THE passenger van rocks and rattles down the gravel road away from the Fairchild home and toward town. Max aches everywhere; his ear is visibly healed, but it now feels slightly itchy and throbs with a dull heat.
He sits in the back of the van, leaning his head against the window. Next to him is Lela, and on her other side sits Matthew, hunched over and rubbing the places on his body where the bolts had pierced. Chelle and Luke are in front of them, and Fitz is riding shotgun while Rush drives. There are still plenty of seats left in the van. Max imagines that Matthew probably would have liked to sit by himself, but he made the mistake of climbing into the vehicle first and Lela hadn’t hesitated in taking the seat next to him. Apparently there are no hard feelings on her part for threatening their lives earlier. On the other hand, Max feels significantly less charitable toward the other Fighter.
About seven minutes into their drive, Fitz turns on the radio and starts flipping through stations. The only one that comes in clearly is a bluegrass station. The music is soothing. Between the radio and the lulling, rocking motion of the car, Max feels his eyelids drooping.
And then a little lightbulb flickers to life in his head.
Now that he has time to think about it, this situation—them with Rush—doesn’t quite make sense. Maggie may have turned out to be fairly knowledgeable on the Fairchilds, but that doesn’t mean that he and the other Fighters know nothing. For instance, Rush is definitely less brutal than Leon but that doesn’t make him a philanthropic saint. There are at least four scars on Max’s body that may as well have Rush’s signature next to them. All of the changelings, including Matthew, are now dependent on Rush, so what’s his motivation for taking care of them?
What if this whole rescue mission revolved around Maggie from the very start? For as long as he can remember, those two have been, if not friends, then somewhat friendly at the very least. He’s even witnessed them tease each other from time to time when Maggie came down to the training yard. It wouldn’t be a giant leap to conclude that Maggie was the only changeling Rush was really concerned about saving, only rescuing the other five because Maggie would surely throw a fit if the faery left them for dead.
That then begs the question: Why would he allow her to stay behind if she was the one he truly wanted to rescue? Max glances at Rush. The faery appears to be calm and relaxed, but his knuckles are white around the steering wheel. Maybe he doesn’t intend to leave Maggie permanently. Maybe he is going to dump Lela and the Fighters somewhere and then go back for Maggie. She might be more compliant if she thinks that he’s already gotten the other changelings to safety. But where would Rush leave them? Somewhere in town, perhaps?
Max looks out the window, trying to spot any familiar landmarks. He’s only ever been to town once. It was years ago when he was first brought to the Fairchild farmhouse. Max rubs his temple and frowns. It’s been too long, and that one trip apparently wasn’t enough for him to recognize any landmarks or street names. If anyone knows the route to town besides Rush, it’s Lela—except she clearly isn’t paying attention. Her head is bobbing up and down, barely staying awake. Her body is gradually slumping to the side, and she’s practically lying on top of Matthew. The odd thing is, Matthew doesn’t seem to notice.
His attention is focused out the window as well. He frowns and turns to more fully face the woods flying by. Then Matthew sits back, looking conflicted. His eyes flick to the side, catching Max’s gaze for a second. He looks back out the window and then at Max again. Max responds to the gesture by leaning in closer. At the invasion of her space, Lela jumps a little and blinks attempting to wake up completely.
“Where are we going?” Matthew whispers low so that the music masks his words. Max exchanges a look with Lela, and she shrugs.
“I just assumed we were heading into town,” says Max. The other Fighter shakes his head no.
“That’s what I thought too, but he missed the turn. We came through town on our way home, and we took a turn that brought us by the lake. Rush just drove past it.”
Max’s stomach coils anxiously, and he wonders where this means they are actually going.
“Maybe he wasn’t paying attention,” Lela suggests. “Should we tell him?” Max looks up to the front of the van once more. Rush is still maintaining his casual yet tense grip on the wheel. It’s possible that he is lost in thought and simply made a mistake, but if that’s not the case…
Max lifts his hand for her to wait.
It doesn’t take long for the others to realize that they are not going into town, as apparently they all assumed, or they would have gotten there by now. The silence in the van goes from being relaxed to strained. The radio is no longer soothing, but something that just measures time and consequently distance as they drive farther and farther away from the farmhouse and the town and into the unknown.
Eventually, Rush pulls into a gas station. He fills the tank and goes inside to pay.
