With an oil-rag in one hand and a wooden countertop in front of him, Tobias was ignoring the rain.
It thudded against the roof, steady as an impatient customer’s drumming fingers. It ran and splattered from the eaves of the inn, audible even through the shuttered windows; and even the thick, cozy scents of warming liquor, hot mash, and woodsmoke could not hide the permeating smell of the drenching, soaking rain thudding so hard and thick into the earth that it left muddy, mushy bruises and deep, wounding gashes.
Tobias knew what he’d see, if he looked out there. The blackened fronts of the battened-down houses. The river that used to be a street, running slowly but steadily out of town to drown the fresh-started crops into uselessness; the sky as dark as lodestone, clouds hanging so low over the town that the surrounding mountains disappeared into them—two halves of a horrendous jaw, about to swallow the known world whole.
Tobias rubbed more oil into the stained wood of the bar, watching the color of the wood bloom to life under his attentions.
He knew what was out there, but he was ignoring it. He’d done what he could to keep his hotel from being swept away; now, they could only wait for the Thunderer’s anger to be worn out—or for the whole town to be demolished by the flood.
It was a madman’s wager, which would come first.
A crack of lightning sounded across the sky, flashing briefly through the shutters before it sizzled away in the space of a second. It shook the earth as it went. Tobias looked up, assuring himself that the roof was holding steady. It was. He frowned at it for a moment, distracted by the cobwebs.
“We know, ya great blowhole!” One of his guests shouted, pausing in his game of checkers. “Hush up and let a man think, would you?”
Tobias chuckled. Garrett was a farmer whose stead had been washed away in the rain. He, along with his wife and children, had found shelter in the hotel for lack of anywhere else to go. He hid his worry well, but if anyone had reason to be yelling at the Thunderer—it was he.
“Hush, Garrett,” the man’s wife hissed, leaning forward over her nervous knitting while Bryce, the second checkers-player, pretended to pour every ounce of his attention into the game. “Do you want to make him even angrier?”
“What’s he gonna do, Bette?” Garrett snapped back. “Rain on us some more?”
Tobias listened with a frown, wondering if he should step in. It had been a long three days, and everyone’s nerves were frayed. His hotel was not full—most everybody had stayed battened down in their homes—but the people that were here were worried and displaced, driven in by the storm as it had hit or by the loss of their home in the first few hours of the Thunderer’s rage.
Tobias had been running the Marquette Hotel for twenty years now, and he was good at his work. He knew how to calm people’s worries and settle them into a semblance of peace.
But it had been three days, and he was tired. He ignored the couple as they huffed and snipped at one another, rubbing the oil-rag in soothing circles.
The whole sky rumbled above them, shaking the earth, and Tobias grabbed the jar of oil to keep it from tipping over. The doors slammed open, and he jumped at the noise, believing for one idiotic moment that the storm itself had put skin and bones on to invade his little den of comparative safety.
It was not a storm. It was a person.
A slim, tall person, grinning the reckless grin of someone who had experienced the full wrath of bad weather, and survived. He took off his hat, sluicing water out onto the floor. It splashed and splattered on the floor, adding to the muddy puddles already made by the stranger’s soaked boots and dripping coat.
Freed from the hat, the stranger’s hair sprung up in a wild red nest on top of his head. It seemed to glow in the lantern-light, and his grin glowed with it as he ignored the questioning glances thrown his way and began to take off his coat.
“Quite the storm!” he remarked cheerily, hanging his coat up on a sturdy hook meant for lanterns.
“That it is,” Tobias agreed, setting an empty glass on the counter. “Local Thunderer, showing his strength. It’s a privilege of living in the sky, I suppose—not having to care ‘bout what happens to us here on the ground.”
He set a bottle down next to the glass as the stranger settled on a stool and planted his elbows on the bar.
“Liquor’s three cents a glass. You got a name?”
The stranger looked at the amber liquid with marked distaste.
“Do you have any cream?”
Tobias raised his head and fixed the stranger with a look that plainly said he was not someone who appreciated being jerked around. Cream, really?
