Changeling

By McKenzie Rae All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Horror

Rush & Max

THE acrid stench of gasoline and burnt sugar permeates the air. Glowing flames that shift from orange to green to blue to pink and then back to orange again leap across the fence surrounding the front and backyard, and then the fire slithers up into the trees.

A booted foot lands in front of Rush, bubbling and sizzling.

He and Leon, along with the ten Pit Fighters they took to the exhibition, arrived home about twelve minutes ago. They avoided the main road and the driveway, but apparently the changelings inside the farmhouse took that into consideration.

Rush kicks at the severed foot, turning it over. He thinks the boot belonged to a Fighter called Riley, but he would have to do a headcount to be positive that Riley is indeed the unfortunate changeling who first vaulted over the fence.

“Well,” he says cheerfully. “That was unexpected.”

The fire illuminates his older brother’s pale face in a hellish light. A burning branch overhead suddenly breaks off and falls, a fiery torch in the fading light of dusk. It catches Leon on the shoulder. With a look of fury and disgust, his brother brushes the flaming branch from his sweater, as if it’s nothing more than a loathsome insect. The second his fingers touch the wood, the branch is encased in ice, effectively smothering the flames.

It makes Rush think of that Robert Frost poem: “Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice…” How appropriate. He giggles a little on the inside.

Leon fixes Rush with an icy glare. “You failed to mention that they made a bomb,” he accuses. Rush merely shrugs.

“At the time, they hadn’t.” Here, he holds up a finger, calling for his brother’s attention. “Although, if they did only create one bomb, this is a rather arbitrary place to put it. And not a very large bomb, at that.”

“So, we’re potentially standing in a minefield.” Leon clenches his jaw and glares at the house through the smoke.

“Should we do something about the fire before it spreads?” inquires one of the Fighters. Rush turns and sees Farah eyeing the fence and the trees that have caught fire. He nods and places his hand on the trunk of a burning rock elm tree. He feels the particles of faery dust burning through the wood and gasoline. Rush could do what Leon did, reversing the faery dust’s current trajectory, turning the particles to ice. But Rush has never been as straightforward as his brother. Instead, he molds the faery dust particles and the colorful flames into harmless fireflies.

“Showoff,” Leon mutters. Rush smirks.

“We might want to limit the magic use after this,” he advises as he puts out another fire that has eaten an enormous hole through the fence. “We don’t know if they made more bombs or where they put them. One wrong move or spell and we may inadvertently blow ourselves to kingdom come.”

Leon nods, for once in agreement with his younger brother. “They used faery dust,” he gripes. Faery dust is notoriously finicky, especially when mixed with something as flammable as gasoline. The changelings are lucky they didn’t blow themselves up while making the bombs. “Great,” Leon spits. “Now what do we do?” He poses the question more to himself than to his brother, but Rush decides to voice his opinion anyway.

“Now we negotiate.”

Leon sends him a look that Rush has christened the Sidelong Stare of Stupidity. He is only on the receiving end of this look when he does or says something that Leon deems unequivocally moronic. “What is the purpose of negotiating with changelings, oh brother mine?”

Rather than go on the defensive, Rush grins.“We give them what appears to be a way out, conditionally of course.”

Leon’s eyes alight with comprehension. Rush may be quicker on the draw, but Leon is certainly not stupid.

“And we let them tear each other apart.” Leon’s cheeks dimple as a wicked smile appears on his face.

“Their alliance is already fragile and cracked,” Rush continues. “If we crank up the heat, it won’t take much pressure to break it.”

Leon claps his brother on the back. “My apologies for doubting you.”

“Don’t mention it,” Rush replies with a sly grin.


The six changelings stand frozen in the kitchen. Maggie is the first to spring into action, prompting the others to do the same. She weaves her way expertly through the house, leading them to a sparse, dusty parlor. Max guesses the Fairchilds haven’t entertained in a while.

Maggie sidles up to a window and pushes back the curtain enough to peek outside. Max goes to another window and does the same. The windows look onto the back porch. Beyond the porch and across the backyard is a blazing fire that glows and pulses as it eats away at the fence and nearby trees.

“Raccoon isn’t out of the running yet,” Fitz whispers hopefully.