Without a word of discussion, all the changelings climb out of the car to stretch their limbs. Fitz doesn’t exit the van completely, just opens the passenger door and lets his legs hang out. Matthew doesn’t seem entirely healed yet either. He stretches his arms high above his head, winces, then lowers them and gingerly touches his stomach. If Rush is planning to turn on them, Max observes, then they are in no state to fight back.
“Is anyone else curious as to where he’s taking us?” asks Luke. They nod and murmur in agreement. Fitz is the only one who voices dissent.
“No, no, no.” He groans and massages his leg. “I’m too exhausted to run. Can’t we just give Rush the benefit of the doubt by assuming that he’s not a total sociopath like his brother?”
“Plus, he is our only source of food and water,” Chelle reminds them all grudgingly.
“There’s got to be a way to undo it,” says Max and crosses his arms stubbornly.
“Undo what?” Fitz transitions from rubbing his leg to his previously broken arm. He raises his brows skeptically and then clarifies. “The curse?”
“Yeah!” Max begins to smile more as the idea takes root in his mind. “There has to be someone out there who knows how to break it.” All of a sudden, Fitz’s eyes grow round, and Luke shakes his head subtly. Following the trajectory of Fitz’s wide eyes, Max turns around. Rush stands behind him holding two plastic bags full of food and water bottles.
“Why do I get the feeling that you’re all staging another coup?”
In response, Fitz moans again. “Nope, not me,” he says and repositions his body back inside the vehicle, closing the door. “Whatever they’re plotting, I’m not a part of it. I’m too tired.”
Rush eyes the rest of the changelings expectantly. Lela shrinks away by retreating to the van with Matt hot on her heels. Chelle snorts and moves to return to the van as well.
“I love how you think we’re organized enough to call it a coup,” she says wryly. And then it’s only Luke, Max, and Rush left standing in the parking lot.
“Here.” The faery holds the plastic bags out to Max and Luke. “I fixed all of it so it’s okay for you guys to consume.” Luke hesitates, waiting to see if Max is going to take one of the bags. When he doesn’t, Luke accepts them both and climbs into the back of the car.
“I want to drive,” Max says before Rush can make it to the driver’s side door. This stops him dead in his tracks. The faery slowly turns and studies Max like he’s trying to decide whether this request is the most idiotic thing he’s ever heard.
“But you don’t know how to drive,” he points out. Max blows a gust of air out of the corner of his mouth. How difficult can driving be?
“The left pedal is the gas and the right one is the brake.”
“Okay, no,” Rush contradicts him. “It’s the opposite. And there’s a little more to driving than just that, which makes me nervous about giving you the keys. Besides, there’s someplace I need to stop by before we hit the open road.”
“Then you can give me directions,” Max insists. “But you either need to hand over the keys, or I’m not coming with you.” It’s a risky gamble, but if Rush takes off without him, at least the others will know that he’s not really invested in helping them. Rush chews on the inside of his lip while he considers Max’s ultimatum.
“Good grief!” comes Fitz’s muffled and exasperated voice from inside the van. “Just give him the keys! If Max drives us off a bridge, I will personally make sure he drowns.” This coaxes a grin from the faery. Without warning, he tosses Max the car keys. He’s so surprised that he fumbles and almost drops them.
“You follow my directions to letter,” Rush says seriously. “Otherwise your driving privileges are officially revoked.”
It feels alien getting into the driver’s seat. Fitz is now sitting next to him with his eyes closed, though obviously not yet asleep. “You’re kind of grumpy when you’re hurt and tired,” Max teases as he slips the key into the ignition.
Fitz adjusts the back of his chair so he can recline and lie down. “I got you the freaking keys, didn’t I?” he retorts with the hint of a smirk.
“Blinker! Slow down, and user your blinker!”
“Which button is the blinker?”
“It’s not a button! The lever on your left! Oh never mind, nobody’s around anyway. Just slow down!”
Max feels the van tilt as they make a sharp right turn. Beside him, Fitz has a death grip on the armrests. He’s fairly sure the boy didn’t look so frightened earlier in the day when he was fighting possibly to his death. “Max!” he says through clenched teeth. “If I die in this car, I’m going to kill you!”
“For the record,” Max growls and glares over his shoulder at Rush, “you’re a terrible teacher!”
