An excerpt from This Strange Engine by Philip Ligon
“Are you mad?” I asked as I tried to pry him off.
And in that second, that seemingly insignificant moment of time, something sharp raked across my back. It burned like a hot poker pressed hard against my skin. I turned and saw a long shadow disappear behind a roof. Its form suggested—
“A dragon?” Reckard asked. His face turned pale just before he disappeared. “They sent a dragon after us?” His voice was full of the same surprise and fear making my heart beat faster.
“Look out!” Cavendish said, and I turned just in time to knock the outstretched talons of the dark green creature away. It made no sound as it swooped back into the air with wings stretched in a forward arch. Its head was shaped like a spade, with stumps of horns lining the outer edges.
The silent death, the swooping plague, and the quiet end were all names for the dragons. They were formidable foes. A full grown one could kill twenty soldiers in the span of a breath. Though this one was young, as evidenced by its six-foot length, it was no less dangerous.
“How did it get through Branagh’s without being spotted?” I asked as it circled about for an additional go.
Reckard said, “I don’t know, old chap. I don’t want to wait around to ask. Split up and meet at Branagh’s.”
“No, wait.” Where was he? “It’s best if we stay together.”
“Why?” he asked from down the road. “So it can burn us at the same time?”
Cavendish quivered on my leg.
“Look,” I said as I lifted the little man, “I have a difficult enough time walking about without you. Quit cowering and help find a way out of this mess.”
The dragon was beautiful in a deadly sense. Sleek and majestic, it presented an air of strength and power that made me want to watch in wonder while running in fear.
Two loud pops were followed by a pair of lead balls stinging my chest. As they bounced off and brought me out of my trance, men with rifles emerged from the building. While they didn’t wear the uniform of the Guardsmen, they had the look about them: stocky build, short-cropped hair and a face that said they would obey orders without question. They moved to the side in unison as they reloaded their weapons.
Are you real or a machine? There is only one way to find out.
I stalked towards them as they raised their guns. They released their death in unison. Both balls bounced off my head, creating a dull ache on either side.
As the men stood with dumbfounded looks, I wrenched the rifles away, then knocked the men across the jaws. They fell to the side but arose together with knives in hand. One spit blood.
So at least I dealt with a real person.
I shook the rifles at them. “Really, do you think that will work after seeing how effective these were?”
They looked at each other.
I threw the rifles down, then motioned to them. “You might as well try.”
They obliged, and I grabbed one blade barehanded while deflecting another. I twisted the one around, but the man refused to let go. For his stubbornness, he was forced to his knees and had the tip of the blade pointed at his throat.
Something knocked me across the back. As I fell into the man, talons scratched at my head. They grabbed my hair and ripped out the roots.
Now that hurt…to the point I had to concentrate on fending off the creature as it tried to grab more.
It swooped just above me, its head darting back and forth as it prepared to snap.
The second man struck again. I took the brunt of his impact, wrenched his weapon away, then lunged for the dragon. My foot did little more than budge. The creature flew out of reach as I sprawled to the ground.
Cavendish squealed as he ran down the street. The dragon glanced at him. It seemed to hesitate on indecision before it answered a primal desire and swooped towards the little man.
I tried to rise and run towards them in one motion, but my foot held me in place. “Cavendish, behind you!”
The little man looked over his shoulder, to where the dragon’s snout snapped once, then twice. He squealed again as he tripped over his own feet.
The dragon lunged as Cavendish rolled along the ground.
The gnome stopped against the side of a building, and the dragon disengaged to avoid crashing. It circled high as the gnome pressed himself flat.
I had covered half the distance to him, with knee and thigh burning, when she spoke from the doorway. “Alexander, you will pay for what you have done.”
A blast of air sent me sprawling forward.
Bonni Greenhew, too?
She was becoming too much like a bad toothache, one that flared up just after a bite of bread pudding.
As I turned over, the two men jumped me.
“Hold him there,” Aimee said as she moved down the street, supported by Bonni.
Cavendish yelled, “Ash, help me! Save me!”
As the dragon moved low across the way, a scream pierced the air. It wasn’t the gnome’s.
Curious onlookers had gathered in the street to watch the strange spectacle taking place. But they ran in every direction as the dragon cut a straight path through them, heading for the shaking body of Cavendish.
Two men, one heavy-set and wearing the apron of a cook, and a lady, who also wore an apron, but with a dusting of flour across her, knocked the gentlemen off me as they fled the horrors of the magical creature. A bit of flour fell into my eyes, making them burn and water. I tried to wipe them as I faced the determined wrath of Aimee, but my tears flowed as she cupped her palms together. “What’s wrong, Alexander?” she asked as purple smoke arose. “Are you crying because you realize the futility of defying me? This time I won’t save you. This time I will make you pay for all the misery you just put me through.” She wore a robe now, one with the Duke’s crest.
As I retreated, I managed a glance at Cavendish, who had risen to his knees. He held his arms before his face like he didn’t want to see the approaching, inevitable death.
The dragon hovered over the gnome and raised its head for the final snap.
Through all of this, I managed to end up with only one weapon: the dagger. I could throw it at Aimee and try to kill her. Or I could throw it at the dragon and try to give Cavendish the chance to escape.
Kill my former wife who put me through earthly hell, or save a friend who refused to do the same when faced with a similar decision.
The voice said I had no choice. And it was right. I just hoped Aimee’s explosion wouldn’t hurt too much.
The dagger flew towards the dragon. Because of the creature’s youth, its scales had yet to harden fully, meaning it remained vulnerable to blades and arrows and bullets. Unfortunately, the knife didn’t carry enough force to do more than scratch its back.
Still, the creature turned. Its black eyes blazed hatred as it spotted me hurrying forward. Teeth flashed as it raced to meet me.
Of all the foolish acts, Ash…you are charging a dragon?
It snapped, and I flinched as I punched. My fist grazed its nose, and it gave a high-pitched scream of anger. Before it recovered, I grabbed hold of its body and held as tight as I could.
The creature twisted and contorted and snapped and snorted. It wriggled worse than a worm at the end of a fisherman’s hook and lashed my back with its tail, which stung like an army of ants.
I turned back to Aimee, who stopped. Smoke enveloped her hands. Some dripped towards the ground as the rest drifted upwards.
“Give me your best, love,” I said as I squeezed the dragon with all of my might. It slipped and squirmed all the harder.
Once a fine, upstanding member of society, Alexander Asherton has reached the low point of his life. Once he had prospects. A place in society. Once he had a beautiful wife. But that was before Aimee left him, before the explosion...and before magic. His promising future with the Church of England went up in flames with the explosion that wrecked his body.
Now he works for the cruel and mysterious Misters, who keep him awash in the magic he needs to feed his addiction. The magic he needs to live. His only comfort is that he doesn’t do wet work.
He’s a thief, not a murderer.
When they demand he assassinate his ex-wife and steal a dark magical item from the powerful and twisted Duke Schaever, he doesn’t have a choice. The Misters hold the key to his life...and to his death. But all he’s got left is that he isn’t a murderer.
Who is Ash really? A priest or a killer? An addict, or a hero?
And what is the strange and deadly merging of science and magic that serves the Duke?
Philip Ligon’s debut steampunk fantasy twists and turns through a dystopian, alternate Victorian England. Full of magic, elves, dragons, and betrayal, this book will satisfy the most avid fans of dark fantasy and twisted steam-powered machines.
Is Ash truly lost to addiction and darkness, or if he can become something more? Find out by reading This Strange Engine today.