The Severed Tower (Excerpt)

Check out The Severed Tower, the second volume in J. Barton Mitchell’s Conquered Earth series, available November 19th from St Martin’s Griffin.

Holt, Mira, and Max have fled Midnight City with Zoey after watching her repel an entire Assembly army. Zoey’s powers are unlocked, but who and what she is remains a mystery. All she knows is that she must reach the Severed Tower, an infamous location in the middle of the world’s most dangerous landscape: The Strange Lands, a place where the laws of physics have completely broken down.

But the closer they get to the Tower, the more precarious things become. The Assembly has pursued Zoey into the Strange Lands. Among them is a new group, their walkers and machines strangely bereft of any color, stripped to bare metal, and whose agenda seems to differ from the rest. To make matters worse, the group hunting Holt are here, too, led by a dangerous and beautiful pirate named Ravan. So is Mira’s first love, Benjamin Aubertine, whose singular ambition to reach the Tower threatens to get them all killed.

 

 

 

PROLOGUE

 

She crouched on top of what was left of the old granary, staring at the strange contradictions of the landscape, everything dark and light at the same time.

The sky was full of thick storm clouds, but it would have been dark without them. This far in, what Freebooters called the Core, mid afternoon looked like night, and the only illumination was a sickly shade of yellow that came from the strangely wavering, prismatic sky.

Lightning flashed from the clouds. Bright streaks of red, blue, or green, and whenever it struck, there was a flash of color. Shards of glowing crystals erupted from the ground and froze in place, and the earth was covered with their remnants, a maze of jagged, sharp walls that glowed in various colors.

They filled the remains of what was once a small rural town below, consuming the streets and roads that once ran through its center. The old buildings had fallen in on themselves for the most part, or had been blown to bits by the lightning strikes, but she could see it had been a nice place once. Quaint and quiet.

It was neither of those things now.

More lightning, red this time, illuminated a figure next to her. He was dressed in the same style of black-and-gray. Rugged-looking pants, light boots, tucked-in shirt, a vest with pockets, utility belts crisscrossing his torso. Around both their necks hung woven cloths that could be lifted up to cover nose and mouth. Also on their necks were identical pendants. Two strands of white metallic cord wrapping around each other, with bars in between them, making small spirals—or a double “helix.”

On their left hands, each finger wore a ring made of glowing crystal, exactly like the ones that filled the ground, and strapped to their backs were strange weapons. Long, double-tipped spears, almost as tall as the figures themselves, with a glowing crystal at either end, only these had been polished and shaped into razor-sharp spear points and set into rounded, brass casings that snapped into the shaft. Clearly, it was a double-pronged striking weapon, but looking closer revealed other aspects. The base was rounded into mirrored hand grips on each side, with separate gun triggers, as if the weapon could fire the crystal points from either orientation. It was a strange weapon. Ornate and well crafted, elegant even, but dangerous, too.

The man was Asian, older, probably past sixty years old. His eyes, while clear and free of the Tone, were strange. Something was off about them. They were unfocused and clouded white, and never seemed to look anywhere in particular; but there were volumes of wisdom and experience in their depths.

Next to him, the girl was much younger, sixteen or so. Black, somewhat small, but clearly agile and quick, her unkempt hair tied behind her head without any thought to appearance. Her eyes were clear of the Tone as well, but, unlike the old man, she wasn’t blind, and she wore one thing he didn’t—a pair of pure black goggles on her forehead that could be dropped over her eyes, though it seemed unlikely she could see with them on. Wearing them, she would be just as sightless as the old man.

He stared blindly toward the north. The storm clouds and the darkness obscured the horizon, but, for him, it made no difference. He could see neither.

“What are we doing here?” she asked. “I thought the point was to attack Polestar.”

“Why are you always so eager for violence?” The old man’s dead gaze didn’t waver. His voice was quiet. As much as she loved him, Gideon had an annoying habit of answering questions with questions.

“I’m not interested in violence,” the girl said tightly. “Just action.”

“Change comes through patience as much as action,” he said. “Stand by the river long enough, and the bodies of your enemies will float past.”

“It’s no secret I’m not very good at patience, Master.”

Gideon smiled. “You are more your father than you care to admit.”

The girl felt an angry heat rise within her, but she said nothing.

He was right, most likely. Gideon always seemed to be right—but that didn’t mean she had to like it.

More lightning flashed nearby, green this time, and strange thunder rolled around them like waves breaking on a beach. The girl rubbed the hair on her arms, flattening it where it stood up. The Charge felt different today. “Feels like another storm.”

The old man said nothing. He only nodded.

The girl studied the horizon, but all she could see was the current storm, its thick clouds surrounding them on all sides. The lightning flashed red and blue in the air. “Ion or Antimatter?”

“Neither.”

The girl looked at the old man oddly. What other kind of storms were there in the Strange Lands? “Should I pull my Arc back to Sanctum?”

The old man was silent a long time, staring at what lay hidden in the distance. “No,” he finally said. “This storm… we cannot weather. And it’s why I brought you here.”

He looked at her now, or at least as much as he could. Gideon’s stare always seemed to float just a few inches in the wrong direction. “I have two tasks for you, Avril,” he said. “One you will like, and one you will not.”

