The Ocean

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Crane hadn’t planned to hit the watercraft. Yet he’d never meant anything else.

The archers unleashed a volley, but the sand-dragger provided a moving shield, and besides, arrows couldn’t hurt him.

The manatees broke when his dragger failed to disintegrate. He’d beaten all their tactics. He didn’t exist in their plans.

He thundered over the battlefield, faster than the whipping rain, and manatees in their little spheres fled before it. Learn what fear feels like. Learn what you did to me.

The engine of death ignored the battlefield, as though the sea had never given its great gift of land to lobsterkind, its great sacrifice.

“He stood at the prow with the isles ahead of him…”

It did not surprise him to hear voices raised in song as the wall of water filled the front window of the vehicle. The ocean was singing for him.

“And the seaweed beds pointed the true way to go…”

He crashed through the sphere as the bottom half of his craft separated from the top. The water engulfed his senses, drowning out the song, but he knew the next line. Every larva did.

“And the ocean moon shone like a pearl to announce him…”

Salt scorched his eyes, but he forced them open, searching for coral. He drifted from the dragger, suffocating, the air in his body turning poisonous.

The pilots surrounded him, coral swords green against deep blue.

“And he conjured a fearsome wind, bade it to grow.”

Though near-blinded, he saw light, and swam up.

He thrust at the glowing bit and knocked it through the wall of the sphere. The ocean collapsed on him. Something stuck through his back. Several things. As water filled the corners of his brain, Crane discovered the ocean would forever return to where it belonged.

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Two Six

11/21: DROPPING A QUICK EDIT ON THIS to say there will be no update until next Wednesday, as I am hosting family for Thanksgiving. See you then!

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“Heave!”

With a mighty squelch, the ship’s blade tipped to starboard. The rush to right it left Alta alone on the line with the shipbuilder and his daughter, arms hurting beyond any idea of pain.

“Two! Three! Heave!”

No use. The bow was lodged fast in the sand. Claws slipped loose from the rope, and lobsters tripped into each other.

“Alta–help!”

A peal of thunder muffled Wier’s plea. Alta dropped her line and ran to extract her brother from a pile of confused children.

“It’s not working.” Wier looked at the shipbuilder with puffy eyes. Alta wished he’d pull himself together. What if she needed comforting? “She’s stuck too tight.”

“Shh!” Some of the children nearby gave up pulling. The rest pulled twice as hard. “What if we got everybody on the same rope?”

“We can’t, it would tip over!”

“Do we know for sure?”

“Do you want to find out?”

“Let me think!” What would Turner do? Children and parents were throwing the lines down, looking longingly at the dry cabin, while the manatees drew closer. Screams came from the army. “Is everybody pulling at the same time?”

“No…” Wier looked down. “That guy’s calling, but they heave when they want to.”

“Of course we’re not going anywhere!”

“How are we supposed to make them to pull together? There’s too many. Half of them are kids.”

“Uh, uh…” Alta was talking ahead of her thoughts. She clutched her head. “Sing something!”

Sing!?”

“A tune! Get them on a rhythm!”

“What tune?”

“Any tune!” Alta bounded back to her line. “Something from when we were larvae!”

“But–sing?” Wier’s eyes were glassy, and his claws limp on the line. “When Wrest is…”

He’s not dead!” Alta threw her arms around her brother to keep steady. She needed him to understand he was their only hope. She didn’t know any songs.

“Wier, if you sing…Wrest can hear us.”

“No he can’t.”

“Try,” she ordered.

Wier waited another moment more, then, resigned, straightened up.

I’ll tell you a tale…of the journeys of Boralus…

He was even on key.

I’ll sing you a song…of his travels of old…”

The shipwright prepared to call another heave, then gave up. Those who still had claws on the ropes started pulling to an unconscious rhythm.

“How he conquered the forests and misty high mountains…”

Other voices wound with Wier’s. Every child was again holding part of a rope, watched by mystified adults. “Come on, everybody,” Alta shouted. “Sing and heave, sing and heave!”

“How his ship ruled the waves, and his heart scorned the cold!”

Damning the rain and mud, the children pulled. The blade split a chunk of wet sand and moved a pace uphill. The clan raised a cheer and rushed to help as the bowsprit leveled, as Wier began the second verse.

