Red Gambit

Book One of the Harvesters Series, by Luke Mitchell
(This excerpt is also available in audio right here.)

Excerpt 3

Something barked at the edge of Rachel’s awareness—a crack of thunder, followed by two more in rapid succession. Gunshots.

Whose?

She reeled in her extended senses and pulled herself back to her body. Her attacker lay slumped over her, two-hundred-plus pounds of warm, dead weight.

A soft thunk and a groan.

“Mmm.” Michael’s voice, thickly gagged. “Mmm!”

“I know, dude,” someone said to her left in a loud whisper. “Phase Two!”

She couldn’t see past her attacker’s bulk. She pushed at him, her head swimming. Something warm dripped onto her neck. The guy on top of her had a neat bullet hole in the side of his head.

She jerked reflexively, her stomach turning over, and pushed again, frantically.

A dark-haired man appeared at the edge of her vision—the same guy she’d seen being hauled into the base, she realized. “It’s all right, sweet—”

He cut off in mid-sentence, whirled around, and raised a weapon toward something she couldn’t see. Three more shots cracked out.

She struggled harder. With a mighty heave, she rolled the slack body off of her just as the dark-haired man lowered his weapon and turned to face her.

She extended a palm toward him, preparing to reach out and wrap him in her will. The guy clearly wasn’t on team Red, but he seemed to be one to shoot first and ask questions later. She wasn’t keen to wait to find out what he thought of her.

She extended her senses. Nothing. Apparently, her surprise showed.

He raised a single finger for pause, holding a knife reverse-grip with the other digits, then he let his gun hang loose on its sling and reached up to tug his shirt collar down, revealing a lean chest and a tattoo of a simple kite shield set in a circle.

A glyph?

An easy grin slipped over his mouth. “Call me superstitious, but I do what I can to avoid surprises, sweetheart.”

Her frown deepened. His grin followed suit. Did this guy know what she was? Either way, he was an ignorant fool if he thought that glyph would protect him.

He let go of his shirt and took his weapon back up.

In a moment of heart-wrenching panic, she let out the energy she’d gathered in a tidal rush of force that sent him flying. He hit the ground rolling, then thumped to a halt against the wall behind him.

“How’s that for a surprise, asshole?”

She scrambled to her feet and over to Michael’s cell as quickly as she could manage and placed her hand over the lock. Michael scurried to the side of the cell, crying something through his gag, but his concerns were unnecessary. As exhausted as she was from so much channeling, blowing the lock would’ve been a pricey way of saving a few seconds.

Instead, she let her mind trickle into the keyhole like hot wax, creeping through every nook and cranny until the tumblers aligned and the cylinder simply turned with the faintest application of telekinetic force.

She pulled the door open with a creaky groan, then spun as the stranger cleared his throat behind her. He held his knife and gun ready but not quite pointed at her.

They eyed one another uncertainly. Then Michael came scrambling out of the cell to plant himself between them, his eyes seething with frantic energy. The stranger lowered his gun further as Michael stepped into the line of fire.

Rachel kept a wary eye on the gun—a gun he’d just killed three men with, she reminded herself—and rested her staff in the crook of her arm long enough to rip the tape from Michael’s lips and fish the balled-up rag out of his mouth.

The instant the gag left his mouth, Michael cried, “Holy crap, can you guys take it easy for a minute?”

“She started it,” the guy said, his weapon completely at ease now.

“What are you, five?” she asked.

“What are you? Uh . . .” He snapped his fingers. “Dammit! Thought I had something. Who the hell is this chick, Mikey?”

“Who the hell am I?” She glanced at Michael and back at the other guy. “Who the hell are you?”

“Rachel,” Michael said, “this is Jarek Slater, my, uh, acquaintance.”

Jarek the ‘acquaintance’ held up a hand. “Easy there, Mikey. I need space to breathe.”

Michael tilted his head in a gesture of defeat. “Jarek, this is Rachel, my sister.”

His dark-eyed gaze flicked back and forth between her and Michael. “Not to be a dick, but is there a stork or a frisky milkman in that story somewhere?”

