MAGGIE is troubled. Her garden is failing.
Quadrant One where she buried the hand and the fingers looks normal, but upon closer inspection, Maggie can tell that the produce is not enchanted. When she brings a grape tomato to her nose, there is a faint scent of rot. Quadrant Two is where she instructed Luke to sprinkle faery dust from the medicine cabinet; that quadrant looks as if it’s been transported to the middle of a desert and then hit by a flamethrower. Everything is shriveled and dead. Quadrant Three she has been watering with enchanted well water, but just like quadrant one the produce itself is not enchanted.
The forth quadrant is her control. Maggie has done nothing to alter it. From a distance, it appears healthy, and if they were ordinary humans instead of changelings, the food it provides would be perfectly fine to eat. Except they’re not normal, they’re changelings. At least she expected the control quadrant to fail her, but after her success with the well water, Maggie did not think the rest of her garden experiment would let her down so completely.
“The garden is coming along nicely.” Luke picks his way through the overreaching vines and stalks coming to stand by Maggie. He surveys the patches of land and then winces. “Except for Quadrant Two. Looks like somebody dumped toxic waste back there.”
“That was where we put the faery dust,” Maggie says with a sigh. Luke raises his eyebrows.
“From the medicine cabinet? I don’t think something you ingest is supposed to kill everything.”
Maggie shrugs helplessly. “Faery dust can be used for a lot of things as long as the user has a strong working knowledge of manipulating magic,” she explains.
“And if the user doesn’t know how to manipulate magic?”
“Then it’s kind of like playing lawn darts at midnight,” she says with a wry smile. “You never know what you might hit. In this case, we accidentally killed one-fourth of the garden. Not that the rest of the garden is doing much better.”
“But it looks great,” Luke notes with a frown. Maggie bends over and plucks a grape tomato.
“Looks are only skin deep,” she says and gives the tomato to Luke. He bites into it but instantly spits it out, making a sour face. The piece of tomato he spits into his hand has gone from ripe to rotten.
His expression is serious and contemplative. “You mean we can’t eat any of this?” He gestures to the garden in its entirety. Maggie nods. “Well, that’s not good,” he mutters, which is possibly the understatement of the century, but she doesn’t call him on it. He drops the half eaten grape tomato in the dirt.
“What are you going to do?”
Maggie grinds her teeth. “I’m open to suggestions.”
Max and Chelle have been whispering behind her back, but they haven’t caused any trouble thus far, so Maggie is content to let them be for now. She doesn’t become suspicious of Max until he catches her in the walk-in freezer.
She lifts the sheets that she draped over the bodies, just checking on them. When she turns, she nearly bumps into Max. Maggie gasps and places her good hand over her racing heart. Then she laughs and maneuvers herself between the Fighter and the corpses on the shelves. “Max, you startled me,” she says and smiles innocently.
“Sorry,” he says in a flat voice that doesn’t sound at all apologetic.
He’s blocking her path, and he doesn’t move out of her way. Max is by no means a body builder, but he’s bulky enough in the narrow room that there is no chance of her slipping past him. After about half a minute, it’s obvious that he is boxing her in on purpose. “Can I help you with something?” she asks.
“Yeah. Is there anything you want to tell me?”
Maggie resists the urge to roll her eyes. She taps her chin and pretends to think about it. “Nope, can’t say there is,” she concludes. “Why, is there anything you want to tell me? Or do you just get off on trying to intimidate weaker beings?”
Max glares at her. “You know, for all your talk of trust, you’re not very forthcoming.”
Maggie snorts in amusement. “Luke would disagree with you.”
“What do you plan to do about that story on the news?” he asks, switching gears. Maggie represses a sigh. She can feel a headache building up right over the scar on her forehead.
“There’s not much we can do, except prepare ourselves for the inevitable. Now if you don’t mind…” She makes a shooing motion with her left hand. Max still looks unhappy with her answers, but he grudgingly steps aside.
After this encounter, Maggie feels slightly ill. Max still suspects that she’s keeping something from him, and he is possibly plotting with Chelle. Now, he’s going to force her to dig into their business.
