Teado is a Changer, a shape-shifting military asset trained to win wars. His platoon has been stationed in the Bavares high plains for years, stranded. As they ration supplies and scan the airwaves for news, any news, their numbers dwindle. He’s not sure how much time they have left.
Desperate and starving, armed with aging, faulting equipment, the team jumps at the chance for a risky resupply mission, even if it means not all of them might come. What they discover could change the course of the war.
Brian McClellan, author of the acclaimed Powder Mage series, introduces a new universe, new armies, and new monsters in War Cry—available August 28th from Tor.com Publishing.
The war began before I was born, and for as long as I can remember, someone had been telling us it’s almost over.
When I was a kid, sitting in the factories, using my smaller hands to help put together the engine components of our bombers, the radio crackled peace talks half a world away in Ven. I can still recall the newspapers and their inky headlines, when I was a teenager, promising us we were just months away from forcing the enemy’s surrender.
And now? Now it’s their leaflets, dropped by the millions, coating every inch of our bombed-out cities and pitted wildernesses, telling us to give up because defeat is minutes away. On good days we use the leaflets for toilet paper or to start our cookfires. On bad days… on bad days each of us silently considers the offers of amnesty, sees the desperation in the eyes of our friends, and tries to remember the faces of the people we’re fighting for back home.
It’s early morning as Aleta and I crouch over our tiny campfire, hands practically buried in the flames for warmth while she coaxes the last bit of flavor from month-old coffee grounds. We shelter in the shade of a narrow canyon, cold but safe, and listen to the distant drone of enemy bombers heading toward Bava while the rest of the platoon gets some rest inside the caves we’ve called home for the last six months.
Aleta takes her pewter pitcher off the fire and sniffs the contents, giving me a hopeful smile. “It’ll be good today,” she says.
Coffee hasn’t been good for years, I want to respond. I bite my tongue. Aleta is twenty-nine, an old woman as far as the war is concerned, and widowed three times over. She can shoot better than anyone in the platoon, and sometimes her cooking actually has some zing to it. Unlike mine. Mine’s always shit.
Aleta has earned a little respect. I keep my bitter comments to myself and listen to the distant bombers. I haven’t heard the report of an explosion today, which means they’re dropping leaflets again.
Aleta can see my tilted head, and cocks her own to listen. “Nine days in a row,” she says. “No bombs. Just paper.”
“Think they’re out of bombs?” I ask.
Aleta shrugs. “We can hope.”
“There’s always hope,” I echo, though I don’t feel much. Nine days is a long time to go between bombings, especially when the enemy has the upper hand. I wonder what it means. Last month the radio claimed that the enemy was out of some kind of chemical they used to make their explosives. Who knows? Whatever the cause of their leaflet campaign, I won’t argue.
I belong to a tiny platoon of rangers stationed in the Bavares high plains. We protect a vast stretch of scrubland between Bava in the south and enemy territory in the north. There are twenty of us left. Eighteen, maybe? It’s been a while since I bothered to count. We have one radio with a broken antenna. From time to time it spits out propaganda, news, coded messages. It goes in and out depending on whether the enemy has managed to bomb our radio towers in Bava faster than we can rebuild them.
We have enough carbines to arm the platoon twice over: a few good rifles, and one machine gun. We have ammunition from the last supply run. We have some fuel for our little one-seater, open-cockpit fighter that the crew affectionately calls Benny. We even have a pilot and a runway, which if the enemy propaganda is to be believed may be the last functioning runway our side controls within six hundred miles.
Our mission is to harass the enemy, to keep them on their toes while the hats back in Bava try to work out a strategy to push them back. We are very good at our jobs. The hats are less so at theirs.
My mind is wandering again, and it takes Aleta several moments to get my attention
“Teado,” she repeats, finally reaching across and tapping me on the shoulder.
I come out of my reverie. “Eh?”
“What are you thinking about?”
“Bread,” I lie, giving her a smile. “The kind of bread my mother used to make with the braided dough. Soft like a cloud. Spread with orange marmalade.”
“Ach,” Aleta responds, touching two fingers to her stomach and falling backwards on her haunches. “You’re making me hungry.”
I’m making myself hungry. She hands me a cup of coffee. It tastes like slightly bitter water, but I thank her because it’s hot. Aleta is a good woman, and I think she’s been flirting with me.
“Teado,” she says.
I look up from my coffee. “Hmm?”
“Did you…” She pauses, as if searching for the right words. “Did you have midnight watch at the radio?”
