It was three am when the vampire walked in. Witching hour for San Francisco. Rush hour around here. Or as close as Harvey’s gas station bodega ever got.
I was restocking the freezers when the bell above the door rang. Yeah, okay, I wasn’t so much restocking as standing near the freezers, rearranging energy drink cans when I wanted to look busy, but you know what I mean. I tended to spend most of my shift “restocking.” The humming noise the freezers made halfway drowned out the shitty eighty’s pop music Harvey kept on heavy rotation. At the time, it was some overwrought synth ballad right off the Dirty Dancing soundtrack. And the store’s speakers probably predated the last war, so they made everything shrill and tinny as hell. There was a saxophone solo that routinely set off dogs howling all down the street. I’d heard it probably four times since my shift started. One more and I think it would have legally counted as torture.
I was trying so hard not to use my ears that I probably wouldn’t have noticed the bell above the door ringing if I hadn’t seen Tony flinch. Tony was a regular, in for milk and cigarettes like he was every night. I saw his broad, craggy face contort at the jangling sound, bearing his two inch tusks at nothing. I kept telling Harvey we should replace that bell with an electronic chime, but Harvey didn’t think we got enough Trollish customers to bother. I gave Tony a sympathetic look but he waved it off, like the migraine he was probably getting was no big deal. Tony was good people.
I looked back down at my phone— I’m not one of those people who stays on their phone the whole time they’re supposed to be working, honestly, but I got a text from my brother and I needed to reply.
“Got home safe,” it read. “You left the door unlocked again. Bring home pizza?”
I could have kicked myself for forgetting that stupid door again. We couldn’t be taking chances like that. Not with the neighborhood we lived in. At least since Aaron got accepted into the scholarship program at that fancy magnet school we had the same schedule. One upside to vampires running everything is the kids could be on the nightshift too.
“Finish your homework before I get off and I’ll think about it,” I wrote back. “Send photo evidence.”
Someone cleared their throat and I made about the same face Tony did when he heard that bell. The store manager, Dwayne, was Harvey’s nephew and a Grade A shitheel. He spent more time out back taking “smoke breaks” than he did in the store. Didn’t stop him from finding something to nag me about every time he decided to actually do his job, though.
“If I see that phone out again, I’m writing you up,” Dwayne threatened, wagging a finger at me like he was my mom and not a greasy creep with the skin of a particularly shower-averse teenager and the beer gut of a forty year old alcoholic.
“Come on man,” I complained. “It’s just my kid brother letting me know he got home from school alright.”
“No phones during work hours,” Dwayne replied with a dismissive sniff. “You know the rules. He can text your parents if it matters so much.”
“My parents are dead,” I replied flatly, resisting the urge to add “asshole” to the end of that statement.
Dwayne only looked flustered for a second.
“I don’t care,” he said. “No phones during work hours! And you’re lucky I don’t write you up for insubordination on top of it!”
He turned and hurried off to another smoke break, hassling me apparently being all the work he could take at once.
“Yeah, write me up, ugly son of a bitch,” I muttered under my breath as I shoved my phone in my pocket. “If I get fired you might actually have to do some damn work around here.”
Tony, who had been pretending to study the nutritional info on the back of a milk carton, watched Dwayne go with his rheumy red eyes, then leaned closer to me.
“Want me to eat him?” he asked in a conspiratorial whisper that sounded like tires on gravel. I snorted.
“Not this time, big guy,” I replied. “You ready to check out?”
There were three other customers in the store as I rang up Tony’s milk and got him his cigarettes. One was another regular, an old Witch called Mrs. Beatty. Her raggedy old familiar was the only reason she was still remotely functional. The big black hound shepherded her through the aisles, nudging her on when she got distracted.
The second was a tired looking older man I’d seen in there once or twice. Judging by the quiet growls he exchanged with Mrs. Beatty’s familiar, he was probably a wolf.
And the last was a vampire.
Tall, 6’3″ maybe, with short, sleek black hair and dark, wicked eyes, browsing postcards. He wore jeans and a black blazer that looked casual until you noticed the subtle brand names and custom tailoring. He could have been anywhere from sixteen to sixty. His face had that timeless thing going on that all vampires do. It’s the fastest way to recognize them. Even the young ones just have something around the eyes that makes it impossible to pin down how old they are. It’s unsettling as hell sometimes. Especially when they’re staring at you the way this guy was staring at me.
“Anything I can help you with?” I asked him in my best customer service voice as I handed Tony his receipt. The vampire smiled at me. I swear all bloodsuckers practice that same creepy ass smile. The “hello, food” smile. He sidled up to the counter, taking his time. He had plenty to spare, unlike the rest of us.
We’d had vampires in the store before, of course. This wasn’t exactly their side of town— not enough money and neon for their sophisticated uptown tastes— But we got all kinds in there sooner or later. No matter the species, everybody needed gas and cheap junk food. Tony lingered near the magazines. Like me, he could smell trouble. I shook my head and waved him on, despite my better judgment. I could handle this. Tony looked unsure, but shrugged and made his exit.
The vampire leaned on the counter across from me. I could smell his cologne, understated and expensive, like I could feel his eyes raking over me. Vampires were experts at making you feel self-conscious and inadequate. I did my best impression of a troll and pretended to be made of stone. His roving eyes finally landed on the name tag pinned to my shirt.
“Evie,” he said, his voice a low purr. “I’ve been looking all over for you.”
I tried to look more unimpressed than worried.
“I’m sorry, sir,” I said, tacking the sir on because only people with a death wish were rude to vampires. “I don’t think we know each other.”
“Not yet,” he replied, smiling at me with white, too sharp teeth. “But I’m hoping we’ll become very close.”
“Not fucking likely.” Alright, so maybe I have a death wish. “Unless there’s something store related I can help you with, sir, I have other customers to assist.”
The vampire blinked slowly, then turned with exaggerated care to look behind him at the nonexistent line. Mrs. Beatty was still futzing around in canned goods. The older man was pondering the drinks case in between casting dirty looks at Mrs. Beatty’s familiar. The vampire turned back, smiled at the sour look on my face, and leaned on the counter again, as though settling in.
“I have a business proposal for you.”
I licked my lips and leaned in to speak to him in a lowered voice.
“Look. Buddy,” I hissed. “I’m not a fangbanger. I don’t know what your problem with me is, but if you’re looking for an easy feed-n-fuck try the club up the road. We don’t sell your kind of convenience food here, okay?”
His smile just widened further.
“Domino sent me,” he said, and my heart briefly stopped beating. He could probably hear it. “And as much as I would enjoy trying your convenience food-” he paused to let his eyes wander over me again for a second. “When I said business proposal I was being literal. Domino recommended you for a little adventure I have in the works. Dante, of House Belial.”
He held out his hand to shake, which I ignored. He pulled out a card instead, sliding it across the counter towards me with a finger. His first name, house affiliation, and a number. No title, which didn’t necessarily mean he didn’t have one.
“I don’t do that anymore,” I said, when I could speak. “And you can remind Domino to stop giving people my name.”
“He gave me a bit more than your name.”
