Jake has his own motives for helping Abby, beyond aiding a damsel in distress. He's a Reaper, and while he's learned to wrest control of his mind from the parasite, the effects won't last without a permanent cure. And he needs Abby to get it.
Abby and Jake are natural enemies and unlikely partners. But when their search reveals a conspiracy between Reapers and the rich industrialists who own the mountain cities, they must work together to find the cure-or lose the border, and each other, forever.
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Cam was puking outside the tent. Not only could she hear that awful noise which made her own stomach cramp in sympathy, but she could see him too, a hunched silhouette of misery outlined by the glory of another sunrise. She should be glad of itthe sun, that is. Mason was still alive, the Reapers were lurching back to their dens and ditches, and Cam never started puking until it was time to bury the dead.
"Abby." Doc's sharp voice snapped her attention back to the task at hand. "Don't let up the pressure. Do I need to dose you?"
"No." Even if they did help her stay awake, she hated the way Doc's injections made her feeljittery, violent and damn near invincible. A dangerous delusion in their line of work.
"I need you here, so mind your hands."
He tossed the limb into the barrel and she fought a dizzy feeling as her brain tried to reject what her eyes were seeing. She hated medical duty. The captain thought it might toughen her up, but thisassisting with amputations and restorationshad nothing to do with toughness and everything to do with being able to ignore the fact you were cutting off pieces of your friends and replacing them with pieces of monsters. She'd never learned the trick of it and she didn't want to.
Mason moaned and she pressed harder, turning her head as Doc picked up an arm harvested from a fresh kill to fit it to Mason's bleeding stump. Stepping aside, she dropped the rag into the barrel and reluctantlybecause she could never help itlooked back, fascinated and repulsed as the veins and tissue from the severed limb stretched like a thousand seeking worms to plant themselves in Mason's wound. He moaned again and Doc laid a rag soaked in chloroform over his face. No one should remember feeling this. Her skin crawled. She clenched her hand into a fist and forced her gaze away.
Silence stretched inside the tent as they waited to see if the graft would take. Twenty seconds. Twenty seconds and they'd knoweither Mason would go into convulsions as the parasite entered his body or his wounds would begin to heal.
Mason was a Ranger, star-marked and one of the few people with a natural immunity to Reaper bite. The limb had been harvested from a fresh kill. There was no reason the graft shouldn't take. It should work.
Except sometimes it didn't. Every once in a while the parasitic infection that turned men into Reapers caused convulsions and death, even in the people who were supposed to be immune.
Dust motes danced above the table. Doc gripped the edge of the scarred wood, his arms braced, lips moving slightly as he ticked off the seconds. When he was done, he drew a deep breath and bent to examine the wound.
Abby lifted the lamp higher and when Doc grunted in satisfaction, a wave of relief coursed through her so strong her legs nearly buckled.
"Looks good," he said. "I'll clean him up. You can go. Cam sounded like he might need help."
Cam was long gone. He was in charge of the cleanup crew, and she could already hear the thump of the axes falling as they decapitated the dead.
She frowned, looking at Mason's still body. "I should stay."
Doc shook his head. "You get too attached to these young ones. It's going to get you killed one of these days."
"I don't get too attached."
The look he gave her could have spoiled milk.
Last night, when the battle had swung close, she'd gone outside to make certain no Reapers came their way. She'd been showing off with that last shot, hitting the top of the Reaper's skull peeking above a fallen tree. A headshot. But she must have only sheared through the bone, not damaged the brain tissue enough to kill the thing. Tricky shooting at night with only the fires and moonlight to guide you. Mason had waved to her, turning his back on the not-quite-dead Reaper who lunged up and clamped its teeth around his wrist, tearing an artery.
If Mason hadn't been a Ranger he would have died or turned, but because he was a Ranger, the parasite in the Reaper's saliva had begun to heal him even as Mason's body fought the infection. She'd shot the thing dead and then dragged Mason up the hill herself. Doc was only angry with her because she'd had to abandon her gun to do it.
