“I thought we would set you up out here so you can see all of the action,” he said. “Keep you right in the thick of things.”
His voice was as bland as could be, but something in his words bothered me. It almost sounded like he was expecting trouble tonight, but I couldn’t imagine what problems the drunken frat boys and girls could possibly create that his giants couldn’t handle.
“Like I said, let Antonio know if you need anything.”
Kincaid gave me a thin smile, then moved off into the crowd. Antonio nodded at us and walked away too, although he didn’t go far, planting himself against the rail about twenty feet from the cooking station. Keeping an eye on us.
“This gets stranger by the minute,” I said to Sophia.
The dwarf grunted her agreement, put down her boxes, and started unpacking them. I did the same. Whatever Kincaid was up to, there was nothing to do now but see it through to the end.
The next hour involved reheating the dishes Sophia and I had made earlier in the day, creating some last-minute ones on-site, and then serving everything up to the hungry kids.
I recognized more than a few folks and said hello to those I knew, since I was also a student at Ashland Community College. I was always taking a course or two at the college, like the literature class I’d signed up for this summer. Sophia and I had just finished feeding the first wave of students when I spotted two very familiar faces in the crowd—Eva Grayson and Violet Fox.
Eva was Owen’s nineteen-year-old sister, and Violet was her best friend. The two girls were pretty much inseparable, despite how different they were. Eva looked a lot like Owen, with her blue-black hair, while Violet was all frizzy blond hair and glasses. Like everyone else, they were dressed in shorts, T-shirts, and flip-flops. In fact, Eva’s T-shirt bore the name of the sorority that was hosting the fund-raiser, making me wonder if she’d been involved in the planning.
I wasn’t particularly surprised to see them at a college function, but the troubling thing was that the two girls were talking to none other than Kincaid himself. The casino boss said something, causing both Eva and Violet to laugh. Eva, especially, seemed interested in what he had to say, tossing her hair over her shoulder and smiling at him—something her big brother would definitely not approve of.
Owen had a protective streak a mile wide when it came to Eva, just like I did when it came to my younger sister Bria. Owen would definitely not want Eva cozying up to a casino mobster, but that was exactly what she was doing—and Kincaid seemed to be enjoying every second of her attention.
I dished up the last of the macaroni salad in my tin pan and turned to Sophia. “Can you handle things for a while? I see something I need to take care of.”
The dwarf followed my gaze, frowned, and nodded. She didn’t like the two girls being close to Kincaid any more than I did, especially since we still didn’t know what he was plotting.
“Go,” she rasped.
I undid my blue work apron, lifted the strings over my head, and tied them to the brass railing behind me. Then I skirted around the cooking station and headed for Kincaid. Antonio, who’d been leaning against the railing and idly ogling the pretty young girls who walked by, snapped to attention as I stalked past him.
“Down, boy,” I drawled. “I just want to talk to your boss a second. I’m not going to kill him.”
The word wasn’t spoken, but the threat must have shown in my cold face, because Antonio followed me over to where Kincaid was holding court with Eva and Violet.
Violet saw me first and winced, like the jig was up. She tapped Eva on the arm, trying to get her attention, but Eva was too interested in what Kincaid had to say to pay her friend any mind. That changed, though, the second I shouldered my way in between Eva and Kincaid, not so subtly bumping the casino boss away from her and making him take several steps back.
“Why, hello, Eva,” I drawled again. “I had no idea you were going to be here tonight.”
“Gin!” Eva sputtered, her blue eyes widening. “What—what are you doing here?”
“Catering. And you?”
It took her a second to recover, but when she did, she gestured at the other kids. “Overseeing the fund-raiser.”
“Really? This is your fund-raiser? I don’t remember you telling me anything about it when you and Violet had lunch at the Pork Pit yesterday. I’m surprised you wouldn’t mention it to me, if the cause was so very important to you. But I’m guessing you told Owen all about it, right? And where you were going tonight?”
A guilty flush stained Eva’s pale cheeks. Busted. Eva realized as well as I did that Owen wouldn’t want her near anyone as dangerous as Kincaid, but here she was all the same. I couldn’t help but wonder why. Was the fund-raiser being held on the riverboat just a coincidence? Or was there something else going on? Something between Eva and Kincaid, as unlikely as that seemed? I didn’t know, but I was going to find out.
