The Climb

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Turner had built a grate into the Wall to let the water flow past the stone. Clawholds and legholds riddled the surface above it, where the bricks had slid apart over generations. Twenty paces away, Eventhe targeted it to climb.

Register everything. Remember you missed the crack in the tunnel. It was time to climb. What wasn’t she noticing?

Something in the trees near the river grate stuck out like a shrimp in a birth pool, so obvious she could only have missed it. It was a spoked wheel, as tall as two of her, made of material she couldn’t identify, and glowing independent of the sun. Half of it was sunk in the ground. Lumps ran through the dirt, from it to the Wall.

Look past appearances. Just because something is glowing does not mean it is important. Eventhe filed it in her memory for Emaria to examine once nothing was about to explode.

She flew up the grate faster than rising mist. In less than a minute she was on the walkway.

Arcite was standing above Kragn. She had to talk him out of the task that would redeem him in the eyes of the whole city. Talking was not her skill set.

Running fast enough left no room for thought. Doubt was for after she’d defused Arcite.

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Kragn’s Colors

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Never pull a stealth job under a blue sky. Like all Staever’s rules, it had exceptions. With all eyes on Kragn, Staever and Wrest had the perfect diversion to sneak past an army.

“What’s the plan?” Wrest huffed.

“Find Emaria,” Staever answered. “Two beetles, one stone–she’s free, and the prison break distracts Kragn.”

“Wonderful. We’re going to die.”

“I’m the one who says that. You’re the one who survives.”

Three of Kragn’s men kept watch where the river bent away from the field. Staever slid one of his claws behind his head, indicating the water. Behind them. Underwater.

They held their breath and slipped in. The water was cold but clear, shot through with sunlight. No sooner had Staever touched the bottom than a soldier called, “Anyone there?”

He pointed downstream. Wrest pushed off the rocks, both of their tails beating to the current.

They clawed up the bank into a thick copse. Wrest signed: not safe here. Undergrowth was thicker by the water, but that was the wrong direction.

They fled between two trees to face down a lobster in Kragn’s colors. The soldier froze, as surprised as they were. Wrest drew his blade.

Their opponent dropped his own sword in the grass. He pointed frantically across the field, over the rear of the crowd–at the wooden walls of the stockade.

Wrest looked to Staever, mystified, but there were other soldiers nearby, and the Cuttlefish language lacked a sign for it wasn’t just Farid. With a swift interlock of claws–friendly–he bolted.

For once, Kragn had riveted an audience not with the threat of force but with the stark grandeur of the Great South Wall and the brash promise to break it. The stockade drew nearer, standing out against green leaves.

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The Stain

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The Wall itself was covered with red clay, end-to-end like a creeping vine. The blasting material wound toward the battlement, where a lobster was spreading more along the edge.

Eventhe made out Arcite’s helmet and goggles. This was where he’d gone– ahead of the column, enslaved for Kragn’s getaway.

But how? Wrest had gone to Kragn to keep his siblings safe, but what did Arcite have for the general to exploit?

Aside from me?

That couldn’t be it. Arcite never would have betrayed the Eye for protection she didn’t need. Unless…

Eventhe steeled herself. There wasn’t time to moon about anyone’s feelings. Wrest had trusted her to step in if Wier and Alta needed help. She decided they needed help now. If nobody intervened, they would ship downriver.

“Ev!”

She’d been seconds away from forcing a path to the Wall, but someone crashing over the foliage sounded ready to beat her to it. She stepped back as Wrest and Staever burst from the undergrowth.

“You have come,” she said, faster than she meant to. “I tried to meditate, but could not. I was…worried.”

“Good thing then you didn’t see the state this guy was in an hour ago,” Wrest remarked.

“It’s a wonder what water and shade can do,” Staever said. “Can’t talk long. I read what’s going on over there as well as you can.”

“Arcite is almost finished coating the Wall with clay,” Eventhe replied. “I assume this, Wrest, is the ‘something big’ you meant.”

“Damn right,” Wrest replied. Staever spread the detail of Turner’s map on the ground, so all three could read it. “It’s bigger than Kragn now. Look at the pictograph.”

