A BOLT OF LIGHTNING TORE across the sky like a white-hot, bloodless vein.
The churning clouds ruptured with its sudden crack. Half a second later, a body broke through the heavy underbelly of the storm, appearing to hover for a moment.
Then it fell.
Hokk’s neck pulsed with excitement. Let this one be real, not another hallucination. As it dropped, the body picked up speed. Hokk had been kneeling, digging in the soil for worms to eat, but now he stood tall above the rippling prairie grasses, the explosive thunderclap still ringing in his ears. The white wrapping of the bundled corpse had unraveled into a long, fluttering tail, creating a stark contrast against the menacing sky.
As Hokk expected, the body’s free fall slowed midway between the clouds and the grasslands, trapped momentarily in a layer of the atmosphere that seemed to oppose gravity. Yet the earth’s pull was unrelenting, and the body slipped past the invisible barrier, continuing to fall. Hokk was too far away to hear the thud, but he saw it bounce and come to rest, hidden in the grasses.
Another flash and roar of thunder.
Hokk was not well camouflaged. He had to be careful. A vast and apparently empty prairie stretched around him, but he couldn’t be sure that others hadn’t witnessed the body’s descent.
He hastily tied back his hair, paying no attention to the leaves and sticks tangled in his ponytail. His pale skin resembled gauze, with faint, bluish blood vessels tracing crooked paths underneath the surface. Burn scars discolored his hands and arms in patches, as though puddles of hot wax had cooled on his flesh.
He blew a shrill whistle. Behind him, the blond, furry face of a fox appeared in the grasses. Nym’s large ears stood alert, like sails filled by a strong breeze.
Overhead, the lightning and thunder were growing fierce, and the wind blew litter everywhere, the entire landscape covered with a flurry of ancient debris. With Nym at his heels, Hokk ran toward the striped gazelk he had stolen a few days earlier. He vaulted onto its high back, and as the gazelk tossed its head, Hokk grabbed the animal’s massive, twisting horns.
Nym gave a sharp bark.
“Up!” Hokk commanded. Nym jumped, and Hokk swung him onto his lap. With a kick to its ribs, the gazelk leapt forward. The ground rushed past and Hokk’s torn leather cloak billowed behind him. He surveyed the prairies, trying to locate the body among the drifting rubbish.
From his pocket, he pulled out his father’s compass. The instrument’s needle was still spinning, as it had been for days. Useless. How far had he drifted off course?
The threatening sky lit up again. Gray sheets of advancing rain streaked down in the distance. Hokk and the gazelk flew along as if racing the lightning above. Ahead, a sudden gust made a flickering piece of white fabric dance up into the air. Hokk’s eyes remained fixed on the spot. He urged the beast on.
Only a short distance remained when a thunderbolt exploded dangerously close on the ground. The blast’s concussion slammed into Hokk’s chest and the gazelk stumbled in blind panic until Hokk pulled back on its horns, veering the beast toward their destination. Yet the lightning had scattered burning debris. Flames trembled to life with the wind’s encouragement, forcing Hokk to carefully maneuver the gazelk around growing patches of fire.
Reaching the bound corpse, Hokk leapt off the animal before it stopped. Much of the white fabric had come undone, and the body was bent unnaturally. The material was starting to smolder from grasses burning nearby, so he smothered the flames with his cloak and dragged the body to a safer spot.
Hokk carefully scanned the horizon. No one. Good.
Nym sniffed the body, but backed away as Hokk began unwinding the scorched fabric. The cloth was high quality, lightweight and finely woven. A promising sign. Normally the bodies that fell were swaddled in rags.
Hokk unwrapped the face of a middle-aged man whose dark skin and thick, blond hair were similar to all the others who had dropped out of the clouds. The man’s eyes were open, but Hokk forced himself to ignore the vacant stare. Instead, he pried open the mouth, tilting the head. In the glow from a burst of lightning overhead, Hokk saw a glint in the back. Yes! A gold tooth. Hokk struggled to loosen it, bracing his knee on the man’s chest. Finally wiggling it free, he triumphantly held up the shiny molar. Curious, Nym stood on his back legs and Hokk let him sniff it. At last, something of true value, he thought.
The few hairs still growing on Hokk’s arms suddenly stood straight as if electrified by the storm. He glanced uneasily at the dead man’s face, overcome by a strange sense of being watched.
And then the eyes blinked.
Hokk shot to his feet, horrified. He pressed both hands against his head, waiting for the man’s eyelids to move again. He gently kicked the body.
He kicked harder.
Of course not. The man was dead. They were always dead. Hokk had been betrayed by his imagination once more. “I’m relapsing,” he sighed miserably as he sank to the ground and reached out to pet Nym. He’d been so convinced he had moved past this problem. Now to see it rear up again—
No. He would control it. He wasn’t going to turn out like his brother. He simply needed to end this wretched isolation.
Hokk stuffed the gold tooth in his pocket. The tiny treasure was worthless on the prairies, but he could trade it later, just like all the other things he had found fallen from the sky, when his exile from the City of Ago was finally over. However, that was still four years away. For now, the tooth was a reminder that someday he would return home to rebuild his life. Someday, his mind would eventually heal too.
The first drops of the approaching storm hit Hokk’s face. Time to leave. Rewrapping the body was pointless, so he would simply abandon it. That’s what Kalus had always taught. If this dead man’s family could discard him, then Hokk had no further obligation.
He hurried to the gazelk and lifted Nym onto the animal’s back. He was about to mount too when the fox went rigid, staring over Hokk’s shoulder, his nose quivering. Even before turning, Hokk had already guessed who had arrived— another roaming outcast to claim the body and whatever bounty it might offer.
Hokk whirled around, ready to fight. Through the storm’s rolling mist and the smoke from the fires, he made out the shape of an immense bison with a rider on top.
For a moment, Hokk suspected another hallucination, but Nym’s reaction confirmed the sight was real. His hands started to shake. This was a warrior from the mountain tribes, not an exile from Hokk’s city. But whose territory was this? Hokk had been so careful not to trespass, though he was reckless to trust his instinct with directions and continue traveling when his compass was so unsettled. And if the clouds hadn’t been so low, he would have seen the jagged Torkinian Mountain Range piercing through the prairies.
In an instant, Hokk was on the gazelk, twisting its horns and kicking its sides. Glancing behind, he saw the rider crouch into position, preparing his bison to charge. Hokk urged the gazelk toward the oncoming wall of rain, hitting it head-on.
He pulled his cloak around himself and covered Nym in his lap. The rain whipped at his face, crawling down his neck and under his clothing like icy fingers.
Yet they drove forward, into the storm and its fury.