Kragn

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“Go!” Wrest shoved his brother and sister forward.

Wier balked. “Aren’t you coming?”

“I have to guide the others!”

Alta sprinted into the gloom, but Wier wouldn’t move. “It’s a canyon, there’s only one way to go!”

“They’re going to wait, and if they do, they’re going to die. You get to go first.”

“Why?”

“Because I love you!” Wrest gave him a mighty push. “Run before I change my damn mind!”

Though his every cell cried to run after them, he clambered atop a boulder to face the stalled caravan. They still clung to one another’s backs. “We need to run,” he said, then louder, “Everyone, we need to run!”

Emaria disappeared down the line, relaying the message. Wrest was already off the rock, backpedaling, hoping nothing collapsed behind him. “Do not step anywhere I haven’t stepped! Carry the young, the old, the sick! Walkers at the front, then sleds!” His orders echoed off the walls, vibrating down the column. “Whatever you do, don’t stop!”

Lobsters kept pace behind him, pumping their legs. A young woman seized her father in her front claws, dragging him past Wrest.

Dust fell over them all. Wind whistled through the canyon. It opened a window in the fog and grit, revealing a group of lobsters facing the wrong direction.

“Stop,” Wrest ordered. The woman and her father kept moving. “Stop!

You said not to!

The lobsters blocked the whole canyon. He couldn’t see Wier or Alta or any of the ships, and a familiar rage was telling him to swing at these bastards until they listened…

A sharp pebble grazed his face.

The migration line, broken now, backed up against him. Some were shouting, and others had burst into tears. Who would block the way now? Cracks popped open beneath Wrest’s feet as he drew his blade.

“Patience, Wrest. I don’t want another accident like the boat.”

The world spun around him as he fought his way back to his senses. His blade dropped limply to his side. Three stone spears floated out of the darkness to face him.

One of them walked ahead of the others. Wrest blurted out, “No.”

“I’ve scouted this canyon,” Kragn said, the dull instrument in his claw. “This is the only way. If you turn around, you’ll never make it out alive.”

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The Air Demon

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Staever jumped up the instant the bird flew clear. Two pairs of claws pulled him back.

“What are you doing?” Eventhe hissed. “If you break our cover, you will only show it more food.”

“I don’t plan to stay here and watch.” Staever wrenched himself from her grip. “There are a hundred lobsters up there.”

“Hey, I know I’m the man of action and all,” Arcite cut in, “but Ev’s right. We can’t barge out there waving our claws.”

The clan lobsters ran from the bird that circled in the sky over them, beating its great wings to stay aloft. The demon didn’t dive. It was herding the lobsters together.

He turned to his friends. “I have an idea. It’s difficult and pretty stupid.”

“I don’t have an idea,” Arcite said. “Puts you a leg up.”

Staever looked again at the plateau. “We’ll all run up the bridge at once. That thing might go for us instead.”

“Then we get eaten,” Eventhe said. “Good plan.”

“If it works,” Arcite pointed out. “We’re aspiring to get eaten.”

“Will you let me finish?” Staever prepared to move. “Arcite, I need some red clay pellets.”

“What? When?”

“Ideally now.”

Arcite grimaced. “It’s a delicate process.”

“I trust you,” Staever said. Arcite opened his mouth to reply and gave up. “Once the demon comes near us, pelt it.”

“They won’t hurt it.”

“Just to knock it around. Make them small. We’ll need all the ammo we can get.”

Eventhe asked, “What will we do at the tower?”

“Get that clan where the bird can’t follow us,” Staever replied. “Let’s go!”

The three ran as fast as their legs would go, nearing the base of the southeast bridge. Arcite furiously shaved slivers off the chunk of clay in his satchel, rolling them into balls and sticking them along his back. They reached the stone slope right as the air demon dove past the left side of the bridge and circled to face them. One of its eyes was the size of his whole body, and its wings, with plumage the dirty grey color of the mountains, were long enough to wrap around a lighthouse. It was more building than bird.

It rose, far closer, flapping its wings. Silhouetted against the sun, it wheeled to face them.

“Get ready!” Staever called. Arcite speared a pellet on his claw. As Staever scrambled upwards, fatigue dragging his legs, the bird disappeared behind him. “Ev, distance on the demon!”

