The Biggest Freak in Duskwood

On the night of her eighteenth birthday, Diana Velasquez falls victim to an attack that leaves her horribly scarred and an outcast. Worse still, nobody believes the truth about what happened.

The thing that destroyed her life was no ordinary animal.

During the next five months, the threat in the forest grows worse and worse. Diana has decided she’s had enough of being a victim- she’s going to use her twelve years of boxing training, and her family’s wealth of ornamental weapons, to show these creatures they messed with the wrong schoolgirl. She’s going to be a hero.

Then, she realises there’s far more to the monsters of Duskwood Forest than she thought. Their secret is both a strength and a weakness, but it can’t be beaten by brute strength alone. The more entangled in her tormentors’ lives she becomes, the more Diana starts to doubt she’s doing the right thing. She thought she’d do anything to keep her family safe, but how far is too far?

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Author's note

Yo! This is something I wrote under the proverbial radar. Please note it contains graphic bloody violence, as is to be expected of me. Happy reading!
AA

21. The Ghost House

MILO’S STREET IS an awful place, but his house is the worst by far. It’s crawling with mould and water stains. The lawn’s piled high with black rubbish bags which, I realise with a quick jump of my heartbeat, weren’t there the last time I was here. When I knock on the door, it’s because I don’t think the house is empty. The hallway light is on behind the door; its watery glow is diffusing through the blurry glass.

I wait there for a minute, my heart in my mouth. I can’t stop glancing over my shoulder- what if someone sees me here and calls the police? I know I would if a girl with five million scars knocked on my neighbour’s door with a sword, wearing combats in the height of August.

Another minute passes, but I’m scared to let myself in, even though I know I might have no choice. What if Milo’s mother’s still here, with somebody else caring for her? His sister, perhaps. I lick my lips. How many more people need to get in the way before this all ends? How much more blood on my hands? How much more effort? I’m so tired, and miserable. My Dad died yesterday, and my head’s still buzzing. My family are frozen in time; they can barely think. They need me, and I’m not there. I wonder if she’s noticed I’m missing. I didn’t even tell Louis I was going out.

 Tonight’s the full moon, and I’m terrified. That pain’s going to come again, and this time, it’ll be made a hundred times worse by anticipation. Last night, I had the worst panic attack of my entire life- I was sweating, throwing up, passing out, losing my vision, and the only person who was there to help me was Iain. He must’ve assumed it was because of Dad, and I let him think it, because I felt guilty it wasn’t. I can’t bear the thought of more pain. My back breaking in half. My fingers popping out of place, my teeth falling out. My eyes blackening and yellowing. I feel dizzy now just thinking about it, but I can’t have a panic attack now. I’ve got to focus. Focus on the door.

It still doesn’t open.

I clench my fists, then take a deep breath and push the door open. It’s not locked, so I get ready to explain to a bewildered family why I’m in their house. I walk down the hallway, only to realise when I peer into the kitchen that the hallway is the only lit room in the entire house. The kitchen’s drowned in darkness, dirty counters and overflowing bins blurred out by grey. There’s a pile of dirty dishes tumbling from the sink onto the draining-board, and a couple of bowls dotted around the counters. The dirty dishes, like the rubbish bags outside, confirm my fear that someone’s been here since I killed Milo. And they’ve not only been here; they’ve been living here. I tell myself it’s a new family, or someone who’s broken in- homeless vagrants, druggies- and walk on, past the kitchen. The light bulb above me flickers off once, then back on- the sudden pulse of darkness and its accompanying plink makes me nearly jump out of my skin. I snarl, frustrated with myself, like I used to do on my treks through the woods.

I step down onto the uneven floorboards of the utility room with a lethal creak and force myself to look out of the back door, into the garden. There’s the lawn. A massive patch in the middle of it’s been shaved clean off, leaving a bare expanse of bone-dry soil. I’m reminded of the puddle in the middle of the forest road. That’s when I swallow, remembering the way Milo looked at me as he died. His teeth gritted in hatred, but his eyes wide with fear. He was a child. He deserved to die, but did he need to? Am I feeling guilty again? I shouldn’t. It’s probably this house, with its darkness and its dirty stains and its single flickering lightbulb. I turn on my heel, away from the residue of the dead boy, and head down the corridor towards the bedroom with the closed door. It doesn’t take me long at all to get there- this whole house is tiny, for God’s sake- but my uncertainty, and confusion at what I’ll do if I do find her here- stretches every metre into a mile of tightrope. One foot in front of the other, hand on the hilt of my sword to stop it making a sound. Blood-soaked jacket on my shoulders. Six pixelated shadows on the grey tearstained walls. I’m the hero. I am. I am. And I’ll damn well finish what I came here to finish.

