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Orphans & Outcasts: Chapter Eleven

I hope my gift soothes your anger.

Goodness knows how you can stand drinking the stuff.

It’s horrendous.

Today was a momentous day.

Please do raise a toast, my dear, to our future.

I truly do not know if the energy produced by the rotation of the Northlands will be enough to create the same symphony as the Towers, but the gravity should hold long enough to keep the other lands in orbit stable.

By my predictions the Secondary Realm will begin collapsing some centuries from now. They’ll see the signs—I hope. If we’re not here, to warn them.

It gives us some stability for now.


As much stability as you can have in war.

I am sorry, my love, that no one ever listened to your warnings—about the core, about the danger lurking within.

We just saw a broken world in need of fixing.

You saw the mouse trap.

Private Communications Link.

Utillian Time 5:24AM.

Signal: Strong.

Upload: Completed.

Do you wish to send? Send Beer. Yes. I would just love to defrag eight cartons of beer to my bonding partner thank you…

Denvy - Dream Master of the North Lands
Denvy - Dream Master of the North Lands

Denvy was surprised by Ryojin’s strength as the indigo Kattamont grabbed his arm to help him navigate the press of bodies blocking their path. Nixlye had already wheeled ahead some distance, her solid metal chair and sharp tongue aiding her greatly in pushing her way through the crowds. Sol-cycles surrounded by Humans and Kelibs had made Denvy forget how strong his own race was. Teaching himself to be gentle, slow, and kindly had taken a considerable effort, and now it was all unravelling around him.

They found Ki’b and Penny, both bubbling with excitement. Ki’b showed off a pouch of new stones, counting each rock until Penny snapped at her and Denvy was forced to break them apart. Ki’b had chosen well, though. Her stones carried the scents of Pennadot, of the deep earth below the forests, and the high peaks of the Ovin-tu Mountains. It seemed the trade for Pennadotian earth was a commodity even in Utillia. Humans managed to make anything worth selling into trade.

Denvy squinted up at the sky-sea. The Sun was already sinking low, barely holding itself in the sky-sea long enough for there to be light to live by, and already the city was beginning to glow with Mist-powered lamps, hissing with steam from the pipes connecting them to the major stations below the boardwalks. As they strolled along, Ryojin jubilantly explained the workings of the gigantic cranes, and the elevators up to the levels above their reach. It seemed Nixlye’s assessment of Ryojin was correct. He was a mechanic of high calibre, having worked on much of the city’s maintenance.

“I hear the Wind Cities are even more magnificent.” Ryojin looked up at a Mist lantern. “But the Iposti control the Simoon, so it does not surprise me. There is only so much we know how to do with Mist.”

“What you have achieved already is admirable,” Denvy said. “You should be immensely proud. The Zaprexes would be honoured by the legacy you are providing.”

“Really?” It was Nixlye who answered, a frown deepening the creases of her forehead. “You think so? You don’t think they’d be upset that we’re cutting up their cities to create our own?”

Denvy shook his head. “Great civilizations are often built on the backs of others. If there is one thing the Zaprexes desired most it was to provide those they loved with the building blocks to survive. And I think you are all doing that splendidly.”

Nixlye sagged back into her wheelchair, breathing out. Denvy gave her shoulder a gentle pat. Knowing the young queen now, it was likely she had worried often that they were trespassing upon holy ground, especially during the long days when Aaldryn was diving the deep veins of the sand-sea.

“It is getting late.” Ryojin ruffled his air-gills, as if trying to settled them down against the compliment. “I should get back to Father. He gets so befuddled without me these days.” He reached out a paw, brushing Nixlye’s cheek lightly. “Stay safe, my queen. Perhaps when you return I will join your princes’ Brotherhood.”

“I would like that, Ryo. Continuing our adventures together would be lovely.”

The prince nodded. He turned to Denvy and smiled. Denvy held out his arm and the prince seized it, returning his fierce grip in a brief test of strength.

“It was an honour to meet you, sir.”

Ryojin tangled Clive’s hair playfully, eliciting a giggle, before he jogged away down a bouncing bridge. Nixlye’s chair wheeled up beside Denvy, creaking against the boardwalk planks. He looked down at her.

