Chapter 1:


The Stars At Dusk

I stood on my toes and looked over arms or around shoulders to try reading the newspaper. Big black letters were at the top, but they were hard to read. I gave up pretty soon and went to rest against the wall of the train station. I wore a brown cap with a sort of beige curtain hanging down the back to protect my neck from the sun. It used to be all the same colour, but the lower parts near my neck had gotten darker and crustier over the years, and Ellie told me I sweated more than most people.

Some of the gang chatted around the newspaper. There weren’t many people around, so they didn’t bother being quiet. ‘Hundred-thousand Melburnian dollars for the apprehension of any member of the Hunter-Yao gang,’ Solomon said. It was hard to ignore his voice. Not loud but really clear, like he could talk to a crowd and each person would feel like he was talking specially to them.

His younger brother, Howard Beck, had a way worse voice. It was nasally and had a rhythm that felt like rats running across your limbs. ‘Pretty stupid,’ Howard said. ‘Any member? What, even Florence?’

‘It says any,’ Solomon replied, tapping the newspaper.

‘Makes me want to turn a few of you in,’ Aoide said, smiling wide, teeth white and enviably straight.

‘Who you thinking?’

‘Justin, for starters, so the rest of us can get some sleep. Then if we give them the Khan, we could hire a real chef.’ They laughed. Aoide looked at the sky and tapped her chin. Braided, dark brown hair almost reached her hips. ‘Maybe chuck them a few more, just for spending money.’

‘I’d give them you,’ Solomon laughed.

‘Excuse me?’ Aoide laughed, too, so I didn’t tense up.

‘In a heartbeat. Let them deal with your singing.’

Aoide opened her mouth, as if to start a song, and the others flinched.

‘We could give Amborella,’ Howard snickered, glancing at me. ‘I’m sure she’d gnaw through the bars and be back by lunch.’

I pushed off the wall and scowled at Howard with my fists clenched. As I moved, Ellie stepped in front of me and touched my shoulder. ‘He’s kidding. Right, Howard?’

‘Of course,’ he sighed. Under his breath, he added, ‘Every time.’

Something changed in the group. They weren’t laughing and smiling, and they stood differently. It happened around the moment I’d pushed away from the wall. It didn’t seem to come from what Howard said, but I didn’t understand what changed. It might’ve been because of Ellie. Everyone said she was good at making people do what she wanted. What I did understand was that Howard pissed me off, and I still wanted to punch him in the crotch for thinking about trading me for a bounty.

Solomon checked his watch. ‘Almost time.’ He put the newspaper on a shelf and walked down the ramp. Howard and Aoide followed, and then Ellie and me.

We crossed the street to an empty lot where our cars and bikes waited. Stefan and Florence talked. Well, Florence talked. We got closer and I heard her going on about how the heist wouldn’t happen as we thought, so we should cancel it. Stefan opened and closed his bone-handled folding knife. ‘Every heist needs improvisation,’ he told Florence. She didn’t look happy, but she never did.

Stefan hopped onto his car’s running board and faced the group. There were more of us than usual. Stefan, Solomon, Howard, Marshal the Marshal, Aoide, Ellie, Seo-Joon, Justin, Dimitri, Mina, and Tea.

Stefan talked through the plan, but I had trouble paying attention. I’d heard it so often over the last few weeks, so hearing it again didn’t seem too important. My eyes drifted to Tea, who noticed me staring and gave a tight grin. It looked too rigid and forced. I didn’t like that Tea joined us. Wei was supposed to be our fourth driver, but he had to rush off and handle a problem.

The group split, and I went to my assigned vehicle, a modified pickup truck suitable for Dusk-zone terrain. Tea opened the driver’s door but turned back before I climbed into the cargo bed. ‘Something bothering you?’ she asked.

I shook my head. Tea frowned, deepening the lines around her eyes. ‘It’s nothing,’ I said. She didn’t move, which only made me more anxious to leave. Luckily Ellie and Marshal hopped into the cargo bed, giving me an excuse to do the same.

