Life as a mercenary was something a man could get used to.
The water tank rolled slowly on, and Asher Connor trailed behind it, sheltering his eyes against the blazing sun. The scorching wastelands of the York territory stretched into the distance, swept by dry winds that carried too much sand and dirt. Asher lowered his head and spat. At times, he believed no amount of water would be enough to wash the dust out of his throat.
It took an alarmingly short time to grow accustomed to it. He did not remember what it felt like to have the gears in his arm work smoothly, free of the stone grains which clung to the oiled junctures, sneaking in each and every fissure. Every night Asher cursed as he tried to pry the dirt from the rapidly deteriorating brass mechanism. It would not do to dismantle it in the middle of the desert. He could only hope that the painstaking cleaning would keep it functional until he set foot in a decent-sized city, where he may find a Technician.
But then again, it was part of the deal. Two water tanks, four hundred miles to go, twenty sovereigns—all in exchange for one’s time, one’s strength and one’s gun. And, sometimes—one’s limbs. The clump of brass bolted to Asher’s scapula felt familiar, by now. The muscles in his back had grown stronger, and the limb had become less of a straining weight, threatening to rip his ragged flesh to shreds for good, and more of an actual, functional arm. As long as it didn’t claim one’s life—it was a passable existence.
Except, of course—sometimes it went wrong.
Asher was woken by screams and gunshots to find huge, claw-equipped shadows pouring out of the night. He scrambled to his feet and trained his gun at the whirling darkness, blinded by a splatter of somebody’s blood landing across his face. It was fast, dirty and brutal—his comrades were screaming and Asher screamed too, trying to aim, bringing down one, two of the broad shapes of the enemies.
His gun clicked empty as he found himself staring straight in the eyeballs of a snarling gray wolf, its bloodied teeth gleaming. A golden rod poked out from behind its head. Asher cursed, throwing his gun down. He jumped, hand stretched toward the rod, as the wolf lurched forward—and all Asher could do was raise his unnatural limb to try and shelter his chest from the impact. The world shifted and tumbled and flickered out of focus, and he was barely left the time to think, What a lousy death.
Then again—it was part of the deal.
The first thought that swam through Asher’s head, emerging from a pool of heavy darkness residing somewhere in his nape, was that too many things hurt. The consideration that he was seemingly still alive came floating upward a few, long seconds later; relief was later still.
Opening his eyes was, at the present moment, just beyond the realm of possibilities.
“Damn. This place is a shambles,” a voice muttered, some five yards to his side. Asher did not react. Slowly, he relaxed his muscles. Pretending to be one of the corpses was always wise.
It appeared he did not succeed—the steps drew near, until the tip of a boot nudged his thigh, then kicked him square in the chest. Whatever dust and debris had accumulated in his lungs was set free, and Asher broke in a dry, ragged cough, his bronchi spasming in painful contractions. He curled on his side, grasping blindly in search of a weapon, his eyes plastered with mucus and soil. He could hear the stranger take a step back, laughing.
“Hey. It seems we have a survivor—calm down, man. I’m not interested in taking your life.”
The convulsing cough finally subsided. Asher brought a hand to his face, wiping dirt from his eyelids. He hazarded a blink, then another—the shape of a slim man delineated against the sunlight. As his sight regained depth and perspective, he could see a horse standing in patient wait a few steps farther back. The man’s torso and head were loosely wrapped in a ragged red cloth, protecting him from the sun. His face was hidden in faint shadow. Asher could make out the white flash of a smile.
“Congratulations. You’re alive,” the man said. Asher repressed a groan and promptly decided he disliked the guy. He struggled to prop himself up on one elbow, and his body did not respond quite right—something was off with his brass arm. He tried to bend it at the elbow, testing the way the mechanical hand braced on the soil. The clogs whined and clunked, moving in irregular jerks. His balance was precarious at best but his bones and muscles, though sore, appeared to be intact.
