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Sparks from a Cruel Grindstone: Hellbound, #2

Sparks from a Cruel Grindstone: Hellbound, #2

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Sparks from a Cruel Grindstone: Hellbound, #2

Length:
427 pages
5 hours
Released:
May 3, 2021
ISBN:
9781622535361
Format:
Book

Description

Can vengeance against an ancient enemy wash away her centuries of shame?

They come from the smoky depths of Hell's Pit. Remnants of the shattered Pious Legion, these hateful castoffs of Earth's Roman Empire, seek to conquer. Armed with maddening gas, Maximinus Thrax's airships swarm the skies like vengeful locusts, reducing entire populations to ash.

For Boudica, the forgotten Queen of the Iceni, it's a familiar fate. Having failed against Nero on Earth, her civilization was wiped from history due to her backfired efforts of liberation.

As Thrax's assault eliminates the peaceful enclaves of New Dis, what can the failed warrior queen do to protect her city, the innocent peoples within, and her beloved friends? Will Boudica shake off her anonymous refuge and crushing shame to face the Romans once more, or collapse into the dust of history once more?

EVOLVED PUBLISHING PRESENTS a tale set in an industrialized Dante's Inferno with steampunk trappings, in the second book of the "Hellbound" series of religious sci-fi/fantasy adventures. [DRM-Free]

BOOKS BY WILLIAM LJ GALAINI:

  • "Trampling in the Land of Woe" (Hellbound – 1)
  • "Sparks from a Cruel Grindstone" (Hellbound – 2)
  • "Patron Saint of Wrong" (Hellbound – 3)
  • "An End to Ice and Sorrow" (Hellbound – 4)
  • "Beneath the Titan's Stride" (Hellbound – 5)

MORE GREAT RELIGIOUS SCI-FI & FANTASY FROM EVOLVED PUBLISHING:

  • The "A Nephilim Thriller" Series by Jeff Altabef
  • "The Wayward Sons of the Empyrean" Series by Adam Miller
  • The "Eloah" Series by Lex Allen
  • The "Matthew Bishop" Series by Burt Clinchandhill
  • "The Tormenting Beauty of Empathy" by Richard Robbins

 

Released:
May 3, 2021
ISBN:
9781622535361
Format:
Book

About the author

Having lived up and down the East Coast, William Galaini finally settled outside of DC after a charming stream of career failures that ranged from the hospitality business to the military. After marrying his college sweetheart, writing became his vehicle to pull his life together. Six novels, four cats, forty pounds, and one son later, you now can find him here at Evolved Publishing. His work focuses on character revelation and multifaceted conflicts nestled within science fiction and fantasy settings. The influences that echo in his writing include role-playing games, classic literature, world history, and his personal experience. To recharge, he naps on the couch under his mother’s afghan, surrounded by his cats.


Book Preview

Sparks from a Cruel Grindstone - William LJ Galaini

The harder Boudica tried to remember her father, the less she could. It was like clenching muddy earth between her fingers, each memory slipping free of her grasp. Only when she calmed herself and eased her mind did she feel his beard against her forehead, or hear his raspy voice shushing her back to sleep from a waking nightmare.

No... Boudica concluded that memories couldn’t be clutched by the fistful, but only cupped gently in one’s hands, like water from which to drink. Exhaling through her teeth, she attempted again to clear her mind. The sensation of her father’s beard was slipping from her. Was there a particular kiss that meant more than the others? Did she have one special, specific memory she could drink from?

She rested her forehead against the cliff face she clung to, and growled. How could a daughter forget her father’s kiss? Despite knowing the man for only nine years of her nearly two-thousand-year existence, her failure to recall any wisdom he’d imparted both shamed and enraged her. What an awful daughter she must be to not remember her father’s words.

He used to tickle her; she remembered that, at least. While training her brothers in swordplay, his gaze once caught her sitting nearby in the tall grass, watching wide-eyed with envy. She loved the attention he paid the four boys. Perhaps fathers can read their daughters’ minds, because when he saw her, he flung his training blade into the dirt and snatched her up.

