Margery stared ahead, hands clasped and knees aching on the cold stone floor. She chanted the refrain with a hundred other voices. She knew better than to remain silent. The abbess had been good to her. Far, far better than most believed she deserved. Margery might have no faith left in the frozen lump that sat in her chest, but she wouldn’t spit in the abbey’s face.

The congregation rose as one. Margery mouthed the words with blank boredom as the nuns sang songs of jubilation. She pulled her cloak tighter. Even the heat of so many bodies packed in couldn’t counteract the unusually cold, snowy winter.

A small hand slipped into her calloused fingers. Helen’s shy little smile crept onto her face as she drank in the service. The stone walls of the chapel were alive with wreaths and candles. The morning sun blazed through the stained glass, casting the bleak stone in shimmering opulence.

Margery couldn’t begrudge her daughter’s excitement. She forced a small, polite smile onto her face. When she was six, Christmas service had seemed like a window into fairyland, and the town’s church hadn’t been nearly as fine as this.

Bitterness infused Margery’s smile, and she looked away before Helen could see. She longed for home with a deep ache, but the wound was long since scabbed over. They would likely hang her as a witch if she ever appeared. No, it was the thought of fairyland that crumpled her thin veneer of content. Margery’s glimpse into fairyland had revealed none of the bright lights and quick music told of in stories. Only pain could be found in such places.

Pain, and a daughter.

The last notes faded, and the pews brightened with cheerful chatter. Church was meant to be a solemn occasion, especially for nuns, but this was Christmas Eve. Where could joy be found if not on the eve of the savior’s birth?

Margery held back a sigh. That was cynical, even for her. Perhaps the nuns had the right of it. He was the savior of laborers and washerwomen, of lords and ladies, just not her. Just not Helen.

She squeezed their joined hand. Helen looked up, bright brown eyes glinting with something like hope. She was always so hopeful. It made Margery guilty for the tinge of unease that stirred at the eye contact. She pushed aside both the shame and the disquiet. “Are you excited about going into town?”

Helen’s plaits bobbed beneath her cap. As if sensing Margery’s eyes, a finger came up to stroke the ribbons braided into her hair. They were a gift from the abbess two years ago, an unusual token from a woman who espoused modesty in all things. Helen only wore them on Christmas and Easter, as vanity wasn’t something to be encouraged when living in a convent.

“We’re handing out food to the needy.” Helen’s voice was soft, scarcely louder than a whisper. It wasn’t in deference to the setting. Even as a baby, she’d been quiet.

“That’s right. And we’ll get to see all the decorations. Maybe, if you’re very lucky, you’ll get a sweet bun. Like last year, hmm?” The baker always had an extra treat for Helen, who looked so much like his own daughters.

“And then the procession back to chapel,” Helen said.

Margery fought to keep the grimace off her face. Twice daily church was bad enough, but the lengthy special services made her knees go numb. She didn’t know how the eldest nuns managed it. Then again, she often saw a younger woman helping her senior rise.

The abbess smiled as she approached. Still standing in the pews, waiting for the nuns to finish trickling out, they were trapped. Helen’s hand tightened, and she tucked herself behind the folds of Margery’s skirts.

“Good tidings, Margery.” Her eyes didn’t so much as flicker to the little girl.

“Good tidings, Mother Agnes.” Margery curtsied. Helen imitated the action with wary stiffness.

“Have you given anymore thought to your future? You will always have a home in the abbey, of course, but I worry you’re stuck in between lives. If you were to become a novice, and one day, to take vows, I believe you could find peace. Perhaps even happiness.”

“I’ve thought about it,” Margery said, though she knew it couldn’t happen. Even if she wished to devote her life to the church, she would have to send away the child Mother Agnes forgot existed. The child everyone’s eyes slid over, even when she was close enough to touch.

Oh, they knew Helen existed, but in the dim sort of way one remembers childhood songs. Not a woman in the convent could notice Helen until Margery pointed her out.

“I pray you find guidance,” the abbess said earnestly. “If not here, then perhaps it’s time we look to the village.”

Margery stilled. Her mind, only half paying attention to the oft-repeated conversation, snapped back to the moment. She didn’t think that was an option. Women packed away on wagons and sent to rural abbeys couldn’t just leave.

Not that Margery could leave. She was young enough to find a second husband. Pregnancy hadn’t ruined her looks if the baker’s wandering eyes were any indication. No, Margery had a child, and legitimate babies weren’t born in convents. Unlike the nuns, the townspeople could notice Helen. She didn’t fancy the idea of making her way as a penniless widow with a bastard tugging on her apron strings. Better to stay in the abbey where she had food and shelter.

She let herself imagine the suggestion anyway. The freedom to move about the town as she pleased. Celebrations and dances to brighten up a colorless life. Haggling at the market and dressing for beauty as much as practicality. Life at the abbey wasn’t bad, but it was only a pale imitation of the vibrant days she’d lived only six years prior.

“I must pray on these options,” Margery said, because it was the sort of thing a woman in her circumstances should say.

The abbess gave her a knowing look, like she knew Margery kept her own council and locked God out of the affair. Margery really was fortunate to be at the mercy of such a woman. Few were so understanding.

“Very well. Shall we-” Her face went slack. Mother Agnes stared into the distance.

