Part of: Heart of Dread
“Readers are plunged right in the middle of the action from the first page… an action-packed adventure.”—Kirkus Reviews
“The concept of overlapping worlds on one planet will intrigue readers and raise philosophical questions about the nature of reality. The cliff-hanger ending assures readers that a finale is in the works.”—Booklist
“Fans of the first book will no doubt be very happy with where this action-filled trilogy is headed.”—School Library Journal
- Pages: 304 Pages
- Series: Heart of Dread
- Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
- Imprint: G.P. Putnam's Sons Books for Young Readers
- ISBN: 9780698171701
An Excerpt From
Men say they know many things;
But lo! they have taken wings,—
The arts and sciences,
And a thousand appliances;
The wind that blows
Is all that any body knows.
—HENRY DAVID THOREAU
—THE DECEMBERISTS, “THIS IS WHY WE FIGHT”
AND THE THIEF
THROUGH THE FIRE, THROUGH THE SMOKE and flame, she saw the boy and the girl huddled in the corner. Twins. She hadn’t known there would be two children. Which one? The boy looked afraid, but his sister stared back boldly. The girl had sapphire eyes and a swirl on her shoulder. A weaver.
It was the girl.
A decision was made.
She was the one.
The one they had come to steal.
Part the First:
You drop a coin into the sea, and shout out, “Please come back to me”
—STARS, “THE NIGHT STARTS HERE”
FIRE IN HER THROAT. FIRE IN HER LUNGS and chest. Nat breathed and the drakon breathed. She exhaled and the drakon exhaled. The drakon roared its fury and the flame was everywhere, a blaze as bright as the noonday sun.
Natasha Kestal was a drakonrydder. She was Anastasia Dekesthalias, the Resurrection of the Flame. But neither words nor names could capture the incredible floating, flying, gut-twisting, hair-raising sensation that filled her entire being. Being a drakonrydder was only part of it. Nat was the drakon. She was a piece of the creature’s soul, a limb that had been torn from its body as surely as a wing or a claw, but now, reunited, they were one as they glided through the clouds, skimming across the water, the wind in her face and hair, its fire burning in her throat. The drakon’s fury, its rage, was her rage, and she breathed that rage upon the drone ships that flew the flag of the Remaining States of America, setting the entire ocean aflame.
Not everything was so simple. The battle in the Pacific had been only the first victory, as the enemy’s might was far more formidable and vast than she or the Council of Vallonis had anticipated. Since the first battle, armadas hidden around points of the globe had tracked and assaulted every possible gateway to the Blue. They’d come with their guns and their rockets, following her with radar and satellite, sending drone aircrafts to track her position and battle cruisers to fire their missiles into the drakon’s hide. Like wasps stinging a hound’s coat, Nat thought. But if stung enough, the hound will fall.
It was her job to keep that from happening. But her drakon had suffered many injuries already and it had been a while since they had been able to truly rest.
All the oceans were the same—the frothy waters toxic and black—with the Tasman Sea as blighted as the rest. The gate of Arem had closed, but navy spies discovered the new doorway located north of New Crete that the people of Vallonis were using to rescue their sick brothers and sisters from the dying world. Nat had been patrolling the skies at dawn when she spotted the hulking supercarriers steaming their way to the island.
She urged her drakon downward and they dove through walls of smoke and ash, bursting through flame; a Valkyrie and her mount. The wind from its wings created white-crested waves that sent the fleet’s smaller vessels tumbling in the tide, capsizing the drone ships and filling their hulls with black water that pulled them down into the murky depths, all while Nat and her drakon rose upward on a plume of hot air, disappearing into the dark skies and preparing for another volley.
Higher, she urged. Faster. Fly ahead of their bullets.
Drakon Mainas flapped its leathery wings, the air gusting like a hurricane, each mighty wing beat scattering the clouds and creating a vortex, a hole through which she could glimpse the remnants of the latest fleet, the gleaming cruisers and destroyers of the RSA, floundering and nearly obliterated in one breath of the drakon’s flame.
One more and they are done.
