Good Ghoul Gone Bad
by D.B. Starler
Illustrated by Galen Dara | Edited by Brian J. White
Things hadn’t really been working out for Lola since she died. Life, if she could even call it that anymore, had pretty much gone down the crapper.
“The thing is, Mr. Havens, I just don’t want to.”
The man sitting across from Lola’s desk was thin and long, in the way that evening shadows were: dark, twisted, and more than a little shady. He steepled bony fingers together, his almost nonexistent lips tightening into a flat line.
“Be that as it may, you_ will_ do as I request.” Havens swiveled in his chair, until he faced the pink hint of the rising sun over jagged mountain peaks, through the set of wide windows in Lola’s third-floor walk-up office. “If we are being honest with each other—”
“Yes, let’s be honest.”
His nostrils flared at the interruption as he slowly turned back to face her, but Lola didn’t care. She was so tired of this man thinking he could order her about willy nilly, just because he had stolen her jar of dirt. Or dangled a sack of cash in front of her.
Lola leaned forward, the tips of her fangs pushing through her gums, in irritation. She paused to draw in a deep breath, centering herself. Havens tracked her movements, his eyes widening. Releasing what tension she could, Lola twisted her neck, shook out her shoulders, and started again. “If we are being honest, let’s lay it all out, shall we? You’ve stolen my bit of land. You’ve been blackmailing me with said bit of land, and up until now, it’s worked well for you. But it won’t work in this instance. Not even with the added incentive of an extravagant finder’s fee.”
“Why not?” he asked, pale eyes snapping in annoyance. “I know you need your jar to survive. If I disperse the dirt within it, you will fade away into the dust you should already be. And do not pretend you don’t need the money.”
Lola knew her smile wasn’t pleasant, more of a baring of razor-sharp teeth, but really. This fool meant to blackmail her into stealing an item, with no true comprehension of the power it held. He thought he could possess it, and use it, and it would be the end to his troubles. But possession of such an item would be only the _beginning _of his troubles.
“What you want cannot be done.”
“Find a way.”
“It cannot be done!” She slammed a fist on her desk, rage coursing through her body. Havens wanted to force her on a hunt that would end only in her death. Though a ghoul was technically dead, a revived lost soul in an animated body, there was still the final, true death. No coming back from that. And when it happened, if her soul had not resolved itself to Heaven or Hell, she would simply cease to exist.
Her soul would dissolve into the void. Nothing. No reincarnation, no second chances, no guardian angelship. Nada. Kaput. Cosmic dust. And what Havens asked, well, the long-forgotten god who guarded his desired item wouldn’t even need Lola’s jar of dirt to put her down.
The thought scared the crap out of her.
Havens regarded her through narrowed eyes, his mouth pursing in disapproval. “I didn’t want to have to resort to this, but I would urge you to reconsider. Think of Kylie.”
Lola’s throat closed tight, cutting off her air supply. Fingers tightened on the wood of her desk, the surface creaking under the pressure. She coughed, then cleared her throat.
“What of her?”
Her little sister was the one thing Lola still acknowledged from her old life, from before her death and reanimation, five years before. In her last year of high school, Kylie was as ignorant to the dark side of life as she was beautiful, and Lola was determined to keep her that way. The very core of her shook with fear and rage at the smug look on Haven’s face as he watched his threat hit home.
Before he could speak, Lola held up one shaking hand. “I concede. I’ll do as you have… requested.”
“I knew you would see it my way.”
She swallowed down the acidic taste of her revulsion for the man.
“I want your word that whether or not I accomplish this task you set me, you will never go near my sister. You will leave her in peace. If I should fall, then you will anonymously deposit a hundred thousand dollars into a bank account in her name.” Havens arched one brow in amusement, but Lola stubbornly shook her head. She knew such wealth was but a drop in the bucket for the mysterious businessman. “I will refuse, unless you meet this one term. It doesn’t cost you anything extra, as you would have paid that in finder’s fees anyway.”
“Because you are correct, and because I’m getting what I want,” he said, inclining his head in a gracious nod. “…I will agree to your request.”
Havens stood, his gray flannel suit creased from their meeting, and straightened his red power tie, more suited to a boardroom than her dingy, postage-sized office. Removing a thick envelope from his inner suit pocket, he dropped it on her desk.
“For incidentals. I’m quite sure it will be enough to make up for any inconveniences.”
