Book two of The Mieshka Files.
She’s back, and she’s not alone.
It’s been over a month since Mieshka “Meese” Renaud exploded her fire element into the sky and burned the capital’s shield back into life, and her element has finally returned. Winter break has been filled with firearms lessons, hand-to-hand training, and clandestine tours through the tunnels of Lyarne’s secret underground city.
But time is running out. With the war pressing ever closer to her doorstep, Mieshka has other worries—especially when the city’s most powerful mage starts gunning for her blood.
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In the pre-dawn hour, Lyarne’s streets were silent, cold, and lit by the gritty yellow halos of streetlights. December had taken the city, and the apartment blocks stood tall and dark against a brooding cover of snow-filled clouds. Ice glittered on the streets. Slush and snow piled up against the curbs. It was quiet enough to hear the click of traffic lights, the buzz of nearby power transformers, and the crunch of tires on frozen, packed snow.
A car paused at a red light, sliding on the ice. After a few seconds’ idle, the engine revved and the driver rolled through the empty intersection.
Mieshka Renaud picked her way up the road, her runners making a soft, steady slap on the shoveled sidewalk. Despite the negative-degree weather, she wore only a light sweatshirt, a new pair of gym shorts, and a dark blue baseball cap embroidered with the silver design of her mother’s old infantry division. Occasionally, her heels kicked up slush against her bare calves.
She did not feel it.
Cold did not bother her anymore. Ever since her fire elemental magic had returned, winter clothing had become mere a formality.
When she turned the next corner, her heel skidded on an ice patch and her arms flailed out for balance. A second later, she recovered and leaned into the incline. Her breaths left puffs of vapor in the cold air.
Head bent, watching for slick spots on the concrete, Mieshka didn’t notice the first air strike. In fact, over her music and the noise-canceling effect of her headphones, all Mieshka felt from the far-off explosion was a small, warm tingling at the back of her mind, where her element rested.
The clouds lit up ahead of her, turning the dark towers of the apartment blocks into stark silhouettes. The bomb blew a brief glow into Mieshka’s range of vision, as if a new streetlight had flickered on above the brim of her cap.
It wasn’t until the second one, which exploded directly above her, that Mieshka noticed the raid.
She flinched as the sky ignited. Sound roared around her, concussing off the apartments and echoing through the streets. Dirty gray clouds lit up orange as the fire spread, rippling like an apocalyptic wave from the source of detonation. It hugged the gentle curve of the city’s shield, burning through a large chunk of snow clouds that smothered the city like dark, fluffy comforters. The light cast the streets in a hungry, hellish glow.
Mieshka stopped. Her element twinged within her, attuned to the fire in the sky. For a brief instant, she felt the power that shuddered against the shield, the heat and the fury and the element of it.
It died quickly. She pulled her headset off. Electronic howls and chirps and honks filled the air—car and e-bike alarms triggered by the blast. In the distance, she heard the crackle of sonic jets rocketing back to the west, where the twin peaks of the Sisters were hidden in the clouds. Swarzgard had a base on just the other side of the range, in occupied Westran territory.
A third jet droned somewhere to her right.
Mieshka’s breathing slowed, her ears cocked to the sound, her mind feeling the brush of warmth against her magic. Then she coughed, checked the clock on her phone, and resumed her run. When the next explosion battered against the shield, Mieshka turned up the volume of her music and focused on her footing. The cold puffed her breath away.
By the time she returned to her apartment, dawn had begun to edge over the mountains.
The air smelled of smoke and snow.
“You shouldn’t go out alone.”
Mieshka flipped a damp lock of hair behind her ear. She didn’t look up as her father, wearing the same clothes as yesterday, stepped into the kitchen. Instead, she stifled a yawn and frowned at the stove. A pair of eggs sizzled in bacon grease in front of her, smoke and steam rising into the range hood directly above.
“You’re welcome to join me,” she said.
He ignored the offer, as she knew he would. In the four months they’d lived in Lyarne, he had left the apartment twice. She heard the fridge door suck open, its seal sticking at the top.
“I don’t like you out at that hour. It’s not safe.”
“Yes. It’s cold and dark and there are wolves. Really, Dad, between the snow and the early hour, I think all the rapists were driven in. I saw one other person out this morning, and she was police.” The same policewoman she’d seen every morning this week. The first time they’d met, the woman had raised much the same questions that her dad was raising. Now, Mieshka always made a point of waving whenever she saw the car.
Her dad didn’t say anything for a few minutes. Mieshka scraped the eggs onto a plate and carried it to the small table beside the living room couch. There, she remained glued to the face of her phone while she ate.
