The flare gun is cold in my hands. I can’t shake the feeling that the little rocket inside is slowly dying.
Each day I watch the horizon, and each night I watch the stars. They can tell you a lot if you know how to read them: where you are in the world, how long you’ve been there.
When the abyssi are coming.
The island I ended up on isn’t much different from the ocean that stranded me. Blue waves roll on one side and grassy dunes on the other.
I built a shelter near the beach from some of the crates that washed ashore with me. It’s amazing how quickly the sun works. The outer portion of the hut is already bleached, and it’s been less than a month. Some of the crates are still filled with musket parts and mercury tablets, the freight we were carrying when the ship sank. Priceless stuff on the Ottoman front, but I’d kill for just a few more boxes of rations instead.
At least thirst won’t kill me. There’s a freshwater spring half a mile inland.
The remaining rations are in a box buried in the corner of my hut. I have seven left—I must have counted a dozen times before I hid them—but it helps not to look at them every day.
Especially when I should be watching the horizon.
You can recognize an abyssus by the shape of the water, but by then it’s too late. There’s a depression on the surface of the sea, as if something is sucking it down. Then the waters part, and whatever was unfortunate enough to get caught in the middle disappears beneath churning waves.
Being on the water when an abyssus arrives is a mercy. Whole vessels are crushed with a swift, natural economy that no manmade war machine can match. It’s much worse to be caught on land. The beast will venture ashore at night in pursuit of fire and prey, but like any creature lured out of its habitat, it becomes desperate and unpredictable.
That’s why I’ve been watching the stars. Just as abyssi suck the water from the ocean, they drain light from the night sky. The stars fade in their path, and by the time one is upon you, the whole sky is velvet black.
The only thing worse than knowing an abyssus is coming is having no idea. The sky has been cloudy for six nights now.
I watched the flat line of the sea again today. My clipper went down some fifty miles from Lisbon, so I’ve seen ships for the last three weeks, too far away to be anything more than ants crawling across the bar of the horizon, and definitely too far to guarantee they’d see my flare in broad daylight. Today was the first day there were none.
With the seventh overcast night upon me, I’m beginning to wonder if it wouldn’t be easiest to put the flare gun to my head.
I’m fixated on this thought, and on the feel of the cool brass in my hands, and the sand between my toes, when I hear a shuffling noise. I lean toward the edge of the hut and hold my breath until I’m sure of it. There’s someone coming along the beach toward me.
I peer into the darkness, but it’s useless. Between the breaking waves, though, the shuffling is getting louder. The stranger, whoever it is, is close. My grip tightens around the flare gun.
Finally, I call into the darkness. “Who’s there?”
The voice that returns to me is hoarse and cracked. “A fellow survivor, seeking shelter.” He doesn’t mention food. If it hadn’t been three days since I opened my last ration, I’d be more ashamed of that thought.
He speaks again, and now he’s close enough for me to hear the ragged breaths between his words. “Mind if I join you? It’s your beach, after all.”
If I hadn’t thought of it as my beach, it’s only because I’d thought of the entire island as mine. Still, what can I say? “Of course.”
Suddenly, I want to see this stranger who will be sharing my shelter. I tuck the flare gun into my waistband and pull out my cap lighter. The lid slides away with a clink, and I hear the stranger tense.
“What’s that?” he asks.
“The gift of fire.”
“Don’t be stupid. It’s full dark,” he says between his teeth.
But the unreality of seeing another person makes the peril of abyssi seem silly and distant. As I strike the flame, I say, “Tell me how you ended—”
“No!” A ragged cry rips from his throat, and he pounces on me, swatting the lighter out of my grasp. We tumble onto the sand, and after rolling around together, my hands trying to push him away and his easily circling my wrists, he has me pinned. He is surprisingly heavy, and his nimble bulk makes me feel wasted and powerless.
“You fool!” He speaks in a rasping whisper that sounds painful. “Have you gone mad? Do you want to bring them upon us?”
