Elfhome. A world of powerful magic, beautiful elves, man-eating trees, frost-breathing wargs, and god-like dragons. Pittsburgh. A city that has been stranded deep in virgin elfin forest to stave off an invasion by the merciless oni. Its population of sixty thousand humans and a handful of elves are pitted in war that will only end in genocide. Winter is coming. Supplies are running low. All political ties are fraying. Hidden somewhere in Pittsburgh’s crumbling neighborhoods, a vanguard of oni are growing in number and attacking from the shadows.
And children are disappearing.
Girl genius Tinker was once a human orphan, growing up on the Pittsburgh streets. Now she’s an elf princess with all the bells and whistles. She rules over a melting pot of humans, elves, half-oni, and the crow-like tengu. Prejudices are rampant, pitting even the elves against each other. Hoverbike races, concerts of rock and roll fused with elf music, and artist communes of human and elves are proof that Pittsburgh can be a place where races and species can meet and meld in freedom.
Tinker is determined to make her city a place of such freedom. She’s going to have to kick butt and take names. And she has to do it quickly. Seven elf children are already missing — and the oni eat their prisoners when they outlive their usefulness.
Tinker uncovers ancient secrets and a web of betrayal as she searches for the children. The oni will stop at nothing to win, so neither can she. At five foot nothing, Tinker’s greatest weapon has always been her intelligence. Politics, she discovers, is a battle of wits, and she’s heavily armed.
Excerpt from Chapter One: Tunnel to Nowhere
Life was so much simpler when Tinker didn’t have a horde of heavily armed elves following her everywhere, all ready to kill anyone that triggered their paranoia. It didn’t help that she was still recovering from hairline fractures to her right ulna and radius. Her shiny new status as a domana-caste elf princess meant she was expected to cast spells triggered by complex finger positions and vocal commands. So, yes, breaking her arm was a very bad thing. It didn’t mean she was helpless. With an IQ over one-eighty, and standing only five feet tall, she always considered her wits to be her greatest weapon.
Her Hand (the military unit of five sekasha-caste bodyguards, not the appendage attached to her arm) had spent the week act- ing like there were evil ninjas hiding in every shadow. With her Hand in protective overdrive, the last thing Tinker needed was a pushy stranger trying to talk to her. Not that Chloe Polanski technically was a stranger; the woman was one of Pittsburgh’s most popular television reporters. Elves, though, don’t watch TV. The tall sekasha towered between Tinker and Chloe like trees. Dangerous trees with magically sharp wooden swords that could cut through solid steel.
“Good morning, Vicereine.” Chloe greeted Tinker from the other side of the forest of warriors. “You’re looking—well-protected. How are you today?”
“Oh, just peachy.” Tinker sighed at the scale-armored back blocking her view of the reporter. Tinker loved her sekasha, espe- cially her First, Pony, but in the last few days she just wanted to whack them all with a big stick. She suspected if she asked, they’d find her a suitable club. They might even stand still and let her smack them. She would feel guilty, however, since she had nearly gotten them killed the week before last. Cloudwalker and Little Egret still sported an impressive set of bruises, and Rainlily had a slight wheeze from smoke inhalation.
“Elves have these nifty spells that focuses magic into their—our natural regenerative abilities.” Tinker put a hand on the center of Pony’s armored back and pushed him out of the way. Or at least, she tried; it was like trying to move a tree. “It sends our healing into overdrive. Compressing eight weeks of healing into one, though, hurts like—shit!” She made the mistake of using both hands and pushing harder. She hissed as pain flashed through her right arm.
“Domi!” Pony’s hand went to his sword as Tinker curled into a ball around her arm. “Are you hurt?”
“No, I’m fine,” Tinker growled as she straightened up, forcing herself to ignore the pain. She’d learned the hard way that any sign of weakness on her part made her bodyguards extremely antsy. Nervous sekasha were deadly sekasha. She didn’t want them mowing down Chloe just because Tinker had been stupid.
“Are you sure, domi?” Pony looked down at her, his dark eyes full of concern.
“My arm is still bruised.” Tinker gave a few more futile pushes against his armor, careful to only use her left hand. “Can you give me space? I’m trying to have a conversation here.”
Pony gave her a worried look but shifted aside.
They were on the bridge that led into the Squirrel Hill Tunnels. It was the beginning of September, but heat blasted off the sun-baked concrete, scented with ancient gas fumes. They had been out of the air-conditioning of the gray Rolls-Royce for all of three minutes, but there was already sweat trickling down Tinker’s back. The only good thing about Tinker’s dress of jewel-green fairy silk was the breeze she could generate by flapping the skirt.
