DONNA AUGUSTINE

AUTHOR, DREAMER, DESTROYER OF WORLDS

Page 2 of 19

First Two Chapters of Gut Deep

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Coming November 1st! Hope you enjoy the first two chapters.

This is the first book in a series of standalone romances, set in the same dystopian world. It will have alternating first person POV.

Chapter One

Penelope

Some memories are so horrible that they scar a permanent address into your brain, your own personal hell. Before the takeover, my hell occupied a tiny corner that was easy to avoid. In the three years since, that area has grown so large that one misstep could send me sprawling, dirty knees and burning palms, straight into the bad place. A smell, a sound, a shadowy figure and suddenly I’m surrounded by demons, all pointing pitchforks at me and while I stand on hot coals. 

I’m not the only haunted person. Anyone who survived those first days, weeks, and months after the invasion was changed forever. Pretty much anyone left standing will never be the same.

When news first broke that vampires and werewolves had staged a military coup, stormed the White House, Pentagon, Capitol, I’d thought it was a joke. I changed the channel on the television, only to find every station reporting the same thing. The “scourge,” as humans referred to them in whispered voices, had been slowly infiltrating our government for years, setting up shadow networks, hijacking our electronics. The hacks the Russians and Chinese had been blamed for? They’d been scapegoats. In the course of one month, the scourge took possession of every nook and cranny of the United States. Over the next three years, they showered terror on every human being alive in the country.

I wasn’t sure if I’d ever come to terms with what life was now. The people who’d been thrown out of their homes, couldn’t feed their children, begged on street corners, pleading for any scrap they could get from people who didn’t have a crumb to spare. Or how many had died in the past three years. How many had been shot arbitrarily, or ripped apart limb by limb on the street. We were living with terrorists—every. Single. Day. This was life, if you decided to continue the challenge of waking up every day to this new reality, and not everyone had. I was among the ones who continued on, if just barely. 

I opened my fridge to see a single pot of broth, made from discarded bones I’d stolen from the home I worked in. That was it—a single watery brew.

“Can you believe this? They’re actually saying that we voted for another damned vampire, like the elections were real or some crap.” My father shook out the paper in front of him as he sat at the kitchen table. 

One of the first things the werewolves and vampires had done when they took over was outlaw smartphones and computers for humans. We’d gone back to dumb phones and ink-covered fingers. The ink stains weren’t worth it, considering reporters only printed what was approved. The only reason they moved any of the free copies was that it made excellent kindling.

“At least they didn’t put one of their troll enforcers in the position. They’d never have another photo op, like, ever,” my sister Sassy said as she walked in, chaotic curls framing her face, just like my own, except hers were like the brightest sunshine and mine the color of a moonless sky. “I don’t know why they had to take the U.S., though. Why not a nice little country over in Europe?”

“Because if they did that, they were probably afraid the U.S. would bomb them. Now they have the most bombs,” I said.

My father ducked his head back down and continued reading, while Sassy stood behind him and raised an invisible bottle to her lips. It wasn’t needed. The smell of alcohol permeated the room like a dam had burst on the Whiskey River. My father, another casualty of this new world, had been broken in a less obvious way.

“I’ll be back. I’ve got to get to Arnold’s before closing,” I said.

My father chose that moment to pull his head from the paper, and his mind from the whiskey haze, to really look at me. He scanned the white collared shirt that would have a bow tie later, the black pants with a satin stripe down the side.

“What’s that you’re wearing? I told you not to go back there.” He slammed his hand down on the table, rattling the shakers.

And told me and told me and told me. The only thing he hadn’t told me was how we were going to eat if I didn’t.

I grabbed my jacket from the chair, pretending he hadn’t spoken. It didn’t matter. He’d keep going, like a broken record that couldn’t get past a deep gouge.

“You’re a disgrace to your mother every time you go there, Pen. How can you work for them after what they did to her?” 

