Laura’s teeth rattled as the bisox wagon clattered over a rough patch of creetrock. The rest of the convoy, following in her wake, became a jittering blur.
After so many months of travel, Laura was a very good walker. But on the straight, flat Eighty Road, the convoy was able to cover more miles each day than her short legs were used to. Pa had protested at first when Captain Syed suggested that Laura and Mary ride on the back of the bisox wagon, but Mr. Chavez insisted that the two girls combined weighed less than a single sack of barley and that Pretty and Penny would never know the difference.
It was fun at first, to sit on the back of the big car, her legs dangling over the road as the great hairy bisox tugged her along. After a day or two, though, the thrill had worn off. Laura was growing fidgety, and her bottom hurt from all the jouncing. On their next stop, she decided, she ask if she could walk again for a while.
She did not have to wait long, for it was not yet midday when the convoy abruptly halted. They had come to a creek that ran right across the Eighty Road. It was shallow enough to ford, but the waters were rapid.
After some discussion, it was decided that any excess weight should be removed and carried across individually, and Mary and Laura were the first cargo expelled from the bisox car. Laura hopped down, grateful for the chance to stretch her legs.
As the rest of the convoy set about unloading or bolting down their belongings and applying fresh coats of wax or tallow to the wheels and bottoms of their cars, Laura decided she would go inspect this creek and maybe dip her fingers into the cool water. As soon as she stepped out from behind the bisox wagon, however, she suddenly stopped. In the distance before her, where the Eighty Road seemed to narrow and vanish, rose enormous jagged shapes.
They were old Merican towers, bigger and more numerous than Laura had ever laid eyes on. They must have appeared on the horizon some time ago, but they had been invisible to Laura, seated backwards as she was on the bisox wagon.
The ruins were still a good ways off, but already the towers dominated the landscape. The tallest was a skinny tower that seemed to list slightly to the side. Its top was cleaved by a wide gash, and what remained hung bent and splayed around its peak like a ragged crown. Beside it was a second tower, slightly shorter than its neighbor but much wider about the base. On either side of the twin monoliths, a dozen or more lesser peaks of varying shapes rose and fell, stark against the smooth Yowa countryside.
“Mary!” Laura called out. “There it is! Da— Dommin— Dom—”
Laura looked up to find Devonte Aguilar standing beside her, shading his eyes as he too stared out towards the ruins. Laura felt a swell of irritation at his know-it-all tone. A moment later, Mary squeezed in between them.
“Father says it was a great city once, like Gothim or Shicago,” Devonte said, studying the towers. “The Supervisor of Damoyne ruled over the whole Yowa, all the lands between the Suri and the Misisip. He lived in a great palace with five golden domes. The palace still stands. Father knows a man that’s seen it.”
Laura had seen Daymoyne marked out on Pa’s map and knew that the Great Eighty Road passed nearby, skirting just north of the old ghost city. There had been talk around the cookfire that morning about the ruins and what precautions the convoy must take to pass around them in safety. But this was the first Laura was hearing of golden domes.
“Oh,” she said, trying to sound uninterested.
“Father says the Supervisor of Damoyne rebelled against the Merican Prezdent. A great battle was fought here. As we near the city, we may see signs of it. Have you ever seen a Merican warcar?”
“Bunches,” said Laura, though she hadn’t.
“Some had guns as big as chimneys,” Devonte went on. “Mounted right on their tops. Just a few shots from a warcar’s gun could knock down whole towers. Pow. Pow. Pow.”
“Then how come those towers are still there if you’re so smart?” Laura retorted.
Devonte made an annoying show of growing somber.
“By the plan of the Prezdent Above. Father says He left them here for us, that we might look upon them and reflect on man’s pride and the futility of his works.”
Mary made a thoughtful humming sound as if this was the wisest thing she had ever heard. Laura bit her tongue to stop herself from saying something mean. The Aguilars were devout Lacorians, she had learned. Pa said that Mr. Aguilar had been a conduit back in the settlement where they had come from. That was why they had left, Pa seemed to think, though Laura didn’t really understand what one thing had to do with the other.
The Aguilars had been close-lipped at first about their faith, and no one talked about it. The further west they traveled, however, the less guarded the Aguilars became. Recently, Mr. Aguilar had taken to reading every evening by lantern light from a thick book full of ragged parchment pages, bound in a plain leather cover. It was called The Letters of Deshawn Lacore. Anyone who wanted to listen was welcome, and Ma had started attending the reading nearly every night.
