Tin Horses and Paper Planes

Chapter 8 - The Thing with Feathers


Wyatt knew there was something wrong well before he reached the stables. DG was waiting for him and even in the decaying evening light her stricken expression was enough to warn him of bad news to come. Either Her Majesty's decided to give me my marching orders, or... He urged Captain into a brisk trot and swung himself out of the saddle a few feet from the entrance to the yard, jogging to a standstill and bunching the reins in one hand so that he could wipe the sweat from his face with his sleeve.

"DG - what's going on?"

"It's Glitch..." she looked up at him, and her watery, anxious gaze stilled his heart for a single, awful moment. "It's happened again. Another seizure, I mean." One sort of dread was quickly replaced by another.

"Who's with him?"

DG waved urgently at one of the stablehands, who hurried forward to take Captain's reins and lead him away. "Doctor Spicer's been there all afternoon. I think Doctor Krantz is on the Telex to Central City; I guess he's consulting with people at the hospital there." She broke into a half-run to keep up with Wyatt's lengthening strides.

"Spicer was with him when it happened?" DG nodded.

"The doctor said he was asleep when he got there. but about half an hour ago he woke up very disoriented and tried to get out of bed." She glanced at Wyatt. "He said he had to keep the fire going. Doctor Spicer isn't sure if he fell because of the seizure, or if the fall was what set it off."

"Was it cold in there? He'd got enough blankets, hadn't he?" Okay, that officially counts as fussing. Quit it. Wyatt made for the servants' stairs without thinking, and it took him a moment to realise why their progress upwards to Glitch's rooms was the catalyst for sudden flurries of industriousness all around them. Look busy - the boss is coming.

"He had so many blankets, I'm surprised he could get out from underneath them all. Doctor Spicer says he was muttering about being cold before he woke up, but there was a fire lit in his study." DG skipped out of the way of a maid bearing down on them with an armload of sheets, and Wyatt caught a glimpse of the girl's expression of startled horror as she realised how close she'd come to knocking the princess down the stairs.

"How is he, now? Is he awake?" She shook her head.

"He hasn't woken up at all, yet. Krantz didn't stay long, Doctor Spicer said, but he did check him over and Glitch slept through it all." And Wyatt could tell that he wasn't the only one who thought this was a good thing.

"How did he seem this morning?" DG's blank expression made him pause, and he turned to her, leaning back against the panelled wall to look at her. "This morning," he repeated gently. "You took him some breakfast. Didn't you?" A sweet girl who had brought Glitch an apple, and cried... He'd automatically assumed it was DG, but she shook her head.


"That was your sister?" Wyatt raised a brow. "I figured you were the only one who was taking the trouble to visit him, besides me." He made no effort to disguise the note of bitterness in his voice. DG winced.

"That's not fair. Az has been trying, but there's just so much..." she made a face. "It's a mess. She's a mess. The witch has gone, but everything she did got left behind, and Az has to deal with it."

She looked pale and nervous, Wyatt remembered. Like a forest animal unable to decide between freezing and fleeing. "Has she had any trouble from people?" DG waited until they'd passed another convoy of maids, leaving them bobbing in her wake like ducks on a fast-flowing river, before answering.

"Nothing more than wary looks and people being really careful about what they say. But it's not out there she has the problem." She touched her fingertip to her temple. "She's working hard enough torturing herself without anybody else needing to help out. She's got a guilt complex big enough to stretch from here to Finaqua, and she won't let it go."

Wyatt cast his mind back a year, to DG weeping at the entrance to the witch's subterranean prison. Yeah. Runs in the family. On the whole, though, DG seemed to have adjusted pretty well. But then, she didn't have to watch herself turning the world into wasteland day by day.

They'd reached the wood-lined alcoves of the Long Gallery and walked in troubled silence past the parade of austere portraits, which watched them, unmoved. A bored-looking guard was sitting outside Glitch's door, but jumped quickly to his feet as Wyatt and DG approached. The princess responded to his hurried salute with a vague nod of acknowledgement, pushing open the door before Wyatt could open it for her. I bet your mom is still trying to train you out of that.