A chill ran down my spine.
“He told me about how you lost your parents,” the vampire continued, while I gripped the cash register so hard I could feel my pulse in my fingertips. “Freak accident, I think he said? He also told me about your brother and that expensive school he’s attending—”
“If you touch him,” I said in a low snarl, anger boiling in my chest. “If you so much as breathe in his direction—”
“Evie, please,” the vampire chuckled, light and easy like tea time by the sea side. “I’m not threatening you! I’m making you an offer. I understand your situation. I know this is only one of three jobs you’re working, and that you gave up your chance at college and a career in order to raise your brother. I know you’re putting every penny you earn towards his tuition at that charter school. I know that you’re falling more into debt every month and that even if you get him through grade school you won’t have anything left to get him to college.”
My mouth tasted like ash and there was a ringing in my ears, playing in key with the 80’s music. Listening to him calmly describing the way my life was falling apart made me want to lunge across the counter and strangle him. If you even could strangle a vampire. At the same time it made me want to curl up behind the counter and hide until someone else, someone more responsible, came and fixed everything.
“I’m offering you a way out,” the vampire continued. “One job, one night, that will set you and your brother up, not just adequately but comfortably, for the rest of your lives.”
Sometimes, temptation can be so intense it’s almost tangible. You can see it, dangling in front of you, glittering. You can taste it in the back of your throat. The impossible made possible. The only magic that matters.
“No,” I said, and almost choked on it. “I told you, I don’t do that anymore. It’s not worth the risk of Aaron ending up alone. Nothing is.”
He frowned, almost puzzled, a curious expression on that too perfect face.
The bell over the door rang again before he could say anything more. Three young men entered the store, moving in an arrow formation that would have given them away as wolves even if I hadn’t recognized their pasty faces past their lanky, matted hair.
I didn’t know their names, but they were infamous in the area. Products of the local trailer park. Uncharitable locals called it the pound or the dog park for how many wolves lived there. Mundies on the news called it a white trash ghetto and a blight on the city’s good name. Whatever you called it, it hadn’t done these three any favors. They all had a record as long as my arm, mostly for vandalism and petty theft, stealing bikes and breaking windows. But they’d been escalating recently. People in the neighborhood were pretty sure it was them who’d mugged a guy around the corner last week.
They looked ready for trouble tonight, whispering to each other and throwing glances in my direction as they slunk towards the candy aisle. I bit the inside of my cheek and stayed behind the register, giving them the benefit of the doubt. They were only a little older than Aaron, barely out of school. The shit I’d been getting into when I was that age made them look like boy scouts in comparison. If shoplifting candy was the worst they got up to tonight, they might still have a chance to pull their shit together.
“Miss, could you tell me if this is the right can?” Mrs. Beatty asked, toddling up to the register, her dog beside her. The vampire stepped graciously out of the way, though she hardly seemed to notice him.
“Of course, Mrs. Beatty,” I said, accepting the can she was waving at me.
“Is it crushed tomatoes or diced tomatoes? I can’t read the packaging. They make the letters so small these days! My recipe needs crushed tomatoes. Crushed. If I use diced it’ll be all wrong!”
“This is tomato sauce, Mrs. Beatty.”
Her familiar gave me the most exhausted look I’d ever seen on a dog.
I helped the old woman find her tomatoes and checked her out, taking my time. Half so I could keep an eye on the wolf pack still milling around in the candy aisle, half to delay dealing with the vampire. He was still leaning one elbow on the counter, ankles crossed, idly watching me work. I looked at the door to the back and for probably the first time longed for Dwayne to return from his smoke break.
I saw Mrs. Beatty out and hadn’t made it back to the register before I heard canine snarling. I turned around in time to see the older man hurrying out of the store with his tail literally between his legs, half shifted from stress. I could guess by the laughter coming from the candy aisle that the wolf pack had driven him out. It was just me and them and the vampire now. The vampire was apparently getting bored waiting for me and was flipping through a magazine.
Luckily for me, the wolves started heading for the register at the same time I did.
“You guys actually planning to pay for all that?” I asked, eyeing the candy and snacks bulging from their pockets.
The largest of the three, whose bent, repeatedly broken nose and cigarette burn scarred arms pretty much told his whole life story for him, pulled a gun out of the back of his pants.
“Empty the register,” he said in a controlled voice he’d probably practiced. “Now!”
My nostrils flared, anger almost greater than my fear as I put my hands up. I fought the urge to tell them how stupid they were being and just stepped back to open the register. Dwayne would probably fire me, but this job, as much as I needed it, wasn’t worth getting shot over.
The vampire apparently disagreed. With an expression like this was all just too tedious for words, he rolled the magazine he was holding up into a tube and smacked the nearest wolf in the head with it.
“Bad dog, down boy.”
The confused astonishment on the young men’s faces quickly became rage. One of them threw a punch, which the vampire easily caught, twisting the wolf’s arm until he went down to his knees with a shout of pain.
“I said down, Fido.” He twisted harder as the wolf struggled until I thought I heard the creak of bone. Snapping his arm would be beyond easy for a vampire. It was probably more effort not to. “Honestly, I’m trying to help you here. What exactly are you inbred mongrels hoping to accomplish? Other than jail time, obviously. A few candy bars and maybe a hundred dollars? You didn’t even wear masks!”
“Shut the fuck up, dickleech,” the leader snapped, turning his gun on the vampire. He was angry enough to have half shifted, fangs bared and fur standing on his neck.
“Do you really think that peashooter is going to do anything to me?” the vampire asked, lip curling in disdain. “You might as well use your teeth like the animal you are.”
The wolf considered it for a moment, then pointed the gun at me again.
“Bet it’ll do something to her. Want to find out?”
I almost laughed. Like he gave a shit about me. But the vampire, to my surprise, let go of the wolf he was holding, who stumbled away whining. The humor had vanished from his face, leaving it oddly blank.
Later, I’d probably be terrified imagining what he was getting ready to do. But at the time I was too busy being pissed off. The werewolf with the gun had come behind the counter, the better to hold me hostage, and made the mistake of grabbing me by the hair. He demanded something that I didn’t hear over the blood boiling in my ears. Maybe it all would have turned out differently if he’d just grabbed my arm. But you don’t drag a girl around by her hair.
Before I could stop myself I’d grabbed the barrel of the gun with one hand and the wolf’s head with the other, fisting my hand in his greasy hair. Before he could react I slammed his face into the counter with enough strength to crack the tile. He slumped to the floor, nose broken again and gushing blood. I let him go and straightened up, turning just in time to catch his pack mate’s fist with my jaw.
I’ve been punched before, plenty of times. There’s an art to relaxing your jaw and letting your neck roll to absorb the impact. Which are hard details to remember when you’re being sucker punched. But I barely felt the fist that slammed into my face. It was like being slapped by a child. I saw the werewolf’s eyes widen in confusion for a second before I decked him. He reeled back, dazed, then charged at me, claws outstretched as he became more wolf than man. The anger in me was like a furnace, filling up my thoughts, whiting out my better senses. I caught the wolf by his belt and the collar of his shirt, heaved him over my head half on the momentum of his own charge, and hurled him into a snack display. He did not get back up.