Far away, the storm swirled and parted like a giant curtain, allowing the horizon to burst into view. In the far distance, what was left of the broken buildings of a city rose into the sky, tiny slivers of brightness in all the black. Beyond them, distorted through a churning haze of fog or dust, was a massive shape that hovered over the ruins.

It looked like a giant keep or tower, yet, somehow, suspended in the air. She could see where it was broken near the middle, the top half tearing away from the bottom, detached and falling, yet frozen in the sky. The sight chilled her the same as it always did; pure power and fate combined into one, but, still, she couldn’t look away from it. She was grateful when the clouds massed again and blocked the dark thing from view, wiping it away behind them as they bellowed inward.

In the air above her, the strange lightning flashed again, distorted thunder rolled. It sounded closer now. As though it was building.

 

 

PART ONE:
THE STRANGELANDS
Rude Awakening

 

“Mira…”

The voice was far away. A girl’s voice, she could tell. A little girl. And it sounded worried.

“Mira…”

She heard other things in her hazy delirium—dull, booming thumps that might have been explosions. Something shattering. And other sounds—strange, distorted and electronic, but familiar enough to stir fear in her.

Mira!

The cry yanked her painfully out of the dark. Light poured in as her eyes blinked open.

The sky was directly above. It was midafternoon, bright and sunny.

Pieces of buildings and other things drifted past—windows, gutters, old billboards she couldn’t read, the top of a rusted school bus. It was as though she were floating underneath them all.

Then she figured it out. She was being carried. Through some kind of city ruins.

The world shifted again as someone set her down and rested her against something hard and rough. It felt like a wall, brick maybe.

More sensations came back. Pain in her head, a searing burn on her left leg, just above the knee. Her vision sharpened. Sounds took on clarity—and they were all terrifying.

An explosion flared up and rocked the ground from the other side of the wall. Yellow bolts of light sizzled through the air around her, ripping into other buildings she was just now noticing. A drugstore, a gas station, a post office, all of them crumbling and falling apart where they stood. As Mira Toombs’s memory returned, she remembered where she was and why.

She’d stashed an emergency kit in these ruins years ago, inside an old school. Supplies for the Strange Lands, if she ever needed to go there on her own or in a hurry, and she’d convinced Holt and Zoey to help her find it before heading to the Crossroads.

The good news was that they’d found the pack. A black canvas bag with a strap that fi t around her waist. It was still there, she could see the red δ symbol embroidered on its front flap. The bad news was that, right as she’d found it, they had shown up.

Assembly walkers. The frontline troops of the alien armada that had conquered the planet almost a de cade ago, and who had been obsessively pursuing them for more than a month.

She hadn’t had time to see what kind or how many before the plasma bolts sent her to the floor and everything went dark, but judging by all the heated death flying through the air right now, there were a lot of them.

“Mira!” The voice was masculine this time. One she recognized and depended on. She felt hands on her, one of them turned her head to the left, and when it did Holt Hawkins came into view.

Mira smiled, still groggy. He looked the same as always.

His thick, wavy hair messed up and unkempt, but somehow still intentional in its look. Tall and well built, with brown eyes that never seemed anything but confident, no matter how crazy the world got. Even now, in the middle of this chaos, there was a calculated awareness of everything going on around them that somehow made her feel safe. He was one of the few that ever had.

“Mira! Can you hear me?” More plasma bolts flew by.

Mira made herself focus, quickly brushed the red hair out of her eyes.

“How’d you get us out of there?”

“Wasn’t easy,” Holt replied. “You’re a lot heavier than Zoey.”

“Thanks a lot,” she said tartly.

“Mira!” It was the little girl’s voice from before. Mira felt tiny arms wrap around her from the other side, and she looked down.

Zoey’s head was buried under Mira’s arm, the little girl’s eyes peeking out through her blond hair. It always felt wrong seeing Zoey in a place like this, in the middle of something life threatening. A little girl, barely eight years old, didn’t belong here. Yet here she was.

Next to Zoey sat something else, its chin and paws across the little girl’s legs, its beady eyes staring right at Mira. She felt her usual loathing at the sight of it.

“You…” she said.

Max, Holt’s stinking cattle dog, growled back at her, but that was nothing new. The dog still saw her as Holt’s prisoner. But as long as Mira didn’t have to touch the thing, she was fi ne having it around. Holt had trained Max well, and he had his uses.

Zoey flinched as another explosion rocked the ground.

“We have to get out of here,” Holt said. “Can you move?”

“I think so.” She felt the wound on her leg and grimaced. It wasn’t bad, the plasma bolt had only singed her, but it stung nonetheless. “What are you thinking?”

“I have… kind of a plan.” He wasn’t entirely convincing. “We gotta find a residential neighborhood.”

The corner of the wall exploded in shards of plaster. There was a series of loud thuds on the roof above them, and Mira craned her neck to look up.