“Two hundred paces!” Eventhe called back. They weren’t halfway up the bridge. Throw true, Arcite…

Arcite skidded to a halt and looked the air demon straight in the eye. “One hundred–“ Eventhe began, and Arcite hurled the bomb.

By the time the pellet left his claw, the bird was close enough for Staever to feel hot breeze from its wingbeats. The bomb landed on its neck, followed by more explosions, four or five at a time striking wings and sticking to feathers.

A screech split Staever’s antenna. He opened his eyes to see the bird list sideways, beat its wings in vain, and tumble below the underside of the bridge. A few paces upward and it would have smashed the supports to pieces.

“Keep moving,” he croaked. Arcite tossed one more shot as the bird passed beneath. The pellet sailed short and plummeted toward the canyon below.

“I said to save your ammo,” Staever chided. Arcite grinned like a child. They kept running.

Another squawking cry tore his head open, closer and more painful than the last.

“Do not move!” Eventhe called.

“What?” Something in her voice made him stop. On his right, a grey-feathed inched up above the edge of the bridge.

“The air demon has hooked its talons into the support structure of the bridge,” Eventhe said. Arcite hopped next to her, agitated as she was calm, playing out the urgency of her words. “It can reach you with its beak.”

“Arcite, can you hit it from there?”

Arcite shook his head. “Not going near that thing.”

Staever could have strangled him. “I’m going to make a run for it!”

“No! Stay where–”

He dove and scampered. The bird smashed its beak where he’d been seconds ago. The bridge groaned at the blow. He shielded himself with his claws as the beak rose again.

Eventhe sped past him, dragging Arcite. The bird tried to look in two directions at once. Staever ran.

The demon disentangled one talon, but Eventhe was ready for it. When its feathered body sprawled over the bridge, beak snapping at its prey, she swung her claws at its eye.

It screamed once, then twice, as though it had to draw breath. Blood, a hideous shade of red, leaked from its eye. Its wings beat feebly.

At long last, its grip on the bridge loosened, and it fell backwards into the chasm. Staever, Arcite, and Eventhe didn’t stop until they hit solid ground.

Arcite began to laugh. “Ev, did you punch that thing?”

“I did what I trained for,” she replied. Suddenly she was looking at Arcite. Staever, though stunned at what they’d driven off, pictured Emaria looking at him that way. Impossible.

“Staever!” somebody shouted. With a surge of excitement, he saw the clan gathered against the pile of dirt at the shrine’s foundation, turning to each other in puzzlement. Only Xander, in front, showed no emotion. An old man emerged out of the shrine’s shadow, pushing through the crowd.

“Graphus,” Staever muttered.

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The Ancient Way

Wrest, too, decided to defer the Kragn problem. If the canyon was as dangerous as Emaria suspected, Kragn would be in the same trouble. Better to settle the lobsters in the Clearing, with full bellies and wet shells, and see if Kragn had the nerve to upset that.

Lobsters milled about the dark path. Nobody took a step.

“What’s going on here?” Wrest asked.

“I wouldn’t build a garden wall out of this stuff,” said an engineer. “I’ve seen cold fire before, but never so full of holes. It’s unstable.”

“Rock is rock,” Wrest replied. “This is the only way to the plains. We can be through by nightfall.”

Emaria pushed through the crowd. She’d managed to pull Alta and Wier away from their clan playmates, and Wrest was grateful. Now of all times he wanted to know where they were. “Watch.” Emaria stepped onto the rock. “Nothing, right?”

She didn’t sound convincing. The column didn’t look convinced. Wier and Alta cowered at the head of the group.

Wrest tried to come up with something else. As a child, he’d been scared to walk under a footbridge by his family’s house. Staever had showed him how the old nomadic lobsters used to form a line that walked as one.

He called Alta over, knowing Wier would follow.

“Put your claws on the sides of my tail,” he told her. “Like this.”

“This feels weird,” she complained. “My arms are all stretched.”

“You need to be the first links, all right? I know you can. Wier, do the same to your sister.”

Emaria held onto Wier, lengthening their chain to four. “Same thing on me,” she said to the engineer. “Don’t be afraid.”

The engineer balked for a second, then fell into line.

“Form a few lines!” Wrest called, as the rest of the column began to join. “It’s wide enough for four. Ships in the back like always. Nobody lost. Nobody left behind.”

