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Story Spotlight

The Well:

a Starslinger Tale

by Kras Nebula

“There’s a man down the well.”

 

“Pardon?”

 

“There’s a man down the well,” the Scraptown Sheriff repeated, as though it clarified anything. For their part, Xal, a stranger who’d just rode into Scraptown from the Wastes on the back of their white-feathered raptor just a half hour before, looked blankly at the bucket they’d intended to draw water with, at the ancient stone well itself that sat in the center of the town like a bad omen, then back to the Sheriff. 

 

“Is… he not supposed to be there?” Xal guessed, trying to figure out what had gotten the Sheriff so upset. They figured this was a perfectly normal question, though the Sheriff turned a shade of red they didn’t know existed.

 

“No, he ain’t.” The Sheriff whipped off his hat to wipe the sweat from his bald head. Above them the merciless sun beat down upon Scraptown, stealing any moisture from the air and baking into the empty canals and dead rivers. Most folks seemed content to hide away in their houses from the heat— though some had peeked their heads out to see what was going on between the Sheriff and the stranger.

 

Xal peered down into the depths of the well, then turned their gaze upwards to check the angle of the sun. It was high noon; despite this, no sunlight penetrated the well itself. They turned back to the Sheriff. “How do you know? Can’t right see shit down there.”

 

The Sheriff shifted uncomfortably, his bluster lost in an instant. 

 

“We… hear him. He laughs, sometimes. Awful laugh. And— before we realized the well was dry— he’d yank on the buckets we sent down to try and pull us in, then laugh at us if we stumbled.” The Sheriff shuddered, despite the unforgiving sun.

 

“Wait, well’s dry? Well that’s just—” Before Xal could finish their sentence, something echoed out of the well. It was the sound a stair makes before it breaks, the sound stones make as they shift under your feet. It was a laugh; a truly awful laugh. The Sheriff cringed; the eavesdropping townsfolk tucked themselves back inside; Xal frowned and leaned further over the rim of the well, trying to catch a glimpse.

 

“Anyone gone down there to check?” they asked.

 

“Hell no. That ain’t natural, there’s no way I’m going down there… Though…” The Sheriff trailed off, looking Xal up and down. “Then again you’re not exactly natural yourself, Stranger.”

 

Xal blinked, not quite following, but the Sheriff wasn’t lying. From their white hair in stark contrast against their brown skin that was wholly antithetical to how young they appeared, to the slight points of their ears, to the way the Sheriff would swear later that the scar through their lip glowed faintly in the unnatural darkness of the well, it was clear there was something strange about the stranger. 

 

“You one of them Wildin’ Folks? Or some kinda witch? No— you don’t gotta tell me, it don’t right matter much.” Xal closed their mouth, shrugging. 

 

“If you clambered on down there, you could give us some answers… Folks have been getting mighty antsy lately…” The Sheriff trailed off knowingly, waiting for a response.

 

Xal took one more long look into the yawning abyss of the well. There was no wind blowing through Scraptown, but in that moment they could feel pressure against their skin, like they were looking into the still-breathing mouth of some long-dead thing. 

 

“Yeah,” they said. “Alright.”

 

The well was unfathomably dark. Xal had lit a torch before lowering themself down via the bucket, but even the flame seemed to quiver in the face of such malice. It was less climbing down a well, and more sliding down some monster’s gullet. At least, Xal assumed so; they didn’t right have much memory of doing either activity. The Sheriff wasn’t kidding about the well being dry either; if anything, it felt even drier inside the well than out. There was no moss growing on the ancient stone, nor any indication there had ever been. It was as if there had never been water to pull in the first place. 

 

There was no warning when the bucket hit the bottom, no change in darkness, no ground to reflect the light from the torch, just a sudden and abrupt stop.

 

“Well, this is a surprise.” Xal flicked the torch around, trying to find the source of the voice. The man in the well laughed, and it was not a good laugh. It was laughter in the way that raking coals over a fire is laughter, the way a mine collapsing is laughter. 

 

“I know you,” he said, long and drawn out. Finally, Xal’s torch found the man— but it was less illuminating a body and more illuminating the space around it. The man was cut from shadow, from his hat to his boots, everything save for his eyes and a few decorative embroidery pieces around his collar and cuffs, which glowed coal-red in the darkness.

