit because the quake had knocked some of the boards from their roof into the fire. There'd been no obvious signs of a forest fire, but it had been a long time since they'd had a clear view of the slope ahead.

He brought up the possibility, but Pevan, peering into the distance, shook her head. "Aren't animals supposed to flee forest fires? It's probably just hunters camping early."

She had them approach the fire silently and slowly, an instruction that left Chag cursing with a twisted ankle. Pevan told him to get over it, but Atla switched the half-eaten loaf to his other hand and offered the little man a supporting arm. Chag raised an eyebrow, but accepted the help with a gruff "Thanks".

Inwardly, Atla found himself sharing Van Raighan's surprise. There was little of the dreaded, subtle master-criminal in the ungainly sack of bones he found himself supporting. If anything, the thief seemed badly under-nourished. What Atla had initially taken for a wiry build was just fragility. At least it made helping him easier.

Only as they emerged into the clearing where the fire stood did Atla appreciate how late the day had gotten. The sky had turned that stunning shade of deep blue found nowhere else in nature, the tiny points of the first stars glittering overhead. The eastern horizon was dark.

The fire, though, marked no campsite. The clearing was empty, much wider than expected, and on a fairly sharp slope. Above, the dark shape of the first true peak of the Tuani loomed, a jagged triangle chopped out of the sunset. He had to narrow his eyes so that the rest of the view faded almost to black before he could comfortably look at the fire.

It blazed what had to be ten feet high, despite being no wider than an ordinary campfire at its base. The form of it was impossible, a bulge in the middle where the flames seemed to circle and spiral inwards before heading for the sky. At the top, the fire splayed out, tongues of white-orange spraying in every direction.

A memory rose, called up by the bizarre shape. The Sherim Bersh had taken him through in training had been a squat pine, stretched in the middle of its trunk to accommodate a round doorway that he'd been firmly instructed never to open. It looked as if that tree was completely ablaze, its foliage gone already, its ugly trunk and heart about to be consumed.

Had they really come so far? He paused and closed his eyes, reaching down to the well of his Gift. It lay waiting somewhere at the bottom of his mind and, yes, he could feel the surface rippling. He kicked himself for not noticing earlier. Of all the times to let himself down...

Chag whispered, "You alright?"

Atla turned to find the little man frowning at him. The firelight didn't flatter the hollows of his face, but he didn't look annoyed. Raising his voice so Pevan, who was halfway up the slope to the Sherim already, could hear, he said, "The fire is the Sherim. It wasn't like this last time I was here, though."

Pevan stopped, turned back to face them, a dark shape against the firelight. Distance thinned her voice out as she called, "What do you mean, not like this?" Atla flinched as three sword-straight lines of violet light stabbed out from the Gatemaker and vanished into the night somewhere above them.

Wild Power. He'd seen it before, of course, but never so starkly. A chill ran through him that had nothing to do with the night. Pevan must have felt something similar, because she was hurrying back down the slope. Chag extricated himself from Atla's grip and started up to join her, but she waved him back.

When she finally got close enough that her face wasn't silhouetted against the fire, her eyes were fixed wide with worry. She looked to Atla first. "How's your sign language?"

He made the gesture for I can keep up.

She frowned. "Speak, until I tell you otherwise. How's the Sherim different?"

"It used to be a tree. Same shape, but, well, uh, not made of fire."

"Was the Sherim ever very active when you were here before?" Her question came without any of her usual levity, hard and fast.

"I, uh, I don't know. There were a couple of times when it was leaking a lot of Wild Power. Uh, I don't know how they would measure up." Atla pulled his cloak tighter around himself.

"And there was no sign of any fire then? No heat from the tree?"

Atla shook his head, looking away at the darkness and trying to remember. Certainly, the last time Bersh had brought him here, when they'd spent most of the time signing to each other rather than talking, it had been freezing cold the whole time. There'd been one morning that they'd had to crack ice off the tent flap before they could get out.

"Some effect of the Realmquake, you think?" Chag's jaw was set, and the firelight made him look sickly.

"Obviously." Pevan glanced over her shoulder at the fire. "The question is whether it will go back to normal, or if this is the new normal. And whether we can afford to wait before trying to cross it."

A gust of wind blew Chag's hair into his face as he turned to Atla. "I don't suppose you can cross the Sherim like this?"

"The route I know means climbing the tree." He bit his lip. "Doesn't seem like a good idea."

"I wouldn't let you try it anyway." Pevan glared at him. "What's the next nearest Sherim any of us know? I doubt it's going to be Federas'."

"Tendullor's tied to the Gorhilt Sherim," Chag offered with a shrug. "A couple of hundred miles South of here."

"Lefal, too." Atla hadn't even thought about that. The thief really was a neighbour, after a fashion.

He shot Atla a frown that said he might be feeling more or less the same thing. "It's been a while since I was home, but I trained at Yolan, so I learned the Gorhilt Sherim pretty well. Between us we can probably manage it safely." Something in his voice sent a shiver of unease through Atla. How well did he remember the Sherim at Gorhilt? His Gift would keep him pretty safe, but could he really lead the other two?

"That's our best bet, then." Pevan's tone gave no grace for his uncertainty. Again, she glanced uphill. "We'll eat and sleep here. Might as well make use of the fire."

