The Call of Thunder Impressors.
The word dredged up the memories that flooded Archer whenever he closed his eyes: Hatchet, Redbeard, Palo Kanta, the fights, chains, and crates, the branding iron on his upper arm—the sizzle of flesh and the stink of singed hair—each burn a sign of his victory.
Of each of the boys he’d killed. Of the animal he’d been.
At his feet, the wheel ruts and boot prints blurred together as he stared at the dusty track. He touched his arm, his fingers splaying over the burns the impressors had given him. They’d called it the “count”—an official record of his kills. Fifteen fights overseen by arbitrators. Fifteen deaths for which Hatchet got paid handsome amounts of money. Fifteen burns to get him to the final fighting ring in Jahara, where one more kill would get him an audience with the Guard.
His nails dug into his flesh. He’d killed so many more than that. And now he knew it. In the Guard’s office beneath Corabel, Rajar had triggered the return of his memories, and with them had come his voice, his conscience, his guilt.
He closed his eyes, and the dream from that morning came rushing back to him, as vivid as if he were living it all over again. He’d completely obliterated Argo’s face—teeth and flakes of bone protruding through layers of muscle and flesh.
There was a roaring in his blood.
“That’s right, boy!” Hatchet’s face swam before him, ruddy skin and watery eyes. “We’re going to make a killing off you!”
He leapt for Hatchet’s throat. “Archer!”
He opened his eyes. Sefia was peering up at him, her face filled with concern.
He staggered back, half-afraid he’d attack her in his delir- ium. “Did they go west?” His voice came out as a growl, unfa- miliar even to himself.
She reached for him. “Archer—”
But he drew back again. His limbs ached, wanting to fin- ish the jump, wanting to grab and fight and wound. His body yearned for it. “Did they go west?” he repeated.
For a moment Sefia studied him, and he saw a flicker of guilt in her teardrop eyes. Her father’s eyes, she’d told him once.
He knew it wasn’t her fault. She wasn’t her parents. She hadn’t even been born when they’d done those things. But how could he look at her now without seeing the impressors, the fights, the kills? She’d never look at him with such compassion if she knew what he’d done, what he’d been, what kind of vio- lence still thrashed inside of him.
At last, she nodded.
He gripped the hilt of his sword and headed west, with Sefia, for once, trailing behind.
With each step, dust billowed at his heels. With each step, he drew closer to his enemy. His footfalls became a chant: Soon. Soon. Soon.
He channeled all his anger into that—the promise of retribution. Soon.
Dusk came and went. Stars cluttered the sky. But Archer didn’t stop until they found the impressors camped under the moonlight.
His heart took up the refrain. Soon. Soon. Soon.
Slinging off their packs, Archer and Sefia crept forward, peering through the leaves.
The camp was positioned between a willow thicket and a se- ries of creeks that gleamed faintly beyond the branches. Men and women lounged about, while sentries patrolled the perim- eter, guarding the carts, the horses, and the boys hunkered be- side a meager fire.
At the sight of them, his anger lashed inside him like a storm on the rocks. Soon.
The boys were ragged and dirty, shackled at the hands and ankles. Each one had a burn, pink and taut, around his throat.
Archer’s hand went to his own neck, tracing the puckered skin. The boys were like him—candidates to lead the Guard to victory in their Red War.
According to legend, the boy with the scar would be the greatest military commander the world had ever seen. He’d conquer all Five Islands in the bloodiest altercation in living memory.
And he’d die soon after. Alone.
Rajar’s voice came back to him, low and harsh: Who are you, boy? Are you the one we’ve been looking for?
The leaves rustled as Sefia shifted beside him. “Seven boys?” she whispered. “I thought impressors only had one at a time.”
Archer was already tallying up their weaponry, studying the patterns the sentries made as they paced the edge of the clear- ing. Inside him, the storm was building—almost ready to break. “Hatchet had five when I was kidnapped,” he said, sliding his gun from its holster. “The last of them died weeks before you met me.”
Some were killed in training, some in the ring. But once Archer had started winning, displaying a gift for violence that made him feared even among his captors, Hatchet hadn’t both- ered with any other candidates. Did he know something I didn’t?
Archer wondered. Did he suspect?
“I’ll drive off the impressors,” he said. He could feel the fight at his fingertips. Soon.
“Will you free the boys?”
Sefia touched the pocket of her vest where she kept her lock picks. “That’s the least I can do,” she said.
Archer watched her try and fail to smile, guilt edging her expression. Reaching out, he traced the green feather she wore in her hair.
He could have kissed her, despite everything. Wanted to kiss her. Because if they didn’t make it, he wanted to have done it one last time.