“This is brilliant,” Emaria said as they walked. “Ancient migration habits. You’re playing on memories they don’t know they have.”

“I’d thank the lobsters of old, but they got us into this,” Wrest grunted. “Founding cities. Rookie mistake.”

When the canyon narrowed, four lines became three with much fuss and shuffling. They feared the walls. The ships scraped the sides of the gulch.

The morning disappeared. They walked in silence, as though talking would disturb the black rock. Alta didn’t remove her claws from Wrest’s abdomen. Each step turned more solid ground to scrap gravel, until Wrest was crossing a huge bag of mud.

The pinprick sunlight through the mist rose high in the sky, and still they struggled on. The scraping of the ships’ blades fell away, replaced by his own labored breathing.

He risked a look at Cyprus’s map, The sharp turn ahead could have been one he saw plotted, putting the column halfway through. His gut began to unknot.

A rumble from far off.

He jumped. Alta’s claws slipped off his abdomen. He’d stepped wrong in the gravel, had angered something sleeping. Grinding sounds echoed over his head, even as he stood still.

The map was in his claws, the blue shadow accusing him. We followed the rules! It isn’t raining!

“Get back from the walls! Pass it down!” Hundreds of voices relayed his words.

A million years of pebbles ground loose from the high walls, rolling down the crag toward the lobsters.

Not dangerous while it’s raining. Dangerous after it rains. The first monsoon knocks loose all the rocks, and they land down here.

The first pebbles landed–some the size of sand, some as big as a lobster’s eye–like clay pellets exploding. Then the storm broke.

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The Dark Path

The Glass Thief is back! From now on, expect regular updates Wednesdays and Fridays until the story is finished. Read on!

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.

I’m a self-supported artist, and I rely on donations to keep bringing you The Glass Thief. Check out my Patreon to see the bonus content you can get if you pledge. Even $1 a month helps–and gets you a personal shout-out!

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The Nexus

Hey readers! As you may know, my other web serial, The Clockwork Raven, is nearing its conclusion. I’m only a few chapters from the end, and in order to focus on concluding it how I want to, this story will go down to one update a week, every Saturday, until the other story ends, likely sometime in December. I apologize for the delays posting these, and promise to keep to the schedule from now on–and go up to twice-weekly again when I can focus on this story more.

On with the chapter!

Next morning, as they struggled along yet another bridge, Staever admitted they were beginning to grate. They all seemed to travel uphill. There was always another after they finished one. The sand surfaces were smooth enough to make footing difficult, and several times Staever or Eventhe or both had to leap for Arcite’s claws lest he slide into a crag. Their one consolation was the bridges getting wider.

“It’s like that first one was an outpost,” Staever said as they caught their breath on a ledge in the side of a cliff face. “And now we’re approaching some sort of nexus.”

“There is the aerie I saw on the horizon,” Eventhe said. “Xander may have followed it. There are few other landmarks.”

“Liar,” Arcite wheezed, rubbing the leg he’d stubbed on a hairline crack three bridges ago. “I saw first.”

They’d seen the tower at full light: a slightly asymmetrical three-story shrine clinging to a misshapen foundation, hanging off a mountainside in the distance. It looked impossible, but all Eye architecture did, without knowledge of sand compression or yellow clay.

“Do you have a trail?” Staever asked Eventhe.

“The sand on the bridges is packed too tightly, and the yellow clay has waterproofed it,” she replied. “A thousand lobsters could leave no sign.”

“If that was Turner’s base when he built these, he might’ve kept supplies there. Food and water.”

“Xander may have thought the same.”

“I hope there’s some clay.” Arcite glowered. “I want to blow one of these bridges up. They’re annoying me.”

The three thieves dashed onward, skirting potholes and flying over canyons at dizzying heights, seeking the nexus aerie. By midday, it stood in stark relief against the solid blue sky.

When they reached the causeway leading to it from the southeast, Staever saw two others spaced equidistant around the mountain, one running southwest, the other north. He held up a claw.

“I hear voices.”

Arcite and Eventhe listened. Then, excited, they began to move.

“Get down!” Staever dragged them both behind a boulder. The clan ahead, barely visible, hadn’t been chattering happily. Their shouts were full of fear.

Before anyone could speak, a shadow swooped across the sun.

Had the manatee watercraft had returned to pick them off? No. He remembered his long nights with the scrolls full of lore.

