Parts of me that were previously uninjured were now a moist tapestry of cuts, and when I got to my feet a glittery stream of small glass slivers tinkled to the ground. Larger fragments were embedded in my palms from pushing myself up.
Noriko was gasping in short, labored breaths, but still she struggled to her feet.
“Just. Stop,” I pleaded.
“Die,” she cursed.
Her sword was on the ground two feet away, and she seemed to notice it at the same time I did. We saw our equal chances of reaching it, and both dove. When we found our footing, she was holding the sword and I was crouched low enough to avoid her first attempt to divorce me from my head. The air above my scalp shrieked.
I got to my feet while her arm limply sagged at her side. If I looked even half as grim as she did right now, it was a wonder we weren’t both dead.
In an attempt to make peace I said, “It’s your last—”
She lunged for me rather than listen to my bargain, and I was ready for our fight to be over. I turned to my side just as I felt something sting between my ribs. My foot connected with her stomach in a perfectly executed side kick, and she didn’t get a chance to regain her balance.
Noriko tumbled backwards down the hill and into the broken wooden fence at the back of the property. The sharp point of the old gate pierced through her chest with fatal precision. She slumped, and the fight went out of her along with her life.
I stood panting, looking at the silver blade stuck six inches into my rib cage, and let out a whine of pain as I drew it out by the hilt. My whole body was aflame with the poisonous torture of the silver. My arm wasn’t healing, and the new hole in my side would be just as slow to close.
I was ready to sink to the ground and give up, when I heard Nolan speak.
“Secret?” There was a tremble of fear in my name.
Holding the sword by its benign, silver-free handle, I turned towards his voice.
Daria held Nolan by the neck, his toes brushing the tips of the grass below him, his eyes wide with terror and his face pale from oxygen loss. Daria’s gaze trailed to her former servant impaled on the wooden spear. She looked at me, who stood bloody and weak, and then she lowered Nolan enough he could touch the ground and gasp for breath.
“I underestimated you,” she told me as she petted Nolan, still standing behind him.
“Uhn,” I grunted, gripping the sword tighter. My one eye glared.
“Let us talk, shall we?”
“I’d rather not.”
“Then how about I talk and you listen?”
There was no sense in arguing. When a vampire wanted to go on a rant about something, no force on Earth could stop them.
“It seems I am out one human servant.”
Daria waved off the apology. “Irrelevant. I have your man-child.”
Nolan’s gaze was locked on my face, but I couldn’t bring myself to look at him.
“What’s your point?” I winced. Every word I spoke caused an explosion of white-hot needles to sear through my bloodstream. For once in my life, my body would have appreciated it if I’d shut the hell up.
“If you abandon your allegiance to Sig and stand by me in my revolution, your power will exceed your wildest expectations.”
Things must have been looking bad for her if she was willing to barter with me.
“I thought I was just Sig’s loyal dog.”
“I think we both know you’re more than that.” She looked down the hill again. I followed her stare, half-expecting Noriko to have risen from the beyond to attack me again. She hadn’t. She was still as dead as I’d left her.
“What does this have to do with Nolan?”
“I’ll make him my new servant. That way he needn’t die and you can continue to watch over him.”
Nolan tried to jerk free of her hold, but she held him steady. He was obviously less than enamored with Daria’s perfect plan.
“No.” I tried to shake my head, but it hurt too badly.
“He goes free or I won’t help you.”
“He knows too much.”
I snorted. “You can kill council elders and absorb their strength. You can frame a warden for an impossible crime. You can threaten the sanctity of the Tribunal. But you can’t thrall a kid into forgetting you?” I limped towards her. “Are you really no stronger than a baby vampire?”
She was clearly offended by my accusation.
“You would stand beside me, if I spare his life?”
I looked at Nolan. His eyes were glistening with tears, but still he shook his head to say no. I smiled at him helplessly.
Daria released Nolan and laughed with delight.
In the same moment, the owl came to perch on the tree overhead. He announced himself with a mournful whoo, but there was only joy inside me at the sight of him. I looked away from Nolan and Daria and right at the bird.
“Your timing is impeccable.”
“Who,” said the owl.
“Are you quite mad?” Daria asked, shifting her gaze from me to the bird. Pretty rich coming from her.
