I was alone.
As I limped over the molten glass lake, only one set of footsteps cracked the crumbling skin. My heart floundered in my breast, still wracked even with the argument behind me. Salty, sour venom dewed on my fangs, my anger leaking out. My tail uncoiled from my leg, and I drew a shuddering breath, and bit back a cough.
Every motion and habit stood salient in my awareness, with no one else and nothing else to distract me. The vog renewed its constrictions, so much darker now without the figure in bright-white leading me. I took another breath.
I needed to dig up five more stones, prove to Hinte I could help her, and convince her to tell me the secret behind all this.
Five stones. We had collected about seven or eight together. Could I collect so many more before we left the Berwem? I needed time, but how much? I fanned my frills, listening for a sound I hadn’t heard since we left.
In town, we measured time in rings. High up on one of tallest cliffs, in the timekeeper’s belfry, they kept a massive glass carillon. It rang piercing and melodious, and rang fifty-four times a day. Four of those rings, the dawn rings and the dusk rings, sang the loudest. Ten of those rings sang loud too, loud enough to be heard deep in the cliffs by the sifters, the farmmasters, the patrolling guards and anyone else in the cliffs with or without a reason. The remaining rings, softer trills, had no such ambition; and you only heard them in the town.
We called the louder rings ‘long rings,’ and the smaller ones ‘short rings.’ If you needed to talk about something lasting longer than a few heartbeats or tongueflicks, you measured it with rings. Two rings, three rings, half a ring — even a third of a ring. (Digrif used that last one all the time, but I didn’t know why.) However they measured it, the town loathed using anything more descriptive than the plain, obtuse ‘ring.’ Yes, which ring is sometimes clear from context, but for me it never ever hurt to be precise.
Why? Because I had floundered for the first cycle living here. What else could all this talk of rings have been but another example of the Grymri’s frilly obsession with glass-working and metallurgy? So I dismissed it. And I had continued in my ignorance until Sinig-gyfar had lain me down and explained the system one day. I had blown the shop, the Llygaid Crwydro, a whole cowload of wet ash, a cowload that Mawrion-sofran told me to lash and lead back to the shop. But I had flown by the supplier two long rings after the ash had hardened and grown worthless. I almost lost my job that day.
I never lost count of rings, big or little, after that.
Stumbling over a crag brought me back to my senses with a gasp and a lightning strike pulse of my heart. I crouched, made my footing extra, extra secure and looked around, glaring at the vicious crags and spineless dustone skin.
My gaze softened as it lifted and roamed around me, looking for something to anchor my mind in the lake, instead of wandering through my memories. I looked at the shrouded blotches of sunslight, which had already moved from their last position.
Hinte had never told me when she planned for us to return. But we left town in the evening, three long rings before second dusk. The last proper long ring, reverberating through the cliffs around us, came vaguely on our way toward the lake; and on the tail of the first dusk ring, we’d flown down into the smoke and vog. Just one more would sound before the day alighted. I never lost count of rings.
So, came the natural question, when should I find and reunite with Hinte? After the second dusk ring? It sounded good enough and maybe gave me enough time to sift five stones — if I worked fast. The task pressed down upon me like that, knitting itself into a tight knot in my belly.
Starting forward again, I still eased the weight I placed on my injured foreleg. The tedium of marching over the Berwem gave me something to lose myself in, at least. Even if I could do without the dust and dirt in my foreclaws. Or the reeking vog burning my throat raw. Or the soreness settling into all of my limbs, but especially my forelegs, where the constant ripping away of glass felt like I didn’t even have scales there anymore.
I yelped when too much weight fell down on my injured foreleg. Without Hinte here, I could fly now. It would ease the strain on my legs. Should I? Flying took less time, put me in less danger, and I liked to fly. Hinte said it would tire me out, but unlike her, I would take breaks. Yet something she said echoed in my frills.
“I need to feel the crysts.”
“Oh, really?” I said aloud. Hinte had fanned her frills to feel that annoying hum. It tasted so obvious! How else had she found all of those half-buried crysts?
I fanned my frills, an imitation of that dark-green wiver. Five crysts. I could do this.
Even after a while, my frills hadn’t felt anything interesting. Only my amplified footfalls and the low, slow groan of the Berwem as the currents below distorted the skin.
Time had passed with nothing to show for it. Did Hinte have some secret trick for finding out these stones?
Sighing, coughing, I lifted my canteen to soothe my throat with another draught of alien coolness, and kissed the glass bottle. I should have brought a dozen more like it. Dressed in patriotic red and yellow cloth, the glass canteen stood tall and just wide enough I couldn’t wrap my foot around it. I could empty two of them between one long ring and the next, or just one if I rationed, and you had to ration in the lake.
I shook the thing. By now this second canteen had only a sixth left, maybe dozen or half again swallows. I did have one more of them, but it’s been ten swallows since I left Hinte, and I’d never gone this long without anything happening before.
What if I lowered my head really low as I walked? I had never seen Hinte do it, but it didn’t sound so silly to me. Though when my fourth, or maybe my fifth attempt at it revealed a faint rumbling below me, my eyes cleared and I had to choke down a sigh for fear of coughing again.