Despite the heat, Chloe Polanski wore her beauty like an impenetrable shield. Every hair of her pale blond bob was in place. Her makeup was so flawless that only the black eyeliner around her pale blue eyes and the glint of lipstick on her full lips betrayed ￼￼￼￼the fact that she was wearing any. Her tortoise blouse and black slacks managed to be elf flamboyant and yet human formal at the same time. Chloe seemed completely at ease; only her perfectly manicured fingertips, nervously fidgeting with her amber necklace, betrayed her awareness of how dangerous the sekasha could be.
“What are you doing here?” Tinker really didn’t want to do an interview. It had been a weird summer, even by Tinker’s stan- dards. So far she had accidentally changed from human to elf, unknowingly gotten married, ripped a hole in the fabric of real- ity, fallen off the planet, crashed a spaceship into Turtle Creek, and fought a dragon. If that wasn’t enough to set some kind of record for weirdness, there were twenty days left of summer to go. Trying to explain everything would take half the afternoon, a large whiteboard, and a great deal of advanced physics.
“I have a couple of questions that I wanted to ask you.” The corners of Chloe’s mouth tightened as she kept a predatory smile in check. Chloe didn’t cover the hoverbike circuit, so Tinker had been spared Chloe’s cat-and-mouse tactics. “You’re a bigger prize now that you’re vicereine.”
Tinker fought the temptation to stick her tongue out at Chloe. The reporter was wearing her signature face-to-face camera eye- piece, allowing her to film both herself and her interview subject without a cameraman. In a fabled remote and secure place, often sought out by those she interviewed but never found, everything Chloe saw was recorded. Only part of Chloe’s success was based on her eyepiece. None of the other Pittsburgh reporters had the eyepiece since much of Pittsburgh’s technology was stuck in the last century. The rest of her success was due to her vindictiveness: if someone tried to play hardball with her, she took a hatchet to their reputation. She had the “impossible to look away” quality of a train wreck.
It would behoove Tinker to play nice for her first official interview as the elf princess, even if the experience were akin to waterboarding. “So, what do you want to know?”
Chloe’s mouth curled up into her cat smile. “Everything,” she purred.
Tinker scoffed. “Here? Now? You do realize we’re in a war zone?”
“As I stated before, you’re now very well-protected. You’re a very difficult woman—I mean female, since ‘woman’ doesn’t apply to you anymore—to nail.”
Judging by Stormsong’s soft growl, Tinker wasn’t the only one feeling like that statement had been loaded with subtle insults.
“This isn’t a safe place or time for an interview.” Tinker started to walk in hopes of scraping Chloe off somehow—perhaps against a wall or something. How had Chloe gotten to the stretch of abandoned highway in front of Squirrel Hill Tunnels? Had she walked? “Call Director Maynard of the Earth Interdimensional Agency and he’ll set up an interview for some other time. I’ve got tons of shit to do.” For her own subtle insult, she added. “Mind-boggling complex shit.”
Chloe began walking backward, keeping just a few feet in front of Tinker. “This is Chloe Polanski. I’m here with our own little Cinderella, Princess Tinker.”
“Do I need to use smaller words for you to understand me?” Tinker held up her fingers to indicate tiny words. “Call Maynard.”
Displaying what years of practice could achieve, Chloe side- stepped a pothole without glancing down. “Princess, please, the people of Pittsburgh could do with some reassurance in this time
Annoyingly, Chloe was right. Tinker stopped with a sigh. “Prince True Flame and Windwolf and Director Maynard are working closely together to protect everyone in the city from the oni.”
“You don’t add yourself to that triumvirate of power? Or is this a male-only club?”
“It isn’t male-only. Jewel Tear on Stone is currently the head of the Stone Clan. She and Forest Moss on Stone are also work- ing with the prince and the viceroy. They’re all out right now looking for oni.”
“And you aren’t?”
“I’m still recovering from a broken arm.” Tinker pulled up her sleeve to show off the impressive bruising. It made for an easy excuse.
“Surely there were things you could have done while you were
“No.” Because that felt too rude, Tinker added, “The healing spells forced me to sleep through most of last week. Today is the first day I’ve felt awake enough to leave the enclave. I’m certainly not up to running all over Pittsburgh to fight oni.”
Not that it had even occurred to her to join in the combat. It wasn’t the best use of her abilities.
