Firebird, Chapter 20

Phew! Tonight’s chapter is a bit late–I just sent Firebird’s manuscript, all 120,150 words of it, to a copy editor. Had a bit of all-night editing to keep me busy between getting it back from a beta reader and finalizing this draft.

But it’s done, and now I’ve arranged a pre-order for the Kobo store, too. Hurray!

Anyway. We’re back to Mieshka for this chapter, and I daresay that the action in this one will make up for the shortness of the last one.


 

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Four military vehicles drove up the street, their green canvas sides flapping in the wind. Snow piled on their tops, outlining the dip between the trucks’ supports. A bus, loaded high with gear, followed. Mieshka could see the outlines of soldiers through the tinted windows. The Westran coat of arms flashed by on every vehicle.

Buck waited for the convoy to pass.

Her wounds didn’t hurt so much today. As long as she didn’t move too much. The bruises on her shoulder, hip, and foot had darkened, changing to a deep, purple-green color. New ones tinted the skin on her knees, thighs, and elbows. The ones from the crutch didn’t show up at all.

No donuts today?” she asked.

Maybe later,” Buck said. “We’re already delayed.”

Another bus passed through the intersection, slush flying from its tires.

So, I can blame the army for no donuts?”

Artillery,” Buck corrected. “And yes.”

Mieshka slouched back in the seat, wincing as her shoulder stitches pulled tight. She should have known that. Her mom had been artillery. Now that he’d pointed it out, she recognized the crossed-arrow insignia at the bottom of the Westran shield.

She glanced at the clock. They’d been stuck there for ten minutes already.

Why are they up here, anyway? I thought the base was in the Lower City?”

It’s full.” Buck tapped his fingers against the steering wheel. “Too many people. There’s an older base in the North end. They’re probably going there.”

Downtown Lyarne would be full of soldiers, then.

A police car moved into the intersection and pulled up in front of their SUV, lights flashing. The street behind it emptied. Buck’s fingers paused.

The vehicle that came through next was not a passenger convoy.

The tank climbed up the slope, tread ripping into the snow, front bouncing as it crested the hill. Its headlights blared onto the roadway, moving at a slower rate than the rest of the convoy. Tinted a mottled, silver-gray color, it matched the urban, winter setting well.

Except for the black blast mark on its side. Mieshka’s jaw tightened. The vehicle had two sub-machine guns attached to its front, a third in the back.

Her mom used to ride in those.

The metal on the side dented inward, giving it a gimped look.

Buck’s gaze tracked it through the intersection. “I drove one of those,” he said. “A while back.”

Yeah?”

Yeah,” he said. “It’s not as fun as it looks.”

Another armored vehicle, this one undamaged, rolled through the intersection. Noise rumbled outside the car.

Buck?” she said.

Meese?”

Aiden. He’s planning to evacuate, isn’t he?”

Yes.”

He doesn’t think Lyarne will hold?”

It won’t.”

But…”

Sorry. It won’t.” Buck looked over, caught her eye. “Even if Lyarne were defensible, how will we get enough food to feed the city? With Terremain, we still had the valley. Now? Mersetzdeitz won’t provide enough to feed the entire city. Mersetzdeitz can’t. And to try would be delaying the inevitable.”

The red-blue lights of the police cruiser flashed across his face. He had light eyes. Green, with a dark rim around them. She hadn’t noticed that before.

Sorry,” he said. “But I won’t lie to you.”

She looked away, stared through the windshield. The cop had a computer in the passenger’s seat. As she watched, the officer tapped something onto the screen and picked up his radio. The street sat empty in front of them.

I guess I should pack a bag, huh?” she said.

Buck relaxed back into his seat. Leather groaned. “That wouldn’t be a bad idea.”

A minute later, the police car turned off its lights and pulled out of their way.

Traffic resumed.

***

This is McKay.”

McKay was a soldier. Caucasian, with a skin tone a few shades darker than Mieshka’s white, she stood a head shorter than Jo and had a thin, unsure smile. Dirt coated her combat fatigues, which looked several sizes too big. The cuffs had been rolled up at her ankles.

Mieshka parked her crutch on the couch. “Hi.”

Mckay lifted her hand. “Hey.”

The office stood quiet at this time of the morning. The TV was on in the corner, its volume muted, the news anchor on its screen. A secondary window showed the clogged highway between Terremain and Lyarne. A third, smaller one showed the view down the pass, with Terremain’s recognizable towers jutting up in the distance.

That was as close as they could get. All other transmissions from Terremain had been cut.

Mieshka moved a spare piece of Lost Tech—probably from the shield engine—off the couch and sank down into the cushions.

Aiden stood by his desk, face turned to the computer monitor, a finger on the mouse. He’d changed into a fresh set of clothes since yesterday. They looked nicer than normal.

So,” she asked. “What’s up?”

Change of plans.” Aiden tapped something onto the keyboard. “President called.”

Did she use the phone this time?” Buck said.

She did. We’re meeting with the commander of the armies, now.”

