Brother

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Once upon a time, Staever had been part of a gang of thieves who used explosives to cripple their marks on the highway. Those bombs of Arcite’s were the only thing nearly as loud as whatever he was doing to the Great South Wall. The wheel spun while masonry growled in deep, resonant response, an eternal conversation.

“Aaargh!”

His claw flew off the winch as Xander, swordless, lunged inside his guard. Suddenly he could reach no part of the governor with his sword–but the wheel, without him, had caught its own momentum, which Xander groped to arrest…

Staever brought up as many legs as he could and kicked Xander under his belly. They grappled, pummeling eyes, faces, bodies.

They rolled over, face to face. Xander seized Staever’s sword claw, inching the point down.

“You…will never take anything from me again…”

“Do it then…” Staever gasped, “kill me…brother…”

Xander’s face contorted into a mask of rage.

“I…am…no…thief’s…brother!”

Staever threw him into the wheel.

The impact jarred Xander’s bones. Before he could get up, the wheel spun a final quarter-turn, the spokes jumped, and the winch clamped down on Xander’s back leg.

Xander screamed: his brother, shrieking like a desperate animal, scrabbling at the ground.

“Call for help,” Staever said. “One of Kragn’s men will come. I…” After all they’d done to each other, there was nothing left to say. “I’m sorry.”

He headed for the opening in the Great South Wall, screams following him, until Xander’s throat went dry.

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No Good Day to Die

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The arrows ceased flying. The children, trembling in the blood-soaked glade, held the weapon straight. One soldier asked, “General? What should we do?”

“Cease fire!” Kragn’s fighters lowered their bows. Wrest left Arcite, running to guard his brother and sister.

Emaria crouched behind a tree with Eventhe, her bow ready but her quiver light. “If Wrest doesn’t kill him, I’m going to shoot him.”

“And sever his army’s leash?” Eventhe pushed the bow down. “These are his most trusted companions. You would only provoke them.”

I’d probably miss anyway. But sitting paces from Kragn with an instrument of death in her hands made her claws itch to fire. The children were stronger than she was.

Silence gripped the wood. Kragn took his time approaching Wier and Alta. Wrest held his ground in front of them, a mountain with a sword.

A new sound cut the hush: swiftly dropping cloth, the unfurling sails of a landship. Several more followed the first. The fleet’s new crew was preparing for their signal.

“We need to get to the ships,” she told Eventhe. “Nobody’s guarding them.”

“We must abandon the fleet. Staever has not lowered the Wall.”

“He will.” To say it enough times would make it real. She was aware she was doing this, but still it might work.

“Arcite is wounded.” Eventhe pointed to where Wrest had laid the demolitionist. “You go to the ships. I will follow.”

She fled. Alone behind the tree, Emaria saw Kragn draw up five paced from Wier, Alta, and Wrest. “Give me my weapon.”

“Stop shooting the ships,” Wier told him.

“The consequences if I don’t?”

“I said, stop shooting!”

I said, back up your threat. What will you do if I resume fire?”

“We’ll blow you up!” Wier stabbed the end of the weapon into the grass. “The whole field is a bomb.”

“So young,” Kragn closed another pace. Wrest leveled his blade. “And you call yourself ready for death.”

“Kragn,” Wrest warned, “I will kill you if you touch them.”

“A funny thing to say when they’re determined to kill us all. Wouldn’t you rather save yourselves?”

“Don’t come closer!” Tears stung the corners of Wier’s eyes.

Alta’s claw twitched at the firing knob, but went no further. Her arms went limp. The front end jumped out of the grass, presenting itself to Kragn.

“Wise choice,” Kragn reached for the staff. “It’s no great thing to die.”

“Wier, Alta, run!” Wrest cried.

The two bolted as Wrest lunged in. Though the general’s blade had been, it appeared out of nowhere to parry.

“Fire at will!” Kragn commanded. Wrest’s attacks hardly registered–the big thief was enraged, attacking without thought. Kragn was back in control.

