Saturday, 27 July 2013

The Second Realm 5.2: Dragon Fly

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A Light in Her Violet Eyes

2. Dragon Fly

Pevan clung to Chag, fighting for the nerve, the wits, the calm to let go. He shook every time he flapped his tatty, failing wings, trying to drag them higher, further from the Court. His strength and stamina were limited, she knew, after the privations of his winter in the wilderness, and he was probably facing growing logic fatigue, too.

She knew she was. The tell-tale headache beat time against the inside of her forehead. Making the Gateways that had allowed them to escape the Court, forcing them into the elastic, obdurate Realmstuff of the Gift-Givers' fortress, had taken a lot out of her. Her thoughts hopped and skipped across a fuzzy landscape of mental pains.

There would be no going back. If she'd left the Court without Chag, perhaps there would have been a chance of reconciliation with Quilo, though the Gift-Giver had clearly decided to write off for dead anyone who tried to challenge the Separatists and their Clearseer. But if she'd left without Chag, she would have had no way of finding the Separatists.

Now, the thief was all she had left, unless she could rescue Rel and Atla. She could only hope that they'd been taken to the white cave, where the Separatists made their lair, and not to some other hidey-hole.

Rel had dashed off without any forward planning, taking Atla with him. Of course he'd go for a frontal assault. The Separatists would be unlikely to kill him outright - Chag had said they still hoped to recruit him - but Delaventrin would See him coming.

Dire though the prospects were, thinking ahead settled her mind. Without Rel, they stood no chance, in the long term, against the Separatists. Without Atla, in the short term, they were trapped in the Second Realm, unless they stumbled over a route to a Sherim they knew. Chag's body was beginning to hang vertical from the straining uplift of his wings, his ability to impose his will on the Second Realm failing as fatigue gained on him.

The cloth of his threadbare shirt rasped through her fingers as she let go. His shout of alarm and despair almost cut the top of her head off as it flashed past, but she held to her island of calm. She made herself wait, telling herself that the Second Realm couldn't provide a ground for her to hit unless she let it, until she saw him stabilise his flight.

Then she tucked in her right arm and leg, twisting so as to spin herself face-'down' in the air. Below, plains of riotous colour spread out to the limits of her field of vision. She forced herself to think of each patch as a field in its own right, as if the whole were a farm of unmatched variety; that made it seem as if she still had a long way to fall.

She revelled in the sense of height. Even in her maddest and most desperate actions in the First Realm, she'd never achieved this much altitude. Adrenaline surged, her skin coming alive with a slight tingle that seemed to lift away the worst edge of her fatigue. She spread her arms.

It took no more than a thought, borne on the rush of joy that flying always produced in her, to spread iridescent green plumage along her bones in place of flesh. They caught the air with a wrench, and she fought back, her first down-beat wavering before the battering force of her airspeed.

Her second stroke caught her hard against the sky, and she let her anger out in a burst of incoherent, shouted syllables as she began to climb. With her body level in the air, it was hard to crane her neck back far enough to see Chag, but she caught a glimpse of him circling, high above. Had he lost her amid the jumble of colours below? Above him, the sky was a dappled, smudgy grey-blue, but he stood out clearly, crow-black and fragile in his thinness.

Grunting, straining, enjoying the hard, breathless physicality of the motions, she hauled herself upwards, wing-beat on wing-beat, in a tight spiral. Her heart began to burn in her chest, the Second Realm's not-air sharp and dry in her throat. Her eyes watered, blurring the tiny figure above until the sky almost swallowed him. No point trying to shout for him, with the odd way sound tended to travel - or not - in Second Realmspace.

Finally, he noticed her and dropped into a steep dive. She pushed up a few more feet and levelled out, settling into a steady glide. It wasn't long before Chag fell in beside her in an awkward flurry of feathers. It took him a while to get steady; he kept turning to look at her before he was stable in the air, then beginning to slide away before catching himself with a mad burst of flapping. Carrying her had clearly taken its toll on his wings and strength.

When he spoke, his voice was hoarse. "I thought you'd... I thought I'd lost you." The words fell away, spinning like leaves or shreds of torn-up paper below them.

She turned so that her voice would pass beneath him rather than flying straight at him. "Ye of little faith." The humour left flashing scarlet ripples in the air. Chag flinched as they passed his face.

"Sorry to have doubted you." Even with the wind of their flight whistling in her ears, she could hear the sardonic edge to his tone.

"Do we go up or down?" Humour was nice, but if they flew too far they risked losing his Route to the white cave. Flying had odd effects in the Second Realm, rarely covering much distance horizontally, but climbing and diving always caused drastic changes in the terrain.

"Up first." He clenched his jaw, face grim. His words turned silver and corkscrewed far into the spread-out landscape below before vanishing. "I'm looking for landmarks. Then we'll need to dive."

They took it in stages, fighting upwards for a minute or so, then gliding in slow, wide circles to get their breath back. Chag's flight grew stronger as they ascended, his dishevelled plumage recovering a bit as he relaxed and let it. For a southerner and a Witness, he was a strong-willed and confident Gifted, when he allowed himself to be. Pevan found herself wondering what he might have been able to do if he hadn't lived all his life in his brother's shadow.

Below, patterns came and went amidst the colours of the 'ground'. Her careless eyes picked out shapes, crude drawings of a house, a tree, a dog, and for the most part she didn't try to blink them away. Only when there were faces, eyes that might come alive and reach for them did she fight the images away. One benefit of Rel not being here was not having to worry about the possible deranged offshoots of his Clearsight.

She was about to call another rest when Chag threw himself into an energetic new burst of climbing. For a second, chills cut through her and she scanned below them for any sign of a Wilder, but there wasn't anything obvious. The look on Chag's face was one of alertness and hope, not apprehension.

By the time he levelled out, they were both wheezing like exhausted horses. It took the better part of a whole circle, gliding, before Chag managed to say, "See below? The red star with four points?" His question flapped butterfly wings and dropped away below them, curving around towards exactly the pattern on the ground, so far below, that he'd described.

He went on, "We dive down at it until it grows another point, then level out." His face tightened. "It's a vertical dive, head all the way down. Are you... is that okay?"

"Which of us is afraid of heights?" She grinned. "Are you okay with it?"

"I'll manage." He rolled his eyes at her. "Good to go?"

She swept her wings forward, bringing her body up in a sharp rear, stalling her airspeed. As she snapped her wings shut again, tight against her sides, she had a brief glimpse of Chag making a less showy job of the stoop, and then gravity claimed her.

The dive accelerated until she had to narrow her eyes tight against the stiff, chill fingers of the wind. There was no air here, really, but her body and her logic expected air resistance, so she felt it anyway. It became difficult to convince herself she was still breathing, so harshly did the draught sting her nostrils.