After assisting Lela in fixing lunch for everyone—she cringes every time she sees their supplies shrink—Maggie goes back to the freezer. She’s been working on stripping a few larger bones of flesh, mostly bones from the children but some from Master and Madam Fairchild as well. She props the freezer door open just a crack and then hurries over to the bottom shelf where she stashed the bones next to Tilda’s body.
Maggie lifts the sheet and recoils at the gory mess underneath. As quickly as she can, she wraps the bones in dishtowels. The smaller bundle she hides in the bodice of her dress, the larger bones she conceals in her pocket, which is thankfully rather deep.
She slips out of the freezer and into the hallway.
Casually, Maggie strides through the kitchen. Luke and Fitz are sitting at the kitchen island discussing worst-case scenarios and battle strategies. They don’t notice her brief presence in the room. She passes by the living room and catches a glimpse of Lela. The girl is staring at the television screen watching a rerun of The Loony Tunes. She sits on the floor, biting at a hangnail, looking lost and afraid. She finds it rather easy to squash the urge to comfort Lela. Maggie is done comforting everyone. It’s her job to ensure they survive, not to make them feel good about it.
Max and Chelle are nowhere to be seen.
Maggie tiptoes into Master Fairchild’s study. Years ago, this is where she discovered her favorite hiding place—a safe beneath Master Fairchild’s desk. The key was easy to locate, but when she tried to remove it from its place in the top left drawer, it wouldn’t budge. With a little investigating, and some assistance from Tilda, she found out that it was enchanted to not move an inch for anyone, unless they could prove that they had no intention of stealing from the safe.
Fortunately, Maggie found a loophole.
She opens the top left drawer and touches the key. Tendrils of magic creep up her arm, holding the key in place.
“I am not here to steal from Master Fairchild,” she says. The magic recedes, and the key instantly unsticks from the bottom of the drawer. Thankfully, Master Fairchild was more concerned with his own family breaking into his personal safe, so he created the enchantment under the impression that whoever attempted to pick up the key would have to speak the truth.
But in this particular instance, Maggie is telling the truth. She is not here to take anything from the safe… yet. She opens the small metal door and hurriedly deposits the wrapped bones within. Also inside the safe are four ancient tomes belonging to Master Fairchild as well as two bags of fool’s gold—coins that can morph into any currency. There are also bullets and powder for several of the guns in his collection including the pistol that Annabelle stole.
She feels a twinge of guilt for lying to Chelle. Before Max somehow penetrated the armory in the barn, Chelle suggested using the guns from Master Fairchild’s collection, prompting Maggie to lie saying that she didn’t know where the ammunition was kept, if there was any at all. Chelle’s idea was foolish, but Maggie knew that the others were too frightened to listen to reason, except for Luke possibly. Guns would not do much damage to Leon and Rush. While a bullet hole could be devastating to a human’s body, a faery’s body would heal from a bullet wound in seconds. Unless they were prepared to empty an entire clip into each brother’s head at point blank range, then they would simply be wasting ammunition.
Guns would certainly be effective against the other Fighters, but Maggie can’t justify wasting bullets on them either. Humans are fragile, even those who have been trained to fight for years. There are other ways to kill those changelings that are just as efficient, if not more so. A loaded gun is practically useless against a faery, and it’s overkill against a changeling. However, there are other instances in which a gun and a bullet or two—preferably made of silver—would be a valuable asset. If they survive this, the others will be glad that Maggie conserved their ammunition.
In her distraction, Maggie fails to hear the door to the study open.
“Oh, there you are.”
She jumps to her feet, kicking the door to the safe closed. Fitz stands in the open doorway smiling at her. “You are a tough person to track down,” he says.
She smiles back at him. “I hope I didn’t send you all over the house looking for me.”
He chuckles. “This is literally the last place I checked.”
“It always is the final place you look, but now you’ve found me,” Maggie says with a shrug, suggesting that Fitz to get to the point.
