The bitch just wouldn’t die.
No matter what I did, no matter how hard I had my men look for her, no matter who I hired to kill her, the assassin known as the Spider just wouldn’t die. Once again tonight, she’d escaped the trap that I’d set for her—and embarrassed me in the process.
I hated being embarrassed. It wasn’t good for business—or more importantly, my image.
It was two days before Christmas, and I was standing in the old Ashland train yard. My property—and one that was currently littered with dead bodies.
The cops were already here, the blue and red lights on top of their city-issued sedans spinning around and around, throwing garish flashes of color everywhere. The bright pools of light lit up the various rail cars that stood in the yard and made the rusty metal rails underfoot gleam like silk ribbons. The cops had already broken out the yellow crime-scene tape, stringing it up from one rail car to the next.
I always wondered why they bothered with such things after the fact. My men were dead. Cordoning off the area wasn’t going to do the dead giants a damn bit of good, and it wasn’t like there would be any real evidence to collect. The Spider never left anything important behind at the sight of her kills.
Just that damn rune.
Tonight, she’d drawn it into the gravel of the train yard, like a chicken scratching in the dirt. A small circle surrounded by eight thin rays. A spider rune. The symbol for patience.
I stared down at the mark at my feet, my hands curling into fists, and a bit of steam rising off my clenched fingers. I would have liked nothing more than to reach for my Fire elemental magic and unleash hot, pulsing wave after wave of it until the very ground was charred to ash and that damn rune right along with it. But I couldn’t do that—not while the press was watching.
Reporters from the city’s various newspapers, TV, and radio stations clustered in tight groups behind the crime scene tape, their microphones and cameras all pointed this direction, filming the cops as they loaded the various bodies onto gurneys to slide into the coroner’s vans that had been dispatched to the scene. And folks thought I was evil. At least I wasn’t a fucking media vulture. Sure, I killed people for money, whim, pleasure, or to simply make a point, but I didn’t film the process—or the aftermath.
A few of the reporters noticed me staring in their direction and took that as an invitation to start squawking at me.
“Ms. Monroe! Mab! Can you give us a statement about what happened? Is it true that the Spider killed several members of your security detail?”
The reporters’ questions all ran together, like a swarm of bees buzzing in the background. I gave them a dismissive glance and turned back to stare at the rune on the ground in front of me. I wondered the same thing that I always did whenever I saw the symbol these days—why a spider rune? Out of all the runes out there, why had she chosen such a simple one to leave behind as her mark?
The rune nagged at me, like a pin pricking at my skin. I knew that I’d seen it before, but I couldn’t quite place where or who it might have belonged to. Someone I’d killed most likely, since the Spider always cheerfully crowed about payback during the brief phone conversations that I’d had with her. But who could it be? I’d long ago lost count of all the fools that I’d murdered over the years. You didn’t get to be the head of the Ashland underworld by being a shy, retiring type, and I’d risen through the ranks faster than most, thanks to my ruthless determination—and my Fire magic.
Even now, I could feel the power burning inside me, as though my veins were filled with lava instead of blood. Oh, there were other elementals out there, ones with Air, Ice, and Stone magic, or pitiful offshoots of those areas like metal or water, but nothing could compare to the feel of my Fire magic, to that molten heat that was always there, lurking just below the surface of my pale skin, ready to be used in the most vicious, painful, creative way possible.
The snowflakes swirling in the cold December air hissed and steamed away as they came into contact with my copper-colored hair. I’d been told that I was one of those elementals who constantly gave off waves of power, even when I wasn’t using my Fire magic to let someone just how unhappy I was with him. Right now, I would have loved nothing more than to show the Spider just how displeased I was with her—and that you fucked with Mab Monroe at your own peril.
Once more, my eyes traced over the rune at my feet. Obviously, the spider rune was her assassin name, but I felt like there was more to the symbol than just that. It had to have some personal meaning to her, and if I could only figure out what that meaning was, then I’d know exactly who I was up against—and how best to find and kill the bitch. A task that had morphed from an amusing pastime into a growing necessity.
Footsteps crunched on the gravel behind me, but I didn’t turn around. I knew who it was. He was the only one brave—or foolish enough—to approach me after such an embarrassing defeat. Any defeat, really.
A moment later, Jonah McAllister stepped up beside me. McAllister wore a slick black suit, covered with a long, heavy topcoat, as befitting his status as my lawyer. The flashing lights from the police cars made his elegant coif of silver hair take on cool blue, then bloody, reddish tints. His hair looked at odds with his ageless face. The skin there was so smooth and tight that you could have bounced a quarter off his cheekbones.
“The official tally is four giants dead, and of course, LaFleur here,” Jonah said, a note of regret creeping into his voice, since he’d been fucking her while she’d been in Ashland.
“LaFleur,” I muttered in disgust. “I never should have hired her. The only thing she excelled at was running her mouth. What a waste of money.”
My gaze cut from the spider rune to the dead woman lying on the ground next to it. She’d once been quite striking, with her bob of glossy black hair. Now, her porcelain skin had taken on a waxy quality, and her green eyes were open wide with shock, pain, and just a touch of fear.
Elektra LaFleur. Supposedly, the best assassin that money could buy with powerful electrical elemental magic that she used to fry her victims to a smoking crisp. I’d hired LaFleur to come to Ashland, track down, and kill the Spider—only she hadn’t quite been up to the task, as evidenced by the sucking stab wound in her heart and the blood that had pooled underneath her cold body.
“Well, at least the Spider didn’t burn down anything else while she was here,” Jonah said.
“No, Jonah,” I snapped. “She took care of that the last time she was here—or have you forgotten what she did to the train depot?”
I stabbed my finger at the remains of the still-smoldering depot. A few days ago, the Spider had snuck into the train yard to rescue a girl that I’d had kidnapped and was holding as motivation for her father. The Spider had started a fire in the depot as a distraction—and the whole structure had burned to the ground as a result.
The lawyer swallowed and took a step back. Despite the fact that my eyes were as black as his suit, Jonah could still see the elemental Fire flashing in my heated gaze.