Below, the patterns and shapes that had shifted and merged so smoothly on the ascent began to jitter and dance, like a kaleidoscope being spun too fast. Pevan focussed on the red star through the fuzzy haze of her own eyelashes, waiting for some sign of change. Tunnel vision set in, the rest of the view blurring out of thought.

She was only dimly conscious of Chag's presence somewhere off her right shoulder. It would be a bad idea to shout and check if he was holding it together; even if the words didn't get blown back in her face, they'd be unlikely to reach him. The wind filled her ears with a sound that went far beyond the blustering, buffeting sensation she was used to.

How far down had they come? Head-down, you could fall at well over a hundred miles an hour, if that meant anything in the Second Realm. It felt like they'd been falling for a long time, but the star ahead stayed obstinately four-pointed. Around it, shapes and colours surged and rioted. She tried to squint harder, to make out more detail, but her vision became too obscured.

Finally, a long, thin diamond of red too bright to match the star spun into place and drove into the crook between two of its points. Pevan rammed her arms out straight and screwed her face tight up against the brain-stopping force of her dive. Muscles strained and then sharpened to fiery lines of pain down the front of her shoulders. Across her back, bones ground against one another, for a moment feeling bent so far that they'd surely snap.

The wind of passage abated, dropping back to gentle breeze as she flattened herself out and settled back into level gliding. Chag appeared off her right wing, hair fluttering and streaming around his face, his mouth and eyes wide. She caught his eye, and the look they shared drew out his breathless laughter. Even scrawny, pallid and haggard after months of isolation, he seemed alive beyond life with that laugh dancing in his eyes.

She let his mirth draw the same from her in response, rising up through her in an effervescent tide, spreading inward from her fingers and toes to her chest and then, irresistibly, up her throat and out into the air ahead of them. Escaping her, her chuckles took on the form of dandelion-down, tufts like tiny feathers gusting out against the wind as if it wasn't there.

Savouring the simple fact of survival, they circled the star - which had swelled until each point had to be fifty feet long - for one whole, steady lap before she said, "What now?"

"Down." Chag's answer stabbed out at her, and she had to veer sharply sideways to avoid it. The rush of blood to his head had clearly made him a little careless, but the way his face went rigid with alarm told her he didn't need reprimanding. More carefully, head turned downward, he finished. "We land on the star, then just follow me."

She nodded, dipping her wing to pull away from him and give him space to land. And a little privacy. Birds had had thousands of years of evolution to develop bodies that were well-shaped for making landfall. Even then, some of them looked properly stupid when coming down. For a human, even a goose's belly-down, flapping, splashing crash would be a step in the right direction.

A low swoop brought Pevan down over the body of the star, which now seemed to float on a pond covered in brightly-coloured leaves. She aimed along one of the points, back-winged furiously to bring her head up, and then swung her legs forward as fast as she could. It almost worked, but she'd misjudged how low to swoop and the tops of her toes caught on the star's hard surface.

Momentum dragged her forward, flat onto her face and hands. Her palms slapped into a surface like polished wood, which at least meant no grazes, but the impact stung, badly. She pushed herself up on her elbows, head swimming for a moment. Somewhere behind her, Chag swore, though the tone of his voice sounded more like frustration and chagrin than anything indicating a real, serious problem.

Clambering upright brought a rush of dizziness, but she managed not to stumble. She rubbed her bruised chin and turned to look at Chag, who turned out to be lying on his side, clutching his knee and muttering curses, half-way along one of the far points of the star. He started to get up when he saw her coming, his face turning stoic.

With his wings turned back to arms, he was able to gesture, Everything okay?

She gave him a thumbs-up and a smile. His smile in response was wooden, clearly a clumsy attempt to cover for substantial pain. Well, if he was going to be an idiot, she'd let him deal with the consequences. She gestured for him to lead on.

He nodded stiffly and turned to scan the horizon. The sea of colourful fragments through which the star slowly revolved spread out as far as Pevan could see, its horizon a flat, straight line above which the 'sky' was a muted blur of Second-Realm colours, vaguely nauseating to look at. Whatever landmark Chag was looking for, she couldn't see it, but he set off along the star-point to their right, with no indication that the choice of direction was random. His stride was purposeful, but he couldn't disguise his limp.

Movement out of the corner of Pevan's eye sent a chill down her spine and put her on alert. For a moment she dismissed it as just the random motion of the tiles floating around the star, but the feeling of unease persisted. It took her a moment to realise that the steady rotation of some of the fragments had picked up the rhythm of her steps, slowing slightly each time her foot lifted off the ground and speeding up again towards each footfall.

Again she was reminded of turning a kaleidoscope. The shapes out there did merge and split in that same symmetrical, geometric way, matter sometimes coming out of nothing, other times folding away into nothing. She glanced up nervously, half-expecting to see a giant eye peering at them from the sky, but had to look down again when the colours up there became overwhelming. The fluid lapping at the edges of the star looked more like milk than water.

Another rush of dizziness hit her; she found herself veering off the central axis of the star's point, though Chag was still limping along directly ahead of her. Trying to correct her course pushed a feeling of pressure up against her fatigue, as if someone had stuck two fingers through her eyebrow and into her brain. She slid off-course again.

It was getting hard to balance, and her gut clenched as she teetered on the brink of falling into the water - or whatever it was. Chag still seemed to be straight ahead, but when she looked at his feet, he was walking right down the middle of the star's point. She gritted her teeth, forced herself to stop thinking about what his or her feet were landing on, and narrowed her eyes to focus only on his back.

For a moment between footsteps, a cold, hollow sensation replaced her heart as conviction warred with fear, but the ground stayed hard beneath her feet. Her brain writhed and fought, and the star-point unfolded, just like a flake of glass tumbling between mirrors in a kaleidoscope. Pevan found herself stepping across the reflected folds. It felt like stepping through a mirror.

Somehow, Chag kept going in a straight line, trusting his feet to find their path. Trust like that involved an act of will that would have daunted any civilian, and most Gifted. The Second Realm made way for expectation and confidence in a way that the First never could, provided you had more of the latter than most humans could ever manage. And Chag didn't even flinch.

She had to admit, the little man was wasted on his lazy, dull southern hometown. The Separatists had refreshed his training before the winter, but still, she found herself wondering if he'd felt just how undervalued he must have been. Perhaps his frustration with the short-sightedness of his neighbours was understandable after all. How much of a role had that played in his decision to abandon the Treaty of Peace and go with the Separatists?

Concentrating on that question, and the attendant challenge of getting him to rise above his alienation, kept her from worrying about where her feet went. The white ocean with its floes of jewellery whirled around them, the motion accelerating but not growing more violent; the surface stayed flat, without splashes. The silence of the Second Realm took some of the immediacy out of the motion, too, emphasising that it was the world turning around her and not her own spinning. Perhaps for that reason, Pevan found her dizziness subsiding.