I reach the door, and try the handle. It’s locked, and I freeze. There’s no sound coming from the other side, but the lock must mean she’s in there. Milo’s mother. The emaciated creature who killed my Dad. She’s in there. And all I have to do is kick it down.

I jiggle the handle some more, hoping upon hope it’ll open without me having to kick it down. I need to get to her, but what if she’s not there? What if there’s somebody else asleep upstairs? What if they hear me? What if I’m wrong? What if I shouldn’t be here? Oh, God, oh God, oh God. Okay. Okay. I feel sick- less than eight hours to go before midnight.  Kick it down, Diana, damn you to hell. You’re not pathetic. You’re strong. And nothing can break you, so you may as well get the hell on with it. You’ve got something to prove.

So prove it.

I back up, take a step forwards, and drive my foot into the wood next to the handle. Thud. Again. Thud. The sounds are soft and quiet, not loud and hollow. The wood’s rotten; it’ll give. Again. Thud, thud, thump. I kick one more time and, with a solid CRACK, the lock breaks. I hear a piece of metal skittering across the ground on the other side. I grab the doorhandle, open the door, and step into the room. The first thing I notice is that it’s empty. The second thing I notice is that, actually, there’s something in the corner, throwing a black shadow up the wall towards the ceiling.

I was right. The poor woman’s still here after all. She’s slumped over in a chair, her head down, her thick ropes of dark hair hanging down towards her lap. I can’t see her face. As I walk closer, I see only one foot on the ground- only one leg. Her right leg ends at the knee. My heartbeat starts to speed up again. She is the creature with the limp- the one who killed my Dad. Then, I notice the worn yellow rope crisscrossing her chest, fixing her to the back of the chair. Why would Milo tie up his mother? Why would the person who’s looking after her now not untie her again? This family are sick. They’re making me feel sick. I can’t believe what I’m seeing, so I ignore it and try to focus on the woman in front of me. She’s not moving- is she too sick to move? I remember her screaming two months ago- has that period of her addiction ended? Can she speak at all? Is she in a coma? Or is she dead?

No. No. She must be dead, neglected after Milo died. Coldness creeps through my blood and I bite my fist. Why else would she still be here?

I don’t speak; my tongue suddenly feels huge in my mouth and all the words have dried up in my throat. I pull my sword out of my pocket and put it down on the floor so I can bend down. That’s when I see the girl- no, woman- in the chair flinch, her neck jerking and her shoulders jumping upwards. Oh. She’s not dead. She doesn’t look up at me- her neck’s slumped, like her head weighs too much. She’s thin as a bundle of twigs.

“H- hi.” I say. “My- my name’s… Diana. If- if you can hear me, I- I’m not here to hurt you. I- I- I’m going- I’m going to take you somewhere safe.”

My words sound a thousand times too loud in the empty room.

I drop to my knees at the foot of the chair and lean over the woman’s lap, starting to fumble with the hideous tangle of knots in her ropes. I don’t think she can support herself, so I gently place one hand on her chest, ready to take her weight once she’s loose. As my hand finds her shirt, I realise her clothes don’t fit her right- this t-shirt’s faded and speckled with white paint, hanging off her like a sackcloth. Her trousers are bunched up around her waist with more yellow rope and she’s barefoot. I carry on fumbling with the ropes, but I look up. When I see her face, I’m forced to swallow. It’s probably her complexion, glassy and yet somehow dull, grey enough to repel the thin yellow light from the hallway. Or maybe it’s her sallow cheekbones, her sunken dark eyes. Maybe it’s the way those eyes widen slightly when they meet mine, the way they still look like empty holes, utterly devoid of light or life. Maybe it’s the way she looks so utterly dead, like a corpse, her dark brown hair clinging to her skin in stripes that break her into little pieces like a bad collage. Maybe it’s the fact she has her son’s eyes- if that’s not true, they’re eyes I recognise. They’re brown.

