With that, loyal readers, the tale of Staever and the Clearing has reached the end of the first of its three acts. Join us next Wednesday for the beginning of our hero’s trials on the Forbidden Expanse. Blessings of the sea until then!
Now for the hard part. Staever regretted storming off before taking a drink from the burst canals. Thousands of lobsters shouted his name, and he was too dry to shout back.
He wanted to limp to the sea and throw up, dig a cave, hide. But he’d given up those luxuries by appearing on the bluff.
“Listen closely!” he shouted, and quiet rippled across the camp. “We will be traveling a road nobody’s taken for hundreds of years. The journey will be long, and dangerous. We can’t afford to discount any legends about the Forbidden Expanse, not air demons, not the South Wall–” he touched the roll of paper through his satchel “–not even weather.”
“Though they could also be totally unfounded!” Staever pinched himself as Emaria took a place at the shells. Scaring them would squander a lot of precarious goodwill. “The council wouldn’t want us to know about an alternative to living under their claws. We know the Pupil-dwellers rewrote their own histories. They could have rewritten the Expanse.”
How sure are we they weren’t afraid of it too? The crowd booed the council at the right moment. He couldn’t waste what Emaria had given him.
“I’ll be navigating, so under no circumstances is anyone to take any path unless I’ve decided it’s safe. The most important thing is not to take risks, and to stay together.”
He stopped to take a breath, using it as cover to make sure they were listening. They were.
“Everybody fall in with your families and their families. Each clan is responsible for its members, and clans will remain together at all times. Those without families, or with fewer than five relatives accounted for, fall in with a larger group. No, no, not yet!” he interjected as lobsters started to mill about, chattering and shouting for their loved ones. “Wait until tomorrow. You have all night to find them.”
That pacified the shufflers, at least in the front quarter of the crowd. “I expect every able-bodied adult to hunt insects. The land’s been undisturbed for hundreds of years, so we should be able to pick off whole herds.” Emaria smiled at him, and strength flared up within him. “Water…we will find along the way. The sea’s never far away. Even in the mountains, it will provide.”
The priests cheered, but nobody else did. Too late, Staever remembered how many of them thought the Greater Mirror, the sea, was now an enemy or a tool of one. Soon, they would hear about the capabilities of manatee coral, but tonight they could trust the ocean to provide nothing but misery and death.
They may not have been wrong. Staever had little enough faith in his own plan. For the love of the sea, he was trusting Cyprus with their lives.
“Any threats, or lost walkers, fall to me and my gang: Wrest, Emaria, Arcite, Eventhe.” He pointed to each of them. “You’re scared, you’re confused, find one of us.”
A conch note in the front caught his attention. Lash was with one of the other thieves from the market, catching his breath from the alarm. He waved his claw feebly, while the other shouted, “Behind you! Xander’s coming!”
Would’ve appreciated that warning a few days ago.
Xander’s three dozen trapped them on the ridge, cutting Kragn’s weary force off both ends. The governor himself advanced toward the line of megaphones.
Before Staever could jump the slope, one of the police twisted his claws behind his back. Another lobster did the same to Emaria, while two got the drop on Wrest. Staever’s blade slipped from his belt. Arcite fumbled for a ball of clay, but Xander himself put a sword to his throat. “By the way,” he said, “we know.”
“Kill us,” Emaria said. “Let them watch you do it.”
A sharp crack punctuated her words as Eventhe slammed two Guards’ heads together. She let out a cry and ran at Xander, three steps from tearing his head off.
Around the second step, Xander pressed the blade deeper into Arcite’s neck. The bomber’s eyes rolled in his head, meeting hers, not scared but uncomprehending. Eventhe faltered midstep. Nobody went near her.
Xander dragged Arcite to an amplifier. “As commander of the council Guard, I place these five lobsters under arrest for conspiracy, treason, espionage, piracy, and theft of a ship. Throw them in the dungeons.”
A guard beside Xander said, “We don’t have dungeons anymore, sir.”
