Thirty-One

“I’m swimming in the smoke of bridges I have burned”

I stand there like an idiot.

I should run before she turns on me, too, but my feet seem to sprout icy roots.

Barrons and Ryodan are lying in the alley on their backs, blood staining the snow in widening circles around them, and I gape, thinking: They can’t die! Superheroes don’t die!

Misguided beliefs aside, they sure look like they’re dying to me. Nothing could get that mutilated and survive.

The Crimson Hag didn’t just puncture them, she flayed them from groin to neck, and split them clean through bone. In one quick yank she scrapped all their intestines and internal organs from their bodies. It’s a move she’s had hundreds of thousands of years to perfect. Puncture, fly, yank. Their chest and abdomen cavities are open and scraped empty. The only way the treacherous bitch could have done this to them was to catch them by surprise.

What the feck was I thinking, standing there saying anything besides “Run”? Bickering as usual, like we had forever and always would!

“I thought you guys would duck at the last minute,” I mutter at their bodies. Or freeze-frame away, faster than me. Or maybe Ryodan would use whatever secret weapon he used against Velvet against her. Never in a gazillion years did I think anything could actually get the jump on them!

But she exploded from the wall and her lances were through them before any of us could even react. Their bodies are still moving but I think it’s just the final twitches a body makes when it gets traumatized so abruptly and completely.

I hear a weird clicking sound that affects me the same way the ZEWs’ chittering does, terrifies me on a primitive level. Is she coming for me now? I grab my sword and whirl. It takes me a second to spot her. I follow the trail of blood.

Up.

The Crimson Hag is perched on the roof of the building behind BB&B, with ropes of entrails dangling over the side in long glistening strands, dripping on the sidewalk. The bony needles she used to flay Barrons and Ryodan are actually her legs, which bend weirdly, sort of like a praying mantis’s front legs, and have curved hooks on the ends.

With insectlike appendages, she’s knitting their guts into the hem of her dress. As her bony legs click and clack together, the guts sway over the edge, shortening, inch by inch, smearing blood up the brick.

It’s so disturbing that my stomach heaves and my body tries to burst into tears and puke at the same time. I swallow it all and choke.

I hear a guttural sound followed by a weak sigh and look back at the bodies.

“I’m going to kill the kid,” Barrons says faintly.

Ryodan makes a burbling sound like a bloody laugh. I don’t think he even has the parts left to laugh with. “Get in line.”

They both deflate and go still.

I stare dumbly.

They die like superheroes: cracking a joke. Like they’re just going to get up tomorrow and fight another day. No fear. Balls to the wall until the bloody end.

I feel like somebody ripped my guts out, too. I can’t stand to look at them anymore so I drop my head, and squinch my eyes up tight. My head’s a muddle. How did I get here? How did deciding to go to the Unseelie King’s library end up with Ryodan and Barrons dead? I can’t make sense of it. I mean, I can, because duh, I can follow the chain of events, but who the feck could have foreseen such a bizarre and preposterous outcome? How am I supposed to make small decisions when they can have such large, unforeseeable results?

“Well, that was fortuitous.” Christian skirts their bodies and moves toward me, laughing. “Two down, seven to go. I wonder if we can just point the bitch at the rest of them. Mac, too.”

My head whips up. He’s laughing. They died and he’s laughing. I start to shake. “Stay. Away. From. Me.”

“What did I do, lass?”

“You took me in there, that’s what you did! You didn’t warn me enough. I’m only fourteen! I don’t know everything! I can’t know everything! You’re older! You’re supposed to warn me about stuff! And now you act like it’s good that they’re dead!”

“I thought you wanted Ryodan out of the picture.”

“I just wanted him to leave me alone! And I never wanted Barrons to die! Aw, crap, Mac!” I wail. I look at the back of the bookstore, now even more miserable than before. Mac’s in there. How long before she comes out and finds Barrons in the alley, bled out in the snow? How long before she discovers my complicity in this, too? I can see her, finding him, flinging herself over his body, weeping. One more tragic loss in her life.

