Ria’s Blood Debt Excerpt

My every muscle is tense. I can feel the hairs standing up on my neck. Everything slows down around me as I try to focus on the rope. If I don’t make this, everything is fucked.

I take a deep breath, gathering my strength. I’m going to make this count—

“Let’s go, Miller! We don’t have all day!”

And there goes my concentration.

I let out the breath and look behind me at Mrs. Morris, the high school gym teacher. She’s barking at me and clapping her hands, making the arms of her bright blue windbreaker flap like sails in the wind.

I don’t even understand why she’s wearing a windbreaker right now. We’re inside the school gym. There’s no wind to break.

The other students in my gym class are lined up behind her, all eyes on me. I spot Ariana de Los Santos standing next to Will. They’re both beaming. Will mouths you got this to me.

“Come on, Miller!”

I sigh and return my attention to the thick, knotted rope in front of me that dangles a good fifteen feet from the ceiling. Yep, that’s right: It’s time for rope climbing, the gym assignment from hell.

Mrs. Morris made it clear to me that my grade would depend on me actually trying during the second half of the school year. Apparently, she thinks I’m taking it easy during drills. It’s not my fault that this all feels like pre-school. Once you’ve had to jump off a few rooftops, suicide drills just don’t seem so life-or-death.

“Miller, let’s—”

I take off before she can berate me further, running across the hardwood gym floor onto the blue rubber mat underneath the rope. I jump, grabbing hold of the rope and anchoring my feet on the bottom-most knot. I climb, one hand over the other, and I’m at the top in a flash.

See? Gym class is easy.

I look down. Ariana and Will erupt into whoops and high fives. Mrs. Morris lifts her neon yellow whistle to her lips and blows it as she clicks time on her stopwatch. “Okay, four seconds. Not bad, Miller. It’d be nice if you didn’t take a decade to get started.”

I try not to roll my eyes. I’d like to see her jump from a roof without taking a moment to center herself.

I descend the rope and return to the line, high-fiving Ariana as Mrs. Moore calls Calvin Edwards. Calvin doesn’t hesitate, he runs and jumps onto the rope. But that’s the last thing he does easily. He immediately sinks down to the bottom and starts squirming in an attempt to get back up.

“This is hard to watch,” Ariana whispers.

“Cut him some slack,” I reply. “He did get turned to stone.”

I mean that literally.

Calvin spent some time last month as a statue when the Sorceress Idina came through on a hunt for her niece. He’s better now, obviously, and the witches made sure to wipe his memory of the whole night. But I imagine that’s gotta mess with your climbing ability.

Mrs. Morris claps her hands. “Come on Edwards, we don’t have all day. You don’t want to get beaten by Miller, do you?”

“Please, I could beat her any day,” Calvin huffs as his face starts to turn red from the strain.

I roll my eyes. Whatever, dude.

“So how did last night go after the dinner?” Will asks.

“The usual. Found a werewolf, chased a werewolf. Beat up a werewolf, jailed a werewolf in The Cell.”

“So, you got him alive?”

“Yep. Had to shoot him first, so he was unconscious for most of the night. Hopefully, he wakes up soon and we can learn about whatever the vamps and wolves are planning.”

Calvin grunts on the rope before letting go and falling onto his back. The entire class breaks out into laughter as Mrs. Morris blows her whistle. “Take it to the bench, Edwards! De Los Santos, you’re next!”

Ariana fixes her shoulder-length brown hair into a ponytail before skipping over to the rope, her over-sized gray gym shirt billowing as she goes. She takes the rope in her left hand, it’s about as thick as her entire fist.

“How long you think it’ll take her?” Will asks.

“Not sure. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Ariana do anything physical.”

“She did save us from an evil henchman once.”

“Yeah, but that was with the help of a frying pan.”

Ariana grabs the rope with one hand. And…

Well, shit. She just about bolts to the top. I’ve never seen anyone move so fast. It looks effortless.

In fact, a bit too effortless.

“Three seconds!” Mrs. Morris gushes. “We have a new record! Congratulations, de Los Santos!”

Everyone starts clapping as Ariana returns to the line. Will high-fives her, but I cross my arms. “You used magic, didn’t you?”

