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Old habits die hard for assassins.
And I planned on murdering someone before the night was through.
That’s what I did. Me. Gin Blanco. The assassin known as the Spider. I killed people, something that I was very, very good at.
Tonight I had my sights set on my most dangerous target ever—Mab Monroe, the Fire elemental who’d murdered my family when I was thirteen.
I’d been plotting the hit for weeks. Where to do it, how to get past security, what weapon to use, how to get away after the fact. Now, on this cold, cold night, I’d finally decided to carry out my deadly plan.
I’d been on the prowl for hours. Three hours, to be exact. Each one spent out in the bitter February frost, including climbing my way up the side of a fifteen-story mansion one icy foot at a time. Hard bits of snow pelted my body as I tried to keep the shrieking wind from tearing me off the side of the building. It wasn’t the most comfortable that I’d ever been during one of my hits, but it was necessary.
Too bad Mab knew that I was coming for her.
Oh, I hadn’t expected it to be easy, but slipping past the massive net of security, first in the snowy woods around Mab’s mansion, and then closer to the house itself, was a bit more problematic than I’d expected. The whole area was teeming with the giants that the Fire elemental employed as her personal bodyguards, not to mention nasty land mines and other traps strung through the trees like invisible spiderwebs. Of course, I could have dropped the giants, killing them one by one as I went along, but that would have resulted in the alarm being raised, and the security net tightening that much more.
So instead I’d opted for a silent, nonlethal approach—at least for now. It had taken me an hour to work my way through the woods, then another one to get close enough to the mansion to slither up the stairs to a second-floor balcony and then heave myself up onto part of the roof that sloped down there. After that, things had gotten easier, since there were no sensors, alarms, or giants posted on the roofs that covered the various parts of the massive structure. Not many people bothered with such things above the second floor, since most folks weren’t brave or crazy enough to climb any higher, especially on a snowy night like this one.
I wasn’t particularly brave or crazy, but I was determined to kill Mab.
A strong gust of wind slapped and then backhanded the mansion, screaming in my ears and hurling more frozen snow off the eaves and onto me. The chunks punched my body before disappearing over the side of the roof and dropping down into the eerie silver dark of the night.
I grunted at the hard, stinging impacts. As an elemental, I could have used my Stone magic to protect myself, could have tapped into my power and made my skin hard as marble so that the rocklike wads of snow would bounce off my body like bullets off Superman’s chest. But elementals can sense when others of their ilk are using their powers, and I didn’t want to give Mab any hint that I was here.
At least, not before I’d killed her.
By this point, I’d worked my way up to the sixth floor, where the mansion’s blueprints had indicated there was a particularly large dining room. According to some chatter that my foster brother, Finnegan Lane, had picked up from his various spies, Mab was hosting a fancy dinner party this evening. Finn hadn’t been able to determine what the party was for or even who had been invited, but that didn’t much matter. Mab was getting dead tonight—I didn’t care who was in the room with her.
I’d been in position for more than an hour now, outside the dining room window, lying flat on a part of the roof that plateaued before sloping down at a severe angle and dropping away to the ground far below. The blowing snow and murky shadows, combined with the glare of the lights inside, made me all but invisible to anyone looking out through the window.
But really, the worst part of the night wasn’t the guards, the cold, the snow, or even the icy, treacherous climb—it was having to listen to the stones around me.
People’s emotions, actions, and feelings sink into their environment over time, especially into the stone around them. As a Stone elemental, I could hear those emotional vibrations in whatever form the element took around me, from loose pebbles underfoot to the brick of a building to a marble sculpture. The sounds, the murmurs, the whispers that reverberated through the stones let me know what had happened in a particular spot, what sorts of people had been there, and all the dark, ugly, twisted things that they’d done in the meantime—or who might be lurking around in the here and now, trying to get the drop on me.
Fire, heat, pain, death. That’s what the stones of Mab’s mansion murmured of, punctuated by sly, smirking, confident whispers of power and money—both things that the Fire elemental had in abundance. But the most disturbing thing, the sound that made me grind my teeth, was the cackling of maniacal madness that rippled through the gray stones. Wave after wave of it, as though the rock had somehow been tortured until it was just as broken, burned, and dead as Mab’s many victims.
