Saturday, 24 August 2013

The Second Realm 5.3: Show Me the Way to Go Home

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A Light in Her Violet Eyes

3. Show Me the Way to Go Home

The oncoming horde of feral Wildren was a tidal wave cresting in Atla's mind. Drawback under it sucked his thoughts away toward the vortex where the Separatists' lair had been. Gritting his teeth, he clamped his hands to the sides of his head as if to hold his skull together. It certainly felt like he wasn't succeeding. He'd felt fatigue before, but nothing like the hot line of pain carving through from just inside his right eye to the centre of his brain.

He turned and broke into a run, downhill, past Rel, past the startled pair of Pevan and Chag, still half-holding each other. They'd picked an odd time to kick off their relationship, but Atla hadn't missed the look on Pevan's face when she'd realised their mad rescue attempt had succeeded. Chag had clearly finally earned the Gatemaker's trust.

Atla put it out of his burning mind, shouting for them to follow. There was no time to make a proper Route anywhere, they just needed to get away from the torrent of hunger and menace boiling out of the remains of the white cave. He'd have to navigate as they went, until they could catch a breather somewhere.

Disrupted, half-torn-apart by the overload and resulting collapse behind them, the local Realmspace didn't favour them. Down at the bottom of Atla's brain, where he kept his Gift, chaotic currents raced back and forth, scattering and reforming like shoals of fish. There were pockets of stability, trapped bubbles of air beneath a roiling, boiling ocean, but none of them were large enough to last very long if disturbed.

Further afield, things did start to stabilise a little, but it was as if there was a hidden reef to mark the boundary of the devastation. It would slow the pursuit down somewhat if they could get past it, but it would slow them down first, and they didn't have much of a lead to play with.

Beneath his feet, the green grass of the hillside gave way to what looked like a carpet of mushrooms. They wobbled under each step, threatening to turn his ankles or trip him, but he forced himself to concentrate on the way ahead. This wasn't the First Realm. Here, if he willed it hard enough, he could ignore what his logic told him physics ought to require.

"We need a Route!" Pevan's voice, harsh but as fierce as ever. She barely sounded out of breath. What did she expect him to do? The words struck past his ear, trailing fire that he had to flinch away from. "Rel, stop! We need to buy Atla some time!"

Atla almost stumbled. He couldn't find wind to shout back that there was nothing he could do.

Rel's reply was hoarse, "No time. He's too green!" In Atla's Gift, the Clearseer's judgement boiled almost as much as it stung in his chest.

"Only thing he's done wrong... so far," Pevan shouted back, finally showing some sign of human lung capacity, "is... helping you get your... self captured."

Atla's foot bounced off a particularly springy mushroom and he tumbled into a rolling, sprawling fall. Fragments of the surface rubbed off under his hands as he stretched out to try to keep himself upright. His flailing made no difference, and he got a face-full of whatever the stuff was. It didn't smell like a fungus, close up; it was too sour and inorganic, with hints of pitch and charcoal.

Somewhere behind him, another bitter gripe from Rel blew a gout of steam through Gift. Blood roaring in his ears stole the words, but he didn't need to hear them. He could feel his own fear writhing in the deeps of his Gift, a minnow trapped ahead of the onrushing bore of the Wildren. It was that sensation, second-hand and detached, rather than anything his body felt, that drove him back up onto his hands and knees, scrabbling forwards, already feeling the futility of it.

Hands seized his shirt, pulling it tight at his throat and launching him onwards, just enough to steady him and get him running, bent double. After a few paces, he managed to straighten up and look back in thanks. Pevan, her argument with her brother forgotten, waved a hand at him, pointing ahead.

The reef where the edge of the distortion met stabler Realmspace came into view. He could feel something of its wrenched structure, oddly similar to a Sherim, through his Gift, but visually it looked completely different. Instead of tightly-knotted currents flowing around a webwork of hidden corals, a curtain of thick brown hair fell across the world, waving back and forth as if in a heavy wind.

No, it wasn't hair, he realised. It had the gloss and shine of well-tended hair, but that was an illusion of distance. Squinting, still sprinting forwards, he made out tiny silver needles or thorns glistening as the vines of the curtain whipped through the air. Small wonder that none of the Wildren beyond had strayed close; they'd have been flayed to shreds.