His eyes light up. “Right! I’m supposed to be gathering everyone in the backyard. Luke’s had a brilliant idea!”
All six of them are congregated in the backyard. Luke and Fitz look excited, although Luke is more subdued. Max and Chelle stand together; something about the way they’re angled toward each other doesn’t sit well with Maggie. Lela is present, too. She hovers around the fringes of the group until she spies Fitz and scurries over to him. The way Lela hides in his shadow should not surprise her. In a sense, Fitz is the least threatening person in their group.
“Okay, Luke.” Chelle sounds like she has better things to be doing. “What is this genius idea of yours that absolutely could not wait?”
Maggie frowns at the female Fighter. She fidgets like she’s nervous. Both she and Max appear anxious, more so than anyone else.
Luke holds a glass bottle in one hand and a rag in the other. “Earlier, Maggie was telling me how unstable faery dust can be, and it gave me an idea.” He shows them the bottle. “Gasoline and faery dust,” he says and gives them a good view of the liquid swirling tempestuously inside the bottle. Luke then stuffs part of the rag down the bottle neck.
Fitz comes forward to light a match and ignites the end of the rag. Then Luke turns, drawing back his arm like he’s preparing to pitch a baseball. It’s then that Maggie looks past Luke and sees a pile of lumber, which she assumes is from the shed. Luke hurls the jar—which is apparently their equivalent of a Molotov cocktail—hitting the soon-to-be-pyre dead on.
The explosion itself is not very exciting. It’s comparable to those backyard fireworks you can buy under a tent in the gas station parking lot around the 4th of July. But in this case, the impressive part follows the initial explosion. Tongues of multicolored fire devour the pyre in seconds. The flames reach out like greedy fingers that seem to glow in every color of the rainbow. Even after the lumber pile is nothing more than ash, it takes about five minutes for all of the flames to die down. The scent of gasoline hangs heavy in the air along with the bitter, caramel smell of burnt sugar.
Everyone is shocked into silence. Without any verbal conferment, the six changelings as a group cautiously approach the blackened patch on the lawn. A squelching sound prompts Maggie to look down. Mud clings to her shoes. She glances around at the others who have noticed this, too. The ground has been drenched all around Luke’s demonstration area.
“On the small-scale trials, the fire was a bit difficult to put out,” Luke explains. Fitz nods emphatically and displays three burned and blistered fingers on his right hand. “The force of the explosion also seems to vary, but the fire is always pretty remarkable. Do you think this will be a good weapon against Leon and Rush?” He addresses this question to Maggie.
She bounces on the balls of her feet, her pulse racing in time with her thoughts. “If we can hit them, it will definitely slow them down,” she allows. “But you have to remember, they’re quick.” And then Maggie has an idea of her own. “Luke, how many bottles do you have left?”
“I found fifteen of them in a box in the cellar. I poked around a little after you showed me how to use the washing machine.” Luke hunches his shoulders in a sheepish manner. At the moment, Maggie can’t care less the he essentially snooped around her bedroom. “This is the only bottle I’ve used, so there’s fourteen left.”
“Is there any way we could make a few of them into booby-traps?”
“Ooh, like a tripwire,” Fitz says in excitement. “Anybody who sets it off gets a bomb dropped on them!”
“We would need something to ignite the rags,” Luke adds. Fitz spreads his hands, his enthusiasm unflappable.
“No problem. There’re tons of cigarette lighters left behind in the barracks. I bet we could figure something out using those.”
“Yes!” she agrees, feeding off his energy. “Could you set up a few bombs around the perimeter of the house and one or two by the gate at the end of the driveway?”
Max scoffs. “Who’s going to fall for a tripwire?”
To this, Luke shrugs. “Well, if they’re not expecting it. Though, you’re right. It probably won’t work more than once.”
Maggie crosses her arms. “It’s still worth a shot,” she says. Max and Chelle exchange a secretive glance. “All of the other bombs we’ll keep inside the house.”
“The four of us can take care of that and set up the traps,” Luke volunteers the Fighters. Max and Chelle seem none too pleased about this.
