One Tin Soldier, the last book in my The Murder of Crows trilogy, launches November 9th, 2021! I’m counting down to its release by sharing sample chapters, advance reviews, content warnings, and whatever else seems fun. On to Chapter 2!
If you haven’t read See These Bones or Red Right Hand yet, please be aware that these sample chapters will absolutely include spoilers from those books. Also, be aware that expletives abound. Read at your own risk!
I loathe being the center of attention. Maybe things were different back when my mom was still breathing, but if so, growing up in an orphanage had beaten the attention-seeker right out of me. Do what you have to, fight for what matters, and don’t back down from anyone, sure enough… but public speaking? Stepping out from the crowd, drawing every eye and sudden hushed whisper?
Not my idea of a party.
The whispers had started even before I stood to volunteer for Mammoth’s Mission, for a six-month trip into the God-forsaken Badlands to spread peace and joy and whatever the fuck else it was we’d be doing. Truth was, I’d felt the weight of eyes on me the moment I trooped into the auditorium with the rest of my classmates.
Wish I could say it was because my costume was just that cool.
That’s the problem with fame. It follows you, marks you like a stain that’s never coming out. Makes anonymity a pipe dream, mask be damned. I was the Academy’s only Crow. The kid who killed Carnage out at the Hole. Who got his ass kidnapped on Christmas Eve and showed up more than a month later in the dead city of Reno. Everyone there, from parents to faculty to Cape team reps, knew my name and nobody knew quite what to do with me.
Fuck if I was going to back down from that though.
Fuck if I was going to let anyone see me sweat.
Even if volunteering hadn’t been my idea.
Mammoth was a huge guy, all muscles and hair, but that wasn’t what impressed me about him. In a world of Titans and Shifters, size wasn’t all that rare. Conviction was something else entirely. You could hear the belief in his words. See it in his eyes. This was a man who spent his days in the shit, far from the cameras and the Free States’ safety net, who only came back to civilization when it was time to fundraise, to solicit donations, and to convince third-years that his cause mattered.
Half the draw of being a Cape—maybe more than half for some of us—was what came with the role. Fame. Endorsements. Money. Groupies. Hell, El Bosque already had groupies, with graduation still seven months away. And here was a man asking us to put all that aside to focus on service and anonymous charity out in the dozens of small towns that had managed to hang on in the Badlands?
That anyone paid attention at all should tell you something. People recognize sincerity when they hear it, even know-it-all twenty-year-olds. It’s hard not to respect genuine passion, especially when it’s tied to something selfless.
Not that his speech had a damn thing to do with my decision, of course, but you already know that.
Tessa squeezed my hand—my left hand, my only hand—as I stood, as the whispers rose in volume, and our classmates in the front row turned to see what was going on. Halfway through our last year at the Academy, and Poltergeist and I were somehow still together. I gave her all of the credit for that; it hadn’t been easy going, especially since Reno.
I’d known better than to spring me volunteering for the Mission on her there at the assembly. Instead, I’d filled her in as soon as I came back from my clandestine meeting with Her Majesty. Hell, I’d even told her about that meeting ahead of time.
Never piss off a Telekinetic.
Not when they know where you sleep.
And especially not when it’s in the same damn room.
I locked eyes with Mammoth across the auditorium, ignoring the murmurs and the stares. If the big Shifter was surprised, he didn’t show it.
“I volunteer,” I said.
That much was part of the plan.
“Me too,” said Silt, to my right.
That sure as hell wasn’t.
“Hell yeah,” said the spiky-haired asshole in the front row, blurring to his feet the way only someone part Flyboy and part Jitterbug could. Caleb turned and shot me a victorious grin. “No way I’m missing out on the action this time!”
With the auditorium now filled with family members and team representatives, it took me a while to find my Earthshaker friend. I’d left Tessa back with her beaming parents. Hard to fault them for their pride. First third-year invited to intern with Stormwatch in almost a decade, and it was their daughter? That shit was front-page news.