Time to go.

The bikes went ahead, driven by Mina and Justin, while Aoide and Howard sat behind them respectively. Then Dimitri’s van with Stefan, Solomon, and Seo-Joon in the back. Last, our truck.

The three of us on the cargo bed put on safety harnesses and used chains secured to the vehicle. Lengths of dirty stable mats were screwed onto the floor of the cargo bed to give a bit of cushioning.

We took empty roads and by sunset neared the city limits. Using a secret underpass, we slipped past the guarded checkpoints. Then we passed the green zone. Then the amber zone. And finally the red zone. We’d reached the Dusk. I blinked and the world changed. In the city, the sky darkened and lightened, and time felt normal. Outside the city, in the Dusk, the sky was a permanent purplish-blue with weird streaks of orange and red, bleeding between day and night. Never changing. The Dusk was forever.

Buildings got more ruined as we went, the roads more bumpy. The stable mats helped but not enough to keep from getting a sore ass.

The gang got ready.

Marshal the Marshal wore a tattered military coat of rich blue with epaulets and a couple medals across his chest. He claimed to have been a marshal in another part of the country, but he never specified where. He always used the same rag from his inner pocket to polish a single-action revolver.

Ellie cared about her heist clothes more than the rest of us, so she had a clean sleeveless top, denim shorts, and a flowery bandana tied around her nose and mouth.

I had a black crop top and cargo pants, plus my cap. As for preparation, I already wore my new crimson hand wraps, a gift from Stefan, since my old ones were getting thin and smelled like piss.

We neared the objective. A train was going north-west from Melbourne to Daylesford. According to Wei, the journey was a hasty, secretive trip with fewer guards, and it left the same time as larger trains on the other side of the city, like it wanted to be ignored.

So, a good target.

We needed to meet it at the right place. We waited ahead of a bend. The train came into sight. The ground between us was flat enough to work. Our vehicles accelerated. Dust and dirt kicked all around. The Dusk’s light made it feel like a moment could last for years. The bikes ahead pulled close to the rear train car. Aoide and Howard climbed onto the narrow ledge. The bikes pulled away and the van sped ahead. The door slid open. Stefan, Solomon, and Seo-Joon climbed between the first and second cars. The van pulled away.

Our turn.

Tea shot ahead and matched speed, keeping us parallel with the third car. On cue, Solomon pushed open the freight door. He made a “G” with his hands.

Marshal unlatched the tailgate and kicked it open. We had an Aries-class engine installed on the side. It was a smooth steel box the size of a car battery, with a meter showing the capacity and a moveable arrow to direct the kinetic magic stored within. It cost a decent bit, but Stefan and Wei said safety was worth the investment. So, Marshal aimed the arrow at the train, crouched, ran, and jumped diagonally. He would’ve landed in the train without the kinetic magic, but it gave him an extra boost in case wind or bumps in the road interfered. Ellie and I leapt the same way, and I liked the weird feeling of magic affecting my movement, like an angel of luck nudged me the way I needed to go.

I smelled lavender. Aries-class magic had that scent. A short distance away, I smelled coffee from Seo-Joon’s Andromeda-class magic. There must’ve been a guard or two he needed to bind.

Stefan led us further up the train. Our group stayed quiet. The rear three cars had been for cargo. Ordinary stuff, not worth the hassle of offloading. Passengers and riches were closer to the front.

Daylesford had spas. Rich folk went for holidays. Pretty often trains going there had magic-infused salts, which fetched a decent price from the right fence. Plus, Wei mentioned selling the salt to a group out east that wanted to make a resort. We’d keep some for the gang, too.

We went through the cars, subduing guards as we went. Seo-Joon kept near the rear of the group, using his magic to bind them in a cocoon. After each car I felt worse. I itched. Needed action. The rumbling of the train and constant dim light left me tense and urgent. This only got worse when we passed the “zero” car.