Staring down at them, a silhouette against the bright sky, was a powerful and terrifying machine. As she’d guessed, it was an Assembly walker—but of a type, up until a month ago, she’d never seen before. Green and orange, like the ones that had chased them into the Drowning Plains; three legs, a tripod, lithe and agile—but it was different, too. It looked more heavily armed, with blocky equipment on its back. Also, it looked newer. Its armor and colors were unscratched. LEDs flashed on its body, and its red, blue and green—triangular, three-optic “eye,” the same one all Assembly walkers had, whirred as it focused down on her.

Mira stared back at it, frozen in fear.

“Come on!” she heard Holt shout as he yanked them up.

A mass of metallic netting fi red from the walker above and slammed into the ground, barely missing. It was clearly meant to snare them.

“At least they’re not trying to kill us,” Holt yelled—and then ducked as a stream of plasma bolts sparked into the ground all around him.

“You were saying?” Mira shouted back.

As they ran, strange noises filled the air. Trumpet-like sounds almost, but electronic and distorted. They seemed to echo from everywhere, answering each other back and forth.

Max raced past, charging after Holt as he dodged another blast of plasma.

“Mira!” Zoey shouted behind her. The little girl was falling behind, her little legs unable to keep up. Mira lifted Zoey onto her back and ran after Holt.

Holt headed for a row of crumbling houses nearby, but the walkers were everywhere. She could see them in the streets, leaping between old buildings or cars. They were surrounded.

As they ran, Mira saw Holt’s hand slip into his jacket pocket. A second later, a sphere of yellow energy crackled around him briefly, then disappeared. Mira’s eyes widened. Had she just seen what she—

Mira ducked as plasma fire whizzed harmlessly by and sparked against what was left of a delivery van. They were out in the open, the walkers shouldn’t have missed. But somehow they had.

Mira kept running, following after Holt and Max.

Zoey screamed as a tripod leaped into view behind them and gave chase, its cannons beginning to hum; but before it could get close, an errant stream of plasma bolts slammed into it, sending it spinning and crashing to the ground in flaming debris, a victim of friendly fire.

Another improbability.

Mira kept running with Zoey, weaving in and out of old cars, headed for the houses just ahead. She caught Holt, and together they rounded the side of an old, badly leaning billboard—and came skidding to a jarring stop.

In front of them stood another Hunter.

The thing sprung toward them… and the decrepit billboard chose that moment to come crashing down. Holt shoved Mira and Zoey out of the way as the structure collapsed in a shower of wood and steel, and buried the tripod where it stood.

When the dust cleared, Mira checked Zoey. She was fine. So were Holt and Max. Mira looked at Holt with suspicion.

“How are you—?” Mira began.

Holt grabbed Zoey before she could finish, pulling her onto his back as they all started running again. Another flash of color, orange, flared around him, and Mira’s heart sank as she saw it.

There was no denying it now. The colors. The improbable outcomes that kept saving them. The Chance Generator was in Holt’s pocket, and he was using it.

Ahead of them she saw what Holt was running for. The exterior garage of a ruined house; a small, barely standing building that still covered what remained of an old, rusting pickup truck.

Holt ran for it as fast as he could, carrying Zoey with him, and Mira followed. Max must have figured it out, too, because the dog dashed ahead and bounded into the back of the truck.

Mira felt the heat of plasma fire as she ducked inside the garage.

The truck was in bad shape, a hulking piece of metal with broken windows, but, miraculously, it had four working tires.

“Zoey, get inside,” Holt told the little girl as he sat her down. She climbed into the old truck, over to the passenger side.

This is the plan?” Mira asked skeptically.

“If Zoey can get it running, yeah,” Holt replied. “Might outrun those walkers.”

“This thing couldn’t outrun a beached whale!” Mira yelled.

“Do you have a better idea?” he asked.

Mira frowned at him. She didn’t.

“You’re driving.” Holt headed for the truck’s rear.

Mira moved for the door, jumped inside. “And what are you going to do?”

“Whatever I can.” Holt jumped into the rear with Max. More of the trumpet sounds outside, coming closer. “Zoey, do it!”

Zoey looked at Mira from the dirty passenger seat. Mira nodded back.

“Hurry, honey. If you can.”

Zoey smiled. She closed her eyes and concentrated. “I can.”

Nothing happened at first. The little girl just sat motionless on the torn seat, breathing in and out. Then something flickered around her hands, faint at first, then it grew. A layer of wavering, golden… energy.

There was no other word for it. It moved and throbbed, almost in slow motion, like frozen fi re, spreading from Zoey’s hands, up her arms and toward her shoulders.

Mira stared in shock, feeling her pulse quicken.

Holt had mentioned this, the light, but it was all new to Mira. She’d missed Zoey doing her thing at Midnight City. She had been lost at the time, and the little girl had saved her. Another of her powers, the most important one. Zoey could stop the Tone. Block it somehow, make you immune to it. It was still mind-boggling to think about.

Mira watched the energy slowly envelop the girl, knowing they were running out of time. If Zoey couldn’t get this thing going, they were as good as—

Mira jumped as the truck suddenly shook. Golden energy bubbled up from underneath the hood, as the engine, impossibly, came back to life and rumbled loudly. The dashboard sparked once, twice—and then the old analog gauges all floated into place. Static hissed from the aging radio.