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The Governor’s Soul

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Crane lurched onto the battlefield, gripping the levers so hard his claws turned white. The skis ran over the mud like they’d been built for it. The problem was steering. He’d only planned to go forward.

In the broad corridor the manatees had cleared, stragglers fought the watercraft’s land guard while their comrades carried off the wounded. Crane wrestled his machine to point at the manatee force. They would have to clear away before the impact, lest they be crushed under the disintegrating walls. For an instant the craft would be undefended.

Crane leaned on two levers, rocketing in a fitful leftward arc. He had to get between the water and the walls. The Clearing was running out of time. The engine retched like an old man dying of thirst as the cockpit rattled his bones, making his mouth chatter.

He was in the watercraft’s path. Its sheer face was a hundred paces from the gate,

“What are you doing?” Crane saw Wrest, waving his claws with soldiers gathered around him. The commander had his tattered army digging new lines for some reason. “That machine is useless, soldier! Pull back!”

He doesn’t know who I am. The notion thrilled him. He laid a weary claw on the levers.

“General Wrest.” Another bolt of lighting flashed through the dark wall ahead. “Tell them all I was never their enemy. Tell them I gave up my cloak for them.”

“Get back before you get shot!”

They’ll have to do better.

A line of manatees with bows remained between him and the great engine of destruction. Crane leaned into the throttle, heard the yellow clay engine strain, then move.

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Children on the Battlefield

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Wrest!” Wier shouted for the hundredth time. They passed groups clinging together under hulls, but nobody looked up. Alta wiped the spyglass on her cloak, then on Wier’s–but by the time she could point the lens at anything, it was again too rain-slicked to use.

“I can’t see him,” she said. “Does he know?”

“He has to.” Wier led her through an alleyway of ships, heading seaward. “He’s got to come hide here with us.”

She and Wier had done their job, leading everyone as far as possible from the blurry oval shadow cut out of the sky–but they hadn’t uncoiled half the fleet before the clouds burst and the attack hit all at once. In the confusion, several vessels had moored within shouting distance of Wrest’s rearguard.

Wrest!”

“Shut up!” What ships were in danger? She couldn’t tell if the craft kept moving.

“He’s not doing anything. He’s not going to come back.”

“Of course he is.” Alta emerged through a gap near the front of the fleet, but Wier wasn’t with her. He slumped in the damp hollow under a schooner’s blade.

She ran back and shook him. “We need to figure out where the wave’s going to hit.”

“Wrest has a plan.” Wier’s eyes glistened. “He knows what to do. What is he wasting time for?” He jumped up, snorting. “Alta, what’s wrong with him?”

“What’s wrong with you?” Alta shoved him. “He’s fighting for us. We have to help him too. Ships’ll get hit by the water if we don’t warn them.”

“But–”

“He told us to protect them.”

Then Wier wasn’t crying anymore. His eyes had gone wide, looking over her. “What about that?”

Alta saw a shape in the storm, paces ahead of them. “Oh no. No!”

She started running. Wier ran after her. The ship they headed toward must not have known where it was–wherever the manatees went, it was in a gully near the city, certain to be capsized.

The ship’s bowsprit pointed away from the sea. A gaggle of merchants’ kids huddled on the cabin top. Wiping his eyes, Wier blazed past Alta and yelled. “Hey, idiots! Get off! The manatees are coming!”

A scrawny girl shook her head. “They’re gonna flood everything. We wanna be on a ship. So we float.”

Alta accelerated and beat Wier to the ladder. “The wave’ll flood your hold. A ship can’t sail if it’s full of water. Or upside-down.”

“We can’t leave,” the girl said as Alta clambered onto the deck. “Our parents are inside.”

“So get them out!” came Wier’s voice from the ladder.

“You do it.” A dry-eyed boy shouldered to the front of the group.

Wier vaulted up the ladder behind Alta. “They’re not my parents.”

“What if the waves comes and I’m–ow!” The lad rubbed his skull in confusion, staring at Alta, who brandished her spyglass. “You hit me.”

“I’ll do it again.”

“You can’t come here and–ow!” Alta hit him again. Wier clenched his claws. “Get your clan out on the deck, or I’ll keep hitting him.”

“Maybe one more time?” the girl asked.

“You’re next,” Alta warned her.

