By McKenzie Rae All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Horror


MAX eyes their midday meal with apprehension. He was hungry enough that he finished his lunch, but now watching the others eat, he feels slightly nauseous. He first became suspicious a few days ago when he smelled meat cooking in the kitchen. Maggie was standing over the stove prodding at ground meat in a skillet.

“What?” she said when she caught him staring. “This isn’t what it looks like. I said I would talk to you before I did that. This is just some slop I found in the freezer.”

Slop is cheap meat from various animals that the Fairchilds bought from the butcher and then put it through the meatgrinder to feed the changelings, but only once they had added a dash of magic to prevent the meat from turning rancid in the changelings’ mouths.

“Is that right?” Max raised his eyebrow. “You didn’t tell me about this slop. I thought we were both keeping inventory of provisions.”

“We are,” she replied. “I only found it this morning.”

Now they are all eating slop sandwiches in the living room. They discovered that the kitchen island is not quite spacious enough for everyone to sit around it and eat comfortably, and it goes without saying that no one wants to eat in the dining room. Fitz and Chelle spent hours cleaning that room and now, even days later, it still smells strongly of bleach and death.

“What in the world are we watching?” Luke’s question brings Max back to the present. He’s staring bewildered at the television screen in the living room.

“Beats me,” Chelle says without bothering to swallow her food. “But these people are idiots.”

“It’s a rerun of Jersey Shore,” answers Lela from her place on the floor. Earlier, both she and Maggie had looked quite out of sorts when the Pit Fighters flung themselves on the furniture, but Maggie motioned for Lela not to say anything.

Luke furrows his brow. “That doesn’t explain anything for me.”

“It’s trashy reality television,” says Maggie. She sits on the floor as well with her plate in her lap. “And no, you’re not allowed to change the channel. Reality TV is my one guilty pleasure, and I intend to indulge it.”

The muddled look on Luke’s face tells Max that the other Fighter still doesn’t understand what reality TV is. Luke shrugs it off, though. “I’m just impressed that television has color now,” he says.

Max can’t help chuckling. He had assumed that Lela was the one who turned on the TV. He has trouble imagining Maggie tuning in every week to catch shows like Survivor.

“You watch a lot of TV, Maggie?” he asks in amusement. She shrugs wryly.

“School can only fill so many hours for so many years. Eventually you run out of things to keep yourself occupied.”

A tense silence descends upon them as Maggie reminds everyone how long they’ve been kept here. Max is glad that he finished his lunch in the first five minutes. Now that his plate is empty, he has an excuse to leave the room. He goes to the kitchen and deposits his dish in the sink. Normally he would dump his plate and be done with it, but he’s not ready to go back to the living room yet.

He runs the tap, rinsing away the crumbs and leftover slop, and pours a dollop of dish soap onto a sponge and begins to scrub.

The floor creaks behind him, causing the hairs on the back of his neck to prickle.

“If you’re trying to sneak up on me, then you’ll have to do better than that.”

Chelle comes up beside him and leans against the counter. She smirks. “Good thing I wasn’t trying to sneak up on you then.” She nods to his sudsy hands hanging over the sink and says, “Since when do you do the washing up? I thought that was House Pet territory.”

Max raises an eyebrow. “You’re telling me it’s not awkward as all get out in there?” He makes his chin jut toward the living room. Chelle bites her lip and bobs her head in agreement.

He glances at her out of the corner of his eye. Her short, black hair obscures her cloudy eye, but Chelle’s hair isn’t long enough to hide her teeth gnawing on her bottom lip. It’s a nervous tick that always gives her away during matches. She would be a great Fighter—better than Max—if only she possessed a better poker face.

“Listen,” she says after a minute or so of contemplation. “Are you cool with Miss Maggie playing army general?” Max scoffs.

“What do you think?” he says rhetorically as he wipes his plate dry with a dish towel.

“I think House Pets should stick to washing laundry, cooking meals, and polishing the silverware.”

“Then we’re on the same page.” Max leaves his clean plate on the counter and turns away from the sink so he’s facing Chelle.

