Reaper's Touch

Reaper Book One

“Stone crafts a dark and delicious tale of cowboys vs. zombies and bittersweet love found in unexpected places. Truly exceptional! I did not want this to end!” —Kristen Callihan, bestselling author of FIRELIGHT

“A thrilling, original romance with the right mix of danger and desire.”—Zöe Archer, award-winning author of SWEET REVENGE

“Eleri Stone’s voice is visceral and intimate, taking a heartfelt look at what it takes to be a monster—and how far a human can go before becoming one. The burgeoning relationship between a Ranger and the Reaper she’s sworn to destroy is an emotional ride worth taking. Stone isn’t afraid to bring on the heat in this twisted tale of life on the range.” —Karina Cooper, award-winning author of TARNISHED

“Eleri Stone’s unique twist on steampunk cowboys delivers adventure, horror, romance and pure fun. Reaper’s Touch has a plucky heroine, a hero who’s as sexy as he is dangerous and a world that deftly blends zombies, weird science and class warfare into a post-apocalyptic Wild West. A must-read.” —Jax Garren, author of The Tales of the Underlight

Reaper’s Touch

Abby is a Ranger, part of an elite group who defend the border against Reapers—humans infected with a parasite that turns them into mindless cannibals. Rangers are immune to Reaper infection, and as one of the only female Rangers, Abby is expected to settle down and breed more Rangers—a fate she’s keen to avoid. When she’s ambushed on the plains, she’s ready to go out with guns blazing—until a mysterious, handsome cowboy rides to her rescue.

Jake has his own motives for helping Abby, beyond aiding a damsel in distress. He’s a Reaper, and while he’s learned to wrest control of his mind from the parasite, the effects won’t last without a permanent cure. And he needs Abby to get it.

Abby and Jake are natural enemies and unlikely partners. But when their search reveals a conspiracy between Reapers and the rich industrialists who own the mountain cities, they must work together to find the cure—or lose the border, and each other, forever.

Excerpt

 

Cam was puking outside the tent. Not only could she hear that awful noise which made her own stomach cramp in sympathy, but she could see him too, a hunched silhouette of misery outlined by the glory of another sunrise. She should be glad of it—the sun, that is. Mason was still alive, the Reapers were lurching back to their dens and ditches, and Cam never started puking until it was time to bury the dead.

“Abby.” Doc’s sharp voice snapped her attention back to the task at hand. “Don’t let up the pressure. Do I need to dose you?”

“No.” Even if they did help her stay awake, she hated the way Doc’s injections made her feel—jittery, violent and damn near invincible. A dangerous delusion in their line of work.

“I need you here, so mind your hands.”

He tossed the limb into the barrel and she fought a dizzy feeling as her brain tried to reject what her eyes were seeing. She hated medical duty. The captain thought it might toughen her up, but this—assisting with amputations and restorations—had nothing to do with toughness and everything to do with being able to ignore the fact you were cutting off pieces of your friends and replacing them with pieces of monsters. She’d never learned the trick of it and she didn’t want to.

Mason moaned and she pressed harder, turning her head as Doc picked up an arm harvested from a fresh kill to fit it to Mason’s bleeding stump. Stepping aside, she dropped the rag into the barrel and reluctantly—because she could never help it—looked back, fascinated and repulsed as the veins and tissue from the severed limb stretched like a thousand seeking worms to plant themselves in Mason’s wound. He moaned again and Doc laid a rag soaked in chloroform over his face. No one should remember feeling this. Her skin crawled. She clenched her hand into a fist and forced her gaze away.

Silence stretched inside the tent as they waited to see if the graft would take. Twenty seconds. Twenty seconds and they’d know—either Mason would go into convulsions as the parasite entered his body or his wounds would begin to heal.

Mason was a Ranger, star-marked and one of the few people with a natural immunity to Reaper bite. The limb had been harvested from a fresh kill. There was no reason the graft shouldn’t take. It should work.

Except…sometimes it didn’t. Every once in a while the parasitic infection that turned men into Reapers caused convulsions and death, even in the people who were supposed to be immune.

Dust motes danced above the table. Doc gripped the edge of the scarred wood, his arms braced, lips moving slightly as he ticked off the seconds. When he was done, he drew a deep breath and bent to examine the wound. Abby lifted the lamp higher and when Doc grunted in satisfaction, a wave of relief coursed through her so strong her legs nearly buckled.