Wier concealed a sniffle and pointed to the back. “I’ll hit that half.”

Several children, panicked eyes flitting between the children and the watercraft, headed for the cabin.

Their parents were not happy about being dragged into the chill storm on a flimsy pretext from their children. Their expressions melted when Alta, Wier, and the others pointed out the watercraft advancing over empty beach. The manatee forward guard was giving way gradually, like thick sludge sloughing off a roof.

Alta let them draw their own conclusions about how much trouble they were in. She and Wier jumped ship. The children followed, their families had no choice but to come after, and soon the belly of the ship was empty.

“How d’you expect us to move her?” demanded one father, who shielded the scrawny girl with an arm. “Got a displacement like a mining truck.”

“How do you know?” Alta asked.

“I built her!”

Everything made sense. The girl spoke for the children because her father owned the ship. “Can we pull?”

The man nodded. “Let her lines down, they could take the weight. Wove ‘em myself.” He looked up at his ship with pride, and hugged his daughter closer. “But like I said, she ain’t light.”

“Doesn’t matter! Do it!” Wier had remained calm for an admirably long time, but his voice cracked with hysteria at the sight of the watercraft squatting over the sand–halfway between the sea and the Clearing, where Wrest had taken his troops. Alta told herself he’d fallen back, as fear nagged there was no sign of him. Be strong for Wier.

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The Governor’s Path

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The first manatee attack on the wall was only probing. Thesal’s army fired arrows, driving most of the manatees off without a lobster casualty. High Governor Crane stood amid the soldiers, waving his sword, never quite reaching the action.

The second time, the manatees shot back.

The lobsters scrambled behind their sodden sandworks. The fighter crawling behind Crane took an arrow in his abdomen, a sleek, pale-white shaft. Since when did the manatees use bows?

He called for a medic. Nobody heard.

Thesal ordered the third army to stand fast, and the manatees charged. Again, Crane never reached the fray. As a lieutenant, he’d been free to shape the battle: wait for a sandstorm, or darkness, then shell the desert lair. This fight had spiraled out of control, and every instinct told him to run.

But he didn’t. He sat frozen behind the sandwork, too scared to fight and too disgusted with his weakness to flee. Soldiers shoved around him to pile sand on the barricade. Half of them pursued when the manatees withdrew, and half of those half limped back, babbling about the death of the Eye.

When the watercraft emerged, everything behind the lobster lines stopped. The soldiers stared at it, their lumpy barricade suddenly a sick joke. Thesal stalked among them, reminding them they’d sworn to carry out his orders, but he couldn’t stop tears forming in the new recruits’ eyes.

“Forever, you understand me?” the colonel shouted. “No matter when you die, you fight this battle forever!”

Crane turned away from the lines. Some sort of missile slammed into the ground paces to his left, and a lobster, spear in claw, collapsed across his path. He walked on, leaning on his sword.

Every step cleared away doubt. He’d lost everything because he hadn’t sacrificed enough. Things he could have given his city, he’d held for himself.

He caught his breath on a dune, and got a view of the battlefield: the manatee forward guard had retreated into a tight circle, protecting the craft as it rolled toward the walls. Give me a chance. Give me one small window and I will repay everything.

But how? There was no battle anymore, just a massive watery knife at the city’s neck.

Ahead, he saw a row of ancient machines parked against the walls. They had the look of the wooden sub-ships the Eye had used to transport construction sand.

“Crane!” He saw Thesal following, reached out to greet him–but as his gaze wavered between the colonel and the machines, a missile struck.

The world blinked, and resolved. Something had cut Crane’s tail. When had the sand-draggers flipped upside-down?

Thesal!

The colonel was lying on his back, a claw over his stomach. Crane groped for his sword, found his feet, then recoiled. Bits of coral stuck out of a wound too big for Thesal to cover. The detonation had pulverized his abdomen.

“Take the soldiers,” Thesal gasped. “Bring them…to Wrest’s army. We can…still…”

Crane shook his head. “There’s something else I have to do.”

“I’m ordering you…”

The nearest dragger was a boxy contraption on a pair of skis. Crane lurched to it, like falling, and caught himself against the wooden frame, pulling himself into the cramped cockpit. The only part of the helm he could read was a bobber, which indicated dregs of yellow clay. He threw his sword into the sand.