“And what are the House Pets going to be doing?” she demands.
Maggie’s thoughts wander to the garden. The situation is worse than she originally led Luke to believe. Not only is none of the food enchanted, but there are parts of the garden besides Quadrant Two that are dying. It’s becoming apparent that either Maggie has the opposite of a green thumb or there is something that is hindering the garden from thriving. This is one issue to which she needs to find a solution rapidly.
“We’re going to brainstorm,” she answers Chelle. Maggie takes Lela by the arm and leads her back inside before Max or Chelle has the opportunity to object.
It wasn’t completely a lie. Maggie does take Lela to the library, but she doesn’t truly expect the other changeling to contribute anything worthwhile. So, she sits Lela in a cushy chair by the fireplace and thrusts the Grimm Book of Fairy Tales into her hands—an ironic purchase made by Rush. While Lela occupies herself reading, Maggie takes it upon herself to do all the brainstorming.
But no matter how hard she tries, she finds herself incapable of thinking up a plausible solution to her problem. She has learned so much in almost ninety years of living with the Fairchild clan, yet this—a matter of gardening—is what finally stumps her. She looks around the deceptively small library. There must be an answer in here somewhere!
“I’m sorry we were never better friends.” Lela’s voice is so soft and unexpected that at first, Maggie doubts if the other girl actually said anything or if she had imagined it. But then Lela looks up from the thick book of fairy tales. “I spent most of my time getting to know Annabelle, so I feel like I hardly know you at all.”
“Yeah, well that’s a two-way street,” she concedes. “I could have tried harder with you.” She silently curses Lela for making her feel guilty about her aloofness.
Lela’s wide brown eyes suddenly fill with moisture, and one lone tear escapes leaving a wet trail down her cheek. “I don’t want to die, Maggie.” Her voice is barely louder than the squeak of a mouse. “But I’m kind of scared to live too, you know? It’s like nobody’s thinking about what’s going to happen later if we make it through this.”
Maggie has never regarded the youngest House Pet as being exceptionally smart. Bubbly, optimistic, and kind hearted? Yes, give Lela an A plus. But she has always been fairly average in the brains department. That being said, Maggie is one hundred percent positive that these are the wisest words to ever pass those pretty, caramel colored lips. She looks hard at Lela—really looks at her—and she is not sure how she missed that humble intelligence hiding just behind her big doe eyes.
“But you’ve thought about this,” she says.
Lela nods hesitantly. “And every time I think about it, I just have more and more questions. Like that elf guy you’re friends with,” she says and sits forward. “I don’t know much about the Board of Brothers, only what I’ve heard from you guys, but it sounds like sort of a supernatural United Nations, right?”
Maggie nods. It’s an apt description if she’s ever heard one.
“Well, don’t you think they might… I don’t know… intervene?” Lela looks like she’s on the verge of flinching, waiting for Maggie to laugh and call her stupid. Instead, Maggie frowns and leans forward, mirroring Lela’s position demonstrating that she is taking the other girl seriously, showing her that she is listening. Lela visibly swallows, clears her throat, and then goes on.
“If there’s going to be a big, epic showdown… I mean, there’s a town full of humans not that far away. And maybe we’ve already put them in danger, because those doctors tried to treat Harvey. What if the Board sends, like, the Men in Black to lock us up in some super-secret government facility, or worse?”
The gravity of what Lela is struggling to say hits Maggie like an oncoming train. She feels the blood drain from her face, leaving her paler than a ghost. The Board could very well decide to intervene, and since the status of changelings is still up for debate, they might just decide to eliminate all potential threats including the six changelings currently residing at the farmhouse. Seeing the change in Maggie’s demeanor, Lela clutches the book of fairy tales so tightly her fingertips turn white.
“Did I say something wrong?”
“No.” Maggie sighs and runs her good hand through her hair, trying to force her headache to dissipate by sheer force of will. Except her will power is weakening oh so slowly. “I just hadn’t thought of that.” She looks away from Lela and out the window. It really is a beautiful day, but Maggie feels defeated.
“There’s no version of this that ends well for us, is there?”