“Maggie might be smart,” Chelle sneers, “but she doesn’t know everything. No matter what Luke says, she doesn’t know Leon and Rush the way we do.”

“Right? I was thinking the same thing!” he exclaims. It’s cathartic to have someone else finally address this. He was furious when Luke stated outright that Maggie knew the brothers better than the Pit Fighters did. “She actually thinks we can hold this place against Leon, Rush, and the ten best Fighters they have!” he vents.

“As soon as they get back here and find out what happened, we’re all going to be dog meat.” Chelle folds her arms severely. “If we stand any chance of getting out of this alive, then we’ll have to be the ones making the battle plans. Not sheltered, little House Pets.”

Her words resonate with him. He can feel the truth of them in his bones. If any of the changelings are to live, then he and Chelle will be the ones to save them. The skeleton of a plan is already starting to form in his mind. He can see the wheels turning in Chelle’s head as well. They will need to set some sort of trap in order to beat the faery brothers on their own turf.

“Um, guys?” The words echo down the hallway as Fitz draws nearer. He appears in the doorway, half entering the kitchen.“You’re going to want to see what’s on the news.”

In the living room, the TV channel has been changed to a local news station. “What happened to Jersey Shore?” he asks Maggie.

“Fitz sat on the remote,” she replies, but Maggie isn’t focused on him. She is watching the TV with rapt attention. It’s then that Max notices the story being featured. The scrolling banner on the bottom of the screen says: ‘Update: Vagrant Teen Dies of Mysterious Causes at County Hospital.’

A photo of said vagrant teen is displayed in the upper right corner.

“Is that Harvey?” asks Chelle.

“Yep,” Fitz answers. “That’s Harvey all right.”

“It says update,” Luke notes. “When did this originally air?” Maggie snaps the fingers on her good hand and points at Lela.

“Lela, you know how to work the computer. Find out when this story aired.” Lela nods and runs from the room. She soon returns carrying a laptop. Maggie then rounds on the Fighters.

“That idiot was one of you?”

“Harvey might not have willingly gone to the hospital,” Max jumps to his defense. “You saw the way people were trampling each other to get away. He could have been injured, and some stranger brought him to the ER.”

Maggie glares at him. “He was still an idiot for running in the first place.” She jabs her finger at the television screen. “Now there have been doctors poking and prodding a changeling, and they clearly discovered that his body rejected any kind of nutrients and sustenance they could give him!”

“Maggie,” Lela interjects. The laptop is on the coffee table, and Lela is crouched in front of it. “This station originally aired the story on September 15th.”

Maggie begins to pace. “September 15th. That was five days ago. Annabelle killed the Fairchilds a week ago, which means this hit the news two days after the other changelings fled.”

“Do you think Leon and Rush have seen this?” Luke wonders. Maggie shakes her head.

“No, the exhibition is out of town. They don’t have access to the local channels. Thankfully, this story isn’t CNN worthy yet.”

“That may not matter,” says Lela anxiously. She worries a hangnail on her finger as everyone’s undivided attention is suddenly on her. “I searched for the story on Google,” she continues. “The station’s website was the first result that came up, but there was a short Huffington Post article and a few video clips posted to YouTube.” Lela scrolls through the first page of results so they can all see for themselves.

“Fantastic,” Maggie mutters. “I really hate the Internet.”

“We’re going to need a new plan,” Chelle says and casts a look at Max.

Maggie turns to Luke and Fitz. “Chelle’s right. We have to assume that Leon and Rush have seen this, which means we need those weapons yesterday.” Luke scratches his head, and Fitz shrugs helplessly.

“The weapons are locked up tight, Mags. We’ve been trying to bust into armory all week. Luke and I are all out of ideas.”

“I’ll give it a try,” Max volunteers. He needs time to think, and having a few weapons on hand will definitely make him feel better.

“Go for it,” she consents and shoos him away with her twisted hand. An eerie chill trickles down Max’s spine at the sight of it. He’s never understood why the Fairchilds didn’t fully heal her. They always made the injured Pit Fighters whole again, so why not injured House Pets? Weren’t the House Pets supposed to be pretty and perfect?