She bit her lip, holding in laughter. “I think we should keep that yoke on you. I fear for all the princes and neutrals in Utillia if we took it off. You might con them all into thinking you’re a gentleman.”

“But I am a gentleman.” Baffled at her assessment, Denvy scratched his chin, pondering what he could have done to make her think otherwise.

Nixlye’s hands slapped onto the arms of her chair abruptly. They tightened as the planks beneath them shifted to one side, her chair tilting as the wheels wobbled. The Mist-powered lantern above them burst in a crackle, raining down hissing liquid. Denvy snatched up Penny and Clive, running swiftly across the nearest bridge as the surface below them cracked and shattered. He heard Ki’b’s cry, faint against the echoing burst of wood and metal about them as everything dropped. Clive and Penny’s screams were muffled against his chest as they all plunged into the shifting sands of the burning-sea. The heat took a sudden, choking hold of his throat as he struggled against the current. As his head broke the surface he caught a brief glance of the buckling underside of the city, quaking under an invisible force as the burning-sea shuddered. Debris fell around them. Denvy threw Clive over a plank. Penny clambered for it, too, gripping its sides. He lost himself under the sand. Darkness fell around him, richer than he had known even within the box of the Twizels, thicker than any night without moons. The roaring of the sand swallowed him.

Paws clamped around his arms, bladed nails digging deeply into his skin, ripping through the flesh. He pushed against the sand—an effortless attempt, but he could try, shaking his fur as his head came loose and the light of a Mist lantern blinded him momentarily.

“I have no idea what Mother means,” Nixlye’s voice called. “You’re heavier than a mountain!”

“Don’t let him go! I’ve got the cubs.” Ryojin skidded into the light, his iron leg hissing steam as he knelt, releasing Clive and Penny.

Denvy blinked away sand, staring at Nixlye lying flat over the boards, her arms trembling as she held him above the surface. “Your legs,” he choked out.

“Ki’b’s got them. I’ve got you.”

Ryojin joined Nixlye, throwing in his weight and Denvy winced as the prince’s claws drew blood. He wrapped his own paws around the prince’s arms and breathed out as the sand around him loosened and he was hauled up onto the boards of the bobbing jetty, below the top levels of Ishabal. He sagged heavily. Nixlye dragged herself to her discarded wheelchair, climbing onto it. Her wide eyes stared above them. Distant screams echoed beyond them, in the burning-sea itself and above the city.

“Oh, by the Currents.” Nixlye swept her arms around his cubs, dragging them against her wheel-chair. “Null-zone! The sector is collapsing.”

The erasing wave grew. The ancient beams beneath the small city, holding the boardwalks aloft, swayed and bent like dancing branches, beginning to splinter with the movement. The Zaprex turret itself, looming over them, released an intense groan, its arches of shimmering glass leaning as their foundations dissolved. The children screamed, covering their ears in horror. Denvy grabbed for Nixlye’s chair, scooping her clean from its confines. She yelped.

“No! Wait!”

“No time!” He bounded over the fallen debris, turning back to grab Penny’s hand.

Ryojin heaved Ki’b over a collapsing beam. “Run! Get back to the Lawless. Go! Run!”

Denvy glanced behind them. He could ignore the shaking planks, the shattering houses collapsing on either side, the swinging beams he had to duck under and swerve past, but not the rippling of the Zaprex turret’s surface as it teetered. It was going to burst. Dear Sun on High—it was going to shatter into a thousand shards before the null-zone could swallow it whole and they would never outrun it.


“Null-zone,” Aaldryn spluttered out.” Here? Now? That’s impossible!”

Jarvis felt Zafiashid shift from his side. He wished she had not, the blazing pain in his skull intruded again, sending flashes across his vision. Focusing on the information blaring across his optical lenses taxed his tensed muscles.

“Get to the Lawless, now!” Zafiashid barked.

“No!” Aaldryn caught her arm. “Nixlye is still out there, with Denvy and his cubs.”

