Saturday, 28 June 2014

The Second Realm 7.4: Homeward Bound

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 Innocent and Incomplete

4. Homeward Bound

Atla came awake gasping. His chest bubbled, so fast was his heart racing. The world, the darkness of the bedroom, shook and twisted. He reeled as he pulled himself out of bed, fumbling for his trousers. Icy air roared around him; it had been sweltering when he went to bed.

An attack. It had to be. Some cataclysmic new contrivance of the Separatists, shaking the Realm apart. Dizziness slammed into him and he staggered. How had they got so close without alerting Caelni? Belatedly, Atla reached for his Gift.

There was a hanging, intestinal moment while the world turned inside-out. Caelni settled, trembling, sliding back towards the bottom of his mind where she normally waited. It had been her jerking and thrashing that had disrupted his balance, yanked him out of sleep.

Lungs burning as he separated her alarm from his panic, Atla bent over, hands gripping the tops of his knees for some stability. Shivers coursed through him. The world wasn't ending, this was just the early warning - Caelni doing the Wildren equivalent of shaking him awake. Still wobbly, he managed to pull his trousers on. His shirt followed, sticking to cold sweat as he pulled it around his shoulders.

That done, he managed a deep breath and reached for Caelni again. She melted into his awareness, offering up the tingling that had alerted her. There were Children of the Wild on the move somewhere nearby.

It was still dark in the cramped bedroom – there was a candle on the desk, but Atla didn't trust his fingers to manage a striker in this state. Still, he knew which way the window over the bed pointed. Putting his back to it turned his face to the old city.

Where, in the Second Realm, his Gift would have spread like an ocean throughout the landscape and up to the very limit of the sky, now Caelni gave him a blasted and forsaken desert. His tongue prickled, and he closed his eyes to forestall the inevitable itching. Here there were no ripples and waves to measure the terrain from afar.

Atla crawled across the barren ground, following subtle prodding and the half-hallucinated scent of distant moisture. Caelni led him away from the city, North and slightly West, up the coast. The broad expanse of Vessit bay was as dry to a Wilder as the shore. The only cues Atla got to location were the pinches of distant Sherim, fountains on the horizon.

Sensations waned as he approached the limit of Caelni's awareness – far further than he'd thought possible. He was able to swallow past a throat that had stopped feeling quite as bad as sandpaper. His fingertips touched... not water, but mud. Life slowly oozing through the ground, towards Vessit. Second-Realm life.

Inside his mind, Atla stroked Caelni, trying to soothe some of his own anxiety with hers. The moment wasn't spare to waste, but he wasn't going to wake Pevan until his heart had settled a little more. He needed to be able to trust himself to speak first.

It took him a good moment after that to actually move. Navigating by touch, he found the door and cracked it open. There was light from the landing beyond, but it was far from dazzling; just a single candle, burning in its sconce by the stairs.

Pevan's room was the next one down the hall. She shared it with Chag, though Atla suspected this was as much to irk Wolpan as out of love. Atla tapped gently on the panel, then grunted at his own silliness. The Separatists were coming; the first thing Pevan would do would be to wake everyone else in the building. Stiffening his resolve, he hammered hard on the door, then again a moment later.

The response was quicker than expected. After only a few seconds, the door opened a hand's span and Pevan peered out, face indistinct in the gloom. Below her chin, one bare shoulder was just visible, pale and smooth. Atla pulled his attention back from it before his imagination got the better of him.

"Atla?" Pevan barely paused. "They're coming?"

He nodded, words jammed half-way up his throat.

The door closed, and Pevan's voice burrowed out through it. "Where? How long do we have?"

"Difficult to say." Atla swallowed. How quietly could he speak and still be heard through the door? None of the other Gifted in the building, not even Chag, knew about Caelni. "They're a long way off, though."

"Details. Come on, Atla." The door took some of the edge off Pevan's tone. "Solid information only."

"I... uh." What could he say to placate her? "They're North of here, I think up the coast somewhere. Not far down the bay."

"You're sure?" Pevan powered out of the room, fully dressed, hair wild and tangled. She headed for the stairs, leaving Atla floundering in her wake. In the bedroom, Chag was still fumbling his shirt on. Pevan called back, "That could be fifty miles away."

"The only thing I'm sure of is that they're coming, but they're still some way off." Atla caught up half-way down the stairs. Remembering the sense of seeping that Caelni had conveyed, he added, "And they're making slow progress, for some reason."