Margery waited, but the abbess never finished her sentence. Blank eyes gazed unseeing into the distance. Her wrinkled hand fell to her side, and her body seemed to lose all the little movements life required.

She waved her hand, but the abbess didn’t react. The sudden stillness reminded her of a time long ago when the cartman’s wife went quiet during a market day. She was full of boisterous laughter and crude jokes. She went silent in between the fish stalls, and the novelty had been enough to catch the attention of the passersby. Upon waking, half her face was frozen in a permanent frown.

Was this strange ailment similar? Mother Agnes was certainly old enough. Margery looked around for help.

She froze, dread burning through her veins like a cold wildfire. Every nun stood motionless, staring at the same imaginary point in the countryside.


No, no, no.

Margery raced outside the chapel, pulling Helen along. Everywhere she looked, nuns and novices stood stock-still, their eyes transfixed on something invisible.

This was wrong. Margery stumbled backward. Wrong, like the woodsman who approached while Margery and her husband traveled through the forest. Wrong, like her father’s expression when she stumbled into his house a few hours later.

She took another step backwards, nearly tripping over Helen.

“Mummy, can my doll come?”

Margery turned to Helen with wide eyes. “What?”

“My doll? I’m not allowed to take her to chapel, but can she come with us?”

“Where? No, we’re… Quiet, child. I need to think.”

All at once, life returned to the frozen nuns. They turned and began walking down to the village. They didn’t speak, or turn their heads to examine the best way down the steep, slick road. The elderly didn’t wait for someone to pull a cart around. Mother Agnes and the others moved as if despondent workhorses. Slow, plodding steps followed the pull of an invisible bridle.

Helen made to follow the horde of women. Margery yanked her into the cloister. Refusing to relinquish her grip on the struggling child, she peered out from behind a stone pillar. She had to duck her head under the icicles hanging off the high arch. The wicked wind bit into her cheeks and dug needle fingers into her clothes. As she watched, it snatched the habit from Sister Mary. The woman made no attempt to retrieve it. She didn’t appear to even notice.

“Did you do this?” Margery breathed. She didn’t want to ask. Questions implied answers and Margery didn’t know what to do with the wrong answer.

“The lady did it,” Helen said.

“The lady?” Heart in her throat, Margery’s head whipped around for the wicked sorceress ordering the exodus. There was no one else in sight.

Helen nodded, unbothered. “It’s time to go. Can I bring my doll?”

“Inside.” Margery’s voice cracked with fear. “We’re going inside.”

Helen pointed an insistent finger toward the descending horde. The dog Mother Agnes loved loped after the nuns. In seconds, he outpaced them. “It’s time to go, Mummy.”

“I don’t know what kind of awful magic this is, but we are not racing off to the slaughter.” Margery sidled further into the cloister, eyes scanning the world for witches.

Helen made a guttural, frustrated sound in her throat. She darted off toward the nuns.

Surprise kept Margery from responding right away. Helen was never disobedient. Even as a toddler, she’d been remarkably biddable. Where had her compliant little girl gone?

When Helen reached the road, Margery’s sense kicked back in. She raced after her daughter, abandoning the icy path to cut through the knee-high snow.

“Helen! Helen, don’t you dare go any farther!” Margery screamed. She stumbled, nearly falling on her face. “Helen!”

Helen paused. She watched Margery’s clumsy journey with impatience. “Mummy, we have to go.”

Margery finally reached her disobedient daughter. She grabbed Helen’s wrist and yanked her back toward the abbey. Upon realizing they were leaving the road, Helen fought to free herself.

“No, Mummy!”

Fingernails dug into Margery’s hand, making her hiss. She refused to relinquish her grasp. A sharp kick to her shins changed Margery’s mind. She threw the flailing child over her shoulder. Helen was too big to hold, but Margery hadn’t wasted her life on this brat just to let her march off to some hussy’s black mass. No daughter of hers would be used for spell ingredients.

The ground shifted. Margery tumbled to her knees. Helen squirmed away and darted to the road. Scrambling to her feet, Margery sprinted. She held the woolen skirt almost up to her knees to free her sliding boots. Energy flagging, her legs gave one last burst of speed. She tackled Helen into a snowdrift.

Helen made an incoherent noise of anger. Margery felt a heavy gust of wind. As if being struck by a carriage, she flew backwards. The snow cushioned her landing, but it did little to ease her rising temper.

Margery yanked her half-buried body out of the snow and charged. Unable to stop in the treacherous snow, she slammed into Helen. They tumbled down the hill. Margery pushed herself up, yanked her squirming, screaming child up by the armpits and marched toward the abbey. They made it four paces before Margery slipped again. As Helen tried to get away, she clamped onto a small ankle and pulled.

Helen’s face smashed into the snow, but she wasn’t giving up. A wave of snow blew into Margery’s face. She yanked the ankle even closer. Digging her fingers into the laces, Margery twisted her fingers into the leather strands so she couldn’t lose her grip. She needed skin contact to stop Helen’s creepy nonsense. Clothed as they were in winter garb, she hoped the girl was still small enough to be overpowered with brute force.

Seconds later, another blast of wind knocked her over. “You insolent, ungrateful brat!”

“We have to go!” Helen beat her fist against the ground with each word.

Margery’s cape flung itself over her head, blinding her. She only bothered to free herself enough to find the shape of the abbey against the gray sky. They’d drifted farther than she’d realized. The two were nearly halfway down the hill to town, though they’d long since left the road. Huffing and puffing, Margery staggered toward the abbey, dragging the child by her boot. Helen was losing energy, though not enough to make the journey easy.