So, Ariana found out that she was half witch last month after the Sorceress fucked up our Winter Formal night. Since then, she’s been training with Daya, one of the witches that fought with us against the Sorceress.

Though ‘fought’ might be too generous a term, since Daya turned her scared tail and left when it looked like we were going to lose.

Anyway, the training seems to be working. At first, all Ariana could do was float inanimate objects. But judging by my short-lived rope-climbing record, she’s progressing fast.

Ariana’s mouth drops. “What? No. Why would you even suggest that?” She scoffs and looks at Will. “Can you believe she’d suggest that?”

“Ari, I’ve seen you struggle to carry all of your textbooks,” I say. “There’s no way you got to the top that fast without a little help of the supernatural variety.”

“You’re just jealous that someone beat you,” she says, sticking out her tongue.

“Yeah, cause you cheated!”

“How is it cheating to use my skills? It’s not cheating for you to use all that fighting stuff you know.”

“That fighting stuff? I’ve trained every day for six years!”

Mrs. Morris calls Will. He shakes his head, windmills his fully-healed arm, and trudges over. Ariana and I stay in whispered conversation as he tries to climb.

“Training must be going well,” I say. “Where’s your wand, anyway?”

She grins and rolls down the lip of one her calf-length socks, revealing a thin brown stick.

“Training’s going great,” Ariana says. “I actually learned to levitate myself yesterday. If this keeps up, I’ll be able to ride a broomstick in no time.”

“Things have got to be going well in the witching world for Daya to be spending so much time teaching you.”

“Well, it’s not like she’s got work to do back with the queen. From what I hear, Marisol still hasn’t forgiven her for abandoning the fight. I think she just lets Daya come out and teach me to get away from her.”

“And how is Marisol?”

“Busy. The Sorceress still has supporters on the loose. Sera and Amara are doing what they can to round them up, but from what I hear, Marisol’s having a hard time keeping everything together.”

“It’s weird not having her around here to call us freaks.”

“Ria Miller, are you going soft?”

“I’ve always been soft. I just have a tough night job.”

Mrs. Morris blows her whistle and Will comes walking back to us dejectedly. “Stupid rope,” he mutters.

“It’s okay, sweetie,” I say, ruffling his hair. “You’ll get ‘em next time.”

“Whatever,” Will says. “I don’t know why we’re climbing ropes in the first place.”

“Speak for yourself,” Ariana and I say at the same time before giggling.

“Fine. Those of us who aren’t going to spend their time on rooftops or flying on broomsticks aren’t going to need this skill after we graduate high school.”

“Oh! That reminds me!” I say. “I got into City Arts last night!”

Ariana starts jumping up and down, drawing a whistle from Mrs. Morris. Ariana apologies and then turns back to me. “Congratulations! That’s amazing!”

“Are you gonna go there?” Will asks.

“I don’t know for sure yet,” I admit. “But my parents said they’d help me pay for my own apartment no matter where I end up.” I squeeze Ariana’s hand. “We can be roommates next year!”

Ariana’s smile fades and she gently pulls her hand away. “Uhh…about that…”

That doesn’t sound good. Ariana and I have talked about getting an apartment together since Thanksgiving. If I’m going to move out of my parent’s house after I graduate — and I’m going to — there’s no one else I’d rather live with. I thought she felt the same way.

“What?” I ask. “You don’t want to be roomies?”

She shakes her head. “No, it’s not that. Just…lately I’ve been thinking about learning more about magic instead of going to college.”

“Phew. You had me scared there. That’s not a problem. So, you’d have Daya over more often, I guess. No big deal.”

“Actually…I was thinking about going over to the witching world.”

It’s Will who gets the surprised words out first. “Wait, what?”

“You want to leave us?” I ask.

Mrs. Morris blows her whistle before any of us can get another word in. “Okay class, all this side chatter tells me you’ve got extra energy. How about we burn that off with some push-ups? Everyone drop and give me twenty! Now!”

We all grumble as we hit the deck and start the push-ups. The whole time I’m staring at Ariana. She’s staring ahead, avoiding eye contact.

Great. Just great.