The first time he’d said that, it felt like a red-hot poker stabbing me dead center in the heart, a killing shot. I’d gone off and cried until my eyes puffed and my vision tinted red. The second time he’d said it, it was like a room-temperature steak knife. Now? It was an annoying poke with a rounded spoon. He could say anything he wanted, but it didn’t change the fact that he ate the food I paid for. 

He hadn’t gotten off the couch to get a job in three years. Not that they were easy to get with the job approval process—but still. He’d given up. On himself, on life, on us, and for that, I couldn’t forgive him, so I guessed we were even.

“I’ll be back in a few,” I said to Sassy, not looking at my dad anymore. I pushed out the door before I heard him grumble again.

Sassy followed me, grabbing my arm before I made it off the back stoop. “Why don’t I go? You still have to work tonight.”

“I can do it. You should—”

“I’m fine,” she said, with cheeks too flushed and eyes too glassy.

“I know,” I lied, for her sake and mine. It wasn’t a subject either of us were ready to openly discuss. It was why I pretended to sleep when I heard her coughing in the middle of the night. Didn’t say anything when she got winded climbing stairs at night. Even now, I worried about the chill in the air. 

“But you’re still going to go. You don’t have to shoulder the burden for everyone,” she said, crossing her arms. 

“We’ll fight about this tomorrow.”

Her chin dropped as she rolled her eyes. “This is our fight from yesterday, and the day before, and the day before.”

“And tomorrow we can fight today’s fight. Why break a streak?” 

She was shaking her head as I walked away. I jogged in the direction of Arnold’s before she got any more ideas. 

Arnold’s was to the left, but I made a right. I hadn’t walked in front of the Jenkinsons’ yard for years, not since they’d gotten caught with a smartphone shortly after the takeover. The HBE (Human Behavior Enforcement) had shown up at their house at four in the morning just months after the takeover. We suspected someone had turned them in, because how the new government had found out about the one small phone was a mystery. 

We’d watched from slits in the blinds as they questioned the family on their front lawn. One by one, they’d shaken their heads and denied it was their phone. In the end, the guards had shot all four of them, the parents and both their children, leaving their bodies to rot on the lawn with a warning to all that they weren’t to be moved.

That was when I started avoiding their house. I hadn’t wanted to see the kids I once babysat decomposing, not that the smell let you forget. The entire block had smelled of their death.

Leaving your house at all these days could be dangerous. I kept my eyes down as I walked briskly, my arms wrapped around my waist as the cold of D.C. in winter invaded my jacket. There might be a vampire in the Oval Office and a werewolf commanding the Army, but that was just the tip of the iceberg of what you needed to avoid. You also had your run-of-the-mill creatures, like the two trolls about to punch each other in the face, arguing on the corner. I crossed the street before I got to them. They were nasty, angry creatures, always looking to fight. 

We had fairies in all shapes and sizes flying around, some larger than humans, all the way down to ones as small as fireflies. They’d dim their light and hide in corners, ready to turn you in for the smallest slight, like tarnishing the reputation of one of their kind, or getting caught calling the ruling class scourge. Leprechauns who were perpetually pissed off, almost as bad as the trolls. Centaurs that would race down the street, betting with their companions on who could trample you first. Each race had brought some new threat, and there was no lack of them now. 

Once the vampires and werewolves took over, there had been an onslaught of other races flooding in, ready to live out in the open. Even as I walked down the street of the neighborhood I’d grown up in, the place looked barely recognizable.

It wasn’t just the creatures. It was the landscape. There were houses completely covered in strange, fine webbing that glittered, like some sort of alien spider web. Others were knocked down altogether and replaced by what appeared to be mountains of boulders. One thing was for sure: this was not my world anymore. It wasn’t any human’s world. We were cheap labor and a food supply. We were cattle on one gigantic, supernatural farm.

Chapter Two

Penelope

“Hey, Arnold.” I waved to the store’s namesake where he stood behind the counter, while ignoring the purple-haired fairy, about the size of his fist, hovering a few feet behind him. Her name was Gwen. The one and only time I tried to greet her out of a sense of politeness, she’d sneezed repeatedly, spewing gold dust all over the place while Arnold cursed. 

