“Hurry!” I shouted. “The sun is almost up!” The engine of our monster truck roared as my sister Ana, the driver, pressed on the gas and laughed like a loon. I grinned. The nut job loved speed. I crouched low on the platform built over the car’s hood and clung to the railing, eyeing the terrain ahead for oncoming threats. Daylight was the most dangerous time in Death Valley. That’s when the monsters crept out. Normally night would be the most dangerous time, right? Well, not here. Even the sun was a weapon in the valley. This was the time it really got dangerous. We should have been home before daylight, but our last job transporting outlaws across the valley had run late, leaving us out here at the worst time of day. Right now, to be precise. While Ana drove the truck, it was my job to blast away any monsters that might want to snack on us. I was a lot of things, but monster snack wasn’t one of them. “To the left, Bree!” my sister shouted.
I squinted into the distance. The weak morning sun painted the desert valley in shades of gray and gold. A salt monster hurtled toward us on sturdy legs made of slabs of pressed salt. We were driving through the Bad Water, a dried-out old salt lake, and these were the guardians. One hit with their giant hands could pulverize puny mortals like us. “Ah, dang! These guys are the worst.” Salt monsters were a witch to take out, even with my sonic boom power. I called upon the magic within me. Come on, don’t fail me now. My power wasn’t exactly reliable lately, but out here in the desert, I didn’t have to worry about property damage or zapping innocents.
We were the only fools dumb enough and desperate enough to work out here. Anyway, all I had to do was hit the salt monsters. Easy peasy. Ha. As if. Ana hooted and laid on the gas. The burst of speed jerked me backward, but the climbing harness strapped around my waist and legs yanked and kept me in place. The monster thundered toward us, footsteps shaking the ground. Chips of salt rained off as it ran. The beast was at least twenty feet tall, and half as broad.
If I could pulverize him properly, he’d coat the rims of a lot of margarita glasses. Hmmm… Could we sell that? Not a bad thought for later. We needed the cash. I swallowed hard, focusing on the magic within me. It was like a stubborn light that zipped around in my chest, waiting for me to catch it and hurl it outward. “There’s another!” Ana cried. Shoot. Fifty meters behind the first monster, there was a second, even bigger one. “Head straight for him!” I called. A direct path would increase my chance of success.
Ana veered left, tires kicking up dirt and rocks. The first monster was twenty meters away now, its craggy white face glowering. It had pits for eyes and no mouth. A face only a mother could love. I called on my magic, gathering it up in a bundle. It thrashed inside me, almost a wild thing, and I launched it outward. The power exploded forth, plowing into the dirt ten feet to the left of the salt monster. Gravel sprayed up. “Dang it!” I called on the magic again, flinging it outward. It was a little easier this time, and the power shot toward the beast.
It slammed into the creature’s chest, blasting him into a million pieces. Salt rained down like snow, and we sailed through it. When I got it right, I got it right. The buggy zoomed away from the salt rain. Buggy was a weird name for such a hulking machine, but we liked the dichotomy. I licked the salt off my lips, wishing it really was coating the rim of a margarita glass, and squinted toward the next monster. “Get ready to dodge!” I called upon my magic once again. I could already tell this one was going to be tricky. My power was partially drained, and he was big. The earth trembled with the monster’s footsteps.
It was only thirty feet away. No distance at all, with the buggy going this fast. I threw my magic at him. It plowed into his leg, obliterating the limb. The beast crashed to the ground. “Right!” I screamed. Ana jerked the vehicle toward the right. I clung to the railing, sliding on the platform. We swerved around the salt monster, but the beast reached out with one long arm and swiped at the side of our buggy. His massive hand destroyed the metal spikes on the side, bending them backward.
Though they were coated with deadly Ravener poison, it didn’t affect a creature like him. The shriek of tearing metal sliced at my heart. There went the side door panels. I loved the buggy. But worse than that, we didn’t have the money to fix the machine, and we needed this thing for work. For survival. “Rat bastard!” Ana screamed. It was currently her favorite curse word. But salt monster wasn’t down yet. “Just keep going!” Quickly, I unclipped my harness and climbed over the front windshield.
The truck had no top, just two bench seats where people could sit—or fight from if necessary, hurling magic without the restriction of a roof to stop them. I scrambled by Ana, leaping over one bench seat and then the next, climbing onto the back platform. “Safety first!” Ana hollered. “Yeah, yeah.” I clipped off my harness because she had a point. If I fell out of this truck, we were both dead. Me, because I’d be monster chow, and Ana because she’d come after me even if I was a lost cause. Behind us, the salt monster clambered to his feet. Uh, make that foot, singular. I’d blasted off the other one.