"I promised his mother I'd look after him."
Doc scowled. "That was a promise you shouldn't have made and you know it."
"Would you rather I'd left him out there?"
The noise he made was downright eloquent. She ground her teeth, trying to hold back an argument. He always raged like a bear with a sore tooth whenever anyone got hurt.
When he turned to scoop fresh water from the barrel, she touched Mason's wrist. Already, warmth had returned to the limb, and she could feel his pulse beating strong and steady beneath her fingertips. The wound, just above his elbow, was beginning to heal from the inside out. Blood vessels and nerves, then bone and muscle. Within the next half hour, the skin would pucker and seal. Within an hour, there wouldn't even be a scar.
Setting the bowl on the table, Doc shouldered her aside and set to work cleaning the wound.
"You're sure you don't need me?"
He placed the rag in the bowl and swirled it around before wringing it out. "If Cap gives you trouble, tell him I sent you. Just be careful."
She was always careful. "I'm still alive, aren't I?"
Looping the leather belt holding her ammunition over her head, she moved to leave.
One hand on the flap, she glanced over her shoulder. Doc fixed her with a hard look. Some of the men called him "the Butcher." He looked it right thena bloody rag in his hand and his apron stained black. His shirtsleeves were rolled back and there were dried bits of gore stuck to his tanned skin. "Hold on to your gun this time."
Refusing to honor that with a response, she ducked outside, squinting against the bright light. They'd set the medical tent atop a hill beside an old bur oak. As she waited for her eyes to adjust, a finch flittered through the dry leaves, dropping to land beside a clump of meadow sage at her feet.
The battlefield spread out below. Gun smoke hugged the low ground, forming a shroud for the dead. About twenty of them, all Reapers. As the cleanup crew passed between bodies, the smoke drifted up, curling around their ankles like ghostly fingers. Flies buzzed above in little black clouds. There were no crows though. Animals tended to avoid Reaper flesh. No vultures unless you counted the human kind circling above the field on airships. Three of them today, each at a slightly different elevation. The first had arrived less than an hour after the first shot was fired. Even with the skirmish nearly over, there was still a crowd hanging at the rails to watch the show.
She wasn't helping Cam with cleanup. Instead, she took the trail leading north toward the sound of gunfire. Keeping to the high ground, she loped over the broken terrain, leaping across a narrow ravine and skirting a pile of rock that might once have been part of some farmer's wall. It was less than a two-mile jog and by the time she'd reached the other Rangers, she was already beginning to feel better.
She spotted the lieutenant right off, lying in the dirt with the rest of his men. They were positioned along the bluff. Reapers were gathered below, between the river and a line of mounted Rangers slowly closing in on them. When she called out to announce herself, Lyle waved her over before returning his attention to his rifle.
"Cap's going to have your ass."
Wiping the dust from her eyes, she sprawled out on her stomach, set her rifle in front and adjusted the angle of her hat. Her hair was fine. The long braid tucked into her shirt collar held most of it back, but a few stray wisps clung to her cheeks. "I got kicked out. If he has a problem with that, he'll have to take it up with Doc."
"What did you do?"
"We had to do a restoration on Mason. Apparently Doc thought I could use the fresh air." More likely he thought it would do her good to shoot something, but she never relished that.
Lyle studied her face for a minute, his frown easing. "Damn. Abby, I'm sorry. I thought he'd be okay back there."
"He should have been."
Looking away, she lifted her rifle and sighted down the barrel. There were a dozen Reapers left, most of them naked and covered in layers of filth. Old. When Reapers first turned, before all their clothes rotted from their bodies, they could sometimes be mistaken for human. There was no mistaking that these were monsters. The one she took aim at was stocky, with a thick knot of greasy black hair trailing down his spine. The muscles in his shoulders bunched as he crouched down in the mud, eyes fixed on the wall of mounted Rangers preventing escape across the open plain.
