Before sunrise, three hunters paced through a v-shaped valley. As Nodens, the wiry lobster on point, stowed his bow to climb through a gash dug into the great rocks, a white cloud rose from the bottom of the gap. Before the hunters could move, it had rolled over them.
“I don’t like this,” said Nodens. “Eryle! Can you hear me?”
“I can hear you fine. I can’t see you.”
“Perfect.” Nodens fidgeted with his bow. “How are we supposed to track game?”
“Your finely honed listening skills?” Arcite suggested.
“Nobody asked you,” Eryle said.
“Tighten the crescent and keep moving,” Nodens ordered. “Nobody more than three steps from anyone else. We have no idea what’s out here.”
“Rocks.” Arcite clambered through the gash. “Things that aren’t rocks.”
Eryle blocked his way. “If you saw what the army’s been killing every night, you wouldn’t be mouthing off.”
“They’ve been killing beetles. They’re scared enough to mistake them for demons.”
“You two.” Nodens reappeared. “Did I or didn’t I say keep moving?”
The fog settled over the rubbish heap of stone. The cliff faces receded on both sides as they walked. Somewhere, insects dug through the cracks to snatch at shreds of plants. Arcite walked behind Nodens, goggles pushed low over his face, trusty satchel hanging at his abdomen.
“Does anybody else feel–”
“Keep your damn voice down,” Nodens hissed. “Feel what?”
“Like you’re in a watering pool?”
Arcite shrugged off the cloak he was wrapped in. The cold bit into him, but the sensation of drinking intensified. “Try it,” he said, then pulled the cloak back over him, huddling close to stop shaking. His breath crystallized amid the larger cloud.
Eryle loosened her clothes as well, though Nodens glared at her. “It can’t be water. I know what water is.”
“We all thought we knew about the Expanse, too,” Arcite said. “Where’s the danger so far?”
Nodens counted on his legs. “Thirst, falling rocks, cliffs, wind, this stuff, and traitors.” He brandished his empty bow at Arcite. “Don’t drink it, Eryle.”
Eryle scowled. “You’re on point, Nodens, you’re not my boss. You don’t even head your clan.”
“You just said we’re all dying of thirst,” Arcite said. “Now we have a water source, and you’d rather dry out than agree with me?”
“I’d rather dry out than suffer whatever this cloud has in store. Pissing you off is a bonus. Move out, and shut up.”
It was all inevitable. Inevitable his secret would get out, inevitable nobody would listen to his side, inevitable that idiots like Nodens would blame him for destroying the city. He could have been more careful–could have run for the hills when he heard the Militia had taken Field prisoners, or better yet, tossed a big wad of red clay into the stockade and watched it burn.
“It would have been better,” he said, remembering the inside of the guarded pavilion, where Morgan and the others had cut their own throats with smuggled shell-blades. “Cleaner. Less fuss. No bad dreams.”
Maybe the valley could send a cloud of sludge next.
Small legs skittered up the precipice to his right. He wiped clean his goggles and made out a shadow, perched on a thin path along the rock. Not believing his luck–he’d never seen a beetle this large around the Eye–he reached into the satchel.
“I hear them,” Nodens whispered through the fog. “Bows ready.”
He and Eryle stretched their strings taut, but Arcite was faster. He struck a pellet of red clay with the flint in his other claw, and held it aloft for them to see.
“Arcite!” Eryle shouted. “Don’t do it!”
They didn’t understand anything. The Field banned clay because it scared them, and the Eye abused it because it pleased them. Nobody saw what Arcite saw.
Not yet, anyway.
He flung the pellet at the cliff. It struck home with a thunderous crack. Smoke poured off the precipice, twisting around the fog.
Wiping his goggles again revealed the beetle lying before him, shattered in several places. Whooping and pumping his claws in the air, he picked up his prize and turned around, coming face-to-face with Nodens. Grinning, Arcite held out his catch.
“You’ve scared away all the other game,” Nodens said. “Is this what you think hunting is?”
“Well–but–” As usual, words failed him at the worst time.
“Get back to camp.” Nodens turned his back. “We’ll finish on our own.”
“Not a bad dinner for a traitor.” The hunter gestured over the scree field toward the crag they’d entered through. “Drag it back. Find a way.”
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