Ashes. Paper. Tea. Pie.
Charlotte blinks once, twice, to living color dancing about the library.
Yes, she’s sitting at Liam’s feet, having fallen asleep with her head resting on his knee. Liam’s fingers have wound themselves into her hair.
The hearth is cold, and the stale food… unsettling. Shouldn’t Arlen be in the kitchen by now, scolding Dorjan for raiding the fridge? Shouldn’t there be a kettle whistling for the velifol tea? How in brewin’ blazes are they going to defend Rose House against Campion and the Lady?
Charlotte slowly slips her hand beneath Liam’s to free his fingers from her hair. Still too many cuts and burns for her liking on his calloused skin. The Lady’s claws must have struck near his neck, where angry red inflammation peeks out from under Liam’s white tunic. The leather brace for his blood dagger seems to restrict the rise and fall of Liam’s chest, so Charlotte holds her hand up to Liam’s mouth and nose, and feels fitful breaths. Dreaming, maybe.
The teeniest, teeniest bit of space buffers her palm and his lips. She could close that space. Not, not too much: Charlotte’s thumb caresses Liam’s upper lip. Just once. It’d be nice to know his lips feel… oh yes, they feel so very different when not covered by musty facial hair. A dull violet glow emanates from just beneath Liam’s chair: the stone from Orna’s ring. Charlotte bends forward, chin on the floor, eyes almost crossing as she gazes deep into such a simple little thing, like marble, opaque with an inner shine. That shine’s got a power even Arlen doesn’t wanna touch. We better hide this, House, before a nasty Incomplete snatches it from Liam. She poises her thumb behind the stone, sticks out her tongue as she aims, and with a flick, the stone rolls into a little hole in the wall beneath the stained glass window. One eyeblink later, and the hole’s gone. Eight ball in the corner pocket. Thanks, House.
Time to find Arlen.
Charlotte hugs herself against the chilly summer morning as her feet pad softly down the corridor into the kitchen. No Arlen, no Dorjan.
Morning air clings to the Rose House’s walls, wary. Scared.
“House, where are they?”
A moment of silence. Then voices and distant footfalls: the third floor. But not Arlen or Dorjan: the gravelly voice booming orders has got to be Devyn, leading the other scouts to harvest the velifol flowers.
So Charlotte checks the patio. It did sound like the uncle and nephew went outside last night. Maybe they’re harvesting mint, or parsley, or whatever it is they use for pies—Charlotte never really paid attention to the cooking stuff. “Arlen?” She cups her hands to yell, “Dorjan!” Frost glitters upon the flowers beneath Rose House’s shadow, but under Charlotte’s feet the frost feels different.
It’s not melting.
And there is a rhythm.
Squeaks run through the silent halls and out into the kitchen: Poppy as her mouse self, scared.
“What’s going on?” Charlotte asks as Poppy changes before her. Though I think I can guess.
“Danger, Miss Charlotte, Danger!” Poppy says before her whiskers have the chance to vanish. “Terrible, terrible things below. Campion and the Lady, they got all juiced up and stronger than before and they’re just totally super angry, and they wanna get the Incomplete meanies up here, and they wanna just, they wanna, oh, they wanna—”
“Retaliate.” The human version of Ember lands on a patio chair, feathers not fully transformed into orange patchwork fabric. Her skin reflects the early morning sun from the hall window, turning her white with the frost. “Something’s helped the Lady regain her strength. Eating an Incomplete, perhaps, heart’s fire knows, but she’s moving through the tunnels, and Campion’s at her side,” she says, her voice cracking under her former friend’s name.
“So Devyn’s getting the scouts to take the velifol?”
Distant thunder rumbles under a blue sky. Then Charlotte realizes the thunder’s not from above. Oh. Shit. “Arlen and Dorjan, where are they?”
Ember’s voice remains smooth, but biting her lip doesn’t hide the trembling of her chin. “Not in Rose House, we’ve looked. The wolf kin can protect Arlen, I’m sure.”
Charlotte nods, but this idea of the Lady of the Pits somehow getting out again and acquiring new power despite Liam slicing her face off and taking that magic violet stone from her ring…. How the hell does she find more power inside a bunch of tunnels? And Campion’s bones were broken to bits. Something is wrong, way too damn wrong. “Okay. You’re right. They can take care of themselves.” Because to say it out loud makes it feel more possible, more true. She will not allow her body to shake as Poppy’s does, even And Poppy’s shaking only makes it worse with the thunder rippling through the ground again, this time upsetting the patio stones. She will not let the fear freeze her as frost does a flower.
Ember nods curtly. “We must hope Master Liam’s tree withstands the attack. Come, Poppy, we need to carry what we can.”
Poppy grabs Charlotte’s arm. “But we can’t leave Miss Charlotte! She’s my bestest friend, and she’s so nice, and she could come with us and be super helpful and—”
But Charlotte shoves Poppy towards Ember. “No, stay together. I’ll get out with Liam.”
“She is right, Poppy.” Feathers tuft through Ember’s neck and hands. “Upstairs.”
Another rumble. A patio chair topples.
Poppy gulps a breath, then two, then takes off, changing as she goes.
Ember takes a steadying breath. “You will hide,” she turns to Charlotte, “won’t you?”
Well what do you know. She kinda actually cares about the human in these here parts. A little. Maybe.
The frost thickens, latching onto Charlotte’s toes. “Long enough to see what that snake bitch’s hatched, yeah.” Another rumble bumps them both up and down. “You go, the House’n’I will buy you some time.”
Ember’s exhale mingles with the cloud of ash and feather already taking shape round her body. “We’re going to the far side of Lake Aranina. It is hopefully too far for the misshapen limbs of the Incomplete to run.”
“Far side, got it.”
Arms are wings, legs are shrinking. “Let us hope your luck carries us all through this day.” The orange bird soars up, plucks something from the rooftop, and darts south for the lake and beyond.
Ashes touch the air.
And a cackle.
A shriek, far and away.
Two entrances out of the Pits, both unlocked. One out in the woods.
And one inside Rose House.
“Liam!” Charlotte slams the patio door, locks it—idiot, it’s fucking glass—and bolts for the library.
Liam has yet to move, eyes closed, breath still slow.
“Liam you have to wake up!” Charlotte shakes him, cups his cheeks, brings her face close—dammit, this isn’t time for that, so she slaps his cheek. “Liam!” She yells in his ear.
Pounding, pounding below her feet.
They are coming.
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