“Just–take them away!”
“Stay where you are,” said a voice from the end of the ridge. Wrest held both claws to his eyes and breathed deep.
Xander looked around.
The remains of Kragn’s army were squeezing the Cuttlefish, the governors, and Xander’s police between two advancing lines. Kragn himself strolled behind the seaward front as though pitting the Eye Militia against its own civilian security was a move he’d practiced countless times.
“Orders?” The guard beside Xander didn’t know where to point his blade.
“Split evenly and engage!” Two of the governors hurled themselves down the back of the hill, scrambling into the dark.
At each end of the bluff, swords clashed: a fresh, small group of elite council Guard against a tired and battered Militia with overwhelming numbers. Anyone’s fight. Police and soldiers tumbled down into the crowd. Whenever a Militiaman fell, some lobsters of the Eye gathered to shield them.
“Form up around me!” Xander ordered, still clinging to Arcite. “How many dead?”
“No dead, sir. Eleven prisoners.” His captain backed up to him.
“Prisoners? I hired you to fight.”
“We can’t fight the militia! You hired us from the militia!”
The guard holding Staever was trying to join the fight now, searching for a replacement to keep his prisoner under control. Staever struck him in the face, then lunged for his sword, pulling it free. He struck with the flat of the blade and sent the policeman over the edge.
Right next to him, Wrest stopped a sword with his claw, then another. Staever knew the look on his face. Best to leave him alone until things resolved. “Em?”
“Over here, with Eventhe.” He couldn’t see her. “Get Xander before he does anything stupid.”
“Anything else, you mean?”
Xander slung Arcite around like a dead insect, bellowing a new order into the conches every few seconds. Kragn passed through his army, most of whom were corralling prisoners. He lifted Arcite away from Xander, carried him to Staever, and laid him down. Arcite scuttled to hide behind Wrest.
“Staever,” Kragn said into a megaphone, “the Eye Militia would be honored to protect you on your way to the Clearing.”
The battle was over. Staever noticed all eyes were back on him. How could he not accept? It was a golden opportunity to abdicate responsibility: put the exodus in Kragn’s claws, stay on as a figurehead, give the expedition a leader that knew what he was doing.
Only Wrest, standing at Staever’s tail, gave him pause. The fire in his eyes from the fight had died.
He asked, “Could I have a minute to talk it over with my second?”
Kragn nodded, and caught Wrest’s eye. “Lieutenant Wrest.”
“General,” Wrest mumbled back, and dragged Staever off to a corner of the ridge.
“We need him,” Staever began. “I know you don’t like him–”
“Don’t like him, be damned. It’s what he can make people do that scares the piss out of me. What he made me do.”
“He’ll only have the power we give him,” Staever hissed. “We need him.”
“That’s too much power already.”
“Our list of assets on the Expanse is damn thin without an army.”
“You said yourself the whole Forbidden Expanse thing could be a lie.” Wrest watched Crane and Xander stand rigidly in the light from the soldier’s torches.
“That was Em, not me. Also, if we say yes, we can have him in eyeshot the whole way. Send him off into the desert, he’s liable to turn rogue.”
This threw Wrest. “If I can’t stop you,” said the big lobster, “you’d better be serious about it.”
“What do you mean?”
“Make Kragn fire his colonels. Or tell them all to meet with you every hightide. Put the army under your claw.”
If anybody tried to put him in command of anything else before midnight, Staever would slap all hundred thousand lobsters in turn.
“The only way this is going to work is if you’re in charge,” Wrest said. “Fine, it’s irrational. Rationality falls apart against the enemy anyway.”
The governors who had thrown themselves off the embankment had sheepishly returned. Crane and Graphus stood with them. Emaria was at the conches trying to pacify the confused crowd, while Arcite and Eventhe were avoiding each other, again. Kragn watched him and Wrest in polite silence.
“With conditions,” he said to the crowd, “we may accept Kragn’s offer.”
Kragn nodded. The Militiamen raised a cheer.
