Worm gazed at me in the suddenly-still field, his eyes narrowed. He looked to Elena then back to me. He relaxed his fingers and whatever violence had been gathering in his palm dissipated.
“Can you fix him?” Elena asked a second time.
“He is injured?”
I scowled. “I don’t think that’s any of your business.”
Elena ignored me. “On the insides. The old fucker did something to him.”
“Old fucker?” Work quirked an eyebrow and spared her a glance. “What did he look like?”
“He looked old.” She slowed her cadence down, as if talking to a child. “And he looked like a fucker.”
“Yeah. Long and bushy and white. I think a weasel lived in there.”
“Sounds like Harlop. He’s dangerous, but his associates are worse.”
“We’ll be sure to avoid them in the future,” I said.
Worm nodded. “You’re lucky he didn’t Have Alice with him. We call her Malice. As powerful as she is unstable.”
Elena stopped herself from speaking, but not before Worm saw her. “You’ve met Alice?” he asked her directly.
“Met a crazy lady.” With a glance at me and a grin for Worm Elena added, “She fuckin’ exploded.”
There was a tingling feeling in my scalp and Worm’s eyes went wide. He ducked into a crouch with one arm raised above his head just before a bolt of lightning slammed out of the clear sky and hit his upraised hand. My body stiffened and convulsed, stars dancing in my eyes as the crack of the thunder slammed into me like a large stone hitting calm water.
I discovered myself on the ground, my ears ringing and my heart pounding in my chest. From far away someone yelled “Scatter!” — was it Worm? — and I forced myself to my feet, trying to get my breathing under control, trying to shake the fog out of my head. Elena lay near me, limbs rigid, her eyes round, her breath short and fast. Her jaw moved, but no curses came out. I lifted her and headed for the tree line, staggering more than running, intent on putting as much distance between me and Worm as possible. Halfway to the trees Elena was able to propel herself; I set her down and we picked up speed.
Behind us another flash and deafening shock and for a moment my muscles stopped working and once more I was on the ground. We both rose more quickly and soon we were in the trees. We scrambled into a heavy shrub and turned back to see what was happening.
“Bags,” Elena said, her voice little more than breath.
There were three figures still in the open. Worm was — somehow — staggering to his feet, surrounded by whisps of smoke from the grass burning around his feet. His metal-clad bodyguard lay still. And there was Bags, flat on his back, one arm waving around his head with no apparent purpose.
Worm staggered, dragging his left foot behind him, heading toward the trees a short distance to our right. Blood flowed from his nose and coated the lower half of his face. He staggered just as an arrow hummed from the woods and grazed his shoulder. In response he threw up his fist and shouted something. I felt the concussion more than I heard it, and someone cried out. Worm kept shambling. He was moving toward his assailants, rather than away from them.
A rational person will run toward danger for only a few reasons – they think they will defeat it, they think running away will not save them, they want to protect someone else, or they’re stupid. Some might argue that “sense of duty” belongs in that list, but that is really just a special form of stupid.
What of me, where I crouched? I could move toward danger, toward someone who controlled lightning and at least one other who was not afraid to kill by more conventional means. Or I could take Elena and get far from there before anyone was in a position to come after us. Kat and Bags could take the godfucked map to the king.
From the far side of the meadow a figure emerged from the trees, running. Katherine. She headed directly toward Bags, who’s arm now lay still across his chest.
Worm made another gesture toward the woods, and I felt another concussion. His action was answered by another arrow, this one finding the flesh of his right shoulder. He staggered, his face a mask of pain. Another arrow came, but he somehow deflected it. He was moving more slowly now, still staggering toward his enemy, but I didn’t think he was going to reach them.
Elena turned to me, her eyes round. “You have to—”
“Wait here,” I told her, very softly.
With any luck Worm would weaken the other Soul Thief before his inevitable fall. Assuming there was only one other Soul thief. If I could kill that one, my escape with Elena would be all the simpler. Or so I told myself.
Speed took precedence over stealth, and the antagonists were making plenty of noise. I came up behind a party of four men. One lay on the ground, crooked, his eyes staring up at the morning sky, unblinking. Another lay facedown, a shattered bow in his broken hand, blood seeping into the soil beneath his head.
The other two were injured, but functioning. One man, in a steel shirt and cap, pulled back on his bow while he steadied himself to take aim at Worm. The last one of the bunch knelt on the ground with his eyes closed, the soft earth staining his white robe while blue lines of force danced on his hands.
By my right foot was a rock. I picked it up, hefty in my hand, round and darkened on the underside, some loose soil clinging to it, along with an unlucky worm. I threw it at the lightning man’s head, as hard as I could. Simple.
The rock bounced off the back of his head with a dead thud and flew straight up into the air. As the Soul Thief pitched forward lightning struck somewhere nearby, bit it didn’t hit Worm. Perhaps distracted, the other man released his arrow off-target. He turned to see me, but then from the meadow Worm did something and the bowman twisted in a spray of blood and flopped to the ground where he lay still.
I used my lovely little black blade to open the throat of the unconscious Soul Thief, watching the rhythmic pulse of his life spurting out onto the forest floor, fading until he was no more.
“So much blood,” Worm said. I looked up to see him leaning against a tree, a crooked smile on his pale face. “Someone’s going to have to cut this off,” he said, holding out his left hand. The skin was blackened and cracking; dark streaks led up his arm. With that he collapsed to the ground.