Assassin’s Mask – Everly Frost

Moonlight streams across the empty field as I land and fold away my wings. I drop to the long grass, my whole body aching, my heart burning. I flew for two days to reach this spot and now my strength is gone. Two days trying to mend together the fragments of my heart. Slade’s final words echo in my mind: She’s gone. I force myself to stand and hurry away from the memory. From all the memories. I can’t stay in this field while the wind whispers like his voice across my cheeks and lips… I have to get to my safe house and leave the past behind with every step. My boots protect my calves from the sharp blades of grass but the flimsy dress I’m wearing does nothing to shield my thighs. I consider swapping the dress for my protective assassin’s suit, but the dress will ensure that I don’t look like a threat. I’m already a spectacle carrying a katana sword strapped to my back along with my backpack. I don’t have the energy to make myself invisible by blurring. I used up every shred of my Valkyrie power to fly non-stop, remaining in the cloud cover, staying high enough to be mistaken for a bird. Blurring won’t do me much good even if I had the strength to accomplish it right now. This is the part of my escape where I have to interact with humanity again.

Reaching the edge of the field, I head directly east along the empty road to the lone motel that squats at the edge of this secluded place. It’s located west of the Platte River in Nebraska, just inside the border between the Legion and the Dominion—as far as I can get from the Legion’s stronghold without crossing into Dominion territory. I stride past the gleaming motorcycles and SUVs parked outside the building, noting how many of the vehicles contain rifles and hunting knives casually left on seats. No doubt, those are the backup weapons. Nobody nice comes here. Which is exactly why I picked this place. The scent of beer and clacking from the billiard table greets me at the door. Along with about twenty male stares. I pause, the moonlight behind me, fully aware that the dress conceals next to nothing. I may as well be standing in my underwear right now.

An open invitation for trouble. Except for the sword at my back, which will keep the wolves at bay for now. Ignoring their lewd comments and whistles, I navigate the tables, narrowly avoid a groping hand along the way, and head straight to the bartender. Ordinarily, I’d teach the would-be groper a lesson he wouldn’t soon forget but tonight I just want to find my room and crash. The bartender is an older guy with a bunch of faded tattoos dripping down both arms. He doesn’t know my real name but he immediately recognizes me. “Crystal,” he says, since that’s the name I gave him seven months ago. The way he says my name, looking flustered and red-faced, tells me there’s a problem. I’m too tired for games. “I’m here for my room, Harry.

The one I paid up for a year.” It cost me an arm and a leg to pay for a room for that long—even in this dump—but I had to be sure that the room would still be mine when I needed it. Mom left me plenty of money to live on when she died so I’ll be okay. The assassin’s life might be one of secrecy and danger, but her clients paid her very well. Harry scratches his bristly chin. “Ah, well, you see… there’s a problem with your room tonight.” “What problem?” He drags out his answer. “Unfortunately, I had to give it to someone else. Just this once.” I lean across the bar, place both hands flat on it, and tap my fingernails on the enameled surface.

My own tattoo is a sharp contrast to my skin. It’s an intricate design in the vague shape of an ‘A.’ It represents my assassin’s name: Glass Arrow. It’s the name Mom wanted me to have. Harry doesn’t know what I am, but I made it clear when I booked the room that he would regret it if he breached our agreement. The room was supposed to remain vacant until I returned. I allow a dangerous edge to enter my voice, making my threat clear. “The room that I paid for so nobody would set foot in it? You mean that room?” “I… uh… didn’t exactly have a choice. I swear nobody has touched your room until today. But he wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer.

” Harry inhales and shudders, his jaw clenching. “I’m sorry, Crystal, but I’m more afraid of him than I am of you.” I narrow my eyes at Harry. Someone more dangerous than me? Well, I wonder who this mystery man is? “I guess I’ll have to kick him out. C’mon, Harry.” When he doesn’t budge, I say, “You’re coming upstairs with me and we’re going to sort this out.” He shakes his head rapidly. “You can go up there but I’m not coming with you. Call me a coward, but I already told him the room was taken and his answer was this.” Harry tilts his neck to reveal a short, red welt.

Only a blade makes a cut that precise. Whoever the mystery intruder is, he held a knife to Harry’s throat. I guess Harry was telling the truth when he said he had no choice. I snarl, “You’re a coward, Harry.” “Agreed. But I’m still not going up there. Look… why don’t you come home with me after closing and crash on my couch? The missus won’t mind.” “Thanks for the offer, but my things are in that room. I can’t take the chance someone will mess with them. And I’m not sure what your wife would make of all my… accessories.

” I tap my sword meaningfully. He immediately hands me the key. He probably thinks I’m about to use the sword on him, although that’s the last thing I intend to do. I prowl to the staircase at the end of the room. There are five rooms upstairs. I chose the one at the end of the corridor with the best view of the road so I could see oncoming danger. When I reach it, I debate whether to knock or just barge in. Judging by the cut on Harry’s neck, the intruder isn’t the reasonable type. Unfortunately, kicking the door down isn’t an option since I want it to remain intact. Leaning against the wooden surface, I open my senses.