“Looks good,” he said. “I’ll clean him up. You can go. Cam sounded like he might need help.”

Cam was long gone. He was in charge of the cleanup crew, and she could already hear the thump of the axes falling as they decapitated the dead.

She frowned, looking at Mason’s still body. “I should stay.”

Doc shook his head. “You get too attached to these young ones. It’s going to get you killed one of these days.”

“I don’t get too attached.”

The look he gave her could have spoiled milk.

Last night, when the battle had swung close, she’d gone outside to make certain no Reapers came their way. She’d been showing off with that last shot, hitting the top of the Reaper’s skull peeking above a fallen tree. A headshot. But she must have only sheared through the bone, not damaged the brain tissue enough to kill the thing. Tricky shooting at night with only the fires and moonlight to guide you. Mason had waved to her, turning his back on the not-quite-dead Reaper who lunged up and clamped its teeth around his wrist, tearing an artery.

If Mason hadn’t been a Ranger he would have died or turned, but because he was a Ranger, the parasite in the Reaper’s saliva had begun to heal him even as Mason’s body fought the infection. She’d shot the thing dead and then dragged Mason up the hill herself. Doc was only angry with her because she’d had to abandon her gun to do it.

“I promised his mother I’d look after him.”

Doc scowled. “That was a promise you shouldn’t have made and you know it.”

“Would you rather I’d left him out there?”

The noise he made was downright eloquent. She ground her teeth, trying to hold back an argument. He always raged like a bear with a sore tooth whenever anyone got hurt.

When he turned to scoop fresh water from the barrel, she touched Mason’s wrist. Already, warmth had returned to the limb, and she could feel his pulse beating strong and steady beneath her fingertips. The wound, just above his elbow, was beginning to heal from the inside out. Blood vessels and nerves, then bone and muscle. Within the next half hour, the skin would pucker and seal. Within an hour, there wouldn’t even be a scar.

Setting the bowl on the table, Doc shouldered her aside and set to work cleaning the wound.

“You’re sure you don’t need me?”

He placed the rag in the bowl and swirled it around before wringing it out. “If Cap gives you trouble, tell him I sent you. Just be careful.”

She was always careful. “I’m still alive, aren’t I?”

Looping the leather belt holding her ammunition over her head, she moved to leave.

“Abby.”

One hand on the flap, she glanced over her shoulder. Doc fixed her with a hard look. Some of the men called him “the Butcher.” He looked it right then—a bloody rag in his hand and his apron stained black. His shirtsleeves were rolled back and there were dried bits of gore stuck to his tanned skin. “Hold on to your gun this time.”

Refusing to honor that with a response, she ducked outside, squinting against the bright light. They’d set the medical tent atop a hill beside an old bur oak. As she waited for her eyes to adjust, a finch flittered through the dry leaves, dropping to land beside a clump of meadow sage at her feet.

The battlefield spread out below. Gun smoke hugged the low ground, forming a shroud for the dead. About twenty of them, all Reapers. As the cleanup crew passed between bodies, the smoke drifted up, curling around their ankles like ghostly fingers. Flies buzzed above in little black clouds. There were no crows though. Animals tended to avoid Reaper flesh. No vultures unless you counted the human kind circling above the field on airships. Three of them today, each at a slightly different elevation. The first had arrived less than an hour after the first shot was fired. Even with the skirmish nearly over, there was still a crowd hanging at the rails to watch the show.

She wasn’t helping Cam with cleanup. Instead, she took the trail leading north toward the sound of gunfire. Keeping to the high ground, she loped over the broken terrain, leaping across a narrow ravine and skirting a pile of rock that might once have been part of some farmer’s wall. It was less than a two-mile jog and by the time she’d reached the other Rangers, she was already beginning to feel better.

She spotted the lieutenant right off, lying in the dirt with the rest of his men. They were positioned along the bluff. Reapers were gathered below, between the river and a line of mounted Rangers slowly closing in on them. When she called out to announce herself, Lyle waved her over before returning his attention to his rifle.

“Cap’s going to have your ass.”