Atla swallowed, ice dripping into his gut. "Is that safe?"

"Fair question." She gave him a grim smile. "Call it a calculated risk. A Wilder coming through is either going to have a problem with the fire or take a long time to adjust itself to our logic, in which case you should feel it. You're not a sleepwalker, are you?"

Mutely, he shook his head.

"We'll keep our distance, don't worry. But it'll be good to feel a little warmth again, right?" She smiled. "Do you want to eat here in the dark, where we can talk, or up in the warm?"

He looked from Pevan to Chag and back again. Both were huddling under their cloaks, and he realised he had his shoulders curled tight too, in a futile attempt to keep a little more warmth in. "Uh... I vote up there."

Chag nodded and started to move, but Pevan grabbed his arm. She turned a diamond-hard glare on them both. "Absolutely no talking past this point. None. Clear? If you need attention, snap your fingers. If you need to cough, don't cover your mouth, and make sure you look away. Until we know just how sensitive the Sherim is, take no risks at all."

Atla glanced at Chag, but his eyes were fixed on Pevan.

Again, she asked, "Am I clear?"

They nodded in unison.

Pevan returned the nod, slowly. "Okay. Atla, break up the bread. Everyone gets part of the stale end. I'll take first watch. Chag second. Let's get warm."

She turned and began to walk up towards the fire. Something in the way she leaned forward made her look very tired indeed. When Atla stepped after her, he found aches in his knees that probably mirrored her condition. It was hard to resist the urge to groan.

He busied himself tearing a hunk off the end of the loaf. The softness really had gone out of it, and it probably hadn't responded well to being under his arm all afternoon either. When he offered it, Chag took the chunk without protest and bit in straight away. He gave no sign of enthusiasm, but he didn't spit it out either.

Pevan took her piece with better grace, managing to find a smile when Atla tapped her on the shoulder to hand it over. He bit into his own share and was pleasantly surprised. It was dry, sure, and dull, but only the very end had that prickly, wooden feel of staleness.

Up close, the fire was brighter than could possibly be natural, and his eyes stung just to look at it. Even twenty feet away, he could feel the heat. A ring of charred ground suggested that it might well have been even hotter the day before.

They ate standing up, Pevan passing the canteen round a couple of times, but watching like a hawk for any greed. When they were done, she pointed to two patches of grass just inside the fire's bubble of warmth. Unable to think of any appropriate sign to respond with, Atla lay down where she pointed, his back to the fire.

The grass was thick - probably nothing in the forest wanted to graze, particularly this close to a Sherim. For a moment, he craned over his shoulder for a worried look at the fire, but it wasn't like he could do anything about it. He turned back to see Pevan standing at attention, staring downhill, then closed his eyes.

His dream shook apart and he woke with a heart-slamming shock, visions of thrashing tower blocks and fire smothering reason for a moment. He tried to roll to his feet and struck something. It fought back, kicking him in the shins as it toppled. The grunt as it fell was a human sound, though, and that brought Atla back to himself.

He managed to sit up, despite Chag's legs being tangled with his own. The little man pulled himself clear and glared at Atla. He pointed a finger at Atla's chest, then raised his hand to frame his eye. Your watch.

Atla nodded, returned the sign for sorry. Chag waved a hand in dismissal, then lay back down, rolled over, and seemed to go straight to sleep. Atla pushed to his feet, glad beyond belief that the fire was still burning. His bladder protested, but the treeline seemed a long way off in the dark.

The slope gave him his bearings. The sun had gone down behind the mountain, and there was only darkness now in that direction, but looking the other way, toward Vessit, the horizon was a hazy grey blur. Above it, midnight was draining from the sky, leaving watery silver and the faint promise of some yellow.

As the rush of adrenaline from his waking faded, Atla's bladder demanded attention more firmly. He walked up to the trees behind the Sherim - they were closer than anywhere else, even though it meant giving up line of site to Pevan and Chag for a moment - and relieved himself. Some whisper of wind in the forest set a tingle in the middle of his back as he turned to go back to the fire.

Instead of looking round, he plumbed his Gift. The Sherim loomed large, of course, making waves so big that they almost felt like tides, but if there was a Wilder out there besides, he couldn't feel it. He glanced back, then hurried down to the others.

Unsure what to do about keeping watch, he checked Chag and Pevan were alright. Chag was somehow managing to sleep despite facing the fire, his face bathed in its glare. Pevan lay on her back, one arm out from under her blanket, snoring quietly. Not so quietly that the fire's low roar could drown it out, mind. Atla hesitated for a moment over tucking her arm back in, but couldn't see a way of doing it that didn't risk waking her. Heaven alone knew what she'd make of it if she woke up to him interfering with her in any way.

He made a couple of slow circuits around the fire, changing direction when his outer side started to feel heat-deprived. Was the sky brighter? He could make out a few faint chirps coming from the forest, at least.

There was a boot-print in the ash about a third of the way around the fire from where the others were sleeping. Right beside the fire, so close that anyone standing there would probably have burst into flames immediately. It couldn't have been there before the fire - it was far too clear for that, and definitely a print in the ash, not the earth beneath. He tried to get closer, but the glare and the heat were so intense that he had to close his eyes and look away.