Its lips were pulled back in a snarl that exposed its teeth. Black, but not with rot. Nothing rotted on a Reaper. She'd seen sketches in the papers of Reapers with blood dripping from their cracked and pointed teeth. Skin hanging from their bones, missing noses, ears, all sorts of parts, but that wasn't the truth. Well, the blood was truth, but it was hardly ever their own.
She pulled the trigger, keeping her body relaxed to absorb the recoil. It rolled through her as she watched the Reaper she'd hit crumple to the ground. Headshot. Still after Mason, she put another bullet in him just to be on the safe side.
There weren't any easy shots left after that. The Reapers had figured out where the bullets were coming from and hugged the base of the bluff. There was plenty of cover there, tangles of briars and deadfall washed up by the river.
She worked with Lyle just as they'd done a hundred times before. He would shoot at one of the hiding Reapers to force it out. She'd try to anticipate its movement and fire immediately after, hoping to hit it before it could recover.
Reapers were fast and smart in their own way. These had dug in, waiting for the Rangers to pry them out. That would be an incredibly stupid thing to do and all the Rangers on this patrol knew it. They held their ground. They had time and plenty of ammunition. As a last resort, they'd dump oil on the brush and burn them out, but before they did that they had to wait for the cleanup crew to clear out.
As she stopped to reload, a shadow moved across the canyon, sliding narrow and wide as it flowed over the rock. The sweat on her face chilled and she glanced up in annoyance. One of the airships, the largest of the group, passed in front of the sun, blocking it out as completely as a thunderhead. Much closer than it ought to be. She couldn't quite make out the lettering on the gleaming hull, but the flagnavy-and-whitemarked it as one of the Eyrion fleet. Likely full of diplomats and debutantes. The observation deck on this one was one of the largest she'd seen.
The ship was far too low. Too close. They were supposed to stay at least five miles out, though they rarely did. Eyrion ships especially seemed to think the rules didn't apply to them.
She glanced over at Lyle, who was also staring up. "What the hell do they think they're doing?"
"Trying to get a better angle on the fighting, I imagine."
"They'll frenzy the Reapers." The sound of the engine always seemed to get them riled. Even as she said it, she looked down and saw the pack surge forward. As soon as they broke cover, they met with a wall of bullets that pushed them back. Eight left, three of them hit but still moving.
"Something's wrong with it," Lyle said, still watching the ship as he climbed to his feet, his duster settling around his legs. His sandy brown hair touched his collar as he tipped back his head. "It's listing. See there."
To starboard. The rudder seemed to be caught at an odd angle. More troubling, the ship was beginning to sink. A steady, smooth loss of altitude she hadn't noticed right off. The balloon holding the ship aloft appeared slightly misshapen. As she watched, a shudder ran down the length of the inflated skin. Her stomach turned. There wasn't enough space for a ship of that size to land on the bank without tipping and that would be disastrous. A bunch of unmarked Scrapers spilling into a pack of Reapers. Like throwing slop to pigs. The people aboard ship weren't immune. One little nibble and they'd die or turn.
"Hold your fire," Lyle shouted down the line. He was immediately obeyed. The other Rangers climbed to their feet just as she did, eyeing the faltering ship warily and then looking to Lyle for direction.
Fire was always a concern with the ships. They usually went to ground if there was so much as a dark cloud on the horizon. Crashes were rare.
Lyle grimaced. "And with a deck full of lords and ladies. Someone's going to lose his head over this."
"What do we do?"
"Be ready to catch? I'm staying the hell out of its way." He grabbed on to her arm and pulled her back as the ship suddenly swung in their direction. Rangers scrambled back, cursing and tripping to get out of its path. The ship was close enough that she could see the frantic movement of the crew, though she couldn't see that any of it was making one bit of difference. The steady whirr and thump coming from the ship said the engines were still working, but it continued to descend in a long, lazy spiral. Right before it struck the cliff, the wind kicked up again and sent it drifting south over the battlefield.