“Well you didn’t exactly pick the ideal time to demand lessons!” The faery spits back. “Just slow down!”
His unpracticed foot succeeds in decreasing the speed of the van in choppy movements that has Fitz looking green. Finally, the car is rolling along at a speed that feels less break-neck and more manageable. “If I see Lela cross herself one more time, then I’m taking the keys back,” Rush threatens.
Max ignores his sweaty palms and concentrates on keeping the van trundling down a narrow, paved road. It takes him a minute to notice as they start to pass more gas stations, small businesses, and churches with greater frequency. It’s not until they are in the middle of a much more populated street that he realizes they have entered another town.
“Try not to hit any pedestrians,” is Rush’s advice.
“Thanks, Captain Obvious.”
The town is so small that it only takes two minutes to drive right through it. Once they reach the outskirts, Max hears the seat creak as Rush leans forward. “Turn left on Shangri La Avenue,” he says and points to the upcoming street sign.
“What’s on Shangri La Avenue?” It feels like they’re closing in on the faery’s destination. He doesn’t truly expect a straightforward answer, so he is unprepared when he gets one.
Max throws his foot on the brake, bringing the van to an abrupt halt.
“What?!” Chelle exclaims and twists in the constraint of her seatbelt to confront Rush. Luke’s body tenses readying himself to sprint from the vehicle if he must.
“Uh, uh.” Fitz shakes his head wearily. “I’m not putting up with crap like this anymore. Max?” He motions with his hand to take them away from here. Max frowns, his own hands hovering over all the buttons and levers in front of him.
“Um… Right, how do I turn this thing around?”
“Guys?” Luke says, worry creeping into his voice. But everyone else is getting so worked up that no one hears him.
“Why would you save us just to bring us to the crematorium?” Chelle demands. “That makes no sense!” Rush gives her outburst the same amount of attention he would an irksome gnat. The faery leans forward once again.
“You are so lucky this car isn’t a manual,” he says to Max.
“What?” Max shouts back at Luke, silencing the others in the process. Both he and Fitz look over their shoulders and suddenly notice what has Luke so alarmed.
“Dude, I can see your breath!” Fitz says. He then exhales very deliberately and watches his own breath cloud in front of him. Now that Max is less focused on the road, the chill in the van is unmistakable. “Do we have the AC cranked?” wonders Fitz.
If he didn’t see it with his own eyes, Max wouldn’t have believed it possible that Rush could be any paler. The faery shakes his head no. “Even if we did, the AC isn’t this efficient.” He pounds on the back of the driver’s seat. “Max, you’ve got to step on it.”
Before he can finish his question, the van unexpectedly rocks forcefully to the side. Max gasps, his body wired with adrenaline in seconds. Vaguely, he hears someone scream and hears Fitz shout something at him. He isn’t sure what he says, but it doesn’t matter. His foot finds the gas pedal and pushes it down to the floor.
The engine roars and gravel flies, pinging against the underside of the van, and then they shoot forward. He catches a glimpse of Lela crossing herself in the rearview mirror. And beyond Lela, somehow keeping pace with the van turned rocket, are two black shadows that are vaguely human shaped. Long, claw-like fingers extend and scrape the side of the car, screeching and buffeting the vehicle.
“What’s happening, what’s happening, what’s happening?” Lela cries over and over all in the same breath.
“So, you remember that whole necromancy thing?” Rush’s voice bounces along with every bump and dip in the road. Max doesn’t reply, too focused on not swerving off the road into the woods and outrunning what are evidently angry spirits pursuing them. When he says nothing in return, Rush continues. “Well now that they’ve all but decimated their original target, they have nothing to hone in on except the source of magic that raised them in the first place.”
With a flourish of his hand, he produces a small, brown bag no larger than his fist. Max’s eyes pop open wide in utter disbelief. His attention darts up and down between the road and the rearview mirror.
“Is that the curse you used to raise those spirits? Why do you still have that?!”
Chelle gapes at the two boys. It’s possible that she swears at them too, but just then one of the shades leaps and sinks its claws into the side of the van. The sound of Chelle’s consternation is drowned out by Lela’s scream.
“Seriously? You two are in cahoots?!” she yells at Max once she’s no longer being strangled by her seatbelt and the House Pet is once more silently expressing her terror. “That’s how you knew he was doing some sort of hocus pocus with Annabelle’s dead babies? And you didn’t tell me?! We were supposed to be a team!”