The lamps were dimmed in Glitch's bedroom and the low light gleamed softly here and there, picking out Doctor Spicer's spectacles and the smooth dome of his head. At first, Wyatt thought that he had fallen asleep; hunched forward at the bedside with his head bowed, the Munchkin seemed quite oblivious to the world around him. Then the faintest murmur of sound reached Wyatt's ears, and he understood that Spicer was not only awake, but speaking in his quiet, sing-song manner, the words meant only for the unconscious man in the bed. Perhaps it was a song, perhaps some sort of prayer but, whatever it was, the doctor did not look up until he had completed his sotto voce recitation. Only then did he rise to his feet and bow to DG.

"Kira-fensec, sa tres mi undem?" The princess took a moment to reply, and Wyatt could see her lips move briefly, trying something out before she spoke.

"Spicer-lijest...um...proso...ekstat inam." She hesitated, and the doctor gave her an encouraging smile.

"Ekstasha 'nam, Highness - the imperative, you see? You must command your subjects - even me, you understand?" Spicer's smile dwindled until it was consumed by his beard, and he inclined his head towards the bed. "Gewen brings him sleep and Umaii stands close by. As my Princess commands, I pass the vigil on for other eyes to keep until Hyperion has spread her wings." He bowed again and withdrew, leaving Wyatt and DG to stare after him in silence. Catching Wyatt's look of bemusement, DG smiled briefly.

"Yeah. That's pretty much how I used to be after talking to him. That's why I'm trying to learn Menschke, or however you say it. You don't have to find rhymes for everything."

"He really talks like that all the time?" Wyatt felt his mouth twist, incredulous. "Doesn't that seem kind of frivolous, for a doctor?" DG shook her head.

"You get used to it." Now that the little doctor had gone, she took his seat beside Glitch's bed, speaking quietly. Wyatt found another chair and manoeuvred it next to her. "First time I ran into a Munchkin - well, a bunch of them - a bunch of Munchkins with feathers," she let out an odd, disquieting giggle and Wyatt saw that she was suddenly close to tears, "they all spoke in this weird rhyme. It was just surreal - I thought I was dreaming. That's when I met Glitch, and everything just got weirder..."

Wyatt touched her shoulder and she turned to him, blinking furiously. "You were telling me about Azkadelia," he prompted carefully. "She and Glitch - they're okay with each other, now?"

"It took me two months to persuade her to come riding with us." Her smile returned, and Wyatt could almost read the memory in the way the worried lines smoothed from her face. "We took a picnic up onto the heath, and sat in the sun. And it was awkward for a little while. Then... well, you know how he babbles when he gets nervous?" Wyatt nodded. "He started on some old story about the Munchkins, and how they thought the sunlight - the sunslight - was a cure for sorrow, and partway through, he got lost..."

He could imagine it; muted swathes of buff-coloured scrub, fringed with tall, fluttering grasses and punctuated by the pale purple heather that thrived on the open land overlooking the Sunseeder. Glitch, sitting cross-legged on a blanket, his convoluted anecdote faltering as his train of thought crashed over an unexpected precipice. Synapse Junction - end of the line...

"Then Az took over, and finished the story for him, and I remembered. It's hazy - I was only tiny - but sometimes we'd go up to the Vantage at Finaqua, where his little workshop was, and bug him until he'd tell us a story. And I'd fall asleep and dream about talking birds and flying people, and songs the suns sang..." The glow of reverie faded and DG looked up at Wyatt, her smile tinged with sadness. "I think it helped both of them, that day. Az needed to know Glitch wasn't scared of her, that he didn't blame her for what the Witch did to him. And he needed to remind himself she wasn't the Witch. I hope h-"

"...the thing with feathers..." They both looked sharply at the bed. Glitch, who hadn't moved since their arrival, turned onto his side and gazed at them vacantly.

"He's awake. Hey, how are you feeling?" DG moved closer to the bed. "Glitch?"

"I don't think he can hear you," Wyatt said gently, and leaned over to touch Glitch's arm."You with us, Sunshine?" Glitch's eyes were sleepy and half-lidded, and Wyatt once again found himself chilled by the bruised-looking skin around them and the shadows that haunted the zipperhead's face. Glitch shivered, then mumbled something too indistinct for Wyatt to fully decipher. Something about a storm? Feathers and a storm. Must be thinking about when he met DG. Perhaps he can hear us. "He's still cold - can you grab that blanket?"

Between the two of them, they spread the soft woollen blanket across the bed, and DG glanced at the window, where a sliver of crepuscular gloom was visible between the curtains. "Doctor Spicer's coming back at moonrise, but that's a couple of hours away. D'you think we ought to get Doctor Kr-" She saw Wyatt's face darken and faltered. "You really don't like him, do you? After you went out, Mother told us what happened."