Lela looks crushed by the weight of uncertainty loaded in Maggie’s question. If the other changeling sniffles and wipes her eyes, then Maggie acts like she doesn’t see.
“Sometimes,” Lela whispers in a strained voice, “at night when I can’t sleep… I think… maybe it would have been better if Annabelle had killed us, too.”
Maggie chuckles sardonically. “It sure would have been easier.”
Faery funerals made Maggie feel uncomfortable. She had never been to a human funeral, but she watched enough television to know what one was supposed to be like. After attending her third faery funeral with the Fairchilds, Maggie concluded that faeries made a perverse mockery out of everything. Whether or not they meant to do this was an entirely separate issue that she had no desire to examine further. Darrius, on the other hand, had no such compunctions.
He sat down on the other side of Rush, looking around dazedly like he was unsure if he was in the right place.
“Did I wander into a funeral or a roast for Richard Nixon?”
Tilda smiled at this, and Rush chuckled. “That’s a good one,” he said to the confused elf. “You should get up and say that.”
Darrius shook his head, staring at Rush in mortified amazement. “The man, er… faery, is dead,” he said, vainly attempting to pierce the cultural barrier. “I don’t think we should be talking about him so disrespectfully.”
“Psh!” Rush slouched in his chair adopting a devil-may-care expression. “This whole respect for the dead nonsense is a very human concept, and apparently an elfish one too. The only time you can talk bad about faeries with no fear of retribution is after they’re dead.”
“Sometimes not even then depending on what kind of curses they left behind,” Tilda chimed in. Darrius’ stunned gaze went to Maggie who only shrugged. Generally speaking, trying to understand faeries was not worth the headache.
“Why would you want to curse the people you’ve left behind?” the elf queried, determined to get to the bottom of this enigma.
“Lots of reasons,” Tilda replied.
“You want to protect your legacy, your reputation, your most prized possessions.” Rush ticked them off on his fingers and then added one more. “Or maybe you want to make one final jab at your enemies who outlived you.”
“That sounds petty,” Darrius said. “No offense meant, of course.”
Rush rolled his shoulders. “None taken. And it is petty.” He smirked. “If you want to know just how petty, ask Tilda.” Darrius raised his eyebrows at the girl. Maggie was listening closely now too, since this was something that had never come up in the past.
In response, Tilda gave an irritated huff. “We’re all pretty certain that our mother will somehow curse the garden before she dies. Which is not fair, because it’s my garden, too!”
“Yes, but it’s her baby,” Rush replied. “I can see why she might not want other people doing anything to it after she’s gone.”
Even though they were still at a funeral, Maggie snickered a little bit. She felt less guilty than she probably should have, since everyone else was already being irreverent. “I thought you were her baby,” she teased and poked Rush in the ribs.
He pretended to roll her comment over in his mind, resting his chin on his fist thoughtfully and tapping his cheek.
“Well I am more likeable than Leon, but so is a turd stain. I think it’s understandable why she cares more about her garden than us.”
Maggie doesn’t immediately regain consciousness after the dream fades away into ribbons of wispy smoke. She is subjected to vague images and indistinct sounds, none of which boast the clarity of her memory of the funeral, previously lost in the dregs of a mind that has grown far too old.
When she does wake, the sun is low in the sky. Lela still sits across from her, but the fairy tales have been set aside. Now the other House Pet is surrounded by books on horticulture. Lela looks up as Maggie begins to stir.
“Sorry I didn’t wake you up.” The girl trips over her words in her haste to apologize. “But you looked really tired.” Lela holds up the book she is currently studying. “I know you’ve been stressed over the garden, so I thought I would help. I’ve been dog-earing all the pages that look useful.”
Maggie tries to smile gratefully, but she doesn’t think that she pulls it off. She has just come to the conclusion that the garden is probably doomed to fail no matter what anybody does to it. If Madam Fairchild’s dying curse was to prevent anyone else from benefiting from her hard work, then nothing and no one can prevent the garden from gradually withering away into dust.
