Spare Her

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With every step, the smell of trees grew stronger. Damp as the river, crisp as sea air, the scent of things growing. Arcite didn’t like it. He preferred the desert, where nothing that was alive was pretending it wasn’t.

Someone pulled off the blindfold. Arcite squinted as his eyes adjusted to the evening light. His antennae had not lied: they were in the densest forest yet. King Crab could hardly have sailed between the trees. And they were taller–some obscured the sun, scattering light across the grass like pebbles over a beach.

Even they paled before the wall.

Story upon story of incredibly solid sand barred the plain. Arcite judged fifteen paces to the top, but he had no head like Eventhe’s for distances. He could not see the end of it in either direction. Water was rushing softly nearby.

He’d imagined Kragn had dispatched a whole cohort to escort him, and was disappointed to discover only two sour-looking guards, one of whom was missing a claw. Arcite stared. “How’d that happen?”

The one-clawed lobster swung him back toward the wall. Arcite wondered when he’d become so easy to drag around.

“Behold the Great South Wall, Field-ant,” the other soldier said. “Study it. We have a task for you.”

“What task?” Arcite asked as he figured it out. “Come on,” he told himself, “what’s the one thing anybody needs you for?”

He sucked the dew from a blade of grass. Clay was supposed to make him happy. This morose feeling didn’t make any sense.

“You know red clay,” One-Claw said. “If you can blow a hole in this, Kragn will get what you need. If not, you’re dead weight. Understand?”

“Or there’s a third option,” Arcite replied. “I could tell you I don’t want to work for you because your boss is a mudeater I wouldn’t trust to govern a tent, let alone the Clearing. What happens then?”

Both soldiers opened their mouths, but Arcite wasn’t done. “Or a fourth. What if I set up the clay so it would blow up Kragn, but none of you would notice until it was too late, because, you know, I’m a lot smarter than you?”

For such a bulky specimen, One-Claw moved fast. He lifted Arcite’s head and thorax off the ground by his chin. Arcite’s legs scrabbled in midair.

“Whatever happens to the wall,” One-Claw growled, “happens with you on top of it. Brain has to be in one piece for you to be smart.”

Arcite tried to talk, but One-Claw was clamping his mouth shut. Amused at his wild-eyed gaping, One-Claw thrust him down.

“I don’t like to be coerced. I’m a Cuttlefish.” Saying these words while a crumpled ball on the ground didn’t lend them the weight they deserved.

“You’re being coerced.” Two-Claw lifted a corner of his light cloak to reveal one of the three manatee wands. “Knowledge goes both ways.”

Arcite’s blood boiled. He hated those damn rods. They had no elegance, no strategy. You didn’t even have to aim.

He skittered to the base of the wall and tapped it, aware of his captors’ gaze from uphill. “Impossibly solid. Maybe half as thick as it is tall. Hard to find the load-bearing points…”

“Oi!” shouted Two-Claw. “Can you break the sand or not?”

“If it was sand, you wouldn’t have brought me out here.” Arcite turned. “It’s rock.”


Their confusion betrayed everything. Neither of them knew lobsters could build things out of rock. Neither of them knew how to demolish it. “So they’re threatening me, but they also need me.”

He brushed a claw on the rock. It caught in a groove. Stepping back, he discovered–as he’d been dreading–the tree, mountain, and river. He clamped his claws over his antennae, waiting for some grass demon to start talking in his head.

The voice didn’t come. Arcite carefully examined the mark of Turner. It was different than before. In the temple and the nexus, it had been clean, but here, it was haphazard, angry.

The guard called again. “I said, can you–”

“Of course I can break it!” Arcite couldn’t pinpoint when he’d decided he would. He owed the Eye nothing, and Kragn less, and didn’t care how long they had to trudge to find a way around the big wall.

But they needed him. That was too precious to waste.

“I’ll need half a day to identify weak spots,” he told the soldiers. “How long is the wall?”

“He’s stalling.” One-Claw moved forward, but Two-Claw stopped him. “Over the horizon in either direction, there’s a river. That’s as far as we’ve scouted, and we still can’t see the end. So don’t get any ideas about knocking out the whole thing at once.”

“For the breach you want, I’ll need at least nine lobster-weights. Preferably more.”

Two-Claw answered, “We hardly brought that much.”

“Unless Kragn can’t handle it?” Arcite narrowed his eyes.

Two-Claw stood his ground. “He’ll handle it. Break this damn wall down.”

Arcite threaded his way east, making the Militiamen follow. He saw he’d started on a hill, one of many rolling in shallow waves under the trees. It was a pleasant spot to spend an early dusk: the light was soft, the breeze cool, and the music of river over rocks mingled with the quiet buzzing of insects too small to eat.

This was a place for drinking, not work, but work had to be done. He’d been outcast since the beginning, lurking at the fringes of camp. Now, he was the one with power over Kragn.

“But I wasn’t alone,” he said, soft as the stream. “Even out on the edge.”

Suddenly he knew what to use his power for.

Striding back to Two-Claw, he said, “Eventhe.”