"Mm. I kinda blew my stack, and I guess I should thank your mom for not having me summarily hauled away by the ears. It just felt as though I was the only one fighting Glitch's battles for him." He tucked the blanket carefully around Glitch's shoulders, looking for anything, the smallest indication that Glitch was awake and aware of him. There was nothing. The zipperhead's eyes were all but closed, no more than a dark gleam behind the long lashes. "I know that sounds harsh, but she didn't see the way Krantz was with him. Doctor Spicer might be a little quirky, but at least he doesn't talk about him as if he's..." A headcase. He shied away from the thought. I didn't know him, then. "...inferior."

"We talked about it this afternoon." DG picked at a thread at the edge of the blanket. "They're sending for another doctor from the City, maybe a surgeon, too. Mother does care about Glitch," she added loyally. "She's as worried as we are. I think she was hoping Doctor Krantz would have the answers."

Wyatt's eyes flickered across to the prone figure once more. "Another doctor - that would be a start. Krantz has a way of asking all his questions with a bullhorn, and all that's doing is driving Glitch further into himself. He remembers my name - has done every time I've been in here - but I can see him struggling to remember what was said to him two minutes ago." He rubbed his cheek, abruptly weary. "He's still there; sometimes I can see it so clearly, but he's fading in and out like a wireless broadcast."

"There might be other tests. Other things the new doctor can think of." DG was trying to sound positive, but Wyatt got the feeling that she was grasping at straws. "If this was the Otherside..." her mouth tightened, and Wyatt spoke before she could continue.

"If this was the Otherside, maybe you'd have doctors with some fancy tricks we don't have over here. It's a nice idea. But even if we could get him through a travel storm without killing him, how many guys are walking around with zippers in their heads over there? Krantz is bad enough, but they'd treat him like some kind of freakshow."

DG nodded glumly. "The zipper. I'm so used to seeing it, sometimes I forget. You're right - if we're going to find a way to help him, it has to be here."

Wyatt was watching Glitch again, and he spoke without looking around. "When. Not if. Don't you give up on him, Princess," he said, more fiercely than he'd intended. "Don't you dare. Everyone else has..."

She grabbed his wrist. "I'm not! I'm not giving up on him. I'm right here." She swallowed, and Wyatt realised with dismay that he hadn't distracted her from her tears, only postponed them, and now - smooth move, knucklehead. Why don't you give her a kick while you're at it? "I'm right here," DG repeated, the words emerging as a thick whisper. "Cain, I'm so suh-sorry..."

She crumpled and Wyatt reached for her with a sigh, not really able to give much comfort but offering it anyhow, needing it himself even if he wasn't about to admit it. What could he say? That it would be okay? He had no way of knowing that it would. And you snapped at her for giving up, you hypocrite.

DG let him go and scrubbed at her face with her sleeve - not at all majestic, just a country girl with a heavy heart. Pressing the heels of her hands to her eyes, she let out a tremulous breath. "I'm okay. I am. I just... I love him, and I feel like I've let him down."

"You haven't let him down," Wyatt said automatically, and he meant it - although he wasn't about to extend that assurance to Queen Iskra, who was going to have to produce some fairly impressive medical expertise to put herself back into his good books. "Believe me, I did some soul searching this week too, wondering if I could have made a difference if I'd been here sooner."

DG gazed at him, her face blotchy and entirely unregal. "That's because you love him too."

Wyatt felt the colour rise in his face and there was nothing he could do about it. He straightened in his chair, trying to muster the right balance of disapproval and surprise.

"Hey - now hold on a minute..." The words were no sooner out of his mouth than he realised she was accusing him of nothing at all. Guilty conscience, his father's voice taunted smugly. Got you on the defensive, didn't she?

DG looked nonplussed. "I only meant -"

Wyatt regarded her seriously, while his heart played a nervy rhythm against his ribs. Maybe there was still a way to salvage this. "Never mind what you only meant. You need to be careful with that kind of talk, Princess." Now he felt guilty.

"Okay, I got you. I'm sorry. I wasn't trying to imply anything." She rose, and Wyatt stood quickly, dismayed.

"No - no, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to jump down your throat. But it's like you said before - places like this run on gossip. You can get people in a lot of trouble with a remark like that, even if you didn't mean it that way."