Nat inhaled. She felt the hot air churning in her lungs, the fire building, heat swirling, rising. Make this blast the greatest yet—a heat so intense, it will roast their ships into dust. The fire pulsed in her veins; it climbed up her throat. She let the flame grow until she couldn’t control it anymore. The drakon’s black and ashy scales glowed hot, red and orange. Nat screamed and a violent blue fireball erupted from its mouth, intense and white-hot in the center, onto the remaining drones.
Now all the ships were burning, their hulls blackened, and they were sinking into the ocean, steam rising and hissing as they slipped into the dark waters. Scorched. Defeated.
Nat felt a fierce swell of joy and triumph, but she had survived enough of these campaigns to know it wasn’t over quite yet.
Up, she said to her drakon. Into the sky, our hunt continues.
Higher and higher they climbed, rising up until they were above the clouds, above the gray mist. Nat hovered, listening for the engines of the remaining aircraft—the gray drones that swarmed the air above the coast of New Pangaea.
Like the humming snore of a great, sleeping beast, she thought. Or . . .
A flock of sleek warbirds ripped through the clouds, their engines screaming, targeting mechanisms whirling, heading straight for them. Only seconds away, a few drakon-lengths at the most.
The drakon tucked its mighty wings to its back and fell straight out of the sky, toward the rocky cliffs along the shore. They sailed down into a wedge-shaped valley, passing so close to the stone that Nat thought she saw animals scurrying across the rocks, running away from the great rush of wind that preceded the drakon. But the buzzing drones still followed close behind, and she could see their black-tipped noses from the corner of her eye. Faster, she urged her drakon. Down and down they fell, breaking stones and branches, sending rocks and leaves spiraling into the air, coming to a halt a hairsbreadth above the river at the valley’s base.
The drakon beat its wings right before they struck the water, and they rose once more, flying in a wide arc before angling up toward the lip of the gorge.
The unexpected move sent a few of their pursuers crashing into the water or the rocks, but others maneuvered faster and continued to trail behind them, spitting out gunfire, and Nat had to dodge the bullets that streaked toward her. She brandished her sword, holding it aloft to direct the drakon’s flame, while the bullets bounced harmlessly against her shield.
Get us out of here. Find cover.
There! Nat spied a granite pillar, a tower of rock where they could hide. Soon the drakon was already turning toward it, diving again to an open chasm. The drakon landed on the far side of the rock, talons gripping the stone, breaking chunks from the granite. They hung there, hiding, blending into the dark, listening closely as the roar of the drones’ engines filled the canyon.
Shrieking like banshees, wailing like lost souls, the unpiloted drones dove into the valley. Now. Let’s fill this canyon with flame.
Nat inhaled deeply and the drakon stretched its neck, reaching around the stone to unleash an epic roar, breathing fire into the gorge and turning the rocky crevice into an inferno. One by one the drones flew into the canyon, their engines whizzing, buzzing like enormous insects, searching for Nat, only to find themselves trapped in a heat intense enough to warp their wings and melt their engines. Three crashed into the walls of the cliff while the last one merely sputtered and fell to the valley floor.
It’s over. We did it. The canyon was engulfed in drakonfire, and Nat marveled at its beauty, how it swirled around her, dancing. The fire fell like warm rain on her shoulders, as soothing as a cocoon.
She let the flames dim. The battle was finished, or so she believed; she’d been through enough of these to know when it was over.
But just as she exhaled in relief, a lone gray drone soared above the cavern, its dark wings wide as the valley, nose as long as the highest tree was tall, dropping bombs from its belly. It was a grayhawk, the deadliest aircraft in the RSA’s arsenal, as large and fearsome as the drakon itself—stealthy and silent, a death machine in the sky.
She could feel the drakon’s fear. Like her, it was afraid of iron, of the steel in their bullets and shells. Like her, it was afraid of the grayhawk.
They rose from the canyon, wings beating. Nat’s heels digging into the drakon’s side, urging it upward, explosions and smoke chasing them from the gorge as they burst out into the sky, flames nipping at their tail.
