The Source of Magic

The Source of Magic

I ducked under the massive, rusted fence that separated the Scraps from the Dregs, keeping my head low, looking out towards the piles of junk that stretched in every direction. It was refuse to the sky dwellers – everything from half-empty containers of high-end cosmetics and old clothing to malfunctioned mage tech – but that didn’t mean it was worthless. Even their garbage was often finer quality than the stuff we were used to. Dig long enough and you could find something really valuable. Only problem was, the Dregs was forbidden, though that hadn’t stopped me before. There was no sound except for the wind whipping through the barren earth and the crumbling ruins of once-beautiful buildings. I clenched my jaw to keep my teeth from chattering. My threadbare jacket did nothing against the sharp, winter wind. Sterling settled beside me, and for a few seconds, we listened.

“If we die of hypothermia, I’m gonna come back as a ghost and haunt your uncle for the rest of his life,” Sterling hissed. “It’s too cold for us to be doing this crap, Wynter.”

It would be even colder in the Dregs. Darker, too. Looking up, I could see the rocky underside of the Floats above us, casting a deep, perennial shadow over their protected refuse piles. Just around the ledge I could see the bright tips of the floating city in the sky, an impenetrable fortress to those without a magical means of reaching them. While the Dregs got some shade depending on the time of day, the Dregs were always dark, and at night, the inky blackness was especially ominous.

“If you die of hypothermia, you’ve got my full support in haunting my uncle,” I said.

“Good. I was worried about having your approval,” Sterling said. “I totally wouldn’t have haunted your uncle anyway.”

“We both know that’s a lie,” I replied. “How many times have I had to talk you outta something dangerous?”

“A lot.”

“And how many times have you listened?” I asked.

“Never,” Sterling replied, “But I do it for you. See. That makes it okay.”

I stifled a laugh. “How is ignoring my legitimately good advice doing anything for me?” I asked.

“You get a lot of pleasure from saying, I told you so,” Sterling joked.

I shook my head and drew my attention back to the fence. Normally, it had wards magicked into it that would prevent intruders, but those wards had been down for years. They weren’t really needed. Mage tech could be dangerous, and few had both the courage to brave the Dregs, as well as the skills to repair it into something useful. I had neither, but I was more afraid of his belt than the Dregs, and his connections knew enough about magic to use it without blowing up half the town. Usually. Gold and silver were nothing next to the value of magic.

I crept slowly forward. There was a small hole at the base of the fence. I dropped onto my belly and squirmed beneath the fence, careful not to catch my hair or clothes. When I emerged on the other side, I edged along, leaving room for Sterling.

As he crawled in, I reached into the pocket of my coat, my cold fingers fumbling with the match and candle I carried. It took me three tries to light it. The candle’s flame did little to fill the darkness, but that also meant we’d be harder to find. The fire danced over the trash before us, illuminating jagged shards of metal and broken glass. We got to work, taking turns between holding the candle and digging through the dump with long sticks.

I carefully pulled aside a warped piece of metal—potentially a frame of some sort—and nudged it aside. Leaning forward, I gingerly pulled on the thin, silvery-blue piece of metal out of a tall mound of garbage. When it came free, I breathed a sigh in relief. More than once I’d inadvertently collapsed an entire mountain of metal on my head. Even if I’d emerged unscathed, the noise would have attracted unwanted attention from other scavengers.

The item was a some kind of broken rod. I turned it, and a weak blue glow shone through the cracks on its otherwise dark surface. Definitely mage tech of some sort.

Sterling held the candle closer; the blue seemed to brighten and flicker in the firelight. “I’ve never seen anything like that before,” he said.

“I ain’t seen anything like that before,” Sterling said.

“Me neither,” I replied, turning the item around in my hands, “But it didn’t blow up in my face.”

“It’s a good day, then,” Sterling said.