“What about her?” Two-Claw asked. “She has our men afraid to go on patrol, If we do catch her–“

“–you will treat her with every courtesy your little mind can conceive. That’s my price.”

Two-Claw thrust the wand into Arcite’s face. One-Claw, who was leaning against a tree a few paces away, snorted. “You’re no bargainer.”

“Spare her,” Arcite said. The wand in his face was making his heart beat faster than he cared to admit. “If you don’t like the deal, meditate on how little I value your life. Or mine.”

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Another Spectacle

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Did I hear right? A thug shifted in front of the drill-holes, blocking Staever’s view. His graft ached where they’d pounded it. How could Kragn know?

The perimeter crew gathered with the rest of the soldiers. Staever heard scuffles from all directions as the Militia drove the clans to view him and Kragn, upon the flagship for everyone to see.

In the Eye, the meeting rotunda had been used for two purposes: legislation and trials. The flagship became the rotunda, the marsh the audience. Lobsters from the Eye knew what to do when powerful people stood above them–lie down, and wait for danger to pass.

Staever had started their journey by declaring they wouldn’t rebuild the Eye. Now Kragn was going to end it by doing exactly that.

Kragn raised his claws for quiet. Dull whacks answered roared threats from the citizens. The tumult grew as the crowd expanded, each thud making Staever gag. His guards tightened their claws, making sure he could not cover his ears.

This was the new Clearing: Kragn had not only betrayed them, his betrayal had been swift and total. And he had trusted the general, so far as to doubt Wrest.

“Graphus,” Kragn said when all was silent. “A friend to me, to us all. He was the first ally I had in my quest to build a brighter future for the Eye.”

Arcite’s voice exploded from below. “If Graphus were here he’d rip your sea-damned claws off!”

Kragn’s countenance was cold. “Guards, remove him.”

“Eventhe got away–let go of me–she’ll break your neck in your sleep–”

Someone shoved a rag into Arcite’s mouth. Staever heard nothing more.

“Graphus departed with Governor Xander’s scouting party to chart a network of bridges connecting this area to the north,” Kragn said. “Tragedy struck on the return journey.”

He knows about the bridges, but not the air demon, or he would have mentioned it by now. Kragn’s lie had to be based in truth. None of Xander’s clan objected, which meant they were either in on it or had been bullied into silence. What was more, the speech was mechanical, rehearsed to the hilt. So winning crowds is even less his strong suit than mine.

“As the party camped, our,“ Kragn touched a claw to his chest, “beloved Graphus was thrown from a cliff. I accuse the criminal Staever, who calls himself your leader.”

Staever lunged. “Nobody killed Graphus,” he shouted as the guards wrestled him back. “And I am their leader.” He faced Kragn down, jerking in his captors’ grasp. The general gave a signal, and they threw him to the deck. “You can’t silence them forever, Kragn. They’ll keep whispering about me in the night.”

“It doesn’t matter how much they like you,” Kragn growled, so only Staever could hear. His eyes reflected hills and trees and the two lingering moons. “These people care who can keep them safe and fed. There are worse things out there than me.”

“Your fabricated monsters?”

“We both know where to find real monsters.”

Kragn’s face held no triumph or superiority, only duty. “You can’t win a trial with strength,” Staever said.

“Trials are Crane’s game. This is…a cure. For their habit of following you. A tough one to break, after your stunt with the monsoon.” Kragn called through the amplifiers into the crowd. “Come forward, Xander!”

The crowd downhill from the ship parted. Staever watched a sliver of it through the starboard scuppers. His heart leapt as he saw Wrest with Shael, shifting lobsters aside as gently as he could. Xander, in his trail cloth and pack, walked behind.

Wrest had to be undercover. As for Xander, they hadn’t spoken since learning they were half-brothers. For an instant he thought Xander, who had seen everything, could help, but cold reality dawned: the only way Kragn could have known so quickly about Graphus’s murder was with a man on the inside.

“Where’s Crane?” he asked. “Let the high governor judge me.”

“The five governors are under guard in the hold, as they have been since we passed the canyon. And,” Kragn said as Xander entered the circle around the flagship, “he is a witness. I will judge you.”

What do I have to do to get a fair trial?

Xander mounted the ladder. Kragn guided him to the conches. “Speak, if you know the truth.”

“I saw Staever murder Graphus,” Xander intoned.

“You sea-damned lying bastard!” A claw like a cudgel slammed into Staever’s face. He was on the deck again, blinking lights out of his eyes.

“A demon of the air attacked us on one of the bridges.” Xander’s checks and pauses convinced better than Kragn’s.

“Xander,” Staever pleaded, “you were there. You know this isn’t true.”

“It forced us to retreat. Staever and two of his gang–the Field spy and the masked one–were in the rear with Graphus.”

“Don’t do this, brother.”

Xander broke off his speech. As the crowd murmured, he told Staever, “It was my idea.”

He turned back to the conch, leaving Staever paralyzed. I should have left him among the ruins. So many mistakes, with no way back. It was enough to convince Staever his brother and Kragn were agents of perverse destiny. He’d taken everything from Xander, and Xander would repay him in kind.