Come and get us. Nat waited for the grayhawk to find them in the clouds and smoke, meaning to meet it head-on, to torch it like she had the others.
Come and I will show you what it means to burn.
She waited, but there was nothing but dark smoke that hurt her eyes.
Nat blinked and suddenly she was staring into a black expanse that wasn’t ocean or sky, but asphalt—a road with cars racing across its surface. She wiped the tears from her eyes, thinking she was hallucinating, but the vision of the racetrack persisted.
And there, inside one of the cars, was Wes, his face tight with tension, his mouth set in a frown, dark circles under his eyes.
How long had it been since they had seen each other?
He was driving and didn’t see her as he maneuvered his car across the track, nearly colliding with another driver but swerving gracefully just in time. Then he looked up, and his brown eyes widened in acknowledgment as they met her green ones.
She could hear his voice in her head, and her heart ached and the fire burned white-hot inside her.
Wes! she cried. What was she looking at? Where was he?
But just as quickly as he’d appeared, he was gone. The track and its cars vanished into the mist.
There was only the fat belly of the grayhawk hovering above, its rockets pointed straight at her, and so Nat flew up to meet it, her throat filling with flame, ready to exhale.
WES SLAMMED HIS HEAD ON THE CEILING of the Mustang, and when he opened his eyes, the racetrack was gone.
Murky dark water littered with ziggurats of trash the size of icebergs filled his vision. A burnt battle cruiser slowly sank into the waves while a grayhawk drone hovered in the sky. When he blinked again, the roar of a car engine pounded in his ears, closing in fast from behind. A white Lamborghini slid past his side mirror, sending a drift of snow over his windshield, blocking his sight.
He turned the wheel sharply to clear his windshield, and when he blinked, there it was again: the churning waves and sinking ships. But now he saw something else as well—a great black silhouette with wings and a tail, soaring through the gray sky, breathing fire.
Another bump, and Wes was back in the race, past the bend and into the straightaway. If one of the other drivers was going to pass him, now was the time. They would approach from the inside and try to force him toward one of the outer lanes. Fine. Let them. He wasn’t trying to win the race, after all. Winning was the last thing he wanted to do. Mostly, he just wanted to stay alive.
Screaming around the turn with the track opening up before him, Wes didn’t have to blink this time to see the bow of the drone ship again, and the creature in the air. And this time he saw her.
Nat on her drakon, wielding a sword, looking like some kind of god, like a story from a fairy tale, like a hero from the book of legends, her long dark hair streaming like a ribbon in the sky.
She was looking right back at him, her green tiger eyes flashing in shock and joy.
But just as quickly as she appeared, she was gone.
It wasn’t real. It couldn’t be real. Was it a memory? But Nat looked different—her hair was longer, and she was wearing different clothes. Armor? He could have sworn she was wearing a suit of leather and black chain mail, similar to the black scales of her drakon. It had to be a dream.
But it felt so real.
And his feelings for her were as real as the day they’d said good-bye.
He’d done what he promised. He’d taken her out of New Vegas, across the ruined Pacific to the Blue, her home. Together they survived slavers and traitors, chaos and death. Wes had taken her right to the gate of Arem, where she and her drakon had turned the entire Pacific fleet into ash in order to defend their homeland.
An Aston Martin crashed against him with a thunderous crack, sending his car spinning, and Wes quickly refocused on the track. He flew ahead of a pair of black Ferraris, the white Lamborghini close behind. Good. He would lead them for a few laps, before letting them overtake him. The guys in the exotic cars were the ones who were supposed to win, paying top dollar for the privilege. Execs from as far as Xian and New Kong came to the New Vegas track for a chance to race in the last international no-rules speedway. Drivers like Wes were part of the entertainment, to lend authenticity to the experience; he gave them someone to pass, to beat, to outrun, someone to splash with a cloud of snow, someone to send spiraling into the snowbanks. If he made the mistake of actually winning the race, he wouldn’t get paid. It was a risky business, driving cars, causing accidents, but it was the only work he could find. He was already blacklisted by a few of the casino bosses for refusing to torch a rival hotel, and then by the military for refusing to patrol the black waters.