Thrice more, Margery fell. She couldn’t feel her fingers, so tight were the laces of Helen’s shoe, but it kept them connected. Helen tried to yank her foot from the boot, but Margery’s knots were too strong for that. If she’d been thinking, Helen might have set the shoe on fire. Instead, it was Margery’s cloak that started smoking.

Margery ignored it. They were only a few paces from the abbey door, and she didn’t feel her skin burning. Behind them stretched a long ditch, as if a snake had wormed through the snowdrifts. Steam rose up from the trail, though the frigid wind solidified the damp and sent it plinking down in small, icy diamonds. Margery ignored that too. So what if it was the exact width of Helen’s shoulders? She was clearly fine, if the growls were any indication.

She shoved open the heavy oak door. Helen used the moment of distraction to lunge for freedom. Margery caught the leaping child and flung her bodily through the opening.

Barring the door, Margery leaned against it, daring Helen to try again.

Helen rattled the door, but couldn’t get it to budge. A look crept into her eye, one that Margery knew far too well. Before the door could start smoking, she shoved Helen to the ground and sat on her. Margery shoved her frozen fingers against Helen’s wind-chapped cheek.

A surge of feeling, sharp and sudden as an adder, bit into her. Margery pressed her fingers harder against the exposed skin. The burning dissipated, replaced by the cool, misty sensation she recognized as Helen.

Margery drew back her hand and studied the trapped six-year-old. The tussle had allowed hair to escape the careful plaits, and Helen’s dark fly-aways hung about her face like a shadowed halo. One ribbon had fallen out. Margery would need to hunt it down before the next snowfall if she didn’t want to deal with the resulting sulk. Margery doubted she looked any better.

Helen fell limp, scrutinizing her back. The uncharacteristic scowl was gone, replaced by a quiet curiosity. Margery didn’t know why skin contact halted her spooky powers, but it had always been that way. Even as a baby, Margery could halt a tantrum by picking her up.

Not that there were many tantrums. The solemn child seldom complained about anything. Skin contact kept Helen from experimenting, which kept the nuns from seeing a floating doll, which kept them both from doing the hangman’s jig. Mother Agnes was quite lovely when she wasn’t talking about God, but even she wouldn’t excuse such an obvious sign of evil powers.

“I don’t know what I did to come by a sorcerer’s child,” Margery said, except she had a pretty clear idea of how that happened, “but I’ll not have you running off to join the forces of evil. Or worse, eaten. I hear witches love gobbling up plump little children like yourself.” She poked Helen’s reddened cheek for emphasis.

“Sorry, Mummy.”

Margery sighed and got up. She watched for signs of rebellion, but Helen made no move to throw herself back into the cold.

Helen brushed the crusted snow off her woolen dress. Her cloak must’ve torn in the scuffle, because it was nowhere to be seen. The clasp was no doubt ruined. Wonderful, another thing to mend. She sent her mother a reproachful look. “I’m not plump. I need more sweets, not less.”

That was true enough, Margery supposed. No matter how much she ate, Helen stayed a scrawny little thing. “You are a bit bony for a witch’s supper.”

Margery glanced around the kitchen. Breakfast lay waiting for the missing women. Utensils lay next to the enormous pot, ready to be carried into the refectory. The fire still smoldered in the hearth. She moved nearer, encouraging Helen to do the same. A winter fever was the last thing they needed.

After breakfast, they’d planned on going into town to hand out hampers to the needy, and the baskets still lined the hallway as far as Margery could see. She wondered what the townspeople would say about that. They might forget the horde of traveling nuns if they put their minds to it, but there was food in those baskets. Hungry people never forgot a missed meal.

The town itself wasn’t overlarge, especially not in comparison to Margery’s home, and it had struggled through several poor harvests in a row. The abbey itself subsisted on the generosity of Good King Henry, the latest in a line of Good King Henrys, none of whom were remembered for being particularly good. There was much anticipation surrounding the Christmas hampers and the full bellies they promised.

Should Margery go for help? Many of the nuns were old and slow. They couldn’t have gotten far on foot. The townspeople might be able to round them up.

Perhaps the nuns had already turned back. Maybe they shook off the enchantment and were heading back to the abbey even as Margery stood shivering by the hearth. She should check, she decided. No point causing a panic if the problem was gone. The town didn’t need a reason to start whispering about witches.

She nodded, determined. “Come along, Helen.”

Margery strode off for the staircase, Helen dogging her heels. They moved past the dormitory, past the little storage room the duo slept in. The library waited at the end of the hall. It wasn’t much. Westminster Abbey supposedly had shelves and shelves of books, but this abbey was too small and rural for that. The library had a single shelf with a handful of books and a few writing desks.

Sometimes, the nuns sat by the rickety desks and gave reading lessons to newcomers. Margery had needed no such tutoring. Common she may be, but she came from a line of town criers. Literacy was practically a requirement. Margery had spent many afternoons teaching Helen her letters in this room. More pertinently, it had a window facing town.

