Nothing ever happens the way you expect it to. Even the most detailed plans wind up spiraling to oblivion’s bowels if you forget that one, minor, impossible-to-see detail.
Then again, this was the first job I’d actually planned to the letter. I’m more of a wing-it-as-she-runs thief. Hasn’t always worked out for me in the past, and neither had this.
Face it, Gemma. You just have terrible luck.
“I know you’re here, girl,” the marauder below me growled, silencing my internal voice. “Come out now, and I won’t be too hard on you.” His boots creaked against the wooden floorboards as he stalked through the attic, glancing at the stacks of dusty crates and wondering which I was hidden behind. “Might even have a little party if you play nice.”
Since he wasn’t looking up, he couldn’t see that I was perched on the rafters in the corner of the shadowy attic. I rolled my eyes and shook my head, pushing chin-length, sable hair away from my face. The world had fallen apart in the most abysmal way, but pirate men still thought with their cocks. If there was a decent man left alive in Westraven, I doubted I’d ever meet him. I didn’t run with chivalrous folk. Kind of hard to do when half the people in the city were desperate or dead.
From outside, thunder growled with agitation. The storm had gotten worse in the short amount of time I’d been in the apartment. This wasn’t going to be a fun escape.
“You took something that belongs to me,” the marauder continued, his dark-haired head flicking left and right to scrutinize the crates. “I’m getting it back, and I don’t care if you’re alive or dead when I do it.”
While he rambled on about being stiffed, I looked for my exit. He’d spotted me just as I claimed my prize, but I’d managed to dodge him by being fast and tossing furniture in his path until I got into the attic. I’d climbed up the crates to get to the rafters then stuck to the shadows until he stomped up here to gripe. I hadn’t had the chance to look at my surroundings. As much as I wanted to believe he was too stupid to look up, I wasn’t taking chances.
The murky, rain-drizzled window I’d used to get inside the building was on my right. I could use it again to slip out, climb up, and run across the roofs of the collapsed apartments, but this building was old and uncared for. The window’s hinges would creak. The marauder would hear me and holler his heart out. He would be the death of me.
Not because I thought he would hurt me––I was much too fast––but because other things would hear him.
Other, savage, inhuman things.
A chill crept up my spine at the thought of the Hellions, but I needed to focus on my situation now–– escaping before the marauder shot me. Or worse.
I reached for the window. My legs burned and I grimaced from the way I crouched, stretching my arm as farther than it should have gone, balancing on the balls of my feet, hoping I wouldn’t slip or be seen. My fingertips scraped the edge of the window frame. The window was still unlatched, but from the angle I was stretching at, it was too heavy to push open. I had to move closer.
Holding my breath, I edged along the beam, glancing down at the marauder. He stopped cursing and spun in agitated circles. He was right underneath me. Now that I was closing in on the window, my shadow would fall over him and catch his attention. But I had no choice. I couldn’t stay here.
Casting caution aside, I nestled onto the thin window ledge and shoved my palms against the icy glass, pushing with all my weight. The window resisted, but I kept pushing until finally the window nudged outward with a lurch and a screech. Wind and rain lashed into the opened crevice. Lightning illuminated the sky in a blinding flash and thunder roared its rage. I cringed and turned my head away.
My eyes locked onto the marauder’s.
He stared up at me, shocked to see me lurking over his head. I gave him a nervous smile and a wave. A scowl twisted on his ruddy face as he reached for the gun on his belt. I kicked the window with the flat of my foot, flipping it outward and fully opening the attic to the storm. I got on my hands and knees and scrambled out. I glanced over my head, but the distance to the roof was higher than I thought. Grabbing it would leave my chest and belly exposed to a bullet.
As if in mockery, a gunshot rang out behind me, and splinters of wood batted my ribs and arms.
Nope. Climbing wasn’t going to work.
Rain slashed against my face, propelled by the icy wind. I swung my legs out of the window, and jumped from the attic.