He’s buying time. I can open a way out.

Half a minute’s run took her to the fleet, Wier and Alta ahead the whole way. More lobsters pressed against the hulls than she ever thought they’d left the Eye with: clamoring, fighting for space, leaning over the rains to help each other on board.

I’ve been talking to them, Staever had said. But not all of them. Right?

The loyalists on the field, led by Magnam, kept pushing; the defectors’ tails brushed the ships. Emaria ushered Alta and Wier back about King Crab. Trepidation at the manatee weapon on the deck had led everyone to save her ship for last, meaning it remained empty. Her conch was lying by the staff.

“Everyone!” she said into it. Lobsters turned to her. “There’s space for all of you. Fill every vessel to the eyestalks. We will get out of here safely.”

“What about the Council Flagship?” someone nearby asked. “The governors sealed all the doors.”

“Break them down! There are more of you than there are of them!” The problems we could have avoided if people had realized that earlier.

“What about yours?” an elderly shipbuilder piped up. “Throw the weapon away so it won’t burn down…”

Wrest, Staever, Eventhe, and Arcite were in the wood. She couldn’t leave them, so neither could King Crab. “This ship needs to leave last. If you’re followed, we’re the diversion.”

“Followed where? We can’t back, and the Wall’s still in the way.”

Emaria took a deep breath. The fleet was thousands of lobsters strong, all sitting crayfish for Magnam to carve up. She couldn’t tell their skippers to wait while their families huddled in dark holds and arrows pounded the driftwood.

“If Magnam gets here,” she said, “back them. But keep your sails up. That wall won’t be there for long.”

Her audience turned away. Empty sails whistled and snapped in a fresh breeze. Staever, I’m trusting you more than I’ve trusted anything in my life.

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Fated Nuisance

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Xander flung his sword arm up and caught Staever across the legs. Staever’s world pitched. He banged something hard on a tree, shuddering his thorax. He dodged Xander’s blade, which lodged in the bark, letting Staever bolt for the winch.

Xander dove and wrapped his abdomen in a death grip. Staever stabbed wildly behind him, missing by a pace. The flat of Xander’s blade slid under Staever’s stomach, its edge gliding near bone, not quite reaching. “Going to hold on forever?”

“Forever,” Xander’s mouth twisted in a grin. “Cross the sea, I’ll follow you. You’re my destiny, Staever. My fated nuisance.”

Using his hilt this time, Staever hit hard, loosening Xander’s grip. He scampered three paces, hooked his free claw onto a spoke of the wheel, and pulled.

It resisted. Nobody had turned it for ten lifetimes. Staever threw his whole weight onto the wheel, reciting: Each action is a plank in a vessel to sail the waves of chance…

The spoke shifted. From underground came the clicks and creaks of a slumbering machine waking.

He turned it only an eighth of a circle before Xander was on him again, threatening to skewer him on the wheel. They changed places. Guarding the winch, Xander kept him at bay with the point of his blade.

Staever howled. “Let me finish and you can kill me all you want!”

“Oh, no.” They fought in the sunlight and shade, washed with glow from the tall wheel. “You don’t get to be the hero this time. No manatees or monsoons sweeping in to save you. This time you fail everyone.”

Staever feinted, caught Xander’s blade with his sword arm bent across his body, then hooked it with his own and tried to disarm. It worked. Xander’s blade flew from his claw and spun down toward the river. Transfixed, Xander watched it fly.

The winch moved easily. Staever had ground centuries of dust from its joints. He spun it a full circle, then two, as Turner’s ancient system raised a grind of stone on stone.

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Ceasefire

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Wrest lifted the nearest archer off his feet with one punch, then vaulted him, headed for another. The patrol had already fired one round of arrows, screams on the boat turning to bloody gurgles. He had to break them up before they notched another.

“Fire on the ships at will!” Kragn shouted. More arrows soared over their heads, some tangling in branches. Emaria returned fire, covered behind a hill. Everybody on the fleet packed into the holds–could the arrows punch through driftwood? Shafts lodged in hulls, quivering.