Margery threw open the shutters and peered out the window. The sight stopped her heart. The nuns hadn’t turned back. Their black habits made them easy to pick out amidst the snow. Their pace hadn’t slowed. If Margery’s eyes were trustworthy, they must be walking fast. Mother Agnes couldn’t keep up that pace. Even on warm days, she shuffled at an invalid’s pace. But she must be keeping up. Margery could spot no black specks falling behind.

Slowly, reluctantly, Margery dragged her eyes back to the line of people leaving the town. There were no carts or sleds among them. Riderless horses and blobs that might be dogs or goats trotted alongside. On foot, an endless river of people exited the town. The nuns were ahead, but not for long. Margery squinted, but she couldn’t spot any baskets or bundles in the exodus. It was impossible to see from such a distance, but she had a sinking suspicion they had dropped what they were doing and left as the nuns did.

“Everyone’s leaving.”

Helen stood on her tiptoes to peek out the window. “We could catch up?”

“No.” Margery shook her head sharply. She sucked in a breath as a flock of birds crossed over. So large were their numbers that the beating wings blocked the sun for a fleeting moment. She hadn’t realized so many birds even overwintered in the area. If she checked on the chickens, would they still be in the yard? Would the goats? The cats? Was there any living creature left in the abbey? “Definitely not.”

“She won’t be happy with us.”

Margery whipped her head around. Helen had mentioned a woman before. “Who is she?”

Helen shoved her hands under her armpits, obviously missing her cloak. “I don’t know. Didn’t you hear her tell us to leave?”

Margery shook her head numbly.

“I think she must be a lady. Or maybe a princess. She sounded like they do in stories.”

“How do they sound in stories?”

“Like they command the whole world.”

Margery sucked in a breath. “I think, I think I should check the doors.”

Wasting no more time, she hurried back down the stairs. Margery checked the kitchen door first. It was still barred as she left it. She inspected the hooks and bar, but it didn’t look like Helen’s tantrum had weakened the door. She pushed the table against it, just in case.

One by one, she barricaded the doors. The furniture wasn’t as heavy or as solid as Margery would’ve liked, though she did her best. The abbey seldom had reason to bar the doors, but the mechanisms were all in working condition.

After securing the doors, Margery took on the windows. Most of the shutters were already latched, but it seemed too flimsy to keep out a marauder.

Or a monster.

She placed furniture in front of the windows too, though she was running out of heavy pieces. Margery doubted it would do much good anyhow; the shutters opened outwards. Helen helpfully held the candle, as the lack of natural light made the abbey dark and even more foreboding.

Upon finishing, Margery hesitated. She didn’t know what to do. She’d never been in a situation like this.

Or perhaps she had. Margery didn’t remember any moment of that month she’d spent in the forest. She didn’t recall anything past the woodsman’s smiling request. Johnny had fumbled with his belt to offer the requested flask, and then-

And then, nothing.

Margery found herself standing on a path half-a-days walk from town. She didn’t remember Johnny dying, though Father insisted they’d found his bloodied corpse. She didn’t know why her clothing was ripped or where her shoes had gone. Margery certainly didn’t remember getting pregnant. She’d been certain the baby was Johnny’s child until Helen floated a doll across their little room.

She cleared her throat, forcing herself back to the problem at hand. “Let’s eat. I’ll figure out what we’re doing afterwards.”

Margery blew on the coals and started up the kitchen fire again. She should’ve brought in more firewood before barricading the door. She eyed the supply critically. It would last until morning if she were careful, and there was probably more wood in the warming room.

Pilfering the pantry, Margery put together a miniature feast for Helen and herself. Food was always plain at the abbey, but there were a few Christmas treats in stock. Margery found the prize in the warming box by the hearth. An entire roast duck sat waiting for the abbess and whatever important guests she’d invited for supper. Strictly speaking, such wasteful methods of cooking were frowned upon. The cook must’ve hidden it so the sisters wouldn’t be tempted to express the cardinal sin of envy.

Margery felt a little bad about commandeering the duck, but she was loath to let it spoil. She claimed a leg for herself, and let Helen have the rest. Margery politely averted her eyes, unable to stomach the sharp crunch of bones. In minutes, there was nothing left on the plate but a grease smear. Helen sopped it up with a slice of bread, then contentedly sat back. Margery finished her own meal of bread, cheese, and duck leg shortly after. Wrestling in the snow had left her equally famished.

She debated going into town to look for others who stayed behind, but she feared leaving the familiar environment. Margery knew every shadow and cranny in the abbey, but the town was a forest of new dangers. She spent the rest of the day working through the mending basket and fashioning a new cloak for Helen. Neither of them was going out to retrieve the lost garment, not if Margery had anything to do with it.

As night fell, Margery felt the thin veneer of normalcy wearing away. She’d found a measure of success in pretending this was an ordinary Christmas Eve. It was easy to let her fingers slip into the familiar patterns of darning and patching. If she closed her eyes, she could almost pretend the nuns were in the next room. It was too quiet without them, but Margery filled the silence with chatter and everything was almost alright.

But when the thin lines of sunlight faded from the latched shutters, she couldn’t pretend any longer. There were things wriggling in the shadows. Margery saw them out of the corner of her eye. Inky black, their long spindly tendrils pulled them across the walls inch by inch.

Margery shuddered and tried not to see. When she looked at them straight on, they disappeared into the plaster. At times, she was able to convince herself that it was only her imagination. Then she’d look up at Helen and see something squirming out of the corner of her eye.