Doing it this way would only reveal stones sunken deep in the lake, out of reach. But… this was given me my only result since trying this gambit.
After some shuffling around to find the start of the hum, and some extra pacing I stood close enough above it, so I made to grab it. Maybe it did lay too deep in the lake to grab, but I needed to find five crysts. I needed to try.
I punched the ground. It broke with a sizzling crack. Three more punches opened a glowing hole in the skin. Prickling numbness once again enveloped my foreleg as I offered it to the lake. The molten maw swallowed me, first my claw, then my knee, then my upper leg — as far as I dared to reach. Toetips grazed the surface of the stone.
Staring into that glowing maw, there was an echo of the sound of dustone slamming against my stomach. My eyes paled, and for just a moment, I again teetered on the edge of that maw, with a fiery line of pain running up my leg, breaths away from joining my lunch in the burning lake.
My fist had clenched in the lake. I relaxed it. Just a little bit farther, just a few more lines of scales swallowed, and I still couldn’t grasp the stone. But I wouldn’t — couldn’t — feed more of myself to the lake.
I pulled my foreleg out, wiping the glaze from my leg without thinking. But I stopped and sighed: no point.
I needed a plan to retrieve the stone. Could I reach in with both legs and wiggle it up? No, that could push it further down. If I had a stick or something, I could nudge or even pull it up. Hinte might have something like that. Anyone could think of it. Even if she didn’t sift submerged stones.
So, what angle was I not considering? All those ideas relied on bringing the stone closer to me. Could I bring myself closer to the stone? No, that sounded frilly. But no, they didn’t only bring the stone closer to me, they also brought the stone closer to the surface. Could I bring the surface closer to the stone?
My forefoot pressed down. The skin flexed. If I put more weight on, it would flex even more.
“And if I fell onto it…”
My wings spread. A leap, and several wing-beats had me in the air. When the vog blurred the ground below me, I stopped threshing. I plummeted. But I panicked, instinct animating my wings. My fall stopped a wing-beat above the ground.
Rising to that height again, I steeled myself. I needed to stop wasting time! So I dropped myself mid-flap, as if to trick myself into falling. And it worked; I crashed against the dustone. The crash beat the breath out of me, and the ground hit my legs like a lightning bolt. I bent and gave, falling onto my belly, but too late to save my legs from the pain.
I groaned. “This was a bad idea.”
The ground gave in its own way. The crash turned to a crater in the skin and then a wave rippling away from me. A massive crack filled my frills. It reverberated and echoed, the lake’s own pained groan. Hinte had said something earlier about sound attracting monsters, hadn’t she?
As if the blow to my legs wasn’t enough.
The crash to the dustone ripped wide my hole. Around it, the skin was shattering into several smaller plates. My crater dipped below the molten sand, and now glass trickled in at the fringes. I reached into the widened mouth again, looking away. My knee had sunk in before I touched the stone. I grasped it then, while sliding the leg’s pair in.
As it emerged from the lake, the vibration doubled. I sat the stone on one of the floating plates, near its middle, before wiping my forelegs hard, and only removing the largest hunks of glass.
My frills bristled at a distant crunch, but nothing emerged from the vog. The lake still groaned after my crash had upset the flow underneath, some of the plates still grinding together. They didn’t sound like that, though, so maybe the crash had done something unseen?
Grabbing the stone, I slinked away from the crater in a high walk. Moving with the stone in my feet, I stumbled and dropped it twice. I shifted it to my already injured leg. That helped, but not enough to not make me feel like a tortoise.
The crater faded behind me. I slowed down, and lifted the stone, my eyes clearing to see it. It looked a chalky white-green, in a saucer-like shape thickening at the center. Any lingering glass glazed and cracked on the vibrating surface.
The vibration, weaker than the others, took long moments to slough off the glass, longer than the other stones had taken. And the stone didn’t glow. And even its slow rumble of a hum sounded lazy and sluggish.
Despite this — or really because of it — I liked this stone, finding it so much less annoying than the others. And the little guy had become the first of my stones. He deserved a name. I should give him a cliff-dweller name, since he had hatched in the cliffs, in a way.
“Hrm. Maybe I can call you… Sterk?”
The stone rumbled his assent. It sounded the same as his usual rumbles, but he didn’t really mind — couldn’t, rather.
“Good! You’ll be Sterk, the deepest cryst.”
I dug my claws into the stone — for his own good, I swear! His hum sputtered for a beat before recovering. Fewer fragments scurried to life. I picked off two of them to eat. They tasted sour, with a misleading hint of sweetness. I popped my tongue at the stone.
“You’re an odd one, Sterk.” He fell into my other bag, opposite the glasscrabs, where once my trout had sat.
I had done it! I got a cryst on my own. One down, four more to go.
In my bag, Sterk rumbled and rumbled, and never waned or faltered. It almost grated, really. When I had passed the stones off to Hinte, I hadn’t heard a single click or keen afterward. It just showed, again, how little I knew about sifting. Sterk sat in my bag, yet when my feet pressed against the glassier, more resonant plates of dustone, I could close my eyes and hold him in my feet again, feel his sonorous rumbles against my scutes.