"If they're coming from the North, they may be trying to hide from humans." Pevan went out the front door without breaking stride and looked up, squinting at the sky. If the moon was up, scattered cloud and the looming shapes of the old city hid it. "It's a bit early to be getting everyone up, particularly if you're right about how long we have. You wake Magdal, I'll get Velena."

The two Gatemakers had been a concession to Wolpan. She and Pevan had argued long and hard about the risk of stripping defenders from other towns, but Pevan had eventually agreed to bring two extra Gatemakers, both distance specialists, to Vessit to help in rounding up the army. Atla was glad to have been assigned Magdal; not only was he more approachable, he was also an enthusiastic morning person who seemed to actively enjoy waking up.

Indeed, Magdal came awake like a jack-in-the-box, and Atla had to hush him a couple of times when his chatter threatened to wake the rest of the town, never mind the house. They had to wait out in the night for a solid five minutes before Velena followed Pevan outside. Pevan gave a brief pep talk and sent the two Gatemakers packing.

Then she turned to Atla. "Right, you're coming with me."


"Well, first things first, I want to get you a bit closer to these Wildren." In the darkness, her face was inscrutable. "Then I want you to go to the Court for me."

"What?" There had been nothing about this in any planning meeting he'd attended.

"At very least, someone needs to tell the Gift-Givers what's happening. I hope they'll send help." There was a long, cold pause. "All sorts of people might be against the idea, but I really don't know whether we can fight a Separatist army at all."

The only sign that Pevan's Gateway had taken them anywhere was a slight change in the air. Here, wherever they were, there was a hint of damp. Atla could still hear the faint sound of the surf, its roar muted to a whisper by distance. He shivered as the sweat still dampening his shirt sent fingers of cold crawling across his back.

This was the third Gate she'd taken him through, heading North. He assumed they were following the coast, but there wasn't enough light to tell. Even the horizons were only the vaguest of shapes, and Atla's eyes felt physically distended with the effort of penetrating the night. Caelni was restless with anticipation, her fidgeting sending ripples across the bottom of his skull.

Pevan said, "Okay, that should be near enough to make a difference. What can you feel?"

Pushing aside a moment's surprise that even at night, Pevan could travel far enough in three Gates to make a difference, Atla reached for Caelni. The desert rose to greet him. He barely even noticed his Gift merging into his awareness. Dry air sucked at his throat, and he closed his eyes, small difference though it made. Was this how it felt to be a Wilder in the First Realm? Caelni was already pushing him on across the harsh landscape, ignoring his concern.

Conscious that Pevan would have little patience for distractions now, Atla followed his Gift's lead. She was less tentative than she had been in the bedroom. No longer was it a strain to reach the Separatists; within moments, Atla found himself splashing into Wildren.

He jerked back. Would they feel his presence? Had they really come so much closer? Caelni sent a wave of warmth across the bottom of his mind. Soothed, he studied the edge of the puddle. It was still creeping only slowly into the cracked earth around it. The surface was still, with no suggestion of lasting ripples from his stumble.

Pulling back from immediate contact, Atla reached through Caelni for the landmarks of the nearest Sherim. Relative altitude let him identify the Sherim in the Tuani Mountains to the west – actually southwest from wherever he was now. There was another almost due East which had to be on the northern coast of Vessit Bay, where the bay opened to the sea. They were still the better part of fifty miles north of the town. Before the sensation of being in two places at once could give him a headache, Atla pulled back to himself.

There was an uncomfortable pause, until he realised Pevan was still waiting for an answer. "Uh... they're pretty much where I thought. Near the northern corner of the bay, and moving slowly. I don't know why."

"Can you say how fast they're moving? How soon they'll be here?"

"Um." Caelni wriggled in frustration at the back of Atla's neck. "I don't think so. Not without a longer observation. And I don't know if they'll be able to sense us looking after a while."

Pevan took a long breath, clearly audible in the darkness. "Alright. You're sure they won't be here in the next few hours?"

"If they don't speed up." Atla tried not to cringe too much. There really wasn't anything more he could do. Had he given Pevan the wrong idea about Caelni's capabilities, somewhere along the line?

"Well, I can't expect you to guess about that." A patch of ground near Pevan's indistinct form shifted subtly – a new Gateway opening. "Add it to the list of things to ask the Gift-Givers about."