“Do we have time?”

“This is important. Please look.”

She did. “Is it this stain? A warning against being careless with food around the maps doesn’t merit the delay.”

“This isn’t a great time for you to finally learn sarcasm either,” Staever shot back. “That’s not a stain.”

“See how it fills the Wall, then expands underneath the glade?” Wrest said.

Eventhe superimposed the image over the landscape: the red blob squatting beneath the entire column. “What does it represent?”

“Red clay,” Wrest said.

Eventhe understood the smell. “Turner laid a trap to catch those who would penetrate the Wall–”

Wrest cut in, “–which connects to a monstrous underground clay deposit–”

“–all of which Arcite is about to blow up,” Staever finished.

Eventhe bent down, scraping the dirt with her claw. The soil was soft enough to sink half her claw before removing a lump of red clay the size of Arcite’s head.

She wiped it on a tree. “We must move. Kragn will soon be ready for his final show.”

After two paces, she turned to find Staever and Wrest staring at her. “Come on! Everybody is in danger!”

“Ev, you’re the only one who can climb the Wall without a rope,” Staever said. “Wrest and I will stall Kragn. You…”

Eventhe blanched. “Finish!”

“You have to stop Arcite.”

He might have done it to protect her, or done it for the Clearing. He might have wanted to be helpful, or to be needed. None of these actions necessarily deserved to be stopped.

“I don’t know why he’s working for Kragn,” Staever explained, “but convince him it’s not worth it. You’ve always been able to talk to him.”

“What if it is worth it?”

“It can’t be,” Staever said. “Arcite is one of us. Whether or not he wants to blow the Wall up, I’m certain he doesn’t want to do it for Kragn.”

He met her eyes through the mask, letting understanding pass between them like he’d done since hiring her. She turned and ran.

“He’s almost done,” Wrest said. “Let’s go!”

Staever and Wrest hurried from the grove. Eventhe followed the riverbank toward the Wall, mulling Staever’s final words. I speak easily with Arcite, but after today, will he ever speak to me again?

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Savior

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Emaria couldn’t help being impressed as a guard marched her into the new stockade. Two hightides after seeing their first trees, the Militia had gotten dismantling and reassembling the prison down to a five-minute drill. One more and they might learn not to build around puddles.

The captives gulped down water. Afterward, there was little to do but sit around while Kragn mustered his audience. She toyed with the bit of coral she’d hidden by shuffling it around her legs whenever they searched her, glad Eventhe had freed her from having to do the same thing with the key.

She’d escape again. There was nothing stopping her. With the water, the others had the strength to join. But what could they do?

“There’s got to be a way,” she said.

“To do what?” the monk asked. Everyone was looking at her.

“To stop Kragn from stealing the Clearing. From taking over for good.”

“I agree. That’s why I’m here,” a woman said. “But there’s so few of us. Everybody out there calls him savior.”

“Why?” He hadn’t saved anybody. At the Eye, it had seemed the opposite.

“He’s the hero of the Field fight,” the woman went on. “If a lobster doesn’t think Staever called the manatees to save us, odds are they’ll say Kragn did.”

As for the fear of retaliation…

She spun to the woman. “Say that again.”

The prisoner looked taken aback. “People think Kragn and the manatees had an arrangement. You look at those metal things, they could be right.”

The words Wrest’s stolen diary combined with memories of the Eye falling, crystallized into new forms with Kragn at the center.

Emaria turned back to the sea-monk. “Find me a branch, brother. And a clear patch of dirt. I need to make some notes.”

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The Great South Wall

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In the south of the continent, at the tips of the last mountain ranges, a river fed by storms flowed to the sea. Another river joined it where it bent east in the woodlands, surrounding a forested plain by water on three sides. The Great South Wall stood across the tip of this inland peninsula, blocking the only route from the north.

The whole thing smelled putrid. It could have been the yellow clay holding the Wall together, but that didn’t explain such a stench.

Eventhe hid in a grove with the western river at her back, ill at ease as the crowd gathered at the Wall. Kragn’s army searched among the trees for citizens trying to slip out of their tightly-guarded clans. The sky was bright, the morning warm, the water at her tail cool.