He brushes the feeling off and exits the farmhouse. Next stop, the Pit.

Max has never walked all the way to the Pit from the farmhouse. He’s forced to pass the empty training yard. The stillness gives the place a haunted vibe, and Max picks up his pace. Then he’s surrounded by woods. The disembodied noises and the looming shadows almost make the forest seem creepier than the yard… almost.

He spends the majority of his walk strategizing. He and Chelle are the most suited to lead the group, not Maggie, but she probably won’t take kindly to being usurped. And she has solid backup too, in the form of Luke and Fitz. Max can’t figure out the reasoning behind Luke’s support, but he knows that the Fighter is not easily swayed. On the other hand, Fitz is wishy-washy; he’ll go wherever the power is.

The internal turbulence is nothing compared to the external force that could potentially be hurtling toward them at this very moment. He and Chelle will need to set a trap and quickly. It will have to be something that the brothers don’t see coming.

A branch groans and snaps somewhere to his left. Max freezes, his eyes darting all around. It’s a hot September afternoon, and not many creatures are out roaming. All he sees is the cloud of gnats hovering around his head and the occasional deerfly that attempts to take a bite out of him. His heart is palpitating, but with no clear evidence of danger, Max continues down the path.

The most immediate issue at hand is the armory. The Pit is an old barn renovated to act as a miniature arena with elevated bleachers for spectator seating. The armory is located in the loft of the barn. It’s under strict lockdown at all times, and Leon and Rush have the only set of keys. Based on Luke and Fitz’s inability to break in, Max guesses there must be some kind of spell over the loft for extra security. He will have to find a way to work around it.

Another twig breaks on the left side of the path again. He can’t write it off as just his imagination this time. Max reaches into his back pocket and wraps his fingers around the handle of a kitchen knife. It’s a small knife, not good for much else besides slicing cheese, but he figured that Maggie would be less likely to notice its absence than a bigger one. Even though this knife is small, it’s sharp—Max made sure of that.

He hears the sound of wood groaning and leaves rustling. Counting to three in his head, he tightens his grip then whirls around, hurling the knife. It finds its target with a dull, thud. A moment passes where Max is disoriented, but then the world stops spinning, and he reels back in shock.

Standing there in the middle of the path is Rush Fairchild.

He looks almost as shocked as Max. Rush’s gaze drops slowly to the blade embedded in his chest. A crimson stain blooms on his shirt around the knife making his skin look even paler. Max feels his jaw drop involuntarily. He can’t decide if what he’s seeing is real or if his eyes are deceiving him. Rush cannot be here.

The faery reaches for the knife, jostles it a bit, and then pulls it out of his body. The sharp instrument withdrawing creates a wet sucking sound, and a fresh river of blood spurts from the wound. Max expects Rush to keel over any second.

Instead of collapsing, Rush grins. He peels the rip in his shirt open further to examine his chest. There is dark blood smeared all over his fair skin, but the injury now appears shallow, and it’s no longer bleeding.

“Nice throw!” he says, seeming genuinely impressed. Max blinks hard three times, but Rush is still there. Rush Fairchild is back, and Max just stabbed him. The changeling starts to sweat profusely.

“Relax,” Rush says and puts his hands in the air. He is not quite the picture of surrender since he’s still holding the knife that he pulled out of his chest—that and the mischievous grin he’s having trouble suppressing. “I’m not here to grind your bones to make my bread.”

“That’s giants not faeries,” Max corrects him before he can stop himself. The faery’s smirk deflates faster than a popped balloon.

“Don’t push your luck,” he deadpans. Rush lowers his arms and begins to lazily twirl the kitchen knife. The metal glints in the sunlight, occasionally shining in Max’s eyes. The urge to squint or turn his head is a kneejerk reaction, but he’s afraid to break eye contact with Rush for even an instant.

Max swallows. “Why are you back so soon?” he asks.

