Lightning hadn’t ever worried Torcha growing up. It wasn’t a problem for her the way it was for other folks. In the textile districts, floods were a bigger worry. Everything was too marshy to burn, too wet to catch even when lightning struck. But all that rain had to go somewhere. Hence why all the towns were balanced up on hilltops like little crowns.
But even Torcha knew it was bad news to be sitting in a wagon this tall on a plain this flat during a lightning storm.
For a while, she could hold onto the fiction that they might outrun the clouds. Riss was pushing the lizard hard and it had more stamina than Torcha gave it credit for. But it could only go whole-hog for a couple hours. Soon its run slowed to a dragging, exhausted lope, each of its footsteps scraping hard and loud against the salt. Neither she nor Riss had any idea how much longer it would last.
The mountains were closer, no longer vague suggestions on the horizon, but they weren’t close.
In the meantime, the sky grew darker. The wind shifted. Huddled on the pilot’s bench, Torcha shared a long look with Calay behind Riss’ back. He knew it was coming, too.
When Calay got scared, he didn’t really look scared. He just looked wild, like a spooked dog, ears perked and back stiff, whites of his eyes showing.
Straight ahead, the low, dusty mountains beckoned them like a mirage. The Flats threw off her sense of distance. There was no sense of scale, nothing to compare anything else to. Exactly how close they were was anyone’s guess.
“We’re not gonna make it,” Riss declared, watching the lizard from above. Its sides flared out with quick, hard-rasping breaths. It lashed its tail stump side to side, threatening and irritable.
“So we shelter under the wagon?” Calay asked, considering the sky.
“No,” Riss said. “Too risky. Unless we unhitch this guy, he could pull the wheels right over us if he spooks.”
“We should unhitch him regardless,” said Calay. “If the wagon catches fire, it’ll burn him up. And he’s our only ride out of here.”
“We could shelter in the ravine,” said Adal. “Climb down in, find a ledge or something…”
“There’s an idea.” Riss nodded.
Torcha was up in an instant, grabbing Gaz by the arm. They hurried into the barracks and began loading up packs with food and water and ammo. Torcha could lose the wagon. She couldn’t lose water. Not out here.
Thunder rumbled through the wagon’s walls. Strange. She only just noticed, but that was the first thunder she’d heard since they’d spied the storm on the horizon. That wasn’t normal…
But there was no time to ponder that. Food and water and guns secured, they hurried outside.
Out on the salt, wind whipped glittering dust through the air. If you squinted, you could trace them: currents of sparkles, salt thinned out to ribbons on the wind. Riss, Adal, and Calay surrounded the lizard on all sides, slowly closing in, attempting to pacify it and free it of its tether.
“What if it runs off?” Torcha called.
“It’s massive,” said Gaz. “And this place is flat as. We’ll be able to see it for miles if it does.”
The wind began to squeal, shrieking through the ravine below. Riss said something. Torcha didn’t hear it. She put a hand to her ear, signalling. Riss gestured, pointing toward the wagon. Was she asking her to stay back? Torcha backpedalled, then tucked herself into the doorway, sheltering herself from the wind. Gaz hurried up a moment later, ducking low, jacket raised up over his head to shield his face from shards of windborne salt.
“What?” Torcha called.
“Calay’s bag.” He squeezed past her into the hall. “He says he can calm it down, but he’ll need blood to–“
Thunder cracked directly overhead. It sounded like the ground beneath their feet was tearing apart. Torcha’s ears rang. She didn’t hear the rest of what Gaz said, but she got the gist. She found it hard to care whether Calay witched the lizard. Apart from her general mistrust of witching, a lizard was a lizard and it wasn’t a person and it wasn’t her, so he could do what he liked. Anything that would get them out of there any quicker.
Through the howl of the wind, she couldn’t hear any rain. A dry storm then. Like Adal had said.
Voices outside caught her attention. She clambered up onto the pilot’s bench, wondering if there was anything she could do, some rope or harness she could unhook from here to assist.
Riss and Adal had got half the lizard’s harness off. It had puffed up threateningly, facing Calay with an open mouth and a hiss that might have been a hiss or might have been the wind. Torcha had never seen a galania angry before. It gave a warning stomp, claws digging into the salt just beside Calay, who faced it down calmly, without moving. His spooked-dog look was gone, replaced by an icy scowl of concentration.