"You don't, um..." Atla had to gulp an awkward breath before he could continue. "Shouldn't I stay and keep tabs on them? In case they do speed up?"

"If I had two of you, one would be staying." Pevan's voice was hard. "But I don't have anyone else I can send."


"The politics of that are too complicated." A whisper of displaced air marked Pevan's drop through her Gate. When she spoke from the far side, she sounded more distant than expected. "His support counts for a lot with Wolpan, and I can't ask him to abandon his family in the face of this. With you, I can tell them I sent you to keep you out of harm's way."

Atla stepped onto the open air of the Gateway and let himself fall. Pevan had drilled him hard in using Gates, and he didn't even stumble when it turned out to be on a hillside, the footing uneven. As he steadied, he frowned. "That's not... that's not the real reason, though, is it?"

Pevan took another long breath. "If I could spare every Gifted the battle to come, I would." Muted at first, her tone sharpened as she went on, "It's not because you're new, or young, or raw, I promise. And it's not because I don't think you'd be useful here – after all, I'm keeping Chag, aren't I?" Her attempt at humour hung hollow in the darkness.

"Then, uh, why?"

"You're starting to stammer again." She said it mildly enough to soften the rebuke into an aside, but the moment's softness vanished quickly. Atla felt her grip close in his sleeve. "Whatever's going on with your Gift, it's important. If we fail at Vessit – if I fail at Vessit – the Gift-Givers will need some way of tracking the Separatists in the First Realm. They're our last hope, and they may very well need you."

Again, there was the shift in the darkness that marked a new Gate, and the whisper of wind that was Pevan dropping through it. Atla followed, goosepimples prickling up and down his arms. "What if... uh, what if they can't help? Or won't?"

"I have to believe they will."

Even with the prodigious pace Pevan's Gift allowed her to set, the sky was brightening by the time they reached Gorhilt. With Vessit's nearest Sherim destabilised since the Realmquakes and still not re-mapped, this was the only place in the First Realm that Atla could cross into the Second. It sat atop a high-domed hill in the middle of open plains, visible for miles.

Atla watched, eyes wide and jaw tight, as Pevan forced one final Gateway through almost to the base of the hill. In his head, Caelni echoed his tension, warning him that the Sherim was roiling like a hot spring up ahead. Even without her input, he could feel it. His skin tingled as if a storm was coming.

From the far side of her Gate – which also crackled, bent out of flat – Pevan called, "Come on. This is as close as I dare go."

He stepped forward, leaning out over the Gateway and letting himself fall. Normally there was no sensation associated with crossing a Gateway, but here a shiver swept over him. The jump closer to the Sherim was like being walloped in the face with a plush, rich pillow. Even with all that refresher training, he needed Pevan's offered arm to steady himself as he reached standing.

"I won't ask if you're ready." Pevan spoke crisply, not quite looking at him. He recognised the manner; had seen it a few times over the last month as she whipped other Gifted into shape. It was as if she was trying to distance herself from the orders she was giving. "I'm sorry to have sprung this on you like this, but I know you're up to it."

He nodded, not wanting to ask why she hadn't warned him. Clearly she'd wanted to keep it a secret from Wolpan, or maybe Bersh. Did she not trust him?

Pevan pressed on. "Go to the Court. Do whatever it takes to get a hearing from a Gift-Giver. Tell them the Separatists are on the march in the First Realm, headed for Vessit and probably other targets as well. Ask them for help." Her eyes met his. "I leave it up to you what to say about your Gift, but remember they may be able to spot it whether you say anything or not."

"Taslin didn't say anything." Atla managed to keep from stuttering, but a hard lump stuck half-way up his windpipe.

"Yes. And I encourage you to take that as a good sign." Pevan's attention went back to the horizon. "But you can hardly say she didn't have other things on her mind at the time. We all did."

He still hadn't found out what had happened at Ilbertin between Rel and Taslin. Could he ask now? Pevan would prefer him not causing further delays, of course, but the pressure from the Sherim made him feel like a giant was leaning on his shoulder.

Pevan rubbed a hand across her face. "I can't really do any more, except wish you good luck." There was a long pause, a shift in the shadows around her eyes and cheeks. "I'm... I'm sorry." A Gate opened beneath her and swallowed her before Atla could do more than squeak.

