Chapter 73: The Shadow of Grief
Ghost stared across the vacant rooftops of the slums with wary trepidation. A scattered murder of crows watched him from the broken chimneys as smog rolled across the patched rooftops of mismatched brick, thatch, and even tattered blankets that attempted to keep out the elements. Above the gloomy district, summer rain clouds added their own ominous canvas. And yet, no matter how far or long he searched the wretched landscape before him, not a single member of the Fox Den was visible.
‘It’s not like Alex to pull his eyes from the street like this.’
The black crow beside him emitted a mangled screech as Ghost leaned over the edge of the roof to check the alleyways below. The uneasy breeze hurled specs of straw across the empty mud-splattered street. Even the usual vagrants and drunks were suspiciously absent.
Ghost climbed down by way of a broken ladder, which only reached the mid floor of the three-story building. He lowered himself to its last rung, then swung to the nearest window ledge and steadily descended until he could safely drop to the street below. He landed with a faint grunt, straightened, and scanned the roofs once more. The shadow guards remained discreetly out of sight, but he could sense their magic nearby. He left them to follow as they pleased while he quickened his pace and headed towards the heart of the slums.
The Fox Den’s bar came into view, surrounded by a tight circle of armed thugs. Ghost counted twenty as he stepped out of the shadows—more than a few aimed pistols in his direction as he stopped and raised his hands.
“Ghost,” Troy greeted as he walked past the barrier of men and waved them to lower their guns. “Bad time to be lurking about.”
“Apparently,” Ghost muttered as he moved closer to the Fox lieutenant. “Is Alex inside?”
Troy sighed as he hocked his thumbs through his belt. “Yeah, he is.” The mercenary rolled a toothpick around his thin lips, then shrugged and motioned for Ghost to follow him. “I’ll take you to him.”
The protective circle of Foxes glowered even as they yielded a small opening for Troy and the rogue assassin to step through. Ghost could practically taste the anger and unease in the air as he followed his escort past the doorman and halted at the threshold.
Alex sat cross-legged in the middle of the bar. The Fox Master’s bowed head rested against his right hand, while his left clutched the shoulder of the dead man laid out on the stained wooden floor. Two other bodies covered in sheets lay on either side.
Ghost focused in on the corpse’s face. With its eyes and lips stitched closed by a black thread, it took him a moment to recognize Darwin. He took another step forward, and Alex looked up.
The Fox Master’s coal-black eyes burned with fury as he regarded the ghoul assassin. “Ghost.”
Around them, the dimly lit bar lanterns illuminated the masked specters of the Fox Den’s elite assassins, who lingered in the shadows, their fury and bloodthirst palpable.
“What brings you?” Alex asked dully.
Ghost shook his head slowly. “It doesn’t matter now.” He gestured towards Darwin. “What happened?”
“The hell if I know!” Alex snapped and covered his face. “But I will find out.”
Ghost stepped closer, cautious of the unfriendly gaze from around the bar. The stench that lingered around the bodies was not just decomposition. Beneath his mask, he drew in a cautious sniff. Then his gaze traveled down Darwin’s chest to the odd lump at the dead man’s torso covered by a sheet. “What is that?”
His question ignited the animosity that coated the air like a deadly vapor. Dark curses broke from the otherwise silent assassins. Two of them stepped from the shadows, their black masks covered in white scratches that marked the number of successful missions they had performed for Alex. These were the Fox Den’s captains. If they had been called back, then the foxes were planning a war.
One of the captains stared at Ghost as his fingers danced idly over a set of knives stitched along the leather binds of his arms. Heat sparked along the hairs of Ghost’s neck and arms and coiled in his gut. He suppressed the dangerous magic even as he reached reflexively for his dagger and shifted his stance.
“Stop!” Alex’s command cracked off the walls like a gunshot, and the assassins fell silent. The Fox captain raised his hands submissively and retreated into the shadows. Ghost turned back to the Fox Master as Alex gestured towards the cloth draped over Darwin’s torso. “Why don’t you take a look and see for yourself.”
Ghost blinked behind the mask. Instinct told him that disturbing Darwin’s body in any way might set off the dead man’s comrades. And yet—defying Alex at this moment was equally dangerous.
He approached the body with care as he removed the hand from his dagger, knelt, and pulled aside the cloth. It took every ounce of control to stop himself from gagging or pulling away. Behind his mask, Ghost closed his eyes, unable to shut out the image, took a breath, and refocused on the cruelty before him.
A woman’s severed head had been attached to Darwin’s crotch; her open mouth stitched over his—
Ghost dropped the sheet and stepped back. He had seen enough. “Who—” his stomach flipped unpleasantly, and Ghost took a moment to clamp down his lunch before continuing, “Who is that?”
“That—” Alex said with a heavy sigh, “Would be Rachael. The woman I convinced to act as a decoy for your witch.”
And now Ghost understood the resentment being directed towards him from every corner of the bar.
“I don’t blame you,” Alex said wearily as he rose slowly to his feet. “Afterall, it was my clever idea.”
An apology rose to the tip of Ghost’s tongue, but he bit it back. Empty words were worthless to men like this. The only thing that would ease their grief was vengeance. “It’s not a coincidence—is it?” Ghost asked instead.