I turned away from Jonah, reached down, and picked up something else that the Spider had left behind tonight—a white orchid. The petals felt cold in my hand, like delicate slivers of ice. The orchid was LaFleur’s signature, something she used to decorate the bodies of all her victims, just like the Spider did with her quaint little symbol. Assassins and their fucking runes. I’d never understood why some folks felt the need to mark their kills. Knowing that your enemy was dead should be satisfaction enough.
It always was for me.
“And what do you want to do about Bria Coolidge?” Jonah finally asked.
“That depends. What’s she telling the cops and the press?”
He shrugged. “That LaFleur kidnapped her, put her in a rail car, and threatened to torture her. That she heard a struggle, and that she didn’t see a damn thing until someone opened the rail car. Coolidge claims by the time she worked up her nerve enough to come outside that LaFleur and the giants were dead and that the Spider was gone.”
“Do you believe her?”
Jonah shrugged again. “It fits in with some of the other eyewitness accounts about the Spider, but I think there’s more to Coolidge’s story than she says. She knows that you want her dead, Mab, and that you sent LaFleur to do the job.”
This time, I shrugged. “I don’t care what she knows or who she tells it to. Coolidge can’t touch me. No one can. I own this town.”
I looked across the train yard. Detective Bria Coolidge sat in the back of an ambulance that had its doors open and let an EMT take her blood pressure while another one cleaned out the shallow scrapes on her face. Xavier, a giant and her partner on the force, stood nearby, keeping an eye on Coolidge and talking to one of their superior officers. Xavier was one of the few men in the Ashland Police Department who wasn’t on my payroll. A shame. He seemed tougher and far more competent than the ones who did report to me.
Coolidge was pretty enough, with her shaggy blond hair and blue eyes, but it was the necklace that she wore that always caught my eye. A small silverstone pendant shaped like a delicate primrose.
I’d seen Coolidge wearing the necklace before when our paths had crossed around the city—in fact, I’d never seen her without it. But for some reason, I couldn’t stop staring at the rune tonight. A primrose. The symbol for beauty.
I started thinking about symbols then—all the other symbols that I’d seen tonight. LaFleur’s orchid. The Spider’s rune. And now, Coolidge and her primrose.
It took a few seconds, but the memories bubbled to the surface of my mind, erupting like a volcano. And suddenly, I remembered another girl—and another necklace.
“Why are you wearing a snowflake as a necklace?” I asked.
The girl looked at me with her big blue eyes. “Because it’s my rune. A snowflake for icy calm. The symbol of the Snow family.”
The girl’s name was Eira Snow, and we were sitting at a table that had been set up in my enormous playroom. Lemonade, cookies, cupcakes, and more covered the white wooden table, along with a set of my mother’s fine china and stacks of white linen napkins. Stuffed animals, blocks, and other toys crowded together the floor, while glossy books were stuffed into the shelves that lined one of the walls.
We were supposed to be playing together, but I didn’t have any interest in the food or toys. I’d already used my Fire magic to melt three of the china cups and singe most of the fur off the stuffed animals, leaving only their glass eyes whole and intact. I’d even used my finger like a torch and scorched my name in cursive writing into the top of the wooden table.
Eira had looked at me with wide eyes when I’d done that, and she’d nervously fiddled with the end of one of her golden pigtails, like she wanted to tell me to stop—but she hadn’t. And she wouldn’t if she knew what was good for her. I was only seven, but I’d already discovered that it was much more fun to use my elemental magic on people than my stuffed animals.
I knew more than everyone thought that I did—especially about what my family really did and where our money came from. My dad, Marcus, was a mob boss, just like in all the old movies I watched on TV. I didn’t know exactly what that meant, other than people did what my father said when he said it. And if they didn’t, then he used his Fire magic on them until they cried and begged him to stop. He’d let me watch the last time he’d used his power on someone, telling me that it was time that I learned exactly what my Fire magic was good for.
It had been … exciting.
“Where do you think my mom is?” Eira asked in a small, worried voice.
I shrugged. “Probably still talking to my dad.”
The other girl didn’t say anything else, but she started chewing on her fingernails. Eira and her mother had arrived at our estate this morning, along with several giant bodyguards. My father had welcomed them inside, and I’d heard him say something about a family feud and finally making peace before Eira and I had been brought here to my playroom while the adults talked. That had been hours ago. I didn’t understand what was taking so long, and why my father just didn’t tell Eira’s mother what he wanted her to do. That would be the end of things, as far as I was concerned.
Eira shifted in her chair and took a small sip from her glass of lemonade. The movement made the silverstone necklace around her throat gleam. It was shaped like a small snowflake, delicate and pretty, with six small points. I loved silverstone because I felt like the magical metal had the same sort of hunger that I did—the hot desire, the aching need that I had to have everything that I wanted as soon as I wanted it.
Eira put her cup down, and her necklace glimmered again, even brighter than before. I was jealous. Despite all my toys, I didn’t have a necklace like that—and I wanted one. I wanted hers. Right now.
I got to my feet, walked around the table, and held out my hand. “Give your necklace to me. I want to look at it.”
Of course, I had no intention of ever giving it back to her, but I didn’t tell Eira that. She would just cry big, fat, sniveling tears.
Eira shook her head and wrapped her hand around the snowflake rune, as if that would protect it—and her—from me. “No, it’s my necklace. My mother gave it to me. Get your own.”
My eyes narrowed, and anger flared in my heart. “No, I want yours. Give it to me. Right now. Or I’ll tell my dad that you won’t.”
Her face paled a little at my threat, but she sat up straight in her chair. “And I’ll tell my mom that you tried to take it from me.”
For a moment, I didn’t know what to do. Nobody ever said no to me. Not my dad, not our servants, not even the giant bodyguards that went everywhere with us. Usually, they all hurried to give me everything that I wanted, especially now that my dad had told me that I could use my Fire magic on them just like he did—to hurt and burn people just like he did.
Eira kept staring at me, her blue eyes dark and wary now. Well, if she wouldn’t give it to me, then I would just take it from her, the way that I took everything else that I wanted. I reached over and grabbed for the necklace, but Eira slapped my hand away. I lunged for the necklace again, but she got to her feet and backed up, so that she was standing on the other side of the table.
“Give me your necklace,” I commanded. “Or I’ll take it from you—and I’ll make it hurt.”
