This is how it is when you’re surrounded with male crazy 24-7. You have no choice except to beat them at their own game.
And so, I’ll chop off this crawler’s head before it can bite off mine.
It’s standing in the shadows, not facing me—it’s not quite awake yet, but it will be any second. Its shoulders rise and fall, sending out rattling noises from its lungs. The sheet that tied it up is lying in a soiled puddle at its feet.
One of the boys calls from his safe perch on the balcony railing above me, "Look at the H.B, all shivery and scared." It’s Fin, skinny as a zipper and dumb as dirt. He wipes snot from his nose and leaves a black swath of filth behind. "Poor little half-blood, wants a hug from her dead Court-whore mommy. Maybe we should buy her a dress and Link can give her another kiss."
Link jerks his head around. "Maybe you should shut your gob, Fin. Before I crack that skull."
Fin flips him the finger and makes a face. "You just wantin’ another taste of the H.B, Linky boy?"
Link rolls his eyes like he’s indifferent, but his nostrils flair and his hand forms a fist at his side. He can’t lay a pound on Fin or it’ll just prove the words, and Link may have kissed me but he certainly wouldn’t want any of the boys to know how much he liked it.
"Just usin’ and abusin’," Link mumbles. Course, he leaves out the whole part about him sneaking into my bed the next night and me pointing a blade at his crotch, threatening to yank his male part out his nose if he ever touched me again.
Kissing Link was a mistake. Obviously. But I was so tired, so lonely. You know, that skin-aching lonely when it hurts to breathe and you’d accept a hug from a cactus if you could get one.
I guess my cactus was Link.
The other boys snicker at Link’s remark. Tank, Weston, and Roads, all dangle their feet over the railing and give goofy grins to the older two, Link and Fin—my audience for this insane plot to get my face chewed off. But, what the hell, I already have scars ruining my left cheek. Maybe I can get one on the right and balance myself out. And there, on the other side of the room, hunkers the beast to do it.
Between us, scattered across the floor, are abandoned talismans; pieces of figurines, a head, an arm, left behind like the remnants of a holy massacre, a tarnished cup in the remains of a crushed alter, and the shell of what used to be a book, the innards long gone, eaten away with time.
Behind the crawler a wall carries the faded image of haloed men with their hands raised to the sky, cracks running through their pious forms. Obviously these things didn’t protect this place. They’re certainly not warding off this soulless creature.
There’s the distinct tinge of rot in the air and I can see some of its flesh is torn away, revealing muscle. What used to be human more than a hundred years ago is now a mess of blackened blood and bone and hanging skin.
Link picks up a rock and chucks it at the crawler’s head. It doesn’t flinch when the stone bounces off its hairless skull and clanks at the wall.
"Wake it up," Fin says to me with a scowl, daring me to back out from the challenge. I should’ve just told him to go to hell about the game. Not many boys have played solo and made it through—playing alone isn’t recommended. But here I am. They caught me off guard, pulling me into this hollowed-out holy place, saying fight or end up a craven rugger.
Not really a choice.
I smirk at him and pull off my sweater. It may be thirty degrees but I don’t want anything extra for the crawler to grab hold of. I ignore the tightening of the skin on my arms and move to take the dagger from my belt, but then decide on my folding blade instead. I pull it out of my pocket and open it.
Just a little drop and we’ll be wakey-wakey.
I go to a better vantage point behind a pillar, then slice the tip of the blade into the inside of my wrist and make sure enough blood pearls to the surface.
The crawler’s breath speeds up. I shove the knife back in my pocket, and grip the hilt of my dagger, making myself relax—you can’t fight all tight and terrified. Well, you can but you won’t win.
Blood runs down the palm of my hand in a rivulet to the tip of my middle finger and drips onto the floor.
The crawler stirs, becoming more than rattling breath and stink. It turns, sniffing, eyes opening, white orbs reflecting the small blades of sunlight in the room.
"Dinner bell," yells Fin. "You’re so screwed, Ray." He laughs. The sound bounces off the cracked plaster walls and is echoed by the other miscreants. Of all the boys, he hates me the most for my questionable parentage. He's probably already plotting how he can get me in trouble for all this by lying and saying it was my idea--whether I win or end up dead.
It darts to the right, in its crawl, knuckles to the ground, bone knees pointing at the ceiling.
So I move closer, one step at a time, then slip the dagger from my belt when I’m about ten feet away. It only takes a second for the beast to react.
It lunges, hissing, teeth bared.
I twist out of the way and slice as it flies at me, catching its muscle. It doesn’t matter. I could carve it to bone and it would keep coming at me.
It lands beside me and turns in a flash. Bone-tipped fingers and sharp nails tear at my arm.
The boys hoot at the drawing of blood and the crawler only gets more ravenous at the smell of it on its hand. It licks and pants and bites one of its own fingers off, retrieving the warm life.
I use the opportunity to lunge, feeling crazy, knowing I might get a claw through my gut if the thing isn’t caught off guard. I try to imagine the next move. The next slice.
I get lucky and my dagger finds a home. Not the right home. It rams into the shoulder blade as the crawler moves to the side.
The beast surges up and knocks me off, the dagger still sticking from its back.
I hit the pillar, then the ground with a thud, and it’s after me. I roll before it can pin me, but it crouches down and catches my ankle. I kick hard with the other foot, while the head is low, steel-toed boot cracking into its jaw.
The head flies to the side but snaps back in a split second, jawbone hanging limp, black blood oozing from its mouth, and its grip is still like iron on my leg. I scream and kick again before it can hoist me up, denting the temple.
