He jerks back his hand. He is fast.
I am faster.
I bury my dagger through his hand, pinning it to the table.
His mouth gasps open at the pain. Some weird sort of feral exhalation hisses from his mouth as he jerks at the dagger. But I am bigger than him and I drove the dagger four inches into the table. I hammer it down with a flagon. He can’t pull it out. I lean back and watch him try. There’s something primal to his initial frenzied panic. Then something decidedly human in his recovery, which seems more brutally cold than my act of violence. He calms himself faster than anyone I’ve ever seen. It takes a breath, maybe three, and he leans back in his chair as though we were at drinks.
“Well, shit,” he says tightly.
“I thought we should become better acquainted,” I say. I point to myself. “Jackal, I am Reaper.”
“You’ve the better name,” he replies. He takes a breath. Another. “How long have you known?”
“That you were the Jackal? A hopeful guess. That you were up to no good? Before I entered the castle. No one surrenders without a fight. One of your rings didn’t fit. And hide your hands next time. Insecure sobs always hide or fiddle with their hands. But really you had no chance. The Proctors knew I was coming here. They thought to make it a trap to ruin me by telling you I was coming. So you would sneak in here, try to
catch me with my pants down. Their mistake. Your mistake.”
He watches me, wincing as he turns to look at my sober-as-day soldiers rising from the ground. Nearly fifty of them. I wanted them to see the ruse.
“Ah.” The Jackal sighs as he realizes how futile his trap has become. “My soldiers?”
“Which ones? The ones that were with you or the ones you hid in the castle? Maybe in the cellars? Maybe beneath the floor in a tunnel? I don’t wager they’re smiles and giggles right now, man. Pax is a beast and Mustang will be helping him just in case.”
“So that’s why you sent her away.”
And so she wouldn’t accidentally ask why we were pretending to be drunk on grape juice.
Pax will have found their hiding place. Thunder still rolls. I hope the Jackal sank a large size of his force into this ambush. If he didn’t, it’ll be a hassle, because if he has Jupiter’s castle, he probably has Jupiter’s army, which has Juno and much of Vulcan, and soon Mars’s. But I have him here.
The Jackal is pinned, bleeding, and surrounded by my army. His ambush undone. He has lost, but he is not helpless. He is no longer Lucian. It’s almost like his hand isn’t impaled. His voice doesn’t waver. He is not angry, just pissinyourboots scary. He reminds me of me before I go into a rage. Quiet. Unhurried. I wanted my soldiers to see him squirm. He doesn’t, so I tell them to leave. Only the ten Howlers, old and new, stay.
“If we’re to have a conversation, please take this dagger out of my hand,” the Jackal says to me. “Believe it or not, it hurts.” He is not as playful as his words suggest. Despite his resolve, his face is pale and his body has begun to tremble from shock.
I smile. “Where is the rest of your army? Where is that girl, Lilath?
She owes my friend an eye.”
“Let me go and I will give you her head on a platter, if you want. If you lend me an apple, I’ll even put that in her mouth so she looks like a pig at feast. Your choice.”
“There! Now, that’s how you got your name, isn’t it?” I say with mocking applause.
The Jackal clicks his tongue regrettably. “Lilath liked the sound of it.
It stuck. That’s why I’ll put the apple in her mouth. Wish I could have been something more … regal than Jackal, but reputations tend to make themselves.” He nods to Sevro. “Like the Little Goblin there and his Toadstools.”
“What do you mean, ‘Toadstools’?” Thistle asks.
“That’s what we call you. Toadstools for Reaper and Goblin to squat on. But if you would like a better name beyond this little game, you need simply kill big nasty Reaper here. Don’t stun him. Kill him. Drive a sword into his spine, and you can become Imperators, Governors, whatever. Father will be happy to oblige. Very simple stuff. Quid pro quo.”
Sevro pulls out his knives and glares at his Howlers. “Not so simple.” Thistle doesn’t move.
“Worth a try,” the Jackal sighs. “I confess, I am a Politico, not a fighter. So if we’re to converse, you must say something, Reaper. You look like a statue. I don’t speak statue.” His charisma is cold. Calculating.
“Did you really eat your own Housemembers?”
“After months in darkness, you eat whatever your mouth finds. Even if it’s still moving. It isn’t very impressive, really. Less human than I would have liked, very much like animals. And anyone would have done it. But dredging up my foul memories is no way to negotiate.”