The air took on a funny smell, sharp and crisp and acidic.
Then another funny thing happened: Torcha’s hair rose up, curls lifting off her neck. Goosebumps prickled up her arms.
She didn’t have long enough to fully form a thought, to wonder what was going on.
Electric blue light exploded across her eyes. Lightning struck something outside, whiting out her vision. Something squealed–lizard? wheels? wind? person?–and the floor tilted and shook. Bright-edged dark blobs danced through the air, afterburns like from looking at the sun too long; she couldn’t see shit. Grabbing for the closest doorway, Torcha held on tight as the wagon veered abruptly sideways. Something outside gave a horrible crunch. The walls shuddered and cracked and the sound of thunder and wind all roared together. All her senses but touch were flooded; she tasted copper in her mouth.
Funnily enough, there was just too much going on for panic to set in. Torcha dug her nails in, then braced one boot against each corner of the doorway. She held on tight as the wagon whirled, dragged all off-kilter. Had the lightning struck the lizard? She couldn’t say.
Her ears rang like someone had fired a rifle indoors. She wondered if Gaz was all right upstairs. All these thoughts came as split-second flashes as she reacted more with her body than her brain.
Through the high ring of endless, off-tune bells in her ears, she caught one word: out!
But before she could throw herself out the door, the wagon trembled once more, the planks beneath her feet vibrating and flexing as though they might fly apart at any moment. This was bad. They had to cut that lizard free, kill it if they had to. If Torcha had a clear shot, she’d ready her rifle and put one right between its eyes.
She never got the chance. The next impact jolted the wagon crazily. Her world tipped onto its side. She held on tight but then lost her grip as debris smashed into her from behind, something sharp impacting directly between her shoulder blades.
When she caught her last glimpse out the pilot’s window, she realized she couldn’t see the ground anymore. Only sky. A dark, boiling sky lit up blue from within, ribs and veins of lightning streaking across it like a glowing, living skeleton.
The wagon bounced, skidded. The sky was snatched away. Darkness swallowed her from beyond the windows and something deep within the wagon’s structure groaned and crunched.
Gravity punched her sideways into the doorframe as the panicked lizard dragged them down into the ravine.
When she came to, everything hurt. But hurt was good. It meant nothing was broken bad. In the early days of the woodland cells, their patchy camps beneath fat, dangling silkspiders in their webs, Jalacho had given lectures on rudimentary first aid. Torcha hadn’t really listened, young and angry and distractible as she was, but she remembered vividly his descriptions of what it felt like to get shot. He’d talked about slow, spreading numbness and pain and pain and pain until his brain grew kind of overloaded and the pain became an absence.
She’d always liked that morbid stuff.
She was tangled in what appeared to be a curtain or awning, a disorienting swaddle of scratchy dark canvas. Crawling up out of it, Torcha felt smooth wood under her palms, bonked her elbow into a light fixture, and realized she was laying on the ceiling.
Outside, the storm still raged, but at such a distance her nerves couldn’t summon concern about it.
She blinked and thought back to Mosz’s story. The boy in the ravine, pursued by his far-off pile of hungry, vengeful bones. She wondered if this was the ravine from the story. She wondered if any bones awaited them. If anything was gaining on them besides thousands of scorpions.
But those thoughts were soon replaced by more practical concerns.
Could she walk? Yes.
So where was Gaz?
And what had happened to everyone else?
And–at this, her hand went to her belt–was there a pissed off building-sized lizard down here with her?
Her sidearm was gone. Her shoulders throbbed. Feeling along the wall, aided by the occasional flash of lightning, she groped around in the dark until she found the curtain rod. Bracing her boot against the wall, she pulled hard until it snapped free in her hands. Then she felt for which end was the sharpest, the most splintered, and aimed it out before her like a spear.
It barely felt like being armed.
Was it bad that she hoped the lizard had died in the fall? Sure, it was their only way out of the Flats, but firstly, this disaster was its fault and therefore it was a bastard. Secondly, she wanted to call out to Gaz, but if the damned thing was down there, pissed off and wounded, lashing out as critters were wont to do when hurt…
Broken wood crunched under her feet with each step. It was slow going through the ruined wagon, ducking and crawling through spaces too narrow for most people. But the sporadic lightning helped her. Soon, she spied a way out: a busted maintenance hatch that led down toward the wheels and axles. She slid through it at a steep angle, feeling along with the tip of her curtain rod. The big front axle was splintered; no matter the state of the rest of the wagon, it wasn’t going anywhere. But even broken, it served a purpose: she was able to follow it out to freedom.
