Tuesday, March 31, 2020

The Tank: Chapter Fifteen, Part One

Notes: REVELATIONS AT LAST! We're just a few more chapters out from total annihilation!... I mean, the end of the story. *ahem*

Title: The Tank: Chapter Fifteen, Part One


Chapter Fifteen, Part One

The worst thing was the way Caroline didn’t try to deny it. Anton had expected better of her, wanted her to fight it, to come up with some reason for why she was alone in Lord Atwood’s laboratory, something that would exculpate her, or at least cast enough doubt that it would intensify the international discord if the Institute tried to keep her. Instead she stood by herself at the back of the dining room, her hands folded, her face haunted but somehow serene, while Lord Atwood gleefully detailed the lengths of her offenses.

“The spellwork guarding my laboratory is such that the lady could not have entered it without expressly intending to usurp my most private research,” he said, sitting down and helping himself to a cup of tea while he spoke, as though this were just any other day for him. “My warding isn’t a matter of doing damage to the person entering, it’s a matter of establishing their reason for entering in concrete symbological ways, and it’s accepted thaumaturgy, nothing experimental. Most people don’t bother with safeguards that don’t actually stop a person from intruding in their private places, but for me this was the perfect solution. She triggered a series of equations that carried increasing degrees of registering pre-meditated intent, and the work she did with her own chalk on my doors will show that.”

“What did she take?” Lord Jourdain asked. He sat directly across from Lord Atwood, his expression urbane. No one was even bothering to look at Caroline, like now that she’d committed the crime she didn’t exist.

No one but Anton.

“She was attempting to steal the translated pieces of our most pressing puzzle, my lord,” Atwood replied. It was a vague answer, but one that the people who understood the shape of that puzzle understood. Anton was ashamed to be one of them.

If he had given the copy he’d made of the palimpsest to Caroline…if he had even told her what he was working on, not given it to her but intimated that he had it…

Then he would have ended up being talked into working on it for her, and it would be his brain that had been turned to blancmange instead of Montgomery’s.

How could she do this? He knew she didn’t care much for her husband, but she had a son, a child who needed her. How could she…

“How could you?” he asked, soft and carrying in the few feet that separated them now. When had he walked over here? Was Camille watching him? It hardly mattered any more—Anton was done contorting himself into pleasing his lover when Camille had told him next to nothing about the real truth.

She glanced at him, and a hint of her former vivacity lit her eyes. “It was such a chance, and there could have been so much gained,” she murmured. “How could I not?”

“Your family. Your son. Did you think nothing of him?”

“He has a place with his father no matter what happens to me,” Caroline said gently, even though tears rose in her eyes. “Whereas England must fight to maintain its status in the world, or die beneath the boots of those who have dared more and gone further. Everyone knows of this spell by now, but no one has been able to find it. Not until this place. I don’t know how they did it, but I recognized enough when Lord Atwood showed us around his laboratory that I had to chance it.”

Oh, if only you’d paid more attention to Hrym. She could have stolen from his very walls and no one would have been the wiser. “It wouldn’t work for England,” Anton said, fighting to keep his voice level. “It only works on a very limited basis, not the thousands and thousands of weapons that an entire country would need to enchant. This is information meant to enhance a single person’s life, not make a nation’s future.”

Her eyes sharpened. “How do you know that?”

“I know enough.”

“That is more than ‘enough,’ Anton, that is a level of detail that you shouldn’t know unless you have special information.” Her hands clenched spasmodically around each other. “Do you have it?” she whispered. “Do you have the spell? You must take it back home. They will reward you handsomely, they will take care of you—”

“I don’t want it!” he hissed furiously. “I never wanted it! I know the evil of such things firsthand and if it were my choice, I would abolish even the memory of this wretched spell until no one in the world thought such horrible things were possible. Weapons that never miss. How would you like it, if such a gun were fired at your family? At your child? How would you feel, knowing you had brought that darkness into the world?”

“It could be controlled—”

“It can only be controlled by destroying the people who try to share it in the first place!” Anton yelled, and—oh dear. Now he had the attention of the entire room. He swallowed back his anger and stepped away from Caroline. “My apologies,” he said stiffly.

“No no, do go on, Mr. Seiber,” Lord Jourdain said with a wave of his hand. “What is it, exactly, that can only be destroyed in the process of being shared?”

Anton gulped, his mouth dry with fresh and sudden fear. Before he could stammer something out, though, Camille intervened. “If we could put aside riddles, Laurent,” he said briskly, “we have an issue of thievery to work out.”