DG nodded, and made a move towards the door. Nice going, Wyatt. Remind me again how you got to be a Tin Man? It was your natural gift for diplomacy, right? He put out his hand to stop her. "DG, you don't have to -"

"It's okay. I'll be back in a minute." She gestured at him to go back to his seat, and he did, silently berating himself. Of all the times to lose your cool, that was probably the worst you could have picked. All she said was that you loved him... like a friend. And all you had to do was agree with her. Now what's she gonna think?

It was several minutes before DG returned - long enough for Wyatt to have replayed the conversation in his head a dozen times and kick himself a dozen more. Perhaps it showed in his face, because DG's first act as he stood to greet her was to give him a brief, tight hug and ask "Are we okay, now?"

"We're okay. Of course we are." He stepped back, holding her at arms length and studying her eyes, which - while still reddened by tears - had lost their despairing shine. "I should have explained instead of giving you a lecture. I can't seem to shake the old Tin Man mindset, and..." he paused, picking his words carefully "...what I thought you were saying - well, that sort of thing was a crime that could get you put away not so long ago." That Sort of Thing. A phrase to be used with a grimace of distaste.

"A crime?"

Wyatt nodded. "Right up until... well, it'd be just before you were born. Some City headshrinker brought a load of research to the Qu - to your mom, making out that it was some kind of mental illness, and people like that shouldn't be criminalised for something that wasn't their fault." People Like That. That's right up there with That Sort of Thing in the Lexicon of Stuff We Don't Talk About in Decent Company. "There was a lot of resistance to the law being changed, but," he shrugged, "she's the Queen." He dropped his hands from DG's shoulders and went to check on Glitch, who was, as far as he could tell, asleep.

When he turned back, DG was watching him and chewing her lip indecisively.

"You look like you've got something on your mind." She blinked, and Wyatt repeated his observation.

"I was just thinking that I've still got a lot to learn about the OZ." She seemed set to say something else, then smiled and shook her head. "I brought you something." Gesturing to the chairs, she moved to join him and, once they were seated, took a folded handkerchief from her pocket. "Hold out your hands." He did as he was told, curious, and DG dropped a small, awkwardly-shaped bundle into them. Braided grass, narrow stalks of faded green and pale brown, bound the thing together, and Wyatt recognised it immediately.

"Raw's gift." The pebble DG had described on the night of the ball was split into rough thirds by two fine bands of milky blue, and it was nestled comfortably against a small, rather tattered feather and a charred piece of wood that felt as if DG had brought it straight to him from some sunny place in the grass.

"I don't know if it's my imagination, but it makes me feel better. I thought it might do the same for you." She gently folded his hands closed over the strange collection. "I think you need it more than I do."

Wyatt turned the Viewer's gift around in his hands, and the dim lamp-light caught the feather for an instant, awakening a soft flare of purple-blue-green that was just as quickly extinguished. Fading in and out... "What do I do with it?"

"Nothing. I mean, just hold it and try to relax." DG seemed perfectly serious. "Try not to think of anything - it's like meditation, sort of."

Wyatt tried to clear his mind, feeling increasingly silly. Either DG's magic makes her more sensitive to all this hocus-pocus, or it's nothing but a bunch of gewgaws Raw's found, and a lot of wishful thinking. He sat back in his chair, cradling the little bundle in his lap and closing his eyes. 'Sometimes...I get flashes of... it's hard to describe. A good feeling - reassuring...' Well I'm holding it, kiddo, and I don't feel reassured. Just exhausted, and worried, and...

...and cold. He shivered, and flicked away a snowflake as it settled on the back of his hand. It was a clumsy effort; his fingers were stiff and numb.

"Shut the damn door, Glitch." The zipperhead had been surprisingly careful, up until now, warning him each time he went for firewood, so that he could pull the blankets over his head. Then the storm had begun in earnest and their only concern had been keeping the little stove supplied with fuel. "Glitch," he tried again. "Stay inside. It's too cold." There was no answer, and Wyatt opened his eyes and discovered that Demilo's wagon was empty, and the door was dangling from one hinge. If the Longcoats came back while I was asleep... was his first thought, and it was enough to make him scramble to his feet, reaching for a gun that wasn't there. But on the heels of that came the realisation that Demilo's wagon and the snowstorm were long past, and the Longcoats had not come back for them, and that the ache in his chest was nothing but a memory.

