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The blast knocked Robin off of his feet and hurtled him forward into empty space. For a moment, he was flying. Heat scorched his back as the ground rushed to meet his face. He ducked and rolled, mitigating the impact before holding his hands over his head and ears. A piece of metal whistled past him, embedding itself in a nearby tree as the ground shook. She’s done it now.
The heat receded almost as quickly as it had come, leaving the forest silent but for the now-constant ring in his ears. He glanced toward Kari and Richard, still on the ground. Richard’s arm shifted slightly. Alive, apparently. Then he looked to the surrounding woods. The flames that licked what was left of Julius’s mansion caused shadows to dance and leap out at him, changing the shape of the trees and forest floor. Even so, Robin could see the white faces, illuminated by the flickering light. She’s always been a liability.
Robin rose to his feet, a hand on the hilt of his sword as he jogged to where Kari and Richard lay. Richard had pushed himself up on his arms and was moving his mouth. Most likely reminding me that he can pay me if I get him out of here. Kari, on the other hand, still wasn’t moving. Robin reached down and grabbed the back of her shirt, pulling her to her feet roughly. She was smiling—an expression completely at odds with the destruction she had just caused. Robin shook her once and then began to drag her. Richard scrambled to his feet behind them, his eyes darting around them. At least he wasn’t trying to speak now. We don’t need to attract any more of them.
Robin’s eyes scanned the woods, trying to find a break in the sea of faces; there was none. Stupid girl. He shook Kari again and she struggled to push him away. He held on, unwilling to let her go.
That’s when someone tapped him on his arm. Robin spun, glancing to his right, his free hand already unsheathing his sword. Then he saw the completely black eyes, the small face. He let go of his sword and nodded to her. Danielle. Apparently she survived. Good. Though not for much longer if we don’t get out of here. He gestured with one arm to the surrounding forest and she nodded. Apparently she understood—or at least pretended she did. Robin could never be sure.
They could try tree jumping again, but Robin doubted that it would work with their group. Richard was too uncoordinated, Danielle was too injured, and Kari would probably run off at the first opportunity. No, they’d have to find another way of escape. He had almost resigned himself to trying to fight through the hordes of restless in a last, desperate blaze of glory when Danielle touched his arm again. He glanced toward her and she gestured with one hand back at the flaming house. She then turned, limping slightly as she walked toward the wreckage.
Robin watched her retreating back for a moment before following. What choice was there? He dragged Kari along, only vaguely aware that she was saying something . Hearing must be coming back. She tugged slightly, trying to free herself, but Robin continued to pull her forward. Danielle was picking her way through the flaming debris, avoiding twisted metal and shattered glass. I hope she knows what she’s doing. Kari dug her heels into the ground, and Robin finally grabbed her by the waist and tossed her over his shoulder. She punched at his back and kicked dangerously close to his face, but he kept a firm grip.
Danielle paused and grabbed what looked like a large piece of wood siding. She attempted to lift it, straining. Robin could hear the grating sound of it rubbing against the ground. He grunted and gestured toward Richard, “Help her.” His voice sounded muffled even to his own ears, but at least he could hear something now.
Richard gave him a disgusted look, but walked over. He grabbed the board, heaving with the girl. There was a moment when Robin thought it wasn’t going to shift—then finally it moved. They shoved it to the side and Danielle beckoned them with one hand. Then suddenly, she disappeared.
Robin stared at the spot where she had been seconds before. He jogged over, keeping a firm arm on Kari. Brilliant. There was a hole in the ground—about the width of his shoulders and ringed with metal. He couldn’t see how deep it was, but there wasn’t another option at this point. He could hear the groans, the snarls, and the shuffling steps of creatures drawing ever closer to the bright flames.
He glanced at Richard, gesturing to the hole, “Get in.”
Richard stared back at him, “Are you insane? I could break a leg.”
Break a leg? I’m surprised he didn’t say “break a nail.” Robin growled at him, “I’ll break much more than that if you don’t jump.”
Richard gave him a startled look before glancing at the hole sulkily. Apparently he preferred to face the hole, though, because he hopped into the dark, disappearing from view.
Now only the girl. He could hear her protesting now, struggling to get free. “Leave me behind! I’ve done what I came here to do…now let me go!”
It might have been nice to leave her, but he trusted her about as far as he could throw her—not very far. Fortunately for his purposes, it was far enough. He walked over to the hole and tossed Kari in. She gave a muffled yelp as she fell into the dark.
The restless were closing in. One of them was about ten feet away; it gnashed what was left of its teeth, snarling. Then it screamed: a high pitched, eerie sound that pierced the cold night. Robin stumbled back as it sprinted toward him, clawed hands outstretched. He unsheathed his sword and swung, imbedding the blade in the center of the creature’s head. Blood spurted, spraying the white snow. Shit. More screams filled the night, more thudding footsteps raced toward him. Robin jumped.
His stomach flipped as he hurtled into the black. His foot hit the ground, his ankle turning awkwardly. There was a sharp pain and then his other leg hit the ground. He rolled, trying to mitigate the impact before sitting on the ground.
He couldn’t see anything at first. He could only hear the echoes of voices further down the passage. The others must have moved on without him. He slowly maneuvered himself onto his good leg and then stood. Then just as slowly, he tested his ankle. Another sharp pain lanced through it, but it wasn’t unbearable. Twisted…that’s embarrassing. This is just going to make things all that more difficult.