Instinct kept her quiet. Helen hadn’t seen them yet. She wasn’t sure how her daughter would react. Perhaps she’d shriek and hide behind Margery. On seeing their prey’s fear, the things would launch themselves into the little girl’s face.

Or perhaps Helen would want to investigate. She might reach out a finger to stroke the inky appendages. The things would cringe away and hide when faced with a creature so much more frightening than themselves.

Margery wasn’t sure which option terrified her more.

When the last beams of sunlight turned a ruddy orange, Margery could put off her task no longer. The firewood hadn’t lasted as long as she’d hoped. They’d need more if she wanted the fire to last the night. The longer she waited, the darker it would get. She didn’t know if the creatures grew more active at night, but already their number seemed to multiply as the evening wore on.

There were others now, too. When she cared to look, they appeared like ink droplets on parchment. They coalesced into a round mound, then seeped into the plaster. Thin, trickling lines spread from the centers like spokes on a wagon.

“Helen,” Margery whispered. She hadn’t intended to, but she couldn’t force her voice any louder. “I’m going to fetch more firewood from the warming room. Stay here.”

Helen looked up from her doll and the new dress she’d fashioned from fabric scraps. “Yes, mummy.”

Margery hesitated, peering out into the darkened hallway. She stepped back into the fire lit kitchen. There were more creatures out there, she was certain of it. Margery swallowed. Making a snap decision, she searched for the salt.

“What are you doing?” Helen asked, abandoning her doll by the hearth.

“Something my nan told me about.” With a steady hand, Margery drew a large salt circle. “When the nuns come back, you can’t tell them about this. It’s superstitious nonsense at best, and witchcraft at worse.”

“But what does the salt do?”

Margery winced. It sounded so silly out loud. “Faeries can’t cross a salt ring.”

Helen looked around. She was always a smart child. Her head tilted. “The wriggly things are faeries?”

Neither surprise nor fear showed on her face. She must’ve known the creatures were present, perhaps even before Margery noticed the slow invasion.

“Maybe.” Margery didn’t know whether or not to hope for it. Old Nan told terrifying tales of thumb-sized creatures that would dig out a man’s liver and horse-sized monsters that annihilated villages. The one commonality across her stories was intent. Faeries never appeared with benevolent intentions.

But if they were faeries, they couldn’t cross a salt ring. If they weren’t, Margery didn’t know what to do.

“Stay in the circle. I’ll be back soon.” Margery hesitated, then grabbed the fire poker. Just in case. It was iron, and that was supposed to hurt faeries.

Margery took a deep breath and stepped into the hallway. It felt like crossing into a new world, though she could see the dancing light trickling from the kitchen doorway. There was nothing to differentiate one step from the next and yet-

And yet.

The hair stiffened on her neck. Margery’s muscles tensed. The kitchen felt an ocean away. She forced herself to take another step. Then another. She couldn’t hear the crackling of the fire any longer.

There were things moving in the darkness around her. She didn’t look. Margery raised her candlestick and gripped the iron poker tight. She set a steady pace, merciless to her nerves. Confidence was important. If she didn’t notice them, they may not take exception to her presence. That was another of her Old Nan’s tidbits. Margery should’ve listened closer.

Step by step, Margery tiptoed through the halls. A scritching sound followed, like someone was scratching their nails along the plaster. There was a thump on her left when she passed the stairs. As she neared her destination, a floorboard creaked. All that, she ignored, but when footsteps began to follow, it was too much to bear.

They were heavy boots, like the ones belonging to laborers. Doubt crept into her mind. What if it wasn’t a fairy, but a marauder come to ransack the vulnerable abbey? Any thief capable of escaping the witch’s enchantment might think to seek out the gold inside the chapel and the silver lining the coffers. Steeling herself, Margery turned her head.

There was no one there. It wasn’t a relieving thought. Margery hadn’t realized it, but she was almost hoping to find a tangible enemy.

Margery lowered her candle. She took another step. The warming room was just around the corner. Something slammed into her shoulder blade.

She smashed into the ground, sacrificing her knees to preserve the candle. The fire poker clanged onto the stone. Scrambling to her feet, Margery lifted the candle. Countless eyes glinted in the light of the weak flame. Was it a thousand creatures creeping closer, or one enormous beast? In her mind’s eye, Margery imagined the woodsman, tall and strong, leering over her with eyes stitched into his cloak like buttons. She took an instinctive step backwards. Her foot slipped on the poker, and her back slammed into the floor.

The eyes loomed over her, moving nearer in increments. They were coming for her. The breath fled her body. Margery couldn’t scream. The candle, fallen onto its side, sputtered. Unblinking, Margery stared at the gleaming orbs as she frantically patted the stone for the iron poker. The canopy of creatures drew ever closer.

Her hand closed around a smooth length. The flame died. The canopy swooped. Margery swung the poker, hoping to connect with the diving eyeballs. Struggling to her feet, she sprinted the last few paces and threw herself into the warming room. She slammed the door shut with all her might.

Pressing her back against the door, Margery braced, hoping it was enough to hold back the oncoming wave of nightmares. Her heart thundered in her ears. For an eternity, she stood there waiting for the attack.

Margery held her breath, listening for the soft, scuttling sounds that had followed her.


She’d escaped.

Through the darkness, Margery looked down at her hands. One clenched around the iron poker, and the other grasped something waxy.