“They’re already close.” Every sailor, and every man, woman, and child at a port town, knows to douse the lights at sundown. Even the Russian War doesn’t reach the coast, and enemy ships pass at sea without incident.
I squirm, hoping he’ll relax his grip and move off me. “How do you know?”
“How do you think I ended up here? They wrecked my ship.”
“What do you mean, ‘they’? You saw more than one?”
“I saw the maelstroms. At least three or four, but I didn’t stop to count.”
His knees weigh on my thighs like stones. I wrench a wrist from his grasp and push against his chest. “That’s impossible,” I say. “Nobody’s ever seen more than one at a time.”
He slides onto the sand next to me. “Tell that to my shipmates.”
I sigh. There’s no point in arguing about it right now, and having a conversation with a stranger in the dark feels too much like talking to myself. “What do you suggest?”
“Hunker down for the night, get some rest, and keep the lights off.”
I sit up, brushing the sand from my shirt. Something feels wrong. It takes me a moment to register the lightness, but when I do, it stops the breath in my throat.
The flare gun is gone.
I pat the sand around me, feeling nothing but the cool grains between my fingers.
My companion shifts away. “Something wrong?” Unease colors his voice.
“Nothing.” My head is swiveling around the beach even though it’s too dark to see anything. “It’s nothing.”
We feel our way back to the hut. He follows a couple yards behind, giving me space after our scuffle.
But why should he be afraid? He’s the one who attacked me. I should be afraid of him.
Unless he has something that belongs to me.
Ridiculous. I felt his hands on mine almost the whole time we were down. It’s lying somewhere on the beach, and I’ll be able to find it in the morning.
I’ll just have to make sure I’m up first.
The surreal thing about total darkness is that the line between sleep and wakefulness is almost invisible. It becomes difficult to tell when your eyes are closed and whether the rushing in your ears is the sound of waves or the static of dreams.
I crack my eyes open, and morning light spills in like a yolk from an eggshell. I’m alone, and I begin to wonder if the stranger from last night was a dream until I look around the hut and realize that the flare gun is still missing.
I stagger out of my shelter and in the direction of last night’s fight. It’s impossible to tell exactly where we were, and it’s hard to distinguish the ripples and crests in the sand from tracks. The crawl back to the hut last night didn’t feel that far, but I don’t see my gun anywhere. Taking deep breaths, I start walking a wide circle around this side of the beach and slowly spiral inward, dragging my feet through the sand. It might have gotten buried in the night.
I reach the center of my spiral with nothing to show for my efforts but a vague trail in the sand. A salty breeze ripples through my hair, and I look up and down the beach again. Could it be farther out? I was sure we’d fallen on the leeward side of the hut.
A voice calls out from the other end of the beach. I look back and see a man walking toward me. He looks up but doesn’t acknowledge me.
We meet at the hut, and I’m surprised and relieved to see that my stranger actually exists.
He smiles in a way that shows too many teeth. “I would have woken you if I’d known you wanted to walk.” He looks over my shoulder, still smiling insipidly. He sounds bored and indulgent, like someone offering to let his kid brother help chop firewood. “Oh, I found something while I was out.”
He reaches into his pocket and I draw a shallow breath. But what he presents to me in the flat palm of one hand is only my lighter.
I feel my lips stretch themselves into a rigid smile as I take it. “I was missing that,” I say. “Where did you find it?”
“Just down there,” he says, pointing at the tract of beach that I’d just searched. “Saw the edge sticking out of the sand.”
“How fortunate.” I look at his face for what seems like the first time. He’s about average height, average build. A little on the skinny side—like he hasn’t had a proper meal in weeks. He’s got a ragged, unkempt beard, and his hair has been starched and tangled by the salty winds. The sun-burnished glow on his skin makes his eyes look bright and a little mad. There’s something blandly familiar about him that I can’t place until I figure that he looks a little like me, or the way I expect I’d look after a few weeks on the rough.
