Jane stared into the campfire, wondering what had become of the world. It was a question almost everyone on the planet shared.
At that moment hundreds of miles to the south, a boy named Eddie Foster—a boy she once met on the prairie, a boy she would soon come to hate—lay down on a bench in a darkened stadium, blinked up at the stars and asked himself what had gone wrong. Meanwhile, in a city just a few hours' walk from Jane's camp, Ruby Tanner—a girl who would soon save Jane's life—lay down on a soft bed in a marble palace, stared at the ceiling, and asked herself how the world could be so strange.
Jane clutched a knife in her right hand. Her loaded crossbow waited in the shadows behind her. Beside Jane, Bethany tensed, her brown eyes searching the night sky above the campfire. No doubt, she wondered what had become of the world.
Few stars shone in the light-polluted sky. Down in the valley beyond this mountain ridge, the city Cavaheim radiated with gas light and electric bulbs. The city lay at the foot of a towering spire of rock, and the reflected city light climbed the mountain like radiant ivy crisscrossing upwards, fading into the night above.
Jane and the others made their camp in a shallow depression at the top of this ridge. Trees rimmed this secret haven, sheltering it from the biting winds cutting uphill from the northwest.
"Do you think they'll come?" Bethany asked, still scanning the sky.
"Patience," Jane said. "They come out at night. And we're so close to their city now. They'll come."
"You have the spark."
"But they left me before."
"You were one of many before. Now you appear on their doorstep. They won't be able to resist."
That was the hope, anyway. So much could go wrong with the plan.
Jane and the others had found Bethany alone beside the shambles of her circus caravan, catatonic with shock, her eyes fixed on the ground. The dragon riders had taken her family. The rest of her people were dead, abducted or had run off. Bethany did not speak of the attack, but she followed Jane and the others. As they marched towards the Titan Spires, Bethany's eyes burned with cold fire. Her thirst for vengeance was even stronger than Jane's.
Bethany watched the sky. Starlight flickered above. She drew a sharp breath. "Did you see that?"
"A shadow against the stars," Jane answered. "They must see us, but they are distant."
Bethany drew one of her throwing knives. She flipped it in the air over her shoulder, caught it behind her back, tossed it back up, and twirled it with a finger mid-air as it came back down. She did all of this while remaining focused on the sky. "I'm ready. Do you think it senses the others?"
"If experience tells us anything," Jane said, "They only sense you."
"What if there's more than one?"
"Relax. We've planned for this."
Bethany sighed. "You're right. It's just... I'm scared."
"I've got your back. And Cornelius and Marty. We've already lost people. We're not going to—"
Without warning, the bulk of an enormous creature dropped out of the sky. A swipe of the dragon's wing threw both women backwards. Its foot stomped twice on their campfire, reducing it to scattered red embers.
Darkness engulfed them. The enormous creature bellowed, its shadow loomed against the stars.
Jane rolled away from the creature, its wing whooshing overhead as she moved.
"Jane!" Bethany called. The girl sounded like she was struggling.
A grunt of rage from the young woman was answered by cruel laughter. "Kzichka mongt Brektha," a man's voice chortled in the darkness.
The next time the dragon's wing approached Jane, she sensed its movement. She gripped her knife in both hands and swung it forward. The blade caught something, causing a tear in unseen flesh. The dragon roared, and the wing whipped out of reach.
"Cornelius, now!" Jane cried, ducking, her knife ready.
A spark, a flame, and soon, the clearing lit up to a blaze, flames whooshing along the channel of kerosene that circled their camp. The dragon reared its head back, unprepared for the blaze. On the ground beside it, a robed figure struggled with Bethany, his hand over the girl's throat. In the fire's brilliance, he released her and threw his hands over his face.
A tiny figure whipped out of the darkness, almost too fast for Jane to follow. The toad-like creature hit the robed man in the back of the head, causing him to topple forward. Marty the toad leapt from the back of the fallen rider's head, shoving it hard into the dirt, moving in time to avoid the swinging arc of the dragon's wing. The dragon lunged at him, snapping the air, following the toad-man's arc.
