Coming October 21st!
One monster wants my soul. One man wants my magic. Me? I want to be left alone to live my life out like a dull, one of the lucky people who were born devoid of magic. But that won’t happen because being born a Wyrd Blood gives me two choices in life: ruler or slave.
I’d rather die than be a slave and I’m not cut out to rule. Instead I’ve been hiding out in the Valley. Life is pretty good here, with food in my belly and a warm bed to sleep. If I didn’t get harassed constantly by Ryker, the man who wants my magic, it might be good enough to lull me into thinking life could continue on like this forever.
UntiI I get a message from Bones, the monster who owns my soul…
My foot slipped in the mud and my back slammed into the ground, splattering the last few clean parts of me. It oozed through my fingers, finding its way into every nook and cranny I had, which was quite an accomplishment, since I was wearing long pants and sleeves. I dropped my head back onto the ground. Might as well seize the moment to get air back into my lungs, since my hair was covered anyway
Two seconds later, Ryker cleared his throat of some imaginary nothingness. “Are you going to lie there and quit or do you plan on getting up sometime today?” He turned the page of the book he was reading, making a snapping sound.
In my mind, I let out a raging scream that people a country away, maybe even across the Great Ocean, could hear. They all lifted their heads, wondering who had been so wronged they could create a sound of such rage. In reality, I simmered silently.
I raised my head an inch and angled it toward where he sat, clean and comfy, on a boulder. It was the only dry spot in the field.
He glanced up from his book. He always brought one. Torturing me wasn’t enough amusement to keep his attention. A dark, arrogant brow arched, the same color as his raven-black hair and his shriveled heart. He watched me lie there for a few seconds before he sighed, shook his head, and turned his attention back to the book in front of him.
“I have to say, I’d hoped you’d be a faster learner.” He cleared some more annoyance from his throat as another page snapped forward. “And perhaps some more stamina.”
This was one of those moments that made me wonder how I’d ended up here. At what point had my life taken a jagged turn? When did the boot kick me screaming off the cliff into some crazy existence I could no longer wrap my brain around? Where had I gone so wrong that I was covered in mud, being tormented by someone I considered an ally? Was it when I’d left the Ruin City to find food for a starving crew and gotten caught by Ryker? That had definitely been a wrong turn, but my gut said I’d screwed up before then. Had it been the moment the slavers had caught me way back when? I wasn’t sure that had been avoidable, as young and stupid as I’d been.
I should’ve listened to the worm when it told me to leave here, even if it had made no logical sense to my survival. Ryker had said I’d “juiced” the worms, given them a little hit of magic. Therefore, it was my magic that had answered the question of leaving. How had I not listened to myself?
Not to make excuses, but it had been hard to leave the food they had. Before my crew had come here, we’d been nearing starvation. Hijacking chuggers, the big machines that transported trades from country to country, had turned up nothing for months. The only time we weren’t hungry was when we’d been living off hollyhoney, which tasted nothing like bumblebee honey. Hollyhoney came from a nasty, wasplike creature that didn’t pollinate flowers but lived off the blood and guts of the dead. That was what hollyhoney tasted like, too. Liquid guts. My gag reflex jerked with the memory of the stuff.
Food had been the first draw but not the biggest. Threats worse than starvation loomed, like losing my very soul. I was the walking dead. Somewhere in my past, I was supposed to have died, but didn’t, because two people had agreed to forfeit their lives for mine. Two for one might not sound like a good deal, but when you wanted to cheat fate, it wasn’t an eye for an eye. There was interest and penalties on that sort of thing.
Penalties that never got paid, either. One of the two people who’d made the deal didn’t sacrifice their life. They’d either died naturally or welshed on their promise. (Who would blame them?) Once that happened, the life was unpaid, and the Debt Collector stepped in.
Ryker was currently the only one that had any knowledge of this man, woman—creature? One could say Ryker was my angel of life, except he acted much more like the devil. I’d always heard the devil you knew was better than the one you didn’t. I wasn’t so sure about that right now. I might need to roll the dice if things continued.