He’d been on the receiving end of an explosive piece of mage tech more than once. By sheer luck, neither of us had ever gotten more than a minor burn or scrape from a piece of mage tech. Others weren’t so lucky. I’d seen people with missing limbs and blackened skin after having an accident in the Scraps, which is why jobs like this were left to stupid kids. Like us.

I unshouldered my backpack, an old and heavily patched find from five years before. After carefully wrapping the tech up with a rough strip of cloth, I slipped it into the front pocket and kept looking. My uncle wouldn’t be pleased with one piece of mage tech, even one as unique as this one, and the last thing I wanted to do was anger Gabriel. He was a volatile man even in his best of moods.

Sterling and I spent most of the night rummaging through the trash, looking for the diamonds in the rough. I had never seen a diamond before in my life, but I’d heard of them. In my mind, diamonds were shimmering bits of metal. They were a good length of steel or copper wiring. When the moon was at her fullest, after filling our bags with treasures, we sneaked back through the trash heaps and crawled back beneath a small hole in the fence surrounding the dump.

This was the dangerous part; some gangs preferred to wait in town, and jump scavengers just when they thought they were safe. We kept to the shadows, eyes tense and watchful. I sighed in relief when the entrance to the old subway appeared. Gabriel said it had once been a great place where people had traveled, but that was before the mages first appeared.

Once outside the dump, we kept to the shadows, wary of falling prey to the monsters that often haunted the shadows. I’d once had a sword that I used to fend them away, but it had been an old, rusted thing and broken some time ago. I sighed in relief when the entrance to the old subway appeared. Gabriel said it had once been a great place where people had traveled, but that was in some indistinct time before the mages first appeared.

“Well, looks like that’s a wrap, Wynter,” Sterling said, furrowing his brow.

“I guess,” I said.

With a wry smile, Sterling pulled his pack off his shoulder and handed it to me. “Make sure old man Gabriel doesn’t cheat me, huh?”

“He wouldn’t,” I replied.

Not enough to get caught anyway.

Sterling grinned. “Yeah, sure.”

 

You are the one who decided to do business with him,” I pointed out. “I told you it was a bad idea.”

“I thought we’d already established that I never listen to you,” Sterling replied.

“Rude,” I said.

Sterling laughed.

“You know,” I said, “You could stay the night and make sure Gabriel doesn’t cheat you.”

Sterling’s easy smiled fell. “I need to get back home, so I can sleep. I’m heading out to the forests in the morning. Mom needs medicine.”

I nodded. Sterling’s mom, Claribel, had always been good to me. When I’d been very little, she’d sat me by her, with Briar and Sterling, and read from this old book of fairy tales she had. I’d loved visiting her, until Gabriel said Briar and I were too old for children’s tales. Claribel been sick for a while, and she relied on the forests in the northern part of the Scraps for medicine. Gabriel never let me go to the forests, but Sterling went, gathering herbs and plants for his mother.

“No problem. I’ll make sure you get paid,” I replied. “Be careful.”

He lightly punched me in the shoulder. “I’m always careful. It’s everyone else you gotta worry about.”

He was careful, but that didn’t mean I didn’t worry about him walking home alone in the dark. Although he was probably safer than me, now that I was lugging two bags full of loot. I’d been carrying a short dagger since last year, but my hands were too full to reach it. Still, they’d have to be stupid to rob me on Gabriel’s front doorstep. My uncle and his connections practically owned the full expanse of the subways. Once he was gone, I walked quietly down the stairs, ducking into the darkness of the tunnel. Bits of metal poked my back through the thin fabric of my backpack and I tread down the broken steps and stepped into the shadows to wait for my brother. He was younger than me and less experienced, so he usually scavenged in the Scraps, never venturing close to the Dregs. There were safer places to search, places without fences or dangerous mage tech, but those places didn’t usually offer rewards as good as the ones I found behind. This was my inheritance, all the trash held behind locked places and high fences.

