The Fall of the Eye

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.

“It’s seawater.”

“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!”

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Empty Your Quivers

Kragn’s soldiers had a simple order: not to give a pace. Kragn himself raced back and forth, moving troops reinforce the line. Hiding fighters in the outskirts had helped, but while he’d succeeded in opening a second front, the Field was still pounding the first from three sides. Rebels poured at him down the thoroughfare.

“Empty your quivers!” Kragn commanded through his conch. “Pin them down!”

The archers fired rows of arrows into the rebel line. Before the first shots landed, the front ranks broke, the footsoldiers throwing up shields. Not enough died.

“Interesting,” Kragn told the captain of the archers. “Shoot to kill, at your discretion.”

“All archers shoot to kill!” the captain cried. “Notch, draw, loose!”

Kragn did not allow himself fear. He retreated as the rebel ground troops kicked up a sand screen, and the archers threw down their bows and hacked away with daggers. Shell smashed glass and bone. Glass pierced Eye Militia shells.

“Clay bombers to the forefront!” Kragn shouted. “Strike as far back as you can!” Let’s see you match this.

The explosions came staccato. Dozens of small bursts tossed fighters aside.

His commanders pulled the battalions in close, harried by the Field flanks. A rebel hurl his spear skyward so it caught a sunbeam before skewering one of his bombers. Two of the enemy, disarmed, threw an Eye swordsman into a sandbank ten paces from his position.

“Fall back! Form a perimeter!” The new lines closed in front of him. Captains in the rear protected the huddled civilians, reassuring them.

Shael appeared at Kragn’s side and pointed at three unarmed lobsters wheeling around a dune, running full tilt for the perimeter. A dozen more followed them. “Probing force left, General. Orders?”

“Let the three in the lead in. Terminate the others.”

Shael saluted, then stopped dead–staring at something over Kragn’s shoulder.

Half the remaining soldiers followed suit. The three runners–his people, clearly being chased–slipped past them.

Kragn slapped Shael to his senses. “Get rid of that dozen, now!

“Yes sir!” The captain ran to fight off the intruders. Kragn cursed and turned to see what his forces found more interesting than the fate of ninety thousand civilians.

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The Shadow on the Sun

Whenever Arcite slowed to breathe, one of Morgan’s soldiers jabbed him in the back. He gritted his teeth. “I can’t be a traitor to both sides. I have to be working for someone.”

He startled himself by speaking, and startled more when Eventhe answered. “I should have known.”

“I didn’t do anything. Fine, I’m from the Field, I confess. But I was never a real double agent.” His voice sounded like a blubbering child’s. “This isn’t my fault.”

“Fault?” Eventhe walked beside him. “I should have known. You were different.”

“You’re…not mad?”

“Of course I am. You lied to me. Why would you keep your secret from the one lobster who belonged here less than you?”

“Not to the whole city? To you?”

Emaria picked the wrong time to speak up. “I’m not mad, Arcite, I’m afraid for you. If this gets out…”

“Then what?” Eventhe asked. “He has no reason to hide.”

Emaria flicked her claws against one another. “I’m sure there’s a good explanation. But nobody in the Eye will listen.”

“Of course there’s a sea-damned explanation. They wouldn’t let me work with clay.”

Morgan cocked an antenna.

“You know about the Field. Clay is dark, clay is evil, if you touch it, throw yourself into the sea before we do it for you. But I had a gift. And when you’re only good at one thing, you sorta want to do it.” He looked back at Morgan. “But you can’t leave the Field. They’d drag me back. So, I applied for espionage, and for some reason they hired me.”

“So we wouldn’t drag you back?” Morgan’s laugh grew more joyless every time Arcite heard it. “You have got to be the most incompetent–whatever you are–”

“I can knock down walls now. I hijack ships. I can drink my body weight in sludge…” He’d never in his life succeeded at talking his way out of anything. Now was an unlikely time to start.

He walked into the lead soldier’s back. They must have reached the battle, but there were no Militiamen. The soldier was watching the sky.

A shadow fell around him, but not the city’s solid shade: dappled darkness and light, sun scattered through a lens.

“Was there supposed to be an eclipse today?” he asked. “With a…translucent moon?”

“It’s a trick,” Morgan said. “You three, guard the prisoners. Everyone else, watch for an ambush.”

Emaria nudged Arcite and Eventhe from behind. “We need to run.”

“How?” Arcite whispered back, as three soldiers circled them. “Why?”

“I’ve read about the thing refracting the sun. I can explain it later. Right now we’ve got to be far away.”

Morgan marched her detachment around the last tower on the northern curve of the eye.

A cry came from above, though not from the shadow on the sun. A Militiaman with enough shell grafts to resemble a patchwork quilt leapt from the second-story window and buried his sword in the lobster next to Morgan.

“Now!” Emaria shouted.

The three guards forgot them. The landward flank hollered as half the Eye Militia poured from the Whites. The three Cuttlefish, Arcite glad to be among them, ran.

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Into the Battle

“Do you–” Graphus began when they reached the road.

“Yes, I have the key.” Wrest showed it to him.

“Who took it?”

“Gattick,” Staever said.

