Thirty

In the court of the crimson king hag

“What the hell is that smell?” Christian says.

“Fecking awesome, isn’t it?” I say dreamily. Crimson smoke swirls in the glass bottle, poking tentative tendrils at the rim. The amazing aroma fills the library, making me giddy. I want to stretch out, fold my arms behind my head, be lazy and bask in the fragrance. I want to share it with Dancer. I’ve never smelled anything so scrumptious.

“Bloody fucking noxious,” he says from much nearer than he’s been in a while.

“How can you say that?”

“Because it is.”

Crimson strands puff from the bottle and swirl above it. After a moment they begin to dart toward each other, circle around and dart back, slender red strands knitting themselves into a smoky shape.

“Dude, it smells like heaven! There’s something wrong with your nose. Maybe you only like Unseelie smells now.” I can’t wait to see what awesome thing comes out of this!

“It smells,” he says from directly above me, “like rotting intestines. What did you open? A book?” He drops down beside me, carrying a stack of books beneath his arm. I’m glad to see he found something. “A bottle? Christ, lass, you can’t be randomly unplugging bottles in this place! Give me that. Let’s see what you’ve done.”

The hint of a face is forming in the crimson smoke; delicate, pointy chin, enormous eyes slanted up at the corners. I try to turn my head to look at Christian but my head isn’t taking orders. It’s stuck, still staring at the materializing face. I can’t force myself to look away no matter how hard I try. It’s got me mesmerized. I’ve never seen a face so beautiful, smelled a smell so good. I want to stand in the middle of it and breathe it deep into my lungs.

When he plucks the bottle from my hand, the spell is broken. When he turns it on its side to read the label on the bottom, a cloud of crimson smoke gushes out, obscuring the passageway between the shelves. Tendrils lick at me, rough as tiny cat tongues.

Suddenly, everything changes.

Now that I’m no longer holding the bottle, I can smell what he smelled. Saliva floods my mouth, my stomach heaves, and I just about puke the candy bars I just ate. The face in the smoke isn’t so beautiful anymore. It’s morphing into something monstrous before my eyes. Long fangs slide from thin lips, bloody hair writhes like snakes. “Dude, what the feck did I open?” I say, aghast.

The bottle clatters to the floor.

My blood goes cold when Christian utters a single word.

“RUN.”

There are a few absolute no-brainer rules in my world. Real close to the top of this list is: if an Unseelie prince runs from it, I’m going to run from it, too. I’m not even going to ask any questions. I’m just going to vamoose with all my might.

Still … I can’t help but try to steal a peek over my shoulder. I’m the one that let it out. I have to know what it is so I can hunt it down and kill it.

“DON’T LOOK BACK!” Christian roars.

I cradle my head with my arms, trying to hold my skull together until the instant headache subsides. “Stop yelling at me and sift us, dude!” I’m freeze-framing, trying to keep up with him, but I don’t know these halls. They’re a maze that isn’t on any of my maps. I have to keep dropping down, lock my grid into place and kick back up again. The stench of rotting meat behind me is getting stronger. The skin on the back of my neck is crawling. I keep waiting for whatever is chasing us to close icy talons on my nape, rip my head off my shoulders, and kill me. All those scary movies I watched with Dancer aren’t making me laugh now. They’re filling my head with a million gruesome deaths, each more horrible than the last. It’d help if I knew what was chasing us. The unknown is always scarier than the known. I got a Mega-sized imagination, and it can do a real number on me.

“Sifting doesn’t work inside the White Mansion. Take my hand. I know these halls.”

I grab his hand, ignoring the groaning sound he makes. He laces his fingers with mine and I’m blasted by a wave of horniness. “Mute it, Christian. This ain’t the time to go death-by-sex Fae on me.”

“Sorry, lass. It’s just that it’s your hand and there’s danger, and danger always—”

“Off it now!”

I can breathe again. Not that I want to. The stench is suffocating and closing in on us fast.

“What’s chasing us?”

“Loosely translated, the Crimson Hag.”

“How does it kill?”

“Hope you never find out.”

“Could it kill even you, an Unseelie prince?”

“She prefers us alive. She once held two princes captive for nearly a hundred thousand years before the king stopped her. Among other foul things, she tried to breed with us. I had no idea he’d stored her in his library. Everybody figured he’d destroyed the bitch.”

“Why would she take you captive?”

“Because we’re immortal, and once she takes what she wants from us, our bodies grow it back. Then she takes it again. We’re a never-ending supply. She can just keep us chained up, sit and knit.”