I reached for my Fire magic. Red sparks filled the air, and flames began to crackle and burn on my fingertips. I held the flames out to her and smiled, letting her imagine exactly what I would do to her with them.
Instead of being afraid of me, Eira held out her own hand. A faint blue glow flickered in her palm, before turning into a solid ball of elemental Ice. I realized that she had magic too—Ice magic. I could feel her power, her chilled, frosty power that felt nothing like the molten heat running through my veins. I shuddered at the horrible, cold sensation and reached for more of my magic. I don’t know why, but I wanted to burn the other girl with my Fire now more than ever.
We stood there in the playroom, facing off over the table.
“Leave me alone,” Eira finally said. “And I’ll leave you alone.”
“Not before you give me your necklace,” I snapped. “Give it to me right now.”
She shook her head, telling me no again.
Nobody told me no—especially not this, this girl. My anger burned a little brighter, flaring up into full-on hate. I reared my hand back, reached for more of my power, and threw my Fire magic at her.
Eira’s eyes widened, and she ducked out of the way. The ball of Fire that I’d created flew through the room and smacked into the wall behind her. An alarm starting blaring—the same alarm that sounded whenever I used that much of my magic in the house.
Eira looked over her shoulder at me, then turned and raced toward the closed door at the far end of the room.
“Oh, no, you don’t!” I hissed and chased after her.
I grabbed the back of her white dress just before she reached the door. Eira turned and slapped my hands away. I kicked at her, and we both fell to the floor, rolling around and around, both of us screaming. Eira, telling me to stop, and me, telling her to give me her necklace or else.
Heavy footsteps sounded, and I was dimly aware of the door banging open and hitting the wall. A few seconds later, hands pulled me off the other girl. I kicked and lashed out, but the hands trapped my arms down at my sides. I looked up at my father, who held me firm against his legs.
“Enough, Mab!” my father said in a low, ugly voice. “That’s enough.”
I wasn’t afraid of much, but I knew better than to disobey my father. After a moment, I nodded my head.
“Eira, honey, are you all right?” a soft, feminine voice called out.
A woman hurried into the room and dropped onto her knees, helping Eira up onto her feet. She looked like Eira, all golden hair and big eyes—eyes that had a faint blue glow about them. An Ice elemental, I realized. She was an Ice elemental, just like Eira was.
In that moment, I hated the mother just as much as I did the daughter.
I shifted on my feet, but my father kept his hands on me, holding me still, almost like he knew what I wanted to do—how I wanted to lash out with my Fire magic and burn the other two elementals to ashes.
Eira’s mother grabbed her daughter’s hand and turned to face me and my father.
“I think we should go now,” the mother said. “Thank you for your … hospitality, Marcus.”
After a moment, my father nodded his head at her. “And thank you for meeting with me, Elizabeth.”
The Ice elemental nodded back at him, then looked at me. Her eyes narrowed in thought for a moment, before she turned and led Eira out of the room. The other girl stared back over her shoulder at me, and I caught a final glimpse of her snowflake necklace before she stepped into the hallway and vanished from sight.
That was the first time that I fought with Eira Snow—but it wouldn’t be the last.
Three days later, my father gave me my own necklace. I unwrapped the box, popped off the top, and looked at what was nestled inside the white tissue paper—a dozen wavy golden rays strung together and surrounding a large ruby.
“It’s a sunburst rune. The symbol for fire,” my father said in a proud voice. “I had it made special just for you. Now, isn’t it much better than that silly snowflake you wanted?”
“Yes,” I whispered, stroking the shiny gold with my fingertips. “It’s much prettier than her necklace.”
My father nodded his head, satisfied by my answer. He helped me put on the necklace, then stepped back so I could look at myself in the mirror over my vanity table.
Red hair, black eyes, and now a necklace around my throat. The light coming in through the window hit the golden rays, making it seem like they were actually flickering, like I was actually wearing a ring of fire around my neck.
“I love it,” I said, turning and smiling at my father.
He smiled back at me, a bit of elemental Fire flashing in his own black eyes. “Good.”
He left me in my room, and I sat there in front of the mirror and studied my necklace from every angle. My father was right. The sunburst was much prettier than that stupid snowflake. So much fiercer—so much stronger. Just like my Fire magic was better than any Ice elemental’s power.
Still, I wasn’t going to forget what had happened with the other girl. How she’d told me no. How she’d humiliated me in front of my father.
Someday, I vowed, I’d have Eira’s rune necklace—or melt it right off her pretty throat.
“She’s going to kill you,” an old, slightly wheezy voice said.
“Really?” I murmured, trying to find a place to sit down without soiling my black pantsuit. “Well, I wish her luck in trying.”
I finally pushed a pile of twenty-year-old gardening magazines off the lumpy black velvet sofa in the corner and took a seat there, perching on the very edge of the moldy cushion. Dust rose up as the magazines hit the floor, the motes shimmering in the sunlight streaming in through the window. I bit back a sneeze and tried not to wonder how long it had been since fresh air had circulated through the room. Ten years, maybe twenty—maybe even longer than that.
I sat in what was quite possibly the filthiest house in Ashland. Overstuffed furniture that was fifty years out of date crowded into the small, square living room, along with clothes that were even older and were so well-worn that they were little more than stacks of threads strung together. Grimy, cracked jelly and Mason jars held a variety of buttons, safety pins, and dried tea leaves, among other things, and I spotted more than a few gnarled bones nestled on the tabletops, right next to the glass figurines of the animals they had come from. Books, magazines, and newspapers were also strewn through the area, many of them spattered with distinctive brown splotches of dried blood. Little paths wound through the whole mess, looking like the small, cramped tunnels in a rabbit’s warren—or a rat’s nest. I never could decide which description was more appropriate.
A pigsty would have been cleaner than this room, and the rest of the house was just as bad. From the bathroom to the kitchen to the bedrooms, piles of dirty dishes, moldy food, old receipts, and other debris littered every surface from the counters to the tables to the floor. Some of the piles towered five or even six feet in the air.
Disgusting. Absolutely disgusting. But there was nothing that I could do to fix it—short of burning the whole house to the ground. An option that I’d considered more than once, but I wouldn’t take that step just yet. I still needed Magda and her visions—for the moment, anyway. Once my hold on the Ashland underworld was finally complete, well, then I would revisit the issue—and dear aunt Magda along with it.