Well, there was a fresh one. Black and white siblings? How could it be?

“I was adopted, asshole.”

Tall, Dark, and Dickish nodded, tapping at his chin. “That actually explains a lot.”

She tensed, but Michael grabbed her arm. “Easy, Rache. He’s a dick, but he’s on our side for now.”

“I’m right here, guys,” said the dick.

Michael ignored him and nodded toward the trail of blood on Rachel’s left shoulder. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine.” She didn’t look away from the newcomer. He felt like trouble. Professional trouble. “And we don’t need this asshole watching our backs until he can stick that knife in them. I can get us out.”

He placed a hand to his chest, looking more amused than affronted. “Like, right here. Look, sweetheart, Mikey’s not leaving my sight, and unless I missed some masterful plan that doesn’t revolve around waving that there magic stick around until the big bad Reds go away, you do need this asshole’s help.”

Every muscle in her body clenched. “I don’t know who the hell you—”

“Holy crap, you two,” Michael said, his voice a low hiss. “There are people coming to kill us right now, remember? Can you reel in your egos for ten minutes?” He held up his bound hands. “And maybe untie me while you’re at it?”

“There are always people coming to kill me, Mikey. But fair point.”

So that was a no on the reeling-in of the egos for Mr. Tough Guy, then. She tensed as he stepped closer to Michael, holding out his knife, but then he twirled the blade in his hand and offered it to her handle first.

“I imagine you don’t want me sticking this anywhere near his front or back,” he said in response to her uncertain stare.

She looked at the knife for a second, then pointedly turned away from the blade to grab Michael’s wrists. “So you have a plan then, tough guy?”

“Working on it, sweetheart,” he said.

“If you call me sweetheart again . . .”

She poured heat from the surrounding air into a single point on each of the two ties on Michael’s wrists. An acrid smell wafted through the air as it swirled from the sudden temperature differential. Michael’s bindings fell to the floor. She turned back to Mr. Tough Guy.

“ . . . I’m gonna break your nose.”

He barked a laugh. “Joke’s on you. I think it’s already broken.”

She gave him a deadly smile. “I can wait.”

“Can we just get out of here?” Michael said, rubbing his wrists and shaking his arms loose. “The Reds will be here any second.” He went to look for a weapon.

“Fine,” she said. “It’s Jarek, right?”

“If ‘asshole’ is becoming cumbersome, sure.”

She pointed with her staff. “Well lead the way, Jar—”

Jarek snapped to sudden attention, closing his eyes and cocking his head as if listening. She focused and caught it as well: the faint sound of approaching voices and footsteps.

“Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, I think I will.”

He jogged toward the brig entrance, pausing on the way to pluck the comm from the wrist of the man who’d nearly strangled her and slip it on.

She spread her hands. “Was there a plan, then?”

Michael gave her a wide-eyed shrug and set off after Jarek. She shook her head and followed, mumbling under her breath.

Ahead of them, Jarek stuck his head into the hallway and yelled, “Help! I’ve got ’em cornered!”

Her blood went cold. The traitorous bastard!

Outside, the sounds of approaching Reds quickened at his call.

She pointed her staff at Jarek, prepared to blow the son of a bitch through the wall.

He flattened himself against the wall, placed a finger of his knife hand to his lips, and then whispered, “Phase Three!”

He gestured that they should take cover behind the first cluster of cells.

Boots pounded outside the brig. There was no time to ask what the hell he was talking about. Michael pushed against her, shuffling her behind the cover of the cells. She lost sight of Jarek the moment before the first of what sounded like at least four or five Reds entered the brig.

She held her breath, waiting for the shouts and gunfire that would accompany Jarek’s inevitable discovery.

One of them spoke in a tense, gruff voice. “Where the hell are—hey!”

That was her cue.

She sprang around the corner to see Jarek yanking his knife from one Red’s throat and lunging after another. Every gun in the room (at least five of them) tracked toward him, but no one managed to get a clean shot before he closed on his next target.