Look what I caught! he declared to her brothers. A Roman spy! Give us your secrets, spy!

And the merciless tickling commenced. She’d giggle and squeal as he dangled her from her feet, her bare tummy a target for all their wriggling fingers.

Torment by tickles! one of the boys said, as they pounced. That’s when she started biting. It was her only defense, and her brothers complained and yelped and scrambled away, but not her father. She’d nip his hands, and even when she sunk her teeth into his forearm, he didn’t flinch.

Good! he pronounced. Good. See, boys, learn from your sister. She knows a sword has only so much use. Your best weapons are knuckles and teeth, knees and elbows. Fight like the beasts we are. Let them know we are not to be tamed.

Quiet, happy tears now ran down Boudica’s charred face, their path zig-zagging through the quagmire of scar tissue. She was so relieved to remember him, now. Her father’s words rang out clear as day, just as when he’d loomed over her all those centuries ago, punctuating that ferocious tickle session with a scruffy kiss to her forehead.

I will, Papa. Knuckles and teeth, Boudica echoed, clinging to the crag, the bottom lost to sight below.

The widest lip of Hell was a red cliff wall, the rim of the giant crater large enough to hold all of humanity’s combined sin. Sheer and unwelcoming to any climber, the crag stood dozens of leagues above its base, and if Earth ever held such a geographic structure, it would be the target of worship and sacrifice. Below, within its yawning mists, lamented thousands of generations of broken souls, all in various states of torment and regret.

Boudica’s remaining patches of skin, cooked into a restrictive leather patchwork, creaked and cracked over her aching joints and muscles. Her lips had mostly grown back, but her nose had yet to fully reform, giving her a ghoulish, wide-eyed appearance. Her pallid hands had visible finger bones protruding from each tip, as she slowly and painfully ascended the cliffs of the lustful damned. The ground far below her was obscured by the mists that crawled about the cliff face, each hand-grip and foothold hidden by their vapor.

In Hell, those motivated by lust to pursue destructive ends resided on the cliff. Each soul had been stripped of their physical form and reduced to a wisp. Darting about, unable to fulfill their physical yearnings, they clamored around Boudica’s warmth.

She tried not to think about the dozens of souls sliding and slipping about her body.

What did she say? Did she call one of us Papa? one hissed to the others, as it slid behind Boudica’s ear.

She winced at the sensation, resolved in her mind not to speak to them as she climbed the remaining leagues to freedom.

I feel her breath!

If you touch yourself, we’ll show you a ledge for you to rest! one offered.

You have teeth just like my youngest daughter. Do you drag them, too?

Take me inside you? Let me fill you!

Burnt or not, we feel your electricity!

As all of them whispered and pleaded and demanded in a lurid, deafening cacophony, Boudica gritted her teeth and did her best to ignore them, continuing upward, still thinking of her father’s kiss.

Silence! one of the wisps snarled, as it coiled around her arm. Woman, hear my confession, and I will guide you clear to the top. All you need do is listen.

Boudica’s shoulders ached and her knees felt ready to buckle. She feared that if she didn’t pause again to gather her strength, she would fall, so she leaned her head against the cliff face, clamped her jaw shut, and listened.

Thank you, my lady, the wisp said, piling itself into both of her ears in an effort to block out the remaining noise.

I was an inquisitor in the Land of the Sword, it said. I served the Catholic Empire with uncommon fervor, purifying the land of the disloyal and the deviant. I focused especially on sodomites, their appetites an abomination greater to me than any other. I branded them, burned them, made their children homeless and fixed their skins to my chamber door. I hated them above all.

So why are you here? Boudica asked. She was eager for the wisp’s help, and her muscles burned, but her curiosity had been piqued. How could such crimes not earn a spot among the wrathful below in the boiling river of blood?

