Stephen tipped his hat to Nella. “Good work, lass. The resistance needs more brave girls like you.”
She smiled a reply. The sound of the gunshot still echoed through the forest over the cries of lonely night birds.
This one, number seven, had yammered her ear off. Going on and on in broken English about his plans after the war – of how he’d be an accountant like his father. Of how he was looking for a pretty girl like her to marry. Nella had clutched her wine glass, giggled, and endured the droll conversation.
She was a pretty girl and loyal to lord and country. The men’s faces blended together now. Stephen said they would when he had recruited her, but she hadn’t believed him at the time. Back then she was more of a tongue-tied oaf than a seductress. Fear had rolled off her like perfume, and she cried after every mission, questioning the rights and wrongs of her deeds.
Now, who the soldiers were–brown eyes, blue eyes, tall, short, handsome or ugly–played little importance to her. This was war. Only the number of stars on their uniforms or the information they drunkenly whispered in exchange for a kiss and the promise of more mattered to Nella.
She waved goodbye to Stephen, indicating that she’d return to the cantina to lure number eighteen, but she halted mid-stride. She’d given the soldier her handkerchief for some flirty reason. It was a present from her mother, and the memories embroidered into the silk gave her the strength to continue. She scanned the ground for the body and just about jumped out of her skin. A dark smear stained the grass, outlining where a head should have been.
Nella tightened her grip on the lantern handle. “Where’d he go?”
“What?” Stephen looked up from polishing his gun. He followed her gaze to the patch of crushed grass, then paled. Eyes widening, his back tensed as he searched the gloomy forest. “Stay behind me.”
She held the lantern high, but except for the few feet around them, matte darkness ate the light. Stephen walked a few paces ahead, the damp earth muffling the sound of his boots, and tension prickled the hairs on her neck. A breeze thick with the smell of rotting leaves kicked up the hem of her dress. With shaky hands, she swept it down and brushed loose strands of hair from her face.
Stephen stepped out of the spear of light. His gun aimed at the darkness. “Wait here,” he whispered as he padded further away.
A flat silence descended over the forest. Why weren’t the birds chirping? Where was the sound of Stephen’s boots?
The wind picked up blowing grit into Nella’s eyes. Shadows fluttered as the lantern quivered in her hand. She blinked rapidly. “Stephen?”
Taking a tentative step forward, she tried again. “Stephen?” She took another step. “Stephen? Captain, this isn’t funny.”
The light glinted on the heel of a shiny black boot.
Nella crept closer. “Sir?”
Light crawled up, exposing a twisted ankle, then a leg, then a hip, then… A scream burst from her lips. Nella’s mentor lay sprawled in the dirt with his arms flung wide. Thin threads of skin were all that remained of Stephen’s neck and a halo of blood pooled around his head. His mouth hung open, and his eyes stared at the stars.
Nella pressed her hand over her mouth to stifle another scream. Tears welled in her eyes, and the lantern trembled in her hand. A gust of wind swirled, whipping hair into her face and wrenching the lantern from her grasp. It clattered to the ground.
She wailed a high-pitched shriek, flinging her arms over her head, and the wine in her stomach lurched up her throat. Abandoning the lantern, Nella whipped around and ran. Her short heels sank into the soft grass.
The soldier appeared in her path, and Nella skidded to avoid colliding into number seventeen. Blood spurted from the side of his head where Stephen’s bullet had gone straight through. His mouth hung open in a grin. Long, white fangs were beacons in the moonlight.
Nella’s breath came in bursts; her heartbeat pounded her ribcage. She stepped back and back. He stepped forward, matching her stride. His grin stretched wider, but his eyes were as blank as Stephen’s were.
Nella opened her mouth to scream. Fangs tore into her throat, cutting off the sound.
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Assassin Copyrighted by Stacy Benedict 2018
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