The deep blue of the eastern sky was watering down, the horizon standing out more and more sharply. Predawn mist was beginning to rise, a faint silvery haze in the air. It was a cold, beautiful view to be alone with. Behind him, the hill seemed etched out of the night, its colours strange and slightly unreal, almost painted.

Atla pulled himself up and faced the hillside. Even if he'd been willing to let Pevan down, the nearest town was the better part of a day's walk away. It wasn't an easy climb, though; the slope was too steep to ascend head-on. By holding gingerly to the slippery grass and testing each footstep, he was able to tack across the face at about a forty-five degree angle, but more than once he slipped and had to splay out on the ground to keep from losing yards of altitude.

He climbed into sunrise, glanced over his shoulder to see the miles-long shadows of scattered trees cutting up the landscape. The mist sparkled, burning quickly away. Within the Sherim, the storm receded before the light. Caelni pecked at his mind, urging caution and reminding him the Sherim was still dangerous.

As the slope began to level out, he allowed himself a pause. Uncomfortable as it was to rest so close to the Second Realm, this would be his last chance to breathe real air for a while. And the view from this vantage was worth taking a moment to savour. In the distance, plumes of smoke were beginning to rise from the towns he was sworn to protect, adding another texture to the shimmering morning.

Turning to the Sherim, Atla let the world below fade from awareness. Caelni squirmed, straining toward her wellspring of life and nourishment. Had she always felt so stranded and starved in the First Realm? Crisp air, at once damp enough to drink and as arid as the entire Realm, lifted him, urged him onward.

He spun, carefully, and the sunrise began to fade. Feather-light tingles raced across his skin as the Sherim began to tighten. Last time he'd been here, he'd felt fear. He'd had to lean on Pevan's encouragements – the words of a stranger. Now, though, Caelni swirled around him, eager and warm.

Caution became difficult to maintain. His steps lengthened, and as the mountain began to fall away, he felt as if he was striding across the plains below as a giant. Pevan would not have approved. He spun again, dancing with Caelni, free where no-one could see.

Her triumphant fanfare burst the dam. Water smashed out, smothering him. For a moment, it was terrifying, but Caelni wrapped him in her coils and held him against the torrent. He forced himself to relax, before his grip on her could harm her. As the Sherim's touch lifted from his skin, a new wave of shivers replaced it, this time purely of pleasure. He stretched, running his arms along Caelni's body, feeling its smooth warmth for the first time.

He felt her face come close to his, brush his cheek from somewhere he couldn't quite pinpoint. The touch left a trail of heat. For a moment, they floated in the glass-still ocean that was the Second Realm without human interference. There was no-one to look at them.

Caelni flicked away in an instant, just as complacency became dangerous. She bounded over the surface of the water, five leaps away and four back. Atla pulled his attention back to the task in hand and counted the ripples she left in her wake. Their spread mapped out terrain he could navigate, stretching where Second Realm creatures lurked or swarmed.

In deference to Caelni, Atla held to the feeling that this was an ocean. He dived below the surface, ignoring the instinct to breathe, to choke. In the Second Realm, body was an illusion at best, its demands only biological memory. The Realm pressed against his open eyes like cool balm. Below, the seabed was strewn with plants and shells in every colour of fantasy.

There were currents in the water, tides and pressures that told of distant landmarks. Reaching out, Atla felt around them for something familiar, or at least recognisable. Pevan had worried for months about what had happened during the escape from the Separatists' white cave, but it was hard to believe the underlying landscape of the Second Realm could have been permanently changed.

Still, it was a long, frightening minute before Atla was able to touch the outline of the Court. Distance and the distortion of the water made the five black spikes bob like fishing floaters, where normally they felt stable enough to be the foundations of the entire Realm. He tried not to think about why he couldn't feel the sixth spire at all.

He started to look for routes, teasing apart threads of Realmspace to find those whose far ends touched the spires. Trailing a wave of disapproval, Caelni wriggled out of his grasp and shot ahead through the water. Atla flailed for a moment and gave chase, kicking with his whole body in an awkward imitation of his Gift's grace.

Caelni pointed herself straight at the distant Court and stretched her lead. Arms out in front of him, fingers pointed, Atla let his body meld to the task. Below, tangles of intricate colour and shade blurred past. He fought the urge to pause and study their beauty.