“She’s going to kill you,” my aunt repeated.
I turned my gaze away from the filth and focused on my father’s aunt, my great-aunt. Magda Monroe was a short woman, barely taller than a dwarf, and was as thin and hunched over as a blade of grass bowed down by a heavy morning dew. Her salt-and-pepper hair stuck out in fuzzy wisps around her head, and her skin was brown, lined, and splotchy with age. Her eyes were still sharp though—as sharp and hard and black as mine were. Magda might be over eighty, but there was nothing wrong with her mind—or her Air elemental magic.
She crouched over the corpse of a freshly killed chicken in the back corner, which was the only relatively clear part of the room. Magda had already sliced up the chicken and was poking at and peering into its bloody entrails, looking at something that only she could see or even understand. Her black eyes glowed, burning like coals in her wrinkled face, and I could feel her Air magic flowing around her. The power brushed against my skin like a hot, humid breeze, but the sensation didn’t bother me. Air and Fire were two powers that complimented each other. It was Ice and Stone magic that I couldn’t stand, and the cold, hard waves of power that came along with them.
“She’s going to kill you,” Magda said for the third time.
A spider crawled out of the stack of magazines that I’d tossed onto the floor and darted across the warped board in front of me. I used the toe of my stiletto to grind it into the floor, enjoying the small crunch that it made, before crossing that leg on top of my other one.
I sighed. “And who might this mysterious person might be?”
I’d made the trip to this forsaken holler high up in the mountains above Ashland because Magda had called and insisted that I come—that she’d seen some vision with her magic that just wouldn’t wait. Using Air magic to see the future wasn’t an exact science, and Magda dabbled in other things as well, like the blood of the dead chicken on the floor. But my aunt tended to be right more often than not, so I humored her requests—and made sure that she had a steady supply of poultry.
Listening to Magda’s visions and advice had allowed me to expand my father’s business interests five years ago when I’d assumed my rightful place as the head of the empire he’d started. My father hadn’t wanted to step aside, of course, but he hadn’t had much choice. Oh, he’d put up a good fight, even challenging me to an elemental duel, but he’d realized that his days were numbered. He’d known by then that my magic was stronger than his—stronger than anyone’s—but he’d still challenged me. I’d almost regretting turning him to ash in his own study. At the very least, I should have done it outside where what was left of him would have just blown away cleanly instead of dusting up the furniture.
“Snow,” Magda whispered, interrupting my thoughts. She ran her fingers through the chicken’s blood and then used the sticky mess to draw on the floor. “Death by Snow.”
My whole body tensed, and I leaned forward, suddenly eager to know what nebulous thing she’d seen in the mess of blood, bones, and skin on the floor.
“Snow?” I asked in a sharp tone. “Do you mean Eira Snow?”
The Ice elemental bitch was still alive—and still making trouble for me all these years later. Eira and I had been enemies ever since the first day we’d met in my playroom, and our feud had only grown over the years. The fragile truce that our parents had negotiated between our families had faded long ago. For the most part, we’d stayed away from each other as children and then teenagers, although I’d almost killed Eira when she married a man that I had my eye on—Tristan, a Stone elemental. I hadn’t had any real feelings for Tristan, but he was handsome and rich, and most importantly, I’d thought that his magic would be an interesting one to pass on to my own daughter someday. I’d pursued him, but he’d actually loved Eira and had married her instead of me. Just another way in which she’d embarrassed me without even trying.
Love. Such a foolish emotion.
Still, it had been that emotion and the grief that had followed that had kept Eira out of my hair for the last several years, after her beloved Tristan had been killed in a car accident. Well, that, and the three brats she was busy raising. All girls, and all Ice elementals, just like their mother.
But Eira had once again become a thorn in my side as of late. Apparently, I’d killed one of her friends and the woman’s family over a gambling debt that the husband couldn’t pay. I had no real malice toward the Graysons, but I was finally securing my hold on the last of the gambling operations in the city, and I’d needed to make an example of what happened when you didn’t pay Mab Monroe and her various bookies. Burning the Graysons’ house to the ground with them locked inside had seemed like the easiest way to make my point. Plus, it had just been fun. I hadn’t had any problems with late payments since then.
But Eira had taken it personally, the way she did everything. I’d heard whispers the last few weeks that she was pressuring the city officials to look into my various businesses, even though she had to know that I had most of the cops, judges, and district attorneys in my hip pocket already. Still, Eira persisted with her nonsense, to the point that it was starting to annoy me.
And people only ever annoyed me once.
I realized that Magda was staring at me, so I repeated my question to her.
“You think that Eira Snow is going to kill me?” I let out a harsh, bitter laugh. “That’s absurd. Her magic isn’t as strong as mine, and we both know it. That’s the reason she hasn’t challenged me to an elemental duel for killing that friend of hers. Nobody’s magic is as strong as mine. You’ve told me so yourself—many, many times.”
Magda grinned, showing me a mouthful of stained, yellow teeth. “And that was true—until Eira had a girl with both Ice and Stone magic. Her power’s growing even as we speak. That girl—that’s the Snow that I mean. She’ll be the equal of you someday, Mab. And then even stronger. And she’ll kill you, just like you’ve killed so many other elementals.”
My eyes narrowed. “And how do you know that?”
Magda gestured at the floor. “Because all the signs have shown it to me.”
I got to my feet, walked over, and stared down over her shoulder. Magda had used the chicken’s blood to draw a series of runes on the floor—snowflakes. Small round circles with thin rays radiating out of them. One after another, she’d drawn them on the floor, making a ring of them around the chicken’s body—and her own.
I frowned, bent down, and looked at the marks a little more closely. No, not snowflakes. Not exactly. Snowflakes didn’t have eight points on them. Then again, Magda’s hands weren’t as steady as they used to be. She’s probably put the extra marks there by mistake.
I shouldn’t have paid much attention to Magda’s prophecy. After all, she was occasionally wrong. Besides, I knew that I could kill Eira, that I could fry her to a crisp any time that I wanted to with my Fire magic. We’d come to blows more than once over the years, and each time, I’d known that my power was greater than hers, could feel it deep down in the pit of my stomach, knew it with a certainty that the strong always did.
