Eight days earlier…
A hand gripped my shoulder and a surge of energy shot to the area before I could stop it.
The hand was gone, followed by a string of “Gods, fucking, magic, fucker…”
My eyes slanted open to Ruck shaking the singed hand in the air. He said it was similar to a burning feeling, but it felt more like a zap of energy on my end.
“Sorry.” I’d long ago stopped trying to explain how it was an automatic reflex when I was startled. Ruck had heard it too many times before to bother repeating. I pushed off my pelt on the floor and glanced through the gaping hole in the wall that had once probably held a window, as the rest of the holes probably had. The moon still hung in the sky. “What’s up?”
Ruck stared at his hand, so whatever reason he had to wake me, he didn’t deem it as important as the throbbing. “I hate that I’m the only one who can wake you up.” His tone didn’t have much heat, though, and most of the anger ebbed with the sting.
“I keep telling you to poke me with a stick or something.” I pointed to the corner, where I’d left a stick handy. I knew why he didn’t do it, whether he’d admit it or not. He thought maybe if he got zapped by my magic enough, some of it might seep into him. Wanting to be Wyrd Blood was like asking for someone to stamp a price tag on your hide. That didn’t seem to stop some from trying.
“What’s up?” I repeated, knowing there had to be some reason he was waking me, when it was his least favorite thing to do.
“Reilly is here. Wants to talk to you.”
I flopped down back onto the pelt, the floor a little harder underneath than I would’ve liked. I kept forgetting that I’d given Marra one of my pelts. “Just because he runs his crew at night doesn’t mean he can’t communicate during the day. Did he say what he wanted?”
“He’s not giving details, but I don’t think he wants anyone to know he’s here. He came alone.”
My attention jerked back to Ruck as if he’d grabbed my chin. Alone? Why the hell would he come alone?
The questions must’ve been written all over me, because he nodded, as if to say, Yeah, you probably want to find out what this is about.
“I’ll be down in two minutes.” I stood back up and rummaged through the small pile of clothes I had in the corner, looking for something warmer to throw over my shirt.
Ruck left me alone as I fumbled in the dark until I grabbed the sweater out of the pile. It was my best one, with only a few tears here and there. I threw it on and halted for a moment as a pain in my chest, right where the mysterious bruise had formed, nearly brought me crashing to the floor. I took a few short breaths, let the worst subside, and shook it off. Whatever was wrong with me, it was getting worse, but I couldn’t worry about it now.
I made my way through the dark maze of hallways, one of the reasons this building was such an asset. Anyone who managed to get in wouldn’t get out so easily. My guess was that, over the years and many incidents, the place had been reconstructed so many times that it had become a hodgepodge made just for me and my crew.
I made my way downstairs to the second floor, knowing exactly where Reilly would be waiting. Didn’t matter that we’d been doing deals with Reilly for a few years now. You only needed to get sloppy once to end up dead. And most people only died once, although I’d heard of a few Wyrd Blood that had been killed a few times before they stayed dead. I didn’t feel like finding out if I had more than one run in me tonight.
Reilly was perched on a window ledge when I walked in. Blond hair so light, he looked nearly albino. He was tall but lanky, like most of us struggling to survive in the Ruined City.
“What’s going on, Reilly?” Reilly wasn’t his real name, but then again, mine wasn’t really Bugs. No one used their birth names in the Ruined City. Most of us hadn’t ended up here by accident.
He turned from where he’d been looking out. His dark eyes, striking against so much paleness, skimmed my form in a way that made me wish I’d had more than one sweater on—not that he’d cross that line.
He stood, a flirting smile on his face. “Hi, Angel.”
Reilly was the only one that ever called me that. He’d said when he’d first seen me, I’d looked like an angel, with hair the color of sunshine and eyes that reminded him of sunny blue skies. That was the day I started taking dirt baths, but he’d kept up with the name.
“What do you want?” There was no patience for sweet-talking when you woke me in the middle of the night.
“I’m here to do you a favor.”
If this was a favor, it would be the first he’d ever done me. Barter? Yes, that he would do all day long, but no one did favors—not for another crew, anyway.
“What would this favor be?” I asked, instead of why. Why implied that it was something of value he might be offering. I couldn’t afford any debts.
His lips stayed sealed as his eyes shot to the door. Reilly had a healthy dose of paranoia. It was probably what had kept him alive this long and made him the leader of his crew.
“No one’s listening.” Except for Ruck, but I would’ve repeated everything to him anyway.
“There’s word people are asking around for a Wyrd Blood in the city.”
Wyrd Blood, a carrier, gifted, marked—cursed. There were all sorts of names for those that carried magic in their veins, and the word you chose depended on the way you viewed it.
Reilly had hinted around in the past, trying to figure out if there was a Wyrd Blood in my crew, but I’d ignored him. There were only two people who did know for sure I was Wyrd Blood. One of whom was Ruck. I trusted him with my life. The other, well, she didn’t have a reason to betray me. Or I didn’t think she did.
If you carried more than a drop of magic in your blood, you became the hunted. The lords and ladies, kings and queens of the countries would torture anyone they crossed in order to get information. Magic was power, and when you were always on the cusp of war, you needed as much power as you could get.
Reilly was going to take people poking around as a confirmation that he was right. That would be an inconvenience, but it looked as if I might have bigger problems now. Reilly could be bought. I was afraid of who would be the highest bidder.
“So? What’s that got to do with me?” I shrugged even as the blood drained from my legs to shoot straight to a thumping heart.
He crooked an eyebrow. Reilly wasn’t running his own crew because he was stupid. “I figured that information might be useful to you.”
Did I fess up and try and pay him off now? But with what? We’d barely made it out of the winter. There was nothing left.
“It isn’t. Was there anything else?” What I really wanted to know was: who was asking, and did they actually know?
“Just watch your back. I’ve heard Ryker’s name being whispered as possibly being behind it.”
I was wrong. I hadn’t wanted to know.
Ryker. Everyone knew that name and stayed far away from anything to do with him or his lands. For as long as I’d lived here, I’d heard the rumors of a man named Ryker and of the Valley, the country he ran. Now there was a Wyrd Blood who was strong enough to not have to hide. But like the other Wyrd Blood with great power, he’d become the predator.
“There’s benefits to our crews joining,” he said, only a couple of feet from me.
I knew which joining he really wanted, and I wasn’t interested in either. Plus, he was crazy. If our two crews joined, we’d become a target. Too many people meant too much attention, and I’d already been born with a mark on my back.
I held my ground. “No.”
“Why are you like that? Don’t you like men? Or women?” He threw his hands up, as if he couldn’t figure me out. “Or anyone?”
I knew that in this bleak land with so little solace, people wondered why I was never with anyone. They could keep wondering.
“Thank you for the information.” A cold politeness infused my words. I walked out of the room and didn’t need to look back to know Ruck would make sure Reilly left.
I knew after that talk, catching some sleep would be akin to trying to catch my shadow. I climbed my way up to the roof, letting a harsh breeze sting my cheeks, as I watched Reilly walk away in the night.
It didn’t matter who was looking for me. I was free.
So why did I feel like there was a noose tightening around my neck?
It didn’t take long for Ruck to find me. He walked over and stopped beside me, staring off in the same general vicinity. If I asked him what he was watching, I doubt he’d know.
We stood there for a few minutes before I ripped the scab off. “I’ll figure it out.”
He nodded as he bit at the inside of his cheek, and his eyes said what he didn’t want to voice.
“I will figure it out. I always do.”
He said it like someone who didn’t think it would be, though.