As if on cue, the fires blink out of existence one at a time leaving behind nothing but clouds of smoke. The sky suddenly seems to have grown darker casting the backyard and the surrounding forest into shadow. A silhouette steps through the newly formed hole in the fence. Another silhouette follows it and then another, until there are eleven figures standing in a cluster on the edge of the lawn. However, they make no move to come any closer to the house.

“Still think it’s a raccoon?” he says to Fitz.

One of the shadows steps forward. “Little pigs, little pigs.” Leon’s taunting voice is slightly muffled by the wall and the distance in between them. “Let us come in.”

Off to his left, Max hears, “Not by the hairs on my chinny-chin-chin.”

“Shut up, Fitz!” he hisses.

“We just want to talk,” Leon simpers. “You don’t even have to come outside. Just prop a window.”

Max turns and meets Chelle’s one-eyed gaze. She nods and grabs Luke. The two disappear from the parlor to retrieve the weapons and the Molotov bombs.

Fitz, for all his faults, is never one to shy away from a challenge. He edges past Maggie and flips the latch on the window, pushing the glass open a crack.

“Be careful what you say,” she warns. He winks at her and then presses his nose and cheek to the glass.

“What’s up, guys? How’s it hangin’?”

Max smacks himself in the forehead, and he hears Maggie sigh. Ladies and gentlemen, Fitz the Comedian.

“You just sent one of my prize Fighters sky high, exploding into a thousand pieces. How do you think it’s hangin’?” Already, Leon sounds significantly less amiable.

“Well, they didn’t blow him up completely,” a second shadowy figure chimes in. It sounds like Rush. “Most of him is still here. I’m sure in the morning we’ll find the rest of him up in a tree somewhere.”

And introducing, Rush Fairchild the Wise Guy. Thank you ladies and gents, we’ll be here all week! He shakes his head. The first silhouette, Leon, elbows the second dark figure, which Max assumes is his brother.

“We have a proposition for you.” Leon’s voice rings with a deceptive innocence.

A proposition. Max’s heart throbs painfully in his chest. Accepting a proposal from Leon Fairchild feels like the worst life choice anyone could ever make. The silence is stretched out until Fitz shouts out the window again.

“Go on, we’re listening! What’s the deal?”

“Why punish all of you when only one person is responsible?” The glee in his voice tells Max that Leon would have no qualms punishing everyone. In fact, he would probably enjoy it. “Send out the one responsible for the deaths of my family, and let them face judgment alone. Do that and you have my word the rest of you will walk away without a scratch on you.”

“Hate to break it to you,” replies Fitz, “but the one responsible is already dead. Annabelle committed suicide.”

For a minute Leon says nothing. Then, ever so slowly, he laughs. It takes him a minute, but once he composes himself, Leon’s dark form wipes at his eyes. “For the sake of argument,” he says, bemused, “let’s say that the Annabelle-lost-her-marbles theory is not as accurate as you seem to believe.”

At this, Max’s eyes automatically dart to Maggie. One beam of pale moonlight shines through the curtain, exposing half her face. She stands still as a marble statue, barely even breathing.

“Think it over,” he says. “You have until dawn before my offer comes off the table. Oh, and if you’re having trouble deciding who to interrogate first,” Leon adds as an afterthought, “may I suggest you start with Luke.”

Max blinks in surprise. His mind is reeling, unsure what to think as Leon, Rush, and their nine remaining Fighters march back through the hole in the fence and disappear into the woods.

As soon as they are certain that Leon and his small army are not returning, they all sit down on the stiff, dusty furniture in the parlor.

“Anybody else think it was weird that Leon sounded pissed about losing a Fighter but not so much about the murder of his entire family?” Fitz says. He sits on a chair that he dragged over to a window where he glances through the heavy curtains periodically.

“Rush was pretty even keel too when we talked to him a couple nights ago,” Chelle notes.

“So why does he want the k-killer to step forward, if he doesn’t really care?” Lela asks haltingly.

“It’s a ploy,” answers Luke. “They want us to turn on each other.”

“Funny you would say that, since you’re the one Leon called out,” Maggie says evenly and raises an eyebrow at him. It looks like Luke is about to make a counterargument, but she cuts him off. “Not that I disagree about Leon manipulating us. I’m only saying it’s curious.”

