Much like Frodo, I've carried my burden all the way to the brim of Mount Doom and cast it into the fire.
Except by “burden,” I really just mean “fun, action-packed book.” (We're talking about Retribution here, by the way.)
And I didn't really cast it into the fire. I just uploaded it to Amazon.
And I actually kinda had fun along the way.
Okay. So it was a bad metaphor.
Point is, the book is pretty much ready to roll. Bigger point is…
You can check out the first two chapters of RETRIBUTION below!
But first, I wanted to give you a sneak peak (or, you know, sneak listen) of the Red Gambit audiobook, which should be hitting Audible any day now.
Here's an excerpt:
I'm really excited about this audiobook. I still marvel at how many times Steven made me laugh at my own writing. Then again, maybe I'm just a vain A-hole.
Either way, Steven and I are fixing to get to work on the audio for the rest of 'em right away. 🙂
But enough about audiobooks for now. Let's move on to…
RETRIBUTION: Book Four of the Harvesters Series
One month, she’d said.
Glass shattered, and a maddened scream split the air—only distantly recognizable as human.
Jarek hit the pavement in a half-crouch and pushed on without looking back, Fela’s powerful legs pumping beneath him, pounding the ground as he fled the first of the horde with his cargo tightly clutched.
Three weeks ago, the sounds of the shrieks that spread through the streets behind him would’ve curdled his blood and given him a proper case of the heebie-jeebies.
Now, though . . .
Now that furor hordes seemed to be howling after them wherever they ran. Now that he’d seen more grown men and women tear each other to gory pieces more times than he wanted to count . . . All he could do was push on. It was all any of them could do right now.
That didn’t stop the heebie-jeebies.
One month of this madness.
He could’ve taken them, of course. In small numbers, their fists and mindless rage weren’t exactly fair matches for Jarek’s armored exo.
In horde quantities, though?
Jarek had tried to avoid putting too much thought into it, but he was pretty sure Fela wouldn’t render him invulnerable to them going Wookie on his ass and pulling him limb from limb if they managed to catch him and swarm him to the pavement.
So he kept moving.
“Talk to me, Mr. Robot. Good news only.”
A deliberate moment’s hesitation.
Then, “That’s quite the lovely sunrise, sir.”
On top of his crisp English accent, Al’s tone was cautious, searching.
Jarek held his tongue, waiting for the digital construct to finish his sweep.
Everything else aside, his friend wasn’t wrong. It was a lovely sunrise. The scrabbling feet and bloodthirsty calls of the horde just put a bit of a dimmer on things.
“No enemy ships detected nearby, sir,” Al said after longer than usual, “though I’ll remind you my eyes aren’t as good as they once were.”
Jarek grimaced and adjusted his cargo, shifting the enormous bag on his back and wrapping the straps of the second half-full duffle tighter around his left hand.
Between the Net inexplicably failing last week and the secondhand sensory array Pryce and Al had cobbled together on Fela’s faceplate after a raknoth warlord had clubbed off the first one, Jarek imagined Al’s senses felt about as unencumbered as he currently did trying to sprint with a giant sword and a couple of oversized duffles awkwardly strapped to his form.
That said, Al’s words at least offered some mild assurance that the rakul themselves weren’t about to drop down on his head. It was something.
Jarek cut left down a wide alleyway, thinking to shake some of his pursuers, and nearly ran headlong into one of the wild-eyed berserkers. The man bared his teeth and sprang forward.
Gently as he reasonably could, Jarek kicked the guy in the chest and sent him sprawling to the pavement ten feet back. As far as he could tell, the berserker’s coughing and sputtering were probably more a matter of mechanical fact than pain or discomfort. Those would come later, when the furor passed and the poor bastard hopefully regained control of his mind.
For now, though, Jarek turned and leapt over a brown picket fence and into a heavily overgrown backyard.
From what he’d seen, Syracuse, like most northern cities, had been largely abandoned for some time now. Ever since the Catastrophe, people had had enough on their plates just to survive without willingly adding contending with the winter cold to their lists.
It was exactly what Jarek had been counting on when he’d ghosted into town at the crack of dawn. He’d even stuck to the outskirts as much as possible, just to be safe.
Canned food. Oil. Batteries. Solar chargers. Anything that might help them survive. He’d stuffed his bags as quickly as he could, determined to not spend a minute longer than necessary in the abandoned ghost town.