He looked over his shoulder, caught Pevan's eye, tried to shake his head. His balance faltered, but he managed to stagger steady again. Pevan returned a hopeless shrug. She didn't say it, but he could almost feel her thinking it's all on you now. Behind her, Rel's face was tight with exertion and something that was probably anger.

Fighting for breath, Atla closed his eyes again and tried to judge what they could do. The wave of Wildren would be on them in under a minute. The reef ahead probably cut that even shorter. Realmspace seethed around them, threatening an explosive reaction at the slightest provocation. He could feel his Gift trembling.

Above them, the sky was mostly clear. Wings would shake local Realmspace, but it probably was the least of all available risks. Gritting his teeth, Atla pointed upward as vigorously as he could, almost wrenching his shoulder as he wavered to keep his balance. The ache told as he spread his arms and threw himself skywards.

Even with everything else, he couldn't help cringing at the burst of flame-coloured plumage where his wings took. Actual fire flaring up from the overloaded Realmspace didn't help. He had to look like a stupid show-off to the others as they fought their way into the air, though in the chaos, he couldn't get a clear read on their feelings.

Beating his wings felt like trying to hold back an oncoming avalanche. The ache in his shoulder spread across his back and up into his skull, but the sky yielded. The deadly, flickering tangle of the reef dropped away. Driven beyond consciousness by anger and pain, the pursuing Wildren didn't rise in pursuit. Below, Rel was well aloft, his mind held so tightly under control that his wings barely brushed sparks from the charged air.

For a moment, Chag seemed to be struggling, Pevan hanging low to help him. Then, somehow, he was up, a petrified smear in Atla's Gift, trailing jagged rifts in the roiling water. His movement stayed erratic as he and Pevan climbed into formation.

Only when Atla was able to push back his Gift and open his eyes did he see why; Chag hung in the air as an oversized fly, all grotesque eye-bulbs and many-jointed, hairy legs. The blur of his wings left a shimmering trail behind him, slanted slightly as he edged closer to Pevan and she edged away.

Through the wind of their flight, Atla heard her say, "I wish you wouldn't use that form."

"It's... faster for me... than wings." At least Chag had the decency to sound tired. "You want me... alive... or not?"

"Isn't that the question?" Pevan's acerbic tone made the words dance and crackle as they speared away towards the reef, already far below. She looked up, then, and called, "Get us that Route, Atla!"

Easy for her to say. His head pounded as he sunk himself back into his Gift. It rose to meet him, eager to be away. Had he ever felt anything like that from it before? He shoved the thought away, and spread feelers of thought through his inner ocean.

Something was wrong at the Court. Now that they were clear of the reef, there was a pandemonium there that was impossible to ignore. Wildren - thousands upon thousands of them - piled against the black, immovable walls. Where normally the Gift-Givers' fortress felt like a mountain in his Gift, now it felt like a towering stormcloud. One of the spires had fallen and lay flat along the horizon, a dark knife slicing between land and sky.

He couldn't think about that now. The Sherim were the fence-posts at the very edges of the Realm, almost evenly-spaced along a shape that intuition told him was a circle, even if its actual dimensions eluded First-Realm conception. There were seventeen of them, pits of near-infinite depth in the seabed, and normally they were clear, if distant.

Not today. With Realmspace so clouded and shaken, its terrain so twisted, Atla could only find... thirteen? Fourteen? The vortex of the white cave and the hordes surging around the Court hid far too much, frothy, fluffy obstructions to his Gifted perception. A sinking feeling in his gut told him Af's Sherim was probably one of the hidden ones.

He counted carefully anyway, clinging to bitter hope that he might be wrong. Fortunately, he could make out the extra-wide space between the Gorhilt and Sivristin Sherim, far ahead and off to the left somewhere. Counting round from that gap, Af's Sherim was the twelfth, and sure enough, it was on the far side of the white cave.

Straight lines didn't matter in the Second Realm, but unless he could get a clear hold on the target Sherim with his mind, there was no way he could start finding Routes to it. Trying to reach around the obstruction with just his Gift felt like trying to strangle an eel. Thrashing and writhing, the Gift fought back, as if terrified of whatever it was had happened to the Separatists' lair.

The vortex was still shrinking, Realmspace around the base of its spike rising to absorb some of the energy bleeding out from the heart of the storm. Currents surging through the boundary were beginning to carry a few of the trapped Wildren with them, but the fear, frustration and anger that the creatures gave off hung in the water like sour poisons. Whatever Route he chose had better give them a wide berth.