The queen froze, her chest rising in rapid breaths as her air-gills spread. A conflicted, pained look crossed her face. Jarvis struggled to his feet. “We’ll go. We’ll get them. You get back to the Lawless. Get out of here—”

He staggered back against Master Titus as the surface shifted beneath them. Far into the city, like a geyser that had been released, sand tore through the houses, shooting debris into the air. Another bellowed down the docks, cracking through an arc of the Zaprex turret. The glistening shards of the ancient machine caught the last rays of the Sun, at once momentarily beautiful and ultimately dreadful as the immense pieces of glass and iron crashed down upon the sand-ships and houses, and the patrons of the markets.

Zafiashid grabbed Jythal by the wrist, dragging him across cracking planks as the harbour buckled. Jarvis focused on the wave coming towards them, splintering wood and metal, throwing bodies into the air, and shattering the crates and cranes down on the dock as it approached. Screams filled the air. He was snatched up by Titus, but his eyes refused to leave the sight as they caught every terrifying detail. Down the stairs they raced to their dhow. The boat was being tossed about on the rough sand-waves, straining on its anchor chain.

“Get in!” Aaldryn swung himself onto the deck and bounded towards the array of controls. “Hoist the anchor, Titus. Jarvis, get those ropes! Hurry!”

He scrambled to obey, loosening the ropes binding the Silver Slasher to the jetty. A bellowing groan erupted around them and he covered his ears, cursing at his newly-sensitive hearing. He watched as nearby trading vessels caught the swell of an immense sand-wave. Jarvis went slack, his mind blanking out in awe as a huge metal sand-ship bent to the will of the burning-sea. Iron cables snapped and thousands of crates stacked on its deck spilt loose. His protector bot panicked and he swept out his sword, slashing the lines of their dhow.

“Aaldryn! Go! Go!”

The prince swept the controls into action and Jarvis caught himself in his gravity bubble as the sand-ship beneath him ripped forward in a burst of Mist. The ignited burn blinded him momentarily. When the flash faded, he wished he was still unable to see. The giant crates rained down around them from the slowly falling trading vessel. He clung to the edge of the dhow as it was jostled. Aaldryn swerved around the crates, which burst open as they impacted the burning-sea, tossing Pennadotian produce into the sand. He peeled himself from the railing, clambering towards the control deck. They flew beneath the boardwalks, veering around the arching foundation beams of the city.

“Where would they be?” Aaldryn bellowed.

“The markets! The girls wanted to buy some stones,” Jarvis yelled back. He forcefully filtered out from his vision the sight of those drowning in the burning-sea around them, scanning only for figures he knew. A thick darkness was closing in, like that which had consumed Bez-at:_Who_Lingers_by_Water —a darkness of deletion.

“What’s happening to everything?”

“Null-zone.” Aaldryn spun the wheel. “Swallows everything whole. We’ve got to get out before the whole sector collapses in on itself or we’ll be caught up in the disintegration process.”

Jarvis shivered. They should not have been here, ploughing into the death of a turret. The data of the desktop grid was dissolving around Ishabal and the process was creating such an enormous energy build up it was destroying even things not part of the desktop itself. He stared down in alarm at his skin, watching as flakes of the brown membrane brushed off into the air. Aaldryn was right. They would be caught up in the disintegration. What if they were too late? What if Ki’b was already gone?

“Master Titus!” Jarvis turned sharply. “We have to—”

The breath left his lungs as a monstrous, swelling shape blocked the last of the Sun’s rays, leaping forth from the roof of a house towards them. The Ki’rayh! What was it doing here, now, in this place? Why was it taking the risk to come here?

Jarvis clutched at the small prism under his cloak. Alarms flared through his skull. Was it after the Map piece the Key had instructed him to take to the House of Flames?

The Ki’rayh swirled elegantly through the beams, its mantle of shadows flickering and smoking like black flames. With a screech it landed against the tail-end of the Silver Slasher in the shape of a bird, talons and beak gleaming golden like some prideful trophy of its high rank.

Titus quivered. His hands wrapped around the hilt of his blade and his eyes narrowed into thin slits. “Figured it’d come out now.”

“Master Titus!” Jarvis ran across the small deck, following the Hunter who lunged, swinging his ovi-sword. The force from its immense size created a great draught of wind, tipping the dhow. Aaldryn yelled in frustration as they scraped past a fallen beam.