The shadow beat its wings with a piercing scream.

“An air demon,” he said.

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Across the Skies

Eventhe trailed prints through the mud left by the monsoon, leading Arcite and Staever. Occasionally she stopped in the middle of a vortex of footprints and reorient herself. The lack of bodies on the path heartened Staever–the rain must have overtaken them as they beat their way northeast.

But it perturbed him as well. If Xander’s clan had drunk their fill, why hadn’t they turned around? Were they under Xander’s power, or afraid of something else?

The scrub fell away, then the dirt, leaving the trio on rocky trails. The blade-edge of the mountains hove into view, growing gloomy as the sun set under clouds. Eventhe had to spend more time picking scratches out of the natural marks on the surface of the rock. Arcite kicked pebbles over cliffs and hummed to himself.

“Can you shut up?” Staever asked after a few minutes.

“You got it.” Arcite fell silent. The only sound was their feet crunching on the path and water sloshing in their skins. The quiet got Staever thinking about how little he’d planned this. What if Xander was setting up an ambush?

“Changed my mind. Start humming again.”

“Don’t know what you want from me, boss,” Arcite said, and quickened to join Eventhe.

Sunset ended too soon, leaving them in the grip of a chill. They kept warm by marching in place while Eventhe searched for signs. Staever was too unnerved, Eventhe too disciplined, and Arcite too outvoted to rest.

The Land Moon was high above them, and the valleys had deepened into canyons, when Staever called a halt. Eventhe reminded him of Xander’s headstart.

“If we get too tired we’ll lose time,” Staever declared. “Besides, three can always move faster than a hundred.”

The plateau was smooth from eons of wind and whipping rain. Prospects for a warm hollow were bleak. The others wandered ahead.

Soon Eventhe called his name. Arcite’s voice floated down as well: “Boss, come check this out!”

They’d stepped down to a ledge on the side of the plateau. Staever followed their calls, then stopped in his tracks.

A bridge spanned the chasm: springing from their ledge to a lower plateau hundreds of paces away. It was made of a patchwork of materials–a packed-sand body with rock struts bored into the opposite faces, supporting the center.

Staever held his breath: from the bridge, the sweep of rock seemed an ocean, mountains tumbling over each other like a storm frozen at its peak. He, Arcite, and Eventhe became castaways, clinging to the shore, fearing their first steps into the void.

“There’s yellow clay here somewhere,” Arcite said.

Staever agreed. There was no other way the bridge could stay up. It floated on air.

Arcite grabbed Eventhe by her claw and pulled her onto the bridge, forcing Staever to chase them both over empty space. At once, the thought of rest disappeared. A third of the way along, two shadows twisted as Eventhe let go of Arcite’s claw and hurtled down the bridge. Arcite skidded after her, his footing awkward. Eventhe turned around, and lifted her mask enough for Staever to tell she was grinning. The emptiness around her entered her. The air made her whole. He’d ever seen her move so fast without a target ahead.

Staever ran like he was treading on nothing. If only Emaria could see this. The grandeur of the Clearing, right here in the sky. Turner himself might have been here.

Halfway along, he saw another bridge leap out near this one’s end. Other spars of sand connected the next plateaus: an aerial network so large the Land Moon could not show it all.

At the end of the bridge he found Eventhe and Arcite in a notch of the rock, lying against each other. Arcite snored. Staever dropped nearby, shut his eyes, and slept.

***

Eventhe watched Staever fall asleep, Arcite’s weight against her, her shell warm where he’d laid his head. Only when she was certain both were asleep, certain the alcove was safe and concealed, did she drift off, listening to Arcite breathe.

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The Chase Begins

As the rainfall slackened, Wrest and Emaria caught up to Staever on the edge of camp. He was packing his belt with water jugs made of bone, a shell-blade at his side. Arcite and Eventhe were with him, she filling more jugs from a jury-rigged communal vat, he packing some dried beetle. “Are you three going somewhere?” Emaria asked.

Arcite piped up, “We’re going after Xander!”

Staever shot him a look, then turned to Wrest and Emaria. “It’s true. I don’t know what in three moons he thinks he’s accomplishing, but I’m not going to let his clan suffer because I was dumb enough to put him in charge.”

“What are you going to do?” Emaria glanced toward Staever’s sword.