With his own bow, Kragn drew a bead on King Crab. No sooner was his string taut than Eventhe slung a prone soldier over her back and jumped in his way. “Would you fire on your own?”

Kragn’s bowstring twanged. His shot slew Eventhe’s fighter, landing inches from her mask. “Keep shooting. Make sure the thieves see.”

A small explosion came as Eventhe threw off the body. Arcite, teetering from side to side, collapsed behind a tree near the ships.

“Arcite!” Wrest silenced his newest enemy with a strike from his flat and doubled back. “Are you all right? What did they hit you with?”

Arcite moved his mouth, but no words came out. His eyes were unfocused.

Swarms of arrows hit the ships. The clans on the field feared getting close. What’s taking Staever so long?

As his head pounded, Wrest crossed swords with one Militiaman and hurled him into another, bowling both toward the river. Eventhe was everywhere at once, but the defectors nearby were retreating, and the archers covered themselves too well for Emaria’s hasty shots to land. Someone–Wrest couldn’t see who–toppled from a deck with a scream.

“You can save them.” Kragn notched another arrow.

“Stop shooting!” somebody close to Wrest shouted. “Or we’re gonna blow you up.”

Wrest almost dropped his sword. Wier and Alta strode down from the ships, each holding one end of a manatee wand.

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Brother Versus Brother

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Xander slammed Staever into the ground, jamming his claw under his body. Staever reached for his belt, but Xander stepped on his other claw.

“I thought I’d catch you fleeing, but if you think this thing will save you…” he smiled as charmingly as the air demon. “All the more fun to crush you here.”

He struck down. Staever rolled out of Xander’s grip, freeing his pinned claw as the cut hit soil. Staever drew his shell-sword, tossed it from one claw to the other, and lunged. Xander parried, knocked him back.

“No tricks,” Xander spun his blade. “None of your thief nonsense. I’m here to kill you.”

He feinted, then cut at Staever’s head. Staever knocked it away. “Why? I never wanted you dead.”

“You aren’t that noble. Come on. Gut me.”

“Get out of the way and I won’t have to!”

Xander attacked, a flurry of sand grains in wind, battering Staever toward the river. Staever leapt, defended himself, and slashed at the governor, thrown by a last-second guard. Protect left. If he goes for the graft I’m done.

“I killed Graphus.” Xander paced the clearing. “Or we did. Together.”

“What are you talking about?” Staever held a middle guard, sword arm burning. The trees swam before his eyes.

“What did you think I brought a knife for, shelling beetles? Kragn gave me a job, and I accomplished it.”

They came together like thunder. “To destroy me,” Staever said when they parted. “When I would have given you a spot in the Clearing if you’d asked.”

Xander hacked at him. “You seize power, you steal my mate for your moon-cursed gang…“

Staever blocked, one eye on the winch, evading with his feet as often as he could to save his arm. Keep him off balance. Talking. A cuts from the left side jumped his heart into his throat.

“Revenge!” Thrust after thrust, back and forth, ever closer to the winch. “That’s what you Whites scum want. To do to us in the Clearing what we did to you in the Eye. An ocean of Kragns would be better!”

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To Sail Through Rock

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The divide took root as fast as lobsters could pass messages. As the Cuttlefish hurried between the confused clans, new brawls burst out at every step, joining the battle exploding in the wake of Emaria’s and Kragn’s conflicting orders.

“What’s the plan, boss?” Arcite favored his right legs, keeping apart from Eventhe.

“Make for the ships!” Staever was commanding his entire gang for the first time since Xander split off. It was intoxicating. They could do much more than survive.

“Vessel-jacking? Now?”

“Sort of.” Kragn would have kept the ships close as a useful asset. At least they would offer shelter. At most…

“Stop!” A soldier materialized over a rise. He held two blades, mismatched, one taken from a vanquished foe. A cohort of five or six, fresh off a skirmish, dashed in behind him.