Mira looked at the controls, stunned. She remembered riding on her father’s lap as a kid, steering the family wagon in a parking lot. It had been all the driving experience she’d gotten before the Assembly came. She hoped it was enough.

Mira yanked the driveshaft down and stepped on the gas. The truck jumped forward… then jolted to a stop.

“Parking brake!” Holt yelled behind her.

“Where is it?” Mira frantically studied the interior of the truck.

“Where the parking brake usually is!”

“It’s been awhile for me, okay!?

The garage shuddered as the entire rear wall was ripped away by one of the alien machines. It trumpeted angrily, a horrible mix of electronic tones and static.

“Mira!” Holt shouted, pushing back as far as he could. Max barked wildly.

Mira found the brake, a hand lever on the floor, and shoved it down. The old truck lurched forward violently, roaring out of the garage.

The Hunter behind them let out a sharp, surprised sound and jumped after them.

As the truck bolted forward, it plowed through the garage’s door frame—which was enough to bring the entire thing down like a house of cards. Mira watched in the dusty mirrors as the tripod was buried underneath a massive pile of wood and refuse. Another one down, but there were plenty more.

Nearby, new walkers gave chase, their three spiked legs pushing them forward with dizzying speed.

Next to Mira, Zoey sat, eyes closed, the golden energy pulsing all around her.

The truck shook badly as it caught a curb, slammed back down, and skidded onto the road. Ahead of them, coming fast, was an obstacle course of old cars and other debris… and the Hunters were still closing. Mira gripped the steering wheel so hard her knuckles turned white. holt held on as the battered truck lurched forward. All around him the street began to whiz by. A street full of hazards.

The vehicle reeled left suddenly, barely avoiding an old burned-out car. Then it yanked back to the right, around a pile of debris. Holt went rolling, crashed into the side of the bed and grabbed Max as he flew past, barely keeping him inside.

“What the hell are you doing!?” he yelled, holding on.

“Would you rather I hit everything in front of us?” Mira yelled back. “Because that would be easier!”

Distorted trumpets sounded from behind them as the two Hunters chased after them. Holt ducked as they opened fire, yellow plasma bolts spitting from their cannons. Mira screamed as the rear windshield exploded.

Holt looked around the truck bed. It was full of junk, pieces of trash, about a dozen old cans of paint… and two large crumbling, wooden crates. He gave them an experimental push. They were full of something heavy and metallic. It would have to do.

“Try to keep us moving straight!” Holt shouted as he moved for the tailgate.

He grabbed it, but it was rusted shut. He’d have to kick it open if he—

Holt lunged backward as a gleaming silver spear point punched straight through the tailgate, almost impaling him.

Eyes wide, he looked up and saw a metallic cable running from the harpoon back to one of the Hunters. When he’d spotted the green-and orange walkers, he’d thought they looked different. Now there was no doubt. They’d upgraded, and Holt had no desire to find out what other new tricks they had.

The walker drew back the cable with a powerful yank, and ripped the tailgate completely off . It slammed onto the street and skittered backward on the asphalt in a shower of sparks.

The tripod jettisoned the cable, leaped over the tailgate and kept running.

“Thanks for the help,” Holt said. He reached in his pocket, and when his hand closed around what was there, he felt the same sense of comfort he always did.

The Chance Generator was an old abacus, an ancient counting device, but it was so much more: a major artifact from the Strange Lands, with the ability to increase the luck of anyone who used it. It had saved their asses in Midnight City, and it was saving their asses right now.

Holt pushed more beads up to the top, and a sphere of red flashed around him. Every time he pushed more of them up, the effect intensified. Which meant he had to be careful. He’d already used it a few times, and the artifact only had so much power per day. If it ran out of juice before they escaped, they’d be in a lot of trouble.

He got behind the crates, shoving them toward the edge of the truck bed. They were falling apart, but somehow stayed together just long enough to tip off the back. They exploded on the street and sprayed their contents everywhere, most of it scrap metal—springs, nails, bolts, aluminum shavings, broken tools, exploding all over the road.

The walkers ran right into it.

For one brief moment, they lost their footing on the metal bits and pieces, their legs splaying wildly. That was all it took. They tipped over and crashed into an old water truck, plowing right through it in a shower of metal, dust, and black liquid. They didn’t get up.

“Yeah!” Holt yelled in triumph—but it was short lived. More tripods vaulted down from nearby buildings, charging after them on the street.

Plasma bolts sliced the air and slammed into the truck, tearing the rear end to shreds. The vehicle listed dangerously as Mira tried to stay in control. “Holt!”

It was a short, unsuccessful battle.

They skidded left, twisting and grinding toward a pile of old cars, and crashed straight into them. Mira screamed. Holt grabbed Max as the impact tossed them forward along the bed and into the back of the cabin. Holt hit hard. The world went fuzzy. Somehow he found the edge of the truck bed, pulled himself up and out of the wreckage, and slumped down on the ground.

“Holt!” Mira yelled as she scrambled out with Zoey.

“Having fun yet?” Holt groaned as tried to get to his feet. Mira frowned, helped him move. More plasma fire seared the air, and they pressed their backs against the ruined truck. The Hunters would be on them in seconds.