The fall wasn’t far, but it was rough. My boots struck a towering landslide of rubble ten feet down, which I used at the start of the job to climb up the apartment earlier. I landed in a crouch and felt broken concrete dig into my palms and bite at my knees. The rain soaked through the leather of my jacket, vest, work pants, and boots. The slim rectangular pendant around my neck slipped from under my shirt, and I quickly shoved it back, concealing it. Rain drenched me immediately, plastering my dark brown hair to my cheeks. I lurched to my feet and scrambled down the rubble. I blinked rapidly, blinking rainwater from my eyes. When I neared the street at the bottom of the landslide, I risked a glance over my shoulder.
The marauder must not have climbed to the rafters, because I couldn’t see him in the window. He would have to trudge all the way back down the three- story apartment as fast as he could if he hoped to catch me. While I didn’t think he would give up the chase, he wasn’t my major concern.
I looked up.
A bloated shadow lingered in the sky, concealed by dark rolling clouds until another bolt of lightning ripped through them, electrifying the ship that owned Westraven’s sky, ordered the destruction of all of Aon’s country provinces, and kept us all living under its crushing thumb.
The airship was a monstrous melding of two separate pieces. The top half was a man-o’-war with four gun-ports lined the sides, each heavy cannon pointed at the city’s streets as a warning. Tall masts with black sails whipped back and forth in the storm’s wind, shaking like three angry fists. Both ends of the ship were spiked and curved like a demon’s horns. More spikes stuck out from the port and starboard’s iron plated sides, making the ship look like a flattened sea urchin. The exhaust port over the rudder spewed thick black smoke that slithered and disappeared into the thunderclouds like inky poison.
Chained below the belly of the top ship was the second half, which mirrored the design of the upper portion of the ship and served as a docking port for the raiding skiffs the Hellions used to capture their food.
To capture us.
I didn’t see any of the skiffs leave the lower half of the ship, but I wouldn’t discount them from coming down in the torrential downpour. Despite their superb and frightening night vision, the Hellions had difficulty seeing anything in fog or rainstorms. Didn’t mean it was safe, however. When Hellions were hungry, they hunted. Rain only extended their chase.
I finally made it to the street, my boots splashing into a puddle and sending a burst of water over my calves. The rainy season in Westraven was merciless, lasting for days, even weeks at a time. I had to get off the streets before the water made running impossible.
I sprinted forward, thunder barking over my head. The pitch black clouds seemed to create shadows over the city. If it weren’t for the lightning and reflective white paint on the crumbling buildings of the market district, I wouldn’t have been able to see at all.
Just as I reached the city streets, a sharp crack of thunder echoed behind me. I jumped and noticed dust spurting out from the wall on my left. Realizing that thunder hadn’t come from the sky at all, I threw another glance over my shoulder.
The marauder had made it outside of the apartment and was hot on my heels. A flintlock pistol was raised and pointed at my back. I couldn’t see his face clearly in the dark night rain, but I imagined his expression was one of pure rage. Now that he was chasing me, I recalled how bulky he was. Over his head, I noticed something moving quickly under the Behemoth. My heart skipped a beat.
No, I thought. No, no!
Lightning flared through the sky and illuminated the two Hellion raiding skiffs emerging from the bottom of the massive warship. Though I couldn’t see the details from where I stood, I knew exactly what they looked like. Scorched metal boats with spear-like masts and ink black sails. Sterns that spilled smoke like blood from a wound. Conical figureheads used to stab unlucky victims and carry them to a hell I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.
Both skiffs turned in our direction, as if that split second of light from the earlier pistol shot was all they needed to see where their prey was.
The marauder didn’t notice the real threat sailing behind him, and he wouldn’t hear my warning over the storm. He wouldn’t listen to me at all after I stole from him. I had was to get away from both of them.
I whirled around and pumped my legs as fast as I could, fighting the burning pains shooting through them. I squinted to see through the sheets of rain to figure out where I was. I knew downtown Westraven like the back of my hand, but that didn’t mean much when I couldn’t see a damn thing.