I'm dreaming. I must have been more tired than I thought. That, or DG knocked me over the head as soon as I closed my eyes. In his experience, becoming aware that he was dreaming was a sign that he was starting to wake up; however, the wagon remained sound, apart from that ominously gaping doorway, and when he ran his fingers over the wood it felt solid, the varnish slick and waxy with age. A few more snowflakes drifted aimlessly in but they were orphans, the white sky broken by glimpses of pale blue.

"Glitch?" If he was dreaming about the Northern Island, shouldn't Glitch be there too? No - if it's a dream, it doesn't have to make sense. And if it wasn't, then this was a piece of Raw's infernal do-goodery. Either way, he could toss logic out of the window.

He looked around again for his gun, turning back the blankets and rooting beneath the assorted pillows and mismatched cushions without any real hope. If the Viewer's hairy hand was behind this dream, he apparently hadn't foreseen any need for Wyatt to be armed. That's all very well for you, fuzzball, but I'm taking no chances. He widened his search, remembering the axe DG had commandeered from Demilo's eclectic selection of tools, jumbled ironmongery and assorted utensils. The battered tin trunk stashed behind the driver's cab yielded pliers, handle-less bread knives and rust-flakes in assorted sizes and, finally, a hooked pry-bar - short, but better than nothing.

Wyatt immediately felt a little better with the solid weight in his hand and the cool metal against his palm made him aware of something else. I'm not cold any more. When did I get dressed? He looked down at himself, examining the clothes that he'd salvaged from the old house a year ago. Glitch had dried them at the woodstove, and had at some point re-dressed him in them, but Wyatt was pretty sure he hadn't been sleeping in his boots, trenchcoat and hat.

Outside, the air was brisk rather than freezing; Wyatt stooped and scooped up a handful of snow and found it to be powdery and cool, more like ash than ice. It was also entirely free from tracks, if there had ever been tracks. Squinting as the suns made a brief reappearance through the fragmenting clouds, he turned, searching for any hint of life. I ought to go and look for him. And that was crazy, wasn't it? He told himself once again that this was a dream, nothing more, and if Glitch was even supposed to be in it, it didn't really matter whether Wyatt found him or not. Sooner or later he'd wake up, and when he did...

...and when I do, Glitch will still be lost. I should look for him. It can't hurt anything and... I don't know. Raw's a healer. Maybe this is supposed to help. Which way, then? The road was invisible, apparent only as a widening of the gaps between the trees. If I were Glitch, which way would I go? He tucked the pry-bar into his belt, the hooked end looped over the top, and shoved his hands in his pockets, gazing at the silent woodland indecisively. Downhill, somewhere, was the Brick Route and Central City. Uphill was the crest that overlooked the Northern Island. The Winter Palace is closer. I could walk up to the ridge and see if there's anything to see. It seemed as good an idea as any, and he set off, trudging through the snow with his eyes set on the place where the hill ended and the sky began.

By the time the view ahead was more sky than hill, the white stuff underfoot had lost any resemblance to snow, the thin powder drifting easily out of his way like clouds of downy feathers.

...the thing with feathers...

His sense of surreality grew as he reached the top of the rise and looked down to what should have been the Northern Island, set like a frozen gem in the whiteness of the river valley or - if his thoughts had wandered to more recent times - a compact sprawl of green, the pale, elegant arches and spires of the Winter Palace rising serenely from its northmost end. He saw neither.

Raw, your grip on geography is seriously flaky. That's the city. That's Central City. A heavy sigh of wind swept past him, scattering the feather-snow in lazy swirls and exposing bare earth studded with patches of broken yellow stone. Subtle. So I'm supposed to follow the old Brick Route? As if in answer, the wind intensified, driving flurries of white into the air, where they melted away to nothing. The way ahead was clear, the ground dry, and, when Wyatt glanced back, there was nothing to see but parched fields and thin, sickly-looking birches.

Keep walking. Maybe you'll find somewhere selling maps around the inside of your head.

Further on, the trees began to crowd closer, until the distant towers of the city were hidden behind an interlacement of branches. Wyatt found that his hand had stolen unconsciously to the place where his gun should be and smiled a little. Force of habit's gonna get you dead one of these days. He found the head of the iron bar and held onto that, instead. The patches of worn yellow brick, sporadic at first, began to appear more frequently, and Wyatt was in the midst of contemplating what the Old Road must have looked like in its heyday when a dark figure in the road ahead brought him up short.

