Here’s the first chapter of my YA speculative fiction novel. It’s a mix of steampunk, sci-fi and dystopian, set in the future with a kick-ass heroine.
Check out my query here
I nudge a piece of charred wood with the toe of my boot. It crumbles into a thousand pieces and ash rises up, carried on the wind and swirling around like I’m in some kind of filthy tornado. It’s too dark to make out my boots, but I’ve been living on the streets long enough to know they’re covered in the gray filth. I press the handkerchief tighter against my nose and mouth, and for a brief second my lungs start to close. Like the ash has worked its way through the fibers and invaded my body against my will. My throat tightens and I squeeze my eyes shut. It’s too much like the mines.
It only takes a few seconds to pull myself together. Thankfully. Weakness isn’t something I can afford to show—especially not here in the open like this. At least I’m alone. The last thing I need is for one of the guys to catch me during one of my flashbacks. I’m not the only one struggling to overcome my dark past, but I’ve worked hard at masking my weaknesses. When you’re living on the streets you have to appear tough, even when you aren’t.
I let out a deep breath and go back to digging through the rubble. With no lights and no moon to help me, I have to rely on touch, so I kneel down. There was a fight between enforcers and pirates here just last night, and odds are they left something useful behind. It’s the perfect opportunity for someone like me to gather a few extra supplies.
Using my free hand, I sweep the top layer of charred wood away. Whatever this building was, they did a good job of destroying it. Not that it’s been in working condition anytime in the last one hundred years, but at least it had walls before they got ahold of it. Now it’s just ash and dust—like the rest of Athens. Not that I care all that much, but it’s still pisses me off that no matter how reckless these damn pirates are it never seems to be enough. Go ahead, burn down the whole world fighting with the enforcers! Seems like the perfect way to spend a life.
My gloved fingers brush against a solid object just as something crunches on the street behind me. My heart pounds and I’m on my feet in a flash, holding my knife out in front of me while backing into the shadows. It could be pirates coming back to stake out the area. Or worse, enforcers. Just the thought makes my stomach clench tighter than the fingers wrapped around my knife. If it’s enforcers they’ll be looking for fugitives, which is exactly what I am. I barely escaped the mines the first time, and there’s no way I’m going back. Ever.
I reach the cover of the neighboring building right before they come into sight. Two people. It’s hard to make them out in the darkness, but the one seems too small to be an enforcer. Pirates then? Or maybe another group of fugitives…neither is a comfort.
The stone is cold against my back and my body is completely rigid. I inhale sharply and hold the air in until my lungs threaten to burst. It burns when I exhale, but even that doesn’t calm my nerves.
They’re closer now. Maybe only fifteen feet. They haven’t spoken a word, but they’re standing close while they walk. Something about it seems off. It’s too intimate. The smaller one pauses and kicks at the ground and a rock scuttles across the road. A soft gasp echoes through the empty street and everything in me freezes for an instant before thawing. My muscles relax and I take a deep breath, forgetting the handkerchief. The air here is thick with ash and coal dust, and the gritty flavor of earth fills my mouth.
“Rory,” I whisper, taking a step away from the wall.
The couple pauses and the smaller one—Rory—turns her head in my direction. “Scarlett?”
I swear under my breath and shove my knife back into its hiding place on my vest. It should have occurred to me that Rory would come out looking for me. Like everyone else, she hates it when I come out alone.
I step away from the building and hop over a pile of rubble before darting their way. A breeze sweeps across the street and without even thinking about it my handkerchief goes back to my nose. The wind lifts my skirt a little too high, but I ignore it since there’s no one around to see it anyway.
“You scared the shit out of me,” I whisper when I’m closer.
Slivers of moonlight have managed to break through the overcast sky, and I can just make out Rory’s smile. She flips her caramel curls over her shoulder and nudges me with her elbow. “We were just out for a romantic stroll.”
Turk’s grin is big enough that I’d be able to make it out even in if it was pitch black.
I snort and turn back to where I was digging a few minutes ago. “Well don’t let me stop you.”
Before they’ve even had a chance to respond I’m on my knees in the ash. We’re wasting time. Being out here is dangerous and the faster I get back to our shelter the better I’ll feel. The ground under my knees is rough and cold and soft at the same time, and I can only imagine how black they’ll be when we get back. No way these stockings are going to stop the soot from painting my skin a lovely shade of black.
“What are we looking for?” Rory asks, kneeling next to me.
She’s wearing pants, but she still doesn’t get down in the dirt like I do. Probably smart. Who knows when I’ll find time to bathe next.
