When the prey becomes the hunter
Miranda Fletcher lives in a glittering world of aeronauts and artists, dance cards and dandies, but terror lurks outside the city walls. The countryside is infested with hungry abominations called the Unseen, and a single crack in the capital’s magical defenses invites disaster and death.
When Miranda witnesses a murder, she learns the walls aren’t as secure as the Conclave—the city’s magical protector—claims. But despite a string of bloody deaths, no one is foolhardy enough to question the Conclave, much less battle the Unseen. Except Miranda. When tragedy shatters her home, she refuses to turn the other cheek.
Sometimes the smallest creature carries the deadliest sting.
“Watch for a moment,” Norton Fletcher said to his son, Gideon. “Then we’ll bow and scrape to the Conclave. I’d rather see this than their sour faces.”
They ran side by side down the stairs of the administration building to take a shortcut across the airfield. Gideon’s stomach tightened with worry. “Will they take the delay as an insult?”
“Probably, but I know how to be careful.”
“Are you sure?” The brief conversation they’d had when the Conclave arrived a half hour ago had been tense.
“I own this place,” Fletcher replied. “They don’t have the power here.”
Gideon wasn’t sure that was true—not in any way that mattered. Still, he couldn’t help looking over to where his father pointed one gloved hand.READ MORE
Far ahead, a shout rose from the crowd of workers as the mooring ropes released and the Scorpion floated skyward, sleek and nimble. Twin balloons hung one above the other, the silk striped midnight blue and silver above a narrow, high-prowed gondola. The feather-shaped crest of Fletcher Industries was visible along the side, even from where Gideon stood at the edge of the field.
“A beauty, isn’t she?” Fletcher said, adjusting the brim of his gray top hat. Of middling height, he was stocky and weathered by decades in the wind and sun. He had begun his career as an airman, then built his highly profitable empire one dirigible at a time. “I took her up myself yesterday. Still a few improvements to make, but she’ll be perfect for quick travels inside the city walls. Clever thing can fly right between buildings with a good pilot. Only needs one or two crew members to run it.”
Gideon had seen the Scorpion under construction, but this was his first glimpse of it in flight. The ship was perfect for a rich man in a hurry or a young buck eager to show off. With the new restrictions on long-distance flight, building urban airships was a smart business move—but that was Fletcher, always one innovation ahead of his peers.
As his heir, Gideon was eager and humbled all at once. “What’s its range?”
“Depends on the weather. It could go to the next city, but that would be chancy.”
Gideon shaded his eyes, admiring the graceful way the ship turned. Scents from the surrounding fields and work sheds mixed in a familiar, throat-catching way. He’d been around airmen and their machines for the last twenty-five years—since he’d been a babe in arms.
“The name Scorpion was Miranda’s idea,” Fletcher said. “She’s been showing an interest in the business lately.”
“How so?” Gideon asked, never knowing what to expect from his youngest sister.
Now the show was over, they resumed their course toward the edge of the property, the autumn sun slanting across the grass. No trees stood around the airfield, but the shrubs and brambles along the outskirts flamed October gold and scarlet. The early afternoon was still warm despite a bite in the air that promised frost.
“She’s been practicing at the shooting range.” Fletcher waved a hand toward the airfield’s training grounds. “She’s even been flying with the junior crew.”
Gideon couldn’t suppress a smile at the thought of his elegant sister terrorizing the young airmen. “I knew she was coming here, but not the details. How is she progressing?”
“I’d give her a real job if she wasn’t my daughter.”
“Thank the gods her mother’s not alive to see her darling covered in grease and gunpowder.”
There were volumes of family arguments in those words—what Miranda wanted versus what she’d be allowed to have—but Gideon left those for later. They’d arrived at the spot where a handful of Fletcher employees toiled.
“The accident’s been cleared away,” Gideon said.
“That was fast work,” Fletcher replied. “Remind me to stand the men a round of the best ale next time they visit the tavern.”
The cleanup had been a massive job. One of the morning’s delivery carts had rolled free as it was being unhitched. As the story went, a rabbit had spooked the big draft horses, and the idiot beasts had thundered away from the flop-eared menace at top speed. The harness—buckles half-undone in the driver’s hands—had come free, but the resulting jolt had unlocked the wagon’s brake. The heavy load of iron fittings had rolled free before crashing into the wall bordering the airfield’s land, knocking a gap in the old stone. Humans, horses, and bunny were unhurt, though the wagon was beyond redemption.
The physical repair was straightforward, but the accident had smashed the Conclave’s handiwork as well. A delegation from the Citadel, the Conclave’s stronghold at the center of the city, stood grim-faced on the sidelines. They had insisted on personally assessing the damage to the wall the moment they’d arrived on the scene.
Inwardly, Gideon burned with a mixture of anger and depression. The presence of the Conclave was never good news. Two were dressed in frock coats and beaver hats, marking them as gentleman flunkies, probably present to draft reports and calculate expense claims. The other three wore robes—two in black and one in the pale blue of the Senior Council. A handful of liveried Conclave guards stood a polite distance away, frowning at the grubby workers but not offering to help.