The zero car was empty, aside from a man, a wooden box, and deep shadows. The man wore a white, convex, featureless mask, lacking even holes for his eyes or nose. The box was the size of a satchel, made from dark, polished wood, and had dovetail joints. The man sat cross-legged in the exact middle of the car, the box in his lap. Stefan and Solomon nodded or saluted him, while the rest of us avoided looking and shuffled quickly past.

I looked back, as we went on, wondering if…

Anyway, I hadn’t gotten to do anything, which sucked because train heists were the best. The gang didn’t do them often, and I’d only been on a few, but they were way more exciting than convoy robberies. They left me with that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid feeling. That feeling was all the more potent since it was likely going to be my last heist.

I’d make it count.

We reached the passenger cars.

Stefan slid open the door and fired his handgun at the ceiling. He began his usual speech. It started polite and ended with threats. Dark stuff for his reputation. He said playing the monster during heists made it easier to hide outside of them. As he spoke, we fanned out either side, shoving burlap sacks at the passengers. As expected, the passengers were on the richer side. Nice clothes. Clean. Dressed for a holiday. Smelled of perfume or cologne. Some were scared. Some looked tired, like we annoyed them but were part of the process. They dropped jewellery and loose cash, but we had a goal.

‘Salt!’ I yelled at an old woman. ‘Salt! Salt!’ She fumbled in her pockets before slapping at the man next to her. With shaky hands he opened a satchel on his lap and handed me a mason jar filled with light green salt.

The woman scowled. ‘You won’t like where you’re going.’

‘Hell,’ I nodded, having heard it before. I needed to focus on putting the mason jar in the sack without cracking it.

‘Worse, once renovations are finished.’

I cocked my head, about to demand she explained, but we needed to move. Stefan and Howard went pre-emptively to the next passenger car. Stefan’s gunshot from before might’ve caused resistance ahead. Nothing we couldn’t handle.

Stefan slid open the door. ‘Good gloaming to—’

He hurled himself to the side, catching the chain barrier between cars. Howard reeled back and fell into the corner, blood gushing in a high arc from his arm. His loot scattered across the floor. Bullets filled the aisle. Screams followed. We took cover behind the seats. Some of the passengers leapt to their feet.

Gunfire and the rumbling train shook my insides. I clenched my jaw painfully tight, teeth grinding. My sack of loot had hit the floor and broke the mason jar. A sickly-sweet vanilla scent of magic-infused salt filled the car.

The gunfire didn’t come from a guard. The aim was terrible. The bullets tore through the carpet up the aisle at random. Aoide and Solomon grabbed panicked passengers from the aisle and pulled them out of danger. Deaths only made us rich in fame.

The shooter, a passenger in a Hawaiian tourist shirt and bucket hat held an automatic rifle loosely against his shoulder. It had a double drum magazine shaped to look like veiny testicles. His mouth hung open, drooling, his screams muted by the gunfire.

‘Florence was right,’ Howard groaned. ‘She was right. Of all the fuckin’ times.’

Stefan and Solomon fired their handguns but couldn’t hit. Aoide unslung her rifle and rested the barrel on a seat, but trembling passengers made the shot impossible. The gunfire slowed to a staccato rhythm, uncertain bursts being more startling than the continuous barrage. I flinched. The shooter seemed to time each burst so they never had the same amount of shots or intervals between.

I checked my watch. Running out of time. If it was to be my last heist, I wanted to do something memorable. Wanted to finish the film, so to speak. A heavy gold pendant in the shape of a furnace had rolled near my feet. I grabbed the chain and spun until the pendant blurred, and then smashed it against the window. It didn’t break, so I tried again. Dents and cracks formed but the glass didn’t shatter. A lone gunshot between bursts rang out. It broke the window. I whirled, teeth bared. Ellie’s handgun smoked. A few more hits with the pendants and the glass would’ve broken, so she shouldn’t have wasted a bullet.

No matter.

I brushed glass from the windowsill and climbed through. My hair thrashed and cold air forced me to squint. I found a metal railing outside the train and held it tightly, shuffling my hands one at a time, legs bent and braced against the outside. For a second I looked at the surrounding lands and found them beautiful. I’d never ridden a train with a ticket and it never occurred to me, but it might’ve been nice – at least once.