“Yes.” She knows I did. The watch roster is written beside the radio. Her face is serious and this puts me on edge. “Did I do something wrong?” I try to think back on the previous night, and wonder why Aleta makes me feel like a schoolboy. Technically, I outrank her. But out here, a platoon of rangers on the enemy line, rank means very little.
She continues on. “I had it after you,” she says. “The radio was tuned to enemy propaganda.”
I freeze, coffee halfway to my mouth, tongue suddenly dry.
I’ve spent every night for two weeks hunched over our equipment, earphones pressed against the sides of my head, listening to enemy propaganda during my shift. I try to smile. “Their music is better,” I say, waving a hand in dismissal. I hunch closer to the fire, feeling suddenly defensive, hoping she does not prod further.
“Their music is better,” Aleta says.
This makes me glance up. Back in Bava, listening to enemy propaganda is a shooting offence, and we both know it. “You… ?” I ask.
Aleta stirs her pot of coffee and gives a little shrug. “By accident, of course.” There is a long, drawn-out silence. I glance furtively at Aleta till she sighs and continues on, “No, not by accident. We all listen, Teado. We all wonder if their food is better, or their beds and clothes warmer. We all look toward the enemy airbase and wonder if we could make it there without one of our friends shooting us in the back for desertion.”
This admission startles me and makes me feel guilty, all at once. I’ve been considering those very things for weeks. I’m not sure what to say. She looks me in the eye. “Commander Giado took me aside last month and told me that if any of us makes a run for it while I’m on duty, he would not question me if I miss.” She mimes making a rifle shot.
I can hear nothing but my heart beating, and I look around to make sure everyone is still asleep. This is treason. She has as good as told me that I could make it to the enemy if I wanted. I wonder if this is some kind of test, but I think I know Aleta better than that. And she has been flirting with me. She wouldn’t flirt with someone she might have to kill.
She stares at me expectantly, and I realize that I made up my mind about the amnesty days ago.
“If I took their offer,” I say carefully, “they would make me turn over the location of our platoon.”
“Likely,” she agrees.
“I think… I think that I could betray my country. But I could not betray my friends.”
This last bit brings a smile to her face, and she reaches out to clink her coffee cup against mine. She gives a happy sigh, and I can sense the issue has been settled. A great weight lifts from my shoulders.
“They really do have better music,” I say.
She laughs. “Just make sure you change the radio when your shift is over. We should be a good example for the others.”
We fall into a companionable silence. I turn my attention away from propaganda and toward the scorch marks on the canyon walls above us. I can tell by their inconsistent pattern that they don’t come from bombs, but rather sorcery, and I wonder what kind it is. The Fire-Spitters on both sides are all dead. There are just a handful of Wormers left in the world. They say the only wizards to survive this long into the war are the Smiling Toms and the Changers.
They’ve always said wizards would decide the fate of this war. I find it funny, because they’re almost all gone.
We’re almost all gone.
A third member of the platoon finds her way out into the morning air, sniffing at the faint aroma of coffee. Bellara is sixteen, still chubby-faced despite our inadequate food supplies, and barely five feet tall. Her hands and cheeks are dirty like everyone else’s, but her clothes are brightly colored and mostly clean. It’s a point of pride with her kind, and we let her have it.
Bellara is a Smiling Tom. Her illusions keep us hidden in these canyons no matter how many scout bikes and flyovers the enemy sends. She hides the smoke of our campfires, the smell of our petrol, and even Benny and the runway.
“Coffee?” she asks hopefully, and downs two cups before Aleta cuts her off. We can hear her stomach rumble and Aleta points to the tin of triple-baked biscuits open beside the fire.
Bellara checks the biscuits, looks between us and then toward the caves. “How many tins do we have left?” she asks.
“Two,” Aleta responds.
Her face is at war with itself. She’s desperately hungry—we all are—and since she’s keeping us hidden she knows no one will question her for taking a double ration.
Her cheeks twitch, and she takes half a biscuit. “Any sign of Benny and Rodrigo?”
Rodrigo is Benny’s pilot. He went to Bava two days ago for supplies and hasn’t come back. Maybe he was shot down. Maybe he couldn’t find a smooth place to land and had to ditch. Maybe he ran out of fuel. “Nothing,” I respond.
Bellara’s eyes are a mask, zombie-like. Rodrigo is her brother. She silently heads to the mouth of the canyon to check on her illusions. Aleta and I share a glance, but we remain silent.