His thoughts drifted back to Nat. She had looked at him. She had seen him. Her presence made him feel warm for a moment, the way it had on the slavers’ ship, when she had kept them both alive. He hadn’t thought to question it before, but there was no way they would have survived the subzero weather if one of them hadn’t been made of drakonflame.
But she wasn’t here anymore. He was alone and the car was cold. The heater on the ’77 Mustang didn’t work. They’d let him borrow an old heat suit for the race, but the jacket wasn’t working, and he was so cold, he could hardly keep his hands on the wheel.
Maybe it was the cold that made him think about her. He’d left Nat at the door to the Blue, left her behind, left her to fight her battles alone. He’d left her to find his sister, Eliza. The girl the RSA had stolen as a child. Eliza was family; Eliza was blood. It had been months since he’d said good-bye to Nat, and during that time he had searched for Eliza. There had been leads here and there, but none of them had led to his sister.
Wes pushed Nat from his thoughts.
The road ahead was open, the track clear. Black pavement stretched in front of him. Wes opened up the gas and floored it, exhilarated from the speed and adrenaline. As he rounded the turn, he saw a mechanic in an orange heat suit waving the checkered flag to signal the end of the race. The finish line was near.
But there was no car in front of him.
Ice. I hadn’t meant to do that.
He was about to win the race. He’d let his memory of Nat distract him, and now he was still ahead of the other drivers. His opponents—the heat elite, the global execs and the RSA stooges, the casino lords and gangsters, the rich boys from the heated dome cities—were so inept at driving that he had won without even trying.
Godfreezeit! he cursed, and Wes didn’t like cursing. His mother had taught him better. He needed to lose, and he needed to lose now. If he won the race, he wouldn’t get paid—not one freezing watt. Those were the rules.
The white Lamborghini flew past him, sending a shower of snow against his windshield once again. Cretin. Wes let off the gas a little—he couldn’t be too obvious—but he needed to get out of the race and he needed to do it soon. He slammed the brake and his car spun, sideswiping the Lamborghini. Two more cars came flying around the bend, the pair of black Ferraris turning sharply to avoid Wes and the Lamborghini as they careened wildly across the track. But their efforts came to no avail, as the pair rolled over each other and crashed into the embankment. A blue Porsche ran past, gunning to win, but it was too late, and it, too, collided with the Mustang in a flash of blue and a burst of snow. As Wes finally spun to a halt, a black Corvette shrieked across the finish line.
The race was over.
Wes’s car skidded into the off-road portion of the track, crashing into a flimsy barrier with an awkward bang. He pushed himself out through the driver’s window and fell onto the fresh powder, laughing a little, relishing the look of the other drivers, especially that icehole in the Lamborghini. He couldn’t remember the last time he had laughed. Ruining the race for some heatbag was the closest thing Wes had to enjoyment, but his laughter faded quickly. The driver of the white Lamborghini was already running toward the control box, complaining to the track manager about Wes’s last-minute maneuver.
Wes shook the snow from his hair. It didn’t matter. He had done what was required of him. He would get paid. He would eat tonight.
His back was sore from the impact; the injuries hurt more than he let on. Lately the ice had been getting to him. He felt it in his joints every morning and when he lay awake at night, dreaming of the ocean, his every muscle aching, his mind unable to rest.
Nat was out there somewhere. The nets were full of stories of ocean attacks and images of the creature that was systematically destroying the RSA’s armada. First the entire Pacific fleet, then the Atlantic cruisers; now a newly formed battalion of grayhawks and supercarriers was rumored to be headed to New Pangaea to meet the monster head-on. Was that what he’d seen? Was that where she was?
He’d left Nat because he had to, but now he wasn’t so certain. She was all alone, one drakonrydder against many drones. He hadn’t seen any backup, no sylvan archers, no warriors on horseback. Just Nat and her drakon against the might of the RSA.
