A single flame shines in the ghostly fog like a jewel.
I stand there, neck craned, waiting for Bastian to complain about the plan. Wind howls over a sprawl of dunes. The dark sea reaches for us with iron fingers and sand hisses against exposed ankles. I knew the cliffs would be high, but it’s actually nauseating to stand in their shadow and dream of scaling them.
Locklin Tower--a supposedly impenetrable Ashlord fortress--hides in the clouds. Only the weathered map in Bastian’s back pocket and the glinting flame above us confirm that the castle is actually there. After a long second, Bastian turns back to face me and the rest of the crew.
“You’re sure this will work?”
I can hear the way he pitches his voice. Loud enough that the wind will carry his question back to the others. He knows the plan is sound. He just wants them to hear the promise in my voice. Their crew saved me after I escaped the Races--they rode out to my rescue when Martial whispered my plan to the mountain rebels. They are also the crew who gave me my first taste of blood and war at the Battle of Gig’s Wall. After riding with them for a month, most of the riders are still learning to trust me, but Bastian knows my words carry a different kind of currency. He’s their leader. I am their expert, especially in alchemy.
“It’ll be the smoothest ride we’ve had in weeks.”
A few laughs at that. Bastian nods once. “Show them.”
The crew circles to stand in front of their ashes. Only twelve volunteered for our task. More than expected, honestly. Bastian didn’t spare the cowards on the other crew. I almost smile, imagining them piled in the cargo hold of our stolen carriage, wedged against each other and cursing under their breath. While they approach the castle as luggage, our group will ride in more glorious fashion. I glance around the circle, unsurprised to find my favorites of Bastian’s crew.
“So this one’s called Changing Skies. . . .”
And it’s like I’m back on the ranch with Farian, shooting our next video. Walking out to Martial’s barn early on a holy day to make one of our films and hope enough people will watch to pay the bills. That’s how I got looped into the Races in the first place. It all feels like it happened to someone else, in some other lifetime.
It takes less than fifteen clockturns to get the group’s powders properly settled. Every gust of wind complicates the task. It whips cloaks into faces, snatches powders from palms. Only when the group is finished do I circle, triple-checking their work. The last thing I need is someone dying today because they mixed the wrong ratios into their ashes.
Everything checks out.
Now we wait for the sun to rise.
The Rowe siblings--Harlow and Cora--adjust their belts and weapons, their motions a perfect mirror of one another. Layne tightens her hood and comments on what fine weather we’re having. The girl is shaped like a knife and twice as sharp as one. Our eldest member--a man named Briar--laughs at Layne and says it’s nothing compared to mountain cold. I thought he was a little boring until someone told me he was a member of the original Running Rabbits. Any man who marched with Gold Man Jones is a legend in his own right. My cousin Luca is with us, too. He hums some mountain song I’ve never heard. Bastian picks up the notes, tapping a rhythm with the fingers of his metallic arm. I know it’s the more dangerous of the two limbs. When I first met him, he was winning a duel with an Ashlord sentry. His prosthetic arm is a deadly weapon, even if right now he’s using it more as a glorified musical instrument.
I smile at their talk and pretend I’m one of them.
It hasn’t been easy to carve a place in this family. Especially when half of my heart is somewhere else. I miss the way my mother clucked her tongue when I came home too late. The way my father’s chair groaned like a ghost in the kitchen whenever he sat down to read the morning paper. Prosper’s constant smile and Farian’s pursuit of the world. I spent so long trying to leave that town that I never thought I would actually miss the place.
Sunlight finally claws over the western cliffs.
My skin drinks in those first rays, and in the same breath, our phoenixes rise. Out of death and into life. Great bursts of fractured light. I glance up at the tower and am thankful for the fog. A curious soldier might see a speck of light if he looked down, but it wouldn’t be enough to raise suspicion. Besides, most soldiers wouldn’t look down on this side of the castle. Locklin’s never been approached from below. Which is half the point. I learned this strategy from the Races.
Change the game. Make them play by your rules.
“Mount up,” Bastian orders. “Low in your saddles. Complete silence until we’re inside.”