“We aren’t negotiating.”
“Humans are always negotiating. That’s what conversation is. Someone has something, knows something. Someone wants something.” His smile is pleasant, but his eyes … There is something wrong with him. A different soul seems to have filled his body since the time he was Lucian. I have seen actors … but this is different. It is as though he is reasonable to the point of being inhuman.
“Reaper, I will have my father give you whatever you like. A fleet. An army of Pinks to screw, Crows to conquer with, whatever. You’ll have prime placement if I win this little year of schooling. If you win, there’s still more schooling. Still more tests. More hardship. I hear your family is dead and poor—it will be difficult for you to rise on your own.”
Almost forgot I had a fake family. “I will make my own laurels.”
“Reaper. Reaper. Reaper. You think this is the end of the line?” He
makes a clicking sound of disgust with his tongue. “Negative. Negative, goodman. But if you let me go, then hardship …” He makes a brushing motion with his free hand. “Gone. My father will become your patron. Hello, command. Hello, fame. Hello, power. Just say goodbye to this”— he gestures to the knife—“and let your future begin. We were enemies as children. Now let us be allies as men. You’re the sword, I’m the pen.”
Dancer would want me to accept the offer. It would guarantee my survival. Guarantee my meteoric rise. I would be inside the halls of the ArchGovernor’s mansion. I would be near the man who killed Eo. Oh, I want to accept. But then I would have to let the Proctors beat me. I’d have to let this little whorefart win and let his father smile and feel pride. I’d have to watch that smug smile spread across his bloodydamn face. Slag that. They’ll feel pain.
The door opens and Pax ducks into the room. A smile splits his face. “Goryfine night, Reaper!” he laughs. “Caught the little turds in the
well. Fifty. Seems they had long tunnels down there like rats. Must be how they took the castle.” He slams the door and sits on the edge of the table to gnaw on a piece of leftover meat. “It was wet work! Ha! Ha! We let them come up and it was dandy fine carnage, I tell you. Dandy fine. Helga would have loved it. They are all slaves now. Mustang is making them as we speak. But ohhh, she’s in an odd mood.” He spits out a bone. “Ha! This him then? The Jackal? He looks pale as a Red’s ass.” He peers closer. “Shit. You nailed him down!”
“I think you’ve taken bigger shits than him, Pax,” Sevro adds. “Prime have. More colorful ones too. He’s drab as a Brown.”
“Guard your tongue, fool,” the Jackal tells Pax. “It may not always be there.”
“Neither will your prick if you keep sassin’! Ha! Is it as small as you?” Pax booms.
The Jackal does not like being mocked. He stares silently at Pax before flicking his eyes back to me as a serpent might flick its tongue.
“Did you know the Proctors are helping you?” I ask. “That they’ve tried to kill me?”
“Of course,” he says with a shrug. “My bounties are … above average.”
“And you don’t mind cheating?” I ask. “Cheat or be cheated, no?”
“Well, they’re not helping you anymore. It’s too late for that. Now it’s time you help yourself.” I stab another knife down into the table. He knows what it’s for.
“I once heard that if a Jackal becomes trapped, it will chew off its own leg to free itself. That knife might be easier than using teeth.”
His laugh is quick and short, like a bark. “So if I cut my hand off, I can leave? Is that really it?”
“There’s the door. Pax, hold the knife down so that he doesn’t cheat.”
Even if he ate others, he won’t do it. He can sacrifice friends and allies, but not himself. He will fail this test. He is an Aureate. He is no one to fear. He is small. He is weak. He is just like his father. I find his Pluto ring in his boot and put it around his finger so his Drafters and father can watch their pride and joy give up. They will know I am better.
“The Proctors may be nudging me, but I still have to earn it, Darrow.” “We’re waiting.”
He sighs. “I told you. I am something different than you. A hand is a peasant’s tool. A Gold’s tool is his mind. Were you of better breeding, you may have realized this sacrifice means so very little to me.”
Then he starts to cut. Tears stream down his face as the blood first wells. He’s sawing and Pax can’t even watch. The Jackal is halfway done when he looks up at me with a sane smile that convinces me of his complete insanity. His teeth chatter. He is laughing, at me, at this, at the pain. I’ve not met anyone like him. Now I know how Mickey felt when he met me. This is a monster in the flesh of a man.