Wes pushed his way through the snow, avoiding the other drivers, the victor as well as the losers. He was done for the night. His account would register the watts in a few minutes. When the money arrived, he’d have enough heat for a meal, a drink, maybe two; maybe he’d even be able to share that meal. The wind rose up, the icy breeze rattling his bones, making him shiver. He was only sixteen but was shaking like a frail old man. He was shivering so hard, he hardly noticed the buzzing in his pocket.
When he finally heard the low rumble, he reached into his jacket and pulled out a stolen satellite phone. A text flickered on the screen, green letters glowing on the black display. Wes read the message twice, not quite believing what he was reading.
It was from Shakes. His best friend. His right-hand man. It said:
Wes stuffed the phone back into his pocket, hurrying from the track, feeling hope spark in his heart again, as warm and bright as drakonfire.
THE GRAYHAWK DISAPPEARED BACK into the clouds before the drakonflame could reach it, and Nat shook Wes’s warm brown eyes from her thoughts.
Riding high above the ocean, she looked down at the islands below, a stony archipelago covered in blankets of snow and dotted with bursts of bright green foliage. She flew closer to the water, looking for the grayhawk that had chased her from the gorge, but it was nowhere to be found. The drone remained hidden in the misty fog.
As she and her drakon flew closer to land, Nat could see the trees more clearly, hardy brown trunks sprouting from the frost-covered earth, their leafy branches reaching heavenward. Liannan, the sylph who’d guided them to the Blue, told them that one day its magic would cover the world. Here, at the bottom of New Pangaea, along the coasts of the Roo Islands, at the gate of Afal, the deep green forests of the earth were returning, and life was spreading across the black waters once more.
This is what I fight for, Nat thought, seeing the forest in all its beauty. The land I love. The words made her fly faster, as if only the speed itself could keep her from the thought she knew would be next. Is that all you love? The land? Nat tightened her grip, forcing herself to focus only on what lay ahead of her—just as she always had.
And besides, what lay ahead of her was a truly staggering sight. Closer and closer they came, diving near the treetops, the smell of the sap pungent and heady, the scent of flowers wafting in the air. Nat tried not to let the forest distract her. The drone was still out there, hiding in the fog, waiting. She couldn’t let her guard down, even for a moment, even to see this forest, growing where nothing had lived for a century.
When the ice and the floods came, when the world ended and almost everyone and everything died, she had thought these things were lost forever, that vast swaths of the world were too irradiated, the soil too poisoned for any greenery to grow again. But somehow, the Blue was changing everything. The earth was coming back to life. How precious it was: wildflowers and their many-colored blossoms rich with buzzing insects, butterflies flitting while ladybugs crawled. Nat wanted to stop, to smell and touch everything, almost worried the forest would vanish if she didn’t. She feared it was nothing but a mirage, like the image of Wes she had just seen, that her mind was soothing her with things she wanted to see. That, like Wes, it would disappear if she blinked or turned away. But it didn’t, and as they flew farther and farther, above rich and verdant acres of forest, Nat stopped worrying.
Or so she told herself.
Letting the drakon fly even lower, Nat marveled at the wide trunks and heavy branches of the trees, at the leafy canopies that soared above her. The trees were over eighty feet tall and would normally have taken a century to grow to this height. Only the power of the Blue could have accomplished this feat in such a short time. Vallonis and its magic was transforming the landscape, renewing what was destroyed.
Nat herself felt renewed in its presence.
During these past months, the days had passed like minutes. The rage and pain, the hurt that had once filled her heart was gone. She had believed she couldn’t love, couldn’t feel, that she was broken. But she no longer suffered from that hollow feeling of emptiness. In its place she felt a warm, deep sense of fulfillment. She was complete. She had lived half awake, only half alive until she found her drakon. But now she was whole. Ready to live, to fight, to face whatever came next.
She was the last remaining Guardian of the Blue, the first and last drakonrydder of the third age of Vallonis.
Nat inhaled deeply, feeling a tingle from the life all around her. When the war is over, when the Blue is safe, I will come back here. Deep in her heart, she knew that her dearest hope was that she would not return alone.
But there was no more time to dream.
As quickly as it had disappeared, it returned. The grayhawk had found her.