“As the other thieves fled, Staever pushed Graphus from the end of the bridge.”

“It was not an accident?”

“Graphus landed part of the bridge after the first shove. Staever could have saved him. Instead he pushed him again.”

The soldiers broke out in a chorus of boos. The citizens sounded confused. Some yelled, while others’ calls petered out into murmuring. Staever wasn’t worried about them. Kragn and Xander were too partial for anyone to buy their story. All that mattered was retaining the loyalty of the Eye.

Kragn turned east. “This is only one testimony, but the crime happened in broad daylight. Who else witnessed it?”

Silence. Staever was dislocated, watching from outside his skeleton. Kragn even asking meant…

A lobster from Xander’s clan raised his claw.

“I saw.” His deep voice resonated. “It happened like Xander said. Staever let us all get ahead, then sent his gang to keep us out of the way while he killed Graphus.”

Others followed. Four successive testimonies condemned Staever. Kragn had bribed them, or threatened them–it didn’t matter. The smallest shards of uncertainty in the walkers’ hearts would set his grisly cure in motion. Stop them from stepping up, when he gets rid of me.

“Your courage has done us a great service, Xander,” said Kragn. “Dismissed.” Xander left without looking Staever in the eye.

The crowd noise dulled. Nobody knew what to believe.

“I declare this thief to be guilty,” Kragn went on. “The sentence is exile.”

The crowd roared indistinguishably. The numbers for him and against him were masked.

“To the northwest, the vegetation turns back to desert,” Kragn told him. “You will go there. You will never return.”

The goons clutched Staever again, though he struggled. Before they could bundle him to the rail, Kragn spoke softly.

“Don’t be too angry, Staever. Esteem is an illusion. No thief can pull off a sleight of claw on this many people, for this long.”

“But your power’s real?” Staever challenged. “How long can you hold on?”

“Long enough for people to forget there was any other way.”

The soldiers pitched Staever off the ladder. The fall rattled his bones and stunned him long enough for them to leap down and haul him through the crowd, clearing a path as they went.

The citizens lay like loose sand as the Militiamen came to push them back. Whether or not Staever was guilty of the charges, they’d seen him condemned with Kragn presiding. There was no more effective way to show them how far power had shifted, how little they could gain by resisting.

In seconds Staever would be gone from his people, surrounded by Kragn’s soldiers. While hoarse militiamen shouted, “Make way for the exile!” another lobster landed with a thud beside him. Emaria’s face, battered as his must have been, pressed into the dirt. Some sensation returned to him.

“Eventhe?” he asked.

Emaria shook her head. “Gone into the outskirts.”

Staever felt a rush of gratitude. “Always outside, always hiding, thank the bloody sea. What about Arcite?”

Kragn had disembarked from the flagship and now had some advisers in a circle, all of them talking urgently. Shael, at the outside, shifted and allowed Wrest out of the ring. He backed toward Staever and said without turning, “Kragn has Arcite. They need him for something. It wasn’t clear.”

“Oh, no,” Staever said. “The Great South Wall.”

Emaria recognized the words. “What about it?”

“Kragn needs to get through. He’s going to blow it up. You can’t let him.”

The soldier holding Emaria jerked her away. Militiamen hustled Staever forward, and Wrest followed, breaking his cover to stay within earshot. “You can break him there!” Staever cried. “Don’t let him keep Arcite!”

Something hit him on the head, and darkness covered the wood.

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

Closing the Trap

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Staever beamed when he saw the camp laid out below him. Wrest and Emaria must have had no trouble settling in. In fact, it looked more permanent than most camps they’d pitched–maybe they decided to use a day gathering water.

Drawing closer, he began to second-guess his good feeling. With water abundant, the clans should be mingling, paying each other visits. He tapped Arcite’s shoulder. “Does everybody look a bit…somber, to you?”

“Probably this damn mist.” Arcite pulled his cloak tight. “I used to think it was fun.”

They reached a trail. Kragn tended to post watchmen at choke points like this, but a look told Staever the army’s usual ring was devastated. Most of the soldiers had formed up around one of the ships–the council flagship, in fact. Several headed straight for him.

His mirth turned to ash. There’s been an attack. We’ve lost people. He braced himself for Kragn’s report.

A pink lobster, winded but still running, bolted out of a fold. In her eyes was the vacant look of someone blocking awful pain. He rushed up and caught her in his claws.

“Tell me, Em. Start with the worst.”

“You have to run,” she said, panicked. Adrenaline made her hot to the touch. He let her down. “Kragn is looking for you, Staever. I can’t explain.”

“Emaria?” Arcite asked. “The place doesn’t look right. What have you been doing?”

“Kragn’s stolen manatee weapons and taken control. If he sees you–”

Long-buried instinct kicked in. “I’ll be back,” Staever said, and told Arcite and Eventhe, “keep them safe.” He turned to sprint for higher ground.

He made it ten paces.

A contingent of thugs had taken the long way over the hills. Staever blundered into them before they could set up an ambush. Two grabbed him, one under each claw. He kicked out, but they shoved him into the dirt, pinning his legs, slamming his graft on the ground and blotting out everything else as his skeleton burned and scraped itself. Somebody removed his belt.