Xal swallowed. “Beg your pardon, but I can’t say the same. We’ve met before?”

 

“No, not face to face. Well, not these particular faces, at least. The folks up there send you down here to talk to me?”

 

“Yup.” When the man in the well didn’t immediately respond, Xal took it upon themself to sit down cross-legged on the dusty ground, mirroring the man opposite them.

 

“So, uh,” They glanced around the well, “What happened to the water?”

 

“They really sent you down here without explaining anything, didn’t they?” The man asked.

“Guess not.” 

 

The man leaned forward. “Listen, Xal— that is the name you’ve got these days, ain’t it?” Xal nodded. 

 

“Xal, do you remember what a whale fall is?”

 

“Don’t reckon I do.”

 

“Out in the ocean, out in that vast expanse of water, that great inverse sky, when something as big as a whale dies it sinks. Not immediately, all the blubber and air pockets keep it floating about the surface for a while like a fucked up piñata, but eventually, it sinks. It sinks down into the deep, and when it hits the bottom of the ocean it goes and becomes lunch to all sorts of scavengers. Things from miles around come by to eat and pick away at this massive carcass until there’s nothing left. Takes half a century, sometimes. Now,” and he leaned in even closer. 

 

“You seen that big ‘Fore-Folk ruin right outside the town, right?”

 

“Right.” Scraptown had been built in such a way that it caught the shade delivered by the hulking heap of twisted metal and broken crystal that was, at one point, an old ‘Fore-Folk ship. 

 

“Hard to miss. Consider that our whale fall. Generations ago, folks came from all around to pick it clean but found it a much much larger task than they expected, and there was no water to be found. Instead, they found me, and we struck a deal.” He laughed, that same gravestone laugh. Xal was getting sick of the sound. 

 

“They could die out here, wrung dry by the elements the way the ‘Fore Folk were, or they could give me the best of the pickin’s.” The man held out a shadowy hand and opened it: inside rested a perfect, in-tact power crystal from an era long since passed. “Got more ‘a these. Ball gowns, guns, all sorts of stuff.”

 

Xal frowned. “Why’d you stop, then?”

 

“They stopped paying me my dues.” The man in the well closed his hand, the shining crystal disappearing in an instant. “Either someone forgot, or they decided they didn’t need to, or the whale ran dry. 

Given that my share these last few months have been nothing but scrap metal, my guess is it’s the latter. Either way, not my problem. They can move on or find me a new whale, but until then I don’t see why I need to do nothin’ for free.”

 

“…Folks are probably gonna die,” Xal said after a moment.

 

“Probably,” the man in the well agreed. “But they should’ve thought of that before.” The shape of the man never changed, his pin-light eyes never moved, but all the same Xal felt as though they were being examined. “Xal, I’ll tell you this because we’re friends.”

 

“I thought you said we hadn’t—”

 

“This ain’t your town. This ain’t your problem. You can go back up and tell them what’s what, but this town didn’t have the guts to send one of their own down. No, they had to send a stranger.”

 

“How’d you know I was—”

 

“You’re a stranger everywhere you go, Xal.” Xal couldn’t see the man’s mouth, but they could feel the smile nonetheless. “Now, ain’t you got something to do?”

Xal frowned, but just the same stepped back into the bucket that had borne them into these depths, and signaled the Sheriff to haul them back up. They watched the man’s eyes follow them for much longer than they thought possible as they ascended, until finally the stifling darkness of the well swallowed them back up. 

 

The sunlight as they emerged was blinding after the darkness, and they spent a few moments blinking away the spots in their eyes only to find that a much larger crowd had amassed around the well since they’d been gone, all looking at the stranger expectantly.

 

“So… we’re y’all just throwing fancy shit down there?” they asked, gesturing to the well. “Like just dropping whole-ass ball gowns into your water source—?”

“Well us what he said!” someone in the crowd hollered. Quickly the cry was taken up by other townsfolk.

 

“Right.” Xal blinked and snapped their gloved fingers as though they’d just remembered what they were there for. “Well, the feller down the well says you ain’t been paying your dues, and he ain’t gonna turn the water back on until you get back to scrappin’.” 

