Chapter 2

Have you ever had a dream so vivid you were sure it was real? Your mind crafted a world so convincing that it fooled itself. You saw, heard, and felt with such clarity that even upon waking it was unclear what was real and what was a dream. Only later, with reflection, could you separate the truth from the illusion.

The truth is, it wasn't a dream. It was a clue.

A desert blossomed beneath her feet, and Ariel was thrown to the ground. Joel, Gavin, Sadie, and Soren all tumbled or collapsed around her. Only Noah managed to keep his feet, but he immediately dropped to one knee by Soren, who seemed to have fainted. Peko flapped frantically above them before he regained his balance and found a perch on Noah's shoulder. Ariel tried to stand, but was immediately overcome by waves of nausea and dropped to her knees again, vomiting. Gavin, Joel, and Sadie all suffered the same indignity, emptying the contents of their stomachs onto the hot sand. For several seconds they remained doubled over while their sickness slowly faded.

"Rough landing," Noah commented. "You alright, Soren?"

He moaned. "I'm not dead, if that's what you're asking."

"That's always a plus."

"Is it? I have the worst migraine in the history of man."

"Reflux from breaking the resistance?"

"A lot of it. Those are some smart kids."

"Well, we're safe now. Sikarra's twin suns will keep the wraith away, at least until nighttime," Noah observed.

"That was the idea."

"Good thinking."

"Yeah, I'm smart like that sometimes."

"You know, we could have just come here in the first place."

"Gaia should have been safe," Soren retorted. "I didn't think they'd be able to track us."

"Well, they did. And now we have three hokies along for the ride. Four, if you count the dog. The Priory won't be happy. We'll have a lot of explaining to do."

"Look, my migraine is bad enough right now without your commentary. Can we focus less on how Soren-screwed-up and more on how Soren-just-saved-everybody's-life?"

"Right. Well done, Soren."

"Thanks. Anytime."

Ariel managed to stand despite the queasy feeling in her belly. "What just happened? Where are we?"

Soren remained on his back. "We jumped. Teleported. Linked. Bounced. Whatever you want to call it. We're in a different universe now. This one is called Sikarra."

"You are probably experiencing some nausea right now. It's an effect of the cognitive dissonance you just encountered. Most minds find it hard to adapt to such an unusual experience, and yours are having trouble coming to terms with recent events," Noah explained. "Your bodies' natural response is nausea, so you may feel ill for a little while."

"In short, your minds' zealously constructed reality filters just got shot to hell."

"Soren!" Noah chided.

"Sorry. This migraine's got me feeling snarky."

Gavin wiped the corner of his mouth with his sleeve. "I don't believe this. You mean to tell me we're in another universe now?"

"That's the gist of it."

"I must be dreaming."

"Trust me, you're more awake than you've ever been. This is as real as it gets."

"And all that stuff back there—did it...?" Joel asked.

"Did it really happen? Yes, I'm afraid it did."

"But..." Ariel started. "But my dad..."

"I'm sorry," Noah sympathized, sincerity etched across his face. He put a hand on her shoulder, but she turned away to hide her face, afraid of what tears might come. Sadie whined and nuzzled her leg, but Ariel was in no mood to acknowledge her. Yet as she stood there, gazing at a horizon that she didn't quite see, she felt no gut-wrenching anguish or misery. There was only the distant sense of detachment, like the shock had worn off only for numbness to set in. Maybe it was because everything about the situation was too unreal, or perhaps somewhere deep down inside she still believed that she would wake up to find this whole mess was nothing more than a bad dream, but for whatever reason, she wasn't distraught. She wasn't anything, really. She couldn't quite place the feeling, a discordant mix of emptiness and fragility. She half-wished that the dry desert wind would just blow through her and spirit her away to someplace where none of this was happening. Joel and Gavin looked similarly stunned, as if they weren't seeing what passed before their eyes. Soren and Noah were both at a loss for words. There was a long and uncomfortable silence that seemed to stretch to the horizon.

It was Joel who spoke up. "Ariel—you're bleeding."


"Your arm. It's cut."

Ariel looked down, and saw that the left shoulder of her shirt had been sliced open. There was a thin cut beneath it running across her upper arm, and a small trail blood was discoloring her sleeve. It didn't hurt much—in fact, Ariel realized that she could barely feel it at all.

Noah quickly ripped a strip of fabric from his shirt and bandaged her arm. "Are you alright?"

"I'm fine," Ariel insisted. "It doesn't hurt at all."

Noah bent to examine the wound. "Did the wraith do this to you?"

"I—I don't know," she said. "There was glass flying everywhere…"

"It doesn't look like glass," Noah muttered.

Soren cringed and pressed his palms into his eyeballs. "This is worse than I thought…"

Ariel was confused. "What? Why? What happens if a wraith cuts you?"

Noah gave Soren a significant look. Then Peko cleared his through. "Guys... I don't mean to break up this little shindig, but come sunset we'll want to be somewhere safe."

Gavin was taken aback. "Wait—he talks?"

Peko sighed as if he were prepared for this response. "Yes, I talk. Try not to freak out."

"He's a talking bird," Gavin scoffed.

"Nothing gets past you, does it?"