The fighters dragged Staever to the ladder of the council flagship, which was moored upright against its poles. The flat of his own sword jabbed him, and he took the meaning: climb.

Someone else at the top threw him to the deck. When he lifted his head, he met the eyes of General Kragn. “You can leave in due time, Staever. You and I have business first.”

The flagship had holes drilled in the railings where conches could be fitted to form an amplifying array. Kragn had filled them all. Whatever was about to happen would happen in earshot of the whole camp.

Kragn turned to address the army. Staever saw him in slow motion, while on the ground a soldier in regalia twisted Emaria’s claw over her back. No fewer than four stripped Arcite of his satchel and frisked the rest of him. Eventhe and Wrest were nowhere to be found.

“Xander has returned, along with his clan,” Kragn declared. “In the process, they have apprehended Staever, the murderer of Governor Graphus. His trial will be swift and public.”

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.

The Stockade

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The stockade was a two-head-high wall, built of trees lashed together and sunk into a patch of swampland. Four grunts guarded it. Emaria saw blind spots everywhere–Kragn would never get the hang of civilian security–but she wouldn’t run. When her anger at Wrest had died to a cool burn, she began to wonder why Kragn was digging in at the forest rather than cementing his power at the Clearing. By morning, she resolved to remain a prisoner for as long as it took to figure this out.

Dawn peeked through the mist. On schedule, two soldiers threw some lumps of charred meat over the wall. The other prisoners–Kragn’s most vocal opponents–scrambled for it. Emaria hung back.

“Sea-sister.” A priest crawled from the fray with a scrap of insect in his claw. “I haven’t seen you drink or eat. Take it.”

She’d known there would be fights over food from the moment Kragn’s soldiers locked the gate. They would only give the prisoners meat, not water–and the longer they went without water, the more they’d need to eat to compensate. Soon food would provide nothing.

She took the scrap and smelled it, digging through her anger at Wrest and her fear for Staever and the others to unearth deep memories.

A claw under her chin, lifting her head. Staever’s voice. You haven’t eaten for a while, have you?

A shake of her head. If you join up with me, there are going to be more days like this. I can teach you how to get through them.

She had learned. In the stockade she chewed grass to wring water from her mouth, coated her shell in silt to keep moisture in. When the prisoners heard soldiers marching through the trees, only Emaria was watered enough to look up.

The Militia rallied in a circle around Kragn, who was beyond a row of trees, giving orders. He gestured time and again toward the distant gap. His meaning was clear enough: surround and attack.

It washed over Emaria like water over the Eye. He can’t leave without defeating Staever.

The four guards stalked the perimeter in pairs, armed with a spear and blade each. The priest who’d given her food had lapsed into a doze.

“Brother.” She gently shook him. “I need you to get me over the wall.”

The priest glanced up. A pair of guards stomped.

“Give me a boost,” she implored.

A clan-father whispered from behind her. “You’re crazy. Kragn’s whole force is on the move.”

“On the move away from us,” she hissed back, then turned once more to the priest. “Please, sea-brother. I might not get another chance.”

“Emaria. We may never learn how much you’ve done for us.” The sea-monk hooked his claws together. “I fear for you. But it would be my honor.”

“Thank you.” Emaria smiled at him as he hoisted her into the air. As she hit the top of the stockade wall she heard the clan-head murmur, “Glad we’ve got you for the suicide missions.”

She landed in the split-second window between one pair of guards and the next. Someone shouted the moment she found her footing. She splashed through a puddle, drinking through her legs, then sped around a great wet patch as Kragn’s thugs squelched in behind her.

Forest, help me…

A guard swore. Two shells collided. She smirked–they were not prepared for wetlands. Neither was she, but Emaria had always learned fast. By the time they skirted the puddle and pierced the mist, she was running on the open plain.

No time to congratulate herself. Kragn would overwhelm Staever before the thief could take two steps into the vale. The general was not about to underestimate a Cuttlefish. Emaria was Staever’s only chance.

The army was drawing into ranks, captains barking orders. She was faster, but not strong enough. She was a sprinting desert spider and the army was a mudslide.

Dots appeared on the hill: Staever, Arcite, Eventhe, and Xander’s clan. Emaria willed herself onward.

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Strange Territory

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“It’s not made of sand.” Wier strode to his sister with confidence through the dewy grass.

Alta pulled a face. “I could have told you that from here.”

“Well, what’s your idea?”

“It’s a plant.” Alta cocked her head. “Like seaweed.”

“Seaweed doesn’t stand up unless it’s in the water, so there.”

“What about the grass, dummy?”

The pair scrutinized the dark green-and-brown pillar. Though Wier had become accustomed to grass, the larger stalks scattered in the field were inscrutable.

“It’s called a tree.” Wrest’s voice made them both jump. “The map says this field is the ‘treeline.’ There’s a glyph of what you’re looking at.”

Wier asked, “Does the map say it’s a plant?”