Lola bit the inside of her cheek, her mouth filling with the coppery taste of her own blood, to avoid saying something she would regret at a later time. Havens smirked, and left the office as she sat motionless in her desk chair. While she knew she needed the money, her fingers itched to rip the offensive bills into shreds.
He thought he had bought her with a bit of dirt and a few dollars. The true currency of her soul was blood. The blood that flowed within her sister’s veins—exactly where she wanted it to stay.
Lola snarled, filled with the need to bite something. Wanting to feel the give of soft flesh under her teeth, the scalding rush of hot blood down her throat. She wanted the pain, the terror, the heady pleasure of the kill. It was the downside of becoming a ghoul; whenever rage was upon her, she tipped the scales toward Evil.
If she gave into the urge, it would be one more mark on her soul. A mark that could never be balanced out by helping old ladies across the street or paying for someone’s lunch in secret. Those were small, piddling good deeds. These sort of marks needed a major sacrifice to rebalance.
She already had two such marks upon her. Three strikes, and she was out. After that, it was merely a matter of time before Hell claimed her, regardless of how long she managed to keep her body alive.
Lola shuddered at the memories of rage and blood and pleasure, closing her eyes. Slowing her breathing, she mastered the fury within her. There would be no third mark. The other two had been from when she was a new ghoul, unaware of the danger and tenuous in her control. But she was her own master now, and would remain as such.
Letting out a long breath, Lola opened her eyes, and studied the pink wash of light shading her walls. The sun was almost up. When it set again, she would make her preparations, starting with a most unpleasant task.
There was a time when Lola might have asked nicely for help. There was a time she might have even cajoled in a flirtatious manner, but that time had passed by on swift feet the day Dashiell Hadley the Third had betrayed her, sending her to her death. Now he owed her.
And she was calling in her marker.
“Damn you, Dash. It’s not a request. Do you think I would pick_ you_, if I felt there were other choices?”
She felt nothing but contempt for the man who used to warm her bed, the man she had once thought to marry. The fact that the last five years had not left their stamp on him infuriated her even more. His golden hair should be dulled, his strong jaw should be sagging, and his wide, muscled shoulders bent under the weight of what he had done.
Eyes the color of smoke studied her with an unreadable coolness. He lifted one shoulder in a slight shrug. “As I recall, you did, once.”
“And look what it got me,” she spat, gesturing at herself. Fury filled Lola, her vision wavering as she struggled for control. She had seriously underestimated her need to rip his head off and use it as a soup bowl.
“You look like you’re surviving to me.” Dash straightened from his slouch against the doorway to his home, his neutral expression giving nothing away as his gaze travelled over her. “In fact, you look better than you ever have. The silver hair is surprisingly attractive. You seem to have adapted to ghoulhood quite well.”
The shame of it was, he wasn’t wrong.
Becoming a ghoul had smoothed her skin and hair, though leaching them of color, and brought her body strength and stamina. Her formerly blue eyes had darkened to a shade of pitch reserved for creatures of the night, but her lashes had thickened and grown longer. Lola now moved with the sort of grace she had craved her entire life. No more tripping over invisible objects, or stumbling over her own feet.
She had only had to die to get it.
“May I come in?” She would not bury her fist in his chest and tear his heart out, still beating between her fingers. She would be mature about this. After all, there was more than her ego at stake here.
“So polite.” One corner of his mouth curled upward, though the smile didn’t reach his eyes. “Of course you may, Lola, darling. Mi casa, su casa.”
No, she would wait until after the mission was complete. That way she could spend many pleasant hours whiling away the time to the music of his pain-filled screams.
Stepping over the threshold of Dash’s palatial home in the Maryland hills outside of the nation’s capital, Lola shut the door behind her. Without waiting to see if she would follow, knowing she would, her treacherous former fiancé strolled down the hall toward his library. Refusing to look around, ignoring the pinch in her chest as she walked through the home she had once thought would be her own, Lola entered the library on his heels.
Dash went straight to the couch in front of the blazing fireplace, and flopped down on it. “So, why the visit, sweetheart? You’ve avoided me for years, even after I tried to see you, and you turned me away. What possibly could have brought you home now?”
Pain slashed, tearing into her composure. How dare he mock her?
“This is not my home, it never truly was, or you could not have done what you did.” She fought to control the tremor in her voice. “And do not call me sweetheart, darling, or any damn thing other than my name.”
Dash cocked his head to the side, his expression turning serious.
