I breathed in the morning air as I perched on the ledge of an abandoned building in the skeleton quarter of Requiem City, a real honest-to-god shithole, but it was also my home—the only home I’d ever known.
This high up, the stagnant stench of the city was replaced by the scent of fresh pine needles that wafted in from the forest.
The view of the horizon was storybook perfect, straight out of a fairytale.
There were fairytales about this place, about long, long ago…
Of how the Requiem Mountains were home to dragons.
Fierce and all-powerful, stalking the villages in search of their human mates.
The other halves of their souls, or something like that.
It was complete crap, of course. As much as I wished I could believe that magic existed in this awful place, all it took was one glance downward to remember that my life was anything but a fairytale.
My life was struggle and suffering.
My life was doing anything to make a little cash on the ruthless streets of Requiem City.
My phone started buzzing wildly, and I pulled it out from my pocket with a sense of dread—I knew exactly who it’d be.
I pictured my friends, Harry and Darshan, bruised and bloody, inches away from death. All because of me.
Dom had grown up with us in Greensward. It was a community center for underprivileged kids. He created quite the little criminal underworld there.
Even after he left, I wasn’t able to get out from under his thumb.
Dom used Darshan, who was blind, as a punching bag to keep me in line. It worked, I couldn’t stand to see Darshan hurt.
When Darshan wasn’t available to blackmail me with, Dominic bribed our headmistress/human spray-tan, Elle to make my life a living hell until I agreed to whatever he wanted.
I took a deep breath, trying to calm my pounding heart. I pushed the grotesque images out of my head.
I had a plan.
Let’s just say the richest family in Req City was about to give back to the people.
They say nobody could pick the pockets of the Dobrzycka family.
The richest family in Requiem City was said to have ironclad pockets, impenetrable to pickpockets everywhere. And they were everywhere. The streets were crawling with them, mean-faced and hungry, waiting for an opportunity to land in front of them.
But I wasn’t most pickpockets…
I could smell the gold before I saw it.
I was the predator and the gold was my prey.
There I stood, on the roughest corner in the Skeleton Quarter.
I had just watched a man get stabbed before my eyes. I could still see the blood soaking the sidewalk.
Patiently waiting for my target, I scanned the crowd.
I recognized him immediately from the billboards.
Loch Dobrzycka of the Dobrzycka fortune.
I liked to pick out my marks days in advance. I wasn’t an amateur, like the other riffraff lurking around me.
I happened to know that in his pocket was a brand-spanking-new Robishaw watch he had just picked up at 900 Jewelers, a favor for his sister Adara.
Let’s just say I’d been tailing her for a while and the woman had good taste—expensive taste. So expensive that she’d only trusted her herculean brother to carry it through the~ dangerous street trash~ for her.
To be honest, I wished I could say Loch was as appalling in person as in my imagination, but the chiseled chest peeking out of his unzipped hoodie and his perfect cheekbones certainly weren’t eyesores.
There was something about his slouching manner, his free-spirited way, his annoying smirk, that piqued my curiosity.
The man had balls to be out here in the Skeleton Quarter.
But I guess if I had muscles like that, I probably wouldn’t be afraid of street gangs either.
God, did I want to see the look on his face when he realized that he, the great God of Requiem City, had been dipped by a street rat…
That was the only downside to being a thief. You didn’t get to stick around to see ’em flip out once they’d realized they’d been fleeced.
Right now, I wanted to steal this billionaire’s watch before he knew what hit him.
I needed to. Or else my two best friends, Darshan and Harry, and I were going to be slaves to Dominic, the bastard, forever.
That watch was our ticket to freedom.
So I was going to give Loch Dobrzycka a little taste of the real Requiem City he claimed to know so well in his commercials.
I was the best friend of the rejects, the junkies, the fuck-ups on every corner.
I was the blood that kept the black market pumping.
I was a sixteen-year-old orphan named Madeline, and nothing in the world—not the 5-0, not the myths of “magic,” not even the one-percent Dobrzyckas could stop me.
He was waiting to cross the street. I knew I had to time this carefully.
As soon as the light turned green, I hugged my coat close and walked briskly forward.
Hidden in the middle of the crowd, I dug my elbow deep into the rib of a particularly seedy-looking man, ducking away immediately after.