There was no sign of the terrain changing, no hint of a shore approaching. Assuming that meant they were still some way away from the white cave - and in the Second Realm, it was by no means certain - Pevan turned her thoughts to rescuing Rel. What would the Separatists do to hold him? Would he be conscious enough to cover them as they got him away? Pevan's and Chag's Gifts were next to useless in combat in the Second Realm; they'd need Rel and Atla if there was going to be fighting.

Just as she was beginning to think it was a good job they were a while from their destination, Chag stopped and knelt down. Pevan faltered, but managed to keep moving until she was close enough to crouch at his side. The moment she stopped walking, the wild gyrations of the crystals around her feet subsided, and she almost collapsed on top of the little man while her balance readjusted.

Tone grim, face pointed intently at the not-water, Chag said, "You might want to hold onto me for this next bit."

She studied the set of his cheeks. With him looking away from her, it was hard to tell, but she couldn't see any sign of mischief or mirth there. He looked like he meant it. Still, she wasn't going to be taken advantage of. She grabbed a handful of his shirt from the middle of his back - given how thin he'd become, there was plenty of slack - and clenched her fist in it. When his only response was a short, sharp nod, she decided it might be best to hunch a bit lower and get properly braced for whatever was coming.

Slowly, hand trembling, he reached towards the edge of the blue diamond on which they knelt. By the time his fingers touched the milky liquid, his eyes were squeezed tightly shut. A shiver went through him at the moment of contact, violent enough that Pevan felt it through her grip on his shirt. Her muscles found some new inch of tension to squeeze with.

The frozen moment broke with a spasm of thwarted logic. The sky swung over them as if a cloth being drawn back, and the scintillating sea enveloped them. Balance rebelled at the heave beneath her feet, but she clung to Chag and he held firm, stubborn as stone.

Her mind slowly relinquished the idea that they'd tipped backwards into the sea and should be soaking wet. Still holding tightly to Chag, Pevan looked around. They huddled amid rolling white hills that put her in mind of nothing so much as a giant, plain quilt, heaped on an unmade bed. Above, the sky glittered, and she fancied she could make out the steps of their path across it for a moment. Then the crystals shifted out of alignment and she lost it.

Chag glanced at her, then made a gesture she didn't recognise. She shook her head and shrugged. One disadvantage of him having studied with the Separatists was that he'd been reminded of all the obscure bits of the Gifted sign-language that no-one normally needed. She threw the sign for Speak at him, trying not to feel too outdone.

Turning his face to one side, he said, "We need a plan." From the way he kept his voice low, his eyes flickering once over her shoulder, he thought someone might be listening in already. His words crawled down from his mouth along an invisible branch, and disappeared into the pale, woven ground.

Pevan took a deep breath to calm herself, trying to shrug off the tingle between her shoulder-blades that Chag's nervousness had left her with. Long training helped her find at least a semblance of proper focus. Despite her best efforts, her nerves spilled over into her voice. "You think we're being watched?"

"I was warned that there are normally sub-sentient Wildren in this patch." He swallowed. "It might give us some cover if the Separatists are looking for us, but we'll need to be careful."

"Too risky." She spoke immediately, as firmly as she dared. You didn't hang around even the most docile Wildren in their own Realm. The words curled into tight pellets that left black scorch-marks in the ground. "Can we not go on ahead?"

He shook his head. "We'll be on the lawn in front of the cave if we go any further. They'll definitely see us then."

"We should have had this conversation sooner." She bit off the words before they could give vent to her anger. If there were Wildren around, the emotion would draw them. As it was, her clipped, irritated whisper blackened more of the ground just in front of her face. "No good now. Any ideas?"

"The fly form." Chag managed to look at her out of the corner of his eye even while keeping his face pointing straight and safely at the ground. She was getting used to speaking to him in profile. "When I snuck into the Court... for the Separatists, I mean... Well, the whole point of that form is to escape notice, basically."

She shrugged, trying to loosen tense muscles across her back. "We'll be vulnerable. The fly is fragile as-" The analogy, with all the expressive richness it offered, would be a bad idea. She left it incomplete. "Weak, too. What if Rel's chained up? I don't fancy trying to believe I can break heavy chain with the strength of a flea."

"And if we choose something stronger and they see us coming?" The set of Chag's face was sceptical. His tone, acerbic, dripped into the ground, which seemed to dissolve beneath it. As if reminded of the looming danger, his cheeks and eyes hardened. "You really think we stand a chance in a straight fight?"

Did they? Neither a Witness nor a Gatemaker would be much use. If they could free Rel and Atla quickly, perhaps. How many Separatists were there at the white cave? They knew four by name, and had seen perhaps another half-dozen. Pevan let the puzzle dominate, holding her emotions neutral. "I don't know. Some of them must be wherever they're holding Taslin. Will Delaventrin leave the Shtorq?"

"I don't think he can anymore. You can't seriously think-?" He cut off as his words began to heat up again.

She ran her hand over his shoulder, trying to be comforting, calming. Without being able to meet his eye, it was hard to tell whether she had the desired effect. "We're doomed unless we can get Rel and Atla free quickly. If we don't get them on the first strike, it's all over anyway."

"So we need to sneak in. The fly's the way to go." How he managed not to sound obstinate was beyond her.

"I don't know." Pevan shrugged again, trying to keep her growing frustration under wraps. "They know about the fly form. There's a good chance Delaventrin will See us through it."

"What the hell do we do, then?" Chag's shout kicked up gouts of fire from the plush ground. Pevan threw herself clear, praying that any nearby Wildren would be too stupid to notice. The softness of the surface spared her the usual battering that came with diving out of the way of things, but made it harder to keep momentum, and she flopped to a halt only a few feet away. It might not be enough to make a difference, but getting too far from the Route would be just as dangerous.

After a long moment waiting for the dreaded, icy touch of an unfettered Wilder, she pushed herself up at least enough to get a look around. Chag, white-faced, had managed to throw himself flat, with his hands and arms uselessly covering his head. She almost fancied she could catch a faint whiff of burnt hair coming from him, though it was unlikely in the Second Realm. Above, the sky twinkled on undisturbed. If there were patterns up there that were a threat to them, she couldn't pick them out.

Chag pushed himself up onto his elbows, found her eyes on him, and pressed his fingers to his forehead. The gesture meant an apology, but even without it she could read the contrition and the shocked dread of losing her in his face. She waved the apology away, as generously as she could.

In unspoken agreement, they spent a few moments watching the landscape and the sky before crawling back to one another. Where Chag's outburst had ignited the terrain, the softness of the great quilt they seemed to be lying on was replaced by stony hardness, and no ash came away on Pevan's fingers when she reached out to touch it.

