By McKenzie Rae All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Horror

Maggie & Max

MOST of the story she tells is accurate. She only left out the irrelevant bits, like the fact that her right hand occasionally performs magical parlor tricks without her consent.

“That is the biggest load of bologna I have ever heard,” declares Chelle.

“But it’s true,” Lela defends her timidly. Chelle snorts with a healthy dose of skepticism.

“I don’t doubt that some of it is true, but you weren’t present for ninety percent of the story. So theoretically, Maggie could claim that a chain-smoking unicorn came flying out of Annabelle’s lady parts, and you wouldn’t be able to confirm or deny it!”

Lela visibly wilts under the criticism.

“Come on, Chelle,” Fitz interjects. “Lela’s a pretty reliable witness.”

“Which is what makes the story compelling,” she retorts. “Every good lie is based on a pinch of truth. Great lies merely take the truth and tailor it. Are we just going to ignore what Leon told us?”

“Are we actually going to believe what Leon told us?” Luke counters. “Like you said, he could just be tailoring the truth to fit his agenda.” Chelle looks ready to throw up her hands in exasperation and be done with them all.

“Max,” she turns to her fellow Fighter with beseeching eyes. “Back me up here.”

Maggie tenses, fully expecting Max to do just that and go for her jugular. He hesitates though, appearing confused and uncertain. What happened to the aggressively opinionated Pit Fighter from twelve hours ago?

“I think,” he says haltingly, “that we should focus our efforts on turning this situation in our favor. We need to change the rules of Leon’s game in a way that not only gives us an advantage but also keeps him engaged.” A suggestion that is surprisingly strategic coming from Max whose usual strategy, as far as Maggie can tell, is to hit his opponent until he or she ceases to move.

“Great,” says Fitz looking just as puzzled as Maggie feels. “So, how do we do that?” Everyone looks to Max for him to elaborate, but he shrugs seeming out of his depth.

“I don’t know. I didn’t plan that far ahead.”

Then all eyes go to Maggie. Right, because it’s her job to fix everybody’s problems even though no one genuinely trusts her. It takes only a second to push all of the rancorous thoughts to the back of her mind. She has to remind herself that they all share a common problem at the moment, so solving their issues is really in her best interest.

“We’ll separate them,” she says after a few moments deep in thought. “I can lure Leon away from the rest of the group. If Rush is really on our side like Max and Chelle think he is, then you guys might have a chance at taking out their Pit Fighters.”

“That is a big if,” says Fitz, nervously scratching his neck.

“How are you going to get him alone?” Max asks her.

Maggie squares her jaw resolutely. “I’ll tell him to meet me in the old barn. Leon will take the bait. He won’t be able to resist.”

Max doesn’t have as much confidence in this plan as Maggie does. For all of their sakes, he hopes that she knows what she is doing. He follows her upstairs and into Tilda’s bedroom. The others remain downstairs keeping watch, except for Lela who is unsure what to do with herself.

“We used to do this all the time,” Maggie mumbles. Max figures she must be talking to herself since he has no idea what she is going on about. “She must still have it,” Maggie continues as she rummages through Tilda’s possessions. “It’s not like she ever threw anything out. Ah, here it is!”

Maggie plucks a paper butterfly from the top shelf of Tilda’s vanity. She turns to Max and holds the butterfly in the palm of her hand. It flutters its paper wings experimentally before settling back down. He stares at it, trying to see it as something other than an animated piece of origami.

“What’s that supposed to do?”

Maggie stares at the butterfly, lost in thought. She startles at the sound of his voice and then glances down at it. “This is how Tilda and I communicated when we were meant to be sleeping. Here, watch.”

She brings the butterfly to her lips and whispers something to it. The butterfly then jumps from her palm, the sound of thin paper flapping filling the air. It lands softly on the back of Max’s hand and spreads its wings.

Hello, Max, is scrawled in neat handwriting across the inside of the butterfly’s wings. I’ll send a message to Leon this way. He will know who it’s from. Since it looks like I’m sending a message in secret, he might assume that I’ve gone against the wishes of the group and am giving myself up.

Max only allows himself five seconds to marvel at this inventive mode of communication. Then he shakes the paper butterfly from his hand unceremoniously and watches it sail back to Maggie. She seems annoyed by his callous treatment of an object she obviously has fond memories of. Maggie frowns at him.

“I know you don’t have any faith in me,” she says, “but I also know that this is going to work.”

“Actually, in this instance, I do have faith in you.” Taken aback, the frown slips from her face. Max goes on. “Leon clearly hates you, and I think that could cloud his judgement.”