The man stopped, looking around, lashing out against the man closest to him.
Right before my eyes, a wave of chaos erupted.
Lucky for me, everyone in the Skeleton Quarter was already on edge. It took little to push them over.
This was my chance.
Loch eyed the swarm apprehensively, but kept crossing the road.
He touched his left trouser pocket protectively.
That must be where the watch is.
He didn’t see me coming when I rammed into him. His body was surprisingly hard, nearly winding me.
I looked up at him, putting on my best terrified-but-innocent expression. Meanwhile, my hand slipped into his pocket unnoticed. Just like magic.
He looked down at me with a piercing stare. His electric green eyes were so intense.
“Watch where you’re going,” he said, his voice was low and gravelly.
I just shrugged and walked away, avoiding flying punches from the now angry mob, the watch snuggly tucked in my bag.
Couldn’t have gone smoother if I tried.
A sudden urge to look back struck me—one I knew I was supposed to resist. But, dammit, I couldn’t help myself.
This kind of triumph deserved to be savored. Never had I gone after a mark so big and lived to tell the tale.
Chancing it, I looked over my shoulder and—
Across the road, just beyond the fighting crowd, Loch was staring right at me.
His eyes were so intense on me, that for a moment, it looked like a glitter of green light flared behind them.
I quickly snapped my head back and turned the corner, making sure I was at least twenty paces away or so before I started running.
So what if he had seen me for a second?
Not like he could track me down. I knew the underbelly of this city like the back of my hand.
I’d just stolen from Loch freaking Dobrzycka~.~
Nothing scared me now.
Even still, I couldn’t get his ferocious green eyes out of my head. There was something about them. Something that I couldn’t put my finger on.
But I didn’t stick around to question it.
I sprinted away, my feet pounding the dirt soaked pavement.
I’d done it.
We were finally free.
“You did WHAT?!”
Darshan couldn’t believe his ears. Funny, too, considering he was blind.
“You shoulda seen it.”
We were sitting on the rundown roof of the center, watching the sunset, descending slowly over the distant Requiem Mountains. I’d just filled in Darshan, and he wouldn’t stop pacing.
Weirdly, I felt more relaxed now than ever.
Zen or whatever they call it.
When Harry, the “responsible one” in our trio, walked over and Darshan started to recount the story to him, I zoned out.
Looking at the mountainside, I remembered the old stories they used to tell us—how the mountains were haunted.
I knew it was ridiculous, but I’d gone on a couple school trips and, damn, if I didn’t feel something weird in those catacombs. All that stale air and the weird reverberations.
It did feel haunted. But then, nobody believed in magic anymore.
Darshan and Harry sat beside me. Poor Harry was straight-up shook.
“For the love of this city, Madeline,” he said, “what were you thinking, robbing a Dobrzycka?”
He had a point.
Hael and Loch Dobrzycka were the two most powerful businessmen in the city. Only in their early twenties, the two twin brothers had risen to the top by being absolutely ruthless.
Crossing them was absolutely unheard of.
But powerful or not, nobody scared me.
“I was thinking,” I responded, “we never have to worry about Dominic again. Guys. Think about it for a second. In two months, we’re out of this wretched place. And free. Really free. I did it for us.”
At that, Harry softened. He put his arm around me. And I put mine around Darshan.
Like I said. Family.
“Madeline, we owe you,” Darshan said. “We really do.”
“But…go on. Spit it out.”
“Have you considered what the Dobrzyckas will do when they find out that an orphan from one of the community centers that Req Enterprise funds stole from them?”
I was about to retort when another source of light caught my eye.
A giant stretch limo pulled up in front of the community center, and an equally giant man stepped out of the backseat. He looked vaguely familiar.
Oh shit. ~I recognized those electric green eyes.~
But it wasn’t Loch.
It was Hael Dobrzycka. Loch’s twin brother.
Hael Dobrzycka was jaw-droppingly tall and muscular, and he ran his hands through his green-tinted hair as he looked up at the roof…
Hael’s emerald-green eyes traced over me in visible recognition–and then he gave me a chilling smirk.
He stretched out his hand to me…
Beckoning me to come down.
An instant wave of dread washed over me.
No one messes with the Dobryzkas, I thought.
And those who do…
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