“Stop! For Rythrya’s sake, take your stone-giant sword someplace it doesn’t make whirl-winds around my Titan! I’m trying to save my mate! Wait—is that Torka?”

“Torka, hmmm?” Titus leered. “Hey, Twizel. Sounds like you’ve got a pet name. I call you out! Come here and kiss my sword!”

Jarvis winced, throwing up a shield of reflective colour as a flurry of bladed bones scratched their way across the deck. He stared at one that hissed with acid. The Ki’rayh screeched, diving at Titus. His master took the brunt of the force with the edge of his stone-giant blade, the grin over his slowly dissolving features manic, crazed, and—dare he say it?—happy.

The Hunter swung up a boot, smashing it through the clattering bones and hanging flesh that held the pieces of the Twizel together, causing innards to spill across the deck. Jarvis scrambled back as the Ki’rayh flew past. His proximity alarm blared. It might have snatched him in its beak or talons, ripping him from the deck despite his gravity bubble rooting him down, had Titus’ blade not landed firmly beside him like a shield. The stone-giant blade missed him by a hair’s breadth, but he had never felt more relieved to see the immense weapon. He knew the stories. Messengers did not take on Twizels alone without their squads to back them up. Only Hunters did. Only his master would. This was what Titus did; this was why his master lived.

The Twizel made another pass, taunting them. Then it billowed out over the sand towards the city. Titus dodged past, snatching up his sword. “I’ll draw it away.”

“But, Master, this sector is collapsing—”

“Don’ yeh worry about me, Little Weasel. Find the old man.” Titus bounced over the edge of the dhow.

Jarvis spluttered out a string of curses. He scrambled up, watching as the Hunter vanished into the city in pursuit. Slamming a fist against the railing, he yelled out, “It wants you to chase it! It’s playing with us! Can’t you see that, you idiot!”

The sand-ship lurched suddenly. Jarvis yelped as the Silver Slasher barely missed a section of falling city. The force of the sand-wave sent him tumbling overboard before his protector bot could arrest the motion. His reaction time was still Human, but he landed firmly on his feet, swinging back and forth on a metal beam that bobbed on the surface of the burning-sea. Jarvis curled against the crashing noise as thick planks fell around him. Wind ripped through the debris, scattering it. The coils of an elemental force wrapped around him. It was warm against his hull, pulling him back from danger and sharply onto the deck of the Silver Slasher. He heard Khamsin whisper, so brief against his ears.

Do try not to fall overboard, Changeling.

But he had seen, through the darkness, a flash of light he was familiar with, for it had been one of the first things he had set eyes on when released from the confines of the box. It had filled him with the greatest relief then, and even more so now. The belief in a realm not of his own—Khwaja Denvy.

“Aaldryn! Over there! It’s Khwaja Denvy’s water-sword.” He pointed. “Hurry! Please!”

Aaldryn swung the wheel, releasing another stream of Mist though the sail and it lit the area in a glistening of rainbows. Jarvis bit back his horror at the sight of bodies strewn throughout the burning-sea. Aaldryn ploughed through them. “Get the lines ready.”

He rushed to do so, cursing each time his feet bounced on the deck and his gravity bubble dislodged him. All the practice he had done, his training, felt void in the panic of the moment as he struggled against the ropes. Aaldryn clambered down from the controls to join him.

“Wait—who is keeping the dhow stable?”

“Khamsin,” Aaldryn shouted.

The Kattamont snatched rune stones from his hip-bags and cast them through the air. Jarvis winced as they burst into hot, blue flames, swirling around each other like dazzling wisps in the deep darkness surrounding them. Relief filled his lungs in a rush as he heard Ki’b’s voice screaming his name. He turned towards the sound. She was there. His lenses focused on her where she balanced on a wobbling piece of debris, clutching on to a Kattamont he did not know.

“Ryojin!” Aaldryn grabbed a line, twirling it above his head. “Thank the Rythrya. Hurry. Catch this!”

The Kattamont grasped the line, dragging the piece of debris closer. Jarvis caught sight of Clive and Penny gripping tightly onto the plank of wood. He called out to them and Clive looked up, beaming brightly.