She lay on her back and directed Chag to do the same. It would mean even less of a clear view of his face, but at least any further outbursts wouldn't trouble the ground. Risky, since any nearby Wildren were probably above them somewhere, but you dealt with the known danger first. There was no way to measure the instability of the terrain, but more emotions poured into the mix could only make Second Realmspace more volatile.

It still took a little while to recover the composure to speak. Irritatingly, Chag got there first. "You want us to just throw ourselves at them? They'll see that coming."

"I wasn't suggesting we go in completely undisguised. We just need to use a cover that they won't understand. One that leaves us with some strength for the first strike." She hesitated, an idea burrowing up out of memory. They'd never tested the plan in real combat, and Dora had scorned it, but... "Rel believed that the creations of our imagination would be particularly opaque to Wildren. Myths and such."

"So, what, we just imagine ourselves as lions and charge in?" The sting in his voice drilled skyward, leaving a spiralling pink trail behind it.

Pevan bit back irritation again, and let confusion come to the fore. "Lions aren't imaginary. They existed, in the past."

"You've never seen one, though, have you?" Chag followed her example, his tone turning mild and scholarly. "And neither will any of the Separatists. You've still got to imagine what a lion would be like. It should have the same effect. And it should be easier to imagine than anything weirder."

"But can a lion use magic?" She tried to make the question neutral, but it came out more than a little teasing. "The advantage of going for a dragon is all the myths around them. The power."

"A dragon, huh?" His drawl left her mentally kicking herself. Had she sounded too enthusiastic? He pressed the point, "You can really do that?"

She pushed to her feet, holding in a brash quip. Could she still pull it off? "It's been a while since I practiced, but..." Her words fluttered away, and she closed her eyes, reaching through her own self-image, finding every weak point, every muscle that couldn't do quite what she wanted. Heat flared in her gut, flowing out into her shoulders, her spine, her hips. Her skin prickled and hardened, and ridges swept back from her cheeks and brow.

Her fatigue pulsed as she opened her eyes, more painfully than she'd expected. Last time she'd tried this she'd been well-rested, and far closer to the First Realm. Maybe she was pushing a bit hard, but the look on Chag's face was worth it. He'd rolled over to push himself up, but had frozen in a half-crouch, wide-eyed awe on his face. She flexed her wings, the membranes stretching until the light shining through them made them glow emerald.

The form wasn't really like a dragon's from a story-book illustration. She stood upright on thick, stumpy legs, and the arms she folded across her chest were brawny and long. Her tail hung behind her for balance, but barely touched the floor even when she stretched it. The wings were properly draconic, though, built out from great hunks of muscle at her shoulders.

It did give her a little more freedom of movement in her neck than she had as a human. As Chag climbed awkwardly, reverentially to his feet, jaw hanging open, she craned her head back to scan the sky for threatening patterns. The power she could feel coursing through her came from the whirlwind distortion of Second-Realm logic the form created; anything she could feel would be humming through the Realmspace around them.

It wasn't a question of whether anything else could feel the distortion; it was a question of whether anything nearby could recognise that the distortion meant food. All the Wild Power in the world wouldn't help her spot an attack coming, and though she knew her eyes would seem jewelled and endlessly complex to Chag, she felt no benefit from them. The sky remained a chaotic muddle of sparkling colours, its patterns far too intricate for her to follow.

"Can you... Can you really hold that long enough for a rescue?" Breathless, barely more than a whisper, Chag's tone held no scepticism.

She stretched her arms, probing the form, feeling awkward as the sheer bulk of her musculature got in its own way. Powerful though she was like this, her limbs felt like tree-trunks, ponderous and heavy. It didn't feel like her body at all, and the disconnect set a nagging knot of unease somewhere at the bottom of her brain. It would turn to fatigue all too quickly, and she had quite enough fatigue already.

Grimacing, she let herself fall back into herself. The loss of the dragon's height brought her eyes level with Chag's, though the change in her mass left her feeling as if her feet didn’t quite touch the ground. Having the weight off was a relief, but a bittersweet one. How else would they stand a chance of rescuing Rel?

The awe faded slightly from Chag's face, a second blow, and he stepped forward to squeeze her arm, the sympathy on his face genuine but still stinging. Pevan broke eye contact, scowling to cover up a more honest emotion. When Chag released her arm, he left behind a suddenly-cold patch of skin, and she found herself rubbing the spot as he turned away.

And vanished. A blur of motion where he'd been drew her eye, but too late for her to see what had happened. Her gut froze. Something flew at her head, and she threw herself sideways. The soft ground rucked up under her foot and tripped her, then caught her almost softly enough not to hurt.

It took all her self-control to clamp her panic under iron and hold still. She willed herself blank, flattening out her name and identity, praying she wasn't too late to avoid notice from whatever was out there. She didn't think about what would happen if she escaped this crisis. There were no answers to that, and it could only make her more fearful.

She eased her eyes open, letting out a long, slow breath as she did so. The scene was unchanged; white, fluffy ground, glittering sky overhead, no Chag. The only new element was a massive dragonfly, easily eight inches long, hovering over her face. Her throat went tight again, a tight rod of tension all the way down into her chest, and she realised she couldn't tell how close it was. Could it tell what or who she was?

Wildren in their own Realm rarely appeared as recognisable First-Ream creatures. Their internal structures were far too complex for a First-Realm mind to fit into any familiar pattern. Still, Pevan gave the dragonfly a wide berth as she eased herself up to sitting.

As she did so, she realised she'd misjudged its size, tricked by perspective. It hadn't been hovering right in front of her face, but several feet above - it hadn't moved, that she could tell, but when she reached sitting she found it still a little above head-height, peering down at her with globed, metallic eyes the size of clenched fists. Its long, narrow tail segment, ribbed in black and gold, must have been two feet long by itself, and was as thick as her wrist.

Mesmerised by the millionfold glints off the creature's eyes, she found it hard to turn her head far enough to speak safely past it. She couldn't keep fear from making her voice quaver. "Ch-Chag?"

The dragonfly veered wildly, moving almost too quickly to track, and reflex sent Pevan ducking back to the ground, under the chilly down-draft of its wings. It had to have a wingspan the better part of her height. In jerky, wild leaps, it fought its way back to hover near her for a moment, then plowed itself almost head-first into the ground.

A muffled curse in Chag's lazy southern accent emerged from the point of contact. The surface clearly wasn't ideal for the layout of a dragonfly's legs. Given how hard it was to stand or walk as an ordinary fly, that was really no surprise. At least the dragonfly was less repugnant, though as it levered itself into an awkward standing position, it put her a little in mind of a swan standing in bafflement on a frozen pond.