Holt looked around, trying to find a way out, and saw something down the street, a block or so away. It looked like a large concrete drainage ditch that vanished into a dark tunnel, probably an old runoff exit. If they could reach it, the entrance might be cramped enough to keep the tripods from following.

Reaching it was the problem. It was open territory between here and there, and there was no other cover. They had to run for it. They didn’t have any—

On either side of them tripods burst into view, lunging into firing positions.

Holt instinctively focused on one in front of the others. It was marked differently. Its green-and-orange color pattern was bolder, more commanding. New armor or not, Holt had seen that walker before. Twice.

And it was even more frightening now.

From the Hunter came a flash. A mass of metallic netting flung forward, hissing through the air toward them. Mira screamed. Holt tried to cover them.

Something big, bright, and powerful landed between them and the walkers with a thunderous crash.

The net slammed into it and bounced off.

Holt and Mira stared at it in shock. Another walker—but different. It was big, much larger than the Hunters, and it had five massive legs arranged around a blocky body. There was no discernible weaponry, but a shimmering field of clear energy circled it, like some kind of protective barrier.

There was something else.

This walker, unlike every other Assembly machine Holt had ever seen, had no colors.

It was just bare metal, as if its paint had been stripped away. The machine gleamed in the afternoon sunlight.

Its three-optic eye shifted and focused, bore into them. Then it emitted a strange, deep rumbling sound, and leaped powerfully into the air, soaring over them. It shook the ground when it hit. Three more Hunters skidded to a stop in front of it. The boldly marked one trumpeted in anger, missiles and plasma bolts flashing out.

The ordnance sizzled and exploded as the machine’s flickering energy field absorbed them, protecting them but each impact sent it reeling back a step or two.

The silver walker charged forward, slamming into the tripods like a battering ram, sending them crashing through the wall of a grocery store. Whatever the thing was, it had drawn attention away from Holt and the others.

“Um, if there’s more to this ‘plan,’ we should probably make it happen right now,” Mira said.

She was right. This was their chance. Holt whistled two short notes and Max darted forward. He got Zoey up and moving, and they all raced after the dog. Behind them came more explosions, thuds, and distorted electronic sounds.

Max barreled into the concrete structure and Holt rounded the corner right after him. Then his eyes widened at what was there. It was a tunnel, alright, just like he’d guessed—but it was huge, about twenty feet in diameter, disappearing into the darkness beyond.

“Damn it,” he said under his breath. The tripods could easily follow them through this. It wasn’t an escape at all.

The huge silver walker landed with a bone-jarring thud on the ground right outside, its multicolored eye instantly finding them.

Zoey grabbed Max’s collar, stopping him from charging the machine. Holt instinctively pulled everyone behind him, pushing them farther inside the tunnel.

More plasma bolts slammed into the walker’s shield. It was flickering now. It looked weaker. The thing hesitated a second more, studying them intently—then it rumbled and rushed right at them.

“Back! Get back!” Holt shouted, pushing everyone down, trying to get away from it.

The silver walker slammed with incredible power into the concrete overhang of the tunnel. The whole thing cracked and sprayed dust, then fell apart in a fury of fractured sound.

Holt shoved the others to the ground as the entrance collapsed in on itself, sealing away the daylight and the battle raging outside—and leaving them trapped in a thick cocoon of darkness.

 

 

Red Flags

 

The tunnel was a black square of nothingness that stretched endlessly ahead. Only what Holt’s and Mira’s flashlights illuminated was visible, and it was all so repetitive—gray concrete, clumps of dirt, water trickling by—if it wasn’t for the decades-old graffiti here and there, it would have seemed as if they weren’t moving at all.

Max walked ahead of them, tail wagging enthusiastically, and Holt had to keep calling him back before he disappeared ahead and got into trouble. Behind him, Holt heard the plodding sounds of Mira and Zoey as they followed through the water of the tunnel floor.

He kept thinking back to that strange silver walker, stripped of its colors, how it had seemingly blocked the nets that were about to ensnare all four of them, and then crushed the sewer entrance, sealing them inside. Even for Assembly, it was odd behavior, though when it came to Zoey, Holt had given up trying to understand their motives. Their interest in the little girl was as mysterious as her powers.

“Holt, what’s in your pocket?” Mira’s voice startled him from his thoughts, and he looked back. She was studying him with a strange look. A suspicious one. It was only then that Holt noticed his hand was stuck in his coat pocket, his fingers clutched protectively around the Chance Generator. He couldn’t remember exactly when he’d reached in for it.

“My head hurts,” Zoey said before Holt could answer.

“Hurts how, kiddo?” Holt asked.

“On the sides mainly, comes and goes.” Zoey stopped moving and rubbed her temples.

“From the truck maybe?” Mira asked. It was a good question. Holt couldn’t imagine what kind of strain came with Zoey’s abilities, and to be honest, a headache would be the least of what he’d expect.

“Everyone gets headaches now and then,” Holt said, gently rubbing the little girl’s head. “Rest a sec, there’s no rush.” The little girl leaned against the wall and Max whined gently, pushing his nose into the girl’s hand. “The Max…” she said softly, petting the dog’s head.