The kid’s expression didn’t have a trace of mockery or sarcasm in it. Just a blank sort of hopefulness that made his mess of hair seem to stand up straighter than before. As Tobias held his gaze, that hope seemed to fade.
“I suppose not,” he said, with a dejected shrug. “That’s all right.”
“No,” Tobias put in, not wanting to lose business. “We’ve got it all right, but it’ll be four cents if you want it in a glass. Not many people want to drink cream, is all.”
The stranger was looking blank and cheerful again. “Many people,” he noted, “Are fools.”
Tobias snorted in agreement, making his way back into the kitchen.
He shook his head.
* * *
The stranger got his glass of cream. Tobias went back to the bar, watching the wood soak in the healing oil, glow with the attention. Checkers clacked lightly from the far corner of the room, blending in with the clicking of Bette’s knitting needles in a futile attempt to drown out the sound of pounding rain and howling wind.
The stranger ran his finger around the rim of his glass, taking in the room with wide eyes.
“So,” he said, breaking the silence. “A Thunderer, eh?”
It was an awkward attempt at conversation, but Tobias nodded along, used to fielding all kinds of talk with friendliness, even when he wasn’t feeling particularly friendly.
“Sure thing,” he said, rubbing oil carefully into a deep gouge in the wood where, one interesting evening, a man with a hook for a hand had made an enthusiastic point. “They not have those, where you’re from?”
The stranger shook his head.
“Desert-born,” he explained. “We’ve got the thought-stealers and the jackal packs and the echobirds, but I’ve only ever heard of thunderers in stories.” He shifts in his seat again. “What’s it like?”
Tobias raised his eyebrows at the boy, and made an open gesture meant to indicate the current state of the outside world.
“Ruined crops and rampant hoof-rot is what it’s like,” he said. “You must have seen it, coming in. I’m impressed you even managed to get here, wherever you’re traveling from. Reckoned it’d be about impossible, by now.”
He was hoping that the man would reply with something at least vaguely enlightening—about where he came from, why he was here. But the stranger only shrugged his bony shoulders and said, with a smile scrawled awkward as an illiterate’s signature across his face, “I’ve got a knack for travel, I guess.”
Tobias nodded amiably, and scrubbed a little at a stain in the wood that had been there for years.
There is calm silence, for a few moments. It’s broken only by the click-clack of knitting needles and checkers tiles. The stranger is circling his finger around the rim of his glass—once, twice, three times. The glass begins to send out a soft, eerie hum.
“So,” the stranger said, suddenly, “As it turns out, I don’t have four cents.”
Tobias looked up.
“I don’t do business for free.”
As if to emphasize this point, another crackle and flash of lightning gave way to a deep boom of thunder. The stranger looked towards the window as the white light flashed outside, and for a moment, Tobias thought his eyes looked odd in the light. Too pale, too wide, reflecting the lightning back with a glow like a wolf glaring down a camp-fire.
It was over in a moment. He might not have seen anything at all. As the floor shook under their feet with the receding voice of the storm, the stranger looked back at him and tilted his head towards the shuttered window.
“Three days, and this storm ends.”
Tobias huffed a laugh.
“It’s a Thunderer’s rage,” he said. “No rhyme or reason to it. It’ll end when he’s worn himself out. Or died.”
Neither was likely to happen soon.
The stranger smiled at him, and lifted his finger from the glass. It stopped humming, abruptly, leaving an odd flavor of silence in its wake.
“Maybe,” he said. “Either way. For this glass of cream, I will see this storm ended in three days.”
Tobias frowned. First at the stranger, and then at the dripping overcoat, hanging up on its lantern-peg. For the first time, he caught the warm glint of silver protruding from one side of coat—a sword-hilt, if his eyes weren’t betraying him, wrought up in fancy and decorated with turquoise. It was exactly the kind of sword he’d expect from a young adventurer promising to slay Thunderers.
Tobias looked from the half-hidden sword to the boy’s beardless, hopeful face, and realized that the stranger was serious. He was going to fight the thunderer, and he was going to get himself killed.
In three days.
Another clap of thunder shook the inn, and Tobias sighed.
“Drink all the cream you want, boy,” he said, and dipped his rag in the jar of oil again.