Their time is suddenly very limited to whatever food is left in the pantry and the freezer.
In a strange way, knowledge that her garden experiment was bound to be a complete and utter failure is freeing. She doesn’t have to think about it anymore. This leaves her with more time to contemplate other things, such as Max and Chelle’s odd behavior.
Max already does not trust her. She can practically see his mental guards go up whenever they accidentally make eye contact. He looks at her like he would look at one of the Fairchilds; he expects her to trick him somehow. Shaking information out of Chelle, who considers Maggie an incompetent irritant, but not inherently suspicious, will be more straightforward. She feels devious suggesting to Max that he assists Lela in cooking dinner, just to be sure that they are being frugal with their supplies. Not even he can argue against that logic.
With Max out of the picture, Chelle is easy prey.
She finds her on her way to the upstairs bathroom that all of the changelings have now been warned to avoid. Maggie ducks into Tessa and Charise’s bedroom just before Chelle glances over her shoulder. Once she is satisfied that no one has followed her, the female Fighter slips into the bathroom and pulls the door closed until it’s only open an inch or two. It would look peculiar if the door was closed completely, since no one uses this bathroom.
Maggie walks lightly on the balls of her feet and peeks inside. Chelle is crouched by the counter, out of sight of the enchanted mirror. She opens the drawer under the sink. From this angle, she can’t clearly see what Chelle has under there, but it is definitely something the Fighter doesn’t want anyone else to see. Not a bad hiding place, Maggie silently acknowledges. An enchanted mirror that makes your reflection spit abuse at you is a pretty good incentive for people to stay away.
Deciding that skulking in the shadows won’t get her any more information, Maggie kicks the bathroom door open wider. Chelle doesn’t seem startled, though.
“Oh, so you were the one tailing me.”
Maggie rolls her shoulders. She would have liked the element of surprise, but it’s not absolutely necessary. Chelle hasn’t bothered to shut the drawer, so Maggie swoops down and reaches inside. She pulls out an unexpectedly heavy zippered bag. Chelle makes no move to stop her as Maggie drops it on the floor and rips it open. Soon, she sees why is Chelle is so unconcerned.
The only things in the bag are metal odds and ends. Although suddenly, Maggie thinks she has a good idea what she is looking at.
“Why do you have a deconstructed headboard?” Chelle frowns, so Maggie elaborates. “You know, a headboard. For a bed.”
“Oh, is that what that is?” Chelle’s face relaxes as understanding passes her eyes. “I recognized the fire pokers and the tire irons, but for the life of me I could not figure out what all of that added up to.”
The words fire pokers and tire irons send up a red flag. The Fairchilds don’t own either of those items. Burning your hand is not really a worry when you have magic to aid you. However, the main reason the Fairchilds don’t own any fire pokers is because they are frequently made from iron—a substance that burns faeries, hinders their magic, and poisons their blood. If a faery is injured with iron, they cannot instantly heal themselves.
Maggie tears through the bag and finds three fire pokers. She is willing to bet that the pieces of the headboard are made of iron as well.
“You didn’t find these lying around the house,” she states. Her tone leaves no room for a denial. “Where did you get them?”
Now, Chelle seems uncertain. She obviously didn’t believe Maggie would glean anything useful from looking through the bag; that’s why she allowed Maggie to do so. When she says nothing, Maggie goes on.
“I know you haven’t been into town, and you didn’t find any of this here. So someone must have delivered it to you. Who was it?”
Chelle looks like she is sucking on a lemon. Clenching her jaw, she reluctantly admits, “It was Rush. He said he was trying to help us.”
Maggie can’t have heard that correctly. “What?” she hisses. Chelle has the decency to look a bit sheepish, but she still seems peeved that she was found out by a House Pet.
“The other night—not last night, so I guess it was two nights ago—Rush sneaked onto the property to talk to us and give us that bag. Apparently, he wants to help us out of this conundrum.”
Maggie cannot make sense of what she’s hearing. “And you believed him?!”
