Wednesday, 30 July 2014

That 'hit by a truck' feeling...

I finished the first draft of The Second Realm on Monday. Well, actually, by the time I finished it was the small hours of Tuesday morning, but as far as I'm concerned it's still Monday until you go to sleep. After the better part of three years working on this story, the end of the drafting phase has hit me rather hard.

That's not to say that there isn't a lot more to do - editing, polishing, publishing, re-editing for the collected editions, preparing for print etc. - but now, at least, the whole story exists on (digital) paper. Every scene of it is now stored somewhere besides in my head, pinned down in words.

And I felt rather out of sorts all day yesterday as a result. It didn't help that I didn't sleep well - the problem with finishing a story at two in the morning is that you can't really jump around and shout a lot to work off the rush of joy and relief, so I went to bed buzzing and got only fractured sleep at all.

I woke up, though, feeling like I'd actually spent the night at a wild party (I assure you that, once upon a time, my life was interesting enough that I can still remember what that feels like). My eyes were gritty, my head ached, I had a couple of mild dizzy spells. A substantial breakfast, rehydration and a shower seemed to be the important parts of the cure, as well.

Tired as I was, I spent most of the day in a cloud. It was the first day in almost three years where I didn't have some part of The Second Realm either to write or to feel guilty about not writing. There was stuff I could have usefully done, but not Second Realm stuff.

I still feel weird today, not in a medical sense, but in a things-aren't-as-they-usually-are sense. I feel like my life is actually significantly different now, like I'm a different person to the author who drafted The Second Realm. Perhaps that's an effect of working on something for so long; previously, the longest I'd spent on any one project was about six months, and I did a lot of other things as well in that time.

Maybe it'll pass with time, as I sink back into the story for editing and stuff, and I'm sure I'll be reevaluating this moment in a few months when I publish the last episode (October 18th, all being well). I'm going to save any kind of retrospective analysis of the project until then, because it hardly seems fair to act as if it's over for me while anyone reading the thing (and thank you all, by the way, for making last week the best week yet for downloads) still has months to go.

Still, there is a sense in which I'm different now. The voices of Rel, Pevan, Taslin and the rest will start to fade towards the back of my mind as other characters and stories come forward. They'll stay with me, I hope, but I also hope they won't clamour for my attention quite as noisily as they have done for the last three years.

I owe big thanks, of course, to a lot of people for helping me in various ways with The Second Realm (particularly Lynne Hunt, my long-suffering and indomitable beta reader), but again, I'll wait until the project really is complete to do proper acknowledgements.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

The Second Realm 8.1: The Future I Saw

First Episode - Previous Episode - Season 1 Hub - Season 2 Hub - Season 3 Hub - Smashwords (all major ebook formats, pay what you like)


Logic and Reasons

1. The Future I Saw

The glare from the electric lights stung Rel's eyes. It was like a constant case of mild logic fatigue, the same sense of something pushing steadily against his forehead. Following the conversation grew difficult; the light seemed to fill up his brain. Rissad was chatting genially with Bayliss, the leader of the local Gifted.

Bayliss puzzled Rel. She and her second, a Guide named Imtaz, had been waiting on the outskirts of the city, clearly forewarned of exactly where Rissad would lead. Despite her position, and the way her straight-backed sternness reminded him of Dora, she wasn't a Four Knot, but a Witness. He got the uncomfortable feeling that she hadn't let go of her Gift since greeting them.

Their arrival had been carefully managed, too. They'd met no-one besides the two Gifted. Bayliss had called this building a safe-house on the way here; it had been dark when they arrived, the door locked by some electronic device. Probably chosen as much for the fact that Rel and his companions would have no idea how to operate it as anything else.

Taslin had taken the whole affair in stride, following silently and blending near-perfectly into the night. Now she sat at the table that held the centre of the room, right under the lights. She'd left a few empty seats between herself and Bayliss, and could have been a statue for all she moved. When her long, dark robe shifted, the light struck faint midnight-purple shimmers from it.

At least this room was preferable to the hallway. When Bayliss had first turned the lights on, Rel had been so dazzled he'd walked into the doorframe trying to get inside. Here the furniture and the fittings broke up the glare a bit – the wood was stained dark, with a broad grain that certainly didn't come from anywhere near Vessit, at least in Rel's time. Well, three centuries was plenty of time even for grand trees to grow.

Bayliss' voice brightened. Rel lifted his head, blinking still. What had she said? She'd clearly called an end to her conversation with Rissad. He now stood straight-backed, attention slowly swinging between Rel and Taslin. The door was open, Imtaz' stout form keeping most of the light in as he leaned on the jam. The Guide had been away running errands – when had he got back?

Recognising the silence wasn't an answer, Bayliss said, "Rel, is everything alright?"

"Sorry," he mumbled, pushing to his feet. "I was in another Realm. What'd I miss?"

"The part where it's the middle of the night." Bayliss smiled. "We'll adjourn 'til morning. This house should have everything you need."

He almost protested that they couldn't waste time sleeping, then caught himself. There was no rule saying they couldn't return to exactly the point at which they'd left their own time, except for Rissad's warning that it was a bad idea to meet yourself coming. They could stay in the future for years if necessary. He nodded.

"Good. Well, I'll let you fight over the rooms, if there's any difference worth fighting over." Bayliss walked around the table to join Imtaz as he stepped outside. Before leaving, she said, "It's probably for the best to keep the number of people who know you're here to a minimum. You'll find yourselves so swamped with questions about the old... your time, you'd never get anything done. I'll assign someone to show you around tomorrow, carefully. Good night."

She left, and Rel looked to Rissad. The Gatemaker's lips twitched in lazy amusement. "Someone didn't think about time-lag."

"Time-lag?" Rel frowned.

Rissad perched on the edge of the table, one foot on the seat of the chair he'd been using. "Feel tired?"

"Uh..." Rel rubbed his forehead. "More like logic fatigue, I guess. It might just be these lights."

"We went into the Lost Realm not long after lunch. Came out well after sundown. When you're in the Lost Realm, too, your body doesn't really feel time passing in the normal sense." Rissad shrugged. "Biologically, you still feel like it's the afternoon. The confusion you feel is just your brain not understanding that it's night here. You'll probably be best off trying to sleep anyway."

Rel opened his mouth to speak and lost the moment to a cavernous yawn. "Maybe. It doesn't affect you?"