Wiping the dust from her eyes, she sprawled out on her stomach, set her rifle in front and adjusted the angle of her hat. Her hair was fine. The long braid tucked into her shirt collar held most of it back, but a few stray wisps clung to her cheeks. “I got kicked out. If he has a problem with that, he’ll have to take it up with Doc.”

“What did you do?”

“We had to do a restoration on Mason. Apparently Doc thought I could use the fresh air.” More likely he thought it would do her good to shoot something, but she never relished that.

Lyle studied her face for a minute, his frown easing. “Damn. Abby, I’m sorry. I thought he’d be okay back there.”

“He should have been.”

Looking away, she lifted her rifle and sighted down the barrel. There were a dozen Reapers left, most of them naked and covered in layers of filth. Old. When Reapers first turned, before all their clothes rotted from their bodies, they could sometimes be mistaken for human. There was no mistaking that these were monsters. The one she took aim at was stocky, with a thick knot of greasy black hair trailing down his spine. The muscles in his shoulders bunched as he crouched down in the mud, eyes fixed on the wall of mounted Rangers preventing escape across the open plain.

Its lips were pulled back in a snarl that exposed its teeth. Black, but not with rot. Nothing rotted on a Reaper. She’d seen sketches in the papers of Reapers with blood dripping from their cracked and pointed teeth. Skin hanging from their bones, missing noses, ears, all sorts of parts, but that wasn’t the truth. Well, the blood was truth, but it was hardly ever their own.

She pulled the trigger, keeping her body relaxed to absorb the recoil. It rolled through her as she watched the Reaper she’d hit crumple to the ground. Headshot. Still…after Mason, she put another bullet in him just to be on the safe side.

There weren’t any easy shots left after that. The Reapers had figured out where the bullets were coming from and hugged the base of the bluff. There was plenty of cover there, tangles of briars and deadfall washed up by the river.

She worked with Lyle just as they’d done a hundred times before. He would shoot at one of the hiding Reapers to force it out. She’d try to anticipate its movement and fire immediately after, hoping to hit it before it could recover.

Reapers were fast and smart in their own way. These had dug in, waiting for the Rangers to pry them out. That would be an incredibly stupid thing to do and all the Rangers on this patrol knew it. They held their ground. They had time and plenty of ammunition. As a last resort, they’d dump oil on the brush and burn them out, but before they did that they had to wait for the cleanup crew to clear out.

As she stopped to reload, a shadow moved across the canyon, sliding narrow and wide as it flowed over the rock. The sweat on her face chilled and she glanced up in annoyance. One of the airships, the largest of the group, passed in front of the sun, blocking it out as completely as a thunderhead. Much closer than it ought to be. She couldn’t quite make out the lettering on the gleaming hull, but the flag—navy-and-white—marked it as one of the Eyrion fleet. Likely full of diplomats and debutantes. The observation deck on this one was one of the largest she’d seen.

The ship was far too low. Too close. They were supposed to stay at least five miles out, though they rarely did. Eyrion ships especially seemed to think the rules didn’t apply to them.

She glanced over at Lyle, who was also staring up. “What the hell do they think they’re doing?”

“Trying to get a better angle on the fighting, I imagine.”

“They’ll frenzy the Reapers.” The sound of the engine always seemed to get them riled. Even as she said it, she looked down and saw the pack surge forward. As soon as they broke cover, they met with a wall of bullets that pushed them back. Eight left, three of them hit but still moving.

“Something’s wrong with it,” Lyle said, still watching the ship as he climbed to his feet, his duster settling around his legs. His sandy brown hair touched his collar as he tipped back his head. “It’s listing. See there.”

To starboard. The rudder seemed to be caught at an odd angle. More troubling, the ship was beginning to sink. A steady, smooth loss of altitude she hadn’t noticed right off. The balloon holding the ship aloft appeared slightly misshapen. As she watched, a shudder ran down the length of the inflated skin. Her stomach turned. There wasn’t enough space for a ship of that size to land on the bank without tipping and that would be disastrous. A bunch of unmarked Scrapers spilling into a pack of Reapers. Like throwing slop to pigs. The people aboard ship weren’t immune. One little nibble and they’d die or turn.

“Hold your fire,” Lyle shouted down the line. He was immediately obeyed. The other Rangers climbed to their feet just as she did, eyeing the faltering ship warily and then looking to Lyle for direction.