I looked around, then at the old boring lake skin. Here, it had grown a little thicker. Had I walked into some cold spot? Did I near some shore of the Berwem?
I kept slinking the way I’d come from the crater, no point in changing tracks. But as the ground became thicker and gnarlier, I should have; I had been walking to one of the shores.
The cooler air here washed over my scales, and the vog almost cleared, and that clearness inspired my breath to dance in and out of my lungs. My throat still itched raw, so I still coughed and coughed. I choked them down and looked about.
I’d found no hint of any crysts on my journey away from the crater. The knot in my stomach knit itself tighter. Coupling this with how still and quiet my frills felt, and how Hinte didn’t sift at the edges anyway, it meant crysts had to form closer toward the center of the lake.
It raised another question, though. Just how did crysts form? Maybe the Berwem heat had something to do with it — it was cooler at the marge.
Someone had to have wondered about this before, right? I’d look it up at the library tomorrow, or ask Chwithach-sofran about it. I might even find something on what point these wretched stones had. A backup plan, if Hinte chose not to tell me, or I failed to collect five crysts.
No, only if she chose not to tell. I would find five crysts.
Whatever the reason, those stones had to lie closer to the center. So I turned at a sharp angle against my old course. Just enough to send me toward new ground, but angled to ensure I would walk back into the Berwem itself. Unless I had bungled it entirely and now walked along the shore instead of away. But for that, I would have to have stumbled some kind of corner, right? I wasn’t that starless. Right?
The knot in my stomach lurched, waxing to a dribble of tart anticipation on my fangs. As if my gut spoke to me. You have a time limit, it might say. I shook my canteen. My sixth of water had halved.
When I coughed again, the flecks were bigger, with globs of red in the mucus that didn’t look good at all. I had more than one time limit. It would be an empty victory to offer a bag full of crysts to Hinte only to fall over fainted or worse in the next breath cycle.
I looked at the sky. After I stopped moving; because I would not trip again! In the almost clear air, the hazy outline of a sun hung above, rendered purple by the vog. Try as I might, I couldn’t find the sun’s partner. Taken with the color dying fading on the west horizon, you guessed it: first dusk had fallen.
Enyswm, the lonely sun hanging above, seemed to linger. With the vog distorting the sun’s disk, you could stare at the wiggly lines at the fringe until you saw a frown there, a glimpse of the solar sadness of a sun bereft, for today, of his eternal partner.
When the morning came, he would chase Oleuni across the sky for five more days until the crestday of the cycle, when he would catch her at last. Enyswm and Oleuni would embrace for a single, teeth-chattering day, before falling into the next phase of the dance, where Oleuni would chase Enyswm until she finally caught him. Again and again.
We were near the middle of the cycle, so Enyswm would hang in sky for half a long ring after Oleuni fell. Both suns had hung in the sky when we left town, and Oleuni’s final rays reached out as I watched. Altogether, time chipped away with every breath and tongueflick. Time I needed to gather four stones.
I slipped my tail into my bag, wrapping around Sterk. Any pride I had in finding him lighted, then. He was just one stone. I need five.
But Sterk rumbled his encouragement from my bag, his vibrations intensifying at my touch. Maybe his lifeless vibration had fluctuated or maybe Sterk, aware and appreciative, had just wished me well. The first sounded about right, but I liked the ring of the second.
Emboldened, my steps became a determined stride, a copy of Hinte. But, limping on my injured foreleg, I didn’t look half as graceful. Yet I settled into a rhythm, and strode forward like that.
Then Sterk hiccuped. I jerked to a stop. Sure, he acted weird for a cryst, but I had never heard a stone’s vibrations change so — abruptly. Granted, I hadn’t heard much of the stones anyway, owing to that mysterious silence whenever Hinte took a cryst. Maybe stones had acted this way all along? There had to be a sense to this. The endless stars bid the world lawful.
Shuffling around, my frills angling about in every way, I felt the hiccup come again from one side. I walked along a path of the hiccups. Soon after, Sterk’s new stutters overtook his rumbles. The vibrations became a quick, rolling rhythm, and grew uneven as we tended close to the source.
I followed Sterk’s rumbling like that, giggling at the oddity of following a rock’s lead. A brainless rock.
Something skittering in the distance crunched. I crouched, flattening on the ground, and peered toward the source. And a shadow emerged from the shadows.
It came into focus, a little glassy rock scurrying forth. A glasscrab! Horned eyestalks gyrated, scrutinizing the world. It moved toward me, its steps settling into rhythm with Sterk’s new hum. The glowing eyes of the crab stared at my bag. Did crysts attract glasscrabs?
“Oh,thank you, Sterk. You are such a good rock,” I said before I leapt, some instinct taking over. I landed with a crash. The crab bolted! I growled. How could something so resembling a rock scurry around like an oversized insect?
But my foreleg was already in motion, expecting my prey’s fright. I clawed at an eyestalk, slashing, then ripping it from the crab. But the little bug wasn’t defenseless! Its other eye jabbed at me, and pierced my foot. I flicked my tongue. Something stunk. The crab’s smell? Urine?
I had killed the other one so much quicker than this — except it had been smaller, its glassy carapace under-developed. Grounding that one was simple. What to do about this one?