But a girl with Ice and Stone magic—that could be problematic. It was a rare gift, being able to tap into two elemental areas. It was something that I’d wanted to give to my own daughter, using Tristan and his Stone magic. But Eira and her daughter had gotten that power instead. Once again, Eira had something that I’d wanted—something she’d gotten without even trying. Bitch.
The old, familiar hate flared up in my heart, burning away everything else.
“Which one?” I asked in a harsh voice. “Which one of Eira’s brats has duel powers?”
Magda dipped her fingers into the chicken’s blood again. Once more, her Air magic gusted through the filthy room, like a hot breeze swirling against my face. After a few seconds, the sensation faded away, and Magda started rocking back and forth on her heels, making her knees crack and pop. She started muttering something I couldn’t understand, something about spiders and webs, spiders and webs, and she kept dipping her fingers into the chicken’s blood and using it to draw that lopsided snowflake on the floor.
Sometimes, Magda got like this—trapped in whatever twisted visions her Air magic showed her or the crazy shit that her own warped mind created. I sighed and reached for my Fire power, until hot, hungry flames danced on my fingers, eager to leap off my hand and consume every single thing they could.
I curled my hand into a fist. Then, I reached down and smashed it and the flames into Magda’s face as hard as I could.
Magda shrieked with pain and fell over onto her side. Her head cracked against the floor, and the sharp, painful motion was enough to snap her out of the trance that she’d been drifting along in. I stood there and watched her buck and writhe on the floor, while she rode out the waves of pain rippling through her body. It wasn’t the first time that I’d hit or burned her—and it wouldn’t be the last.
“So what do I have to do to stop this prophecy of yours?” I asked, when she’d finally calmed down enough to talk sense to again. “The ludicrous idea that this Snow brat is going to kill me one day?”
Magda peered up at me, a fist-sized burn on her right cheek. The leathery skin there had already blistered and swollen up. She shook her head.
“There’s nothing you can do to stop it,” she rasped. “Not this time. Not this one. Not this girl. She’ll be the death of you, Mab. Mark my words. She’ll be stronger than you—she’ll be stronger than anyone for a long, long time to come.”
Even though it was hot and stuffy inside the room, a shiver still swept down my spine. I didn’t have Air magic like Magda did, so I didn’t have any sort of precognition or insight into the future, but I felt like someone had just walked over my grave all the same—all because of Eira Snow and the three fucking brats that she’d popped out.
Anger and disgust filled me once more. I paced back and forth, moving as quickly as I could through the narrow, twisting paths that led through the rotting garbage that filled the house to overflowing. Thinking. Finally, I stopped and stared at Magda once more.
“Your vision didn’t tell you which one of Eira’s daughters it is?” I asked. “Which little brat has both Ice and Stone magic?”
Magda shook her head. “I didn’t see that for sure, but it’s probably the youngest one. That’s how these things usually work.”
I didn’t know if Magda’s prophecy would come to pass or not, but there was something in her voice, something in the way that she looked at me, that made me uneasy. Like she’d already seen my death and was just marking time until it happened. I hadn’t killed my own father and spent the last five years clawing my way to the top of Ashland underworld to let someone threaten me now, to let someone destroy everything that I’d worked so hard to get in the first place—even if she was just a girl. Children were tools, things that could be used to motivate other people. I felt no more for them than I did for anyone else—that is to say, nothing at all.
“Well, then,” I said in a cold voice. “If you don’t know exactly which girl it is, then I have to kill them all—and their mother, just for good measure.”
Magda cackled her approval and drew a final warped snowflake rune on the floor.
“What do you mean the assassin said no kids?” I barked at Elliot Slater.
The giant shrugged his massive shoulders. “I mean he said he’d do the mother no problem, but he balked when I said that you wanted the three kids dead too. I even offered to triple his fee just like you told me to, but he wouldn’t hear of it. Apparently, he has a thing about not killing kids. Can you believe that?”
We sat in my study, drinking whiskey and discussing how to best arrange the murder of Eira and her three daughters. Elliot lounged in the red leather chair across from me, swirling the amber liquid around in his crystal glass. He was tall and powerful, even for a giant, although his chalky skin, thin, blond hair, and hazel eyes gave him a washed out, almost albino appearance.
Elliot had been working for me for a good while now, steadily rising through the ranks until now, he was the head of the giant bodyguards that I employed. He’d proven himself to be loyal, dependable, and as vicious as I was in his own way. Elliot enjoyed stalking, raping, and murdering beautiful women, and I made sure he had a steady supply of them, just like I did with Magda and her chickens. So far, both of us were pleased with the arrangement. Elliot knew that if he failed to keep on pleasing me, that he’d be as dead as his predecessors were.
“And what was this assassin’s name again?” I asked.
“The Tin Man,” Elliot replied. “Not much is known about him, but he’s supposed to be the best in the business. Credited with lots of kills over the years, although he’s smart about not having anything traced back to him. I had to go through three cutouts just to make contact, and I still don’t have a clue who he really is or if he’s based here in Ashland or somewhere else.”
I leaned back in my chair, took a sip of whiskey, and enjoyed the sweet, slow burn of the liquor in my mouth and throat. Not nearly as heady as using my Fire power, but the whiskey had its own kind of magic.
“And what about other options? Other assassins?”
Slater shrugged again. “Everyone I talked to said this Tin Man is the best. If he won’t do it, he won’t do it. I say you just let me and my boys go over to this elemental’s house and take care of business ourselves.”
I shook my head. “Eira would turn your men into Ice cubes. She’s not as strong as me, but she’s no pushover in her magic. Besides, she still has friends and influence in Ashland. If an attack by your men were to fail, everyone would know that I was behind it. And if Eira survived, she might cause even more trouble for me. That’s why I wanted it done by an assassin—so there would be no trace back to me.”
Slater leaned forward and stared at me with his light eyes. “Then perhaps you should handle it yourself and discreetly let everyone know just how strong you are—just how untouchable.”
I arched an eyebrow. “And what would that get me exactly?”
Slater leaned back in his chair. “The respect of the few remaining holdouts that we’ve been having problems with. Folks like Porter Kincaid. And if not their respect, then something even better—their fear.”