"Sorry, I-" Chag cut off as his words drove a black chasm into the ground in front of him. Pevan jumped, adrenaline racing through her like a storm-surge, but there were no aftershocks. Just a voice so laden with Wild Power that it left a trench two feet wide and four deep in the hillock where Chag rested. He reared up to speak towards the sky, all six legs stretching well out of shape, and said again, "This is going to take some getting used to."

He'd spoken with no particular ire or even irritation, but again, his voice pummelled the Realmspace with a torrent of dark, twisting chaos. Could the dragonfly form really be that powerful? Chag got on better as an insect than she did, but this was more than even the dragon form had ever provided. Maybe it took less effort to maintain.

As carefully as she could, she edged an extra foot away from him and rearranged herself into a crouch, ready to dodge if he spoke incautiously. It probably wouldn't do any good, but it might quell the paranoid itch crawling across her back. Quietly, she said, "Don't burn all your power at once."

"I'm not, that's the thing." Surprise akin to mild fear in his tone, but the air shook nevertheless. "I can't believe the power I'm feeling. You've got to try this, seriously."

Again, Pevan scanned the sky. Whether or not there were any hostile Wildren up there, things were definitely getting more animated. Second Realmspace reacted poorly to this kind of strain. "We're going to have to move fast once I get into the form." By contrast with Chag's, Pevan's words were barely visible, a flutter of blue snowflakes that blew away on an intangible wind.

"That's not going to be a problem." The accent might have been different, but the tone in Chag's voice was a dead match for Rel's the first time he'd tried being a dragon. The Realm seemed to tremble at his words, the wild, intoxicated excitement in them. Pevan narrowed her eyes, jaw clenched, studying the dragonfly for any hint of Chag's next move.

Glistening and ephemeral, his wings flickered once, then settled back in line with his body. They looked almost too fragile to believe, and yet she couldn't shake the conviction that if she ran her finger along their trailing edges it would be sliced clean off. The air sat uneasily around the fly's form, rippling at the distortion that Chag inflicted just by existing.

He had to be a beacon for any Wildren nearby. Even if he could be persuaded to drop out of the form now, it might well be too late to escape notice. And if the dragonfly truly did have that much power, then they weren't likely to find anything better. A shiver ran through Pevan as she closed her eyes, letting her mind sink slowly toward the semi-conscious state that would allow her to change form.

She savoured the moment as bodily sensation evaporated. The straight, bony arms and legs she left behind had nothing exotic to them. They were functional, but boring. Even when her arms were wings, her body was an awkward weight that dragged at them uncomfortably unless she burned logic to keep normal physics at bay.

One by one, she counted off features that, though unmistakably hers, would not be missed. Square shoulders, that Rel had teased her about so much, and the fragile, pathetic hands she'd never managed to make feel strong. Mousy, plain hair. Wide jaw. Things she'd never normally let herself acknowledge, like the vertical lines where her hips should be. What did Chag see in her? She cut off that thought as it arose. It could only poison her concentration.

In the darkness behind her eyelids, she pictured dragonflies. They weren't a common sight in Federas, but she'd seen several on trips South the previous summer, running messages. She could feel Chag's stillness, his patient anticipation, like the first hint of a coming sneeze, somewhere between her mind and her face. The shape of him sawed through into her awareness, and she added it to her conceptual stew.

The trick was not to become a dragonfly. At that, her identity would rebel. The trick was to make something that had all the elements she needed - power, stealth, grace - but was still her. It was like art; she was expressing herself, not transforming. She added the dragon to the mix, and the mountain of lore and myth that it carried with it. Repugnant though it was, the fly form the Separatists had created went in there too. She tried to focus on its jewelled, intricate beauty, its speed and agility, rather than the invertebrate reality.

Dragon. Fly. Pevan. Even with the images held tightly at the front of her mind, it was hard to map the hunched body and head of the thing onto herself. So much of the creature was tail or wing. It hardly seemed to have enough brain-space to be able to think at all. She folded her awareness into itself, tying it into ever-tighter knots, screwing it up until it fit into the space she had to work with.

A sense of lightness, like the faint difference in sensitivity between her left and dominant right hands, announced the completion of the physical transformation. Light bloomed in her now-lidless eyes, but for a moment the image that pushed its way in was jumbled beyond recognition. The awkward feeling that she had too many limbs wasn't helped by the fact that her wings registered as spare arms until she stretched them.

Then the Wild Power of the form welled up, and her mind almost shattered. Her fatigue pounded frantically on the inside of her skull, and her scattered eyesight clouded with brightly-coloured spots. She swayed slightly, all six legs locked straight in a desperate attempt to pin her torso together through the rush.

It began to fade, back toward manageable levels. Where did it come from? Something about the ad hoc nature of the form, perhaps, the way she knew there were no dragonflies this big in reality, or the strange combination of creatures she'd had in mind when putting it together. It repudiated all logic, and in the Second Realm, that meant fewer limits on the possible. She had to concentrate just to hold herself together. The form wouldn't be stable for long if she had to fight it like this.

But it would give them the power and speed they needed. She flicked her wings again, barely managing not to laugh as the ground shook. Chag mimicked the gesture, and his amusement rumbled through the resulting tremor. She could tell he didn't have as much power in his form as she did in hers, but it would probably be better not to rub it in.

Belatedly, she leaned back - one thing that definitely wasn't helped by the dragonfly form - and glanced at the sky. No question about it this time; something up there had noticed them. The chaos of fragmented jewels had begun to swirl around a handful of points, spinning whirlpool distortions in the sky that reached down toward them with needle-sharp, deadly points.

Time to move. Remembering the weird, weightless feeling of the fly's flight, Pevan launched herself in a hop that catapulted her far too many feet into the air, and only then let her wings begin to whirr into life. There was none of the sense of predatory strength that came with birds' wings, but she felt stronger by far than she did as a fly. Lightning crackled in the gap between her wingbeats and the Realmspace around them.

It was surprisingly easy to hover, though it left her feeling like a tightly-wound spring, held just on the point of release. Chag took up position facing her, and a shiver shot down her spine at the thought that he might speak. Her reflexes were good, and she could feel this form's readiness to move, but there was no chance she could get out of the way if he did send another cataclysm of speech at her.

She got herself back under control as he somehow managed to jerk his head at her. Given the limitations of the dragonfly's neck, it was a fair imitation of a 'this way' gesture. It was all she could do to nod in reply, and the attempt stretched at bits of her skeleton she was sure weren't supposed to be stretched.

Chag turned and zipped off ahead, towards a patch of horizon that looked just like any other. Setting off in pursuit felt like kicking herself forward against the air, a jab of instant acceleration running through her. Flying was like trying to grab a wet bar of soap; every attempt to check the sudden, blinding speed of it just sent her veering wildly in another direction.