Fire was always a concern with the ships. They usually went to ground if there was so much as a dark cloud on the horizon. Crashes were rare.

Lyle grimaced. “And with a deck full of lords and ladies. Someone’s going to lose his head over this.”

“What do we do?”

“Be ready to catch? I’m staying the hell out of its way.” He grabbed on to her arm and pulled her back as the ship suddenly swung in their direction. Rangers scrambled back, cursing and tripping to get out of its path. The ship was close enough that she could see the frantic movement of the crew, though she couldn’t see that any of it was making one bit of difference. The steady whirr and thump coming from the ship said the engines were still working, but it continued to descend in a long, lazy spiral. Right before it struck the cliff, the wind kicked up again and sent it drifting south over the battlefield.

At that point, the observation deck was nearly at eye level and as it slipped past, Abby could see the pale, terrified faces of the passengers. A crowd of people, wide-eyed and clutching each other in fear. They might have been screaming, but the whoosh of air from the passing ship drowned out the sound.

All the Scrapers were dressed for the opera in black top hats and jewel-colored silk gowns. Peacock feathers bobbed from hats of various shapes and sizes. One woman still held a gleaming flute of champagne in her hands.

The ship itself was a beauty. Polished walnut trim. Private viewing compartments shielded from one another by velvet curtains. Large field scopes that were mounted to carved posts. That equipment was far finer than anything the Rangers had available to them.

A mighty wrenching noise came from deep within the bowels of the ship as a mechanical device squealed into position. At the same time, drag sails released from portholes set every few feet along the decking. That actually seemed to help somewhat, maybe not to control the descent, but at least to slow them down a bit.

It was awful, seeing those people pass by. When they were so far above the earth, it was easy to forget that there were people on board the ships watching them. To see their faces so close turned Abby’s stomach. As if he could read her thoughts, Lyle placed a hand on her shoulder. Whether he meant to comfort her or keep her from shooting, she wasn’t sure.

Together, they watched the ship descend. It was headed for the flat stretch of field where the cleanup crew had been working. If they were able to set down before they reached the hill, she thought they might stand a chance at landing it safely. If they hit the hill, they’d roll for sure. She sucked in a breath of air that tasted like gun smoke and stifled the flare of pity in her heart.

The ship seemed to sink faster as it neared the ground, though she suspected that was an illusion. An eerie silence filled the valley as the engine cut off. The guns were all silent and even the Reapers seemed to hold their breath at the prospect of fresh meat.

Twenty feet. Ten. And the ship touched down with a terrific crash of splintering wood. The bow tipped ever so slightly upward as if it were riding a wave. It swayed for a moment and Abby held her breath, thinking it might go over. But after a teetering pause it settled back almost with a sigh. That might have been the collective exhalation of the hundred souls clinging to the deck.

It almost looked like they’d landed it on purpose right there in the middle of a field of dead Reapers. If not for the odd dent in the side of the inflated skin above the ship, you wouldn’t think anything was wrong. They were damn lucky, is what they were. Which was why she was so surprised when the wind shifted direction, carrying the sound of screaming along with a faint whiff of battlefield stench. She frowned and looked to Lyle.

“Are they hurt? They can’t be hurt. Not that bad.”

He opened his mouth to answer but before he could speak, a shout went up from below, and all hell broke loose.

The surviving Reapers, very much riled by the commotion, were taking turns darting forward, lunging at the horses’ legs trying to get past. Before she could raise her rifle, one of them charged straight at Ignatius and his horse reared. Ignatius, young and city-bred, never had liked horses much. As well-trained as the Ranger horses were, they needed a steady hand when going up against Reapers. Ignatius tried to regain control, but it was no use. He went down hard, and Jack dismounted like the softhearted fool he was to make sure his friend was all right.

The other two Reapers made for the break in the line. And they were fast, so stinking fast. No matter how often she saw Reapers run, she could never quite get used to the sight. Men didn’t move like they had lightning in their blood. But then, these weren’t men. They were Reapers. And they were headed straight toward the ship.

Lyle pushed past her, heading for the steep ravine that cut down to the riverbank. She followed. Abby didn’t know how he managed to keep to his feet. She slid down the sandy soil mostly on her ass so she could keep hold of her weapon. Lyle hit the ground running and quickly outpaced her. Gunshots exploded ahead as the mounted Rangers took off after the fleeing Reapers. Even though the Scrapers would be safe so long as they stayed aboard ship, they still made an unholy clamor when they saw Reapers coming at them.

