I’d been worried about the landing, but it was easy, the cloak did most of it for me. I wondered if Sylvester had made them give me one that would. It’s supposed to take a while to learn to fly with a cloak, but Malaika would already have done it, so it’d be odd if I was here and couldn’t.
When I landed on the meadow, I found I’d still got at least an hour until the last of the Seekers arrived, plus more for the time to get them fed and sorted out. So I decided to take a walk around. It was far, far away, but also just a touch freak, to be on the streets of the city. I knew the map of it from the Encyclopaedia and I could recognise the buildings; either from the illustrations or from having seen them in the DIVs.
It isn’t the same as walking around a place you really know, though. That was still tres ok. A real lol. I could feel the cobbles under my feet, I could smell fresh bread when I went past a bakery, and there was sunlight warm on one side of my face. Alright, not all good. I could smell they’d had draftbeasts walking through too, by what they’d left on the cobbles. Cho gruse.
I felt a bit hungry and bought a snack from a stall near the market. I must have looked a bit fuffy. I was fumbling with the coins and trying not to grin, ‘cos I was still very wai wai from, well, everything. Flying, being here, being Malaika. I’d lost track of the time until I saw Aki and Daniel walking along the street ahead of me. I was going to run up and catch them, but then I caught the body language and the look on her face and thought nooooo girl, don’t. The last thing Aki’d want just then was someone butting in and spoiling the moment.
I followed them at a careful sort of distance ‘til we got back to the Meadows. There were a lot more people they knew there and they unglued from each other a little, so I joined them, sort of pretending I couldn’t see they were together. I think Dan would’ve been embarrassed if I’d said anything. I went along with them to the meadows where the Initiations take place and we sat on the bank and waited for the rest of the seniors. It was nice sitting out in the sun. The weather here was like Dad says it used to be.
The river banks had got higher and steeper as we went further down. There were only occasional buildings along the way, right until we reached the city itself; bastles by the looks of them. Bastles litter Northumberland. The teacher who first introduced us to them said the word came from Bastille, and they could be thought of as fortified barns. I knew the history of the Borders and I knew what was going on when people needed to fortify their barns. Not reassuring. The river at the city looked very much like it does at Newcastle, minus the bridges. There was a turreted wall, and I could see a castle about where the Keep is on the north side. The river was bridged, but by a medieval looking affair with houses built along it. There was a wooden section in the centre which looked as though it could be raised to let tall ships through.
It didn’t have the grace of either the Tyne or Millennium bridges, and it wasn’t my city, but it did look attractive; I had to admit. The whole place looked pleasant; much cleaner than a real mediaeval city would have been, I’m sure, and well put together. Green roofs everywhere. McGregor woke up by himself, well before anyone thought to shake him, and steered the boat up to the Quayside, where we got off at a floating jetty. My mind was on how clean the water was when a face popped out of it, winked at me and then dived back down. I don’t think I needed to see the scaly tail to know it was a mermaid. I wasn’t the only one to see it, but it hardly raised much more than a few eyebrows and grins. For the others, the city itself was the main attraction.
Somebody’s set designers had done good work here. Tudor-looking buildings with roof gardens mostly. The streets were narrow, cobbled, but smooth to walk on, and the vehicles that travelled along them were being pulled by… I had to look again. Whatever those things were, they weren’t Shire horses. Or any others, for that matter. I don’t know much about horses, but I was sure horses didn’t have six legs. Where had he nicked those from?
I couldn’t imagine he'd spent much time working out the ecology or biology of a place like this. He’d just have written it for effect. I wondered if I’d see many other six-legged things and how the joint was supposed to work, but decided it didn’t really matter. Here was a city of a few thousand people who carted things around with six-legged beasts. Why should I worry? Apart from the smell of the dung small kids were scraping off the roads…
There was something, though, that stuck in my head. The population… I didn’t have time to follow it through, however. We were shuffled into an inn on the other side of the road and settled on benches at tables to eat, which, I had to admit, was just what I needed to do. There’d been water and more of the rooibos stuff to drink on the boat, but not so much as a sandwich by way of food.
More dwarfs served us. Miya told me they were called Duergars. I knew that one; it’s a Northumbrian term, but I wouldn’t have expected it from him. I suppose it is some sort of tribute to my persistence over the last fourteen years, but I was feeling a lot more ignorant than even I’d expected. Surely, I should have recognised some of the people I’d met so far today. In truth, some did look familiar. I was sure I’d seen the Scot and the Northern Irishman before somewhere. But it was only a whisper of recognition in the back of my head. Maybe something like the nanyware was blocking those memories.
