“Of course, Mab is dead,” she continued. “But the rest of you aren’t.”
More than a few folks sucked in breaths at the threat in her words.
Jonah McAllister pushed through the crowd until he was standing in front of Salina. The lawyer gave her an icy glare. “This is madness. Let us go, Salina. You can’t possibly hope to get away with whatever it is you have planned. You don’t know who you are dealing with.”
“No, Jonah,” she said. “You don’t know who you are dealing with. But believe me when I tell you that you are about to find out.”
She stared at the lawyer. McAllister opened his mouth to argue with her but then thought better of it and clamped his lips shut. Whatever he saw in Salina’s face made him he realize that she was too committed to her plan to abandon it now—just like her father had been all those years ago.
“My father was known for his Ice magic,” Salina said. “But I have a slightly different power—water.”
Hoarse gasps of unease rippled through the crowd. People stared at the pretty fountains they’d been admiring earlier, awareness, horror, and fear filling their faces. They’d walked right into Salina’s trap without even realizing it, and now there was no way out.
Again I hesitated. It would be easy—so damn easy—to let Salina kill the lot of them. It would solve so many of my problems, not to mention make Ashland a little safer for everyone. But, once again, I couldn’t condone mass murder, especially when some of the people here tonight were innocents, just regular men and women waiting and bartending and trying to make a few bucks to support their families. I couldn’t leave them to Salina’s mercy—or lack of it. It would go against everything Fletcher had ever taught me about being an assassin—and a halfway decent person too.
“The reason I invited you here tonight was to remember my father.” Salina’s voice was as calm as ever, which made her words that much more chilling. “To honor him—and to watch you all die screaming, just like he did.”
That was my cue if ever there was one. Still holding my silverstone staff, I surged to my feet and sprinted to the giant closest to me. He saw me out of the corner of his eye and frowned, as if he couldn’t believe I would actually run toward him while he was holding a gun on the crowd. He swung his weapon around to me, and I reached for my Stone magic, using it to harden my skin.
The crowd screamed at the gunshots, and many folks ducked down and started shoving each other, scrambling to put their neighbors between themselves and this new danger.
The giant got off two shots at me. One was off the mark and plowed into the bar, shattering part of the elemental Ice, while the other hit my shoulder and bounced off my hardened skin. Cursing, the giant started to pull the trigger a third time, but Kincaid snuck up behind him and chopped the gun out of his hand.
My turn. I brought the staff up and around, slamming it into the side of the giant’s head. He staggered back. I palmed a knife, followed him, and shoved the blade deep into his chest, sliding it in between his ribs and slicing it into his heart. The giant screamed, but I was already pushing him out of the way and stepping over to Kincaid.
“Fancy meeting you here,” Kincaid said, grinning.
“Uh-huh. Now shut your mouth and start running.”
I tucked the bloody knife back up my sleeve, grabbed the woman closest to me, and shoved her toward Kincaid and the opening I’d just created in Salina’s trap.
“Move! Move! Move!” I screamed at the people in front of me. “Run! Now, while you still can!”
For a moment, there was shocked silence; then folks began to stampede in my direction. I leapt up onto the rim of the closest fountain so I wouldn’t get dragged down to the ground and trampled. Looking over the crowd to where Salina was standing in front of the mermaid fountain, I could only hope I’d bought everyone enough time to get out of her watery web of death.
But it was already too late—Salina’s eyes began to glow, and I knew she was reaching for her magic.
Normally, I would have enjoyed being so close to such beautiful fountains. I would have been happy to relax, sit on one of the rims, and listen to the water merrily gurgle away while a bit of cool, refreshing spray wafted over me.
The water that had been bubbling so peacefully in the fountains took on a harsher, more ominous sound. It surged out of the metal sculptures with all the force of a fire hose pointed at the crowd—seven of them, one from each fountain.
People screamed as the water slammed into them, and the jets of it were so powerful they knocked over tables, chairs, and everything else in their paths. In a second, everyone was soaked to the skin, which was just what Salina wanted. People fell to the ground, which had already turned to mud, and they wrestled with each other, trying to get on their feet or crawl over the tops of their enemies to safety. Others weren’t so lucky. They were picked up by waves of water, dumped into the bottoms of the fountains, and held there, only to surface when they were good and dead. Salina wasn’t using her magic to dehydrate anyone. No, tonight, she was intent on drowning everyone she saw.