And now there were two of them.
Let them come. As the gray-winged planes streaked above the forest, their engines as silent as bird’s wings, great gray harbingers of doom and death, her drakon filled the sky with fire, turning the clouds into vapor and the air into flame.
A drone crashed to the earth, burning, dying. One more, thought Nat, one more drone to defeat and then we can rest.
But Drakon Mainas was slow to move this time, the months of battle finally taking their toll on the great beast. So many wasps, she thought. Too many. Soon it would rest; soon they would rest, she soothed. Just one last push. One more attack.
Breathe, she told her drakon. Breathe and let’s burn this thing and go home.
No fire came. The last grayhawk set its sights on them, sent its rockets arcing into the air, and she felt a dozen bullets tear through the drakon’s hide. Nat screamed, feeling as if her whole body were tearing open as the iron pierced the drakon’s scales. Each shard stabbed at her chest, stealing the breath from her lungs, the pain nearly knocking her from her mount.
Breathe, she told herself. Breathe.
Struggling against the pain that consumed them both, Nat inhaled as deeply as she could, felt the fire burning inside and out, and before the drone could circle back to fire at them again, she unleashed the drakonfire, bathing the great gray warbird in a pillar of flame that turned the entire body of the drone into a red, glowing cylinder. She watched as the cylinder bent and collapsed, hurtling toward the granite cliffs, shattering into a thousand pieces as it struck the rocks.
They did it. They destroyed the latest battalion as completely as the ones before it. The RSA would have other resources, of course—who knew how many more in its great armada were hidden in the frozen oceans of the world.
But for now, they had won.
Nat’s heart was racing as she and her drakon rose once more into the clouds. The sound of the crash reverberated across the island valley. She would bring the news to the Council’s Messenger, to tell the Queen that the land was safe once more.
Home now, she urged. Home and sleep.
We will have time enough to celebrate.
A sudden strange rumbling shook the air around them. That was no warbird. That was no grayhawk. What is that? Nat gripped the reins tightly, waiting, uncertain, and the drakon hovered, flapping its giant wings, remaining in place.
Let’s get out of here, Nat told her drakon, but before they could move, a black cloud engulfed them, piercing the drakon with shards of hot iron. They’d been hit with a new weapon, Nat realized. They weren’t bullets or missiles, and they were everywhere, painful, hot, and stinging with dangerous silver poison. The drakon moved its body to shield Nat, to protect her from the iron rain, as the iron daggers tore at its hide, searing through scale and armor into the soft flesh of the great beast, drawing rivers of blood.
The pain was too much to bear and they fell, crashing into the earth, the drakon beating its wings to cushion the landing as they smacked into the trees and the rocks, hitting the ground in a clatter of pebbles and a cloud of smoke.
Nat fell from her seat, and when she opened her eyes, she saw that her drakon was weeping, it burned with such pain, and her own face was wet with tears. She felt its pain in her own body, in her own soul, and it was intolerable.
Her drakon was dying. She could feel its pain, its terror, as the iron worked its way into its flesh, into its very spirit, corrupting and destroying with its silver poison.
She screamed and Drakon Mainas rumbled, its voice cutting through the pain.
Stop. Stop. Stop.
What is happening?
You must calm yourself.
Nat took a deep breath and slowed her heart.
You are hurt. Make it stop.
I cannot. We must separate.
It is the only way to survive. Listen. I will go deep into the earth, deep into the Blue. I will be safe there and the pain will abate for both of us until I am healed.
Already it was digging into the sand, its talons scraping the ground, creating a deep and dark hole.
A tomb. Nat shuddered. A burial site.
Do not let cowardly thoughts overcome you, her drakon thundered. You must return to Vallonis whole and warn them of this magic that is in our enemy’s hands. GO!
Then the ground opened up, and her drakon disappeared into its depths.
Nat sat still for a moment, exhausted and shaking from the battle, and now from the sudden separation. She was incomplete again, more alone than ever, especially after having known and lived otherwise.
She tried calling to Mainas, but the drakon did not answer.
Where once it was buried in the ocean, now it was underneath the ground itself.
