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Authors: Vanessa Len

Only a Monster (6 page)

BOOK: Only a Monster
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Joan's throat closed up.
You're a monster, Joan.
“And that's that?” she said hoarsely. She remembered the first time she'd seen him, in the library. She'd looked up at him, and she'd felt as though she'd known him her whole life. And now . . . “You're going to murder all these people, just like that?” she said. “Without trying to talk to them? Without anything?”

“Not only them,” Nick said.

Joan went still. “What?”

Nick made a slight movement, as if he'd stopped an instinct to step between her and the door. “Please,” he said. “Please stay in this room. I can only protect you if you stay in this room.”

“If you hurt my family . . .” Joan couldn't finish the sentence.

“I sent the signal to my people,” Nick said. “It's already started. We're hunting down every monster in this city tonight.”

Joan went cold all over. For a long moment, she couldn't speak at all. When she did, it came out in a scared rush. “Nick, you
can't
,” she whispered. “You
can't
.” She imagined people knocking on Gran's door. Grabbing her. Hurting her and Ruth. Bertie. “You
can't
.” When Nick didn't respond, Joan heard herself take a sharp breath. “You hate us that much?”

“It's not about hate,” Nick said. But his mouth went tight, as though that wasn't quite true. “I only kill monsters who steal human life.”

Downstairs, a door slammed. Someone screamed. Joan shuddered.

Nick glanced toward the sound. “Joan,
please
.” Was Joan imagining the emotion in his voice? “Stay in this room. My people are all over these grounds. They're all over this neighborhood. You can't help your family. You'll be killed if you leave here. You're only safe if you stay here in this room tonight.”

“Don't do this,” Joan said, pleading with him. “Nick, don't hurt my family. You and me, we're—we're friends. Aren't we?”

“Monsters killed my whole family,” Nick said. Joan stared at him. He'd talked about his family just tonight.
Eight of us in a two-bedroom flat
, he'd said. “I can't allow monsters to harm humans,” he said. “I'll kill every one who does. Every one I can find.”

Joan was running to the door before she'd even realized she'd moved.

Five

The Gilt Room's thick carpet muted Joan's racing footsteps enough that when she crossed into the Yellow Drawing Room, she startled at the slap-slap-slap of her own feet hitting the parquet floor. It was too loud. She wrenched her shoes off.

The room was surreally untouched by the events of the evening. The Yellow Drawing Room was one of those rooms you passed through on the way to somewhere else. Everything was a novelty of yellow: the walls, the chairs, even the thick-piled divan in the corner.

A jumble of memories clamored for Joan's attention. The sword in Nick's hand.
Monsters killed my whole family.
His mouth against hers. She shook her head, trying to clear it. No, no. Not right now. She couldn't think about any of that now. She
had
to warn her family that he was coming.

There was a glint under the divan. Joan bent. Someone had dropped their phone in their rush to flee.

It opened on the lock screen. Joan found the emergency options and dialed. She held the phone to her ear and waited. She could hear the wind sighing through the room. Her stillness
had given stage to the subtle sounds of the house. A clock ticked on the mantelpiece. Floorboards popped. Some distant device hummed. There was no sound from the phone.

Joan looked at the screen properly. No signal. Was something blocking it? She squeezed the edges hard enough to hurt.

Muffled thuds sounded suddenly from downstairs. Someone was running. Two someones. Joan went to the mantelpiece and grabbed a candlestick—one of the heavy bronze ones that took an hour each to polish. She eased the door open.

The slice of light showed the passage between the library and the old servants' staircase. Downstairs, someone screamed and then suddenly stopped. There were more running footsteps. Joan couldn't tell whether they were near or far.

Joan held her breath and padded down the spiral staircase, soft in her socks. The old wood creaked, making her throat close up.

There was another distant scream and Joan's knees started to shake. How was she going to get out of the house? Nick knew it as well as she did—there'd be people watching the doors. He even knew about the old servants' passages.

She gripped the candlestick hard. But as she reached the bottom of the staircase, there was still no one in sight. She crept farther in. The door to the Linen Room was cracked open, showing the room all set up for tourists, one cupboard artfully open with shelves of folded tablecloths and sheets.

Joan held her breath and listened. Nothing. Where was everyone? Was this some kind of nightmare? If not for the pain
in her wrist and the warm blood oozing down her side, she might have believed that none of this was really happening.

Something nearby creaked, making Joan's breath catch. She ducked quickly into the Linen Room. It was empty. Then the Valet Room. Empty. Then into Sabine's Room: the big bedroom suite beyond. Empty.

No. Not empty.