I had a heartbeat to breathe, to realize what I’d done. I looked at the vampire, who was staring at me with an expression of surprise and definite interest that made worry coil in my stomach. I started to say something, explain myself. Then the leader of the werewolves, apparently having recovered from having his head put through a tile counter, staggered to his feet and fired three rounds.
I heard the freezer doors shatter behind me as time seemed to stop, panic gripping my heart like a squeezing fist. The vampire was there a second later, striking a precise blow to the werewolf’s temple that knocked him out cold.
As the vampire pried the gun from his hand, I searched myself for bullet holes with shaking hands, and found nothing. He missed. He must have missed.
The back door creaked as it opened and Dwayne wandered in. His cigarette fell from his mouth as he took in the destruction before him.
The vampire cleared his throat and smiled at me again.
“Are you still absolutely certain you don’t want that job?”
My guide was already an hour late. The minute hand dragged ever closer to the hour and a half mark and I was convinced that if he didn’t show up soon, I was going to toss the scrawny man off the side of the mountain and let him make the acquaintance of the winding river far below. It wouldn’t kill him, but maybe the icy bath would make him think twice before standing the next person up.
The face of my wristwatch flashed red in response to my rising blood pressure levels and the runes I’d carved into its face glowed sullenly. A vibration ran the length of my arm and rattled around the corresponding piece of silver hooked into my ear. To the untrained eye, it would look like a piece of trendy jewelry. In actuality, it was something like a tuning fork. It translated the vibration into what my mind perceived as a gravelly bass voice, snarling a reprimand into my ear.
“Calm yourself, fraulein. Melt me again and I will not be pleased.”
I pursed my lips and glared down at the watch, pulling a piece of snow out of my dark hair. “You didn’t have to tag along, Horst. I’m perfectly capable of making this journey on my own.”
Still, I drew in a shaky breath through my nose and waited until my heart rate slowed to expel it. Horst was right. This interface was about as sound as using two rusted-out tin cans to talk to each other. If I melted another wristwatch with Horst inside, I was going to be short the only creature that could translate for me. He’d be trapped in the ether until I could call up someone to fish him out. And my allies were few and far between, especially in Europe, where the arm of the Trust’s influence stretched far.
I was awaiting the arrival of a Barbegazi, one of the many species of demi-humans that made their home in the Swiss Alps. The Barbegazi were an odd bunch, and rarely seen by the human eye. I worked for the Trust, the world’s solution to a magical international body, for nearly a decade and even I’d only clapped eyes on a couple of them. This one was named Volkar and was considered the oldest and wisest among this clan. An associate of mine, Anton Gray, had pointed me in this direction, and my stubborn house spirit insisted on tagging along when he’d spied me booking a flight to Europe. The creature we were meeting spoke only French, which was unfortunately not a language I knew. Set me in front of any demi-human south of the border and I could communicate just fine. But not here. So I’d brought the only creature I knew that had the gift of tongues and would actually use it to my benefit.
I gripped the bottle of pear cider in one hand. I was dying to crack it open and guzzle the whole thing, just to take the edge off the anxiety that was trying to claw its way out of my chest. It had a much lower alcohol content than I generally preferred, but I’d take anything at this point. But this was a gift meant for the leader of the clan, and I was pretty sure it would offend him to find I’d downed the offering.
My wristwatch flashed in warning again, this time displaying a sickly puce color to reflect my anxiety. I was beginning to regret the choice to allow Horst to monitor my emotional state during our trip. The watch was turning into a glorified mood ring, and all it was doing was drawing my mind back to the reason that I was camped out in this frigid cave, awaiting a glorified snow dwarf.
“Yeah, yeah,” I muttered. “I know. Keep it together.”
I was spared further reprimands from my companion by the sound of my guide’s approach. Snow crunched outside the entrance to the cave and I craned my neck to get a good look at the thing as it waddled into sight.
The Barbegazi resembled something close to a frostbitten dwarf. Small in stature but very hairy. Its snowy beard reached its knees, even braided and festooned with glittering beads of ice. Shaggy eyebrows obscured most of a heavy brow and shadowed its eyes, so it was impossible to make out the color. What little skin was visible beneath its long-sleeved gray tunic was white with just a tinge of blue. The thing that set this creature apart from its British cousins was the size of its feet. They were easily the size of trash can lids and built flat and long to allow the Barbegazi to ski across the alps on moonlit nights.
It paused in the entryway. I didn’t have to see its eyes to read the subtle shift in its body language. It stiffened and took an automatic step back from me, its hand coming to rest lightly on a stone dagger strapped to its waist. I wished I could say that it was an uncommon reaction when people caught sight of me. But alas, I hadn’t made myself many friends in the demi-human populace in recent years. I hadn’t made many friends in my life, period.
“Bow,” Horst hissed, his instruction tickling my ear insistently. I wanted to slap the silver ring out of my ear and into the snow. I was going to be itching that side of my face for days. It would be worth it if this trip panned out, but annoying in the extreme if it didn’t.
It chafed against every ounce of pride I had as a mage to do it, but I sank to my knees in the snow in front of Volkar.
“Hail, Volkar of the Barbegazi. I am honored by your presence.”
A sound split the crisp afternoon air and for a bewildered second I was sure that the ice had cracked on a nearby peak and snow was about to come thundering down on my head. Then it dawned on me that the thing was laughing. At me.
A hot, prickling flush crept up my neck and I curled my fingers into fists at my side to keep myself from reaching into my bag. I could end this little thing with either my gun or the makeshift wand I kept stowed in the pack.
The thing’s lips started to move and Horst began to translate a few seconds later. The seconds-long lag reminded me comically of some badly dubbed films I’d watched in college with Cat.
As always, thoughts of my sister doubled me over more effectively than a punch to the gut. It was a struggle to focus on what Volkar was saying, rather than the pain that radiated through my insides.
“Sweet words are often poison on a mage’s tongue,” Volkar said in a voice as shrill as the wind whipping outside of the cave.
“Then it’s a good thing I’m not a mage,” I reasoned, forcing a smile onto my face. I was out of practice and I hoped it didn’t look like I was baring my teeth in challenge. “I’ve been out of the Trust’s employ for nearly two and a half years now. I do not mean you or your people any harm. Why don’t you come and sit by my fire and share my libations?”
Volkar considered me for a long moment before he inclined his head respectfully and shuffled into the cave. I didn’t straighten out of my bow until he sat down by the small fire I spelled a few hours before.
“If not destruction, then what do you come here for, Natalia Valdez?”
I paused, midway through popping the cork on the slender green bottle and stared at him. Volkar grinned, exposing crooked yellow teeth. “Your reputation precedes you, Iron Heart. We know who you were. Do not think that I came unprepared for Trust treachery.”
I sank back onto my haunches and glared into the fire. Maybe it had been too much to hope for that I’d remain completely incognito on this trip. I spent the better part of ten years trying to make myself unforgettable, and I succeeded. Just not in the way that I’d anticipated. But this place was as remote as one could find, without traveling to either of the poles. I was hoping there was a creature out there somewhere who hadn’t heard of me.
