“They’re still alive?” I was appalled. No creature should have to live in the state of decay the ghouls were in. They were prisoners in their own bodies.
“A sort of living, I suppose. Somewhere between this life and the next. If they feed, their strength goes to me, so sadly they have begun to show a little wear.” She gave a reproachful smirk to the more disfigured of the two. “All for a good cause, though.”
The ghost nodded weakly.
Nolan let out a fearful, quivering whimper.
“You’re insane,” I told her.
“I prefer to think of myself as resourceful.”
“You’re going to challenge Sig for leadership of the Tribunal, aren’t you?”
“And I’m going to win.” Her eyes flashed. “The only way to advance is to kill the one ahead of you in a declared fight. Before this he would have destroyed me, but now he won’t know what hit him. Sig will die.”
“Who’s the fool now?”
Her features tightened, and Noriko moved to attack again. Once more she was stopped.
“Your dedication to him is admirable, Secret. Like a dog, you would die to protect him. But if your master cared so much about you, then why is he not here to keep it from happening?”
I didn’t have a clever comeback for her.
“That’s what I thought. Your usefulness is at an end. With you out of the picture, nothing stands in my way.”
Outside the window I heard a flap of wings. I was apparently the only one to notice.
“Noriko, I’ve grown tired of the half-breed and your associates. The time has come.”
“The time has come for what?” Nolan finally found the courage to speak.
“For you all to die, of course.”
Daria may have called me a well-trained dog, but if that wasn’t the pot calling the kettle whipped, I didn’t know what was. Noriko watched her master leave with the two vampire ghosts, then trained her blade on me with an altogether-too-creepy smirk.
“I’m saving you for last,” she promised.
“It’s your funeral.”
She strode across the room with her footsteps barely touching the floor, and Jameson watched her come with no sign of fear.
“Secret?” Nolan whispered as Noriko pulled the blade back into a traditional fighting stance and squared herself in front of Jameson.
“Close your eyes,” I instructed. Both Jameson and Nolan followed my order. “You don’t have to do this, Noriko. They trusted you.”
“Trust is for fools. You heard what Daria said.”
“And Daria is nuts.”
The blade held in the air, and Noriko seemed to contemplate my words for a brief pause. I hoped against the odds she might have heard what I was saying. In the lull, Jameson opened his eyes and smiled a peaceful, resigned smile.
“Daria is the future. The past is dead,” Noriko announced, then her blade sang though the air. Jameson’s head tipped to the side, his eyes still bulging with surprise, and tumbled to the floor with a cracking noise where it hit the hardwood.
“Nolan,” I whispered. “Keep your eyes closed. Whatever happens, I need you to believe I will get you out of this alive.”
His breath was short and edged with panic.
“I will protect you,” I swore.
“You can’t even protect yourself.” Noriko laughed, rounding on the chair. She took her blade and wiped Jameson’s blood on my shirtsleeve. “Everyone claimed you were the greatest warrior of them all. You were a legend.”
I forced a smile. “I have a great publicist.”
“Tonight your legend dies.”
I looked up at her, my one good eye locked on her face. “I’ve heard that promise before, Noriko, and from beings a lot scarier than a four-hundred-year-old hooker with a toy sword.”
Rage contorted her features in an ugly way. Her face wrinkled in on itself, and her eyes darkened dramatically. Her sword stance was less precise this time. She pulled the sword back over her head as if she intended to halve me like a dry log. The blade cut through the air, but I was faster than she was.
“Nolan, pull your hands back. Now!”
He did as he was told and the rope binding us together strained, providing a gap between our wrists. With a hop that made my whole body scream in protest, I shuffled the weight of both our bodies forward a mere two inches.
It was enough.
The blade cut through the ropes, freeing my hands. I pulled my wrists free and looked at my arm. She’d cut me along my right forearm where the blade must have gotten me before I’d pulled all the way forward. Dark blood seeped from the wound, but I could still use my fingers, at least for now.
Then, as deep wounds are wont to do, the pain came as soon as I saw it. But it was no ordinary pain. My skin felt like it was being boiled from within, and the entirety of my arm swam with the burning itch of a thousand fire ants trapped beneath the surface.
Noriko’s sword was made of silver.