Maybe Pevan would have an explanation. When should he wake them? Not yet, obviously. The early risers among the dawn chorus might be beginning to sing, but the sky overhead was still dark. It took his eyes a long time to blink away the afterimages of the fire while he stood with his back to it, watching the vague silhouette of the mountain.

The sky was almost completely clear, at least to the East. It bled ever so slowly from blue, through a faintly greenish white, towards yellow. Across the lower part of the clearing, morning mist began to shimmer. Atla shuffled his feet and looked down to see them spotted with enough dew that it looked like a short, sharp rain shower must have just passed.

In the trees, the birds got noisier and noisier. Past a certain point, the sound went past beautiful and into raucous, an offence to the morning's stillness. The wind seemed to have died in the night, though the fire was still drawing in air. Though the steady creep of dawn light was already swamping the stars, the glow of the fire seemed undiminished.

Pevan awoke while the sky directly overhead was still closer to midnight than day blue. There was a hot glow on the distant eastern horizon, but even the mountaintop above them wasn't yet catching direct sunlight. The Gatemaker rolled over, muttered once - the sound spiralling skyward like a sycamore seed turned upside down - and sat up.

Atla almost wished her a good morning, then clamped his hand over his mouth to stop himself. Instead, he walked round to stand in front of her and waved.

She responded with a nod, then an Everything alright? gesture.

He gave her a thumbs-up, then offered his hand. She took it and he hauled her upright. Where Chag had been lighter than he looked, Pevan was rather heavier, though from the feel of her grip it was probably all muscle. Her hands were tiny, but when she released him he found himself flexing his fingers and feeling the knuckles pop.

She pressed the canteen into his hands, gestured I'll be right back, and headed for the treeline, her walk stiff. Automatically, Atla took a sip. He managed to keep it to only one, though. The canteen was worryingly light.

Pevan came back, miming drinking. He shook his head, and when she insisted, he had to concentrate to drag up the gesture for already done from his memory. A frown flickered across the Gatemaker's face, but then she smiled and gave him a thumbs-up. She did take the canteen back, though, and helped herself to a swig.

For a moment, they just looked at each other. Probably a good thing the Wild Power in the air precluded casual conversation, since Atla could think of absolutely nothing to say. From the way Pevan tilted her head to one side, the slightest of frowns on her face, she could see his awkwardness. He blushed, then remembered the footprint.

Gesturing for her to follow, he walked around to that side of the fire and knelt where he could point to the print. Pevan knelt facing him, leaned her head close to his to look along his finger. A stray hair tickled his cheek.

She reached towards the fire, thumb and little finger splayed as if trying to measure the print from a distance. A crab-like, shuffled step took her closer, but she pulled her hand back sharply after only a second. She met his eyes, face tense, then stood.

He followed her as she walked back downhill a little way. She pointed to Chag, then signed let him sleep a little longer. Atla nodded, glancing toward the mountain. It was definitely starting to stand out against the sky behind. Pevan sat, staring downhill, and he joined her.

When the sun finally did touch the mountain's peak, it struck a light there that briefly rivalled the Sherim, blazing off what must have been quite thick dew for such a height. They watched the line of the day descend towards them for a while longer, though, before Pevan snapped her fingers to get his attention. She made her way over to Van Raighan's sleeping form and prodded the thief in the back with her foot, right behind his kidney.

He curled up tighter, but gave no other sign of stirring. Pevan glanced over at Atla and rolled her eyes, then tried again, harder. At that, Chag flopped onto his back, a hand over his eyes. Pevan knelt and covered his mouth with a hand, then waved the canteen in front of his face.

Somehow, the strange performance had the desired effect. Chag sat up, took a long slug from the canteen, and rubbed his face. Atla suppressed a twinge of irritation, decided not to ask for a larger ration than the sip he'd awarded himself. Pevan offered Van Raighan a hand up, but he glared at her and got to his feet on his own.

The little man's first action, too, was to scamper off to the forest. Pevan folded her arms and stared after him. From the look in her eyes, it was a good job you had to speak or gesture to trigger Wild Power effects. What had the significance of that little refusal been?

She turned and began to walk slowly down the hill. Every few paces, she paused carefully and muttered something, and her words became clouds of tiny insects. They mingled in the steam of her breath and vanished with it. Tentatively, Atla began to shuffle after her, squinting at her face and trying to work out what she was saying. She didn't gesture for him to stop.

They were almost to the trees at the bottom of the clearing before the Wild Power dissipated enough for speech. After the fire's heat, the morning air was parasitically cold, and Atla became intimately conscious of just how much dew had soaked into his blanket and the bottoms of his trousers.

Pevan took a few more steps, still muttering, then turned and gestured him over. "How are you feeling?"

He waited until he'd caught up to her to answer. "Okay. Cold. Uh, you?" His breath plumed thickly, but there was no sign of a hazard in it. "Are we definitely safe to talk here?"

"For now." She looked up at the Sherim. "Provided no one gets angry or afraid. Well spotted on the footprint, by the way."

"You think it could be Rel's?" He swallowed, watched her face.

Her eyes flicked up to his, then back to the fire. "It could be some byproduct of the change in the Sherim. But yes, it might well be Rel's. At least that would mean he's alive."

"The fire..."

