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 3!
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!
We had a week to get things together before Mammoth and the Mission left town. I spent most of it with Tessa, of course, each of us coming to grips with the reality that the next time we saw each other would be damn near Christmas.
Given how my last two Christmases had gone, it would be nice to have something good to look forward to, but it wouldn’t make up for all that lost time in between. Supposedly, long-distance relationships had been the best kind of relationship, pre-Break, but that was then and this was now. I’d be well off the grid in the Badlands, with no way to stay in contact. Meanwhile, Tessa would be getting her first taste of the high life of being a Cape: fancy events, promotional shoots, and… worst of all… groupies.
I trusted Poltergeist plenty; I just didn’t trust the men of the Free States. After all, I was one of them. We were a shifty fucking lot. The good thing about dating a Power was that anyone who crossed a line would find out just what she could do… but even so, our relationship was barely six months old. I don’t know if either of us was totally confident it would survive the coming separation.
We each did our best to pretend though.
Wish I could say that whole week was good times and making out, but we had our share of arguments. That was kind of how things went for us. Given how we got started, it shouldn’t have been a surprise. I thought I might almost love her, and that she might even love me back, but it didn’t keep us from getting on each other’s nerves.
Big part of that was my fault again. Ever since Reno, my dreams had gotten worse. That was saying something; my dreams had always been shit with a side order of awful. But after Reno, it was anyone’s bet whether I’d have nightmares of my captivity and torture—nightmares that sure as hell didn’t end with Her Majesty rescuing me on Sally Cemetery’s dime—or… the other dream.
You remember the one. Nothing but dead people around me, watching me, waiting on me, worshipping me.
It was that dream, the dream all Crows eventually experienced, that had caused us to switch back to separate beds. Even before that, we hadn’t been fucking—the close call with my one and only groupie as a second-year had put an end to that—but Tessa had taught me that sharing a bed was about more than just sex.
And then I woke up one night, mid dream, and found I’d accessed my power subconsciously; emptiness flooding my body, every sense primed, death pooled in my fingertips. If Poltergeist and I had been touching… if she’d been a snuggler like Silt’s latest girlfriend…
I didn’t even want to think about it.
After that, we’d swapped out our queen for two twin beds, and the only thing Tessa had to worry about was being woken up every other goddamn night by my nightmares. Which was at least half the reason we were both perpetually tired and irritable. Hell, she was probably looking forward to our separation just so she could get a decent night of sleep.
Like I said, I gave her all the credit for us still being a thing.
Fighting and making up and trying to hold onto every dwindling minute with Tessa wasn’t all I did that week, of course. My usual Academy greys would make me a target in the Badlands, so I took a trip off campus with Silt to get some clothes for the trip, a few pairs of jeans, fresh underwear, and some shirts. I even got a jacket, because our trip through the Badlands would take us into the north, and winter didn’t fucking play up there.
I didn’t have to pay for any of it, or the backpack that I packed those clothes into, along with my toiletries and the device Her Majesty had given me to contact her with. Apparently, the Academy was providing a small per diem for third-years while we were off campus saving the world.
Got to be honest… it made shopping a hell of a lot more fun.
There were a few parties too on the second floor of the Liquid Hero. With the new second-years stuck running the place, we made a bit of a nuisance of ourselves, I’m sure. Still, it was good to hear where everyone else would be headed. Vibe and Paladin were interning in Los Angeles with the Defenders and Mathew’s dad, while Stonewall had managed to get a slot with the Society, who had just lost Mistral a month earlier. The rest of the class was divvied up between the remaining Cape teams, from the North Star all the way down to the Bayside Brawlers, who had been responsible for the infamous fight in the Liquid Hero when we were first-years. Fifteen third-years, spread out amongst almost as many teams.
Muse wasn’t one of them. The little Switch hadn’t come back to the Academy, and from what I knew, it had been as much Freddie’s decision as the school’s. Last I’d heard, he was doing contract work with the city’s local teams, serving as support staff alongside the usual cadre of Normals. It let him boost Capes before they went into action while staying far away from that action himself and was a compromise everyone seemed happy about.
No word on whether he’d quit drinking as part of that deal, but I kind of doubted it.
On Thursday, I got called into Bard’s office. Two days until I left town and by that point, I was honestly ready to go. Maybe some people enjoy anticipation—sick fucks, one and all—but for me, I’ve always preferred getting to the action. Sooner we left, sooner we’d be back, and that’s all that mattered. I hadn’t spared the actual Mission—or my small-m ‘mission’ for Her Majesty—more than a moment’s thought.
Guess I was the only one.
Bard wasn’t alone in the dean’s office. Alexa was there too, all in black, as still as a broken vid screen, and looking strangely out of place in an office that wasn’t hers. By contrast, Bard looked rumpled and tired, suit jacket hanging on the back of his chair, eyes slightly bloodshot behind the glasses he’d started wearing. I recognized that look: some Cape student was giving him heart palpitations. I didn’t know many of the new first-years, but several of my former mentees were now serving as mentors themselves, and they said the new class was a handful.
Nobody had died yet though, so they couldn’t be too bad.
“Mr. Banach,” said Bard, that famous voice of his every bit as tired as his face, “I wish you would have warned us that you’d be volunteering for the Mission.”
Or maybe I was the reason he looked like something King Rex’s walker had just stomped all over.
“So we could have talked you out of it.”
“Let’s not pretend I was going to get an internship, Bard.” I shook my head. “A half-year in the Badlands sounds like it’ll be just my speed.”