“We’re trying to get back to our clan, please…” He ladled desperation over his words.”

“Look, boys!” The soldier broke into a smile. “Staever the Traveller, and his shrimp.”

“That was your chance to prove you’re on the right side.” Staever sighed and whipped the blade from his belt, struck left, hooked it around the soldier’s. “Cuttlefish, engage!”

The thieves hadn’t waited for orders. They charged the loyalists. The soldier’s surprised parry was weak enough for Staever to jerk the blade from his claw, then crush the other with one blow, cutting bone.

The fighter clutched his claw, backing away. Wrest snapped a glass spear. Eventhe felled an archer with sharp punches to the skull. With a deep breath, Emaria scooped the bow from his back, tearing the quiver out with it.

She loosed an arrow at a soldier sneaking up behind Arcite, but the shot went wide. Arcite heard a surprised noise and whirled around, sticking a red pellet onto his assailant’s back.

“Arcite,” Staever said, through visions of fiery death, “careful with the damn–”

A pincer clamped his sword arm, twisting it a direction no arm was meant to move. His attention turned fully to agony. His belt jerked, but the metal wand was tethered tightly.

Three big soldiers came out of nowhere. Emaria and Arcite retreated, Emaria unable to land a shot, Arcite reluctant to throw bombs; rightly, but that wouldn’t save them. Two more kept Eventhe at a distance with glass pikes…

I can’t let Kragn be right. Wind left his lungs. I won’t lose because we aren’t strong enough…

A patchwork tide of lobsters of smashed into the brute, whose grip on Staever slackened. He brought his sword arm around, but the soldier was gone. The charging clan had carried him away.

“These guys were guarding my family,” said one who disentangled himself from the fight. He wore one telescoping spectacle, the mark of an Iris Library copyist. “I know you wanted to finish him, but he kept looking at my daughter…”

Staever touched him on the thorax, his claws too tense to reassure anybody. “Where else are the clans rising up?”

“Well, ah…” Staever’s gut twisted. “To tell the truth, we’re the only group moving this way. The others each have a soldier or two running with them, but there are more loyalists than defectors.”

“Damn it.” Another twinge where arm met body. The Cuttlefish were gathering again, Emaria picking arrows off the ground. Things were going to get worse. “I have a plan. Get to the ships. Tell everyone you meet to head there too. You’ll know what to do in a moment.”

The copyist brandished a serving fork. “I’ll get my family!”

Every corner of the glade rang with fighting–expanding, coming alive with the song of war. “Cuttlefish, double-time for the boats!”

Emaria protested. “We won’t help anyone hiding under ships.”

“We’re not going to hide.” They burst through leafy brush onto the fringes of camp. “We’re going to take the ships from under them.”

Everyone objected at once: there would be nowhere for a fleet of ships to go. Without losing all credibility, how could Staever explain this plan was based on a hallucination?

They reached the ships before he could answer. Stragglers peeped out at them from between vessels haphazardly moored, having been dragged across land unsuited to their skates. The squat crafts of the working class lay beside the stately Pupil pleasure cruisers. In the back, the council flagship squatted on its three blades. Staever made out the faces of all the governors but Crane, through the vents in the hull.

“Get on board!” he shouted. “Any one you want.”

“We can’t back fast enough to get away!” someone answered.

“No, don’t back!” Without a unified fleet they would be dead in the wind. “Stay safe. Wait for the signal.”

“What signal?” several lobsters asked.

“When one goes, you all go!”

The stragglers disappeared amid the ships, starting to climb. Emaria plucked her bowstring in compulsive rhythm, Eventhe shadowboxed, Wrest inspected fortifications for a last stand.

“Listen,” he said, “trust them to know what to do, all right?”

“Some of them don’t know what you look like.” Emaria wasn’t hiding panic. “How are they supposed to know to escape on the river?”

“I’ve been talking to them.”

