Over a decade has passed since the ant queen began her apocalyptic war with the humans. In the aftermath, she leaves behind a strange legacy: a race of uplifted animals, the queen’s conscripts in the war effort, now trying to make their way in the world they destroyed. While the conflict has left deep scars, it has also allowed both sides to demonstrate feats of courage and compassion that were never possible before. And now, after years of bloodshed, the survivors have a fleeting chance to build a lasting peace.
But peace always comes with a price. The holy city of Hosanna—where animals and humans form a joint government—finds itself surrounded by wolves who are determined to retake the land. A powerful matriarch has united the rival wolf packs, using a terrible power harnessed from the Queen herself.
Soon, the looming violence pulls in those who sought to escape. The war hero Mort(e) suspects a plot to destroy Hosanna from within, and recruits a team of unlikely allies to investigate. Falkirk, captain of the airship Vesuvius, must choose between treason and loyalty to save the city. And D’Arc, sailing aboard the al-Rihla, learns that the wolves may have triggered a new cycle of life for the Colony, bringing a final reckoning to animal and human alike. Once reunited, the three outcasts begin a journey into wolf territory to face the last remnant of the queen’s empire. But while destiny has drawn them together, it may destroy them as well, for even love, courage, and honor may not be enough to stop the forces of destruction set to be unleashed on the world.
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THE STORY OF MERCY
THE WOLVES BOUNDED through the snow, kicking it behind them in enormous white clumps. Mercy’s paws burned from the cold. Then they went numb, and it felt as if she were flying over the white expanse, her snout pointed toward the scent of fur and flesh, so thick she could swallow it. The trees shook with each step. Their bare branches wobbled against the white sky, the sun no brighter than the full moon. All around her, her sisters and brothers, her cousins, her entire family sprinted beside her. Their breath steamed from their mouths. Her ribs brushed against one of the hunters, sending warmth to her pounding heart. Everywhere, heads bobbed. Tails hung low and stiff for balance. The fastest runners breathed the hardest. Hehhuh-hehh-uh-hehh-uh.
This would work. It had to work. The pack would live.
The necklace she wore bounced with each step. It held a single yellowed fang. The sharp end kept spiking her in the chest, a sign that she was still alive. That this was not a dream. The scent of prey lingered like a fog. The pack growled as one when they passed through it. Their voices made the earth rumble.
Too many of her people had died to bring her to this moment. Her brother, her parents. A litter of pups. Her former mate, whose name they no longer spoke. The wolves who colonized this land, moving south in the wake of the great war. Their spirits watched her now. She could feel their breath in the bitter wind.
Her lungs burned as the pack reached the top of a hill. Cresting the ridge, the wolves poured down the other side. The gravity pulled Mercy along. She had never run so fast.
They found the hoof prints at the base of the hill. Mercy noted the loping, relaxed strides of a herd of deer. But as the pack overtook the trail, the hoof marks drifted farther and farther apart as the deer broke into a full sprint. Panic. Desperation. Mercy could smell both.
The trees thinned into a clearing. She spotted the deer. Dozens of them, with their white tails. A meal for every hunter. The pack would drive the prey into the thicker snow, where their hooves would become stuck.
All the wolves’ snouts pointed toward the closest victim, a thin, weak buck with the antlers of a male half his age. This one would fall first. Mercy’s tongue flopped out of her mouth as she imagined twisting the deer’s neck until the bones crackled.
She jockeyed toward the front. Her new mate led the way. Wex, they called him. Wex the Cruelblood. His jaws snapped at the deer’s legs, taunting him. It riled the other hunters. They barked at him, urging him to kill. To paint his fangs red.
The deer slowed. Soon his life would belong to the pack. Wex would make it quick. Not out of sympathy, but because there were so many others to kill. A bounty they had waited for all winter.
Mercy’s mind cleared. Only her senses remained, allowing her to focus on the musk of the deer’s fur. The hooves denting the earth. The snow whispering beneath her feet.
