Four years of Penny Dread Tales have revealed some fantastic talent. In this edition we've collected the cream of the crop. Herein lies the very Best of Penny Dread Tales: sixteen stories of boiler-splitting steampunk with a blend of sci-fi, paranormal, western, and horror. These stories will take you on a thrilling ride and you will love every minute of it!
Including stories by: Cayleigh Hickey, Aaron Michael Ritchey, J.M. Franklin, Gerry Huntman, Laura Givens, Keith Good, Quincy J. Allen, David Boop, J.R. Boyett, Vivian Caethe, Aaron Spriggs, Peter J. Wacks, David W. Landrum, Sam Knight, Mike Cervantes, and Jonathan D. Beer.
Blending steampunk, horror, western, and dark fantasy, this set of stories ranges widely over the possibilities that steampunk can display. This volume collects the best from four years worth of Penny Dread tales, showcasing some of the new voices appearing in the genre. – Cat Rambo
"Emotionally, this anthology took me on a roller coaster ride. From the opening story "Iron Angel" by Cayleigh Hickey, which pulled my heart strings, continuing with Aaron Ritchey's horror story, "The Dirges Of Percival Lewand," which made my heart race with the "horror and fear" it triggered deep inside, to the final story in the anthology, Jonathan D. Beer's "Budapest Will Burn," which left me with a sense of longing or lingering, an almost melancholy feeling, "Best Of Penny Dread Tales" provided me with entertainment, escapism, and with lots of fodder for my brain to feed on for awhile. I recommend it!"– Amazon Review
I love dreaming that I can fly … until I wake up tangled in the sheets on my bed in the room that has been my home for the past sixteen years of my miserable, wingless life. Every inch of these walls makes me want to scream, so perfectly I've memorized them. The sprawling, luxurious bed my father built when I was six, with its dark, sweet-smelling wood and its gauzy white canopy; I want to tear it all to shreds and demolish the room that has been my prison.
The only small comfort I can find in glancing around it is in Corbin's drawings. They're everywhere, pinned to the walls, stacked on my nightstand, dangling from the ceiling. Pictures of me, of him, of the townspeople, of the forest that lies just outside my balcony but is as untouchable as the sky the rest of my race soars through on beautiful, glossy wings I'll never have. The pictures depress me sometimes, but they're nearly all I have, so I hold them close.
I've got Corbin's pictures … and Corbin. They're the only things that will ever put a smile on my pale, elfin face.
After waking, I lie in bed for long, tense minutes until I absolutely can't stand it anymore—until I know the sanity of walking will outweigh the agony of it. It takes a full quarter-hour for me to drag myself up and hobble, step by excruciating step, over to the balcony adjoining my room where I collapse against the rail, taking all the weight I can off my fragile legs. Even this, the most freedom I can have, drives an awful reminder deep into my heart. My balcony is the only one of hundreds that has or needs a railing, for a painfully obvious reason.
If anyone besides me were to fall, they'd have five hundred feet to spread their wings and fly to safety. I don't imagine flapping my arms all over Hell would offer much lift, and a soft landing it wouldn't be. My legs would shatter, even if my spine or skull didn't. Hell, my legs would crumble if I fell the ten feet to my living room. By design, my people are born with weak legs. We aren't supposed to need them much, after all—we're supposed to be able to fly. There's a few keywords there—supposed to be.
I'm an anomaly: twisted and malformed. I came into this world without wings and with nothing to compensate for the loss of them. I was sick—still am. My bones are even frailer than most—they're like glass. I can't walk faster than a crawl and could never run any more than I could fly. There's no going anywhere, no doing anything. My dad put together a ladder leading to the lower floor of my house, but only on a good day can I manage that, and I have very few of those.
I peer through the sturdy, utilitarian rail at the beautifully vast world sprawled out before me and contemplate screaming. It's positively gorgeous, all of it, and I can reach none of it: the trees that soar as high as my sister can, with their lovely, gnarled trunks a mile thick; the houses that wrap around them like chains, strung with moss and flowers that ooze colors so vibrant they hurt my eyes; the leafy canopy hanging overhead, fluttering in a breeze I can't feel this far down, offering tantalizing glimpses of clear blue sky, bits like broken eggshells. I can see a few of my people dancing with the clouds, their outstretched wings just as stunning as the torturous vista engulfing me.