To Joan's horror, Ruth was at the back of the room, near the sofa set. Outside, the moon was shrouded by clouds, but there was enough light to see that Ruth's face was very pale.

“No,” Joan breathed. No.
Ruth.
“What are you doing here? You can't
be
here.” She stumbled toward her.

“You messaged for help,” Ruth said. She hadn't moved from where she was standing.

Joan remembered typing desperately on her phone before it had been torn from her grip. She'd been reaching for the send button; she must have hit it. Her breath hitched. She'd yelled at Ruth this afternoon. She'd told Ruth she was evil, that she never wanted to see her again. But when Joan had needed help, Ruth had come.

“And I called everyone else,” Ruth said.

“Everyone else?” Joan said. “Who—” The words caught in her throat. Her eyes had adjusted enough to see that there were dark stains on the carpet by the sofa. Joan stumbled closer.

“Joan,
don't
,” Ruth said. “Don't come back here. Just stay where you are.”

Joan shook her head. She heard herself make a strange,
deep sound as she rounded the corner of the sofa.

Gran was slumped on the sofa seat, legs splayed at an awkward angle, her shirt collar soaked with blood. One of her shoes had fallen off. It lay upturned by her stockinged foot.


No.
No, no, no.” Joan had been on her way to warn her family about Nick. They couldn't be here. This couldn't be happening.

There was a folded blanket on Gran's chest. Joan had registered Ruth's stance as odd—slightly stooped. And now she saw why. Ruth was pressing down on the blanket with both hands.

“Everyone's dead.” Ruth sounded like she was trying to break it gently, but her voice sounded strange and stilted, like when she did robot impressions. Ruth had the best robot voice. “Uncle Augustus. Bertie. Aunt Ada. Everyone's dead.”

“No.” Joan shook her head. “No.” She couldn't seem to focus her eyes properly. Everything around her seemed blurry and unreal. She'd been on her way to warn them. They
couldn't
be dead. There was blood soaking through the blanket. Blood all over Ruth's hands.

“Joan.” Ruth's voice jolted her. “I think Gran's dying,” Ruth said, still with that strange, stilted tone. Her eyes were glazed. “She's lost so much blood.”

“We just—” Joan could hear how weird her voice sounded too. “Okay, we have to call an ambulance. We need to call lots of ambulances. And then. Okay, this is what we're going to do. We're going to call an ambulance.”

“The phones aren't working,” Ruth said.

Joan blinked at her. “But we have to—”

“No.”

Joan and Ruth both started at the sound of Gran's voice.

Joan bent over, feeling weak. She hadn't wanted to admit it to herself, but she'd half thought Gran was already dead. She'd been so still.

Ruth gasped out a sound somewhere nearer to grief. “Gran.”

“Don't involve humans,” Gran murmured. Her eyes fluttered open. “You need to get out of this house.”

“Who
did
this?” Ruth demanded. “Was it the Olivers? Because it if
was
—” She faltered. “Except I thought I saw Victor Oliver in the garden. I thought I saw Mattea.”

“It wasn't them,” Joan said.

“Then
who
?”

“Once upon a time,” Gran murmured, “there was a boy who was born to kill monsters. A hero.”

“What?” Ruth wiped her eyes against her shoulder. “The human hero? Those are bedtime stories. Oh God, Gran. You've lost so much blood.”

A hero. In her mind's eye, Joan saw Nick push a sword into Lucien's chest. She saw him hurl the sword at Edmund. She swallowed. “I saw him kill people.”

“You saw him?” Gran said sharply. “Did he see you?”

Joan hesitated.
He spared me because I tried to save him. Or maybe he felt something for me, like I felt something for him.
She couldn't bring herself to say it. “I escaped.”

Gran gave her a long look, as though she knew Joan was
withholding something. “The Olivers?” she asked.

“Dead. Or fled.”

“Dead,” Gran said flatly. She took a pained breath. “My loves. You need to get out of this house. Ruth, lock the doors. Then get that window open. Wide enough for you and Joan.”

“But the window—” Ruth's voice cracked. “The window is all the way over there. What if you die while I'm gone?”

Gran almost smiled. “Then you'll be filled with a lifetime of regret at your slowness at window opening,” she said. “You'll compensate by never closing a window again. You'll shiver every winter for the rest of your life.”

Ruth usually got grumpy when Gran was sarcastic, but now her mouth trembled. Joan wanted to look away. Ruth hated crying in front of people.

Gran's expression softened. “Oh, Ruth.” Her fingers twitched as though she wanted to touch Ruth's arm but didn't have the strength.

“Please,” Ruth whispered to her. “You don't have long.”

“It's all right,” Gran said gently. “I'll wait for you.”