"I've done this before. It gets a bit easier, but I'm feeling it." Running a hand through his hair, Rissad finished, "I don't sleep well at the best of times, though. Time to go and stare at a ceiling for a while." He turned and walked out.

Taslin hadn't moved, didn't seem to have acknowledged Bayliss' departure, nevermind Rissad's. The fatigue, or time-lag or whatever, dulled Rel's voice as he asked, "Do you get it too?"

"Not exactly." She didn't look round, her gaze fixed on some speck on the pristine tabletop. "There are consequences to travel in the Lost Realm for my kind, but they are less debilitating. You are not going to follow Rissad's suggestion, are you?" There was very little question in the Gift-Giver's question.

"In a bit." Rel tried not to sound sullen. "I want to see how much Bayliss trusts us." Did the safe-house's front door unlock from the inside? He'd only seen the outside part of the mechanism.

"What do you mean?" A little of Taslin's usual animation returned. He turned his back to her as she started to twist to look at him. Her question hung in the air, drifted gently behind him as he stepped out into the hall.

Mercifully, the light here was off. The hall was a patchwork of shadows and the light spilling out of the front room and down from the top of the stairs. The front door was closed, the lock a metal box below the handle. On the outside of the door, there had been a square of numbered studs on the mechanism, but on this side there was no such thing, just a small latch that looked like it slid vertically.

Rel knelt, bringing his head closer to the lock. There was no writing on it to indicate what the latch did. The metal casing had an almost Second-Realm look to it, too smooth and finely-finished to have been crafted by human hands. You saw work like that sometimes in materials salvaged from old Federas and Vessit. Maybe this was the same technique, but something about it made Rel reluctant to reach out and touch the surface.

Instead, he reached for his Gift. A film of ice crept up under his eyelids and around to the backs of his eyeballs. His brain lightened as the cold seeped in. The smooth grey-silver metal began, very faintly, to sparkle, as the subtle imperfections in its finish were brought into relief. There were tool-marks on the surface, rows of faint circles an inch or so across, layered over one another. The head of some powerful polishing device, he supposed.

The mobile part of the latch – he could tell it moved by the faint wear-lines poking out from under its two lower corners – was less well-finished than the casing. Miniscule lumps and bumps, the kind that the un-Gifted eye normally ignored, made any fingerprints indistinct, but, squinting close, Rel thought he could see traces of the hands that had operated it previously.

His Gift peeled back the top layer of sight and rendered the interior of the mechanism like a child's flick-book. He could make little of what it showed him; there were interlocking blocks of metal and springs that probably did the mechanical work of preventing the door opening, but the electrical connections to the outer panel were too intricate to follow.

"Are we locked in?" Taslin's voice caught him off-guard, and he jumped.

Gritting his teeth, he muttered back, "I can't tell. I have no idea what I'm dealing with here." Then he blinked his Gift away and turned to look at her.

She was leaning in the doorway to the meeting room. Some trick of her clothing outlined her in droplets of light; her face was a silhouette only. "I doubt Bayliss feels any need to hold us here."

"You heard her, didn't you?" Rel sat back on his haunches. "She didn't want us walking around unattended."

"Do you have any reason to do so?" Taslin's tone prodded at him.

"I just want to know how much it matters to her." He let a long breath whistle through his broken tooth. "I wouldn't mind a breath of fresh air either, I guess."

"Can you open the door, then?"

Rel shrugged and pressed the latch down. It resisted slightly, then clicked into the lower position. Something inside the door gave a hefty metallic clunk. He stood and tried the handle; the door opened smoothly to the chill night. Closing it again – there was no point risking discovery yet – he turned to Taslin. "Looks like they did lock us in."

"Are you sure?" The Gift-Giver straightened up, took a few steps towards him. "I detected no deceit or ill intent from Bayliss or Imtaz. The lock seemed too easily opened, too. To think that it would hold us, they would have had to assume we wouldn't touch it at all."

"They might have thought we'd be completely lost with anything electrical." With a shrug, Rel turned back to the door. "If the latch doesn't lock it, what does it do?"

"Try it and see."

Taslin's tone made it an order, but she had a point. It was harder to lift the latch back into place than it had been to drop it, the metal wiggling slightly before clicking. There was no sound from the mechanism. He tried the handle, and again the door opened without protest.

Voice altogether more kindly, Taslin said, "Perhaps we are completely lost with anything electrical."

He turned to find her standing much closer. The shadows in the hall couldn't completely hide the smile on her face. In proper light it would probably have seemed like a patronising smirk, but now it almost looked gently humorous. As if she felt the joke was on her as well. Rel held his voice as neutral as he could. "Well, I'm going for a walk. I'll be back in a bit."

"Wait." Taslin caught his sleeve as he turned away. He shook her off, but stopped moving. She said, "The mechanism may be more like a bolt. To control whether the door can be opened from outside."

Rel stepped around the door, turned the outer handle. The dark metal tooth of the catch vanished back into the door, poked its head out again as he released. "Looks okay."

"Well, if you come back and it's locked, just knock."

He shrugged. As a Wilder, she didn't exactly need sleep, so it wasn't like she was making much of a sacrifice for him, but he didn't like the thought of spending the night on the doorstep if he did get locked out either. "Thanks."

"And don't get lost. This isn't the Vessit we know." Taslin took the door's inner handle, pulled it wide for him. He rolled his eyes at her and stepped through.

Immediately, he was glad of his coat. It had been chill when they first arrived in this time, and the night had only grown deeper since. A breeze had come up, carrying with it a faint hint of the sea, fiddling at the hems and seams of Rel's clothes.

At least the streets weren't completely dark. Electric lights on high poles made bubbles of a soft orange glow, spaced just far enough apart to be lonely. They were markedly different to the glaring white lights indoors, but their isolation resonated with him too well to draw any comfort from.

Where was the sea? This new Vessit was much larger than the town he knew, larger perhaps than the old city as well. They'd approached it from inland, lights in high windows scattering the horizon so that he hadn't been able to get his bearings at all. The moon was little help, without knowing what time of night it was. If the moon even moved as it did in Rel's time.

A figure crossed in front of one of the street-lights on the other side of the road, heading his way. Rel narrowed his eyes against the wind, instinctively reaching for his Gift. As the figure passed back into the gloom, his outline shimmered into Clear view. In the same moment, he paused and looked up, straight at Rel.