One by one, the rest of the platoon joins us. There is muted conversation. Commander Giado is the last to emerge from his sleeping roll, limping along, dragging one gangrenous foot behind him. Giado is a good officer, even wounded and tired. Two weeks ago the town where his wife and child live was all but wiped off the map by an enemy Wormer. He has not smiled since, and I think only his dedication to duty keeps him going.
Harado, our medic, tells us a joke he claims that he dreamt. It’s instantly forgettable, but genuinely funny, and gets a few chuckles. Commander Giado snorts, as if exasperated, but I can see the corner of his mouth twitch. The tin of biscuits is passed around.
I leave Giado and Aleta to talk about a possible raid and follow Bellara out of the canyon, walking slowly, hands in my pockets. The canyon floor is littered with motorcycle parts and empty supply canisters, most of them stolen from the enemy. Selvie has skipped breakfast and gone straight under one of the bikes, trying to repair an exhaust manifold, and I kick her gently as I walked by. She swears at me and asks for a #3 wrench. I find it for her and then continue on after Bellara.
They say that the Bavares is the largest plateau in the world. It is a featureless, inhospitable place covered in scrub brush and devoid of animal life but for the llamas and ground squirrels. The plains are occasionally broken by jutting towers of rock, a spine of mountains that stretch for a thousand miles in either direction. I wonder sometimes why the enemy bothers trying to conquer us, when we live in such a shitty place.
Our platoon shelters in one of the countless canyons that snake through the mountains. We are a few miles from an inactive volcano that makes the air smell like sulfur, and our canyon lets out directly onto the plain where a tiny smuggler’s runway provides a safe landing spot for Rodrigo and Benny. It is a risky hiding place, easily discovered by anyone with the air superiority of our enemy—or it would be, without Bellara’s illusions.
I exit the canyon to find Bellara sitting in a small cave on the side of the mountain, perched above a forty-foot length of scree. She has taken to sitting there every morning for the last few weeks. It is not a good lookout spot—it faces southeast, without a vantage of either the enemy airbase across the plain, or our own tiny runway.
I decide to find out why she likes that spot so much and pick my way carefully around the scree slope. The cave is just a few feet tall and half as deep, and I have to crawl on my hands and knees to position myself beside her. She looks at me sidelong, then sighs, and it occurs to me that perhaps she wants to be alone.
Too late, I’m already here. Bellara tolerates my presence, turning her attention to the scree slope below her. I sit in silence for several minutes, trying to follow her gaze, and am about to ask what she’s looking for when a ground squirrel pops its head out of the rocks below us.
It is soon joined by another. They chase each other through the stones, sure-footed, unworried by the occasional shift of the scree. They chatter at each other, one catching the other by the toe, the other nipping at the nose, running and playing. I realize that, despite a cold morning wind blowing across the plain, this cave shelters us both from the wind. It catches the morning sun, warming the rock, and in short time I almost want to take off my old canvas jacket. It is the warmest I’ve been in weeks.
“Don’t tell the others,” Bellara says.
“Eh?” I ask.
Bellara nods at the squirrels playing in the scree. “Aleta will want to make them into a stew. She’ll set traps, and I’d rather she not.”
“They’d be good eating,” I suggest cautiously, trying not to let on that the same thought had been going through my mind.
“But they don’t deserve to be eaten.”
“Does anything?” I ask, laughing.
“Maybe not,” Bellara says seriously. “But they’re happy. They don’t know there’s a war on. They don’t give a shit about the bombers. I like that. So please don’t tell Aleta.”
It’s the “please” that gets me. Bellara may be just sixteen, but she’s been fighting since she was old enough to hold an illusion. She knows her place in the world. Giado is deferential to her. Bombs do not scare her. I don’t even scare her, and it took the others several months before they would get close to me. Some of them still keep their distance.
“Okay,” I say. “I promise.”
Bellara squeezes my hand. “Thank you.”
“It’s very warm up here,” I comment.
“I know. I like that, too.”
We listen to the distant bombers for the next half hour. I can hear both our stomachs rumbling, and wonder if it’s worth venturing out on the plains to hunt llamas tomorrow. Giado will object, because he’s been very cautious since we got word of his home town. But we could use the meat.
“They say,” Bellara broke the silence, “that before the war we were used for entertainment.”
“We?” I ask, though I know what she means.
“Wizards. We’d put on shows for hundreds of thousands of people. Fire-Spitters shooting flames toward the moon. Changers dancing in the flickering light. They say Smiling Toms were given leave to create anything they could imagine.”
I snorted. It seems like such a childish thought. These days Smiling Toms are forbidden from using their strength for anything but the war: stratagems, camouflage, misdirection.