Glasscrab shells grew harder than the thin glass of the lake, and just punching it wouldn’t help. They were there to protect them from predators like me, after all.
I grabbed at the other eyestalk. It swerved out of the way! The crab writhed in my grasp. It ripped its last eyestalk out in its struggle! And, it scurried away like that. How were these things so agile!
Again, I leapt after it. But it expected me, even blind, and threw itself to the side.
“Come on, wretched little crab — I only want to ground you, drain your blood, then eat you.” Honestly, it wasn’t that bad of a deal. Better than living in the Berwem, for sure.
I landed beside the crab, farther away than the flightless little bug expected, and growled. Tired of playing with the crab, I punched the ground between us. Frowning, punching again, harder, the leg plunged into the lake. Little crab dug in, like fear. I grinned and lunged forth. My foreleg still prickled, plunged in the glass. It ripped wincingly through the skin as I leap forward.
I punched the crab with my free leg. It tipped without falling over. I grinned and brought my other leg under it and tore it out of the lake. Beneath the crab burst the skin! The crab flipped over. It landed on its back!
Did the little fiend have an answer to that as well? Before I could find out, I plunged my claw into its underbelly, ending the crafty little crab.
I twisted my claw inside the crab to be sure. After I cleaned off the icky blue blood, the crab slipped into my crab bag. It fit, but tightly. With my other bag only for crysts — five of them — I couldn’t ground another crab without abandoning its body. Three should be enough, though.
Turning to where the crab appeared, I walked over: and under the skin, revealed by the crab’s earlier digging, lay another pink cryst. Yes!
I collected the thing. It matched the Sterk in size, and unlike the drab green stone, it glowed happily. Already, fragments scuttled across the surface, stirred most around some holes on the surface.
So, did the crabs feed on these crysts? It raised another question: What were the scuttling fragments? I’d taken them to be some living part of the stones, but maybe the vibrations just attracted them as well.
Should I name the new stone? It didn’t have the personality of Sterk, so maybe it didn’t deserve a proper name. How about something simple and silly, like ‘the crabstone?’ Yes, that would work. The crabstone joined Sterk in my cryst bag.
“Now you have a friend,” I murmured, more to entertain myself than anything else.
After a while, my second empty canteen slipped in my bag as well. I dared a glance at the sky. But I had ventured far enough for the lake to obscure the sun. I saw only a glowing blotch nearing the horizon. Maybe a fifth or a fourth of my time had passed, I would guess. It added more haze to my already vague sense of starless doom.
As I fretted over time, I missed the skittering approach of too many glasscrabs to my side. Four, I counted. Was that what the pungent smell was? Some kind of signal, an attractant? Their eyestalks glowed, all four pairs. I could barely make out their silhouettes, they looked shadowy blotches in the darkness.
Like ghosts, angry spirits come to exact vengeance after I grounded their conspecific.
I stumbled backward. The crack of movement tore them into motion! They shot forward as a group, each as adroit and overspeedy as their fallen friend. I backpedaled, heart thundering in my breast. Two crabs were here.
Now I was in the air, and threshing my wings in escape.
As I flew away, I felt the weight of the new crab and its crabstone. Could I still fly away at the end of this, with three more crysts? Maybe the reason Hinte refused to fly was the stones weighing her down. She would never admit that, though.
Below me, the angry crabs milled about. Farther away, another, larger shadow moved in the vog. A fifth, but huge glasscrab? I didn’t know how big glasscrabs grew, but that shadow looked dragon-sized. But maybe vog, with its stirred dust clouds, had tricked my eyes. The lake had grown darker this close to second dusk.
My flight took me to a rough and uneven part of the Berwem, where raised blades of dustone stabbed skyward and bands of murky glass seemed the lake’s outjutting ribs. I landed there, after some beats of indecisive circling. Hinte was right; you couldn’t find crysts by flying.
Here, my footsteps came more solid, and sent thumps through the glassier spots. I coughed again, bringing tart dew to my fangs. The sound seemed to slink around the dustone blades and echo in the lake’s vast emptiness.
My breath, coughs and all, vitrified in my throat when a gruff voice answered the echoes from the shadows. Someone besides me and Hinte in the lake? Another sifter?
Nothing to fear, right?
That it wasn’t some monster, wasn’t a rockwraith, should’ve had me less afraid. But I was alone. I had already nearly died, and what would have happened if I hadn’t escaped the ghastly glasscrabs?
The dark clouds orbiting me didn’t grow any deeper, and the noxious vog didn’t burn any rawer. Yet I couldn’t shake the feeling that they did, just as I couldn’t shake the curdled fear that dewed on my fangs.
I looked left and right before my gaze drew to a flat-topped rib of dustone opposite the voice. Like a shield, this gray-black blade rose in front of the rib, just tall enough that I could nestle myself atop it and hide from view.
Peeking over the top of that shield, my frills worked and my tongue sifted the air. Footsteps padded from somewhere unseen, and a smell like shed skin and that oozing black slime wafted to me. Just when my pulsing heart had grown regular again, a dull white figure came into view. I ducked. My breath cycle stopped again, but the coughs wouldn’t be so courteous. They struggled and writhed in my throat, and despite covering my mouth with my forelegs, I could hear the coughs echoing.