She folded her arms and took a visible deep breath. "If he's alive, it's because Taslin - she's a Gift-Giver - has some use for him. She wouldn't let him take any stupid risks." Something shifted in the Gatemaker's face, and her voice developed a slight hint of pleading. "Beyond that, I'd rather not speculate. Certainly not first thing in the morning."

Atla swallowed again and nodded. Chag had reappeared and was making his way down to them.

"We might as well get going straight away." Pevan was watching Chag approach with a fixed, distant expression. Her voice drifted, quiet and a little vague. "I don't think we're likely to see any change here any time soon, and it's a long way to Gorhilt."

What was her relationship to the thief? Atla couldn't read her face at all. He nodded, but she didn't seem to notice. They stood like that, him looking at her and her staring away up the hill, frozen but for blinking, until Chag was only a few yards away. Then Pevan shook herself and pressed her finger to her lips. Chag stopped dead with a breath half-drawn to speak.

Looking chastened, he shuffled down to join them. Pevan poked him in the arm. "We're word-safe here, but you looked like you were about to speak too soon."

His eyebrows shifted with his eyes as he looked at her, but then he brightened. "So what's the plan?"

"Gorhilt." Pevan, too, perked up at the prospect of action. She fixed them with a quizzical look. "I hope you boys know your geography."

"Down to the plains, basically." Chag pointed roughly South. "The Sherim's on a high hill. Sticks out like a sore thumb. Can we stop somewhere and grab some food?"

Atla's stomach gurgled at the reminder. Pevan frowned, but her lips were twitching, subtly. "Probably a good idea, but when we're closer to Gorhilt. We can ask for better directions than 'over there somewhere' while we're at it." She spared a glance for Atla, ignoring Chag's protest. "You'll be okay 'til lunchtime?"

He nodded, and she opened a Gate just in front of the trees. They descended through the forest in short hops, growing longer when the pines gave way to beeches and birches. Birdsong followed them all the way down, and they even saw a couple of squirrels.

By the time they cleared the woodland, the sun was high enough to offer some warmth. The low, broad sweep of what Atla had grown up thinking of as the northern plains had little to break the wind, but Pevan pushed the range of her Gates until they were making what must have been a mile at a time.

Before long, they began to see occasional farmhouses with smoke rising from chimneys. Pevan forbade a stop for food on the grounds that the farmers would need everything they had at this time of year. Some of the buildings had clearly suffered from the quake, too, slates or shingles replaced by sheets, or stonework crumbling at the corners.

The first time Atla spotted red brick instead of stone, his heart jumped. The sprawling house wasn't thatched, but it was a palpable reminder of home. He was surprised to feel how much of a pang the sight brought him, but he said nothing. Maybe Chag was feeling the same way, but maybe Pevan wouldn't like to think of how far from home she was.

Eventually, they did stop at a village to get food. They left Chag in a low thicket a good half-mile from the huddle of neat little houses, Pevan treating him to a no-nonsense lecture that left the little man's ears bright red. The place was called Hullen, a name Atla vaguely recognised, and its wizened Four Knot insisted they stay for a proper lunch as well as taking a generous pack with them. It was hard to say no, but Pevan managed to hurry them away after less than an hour.

The Four Knot, Yolie, pointed them more West than South and bade them return on their way back North. Pevan matched the old woman's enthusiasm with profuse thanks, but as she dropped through their Gate out of there, Atla caught her rolling her eyes in exasperation. When Chag had the temerity to complain of the delay, she gave him short shrift, insisting he eat on the move.

They crossed the River Anyil within sight of the ford at Doverin, and soon after, the hill that marked the Gorhilt Sherim rose out of the fields ahead. Gorhilt was still a dozen miles away to the South, of course, and the pastures ended in a sturdy wall while the hill was still an unsettling lump on the horizon, but at least they were in sight of it.

Pevan brought them out of a Gateway a hundred yards or so from the foot of the hill and insisted they walk from there. When Chag griped, Atla plumbed his Gift and was surprised to find Pevan entirely justified. Though he could feel only a gentle rippling on the surface, deeper sensitivity told him there were titanic currents stirring below the surface like the wake of a leviathan. Out-voted, Van Raighan gave in.

It was not an unpleasant day for a walk. They tacked back and forth across the steep sides of the hill, scrambling where necessary, letting the sun and the wind balance their temperature. Pevan quickly built up a bit of a lead while Chag struggled. Atla hung back near the little man, worrying that maybe Pevan had been too hard on him.

Above, Pevan slipped and cursed. Atla looked up, opened his mouth and stopped. The Sherim was still up there, and speaking could be dangerous. Pevan gave him a thumbs-up and slid down to rejoin him, halfway between sitting and lying down as she scuffled over the grass. Even splayed right out flat, she managed to slide too far, and had to grab handfuls of grass to catch herself. She stopped just short of ploughing into Chag.

Grinning, she said, "It's pretty lively up there. How's the Sherim work?"

"Um... you sort of walk across the top of the hill and keep walking," Atla ventured. "If you do it right, you don't end up going down the other side." The realisation that he couldn't offer any more than that was like someone reaching a hand into his guts and twisting. He looked to Chag for support.

The little man wiped sweat from his brow and gave a more detailed explanation. Atla listened and tried not to look too relieved when Chag brought up things he'd completely forgotten about, like the precise moment to spin on the spot before starting to mindwalk.