I realise I feel sick. I feel sick with a new realisation that starts as a seed in the pit of my stomach and mutates and grows and grows till it’s got fur and fangs and claws that dig into me and rip all my insides into ribbons. Because I realise something, suddenly, as I stare at the poor woman- no, girl. As I look into her eyes. I realise a million things at once, puzzle pieces that start to drift together in my mind no matter how hard I try to tear them apart. No matter how frantically I try to force my mouth to close, my fingers to keep digging into her knots, my eyes to come unstuck from her face. The face I know.

Those aren’t Milo’s eyes. They’re not brown; they’re muddied up with flecks of green and yellow. That’s not dark hair. That’s light hair dark with grease. That’s not a middle-aged woman; it’s a young girl, aged ten or twenty or thirty years by the hollows negligence has dug into her cheeks and the spider’s web of miniscule scars coating her face.

That’s not Milo’s mother.

I struggle to my feet, my legs trembling so hard they suddenly feel boneless. My hands are shaking like leaves and the sickness I was feeling in anticipation of my pain is utterly gone. Instead, there’s a new, cold, thin, furry sickness rising through my gullet and fluttering my eyelids and numbing my mouth. I hold my hand up, but it only gets halfway to my forehead before my knees give out and I hit the carpet with a dulled THUD. I’m not staring at her anymore. I’m staring at the wall above her head. I’m staring at the ceiling. I’m staring up.  I’m shaking, crying without tears, breathing so hard anyone’d think I’d just finished a million-mile marathon, even though I haven’t. I’ve only seen a ghost. One that’s been haunting me for the last eight months. I choke out a sob, and as I do, I see Poppy twitch her eyes towards me. I cover my mouth with my hands.

Then, I stand up. And with a renewed, vicious strength in my muscles, I throw myself forwards and start to fumble with her knots again. As I do, I’m coughing out pathetic imitations of words- words like “How?” and “Why?” and “Dead!”. Words that mean nothing, because she’s not replying. So I swallow hard. As the ropes come loose and fall to her waist, and she slumps forwards into my arms with a soft moan, I let loose one of my own.

“Oh! Oh, Christ!” I say through imaginary tears as they start to twist my throat into an impossible knot. “Oh, Christ! Oh Christ!”

I wrap my arms tight around her and bury my face in her, gulping for air like a fish; I take her weight with ease. She’s a wisp. She’s draped over my shoulder, not moving at all. Oh, God. Oh, God. What’s Milo done? To her, to me, to her family, to everyone, to the town, to life? What’s that son of a bitch done? I can’t take any more surprises. No, no more. No more. No more. I swore to myself when Milo forced me to kill him that I wasn’t afraid. I swore when he took my Dad that I was strong enough. I swore when he tried to take my brother that I’d never break. Yet, he’s shown me one ghost and I’ve torn like a leaf. Snapped like a twig. I manage to hold Poppy for a couple of seconds before we both fall. I can’t let her go, and as I sit up, I realise I’m crying. I weep and cling to her as she whispers and mumbles into my chest- she’s sick. I don’t even think she knows who I am.

“Poppy?” I say, swallowing a hard jolt of sickness as I hear the name aloud. It echoes in the empty room, becoming Poppy Poppy Poppy Poppy Poppy. Her name bounces back like rubber. It shatters like glass on the ground. The shards rebound again and impale me. “Poppy- Poppy. Poppy! Poppy…” I gasp again and press my face to hers, wanting to cry and cry and cry till the world explodes. All this time… she’s been here. He kept her here, all this time, whilst the whole of Duskwood mourned her. Whilst her family wept and the school mourned and I built up my strength to kill her killers. She was here. She was here, and I never fucking looked for her until now. Oh, God. I can’t breathe. I’m going to pass out.

“Poppy!” I say. I sit up and pull her onto my lap, stroking her face with one hand. I can’t bear to look into her eyes. They’re not the same eyes I know. What I’m holding’s barely her shell. “Poppy. Poppy. It’s me. It- it’s Di. D’you… rem… ember me?”