There’s one occupant who is possibly… asleep? I also sense a faint wash of magic—either this guy can wield magic or he recently came into contact with it. I’ll need to proceed carefully. I use the key to open the door and slip inside. The old wooden trunk containing all my earthly belongings rests at the side of the room beneath the window, right where I left it. It doesn’t look like he has tampered with it, so that’s a relief. The curtains are closed to block out the moonlight but there’s enough light to make out the bed against the wall on the far right, the bedside table beside it, and the closet against the wall at the end of the bed. A gun and a bottle of vodka sit on the bedside table. I quickly sum this guy up: running from his past, ended up in this dump, and if I’m right, he’ll leave once he knows I won’t be pushed around like Harry. I leave his weapon where it is and stride over to the mound in the bed to shake his shoulder. “Okay, buddy, time to vacate.

This room is taken.” I sense his soft inhale as he wakes up and rolls over, forcing me to jump away from him because… whoa… it’s like a mountain just shifted in front of me. He slides one massive leg out of the bed, followed by the other and rises up… and up… revealing overwhelming increments of height, one inch at a time. He clearly knows how to make a first impression, even if he is half-awake and sleepy-eyed. Threat oozes out of him without any effort at all. His shaved head remains half-tilted as if it wants to return to the pillow. His eyes remain half-closed. “You’d better have a good reason for disturbing my sleep, woman.” Inwardly, I sigh at the sheer size and physique of this man. I’m taller than average myself.

I often tower over guys. But not this one. Seriously? Just for once, can’t I have an easy opponent? I say, “You’re in my room.” He squints at the room, then levels his gaze with mine. His eyes are gray, but not like Gareth’s whose gaze is perpetually cold like metal. This guy’s expression is like stormclouds about to break. He says, “You weren’t here when I arrived.” I point to the trunk resting on the floor. “That’s mine.” I point to the bed.

“That’s mine.” I wave my hand around at the room in general. “This is mine. I ask you to kindly vacate.” His answer is to leverage his big body right back onto the bed, turn his back to me, and pull up the blanket. Um… what? Did he go straight back to sleep? He is so still, his torso expanding and contracting with such a regular rhythm, that I can only blink at him. It makes me wonder if he was awake for any of that interaction or actually asleep the whole time. I tap my finger against my thigh. It was impossible to miss the ring on his forefinger— jet-black with three chunky rubies set into it. It’s a ring that lacks any subtlety.

A bit like him. I can’t be sure it’s an assassin’s ring, not from where I’m standing. I need to know what I’m dealing with. If he’s an assassin, I may need to reassess my options as well as my plan of attack. Testing my theory that he’s asleep, I lean over him, avoiding contact. I swill my hand across the space where his thick fingers curl around the edge of the blanket. Damn. The power coming off the ring is unmistakable. He’s an assassin. But at least it isn’t a Keres ring.

If it was, I’d have to run for my life. The Keres are my mortal enemy and the only creatures that can kill me. The Keres ring that Gareth tried to use against me rests in the bottom of my backpack. As I hover over the sleeping assassin, his voice rises into the space between us. “You’re starting to piss me off, woman.” Okay, not sleeping, as it turns out. I lift myself very slowly away from him and retreat cautiously as he turns onto his back and, faster this time, forces himself to his feet. He rubs his hand across his eyes and growls at me, a low rumbling sound. It’s crazy how much he resembles an angry bear right now. His eyes are still half-closed but he points at the gun sitting on the bedside table as if that should scare me off.

He says, “I have not slept for forty-eight hours and you don’t want to know what I was doing during that time. So I suggest you come back tomorrow. I promise, I won’t touch your things. They’ll be here when I’m gone.” He waits for me to skedaddle, clearly unimpressed when I don’t. His dark eyebrows draw down into a dangerous scowl. “Actually,” I say, standing my ground. “It’s already tomorrow and you don’t have a monopoly on a bad day. I’m pretty sure whatever you’ve done, I can top it.” He rubs his eyes again.

This time with his knuckles, dragging them awake in a way that makes me feel sorry for him. Well, nearly. He isn’t lying about being tired. The dark rings and strain on his face tell me he desperately needs to sleep. For the first time, he seems to take note of the details… my assassin-issued boots, the welts across my legs, my scanty dress, the burn marks on my hands where I touched the Keres ring while I was fighting Gareth, my glass ring, my tattoo, the sword slung over my shoulder, and finally… my face. With every new thing he sees, his sleepy demeanor fades. By the time he focuses on my eyes, he is very much awake. He doesn’t betray his intentions, but I know his mind just ran to the gun on the bedside table. I keep my tone cool and clear. “It wouldn’t do either of us any good to get into it right now.

” He asks, “Get into what?” Well, for someone so blunt that was pretty obtuse. I elaborate, “A fight.” He says, “I’ve heard about you, Hunter Cassidy. It would be foolhardy for me to get into anything with you. Let alone a fight.” “I guess that gives you the advantage, because I don’t know you at all.” He says, “I’m Legion. I was sent here to make sure skirmishes with the Dominion don’t break out along the border between our Factions.” I dismiss his statement with a shake of my head. “I just want my room.