Pevan took it all in, pausing only occasionally to ask about details. Between the three of them, they sorted out the exact process. They shared the canteen around - refilled in Hullen, they had plenty, even with Chag's apparently desperate thirst - and Pevan said, "Alright, no talking until we're in the Second Realm. Once we're there, talk to the scenery, not each other. Atla goes first."

He took a deep breath and nodded. As guide, it was his duty. Chag treated him to a long look that was almost sceptical but somehow still welcome, then nodded too.

A breath of wind ran through him, a reminder that the day was only warm because they'd been climbing. Atla took a last slug from the canteen and handed it to Pevan to tuck into the pack. That done, he began to climb. As he moved past Pevan, she whispered, "No nerves. This is who you are."

He glanced at her, wondering what Chag made of the tone in her voice. Her face was impassive but not unkind, and she nodded him onward with only the faintest of motions. He complied, breathing easier despite the exertion of tackling the hill straight on.

Beneath the surface of his Gift, the leviathan thrashed. He held his peace, glancing back to see the plain laid out behind them. Lefal and Gorhilt were both in the wrong direction, obscured by the bulk of the hill, but he could count half a dozen other villages and towns that he'd probably visited on his journey North, some of them little more than smoke-plumes from this distance.

As the hill started to level out, he felt his Gift beginning to boil. The bubbles shot down his spine, squeezing into every joint until he had to stop and crouch down to work his ribs back into place. He could feel the Wild Power in the air, too, crackling through his shirt and the blanket now rolled and tied to his pack.

He stood, reeling briefly as the Sherim surged to the surface of his Gift, spraying his awareness high and wide. Shaking his head seemed to settle it back to merely turbulent. The hilltop awaited, grass straggling away from the near-perfect dome of bald stone that marked the Sherim itself. Some trick of the light showed him the ripples of distorted Realmspace he would shortly be walking up.

Pevan and Chag clambered up behind him, and he spared them a quick glance. He put a hand to the back of his neck, felt for the writhing monster hiding in the depths there. It came to him, tame but temperamental, and he welcomed it with all the warmth he could muster.

The hilltop became his world, as if a thick, gloomy mist had carpeted the plain. His own steps as he started forwards set ripples through him, up and down his arm and through his heart. A tingle running through the hairs on his arms announced contact with the Sherim's surface.

With careful steps, Atla spun on the spot, swinging his gaze across the sky. Dimmed as if through painted glass, the sun whirled around him, and he let himself stumble into the next step forward. Behind him, Pevan and Chag would be following in step, depending on his Gift for guidance. The hill seemed to be at the centre of the world, endless sea and sky on all sides.

Another step brought him closer to the very top. Already, he knew, there would be a tense gap between the grass and his boot-soles. Not anything anyone could see, but he could feel it caressing the bottom of his feet. Soon there'd be something worth noticing. Anticipation made his Gift coil loops through itself, waves crashing and reverberating through the whole structure.

The Sherim tightened, silent like a patient predator. Atla held his head high, unafraid. This was his duty, his moment. Who you are, Pevan's voice whispered. He almost faltered at the thought of her watching, but no. He held himself. The others were depending on him.

He spun again, right at the peak of the hill. The top of the world. His Gift reared up, triumphant. Somewhere below him, the ground began to fall away. Look, ma, I'm flying. He grinned, held the chuckle inside, felt its light spread out from him anyway. The Sherim's waiting presence sent a shiver through him.

Of course, there was no answer to his joy. Mother had never been terribly impressed with his antics. Tides surged, churning deeper than the bay at Vessit during the quake. He stepped forward again, knowing that the world below had no interest in the miracle he enjoyed. Ahead, the sun fixed itself in his path, light glinting through the level folds of the Sherim.

The leviathan roared in the deep, and he spun again on cue, whirling the sun out of the way. Better to hide his Gift and keep the experience for himself if no-one else wanted it.

No, not quite no-one else. Somewhere behind him were the Gifted he'd given himself over to.

Something passed gently over him and the crashing of his Gift began to subside.

He'd given himself over. How was he left to have anything himself, then?

In defiance of physics, the water flattened still. The Second Realm, in its pure form. Unbound by human concepts.

He skimmed a stone over the surface, watching the ripples mix and clash. After five bounces, the stone turned and came back towards him. Four bounces, and it stung the inside of his finger as it leapt back into his grasp. The perfect circles of the ripples distorted as they ran over shallow patches, knots of consciousness that marked out the basic features of the landscape. Where the ripples met the walls of the Court, they ran up tiny white crests and rebounded.

That much he could do without causing any harm. Gently, he lowered himself into the water, surrendered to the weighty form of his Gift. With the same terrible calm that had menaced him from the dark forest the night before, he slid between the currents, down and down towards where two faint hummocks nestled on the sea bed.

The mud between them was soft and warm, and he let it absorb his form until it was also dry. Then he opened his eyes. He stood amid hills of red-brown clay, in a shallow vale with a stream running through it. Pevan lay on her back on one side of the stream, her foot trailing right to its edge. Chag was curled up tight, knees clasped to his chest, on the other bank, a little further from the water.

