Deadly sting, p.25
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       Deadly Sting, p.25
 

         Part #8 of Elemental Assassin series by Belle Aurora  
Page 25

  I let out a quiet sigh. He was still breathing, which meant that we still had a chance. Jo-Jo and Cooper would be here any minute. As soon as the giants were dead, Bria and the others could carry Phillip out of the rotunda and find Jo-Jo when she arrived so that she could heal him with her Air elemental magic.

  Owen realized that Phillip was still alive and also let out a relieved breath. After a moment, he reached over and squeezed my hand. I squeezed back, telling him that I understood his fear and worry and that I was going to do my best to make sure that we all lived through this.

  Footsteps sounded, rattling into the rotunda, and we all tensed. A moment later, Clementine appeared at the main entrance, followed by Opal and Dixon. She whispered something to one of the giants standing guard, then stared at the hostages. She plastered a pleasant smile on her face, stepped forward, and addressed the crowd once more.

  "I thought it was about time to come and give you ladies and gentlemen an update," she said. "My boys and I are almost through loading up all of our lovely new art, so we'll be out of your hair soon enough. I'm sure that will come as a relief to all of you. "

  Most of those in the rotunda let out a collective sigh, although they still regarded her with cold, wary suspicion. This was Ashland, after all, the city where double-, triple-, and even quadruple-crosses were a daily occurrence. The hostages knew that they wouldn't be truly safe until Clementine and her crew were either gone or dead.

  "But before we wrap up our last bit of business here, I need to call upon the services of one more person," Clementine said. "Eva Grayson. "

  Eva gasped, as startled by the request as everyone else was.

  If it wouldn't have given away our position, I would have opened my mouth and let loose with all the loud, blistering curses that burned on the end of my tongue. Damn and double damn - and then some. I'd hoped my bluff about Owen being dead would have persuaded Clementine to leave my friends alone, but it seemed like she hadn't bought my story after all. I wondered if she'd finally figured out that she'd killed the wrong woman - that the Spider was still alive.

  Either way, there would be no sneaking up on her in the boathouse and stabbing her in the back. No, now that she had Eva, I had to play the game Clementine's way and approach her head-on, even if it would most likely get me killed in the end.

  Clementine gestured at Opal and Dixon, who waded into the crowd of hostages. Dixon grabbed Eva's arm, hauled her upright, and handed her over to Opal. Finn surged to his feet and lunged for Dixon's gun, but the giant was ready for him. Dixon slapped his hand away, yanked the gun from its holster, and smashed the weapon into Finn's face.

  Crack.

  Finn fell on his ass, a dazed expression on his face and blood gushing from a cut on his forehead.

  "Not so mouthy now, are you, pretty boy?" Dixon sneered.

  "Do me a favor," Finn said, shaking off his daze and wincing as he touched his cut. "Hit me with the gun again instead of your hand. It's probably cleaner. "

  Dixon's orange skin reddened with anger, and he drew back the weapon for another blow. Finn just grinned at the giant, his green eyes as cold and hard as ice in his blood-covered face.

  "Enough!" Clementine said, her voice booming like thunder through the rotunda. "We need to get moving. Now, Dixon. Don't make me tell you again. "

  The clear threat in her voice was enough to cut through Dixon's anger. He gave Finn another venomous glare, then turned and stomped back through the crowd. Opal tightened her grip on Eva's arm, dragged the girl over to where Clementine was standing, and then shoved her forward. Eva stumbled, lost her balance, and almost plowed into Clementine before she was able to right herself.

  The giant gestured with her gun toward the hallway. "Move, girl. Before I decide to shoot you where you stand. "

  Eva swallowed and glanced back at Finn. He nodded, telling her to go ahead - as if she had a choice. She bit her lip and stepped out into the hallway. Clementine followed her, along with Opal and Dixon, and the four of them vanished from sight.

  * * *

  I watched a minute longer, but the crowd settled down once again, and it didn't look like anyone was going to try anything stupid, like charging at the giants. Good. Everyone needed to stay put. We were the only heroes here tonight.

