“Jo,” said Will in a low, urgent voice, “check outside the door.”
Jo nodded, face drawn and worried—
“Did she just nod?” Will asked me.
“I can’t see her, remember?”
“Oh. Right. Yes, she nodded.”
Jo vanished through the wall. Gurjas had vanished the moment things had gotten tense, although I couldn’t blame him. Will hadn’t ever picked up he was there, and hearing about yourself was bizarre for anybody. I supposed if he didn’t talk, Will couldn’t hear him. Trying to work out the logic of that made my head hurt.
What’s going on? I thought as loudly as I could manage, and Will winced a little.
You don’t need to yell. Just, uh—remember how I asked if you were in danger?
Yes. You made it sound like a normal question oh my god there’s somebody after me WHAT THE HELL.
Your train of thought would be funnier if it wasn’t so badly timed, she sighed.
Never gonna give you up, never gonna let you down, never gonna run around and desert you—it was panicky and out of tune, but it was what I had.
Johara stuck her head back through the wall. “I don’t recognize them,” she said nervously. “That’s bad, right?”
“What do they look like?”
“Uh, red hair, really tall—?”
“Shit.” Will tugged me to my feet. Jamal, where does that window go?
Outside? The back yard? Neverland? I just moved here.
I’ll take it.
We’re on the second floor!
She shoved the window open and stuck her head outside. There’s dirt, and a bush. You’ll live.
“Who even is this person?” I asked.
“Annoying,” Will grumbled—then the window snapped shut, almost biting off her fingers. She yanked her hands back, shooting a snarl over her shoulder.
A click of heels against hardwood announced the stranger’s ascent up the stairs, and soon, they appeared—a tall, leather-clad woman with flame-red hair and a self-satisfied grin on her face. Unlike my hair, hers had definitely come out of a bottle, and from the looks of how close some of her clothing clung to her body, that might have come out of a bottle too. She looked like an off-duty dominatrix, leather straps criss-crossing her chest under her shiny jacket. It was pretty cute, actually, in a Mad Max sort of way—I just couldn’t get over the smirk.
“Lila,” Will groaned. “What do you want?”
“Willow,” she preened back. “I’m surprised to find you here. Have you expanded your clientele? Or are times just that hard?”
“I will hurt you,” Will hissed back. I didn’t really understand the comment, but I thought perhaps I should be offended. With how Will’s eyes were flashing, though, I decided just to step back and let the two of them fight. Nothing to do with me.
“I’m here for the new Salt girl. I need a favour.”
Wait. What now? “I’m sorry, what?” I managed to sputter out.
“And you’re what, asking nicely as you break into her house? She’s got better things to do, Lila.”
Lila’s red lips formed a perfect pout. “Shouldn’t we ask her? What’s your name, darling?”
Don’t look into her eyes, came the warning in my head. I wasn’t sure how much to listen to Will, but I could at least be smart. I focused on Lila’s lips instead. “Jamal. My name’s Jamal. Don’t call me darling.”
“Jamal. What a nice name. I need your help.”
“Your help?” Despite myself, I glanced up at her eyes—then away again. I didn’t trust how much they shone. I’d seen a lot of weird shit in the last few days, and I decided to trust Will on this one.
She smiled sweetly, flipping her hair over her shoulder. “I need somebody around who can help me calm people down. Especially in bad situations. I’ve got a lot of friends going through rough times, and they want a kind of comfort I can’t give them.”
I glanced over at Will. Another thing I hadn’t been told. “And what does that have to do with Salt?”
“…Oh sweetie, you’re new. Aren’t you?”
“Stop calling me sweetie,” I mumbled. “And yes.” I wasn’t sure what kind of comfort she meant but I didn’t like the way she said it, no matter what. It sounded altruistic enough. Everything about it dripped with slime.
Will sighed. “Salts can talk to the dead. But your secondary ability is that when elementals spin out, you can… get them back under control.”
I snorted. “That doesn’t sound like me. I start fights, not end them.”