The water tanks, Asher noticed without surprise, were gone. The stranger turned his back to him and wandered off, shifting expertly through the bodies and shredded equipment that littered the ground. He paused to prod at a prone figure, then bent to retrieve something from it—Asher was quick to catch the leather flask that was thrown his way. He ripped the top off with his teeth and wasted no time in pouring the lukewarm liquid down his throat. It tasted like mud, but gods, it felt good. He downed half of it before he could pry the leather from his lips, gasping. His head felt clearer, water seeping through his body like the most expensive medicine. He raised his eyes to the stranger, who had slung across his shoulder a rifle and somebody’s satchels, and was now waiting with his arms crossed, a crooked grin on his lips.
“I am headed northwest, toward Windermere,” he said. “If you can get up and walk, you are free to follow me. Otherwise, all I can do for you is hand you this rifle and bid you good fortune.”
Asher ogled him with carefully contained suspicion. Brown locks fell over large, copper-colored eyes, which glinted, amused in the sunlight. He wore leather vambraces and an intricate belt fastened across his abdomen. He was young, likely younger than Asher. No wise man would extend such an invitation to a stranded mercenary. His movements were smooth and sure: Asher could read in his body the elastic strength that came from nerves and reflexes rather than rough muscle mass.
Asher considered his own pained body, whose injuries and aches he was slowly and systematically cataloguing, and decided he might as well take advantage of this small favor fate had offered him.
He hauled himself to his feet. The artificial joint in his shoulder pulled viciously at his tired muscles and his head was pounding, but he could hold his balance. He tested with caution his legs, his back. He expanded his lungs, careful for telltale pains which would indicate fractured ribs. There were none. Dried blood encrusted his face, and the brass limb hung at a sinister angle. Repairing it would be hell, but it seemed no essential parts were missing, at least. Asher scanned the ground for his weapon and settled on stealing a shotgun from the clenched hand of one of his ex-comrades. He had to break the man’s fingers to free it. He tipped his head in silent acknowledgement and thrust the weapon in his harness.
When he stepped forward, his foot collided with a metallic object. Asher recognized the golden device he’d seen wedged in the wolf’s neck. It was the mark borne by the animals belonging to the Tamers, the moorlands people. They had learned to control the will of living creatures from a distance, through a device that, it was said, could deflect orders through the air, making them bounce from one golden receiver to another. They could control animals with it, turning them into slaves who would carry out their deeds as brainless puppets. It seemed Asher had, after all, succeeded in ripping the device off before being struck down. He had no doubt that was the reason he was still breathing.
When he raised his eyes, the stranger was staring at him with his head cocked to the side. He had seen the device. His amusement had faded to a friendly spark in his serious gaze.
“Well.” His voice uncurled in slow bass volutes through the dry air. “Isn’t this your lucky day.”
“You’re quite the character, stranger. I was not expecting promises of undying faith and devotion till your debt be repaid, but at least a thank-you. A nod. An acknowledgement of my existence. Hell, I’m beginning to wonder if you’re deaf, or stupid. Maybe both…”
Asher uttered a noncommittal grunt. The man had been babbling since they’d left the ruins of the camp, his cheerful tone sinking sharp talons in Asher’s throbbing head. He was not fond of chatter on his best days—at the present moment, the kid was lucky he felt way too exhausted to bother punching his mouth shut. So he kept ignoring the one-sided conversation, busy twisting the junctures of his unnatural arm to test their condition. The damage was consistent: the elbow would not bend more than forty-five degrees, the wrist was too limp. The arm would begin the movements Asher commanded it, yet would abort them midway in a convulsive jerk or else remain altogether stuck. Major damage must have occurred in the organic polymer sensorial threads that connected to Asher’s nervous system. A fair price to pay in exchange for one’s life, yet an utter pain in the ass nonetheless.
Asher groaned and abandoned his attempts. He could feel the stranger’s eyes, careful and limpid, weighing his posture.
“My town still has a Technician. His equipment is limited, of course, and he is perhaps…slightly unorthodox, but I reckon he may be able to help with that arm of yours,” the kid said. Asher could not quite repress a swell of relief. He doubted he’d be able to safely make his way back to the capital one-armed. Despite his threatening stance, there were always fools wishing to try their luck.