I had to hand it to her, Eva wasn’t easily intimidated, not even by the likes of me, and she raised her chin. “I needed somewhere to host the fund-raiser, somewhere cooler and more interesting than the student center, so I called Philly and asked him if we could use the riverboat. He said yes.”
“Philly?” I asked, arching an eyebrow.
Kincaid squared his shoulders and looked me in the eye. “Philly. It’s an old nickname Eva gave me when we were kids.”
This time, both my eyebrows shot up. According to Finn’s sketchy file on him, Kincaid was my age, thirty, which made him about eleven years older than Eva. Even if you disregarded the age difference, they didn’t exactly move in the same social circles. So what was going on here? How did they know each other? And more importantly, why was Eva being so nice to Kincaid? Cozying up to him like he was a long-lost friend?
I was opening my mouth to ask those very questions, when a scream ripped through the crowd.
One second, everything was normal. Kids were laughing, talking, drinking, eating, and playing games. The next, everyone had stopped what they were doing, puzzled expressions on their faces as they tried to figure out why someone was interrupting their buzz. Then, when the screams didn’t stop, panic rippled through the crowd, until all the kids were pushing, shoving, and lurching around the deck, trying to put some distance between themselves and whatever horrible thing was happening.
I immediately palmed one of my silverstone knives and turned toward the source of the disturbance, although I made sure to keep Kincaid in my line of sight as well, just in case this was some kind of trick to distract me. He might be the boss here, but I wouldn’t have put it past him to pull a gun or knife on me and get his hands dirty himself.
“Back, back, back!” I yelled at Eva and Violet, pushing the two girls until they were up against the closed doors that led inside the riverboat.
Knife in hand, I put myself in front of them, protecting them from whatever the danger might be—and that’s when I realized the screams were coming from Antonio.
Given their tall, strong, thick bodies, giants were tough to injure and even tougher to kill. Sure, you could take one down with a gun or knife, but you usually had to work to do it. But Antonio was bent over double in the middle of the deck, his hands clutched to his head as though he had the worst migraine imaginable. He just kept screaming and screaming, and I couldn’t figure out why. He didn’t appear to have been stabbed, and I hadn’t heard any gunshots ring out. He didn’t seem to have so much as a paper cut. So what the hell was wrong with him?
Antonio finally lifted his head and straightened up. Once again, I looked him over, searching for any injuries and what might have caused them. I didn’t see any blood or wounds—not so much as a nick or a bruise—but wait . . . There was something wrong with his skin. It looked . . . wet.
And that’s when I felt the first gust of magic swirl through the air.
The elemental power slid against my skin as cool, slick, and gentle as water dripping off waxed paper. It wasn’t an unpleasant sensation—not at all—but I didn’t welcome it either. Because magic most always meant trouble.
I focused, concentrating on the feel of the other elemental’s magic, but I couldn’t tell exactly where it was coming from or who in the panicked crowd was wielding it—just that it was concentrated on Antonio.
After a few more seconds, the giant’s screams faded to garbled gasps. He was having trouble getting words out, and then his voice dried up altogether. He stood in the middle of the deck, his dark eyes empty, his body swaying from side to side like a tree about to topple over.
And he literally melted.
I watched as his skin, which had seemed damp before, took on a glossy sheen, as though he’d just run ten miles uphill and was sweating profusely. But it wasn’t sweat slicking down Antonio’s face, neck, and hands. It was water—all the water in his body, leaving.
“A water elemental,” I muttered, although my voice was lost in the commotion of the crowd.
I knew there were elementals gifted with water magic, and I’d heard of the ways such people used their abilities for everything from sailing, skiing, and fishing to more serious matters like flood control. But I’d never seen anything like this.
The human body was mostly made of water, and giants’ bodies were no different. More and more water beaded upon Antonio’s skin until it dripped off the ends of his fingers, his chin, hell, even the tip of his nose. His soaked suit was plastered to his body, and water leaked out of his wing tips and slowly spread across the deck. Well, that explained his agonized cries. Having the water forced out of every single cell in your body would make anyone scream, even a giant.
Without all that precious fluid, there wasn’t much of Antonio left. The giant’s face took on a gaunt, hollow look, and his whole body seemed to slowly deflate, like a tire that had sprung a leak.
It was sickening to watch.