“It’s important,” I say, repeating a bit of propaganda I heard once, “that we dismiss the childish fancies of our yesteryear, and fight for a better tomorrow.” I scowl even as I speak, the words sounding callous. One glance at Bellara’s face shows that she disagrees.
“What is more important?” she demands in a gentle voice. “Killing the enemy? Or creating wonder for children?”
“Winning the war,” I say automatically, as if the answer is obvious.
Bellara scoffs. “You’re right,” she admits. “But you’re also wrong.” She looks at her fingertips showing through the ends of frayed wool gloves. “I want to create something wondrous. I want to dazzle. I want to make people smile. I don’t want to just hide or distract.”
“Perhaps,” I say, wondering if she’s been considering the same offers of amnesty from the enemy, “that is the better tomorrow we fight for.”
“Then why am I forbidden from doing so now?”
“Because you have to save your strength.”
Bellara sighs. “If we allow ourselves no happiness, and we win the war tomorrow, then what have we fought for? We will be a bleak generation on a broken world, and we will never know joy again.”
The proclamation seems incredibly poetic from someone her age, though she’s only a couple years younger than me.
“Don’t you want to dance?” she asks.
“I don’t know how,” I respond. My mother used to dance when she made bread, but that was a long time ago.
“Is there anyone left to teach you?”
“I don’t know.”
Bellara spreads her hands, as if to indicate the futility of it all. “I would like to dance,” she says. “I would like to create light shows that make children and adults laugh. But no one ever taught me, so if this war ever ends I will be forced to teach myself, and then to convince everyone else that it is no longer taboo.” She speaks as if it’s a burden that has been placed upon her. Her face is set, stubborn.
I open my mouth to assure her that someday the war will end and she will find someone to teach her. It’s a happy lie, as these things go. But a change in the air stops me, and I tilt my head to listen. I shift, crawling out of the cave.
“Where are you going?” she asks.
I point at my ear. “Single engine, flying low.”
Bellara’s face lights up instantly. “Rodrigo!”
She scrambles down the slope back into the canyon, then around the edge of the mountain. I follow more carefully, then run to catch up when I get on level ground.
The plains to the northeast of our canyon are uneven and spotted with scrub. Narrow gullies dot the landscape, and anyone flying overhead would be hard-pressed to find a proper landing spot within a hundred miles.
The illusion, Bellara explained to me once, was easy to set and maintain. She used her sorcery to mimic a patch of land to our west. Throw in a bit of variance, and no one would ever suspect a runway out here in the middle of nowhere.
Even though I know it is there, I’m not able to spot the runway until I am actually on it. Scrubland turns to old, broken concrete beneath my feet, and forty paces later I see a shimmer of the light. Benny emerges from the morning haze. She is an old red and gray fighter, rusted and worn. Her engine smokes and whirrs, her propeller looking choppy. There are a few new bullet holes in her wings.
Rodrigo is a small man, not much bigger than his sister. He has olive skin and a frail-looking body, but he is all sinew and muscle like a piece of old leather. He wears a big grin as he climbs down and embraces his sister, and then grabs me and kisses me on both cheeks in greeting.
I look upon Rodrigo’s love of flying and his passion for life and realize that my conversation with Bellara was anything but surprising. The urge to perform, it seems, is in their blood.
“Teado!” he says. “I have news. We’ll take it to the commander.”
“Did you bring back any food?” I try to ask, but I’m cut off by Bellara, who points at the bullet holes in his wings.
“What happened?” she demands.
Rodrigo dismisses her concern with a gesture. “Close call. Some asshole shooting in the air. Nothing to be worried about. Your illusions held well, my sister. I got in and out of Bava.” He makes a kissing gesture to his fingers, as if it were the easiest thing in the world. “I was only held up because the garrison captain was waiting for intelligence. Which I have!”
“We could hear you coming in,” I tell him.
They both look at me, and comprehension slowly dawns on their faces. Bellara’s illusions did not hold. The enemy couldn’t see him, but they could hear him. They hadn’t been shooting randomly.
Bellara’s face turns ashen. “Rod…”
“Shh!” Rodrigo says, putting a finger to her lips. “It’s fine. I survived, didn’t I? What’s war without a little risk? Besides, I’m back and I have news!”
“What kind of news?” I ask.
“What kind of intelligence?”
Rodrigo is evasive the entire way back to camp. Bellara hangs back. I want to comfort her, to tell her we all make little mistakes, but I am too concerned with whatever Rodrigo is holding near his chest.