“I should have judged him more thoroughly.” Graphus looked contrite. “Did you have to…”

Staever pointed into the alley. All five of them could see Gattick’s crumpled form in the shadow of a window ledge.

Alta averted her eyes. Wier asked Wrest, “Bad guy. Right?”

“Right,” Staever answered for him. “Not a good guy at all. Graphus, there’s another body in that apartment.” His eyes were red. Right now he didn’t care if Graphus noticed. “We have space for one more.”

“We hardly have space for five of us,” Graphus said distantly. Perhaps, like Staever, something was affecting him more then he let on.

“I’ll ride bareback on one of the crabs. I’ve done it before.”

Graphus and Wrest exchanged a look. “The Militia’s window is rapidly closing,” said the governor. “I can shield you if we rejoin the Eye, so long as there still is an Eye.”

“But…” Graphus had a point, but the thought of Taiga’s body lying alone in her room would not stay down, and he might never go back again.

No. I will. After all, there was no alternative.

“So,” he said, “south?”

Graphus shook his head. “North. Climb aboard.”

Staever didn’t. “Into the battle? Between the people who tried to kill me and the people who want to kill everyone? Are we talking about the same north?”

“The Eye is still my city,” Graphus said. “Whatever happens next, I will not be absent.” His piercing look said, Neither will you.

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The Weather Map

Since they’d been children, Wrest had seen Staever cry once–after hugging him goodbye, when he’d boared the Eye militia transport. He’d hidden it behind goggles.

This time was different. When Staever opened the door, his eyes were wet, but full of purpose. Seeing him dry them invigorated Wrest, whose old fear slunk. There would be time to grieve.

Staever said, “Still got the key?”

“Yeah,” Wrest answered. “Is she…?”

Staever nodded. “She gave me that scroll, right before.”

“What is it?”

“My father’s weather map.”

Wrest was taken aback. “Staever, I’m a sensible guy. I know you know the weather’s a myth. Wind doesn’t blow water around.”

“Not here, it doesn’t,” Staever said, “but it might, farther south. I can’t see any other way to keep watered on the way to the Clearing.”

“The Clearing.” The Eye could fall in battle, Wrest realized. Their dream was more possible than ever before. “You really mean to go?”

“As of right now, yes, though there are maybe seven people on board, you and me included. If we can make it…”

He broke off. Shouting, friendly but urgent, interrupted from the main road. They dashed together to look.

“I don’t believe it,” Staever said.

Wrest hopped with joy. “He actually came back!”

Graphus sat in the driver’s seat of an elegant sled, hitched to two crabs. The platform was large enough for several passengers, but held only two frantically waving children.

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A Long Gale Has Ended

A trail of blood marked Taiga’s path to the bedroom door. She lay in the arch, drawing shallow breaths.

Staever walked her to her bed like he’d done only a few days before. A lump in his throat made him want to choke, but he refused. She can cry, not me. Not the last thing she’ll see.

“Is it bad?” Taiga managed a grin.

Staever’s breath caught. “Better than it looks.”

“My time’s been coming for a while. I don’t want you to sit here mourning. I want you to go.”

“I can get help.”

“I said listen,” Taiga said. “The continent’s hit a crossroads. You can save these people, Staever.”

For half his life, he’d thought a thief was responsible only for himself. As he got older, he learned the lives of his gang depended on him too. But an entire city…

He couldn’t bear to, and he couldn’t bear not to. Taiga was right. He’d fought the council, and he had the key. Who else was there?

“What if Kragn wins?” he asked. “What if nothing changes?”

“Then go, with as many as you can, while he can’t spare soldiers to guard the Forbidden Expanse. Bring them three at a time if you have to.”

Her eyes were losing focus. She was echoing Graphus.

“There’s something else.” Staever cradled her head, like his claws could breathe life into it. “Cyprus travelled after he left me…farther than he ever told anyone…except…”

Her mouth twitched with the ghost of a happy memory, pleasant for dying on a summer day.

“I did see him,” she said. “Once or twice more.”

The scroll was coming apart at the seams. Part of its pattern he knew, the landscape around the Eye. But there was more. “A map?”

“Look closer.”

Lines swept across the land in wide arcs and spirals. Every one was marked with numbers, increasing as they moved east to west.

“They’re dates. Mom, what does this mean?”

Taiga lurched into a coughing fit. “The…weather…”

“Don’t talk,” Staever pulled her closer. “Not if it hurts.”

She had no strength left. Sea-scripture jumped into his head, and he recited, hot tears staining his face as he talked her out of the world.

“Lobsters came from the sea, but the sea did not leave lobsters. As the sky, it watches over us and protects us. It refreshes us when we grow weary and it calms us when we fall ill. When we are ready, it takes us into its embrace, and those of us it did not take may rejoice for we know a long gale has ended, a harsh wind will blow no more…”

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When Gattick saw Staever, he drew back to throw the key. Wrest waved his claws no! and Gattick, smirking, backed toward his escape stairs.

I’m as helpless as I was in the arena. Gattick could make the key disappear, but they would never see it again if it fell to the Field, either.

