Day Five

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SHE AWOKE TO A swollen, heavy headache and burning skin, her eyes squinting in the harsh sunlight of midmorning. The air was warm, far drier than the day before, the wind a tangible stroke of heat against her face. She lifted her fingers to her cheek and winced, trailing them over the bubbles that had formed beneath the surface from her sunburn. When she tried to stand, she wavered, grabbing a tree trunk for support. 

White clouds billowed in the higher air currents, and she watched them race toward her, too muddled to interpret them. But a sound pricked her ears behind her, and she turned around to see Arleigh, the only other one awake, scraping at a hole in the ground. Gingerly, Raina made her way toward her, watching her hands claw at the dirt with cracked nails, sweat dripping down her arms and soaking her underclothes. She barely took notice of Raina until she stood above her. 

Arleigh crouched in a dip in the ground, the grass around it greener than the rest, digging. Raina grabbed a handful of dirt and pressed it to her face, sighing at its cool relief. Then she knelt down and helped her, fanning a tiny spark of hope at the dampness in the soil. 

They dug for ages without a word as the others slept behind them. Each handful of dirt Raina brought up inched her deeper into her thirst, sharpening it to to a single, agonizing point. 

Then Arleigh let out a shout of triumph. 

Raina's fingers touched cool water and she sagged in relief, bringing a few drops to her lips. Never had water tasted so sweet. They dug faster now, possessed by new life as the others awoke and approached, a desperate hope burning bright on their faces. A small trickle oozed out of the ground, growing as they dug and dug, flinging dirt at the others, who caught it and laughed and smeared it on their faces, savouring this tiny heaven. When the hole was big enough, Raina cupped her hands and brought it up to her mouth. It was cold and clean on her tongue, invigorating, consuming her body with such visceral joy that she thought she might burst.

They each took a sip, and then they ushered Calen in to fill their canteens, using some of their last tablets to clean the water--so close to the crater, they could take no chances. The minutes ticked by as the water purified, and then they were gulping it down, barely pulling back before they made themselves sick, pressing cold mud against their burns and lying back in the grass. 

They indulged in a small lunch and allowed themselves an hour of rest, the precious moments where Raina actually saw some of them smile. She tipped her head to Arleigh, and Arleigh returned it. 

At last, it was time to leave. An entire world still awaited them, hundreds and hundreds of kilometres of land to cross, and they had to seize every moment they could. But as they walked, her nose pricked at a new scent--pungent, subtle but commanding, a sharp tang stewing in the hot sun. It smelled of metal and waste and plastic, growing the farther they ventured. 

Soon the city came into sight. 

All that remained were remnants, pieces of walls and singular items, but traces of human life lay everywhere; beneath the vegetation that had woven trees into walls and around posts and through blocks, that had broken up concrete with plants and smothered every wall with vines, was garbage. Littering the ground, adorning the rubble. Raina grabbed the edge of a wall and hauled herself up on top of the stone, craning her neck to drink it all in. Half of the city had flooded, bits of rooftop and lampposts poking through the still waters, but her eyes skipped over it as she spotted the biggest structure she had ever seen in her life. 

The top had broken off and lay submerged in the waters running alongside, while the rest, corroding iron of four legs rising into a single spire that reached for the sky, remained a beacon, a symbol, of humanity. 

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