Screaming seems all the more tempting.
"Deryn?" It's my mother calling, and I'm tempted not to answer. She'll find me within moments; I can't exactly hide anywhere. But I call back anyway, because I know how much she frets over me. She's convinced that I'm going to tumble right off of the balcony, even though the railing could halt a charging bull, and I'm not that clumsy. Weak, maybe, but plenty coordinated enough to keep my feet on the ground, exactly where I wish they weren't.
"I'm out here!"
She flutters through my room to where I sit, her feet barely grazing the ground I suffered over. My mother is ridiculously lovely: all long, lanky limbs and shiny red curls that I might've been envious of if I hadn't already been so distorted. As it is, my plain, dark hair is the least of my discontents.
"Good morning, sweetie," she says, leaning down to give me the lightest of hugs, afraid I'll break in her arms. I know she's being careful not to let her wings brush my skin, and part of me is grateful while the rest roils with irritation. They're huge and dark brown, with just the faintest dusting of white peeking out from underneath. They're elegantly beautiful, and they could've been mine. My sister got them. I got nothing.
"Morning, mom," I mumble back, making it more one word than two. I pull my arms back and tuck them tightly over my chest, crumpling bits of my silky white nightgown between my fingers.
"Do you want anything to eat?" she asks, crouching beside me so that that the tips of her pinions brush the wooden floor. "There's some stew leftover from last night, or I can make you something else …"
She lets her voice trail off to leave the statement as a question. I answer with a gentle shake of my head and a noncommittal sound that could be taken a dozen different ways. My mother frowns, distraught by my sullenness. "Alright then …" she struggles upright with a groan, her legs despising her for making them bear so much weight. She presses a feathery kiss to the top of my head. "Let me know if you need anything. Is Corbin coming by at all?"
I sigh, wishing she hadn't asked but knowing all along that she would. It wasn't like the answer wasn't the same everyday lately. "I don't know," I enunciate, trying to bang the idea into her head. "He might. I don't know."
My mom walks away and leaves it there, and for that, at least, I'm thankful. A few weeks ago I wouldn't have minded her asking—a few weeks ago my answer would've been an undoubted, unshakable yes. It used to be that everyday Corbin would fall to my balcony with a huge, manic grin, a folder of sketches under one arm and a breakfast for two hanging from the other. I'd clamber out of bed to meet him. If it was a bad day, he'd come to me, and we'd sit in my room for hours eating and talking and laughing as he told me about the world, drawing pictures in the air with his fingers and on paper with the pencil that was forever perched behind his ear.
But now … there are days when he doesn't show at all, and when he does, it's never for more than an hour. There's something different now in the way he carries himself, some sort of apprehension. Either he or I have built a wall between us, and I can't, for the life of me, tell how thick it is … or if I can bring it crashing down if I just try hard enough.
Forty-five minutes I wait for him there, my legs dangling off into space through the gaps in the railing, my chin pillowed on my forearms, my eyes scanning the skies for any glimpse of his dark wings and hair. When my limbs start to fall asleep, I admit defeat and haul myself back inside, gritting my teeth through it all.
Sarika is just about the craziest, most eccentric woman on or off the face of the planet, but she's the best bet if you're trying to hunt down something city-side. And my tall order of metal plating, pipes, motors and a dozen other gizmos is definitely up her alley.
She has everything you could ask for buried in the massive cave of wonders she calls home. She goes into the city, her wings glamoured from human sight, and trades with the best inventors she can find. She gives them magic secrets in returns for what they make from them.
There are people who hate her, who think she's meddling in the timeline of humanity, giving them things that are too advanced for them to handle. But everything she has works, and that's all I care about.
"What is it you're looking for this time?" she asks as she sifts through a heap of screws and bolts, tucking some away into the pockets of her apron and binning others. She's wearing men's trousers and a shirt that hang like a pillowcase over her bony frame, her white wings peeping from frayed holes. There's a pair of thick goggles perched atop her head, cushioned by her graying blond hair.
"I need another motor," I explain, casting my eyes around the shop. There's metal and glass everywhere, from twisted hunks of iron to delicate aluminum framework to decorative designs in silver and gold. "Lighter than the one you gave me last time."