I can’t bear saying it when I already know the answer. No. She doesn’t. I can see it on her face.

My mouth screws up again and I sob; this time, silently. I haven’t got any words left. They’ve abandoned me- I don’t know why; is it because she’s alive, or because she looks so dead? She looks like a corpse- grey skin, stringy hair, hollow cheeks, fleshless body, skin scuffed with scars. They’re worse than mine; ten- no, twenty- times worse. I might not have recognised her at all if I didn’t know her so well. Her nose is mangled; her top lip’s split clean in half. Her right leg’s gone at the knee. But it’s Poppy, damn it, and whatever that dead bastard Milo’s done to her, she’ll always be mine. I came here with a vow to save the woman trapped in this room. Nothing’s changed. Only everything. Time to get her out. Fall apart later.

I close my eyes and then, only because I can, I press a kiss to her lips. She doesn’t react. She’s freezing cold. I still don’t let her go for five, ten seconds. She’s looking up at me as I break off, but her eyes are full of confusion.

“It’s okay.” I say, still crying. “It’s okay, it’s okay. You don’t need to know me. You don’t need to talk. You don’t need to… I- I just- I’m getting you out of here. Right now.”

She mumbles something at the back of her throat- something utterly incoherent. I stop to stroke her cheek.

“Don’t...” I say. “Please don’t…”

She’s started to breathe harder by the time I’ve gathered the strength to slide my arms under her and lift her up. I can barely look at her; I’m still in a trance, so deep in it I barely remember to pick up my sword again. Her weight’s negligible, and with every exhale, she seems to grow lighter. Her breaths cut through me and spur me on. She’s all that matters. Getting her out of this house. And then… then, it’ll be over.

What the hell’s my family going to think? And her family, too?

It doesn’t matter right now.

It probably will later.

“It’s okay. It’s okay.” I start to cry again, but I bite back each sob as it comes. One foot in front of the other. I feel light, then heavy, then light again. “It’s okay. I’ve got you.” I say. “I’ve got you. I’ll make you better. I’ll save you. I love you.” I’m crying now. For real. I don’t think I’ll ever stop.

Her breaths, as they grow faster and sharper, form into repetitions of the letter h. I try to shush her, calm her down, shut her up- but she’s growing more and more panicked. She’s getting louder; then, I realise what she’s saying.

“He- he…”

“Ssh. We’re getting out of here.” I throw a glance towards the living-room, wondering if anyone else is here. Someone must be, right? Suddenly, there’s a loud BANG from the other side of the wall. I jump, and Poppy whimpers as I clutch her tighter.

“He… he- he-“

“He’ll hear you.” says the shadow in the doorway.

I turn, clutching Poppy to my chest, and watch as Milo steps into the light, leaning on the wall.

She, on the other hand, won’t.” He says, gesturing to Poppy. He grins at me, his teeth gritted tight. He looks terrible- pale and clammy, greasy twigs of hair clinging to his forehead. He’s hunched over slightly, curled around the stomach wound I gave him. Another ghost.

“You…” I growl. “You…”

“Alive? Yeah.” Milo spits. “Barely. Should’ve… killed me… quick, huh, Diana?”

You…” I say. “You… abandoned your… friends.”

He smiles. “You killed them.”

“You son of a bitch! You let them think you were DEAD!” I say. “And… and you-”

“You were right, Diana; they were never my friends. They deserved to die like dogs. You find out about your brother?”

I sniff, wondering why my mouth’s refusing to form the word Poppy again. She weighs nothing in my arms. Maybe she’s not there at all.

“Louis?” I say. “He betrayed them. He killed Nancy. He’s back with me now.”

Milo’s eyes widen for a second; then, he grins again. He smiles like a man who’s resigned himself to death. The sword at my side weighs a ton. The girl in my arms weighs nothing. I look down, and she’s still there, barely clutching my wrist. I don’t know what Milo’s going to do, but he’s not letting us leave, and I realise I have to keep her out of the way. Slowly, I turn and walk back into the room. I lay Poppy down on the ground as gently as I can. I stroke her hair before straightening up. I expect Milo to follow me, but when I walk back into the hallway, closing the door behind me, he’s still leaning against the doorway.