At that point, the observation deck was nearly at eye level and as it slipped past, Abby could see the pale, terrified faces of the passengers. A crowd of people, wide-eyed and clutching each other in fear. They might have been screaming, but the whoosh of air from the passing ship drowned out the sound.
All the Scrapers were dressed for the opera in black top hats and jewel-colored silk gowns. Peacock feathers bobbed from hats of various shapes and sizes. One woman still held a gleaming flute of champagne in her hands.
The ship itself was a beauty. Polished walnut trim. Private viewing compartments shielded from one another by velvet curtains. Large field scopes that were mounted to carved posts. That equipment was far finer than anything the Rangers had available to them.
A mighty wrenching noise came from deep within the bowels of the ship as a mechanical device squealed into position. At the same time, drag sails released from portholes set every few feet along the decking. That actually seemed to help somewhat, maybe not to control the descent, but at least to slow them down a bit.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Addictive Read. Book review by Nicole McCurdy for Bex 'n' Books Disclosure: This ebook was provided by the author in exchange for an HONEST and not necessarily positive review. I love rotten, decaying, flesh-eating zombies as much as the next girl (apart from Walking Dead, just could not get into that show) but this book is just...wow. I’m speechless, or rather wordless. Honestly, I could wax lyrical about how fantastic this book is. Fast-paced action barrels right from the word go pretty much till the last chapter; it never takes a breather or slows momentum, it just spirals and gathers speed and snowballs into a full on movie in book form with a lot of gruesome brain matter and blood spraying a few people. Eleri Stone has managed in her own approach to make a zombie book rather unique with our hardened heroine Abby being one of few extremely rare female Ranger’s, guarding civilian lives against the perpetual threat of super speedy limb-gnawing Reaper’s in a male dominated misogynistic profession. As she harbours something in her that leaves her immune to Reaper’s infection she is told she should be sheltered somewhere safe, breeding with any willing male, popping out little immune Ranger babies to populate the front lines. Abby is such a three dimensional character. She comes across as stoic and battle-weary but there’s a depth to her, she’s lonely and cynical but strong, intelligent and rather nurturing when it comes to looking after the younger fighters. When it comes to Jake she’s torn and confused and unsure of herself, so unlike how she portrays herself in front of the other Ranger’s. He makes her question everything but in a good way. Our rather unconventional male protagonist Jake had all the elements of a terrific hero too. He’s selfless, sexy as sin, can kick ass when needed and has the whole tortured soul thing going on for him. He too has a lot of hidden depths but they’re a lot more fun to discover for yourself than have me spoil it all for you. Although there are strong elements of romance in Reaper’s Touch, don’t be fooled into thinking this is another Warm Bodies or Twilight-for-zombies type of deal; it’s so much more. Think World War Z with Buffy as the lead and a political conspiracy thrown in for good measure. It’s brilliantly well written, witty and addictive and more than once I caught myself reading faster and faster when it came to a particularly suspenseful scene in order to see the outcome. If you’re an infected-with-a-deadly-zombie-making-disease loving reader, one-click this beauty you won’t regret it.