“Anything,” I mumble.
She nods and tosses a few pieces of charred wood aside. Turk is a few feet away kicking up debris. Neither one seems to really be interested in looking. They either came just to make sure I was safe, or they really were looking for some alone time.
Rory stops digging, but I stay focused on the task at hand. I’d found something just before they showed up, and even though it was only in my hand for a brief second I have a feeling I was onto something good.
“You know where we are?” Rory whispers.
My fingers freeze and my insides tighten once again. There’s something in her tone that tells me I’m not going to like where this is going. “No.”
“This is where we found you.”
I clench my jaw and go back to searching. “Oh.”
My fingers wrap around something hard and smooth, but when I pull it out it’s just a rock. I toss it down the street and dig deeper. I need to find something so this trip isn’t a total waste, and I need to keep my mind busy, so I don’t have to remember.
Rory nudges me and my throat tightens. It’s from the ash, not the memories. I. Don’t. Cry.
“Come on, Scarlett. You don’t have to pretend with me.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I mumble.
“I’m not one of the guys. You don’t have to act all tough when you’re around me.”
Rory gets me, but she doesn’t. She knows I put on an act, but she doesn’t understand why I do it. I hate showing any weakness—especially in front of the guys—but it’s more for me than it is for them. Crumbling to pieces isn’t something I can afford to let happen. Life is too unstable as it is.
“I’m not acting.”
I jump to my feet and take a few steps away, but my foot slips when the rock I’m standing on wobbles. Rory grabs my arm before I have a chance to stumble, and just like that my insides start to crackle. Like wood being singed away by fire. She’s always had my back, and she’s the only one that can break through my walls.
“You okay?” Turk calls from a few feet behind us.
I keep my eyes forward and wave over my shoulder, but Rory turns so she can reassure him. She’s good at that.
Her hand is still wrapped around my arm when she turns back. “I’m glad we found you.”
How does she always seem to know when my walls are down? “Me too.”
Her hand drops from my arm and she kneels at me feet, brushing aside some rubble. She’s not digging for supplies—I’m the only one that does that—she’s giving me time.
“It would be lonely without you.”
I kneel next to her and nod slowly. “Even though I’m a pain in the ass sometimes?”
She smiles, and even in the darkness her green eyes sparkle. “Sometimes?”
“You two about done?” Turk calls—a little too loud.
Rory shakes her head and rolls her eyes—I think. “You trying to get caught?” she calls back—also too loud.
“This is why I like to go out alone,” I grumble.
Rory grabs my arm and hauls me to my feet. Her laughter is soft, almost childlike, and I can’t stop my walls from crumbling just a little bit more. Damn her.
She wraps her arm around my waist and pulls me toward Turk, whispering in my ear as we go, “You know you love it when I come out with you.”
I press my lips together to stop the smile even though she can’t see it. “There are certain things that I love about you, but trying to scavenge with you is not one of them.” Only Rory can make me smile like this. Life hasn’t exactly been easy, and sometimes I take it too seriously.
Turk falls into step beside Rory, and within seconds her attention is focused on him. I do my best to ignore the painful sting in the pit of my stomach. You’d think after all this time I’d be used to abandonment.
I pick up the pace and of course they don’t try to keep up. They’re laughing and whispering behind me, and I can’t stop myself from glancing over my shoulder at their entwined hands. Their relationship is new and they’re the first couple in our group if you don’t count Dex and me—which I don’t.
They’re still giggling when I round the corner and the world freezes. My feet are cemented in place and my lungs deflate. Three enforcers stand less than twenty feet away. Their backs are to us. We can still get away.
With a jolt I snap out of it and glance back at Rory and Turk. Our eyes meet and I jerk my head to the side, motioning for them to go back the way we came. They nod and I back up, keeping my eyes on the enforcers while stepping carefully over the rubble.
My heart pounds and a bead of sweat makes its way down the center of my back. We can make it. Just a little bit further. One step, two, five. Almost there. Rory and Turk disappear around the corner and I only have a few small steps left to take. We are going to be okay.
My foot lands half off a piece of cement and I stumble. Wood and metal clatter against each other, shattering the silence. The enforcers whip around and I let out a breath I didn’t even realize I was holding.
“Hey!” one of them shouts.
Every muscle in my body snaps to attention. Spinning on my heel, I haul ass and take off around the corner, right behind Rory and Turk. My heart bangs against my ribs and the pounding of the enforcer’s footsteps echoes in my ears. We have a pretty good lead, and the advantage of knowing the ins and outs of the city. We can outrun them. I know it.