Rel blinked, cleared his Gift away, thought about reaching for the door handle. The man, now approaching at a stiff, brisk walk, was small, but something about him put Rel on edge. The moment's Clearsight had revealed a ghost floating just behind, or perhaps around, his shoulders. There was no question that he'd felt Rel's Gift on him. A Wilder?

Again, a street-light carved the man out of the night, and Rel revised his estimate of his age down; this was a boy, still a teenager. He was very thin, hollow-cheeked, and the night's shadows haunted him. It was his hunched, worried walk that had made him seem older. Now, though, with his dark eyes fixed on Rel, the worry was gone.

He marched up to Rel, stare never wavering, and stopped. For a long moment, they just looked at one another. Rel tried to look as neutral as possible, all too aware that he had no idea what he was dealing with.

"Are you friend or foe?" The boy's voice had a slight echo, a fraction too fast to have seemed real even if they were in a place that could have produced echoes. In the open night, the effect was profoundly disquieting.

So was the question. Rel frowned. "To what?" There'd been no evidence of active conflict, but then how would he even tell?

"The Treaty, of course." There was an odd sound, as if the echo had cleared its throat. The boy leaned forward slightly, head canted to one side. "What time are you from?"

"What?" A stone turned over in Rel's gut. How did this not-quite-human stranger know he'd come from a different time? And would he be able to tell if Rel lied? Rel took a deep breath. "I shouldn't say anything about where I'm from."

The boy's eyes narrowed for an instant, but then the intensity faded from his face. He offered his hand. "I'm Olark-Sura." From the inflection, that was all first name. "Most people call me Oz."

"Relvin. Rel." As their hands closed, a ghost stroked the top of Rel's thumb. In spite of himself, he jerked back. "What-? Uh, forgive me... what are you?"

Olark-Sura frowned, and where the shadow of his brow should have hidden his eyes, Rel could see him blinking. When the boy spoke, he did so slowly, every word a jigsaw-piece carefully placed. "Your name is Relvin, and you've never seen a Threekin before. I think I know exactly where you're from. Or when, anyway."

Rel waited.

"Well, I shouldn't be wandering around at night either." Olark-Sura held up his hands, turned them back and forth in the light as if seeing them for the first time. His skin shimmered, left Rel aching for his Gift, to get a better look at what was going on. "Except that I should, since I'm here because of something Fate said."

"Fate?" Again?

"You're surprised?" The boy stopped. His attention turned inwards, his eyes flickering. He smiled ruefully. "I should start at the beginning. You're Relvin Atcar. You're here with Rissad Van Raighan and Taslin of the Gift-Givers looking for help fighting the Separatists during the Great Incursion."

Rel realised his mouth was open. His teeth clicked as he closed it.

Olark-Sura gave a small laugh. "I'm sorry. I doubt Commander Eren explained much."

"Commander Eren... you mean Bayliss?"

"That's her first name. Not many people get to use it around her, of course." The expression on Olark-Sura's face shifted, a blur of moods like a Wilder unsure of how a human would respond. "The date and time of your arrival have been known for centuries. The Commander kept your itinerary secret, though. As far as she's concerned, you're here to meet Fate, get what you came for, and go home again."

"I've met Fate before." Rel tried not to scowl too obviously. "I'm not hugely keen to do so again."

"That's between you and him." The boy shrugged. "I can only speculate, really, and that won't help. I can tell you about Threekin, though."

"About what you are?" Rel swallowed. The question felt rude in his mouth.

"Technically not quite yet." He looked down, stroked a hand along his own arm. There was something tender and lonely about the gesture. "I should synchronise any day now. Take a look at me with your Gift."

Slipping into Clearsight seldom came so readily. All it took was an instant, and Rel's eyeballs iced up. He almost blinked trying to hold them in. Dust motes in the breeze sprouted trails of not-quite-light against the dark background. The windows of the buildings opposite surrendered the secrets of the rooms behind them, even through heavy curtains whose pleats Rel could have counted clearly.

Olark-Sura's motion drew Rel's attention. He was running his fingertips along his arm, and a shiver went through Rel in sympathy. Was the boy's skin not tingling fit to peel off? Except it wasn't quite his skin. There were two beings stood there, inside each other, and one of them was stroking the other. It took Rel a moment to place what it reminded him of; one of the times when, Clearviewing for the safety of Federas, he'd stumbled on an image of Pevan with one of her boyfriends, back before she'd been Gifted.

"Olark was born Olark Kimo, in the village of Teralle in Varta province." Only one of the two was speaking; one set of lips moved, the other stayed closed. Rel couldn't tell which was the phantom. They switched round, a subtle inflection changing in the voice that emerged. "Sura was a neonate in the Court of the Gift-Givers."

He looked up, met Rel's eyes. Icy water trickled down Rel's spine, pooled in his gut. In perfect unison, Olark and Sura said, "Forgive me, it's difficult to think about my internal differences now, and it endangers my synchronicity to do so. I stood out as a candidate for the kin in both my childhoods. I have been growing together for almost eight years."

Rel recoiled, the twitch just too large to conceal. His shoulders stiffened against shuddering. He swallowed. Blinking his Gift away did little to help; now he knew what to look for, he could clearly see the Wilder, Sura, hovering around Olark.

"Threekin are a form of connection between your kind and the Children of the Wild." Olark-Sura seemed oblivious to Rel's disgust. "Perfect synchronisation allows us to do far more than the Gifted you are familiar with, but is much harder to achieve. There are hundreds of you for every one of us, and soon that will be thousands."

"How old were you, when..." Rel couldn't bring himself to think it, let alone say it.

Two pairs of eyes snapped up, suddenly alert again, and skewered Rel. The hybrid creature's face fell through a few different forms of anger and back into sadness. "You imagine that this was forced upon me." Sura's voice led, Olark's the too-fast echo. "That I was fused together at first meeting by others – the Gift-Givers, the Gifted, other Threekin."

Olark-Sura turned his back. When he spoke again, Rel couldn't separate the two voices or beings. "Many make the same mistake, in both Realms. Olark was eight years old when he and Sura met, in a crèche at the Court. Children make no judgements except on their own observations. I was too young for prejudice. Olark invited Sura to Vessit, to show him what a 'real' horizon looked like.

"From that point on, Olark and Sura were seldom apart. I never feared coming together. Sometimes I had to be reprimanded for rushing into it." He hugged himself.