The bursts of gunfire grew shorter, and shots from the gang increased. I needed to stamp the shooter’s passport before one of the gang put themselves in danger. I moved quicker, nearly losing my grip, but I made it to the end of the shooter’s car.

I crouched low and approached the shooter. His rifle clicked empty. He shook but didn’t flee. Instead he dropped the rifle and drew two engraved handguns from shoulder holsters. In the silence without shots, he screamed himself hoarse, before firing again. I dashed, kicked the crook of his knee, and caught his arms as he fell. A couple final shots fired, deafening me, and hitting a passenger in the gut. Shit, I thought. The shooter had a floppy grip on the handguns, so I grabbed one and hammered his face with the handle. Blood gushed from his broken nose, but he showed no pain. His eyes had a dazed, empty look, like he had a serious spoon problem, and he limply licked the blood dripping down his face, before flopping onto the floor.

The gang recovered from the attack and continued up the aisle. Stefan patted my shoulder as he passed, and Solomon smiled. As Ellie neared, I wanted to say something, but she wiped blood from my face and kissed my head. None of them had noticed the man shot in the gut. He had a three-piece suit and a goofy bowler hat. He clutched the wound and stared at me, as if wordlessly begging me to help, but I couldn’t. A wound like that…

I waited for Aoide to treat Howard’s arm, and then the three of us followed the group. I couldn’t help it; I looked back.


Stefan radioed for the vehicles, while the rest of us broke open locks and poured salt from massive containers into bags. In seconds the car smelled like sandalwood from the Cancer-class magic, and roses from the Ursa Minor-class.

‘You smell that?’ Ellie said.

I exaggerated my breathing. ‘No, totally nothing to smell here.’



‘Stefan,’ Ellie called. ‘Garlic.’

Stefan’s whole face morphed. Alert and thinking. ‘Leave it,’ he ordered. Ellie closed a chest and replaced the broken lock. I went to the chest and sniffed. Sure enough, garlic. I grimaced and pulled away. But, what magic did it come from? I wanted a sample.

As if reading my mind, Ellie tapped me on the shoulder. ‘Help me with this, Amber.’

In those days, I didn’t think too hard, and I was easily distracted, so I quickly forgot about the garlic scent and helped Ellie carry bags of salt to the middle of the car. We formed a neat pile and slid open the car’s door. Air rushed through, a pleasant coolness. I glanced at the group as we faced the landscape. The unnatural Dusk cast everyone in a strange light. It made me sort of warm and sad. I couldn’t and wouldn’t put into words how I felt about them, but I knew I felt strongly. Not knowing left me frustrated, like I needed to talk but had lost my tongue.

Stefan checked his watch. In the distance, inhuman silhouettes roamed. We didn’t want to stay in the Dusk for too long.

The train neared another area of flat land and our vehicles closed in. Solomon and Marshal tossed bags into the van, while Howard and Aoide tossed more into the truck’s cargo bed.

‘Stef,’ Justin called from one of the bikes. He’d driven ahead and came speeding back, waving a hand wildly overhead. ‘Get out! Get out!’

Stefan leaned out of the train to hear him better. Mina rode from the other side and shouted something similar about us getting off the train. At most, we’d unloaded a quarter of the bags.

‘Rail Snakes!’ Justin or Mina shouted. ‘Up ahead and they’ve got—’

A roaring explosion came from ahead. The shockwave hit us shortly after. Stefan’s mouth moved, but I had been deafened. Everyone acted at once. In my memories, they moved in slow motion. Black smoke billowed. The train plunged into it. A few of the group managed to jump into the vehicles, which had to pull away before the landscape got too rough. The rest of us aboard pressed our backs to the walls and Seo-Joon used his magic to bind us to the metal surface in a cocoon. I saw through a filmy haze as Seo-Joon made a cocoon for himself, seconds before metal shrieked and the landscape tipped. The train had been derailed. Our car rolled onto its side and skidded through dry dirt. If Seo-Joon had been a worse mage, or been more panicked, we’d have died in the crash. Instead, we emerged from the cocoons with bruises, scrapes, and sprains.