“Someday, Lola, we will have this discussion.” Over her dusted body. “But clearly you’re desperate, or you wouldn’t have been driven to my doorstep. I ask again, what is it you need from me?”
His pain. His blood. His groveling apology for letting her die.
Lola smiled. “I need your magic.”
“Tell me again how you think I can help you prevail over Ninurta, the Sumerian elder god of the sun, in order to steal a suit of armor made from the impenetrable hide of the defeated Leviathan, hmm?”
Lola rolled her eyes.
“It’s really not that hard, Dash. Try to keep up.” She stretched in her seat, ignoring the slight turbulence of the private jet he had hired for their hasty trip to Middle East. The upside of working with the snake again was traveling in style, sliding in under governments’ radars, and going unmarked through Customs with the help of the passports from his Underworld. “You distract him, while I grab the armor.”
Dash idly rubbed a hand over his chin. “Distract him? With what, fireworks? He’s a god, not a cranky child full of too many sweets. And from what I’ve heard, he knows a little something about fighting.”
She would imagine he did. Ninurta had been the god to triumph over many of the horrific beasts that terrorized the world when it was still young. Besides the Leviathan and several others, it was rumored he had defeated the Mermaid. Not just any mermaid but _the _Mermaid, the ancient mother of those tricksy devourers of wayward sailors. Having run afoul of a mermaid once or twice in the last few years, Lola couldn’t say she was sorry to hear this.
“I’m not the fool I once was. I know you can fight, both with your knives and your magic.” Lola narrowed her eyes, recalling the day he had protected himself very well, at her expense. “You owe me a debt, and this is how I want to be repaid.”
“After this mission is complete, we are even?” His tone was causal, but gray eyes studied her with a sharp intensity. “I do this, then you will consider the debt filled? The slate wiped clean?”
“We will be on equal ground again.” Lola sidestepped his questions. It wasn’t a lie. But only one thing would ever truly balance the scales, in her eyes. A life for a life.
Dash seemed satisfied by her answer, however. He leaned back in his seat, glancing out at the thinning clouds, over ocean water sparkling under the waning moon.
“We’ll be landing in Israel soon, and then have to travel, perhaps on foot, to the Palestinian side, according to your friend.” Dash frowned, and glanced at the cracked, yellowing map on the small table between them. “I still have my doubts about the accuracy of your informant’s directions.”
“Percy is a Guide. He can track anything, anywhere. There is nothing on Earth that can hide from his particular brand of magic.”
Dash didn’t bother to hide his skepticism. Not that she cared what he thought, as long as he did his part.
“We’ll have to find a hotel for the day, then travel at night. Obviously. But I have to tell you, even with my money and contacts, navigating the West Bank is a tricky proposition, at best.” He leaned over the map again, with a frown. “Are you positive Ninurta is still there somewhere? It seems bizarre he would endure it, with all the crowded settlements, with the bombs and killing. As a god, he could live anywhere.”
A ghost of a smile turned up Lola’s lips. “Endure it? Ninurta is a god of the sun… and of battle. He thrives on it. Who do you think started the whole mess in the first place?”
The last of the sun’s rays slipped over the sloping hills of the West Bank, sinking the area into the dim violet of twilight. Lola stretched her legs and leaned against a tree, ignoring Dash as he tapped his wristwatch, muttering to himself. After flying into Tel Aviv, they were dropped off by a taxi about half a mile from the border, and had slipped through the trees until they came to a high fence topped with barbed wire, and a two-lane highway on the other side.
From within the shelter of the forest, Lola studied the steep hill sparsely spotted with trees that rose up beyond the road. If her map was indeed correct, they needed to climb the hills and down into the shallow valley beyond, to find Ninurta’s hidden home.
“Piece of crap.” At Dash’s growl of irritation, she glanced over. He was scowling at his watch again. “The GPS stopped working about a five minutes ago. Just died. I paid almost two thousand dollars for this watch, and it’s a piece of crap.”
Lola smirked, and pushed off the tree trunk. “Hope you kept the receipt.”
He didn’t look as amused.
“It’s probably part of Ninurta’s defense system against strangers. I imagine he doesn’t want tourists wandering into his territory.” With a sigh, he stripped the watch off his wrist and stuffed it into the pack he was carrying. After rifling around for a moment, he withdrew something dark and shapeless, holding it out to Lola. “Here. Cover up that hair, or we’ll never make it over the hills undetected.”