Atla was just starting to spread his Gift out when a sudden boiling nearby made him flinch. It was just enough to save him. A web of hatred and pain burned through the air where he'd been. Behind it was a tangled network of gold threads that dripped like honey around and through one another, coiling ever inwards. The loops of the Wilder were faintly reminiscent of an oversized flower, but squashed and skewed somehow.

A Separatist, one of the trio that had ambushed Atla and Rel when they first went to the white cave. Lacking options, Atla dived, shouting a warning ahead of himself in a cloud of black arrows. The others didn't really need it - they'd seen the Separatist's attack and already the spikes of their adrenaline were burning into his Gift. They followed with surprising neatness, slotting into a diamond formation behind him.

The Separatist moved without apparent urgency, floating down towards them, not so much moving itself as allowing the Second Realm to change position in relation to it. Its next attack speared right through the middle of the human formation, only Pevan's quick reactions allowing her and Chag to peel away and dodge.

"A Route!" Rel's scream was no attempt to fight back, the anger in his words wasted in a burst of not-quite-orange light that did little except lift the pitch of Atla's fatigue headache. "Get us a Route, now!"

A Route would give them the advantage of a stable logic to fight back. It wasn't like Atla could gainsay Rel's order. Another vicious, roiling attack struck after them, but either the Separatist was incompetent or toying with them. Atla lashed out with his Gift, aiming high and in the vague direction of the distant Sherim.

The Route arced across the sky, invisible, Realmspace fragmenting and crystallising into new patterns along its length. Beneath it, the white cave spasmed, spitting out most of the trapped Wildren, the shockwaves crushing others, sending ragged streamers of mind spiralling away into the waiting appetites of bottom feeders and opportunists down on the seabed.

It wasn't elegant or precise, but the Route probably would take them closer to where they wanted to be. Now he just had to pry it open enough for the other Gifted to find it. Totally absorbed in his Gift, Atla felt the Separatist's next attack before it came, felt the creature's hate-filled attention falling on him like a sudden sucking undertow of frigid water. He weaved aside automatically, then beat his wings sharply and headed for the start of his Route.

Pevan and Chag were falling behind, held at bay by the Separatist's attacks. The Wilder had at least enough understanding of Gifted to know they were stronger together. And on the wing, it was too hard to muster Wild Power for an attack.

"Rel, get Pevan!" Atla's shout twisted and jerked in flight, almost catching the Clearseer despite Atla having deliberately aimed away from him. At least the near miss got his attention, and he rose on swift, strong wing-beats to Atla's level.

Shouting forwards, his words a swarm of long-bodied, dagger-like insects, Rel said, "No, get us to the Route, they can catch up."

"They're cut off!" Atla ducked his head to look back, then had to corkscrew violently downwards as the Separatist struck out. Jab after jab, lances of golden light fenced his descent, kept him twisting as he dropped. Much lower, and the bewildered Wildren below would sense him and rise in hunger.

Above, Rel's voice came in staccato bursts, incoherent single syllables buzzing in a cloud around the Separatist until its attack faltered. Atla pulled himself out of his dive, nursing new, wearying aches as he hauled himself back towards the fraying end of his Route. His hold on it was slipping.

Pevan joined Rel's assault, a howl of rage rippling out of her like a shoal of panicked fish through Atla's Gift. Somewhere in the chaos, Chag slipped past beneath the creature and, flapping frantically, levelled with Atla. The thief's emotions were a riot, and this close, they pummelled Atla, shaking his grip on the Route, blurring everything he felt through his Gift. He gritted his teeth and forced his wings to lift him another stroke, then another.

Fortunately, Chag's wings were too weak to follow, and he dropped back a precious handful of feet. Atla shook his head and regretted it as the lump of his fatigue bounced around the inside of his skull. The thief's weakness might be blessed relief, but it was also a growing problem. Every ragged feather that dropped from his wings was fatigue taking another step towards getting the better of him. They needed to get onto something resembling ground soon.

The Route was a confused mess of sensations, still lacking any First-Realm-logical organisation. A long series of not-quite-concentric circles naturally formed the boundaries of some sort of transparent pipe, but none of the long, narrow strips of colour threaded through them really rationalised into a floor. There were other feelings lurking in there, too: wet, misty air, the scents of tar and spices, organic, muscular shapes sliding beneath downy fur.