They progressed slowly. Asher dragged his left leg as discreetly as possible, determined not to lag behind. The stranger had dismounted and was now quietly walking beside his horse, his steps light and just a fraction too unhurried. Asher pretended not to notice, and the stranger did not remark on it. The horse proceeded meekly, seeming pleased with the slow pace. Its legs were hidden up to above the knee by thin brass plates, carefully joined so as to cover as much skin as possible without hindering the animal’s movements—a precaution against the many creatures which would sprout out of the sand, attracted by movement and blood, to bite blindly at the biggest living thing in sight. Asher had seen many a man gain nasty gashes on their calves for their carelessness, and even more horses shot down because of an ignorant owner.
“My name is Gabriel,” the stranger said, suddenly. When Asher glanced in his direction, the man was still staring peacefully at the sand that stretched before them and did not seem to expect a reply. “We may be able to find you a horse soon enough,” he added, letting his head drop back to stare intently at the sky. “I doubt we’ll be the only ones seeking shelter.”
“Shelter? What are you—” Asher, despite himself, cast a quick look upward. The sun shone bright and cool—rust-colored soil particles hovered in the distance, ragged and utterly inconsistent. He shook his head, unconvinced. “How do you know it’s coming?”
The stranger, apparently satisfied with his observations, tucked his hand under his red shawl and brought out a rounded metallic object, roughly the size of his palm.
“This told me.” He snapped the device open. It unfolded neatly in two hemispheres, joined by arches of metallic thread. Immediately, spheres of different size and color—made of different minerals—began to slide slowly across the threads, wobbling backward and then hitching forward again, until each reached its unfathomable disposition and settled in a vibrating stasis. Asher snorted.
“Abracadabra crap,” he sneered. He did not trust the bizarre inventions that the Technicians scattered in the moors generated. They were just palliative toys for the thrumming desperation of people who had lost too much, and had reverted to superstition to try and shelter their minds from the onslaught of it.
The stranger just stared at him above the quivering spheres, before carefully folding back the mechanism. “Maybe. Yet I tell you a storm will come in one hour and a half. I will head to a shelter, and I invite you to follow my lead. Of course,” he added, the mischievous glint spiking up again in his eyes, “you are free to proceed alone, if you choose.”
Asher squinted against the sunlight to try to stare the man down. If the grin on the other’s lips was any indicator, he doubted he was very successful.
“I may as well indulge you,” he said, eventually. His voice sounded a little deeper than usual. “Some rest will be welcome, in any case.”
The stranger, wisely enough, did not reply. If Asher ignored the smug grin curling the man’s lips, he could almost convince himself he had no reason to be pissed off. At all.
© Cornelia Grey
Author: Cornelia Grey
Publisher: Samhain Publishing
Genre: GLBT, SciFi - Futuristic, Steampunk
There are more elusive things than water in this wasteland.
Now that a monstrous London machine has stolen the clouds from the sky, Asher Connor survives by selling his mercenary skills to transport water across York’s wasted moorland. Until his unit is attacked by a pack of Tamer-controlled wolves, and his ingenious mechanical arm fails.
He awakens, surprised to find he’s still alive—and dependent on a charming, attractive, utterly infuriating desert-dweller. The copper-eyed, untamed Gabriel is Asher’s only hope. At least until he reaches a technician who can repair his arm. Reluctant trust turns to desire in the wake of another Tamer attack, and the adrenaline rush locks them in a bond of wildfire lust.
Yet despite Gabriel’s deceptively relaxed attitude, he is dangerously focused. When they get to London, Asher manages to work out only part of the reason. His lover is connected to some kind of underground movement that’s got something big in the works. So big, even quick-with-a-comeback Gabriel is maddeningly tight-lipped.
When betrayal brings the plan crashing down, Asher is plunged into a battle that wasn’t his to fight—and if he doesn’t execute the final stage, Gabriel’s blood could be on his hands.