Antonio wasn’t screaming anymore—but everyone else was. Even I had to bite back a snarl of disgust, especially when the elemental used their magic to pop the giant’s eyeballs right out of his head. The orbs splattered onto the deck and oozed over the glossy wood like white, runny eggs. That was a little excessive, if you asked me, a bit of showing off, especially since the giant was already so close to dead.
In less than a minute, it was all over. Antonio had been reduced from a rough, tough, seven-foot-tall giant to a pile of loose skin topped by an eyeless skull. The giant’s mouth opened once more, as if he wanted to scream a final time, but he never got the chance.
Antonio collapsed onto the deck, his skin and bones resting in the puddles of water that had just been forced out of him.
I stood there, still shielding Eva and Violet, and stared at the wet, floppy thing that had been a man just seconds before. Poor bastard. He’d never had a chance.
Kincaid fought through the screaming crowd of students and went down on one knee by Antonio, not caring that he was getting his pants wet with, well, Antonio. He started to touch the giant, then thought better of it. There was nothing that could be done for the man. Not now. Disgust and pity filled Kincaid’s face, along with rage—so much rage.
My eyes narrowed. That look told me that the casino boss knew exactly who had done this and why—things I planned on asking him just as soon as I got Eva and Violet to safety.
By this point, Sophia had managed to shoulder her way through the students over to my side.
“You get the girls off the boat!” I yelled at her. “I’ll handle Kincaid!”
Sophia nodded. The dwarf reached out and clamped a hand on Violet’s trembling arm. Sophia started to do the same to Eva, but the girl twisted away from her.
“No!” Eva shouted. “I’m not leaving him behind. Not again!”
Again? What did she mean by that?
Before I could grab her and ask, Eva shoved away from the doors and ran toward Kincaid as fast as she could, given the people still trampling over each other. Now, instead of just running around in a blind panic, everyone was racing toward the gangplank, determined to get off the boat before what happened to Antonio happened to them too.
“Stay with Violet. I’ll get Eva!” I yelled to Sophia.
Knife still in my hand, I headed after Eva, dodging and darting between the stampeding students. The giants that made up the casino’s security force weren’t any calmer. Their heads swiveled left and right as they shouted at each other, all trying to stay as far away from Antonio as they could, lest they end up just like him. Some of the giants even shoved kids out of their way in their mad dash to safety.
Up ahead, I saw Eva reach Kincaid’s side. She stared at the dead giant and the pools of water under his body, then turned away and threw up all over the deck.
Kincaid cursed, got to his feet, and reached for her. “Eva, it’s okay—”
And that’s when I felt another gust of that cool, deadly magic sweep across the deck. Only this time, it was focused on our host.
I didn’t know exactly how it happened. One second, Kincaid was reaching for Eva. The next, his feet had gone out from under him, and he was on his back on the deck, clawing at something around his throat. Eva must have seen him fall out of the corner of her eye, because she wiped her mouth and turned her head in his direction. Her eyes widened, and her already pale face whitened that much more.
“Philly!” Eva screamed. “Philly!”
She dropped to her knees beside him, tearing at his neck with her nails, just as Kincaid himself was doing. I surged past a frat boy and sprinted over to the two of them. My eyes flicked left, then right, looking for the source of the danger, looking for the elemental who was behind this, but all I saw and heard were screeching kids and panicked giants.
Since I couldn’t immediately eliminate the danger with my knife, I squatted down next to Kincaid. Something translucent shimmered around his throat, and it took me a second to realize that it was . . . water.
Somehow, a long, thick stream of water—of Antonio, really—had attached itself to Kincaid’s neck and solidified there like a noose, slowly digging deeper and deeper into his throat and cutting off his air. The casino boss clawed and clawed at the water, but it was stuck to his skin like a coat of wet plaster. The water even looked like a noose, the length of it taking on a braided, twisted design and forming a tight knot in the center of Kincaid’s neck. The elemental definitely had a sick sense of humor.
“Gin!” Eva screamed at me, tearing at the water and trying to peel it off just as hard as Kincaid was. “Do something! Help him!”
Eva was a strong girl, a tough girl, who’d been through a lot in her life, including the murder of her parents, but she looked absolutely terrified right now. Like Kincaid was the most important person in the world to her and she’d be absolutely devastated if she lost him. What was going on between them? And why didn’t I know anything about it? Eva and I might not have been best friends, like she and Violet were, but we talked, and I dated her brother. I should have known something about her relationship with the casino boss.