Title: Luckless: Chapter One
Yes, the picture is from Skyrim. But it sort of fits.
“Incoming, one thousand feet!”
The gunner manning the corner turret wielded his megaphone like a whip, waving toward the edge of the wall. “Archers, move forward! Pikemen, get your asses ready to back them up!” Evan stepped up to his position, close enough to the edge to shoot over it but far enough back that he wouldn’t be vulnerable to the first thing with claws to crawl up there.
He glanced down and frowned. The crix were still about eight hundred feet away, but there were a lot of them—more than he’d ever seen before during a winter attack on the city. The dragons and their riders were already battling the bigger beasts farther out in the ruins that used to be Denver, but there weren’t enough of them anymore to keep the city completely clear. That was where Evan and the people like him came in.
The man to his left—a boy, really, probably no more than sixteen—shivered as he took his own peek over the wall. His hands were shaking so badly they could barely hold on to his bow, much less nock an arrow when the crix got close enough to shoot. His fear struck a chord in Evan, who still remembered the brutal chaos of his first battle almost twenty years ago. He smiled sympathetically. “First time on the wall?”
The boy gulped and nodded. “Uh-huh.” His posture was so stiff it seemed his back might break. “I thought—I thought there would be fewer of them. That’s why my dad chose now to bring me up here, so I could—I could get used to fighting them before the big waves come in the spring. But this is . . .”
“Unusual,” Evan supplied. “Around double what we’d see during a normal winter attack. That probably means they’re being driven.”
“Driven?” The boy turned wide eyes on Evan. “By what?”
Evan shrugged. “Lack of food, a bad weather front closing in, or more likely in this case? A bigger monster. Crix are tough, but they’re too small to put up much of a fight against a really big monster, and they don’t have the temperament for swarming for long. Too prone to cannibalism.”
“Oh. Right.” His voice sounded so small, already close to defeat without even seeing battle.
Evan moved a little closer to him. “Remember, aim for their heads—if you can crack the carapace, you’ll stun them, and then the other crix will take care of them for us. If you shoot them through the eye socket, you’ll kill them fast. Don’t bother going for the legs, they’ve got too many backups. Just breathe, nock, draw, and loose.”
“Breathe, nock, draw, and loose,” the boy repeated, sounding better already. “Breathe, nock, draw, and loose. Aim for the head.”
“You’ve got it.”
Evan patted the boy on the shoulder, then dropped his hand when the man stationed on the kid’s other side stalked over to them, pointing an accusing finger at Evan.
“You leave my boy alone, Luckless!”
“Dad, calm down.” The kid seemed embarrassed, but whether for his dad’s words or for responding to Evan’s attempt to comfort him, Evan didn’t know. “He was just telling me about how to take down crix.”
“You take down crix like you do any other monster—you shoot it,” his father said stiffly. “That’s what the damn bow is for. You don’t need Luckless to tell you that.” He focused on Evan again. “Ollie doesn’t need advice on killing beasts from a failed rider who couldn’t even keep his own dragon alive. I’ll tell you one last time—leave my boy alone.” He grabbed Ollie by the arm and hauled him a few feet farther to the left, away from Evan.
The kid seemed confused, but Evan just looked away. He’d gone through this same encounter so many times since coming to the massive fortress that was the city of Forge that the accusations had almost stopped stinging. There wasn’t much about what the man had said that wasn’t true, after all. Evan had lost his dragon, as well as everyone else left in Marble after that hellish summer five years ago.
Evan watched as the gunner swung his .50 caliber M2 machine gun toward an incoming flock of harpies—carrion feeders who only banded together when there was bigger prey in the offing. The gunner fired a short burst and half of the monsters fell, losing feathers and blood and shrieking almost intelligibly. This machine gun was one of only four in the city, and one of the very few firearms that they still managed to produce ammunition for. Even so, its store of brass casings would wear out eventually, and then they’d have little more than muskets to fire along with their arrows.