The pack must live.
THE DAY BEFORE, Mercy saw a human for the first time. And he was beautiful.
She was returning from a patrol on a bitterly damp and overcast afternoon. The clouds were heavy with snow, ready to unburden themselves. Winter had dug its claws into the earth and would not let go. Like any other predator, it claimed its territory. It fed on the weak. It laughed at those who made plans for the warmer months. Spring was never promised to anyone.
Two other wolves joined Mercy on her patrol. Wex’s bodyguards. They made sure she did not go far. She was the only pregnant female in the pack this season. All the other females miscarried or gave birth to stillborn litters. Everything depended on Mercy bearing children this year. To make sure she fulfilled her duty, her sister, Urna, stayed behind. Wex’s orders. He would let Mercy venture into the woods for her daily routine. But if she ever tried to run away, Urna would die. And it would not take long for the marauders to hunt a mother and her newborn pups and force them to rejoin the pack.
Maybe it would not matter. With the food running out, Urna’s ribs had begun to form tiny ridges in her fur. Her hair fell out in scraggly lumps. Her deprived brain began to fail her. Urna’s father had named her after a plant that grew here, a miniature sunflower with yellow petals extending from a black circle in the middle. As the flowers died out, so too did Urna’s fragile mind. One time, she forgot where the den was. Another time, she pissed too close to a puddle and ruined a fresh supply of water.
Ever since Wex took over the pack and declared Urna the omega, Mercy tried to sneak food to her when she could. She fought off the others when they picked on Urna. She bided her time. A future awaited, a future without Wex and his traitors. And so Mercy kept fighting. She kept moving forward. She kept dragging Urna with her, even when her sister wanted to give in.
On this day, the patrol found something. Strange tracks and an abandoned campsite, coated with a scent that none of them recognized. Not a large war party. Not wolves at all, but intruders nevertheless, trying to sneak through Mudfoot territory. Mercy needed to tell the others.
Still, the patrol had failed to find anything to eat, which mattered far more than some trespassers who made a wrong turn. The elk and deer had long since abandoned the area, ever since the leaves stopped growing. The land had gone sour less than a year before. Nothing but dead trees, turgid streams. A smell of metal in the air. The river browning into a liquid copper. Sometimes Mercy wanted to scratch the scent out of her nostrils.
As Mercy approached the den, a great howl went up. The scouts had spotted her. The patrol howled in response. Their mournful call let the pack know that they returned with nothing. To acknowledge the bad news, the pack responded with a meandering song that lingered until the wolves ran out of breath. It called on their ancestors, the first Mudfoot to arrive in the valley, to help them. To show them the way. Or to simply stay dead if they had nothing useful to offer.
Near the entrance to the den, a strange creature stood on its hind legs, tied to a dead tree, with rope creasing his wrists and ankles. Mercy stopped. It was a human. A man. After years of listening to stories of their cruelty, she expected a human face to be a terrible thing, all fangs and snout, dripping spit and snot. But no. This man leaned his head on the bark, eyes closed, and sighed out each breath. His face was smooth, like a stone in a stream. A tattoo covered everything from his forehead to his chin, forming a mask. A wolf face, permanently inked into the flesh, with the fangs bared around his lips. His shiny black hair fell to his collarbone. An elegant animal too perfect to devour.
A wolf pelt hung over his muscular shoulders. At the base of his neck, the dead wolf’s scalp formed a hood to protect him from the cold. It even had the pointed ears. His tunic and pants were fashioned from deerskin, judging from the smell, and the notches in the knees suggested at least a season’s worth of wear and tear. On his feet were a pair of flexible leather boots, bound with twine that crisscrossed the ankles. Mercy had heard of these humans. The Toqwa, they were called. Rejected by the city of Hosanna, they lived like the animals, using their tattoos to identify themselves. She assumed they had all died out. After all, how could humans survive out here, surrounded by enemies, without the protection of their walls and their guns?
