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.

“Hello.”

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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Demolition

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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.

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Demonslayer

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The demon was smarter than Staever had given it credit for. Every swipe of its beak or talons pushed him nearer the eastern cliff. He could have run for the bridge, but the clan was still spread pell-mell across it.

“Everyone, remain still!” Graphus shouted. “Do not move! You’ll attract its attention.”

Grunting with frustration, Staever beat back another attack, nipping at the bird’s unguarded neck. Xander had made it onto the bridge, but Graphus was still urging on stragglers from behind.

The air demon’s shadow covered him. His heart jumped into his throat–too much motion at the bridge, not enough from him. Tail feathers brushed him as the demon took flight after the fleeing clan.

Staever threw Arcite’s shell-blade.

It bounced off the demon’s tail, but the thing turned around, planting its talons between Staever and the bridge.

“You want me to move?” he shouted. “I’ll move!”

This time the massive creature dropped its beak, Staever lunged for its legs. One heavy talon scratched his shell. Air whipping through the scratch stung like a lash, but he didn’t slow down until he’d passed under the bird.

It tied itself in knots trying to find how he’d vanished. He’d confused it, buying the clan time, but now he had to get back into its field of vision before it lost interest.

Something crunched inside the tower. The bird lifted its head, then launched itself up the earthwork, attacking the packed sand wall as Staever called after it in vain. “No! Not Ev and Arc! Keep fighting me!”

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Body and Bones

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“Over here! This way, bastard!”

Staever’s yells and clanging faded as Arcite and Eventhe hauled themselves onto a lip of dirt between the tower and slope. A square outline in the aerie well suggested part of the sand had once been a doorway.

“I do not suppose I need to ask you to blow that open?” Eventhe asked.

“I’ll do it sonically.” Arcite spread red clay along the base of the portal, then readied the conch detonator and shooed her to a safe distance. “Cover your ears. Also cover everything else.”

He blew the conch. The clay sparked, collapsing the buildup of sand jamming the door. Arcite dashed forward, but Eventhe pulled him back. “It may be unstable.”

“We’re combing the place, not moving in.”

“If a weapon to fight the demon exists, we must not bury it at the bottom of a gorge.”

She brushed past him. Three stories creaked around her, and she recoiled. “I suspect the hill we climbed was built after the tower, to hold it to the cliff.”

“Turner went half-assed in his old age like the rest of us.” They crossed the threshold together, keeping their footsteps light. The shrine floor snapped. “Where do we start?”

Outside, the demon shrieked. The room was bleak–decaying wooden pillars, stretching floor to ceiling, filled empty space. “Staever cannot have much longer. We must check the other floors.”

A solitary bit of decoration adorned the floor in front of Arcite: Turner’s mark, the tree, mountain, and river.

You are here.

Arcite froze. “Did you hear–”

“You are here,” Eventhe confirmed.

You are here. Here in my body. My body and my bones.

“Ev,” Arcite dug out pellets of clay, “didn’t you hear a voice in that temple Turner built?”

“Not like this.”

My bones are not yours. Not yours to touch.

“Could it be the demon? Talking to us?”

“There is a way to find out.” Fast enough to look unsettled, Eventhe tore out one of the wooden beams.

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Outmatched

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Xander’s clan took off for the southeast bridge, Xander at the head of the pack, while Graphus labored along at the back. Eventhe made for the slope. “Arcite, go with her!” Staever ordered.

“Wait!” Arcite drew his shell-blade and threw it at Staever’s feet. “This’ll slow me down. Kick its ass!”

The demon dug its talons into the plateau and beat its wings hard. Staever took up Arcite’s sword as the gust of wind threw him off his legs. Regaining his feet, clutching both blades, he spun the left in awkward circles. He’d never trained with two swords at once.

The bird slashed with one talon, then rebalanced on the other and bent low, snapping its beak. Staever circled, slicing with both blades to keep the monster away. If it screeched again he might go deaf.

The scraping of its beak on the ground sounded like a lighthouse collapsing in the Eye, sand breaking against sand. He rolled away from a peck an inch from his head, and jarred his graft against a rock, lancing him with pain. Shaking, he rose to hack at the beak.

His sword bounced off, shaking his whole body. While he quivered, trying to recover, the demon looked south, noticing the fleeing clan for the first time. It spread its wings.

“Don’t look there!” Staever rolled up and cut with both claws, jumping in and out of wing range. “Look at me!”

The sky demon turned his way.

He had an idea. When he fought, the bird was more focused on him than on the two lobsters climbing the hill behind it, or the feast rushing over the bridge. When he stood still, it couldn’t see him, but it could sense other, more distant motion.

Staever wasn’t powerless. He could lure it, tie it to the ground. So long as I keep swinging forever.

“Arcite! Eventhe!” he called at the top of his lungs, “I’ll keep it here for you!”

As he scampered away, rapping his blades together to draw the bird’s attention, Arcite gave the Cuttlefish sign of acknowledgement.