Soon, I heard the slap of boots, and Briar descended the stairs. No one would have guessed we were brother and sister; we looked nothing alike. While I was short and dark-haired, Briar was tall and blond with hair that stuck out in every direction, like the briars on a scraggly rosebush. The only similarity between us was our blue eyes, and even then, it wasn’t the same shade of blue. “How’d it go?” I asked.

He shrugged. “The usual,” he said, sighing, “Which won’t be good enough for Gabriel.”

It never was, and it probably never would be.

I forced a smile and threw an arm over his shoulders. “Someday,” I said, “We’re gonna find our own place on the outskirts of the Scraps, and then, we won’t have to deal with Gabriel anymore.”

Wishful thinking, and I knew Briar was too old for bed-time stories. Our uncle was too powerful to run from. Spiteful, too. Every time I tried to save up enough money to run, or fence a valuable piece I’d discovered on my own, Gabriel found out about them and left a permanent mark on my skin, so I wouldn’t forget the betrayal. I had a small collection of them now: a row of burn marks and scars running up my arm.

“Yeah?” Briar asked. “Are we doing that before or after you discover you’re a long-lost princess?”

He was teasing, trying to make light of our situation like I was, but I could see the jaded skepticism in his eyes, and along with a darkness that hadn’t been there a year ago. We both knew there was no where to run.

“Obviously, we’d run away first, peasant,” I replied, with an exaggerated sniff.

“You’ll have to change your name to something really pretentious,” Sterling joked. “I’ve never heard of any princess being called Wynter. You’d have to be Kristiana or something.”

I gasped, as if irreversibly offended by the name Kristiana. “Wrong. When I’m a princess, I can have any name I want,” I said smugly. “If anyone is getting their name changed, it’s you. I hope you don’t mind being called Chanticleer.”

He laughed. “That’s horrifying!”

“So is your face,” I joked.

Briar nudged me with his elbow. “We have the same parents!” he protested. “If my face is horrifying, yours is, too!”

“Maybe I got all the good looks,” I replied. “Sorry. I don’t make the rules.”

Briar sighed. “You’re so mean to me,” he said. But the spark of humor stayed in his eyes, and for a moment, we were ourselves again. Then we grabbed our bags and headed into the tunnel.

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Chinese New Year Magic

Chinese New Year Magic

When I was much younger, I always thought I’d move to Japan – instead, stuck in Oregon and frustrated with living at my parents house (after spending years in Malta and Italy studying philosophy and fine art) I got a job offer to teach English in Taiwan and took it. It was rough at first; I’m terrible at teaching English, especially kids, but did it for years anyway, until I got into a MA then PHD program and got a government scholarship to read all day.

But I also met my wife, which means – even though we no longer have a home base in Taiwan, we go back once a year, usually for Chinese New Year. Last year, we went home for Christmas and I returned with two boxes of my favorite cereal, Cinnamon Toast Crunch. I was also horribly depressed – we stayed in a small apartment in Taipei, I slept all day and never saw the sun. It wasn’t until that summer, when I was back in Oregon and bought another box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch, that I realized it was (for some weird reason!) making me depressed.

And not like, a little sad – as in, there is no purpose to living.

Things were much better when we returned this year, sans cereal.

We stayed in Taipei again but splurged for a cozy rooftop apartment near National Taiwan University. And it was fine. I don’t love Taiwan, because there aren’t many digital nomads or fiction writers, and I don’t have much to talk about with all the English teachers or expats. Plus Taipei is BIG so we never see anyone anyway.

We did go down to Tainan for a while, Tainan has much better weather and more art and culture, plus I have some friends down there still (we’ll probably skip Taipei altogether in the future.)

While I was there, I had a bit of an identity crisis… so I made this video about “Joyful Author Branding” and bought some useless crap on ebay. I also bought a new sapphire at the Jade Market to replace the one I lost (I have kind of an obsession with vintage gold gemstone rings… I usually wear a Freemason’s ring from my great great uncle but it’s a pink sapphire, and I really want a big blue one.)