“You’ll… you’ll not touch her,” I say, sniffing. “Ever again.”

“Was he turned?”

I blink at him. “What?”

Louis.” Milo says. “Was he turned?”

“No.” I grit my teeth and walk towards him. I think of Poppy in that room. All that time. “Milo, you’re sick. You kept her here, all this time, when she was ALIVE-”

“She was barely alive, Diana.” Milo says. “You should’ve seen Nancy’s face when we hauled her back here. It was her first night, y’know. Of being a monster. I promised her it was all harmless fun. Imagine my face when she came back to the meeting-spot holding a legless bloody Poppy Nichols.”

“How dare you talk about her like that?”

“Nancy… she came to see the funny side of it eventually. After we brought her back here. I promised her nobody’d ever find out. We used my mother’s meds. Her morphine. My mother’s not a drug addict, Diana. Not anymore. She’s dead. She’s been dead for over a year.”

The way he says it makes my blood freeze.

She needed the morphine for her addiction. We used it to numb your girlfriend’s pain. Keep her weak. Keep her quiet. While you bumbled around with that great big sword, trying to end the people who killed her. You could’ve-”

“Shut UP!” I scream. My blood’s boiling like lava. “It- it doesn’t matter. I’m taking her home. There’s nothing you can do about it. I’m taking her back to my car, and I’m driving away, and I’m telling the world what you did. To her. To her family. To those kids. To everyone.”

“And what then?” Milo grins. “You- you gonna send them after me? Life behind bars? Nice, clean justice? That what you gonna serve me, Diana?”

I breathe out. “No. I’m going to kill you, Milo. Clean justice doesn’t work, does it?”

He laughs, hard, craning his neck up to the ceiling as he grits his teeth in pain. He’s weak, and it hurts to watch him. I could take him with one hand. I could. I don’t know if I want to, but I could.

“You’re sure as hell right about that, Diana,” he says softly. I can’t stand his twisted grin. I want to wipe the fucking thing off his face. With my sword. “You’re just as tangled up in this shit as I am. You’ve killed. More than me, actually; more than any of us. You didn’t do it for justice, either. I bet. Your brother? Your Dad? Poppy. You weren’t thinking straight; you gave in to your instincts. You killed them in anger, didn’t you, Diana?”

I say nothing. The leer he gives me tell me he knows he’s right.

“And you hid the evidence. You’re a pervert to the course of justice. You’re a fucking hypocrite. You’re more like us than you’d ever admit.”

“I’m NOT like you!” I spit.

I’m not. I’m not. I know I’m not.

“I’m not…” I say. “I’m not a monster.”

Milo sighs, then shrugs. There’s still a grin tugging his mouth.

“Are you sure about that?” He says.

He takes another step towards me. I want to punch him right there and then. I don’t want him near me. I’m frozen, though, which is just… ideal. I know this feeling. I’ll never be able to run.

“Get away from me.” I say.

“Oh, shit- I’m right.” Milo says. “Aren’t I? There is something different about you. The… smell. I reckon.”

He grins, taking a deep breath in, and steps back again as I glare at him. Could I whip my sword out and kill him in time? The truth is, I’m not thinking about killing him. Not again. This wasn’t part of the plan- he was meant to be dead. They were both meant to be dead; this was meant to be the end. I’m neck-deep in shock, struggling to keep my head above. And this boy… he’s so weak. He’s got nothing left; no friends, no family, no posse, no prize. If I kill him, it’ll be in anger, in instinct. If I kill him, he’ll be right. And I’ll regret it later. I need time to think; I need to put Poppy first. I need to get out of this house, with this darkness, this smell, this flickering lightbulb, this stiflingly narrow hallway. This scrutiny. I want him dead. But not like this.

Milo grins, then leans back on the doorframe.

“Who bit you, Diana?” He asks.

I swallow. He knows. Of course he knows. But I can’t let him know he’s got to me. He’s a mewling, pathetic child, no stronger than me. No smarter.

“Harry.” I say simply.

Milo bursts out laughing. “Oh, God, really? I feel sorry for you. Worst fucking idiot to end your life, that one.” He steps up close to me, and I know I don’t have the strength to push him back. “How’d it feel?”