I grabbed Nolan’s wrist before Daria had time to react and pulled him behind me, offering what meager protection I could. I would fall dead before she touched him again.
“I’d have to be mad to agree to help you.”
“We had a deal,” she protested.
“I don’t bargain with rogues.” I raised the sword to stop her advance. My hands were shaking badly and the blade trembled. She laughed again, but this time it was cold and loaded with an unspoken threat.
“You think you can stand against me? You, a boy, and…” she raised her eyes to the tree branches, “…a bird?”
“Who,” said the owl.
“It’s time for you to die, you insufferable little nuisance.” Her veneer of politeness was melting away. Now the true monster beneath the surface began to show itself. Her fangs flashed and her eyes became pools of blackness.
The bird took flight again, circling over the house and flapping its wings with flourish before perching on a lower branch than before. Daria attempted to dive for me, and I held the shaky sword in preparation, but the attack never came.
She was frozen in place.
Panic contorted her face as she fought against her own immobilized limbs, trying desperately to move in any direction. She snarled at the futility of her actions, lathering herself into a frenzy.
“Nifty little trick, isn’t it?”
“What have you done to me?” she shrieked.
“She hasn’t done anything.” A voice preceded its owner from the corner of the house. Sig followed his words and came to stand next to the rigid figure of his former right hand. “It was the bird.”
Daria’s gaze darted to the owl, then back to Sig.
In a spectacular display of shimmering blue light, a show I was no stranger to, the bird dropped from the tree and landed as a man next to Sig. His olive skin glowed softly in the night, glittering with the lingering traces of the magic. He looked at me, a tight smile on his face.
“This, I believe they say, makes us even?” His strange accent made the sentence seem exotic.
I nodded, my head wobbling loosely like a rag doll’s.
“I hope your kind will have no further need of my services,” he said to Sig. “I helped you only as a favor to the girl’s grandmother. We are done now.”
“For now,” Sig agreed.
The witch narrowed his eyes at Sig’s turn of phrase.
“You may release her.”
The witch looked at the black depths of Daria’s pupils. She gnashed her teeth at him. Unmoved, he straightened the lapels of his suit with casual defiance, as though vampires threatened him regularly.
I wouldn’t worry too much about vampires either, if I could turn into a bird at a moment’s notice and fly away.
“I have told you what this one…” he indicated Daria, “…has confessed. Now you wish her to be free from her bonds?”
“We deal with traitors our own way.” This came from an altogether surprising speaker. Juan Carlos came around the same corner of the house Sig had. With him was Brigit, who looked uncharacteristically grim. “She is our concern now.”
“As you wish.” The witch spoke the words with the same tone I’d used to invite Noriko to her own funeral. He snapped his fingers, and in a flash of sapphire light and a puff of smoke, he was gone.
“He can teleport?” Brigit asked.
Only I seemed to notice the tiny wasp that emerged from the cloud. It buzzed once around my head before it disappeared into the trees. Sneaky witch.
Once the shock of the magical display had shaken off, Daria became aware the spell had been broken. Her instinctive reaction was to continue her attack against me, which Nolan recognized because he took a step backwards. But Sig had placed a warning hand on Daria’s shoulder. All he needed to do was squeeze and she stopped.
“This fight is over, old friend,” he said, his voice heavy with a sadness that surprised me.
She looked up at him, her face almost instantly restoring to its former sweetness and beauty.
“Sig, whatever she has claimed, it’s a lie. She will protect her beloved warden at any cost. She is disloyal.” Her voice was so earnest, her face so committed to the lie, I almost believed it myself. “I would never betray the Tribunal. I have been loyal to you for centuries.”
I almost choked on her ingratiating words, but I didn’t defend myself.
Sig’s hand tightened on her shoulder, and she winced. Juan Carlos had come to stand beside Sig, and I could see him clearly now. The twisted grimace that marred his once-handsome face was now set in a tight frown, and for once it wasn’t focused on me.
If anyone here would be willing to believe her lies, it would be him. But his rage was all for her, and she could see that.
“We heard everything you said, Daria. The witch delivered your confession to us.”
“He is her puppet,” she sputtered. “He did it for her.”