“I really hate that nickname,” I muttered, flicking a small twig into the fire.
It was coined by my ex-boyfriend shortly after he turned me over to the Trust for moonlighting as a supernatural assassin. It referred much less to my ability to enchant ferrous metals and far more toward what he thought of me as a person. Having this thing spout it so casually was like having lemon juice squeezed into barely healed wounds.
Volkar shrugged and held his hand out for the bottle. I handed it to him wordlessly and watched as he downed the thing in one long pull. My throat was parched, my fingers were stiff, and even the triple layer of sweaters I’d donned couldn’t ward off the chill entirely. Horst had insisted pleasantries were necessary to win over the leader of the Barbegazi, but I’d never really seen a use for them. A gun jammed into the back of someone’s skull got me where I wanted to be faster and without the humiliation of groveling to a demi-human with feet that a clown would envy.
And that sort of thinking is what got you into this mess, I chided myself. Be patient for a few goddamned minutes, Valdez.
Volkar smacked his lips and then tossed the bottle into the fire, watching with interest as it cracked in the flames.
“Are you scrying something?” I leaned closer, as though the answers I sought could be found in the flames.
Volkar’s lips twitched. “No. I just like the sound. What you seek is hidden beneath Monte Rosa.”
Great. That was at least another day’s journey away on foot. It would take mere moments if I called up an associate of mine who owed me a favor. Teleportation spells took a lot of juice, but I’d make sure that the guy was well-compensated if he could get me to my end goal.
But some tingling sixth sense kept me from reaching for the burner phone in my bag. It was not a good idea to flout my probation in Europe, the Trust’s home turf.
“How could you know? You don’t even know what I’m after.”
“As I said, your reputation precedes you. There is not a creature beneath the sun that has not heard the tale of Iron Heart’s slain sister.”
“She isn’t dead,” I snapped, more out of habit than actual anger. Everyone had written Catalina off, assuming the worst. I wasn’t about to let anyone do it on my watch. She wasn’t dead until her heart ceased beating. I was going to make sure that day was a long way off.
Volkar pushed to his enormous feet and offered me a mottled hand. I cringed away like he might haul off and slap me with it.
“Come,” he said impatiently, gesturing for me to stand with his free hand. “If you want to get there before nightfall we must begin now.”
I slid my hand into Volkar’s and he pulled me to my feet with strength that belied his small stature. Then, without giving me time to do more than wrap a hand around the strap of my backpack, he slung me onto his shoulder and ran toward the ledge at the end of the cave.
“What the hell–” Was as far as I got before Volkar launched himself into the air. For a spinning second, we entered freefall. I clutched at his neck like a lifeline which, of course, it was. The wind reached up clawing fingers, raking my eyes, stinging my skin, and tugging my long, dark hair free from the ushanka I’d shoved on to protect myself from the worst of the cold. It went flying and even my quick reflexes couldn’t snag it out of midair in time. Irritation prickled along my scalp. I bought it during a mission in Saint Petersburg and it held more than a little sentimental value.
But I didn’t have long to mourn the loss of my headgear. Volkar angled his body and a second later we hit the side of the mountain. Volkar’s heels skimmed the top layer of snow, miraculously not sinking beneath the feet of powdery stuff even with the additional hundred and twenty pounds of weight on his back.
We hurtled down the side of the mountain, grazing only the top layers of snow. A startled laugh wrenched itself from my chest. For the last two years, my world had been an endless slog of misery, pain, and the desperate search for answers. It might not have been much to someone else, but sliding down the side of a mountain on the back of a creature that had more skill than any Olympic skier was probably the most fun I’d had since before Cat’s incident. The sound cut off after a few seconds as we rapidly approached a boulder and, beyond that, the end of the mountain.
“Volkar–” I warned.
But the Barbegazi didn’t slow. In fact, he crouched lower to the ground, shifting his center of gravity so that we picked up still more speed. We hit the boulder at an angle and went spinning into midair. Volkar twirled through it in concentric circles, completely jumping the river between the two peaks. We landed a few seconds later on the adjoining peak.
“Peace, fraulein,” Horst hummed into my ear. “He knows what he is doing. And he is spry for a man of a thousand, is he not?”
I nearly choked on my own tongue. This scrawny little man was over a thousand? I’d known vampires who hadn’t lived that long. To make it to that age Volkar had to be tough, as well as wise. I was suddenly grateful I hadn’t given into the childish impulse to hex him.
Our journey might have taken an hour or just a few minutes. It was impossible to tell. The splendor of the Swiss Alps rushed by at such speed that it was impossible to keep track. I only registered when my guide began to slow, digging his bin-lid-sized feet into the snow to slow us to a crawl.
To my astonishment, I craned my neck and the hulking shape of Monte Rosa came into view.
“Follow this footpath around the side of the mountain and…” He trailed off and it didn’t take me long to figure out why. A billowing black cloud of smoke was rising from the side of the mountain, obscuring the otherwise clear sky. The Barbegazi hissed a word in French and I didn’t need Horst’s translation a few seconds later to know it was colorful.
“They’ve burned it!” Volkar growled. “Who would even dare?”
I had a sinking feeling I knew. And just a few minutes later my suspicions were confirmed, when a familiar shape stepped from the haze of smoke.
“Findlay,” I muttered, glaring at the man sauntering down the footpath toward us.
Louis Findlay, undersecretary to Sienna Vogel, head of the Trust’s disciplinary committee. I was more afraid of Vogel than Findlay. She was known colloquially as the Queen of Hell, and it wasn’t just for her notoriously bitchy demeanor. Vogel had a singular talent for opening doors into other dimensions and her favorite trick was to drop someone into a hell plane for a few weeks to sort them out.
Findlay, by comparison, was less threatening, even though he was being trailed closely by a pack of alpine wolves. He was a summoner and could bind just about anything with less than human intelligence to his will.
Putting his sudden appearance together with the destruction of the Barbegazzi’s trove of forbidden magicks, I knew who had to be responsible and why he was doing it. My nails bit into my palms so hard I drew blood. I was shaking with the need to go for my weapons and end this little cretin once and for all.
Findlay came to a stop a few yards away from us, keeping the higher ground in case I attacked. Probably wise. He might have been formidable, but he wasn’t near strong enough to go toe to toe with me and walk away from it.
If I killed him, however, I’d draw the full wrath of the Trust down upon myself. And Cat needed me to survive. So I shoved my hands in my pockets to obscure my watch and gave him a very affected smile.
“Hey, Lou, what brings you out to this neck of the woods?”
A muscle in Findlay’s cheek twitched at the nickname. His eyes were small, dark, and watery behind his spectacles. His nose was pinched and narrow, and his graying beard was perpetually patchy. He’d always reminded me of a rat. Lord only knew why my sister agreed to marry him.
He didn’t answer me right away, instead fixing the Barbegazi with a steely glare. He spoke in rapid-fire French, and Horst’s translation only told me what I’d already suspected. He was telling Volkar to get lost.