“And to work out fast,” the new Vicomte snapped from where he sat with his own entourage a little ways down the table. Between him and Lord Jourdain were Monsieur Deschamps and, a bit more surprisingly, Cardinal Proulx, who looked calm and serious in his red robes. Perhaps he was meant to keep the acts of bloodshed to a minimum. “For there are more important matters to redress here.”

“Oh, on the contrary,” Lord Jourdain said. “There is nothing more sacred than ensuring the security of our empire, and this act of espionage has struck at the very heart of our most sacred duties to the crown. The emperor must be informed immediately, and until he has made his own decision about the fate of Lady Cuthbert, all other deals and negotiations are on hold.” He smiled thinly. “You are welcome to argue your stance to him in an audience, but if you expect to win out over a matter of this magnitude, you are sorely misguided. However, it should not take more than a month or two to decide the matter, and after that—”

“A month or two?” The vicomte hammered his fist down on the table so hard the silverware clattered. “Are you playing games with me, monsieur? I come to you in dire need, the body of my own brother not yet cold, and you have the audacity to tell me than my city must wait for you to decide whether or not to kill this English wench rather than allow us to protect ourselves?” He stood up and leaned in menacingly.

“Be calm, my son,” Cardinal Proulx cautioned, but there was no calm left in the other man.

“I will wait no longer. You will give me the tanks I need, today, or I will march on this place with my troops and take them by force.”

“Fascinating,” Lord Jourdain said dryly. “And in speaking this order out loud, in front of witnesses, you’ve now provided me with all the ammunition, so to speak, that I need to take this to the emperor myself, and have you arrested for threatening to attack an imperial institute. But that, I’m afraid, would be a rather secondary crime to report compared to the murder you had carried out.”

Vicomte Voclain’s eyes narrowed. “What murder are you nattering about?”

“The murder of your brother, of course,” Camille said, stepping into his role of lumière as naturally as breathing. “Which you planned, but had another man execute.”

Monsieur Deschamps was beginning to tremble. Anton watched his eyes dart around the room, like he was looking for a place to escape to and not finding it. You will go down with this ship, rat, he thought viciously.

“This is preposterous! I would never—”

“I think this is a matter for me to look into,” Cardinal Proulx said smoothly. “A holy confession might do every man and woman in this room some good, and once I have all the information I can act on it without compromising the sanctity of what I have been told.”

“On the contrary, your Eminence,” Camille said, not unkindly. “The only confession I’m interested in at this juncture is yours.”

Cardinal Proulx looked at him, one eyebrow raised. The whole room seemed to hold its breath. “Oh? Why is that, my son?”

“Because you were the one to pull the trigger and end Vicomte Wilhelm Voclain’s life, your Eminence.”

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Story Excerpt: Luckless

Notes: Hey, darlins. I meant to have more Tank for you today, but tonight has been the headache-y culmination of a day of professional letdowns, and I just don't have the energy for more creativity on top of a heap of "thanks but no thanks." So, I'm revisiting Luckless, because one of those no's concerned this story. Having it professionally published just doesn't look like it's meant to be, but I own the amazing cover art and can do it my own damn self, so I will. I'll have it out in a few weeks, but in the meantime, have some chapters! The first one was posted once before, but the second one is new (as long as you didn't catch it on Wattpad). Just scroll and enjoy.

I hope you're all as well and healthy as can possibly be.


By Cari Z

Chapter One

“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.

