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 4!
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!
The last two days passed in a blur. Holding Tessa. Meditating out on the bench overlooking the Pacific. Eating the cupcakes Winter had made for Silt, Supersonic, and me, as if we were headed to our own funerals, already lost forever in the wind-stricken plains of the Badlands.
My former teammate had gotten an internship with the Emerald Legion, up in Seattle, and she’d woven a few suitably green ribbons into her waist-length white hair. She only mentioned the team, the city, and how happy she was to be going to both eighteen times in the ten-minute process of giving me my brownies. For Winter, that was remarkable restraint.
None of us were teenagers anymore, and we’d all come a long way from the kids who had walked through the Academy gates just two and a half years earlier. Even so, I didn’t envy the other members of the Emerald Legion. Penelope may have always been our pain in the ass, but it didn’t change the fact that she was one.
And then it was Saturday, and we were saying our final goodbyes. Usually, the Mission left town first, so the poor, sad-sack third-years who’d been drafted didn’t have to watch their classmates head off to their bright and shiny teams. This year, all the third-years gathered back in that same auditorium with our suitcases or bags, saying goodbye to classmates and family and those Normals we’d developed relationships with. El Bosque had a crowd of soon to be graduating seniors and more than a few juniors around him. All of them women, because of course they would be.
I hadn’t started building my own support staff yet—hadn’t even tried, despite suffering through a semester-long class on recruitment strategy and team synergy—but I had my own small group of people to say goodbye to.
Every damn one of the first-years I’d mentored had made it to second-year. Not sure how much credit I deserved for that, but they were all there to see me off, from giant Lucy all the way down to little Lynn. Reid shook my hand—my only hand—and patted me on the shoulder, saying he couldn’t wait to watch me on the vids. Jacinda, followed as always by her twin brother, Shawn, swung by just long enough to make sure I knew her shirt size if I wanted to bring back some merch from my Cape team. Lucy just beamed at me, a far cry from the young woman who’d ended up in the med ward because of an asshole student.
And then there were two. Lynn and Paco. Technomancer and Summoner, respectively, and the two second-years who had decided to follow my example by becoming mentors for the incoming first-years.
Lynn gave me a hug and stepped back, her eyes drifting down to the stump of my right arm. “You’re not wearing the hand I made you?”
“I made the mistake of sparring with Orca this week,” I said. “The Healers put me back together, but the prosthetic wasn’t quite that lucky.”
“That’s okay. By the time you get back, the new model should be done. Assuming I can get the energy core working properly.”
I hid my wince. Lynn had come a long way as a Technomancer since the days of cube-shaped lighters, but she was still just a student.
“Don’t worry,” she told me. “It will be awesome.” She cleared her throat and looked away for a second, and Paco and I both pretended not to see the wetness in her eyes. “Just… make sure you come back okay? Whatever team you’re headed to, make sure they keep you out of trouble.”
“I don’t think that’s how the Cape thing works,” murmured Paco, in the understatement of the century.
“You know what I mean, Francisco!”
“It’s okay, Lynn.” I gave her another hug. It felt like I’d been doing nothing but hugging people all week. “You know I’m a survivor.” I looked over her head at Paco, who was visibly uncomfortable with all the touchy-feely stuff going on. “You two look after each other and the others. And if anything goes wrong with your first-years…”
“We know, Dad,” said the Summoner. “We should go talk to Bard before we decide to break into someone’s dorm room and threaten them with a dead cat.”
“Yeah. That.” I shook my head. “Give your rats my regards.”
“Who’s to say Woodrow and Melody aren’t in here with us?” He grinned.
“The auditorium is still standing, for one. You know how Silt feels about them.” I reached past Lynn to shake his hand. “Seriously, good luck.”
“I think you might need it more than we do. You’re the one going off to fight crime, after all.”
“Yeah.” I didn’t correct him, even though Lynn and Paco were as trustworthy as anyone I knew. “But I’m not the one stuck with another semester of Ethics classes taught by Isabel Ferra.”
The cocky grin disappeared from the Summoner’s face like a Wind Dancer had sent it flying.
I’d already said my goodbyes to Tessa and Kayleigh both, but they swung by for one last hug—more hugs—before friends and family filtered out and we all aligned ourselves with the team reps who had chosen us.
Or, in the case of Silt, Supersonic, and I, the team rep we had chosen.
Vibe’s hug damn near broke a rib and then she was dashing over to take Matthew’s arm. The Stalwart gave me a nod across the room as the Defenders rep came to join them.
Kind of weird that, with all the problems Matthew had with his dad, he and Kayleigh were still interning with the old man’s team. I spared a moment to wonder how that was going to work. Especially with both men using the same Cape name.
Then Tessa was in my arms, and my world was her warmth pressed against me, curly hair tickling my face, and the delicate fragrance of the body lotion she wore when not out in the field. My old orphanage ‘friends’ would have had something to say about little Damian clinging to a girl like she was the only thing that mattered. Dingus would have called me a pussy, but Dingus was a shithead who ended up in juvie after he tried to rob his own foster family.
Fuck what he or anybody else thought.
“Six months,” said Tessa, stepping back to look me in the eye. “You better be back here at the end of it.”
“I’ll be back. This is home.”
“The Academy?” She nodded. “For now, anyway.”
That wasn’t what I’d meant, but the team reps were calling for their recruits to fall in, and I didn’t get the chance to correct her. I watched her run back across the auditorium and went to find Silt and the Mission.
Up close, Mammoth was every bit as large as our combat instructor, Nikolai Tsarnaev, if lacking the other man’s serial killer smile. His hair was brown and close cropped, but a full beard, streaked with grey, came halfway down his massive chest.
As I came up beside Silt, Mammoth’s eyes fell on me, stayed for a few seconds, and then flicked over to Supersonic.