“Jarvis. You came for us.”

“Always, little brother.” He reached out and over the railing. Clive used him roughly as a ladder, calling for Penny to climb up and she did quickly. She was sobbing as she landed on the deck. Clive swung himself up, running to her side, trying to calm her. Jarvis hurried over as Aaldryn set Ki’b down on the deck. She wrapped her arms around his waist.

“I was scared.”

“You’re safe now.” He tried to sound reassuring.

Ryojin, an indigo-pelted prince, with a tail frilled out in stunning greens, stayed bobbing on the debris and, curious, Jarvis watched for the reason. Aaldryn leapt over the edge of the dhow, landing beside the Kattamont.

“Nixlye! Where is Nixlye?”

“She was with Denvy. I lost sight of them trying to keep the cubs together.”

“Jarvis, can you see Nixlye and Denvy?” Aaldryn cried out.

Jarvis scanned the area, narrowing his eyes against the rune stone lights. Debris cracked off from above them, raining down into the burning-sea. The longer they lingered, the more danger they were in. He froze, spotting something, and he pointed. “Right there, Aaldryn! Coming towards us. She’s right there.”

Aaldryn ran across the surface of the burning-sea and dragged at a thick wedge of metal, pulling Nixlye to him. She grabbed his paws, shaking sand from her air-gills.

“Denvy! Denvy went under. I couldn’t stop him,” she cried. “He was so heavy. And he was so tired. He was keeping me up.”

Jarvis’ eyes widened and he turned, pin-pointing the area she had just vacated. He ran, tying a line around his waist. The hesitation was momentary, barely stalling him as he plunged over the edge of the dhow and into the shifting sands of the burning-sea. The impact was dazzling, like thousands of tiny needles intruding against his metal hull as it absorbed the force. He struggled against the crushing weight of the sand, moving his philepcon liquid through his muscles, charging each push. His eyes caught every movement within the sand, folding back the darkness like it was a curtain. A paw waved in front of him and he fumbled for it. Everything was slow, the sand so thick. He screamed silently in frustration as he tried again. This time his hands latched around Khwaja Denvy’s wrists. He heaved backwards, feeling his body strain as the protector bot whirred in a burst of energy.

The old Kattamont had kept him alive in the darkness, in the terrible box. His voice, deep and gravelled, had been the only thing in the heartless world he had been shoved into that had told him to live.

You have to keep living, Khwaja Denvy. You have to see Zinkx again.

The spark activated down his backbone, the protector bot within him spreading out and down his limbs. It felt as though one of his father’s heavy winter coats had fallen over him, and was now moulding itself over his skin as his warm metal hull expanded, forming a full exoskeleton.

The burst of energy pulsed around him, swelling the sand back, just enough, he realized, to pull them both out. Paws grabbed them. Aaldryn and Ryojin dragged them towards the Silver Slasher and onto the deck. Ki’b flung herself onto him but he barely felt her heavy weight. His body was buzzing. The world looked eerily clearer. His heard turned sharply toward Aaldryn and he blinked. Had he not been pinned down by Ki’b, he would have scrambled away in alarm at the sight of the halo of wind that rose from the Kattamont prince. It shifted, coiling like a snake, a triangular head forming. Yellow eyes peered down at him, unblinking and curious.

It is all right, Changeling. What you are seeing is the Secondary Realm and how it interacts with the Primary Realm. You are currently in your protector bot mode; you need to deactivate it.

Khamsin’s voice. He was seeing Khamsin’s apparition surrounding Aaldryn. Jarvis wiped his face, only to feel a veil-like shield coating his features.

“You’ve got to see yourself, brother,” Aaldryn chuckled. “You look like a legendary machine from Nixlye’s tales.”

“We’ve got to go.” Jarvis scrambled to his feet. “Aaldryn, we have to go now!”

He pointed through the darkness beyond them. The null-zone was coming. Could the others not see it? The data eroding before their eyes? The desktop grid was vanishing and he had never seen anything more terrifying; not even a Twizel was this frightening. This was the terror their world faced if the Key did not get its Map piece, if the Borders stopped spinning—a death of total blackness, of deletion, of nothing.