The footsteps stopped. “Oi! I could hear you sneaking down behind me with half a frill. You got an ax with you?”
It took a shift of the lake’s grinding plates before my voice lighted in my throat. “I — I don’t?” Why would you need an ax to sift?
“Pity, pity.” They punctuated this with a scrape of their claws.
When I peeked back, the figure had disappeared. My head upturned just to catch them landing on a dustone rib just beside mine. I jumped, and stumbled back.
“Whoops! Didn’t mean to spook you — take my apologies,” the sifter said, waving an alula toward me. They wore a white suit like mine with a red and gold mask covering their face.
On either side of their mask’s mouth, black circles stuck out, and a dark form hung by their neck. I couldn’t make out more details at this distance, though. By their hindlegs was a deflated-looking bag not bigger than my own, and I could only tell it was empty by how it hung close and thin at their side.
Nothing to fear. “I — okay.” I brought my forefoot to my cheek, about to scratch it, but flinched with a gasp as I touched the tender rawness.
The sifter peered at me from their rib. The only thing visible about their eyes from this distance was their lack of goggles or protection. “That’s a nasty singing you have there — looking like you burnt your face to Anterth and back.”
“Um.” I brushed my face with a toe. “There was a really–really big hole. I almost fell in!”
The sifter laughed a short, one-note laugh, and said, “Was there? That’s why” — they tapped their red mask — “you wear one of these.”
I bowed my head, deeper, with more formality than I might if my heart didn’t still hammer in my frills, an old instinct still yet to fade from my hatchhood. The talk flagged there, and I stood on legs still trembling.
The sifter’s frills folded. “He’s getting late, isn’t he?” they said with an upward whisk of their wing.
“He?” I looked up where they pointed, head atilt. “Do you mean Enyswm?”
“Yes, old yellow’s gotten tired of spitting his rays — taking a rest soon.” The sifter punctuated this by spitting a twin stream of saliva off to the side.
I laughed a small laugh. “I almost wish they wouldn’t. I soured when Oleuni sunk — I don’t have a lot of time.”
They nodded. “Know exactly what you mean. But if the suns call it a day” — they gestured upward again — “then I say we should too. No place in the fires to be when it’s the dark.”
“That makes sense,” I said. “Not a great place to be in the day, either.”
“Don’t they all say that, heh. I’ve come to like it.” They pat their breast with a foreleg. “This your first flight in the fires? You act a little fledgly.”
I lowered my head.
“Then I’m doubly sure you should head back. Saw some white ones on the prowl not a ring earlier.” the sifter said. “And you need some fresh air in your lungs” — they chopped with their wing — “because that cough sounded like a wraith jumped right down your throat.”
“I uh, came with someone. I wouldn’t want to leave without her.”
“Lake’s a big place — don’t fly too far from each other. It’s not safe.”
I rubbed my cheek with an alula. “Are you with someone too?”
“Yes, my buddy let me lie down on these slabs while he let some streams flow.” They waved a wing behind them, pointing back the way they came. “I’m just here a-waiting.”
“I hope he doesn’t keep you waiting.” My frills relaxed, expanding beside my head and they caught something. “Do you feel that?”
Their frills perked in response, and they looked around for a bit before their gaze returned, and they hid their necklace with an alula. Their voice became a whisper. “The humming?”
“It feels like one of those crysts but not the same,” I said, nodding.
Their stance relaxed a bit, and their alula released the necklace. “Those odd glowing rocks? Didn’t know they had a fancy name. All I know is they’re supposed to be off and sourcerous. But I wondered, and picked this guy up” — he held up a necklace inlaid with a purple cryst, rough but also flat in places — “and sand it down sometimes. Once heard they ward off curses and fouls spirits, so I keep one or two around when I can manage it.”
When I saw the crysts, my brilles cleared, and when I said, “Do you think I could have that?” My high, quick voice failed to hide my eagerness.
“Hum?” He cocked his head. “What’d you need it for?”
“I uh, collect them?” My brilles clouded.
“Fine by me — had this one for about a cycle, it’s tasted better days.”
My frills flared up, and I laughed. The sifter leapt forward, stumbling onto my mound with an oof. Slipping the cryst from their neck and banging it against the ground until it fell from the necklace, they were laughing. After they picked it up with their wing, the necklace slipped back around their neck.
“Here you are,” they said. “Though I’d ask you don’t let it drop how you got it — they’re supposed to be sourcerous.”
I accepted it, wagged my tail. Then I caught myself and forced the thing to hang between my hindlegs again. Three crysts. I’ve gotten more than halfway there! The new cryst glowed weaker than the others. It didn’t look as drab as Sterk, but it wavered more than the crabstone.
“Thank you!” I paused. “Um, I didn’t get your name? I’m Kinri. Miss Kinri.”
They toss their head in response, though there may have been a small start at my name. They said, “Mister Wrang. And it’s no problem.” He glanced away. Waving his tongue, he seemed to hunt for a new topic.
I said, “But I don’t really have much time. So if you don’t…”
“I don’t. Go find your friend and some rest.” He waved a wing. “Dwylla guide you.”