Sarika bites her lower lip, centering the glasses that are eternally slipping down her nose. "Hmm, I'm nearly positive that was the lightest I have," she says, her brows knitting together with thought. "I'll look though. Maybe there's something hiding from me."
Clattering like a metal man, Sarika wades down the aisle, stepping carefully over fallen bits of shrapnel and weaving her arms through contraptions hanging from the ceiling, raw ideas made into wood and iron flesh: a long, thin tube with narrowed ends and flat, featherless wings poking from either side; a wire box with four wheels running along on air. These are things Sarika will show to the humans, things they will build long before they would've thought of them themselves.
Sarika is a million miles ahead of me, clanging through her workshop, and I have to scramble to catch up with her. She stops in front of a series of shelves, and I'm moving so carelessly that only a frantic pin-wheeling of arms keeps me from running right into her.
The shelves she's contemplating are packed full of gadgets and hardware of all shapes and sizes, twisted and smooth, fragile and sturdy. I can't count them all, but she runs her eyes over them with the air of someone glancing over a collection of books they know by heart. It sounds like she's murmuring something under her breath, but I can't make out anything concrete.
She lets out a triumphant breath, and her nimble fingers dart forward, digging out something about the size of a baby's head and about as lumpy. She dumps it into my open hands, and I weigh it tentatively, not daring to get my hopes up until my mind has fully registered the feather-lightness … and then those hopes soar right off.
O O O
When I alight on our front step, the first thing I hear after the rush of flying fades is someone arguing, her words pointed and tipped with venom. Fluttering inside with the bag of parts dangling from my shoulder I find my brother Bran in the middle of the living room. He's tall and intimidating, even slouching as he is, cowering in the face of a pint-sized, whip-thin fireball that looks like she could as much do damage to him as a fly could to a buffalo. Her twiggy arms cut through the air like knives, illustrating some grand point that apparently my brother can't get through his head.
"Well where the hell is he?" she rants, cutting off with disturbing suddenness as the creaking of the shutting door interrupts. Whirling on the tips of her toes, her skirts fanning out about her knees and her wild, crimson hair flaring around her pale, freckled face, she glares at me angrily. "There you are."
It's Arlette, Deryn's older, tinier, scarier sister. The woman that would hardly come up to my shoulder is overflowing with bloodlust, all of it directed straight at me. I don't dare say anything, knowing that she'll take the reins without any prodding.
"Where the hell have you been disappearing to for the last three weeks?" she shrieks, hands flying instantly to her diminutive hips. Folded at her back, the dark brown feathers of her wings are ruffling with anger. Only when she's this furious can you see any familial resemblance between her and Deryn. They have the same frown, the same quirk of wrinkling their noses and drawing their eyebrows together.
"What do you mean?" I ask, figuring that feigning ignorance is the best plan of action here … acting like I have absolutely no idea whatsoever about the elephant in the room she's referring to.
"You know exactly what I mean," she says, shooting me full of glares. "You've hardly been to see Deryn in nearly a month. She's going to go mad soon if she doesn't have anyone to talk to!"
Now I know exactly what she's talking about, and I know that I would never consider abandoning Deryn to her miserable fate, but I can't figure any other way to get Arlette out of my hair. I'll have to feign cruelty, callousness, all the things I never, ever show.
I don't dare tell her the truth without knowing how she'll react. There's every possibility she'll stop me now, that she'll dash Deryn's last hope without a second thought. If she doesn't trust me enough, all she'll see is her sister in danger, and she won't stand for that. So I cross my arms and try on the most withering look I can manage. "I'm not her keeper," I say, trying to channel some of Arlette's irritation into my voice. She's got plenty to spare. "It's not my job to check in on her twenty-four-seven."
This stops her short. I don't know what she was expecting me to say, but it definitely wasn't that. "I …" There's a long pause during which her mouth closes and opens again, gaping like a dying fish. "Well then," she finishes with a huff, tugging at her skirt with fingers made clumsy by shock. I think she might be trying to smooth out some wrinkles, but if she is, it's a lost cause—she's just making them worse.