 

There was silence for all of a moment before chaos erupted at once, and in the cacophony of stimulus Xal couldn’t rightly pick out who was saying what; it seemed as though everyone was operating under the same fear and panic, though. The Sheriff grabbed Xal by the shoulders and yelled, “There ain’t nothin’ left to scrap! So you just, go back down there, and tell him we can’t do it! That he’s being unreasonable!”

 

“Not for—” Xal grunted and grabbed a hold of their hat before the Sheriff shook it off, “—nothin’, but I think he already knows—” The torch slipped from their hand and tumbled into the well. The sound of it clacking against the walls of the well echoed above the clamor of the town. Thus, all attention was back on the well as the torch hit the bottom, and as that horrible laugh echoed out in response.

 

The town fell silent. No one dared to move. All eyes were locked on the well, as though expecting the man in the well to climb right out. The Sheriff’s hands trembled where they were still clamped onto Xal’s shoulders.

 

From the crowd, near where the ranchers had made their stand, came a full bodied sigh.

“Alright, here’s what we’re gonna do.” From the ranchers, some still holding the reigns of their raptors and others still holding some of their charges in their arms, an older woman stepped out and began making her way towards the well. Her gray hair was cropped close to her head, and it was clear from the wear in her leathers and the tools on her belt she’d lived a long, complicated life. She nodded to the Sheriff as she passed. “Sheriff.”

“Betty.” The Sheriff, for his part, remembered enough of his manners to let go of Xal long enough to tip his hat.

 

Betty turned to face the town. “We need three teams.” She held up her fingers for emphasis. “Team one will be on the search for a new scrap heap. Man in the well or not, this is what Scraptown’s about, and we need to get back to it.” There were murmurs of approval amongst the crowd. “Team two will be on the search for a new water source. It we can find one, then that saves us a whole heap of trouble. 

 

Team three will shake our trade routes, see if we can’t bargain for water in the meantime. As for the rest of you, be prepared for if things go south. We may have to leave Scraptown, but I’d just as rather not.” The murmuring had increased— though now there were those looking at one another incredulously, or glancing at the well with a dangerous look in their eyes. Betty gave a thunderous clap to haul everyone’s attention back to her.

 

“All right, y’all know your jobs, let’s get to it.”

“You heard the lady!” The Sheriff chimed in needlessly. “Get movin’!”

Betty didn’t flinch or glare at this, merely adjusted her hat and ignored the Sheriff. “You, Stranger,” she said.

 

“Xal.”

 

“Xal, you’re with me.” Without waiting for confirmation, Betty began striding through the crowd towards the stables. All around them the town had begun to mobilize, other folks of similar dispositions slotting themselves into leadership positions while the Sheriff stood and watched. “So, tell me about him.”

 

Xal blinked. “Who?”

 

“The man in the well. What kind of thing are we dealing with?”

 

Xal blinked again, frowned, then snapped their fingers. “Right. Him. Got no clue.”

 

“You don’t know?” Betty asked incredulously. 

 

“You’re the only one to have gotten a look at him.”

 

“Sure, but that don’t mean I know what he is. Lotta 

shit out there in the Wastes.”

 

Betty eyed them curiously. “You seen a lot of that shit, Stranger?”

 

Xal shrugged. “Probably.”

 

“Probably?”

 

“Probably.” 

 

Betty sighed. “Alright, what can you tell me about him?”

 

“Who?”

 

“The man in the well.”

 

“Right.” Xal snapped their fingers again. “That fella. Shadowy kinda guy, hard to get a look at him. Glowy eyes, liked to pull shit out of nowhere for fun.” Xal pursed their lips before adding, “Old. Ancient, maybe.”

 

“Makes sense,” Betty said, entering the stables. Stalls on either side were filled with mounts of varying types— tri-horns, plate-backs, raptors, all in pens of varying sizes. “Scraptown’s been in business for generations; if that thing in the well is what’s been allowing it to do so, then it makes sense it predates the town.”

 

Xal hummed, only half listening. Their gloved hands were buried in the white feathers of their own raptor, who crooned and pressed her enormous head back into their hands. “Aw, I missed you too Lacey. I know we just got to town but we gotta saddle up again, wish I could let you rest but duty calls.” They reached into their pouch and pulled out a dried fish, tossing it into the air for Lacey to snap up with her terrible teeth. 

 

“Last question,” Betty drawled, saddling up her own old dark-feathered raptor. “How interested did the man in the well seem in continuing this deal?”