“You too.” I hesitated for a moment before I turned and slinked away.
I leapt into the air, and again flew over the lake’s surface. Soon the outjutting ribs and dustone blades faded behind me and the Berwem smoothed itself below me. Three crysts.
I risked two swallows of my canteen while I flew. As I brought the tall, cloth-wrapped glass to my mouth, my hold slipped on the wet dew coating it. The canteen didn’t fall out of my grasp, but I overcompensated and knocked it from my own claws.
It dropped, spitting my water as it fell.
I glided down after it, but not fast enough to catch it. And in the hazy air, I’m not sure if I could, even if I had been. Cracks and crunches reached me as the canteen skittered across the surface.
The fear struck me that the glass of the canteen would shatter. The Gwymri knew how to make sturdy glass, but still, I had bought that canteen and my money wouldn’t last forever.
The ground here grew mountainous and rough. Not quite like where I had met the sifter, but my canteen seemed to have rolled into one of the valleys between a circle of dustone mounds.
As I slinked around those mounds, wings brushing across the surface on either side of me, the hum of Sterk and the crabstone shifted. Had I even felt anything? So slight. But I needed to take every lead. So my wings folded and I fanned my frills.
Circling took so much longer on the ground! After four long, tight loops around the area, the vibrations really did seem to change as I moved. I was standing on the very edge of the effect.
Slinking forward, the shift came, a slight hiccup in the squeaky pitch of the crabstone, and a ghostly quickening in Sterk’s rhythm. Following it, I found another pink stone. Just one more and I’d win!
Not wanting to think of another name, I would call the newcomer ‘crabstone the second.’ It looked a copy of the first crabstone, anyway.
What about the purple stone? I’d call it ‘the sifter stone.’ I’d just pass them all to Hinte anyway, so names didn’t matter at all.
After I dug up the new stone, I cracked it and waved it around for its effect on the other stones. The chorus altered so subtly. The motley group almost worked like a kind of cryst detector. But would this cryst detector still work? Sterk’s first hiccup had come jarring, startling. This second, I had all but missed.
Taking out the three other stones, I sat all them on the ground and slid them about and waved my frills. The crabstones acted stoic: their pitch wavering by less than nothing when I moved Sterk. They didn’t even react to each other, only to the drab green stone. The weak sifter stone ignored the others, sputtering in anxious isolation.
Sterk sung enough for then all, though. His rhythmic vibrations altered tone and timbre as I moved the pink pair around, but not the purple one. His hum surged and swelled, but the effect diminished when either crabstone was near enough. When Sterk touched a crabstone, the effect became a whisper or suggestion, the same subtle shifts that had hinted at the second crabstone.
I frowned. Putting either pink cryst near Sterk grounded his detection ability. And when both were near, he didn’t even register the sifter stone.
A cryst detector would be useful. Could I regain Sterk’s detection ability? I could hide the crabstones somewhere and carry only Sterk. But then glasscrabs might find and damage the stones, I couldn’t risk that. I could place them high, on some cliff. But I didn’t know these cliffs very well. If I won, and then I — forgot where I hide the stones… I’d crumble. And I had no more room in my crab bag, so I couldn’t even keep them in separate bags. I coughed a sigh. At least, the effect had helped while it lasted. And some good things happened. I found my fourth stone!
My frills were dancing beside my head, and I gave an excited squeak. It irritated my ornery throat, spawned another cough and salty tears on my fangs. One more cryst to go! I gathered up the stones, and paused to smile at the purple stone. So close.
How much time did I have left, though? Sifter stone still in foot, I looked up, but it was then that several skittering crunches reached me.
I waved my tongue. A boiled meat smell suffused the air. My frills fanned. The crunches came from all around me. I looked. Glasscrabs crawled over the mounds.
One crabby thing skittered at me! With its speed it looked to fly. Eyestalks waved at the purple cryst in my foot.
Another crab hurtled into my hindleg! Horned eyestalks pierced white fabric and scales under. I lashed with my tail. The crab didn’t budge. I kicked it. It stumbled back a pace.
I growled, and the crabs scuttled forward. Why did they act so aggressive? They’re supposed to be flighty little prey. I flicked my tongue again, finding the urine scent on me. Oh.
The crab in front of me lunged at my cryst-carrying foot! I meet it with a punch, but it didn’t stumble back as much as it should have. The foot dropped the cryst, and I jumped back.
But I stepped on the other crab. It stabbed me! I growled, and leapt. But with one foot on a writhing crab, it failed. I fell onto my side. The crabs scuttled forward as a swarm. My breath caught… but they swarmed over the fallen cryst.
Horned eyestalks were stabbing as the tide of crabs advanced. Blood dripped onto my forelegs, and it was cool. Were they fighting each other? If they thought there was only the one cryst, it fledged sense. The sifter stone couldn’t feed them all. Or even one, if crabs eat the fragments.
I burst up, clawing my way to a stand. I pushed at the crabs to give me enough footing to leap. The crabs attacked the stinking foreleg more than the other, so I used that to heard them away. With a spot clear enough, I leapt a few strides. I ran, and leapt into the air, flying away from the crabs.