“Try not to hurt him.” he replied, unsmiling. “We don’t have much time to catch up. I’m taking Arcite and Eventhe as bodyguards. I need you two to lead the column.”

“We need you here. People work for you, send one of them.”

“I can’t. Xander’s my mistake.” Staever put a claw on each of their shoulders. “I trust you both. Follow the maps. Don’t do anything dangerous.”

“I’ll take care of your city.” The relief in Wrest’s voice mirrored Emaria’s. Before the rainstorm, Staever would never have taken his eyes off the caravan.

Arcite waved, Eventhe nodded, and both turned away. Staever turned to Emaria. “Em. I…”

He was worried. But what about? Half the jobs they’d pulled were more threatening than Xander could ever be.

“I’ll see you again. Be back soon.”

He scampered away to join Arcite and Eventhe, headed north.

At once Emaria buckled, certain his farewell had been a lie. Sea, bring them all back. Staever doesn’t deserve it. And I’ve hurt Xander enough.

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The Monsoon

Staever’s back foot caught on a rock and tumbled it into the culvert. The lobsters advanced, swallowing the priest. Staever pressed against the rock as clan after clan converged, hundreds of dry voices shouting at once.

“Where’s the water?”

“You lied to us!”

“We’ll take you down with us!”

“Quiet!” It came out as a squeak his conch couldn’t amplify. He needed water.

The rough rock scraped his tail, then his legs–

–the rock was damp.

Water trickled through the trench, branching into new cracks, mixing with the dust. The first drops were halfway to being mud. Staever drank them as fast as his thirsty shell could.

He risked a look uphill. The dry wash cut through the prairie before jumping up a precipice dark with clouds.

It rains up there, we get it here. Like a canal.

Those at the front pressed close, like Staever was about to perform a magic trick. The roadmen felt the trickle too: they hunched in the mud, grubbing for water, ignoring everyone. He burst past them to climb the cliff.  “Move aside! Get out of the ditch, stand higher up!”

Wrest appeared, Emaria behind him, both baffled. Staever sent them off to part the camp while he rushed to and fro–moving tents and fires, setting crews to drag ships clear.

The stream crashed down the mountains, filling a ditch he hadn’t noticed before. The bunches of dead grass must have hidden dormant seeds for this moment.

The mob dispersed into the camp and spread out along the banks, everyone embracing the water. At first, nothing could get past the thirsty lobsters near the mouth of the gully, but then the squall behind the flash flood moved over the plains and opened up the sky.

People carried the sick and weak into the downpour. Rich and poor alike climbed onto the moored sandships, dancing, jumping to get closer to the rain. Children threw it on their parents, who grabbed buckets and bottles and filled them to the brim.

Staever organized those who could carry water, and sent them doubling back to find as many dryout victims as they could. Refugees clapped him on the back and shook his claw as he gave them directions. Half the groups returned within an hour, telling him the long gully watered all but the tail end of the column, and others had beaten them there.

Moments before, his people had nearly torn him apart, but what choice did he have but to forgive them? He hadn’t believed in the monsoons either.

The map sheltered under a scrap of canvas strung up in the camp. This rain would sweep south, over the highlands and plains, into the forests where the Clearing waited to receive them. Only Cyprus, the fearful governor, had been able to dream of it all, knowing he would die without seeing it.

In that downpour, Staever could stand to be Cyprus’s son.

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Crowd Control

Biting winds rolled in with the grey. Wrest and Emaria huddled behind a boulder to keep warm. It offered a good vantage point across the valley, toward a large gathering of incensed lobsters.

“Who’s that?” Emaria asked. “Xander?”

“No,” Wrest said. “It’s Staever.”

The lobsters had Staever backed against a short cliff circling into a rocky culvert, leading up. He was saying something while backing away.

“He’s in trouble. I’m going down there.”

“Wait!” Emaria pinched Wrest’s tail. “We should get the soldiers. They can control the crowd.”

“Absolutely not.” Wrest walked on.

“You’re going to risk Staever’s life because you’re–”

She broke off.

“I’m what?” Wrest asked from the crest of the hill.

“Was that a drop?”

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The Departure of Xander

Near morning, Staever found himself alone.

It was an illusion of the darkness, burning away with light in the west. But in the moment it hadn’t looked that way.