Exertion made it harder not to breathe. He took a mouthful of the flavourless water, had to curl up as his diaphragm spasmed. In an instant, Caelni was back at his side, wrapping around him. It didn't help. He coughed, breathed water, coughed again.

Fire caught across the bottom of his lungs, spreading out over his skin and up his throat. The next convulsion was like being kicked by a falling mountain. Bits of his spine seemed to jar loose. His head ached, and he was crying despite being underwater.

Drowning. Well, if Caelni had been a beached fish in his Realm, there was a symmetry to this. He couldn't do anything to answer her desperate concern now, as she circled and circled him. Again he thrashed, beyond all control, and she had to dance away to avoid his wildly swinging limbs.

He'd shown her no such concern while she gasped for water inside him. True, he hadn't known, had for the most part been unable to listen, but-

The ocean vanished, between one choking cough and the next. Gravity took hold as Atla's lungs emptied. He tumbled in freefall, head throbbing. Any semblance of order vanished, the Realm whirling kaleidoscopically as if it were 'down' spinning around him and not vice versa.

Again, Caelni seized him in her coils. He clung until he could think again, then opened his eyes. Far, far below, a carpet of wildflowers slid past. He couldn't see Caelni, but there was no mistaking her presence above him, holding him aloft while he could not hold himself. It didn't seem to be taxing her, but it was hardly fair to make her carry him.

With a deep breath, Atla spread his arms. Feathers burst from his shoulders, down the back of his elbows and out to his wrists. Here, where only Caelni could see, there was no shame in the orange-and-gold plumage. She would know better than anyone could that it wasn't showing off.

Gently, she let him slide into flight, her grip becoming a caress, then a slippery tease as she stretched out ahead of him again. He beat his wings and rode her wake through the air. There was a similarity between flying and swimming; he moved the world past himself in the same way, almost.

But if this was easier for him, how much harder was it for her? He could feel no suffering in her presence, but with his own chest still aching, his breath tight, was that just self-absorption? Would Caelni hide her own pain, as she had before for so long, having seen the risk to him?

Ahead, for the first time, he made out the shape of the Court. The field of wild colours below blurred into a brown smear around the horizon, the sky a rocky, pockmarked ceiling above. Five black diamonds, high and narrow, cut the smear into neat segments. Off to one side were the remains of the sixth spire.

There was no hiding from it. Whatever it was that Pevan had done, the consequence was dramatic. Up to just below the middle, the diamond hung as normal, a spike driven into the ground. The top part, its bottom raggedly torn, lay flat, hinting at a true horizon. The oddities of Second-Realm space made judging distances difficult, but there was a sense of the irreparable, the insurmountable, about the gap between the two pieces.

Through Caelni, trying not to pry into her feelings, Atla reached out, feeling for Wildren. When he'd fled the white cave, he'd felt great swarms of Second-Realm life surging around the Court, so thick that he hadn't been able to see the buildings through them. Now, all he could feel was the cold stone of the spires.

With shivers of fear rippling through him, harsh counterpoint to Caelni's eagerness, he pushed himself onwards. As never before, he could feel the air that filled and supported him. It pressed in as the water had, different only in weight. Where it slid under his feathers, he could feel the tickle of the eddies left behind. Well, water and air were just two different ways of interpreting the unknowable nature of Second Realmstuff. Neither fit exactly.

Before reaching the Court, they flew into the brown clouds that surrounded it. Up close, it wasn't cloud at all, but thousands, millions, of tiny pebbles floating in the air. Though their colours were muted, none were plain brown. Some were of colours he had no words for, but others could have been at home on any stream-bed in the First Realm. They scattered before his passage, but he had the sense that they would spring back into place behind him.

The walls of the Court burst through the cloud ahead, just low enough that there was no danger of flying into them. Featureless, seamless slabs of black stone, they were still imposing even from above. The five surviving spires were worse; they seemed to converge near the top of the sky, as if leaning to peer down at him.

In the middle of such grandeur, the keep seemed hunched and squat. A vast structure in its own right, it now reminded Atla of Vessit's abused tower blocks. He couldn't see any sign of structural damage, but something had changed about the place. He leaned into a slow turn in the air and made for the Tower of Birds, perched at the far corner of the keep.

"Stop!" The shout rose from below, a shaft of silver light stabbing upward between Atla and the building. Atla backwinged out of reflex, lost balance in the air. He had a brief impression of a grey, shimmering body where the words had been, then he was falling. Caelni hesitated behind him, confused.