Pevan's voice rose in a yelp of alarm, and instinctively Atla craned round to look. The motion sent him yawing wildly, sliding sideways in the air, and only the fact that Chag fell into exactly the same mistake prevented the two colliding. Up above, Pevan had dropped back from the Separatist, and was now ducking and weaving through a vicious maze of projectiles spat out by the Wilder.

They were too high up for Atla to make a difference directly. He hauled his flight back level and resumed his ascent towards the end of the Route. It hung in his Gift, streamers of Realmspace trailing off it where it was beginning to come apart. Desperation pushed him higher, his shoulders singing in pain.

He was almost up to the Route, close enough to start to act. Chag, still struggling, was too much of a distraction for Atla to sense Pevan and Rel clearly, but from their shouts, they still fought. Chag was the one in urgent need of relief, and he hung only a few feet behind and below. Atla closed his eyes and reached forward afresh, setting new bonds on the trembling Route.

There was just enough time to force a few of the Route's trapped sensations into something resembling sense, and then new gravity caught him. Suddenly, he was flying head-first at mottled, colourful ground, wings spread in battering defiance of the headwind. He managed to pull himself into a ball, his wings turned back into arms that hugged his knees, praying that the quilt-like look of the ground would translate into the impact.

His prayer was half-answered; he landed on his shoulders, jagged pain shooting up his spine as he bounced, heels-over-head backwards. He fetched up face-down and sprawled out on something that felt more or less like bedding, albeit lumpy. The whole surface wobbled underneath him, as if it was up on springs.

Chag hit nearby with a curse, shockwaves from the impact tossing Atla up and down on the bouncing ground. Atla used the impetus to roll onto his side, but when he started to get to his feet, he slipped almost immediately. Still, at least he could look 'up' - back the way they'd come - to see what was going on.

Cold fists seized his bones when he did. The Separatist seemed to fill the sky, glaring down at him despite a complete lack of facial features. Then a black shape obscured it. Atla flinched, almost threw himself to the ground, but the shape resolved into a falling human, shrinking rapidly as it approached. Some trick of perspective caused by the edge of the Route, then.

The falling body was Rel's, the Clearseer not looking down as he fell, his brown wings trailing loose feathers. Above him, the sky darkened again and Pevan began a more controlled descent, her wings already forsaken. Unlike her brother, who was an increasingly tempestuous coil of emotional countercurrents, Pevan showed up in Atla's Gift only as a tightly-focussed, vibrating pebble, shooting through the water as if fired from an ancient firearm. She had some plan in mind.

Sensation ceased.

It wasn't even pain. Just... whiteness. It lasted however long it lasted, and then Atla felt himself reeling, reflex just about keeping his legs underneath him so he didn't fall. Where he clung to the Route, there was the scalding of hands plunged into boiling water. No, the feeling of trying to plug a hole in a boiling kettle with bare hands.

The Separatist had attacked the Route. Lances of its mind, vastly more in tune with the natural laws of the Second Realm, speared through the threads of Atla's weave, pumping pure hatred into them. The raw emotions bled through the Gift and reached for Atla's mind. Somewhere in the depths of his Gift, right down at the base of his skull, the leviathan thrashed like a mad thing. Atla felt a hoarse burn in his throat and only then realised he was screaming.

Screaming would not help. The violet stream of his pain wasn't even reaching as far as the mouth of the Route, let alone the Separatist hovering beyond. The quickest route to the Separatist was through his spasming, overloaded Gift. Too drunk on pain to question the impulse, Atla screamed in his own mind.

Under his feet, Realmspace shook, and the Separatist recoiled. Echoes of the tremor sloshed back and forth between the springs of the Route and the currents of his Gift. He managed to open his eyes, found Chag at his side, holding him upright, the two of them swaying with yet another shock running through the ground. Rel landing, dazed and fatigued.

Atla screwed his eyes shut and cut off his mental screaming. He reached down inside himself, stroked some of the fear and pain away from his Gift. The sensation that came back was of the lank, sweaty fur and trembling of a dog tormented close to its limit. He sympathised, did what he could to let the hidden shape of the leviathan know.

There hadn't been a second impact. Rel had landed. Pevan should have been just behind him. Where was she? Atla extricated himself from his Gift and looked up again. The sky was almost bare, smudgy grey with stained-glass patterns at its fringes. It took him a moment even to find the shining gold shape of the Separatist. The Wilder had retreated quite some distance, by the look of it, and tarnished with it. But where was Pevan?