His friends were strung out along the line. Emaria had been avoiding him, and he had no clue why. It didn’t matter to Arcite whether anybody else dried out, and Eventhe had never been the ideal confidant. Whenever Staever sought out Wrest, the big lobster was paging through a sheaf of weeds he’d hide when Staever got near.

“Wrest, what’s in there?” he asked when he found him after sunrise, too tired to be polite any longer.

Wrest looked away. “I want to tell you, Staev. It’s just–better if you don’t know yet.”

“How bad could it be? Why won’t anybody tell me anything anymore?”

Emaria appeared, a dark look on her face. “I guess I’m about to find out why I haven’t seen you all night?” Staever asked.

“We need to stop.”

Wrest slipped off with his seaweed sheaf.

Emaria led Staever to a dozen lobsters lying in the scrub. Though their faces were half-buried by windblown dust, he recognized an entire clan: a whole family sapped of strength. The one who remained on his feet shot Staever an accusatory glance.

“How many more?” he asked, dread mounting.

“I’ve been riding on Northern Cross. I’ve seen others fallen.” Emaria’s voice broke, though she was too dry for tears. “They’re not dead yet. But they can’t get to the rain, Staever. They can’t move.”

“Have you fed them?”

“It doesn’t make any difference.”

At the start of the journey, Staever had made special provisions for the sick. He’d never considered what to do when everyone was sick.

“Let them stay.” The sunrise wasn’t coming right. Gray light fell on the whole column, making the desert more forbidding than ever.

“What?” Emaria demanded. “Are you saying to abandon them?”

“The only thing that matters now is getting somebody to rain. If people can’t walk, leave them with someone who can watch them. We’ll come back.”

“You said yesterday it might not be enough rain. Isn’t that why you made us walk all night in the first place?”

“Yes!” He stalked away from her. “I’m changing my mind!”

“You said never to split up,” she shouted at his back. “You said that’s how we’d die. Did you forget?”

Her being wrong made it no easier to look her in the eye. The quarter of the valley ahead was windswept and empty, and he made up his mind to range ahead of the column, to meet the monsoon head on.

Suddenly the valley wasn’t empty.

Xander came toward him. As he neared, Staever saw a pack of lobsters following him, all equipped for a journey.

The awful possibility Staever had been trying to ignore was true, and Emaria had known. He wasn’t the only one planning to split the column. How could he have been so stupid as to give Xander any power? “Xander, have some patience. I can show you the map.”

“You expect us to believe rain will come,” Xander said. “It’s madness. I’m cutting my losses and taking this group home.”

Staever felt a sickness unrelated to his parched shell. Xander’s ranks of followers had swollen from what he’d been granted. A hundred lobsters shouldered packs behind him.

“We are returning to the Eye, back to the sea, to rebuild. You can’t stop us. Neither can Kragn.”

“You’re insane.” Staever raised his voice, hoping the clan would hear him. “You’ve got no water, no food, no idea where you’re going…”

“Neither do you!” Xander shot back. “We lost everything because of you. I will lead these people to recover it.” Though the deposed governor was as dust-covered and weary as the rest of them, his voice swelled with pride. He walked up the trail, his clan following behind, different from the way they’d come.

Staever was too dry to shout. The plain behind the departing column fell silent.

Others had seen Xander leave. Three desert farmers, middle-aged but still imposing, were the first to accost him. “What’s going on?” demanded the largest. “Where’d that clan go?”

“They’re looking for water.”

He could have imagined it, but he felt a tiny bit refreshed. His senses heightened. Some life returned to his legs.

The sky remained grey. After sunrise, but lit like the hour before dawn.

Time to make a wager. Here or nowhere.

“If they’re looking for water,” the farmer said, “what are we doing here? Isn’t the water supposed to come to us?”

“It is.” Their surroundings didn’t fit the map. Yet he’d felt a drop. “I’m stopping the column here.”

“What’s different about here? It’s the same desert. With more dying lobsters.”

Staever’s heart jolted. A crowd gathered behind the farmers–men, women, and children, farmers and merchants, engineers and sea-monks.

His instincts kicked in. He searched for an escape route. A trio of road-builders had moved in front of the path to high ground, but there was a ledge he could scale for a headstart.

A monk spoke up. “Water cannot fall from the sky. Water comes from the sea, and returns to the sea. The sea cannot get here.”

The mob wasn’t going to hurt Staever. If I’m right…

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