A harsh baying from the alleyway gave him an unneeded reminder that Syracuse was hardly abandoned now.
“What say we blow this party and get back to our merry men, buddy?”
Behind, the picket fence rattled with its first thudding blow.
“That seems most advisable, sir.”
Aided by Fela’s considerable strength, Jarek easily hopped the fence on the other side of the yard and took off once again, weaving through crumbling buildings at a hard northwest clip.
The sounds of his frenzied pursuit faded into the distance over the following minutes until the most prominent sounds were his labored breathing and the rhythmic pounding of his armored feet on the asphalt.
Pissed beyond all Earthly reason, they may have been. But, try as they did, the furor victims couldn’t match his Fela-enhanced pace, even encumbered as he was. It was exactly why the group had agreed Jarek should make the run solo when they’d pulled up a few miles outside town in the first hints of the coming daylight. Not that anyone minded sitting out and letting Jarek do the heavy lifting.
No one but Mosen, at least.
That glinty-eyed bastard only saw Jarek’s usefulness as a threat to his authority in the group. Why Mosen cared so damn much about that authority was still a bit perplexing to Jarek.
Maybe the guy had simply spent too much time immersed with the raknoth and their draconian pecking order. Or maybe it was just Mosen’s way of trying to feel in control of the situation.
If it was the latter, then Mosen was even crazier than Jarek had already thought. Out of the many things they collectively were, in control was not on the list.
The rakul had seen to that. And then some.
The three-mile trek back to their temporary hideout fell quickly to Jarek’s amped nerves and racing thoughts. Quickly enough, in fact, that he wondered if they shouldn’t have holed up further out of town. At the very least, he probably should have taken off in a different direction and looped his way back around.
“No pursuit detected, sir,” Al said in his ear, apparently sensing his hesitation as he finished tromping across a field of wild grass that might’ve once been a golf course.
He pushed into the last little woodland divider separating them from the dilapidated apartment building they’d decided to bunk in for the day. A tiny weight tugged at the back of his mind, whispering frightening thoughts and forcing him to glance back over his shoulder, across the grassy expanse.
“Keep an ear out anyway?”
“Of course, sir.”
Jarek closed his eyes, consciously let out a long breath, and forced himself to turn for the apartments. There wasn’t anything left to do now but to load the new supplies, divide the food as best they could afford, and get some rest while they could.
They still didn’t really understand whether there was some pattern to the furors, or exactly what goal the rakul were driving their puppets to pursue—outside of mindless violence. From what Jarek had observed, though, he doubted the horde would track him this far.
Plus, more likely than not, they’d be moving on from the apartments tonight anyway.
For all they knew, the rakul could be orbiting the planet, watching them night and day with technologies Jarek couldn’t comprehend, but logic still dictated that traveling under the cover of night was probably the smart move. Especially for a band of squishy meat sacks like them trying to avoid the notice of the ridiculously powerful intergalactic conquerors that may or may not be currently tracking them like alien bloodhounds.
He ducked under a low-hanging branch, suppressing a shudder at the thought of bloodhounds and the memory it kicked up of the thing that had chased him and Michael out of HQ almost two weeks ago.
As if he’d needed more material for his never-ending vault of nightmare materials.
Along with the thought of their flight from HQ came the sudden and inevitable pang of aching worry, like a glob of churning ice water in his core. It was a sensation he was almost growing used to in a horrible kind of way. The same one he had every time any little thing reminded him of—
No. Not now.
He had hungry soldiers and a not-so-distant horde to worry about right now.
Later, when he could lay down to rest with some degree of certainty he wouldn’t wake up to snarling teeth and wild eyes . . . then he could have his worry-streaked pitty party.
But until then . . .
One foot in front of the other.
The ship was still there, right where Al had parked it that morning, under the partial cover of the encroaching tree line. Jarek considered stopping to leave what extra supplies they wouldn’t immediately need inside but decided it wasn’t worth the time or organizational effort right now.
Most of what he’d scavenged had been food anyway, and they weren’t nearly so flush on food as to think today’s haul would last longer than tonight. Turned out, keeping a platoon of hungry men and women fed wasn’t a walk in the park when food was scarce to begin with and a pack of super-monsters had you on the run.
It wasn’t like anyone had had time to pack rations for this lovely little adventure of theirs.
Whether or not the rakul knew it, if the hordes or the beasts themselves didn’t catch and kill their group, the running—and the hunger it was driving them to—might.