 

Xal scratched the back of their neck. “Didn’t much seem like he cared, t’be honest.”

Betty sucked in a breath between her teeth. “I was afraid of that.”

 

“Oh?”

 

Betty tightened the saddle straps and grabbed the reigns. “Scraptown wouldn’t exist without that contract. If there ever were a time to get out of that contract, it’s likely passed. And if that thing don’t rightly care if we hold up our end one way or another, we’re at a sorry disadvantage. It’s all the same for the well man, life or death for the rest of us.”

 

The two exited the stables, squinting int he sun once again. “Well, I won’t order you to help out around here,” Betty said. “This ain’t your town, ain’t your problem.”

 

 

“Naw,” Xal said, slinging themself onto Lacey, “But it sure is interesting. Can you take me to the ship? There’s something I wanna see.”

 

The ship in question sat right on the outskirts of town, punching up into the sky from where it had crashed and lay half-buried in the sand. It had been stripped bare by this point, leaving only what parts of the hull could be used as shade for the town; around the corpse were the remains of scaffolding and digging equipment that had long since been torn down as the resources dried up. 

 

By this point in time the ship had gained many names beyond the one she was christened with when she left her port: the Scraptown Savior, the Shadeboat, the Broken Chest, the Gold Mine, and—

 

“Delilah.”

 

“What?” Betty glanced over in confusion to where Xal stood, looking up at the hulking shell. 

 

“Don’t she look like a Delilah?” Xal clarified, as though it made anything more clear. “Big, powerful—”

 

“Empty.”

 

“Right, right,” Xal nodded, but it was clear they weren’t fully listening, staring up at the ship and seeing something Betty couldn’t. “But imagine how she must’ve been when your town first found her. Must’ve been in rare condition.”

 

“Xal, I appreciate your help, but need I remind you we’re on a time limit?”

 

“Hm? Oh! Right.” Xal snapped their fingers, hauling their attention back to Betty. “So, what’s the next step?”

 

Betty stared long and hard at the stranger, who held her gaze blankly. “Xal,” she said slowly, “We came out to the ship because you asked to.”

 

“Right.” Xal’s attention shifted back to the ship. 

 

“Where’s the rest of it?”

 

“Pardon?”

 

“The rest of the ship. Y’know, the other half. Or is it just fully buried in the sand?” 

 

“Naw, we dug it up as far as it could go. Anything beyond this must’ve been pulverized in the crash—” 

 

Xal guffawed. “A ship this size?? Naw, Benny—”

“Betty.”

“Betty, this,” and they gestured wildly to the remains sticking out of the sand, “this is just the nose.” Betty didn’t have it in her to fault the stranger for misremembering her name when they smiled like the sun. “We figure out where the other half fell, we get y’all your new whale!”

 

Betty frowned. “What if someone else’s got there first?”

 

Xal shrugged. “Up to you, I reckon. First we gotta find the thing.”

 

Betty heaved a sigh. The Stranger was right— first deal with what you could, deal with the rest later. While Xal hopped up the rock formation the ship had crumbled against with all the grace of a pygmy-raptor, Betty creaked her way up one aching joint at a time. She stopped at the top, catching her breath before following Xal’s gaze up towards the clear blue sky. 

 

There weren’t a cloud in sight. This wasn’t unusual, as there’d never been a cloud in sight around these parts, not as far as she could remember— and Betty had lived in Scraptown her whole life. 

 

“If you’re looking for air moisture you’re not gonna find any.” She sighed. “Pretty sure the folks that crafted Scraptown tried and came up empty.” If only the ‘Fore Folks had created something to make water out of nothing, she thought blithely. 

 

But, then, the world they lived in was so astronomically different now— the ship a testament to that— who’s to say they’d ever had such a need? She looked back at her companion when Xal still hadn’t responded nor moved. “…Xal?”

 

“Hm?” Xal leaned even further back, one hand holding their hat to their head as they set their sights even higher.

 

“The hell are you looking at?”

 

“Lattices,” Xal answered, as though it were obvious.

 

Betty tried once again to follow their gaze, but found herself lost in the brightness of the sky. 

 

“’Fraid I don’t follow.”

 

“It’s easier at night,” Xal admitted, “but once you know where to look, it ain’t that hard to orient yourself in the daytime.”