I also got a bag for my new “Razer Stealth Blade” laptop – which kicked off this whole lifestyle rebranding thing, and decided to throw away all my printed Tshirts and just wear simple black Tshirts, jean jackets and fingerless gloves all the time – kind of “Dieselpunk”.

 

During Chinese New Year, we also went to the temple. I’m a fan of the local religion, which (I think) is a blend of Buddhism, Confucianism and Shinto. I like it because, there are multiple gods to petition and you need to pay for favors.

I found the “god of money” and bought snacks and incense for him; he blessed my wallet (three times around the incense) and I got basically a prayer card to put in my wallet as a receipt of the transaction. I do believe physical anchors can be potent reminders to practice positive intention and thinking (filling yourself with a state of hopeful expectation, rather than worry, because you went to the temple and paid your dues). I should use practical magic more often than I do.

When I was younger, I read all the big heavy magic books from 18th century alchemists about summoning demons, etc. I’ve since learned they were mostly quacks, but I do think witchcraft/magic can have a practical use – the ritual, repetition and action is kind of a mindful meditation. You aren’t changing the world, you are changing yourself, and then you act, perceive and receive in a way that brings you the results you seek. As such it can be very powerful.

Even if all it’s doing is giving you the illusion of control, which in turn makes you happier and more confident – those are real benefits!

Lantern Fest and Jungle Survival

Lantern Fest and Jungle Survival

We spent over two months in Chiang Mai Thailand at the end of 2018. I spent most of that time at cat cafes, eating mermaid donuts, and working on books. I edited a huge 19th century treatise on the Genius of Solitude I’ve been obsessed with since finishing my PhD thesis. We celebrated both Halloween and New Year’s… and also the local Lantern Festival (which took place around the same time as Thanksgiving. It’s about letting go of misfortune, turning hopeful thoughts towards next year.

Epicurus wrote, “Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.”

And this is true: we should always be grateful for being where we are. But that doesn’t mean we should not ask for more, because to imagine, to dream of what is not, is the central gift of human genius.

(I also spend some time working on a nonfiction book on creative confidence… which I will write eventually).

Here’s a video I made during Lantern Festival and some pictures… we also spent a weekend in Pai, which is up near the Burmese border. Lots of happy shakes and fire dancing and jungle vibes.

 

The other really interesting I did was a jungle survival trek: our guides caught and cooked our food. We slept on the ground in a homemade shelter. The others at bamboo worms (yuck) and when we packed up our sleeping bags we saw several large tarantulas under the leaves, probably using our body warmth (AAAH! – I hate spiders, but actually proximity to them made me slightly less terrified.

Why I hate Bali

Why I hate Bali

We’ve been in Bali for two months – I begged my wife to come back so I could speak at a conference even though we were here last year and she didn’t have a good time. I loved it, the first time: it’s basically paradise. It’s an exotic adventure. Bali is very spiritual and artistic; there’s tons of temples, beaches, waterfalls and art.

I never did go swimming in the sea or learn surfing, but I did get to spend time with my digital nomad friends (building a community when you travel full-time is difficult, so when you actually have friends to hang out with, it’s a big deal). This trip, however, has been more challenging. It’s been a shitshow since we got here, with a string of crazy AirBNBs, bug bites, ATMs eating credit cards, and also days and days of rain. I wrote up a full article on my other blog called “Bali: paradise or purgatory.”

Most of that was written BEFORE we crashed our scooter and my wife had to get stitches on her knee; also before she got sick and had a really bad cold (she’s still coughing now). Me personally, despite all the bad luck and some scrapes and bruises, and despite itching from bites all the time and even rubbing myself off with a towel that was covered in red ants and getting bit all over, I STILL like it here. The sunrises and sunsets are amazing, they do a mean brunch, there are lots of fresh juice places and beachside resorts.