* * *
“Are you really going to fight the Thunderer?”
The question came from a wide-eyed girl who barely brushed three feet. The stranger looked down from his place at the bar, considering her seriously.
“I’m going to talk to him.”
It was morning, though the sky outside was no less black than usual. He had taken Tobias’s invitatation to drink all the cream he liked seriously. He’d been sitting at the bar all night, nursing glass after glass and looking around the open barroom like it was the most fascinating thing he’d seen in his life.
Garrett and Bette’s daughter, whose name Tobias always forgot—he thought it started with an E? Looked even more awestruck.
“What are you going to say?” She asked.
The stranger got up from his stool and smiled at her.
“Things,” he said. The girl—Ellie? Scowled at him.
“What kind of things?”
“You’ll just have to watch and see,” he said. Bette realized where her daughter had gone off to and hustled over, taking her arm to bring her back. The girl let her mother lead her away, but she gazed back at the stranger, utterly ignoring Bette’s stern warning about being cautious of strangers.
Unaware of his admirer, said stranger took his now-dry coat from its peg and shrugged it onto his shoulders. The silver detailing of the sword-belt glowed in the dim light as he buckled it on, and Tobias leaned over the counter from where he was rubbing a set of glasses dry to get a better glance at the weapon. He saw the silverwork a little clearer, got a solid glimpse of the red and yellow leather wrapped in a strange pattern around the hilt, and then the stranger flapped his coat around himself and gave Tobias a smile.
“Wish me luck!” He said. Laughing like he’d said something clever, he exited the hotel, greeted by a low rumble of thunder as he left the double doors swinging in his wake.
He’d forgotten his hat.
With a grumble, Tobias stepped out from behind the bar, grabbing the hat from its hook and jogging to the still-swinging door, hoping to call the boy back so he wouldn’t have to go slogging after him through the mud.
He pushed the doors open, holding the hat up, and paused on the cusp of a shout.
The boy was striding down the road through the middle of the town, water swirling around his feet, the slicing rain plastering his wild, fire-red hair flat to his head. The wind beat his coat around his long, skinny legs, and as the boy walked, he tugged the sword free of his coat and of its sheath, raising it high over his head like a lantern to threaten the darkness of the clouds.
The blade was wide and straight, double-edged, the solid metal etched on either side of the deep tang with a pattern of raised wings, like an eagle’s first wild flap when it took off from its perch in chase of some recently sighted prey.
The boy held it up for a moment, and then lowered it carelessly to one side, squinting up at the clouds and blinking the rain from his face.
“Thunderer!” He bellowed, and Tobias jumped. The boy was almost as loud as the thunder himself. He felt a tiny press against his leg, and saw the brown braided head of the girl, her hand pressed to his thigh as she leaned around him to see.
A moment passed in which the boy got no answer, though the clouds above them swirled and trembled in deep shades of stone-black and steel-grey.
“If you do not stop this storm in three days,” he shouted, and now that Tobias was used to the impressive volume of his voice, it was easier to hear how it was dwarfed by even the lowest rumble from the clouds above, “You will die!”
There was another moment of silence.
Then, mission evidently accomplished, the boy turned on his heel and, sheathing the sword, began stalking back towards the inn.
Tobias stepped aside as he reached the doors.
“Was that it?” The girl asked skeptically. The stranger smiled at her.
“For today, yes. Oh, my hat! Thank you.”
Tobias let the hat be taken from his hand. The stranger replaced it on the lantern-hook, along with the sword-belt and dripping coat. This done, he resumed his seat at the bar and gave Tobias a sparkling smile.
“Do you have any more cream?”
* * *
Tobias spent the rest of the day mopping the floor, settling an argument that broke out over a game of checkers, and starting an account of how many glasses of cream the stranger was consuming. The tally was running high at one hundred and thirty-eight.
By the time the three days were up and the storm was still raging, Tobias was banking on the notion that the stranger’s bill would be high enough to demand his sword in payment. It was good craftsmanship, covered in precious stones and metals. It would be enough to begin rebuilding the town and repairing the damage from the storm.