She looked at the black cap that matched the rest of her clothing, in distaste, but Dash was right. Her colorless hair sparkled under the moonlight, practically a beacon in the semi-dark. She stuffed the long tangle of it under the hat, and withdrew thick leather gloves from her pocket.
“Stay here. I’ll let you know when it’s safe.”
Time to go to work.
Lola strode up to the tall, metal fence, and glanced down the road each way to ensure it was still deserted, before quickly scaling the links. A whistle came from the darkness below her.
“As swift as a spider. Very cool.”
“If only my bite was as venomous,” she muttered, as she reached the barbed wire.
“What was that?” Dash called up, his body only a large, gray shape in the shadows.
“Oh, nothing.” Lola reached out, her hands covered in the thick leather, and snagged the barbed wire. In two strong wrenches, she separated the pieces, bending them backward to create a space for Dash to squeeze through without tearing his more tender skin. “Okay. We’re good.”
She vaulted down the other side of the fence, landing on the balls of her feet in silence. There was a rattle of metal, and a masculine grunt, then Dash landed next to her, staggering a little. Without thinking, Lola reached out and steadied him, her fingers gripping his shoulder. He froze under her touch, and she snatched her hand back, angry she had forgotten herself, for even a moment.
The sooner they could get this mission over with, the sooner she could kill him, and the sooner she could go back to her own life.
She adjusted the straps of her pack, ignoring Dash’s attempt to talk to her. “Let’s go. We still have several miles to walk, and I don’t want to get stuck cowering under some rock on the way back because we lingered too long and the sun rose.”
Saying nothing more, he followed as Lola quickly crossed the narrow, deserted highway. The only noises that broke the silence of the night for the next half hour were the scuffle of their boots in the dirt and occasional chirp of nearby crickets. Lola was just starting to breathe hard when she finally reached the top of the steep hill, and looked down the slope on the other side. Also covered in small patches of brush or scraggly trees, it didn’t provide much cover. But since all she could see was more rolling hills and hard-packed dirt, it didn’t matter much.
“Any idea how far out we walk?” Dash stepped up next to her and took a sip of water from his metal canteen. Envy twisted within her as he lowered it, looking refreshed, but water didn’t much agree with her anymore. Mostly, her diet consisted of animal blood and the occasional bit of raw meat. She had fed quite well before leaving home, so she wouldn’t have to worry about it while in Dash’s presence.
It bothered her that she didn’t want to find out how he reacted to her new feeding plan. She didn’t want to care what he thought of her.
“If the map is right, we have about two miles, and several hills, to go. There’s a deep valley, and within that valley is where we should find Ninurta’s home.”
“Lead on, MacDuff.” Dash gestured ahead of them, as he put away his water.
Lola started down the hill. “Please don’t mangle Shakespeare in my presence.”
“Enlighten me with your wisdom, o’Learned One.”
Ignoring the amusement in his voice, Lola pushed aside a tangle of brush, letting go of the thorny branches just as Dash stepped forward. She smiled at the thwack, and the subsequent cursing.
“The actual quote is Lay on, MacDuff, damned be him who first cries Hold! Enough!”
“Seems fitting,” he muttered, wiping away a small streak of blood from his cheek.
They moved through the land in silence after that, thin silver clouds drifting overhead through the black sky, dotted with the sparkle of stars high above in the cold void of space. The further into the West Bank they walked, the tighter Lola’s nerves wound. Although it wasn’t overcrowded by any means, the disputed territory was pretty populated in most areas. Here, however, it was almost as if they had traveled back into another time. There was no distant echo of traffic, no overhead roar of planes or reflection of civilization’s lights against the night sky.
She didn’t like it.
The faint scent of river mud and something darker, the stink of old flesh long rotted, soon drifted their way. Lola held up a hand and Dash froze mid-step, his sharp gaze studying her. Lifting her face to the breeze blowing up from the wooded valley spread out below them, she breathed in deeply. The rich taste of dark earth, mixed with the copper tang of ancient blood, stung the back of her throat.
Ninurta’s lair was a surprise.
In truth, it was no lair at all, but a mere hole in the ground. Lola had no doubt the god lurked within, however. The skin on her body prickled with danger, glowing with the small magics of protection ghoulhood had afforded her. The grim look on Dash’s face told her that he felt the presence of the elder god as well.