The key to surviving the next ten minutes or so will depend on his ability to carefully gauge how much Rush knows without tipping the scale. If Rush doesn’t already know that the rest of his family is dead, then it will be in Max’s best interest not to accidentally let the cat out of the bag. That conversation will preferably happen at a later date when Max has a real weapon in his hands and not a cheese knife. Although technically, that knife is no longer in his hands either.

Rush frowns. “You don’t already know?” he questions. “One of our changelings has apparently escaped and is now the county’s newest medical anomaly.” The way he states this so casually gives Max the feeling that Rush is playing a similar game. While Max is withholding information to test Rush, the faery is trying to trick Max into letting something slip.

“I heard about that,” he acknowledges. “I didn’t think he was one of ours though.” Rush laughs and shakes his head causing Max’s pulse to stutter. With each sardonic chuckle, the charade crumbles.

“Come on, Max,” says Rush. He steps forward and twirls the knife again. “Let’s not insult both of our intelligence. I may not be a genius, but even I know that ninety-nine percent of the time, two plus two equals four. We’re the only faery clan in the area, so I seriously doubt this rogue changeling belongs to someone else. I also know that something bad must have happened if one of our Fighters ran for the hills.” He stops twirling the knife and holds it out for Max handle first. “Plus, I’ve never seen you quite so jumpy.”

Max eyes the kitchen utensil warily. This show of trust feels like a trick, but what need does Rush have for tricks in this scenario? They both know that the faery could easily kill him even without the knife. Rush rolls his eyes.

“I told you I’m not going to hurt you. Now if Leon had come home to assess the situation, it would be a different story.” He suddenly leaps forward and seizes Max by the wrist. The changeling tries to jerk back, but the faery’s grip is unbreakably solid. Max half expects him to snap his wrist, crush his hand, or even rip his arm off, but Rush simply presses the knife’s handle into his palm. The faery wraps Max’s fingers around the knife firmly and then steps back. Max stares down at the weapon returned to him.

Rush holds his arms out away from his sides. His palms are stained red with his own blood. “So help me assess the situation,” he implores. “How bad is it, really? And be honest. Just because I can’t tell a lie doesn’t mean I can’t spot one.” Rush’s black eyes are intensely trained on him. Max shudders. Something about Rush reminds him disturbingly of Maggie, but he can’t pinpoint it.

The pale faery is looking at him expectantly, waiting. Max stands straight, trying to appear taller and less anxious. His life is still very much in danger, so he has to play his cards right. This is no time for mistakes. His mind races, but Max has no idea what to tell Rush without lying through his teeth.

Just as he is beginning to really believe that his life may be forfeit, Rush looks away and claps his hands.

“You know what?” he says with a smile. “You seem a little tongue tied at the moment. I didn’t realize that I startled you so badly. So, why don’t I just come back later?” Max frowns. That is not what he was expecting.

Rush backs away until he reaches the edge of the path, and with only the slightest rustling of foliage, he disappears into the woods. Max’s heart is pounding so hard it hurts. He can’t believe what just happened. As the seconds tick by, the adrenaline starts to wear off. Max feels exhausted. He can’t go back to the farmhouse just yet. Not enough time has passed since he left, and the other Fighters will know that he didn’t even try to gain entry to the armory. So even though his stomach now feels sour, Max continues his journey to the Pit on shaky legs.

He can’t tell the others what happened—he’s not even sure what just happened. If the other changelings find out that Rush is wandering somewhere on the property, then everyone will panic and chaos will ensue. He has to tell Chelle, of course. After all, they sort of decided they were a team earlier. And maybe she’ll know what to do.

Max comes to a halt when the path suddenly ends. The barn stands a bit crookedly, and he sees two chipmunks dash out of a chewed hole at the bottom of the door. It’s like his feet were on autopilot after his run in with Rush; he was barely aware he was moving. Now that he’s reached his destination, Max isn’t sure what he intends to do. Originally, he had planned to come up with something creative and brilliant on the spot, but Rush threw off his mojo. After his odd encounter with the faery, all of his brain power seems to be limited to maintaining his body’s vital functions and nothing else.