Here’s the email I sent out when we got here:

We arrived just in time for Nyepi, Bali’s “day of silence” – a 24 hour total shut down. We’re not supposed to turn any lights on or even use the stove. It’s kind of like a purge: Around sunset the “Pengrupukan” ceremony begins in the house compounds with the noisy banging of pots and pans and bamboo tubes along with burning of dried coconut leaf torches to drive out the demons.

Most Hindu Balinese villages make ogoh-ogoh, demonic statues made of richly painted bamboo, cloth, tinsel, and styrofoam symbolizing negative elements or malevolent spirits or even characters from Hindu mythology. After the ogoh-ogoh have been paraded around the village, they are burned in the cemeteries.

We are surviving on toast and instant noodles, watching the rain fall, and hanging out with the beagle and obnoxious cross-eyed black cat that came with the AirBnB. It’s a day of quiet and self-reflection. I’m contemplating the final scene of my novel “Selfie” so I can share it with you, then I’ll work on finishing book 2 of the Taste series.

I did manage to finish The Emerald Tablet and also Selfie, and made some progress on the sequel to Taste, but for weeks I’ve been feeling strung out, anxious and completely overwhelmed… I am making progress on my website and mid-edit with 5 new cowritten novels. I need to make covers for them and I’m the bottleneck before we can launch; and I have a novel up on preorder that needs to get written.

So it’s possible I just have too much going on, but it’s also probable Bali, while seeming like paradise on earth, is actually anxiety-inducing. (Hard to believe, looking at the pictures, right?) We loved Gili island, where some of these were taken, but between terrible traffic, unreliable and slow internet, and a compromised immune system (it’s dirty here…) it’s no longer one of our favorite places.

Mantra: “Everything is working out perfectly.”

I’m overwhelmed because I’m doing new things and stepping into my discomfort zone; starting to figure out retargeting FB ads, still need to finish several site redesigns and autoresponder sequences I know aren’t working… started all this over a year ago, but feel like I’m growing forward.

 

In a few days we’ll move to JAPAN – somewhere I’ve dreamed about living since I was young and for some reason never made it. I’m excited to be in Osaka, near several cat cafes, for a month or two before heading to Europe.

Worlds Between

Worlds Between

After the Kreon pillaged our planet, they gave us two choices: Join the academies, to be brainwashed into submission, or work the mines for the Kreon. To resist is death. To love is treason. Falling for the enemy is illegal… but it might just save the planet. When I find the one thing the invaders want most – a lost artifact from a dying princess – I must marry an alien prince or watch everyone I love die.

I

wake to a deep thrumming sound. My hand reaches for the knife under my pillow as I pull the threadbare quilt off. I step toward the door, avoiding the creakiest floorboards and taking deep breaths to calm my racing heart. There’s enough morning light filtering in through the small window to see my little brother, still asleep on his mat.

I whisper a prayer as I open the door slowly, lifting it up so its normal grating doesn’t betray me. I hear the large drone overhead again and slip outside to follow, barefoot on the cool grass. Our valley is still half-shrouded in mist. I keep to the shadows of the forest as I scan the early morning sky, trying to sniff out the smell of engine oil over the strong scent of pine and damp earth.

Just when I think I’ve lost it, the drone whizzes above me, a few feet over the tree line. I hold my breath as I watch it zoom toward our cabin. But then it wobbles and changes direction. Downward. I take a deep breath and start running. As I close in on where the drone is dropping rapidly into the forest, I slow my pace so I don’t trigger any of my own traps.

I hear the instant the battery in the drone gives out, then its rotors go silent. I wait behind a large tree until the metallic beast hits the forest floor, but peek around to see it flailing in a small clearing. Thin legs slide out of its main body and reach toward the ground. It crawls eastward like a giant black spider, trying to head back to the Kreon base.