There’s the crashing waves, the crunch of sand, our beating hearts. I have to tighten my grip on the reins just to keep my hands from shaking. I try to remind myself that the plan will work. The phoenix magic will not fail us. My nervousness has more to do with how my decisions echo now. Back when Farian and I were filming stunts on Martial’s ranch, the only neck I could break was mine. Now there are other lives depending on my choices.
Bastian studies his stolen map one more time before directing us over the dunes. The horses lower their heads, forelegs flexing, hooves flicking sand. We break into two distinct rows. Six riders up front and seven behind. Bastian takes point. Against his wishes, I claim the right corner of the front line. We have argued more lately. But this decision was simple. How could I ever ask the others to put their lives on the line if I’m unwilling to do the same?
We reach the end of the beach. Here, the ocean and cliffs embrace. There’s a great smash of water on stone. Spray hisses into the air and scatters into mist. Above, the fog continues to thin. We have a few more minutes to make this a surprise. Bastian aims us at a specific section of stone. There are no handholds. No winding and forgotten stairways.
There is only waiting magic.
“Ride hard,” Bastian calls. “Let’s make something from nothing.”
His eyes lock briefly on mine. There’s a fire in them that only surfaces before a fight. I always wonder if I have that same fury buried in my bones. Is it a Dividian thing? Or something burned into the mountain-born? He grew up with a pistol in one hand and a shovel in the other. If he wasn’t working the land, he was busy defending it. His whole crew is the same way.
I watch him urge his horse into motion.
My body answers. Great snorts echo. My horse’s hooves dig down into the sand. Breath smokes into the air. Less than a few seconds and we’re sprinting. Our entire row holds the pace. I smile, imagining some witness farther down the beach. What a sight this must be.
Thirteen horses galloping right at the stone cliffs.
A string of curses sound. Faith always slips through our fingers in such moments. My faith is in the horses, though. I know the magic will work right before we make impact. I know because none of the horses hesitate. Not so much as a flinch from them. There’s no fear because they were born for this moment. It’s the same summoning I used on the first day of the Races. The one that had me sprinting sideways up a wall, in defiance of gravity, to avoid Thyma’s swing at me.
We hit the wall at a full sprint.
Normal horses would die. And we would probably die with them. Instead, gravity snatches us like playthings. The sky trades places with the ground. Our horses sprint straight up the stone rises. I’ve got a death grip on the reins. Bastian lets out a low whoop as we ascend like gods.
It was one thing to taste the impossible on my own. It’s an entirely new feeling to perform this magic alongside brothers and sisters. A glance shows all thirteen horses sprinting to heaven. We are breathless with joy and fear and everything in between.
The only sound is thundering hooves on stone.
Ahead, the fog scatters. Our sprint is no longer hidden. I can see where the cliff ends and the castle walls begin. The blocks of stone are massive, dotted by moss, carved smooth over the centuries. Two guard towers loom on either side of the ramparts. From our angle, they look like dull spears being thrust into the sky by invisible hands.
Both towers are empty. I can’t help smiling. The timing is perfect. Our other crew must have arrived. Devlin was assigned the role of the bloody priest. He’ll have crashed his carriage just short of the gate. I can imagine him running forward in his stolen monk’s robes. The crew covered his hands with sheep’s blood. He’s supposed to approach them and pretend he’s been attacked by enemy soldiers. Locklin’s guards won’t be foolish enough to open the gates, but every one of them will be drawn forward by the spectacle.
And we’ll ride up the undefended back ramparts.
Bastian shifts our formation, urging his horse ahead. His movement draws the Rowe siblings forward as well. Squinting, I can see Harlow grinning briefly at his sister. Another hand signal has them both swinging over in front of me.
My eyes dart to Bastian. He sees the scowl on my face and shrugs once. Fury thunders in my chest. He’s been doing this for weeks. Ever since Gig’s Wall. That first battle was chaos. My first real taste of war. I was so shocked that I could barely reload his pistols.
Which means he thinks I need his constant protection now.