Even without a plan of action, Max forces himself to walk into the barn.

The two sliding doors are loud. Leon and Rush rarely bother to oil the hinges. The noise disturbs several pigeons roosting in the rafters. They coo in discontent and ruffle their feathers.

He strides down the center aisle, entering behind the bleachers. Max stops when he comes to the Pit. It’s a hole that’s been dug in the middle of the barn floor. Two ladders on either side allow people to climb into and out of the Pit. Fitted over the top are metal bars, which can be lifted away or locked into place, like the lid on a cage.

The Pit is a horrible place where Max has been forced to do horrible things, but he would much rather be here than at the farmhouse. At least here, he knows what he is supposed to do. You follow the rules of the fight, you win, and you survive. Black and white, night and day. The situation back at the farmhouse is one giant gray area. In the Pit, all he needs to keep his life are his fists and the occasional weapon. At the farmhouse, he has to keep secrets and play politics.

On the other side of the Pit is a rickety staircase that leads up to the armory in the loft. The loft door above his head has been battered and scarred. Luke and Fitz really did a number on it.

Max stares up at the door thoughtfully and tucks his left hand into his pocket, the hand that’s not still clutching the knife. The feeling of cold metal touching his fingertips causes him to pull back abruptly. He doesn’t remember putting anything in there. Experimentally, Max reaches back into his pocket. Metal touches his fingers again, and he slowly removes the object.

It’s a key. Not just a key, he realizes, but the key. One of the two keys that open the loft. There’s a snowball’s chance in hell that he just coincidentally stumbled upon this—he’s not Harry Potter magically finding the Sorcerer’s Stone in his pocket. Max thinks back to when Rush returned the kitchen knife to him. He was so stunned by the unexpected contact that it would have been easy for the faery to covertly slip the key into his pocket. The question is why?

Rush’s motivation, or lack thereof, is troublesome to be sure but not enough for Max to look a gift horse in the mouth. If Rush wants to work against his own team, then more power to him.

“This is a trick. You know that right? It has to be.”

Chelle is perched in a tree just outside the yard. She has a duffle bag slung over her shoulder fit to burst with weapons from the armory. They hit the jackpot with a crossbow that Max discovered collecting dust in a dark corner of the loft. Chelle took to it instantly. This is the only long-range weapon they have, and it probably won’t kill the faery, it will only slow him down. Everything else they stuffed into the bag are swords, daggers, and blunt objects that can be attached over the wearer’s hands like an odd pair of gloves. All these are basically useless against a faery, but Max feels more confident knowing he is not totally defenseless.

Earlier in the day—after he delivered the weapons to a more mollified Maggie—Max confided to Chelle about meeting Rush. She was just as perplexed by the faery’s actions as he was. Since Rush had promised that they would speak again later, both changelings agreed that the encounter should take place somewhere far from the farmhouse. They decided they would go down to the yard after dark and hope that Rush took the hint and met them there.

After that, Max’s day was plagued by one stress-inducing event after another. First, Fitz pestered him to know how Max accessed the armory in under two hours when he and Luke had been unsuccessful for a week. Max tried to blow him off, but the other Fighter was relentless. Eventually, his shallow reserve of patience ran dry.

“I don’t know, Fitz!” he snapped and shoved the other boy away from him. “I guess you guys loosened the door for me.” He jogged up the stairs then, not allowing Fitz the chance to fire back a reply.

Max ducked into a bathroom and turned the faucet on high, splashing his face with cold water. He blinked the droplets away and glanced in the mirror.

Rush Fairchild’s reflection stared at him from over his shoulder.

Gasping, Max turned around, but no one was there. He looked in the mirror again. His own reflection was the only one looking back at him this time. Even so, he scrambled into the hallway.

“You shouldn’t use that bathroom.” Max practically jumped out of his skin, but his mood swung to angry and irritated when he saw that it was only Maggie.

“That mirror is enchanted,” she said gesturing to the room he just exited. “My reflection once spewed insults and vitriol at me until I cried. I think the only people it was ever kind to were the Fairchild women. But then, this was their bathroom, so it makes a certain amount of sense.” Maggie raised her eyebrows and propped her good hand on her hip. “What did your reflection say to you?”