I glare at him. “I’m going to leave now. Taking Poppy with me.”

I turn, slowly, and take one tentative step towards the door. To my shock, Milo doesn’t say anything to stop me. As I place my hand on the doorhandle, and the silence continues, I start to get scared. What if he’s got a plan? What if he was planning to kill me as soon as I turned my back? One thing’s for sure; he’s running out of things to s-

“WHY are you sparing her, Diana?” Milo shouts.

Oh. Never mind. There it is.

“What the hell d’you mean?” I say softly, taking my hand off the doorhandle.

“Why’re you letting her live?” Milo says. “She killed your Dad. She’s been one of us for a year.”

“Eight months.”

“Whatever.” Milo spits. “The point is, you think you’re some sort of hero, killing all the people you reckon are dangerous, but now you’ve found out the one you came here to kill’s your girlfriend, you’re going to save her instead.”

“You’re still wrong about me.” I say. “I didn’t come here to kill anyone. I came here to save her.”

“Liar. If she was who you thought she was- if she meant nothing to you- you’d have killed her.”

“You’re wrong.”

“No, I’m not.”

“Yes, you are!”

“No I’m NOT!” Milo bellows. I sigh. He’s wrong. Isn’t he? Yeah. Yeah, he’s wrong.

I… I think.

Why, Diana?” Milo says. “Poppy’s gone. The girl you loved’s gone. We wiped her clean out of her own head. She’s not coming back. It’d be so much easier to pretend she was dead, like the last year. What a mess bringing her back’ll create- for everyone. She uprooted your life once; she’s about to do it all over again. So why are you bothering to save her?”

I swallow. “Because-”

“What? Because you love her?” Milo says. “The people you killed the other night were loved too, you know. They weren’t just empty bastards. Just because you didn’t know them. They weren’t lackeys.”

I decide to say nothing and let him ramble on. He’s right, but that doesn’t mean I’m wrong.

“I… I loved Nancy, you know,” Milo says. “I know she was a touch too crazy for your taste, but I loved her. She could’ve been fixed. I could’ve been fixed. We all could’ve gone to therapy. We could’ve been okay. You… you know, gangs never last forever. They break up. They’re arrested. Those two boys, Salem and Harry… they were new. They weren’t crazy yet. We all could’ve been saved. But you just had to crusade in, Diana, with your big muscles and your fancy sword, and your freak face, and your revenge plot, and you just had to play the hero. You decided for all of us how it was gonna end. Is that really fair?”

“I’m not the hero.” I say. “And I’m not doing this for revenge. I never was. I was trying to protect everyone still living from you. I wouldn’t let you take anyone else.”

He pauses for a while, and I lick my lips, knowing I’ve got him.

“This could’ve been a black mark on a criminal record.” He says eventually. “We could’ve gone to jail.”

“You’d have turned into werewolves in jail, you pillock.” I spit. “I know you’re lying to me, Milo, and I’m not falling for it. You guys weren’t evil because you were werewolves, or because you were in a gang. Neither of those things can be helped. You- you needed to be stopped because you’d made a choice. To run wild and let the condition take you over. They- they all chose to be changed, Milo; they were old enough to know it was wrong. Look- how dare you stand there and ask me for another chance? You all chose to kill. So you all deserved to die.”

“What… what about Poppy?” Milo says. He licks his lips. “She killed. She killed your Dad. And yet you’re giving her a second chance.”

“She- she- she couldn’t control herself.”

“She could at the start.”

I pause, but only for a split-second. “Bullshit.”

“It’s not bullshit.”

“But you threatened her.” I insist. “She’d never do that if she had the choice. She had no choice.”

“No less choice…” Milo says. “Than all the others.”

My blood runs colder. I lick my lips, my heart pounding in my head, and say nothing.

“We kept her prisoner here.” He licks his lips. “For our sakes. We only let her out on the full moon. She hated it at first, of course, but as time went on, she started to relish it. Her only taste of freedom. The lights went out up there soon enough, ‘course, but before they all did, she’d really started to… get used to it. Enjoy it, even.”

I breathe in. “L- liar.”

“Anyway, what about you, Diana?” Milo says.