“If it makes you feel better, Chelle,” Fitz shouts over the engine and the shrieking ghosts, “Max didn’t tell me either.”
“Shut up, Fitz!”
“It’s dark magic!” Rush snaps at Max. “You can’t just toss it in the dumpster behind McDonald’s! It has to be destroyed!”
“Except you haven’t destroyed it!”
“Why do you think we’re going to the crematorium?!”
“I don’t know!” Max retorts, finally fed up with the whole thing. “To ditch the useless changelings you’re suddenly saddled with?”
“Why would I go through the trouble of saving you guys just to kill you? That’s idiotic!”
“Are you kidding me?” Chelle throws her hands up. “I literally just said that!” She looks to the other passengers, none of whom appear to have registered what she said. “Is anyone listening to me?”
“No we’re not, Chelle!” Rush flaps his hand at her to be quiet and then barks orders at the driver. “Just get there without killing us!”
It’s a lot easier to get up to 100 miles per hour than it is to come to a complete stop once you’ve reached that speed, Max discovers. He almost drives the van straight through the front door of a building with a sign that proclaims it the Fairchild Funeral Home. The van comes to a sudden stop creating a whiplash, jerking motion that has the desired effect of throwing off the shadowy spirits. Their claws are wrenched from the sliding door as they go sailing into the woods.
However, the shades aren’t put off for very long. One comes shooting at the driver’s side window. Max shouts and ducks as the glass shatters. “Run inside!” yells Rush.
He throws himself across the passenger seat just as wickedly sharp claws dig into the flesh of his back. Max kicks out viciously, but there’s nothing solid for his shoe to make contact with. Abandoning the attempt to fend off the ghost, he scrambles to the open passenger door to escape, only to be confronted by the second shade. It opens its shapeless maw revealing thin, razor-like teeth. Its putrid breath wafts over his face, surrounding him with the stench of death and decay.
All of a sudden, he sees someone’s hand thrust into the second specter. The hand holds something that glows, something that causes the spirit to shriek in pain and dissipate, fleeing to the shadows in the nearby forest. Max hears the person shout at him to move before he spots a lit cigarette lighter sail over his head and hit the second shadow dead on. Upon contact with the flame, it releases him and flies out of the van, screaming. He rapidly pulls his legs out of the way of the flame, not interested in setting his clothes on fire. Strong, warm hands grip under his arms and pull him from the van.
“Hurry up, Max!” Chelle snaps at him and pushes him through the door of the funeral home.
Once everyone is inside, Rush shuts the door and bolts it. “We’re safe for now,” he assures them breathlessly. “There are protective wards all around this place. But we need to get the furnace up and running as quickly as we can.”
“I’ll help you,” Luke offers his assistance weakly. Matthew, Fitz, and Lela don’t make any such offers. Matt in particular looks like he is about to faint.
“We’re just going to stay here,” says Fitz as he lies on the floor by the front desk. “And take a nap. Call if you need us… but please don’t need us.”
A nap sounds like a great idea, but Max knows that he should at least try to assist with the furnace. Heaving a reluctant sigh, he makes to follow them only to feel a firm hand on his shoulder hold him back.
“You’re bleeding,” Chelle says and forces him to sit in one of the chairs. Max winces as she tugs on the shredded pieces of his ruined shirt, the strips of cloth that are beginning to stick to the bloody, open wounds on his back. “I hope you weren’t overly attached to this shirt,” she comments, “because I don’t think we can save it.”
“At the moment, it’s the only shirt I have, so it kind of has to do the job,” he replies, although the ripping sound behind him doesn’t bode well.
“Hang on a second,” she tells him and disappears into the restroom. She returns a minute later holding an assortment of dry and wet paper towels. “Hold these.” She shoves the wad of dry paper towels into his hands.
“I thought you were mad at me,” Max says. He’d rather not have a pissed off Chelle tending to his injury.
“Oh I was—still am,” she assures him. Chelle emphasizes this by not so gently wiping the blood from his back. “I wasn’t going to let you die though, you idiot.”
It hits him then that this is the closest he has ever been to Chelle. This might also be the first time she has ever touched him in a way that’s not aggressive. A part of his brain reminds him that if there was ever a good time to make a move on her, this is not that time. The majority of his brain argues that there might never be a good time.