“You told every single one of them to dump their boats into the first water we found?” Arcite sounded more impressed than incredulous.

Staever scratched his thorax. “I had a lot of time.”

“I’m not saying I don’t believe you,” Wrest said. “Just not yet.”

Emaria stole another glance at the battlefield, face whitening. “Did you tell them how to sail through solid rock?”

“There has to be a way through without destroying the wall,” Staever caught his friends’ eyes, solemnly challenging them. “Turner built the Wall to protect the southern part of the continent, not to block the Clearing off for good.”

“How do you know?” Emaria spun like a wind vane from the fight to the ships. “Did you ask him?”

Eventhe said, “He is right.”

Everyone gawked at her, even Staever. “Um. Which part?”

“There is a way through the Wall.” The shadow of a ship made Eventhe’s mask opaque. “I saw it when I was…” she shot a glance at Arcite, “climbing. It is a glowing wheel, connected to something underground.”

“Not funny.” Staever sagged. “You had me until it started glowing.”

“It is real.”

Her tone made Staever feel instantly terrible. Fledgling sense of humor notwithstanding, Eventhe knew the gravity of the situation. His greed and his gang.

“Hey!”

Two small voices shouted from above. Two ships down, two pairs of claws waved at them from behind a rail.

Wrest laughed aloud. “You kept her safe! Well done!”

“Our guard ran off,” Wier informed them as they hurried to his prow. “What are we gonna do with our new boat?”

Emaria laid a claw on the driftwood. The children had claimed King Crab–the vessel belonging to Emaria’s family. Staever hadn’t seen it in weeks. It was as battered as the others.

“Ev, where’s this wheel?” he asked.

“Where the river flows through the stone, there is a grate.” Eventhe answered.

All he needed to do was ride the river. He strode past King Crab to a smaller boat in its shadow–a lobster-sized shell for solo fishing expeditions. “This one.”

“No!” Emaria exclaimed. “Staever, you–we can’t rush into this. You could be sailing into an ambush.”

“Em, you’ve done a great thing starting this fight.” Staever laid his claw on her back. “Now we need to finish it. Everyone push this for me.” He looked up at Wier and Alta. “The fleet is your job until they get back. Hold King Crab. Help anybody on our side who shows up.”

“You don’t sound confident at all!” Arcite waved his claw feebly at the Wall. “Let me go. I want to get Kragn. What he almost made me do…”

“You’ll get your shot,” Staever replied. “For now, the next person to object will be thrown into the river without a boat. I’m going in and I’m coming back out.” He passed the staff up to the deck. “This’ll help you.”

“But,” Alta stammered, “we can’t fire.”

“You don’t have to. Just look like you might.”

“Yeah, listen to Staever,” Wrest lifted up his intact weapon and Emaria’s two broken ones for Wier and Alta. “Do not touch any part that might fire. For the rest of your lives.”

More civilians ran for shelter every minute, and the sounds of battle grew closer. Alta interpreted them with her spyglass. The soldiers who defected had grouped up, but the loyalists were pushing them away from the Wall. Had it only been a few minutes since they disarmed Kragn?

The Cuttlefish found holds on the fishing boat and pushed. The craft slid through the grass, gathering speed.

“Turn hard around the trees!” Staever vaulted the prow and took up the only pole.

Wrest shoved mightily. Though the craft wobbled under Staever’s weight, it threaded the thick trunks unharmed. Staever caught a glimpse of the battle: the defectors’ line valiant but thin in front of the civilians, losing ground to the loyalists.

The land sloped down as he saw the river. His gut swooped–the water was swollen, running fast.

“Remember there’s no engine,” Arcite called up to him. “If you overshoot, get ready to paddle.”

Staever nodded and gripped his pole, scanning for any sign of Kragn. He saw the fight in a sequence of images, like the Glass Gate. The general was not with his line.

Wrest shouted, “you’re going in…now!”