“Back to business,” Staever said. The logistics of moving thousands of lobsters across a continent grew more intimidating the darker it became. “All crab-sleds and vessels are now public property.”
The wealthy lobsters raised an uproar. He waited for it to die.
“All other possessions are still property of their owners, but we need those vehicles to carry the sick, the young, and the elderly. And yes, you’re all sick. That’s why we’re going. But I need you to ride only if you absolutely can’t walk.”
He had to leave it there, trusting the Pupil-dwellers to see the wisdom of his plan. If not, they could squeeze their ships through the mountain crags without his help.
“Tonight we organize into clans and find who needs to ride. We’ll leave at first light.” I can’t just say good night. They need to hear something else. “I know this seems scary. Dangerous. A bit ill-advised.” Emaria gave her familiar shut-up signal. “But imagine what’s waiting. Enough water for everyone for the first time in our lives.” He swallowed. “When we wake up tomorrow we’ll head through those mountains, into the highlands and down to the southern sea. If you come along…I can promise you a home.”
The crowd roared. Weary, dehydrated lobsters began chanting while he contemplated the magnitude of his lie. He couldn’t promise them anything, not even a swift death by air demon.
He looked back at his gang. At Wrest, asking Arcite what Xander meant by we know, at Emaria talking to a librarian and Eventhe retreating in the shadows. He could promise them one thing: every effort five thieves could make.
Crane approached, untying the cords of his elaborate cloak. “Take this. Save my city, if you can do better than us.”
“Keep it,” Staever replied. “It’s not wilderness gear.”
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The canals ran dry before the afternoon was out. The lobsters filled every vessel they could, bathing themselves and scooping up more, but the channel weakened until nothing remained of the Eye but wet sand.
The sun was setting over the eastern sea by the time the council reappeared. North of the berm that kept the sea from spilling over was a bluff with a broad edge facing south. The governors made it their stage to address the people on the plain. Behind them, the Star Moon threw silver over the sand.
Though scripture decreed it, few people wished to send their loved ones back to the sea. It had lost its power, after all. Had been enslaved by the manatees, then sheltered them. The lobsters in camp mourned not only for their city, but for their ocean.
Instead of rafts, the monks helped them build pyres–rafts that would never touch water, bearing family members and friends killed by rocks and spears and the waterfall. As priests set the pyres alight, they formed a fleet of flames stretching for miles. The bodies would break down in the smoke and become part of the sky. The Lesser Mirror would rebuild the soul.
People accepted this. The sky had done nothing wrong. By the time Xander approached Crane, enough rafts burned to turn twilight into day.
“It’s time,” Xander said. The high governor straightened his pearl-encrusted cloak and stepped to the edge of the bluff. Servants had set up a row of conches so each would amplify the sound of the next, filling the sky with Crane’s voice. They placed several more of these apparatuses along the ridge for the other governors. Kragn and his colonels stood apart, with the remaining army massed near them. They surrounded the Field children.
“Lobsters of the Eye.” Crane checked for a reaction in the back of the camp to ensure he was being heard. The volume startled him. “Today’s attack came suddenly and without warning. We had no choice but to evacuate.”
Someone shouted back at him, amplified. “You could have fought. You could have paid them off with all the money in your star-cursed tower.”
Crane coughed. If he did not finish quickly, he would fill the pauses by staring at the lump of wet sand he’d ruled that morning. He might beg the crowd to kill him.
“We of the council are certain the manatees arrived to render aid against the invaders. That they had to destroy our city in order to cleanse the rebels is regrettable.”
“I’ve lost everything!” burst out a lobster at the front, guarding his family as though Crane might leap at them with a spear. “Everything but my wife and child. How’s that for regrettable?”
“Haven’t I lost everything as well?” Xander started towards another megaphone. Crane covered his mouth so the conches wouldn’t pick up his groan. “Isn’t my home in the Pupil gone, like yours in the Whites?”