Silence, and suddenly everyone is staring at Luke. Max can’t quite believe that Luke is hiding something, but at the moment the guy looks a little bit guilty. He huffs and pats his jean-clad knees. “Okay,” he sighs. “Let’s just get this out in the open.”

Max leans forward, as do most of the changelings. He knows absolutely nothing about Luke’s past, and he doubts anyone else knows much about him either. The man is an enigma, but his presence is not mysterious enough for others to notice that he’s an enigma until they realize that they don’t even know what his favorite color is.

“I was one of the first Fighters Leon acquired,” he starts. “I knew right from the beginning that I wasn’t the biggest Fighter or the strongest or the most aggressive. It didn’t take long for others to notice as well. When they saw that I was an easier target than the stronger Fighters, some of them started to focus on me a little too much.” Luke hesitates and looks down at his hands in his lap.

“I knew I couldn’t successfully confront them in the Pit, so I took care of them outside of it.” He pauses emphatically and then says in slightly hoarse voice, “It was me or them. They would have killed me during a match otherwise. So whenever one of them began to get too bellicose with me in the Pit, I would poison their food with nightshade berries or foxglove at dinnertime. Sometimes just enough to make them sick and weak… other times I gave them enough to put them out of commission more permanently.”

Once his confession comes to a close, no one says a word. Fitz is the first to speak. “Dude, I always thought you were kind of intimidating, but I have a whole new respect for you. That is gangster!”

Chelle frowns. “But wouldn’t the berries and foxglove rot when the other Fighters ate them?”

Maggie shakes her head. “Not necessarily. Madam Fairchild and Tilda grew poisonous plants in the garden. They liked to eat poisonous food sometimes,” she explains before anyone can ask. “I don’t know why, but it’s not like it ever killed them. I imagine it probably wasn’t difficult to get someone to enchant and sneak those things to you,” she says to Luke.

“Not difficult at all. I got caught the second time I snuck out, but after that, Leon was pretty happy to offer assistance. He thought it was funny. So, now you know,” he says a little bitterly. “Still think I killed Annabelle and the Fairchilds?”

“No,” Max shakes his head. “I never thought you did.” He shifts his gaze from Luke and looks pointedly at Maggie. She glares back at him.

“Are you calling me a liar?”

“Your story has been the only story from the very beginning. Who here can back up any of your claims?”

There’s a fire blazing in Maggie’s eyes, and he just knows that if they keep going, Leon is going to get the result he was hoping for, but Max doesn’t care. He wants to rip the truth out of her even if it means they all burn.

Then everyone starts talking at once. They all try to state their opinions and make their arguments heard by shouting over one another, until Chelle manages to break through the noise.

“We’re doing exactly what he wants us to do!”

“We need to tell each other these things,” Max argues. “Otherwise, Leon can use our distrust against us.”

“Baring our souls isn’t going to make us trust each other more,” says Chelle, glancing at Lela who now looks afraid to go anywhere near Luke. “We all have skeletons in our closets, but shining a spotlight on them right now is only going to make this group less cohesive.”

“Can everybody just shut it for a minute?” Fitz snaps. He casts a worried look at Maggie. Only then does Max notice that her eyes are squeezed shut, and she painstakingly rubs her forehead. “Do you know who Robert Johnson is?” he queries in a quiet voice so as not to disturb the House Pet. He doesn’t appear to be addressing anyone of them in particular.

“Sounds familiar,” Max replies.

“He was a blues singer in the 1930s. Supposedly, he met the devil at a crossroads and sold his soul for sweet guitar moves. He died in 1938 at age twenty-seven.”

“And…” Max prompts when Fitz says no more.

“I’m just saying legend shows that, unless you have mad skills on the fiddle, deals with the devil tend not to end well.” No one argues against this or questions his comparison of Leon to Satan. Fitz continues, gesticulating with his hands. “The only reason Leon’s getting inside our heads is because, on some level, we’re actually considering his offer!

“Chelle’s right. Now’s not the time to air all of our dirty laundry. We can do that later. Right now, we have to stick together and not pick apart everybody’s deep, dark secrets. By interrogating each other, we’re playing his game.”