We interrupt the commander and Aleta, and within moments the whole platoon assembles. We sit on empty supply crates, rocks, or crouch in the dust, Rodrigo, Aleta, Bellara, the commander, and me in the middle.
“I have news,” Rodrigo repeats to the commander. His face is stretched in a clever smile, his eyes alight. Rodrigo is one of those loveable fools who lives on the edge between life and death, and I can tell that flying in and out of Bava and being shot at has given him new energy.
Giado chews on the stub end of a cigar that is more mush than paper and tobacco. “Food,” he says bluntly.
Rodrigo opens his mouth, looks around at the gathered faces, then leans into the commander. Only those of us closest can hear him. “I brought back ammunition and petrol,” he says. “Condoms and some newspapers.”
“No food?” Giado asks, clearly stricken.
“Two tins of biscuits. Headquarters is straining. It’s all they could part with.”
The commander visibly struggles to keep his temper in check. “They could spare us bullets and condoms, but no food?” he says in a low voice.
Rodrigo’s smile has disappeared. Aleta gets up from her seat to hover, as if ready to swoop in and keep Giado from attacking our pilot. We all know that Rodrigo is simply the bearer of bad news, but the commander has gotten more bad news than any of us these last few weeks, and is clearly at the end of his rope.
Rodrigo hurries on. “There is good news, though. They’ve given us intel on the enemy.”
“Who cares,” the commander asks, “if we are all too weak to attack them?”
I reach over and put a hand on Giado’s shoulder. He does not look at me, but slumps in his camp chair, tired and angry. “What’s the intel?” I ask.
Rodrigo speaks up so that the rest of the crew can hear him. “We’ve got a target. The enemy has plans for a new airbase closer to Bava.”
“That doesn’t sound like good news,” I say.
Rodrigo holds up a finger. “Maybe not for Bava, but it is for us.” He scoots his makeshift seat back and draws in the dust, though only Aleta and I are able to crane our heads to see. “Here is Bava.” He indicates to a rock. “Here is the enemy’s current airbase.” He draws a line in the sand. “And here is the new one. They’ve already sent their engineers ahead and have an operational runway cleared. They will begin moving supplies tomorrow at dawn, and the first three cargo planes will be nothing but food.”
I stare at his map. The new airbase is further from the mountains, making it harder for us to hit and run. But it also means their new air supply path is closer to our runway than it’s ever been before, and well out of reach of their normal patrols. I see Rodrigo’s point immediately—their cargo planes will be exposed.
There is an audible silence throughout the platoon. Aleta bites her bottom lip. People grin at each other. Even the commander leans forward, his interest piqued.
“You’re suggesting an airdrop?” Giado asks.
Rodrigo glances at me and nods.
“We haven’t done one of those for four months,” Aleta protests.
“That doesn’t mean we can’t do it again,” Rodrigo says.
Aleta shakes her head. “The last airdrop nearly killed both Teado and Selvie. We can’t risk it.”
I swallow, thinking of the possibilities. An entire cargo plane full of rations and equipment could last us out here for another six months. We wouldn’t have to depend on Bava for resupply. Hell, if the airdrop works there was no reason we can’t do it again and again. We’ve already proved we could operate with impunity—that the enemy’s best scouts can’t find us. Bellara sees to that.
But Aleta is right. The last airdrop did nearly kill me. Selvie, too, but when I glance in her direction she’s already staring at the sky, talking to herself—probably trying to remember how to fly one of those big cargo planes.
“Can Benny even handle it?” Giado asks. He’s talking to Rodrigo, but he’s looking at me, and I can tell he’s asking for silent permission to give it a try. Headquarters banned airdrops last year because they lost too many Changers trying to capture supplies, then lifted the ban when the enemy pushed too far across the Bavares.
“She can handle it,” Rodrigo insists. “We’ll have to strip her down a bit, but carrying three people won’t be a problem.”
“Four,” Bellara speaks up. “You’ll need me to cloak the cargo plane the moment we touch it, or else they’ll just follow us back to our base.”
Rodrigo’s face sours, and it’s obvious he hasn’t considered putting his sister in harm’s way. “What did we do last time?” he asks.
“Last time,” Aleta says, “We captured a bomber and landed it in Bava.”
Rodrigo chews on his fingernails. “We can’t just do that again?”
“We need food,” Bellara reminds him, “and if we fly a cargo plane into Bava, headquarters will confiscate the cargo. We’ll be lucky to get one crate for ourselves.”
“If,” I cut in, giving the commander a small nod to indicate I’m on board, “we can take the cargo plane and land it back here, we’re set for the rest of summer and most of the winter. I’ve heard rumors the enemy even has fresh coffee.” I don’t tell them that I heard that on one of their propaganda broadcasts. No one asks.