“Iris,” shouted the agitator. “I owned a roadbuilding company. And your home may be gone, but whose are they gonna rebuild first?”
“Silence!” Xander had his police at the bottom of the hill, a few dozen lobsters he’d held back from the fighting. They advanced, menacing the crowd, but nobody moved a step.
“Go ahead and threaten me, Xander,” the roadbuilder said, “and buy your way to the top–again–if you want, but I’m taking my chances out here.” The lobsters around murmured their assent.
“Take your chances?” Crane felt hollow. What did they mean to do? There was no life without the Eye.
He’d lost the crowd. Someone was approaching the empty spot in the ranks of the council, followed by four other figures.
“Staever!” someone shouted.
Crane cringed, mind clouding with hatred, claws clenched. Standing side by side with the governors was the thief he’d sentenced to death and the four who had stormed in to rescue him.
“My men have a clear shot,” Xander whispered.
“Give the order, and they’ll tear you apart.”
The first shout set off others. The Iris and Whites cheered for Staever, gaining strength as new parts of the crowd picked it up. The rich piled atop their sleds and vessels for a better look.
The high governor’s head swam. It could not be true, yet it was–they’d lost. His council was a sink for blame. Staever had become a hero by no political maneuver more complex than lying down to die in public.
“Let me explain what chance we’re planning to take.” Staever walked up to the conch megaphones that should have been Graphus’s. From the pocket of his cloak he produced the battered metal key from his petition. Crane had hoped it had washed away.
“We will not rebuild the Eye,” he told the governors, making sure the conches carried his voice. He turned away from Crane, facing out to the refugees. “There’s another option. If you’ve heard of me, you know it. If you’ve heard of it, you’ll never settle for the Eye again.” He held the key aloft. “Anyone who wants to stay can stay. I’m going to the Clearing.”
Hundreds in the camp knew the story. When their children, their cousins, their friends asked them what Staever was on about, or who Staever was, they told the news as best they could: an ancient city, lost but now purified, existed where water was plentiful and everyone could live in harmony. The children and cousins looked at the ruins of the Eye, at the governors arguing amongst themselves, at the thieves, standing like sentinel stones.
“I’ll go,” said the one at the back of the plain with her own conch, and the dam broke.
The thousands of voices mingled, became hazy and indistinct. Every lobster assenting–“I’ll come,” “I’ll go with you,” “Me too!”–turned toward the Forbidden Expanse, its mountains jagged shadows cut out of the stars. By the time the moon had climbed another degree, Crane could no longer tell if a single lobster had not agreed to follow Staever.
“Stop this!” he bawled. “The council rules here!”
Graphus strode across the hill, tapping his staff as he walked. Xander’s guards struck torches and loosened blades. Graphus raised the staff, and broke it on the ground.
Crane jerked. “This is treason.”
“You made yourself my enemy. Is it treason to take the other side?” Graphus spoke into the conches. “These people need a leader, and it’s not going to be the seven who ran them into the ground. I’m going with Staever.”
“With Staever!” a stevedore shouted back. The phrase echoed through the crowd–With Staever! With Staever!–while Crane shrank away.
So be it. He feared the mob if Staever and his friends died, but not as much as he feared the world that would come if they lived. He caught Xander’s eye, counted and recounted the three dozen police on the bluff.
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Staever felt heavy as a brick, empty of emotion, and perhaps Emaria could tell. He sighed. “What now?”
“You must subvert the council, while they’re as confused as everyone else,” Graphus said. “You’ll need their power to avoid another Eye.”
He spoke as though the manatees had been a phase in his plan. Something else dawned on Staever. Bring them three at a time if you have to.
Staever climbed a dune, facing the plain where the lobsters gathered. He could see and smell enough refugees to know how many lobsters a hundred thousand meant. They sat with their families, gathering driftwood or breaking sleds to build burial rafts. Staever made a note to send runners to tell them not to do that. They would need the sleds.
“All of them,” he called down to Graphus. “We’d have to take all of them to the Clearing. It can’t be done.”