“It’s old, Crane…” Thesal whispered. “It won’t work…”

“It’ll work once.” Crane threw the lever at his right claw. The machine sputtered to life, and Crane came alive with it. As the sand-dragger pulled away, Thesal’s claw fell limp.

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The Urchin Tunnels

No post on Saturday–I’m going to World Fantasy Con to ply my trade. Back to the regular schedule in one week’s time!

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Arcite wished he had a drink. The night was too dark, the empty streets too desolate, to follow the tracks without calming his nerves.

He ran over what he knew. “City in two halves, invincible engineers, Ev with one of them, or them stuck with her.It wasn’t much. Arcite tightened his grip on the weapon.

A bolt of lightning forked out of the end and Arcite jumped a pace backward. In the brief light, he saw the street: austere, washed-out, without columns and trees like the others. Turner’s Clearing.

The towers cast deep enough shadows to hide the tracks. “Light. Need light.” His claw inched toward the staff again, but if Eventhe was in the next shadow…there must have been something else.

Weather hadn’t been a myth at the Field. On nights when storms swept off the ocean, the families who tented near him would come share the warmth of his hovel. Some would ask why Arcite’s torches always burned through the damp: good driftwood, he said, and a special reed I find sometimes. He couldn’t tell the truth, they’d banish him–

“Red clay is waterproof!” Arcite had only one skill set, but he’d be drowned if it wasn’t more useful than everybody else’s together.

There was garbage everywhere. There had to be some driftwood. After a few steps, he stubbed his foreleg on a stick, less than a pace long. He spread the clay around its top third, and with a flick of his claw set the torch alight.

The fire threw light to either end of the street. The footprints led between two walls into a raised portal to gloom: Eventhe and her captor, or prisoner, had entered the urchin tunnels.

Standing on the prints were four distractingly huge lobsters.

“Awaken,” one said.

“What?” Arcite dropped the torch. The radius of its glow shrunk, hiding the four from view. “Are you engineers?”

“Awaken.”

“Do you work for Turner?”

“Come to us.” Arcite ran.

He tripped over a broken doorframe and slammed into the ground. Before striking the torch, he hadn’t realized how blind he was. The engineers circled, trapping him against a dilapidated wall.

He got up, manatee wand in his claws. “No more accidents.”

Bolts flew out of the staff. At the same time a force like a charging crab threw Arcite backwards into the half-wall.

“Recoil.” Kragn must have found a way to dampen it. It was beyond unfair how much time he’d gotten with the wands. “Gotta ask Wrest if he felt it.”

He dashed through the patch of alley he’d fired at, grabbing his torch. Though a punch swept over his head, his path was open. The torch showed three engineers left standing.

Staever was going to get an “I told you so.” At the threshold of the tunnel, Arcite braced the wand against his back. As the engineers closed, Arcite fired at the one on the left. The weapon jumped from his back, twisting in his claw, and he spun into the side of the doorway.

Smoke billowed from the torch as he swung back, in time for the engineers to finally hesitate.

“Where’s Eventhe? Where’s my friend?” He pointed at them in turn.

“You pollute,” one said.

Arcite backed into the tunnel. “What have you done to her?” If they both ran at once, he might have time to get one. The other would tear his head off.

“You pollute.” Without the torch the tunnel would have been pitch dark.

“Tell me!” Arcite shouted. “Or I’ll show you what else I can do!”

“You die!” The engineers rushed together into the urchin tunnel.

“Sea damn this!” A blue arc wrapped around one engineer. A rough sand ceiling slid in front of Arcite’s eyes as the recoil threw him into the tunnel. Loose sand broke his fall, though the wand dug painfully into his skeleton.

The torch hadn’t made the jump. It rested in the street, all the light he could see.

“Right. Is it worth–”

The light hovered, and flowed toward him. Pain flashed over his head–the engineer, torch in one claw, clamped the other around Arcite’s throat.

The engineer could squeeze his breath away. But Arcite still had the wand. He pressed its tip against the engineer’s eye, and pulled the trigger.

Two sparks fluttered, then winked out.

“No…” Arcite gasped. “Not fair…”

His claw opened. The staff rolled away.