Chapter Two

Evan stood beneath one of the goalposts of what had once been Denver’s football stadium, now Forge’s dragons’ den, and shivered, his hands tucked under his armpits. Yesterday’s fight was old news, leaving only the memory of dragonfire for warmth. Snow had come during the night, tiny, frozen flakes dropping bitter and desultory from the sky, an insult of a shroud for Lyra’s and Bram’s bodies. The bodies of dozens of crix were stacked above the far entry to the stadium, collected by the surviving dragons to be eaten later. Even grieving as they were, they had to eat, and the meat of their kills was the simplest option.
The stadium blocked the worst of the wind, but the help it gave Evan was limited. He didn’t have the means right now to bargain for suitable winter clothes. His jeans were still a little damp from washing out yesterday’s blood, and had been patched so often they were almost more stitch than cloth. His sweater was thick and warm, at least, and the leather jacket helped, but his gloves were too thin to be much good against the cold.
He’d tied his hair back and shaved away three days’ worth of brown stubble from his too-sharp jaw and cheekbones, a futile genuflection in the direction of respect. He still felt shabby compared to everyone else—most potential riders went out of their way to dress up for Choosings, like the dragons gave a shit what they wore when they could feel what was in their hearts.
It was so strange, living in a place where some people were profoundly better off than others. In Marble, everyone had shared what they owned, whether they were a rider, a fighter, or a cook. Here, the riders were the upper echelon of society. They got to live in special apartments near the stadium that housed the dragons, they got extra rations, and they had first pick of everyone’s ammunition. Their lives were dangerous, of course—being a rider was never safe—but Evan didn’t think they were much more dangerous than fighting from the wall.
He shivered, glanced around at the small crowd that waited uneasily with him—all fellow empaths—and thought about monsters.
Evan had never known a world without monsters.
He knew they hadn’t always been here, of course—not the way they were now. Even when he’d lived in Marble, the tiniest little mountain town still standing on this side of the continental divide, there’d been evidence of the way things used to be. Cabins without bars across the windows and doors, buildings that were designed to keep out bears, not beasts. Old Coca-Cola ads on the wall of the general store, once a bright, attractive red, now faded to a pinkish gray. Empty boxes of ammo that had been mass-produced—flawless bullets, lined up in neat row after neat row, with no fear of using them up because, according to what he knew of the internet, you could just go online and buy more. Amazing plenty. Astonishing variety. Delivery. Nothing came by delivery anymore, not between cities—the monsters would kill you in the dead zones that the Plains had become.
Evan didn’t know exactly how the rifts had opened, those massive holes between dimensions that had ushered in a flood of the worst of another world’s offerings. The only way people had survived was by clustering in their most defensible areas—mainly cities that had been vastly reshaped to provide a safe haven inside of thick walls—and by making alliances with the dragons.
Dragons, it turned out, had a peculiar empathic ability that a small percentage of humans shared. It didn’t stop at a simple connection, though—dragons loved the humans they bonded with, and protected that bond with their riders ferociously. If their rider was killed, the dragon almost inevitably left behind the city they’d helped, too brokenhearted to stay. Riders kept dragons close, and more importantly to the governor, controlled.
Evan thought of Lyra and tightened his jaw. Word had gotten around that he had been the one to fire the flare that’d brought help to the wall. Some people—and the son of a bitch gunner, Dale was his name, was definitely one of them—thought Lyra was dead because Gorot hadn’t been there to fight the manticore as well, because he’d been off strafing the wall that didn’t need it, could have held, stupid, idiot, bring him in, KICK HIM OUT! Apparently, to them, Evan had cost the city a dragon. Bad enough he couldn’t keep his own alive, now he’s killing ours as well.
Governor Townsend hadn’t agreed. Not because he liked Evan, really—in fact, Evan was pretty sure the man regretted allowing him to stay five years ago. Towns, even big ones with over ten thousand residents like Forge, were hostile to strangers in this day and age. Evan had been the only survivor of the Marble massacre, and the first newcomer to petition to live in Forge in a decade.
But Townsend had let Evan stay in the hope that he would bond again with a dragon, however unlikely that might be. Evan had failed at every Choosing, and had instead proven his worth to the city as a smith instead of a rider. Still, as an empath, even a broken one, he was required to attend, and today was the fourth since he’d arrived. No one would meet his eyes, and no one came close enough to talk to, much less touch.
Evan told himself it didn’t matter, and stamped his feet in an effort to get more heat into them. The sooner the dragons came out, the sooner he could get back to his workshop. He wasn’t going to get caught short of arrows again.
“There,” a woman murmured, pointing to the far end of the field. Dragons were emerging from the massively-enlarged tunnel that had once welcomed men in uniform who’d made a living playing ball games, of all the ridiculous things. Evan snorted quietly and turned his attention to the fledglings. They were worth looking at, even if none of them were meant for him.
Gorot and Kisthe were a mated pair, and every year they brought a new egg into the world. After a year’s careful incubation, a dragon was born from it. Over the past forty years, thirty-eight of those eggs had hatched. Three of them had grown mature enough to claim riders, but all had died in a truly terrible battle last summer. Too young, too green, their scales not tough enough yet and their riders not skilled enough to effectively defend them . . . their deaths had been tragedies. The entire city had mourned their loss, but none more so than their parents. Frankly, Evan thought it was a miracle that Gorot and Kisthe were letting more of their young emerge at all. With Lyra gone, though, they needed all the help they could get to stay alive to rear the rest of their hatchlings.