It takes me a moment to form words. “You didn’t happen to find anything else out there, did you?”
He cracks that grin again. “Like that lifeboat over yonder? If I’d found something like that, I’d be long gone by now.” He laughs, and several seconds pass before I realize that he’s joking with me, and I laugh along. Still, I can’t help but look over his shoulder, hoping to see in his tracks how far he’s walked this morning.
Far enough that I didn’t see him when I first woke up.
He shields his eyes with one hand and looks at the sky. “We should try to stay in the shade. Keep ourselves from getting dehydrated.” I follow him back to the hut.
We sit on opposite ends of the hut and begin the day’s vigil. No ships yet.
I tuck my heels under my thighs. “So,” I ask, “what brought you here?”
“We were shipwrecked a week ago.” He gestures at the back of the hut and the portion of the island beyond it. “On the other side. We were just in sight of the island when we went down.”
“Supply clipper?” He sounds English, but the war has bred enough profiteers that he could be working for anyone. Not that it matters out here.
“No. One of the new ironclads. Fat lot of good it did.” Evading the abyssi with speed versus surviving them by strength is the fashionable shipyard debate. What no one seems ready to admit is that neither matters more than luck.
“What about the rest of your crew?”
He shakes his head. “I’m lucky I made it. I must have coasted in with the tide that night.” His fingers trace a pattern in the sand. “Anyway, I walked around, and I finally caught sight of your camp in the distance yesterday. I guess I was hoping for some good news or something, I don’t know.”
“Something like that lifeboat you mentioned?”
His eyes crinkle at the edges. “That would be a start. Anyway, you seemed to be set up well enough.” And there it is again, the question of food, hanging between us like a silent accusation.
“Were you able to salvage anything from your wreck?” I ask.
“Nothing but a couple barrels of pitch and some scrap wood made it to shore with me.”
I make a little hmm sound and stare at the sand between my knees.
The trouble is, I’ll need to eat soon.
He clears his throat as if sweeping our awkward evasions under the rug. “How’d you end up here? And what can I call you?”
I’m grateful for the change of topic. I extend my hand to the stranger and tell him my name.
“Lee,” he says in return.
“Huh. That was my father’s name.”
He takes my hand. His grip is firm, and he holds on a little too long. “You know what they say. Small world. Especially when you’re stuck on an island.” With that, he laughs again, his over-large teeth and bright eyes flashing. “But back to your story.”
“It started three weeks ago. We must have hit shoals, because we started going down. Seas weren’t friendly, so it was just me and some of the cargo that made it here. Small arms and medicine, mostly.”
“Mostly,” he says, suddenly meeting my eyes.
I look away, thinking of my rations. I can feel the blush rising under my tan. “So, what was your ship doing out here?”
The corners of his mouth twitch into a smirk. “Scouting.”
And now to hear which side of the war he’s on. “For what?”
He leans forward, his arms resting on his knees. “Abyssi.”
I jerk back, my hands flat on the sand as if I’m ready to spring. “You mean you went looking for those monsters?”
He’s still hunched forward, and he lowers his voice to a whisper. “We found a way to kill them.”
“Anything can be killed.”
“Not by people. Not those things.”
He sits back, and his grin is maddeningly condescending. “How do you know?”
“How do you?” I’m on my feet now, pacing the tiny hut. “Have you actually killed one?”
His smile withers at the corners. “This was our first attempt. It’s sound logic, though.”
“I’m an engineer. Everything looks good on paper.”
He shrugs, willing to leave me to my folly. But he’s watching me beneath hooded lids, and I’m taking the bait.
“How’s it work?” I cross my arms snugly against my chest.
He pauses and rolls his tongue, as if he has to think about this. “It’s not as complicated as you’d think. I hate to use the word ‘bait,’ but you need people to lure an abyssus close. Large livestock might work, too,” he says, looking thoughtful.
“The main thing you need is a light source. Not torches, though. They’ll follow torches, you know that, but you need something that’ll drive their blood up. Something bright and explosive.”