“Are you saying this decision had nothing to do with you meeting the Queen of Smiles last week?”
Without conscious effort on my part, the emptiness filled me. “Are you having me followed now, Alexa?”
It was Bard who answered. “In light of the attack on my Academy last year, we have expanded our passive security layers out to the surrounding areas. You and the mercenary were spotted on camera.”
“I hope you didn’t send anyone to try to stop her.” Her Majesty was a Shifter of a type I’d never seen, a woman who turned into a snarling storm of shrapnel. She’d taken Fallout’s best shot and come back hungry for more. The Academy guards wouldn’t have stood a chance.
“We are in the business of training Capes and their support teams. I leave the pursuit of dangerous felons to the professional Capes and law enforcement.”
“Given her role in the rescue of almost two dozen civilians, the Queen of Smiles is not at the top of anyone’s priority lists,” added Alexa. “Which does not change the fact that she is extremely dangerous. I know you have a history with her, Damian, but further involvement is not recommended.”
“I’m already involved.” I shrugged, letting the emptiness retreat to my core. “But it’s not a big deal, and it’s nothing illegal either. She heard I was going out into the Badlands and wanted me to do some research while I was there.”
I waggled my fingers. “Ghost research. Like I did for you and Door in Bakersfield.”
“So… is that all you needed?” I looked between the two adults. “I still need to finish packing.”
That was a lie. It had taken me barely ten minutes to pack, for obvious reasons. But I wasn’t a big fan of being ambushed with surveillance footage, even by two of the few adults I actually kind of liked.
“Internship offers notwithstanding—” For some reason, Bard shot Alexa a look as he said that. “—we can’t forget that you were kidnapped from these premises last Christmas, and that the Black Hat ultimately responsible remains at large.”
“At large and nowhere to be found,” I said. “Nobody’s even seen Tyrant since I burned down his base, and I doubt we will until he’s good and ready. If there’s anything that asshole made clear to me, it’s that he plays the long game.”
“He also made it clear that you are a part of that long game,” said Bard. “You will be more vulnerable out in the Badlands than you would have been with one of the Cape teams here in the Free States.”
Which meant fuck-all given that none of those Cape teams had been planning to offer me an internship.
“Are you saying I can’t go on the Mission?”
“If we did, would it stop you?” asked Alexa.
I shook my head. “I gave my word.”
Her half-smile came and went and she gave Bard a look.
The older man rolled his eyes. “We figured as much. More importantly, you are an adult in the eyes of the Free States, and we are not in the business of holding our own students prisoner.”
I didn’t point out that I hadn’t been allowed off campus for most of my first two years. Bard was getting to his point and pissing him off wouldn’t make this go any faster.
“That said, we’ve made some adjustments, with your security—and the security of everyone else on the Mission—in mind.”
“Oh.” It was hard to bitch about that. “Like what?”
“Like hiding your participation entirely. It took me several days and more favors than I wanted to spend, but the family members and Capes who were present for Mammoth’s speech have been sworn to silence.”
I was starting to understand why Bard looked so tired.
“That secrecy will only last until someone from the press realizes you haven’t showed up as an intern on one of the existing teams—and they will realize it—but it should give you and the Mission at least a month of grace time.”
“When you do leave,” added Alexa, “you will be traveling with a larger security presence than normal and along a different route than the one that the papers and news vids will be posting.”
I honestly didn’t know much about the geography of the Badlands, but I knew it was a lot of territory. Not knowing our route would make finding us damn near impossible.
“I bet Mammoth was thrilled about that.”
Bard winced. “He will be speaking to you, no doubt.”
“Okay. Anything else?”
“We told him you were a Full-Five.”
“You did what?” After Tyrant’s revelations… after facing down Sally Cemetery in that dream that wasn’t a dream… one of the first things I’d done when finding myself back at the Academy was to retake my Test. I’d had to get Bard and Alexa’s help to make it happen, but the results were supposed to be a secret.
“He’ll be responsible for your safety over the next half year, Damian. He needed to know.”
“And I don’t get any say in the matter?”
“No more than you’ll get one when you join your permanent team. As soon as you go professional, this all becomes part of your record.”
Which… made sense too, even if I didn’t like it. “And he was still okay with me coming?”
“The Mission needs all the help it can get. A Full-Five Crow is more than Mammoth or anyone would expect, obviously, and I’m sure he’ll speak with you about that as well, but he’s not going to turn down a volunteer.” Bard’s voice softened. “He is a good man. I think you, Ms. Black, and Mr. Mikkazi will learn a lot from him.”
I hoped so. And if I did well enough, maybe Tessa wouldn’t be the only one putting in a good word for me with the real Cape teams. Still. I scowled.
“More security, different route, and dozens of people sworn to secrecy. Why is everything always such a pain in the ass?”
“Welcome to life as a Cape.” Bard’s smile didn’t quite reach his eyes. “I’d ask you to stay out of trouble, but where you’re going already makes that an impossibility. Instead, all I ask is that you keep your classmates safe, come back in one piece, and do this school proud in the process.”
“Not a problem,” I said.
By the end of the Mission, I’d have managed only one of the three, and that one by sheer luck… but that’s the post-Break world for you, isn’t it? That’s not just dust collecting in every corner, creeping into your house no matter how regularly you clean.
It’s age and it’s regret, but mostly, it’s all that’s left of our good intentions.
One Tin Soldier releases November 9th, and is now available for pre-order in digital format!
Next week, I’ll be back with the final sample chapter, as well as some stats about the book. See you then!