The Jackal is about to break his own wrist to make the job easier when Pax curses and gives him an ionBlade. It will go through in a single stroke.
“Thank you, Pax,” the Jackal says.
I don’t know what to do. Everything inside me is screaming sense. I should kill him now. Put a blade through his throat. This is someone you do not let go. This is someone you do not piss on and then send back into the wild. He is so far beyond Cassius it makes me want to laugh. Yet I told him he could leave if he cut, and he’s cutting. Dear God.
“You’re gory mad,” Pax breathes.
The Jackal mutters something about fools. It’s just a hand, he says. My hands are my everything. To him, they are nothing.
When he has finished, he sits there with a mostly cauterized stump. His face is like snow, but his belt is fastened into a tourniquet. There’s a shared moment between us where he knows I am not going to let him leave.
Then I see a distortion move through an open window. The Proctors came as I hoped, but I am distracted, unprepared. And when I see a small sonic detonator clatter onto the table and the Jackal grab it with his one hand, I know I’ve made such a mistake. I gave the Proctors time to help him. Everything slows, yet I can only watch.
With the same hand that holds the tiny detonator, the Jackal lashes upward with Pax’s ionBlade. He sticks the blade into my big friend’s throat. I shout and lunge forward just as the Jackal presses the detonator’s button.
A sonic blast rips out from the device, throwing me across the room. The Howlers slam into the walls. Pax flips into the door. Cups, food, chairs, scatter like rice in the wind. I’m on the floor. I shake my head, trying to gain my bearings as the Jackal comes toward me. Pax staggers to his feet, blood dripping from his ears, from his throat. The Jackal says something to me, holds up the blade. Then Pax launches himself forward, not onto the Jackal, but onto me. His weight crushes me, and his body covers mine. I can barely breathe. I do not see what happens, but I feel it through Pax’s body. A shudder. A spasm. Ten impacts as the Jackal stabs at Pax trying furiously to get at me like some rabid animal digging in the dirt, digging through Pax to kill me while I’m down.
Then there is nothing.
Blood drips onto my face, warms my body. It is my friend’s.
I try to move Pax. I manage to squeeze out from under him. The Jackal has fled and Pax is bleeding to death. A banshee wails in my ears. The Proctors are gone as well. The Howlers stumble to their feet. When I look back to Pax, he is dead, his mouth pulled into a quiet smile. Blood slithers along the stone. My own chest tightens and I fall to a knee sobbing.
He had no last words. He had no goodbye. He threw himself upon me. And was savaged. Dead.
Loyal Pax. I clutch his huge head. It hurts to see my titan fallen. He was meant for more. Such a soft heart in such a hard form. He will never
laugh again. Never stand on the bridge of a destroyer. Never wear the cape of a knight or carry the scepter of an Imperator. Dead. It shouldn’t have been this way. It is my fault. I should have just ended things quickly.
What a future he could have had.
Sevro stands behind me, face pale. The Howlers are up and seething. Four weep silent tears. Blood trickles from their ears. The world is soundless. We cannot hear, but a pack of wolves does not need words to know that it is time to hunt.
He killed Pax. Now we kill him.
The Jackal’s trail of blood leads to one of the keep’s short spires. From there, it disappears into the courtyard. Rain has washed it away. We jump in a pack of eleven from the spire to a lower wall, rolling as we hit. Then we’re down in the courtyard and Sevro, our tracker, leads the way through a postern gate into the rugged low mountains.
The night is hard. Rain and snow sweep sideways. Lighting flashes. Thunder rumbles, but I hear it as though in a dream. I run with the Howlers in a staggered line. We roll over dark crags, along precipitous drops in search of our quarry. My swaddled boots slow me, but they must be covered. My plan can still work, even after all this.
I do not know how Sevro guides us. I’m lost in the chaos. My mind is on Pax. He shouldn’t have died. I cornered a Jackal and let him chew his way out. I remember how Mustang looked at him. She knew who he was. She knew and she wanted to talk to me in private. Whatever their connection, her loyalty was mine. But how does she know him?
Sevro takes us into the high mountain passes where snow still stacks kneehigh. Tracks here. Snow flurries around us. I’m chilled. My cloak is soaked. The slingBlade bounces on my back. My shoes squish. And blood dots the snow. We sprint uphill through a snowy pass between two rugged peaks. I see the Jackal. He’s stumbling one hundred meters distant. He goes down in the snow, then he’s up again. He’s iron to have made it this far. We will catch him and we will kill him for what he did to Pax. He didn’t have to stab my titan. My pack begins to howl sorrowfully. The Jackal looks back and stumbles on. He will not escape.
