Bitter Bite(Elemental Assassin #14)(1) by Jennifer Estep
Digging up a grave was hard, dirty work.
Good thing that hard, dirty work was one of my specialties. Although, as an assassin, I’m usually the one putting people into graves instead of uncovering them.
But here I was in Blue Ridge Cemetery, just after ten o’clock on this cold November night. Flurries drifted down from the sky, the small flakes dancing on the gusty breeze like delicate, crystalline fairies. Every once in a while, the wind would whip up into a howling frenzy, pelting me with swarms of snow and spattering the icy flakes against my chilled cheeks.
I ignored the latest wave of flurries stinging my face and continued digging, just like I’d been doing for the last hour. The only good thing about driving the shovel into the frozen earth was that the repetitive motions of scooping out the dirt and tossing it onto a pile kept me warm and limber, instead of cold and stiff like the tombstones surrounding me.
Despite the snow, I still had plenty of light to see by, thanks to the old-fashioned iron streetlamps spaced along the access roads throughout the cemetery. One of the lamps stood about thirty feet away from where I was digging, its golden glow highlighting the grave marker in front of me, making the carved name stand out like black blood against the gray stone.
The mother of my foster brother, Finnegan Lane. A strong Ice elemental. And a potentially dangerous enemy.
A week ago, I’d found a file that Fletcher Lane—Finn’s dad and my assassin mentor—had hidden in his office. A file claiming that Deirdre was powerful, deceitful, and treacherous—and not nearly as dead as everyone thought she was. So I’d come here tonight to find out whether she was truly six feet under. I was hoping she was dead and rotting in her grave, but I wasn’t willing to bet on it.
Too many things from my own past had come back to haunt me. I knew better than to leave something this important to chance.
My shovel hit something hard and metal. I stopped and breathed in, hoping to smell the stench of decades-old decay. But the cold, crisp scent of the snow mixed with the rich, dark earth created a pleasant perfume. No decay, no death, and, most likely, no body.
I cleared off the rest of the dirt, revealing the top of the casket. A rune had been carved into the lid, jagged icicles fitted together to form a heart. My stomach knotted up with tension. Fletcher had inked that same rune onto Deirdre’s file. This was definitely the right grave.
I was already standing in the pit that I’d dug, and I scraped away a few more chunks of earth so that I could crouch down beside the top half of the casket. The metal lid was locked, but that was easy enough to fix. I set down my shovel, pulled off my black gloves, and held up my hands, reaching for my Ice magic. The matching scars embedded deep in my palms—each one a small circle surrounded by eight thin rays—pulsed with the cold, silver light of my power. My spider runes, the symbols for patience.
When I had generated enough magic, I reached down, wrapped my hands around the casket lid’s locks, and blasted them with my Ice power. After coating the locks with two inches of elemental Ice, I sent out another surge of power, cracking away the cold crystals. At the same time, I reached for my Stone magic, hardening my skin. Under my magical assault, the locks shattered, and my Stone-hardened skin kept the flying bits of metal from cutting my hands. I dusted away the remains of the locks and the Ice, took hold of the casket lid, dug my feet into the dirt, and lifted it.
The lid was heavy, and the metal didn’t want to open, not after all the years spent peacefully resting in the ground. It creaked and groaned in protest, but I managed to hoist it up a couple of inches. I grabbed my shovel and slid it into the opening, using it as a lever to lift the lid the rest of the way.
Dirt rained down all around me, mixing with the snowflakes, and I wrinkled my nose to hold back a sneeze. I wedged the length of the shovel in between the lid and the edge of the casket so it would stay open. Then I wiped the sweat off my forehead, put my hands on my knees to catch my breath, and looked down.
Just as I expected, snow-white silk lined the inside of the casket, with a small square matching pillow positioned at the very top, where a person’s head would rest. But something decidedly unexpected was situated next to the pillow, nestled in the middle of the pristine fabric.
It was about the size of a small suitcase and made out of silverstone, a sturdy metal that had the unique property of absorbing and storing magic. The box’s gray surface gleamed like a freshly minted coin, and it looked as clean and untouched as the rest of the white silk.
I frowned. I’d expected the casket to be completely empty. Or for there to be a decaying body inside. If I had been extremely lucky, Deirdre would have been in there, dead after all.
So why was there a box in it instead? And who had put it here?
I stared at the box, more knots forming in the pit of my stomach and then slowly tightening. I’d recently gone up against Raymond Pike, a metal elemental who had enjoyed planting bombs before I helped plant him in some botanical gardens. Pike had received a letter with Deirdre’s rune stamped on it and had bragged that the two of them were business associates. He’d also said she was the most coldhearted person he’d ever met. I wondered if he’d booby-trapped the box in Deirdre’s casket as some sort of favor to her, to blow up anyone who might come investigate whether she was truly dead.
I reached out, using my Stone magic to listen to all the rocks in the ground around the casket. But the rocks only grumbled about the cold, the snow, and how I’d disturbed their own final resting place. No other emotional vibrations resonated through them, which meant that no one had been near the casket in years.
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