Marty planted a foot on the dragon's nose and leapt higher, doubling his momentum. He soared up into the shadows above the trees, laughing. "Eat me, you scaly turd," he cheered as he arced out of sight.
"Why don't you pick on someone your own size," Cornelius shouted. The troll was nowhere as big as a dragon, but he planted his feet before the creature and waited for the attention he was due.
The dragon whipped its head around to face the troll. It barely had time to recognized the new threat before Cornelius punched the dragon across the jaw with a powerful uppercut. The creature bellowed with pain, retreating, fumbling and tripping over its hind legs to find a defensive stance. Cornelius didn't give it a chance. He swung his fists in a one-two combination, catching the creature in the neck with one blow and in the breast with the other. The creature stumbled and roared. It lunged forward and caught the troll by his legs in its front talons.
"Whoa, there, sweetheart" Cornelius shouted. He lost his balance as he tried to kick the claws off of his leg.
Meanwhile, Jane and Bethany struggled with the fallen dragon rider. Bethany had cut the metallic ring from the rider's hand. The light continued to disorient him, his eyes squinted, his pupils down to pinpricks. He lunged at Bethany, but Jane wrapped an arm around his neck and yanked him backwards, pulling him off his feet. He made a strangled gurgle.
Cornelius clung to the dragon's leg now, causing the creature to panic. It shook the troll free, rearing back. No sooner had it freed itself from Cornelius, then Marty leapt out of the night and landed on the creature's neck. He gripped his hands over the monster's eyes and wrapped his long legs around it's flailing neck. The dragon went berserk, whipping around, its wings snapping in all directions. Cornelius ducked under a wing and gave the beast another right cross to its jaw.
The dragon had had enough, it flapped its wings, stirring the flames into wild eddies and leapt off the ground. Marty hung on for a few seconds longer, then leapt off its back into the tree tops.
Cornelius watched it leave, his shoulders squared, arms ready in case it returned. It didn't.
He turned to Jane and Bethany. Jane's hold on the man's neck did not relent, and Bethany kicked the man hard in the chest. The dragon rider's face looked like an overripe grape about to burst.
"Hey, whoa, whoa," The troll said stomping towards them. "He's no help if he's dead. Let him be, ladies."
Jane released him. The rider rolled away from her and fell to the dirt.
The oil light in the trench faded, its fuel nearly spent.
Cornelius laid a huge hand on Bethany's shoulder. She twitched with surprise, turning to him.
"Why don't you get the fire going again, lass," he said.
Bethany stared at him. She cast one disgusted glance back at the dragon rider, then nodded and turned away.
Jane stood over her prey, scowling. The man on the ground gasped and groaned.
Cornelius moved beside her. Marty dropped out of the trees and landed at the troll's other side. They stared down at their prisoner.
"You speak the king's English?" Cornelius asked. He nudged the man with his foot. "Hey, I'm talking to you."
The man glared up at him. "Gahk tein vait," he spat.
"If you can't talk proper," Cornelius said squatting down, "You'll find I'm exceptional at charades. We'll get what we need from you one way or another."
The man frowned. He reached into the neck of his robe.
"Ah-ah," Cornelius warned. He batted the man's hand away. "Toady," he said, turning to Marty. "What's he reaching for?"
Marty shoved a gray hand into the man's cloak, fished around for a moment, then withdrew a small black device. He held it up to the fading light. "What is it?"
"Looks like an earpiece," Cornelius said. "Shove it in his ear, with the long part facing towards his mouth."
Marty pushed the gadget into the man's ear. The man muttered under his breath. Then he spoke in accented English. "You will all burn in the fires of hell."
Cornelius leaned forward and grinned. "The fires of hell are what I'm built for, laddy. But I'm not going there tonight. Tonight, you're going to answer my questions."