“It’s green, likes soil, and roots come out if you pull it. I’d say your sister’s right.”

Alta grinned, and Wier looked sullen, but neither for long. They were nearer to camp than Wrest would have liked. It was a matter of time before one or several of Kragn’s thugs showed up.

“You two shouldn’t wander around.” He shepherded Wier and Alta to their allotment. “Come back where it’s safe.”

Lobsters squatted between the sparse trees. It was early morning, and fog obscured all but the closest clans. A cohort of five or six Eye Militia passed by, one of them driving a smaller lobster.

“Answer’s no,” he grunted, and revealed the stump of his missing claw. Wrest groaned.

The little lobster shook. “Only a few more drops–”

Another soldier knocked him to the ground. “Answer was no before, answer’s no today, it’s gonna be no tomorrow. You get the water Kragn gives you.”

“It’s not enough.”

“You special?” Magnam seized him the lobster’s throat. “You were special, you could fight back. But you’re not. You’re weak.”

“Please.” The lobster was crying. “My clan are doctors. We’ve been up all night tending the injured from the canyon, and now…”

Magnam threw the doctor to the ground. He bounced before rolling to a stop. A jolt coursed through Wrest as though he’d felt the pain himself. “Alta, Wier, get to our plot.”

“We can help him,” Alta said.

Magnam advanced. “Kragn gave those people what they need to survive. They can’t live on that, means they’re weak too.”

Quivering in the dirt, the doctor started to babble. “There are more all the time! You keep knocking in their shells because you can’t get people to stay in those sea-damned triangles!”

Wrest put an arm over each child and turned them firmly away.

“Alta’s right,” Wier said. Another sickening thud, muffled by the low buzz of camp. “You could have ordered him to stop.”

“I don’t give orders. I take them. To keep you two safe.”

In the forest, each clan was confined to the field bounded by three trees. Wrest’s plot was as close to the edge of the encampment as Kragn would allow. When they arrived, Wier muttered, “Don’t want to be safe.”

Wrest’s ears perked up. They weren’t alone.

“Showed him good, huh?” a voice said.

Weir dragged Alta to the back corner. Through the dawn mist, Magnam sidled toward them, pinwheeling the leg under his missing claw. “Where were you? You’re joined back up, we wanna see you help out.”

“They got lost,” Wrest answered. Magnam looked unsure who he meant. Then his gaze fell on Wier and Alta.


“We’re in an unfamiliar camp. Visibility is down. It’s plausible.”

Magnam’s eyes narrowed, and he brandished his stump. Wrest tried not to stare: it was so clean he might have been born without it. “You know what I can do if you make me mad?”

“Nothing without your manatee stick,” Wrest said. “Not much with it, given how your last test turned out.”

“One more word. I’ll have an army on you.”

“I’ll order them back, because you don’t outrank me. Leave us alone.”

“Outrank you.” For a second, Magnam went silent.

Then he sprang forward around Wrest, and hissed in Alta’s face, clamping his claw around her thorax. Without time to draw his sword, Wrest lunged at Magnam bareclawed, but Wier struck first, hard enough to knock it loose, then covered his sister’s body with his own as Magnam lashed out.

Wier took the punch. He rolled over, whimpering, as Magnam stepped back satisfied.

Wrest snapped his claws. “Do that again, and I’ll–”

“You won’t.” Magnam straightened his brooch, the wooden insignia of a captain. “You’re a prisoner. Kragn’s got these two keeping you in line.”

He marched away. Alta covered her face while Wier clutched his own, making the pain worse. Wrest put his back to a tree and settled in to watch over them until he was summoned.

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.

The Nobleman

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The sun was setting over the high desert, lending a gold tint to the rocks. Going was slow–the lobsters insisted on crossing each bridge in groups of three–but they at length worked their way to the central wastes. After the canyonlands, they could catch up with the main group. Through his glass, Staever made out a landmark he’d seen on both maps: a scoured pillar jutting up from the landscape, which Cyprus had named Arbor Rock.

He’d had dreams about a perfect campsite marked at the rock, a grassy lowland watered by streams. West was an arm of the southern desert, another poor sand area where Turner had supplemented the crosses with the single word pits. Near Arbor Rock, he hoped, they might first find trees.

Graphus’s absence deadened them. When Staever had halfheartedly begun a speech to coax Xander’s clan to return, all of them went to his side without him needing to finish. Arcite and Eventhe walked together in the middle of the line, not speaking. Nobody had ever died for them before.

They scrambled over rocks and through passes, keeping the snaggletooth ranges on their right. The air turned cool with the first moments of dusk. The sea of grass ahead was dotted with moss-covered stones rising like islands, casting lengthening shadows from the Land and Star Moons. Staever backtracked with the sunset at his tail, and found Xander cutting across a switchback down to the field. The earlier I say this, the better.


Xander didn’t look up.

“Exciting to have some wetland ahead of us, isn’t it?” Staever mused. “I can’t wait to find out what it looks like.”

“What do you want?”

“I need to make sure you won’t pull this again.”

They passed together into the waves of grass. Xander clenched his claws.