What had brought the crabs back? My stinking foreleg? The vibrations from my cryst experiments? A curse from the Cloud Constructor?
Landing again, some distance from the crabs, I pulled out my last canteen and poured a clawful of water over my stinking foreleg. It took an eighth of water I wouldn’t be able to drink. But if it would ward off the crabs, I needed it.
Shaking the canteen, I looked up. Two crysts to go, now. How much time remained to collect them? I flew above the vog to glance at Enyswm, where he dipped over to the horizon. Already, the second dusk was falling. I fell with it.
Was this it? Would I lose my gambit, and slink back to Hinte cloudy-eyed and coily-tailed? I had tried, nearly fledged it. I had come so close. I couldn’t lose now, when winning was right above me.
My legs had turned to brittle dustone and my frills locked beside my head. But I breathed. I couldn’t lose. My mouth opened, air rushing down my throat, into my lungs and the air sacs in my breast. As I exhaled, the air from my lungs left me, and the air from the sacs flowed into my lungs. I inhaled again, and the cycle repeated. But the air from my first inhale had grown stale, and left me with my next exhalation.
Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out. A cycle. Heartbeats came in discrete thumps; but blood kept flow in the troughs. Breath came in discrete draughts; but fresh air seeped in at each step.
Deeper in my breast, that knot of doom still knit itself. I took the peace and focus of just breathing and tried to untie that knot, to give me room to breathe on a more abstract level. When I pulled at the strings, tugged at the loops, the knot just grew tighter. I huffed frustration, and instead clawed and ripped at the knot. But the frayed strings twisted together, waxing to an awful cross-tied mess of thread that was even worse because you knew it was frayed so bad it couldn’t be untied normally because you ruined it.
Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out. I really dragged at mental exercises. They didn’t work for me. I just had to let go and fly forward anyway. Drop the knot. Lick the tart venom from my fangs.
Okay, now I needed to think. Where were crysts most likely to be? Without knowing how crysts form, or how the glass flowed below the skin, I didn’t know where to hunt for crysts.
I could fly to the center, where the crysts might grow thicker. But that meant more glasscrabs who would attack me, and I couldn’t take more of them. And then there loomed a specter of whatever hunted crabs.
Because there had to be something hunting and eating the crabs, we had learned that bit of ecology from our tutors early. Where there was something tasty to eat, something lived to eat it. Carnivores tasted pretty nasty, but herbivores tasted better.
Did stone-eating count as being herbivorous? Well, maybe not, but they did taste good at any rate. Not good enough to justify stepping into the awful lake, but some sad creature had to live here, eating them anyway.
Maybe the rockwraiths Hinte had mentioned ate glasscrabs. She said they aestivated, but it didn’t seem a very deep sleep if I could wake them. The Berwem was no place to stay at night, and the center seemed even worse. Flying there meant more fiendish glasscrabs and maybe rockwraiths.
Rockwraiths. They might eat you.
I couldn’t fly out to the center and get eaten! More than I wanted to impress Hinte, more than I wanted not to pass out in the vog.
And then, it came. A deep, melodious chime resonating in the high cliffs, reverberated in the warm glass, and ringing in my frills. Six notes, a simple, insistent melody repeated seven times. A tune no one could forget.
If I said the second dusk ring gave me courage or confidence, I would lie. I couldn’t really say I found any sort of inner strength or resolve. No, my frills deflated, my tail fell slack, my eyes clouded. My lungs and sacs emptied, and for a few heartbeats they stayed that way.
I let out a sound somewhere between a sigh and a squeak and a cry. This wasn’t a realization I could dodge by joking or staring at the silly side of things: I had lost.
I thought of Hinte. She had been right.
I don’t need your help.
It felt petty, and it was. But I didn’t want her to be right. I wanted us to be friends. I… I was better than this, wasn’t I?
Could I really accept this loss if I had one last card in my wings, a card I wouldn’t play because I was too scared? If it took me this long to get three stones, I had no chance of finding the last two before it grew too dark.
I had to take the risk. The center was my only option.
High above the skin, I saw the cliffs on either side, and the three big canyons that fed into the Berwem. Toward the center of the lake, off by a good flight, a dark, box-like shape sat low to the ground, looking the size of several houses. The surrounding lake skin looked flat, regular. Had someone built something in the lake? What did they use it for? Maybe it had something to do with sifting, the only thing this lake was good for.
I angled myself for the center, past the black box, and glided down. The fresh air up here only irritated my throat. Another cough ripped itself from me as I descended.
My steep angle brought me to the ground before I reached the center. So I adjusted my course again, flapping my wings and taking a bounding flight over the lake to the center. Several moments and dozens of wing-beats later, I felt the center before I reached it. A subtle hum prickled my frills at the edges, and built as I flew. It grated, and only tended worse as I drew closer. Never enough to annoy, but so, so unpleasant!
My heart lurched, and tangy anticipation bedewed my fangs. If I could feel this hum, then the glasscrabs, who lived on the humming stones, would feel it as well. I didn’t want to deal with another troop of glasscrabs, who would only grow more vicious with their numbers.