He was just coming to the wrenching point of acceptance when something cut the Separatist almost clean in two. For a violent moment, emotions exploded through his Gift like fireworks underwater, just outside the end of the Route, and then the Separatist was gone, reduced to glittering dust drifting down towards the waiting hunger of ferals at the bottom of the Realm.

Chag said something, the words lost in a light-headed buzzing as a ripple went through the Route. Somehow, Atla found, he'd managed to hold onto the whole thing, the fine, elegant arch of it still reaching right across the Second Realm's sky, high over the ruins of the white cave. The ripple - Pevan, bloated with Wild Power, finally crossing the threshold of the Route - bounced back along the arch, and Atla braced for another headrush, burying his face in Chag's shoulder.

When it hit, though, the second rush was gentler, little more than a momentary blurring of vision. Atla straightened, his head feeling too heavy for his neck, laden with fatigue, but the rest of his mind coming back into order. A giant dragonfly was hovering a couple of feet away.

He stumbled backwards, blinking in surprise, but Chag's arm across his back kept him from falling. The dragonfly dropped out of the air suddenly, the blur of its motion resolving into Pevan. Her Wild Power dissipated, a cloud of bubbles rushing for the surface of his Gift and vanishing before they got there.

One eyebrow sharply arched, face turned only enough that her words shot over his shoulder rather than into his throat, she said, "You want to take your hands off my man?" The humour in her tone didn't make it any less deadly, and Atla couldn't help but flinch sideways, almost pushing Chag off his feet. The ground really wasn't steady enough for standing on.

It took all his balance and self-control to take a couple of wobbling steps clear of the little man. His knees ached, but he had to keep them slightly bent so the rocking surface didn't topple him again. Pevan threw her arms around Chag, holding his face to her shoulder for a moment as the gesture almost bore the thief to the ground.

"Can we focus, please?" Acerbic, stinging, Rel's voice swarmed past Pevan and Chag, and Atla had to duck out of its way. The Clearseer had made it upright, though from the way he held a hand pressed to his forehead, something in the fight with the Separatist had hit him hard. His eyes were half-lidded, sunken.

A faint shadow flittered over Chag's shoulder, Pevan whispering something just by his ear. He nodded in response, his hands scrunching up the fabric of her blouse as they tightened. Then the couple pulled apart. Atla guessed from Pevan's stance that the look she shot at Rel was a hostile one, but he couldn't see more than the edge of her face from where he stood. Rel was glaring at Chag, anyway, and didn't notice.

The Route now felt like a long, steep slide dropping away somewhere beneath their feet. With his Gift still active - not like he could just turn it off, after all, particularly not in its current mood - Atla had the uncomfortable sensation that he was standing on the vertical face of a wall. It sent tingling aches across the soles of his feet, which couldn't believe they weren't slipping, losing grip.

Dissonance between sight and Gifted perception made his brain feel like the two hemispheres were grinding against each other. The sooner he could get the others moving onwards, put an end to the awkward, tense standoff between them, the better. Closing his eyes seemed to help a little, and with his Gift running at heel, he felt out across the undulating ground for the point that would give way to whatever the Route offered next.

The other Gifted turned their attention on him, the collective weight of their curiosity and frustration a wave of considerable power that it took all Atla's sure-footedness to step over. A surge of heat from his Gift felt oddly like irritation, but he held it down, forced his mood steady. The Route was safety only in the most temporary, insecure way. It still paid to be careful.

He moved over the ground as slowly as he could, though the others were short on patience. He'd please no-one if he rushed and missed something. It was a question of feeling where the roots tying the Route to the ground were strongest. That would be the point most likely to accept a human mind without disintegrating.

Different threads of the Route had different feels, microscopic patches of incongruous experience bleeding through into his awareness. Colours, textures, smells, even faint hints of emotion that warned just how dangerous the Second Realm could be - let one of those claim him, and if he didn't black out immediately, there was every chance of it driving him to a psychotic outburst.

Still, the right sensation might finally pull the Route together into logical unity. Atla sifted them, wary all the while of the elastic ground beneath his feet. A sudden splash, as if of cold water across his back, shocked him despite his poise, but even as he gasped, his imagination leapt. His Gift trumpeted challenge, and the ground dropped away beneath him. The rest of the jumble of impressions blurred neatly into rocks, mist, and stone-grey water far below. It still felt wrong, falling when his Gift told him their path was horizontal, but at least it was progress.