Kragn stood in front of the Wall, holding a barbed metal wand half the length of his body. Beside him, Shael and one-clawed Magnam held a staff each.

The metal reminded her of the thing strapped under her abdomen. She touched the key to the Clearing, in a pocket by her conch, passed off by Emaria as they carted her back to the stockade. Eventhe was more than willing to keep it from Kragn.

Wrest was not retaken, but he and Staever could have shared a grisly fate. If he has not returned by now, when will he?

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Carry It to the End

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Staever blinked. “You died.”

“I did.” The cloak lay on the other side of the pit.

“He stabbed you. I saw it.”

“No. You weren’t there. I died of fungus poisoning during the Grey Spring, the year you were born.”

“What are you talking about?” He was hallucinating. Once, in the far province of the magma pools, he’d been certain he’d wandered the streets of a glittering glass city, ringing with strange music, before Wrest coaxed him to take a drink.

He reached out to the mirage. It was solid, but Farid no longer.

This lobster was larger and more handsome, bedecked in pearl-threaded battle attire as unwieldy on him as a cloak on a crab. He was acting, even in death–exactly how Staever had imagined him.

“Cyprus. My father.”

He shouldn’t have been able to speak. He’d chewed through a scrap of cloak trying to moisten his mouth.

“Am I dead?” he asked. Maybe this was what happened when they didn’t float you. Lobsters will know he was not ready to pass beyond the twin mirrors.

“I am not interested in where we are,” Cyprus said, “and you have more pressing concerns. How could you let this happen?”

“What do you mean, how?” Miracle or hallucination or whatever Cyprus was, that question the last thing he needed. “If there was a damn thing I could have done to stop Kragn, wouldn’t I have done it?”

“I don’t mean the past. How could you give yourself up to die?”

“Do I have a choice?” Staever said miserably. “There’s no magic sword to make things right. Kragn has the magic. I’m bound for wherever you are.”

“For now, we’re here together. You’re on land, I’m at sea. This is the shore.”

“Glad to see you.” Staever fixed his eyes on the blue-stained cloak. “I’m going to die in the desert, I’ve abandoned my friends, but at least I can work things out with my dad.”

“One does not cut through the Great South Wall. One passes it,” Cyprus said stiffly.

“What?”

“Your friend Arcite is preparing to bomb it as we speak. You can’t let him get away with it. It will mean absolute catastrophe.”

“Catastrophe. Fine. I know Kragn is using Arcite. That’s not saving me.”

“I’m not here to save you.”

“Then why are you here?” He strode back to Cyprus. “I didn’t even learn you were dead until six years later. Now you’re here on the shore, and all you’ve got for your son is half-cooked prophecies?”

“The Clearing is–”

Damn the Clearing!” Staever roared. “Damn the Great South Wall and damn whatever you came here to say! The only way I’ll see the Clearing is if Kragn carries my head through the streets!”

“The Clearing is not home, and it is not safe.” Cyprus said. “The trial is yours to face. Not Kragn’s.”

“Not yours, either,” Staever spat. “Call my mother, or Graphus if you must. Have one of them spout the platitudes. We’ve gone twenty-five years without meeting each other. Why break the streak?”

“This is what you want to talk about?”

Staever rammed a claw into the dunes. “I’m not getting out. The way I see it, you’ve shown up to entertain me in my last moments.”

“Careful with your words,” Cyprus admonished. “You may be ashamed to have me as a father, but I’ve never been ashamed to have you as a son.”

“You talk like you hadn’t decided you’d rather raise Xander. Fine job there, by the way.”

“I see.” Cyprus looked thoughtful. “You are like her.”

“Watch it.”

“You know what you are,” said the apparition. “A thief by night and a thief by day. You know nothing of a double life.”

Staever could not retort. Cyprus didn’t change his expression, but the words were enough.

“I came to see you several times after Taiga’s visit to the pool. Your first dryland steps were an ordeal. But you did move. All your legs. We were so proud.

“I was in hearings for a vacant seat on the council. I never got the hang of anything Taiga taught me about stealth, and people started to see me in the Whites. I had to cut down on visits. Finally, to kill the rumors, I had to have a Pupil child.”