Laura had listened once, mostly because Mary had wanted to. Laura thought she probably just wanted to sit next to Devonte.
Laura had been bored to the point of anger by The Letters of Deshawn Lacore. She had expected something like Tobias Goatherd’s story about the fantastic white alligator that haunted the swamps of the Lost City of Norlins. Instead, Mr. Aguilar’s story was hardly a story at all, just a bunch of words. Laura wasn’t sure if this man Deshawn Lacore was really a prophet like people said, but he sure repeated himself a lot.
One day, Mary had told Devonte about visiting the Herald’s Shrine. She probably thought that he’d be impressed, but Devonte had seemed dismissive, even offended. He proceeded to lecture them on what his father had to say about the Prophet’s childhood and about shrines and so on. He said that people like Tobias Goatherd weren’t true Lacorians at all. When Laura asked what the difference was, though, he couldn’t explain.
That was Devonte Aguilar all over, Laura thought. Lots of high and mighty talk, but when you pressed him, he didn’t know half as much as he pretended. Still, as the three of them stood there beside the bisox wagon, waiting for the convoy to proceed, Laura couldn’t help taking one more look out towards the ruins of Damoyne, hoping to see some hint of a golden-domed palace.
Eventually, when all the cargo had been removed or bolted down, the convoy began to ford the creek. First, items were carried across individually on foot. Laura watched Pa wade into the creek with two barrels hoisted one on each shoulder. At its deepest point, the water rose nearly to Pa’s waist, and Laura worried he would be swept away. A moment later, though, he was emerging on the other side and setting his load down on the dry creetrock bank.
The water was too deep for Laura and Mary, and so Pa carried them across as well. As she clung to Pa’s back, her feet dangling down into the rushing water, Laura looked back and was surprised to see Bill Keo splashing through the creek behind them with one of the Khans’ beehives balanced atop his shaggy head. Little black dots buzzed and swarmed around him. Laura could even see a few clinging to the man’s cheeks. Bill Keo growled some rough words to himself but kept a firm grip on the hive.
When the girls were safely ashore, Pa crossed back to retrieve the handcar. Laura watched him pull the car down into the creek, with Ma helping the steady and guide the wheels. Nearby, Devonte Aguilar and his father were dragging their own handcar through the rushing water. They had taken off their tunics, and Laura could see the identical crosses that were inked in dark blue on the center of both of their chests.
Laura looked over and saw that Mary was watching Devonte too. The boy seemed to take such pride in being tall and strong enough to help his father get their handcar across the creek that Laura couldn’t help but grin when at one point he lost his footing and was dunked, handsome hair and all, beneath the cold water. He came up a moment later, gasping and sputtering and flailing for the side of the handcar. Laura turned to her sister, but the look on Mary’s face was one of genuine concern, which spoiled Laura’s fun.
When everyone and everything was across, Ma and Pa made Laura and Mary climb back onto the bisox car.
“You can walk for a spell once we’re clear of the ruins,” Pa told Laura when she protested. “You can’t be too careful around such places.”
The towers looming in the distance seemed to set everyone on edge. As they continued their journey, marching ever further down the Eighty Road towards the old ghost city, Laura noticed that the procession was eerily silent. With each passing kim, the convoy seemed to grow more tense and watchful.
Ma followed close in the tracks of the bisox wagon. In her hands was Pa’s gun, which was unusual. She wasn’t the only one armed, Laura noticed. A few paces behind her, the guardsman Caleb kept his weapon aloft and ready, its bayonet flashing whenever it caught the midday sun.
Bucky Malla and Captain Syed walked ahead of the bisox for the most part, invisible to Laura, but occasionally they hung back, patrolling the convoy’s flanks even more vigilantly than normal. Bucky Malla’s rifle was unshouldered as well. His bayonet was shorter and less polished than Caleb’s, but it had a toothy edge that gave it a meaner, more savage look. For Captain Syed’s part, whenever she paced into Laura’s field of view, the woman’s long coat always seemed to be pulled to the side, her one hand resting on the handle of her pistol, which peeked up from her thick leather belt, holstered but unbuckled.