Chag screamed, and for a moment all Atla could do was freeze in flight, veins turning to ice at the thought of another attack. But no, there were no Wildren thrashing through his Gift; the thief's fear was all for the unanticipated fall. He trailed the sharp point of a whirlpool in the Gift, but Pevan, almost lost in the roaring currents, was already moving to reassure him. Atla doubted the Gatemaker would have much difficulty calming Chag down.

Not that that got Atla off the hook. Neither Pevan nor her brother was happy about the lack of warning, his Gift told him. He forced his attention back to the Route and the fall. At least if they scolded him for it in the First Realm, there was less likelihood of death from loose language. There was a long way yet to fall - they hadn't even passed the still-churning ruin of the white cave, invisible from the Route but bulging somewhere below them.

A sharp shiver ran through his Gift at the thought of the cave, held his attention there for a moment. The tumult was changing its pattern, folding inside-out, currents switching direction with an unpleasant, intestinal bubbling. Something monolithic and vast was moving in there. Atla could feel his Gift... there was no word for it but 'cowering'.

Around him, narrow, brightly-coloured ribbons of water still fell. They didn't look quite like waterfalls, though; more like water poured from a jug, clear and cohesive. The impression only broke where one struck the lumpen rocks that occasionally protruded from the cliff behind him. There, clouds of shimmering mist struck through with rainbow haloes drifted out into the Route, to pass silently by or brush cold fingers across the cheeks of the falling Gifted.

The cliff itself was a good dozen yards away, behind their feet - or, depending how one looked at it, below them. Atla's brain rebelled for a moment at the ambiguity, his forehead feeling like it might burst before the sudden thump of his fatigue headache, but he squinted and forced himself to accept what his eyes were telling him. It was far easier to believe his Gift was tricking him, for all it wriggled in frustration at the dismissal.

One thing that couldn't be dismissed was the awareness of whatever was happening at the white cave. The Realm itself seemed squeezed by the monster threatening to emerge, a sensation through his Gift to which Atla could not put words. Though the Route remained undisturbed as yet, his eyes found menacing patterns in the mist below, vague shapes beginning to drift away from the cliff that hid whatever-it-was.

Then, clear as day, shining white-golden in through the haze, a thick metal rod began to slide out from the rocks. It emerged almost horizontally at first - or, as his contorted Gift insisted, vertically relative to the Realm as a whole - then bent downwards. Slowly, it coiled around into a spiral, until Atla's mind managed to resolve it as a giant spring.

The rush of fear from both Chag and, more worryingly, Pevan was instantaneous. Even outside his Gift, Atla felt the thrashing burst of Pevan's adrenaline. Chag's shout - "No! Rel, stop her! Atla!" - was redundant; Atla was already leaning back against the air, trying to put himself in Pevan's way. She'd clearly chosen fight over flight.

She barrelled down towards him, and he resisted the urge to twist his neck and try to get a glimpse of her. Instead, he braced for an impact that never came. Rel got there first, steam hissing and crackling off his Clearsight-guided path. Odd that he'd trust Chag over Pevan, but maybe he'd read the rashness in her charge.

Now Atla did turn to look up, and with some sideways slippage in the air, he was able to get a fairly clear view of the Atcar siblings struggling. Below, the spring - what kind of Wilder could be so massive and yet so simple? - had completed a full second coil and was still emerging. Had it spotted them yet?

Rel and Pevan pulled apart, exchanging vigorous hand signals that Atla couldn't read from his angle. He managed not to lose his balance or his cool as Pevan suddenly dropped back into a steep dive, this time without an emotional spike of warning. Flapping his arms, he fought for balance so he could make another intercept attempt, but Pevan pulled up short, level with him. For once the wildness in her eyes didn't seem joyous.

Eyes fixed staring at the Wilder below, she shouted, "Can you do anything to speed us up?"

Atla shrugged, mimed a dive with one hand. "What is that thing?" Even though there was neither wind nor air in the Second Realm, it was impossible to speak without the expectation that the words would be snatched away; you had to shout, or physics would bend to that expectation. It was only the shouting that kept his voice steady.

"Delaventrin." The name stabbed downwards as a spray of scarlet daggers as it left Pevan's lips. "The Separatists' Clearseer. Tell me we're close to the First Realm."