Oh. The candle. She wanted to laugh. When did she have the presence of mind to grab the candle?

She didn’t allow herself even the faintest of relieved sighs. With shaking hands, Margery lit the candle. The holder was gone, abandoned in the hallway. The candlestick was soft and warm, but the wick hadn’t burned down so far as to make the wax unholdable. After a few tries, the flame caught.

Margery swallowed. Now she just had to gather firewood and return to the kitchen.

For a moment, she considered staying in the warming room. She could light the hearth. It would probably be as safe as the kitchen.

But what of Helen? Could she leave Helen to fend for herself amongst the monsters? For one brief, shameful moment, Margery contemplated it.

She banished the thought. Firewood first, then she’d consider how she might brave the journey.

Margery gathered up as much as she could carry. She bound the bundle with her apron and tied it to her back.

Right. Now she just had to make it to the kitchen.

Perhaps she should put out the candle? She’d trod these halls often enough to find her way in the dark. She might sneak through if she didn’t carry a beacon. Nodding firmly to herself, she snuffed out the candle. Margery hefted her fire poker, took a deep breath, and slipped back into the hallway.

She walked with quick, careful steps. Margery flinched with each scuff of her boots, but there were no answering sounds. Too late, she remembered the cat-like glint of the eyes. Margery couldn’t see in the dark, but the creatures might have no such limitations.

As if waiting for her fear, something slick and spongy brushed against her cheek. Margery shrieked, blindly swinging the poker. The sensation came again on her ankle. The poker connected with something. She swung it again. With a sharp twist, it pulled out of her hand.

Abandoning all pretense of fight, she ran. Margery scarcely made it to the next doorway before the wet thing pulled her ankle out from under her. She screamed as it yanked her close. She scratched at the tendril, attempting to pry it off.

Margery screamed wordless pleas, frantic bargains indecipherable but for the tone. Another wet, smooth thing licked her face. She could feel the press of teeth against her skin.

“Let go of Mummy!” Helen shrieked. She flung her candle away, leaving it to glide gently to the ground. With the faint light, Margery saw the little girl throw herself at the immovable mass.

Margery shrieked again.

In the midst of her panicked flailing, she realized Helen wasn’t screaming. If anything, it sounded like she was stomping on the tendrils. Thumps and hisses echoed through hallway. Helen growled. Wetness splattered against Margery’s face.

Now free, Margery crawled towards the candle. She raised it, but the flame gave off too little light to see the fight from this distance. She’d scarcely regained her feet when something tugged her skirt. Before Margery could scream, she recognized the hand.

“Go, Mummy. Run, run, run.”

Margery sprinted all the way back to the kitchen, only slowing when she feared Helen was falling behind. She tripped on one of the hampers and skidded the rest of the way. Helen slammed the door shut.

Breathing raggedly, Margery stared up at her daughter. Dimly, she realized there was a sense of horror growing within her. Helen left the salt ring to go wandering through a monster-infested convent. Helen went toe to toe with a creature of unimaginable proportions. Margery didn’t know which thought took precedence. Was she a mother first or a human?

She couldn’t find a way to verbalize the maelstrom in her head, and figured it wasn’t wise anyhow. “You saved my life.”

“Don’t be mad,” Helen pleaded. “You were gone forever.”

On sore knees, Margery crawled into the salt ring. She didn’t think her legs would support her. The salt had shifted, but she scooped it back into place. Helen watched her, eyes wide and longing.

Margery held out her arms.

Helen smiled and crawled into her mother’s lap. Margery held her for a long time. Not speaking, just relishing in the warmth of another human. Helen was alive. She was alive, and Margery was alive. They were going to get through this awful Christmas.

Eventually, Margery untied the firewood bundle. She put on new logs when necessary and watched the fire with a keen eye. Helen fell asleep on her mother’s shoulder. Margery didn’t take her attention off the door.

The creatures on the wall only grew in number. Pulsating ink blots and flat beetles with creeping tendrils crawled along the wall. No longer hiding, they stared back at her when she watched them. They were bolder now, too. Big ones ate the little ones, and sometimes the little ones worked together to tear the big creepers apart, one tentacle at a time. A slow, throbbing arm crept under the kitchen door, reaching for the other wall monsters. None were daring enough to return the deadly handshake.

Margery watched, and she hoped. Let them eat each other, the vague plea went out to the heavens. She didn’t bother with God or whoever the patron saint of people trapped by monsters was- Saint Anthony, perhaps. No deity would listen to Margery, but she hoped nonetheless.

She imagined the woodsman knocking on the kitchen door. The wall creatures would fly at him, desperate to defend their prey. In their haste, the swarm and the woodsman would destroy one another. Margery would sweep their flat, desiccated bodies from the floor. She’d dangle them from the window so that the sunlight made them into butterfly wings, like Helen did with posies.

Margery shook her head. It was a lovely daydream, but now was not the time for fantasies. If she’d been a believer, she would’ve prayed. This was the sort of circumstances that grew devotion from heresy. Whether out of habit or genuine belief, Helen insisted they pray before each meal, even when the nuns weren’t around. Even in the midst of such horrors, she made her nightly prayers when she woke up from her dozing. She was out again as soon as she’d said amen, and Margery disliked her a little more for it. How could Helen find comfort in prayer, when she was the reason Margery couldn’t believe?