There was a hard lump in Rel's throat. He couldn't tell if he wanted to speak or to throw up. "You don't sound happy about it."

"My human parents never understood. They thought as you do. They felt that the Gifted, or the Threekin, or the Gift-Givers, or finally Sura, had stolen Olark from them." Olark-Sura spun, eyes flashing Second-Realm colours. "But I love myself. Do you understand how few people can say that?"

"But you're both male..." Rel's voice squeaked as he forced it out.

"Would you be less disturbed if one of my childhoods had been female?" The Threekin's eyes narrowed again. "Because that happens too. Not that gender means anything like as much to a Wilder as to you."

The wall of the safe-house blocked Rel from backing away any further. Olark-Sura threw his words like weapons, as if they were in the Second Realm. Every time the creature opened his mouth, Rel braced to be stung by the assault.

The hanging moment straggled out towards a minute before Olark-Sura's anger shrank away. "Forgive me. You come from a very different time." His hands tangled with each other. "The forced breeding that you know as normal is an almost-forgotten memory now. And only those who neither know nor understand the Second Realm fear it."

"That's foolish." Rel kept his face stiff. "I don't care how much you cooperate with the Gift-Givers, the Second Realm will always be dangerous for us."

"And you aren't dangerous for the Children of the Wild?" There was a hidden edge on the boy's tone, like a knife sheathed in silk. "How many have you killed, in your time?"

"We aren't supposed to keep score." Nine, in one-on-one encounters, counting the one at Ilbertin. Almost thirty, if you counted all of the incursions he'd helped defend at Federas, but most of those kills were more Jashi's or Dieni's. How many had been killed during the breakout from the Separatists' white cave? Surely they had to count for Pevan or Chag, though. "I've helped defend against twenty-two incursions. Well, maybe more depending how you count what the Separatists are up to."

Olark-Sura's face told Rel he was fooling no-one. "And how many humans, Gifted or otherwise, have Children of the Wild killed on your watch? Just in and around Federas, mind."

Rel looked away, past the street-light and into the darkness. First Dieni, not long after Rel had returned from his training. Then Marba and Seff, then Temmer. "Four. But dozens of Gifted die every year to incursions."

"And how many do they kill?" There was nothing Wilder in the Threekin's manner. He took a deep breath. "I shouldn't be the one to give you this lesson. You should ask a Gift-Giver from your time. They will know their side of the numbers at least as well as you know yours."

What could Rel say to that? The only Gift-Giver on hand was Taslin, and he wasn't about to go and ask her. The house seemed an extension of her presence, pressing uncomfortably at his back, blocking any escape from Olark-Sura's interrogation. The boy had fallen silent, but his eyes were still on Rel.

Finally, he said, "Just remember, only those who are ignorant of the Second Realm fear it any more than the First. Good night." Before the sting in his voice could fade from the air, he'd stepped backwards into a Gateway and vanished.

Rel faced the safe-house and tried the door-handle. It turned, but the door wouldn't open. After a moment, Taslin opened it from inside. She stepped back to allow him in. "You didn't walk very far. Who were you talking to?"

How many Wildren die because of humans every year? Rel brushed past the Gift-Giver and headed for the stairs.


In spite of everything, he slept. Dreamt of a field littered with the bloody, headless corpses of sheep, and eventually woke to remember that was what he'd seen the morning after fighting the Axtli alongside Taslin, on the way to Vessit. Visible, tangible casualties of the war. From the window, wan morning sunlight suggested a season later in the year than the one he'd left in his own time.

Rissad, Taslin and Imtaz were waiting for him when he came downstairs. Rissad looked as if he hadn't slept at all, his face almost grey. Mugs of a dark tea that smelled like leaf mulch and hit Rel's face like the first gale of winter were passed round, but apparently breakfast was to be a meeting with Bayliss and other local leaders, so there was no food. Rel's stomach grumbled quietly as he drank.

Before they left the house, Imtaz said, "Rissad already knows this, but the commander asked me to repeat it. We frown on the use of Gifts in social environments. That goes for Wild Power, too. Save your weapons for actual fighting." Which explained Olark-Sura's reaction to Rel's Clearsight the night before. Rel kept quiet, wondering whether the Threekin's Gateway would have been seen as less problematic.

Leaving the safe-house was like stepping into a sneeze. The wind carried ragged scraps of sea mist, harsh and salty, stinging Rel's eyes when he didn't blink fast enough. Even if he had wanted to ignore Imtaz' warning, this weather would have made Clearseeing difficult. It wasn't raining, but by the time Imtaz led them into shelter there was a drip on the end of Rel's nose.

The building they came to was a small hill of interwoven arches, its walls irregular but elegant panels of glass. From the outside, it looked as if there couldn't be a level floor in the place. The interior seemed designed to confuse the eye; every surface was either glass or a mottled stone polished to a reflective sheen. The low sun scattered fragments of rainbow chaotically across the walls.

From the cavernous lobby, Imtaz led them up half a dozen flights of stairs, past two reception desks and a pair of scowling guardsmen, and into, of all things, a sitting room. Bayliss was waiting for them with two men who stood as they entered. Rel recognised one; he wore a white robe, and his irises were tiny golden flowers. Fate. And the odd familiarity Rel remembered in the man's face-

"You said I'd recognise you in the First Realm," said Rissad, voice hoarse.

"I did." Fate smiled, ancient eyes glinting. He stepped forward, his high-cheekboned face like a mirror held up to Rissad's, and spread his arms. "Father."

Rel gaped. Rissad awkwardly accepted the offered embrace. Then he cut it short, his hands on Fate's shoulders, pushing him back a foot or so. There was no violence in it, but Fate's face shifted, for a moment deeply and profoundly human.

When Rissad spoke again, he sounded as if he was being strangled. "That's not the full story, though, is it? I've seen what you can do."

Eyes narrowed, wishing for his Gift, Rel scrutinised Fate. "You're some sort of Threekin, aren't you?"

Fate stuck him with a glare, one eyebrow raised. "That might be the first good call you've made without your Gift since you got it."

Bayliss offered a throaty cough, indicating the other man present. "Relvin Atcar, Rissad Van Raighan, Taslin of the Gift-Givers, this is Temuiran-Mebo, my counterpart among the Threekin."