Out of nowhere more enforcers round the corner in front of us. Rory and Turk skitter to a halt in front of me. Their eyes are wild with desperation as they search the streets for a way to escape.
“This way!” I yell, turning back toward a side street.
I don’t look to make sure the others are following me—I just go. Adrenaline shoots through me like fire, forcing me to move faster through the alley. I won’t let them catch me. They will not take me back to the mines. I take a few quick turns, dodging the rubble that clogs the alley, my mind focused on nothing but saving my own ass.
Rory’s scream pierces my heart and the fire in my veins turns to ice. I stop and spin around so suddenly that I almost fall. They’re not behind me. The blood pounds in my temples and my head snaps back and forth. What do I do? Help my friends or save myself? Another scream shatters the air, and it’s all I need to hear. I can’t leave Rory.
I head back the way I came, retracing my steps in search of Turk and Rory. My blood pumps faster with each step I take. My feet bang against the body of an enforcer when I round the final corner, and I have to leap over it to keep from falling. Before I can move Turk jabs the blade of his knife into a second man’s stomach. He grunts and falls to the ground, taking Turk with him. A third enforcer grabs Rory and shoves her face against the wall, pushing her against the dirty brick and twisting her arm behind her at an awkward angle. Her painful gasps hit me like a punch in the gut and I rush forward. Grabbing the collar of his jacket, I yank the enforcer off her and shove him against the wall. He tries to push me, but I knee him in the balls and slam my forearm against his neck, pressing all my weight onto his throat. He claws at my arm while I slip my hand into my pocket. His face is red and puffy, and his eyes are panicked. Flipping open my knife, I thrust it into his stomach, twisting it once for good measure.
He groans and his hands stop clawing at my arm. His body goes slack and warm blood covers my hand. His eyes roll back and I pull my knife out of his stomach while the life slowly drips out of his body, covering the streets of Athens like so many people before him.
My throat tightens, but I swallow against the pressure. Forget him. Focus on Rory, I tell myself.
Rory is sitting on the ground and Turk is next to her. His face is pinched with worry as he examines her scratched and dirty cheek.
“You okay?” I ask, taking a knee at her side.
“Yeah,” she says between gasps. “Let’s get out of here.”
I help her up while Turk continues to fuss over her like a worried mother. The muscles in my face are tight and I flex my jaw, trying to relax. She’s okay. We’re okay.
We turn toward the alley just as three enforcers step out, blocking our way. I grab Rory’s arm and spin around, ready to run back the way we came, but find three more closing in on us from behind.
“Left!” Rory pulls her arm out of my grasp and takes off toward a side alley.
Every muscle in my body tenses as Turk and I follow. I’m right on her heels when two more enforcers run out, blocking our way once again. Rory turns to run, but one of them manages to grab a handful of hair and yanks her back toward the alley.
My heart shatters into a million pieces and the sudden pain is so overwhelming that I almost can’t talk. “Rory!” It comes out sounding like a gasp for air.
She struggles to get away, but it isn’t working. I whip out a throwing star and fling it at the man holding her. It hits him in the shoulder and his face twists in agony. He releases Rory and grabs at the star embedded in his skin. Rory runs toward us, but she’s only taken two steps when four more enforcers come out of the alley. One grabs her arm and pulls her behind them. There are too many now.
“Run!” she screams.
Panic surges through my body and my chest tightens until I have trouble breathing. This can’t be the end. Desperately, I search for a way to save her, but we’re surrounded, outnumbered and seriously outgunned. Anguish rips through me, building in my chest and filling my heart until it swells against my ribcage. For a split second I’m paralyzed.
Rory screams for us to run and I snap back to reality. My survival instincts take over, pushing the pain deep inside. I grab Turk’s arm and pull him down the only street that isn’t blocked. He fights me, but I keep moving, dragging him along.
“Let me go!” he yells, trying to pull his shirt from my fist.
“Move, Turk! She’s gone!” A sharp pain hits me in the chest and I gasp for breath. But I keep moving. I have to get out of here. Have to get Turk and me to safety. It’s what Rory wants me to do.
“No, no!” Turk keeps fighting, but I don’t stop. I have the advantage. He’s emotional and it makes him weak.
Somehow I make it to an abandoned warehouse I recognize. There’s a concealed storage area on the first floor that I’ve hidden in a few times over the years. We’ll be safe here.