In the shadows of the trees it was hard to make out anything more than a vague shape, arms outstretched to bar the way. It moved busily, its edges wavering and billowing; Wyatt watched it for a minute, unsettled. When the figure made no move towards him, he pulled the pry-bar from his belt and advanced cautiously, then snorted at his own wariness as he realised he was squaring up to a scarecrow. The remains of a scarecrow, really; the stuffing had long since rotted away and all that was left was a disintegrating coat draped over a T-shaped wooden post.

Crows were clustered around the foot of the pole, fighting over scraps of straw and wisps of decaying hay, and some of them took flight as Wyatt approached. Lucky Glitch isn't here. This'd creep him out for sure. He spotted something fluttering near the collar of the coat and moved closer, kicking a scatter of road dust at the crows, which shuffled resentfully aside to let him by. One crow, bolder than the rest, had perched on the crosspiece of the post, where it was tugging determinedly at a scrap of dirty, fraying cord. It turned its head, fixing him with a beady glare, but it didn't drop the cord. Wyatt gave it an unfriendly grin.

"Knock yourself out, fella. But you peck me, and you'll find out why they call this a crowbar." A scrap of paper had been pinned to the collar of the coat; he smoothed it out and read six letters printed across it in a stark message:


"When I'm having so much fun?" The crow opened its beak, the cord falling to dangle limply down the front of the coat, and made a harsh, scraping sound. "Nobody asked you," Wyatt growled, but his attention was on the cord. Where it had unravelled, the twisted fibres - almost black with dirt on the outside - were faded gold. He took a step back and looked at the coat again. This belongs to Glitch. How did I not see? Almost every memory he had of the zipperhead was of him wearing his shabby old uniform coat. The braid was almost all gone, the fabric - once faded to an unlovely khaki - was shredded and rotting.

"...go home..." The harsh, croaking voice seemed to come out of thin air. Wyatt's first instinct was to raise the pry-bar defensively, his second to stare at the crow, which was watching him intently. It spread its wings and thrust its beak towards him. "Go home," it grated again. He turned the iron bar and pushed the bird aside with the curved end - dream-crow or not, he wasn't naturally an unkind man.

"Back off, Feathers. I've trusted smartass animals before and it gets you into nothing but trouble." He was answered by a mutinous hiss, but the crow sidled down to the end of the crosspiece and watched him mistrustfully from there. Wyatt unpinned the scrap of paper and read it again.


"There's nothing to go back for. Adora's gone. Jeb's got his own life, now. I don't have a h-" He paused. The message had changed. Was Raw trying to tell him something? "Hey - you're the one picking the scenery," he protested, addressing the air around him. "If you really wanted me to go back, why am I heading for Central City? Save the scenic route for some other time, huh?"

You went there before. True, but he'd been going after Zero. Wyatt tangled the last sad remnant of braid between his fingers, thinking. You went there before you headed for the Northern Island. And before that, you crossed the Papay fields. And before that, you were in the

"In the suit." He finished the thought aloud, and stared at the braid. Was it his imagination, or did it seem a little brighter? A confirmation? He decided to test his theory. "You want me to go back to the start. Fine. But for the record, I'm not happy about it." 'Not happy' was an understatement; however, the grime on the twist of cord was receding more with every passing second, and the damp, corrupted cloth it was attached to had begun to lighten. That's a yes, then. He moved back a few steps, pointing at the solitary crow with the end of the pry-bar.

"I'm not going anywhere just yet, so if you're thinking of making off with that bit of gold stuff, think again. That belongs to Glitch." The crow cocked its head, regarding him first with one eye, then the other, then it cackled in a voice that would have been at home in any bar in the Sin District, and flapped its wings. An answering movement in the trees made Wyatt look around. The solitary crow was solitary no longer; the branches were black with birds, each one with a beakful of faded golden straw. As he watched, the last patch of black mould dwindled to nothing, the last unfamiliar rent in the fabric of Glitch's tatterdemalion coat knitted itself closed and left it - far from perfect, but at least no more badly damaged than it had been on the day of the eclipse. All it wanted for now was the cat's-cradle of snagged and trailing braid. Finally Wyatt understood. He pointed at the crow again, not with the iron bar but with his empty hand. "Put it back. Please," he added, deciding that a more conciliatory tone couldn't hurt.