Falling onto her stomach, Torcha had to wiggle on her front to escape the wagon’s wreckage. She pulled herself along the ground, which was still dusted with salt even down this far.
She planted her palms on the ground to lever herself free. They touched something slimy and wet and warm.
With a heave of her arms, she dragged herself entirely free of the wreckage, palms slip-sliding in dark, viscous liquid. Rolling onto her side, she emerged from the wagon’s shadow, saw the slick stuff down her arms and torso was the lizard’s blood. She stayed like that for a moment, sitting at the bottom of the ravine, eyes raised toward the spread of storm clouds overhead.
The dry air tingled when she breathed it. Wind whipped past the ravine’s mouth, screaming up above like a vengeful ghost. The impact had scattered her brain so fiercely she couldn’t remember any warding words, any good prayers, anything from the old town that might lend a scrap of ritualistic calm.
She couldn’t see a trace of the others. It was like she’d fallen down into hell.
Slow, wobbly on her feet, she took a walk around the wreckage. She had to step back, to give it some distance to really take in what had happened. Up close, it was all just a mess of wood and lizard meat. Distance gave her the perspective she needed.
The wagon had careened into the gulch nose-down, crushing the lizard from behind. Its bow was embedded in the galania’s back. The lizard’s forelegs were twisted and mangled beneath itself; its head lolled sideways, tongue a slab of sticky meat upon the salty floor. Possible the fall had killed it. Possible it had bled out after. The very front of the wagon had taken the worst damage, its axle cracked, wheels bowing out awkwardly. The pilot’s bench and the frontmost frame of the upper floor and roof were crunched in against each other in a folded v-shape.
But that wagon must have been made of sturdy stuff, because the bits that hadn’t directly impacted the ground looked all right. In fact, apart from the fact that it was tipped forward and its wheels weren’t touching the ground, the back half looked almost driveable. Torcha had just been unlucky enough to end up in the squished bits.
Gaz, though. Where had he been?
It was unfamiliar, this immediate nagging concern for others in the aftermath of a catastrophe. She hadn’t really felt that in the war, at least not ‘til the end.
This was new. It was inconvenient. But now that she felt it, she couldn’t just ignore it.
“Gaz?” She cupped a hand around her mouth and hollered in toward the wreckage. The wagon stayed silent. Nothing stirred inside.
Torcha planted the butt of the curtain rod onto the crunchy ground. She was going to have to climb back in there, wasn’t she.
“Gaz!” she yelled again. “C’mon big guy, at least tell me which window to crawl in!”
She just had to find him, that was all. He was in there somewhere. No way he could have tumbled out. He couldn’t even fit out the windows if given the opportunity.
Oddly enough, it didn’t even occur to her to worry that he might be dead. Somehow, on a level so deep she didn’t even consciously think it, Torcha assumed that if he was dead, she’d know. That whatever fucking unknowable fungus bullshit had Bridged them in the swamp had left some permanent smear across their minds. The three of them were mingled dye bleeding together over the edge of paper or cloth.
It wasn’t like she could read their minds, the boys from Blackbricks. It didn’t work like that. But ever since that moment, there’d been a strange thread of understanding woven through them. Gaz especially. He had a mind so unlike her own. So gentle and careful. Not in a nervous way. Not in a walking-on-eggshells way. More like he treated every person he ever met as though he was handling a newborn kitten: something precious and important that you had to be real careful with, not because you were worried you might destroy it but because it was alive and all things that were alive mattered.
Gaz had a fundamental goodness in him that Torcha wasn’t quite sure what to do with. A goodness she was cynically surprised Calay hadn’t exploited yet.
She’d feel it if that goodness got snuffed out of the world. If something so rare and unique was suddenly gone.
The world was vast and uncaring. But the Collective, the thing that had put its mark on all three of them, was not.
Wiping half-dried lizard blood off her hands, she climbed back into the wagon’s wreckage.
He was in there. She just had to find him.