 

Betty sucked in a breath between her teeth. “I’ll take your word for it.” By this point, Xal had leaned so far backwards she was afraid they might tip over and fall off the rock. Rather than voice her concern and break their concentration, Betty quietly moved herself to a spot where she could catch them. Just in case. “So, lattices?”

 

“Lattices.”

 

“Like the crystalline ones that power systems?”

 

“Yup.”

 

“The hell does that have to do with a ship?”

 

“Well, y’see, the ‘Fore Folks set up a massive one that spanned the globe, used it for all kindsa things. Communication and transportation and such. Ha—!” They whooped and pointed into the sky, finally standing straight once more. “There’s one! Gotta look real close-like.”

 

Betty followed their finger into the sky, her eyes watering at the brightness resisting the urge to look away, when— 

“Well, I’ll be.”

 

There, hanging in the sky like a grain of sand in a drinking glass was a single star visible in the day. Even knowing it was there, it was hard for Betty to keep it in her sight, only catching it out of the corner of her eye.

 

“Yup! At night you can tell ‘em apart from stars ‘cause they’re this kinda pinkish color. That, and they don’t move like regular stars.”

 

“So, how does this help us find the other half of the ship?”

 

“The what?”

 

“Xal.”

 

“Right.” They turned their gaze back to the sky, tracing out a few lines emanating from the lattice-point they’d spotted earlier. “Well, before the ship crashed it had to have been on some kind of path. If a ship had ball gowns in it—”

 

“What?”

 

“—Then it was likely a passenger ship of some kind, and those didn’t deviate from their paths. Therefore, we find the path, we figure out where it broke apart, we get an idea of where the other half fell.”

Betty stared. “Xal. How the hell do you know all this?”

 

She regretted the question almost as soon as it left her mouth. The excited light in Xal’s eyes dimmed, and shifted from something focused to something hazy and far away. They shrugged, rubbed the back of their neck. “Couldn’t tell ya.” 

 

“As in?”

 

“Don’t remember.” They sighed, looked back at the carcass of the ship, then up towards the sky. “Sometimes I see things like this and facts just pop in. Dunno who told me ‘em, or where they might be now. Honestly, ‘s just kinda tumbleweeds up there whenever I try to think too hard about it. Just dust. Oh, and Lacey of course.” The white raptor crooned happily up at them upon hearing her name.

 

“Sorry to hear that,” Betty said, stiffly. She wasn’t good at this sort of thing. 

 

“Not your fault. Don’t think it’s no one’s fault, really.” And they said it with such assurance that Betty believed them. “Now, you got a map?” Their eyes were shining and focused once more. “Let’s find your ship.”

 

With pen and paper in hand and latticework in mind, Xal made quick work out of marking out the areas of the Wastes the second half was likely to have fallen. 

 

Betty wondered to herself about just what could have broken a ship like that mid-air, but Xal had no more fleeting facts about it, so she had to make do with wondering. Now, generations ago the folks of the Wastes learned to use the magic vibratin’ through their fingers to whistle out smoke— among other things— and then formed that smoke into symbols out of necessity. Never know when you’ll have an ally out in the dusts, and it took the folks of the Wastes a long time to realize solitude was not a boon.

 

Betty, for her part, had made it a point to never work alone if she could help it; she often attributed her advanced age to that fact. As soon as she and Xal had a plan, she sent that plan quite literally up in smoke. 

 

In the cloudless blue sky, the responses from the other searchers were easily visible. Affirmations, folks deciding who would search where, all of this information dotting the sky before the wind took it on its way.

 

Over the next few days, the sky would see many a smoke signal from one rider or another. There was hope, the first two days. Sighting of debris, a pool of glass where one superheated piece must have struck the sand, meetings with other towns being set up. The days stretched on, however, and as the water in their packs began to grow shallow the messages began to grow dark. With the ship dried up, Scraptown had nothing to bargain with. The townsfolk were getting increasingly restless, and we all know how quickly desperation can ignite violence. The searchers had yet to find anything substantial.

 

“There’s a cloud on the horizon,” Xal said, halfway into the fourth day, when Betty was so lost in thought about where she’d go when Scraptown officially gave up the ghost and whether or not it had been wise to cling to hope when really they should have just evacuated the town and moved on that she completely missed what they’d said.