The man – or not, if that wasn't the correct term – was broad-shouldered, with a high-domed, bald head. There was no sign of a Wilder hovering about his shoulders, and no phantom second thumb when Rel shook his hand. He spoke slowly, with a sense of immense, unstoppable weight behind every word. "I normally go by Tembo. Welcome to our time."

"Has Fate already introduced you to the nature of Threekin?" There was a hidden accusation in Bayliss' tone, but she directed it around the room, not just at Rel.

He struggled for an answer, and Fate got there first. "I arranged for him to meet one of Tembo's younglings last night."

"Oz..." Temuiran-Mebo's sigh filled the hanging moment before he, Rissad and Bayliss all turned on Fate with angry questions.

Fate stepped back from his father, hands upraised. "Might we attend to the matter at hand? You agreed long ago to follow my plans, and they have not changed. How could they?"

Rel decided that pointing out he'd agreed to nothing wouldn't help matters. Even Bayliss seemed to grudgingly accept Fate's lead. Eyes glowing, the stranger – there was no better word for him, really – took another step back.

"Whether or not I am truly Threekin is a semantic debate of interest only to the most finicky of historians. I had an almost-human childhood as Refan Van Raighan, son of Rissad Van Raighan and Dora Thrice-Gifted. I was a neonate in the Court of the Gift-Givers, sheared from Keshnu of the Gift-Givers by Dora Twice-Gifted, and took the name Eetei. I cannot remember a time when I did not live with myself. I synchronised eight years after Refan was born."

Fate's face sharpened again, a hint of orange colouring his eyes like fire. "And that is quite enough of my personal biography for now. As you can see, only one of my parents could be considered a normal example of his species, and there was nothing ordinary about Keshnu."

"Dora..." Rel's murmur carried in the silence. Twice-Gifted? Thrice? Rissad had spoken of loving Dora and of knowing they would be together in the future. And Dora had been given a second Gift, Taslin had explained that at their first meeting.

"Shall we eat?" Bayliss spoke with brittle brightness. "It's still early and I for one am hungry."

She turned and pushed open a panel in the far wall. As Rel followed her through, he saw that it wasn't quite a concealed doorway; one would have to stand quite close to spot the shallow frame and thumb-sized latch, though. The room beyond was plain, but in quite an elegant way. The walls were a shade of yellow milder than lemon, the floor tiled in intricate patterns with a sandy wood. A table along the middle of the room, set for six, could have seated a few more people, but only a few.

It was the smell of hot food that really made the room welcoming. Rel took an end seat, with Rissad to his left and Temuiran-Mebo opposite. Bayliss was the last to sit down, having paused as if about to say something. Hunger got the better of her, though, and for a few minutes no-one spoke. Rel helped himself to bacon, sausage and a toasted bread so light as to be almost sweet. There were four different teas, each smelling stranger than the last, but he settled for plain water.

Fate was the first to finish eating – had he even eaten at all? Almost certainly he didn't need to. Taslin's plate had stayed bare, though Temuiran-Mebo was eating enthusiastically. Fate stood, carefully tucked his chair under the table, and placed himself in the corner of the room.

His opening question took in the whole table. "How many of you are familiar with the Grandfather paradox?"

"If it is a paradox, it is likely to be beyond me." Taslin spoke without inflection.

"I believe I can explain." Fate smiled. "You have seen that travel through the Lost Realm can allow you to jump back and forth along the linear sequence of time in the First Realm. Imagine that instead of travelling into your future, you had travelled into your past. The possibility exists, if you were careless, to prevent your parents, or your grandparents, ever meeting. To prevent your own birth."

"Yes, I believe I understand." Though her tone stayed devoid of emotion, the rhythm of Taslin's speech stuttered, sure sign that she was struggling with human logic. Rel concentrated on his food as she went on, "The strict linearity of First-Realm time means that without one's parents meeting, one could not have existed in order to prevent their meeting."

"Quite." Fate's smile shifted slightly, and Rel couldn't help thinking he looked a little smug now. "The Lost Realm invalidates that reasoning completely. Rissad has yet to father me, but I could kill him now and go on existing just fine."

Next to Rel, Rissad lowered his fork, still laden with curled-up bacon. A long, slow breath whistled through his nostrils as he raised his head to look at his son. Rel stopped chewing. If Fate made good on his threat, would there even be time to react? It only took a second to activate Clearsight, but the chair and table would impede Rel's movement more than it would anyone half-Wilder.

Fate's attention slid sideways, onto Rel himself. Rel met the sunflower stare by freezing in place. He could understand, in a way, Fate being hurt by Rissad's instinctive suspicion earlier, but why would he transfer that anger to Rel? Fate could hardly be called insane, but only because for what he was, there was no baseline of sanity to work from.

"Describe what it's like when you peer into the future, Rel." Fate's voice became again the unfathomable calm of a Wilder's. "You start by grasping a future you want and then trace a path to it, yes?"

The food in Rel's mouth had turned to cardboard, flavourless, dry and obstructive. There was no way he was going to speak around it, and swallowing would be an interesting challenge, too. He nodded.

"The Lost Realm is to the real future as Clearsight is to visions of it." For a mercy, Fate stopped smiling. "When a Clearseer identifies a route to some desired future, that route must be followed closely. Just so, when one finds a desirable path through the Lost Realm, one must do a great deal to ensure it is followed."

In slow steps that were almost hidden by the flow of his robe, Fate moved to the head of the table. "At first I was motivated only by ensuring my own births. None of you will begrudge me that, I hope?" This time when he smiled, he looked altogether more human, but the expression still made Rel's skin crawl. "From my perspective, everything you will do between now and my synchronisation is history; a path I know. Your future selves have all told me stories of how I came to be.

"But as you now know, I have been an actor in some of those stories." His attention returned to Rissad. Rel could see muscles in Rissad's jaw pulsing. Fate went on, "I led Rissad to the Separatists and to Vessit. When Chag followed him to the Separatists, I helped him steal a Gift of Clearsight from the Court, to give to Delaventrin."

Rel forced himself to swallow. The mouthful went down like a chunk of gravel, but at least he could speak. "You admit it, then?"

"I also saved you and your sister when the Separatists trapped you in the Founding of the Court." Fate raised one eyebrow. "And taught Rissad the route that brought you here."

"But the things that could have been avoided if you hadn't..." It had been easier to accept that they'd been dancing to Delaventrin's tune – the Separatists' tune. At least the Separatists' goals were clear. Af, the Vessit Realmquakes, the Separatist attack on the Court, Ilbertin... "Why would you choose this path for us?"