The food was good. Simply cooked, but tasty- done by someone who knew about umami; vegetarian, with some kind of large bean that looked similar to a chickpea; though not one I could recognise and name. The portion size seemed in line with the Food Laws. Had to wonder if that was coincidence or something imposed on them. We'd have eaten more at the time it was written.
It was eaten from heavy wooden plates with heavy metal knives and forks that looked handforged.
I couldn’t begrudge them the attention to detail. This place had a feeling of … I don’t know if the word would be authenticity or plausibility.
For example, after eating I had to go out to use a toilet. Yeah, I know. It was only afterwards I wondered why. What I found reminded me of Japan. They were squatters, similar to the ones
you’d find at a train station, though with the hole at the other, more sensible end. And not the computerised things that need to teach you how they work, obviously. I’d just entered a stall when I noticed a large toad squatting on a ledge. It looked me in the eye and said, “Used one of these before, have you?”
It sounded like Ian Dury. I love the man’s music, but it wasn’t a voice I wanted in the bog with me.
“Nah, didn’t think so. Haven’t met a talking toad either, have you?" It didn’t wait for an answer, but squinted at me and went on. “Some people can drop the trolleys and strides as far as the knees and plop their claggy in safety, but I’d lose ‘em completely if I was you.”
I just wanted a slash. I was about to ask the toad if it couldn’t just go away – where else is embarrassment if not all in your mind, after all – when it launched off again.
“You’re gunna ask me if I wouldn’t be happier out in the wild, aren’t you? The old ‘born free’ stuff, eh? Well there are many less eloquent of my brethren out there who are currently enjoying the right to be eaten alive by herons – a fate that doesn’t even leave time for scaring the crap out of you. Very fast is herons. While I, on the other hand, spends my days in comfort and safety, courtesy o’ my silver tongue, nothing more to worry about than the odd pongy dump. Easy street, I calls it.”
Okay. In terms of talking animals, not very Disney, but the point is, while I’d have settled for a sign on the wall, I didn’t find anything unbelievable or even strange about the talking toad. I wondered where the voice came from. Surely Ian Dury was dead at the time of the books; he wouldn’t have been a reference that most kids would have understood.
There was even some graffiti on the wall of the toilet. I read it as I peed.
‘Good judgement comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgement.’
‘The avalanche has already started; it’s too late for the pebbles to vote.’
‘Trust in Allah, but tie up your camel.’
More literary than the stuff I normally see in toilets, but it made this place more real than your
average shopping centre. I tipped sawdust down the squatter instead of flushing it. That couldn't
have been his idea. He wouldn't have gone near a composting bog and they weren't common back in the aughts. I washed my hands and dried them on something that looked like a sheep’s fleece, then went back to the others.
After the meal I could have done with a nap, but we were walked on up the hill towards the castle and beyond. Most of the buildings were houses and the people Duergars. The occasional human stood at least head and shoulders higher than them. The Duergar houses were incredibly small; if they had rats, they’d be hunchbacked. It took me a while to realise they were built tall – lots of storeys that is – as they didn’t go up far. They looked quite modern in having their gardens on the roofs.
We were the only ones dressed in ordinary clothes. The other humans wore either light-grey clothing that looked to be modelled on judo-gi, or darker-grey versions of the same thing, often with cloaks. Footwear was some sort of moccasin. I noticed the older ones were in the darker clothing, and only they wore the cloaks. I asked Miya if there was any significance to this.
“Yeah, the younger ones are Apprentices, the older ones are Seniors. They teach and stuff. The ones wearing the cloaks can fly. Hey, can you see the sleeves on the dark tops have sort of embroidery on them? Yeah? Well that shows what level of senior they are. I don’t know what the signs mean yet, but we’ll be told when we pass our Initiation”.
I caught a quick look at a couple of passing seniors and could tell her, “They’re kanji, Japanese writing. One mark is a number and another is some sort of level marker. The guy back there had one and low on his sleeve and the girl had one and middle.”
“You read Japanese?" I was quite surprised she believed it so quickly. When I was thirteen, I’d have guessed BS if I’d heard a statement like that.
“No, it’s difficult to learn, but I know a few of the simple characters.”