All Atla could do was mime the dive again. His entire wind-pipe felt like a rod of cold stone running through his chest. He couldn't swallow. Even if Delaventrin was still more than half-trapped in the ruins of the white cave, the Wilder's powers were insurmountable.

Pevan nodded, starting to lean forward gracefully in the air. She pressed her hands to the sides of her legs, just below her buttocks. Between that and the air resistance, her clothes were pressed tight against her body, flattering all her best qualities. She looked sleek and strong - not beautiful, exactly, but something more powerful than that. Awesome, perhaps, or at least awe-inspiring.

The Route changed, suddenly and without warning. Atla's feet struck hard, ridged ground, and the stone-grey, hard light of the Second Realm turned a syrupy yellow. He stumbled, but the ground felt right in his Gift, and something guided his feet to good footing. Behind, there were shouts of alarm from Rel and Pevan. Why hadn't he felt this coming?

Ahead, the ground resolved itself into a honeycomb web of... actual honeycomb, from the look of it, albeit giant, its cells each a couple of feet across. The sky stayed harsh, but reflected off the deep pools of honey, the light from it mellowed. His feet seemed drawn to the narrow ridges of comb between the pools, and he closed his eyes to keep from thinking too hard about it.

He could feel Rel and Pevan, both now steady on their feet behind him, bubbling with irritation for his lapse. Behind them, the change in the Route hung like fog, the mangled corpse of a Wilder unfortunate enough to have been in the way when the Route formed. He should have felt that. What had distracted him?

It was a long, agonising moment before Chag emerged from the fog, his legs barely underneath him. What would happen if the thief fell into the honey? Atla shouted, "Pevan, get Chag!" and watched his words burn an angry zig-zag into the air.

Pevan responded just barely quickly enough to keep Chag upright. Rel joined them, his aura of fury fading behind grim, frantic resolve. Twisting to look back over his shoulder, Atla stubbed his toe on the edge of a honeycomb and toppled forwards into a running, tumbling stagger that took long, aching seconds to recover.

The roaring chaos outside the Route rose in his mind as his concentration strayed to his footing. When it reached his ears, it buzzed, and immediately conjured up thoughts of swarming bees. By the time he'd realised what had happened it was too late.

A swarm boiled in at the tail of the Route, anger driving it beyond sanity. Its bees were scattered fragments of Delaventrin's awareness, every one of them suffused with incoherent emotion, all focussed into the Wilder's primal will to lash out at the Gifted who tormented it. The sound and sight of them was overwhelming.

Atla put on a burst of speed, driven by the fresh rush of ice in his blood and a child's utter terror. Despite his best efforts and burning lungs, the other humans gained ground on him. It was impossible to measure the speed of the swarm as it pursued.

Rel caught him up first, having apparently left Chag to fend for himself. Atla could just about make out the little man's mood through his Gift, and it seemed like he'd found his feet at least. Rel waved his hands, attempting to gesture something, but it threw his balance off and he stumbled. His curse nosedived into the honeycomb and lifted the smell of burnt sugar to their noses.

Falling back into stride, apparently so fit that the dead sprint was comfortable for him, the Clearseer shouted, "Where's the Sherim?"

Good question. Between the fire in his lungs and the spreading jelly in his knees, Atla could barely concentrate on his Gift at all. It took all his will to push his awareness forward ahead of them, trying to shake away thought of the deadly pursuit behind.

They were past the vortex at the white cave. The sudden clarity was surprising, welcome except that it revealed a gut-wrenching expanse of emptiness. Wildren ahead of them were scattering before Delaventrin, and there was no sign of the Sherim anywhere near the end of this Route. He pressed out further, but there was a limit to his strength, like the black wall you see when closing your eyes and trying to picture something you can't imagine.

"Atla?" Rel's voice, somehow conveying even more urgency, cut through his effort.

"I'm looking!" It took all the breath he could muster even to wheeze the words. His wrists were flapping uselessly with the pumping of his arms. Behind him, shouting from Pevan probably indicated a forlorn attempt to delay Delaventrin - the Wilder was simply too big to be stopped.

"You don't... know?!" A squeak on the final syllable revealed a fear that Atla had never seen in Rel before, a fear he wouldn't have imagined possible in Federas' Gifted. A new chill spread out through him, even as Rel finished, "Where... is this Route... to, then?"