“You’re soooo human you’re making my nose stuffy,” she’d said. She’d finished sneezing and moved on to gagging noises, as if I were a glob of phlegm that got stuck in her throat.

Apparently, humans were like a bad cat allergy to some fairies. That had been the beginning and end of our interactions, other than glares. Arnold appeared to merely tolerate her as well, but it was the price you paid these days if you wanted to run an establishment. You had to pay out of pocket for your own personal spy that reported everything back to the HBE. 

“Cutting it close today, Pen?”

“Yeah, had a late shift last night and slept in a bit too long.” I walked over to the fridge and grabbed the last package of eggs. I took a loaf of bread off the dwindling pile on the table before I made my way back to the counter. 

“That’s it?” Arnold asked me the same question every time. It was a knee-jerk question, considering he ran a store. 

“Yep, that’s it.” It was getting so I’d rather shop somewhere else than repeat my answer almost daily. 

I bought the same thing every time I came, with very little variation. That was all I could afford. Instead of lashing out at the man who didn’t deserve it, I smiled as I dug my credits out of my pocket.

Except they weren’t there. I checked my other pockets. They were both barren, but I had a wealth of heat in my cheeks as I stared at the items sitting on the counter. It was supposed to be dinner tonight and breakfast tomorrow. But the three credits that were going to pay for it were gone. 

Gwen made a sniffing noise that somehow sounded arrogant. 

Arnold’s bald head shone under the lights as his eyes flickered back and forth between the items I wanted and me. 

“I can’t do credit, Penelope. You know I would if I could, but after what happened to Sal…” Arnold spoke Sal’s name with reverence now, but he’d once been Arnold’s archnemesis and competing store owner. Gwen floated closer, listening to every word and waiting to report back.

“I’d never ask you to,” I said.

The entire neighborhood knew what happened to Sal. Last month, his body had been found in the early morning hours, lying across the front stoop of his shop. He was being fed upon by the local dogs that now lived on the streets, turned loose by owners who couldn’t afford to feed them anymore. 

The dogs hadn’t killed him—Sal’s throat had been slit—but the calling card had been his missing left hand. Mind your own business. Keep to yourself. Don’t offer a helping hand or you won’t have a hand to offer. The word on the street was that he’d extended credit to a struggling mother with a baby. He’d only given her a quart of milk, but word had gotten back. It always did. 

That was how the scourge had set it up. Humans were always a little too hungry, and a little too desperate, just enough for some to turn their backs on their neighbor if it meant another meal on the table for their family. It had gotten so bad that some people made things up to report to the HBE. 

I reached down, slipped off my shoe, and pulled back the lining, to fish out the single credit I kept for emergencies. A night of broth counted as that. It wasn’t enough for the eggs, but it would cover the loaf.

The door jingled behind me as another customer walked in, and I heard the sound of the refrigerator opening. 

“Arnold, do you have any more eggs? It’s an emergency. I’m baking a cake and ran out. Batter’s mixed already,” Mrs. Clementine called out from across the store. Mrs. Clementine’s husband was an accountant and at the top of his field, recruited by the scourge shortly after the takeover. Mrs. Clementine loved to brag about the neighborhood, how the vampires adored her husband so dearly for making sure assets were being tracked and divided equally. She often remarked how stupid the rest of us were for not trying harder to get along with them. She said other things too, but I tuned out everything after that.

The sound of the refrigerator door preceded heels clacking on the floor, heading toward me.

“Arnold, do you have some in the back? I really need eggs. I don’t want my batter to go bad.”

Arnold and I both looked at the eggs sitting in between us on the counter. I’d taken the last carton, and we both knew I wouldn’t be buying them.

Arnold pointed to the eggs. “Do you mind? It’s just…”

I’d seen Arnold’s kids run around the store wearing sneakers with holes that probably pinched their feet. They were gangly, and not from lots of exercise. We all had problems these days.

“Of course not.” I swallowed hard. “You can have these,” I said, picking up the eggs and turning toward Mrs. Clementine, who hovered behind me. “I still have some at home.”