“Salina! No! Stop!” I heard Owen yell. “Don’t do this!”
Owen pushed his way through the crowd until he was standing before the elemental. He held out a hand, pleading with her. She looked at him. Her face softened, and I could see all the love she had for him, all the love she’d always had for him, crazy and twisted as it was. For a moment, I thought she might actually reconsider, that she might actually stand down and give up her deadly plan. But then her eyes found mine, and her face hardened once more.
“You made your choice, Owen,” Salina snarled. “And this is mine!”
She waved her hand and a jet of water roared out of the fountain behind her, slamming into Owen, knocking him back thirty feet into the Ice bar we’d been hiding behind.
“Owen!” I screamed.
But my lover didn’t respond, and his body slumped to the ground at an awkward angle. At the very least, he was unconscious. I didn’t want to think about the very worst.
“Owen!” Kincaid yelled the same thing I had and started shoving his way over to the bar. I leaped off the fountain rim and took a step toward Owen, too—
And that was when Finn finally crashed the party.
His Escalade rammed through the front gate, followed by Bria’s sedan and another cop car with flashing blue and white lights. Finn forgot about following the driveway. Instead, he turned the wheel hard, accelerated onto the lawn, and slammed the vehicle into the koi fountain. He knocked the metal off its foundation, busting the pipes hidden beneath it and causing even more water to shoot up into the air. Finn had also clipped the giant who’d been guarding that spot, creating another opening in the ring of death, which was quickly filled with more fleeing people. They stumbled away from the pulsing jets of water, out onto the lawn, and then picked up their sodden dresses and pant legs and ran for all they were worth.
I noticed Jonah McAllister was leading the pack of escapees. A pity the lawyer had gotten away, but my eyes snapped back to Salina. Even though I desperately wanted to check on Owen, first I needed to make sure she didn’t hurt anyone else.
I pushed my way through the screaming crowd, heading toward her and avoiding as many of the sprays of water as I could. They blasted out of the fountains like geysers, and Salina laughed with delight as she used the water to push one man over the rim and into the bottom of the mermaid fountain. He didn’t surface after that.
Salina was having so much fun murdering that poor soul that she didn’t notice me sprinting at her. I managed to get within arm’s reach of her. I raised my staff, intent on bashing her head in and putting her down before she could kill anyone else—
My foot slipped in the mud.
Instead of killing Salina, I merely slammed into her, and we both went down in a heap in the mud. The staff fell from my fingers and flew out of reach, so I palmed one of my knives, got up, and turned to face her. She was already back up on her feet.
“You bitch!” she screamed. “You’ve ruined everything!”
I didn’t respond—I was too busy throwing myself forward and trying to end her existence.
Salina might have presented herself as a sweet Southern belle, but she clearly knew how to fight. She punched me in the face, knocking me back, then lashed out with her hand and slapped my knife out of my fingers. I palmed another blade and threw myself at her again, but once again she was ready for the move and landed another punch, this time to my stomach, knocking my second knife away as well. But still I managed to latch onto her, and we fell to the ground. We rolled around and around in the mud for several seconds before getting up on our feet and turning toward each other again.
All around us, water continued to spray, but the panicked screams had faded as most of the guests had managed to get away from the fountains and onto the relative safety of the lawn. Even the giants who’d been standing guard had turned tail and run.
Crack! Crack! Crack!
Gunshots sounded behind me, probably Finn, Bria, and Xavier dealing with the rest of Salina’s men, but I didn’t dare turn around to look. No, this moment was about me and her—nothing else.
We circled each other, going around and around in a silent dance, our feet sending up sprays of mud. The water continued to rain down around us. Salina’s aquamarine dress was plastered to her skin, the crystals tinkling together like wind chimes, and even more water dripped out of the ends of her blond hair, making her look like an evil twin to the crazy grinning mermaid of the fountain beside us.
Her eyes narrowed as she glared at me, the color shifting from blue to green and back again, the orbs glowing with her water magic—along with more than a touch of madness. For the first time, I saw what Owen did when he looked at her—someone who needed help.