Holt looked back up at Mira. Her eyes were already on him. “You’re using the abacus.” There was a note of accusation in her voice.

Unexpectedly, Holt felt a swell of anger. Who was she to ask? She wasn’t his boss, or in charge of him. Hadn’t he saved them back in Midnight City, saved her, all with the artifact? Hadn’t he and it just saved them a few minutes ago?

The anger grew so intense, it startled him a little. It wasn’t like him to feel that way. He was probably just jumpy, he told himself, on edge from the previous experience.

When he thought about it… why wouldn’t Mira question him? She’d already said she thought the Chance Generator was dangerous. She was an expert, wasn’t she? She’d warned him.

Besides, signs that suggested she cared had been rare the last few days. There were moments where he thought he detected it again. Glances. Smiles. Incidental touching that lasted longer than it should, but they had only been glimpses, a dim reflection of what had passed between them at the dam when they’d kissed.

Holt wasn’t positive where her hesitation came from, but he had an idea. The other one, the Freebooter she’d been close to, the one they were probably going to run into sooner or later. Ben. It wasn’t something Holt was looking forward to.

It didn’t really matter, though. Mira wasn’t the real reason he was here. Zoey was.

As much as he didn’t like it, the kid had pulled one hell of a rabbit out of her hat at Midnight City. She’d saved them all, and at the same time done something even more impossible. She’d gotten Holt to believe that things could change—maybe even that the Assembly could be beaten—and Holt had promised to help her, whatever it took. He’d promised.…

“Holt?” Mira asked again.

“Yeah, I was using it,” he answered, trying to keep the anger out of his voice. “And if I hadn’t we’d all be dead. We wouldn’t have made it to that truck, and we definitely wouldn’t have outrun the tripods.”

“That doesn’t make it right!” Mira exclaimed. “We can’t start depending on something unpredictable. We have to rely on our own skills or we’re going to wind up in trouble, especially where we’re going.”

Where they were going, of course, was the Strange Lands. A dangerous place to the north, where, for whatever reason, time and space no longer worked right. Mira was a Freebooter, someone who specialized in traversing that landscape and bringing back the artifacts that lay there—common, everyday objects that had been imbued with otherworldly powers. The abacus in his hand, the subject of their argument right now, was one such artifact, one Holt had unwillingly become the owner of in Midnight City. Since then, it had proved to be more valuable than he could have imagined.

Holt frowned. “I don’t see what’s wrong with having a little luck on our side.”

“What’s ‘wrong’ is that, in order to increase your luck, that thing drains someone else’s nearby. Did you forget that?” Her eyes burned into his. “What happens when you use it in the Strange Lands, and there is no one else nearby? Who do you think it’ll take the luck away from? Max? Me? Zoey?

Holt shook his head. “If we stay in its influence sphere, we should be—”

“You don’t know that! It could kill everyone in order to profit, you—me, and Zoey included.” She held her hand out toward him. “I’m sorry, Holt, but I need you to give it to me. It’s just too dangerous. I shouldn’t have asked you to carry it in the first place.”

Holt stared at her and felt the anger begin to rise again. Now she was giving him orders? She just expected him to do as he was told? Holt pushed it back down. Again, it wasn’t like him… and maybe there was something to that.

He pulled the Chance Generator out of his pocket. It looked harmless—an ornate antique piece of wood with chipped, colorful beads running its length. As he looked at it he felt the need to slide a few of them upward.

Just to be safe.

Just a few of them…

Holt’s eyes narrowed. He pushed all the beads down, shutting the abacus’s power off . He showed it to Mira. “Look, it’s off , see? If it’ll make you feel better, I won’t use it anymore.”

“Holt—”

“I promise. If you think it’s dangerous, then I’ll leave it alone. You know more than me, and nothing’s more important than you and Zoey.

I’ll shut it off , and I’ll keep it. You said it shouldn’t be near your other artifacts, that they might react to each other.”

Mira stared at him, unsure, thinking things through. In the end she nodded. “It would be best if you could hold it, but I’d feel better if it was in your pack, not your pocket.”

“Done,” Holt said, though he felt a slight twinge of worry. All the same, he shoved it in his pack and sealed it away. “Okay?”

Mira smiled and reached out, touching his hand. “Thank you.” It had been a day or more since Holt had felt her hand. It felt good.

The two stared at each other, then Zoey spoke up beneath them. “I feel better now,” she said. “The Max helped, I think.”

They looked down at her. The little girl had an arm around the dog’s neck while she scratched his ears.

Mira frowned. “I doubt that. Unless his smell overpowered the pain.”

“The Max doesn’t smell!” Zoey insisted.

“You know, if her powers are causing the headaches, it’s just another reason she shouldn’t use them,” Holt said. “The Assembly come running every time she does.”

“Once we get to the Strange Lands, that won’t be a problem.” Mira smoothed the little girl’s hair. “The Assembly never go in there.”

“I can’t even imagine that,” Holt said. “Not having to look over our shoulder every five minutes.”

“We might lose the Assembly,” Mira replied, “but there’ll be plenty of other things to watch out for. You might end up missing our alien friends.”