The other Rangers remained on the ridge, not wanting to get in the way. There were only three Reapers left after all. Lyle felt responsible though. He was the lieutenant, and she’d seen Cap break away earlier to deal with the airship. She should get her ass back to medical before the captain saw her, but Lyle needed someone to watch his back and Doc had told her to find someone who needed help. She chased after Lyle, heart pounding in her chest and eyes stinging from the dust kicked up by the crash and the chase.

The thunder of a buffalo gun made her stumble. When she regained her feet, she paused, thinking maybe she’d misheard the sound, but the echo of it still hung in the air. None of the Rangers had buffalo guns. They were too unwieldy, too heavy to carry on patrol. Which meant that someone was firing from the ship. Some idiot untrained Scraper who wanted to brag to his friends about how he shot a Reaper. With all the smoke and dust stirred up by the landing, he was just as likely to hit a Ranger. He had to know that. He simply didn’t give a damn.

While she stood there with her blood boiling, looking for a sign of Lyle and thinking about turning back, a dark shape separated itself from the smoke and came toward her at a dead run. Scrawny and wild-eyed, the Reaper seemed as surprised to see her as she was to see it. It slid to a stop, bare feet cutting furrows in the sand. Her gun came up, but the Reaper dodged to the right before she could fire.

It didn’t attack her directly. They did have some sense of self-preservation and this one was looking to escape. When it turned to run, she dropped to a knee, took aim at the retreating back and squeezed the trigger. A hit to the shoulder. When they were close enough to hear you pull the trigger, sometimes they were able to move quick enough to avoid a direct hit. That bullet didn’t even slow it down, but the next did. Its leg this time. Even then it still ran, though not as quickly. The next shot to the back took it down, but it wasn’t dead. She’d hit its spine and it was still moving. At least its upper half was still moving, clawed hands trying to drag forward legs that had become deadweight. Standing up slowly, she glanced behind her to make sure she was clear.

No other Reapers. The mounted Rangers bearing down on her position saw her in time to rein in. Lyle swung off the back of one of the horses and stormed toward her. He was angry she followed him down. If he meant to holler at her, he’d have to wait.

She walked over to the Reaper. It hissed as she approached. Blood bubbled from the wound on its back. Sometimes those types of wounds were fatal for Reapers but usually not. It wasn’t bubbling like that from the blood loss. The tissue was trying to reknit itself from the inside out. Half an hour would likely seal up all the holes she’d put in it. It would take only slightly longer to repair the severed spinal cord. That wasn’t going to happen. She put a bullet in its brain, and then turned to face Lyle.

“That’s the last one,” he growled. He’d lost his hat and raked his hair out of his eyes. “Ignatius broke his neck in that fall and Ben is hurt. The asshole on the ship shot the horse right out from under him and he twisted his knee going down. He’s by the creek. Can you take him back to medical with you? I’m sure there’ll be others.”

“Is it bad on the ship? How many of the Scrapers were injured?”

Lyle’s lip curled in a snarl. “None. They weren’t screaming because they were hurt. They were screaming because they dropped into a field of Reapers.”

She stared at him, disbelief mixing with outrage. “Dead Reapers. We killed every last one of them.”

Lyle jerked his head in a nod and she cursed vehemently. They’d had everything under control until a useless bunch of Scrapers dropped their party into the middle of the battlefield. She glared at the sorry-looking pile of wood, metal and sail. They’d thrown ladders over the side of the broken deck, but only one brave man had moved to disembark. Crashed down so close to the border, all the Scrapers were probably still shaking in their spit-polished boots. Nodding to Lyle, she swung her rifle over her shoulder and turned her back on the airship. “We should have just let the Reapers have at them.”

 

 

Doc returned to the medical tent as soon as “all those thin-blooded whoreson Scrapers overran the damn camp.” Abby was starving and hoping for food, but he came back empty-handed. Well, not completely. He did bring back an order for her to report to the captain before turning in for the night.