The vessel slipped. The thieves let go. Staever clutched the sides–he barely had room to turn around. The boat rode its skate for the water…

…along the bank, from the undergrowth, soldiers cropped up everywhere. Eventhe jabbed Wrest in the side. All four were paces from one end of a firing line.

The soldiers unslung bows and notched arrows, aiming at the fleet, whose decks were packed with the people of the Eye.

Staever tried to paddle in reverse, but his pole bounced off the bottom. His second dig couldn’t find bottom at all. The river had him.

Leading the others, Wrest hurtled toward the fleet. Kragn himself was behind the line, right where Staever had put in. He must have hidden a force at the start of the fight, waiting for the defenders to get tired.

They needed an escape route more than ever. He could not fail.

The bow and Staever pointed upstream, the stern down. The small vessel wobbled as though it were being dragged past the fighting. Over his back, he saw Eventhe’s grate approaching, made of stone with wide gaps through which the river churned.

Ten paces out, a glimmer on the bank caught his eye. The pole soft mud on the riverbed. The fishing boat drifted a little. He paddled again, straining with the effort.

The boat coasted onto the bank and stuck where it landed. Far upstream, the clash of swords went on.

A great wheel poked halfway out of the ground paces ahead, with spokes long enough to fit his head through the gaps. It was, indeed, glowing. Praying his strength would be enough to turn it, that it did what Eventhe said, he headed for it.

A pair of claws seized his throat and twisted his neck left. Vile breath hissed in his face.

A lobster’s eyes narrowed in malice as mottled sun fell on his back, glinting off the gems embedded in his cloak.

“Xander,” Staever gasped.

“The gate is mine,” Xander snarled, reaching for his sword.

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Uprising

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Wier and Alta huddled on King Crab’s deck, bracing to flee into the cabin if anybody came for them. A lieutenant had been put in charge of sailing her past the Wall, but that lieutenant was one of Kragn’s circle, and would be by his side for the show. The young lobsters had bolted up the ladder as soon as King Crab’s minder had joined the muster. They hid behind the bow, Alta swinging a spyglass back and forth.

“What’s happening?” Wier asked.

“Arcite and Eventhe jumped off the Wall.” Alta twisted the lens.

“Gimme.” Wier snatched the glass away. Alta grabbed for it. Wier dodged while he looked, then, unexpectedly, passed back the glass. “Look at this.”

Alta aimed the glass where Wrest and the others had been. The hill swarmed with lobsters in confused uproar. She asked Wier, “They got away, right?”

“Of course they did. If you’re gonna look at the wrong place, give it back.”

She scanned southward. The clans formed up around their children, wielding kitchen knives and bits of sled, unable to tell who was on what side. In the spaces between them, dust-colored men and women clashed without lines or logic.

“What are they doing?”

“They’re rising up!” Wier jumped around the deck. “They’re gonna rip Kragn’s tail off!”

She pulled him down. “They’ll see you!”

Wier sunk back under the rail. At the eastern river, a bit of motion caught Alta’s eye. A lobster was bushwhacking through deep cover.

“Is that Staever?”

Wier grabbed the glass and spied through the canopy of the riverbank. “Nah. It’s that jerk who looks like him.”

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Absolute Catastrophe

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Kragn shrugged off Eventhe, who spun onto her legs. Two soldiers in sand-colored armor thrust between her and Kragn, locked in combat.

“Is anyone going to tell me what in the bloody moons is going on?” Arcite asked. Three lobsters behind him snapped at each other with glass spears.

“Everyone get moving,” Staever commanded. The Cuttlefish obeyed.

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Empire

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For the second time in too few minutes, Staever hadn’t been vaporized long after he should have. Magnam elbowed him in the face. He bowled through the grass, clinging to his sword, to land near Emaria.

Wrest let her go. She wasn’t fighting anymore. The three of them rose to see a foreign expression on Kragn’s face: shock. The halves of the staff fell from his claws.

“That break must be built in,” Wrest mused, “to keep them from enemies. I should’ve stolen more of the journal.”