I did not intend to read this story as quickly as I did, but once I started I couldn't stop. An alternate history southern U.S. swarms with Reapers, once-men who, while technically alive, are governed by a violent, cannibalistic parasite that makes them mindless killers - among other things. Rangers roam the tentative border between Reaper land and human civilization. Dedicated and immune to the Reaper's bite, but still mortal, they race to take down the flesh-eating hordes to guard the rest of humanity - even the Scrapers in their fat, luxurious cities high above the plains. Abby's tough, one of few female rangers - most women with the star-shaped mark of the Ranger are secured in forts, reproducing the ranks. She's never wanted that life, but being a Ranger is tough. She's the only woman in her platoon and, while her fellow Rangers are her friends, she's always felt at least somewhat apart and alone. While delivering a message to a Ranger fort, she stumbles into a spot of trouble and tall, dark and competent cowboy Jake helps her stumble out of it. The attraction between them is as intense as it is complicated. Jake's a Reaper, once who's outlived the mindless carnage of his infected "youth" and survived years of torture at the hands of human scientists presumably looking for a cure for the parasite. The push-pull denial/attraction of their relationship is delicious, the danger surrounding them very real. This is a sweet romance built inside of an imaginative "Western" world packed full of dire adventure. Recommended for fans of Moira Rogers and Kristen Callihan.
Reaper’s Touch is one of those unusual, creative novels that doesn’t neatly fit into one particular genre. Instead it’s a genre mash-up incorporating elements from western, paranormal romance, dystopian, and steam punk fiction. Stone pulled me into an alternate universe replete with an old west landscape, zombie invaders, and airships all surrounding a centralized government where the affluent reside in extravagance while the rest of society live in harsh conditions struggling to eek out a living and fend off the zombie-like, cannibalistic creatures called “Reapers.” To keep civilians safe, “Rangers,” a select group of men and women who patrol the country on horseback, are the military force charged with fighting and killing the mindless Reapers whose bloodlust and need for flesh drive them to attack humans. However, not just anyone can be a Ranger. They are the “star-marked” children who are born immune to the parasitic virus that Reapers carry and cannot be turned. As a result, all star-marked children must become Rangers when they become adults. The males are not allowed to marry but are encouraged to procreate as much as possible to ensure future generations of Rangers will be on hand to protect and serve. The protagonist, Abby, is one of the rare females born a Ranger. It’s not the life she wants, but she has little choice in the matter. Her only other alternative is to settle down at one of the Ranger’s forts and have children, little Rangers who will also grow up with the same limitations that have been forced upon her. No matter how much her captain encourages it, Abby stubbornly refuses to leave her post. Yes, even in this alternate world, Abby has to deal with sexist attitudes from some of the Rangers in this male-dominated field. The war between Rangers and Reapers has been going on for centuries, but as the story progresses, Abby surprisingly learns that some of these animalistic Reapers have become sentient, like Jake, who comes to Abby’s rescue several times when she is sent out on a lone mission. Initially Abby is attracted to this stranger who has become her savior until she learns what he really is. Throughout the first half of the novel, she’s disgusted and repulsed by Jake who makes her his prisoner when she refuses to help him with his agenda. Even though Jake has regained control of the “rider,” the Reaper side of him that thirsts for flesh and blood, he has to constantly fight these urges around Abby. Much of the book’s plot focuses on Abby and Jake’s conflicting feelings for each other and the sexual tension that simmers between them. A central question in the book is whether a Reaper and a Ranger can fall in love. I like that the story is narrated from both Abby’s and Jake’s perspectives because it helped me to see them both as multi-dimensional characters and be able to relate to their situation. The book does include some descriptive love scenes intended for mature readers. When Abby and Jake form an unprecedented alliance in the quest to find a cure for the virus, they face an uphill battle, with their efforts being thwarted every step of the way. It seems not everyone wants a cure for the virus to be found. The novel is engaging and suspenseful, and along the way, Stone raises some important moral and ethical considerations for thought. She also brings awareness to the ongoing debate about women serving on the front lines in war. The conclusion eased me out of this fictitious world yet left me longing for more. After I finished the book, I felt that the world-building could have been stronger and the resolution occurred a bit too easily for my satisfaction. However, after looking at the author’s Goodread’s page, I noticed that she has plans to expand the novel into a series. The next installment is titled Gun Shy, but a book description hasn’t been provided yet. So Stone has plenty of time to continue fleshing out this unusual, creative world that she has begun building. Source: I received a copy of this book from the author to provide an honest review.