Not that he let it stop him. Nope, old salty was using his arms as legs now, like some kind of strange orangutan. He lumbered after us, picking up speed. “Come and get it, salt face!” I shouted. “That’s the best you got?” Ana yelled back. “You don’t like salt face?” “I’m gonna be frank. It was weak.” I scoffed and heaved a sonic boom at the monster. It exploded out of me, much bigger than I’d expected, blasting me backward. The harness jerked me to a stop, and my back ached like hell.
My magic had always been tricky and weird, but lately it’d been even worse—sometimes huge, sometimes not. I scrambled upright, clinging to the back railing. The blast had plowed into the salt monster, obliterating him. No surprise—it had been so big that I really hadn’t had to aim. “You get him?” Ana asked. “Yeah!” I turned around, wind whipping my dark hair back from my face. The sun was fully up now, illuminating the valley around us. Sloping mountains on either side rose up toward the clear blue sky, and the heat was already pressing down, suffocating. It was August, and if we didn’t get out of here soon, it’d be hard to tell the difference between us and beef jerky. “Almost there.
” Ana turned the buggy toward the mountain slope nearest us. I inspected our surroundings for more threats, but once she directed the buggy to climb the slope, I relaxed. The deadly part of the valley—the one that humans knew nothing about—was trapped between two parallel rows of mountains. Now that we were leaving that behind, I could finally start breathing normally again. I unhooked my harness and climbed onto the bench seat next to Ana, collapsing into it with an exhausted sigh and pulling off my dust goggles. I propped my booted feet up on the dash as the truck bounced over the rocks and looked at Ana. She grinned at me, lifting up her goggles to reveal tired green eyes. Her once blonde mohawk was now pulled back in a long ponytail, a style that made it easier to blend into a crowd. She changed it a lot, but lately, it’d been a more subtle style. Her brown leather pants and strappy brown leather top made her look like she was in Mad Max, but the outfit worked out here.
I wore the same, unless I wasn’t fighting. In which case it was plain jeans and a tee. Blending was important, especially for us. We might be leaving the monsters of Death Valley behind, but danger waited for us all the same. We’d been lying low all our lives, hiding from an unidentified threat. Hell, even those we paid to protect us were now hunting us. “Did they tip?” I asked, mentally calculating what we’d need to make this month’s payment on our concealment charms. “No.” Ana scowled. “Stingy jerks.
” “Damn.” Asking for tips was a new thing, but the monthly cost on our concealment charms had been jacked up, so we’d put out a tip jar in the buggy. Considering that we charged thousands for a trip across the valley, it wasn’t surprising that folks weren’t willing to cough up a little extra. “Ricketts is going to be pissed if we can’t pay.” “He’s already pissed. We already gave him the money from this job, and it wasn’t enough.” Ana gunned the engine and swerved around a boulder. “Well, he shouldn’t have jacked up the price.” “He does it because he can.” I scowled.
We were at his mercy, and he knew it. After years of paying on the installment plan, he’d realized how desperate we were to stay hidden. So he’d jacked up the price, sending his bone crackers after us when we couldn’t pay. But we needed that charm to hide us from whoever hunted us. After they’d come for us when we were five, we’d spent most of our lives hiding—first with our mother, and then alone—but we’d never figured out who hunted us or why. However, they’d killed our mother and maybe even our sister, Rowan, so the threat was pretty danged clear. My running theory was that they wanted us because we were Unknowns. We were the only supernaturals of an unknown species that I’d ever met. There were mages, vampires, shifters, fae, demons, and monsters of all varieties. And then there was us—anomalies.
Freaks. Unknowns. Marked by a four-pointed star at the tops of our spines. Marks we kept hidden by magic. In a world where all magic should be identifiable and controllable according to our government, the Order of the Magica, being an Unknown was dangerous. Our magic was often incredibly strong…and uncontrollable. Throughout history, Unknowns were often killed out of fear or manipulated by others for their own purposes. That was not gonna be us. So we laid low, paying for our concealment charms—when we could afford it—and living on the outskirts of society. The buggy crested the top of the mountain ridge, and the view spread out in front of us.
It was glorious, as always, with the desert stretching far and wide. In the distance, our little town of Death Valley Junction sat like a forgotten remnant of the Old West. It was one of the few all-magic towns in the world, hidden from humans by a spell called The Great Peace. The spell kept the existence of supernaturals on the down-low and led humans away from any of our towns. It was the place we’d ended up after our mother’s murder when we were thirteen. It’d been home for the ten years since. But even that was starting to look iffy, what with Ricketts sending his bone crackers after us. I leaned forward and squinted, searching for any sight of Ricketts’s goons. We’d gotten a warning visit recently, which meant we could look forward to seeing more of them soon. “See ‘em?” Ana asked.