The hum waxed as I approached. A hum this large must come from a massive cryst or some big collection of them. No way I could carry either myself.
Beneath me, glassy rocks scurried away from the hum. What? I lowered myself, glancing about. Glasscrabs bolted over the ground, fleeing. I tilted my head.
A long silvery creature lunged from the darkness! It slammed into the slowest crab. The crab lurched. But the creature bit down. There was a crunch. The prey gave high-pitched cry while the slender thing shook the crab in its mouth. Crunches now paired with shattering glass-cracks, and the cry redoubled, waxing to a keening shriek. The crab bled blue and wet. Blood glistened in the flickering light of its eyestalks.
Another silvery white form lunged at another slow crab. I lowered further, examining the crab-killing things. Six legs sprawled out from the slender body. Yet the creature almost slithered around, the legs hurtling it about, not quite lifting the belly from the ground. Eyes bulged out of its head, glowing like the crabs, but so much dimmer. It had the gaze of a newt that hunted.
I flew low enough for my wings to blow dust on the ground. The glasscrabs fled, oblivious to me, and the predators did not turn from their meals. I saw beaked, munching heads; they looked fat and bulbous, like frogs or salamanders. Where eyestalks had stabbed the things, they bled oily black.
Something slammed into my upper leg! It bit into the glass there, scraping it away. It folded around my foreleg, hindlegs gripping me. My balance fell away. I spun in the air.
A single thought flared in my mind:crush it. Flailing wings spun me faster. I controlled it, angling for the attacker to smash into the lake under me.
I had flown close to the ground. We crashed in breaths, strides away from both the fleeing crabs and the other predators. I couldn’t see either. A short distance away, I heard cracking steps and skittering crunches.
My attacker gave a pained yelp. It turned into a growl and I growled back. This stinking creature attacked me. Why would it do that? Did I smell like a glasscrab?
The creature was writhing under me. When I moved my leg away, it slipped! The creature lunged at my throat! I stared as its glassy, metallic beak, sharp and glinting at the end of its snout, caught a red molten glow. My heart skipped a beat and I drew a final breath.
A glassy green claw punched at the thing. The lunge missed me. I drew another breath.
“Hinte?” I said, voice cracking with fear.
The bright-white figure grabbed the beast. She stabbed it again in the side before it broke free. Her knife was glowing, a shimmering green that swirled along the blade. Hinte was growling low and feral.
My attacker returned it. The smaller creature, half as long as either of us, couldn’t match Hinte’s growl. It looked from my rescuer to me, still yarling.
I growled too, bolstered by Hinte’s rescue. It came quieter, faltering. When Hinte made to lunge at the creature, it backpedaled.
Crystalline slime stuck to the scales of the thing, swirlingly iridescent, reflective and translucent. Its jerky motion flung globs of the slime; they hardened to dark orbs on the ground.
I jumped to my feet, lowering my head. Growling again, I stared down the creature, it stepped back, once, twice. It looked to the side, where the crabs had fled.
The crabs were all gone, and the other silvery predators had run away. The creature gave a last, defiant growl, then turned all slow. Its left side was not there. It leapt and crashed beak-first into the Berwem. The ground was shattered, and the creature was plunged into the molten glass.
I gave a silly, wuthered grin, and might have laughed a bit. I lived, again. I almost died, again. My foreleg felt the shattered glass there. The creature had been a scratch away from ripping into me. It left me with what felt like bruises.
The bright-white figure turned to me, crouching. She placed the knife in her bag. Her amber goggles hid her gaze, but she frowned just below it. She folded her frills.
“Bringing you here was a mistake,” she said.
“What?” I said, stamping a foot. “I’ve found crysts! I can do this!”
She flicked a wing to the side. “And all of those crashes? I could track you in my sleep. You could not even go a ring before getting yourself mauled by olms.”
“But–but I have you?” I spread my wings. “We can be a team!”
She whisked a wing to the side. “Imagine if I had not been right behind you. You would be dead.”
My brilles cleared. “But —”
“I am not interested in sifting with someone tongueless as yourself.” The wiver stood up.
“Hinte! I found four — three crysts on my own. Is that worth nothing to you?”
“Show me,” she said, tongue flicking.
I unstrapped my cryst bag. Opening the top, I revealed Sterk and the crabstones. She hummed.
“Well,” I said, “how many did you find, huh?” I couldn’t help the hint of smug that crept into my voice. She looked to me, frills folding back. I made a ‘go on’ gesture with the alulae of my wings.
“Two, thanks to scenting after you.”
“So, I win?” I blew my tongue at Hinte.
She turned around, then stalked off, muttering something about hatchlings. I chased after her, sighing. The vog ripped another cough from me, but a wetness stuck in my throat. Coughing again, harder, I spat out dark mucus that tasted metallic, but unlike any of the metals I could smell in the air. I peered at the dust-congealed blood, alit by molten light. It was flecked with red.
Shivering, I scraped into step beside Hinte, and we marched off together like that. My tongue relished Hinte’s grapey smell, and a smile tugged at the corners of my mouth. I didn’t walk by myself anymore. With that, the knot in my stomach unraveled, and a weight lifted from my back. It was all I had wanted.
I wasn’t alone.
* * *