A glance at each corner of the apartment building ahead showed that their lookouts were posted and watching him. He hefted the duffel in his left hand and shot a casual salute their way.
The Resistance woman, Chambers, returned a wave and a friendly, maybe even excited, smile.
In contrast, the reaction of the soldiers posted at the other two corners—Mosen’s men—was like an icy slap to the giblets.
They stared at him and his cargo, looking like they’d rather eat him and take his suit than accept his handouts yet again.
So that was a no on the thank yous, then.
Suffice it to say, there was a reason Jarek hadn’t stepped out of his armor in over a week—even after Al had upped the awkward ante and made it crystal clear, just in case any of their assembled forces should have any wild ideas, that Jarek was the only person on Earth the suit would be functioning for anytime soon.
It hadn’t earned him or Al any points with Mosen or the other refugees from Camp Krogoth, but at least no one had tested Fela’s durability with a knife while he slept. Yet.
Jarek stepped into the entryway, pulled the door shut behind him, and paused at the bottom of the rickety old stairs.
“Honey, I’m home,” he called up.
Thanks to Fela’s amplified auditory sensors, he didn’t miss the irritated huff Mosen let out, and he could almost feel the a-hole rolling his eyes.
When Mosen leaned over the banister above, though, his practiced look of smug indifference was fully intact.
“Marvelous. You had me so worried.” The red glint in Mosen’s eyes as he scrutinized the duffels conveyed about as much worry as a hungry alligator closing on its prey. “What do you have for us, sweetheart?”
“Oh, you know”—Jarek slid his helmet faceplate open with a careful thought and started up the stairs—“this and that. Batteries. Bandages. Oil for Al’s squeaky motors.”
“I’m not the one who’s weighing the ship down every day, sir,” Al said out loud through Fela’s speakers. “Or the one who beat it within an inch of scrap metal.”
Jarek might have bantered back, but Mosen had paused from eyeing the duffel to shoot him an expectant, severe look. It kind of ruined the mood.
“And food,” Jarek added, suppressing a sigh as he held the first duffel out.
He had yet to make up his mind on whether or not he, Michael, and the rest of the Resistance soldiers had made a mistake in partying up with Mosen and his faithful Mosenites when they’d unexpectedly crossed paths not far outside of what remained of New York City.
Joining forces had seemed like the smart move. They were all allies in this fight against the rakul, after all, and more soldiers meant more security, more lookouts, less sleepless nights. All objectively good things. But, then again, there were also more mouths to feed—and to listen to.
Mosen snatched the bag from Jarek’s hand, his expression unreadable for a few seconds. Jarek expected him to tromp out, but Mosen hesitated for a second.
“Don’t suppose there’s been any news?” Jarek finally asked.
Mosen showed him a morbid grin. “What? Besides the entire world being fucked out of its mind?”
“Yeah, I don’t particularly need a reminder on that one right now.”
Mosen frowned. “You run into trouble out there?”
Jarek nodded grimly. “Another horde. Or maybe the same one. Shit, I can’t tell.”
Mosen hissed through his teeth. “Well fuck, maybe you could have started with that, Slater.”
“Started with what?” came Michael’s deep voice from the hallway beyond, followed a moment later by his dark, haggard face.
Christ, he wasn’t looking hot.
Not that any of them were, having been on the road for nearly two weeks with little in the way of commodities most of that time.
“Started with the fact that those crazy bastards could’ve followed our Soldier of Charity straight back here,” Mosen growled, shooting a disgusted look at Jarek before whirling for the doorway.
Michael held Mosen’s eyes with a stern expression and took his time in stepping aside to let him pass.
“Mosen,” Jarek said.
“I need to go tell my lookouts,” Mosen said without stopping.
Mosen froze at Jarek’s use of his first name, then rolled his shoulders and looked back to meet Jarek’s eyes with frosty amusement.
“Yeah, Papa Slater?”
Jarek did his best to keep his expression peaceful as he nodded to the duffel in Mosen’s hand. “See to it everyone gets their fair share?”
Mosen looked between Michael and Jarek, his amusement only growing. “I wonder what it is you two think passes for fair about any of this shit.”
And with that, he left before either of them could say anything more.
Michael looked worriedly from the empty doorway back to Jarek but seemed to relax a bit when he took in the full bag still strapped to Jarek’s back.
He didn’t have to speak his mind. Jarek knew exactly what he was thinking.
It would be an interesting day, to say the least, if—or, more likely, when—they came up short on rations.