Max folds his arms and tries to get comfortable on a pastel, floral-patterned loveseat. As far as inspiring speeches go, it was short but not bad. Fitz’s words have the others all nodding in agreement, but Max wonders how confident they will be as the hour draws closer to sunrise.


They sleep in shifts with someone always posted at the window just in case Leon gave himself a loophole that allows him and his Fighters to cut their promised time short.

A cool breeze wafts in through the open window. Max detects a whiff of ozone, forecasting the possibility of rain in the near future. He absently taps his fingers on the arm of his chair. After they ran out of glass bottles for the bombs, they still had plenty of faery dust leftover. Not wanting to waste their most effective weapon, they devised a plan to utilize the gasoline and faery dust and set other traps around the perimeter of the house. He doesn’t know how well they will hold up in the rain, though.

The presence of crickets and cicadas mean the night is anything but quiet. Max is unsure whether this is good or bad for his senses. If the atmosphere was stifled by utter silence, then every little noise would make him jump, constantly putting him on high alert. But with all the bugs singing, he lets a lot of little noises slip by him without much thought. He can’t help but wonder every few minutes, what if one of those little noises was important and he ignored it?

Max sighs. He can’t wait for his shift to be over, because he’s beginning to feel like he’s going crazy. For example, there is a firefly across the lawn, flashing its bioluminescence in what seems like a pattern of some sort. It’s ridiculous, he knows. Max blinks and rubs his eyes. He needs to sleep.

When he looks back out the window, the firefly is still flashing light, alternating between short blinks and long blinks. Max sits up straighter. Short blinks and long blinks, like dots and dashes. There is a desk nearby, and Max scrambles through the drawers to find a pen and paper. The paper is so old that it resembles a thick, yellowed parchment. Max crosses his fingers, hoping that the pen still has ink.

He has to scratch at the parchment with the ballpoint pen a few times to get whatever ink is left flowing. As soon as the pen is once again in working order, he sets his mind to the task at hand.

It’s been a while since he practiced Morse code. Luke is actually the one who taught him. Where Luke learned it, he hasn’t the faintest idea. Quickly he realizes that it’s a succinct message repeating over and over:

WHERE BOMBS

Rush. At least, he thinks it’s Rush, but he really has no way of knowing that for certain. Now, how to reply? Max thinks he remembers Fitz horsing around with a laser pointer he found in Master Fairchild’s study a while ago. What are the odds that it’s still in his pocket? Pretty good, he concludes as he searches through Fitz’s pants pockets, being careful not to wake him. He points the laser pointer out the window and into the grass, signaling back.

NOT STUPID

He has to wait only a moment for the firefly’s reply.

WHERE BOMBS OR CANT HELP

Rush, or whoever he is talking to, has a valid point. Before responding, Max grabs one of the fire pokers and then flashes the laser pointer in the grass.

FOLLOW DOT

A shadow steps into the yard and hesitantly begins to follow the red dot through the, if not lethal, then very painful labyrinth they created across the lawn. Max drops the laser pointer once the figure reaches the porch. He grips the fire poker and brings it up by his shoulder, preparing to swing it. He almost wants it to be Leon just so he can beat the living daylights out of him.

The backdoor creaks open, and the dark figure enters the parlor, reaching for the lamp on the end table. Thankfully the bulb is dim, so the soft light doesn’t wake the others. Max meets Rush’s coal black eyes. The faery’s attention goes to the fire poker held aloft, ready to strike.

“Are you planning to hit me with that?” he whispers skeptically.

“Maybe,” Max admits. Even though he can clearly see that it’s Rush, he’s thinking about clocking him anyway. “Definitely if you were Leon.”

Rush gives a huffy little chuckle and then closes the door gently behind him. Turning around, the poor light from the table lamp gives Max a view of the faery’s bangs plastered to his damp forehead. His eyebrows shoot up.

“I think this is the first time I’ve ever seen you break a sweat.”

“Well, I did just complete the real-life version of Minesweeper,” the faery replies in a snarky tone. Rush leans forward to glance out the window. “Come on,” he says and jerks his head in the opposite direction, “let’s talk in the kitchen.” He pulls the lamp cord, shrouding the parlor in darkness again.