I tip another sip of whiskey and considered Slater’s idea. I’d been quietly amassing power for years, ever since my father’s death. A piece here, a piece there, until I almost had the whole pie. To many folks in Ashland, I was a wealthy, benevolent businesswoman who gave millions of dollars to various charities every year. They didn’t realize that those charities were fronts for my organization—and that I had my hands in every illegal business in the city and beyond. My father had been an underworld prince while he’d been alive, sharing power with others. But I—I was going to be queen and answer to no one.
The more I thought about the giant’s idea, the more I liked it. Eira was a powerful elemental, wealthy and influential. Her death would send shockwaves through Ashland, and everyone would wonder if they might be next if they pissed off the wrong person—me. Still, I wasn’t going to be too blatant about things. It was one thing to have people suspect you of murder—it was quite another for them to know that you did it. Most of the time, the suspicion was all that you needed—especially given how painful I planned to make Eira’s and her daughters’ deaths.
“Fine,” I said. “I’ll do it myself. It’ll be more fun anyway. It always is.”
Slater nodded his approval. “And what do you want me to do about the assassin? He’s returned the fee that he requested.”
“As if that would be enough to save him for saying no to me,” I scoffed. “Find out who this mysterious Tin Man really is and kill the son of a bitch.”
“I’ll get Douglas on it,” Elliot said.
I nodded. Douglas was one of Elliot’s more capable men. He’d track down the assassin and take care of this mysterious Tin Man. And if Douglas didn’t, then I’d keep sending men until one of them succeeded. Giants were disposable that way. Everyone who worked for me was disposable that way, even Elliot, even if he didn’t realize it.
I leaned back in my chair and sipped some more of my whiskey. A smile curved my lips as I starting thinking about what would be the most painful, pleasurable way to kill Eira Snow.
Killing Eira was easier than I’d thought it would be.
Breaking her daughter was harder.
It had been quite easy for Elliot and his men to overcome the bodyguards that Eira had hired to protect her mansion and her daughters. Most of the men barely had time to scream before Elliot bashed their heads in with his massive fists. He did the same to a few of the servants as well before someone sounded the alarm, and the others fled into the woods that surrounded the house.
Then, Eira had jumped into the mix, using her Ice magic to cover the servants’ escape and kill as many of the giants as she could. I trailed behind Elliot and the men he’d brought with him, more than content to let them handle the frontal assault. Let Eira fritter away her magic, trying to save the servants who’d abandoned her. The more she used now, the less she would have later—when I finally killed her.
It had taken half an hour before Elliot and his men had finally driven Eira into a hallway in the downstairs part of the house, and she decided to make her final stand.
That’s when the giants had fallen back, and I’d finally stepped forward to face her—my oldest enemy. Eira’s eyes narrowed, her blue gaze cold and frosty with the glow of her Ice elemental magic.
“I should have known it was you,” Eira said in a hard voice, creeping back toward the living room that lay behind her.
I smiled at her, matching her slow retreat step for step. “Yes, you should have. My only regret is that I didn’t do this a long time ago. The first day we met, actually.”
Her mouth tightened into a thin line. “You tried, remember?”
“Well, tonight, I’m finally going to succeed. Look at you—you’re a sweaty, scared mess. Why, I imagine you’ve used up most of your Ice magic already, trying to help people who ran at the first sign of trouble. You won’t last a minute against my Fire, Eira.”
Doubt flickered in her eyes, but she straightened her shoulders in defiance. “We’ll see.”
And then we’d dueled.
It had taken a little longer than I’d thought it would, but my plan had worked. Eira had used up so much of her Ice magic trying to get others to safety, that she barely had any left to fling at me. I could have killed her immediately, but it was much more satisfying to let my Fire creep closer and closer to her, cutting through all the pitiful Ice that she managed to create. Eira knew she was dead as well as I did. At the very end, she didn’t even look at me. Instead, she turned her head to the side, glanced up, and said something—I wasn’t sure what.
I never found out because my Fire washed over her a second later. One moment, Eira was fighting me. The next, the crumpled, ashy remains of her body sank to the floor.
The sight made me smile like nothing else ever had. Not my father’s death, not the other underworld lords that I’d dispatched, not all the other enemies that I’d eliminated over the years.
And then my pleasure doubled.
A second later, Eira’s oldest daughter had run down the stairs and crouched by her mother’s side. She wasn’t as strong in her magic as Eira had been, and it only took one ball of Fire to turn her into a pile of smoking ash.
Two down, two to go.
But the other two brats turned out to be a little luckier or perhaps a little smarter than I expected. It took Elliot twenty minutes of searching before he caught the middle brat sneaking through the house. He dumped her unconscious body at me feet.
“I thought you’d want to do it yourself,” he said.
I nodded. “And the youngest daughter? The one with both Ice and Stone magic?”
The giant shook his head. “Haven’t found her yet. This one led my men on a merry chase through the house, though. I think she might have hidden her sister somewhere. That, or the brat realized what’s going on and hid somewhere herself.”
I stared down at the girl before me. She was young, maybe twelve or thirteen, with a wild tangle of brown hair, instead of Eira’s smooth golden locks. She looked like a broken doll splayed at my feet, like one of my toys that I’d long ago dashed to bits. The only thing left to do was burn her alive, just like I had her mother and older sister already.
I raised my hand and started to do that very thing, when I noticed something gleaming around her neck. Curious, I bent down and pushed aside her hair.
The girl wore a silverstone pendant, just like Eira had when she was a girl. Just like the Ice elemental had until I’d killed her less than an hour ago.
A strange sort of fury filled me then. I ripped the necklace from around the girl’s throat and closed my fingers over it, not even bothering to see exactly what the symbol was. The silverstone was cold and smooth, and I felt the round shape of it digging into my palm, along with several rays radiating out from the center. Another damn snowflake, most likely, just like the one that Eira had worn. My fingers tightened, and I was just reaching for my Fire magic to melt the metal forever, when Elliot cleared his throat.
“Mab?” Elliot asked. “What do you want to do now?”
The giant’s voice penetrated my odd rage, and I looked down at the girl at my feet—considering.