“Nope.” Just the usual light foot traffic between the old wooden buildings. “We really do need to find a different dealer.” “Who though?” “Fair point.” Ricketts had been the only one willing to sell to us on an installment plan. Which meant we were stuck relying on a guy who was as likely to kill us as help us. Ana drove the buggy onto the flat ground of the desert and sped toward the town. I stayed alert as we neared. It might be our home, but it hadn’t felt that way since Ricketts had sent his bone crackers to scare us. “We really need to move,” I muttered.
“And go where? Our magic is too unstable to be safe outside of the valley.” “My magic, you mean.” I was the one who blew shit up. “Not like I’m going to ditch you.” Ana scoffed. “Anyway, without you, I’m nothing but a shield. We need your firepower to make a living. So yeah, here we stay.” I grinned, my chest filling with warmth. Ana was right—there were practical reasons that we stayed in Death Valley.
But the fact of the matter was—there would always be a we. Ana and I were a team. Ana drove the buggy down the main street of town. It was straight out of an old western movie, with a packed dirt road, wooden buildings, and even a saloon called The Death’s Door. A tumbleweed bounced across the road as a couple of the old timers sitting on the saloon’s porch tipped their hats to us. It’d taken us years to earn that honor. Which was fair. The old coots had once been some of the toughest dudes around. Before our time, at least. Death Valley Junction was full of outlaws.
But if you really needed to hide out, then you caught a ride with us across Death Valley. We’d take anyone who could pay, delivering them to Hider’s Haven, where the real outlaws lived. We were the only ones brave enough to risk the trip. Therefore, we earned the honor of a hat tip. Ana turned onto our street. She parked the buggy in the patch of dirt at the side of our rundown house. It was a one-story affair, built of weathered brown wood with a broken step leading up to the magically reinforced door. I leapt out of the buggy and hustled inside, Ana following right behind. I ran a wary gaze over the interior of the house. We were in the kitchen, but I could see the living room at the back of the house.
Same crappy old furniture… Check. Same unpaid bills on the counter… Check. Picture of Mom and Rowan on the empty TV table… Check. Whelp, that was it. We didn’t own anything else of value besides our enchanted weapons, and we carried those with us at all times, stored inside the ether and ready to be drawn out of thin air when we needed them. That spell had cost a pretty penny, but it’d been worth it. Ana rubbed the back of her neck and headed toward the fridge. I followed. “Really feels like something is about to blow any minute, doesn’t it?” She grabbed a cold bottle of beer out of the fridge and tossed it to me, then took one for herself. “These are the last ones, so enjoy them.
” “Will do.” It wasn’t froufrou cocktails like I preferred, but those had gone out of the budget years ago. I popped open the beer, took a swig, then poked in the cabinets for some food. I frowned, shoulders drooping. Pretty barren, just like the fridge. Not even PB&J. Or candy sandwiches, as I liked to call them. With my stomach grumbling, I sat in the rickety chair and propped my boots on the table, then sighed. “I wish there was something we could do about Ricketts and his bone crackers.” Just thinking about it made fear buzz under my skin.
Made my stomach turn. When I was afraid, I liked to take action. Jump into it. But at the moment, there was nothing to do but wait. Couldn’t even sleep in security. It was torture. “We need those concealment charms, so we have to keep him happy.” Ana leaned over the kitchen sink and looked out the window, clearly checking for our stalkers. “You remember what Mom said before she died.” “Yeah.
We can’t be exposed. And Ricketts wouldn’t hesitate to cut the magic to our charms.” At least Ricketts was someone we knew. The unknown was scarier. We had no idea what had happened to Rowan five years ago. Though we’d searched—spending most of the money meant for our concealment charm payments—we’d never found her. Honestly, we thought she was dead, captured by those we hid from. My throat tightened. Rowan. I drew in a shuddery breath, forcing away the pain.
She might not be dead. Maybe. “Uh, Bree?” Ana’s voice broke through the sad soup of my memories. My gaze jerked up to her. “Yeah?” She turned from the window, her gaze stark. “The bone crackers are here.” Cold fear flowed through my veins. My muscles tensed and my mind went on alert as I carefully swung my legs off the table and stood. It felt like I moved in slow motion. I was almost relieved—finally, the waiting was over.
“How many?” “Six. And I’m feeling more magical signatures, so I think there’s more.” “Shit.” My heart thundered as I walked to the window. At worst, Ricketts sent two to scare us. But six? That was unheard of. Six wasn’t a warning. Six was…death. I leaned over the sink and looked out the window. The packed-dirt street was empty except for six mages.
Each lazily tossed a fireball in the air. Fire Mages. In a wooden town. Staring at our wooden house. “He’s come to make an example of us,” I said. We hadn’t paid up in months, instead using our money on a lead for Rowan that hadn’t panned out. “We don’t have the payment.” “And we’ve hocked everything of value already.” “Except the buggy.”