That was why the Choosing was today. Whether the fledglings were ready yet or not, the city needed them. If they were lucky, the young dragons would last more than a single season.
There were three of them total, the oldest of Gorot and Kisthe’s surviving offspring. The largest was as big as the courthouse back in Marble—which was to say, not big but not despairingly small. The littlest one was no larger than a one-room cabin. It had bright black scales and coppery eyes, and was so beautiful that Evan had to lower his head to hide his sudden, unwelcome surge of emotion. God, there was no way such a tiny dragon would survive in combat. Don’t pick someone, don’t pick anyone, go back to the nest and live and grow stronger.
They couldn’t feel his urgency. Of course they couldn’t—Evan was broken. Still, it hurt a little bit to watch them advance across the dead field, catch the eyes of every human in the group in turn, and flinch when they encountered the blank spot that was Evan. The biggest veered to the right, heading for a young man dressed like a blacksmith. That was good, at least—a rider needed to be strong if they were going to keep themselves and their dragon safe in the sky.
Evan saw the man’s grin, heard his, “Me? Really? Thank you, oh fuck, thank you!” He threw his arms around the slenderest section of the dragon’s neck and stood there for a long moment, gasping and trying not to cry, until one of the caretakers gently interrupted the moment to lead them both away. They needed time to bond, to get to know each other, before they could begin training together. A year was standard, but there was no way that was going to happen now.
The pair would be lucky if they got a month. Idiot kid. It’s wonderful, it’s exciting, not a romance but a powerful, transformative love nonetheless, nothing you’ve ever known but everything you’ve hoped for—until you lose it.
The second dragon was the color of milk that had gone slightly off, white with a tinge of yellow. Its snout was shorter than the others, and it had a heavier body and shorter legs. It was a tank of a creature, not a fighter jet, and just looking at it made Evan’s heart pang with remembrance. Juree had been built the same way. Built to last, his father had said, and she had lasted, from his grandfather through his father all the way down to him. He was the one who’d broken the streak. There was no dragon to pass on to his child now—which was for the best, really, since Evan knew himself well enough to figure that he’d probably never have one of his own.
This dragon chose a woman, older than most of the other candidates, with faint streaks of gray marking her dark hair. She carried herself like a fighter, and if the tight nod she gave her dragon was any indication, she knew the odds they were up against. There was none of the young man’s exuberance in her, just a calm, almost resigned acceptance. For a moment, Evan wished he knew her name. She seemed like someone who might understand.
Only the small one was left, and it practically frolicked from person to person, wide eyes gleaming with curiosity and excitement. As it came closer to Evan, he knew from the slow, cold curl in his guts that he couldn’t handle coming face-to-face with it. He didn’t want to see it recoil in disgust once it got a better sense of him. He didn’t want to smell the musk of its scales or feel the banked heat of its fire. Touching it would break him all over again.
Evan gritted his teeth and turned his back on the dragon. The people closest to him murmured, and one of them whispered, “Rude bastard,” but he didn’t care. He would stay—as an unbonded empath he was legally bound to stay, it was one of the conditions of being here in Forge—but he wouldn’t look. It would be better for both of them.
Instead he stared straight ahead, down the gray, dingy tunnel that he and the other candidates had been led out of, and tried desperately not to focus on anything at all. Not the barren walls that used to separate players from fans, not the few disjointed chairs that were left in the stands above the tunnel itself, not the man in the black suit and cloak standing to the right of it, his hands resting on the shoulders of a child—
Wait, what?
Evan blinked and refocused. There actually was a man there, tall from the looks of him, but that was about all Evan could make out from here other than the long, pale fall of his hair over his shoulders. The child in front of him had the same pale hair, but cut shorter, and was holding the edges of the man’s cloak in front of his body like a blanket.
What were they doing here? If the man or his child was an empath, they should have been out with the rest of them for the Choosing. It was strange, though—Evan had done this before, he knew the other empaths in Forge by sight if not by name, and he didn’t recognize these two. Newcomers? Where the hell were they from?
Almost nobody traveled these days; it was way too hard to get from one fortified city to another. Hell, the closest city to Forge at this point was Cheyenne up in what used to be Wyoming, and they still told stories about the disaster that had befallen the last group trying to make that trip. Had this man and boy just been kept under wraps so far? Were there special circumstances made for the child for some reason?
Curiosity kept Evan staring at the pair, until a tiny wave from the boy made him realize that he’d been caught out. Shit, he was being rude now, right? If they were allowed to stand back that far, then the people in charge knew about them and had made arrangements and it was none of Evan’s damn business. He should turn around, he should—
The boy waved again. Evan, despite himself, lifted his hand and waved back.
“The choices are made!”
A wave of relief swept over him, and Evan turned around just in time to see a sylph of a girl throw her arms around the black dragon’s neck. God, she couldn’t be more than fifteen. He felt like he was going to puke. He made himself stand with the others long enough for the newly bonded pair to leave and, permission given to retreat, then hurried out of the stadium as fast as his injured leg would let him.
As he passed through the entrance of the tunnel, the boy and his father were nowhere to be seen.