To his credit, the demi-human stood his ground for a few minutes, spewing impotent threats about what his clan would do to the council. Findlay and I both knew they were bullshit. The Barbegazi were not a large clan, and even if they managed to band together every demi-human in the Alps it wouldn’t be much against the forces of the Trust.
Finally, with a baleful glance in my direction, Volkar jumped onto the nearest drift and slid away from us. The fact that he probably thought I was in cahoots with Findlay just irritated me further. I rounded on the little man.
“What the hell, Findlay? You just burned a library that’s over two millennia old!”
Findlay brushed a light dusting of snow off his tweed jacket and adjusted his spectacles, unconcerned by my outburst. “It was slated to be disposed of in any case. There are spells in those books that should never see the light of day, as you know. And it wasn’t as if we could allow something like that to fall into your hands, could we?”
Anger boiled in my stomach and I tasted blood in my mouth. “You don’t know a goddamned thing, Findlay. What the hell are you even doing here anyway?”
“An associate of mine informed me you were leaving the country. So I’ve been following you.”
I wished I could say that came as a surprise. Findlay had been following me for two and a half years, ever since the incident that put Cat in the hospital. He still blamed me for it. Hell, I blamed myself for it. I should have been there to protect her.
“You know this whole Fatal Attraction thing is getting old,” I drawled. “Find someone else to fixate on, Findlay. I haven’t broken my probation once in the last two years.”
That he knew of. Technically I’d broken it a dozen times over, incurring minor infractions here and there to keep my lights on and my sister’s bills paid. But I hadn’t used magic offensively, which was what their major stipulation had been.
His beady eyes narrowed and his anger spilled over onto the pack of beasts that he was controlling. The nearest wolf’s hackles raised, its ears flattened to its skull, and it bared sharp teeth in my direction. I hoped Findlay didn’t sic the thing on me. I’d hate to shoot an endangered species.
“Just turn custody of Cat over to me and I’ll leave you to your business, Valdez.”
“This again? The will you have is a fake, Findlay. My sister would never have given you power of attorney, not without consulting me. I was her sister for twenty-four years. You were her fiancé for what, two?”
“Three,” he hissed.
“And the lawyers came down on my side. So hell no, I’m not giving you control of what happens to her. Get lost. I’m not breaking any laws by being here.”
“You were associating with a demi-human—”
“It’s frowned upon, not illegal. So try again.”
“You are not allowed to travel—”
“To the homes of any of my old associates,” I finished for him. “And the closest person to the Alps is probably Finch, and there’s no way in hell I’m going to be meeting up with him. So you’re O for two now, Findlay. Care to make it three?”
His gaze flicked down to the backpack I clutched in white-knuckled fingers. “Empty the bag.”
I wanted to tell him to go fuck himself. Instead, I yanked the zipper so hard it nearly broke and dumped the contents out for his perusal. He knelt and sifted through it.
He held up a pair of eyeglasses. “What are these for?”
They were enchanted to act in place of a scope, in case I needed them.
“Reading,” I said. “I am getting older, Findlay.”
He picked up a flask and unscrewed the cap. His nose scrunched up. “Is that ginger?”
“Yep. Patented hangover cure. But potions aren’t magic. So next.”
He screwed the cap back on and then reached for my Sig – a reliable and highly accurate handgun. Every part of me yearned to snatch my weapon out of his hands, but I held myself in check. Findlay studied it from every conceivable angle, searching for my signature spellwork on either the magazine or the slide. When he found none he pursed his lips.
“Carrying weapons across borders is illegal, you know.”
“So what, you’re upholding mortal law now too? I thought such petty distinctions were beneath the Trust.”
Findlay set the gun back in the pack and I breathed a sigh of relief. It wasn’t the only piece I had on me, but it was one of the larger caliber guns I owned. I was reasonably confident that he’d miss me if he shot, but best not to take the chance if I didn’t have to.
He gathered up a slew of faux gold-wrapped chocolate candies and studied them.
“What are these for?”
“The baby dragon that lives in my laundry room,” I quipped. “What do you think they’re for, Findlay?”
He picked up the last item left and it was a struggle not to tense. This was the real test. I’d done my damndest to make my makeshift wand unobtrusive. My official wand had been purloined by the council. So I’d carved my great-grandfather’s wand down into something that wasn’t likely to attract attention from mortal or magical security. All the runes were hidden by the bristles and the mahogany handle looked as smooth and innocent as I’d intended it to be.
Findlay inspected the toothbrush skeptically. “Where’s the toothpaste?”
“Stolen by TSA, those bastards.”
Findlay snorted and shoved the wand back into my bag before tossing the thing to me. I breathed a barely audible sigh of relief and slung it onto my back where it belonged.
There was a tense couple of seconds where I was sure he was going to attack me without provocation. I could spot the gears turning behind his black eyes. We were in an isolated mountain range and there probably wasn’t anyone willing to step in on my behalf if he decided to start something.
He finally slumped, body sinking into a defeated slouch. Good call. I didn’t need guns or magic to end Findlay. I could pop his head off like a cork with the strength of my thighs alone. He spun on one heel, drawing a green river stone from his pocket. He tossed it lightly in the air and a portal blossomed in midair, forming what looked like a stone archway through Monte Rosa. On the other side was a rain-slicked London street. A double-decker bus trundled past as Findlay dithered between the two points in reality.
Findlay reached into his pocket once more and pulled out a scrap of paper. He flicked it at me. The cold air caught it before it could flutter to the ground, but it was a simple matter to snatch it before the breeze blew it further down the mountain.
It was a flight from Lyon-Saint Exupéry to JFK International. I squinted at him, even as he turned his back on me.
“What trick is this, Findlay? I’m in no mood today.”
“Miss Vogel sent me with a warning,” he called over his shoulder. “Don’t come to Europe again, Valdez. You won’t like where she sends you if you do.”
And with that last parting shot he stepped through the archway. It popped out of existence, as though it had never been. Which was pretty much how transportation spells worked. You bent space like it was a flat plane and folded two places together so that they touched.
The little bastard could have shoved me through right back to Queens if he’d had the mind. But he hadn’t. He’d left me in the middle of the Swiss Alps, watching one of the last hopes I had for restoring my sister crumble into ash. And after the perceived betrayal, I doubted Volkar would assist me again.
Oh, and I only had about ten hours to make it out of the Alps and reach Lyon before my connecting flight took off without me.
Just freaking peachy.
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?”
“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.
“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.
FREE IN KINDLE UNLIMITED
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.
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 over the horizon.
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 it’s 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 tousled 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 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 worries me. What was it doing here?
Jamie looks up at me, his light blue eyes showing a maturity well beyond his nine years. “But we need the food.”
I nod. “I’ll figure something else out.” I reach over and muss 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 Kreons 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, at the edge of a rocky stream. 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 the city-sized Kreon ship blocking out the sky. Below it lie the crumbling remains of a sprawling human city, now abandoned except for the sharp Kreon structures, that glitter like a thorny crown in the dark shadow of the hovering spacecraft.
“Yeah, the smoke isn’t as bad,” Jamie grumbles under his breath.