“I take it you ran into another furor out there?” Michael asked.
Jarek nodded. “Kinda feels a little too much like it’s following us at this point. I could’ve sworn that town was deserted, and that was a pretty damn big horde that popped up.”
Michael grimaced. “I hate that word.”
Jarek didn’t need to ask about that one either to know Michael was referring to the word, horde. They’d already had a few discussions about the mindless zombie connotations, and Jarek knew Michael could relate a little too much to the feeling of being made a telepathic puppet.
Speaking of which . . .
“You can go ahead and say it,” Michael said, apparently picking up on the direction of his thoughts.
Jarek hesitated, opened his mouth, hesitated again, and shrugged. “Fine. Are you feeling okay”—he tapped the side of his head and dropped to a conspiratorial whisper—“you know, upstairs?”
Michael rolled his eyes and directed his gaze down the stairway as if the empty space suddenly required his subdued attention.
“You look like shit, Mikey,” Jarek added, not hiding his concern now. “And I can only assume there’s some angry telepathic juju floating around nearby if the . . .” He hooked a thumb toward town. “You know. I just, uh . . . Promise you’ll talk to me if anything starts to . . .”
Michael watched him flounder with exactly what it was that anything might start to do then finally nodded. “I will.”
Jarek was less than convinced. After everything he’d seen Michael go through, he didn’t doubt the big guy was the suffer in silence type.
And if Michael was feeling the telepathic heat right now . . .
Suffice it to say, Jarek doubted walking around with the guy who was, as far as he understood it, basically a messenger satellite was doing any major favors to their efforts to lay low. But it wouldn’t be the nail in their coffin—he had to believe that. As far as they understood it, Michael’s condition was a one-way arrangement—receiving but not transmitting.
No. It wouldn’t be the nail in their coffin. That blow would more likely fall if anyone decided to press the issue. Mosen had made it more than clear just how little he liked having Michael around, marked as he was. If Mosen or anyone else so much as caught a whiff that anything was awry with Michael . . . Jarek didn’t want to think about how it would go for their happy little platoon if and when that happened.
So, instead, he unslung the duffel from his back and offered it to Michael. “Dandy. Wanna do the honors, then?”
If Michael thought his connection was putting the group at risk—and Jarek trusted the younger man would know better than him on that one—Michael wouldn’t keep quiet about it. Probably.
It was good enough for now.
Michael took the bag with a slight frown. Ragged as he looked from their travels and, before that, from weeks of intermittent telepathic assaults, his burly frame still had no trouble supporting the hefty load as he slung it over one shoulder. “You’re not coming?”
Jarek waved him on and pointed down the stairs. “Might just go, uh . . . For a minute.”
Michael’s expression softened, and he clapped a hand to Jarek’s shoulder. “She’s okay out there. Probably better off than we are. I have faith.”
Jarek fought the urge to swallow against the sudden lump in his throat and managed to pull on a mask of mock sternness instead. “You know I don’t approve of the F-word, young man.”
A faint touch of amusement alighted over Michael’s features. “My bad, Papa Slater.”
Jarek shook his head, the title drawing Mosen back to the forefront of his thoughts. “That smug bastard.”
Michael gave a knowing nod, looking thoughtful. “I’ll say this much for him, though. Dude’s loyal to his people.”
That much was hard to argue. Much as he hated to admit it, and much as blind devotion never failed to scare the crap out of him, Jarek was actually pretty impressed by how hard Mosen had proven himself willing to fight for his men—and how faithfully those Mosenites followed him in return.
“Yeah . . .” Jarek waved at the duffel at Michael’s shoulder. “Well, why don’t you go make sure every hungry mouth in there knows we’re loyal too? I’ll be in soon.”
Michael looked like he had something else he was thinking about saying—a few somethings, maybe—but he finally gave a nod and turned for the doorway.
Michael turned, waiting, and Jarek found he couldn’t quite decide what it was he wanted to ask—could only grasp at general directions, all of which suddenly seemed like topics for another time.
“Uh, make sure who’s-a-what’s-it on lookout gets a bite too.”
Michael cocked his head. “Chambers?”
“Right. Like I said.”
Michael’s look was slightly quizzical, but he gave Jarek a thumbs up and left to go feed the troops without further question.
Jarek stood in silence for some time, his thoughts winding themselves in unpleasant knots. His stomach rumbled, reminding him he should’ve grabbed a can of something before he’d handed the bag over.