She didn’t ask me how I’d learned, being busy telling the other girl from the boat this news, which was as well. I didn’t want to have to think my way around telling the truth. I knew those characters because they’re used as part of the names of Japanese primary, middle and secondary schools. And I knew that, because I worked in one. I didn’t know exactly what would happen if I acted out of character, but Sylvester wouldn’t like it, that I was sure of; so I’d try to avoid it.
After a while we reached the north gate to the city walls and went through. The cobbles ended here and the road was now a dirt track that headed off in the direction of a forest about a kilometre away. Before that I could see a large meadow, with cows grazing. We walked into the centre of it, in the direction of a small crowd of people milling around.
I looked for Brendan in the first few groups of Seekers, but didn’t see him. Everyone else was looking as much as I was. It made sense. Book One says most of the Seekers were relatives of people already in The Land, so some were checking if their younger brothers or sisters or whatever had arrived. There wasn't a big crowd, but I suppose people had other things to do.
As it happened, I spotted him in the last group to get there. Ben Elliott looked really cute at 11 when he started playing Brendan in the DIVs. I do sort of like him now. Sara thinks he’s mecha hunky, ‘cos he’s well spartaned, but he’s a bit too tougho for me.
Once they had arrived, everything started to get sorted out. Senior Niall was there then so it could, of course. He’d come with the same group as Brendan, natch.
We herded the Seekers into the centre of the Dip and all of the Mages spread in a circle around them; linking hands to get the spacing right. The Initiation started without any ceremony; there was just a sound like a drum beating. I knew what it was, ‘cos it’s explained in Book One – the heartbeats of the Mages as their energies start to link for the Initiation. It started sort of raggy, then built and built into not like just noise, but something you could dance to. Then all the Mages raised their hands, palms towards the Seekers. Senior Niall chanted, but his voice echoed out over the group. It soaked into my head and stopped any other thoughts. I felt warmth spreading down my arms to my hands.
Then, for some time, I was just a part of the circle. The chanting filled my head and my heartbeat started to echo with it. I noticed when the blue light started to flow from my hands, snaking over to the Seekers like smoke and touching their heads, but it wasn’t freak or like something to get excited over. It was just what was happening.
After all the talk of the Initiation, I’d expected some grand show. As it happened, we got herded into a small, amphitheatre-shaped dip in the meadow, close to a stream. The dark- clothed Mages formed a ring around us, and things started with a drum beating.
I had a second after the drum started to realise it had begun, another to think this was lacking in showmanship, and then the chanting started. Things got vague pretty quickly after this, but I thought there was one voice chanting at first, amplified somehow so it filled the area. Then the sky grew dark until I couldn’t see anything. I felt warm and comfortable, but, thinking back, I don’t remember being able to feel my body at all.
Something, a pressure, started up in the centre of my head and I knew someone was going to touch me. The pressure intensified. Then something touched my head and the pressure became a colour, without ever stopping being a pressure. Purple started to flow behind my eyes. First, a purple pond with ripples moving across it, then, the surface of a purple soup, slowly boiling. Then dark blue took over. This colour-feeling continued all the way down my body, covering the entire spectrum.
I know this is a lousy description of what happened, but it would take a poet, a doctor or a mystic to do a better job, and even they might be stretched to explain what having your crotch feel red means.
Then there was nothing at all, a blackness like a sky without stars, an emptiness like a hole in your heart, a feeling time had gone away on holiday. It stayed like that for some short… interval? I was aware of it, even though there wasn’t anything to be aware of. Then my consciousness called time on me.
Again. This was already happening a lot here. I didn’t know who’d get off on this kind of detail, but I’d be ready to suggest they knock it on the head as just too bleeding painful to be fun.
It was freak! I mean, beyond mecha. I mean… I don’t know any way to talk about it! The only parts I can describe are the bits that were in front of my eyes. What happened inside my head…!
I saw the things that I knew I would. It’s like it says in Book One, ‘The Energies reached round in a circle, uniting the Mages through their third eyes - a point in the middle of their foreheads. Then it spread from their hands to form a spider’s web of blue ight, each node a Seeker.
Seekers often asked about that light, as they never saw it. New Mages often disputed about the light, never agreeing. Elders, if pressed, might say it was like deep sky-blue, but different. One famous Mage had described it as the shade of a giving heart, another like the colour of Miles Davies playing saxophone. Well-meaning attempts to explain, perhaps, but … Kayley said it best when she said Mages perceived magic, not light, so the colour of magic could never be described to those looking for the vocabulary of light.