I was every bit as proud. Poltergeist was going to be one hell of a Cape. Being away from each other for six months was going to suck, but we’d known that would be the case even before Her Majesty called in her favor. Chances of me getting an internship at all were close to zero, and the chances of us ending up on the same team were even worse than that.
She could have volunteered for the Mission with me—had even floated it as an idea—but I’d shot down that plan like a Stalwart with a sniper rifle. And then, after the inevitable blowup, we’d settled down long enough to look at the facts.
Fact 1: There was no way in hell Tessa wasn’t getting an internship. Given how much ass she’d kicked as a third-year, we could assume she’d be getting several.
Fact 2: Even if Her Majesty hadn’t called in my debt, my chances of getting an internship were miniscule. Despite all I’d done to prove myself, Cape Teams were still just a bit wary about a Crow’s propensity to go crazy and possibly murder anyone around them. Go figure.
Fact 3: That same problem would haunt me on graduation, unless at least one Cape team had been convinced that Damian Banach, Baby Crow and one-time kidnappee, wasn’t all bad.
Fact 4: The woman I’d briefly shared a blanket with—until my dreams forced us back into separate beds—was uniquely positioned to advocate on my behalf.
Now that she’d be interning with Stormwatch, that plan had gone tits up—no way the pre-eminent Cape team in the country would want someone like me—but at least the argument had convinced her to stay in the Free States. That meant she’d spend the next six months being supported by a full team and the country’s greatest hero, instead of traipsing through the Gods-fucked Badlands with her boyfriend, looking for someone who might not even exist.
I called that a win.
And then my best friend had to go and volunteer to join me.
“Silt… what the fuck?” Sofia was over by the food table, looking like a tree stump, if that tree stump was ninety percent muscle and thirty percent attitude. She had distant family in Phoenix, but travel post-Break wasn’t something people did lightly without a Teleporter, so there’d been nobody around to stop her from making a bee line for the food.
“What the fuck what?” She looked up at me over a plate piled high with barbecue—real beef, which I was still getting used to after two-plus years.
“Why did you volunteer? I thought you were hoping for an internship with the Thunderbirds?”
“I figured I’d leave that spot open for someone else.” She shrugged and finished chewing. “It’s not like I’m going to be on a team long-term anyway. Once we graduate, I’ll serve my year, and then—”
Brownsville was a town in the war-torn region of Texas, just across the river from what had once been Mexico. Silt had grown up there before she and a few others fled through what was left of New Mexico and into Arizona. I wasn’t sure what or who she had left behind, but Sofia was dead set on returning, and returning in force.
“Still… the Mission? Hiking all over the Badlands can’t be your idea of a good time.”
“All that dirt out there… what’s not to love?” The grin slid off her face, and her brown eyes went hard. “You may have talked Poltergeist out of joining you, but I’m a tougher nut to crack, Boneboy.”
Damn it, Tessa. “She told you.”
“Sure did. Kinda makes me wonder why you didn’t, but we’ll have plenty of months on the road to talk all about that.”
“You know you don’t have to do this for me. Or for Tessa.”
“Shit, I’m doing this for me. Every time you go off on your lonesome, a little less of you comes back. Hell if I’m letting that happen again.” Her grin made a triumphant return. “Now, eat some tri-tip. It’s a hell of a lot better than whatever garbage we’ll get on the road.”
She wasn’t wrong about that. I was halfway through my own heaping plate of meat when another thought occurred to me.
“What about Supersonic? Did you or Tessa talk him into going too?” And if so, why? was the unspoken question. Next to Wormhole, Caleb Mikkazi was my biggest critic in our class. And an asshole, as I may have mentioned a few dozen times in this long, rambling tale.
“Hell no,” said the Earthshaker. “Far as I can tell, he just decided, all spur of the moment. Guess he’s serious about wanting some action.”
“What an idiot.”
“Says the one-handed man headed into the Badlands to hunt down the world’s only Cat Six Power,” said Silt, eyes sparkling. “Maybe you boys are more alike than you thought.”
One Tin Soldier releases November 9th, and is now available for pre-order in digital format!
On Thursday, I’ll be back with Chapter 3. See you then!