My mouth is dry. There is a tingling sensation on my skin and a distant ringing in my ears. “Such as?”
“Dynamite, obviously. That’s the best, if you have it on hand. Though waterlogging can be a problem.”
My teeth throb, and I have to force the words through my clenched jaw. “And... as an alternative?”
He laughs, and it’s the sound a wild dog makes in the night. “I suppose you just have to improvise with whatever’s lying around. Why, you have a suggestion?”
My vision is starting to swim. I need to eat something.
I sink to my knees, squeezing my eyes against the hunger and the nausea. “What happens after the explosion?”
He takes a slow, deep breath through his nose. “That’s where it all gets a bit more theoretical.”
I want to ask more. I also want to tell him to go to hell, to ask him what he did with my flare gun. But it’s getting hard to think around the hunger headaches.
Lee leans in. “Everything alright? You don’t look so good.”
“I need water,” I say, pushing myself to my feet.
“Stay. I saw the spring on my way here.”
A bucket sits against one wall. Even as I cast my eyes down, they flit to the bucket. Without a word, he picks it up.
“I’ll get it next time,” I say, feeling a humiliating mixture of gratitude, shame, and hunger.
“Just get some rest.” With that, he’s on the beach and headed inland with loud, shuffling steps.
I wait until they’ve faded, and then I dig up my food stash in the corner. The hunger is just great enough to overpower everything else I feel about this stranger, this thief, walking a mile in the sun to bring me water.
I dig away just enough sand to expose the painted top of the old munitions box. My hands are trembling as I pry the lid off. It takes a little more effort than I’d remembered. I reach into the box, but something is wrong.
There are six rations.
I take them out of the box, count them, re-count them, rearrange them, and count them again. There are six. There were seven. I’m sure of it.
What I don’t know is how the stranger could have found my food, much less taken any without my knowledge. I’m frozen like this for I don’t know how long, kneeling over two identical rows of rations, when I hear a distant sound. Like birds. Whistling. My stranger is returning with the water, whistling.
I devour one of the rations with the speed that only the desperately hungry can muster. I replace the remaining five and cover the box again, as if it matters. By the time the stranger returns, I’m huddled against the wall, steeling myself against the stomach cramps.
He screws the bucket into the sand in the middle of the room and somehow manages to find a tin cup in one of the boxes stacked against the wall. As he fills it from the bucket and hands it to me, I’m so overcome with surprise at his solicitousness, and with the almost post-coital guilt and sluggishness of my hurried meal, that I wonder how I could have been so suspicious of this man.
And then, he belches.
He stifles it, modestly, behind a hand, and he gives me the kind of sheepish grin that would seem natural at a dinner party.
But there it is between us, a mockery of my weakness and a taunting reminder of his ability to take what he wants from me.
And like a kicked dog, I bury my face in the cup and murmur thanks.
He settles back into the sand, sitting across from me. “Hard to believe you’ve made it on your own this long.”
“Only three weeks,” I say. “Men have survived longer.” It’s another unhappy reminder of my frailty.
But his eyebrows are raised, his lips pursed. “Three? How do you figure that?”
“I’ve been keeping track.”
He gives me a long, slow nod. The kind one gives to humor a child.
“Here,” I say, setting my cup in the sand, “why don’t I show you?”
“How about we just rest here.” He doesn’t meet my eye.
I lead him around and to the back of the hut, a distance so short that it makes our mutual errand, and my purposeful stride, seem ridiculous. Some part of my mind registers that the scenery behind the hut has changed somehow, that boxes seem to be missing, but I’m too focused to give it thought. Leaning against the ramshackle wall is the lid from a wooden artillery crate. Twenty-two etched tally marks form a neat row along the top of the lid, and as my guest looks on, I add a twenty-third.
When I step back to allow him to count for himself, he favors me with an unreadable glance. He flips the wooden slab.