“So, you’re not going to try to strong-arm me into relinquishing control of this?”

Max shrugs stiffly. He wants to wrest control from the House Pet, wants to tie up all the loose ends himself. He hates to admit it, but maybe Luke was right. Maybe when it comes to Leon, Maggie knows better than all of them.

She sends the message to Leon, carried by fragile paper butterfly wings. Now there is nothing to do but wait for his response.

Max sits in one of the uncomfortable chairs in the parlor watching Maggie pace back and forth while the others eat a light lunch. When Fitz suggested they eat, Max didn’t even bother following them to the pantry. Rations hardly seem to matter anymore.

Currently, everyone is munching on slop sandwiches and the little produce they have left. They have even fewer fruits and veggies than Max originally thought. So many of their provisions had not been very fresh even when he first took stock, but their food seems to be going bad alarmingly fast. If he didn’t know better, he would say someone had tampered with it.

Despite his suspicions, Max supposes that they are lucky Maggie found slop meat in the freezer to supplement their diet. Otherwise they would have run into a food shortage much sooner.

Maggie abruptly ceases her pacing as the paper butterfly sails through an open window and alights on the palm of her hand, opening its wings. Maggie bows her head, reading quickly. Her shoulders go stiff, and she raises her eyes, inclining her head to the group. Her green eyes briefly find Max before looking away.

She appears ready to face whatever Leon has in store for her when a crack and a spark cause her to jump. Max’s eyes widen as an orange ember catches the tip of the paper butterfly’s wing, and the tiny creature goes up in flames.

Maggie is afraid.

She doesn’t enjoy giving Leon any concessions, but in this moment she is truly terrified of the faery.

The surrounding woods are completely silent. She passes by the place where Tilda made lilacs bloom in autumn; she goes by the spot where Leon broke her fingers and wrist; she passes the place where she knows, just twenty some feet off the path, are the child-sized graves of a brother and sister named Toulouse and Eleanor.

And then she arrives at the barn. She almost died here once. Perhaps this is where Death is destined to greet her.

It isn’t until Maggie has already left for the Pit that it suddenly dawns on Max what Rush intends to do. Why would he need necromancy and Annabelle’s DNA in order to “paint a target on Leon’s back” as he put it? All the blood drains from his face, and his heartbeat picks up speed.

“Uh oh.”

The others all whip their heads to look at him. Chelle narrows her eyes. It’s clear she feels like he betrayed her when he seemingly took Maggie’s side over hers, which is stupid but there’s no time to argue with her.

“What do you mean uh oh?” she demands.

“Leon and Annabelle’s dead kids,” he says. The more he thinks about it, the more certain he is. “Rush is going to raise them from the dead!” The others just look at him like he’s lost his mind. Right, they were asleep for that tête-à-tête.

Chelle jabs her finger in his direction. “And what exactly makes you think he would—” which is all she is able to say before an explosion rocks the farmhouse.

She waits for him inside the barn on the other side of the Pit. The cage doors are open right down the middle, exposing the black hole in the center of the barn. Maggie only feels a little better having the Pit in between her and the door. Not long after her arrival, she hears the hinges creak and groan. The pigeons in the rafters have only just resettled after she disturbed them; now they coo and ruffle their feathers in indignation.

The bleachers block her view, but she knows it’s Leon.

Her pulse races erratically. Maggie locks her jaw, feels her teeth grind. She can’t show him any fear. One hint of weakness, any leeway at all, and he wins.

Dust swirls toward her as his muted footsteps come closer. Leon rounds the bleachers, his face oddly expressionless. The last time she saw a look like that, he was about to drop her from the loft window. His light brown hair is sweaty and matted with dirt from spending the night sleeping on the ground. It may be the first time she has seen him appear so unkempt. The sight is strangely reassuring.

“Do you want to play a game with me?” she says in a steady voice. If Maggie didn’t know any better, she would think she is teasing him. “We could have fun together.”

The expressionless mask cracks, and Leon smirks. “I don’t think you and I have the same idea of fun.”

“That’s a shame,” she remarks blithely. “You might be surprised. I think my tastes have vastly shifted since the last time we had this conversation.”

“Have they now?” Leon takes a step forward. Maggie mimics him, attempting to use the Pit as a barrier. In this manner, they circle each other. “Because it doesn’t seem that way to me. You’re here to sacrifice yourself so you can be the hero, which then makes me the villain. Just like always.”

“I thought you were under the impression that I was a murderer.”

Leon scoffs. “Just a suggestion for dramatic effect. You and I both know that you’re no killer.”