Chelle’s irritated scowl turns into a glare. “No, not for one second. But Max said, since he can’t tell a lie…” Chelle keeps talking, but Maggie doesn’t hear anything after Max’s name. She leaves the Fighter in the middle of her sentence and takes the stairs two at a time.
“Max!” He looks up when she comes barreling into the kitchen. “You slimy little hypocrite!” Maggie shouts. She couldn’t care less if her ruckus draws the attention of the entire house. In fact, it’s better they witness this. She jabs Max hard in the chest, digging her nail in. “You accuse me of being untrustworthy and keeping secrets, but now I hear you’re fraternizing with the enemy!”
Just as she predicted, Luke, Fitz, and Chelle have all flocked to the kitchen like moths to a flame.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa.” Fitz motions for Maggie to slow down. “Time out. What’s going on?”
Maggie crosses her arms. “As of two days ago, Max and Chelle have been talking to Rush.” Chelle moves to the other side of the room to stand by Max, wary of the incredulous looks being sent their way. To his credit, Max doesn’t deny any of it.
“We need the help, Maggie!” he snaps before anyone else can jump in with their two cents.
“Not from him!” To Maggie, this seems obvious. “What did he say to you exactly?” Because maybe, by some miracle, Rush really is on their side. More likely, he is playing both sides, but she needs to know what he said to Max and Chelle in order to figure out what his game is.
Max glances up at the ceiling, thinking back to that evening. “He said that he has a soft spot for humanity.”
“And you assumed he meant figuratively.” Maggie groans. “He could have been playing semantics.”
“He also said he wanted to help us,” Chelle adds.
“And faeries can’t lie!” says Max.
Scathingly, Maggie rolls her eyes. “Help us do what, Max? Help us outsmart his brother, or help us over a cliff?”
There is an awkward pause until Max finally concedes, “He didn’t specify.”
“Of course he didn’t! I wonder why?”
“But he gave me the key to the armory! Why would he do that if—”
“I knew it!” Fitz interrupts. “I knew we didn’t loosen the loft door for you!”
“When were you going to tell us about this?” Luke asks. He’s clearly angry, but he doesn’t look or sound nearly as outraged as Maggie thinks he should. Max laughs in defeat and throws his hands up, as if their anger is ridiculously misplaced.
“I would have told you sooner, if you weren’t attached to Maggie at the hip.”
“Seriously?” She feels on the brink of combustion. Maggie knows that she has a rather short fuse when it comes to Max, and she has just about reached the end of it. “Okay, I get that you trust me about as far as Lela could throw me.” She casts an apologetic glance Lela’s way and then continues, “but you would put all of us at risk just to keep me out of the loop? Now we have even less time than we thought we did, and no one is prepared!”
Suddenly, Maggie is knocked sideways, her hip catching the hard edge of the kitchen island. Max glowers down at her, but he refrains from shoving her again.
“We are prepared,” he says in a low voice, gesturing to the other Pit Fighters. “The only thing you and Lela need to worry your pretty little heads over is staying out of the way.” The one thing stopping Maggie from jamming a fork into his throat is Lela’s terrified face and the fact that the trembling girl is standing just a few feet away from Max. “You’ve had your fun making all of us play follow the leader,” Max sneers, “but now it’s time to let the Fighters do what we’ve been trained to do.”
“Did you forget that if it wasn’t for me, you would be dead right now?” she retorts. “You would have run off the edge of the cliff with the rest of the lemmings if I hadn’t stopped you.”
Max’s expression darkens. He moves forward swiftly, and Maggie thinks for sure that he’s going to hit her. He doesn’t have a chance to do anything, though, as an explosion rents the air and shakes the house. The kitchen then falls silent. Lela turns pale and rushes to Maggie’s side, wrapping her upper arm in a death grip.
“That sounded like one of our bombs,” Luke says, cutting through the tension.
“Which either means really bad news for us,” says Fitz, “or we accidentally barbecued a raccoon.”
Maggie’s pulse quickens, blood roaring in her ears. “Seeing as how we have no manner of luck at all,” she says and swallows thickly, “I’m betting it’s bad news.”