So instead of praying, Margery waited and tended the fire when she was brave enough to leave the salt circle. The night seemed to stretch on for months, but that was only the fear talking. At times, she was certain dawn’s bright fingers were creeping over the horizon, but she couldn’t check. The creatures were thickest around the window.

As Margery considered whether she ought to add another log to the fire, Helen stirred. She pushed her head off Margery’s thigh and rubbed her eyes.

“Are you afraid of the faeries?” Margery whispered.

A small, rare giggle erupted from Helen’s chest. Upon seeing her mother’s face, the laughter fell from her lips. “No, mummy, but it’s fine that you are. Sister Elinor doesn’t like rats, and no one makes fun of her for it.”

Margery didn’t know how anyone could equate rats with faeries, much less how Helen would know to make the comparison. Was it instinct or a supernatural sense? Perhaps she was only guessing? Six-year-olds were inclined towards flights of fancy, even solemn, quiet little girls like Helen.

Whatever Helen might think, the window looked terrifying. Still, curiosity was killing Margery, and if Helen wasn’t afraid….

“Crack open the shutters, just a tad.”

Obediently, Helen climbed to her feet. She stood on her tiptoes to reach the latch. The creeping arm reached for her. She swatted the tendril like it were merely a pushy cat. After a moment of fumbling, she pushed open the shutters.

“Not so far,” Margery hissed.

Helen pulled back the shutter so the slit was only two fingers wide. Margery craned her neck to see out the narrow gap. Not dawn yet. They were probably about two hours out. With the snow reflecting every morsel of light, they really only had to wait for the first glimmering of the sun. Margery didn’t know if life would be any safer in the sunlight, but monsters always seemed to thrive in darkness.

At least, that’s how it went in Old Nan’s stories. The woodsman had appeared at high noon.

Margery’s heart dropped as she saw something fly across the crescent moon. It was only a glimpse, but it seemed massive. Another shadow appeared a few seconds later. Helen closed the shutters without prompting. She hurriedly sat back down in the salt circle.

“That wasn’t something like the wall creatures,” Margery stated.

Helen shook her head. “I don’t think so, mummy.” She turned toward the door. “It’s Christmas, isn’t it? Or does it have to be morning first?”

“It’s Christmas,” Margery confirmed, blinking at the sudden topic change.

A brisk knock came at the kitchen door. Margery froze. Helen slipped out of her grasp before she could come to her senses. “Don’t open that,” Margery hissed as loudly as she dared.

“But the abbey is supposed to welcome everyone,” Helen said, though she paused halfway to the door.

“Shh. Not tonight.” Margery’s head raced. The knock didn’t come from the door that opened outside, but from the one that connected to the main hall. Someone was in the abbey.

The knock came again, crisp and polite. Margery shuddered. Inkblots fled, oozing across the wall and seeping through the shutters. The tendrils scurried onto the ceiling like disturbed cockroaches. The arm was nowhere to be seen. Salvation or damnation stood on the other side of that door. Margery had never felt so keen to remain in the kitchen’s purgatory.

“Send it away,” Margery pleaded. “Make it forget we’re here, like you did with the nuns.

The door swung open on its own to reveal a small, slender woman in a nobleman’s hose and tunic. Her skin was too tanned for an Englishman and her complexion too pristine to have ever faced the rigors of life. All strangeness paled in comparison to her gleaming bald head. Surely, this was a faerie, too. She lacked the tentacles, wings, tails, and other appendages the stories agreed a faerie ought to have. She lacked the aggressive banality, the overwhelming sense of someone routinely spotted at the market, like the woodsman possessed. And yet, there was no doubt in Margery’s mind. This was a faerie.

Helen gave Margery an uneasy glance before turning back to the bemused stranger. “We aren’t here. Go away.” Her voice was firm, but altogether ordinary. There was no hint of enchantment in her tone, but then, there never was.

Margery winced, bracing herself to see the look of confusion fall over the faeries face.

The chuckle reverberated in Margery’s bones. Is that any way to welcome a visitor? I observed the social nicety of knocking. You should ask after my health, or some such nonsense. The woman’s mouth didn’t move, but her voice echoed in Margery’s head.

“Helen, get back in the salt ring.” Margery could scarcely hold back a scream.

The woman’s responding laugh was every bit as deep and vibrating as the first one. When I find the cretin who first suggested salt circles to humans, I am going to eat him. He knows perfectly well salt only affects one of my kind out of a hundred. Don’t look so horrified. You are well equipped to handle a slug problem.

“Helen!” Margery said. The faerie was trying to trick Margery into leaving the protection, so it must be powerful.

The woman sighed. A sharp wind blew through the kitchen, scattering the salt and rattling the dishes. Margery recoiled.

Helen cocked her head. She smiled, seeming to come to a conclusion. “Merry Christmas!”

Wry amusement replaced the irritation. Merry Christmas to you, Helen.

Heedless of Margery’s terror, Helen kept speaking to the faerie. “Are you a princess? Why did you need all the nuns? Are you like me? Will I need nuns too when I’m old?”

Margery had never heard Helen say so many words at once, much less seen that smile in front of a stranger.

That awful, horrible laugh came again. The woman stepped closer. It was impossible to read the dark coals in her face, but she seemed satisfied. She turned away from Helen. A flick of her fingers, and an invisible hand drug two chairs over to the table still barricading the door. I am called Nin. Sit with me, child.