After a handful of zigzags, she fell into a rhythm, matching the way Chag swung from side to side. Beneath them, the terrain heaved and rolled like waves on a choppy sea. Flight felt effortless, easier and less physical even than falling. She thought directions, then twitched the angle of her wings slightly and flowed forwards, as if the atmosphere itself was on her side.

Overhead, the sky spasmed into explosive movement. Crystals burst out of the whirling, descending vortices and stabbed downwards in a motion that was far too fast, deliberate and violent to be called falling. Pevan pushed aside the uncomfortable sensation of muscles a dragonfly didn't have clenching and threw herself forwards, cutting across Chag's weaving flight to catch up to him.

The Wild Power pent up behind her closed lips made talking impossible, and with only insectoid forelimbs, she couldn't sign to him, but her appearance at his shoulder alerted him. He turned in a tight circle, and she scrabbled her speed under control until he could take the lead again.

From behind her, his voice blurred a little behind the rumble of distortion it sent into overstretched Realmspace. "Nothing we can do about it. Maybe they'll disguise our approach a bit."

Wishful thinking, but there was nothing to gain from saying so. Pevan let Chag swoop back ahead of her, down-draft from his wings stinging her exposed eyes as he flew by only a foot above her head. Pure exhilaration almost drew a shout of challenge out of her, but she managed to swallow it before it could disrupt the charge. She put herself on Chag's right flank, trailing his wing, and fell back into the rhythm of his swaying course.

Colours washed across the ground below, bands of yellow, then green, then a colour she could almost convince herself was a kind of blue, then a red so bright it hurt to look at. She could feel, hot in the middle of her back, the attention and intent of the chasing Wildren. Ahead, the sharp line of the horizon grew thicker and blacker, but stayed flat. There was still no sign of the archway that would have to mark the entrance to the white cave.

Then the world transformed, faster than blinking, into a pencil-sketch of itself, bright colours replaced by faint strokes of grey, anything that had previously registered as neutral - the sky, most of the ground - turning pristine white, cleaner and brighter than even the finest paper. The horizon reared up, an impossible hill that darkened and began to swallow the landscape.

In the black maw, a vertical puddle of dark brown metal welled up and resolved itself into a tangle of linked rings. Lienia, either standing guard or alerted by the horde of Wildren on their tail. Pevan's breath froze in her throat, but there was no time for doubt or analysis. The element of surprise would not last.

"Where is my brother?!" She screamed, and the sound drove ahead of her in a wrenching distortion, black and grey and shimmering, carrying all the anger she could muster with it. Lienia tore apart under the strike, scraps and fragments of bronze consciousness scattering across the ground and fading.

The arch of the cave's mouth turned white as they crossed the threshold, colour racing back into the world behind them. In their wake, Realmspace shook, and Pevan treated herself to a moment's grim, inward smile. No going back now.

Immediately, her eyes found Rel, risen halfway to his feet by the back wall of the cave, shackled and collared in the chains of a steel-grey Separatist whose name she'd never learned. On the floor at his feet, Atla hunched with his head clutched in his hands. Chag had dropped back behind her, even the faint sense of his emotional presence - afraid, exhilarated, nursing anger to use against the next Separatist - all but lost against the background riot.

No time to think the situation through. Filling her mind with the seamless metal ring around Rel's neck, stoking up her anger, she bawled, "Release him!" Immediately, she dodged sideways, expecting a burst of speech-fuelled destruction, hoping to get closer while the Wilder dealt with it, but nothing happened.

Stupid. The white cave was word-safe, like the Court. Something in the Realmspace here sucked the toxic emotions out of human speech. There were other ways to bring her Wild Power to bear, but already the grey Wilder was uncoiling a chain limb, weaving it into a mail sheet that rose towards her like a net.

Chag shot across in front of her, a black-gold blur, leaving pure creative will in his wake. His thought, Water, swept out towards the Wilder, and the chain sheet splashed to the floor of the cave. White stone shook with the Wilder's radiated pain, and in its clutches Rel gasped.

She didn't have enough control of the dragonfly's limbs to manipulate Wild Power by gesture. She veered around a stabbing, dull-grey limb, feeling the Wilder's hatred in it as a rippling current through her guts. Again, Chag crossed ahead of her, but whatever he tried had no visible effect. Still, it bought her the chance to slip in closer again while the Wilder flailed after him.

Rel's face was tight with agony, eyes wide, teeth bared. He had his hands clenched in his own shirt, pulling at it hard enough that it was starting to tear. Trying to keep from reaching up to touch the collar, probably. The grey Wilder could kill him any moment, might even do so by accident. She couldn't tell whether the pain that kept Atla subdued came from the Wilder, or from the Guide's own Gifted sensitivity to the emotional disturbance.

BREAK. Pevan forced the thought into Rel's chains, pushing her will over the instinctive belief that thinking a thing could not make it so, demanding that the Wilder conform to her logic. Collar and shackles burst, and Pevan swooped low over Rel's shoulder as he slumped to his knees. Bad sign. She had to twist sharply in the air, the strain on her wings slicing fire down her back, to keep from running right into the back wall.

She felt the cave shudder as Chag followed her example and freed Atla. The tremor rolled back in echo as the Wilder gave the Second-Realm equivalent of a bellow of frustration. How long would they have before reinforcements arrived? There were normally more Separatists than this in the cave, but maybe most of them had gone to wherever they were holding Taslin.

A low, gravelly moan rose through the rock around them, the sound of Realmspace into which too much emotion was pouring. The shattered metal of the steel Wilder's limbs gave off faint traces of evil brown smoke as it speared past Pevan's face. Injured though it was, it had clearly been chosen as a guard for good reasons.

Holding the metalwork in her mind, binding it to the image of a chain pulled tight between pitons in the rock, Pevan swooped clear. Her logic sent a pulse of pain through the front of her brain as the Wilder fought back, but though her flight wavered, her wings skipping a beat, she held firm. Below, Rel had crawled over to Atla and started to pull him towards the cave-mouth. Outside, Realmspace boiled with far too many feral, predatory Wildren, and Pevan had a second to pray that whatever was keeping them out held.

Chag cut past her, and she felt the pressure in her mind lift a bit as he brought his own will to bear on the Wilder. In his wake, the air twisted with potentially deadly vortices of abused Second-Realm logic. He started to shout something, but cut off as new chains lashed out from the coil still hanging on the wall.

He twisted in flight and dropped into a sharp dive. A scream escaped Pevan as one of the chains almost tore his left wings off, and then she was charging down after him. She let her grip on the Wilder go and howled at it in desperate anger. The cave picked up the sound, echoing it back from every direction, the emotion piling in with it.