Even Bill Keo seemed on alert. He and Dog walked silently down the road, drawing up the rear behind the Khan cousins and their hives. Beneath his wispy black beard, his mouth was curled into its typical smirk, but Laura noted that his long felling ax was gripped in his fists instead of strapped down through his carrysack as it usually was.
As the bisox car continued to rattle along, facing backwards became more intolerable than ever to Laura. She kept trying to crane her neck around to catch a glimpse of the Damoyne towers that she knew must be rising bigger and bigger up ahead.
Yet, before long, even Laura’s rearward vantage offered her plenty to look at. The scenery slowly rolling into her periphery began to change. More and more Merican ruins began to appear beside the Eighty Road. They were isolated and unremarkable at first—here a toppled iron column, there a roofless creetrock cabin—the sort of things that one expected to find sprouting along all the old number roads.
By the time midday turned to afternoon, however, the abandoned works of Old Merica were all around them. The empty creetrock buildings grew taller, and they clustered more tightly together. There was no doubt now that the convoy was passing through what had once been the site of a settlement of fantastic size.
Eventually, the Damoyne towers themselves made their way into Laura’s view. She had to lean out of the wagon at first, but soon she could see them just by turning her head. They loomed larger now than they had at the creek, and Laura could make out their individual windows, staring out towards the convoy like rows of empty eye sockets.
The Eighty Road continued to give the heart of the old ghost city a respectful berth. The towers now stood due south by Laura’s reckoning, close but not too close. Before long, the convoy would pass right by them, and the towers would begin to recede.
Yet, though the Eighty Road seemed determined to lead them well north of the tallest ruins, that did not mean that the convoy had steered clear of Old Damoyne entirely. The further west they went, the more the roadside filled with evidence of the ghost city’s former grandeur. Ruins covered the landscape, heaped upon one another so close that hardly a bit of the Yowa countryside could be seen beneath. Instead of grass and trees, the Great Eighty Road now led the convoy through fields of brick and creetrock, through groves of hardmold and iron. Old Merican structures were everywhere, one level or two or even more. Most had collapsed, leaving behind the craggy remains of walls, with valleys of rubble lying between. Lectric cars of every shape and size lay in piles. Everywhere that Laura looked, she saw toppled columns, tangled nests of iron rope, and all manner of lectric wreckage that Laura couldn’t even begin to identify.
More than once, she found herself leaning out of the bisox car to catch a glimpse of a towering Merican signpost, still standing defiantly atop its tall iron pole, even after so many years of neglect. Mostly the faces of the enormous skyward signs were a rust-covered blank, their messages lost to time, but sometimes Laura thought she could make out the faded outlines of lettering. At one point, a huge slab of pinkish hardmold appeared above her. Outlined upon its surface were the head and shoulders of white-faced man, who grinned benevolently out across the ruins from behind a trim white beard that framed his gray-blue lips.
The convoy’s progress slowed as lectric rubble increasingly clogged the road. Sometimes, they had to leave the Great Eighty Road entirely, following rough side paths in order to bypass the obstructions.
It was mid-afternoon when they came to another of these detours. Laura felt the bisox car slow and eventually come to a stop. Somewhere up ahead, Captain Syed was shouting instructions. Then, Laura felt the heavy wagon begin to turn. As they gradually wheeled around, Laura caught a glimpse of the road ahead. The Eighty Road seemed to rise slightly before disappearing over a sheer cliff. It looked to be the remains of an old bridge, and Laura assumed at first that they had come to another creek or river. Yet, when she strained her ears, listening for the rush of water, she couldn’t hear any.
The bisox pulled the wagon down a side trail, off the Great Eighty. The trail was bumpy. Laura and her sisters had to hang on tight to one another and to the sides of the wagon to avoid getting bounced right out. Slowly, they clattered their way down into a shallow ravine. There, Captain Syed called a halt to wait for the rest of the convoy. Ma and Pa and some of the others were having difficulty with the side trail, the smaller wheels of their handcars struggling over the uneven terrain.
At the bottom of the ravine was another old number road that had once crossed the Great Eighty Road. It ran north, climbing up out of the canyon before curving away from view. Once, it seemed, this second road had tunneled right underneath the Eighty Road. Now, the route was impassible. Just a few meters away from where the convoy now gathered was an impenetrable wall of rubble. The crossroads’ passageway was now filled up with the remnants of the creetrock bridge that had collapsed from above.
