Brooklyn Ray © 2017
All Rights Reserved
Ryder flipped over the first card.
He flipped over the second card.
Liam watched him carefully. His hands were folded together, chin perched atop them like he might be praying. He tipped his head toward the cards on the table, gaze resting on the vibrant curved arcs of The Magician, a shadowy figure holding a scepter, his shape accented by a billowing red cloak. The card was faded and the edges torn, a testament to how often it’d been drawn.
How often Ryder had drawn it.
“So?” Liam prompted. His clear brown eyes flicked to Ryder.
“Nothing new,” Ryder said. It was the truth and it wasn’t. Ryder had pulled The Magician many, many times, but he’d never pulled it alongside The Tower.
Liam tilted his head and strands of chestnut hair fell over his brow. He sat back and pushed it out of his face, scrubbing a hand on the freshly shaved side of his head. They’d been friends for too long for Ryder not to know that gesture. It was frustration, the quiet, mellow kind that Liam had mastered over the last twenty-two years.
“That—” Liam pointed to The Tower “—is new.”
Ryder rolled his eyes. “C’mon then, Princess. It’s your deck, what does it mean?”
“Don’t call me that,” Liam snapped. He narrowed his eyes. Ryder heard the click-clack of his tongue ring bounce across his teeth, another Liam mannerism he’d become accustomed to since he joined the circle two years before. This one was a louder kind of frustration, a haughtier, angrier kind. “The Magician is a card of intellect. Yours is inverted, meaning you’ll be making an illogical decision soon. A…” He sighed through his nose and struggled to find the word. “A partnership, maybe, through magic. The Magician channels through his own body, meaning ownership of oneself. But it’s inverted, so you’ll be giving something away soon.”
Ryder licked his lips. Ownership of his body had been a struggle since he was a child, and he wasn’t looking forward to giving any part of it away.
Liam glanced at him. “The Tower is a card of sudden change. Chaos, even. This—” He tapped The Tower. “—with that—” He tapped The Magician. “—is a witch’s worst nightmare.”
“It doesn’t sound that bad,” Ryder said. “I’ll be having a sudden magical change soon. What’s wrong with that?”
“Nothing,” Liam said. He lifted his brows and slid the two cards off the table to shuffle them back into his deck. “If that’s how you want to look at it, that’s how it’ll be.”
“Let’s see what the cards have in store for you, Liam Montgomery,” Ryder said.
Liam’s eyes settled on him for a moment too long. Ryder’s gaze darted away, over the sharp edge of Liam’s cheekbone, the line of his jaw and slope of his nose. Sometimes Ryder wondered if Liam did it on purpose, if he tilted his head the way he did to catch Ryder’s attention, if he breathed the way he did, or smelled the way he did, or walked the way he did to distract Ryder from everything and everyone else.
“Where’s your deck?” Liam’s tongue clicked against the back of his teeth again.
Ryder huffed an annoyed sigh, embarrassed he’d been caught looking. “In my jacket behind you.”
Liam handed Ryder his jacket. The deck was in a maroon felt bag, tied shut with delicate matching strings. Ryder pulled the cards out, their black backs a stark contrast to his pale skin, and shuffled them. Magic stirred and hummed. It looped through his knuckles, invisible, thrumming heat, and Ryder imagined it sinking into every card. He thought of Liam, who sat across from him, watching intently. He imagined Liam’s mouth and the line of his broad shoulders, how his jeans hung low on his waist—stop. Ryder closed his eyes and redirected his thoughts to Liam’s magic, the strong course of Water inside him, waves breaking and the sound of a river flowing over rocks.
There. Ryder swallowed hard and handed Liam the deck. “Shuffle then draw two cards.”
Liam drew his cards and laid them on the table.
Something wicked lingered in the space between them. The air pulled away from whatever it was, as if the elements knew something the two boys didn’t. It crept under Ryder’s skin, nibbling at the darkness he’d kept at bay for years. It was getting harder and harder to control, and whatever this was, it wanted Ryder’s twisted, unnatural magic to make an appearance.