“What the hell is a god of the sun doing living in a dank pit?” he whispered as they stripped off their packs and strapped on their weapons. She just shook her head, unable to come up with an answer, and stuck a matte black Browning .45 into her thigh holster. Guns on either side of her hips and a pair of very sharp knives in sheaths on her forearms completed her arsenal. Unable to summon more than the faintest of protective magics, Lola needed the advantage of modern weapons.
The crackle of energy had her glancing over at Dash, where he stood with his legs braced apart and his palms full of blue flames. He fisted his hands closed, and the fire disappeared without even a whiff of sulfur, reminding her why he didn’t really need the lethally curved blades he wore in his own hip sheath.
He looked back at her, his expression hidden by the shadows under the enormous trees looming over the yawning entrance to Ninurta’s underground lair.
Lola’s dusty heart thumped hard in anticipation. She only had rumors and whispers to go on, and no true idea of what lay within the earth, waiting for them. Her blood heated at the prospect of a hard fight. Maybe, just maybe, with Dash’s help, she might make it back home alive. She didn’t really care if he managed to do the same, however.
“Just do your part, and I’ll do mine.”
He didn’t reply but she could feel his gaze heavy upon the back of her neck as she crept close to the steep drop into darkness. Peering into the still black of the pit, she crouched down and swung over the edge, her fingers digging into the rock and dirt of the sheared walls. As she made her careful way down, the shadows closed over her, leaving her blind. Only the occasional dribble of pebbles hitting her head and the soft curses let her know Dash still followed. It was uncomfortable to realize his presence was reassuring in the lack of light, something familiar to stem the natural panic that wanted to well up within her in the inky, thick darkness.
Finally, her boot hit the earthen floor, jarring her into letting go of the wall, and she stumbled back a few steps. Immediately feeling lost in a black vacuum, Lola sucked in a breath, panic clawing at her.
“Easy, sweetheart.” A strong arm slid around her waist, and she felt Dash’s breath stir against the strands of hair at her temple that had escaped the woolen cap. “I’ve got you. We’re fine.”
Suddenly glad for the darkness, to hide the flush that had rushed up her neck to set her face aflame, Lola shoved his arms away. He let her go, but now that she knew he was only a step away, she could practically feel his presence. The heat of his body. She resented the intimate connection.
“Keep your hands to yourself, Hadley. I’m not your security blanket,” she snarled. Reaching into her pocket, she brought out two glow sticks, and activated them with a snap. Soon a faint green light filled the bottom of Ninurta’s earthen well and highlighted the opening of a large tunnel opposite of where they stood.
More darkness. How did the sun god stand it?
Again, the only disturbance in the silence was the padding of their feet and soft rustle of their breath, as they moved down the tunnel. The lack of noise was beginning to get on her nerves. She knew the god was here. She could _feel _him; his energy, his presence. But the stillness of the air, scented with the faint stink of old bones and faded rot, tried to fool her senses into believing nothing lived within dark.
They followed the tunnel as it twisted under the hills, as it tilted down further into the earth, the air growing cooler and danker. Cold moisture dripped from the earthen walls, until their breath misted in front of their faces. The tunnel ended in an open portal to a large room, its rock frame decorated with ghastly images Lola refused to examine. Dash slid one curved knife out of his hip sheath, as if just the weight of it in his hand was reassuring.
After exchanging a glance, they stepped into a huge cavern, high stone arches decorated in intricate carvings holding up the distant ceiling, and enormous slimy steps that led into a black lake as smooth as glass. A glance behind her showed only sheer wall, and the portal’s heavy door resting open against it. Twisting back to peer across the lake, Lola could barely see the far shore, but beyond that, there was only more unending darkness. Something was very, very wrong.
A sun god could never survive down here, in the freezing cold and the shadows.
She stopped, and turned to say something to Dash, when a large shape rose from the still waters of the lake with a violent surge to tower above them.
Percy had lied to her, for some unfathomable reason. He hadn’t tracked Ninurta to this valley, where the god supposedly had hidden away with a suit of armor made from the hide of the Leviathan. He had tracked the mythological creature itself.
Hard to track a suit of armor made from the hide of a monster that still lived.
If Lola survived this, she was going to skin Percy and make a suit out of him.
Spinning, she ran for the tunnel entrance, but with a whip of its scaly tail, the Leviathan slammed the heavy metal door closed. Skidding to a stop, she yanked on the handle, but the formidable door was jammed. It didn’t even rattle.