Because lust motivated me. Since as far back as I could recall in my childhood, I desired nothing more than other men. I was furious that God had made me in such a broken manner, and I was even more furious that other men were braver than me and indulged their natures. I was envious, outraged, alone, and hateful. But the root of it was a lust I refused to acknowledge or confront. Lust is my sin, and it was the vehicle for the torments and horrors I inflicted on my unfortunate fellows.

I know what it is to be angry, Boudica whispered, so quietly that even the voice in her own ears hushed to hear it.

Indeed you do, Boudica, the wisp replied.

The others must have heard it, because soon the surrounding souls began rasping her various names.

Voadecea!

The Barbarian Queen!

Boadeccea!

Buddug!

Victoria!

Bunduca!

Silence! the inquisitor hollered, his vaporous form rushing from her ears and lashing about her body, driving the others away. I beg your forgiveness, it pleaded, regal but sincere, as it gathered around her once more. I have earned the filthy company I keep—molesters and predators and the carnally obsessed. Please, allow me to guide you to the top. I will solidify around each hand-hold. Simply follow me, Queen.

Her hands cramping painfully, Boudica finally lurched over the crag and onto the clay plateau beyond. Far below, the ground lay obscured by both distance and the writhing, sentient mists.

You are at the top, good Queen, the inquisitor whispered in her ear, as it spilled from around her shoulders onto the cracked ground before her. I must return to the mass, lest I never complete my time, but if you proceed directly away from The Pit, you will reach the end of the wastes. Another steep incline waits there, and beyond are the walls of your city, if I understand correctly.

Boudica nodded in appreciation. I owe you, she rasped, her throat dry from exhaustion.

Pray for me, it replied. That will be enough.

I don’t even know your name.

You don’t need that to pray for me. God knows who you’ll be referring to. With that, the tiny cloud slipped from under her and back over the ridgeline, returning to the shadowy depths below.

Allowing herself the indulgence of a groan, Boudica rolled onto her quivering back. Spasms racked her body as she permitted her muscles to at last relax. With each twitch sharp as a fire poker, her ribs raised, sank, and found their rhythm.

Her leather armor had been baked into the flesh of her shoulders and thighs, and she winced at the thought of eventually digging it out. She considered doing it now, before she healed too much, but doing so might send her back into death—and she did not want to leave her body vulnerable here, in this place. Besides, she’d rather endure withering pain than die again. Some people enjoyed the act of death and resurrection, a few even relishing in it. Many gladiator pits operated in New Dis, but every time Boudica thought of the black calm of death, she’d recall her first death—her Earthly end—and she would shudder.

She creaked to her knees and ran her bony fingers over her face and scalp. Her hair felt sharp and bristly, struggling to regrow from her scarred scalp, and her lips had healed enough to keep her from drooling out of the sides of her mouth. Since her eyelids hadn’t returned entirely, she squinted to keep her vision moist and clear.

Awkwardly, she got to her feet, balancing unsteadily. Her boots, leather with chainmail overlay, had been badly charred and torn from the crash that landed her in The Pit in the first place. The soles were still intact, though, and she was grateful for small mercies.

She stretched upright and squared her shoulders as best she could, reaching her full height, but something was still missing.

Her errant thumb fumbled about her belt where her sword used to hang. Her daughters had forged the blade as a gift to her, their temperamental mother—a tender, metaphorical means to keep Boudica’s rage sheathed and under control. Since that moment, she had not spent a minute without it—until recently.

Hephaestion carried it now, for he needed it most. It had been impulsive of her to give it to him, and she sorely missed its warmth, but it would have felt more wrong not to do it. Knowing her daughters would approve of Hephaestion using it gave Boudica little comfort, however. The warrior queen felt vulnerable without her weapon, like a child without her blanket.

Peering into the dim distance of the featureless wastes before her, she couldn’t even make out the cityscape of New Dis. She felt alone and afraid, and hated herself for it. She always hated herself when she was scared, but it moved her forward.