Chloe changed tactics. “Each Stone Clan domana was given a ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼hundred thousand sen of land as remuneration for their help in fighting the oni. Earth Son was killed by his own people within a week of arriving. What happens to his share? Will the Wind Clan still be giving up that land? Is it true that they will also receive part of the city?”
“I haven’t been paying strict attention to what’s going on” would be a truthful answer but would also made Tinker look stupid. She’d spent the last month or so either held captive or unconscious or busy trying to save the world or not even on the planet. She settled for “Jewel Tear has sent word of Earth Son’s death to the head of her clan in the Easternlands. Until the Stone Clan responds, all negotiations have been put on hold.”
“Are you really going to let your husband give away part of Pittsburgh for one week’s worth of work?”
It was tempting and terrifying at the same time to know that the sekasha could stop this interview cold. Tempting because Tinker really didn’t want to talk about all the mistakes she’d made that summer. Terrifying because one slip on her part, and all of Pittsburgh could experience a digital recording of Chloe’s beheading. It would be one more mistake that Tinker wouldn’t want to have to explain.
“My husband and I only care for the safety of our people,” Tinker said carefully. “We will do whatever it takes to guard them.”
“The hundred thousand sen of land is to be all virgin forest beyond the Rim.” Stormsong was the only one of Tinker’s Hand that was fluent in English. The female sekasha had spent decades living in Pittsburgh, reveling in the human culture. Stormsong probably recognized Chloe, but judging by the look on her face,
she also knew of the reporter’s venomous reputation.
Chloe’s hand went nervously to her necklace. Her perfect white-tipped fingernails tapped the dark honey-colored stones. The pendant had an insect trapped within the fossilized resin. Did it represent her interview subjects, trapped for Chloe’s inspection?
“I see.” Chloe retreated on the subject and looked for a safer battlefield. She scanned the sekasha. Those working as Blades had spread out to secure the area while Pony and Stormsong continued to flank Tinker, working as Shields. “You’ve taken two full Hands now?”
Good, a subject Tinker didn’t mind talking about. “I only have five Beholden.” Tinker gave Pony and Stormsong’s Elvish names as her First and Second and then added Cloudwalker, Rainlily, and Little Egret as the rest of her Hand. She wasn’t sure if the warriors continued counting out their positions; if they did, that would be her Third, Fourth, and Fifth. They’d become officially hers after she nearly killed them the third or fourth time. “The other five with me actually belong to Windwolf.”
“And Blue Sky Montana?” Chloe had spotted the boy among the adult sekasha. Blue Sky was just one of the many bastard half-elves in Pittsburgh, most of whom were born to human women with a sexual obsession with elves. Blue, though, was the only one with a sekasha father: Lightning Strike. Blue Sky drifted among the adult sekasha, dressed in a miniature version of the wyvern-scale armor. The little half-elf lacked the spell tattoos that scrolled down the arms of the adults and the magically sharp wooden ejae sword but had a bow and quiver of spell arrows slung across his back. At a distance, the only noticeably human thing about him was his short hair, gelled into spikes.
Chloe’s predator smile flashed. “Whom does Blue Sky belong to?”
Stormsong’s hand went to her hilt. Tinker caught Stormsong’s wrist before she could draw her sword. The sekasha were a close- knit group, and they were all fiercely protective of the boy for his father’s sake.
“Leave Blue Sky out of this.” Tinker fought to keep her voice level. She’d never met Lightning Strike, but she had grown up with Blue Sky. He was one of her best friends.
“It was reported,” Chloe pressed on, “that the Wyverns forcibly removed Blue Sky from his brother’s home in McKees Rocks. Their neighbors are afraid that the Wyverns had executed Blue Sky.”
Chloe was obviously in full reporter mode. Tinker was surprised that she didn’t manage to work in the fact that Blue Sky rode for Team Big Sky, which was Team Tinker’s main competition in the hoverbike races. It reminded Tinker, though, that thousands of humans were going to witness the conversation. Things were rocky enough in Pittsburgh without Chloe stirring up resentment against the royal forces.
“Blue Sky was not forcibly removed.” Technically, he wasn’t, since that implied that he had been dragged physically out of his home. John Montana, though, had been given little choice in giving up his baby brother. “Blue Sky is half-elf; he inherited his father’s life span.”
￼￼￼￼￼￼Blue actually inherited the entire sekasha’s package down to temperament: he liked to fight. He was a good, sweet kid, but in a race he was pure steel. According to Tinker’s Hand, as Blue got older, his urge to fight would spill out into his day-to-day life. Despite being tiny for his age, he was also very good at fighting. Tinker didn’t want all of Pittsburgh thinking that Blue Sky was going to turn homicidal.