A few minutes later, Dad joined her with a bowl of cereal.
“Is that breakfast or dinner?” Mieshka asked. Dad was a quasi-nocturnal creature these days.
“Lunch. We’re out of milk,” he said.
“Text me when I go. I’ll try to pick some up on the way back. We need rice, too. How’re our investments and money-laundering schemes doing?”
“All our money is in an envelope under my mattress.”
“Excellent. Is there enough to pay the rent?”
“Rent’s not due for another week.”
Mieshka glanced up. “Is that a ‘no’?”
“It’s a ‘barely.’ I’ve got a job that should pay on the twenty-eighth.”
Mieshka’s dad worked as a research analyst. He did all of his work online. Usually in his pajamas. She stifled another yawn and looked up at him. The lines under his glasses seemed more pronounced this morning, and his five o’clock shadow had grown into something scruffier. A mug of black coffee steamed slowly next to his bowl. His jaw muscle was tight.
“The government cut off your mother’s grievance package,” he said.
Mieshka’s jaw tightened as well. As did her shoulders, throat, and chest. She forced herself to take a breath, to relax.
Nine months ago, her mom had died on the front lines of the war. It was something they both had trouble getting over.
“Why?” she asked. As far as she knew, the monthly ‘grievance package’ they received was supposed to be indefinite.
“Don’t know. I intend to look into it today. Maybe contact other recipients, see if they’re cut off too.”
Mieshka swallowed a sudden lump in her throat. “You think they’re out of money?”
“I hope not.”
“Me too. That would mean a bit more than us not paying rent.”
Her dad took a spoonful of his cereal, chasing it with coffee. Except for the kitchen fan and her father’s eating, the apartment was quiet. Behind her, the blinds in front of the balcony’s glass doors slowly lightened as the sun rose.
A few minutes later, her phone chirped. Mieshka scanned the text message, then picked up her jacket.
“Gotta go. Text me about the milk.”
The mannequin sat at the opposite end of the tunnel, naked. They’d propped it on a rusted metal chair, taped its arms by its sides, and tacked a homemade target to its chest. Its legs stretched stiffly in front of it, only one heel touching the rough concrete floor. The walls, a mix of brickwork, cinderblocks, and patched concrete, framed the doll on three sides. Coal-black dirt smudged everything but the doll. In the glow of the flashlight, its skin gleamed a dull pearl white.
It stared at a point in the ceiling just above Mieshka’s head.
She aimed her gun at the target, her shoulders aching with effort. The muzzle shook, straightened, lined up. She squeezed.
The doll flinched.
Even with the headphones she wore, Mieshka’s ears rang. She grimaced at the ache in her wrist and shoulders and lowered the gun, squinting down the tunnel at the doll’s chest, which listed a bit to the left.
The target looked clean.
Behind her, Jo confirmed it: “Miss.”
Jo, a former soldier turned bodyguard and Mieshka’s current shooting instructor, shifted behind her. The flashlight shifted with her, making the shadows within every crack and chip in the walls momentarily jump.
She waited to see if Jo had anything else to add. When Jo remained quiet, Mieshka raised the gun again.
Down the tunnel, she thought she saw the paper target move. Drafts? Down here? The tunnel air felt stale and dank, although their recent activity laced the smell with gunsmoke. It had probably been years since anyone had regularly used this patch of space—something that Jo and Mieshka had counted on when they’d chosen this spot for a firing range.
Their tunnel was part of a larger system, collectively known as the Underground. It sat beneath Upper Lyarne, and burrowed through the bones of the city’s buried ancestor. Ten thousand tons of garbage, dirt, and dead buildings separated Mieshka’s tiny tunnel from the metropolis aboveground.
Except for the people who lived down here, few knew the Underground existed.
Behind the doll, the tunnel dead-ended in a cinderblock wall, now pockmarked with bullet holes. By the newness of the blocks and the well-used appearance of the other walls, Mieshka suspected that this tunnel had once connected to one of the Underground’s main arteries.
But not anymore.
“Breathe,” Jo said, her voice as steady as the light she held.
Mieshka let out a breath she’d been holding. The tunnel’s cool air prickled over her bare arms. The gun’s metal felt warm in her hands. Warm and solid.
The doll didn’t move. Mieshka thought she heard the bullet kick into the back wall.
She gritted her teeth. Ignoring the ache in her shoulders, she lined up the next shot.
“You were better yesterday.” Jo’s comment came through the headphones muffled, as if through water. “Something on your mind?”