“Xander,” Staever said. “Born to hide me.” His fate was bound more tightly to his brother’s than he thought. He felt a shred of sympathy for Xander. Everything he’s ever done and wanted and been–all for the love Cyprus used up on my mother. On me.

“You could have given it all up,” he said. “Stayed, and raised me.”

“Council glass paid for my research into weather. Council security kept it quiet. Had I stayed, a hundred thousand lobsters would have dried out on the Forbidden Expanse.”

He wandered the pit. ”I had such plans, Staever. I would have strengthened the irrigation channels, expanded farming. Made the Eye a home for everyone.”

“Alone? What difference could you have made?”

“A strange proclamation for Staever the Traveler. Like it or not, you are my son in more than body. You’re carrying on my work.”

“Two idiot dreamers. Together in death.”

“You must make the choice to survive. There’s no other way.”

Staever remembered the plan he’d made while captive on the militia sled. Did I mean I’d fight two soldiers, or fight a whole damn continent?

“What’s so special about the Wall?” he blurted out. “How am I supposed to stop Kragn? How can I deal with whatever happened to the Clearing if I don’t know what it is?”

“Remember,” Cyprus commanded. “The Clearing is not home, and it is not safe.”

“The Clearing is all we have!”

The last thing he heard was, “Carry it to the end,” then–

“Staever!”

Farid was still under the cloak.

The pit, and his skeleton, were as dry as weed-paper. The scorching sun was high in the sky, and Wrest was standing on the rim.

“Staev, are you all right? Are you hurt?”

The mirage had gone, leaving a weak dying thing. He couldn’t answer.

Wrest rolled a bone jug down. Staever uncorked it with tremendous effort. Water trickled onto his claws, forcing the oppressive cloud to the edge of his brain.

He splashed more on his skeleton, slowly, to avoid convulsions. The grit of his sand coating washed away. When he could stand, he drained the rest of the canister.

Thirst hurt. It meant nausea, crawling through a world made of sandpaper; weakness, headaches, and death. A perfect drink of water could dispel them all at once. Staever would never have a better drink.

Wrest was lowering a rope. “Don’t talk,” he cautioned. “You’re still weak. Try your best to climb.”

Staever did as told. After two steps, his legs gave way again. He clung to the rope until feeling returned. His feet scratched against the sand walls, and the dunes gave a few times, but Wrest pulled him through. Soon, Staever lay prone on the rim of his prison.

“Wrest…” he tried to say, but nausea walloped him. A thief trusts nothing but his greed and his gang. The phrase rattled around his head.

“No thanking.” Wrest hoisted Staever onto his back. “You would have done the same. We’re getting you back, all right? I have more water. You’ll be safe.”

“Safe…” Staever croaked. “We’re riding into war.”

Wrest smiled so wide he must have been scared. “Yeah,” he agreed, “together.”

Wrest laid him across the sled, the big model he used to ride on hijackings. “The game has changed,” Staever warned. Something was battering the walls of his memory. “Kragn’s got Arcite demolishing the Wall. We can’t let them do it.”

“You told us.” Wrest handed Staever the sword that had killed Farid. “If Kragn puts the fleet in the water, we’ll never catch up.”

“It’s worse.” Staever stowed the sword. “The problem is the Wall itself. The phrase was ‘absolute catastrophe.’”

“What phrase? Where’s this coming from?”

Staever pointed at the pit. “It’s hard to explain. Down there…I had a chance to remember things. Things I’d suspected, but forgotten. Or ignored.”

“We’re up to our necks in mud either way,” Wrest shrugged, then produced the detail map. “I looked this over. Could it have anything to do with this weird blotch under the Wall?”

Staever had talked this over with Emaria while they sketched the detail one night. It had looked intentional, a sort of signature.

“Wrest,” he asked, suddenly cold despite the heat, “does that color remind you of anything?”

“Hm, red dye, red sand…”

They looked at each other as Wrest’s eyes went wide. Staever finished for him.

“Red clay.”

Wrest whipped the crab into life.