A high-pitched shriek split the cavern, and she spun back to see blue fire splatter off the side of the Leviathan’s huge, horned head. As it drew itself up out of the lake, water streaming down its black scales, wings stretched out behind it with a leathery creak. The Leviathan snaked its head down almost level with Dash as he stood on the pebbled shore, his hands full of flames, and pulled its gray lips back to hiss. Rows of pointed teeth glinted menacingly in the dim glow of the luminescent fungus that grew along the caverns walls.
“Dash, move, you stupid son of a bitch!” Lola’s scream echoed off the stalactites that hung from the rock ceiling, as venom dripped from the Leviathan’s fangs.
But he just raised his hands again and threw a stream of fire at the monster. The Leviathan roared, and lashed out with one massive limb, swatting Dash sideways with wicked, curved claws. Lola’s heart slammed in her chest as his limp body flew through the air, hitting the cavern wall and sliding out of sight behind a tumble of rocks. Her stomach flipped at the thought of how much damage the beast might have done to Dash’s frail, human body.
Sliding her guns out of her hip holsters and clicking off the safeties, Lola ran toward the monster at the lake’s edge.
“Hey, lizard brain!” The Leviathan swung its massive head around, large black eyes narrowing in on her. It snarled, and she raised both guns, squeezing the triggers to release a hail of bullets that sparked and pinged against its impenetrable hide. “I’m the only one who gets to kill him!”
The beast’s tail came whipping out of the lake again in a spray of salty water, and slammed down in the spot Lola had occupied just a moment before. She had barely been able to dive out of the way, and lost one of her guns in the process. She rolled to the side as the tail smashed into the ground just inches from her again, the stalactites shaking overhead, bits of the ceiling raining down on the lake. The gun in her thigh holster caught on a bit of sharp rock sticking out of the ground, and she had to leave it behind as she rolled again the other way to avoid being flattened.
The Leviathan dragged itself partway out of the lake by its two front limbs, and that’s when Lola saw that two limbs were all the beast had. Its lower body resembled a snake’s, ending in the massive tail that was trying so hard to pulverize her.
It was a sea serpent.
When Jezreel Valley rose to the north, eons ago, it cut off the connection between the Dead Sea and the ocean. The Leviathan must have been trapped, this underground lake its only home for countless centuries.
The monster rose over her, water dripping from its dull, jet-colored scales, and unhinged its jaw to snarl at her again. Lola lay very still on her back, in its enormous shadow, and raised both arms to steady her remaining gun. She sighted on one malevolent eye, and fired.
Climbing over the jumble of rocks along the cavern wall, Lola hissed, “Dash. Dashiell. Answer me, you slimy, no-good, treacherous git of Satan.”
“Over here, darling,” came the weak reply, as one arm covered in dusty black cloth raised over a large rock. Ignoring the burst of relief, Lola scrambled over the pile of stone to reach him.
Dash lay against the wall, pale and clutching one arm to his chest. Other than the ugly angle of his broken limb, he didn’t look any worse for wear.
“C’mon. Up you go.” She was gentler than she would ever admit, as she grasped his good hand and pulled him to his feet. “Look at you, laying around on the job, letting me do all the work.”
She helped him climb over the tumble of rocks, trying to disregard the way he winced and went white whenever he slipped on the slimy stone.
“Think I might have sprained something,” Dash joked, as he pressed his bad arm against his side the second time she stopped to allow him a moment to catch his breath, but the undertone of pain was easy to hear.
“I’m sure it isn’t lethal.” Lola attempted to shrug it off, but the edge in her voice made her uncomfortable. She cleared her throat. “I’ll do what I can to set it, when we reach the surface.”
“Ah. Yes. About that—”
Lola turned back as Dash’s voice cut off abruptly, to find him staring down at the edge of the lake. The Leviathan twitched on bloody sand, one great eye a gelatinous mess that dribbled down its scaly face. As they watched, it moaned and a clawed limb scrabbled against the pebbled beach. Lola smothered the pinch of pity for the monster. It certainly would have eaten her and Dash with no remorse at all.
She studied its massive form, still half out of the water. “I wounded it, grievously, but I don’t think anything as long-lived as the Leviathan will die from one bullet through the eye socket. So, let’s not dawdle, Hadley.”
“Right. Coming.” Dash blinked, and turned away from the creature. He followed her to the entrance to the tunnel, where the large, iron door hung loosely on its hinges. In its mindless pain, the Leviathan had thrashed about its tail quite a bit, and had managed to damage the door enough to knock it open again.