Rodrigo shakes his head. “No, no. We’ll have to think of something else.”
“This is your idea,” Bellara reminds him.
“And you’re my sister. I’m not taking you up in that death trap.”
The rest of us exchange knowing glances while Bellara glares at her brother. On every other day, Benny is his beauty, admired above all lovers. But Benny is relegated to a death trap at the thought of flying his little sister into a mission?
“Benny is not a death trap,” Selvie objects. “And I agree, she can carry four people no problem. I’ll get to work stripping her down right now.” Our mechanic takes off toward the runway before anyone can argue with her.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea,” Aleta says to no one in particular, watching Selvie go. The objection is half-hearted. She knows as well as any of us that we either need supplies, or we will starve.
I glance sidelong at Bellara. Her lips are pursed. She has never objected to, nor volunteered, for a dangerous mission before. I think back on our conversation and wonder if she’s going crazy. It is not unheard of for any fighter to become more and more reckless. I myself consider, from time to time, just walking off across the plains.
I let it go, and tell Aleta that I think the mission will be a success. She smiles at me, face hard, having said her piece. The commander’s brief moment of awareness seems to pass, and he sinks back into himself, glaring and muttering.
The camp becomes more animated. People smile, and talk in normal voices. Harado repeats the joke he told earlier, and some people laugh out loud. The prospect of a rations coup gets them more excited than any night-time ambush, and I hear my mention of fresh coffee repeated around the canyon. I go with Rodrigo and Selvie down to the runway to see if there’s anything I can do to help to prepare for tomorrow’s mission.
The next morning proves poor light for a mission. A cloud cover hangs low over the plains, with dew dripping off Benny’s wings as our tiny group gathers beside the cockpit. Rodrigo argues that we call off the mission, but the first hour of daylight quickly burns off the moisture.
Benny has been stripped down to her bare bones, with fuel reserves removed and cargo containers emptied. Selvie removed the seat, replacing it with a plank of wood and an old cushion so that two people can fit behind the stick. She’s also wrapped each wing with a pair of leather straps, and the sight of them makes my stomach do a back flip. I tug on the one on the right wing. It seems stable.
“It’ll be fine,” Selvie tells me.
Rodrigo squints into the distance, silently cursing the clearing sky. “Our runway is too short to land a cargo plane,” he says in a last-ditch effort to excuse his sister from the mission.
“No it’s not,” Selvie says. She seems to search her memory, then corrects herself. “The cargo planes the enemy uses are only a little bigger than the ones the smugglers who flew in and out of here used to pilot. Besides, we’re not capturing the plane to have a plane. If I run out of runway and shear the landing gear, we still have the supplies.”
I turn away from my examination of the Benny’s wing. This last bit gets me nervous. Not only do I like Selvie, but she’s our spare pilot and our only mechanic. Lose her, and our jeeps and motorbikes will give up the ghost in weeks. “That sounds like a good way to get you killed,” I say.
“Any of this could get me killed,” she responds, rolling her eyes.
Commander Giado smells of gin, if you can call what we distill in the back of the canyon gin, but he stands upright through the entire conversation. He looks more like his old self: hard, but fatherly. “This is happening,” he declares. “The weather is good and you’ve got a schedule to keep. Rodrigo, stop waffling.”
“Yes, sir,” Rodrigo says, ducking his head. He finishes his inspection and helps Bellara onto the wing and into the cockpit, then settles in front of her to start his pre-flight.
Giado shakes my hand and hugs Selvie. “You two take care,” he says, speaking louder as the engine roars to life, propeller spinning. “You let Rodrigo circle twice, and if you don’t see those cargo planes then come back to base or you’ll run out of fuel. Understand?” He’s shouting by the end, barely holding his hat on. I nod and climb up onto the wing.
They’ve given Selvie the warmest clothes they can find. She’s wrapped in leather and wool, and I am jealous of how comfortable she looks. I remove my shoes, socks, and jacket, and hand the bundle over to Giado before climbing up onto the wing and strapping myself in. On the opposite side Selvie does the same, checking her counterweights so that my size doesn’t unbalance Benny. The metal is frigid beneath my touch, and I hope I don’t freeze to death before the mission is over. My only luxury is an old pair of aviator’s goggles.
“Everything okay?” Rodrigo shouts from the pilot seat. I put on my aviator’s goggles and give him a thumbs-up, wondering how long it had been since Bellara flew. This mission depends on each of us being able to do all our jobs, and the last thing we need is her passing out or vomiting on her brother’s neck. Will she be able to handle her illusions mid-flight?