Short, scratched lines fill the other side of the lid. At the top, they begin in even, orderly rows, but progressing down, they degenerate into crooked, irregular scribbles.
The stranger sucks his teeth.
I’m speechless. I don’t count the marks, but I know there are dozens of them. Well over two hundred, at least. I wander away from the board and look at the sea.
Lee follows, standing a few paces behind me. “If my plan works, we won’t be here much longer.” He gives my shoulder a gentle squeeze. His hand is cold and moist, like a dead fish.
In the shade of the hut, I fall into a heavy, dreamless sleep.
When I awaken, night has fallen, and I can tell that I haven’t moved. As I stare at the canvas roof of the hut, I take a deep, bracing breath. I hear crackling. I smell smoke.
Leaping to my feet, I dash out of the hut and behind it. Lee is standing there, a new bonfire at his feet and a sickening grin on his face.
“I was just wondering if you were going to get up before I had to burn the shack down.”
He’s started the fire with a heap of smashed crates and scrap, and he’s feeding it from another pile next to him. I recognize my tally board among the sacrificial offerings.
Falling to my knees and digging like a dog, I fling handfuls of sand into the fire. Lee tackles me again, easily, and he’s chuckling, but there’s seriousness in his voice when he speaks.
“It’s too late for that. Take it easy.”
“You’ll bring them here.”
“You’ll kill us both.” Even I can hear the hysteria creeping into my voice.
“Not if we burn it fast enough.”
There’s a frozen moment while my animal brain does the calculation. Then, I’m on my feet and ripping my shelter apart with all the strength in my atrophied arms.
We finish in minutes, and it’s a grim reminder of how flimsy my makeshift home always was. By the time we’ve pulled the planks, crates, and canvas down, the fire is large enough for us to feed everything into it. Lee takes off running, and I follow him up the slope and to the edge of the grass. With the relative protection of distance and elevation, we turn back to observe our handiwork.
The bonfire is a beacon in the night, and I suddenly realize how long it’s been since I’ve seen something burn like this. I also realize that I’ve just helped Lee destroy everything that has sustained me on this godforsaken island.
With a glance at my face—it’s actually bright enough for us to see one another tonight—Lee seems to understand what I’m thinking, and he puts that cold-fish hand on my back again, just behind my neck.
“It’s okay,” he says.
I say nothing.
“I had to bring one close. I had to be sure. We only have one flare.”
I look up at him. “My flare.” It’s a plea. I’m too stunned, and too feeble, for anything stronger.
He gives the nape of my neck a squeeze. “You’ve been sitting on that beach with the flare gun for the better part of a year. You were never going to work up the nerve to use it.”
It’s an assault on my manhood, and however powerless I’ve felt in the last twenty-four hours, it’s a slap in the face to hear it from him.
“Besides,” he says, “you were down to five rations. How much longer were you going to last, just waiting like this?”
I spin to face him, and he takes a step back, his eyes wide and surprised. My lips part in a snarl, and his hand flies to his hip, perhaps to a gun or a knife. I don’t care. I prepare to spring.
Just then, there’s an unholy roar, a noise like the earth splitting in two. And it is. The ground trembles beneath us, sending cascades of sand downhill. We look to the bonfire and watch as it’s snuffed out like a candle, the rubble beneath it collapsing and sinking into the sand. Belatedly, I reflect that I should have dug up my remaining rations. Even though surviving the next sixty seconds is the real concern.
Then, the sand around the debris pile sinks, disappearing in a widening cone of destruction. As the disaster area stretches by five yards, twenty, then fifty, there’s a sharp smell of sulfur in the air, and all we can see at our spot on the beach is a writhing sinkhole.
What was a churning crater seconds ago erupts, raining sand on our heads. Despite myself, I shield my eyes with a trembling hand and look up. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Lee do the same.