“You should eat, sir.”
Al wasn’t wrong. But the thought of stepping into a crowded space right now . . . Food could wait a little longer.
“Is that what that means, Mr. Robot?” Jarek asked, starting down the stairs. “It gets so confusing sometimes, being a real boy. The rumbles. The pulses. The massive erections. Who can keep track of it all?”
“Would that I could avoid it, sir. Particularly the latter.”
Jarek smiled and stepped outside to take a seat on the building’s front stoop.
“How are you doing, buddy? Still feeling like you’re short a few limbs without the Net?”
“Short a few limbs and locked in a padded room, sir. And with you, no less. Can you imagine?”
Jarek shook his head. “The horror.”
He wanted to say more, wanted to promise Al that they’d see this thing through. That they’d save the planet and eventually restore the Net and, along with it, all of the thousands of petabytes of information and media and other digital distractions his friend no longer had access to. He wanted to promise it to Al as much as he wanted to promise it to himself.
But they’d both know he was talking out of his ass, so, for a long while, he just sat there, trying to enjoy the companionable silence that he and his old friend had so often passed together.
One month, Rachel had said the last time he’d talked to her, just before the Net had cut out and their comms had ceased to function outside of close-range communication.
One month until Haldin and Elise would complete their . . . was merger the right word? No one seemed to know. Not even the raknoth.
One month until they finished doing whatever the hell it was those two were doing with Alton and Lietha, at least.
One month of surviving this relentless hounding, flying on some blind hope that the product of this apparently unprecedented raknoth-Enochian merger would somehow give them an edge against the rakul. Against the things that were so old and strong that even Drogan, Mr. My-Warrior-Honor-is-Bigger-than-Yours himself, had fled the scene like a frightened child when they’d first arrived in force.
After the run-in Jarek and Michael had had with that giant mutant-wolf-looking bastard back at HQ, though, Jarek couldn’t say he blamed ol’ Stumpy for being afraid of the things.
As for the Enochians . . .
Jarek didn’t know what to believe.
Whatever happened, whatever shit hit in the end, the only thing Jarek knew for sure was that he wanted—needed—to face it with Rachel at his side.
But first, he had to find her.
Fifteen years earlier—or, hell, maybe even just a few months ago—it might have been a nice view that greeted Rachel as she skirted out from under the cover of the ruined apartment building and darted across the street to the overgrown lookout point. Now, though, she just felt naked out there, standing in the open in broad daylight.
She clutched her staff tighter, as if its tiny weight could somehow protect her.
If Johnny felt any similar consternation, he sure did hide it well.
“Hmm,” the red-headed Enochian said, letting the tall grass slide back over the sign he’d been inspecting before looking back out over what crumbling skyline remained of Pittsburgh. “Wonder why they decided to call it Point of View Park.”
Out of the corner of her eye, Rachel saw him turn an expectant grin her way.
“You know what I wonder?” she asked quietly, pointedly keeping her stare directed across the wide blue of the Ohio River and fixed on Heinz Field. “Why a freaking stadium?”
“Because you Earthlings love your football,” Johnny said as if it were blatantly obvious. “I’ll bet you five fortune cookies Nelken’s dad used to bring him here. It’s probably like his safe place or something.”
She finally turned from the view to study the Enochian. “How the hell do you always know these things?”
“I mean, it’s just a guess. Father and son bonding over the game and all tha—”
“Not the dad part. That part actually makes a surprising amount of sense. But how do you even know what football is?”
He shrugged. “I was stuck on a ship for a year with nothing to do but study Earth and get beat up by Hal.”
The shadow fell across his face—the same one he always got now when he talked about Haldin.
He covered it up quickly enough, cocking his head in thought. “Well, beat up by Hal and Elise. And Alton. You get the point. And you’d be impressed how much you can pick up about a culture through their movies.”
“If you two are finished,” came Drogan’s voice from behind, “perhaps we might consider taking productive action.”
The raknoth drew up beside Rachel, his eyes warily sweeping the open sky before sliding down to their objective.
“Considering’s the easy part,” Johnny murmured. “It’s the doing I’m less excited about.”
“It’ll be fine,” Rachel said.
He grinned over at her. “Well now that you said so . . .”
Rachel turned to Drogan. “You’re sure the others will be safe back there?”
They’d left the rest of Johnny’s people—precious cargo included—back in the heavily wooded hills, on the other side of the giant urban butte they were currently looking down from.