All in all, it was a good plan. Tobias firmly believed that gaining a hapless adventurer, even one terrible at keeping his promises, was the best thing that had happened to the town in some time.
The next morning, Tobias came down to find the stranger’s coat hanging on the hook, but no stranger. The girl—Emma? And her mother were both huddled by the door, staring out. Tobias adjusted his eyeglasses and walked over to watch with them.
The boy was shouting at the sky again.
“—in three days, you will die!” He roared, holding up the sword.
The sky snapped and crackled in response, clouds swirling and roiling. Tobias thought he caught a glimpse of pale white in the black of the clouds—but in the next moment, it was gone.
The mud was up to the stranger’s calves as he trudged drippingly back, and the rain showed no signs of stopping. The boy offered them all a smile anyway.
“Not much longer now,” he said, and hung up his hat and sword before returning to the bar.
* * *
The morning of the third day, the boy seemed to have given up. He sat at the bar all day, drinking glass after glass of cream and seemingly ignorant of the resentful looks being cast his way by everyone in the hotel.
That evening, Tobias ordered his accounts and wrote out a bill for fifteen dollars and fifty-six cents—more than enough to demand the sword as payment.
Armed with the bill, he stalked out into the main room of the hotel, where Garrett’s game of checkers and Bette’s knitting had been joined by old man Harold determinedly trying to play a song on the hopelessly tuneless piano and a pair of young ranchers quietly drinking and playing cards. Bette and Garrett’s youngest two children, flying free of the supervision of their sister, were making a game of stealing cards and checkers on the sly and running across the room gleefully while the game-players were forced to get up and chase after them.
The stranger was watching from his habitual perch at the bar, nursing a glass of cream thoughtfully and smiling whenever the children ran wildly past him.
He turned that smile on Tobias as soon as he came near, and Tobias very pointedly did not smile back. He set the bill decisively on the counter and pushed it forward for the stranger’s observation.
The boy smiled at the bill. Then he smiled at Tobias.
All this smiling was beginning to set a prickling tension up Tobias’s spine.
“And this is?”
The boy’s questioning tone was so blankly innocent that for a moment Tobias entertained the notion that he was asking about the nature of paper and ink itself. In response, Tobias crossed his arms.
“It’s been three days,” he said. “The Thunderer’s still alive. Here’s what I’m owed for the cream.”
He was expecting shamefacedness. Bravado. Possibly protest. The boy, however, didn’t seem flustered at all. His smile did not falter, though it was tinged with a hint of confusion.
“It’s not been three days yet,” he said. “It’s not quite sunset.”
Tobias crosses his arms tighter.
“And you’re going to find and kill him in the next twenty minutes?” He asked. “Kid, that’s not—“
A flash of lightning shone white and blinding through every crack and cranny in the walls of the inn, bright enough to be blinding. The crack of thunder that followed on its heels shook Tobias’s bones and the very foundations of the inn. The bottles lined up behind the bar trembled and cracked against one another, several smashing down on the floor, and Bette let out a small shriek.
The inn was cast in a deeper darkness than before, the sharp ozone scent thick in the air. Tobias blinked, shaken, but the stranger merely set down his half-drunk glass of cream and looked up with a smile.
“Ah,” he said. “Just in time.”
* * *
It’s a hollow, deafening voice, sizzling like lightning, rumbling like thunder. The stranger stood up from his stool, snagged his coat off its hook, and swept through the hotel’s double doors, leaving them swinging in his wake.
Tobias looked around the room, where everyone had stopped what they were doing. They were stiff as statues, staring at one another.
“Hello then! You’re almost late!” The boy shouted, his voice slightly muffled by the walls and doors; and as one, everyone in the room—Tobias included—rushed to look out the windows.
The street outside was all but unrecognizable. It had been battered, watered and churned so as to become a veritable sea of mud, running swift as a river. The boy was sunk into it past his knees, but he seemed unflustered by the fact. He stared up, unfazed, at the sky.
The sky had a face.
The sky, more specifically, had a skull.