Hide, my survival instinct shouted at me. I have to hide.
I spun around another corner and scanning the shops and collapsed buildings for a place to conceal––
A gust of wind shifted the hair on the right side of my face. I could almost feel the bullet cutting through the dark brown strands. My heart skidded through my chest and I halted involuntarily, hysteria overtaking reason.
Move move move, I screamed at myself.
I did, but I wasn’t fast enough.
A heavy weight slammed into my back and pitched me forward. I landed hard on my chest, the wind crushed from my lungs and my chin scraping along wet, unforgiving gravel. A hand fisted my hair and pulled, straining my neck painfully. I growled and threw my elbow back, catching a body in the ribs. He grunted and I hit him again. The second strike was harder, enough to get him off me. Soon as I felt him stumble, I pushed forward and rolled violently. The spin propelled my legs, and the heel of my boot caught my attacker’s chin with a brutal crack.
He cursed in pain while I got to my feet and snapped another kick to his head. I lunged forward and grabbed the pistol, stealing his chance to shoot me in the back.
Lightning ripped apart the sky again. Thunder exploded in the air and rattled me to the bone. I looked up, fear knotting in my chest when I saw the Hellion skiffs lower to the ground just fifty feet away.
During the day, the Hellions were dressed head-to-toe in a black military jumpsuits and a concealing black helmets with bulbous eyes. Covering the mouthpiece was thick, pointed needle. They were sick mockeries of the once famous Sky Guard military uniforms. But at night, they were natural hunters at their prime. They didn’t need disguises or needle-point masks. Not when they had razor claws and sharp fangs to rend flesh from bone.
Four Hellions leaped from the skiffs even before they landed. They sprinted in my direction, and I panicked. My gut reaction was to run. Save myself, the way I had so many times before. But the man on the ground, the one I’d kicked and stolen from––twice––was lying there, half unconscious. Did he hear the howls of the monsters closing in on him? Did he have any idea how easy he would be to kill?
Was there anything I could do?
No, my gut told me. You know there isn’t, Gemma. You can’t do anything. It’s too late.
But… I had to try, didn’t I?
My warring morals and survival instinct cost him. The Hellions didn’t stop to think about the pain the man was in. They didn’t care that I wanted to do something right, to help him even when I knew he wanted to kill me.
They just saw food, and their bellies were never full.
I raised the pistol I’d stolen and pointed it at one of the Hellions. I squeezed the trigger––
There were no bullets inside. That was why he’d tackled me.
The Hellions screeched and closed in, just twenty feet from the marauder. I couldn’t save him.
He groaned and my eyes burned. Breath caught in my throat as I turned and ran.
My mind’s eye filled in the details. Hooked claws digging into his body and burying deep into his flesh. Fanged mouths lunging down and biting into exposed skin to drink the hot blood beneath. Even with the thunder, I heard the marauder’s agonized screams as though he were standing right beside me. The sound pushed me harder, driving me through the market district.
The screams of the Hellions spiked fear into my heart. I weaved around another corner, my shoulder skidding along the harsh concrete of a half collapsed building. As I spun, I spotted two Hellions ripping into the fallen marauder, and another two coming after on me. I had to get out of sight, now.
I raced deeper into the downtown district to the judicial offices. I couldn’t tell one landmark from the other thanks to the unyielding rain, but instinct drove me until I reached Regency Square.
I banked a hard left, racing for the decrepit library that sat beside the Westraven Trade Board Office and the Provincial Court of Westraven. My trusty escape route.
I chanced another look over my shoulder. The Hellions were still pursuing me, but I had outrun them for now. I had to trust that the rain would continue to hinder their vision for a little while longer, and that they wouldn’t be able to hear my feet sloshing through the ankle-deep water over their own stomps.
