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The highlands rolled into a black ribbon of blasted land, where magma had long ago cooled and cracked into a labyrinth of narrow passages. The rough ground was such a dark grey it looked like it was eating the sunlight. On the weather map, a dark-colored route wound to the plains through this maze–the only place Cyprus had marked one, making Emaria, who hadn’t planned on taking direction from Staever’s dead father, reluctant to let anyone step wrong. The rain-path over the canyon was a different color than usual, sky blue instead of grey.
Turner’s map tore the canyon out. No notes accompanied the hole.
She let intellect rule the situation before fear could pick up the slack. If some new and violent animal lived in there, it wouldn’t have seen lobsters for years, and a thundering herd of unfamiliar beasts would drive even a territorial predator away. If the plants were poisonous–well, they hadn’t been shoving strange plants down their throats anyway. Now would be an odd time to start.
Why had she asked Wrest to stop the exodus before the canyon? Why had he agreed?
The ground sloped down and tapered into the bottom of the gorge. Wrest waited on the lava plain, turning away everyone who got near. The column filled the downward vale, lobsters pouring in like liquid. They knew this kind of stone–there had been holes in the northern desert where fire had poured out and turned cold. They would never have built with it.
Staever had no reason to be afraid of a hole in a map. He would bring the lost clan to await them on the other side–they could navigate paths too thin and treacherous for Emaria’s main column. The way onward was the canyon.
Could this path be the real Forbidden Expanse? Had everyone searching for the Clearing made it this far and no further?
You’re not making sense. Nobody’s tried. They were too scared to pass the mountains.
Wrest came up behind. “Have you seen Graphus?”
“No,” Emaria said. “I thought he was in the council ship. About this canyon…”
Wrest shook his head. “He’s not there. He hasn’t been for a while.”
“Who told you, Crane? And you believed him?”
“Why would he lie? He was happy somebody was paying attention to him. He looked old.”
“Why do you need to see Graphus?”
“Take a look at this.” Wrest passed her a torn weed-scroll, then looked around. “Where’s Kragn?”
“Do I look like some kind of council-shrimp? I don’t always know where—”
“Calm down. The important thing is he’s not here. Read it.”
Walkers were still gathering, so Emaria lay down against a slope to read.
Spring, 61st hightide
Another successful test last night. Subject 2 obliterated all targets without \ significant scattering. Simulated resistance came to nothing. Only slip-up=Magnam, overzealous, got a claw too near the discharge. Half vaporized. Had doctor amputate other half. M knew what he signed up for.
Live tests set for tomorrow. A few thieves will sneak the crayfish to the work site, deny knowing me if council finds out. Thieves themselves crossed mind as test targets, but conscience says no. In this case they’re innocent. Subjects 1-3 for the guilty.
Every day, am more certain we’ve found future of warfare. Unstable red clay has tied my claws for too long. Yellow clay has no potential as weapon, sea knows I’ve tried. But Subjects exceed expectations.
Could rule this continent with the three at the head of an army. Another three could take all the islands we know. All the land on this world conquered with the force on a single ship.
As for the fear of retaliation
The page ended. Emaria looked up. “Retaliation from who?”
“Doesn’t say,” Wrest said. “The pages are out of order.”
“How did you get this?”
“Cuttlefish,” Wrest said proudly.
“From Kragn himself? Didn’t he miss his diary?”
“The other pages were worthless, so I left them for Shael to find. I figured he’d assume this one was in there too.” A few of the soldiers were guarding the valley entrance. Others were already watching for wildlife around the edges. “Kragn hasn’t come looking yet.”
“Or he’s waiting for his moment.” Emaria got to her feet. “Wrest, that was unbelievably risky. Why did you suspect him?”
“Does it matter?” Wrest’s face went dark. “Whatever he’s got, he can use it whenever he wants.”
Fear clutched at Emaria’s stomach. “Where could he hide something like this?”
“What if these subject things are the size of grains of sand? He could have them in his pocket. Nobody checks on him or his people, and Em–” he leaned in and whispered, “how do we know he’s seeing what he keeps reporting to us? What if it’s an excuse to box us in?”
Emaria paled. She’d seen the bodies, full of so many arrows they could have been insects or demons. Did anybody know enough about the Expanse to say?
One problem at a time. “About this canyon. We’ll be able to get out before the rains hit again, right?”
“I guess so,” Wrest replied, still looking around. “Why?”
“It’s the blue mark. The canyon is dangerous when wet. My calculation with the dates showed the last one passed, so we should be fine for a while, but…”
Wrest took the map and squinted at the numbers. “Seems right. We’ll go double time, just in case. Can I keep this?”
She nodded. The canyon loomed. They could sort Kragn out on the other side.
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