Mr. Salvatore dropped me and twisted around to face Mr. Tophat. I landed on my hands and knees, coughing and gasping for breath.
“An elf,” Mr. Salvatore hissed. “I knew she was working for your side. This will make things so much easier to explain,” he chuckled. “But you must know your plot is unwound. I know who your mortal spies are, now, and you must know that no single fae is my match. Run away while you can, redcap. Run away.”
Mr. Tophat laughed. “Oh, dear me,” he said. “You are so close and yet you have it all completely backward.” He gestured toward me with his cane. “I work for her, not she for me. I admit I’m rather surprised at it myself, so I quite sympathize with your confusion. But as it turns out, my enticing éclair is a veritable fiend when it comes to getting her way.” The tip of his cane swerved to point at Megan, whom he had apparently moved to the bed while Mr. Salvatore had been choking the life out of me. “My lovely lemon drop has charged me with protecting this fair maiden from harm. Which, quite frankly, seems to encompass everything you intend to do. So you see, I cannot in good conscience run away.”
“Took you long enough to get here,” I wheezed. And here I’d written him off as a coward. Maybe I’d misjudged his douche-y ass. Had Mr. Tophat only abandoned me in order to find Megan?
“Oh, no. I assure you, my cute little cupcake, I’ve been here all along,” Mr. Tophat said in mock hurt. “I’ve simply been unable to intervene while the lovely Megan was conscious enough to disbelieve my existence.” Mr. Tophat smiled charmingly at me.
I scowled. So, maybe he wasn’t a coward. But if Megan was ‘lovely Megan’ and I was still a candied nickname, then at least I had been right about Mr. Tophat being an egotistical, smarmy, flamboyant jackass. “I’m still not yours,” I told him as I forced myself up.
Mr. Tophat gave an exaggerated sigh. “I swear,” he said mournfully, “It’s almost like no one knows how ‘dibs’ works, these days.”
I almost laughed at the ridiculousness of his complaint. Damn, he was annoying.
“Enough!” Mr. Salvatore screamed. “Just shut up! I am done with this bullshit.”
I swallowed nervously. Mr. Tophat tsk’ed chidingly. “In that case, might I suggest you take your leave? This is not how I intended to spend my next visit to my honeycake’s bonbonniere – and really, four is a bit of a crowd, particularly when I have so little desire to share my pretty piece of pocky with a creepy-ass creeper such as yourself.”
I blanched at the reminder that reminder that Mr. Tophat was my very own supernatural stalker – that was what I’d called Mr. Salvatore when Megan and I had left work. Mr. Tophat smiled.
Mr. Salvatore scowled. “Why don’t I just kill you all instead,” he spat.
Mr. Tophat made a low bow with his arms spread wide in invitation. “Try me, abomination,” he said.
Mr. Salvatore smiled, baring his fangs. He drew his knife out from his jacket. “Wait your turn,” he countered.
Then Mr. Salvatore turned and lunged at me. I didn’t have time to scream, he was so fast. He didn’t bother with his knife. Mr. Salvatore punched me in the throat, and then screaming wasn’t an option anymore. Neither was breathing, but I didn’t get time to think about that, either.
Mr. Salvatore backhanded me with his other fist. My head snapped to the side; the blow swung me around. I thought I heard Mr. Tophat shout, but I couldn’t tell what. I’d lost my balance, but I didn’t fall. Mr. Salvatore caught me and held me up by the hair on the back of my head.
He slammed my face into the door. Lights exploded in my head, obscuring the world. Then a spike of ice – a pain worse than anything I’d ever felt before in my life – stabbed through my back and into my chest.
I’d been stabbed.
Mr. Salvatore let go of me. I fell sideways and clipped the doorknob on my way down. I landed on my side, looking into the apartment. Mr. Salvatore and Mr. Tophat were fighting.
They were both supernaturally fast. They were both supernaturally strong. Mr. Salvatore had a knife. Mr. Tophat had a sword.
Mr. Salvatore was winning.
I coughed blood, but I still couldn’t breathe. I hurt everywhere but I was too dizzy to notice. I had to do something. I had to help.
I put all my strength into getting up and only managed to slump over on my stomach. My arms and legs refused to function. My vision swam. The wood grain of my floor bobbed and wobbled in front of my eyes and white fuzz – like TV static – encroached on the edges of my sight, threatening to blind me.
I hurt so much.
I coughed again. I could taste my blood. It was sickening.
I tried to pull myself together. I gathered every shred of determination I had and tried to get up.
The whole world went black, instead.