Ryder focused on the Fire inside him instead and nodded to Liam. “Go ahead.”
Liam flipped over the first card.
He flipped over the second card.
Liam’s breath hitched. He stared at the table, arms flexed and trembling beneath a tight-fitted black sweater. Heat darkened his cheeks and turned his tan skin the same color as Ryder’s maroon deck-pouch.
“Fatality,” Liam whispered.
“To ravage,” Ryder corrected gently. “To undergo extraordinary efforts. Don’t immediately jump to the cards worst meaning, Liam.”
“And—” Liam flicked his wrist toward The Lovers. “—I’m about to make a fool of myself, apparently. Right?”
“It’s not inverted, so no. You’re going to go through something dark and difficult.” Ryder tapped The Devil. “And it will either push you toward a new love, or it will be because of a new love. The Lovers can mean anything, you know that. It could be a partnership, a romance, a fucking…” Ryder shrugged and sighed. “A meaningless hookup.”
“You know it never means that.”
“Okay, but it could,” Ryder hissed.
“I’m about to do something terrible with someone,” Liam said. He looked at Ryder and shook his head. “Keep this between us?”
Ryder cocked his head. Liam never wanted to keep things from the others.
“Tyler will worry, so will Christy and Donovan.” Liam sighed. His bottom lip was white under the weight of his teeth. “Please?”
“You’ve never been one to break circle pacts,” Ryder said.
Liam’s lips thinned. “I haven’t, but you have.”
Ryder narrowed his eyes.
“Ryder.” Liam breathed his name, pleading in a way Ryder hadn’t heard before. Apologetic, almost.
He tilted his head and dragged his gaze from Liam’s pinched mouth to his feet. “Begging looks good on you.”
“Are you done?” Liam’s cheeks flushed darker. “Yes or no?”
“Fine,” Ryder said. His lips curved into a sly smile. “I’ll keep your dirty secret.”
Liam didn’t thank him. He shifted his gaze toward the candles on the other end of the coffee table and they went out, fizzling as if they’d been drowned. He sighed and pushed the two cards toward Ryder.
“Put them away. We’re meeting everyone in a half hour.” Liam’s bare feet on the worn wood floors in Ryder’s lackluster apartment was a familiar sound. He brushed past one of the many plants Ryder had littered throughout the living room, in baskets on top of the bookshelf on the far wall, in planters beside the entertainment stand, lined up in small pots on the kitchen counter. “Can I get a light?”
Liam plucked a bundle of sage out of a mason jar next to the sink. He walked back over and stood in front of Ryder, still seated on an ottoman in front of the coffee table. Liam held the charred end of the sage in front of Ryder’s mouth.
“Can you?” Ryder teased.
Liam rolled his eyes. “May I, English major.”
Ryder reached for the Fire buried deep in his veins, opened his mouth, and blew gently across the sage.
“Whatever showed up to watch my reading, I want it gone,” Liam said. Smoke drifted into the corners, over the table, all around. The window next to the front door was closed and the blinds were cinched shut, causing the tangy smell of it to fill the air. “Something about it wasn’t right.”
Ryder nodded. No, something about it wasn’t right. But he couldn’t say that, because Ryder shouldn’t have been able to sense it. That was Liam’s reading. Those were Liam’s cards.
Only people affected by the reading should’ve been able to feel what Liam felt.
But Ryder had sensed the wickedness. He’d felt its eyes on them, lurking above and around them, like a wraith with a crystal ball looking at their future before they’d lived it. Their future. He stood, turning from Liam to conceal the surprise on his face. Understanding slithered restlessly in his chest. He wrenched the blinds up and opened the window, shooing whatever strange entity hovered in the apartment out with the smoke.
Whatever it was, it had tethered them. Chills scaled Ryder’s arms.
The Magician. The Tower. The Devil. The Lovers.
A magical catastrophe brought about by a dark, vicious partnership.
Liam was probably right. They shouldn’t tell the others.