Trees rose from the beyond the low hillock that embraced them on one side. Where the vale opened - to a series of similar nooks, stacked end to end down the hillside, he knew - Atla could see for miles across a sweeping autumnal landscape to the dark, jagged outline of the Court. It was close enough, for Second Realm values of 'close', that he could make out the walls as well as the six spires, sticking up into the verdant, flower-strewn sky.

Pevan sat up behind him. He felt her voice scattering turbulence through the Realmspace, well away from him and Chag. An ungifted human would have thought she spoke to thin air, her voice absent and careless, as she said, "I'd forgotten how much easier that was with a Guide. Good work."

He nodded thanks, and knelt to check on Chag. The little man was starting to come round, though Atla could feel his pain like the frantic twitching of a drowning fly, right at the back of his neck. He resisted the urge to scratch at it, and instead squeezed Chag's shoulder.

Small comfort that it must have been, it had the desired effect. Chag uncurled a bit and shook his head, then tensed as a shudder ran through him. Again, Pevan did a masterful job of making herself heard despite speaking to the stream. "Is he alright?"

Atla looked up to see the tail end of the words burrowing into the clay, leaving tiny molehills. He caught Pevan's eye, then looked away to speak. "Just some entry shock, I think. He's coming round." The words shot a bow-wave ripple across his mind, leaving his mouth as a cluster of red-orange darts aimed at the sky.

Pevan pushed to her feet and walked over to crouch beside him. She looked down at Van Raighan, then twisted to stare out toward the Court. "Af haunts him." The words became a tiny bird that flew circles around the glen before disappearing. "I think it got into his mindwalk somehow."

She didn't say more, and Atla didn't press the issue. It was tempting to say the thief deserved it, but Pevan had ordered him to give Van Raighan a chance. And the Second Realm meant anything could be the reason.

At their feet, Van Raighan stirred again. His eyes opened, but his gaze wandered for a while before it focussed on them. Pevan reached down and pressed a hand to his lips until he nodded. Then she stood, and Atla had to scramble backwards out of the way as she hauled the little man to his feet. Wordlessly, she embraced him, and he hung almost limp in her arms.

Atla's jaw clenched. Sometimes, there was an intimacy between the two of them that made no sense at all. At least when they bickered they seemed more like siblings. Pevan pushed Chag away, holding him upright by his upper arms until his face tightened into a glare. Then she grinned briefly, turned to Atla and gestured Find us a route.

He looked over at the Court again, reaching up to feel the lazy ripples across the surface of his Gift. Trying to hold his voice below the water, he said, "Any preference?" The words flew like a bolas, trailing a streamer of rainbows in an arc that carried them well out of the vale, but they didn't trouble his Gift at all.

"We've spent most of the last month in the Second Realm." Pevan's sentence shot past him, bright violet coils straightening as they faded, but she didn't notice the incredulous look he turned on her. "We can probably handle anything, but better if we can avoid conflict. Oh, and Chag doesn't like heights."

Atla didn't need to see the way those last few words danced around each other to hear the playfulness in the detail. He closed his eyes, wondering if he could find a flat path. Most routes to the Court ended with either a climb or a fall; that was just how the Gift-Givers had had to twist Realmspace to get the stability it needed.

His Gift stirred, coasting along beneath the fastest channels in the surface of the Realm. Herds of lower-order Wildren, most dangerous but few predatory, made submerged mountain ranges in the landscape. There was a low path with only a little bit of climbing at the end, but from the way it squeezed among the foothills, it probably wasn't safe.

So much for that idea. He cast out again, found a knotted route that would bring them to within striking distance of the black walls. It promised to be quick, but there was flying involved, and he still wasn't sure he could face that himself. There were low routes aplenty, but they all ended at long ladders or high cliffs.

Pevan and Chag watched expectantly as he turned toward them. He lifted his left hand, then pantomimed flying, followed by his right and climbing, with an exaggerated spread of his arms; We can fly, or a lot of climbing. Even before he'd finished the gestures, Pevan's face had lit up. She raised her hands to sign for flying right as he finished.

Chag flicked her an unhappy look, then frowned at Atla, but he nodded. Atla returned a grim smile. He signed for them to follow, but not worry about matching him exactly, then led off along the stream. The water visibly flowed, but there was no gurgling to give it reality, nor any birdsong or rustling of trees for counterpoint.

Underfoot, the clay was firm and reliable, sticky so that their feet never slipped, even as they descended the sharp slope into the next little glen. The stream spread a white, pleated skirt of tiny waterfalls over the hillside, gathering back together into a small pool at the bottom. The ripples on its surface kept time with the currents swirling through his Gift.

They descended again and again, and a carpet of green rushed across the ochre of the clay, like the shadow of a cloud on a windy day. With it, the autumnal haze went out of the world, replaced by brilliant colours of summer, none of them in quite the right places - sapphire trees with white, fluffy foliage, a sky patterned with wildflowers. Here and there, shadows and what looked like miniature versions of dark thunderheads scampered through and around stands of long grass.

Still he followed the stream, until it met another, the pair swelling as they knotted together. He paused, sent Pevan and Chag a follow exactly, and waited for them to fall into line on his heels. His Gift sent rippling welcome to the currents of the stream, and he felt the ripples turn and echo back.