The fence backed onto the ramp leading down, not taking his eyes from Staever and Wrest.

Then Staever noticed which claw Gattick held the key with.

His left claw.

He had one chance. Hunching with age was a lie Gattick had paraded for them all. But one injury, he’d hidden instead: something laming his left claw, so he sketched with the right.

If that too was fake, they were doomed. Staever ran along the bridge, feet falling light as air.

Gattick’s claw jerked forward, but he could not finish the throw. His face contorted. The key clattered to the walkway.

Staever scooped it up, while Wrest threw Gattick off the third story.

He stared at the fence’s body as it landed. Shuffling the key from his leg, Staever passed it to his friend.

He signed, Can you keep watch?

I’ll hide if they see me, Wrest answered, but Staever was already inside.

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The Spies

Emaria got as close to Arcite as she dared. “What are you saying?”

Arcite indicated one of the lobsters in sand-stained armor. “The one in front is Morgan. I knew her. She’s asking me if we have any glass.”

“Liar,” Morgan said in common language. “I’m asking about the reports you failed to submit. The others returned to us once a month.”

“The other whats?” Eventhe asked.

“Spies, if you must know.” A yellowed lobster, unnervingly gaunt, joined Morgan. Emaria had seen this one before: in a snit after Staever blocked the council chamber staircase–then leaving after Kragn received approval to burn the Field to the ground.

“But they let you in to see the council…” she said.

“They almost let one of us on the council,” the jaundiced lobster replied. “As brutal as the Eye is, you’re startlingly naïve.”

Then he melted back into the army, leaving the thieves alone with Morgan and her squad.

“Listen, commander–Morgan–everybody–” Arcite floundered for words, “there’s been a misunderstanding–”

“You were excited enough when we chose you.” Morgan planted her spear in the sand. “Are you going to tell me, after five years, you haven’t won anyone’s confidence?”

“Yes!” Mocking as her suggestion was, Arcite seized on it. “I was about to come back for a report. It would have been really good, too. If you’d told me you were going to invade, I could have rushed it.”

Morgan snorted. “You need me to tell you why we didn’t? You had a duty to the Field, and you abandoned it. And now you’re making us miss our battle. Walk!” She jabbed Arcite with the tip of her spear, drawing blood.

Morgan’s men forced the three Cuttlefish to march in the middle of the column. When Arcite tried to meet Emaria’s eye, she couldn’t look back at him. Eventhe faced away, and nothing Arcite could say got her to look around. He’d never once mentioned he was from the Field. If pretending to be a spy was a gambit to get them out of danger, he’d set it up far in advance.

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The Silent Blades

Halfway to the balcony, Staever stopped them both again. The door, with its carvings of Khalis, stood ajar, swaying in the breeze.

He remembered the soldiers, marching in their column right below. The Field rebels made little sound of their own, lost in private fears. Only their dragging feet disturbed the silence.

This was a stealth job. He signed to Wrest, I’ll go first. Blind spot inside second room.

How do you know?

Fallen for it before.

Past the door, his mother struggled to rise from a wooden bench stained blue with blood. His instincts saved him, the thief in his head telling him Gattick had moved her to keep him from checking the bedroom.

He threw his blade up to catch Gattick’s downward thrust and cut at the fence’s head. Gattick parried, snarling, his surprise ruined. In one of his back legs he clutched the key.

Staever drove Gattick towards the back room, kicking the front door open with his tail.

Wrest barreled past and tackled Gattick. The fence sprawled on the bed of soft sand, but slipped under Wrest’s claws and bolted for the swinging door.

Staever whipped his sword at Gattick again, but Gattick caught it and wrenched it out of his claw. It slid across the floor and hit the leg of the bench where Taiga lay. As Staever watched for a second too long, the fence burst through the door onto the bridge.

Wrest hurtled through in pursuit. Taiga, her claws moving sluggishly, signaled to him with signs she’d taught the Cuttlefish.

Go. You can’t let him have it.

I won’t leave you.

I’ll still be here.

Outside, the Field continued to march. Wrest and Gattick faced each other down in silent tableau. Gattick held a sword in one claw and the key in the other, over the street full of soldiers. He needed no signs to say one step closer, and I’ll give it to them.

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The Language of Spears

The shipwreck lay in the corner of Emaria’s eye, the blade having come half loose from the hull in the impact. She tried to stand. The world tilted until she fell again.

Arcite lay motionless beside her. She crawled towards him, checking for life. When he groaned and shifted at her prodding, Emaria let out her breath.

Eventhe stood between them and an advancing flank of Field soldiers. Her arms were coiled with power to fight the entire army at once.

Arcite pushed himself upward, heading for Eventhe. “No. This is not happening.”

“Arcite,” Eventhe whispered, “you must get behind me.”

“I know what I’m doing!”

He walked up to the advancing line. At a command from behind, a dozen soldiers in dust-colored camouflage surrounded them, each of the spears in their claws spun from hardly a wood piece’s worth of glass.

Arcite spoke in a language Emaria could not understand. They were hollow sentences, vowels piling on vowels until it was no longer clear whether he was speaking or breaking down.

The ring of spear-carriers opened.

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