He moved with brutal efficiency, stabbing and kicking his way into the pack. He somehow managed to grapple and dodge at just the right times to prevent any of them from getting a clear shot at him.

That didn’t stop them from trying.

Sporadic gunshots cracked out, none of them hitting their intended mark, especially not the one that sent another Red to the ground, clutching at his leg. Jarek’s knife had just found its third target when one of the Reds slammed into him with a hip-level shoulder tackle that drove him into the wall. The last standing Red moved forward to catch Jarek’s knife arm in both hands before Jarek could thrust the blade down at the first attacker.

She drew energy from her batteries and gathered her will.

Ahead, the Red with the shot leg was taking aim at Jarek’s pinned, helpless form. Jarek kneed the guy wrapped around his waist right in the groin and threw two hard punches into the second guy’s ribs. He dropped the knife from his pinned right hand, caught it with his left, and plunged the blade between the second Red’s ribs.

The man fell to his knees with a thick grunt, and the leg-shot Red abandoned his hesitations and pulled the trigger.

A burst of gunfire roared out. Five slugs slammed to a halt a few inches in front of Jarek’s chest and throat.

The Reds and Jarek all stared at the hovering slugs for a few stunned seconds.

“Well, that’s new,” Jarek said.

She closed her fist and yanked it back with a rough jerk—and with it, the barrier she’d constructed.

The last Red staggered back from Jarek and fell beside the shooter on the floor, who threw an arm back to prop himself against the invisible shove.

Jarek raised his slung submachine gun from his side.

Three cracks of thunder later, the room was quiet.

“Well,” Jarek said, half panting, half groaning, “I think that went swimmingly.” He pointed the knife at Rachel. “Neat trick, by the way.”

She hefted her staff. “I’m just full of them.”

“I’ll bet you are . . .” he murmured, eyeing her a little too intently.

“Eyes up here, sweetheart.” She waved to Michael that the coast was clear.

“All right, all right.” Jarek ran a hand through his hair as he glanced through the brig entrance, then back to them. “Let’s move, then.”

Three men lay dead beside the guy she’d knocked out in the short hallway beyond the brig’s antechamber. She could only assume they’d been Jarek’s handiwork on his way into the brig, which put his body count at—Jesus, did it even matter? The guy was cold and clearly dangerous. He seemed to be on their side right now, but she wouldn’t be taking her eyes off of him anytime soon.

At the junction outside the brig, she turned right, nudging Michael along beside her.

“Other way,” Jarek said, grabbing her staff arm at the elbow.

She tugged her arm free. “I came this way. I don’t know where that leads.”

“Brilliant,” he said. “Follow the same route in and out. They’ll never see that coming!”

Angry heat rushed to her head, but before she could deliver the retort brimming on the edge of her lips, Jarek said in a level tone, “I know what I’m doing.” He grimaced and touched at a tear in his shirt over his left shoulder. “Just trust me.”

She nodded toward his shoulder. “Did you get shot back there?”

“Twinsies,” Jarek said, pulling his hand from the shoulder to reveal a bloody finger.

“Is it bad?” Michael said.

“Not nearly as bad as the next one could be,” Jarek said, holding her gaze as he tilted his head to the left hallway. His eyes beseeched her. “Plan. Trust me.”

She glanced at Michael, who gave a small nod.

“Not for a second,” she said as she moved to follow him.

That only made the cocky bastard grin.

They left the junction at a run. For all his talk about having a plan, she wasn’t entirely convinced Jarek knew where he was going, but he sure as hell acted as if he did. He led them up to the second floor and left out of the stairwell.

A minute later, they turned a corner into a stretch of hallway that opened to a suspended catwalk crossing through the Fortress’ central hub.

The hub was around fifty feet high and wide open aside from the catwalks spanning its far edges. Among other things, the area held two medium-sized airships. Four large, interlocked panels set in the hub’s high ceiling looked as though they could part to allow the ships to pass.

Most importantly, though, the room below was positively crawling with armed men either standing guard over the potential getaway vehicles or rallying to go track down the Fortress’s escapees.