Ruth and Gran seemed to have some kind of silent conversation then. At the end of it, Gran's mouth curled up slightly, and Ruth rolled her eyes. “You're a bossy old woman,” she said. She turned to Joan, her jaw set. “Put your hands where mine are.”

Joan shuffled closer. She put her hands over Ruth's. Gran's blood was warm and sticky, and there was so much of it that it was hard to grip Ruth's hands. Joan couldn't believe this was happening.

“Press down,” Ruth said. She slid her hands from under Joan's. “Press down really hard.”

Joan pressed. She had to be hurting Gran, but Gran didn't make a sound.

“Gran . . . ,” Ruth started.

“Go,” Gran said. “I'll be here when you come back.”

Joan stared down at the stained blanket under her hands. There was blood everywhere. All over the floor. All over Gran. All over Joan's hands now.

“Can Ruth hear us?” Gran whispered.

The room was big enough to be a bedroom and sitting room combined. Ruth was on the other side of it, propping a heavy chair under a doorknob. Joan shook her head. Her hair fell across her face, and she shrugged it away impatiently. “You shouldn't speak,” she told Gran. “You should rest. We'll have the window open soon. We'll get you out.”


Don't be a fool,” Gran murmured. Her words were so soft that Joan could hardly hear her, close as she was. “I didn't send Ruth away so I could rest.” The rise and fall of her chest was unsteady under Joan's hands. She was struggling to breathe. “I was supposed to have so much more time to prepare you. I thought I'd be fighting beside you.”

She wasn't making sense. “Gran, please,” Joan said. “You need to save your strength.”

“Hush,” Gran said. “I will speak. You will not.” Despite the pain, Gran's green eyes were as sharp as ever. “Only you can stop the hero, Joan.”

Joan stared at Gran. She had to be delirious.

“I'm so sorry, my love, but—” Gran tried to take a breath and choked. Again and then again.


Gran
,” Joan said. She felt as though she were holding Gran together with her bare hands and couldn't hold her hard enough.

Gran caught her breath. “Can Ruth hear us?” she rasped. The effort of speaking seemed to be exhausting her.

Ruth was by one of the windows now. Joan drew a breath to call for her, but Gran put her hand over Joan's. “No,” Gran managed. “Just—” Her face tightened with agony. She tried again. “Just. Can she hear us?”

Joan shook her head.

“Joan, you're in very grave danger.” Gran's voice was getting weaker. Joan had to strain to hear her. “Graver than you know. Someday soon you'll come into an ability. A power.”

“The Hunt—”

“Not the Hunt power,” Gran whispered. “Another. You can trust no one with the knowledge of it.”

Joan looked over at Ruth. She was still working on the window.

“No,” Gran whispered. “Not Ruth. Not anyone. Promise me you'll tell no one of it.”

Joan could trust Ruth with anything. “But Ruth—”

Gran's hand came up to clasp Joan's wrist. The ruby on her wedding ring glinted dully, the same color as all the blood. “Promise me,” Gran ground out. “
Say
it.”

“I promise,” Joan whispered hoarsely.

Gran sighed in apparent relief. Her hand slipped from Joan's wrist.

She'd left something behind. Joan stared down numbly. Gran had placed a fine-chained gold necklace with a pendant over Joan's wrist. It was draped loosely over Joan's Hunt bracelet, and the two chains seemed to blur together as Joan stared at them.

After a time, she heard Ruth's pattering footsteps and then Ruth threw herself down to the floor. Dark curls were stuck to her forehead. “Gran, I got the window open.”

Gran didn't respond. Her eyes were closed.

Ruth touched Gran's shoulder gently. “Gran, we can get you out. Joan and I can lift you.”

Gran didn't open her eyes.

Ruth gave Joan an uneasy look. She touched Gran's cheek and then hovered her palm above Gran's mouth and nose.

Gran was dead, Joan thought blankly. She was dead.

“But she . . .” Ruth sounded bewildered. “She told me she'd wait for me.”

Joan wanted to tell her that Gran had tried, but all she could think of was Gran saying
Only you can stop the hero.
Gran had been delirious.

A sound slowly entered Joan's awareness. A muffled thumping. She'd been hearing it for a while, she realized. How long? She felt out of sync with the world. “Ruth, we have to get up,” she heard herself say.

“Huh?” Ruth blinked. Her eyes focused dully on Joan.
“Hey.” She squeezed Joan's arm. “Stop.”

Joan looked down. She was pressing Gran's chest, as though she could still stanch the blood. She released the tension in her arms. Everything ached. She felt like she'd been ill for a week. Her hands and arms were a butcher's shop.

BOOK: Only a Monster
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