The clouds had darkened, almost pitch-black, and they thrummed on every side like the beat of heavy wings. In the midst of the deep and wild dark, white bone shone, looking down through empty eyes at the stranger. Lightning snapped and crackled around the Thunderer’s teeth as he spoke, rattling back down the pale structure of his spine, crackling fissures in the oppressive dark.
“It is you who are late,” the hollow voice snapped. “It has been three days, and yet the storm continues, and I still live.”
Under the storm-heart of the Thunderer’s ribs, the rain had ceased, though it swirled around all the harder under the beat of his dark wings. The stranger stood in the relative quiet and set his hands on his hips with an air of petulance.
“Why is everyone in such a hurry?” He asked. “It’s not sunset yet. It won’t have been three days until sunset.”
A blinding flash of lightning threw the thunderer’s skeletal form into sharp relief for a moment, crackling outward, giving his wings and snapping tail brief definition, and Tobias flinched back from it, eyes burning. The world returned to the storm-dark shadows as the rumbling thunder of the creature’s laughter rattled its ribcage.
“It is not fifteen minutes until then, pipsqueak,” it said. “What—have you some concealed dagger? Will you take a mighty swing, and let it glance off my toe?”
He laughed again, and Tobias shut his eyes and ears, cringing from it; but when he opened them again, he saw the boy still standing, hands on his hips, looking up at the Thunderer as though he had never been obliged to look away.
When he spoke, he sounded sad.
“You’ve grown arrogant,” he said. “But there’s still time. You can still stop this storm. You can still live.”
The Thunderer laughed his deafening laugh again, and while the earth still shook with it, there was a heavy thud that Tobias felt trembling up his legs. The Thunderer had come down to earth, his great claws sinking into the mud. He took a prowling step forward, lowering his head to look directly down upon the stranger’s rain-plastered head.
“I? Arrogant?” He asked, blue electricity dancing around his jaws and flashing up through the empty sockets of his eyes. “What is arrogance, that it could apply to me? Have I taken more than is my due—I, who shake the earth with my wings? I, who scorch the sky with my breath?”
“Shake and scorch if you like,” the boy said. “The earth and the sky have been here before you. They will be here after you.”
The lightning flashed up bright and sharp in the Thunderer’s eyes, and with a tremble of air and a rattle of bone, he took a step back.
“Says a creature who sees the beginning and end of neither,” he snapped. “Do not preach to me, pipsqueak. It is you—you, who come threat-making and sinew-flexing—you who is arrogant. There is a price for such presumption.”
The crackling lightning was building, shining through the sockets of the Thunderer’s skull, a clear and present threat, but the boy only shrugged, raising his hands.
His empty hands.
Tobias’s eyes snapped from the boy, minuscule in the face of the Thunderer and his rage, to the sword, hanging sheathed and useless on its lantern-hook.
He needed his sword.
With no more thought than that, Tobias shoved through the small, terrified tangle of people who had gathered at the doors, sprinted the two steps to the lantern-hook, and tore the sword free of its sheath. The blade hummed and trembled like a living thing in his hands, but he had no time to wonder at it . He ran to the door, his guests parting like blown wheat before him, and out into the storm, sinking knee-deep in the mud within his first few steps. He would never be able to get to the boy in time.
“Seventeen seconds until sunset,” the Thunderer crackled, bending threateningly, and Tobias lost what little sense he’d managed to hold until now.
“Stranger! Your sword!” He remembered to roar in warning, and flung the blade in the boy’s general direction, and the Thunderer glanced up, surprised by the shouting.
He realized, as the blade left his hand, just how idiotic of a thing he was doing. The sword was heavy, it would fall. It would stab the boy. It would get lost in the mud.
The sword disagreed. It left his hand. It flew.
The blade rose, spinning, in an elegant arc over the boy’s head. The crackle of lightning flickered against the rain-wet metal as it hung, frozen, for one second in time.
Then it plummeted down, and the Thunderer had no time even to flinch away as the blade sliced into his skull and buried itself deep.
The lightning in the Thunderer’s mouth flickered for a moment. Then, with the shudder of a receding storm, the great frame of bones began to collapse, the swirling meat and matter of the Thunderer dying out and fading away.
He shook the ground one last time as he fell.
