Bleeding Hearts Page 57

Not that I could think of one right now, but I was sure I’d read about it somewhere.

I tried to blow the rum out in a wide spray over the flame, hoping fervently I wasn’t about to set fire to my own face.

There was a horrible moment when nothing happened.

And then, the fire spread. It rained over the encroaching Hel-Blar and they screamed. It wasn’t much, just enough to make them pause. Connor took the flask from me and poured it over the cedars, then threw arcs of the amber liquid over the Hel-Blar. He added the fuel from a lighter in his pocket. The fire swelled and crackled, eating through the hedges and licking at the frantic Hel-Blar. The next scraggly hedge caught fire.

“Whoa. You’re even better than Princess Leia,” Connor told me as the snow sizzled and evaporated over the flames.

“Yeah, yeah. Don’t get any ideas about that gold bikini.” I grinned. “Now come on, this way.”

“What way? That’s a wall.”

“It’s cedar,” I scoffed, “not concrete. We shove through it and aim that way and just keep going through the branches until we get out of here.”

“Yup, hotter than Leia.”

We pushed through the branches, getting scratched and mauled by needles and thorns from the vines. Flower petals scattered with the snow, making everything cold and slippery. The fire crackled. There was a pulse of light glowing over the maze. Burning evergreen masked the thick slime of mushrooms. It was trickier than it seemed, contorting yourself to fit between branches that wouldn’t break off or bend easily. Marble statues of Roman goddesses missing various body parts watched us coldly.

“Barbed wire,” he said, stopping me before I ripped my face open.

My hair curled around a metal thorn and turned into an instant knot. I yanked at it, my scalp stinging. “Ouch.”

“I’ve got it.” He bent the lengths of barbed wire apart, making an opening. He wiped his hands on his jeans, leaving bloody streaks. “Go.”

He glanced behind us to make sure nothing was sneaking up on us while I climbed through the rusted iron tangle of wire and thorns.

“Think we’re almost out of this thing?” I asked, hacking away at another hedge.

“I don’t think that’s what we have to worry about right now.” He sounded tense and he was sniffing the air.

I groaned. “What now?”

“The fire’s coming this way.”

“Already?”

“It’s been a dry season.” He pushed me along faster. “The trees are like tinder right now, and the wind just shifted.”

He was right. Cold air whirled around us and then pushed from the other direction.

The smell of smoke stung my nostrils. I coughed. “Shit.”

We tried to run as we broke through woven branches and the odd clump of barbed wire. Fire snapped its own jaws at us. It couldn’t be contained or predicted, and there wasn’t nearly enough snow to put it out. The flames licked the sky. It was easy to see where we were going now—angry orange light closed in enough to give us long, frantic shadows, which darted through the cedars ahead of us.

Maddened, the Hel-Blar who’d managed to find their way around the fire before it spread out of control followed. They crashed through after us, some even vaulting the hedges altogether. Which is how two of them ended up in front of us and then turned back, drawn by the scent of the blood smeared on Connor’s jeans and beading all over my hands and face from scratches. The fire was behind us, just as hungry and deadly. We couldn’t turn back, and the maze was too complicated—as likely to lead us into the belly of the fire as out of it. A Hel-Blar woman made a grab for me. Trying to avoid her smell and the smoke, I was breathing shallowly through my mouth. It was making me feel light-headed.

Connor was grappling with the second Hel-Blar, who was built like an angry wrestler. I couldn’t help him and he couldn’t help me.

I jabbed my dagger out viciously, blindly. She leaned back, grinned her ghoulish grin, and didn’t seem particularly concerned. Damn it. Someone was going to have to teach me how to use one of these things properly. And to think, I used to worry about social workers getting me.

It soon became apparent that there was no way I could win in combat against a creature crazed with both hunger and an animal’s terror of fire. I just wasn’t properly equipped for this kind of fight.

So I’d just have to use the only weapon I could actually do damage with.

Fire.

A wall of heat was starting to make my nose and cheeks feel sunburned. The metal buttons on my jacket were already too hot to touch, scalding me when I brushed against them. The wind played with the flames, flinging them around like a dancer’s skirt. A thin pine tree wobbled precariously. Now or never.

I grabbed for a smoldering branch near my foot, ignoring the heat that singed my palm. The other end burned like one of the torches, so I threw it as hard as I could at the feral woman. She instinctively stumbled back a step, embers scattering over her. The pine tree groaned, creaked, and then gave in to the fire eating its roots. It fell in a plume of smoke and fire right on top of her. She shrieked, batting at her singed hair and the blisters on her face, pinned under the burning trunk. Pine sap flared.

I jumped in the other direction, yelling at Connor, “Watch out!”

Connor and the wrestler tumbled in the dirt, Connor falling flat on his back. He looked winded and in pain. I was pretty sure I’d heard something crack. The wrestler grinned and reached out to grab Connor’s shirt to haul him back up within reach of his dripping teeth. Connor rolled over and scissor-kicked back, catching him across the back of the knees. He fell and he fell hard. Connor flipped over and drove his stake through the Hel-Blar’s back and into his heart. There was a howl and then ashes mixing with the embers of the cedars toppling around us.

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