After a minute of listening to the stones’ insane, wailing cries, I’d blocked out the damned disturbing noise and had gotten on with more important matters, like checking my weapons. As always, I carried five silverstone knives—one up either sleeve, one against the small of my back, and two more tucked into my boots. The knives were my weapons of choice on most jobs because they were sharp, strong, and almost unbreakable. Just like me.
But Mab was a Fire elemental, which meant that she could create, control, and manipulate fire the same way that I could stone. And Mab wasn’t just any mere Fire elemental—she was rumored to have more raw magic, more raw power, than any elemental born in the last five hundred years. She could easily fry me alive with her magic before I got close enough to even think about plunging my silverstone knives into her burning black heart.
I’d decided to play it smart and keep a healthy distance between us, just in case things didn’t work out exactly as I’d planned tonight. So I’d brought another weapon along with me—a crossbow. It looked like your typical crossbow—heavy, substantial, deadly—made even more so by the rifle scope that I’d mounted above the trigger and the six-inch-long, barbed bolt already in firing position. Since it was made out of silverstone, a particularly tough magical metal, the bolt would rip through anything it came into contact with—glass, stone, flesh, bones.
The crossbow currently sat on the window ledge, with the barb pointing inside. I’d been in firing position for more than fifteen minutes, and all I had to do to release the deadly bolt was pull the trigger.
Good thing, as people were starting to arrive for dinner.
The black velvet drapes had been drawn to either side of the window, letting me see into the dining room. Closing the drapes was something else most folks didn’t bother with above the second floor. Sloppy, sloppy, sloppy of Mab’s bodyguards not to see to a pesky little detail like that.
I’d actually been inside Mab’s mansion once before, when I’d been stalking another target a few months ago, and the dining room before me was just as opulent as I remembered the rest of the house being. The room was a hundred feet wide, with a ceiling that soared high above it. Gold and silver leaf glinted in elaborate patterns on the ceiling, while several chandeliers dropped down from it and glistened like jewel-colored dewdrops above a polished ebony table. Four dozen place settings of fine china covered the table, along with matching flatware. Silver buckets filled with ice, champagne, and other expensive liquors were spaced down both sides of the table, so that everyone could have easy access to the booze.
For the last ten minutes, tuxedo-clad giants moved through the area, bringing in plates, napkins, liquor, and everything else that might be needed. My gaze drifted over to a buffet table that had been set up on the far side of the room. Mab and her guests were dining on lobster tonight, among other delicacies.
Finally, one of the giants opened the double doors at the end of the room, bowed his head, and held out his arm, ushering the guests inside. Time to get the party started, in more ways than one.
Most of the guests drifted in one by one, although a few were coupled up in groups of two or more. Men and women. Old, young, fat, thin, black, white, Hispanic, dwarves, giants, vampires. There was more variety to the crowd than I’d expected. Usually, all of Mab’s business associates looked the same—middle-aged men with more money than common sense and all the greedy, twisted appetites to match.
But these people were different. Oh, they all looked like I’d thought they would—dressed to the nines in tuxedos and evening gowns, with expensive jewels, perfect makeup, and coiffed hair to match. But they didn’t act like I’d thought they would. They didn’t mingle, they didn’t start drinking and eating, and perhaps most telling, they didn’t even bother talking to each other. Instead, all the singles, couples, and tight-knit groups stayed to themselves, leaving several feet of distance in between each of them. Curious. Most curious indeed.
Through the rifle scope, my eye went from one face to another, trying to get a sense of exactly who Mab had invited to her shindig and why they were acting so strangely. I might not care what their names were or how much money they had, but I did want to know if any of them fancied themselves tough guys who might be a threat to me. Not that I was planning on sticking around after I took out Mab, but it never hurt to be prepared. Fletcher Lane, the old man who had been my mentor, had taught me that, among many other deadly things.
Despite their tuxedos, gowns, and glittering jewels, every single one of the men and women had a tense, coiled, predatory air about them, and they all gave each other the same flat, hard stare, as if they were all competing for the same prize and would do anything to get it. A few of them actually eyed the silverware, as if they were thinking about picking up the knives, spoons, and forks, and thinning out the crowd a bit before the show got started.
I frowned. Mab did business with all sorts of unsavory characters, but something about the people inside the dining room bothered me. Maybe because they all reminded me… of me. Gin Blanco. The Spider.
Before I had time to think that thought through, the double doors opened again, and Mab Monroe stepped into the room.