“They’ll build the same dry city as before, while they die in the open. Thirst. Wind. Bandits. Another Eye would end life on this continent.”
“How are we going to water them all?” Staever hopped down. “What about food for when there’s no water? What about shelter?”
“What about the Forbidden Expanse?” Wrest put in.
“I keep saying it wouldn’t get that name accidentally,” Staever agreed, “and–Graphus–will you quit saying you? How is any of this up to me?”
Over the dunes, a hundred thousand dumbstruck lobsters murmured a low rumble. Graphus stared at Staever, Emaria at Graphus, and Wrest at everyone. Wier and Alta couldn’t take their eyes off the ruined Eye.
“You have to lead them,” Graphus said, though his tone was dark, strangely apprehensive.
“A condemned glass thief with bad luck?” Taiga and Graphus’s words pounded inside of Staever’s skull. “Wrest commanded a platoon. You ran a city, as best you could. Half the crowd would be more qualified.”
“Did they criticize the council to their faces? Did they go under the axe for it? Who else could start a riot like you did?”
“I didn’t start that riot. We did, with the petition, and by showing the key around…”
“…which was your idea,” Emaria finished, addressing Graphus.
The governor bowed his head. “Staever, there’s something I have to tell you.”
Staever, Wrest, and Emaria moved together without meaning to.
“When I recognized you at council, I knew you were in trouble. You were unmasked, using your real names, and your proposal was too audacious for Crane to ignore. Not only would he never agree, he would order you dealt with, especially if Xander had his say.”
“I wanted them to trust us…” Emaria lapsed into silence. Something empty was starting to grip Staever.
“I went out my study window, chased after you, and set up that scene in the garden. Then I called you all to Foerhant’s lighthouse.”
“You sent us on a mission,” Staever said. “To get power from the people, instead of the council.”
“I sent you to spread your message…and so Xander’s guards would find you.”
Everything slid into place.
“You set me up!” Staever lunged at Graphus’s throat, claws outstretched. Wrest held him back with a vice grip.
“To be a hero, a rallying point!” Graphus pleaded. “To raise the Whites to your cause. I never planned for you to come so close to the axe.”
“What did you expect?” Staever snarled as Wrest tightened his grasp. “Crane would rap me on the head and tell me not to do it again?”
“I expected what happened. The Cuttlefish came to save you.”
It was the wrong thing to say. Staever growled, scraping his throat hoarse. As his friend made another monumental bid to strangle Graphus, Wrest lifted Staever’s legs off the sand, leaving him on his back against Wrest’s bulk.
“You put me in danger!” he shouted. “You put my gang in danger! All five of us could have died in the coliseum, but who cares? You’d have your riot either way!”
The weight of Taiga’s death, of the Field and the manatees, fueled his rage, until he was no longer even speaking words. Graphus didn’t lift a claw to defend himself. At long last he went quiet, the flame of passion burning itself out.
Wrest laid him back on the ground. Staever found something had replaced his lust for violence, something cold and personal. “Your plan worked, but you made one mistake,” he told Graphus. “I’m the hero, you’re right. The people will follow me. Not you. I’ll take every damn one of them to the Clearing. And nobody–ever again–will manipulate me.”
He spun and walked back up the dune, motioning for Wrest and Emaria to follow. They did so mutely. Alta and Wier went with them. Graphus went to the crabs, but, haunted by the memory of his whip, they shied away.
“You’re right,” he said, “Never again.” Except for one last time. His lie, in the end, did not matter as much as telling the truth at the right time.
The runaway sled lay upside-down, far from where the soldiers were building tents. Five lobsters surrounded it: two small, one large, one aged and murmuring to the sled’s crabs, one sleeping against the board.
Emaria ran toward them. Alta bounded into her arms, followed by Wier. She hugged them both close, then turned to their older brother and clasped him as well, making sure he was real. “What happened in there? How did you escape?”
“I don’t remember a lot of the last part,” Wrest admitted. “And not all of us escaped. We ran into Gattick.”