Everything fell still for one breathless, coiled moment. Abruptly, the air exploded with the beating of black wings and the crows descended, hiding the coat from view. Wyatt suppressed the impulse to dart forward and drive them off, and simply watched, enveloped by the seamless, deafening tumult. At last birds began to break away, their beaks empty, and the feathery vortex disintegrated to reveal Glitch's coat, restored to ragged, travel-stained familiarity. Wyatt studied it with a sense of accomplishment. Now what - leave it here and keep going?

"Damned if I will." The long nails holding the crosspiece of the wooden 'T' in place were no match for the pry-bar, and Wyatt was soon on his knees, pulling the rough length of wood free. Engrossed in his task, he didn't notice the crow until it lunged for the length of iron, snatching it up as if it were no heavier than a twig. He made a grab for it, and the crow bounced backwards, wings spread for balance, beak gaping around the bar. "I'm not in the mood for games. Are you gonna hand it over or not?" Wyatt glared at the bird. As he glanced around for something to throw, it launched itself into the air and was gone, leaving nothing but a few dusty black feathers, which drifted down lazily. One settled on the back of his hand, and it was freezing, growing translucent... He shook it off, scowling.

No... not snow, you're going back, remember? Start concentrating, or you're gonna end up back in that wagon.

Demilo's wagon didn't really seem like such a bad destination compared with the iron suit, but Wyatt looked down at the ragged coat and pictured the decay returning, the cloth coming apart in his hands and the eager, pitiless eyes of the waiting crows. No - cold feet were not an option. He folded the coat into a neat bundle and got moving.

Behind him, the feathers lost their crystalline sheen and silently faded away.

Over the snow-blanketed hillside, the clouds had parted to give way to stretches of late-summer blue, and this had persisted as Wyatt's dream landscape rearranged itself to offer him the Brick Route. Now, as the woodland thinned, the sky grew dull, overcast with pale, unbroken greyness, and the world beneath was painted from an equally sombre palette. Thin, parched soil covered the road that wound between the blight-bleached vegetation; the last oases of yellow stone had petered out some way back. Wyatt emerged into a field of leafless bourganavie trees and paused, trying to get his bearings. Of Central City, there was no sign.

Looks like Papay country. Never thought I'd consider that a good thing, but it means I'm getting closer. Closer, and about to cross Papay territory without even an iron bar to defend himself. The knowledge that none of this was real was no great comfort. Seems pretty damned real to me. I don't aim to be savaged by a slavering Papay runner to find out if it feels authentic. He surveyed the barren orchard thoughtfully. There was no sense dwelling on the loss of the pry-bar. He'd given it up - albeit unwillingly - for Glitch's coat, and that felt right, somehow. There was nothing for it but to keep going. If the Papay did make an appearance, he'd just have to hope he could outrun them, or wake himself up.

He made his way between the dead trees, restlessly scanning his surroundings for any movement, but the sharp snap of dead branches and the ungainly, cantering approach of hungry Papay remained mercifully absent. Another sound was reaching his ears, though, and Wyatt had an idea what this might be. He changed course, veering towards a slight incline dotted with thorny bushes. His pace slowed as he started up the slope, partly to avoid the needle-like thorns, partly because the distant sound - a low, rumbling, rushing - was getting louder with every step.

The bushes came to an end without warning. So did the ground. Below, the river surged along the chasm; a slate-blue ribbon crested with white. This looks familiar. He took a couple of steps closer to the edge, then pulled back hastily as a few loose stones skittered away into space.

The fall might kill us!

Glitch's voice was so clear that, just for an instant, Wyatt was convinced that the zipperhead was at his side. If he closed his eyes, he imagined he could feel a ghostly pressure, anxious hands clutching at his sleeve, and the mere sensation instilled him with a new sense of urgency. There were no Papay at his back, but there might as well have been. Left to its own devices, the scenery was threatening to change. The air took on an icy edge, the faint tang of woodsmoke drifting to him from somewhere that, if he turned around, might no longer be an orchard, but a frozen hill. Back where the dream had begun. He was waking up.

I'm not ready. I don't think I've done what I came here to do, yet. That was nothing more than intuition, but Wyatt had never discounted a gut-feeling before, and he wasn't about to start now. He approached the precipice again, eyes fixed on the torrent far below. Raw went ahead of us, last time. He showed us the way.

"Sometimes, you've just got to shut your eyes and jump," he muttered, and, clasping Glitch's coat to his chest, he launched himself into the abyss.




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