My eye darted to her, then back to the wound. She’d paused her attack only long enough to smile smugly at my reaction. My bravado had faded, but not my will to live. She swung again, but I rolled off the chair, which was subsequently sliced clean in half. Nolan had gotten off his chair and was struggling with his leg bonds, but for the time being he was not her concern. Her eyes and her sword were all for me.
As I pulled at the ropes around my ankles, the tingling itch spread to my fingers at last, rendering them useless. My own blood was painting my bare legs a grisly black-red. I freed one leg in time to kick myself backwards on the carpet as she slashed to attack me once more.
“For someone who’s had four centuries to practice, you’re not very good with that thing.” I hopped to my feet, kicking the loosened ropes off. I must have made quite the spectacle, with one eye swollen shut and my face and legs smeared with blood. The look on Nolan’s face when he saw the front of me for the first time was sobering.
It was probably the same look I’d worn when I met the first vampire ghost outside.
My arm bled onto the floor with a steady dripping sound.
“You will die here tonight,” Noriko snarled.
“If I do, it’ll be from blood loss due to standing around bored while I wait for you to shut the hell up and attack me already.”
She looked astonished. I’m guessing the protected vampires had given her and Daria a lot less trouble than this. Most people, when faced with death, reach the level of acceptance and eventually yield. I got as far as denial and sort of stuck there. It made killing me pretty frustrating.
I gave her a nod, then bolted for the door.
If I believed for even an instant she would turn on Nolan, I wouldn’t have run. But I’d seen the hatred in her eyes and the commitment she had to the task at hand. Her sole purpose, for now, was killing me.
In the hall the fog had dissipated, but I still managed to snag my foot on the edge of a rug. My stupid feet were numb from being bound so tight. I stumbled down, catching myself with both hands, and ignoring the screaming agony in my head and forearm, I vaulted myself forward into a somersault and landed in a standing position at the base of the staircase. I looked from the door to the stairs and debated my options for the millisecond I had.
Noriko was through the door and chasing me into the hallway, rage-blinded and screaming in an inhuman, animal wail. I, like every stupid slasher-movie victim, chose the stairs instead of the door and bounded up them two at a time. She was right on my heels.
I was a second ahead of her into the mirrored room, and when she followed me inside she was forced to pause.
Dozens of her stared at dozens of me.
I waved, and the multitude of Secrets followed suit. Her mirror images all looked equally enraged by this turn of events. I didn’t speak, because my voice would give away my real location. I used her momentary confusion to track my previous blood trail on the floor, through the maze, to where I’d broken the mirror panel earlier that night.
She followed my reflections, but had apparently never come through this way before. She walked into a mirrored wall at least once, swearing with irritation and smashing the glass to retaliate. I crept back to her, a large shard of mirror in my good hand. She was still too distracted by breaking the mirrors to notice me until my reflections were all right next to hers in the remaining panels.
“Guess you picked the wrong one.” And as she turned towards the real me in surprise, I buried the shard of glass deep into her neck. Her body seized, and a gurgling, wet noise escaped her throat. She slumped to the ground with wide, shocked eyes. I crouched next to her, but with the glass in her throat it was hard to check for a pulse, and I’d never been able to feel for one in the wrist. I nudged a piece of glass in front of her mouth and watched for any sign of breath. When none came I scooped up her sword, avoiding the silver blade, and trekked back into the main hall.
“Nolan?” I called out. I was limping and keeping my bloody arm pressed against my belly as I reached the top of the stairs. My head was pounding with the torment of a thousand migraines and it wouldn’t dull any time soon. Calliope was in for a treat when I got out of here.
She was an Oracle though; she would have seen it coming.
Too bad I wasn’t an Oracle.
Noriko’s whole weight slammed into me and we both staggered backwards, struggling to maintain our balance. I had a thing or two to learn about the mortality of daytime servants because I’d have staked even money she’d been dead, but I must have hit something vital. She wasn’t speaking in words, just making guttural barks of noise while blood seeped from her neck. The glass was still sticking out the side of her throat.
She tried to throw our combined weight to the stairs, and the only thing I could do was force us in the opposite direction. The struggle was briefly even, a full-body arm wrestle, until I used some untapped reserve of strength and hurled us both into the full-wall picture window opposite the stairs.
In the time I had to reflect on this, while we fell through a shower of glass and wooden window frame, perhaps it wasn’t my best plan ever.