The Fire elemental strolled through the tense crowd until she reached the middle of the dining room. Everyone turned to stare at her, and what little conversation there had been stopped, like a radio that had been turned off midsong. Like her guests, Mab had dressed up for the evening, in a long, sea-green gown that complemented her pale skin. Her coppery red hair was piled on top of her head, each artfully arranged strand dripping down the sides of her face like so much blood. But the most striking thing about Mab was her eyes—two bottomless black pools that seemed to suck up all the available light in the room instead of reflecting it back. Even the bright chandeliers overhead appeared to dim as she passed underneath them.
The severe V in the front of Mab’s gown showed off her creamy décolletage, as well as the necklace she wore. A flat gold circle encased the Fire elemental’s neck, accentuated by a ruby set into the middle of the design. Several dozen wavy golden rays surrounded the gem, and the intricate diamond cutting on the metal caught the light and reflected it back, making it look like the rays were flickering.
The flamboyant ruby-and-gold design was much more than just a mere necklace—it was a rune. A sunburst. The symbol for fire. Mab’s personal rune, used by her alone. Runes were how elementals and other magic types in Ashland identified themselves, their families, their power, their alliances, and even their businesses to others.
I had a rune too. A small circle surrounded by eight thin rays. A spider rune. The symbol for patience and my assassin name. Actually, I had two runes—one branded into either palm. The marks had been put there by Mab the night she’d murdered my family. That’s when the Fire elemental had tortured me by duct-taping a silverstone medallion shaped like the spider rune in between my hands and then superheating the metal with her magic until it had melted into my flesh, marking me forever.
The sight of Mab and her flashing sunburst necklace made the spider rune scars on my palms itch and burn, the way they always did whenever I was around the Fire elemental, but I didn’t move from my position. Didn’t rub my hands together to make the uncomfortable sensation go away. Didn’t let out a tense sigh. Hell, I didn’t even blink.
Killing Mab was much more important than the memories that filled my mind or the pain that they brought me, even now, seventeen years after the fact. Now was not the time to be sentimental or sloppy. Not when I had a chance to kill the bitch, to finally end our family feud once and for all.
Inside the dining room, Mab turned in a circle, her black eyes roaming over her guests, sizing them up just like I had.
“I’m glad to see that you all could make it.”
The Fire elemental’s voice was low, soft, and silky, with just a hint of a rasp to it. Still, despite her gentle tone, a clear undercurrent of power and authority crackled in Mab’s words.
Thanks to Finn and his ability to get his hands on absolutely anything, I’d opened the dining room window earlier and fastened a small bug inside underneath the windowsill. The bug’s receiver, which I’d stuck in my ear several minutes ago, let me hear Mab loud and clear.
“I wasn’t sure exactly how many of you would show up on such short notice,” Mab continued. “But I’m most pleased by the turnout.”
I frowned. Turnout? What was the Fire elemental up to, and who were these mysterious people that she’d invited to her mansion? I had a funny feeling they weren’t the tame businessmen and businesswomen that I’d expected to find.
A woman stepped forward, separating herself from the pack. She wore an evening gown like all the others, but the garment was just a bit too big for her thin, wiry body. The fabric was slick and cheap, and the mint green color was faded, as though she’d been wearing the dress for years, pulling it out of the depths of her closet for special occasions just like this one. She had to be seventy if she was a day, and her skin had the dark, nut brown look of someone who’d spent her entire life outdoors, working under the burning sun. Her gray hair had been pulled back into a tight bun, which set off her sharp, angular face, and her eyes were a pale, washed-out blue.
The woman was one of those who’d come in with someone else. A young girl of about sixteen stood off to her right, dressed in a low-rent pink gown with a poofy ballerina skirt, which made it look like a prom dress. The girl was as light as the woman was dark, with long, molasses-colored hair shot through with honey-blond highlights. Her hazel eyes were wide and innocent in her lean, almost gaunt face, and the girl kept glancing from side to side, obviously awed by all the lavish furnishings.
“Well, there was really no choice in the matter, Mab.” The woman’s voice was low, pleasant, friendly even, as though she were talking to some stranger on the street and not the most dangerous person in Ashland. “Not with the generous payout that you were offering. I’m surprised that more people didn’t show up to try to collect.”
The others in the room nodded their agreement. My eyes narrowed. Payout, for what? And how were they going to collect? Was this some kind of business deal? Or something else… something more sinister? Something to do with the Spider perhaps?