We sprint up the snowy incline. Night and darkness. Wind sweeps sideways. I howl, but it is muffled after the sonic blast, like the sound has been swaddled in cotton. Then something strange distorts the
flurries in front of us. A shape. An invisible, intangible shape outlined by the falling snow. A Proctor. A stone sinks down into my stomach. This is where they kill me. This is what Fitchner warned me about.
Apollo deactivates his cloak. He smiles at me through his helmet and calls something. I cannot hear what he says. Then he waves a pulseFist and Sevro and the Howlers scatter as a tiny sonic boom blows five of our pack back down the hill. My eardrums wail. They may never be the same. PulseFist again. I dive away. Pain lances my foot. Spins me. Then the pain is gone. I’m up and sprinting at Apollo. His fist flickers a distortion of force at me. I dodge three blasts. Spinning, turning like a top. I jump. My sword comes down on his head and stops cold. PulseShield, when activated, cannot be penetrated by anything but a razor. I knew this. But there has to be some showmanship.
Apollo watches me, impervious in his armor. My pack has been blasted back down the hill. I see the Jackal struggling on the mountainside. He seems stronger now. A distortion follows him. Some other Proctor giving him strength. Venus, I think.
I scream out the rage that’s been building in me since I went under Mickey’s knife.
Apollo says something I can’t hear. I curse him and swing my blade again. He catches it and tosses it into the snow. The invisible layer of pulseShield around his fist strikes my face—never touching, yet sending agony into the nerves. I scream and fall. Then he picks me up by my hair and we rise into the storm. He soars on gravBoots till we’re three hundred meters up; I dangle from his hand. The snow swirls around us. He speaks again, adjusting some frequency so my damaged ears can hear.
“I will use small words so that you are sure to understand. We have your little Mustang. If you do not lose in your next encounter with the ArchGovernor’s son so all the Drafters can bear witness, then I will ruin her.”
First Pax. Now the girl who sang Eo’s song by the fire. The girl who pulled me from the mud. The girl who curled beside me as the smoke swirled in our little cave. Brilliant Mustang, who would follow me out of choice. And this is where I led her. I did not expect this. I did not plan for this. They have her.
My stomach sinks. Not again. Not like Father. Not like Eo. Not like Lea. Not like Roque. Not like Pax. They will not kill her too. This son of a bitch will not kill anyone.
“I’m going to rip out your bloodydamn heart!”
He punches me in the belly, still holding me by my hair. His face is strange as he tries to place the word. Bloodydamn. We’re floating in the air now, high. Very high. I dangle like a hanging man as he hits me again. I moan. But as I do, I remember one thing I learned from Fitchner as I clapped his shoulder in the woods. If Apollo is holding my hair and I do not feel his pulseShield, then it is turned off. And it is turned off over his entire body. He has physical recoilArmor everywhere else, except one place.
“You are a stupid little puppet, I realize now,” he says idly. “A mad, angry little puppet. You won’t do as I say, will you?” He sighs. “I’ll find another way. Time to cut your strings.”
He drops me.
And I float there, inches from his outstretched hand.
I go nowhere, because beneath fur and cloth, I’m wearing the gravBoots I stole from Fitchner when I assaulted him in Apollo’s warroom. And Apollo’s shield is down. And he’s pissed me off. He gawks at me, confused. I flex the knifeRing’s blade out and punch him in the face, jamming the blade through his visor into his eye socket four times, jerking upward so that he dies.
“You reap what you sow!” I scream at him as he fades. All the rage I’ve felt swells in me, blinding me, and fills me with a pulsing, tangible hatred that seeps away only as Apollo’s boots deactivate and he tumbles down through the swirling storm.
I find my Howlers around his body. The snow is red. They stare at me as I descend, my knifeRing wet with the blood of a Peerless Scarred. I had not intended to kill him. But he should not have taken her. And he should not have called me a puppet.
“They took Mustang,” I tell my pack.
They look on silently. The Jackal no longer matters. “So now we take Olympus.”
The smiles they give one another are as chilling as the snow. Sevro cackles.