Commander Flynn?”

The one and the same. And we’re late.” Aiden pulled a piece of paper from the printer, stuffed it into a folder, and made for the door. “Buck, with me.”

Buck turned on his heel, gave Mieshka and Mckay a lazy salute, and fell in step behind the fire mage.

A few seconds later, their footsteps echoed on the stairway.

Jo, who had been leaning against the wall with her eyes on her phone, wandered over to the window. Grey light slid over the smooth contours of her face as she looked out. The room quieted. Outside, the sound of the SUV’s engine revved to life, then faded away. Jo tracked them down the street.

Then, she smiled.

They’re gone.” She pocketed her phone and moved away from the window.

McKay shifted. Underneath the dirt, her skin looked drawn and thin. Her eyes, though they had that sunken, haunted look typical of those from the front, narrowed with suspicion. “You’ve go that look on your face.”

Jo pocketed her phone, moved away from the window. “What look?”

The look that usually means we’re getting into trouble.”

You’re crazy. I never do anything wrong.”

McKay snorted. “I’ll believe that when I see it.”

Fine.” Jo stepped in behind Mieshka, rested her arms on the back of the couch. The cushion dipped as she leaned into it. “We can just stay here, sit tight, and wait for the men.

Silence took the room. Jo made a show of cleaning her nails.

Mieshka peeked up into the mercenary’s face. “Or…?”

Jo grinned. “Girls’ night?”

I knew it,” muttered McKay.

Hey—Meese hasn’t had any time to relax since before she got the stitches. And you—you look half-dead. I say we get you to the downstairs shower—which has hot water, I might add—into a fresh set of clothes, and then we hit the streets. I’ve got a spa coupon for Uptown.”

Mieshka sank deeper into the cushion, enjoying the softness against her back. The SUV was comfortable, but each bump and shift had tugged against her stitches. A spa sounded nice, right about now. She’d be happy if she didn’t have to move again today.

Wasn’t Aiden planning to test my powers today?”

I doubt he’ll have time. Besides, how can he expect to test your limits if you’re flying at half-steam?”

She had a point. The pain had definitely affected her concentration last time.

Right. So—McKay, shower downstairs. Hot water. Take your time. I doubt Aiden will be back before afternoon.”

But I—”

Whoom!

The floor rocked. Jo’s head snapped toward the source. Tendons pulled tight on the back of her hand. Her eyes narrowed.

That almost sounded like—”

“—a bomb,” McKay finished.

Glass broke at the other end of the room. Something metallic hit the floor and rolled.

In the next second, Jo had vaulted the couch and pulled Mieshka down to the ground. Pain exploded in her shoulder, her thighs. Her head smacked against the floor. Jo’s body covered her, held her down. Beside them, McKay had sprawled out on the other side of the coffee table, her rifle paralleled alongside her body.

Her eyes, light blue, met Mieshka’s for a brief, sober moment.

Boom!

Mieshka felt the concussion in her ribs. Her ears rang, all sounds muted. Heat washed across the room. Bright white lit up the ceiling. Shrapnel shot through the walls. The couch shuddered, debris shredding through its back, pinging off its supports. Jo’s arms held Mieshka tight to her body. Her breath was hot on Mieshka’s face.

The initial blast died off, and the room settled. Fire bloomed on the other side of the office, casting a warm, golden-white glow on the ceiling.

Mieshka felt it in her element.

Jo squeezed her arm to get her attention.

Stay here,” she said, and crawled forward.

As if Mieshka could do anything else. She lay there, stunned. Pain throbbed up every part of her body. It felt like all of her stitches had ripped—and she couldn’t feel her shoulder at all. It had numbed after its impact with the floor. She tried to move her hand, but the muscles shook. Sharp pain drove through her neck.

McKay crawled nearer. She shoved the coffee table out of the way. Candles still sat on top, their burgundy wax melted to the glass. The ceiling danced in orange and yellow and red, flickering.

Mckay touched her arm. Her fingers were cool. Steady.

It’s okay, Meese. We’ll get you out of here.”

Ahead of her, Jo moved into a crouch. The assault rifle had found its way under her arm, and her bicep bulged as she held the gun. Its metal gleamed, sharp and deadly, in the lights.

Clear!” she shouted.

Okay, come on!” McKay pulled her up. Mieshka scrambled to get her legs under her. Nothing seemed to work—it was like all her muscles and nerves were momentarily cross-wired. She pulled herself up on the couch cushion, her body screaming at her. Her fingers smacked against her phone, snatched it from the seat.

McKay put her shoulder under her arm, lifted her up. Mieshka grit her teeth as the stitches pulled tight.

They shuffled after Jo.

Half the room burned. Heat washed over her face, beat at her skin. Flames danced across the ground. Linoleum blackened, bubbled. Tendrils of fire devoured the walls, licked at the ceiling. Already, the drywall had burned. Naked wooden studs and support beams turned to charred embers as she watched.

Fire blocked the door.