Knit? The idea of an Unseelie monster knitting is more than I can wrap my brain around. “What does she want from you?” A cloud of red smoke slithers over my shoulder. “Hurry, Christian! We’ve got to go faster! Get us out of here!”

We barrel down bronze halls, twist and turn through lemon wings, until finally we skid onto white marble. I swear I can feel the Hag breathing down my neck.

Then we’re in the white room, rushing into the mirror, and I can’t help myself, I look back as I turn all spongy.

The Crimson Hag is the most revolting creature I’ve ever seen. Worse than the Gray Woman, worse than the Unseelie princes, worse even than Papa Roach, and I have a special hatred for roaches. Roaches hang out on floors. My cage was on the floor.

Bloody, matted hair frames an ice-white face with black holes for eyes. She licks crimson fangs when she sees me looking. But the truly disturbing thing about her is what she’s wearing. Her upper body is voluptuous and encased in a corset of bone and sinew. She has no lower body that I can see. A tattered, incomplete crimson gown streams behind her.

And now I know why she smells of rotting meat.

Her unfinished gown is made of guts.

My stomach heaves again. “It collects Unseelie prince guts?”

“Among others. She’d take yours, too. Though yours would rot sooner.”

“Can’t you go any faster?” I like my guts. I want to keep them for a long time.

We explode from the mirror into the second white room and leap headfirst into the next mirror. We pass through multiple mirrors, chased by the scent of rotting meat. “Uh, Christian, she’s going to get out.”

“Good. More prey in Dublin. She’ll go after someone else.”

“We can’t have her loose in my city!”

“You’re the one that opened the bottle.”

I screwed up. Big-time. But I’ll figure it out. I’ll trap and kill her and make my city safe again. Before she hurts anyone. I can’t stand the thought of innocent folks getting killed because of my stupid curiosity. “You should have warned me not to open stuff!”

“I did. Then there was the whole ‘read them and weep’ thing chiseled over the door. Which warning didn’t you get?”

“That was about the books, not bottles!”

“Some warnings are unilateral.”

Then we’re out and the cold slams into me like the brick wall we just exploded from. It takes my breath away, and when I get it back, it comes out in frosty puffs on the air. I go skidding across the alley on snow and ice and crash into the building opposite. Christian slams into me. We steady each other and I look around disbelievingly. The ground’s covered with six inches of snow!

Did the Hoar Frost King ice something in this alley in the few hours we were gone? It can’t be more than ten degrees and the windchill is killer. It never gets cold like this at night! And never over the space of a few hours. I look around for an ice sculpture nearby.

“Aw, crap,” I say, because it’s about to hit the fan. Snow’s not the only thing in the alley.

Ryodan and Barrons are behind BB&B, getting out of Barrons’s Bugatti Veyron. They both stare at me a sec, like they can’t believe their eyes, then Ryodan’s gaze fixes on where I’m holding Christian’s hand. I drop it like a hot potato, but the look on his face doesn’t improve. “It’s not what you think! He’s not going to be my superhero boyfriend and kick your—”

“Yes, I am,” Christian says.

“No, you’re not,” Ryodan says. “And where the fuck have you been. Do you know the problems you’ve caused me.”

“Dude, I only been gone, like, two hours. And we got bigger problems right now,” I say.

“No shit. This whole city is turning to ice.”

“What the bloody hell were you doing in the White Mansion?” Barrons demands. “Who told you how to get in there?”

“You will never go anywhere without me again,” Ryodan says to me. “If you do, I’ll lock you in my dungeon until you rot.”

“Speaking of rotting, I think—”

“No more. From this moment forward, I’m going to be doing all your thinking for you.”

I bristle. “My ass, you will.”

“Seal the wall,” he says to Barrons. “And get her the fuck out of here. It’s time for the Highlander to die.”

“You just try,” Christian says.

“I ain’t going nowhere. Well,” I amend, “actually I am and you need to, too. We all have to get out of here.” I start trying to freeze-frame but I crash into Barrons and bounce off. What happens next happens so fast I almost can’t process it.

The stench of rotten meat fills the air, and Christian and me duck and split off in opposite directions because we know what’s coming, then the Crimson Hag explodes from the wall, holding what looks like six-foot-long knitting needles made from bone, like lances at her sides.

She pierces Barrons and Ryodan with them then shoots straight up in the air, trailing their guts behind her.

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