If the devil were here, walking beside us, I imagined he’d look something similar to Ryker. Even as he sat on the stone as clean as could be, he had an earthy ruggedness about him that made me think he wouldn’t hesitate to roll around in the dirt a little. He’d probably gotten dirty plenty of times and with plenty of women. I could imagine it now: his muscles bunched, a sheen of sweat coating all that glorious tan skin as he moved above her…
I shook my head, shaking off the thoughts. His magic was getting to me again. It always did something funny to my senses, and it seemed worse every day. I tried to smooth out the hitch in my breathing that came with the tingle of flesh. That was when I noticed I had grit on my tongue. I rolled over onto my side, trying to expel it along with all the thoughts of sweaty flesh rubbing and grinding against each other.
It was time to try and stand again. Not because he wanted me to but because I was becoming comfortable lying in the muck. It wasn’t a good sign for future standards. Considering my past of thieving, I couldn’t afford to let those standards drop any lower, or who knew where I’d end up—and with whom.
I rolled over, all the way on to my hands and knees, and pushed up, trying to utilize my core—and fell again.
Ryker made a noise that was a cross between a laugh and a huff of exasperation.
“Is this amusing?” Eyes narrowed in his direction, I wished for a nearby rock to lob at his head.
He continued to stare at his book as he answered. “What is amusing is how you made it this many years without learning to use your magic in even the most basic of ways.”
He acted as if being one of our kind held no threat. He knew the perils of being a Wyrd Blood in this world. My very existence made me a target. If I’d walked around the Ruins trying to practice magic, flaunting myself, I would’ve died or ended up chained to a stronger Wyrd Blood. That was what always happened to magic folk. We were commodities, traded and used, unless we eventually became strong enough to be the user. Unfortunately for me, I didn’t have a taste for either used or user.
Better to be born a dull, without a lick of magic and an equal amount of value in the minds of most Wyrd Blood. At least no one gave a shit about you then. You could live your life in peace, kind of, if you found a country run by a Wyrd Blood who wasn’t maniacal.
They weren’t that easy to find, but they existed. Take this place, the Valley, for example? Sometimes I didn’t think Ryker gave two shits what happened here, as long as the wheels kept moving and no one got out of hand. This place was packed full of dulls living gloriously boring lives. As a person cursed with a never-ending tale of close encounters and near-death experiences, boring was heaven. It was what I aspired for. Dinner at sundown and a book by candlelight. I’d filled my quota of excitement by my teens and wasn’t looking for more.
“I was too busy surviving in the Ruins.”
“Surviving” came out like I was chewing on a mouthful of dirt. Actually, there was more dirt on my tongue. I leaned to the side, trying to use my front teeth to scrape it off.
“I told you, stop saying Ruins. Only people from the Ruined City call it that, and the only people who live there are ones hiding. You’re broadcasting that you were indeed hiding. If you’re going to be a part of my team, you can’t be sloppy.” Ryker spoke as if it were a foregone conclusion that I wanted to be on his team.
“I’m not on your team.” I didn’t have any problems working on a team, but I didn’t work for him.
“If Bedlam shows up at our door, you aren’t going to be much help in your current state.”
Bedlam would only be showing up because he stole their dumb magic stone and killed a bunch of them while he was at it. Ryker didn’t mention that little point, though.
Maybe death had been a better choice. His death. I should’ve killed him. Not that I’d had the chance, but only because I hadn’t put my mind to it. If you wanted to kill someone who was stronger than you, it deserved some hard thinking and dedication. After all, he didn’t want me to be a quitter, did he?
I maneuvered myself and changed direction, using a different tactic. I’d crawl over toward a patch of grass and get to my feet that way. Once I got up, I’d kill Ryker and take my chances with the Debt Collector.
Ryker made a tsking sound. “That’s not using your magic. How many days are we going to have to do this?”
He wanted magic? I channeled everything I had and gave it a mental shove in his direction instead. It was strong enough to shift his hand a couple of inches. There’d been a time I’d punched him in the gut with my magic, but he must’ve seen this one coming.
He shrugged. “Not good enough.”
Unfortunately, I agreed. Still, I stared, hoping he could see the rage building in me.
He saw nothing. He wagged a finger in my direction as ice-cold blue eyes remained glued to his book.
I glanced at the title, wondering what was so intriguing that he couldn’t pull his nose out of, but I’d only begun mastering my letters. The leather was chipped and the title on the cover was worn away.
I could’ve asked him but didn’t. I ignored him, making my way to the small patch of grass in a sea of mud. My hand landed on a solid clump, and I felt as if I’d just swum across the ocean. I pulled a knee onto soggy blades of grass, happy to have found land.