I smile, trying to coax him out of his funk.
“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, dropping lightly between the branches. I move more slowly, my grip tight as the tall trunk leans in the wind.
“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. The truth is, I’m more comfortable with the traps, but he doesn’t need to know that. Leave them empty, and return when the catch is dead. No need to listen to the creature’s dying screams.
“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 Kreons are getting more active in our section, I think, remembering the large drone. “I’ll take you soon, Jamie. I promise.”
He grunts as he lowers himself to the ground, but I’m not sure if it’s a response. Jamie’s frustrations are growing stronger each day, but I’m not ready to introduce him to the world beyond our valley. I put on a brave face when I go to market, but the truth is I’m terrified to be out there on my own. The Kreons aren’t the only danger for a solo traveler.
And it’s not just that – I know Jamie is expecting more. From the fairy tales Dad used to read us when we were younger, about knights and quests. He’s expecting a grand adventure, but the sad truth is, there’s nothing out there for us.
We silently walk side-by-side back toward our cabin. I’m so deep in thought, I don’t hear it until Jamie grabs my arm. I freeze next to him, listening to the silent forest. And then I hear what Jamie was alert enough to hear first. Another drone. We look at each other with wide eyes and hurry off the path, squatting low beneath a cluster of blackberry bushes. I look up through the branches searching for the drone, ignoring the thorns digging into my skin.
Two drones in one day is not a good sign.
Drones rarely come to our valley on purpose. I usually have to hike up and over the eastern mountain toward the human compounds or west toward the abandoned city to capture them.
Jamie points over our heads and I see it. It’s a small, metallic orb I recognize as a spy drone. All the Kreon drones are really spy drones, but these little ones are for specific missions. The Kreons are looking for something. Or someone.
I slip my pack off and pull out the foil emergency blanket. I cover Jamie and I with it quickly, pulling him into my arms. We wait as we hear the drone pass overhead. It seems to hesitate and I hold my breath. Maybe they’ve improved their heat-seeking tech?
My joints are stiff and shaking before we finally hear the drone fly off toward the nearest human compound. I pull the blanket off and Jamie and I take deep breaths. I check the sky above us to make sure it’s truly gone. I look back down and see that Jamie is crying. I pull him back into my arms, combing his hair with my fingers. “It’s all right, it’s gone now. We’re safe.” When he stops shaking enough to walk, we head back home.
Jamie is unusually withdrawn the rest of the evening. Probably embarrassed that he cried in front of me. It’s been a long time since he’s had an episode like that, and he’s not a little kid anymore. He does all of his chores while I go check a few traps, without me reminding him. Even when I bring home two rabbits and we finally have a good meal with carrots and potatoes, he pushes his food around quietly. He doesn’t even ask to work on the large black drone sitting on the workbench.
The silence is almost worse than the outbursts, but I know he just needs time to recover from the drone incident. That’s the closest he’s been to real danger in years. I decide not to drag Jamie outside to watch as the stars appear in the evening sky, which is our normal nightly routine. He lies on his mat staring up at the ceiling, his hands interlaced behind his head.
From Dad’s bookshelf I choose one of my favorite storybooks to read out loud. I don’t care if Jamie is listening or not. Tonight, this story is more for me, anyway. A way to fill the uncomfortable stillness in the cabin, and the weight of the unknown future hanging over us. As I lay in our little cabin clutching the old book to my chest, I envy the power and freedom the princess has in the story. I fall asleep imagining myself as a beautiful princess on a magical quest, who walks openly among thriving populations of free humans. But even in my dreams I know it’s a lie. There’s nothing out there but brutal, senseless violence and chaos. In our world, there is never a kind old woman who bestows magical gifts or a fated romance, and as far as I can tell, nobody lives happily ever after.
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When Brianna discovers her little sister has cancer, she’s willing to try anything to save her: even if it means getting her science fair group to hack a new medical technology that involves microscopic robots. After creating an underground app that lets students alter their appearance, they suddenly find themselves in a bidding war between tech companies and at the mercy of the government, which sees them as criminals. Then a few of their “mods” go haywire and give them permanent abilities that border on the supernatural. As society crumbles around them–disintegrating into an age war between adult and the teens–they go on the run in a quickly shifting reality, where all things are possible, but nothing is certain.
“Wake up, Honey,” my dead mother’s voice whispered in my ear. “Wake up.”
I groaned, rubbing my eyes and blinking them open. I felt a sinking sensation in my chest when I realized I was alone. I fell asleep with my earbuds in again. Mom’s gone, I reminded myself, then quickly pushed the thought to the back of my mind. I was done going to school with puffy eyes from crying. People had almost stopped looking at me with pity.
“Music,” I said to my phone. It was on my desk resting on its wireless charger. “Upbeat.”
I pressed my thumb and ring finger together so the phone knows I’m talking to it. It took me years of groveling to convince my parents to let me get the implant. The procedure was almost painless; just a quick prick on the thumb. A few days later, my parents told me mom’s cancer. She did three months later. Now it was a permanent reminder that I’d been too self-absorbed to notice my mom’s weary eyes and frail movements.
A fast tempo song starts playing through the nearly invisible wireless earbuds that I keep in almost all the time.
“Schedule?” I asked out loud.
“Another wonderful day of school,” mom’s voice said into my ears. “Don’t forget the social studies paper that’s due in 3rd period.”
It took me a month to crack my aPhone’s built in AI, Gloria. Then I hacked into the firmware and patched over it with my mother’s voice. I spent months in my room, watching old family videos and creating the vocal databases. I built an app that could listen to hundreds of videos at once, and match sound bits to corresponding words. But I still watched them all. Mom teaching me to ride a bike. Mom at Megan’s 6th birthday, helping her blow out the candles. Mom reading us a story when we were little, with long blonde hair and beautiful blue eyes.
“You also have several emails from students wanting help for tech class, some offering the usual rate and some a little higher. Also, Jens wants to know whether you have time for some WOL after school.”
Shit, I thought. I forgot about the paper. I grabbed my phone and ran a program to search for a pre-2000 high school level social studies paper stored in offline data caches and skimmed through the results. I found a Word doc about familial structures in Ethiopia, downloaded it to my phone and changed the name and date.
Brianna Harmond. 10th Grade.
Then I sent it to the printer in Dad’s office. I picked it up on my way to the kitchen to grab breakfast.
“Morning Bree.” Dad was already sitting at the table with toast and a glass of juice, reading the morning paper. Megan was there too, eating cereal. I closed the magnetic loop between my thumb and finger again and ordered breakfast. “Coffee. Toast.”
I grabbed a slice of toast and put it in the machine just as the lever went down, and put a mug under the coffee machine spout.
Megan rolled her eyes. Dad peeked over the top of his paper.
“Would it really be that hard to press the button?” he said.
“What good is technology if we don’t use it?” I said. “Besides, if it saves me a few seconds here or there, and that adds up to some serious study time.”
