Chapter 1

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 My mother was a wicked witch.

An ill-wisher, a doer of dark deeds.

Trading in false hopes, broken hearts, and the not-so-pretty side of human emotion and gullibility.

She liked me to be seen and not heard. She liked magic that served her best interests and she liked her men tall, pretty, and well acquainted with sinning.

She would have liked the guy standing next to me.

Even if he was a simulation.

He looked like he knew all about being bad. In all the good senses of the word. Tall, dark haired, and sculpted by a perfectionist. But avatars can look like anything you want. In real life he—or she—was just as likely to be a toad as a prince.

I turned back to the game menu, raising my avatar's hand to flick through options. Pretty or not, I hadn't expected company in Nightruns. The game was old. Several gens old. Uncool.

I'd retreated here for that precise reason, hiding out from Nat's coaxing to join her and her gang in the latest Phobos offering.

I wanted peace and quiet. Time to think.

Which, yes, meant more fool me for coming out in the first place. But Nat is never easy to resist. Though she did know better than to ask me to play any game with magic. I'd known the real thing and seen what it could do. I had no desire to re-live it virtually.

"You like classics?"

The question startled me. I twisted toward my companion. He studied me with improbably blue eyes, making me wonder again about the real face of whoever was running this skin.


"Classics?" He gestured at the menu. "Everyone here tonight seems to be trying to get a slot in the Phobos launch. Yet here you are, back in the dark ages."

His voice, like the eyes and the body, was too good to be true, deep and slightly roughened.

Definitely overcompensating. Still, that didn't mean I couldn't enjoy the scenery, given it was so nicely packaged in tight black clothes that hugged every pixel. "Newer isn't everything. Anyway, I'm not much of a gamer."

The avatar raised one dark eyebrow. "What brings a non-gamer to Decker's?"

"I'm with friends. They're pros." And could get me comped on the entry fee and game price, which was how my currently slender credit balance could stand a club like this.

He nodded. "Ranked?"

I shrugged. "Some." I didn't want to get into a boring conversation about the leagues and rankings and upcoming competitions. If he was a game-head then I'd find somewhere else to hide-out. I reached toward the menu in case I needed the exit fast.

"Made a decision?"

I pulled back. "No."

"How about the palace run? If you feel like company, that is?"

The palace run was my favorite level. Full of the sorts of traps and logic puzzles I enjoyed. Zero magic. I usually played alone but it might be fun to beat pretty boy. "Pairs or head to head?"

He smiled and I had to give points to whoever had designed his skin. The avatar was an advanced lesson in sheer male beauty. I smiled back before I could stop myself.

"Competition is always more fun." He ushered me toward the menu. "Ladies first."

"First to the crown jewels?" I asked, dialing the time to night. Moonlight made playing sneak thief more fun.

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