“You sound awfully confident. Bet you would feel really silly if you were wrong.” Maggie is careful not to make her statement very definitive. For such ambiguous creatures, faeries have a keen sense for truth and deception. Leon shakes his head, disappointed.

“You can’t play mind games with me, not when it’s just the two of us.”

The hair on Maggie’s arms and the nape of her neck prickle. It feels like Leon has sent something crawling under her skin. “Then why agree to meet me here, if not to play mind games? Isn’t that what you like to do?”

The smirk falls off his face, as if it’s not worth the effort of keeping up the façade. He’s sporting that blank expression once more. “Generally speaking, I do enjoy mind games,” he confirms. “But that’s not what I want. I came here to do this.”

She barely has a moment to catch her breath before Leon leaps into the Pit and climbs out on the other side. In less than ten seconds, he is looming over her. Maggie staggers back, but Leon lunges forward and seizes her by the throat. Inhumanly strong fingers squeeze the underside of her jaw.

Maggie’s green eyes are wide with fear as Leon studies her with an icy, impenetrable gaze. He wears a mask that betrays no emotion, no empathy. He is not even overcome by sick anticipation for whatever torturous, gruesome death he must have in store for her. He flexes his fingers, and his tongue briefly flicks out to wet his lower lip.

“I have been dying to scratch this itch for quite some time.”

Another explosion follows the first. Max and the others run to the parlor windows and peer outside. Smoke billows up around the porch, and multicolored flames lick the grass, fire that appears deadly and black around the edges.

“They’re setting off our booby-traps,” Fitz blurts in surprise.

“We need to get out of the house,” says Chelle.

“Or we’ll get trapped inside,” Max agrees.

Luke springs into action, grabbing a trembling and pale Lela and pushes her out of the parlor and toward the kitchen. Chelle gathers the remaining bombs, and Max grabs their weapons. They stop in the foyer. Luke pulls Lela behind him and looks out the narrow window set in the door. He glances back at Max.

“Give me something.” Max passes him a dagger and a tire iron. Luke turns to Lela and hands her the dagger. “Stick by one of us,” he instructs her. Then he opens the front door and steps onto the porch.

Maggie doesn’t mean to squeeze her eyes shut, but when she feels the pads of his fingers scrape against her skin, she can’t help it. If she is about to die, she does not want the last thing she sees to be the blank visage of Leon Fairchild.

A soft, warm pressure on her lips shocks her out of her fearful paralysis. Maggie’s eyes snap open as Leon leans back wiping his lips thoughtfully. He still has an unbreakable grip on her throat, but he looks less dangerous now and more confused.

“I’ve always wondered,” he says staring at the back of his hand, “how you managed to get under my skin.”

“What?” Her voice is no more than a breathless whisper. “Why would you kiss me? You hate me!”

He shrugs and drops his hand, returning his attention to her. “Love and hate are two sides of the same coin. Sometimes I have trouble differentiating. I’ve thought maybe, if I had with you what I pretended to have with Annabelle, I would be satisfied.”

“You don’t love me!” Maggie hisses. She twists her head and pushes against his arm with her good hand. “You don’t know how to love anything!” Instead of loosening his grip, she feels his fingers squeeze the base of her skull and neck tighter.

“Maybe you’re right, because I didn’t really feel anything just then. There is one thing I know without a doubt will satisfy me.” He smiles coldly at her and pulls her face close to his. “I am going to gut you and then feed your entrails to you through a straw.”

It’s now or never. Maggie’s right hand, which popped back into place the second Leon jumped into and out of the Pit, grabs a wrought iron rod meant for a headboard from her pocket and jabs it into the hollow above Leon’s hip. She knows that he feels the burn of the iron even through his shirt by the way he yelps and releases her.

He clutches his hip and then looks up at her through sweaty tendrils of brown hair. His blue eyes burn like dry ice. Before she has the chance to react, Leon shoots forward and grabs her right wrist. He towers over her, bending her back, but Maggie clings to the one weapon she has against him. Constricting her wrist tighter, he glowers at her, baring his teeth. He seems frustrated that her previously fragile bones hold fast against the onslaught of his superhuman strength.

“Well aren’t you just full of surprises,” he laughs, breathing heavily through his nose. “Now where did you find iron of all things?”

The breath he releases turns misty white. Their struggle pauses, almost comically, as they both stare at the space between them where their breaths are suddenly turning to fog in the humid September air.

“Are you doing that?” Maggie pants. Leon shakes his head, apprehension tainting the malicious grin on his face. Neither of them has noticed until now, but the barn has gone from muggy and hot to frigid.

Behind the bleachers, the barn door creaks open, and a child giggles.