“As if you ever study,” Megan said. I shot her a look that shut her up. Her hair was a mess, so I braided it before scarfing down my breakfast. My sister still went to the middle school down the street, which started an hour later than the high school. I was going to be late again. Mom would have made sure I was up, but dad rarely remembered. I kissed Megan on the top of her head, and gave Dad a tight hug. Then I went out through the garage and grabbed my skateboard.
“Bye!” I yelled behind me. I lifted the skateboard to my lips, whispering the secret password. I’d programmed it to respond only to an ASMR version of my voice, which included not just the sound, but the subtle physical vibrations as well. Last year I’d bought a device a classmate had made in his garage that powered the wheels and a self-guided navigation system.
“School,” I said, pressing my fingers together. Gloria communicated with the device on the skateboard, and also tapped into the traffic cams and signals. It wasn’t foolproof, but the system would usually get me to school in one piece while I stood there listening to music and reading novels on my phone.
I usually wore dark blue or black jeans because they hid the oil or ink better—I had a habit of wiping my dirty hands on my clothes, and clean laundry was far from assured with mom gone. I did it when I was desperate enough, or my room started stinking from all the clothes on the floor. Megan did it most of the time. Converse sneakers, a leather jacket and a navy scarf completed the outfit. The jacket had hidden pockets, and the scarf still smelled like Mom. It was my armor, and I wore it proudly, even if it was a weird ensemble.
School was a joke. We had instant access to all of the world’s wisdom—the history of mankind’s greatest achievements—and our phones can use the information better than we will ever be able to. Why struggle trying to figure out geometry or algebra, doing the sums and adding up things in our minds, when our phone can solve the same problems in a nanosecond? Why even learn to hold a pencil or write by hand? Who does that anymore?
They were still teaching us stuff they thought we needed to learn twenty years ago to have a successful future, but it was already completely irrelevant. Sometimes I risked detention to contradict the teacher or question the standard answers in our textbooks. What we should be learning is how to do more. How to solve real problems. How to think creatively and use our devices to actually improve the world. At least that’s what most of my friends thoughts.
So we cheated out way through classes to keep our teachers and parents of our backs, but saved our brains for the real challenges. The interesting stuff happened between periods or after school. We were inventing or trading technology that was more advanced than anything you could get on the market.
I kicked up my skateboard and stuffed it through the loops of my backpack, just as my best friend Amy ambushed me from the side and put an arm around my neck.
“What’s shakin’, Bacon?”
“That doesn’t even rhyme,” I said, but I couldn’t stop myself from smiling.
“Are you sure? Remind me what you got in English again, B-?”
“B+. Gloria,” I tapped my fingers together, “What rhymes with Bacon?”
Gloria began listing off rhyming words, shaken, taken, kraken, as well as near matches.
“It almost rhymes, if you say it right. The robot will never understand.”
Amy wasn’t quite as into tech as I was; she focused on the things only humans could do, like creative writing or art. I knew it wouldn’t be long before AI could handle those tasks decently as well, although robots that could simulate human facial features and movements were still a long way off.
“Finish your paper?” Amy asked.
“In a manner of speaking,” I grinned.
“Asshole! I spent three hours on mine.”
“Three hours you could have been writing a novel, or something actually useful.”
“So you keep saying. I don’t mind the work; keeps my brain sharp. Someday the power will go out, and you’ll all be screwed.”
“I don’t think being able to write a high-school social studies paper qualifies as a life-saving survival skill,” I laughed.
We had science class in first period. Mr. Leister was organizing his papers in the front of the class, when I heard the 3D printer at the back of the room warming up. I looked back to see the beginning of what I was pretty sure would turn out to be a life-size, anatomically correct plastic dildo. We were supposed to get a code from the teacher to use the printer, but I saw Brad sniggering with his friends. He must have hacked it and uploaded the design. I rolled my eyes at him and he blew a kiss back to me. Yuck. Sure, somewhere in the dark nether regions of my brain I had to admit that he was mildly attractive, but he was just such an immature asshole.
Brad grabbed the dildo when it was finished printing, then looked around the room to see what kind of mischief he could get into. I saw the twinkle in his eye when he spotted David, sitting quietly and studying, like the perfect nerd he was. I’d known David since 2nd grade, and we had what you might call an awkward history. We’d sort of been friends for a couple of years when we were younger. I even went to his house once for a parent-supervised play date. Then one day he asked me out, but instead of having the balls to do it himself in private, he sat at my lunch table and passed a message down through five of my friends. How’s a girl supposed to react to something like that? I tried letting him down easy, relaying the message backwards through my peers, but he continued passing the message, as if it wasn’t meant for him. He finally got up and left the cafeteria with red cheeks and wet eyes. We haven’t spoken since, though sometimes we say hi when we pass each other in the halls. I’m pretty sure we both do that so we don’t feel like we are bad people. At least that’s why I do it.
Brad went over to David and started waving the plastic dick in his face. I felt a protective sort of urge rising in me, but I squashed it down. We were seniors in high school. He didn’t need anybody to stand up for him.
“Hi I’m David, I love my books so much I get a hard-on every time I crack one open. Sometimes when I’m alone I even use them to jerk off, like this.” Brad picked up David’s book and folded it around the dildo, moving it up and down and making moaning noises. I felt bad for David, but Brad did this kind of stuff all the time. It wasn’t my problem.
“That’s enough,” said a voice calmly. I thought it was Mr. Leister at first but he was still ignoring us. I looked around and realized it was Greg Masters. My Greg. Although of course he wasn’t really mine, he’d been dating Melissa Riley, the queen of our high school’s popularity chart, since Freshman year. And they were a perfect match; even though she was a total bitch and Greg deserved someone better. Melissa was unquestionably the hottest girl in school, and Greg was the gorgeous captain of the basketball team. Neither of them had as much as looked at me in almost four years. I’d never seen Greg stand up to a bully like Brad before. Not for someone like David. As a matter of fact, I couldn’t remember anybody standing up for someone like David before, which I guess explained the stupefied look on Brad’s face.
Brad hesitated and I saw him calculating his options. Even though he had a reputation as a badass, with his ripped jeans, black T-shirt, messy dark hair and eyebrow piercing, and even though Greg was pretty much the nicest guy on earth, he was still built like an athlete. Plus he had that sense of invincibility that kids from money always carried around with them. The whole class was watching now, and I realized I was holding my breath with them.
I wanted to start chanting, “Fight, Fight, Fight!” like they do in the movies. There are very rarely real fights in our school. But the glint in Brad’s eye told me he was in a daring—or self-destructive—mood.
“Oh, sorry Greg, I had no idea that David here was your secret lover. He must be if you’re going to defend his honor.”
“I’m just sick of listening to your voice,” Greg said, standing up. “It’s getting on my nerves.”
“What are you going to do, get all your basketball buddies to gang up on me?”
Greg sized him up with a smirk, slowly rolling up his sleeves to his elbows. Even his forearms were sexy.
“I don’t think I’m going to need any help with this,” he said.
“Guys, this is stupid,” David said, standing up also. “It’s no big deal. Let’s just sit down.”
Suddenly Brad tossed the dildo at the front of the room, where it just missed Mr. Leister’s head and smacked against the chalkboard. Then he sat down quickly, so when Mr. Leister turned around he only saw David and Greg.