"What do you know of the alternatives?" Fate scowled for a moment, folded his arms. "I confess that at first I believed the path fixed. That my existence was proof that all the terrible things you know of and many that you don't were inescapable. I learned better, in time, but I stand by my choice."

"Why?" Rissad's voice shook even on a single syllable. He reached for his drink, but didn't pick it up. On the other side of the table, Bayliss and Tembo might as well have been statues. Rel got the impression that this was well-trodden ground for them.

"The analogy between Clearsight and the Lost Realm is precisely accurate." Face stiff, Fate held his attention on Rel. "I know this path, in detail, and it leads to a future in which I believe strongly – in which all of you believe or will come to believe. Just as with Clearsight, once one commits to some particular future, finding alternatives, and particularly preferable alternatives, becomes difficult. How many times have you managed it, Rel?"

"Three." Fine-tuning a vision took days and days of Clearsight, and long spells at the Court. "I might have had a fourth, but I hit burnout."

"Dieni had seven to her name, I believe?"

"Ciarive had eight, if you want the record." Rel unclenched his jaw.

Fate folded his arms. "Over a rather longer career, though. My point is made, either way. My own existence served as the strongest kind of tie to this particular future. Given how well things have worked out, on the bigger picture, can you fault my choice? Or do you disagree that this future is desirable?"

Rel couldn't help glancing at Temuiran-Mebo. The glare he got in return dared him to put into words his discomfort with the Threekin. It was the same anger he'd seen in Olark-Sura the night before, polished by age like an old stone step under too many feet. Which loved ones had resented the theft of Temuiran from them? Or Mebo?

And yet... "Could you have prevented what happened at Vessit?" Rel glared at Fate, conscious that his eyes were prickling. "What I did..."

"Would you feel any better about it if I took the blame?" The part of Fate that was Dora's progeny shone through for a moment. Gentle as the words were, they left Rel feeling as if he was walking on hot coals. "Your actions were the product of what you knew and how you thought at the time. Nothing I can say will make you feel less responsible."

There was a pause. Rel blinked a few times.

"If it's any consolation, I happen to know you're overestimating the damage the Realmquakes caused." Somehow, Fate managed not to sound patronising. "The damage you saw in Vessit was by far the worst of it."

"What about Vesta Fentin and Oris Laith?" Taslin voice was quiet as she named the two who'd died to the Separatists' machinations at Af.

Fate's face creased as if he'd been stabbed. For a long moment, he stood with his eyes screwed tightly shut, breathing unsteadily. "You ask me to choose between blaming Chag and taking responsibility. I could tell you all the ways that the question is more nuanced than that, but like with Rel at Vessit, it would change little. Yes, I chose this future with their lives as the price." He glared at each of them in turn. "I believe it's worth it."

Rel couldn't hold Fate's stare. He looked down, tried to hide the finger he had to use to dry the corner of his eye. Staring at his half-full plate, he whispered, "Why?"

The silence that answered pressed down on him. He couldn't look at the others around the table. Temuiran-Mebo's feelings were clear. Rissad's hopes had been pinned on this future, and Bayliss was its leader. Taslin seemed no happier with Fate's choices than Rel was.

A chair scraped. Movement at the corner of Rel's vision told him it was Temuiran-Mebo getting to his feet. In a voice heavy with the patience of the old, he said, "Perhaps I had better take over from this point, Fate."

No-one objected. Tembo went on, "You've lived on a war-front all your life, Relvin. Surely you see the value in the peace we have achieved?"

Rel looked up, glanced from Bayliss to the Threekin. "If this is peace, why do you still need Gifted at all?"

"That's short-sighted." Bayliss' tone stung. "Even were there no Children of the Wild, we'd still need guards to keep the wolves from our flocks. Feral Wildren still stray into the First Realm often enough, particularly near the frontiers."

How many have you killed, in your time? Olark-Sura's question rang in Rel's head again. He ground his teeth, forced it aside. "Then why are things any better now?"

"The Threekin represent the fulfilment of everything we wished for in proposing the Treaty of Peace." Taslin, too, stood. "Can't you see the value in greater understanding between our kinds, Rel? At all?"

He didn't like the way she was looking down at him, over Rissad's head. Playing for the time he needed to find words, he slid sideways out of the chair and pushed steadily to his feet. Memories from Ilbertin and before assaulted him. "I know your feelings about greater understanding a little too well, I think."

A few steps back from the table would give Rel a clear path to the door, but Rissad was already pushing back his chair, starting to stand. Which side would Rissad choose? Rel had to make his point fast. "The Separatists also told us their future was worth sacrifices. I was wrong about them and they were a lot more convincing." He turned as much of his anger on Fate as he could. "I'll have no more part in your scheme."

"Rel-"

Rel walked through Rissad's appeal, wobbling as he swung around the taller man. He had to pause to yank the door open, straining his wrist when it came more freely than expected. Someone's hand landed on his shoulder. He shrugged it off and stepped into the sitting room.

He threaded between the low table and the couches that flanked it. The far door was already opening. Behind, Fate's voice cut curtly across Bayliss', and there was a sharp rap of wood on wood. Who was arguing to let him go, who to call him back?

One of the guardsmen who'd been outside moved into the doorway. His expression indicated puzzlement, surprise; not a threat, but he was big enough to block the way just by standing there. Rel couldn't afford to pause and speak, or they'd catch him from behind.

The guard's eyes widened as Rel's sweeping kick wrenched the door out of his hand. Rel caught his jacket as he stumbled forwards, and a swift tug sent him sprawling over one of the couches. No need to incapacitate the man.

Rel accelerated into his next step, leaned forward and shouldered into the other guard's chest as he, too, moved to bar the way. This one was readier, and grappled as Rel lifted him. His grip closed in Rel's coat, pulling it tight around his chest. Rel's charge carried them a couple of steps, then he had to let the guard down.

Clearsight beckoned out of reflex, but here that would be crossing a line. He only wanted to get outside, and no-one here was attacking him out of anything besides a misunderstanding. Instead, Rel squeezed his eyes tightly shut and twisted in the guard's grip. He didn't need his Gift for wrestling.

Voices rose behind and ahead. This was the room with the two receptionists' desks, along the left and right walls. Female voices shouted back and forth in alarm. Things were getting out of hand, but he was only one door away from the halls that led outside, and all he had to do was break this one hold.