Besides, she had to tell Adina where Yitz was.

Boudica wasn’t one to judge distances or count footfalls. She simply knew that she would get there when she got there.

As she lumbered forward, her mind wandered back to the ship she’d been traveling on before her most recent death: Mom. It looked as though someone had cut loose the sails from a Dutch frigate and replaced them with two long balloons. Such a vehicle seemed awkward, and clearly didn’t belong in the air, but the same could be said of Mom’s captain and crew. That surly lot, carelessly tattooed and dressed like paupers, were an odd sight next to the pressed and brass-buttoned uniforms of the various zeppelin crews that populated the air docks. Did Mom’s captain, the handsome Captain Adam Alan, get along with his contemporaries? Did the more modernized pilots and crews turn their noses up at the rowdy pirates, still stuck in their archaic ways?

Regardless of how their peers judged Mom’s crew, no one could have put up a better fight against the Japanese dragon ship that had attacked them. A smile cracked Boudica’s burnt face as she remembered the undisciplined tangle of sailors, cursing and swinging their swords clumsily as they repelled wave after wave of boarding ninja. Rowdy fighters with such heart were a rare treasure. Even Yitz had found his fighting spirit, and Hephaestion... he was the most graceful warrior she’d ever seen. It had been a glorious day.

She whispered a simple prayer for Mom and her crew, asking that they make it safely to their destination on the other side of The Pit. Then she sent another prayer up for Hephaestion and Yitz, who were at this moment descending deeper into Hell. Next she prayed for Adina, hoping she wouldn’t wither away from worry over her foolish husband. And finally, she prayed that her next assignment from Sun Tzu wouldn’t be a violent one.

I could pray all day, she muttered to break the stifling silence, her voice crusty with thirst. Ahead, she spotted no lights and no horizon, only a clay-caked and dusty expanse.

Just as she started to pray for the nameless mist, her foot splashed into a pool of shallow water. The reflection of her singed body rippled as she fell to her knees, bending forward deeply to submerge her face. The water was fresh and clean, condensed from the cold air, and it was the purest thing she could remember tasting.

After drinking her fill, she sat up, her horrifying visage grinning back at her through the mirror of the disturbed water. It might be weeks until her face was right again, but she could still see the blue of her tattoos seared into her muscle and sinew. Her appearance was ghoulish, but a friend would recognize her Celtic-patterned skin.

She stood again, wearily, but before she could take a step, a sharp pain punched through her right thigh, knocking the strength from her. Crying out in shock, she fell back into the water and clasped at the oozing, bloody wound.

A rifle report echoed over the wastes.

Someone shot me! She spat bitterly at her lack of weaponry or defenses.

Panting through her few options, she decided to play dead. She was half there, anyhow. Keeping her breath shallow, she remained as still as possible, and squinted through the murk for her approaching enemy.

And they came, eight of them in all: white men with articulate beards, dressed in dirty yellow cloaks, with long muskets slung over their shoulders. They rode high on mechanical horses loaded with climbing ropes, pulleys, and swords. In the rear, a rider in full plate armor held a banner over his head sporting a weeping lion on a sundered shield.

Men of the Lion’s Pride Company. Certainly, they had been employed by the same Jesuits who hounded Hephaestion. They were Swedish sell-swords for the highest bidder, and Boudica instantly surmised that they were on their way to investigate the crash of the dragon ship. Someone must have reported it missing within a few hours, and only Hephaestion’s enemy would know to call in such well-paid, heavily-armed professionals.

As they came closer, Boudica held her breath as best she could. Her only chance was to lure them into the shin-deep water.

The mechanized horses snorted steam from their engines, glass eyes illuminating their way as each oiled joint moved in precise rhythm.

It’s still breathing! the nearest one said.

Boudica cursed herself as he leapt off his horse and pulled a flintlock pistol from his belt. Closing one eye, he aimed and fired a shot into her opposite thigh.

She cried out in pain and thrashed about in the water.