Air tore at his wings as he tried to open them again. Before panic could set in, he was seized from behind by limbs that felt like iron bars. The descent continued, slowing until he fetched up, face-down, a few feet above the gravelled courtyard. Above and behind, Caelni hovered, radiating trepidation.

Atla let his legs hang down, and whoever held him let go. He managed not to stumble too badly on landing, shaking the last of the feathers from his arms. Caelni flitted to him, coiled herself around him. He could feel her probing him for pain, for any sign of injury.

He turned to face his... what? Captor? Rescuer? A plain-faced man in a gauzy grey robe whose threads seemed to sparkle when they caught at the corner of the eye. He could almost have passed for human – closer to it than any other Wilder Atla had ever seen – but his eyes were too grey, and turned back the light like a cat's.

He didn't need Caelni's prompting to recognise the Gift-Giver. As a trainee, he'd had few reasons to interact with the Wildren who had been stationed in Vessit's Abyss, but even he had met Keshnu on a handful of occasions. The Wilder seemed fully recovered from his battle with Rel, at least.

"I am sorry to have startled you." Keshnu's voice was smooth and gentle, without any of the hitches of phrasing or tone that normally marked Wildren speech. "But the Court buildings are still unsafe." He paused, head slightly tilted, waiting for something specific.

"Um. That's ok. I mean, um, thank you." Atla fumbled for the proper introduction. "Uh, greetings, Gift-Giver. I am Atla Colber, Guide of... uh..." Was he actually allowed to call himself a full Guide yet? And if his promotion had taken place in Vessit, did that mean he was Guide of Vessit, instead of Lefal, where he was supposed to go eventually? Caelni squeezed his hand, fighting his sharp new fear for him.

"Welcome to the Court. I am Keshnu of the Gift-Givers." Keshnu raised an eyebrow. "It is good to see you again, Atla Colber. Do I sense the hand of Pevan Atcar at work in your promotion?"

A cold fist closed around Atla's heart. Had Keshnu had any contact with Pevan since she'd first arrived in Vessit, as emissary of the Separatists? "I, well, uh... I'm sorry, sir, I don't know if it's official yet. She had Wolpan promote me. Um, she left the Separatists before that, I mean. I'm... she sent me here."

"That young lady is building quite a remarkable career for herself." Keshnu glanced over his shoulder. Half-way across the courtyard, a group of Wildren sat in a loose circle, on rough, improvised benches. "Come. Whatever news you bear is much-needed here."

He hadn't said anything about Caelni. Atla found himself squinting at the Gift-Giver's face, searching for hidden meaning. A futile exercise with a Wilder, particularly one of Keshnu's skill at appearing human. His face would show exactly what he wanted it to, and no more.

Keshnu led over to the other Gift-Givers. A few were familiar from Atla's previous visit to the Court, but green-robed Quilo, the elderly-looking head of the order, was the only one he could name. He let Keshnu guide him to a seat; the benches could almost have passed for uncut blocks of stone, except that they were fused to the ground.

When he was settled, and just before anxiety could shove a lump into his throat, Keshnu said, "Why did Pevan Atcar send you to us?"

Atla could barely feel Caelni. It was as if she was hiding, or trying to. But why from him rather than from the Gift-Givers? Was she hoping to make her escape? The Gift-Givers were all studying him, faces neutral. If silent Second-Realm language passed among them, Atla couldn't see any tell-tale ripples in the air.

He said, "The Separatists are coming to Vessit. To attack Vessit. Um."

Now the air began to shiver, alright. A wave of wind burst from Quilo and stilled the other Wildren. Voice mellow, slightly scratchy with age, Quilo said, "Give us the details, please, Atla Colber."

"Yes. Um." Where to begin? Could he say more without betraying Caelni? If it was a betrayal at all... "Rel... Relvin Atcar had Clearviewings of a large group of Separatists attacking Gifted near Vessit. He described it as a pitched battle. Uh... this morning, I was able to detect a large group of Wil- of Children of the Wild moving towards Vessit."

As one, the Gift-Givers looked to Quilo. Where their faces had been neutral, now they showed a range of emotions from anger and fear to deep sadness. Not all were well-executed; one or two looked outright false. Still, a chill ran down Atla's spine.

"Were Relvin Atcar's Clearviewings confirmed by another Clearseer?" Hooded though Quilo's eyes were, a glint in their depths pinned Atla to an invisible wall.