Electricity flows through me as I sprint toward the machine and drive my knife into its center. It makes a loud metallic screech before going silent again. I crouch over it, listening to the surrounding forest. I don’t like being this exposed. I hold my breath until finally I hear the birds start their chirping again, then quickly disable the cameras by sawing through the wires with the tip of my knife. Once its dead, I take a deep breath and grab the machine in both arms, pulling it tightly to my chest and risking a rare smile. This one weighs a lot. Which means more parts to sell.

I take a while to make it back to the cabin; the weight of the machine keeps me from moving too quickly. My chest tightens as I listen for anyone following me who might have heard the death of the drone. Although well into the harvest months, I shiver only slightly in my thin nightclothes. My blood is still warm with adrenaline, and the winters are fairly mild in our valley anyway. This makes hunting easier since the game doesn’t head for warmer climates like up north. My father chose it well. Almost like he knew what was coming.

I bump open the door of the cabin with my shoulder and use a foot to kick it shut again. Jamie is standing in the middle of the room glaring at me.

“I didn’t have time to wake you.” It’s the only thing I can think of to say. I’m tired of apologizing to him for the things I have to do to keep us fed and safe.

I cross the room and heave the drone onto the sturdy workbench. It used to be our family dinner table, back when our parents were here and we were an actual family.

I turn back toward my little brother. Although his brown hair is mussed with sleep, the serious expression he’s giving me makes him look just like our father. I swallow the bile rising in my throat as I remember the last day we saw our him, almost a year ago. It’s his fault Jamie is afraid every time I leave the cabin without him. He thinks I’ll disappear too, and he’ll be all alone.

“Fine, I’m sorry, Jamie. How about I let you work on this one, instead of parting it out? It’s one of the biggest we’ve caught.” I tilt my head as I watch Jamie’s expression soften. His curiosity has always been his weakness. A weakness we both share. My stomach clenches as the bribe seems to work. Although this will appease him for now, I know Jamie won’t stop bugging me to go out beyond the woods. And I can’t keep him confined to our little valley forever.

I look back at the large drone. The excitement of finding it drains and leaves my body feeling weak again. This hunk of Kreon metal would’ve gotten us almost a month of supplies in trade. But keeping Jamie safe and happy was more important.

I’ll just have to find another way to get food this week.

As Jamie looks over the drone and pulls out our stash of tools from under a floorboard, I go outside to get breakfast. Underneath thick rosehip bushes I pull up a wooden hatch covering our cache of foodstuffs. Lying on my belly on the cool morning grass I look down into the hole. My heart sinks as I pull out my small flashlight. Our only flashlight. It flickers but finally illuminates the near empty box at the bottom of the dirt-chilled hole. I reach down and grab the last chunk of cheese and a bag of dried meat.

I’ll have to go to the trading camp soon. Dread burns in the pit of my stomach as I turn off the flashlight and tuck it into my waistband. I close the makeshift cellar and stand up. Back inside I slice the meat and cheese thinly with my knife. Jamie and I sit on the edges of our sleeping mats and eat in silence.

“We’ll need to sell this drone, won’t we?” Jamie asks as he wipes his mouth with his sleeve. He gazes at the worn floorboards in front of him.

“No way, this one’s yours. I promised you the next drone. I’ll show you how to take this one apart and fix it.” I force a smile. “It seems different from the others, so it should be an interesting one.” I used to be able to lure smaller drones out of the sky with a mirror and then disable them quickly, but that trick stopped working, and it had been nearly two months since my last catch. The truth is, this larger model worried me. What was it doing here?

Jamie looks up at me, his deep brown eyes showing a maturity well beyond his eight years. “But we need the food.”

I nod. “I’ll figure something else out.” I reach over and his hair. He pulls back growling. I laugh. “Don’t I always figure it out? We haven’t starved yet, and we’re still living free.”