She wasn’t even sure why she bothered asking Drogan for the reassurance. They either would be okay, or they wouldn’t. There was no true safety on this planet. Not anymore.
Still, it made her feel a touch better when Drogan gave her a confident nod. “As long as Franco and the others do nothing foolish to betray their position, our . . . maturing allies should be free to continue their change in peace.”
Rachel sure as hell hoped so.
Haldin and Elise were two of the only hopes she’d had to cling to since the rakul had arrived and the Enochians had begun their respective melds with Drogan’s raknoth kin, Alton Parker and Shieth’Lietha. The idea of raknoth establishing symbioses with their hosts rather than completely overriding them was a novel one. And, she was hoping, one that would produce something tremendously powerful, given how gifted Haldin and Elise had already been to begin with.
Drogan hadn’t exactly kept it a tight secret that he was less than convinced Haldin and Elise would arise as the all-powerful weapons the rest of them were hoping for.
Rachel wasn’t so sure what to think.
Johnny, unsurprisingly, had faith in his friends.
Rachel wanted to believe that faith was well-placed—not in small part because the alternative was that, if this gambit didn’t pay off, they’d be stuck right back where they’d begun. Eleven preposterously strong Kul, a planet-full of potential furor fodder, and naught but her staff, Drogan’s claws, and Johnny’s guns to fight their way through the impossible odds.
Of course, there were other friendlies out there too. The scattered remnants of the Resistance, for one, and Zar’Krogoth’s forces for another.
And then there were Jarek and Michael, who, last she knew, had somehow ended up on the road north with that savage bastard Mosen.
Her heart ached at the thought. She hoped to god they were still together watching each other’s backs and that Michael hadn’t fallen prey to—
She couldn’t think about that now.
With any luck, their mix-matched band of fighters would manage to rally here, just like they’d talked about before they’d lost the Net. Nelken, Alaric, Krogoth—someone would have a plan. They’d pull together, make their stand.
No matter what happened, she was sure there wasn’t a soul among them at this point who wouldn’t go down swinging.
Maybe it would be enough.
But having a pair of Enochian-raknoth hybrid super soldiers in their corner sure as hell wouldn’t hurt either.
In the meanwhile, Rachel would’ve gladly settled for the ability to reliably communicate with their brewing heroes.
Getting answers from the merging couples had been like herding cats—and cats who were tripping on ayahuasca, at that. As far as she and Drogan could tell, Haldin and Elise were floating back and forth between profoundly deep sleep and complete unconsciousness.
As for Alton and Lietha, that was a slightly stranger question.
At times, the raknoth seemed to be coupled in dreamlike states with their respective humans. Aside from the occasional brief stints where the raknoth would telepathically communicate mostly-coherent updates to Rachel or Drogan, Alton and Lietha spent the remainder of their time in their own kind of trance-like state that Drogan had referred to as “the builder’s space.”
Apparently, it was a thing—or at least a loose translation of one—with raknoth and their fresh host bodies during a standard body snatch and the subsequent remodeling.
Johnny had taken to calling it “the body shop”—a moniker that at some times amused him and at others seemed to depress him.
Rachel, upon first witnessing the crude “gastric inputs” Drogan had installed to allow them to give his kin the raw materials they required for said body-building, had decided she wasn’t overly keen on delving into the details, as long as it worked.
At any rate, for now, it was just the three of them, and this rendezvous with Nelken and the Resistance wasn’t about to happen on its own.
Pushing all thoughts of Jarek, the changing Enochians, and the future at large aside, Rachel gave Drogan a resolute nod.
“Let’s see what there is to see, then.”
The hike down to the nearest bridge wasn’t far—no more than half a mile—but, between picking their way down the trail and Drogan stopping every hundred feet to perk his ears and sniff warily at the sky, it took them a good fifteen minutes.
The bridge itself was long and narrow, two lanes crossing the wide berth of the Ohio River, overarched with faded yellow steel. Harmless enough, as bridges went. But that didn’t stop something about the heavy silence in the air whispering to her just how exposed they’d be out there in the middle of its paved span.
Drogan and Johnny seemed to be having similar thoughts, but, unless one of them happened to be hiding a boat in their pocket, the only real alternative was swimming, which carried all the same vulnerability and added the bonus of getting all their gear soaked.
So, by some unspoken agreement, they all started across the bridge at a light jog.