Sounds like a woman. Come on, then. Ask away, the pistol bearer said casually, holstering his spent weapon.

From the rear strode the mechanized horse bearing the man in full plate, his visor up. Not bothering to dismount, he rode his machine right into the pool of water around her.

Be still, he commanded. I’d rather not put more any bullets in you. They can be costly.

Boudica sputtered a litany of curses between her teeth as she tried to reign in her agony. The fuck d’you shoot me for? she barked.

The armored man smirked. I haven’t heard that language before. Are you speaking ancient Gaelic? Never mind. I’m looking for a crashed airship, and since you are clearly charred, I suspect you were a passenger. And since you left the site of the crash, you are either a deserter or someone who aided in its destruction. Either way, you are a person of interest, and this will go far faster for you if you just allow me to ask the questions, hmm?

You’re a mercenary. Fuck off, Boudica snarled, as she tried rolling onto her knees. The pain blurred her vision and twisted her spine involuntarily, and she flopped back into the pool, panting.

With a gloved hand, the man waved two of his compatriots forward to assist. Hold her down. Take her heart. We’ll jar it and hand it over to that nutter upon our return.

Two of the mercenaries—one with the spent pistol and another clutching a bladed spade—flanked her. They knelt and pressed down on her arms.

She was too weak to fight them off.

Fish out her heart and let’s move on, the leader declared.

The mercenary holding the bladed spade drew a mallet from his belt. He then placed the sharp tool over the top of her heart and steadied the mallet. As he slowly practiced his impending stroke, the other man’s voice quivered a warning.

Sir, she’s... there’s....

Boudica was furious. Her skeletal teeth chattered, and her warped tattoos had begun to emanate an electric, blue glow.

Alarmed, the mercenary drew his pistol again and pressed it to her forehead, but realized too late that he hadn’t reloaded.

Being Heavenbound came with its own power. Some, like Adina, could collapse buildings and incinerate flesh with their blessing, while others like Abbot Gottbert could heal ailments and wounds. Heaven’s endowments could both nourish as well as destroy, and Boudica was more of the destroying sort.

With a crackling flash of blue arcs, she unleashed an electrical torrent directly from her marrow. The current fried the two men pinning her down, their shrieks drowned by the hissing water as a bolt of lightning flew up the mechanical horse’s legs and straight into its head, blowing out its eyes while its rider sizzled where he sat. In an instant, his armor had been welded solid, the smoke from his cooking body puffing out through his visor and joints.

Heavenbound! the other men yelled, and ran for their horses. Frantically, they scattered in all directions.

Boudica lay in the water, steam rising all around her, panting from the exertion. Once she regained her breath, she realized that her arms remained pinned just as before, the men’s bodies curled as if praying toward The Pit. One still held his mallet.

Fuuuuuuuuuuck, she grumbled, tugging at her arms. With a crackle of burned flesh, her left arm came free. She then shifted her shoulders and slid the other arm out from under the second soldier. She tried to stand, but screamed out as both thighs reminded her that she’d been shot.

Punching the water in a tantrum, she realized she’d have to crawl the rest of the way on her belly. Scanning the horizon, Boudica surmised the direction that New Dis lay in. She knew she was soaked through and would therefore leave a wet trail behind her, but tempting as it was to stay put and lick her wounds, she also knew she was too vulnerable to remain. She wouldn’t be able to fire off another charge of electricity like that for at least a day.

Fingers outstretched, she dug them into the cracks in the clay’s surface, and hoisted herself forward with a wince. Then she did it again. And again.

She was on her way.

The Iceni’s men had gathered before dawn, their short swords and tall shields bundled in oiled wool for the march south. Fathers kissed wives goodbye while sons hugged their sisters. Boudica’s father and four brothers—even the youngest, who was only a few years her senior—had their splint vests cinched and their faces hardened for battle.