  I gestured at the others, and we slithered back out of sight on the balcony and crouched together at the top of the stairs. I didn't bother to ask Owen if he was still coming with me. Now that Clementine had taken Eva, there was no way I could have persuaded him to stay behind. I would have done the same thing if Bria had been the one in danger, and I wasn't about to deny Owen the chance to save his sister.

  I looked at Xavier and Bria. "Can you two handle things here?"

  They both nodded and checked their weapons.

  "Okay," I said. "Give me and Owen ten minutes to get into position, then start shooting. "

  "What are you going to do about the giants now that they have Eva?" Bria asked.

  I shrugged. "There's nothing I can do but walk right into Clementine's trap and try to distract them long enough for Owen to sneak up and steal Eva away from them. "

  Bria's face tightened with worry, but after a moment, she nodded. So did Xavier and Owen. We all knew this was how it had to be now.

  Owen got to his feet and headed down the stairs. I started to follow him but turned and grabbed Bria's hand instead.

  "And if I don't come back," I whispered, "there are a couple of things in the back of the rotunda that belong to us. Some things I noticed among Mab's treasures. Make sure you get them. "

  Bria frowned. "What? What are you talking about?"

  I thought about telling her about our mother's and sister's runes, but I clamped my lips shut at the last second. It wouldn't do any good to tell her about them. Not now. She'd just be distracted thinking about them, as I had been earlier.

  Maybe if I hadn't been brooding about the runes, I would have realized what Clementine was up to. Maybe then I would have been able to save Jillian. Maybe . . . maybe I had too many damn maybes cluttering up my mind.

  Instead of answering her question, I shook my head. "You'll know them when you see them. Trust me. "

  Bria gave me a quizzical look, obviously wondering what I was babbling on about at a time like this, but she finally nodded. She squeezed my hand again before she moved over to Xavier. The two of them slid into position at the edge of the balcony and slowly, carefully, quietly trained their guns on the guards below.

  I hurried down the stairs. Owen was waiting for me at the bottom. He fell into step beside me as we walked down the hallway. We didn't speak as we moved through the museum. We didn't have to. After everything we'd been through these past few weeks, the companionable quiet felt nice, comfortable, and soothing, even if I was probably marching toward my own death. Well, at least he was here with me for the end. Owen would get Eva to safety, and I'd take care of the bad guys, the way I always did.

  We made it back to the side door and stepped outside. After that, it was just a matter of following the stone path down the hill to the bottom of the island. The sweet perfume of the ever-present honeysuckle seemed to have gathered strength while we'd been inside, hanging over everything like a thick, humid cloud. This side of the island wasn't as manicured and cultivated as the front, and the farther down the slope we went, the more the landscape darkened with thick tangles of briars and brambles. I didn't mind the change in scenery, though. The briars were beautiful in their own right, sharp and curved, rough and prickly, hardy enough to survive on the island, resilient enough to flourish here despite all the many concentrated attempts to kill them off. Just like me. At least, that was my hope tonight.

  We stopped at a curve in the path just out of sight of the boathouse. Time to split up.

  "How do you want to do this?" Owen asked.

  "I'll go at
Clementine straight on and try to keep her focused on me as long as possible," I said. "Do you think you can get in the water and wade around to the back of the boathouse? That way, we can attack from two sides at once. I think that's our best chance of saving Eva. "

  He nodded and rolled his shoulders. He winced a little, but I knew that he wouldn't let the pain of his gunshot wound stop him. "I can do it. You ready?"

  I held up my knife so that it caught the moonlight and reflected it back. "Always. "

  "Be careful," he said.

  "You too. "

  Owen hesitated like he wanted to say something else, but in the end he just nodded.

  I nodded back, not trusting myself to speak. Despite the situation, I'd wanted - no, hoped - for something here. Some small sign that things were getting better between us. Some small sign that things were going to be okay. But Owen didn't give it to me. Instead, he just looked at me a moment longer before disappearing into the briars.

  So I drew in another breath, let it out, and started down the path again.

  Chapter 22

  I rounded the bend and was reminded of something else that Briartop was known for: its statues.

