Grotton wondered, for a brief moment, if there were a special circle of hell reserved for someone like him—or if Dante would have to cobble together an entirely new one.
“Please,” the farmer at his feet moaned. “Please.”
Other than delivering a small kick to shut the man up, Grotton ignored him and went back to his task. He had to keep his wits about him, or this would never work.
The heavy smoke had darkened the thatched roof of the farmer’s hut, but some small bits of light had begun to edge back in. Grotton picked up his scythe—a heavy stone made from lead, forged by his own two hands. The best blacksmith in the village, they’d called him, back before the rumors started.
He smiled at the irony, how the only people who were able to confirm that the rumors were true never lived long enough to tell anyone.
Case in point: the cowering, dirty wretch on the ground, worlds away from the puffed-up, righteous man he’d been up until a few moments before, as if someone had pricked him and let all the air out. Every few moments his gaze would dart to the two still lumps beside him, but he’d quickly squeeze his eyes shut and let out another whimper.
“I was only protecting our village,” he moaned. “With a demon in our midst—”
“I’m not a demon.” Grotton knew better than to engage in conversation with the brute, but the words came regardless. “I hurt no one.”
The farmer looked up at him, a swath of greasy hair falling over his eyes. “A demon,” he insisted. “Stalking through the night, taking the souls of—”
“Of people who are already dead.”
Dead and cold and filling with mold, his students liked to say. There’d certainly been no shortage of test subjects for them—the Great Plague had made sure of that. They’d called themselves reapers, which Grotton had found amusing at first—and, as their experiments continued with increased success, oddly appropriate. He was glad his students had not been identified; perhaps they’d be able to rejoin him after he fled the village.
After he’d taken care of this one loose end.
“You hurt no one?” the farmer growled. Perhaps he knew what awaited him; but then again, even Grotton did not know. They were breaking fresh ground today, the two of them—the scientist and his lab rat. “How can you say that?”
“You mistake my words,” said Grotton. “I hurt no one—until today.”
To illustrate this, he administered another kick, this time to one of the little lumps lying next to the man. That did it—whatever small amounts of bravado the man had conjured now melted away. He dissolved into sobs, putting his thick hands over his eyes to block the view of the blood seeping out of his children’s skulls in thin rivulets, draining to the sunken center of the floor.
“Please,” he said again. “Mercy.”
“Mercy?” Grotton almost laughed. “Like the kind you showed my family?” He knelt down to look the man in the eye and spoke calmly and evenly. “Setting fire to a man’s home, roasting his wife and children alive—that sort of mercy?”
“I thought you were with them . . . We needed to be rid of you, all of you, demons—”
Grotton slapped him across the face. The man went quiet.
Grotton stood back up and wiped his red-stained hands on a towel. “I already have shown you mercy.”
The man made a noise of disbelief. “How?”
“Your children,” Grotton explained in a measured voice, “are merely dead.” He walked over to another heap on the ground, this one charred and black. “Your wife did not fare as well; she is Damned, her soul in unbearable pain as we speak.”
The farmer cried out, no doubt replaying in his mind the way Grotton’s hands had squeezed her skin and set her on fire, black smoke bursting out of her body and filling the room.
“Yet neither of those fates,” Grotton finished, “are as odious as yours will be.”
By now the man could barely speak. “I—I—”
“You set the fire,” Grotton said, his voice growing thick, the taste of revenge on his tongue. “You made your choice.”
The scythe in Grotton’s hand was already black, but now an even denser shadow seemed to burst out of it, surrounding his hand—as if it were glowing, but with darkness instead of light. He raised it above his head, allowed himself one last look at the man’s terrified eyes, brought the blade down into his chest—
And the room went dark.
“So all that really happened? What you did to the farmer, all those years ago?”
Grotton nodded. “More or less.”
A pause. “Think you can do it one more time?”
“If you brought what I asked for.”
His guest emptied the requested items onto the table. They clinked and bounced, producing a sound like wind chimes. “Here.”
Grotton leaned forward, his face aglow in the light of the burning candle. “Then I believe we have a deal.”
Driggs’s hair was still wet.
That’s the odd thought that popped into Lex’s head as they ran. She and Driggs and Uncle Mort were fleeing a mob of angry villagers—in the middle of the night, through a thick forest, and in a blizzard, no less—so it wasn’t as if there weren’t other things to focus on.
Yet she couldn’t take her eyes off his hair, which had been that way since he’d died of hypothermia a few hours before. Shouldn’t it have dried a little by now? They’d stopped in Grotton’s relatively warm cabin long enough for at least some of it to have evaporated. But he still looked soaked, making his dark brown hair spikier and more chaotic than it usually was.
Appropriate, Lex thought bitterly. Drowned hair, drowned life. Just when she thought she’d stumbled upon some evidence that proved Driggs hadn’t just been turned into a ghost—those fleeting moments when he went solid, his fingers physically brushing up against hers as they ran—here was this hair thing, slapping her in the face.
Determined, Lex reached out for Driggs’s hand but grabbed only air—not because her aim was off, but because air was what his hand was made of at the moment. She slowed her sprinting pace to a jog and tried to look straight into his eyes, but the way his head was fading in and out of existence made it somewhat difficult to figure out where his eyes actually were.
But she soon caught them—the blue one first, then the brown one. He forced a grin onto his face. “Working on it,” he said, panting as he ran.
Lex swallowed and tried to look at the situation with a glass-half-full mentality. Except when y...