They arrived at Crescent Coffee before the rest of the circle. The little café on the south side of Port Lewis was homey and warm. It reeked of Darbonne magic, the essence of it coppery on Ryder’s tongue. It was ancient in a way only Darbonne’s, Thistle’s, and Lewellyn’s could be. The old clans. The ones who kept order over all the rest.
But orderly wasn’t his preferred practice, so he never mentioned his last name. He was always just Ryder, because being Ryder Lewellyn was a daunting half truth.
The counter at the front of the small café was next to a glass case filled with colorful pastel pastries. Banana muffins, carrot cakes, and macarons were lined up and labeled with neatly folded tags in front of them. A chalkboard above the case displayed the prices of coffees, sandwiches, and teas in swirling cursive. Tables were scattered throughout the rest of the café, wood-topped and surrounded by mismatched chairs.
“Boys,” Thalia said. She was a stunning woman with umber skin and a warm smile. Her voice was always smooth and pleasant, opposite her newly acquired power, which rolled off her in waves. She nodded to Liam, then to Ryder. “Caramel latte and rooibos?”
Liam nodded. Ryder said, “With honey, please.”
“Do you want a muffin?” Liam dug his wallet out of the back pocket of his jeans as he stood in front of the counter.
Ryder shook his head. He avoided Thalia’s gaze, but her magic dug into him like talons. There was no sneaking past the Darbonne matriarch, no keeping his thoughts to himself, no weaseling out of a confrontation. He walked to the empty table in the back of the café and sat down in the corner chair closest to the wall.
Before Liam joined him, Thalia appeared. She lifted a brow at Ryder in accusation and tilted her head, eyeing him down her nose like a hawk would a mouse. Her palms settled on the tabletop and she leaned forward, the loose scoop of her white blouse obscured by a deep purple pendant.
“Ryder,” she purred, gentle, soothing, the same way his mother used to say his name when he covered his chest after she walked into his room unannounced. As if she was sorry for something she had no reason to be sorry for.
His top lip curled back in a snarl and he rolled his eyes.
“You should tell him,” Thalia whispered.
“You ascended last week and you’re already everyone’s therapist?”
Thalia shook her head, which was shaved to the skin. “I can feel your secrets. All three of them.”
Ryder’s gaze sharpened. His magic lunged at her, a warning bite. “You know my secrets. Don’t.”
Thalia’s magic was strong and unshakable. It barely flinched. She ran her hand over the top of Ryder’s buzzed head and pushed him playfully. “Or wait for the inevitable. Your choice.”
“It is my choice,” Ryder said. He looked away, uncomfortable with Thalia’s knowing eyes staring back at him. A sigil peeked out above the collar of her blouse, angry red against her dark skin. He caught sight of Liam walking over with their drinks. The bell above the door rang and Christy’s laugh followed. He glanced back at Thalia and quietly said, “I’m not hurting anyone.”
“Not yet,” Thalia whispered. She left the conversation there and turned to greet Liam with a smile as he placed their drinks on the table.
Christy twirled in, hands above her head, decorated in an assortment of chunky crystal rings. Her knuckles were blackened by stick-and-poke runes. Her long, wind-whipped hair was streaked pink and blue and black. Ryder had forgotten what color it originally was; he didn’t even know if he’d ever really seen it.
Tyler and Donovan followed. Tyler talked with his hands as he spoke, engaged in a conversation that Ryder would guess was only half as interesting as it looked from afar.
“Thalia!” Christy swung her arms over Thalia’s neck. “Congratulations! I was there, you know. It was a beautiful ceremony.”
“Thank you, Christy. I saw you standing with the Thistles. And you guys too.” She nodded as Tyler and Donovan approached. “Were they accommodating?”
“Yes, the Thistles always are.” Christy batted her hand in dismissive fashion.
“Most of the outside families joined them for the ascension. I even saw Ryder with them, between the Lewellyns and the Wolfes, right?”
Ryder straightened his back. His magic flared, hot and furious.
Liam kicked his shin under the table.