The engineer let go of Arcite’s throat. Before he could gulp air, the engineer bent him backward over a hard edge. Killing them had earned him the status of a special threat. This one was going to play with him.

The torch was in his eyes. He was breaking along seams, and everything hurt, head to tail to things in his belt rubbing his shell raw…

No time left. His vision exploded in pinpricks. He pulled the sonic detonator out of his belt and blew with the last of his breath.

A bang ricocheted through the tunnels, accompanied by an orange flash. He tumbled downward–not far, but far enough. The torch had taken out the tunnel roof. The engineer hadn’t lived to regret picking it up.

Arcite lay for a long time in darkness, hoping his legs would stop hurting. The entrance he’d used was no longer an option. This was supposed to be easier than the street?

The wand was buried too, but Arcite didn’t mind. The damn thing had confirmed all his friends’ fears about it. “No light, half a bag of clay, no way out. Onward to glory.”

His voice echoed, small in a great and dark space.

The urchin tunnels were old. Arcite could tell from smelling them. The air was heavy with ancient dust, and he kept tripping on piles of mysterious edges. His breath came rapid, his heart pounding. Darkness wasn’t good for him. Occasionally, the timbre of his footsteps changed, suggesting other branching tunnels, but when he investigated–touching a side of the portal and counting paces to the other–they were never as wide as the one he was in. He kept his course.

Suddenly he could identify the piles: unused construction blocks. The dark was breaking.

Light came from ahead of him, an opening on a stairway–perhaps Emaria’s hub. He headed for the steps, spurred on by the prospect of fresh air.

Compared to the tunnel, it felt like an open courtyard. The hub was perfectly round, a dozen dozen paces across. Tunnels of all sizes branched off behind six columns of sand supporting a ceiling several stories high.

A skylight in the center of the ceiling let in raindrops and thin grey light. Torches in brackets ringed on the columns and the outside wall, enough to drive darkness far from the circle. In the center of hub was a raised dais, and on the dais, a higher altar, its purpose uncertain

Eventhe lay unmasked below the dais, her claws and forelegs bound by reeds. Her eyes were closed. Standing over her was an engineer.

This one moved without direction or economy, returning every few moments to cling to the altar like it was a buoy.

“You don’t belong.” Arcite recognized the face even with its cool wiped away, replaced with animal rage. He would have known General Kragn anywhere.

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Awakening

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The air was hot and still in the north highlands. A demon of the air wheeled over the canyons, gliding on updrafts. Its eyes caught a hint of motion on one of the bridges: a lonely, meaty ant. The bird dove. It would be enjoying its meal before the ant knew it was dead.

Suddenly, the demon found itself beating its wings furiously, having tumbled through the bridge–no, the bridge was gone, like it had never been there.

The bird spread its wings and rose on the sweltering air. Bridges were disappearing all through the range. The air demon soared toward the plateau in the center, where another lived, strong and protective, who had wounded his demon before.

The other bird had lost its form. It rose from the mountain, blocking out the moon. This had never been of its brothers.

Filled with fear, the demon turned to escape.

A claw–not a lobster’s, a monstrous many-edged pincer–seized it around the middle.

The bird screeched as the razor-sharp hand tore its feathers. Its last confused squawk died. It surrendered as prey, while the thing that had plucked it out of the sky looked to the south, toward where it had left its mind.

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Strange Stars

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Wind.

Black fog.

Different stars. The Glass Thief was gone.

A voice: Turner’s. “If you were going to augment yourself anyway, I could have helped you do it right.”

An ocean, endless, wide enough to make a joke of land. He had never stood on land. This was all there was.

He killed me. This is what’s beyond the sea. More sea.

He hung suspended in the black fog. The surface was flat as glass, darker than a long night. He wasn’t falling.

“I see what’s happening.” Where was Turner? There was nobody else in the dark ocean. “You haven’t given in yet. You’re confused.”

He opened his mouth, but his voice dissolved.

“This will help you understand.”

it is a night, a storm, the hateful sea, a fight, the tainted one of the sea-beloved fights one I have not seen before, but I have, he was with the two who hurt my body, he is a hateful sea-beloved but I am in him now and he no longer is anything but me–

Words like a rope pulled through the center of his brain. Though they violated him, he felt peace. He wanted to align his soul with the soul that had taken it. He was tired. He’d run for a whole lifetime, and this ocean offered rest.

the tainted one takes the other and chokes the life from him, he will sleep and awake–

Wait. Another thought cut in, untouched by the outer soul. He held the word close. Wait. He wasn’t taken. His voice remained.