Reaching the library, I discarded the pistol, grabbed the door and shouldered my way in. Pain radiated up my arm, but adrenaline quickly concealed it. I turned and slammed the door shut, threw the lock, and backed up. I flicked my gaze back and forth, up and down, looking for another place to hide. There were dozens of collapsed and shattered bookshelves lying on the ground, surrounded by hardcovers stripped of their pages. Overturned tables and chairs were missing their legs, probably taken by survivors for rebuilding. Rain spat through the broken windows on the second level as wind howled into the building––
I jumped as something slammed into the wooden door. So much for confusion.
Both Hellions were throwing their weight onto the door now. I searched the library frantically.
One of the shelves had fallen against the ledge of the second balcony. I spotted an open window past it.
Thud! Thud! Crack!
The Hellions were turning the door to splinters.
I bolted for the fallen shelf, leaped onto the top, and scrambled up the weakened wood.
Thud! Crack! Crack!
My fingers slipped on the shelf’s siding. Heavy splinters from the door fell onto the marble floor. Rain slicked the wood of the shelf. I slipped and banged my knee on the hard surface. Hellions shrieked and screamed as the door crunched and bent. The balcony was just in reach––
The front door shattered at the same moment my palms gripped the cracked marble banister. I hauled myself up and flipped onto the second landing. I ducked low and scooted away from the balcony toward a wide, broken picture window. Below me, the Hellions screamed their outrage. I couldn’t see them, and I wasn’t going to risk looking down and letting the monsters scouring the library see me. If they had my scent, they weren’t going to stop until they found me.
Having hid in here so many times, I knew there was a ladder outside the window that I could climb down. Survivors used it all the time when they wanted to raid the library for building wood or burning supplies. Holding my breath, I slithered up the wall and swung out of the broken window, back into the storm.
Rain pounded onto me again, the cold pelts of water lashing my drenched clothes and shivering skin. The bars of the metal ladder were freezing, each one biting my palms as I scurried down. I reached the street again and looked up. If the Hellions knew I’d escaped them again, I couldn’t tell. I wasn’t going to wait and see, either. I’d already wasted enough time tonight. All I wanted to do was go home, see if I had any warm clothes, and relax with my employer’s prize.
As I turned and started walking toward the hotel, I reached into the large pocket of my coat and took out the tattered black box containing the item I’d stolen. Inside was an electron-cell, a large battery with positive and negative terminals sticking out from the sides. It wasn’t powered and was safe to hold in the rain, and while it was a dented old model that wouldn’t do much to power anything large, it would be able to fuel something like a small heater or a small set of lights.
I pocketed the electron-cell and chanced another glance to the sky, where the Behemoth lingered.
The marauder’s face shot into my mind, and his screams echoed like ghosts in my ears. Guilt stabbed into me. If the pistol hadn’t been empty, would I have been able to save him? Would he have let me? I should have at least warned him.
Reason overrode my regret.
He wouldn’t have listened to you. He’d have attacked you. Brutalized you. Fletcher would be furious if you failed the job. You protected yourself. Dead men don’t need power.
I was good at lying to people. I was even better at lying to myself.
To survive in a horrific world overseen by bloodthirsty monsters, young thief Gemma will do whatever she must to see another day. Even though that means working for a damaged man convinced to make her a permanent member of this thuggish family.
So when her employer tells her that he’ll release her from his clutches, Gemma is obviously skeptical. Especially since the job is easy enough– recruit the two marauders that the gang has been spying on to take her place.
But as Gemma lies to Nash and Sawyer, she commits the greatest mistake a spy can make–– she begins to see them as friends, and perhaps more. Soon, she will have to choose: Sacrifice two strangers to ensure freedom from a brutal future, or risk her life to save them…
Set two years before the events of CRIMSON SKY, this prequel novella tells the story of how Gemma met Nash and Sawyer, and what prompted her to chose their safety over her own. While best enjoyed before reading CRIMSON SKY, this bonus story can be read at any time or enjoyed as a standalone.
Buy it here:
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