“Nothing,” he growled and hurried downstairs and into the living room where he knew he was safe. Except he didn’t feel safe, not anywhere for the rest of the day. In every reflective surface Max thought he saw Rush’s figure hovering in the background for a split second, watching him, and then he would be gone.

Now he’s waiting at the yard for the actual Rush to show. His nerves are completely shot, and the prospect of seeing Rush in the flesh makes him feel sick to his stomach.

“Dude, what is your glitch?”

Max turns around and glares at the trees. He can barely make out the shadowy silhouette of Chelle.

“Did you just call me dude? You’ve been spending way too much time with Fitz.”

“Stop criticizing my vernacular,” comes her swift retort. “You’ve been out of sorts since you came back from the Pit. If you can’t pull yourself together, then maybe you should go back to the house and send someone else to take your place.”

Max bristles at having his pride bruised, especially by Chelle. “I told you,” he says through clenched teeth, “I’m fine.”

“Well sure you are,” says a voice directly behind him. Hot breath tainted by the sweet scent of magic wafts across the back of his neck. Max manages to keep his cool this time as he turns. Standing there is Rush with a smug look plastered on his face. “You’ve just had a really weird day, right?” he says to Max with a wink.

“Thanks for the warning, Chelle,” Max says loud enough for her to hear, though he doesn’t look away from Rush.

“I couldn’t warn you!” she yells back. “I blinked, and he appeared.”

“You’re up in a tree! How did you not see him coming?”

Rush chuckles darkly. “Oh yeah, you guys are great at watching each other’s backs. I can see why Luke, Fitz, and Lela dubbed Maggie the leader.”

Max freezes, and he hears the string on the crossbow pull taut. Rush continues to regard him with an arrogant grin.

He knew almost from the very beginning of his captivity that faeries were magical creatures, but now and that moment in the woods when he healed himself are the first serious demonstrations Max has ever seen. It’s surreal, hearing Rush casually drop information that he has no way of knowing.

“What did you say?” he asks in disbelief. The faery shrugs and rocks back and forth on his heels.

“I’m guessing that you haven’t had a sudden loss of hearing, and what you really mean to ask is how could I possibly know that you, Chelle, Luke, Fitz, Lela, and Maggie are the only ones left?” Max neither confirms nor denies this, so Rush continues. “After you sliced and diced me, I wiped a small amount of my blood on your shirt. That way a little piece of me could follow you around wherever you went as long as you didn’t change into a fresh shirt. It’s a good thing you didn’t tell Maggie about our little chat, or she would have had you in a whole new outfit so fast your head would spin.

“I listened in on your conversations that way. And every time you wandered off to be by yourself, I let you see me for just a fraction of a second. As soon as you rejoined the group, I disappeared. It wasn’t my primary goal to scare you, but it’s difficult to overhear necessary information when your vehicle for eavesdropping is hiding in the upstairs bathroom.” Rush’s gaze darts upward. “Nice crossbow, Chelle,” he cheerfully adds. “I forgot we had that. Although I’m surprised you didn’t raid my father’s firearm collection.”

“We would have,” Chelle replies, “except Maggie doesn’t know where he kept the ammunition.”

As they go off on a tangent, Max’s focus momentarily drifts. So he wasn’t losing his mind; he really did see Rush’s reflection in the mirror! The relief that he isn’t insane is quickly overshadowed by the implications of what Rush is telling them. Max frantically tries to recall everything they said today, but he can’t remember if they discussed anything significant.

“How much have you heard?” he asks the faery, deciding to be direct.

“Oh, quite a bit,” he says with a laugh. “You would be surprised what people will divulge when they think no one important is listening. And that story on the news must have everybody pretty freaked out, because the six of you have been chit-chatting all day long.”

“Cut the crap, Tinker Bell,” says Chelle. “Answer the question, and no riddles. What have you heard?”

“Well that’s an entirely different question, now isn’t it? How much have I heard, and what have I heard?”

