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For my mom, survivor and superwoman, the inspiration behind Talin’s mother and everything I do.
Ghosts travel in packs.
This is the first lesson you’re taught when you become a Striker.
You learn that Ghosts used to be human, before the Karensa Federation strapped them down and poured dark poison down their throats, twisting them into monstrous war beasts.
Now you’ll see them hunting in the forests at the foothills of the mountains in groups of six or more, a grotesque contrast to the serene, snow-dusted landscape.
Their faces are white as ash, their skin split with deep cracks that expose scarlet, rancid flesh underneath. They are taller and stronger than any human who has ever lived, their limbs grown out all wrong, spindly like a spider’s. They smell like blood and earth.
Though their eyesight is poor, they can detect movement well. Their hearing is superb, their ears stretched long and tapering to points. They can make out human voices a mile away. In their territory, to speak is to be found, so we remain silent, invisible to the eye and ear.
Their teeth, too, grow longer and sharper than ours. The discomfort of it makes them gnash their fangs constantly, slicing new tears into their already ripped and rotting mouths.
That’s how you know they’re coming. The grinding sound.
But the most important thing to remember is this: To kill a Ghost, you must starve its eternally regenerating body. To do this, you must bleed a Ghost out, cutting it at its neck, the only place with a vulnerable vein.
It’s what I have trained my whole life to do. My name is Talin. I am a Striker for Mara, the last free nation on this side of the sea. We are legendary bringers of death, assassins of monsters.
And the only thing standing between our home and annihilation.
THE NATION OF MARA
The morning dawns with both sun and rain. Drizzle drifts in the sunbeams, dewing everything with a shimmer of light.
A storm is moving in. We need to finish our sweep early.
Cool wind streams my coat behind me as I head toward our defense compound’s main gates. We are at the warfront fifty miles from the steel walls of Newage, Mara’s capital, out where our southern mountain ranges give way to dense forests and valleys.
The other sides of Mara are protected by sheer cliffs rising a thousand feet above the ocean, natural formations supposedly caused hundreds of years ago by a cataclysmic earthquake—but here in the south, we are vulnerable to attacks from the Karensa Federation, whose vast territory now extends up to the other side of the pass. They send their Ghosts to wander this in-between land, trying to find a weak spot in our border. So we do a silent sweep every morning, killing any Ghosts we encounter.
It has been a month since the Federation launched a full-scale attack against us, which we barely survived with a temporary cease-fire. But compromise is difficult when what they want is our nation itself. So the next siege could come today. Tomorrow. A month from now. There is no telling.
When you’re fighting a losing war, you are always on edge.
Morning light has turned the sky a bruised pink by the time I arrive at the edge of our compound. As I walk, I notice the metalworkers bustling around their stations, the seasilk trim of their hats trembling in the wind.
“It’s the Basean,” one of them says with a sneer.
Another lifts an eyebrow at me. “Still alive, huh, little rat? Well, if you die before Tuesday, I’ll still win my bet.”
Words like these used to stick in my chest until it hurt to breathe. I’d turn my head down in shame and scurry past. But my mother always told me to keep my chin up. Look proud, she would say to me as she patted my cheek, until you feel it.
So now I wink back and smile a secret smile.
The metalworker looks away, annoyed that his barb didn’t hook me. I stand straighter and continue down the path without a word.
I haven’t spoken out loud since the night my mother and I first fled to Mara’s borders, when a Federation shell of poison gas permanently scarred the flaps of my vocal cords. I was eight years old at the time. My memories of that night are inconsistent—some clear as crystal, others nothing more than a blur of soldiers and the light of fires engulfing homes. I can’t remember what happened to my father. I don’t know where our neighbors went.
I think my mind has buried most of those memories, shrouded them in haze to protect me. That night left my mother with a head full of snow-white hair. I came out of it with no more voice and scar tissue twisting the inner lining of my throat. To this day, I’m not sure if I can’t speak because of those scars or because of the trauma of our escape, of what I witnessed the Federation doing to our people. Perhaps it’s both. All I know is that when I open my mouth, what’s left is silence.
I suppose I now make use of that silence. In my line of work, at least, it is essential for survival.
That was what first drew me to the Strikers. When I was small, I would join the crowds to watch the famed patrols head out past Newage’s walls, ready to face the Federation’s monsters. They are Mara’s most elite branch of soldiers, revered by everyone, notorious even in other nations. My eyes would shine at the elaborate harnesses looped around their shoulders and waist, their guns and knives and black steel armguards, the masks covering their mouths, the circular emblem embroidered on their sapphire seasilk coats that draped down to their boots.
I loved their silence. I loved that it meant survival to them. They moved like shadows, with no sound except the hush of boots against the ground. I would linger there, balanced on the branch of a tree, transfixed by their lethal grace until they had disappeared from view.
Now I’m one of them.