The first attacker to come at them is a Fighter named Gunner. He makes a beeline for Fitz, knocking him flat on his back in what must be record time. A second later, Max spots a blur of motion that is Farah take a flying leap at Luke as she twirls twin daggers narrowly missing his neck. He sees movement in his peripheral vision and ducks, but not fast enough to avoid the blow altogether.

A fist sheathed in metal glances off his ear. Max stumbles but breaks his fall by desperately grabbing the handrail on the porch steps. His vision goes all topsy-turvy, and the inside of his skull rings loud, disorienting him. Before Max can stand to his feet, a boot connects with his ribs, knocking the wind out of him. He doubles over again but lashes out with one of the knives he kept for himself, hoping to at least land a hit on his opponent’s ankles.

Without any warning, the other Fighter grunts and staggers away from Max.

Now he can see that it’s Matthew who was beating the tar out of him. The tall, lanky Fighter currently has a bolt protruding from stomach. This time, Max hears the whoosh of air being spliced as Matthew gets hit by a second bolt. It burrows into the middle of his chest. A quick glance back at the porch reveals Chelle with her crossbow taking shots at Gunner and Farah as well. The bag of Molotov bombs sits behind her, unused since their opponents are in such close proximity.

Max hurriedly takes stock of the changelings in their group. Luke appears to be doing well, his only visible injuries being cuts and a few blooming bruises. Chelle’s crossbow is apparently quite the deterrent as no one has tried to approach her yet. Fitz looks like he took the worst beating. He is just barely standing, swaying on his feet. The left leg of his jeans is torn and has a sizable blood stain on it, and his right arm hangs at an odd angle. If not for Chelle, he would probably be dead already. There is one notable absence, though.

Lela is nowhere to be seen.

She could be wrong, but Maggie thinks the temperature in the barn seems to be steadily dropping. A shadow darts across one wall accompanied by the sound of a child’s laughter.

“What is this?” Leon growls, his eyes roving all over the barn. Maggie tries to say something, but she can’t make her mouth or any other part of her body do what she wants it to do. Never has she felt such a deep, all-encompassing fear.

“Rock-a-bye baby,” sings a small, warbled voice. “On the treetop.” It looks like the shadow is the one whispering in a little girl’s voice. Maggie’s mouth becomes dry as a desert.

The last time she heard that lullaby it came from Annabelle’s exhausted lips. No, Maggie shakes her head. It can’t be. Both children are dead.

A second shadow creeps out of a dark corner of the barn. “Daddy never came to see us,” hisses a boy’s voice.

“When the wind blows,” the girl croons, “the cradle will rock.” A chill grips Maggie as the first shadow slithers toward her along the ground. It inches closer becoming more and more defined. Half corporeal fingers claw at the ground, razor sharp at the tips.

“Maggie, what is going on?” In any other situation, she would marvel at the fact that Leon sounds genuinely frightened.

“I don’t know!” she whispers. Maggie staggers away from the shadow approaching her.

“When the bow breaks, the cradle will fall.” The shadow swirls like inky smoke as it coils, ready to strike.

“Don’t you want us, Daddy?” the boy asks. The half-formed shadow darts closer to Leon. He holds his arms out, trying to keep the specter at bay.

“And down will come baby…”

The feeling that her life is about to end is not unfamiliar to Maggie. Her heart beats so fast that it doesn’t seem to be beating at all; time speeds up and slows down at random; her mind steps away from the controls and lets her body attempt to save her all on its own.

Her legs realize what is about to happen before her brain does. Maggie jumps into the Pit, ignoring the ladder in favor of the more expedient route, just as both shadows leap forward claws extended. The girl’s shadow slashes where Maggie’s face would have been. She feels her shirt sleeve tear, and a stinging, burning pain engulfs her left shoulder. She then hits the ground at the bottom of the Pit. The fall jars her ankles, knees, and hips, but it’s nothing compared to the cut on her shoulder.

Maggie shuts her eyes tightly and leans against the edge of the Pit. Sweat pours down her back and coats her forehead, dripping into her eyes even though the barn is freezing cold. She sweats and shivers, unsure if she needs to cool off or warm up.

Inhuman shrieking rents the air followed by the sound of flesh being ripped asunder. And then Leon begins to scream.

“Looking for something?”

Immediately Gunner and Farah back off. Matthew lies on the ground taking shuddering breaths and moving as little as possible. Standing in the driveway are Chaz, Hank, Dorothy, and Kayla. Trapped in Kayla’s arms with a knife pressed to the underside of her chin is Lela. Chelle gives an annoyed little hum but lowers her weapon.