I shove Turk through the door and push him forward. He’s not struggling anymore, but he’s still crying. His sobs are like needles piercing my heart, and each sound makes my stomach twist painfully. If only he would stop so I could pull myself together.
The closet is hidden by fallen beams, but there’s a small opening at the bottom that we can crawl through. I push Turk onto his hands and knees and shuffle in behind him. It’s pitch black, so I have to feel my way in. Turk’s quiet crying echoes through the room, but other than that the warehouse is deathly silent. It’s perfect. There’s no way the enforcers will be able to sneak up on us in here.
“We could have helped her,” Turk sobs.
I clench my fists and dig my nails into my palms to distract myself from the pain inside. “Shhh! You want to get caught?”
We sit in silence and I try my best not to let Turk’s crying get to me, but it isn’t easy. It’s hard ignoring my own pain with Turk sniveling on the other side of the room, and the longer we sit here the bigger the pit in my stomach grows. The pain over losing Rory threatens to swallow me whole. How will I go on without her?
“We have to go get her,” Turk says between sniffs.
“We can’t. You know that. They’re taking her to the mines as we speak,” I say. My stomach rises up, knotted and twisted, trying to choke me from the inside out. I swallow and force it back down, tucking it away with all the pain from the past. Deep inside.
“Then we have to go into the mines.”
My throat is tight and I snort to hide the sob clogging it. “You want to break into a prison? Are you insane? We can’t, so just forget it.”
“So you’re willing to just let her go? Just walk away and pretend like she doesn’t exist anymore?” Turk’s voice shakes.
It stings, but I can’t tell him we’ll try when I know it’s not true. There’s nothing I can say that will make him understand. I get it. We all love Rory. Thinking about her having to go back to the mines makes my insides feel like they’re being ripped apart. She’s like family to me, something I haven’t had since my parents died. Letting her go isn’t an easy decision to make, but it is the right one.
“I’m sorry, Turk,” I say, forcing my voice to soften just a bit. “This is how it has to be. Rory and I talked about it a long time ago, and we agreed that if one of us got caught we shouldn’t go for the other.”
He doesn’t say anything and his silence is louder than any accusation he could throw at me. It pierces the quiet and rings in my ears, making it difficult to think. But I have to push it away. I have to be strong. So I focus on listening. Concentrating on the sounds of the world outside this room. There isn’t much; a noise here and there, the sound of an animal scurrying through the building. But eventually I hear what I’ve been waiting for—the distant sound of an airship flying across the sky.
“I think the coast is clear,” I whisper. “Let’s go.”
I crawl through the opening and head out into the building. It’s dark and silent just like it was before, but I’m still on edge. Turk climbs out behind me and the despair radiates off him, getting more intense with each step we take.
We go back out into the street and head home. My knife is still clutched in my hand as we move, ready to act at a moment’s notice. But the streets are clear, and we make it back unharmed. Some of the tension in my body melts away the instant I set foot inside. I’m never completely relaxed, but being back is a relief. Even if we are one person short.
Turk drags himself up the crumbling stairs behind me, but I focus on the holes and rubble instead of him. I don’t need to. We’ve been living in this building long enough that I could navigate the littered halls and stairway with my eyes closed. But it keeps my mind off Rory.
When I reach the third floor I stop in my tracks. Dex and Ryder are waiting for us. They aren’t usually up this late. Dex is pacing the hallway and his face crinkled with worry, his hands are balled up into fists at his sides. In complete contrast Ryder is sitting on the floor, casually leaning against the wall.
Dex looks up and he stops pacing when our eyes meet. “Where the hell have you been?”
“We got held up,” I say, trying to avoid looking at Turk.
Ryder climbs to his feet and presses his lips together. His eyes go back and forth between Turk and me. “Where’s Rory?” His voice is strained. He already knows the answer.
I swallow the knife rising in my throat. “She didn’t make it.”
No one says anything and the silence hanging in the air is suffocating. Turk stalks off and even though there’s a part of me that aches for him, I’m relieved. Being around him is too draining. I’m having a hard enough time keeping my own emotions in check.
Dex’s eyes are moist when he steps forward and puts his hands on my shoulders. “Are you okay?”
I nod and look away. “I’m fine.”
“What happened?” Ryder asks.
I shake my head and refuse to meet his gaze. The cold fingers of misery squeeze my chest and make it difficult to breathe. A familiar feeling.
“I don’t want to talk about it right now,” I say, shaking Dex off and turning away. “I need to get some sleep.”