But he didn’t deserve her. He knew that now. He was a mur- derer. An animal who couldn’t stop himself from killing. Even if he’d wanted to.
Before she could speak, he launched himself through the branches, letting off two quick gunshots before the impressors could even cry out.
Two men dropped dead.
And like a sudden downpour cleansing him of dust, the fight broke over him—brilliant, purifying, clear—he could see every move, every attack and counterattack, every feint and parry and thrust in exquisite detail. Like magic. Like the reading
Terrifying . . . and beautiful.
Shouts went up around the clearing as the impressors grabbed their pistols and swords, but they were too slow. Much too slow.
He ran the nearest man through with his blade, felt the steel shiver as it scraped bone.
His nerves sang with the sensation.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Sefia dash toward the group of manacled boys. As she passed an impressor, she flung one of her knives. It pierced his shoulder.
With a snarl, he pulled his revolver.
Archer’s first instinct was to protect her. Shield her. But he was too far.
“Sefia!” Her name ripped from his throat.
The gun went off. There was an explosion of powder and flame.
Sefia drew herself up to her full height, her eyes blazing, her hair whipping around her shoulders like black water.
She lifted her fingers and, with nothing more than a flick of her wrist, sent the bullet whizzing into the dirt.
The impressor’s jaw dropped. Sefia smirked. Sweeping her hand through the air, she threw him into a tree. Branches snapped. He landed at the base of the trunk, an arm twisted beneath him.
She didn’t need protection.
Grinning, Archer turned to the fight again. He slashed a woman across the stomach and ducked, pulling her in front of him as the others peppered them with bullets. Her body jerked at each impact—and then was still. Hot blood ran down his arm, slick and satisfying.
He shoved the corpse at the nearest impressor and rushed in among them, hacking, beating, slashing, like the fight was a dance and he knew all the steps.
But even for him, there were too many. Too many bullets to dodge. Too many hits to avoid. A shot grazed him, then another. Someone cut him across the thigh—a flash of pain.
Across the clearing, Sefia unshackled one of the boys. And another.
A woman struck at Archer’s exposed side. He knew the sword was coming, saw the arc of the steel. He wouldn’t be quick enough to evade it.
He felt the edge score him. This one would bite deep. He gritted his teeth, anticipating the pain. But before the impres- sor could finish the blow, another scarred boy bounded up and cut her head from her body with a heavy curved sword.
For a moment, their gazes locked. The boy had black hair and green eyes, and beneath the layer of dirt, his face had the tan, weathered look of someone who lived along the ice—short summers, blisteringly cold winters. Gormani, maybe, from the northernmost province in Deliene. A deep scar ran down his cheek like a trail of water.
As he and Archer stared at each other, a smile split his face wide open.
Then they were fighting side by side, turning away im- pressors, fighting and killing, their blades glinting with blood and firelight. Together, they were deadly, terrifying, exultant. Through the melee, Archer could hear the boy laughing, his unfettered joy infectious as they defended each other, blocking, jabbing, like lightning and thunder, two parts of a whole.
Together they fought until the impressors ran off or laid down their arms in surrender. As the thrill of battle seeped out of him, Archer watched them bleeding, helpless, in the gravel. He could have killed them. He wanted
to kill them.
Dimly, he heard Argo’s wet, broken voice: Please. Don’t. Please, I beg you. Please . . .
And he remembered killing him anyway. The moment the rock struck. The moment the words twisted into garbled moans . . . and lapsed into silence.
Archer’s vision spun. His injuries throbbed. His weapons were so heavy, they trembled in his hands.
He wasn’t the animal anymore.
But deep inside him, he thought he heard the growl of thunder.
Across the clearing, the other boy was staring at him again, his green eyes glinting with such suppressed glee that Archer, to his surprise, found himself grinning back, as if they were little kids sharing some delicious secret.
As Sefia released the last boy from his chains, she turned to Archer, her face flushed with excitement, and before he knew it they were together, his arms around her like he was a lost ship and she was his mooring.
He slid a stray lock of hair back behind her ear, his finger- tips burning where they brushed her forehead, her temple, her neck. Sefia held completely still in his arms, as if she were even afraid to breathe. Kiss her.
The thought gripped him. Before you remember your anger, your guilt, your violence. Before—
But a sudden cry from the center of camp thrust them apart.
His hands fell to his sides, cold, aching, empty.
The boys had surrounded the prisoners, jeering, prodding, teasing them with the tips of their scavenged weapons. There was the slap of flesh on flesh, and someone let out a laugh: “All right, bonesuckers, who wants to go first?”
Copyright © 2017 by Traci Chee. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.