Ryker’s magic wrapped around my other ankle. A tug pulled me back. I landed on my stomach with an umph. My fingers dug in, until I was leaving a trail of lines in the mud as he pulled me away from my oasis. He finally stopped after I was back in the worst of the slop, with the added benefit of a mud paddy underneath my shirt.
“You waited until I crawled all the way out?” My teeth clenched together. I would’ve slammed my hand down, except it would’ve splashed mud in my face.
“If you’d make a ward around yourself, I wouldn’t have been able to do that.” Another page snapped.
“My magic doesn’t work like yours. It won’t cooperate.” There was no doubt about it, since I’d been at this for long enough to know. I’d told him repeatedly, but he refused to believe mine might be different than he deemed.
“Yes, it does. This is something the weakest Wyrd Bloods can do, so don’t tell me you can’t.” He was finally looking, but with eyes accusing me of stubbornness or something else he found equally annoying.
There had been some very bad people in my life. People who had abused and stolen from me, lied to me, performed all sorts of trickery and manipulations on me. Still, I hadn’t known real hate until this very moment.
“I’m telling you, my magic doesn’t work the same way.” My words came out punchy, as if I were hitting him in the gut with every syllable.
A suspicious thought niggled my brain. Could it be? Would he do that? “You did something to this mud, didn’t you?”
“You shouldn’t have to ask. You should know. Use. Your. Magic.”
What did that mean? Did he do something or not? Now I was really gritting my teeth, no mud needed.
“If I get out of here, I’m going to kill you. You are not a nice person.” I still needed him. Maybe I wouldn’t kill him, but I’d torture him for a very long time. I gave him my worst stare, because he needed to see how furious I was.
He closed his book and leaned back. “I’m the Cursed King. You’re really going to threaten me with death? That’s all you could come up with?”
Dammit. He was right. He’d killed more people than I’d probably met. That had been lame, and with this, I definitely could do better. Every battle waged involved a variety of ways to win.
“I think you torture me because you’re still mad I stole your supplies and got the better of you.” Eyes narrowed, I waited for him to come clean about holding a grudge. There had to be something, because this wasn’t the way you treated people you liked.
He stood and walked over as close as he could get before he’d sink into the mud. He crossed his arms and looked down. “Yes, I love watching you toss and turn in the mud. Can’t wait to get out of bed to sit here. All. Damn. Day. This has got to be the highlight of my existence.” His voice was as dry as the desert.
I’d never been to the desert, but everyone in the Ruins used to say it was worse than the summers we’d have when the wells would run dry and people happily chugged hollyhoney.
My eyes snapped to Bobby, a ten-year-old boy who ran messages, as he appeared at the top of the path. The kids loved getting message duty, because it got them out of school and chores for a couple of days a month. They didn’t know how lucky they were to have a school in the first place. The kids in the Ruins—Ruined City—would’ve killed to take their place. Like, literally, they would’ve killed them and swapped their clothing.
Growing up there gave you a different type of education. I might not have known how to read or write until recently, but I could take care of myself. I guess everyone got some kind of learning, whether it was books or survival. Considering my current situation, mine might be more useful.
Ryker walked over to where Bobby waited. The kid handed him a rolled-up paper with an eager–to-please look on his face. Out of all the messengers, he stuck in my head the most. I wasn’t sure if it was the riotous golden cowlicks that refused to lie flat or the way he looked at Ryker as if the man were laying a blessing upon him with each glance.
“Thanks.” Ryker took the paper and then did something so un-Ryker-ish, mud must have blurred my vision. He ruffled the top of Bobby’s head. The kid’s eyes went round, his little jaw falling slack, as if a god had bestowed a miracle upon him.
Ryker gave the kid a nod, sending him off. Bobby floated toward the path, running his fingers over the spot Ryker had touched.
I was gaping myself. Did the devil like children? How could that be? I’d think hating children would be evildoer basics. Must be some sort of long game where he was nice to them so in twenty years they did whatever he wanted, like his guys Burn and Sneak.
Ryker was oblivious, though, as he read the missive. His expression was flat, but even from here, I could feel a tingle of agitated magic seeping over. He shoved the paper in his pocket and walked toward the path.
“Are you leaving?” I sounded shocked, but I had no reason to be. He was the devil. This was what the devil did: leave people in lurches and be nice to children so they could sway them to the dark side later. Nothing surprising.
He walked past my outstretched hand as he said, “Keep practicing.”