“Aaldryn!” Jarvis tripped over Khwaja Denvy. “Get us out of here.”

The Kattamont scrambled for the controls, but already Khamsin had sent the vessel speeding forward in a burst of wind, ignoring the direction of the sails. Jarvis winced as the mast groaned with the strain. He was caught in a weak grasp and he looked back, finding Khwaja Denvy’s gaze.

“Thank you, Jarvis, for coming back for me.”

That was unexpected. It was if the old man had not believed anyone would bother. Jarvis frowned. “Sir, you are the reason we survived that box. I will always, always come back for you.”

He might have become a Messenger but it did not mean he had to accept their belief of leaving soldiers behind to die, to never turn back on the field of battle for fear of falling prey to Twizels. He was still Jarvis of the Plains People, a farmer’s son. He would always come back.

The small city was hanging together by threads of metal.

He heard Clive’s shout. “Why does it look like it’s raining?”

It did. His little sibling was right. It looked as though it was raining, only the rain was moving upwards, and it was not rain—they were tiny particles of data being lost as the null-zone approached. He was glad he was not the one who would have to explain to Clive that they were breathing the remains of people. Jarvis clutched at the railing as they launched through the air and landed roughly against a dune. He cursed under his breath as Aaldryn swung them around a dislodged house sticking out of the burning-sea. Their path changed abruptly, towards the harbour, or what was left of it, and suddenly the sea of debris became overshadowed by the immense, looming fixtures of the trading vessels. Did Aaldryn see them? They were heading right for them.

“The trading vessels!” Jarvis screeched. “They’re blocking our path!” The huge sand-ships had formed a wall, crushed and bent against each other. There had been no hope of them leaving the harbour after the waves had dislodged them. They were approaching too fast. The dhow would be crushed upon impact.

“I can see that.” Aaldryn heaved down on the sails, strapping them down. “Ryo! Keep everyone tied to the deck.”

“What are you doing?’ Jarvis scrambled after him as he switched levers and began to crack around on another smaller wheel. It wheezed and whirred with each spin.

“Hold on!” Aaldryn howled. Jarvis slammed back onto his rump as wings spread out from the sides of the dhow, launching them into the air. Mist ignited down the sails on either sides of the sand-ship, boosting their flight and Jarvis covered his face as wind erupted from Aaldryn. The underbelly of the Silver Slasher scraped against a trading vessel, the loud screech drowning out all thought but that of survival. Jarvis held his breath. They landed with a thud on the other side, swelling up sand. Aaldryn collapsed back. Nixlye called out in alarm, trying to move towards him. Instead the indigo Kattamont quickly scrambled up.


“Ryo, can you get the controls? I can’t get us to the Lawless. I have to stop.” He curled up, clutching his head. Ryojin briefly touched his shoulder before grabbing the helm, swinging the dhow in the direction of a gathering of vessels far out into the dunes. It was so sudden Jarvis barely caught the gleam of the iron cable in the darkness. His reflexes moved him forward, running for the Kattamont prince at the controls, but he was too far away. Before his eyes the feline was ripped from the deck and dragged overboard as dozens of metal cables surrounded their sand-ship. His hand was still outstretched in startled alarm when Ki’b’s cries reached him and he spun, seeing swarms of wreckage swirling towards them, dragged by a sand-dune wave.

“Aaldryn. We’re not free of the gravity,” he shouted. “Do something!”

“Get us loose.” Aaldryn shoved him.

Jarvis dashed down onto the lower deck, ripping out his colour sword. He headed for the nearest cable, swinging his blade.

Nixlye’s hand grabbed his ankle. “Where is Ryojin?”

“I wasn’t fast enough.” He shook his head. “I’m sorry.”