As if in answer, the sound suddenly cuts out. There is no sputter of the engine dying, and I can still feel the rattle of the metal beneath me. I hold up my thumb once more, this time for Bellara, as it is her sorcery that has extinguished the sound of Benny’s engine.
I worry about Rodrigo’s flying, and Benny holding together. I worry about Selvie’s ability to fly an enemy cargo plane.
I worry about anything but my white-knuckle grip on Benny’s wing and the fact that I am truly terrified of heights. My stomach lurching, Benny begins to taxi.
We’re soon in the air and the first couple of minutes are the worst. I stare at the ground off the wing to my right as Benny dips and circles, then watch as it pulls further and further away, the scrub brush becoming a blurry, flat sea of pale greens and browns beneath us.
My uneasiness wanes, and I lower my face, pressing my cheek to the reassuring metal of Benny’s wing. I stare at the horizon. Despite Bellara’s sorcery, I can still hear the hum of the engine through the metal struts of the wing and it lulls me into a sort of tranquil peace. I shiver violently, fighting the urge to close my eyes.
Slowly, careful not to loosen my straps, I pull myself onto my elbows and gingerly look over the top of the wing. I am immediately shocked by how close we are to the ground—no more than a few hundred feet—and wonder if there’s been a problem. I glance toward Rodrigo, but his focus is on the stick between his legs. He doesn’t seem concerned.
I watch the plain race away beneath us. We’re hugging the mountain range, heading north, and soon we begin to ascend. My airsickness returns as we pull up, but I try to ignore it the sight of a shadow on the ground behind us. My heart leaps into my throat, and I desperately signal to Rodrigo. There is an enemy plane on our tail, and none of us are the wiser!
I realize my mistake by the time Rodrigo notices me. The shadow I see does not belong to an enemy plane, but to Benny. I breathe a sigh of relief and make my gestures less desperate. I point to Bellara, then at the ground. After several repetitions, Bellara pulls herself part way out of the cockpit and stares toward the ground, then nods at me.
The shadow winks from existence, and Bellara sinks back into her seat.
We slowly peel away from the mountains. The enemy airbase becomes clearer in the distance. It looks bigger than our last raid, with nine large hangars and three full-sized runways. Bombers sit lined up beside the runways, looking like toys from so high up. We can see a few of them taking off, heading toward Bava. I wonder if they are filled with bombs or leaflets, and if any of them will return after meeting our anti-aircraft guns.
Rodrigo gives me and Selvie a thumbs-up, and then I feel Benny shake violently as he lets off the throttle. We drop a few dozen feet and I clutch the edge of the wing. We are now barely flying—gliding, more like it—as we wait, invisible, for our quarry. Rodrigo grins like an idiot beneath his goggles.
We are forced to do a full circle around the enemy airbase before we see our prey. Twenty minutes behind schedule, I watch as three cargo planes, each of them filled to capacity and wobbling like fat geese, take off from the main runway.
The engine revs, and the world suddenly falls out from under me as Benny descends toward our targets. We halve our altitude and fall in behind them. I watch their shadows on the plain, and glance over my shoulder as the airbase fades on the horizon, half expecting enemy fighters to come after us.
But we are invisible and silent, and the enemy owns these skies. Why would they bother with an escort?
The enemy cargo planes practically cling to the ground, their pilots still wary of anti-aircraft fire. Rodrigo creeps Benny up behind them, easing us into position with the focus of a cougar stalking a llama. I try to breathe evenly, knowing that my time is almost at hand.
We settle toward the last plane, falling slowly into place until Benny is just fifty feet above her cockpit. Then thirty. Then twenty. Then ten. We are so close that I worry Benny’s landing gear will smack their roof. I can see the back of the pilot’s head in the cockpit, and realize that if he happened to look up and behind him he might see through Bellara’s sorcery at such a close distance.
Rodrigo holds up two fingers. Two minutes. I respond in kind and unlatch one of the straps. Rodrigo holds up one finger. I unlatch the other strap, gripping it with frozen fingers for dear life, knowing that a single slip will send me tumbling a few hundred feet to the hard plain below.
I try not to think about the fall, and focus on the one thing I have complete control over. I take a deep breath, the cold wind catching in my throat. I brace myself on the wing and I Change.