“Blue Sky will be a child for another eighty years,” Tinker said instead. “John Montana is already in his thirties, and they have no other family in Pittsburgh. John asked me as a close personal friend to take Blue Sky into my household and see that he learns everything he needs to know to live among elves for the next ten thousand years.”
All true and innocuous, although not the complete truth. It left out the fact that Blue Sky didn’t like elves very much and was still very resistant to Tinker “adopting” him. The fight training, though, was slowly winning him over.
Chloe considered the partial truth with narrowed eyes, obvi- ously looking for holes in Tinker’s version of events. “It is my understanding that only sekasha-caste can wear the armor made of wyvern’s scales. Does this mean that Blue Sky’s father is one of your sekasha?”
“He was one of Windwolf’s Beholden.”
“He was killed by a saurus.” Tinker had witnessed his death. Since the Montana brothers had kept the identity of Blue Sky’s father secret even to Tinker, she had seen him die without realizing who he was.
“Oh, so his father was Lightning Strike?” Chloe said.
Tinker nodded, surprised that Chloe could put a name to a male that been dead for five years. Then again, elves were immortal; the traitorous Sparrow was the only other elf that Tinker had ever heard of being killed.
Blue Sky drifted across the pavement to stop beside Tinker. He didn’t bump shoulders with her as he normally did. Blue was seventeen to her eighteen; he considered himself as almost adult despite all physical proof that he wasn’t. Tinker had hit five foot tall—and then stopped growing—at thirteen. Blue Sky continued to be child-short; only recently had he’d caught up to her height- wise. Of course, one day he’d be as tall as the other Wind Clan sekasha and tower over her, but that was decades into the future. It was a point of pride with him that he was tall enough now to be shoulder to shoulder with her and he usually took every opportunity to prove it.
Tinker glanced at Blue to see why he’d restrained himself. Apparently there been some unspoken sekasha consensus that Chloe was dangerous. Blue Sky had picked up the adult’s hard look and was trying to edge himself between Tinker and the reporter. Tinker bumped shoulders with him to get his attention and then scowled hard at him. The last thing she wanted was Blue throwing himself between her and the type of danger that came looking for her. She’d promised John to keep his baby brother safe, not use him as a shield.
Blue Sky gave her a look that started as a seventeen-year-old’s rebellion but ended as a ten-year-old’s pouting hurt.
Chloe watched the interaction with interest. “Rumor has it that the hoverbike races will be starting back up now that martial law is being lifted. Will the two of you be riding against each other once that happens?”
“Yes,” Blue Sky said without thinking through the ramifications.
“No.” Tinker earned another hurt look from Blue Sky. “I’m going to be too busy. My cousin Oilcan will be riding for my team.”
“Will Blue Sky be allowed to race?” Chloe asked.
“Of course,” Tinker and Blue Sky said at the same time. “It’s not like Blue Sky is under house arrest.” Tinker put her arm around his shoulders and felt the tension in his small, wiry body. She gave him a little shake to try and get him to relax. “He’s always been like my little brother; now he’s officially family.”
Blue Sky gave her a shy smile and relaxed slightly.
“Now, if you don’t mind . . .” Tinker started again for the tunnel openings. “I have a lot to do.”
“Mind-boggling complex stuff.” Chloe echoed back her earlier comment. “Like build a gate? Do you really think that’s wise, considering what happened with the last one?”
“I’m not building a gate,” Tinker said. “But in my defense, the gate I built for the oni did exactly what I designed it to do. It stopped the main oni army from invading Elfhome.”
“By destroying the gate in orbit?”
“So how do you explain Pittsburgh still on Elfhome?” Chloe ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼said. “Shouldn’t the city have returned to Earth after the orbital gate failed?”
Tinker really didn’t want to answer the question. In layman terms, Pittsburgh had been on a giant elastic band and held down on Elfhome by a simple on/off switch. Every Shutdown—with the flip of that switch—the city rebounded back to Earth. Chloe was right; Pittsburgh should have returned to Earth. It hadn’t because Tinker had managed to also mess up the fundamental nature of the cosmos—not a feat that she was proud of. “There were unexpected— complications—which is why I’m not building another gate.”
“What exactly are you going to be building?”