* * *
Tobias was knee-deep in mud when the sun reappeared. It set the west on fire, spreading orange and yellow and pink light over the mud-brown world in a way he hadn’t seen since a week past, when the Thunderer had first come down from his mountain.
He blinks at the monolithic skull, sunk to its jawbone in the deep-churned mud of the street and still managing to tower almost as tall as the storefronts. The pale columns of wing-bones arc up and over the buildings, with joints planted somewhere on the outskirts of town.
He’s only vaguely aware that there are people—coming out of his hotel, out of the houses, out of everywhere. They are slow, tentative, not quite managing any greetings just yet—just staring. They blink at one another in the unfamiliar sunlight.
Tobias does not think of the stranger until he catches a glimpse of the sword, shining like a perverted crown jewel in the very center of the dead Thunderer’s forehead. He turns, scanning the familiar faces.
The stranger is gone.
With a tube of polish in one hand and a soft cloth in the other, Tobias was spiting the dim light.
In all fairness, the sunset was being no more inconvenient than usual. The real inconvenience, or rather inconveniences, were the guests that had crowded the Marquette Hotel to bursting. Tourists, wanting to come see the remains of what is—what was—the very last Thunderer in existence. Fifteen years since he’d died, and still, the tourists came. They kept Tobias at the bar long past his usual hours, pushing his current task back until there was barely the light for it.
Squelching out a fresh dollop of polish onto the cloth, Tobias rubbed away at what might be a bit of tarnish, or possibly a shadow, on the silver hilt of the blade.
He can’t complain, really. The tourists pay well, even if they make more mess and noise than they’re worth. Even when they etch patterns into the Thunderer’s bones and climb up on his skeleton and try to tug the silver sword from his skull for a keepsake.
He huffs a laugh at the bent of his own thoughts, and squints at the sword-hilt. He’s getting old, and he should have brought a lantern.
“It’s after sunset, now,” a voice said from over his head. “Long past time to be done.”
Tobias jerked, and looked up.
Against the twilit sky, a sharp-edged, gangling figure is standing on the top of the Thunderer’s head, looking down at Tobias with his head cocked to one side. Tobias stares for a moment, and then settles, looking down at his work.
“Just one more grubby fingerprint, and I will be done,” he says. “And if you’d have remembered all your belongings for once, I’d never have had to come out here at all.”
It was far too dark to see what he was doing anymore. He tucked the rag into his pocket, but didn’t move to get up, looking up at the familiar silhouette.
“You going to take it back?” He asked. “If you don’t, one of these boys might actually get it loose someday and carry it off.”
There was silence for a few moments, as the stranger merely looked down at him. Thinking, Tobias assumed, though he couldn’t see the man’s face.
“Have you ever tried?” He asked, finally. “To pull it loose?”
Tobias huffed. “Why would I?”
The stranger shrugged. “To sell it,” he said. “To use it. Just to see if you could?”
“Can’t say I have.”
The stranger looked up, a profile against the deep blue of the sky, and once again, Tobias thought he caught an odd light in the boy’s eyes—a strangeness, gone as soon as it was seen.
The boy got up, dusting himself off.
“Well then, that’s for the best.” He said. “Whoever can draw that sword, can be assured—they will have need of it.”
Tobias nodded, as if this sort of proclamation was the kind of thing anyone might take their leave with. As the boy turned to walk back down the Thunderer’s spine, Tobias didn’t ask where he’d come from or where he was going. He called out,
“There’s a bottle of cream under the bar. Take it, for the road.”
The boy turned around, flashing a grin at him.
“You’re a true friend!” He shouted, and leapt down and out of sight.
Tobias huffed in response, and began to ready himself to climb back down off the skull.
He thought for a moment, before he did. The glint of silver was no longer quite visible in the dim light, but he knew where it lay.
He remembered the thrum of life in the blade. He remembered the ease with which it had flown from his hand.
It was a silly instinct, he thought, shaking his head at his own foolishness as he reached out, wrapping his hand around the solid hilt.
The metal hummed, trembling like the flank of an overexcited stallion under his hand, and Tobias felt his heart flutter.
He gripped the sword, and tugged.
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