“Then who…?” Emaria knelt by the sleeping lobster. Staever was out cold, but breathing. The aged lobster must have been Taiga–but didn’t have the old thief’s face.
Emaria bowed hurriedly, but Graphus waved her off. “My scepter’s in there someplace.” He pointed to the soup of flotsam. “If I find it, then you can bow.”
“If you’re here, gov–Graphus–where’s Taiga?”
Graphus pointed silently at the new channel.
Grief for her home wormed in through the hole Taiga ripped. Little losses came first, like the cool of the library’s deep stacks, the cart that sold crayfish jerky from an Iris kelp garden. Then the great ones. The faces of her youth, her first life, annihilated. The Eye would be flowing away from her forever.
“Taiga didn’t die in vain,” Graphus said. “There’s something else…”
Wrest help up the key. Touching it restored a bit of her sensation. “You must have taken it–”
“–from Gattick’s corpse, yeah,” Wrest said.
A muffled groan came from the sled. Wrest went over to shake Staever. “You awake?”
“I was having a nice dream,” Staever mumbled. “Sailing in the sky on a boat made of glass…why’d you wake me up?”
His question died in his mouth as Emaria swept him into a long hug. “Wow,” he said when they broke apart. “Guess I should jump ship more often.”
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Eventhe stayed. She’d dreamed for years of the moment when the Eye would suffer for its sins–but not like this. Sometimes when she couldn’t meditate, she would picture the miners who lolled outside her door taking up their picks and giving them to their Pupil landlords, who would work to death in their own mines. She’d never wanted this.
She would wait at the other end of the sandbar, away from the refugees, Arcite and Emaria and everyone else. No use going farther; she hid in deserts. The whole world was desert now.
The ones with the swords, could have been Staever and Wrest, but she couldn’t be sure until she got close–and wouldn’t be able to rest if she did not.
Kragn ordered the Militia to pile sand to keep the new channel from leaking into the camp. Scaling this berm, Emaria saw the river bubbling up from below as the sea washed away a whole slice of desert. Lobsters had dug tunnels under the sand to bring the ocean. The ocean planned to take the wells back.
There were legends about destruction like this: heroes who leveled evil mountains and cast dark islands back into the sea. But they never ravaged cities. There was no freedom in the Eye’s imagining for the death of a city. If Emaria had read the whole library, she would have lacked words for this.
Something in the water caught her eye: a glowing shape, smaller than her head, was bobbing against a chunk of wall embedded in a sandbar.
If she stretched out her claw, she could reach it. She lifted it out, letting it drip dry. It was a piece of coral–a manatee’s backup engine, dropped from the hovercraft during its first sharp turn. She pocketed it. She might use it later to put up a shelter.
Eventhe and Arcite came up while she fished out the coral. Arcite stalked a few paces ahead. Emaria couldn’t blame him for not talking–he’d lost two worlds in one stroke. How could any of them relate?
Two worlds. The Pupil no longer stood. I’ve lost both of mine as well.
“This whole thing is too damn convenient.” Arcite said suddenly, pacing in a circle. “So nobody wants to know why the manatees came. Doesn’t matter though, so long as the Field is gone, right?”
He caught sight of Emaria and Eventhe nearby, and snapped, “Leave me alone!”
“Go to the sled,” Eventhe told Emaria. “There is nothing we can do.”
Out of alternatives, Emaria went.
The sled jumped the broken bridge, went airborne, splintered as it hit the ground. The children shouted. The impact jarred Staever’s skeleton, the scorch of air whistling through cracks in his bones. His graft was working its way loose.
Curtains of water obliterated the Iris, spraying the passengers. Graphus no longer steered, just hung from the reins for support. The waterfall paces behind them, they careened onto the battlefield.
The Field was drowning in mud. A woman, armor torn, rose from a pile of sand and bodies and swiped her spear at them. Wrest dove forward, sheltering his brother and sister. Staever struck with his blade, wrapping his other claw around the crab’s neck.