“Where in sea’s name am I?” he shouted. The question echoed.

“A place where invoking the sea isn’t wise.”

The black fog parted. They were on the deck of a ship, with dark planking, far too smooth to be driftwood. He and Turner faced each other under a mast taller than a tree, one out of three on the same vessel. Each bore sails the size of ponds, fluttering in a hot wind.

He threw himself at Turner, but the dream-weariness descended again, weighing on his limbs since he reclaimed his voice. “What did you do to me?”

“I did nothing to you, Staever. You did it to yourself. You accepted yellow clay.”

he surrenders, I will taint him, him and all the others–

“You were going to kill Emaria!” The roar left his throat hoarse, and he seized the pain, another reminder of life. Anything to keep the voice out of his head.

“You acknowledged your powerlessness.” Turner regarded him like a proud teacher. “All will make the same choice, in time.”

“What choice? Where have you taken me?”

he fights still, he will not die–

“Into the mind.”

What mind?”

“Yellow clay is a body,” Turner said, “and you are in its mind.”

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The Struggle

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The moment Turner seized Staever, Emaria struck a flame on the red clay. She held it aloft so the pool of light encircled her face. “Turner!”

The scarred architect pinned the thief–she’d never noticed how small Staever was–but Staever wrestled on, clawing, biting, as Turner refused to look. I warned him, she thought, and threw the clay into the harbor.

The pellet landed on a yellow bloom. For an instant, it burned brighter than ever. Then it was gone, as fast as Emaria could blink.

Her heart sank. She was winded, beaten. Perhaps burning it had never been possible.

Staever and Turner were still grappling, faces set in resistance. At first, Staever’s expression gave her hope. But when several seconds passed and it didn’t change, frozen like the a statue’s face, she began to fear something was seriously wrong.

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The Limit

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Staever hurried along the harborfront, rain lashing his face. He’d yet to meet any of the engineers–perhaps Arcite had drawn them all.

The storm rolled over the Clearing, warping the city into the landscape of nightmare. He’d sprinted the length of King’s Clearing, but he could not stop. Not when Emaria was alone.

He stepped on a gap in the tile, twisted his foreleg, and dropped, fighting for breath. Gulps of air rattled. His lungs ached like they’d been stabbed. A short rest. Count of ten.

Ten came. Then another ten. Each left him wearier.

He forced himself to remember the desert pit, how one drop of water gave him the strength to fight on. He gulped rain, but the second wind stayed away.

He’d fallen next to a low seawall, a lobster-height from the cauldron. The yellow clay bubbled, whipped into a froth by the storm. He could touch it from where he lay.

Touch it…

If water couldn’t keep him running, maybe something else could.

No. I’ve never been dosed. Even when I got the graft.

He could see the dam. Spray washed across the top, falling into the enclosure, where the yellow clay consumed it. One shadow, slender and compact, backed along the walkway, with a larger shadow advancing.

Staever reached below the seawall and scooped out yellow clay, rubbing it on his thorax until it couldn’t be undone. It felt clammy, and smelled worse, but dissolved into his bones.

He began to walk, then run.

He shrugged his drenched cloak from his back as he reached the headland, ablaze from within. Why had he never used medicine clay before? Whenever he’d gotten his claws on any in the Eye, he’d sold it for fuel. Unforgivably stupid. He could have broken into sixth-story windows with this kind of energy, scaled the Pupil itself, stopped glass-haulers with his claws. If he’d persuaded the rest of the gang…

As sand gave way to dam, he drew his sword, bearing down on Emaria and the engineer. No doubt he’d get there in time. With the yellow clay, he could run as fast as a wave.

The shadows grew larger. The engineer turned from Emaria.

Recognizing the Architect didn’t slow Staever down. He’d built his life on the idea that a deranged thief charging and waving a sword would surprise even an immortal abomination, and saw no reason to lose faith.

He ran until Turner flew into him, breaking his strength, paralyzing his legs, struggled against his every move. The rain died, the thunder shut off. For the second time today, the world went dark.

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