Some of the defenders cheered, but Evan simply tuned them out and glanced over the edge again. The first wave of crix was almost within range, their leg blades singing over the whistle of the icy wind, their armored bellies nearly scraping the chunks of pitted concrete and rebar that were all that remained of southbound I-25. Their front legs were shaped for climbing, short and stubby and tipped with thick, sharp claws, while their hind legs were long and built for propulsion. When they rubbed those blades together, they made a sound almost too beautiful to possibly herald death.
They were no more than a hundred feet away now, the bigger ones starting to jump in anticipation of bounding up the wall. It was an ugly, patchwork thing, made from the bones of skyscrapers and museums, the city it surrounded packed to the brim with the survivors, their herds, and their dragons. In most places, it was too steep to jump straight over, and the crix had to climb, but sometimes a few of them got lucky—especially the bigger ones, closer to mule-sized than dog-sized.
The gunner lifted his megaphone again. “Archers, fire at will!”
Evan had an arrow nocked before the man finished speaking, and loosed it at the largest crix within range. It hit a glancing blow on the creature’s head—not quite enough to crack its shell, but it was still stunned, limbs waving dazedly as it rolled onto its side. Five or six smaller crix immediately diverted to attack it, and Evan smiled grimly. There was no better way to take out a monster than with another monster.
He fired again and again, striking true and winnowing down the oncoming horde as effectively as he could. Unfortunately, most of his fellow archers weren’t having the same success. Ollie in particular seemed to have forgotten Evan’s advice in the heat of the fight, firing almost blindly and with no thought to aiming, which meant most of his arrows skittered into the ground. Evan gritted his teeth over it until his last arrow was gone, then lowered his bow and ran to the boy’s side.
“Slow down!” he shouted.
Ollie turned to him, his expression blank with shock, hands so tight on the bow they were blanched bone white. “Wha-what?”
“You have to slow down if you’re going to have a hope of hitting anything.” Evan kept his voice loud even though they were face-to-face now, trying to break through Ollie’s fear and the rising sounds of the advancing crix. The gunner yelled something again, but Evan couldn’t make it out. “You’re just wasting arrows otherwise. Try to—”
“Luckless!” Ollie’s father marched back over, dodging around advancing pikemen with rage written in the craggy lines of his face. “What the hell did I just tell you? You leave my boy alone or I’ll—” A crix the size of a house cat leapt over the edge of the wall, dodged the pikeman who tried to impale it, and landed on Ollie’s father’s chest.
It was small, but heavy enough to knock him to the ground. He screamed as he fell back, the crix fastening its mandibles into the front of his shoulder and violently shaking its head.
“Dad!” Ollie dropped his bow and ran to his father, trying in vain to pry the crix off of him. The creature’s leg blades keened and the boy jumped back, cradling his lacerated hands to his chest with a dumbfounded expression.
“Son of a bitch,” Evan muttered. He unsheathed his bowie knife as he ran over, reversed his grip on it, and then stuck it straight down, right through the side of the crix’s neck. He put his other hand on the back of the creature’s head and drew the blade in a circle. The wound seeped dark-blue blood, staining his glove, and a second later the crix slumped over onto the parapet, its grip vanishing in death.
He glanced back at Ollie, who blinked at him uncomprehendingly. For fuck’s sake, what were they doing in training these days? “Get your father off the wall,” Evan said. “Take him to the medics.”
Ollie nodded but didn’t move.
“Now!” His volume finally mobilized the kid, who managed to get a grip on his moaning father despite his bloody hands and hoisted him to his feet. Evan plucked the rest of the arrows out of Ollie’s quiver before he could disappear, then shoved the pair of them toward the nearest stairwell. Their injuries didn’t look too bad. They’d probably both live to fight another day.
Although if this was their idea of fighting, everyone would be better off if they stayed at home.