Great clouds of dust surrounded the tipped train cars. I heard a horrible chorus. The Rail Snakes. They wore necklaces with custom whistles. When they used them at the same time, it sounded like a thousand hissing snakes. I squinted through the dust and spotted them. They wore matching brown jackets with scale patterns and a snake insignia.

Stefan, Solomon, Ellie, Seo-Joon, and I hadn’t escaped the train. Stefan called for our vehicles and ordered a retreat. We took cover behind our train car, weapons drawn. Ellie bled from her forehead. There was no way for our vehicles to reach us before the Rail Snakes. We needed time.

Feet shuffled through gravel and dirt. A gunshot. Revolver smoke and gunpowder smell. I peeked through a hole in the train car. The Rail Snakes fanned out to grab our bags of salt that had fallen from the train. Their off-road vans skidded to a stop among the wreckage, ready to collect.

Jaw clenched, I took a step, unsure what I’d do, but Ellie grabbed my arm. She didn’t look at me when she did. She always knew when to stop me.

A lanky Snake’s boots crunched as he came toward us. A bag of salt was nearby. If he reached it, he’d spot us. If we crept around the train car, we’d be spotted on the other side. In moments like that, experience mattered the most. Stefan didn’t freak out. He knew the options and picked the best, even when that wasn’t clear.

Sprinting from cover, Stefan punched the Snake’s face and spun him around for a human shield. He pressed a gun to his head. In seconds, the other Snakes rushed toward him, weapons drawn. ‘Stefan Hunter,’ one of them shouted. ‘How’re you doing?’

Stefan didn’t answer.

‘Scheduling conflict, eh?’ The Snakes chortled. ‘I’ll be honest, this wasn’t how I’d hoped to end things.’

The heist, or Stefan? The Snakes weren’t wrong to be confident. The train’s guards had either been bound by our group or shot by the Rail Snakes. As for Stefan, his reputation protected him more than the human shield. If anybody else had tried, the Snakes would have killed both hostage and hostage-taker. But they wanted fanfare with Stefan, and in the back of their heads, they must’ve anxiously waited for a final trick.

The Snakes would kill their own allies to reach an enemy. They knew Stefan was aware of that, so they couldn’t predict his plan. Simple or not. Stupid or not.

The trick wasn’t any more complex than a distraction.

Solomon, Ellie, and Seo-Joon rounded the other side of the train car and opened fire. Quantity over quality. More trigger than sights. Four Snakes fell and the rest rushed for cover. Stefan disarmed and kicked away his hostage, joining the gunfight. It wouldn’t last long, but long enough to delay the Snakes before our vehicles arrived.

I didn’t have a gun, so I stayed behind cover. Not willingly. I kept an eye out for openings, but the crossfire was too intense. Frustrated, I glanced the other way, roughly where our vehicles would come from. Further up the track, a dot of blinding light came from a wooden box. The lid’s latch had broken open when the train derailed. It was that box. The one the masked man had in his lap in the zero car.

Well, the masked man wasn’t around anymore. So…

I sprinted from cover, stumbling over my own feet on the uneven ground, and went straight for the box. Ellie shouted something. She’d forgive me. Besides, I wasn’t in danger, since the angle kept me away from the crossfire. I dove for the box and looked inside. It had a bunch of gemstones. Rubies, emeralds, amethyst, and more. Light didn’t bounce off them, not exactly. They emitted light. Magic? I closed the lid and got ready to sprint back, when a figure stepped from shadows between the cars.

The masked man.

Blood dripped down the man’s cracked mask and he limped, but the way he moved caused me to freeze. I held my breath. Fear grew. In the more animal-like parts of my brain, I understood taking the gemstones was like stealing babies from a serious predator.