There’s no time to wrestle with anger. We reach the bottom of the castle wall. Our horses gallop through a final curl of fog and burst out into sunshine. The ramparts are empty. Bastian tugs on his reins just as he reaches the top of the wall.
The rest of us follow suit. Momentum carries us over the lip and then gravity slams down on our shoulders again. I almost let out a shout. This is an ancient castle. The waiting ramparts are narrower than we expected. Bastian’s horse digs its hooves in and still slams into the opposite wall. My horse skids and the second row of riders almost sends us toppling into the courtyard below.
There’s a chaotic press of bodies as we get a look at Locklin. Our view of the castle is elevated. Looking down, there’s a courtyard that’s been converted into a training ground. Stone staircases lead up the opposite end of the ramparts, and that’s where most of the movement is. A pair of Ashlord soldiers stands above the castle’s barbed gates. One calls down in an annoyed voice.
More soldiers wait below, listening in on the conversation. Our group takes in the scene, awaiting Bastian’s command, when a tinkle of broken glass sounds.
A guard stands five paces away. His eyes are shocked wide. At his feet, a shattered teacup. Dark liquid carves rivers through the cobblestones. Cora Rowe smiles as she raises her pistol and points it at the interloper. “Well, good morning, sunshine!”
The boom echoes. Gunpowder and death fill the air. Bastian curses once before barking out new orders. Our crew divides into three groups. Two groups circle the upper ramparts, tasked with holding the upper ground at all costs. Bastian dismounts, leading me and four others down the only access ramp in sight. Ashlord soldiers shout their own orders. More gunshots.
Luca is pressed in beside me. My uncle’s bulky frame follows. I catch a brief glimpse of someone falling from the ramparts as we whip around the corner. An older Ashlord guard barrels right into us. The impact sends him stumbling back. Bastian shoots before the guard can even ask where the hell we came from. Blood slicks the floor. My stomach tightens at the sight, but we keep on moving and searching and aiming. Our path takes us inside the castle proper.
This is war.
We turn down a long hallway. It’s bright with morning light. So bright that we almost miss the Dividian standing at the end of the corridor, his rifle raised. Bastian shouts a clipped warning that has our whole crew darting behind random pieces of furniture. We’re barely hidden when the first blast punches a hole in the artwork behind us.
“Ho, friend!” Bastian calls into the echo. “We’re here for them, not for you.”
A moment of silence. “For who?”
Bastian lifts his head a little. “The Ashlords! We don’t kill our own!”
Another blast forces Bastian back down, cursing.
“The Longhands don’t take prisoners,” the Dividian calls back. “Look at what happened in Vivinia! Your lot burned a sanctuary town to the ground!”
“Do we look like Longhands to you?”
There’s another shot, followed by a groan. I peek around the corner as Harlow Rowe comes strolling toward us, stepping gracefully around the fallen Dividian.
“If you’re done hiding,” he says, “we can finish securing the castle, dearies.”
It doesn’t take long to reach a surrender. Locklin is known for hosting very few troops. The Ashlords have held this castle for nearly two centuries, against any number of attacks. Always they have boasted that the elevated fort could be held with just ten good soldiers.
I guess they should have hired twenty.
One Ashlord soldier makes his final stand in the kitchens until a Dividian cook knocks him out with a skillet. Bastian claps the man on the shoulder as we tie the soldier’s wrists. When it’s all over, our crew rallies back to the courtyard.
Devlin oversees the proceedings, handing out blasphemous blessings in his robes. Layne is picking the pockets of the dead and taking meticulous notes of our earnings. I see that one is a priest to the gods. He’s facedown, but I spy silver mechanics grafted into the back of his neck. One of the Striving’s creatures.
Eight Ashlord soldiers are bound in one corner. Dividian servants wait opposite them. Some of us watch the proceedings with drowning eyes. We’ve freed them, but I know by now it doesn’t always feel that way at first. We’ve upturned their quiet lives here.
Bastian looks ready for his usual speech when Cora crows her way out of the basement living quarters. She’s marching men at gunpoint: three startled Ashlords. Two are shirtless.