Chag's form blurred, and by the time he hit the ground, flat on his back, he was human again. Re-echoing anger burned the fear out of Pevan, left her barely enough awareness to note the little man's eyes opening, alert and only momentarily stunned before she levelled out to scream again at the Wilder. It had curled in on itself before the rebounding torrent of Pevan's rage, huddling in an oddly floral shape on the wall.

This time, her shout ripped through whatever kept the white cave word-safe, a punch composed of pure, black air that trailed rings of shockwave and drew a fresh moan from the cave walls. It faded as it struck the Wilder, but the creature still convulsed under the impact. Pevan gritted teeth a dragonfly didn't really have and accelerated.

"Rust it!" Chag's shout rippled through the air behind her, but she caught his meaning. The Wilder hung on the wall as if it had been there a long time. She could feel its weakness, could forget that it was a weakness she'd inflicted. Concentrating so hard that she stopped breathing, she pushed her thoughts forward ahead of her, pushed the steel chain forward in time until its age matched how frail it had become.

The Wilder fought back, and for a moment its image of youth - a fragment of a glimpse of the Gallery of Neonates, a rolling ocean of newborn joy and colour - stopped her mind, sapped at her determination to fight. She lashed out again with a snarl, and the dull, even grey of the metal grew pocked with brown marks.

A flicker of motion gave her just enough warning to veer past the Wilder's next attack, only the slippery, frantic instability of the dragonfly's flight saving her from the burst of turbulence the Wilder sent at her. At the very limit of her wings' strength, every ridge in them burning like a salted wound, she brought herself around to face the Wilder again and renewed the pressure.

Chag's mind joined hers in the attack, the sudden intimacy of his presence like an arm around her, bearing her up, carrying her forward. She seized his strength - there was less of it than she'd expected - and where her eyes ran across the Wilder, its pockmarks spread like plague sores. It gave a final, incoherent burst of Second-Realm communication that charred gouges into the roof above it and crumbled to dust.

It took Pevan four attempts and another near miss with the cave's back wall to get her flight back to a hover. By the time she had, the three men were on their feet, all three hesitating half-way up the cave toward the mouth. The Realmspace there was distorted as if seen through a badly-ground lens, and the blur of colours beyond boded ill for an escape attempt.

"Rel, status?" Pevan kept her voice as neutral as she could, her face pointed away from her brother, but already the cave was settling back down in the wake of the fight, and her words made no impression.

She turned to look at him as he let out a long, grim sigh. When he spoke, his voice was hoarse and quiet. "Gonna need a good night's sleep soon. We're going back to the First Realm?"

"If we get out of here." It was no surprise that Rel recognised her despite the dragonfly form. When he didn't jump to stupid conclusions, he could usually be relied on to think faster and more astutely even than was normal for a Clearseer. And he knew her very well. She went on, "Enough logic left for some Clearseeing?"

He nodded, blinking. His eyes went wide as he embraced his Gift, and then he turned to study the cave-mouth. Beside him, Atla frowned up at her. "Pevan?" He, too, was hoarse, but he managed to imbue her name with a tide of confusion that actually did shake a final ripple from the rocks around them.

"Yup. Find us a route out of here, kiddo."

"Where... uh, where to? Gorhilt?" He swallowed and hugged himself. Inwardly, Pevan cursed. She couldn't blame the boy for being shaken, but the rest of the Separatists had to be somewhere, and it was only a matter of time before the ferals outside got in.

"Ilbertin." Rel ground the word out like his teeth were millstones. "If they can't have me, they want Soan, the Clearseer there."

"Ilbertin." Pevan wished she could close her eyes to picture a map, but the memory just about answered. "That's the Af Sherim, right?"

Atla straightened, still pale. "I think I can find that."

"Pevan..." For a moment, she took Chag's uneasy tone for a worry about returning to the scene of his most infamous crime, but then she followed his pointing finger toward the back of the cave.

Fine rods of metal, silver, copper and brass, were spooling out from the back wall, writhing in the air like unearthed worms as the Wildren they constituted rearranged themselves. The motions seemed sluggish, as if something in the rock was holding them back, or the tension in the Realmspace obstructing them.

"Get us a way out." Pevan put on her best Dora voice, every syllable laid like a brick in the sentence. She turned away from the men and dug deep into the well of the dragonfly's power. Heat filled her, and within, she found her anger again. There would be a reckoning for what the Separatists had done to her life. Behind her, Chag plaintively asked what he should be doing, and Rel snapped a curt response.

The Realmspace of the cave dragged at the approaching Wildren, too close to its capacity to hold traces of emotion. If that capacity overflowed, the resulting storm of Second-Realm logic would be deadly to humans and Wildren alike, but the Separatists would do - had to do - everything in their power to prevent that happening. She could slow them down by making it harder for them.

Blazing with Wild Power, her wings trailing flickers of jade-green flame, she charged, screaming. The stones of the cave howled, a sound that might have been the primeval ancestor of fingernails on a slate. Pevan envisioned a bubble of her awareness, her hatred, spreading out around the dragonfly, pressing up against the walls, filling the whole space with rage.

On the back wall, the copper and silver were pressed back against the rock. The brass straightened out, though, its squirming reduced to a faint tremor. Where it stuck into the surface of her bubble, she felt a sharp pain at the front of her mind. She met it with anger, thinking of her charge as a hammer-blow, the Wilder a nail half-driven and in need of finishing off.

Forcing herself not to cringe, she aimed her flight directly at the flat end of the Wilder's narrow body, flung her image ahead of her. The Wilder gave ground, slipping back inch after inch into the white stone. Ripples, sketched in rough greys, spread out across the wall, then vanished in confusion as they met others spreading out from the two pinned Wildren.

The bubble burst. Pevan felt it like a stab in the eye, a flash of lightning drilling all the way through to the centre of her brain. She screamed and spun in flight, the aches of stressed wings all but imperceptible as her mind burned. Her lingering, attenuated sense of up and down vanished, and the shining, spiralling Wildren flashed across her field of vision as she tumbled.

As conscious understanding gave way, allowed Second Realm logic its head for a moment, she found a fraction of a second for clear thought and flicked her wings. It was enough, just about, to assert the dragonfly form again and send herself zipping back up the cave, the pain of her broken anger beginning to fade back towards throbbing fatigue.

Ahead, Chag turned to face her, clearly thinking to cover her somehow. Out of the dragonfly form, though, he couldn't possibly manage enough power to make a difference. Could he? Atla crouched on the floor just behind him, and as she watched Rel leaned down to say something to the boy. The cave-mouth had darkened, and somehow that made it seem further off.

A low rumble and a shake running through the ground announced the Wildren behind her getting free. Chag's knees buckled with the quake and he staggered backwards into Atla. The two of them went sprawling, Chag's flailing hand snagging Rel's sleeve and almost pulling him off his feet too.