“Normally, I give this speech when we reach base camp,” he said, his words a quiet rumble, “but we’re pretty far down the list this morning. It’ll be a while before the Teleporter gets to us.”
His gaze swept over us again. “Forget everything you think you know about the Badlands. The maps you’ve looked at and the stories you’ve read. I’ve spent most of my life out there, and it still finds ways to surprise me. The Badlands are not just a buffer region between the Free States and this continent’s other burgeoning empires, or a fly-over zone for Wind Dancers and Flyboys to soar past and ignore. Much like the Pacific, the land we’ll be traversing has changed in ways that science cannot explain. Many of those changes can and will kill you.”
“That’s a hell of a recruitment speech,” griped Supersonic.
“This isn’t about recruitment anymore,” said the other man. “This is about keeping you alive. My team is mostly Normals, but every one of them has years in the Badlands. Listen to them and learn from them. The Mission is not a Cape team, but we have a chain of command that will be followed at all times.”
For some reason, he was looking at me for that last part instead of Supersonic. Like I hadn’t spent most of second-year following Tessa’s orders. Learning the truth about my powers, realizing that I was a Full Five, hadn’t changed my lack of ambition on that front. I had no interest in leading and no problems following someone else’s orders.
As long as those orders made sense, anyway.
“What exactly will we be doing?” asked Silt.
“Mostly what I talked about in my speech. There are small communities spread throughout the Badlands and we’ll be bringing them supplies and medicine. Doing what we can to keep them going.”
“Why?” Caleb frowned. “If they don’t want to move to the Free States where it’s safe, why should we go out of our way to help them?”
“Because they need it,” came the reply. “They’re people, just like us. Some good, some bad. We do our parts to assist the good so the bad don’t take over and turn that territory into another Dirty South or something even worse.”
“I thought you said the Badlands weren’t a buffer region?”
“I said they weren’t just a buffer region. Ours is a humanitarian mission, but at least half of our funding comes from political and social concerns inside the Free States. The government would prefer that stories of the Badlands remain just that…stories. The longer some semblance of civilization exists out there, the safer our country’s citizens will be.”
The auditorium was slowly emptying as he spoke, teams and their interns stepping through an exterior door that opened and closed on a different location each time. Next to that door, I saw a familiar figure in a fedora and trench coat.
“We’ll have a more thorough briefing when we arrive,” continued Mammoth, “and we’ll spend a few weeks with my team getting ready and going over our travel route.”
“I looked at the route last night.” Caleb sounded proud of himself. “A few Net sites posted it early this year.”
“Things have changed.” The Shifter’s eyes fell on me again. “We’ll be taking a different route than previously announced. There are a few towns we’ll still be hitting—towns our donors expect their contributions to reach—but otherwise, we’re going off book this year.”
Another team vanished through the portal.
“Get your gear together and line up,” said Mammoth, “Unless Door needs to take a breather, we’ll be heading out in less than five.”
As if he’d heard, the fedora-wearing Power turned and looked our way. The past few months hadn’t changed Door at all; face like an anvil in the shadow of that fedora, stubby fingers seeming even more so with the pinky that ended at its first knuckle. He looked past Mammoth to me and gave a small nod.
If anyone was going to send us out to the Badlands, I was glad it would be Door. And not just because Wormhole, the only other Teleporter I personally knew, would be just as likely to dump me in the Pacific. Door had been the reason Alexa made it to Reno in time to save my life. As far as I was concerned, he was my favorite Defender, Matthew’s dad be damned.
“Walker.” While I’d been watching Door, Silt and Supersonic had been following Mammoth’s directions, leaving the Shifter and I alone for a moment. The big man took one long step in my direction, and I was suddenly looking up just to meet his gaze. “We need to talk.”
“Yeah. I guess we do.” After meeting with Bard and Alexa, I’d been expecting something like this.
What I hadn’t expected was the enormous hand that was extended in my direction. After a moment’s pause, I reached out and shook it.
“I really appreciate you volunteering,” said the other man. “Given the shortages every Cape team is facing, I didn’t expect we’d have any students coming with us this year. Thanks to you, we have three. Every Power is a force multiplier. I’m excited to see what sort of things we can accomplish together.”
“Even though you’re having to change your whole plan because of me?”
It was like watching a bear shrug. “Switching to an alternate route will ruffle some feathers, but we’ll deal with it. And if the government wants to send some of their people along as security, I can live with that too. That’s two more sets of hands that can be put to work. As for the rest? Who and what you are?”
I tensed, but the big man kept on talking.
“You and I will have to sit down and review your abilities before we know how best to utilize them. There are a lot of stories being told, but I’m not sure how accurate they are.”
“I raise walkers,” I told him. “I can even puppet myself like one. And I kill with a touch.”
“Not sure how much good that last one will do unless we get attacked. Which we probably will at some point.” He chewed that over for a bit, lips buried somewhere beneath that greying beard. “How are your walkers at manual tasks?”
“Like building things. Or even just lifting.”
“Depends on the state of the walker when I raise it, but I think they should be fine. They don’t feel pain or get tired.”
“That could be handy.” He scanned the auditorium. “Are you bringing any with you?”
“Uhm.” I’d severed the link with my only walker on the way back from meeting with Her Majesty. It had never occurred to me that the Academy would allow it on school grounds… or that the Mission would be in favor of me bringing it along. “There aren’t any corpses on campus, but if you give me fifteen minutes, I can go get one.”
“No need.” He clapped me on the shoulder and my arm instantly went numb. “If there’s one thing the Badlands have, it’s bodies.”
One Tin Soldier releases November 9th, and is now available for pre-order in digital format!
On Thursday, I’ll be back with some stats about the book. See you then!