“I have to think of everyone,” Staever went on, “and I might not be fast enough to save you next time.”

Save me?” Xander growled. “That’s what you’re going to tell them you did?”

“That’s what happened.”

“It’s a lie.” Xander skirted a hillock. Staever hopped from the top to keep pace. “Those bridges went on into the north. All we had to do was wait out the sky demon and we would have had a clear shot to the Eye.”

“And no water. And sea knows how many casualties. What’s your point?”

“You saved nobody. You executed yet another coup.”

Staever’s better judgment told him the conversation had gone on too long, should indeed not have happened at all, since Xander was more powerless than he’d ever been. He ignored it. “Xander, I’m trying to be diplomatic. Half these people didn’t want me to let you come back with us.”

“They want somebody strong to keep them safe,” Xander looked at what had once been his clan trudging ahead. A few had lit torches. “You look strongest. For now.”

“Should I not have bothered?” Staever snapped. “What do you want, Xander? To go rebuild the Eye by yourself? Be king of a pile of dust?” He flung his arm at the highlands. “Go ahead! Nobody’s stopping you!”

He stalked off into the grass. Xander kept pace with him, a mocking grin spreading on his face. “You had such noble aspirations. But your rule isn’t turning out any different from ours. Look at your enemies–you killed one and now you want to exile another.”

Xander might as well have scalded him with water. “What did you say?”

“I saw you let go of his claw. All you did by coming to the rescue was throw the senior governor off a bridge.”

“You’re an idiot!” Staever exploded. “Who knocked out the bird?”

“The clay maniac and the psychopath in the mask. But they’re more like weapons than actual lobsters. Graphus must have been your idea.”

“Graphus asked me to let him go.”

“Of course, and the bridge asked the bird to destroy it, and water asks us to drink it.”

Stop. Nothing he says matters. Staever tried once more to speed ahead but only succeeded in stubbing his foot on a standing stones. “Funny how you care about him so much now he’s dead. You and Crane spent your whole careers screwing him over.”

“You disowned him when you took control. Don’t try to convince me you care.”

But he did. Silence followed, broken by wind whistling through grass. Graphus had used him disgracefully, but in doing so, had given him a chance to do good, sacrificing his own power to boot. If he’d only told Staever the plan…

You would have risked your life? As if. You were too much a thief.

“We were there to oppose him,” Xander went on. “There’s a reason there were seven of us. I wouldn’t expect an autocrat to understand.”

“The other four were so afraid of Crane they voted in lockstep. You were an attack dog.”

“You’re trying to goad me.”

“You’re under my rule now, so I can tell you without fear of arrest you were a gear in Crane’s machine. You were his protégé as a child, he masterminded your appointment to the vacant seat…”

“I was appointed my father’s successor, by my father!” Xander interjected. “He was a gentleman, a soldier of the Eye. He was a great man in a world you’ll never understand.”

The word father was a poor choice. Unable to resist longer, Staever slapped Xander across the face with his claw, careening him into a standing stone. “My father came from that world,” he said, “my mother told me about it, and if it hadn’t been for your high society, they might have saved us a long time ago.”

He turned, finished with the conversation. He expected Xander to follow him, but the governor stood frozen.

“My father’s name was Cyprus,” he said.

Staever went cold.

“A coincidence,” he stammered.

Xander choked out, “You know as well as I do, no two lobsters of the same generation have ever had the same name.”

He’s wrong. It’s happenstance. Maybe he’s getting sunstruck. Maybe his father used a different spelling.

“My father returned to the Pupil after his time with my mother,” he said, “but he never had another child.”

“Of course he did!” Xander shouted. “Why wouldn’t he?”

Xander was standing in the moonlight, Staever in the shadow of a stone, but the difference in light couldn’t hide how their shells were a similar red, their backs an identical curve, their eyes shot with the same fire.

“Cyprus had one child. Not two. Not a thief.” Xander’s knife slid into his claw. Staever grabbed the hilt of his sword. “You’re an enemy of the city. You spit on order. You steal everything you don’t deserve. You’re not his son.”

Xander was running, catching up with the head of the group. Staever let go of the hilt. He wanted to give chase, but he was rooted to the spot. He tried speaking the sentence aloud: “Xander is my brother.”

But he could no more accept it than Xander could accept a good thief.

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The Bridge

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Arcite and Eventhe stumbled out the broken door as the blast obliterated every remaining pylon. With a sound like a cruiser running aground, the tower’s insides gave way. The bloodied bird landed with its feathers splayed, without any squawking: the demon simply folded, like an engine switched off.

The crowd on the bridge cheered and applauded as Staever pushed himself up. “Everything all right up there?”

Arcite said, “We’re coming down.”

When they reached him, Staever grasped Arcite’s claw, but Arcite shook once and let go. “Yeah, I’m the best, we knew already. Boss, did you hear a voice?”

“I heard a lot of squawking.”

“In your head.”

Staever turned to Eventhe. “Is he all right?”

“I heard it as well.” Eventhe fidgeted with her mask. “I will explain on the way.”

“Let’s explain now,” Arcite said. “The demon was part of the building. Or the other way around. How’s that possible?”

