Chapter Five

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"Layne? Come back here." Beth no longer cared if her nose was bleeding or not. She chased after the younger girl, stumbling and tripping over everything, including her own wings. Layne had hers drawn up to her back, smoothing them flat. How? Beth tried tightening the muscles in her back and only earned a spasm of a flap that carried her sideways into a patch of thorns. "Layne if you leave me, I'll get lost."

Layne halted and pointed at the ground where there was a visible line of more dirt than plants.

Crap. Can't use than as an excuse now.

Beth continued to follow her, marveling at how Layne could slip around branches that seemed impassible without touching them. Perhaps, she reasoned, she shouldn't have been so surprised that Layne knew every inch of this place.

She didn't even notice anything was wrong until Layne jerked to a stop again. Hazzi let out a long, low whine of concern and nuzzled her hand. "Not now, Hazzi."

Stunned at that tone, Beth stopped too even though Layne had moved on again, her step developing a swaggering bounce. The more Beth watched her, the odder it seemed. Where had the bright, cheerful little girl gone? The girl who wanted to know why she wasn't a guy and if she liked milk; how could she have gone so quickly, to be replaced by this other girl who frowned fiercely at her feet as she walked and didn't even glance at her beloved wolf?

Abruptly, the soil beneath her feet turned to sand. Beth stepped out of the trees, blinking in surprise. The trees closed behind her like a curtain.

"They're floating!" Beth had just discovered the boulders. "Layne?"

Layne ran forward and threw herself into the air. There was none of her previous hesitation; her short, hopping flights were conducted with ease, a series of short hops accompanied by flaps. They were so forceful Beth could hear the resounding pops each time they snapped downwards and disrupted the air. No hesitation, but also no grace. Her body hung limp and useless from her wings except for the brief periods when she had to extend her legs to land. The movements of the sleek wings were calculated and lacking in the smoothness that birds of prey manage since the moments they transform from awkward chicks into fledglings.

Hazzi had managed to leap onto the boulder closest to shore, but he was unable to chase after her. Every inch of fur on his pelt was bristling and he yapped frantically, bouncing slightly as if he were about to attempt to execute a leap to the next boulder. Master, he cried. Layne!

As the distance between them became larger, as they moved steadily outwards, Beth noticed with surprising sharpness that Layne's furious flapping lost its steady rhythm and became frantic.

The air must be different over the water than over the land. For the first time in her life, Beth felt her personality split and the two sides immediately broke into an argument.

Go after her!

You can't fly, stupid.

Neither could she until just now. Your wings are bigger. More lift. More power.

More resistance. More weight. She's at least practiced. And you have other things to think about it.

I guess I do, Beth thought bitterly. And then she noticed Hazzi sitting before her. His back legs were soaked with water from his misjudged jump back onto the shore. His ears were laid back, tail down in submission.

He whined. It sounded suspiciously like a plea for help. He nuzzled her hand, lapping anxiously at her fingers.

She raced to the edge of the beach and lunged. The most extraordinary thing happened. Her mind blanked out. All thoughts ceased to exist. There was only the sensation of being completely free, her soul as pure and clean as her wings. The salty tang of the air, the sluggish, erratic waves rising up from the ocean below; it was exquisite, beyond comparison with anything else. Sight was unimportant. There was nothing to see but the next landing spot and her body automatically guided her to those.

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