I sigh again. “What do you mean?

He slams his fist on the wall. “What about YOU? You wanna get rid of all the wolves? You’d have to kill yourself too. How’re you any less guilty?”

“I didn’t… know.” I say. My voice sounds far too weak.

Milo narrows his eyes.

“It’s true.” I say.

“I don’t think it is.”

I snarl. “It is! I don’t have to justify shit to you. I didn’t choose to do this. I didn’t choose any of this. I’m just afflicted for life because of your sick games!”

He laughs. “You’ll give in eventually, Diana.” He sees me looking at him and laughs again. “You will, trust me. It’s one hell of a power rush, isn’t it? Letting go of yourself, letting yourself run wild, paying all that pain for all that power- there’s nothing on Earth like it. And eventually, you’ll give in to it. Like all of us. You’ll become a true freak, inside and out. But you’ll be… the only one. You’ll go mad. Eventually. Like me.”

I say nothing. I curl my lip, still nervous he’s going to try something, but he stays put at the end of the hallway. I want to leave. But I can’t.

“Grief’s only a weapon,” I say, “if you choose to use it that way. In a way, it’s kinda disrespectful, isn’t it? To use your dead parents as a shield. Is that all they’re good for in your eyes, Milo? It’s not an excuse. It’s barely even an explanation. And you’re so wrong about me.” I walk up to him, pulling my sword out of my trousers. “You’re wrong… about everything.”

“I’m not.” He says. “Not about everything. One thing I know is that really, Diana… you’re selfish. You put the people you love first and everyone else second. You wouldn’t work nearly so hard to save someone who meant nothing to you. You’re selfish. And selfish people fall the hardest for power.”

“I’ll never give in to power, because I’m stronger than you, and I’ve got a family to protect!” I say. I’m ignoring his words on purpose. “I’ll never give them up for some sick imitation of validation. I’m sorry you had nothing to lose. But there’s no excuse for what you did. Those people I killed… you were right; they’d been twisted. But their blood’s not on my hands.” I press my sword up to his throat. “It’s on yours.”

He looks down at the blade, then sighs and stuffs both his hands into his pockets.

“So this is how it ends, huh?” He says.

I curl my lip and drip venom into my voice. “I’m not going to lie and tell you it’s the last thing I wanted.”

Milo brings his hand out of his pocket; there’s a flash of silver and a cold click. I freeze, looking down. He’s got a gun. It’s pointed right at my chest, and there’s no room to move. If I cut his throat, he’ll shoot me.

He looks up at me, his face deathly calm.

“Not that easy, Diana.” He murmurs. “You can’t just give a good speech and expect a happily ever after. If you wanna walk out of this house with your girl in tow, you’re doing as I say. We end this? We end it on my terms.”

I breathe out, then lock eyes with him. My arm’s starting to ache from holding the sword up.

“Go on, then,” I say. “Start talking.”

“It’s easy.” He says. “Let me live, and I’ll let you both walk out of here. Just do it, Diana. Just… do it. I want…” He sobs, and a fleck of spittle appears on his bottom lip. “I want this over just as much as you do.”

I look at him. The black shadows slice his face in half and his eyes are wide, though his teeth are gritted. I don’t think he’ll use that gun; the pressure of the butt under my ribcage is wavering. My sword’s still pressed to his throat. Do I dare risk it? If I die here, Poppy might never be saved. Besides, I don’t… I don’t want to die. I could come back and finish him later. There’s cold sickness collecting in my throat and my head’s buzzing. I’m afraid. I’m terrified. I want this all to end. Milo’s right; I’m angry. I’m right too; he’s nothing without his gang. He’s weak. I can leave him for tonight, can’t I? It’s the full moon. Yeah, but he’s all the way over here. My family will be safe. What about everyone else? Can I save them all?

I’m just out to save Poppy right now.

Which, I guess, means I’m selfish. Like he said.

“Get that gun away from me.” I say.

He scoffs. “Not till you get your sword off me.”

“I’m not letting you go till I know you’re not going to shoot me.”

“I won’t shoot you.”

I growl. “Like I’m going to trust you.”

He grins desperately. “What’s not to trust?”

I sigh. I look at the gun. I look at the door.

I want this to end.

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