It wasn’t out of the realm of possibility. Not too long ago, Mab had hired an assassin named Elektra LaFleur to come to Ashland, hunt me down, and kill me. Of course, I’d taken care of LaFleur instead. Still, ever since then, I’d been waiting for the Fire elemental to do something, anything, to try to find the Spider again. Mab wasn’t the type of person to give up, especially when I’d been offing her men, thwarting her best-laid plans, and generally thumbing my nose at her for months.
But everything had been quiet since I’d killed LaFleur in the city’s old train yard. Even Finn and his many spies hadn’t heard a whisper of what Mab might be planning, which worried me more than if I knew that the Fire elemental had dispatched every man at her disposal to track me down.
Somehow, though, I felt that the quiet was about to end tonight—in a big, big way.
“And you would be?” Mab asked, staring down her nose at her guest.
The other woman bowed her head respectfully, although she never took her eyes off the Fire elemental. “Ruth Gentry, at your service.”
“Ah, yes, Gentry. Well, I appreciate your honesty,” Mab said, returning the thin woman’s pleasant tone. “You have a stellar reputation, as does everyone else in the room. Which, of course, is why I asked you all here tonight.”
The Fire elemental had peaked my curiosity with her strange words, and I paused, wanting to find out exactly who the mystery people were. Curiosity was often an emotion that got the best of me, but for once, I forced it aside. I was here to do one thing—kill Mab. Everything else could wait.
“I hope you all had a pleasant journey,” Mab said, looking at her guests. “As you can see, we’ll be dining on the various dishes that my chef has prepared…”
I tuned out the Fire elemental and lifted my eye away from the rifle scope. Slowly, I reached forward until my fingers closed around a tiny, clear, almost invisible suction cup on the window in front of me. I gently pulled on the cup, and a small circular piece slid out of the window. A glass cutter was among the tools I’d brought with me tonight, tucked away in the zippered pocket on my silverstone vest. Earlier, I’d used it to carve an opening in the window. I wanted a clear shot at Mab and not one that might be distorted by my crossbow bolt punching through the glass.
I put the glass down beside me on the snowy roof. Then I slid my crossbow forward, until the tip of it, the end with the bolt, just protruded through the hole in the window—aimed right at Mab.
One of Mab’s giant bodyguards, who was pulling double duty as a waiter tonight, came over to stand beside her, as though he had an important message for her. The Fire elemental ignored him and kept talking to her guests about how they’d discuss business after dinner. Too bad she wasn’t going to even make it to the soup course.
I waited a few seconds to be sure that the giant wasn’t going to interrupt or step in front of Mab, then scooted forward even more and put my eye next to the rifle scope once more. The Fire elemental wasn’t that far away from me, maybe fifty feet, but the scope gave me a crystal clear view of her face.
I aimed for her right eye, which looked blacker than ink. I’d only get one shot at her, and I didn’t want to waste it on a chest wound that might not put her down for good. Mab might have more magic than any other elemental in Ashland, but even she wouldn’t be able to survive a crossbow bolt through her eye, especially since the silverstone projectile would keep on going until it blasted out of the back of her skull. Hard to recover when half your brain matter was missing.
Despite all the people I’d killed over the years, all the blood I’d spilled, all the sudden, violent, brutal deaths I’d caused, my finger trembled just a bit as I set it on the crossbow’s trigger. My heart raced in my chest, picking up speed with every single beat, and a bead of sweat trickled down the side of my face, despite the cold. I drew in a breath, trying to calm my nerves and quiet myself. Trying to go to that cold, dark, hard place that I’d been to so many times before—the shelter that had gotten me through so many terrible times in my life.
Because this was the hit that truly, finally mattered. For my murdered family, for my baby sister, Bria, for me. It wouldn’t make things right, it wouldn’t erase all the horrible things I’d suffered through or the equally bad ones I’d done myself, but killing Mab would keep the people I loved safe. And I hoped it would bring me some kind of peace too.
I hadn’t been able to stop Mab years ago, when she’d murdered my mother and older sister, but I could kill her now. Everything I’d ever done—living on the streets, becoming an assassin, honing my deadly skills—had been leading up to this one moment, this final confrontation.
I let out my breath and pulled the trigger.
© 2011 Jennifer Estep