The children were screaming about a river, but a spear blow came at him before he could look. Another two rebels emerged from the right and Wrest attacked them with all the strength he had left. Graphus jerked a rein, sliced the crabs away from them. Water licking the back of the sled swallowed the rebels.
Wrest lifted Alta onto his back, and Wier clambered up behind, escaping the river. The crabs dug their legs into a sandbar, heaved the sled onto dry ground, and dropped where they stood.
Staever rolled off, too disoriented to move, sword limp by his side. The cool waters of a lake lapped at his tail.
Emaria, Arcite, and Eventhe took cover behind a wall of abandoned carts, concealed from all their pursuers. “All right, Emaria,” Arcite panted. “Ready to tell us what we ran from?”
Emaria stared at the Eye as though the clash of armies was mere distraction. “Look at the city.”
The watercraft poured itself over the slopes. Sheets of ocean soaked the towers and alleys, drenching the sand into slurry. Parapets leaned. The heavier towers drove themselves apart with their own weight, clogging the streets as the cityscape liquefied.
“It’s a manatee assault hovercraft.” Emaria spoke flatly. “A pure engine of war. The strongest force they can muster.”
“We have seen nothing of them for years.” Eventhe asked. “Why have they come?”
“They could be here to rescue the Eye. However they can.”
“You might be right,” Arcite said. “They’re coming back this way.”
The Pupil was swallowed by the horizon when the manatees, split from their craft in a sphere of water each, fanned out over the advancing rebel line. One poured a waterfall at a lamphouse on the Eye’s north fringe. It slid from the hill and collapsed, burying a band of fighters.
The smaller hovercrafts kept pounding the Field while half backed off to keep washing away the city.
“They’re fighting for the Eye!” Arcite’s expression entreated Emaria and Eventhe for explanation. “Why are they doing that?”
“I don’t know,” Emaria said.
“Like sea you don’t!” Arcite seized and shook her until Eventhe pulled him back. “This is all in your scrolls. I know people out there. There are children. Tell me what to do!”
She closed up, shut her mind away. Staever and Wrest, Alta and Wier, might be hiding in Staever’s warehouse hovel, suffocating under wet sand.
Staever, Wrest, Graphus, Alta, and Wier stuck to the Iris, passing empty craft shops with shell cobbled into the walls. Staever clung bareback to one of the crabs–the sled had only proven large enough for Graphus and the siblings. He went airborne every time they jumped a step.
He couldn’t look away from the ruins. With its squares empty, its spiral towers broken off at their midsections, the Eye looked three times the horror it had been. Nausea pushed up through his throat.
On a north-sloping road, he heard the clash of swords and the clatter of skeleton against skeleton. Graphus pulled to a halt.
“The counterattack.” Wrest jumped off the sled and scampered up to a balcony for a better view.
“Do you see a way through?” Graphus asked.
Wrest shook his head. Staever gulped mouthfuls of air, but the ground refused to stop spinning.
“I need the full picture.” Wrest took his place between Weir and Alta, who looked as though their claws would need to be pried off the raft. “The only big enough gap is the highway. Can we get there?”
“Left, right, left, right.” Staever sketched the alleys in the air. “Bit of a squeeze in this thing, but possible. Is the way clear?”
“If it’s not, we’ll hide until it is,” said Graphus. Staever clambered onto the other crab, hoping for a smoother ride.
The northern road was empty when the sled arrived, so Wrest called another halt, hitting the ground before they stopped. Staever tiptoed after him, expecting to find the Field still cramming the lower end. But everyone but them had reached the desert. He could see the Eye and Field in spaces framed by the market bridges.
“Sea preserve us,” he said.
It was a slaughter, not a battle, and he couldn’t tell who was dying. The Field’s desert armor rendered them invisible, so the Eye Militia swung their swords at a malevolent wind, dying by paces. Survivors massed awfully close to the sea of civilians, who were hiding behind the wagons and ships they’d escaped with.