“Yeah, we were all together for it. Figured it’d be best to stick with our circle.” Christy grinned cheerily, her heart shaped face light and true. She didn’t notice Ryder’s murderous heat, which wasn’t uncommon. Christy was as white a witch as they came. Her focus never drifted from light-working, so it never drifted to Ryder. He’d waited for her to notice it—for any of them to notice it, but somehow, they hadn’t.
Ryder couldn’t keep it contained forever, though. Flare-ups like that would lead to questions he couldn’t answer.
Thalia hummed in agreement. She didn’t bother looking at Ryder before she walked away, but he felt her magic shift. It stung him like a transparent blade pressed against his throat: Don’t test me. The fluttering in his stomach calmed and his magic retreated.
“What the fuck was that?” Liam seethed.
Ryder chewed on his lip and shook his head. Two fingers pinched Ryder’s jaw and tugged. Liam’s thumb and index finger sent a jolt through him, and it deepened when he saw the recognition slide into place on Liam’s face. Their magic collided, tangling and untangling, stretching to make room for one another. Ryder almost gasped, but he clenched his jaw to keep the sound at bay. They were sitting next to each other in a café, and their friends were sitting around them. Christy’s singsong voice. Tyler’s rambling. Donovan’s quiet laugh. But all Ryder could focus on was how Liam’s fingers loosened, and how their magic pulsed suddenly; a warning, a prelude.
Their magic danced between them. Water and Fire and something else, something darker.
Liam dropped his hand. It brushed Ryder’s arm, and he shifted away, putting space between them.
“How’d the reading go?” Tyler had the voice of a charismatic spokesperson. He was eloquent and commanding, the kind of person who took the lead in everything he did. Especially their circle.
Ryder waited, but Liam said nothing.
“We skipped it and smudged instead,” Ryder said. The lie came easily. “Are we doing anything for the full tomorrow?”
Thankfully, Christy ran with the subject change. Her silver bangles clattered around her wrist as she wiggled her hands excitedly. “Drum circle and fire pit at Tyler’s. We invited everyone.”
“Yeah?” Ryder nodded to Tyler.
Tyler nodded back. His black hair was slicked back, making the roundness of his copper cheeks stand out and the multiple silver hoops through both his ears glint in the light. His eyes were upturned and clever—fox eyes as Christy would say.
“It’s in Pisces,” Donovan piped up. His light eyes were as open and pure as Christy’s, blue like the aquamarine pendant that hung around his neck. “You should set some intention, Liam.”
“I will,” Liam said. If he was shaken, he didn’t show it. His face was as set and serene as ever; cheekbones that could cut glass, a jawline Ryder envied, sharp, smart eyes that flicked once to Ryder. They didn’t linger. His gaze shifted back to Tyler and Donovan, but not before Ryder caught the distinct wave of his pupils, expanding out and in again, a flare of magic he’d snuffed out. Liam cleared his throat. “Did you figure out the communication spell, Ty?”
“We were just talking about that,” Tyler said and gestured to Donovan with a wave. “I found a few things, but most of the instructions are in Latin, which none of us speak.”
All eyes turned to Ryder. He knew what Tyler wanted, but none of them had the courage to mention it. So, they stared, urging Ryder with pointed gazes. Christy looked away first, then Donovan. Liam looked at his steaming mug.
“What?” Ryder spat.
Tyler shot him a knowing look, trying to get his point across without words.
Christy made a weak noise. “I don’t think that’s a good idea,” she said to Tyler.
Instead of waiting for an explanation, Ryder cut them off and said, “Ask Thalia.” He sipped his tea and averted his gaze to the table. “She’s closer to her than I am.”
“Didn’t she used to tutor you, though?” Tyler asked. “It would be a short conversation, Ryder. You know I wouldn’t usually recommend going to…them, but we need it.”
“You don’t need to talk to trees, Tyler.” Ryder snorted a laugh. He replayed the way Tyler said them again and again, disgust under anger under fear.
“Yeah, we can work on something else,” Christy said softly.