Not nice, Evan thought as he fired a pilfered arrow at the next crix to make it past the pikemen, a larger specimen that hissed menacingly when he cracked its shell. It reeled like a drunk, though, and he was able to jam his knife into its brain with little danger. But there’s no place for nice when you’re fighting for your life. He’d offered to help train the archer corps before, but had been bluntly rebuffed. Might have to insist.
The sound of the machine gun rang in the air, ugly and beautiful all at once. Their gunner was a good shot, really good, but he was too busy taking out fliers to help with the horde coming over the wall, and over it they were. Evan fired his last arrow straight into the eye of a crix not ten feet away, partly on and partly over the wall. He ran to it and shoved the quivering carcass off the edge, diverting half a dozen others toward their next meal, but it wasn’t enough. The crix were still coming, four or five bodies deep as they crawled up the wall, mandibles clacking and leg blades singing a haunting chorus. The pikemen would be overwhelmed soon, and there weren’t enough archers left on this section of the wall to do much good. They needed a strafe.
“Hey!” he shouted at the gunner, hoping against hope that he’d be heard above the noise. “Flare!”
The man didn’t even glance his way, still focused on shooting down harpies. Their feminine faces contorted with agony as the bullets tore into their flesh, the girlish illusion ruined by the cluster of razor-like teeth framing every scream.
“Flare!” He started running toward the turret, dodging the pikemen engaged in direct combat. He could climb up there and—
Shing! Bright white pain shot through Evan’s left calf and emerged as a half-choked shout. He turned to face the raccoon-sized crix that had sliced into his leg even as he drew his right foot back. Too fast for the creature to counter, he kicked it just beneath its jaw. The beast flew onto its back, writhing and squirming, and Evan jammed his knife into its throat and twisted the blade before it could right itself. His glove was soaked with blue now, but he kept his grip—salamander skin didn’t slip. He pulled the knife free and kept running, forcing his gait to stay long and smooth. He didn’t have time to limp—they were going to be overwhelmed, and their idiot of a gunner wouldn’t even notice until a crix pulled him out of his perch.
The easiest way to get up the turret was to take the stairs, but those weren’t accessible from the outside, so Evan found purchase for his hands and began to climb.
It was only twenty feet. It felt like twenty miles, especially when a tiny crix, no bigger than the palm of his hand but no less deadly for it, jumped straight at his face. Evan saw it coming and managed to parry it with the knife, barely maintaining his hold on the wall with his other hand. The crix hit the ground, but it wasn’t hurt, and it gathered itself to jump again. This time Evan met it with his boot, and the steel in the toe impacted the beast’s head hard enough to crack the carapace. The crix fell again, twitching uncontrollably, and Evan turned back to the climb.
He hauled himself over the edge of the turret, then threw up his hands when he found the gun swinging around to point at him. “Whoa, easy, relax!”
“What the fuck are you doing up here?” the gunner demanded. His lank brown hair was held back from his face by a red kerchief, and his eyes blazed with indignation. “Get back down to your post!”
“We need a strafe! Or we’re going to lose this section of the wall and all the defenders on it.”
“I decide when we need a strafe, not you!” He swung the gun around and fired off a few shots at a distant cluster of harpies. “You’ll manage.”
“Look at our complement—it’s down by half with injured.” Injured or dead. “We don’t have the archers or the ammo to slow down the crix enough so the pikemen aren’t overwhelmed.”
“You bein’ up here isn’t helping! I can— Oh, shit.” The gunner pivoted again and continued to fire, winnowing through an incoming cluster of fliers in a spray of blood and feathers. “Yeah! Take that, you bitch-faced pigeon fuckers! Take— Hey!” He grabbed for the flare gun that Evan had just lifted from his belt, but too late—Evan aimed it into the sky and fired. A few moments later, a burst of red exploded above them. The defenders on the wall cheered.
In the distance, Evan could just make out one of Forge’s dragons—Gorot, such a dark green he was almost black—turning away from whatever he was fighting and flying ponderously toward the wall. The dragons and their riders were spread thin these days, only three of them left with the mass and strength to engage with whatever might come at them across the ruin of the old city.