Chelle actually growls. Max guesses that she must have a bolt aimed right between his eyes, because Rush lifts his hands in surrender, although he doesn’t look overly concerned for his safety.

“Fine. In summation: Annabelle and my family are dead; Annabelle allegedly killed my family in their sleep; and all of the changelings have fled, except for the six of you. There also seems to be a bit of internal dissent, especially between Max and Maggie.”

Rush then waggles his eyebrows at Max. Max narrows his eyes at the faery. He doesn’t understand. If Rush already knows basically everything, then why is he still here?

“Why do you say allegedly?” Chelle picks up the line of questioning.

The faery’s black eyes rove back up to the treetops. With a flippant tilt of his head Rush says, “I just have trouble believing Annabelle could do that. I mean, Max here has caught a glimpse of just how difficult it is to even injure a faery, much less kill one. I suppose unconsciousness would put us at a slight disadvantage, but it still wouldn’t be easy.”

“She hacked them to pieces with the wood-chopping ax,” Max says bluntly. “She hit some of them up to forty times. Even for a faery, it’s tough to bounce back from that.” He waits to see the pain, the outrage, and the grief. However, the only emotion to grace Rush’s face is intrigue.

“Exactly. Can you imagine the anger, strength, and resolve it would take to do that six times in a row?” As much as Max hates to admit it, the faery is right. He would never use any of those three adjectives to describe Annabelle.

“Who do you think did it then?” Chelle demands. Rush shakes his head.

“I don’t know. I wasn’t here.”

“Speaking of which,” Max uses the faery’s answer to segue into the question weighing on his mind. “Why are you still here? You got the information you came for, so why haven’t you left to report back to Leon?”

“I want to help you,” Rush says simply. Max scoffs.

“Yeah, right. Why in the world would you want to help us?”

Rush widens his eyes innocently and places his hands over his heart. “I have a soft spot for humanity.” At their skeptical reactions, Rush drops the heartfelt façade. “It’s hard to say that without sounding sarcastic. But I can’t tell a lie, so you know that I’m being truthful.”

“There are ways of telling the truth without telling the truth,” says Chelle.

“An excellent point,” Rush concedes. “But I promise that I am as sincere as I am capable of being.” He looks to Max. “I gave you the key to the armory didn’t I?”

Reluctantly, Max nods.

“And just as another show of good faith…” Rush produces a knapsack from behind his back seemingly out of thin air and tosses it to Max. The knapsack is heavier than it looks, and Max almost drops it. He pulls the zipper back and peers in. It’s too dark to clearly see what’s in the bag, so Max gingerly feels around inside. His fingers touch cool metal rods and other odds and ends.

“Those are wrought-iron,” Rush tells him. “You won’t find any of that in the house. It should even the playing field a little.”

Max pulls the zipper closed and hikes the bag over his shoulder, determined to get a good look at the contents later. Chelle is right, faeries are known for finding tricky ways of getting around the truth. It’s best to take all of Rush’s claims with a grain of salt.

“One more thing,” he says. “Leon needs to believe that I’m on his side, so I have to tell him at least some of what I found here. But if the six of you can distract him by putting up a good fight, then I can help you escape right under his nose.”

“And we’re just supposed to blindly trust you?” says Max, crossing his arms.

Rush grins and raises his eyebrows. “Do you have any other choice?” Max exchanges a look with Chelle in the dark. When he turns back to Rush, the faery is gone.

Later that night, Max gets ready for bed in the farmhouse. All the remaining Fighters have been sleeping there the last few days. It’s less work if they don’t have to make the trek all the way from their barracks, and the house has the added bonus of being more easily defendable than the training yard. He avoids the upstairs bathroom and the enchanted mirror, choosing instead to brush his teeth in the bathroom by the kitchen.

He isn’t quite as startled this time when he sees Rush’s reflection looking back at him.

“She’s lying,” the reflection hisses. Just like before, when he turns around there is no sign of Rush. Max curses and spits in the sink, making a mental note never to wear this shirt ever again.

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