“It doesn’t have to, dear. So why don’t you come with me and help me—”
“You’re full of shit,” Will interrupted, voice harsh.
Will turned her back, yanking at the window and trying to get it open again—then she flew backwards across the room, some invisible force yanking her away. I sprang for her, but the same force hit me in the chest, and I fell into the desk, the sharp edge hitting me in the middle of the back. I struggled to stop the dizziness, my entire body suddenly aching. Lila’s hands were outstretched in front of her, and her pout turned into a cruel smile.
“Stop getting in the way,” she taunted at Will. “It seems like every time I turn around, you’re messing with my territory. She’s on my turf, which means she’s—”
“Nobody belongs to you, you uppity bitch,” Will grumbled. “And your ‘turf’ ends at Wellington.”
“What’s a city block between friends?”
I stumbled to my feet, digging in my pocket for my knife. I flicked it open, but it jerked out of my hand, coming alive and then twirling slowly in the air.
“A knife? That’s rather bad-mannered.” The point of my knife turned to face me. “Maybe I should teach you a lesson—”
“Stop,” came Will’s voice. Lila froze, but the knife kept turning, the dim light sending sparkles off of the dull blade. I looked over at Will—her head was bent, hair falling over her face, but I could see the focused look in her blue eyes, cold and sharp as ice. “Drop the knife.”
The knife clattered to the ground, leaving a small nick in the wooden floor.
“Turn and leave.”
Nothing happened. Will chewed on her lip and opened her mouth—then the knife lifted from the ground and drove straight for her face.
The knife didn’t stop—but it changed course, just nicking the edge of Will’s arm and pulling a cry of pain from her lips. It snapped me out of my shocked daze—I ran for Lila while she was distracted, then ducked and kicked at her high-heeled feet. She fell forward with a snarl, one of the heels snapping, and I winced at the dull thud as her face met the landing.
“Don’t feel bad,” Will grumbled. “She’s horrible.”
I backed away from her as she slowly got to her feet. “I think you should leave my house now,” I said with a confidence I really didn’t feel.
“Fine,” she spat. “I know when I’m not wanted.” She got to her feet, dusting off her black pants and corset, then stalked down the stairs, wavering as she wiped some of the blood off her face.
The moment she was gone, Will sat down on the floor with a heavy ‘thunk’.
“Are you okay?” Johara asked.
“I’ve had worse,” she grumbled. The nick in her arm wasn’t deep, but there was blood welling up slowly between her fingers. I grabbed a dishtowel that was hanging over the railing and knelt down next to her, wrapping it around her arm.
“Is that okay?”
She twisted it tighter. “That’ll do. I should probably check in with Avery.”
“Alright. Thanks for, well. Today.”
“Oh, no no no. You’re coming with me.”
I was about to disagree, then—”Yes. Yes, I am. Because what the hell are you not telling me?”
“She’s trying to respect me,” said Gurjas from behind me, and I started with a yelp.
“Oh, what, you leave when things get tough and show up again once the weird woman’s gone?”
“I was here the whole time. Willow wants to respect that I kept my abilities secret. But I was a Salt like you.” His eyes shone slightly at that, and for a second, he looked younger. I didn’t know how or why, but ghosts as a whole were still a mystery to me.
“And you didn’t tell me fuck all. You’re really not winning me over.” I couldn’t help the bitterness. Nobody was telling me anything.
Will stared up in Gurjas’s general area. “You pulled her into this?”
“Not on purpose. I just wanted peace.”
Will sighed. “I guess there was nobody else.”
“Nobody else? Well there must be—” I paused. It was starting to click together in my head, and I didn’t like it. “…Will. Why was Lila coming to me? Where are all the other Salts? There’s—there’s lots of them. Right?”
There was silence from both of them, and I glanced up at Johara, who stared back at me, coming to the same horrible conclusion I was.
“They’re dead,” Will murmured. “There’s you, and one other. There’s only two Salts left in the city.”