A slight delay, an unevenness in the answer, made him glance up at the shoulder of the vale. Something up there was denser than it should be, attentive and waiting. He narrowed his eyes, breath frozen in his throat. The ridge was crowned by azure bushes whose limbs splashed outwards and upwards to form a bewildering complex of 'V's. Slowly, he mapped the shape, feeling the turbulence where his Gift flowed through the branches.

There. It took a moment for sight to make contact with Gifted sensitivity. Some of those branches were not landscape, but conscious creature, cowering as it felt the brush of Atla's attention. No threat, then. A simple awareness, sensitive enough to tell that the humans were interlopers but also recognising them as far above its level. Curiosity, not predation, had kept it watching them.

Pevan's fingers sent a fresh ripple out through the Realm as she snapped them, just behind his arm. He glanced over his shoulder, came face to face with her frown. She gestured Is something wrong?

He shook his head, twisting so she could see him walk three fingers across his palm, then pinch two of them together. He finished with pressing his palms flat against one another; Small Wilder, peaceful. At Pevan's nod, he returned his attention to the route.

There was harmony, now, between his Gift and the stream; the stream's voice was far higher, haunting and sharp, but it bent itself to notes set by rich tones from the churning deeps below Atla's mind. He closed his eyes and stepped into the water.

It was cold, so cold he could feel near-solid pieces slithering past his ankle. He ground his teeth, held his jaw shut by force of will, and took another step. The water rose halfway up his shin, and it was hard to tell himself there weren't ghostly claws in it, sinking into his calf. Another step, and he felt the splash through his Gift as Pevan's boot landed in the water behind him.

Another Wilder had joined the first on the ridge, from the way something stirred behind his throat. He ignored it; already, the glen was falling far behind. The water rose to his waist, and he leaned forward, stretching out as if to start swimming. This was the point where real care was needed, and suppressing the urge to gasp as his chest met the icy current took all his attention for a moment.

He ducked his face under the surface, feeling the impact as a small eruption in the sea bed below his Gift. A deep breath reassured his protesting mind that, despite appearances, he wouldn't drown. The water ran up underneath his shirt, tickling and sending odd cramps across his ribcage.

Opening his eyes, he had to blink a few times before the fuzzy light resolved properly and he could make out the iron bar lying along the riverbed. It nestled between glass pebbles which sparkled in the bright daylight, and he reached down to press a finger to it.

Only then did he allow himself to fall forward and fully immerse. The hard, lumpy surface of the iron dropped away, and the streambed parted, glass beads becoming vast bubbles that wobbled as they rose past him. He followed his finger, still held die-straight and pointing, down towards what was now a wide black road.

The feeling of water around him, buoying him up, faded as he descended, and though their descent didn't seem to accelerate, he spared a thought for Chag. The little man made bigger ripples in Atla's Gift as he descended than Pevan had, sure sign that his emotions were riding higher. Below the road, the ground was covered in trees blossoming thickly white, but from a little bit of height, it could easily look as if they were clouds.

There was nothing he could do to help Chag, though, not right now. Atla tucked himself together, bracing to roll on landing. It wasn't technically necessary, but it gave the three of them a better chance of not landing on one another. No chance here for a gesture to warn them to stop copying him exactly.

Landing didn't feel like hitting the tarmac he was familiar with from old Vessit. The surface of this road was spongy, little eddies boiling off it as it absorbed his weight. He managed the roll neatly, rose to his feet and was surprised to find himself panting. A few steps carried him clear of Pevan's rise, and he turned to wave her to stop short.

She stepped aside and allowed Chag to join them. The thief's face was pallid, but it took nothing away from the glare he turned on Pevan. She grinned and patted him on the shoulder, then turned to Atla, head tilted attentively to one side.

He pointed ahead along the road. Not too far away, an arched gate faced in elegantly sculpted concrete spanned the tarmac, rising out of the forest below. A figure that almost looked human from this distance stood atop it, and Atla shuddered to think what the statue would look like as they got closer.

The sky above was black, painted with blue curlicues that could suck away the eye of the unwary. They ran perpendicular to the natural flow of every current he could feel. Somewhere up there, a pair of predatory Verlin circled each other, testing each other's fears. Atla ignored them; despite the visual openness of the sky, he could feel ribbed arches the size and density of whole Realms in the way. Plenty to keep the Verlin occupied in the unlikely event that they abandoned their feud.

His eyes protested as the arch began to loom overhead. To the monstrous presence gliding through his Gift, the shape atop was elegant, graceful and strong, a warrior's armour and a priest's faith. To human eyesight, though, it twisted through and back through itself like an obscene worm, knotted into a lumpen, upright shape that some part of him kept trying to recognise as a person.

From the way their emotions peaked through his Gift, Atla could tell that Pevan and Chag felt much the same. Pevan thrummed through the water, tightly contained and determined, but at least her discomfort was purely for the figure. Chag was walking down the dead centre of the road, fighting to keep his gaze locked on the tarmac. The crashing waves of his fear were as much for the drop either side of the route as for the gate.

As they passed under the arch, the world shifted. The trees rose up to meet them and the sky brightened. Petals filled the air, spiralling so that they flickered, white one side and vibrant pinks and blues the other. For a minute, it was lovely, but the red sky soon plunged down to the road surface, cutting a dead square line across the black. The end of the road, and the point from which they'd have to fly.