Her mother had explained over dinner last night that the men of the Iceni were off to join the other tribes. The Romans were coming, and they sought to steal the future from everyone and make it their own. This was how Boudica understood it; she thought her father was off to scare away thieves.

Bouncing about and singing songs, Boudica didn’t understand why everyone appeared so serious. Any thief should quake at the sight of her father.

Her brothers patted the top of her head, but her father knelt and gave her a bristly kiss on her cheek.

Knuckles and teeth...

Did he say that? Whisper it? Or was her memory corrupted by emotion?

He marched off with one arm high in the air, signaling for the hundreds of scruffy boys and bearded men assembled behind him to move out. They poured through the barricade gates like sand slipping through a funnel, many calling out final goodbyes as they took up the song.

Long after they’d marched out of sight, Boudica still could hear their tune from her perch on the southeastern archery tower. It drifted through the trees, rustled the tall surrounding grass like the wind itself, and climbed the fortifications until it reached her.

When Boudica’s ears could hear it no more, she took it up herself, humming it to the chickens as she collected the morning’s eggs.

For the next eight days, she saw nothing but women. Every village, hamlet, and town had been emptied of fighting men, as a full commitment to shooing off these Roman thieves.

At dusk on the eighth day, she saw the first man, a Roman legate that held her father’s head high before the gates. Mounted on a white horse, the legate gripped his trophy by the hair as the wind toyed with her father’s dangling beard. Behind him, a regiment of polished and magnificent soldiers assembled, in numbers enough to crush any resistance, their steel armor adorned with white collars, each more vibrant than any statue or painting she’d ever seen.

Whereas her father’s warriors had been a ramble of brawlers, the Romans appeared terrifyingly still, as if their lives were paused, awaiting the command to kill like disciplined hunting dogs.

And she was the prey.

The legate on the horse waited patiently, holding her father’s head steadily for all the watching eyes to see.

Boudica could only see a blur where her father’s face should have been.

Send out your Queen to gather her husband and sons, the Roman proclaimed in Boudica’s language, his words broken but still managing elegance. We have the future of the Iceni to discuss.

At a certain point while crawling through Hell, Boudica must have either passed out or died from the blood loss. When she awoke again, she was thoroughly lost, the pool where she electrocuted the three soldiers now leagues away.

Something new had taken their place. In front of her, perfect and still, stood a shimmering bird.

Lifting her head in disbelief, Boudica studied the masterfully crafted statue. She could make out thin, acid-etched scroll designs on its body, each feather sculpted from hair-fine copper strands. Its irises, faintly glowing in its chrome skull, were sharply focused. As they opened and closed in a fluid motion, she realized the thing could actually see her.

The bird cocked its head to gain a better look at Boudica, then spread its wings and took flight, vanishing into the distance.

Boudica pondered this for a minute. Had it been real? Could the Swiss have built mechanical birds to track people? Had she been located, and would they simply shoot her dead from a safer distance this time? She was just as vulnerable as before and could do nothing to defend herself.

Yet this beast looked more ceremonial than combat-oriented. Its intricate scrollwork and overall design and construction spoke of a kind of love—the love an artist has for their craft.

Resolving that any place would be better than where she now lay, Boudica took up crawling once again. She hadn’t made it too much farther when the rumble of a motor reflected across the flat clay surface of Hell’s wastes from the direction in which the bird had flown. A gas-powered wagon, covered and rickety, swung from side to side. A squat man steered the vehicle from a wide seat up top.

Boudica groaned miserably as she recognized it.

The wagon slowed to a stop, the smoke stack to its rear giving a final blackened puff. The man, whom Boudica knew as Ganzorig, raised a slow hand in greeting toward her. With some effort, she returned the gesture, and he nodded in response, then banged his heel on the roof of the wagon.

A side flap swung outward for a moment as a young girl emerged. She was dark-skinned, Asian, her hair bound in a dark braid that coiled around her neck. She was Nergui, one of Sun Tzu’s inner circle.