Holt doubted that was true, but then again, he had very little idea what was ahead of him. He’d never been farther north than Midnight City, and certainly never stepped foot in the Strange Lands. Yet, their plan was to go farther than even that.

In the Midnight City artifact vault, Zoey had interacted with the Oracle, a major artifact that functioned something like a fortune-teller. Holt didn’t completely understand all that it had revealed to the little girl, but it had been clear about one thing: To get the answers Zoey needed, there was a place she needed to go—an infamous landmark in the center of the Strange Lands called the Severed Tower. Supposedly, so the stories went, if you could survive the Strange Lands and make it to the Tower, it would grant you one wish.

It always sounded like a fairy tale to Holt, but lately he’d been witness to some fairly amazing things he wouldn’t have believed a few months ago. He really didn’t know what to think anymore. All he knew was that Zoey said she needed to get to this Tower, and he had promised to help her.

“Is that a way out, Holt?” Zoey asked. Holt followed her gaze upward with his flashlight.

A steel ladder ascended the concrete wall to what looked like the bottom of a manhole. “Good eye, kid.” Holt tested the ladder. It was rusted, but it seemed sturdy enough.

He quickly scaled it and pushed the heavy cover out of the way. Daylight poured in and Holt winced at the brightness before crawling up and out. They were near the edge of the old city now, just a few wrecked houses and buildings, most of them burned-out husks. He looked south, where they had come from. There were no sounds of explosions, no flashes, but there were several columns of smoke a few miles away, probably from the battle they’d escaped.

While there was no sign of anything now, those green-and-orange ones could cloak themselves, Holt reminded himself, so you never really knew.

He looked north, saw the plains widening and advancing again, back toward where they needed to go. Toward the Strange Lands.

He hoped Mira was right about the Assembly not following them inside. That would be a blessing, even in spite of her insistence that the place itself could be much worse. It was a chance he was happy to take. “Look safe?” It was Mira, underneath him.

“Safe as it’s gonna be, ladies,” he said. “Come on.”

In a few minutes they were all up, moving northward, Holt making sure to take advantage of whatever limited cover the remains of the urban environment offered. All too soon they’d be back in the plains, where everything was open.

The giant Antimatter storm they’d witnessed a few days ago was gone now. They could no longer see its strange, multicolored lightning, but there was another indication they were headed the right way: the eerie aurora effect, wavering and fluctuating like the pictures he’d seen of the northern lights as a kid. Only these were visible in the middle of the day, and they were coming closer.

Instinctively, Holt’s hand slid into his pocket—and found it empty. There was a brief flash of panic before he remembered he’d shoved the abacus inside his pack. He relaxed. He could get to it if he needed to, he told himself.

Regardless of what he’d said, Holt knew if they got into something really dangerous—if Mira’s or Zoey’s lives were in danger—he’d do the same thing he did in Midnight City. He’d use the Chance Generator again… but only in an emergency, he told himself. Only in an emergency.

He’d promised, after all.

Sunrise lit a huge rolling landscape of hills covered in overgrown prairie grass. Holt had never been this far north, and he couldn’t believe how open and empty it seemed. He understood why in the World Before it had been called Big Sky Country. The blue above them was the dominant feature, so big it felt like walking in a snow globe. In the distance, the aurora continued to waver.

Mira was re-sorting her gear underneath the overgrown water tower they’d made camp next to. It stood at the top of a crest overlooking the Missouri river, as it cut a path through the hills to the north.

Zoey and Max were playing “Keepaway Fetch,” an invention of their own making. The game began like regular Fetch, in that Max gleefully raced after a thrown ball, but after that it took a hard turn in a different direction. The dog was much more interested in someone chasing him to get the ball back, than in returning it and starting over.

Zoey screamed gleefully as she ran after Max, in and out of the rusted support columns of the tower, but the dog was too quick, and kept slipping away.

“Zoey, watch out for sharp things, please,” Mira intoned without looking up. If the little girl heard, she didn’t show any sign. She just kept laughing and spinning after Max.

Holt looked at Mira. Artifact components littered the ground in front of her—pencils, magnets, vials of all kinds of dust, batteries, paper clips, coins of different denominations wrapped in plastic. They looked like everyday objects, but they were anything but. Each was imbued with unique, otherworldly properties, and they could be combined into stronger and stronger ones that did incredible things.

Holt had hated artifacts even before he met Mira, but they had their uses, he had to admit now, and Mira was amazingly skilled with them. She was studying one in particular, a complicated combination made up of over a dozen different objects, all tied together with linked silver chain and purple leather twine. Its main aspect was an antique gold pocket watch that rested on the exterior, with a silver δ ornately etched into the metallic cover.

Holt had only seen the artifact twice since they’d left Midnight City.

Mira kept it deep in her pack, as far away from her as possible. She hated it. It repulsed her, and for good reason.

It was the ugly result of an obsession with forging a combination that could slow down the Tone but it had all gone wrong. The combination didn’t slow down the Tone, it accelerated it. Made it so that anyone, Heedless or otherwise, would Succumb in a matter of seconds. Making it had cost her everything—her life in Midnight City, her freedom, what ever future she might have had.

She was bringing it into the Strange Lands to destroy it, and Holt didn’t blame her.