“Nothing.” Tinker held up her hands in an attempt to look innocent. Both Stormsong and Blue Sky gave her a look that spoke volumes—she was coming too close to lying for their comfort— so she added in, “I will be acting as project manager for work beyond the Squirrel Hill Tunnel.” Beyond as in another world beyond. “I probably will have no technical input on the under- taking. I’m just one of the few people that can easily supervise a large work force that includes human, elves and tengu.” And the dragon, Impatience, but Chloe didn’t need to know that. There, that was vague enough without lying. Tinker poured on more information in hopes to distract Chloe from important details. “I’m here today to inspect the tunnels for any defects. The tunnels are almost a hundred years old. They’ve been spottily maintained since Pittsburgh started to bounce between Earth and Elfhome. The discontinuity in Turtle Creek might have led to tremendous stress in all neighboring areas. The tunnels might not be safe to use.”
Chloe nodded through Tinker’s rambling and then launched a counterattack on her unprotected flank. “Tinker ze domi, I’m sure I don’t have to tell you how nervous all of our viewers are about the current situation. There are sixty thousand humans in Pittsburgh. The city doesn’t have the infrastructure to adequately take care of our needs. During Shutdown, everything from warm clothing to medical supplies was shipped in from Earth. The last Shutdown was mid-July. What is going to be done to address the fact that we’re facing winter without supplies from Earth?”
“I’m fully aware of the facts.” And scared silly by them. The number was actually closer to a hundred thousand once you added in tengu and elves and half-oni that were allied to the humans. As the Wind Clan domi and vicereine of the Westernlands, ￼￼￼￼￼￼Tinker was responsible for them all. “We won’t starve; the elves are shipping in keva beans from the Easternlands. The first ship- ments arrived by train yesterday. Martial law is being lifted later today so people can go to distribution centers that the EIA will be setting up for their share of the keva.”
Giving away the first shipment had been her idea since she knew that the big chain food stores with corporate offices on Earth only stocked a thirty-day supply that became ridiculously low just before Shutdown. By now, only the little stores with ties to local farmers would have food. Those stores were holding steady because most Pittsburghers had small gardens and currently were up to their armpits in zucchini and tomatoes. In a few days, the first frost could kill off the gardens and the little stores would have to support all of Pittsburgh. Hopefully, handing out a sup- ply of keva beans would keep those stores from collapsing and panic setting in. “We expect a second shipment within a week. That will go to food stores for resale.”
“That’s really just sticking your finger in the dyke.” Chloe smiled brightly as she refused to be distracted. “Shouldn’t you be focus- ing on reconnecting Pittsburgh with Earth?”
That’s exactly what Tinker was doing, but she didn’t want everyone in Pittsburgh knowing that. Tinker sighed at Chloe’s predatory smile. “You really like your job?”
“Love it.” Chloe’s smile broaden. “I get to corner people, ask them all sorts of embarrassing questions and watch them squirm.”
Tinker tried to keep her temper but it was fraying fast. “If you keep pushing people’s buttons, someone is bound to push back.”
Chloe laughed. “It wouldn’t be good for morale if Pittsburgh’s favorite field reporter was chopped into little bits while reporting live. So, be a dear, and smile and tell Aunty Chloe everything.”
Completely the wrong thing for Chloe to say. It triggered all sorts of other things that Tinker didn’t want to be thinking about. How her previously anonymous mother had nearly driven her insane. How her pseudo-mother had turned out to be her real aunt. How Tinker had totally lost it all on a dark road and
gotten an old friend killed.
“You are not my aunt,” Tinker growled, suddenly too frustrated to be nice. “And this conversation is over.”
And all the sekasha kicked into overdrive, spearheaded by Stormsong. One moment the warriors were flanking Tinker, ignoring the conversation to give her the illusion of privacy. The next, they were between Tinker and Chloe with swords out.
“Don’t kill her!” Tinker ordered in Elvish, afraid that they would do just that.
Stormsong snatched the headset off Chloe. “I know how irreplaceable this is.” Stormsong held it out of Chloe’s reach. “Either you take yourself and it away from here, or I’ll grind it into pieces.”
“Fine. I’ll go.” Chloe tucked away the headset after Stormsong handed it back. “My boss has been texting me for the last five minutes to go cover the keva handouts.”
Chloe had a hoverbike tucked into the shadows of the inbound tunnel. The mystery of how Chloe reached the abandoned high- way was solved. She raced the motor, making it roar defiantly before taking off.
“I have never liked that woman.” Stormsong watched Chloe speed off, her hand still on her hilt.
“Neither have I,” Tinker said.