The monster before me is so unnatural, so alien in its appearance that my eyes flicker and rove around the beast as I try to make sense of it. All I can discern at first is a gaping mouth the size of a schooner. The serpentine trunk rising from the sand is large enough to cleave an armored frigate in two. And that’s just the portion of the abyssus I can see. A glow deep within the monster’s belly lights up circular rows of teeth, each the size of a man. I am suddenly grateful that the beast is likely to crush us in a few merciful seconds.
The creature’s long, sinuous trunk twists and flails like a worm pierced by a hook. It screams, a sound like warping metal, and shakes the sand from between its bark-like scales. Its mouth snaps closed for the briefest of moments, and the world goes dark. The abyssus has sucked the light from the full moon.
Its mouth opens again, pointed toward us as if seeking us. The rounded jaws pulse. There are no eyes on its knotted prehistoric head. I have read that many creatures of the deep are sightless, but I am sure it senses us.
I look at Lee just in time to see him point the flare gun inland.
“What are you doing?”
“Giving us a head start,” he says. He fires.
The abyssus shrieks, and even with my hands pressed over my ears, the noise tears a scream from my own throat. Heat washes over me in the furnace blast from the monster’s maw. It chases after the flare, the thrashes and jerks of its trunk aided by paddling appendages tipped with claws.
Lee grips my shoulder. I can’t hear much over the ringing in my ears and the earth-shaking rumble of the frantic creature, but his mouth moves in the long, wide syllables of a shout, and he points us away from the abyssus’s frenzied path. We run.
The abyssus is a faint glow over the hills behind us, and the way ahead is almost completely dark. Lee skids to a halt, and I bowl into him, knocking both of us into a heap of wood and scrap.
I feel something sticky and viscous on my arms, and I’m sure one of us is bleeding until a pungent smell hits my nose. Pitch. Lee’s face appears suddenly in the warm luster of a little flame. I recognize my lighter in his white-knuckled grip. He holds a split plank to the flame and tosses it into the pile.
As the blaze engulfs the mound, I consider pushing Lee into it.
I grab his arm and spin him round to face me. “What the hell are you doing?” I can feel that I’m shouting, but my voice still sounds muffled.
“Keep it chasing the fires!” he yells.
“How do you know it won’t chase us?”
He shrugs and waves his hands. Either he didn’t hear me or that’s his answer. Before I can repeat my question, I notice that our fire is suddenly, and strangely, dying.
Lee pushes me forward. “Run!”
We take off across the hills, in what I can only assume is the direction of the next fire. The ground shakes as the abyssus draws nearer, headed for the fire we’re leaving behind.
The glow appears behind the hills ahead of us and to the right. It’s getting brighter. Our path is set to cross the approaching monster. I push my legs harder.
When the abyssus bursts over the hill, it’s moving faster than I would have thought possible for something meant to live in the depths. Its flailing movements look frenzied and absurd, but its size and strength compensate for the inefficiency.
By the time we’re level with the abyssus it’s one hundred yards away and closing, leaping downhill. It roars again, and my right side tingles with the burst of heat. Lee pushes ahead, throwing himself into a sprint. No matter how hard I run, the tuft of hills ahead of us doesn’t seem to be getting any closer.
I hear and feel the beast’s thumping progress, and I guess that it can’t be more than fifty yards behind me. If it’s going to come after us, it will change its course now.
But the rumbling and roaring gradually recedes as the abyssus thunders toward the fire, and Lee and I race for the hills. When we stop again, I pitch forward. My legs are as limp as boiled cabbage, and my chest is filled with ice.
Looking up, I see another heap of pitch-sodden wood.
“Not another,” I pant.
“No choice.” Lee’s words are punctuated by desperate, heaving breaths. “Got to keep it on the island. One more. Should be enough.” He points to the horizon. “Look.”
The sky is a luminescent, predawn gray, and I understand why I can see the woodpile.
I sigh. “Just a few minutes more. Rest.”
In the lowlands beneath us, the abyssus shrieks.
“No time,” Lee says. He takes my lighter and has the pile burning in seconds. We don’t watch it for long.
“Which way?” I ask as we leave the fire behind us.