They halted at the edge of the railed metal walkway. It was woefully exposed—and their only way of proceeding forward.

“What the hell’d you bring us this way for?” she whispered by Jarek’s ear. “You’re not seriously thinking about stealing one of those ships.”

“Hell no,” he whispered, turning back to look at her.

The motion put his face within inches of hers. She leaned back and swallowed, trying to pretend she hadn’t felt a light trill in her chest.

“That’s crazy talk, sweethea—uh, yeah, even if those doors were open, it’d—”

A lurching groan sounded from the panels in the ceiling, which began to slowly open to the Newark sky with a loud, steady hum of motors.

Jarek’s eyebrows drifted upward. “Huh. Guess now’s the time to go for it.”

She was opening her mouth to express just how wholeheartedly she disagreed with that line of thinking when he started across the walkway.

Shit.

She traded a shocked look with Michael, and they both set off after him across the metal walkway. She stepped lightly, hoping the noise from the opening panels would cover their tracks.

Dozens of armed Reds filled the area below them. All it would take was one wrong glance and they’d be screwed, but all eyes were trained toward the splitting ceiling.

Halfway across, a flicker of movement drew her attention to the opening panels. A figure was plummeting through the gap toward the ground fifty feet below. Despite the fatal height, he didn’t flail or cry out; he simply waited to land, arms and legs at ready positions as the air attempted to rip his long coat from his body. His long, rust-red coat.

Could that be—

The man’s eyes flared with a violent scarlet glow, clearly visible even across the enormous room. She watched with morbid fascination as he slammed into the concrete floor with a thud and the sound of crumbling stone. A small cloud of dust and pulverized concrete shot up around him.

Like everyone else, she’d heard plenty of ghost stories about the raknoth over the years, but as she watched that figure stride out of the dispersing debris cloud, fiery-red eyes alight and apparently unperturbed by the bone-shattering force of his landing, she couldn’t deny what she was seeing.

She was looking at a raknoth, and she could only assume it was the Red King.

The King’s attention settled on a group of Reds waiting nearby in silence. Even from across the room, she could feel the tension as the raknoth approached them. Above, a large, vaguely avian airship began descending into the hub, presumably the ship the King had jumped from.

One of the Reds stepped forward from the cowering huddle. For a second, it looked like the King might speak, but then he grabbed his subject by the hair, yanked the man’s head to the side, and plunged his teeth into the side of his neck.

The sounds of the descending airship and the men below covered Rachel’s gasp.

The Red King’s eyes pulsed brighter. Crimson blood rolled down the man’s neck, yet he didn’t fight as the King lapped it up.

Shock and revulsion filled her.

Then the Red King’s head snapped up like a predator catching a scent, and revulsion shifted to alarm.

The King pushed his meal back toward the other men, who caught the bloody man and steadied him. The King paid no mind, sniffing at the air.

Shit. Had he sensed them? Had he sensed her?

Jarek signaled they should move.

She took two steps after him, and then something slammed against her mind like a falling iceberg. The presence was vast and powerful and alien, and she barely managed to hold her defenses together under its devastating attack. It could only be one thing. She sank into her mental space, scraping and clawing to find some purchase, but the raknoth’s mind was relentless in its drive.

This wasn’t a fight she was going to win. Her cloak. She needed to activate her cloak.

Keeping all but the barest scrap of her mind fixed on holding the Red King’s telepathic invasion at bay, she struggled to find her comm with slow, awkward fingers. With painstaking concentration, she swiped a command over the comm’s surface.

The mental pressure vanished as the cloaking glyph on her necklace activated. She gasped, feeling the weight lift from her.

It was only then she noticed that she’d fallen to the walkway. Michael was clutching at her arm with wide, panicked eyes.

“Have to go,” she said, her voice a weak croak.

Below, the Red King was pointing up at them, and dozens of Reds were turning toward them as the raknoth bellowed, “Bring them to me!”


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Thank you for reading,
Luke Mitchell

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