The guard had him well-held, but from above. Rel's struggles were supporting a good chunk of his weight. If he could drop the guard without falling over himself, he'd be free. If the guard's grip gave before his coat tore.

Rel pushed his foot forwards, forcing himself lower under the guard, searching for the tiniest bit of slack in the other man's arms. It came, just for a moment, and he threw his weight sideways, freeing an arm to catch himself on one of the reception desks.

Cloth tightened and strained, hard enough to bruise his ribs, but the coat held. The guard didn't. He grunted as he slipped down Rel's flank and thumped to the carpet. Rel straightened to see the door on the far side of the room opening. More guards, presumably, and this time ready for combat. He'd taken too long.

"Rel!"

Rissad's voice. A Gateway opened in the floor, dreary sky beyond. Light rainfall bubbled in through the opening, turning back on itself after a few inches. The new guards were advancing, and neither of the two he'd already handled would be down for long. Where would Rissad take him? Why would the Gatemaker help at all?

Rel threw himself at the opening, splashed through and let momentum carry him upright. No traps sprung. He was in the street outside Bayliss' building, the lumpen shape of it crouching over him. The Gate flickered, and Rissad emerged feet first, flipping over midair to stand across from Rel. He snapped the Gate closed before anyone else could follow.

Then he looked Rel straight in the eye. "That could have gone better."

"Why change your mind? About Fate and his plan, I mean." Rel managed not to pant.

"I haven't." Rissad grimaced. "But I don't think that lot were going to convince you."

"You think you can do better?" Rel glanced over his shoulder at the building. There were people moving about in there, quite possibly running after him.

"Me? I know someone who can. The one person you've always trusted." Rissad flicked a hand at the road surface, and a Gateway opened. The other side held the peculiar darkness of an indoor space too large to light properly. "Remember what I said in the Abyss just before we set off?" Remember, if one thing unites us at all, we all want to help her. Rel took a step towards the Gate and swallowed. "Dora."

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Failure for Writers

My writing marathon to finish The Second Realm is going well. Yesterday I finished the third of four episodes in the final story of the series. I set myself the goal of approximately 25,000 words by the end of July, and I'm currently on 20,783 with ten days to go. I'll probably overshoot to the tune of 2-3,000 words, which is fine by me.

It goes to show the power of setting definite failure conditions. Wanting to finish a project is a pretty nebulous desire, one that can be put off and off and off again quite happily. It's easy to tell yourself that you're still 'working on' a project while doing nothing towards it; in fact, delaying the end of a project can forestall the scary business of choosing a new project, which is an added advantage.

Wanting to finish a project by a certain date is a stronger, more precise desire, but if the date is self-imposed it's only as strong as your willpower. Since, in my case, willpower is what I've been lacking, a few such self-imposed deadlines and targets have slipped by. Even during this marathon, I allowed myself a couple of days off that I shouldn't, just because it's really hot and humid (by British standards, anyway) here, and I find that hurts my concentration and energy quite badly.

Wanting to not fail, though, that's a different beast. Failure is scary and horrible any time it appears, even if the worst I'd suffer from failing as a writer is having to go and get a proper, grown-up job. Telling people, "I'm going to do X amount of Y by day Z" sets up something to work away from, as well as towards. Whether or not anyone actually notices you saying so, whether or not you think anyone will actually follow up on it, the bony, putrid spectre of failure is now on your trail.

There's a deeper truth about writing here, too. Assuming that you're in this for the writing (and I still believe there's no other reason to be in the writing business), the only real failure is not doing any writing. Failure isn't just giving up, or not starting in the first place; failure is also not making progress. If you're 'working on a project', but telling yourself you'll actually work on it later, when conditions are better, you are failing.

That's not to say that you can't have a day off, now and then. In addition to the two days where I didn't write because my brain felt like soup thanks to the weather, I took a day off to help my housemates rearrange a bunch of furniture so they can do some redecorating. I'll probably be taking another day or, if progress permits, maybe even two to help with actually doing the decorating, towards the end of the month. Real life is, unfortunately, real, and when there's good reason and clear limits, it's fine and even necessary to let it come first.

But again, it's clear limits that matter. Taking time off because of the weather is dangerous because I can almost always find some excuse in the weather for not working (I hate pretty much all weather, even when I stay indoors). Taking a break to help a friend decorate works because there comes a point when she's finished decorating.

Of course, you should take all this with a pinch of salt; I'm writing this now partly as procrastination against starting the final episode of The Second Realm...

Thursday, 17 July 2014

A Madness of Angels

This isn't really a book review, but if it is, it's a review of A Madness of Angels by Kate Griffin. With that in mind, let me start by recommending the book, very highly, to anyone who likes reading... well, words, really. The words in this book are excellent, beautifully chosen, and the story they tell is pretty good too (I'm not sure about the ending, but I'm starting to wonder if I'm actually just generally ending-averse).

The book is a 'modern fairytale' sort of affair, something I'm very interested in but so far always disappointed by. Mark Chadbourn's 'Age of Misrule' was brilliant for about the first two chapters, then traded all its modernity for hippy hagiography. Even Neverwhere, a delightful story, felt backward-looking and nostalgic (though it has the excuse of being almost twenty years old).

A Madness of Angels has the advantage (you would think) of only being five years old. Well, probably six or so; its publication date of 2009 means it was probably written no later than 2008. It's set around that time, too - no earlier than 2005, and probably more like 2007-8ish. That makes it younger than Facebook, probably younger than Twitter, contemporary with the first iPhones.

I said this wasn't really a book review. What I'm actually getting at is how fast the world is changing. Madness felt (to me, specifically looking for a 'modern fairytale') hopelessly out of date. This is a book published after I became an adult, and not just in the legal okay-we'll-let-you-drive-now sense; by the time Madness came out in paperback, I'd started my flippin' PhD.


I don't remember a character in the novel sending an email (it's kind of implicit that emails are being sent in the world, but they don't appear on the page). Half-way through, the main character buys his first ever mobile phone - granted, he's been out of circulation for a couple of years, and prior to that lived quite a rootless life, but I was a relative latecomer to mobile phones and got my first when I was about fifteen (2002 or so). The internet as a whole barely figures in the story.