"No. Uh... Thia said something was interfering with her Gift."

"This is as we feared." Quilo looked around the circle. "Can you confirm that the Separatists have recruited Soan Ialvas?"

Could he confirm it? Rel had been pretty sure. "I think so. At least... well, we haven't seen Soan at any point, but he wasn't at Ilbertin when we went there, and they'd joined the Separatists..."

"If Soan Ialvas has found a way to work his Gift alongside that of Delaventrin of the Separatists, the Separatists will have a very strong hold on the future." There was a mournful undertone to Keshnu's pronouncement. He'd gone to stand behind Quilo's shoulder, and now his head was bowed, his silver hood raised.

"Delaventrin..." So the Separatist Clearseer had survived. Atla shuddered. It had been under Delaventrin's attack that he'd been driven to the desperate action that had awoken Caelni. He'd been sure that his wild lashing-out with his Gift had mortally wounded the Separatist.

"The loss of the Shtorq and Delaventrin's injuries set the Separatists back severely." Quilo spoke stiffly, sure sign that he was struggling with the more difficult corners of humanity. "Regrettable as the actions of you and your colleagues were at that time, were it not for that consequence, the Separatists might already have overwhelmed you."

Which actions? Rel had insisted on rushing to Taslin's rescue from the white cave and had got himself and Atla captured. Pevan had broken Chag out of prison in the Court to rescue them. Their attack on the white cave had shredded the fabric of the Second Realm, and Atla's frantic strike at Delaventrin had felt as if it had outright torn a hole back to the First. And that was without even thinking about Ilbertin. Atla looked down at his hands. "We... we all made mistakes."

"Yes." Quilo's eyes bored into him. He could feel the Gift-Giver looking at him even without looking up to check. The cracked, thin voice sharpened. "Now, please tell us, in your own words, thoughts and feelings, how it was that you were able to identify the incursion you have reported."

This was it. Atla swallowed, trying to hold back the clawing in his gut. Quilo might as well have said 'something's wrong with your Gift', but he clearly wanted to test Atla. There didn't seem to be any malice in the stares from the other Gift-Givers, but this far from home, it was impossible to feel at ease. Caelni slid along the inside of his arm, peeked out from his cuff.

What would they do if he gave the wrong answer? Had he stumbled on a dangerous secret? How would they want him to think of Caelni? "Does it... is it... painful to be in the First Realm? For your kind?"

"I am sorry." Quilo's face blanked, features for a moment clearly artificial. "I do not understand your last utterance. Please directly address the question you were asked."

Atla kicked himself, mentally. Clever as Quilo was, he was still a Wilder. The topic of Caelni's well-being would have to be approached more slowly. A long, slow breath gave Atla the time he needed to organise a proper answer. "My Gift woke me early this morning. She... felt Wildren approaching from the North. Pevan took me- us some way North of the town and we were able to confirm the presence. They're moving slowly, though."

"How far from Vessit were they?" Quilo had his face back, deeply and subtly lined, eyes alert.

"I... I can't say, exactly. Sorry. Um... about fifty miles, but that's a very rough figure."

"Fifty miles?" A convincing expression of surprise appeared on the Gift-Giver's face.

"Yes, sir. I think so." Atla looked at his hands. "Based on the Sherim I could feel."

"Perhaps you had better lead the discussion, Atla Colber." Quilo tilted his head gently to one side. "Please address the issue of how your Gift came by this extraordinary sensitivity. Ask any questions you wish."

Atla's chest fluttered as he let out a too-long-held breath. "Is it... Rel told me... Are all Gifts trapped Wildren?"

"No, on two counts." Keshnu lowered his hood again as he spoke. "Firstly, not all Gifts are of a nature that fits the First-Realm definition of a living creature. Secondly, your use of the word 'trapped' is misplaced."

Not trapped? But Caelni had lived with him, hidden in secrecy, for a year before he'd ever discovered her. He closed his eyes and reached for her, expecting to feel some sort of disagreement. Instead, she warmed to his touch like a friendly kitten rubbing up against its master's leg. "Are you saying... Caelni agreed to this? She's sapient?" Then why couldn't she talk?