Much to Rachel’s relief, no elaborate death traps sprang. No highwaymen popped out to collect their dues.
Nothing happened at all—until about three quarters across, when Drogan snared her arm in a steel grip.
“A ship,” he hissed.
The intensity in his voice shot a tingling burst of panic through her chest.
She couldn’t see anything but partially-cloudy skies all around.
“West,” Drogan hissed, reaching for Johnny as well.
The westward sky seemed every bit as clear as the rest, but Drogan’s senses were far sharper than hers. No reason not to trust him. Instead, she turned her attention to their next move.
Nowhere to run but forward or backward. Nothing but barren pavement and the faded yellow steel of the bridge’s arch.
“Run?” Johnny asked.
“No time,” Drogan grunted, shifting to wrap his arms around her and Johnny as if preparing to carry them along for a jump.
“No,” Rachel heard herself say.
No time to run. Jumping would only leave them exposed in the water.
They needed to be invisible.
“Down,” she growled, dropping her staff, grabbing fistfuls of both of their jackets, and falling to the road.
Maybe it was sheer surprise on both their parts, but Johnny and Drogan hit the pavement with her.
“Lie still,” she whispered.
Drogan squirmed. “They may have already seen—”
“Shut up,” she snapped.
She’d seen how fast raknoth ships could move. If it was one of the Kul out there, and if they’d already been spotted, it didn’t matter now whether they ran or not.
So Rachel focused on what she could control, shaping her will into a single abstract thought, then she opened the channel and let the energy flow.
She’d never tried something like this before, but hell, if her mom had managed to enchant a virus that had brought the raknoth to their knees, why should invisibility be beyond Rachel’s grasp?
The energy crackled through her body like an electric river, and the air immediately around them took on an odd, oily effect.
She tried her best not to focus on it.
Unlike most of the channeling she was used to, this feat was far more mentally strenuous than energy-intensive, bending and shifting light to present the facade of empty pavement where they lay—it was a lot to keep straight in her head as she channeled.
And, while the channeling demands were the secondary challenge, that’s not to say they were negligible. Within seconds, she felt the beginnings of the channeling fatigue creeping into her bones.
Worst of all, she didn’t even have any way to know whether it was working. But the lack of feedback hardly mattered now. They were out of time.
She could barely make it out as a faint blip in the distant sky, but something about the way it moved . . . That was definitely a ship out there—definitely not a human one.
And it was coming straight for them.
“We must take cover,” Drogan whispered, though he didn’t move a muscle.
“Let the lady work, Stumps,” Johnny whispered. “Trust her.”
“You do not call me that,” came Drogan’s hissed reply, followed by a murmured, “Flame Head.”
Rachel closed her eyes and shut it all out—the visual input that was only distracting her, the tickling urge to break into manic laughter. All of it.
She sank deeper into her task, picturing nothing but empty pavement, willing the image to life, embracing the crackling stream of power flowing from the batteries on her belt, through her body, and into the air around them.
Was that the soaring sound of a rakul ship cutting through the air, or just the rush of her own racing blood?
She couldn’t stand another second of not looking, but she didn’t trust herself to hold the illusion if she did.
That was definitely the rush of a ship soaring in.
“It’s working, Rache,” Johnny said quietly. “I think.”
She resisted the urge to open her eyes and check for herself, making a mental note to give Johnny pointers on his pep talk skills at a later date. Once they didn’t die here.
The sound drew closer, closer. It was north of their position, she was sure of it.
Maybe . . .
“It’s passing,” Johnny confirmed.
She let out a deep breath, careful not to release her illusion.
In testament to his words, the rushing was definitely fading eastward now.
“I think we might be . . .”
Rachel opened her eyes to see why Johnny had trailed off and saw with immense relief that the alien ship was indeed still rocketing off to the east, quickly fading into the distance.
“Yup,” Johnny said, his face a shade too pale and his breathing a touch heavy. “I think we’re good.”
Rachel slumped to the pavement and released her hold on the illusion with a grateful sigh.
Johnny gave her leg an enthusiastic pat, earning himself a one-eyed glare.
“What’d I tell you, Drogan?” he said, not to be deterred. “Lady knows what she’s doing.”
Drogan just growled something under his breath about lucky fools and started pulling himself to his feet.
“So . . .” Johnny said, looking between the two of them. “Who’s ready for some football?”
That's all for now, folks
I sure hope you enjoyed it, because there is, as they say, plenty more where that came from!
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