Day Two

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CLOUDS LIKE A THOUSAND cobwebs wove tightly over the sun when she awoke, and dampness hung heavy in the air. She stretched out, her back aching from an uncomfortable sleep, and grabbed the branch above her just as she lost her balance, her body dangling above the ground. She let go and hit the ground hard, pain flaring in her ankles. When she stood again, she shivered.

The world was impossibly still. The creaks and groans of her ship were as familiar to her as her own heartbeat. Their absence left her feeling naked, like a piece of her had been wrenched from her, leaving behind nothing but a void, an emptiness that felt impossibly wrong.

She had not realized she'd been holding her breath. She let it out slowly, weighing every moment of the day before, pausing on them, testing them, as if they might not be real. As if she had truly dreamt everything, and would wake up above the Asian continent, her ship swaying softly, her crew rousing around her to do their duties, scanning for the storms that would become their next targets. They still slept in their trees, some tied with pieces of rope they had snagged from the ship, others perched precariously, practically falling off. Every single face was puffy, the quiet tears they had not wanted to betray. Their sleep held the hope that they, too, would wake up kilometres above, back home in the clouds. She turned away.

The stillness of dawn lingered, the first threads of light weaving their way through the sky and smearing it with a soft purple. She had always wondered what daybreak looked like from the ground.

Raina crept away from the copse. Her ears pricked at every sound and the world smelled fresh in a way it never had in the sky, the air brushing her skin like a cold sigh. Beneath her feet, the grass mixed with tiny plants, their leaves smaller than she knew plants could be. All around her, she was already inundated with green, a colour she had only seen from a distance, from far, far above.

She followed the trees to the summit, twisting and rising with each other like parts of one great machine, holding each other up against the storms blowing off the sea. Their branches peeled backward, pointing inland, stretched and shaped by a merciless wind since the day they began to grow. The breeze picked up as she neared the peak, sweat glistening on her brow, and she felt her heart flutter as it whistled softly past her ears, a song she knew better than her own name. At last she neared the edge and stared down at a steep drop, ending in jagged rocks and a thick forest. She felt so small pressed against this world.

Her eyes followed the endless landscape, rising and falling like sleeping breaths all the way to the horizon, trees fading to barren hills, and in the distance, mountains.

She sat down. The light crept higher through the sky, and she watched the next summit turn gold as the sun peeked over the horizon to her back. The sliver of light grew until the entire hill bathed in its warmth. The light stroked warm fingers down her back.

She envisioned the others waking, climbing down, bracing themselves for whatever awaited them. Sitting on the edge of the cliff, she held onto this shred of peace in the sunrise, balancing far above the reality she knew she would need to face. That she would need to lead them through.

The gold grew into a grimace. The drop stretched below her, and the trees that bent back against the wind now reached for her, spindly fingers twitching as the gusts tried to push her over the ledge. She inched backward, eyes glued to the darkness that yawned beneath her feet.

Her memories of the crash were foggy at best. Once she had given the order to strap down, everything had moved so fast, the ship inundated with chaos and panic and fear. She heard the pounding of the rain on the ship, so deafening they could not hear each other's commands. She felt the tingle of electricity as the first lightning tank burst, and Maeve threw her sideways to avoid the full blow, which even their insulation suits could not protect them from. She saw Kinsley's body through the smoke, the first casualty before they had even hit the ground.

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