"No. At least, not as we have always applied your term 'sapient' to species of our kind." Keshnu stepped fluidly over Quilo's bench and knelt in front of Atla. "Your Gift's intellect is sophisticated, as you must by now be aware, but it falls short of full self-reflective awareness. Rather, for a Child of the Wild to be selected to become a Gift of Guiding, it must not only be of the right species, but also demonstrate a particular tendency to curiosity, courage and empathy for other creatures. Such things can be much more accurately measured among our kind."

"I don't understand." Gritting his teeth, Atla forced his hands still. Vague gestures wouldn't help anyone, and might confuse even these Wildren. "You chose her because you thought she would enjoy it?"

"Because we knew." Keshnu placed his hand an Atla's shoulder, a small smile on his thin lips. "She certainly seems happy with the arrangement."

"But the First Realm is a desert to her." It was hard not to shout. Keshnu had been to the First Realm, had lived under Vessit for months at a time. Was it somehow different for him? "When she showed me the Separatists... It was as if they were the only water for miles and miles. As if she was dying of thirst."

Caelni clung to him as Quilo answered, "A tool of representation, I am sure. Remember that your own concepts shape how we communicate with you. That goes doubly so for less literal communication."

Really? Wildren couldn't lie in the Second Realm, but Quilo's tone was dismissive. Did he not want Atla to care about Caelni? "I don't want her to suffer for me. That's not fair."

Keshnu straightened his shoulders. Even kneeling, when he didn't slouch his sharp eyes were level with Atla's. "You wish us to remove your Gift?"

Ice seized Atla's spine. His fingers went cold, Caelni's phantom tail tight enough around his arm that his circulation seemed to cut off. Was it even possible? He'd sworn the oath as a Gifted. And what answer would please the Gift-Givers, who were now all watching with no pretence of neutrality? A dozen hawkish faces stuck him with glares that could have cut bone.

He said, "I want what's best for her." Then something seemed to give out half-way down his frozen backbone. "I mean... um... if it hurts her to be in the First Realm, isn't it- I mean... I couldn't live in your Realm forever. I know... you can't stay there forever, right? You have to come back-" Atla cut off as Keshnu raised a hand, almost as if he'd physically run into it.

"Perhaps what is best for Caelni is to let her decide." Quilo rose, a motion so smooth that it seemed to go on long past the moment he reached his full height. Caelni danced swirls of agitated joy around Atla's head at the idea. "Atla, you are correct that we benefit from regular returns to our own Realm, as you do. The need is less demanding for us, but even as a trainee your duties have brought you to this Realm often enough for Caelni's well-being."

Keshnu stood, glided back to stand behind Quilo's shoulder. The senior Gift-Giver took a slow step forward as Keshnu fell in, then went on, "If you and she wish to spend more time among us, it would certainly be to the greater good. It is our hope that closer union with her will strengthen your resilience against logic fatigue. At present, the Court is a poor home for us all, but that will pass with time."

"Um... you don't sound..." Atla swallowed. "I'm sorry, but... did you expect this to happen?"

"We hoped." Quilo's face softened. When he spoke again, there was a slight hitch to his voice, the words not quite lining up smoothly. "Our spirit, the essence of our movement as Gift-Givers, is union between our two kinds. In this I make you privy to an insight not previously shared openly with humans, and I do so because in your current state, you are already something more than human. Just as Caelni is becoming something more than a Child of the Wild."

"So being a Gifted..."

"We have never lied." Keshnu spoke harshly, a cutting counterpoint to Quilo's kindly tone. "The Gifts were designed and distributed to protect and uphold the Treaty of Peace, as your oath binds you to. Our forebears hardly dared whisper greater hopes to themselves."

"The Separatists fear the power that comes of your union, Atla Colber and Caelni of the Guidings." Quilo smiled, but Atla almost missed it behind Caelni's scream of triumph. His vision dissolved for a moment into a glittering shower. "What you call Wild Power in the First Realm has its analogue in the Second. We hope you can find as much of a home here, in time, as you have in Vessit."

Was Vessit home, really? He'd slept on a rickety cot in Bersh's draughty back room for most of the last year, then in the bunk-house Pevan had had converted out of some pre-crash building near the old city. Some of the walls were so damaged he could stick his little finger in the cracks. There was Lefal, where he'd grown up and where he'd presumably be posted eventually, but it was hard to imagine going back there now.

Internally, he reached for Caelni, felt the feather-brush tingling as she wove between his fingers. "I think... uh, I think I might already be with you on that one."

* * *

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