It screeches back at me, really pissed off now, and yanks me toward it, sliding me across the floor. I try to grab hold of something, anything, but it’s too strong. It hunches over me, catching me by the neck, lifting me up to face it.
I try to pull the bone fingers back, to find air. I scramble with my free leg, hoping to knock it away, but the face gets closer and closer until its hole of a nose is almost touching my cheek.
Its breath is sugar-coated death. The dampness of it on my skin tugs my stomach into my throat. The sound of its broken jawbone clacking, trying to work, trying to bite, fills my ear. Off in the distance the boys are bickering. Whether to save me. How bad will Marec pound them if the half-blood slave gets eaten?
My heartbeat hammers, harder and harder at my skull. My blood pulses, louder and louder, filling my ears, my sight, bone fingers pressing into my throat, everything else going numb.
I flail my arms, beating at it, a useless doll—like I was never trained, never taught how to fight. What kind of a loser am I? I can’t even kill something that’s already dead. I’m just a stupid girl. A rugging bastard slave.
But there’s something this rugging bastard slave has that none of these losers hooting for my end have.
That Thing coiling in my gut, yearning to be released. That Beast within, clawing, snarling, tearing at my insides. It would finish the deed in a breath. I could let go. I could let it do what it wants. I would live. I would probably make those boys up there crap their pants.
And I would lose any kind of ground I’ve gained over my Curse.
So I keep it buried and force my mind to still. I make myself, my hands, find purpose. The left hand balances on the beast’s shoulder. The right hand grips the hilt of the dagger sticking from the crawler’s back.
I yank it free and jab the blade home, into the ear hole, with every ounce of strength I have left.
The crawler jerks, the hand of tendon and bone releases me, and I fall, gasping for air.
I yank back my blade and send it home again, into the crawler’s eye socket.
I want to laugh, to howl in relief, but all I do is let go of the hilt as the beast falls over, landing in a heap.
My body rebels. The magyk really doesn’t like being ignored. It twists and writhes inside me so strong I have to turn away and empty my stomach.
Great, now the boys think I can’t handle the mess I just made. There goes my upper hand. That was short lived.
It’s quiet for several seconds as I catch my breath. Black blood oozes from the crawler’s body, spreading out in the shape of a snake from the head to coil around a broken idol. I swipe a hand across my cheek, trying to get the stench of that thing off me. I’m gonna have to scrub six layers of skin off for that to happen, though.
"Holy shit!" Fin finally yells. "Holy shit-kickin’-mother-of-Rockefeller! The bitch did it." I hear them all clamoring down from the balcony.
"We need to get her back to base," Link says, coming up beside me, irritation filling his voice. "Marec’ll be wondering where we are." His hand grips my arm to pull me up.
I jerk away. "Don’t," I hiss. Everything’s still shaking inside—the magyk, the adrenalin, the shockwaves that death leaves behind. "You touch me and I’ll stick you."
"With what?" Link asks, folding his arms across his chest. "Your dagger’s still buried in the buzzard’s cranium."
I can’t stand up. I know if I try I’ll fall over. So I make myself take a deep breath and then reach out and grip the wrist of the crawler to tug it closer.
I pull the dagger from its eye socket and wipe the black blood on the ground. The body jerks with the movement, nerves still alive inside—not enough of them, though, thank the gods. Still, the younger boys move back, not too sure.
I won’t look at the body. It’s bad enough when the dead is wholly human, but these things…they just make the soul shake. I’m not needing that sight to sing me to sleep tonight.
This is only the third crawler I’ve done away with. Ironic when you think about it. I’ve killed eight men and four women. Live, soul-carrying men and women, whose faces I’ll never forget, whose deaths left a stain on my soul. But I’ve only tossed-off three of these disgusting beasts. Mostly I just make sure to stay out of their way. Killing them isn’t my job. There’s the Baggers for that. And I’m a Blade.
The thought makes my insides settle a little. There’s pride to be found there, even if it was mostly by accident I landed here. I’m a Blade. A trained knife. I only kill humans when the Elders order it. I have a place. I fit.
Chapter One: The Lunch
The boys have this thing they like to do. A lunch game, they call it.
First, you get yourself an abandoned building—not difficult around here. Wait until you’ve got good sunlight. Then, you catch yourself a night crawler—and I don’t mean a worm. I mean one of the undead that come up from the holes and cracks in the earth at night and scrounge around the City for warm blood.
After you’ve got that hundred-year-old corpse in your clutches--usually shot up with raig (the drug of choice for crawler-catching) and tied with a sheet—you lock yourself in the abandoned building, black the windows to keep the sunlight out, untie your captive, and tra-la, you have yourself a game. It should be called: Kill The People Eater, Before It Kills You.
Being a girl, I’m constantly having to prove myself.
Ray…bet you can’t jump to that ledge. Ray…bet you can’t hit that rat from here.
Boys…bet your brains are as small as your willies.
But I can only focus on the crawler. On the muscles tightening in its shoulders, the way it starts to crouch like it’s readying to pounce, the mouth opening to reveal sharp charcoal-colored teeth, the white eyes rolling in its skull, honing in on where I’m standing. I have no idea what a crawler sees, if it even sees at all, but I know from experience its sense of smell is sharp as any dagger. And I’m pretty sure this one smells something tasty.
A sound escapes its throat, half moan, half cry.
"Come on," I hiss under my breath. "Just come and get it."
The crawler moves a little to the left, leaving the shadows. It crouches lower, arms dangling back and forth, knuckles almost scraping the floor. A growl rumbles from its chest, the signal it’s not gonna play with its food today.
I plant my feet more firmly, ready for the attack.