Rush moves swiftly and silently through the halls of his home. He is so stealthy that Max doesn’t immediately notice when he comes to a halt. He has to brace his hands on Rush’s shoulder blades to keep his nose from smashing into the faery’s spine. The click of a light switch tells Max that they’ve reached their destination.

The light in the kitchen is bright, sterile almost. It makes his eyes water. Rush doesn’t give him any time to recover, whirling around to question him.

“What’s your plan?”

“Plan?” Max croaks and shields his eyes.

Rush sighs, flaring his nostrils and pinching the bridge of his nose. Once again, Max is reminded of Maggie.

“You don’t have a plan.” It’s a statement rather than a question. “Okay,” he says, “think of this like you would a match in the Pit. It’s a game, and how do you win a game?”

“You don’t play the game, you play your opponent,” Max recites. Rush nods.

“Precisely. You have to understand your opponent’s motives, what drives them. For instance, Leon isn’t going to kill you out of a sense of vengeance. He’s going to kill you guys because you made him look foolish. So, trying to use death as an emotional tool is going to be ineffective.”

“Yeah,” Max interjects. “We noticed that you and Leon aren’t very emotional about your family at all. What’s up with that?”

Rush’s eyes become wider, and he blinks as if he is just now realizing that he should be emotional. “I guess I’m a little sad,” he says looking a bit confused. “But me being sad isn’t going to do them any good, and it for sure won’t do me any good.”

The faery rolls his shoulders like he’s sloughing off a second skin, and just as suddenly as it appeared, that tiny sliver of vulnerability is gone.

“Back to Leon. I get that you guys are reluctant to take on more than you can handle, but you cannot let Leon become bored or too frustrated. Otherwise, he’ll throw this little game out the window and simply lash out at you, regardless of how many Fighters he has to sacrifice.”

“Are you saying that we should take that ludicrous deal he offered us?” he asks in disbelief.

Rush snorts and rolls his eyes. “No, because then the game would be over, and you would lose. You need to find some way to switch up the rules so they’re in your favor.”

“Gee, thanks for the vague advice Mother Goose. But how exactly are we supposed to do that?”

He shrugs and looks around the room distractedly. “No idea, but I’m sure you guys will think of something. I can’t do all the work. That’s not the only reason I’m here, though. I need a piece of Annabelle.”

The abrupt change of subject throws Max for a loop. “What?” He thinks he just heard Rush ask for a piece of Annabelle.

“I need a piece of Annabelle,” he repeats. Okay, so Max did hear him correctly. “A piece of her DNA. I know you probably ditched the body, so a strand of her hair will do.” His cool fingers grip Max by the elbow. “Follow me,” he says, as if he’s giving him a choice, and turns off the light.

Rush’s skin is chilly and dry, sending a shiver through Max’s bones. All of a sudden, the faery stops and opens a door that blends almost seamlessly with the wallpaper. He has only been through this door once before. The spiral staircase plunges down into absolute blackness devoid of any moonlight to guide them.

Rush moves forward, tugging on Max’s arm, but his feet refuse to budge. He’s never been fond of basements, ever since a tornado tore through his hometown, trapping him, his little sister, and his mom in their basement for hours listening to the torrential winds outside until eventually the danger passed.

He hears a click as Rush grabs the flashlight positioned the shelf just inside the stairwell. He points the beam of light directly in Max’s face. Squinting, he ducks out of the beam. Rush’s black eyes glitter, and his mouth twists into a smirk.

“Don’t tell me you’re afraid of the dark.”

Max glares at him, snatches the flashlight, and leads them down the stairs. Despite having only been down in the House Pets’ makeshift apartment once, he recalls exactly which bed is Annabelle’s. As soon as the faery joins him in the bedroom, Max relinquishes the light to Rush again and watches as he searches through Anna’s nightstand and dresser.

“Why do you need Annabelle’s hair?” he asks him.

“I’m painting a target on Leon’s back, and I need a piece of Annabelle to complete it,” Rush replies inattentively as he continues to search. “This might technically be delving into necromancy a bit, but who hasn’t blurred the lines every now and again?”

“What!” Max gapes at him. “You’re going to do dead-people magic?”

Rush gives him a look, unimpressed. “Dead-people magic. Is that the scientific definition?”