Screams echoed from above. It’d only be a matter of time before the restless threw themselves down after them. They had to move.
Robin began to hobble down the hallway, keeping his blade ready as the echoing voices came closer. He could hear Kari swearing and Richard commanding her imperiously. Danielle was silent. Well that’s no surprise. His eyes were slowly adjusting to the dim light. He could see shapes struggling ahead of him. The smaller one seemed to be fighting tooth and nail to get away from the larger shape—Richard, most likely.
“I said to stop it! You need to stay with us!”
“Fuck if I do, you pompous, overbearing…”
Robin interrupted them, tackling Kari from the side. She made a squawking noise and Richard shouted something incoherent as he stumbled out of the way. Before Kari could do anything else, Robin had his sword at her throat. He was tired of her escapades, tired of her lies, tired of her inability to work in a group. It was time to finally get some answers.
She struggled for a split second before she realized that the steel was at her throat; then she became perfectly still. A red line of blood trickled down her throat toward her collar bone. Robin leaned forward, his face inches from hers, “You will talk.”
Kari only smirked, “Is this the best place for it? The restless will follow us eventually.”
Robin pressed the blade harder against her throat, noting with satisfaction that she winced, “Who are you really?”
“You already kno…”
She never listens. He cut into her neck, drawing a thin line as she gasped. Blood flowed more freely as Richard spoke up in the background, “Robin, this isn’t the time. We need to go, and her death won’t…”
Robin snarled, “Shut up.” Kari’s eyes had widened, dark pools of blue in the night that surrounded them. Robin stared back at her, waiting. Finally she swallowed and spoke.
“You’ll never believe me.
“Try me.” Robin lifted the blade slightly so that Kari could speak more easily. She swallowed again, closing her eyes before opening them once more. Finally. The truth.
Kari’s voice sounded hoarse when she spoke, the sound of a defeated woman, “I’m a hired…liquidator, I suppose you could say. Do you know what I mean when I say that?”
She gives me less credit than I give her. Robin remained silent, glaring at her as he waited for her to continue. Kari spoke again, seeming to take his glare as a sign that she had better hurry up, “My…employer caught wind of Julius’s experiments. He wasn’t happy. But the only way to get close to a man like Julius was to make him believe that the plan was all his…that it was his idea to bring me in close proximity to him. Otherwise, I could have been stopped before getting anywhere near him. You saw the two bodyguards, I assume? Those were show, mostly. There were more…far more keeping watch on the house almost constantly…inside and out. There would have been no way for me to sneak in.”
Richard suddenly interrupted, “What about being the Queen of Hearts? Surely someone in your particular line of work would find that title hindering. It doesn’t quite add up, does it?”
Kari didn’t turn to face Richard, even though she spoke to him. Her eyes continued to fix on Robin’s instead, “What better alias than a harmless thief? A famous one at that. Julius would never suspect it…and I think you underestimate the years I spent on this particular job. It takes a while to cultivate a reputation, you know…especially one as fabulous as mine.”
“Are you trying to say that your thieveries…the theft of the Emperor’s gold, the disappearance of the famous jewels of the north…all were part of some kind of…master plan to kill Julius?” Richard sounded dubious, unbelieving. Robin couldn’t blame him.
Kari smiled, her white teeth flashing in the darkness, “I’m not just saying that, Richard. I’m also saying that my theft of your miniscule amount of gold, that moment where I knocked the vial off of your desk, my seduction of you…all were part of my ‘master plan’ to kill Julius.”
Robin sensed Richard’s stunned silence, and then his anger as he his voice slowly rose, “So nothing you said was true. Nothing at all. Your whole existence was…”
Kari’s eyes shifted behind Robin, no doubt to focus on Richard. She smiled again, “Yes.”
Richard suddenly came into Robin’s line of view, his hands reaching toward Kari’s throat. Idiot. Robin swung at the man, connecting with his stomach. There was a wheezing noise and a thump as Richard fell to the ground. Robin called back at him, “We haven’t learned everything yet. Now control yourself.”
Kari suddenly laughed, the sound echoing through the small corridor, “And what else do you want to know? You’ve already learned most of it. Shall I tell you how I planted the bomb? Or perhaps how I found out about Richard’s connection with Julius? Or perhaps how I let you catch me time and time again?” The blood on her neck was smearing on her collarbone, dripping down and making her look like one of the restless that were howling above them.
Robin shook his head, keep his face expressionless, “No. I want to know who your employer was.”
Kari’s smile faded and her eyes narrowed. About time she got serious. “Do you truly expect me to reveal who my employer was? You should know better than anyone that I can’t tell you that.”
Robin shrugged, pressing his sword deeper again. Kari winced, trying to move her neck away from the blade and failing, “There are ways for making people talk, girl. I think you’ll find that it’s better you tell me now than later.”
“And what makes you think that you’ll be able to make me talk?”
Robin leaned forward again, for once allowing a smile to cross his face. It felt awkward, a gesture he wasn’t used to giving. “Believe me, Kari. I can make almost anyone talk.”
Kari stared back at him before lowering her eyes, “I believe you.” Before Robin could do anything else, her hand darted to her opposite sleeve and removed something small and white. It took him a moment to realize what it was. A pill… He felt his heart sink as his hand darted out—too late. Kari tossed it into her mouth.
Robin reached forward, grabbing her throat and dropping his sword. Don’t swallow. He squeezed slightly and Kari struggled, her face contorting in frustration. Don’t.