The pile of feathers loomed large in Staever’s field of vision. “Ev’s right. Not here.”

Arcite didn’t let it go until they reached the middle of the bridge, where Graphus waited with Xander’s clan. Xander had shuffled to the back, nervously drawing, sheathing, then re-drawing a knife.

“We’re not clear yet,” was the first thing Graphus said.

“No congratulations?” Staever asked as they all stepped onto the bridge.

“I’m sorry, Staever, but the demon isn’t dead. You would have heard one last shriek.”

“I came to save these people, not for your advice.”

“So it’s to be like that, then?”

“Yes. It’s to be like that.”

Arcite jumped in. “Yeah, have you been listening? Damn thing’s done nothing but shriek…”

He stopped. Graphus and the others fell silent as well. Part of the panorama of crag and desert was out of place–though the air was as arid as ever, the sky as blue.

But not as quiet.

Staever listened harder. The noise came from below: not a single sound, nor steady, but a series of sharp snaps, something titanic breaking into its elements.

“How much do we all weigh?” he asked.

Graphus turned pale and rounded on Xander. “Get the clan off. The bridge isn’t safe.”

“How do you know?”

“You can question me, or you can die and prove me right. Earn the right to rule your clan.”

Xander turned reluctantly and shouted, “Didn’t you hear him? Everybody go!”

No!” Staever cried before they could move. “Five of you at a time.”

But the clan was too terrified for five of them to gather. Staever backed up, toward the nexus-side end. “The weight of you all together is straining the struts. Once five are a fair distance away, we can send another five. Well?” Nobody moved. “Graphus, split them up.”

Staever gave the old governor a bit of credit for not objecting. The first group departed with Xander filling them out. Their footsteps harmonized with the creaking of the bridge.

A second group. Then a third. The popping sounds slowed. Staever allowed himself a moment of calm: the weight distribution was working. Soon the bridge would be behind them.

He checked the nexus. The bird wasn’t where they’d left it.

Everything slowed down. The scene sunk into deep focus: the air demon, pulling itself along the bridge with its massive wings; Eventhe shifting to a fighting stance; the groups, with Xander at the head, hurrying along the bridge; Graphus, oblivious, marshaling group after group of five.

If they ran, the bridge would fall. But if the demon strained the supports…

It stopped right before the bridge. Its wings, freakishly maneuverable at the last of their strength, slammed down into the packed sand surface.

The bridge rattled with a mighty protest from the driftwood frame, shaking Staever to his bones.

Wings rose for another blow, the body rearing up behind them. The demon was part of the building. Or the other way around.

The tower, and the bridge, were the bird. This was a suicide attack.

“Forget the groups!” he shouted. “Run!”

The second blow annihilated the wooden frame. As Eventhe and Arcite scuttled backwards, a crack sped across the bridge’s width, shooting like an arrow through Graphus.

Half the bridge dropped five paces below its other half. The bird, expecting its next blow to land on something solid, hit empty space. It tipped forward, hit the bridge face-first, and tumbled into the canyon.

Framed against a web of driftwood, Graphus teetered over the chasm yawning in the middle of the bridge. Staever doubled back. Graphus fell as he dove, fast enough for the thief to seize the governor’s claw.

Graphus gasped, “Let me fall.”

“I’m done letting people fall.” Staever strained under the governor’s weight.

Their half of the bridge dropped a pace. Without its brother structure to support it, it was driving its own lattice apart. Two sets of claws grasped Staever’s tail.

“Arcite, hold tighter!”

“You’re the one who holds things!”

“Listen to me,” Graphus said. “In a second the last of these struts will give way. When that happens, let me go.”

“Why?” Staever shouted back, though he knew. Something jammed under the sand as a stopgap support could buy them time to escape. Something unyielding. Like a lobster’s shell.

“For the Clearing,” Graphus’s grip on Staever’s claws slid toward nothing. “Because you would.”

“I wouldn’t.” Tears welled in Staever’s eyes. “I don’t want to die.”

A beam broke into two.

“Then do it!” Graphus cried. “The connection is broken! Let me go!”

Staever opened his claws.

Graphus fell a short distance to brace himself against the separating beams. Somewhere far away, Staever heard Arcite’s voice. “Wedging it won’t make a difference for long.”

Ahead of them, the clan poured onto the opposite ridge. They held claws, expecting to fall any second, but soon they were clear–though far away from the thieves.

Graphus, already dead, fell with the bridge. With a final shudder, Staever, Arcite, and Eventhe found themselves running on air. One fulcrum point remained. The bridge descended around it.

The Cuttlefish ran like never before. With every step, the grade became steeper. Paces from salvation, they had to use all their legs and claws to keep moving up the ramp. The broken middle of the bridge pointed at the canyon floor.

Arcite, in the lead, managed to roll onto the bedrock. Eventhe jumped, grasped rock with her claws, heaved herself up. Staever leapt after her.

He would fall short. The distance was too great. He was going to die. Done letting people fall, but you can’t fly, can you?