“Doesn’t matter now.”
We’ve barely crested the hills when we hear the monster again behind us. In the time that it’s taken us to get out of sight of the newest bonfire, the abyssus has closed half the distance to it. There’s another roar once the creature reaches it, followed by several seconds of churning devastation. Then, the timbre of the ruckus changes. It’s chasing after us.
The sky is just starting to show pinks and purples. It will be a beautiful sunrise if we live to see it.
We race downhill, following the steepest slope we can find. It would probably make sense for us to split up, but neither of us is willing to cede the slope. Our bodies lean forward, at risk of tumbling over, but we’re moving fast.
Or so it seems until I feel the abyssus’s smoky breath on my back.
And just then, the world flattens out. There’s nothing but my legs to push me forward, and with the ground shaking beneath me, I’m one good jolt away from a fall.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see yellow break the horizon. The abyssus roars, and for just a moment, the shaking stops. I slow down enough to look over my shoulder.
“Keep running!” Lee says. Sure enough, the earth begins to move beneath us again, but this time it’s chaotic and arrhythmic.
But it’s strong enough to knock me down. My legs collapse under me, joggled into critical harmony. Lee looks back, briefly, but he keeps running. I would have done the same. I turn around for a final glimpse of the abyssus.
Its body is thrown into an arc against the bronze sky. The bright glow from its open mouth makes it a strangely beautiful sight.
It doesn’t seem to have noticed me. It’s wriggling and thrashing, beating itself against the ground and whiplashing through the air. It reminds me of an unfortunate midshipman I once saw trying to put out a fire on his coat.
As I watch, the blaze within the creature’s mouth grows brighter until it’s too much to look at. I cover my ears, anticipating another deafening roar, but when it comes, it’s choked and cut short.
The abyssus is dying.
Just as I begin to wonder how, the glow within the creature seems to break through its skin. It happens in a handful of places first, perhaps at the joints that are straining with all of its violent jerking, scars that seem to tear and lengthen. Smoldering fissures erupt from them, running between the beast’s scales in a hellish map. Soon the skin starts to rupture like a rotten wineskin, and with a final squeal, the abyssus is ablaze.
I look at the sky, where the sun has just started to peek over the horizon. It’s as brilliant as ever.
But my attention drifts back to the monster, which is still burning brightly and throwing up thick, black smoke. I cough and stumble away, aware of the blistering feeling on my skin.
There’s a hand on my shoulder, and I look up to find Lee.
“You said you could get us out of here.”
He laughs. “There’s not a ship for miles that can miss this. That hulk is going to burn all day.”
He doesn’t sound worried. But then he never sounded worried about any of this.
“You’ve got a ship on the way,” I say. He doesn’t have to nod. “Which side?”
He shrugs. “Russian.” It might as well have been either.
Burning flesh collapses, exposing a gauntlet of flame and bone, and suddenly I can’t look away. I’m looking at the fires that will burn in every port town from Naples to Aberdeen, and then, once the Ottomans and the rest of Europe figure it out, from Sevastopol to St. Petersburg, for as long as the war continues. I’m hearing the screams that will ring across the rim of a continent.
“I suppose it’s time I gave this back,” Lee says. He pulls the flare gun out of his waistband and offers it to me, handle first.
I take it and stare at the brass barrel, cold and yellow as a coward’s death.
Lee turns his back to me and takes a step toward the burning abyssus. “Makes you wonder what’s inside, doesn’t it? Maybe nothing.”
The flare gun isn’t much larger than my outstretched hand. But it’s heavy.
Lee laughs. “I hope you don’t live near the sea.” He’s still watching the blackened monster.
I raise the gun over my shoulder. I throw my weight into my arm and smash it into Lee’s skull.
Lee falls forward and I hit him again. The thick cracking sound, and the gurgling noise as he tries to turn his head, stops me.
“Monster,” he wheezes.
I hit him again. I don’t stop until he’s as silent and featureless as the thing burning in the dunes.