“It’s not about me,” Tyler said sternly. “Donovan hasn’t been able to focus his energy. He’s Earth; he needs the guidance. The forest is filled with spirits, ancients, nymphs.” He tapped his finger on the table. “Answers. We can’t not try.”
“At least be brave enough to say her name then,” Ryder said under his breath.
The table went quiet. Liam’s eyes were all over him, pinpricks like spider feet.
“Ask Jordan…” Tyler stood up from the table. “Anyone want anything? I’m getting coffee.”
Ryder noticed the space where Jordan’s last name lingered, unsaid but there all the same. It was one thing for a matriarch to mention it, but discussing a dark clan was taboo for a small circle of beginner witches.
“Hey…” Christy rested her palm over top of Ryder’s hand. He expected her to pull away when she felt the blistering heat rising from his skin, but she didn’t. “If you don’t want to—”
“It’s fine,” Ryder said.
Liam’s foot brushed against his under the table. Another spike of energy shot through him. Christy flinched away, as if he’d shocked her. Liam swung his foot back and tucked it under the chair, far from Ryder.
Christy’s pale eyes flicked between Ryder and Liam. She was psychic, but her gifts rarely manifested within the circle, which was a common practice. Psychic or not, circle-mates shouldn’t have access to everything. Information dealing with emotions had the potential to be dangerous, and Christy was almost always respectful of their boundaries as a group. This time was no different. Instead of prying, her magic hovered around her as a shield, an instant response to Ryder’s spark.
“I’m just nervous,” Ryder explained. He offered her a smile, but it was heavy and faraway. “Sorry.”
Christy nodded. She tucked a blue strand of hair behind her ear. “It’s probably just the full moon. It gets everyone worked up.” A white mouse crept out of the breast pocket on her slouchy black T-shirt. Willow’s long whiskers trembled as she wiggled her nose. Christy scratched the mouse’s head with the tip of her finger. “It’s all right, Willow. He didn’t mean it.”
“Sorry, Willow.” Ryder offered Christy’s familiar another withered smile.
“Say it’s okay, Ry,” Christy cooed at Willow in a baby voice.
Tyler and Donovan appeared with their coffees. But Ryder’s energy was too volatile for him to sit through a circle meeting. The magic he’d worked for years to keep at bay hummed deep in his belly. It made everything sharper, closer, more defined. He heard Liam inhale, listened to the sound of air sucked past his lips, the constant click of his tongue ring against his teeth. Liam shifted and Ryder’s heart sped up. Liam moved his hands in his lap and Ryder’s stomach clenched.
Being in proximity with each other after recently tethering was a bad idea. Especially after Liam had just put two and two together, and Christy had witnessed a collision of their energies, and Ryder was biting at the bit for a release.
“I’ll go deal with this Latin bullshit,” Ryder said.
“Ryder, really, it’s fine. We can find another way,” Donovan said. Orange freckles dusted the tops of his cheeks and across the bridge of his nose. He was the youngest of them, barely nineteen and barely a witch.
Ryder didn’t blame him for wanting to harness his gifts. It was natural for most witches.
The notion turned Ryder’s stomach, though.
“I don’t mind. She was my tutor after all.” He aimed the sarcasm at Tyler as he stood, adjusting the buttons on his peacoat. “See you guys tomorrow.”
“Tonight,” Liam corrected. “I’ll see you tonight.”
Christy’s lashes fluttered, the way they always did when she caught a whiff of something supernatural. She glanced at Liam, then up at Ryder. Her lips rounded in a surprised O, but she stayed quiet.
Ryder didn’t have the patience to ask her what she’d seen, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to know. His eyes flashed to Liam’s, and he was met with caution or confusion, both at once. Liam’s lips parted, but Ryder walked away before he could say anything.
“Be careful,” Tyler called.
Ryder flicked two fingers over his shoulder in a lazy wave. Thalia Darbonne watched him from behind the counter, her gaze knowing and strong. She nodded to him, and her magic gave a gentle push to the center of his back as he walked out the door.