The sky was dark, and there were many footprints in the snow. The realm, in that small area, seemed to swirl in rotation around the one small spot where the ground was different, at the center of the Eastern Meditation Circle. There, there were two sets of footprints: one leaving from and one coming to the center.
Jeremi was pacing along the windswept rock, around the center, trying to think of how best to approach the situation and use her powers. However, her power over locks was sometimes far more passive than a focusing of her thoughts.
The answers weren't to be found in the streaks of brown and black that laced the cold, gray rock. Nor were they to be seen in the icy tendrils that gripped the ground, spiralling inward from the dunes of snow that waved outward and inward from the calm core of the circle, where twisted pillars stretched into the brisk air.
It was one of those moments where, despite its impractical drawing of attention, she wished she could actually sing to whatever lock mechanism she was supposed to find.
Raef Ak'karell grew increasingly nervous, now that he was alone with Arianwen. However, he was at the same time relieved; because whenever Jeremi was around, Raef felt as if his mere presence was obstructing an intense bond of friendship.
"Where is Brine?" asked Arianwen, pursing her delicate lips.
Trying not to look too long at her face, lest he develop the overpowering urge to kiss her, Raef pointed calmly at the top of a far snowbank, where the watery sprite stood frozen. He had the likeness of a sculptor's masterpiece, an ancient hero from a forgotten age. His watery semblance of hair had become tiny icicles that shimmered in the moonlight.
"He looks better when he's wet, don't you think?" Arianwen asked.
Raef smiled, and then summoned a visual. It was a brief memory, of the nymph's curious, smiling face. Then, the depiction of Brine in Raef's memory was caught off guard as a tightly packed ball of snow hit the side of his face, and was partially absorbed into the skin. The elemental's face became etched with shock, confusion and then a sense of jestful betrayal.
Arianwen laughed heartily. "You're b-b-baaa-ad, Raef!"
He rolled his eyes with a satisfied smile of strikingly white teeth.
"He's being wary of Jeremi, isn't he?" asked Arianwen.
The summoner nodded. He wished he could explain how sensitive his companion was, but it was hard to put to words. At least she understood that he was shy, and that time would sort it out.
"It took him a while to warm up to me in class," recalled Arianwen. "Then again, he wasn't too fond of those fiery birds I seemed to have a knack for summoning."
"Arianwen!" called Jeremi, from the spot between the pillars where the wind's tracks stopped.
Raef laughed with his face, not with his mouth, as he turned around to look in Jeremi's far-off direction.
"Arianwen!" Jeremi called once more. "Come here, both of you. I need you to lend me some wind!"
They rushed over. Too fast. And as they both began to slip on the ice, Raef and Arianwen locked their arms together, and braced themselves from going down. She was the only one to let out a noise.
Curious, Brine turned toward them. Then, he began a slow approach, his iced joints creaking in the quiet, windless night air.
Jeremi crouched down and examined the ground. She pointed at what she had noticed before. There was a small hole in the rock, the size of her pinky finger. It was clearly not natural.
"Put your ear to it," instructed Jeremi.
Raef could already sense the rushing water below, but found himself resigned to silence.
"Water!" Arianwen exclaimed, as she lifted her ear from against the cold stone, and put her hood back up.
"That's right, there's a group of underground rivers under this plateau. And since this meditation spot is made for those with an affinity for air, such as yourself, I assume that wind must be sent down that hole. Strong enough that it will set something into motion that can't be set off by a simple change in the pressure system, or a... flatulent meditator."
Arianwen laughed. So did Raef, but without any noise.
"Well," said Arianwen, "I can sense that the hole isn't entirely straight. It spirals down for the first two or three feet, and then it straightens out - such that wind really is the only dependable force here. However, I don't know if we're supposed to get something to resonate, or what."
Jeremi frowned, "The river must be pertinent somehow."
Raef used his magic to project a depiction of the river in proportion to where they were above it, on the ground. Every facet of the snow and water around them glistened in miniature. Then, Raef focused his mind to condense a handful of water into his palm, and poured it into the hole before it could freeze. This let him sense the dimensions of the hole, which he added to the summoned projection.
Brime stood quietly, looming over them from behind Jeremi.
"It comes out just above the water's surface. But that doesn't look like an underground river. It's more like an aqueduct. Hmm... well, that's not important, is it?" Jeremi asked. "At least we know wind is the key."
"Look at how wide and shallow the water is at that spot," said Arianwen, pointing at where the tiny hole met the ceiling of the underground river's airspace. "If I blow the wind fast enough... the wind will go right through the stream of water, blowing air against the bed of the river."