Once Gorot and his rider, Susan, got close enough to flame, the gunner—still glaring at Evan—lifted his megaphone and shouted, “Cover!” Fighters all along the wall pulled back to the far edge, and eager crix followed them.
Hundreds of monsters died instantly as a dense spray of fire roasted them in place against the wall. The heat was brief but intense, the burning warmth clinging to cold concrete in the form of charred gore. The crix already on top of the wall lost their focus, scattering in panic at their confrontation with an immeasurably more powerful beast. Some leapt back down the wall; others were skewered as they scuttled about, either by defenders or their own frantic cousins. Gorot turned to make another pass, but a sudden rumbling roar sent him heading back the way he’d come, and stopped everyone else in their tracks out of pure shock.
“Oh god,” Evan breathed. “Manticore.” He hadn’t seen a manticore in the flesh since leaving Marble, but he’d never forget that roar. The sound echoed across the city, and in its wake came the creature itself. As tall as a dragon but thicker, stronger, this beast with a shockingly human face, a lion’s body, and a killing, quill-covered tail was one of the deadliest and most destructive monsters roaming what used to be the United States.
It wasn’t in and of itself so dangerous to a dragon—they were armored and could fly, after all, and enough fire would drive off even something like this. No, the greatest danger a manticore posed to a dragon was to his rider. The quills in its tail could be fired like darts, and they were poisonous on top of being wickedly sharp. If a dragon got too close, the odds of their rider escaping injury were . . . not good.
Evan and the rest of the defenders watched in anxious silence as the two dragons who were closest engaged the manticore. It leapt at them like a cat jumping for a bird, dodging their fire with the speed of a snake. Two on one should have favored the dragons, but they were already tired from the earlier battle, their flight slower than it should have been. One of them—Lyra, the oldest dragon, grizzled and gray and missing half her teeth—was glanced by a leaping paw as she banked around the beast.
The move destabilized her flight, tilting her dangerously toward the ground. That was when the manticore fired his quills. Evan couldn’t see them fly, but he saw their effects clearly enough. One second, Lyra was attempting to stabilize herself and then—
A dragon’s roar was different from a manticore’s, less of a growl and more like an instrument, a clarion trumpet. Usually clear and smooth, Lyra’s roar now was tortured, a sound of pure, animalistic grief and rage. Evan could just barely make out the silhouette of a tiny figure dangling limply from Lyra’s back. His heart spasmed in his chest, his withered empathy reaching out but still unable to connect to the dragon. He was broken, and with the loss of her rider, Bram, so was Lyra.
Lyra abandoned the skies, diving straight at the manticore and spewing flames from her maw. The manticore ducked low and darted forward, but Lyra caught his hindquarters with her claws as she crashed to the ground, and dragged the beast in tight before smashing hard into an old pile of rebar.
Evan winced as he heard a loud crack reverberate across the valley—she had likely broken a wing, and just as obviously didn’t care. The manticore bit and scratched, but Lyra wouldn’t let go, rending it as she fought to bring her fire to bear again. For a moment it seemed like she would prevail, but the manticore was more agile on the ground. It got beneath her long jaw and dug its fangs into her throat. Her scream was a death knell now, tapering off after several agonizing seconds of pain.
The manticore had no time to celebrate its victory. Gorot and Kisthe converged on it from opposite directions, fire blazing so hot it was nearly white as it poured from their throats. The beast, still tangled with Lyra’s corpse, couldn’t avoid both jets. Half its body caught fire, the long, dangerous tail shriveling and curling like a dead match. It swatted fruitlessly at the sky, enormous paws grasping greedily until the very end. When it died, it did so with an enormous shudder that even Evan could make out.
The dragons screamed with grief. The defenders watched with breathless dread. And the remaining crix reversed direction and scuttled, en masse, toward the carcasses.