Shoving aside her uneasiness over that summons, Abby waited to leave until Mason had fallen into a deep and natural sleep. The wound had mended perfectly well and his slight fever was gone. Already he could move most of his fingers and by dawn, they’d send him back to resume his duties. Rangers tended to heal faster than normal. The scientists speculated that an unusually strong constitution was the reason they were immune to Reaper infection in the first place. Or “freakishness,” as the Scrapers called it.

While she and Doc had been busy patching up those who needed minor wounds tended, the other men cleared the field. Smoke from the pyres fogged the sky, bringing an early nightfall. All of the stranded passengers had been lifted to other ships and were well on their way back to their fortress cities in the mountains. The ship’s pilot, according to Doc, had stayed behind with his crew to repair the damage, unwilling to take the loss. Airships were expensive and the pilot didn’t want to take the chance that the Rangers would abandon his property.

The Rangers were under no real obligation to protect it. They received a yearly tithe from the City-States to guard the food sources and supply lines, but beyond that they were autonomous. Diplomat that he was, Cap wasn’t going to stir up trouble if he could help it. Not when this ship flew under one of the most powerful flags in the federation. So, bottom line: the patrol was staying until the ship was repaired. No leave time in New Providence, which meant she wouldn’t be able to sneak off for the day to see Amy and the kids.

“You should go talk to him before he gets ticked off,” Doc said, yanking off his boots. “When he said ‘at your earliest convenience’ he was just being polite. It doesn’t make it any less of an order.”

“I know. It doesn’t mean I have to run onto the firing range either.”

Doc’s brows rose. “Did he see you chase Lyle into a pack of Reapers or is there something else I should know about?”

Abby laughed. “I’m his least troublesome recruit. You and I both know what his problem is and, besides, he’s likely still busy kissing Scraper—”

She choked on the word when Doc stood and started working at his belt. He never slept in his skivvies. This was just his not-so-subtle way of chasing her out of the tent. He grinned. “Kissing Scraper ass means his mood will be more foul tonight, not less. The sooner you give him an excuse to hide in his tent, the better.”

She turned around when he hooked his thumbs into the waistband of his pants. “I’m going. I’m going. Just give me a minute to get out.”

“Eat something while you’re there, will you? Nothing worse than a scrawny woman.”

She smiled as she lifted the tent flap. “I am not courting your favor, Doc. Besides, there’s something about sawing off body parts all day that always spoils my appetite. It disturbs me greatly that it always seems to make you horny.”

“Eat anyway, love, and I promise not to importune you. I can wait until we reach New Providence for that sort of companionship.”

Laughing at his disgruntled tone, she let the flap fall behind her. He’d said it would be at least a week before the Scrapers retrieved the parts they needed. Another full day in the saddle to reach New Providence, but once they reached the tiny border town they’d get a warm welcome. Most border towns treated Rangers like gods. They wanted to make sure the Rangers remembered them fondly enough to come running the next time their town was under attack. Even if the patrol only bedded down for one night instead of the four they’d planned, there would be free food and whiskey. Eager women hoping to conceive a star-marked child because of the generous allowance the forts paid out to rear the new crop of Rangers. She’d seen men push their own wives and daughters on Rangers for a shot at that kind of money.

Doc liked to tease her about her lack of curves, but truth was she never lacked for male interest in the border towns. The other Rangers left her alone but the men in town seemed to view bedding her as a challenge, a mark of their virility even if they wouldn’t earn a child price if she were to become pregnant.

She rarely availed herself of that interest. Rangers begat Rangers, and female offspring were rare. Female Rangers were confined to the fort once they became pregnant and encouraged to produce as many star-marked children as possible. She didn’t want that life—not for herself and certainly not for any children she might bear.

Pulling her jacket tighter, she picked her way over the rocks toward the main camp, being careful not to step on any likely snake hidey-holes. She liked the cold; it meant winter was coming. The Reapers would retreat south soon. The night temperatures even in this dusty, rock-strewn, barren stretch of the border would drop too low for them to stay much longer. She’d survived ten summers so far. This one—God willing—would make eleven.

She didn’t have far to walk. She could hear them up ahead—the deep roll of men’s voices, the stomp and neigh of penned horses, the metallic clatter of bowls and spoons that told her she wasn’t too late to eat. Once she turned the corner on the rocky outcrop, she could see light from the fires. Tonight, camp was no more than packed dirt ringed by a scattering of large sandstone boulders. They’d been fighting since before dawn and maybe their discipline wasn’t quite what it should be. Exhausted Rangers had rolled into their blankets and slept where they dropped. Less than a half dozen men had been ambitious enough to erect their tents. One of those belonged to the captain.