Lola led the way back out of the darkened tunnel in silence, and when they came to the pit, she reached for the earthen wall, to begin the climb up. But Dash’s hand on her arm stopped her.
“I can’t come with you.”
She looked at him.
“I can’t climb, and I need your help to make it up.” He glanced skyward, toward the bright stars that winked through the clouds. Lowering his chin again, his expression was unreadable as he looked into her eyes. “I can’t get out of this hole without you.”
“I know.” And with that, Lola dug her fingers into the stone and dirt, and began to climb.
She emptied her thoughts of everything but the climb itself, as she pulled her way up toward the fresh, dry air.
_Grab that stone. _
_Dig your fingers in there. _
When she reached the top, Lola dragged herself over the edge and just lay on her back for a moment, breathing deeply and letting her aching limbs rest. After a moment, she sat up.
She peered over the edge of the pit, into the darkness below, and caught a glimpse of golden hair.
She sat back again.
Tracing one finger along the lip of the hole in the earth, she thought. Warred with herself. Argued, shouted, raged, but all in the silence of her head. And in the end, she stood up, dusted off her pants, and retrieved the ropes from the packs they had left aboveground.
When Dash had insisted they bring them, even though the nylon fiber rope had taken up room in their packs, Lola had argued. But now she was glad for them. Tied together, they should reach the bottom of the pit, making her job much easier. It wasn’t as though she could weave a rope from grasses or some such ridiculous thing.
Tying one end of the rope to the trunk of a sturdy tree nearby, Lola dropped the remaining loop of it down into the darkness.
There was a thunk, and a curse drifted up from the inky shadows.
“Look out down below!”
“Yeah. Thanks for the warning,” came the sour reply, but she could hear the relief in his voice. Even though he hadn’t allowed his feelings to show through, he had been as unsure of her rescue as she had been herself.
But he still owed her a life, and this wasn’t how she wanted it repaid.
The rope went taunt, as Dash began his slow ascent to the surface. After about ten minutes, in which Lola had laid back down at the edge of the hole and contemplated the stars above, he called up to her, from not far below.
“A little help would be nice.”
“I do not think you would accept my help, since I am only waiting around to kill you.” Lola smirked at the sky, as she softly quoted to herself the Spanish mercenary from one of her favorite movies.
Dash’s pale face came into view, but he grinned at her through the pain, his gray eyes sparkling with mischief. “That does rather put a damper on our relationship.”
Lola laughed out loud, then abruptly stopped.
She rolled to her knees and walked away from the edge of the hole. She refused to help him. Let him fall to his death. She found she no longer cared.
She reminded herself that she did not care, as he clawed his way over the top of the pit and lay, panting, on the patchy grass. But when he didn’t move, just continued to clutch his broken arm, with his eyes closed and his mouth pinched by two brackets of pain, Lola snarled in frustration, and dug through his pack for his water bottle.
Kneeling at his side, she shoved one arm under his head, and lifted him.
Dash opened pain-filled eyes, and swallowed the water she tipped into his mouth. “Morphine, plastic splint, bandages. In my pack.”
“What, are we in a Word War Two movie? Where the hell did you get morphine?” She gently lowered his head to the ground again, and moved back to his pack, rummaging through it.
He didn’t say anything as she found the items and brought them back over, but dragged himself into a sitting position. Pulling the plastic tip off the drug’s needle, Dash just looked at it for a moment. Then he looked up at her.
“Once I use this, I’m going to be totally out of it, sweetheart. I won’t be much help. You’ll have to get me back to the hotel by yourself. Can you do it?”
“Can I do it?” Lola scoffed, her heart thumping as she tried not to look at the so very wrong angle of his arm. Since he was in pain already, she wouldn’t hurt him for taking to endearments again. “I just kicked Leviathan ass, Hadley. I’m pretty sure I can manage you.”
His smile was wry. “I know you can. You can handle anything now, Lola.”
Dash pushed the needle into his thigh with a slight wince, then tossed it to the side. He reached for the splint, and swayed dangerously. Lola grabbed his shoulders, and slowly lowered him back to the ground. When his eyes fluttered closed, she picked up the splint and bandages. Taking a deep breath, she began to wrap his broken limb.
Lola watched Havens from the shadows on the far side of his library. He had a thick book in front of him, and a glass of deep, ruby-red wine at his elbow. Reaching out, he picked up the glass and raised it to his thin lips for a sip.