"Since when does he talk?"

"Since the day I was born," Peko said, annoyed.

"Trust me," Soren cut in. "He never shuts up."

"But how—"

"Every time," Peko complained. "Why don't we ever meet someone who isn't surprised I'm intelligent?"

"Peko, cut them some slack," Noah said. "Where they come from—"

"Yeah, yeah, I know. But still—every time."

"So, I take it he's not actually from South Africa," Gavin stated.

"Athylweryn isn't a city in Africa. It's Peko's home plane," admitted Noah.

"Why did you tell me he was from South Africa?"

"Well, we couldn't exactly tell you he was from another universe."

"You can see how well that's going over. Lots of vomit and disbelief," said Peko.

"Besides, people will believe whatever you tell them about South Africa," Soren said, climbing to his feet with a sigh. "Peko's right though. Come sunset, we'll want to be somewhere safe. If the wraith can somehow track our jumps, it's just waiting for nightfall to follow us. Even if it can't, night on Sikarra can get pretty rough. Either way, we need shelter."

"So what are we going to do?" Joel asked.

"There's a nomad camp a few hours south of here. It's going to be a hike, but we can make it."

"How long until sunset?" Gavin queried.

"Four, maybe five hours. We'd best get moving. We've got a long walk ahead of us."

"In that case, I'll slip into something more comfortable, if that's alright," Noah said.

"Be my guest," Soren said, standing back and crossing his arms. "Make it something nice, though."

Noah rolled his eyes. "Fine."

Soren impatiently drummed his fingers against his elbow. "Well—go ahead. What are you waiting for?"

"Could you... tell them to look away? It'll be easier with a bit of privacy," Noah said, self-consciously.

"Oh, come on. You're going to have to do it in front of them eventually."

"But the cognitive resistance—"

"Will be easier to overcome while their reality filters are still down. They need to see it."

"See what?" Ariel asked, unsure of what exactly was going on between them.

"See this," he said, resignedly.

She watched in awe as the features of Noah's weathered face slid and shifted. His big crooked nose shrank down to a normal size, his angular brow melted back, his wrinkled skin softened and smoothed, his long white hair turned golden blond, and his stooped form straightened up. Where a haggard old man had been seconds before, a slender young woman now stood. Her eyes were the same crystal shade of blue as before, and the silver beads still hung from a lock of her hair. Her clothing hadn't changed at all—she was wearing the same tan coat and tall leather boots—although now they seemed to fit a bit better. She stretched and shook out her hair.

"Ah, much better," she sighed.

"You're a shapeshifter," Ariel said, as if the words sounded foreign to her.

"Technically the term is morphant, but—yes. My real name is... well, very long, so you can call me Bliss, for short." She smiled and extended a hand, but was stopped by the strange expression on Ariel's face. "I—what is it?"

Ariel felt renewed pangs of nausea grip her stomach and sat down dizzily in the sand. "I don't feel so good," she said.

Bliss knelt beside her. "Deep breaths will make you feel better," she said, then turned to Soren and murmured, "She's too old for this."

"She just has a stronger filter than her brothers," Soren muttered in reply. "She'll be alright."

"I want to go home," Ariel said, and buried her face in her knees.

"We can't go home just now, Ariel," Soren said.

"I want to go home!" she insisted miserably. "This is crazy! First one thing, then another… it's too much! I just want to go home…"

"Ariel," Bliss pleaded, not expecting the sudden outburst. "I'm sorry this is so hard for you. It was hard for me too, when I jumped for the first time. But it gets easier, and if you give it a minute I bet you'll feel a lot better. There's a lot to explain, and we've done a pretty shoddy job of it so far, but we're doing the best we can. I've never shown this way of life to anyone who wasn't already used to it, and neither has Soren. I wish it were different, you're going to have to be patient with us and give it some time."

"As for going home..." Soren began.

Ariel looked up at him expectantly; jaw set, glassy eyed, but hopeful.

"We will return as soon as possible. I promise. But right now, it's still not safe. It's night-time in your world, and the wraith might still be lingering about, waiting until it's safe to jump here. He might have gone back to the Netherium—I don't know—but I'd rather not risk it if I don't have to. And even if it were broad daylight, that last jump took a lot out of me and left me feeling like there's a jackhammer going off in my skull, so I'm in no mental shape to take us back right now. Give it a good night's rest, and in the morning we'll head back, alright?"

Ariel sniffed and rubbed her eyes with her sleeve. "Alright."

"Great. In the meantime, let's focus on getting to tomorrow morning in one piece. The nomads should be south of the here. Peko can fly up high to look for their camp. The rest of us will have to walk."

And so, they set out southwards across the low dunes beneath the blazing heat of twin suns. From time to time they would stop to drink from a water canister Soren kept in his haversack, or take a bearing with an odd-looking compass-like instrument. They scrambled up and down the dunes, trying to navigate the most straightforward path to the nomad camp. The sand was hot, and poor Sadie was panting heavily in the sweltering heat. They quickly became fatigued, since no one had eaten much before their dinner had been so abruptly interrupted. Nevertheless, they made steady progress across the desert and while they walked, Soren tried explain things as he'd promised.