“That’s more like it,” says Hank.

Rapidly, Max does another headcount. Of the ten Fighters Leon and Rush had with them, there are only seven of them that he can see. One of the Fighters is dead; Leon said as much the other night. So there should be two more Fighters in the mix. But where are they? They could have accidentally been killed while they were springing the explosive booby-traps all over the yard, or they could be lying in wait somewhere.

“Sorry!” Lela whimpers. She looks like she is on the verge of hyperventilating.

“It’s not your fault, Lela,” Luke assures her calmly.

“Yes it is,” Max and Chelle both mutter under their breath.

“Drop your weapons and step away,” Hank orders, “or Kayla shish-kabobs the House Pet.” Luke complies instantly, using his free hands to prop up Fitz. Max frowns but lets his knife fall to the grass.

“I’m pretty sure that taking a hostage is against the rules,” says Chelle. Max snorts. As if this is a match in the Pit where rules apply.

Thinking along the same lines, Hank shrugs. “So is the use of a long-range weapon, but you don’t hear us complaining.”

Max eyes Matthew gasping, groaning, and gurgling on the grass. “Bet Matt would if he could.” It looks like the Fighter is struggling to breathe properly, and Max wonders if one of those bolts punctured a lung.

Hank focuses on something past Chelle on the porch.

“We caught them without killing them, just like you wanted. Not sure why that was so important, especially since their half-baked bombs took out Riley, Gretchen, and Marv. Now what?”

Max snaps his head back to look over his shoulder so fast that he thinks he might give himself whiplash. Lounging on the other side of the porch is Rush. He leans against the railing surveying the scene. How and when did he sneak up behind them?

“Now,” he says seriously, “you run.”

Hank and the others blink and look at each other in confusion. Dorothy points to herself and the others. “Us?”

Rush waffles his head back and forth and puts his hands out to the side, as if to say: Yeah you, why not? Then he declares, “I decided I like them better.” He points his thumb in the general direction of Luke and Fitz. Chaz furrows his brow.

“But then why would you tell us to…”

“Because Leon was standing right next to me.” Rush smiles. “Had to keep up appearances. Tell you what.” He holds his arm up and consults his wrist, which would make more sense if he was wearing a watch. Max sighs. Now is so not the time for theatrics.

“I will give you guys a thirty-minute head start,” he concludes. “Oh, but leave Lela. I think I’m going to keep her.”

Chaz, Hank, Dorothy, Kayla, Farah, and Gunner gape at Rush. For a moment or two, it’s as if they are unable to comprehend or believe what he is saying.

Rush raises his eyebrows and taps his imaginary wristwatch. “Tick tock. Tick tock.”

This shocks them into motion. All of them except for Matthew turn tail and sprint into the forest. Kayla roughly shoves Lela to the gravel driveway, nicking her throat with the blade of her knife in her hurry to escape.

Once they are gone, Max falls to the ground, hurt and exhausted. He watches Rush jog down the steps. The faery stops at Matthew first. He stoops down and pulls the bolts from the changeling’s body. Each one pops out with a sickening squelch. He takes a Swiss Army knife from his pocket, slices his palm open, and then presses his bloody hand into the Matt’s wounds.

“Chelle! Come put pressure on these. It’ll take a minute or two for the bleeding to stop completely,” he says when he’s done. Then Rush moves on to Fitz. He and Luke lay him on the ground, and Rush repeats the process, telling Luke the same thing he told Chelle. And then he walks over to Max. The faery crouches and takes Max’s throbbing head in his cool hands with a surprising amount of gentleness.

“Are you aware that a piece of your ear is flapping like a windsock?” he asks, amused.

“Thank you for bringing it to my attention,” Max snarls. Then he smells smoke and something charred and sweet like burnt sugar. A shot of adrenaline has him sitting bolt upright. “The fire!” he gasps.

Rush only chuckles. “Don’t worry,” he says. His voice softens significantly. “I redirected the fires and hopefully put them all out. Nobody is in immediate danger from them. Now relax, and we’ll get you patched up.”

The faery cuts his hand again and then touches Max’s torn ear. For two seconds, the contact stings unbearably, but then he feels an intense warmth that drowns out the pain. Once his ear no longer hurts, Max can feel his skin knitting itself back together.

He observes Rush move on to the less life threatening injuries on Luke, Chelle, and Lela. After he’s finished, he instructs them to wait here until he returns. When Chelle asks where he is going, Rush replies, “I’m off to fetch Maggie. I hope Leon’s been nice to her, but I tend to doubt it.”

It’s the last thing Max hears as he drifts into unconsciousness.

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