It is less glamorous when you are the one riding toward death. Still, it’s a job that means I can afford to put food on my mother’s table and a roof over her head.
Other Strikers are at the gate now, ready for our sweep. Corian Wen Barra, my Shield, is already here, his back turned to me. Dew shines in the high knot of his hair, and a breeze pushes against his coat’s hem.
I’d heard him leave his room this morning when I was still under my furs. He moves so lightly that no one else would have noticed the hush of his door closing.
As always, the sight of him settles my nerves. I’m safe here. I tap his shoulder as I reach him, then give him a mock frown and sign to him, “You left without me.”
Corian looks sidelong at me. He clutches his heart, as if I’ve wounded him. “What—and leave little Talin to fend for herself? I would never,” he signs, his gestures teasing and light.
“But?” I sign back.
“But they were serving fresh fishcakes this morning.”
“Did you at least save me one?”
“I did, but then I had to eat it because you took so long.”
I roll my eyes. He just laughs before he reaches into the pouch at his belt and tosses m
e a cake, still hot, wrapped in cloth. I catch it easily in one hand. My belly growls on cue.
Corian laughs again. “Look at you, nimble as a deer this morning.”
I shrug at him before biting down on the cake’s tender meat. Savory juices flood my mouth, along with the grit of minnow egg in the center. When I finish, I let out an exaggerated breath and grin. “Nimble and starving,” I answer him.
“‘Thank you for saving me breakfast, Corian’?” he suggests.
I gesture to him with greasy fingers. “You’re welcome for my company, Corian.”
All Strikers work in pairs. We are bonded until death from the moment we take our oath. Corian and I have trained together, have fought side by side, have been able to guess each other’s thoughts since we were twelve. I’m more a sister to him than his blood sisters. When I move, he watches my back. When I lead, he follows. I do the same for him in return. Our lives are intertwined, one indivisible from the other.
He is my Shield, what we call our Striker partner. I am his.
We’re a strange pairing. Corian and I have always been opposites in everything. He is the thirdborn—wen—son of the Barra family, one of the wealthiest in Newage. His appearance is golden in every way. When he laughs, he leans into it with his entire body, a constantly shifting mosaic of strong lines. It’s the kind of aura that you can’t help but be drawn toward. People buzz around him at holiday banquets, all eager to be seen chatting with him.
My full name is Talin Kanami. I’m a refugee from Basea, a nation south of Mara that fell to the Federation ten years ago. My skin is light brown, my eyes green and slender and long lashed, my hair so black that it shines blue, like a slick of oil in the light.
I’m proud of my Basean features, but many in Mara call refugees like me rats. The Maran Senate has banned us from serving in the Striker patrols. I’m here only because Corian asked the Firstblade to make an exception for me.
Now that we’ve eaten, Corian and I do our routine weapons check, making sure our blades are fresh and bullet chambers are loaded.
“Daggers,” he calls out.
I run my fingers against the hilts of mine, then tug once on the harnesses looped securely around my shoulders. We each carry a dozen daggers: six strapped across our chests in a bandolier; two against the harnesses around each thigh; and one tucked along each boot.
“Good,” I sign to him. “Blades.”
We simultaneously touch our hands to our two swords hung at the hips, then pull them out in unison and sheath them again with a flourish. Like the daggers, these are made of a near-indestructible metal, capable of slicing through almost anything.
I nod at his left blade. “Could use an extra polish, Corian,” I sign. “That edge is looking a little dull.”
“It’ll still cut a throat,” he replies. “I’ll sharpen it tonight.”
“Guns,” I move on.
We have two sniper pistols each, equipped with mufflers to silence them when they fire. A cloth bandolier running around my belt is full of bullets. Corian tosses me a few extra ones from his stash. I catch them and drop them into their slots.
“Bow,” he finishes. “Arrows.”
One crossbow each, strung across our backs, plus a light quiver of arrows, each cushioned with a fabric wrap to keep them from clanking against one another.
Finally, we check our armguards and gloves, then our black half masks, which will cover our mouths and muffle the rasp of our human coughs.
As we finish, Firstblade Aramin Wen Calla comes striding down our ranks for a final check. Our leader is young; some grumble that he’s too young for his position. Not long ago, he’d trained alongside the rest of us as a recruit. But even a few short years as the Firstblade has prematurely streaked silver into Aramin’s thick knot of hair tied atop his head. His eyes are as gray and hard as a thunderstorm, rimmed with ferocious dark powder. His lips are twisted down in a permanent scowl. Black fragments of jawbone stud his ears like multiple earrings. Following the tradition of other Strikers who have lost their Shields in the past, the Firstblade had cut those bones straight out of the Ghosts that had killed his own partners years ago.
It’s hard to grow old in this profession. You promote who you can.
He progresses along our line, stopping occasionally in front of the newer recruits to check a harness, tilt a chin up, offer a few words of courage.