The man lunged. I spun but lost my footing on the gravel. He slapped the box of gemstones from my hand, while he seized the collar of my shirt. An immense, sickly scent of lavender filled my nose. I held my breath and tensed every muscle. Ellie ran toward us, firing as she did. The man snapped his fingers and the bullets dropped to the dirt in a gentle arc.

It was a nice try, I figured. Took a risk. Didn’t pay off.

The man flung me into the air. His Taurus-class magic was plenty strong, and the kinetic energy hurled me into the air and over a train car. Dusk clouds blurred. I gasped for air as I plummeted and landed in bottlebrush bushes.

Our vehicles arrived in the same moment. If I’d just waited a few more seconds, I’d have been fine.

Our reinforcements joined the gunfight against the Rail Snakes. My head throbbed and back ached, vision unsteady. Ellie, Solomon, and Aoide tried to reach me, but I’d been thrown too far. If they went straight for me, the Rail Snakes had an open shot. Circling around put them in the path of the masked man. Stefan repeated the retreat order, and I couldn’t blame him.

I sensed the nearing danger.

The inhuman silhouettes seen from the train got closer now. They lurked along the shadows of trees like freaky mirages. I relaxed, letting go in every way. It was going to be my last heist, so either way my life would end. I’d overheard Stefan and Wei talking. I’d become a “liability”. I didn’t know exactly what that meant, but I understood the next part. They wanted to send me far away on a fake job, like when you let a kid “help” with chores, but really it’s to keep them out of the way.

I wished the Rail Snakes would stop firing. It was hard to relax.

A gentle breeze washed over me. The silhouettes drew closer. What was that? I unclenched my fist. What was on my palm? I stretched my arm overhead and found a gleaming, uncut ruby. It no longer emitted light.

Past the ruby, a shape got larger in my vision. It descended. A black spider. Too black to be real. One of the silhouettes from the Dusk. One of the Entities. It paused. I stared at it and, though it didn’t have eyes, it stared back. Or I lost my mind. ‘Ruby,’ I said, offering it how a child does.

It launched at me, eight legs wide. I screamed. It landed on my check and I slapped at it only for it to move onto my hand. Coldness traced my skin from wrist to fingertip, like a sliding piece of ice. The legs of the spider closed together and crawled under my fingernail. I screamed louder and clawed at my finger. Should I bite it off? But there wasn’t a physical pressure. More like coldness. The spider flattened and got its entire body under my nail yet went further and further, until the darkness pooled in a vague, inky shape on the back of my hand. It moved more. I rolled off the bush and scraped the inky skin against stones, doing nothing but making it bleed. Then the inky shape pulsed and travelled up my arm, stopping at my bicep, where it settled into an abstract crescent shape.

Physically, it felt cold. Mentally, it felt – pure. Like, it cleared my mind. My first and clearest thought was:

Fuck this.

My chest hurt and my legs hurt and my arm felt cold, but I refused to be killed by those silhouettes, the Entities. I glanced over my shoulder. They’d gotten close enough for me to see forms and features in their dark bodies. Too close. Creatures like cobras and spiders and scarecrows wanted to tear me apart.

I sprinted back toward the train and between rail cars. The gunfire had lessened. Our vehicles had started to leave. ‘Hey,’ I called, waving my arms overhead.

The truck braked hard and revved and reversed in a wild arc, so the cargo bed almost hit me. Ellie and Marshal were in the back. They yelled and pulled me up, while Aoide gave covering fire with her rifle.

As I rolled over the cargo bed’s wall, I couldn’t believe it. Still alive, despite my best attempts. Well…

The masked man, all the way from the train, whipped his arm like throwing a baseball. The air between us bent and wobbled. An attack of that size would flip the truck. I raised my hands instinctively. My muscles tensed. Tingling pain ran up my arms. The masked man’s kinetic attack swerved at a ninety-degree angle and hit one of the Rail Snakes, folding his body backward with a sickening snap of vertebrae.

‘Go!’ Marshal slapped the roof of the truck and we roared away, back toward the safety of the city.