Pevan found she could feel the Wildren attack coming, overcharged Realmspace thrumming as silver spears flashed outwards towards them. The density of the air dragged the moment out. Desperately, she threw herself forwards, down towards her stumbling comrades. Instinct drove her to a futile attempt at Warding, the image of the Gift swelling outward and stalling the Wildren in their pursuit. Somehow, something did spread out of her, and she cringed, expecting any moment the agony of contact.

Up at the cave-mouth, the feral predators finally breached the Separatists' defences.

They poured in in a torrent, packed too tightly together probably even to tell themselves apart. Atla's scream vanished beneath the rising groan of the Realmspace. Pevan's ears popped. Rel landed beside her, and for a sickening moment she thought he must have collapsed, but he turned his head and met her gaze, face locked into grim neutrality.

She scrunched her eyes shut and pushed her face into the stone, still waiting for the oncoming ferals to strike whatever it was she'd produced by her desperate act. She could still feel the flimsy, fibrous webwork of it, spreading out to the cave walls, filling the open space. Something shot through, a weapon from the Separatists, but either it wove between the strands of her shield, or she made space for it.

Either way, while it felt like someone had pulled a threaded needle right through from the back of her brain to her forehead, it didn't feel like paralysing, incapacitating pain and the end of her consciousness. When the wave of feral Second-Realm awareness struck from the opposite direction, she clung to that sense of passing through, and the Wildren became like ghosts, leaving a chill trail in their wake but not destroying her.

More uncomfortable was the rising heat of the air itself. It prickled on her cheeks, made her clothes feel heavy, left her brow sticky with sweat. Her blood roared and pounded in her ears, and her headache deepened as her pulse clashed with the wild rhythm of the strife among the Wildren. She tightened every muscle she could, fighting to resist futile reflex attempts to mitigate the myriad discomforts.

Just as it all reached the brink of overwhelming her, Second-Realm logic gave under the strain. The image of a cave exploded and collapsed, all at once, closely followed by the sensations that had made it up. Even the bulk of the headache and fatigue seemed to fade, leaving Pevan nothing more than a racing pulse and the tight-chested feeling that if she didn't move, she'd die.

And yet, there was nothing to do. Anything she did would be more likely to attract the attention of some Wilder or other than to get her to safety, if indeed there was safety anywhere near. It felt a lot like logic burnout, but she still felt conscious and whole - there was too much lingering pain for anything less. Not to mention there might not be a Four Knot ready to answer.

"Come on, move!" Rel's voice, close by and crisp as frost against the void. She was about to protest when the darkness shuddered and a pair of straight, glowing lines speared across it. It could only be Atla's Gift at work, imposing just enough First-Realm logic on the world to give them a route out.

Pevan threw herself at those lines, flicked half-remembered wings and shot into flight. Colours too bright and mad even for a rainbow swirled up and down within the narrow confines of the light, but she pushed them away with ever-stronger wingbeats. Bones strained against each other for a sickening moment as she realised she couldn't tell whether she was a bird or a dragonfly, but then the darkness brightened and the question fell away, forgotten.

She slammed into something bony and hard. Arms clamped around her, and the blessed, ordinary colours of an ordinary scene spun as she flailed into a sprawling tumble. The sharp jab of an elbow into her flank told her it was definitely a person she'd hit. Still, she scrambled away from him as fast as possible the moment the fall ended in thick, short-cropped grass.

Flopping over onto her back, she pulled her scattered wits back together. The sky above was a colour somewhere between pink and grey, flecked with black stars. Craning her head to one side and then the other, she found herself on an undulating, flowing hillside, rising towards a copse of leafless, green-trunked trees on the right, dropping away to something too chaotic to make sense of to her left.

Rel entered her field of vision from down-slope, leaned down to offer her a hand up. "You alright?" His words barely flickered past his lips before vanishing.

It took them two attempts before she was back on her feet, and longer still before her breath recovered enough to let her speak. "I'll live. You?" Looking past him, she saw no sign of Atla, and for a moment her heart seized up all over again, but Rel must have seen something in her face; he pointed behind her, and sure enough, the Guide was standing a few feet away, staring uphill.

"We're fine." Rel's tone betrayed little relief, but then he'd never been good at graciously accepting help. "You had us worried for a bit. What did you do back there?"

"Hell if I know." She turned to where Chag was still lying on the floor, groaning quietly. Must have been him she landed on. "You alright down there?" The question slipped, ghost-like, past her lips and gusted away towards the hilltop.

He waved a hand in a gesture too vague to make out. Probably he was just trying to put a brave face on whatever bruises she'd left on him this time. She crossed over to him in two long, quick strides and grabbed the arm before he could lower it. He didn't fight as she hauled him to his feet.

The look on his face was more grim than dazed, and with both Rel and Atla safe, there was no excuse for that. She reached a hand around the back of his head, letting her fingers tangle in his unkempt, lanky hair, and pulled him to her. He had time for the slightest of startled clucks before she pressed her lips to his.

She lifted her other hand, rested it on his shoulder, as he caught on and his arms went around her back. The coldness went out of her. She closed her eyes and lost herself in the kiss for a moment, just happy to touch, to hold. It was nice to kiss someone without having to tilt her head back at all - they really were a good match.

Not that it was a very good kiss. Chag's lips were soft, and more than a little bit limp with it. He held her, but not tightly, not with the kind of passion she expected after all his advances over the last month. Maybe he was a bit dazed, after all.

Pevan pulled back, not letting the little man go, but giving him a moment to recover wits that were clearly scattered - his mouth hung open as she turned to glare at Rel. Not that she needed to check, but her brother was glaring at her, his face set tight with a mix of confusion and disapproval.

"Something got up your nose?" The quip came out of her lighter than she'd meant it to, and she didn't even feel it escaping her lips. She'd wanted to sting him into turning away, but instead all she got was his scowl softening a little and turning inwards.

After a moment, he raised an eyebrow and said, "Just wondering if this is really the best time?"

"None better." She turned back to Chag, whose eyes were still wide, his gaze jumping all around her face. "You weren't expecting that either, huh?" Her words slipped out of her mouth sideways, as if stolen by a stiff breeze blowing uphill.

"Huh." He nodded. From the sound of his voice, he'd probably been trying for a word, but it stuck somewhere in his throat. He swallowed, licked his lips and tried again. "This is really... I mean..."

"Relax, we'll work it out." She leaned forward again, kissed the corner of his mouth, rested her forehead against his so their noses were touching. His wavering breath tickled her top lip. She closed her eyes. "Uh, guys?" The tone of Atla's voice brought her head up and round sharply enough that she almost headbutted Chag. The Guide was standing a little way up-slope, hands pressed to his temples, face screwed up tight with pain. "We need to get out of here. Some of those Wildren are coming back."

* * *

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