Laura heard Mr. Chavez climb down from the front of the car to soothe and water the bisox. Pretty and Penny grunted and shuffled their feet. Their noises echoed against the walls of the rubble-choked corridor. Up above she could hear Mr. Aguilar’s voice shouting “steady” as the handcars continued to make their way down the trail into the ravine.
Laura stood up in the back of the bisox wagon and leaned out, looking around. All around her, the afternoon sun bathed the old road in whites as pale as milkpaint. But, just ahead, shadows fell upon what remained of the corridor where one old number road had once leapfrogged over the other. There, sheltered from daylight by the walls of the narrow canyon that split the road above in two, a thicket of creetrock slabs and iron beams lay shrouded in darkness.
Laura found herself staring into the dark recesses of the rubble. The broken, intersecting shapes seemed to harbor a hundred little caves and tunnels.
Then, suddenly, she saw something move. Something crawled over the rubble, out from one crevice and into another. Something big.
Laura’s nails dug into the wooden post that held up the bisox wagon’s canvas roof. She spun around to see if Mary had seen it, but Mary was occupied with Baby Grace, cooing into the infant’s face to stop her fussing.
When Laura turned back towards the passageway, the thing was gone. She wiped the back of her hand across her eyes and looked again, wondering for a moment if she might have imagined it. But no. The pale shape had been too vivid, its movements too precise. She looked around. Bucky Malla was standing nearby, observing the convoy’s progress down the hill. Laura’s mouth felt dry and stiff, but she somehow managed to force her lips to form the words.
“Mr. Malla!” she cried.
The big, smooth-headed man turned. When he saw Laura pointing towards the rubble, he stiffened. The barrel of his rifle jerked upwards in the direction of the collapsed bridge.
“Priya!” he said in a soft but pointed voice.
Immediately, Captain Syed’s whistle rose sharp and shrill from nearby. At her gesture, the handcars coming down the trail stopped where they were. No one spoke. No one moved. Even Baby Grace stopped fussing. The ravine fell quiet. The whole convoy waited and listened.
Then came the crunch crunch of Bucky Malla’s boots across the creetrock gravel. He crossed the threshold of shadow and approached the obstructed passageway, gun raised. Methodically, he patrolled around the rubble, peeking into crevices, nudging fragments aside with his bayonet. Eventually, he turned around and shrugged.
“Clear!” he called to Captain Syed.
Finally, Captain Syed whistled again, and the convoy’s stragglers resumed their trek down the hillside.
Meanwhile, people gathered around Laura. Captain Syed and Bucky Malla at first, then gradually joined by Ma and Pa and the rest as they made it down to the bottom of the ravine. Laura told them what she’d seen. Then she had to tell it again and then again as others arrived, so many times she began to get confused between the memory and the telling of it, until the whole thing felt very muddled and uncertain.
“Wolfdog most like,” Bucky Malla reckoned. “There’s dens all over the ghost cities. Probably coming round to get a sniff of the bisox. The packs prowling Old Oma will venture out to nab livestock from the ranches ‘round Lildaka from time to time. Bolder every year, if the talk around the market’s to be believed.”
Still, he kept a close watch on the rubble as the convoy assembled on the canyon floor and an even closer watch once they began to move again, with Mr. Chavez and the bisox leading the slow procession up the dirt trail on the other side.
Laura kept watching too, scanning the shadows for any further sign of movement. Once the wagon began to rattle back up the hill, though, it became difficult to fix her gaze on any one place. She gripped tight to Mary’s arm and closed her eyes.
It took even longer to get all the cars back up to the top of the ravine than it had to get them down, but finally the convoy all gathered again atop the Great Eighty Road, ready to move on. The sun was getting low in the sky by then, but Captain Syed said that the worst of the old city was behind them. The road ought to open up from there out, she told them. They’d make better time now and be clear of the ruins by nightfall.
The bisox car rattled along, jostling Laura away from the old ghost city. But, even as the towers began to grow smaller and smaller in the eastern horizon, Laura couldn’t shake the feeling she had felt back at the crossroads. Every time the car drove over a rough patch, causing her view of the road behind to shake and blur, she saw that rubble-choked passageway. She remembered the shape in the shadows, remembered the way it moved, clambering over one pile of creetrock to duck behind another.
It did not look like a dog to Laura.