All of which is terrifying to me, as a modern writer trying to write (not always directly) about modern life. My first finished novel, which I wrote in late 2010, does feature tweets, emails and smartphones, but a lot of it takes place on blogs and online message-boards and yet there's no mention at all of Tumblr. By the time I get back to it to give it the heavy rework that any writer's first novel needs, there may not be much point.

The advantage of writing fantasy that cuts further away from reality (like The Second Realm, which I like to think has some pretty modern themes in it) is a level of insulation from this problem, but it does also put up a barrier to really engaging with new developments as people in my audience experience them.

I do, genuinely, recommend A Madness of Angels, but I'm not sure it lives up to its cover quote ("'Neverwhere' for the digital age"). But then, given the time it takes to write, edit, polish and publish any novel, I'm not sure that anything could ever live up to that billing.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Video Games

When I'm not writing, and don't have chores of one kind or another to attend to, I spend most of my time playing video games. Gaming is a big part of my life and I particularly enjoy any context I can find that gives me reason to take a game seriously; one of the things I love about World of Warcraft, for example, is that playing with other people at a high level puts an obligation on me to play well, so as not to hold other members of my team back. Currently I'm also very keen on the Games Done Quick marathon, a twice-yearly charity event which has raised over $1.7million this year alone.

But I don't feel comfortable talking about video games here, so much so that I've often thought about starting a second, entirely separate blog just to talk about my gaming experiences. It feels to me as if discussion of video games 'doesn't match' the themes of an author's blog, despite the fact that, as a genre fantasy author, many members of my core target audience are likely to be gamers themselves.

I don't feel the same way about other media. I'm not as interested in cinema as I used to be, but I wouldn't feel uncomfortable blogging about a film that had particularly moved or inspired me, or about something that could be learned from cinema as a form. Similarly, I've often mentioned webcomics, and sequential art in general, to draw comparisons with the ongoing evolution of publishing.

Maybe I'm imagining things, but I feel as if, just because of the association with video games, any similar point I tried to make from them would be dismissed. Part of this is hangover from my childhood, when video games were regarded with considerably greater suspicion than they are now. It took a long time before my parents were willing to let me have much access to games, though they have subsequently admitted that their doubts about the form were misplaced.

It comes down to this; I feel like there still isn't much of a casual audience for discussion of video games. There are specialist groups of various different kinds, including bona fide academic institutions and departments whose main focus is game design, but there isn't much outside of that. I can visit family and talk about my writing, even with people who aren't particularly interested in fantasy, or genre fiction, or even in fiction at all, but I wouldn't expect the same to be true for video games, despite them being an equally significant part of my life.

Maybe it's a bit different in business circles, since games are now one of the largest sectors of the entertainment market in the US and UK (I can't find a better source for the statistic, but I attended a lecture a couple of years ago by this guy, who made the claim that the video game industry is now larger than either film or TV in the US), but I'm not sure that's a discussion that would touch very much on game content.

The solution really ought to be for me to start talking about the stuff I'd like to talk about in a non-hardcore-gaming sphere and see if anybody listens, but I'm not quite willing to stick my neck out that far. If all else fails, time will doubtless do for games what it has done for all other forms of media - the average age of 'gamers' is now apparently 30, and the average age of game buyers is higher (though some of that will be parents buying - perhaps still with some reluctance - for their kids).

If you're a regular reader of this blog, and particularly if you don't consider yourself a gamer, I'd be very interested in your views on this; would you be surprised to see video game topics here? Would you read a blog post about video games (apart from this one)? Thanks for reading.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Blog Topics

I'm starting to run out of things to blog about. Or at least, I'm starting to struggle to think of new topics again. I have a couple of half-ideas knocking around, and if nothing else comes up I'm sure they'll see the light of day soon, for better or worse, but the reason I'm blogging today rather than a couple of days ago when a new post was about due is that a couple of days ago I realy didn't think I had anything ready to say.

I feel like I blog best when I blog about my own personal experiences pretty directly. At least, when I stick to quiet little stuff about how my life is going and what it involves, I incur far less scorn (and outright anger) from people whose judgement I respect. My hit counter has been climbing a lot faster since I started trying this approach, too: after generating less than 5,000 hits in the last quarter of 2013, I've had more than that every month in 2014, with June topping out at over 18,000.

The problem is, though, that 'my own personal experience' is a pretty narrow field at the moment. Life is good: I write, I play video games, and everything else is ordinary domestic routine. However good I am as a writer, I'm pretty terrible at writing about writing. And I have some awkward hang-ups about blogging about video games, at least to a non-gamer-specific audience (okay, I guess that will do for next week's topic).

There are, of course, plenty of topics in the real world that need talking about, but past experience suggests I'm not the one to be addressing them, at least in this kind of context. The legacy of spending so many years in academia is that I tend to write quite stiffly, even arrogantly, about 'big issues', and to cloud over my core message with either laboured humour or needless pedantry.

Another problem with the idea of me blogging about topical issues is how isolated I am from them. Cash-poor though I may be, my material wealth is considerable. My family provide a generous safety-net (which I am determined to never rely on again, but having it there does a lot to help my confidence and courage). As a straight, white, middle-class man in Britain, I sit in a position of considerable privilege; I can live my ordinary life and never experience discrimination, violence or hatred unless I seek them out.

That doesn't excuse me from thinking about them, but it does mean that my personal experience - the kind of thing I can blog about - is largely irrelevant to those issues. My engagement there should be founded in listening to the voices of others, learning from them, and doing what I can to boost their signals, rather than trying to add my own. The best I could do here, in a blogging context, would be to write about how I'm trying to change my behaviour to reflect what I've learned - and I'd have to be rather more confident that I'm on the right track before I could find the courage to do that.

I'm starting to worry that even this is too preachy - one of the things I have learned from listening to others, particularly people whose lives are routinely affected by injustice, is that my judgement about how the world does or should work, and about how I should behave, is profoundly unreliable. That lack of confidence in my own instinctive opinion is probably healthy (after all, I mainly write about men whose surfeit of self-confidence causes tremendous harm to those around them), but it does make sharing my views a little more intimidating.

Saturday, 28 June 2014

The Second Realm 7.4: Homeward Bound

First Episode - Previous Episode - Season 1 Hub - Season 2 Hub - Season 3 Hub - Smashwords (all major ebook formats, pay what you like) - Next Episode


 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."

"What?"

"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."

"Bersh..."

"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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