Atla screwed up his face, every muscle in his jaw and neck tight. He managed, "It... got us past... Delaventrin..." and had to give up, while the feeble sounds dissolved into black motes in front of his face.

Rel actually turned to look at him. It was all Atla could do to snatch a quick glance at him, but that was enough - between exertion and real anger, the Clearseer's scowl could have melted through stone. He even had breath to sound scornful. "We're going... to die... out here... if you don't... do... better than that!"

"Trying... as hard... as... I can." Atla's breaths became whimpers. How could he be expected to do more than this? Even without Rel's scolding, he could barely feel the ring of Sherim at the edges of the Realm, never mind find the particular Sherim they were after.

"Try harder!" The urgency and fear underlying Rel's hostility made it worse. "Come on... we can't... afford... to die... without... warning... the First... Realm. It's not... just... our lives... on the line here!" The Clearseer's voice rose into a squawk of alarm as he finished, but Atla couldn't muster the courage to look, to find out what new disaster had struck.

He closed his eyes, head suddenly full of images of home and mother. Bersh and his family. Lefal and Vessit. Realmquakes and devastation, injury and death. The swarm of bees rumbled in his ears and thundered in his mind. The Separatists wanted another Realmcrash, and the only humans who knew about it were behind him. All about to die.

A new tightness gripped his chest, smothering the pounding of his heart, making him curl forward, shoulders sinking. His step shortened and slowed, his arms flapping even more pathetically than they had. The soles of his feet burned; he felt like he was wearing lead flippers. All the bone seemed to have vanished where the top of his knees met his shins. He wasn't running anymore - just staggering.

An arm fell across his back, tightened in his shirt just below his armpit, and lifted. Skin under his arm pinched enough that he had to shrug, but he managed to bring his head up enough to look to his benefactor. Pevan, her face pinched with the tension of a warrior in battle, grinned back. If her expression was mirthless, it was utterly fierce.

Atla braced for more scolding, but Pevan's first words were, "You can do this." Despite bearing half his weight, she was having even less trouble breathing than Rel. It wasn't fair, how good the northern Gifted expected him to be. How could he compete with that?"

"I... can't!" He gasped. "I'm sorry... I... just useless."

"No you aren't." She made it an order, an instruction to the whole universe. Her words speared out into the air in front of her in a dead straight line, off into a distance Atla's vision was too clouded to make out.

"At... the Court..."

"They were so scared of you... they... didn't dare let you... near anything important." It was a relief to hear that even Pevan was running out of breath. There was still no hint of weakness in her. She grinned again. "It might be their... Realm... but it's your kingdom. Own it."

The Route chose that moment to shake, a ripple racing past them across the field of honey. Delaventrin chasing yet harder, the Wilder's mind straining the Route's capacity. Atla felt his Gift's pain, the fight to stem the inevitable overload. Somewhere at the bottom of his brain, the water was past boiling and beginning to burn.

Had the Gift-Givers really prevented him helping Pevan and Rel at the Court out of fear? How could they fear him? This Route had shattered the Wilder it struck, but that had been a complete accident. Pevan shouted something else, but it was lost under the buzzing. His Gift howled, rage and pain and anger blanketing all other sensation.

What did he have to lose for one last attempt?

He lashed out, letting go of gravity, of direction, of reason. The howl in his mind became a roar, triumphant. In his Gift, the waters parted. The Gifted flew for a moment through absolute nothingness.

Just as the yawning void - was this what Clearseers meant by the Realmlessness? - threatened to suck the halves of his mind apart, it crashed back together behind them. Delaventrin was caught in the crush, trapped, battered off-course. The Wilder vanished from Atla's awareness, not dead, but certainly reeling.

Head-on, open space slammed into Atla. It brought with it the fluff-brained numbness of deep fatigue, a rush of dizziness as the world realigned again, and then an actual impact that slammed the wind from him and filled his mouth with plant matter. There was something fresh about the quality of the light, something unmistakably real about the bitter, bland taste of the ground.

He groaned and rolled onto his back, then regretted it as sunlight poured in, cold and merciless. His head pounded, and beneath it his Gift cringed. It was all he could manage to lift his arm and lay it across his eyes. Wind - real wind, not the by-product of half-imagined physics - plucked at his shirt and slithered up his sleeves. The First Realm. No telling if he'd found the right Sherim, but he'd got them safely away from the Separatists. Atla's Gift coiled itself around him as he let himself slip down towards unconsciousness.

* * *

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