Jo bent at the edge of the fire, pulled a bag out. Its end burned, flames flicking like a marshmallow. Or a candle.

Mieshka reached for her element and snuffed it out. Feeling returned to her limbs. Her skin tingled. Magic shifted within her.

She turned her attention to the main fire. The flames burned white-hot. The fire had found Aiden’s computer. Black smoke curled up from the burning plastic. More smoke filled the air, trapped by the ceiling.

Jo shouldered the bag, met her eyes. “Meese, we have to go. Get the door.”

Beside her, McKay coughed.

Right. The smoke. Her elemental abilities must give her some immunity to it. She focused on the door.

Paint peeled on its frame as the fire crawled up. It was nearly all blackened by now, though some parts of its paint still clung to the wood. Tiny flutes of flame ate at them like amorphous fingers.

They shied away at Mieshka’s command, parting ways like fiery fish. A second later, the way was clear.

Jo kicked the door open and walked through first, rifle raised. McKay pulled Mieshka along.

They turned toward the back of the building, where the second staircase led to the Underground.

Mieshka’s stomach flipped. Of course they were going down there. They couldn’t go to the front—that’s where the bombs had come from. For all they knew, the attacker had hoped to smoke out their prey into an ambush.

But, why attack the office? And, more importantly, who was it?

Once, in the time before Aiden and Sophia had become friends, Mieshka might have suspected Sophia behind the attack. The mages of Lyarne had never got along, exactly. Could it have been Michael?

No. He wasn’t stupid enough to send a bomb after a fire mage.

But then, Aiden hadn’t been there, had he?

Jo kicked the second door open, roved the stairwell with the muzzle of her rifle, and froze. Her lip curled.

You.”

As McKay helped Mieshka down the hall, Jo’s target came into view.

Roger stood on the stairs, his left foot resting on the top step. As usual, he looked dark, immaculate, and lethal.

Do I smell smoke?” he asked.

Jo shifted her gun to the ground and stood aside for them to get through.

Building’s on fire,” she said.

Roger’s calm, dark eyes turned toward Mieshka.

I didn’t do it,” she said.

Come on.” Jo moved to cover their back, slipping between them and the door. “Keep moving.”

As Mieshka limped forward, Roger took her other arm. Together, they helped Mieshka down the staircase. White flashes of pain jarred up from her legs with every step. By the first landing, sweat trickled down her back. She grit her teeth, levied her breath.

They had three flights to go. On the way down, they passed a black, Lost Tech door that led to Aiden’s shield engine. Mieshka felt a pang in her chest. The door leaned uselessly against a cinder-block wall that hadn’t seen much repair since a troop of soldiers had blasted their way in several months ago. Bent, rusted rebar jabbed up in the large gap that had been blasted away. Inside, the grungy orange light came from the engine’s Lost Tech computer screen.

It was one of three engines generating the shield—and by far the most important.

The last time his office had been attacked, that was what the attackers had been after.

Shouldn’t we—” she started, eyes lingering on the room.

No,” Jo said. “That’s Aiden’s problem. Our priority is to get you away. We’ll call him at the bottom.”

Right. The fire mage was much more equipped to deal with attackers.

Her knee gave out on the next step. Roger caught her, held her up. Pain slammed up her shoulder, and she bit back a yell.

He exchanged a look with McKay.

I’ll carry her. Come on, Meese. Piggyback.”

He let go, bent over on the step in front. McKay helped her up.

In normal circumstances, piggybacking with Roger would have intimidated the hell out of her. Now? She was too tired to argue. She slumped forward, arms trembling with pain and fatigue as she looped them over his shoulders. He’d worn a suit jacket today, and the material scratched at her skin. As he hooked his elbows around her knees, the hard edges of two knife sheaths poked her from beneath his sleeves.

McKay checked the chamber of her rifle, adjusted its strap, and took point by Jo.

Mieshka grit her teeth as they descended. Life was much better—and much faster—on Roger’s back, but each rock and jolt snapped pain from her wounds. She ignored it, focused her senses on other things. The air smelled better down here—fresher, with less smoke. Her leg found another hidden sheath on Roger’s hip.

He had a scar on his neck. A straight, thin line visible just under his hair.

As if sensing her scrutiny, he turned his head. “Hey, Meese?”

Mieshka lifted her head. “Yes?”

Do me a favor?”

What is it?”

He smiled. “If we encounter anyone in the tunnels, could you light them on fire for me?”

Er. “What if they’re friends?”

His smile widened.

Great.

Suddenly, she didn’t want to be on his back anymore.

The end of the staircase popped into sight. The concrete floor sloped down at the landing, leading to a mismatched section of hallway that ended in a wooden trapdoor that had been propped open with a stick.

McKay stepped ahead of them, peered down the shaft. A wooden staircase, exactly like those found in old attics, unfolded into the darkness. The barrel of her rifle gleamed in the overhead light.

So,” she said, glancing up at them. “Is this a typical day at the office, or am I just lucky?”


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