Hiking her chin, she glances over her shoulder at Bran who's staring like the idiot he is. She tosses him a terse nod before blazing past me towards the door. I doubt her bony shoulder clipping my upper arm as she passes is any sort of accident.
Arlette pauses at the threshold without looking back, fingering the doorframe. "I always thought you were a better boy than that. I guess I was wrong." Then she's gone, and Bran collapses onto the old couch, his long spider legs dangling over the end.
There's a strange look on his face, caught in a fight between anxiety and pain. "Thanks for not telling her," I mumble, knowing that he must've borne the brunt of Arlette's anger before I came and knowing exactly how hard that must've been for him. After all, he's been head over heels in love with her since he was a gangly twelve-year-old that hadn't yet grown into his height.
"No problem, Corbin," he breathes, running a big hand over his face, pushing back the long, messy fringe that just loves to fall in his eyes. He sends me a tired grin, and for someone like Bran who hands out his smiles like war rations, that means something. "I'm not that much of a sellout. Did you get the last part you needed?"
I bob my head, hiking the bag off my shoulder and ripping open the drawstring. My fingers search for the motor and find it easily, holding it out for him to see.
"It's twice as light as the other one," I say, unable to keep the edge of juvenile excitement from my voice. It is a very neat toy resting in my hands, even though the small knot of metal and gears may not look like much. "This thing might actually work."
There's a glimmer of madness in my brother's eyes to match my own as he hauls himself over, his eager fingers absorbing the motor's surface. He picks it up, weighing it in the palm of one hand. "It might," he whispers, every word drenched in disbelief. "It actually might."
It's been a month now since Corbin's been here for any longer than a quarter of an hour. It feels like pixies snuck into my room in the middle of the night and sawed off the top of my skull so they could steal my mind. I used to always be scared as a child that they would do just that, and now it seems like the fear has finally become reality. I can hardly think anymore. Corbin was the one who made the world I hardly knew make sense, and now everything's gone wonky.
Arlette stops by to visit more, but it isn't the same—listening to my tiny, emotional sister rattle off stories—as it would be listening to my best friend do the same. Maybe you think I'm pathetic, going so crazy over something so small in the grand scheme of everything, but you have no idea. You don't know what it's like to be so completely imprisoned and have your link to the outside world severed.
You don't know.
I can picture Deryn laughing at me as I truss up a stack of books like a present, my fingers fumbling at the knots they can't seem to manage. The thought makes me ridiculously sad. Even if I had a perfectly good reason for not visiting these last few weeks … that doesn't make me miss her less. The build has needed my full attention, and I couldn't risk letting something slip or forgetting to take a sketch out of my folder, but still … I wish she was here now, sitting on the end of my bed like I've sat so many times on the end of hers. Maybe, if this works, she'll be here before long. If she forgives me.
No, no, I know she'll forgive me.
The image of the smile that I know will break across her cheeks keeps my hands moving, dragging the books across the floor because they're too heavy for me to lift on my own. They weigh as much as Deryn does, or as much as I remember she did. Hopefully she hasn't put on much weight since then.
Bran walks in from outside to give me a hand, and together we manage to haul the ballast onto the balcony where my baby is waiting. It's not literally my baby, of course, but it might as well be. It's been swallowing my blood, sweat, and tears for four weeks now, and consuming my mind for three times as long.
I can hardly believe that it's sitting here, in front of my own eyes, completely finished. It's beautiful, with wooden bones and metal skin, clockwork organs and a leathery smile.
They're the wings of an iron angel. They're Deryn's wings, or they will be: if they fly now, if they can bear the weight and keep on going. My people don't have any specific god like the humans do, but I send out a prayer towards the general vicinity of the sky, figuring that it can't hurt any.
"You ready?" Bran asks me, setting the stack of books in front of the wings and wiping his hands on his trousers, leaving greasy smears where his fingers were.
Bran was the one who was at my side every second, warning me away from stupid mistakes, advising on the shape of the feathers, the positioning of the motor and throwing in an extra bit of muscle when brute strength was needed. The idea might've spawned from my head, but he built the contraption as much as I did. I still haven't quite figured out how to thank him.