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Weapons Unleashed

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“Kragn,” Wrest said, “don’t be a fool. We need to get out of here.”

“My men have taken control of those ships, and can go wherever they want. What you need to do now is listen.”

The black shapes squatting on the canyon ridges were real, shouts and thuds echoing from them. I should have been buried alive.

Kragn thrust the metal rod towards him. “Do you know what this is, Lieutenant Wrest? Stealing my journal should have told you.”

“They’re your subjects. They’re for killing.”

“Thievery is an imprecise game. I’ll fill in the parts you missed. We captured these from manatees.”

Wrest gagged.

“Let us through!” someone shouted.

Other lobsters raised a cacophony, pushing against the general’s thin line. The woman carrying her father let him go, making sure he could stand before joining in.

Kragn raised a claw. A surly lobster with one claw lifted his metal wand and twisted an implement jutting from its base.

A jet of light leapt from the tip, lighting the cloud blue. It didn’t have far to travel. Anger turned to surprise on the young woman’s face. The next instant, as though engulfed by the dust, she was gone.

Like lightning. That old weather legend.

“There’s no limit to how many times I can do that,” Kragn said. “Nobody will pass without my approval.”

The walls showered them with pebbles. Some screamed, others shielded them, but nobody was brave enough to approach the general.

A dark hole formed inside Wrest. He should have killed Kragn, not pranced around stealing from him.

“I lead this expedition now,” the general said. “I revoke the powers of the thieves and will treat them as the criminals they are.”

Wrest managed to say, “We’ll see how that goes when Staever gets back.” Whether by the murderous staffs or the disintegrated bits of the canyon walls, the others were too scared to agree.

“If anyone objects, they may take their chances scaling the walls,” Kragn continued like he hadn’t heard.

As though on cue, a whole embankment shifted, dumping a raft of pebbles, burying lobsters to their thoraxes. More screams, and a sulphurous smell, as loved ones pulled each other clear. It occurred to Wrest that Emaria, at the back, might not know what was happening.

“This is pathetic,” said the gunner on the other side of Kragn: Shael.

“Cover your targets, Shael,” Kragn answered. “Give them time.”

“Time for what?” Shael burst out. “You told me you were going to give them a choice.”

“The choice is to submit or die. I’m not interested in bringing dissenters to the Clearing.”

The hole in Wrest’s gut grew. The Clearing. His failure would keep rolling until it ate up everything the Cuttlefish dreamed of.

“Shael, if you object to not being given the choice yourself, lay the wand down. In fact,” Kragn searched the row, “give your weapon to Lieutenant Wrest. He knows how to use it.”

“You can’t.” Wrest blurted, “I’ll never–”

Magnam pointed his staff at Wrest. Its tip crackled with blue sparks. Wrest’s mouth closed.

Kragn stepped close. “You stole from me. Be grateful the sentence is this light. I intend to be harsher on thieves than my predecessors.”

You stole from me, Wrest wanted to say. You invaded my memory, you broke my family, you took a year of my life.

“Wrest!” shouted a boy’s voice from high on the cliff. “Wrest, don’t do it!”

Wrest clenched his mouth, closed his eyes. Wier’s calls mixed with the screams in his head.

“Count of three,” Magnam said.

The battlefield mindset took over. A commanding officer had given him an order. He could only remain safe by obeying.

He walked forward. Shael whispered an apology, touching Wrest’s claw as he passed the weapon.

Kragn, Magnam, and Wrest covered the pass with the rods. The first lobsters submitted to Kragn’s will with a quick “yes,” hurrying forth to safety.

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Follow the Food

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“What happened?” Staever asked the old councilman. “Did Xander kidnap you?”

“Xander couldn’t kidnap me if he tried,” Graphus snorted. The young governor shrank back, seething. “I came of my own will. To keep the clan safe.”

“Bang-up job so far.” The councilman’s words rang in Staever’s ears: I expected the Cuttlefish to save you. He turned to face the clan. “If we’re all going to get out of here–”

“We left your command,” Xander snarled. “You can’t start giving orders.”

“Xander, the bird isn’t dead. If it gets up here again, nothing will make it happier than the sight of us standing in a clump, bickering.” Staever drew his shell-blade with a rasp of bone on reed. “I need you all to do exactly as I tell you.”

He turned three-sixty to buy time. The north corner of the plateau rose higher than the rest, with one side of the nexus shrine facing out from a steep hill, its highest story poking above the mound. The rest of the area was as stony, flat, and sunbaked as the canyon floor. “I’ll distract it. Arcite and Eventhe will try and kill it.”

“We will climb,” Eventhe announced. “Something in the nexus may be of use.”

She sounded less than hopeful, but Staever agreed. It was the only place offering a chance to improvise. “‘Climb to the sea or descend to the sea, you will return ever to its guard,’” he told her. “The rest of you, wait for my signal, then head for the southeast bridge.”

There was some murmuring, not least from Arcite. “It’s going to follow the food.”

A screech split Staever’s head. The bird, wide wings beating, rose above the plateau to survey the victims corralled in its nest.

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.