“I’m really glad that you’re not dead.” Immediately, Max wants to smack his forehead against the wall. “What I mean is, I’m happy that we all made it out of this alive, but it would have been really sad if you hadn’t.” He groans internally. This isn’t getting any better the more he attempts to explain himself. Chelle is quick to put a stop to his rambling.
She snatches the other stack of paper towels from him and pats his back dry with just enough force to sting. “We’re not going to make out,” she says definitively and then walks away.
Max shrugs the rejection off as casually as possible, ignoring the way the motion pulls at the torn skin across the back of his shoulders. “No, of course not,” he replies. “That’s not where I was going with that at all.” It’s a poor stab at saving face, made even poorer when he blurts out, “Wait… Did you mean just not right now or not ever?”
Chelle gives him a shake of her head, but he thinks he catches a smile from her.
He waits a minute before tracing Chelle’s footsteps and ends up in a back room with her, Luke, and Rush where they are stoking the furnace to life.
The heat in the room is staggering. It makes the walls shimmer. Within seconds, Max is drenched in sweat. “Holy heatwave!” he gasps. “Is there an entrance to hell hidden in there?” Rush beckons him closer and points through a small window set in the door of the furnace.
“See those things that look like flat, glowing stones?”
Max has to squint in order to peer inside. He needs a moment to adjust to the heat, but once his eyes no longer feel like they’re about to melt, he spots the little brown sack burning amongst glowing black and brown stones. Little rivulets of bright orange pulse in the stones like rivers of lava. They resemble squished coals.
“What are they?”
“Dragon scales,” answers Rush. “We have to pay through the nose to get them, but it’s the only way we can make the fire burn long and hot enough to incinerate faery bones.”
“So theoretically,” Luke chimes in, “it should be hot enough to destroy the necromantic bag you put together to conjure those shadows… or whatever they were.”
Rush grins. “That’s the idea.”
It takes longer than Max expects for the little brown bag to burn down to ashes. At one point it belches a thick black smoke that twists and curls into curious swirling patterns. It emits a noxious stench, too. After another few minutes, Rush begins working to cool the furnace.
“And that should do it,” the faery concludes as they leave the sweltering chamber.
“That means those shadow things are gone now, right?” asks Chelle. Rush makes a vague noise in response.
“Hopefully,” he says.
Chelle huffs and then mutters to Max, “Confidence inspiring.”
They walk back to the lobby and collect the other exhausted changelings. Luke half drags Fitz outside and into the van. A commotion arises at the sight of their vehicle. The driver’s seat caught fire after Chelle threw the lit cigarette lighter. Luke and Matthew work fast to smother the flames.
“How did you know to do that with the lighter?” he asks Chelle.
“She didn’t,” Rush answers for her. “Neurotic emotions fester in the dark, so it makes sense that light would repel them. That, and I read it in a book.” The faery gives Chelle a sidelong look. “Now you owe me a new lighter.” In return, she shoots him a scathing glare but doesn’t say anything as she passes him.
Max hangs toward the back of the group and sidles up to Rush.
“If that really was the reason you brought us to the crematorium, then I take it you don’t plan to go back for Maggie.”
The faery’s expression darkens. “No,” is his curt reply. “She was right. If Annabelle didn’t kill my family as I suspect she didn’t, then the Board will search for suspects, which includes all of us. It doesn’t matter that faeries and changelings aren’t under their authority or protection. The Board’s concern is that whoever did this could be a danger to others who are.”
Understanding, Max nods. “She stayed behind to take the fall.”
“Yep,” Rush pops the P with a hint of bitterness. “We’re all walking free because Mags threw herself on top of the grenade.” Then, just like the last time Max perceived a bit of emotional vulnerability from him, Rush shakes it off. “You’re not driving this time.” The faery playfully blocks him from reaching the driver’s door. “Not if you want to find someone who can break your curse.”
“Oh, you heard that, did you?”
“Yeah, and you better get in the back seat if you want my help.”
Well, he has no complaints there. Driving the giant passenger van was a nightmarish experience. It would probably be an even more unpleasant experience now that the driver’s seat is thoroughly scorched. Even if another opportunity arises, Max will be happy if he never sits behind the wheel of any vehicle ever again.