“Can we shoot him?” Emaria whispered.

“No,” Staever said. “I wasn’t bluffing. The whole Wall is a bomb. Remember the map we copied?”

Like Eventhe had, she dug a claw through the dirt. It came up coated in red clay.

“Number of test cases keeps growing,” Staever said. Emaria passed him Magnam’s wand like it was something infected. Together, he and Wrest strapped the wands to their belts, while Emaria retrieved the broken halves.

“I can’t say I’m sorry to lose them.” Kragn beckoned back Magnam and drew the Militia ranks up close. Immediately, the murmuring captains were Kragn’s claws and eyes again, and the general’s face was composed, like it had never been otherwise. “Staever, you are meant to be dead. None of you–save Arcite–are worth the trouble of keeping alive.”

“Careful what you order, Kragn.” Staever stowed the wand but didn’t remove his claws from it. “I’ll take you with me before I give you the Clearing.”

“Why?” Kragn asked, with genuine confusion. “Is ending history on this continent better than my rule?”

“We should move,” Wrest warned, backing toward the Wall. The Militia closed the gap behind them.

Memories flooded Staever’s mind. Farid had betrayed his partner. The watchman refused to raise the alarm. Emaria stood in front of the army, explaining with illustrations why Kragn couldn’t be trusted.

“My city will never be washed away. My Clearing could be an empire. Don’t tell me you haven’t imagined that.”

Staever clenched his teeth. Any second, he’d learn whether he was right.

“I’ll purge cancers like Crane and Xander. Like engineers who let thousands of lobsters dry out. Why do you still fight?”

“Emaria.” Staever’s gaze settled on the soldiers. “Great speech. They won’t forget it.”

Kragn barked, “Take them.”

Half the Militia moved forward.

The other half moved into their way.

Arcite flew off the top of the wall and hit the ground amid an acre of lobsters drawing swords. Eventhe landed right behind. She shoved through the soldiers and threw herself at Kragn, as his captains each screamed a different order and sounds of blade striking blade erupted from every corner of the glade.

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Doubt

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The soldiers began to mutter. Emaria, quaking like a drowning victim, took heart. Like Kragn’s trial. I need doubt.

She backed between the escapees, toward a large patch of clay on the wall.

“Return to the stockade, or your life is forfeit.” Kragn aimed his weapon.

Shael stopped him. “Vanish her now and you only give her credibility. If we don’t listen, we won’t know how ridiculous it is, right?”

Kragn looked willing to kill Shael with his bare claws, but shouldered the staff. “One minute,” he hissed to his steward.

Emaria drew a circle in the clay and wiped her claw on the grass. “This is the Eye the moment the manatees arrived. The Field occupies the city.” She cut several crosses along the rightmost edge of the circle. “Our soldiers, led by Kragn, attacked from the east.” She cut a row of lines for the Eye Militia.

He’s figuring it out. Kragn smiled slightly, noticing her fear.

She fought an urge to vomit. “Say you’re a third party who came upon this scene with no prior knowledge. Like the manatees.” Emaria traced a smaller oval above the large circle. “Who’s with the Eye, and who are the rebels?”

Kragn had no answer. He must have known something. He might have known everything.

“The Xs are attacking from the city, while the lines are moving toward it,” she said. “From the sky, the sides look reversed.”

The captains and the clans were rapt. Soldiers broke formation to get a look at her drawing. Defiance, she reminded herself. Whatever happens, they can’t control me anymore.

“If you came out of the sea with a grudge against the Eye, you might destroy the Field instead. You’d take out the city either way.”

“What do you claim to know about a grudge?” Kragn asked.

“Simple.” It was difficult for Emaria to conceal the certainty she was going to die for her next statement. “You stole their weapons.”

“This is a weed-scroll whale tale. Present arms.”

No going back now. She shouted over Kragn to the Militia at large. “They came in our moment of weakness. But one way or another, Kragn was going to lose that battle. He had the most powerful weapons on land and a grudge against Crane. All he needed was an opportunity. We gave him one, Staever and Wrest and I. In the canyon.”