“Tell your men to keep searching for the youngest daughter,” I finally said. “You’re going to stay here and help me with this one.”
“Why?” the giant asked. “Kill her and be done with it.”
“No,” I said, smiling, my fingers tightening that much more around the silverstone pendant in my hand. “That would be too easy, just like killing Eira was too easy. The bitch might be dead, but I can still make her daughters suffer—starting with this one.”
The girl jerked awake with a start.
I sat on the edge of the white couch and watched her, enjoying her confusion, then her fear, then her terror, as she realized that she was tied down to a chair—and that I’d had Elliot duct-tape her precious silverstone rune in between her hands.
Even more delicious was the fact that the girl couldn’t see a damn thing that was going on, since I’d had the giant blindfold her as well. It was a trick that I’d learned from my father. People were so much more easily frightened when they couldn’t see what horrible thing was about to happen to them. Just the anticipation alone was enough to break most people.
Still, after a moment, the girl pushed aside her fear enough to start struggling, trying to get free of the heavy ropes that Elliot had lashed around her body. I got to my feet and leaned down, so that my mouth was close to her ear.
“There’s no use in struggling,” I said. “I’ve made sure those ropes are quite secure.”
We exchanged a few more meaningless words, then I started in on the girl, asking her where her sister was. But the little bitch refused to talk, even when I threatened her with my Fire magic. She even had the audacity to tell me to go to hell.
I stared at her a moment, at the stubborn set of her chin and the hardness of her mouth. This one was her mother’s daughter after all, determined to be a thorn in my side until the very end.
“So brave, so young, so very stupid. Have it your way then,” I said.
I stepped back and reached for my Fire magic, concentrating my power on the silverstone trapped between the girl’s hands. It was easy for me to direct my magic into the metal, to focus my Fire on that one area, and slowly, agonizingly heat and melt the silverstone until the magical metal seared itself into the delicate flesh of her hands.
The girl screamed and cried and thrashed against the ropes that held her down, but surprisingly, she still didn’t tell me what I wanted to know—not even when I knew she could smell her own burning skin. The stench of it filled the room, mixing with that of Eira’s and the other girl’s.
Finally, I grew tired of torturing the girl and left her alone, still weeping and wailing. She wasn’t going anywhere. She wasn’t the one I wanted dead anyway, her younger sister was—the one that Magda believed had both Ice and Stone magic. Bria was her name. Which made the middle brat, the one I’d just tortured, Genevieve, according to the information that Elliot had gathered for me.
I found the giant in the kitchen, opening the cabinet doors and peering at the pots and pans, as if Bria might be hiding inside.
“You still haven’t found her?” I asked in a sharp voice.
Elliot looked over his shoulder at me. “We’re doing the best we can. It’s a big house, and she’s a little brat. There are a lot of places she could be hiding—if she hasn’t gone off into the woods already. Don’t worry. We’ll find her sooner or later—”
A scream interrupted the giant’s words—a sharp, high-pitched wail that radiated with terror. A few more screams followed that first one.
Elliot grinned and got to his feet. “See? I told you that they’d find her sooner or later. Now, all we have to do is go get her—”
And that’s when another scream sounded. This one was full of pain and fear as well, but there was something else in the sound, something that made even me take heed—fury.
Pure, raw, elemental fury.
I felt her magic rip through the house the way that mine had slammed into Eira earlier tonight—raw, rough, and unstoppable. The cold blast of her power slashed through the whole house, seeming to gain force with every second, until I could feel her magic slicing into my skin like an ice-cold whip—one that had a granite core.
And I felt something that I hadn’t in a very long time—fear.
“Magda was right,” I whispered. “She is strong.”
The scream faded away, and for a moment, there was silence. Then, one by one, the stones under our feet began to splinter. No, not splinter. That was too slow. The stone simply shattered, and I knew it was because of her scream—because of her elemental power.
The whole house began to buck and heave, and I staggered back, clutching a counter for support. Jagged cracks appeared in the ceiling above our heads, and chunks of plaster started falling like raindrops.
“Let’s get out of here!” Elliot shouted above the growing roar of destruction.
I was already moving toward the door, throwing it open, and stumbling outside. Elliot was right behind me. We staggered to the edge of the woods, then turned and looked back at the house.
It was like something out of a disaster movie. Piece by piece, room by room, floor by floor, the house simply collapsed in on itself. Dust and smoke and other debris filled the air. Glass shattered, wood groaned, and fires bloomed like orange orchids in the mess. What had once been an immaculate mansion had been reduced to rubble by a girl—a girl who hadn’t even come into her full power as an elemental yet.
A shiver rippled up my spine, and once more, I felt like someone had just walked over a grave—my own.
“Well,” Elliot said when the noise and dust finally settled down. “I guess you don’t have to worry about finding the other brat now. Nobody could have survived that. Not even the elemental who caused it. Whoever was in that house is dead now—dead and buried.”
I knew the giant was right. The middle brat, the one I’d left in the living room, was certainly dead, killed by her own sister’s magic. Even I couldn’t have survived something like that, such sudden, massive destruction.
“Come on,” Elliot said. “Let’s see if any of my men made it out of the house on the other side. I know how you hate to waste resources.”
The giant started skirting around the edge of the ruined house, calling out for his men. I drew in a breath and followed him. Still, just before I rounded a corner and put the back of the mansion out of sight, I risked one more glance over my shoulder. The fires were spreading, consuming all the wood, glass, and plaster that they could reach and leaping from one mound of rubble to the other. The flames would eat up whatever hadn’t been destroyed by the house collapsing in on itself. Elliot was right. Eira and her daughters were buried—forever.
So why couldn’t I shake this nagging feeling of dread?
Once word of the death of Eira Snow and her daughters hit the news, things got much easier for me. Nobody could point a finger back to me and say that I’d caved Eira’s own house in on her, but most folks figured that I’d had something to do with her death. Either way, it worked out well for me. The few remaining pockets of resistance in the underworld melted away, and I took control of the city just the way that I’d always planned—just the way that I’d always dreamed.
Oh, I still had problems here and there. An Air elemental named Alexis James thought she could embezzle from her father’s company after I took it over, and an assassin managed to kill Tobias Dawson, someone who thought he was a business associate of mine. That same assassin also had the audacity to murder Jake McAllister, Jonah’s son, during a party at my house.