There was nothing to be done.
Nat picked herself up, dusted herself off, and walked toward the gateway hidden deep in the forest.
Home and sleep. Just not the way she’d planned.
WES ENJOYED THE ELEVATOR’S WARMTH, the quiet music that tinkled soothingly in the background. Shakes’s text message was burning in his pocket. FOUND ELIZA. Was it true? He was impatient to find out more, but even if he wished to move faster, he was thankful for the short respite from the cold. When the race was over, he had returned the half-inoperative heat suit. The organizers lent them to the drivers—it was too cold to drive without one— but they took them back after the race was finished. Cheap bastards. He missed it even though it barely worked, but was glad to be standing in the wide and well-heated glass elevator. Since he was alone he stood right beneath the vent, savoring the hot air drifting though his hair, tickling his ears. Heat. He could stand there forever. Through the glass windows he saw soldiers patrolling the streets below and posted at every hotel lobby. He was surprised there wasn’t an armed guard in the car with him.
Ever since the RSA had lost the battle in the Pacific, the military had doubled their ground troops, making their presence felt in every corner of New Vegas. The brass was on edge, jittery, and dangerous, looking for enemies in every shadow, in every movement. The raids on the marked were more prevalent, and there was no longer any pretense about hospitals or a cure. The white priests were even more visible than before, led by their High Priestess, a madwoman who called herself Lady Algeana Penthos, goddess of pain and suffering. There was no safe harbor for anyone marked by magic. They were considered dangerous, enemies of the state, and anyone caught harboring one would suffer the same fate—there were murmurs that even the military was in collusion with the Lady to get rid of them all. All the more reason to get out of the RSA, out of the crossfire, Wes thought. But where would he go? Where would he live? What kind of life could he dream about for him and his friends on this frozen wasteland of a planet? The time for dreams was long past.
The elevator shot up toward the skyway, to the casinos that floated high above the sidewalks, and it was easy to see that the lights of New Vegas glittered less brightly these days. Two casinos had gone dark this month, one the month before. The big three remained—the Loss, the Apple, and Mark Antony’s Forum—along with a few others, but if the downslide continued, the Strip would be dark in a year. An unexpected wave of nostalgia hit Wes. The city’s descent had been quick. The diamond in the ice desert was the RSA’s last playground, but lately that playground had lost its luster, the bubble was cracking, the snow globe was about to collapse. New Vegas, the city that had shrugged its sequined shoulder at the apocalypse, was about to turn off the lights. He looked down at the lonely black slabs, the abandoned casinos looming like dead trees over the strip. The world was ending, and Vegas had staved off the inevitable for as long as it could, but the End had come to cash in its chips.
Wes only wished he could do the same.
Down below, a group of people were assembling in the middle of the icy sidewalk. Wes held his breath as his phone confirmed what he already suspected. The text read: LS VGS BLVD + L FLMNGO. ZERO HR. A protest mob. He’d never heard of anyone protesting anything in the RSA before. No one would have dared.
But that was before 12/12, before the drakon, before Nat. Wes hated the nickname the nets had given the battle, as if it were a tragedy, when only drones had been destroyed. Rumors of what happened on the ocean had spread through the RSA like a swift and wild winter breeze. The soldiers who’d lived to tell the tale were new recruits whom the talking heads on the nets had tried to cast as a group of deluded children spinning stories, perhaps even a Xian conspiracy. Even so, the relentless lore of the mighty fire-breathing creature was becoming popular around the globe. In the outlaw territories, they feared the hydra, in New Pangaea, the tarakona, and its rider was named a demon, a devil, a witch, a black drau. Old Vegas hands had dubbed the creature the Black Ace, and its image was everywhere in the city, its serpentine silhouette appearing on T-shirts and graffitied on walls, along with the words THE BLUE IS REAL! THE MONSTER IS REAL! DOWN WITH THE RSA!
People were starting to believe the rumors that the thrillers who haunted Garbage Country weren’t suffering from failed government experiments but were dying from a magical disease. Which meant magic was real and the Blue was real.
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