Authors: Julie Kagawa
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Paranormal, #Fantasy & Magic
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I smelled blood as soon as I walked into the room.
A blast of snow-laced air accompanied me, swirling around my black coat, clinging to my hair and clothes as I shoved back the door. The space beyond was small and dirty, with rotting tables scattered about the floor and steel drums set at every corner, thick smoke pouring from the mouths to hover near the roof. An ancient ceiling fan, half its blades broken or missing, spun limply, doing little to disperse the choking air.
Every eye in the room turned as I stepped through the frame and, once settled on me, didn’t glance away. Hard, dangerous, broken faces watched intently as I passed their tables, like feral dogs scenting blood. I ignored them, moving steadily across the creaky floorboards, feeling nails and chips of glass under my boots. I didn’t need to take a breath to know the air reeked of sweat and alcohol and human filth.
And blood. The scent of it clung to the walls and floors, soaked into the rotting tables, smeared in dark stains across the wood. It flowed through the veins of every human here, hot and heady. I heard several heartbeats quicken as I made my way to the counter, felt the eager stirrings of lust and hunger, but also the hint of fear, unease. Some of them, at least, were sober enough to guess the truth.
The man behind the counter was a grizzled giant with a snarl of scar tissue across his throat. It crept up his neck and twisted the left corner of his lip into a permanent scowl. He eyed me without expression as I took a seat on one of the moldy bar stools, resting my arms on the badly dinged counter. His gaze flicked to the hilt of the sword strapped to my back, and one of his eyelids twitched.
“I’m afraid I don’t have the type of drink you’re looking for,” he said in a low voice, as his hands slid under the bar. When they came up again, I knew they wouldn’t be empty.
Or maybe a baseball bat.
“Not on tap, anyway.”
I smiled without looking up. “You know what I am.”
“Wasn’t difficult. Pretty girl walking into a place like this either has a death wish or is already dead.” He snorted, shooting a dark look at the patrons behind us. I could feel their hooded gazes even now. “I know what you want, and I’m not about to stop you. No one here will miss these idiots. You take what you have to, but don’t trash my bar, understand?”
“Actually, I’m just looking for someone,” I said, knowing I didn’t have a lot of time. The dogs at my back were already stirring. “Someone like me. Bald. Tall. Face scarred all to hell.” I finally looked up, meeting his impassive gaze. “Anyone like that come through here?”
A muscle worked in his jaw. Beneath his grimy shirt, his heartbeat picked up, and a sheen of sweat appeared on his brow. For a moment, he seemed torn about whether he should pull out the gun or whatever he had beneath the counter. I kept my expression neutral, unthreatening, my hands on the bar between us.
“You’ve seen him,” I prodded carefully. He shook himself, then turned that blank stare on me.
“No.” The reply seemed dragged from somewhere deep within. “
didn’t see him. But…” He glanced at the men behind me, as if judging how much time we had, before shaking his head. “About a month ago, a stranger came through. No one saw him enter, and no one saw him leave. But we found what he left behind.”
“Rickson and his boys. In their home. From one end of it to the other. They said the bodies were so scattered they never found all the pieces.”
I bit the inside of my lip. “Did anyone see who did it?”
“Rickson’s woman. She lived. At least, until she blew her brains out three days later. But she said the killer was a tall, pale man with a face scarred like the devil himself.”
“Anyone with him?”
The barkeep frowned then shook his head. “No, she said he was alone. But he carried a large black bag with him, like a body bag. That’s all we could get out of her, anyway. She wasn’t terribly coherent, if you know what I mean.”
I nodded, drawing back, though the words
sent a chill through my stomach.
I’m getting closer, though.
“Thank you,” I murmured, sliding off the stool. “I’ll be going now.”
That’s when I felt the arm on my shoulder.
“Oh, you’re not leaving yet, little girl,” murmured a voice in my ear, hot and rancid. A large hand reached down and gripped my wrist, hard enough to bruise, if I could still bruise. “It’s too cold outside. Come over here and keep us warm.”
A smile tugged at one corner of my mouth.
Finally. Took you long enough
I looked at the barkeep. He met my gaze, then very deliberately turned and walked toward the back room. The man next to me didn’t seem to notice; his arm slid down my back and curled around my waist, trying to drag me away. I didn’t budge an inch, and he frowned, too drunk to realize what was happening.
I waited until the barkeep vanished through the door, letting it swing shut behind him, before I turned to my assailant.
He leered at me, the stench of alcohol coming off him in waves. “That’s right, little girl. You want some of this, don’cha?” Behind us, a few more patrons were starting to get up; either they wanted in on the fun, or they thought they could take me out together. The rest watched behind their tankards, tense and wary, smelling of fear.
“Come on then, bitch,” the man beside me said, and grabbed my other arm, his face mean and eager. “Let’s do this. I can go all night.”
I smiled. “Can you now?” I said quietly.
And lunged at him with a roar, sinking my fangs into his throat.
When the barkeep returned, I was already gone. He would find the bodies—the ones stupid enough to stay and fight— lying where they had fallen, a couple in pieces, but most of them still alive. I had what I’d come for. The Hunger had been sated, and better here, in this outpost full of bandits and murderers, than anywhere else. Better these kinds of men than an innocent family or an old couple huddled together in the ruins of an isolated cabin, trying to keep warm. I was a monster who killed and preyed on human life; I could never escape that, but at least I could choose what kind of lives I took.