Along those indescribable lines of living magic flowed a pulse of energy, touching each Seeker, entering and opening them.’
That’s what it says it is, but that doesn’t tell you what it’s like being inside it. Brendan lit up like some kind of rainbow, glowing from violet down to fire-engine red. He just sat down and then fell over slowly, lights shining out of him.
Then it was suddenly done. Everyone just went slack. It wasn’t like we woke up or anything. It was more like the world had stopped for a while and then it started again. Then I saw them. About five kids. The only ones standing. They hadn’t an iddy about what was going on around them and I knew; nothing had happened for them. I felt so sad for them. What had just happened to me was something I couldn’t put into words, but I knew I’d had an experience and I knew they hadn’t. They hadn’t felt anything. They’d stood in the middle of a field and watched others going weirdly around them.
The others were either sitting on the ground, holding their heads and looking a bit sick, or flat out on the floor, like Brendan, unconscious. The seniors around the circle were all looking the way I felt. Duergars moved amongst us and the kids sitting on the grass. They gave out cups of what must have been chia. I didn’t notice the taste of it even; maybe it was the same stuff I’d drunk that morning. It had the same effect though. I felt instantly better, clear in my head and just not getting over something freak any more.
‘Two,’ murmured Aki, ‘Did you see them?’
‘What?’ was all I could croak.
‘A boy down there in front of you and a girl just over there,’ she said, pointing. ‘Both had the light.’
When I looked again the Duergars were carrying them on stretchers towards Senior Niall. Brendan would wake up and meet Jess for the first time. That was the start of their rivalry. It wasn’t sorted out even by Book Six. I’d so much love to know how it all ends!
I woke up lying on a stretcher. Someone offered me a cup and I drank it down. Same stuff they’d given us after coming through the Gate. Same sort of effect too, though I didn’t feel like getting up from the stretcher just yet.
“Feeling rough?" That Irishman again. I couldn’t do much more than nod to him. “Don’t worry; the effect will wear off soon. Drink lots of chia and you’ll feel better. When you can walk, just say, and Debaa here will show you the way to the carriages.”
He patted me on the shoulder and went off. I wondered if someone could maybe just carry me to a bed, but as I drank I repaired quickly. Within a minute I was able to stand up. On another stretcher was a young girl. She looked like she’d just vomited her toenails, but was coming back into focus fast. Another familiar face, but I couldn’t place her either.
I looked around. Most of the crowd had gone. It dawned on me we were the only ones who’d passed out. I felt embarrassed, some kind of wimp, too whacked out to remember this was just in the script.
The girl, on the other hand, looked well pleased.
“Did they see the Light?" she demanded of the Duergar.
“Hem." The creature replied, nodding. I took that for a yes. She didn’t air-punch, but the look on her face told me I’d been wrong. Whatever had happened to us she was in favour of. I must have looked confused. Well, I should’ve done, I was. She looked at me, saw this, and twisted a lip.
“You don’t know what just happened, do you?" she demanded. They say a picture paints a thousand words. Well, the look on her face was doing a novella on how my incomprehension equalled idiocy. I think I’m nice to teenage girls when I teach them, even when they don’t really deserve it. I’d only been doing it for a year and a half, but I’d taught enough to know most of them feel the same way. I’m not a bad bloke, but I don’t take this kind of behaviour.
“No," I told her back, “but then I’m not some up-herself little cow standing in a field with her mates, am I? Moo.”
Okay, I know, as a line, it stank. And it wasn’t the best way to handle the situation, I know, right? But come up with a better response yourself when your head has just come apart at the seams. It did the job for me. I nodded to the dwarf and we started to walk away. I heard fuming noises behind me, so I guessed it’d done the job for her too. Crude, perhaps, but I thought that’d gone well enough. Perhaps I’d edit it out of the AfterBook, though probably I’d just delete that anyway.
I could see from where I stood that something went wrong with the conversation between Brendan and Jess. They should’ve talked for a while where they stood and then gone off together, arguing. Somehow he’d finished the whole thing in only seconds and was going off by himself. How could he not know the way it was supposed to go? Well, it really didn’t matter much, I supposed. Those who hadn’t passed would go back to their Gates and the other world. The rest of us would go to the feast, then bed. I’d wake up back in my real world tomorrow. Maybe it was because I was emptied after the Initiation, but I felt like I’d won second prize.