I nod and set to work affixing the books so there's not a chance they could fall if they tried. As I finish, I rise to my feet and flutter my wings a little, my toes just barely brushing the ground. Leaving one wing for Bran, I take the other, and together we lift it up and over the balcony's edge. Even though I know its weight down to the gram, it feels shockingly light in my hands, probably because Bran's taking more than his share of the burden, like always.
The books don't plummet, and neither do either of us, though the art of hovering level has taken on new difficulty. We manage though, and I'm the one that frees one hand to pull the motor's ripcord, setting it coughing and chugging with reassuring regularity. It might work. It might fly.
The wings, with their sculpted aluminum feathers, start to whisper back and forth, faster and faster, until Bran and I are ducking every which way to avoid been smacked upside the head. The motor is snarling like a living beast now, curls of smoke polluting the air.
"Ready?" I ask. I can see people peering out of their windows and stealing onto balconies to watch with huge, curious eyes. I hear children shouting and laughing, and I know they're pointing. Maybe they think we're mad. Probably they do, and probably we are, but I start counting down anyway when I catch Bran's nod.
"Three, two, one!"
And without another word we let go, our fingers uncurling at the same moment, our wings twitching in anticipation of a dive that's never necessary.
Because it flies.
I'm lying on my bed on top of the blankets, my head propped up against the headboard, when my favorite voice breaks the non-silence of the forest at midday.
"Is the ceiling really all that interesting?" he asks, sending my neck snapping upwards. My gaze locks onto the entrance to my balcony where he's waiting. He looks just the same as ever, if a little wearier. There are darkish purple rings hanging under his sky-blue eyes, a pale undertone lurking beneath his sun-browned skin. His arms are hanging limply at his sides, his palms turned outward in a gesture of peace. The set of his shoulders is hopeful as he stands completely, utterly still, waiting for me to make the first move.
That move takes a minute, because first I have to work through the surprise that has flash-frozen my thoughts. It's been so long since I've seen him, I mean, really seen him … like this. No walls wrapped around him, no apprehension hiding in his eyes. My instinct is to jump to my feet and fling myself into his arms, but even if I could do that without fracturing something vital, I'm wary. I have no explanation of his disappearance, and I'm not sure how angry I am with him yet. Maybe he had good reasons, but until he shares them, I think I'll stay right here, thank you very much.
"Not gonna talk to me, are you?" he asks. I know he's expecting no answer, so I give none. I just sit up a little straighter, folding my hands into my lap as I watch him, waiting. "That's okay; I didn't really expect you to." He takes half a dozen steps forward until he's barely a yard from me, approaching like I'm prey that'll bolt any second—as if I could bolt. That's almost funny.
"I'm sorry, Der," Corbin says, real pain and remorse saturating his voice, care weighing down his nickname for me, the one I don't let anyone but him use. "I've been really, really busy. I've been building something, and I couldn't risk you finding out about it until it was finished." He polishes off the sentence with a sweet, white grin, shocking my defenses. "It was a surprise; I didn't want to ruin it."
That brings a withering look surfacing from under my impassive mask. "I can't imagine any surprise that would be worth a full month of near-solitude." I shake my head, knowing he can't imagine, can't step into my shoes and see exactly what I'm getting at. No one could, so I can't really blame him for it. "I've being going insane here, Corbin. There are times when I think I already am. I can't imagine anything you could've made that I would have chosen over your company, had I known."
And I really, truly can't. Corbin's companionship is one thing I will never, ever be able to put a price on, because he has no obligation to me, and we both know it. He spends time with me—or did—out of a genuine like of me, out of compassion, and—I might as well admit it—there was some pity there, at the beginning at least. I would never even consider trading something as precious as his true, pure friendship away.
The smile he gives me is unhinged, the sparkle in his eyes just as strange. I wonder if he's joined my spiral into madness. "Of course you haven't imagined it," he says, not like I'm an idiot but with an irrepressible excitement that has me intrigued. "I'm the only one crazy enough to do it."
When he reaches out a hand to help me up, I take it without question. I don't know if anything could ever make me stop trusting him. I'd probably jump from a thousand foot cliff if he was right there beside me, fingers wrapped around my own.
Clearly pleased with my reaction, he takes nearly all of my weight as he leads me along. First, off the bed and onto my feet and then, more slowly, across the open floor. I can feel him pulsing with exhilaration, and it's got me shaking too.