“Aren’t you so sweet.” She took the eggs from my hand with a cool smile that told me she doubted my story.

I turned back to Arnold and handed him my last credit before taking the loaf of bread. “I’ll be back tomorrow.” 

He nodded, not looking confident that I would. Luckily, this time it was true. I was working tonight.

I walked out of Arnold’s as I dug into my pockets again, making sure I hadn’t somehow missed the credits. I didn’t look up until I hit a brick wall dressed in a leather jacket that was as soft as butter.

I bounced off, slipped on a patch of ice, and landed on my ass. The wall was a middle-aged man of average height, average brown hair, average—everything. He was one of them. Shifters felt like they were flesh-wrapped cinder blocks.

“Sorry, miss.” He bent down, offering me a hand up.

It hovered between us like a viper, ready to bite. I wanted to lop its head off. 

“Bigs, leave her be. We don’t have time, and she clearly thinks she’s too good for you.” 

I looked past Mr. Average toward the deep voice that was so low it nearly hummed through me. His face was all angles as his broad form leaned against the black sedan like a lethal animal at rest. He was dressed in a shirt so crisp and perfect that his employees must follow him around handing him changes throughout the day. He barely spared me a glance before his attention shifted to his gold watch. A thick lock of dark hair dropped over his forehead and drew my attention to eyes so cool that they could’ve been carved from glaciers.

Bigs’ hand moved slightly closer.

“I’m good.” I got up, avoiding Bigs and noticing the gaping hole in the side of my pants. Dammit. Fucking fucker. There went tomorrow’s eggs. They’d dock my pay tonight to cover the cost of a new pair.

Bigs hesitated nearby before he resigned himself and went inside. The other one had his chilly gaze directed my way as he dug in his pocket. “Here.” 

There was a flash of movement before something came flying my way. I didn’t catch it. I didn’t trust him enough to touch whatever was flying at me. 

I took a step back as a hundred-credit coin dropped to my feet. My heart did a little flutter as I stared at it. That would buy a whole lot of eggs. 

“Take it. Looks like you need it.” His gesture might’ve been generous, but his gaze wasn’t.

“I don’t need your charity.” I narrowed my eyes, trying to show him how much I despised him, his kind, and everything they’d done to us, all in one stare. It was a tall order, but it was all I had. Speaking out of turn to one of the scourge would get you killed, quick and easy.

He lifted his eyes from his phone to meet my gaze, then slowly perused me from head to toe. “Are you sure about that?” He went back to his phone, as if whether I took the coin meant nothing to him. 

I should’ve walked away. I couldn’t stop staring at the credit lying on the ground. That coin could feed us for weeks. Why not take it? He didn’t care. He’d moved on, not even paying attention to me anymore. He’d probably leave it on the ground and someone else would pick it up. It was my coin. I leaned down, grabbed it slowly, and turned, hoping he hadn’t noticed. 

“Stubborn but not stupid,” he said as I left.

I wanted to turn around and tell him to fuck off. Four years ago, when I’d been a girl of twenty-two who’d aced her MCATS and was attending one the best medical schools in the country, I would’ve turned around and told this asshole to go fuck himself. If I did that same thing tonight, I’d take a beating at the very least, maybe even die. If I survived, there wouldn’t be a single person to complain to, because there was no more police force, not for humans. The police had been absorbed by the HBE. It was more human than creature, and those humans got perks. It was hard when the neighbor you’d made mud patties with was willing to sell you out for a couple muffins at the end of the week.

It didn’t matter. I didn’t have the time to get into a fight. I had to get home before curfew; after that, you had to show a work card, and you needed to be either traveling there or back. So instead of screaming all the obscenities I wanted to, I kept my back to him and pretended the entire scene hadn’t happened, praying that one of these days he’d get his.

There was only one thing left to hope for: that there was some sort of karma in this world and things would right themselves. And one day? These monsters would pay for everything they’d done.

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First Chapter of Blood Binds (Wyrd Blood #3)


1

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.

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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…

 

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Chapter 1

 

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.

“Ryker!”

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.”

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