Day Twenty-Two

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THEY OUTRAN THE DAWN. A sense of death clung to the cave, and they had left it behind as soon as they were able, as soon as the first cracks of light had shone through the clouds, moving together under a faint drizzle. Their breaths punctured the cold morning air as the sky above them smeared purple, their voices snuffed out, keeping all thoughts to themselves. In the wake of so much death, moving forward was all they could do.

As they climbed, they found more traces of humans. Plastics. Rubble. Signs of a village, foundations clustered together, slabs of stone that could have been graves but had been blasted smooth by the wind. How many bodies had they walked over without knowing it?

"Aim for the low pass up past that ridge," Arleigh said, pointing to a southeastern path. "Once we get through there, we should be heading back down."

Raina wrapped her arms around herself and tried to think of home. Her body balked at her every movement, and every breath pushed a sharp pang through her. No matter how hard she tried, she never had enough air.

"We need to eat," Kieran said.

"Once we reach that ridge," she replied.

"That's half a day's walk."

Raina squinted up at the pass and slowed to a walk, the others following suit with relief in their eyes. She turned to look back at the way they had come. She could not outrun grief, just as she could not her memories. "Okay," she said.

She was unable to do more than drink water, her stomach too tight to even consider the meat in front of them. The smell alone touched off nausea, and she stepped away from the others, trying to hold herself together. She felt like one of the dolls her father had once made for her from scraps of old supplies, a rough assembly of limbs with seams so loose that she threatened to unravel. The group in front of her was the last thread holding her together. But she could not help wondering if Calen had been the last person they would lose on the mountain.

They walked for the half-day, conversation as rare as sunlight. The ground bore heavy signs of the rain, of washed-out trenches and half-exposed relics from yet another village: a plastic cabinet, pieces of a baby's crib. Dark clouds loomed above them, cutting off light and tingeing the air a somber grey. The wind blew harder, and with such large tears in their suits, they could not help but shiver. Each of them walked but was not there, lost in their fantasies of home, the tantalizing thought of a world where they were safe.

A distant rumbling scattered her thoughts. The third that morning. They caught sight of a small mudslide that tore down the face of the mountain to the west of them. She watched its catastrophic beauty as a small chunk of the terrain slid free, wiping away all traces of humans as far as it could reach. A terrible wonder.

They reached the pass within hours. As Raina crested their path, the world dropped away in front of her. Down below, a cracked, dead plain swept out toward another ridge, and beyond that, a swamp, shrouded in mist. Then came the sea, gouging out a large piece of the land of Old Spain before the hills rose again, severing the horizon. And beyond it, farther west, meeting the sky at the edge of their sight, was the black tower they had only dreamed of--the water port. The gnawing in her stomach was replaced with a spark deep in her belly, lighting a smile on her face. The outpost had been an abstract goal from the start, never concrete beyond giving them a reason to live. But there it was. So close. The sea shimmered different shades of grey.

"We'll break here," she said. They ate the last of the meat Niska had given them, and Raina chewed long and hard. Her appetite had not returned, but the sight of the port, the promise of the outpost that would be nearby, reminded her that she needed to keep her strength up--even as she grieved.

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