"What good will that do?" asked Jeremi.
"The tumbler," said Arianwen, pointing at the upward indentation in the water at that spot. It was shaped like a square brick.
"Hmmm..." pondered Jeremi.
Arianwen put her palm just a foot over the hole, and focused on sending all the air she could rushing into the hole.
It swept up around them wildly, and then Raef Ak'karell nodded as he felt the rushing water part around the shallow spot where the wind was blowing into it.
Arianwen's face turned red, as she began to focus more intensely. But nothing happened.
Raef shook his head. He could tell that pushing against the block was no use.
Arianwen began to reduce the speed of the wind.
The projection faded. Raef started to wish that he was adept enough to simply summon a stable portal for them.
"Wait!" said Jeremi. "Don't stop yet. Stop all at once, from full speed. You may dislodge it yet."
Arianwen knit her brow and scrunched up her face with focused intent. And then she let go, and leaned back.
The three pillars around them began to glow. As Brine helped them to their feet, the adolescents looked around in marvel as the space between the pillars filled with light, which flowed from the top of each pillar to the other. And below that light, between the pillars, rifts in space opened like doorways.
There were three. One in each space.
The youth spun around in wonder, as they eyed their potential destinations.
Abruptly, Raef sneezed. And it was the first noise they had heard from his mouth. Ever.
"Cover your mouth with your elbow, Master," said Brine.
"Ah!" screamed Jeremi, who hadn't realized that the icy golem of an elemental was right behind her. "What the heck is that?"
"That's a creature Raef summoned," said Arianwen.
"Well, can you unsummon it, Raef? I don't think we need an ice golem right now!"
"Excuse me!?" said Brine, sullenly thrown from his quiet shyness. "Unsummon me? Who does she think she is?! You can't just - not a - you wouldn't dare!"
Raef shook his head, looking at Jeremi.
"It's not that kind of summon," said Arianwen. "Brine is as full of life and mindfulness as we are."
"Whoa, what!? Really?" she looked from the mute mage to the frosty-faced ice man.
"I'm not usually made of ice," said Brine. "Name's Brine. Terrible first impression. Terribly sorry."
Without removing her mitten, Jeremi shook his hand. "Well, you certainly know how to sneak up on a girl."
Arianwen looked ahead a brightly sunlit mountain range of thick grass and wildflowers. "Is that Summerealm or Highland?"
"I dunno," said Jeremi.
Brine smiled, icy face creaking. "I'm glad they all look warm."
Raef made a whining noise, and pointed at the portal in front of him. It was an arid wasteland of crusty rock and dried mud. There were reddish rocky hills in the distance, and a crimson sky that seemed to permeate heat. It made Raef tremble. He knew its name. Madrealm, the home of chaos.
"He senses something we do not," surmised Brine. "I suggest we make our choice quickly. Which of the other two portals is Highland?"
"What rules out those two?" asked Jeremi.
"I am certain," said Arianwen, "that neither Summerealm nor the local parts of Highland's realm, have any resemblance to a barren, muggy wasteland."
Raef Ak'karell continued to stare in trembling fright at the portal to Madrealm.
Brine whispered into his master's ear, "Relax, Master. You have plenty of time to contend with what ails you. And even if you do descend into madness, as your mother did, the Elders won't send you back where they found you unless they have the Sword, to make sure you never get out."
Raef swallowed, and then nodded to himself. He knew his Gift was dangerous in the wrong hands. It could let the mad Gifted out of Madrealm. That was dangerous for everyone. And it was the reason why Gifted people who had acquired or been born with the Summoner's Gift were kept out of Madrealm, even if they themselves were mad.
Raef, for a moment, thought of his father. Uyesh Ak'karrel had been a summoner in Skathain. Uyesh had been slain by Wolfram, in public, to absorb his summoning ability with the Sword of Belendar and thus keep Wolfram out of Madrealm. It had been a brutal act to take the man's life as well as his Gifts.
And that was where the train of thought became strained for Raef. For he knew that to love another person as his father had, inevitably led to the acquiring of a second Gift. And it was not until her second Gift that his mother had begun to lose her sanity. Raef Ak'karell could not bear to put himself in further jeopardy or to bring such hardship upon Arianwen, or any other woman for that matter.
"Master?" said Brine, coaxing Raef out of his weary reverie. "The force of the river won't hold the tumbler in place forever. It will fall soon."
"Follow me," said Arianwen.
Raef obliged. He knew he'd gladly follow her anywhere. Even into Madrealm. Fortunately, the wasteland was not the path that Jeremi's instincts had chosen.