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Dead Man’s Thoughts

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Staever lay still. The heat had risen fast enough to make a mockery of his thirst tricks. Swelter seeped through his bones, enfeebling him, evaporating his last moisture. He lacked the strength to lift a claw.

By the ocean. How is this fair?

He thought of the glass-hauler and the key, the petition, the arena, the miraculous rains, the bridges, the air demon. Of how Farid had almost saved him, how his act of betrayal and faith had come to nothing.

A dead man’s thoughts. Wier and Alta would grow up in the general’s world, taught to hate. Even if Wrest could save them, Kragn would split them up. And Emaria, imprisoned for the rest of her life…he would have shared her cell, so she wouldn’t be alone. If only Kragn and Xander had let him choose his defeat.

That reminded him how Arcite wasted more clay when Eventhe disappeared, how Eventhe talked more to everyone when Arcite was around. They would never have another moment together. Kragn would bury them under the Great South Wall.

It isn’t fair. It isn’t right.

“Nor is it the end.”

The words came from beside him. But nobody else was in the pit. He swiveled his head and met a pair of eyes, staring back at him.

“Hello, Staever,” Farid said.

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Cutting for Sign

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Wrest halted at the edge of the desert to pour water on his crab. It could rest while he searched for sign.

It didn’t rest long. Three tracks in the sand caught Wrest’s eye. Kragn’s guards liked to grease the runners and leave the underboard dry, sacrificing steering power for speed. There was no set of tracks returning–maybe the wind had picked up on the outward journey, but been kind on the way back.

Or they stayed to watch him die.

He slapped the crab awake, then again to set it moving. The desert was as featureless at first glance as the Eye’s country. The mountains far away, the only landmarks, descended to headlands in the western sea.

If the soldiers had set on torturing Staever, then he was alive. And if he was alive, whether paces or miles away, Wrest could do nothing but drive faster.

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In the Dunes

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The sky was deep blue, heading for aquamarine. Staever moistened sand in his mouth and plastered it to his shell. He was beginning to bake in his skeleton, a crayfish roasting in a fire pit. He couldn’t remember his last solid drink.

It’s only a sand ditch. Climb out. He had to take stock before the heat got to his head. The walls towered twelve paces over his head, foul all around, piled into zigzagging dunes.

He scrambled for one wall and found purchase. As he reached to dig further up, his arm went numb. His foothold collapsed. Laughter died in his throat as he slid to the bottom, his aching legs dangling like rope.

Possessed now, he rammed himself against the wall as though he could beat it into submission. Each futile rush gained a little less height than the last.

“I need water!” Each time he slipped, he spoke to nobody: “I need shade! A doctor! A moon-cursed rope!”

He lay still. Nobody heard him but the soldiers, who couldn’t help anybody now. The sky was a shade away from crystal blue. What he needed was a priest.

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Hold the Wind Back

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Free from camp, Wrest gave up stealth and drove his crab at full speed. The sky was light enough to read the map, which meant day, which meant Staever cooking in the desert. Wrest read without slowing, one eye on the scroll and the other on the horizon. The desert beyond the trees offered nothing to steer around anyway.

The map was a detail of Turner’s, which Staever and Emaria had transcribed to note southern landmarks. Wrest plotted himself on a strip of marshland bounding the region of bad sand. The desert was full of sinkholes. Without a sign, he’d have to search every one. He crushed saplings and reeds with reckless abandon, charging forth lest he sink into the wet ground.

He used the northern mountain peaks to remain on course. Every time he drew a new mark with his bit of charcoal, the South Wall drew his eye. The Wall was one of the Architect’s last constructions, but Staever had no idea why Turner built it. The Clearing had no northern enemies.

Something aside from that was off about it. The pictograph featured a red stain, starting at the Wall’s core and spread out through the woods. Turner would have removed the stain if it were an accident. Apparently Emaria agreed–she’d copied it, after all.

The soil was turning to dry loess. He had distance to cover. Now was not the time to let his drowsy mind wander.

Once he hit sand, he would look for the tracks Kragn’s men left. He sent a prayer to the ocean to hold the wind back until midday.

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