  A dozen stone statues lined either side of the path, all shaped like Civil War soldiers, all with their rifles held high, as if they were about to pull the triggers and give me a twenty-one-gun salute. Well, twenty-four, in this case. From what I remembered, one row of statues was Union soldiers, while the others represented the Confederacy. Even more soldier statues perched behind the front lines, the figures all forming a sort of stone battlefield in the middle of the lush greenery. Supposedly, back during the war, some battle had been fought for control of Briartop. And here I was, fighting Clementine for it tonight.

  I slowed my steps, staring at each one of the figures, wondering if perhaps Clementine, Opal, or Dixon was hiding somewhere among all the stone arms and legs, preparing an ambush like I'd wanted to. But it seemed the giants were nowhere in sight.

  I'd started to move past the statues, when the moon slid out from behind a cloud, highlighting the soldier closest to me. Maybe it was the way the light reflected off that particular statue, but it made me think of another place, another time, another enemy . . .

  I crept through Peter Delov's mansion as quiet as the proverbial mouse, searching for the giant.

  I'd left Fletcher in a library on the third floor five minutes ago. I'd helped the old man hide underneath a desk, then grabbed a tin of Jo-Jo's healing from my vest. I'd ripped Fletcher's shirt open and spread it over his wound. The bullet hole in his chest wasn't immediately fatal, and Jo-Jo's salve would help stop the bleeding, but that was all. Fletcher was in no shape to do anything more strenuous than breathe right now. So it was up to me to find and kill Delov as quickly as I could - before he found us.

  I tiptoed through the hallways, eased up to the doorways, and looked in every room I passed, repeating the evaluation process Fletcher and I had used to find the giant in the first place. But Delov was nowhere to be seen. Had he somehow gotten past me already? Or was he watching me right now from some dark corner, getting ready to strike? I didn't know, and every second that passed ratcheted up my tension -

  Scrape-scrape. Scrape-scrape.

  The sound came from around the corner. I froze, my cold fingers tightening around the knife in my hand.

  Scrape-scrape. Scrape-scrape.

  The sound came again, moving faster now, heading right toward me. I sucked in a breath and got ready to fight. As soon as Delov stepped into view, I was going to leap forward and plunge Fletcher's knife into his chest. It wasn't much of a plan, but it would have to do, even if I knew deep down inside that there was no way I could kill the giant face-to-face, not given how big and strong he was. But I had to try, if only to protect Fletcher -

  Peaches, the Pomeranian, rounded the corner, looking all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and I sagged against the wall in surprised, sweaty relief. The dog. It was just the dog.

  I drew in a breath and pushed away from the wall, determined to keep searching for Delov, even if I didn't really believe I could take him out like I was supposed to, like Fletcher needed me to.

  But Peaches had other ideas. The dog fell into step beside me as I moved down the hallway, his nails click-click-clicking and sounding as loud as trumpets on the polished hardwood floor. I might as well have raised a bullhorn to my lips and shouted my position to Delov. That's how much noise it seemed like the dog was making.

  "Go away!" I hissed, and made a shooing motion with my hand.

  But Peaches only gave me a goofy grin and kept right on following me like we were playing the best game ever. Finally, I stopped, leaned down and petted the dog's head, hoping that might appease him. But the Pomeranian just perked up more and started dancing in circles around my feet, apparently deciding that I was his new best friend.

  Click-click-click. Click-click-click.

  Again and again, Peaches' nails scraped against the floor, the sound seeming to intensify with every happy wag of the dog's bushy tail. I stood there, a wave of frustration washing over me. There was no way I could hope to sneak up on Delov, not with my pesky little shadow skipping along beside me, and I couldn't kill the dog to make him be quiet - I just couldn't.

  I supposed I could lock Peaches in a room or a closet somewhere, but that would probably just make him start barking and reveal my location before I could scurry away. Delov would hear the noise and come running, ready to beat me to death with his massive fists -

  Click-click-click. Click-click-click.

  Peaches circled me again, wondering why I'd stopped petting him. I shook my head in frustration. I had to find a way to get the dog to stop making so much noise -

  Noise.

  My eyes narrowed in thought. Peaches wasn't going to be quiet - it wasn't in his nature. But maybe I didn't need the dog to be quiet. Maybe I needed him to make as much noise as possible.
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