As his legs pinwheeled in zero gravity, Eventhe grasped his claws, Arcite rushed to help her, and the three of them tumbled together onto the safe plateau.

The clan covered their antennae against one final bonechilling shriek. Staever pictured the air demon, wings destroyed by Arcite’s bomb, eye swollen shut from Eventhe’s fists. Even if it would never rise again, the screech said, it got Graphus, and it would come for Staever too.

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The Passing of Emaria

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Lobsters limped out of the canyon into shallower valleys, where a cohort of soldiers kept them under watchful guard. Five governors appeared with the last civilians, disoriented and bruised, having been thrown bodily from the council flagship. The first bowed his head and shuffled forward.

“Speak,” Kragn said. “I want your word.”

Each councilman muttered allegiance. Magnam, never taking his weapon off Wrest, sent the ships and their soldiers ahead to tighten the hold over those already gone. Finally, Crane was left, leaning on another lobster.

“Who’s she?” Magnam growled. “We killed their bodyguards.”

“I watched,” said Emaria icily. She kept her claw under Crane’s thorax, helping him walk. The metal weapon burned in Wrest’s claws.

She met his eyes, but instead of horror, Wrest saw confidence. She thinks I’m here because I have a plan. Not because it’s two against one.

“How long have you been planning this?” The high governor hunched in pain.

“Since the first time you deferred my soldiers for ceremony. The first riot when we flocked to the Pupil and let the Whites and Iris burn. The first speech you made about the good of the city while the city decayed before your eyes.” Kragn’s face hardened. “You used the Eye as your personal pleasure dome. I’ve come to collect debts.”

Crane was pale. “We had to protect the people who kept order.”

“My men and I kept order. You’ve always been expendable.”

“Does the second coup in two months conserve the order?” Crane threw his cloak at the general’s feet. He passed to his other side, leaving Emaria alone.

“Deal with your friend, Wrest,” Kragn ordered.

Wrest swallowed. “Emaria, you’ve got to come.”

“I will die out here before I submit to you,” she told Kragn.

“You will address me as General, my lady.”

“I’m nobody’s lady. How do I know you didn’t just use your only shot?”

Kragn pulled the lever on his weapon’s main shaft. The lightning arc shot out, zigzagging up the canyon walls. At once the gnashing rumble resumed, making them all flinch.

“I wonder how close the fire that formed this place is to the surface?” Kragn asked. “How much rock I’d have to blow away to bring it down here?”

The rubble swallowed Emaria’s feet. Wrest put everything he could tell her on his face. Sea’s sake, run! I don’t have a plan!

“Make your choice,” Kragn training the weapon on Emaria.

“Don’t do this,” Wrest pleaded. “Save yourself.”

“If we let ourselves be threatened we’ll have come this far for nothing.”

“You’ll have come this far for nothing if you die!”

The wet earth carried a boulder the size of a lobster over the ridge, striking the ground behind Emaria.

“Em, say it!”

“I won’t!”

In Wrest’s place, Emaria would have thrown down the wand and taken the punishment. So would Staever. But they had nobody but each other.

Not so with him. Wier and Alta belonged to Kragn now. So did he.

“Emaria. You are under arrest.”

He pointed his weapon at her, covering her with his blade as well. He tried to show her he was thinking of her safety, but she did not return his gaze.

“It’s over, then?” She trudged past him with a nod to Kragn.

“Yes,” Wrest’s voice broke. “It’s over.”

“You are now in the custody of the Clearing Militia,” Kragn told her. “Walk.”

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Then Fall

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Staever was thirty strides from the earthworks. The demon flailed at the tower fifty paces above him. Something shiny fell out of a hole in the wall, bouncing clear of the hill.

It wouldn’t have been out of the sack if Arcite hadn’t meant to use it.

Fifteen paces. The free-falling conch swam toward him like something bewitched.

Ten. Five. One. He reached out, missed, knocked it away, then snatched it from the air.

The bird looked at him, and he blew.

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Eventhe struck a second post with a flick of her wrist. Arcite, dangling his satchel in front of him, dropped red clay at every contact point. The sack became dangerously light.

“Enough! Get to the door!” Arcite’s detonator was in his claw. “I’m going to set it off.”

Something blocked the light through the cracks in the wall.

A tremendous impact knocked Arcite on his side, rocking the entire structure. As Eventhe picked her way toward him, he motioned again at the exit.

Through it, he saw the tip of a great writhing wing.

“It is true,” Eventhe said breathlessly. “The body is resisting us.”

“What body?”

“That bird is not natural. This aerie has no reason to be here. I suspected a connection. I was right.”

“You’re saying–this nexus thing is the demon.”

He remembered the voice in his head. The carving from the clay temple, the creature of many forms, flashed into his mind.

The floor shuddered and tipped. The demon was pummeling the shrine with its body. Reaching out to steady himself, Arcite fumbled his conch. Before he could catch it, it bounced across the tilted floor toward the hole he’d blown in the wall. He dove for it, but wasn’t halfway to the door before it rolled over the cliff.

Eventhe was behind him. “We have to go!” As Arcite mourned, they scrambled into the open.

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!

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