My skin becomes leathery, unyielding, though still flexible like the hardest of rubber. Spines grow from my back, slicing through my shirt, creating a parallel set of ridges down either side of my spine. All four limbs elongate and widen, and my back becomes hunched. My fingernails grow into claws, and a long, scythe-like talon grows from each foot like some prehistoric monster. My face broadens, jaws becoming wide and blunt to accommodate rows of razor teeth. Horns sprout from my head.
The entire transformation takes seconds, and I can see Rodrigo fighting with Benny to accommodate the weight of my sorcerous form. He flashes five fingers at me. Four. Three. Two. One. Benny’s right wing dips slightly and I let go of the straps to slide down the wing and tumble through the air. I land on the cargo plane’s roof with a thud, my talons scrabbling for purchase, scratching at the metal until I’m able to arrest my sliding fall by digging into the seams between rivets.
Every muscle strains as I try to hold on, my heart hammering in my chest, my eyes blurry. It’s several moments before I realize that I am perfectly secure and think to wave the okay to Rodrigo above me. He lays off the throttle and Benny slips back behind the cargo plane so my friends can watch my progress.
I dig claws into the rivets, shearing them out like children digging for the meat of a walnut. I get on my knees, using what leverage I can to cut away the metal sheeting with my claws, and then bending back the corners with the strength that only a Changer possesses. Metal squeals as I peel it away.
There is a popping sound. At first I think it’s a rivet, then maybe the cargo plane’s engine. A second pop is more familiar, and by the third I see the bullet holes in the roof. I’m able to see an enemy: a bright-faced, scared-looking man with a pistol, shouting frantically toward the cockpit. I reach through the hole and snag him through the wrist with a single claw, jerking upwards to slam him against the roof of the plane, and then dropping his body. My claws come back slick with blood. I finish carving an opening and drop down inside.
The plane is loaded to the ceiling with supplies. I take a moment to wonder at all the medicine and petrol and rations, my stomach letting out a gurgle despite the adrenaline rushing through my veins.
There are five men inside. One is already dead, his neck bent at an unnatural angle, his arm bleeding all over a tin labeled “desert rations.” A second draws his pistol and fires at me. My ears ring from the sound of the shots. Bullets slam into my chest, driving me back a half step but having no more lasting effect to my sorcerous skin than a toy pellet gun.
I cut off his gun-hand at the wrist with my claws while the co-pilot unbuckles. Through the ringing in my ears I can hear the pilot screaming into the radio. There’s a sudden gust, nearly knocking me off my feet as the third guard opens the side-loading cargo door. I spin to him, only to receive the heavy end of a fire extinguisher to the bridge of my nose. Dazed by the sound of the gunshots I clutch for some kind of purchase as the co-pilot kicks at my legs, trying to get me to fall back through the cargo door.
I rise to my full height, bracing myself against the roof, and snatch the co-pilot by the head, his face fitting neatly in the palm of my hand, and fling him out the cargo door behind me. The third guard struggles to load a submachine gun, and I take it from him and grapple him toward the door. We both slip and slide on the blood, but I dig into the metal with my talons and throw him after the co-pilot.
I catch sight of something outside the cargo door and see that Rodrigo has brought Benny up beside me. I realize the change of plans as Selvie unbuckles and shakily gets to her feet. I move quickly to the cargo door, setting my talons and clawed hand, and reach out with the other. In a burst of courage I know I would lack, Selvie lets go of the securing straps and sprints down the wing, leaping toward me. I snag her one-handed from the air, careful not to dig in with my claws, and bring her safely inside.
She pats my chest, her face flushed, as I set her down. Outside the cargo door I can see Rodrigo cackling like a fool, and Bellara peeking up from the cockpit beside him. Benny pulls away and blinks out of existence as Bellara’s sorcery conceals her.
“There’s still the pilot!” I shout into Selvie’s ear, pointing toward the cockpit. She reaches for her pistol, but I see a sudden panic in her eyes. I toss her deeper into the cargo plane, turning to face whatever gunfire the pilot is about to unleash on me, but am suddenly slammed into from the side.
The pilot is a big man, muscled and fat, and clearly used to a brawl. His punches do less to me than the bullets from his comrades, but he leans his weight into me, bullheaded. I stumble back, my talons no longer catching purchase on the floor, and reach for something to steady myself.
There is nothing there.
I windmill once, managing to snag the pilot by the front of his shirt as we both tumble out the cargo door. My confidence is suddenly undone. There is nothing solid beneath me, beside me, or above me. I am falling, trembling, with only an enemy to hold on to.
The last thing I see before I hit the ground is Selvie’s stricken face poking out of the cargo door.
Excerpted from War Cry, copyright © 2018 by Brian McClellan