You were a bitch to find, Boudica, the girl said through her teeth. Nergui stood proud, no older than thirteen, one extended arm sheathed in a giant metal sleeve. Perched atop the sleeve, the glorious metal bird stood like a falcon awaiting its next quarry. With her free hand, Nergui slowly spun a crank that extended from the shoulder-end of her falconry sleeve.

It occurred to the wounded warrior that the crank must be sending a charging current into the machine through its metal perch.

Walking closer to Boudica’s prone, bleeding body, Nergui’s hand kept up a consistent rhythm, whirring in a circle under her chin. She knelt in front of Boudica. You look awful, and you’re wounded... badly. She nodded to her companion, and as Ganzorig jumped down and strode over to Boudica, Nergui said, The boss sent us to find you and bring you in.

It’s not safe, Boudica croaked, as Ganzorig roughly gripped her under her arms and rolled her over.

I know. She told me. Nergui motioned to the mechanized falcon. We’ll talk more on the road.

The pain in Boudica’s legs caused her back to spasm painfully. She gripped Ganzorig with all her might to help keep her body stiff enough to drag. With a brutal, desperate motion, he hoisted Boudica up, flung her through the open flap of the wagon, and then scaled the side to climb back into the driver’s seat.

Nergui followed Boudica in, stepping carefully before fastening the flap closed behind her. Then, with a tiny fist, she banged on the roof, and the motor under the wagon’s floor coughed in protest as the wagon began moving again.

Mechanized birds hung upside-down from the ceiling of the wagon, many in different states of construction or repair. Along the canvas walls dangled rows of tools, jars of powder, and spools of wiring. All of it jingled and shifted while beaten leather scroll cases rolled about the floor, as the wagon bounced forward.

When Boudica had first been introduced to Nergui, she was told that the child was an artificer. She developed tools and machines for Sun Tzu’s mysterious needs, including highly illegal heart-rippers.

I saw your trail in the dust, the girl said, then followed it back to your watering hole and saw the remains of some Switzers you cooked.

I was trying to be hard to track. Boudica grunted as she straightened her left leg out.

From the ground, your trail would be much harder to come by, but this lovely bird can see through the dust from great heights. We first thought the various parties of Lion’s Pride were out here to train. There are dozens of them in small groups coming from different exit points of the city, but clearly they are combing the wastes—I presume for you.

Likely.

Want to tell me what happened?

I’ll tell it to the Boss directly.

I’m the eyes and ears of the Boss. Sun Tzu is not available to you. Spill your guts, Boudica. You haven’t reported in on schedule. Why were you on Mom?

Did the ship make it to dock all right? Boudica worried for the boisterous crew and their loud, charming Dutch captain, Adam Alan. Knowing Mom was safe would ease at least one of her worries.

Yes. They announced that they had been attacked by a Japanese dragon ship. Now half of New Dis is screaming for Japanese blood. Nergui’s eyes took on a hint of mischief. You downed the dragon ship, I suppose? Used your blessing?

Her gift was the primary reason why Sun Tzu kept such a tight eye on Boudica. The Iceni queen was the only Heavenbound operative in his employ. He apparently lamented this fact, and had pressed Nergui several times to inquire about the possibilities of recruiting Boudica’s closest friends, Adina and Minu.

Boudica adjusted her mangled thigh, suppressing a whimper. Of course I did. What else was I to do?

I’m not judging. Nergui raised her hands, palms open. In fact, I can see the Boss using this to his advantage. He has a Heavenbound agent that will willingly employ her power. All he has to do is insinuate that he wanted Mom to reach dock safely. People will assume you were just following his orders.

Then why are you grumbling?

Because you didn’t report in that you were traveling, and I was tasked with finding you.

You found me easy enough.

And what if we get caught by these Switzer’s combing the ring? They’ll jar our hearts along with yours, I’ll bet.

You’ve got other birds in the sky scouting around. Don’t play weak with me. Boudica’s tolerance for the artificer’s questions and complaints had

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