Still, everything was under control—until the day that Detective Bria Coolidge came to Ashland.
Elliot was the one who broke the news to me, and we discussed it one night during dinner at Underwood’s, along with Jonah. Really, there was nothing to discuss. Somehow, someway, Bria Coolidge, Bria Snow, had survived the destruction of her mansion—and now she was back in Ashland. Magda’s prophecy, the one that I’d all but forgotten about over the years, came rushing back to me, and I felt that same touch of fear that I had all those years ago, when I’d first heard Coolidge’s elemental scream of rage, pain, and fury.
“Kill the bitch,” I ordered. “Tonight.”
But Elliot wasn’t quite up to the task. He came back to my mansion, telling some ridiculous tale about a masked woman—an assassin—who’d killed his men and saved Coolidge.
Normally, I would have burned his skin from his bones for spouting such a ridiculous story. Only his story wasn’t quite as ridiculous as it first seemed to be. Alexis James. Tobias Dawson. Jake McAllister. This was one setback too many, and I started to wonder if there was more to Alexis’s and Tobias’s deaths than I’d originally thought.
Then came the night that Elliot himself was killed, and I got a call from a woman I’d met once before—in my own bathroom, right after she’d killed Jake and dumped his body in my bathtub. She’d crowed at me a little before getting down to business.
“You’re finished in this town, Mab. You and all your cronies and minions. I’m putting you on notice. I’m going to take down your organization one piece, one player at a time, until you’re the only one left. And then, I’m coming for you.”
I’d countered her threats with some of my own, and she’d spouted back some nonsense about leaving her calling card on the side of Elliot’s mountain mansion.
“That fucking spider rune?” I’d asked, staring up at the symbol burning in the stone. “Why a spider rune? It’s so simple, so weak.”
She’d hesistated a few moments. “Why a spider rune? Because it’s the symbol for patience. And I can wait however long I have to until I get you. So look at the rune, Mab, memorize it and remember it well. Because you’ll be seeing it again real soon, sugar. Including the second before you die.”
Then, the bitch had hung up on me.
My eyes flicked over to Bria Coolidge, wondering if it could be her that I was talking to, but the detective was staring up at the burning rune just like everyone else was. She wasn’t even holding her cell phone.
She wasn’t the one who’d killed Elliot and the rest of my men.
For the first time in a very long time, I had an enemy—one who seemed to be just as vicious and deadly as I was.
“Mab?” Jonah asked in a soft voice, breaking into my jumbled thoughts and pulling me back to the here and now.
I blinked, and the last of my memories faded away, like the snow melting in my hair. Yes, I had an enemy, and now she’d killed the assassin that I’d hired to take care of her.
I stared down at LaFleur, my eyes once again going to that damn spider rune that had been scratched into the gravel beside her. The snow had picked up steam while I’d been lost in my memories, each, individual flake slowly filling in the spider rune—
I remembered then.
Eira’s snowflake necklace flashing around her throat when we were kids. The strange snowflakes that Magda had drawn when she’d first told me about her vision, that a girl with both Ice and Stone magic would kill me. The strange, lopsided snowflakes that had eight points instead of six. The feel of the middle brat’s silverstone rune in my hand and all those rays radiating out of that one thin circle.
“Not snowflakes,” I whispered. “Not snowflakes at all. Spiders and webs, instead.”
“Mab?” Jonah asked again. “What are you talking about? Of course, they’re snowflakes. They’re all around us.”
I ignored him, my mind racing a dozen different directions at one, putting all the puzzle pieces together one by one. It didn’t take long. Now that I’d finally remembered what I’d needed to, I knew exactly what I had to do.
I stared down at the white orchid I still clutched in my hand. My fist exploded with elemental Fire, and the beautiful flower disintegrated in an instant. I opened my fingers and let the ash float away on the cold, winter breeze. Like LaFleur, the orchid was of no more use to me.
Jonah took a step to the side. It always made him nervous whenever I so casually unleashed my Fire power. He’d seen me kill too many people with it over the years to be anything but wary around me. It was the only quality I admired about him.
“I know who the bitch is,” I said in a satisfied voice. “I should have realized it immediately, but it was such a long time ago, and I’ve killed so many people since then. But I know exactly who she is now. More importantly, I know how I can find her and hurt her—hurt her like she hasn’t been hurt in a long, long time—since the last time we met, as a matter of fact.”
He blinked. “You know who the Spider is?”
“Who—who is it?”
“Nobody important,” I replied. “Just a little girl that I should have killed long ago—along with her sister. But I’ll rectify that situation very, very soon.”
Jonah’s silver eyebrows drew together, although the rest of his face didn’t move along with them. “And how exactly are you going to do that?”
I told him my plan. He listened to me intently, his perfectly smooth features betraying nothing of what he was really thinking. Sometimes, I thought that was the reason Jonah got all those Air elemental facials—so he could better hide his true feelings from me.
“It will take a few weeks to arrange everything,” Jonah finally said when I was finished. “Especially if you want to lure quality talent to Ashland and cast a net over the whole city.”
“Take however long you need to,” I said. “And spend as much money as you need to. Just make sure the job is done properly this time. Because Jonah?”
I let him see the black fire burning in my eyes. “This is your last chance.”
The lawyer pressed his lips together and swallowed.
I turned, stalked through the train yard, and headed toward my waiting limo. The driver saw me coming and hurried to open the back door for me. Before I slid inside the car, I stopped and looked over my shoulder.
Bria Coolidge was staring at me, along with her partner, Xavier. Both of them had narrowed eyes and calculating looks on their faces, and I knew they were wondering what I was up to, where I was going, and what I might be plotting against them and their mysterious friend. I gave them a dismissive glance and slid into the back of the limo. The driver shut the door and hurried around to the front.
I reached forward, opened the bar in the back, and poured myself a large glass of whiskey. Outside, Coolidge and Xavier kept staring at my car. Even though they couldn’t see me through the tinted windows, I raised my glass to them, then drained all the whiskey inside.
Let them wonder. Let them worry about what I was up to. They’d find out soon enough.
Because it wouldn’t be long until Bria Coolidge was dead—and the Spider along with her.