Hailey was first aware of the glass digging into her cheek, then the ringing in her ears. From her awkward angle on her back, she could see where the door had been smashed inward. Cracks spiderwebbed across the window pane.
A horrible screeching filled the wrecked limo as the door was pried off its hinges. Hailey raised an arm against the glass raining down as the door was yanked away, revealing the night sky. The stars were so abundant that it was easy to find the trail of smoke smudging out the dots of light.
Hailey grabbed ahold of the arms reaching down. Her left shoulder protested, but her heart was pounding louder than the screaming pain. The mansion was exploding again and again in her mind. And Aleksander, standing on the balcony above the crowd, the epaulettes on his shoulders winking beneath the chandeliers. Even as she was lifted from the wreckage, Hailey scrambled to her feet. She needed to get to the house, to the last place she had seen her best friend alive.
Hailey whirled around to the man standing behind her. The finely dressed stranger put up his hands defensively. He had the widest, brownest eyes she had ever seen, with a shockingly bleach-blond fringe that offset the seriousness of his three-piece suit. "I am so sorry that I T-boned your limo," he apologized.
"Did you just come from the party?" she demanded, his attire throwing her off.
"Oh, no, I was just heading there. Fashionably late and all." The young man gave her his proudest, cheekiest grin. It faltered though, as he looked past her and toward the house. "I hit you because the explosion distracted me. My father's in that house..."
Hailey stiffened, her heart demanding her attention with its urgent race for Aleksander. "I need to get back there, right now."
"All right, one of my men will stay here with your driver," he assured, going to his car and opening the passenger door for her. "I'll drive you back. I owe you for nearly killing you, after all."
"Yes, you do," she agreed, eagerly climbing into the barely-dented tank-of-a-jeep. There were two guards in the back seat, whom she hardly noticed as she glanced at her injured shoulder. The dark bruises were peppered by cuts, but none too deep to worry over.
The engine revved under the young man's hands as he jerked back from the crushed limo, yanked the steering wheel, and stomped on the gas to send them flying towards the burning mansion. "I'm Callaghan, by the way," he called over the engine's roar.
“Alek!” Anastasia opened her mouth to scream again, then realized the name had never gotten past the snow in her throat. The cold stung her skin as she rolled over, pushed herself up to her knees, and hacked up the ice from her lungs. “Alek?” she wheezed.
The air around her was choked with smoke. Trees were barely visible in front of her, and her back was hot. Glancing over her shoulder, the source of the heat proved to be what used to be an expensive Lithuanian mansion. Instead, there was a blackened monster with flames roaring in its empty eyes sockets.
As she watched, a blackened body stumbled out of the burning mansion. Ana lurched to her feet and moved backwards as quickly as her frozen knees would allow. The corpse reached towards her, opened its mouth in a silent scream. It lurched toward her, blackened skin dripping from its fingers, before it fell face first into the snow. Ana could feel the goosebumps texturing her skin.
The young woman kicked off her heels as she swiveled around in the ankle-deep snow. “Alek!” she screamed. There were other corpses laying in the snow, some charred, some twitching in ripped suits and gowns. Ana’s eyes scanned every one of them, searching for her brother. A woman in a red kimono, one she recognized from Wilhelm Magnus’ entourage, groaned into the snow. The redhead stumbled to her side and turned her stiff body on its side. The representative had already taken her last breath, and her eyes only blankly stared up at the teenager.
A growl resonated from the burning house, then echoed ahead of her. Ana lifted her gaze from the corpse to find eyes drilling into her, glowing through the smoke. As she watched, the skeleton of a cougar separated itself from the shadowing trees. The smoke clung to its bones as it stalked forward. Ana froze on her knees, transfixed by the massive canines nearly grazing the fallen snow. The undead animal stared at her over the dead bodies littering the ground between them. It didn’t seem to breath as it opened its jaws to snarl at her again. Ana wanted to growl back, but her voice stuck in her throat, frozen by the snow and suffocated by the smoke.
The cougar’s bones shifted with eerie smoothness as it crouched to lunge. She wanted to run, to not find her brother among the unrecognizable burn victims, to get warm and away from the undead cat about to pounce on her like a defenseless field mouse. But her bluing legs refused to move even an inch.
The cougar's eyes bore into her with a driven hunger, then just as quickly darted away. Its gleaming bones shifted soundlessly as the cat retreated a step. A figure separated from the trees as soundlessly as the beast—a brunette in a thick ermine coat, a manicured hand white-knuckled around a revolver.
“Octavia!” Ana exclaimed with relief. She winced when the cougar’s tail—a chain of arrowhead-shaped bones—flicked at the sound. The fire was roaring behind her, but the bonfire was a background noise to the soft crunch of snow as Octavia stepped carefully around the bodies to reach Ana. Her polished boots gleamed in the starlight, undeterred by the thickening smoke or melting flesh. The woman came to a stop a foot away from the redhead. She stood over the younger, her back perfectly straight and mascaraed lashes unblinking. “The fire threw you a little farther from the back door than I calculated.”
Ana stared up at her brother’s ally. “What?” she asked dumbly.
“These ones jumped from the windows.” Octavia gestured casually to the graveyard around them with her chin. “You should have seen it, but I guess you lost consciousness when you hit the snow?”
“Where’s Alek?” she whispered, the cold and smoke fighting for control of her lungs.
“Oh, he’s…somewhere around here. My kitties will find him, I’m sure.” A second skeletal feline had stalked from the woods. It paced just behind Octavia, waiting obediently for the next command. The witch smirked as the teenager slumped with relief. “Ah, you thought he might have known about this? God, no. That man thinks he’s a genius, but he underestimates love. Ever since I found out that bastard was alive, I’ve wanted him dead for killing Thomas…There will be plenty of people who want him brought to justice as well, seeing as he’s so suspiciously the lone survivor of this catastrophe.”
Ana didn’t need to contemplate her meaning for long once the revolver’s muzzle was raised at her forehead. “I wish my birds had been successful in capturing you in Berlin…it would have made things a lot easier. But if I let you live, Aleksander will just find a way to keep using you in his schemes…Why did you let him use you tonight, as something for others to rally behind?”
“Because I trusted him,” Anastasia spat at the witch. Her own fire fought back the ice threatening to choke her again. “Just like we trusted YOU.”
A click came from the revolver as it was loaded. The undead cats’ heads twitched as their nonexistent ears perked. Octavia smirked. “Well, don’t you feel stupid?”