Because I opened a fecking bottle.

Because I was curious.

The night Alina died, I felt like I wasn’t … really there. I never been able to shake the feeling there was something wrong with me. I searched Ro’s journals from beginning to end but she never wrote a single fecking word about me. Never. Makes me think maybe she had other journals I ain’t found yet.

But tonight I’m all here.

I suffer that unpleasant shift I felt once before, the night I got Jo stuck working in the club. The one where I move sideways into a different way of being me, see myself different, and I don’t like it. It’s the shift where I’m a boat and there are all kinds of people capsized in my wake. No, not a boat. What did Ryodan say I was? A tsunami. That’s it. Crashing into things and leveling them. When he said that, he had no idea he’d be one of those things I leveled. Or that he wouldn’t live to see the one hell of a woman I’m going to become.

Above my head bony needles clack away. I hear the wet slap of intestines against the wall as they’re drawn up the side. I should be terrified. I should be running for my life so she doesn’t do to me what she did to them. Should I hide their bodies so Mac won’t find them and figure out what I did?

“Come, lass. We have to get out of here while she’s busy. The Hag gets obsessed with her knitting but she’ll be done soon,” Christian says.

My legs are made of cement and I have concrete blocks for feet. I just keep looking from Barrons and Ryodan to the bookstore and back. First Alina. Now Barrons. There isn’t going to be any place on the face of this planet Mac won’t hunt me down when she finds out what happened here tonight.

I look at Ryodan. How can he be dead? Who’s going to run Chester’s? Who’s going to keep the loser Fae and humans in line? With both Barrons and Ryodan gone, is there any safe place in Dublin? Will BB&B and Chester’s get abandoned?

A hand closes on my shoulder and I just about jump out of my skin.

“We’ve got to get out of here, Dani. She’s finishing up.”

I shake him off violently. “Don’t you ever touch me again, Christian MacKeltar!”

He exhales sharp and sudden like I punched him in the gut. “You don’t mean that.”

“Try me.” I fist my hand around the hilt of my sword.

“I’m the one that gave it back to you, lass. I’m the one that watches out for you.”

“You’re the one that took me somewhere I didn’t know was as dangerous as it was. Folks got killed because of it. Did you at least manage to bring out the books you found?”

“I had other things on my mind. You were in danger.”

It was all for nothing. The books got dropped, forgotten. I look at the wall. Sure, I could go back in, but I can’t read any of the stuff in the library, so what’s the point? And who knows what else I might set free by opening anything else in there?

I look up. Blood drips down the side of the building. As the gruesome Hag knits away, she plucks a small bone from the mess of entrails and organs and tucks it into her corset, taking a moment to rearrange her obscenely human-looking breasts. Then she stops abruptly and looks down at me as if she’s suddenly realized there’s more prey in the alley and it’s watching her. After a moment she dismisses me and returns to her stitching, but I feel … marked somehow. Like she filed me away in her Unseelie-insect brain.

“How do I kill her? Will my sword work?”

“Might. But you’d never get close enough. Her needles are longer than your sword. She’d have your guts in her dress before you even managed to swing it.”

“You said she gets obsessed while she’s knitting.”

“Not that obsessed.”

The ambience in the back alley changes abruptly and it takes me a minute to figure out why. A light just came on in the back of BB&B and is spilling out the window, across the bloodstained snow.

I know what that means. Mac’s moving around inside, looking for Barrons. I imagine it won’t be long before she looks out back to see if his car’s out there.

If Mac walked out that door and tried to kill me right now, I’m not sure how well I’d fight.

I take one last look at Barrons and Ryodan. I have to make this right somehow. I have to balance the scales and there’s a lot weighing in against me.

“Come near me again and I’ll kill you,” I say, soft like Ryodan used to talk.

I freeze-frame into the night.

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