One of Wex’s henchmen, a wolf named Jape, circled the tree on all fours. Jape had probably never seen a human before either. He was too young. And so he needed to show that this man did not scare him. As he made his way around the captive, Jape gave him an occasional sniff. The human continued his meditation.
Crawling closer, Mercy lowered her head and slid her chin along the dirt, to show that she posed no threat. That she knew her place. Despite the show of respect, Jape snorted at her. She was not supposed to be here. As the pack leader’s mate, she needed to be at Wex’s side.
With Jape looming nearby, Mercy sniffed the man. Beneath the pelt he wore, she could detect his strange scent: rank and oily and salty. She heard that humans leaked water from their foreheads and armpits when they ran. The man’s eyes opened, the irises such a dark brown she could hardly see his pupils. He watched her until a movement nearby caught his attention.
Urna emerged from the blackness of the den. Despite her limp, she stubbornly trotted to Mercy, her tongue wagging. Her paws seemed enormous compared to her withered legs. A tooth had fallen out days earlier, the first of many. She had showed it to Mercy and asked if she should put it on a necklace as well. Mercy told her to throw it away.
Urna passed too close to Jape. As always, he slashed at her. She recoiled with a yelp. Before it could escalate—and for an omega, it always did—Mercy put herself between them. With a series of barks and snarls, Jape warned Mercy that one day she would not be around to protect her crippled sister anymore. Mercy responded by scraping her nails in the dirt. It meant that he would be dead long before that happened.
Once the shouting died out, Mercy nudged her sister with her snout. She pawed the earth, carving a line that pointed directly at the human. It meant that she wanted answers. Urna yipped, her tail wagging. Follow me, it meant.
They took the trail around the edge of the den. Years ago, this mountain was covered with trees that would burst into green clouds come spring. Ever since the flood and the curse it carried, the last healthy trees grew on only the highest parts of the slope. The birds had already figured it out. The wolves, not long after. But the Mudfoot could not fly away.
At the end of the trail, the sisters found more humans—four of them. Two women, two men, all with identical wolf tattoos on their faces. Young and fit, like the one tied to the tree. Pale skin reddened by the wind, bronzed and tightened by the sun. They knelt in a single row, with heavy rope binding all their wrists together. The wolves surrounded them, but would not get close. They didn’t know what to do with creatures like these.
One of the women leaned forward, and something round and pink poked over her shoulder. It was a baby, wrapped in cloth, strapped to the woman’s back. Mercy had heard that human babies did nothing but cry. This one eyed the wolves with a line of drool hanging from its bottom lip. A few of the wolves growled and barked in response. Some of them became so frenzied that they bounced on the balls of their feet, shouting each time. Death! Death! Death!
It was easy to spot Wex among the smaller wolves. When he stood on his hind legs, rising high above the crowd, the shouting grew quiet. Tails lowered. Snouts dipped to the ground in deference to the pack leader. This was one of the rules Wex had imposed since taking control. When he stood on two feet, the others remained on all four. When he spoke, the others listened.
Long ago, before Mercy was born, all of these wolves lived as their ancestors had for generations—ever since the First Winter, when the ancient wolves formed a pack for the first time. And then one day, as the older ones liked to tell it, everything changed. Something in the water did it, an alien substance implanted by the Queen of the Colony that rewired their brains and added bulk to their bones and muscles. And yet the Change never really fit with such a perfect race. They could now speak the human language—but the wolves already had one. The way they flicked their tails or showed their teeth could convey all the meaning and nuance they needed. They could run on two legs, though using all four was always better. They could build or destroy with their front paws, though their teeth could do the same. Some of the wolf packs changed further, becoming like the humans and their animal pets. Several clans even followed the Colony’s orders to forsake hunting forever. The ants showed them how to raise crops, and just like that, hunters became farmers. They seized entire towns, lived in houses. Some even learned how to drive cars.
But the Mudfoot held on to the old ways. That was how they survived, and how they would continue to survive, even to the Last Winter.