As she approached, she spotted the airship crew gathered in a knot on the far side of the camp, huddled like children afraid of the dark. It was clear who the owner was by the elegantly tailored black suit he wore. It was clear who the pilot was too, by the way his shoulders slumped. She’d seen that same glazed look in the eyes of young men after their first Reaper attack and did not envy him. Even if he somehow managed to prove that he wasn’t responsible for the crash, his career was likely over.

She wasn’t going to waste much pity on him though, not a Scraper. He’d survive just fine. Unlike Ignatius.

Nodding to old Jasper, who sat cleaning his gun beside the fire, she pushed open the tent flap and stepped inside.

The captain’s tent was large, not only to befit his station but because it was used for camp business as well as his personal use. The first chamber was empty save for a cold lantern set on a long folding table beside a few rolled maps. A sliver of light from the partition was all she had to see by as she crossed the space and rapped on the center pole to announce her presence. Cap called out a welcome and she entered.

He rose from behind his desk and she shifted uneasily beneath his intense regard. A great bear of a man, he had a neatly trimmed beard, the dark skin of an African and eyes that missed nothing. She’d been terrified of him when she was first assigned to his care. Sometimes, like now, she still was.

Fingers to heart, she saluted and he gestured to the chair across from him. “Please be seated, Abigail.”

Abigail. Sometimes he addressed her as private, but never Abby. His manners always made her feel like a heathen. She’d once accused him of being raised mountaintop and his denial had been so scornful she believed it. He was very polite for a man who could rip the head off a Reaper with his bare hands. Very educated for a man still running patrols. Very outwardly calm for a man with a temper like a wildfire.

He’d never wanted her to join his patrol and while he’d always been fair enough to her, he made no secret of the fact that he thought she should be tucked away inside the fort. Truth was, she wasn’t the best fighter, only a fair shot and an indifferent rider. But the same could be said of any number of the other Rangers and none of them was forced to endure these little chats.

He sat only when she did, shuffled some papers to the side and folded his meaty hands atop the scarred slab of wood he used as a portable desk. “In the morning, you’ll leave for Fort Hill. I need you to deliver the message that we’ll be delayed until the ship is repaired.”

The blood drained from her face. It was the sort of errand they used the unmarked for. They wouldn’t even send a first-year Ranger out on courier duty into secure territory unless it was as punishment.

“Have I done something wrong?”

“Not at all. I need a messenger and you’ve made it abundantly clear how you feel about assisting Doc.”

“I don’t mind helping Doc.” Not if this is the alternative.

His bushy brows rose. “Fort Hill’s a decent place. The captain’s a good man and they’re located farther from the border so they have more civilian contact than we do at Dougan. I’d like for you to have the opportunity to see it. They can afford any number of luxuries that we can’t provide.”

“I’m not interested in a transfer.”

“Then you’ll deliver the message and wait for us to join you. It shouldn’t take us more than a fortnight.”

A fortnight in a place that was basically one big research facility. They experimented on Reapers there, trying to come up with a cure for the contagion that turned ordinary men into ravening beasts. She wouldn’t be able to sleep at night knowing what was locked in a cage on the other side of the wall, listening to her heartbeat and scenting her blood just waiting for a chance to get at her.

The people who worked there were nearly as bad. As one of the few star-marked women, she’d met her share of scientists. They always regarded her with a disturbing mix of fascination and plain lust. She was going to kill Doc for not warning her about this, for not talking the captain out of this fool-brained idea. As it was, her mind was too numb to even attempt to come up with an argument. Not that she’d ever successfully argued Cap out of anything once his mind was made up. Doc could manage it sometimes.

She stood stiffly. “Is there anything else?”

Cap was quiet for a long moment and then said, “This is not a punishment, Abigail.”

“What is it then? You didn’t want me here in the first place. This is just an excuse for you to send me back where you think I belong. It’s bullshit and you know it.”

If he was going to punish her for not having a dick between her legs, she might as well give him a better reason to do it. His jaw set. “I need someone to deliver the message and it’s a good time for you to be away from the camp.”