“No,” Alex confirmed with a shake of his head. “We arranged for Rachael and her husband Marc to come here tonight. Darwin took them to the docks. My men watched from the rooftops, but—I should have sent more men.”
“It wouldn’t have mattered,” Ghost replied bluntly.
A hiss of angry whispers circled the bar as Alex’s dark gaze fixated on Ghost.
“A witch did this,” Ghost explained with a shrug of his shoulder. ‘A foul soulless bastard from the stench of his magic.’
“You don’t say,” Alex said with a sneer. “Her—She—That was frozen solid to his parts when I walked into the bar this morning.” He circled Darwin’s corpse and approached Ghost, who stood his ground warily. “Tell me this wasn’t your ice witch.”
“It wasn’t Ma—” Ghost caught himself. “It wasn’t Lady Aconitum.”
Alex’s tense face tilted as he glared at the blue mask that covered Ghost’s face and blocked the Fox Master’s ability to detect if he was lying. “How can you be sure?”
Ghost clenched his jaw shut. As much as he would like to tell Alex the truth, he knew that would likely end their partnership. While the old assassin knew more about Ghost’s past than anyone else in the Fox Den, even Alex didn’t know Ghost was a witch. “You’ll have to trust me on this.”
The Master of the Fox Den smiled cynically at Ghost but nodded as he turned and walked towards the bar. “I’ll believe you—but in return, you’ll pass on a message to that ice witch of yours. She is no longer welcome here. From this moment forward—the Fox Den shall not shelter nor protect any witch.”
Rumbles of approval circled the room as Alex pulled a bottle of Black Death from behind the bar and poured it into a single glass.
“I will pass on your message,” Ghost said as he backed slowly towards the exit.
“And tell her to run,” Alex advised coldly then tossed back his drink. “Hells Teeth!” he growled and smashed the glass beneath his fist on the bar. The Fox Master took in a deep, forceful breath as he shook the shards from his hand. “Whoever or whatever did this, they were after her—and I don’t want to imagine what they’ll do when they find her.”
The demon in Ghost snarled in anger and anticipation. “I will find them first,” Ghost promised. “And bring you their severed head.”
Alex laughed as he raised the green bottle in a mocking salute. “Not if we find them first.”
Another round of approval rumbled throughout the room as the Fox captains piled towards the bar to drink and plot their revenge. Ghost quietly slipped away. He put as much distance between himself and the Fox Den as he could before he signaled the shadow guard.
This was now a race, one he intended to win—if only to save the Foxes and Alex from a massacre.
There were times Gus felt as if he were laid out on burning coals with a giant boulder pressed against his chest and arms. He flailed helplessly in the dark, for hours on end, unable to move, breathe, or break free.
And then there were times when his body felt weightless, numb, and the fragrance of flowers chased away the smell of his burning flesh. If he could just open his eyes, he knew she would be there.
Gravity shifted, and he lurched from darkness into blinding light. A field of wildflowers opened before him like an endless ocean. A woman’s voice he barely remembered called his name as she stepped down from the sun’s glittering chariot. Her hand beckoned him closer. Her heavenly smile promised him safety and freedom from pain.
“But—what about Ivy?”
The storm clouds crackled behind her as the sun faded, and with it, her smile. The air turned frigid. The flowers shattered and scattered as the woman withdrew her hand, her expression shadowed by grief. Then she shook her head and pointed behind him.
Gus turned on unsteady feet. A white desert awaited his gaze. Not a desert of sand—but a wilderness of snow.
The cold crept through his toes and fingers and spread across his limbs as the storm of petals turned white and clung to his eyelashes, cheeks, and lips before melting away. The strong wind died, but the soft snowfall continued, illuminating the woman in red.
She knelt in the center of the pure white field with her back to him. Her scarlet dress clashed against her snow-white hair and the frozen landscape. She stood slowly, and half turned towards him, but Gus could not see her face, no matter how hard he tried. The surface of it glittered like snow caught under the sun and blinded him.
But he saw what she held in her hand—and the sight of the freshly harvested human heart made his blood run cold. His horror only magnified as his gaze was drawn to the young woman laid out in the snow at the scarlet witch’s feet.
Ivy was dressed in white. The sort of white dress he had imagined her wearing a thousand times in his childish dreams. Queen Anne’s Lace flowers haloed her blonde hair. Her gentle jade eyes stared unseeingly into the falling snow, and her chest had been ravaged and torn open by a beast.
Gus staggered towards them. A frantic scream ripped free from his chest and howled past his swollen throat, only to be snatched away by the breeze.
The angel at his back restrained him gently. “She cannot be saved.”
Gus shook her grip free and plunged forward.
But the closer he got to the witch and Ivy, the heavier his numb limbs became, until his feet froze against the ground, and his body went rigid.
A shadow fell over Gus and loomed across the white snow towards the witch and Ivy. The heavy thud of footsteps shook the earth behind him. A torrent of air rushed past him as the witch turned and smiled. She held out Ivy’s heart, encased in a sheet of ice, and whispered, “Sancte mors est.”