“Talin,” he says when he reaches me.
I place my fist against my chest in a salute to him. He does the same before moving on.
Finally, when he finishes, he stands before us one last time. There are no speeches of glory, no rousing battle cries.
No one needs to tell us that we are the last defense Mara has against the Federation.
Down the line, a hush falls over all the Striker ranks. We pull on our masks at the same time, covering the bottom half of our faces in black. Corian looks straight ahead, his features flattened in concentration.
My heart hardens into stone. My mind pushes away everything except a single goal:
Protect my country.
The Firstblade gives the order. We step forward as one out into the silent world.
If not for the Federation on the other side of this mountainous warfront, if not for their Ghosts stalking the narrow passes, the land is achingly beautiful. The air is cold and crisp, half the sky clear and half a darkening gray. The moon hangs powder white above the tree line, craters visibly speckling its body. A cloud of birds glides through bands of fog drifting through the valley’s basin. The water of a nearby stream glows bright blue from the light of tiny river minnows, what our breakfast of fishcakes had been formed from, although now they teem only in the thousands where there used to be millions. Farther down the plains, I glimpse a herd of rare shaggy cows grazing in the mist. Even now, close to winter, they are searching for the sweet, yellow wildflowers carpeting the foothills, gemstones gleaming in the snow.
But what really makes this landscape breathtaking are the ruins of an ancient, long-gone civilization. The structures, scattered everywhere across all nations, are strange and lovely—bones of crimson steel bridges that rise hundreds of feet in the air, crumbling white and dark pillars cut into huge, impossibly perfect cubes. Now the steel and stone are overgrown with blankets of dripping green vegetation.
No one knows exactly how long ago this civilization existed. As old as five thousand years, some say. Whoever the Early Ones were, they were far more advanced than us. They left behind entire cities. Machines with wings. Ships made of metal. Sheets of engineered rock. A few suggest that some of the species we see now, like the wild cows roaming the plains, evolved from animals domesticated during their time. From the fallen skeletons of their steel structures, we broke down the parts and used them to fortify our halls and towers and bridges. From their abandoned weapons, we created our guns and bullets and blades.
From their books, the Federation learned how to twist humans into Ghosts.
I wonder where they went. One theory says they died out, killed by a sickness, and that we descended from the few survivors. Another claims they abandoned this earth to live elsewhere among the stars, and we are the stragglers left behind. Or maybe they too had demons to face, had destroyed one another with their hatred. I wonder if they would approve of how we have scavenged their leftovers.
We have all spread out by now, cutting a trail through the grasslands toward the woods nestled in the Cornerwell Pass. Occasionally we stop to listen, wondering whether the wind whispering through the pines will also carry the sound of teeth.
But the forest is still today.
We reach the edge of the woods. Here, the light dims, filtered through the thick canopy into rays dotting the floor. Dense layers of fallen logs pile in a green blanket of moss and ferns. The scent of cool, damp earth surrounds us, and from somewhere far away comes the faint trickling of a stream.
As time goes on, I start to notice the finer sounds. The drip of water on a leaf, the thud of a frog lea
ping onto soft soil. Corian walks several yards away, but our bodies always turn in sync with each other, used to years of our rhythm.
Then I notice a snapped twig against a branch. I pause and lean close for a better look.
Corian senses the shift in my movement without even looking at me. A moment later, he’s at my side, warmth radiating off him, his stare focused up on the twig too.
I sign to him with my gloved hands. “See the angle of the break?”
Corian signs back. “It’s down,” he replies. “Not sideways. Broken by something taller than this branch.” He points into the wood. “Came from that way.”
“Stag?” I ask.
“Would be more snapped branches here, if it was.”
“A scout, maybe? A spy?”
“Could be,” he responds. “I heard the southern patrols caught a prisoner of war fleeing through the valley this morning. There might be others.”
A glint of something wet on the forest floor catches my eye. I crouch. “Blood,” I tell him as I stare down at the single, fresh dot of crimson, the color a shade noticeably darker than human.
Corian nods in agreement, his lips pulled into a tight line. It’s not a stag or a scout. We have tracked hundreds of Ghosts. By now, the smallest hint is enough to let us know they’re nearby.
I point up once at the trees. “Take top watch. I’ll wait for your sign.”
Corian taps a fist quietly against his chest at the same time I do. Then he heads for the trees. In two steps, he pulls himself up into a nook. There he crouches, nearly invisible against the dark wood.
I shift toward the thick undergrowth near a pile of mossy logs. During training, I would glide across floors littered with stacks of coins, careful not to disturb any with my boots. Now I pass between the logs without a sound until I settle into the crevice of a hollow trunk.
Long minutes drag by.
A bird’s trill catches my attention. Corian’s call. I turn my eyes up to him. He’s still hunched in the shadow of the tree nook. He signs to me again, pointing three fingers to my right. Then three fingers toward me.