The glass dropped, shattering on the wood floor. Havens leapt out of his seat, pale eyes wide with fury. “How dare you come into my home without an invitation! How did you get in?”
“Details are not important.” She smiled, running her fingers over the top of a small round table piled high with books, as she drifted closer.
He drew himself up, covering his shock at her sudden appearance with affronted irritation.
“Did you get it?”
“The Leviathan hi—armor?”
“Mr. Havens. I thought we were going to be honest with each other.” Lola peeked at him from under her lashes. She could almost taste his blood on her tongue. “You were very much aware the Leviathan was alive when you directed me its way.”
“I don’t know what you are talking about.” But he had started to sweat.
“What I find myself indescribably curious about is how you got Percy to lie to me.” Lola rounded the chair opposite of where Havens stood, and he backed up a step, the seat of it bumping into the backs of his knees.
“Yes,” she purred, drifting forward until she was but a few inches from him. “Percy. The Guide I’ve used for three years, who has never failed me before. And yet, somehow, he neglected to mention the tiny detail of the monster not actually being dead, this time around. Or Ninurta’s great, boastful falsehood. How do you suppose that happened?”
“I would hardly know,” scoffed Havens, a trickle of sweat sliding down his forehead..
“Ah, well. I guess it doesn’t really matter if you tell me or not. I’ll be paying Percy a visit next.” Lola reached out to smooth a small wrinkle in the older man’s shirt, and he jumped under her touch. Dark laughter danced within her soul.
“I don’t understand why you’re so upset.” He glared at her. “You seem to have emerged from the experience unscathed. I noticed you didn’t bring back my expense money, even though I’ve not received what I bargained for. The only one to suffer, as I see it, is me.”
Her fingers flexed, sharp nails digging into Havens’ shoulder, and he turned the sickly color of parchment. “Suffer? Oh, not yet.”
“Lola. I found it.”
Dash stood in the doorway, one arm in a sling, the other cradling her jar of dirt. The dim light of the library shone golden on his features, the only shadow the one that flickered across his face as he took in her grip on the older man’s shoulder. Lola turned back to Havens, and bared her teeth in a smile.
“Since you sent me after a suit of armor made from the Leviathan’s hide, and it was still very much using its skin when I found it, our contract is null and void.” He started to speak, and she tightened her hold on his flesh. Havens shut his mouth with a snap, the whites of his eyes showing as his nostrils trembled. “You bargained in bad faith. I could put you to death for that. No one would ever cry foul play.”
She leaned in until their noses bumped. “I am being merciful. I trust you see that.”
When he nodded sullenly, Lola stepped back, removing her hand from his shoulder. She ignored the quiet, slow breath of relief Dash released, from his position by the door. After joining him, she turned, and cocked her head to the side.
“I don’t think we ever need to mention Kylie again, do we?”
Pressing his lips together into a sulky line, Havens shook his head, avoiding eye contact.
“Good. I didn’t think so.” Lola smiled again, wishing she had been able to take just a small pound of flesh in compensation. But Dash practically emanated disapproval at her side, as if he knew just what she was thinking. What a prig.
As they left the businessman’s house, Dash glanced over at her, holding out the jar. “You want this?”
“Ah, yes. I’ll have to find a safe place for that,” she replied, sliding into his silver sports car, where it waited on the graveled driveway. Driving the high-performance machine was impossible with his injuries, and so Dash had reluctantly agreed to allow her to take the wheel. Very reluctantly. She turned the key, and the engine rumbled to life. Leaning over the passenger seat toward the open window, she wiggled her fingers at the vase. “Go on, hand it over. You can’t manage the door and the jar at the same time.”
Leaning forward, he dropped the vase into her waiting hands, then reached for the car handle. But Lola had already locked the doors, and just raised one eyebrow in mocking salute as the window rolled up with a quick whirr.
Gray eyes promised retribution as Dash yanked on the door handle, his shout of frustration muffled by the tinted glass. Lola cupped one hand around her ear, her wide grin full of glee.
“What? I can’t hear you.” Shifting into first gear, she gunned the engine a little, and watched him snarl. She felt better than she had in a long time. “Better get to walking, Hadley.”
With a spin of tires, and a spray of gravel, she let the car leap forward, speeding down the driveway. She watched through the rearview mirror as Dash jumped back with a curse, and Lola threw her head back and laughed.
Being a ghoul had never been so fun.