“Because of the Scrapers?”

That was why Doc hadn’t been able to change his mind. He likely hadn’t even tried because he agreed with the captain on this one. Cap inclined his head. “There’s renewed interest in placing us under Council control. When we sent notice of an increase in the yearly tithe, several cities threatened refusal without an accounting of funds. They’re asking for a census of the star-marked children and now isn’t the time—”

“They have no right to that.”

He held up a hand to silence her. “Agreed. But it’s best if the Scrapers here have as little contact with you as possible.”

She shook her head. “Why bother? When you think the same as them, that I should be locked up making baby Rangers, whoring myself out in the name of duty.”

“Nobody’s asking that.”

“Aren’t they?”

She said it just to rile him. The captain fancied himself civilized and this was an old argument. He’d tell her she should be safe at the fort making baby Rangers and she’d accuse him of trying to turn her into a whore. His hands clasped together on the table were pale at the knuckles, and she felt a petty flare of triumph that she’d managed to get to him.

“You could marry just like any other woman,” he said. “You’d have your pick of men, I’d see to it. No one would force you to anything.”

She made a rude noise and the captain sighed, leaned back in his chair and fixed her with a look of such abject disappointment it made her cringe inside. The worst part about these conversations was his sincerity. His determined paternal kindness meant she couldn’t completely hate him even though he held some truly asinine opinions.

“It’s not what I want,” she said simply, willing him to accept her choice and knowing that wish was futile.

“I only want what’s best for you.”

“I know it.”

“You can wait until tomorrow to set out if you wish. They’re not expecting us for a few days. Cam will be able to get you whatever supplies you need.”

She waited for him to nod a dismissal and she was out of there like a shot, storming out of the tent and then stopping short when she got outside, undecided about where she wanted to be. Lyle looked up from where he was talking to Cam and flinched at whatever he saw on her face. He said something to Cam, who shook his head. She walked in the opposite direction. She didn’t want to talk to either of them now. She didn’t want to talk to anyone.

She kept to a brisk pace, not caring where she was going as long as it was away from everyone. She was marked and had no choice about being a Ranger, but she wasn’t about to give up the freedom she had left. Some days it felt as if she was walking down a tunnel that collapsed behind her as she went. And no matter how much she dragged her feet or how hard she looked for a way out, there was only the one way forward. Angrily, she swiped the tears from her face.

Eventually she found herself standing on the one patch of ground that everyone would avoid. A slight breeze sent ashes dancing over the tops of her boots and she stepped back. It was stupid to want to stay here. Riding patrol meant that you were surrounded by death. Always.

Why cling to it?

It was a question she’d asked a million times, and she always came back to the same answer. Because the only alternative was for her to close herself behind the tall wooden walls of the fort and bear star-marked children, raise them, love them and then send them out here to this.

She wasn’t going to let the captain push her to that. Doc either. Fuck them. Fuck them all.

She turned around and was surprised to find Lyle standing there, not more than a dozen feet away.

“I tried to talk him out of it.”

“Not hard enough.”

He swallowed a sound that was caught somewhere between a laugh and a groan. “It’s a holiday not a firing squad.”

“That’s what you said when I went up with the delegation to the capital.”

He scratched at his whiskers. “Yeah, well. That was not one of my finer ideas, I’ll admit it. But this? What could possibly go wrong? It’s a straight shot up to Fort Hill. No one will be the wiser if you make a little detour over to your sister’s place. Visit with your nephews, get caught up with your family. Lord knows, you might not have the chance again for another year with the way they’ve been running patrols.”

She sighed and closed her eyes, not wanting him to see how much that idea appealed to her. She hadn’t seen Amy or the kids for months. She tried to hold on to her anger but felt it slipping away. “I had no choice but to say yes.”

“I know, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make the best of it.”

He wrapped an arm around her shoulders and turned her around. Away from smoldering ash and land that would be considered cursed for the next several generations. “It’ll seem better in the morning, you’ll see.”

She held her silence as they started back to camp. She had enormous respect for Lyle and while she generally accepted his word as law, this time around she couldn’t make herself believe him. Lyle was full of shit. Well-intentioned shit, but shit all the same. It wasn’t going to be better in the morning. She wanted out of this life, and they both knew damned well that there was only one sure way to escape it.