Wrest gestured movements for both sides. “We give them a wide berth. Cut left, toward the sea. Watch for an opening to slip back into the crowd.”
“Or we could wait for somebody to win,” Staever said.
Wrest and Graphus both looked askance at him. “What do you mean?” Wrest asked.
“The Field isn’t here for killing, and they don’t want hostages. They want to break us, to ensure we’ll never start anything again. We’re not soldiers. We stand a chance of getting out.” They could hide their swords before talking to anybody from the Field, then drop to their bellies and beg. With the Field in charge and the council deposed, he and his friends could walk free, and pick up the pieces of his shattered thieving operation.
“How will they ensure that without a statement?” Graphus gazed down at the battle. “Did you forget who you’re travelling with? I’m important enough to threaten all of us.”
“Plus we can’t stay here.” Wrest wrenched his eyes from the fight. “Kragn is most dangerous when he’s cornered, and he sure as sea is cornered down there. The Field could retreat. Or shoot boulders at the north arc this time.”
The children watched them from the sled. “They’re in stalemate,” Staever said. “We’ve got time.”
“Not much. The sun is already…” Wrest broke off. “That can’t be right. It’s afternoon.”
Alta pointed through the skyline. “Something’s blocking out the sun.”
Staever could still see the sun, but as glittering points of light scattering over the surface of an object in front of it. The thing was a perfectly smooth ellipse, large enough for its shadow to spill over the desert. It hung above the sea, and as he watched, grew larger, closer.
“What’s going on?” Wier tugged at his cloak. “The sea’s flying?”
“No,” Staever told him. “Something’s flying it.”
The ellipse hovered closer, revealing rows of dark shapes within: lacking claws or limbs, but alive. Nausea hit Staever again. He searched for scripture, but none came. Priests had never imagined the sea, creator of life, could be yoked and harnessed.
The craft contorted as it banked south, its long side and its pilots facing the five on the Eye hill.
“In all my days,” Graphus said, “Nothing has made me wonder like this.”
“It’s the Field!” shouted Wier. “They have some other new weapon.”
“What makes you think it’s a weapon?” Wrest said. “It’s not armed.”
“If it’s not the Field, is it someone here to save us?” Alta asked.
“Perhaps,” Graphus told her, “though whatever the reason, we may not be standing in the best place.”
The sun passed through the edge of the watery ellipse and shone on their faces.
“It’s going to pass us,” Wrest said.
“No it isn’t.” The sun was hot in Staever’s eyes. “It won’t. It’s here for us. It took the sea and it’s here for us.”
The watercraft slid to a halt. One of the pilots touched an object that glowed yellow. Orbs of water fell from the craft, probes shot into the Eye.
The drops hit a market bridge, staining it dark. The bridge warped, sagged, and collapsed in a heap.
What makes you think it’s a weapon? Wrest asked in Staever’s head. Easy, he answered. They have a waterfall. We have sand.
“We’ve got to go, now!” Staever jumped back onto the crab.
“Into the battle?” Wrest climbed onto the sled, and Wier and Alta huddled close to him. “You wanted to wait.”
The watercraft came to a stop again, this time over the Pupil, revealing the pilots: creatures without exoskeletons, with shapeless grey bodies.
“Manatees,” Graphus said.
Then those glowing things are coral. Every manatee now worked his tools. Grazing the top of the Pupil tower, the craft contorted for the last time, shedding its elliptical shape.
The sea roared out, a cascade like ten canals bursting their banks, drenching the Pupil tower, staining the gold-brown walls. The gardens sagged. Sand engulfed the rainbow kelp. Arches drooped, and seconds later, the grand edifice leaned, like a broken landship blade.
“Drive!” Staever shouted at Graphus. He and Wrest drew swords, Wrest enfolding Alta and Wier with the other arm. Graphus snapped the reins.
“Whatever happens, keep going!” Staever clug to his crab as they tore down the slope. “For the love of the sea, do not stop!”