I ponder and ponder what he could've possibly built, but I can't think of anything. He hasn't really given me much to work off of, except that whatever it is, it's insane and wonderful.
I realize that it's not just the two of us there when we're halfway across my room. I can hear a set of pacing footsteps that clashes with our own. And, if I listen hard enough, I can hear someone whistling, low and soft, under his breath. I'm eighty-percent sure I know who it is when we cross the threshold, and then it jumps the extra twenty-percent to make it an even hundred.
Bran tosses me a wave and one of his rare smiles from where he's leaning against the rail. I make a move to smile back, but then the entirety of my attention is stolen away by something waiting just to his left: something amazing, something beautiful, something that tears a squeal from my gaping lips.
A pair of wings built from wood and leather and metal, covered in layer after layer of perfectly wrought feathers. The sun beats down, setting the edges aglow with light, turning the silvery surface to deep orange-gold, the color of phoenix wings. There are no words to capture the beauty before me.
I'm even more floored when I realize … these are meant for me. I see the motor strapped to the back, and I know that they will fly, that they will bear me as they do so. This is Corbin's secret—he's been building me my freedom.
Before he can say anything, I spin around and pull him into the tightest hug my fragile arms can stand and press my lips to his in a moment of whimsy. "Thank you," I say, the words shaking as they fall from my mouth just as badly as the rest of me is. I think my mind's stopped working, because all I can do is say "thank you" over and over and over again.
Corbin is grinning at me, gentle color flushing his pale cheeks as he takes both my hands in his and leads me over to the where the wings are resting. They're even lovelier up close. My breath catches in my throat, and my eyes prickle with the forerunners of a flood, no matter how ridiculous I know that is. Why the hell should I feel like crying now?
"I hope you forgive me, Der," he says, watching from behind as he lets me go, lets me sink to my knees and explore every inch of his invention, my eyes wide and shimmering. I want words for this moment, but no matter how hard I search, I find none. "I figured it would be more special this way."
And I'm just giggling like an idiot, my hands resting atop the motor, the sun warm on my cheeks. "Can I fly?" I plead, beaming up at him and Bran who's lurking and snickering behind his shoulder.
Corbin laughs a laugh that morphs into a smile as he crouches down beside me. "'Course you can," he says, reaching around my hands so he can get a good grip on the leather backing. Bran joins him, holding onto the wingtips so that, together, they can lift it off the floor and maneuver it around to my back. I stand and spread my arms in anticipation for the straps that come up onto my shoulders, the whole thing sitting like a backpack. I bear as much of the weight as I can. Bran easily takes the rest so that Corbin can focus, tightening me into the harness until the leather straps are on the verge of suffocating me, and I have to tell him to stop.
Corbin nods at me and then at Bran, who tears at something attached to the wings. I feel my torso jerk, and the motor grumbles against my back. I cough as a puff of greasy smoke ventures down my throat.
Hands on my shoulders, holding me fast, Corbin appraises me with his eyes as the wings begin to flutter, growing lighter as they start to support their own weight. I hear Bran fumble out of the way,
"I tested these with some weight, so there shouldn't be a problem," Corbin says, each word slow and steady. "But if there is, Bran and I will catch you, I swear. We won't let you fall."
I bob my head, not in any sort of mindset to care about my own well-being.
He shows me a set of dials affixed to the straps. "This one will let you go higher," he explains, pointing to the larger one. "This one will drop you down," he adds, indicating the smaller. "You'll need one of us to come to a complete stop, okay?"
I'm just nodding and nodding, so eager to fly that I might shake my way right out of the harness.
"Alright then." Corbin lets me go and hops easily onto the edge of the railing, holding out a hand to help me up. I take it gratefully and stand there a moment, my bare toes hanging off into the abyss. "Let's hope this works so your parents and Arlette don't have anything to kill us about, yeah?"
I snort and flip up the big dial, my teeth chattering as the wings work so hard my feet are already slipping away from the wooden rail. I'm nearly hovering, and it feels amazing, but it's not enough.
I was born to fly, and instead I've been grounded all my life.
I throw myself off the edge, laughter torn carelessly from my lips as I spread my arms to catch just that extra bit of air …
And I fly free of my cage on iron angel's wings.