Max scowls at the faery, not in the mood for his cavalier attitude when black magic might be involved. “You know what I mean,” he accuses. “It’s, like, the kind of magic that brings people back from the dead!”

“Don’t be silly.” Rush’s back is to him, but he can picture the faery rolling his eyes. “Once you’re dead, you’re dead. There is no coming back—at least not your soul, the thing that made you… well you. However, strong emotions, feelings, memories, those you can dig up.”

Rush throws his arms out, frustrated.

“Where did she keep her hairbrush?”

With a sigh, Max shrugs. Evidently, Rush is not going to be dissuaded.

“In the bathroom maybe?”

He snaps his fingers and hurries to the changelings’ bathroom. It doesn’t take long for him to find what he’s looking for. He plucks a long reddish-blonde hair from a blue hairbrush and seals it in a plastic bag that he produces from his pocket.

“Come sunrise,” Max says, following Rush back upstairs, “how do we stall Leon long enough to change the rules like you said?”

Rush chuckles. “You won’t need to stall. Leon will give you guys a second chance to turn on each other.” He glances at Max over his shoulder. “Luke was just the bait. What Leon really wants is for you guys to rip Maggie a new one.”

“Why her?” Not that Max is a big fan of Maggie’s either, but he can’t imagine why Leon would hate her.

“My brother has an eighty-eight-year-old bone to pick with Maggie. He’s been waiting for the moment she no longer has anyone to protect her.”

Max shakes his head. “Everybody has bought into this all-for-one-and-one-for-all mentality. They won’t turn on Maggie.”

Pausing at the top of the stairs, Rush allows Max to exit the basement after him and then closes the door. Just before he turns off the flashlight, Max catches the ghost of a smile on his face.

“Yes they will,” the dark whispers back to him.


Rush is not convinced of Maggie’s guilt, but it doesn’t matter. The other changelings will lose faith in their intrepid leader as soon as Leon drops the figurative bombshell. The evidence against her is too damning. He just hopes that Maggie is smart enough to talk herself out of trouble this time.

Leon is waiting for him when he returns to their campsite.

“Well?” he says. Some of the Fighters who are still awake watch the brothers interact with a cautious inquisitiveness.

“They showed me a safe path through the lawn, but it was like walking in a maze. They’ve probably rigged the entire yard similarly.”

Leon digs his fingernails into his palms, the only outward sign of his frustration. “Okay,” he mutters. Rush can tell that he is trying to calm himself. “If they’re insistent on not cooperating with us tomorrow, we’ll spring the trap.”

“And smoke them out,” Rush finishes his brother’s thought. “If the rest of their traps are as explosive as that bomb, then they’ll be stuck inside the house while everything around them burns.”

Leon laughs quietly and then raises his hand like he’s giving a toast. “Hoisted on their own petard!” Rush smiles and pats his brother on the back, leaving Annabelle’s hair tucked under the collar of Leon’s shirt.


By morning, everyone looks ready for battle, arming themselves with real and improvised weapons. Everyone except for Lela, who hugs herself around the middle and looks like she’s trying not to be sick.

“I can’t believe we’re going to do this,” Chelle mutters and glances out the window. Max subtly bites the inside of his cheek. He is the only one who knows that they aren’t leaping into the fight of their lives just yet. Leon has one more curveball to hurl at them.

An earsplitting shout cuts through the birds’ chirping, causing the changelings to jump. “Goooood morning, Vietnam!” As soon as the echoes of Leon’s voice fade away, the air falls completely silent. The sudden quieting of the birds does not sit well with Max.

“And I thought Rush had a flair for the dramatic,” says Fitz.

“Leon is worse,” Maggie says darkly, and not for the first time in the last twenty-four hours, Max wonders what kind of history is between those two. Fitz approaches the window, which remains open from the previous night.

“Good morning, sunshine!” He sounds bright and cheerful. Then he says flirtatiously, “How did you sleep last night?”

“Better than you did, I’ll wager.” Max can see Leon’s stupid, dimpled smirk even though he and his entourage are on the other side of the yard standing along the edge of the forest. “Have you come to a decision?” he asks knowingly.

Fitz’s responding grin in nonchalant to the casual observer, but below the windowsill Max catches a glimpse of his fingers fidgeting. “Sorry to disappoint,” he says, “but we’re not going to lynch an innocent changeling just because you’re throwing a hissy fit.”