 

“Whuzzat?”

 

“Clouds,” Xal reiterated, pointing off in the distance. Betty’s head snapped up so quickly she felt her spine crack, but there it was— hanging in the sky like some giant bird of prey, a bank of thick clouds that stretched across the horizon. For a moment, all she could do was stare.

 

“I ain’t never seen the sky like this before,” she admitted, voice hushed in awe. She felt like a little girl again staring out at the enormity of the world and feeling so, so small. Xal took off their hat and fanned themself, but in that instant the breeze felt cold.

 

 

“Look mighty thick with rain, too,” Xal commented, oblivious to Betty’s existential wonder. “Who knows? Maybe nature’ll fix the problem ‘fore we can.”

 

But Betty shook her head. “No.”

 

“No?”

 

“No. Xal, this—” she pointed wildly at the cloud formation eating the eastern sky. “This ain’t natural. I’ve lived here my whole life and I ain’t never seen the sky like this. Hell, if this were natural, we wouldn’t be in this situation.” She stood up hurriedly, immediately moving to saddle up. “We’re running out of time.”

 

Xal looked as though they wanted to speculate some more, but that withered in the face of Betty’s desperation. As for Betty, well, there’s a certain kind of fire that lights under folks when they think they’re too deep in a swamp to muck back out. Folks don’t like moving slow when the only way out is through.

 

The day turned into night. Smoke signals lit up from others searchers all with the same forlorn message: “Nothing yet.” The messages from the town weren’t much more hopeful. And all the while, the cloud grew bigger.

 

It was the morning of the fifth day when they finally spotted it— a deep break in a canyon surrounded by a sea of glass. The two searchers barely exchanged a word, merely pushed their raptors as fast as they dared to on the edge of the chasm, claws skittering across the unnaturally smooth ground. There— deep in the depths of the canyon, almost farther than they could see in the shade of the clouds, the fractured hull of a ‘Fore Folk passenger vessel sat, forgotten in the depths of the Wastes.

 

Betty wasted no time, marking the spot on her map and whistling out a smoke signal in almost the same breath. She secured a climbing rope to the edge then peered back at Xal who was once again staring at the sky.

 

“You know a lot about these things, right?” she asked.

 

“Hm?” She watched as their brain caught up with the rest of them. “Oh, yeah, sort of. Why?”

 

Betty’s eyes gleamed. “Think you can lead me to where the good stuff is?”

 

Now, if I’m remembering my history correctly, the Foundation Ship, Class D Lilah, was one of the more popular passenger lines across the planet. Big enough to host a small town, she boasted pleasure and entertainment as she ferried the ‘Fore Folks from one side of the planet to the next. 

 

Oh, the stories she could tell, had she not broken in half mid-flight. And of course, if ships could speak in the first place. Whether or not she herself had a soul, she had ferried millions of people before crashing down to what would become a wasteland, her passengers doomed to become scavenged for others survival.

 

This is the nature of a whale fall, after all. Even the largest, most powerful, most beautiful beings must one day be consumed.

 

Xal and Betty tore through the carcass as fast as they possibly could, scrambling down walls and past dust-filled passenger rooms and past machines and pleasantries neither of them could name, carving their way efficiently and methodically to the heart of the ship: the engine room.

 

The crystal lattice that covered the room, coalescing into a sphere the mind had trouble seeing, hadn’t functioned for centuries. That much was obvious. There were no stray sparks, no humming in their bones, Betty’s whistling hand didn’t so much as twitch. 

 

Just a dead series of crystals, fit into a shape no one could fathom anymore.

Betty allowed herself only one brief moment of awe, before snatching the largest crystal from its resting place.

“Let’s ride.”

 

The two pushed their raptors to the absolute limit, but for every mile they gained the clouds outpaced them. What had once been a fluffy wall at the edge of the desert had quickly become a blanket, covering the sun, the sky, and just about everything else. Xal had been correct— they were thick with rain. Even if the two couldn’t see it with how dark and heavy the clouds hung, they could feel it. 

 

Sweat clung to them from the humidity, the temperature dropped slowly but steadily, and as Scraptown reared in the horizon a cruel wind had picked up.