Atla swallowed, and the ripple that ran down his gullet spread out through his Gift despite his best efforts. He managed to hold his step more or less steady as he walked towards that terrible, final edge. Pevan's lessons about keeping a brave face seemed that much more important - and that much harder - now.

He stamped down a rush of regurgitated memory, the shock and fright of the quake, and focussed. Ahead, though he was beginning to be able to see over the edge, no ground was visible. The sky just reached all the way down. He stopped short, turned back to face the others.

The ledge held Pevan enraptured, a light in her eyes. Chag was looking anywhere but, hugging himself with hunched shoulders. He looked up to face Atla, lips working soundlessly. Atla raised his arms, made the flying gesture, and pointed his face at the trees so he could speak safely. "It's not, uh, it's not far down, um, but it's better to spiral than dive." The words wobbled as they emerged, a blue disc that should have flown true but broke up before it got very far.

Pevan glanced at him, then looked back to the drop. "You don't sound terribly happy about this. You alright?"

Though her pose made her seem indifferent, her voice and the red pellets it launched over the end of the road indicated kindness. It felt very strange to face away from her as he answered, "I've never... I'm not good with wings." He shuddered as his stumbling sentence circled his head.

The look she shot him could have been scornful, but it was softened by the way she gestured to include Chag. She managed to look at them both out of the corner of her eye while speaking. "Both of you need the practice. Just concentrate on your training and let it happen." Her words came out as a thick cloud of pastel green, which drifted a long way out over the precipice before they lost sight of it.

Then she walked right up to the edge, closed her eyes and spread her arms. Her sleeves and form rippled outwards, breaking up into evanescent shards as her wings spread. Scintillant flashes of green and blue washed across her dark plumage, and Atla felt them curl through his Gift as well. The Gatemaker threw her head back and laughed, puncturing the air with a salvo of flying triangles that left misty pink trails in its wake.

Atla and Chag exchanged a look. The little man sighed, swallowed, and walked unsteadily up to stand near Pevan's wing-tip. She hadn't folded her wings, and stood craning her neck to peer along them. Chag spread his arms, holding them well short of straight, his shoulders lifted almost to his ears.

His wings appeared with far less style. A flurry of movement ran up over his shoulders, down and round the outside of his elbows, and up to his wrists, leaving him cloaked in black, untidy feathers as ratty as his face. He peered over his shoulder and shot an expectant look at Atla.

It was hard to walk with the little man watching him. Atla could feel himself blushing by the disturbance twisting through his Gift. He swallowed, trying not to think of how they might look at him when he did manifest his wings. Bersh's opinion had not been kind.

At least Pevan's fit of mad laughter had faded. He could feel her urging him on, though, the pulse of her eagerness in his Gift almost as intense in its way as the fear Chag now held tightly under wraps. Carefully, Atla watched the space next to the thief, where the edge waited. The lack of ground below was daunting, but at least it didn't stare back.

He made himself go all the way up to the edge and look down. Far, far below, the Court was a black hexagon, intricately patterned inside its outline. Around it surged a sea of wildly mixing colours. Atla pushed his awareness down into the top of his neck, feeling the turbulence in his Gift. There were all sorts of creatures scurrying and wallowing in the muddy bed at the bottom, most of them too simple to be worth worrying about.

Still, he turned and gave his companions the sign for Many Wildren ahead.

Pevan nodded, waved her hand for him to take the lead. He swallowed and turned back to the ledge, but he could feel their eyes on his back. The crowd of Wildren below would almost certainly ignore him completely, but the sheer crowdedness of them made him feel like he stood at a pulpit, before the eyes of the world.

He closed his eyes, spread his arms, knowing that Pevan would see how much he was shaking. Why couldn't he just hold himself steady? He forced his elbows straight. The thought of the garish shades of his wings made him screw his eyes even tighter closed, his lips pulling open in something close to a silent snarl. His breath hissed unsteadily between his teeth.

"Come on, kiddo, did you never dream of flying?" Pevan's words left an arrow-head ripple through his Gift, an effortlessly-balanced mix of encouragement and friendly teasing.

At her words, the drop below seemed to call to him. He straightened his arms more forcefully, so that a shock ran through his elbows, and felt a wave of cold rush out from his heart to his fingertips, bringing feathers with it. His feathers, whether he liked them or not. At least he wouldn't have to see them.

Pevan let out a long, slow whistle. He could feel it stirring the depths of his Gift. He furled his wings and opened his eyes a crack, trying not to think about the gold-and-orange streaks at the corner of his vision.

The Gatemaker was staring at him, jaw hanging open. He cringed, started to apologise, but she brought the back of her wing awkwardly up to cover her mouth, a clumsy attempt at warning him not to speak.

He swallowed, chastened, but something flickered in her eyes. She turned her head slightly, spoke out of the side of her mouth, but kept her gaze locked to his. "Firebird, huh? I like it. Let's fly." With that, she bent her knees and sprang up, a single sweep of her wings lifting her into the crimson sky. She shouted, one long, incoherent string of vowels that flew ahead of her for a few seconds before dissipating. Atla followed, geysers surging through to the surface of his Gift, fighting the urge to join his voice to hers.

* * *

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