Salina might need help, but she wasn’t going to get it from me.
The water continued to rain down all around Salina and me, like the two of us were standing in the middle of a thunderstorm. We faced each other in the midst of the downpour. Her eyes flicked around, scanning the overturned tables, the broken dishes, the crushed chairs, the shattered Ice bars. Then, her gaze swung back to me, hurt and accusing.
“This is your fault,” she muttered. “All your fault. You’ve ruined everything! Owen! My revenge! Everything!”
I grinned. “I have a way of doing that.”
Salina smiled, baring her teeth at me. “Well, this is going to be the last thing you ever ruin, you assassin whore. And once you’re gone, Owen will come back to me. I know he will.”
I looked at her, wondering if she really believed that, if she really believed Owen would come back to her after everything that had happened, after everything that she’d done to the people he cared about. But her conviction filled her face, making her eyes burn that much brighter. For a moment, I almost felt sorry for her.
Then the bitch blasted me with her water magic, and I got over it.
Salina raised up her hands, and the water droplets that had been clinging to her skin began to move and writhe like kudzu vines sprouting and growing all around her. I realized we were in a different kind of garden now—a water garden in which Salina was the queen and I was just her unfortunate victim.
“You really should have drowned in the creek while you had the chance,” she hissed. “Because now, I’m going to tear you limb from limb.”
She waved her hands again, and the water vines shot out from her skin and slammed into mine. It was the same sensation I’d had when she’d tried to drown me in the creek—all of these tight, tiny vines wrapping around my whole body.
Only this time, instead of pulling me under the water, they were ripping me apart.
I watched in horror as the water vines began to sprout long, sharp, curved thorns. For a moment, the vines arced out away from my body before shooting forward, the thorns ripping into my skin. I screamed, but the thorns continued to burrow deeper and deeper into my body with every breath I took. It felt like my skin, my muscles, even my bones were on fire, and I could feel the blood gushing out of the hundreds of tiny pricks the thorns had made in me. I had no doubt Salina could do exactly what she claimed—she would tear my arms, legs, hell, even my head from my body. I wondered if she’d go that extra step and pop my eyes out of my skull like she’d done to Antonio. Either way, it would be a horrible, painful way to die.
I reached for my Stone magic, hardening my skin against the thorns’ intrusion. But that only slowed the onslaught—it didn’t stop it.
I stood there, pushing back against Salina’s water magic with my Stone power. She let out a frustrated scream that I’d stalled her initial attack and she wasn’t going to immediately kill me the way she wanted to.
“Fine,” she snarled. “If I can’t rip you to pieces, I’ll just drown you like the rat you are.”
Using her left hand, Salina grabbed the silverstone cuff bracelet on her right wrist and made a twisting motion, tapping into the power stored there. The water vines wrapped around me started pulling me over to the closest fountain, the one shaped like a mermaid. I dug my boot heels into the ground, but since it had turned to mud, it didn’t slow down the vines—not even for a second.
I couldn’t let go of my Stone magic or Salina would rip me apart with her water thorns, and I couldn’t fight back against the vines that held me tight. The vines had trapped my arms by my sides, making it impossible for me to reach for one of the knives still left on me. So I skidded along in the mud, the mermaid fountain getting closer and closer with every second. I knew that if she got me in there I was dead. Salina would just keep pouring more and more water on top of me until I either drowned or was crushed, or she broke through my Stone magic and could tear me to pieces like she’d promised.
I only had one chance left—the staff.
My eyes landed on the weapon, which had slid over to the base of the mermaid fountain. It was covered with mud, like everything else was, but I could still see the long, distinctive shape of it. The staff was the only shot I had left to get out of this alive and turn the tables on Salina. It wasn’t the weapon itself so much that mattered—it was the Ice magic it contained.
My Ice magic.
I didn’t have enough Ice magic on my own to stop Salina. There was just too much water puddled on the ground and spewing up in the air for me to do that. Besides, she was using the extra power stored in her cuff bracelet to augment her already strong magic. But the staff had soaked up a fair amount of my power when I’d been battling Dekes, power that I’d added to over the past few weeks, just in case I ever needed it—which I desperately did tonight.