They had made introductions earlier, so Gideon knew the blue robe was Councilor Ormond. He was a heavy-jawed boulder of a man with small, wide-spaced blue eyes. Ormond looked up as they approached. “You are certain nothing penetrated from the other side? The breach was hours ago.”
Fletcher’s expression flickered, his jaw jutting forward defiantly. Still, he kept an affable tone. “My men have been watching it constantly. Nothing has crossed through.”
A brief silence fell, broken only by the sound of stone being shifted into place. The twenty-foot wall was hundreds of years old—one of the original sections of the barrier. Each block had been meticulously cut to fit, like an enormous puzzle. Fletcher’s men had taken the time to shore up the foundations as they worked, which made it even stronger than before.
All the same, it wasn’t chiseled rock that kept the city safe. The barrier around the town was made from many materials—wood, hedges, wrought iron, and even barricades made from whatever rubble the slums could spare. None would have held against the enemy outside. Despite the city’s efforts, the Conclave’s magic was what made the barrier work. Until, of course, a reckless rabbit had turned their wagon into a battering ram.
“Your carelessness risked the entire city,” Ormond said, his voice dark with warning.
“It was pure bad luck,” Fletcher replied. “If there’s a fine, we’ll pay it.”
The councilor shot him a glare of pure disdain. “Spoken like a merchant.”
Fletcher colored, but he was interrupted before he could retort.
“We’re ready, sir,” called a voice from above. Three airmen stood on top of the repaired section of the wall, wearing heavy work gloves and brown coveralls. Gideon recognized the speaker as Higgins, a senior crew hand.
“Are you certain it’s sound?” Fletcher shouted back.
Higgins stomped a foot on the stone. “Tight as a banker’s fist, she is.”
Fletcher nodded to the Conclave’s men. When Ormond moved his fingers slightly, the two black-robed acolytes stepped toward the wall. One bore a satchel. From it, he took tiny pliers and snips, along with rolls of fine silver-colored wire. With deft movements, the acolytes began to mend the mesh that ran inside the wall. Around the entire circumference of the city, in fact. The Conclave’s magic flowed from their Citadel to course through that web. No unnatural creature could climb, fly, or burrow past the protective shield. It was all that stood between the city and the monsters outside.
With ropes and harnesses, Higgins and Crewman Yale helped the acolytes scale the wall, heaving them up a foot at a time as they made their repairs. The interaction between the two groups was cool with suspicion. No one exactly knew what Conclave did inside the Citadel. Magic, certainly, but what else?
Torture and execution, Gideon thought. Not long ago, he’d rescued a man—Joseph Ellery—from beyond the wall, but Ellery had vanished into the Citadel’s dungeon, condemned because magic ran in his blood. It was the same with fortune-tellers, hedge wizards, and wise women. Only the Conclave was allowed to wield such powers. A quiet, studious man, Ellery had perished to prove that point—and to save his daughters from the same fate.
Gideon’s jaw ached as he bit down on the memory, forcing himself to focus on the work above. The acolytes were near the top of the wall now, the mesh nearly complete. Higgins and the others reeled them in, fearless of the height—they spent their time in the sky, after all.
One of the acolytes was a good climber. The other hung from the ropes like a sack of meal, relying on the airmen to heave him upward. As they neared the top, he began kicking and groping for handholds like a small child struggling in the bath. Apprehension tightened between Gideon’s shoulder blades. Without thinking, he found a foothold between the stones and began climbing, heedless of his well-tailored clothes.
Before Gideon was halfway up, Crewman Black, one of the new recruits, bent to catch the acolyte’s waving hand. It was a mistake.
Gideon did not see the acolyte make his flailing surge to the top, but he saw Black topple backward, arms wind-milling as he tried to catch his balance. Heart plunging, Gideon scrambled up the last few feet. “Black.”
The crewman screamed as his feet kicked into empty air.
Gideon crouched atop the narrow stones. The drop to the other side should have been fatal, but a thick growth of broom and juniper partially broke the man’s fall with a crunch of snapping branches. Black rolled off the greenery, then sprawled in the long, unkempt grass, legs twisted awkwardly beneath him. Gideon’s stomach lurched. It was impossible to tell if the man’s limbs were broken, or even if he were still alive.
Meanwhile, the acolyte blubbered with shock and vertigo. Higgins held the acolyte by the shoulders, his expression grim. “Shall I send this one down after Black?”
“No. Just get him out of here,” Gideon snarled. Yale and the other acolyte jumped to obey.
Gideon calculated the distance between Black and the edge of the lurking forest. There was perhaps thirty clear feet before all visibility was lost. As long as he could see around him, he might be safe.
“Find me a harness,” Gideon called. “I’ll put it on Black, and you can pull him up.”
“No, sir,” Higgins said, rubbing the gray bristle along his jaw. “Don’t.”
“Why not?” Black was not yet twenty—barely at the start of his life. He was worth the risk.
“There’s your reason.” The older man pointed. “I’d rather you asked me to bring you a rifle.”
Gideon followed his pointing finger. What he saw made a cold abyss of fear open inside him.