Jamie gets up and stomps over to the drone. “Yes, I know you will, Rya. You always have.” He holds up one of the drone’s broken rotors. “But I’ve learned all you can teach me about fixing and repairing drones, comms, and generators. There’s nothing else to do out here, in the middle of nowhere, and you still won’t let me go hunting with you.” He pouts as he unscrews one of the drone’s emergency legs.

I stand up and lean against the wall next to the workbench. “I know you’re getting bored, but it’s dangerous out there and we need to be careful. You’ll get to go hunting with me soon.”

“You’ve been saying that for years,” he grumbles.

I lean over and pop out the brain chip out of the drone with my knife and hold up the gleaming silver square. “And besides, even though you think you know everything about machines, you still haven’t learned hacking.” I wink at him and place the chip with others in a wooden box I keep high on a shelf.

“What’s the use of learning all that if I’m hungry all the time?” Jamie slams the tools and the drone leg onto the bench and storms out of the cabin.

I sigh and rub my temple. His dark moods are getting worse, and I have no idea what to do about it. I look over at the faded picture on the shelf of my brother and I standing in front of our smiling parents. It’s the only picture we have of our former life. Mom was angry when Dad came home with the polaroid camera, she said it was a wasted trade. I’m glad he insisted. Without this photograph, I’m afraid Jamie will forget them. At night, in the dark, I try to picture their faces from memory, but I feel them slipping away from me as well.

Anger wells up inside me as Jamie’s dark mood spreads. It feels like a physical presence in the cabin, thinning the air and making it hard to breathe. Why did they have to abandon us? I want to grab the frame and smash it on the ground, but I slam my fist onto the workbench instead, sending tools scattering across its surface.

I shake my head at myself as I rub my hand. Jamie is right, we’re barely living as it is. Our small cabin consists of one room with two thin mats, a workbench, and a shelf of books. I walk over and drag my finger over the worn spines. Almost all the books are Earth history, from ancient times up until the first invasion thirty years ago. If I were found with these, the Kreon wouldn’t hesitate to put me to death. But these books were my dad’s hobby and I can’t part with them. He said the history and stories in them would be important to us one day. I flip through the pages, letting the musty smell and the feel of the leather bindings calm me down.

I can’t let myself think too much, so I quickly put my day clothes on and sheath my knife into the leather holster around my waist. I grab my backpack and head out to look for Jamie. It doesn’t take me long to find him. Although he complains all the time about not going hunting or scavenging with me, he’s also afraid to go too far from our cabin. Instead, he goes up. I blink against the brightness of the blue sky, scanning the treeline surrounding the valley. I find him in one of his favorite tall pine trees. Securing my pack around my shoulders, I climb up after him.

I sit on a thick branch across from him and look out at the little valley we live in. “You can almost see past the ship today,” I say, nodding towards the horizon.

Across the valley, a gleaming alien leg rises from the trees like a metal serpent and continues up through the haze created by the refineries. It ends where it attaches to one of the city-sized Kreon ships. Below it lie the remains of a sprawling human city, now abandoned except for the refineries, and darkly shadowed by the hovering space craft.

“Yeah, the smoke isn’t as bad,” Jamie grumbles under his breath.

I smile.

“Why don’t you come down and get your chores done. I’ll check only the closest traps today and wait until tomorrow to go to the traders. That way we can work on that drone together tonight.” I bump his foot with mine. “What do you say?”

He frowns but looks over at me. “All right. But before it gets dark, I want to show you how much my aim has improved.”

I narrow my eyes. “Agreed. But you still can’t go with me tomorrow. I know you’re getting good with your bow, but there’s more to hunting than just the actual shooting part.”

He starts to climb down the tree. “Like what? I know how to avoid the drones and watch for human and Kreon traps.”

I close my eyes for a second before heading down after him. “Yes, and you’re getting fantastic at those things. But knowing isn’t the same as doing. It takes practice, and we need to start nearby first.” Especially if the Kreon are getting more active in our section, I think, remembering the large drone. “I’ll take you soon, Jamie. I promise.”

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