“You okay?” Holt asked.

Mira stared at it a moment more, then stuffed it down into her pack.

“Yeah.”

“You can destroy it at this Crossroads place?”

“It’s not that easy.” Mira’s voice was bitter. “To destroy an artifact, you have to be in the ring where it was created. If it’s a combination, you have to be in the ring of its most powerful component.”

“So what ring is that, then?” Holt asked.

“The fourth.” There was a look in her eyes suddenly that Holt had never seen there. To see it in Mira was startling. It looked like… fear.

“You sure you’re okay?” he asked.

Mira blinked and looked up, but not at him. She looked at Zoey, running back and forth after Max. “I’m… worried.”

“About what?”

“The Strange Lands.”

“You’re a Freebooter. You’ve been there a million times.”

“Never on my own.” Her voice was so low he almost couldn’t hear it. “Except once. A long time ago.”

Holt studied her in confusion. He had never seen Mira rattled, never seen her doubt herself. She was always so confident, so capable.

“Mira, if anyone can get us to where we need to go, it’s you,” he said, trying to reassure her. “Zoey knows that, too.”

She looked back at him. The fear was still there, he could see it even more clearly now and it felt like Mira wanted to tell him something. To reveal what ever weight she was carrying—but Zoey’s voice stopped her before she could.

“How do we know when we’re in the Strange Lands?” The little girl and Max were wrestling on the ground now. The foreign look vanished from Mira’s eyes. What ever it was, she had pushed it back down.

“We’ll feel it, for one thing,” Mira replied. “It’s called the Charge. Makes the hair on your arms stand up. Gets stronger the farther you go in. But there’s only so many ways into the Strange Lands. The Crossroads, where we’re headed, is one of them. Once you leave there… you’re inside.”

“Why can you only go in from certain places?” Zoey asked.

“Because of the Stable Anomalies.”

“What’s a… ‘stablonamy’?”

Mira smiled. “Anomalies are the dangerous parts of the Strange Lands, honey. Stable ones are permanent, they stay in place for the most part, and they’re usually invisible. Unstable Anomalies can move around, but the good thing is you can see them.”

“Like the storms a few days ago?”

Mira nodded. “Exactly. All the rings are circled by Stable Anomalies, including the first. You can only enter the first ring in a few places, where there’s a gap. The Crossroads is one of those places. It’s the main entrance for Freebooters from Midnight City, so it gets a lot of traffic.”

Something flashed and caught Holt’s eye to the northeast. He looked and saw the Missouri river, and on the river he saw the source. In the distance, powering north, were two large river craft painted solid black.

Each flew the same flag.

Red, with a white, eight-pointed star.

Holt felt his heart skip. He hit the ground, pulling Zoey and Mira down with him. They studied him questioningly, until he nodded toward the river.

Mira’s eyes widened when she saw it. “Menagerie. What the hell are they doing here?”

“Raider ships,” Holt replied. It was a nice way of saying pirate ships.

They attacked merchant vessels and River Rat crews up and down the larger streams, and it was a fairly new phenomenon. The Menagerie was a pirates and thieves guild, and until a few years ago they kept mainly to a place called the Barren, the desert wastelands of the old American Southwest. Then, the first Menagerie pirate ships appeared up and down the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, as far south as the Low Marshes. It meant they were expanding, and for a group as dangerous as the Menagerie, that wasn’t a good thing.

“Never heard of them coming this far north, have you?” Mira asked.

The answer was no. There was no profit in it. Few ships worth plundering ran this stretch of the river.

“Why’d we drop down?” Mira turned back to him.

“Just playing it safe. If those ships are having a bad week, there’s nothing stopping them from unloading a shore party and coming after us.

Of course there was a lot more to it than that. The Menagerie had put a death mark on Holt’s head almost a year ago. A death mark from the highest ranks, and he’d been on the run from them ever since. The bounty on Mira’s head was supposed to finance his trip east to escape, but, well… complications had ensued, as always.

Mira knew he had a death mark, but Holt had never told her from whom, if only because it would beg other questions. Questions he wasn’t eager to answer. What would Mira think if she knew the truth? The half-finished tattoo under Holt’s glove itched.…

“The Missouri goes almost right to the Crossroads,” Mira said, watching the ships fade away. “But why head there?”

“Trading for artifacts?” Holt guessed.

“Midnight City’s much better for that. And the Menagerie don’t mount Strange Lands expeditions. Doesn’t make sense.”

“Add it to the ever-growing list,” Holt replied glibly.

Mira turned and smiled, and as she did the thought occurred to Holt that he was keeping a lot from her. More than he’d kept from anyone else.

What he wasn’t sure about was if that was a sign of his feelings for her—or a sign of something changing within him.

He honestly didn’t know.

They all watched, hunkered down near the water tower, until the boats finally disappeared in the distance.

Everyone finished packing quickly and moved out, pushing through the tall grass and climbing down the soft, rolling rise. As they walked, Holt kept checking the length of the river. He would have thought running into the Menagerie was the least of his worries. Yet here they were.

And he was walking right toward them.

He had a sudden intense desire to have the Chance Generator in his hands.

 


The Severed Tower © J Barton Mitchell

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