” He says, “Well, I’m all out of options. This was the only vacant room for miles. I need to sleep somewhere.” He takes a step toward me, a gleam in his eyes. “I heard you had no mercy, but I didn’t believe it until now.” I stand my ground. “Is that my reputation? Merciless?” “A woman who trains in the Legion can only become one of two things: a machine or a whore. I take you for the former—” Crack. Despite the force I put behind my fist, he doesn’t go down, remaining right where he is except for turning his head in the direction of the blow. He closes his eyes and screws up his face as he processes the pain, dealing with it far quicker than I expected.

He exhales, then inhales, while I wait to see if I need to follow through with another fist. He opens his eyes to say, “I apologize. That was intended as a compliment but it came out entirely wrong. I’m not at my best when I’m tired.” He rubs his sore cheek where I hit him, his shoulders slumping. Oh, boy. Now I feel sorry for him. How did he manage to do that? Little does he know, I am capable of normal emotions. I’m not a machine. My emotions are the reason I’m so desperate for privacy right now.

I need to cry. Wail. Scream into a pillow. I need a place to let out all the pain, and I need it soon, because everything that happened with Slade is quickly crashing down on me. He says, “May I suggest a compromise?” I try to maintain my equilibrium. “What is that?” “There is a pullout mattress under this bed. If you allow me to place it in the far corner of the room and get some sleep, I promise I will leave as soon as I wake. I… uh… honestly don’t rate my chances of making it down the stairs right now. I’d rather not pass out on them.” “You want the merciless woman to have mercy?” He shrugs.

And then… very carefully… he says, “I would consider it a favor.” I narrow my eyes in consideration of his promise. He seems to place a lot of weight on the idea of owing me. Personally, I don’t believe in favors. Superior Ridley once told me that Mom did him a favor and that turned out to be way more complicated than I ever expected. I squeeze my eyes shut, knowing I’m going to regret this. “Okay.” He says, “Thank you.” Without any fuss, he bends to retrieve the mattress, slides it into the corner, and drops onto it. He turns to face the wall and within seconds, his rhythmic breathing tells me he’s asleep again.

I lock the door to the room, since I left it slightly open in case I needed to make a quick getaway. Then I hang my head, dropping my chin to my chest. What have I done? I have no privacy now. What are the chances I can scream into my pillow? Do I care if he hears me? I slam my hand over my mouth because everything I’ve been pushing down is about to force its way out. There’s no stopping the tears or the cry forcing its way into my throat. Wildly, I assess my options and land on the only one that works. Bathroom. I rip my boots off, dropping them to the floor along with my sword and backpack as I race to the bathroom, lock the door, and turn on the shower as well as the faucet over the sink so the running water masks any sounds I make. To my horror, it’s not tears that come out first but the contents of my stomach. It’s a good thing I’m already leaning over the sink.

I feel sick. So sick. The night on Mount Greylock replays on me in stormy flashes. Slade and I went there to fight the Furies and recover the verdan plant. When the Furies tried to kill Slade, they discovered that his blood contains Valkyrie power from the feather I used to heal him. That was when he told me that his brother was killed by a woman with wings. It had to be my mother, a fact that kills me, gripping my stomach like claws. When Gareth showed up and tried to kill us, I had to reveal my wings to save us. Now, Slade knows what I am. He knows I’m Valkyrie.

He also knows that I bonded with him. That I love him. And… he knows how to kill me. I offered him the Keres ring and he refused to take it. That was when he told me to go and never look back. I wipe my mouth, gripping the edge of the sink so hard I’m in danger of cracking it. To bond and then leave is agony. I need to process the pain now or it will fester and tear me apart. Unable to scream, I wobble from one side of the small space to the next, my head in my hands. I finally sway into the stream of water inside the shower, fully clothed.

The dress plasters against my skin but I let the water run cold, standing beneath the needlesharp spray until I’m shivering. I welcome the numbing pain. I need to forget the feeling of Slade’s body next to mine, the intense need to be near him again. If I can do that, if I can block it out, bury it, then I can move on. I’ll never be the same, but I’ll be able to function. Over time, the pain will fade. It has to. I drag off the wet dress and my underwear, emerge from the shower, and wrap a towel around myself, creeping back into the bedroom. Retrieving the key to my trunk from a hidden compartment at the side, I quietly swing it open. This wooden box contains everything I own—other than Mom’s money, which is tucked away in multiple bank accounts.

My fingertips brush the surface of Mom’s ledger where it rests on top of my clothing. I can’t read it—only she could—but it’s my last connection with her. Ah, my own clothes. I pull out a pair of comfortable pajamas. I’m too tired to make it back to the bathroom. I cast a furtive glance at the sleeping man in the corner before I drop the towel where I stand. I dress quickly and slide into the bed he vacated. The sharp scents of gunpowder and vodka fill my nose.

.

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