Helen glanced at Margery, who shook her head frantically. She looked back at the woman.

I am not accustomed to repeating myself. Sit.

Helen sat in the opposing chair, within easy reach of the faerie. The image was enough to bolster Margery’s bravery.

“That’s quite enough.” Margery snapped. “I don’t know who you are or what you want, but I’ll thank you to stay away from my daughter.”

For the first time since her arrival, Nin spared her a look. This is quite an unusual situation. I went to great effort to drive life out of these hills.

“You did this?” Margery gasped. Helen’s comments fell into place. This was the sorceress.

Mmm. Tell me about her sire.

“He was one of your kind,” Margery spat.

Not quite, though I suppose you were too ignorant to know the difference. Did he mean for you to survive?

Margery was silent. She’d never spoken to Helen about her father, and she certainly owed this monster no explanation.

I suspect not. The ability that allowed you to resist my curse likely kept you alive when he was through with you. I assume it also allowed you to keep the child from doing anything overt, at least until she was old enough to learn a semblance of control. Why did the convent allow her to stay with you?

Margery hesitated. She didn’t want to speak of such things with this woman.

“I make them forget,” Helen said.

Margery surrendered. She might as well explain. “They wanted to take Helen right away, but she was born in the fall. It was a bad harvest all around, and everyone knew the winter would be lean. There were no women with milk to spare in town. I told Mother Agnes it would be murder, and she listened. The next time she came, Helen didn’t want to go.”

That was putting it lightly. The toddler had screamed upon being separated from her mother for the first time. Margery had closed her eyes and tried to busy herself with work. A few hours later, she’d found Helen crying in the dirt just inside the abbey gates. It appeared Sister Anne had simply dropped her and resumed the daily chores. When Margery tentatively broached the subject, no one could remember taking the toddler. After a few more repetitions, the nuns grew a tendency to forget Helen’s existence entirely.

Nin smiled, like she knew exactly what Margery meant.

“I answered your questions,” Margery snapped. “Answer mine.”

Nin turned to Helen. I would like to take you with me. There are others like you and I. You wouldn’t be lonely anymore. You wouldn’t have to hide what you are.

Helen bit her lip, the longing apparent on her face. “And Mummy could come too?

Perhaps. I’m not in the habit of bringing fully human adults into my valley, but exceptions can be made. Mmm. She’ll need to prove herself suitable, but what would be appropriate? I know. If your mummy can make it to the library, I’ll take her along. Does that sound fair?

Margery flinched at the thought. Make it up the stairs and to the other end of the abbey? Alone?

Of course, if she doesn’t want to stay with you, she can remain in this kitchen.

Helen turned hopeful eyes to Margery.

Her mind raced as Margery imagined the consequences of each option. Stay, and she might be eaten. If the salt ring was truly so useless, it wouldn’t hold back the creature that attacked her on the way to the warming room. And if she survived, Helen would be gone. A part of Margery rejoiced at the thought. She could have a life again. She could start over. The other part recoiled at the idea of life without Helen. Margery didn’t have anyone else, and, despite her oddities, Helen was very dear to her heart.

Or she could brave the library. Margery didn’t know what lie upstairs. Perhaps it was empty. Perhaps there was a swarm of man-eating faeries waiting to descend upon her. Say she survived the journey, what then? It sounded as if Nin’s valley was infested with faeries, witches, and sorcerers. Could Margery bear to live among such people?

She swallowed. Helen was only six. Who would look after her in this kingdom of horrors?

“I’ll go,” Margery’s voice cracked, her words indiscernible to the ear. She cleared her throat. “I’ll go.”

A beaming smile overtook Helen’s face. She threw her arms around Margery. “Thank you, mummy.”

“If I don’t come back, you better be good for whoever takes you in.”

Her eyebrows furrowed. “Don’t be scared. You can shoo the wriggly things away if you try.”

Margery doubted it would worked so well coming from herself. “Could I have scared the monster from the hallway?”

Helen frowned. “But that’s in the downstairs hall.” She seemed to understand Margery’s point, because her enthusiasm disappeared. “Maybe you should be really careful, even if you aren’t scared.”

Margery gave her one last squeeze, then grabbed the fire poker. She looked at Nin uneasily. “Are you quite certain there’s no other task you’d like me to perform?

You should hurry. I plan to leave soon.

Margery took a deep, steadying breath and paused on the threshold. This was her last chance for second thoughts. She looked down at Helen, whose hands twisted nervously.

Three paces to the staircase. Twenty-seven stairs. Thirty or so paces to the library. Margery could do this. She squared her shoulders and stepped through the doorway.

Her ears strained in the silence of the hall. She could hear faint, directionless rustling, but the quiet seemed to press down on her from all sides. She was at the stairwell opening in an instant. The walls seemed to breathe. They throbbed in time with her heartbeat, and a stale, musky current drifted into her.

No, it wasn’t breath, but an enormous mouth. She shook herself. There might be monsters afoot, but she’d trod these stairs a million times. She would’ve noticed the enormous teeth she imagined positioned at the entrance, waiting with a hair-trigger spring.

All at once, Margery wished she’d left the candle behind. It might draw the faeries in like moths. She tried to force her fingers to relinquish their grip, but the darkness seemed an entity of its own. She couldn’t bear to give up her last weapon against it.

Her hand flexed around the ineffectual fire poker. