My ragged breathing muffled the noises around me as I sucked in more air than my lungs could hold. Twigs hung from tangled hair. Rocks dug into my palms and knees. There was a rip in my leather pants, my shirt was torn, and I had scratches everywhere my flesh was exposed.
Burn dropped to the ground beside me and then flipped to his back, his lungs needing more clearance. Sneak was bent over, hands on his knees, the flesh of his neck sucking in with every labored breath.
“Damn, that was close,” Burn said in between gasps.
My fingers tightened around the stone, its magic throbbing in my hand. I’d barely lifted it past the ward when a horde of stinging nettle beetles were unleashed. One second there had been nothing, and the next, we’d been running for our lives.
Ryker had yanked me back and then yelled for us to run and get out of range. As soon as we did, wave after wave, the beetles had dropped while we dodged the few that managed to keep pace with us.
It was a good thing my legs hadn’t failed me, because within seconds of taking off, I’d been robbed of my magic. This was the second time Ryker had done it. It felt exactly the same as the first time, like a great vacuum had sucked out my insides and then scraped the lining. I knew from past experience that I wouldn’t feel human for another few hours.
Ryker stepped into the clearing a few minutes later, looking like a lion after a leisurely stroll. Magic was still pouring off him, his eyes deep and feral. The Cursed King in all his glory.
I wanted to plow into him and knock him on his ass. Anger erupted inside me, ready to explode. We were up to six stones in the last three months, and this was the second time he’d crossed the line and taken my magic, and I no longer cared if it was by accident.
“Let’s get going. We don’t know what else might be coming,” Ryker said.
He was right about moving on. I swallowed the anger, feeling as if I’d choke upon it but holding it down anyway. This wasn’t the place or time to have an all-out, throw-down fight.
We weren’t sure who the latest stone belonged to, but it hadn’t been buried out here in the middle of nowhere by accident. The owner might have felt his ward getting cracked open like a bad egg and come sniffing around for the stench of intruders.
Ryker held out his hand, offering to help me to my feet. I ignored it, standing on my own. We might not be brawling now, but we would be soon. I saw no reason to pretend otherwise.
I threw my discarded bag back over my shoulder and began walking in the direction of the stashed chugger that we’d drive home. Burn and Sneak felt the tension in the air and were staring, mouths hanging open, wondering what they’d missed. I didn’t tell them as I walked. If I spoke, I’d be cracking open.
We made it to the chugger in record time, my weakened legs fueled by anger.
I’d almost made it to the door when Ryker walked up behind me.
“Things happen. It was an accident,” he said.
His words didn’t ring of an apology.
On the trek over here, I’d convinced myself it would be better to not hash this out until we got back to the Valley. But if he was going to rip the subject open, I wouldn’t slam it shut. My rage was still boiling over, the emptiness I felt inside giving it that much more room to burn.
I spun. “You saidit wouldn’t happen again.”
After the merge, he’d promised me he’d never take my magic without my permission. He’d done it. Twice. The first time I’d accepted it as a slip. I’d buried the hurt and ignored the gnawing ache it had left for hours. I hadn’t made a thing over it. After all, I’d made more mistakes in my life than I wanted to recall. Who hadn’t?
But how many times was I supposed to look the other way? He couldn’t possibly understand what it felt like, to be standing there, stripped of your magic, feeling utterly defenseless in the worst possible moment.
I turned and walked off, putting as much space as I could between us before things took an ugly turn.
He followed behind me, his hand landing on my shoulder and spinning me around. “You’re overreacting.”
There was nothing he could’ve said that would’ve made the fury burn hotter. He’d stepped all over my magic, plowed past my line in the sand, did what he said he’d never do again, and acted like it was a tiny slip-up? As if I was the one out of line?
My fist connected with his gut. I heard a groan. It wasn’t from Ryker but Burn, who was cringing as he looked on. Burn and Sneak were off to the side, staying well out of range.
Ryker grabbed my wrist, holding my hand in between us. “You get one shot. That’s it.”
I narrowed my eyes and jerked my hand from his grip. “I want this connection between us severed. If there’s a way to do it, there’s a way to undo it.”
I tried to walk around him and head back toward the chugger.
Ryker stepped in front of me. “What about the problem that someone might still want you dead? What do you plan on doing about that? Our merge is the only thing keeping you alive.”
“We have plenty of stones. We don’t need to be joined. We can kill whoever we want now.” I moved to the right.
He moved with me. “We don’t know whoto kill.” He stared at me as if I were insane.
Maybe I was crazy, but he was the one driving me to it.
I plowed past him and tossed my bag into the chugger. “I’m willing to take my chances,” I said, letting my rage answer.
“You’re being an idiot.”
“It’s not only your call,” I yelled.
He crossed his arms as he stared at me. “I’m not going to help you get yourself killed. Once you calm down, you’ll see it’s the right choice.”
Those words did the opposite of calming me. They enraged me. “You don’t own me. You don’t make my decisions. Do we have that clear?”
“Very clear. And you don’t make mine. I’m not doing it.” He walked around to the driver’s side of the chugger, yelling, “Get in or walk. Your choice, but I’m leaving.”
I jumped into the back of the chugger, preferring to be bounced around than sit next to Ryker the entire way home.