It was fully dark as they dismounted, but the night was bright with torches. Betty swore under her breath as they approached the center of town to find the townsfolk surrounding the well, and the swearing rapidly grew to over her breath the closer she got until she was full-out yelling.

 

“What in the hell do you think you are doing?!” she demanded, gaining the crowd’s attention. 

 

“We’re going to destroy the well!” someone in the crowd shouted. “Enough is enough!”

 

Betty stared open mouth at them for a moment before her fury returned. “Are you out of your minds?!” she roared.

 

“I tried to stop them,” said the Sheriff from somewhere in the crowd.

 

“Do you have any idea what that might do?!” Betty continued, ignoring the Sheriff. “We don’t know what that thing is! We don’t know what breaking the well might do!”

 

“We can’t just stand still!” shouted back a woman nearer to Betty. “We’re dying. Anything is better than this slow crawl towards death!”

 

“Has anyone even started evacuation prep?!” Five steps behind and to the left of Betty, Xal felt something hit the worn leather of their duster, and instinctively held out a hand to the moist air, looking upwards. This went unnoticed by the rest of the town. “We could always leave—”

 

This was met by a thunderous uproar by the town. 

 

“This is our home! We’ve lived here for generations!” someone cried, and the call was taken up steadily by others in the crowd.

 

“I can’t leave my home!”

 

“Where would we go?”

 

“My great-grandfather built these buildings!”

 

“We only survived out here by the grace of that thing!” Betty pointed accusingly at the well before angrily shaking her head. “That ain’t the point! The point is, we don’t have to do either of those options.” She dug into her pack and pulled out the engine crystal, holding it up over the crowd. A murmur went up through the crowd, hope seeping back into their voices. “Now, let me through.”

 

Betty began to wade through the crowd, but all of a sudden her passage became blocked, townsfolk refusing to budge.

 

“Let me through,” she demanded.

 

“Naw, see,” the man blocking her path drawled, “If we break the well, then we get water and the best scrap.”

 

The crowd erupted into chaos once more, Betty yelling her heart out, some townsfolk taking her side while still others held fast, someone grabbing for the crystal, Xal ignoring the drop hitting their open palm to rush in and try to help— 

 

And then, slowly rising through the chaos:

A laugh.

 

The town grew still, like a rabbit in a bush, all frozen by that horrible, horrible laugh. It echoed up the well, and grew louder, and louder. The crowd began shifting away from the well as they realized what was happening:

 

The man was climbing out of the well.

One hand, shadowy and indistinct clasped the edge of the well, digging into the grooves of the stone like they were made for him. Then, the other. Then, the town watched, transfixed, as the man in the well hauled himself up, and sat on the stones, his shadowy boots stopping an inch or two above the dirt. 

 

“No, no, don’t stop on my account,” he rasped. Even out of the depths of the well, the only part of his face that could be made out were the two, pin-prick, coal-bright eyes. Even still, they could hear the smile in his voice. “I want to know what you decide.”

 

The nerve of the town drained like a wave out to sea. Didn’t matter how far they outnumbered him; ain’t one of them was going to make the first move.

 

The Sheriff snatched the crystal out of Betty’s stunned hands, and held it aloft. “Here!” he cried, making his way back to the well and trembling before it. The town inched away, until the Sheriff was very much alone, holding the crystal out to the figure. “We found more.”

 

The man took the crystal, turning it this way and that in his shadowy hand, absorbing all the light it refracted.

 

“So, no hard feelings, right?” the Sheriff said, beginning to ease back towards the crowd. Xal started as another drop hit the brim of their hat. “You’ll give us our water back.”

 

The man laughed. And for all the laughter he’d done at the town’s expense, this was somehow the cruelest. It was a wildfire laugh, a support-beam shattering laugh, the laugh of the Wastes when someone gets too big for their britches. 

 

“Sure,” he said, and now other folks in the crowd were beginning to feel the rain, too, starting in surprise and shock. Xal had locked eyes with Betty, and the two had already begun booking it for their raptors. The confusion of the town became audible, shifting from concern, to worry, to panic as the sky split in two.

 

“You’ll get your water back.”

About the Author:

 

Kras Nebula has been writing since they were little, given a love of fantasy and sci-fi from their nerd parents. Their works range from westerns to fantasy to horror and everything in between, and they’re excited to be breaching into the world of publishing. When not writing, Kras is probably off playing with yarn.

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