Leon bites his lip in happy anticipation. Max glances at Maggie from the corner of his eye; she looks focused but not worried. He, on the other hand, feels like he’s sweating bullets.

“What about a guilty changeling, then?”

The confusion that engulfs the parlor is palpable. They refused Leon’s ultimatum. Isn’t he supposed to attack them now? Max is the only one who knew this would happen, yet even he feels mildly befuddled. What could Leon accuse Maggie of that would convince them to cast her out?

“You say that Annabelle killed my family, but I know something you don’t.” Max’s stomach churns at Leon’s words. The faery looks positively gleeful. “Maggie had a motive. She had a reason to want the whole Fairchild clan gone for good.”

All eyes, including Max’s, turn to Maggie. She meets their gazes with a wide-eyed stare of her own. They all might have continued to stare at each other like startled deer if Leon didn’t start speaking again.

“You see, my parents and Tilda were going to have Maggie put down. They set the date for three days after they died, actually. Their reason being, she just wasn’t very good with children anymore. She snapped at Tessa, Charise, and Kane, played tricks on them. They were afraid of her. And of course, Maggie is getting a bit long in the tooth. I bet she was the one who fed you that story about Annabelle the Killer in the first place, wasn’t she?”

Fitz pulls himself away from their staring contest and yells out the window. “How do we know this isn’t just some cockamamie bull that you made up?”

Leon laughs, practically doubling over. “Because then it wouldn’t be true, and I cannot tell a lie.”

And that’s what makes it so horrible—because unless Leon concocted some brilliant way to weave this lie with the thread of veracity, then that means there’s more than a little truth to what he says.

“We’ll give you another hour to reevaluate your options,” says Rush. Once more, the two faery brothers and the nine Fighters disappear into the woods.

They all turn to Maggie. She appears stunned. “You have to believe me,” she insists. “I didn’t know!”

“So, the Fairchilds just happened to be murdered three days before they planned to send you to the chopping block?” asks Chelle sarcastically. She faces Maggie in a ready fighting stance like she’s preparing to climb down into the Pit.

“Chelle,” Luke says in warning, “remember what we agreed on last night. We’re not going to do this to each other.” Something snaps in Chelle; Max sees it in the way her good eye darts wildly back and forth, trying to decide whether she should glare daggers at Maggie or Luke.

Then she explodes.

“The whole reason we’re trapped in this foxhole of chaos is because someone killed the Fairchilds! And I’ve been around Annabelle. She was an airheaded, love struck girl who couldn’t have landed a hit on our laziest Fighter, much less hacked to death six magical faeries!”

“And I could have?!” Maggie shouts back incredulously. She steps up to Chelle, who is a good head taller than Maggie, but the House Pet doesn’t back down. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed,” she snarls and thrusts her twisted hand in Chelle’s face, “but I can’t even tie my own shoelaces!”

“But you were the one who told us that Annabelle did it,” Max says, speaking up for the first time since they all awoke. “Even Lela heard it from you.”

“I’m a heavy sleeper,” Lela interjects with a squeak. “I slept through an earthquake once, before I was here.”

“Just tell us why you were so willing to believe that Annabelle was capable of this, because that’s the part we don’t understand.”

Max can’t believe that he is turning into the voice of diplomacy, but he trusts Leon much less than he trusts Maggie. And Rush was right; Leon does despise Maggie. He could almost see the hatred radiating off of the faery when he spoke. Not only are Leon’s emotions distorted, but he’s intelligent as well. It’s entirely plausible, likely even, that he is somehow framing Maggie for something she didn’t do.

Maggie looks around at all of them, her gaze finally settling on Lela. Then she speaks: “Here’s what you must understand about Annabelle. You already know that before she shot herself, she was pregnant. Well, this wasn’t the first time.”

Lela sits on an uncomfortable chair and pulls her knees up to her chest. Maggie gives her a sympathetic look before continuing.

“Pregnancy didn’t sit well with Annabelle. It did something to her mind.” Maggie sighs and then sits on the floor by Lela’s chair. “You might want to take a seat,” she advises them. “It’s kind of a long story.”

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