Nixlye scrambled forward. “No. Ryojin. No! No. Please!” she screamed over the edge of the railing. Denvy’s arms wrapped around her waist, pulling her back against him. The two landed roughly against the deck as the sand-ship heaved to one side. Jarvis hacked at the iron cable dragging them back into the null-zone’s grasp. He spared an anxious glance at the wall of vessels they were being hauled toward. Ki’b joined him, bloodying her fingers as she tore through the metal with her bare hands. The crack echoed around them. Jarvis threw himself over Ki’b as the cable whiplashed apart, breaking against the rails of the dhow. The Silver Slasher burst forth in a rush of wind. He dared to peer over Ki’b’s head, up at Aaldryn. The prince looked frail against the controls, wind coiling about him as he dragged their tiny sand-ship free of the debris zone.

Nixlye clung to Denvy, sobbing into his chest. She had bloodied her claws, ripping into his fur. How he wished he could control the dhow, to let Aaldryn go to his mate in her distress. He dragged himself back onto the top deck.

“I think we’re free.”

Aaldryn’s paws twisted around the wheel. “The Lawless made it out, too.”

Through the burning-sea dunes, the Lawless Child was lit up brightly in a show of Mist, amongst the other sand-ships that had survived the ruin. Smaller dhows and life-boats bobbed against the tossing sand waves. Panicked voices and the sound of grieving met them as they moved through the gathering that had formed.

So few had made it out. Jarvis rubbed his sweating hands together.

Nixlye’s weeping made it all worse. It made it even more real. His sister had cried like that when the Twizels had killed her husband. He could still remember it. Jarvis shook his head, trying to clear the memory.

The Lawless Child’s deck was covered in crew, and they were eerily silent, faces turned to the ruins of Ishabal. Upon sighting them, they were hailed with shouts of greeting and ropes were thrown overboard—along with Master Titus, who leapt and landed on the deck of the dhow. He skidded up beside Khwaja Denvy.

“The Ki’rayh is swift on our tail. We can draw it away if we leave now.”

“You’re not serious,” Jarvis spluttered out. They had barely made it out. He did not want to go. They were not ready—he was not ready. Leaving Ki’b, Clive, and Penny…Nixlye and Jythal?

“I am. We have to leave now.”

Denvy’s brow furrowed. “Titus—”

“Denvy, yeh’ve got stuff to do here in Utillia. Yeh do not want a Ki’rayh on yer heels. Jarvis and I can deal with it, get it back to Coltarian where it belongs. Yeh know Messenger code. We run.”

Something in those words made the old man turn. Something made his shoulders sag in defeat and Jarvis wished he could reach out and reassure him that they were not running away from him. He could not, though. There was no time. Jarvis clutched at Ki’b’s hand. Her eyes widened in understanding and she flung her arms around his neck, sobbing. He could barely come out with something worth saying, something that would sum up what he wished her to know. Khwaja Denvy was already clambering up the ropes to the Lawless Child, helping Nixlye. He was never going to get to say goodbye to him. He kissed Ki’b’s forehead.

“I promise I’ll come back,” he whispered. “I’ll come back and we’ll get married.”

Ki’b pressed a small, smooth rock into his hand. “Don’t break your promise.”

She grabbed hold of a rope and climbed hand over hand up the side of the sand-ship. Clive dodged past him, looking back with a sad, lingering glance.

“Clive. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do,” he yelled out. “And keep Penny close.”

Aaldryn lingered at the edge for a moment, looking up at the Lawless Child.

“Jythal, keep them safe, brother,” he shouted up, into the dim light of the lanterns.

“Stay alive,” the soft reply returned.

Aaldryn turned sharply, his walk tight as he took the controls. The Silver Slasher swung away from the Lawless Child. Jarvis should not have looked back. The moment he did, he regretted the decision for he could not tear his eyes from the sight of the sand-ship bobbing on the edge of a dune, backdropped by the ruins of Ishabal dimly glowing in the distance. An uncomfortable, twisting sensation grew in his stomach as the vessel vanished on the horizon. Why did he feel that this was the last time he would ever see any of his family again? Surely it was just the natural fear of being separated from them. He closed his eyes. It had to be an illusion of the wind against his cheeks, but he could almost taste Ki’b’s tears. She would have been crying by now. Perhaps they were his own tears he was tasting.

“I’ll come back, Little Mountain Flower. I’ll come back.”

Jarvis wrapped his fingers around the last Map piece.

“I hope, Key,” he whispered, “that you’re worth it.”

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