“So this is where the taxpayer’s money is going,” Mr. Leister said, picking up the dildo. “Does this belong to one of you?”
“It was Brad,” I said, before I could stop myself. Greg and David nodded.
“That’s ridiculous!” Brad shouted. “It was totally David. You know how clever he is with coding and stuff. Bree is just protecting her boyfriend Greg, because she’s so into him.”
My cheeks burned red. Was my crush that obvious? I was mortified, but I covered my embarrassment with anger. I kicked Brad’s desk as hard as I could. He flinched when it hit him in the knee with a satisfying thud.
“Only my friends call me Bree,” I said. “You can call me Brianna.”
“Are you asking me to call you?” Brad said. “Sorry, you’re not my type.”
At this point I was ready to murder him, but Mr. Leister clapped his hands and yelled, “Everybody, sit down. Now.”
I sat and crossed my arms together, frowning. Amy shot me an are you crazy look and I shrugged back. Mr. Leister liked me anyway—science was the only class where I got straight A’s, mostly because Mr. Leister valued practical application and demonstration projects. So instead of just taking a test, I could build something or make something work.
“I was just thinking about how to divide you up into teams for this year’s science fair,” Mr. Leister said, adjusting his glasses. “I appreciate you making it easy for me. Brianna, David, Brad and Greg—you’ll be on one team.”
Wait, what? My blood was already pumping with adrenaline from the incident, and now a deep panic was settling into my bones. The science fair was months away, and teams would have to cooperate with each other on a project. I would have taken any other punishment, but the science fair was something I actually cared about. It was an opportunity to get noticed early, maybe even a get out of jail free card if you got an early entry into some internship or college program. I didn’t know what I wanted to do yet, but I sure as hell didn’t want my project jeopardized by shit-for-brains Brad. Plus, unlike Greg, my family didn’t have the money to send me to some fancy school.
Amy raised her hand but didn’t wait to get called on. “Excuse me, Mr. Leister, but Bree and I need to be on a team together. We’ve already got a project in mind we’ve started working on.”
I was grateful for her quick lie, but my face fell when I saw Mr. Leister clench his jaw. We’d pushed him too far this morning, and he wasn’t going to be forgiving.
“In that case, Amy, you can join Brianna’s team. I’m sure they can use all the help they can get. And remember, your science fair project is mandatory and will account for 30% of your final grade. I want to see creative, forward thinking projects: but big ideas aren’t enough. You need to have a working prototype in time for the fair.”
I gripped the edge of my desk as the rest of the class divided themselves up into teams. I was still in shock. At the time, I was just worried about my future. I didn’t realize then that our little team would soon topple governments and kill nearly everyone in our high school. But that came later. First came the announcement.
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Book three in the Scarlet Thread series is now available! It’s set in Egypt and based on real historical and alchemical literature surrounding the “emerald tablet” – supposedly written by the hand of Thoth. Get it now on Amazon!
I’ve met Zeus, and made him bleed. But the war is just beginning. A tangled knot of forbidden romance binds my actions; Zeus is using my feelings for Sitri against me. Somehow I need to kill one and save the other. We search Egypt for answers, and nearly destroy Cairo. I’m getting stronger, but the gods are taking off their gloves. This fight could end us all.
I could feel the broken bones in my arm scrape together under my skin, like wooden blocks covered in sandpaper. Puriel lifted me up from the pile of rubble that used to be my childhood home and carried me to the black sports car. It was so quiet, I thought my ears must have been damaged, but then I could hear Puriel’s voice. He was asking me something, something about how to drive the car. I shrugged and rolled my head. I’d been in JDRI since I was nine, and driving lessons were never on the curriculum. I looked around for Sitri, why wasn’t he driving? Then I saw him, or at least the dark furry shape he’d become. The impossibly large, wolf-like creature. He was waiting for us in the middle of the road. Howling at us to hurry.
Puriel finally grasped the mechanics of the vehicle, and the car screeched out of the suburban cul-de-sac. I could hear sirens getting louder, and we passed several police cars and an ambulance. I blinked against the harsh flashing lights as they sped by. Puriel kept checking the skies through the windshield. I looked up as well, expecting a helicopter, but instead I saw a flash of wings and a glimmer of silver shapes, illuminated by the early light. The sun hadn’t risen yet, so I only saw silhouettes against the dark sky, but I knew what they were. Hunters. Dozens of them.
“Why aren’t they attacking us?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Puriel said. “But Zeus isn’t going to want us to reach Nevah. Not with the shears.”
The Golden Shears.
I looked down, and sure enough, my pale fingers were still clenched around the golden metal, almost like they’d melded with my fist. My arm looked like a spiked hammer. The shears radiated power, and I could feel a pulsing – a throbbing through my whole body. I didn’t know if it was my own heartbeat, or the shears.
My hands felt sticky, and I realized they were covered with bright blue goo, that shimmered when I turned my arm. Zeus’s blood. Pure divinity, straight from the source. I shuddered, resisting the urge to wipe it against my clothes.
“Do we have a towel or something?” I asked.
Puriel looked physically pained, and his eyes were coal black, with unusually wide pupils. He stared at my hands with more than just concern. It was hunger, I realized. This much energy, right here, it was taking all his strength to restrain himself.
“You… want this?” I asked, holding my wrists out.
Hunger took over his face, and for a moment I thought he was going to lose control and bite my hand off. Instead he reached for my hand and held it up to his mouth. He gently kissed my fingertips, and I felt his tongue flick over my skin. It should have been erotic, but it wasn’t. I knew this disgusted him as much as it disgusted me. But after what we’d been through, he needed strength. It must have taken a tremendous amount of willpower to resist Zeus, and Puriel had refused him. He’d given me the shears, and I’d stabbed Zeus in the thigh. Nobody could question his loyalty now. He’d had his shot at redemption, and he’d chosen us.
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This book is imaginative, spellbinding and fulfilling. I continue to be amazed with Mr. Murphy’s ability to describe and create such visual imagery. This story has so much to offer and I look forward to the next installment to see where this story leads. ★★★★★
I fell in love with this series after reading the first book. There is a great range in characters, from the ones you love, to the ones you love to hate. And this book along with the other in the series, sucks you right in so that you can’t put it down until the last page. ★★★★★
I flew through this trilogy in 3 days unable to put it down. The dedication to the plot, even through the weight of research, gives you such abundant insight into the characters and deities that litter the series. You’re caught up in such a whirlwind of passion, humor, and adventure that when you finish the 3rd book and realize the Author isn’t finished with this tale you mourn the months/years that it will take for him to discover and reveal the end. A must read for any young adult or adult that is young at heart. ★★★★★
This has to be one my favorite Derek Murphy series. I LOVE this alternate universe with Gods, humans, and hybrids, and how it branches out into Egyptian mythology as well. Given that this is the third book in the series, the characters have already been established. Due to this, I feel like the book moves at a much faster pace, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Derek Murphy has created such a rich universe in his books, that I feel like I am completely immersed in it when I am reading his books. Other than that, I cannot WAIT for the next one. ★★★★★