Mieshka focused, let out her breath. The gun’s muzzle shook. She relaxed her stance and lined the sight up with the target. Her chest expanded, contracted.
“School starts soon, doesn’t it?”
The doll jerked. Mieshka and Jo watched as its head tipped, wobbled, and fell back. It hit the floor with a hollow thunk and lolled to the side.
The tunnel was quiet for a moment. Then, “I’ll take that as a ‘yes’ on school.”
Mieshka clicked the safety on and holstered the small gun. The headset caught on her ponytail when she pulled it back, and she took her time repositioning it around her neck.
Behind the flashlight, Jo’s dark skin blended neatly into the shadows. The whites of her eyes gleamed in the backsplash of the light. She stood army-casual, feet planted solidly under her, one hand resting behind her back. According to Buck, Jo was from Mersetzdeitz, but the former soldier lacked the city-state’s distinctive accent.
“You wanna talk about it?”
Mieshka looked away, back at the headless doll.
“I guess I’m just tired,” she said.
Jo didn’t move, though Mieshka felt the soldier’s eyes on her.
“You wanna do something else?”
“Tunnel exploration. Public speaking. Random acts of arson?”
“Isn’t that illegal?”
“By definition, yes. Down here? I don’t think anyone cares.”
She was probably right. Down here, the rules weren’t quite so strict. So long as you weren’t bothering anybody, you could get away with almost anything. Especially in the slow areas. The Underground’s enforcement tended to stick close to the downtown Core area where most of the action was. If Jo and Mieshka wanted to set a bonfire in some uninhabited side tunnel, no one would care. People had better things to do with their time.
Mieshka slumped against the wall. Brickwork dug into her shoulders. Jo shifted away, taking the light with her until it only illuminated a circle of the dirt-scuffed floor. It was the only light in the tunnel. Everything else was pitch dark, including the section with the now headless doll.
The hairs rose on the back of Mieshka’s arm.
“The government cut us off. No more grievance package,” Mieshka said.
“You need money?”
The halo of light flitted briefly to the side. Shadows tilted in the mortar between bricks.
“That sucks. I’m sorry.”
Jo’s boots scuffed on the concrete. Mieshka reached behind her, where the gun sat in a holster at the small of her back, and snapped a strap in place over its handle. It was empty anyway. The Mieshka—a name that sounded less narcissistic by the fact everyone down here called her ‘Meese,’ not Mieshka—only held three bullets. It had been a gift, specifically crafted for her by the local gunrunner to be smaller and lighter than other guns—which explained the lack of ammo. Maury “Mo” Sarka had also given her a box of incendiary rounds to pack an extra punch.
It had helped her kill a demon last month.
“Could steal Buck’s car and joyride it downtown,” Jo suggested. “Maybe a day at the movies? Aiden can pay.”
“All that petty cash burning a hole in your pocket?”
“Something like that.” Jo was quiet for a moment. Her boot scraped against the floor. “We could pick a fight with Roger, if you like.”
“What? Why?” Roger headed the Underground’s police force. Like Mieshka, he also had elemental powers. Through the water mage’s instruction, and likely through his own twisted genius, he had found some creative applications for his water element. Mieshka had seen him use it on someone’s blood, picking a fully-armed soldier off the ground and throwing him against the wall—all without touching him.
Greater people than Mieshka quailed before him. She didn’t cherish the thought of fighting him.
“What? Always makes me feel better,” Jo said. She and Roger had a special relationship. They attempted to kill each other every other week. Well, maybe not kill—but they handed off some nasty cuts and bruises. By some unspoken rule, Roger didn’t use his element so long as Jo didn’t use her guns.
Mieshka leaned against the wall. The brickwork felt oddly nice, digging niches into her stiff shoulder blades.
“Have you been driving yet?” Jo asked.
“I don’t have a license.”
“You could learn.”
“In the snow?”
“You’re old enough.”
Jo had a point, but Mieshka couldn’t picture herself in a car. “I’d probably set the gas tank on fire.”
“At least snow wouldn’t—”
Something clunked up the tunnel. They both jumped, looking into the darkness. Jo snapped her flashlight back to the doll, who looked a little more slumped than before. Goosebumps rose on Mieshka’s arms. She narrowed her eyes. Was it closer?
“Ghosts?” Mieshka suggested, her voice wavering. She felt adrenaline spike her blood.
“Fuck this place,” Jo said. “Let’s go find Roger.”
“What? No driving lessons? Movies?”
“He might have a solution to your money problem,” Jo said, taking the only flashlight with her.
Mieshka followed. She did not want to be left alone, in the dark, with a potentially possessed doll.