“Her minute is up,” Kragn told Shael. “Vaporize her.”

“Don’t do Kragn’s work for him,” she implored the soldiers. “He’s the betrayer. Not Staever. Not Crane.”

Shael’s weapon sparked.

A grey shadow slammed into Kragn, knocking his staff aside. A claw wrapped around the general’s throat. The other grasped at his weapon.

Kragn swung the wand at Wrest’s face while slamming his other claw into the thief’s underbelly, throwing him backwards into the grass. “AWOL again.”

“Wrest!” Shael unshouldered his own staff and threw it to Wrest, who caught it lying on his back, training it on Kragn.

“I give up on this one.” Kragn spun and fired at Shael.

When the arc of light cleared, Shael was gone. Like the woman killed in the canyon, there was no sign he’d ever lived.

“Bastard!” Wrest fired on instinct. Kragn threw up his weapon to take the bolt. The lightning funneled into it, and disappeared.

Wrest gaped. “How…”

“That was in the part of my diary you didn’t steal,” Kragn replied.

Kragn couldn’t kill Wrest so long as Wrest had a weapon. Emaria kept one eye on them and another on the soldiers as they tried to figure out what was going on. They searched for their friends or snarled at comrades. Too scared of the lightning to approach, they weren’t too scared to wonder if she was right.

The prisoners melted into the crowd. Pulse pounding, ears ringing, Emaria walked toward her friends.

“How could you?” Wrest siezed up around the weapon. “Your friend…your personal guard…”

“Shael had time to prove his loyalty.” Kragn waved Magnam forth. “Finish the traitor. One absorbs one. He can’t withstand both of us.”

“Can’t,” Magnam said.

“Why not?”

“Because if he moves, I’ll cut him down.” Staever emerged alongside Magnam, the blade marked for his execution shoved under the one-clawed lobster’s throat. “Drop it.”

“Cut me.”

“Don’t push it.” Staever held the edge to a chink in Magnam’s bone. “I really don’t like you.”

Kragn breathed, calculating, then said, “Surrender it, Magnam.”

“General–”

“They won’t use them.”

Magnam let his staff roll into the grass. Emaria scooped it up. Only once she’d drawn a bead on Kragn’s thorax did she notice two weapons pointing at him weren’t giving him pause.

“What makes you so sure?” Wrest asked, but a split-instant expression had given him away.

Kragn raised the third staff. “You could hit half my soldiers without threatening one civilian. You haven’t fired because you know something I don’t.”

Emaria silently asked Staever, Do we? He mouthed, Can’t say now.

Kragn went on, “I’d like to know what you’ll do when I break this in half.”

With both claws, he swung the staff at a tree. As one, Staever, Wrest, Emaria, and several of the soldiers shouted “No!”

“Why not?” Kragn reared back for a second swing.

“Because this idyllic damn forest is growing on the biggest red clay deposit anyone has ever seen!” Staever bellowed.

Magnam struggled, digging himself onto the blade, drawing blood. Kragn hit the tree again. A crack sprung up along the shaft. Wrest cried, “You’re going to kill yourself!”

“You should surrender first, shouldn’t you?” Kragn asked conversationally.

The break sparked blue. Emaria charged at him. If she could take it, they’d be safe…

Wrest lunged, caught her around the middle. “No!” she screamed. “Don’t save him again! You’re with us!”

From one watering eye, she saw Magnam jerk free from Staever, saw them fight over the blade.

As the wand caught the sunlight, Kragn said, “I expect faster compliance in the future,” and hit the rough bark a third time. The staff broke in two.

I’m a self-supported artist, and I rely on donations to keep bringing you The Glass Thief. Check out my Patreon to see the bonus content you can get if you pledge. Even $1 a month helps–and gets you a personal shout-out!

Thank you to Lynne, Pauline, David, Paul, and Thomas for their continued support.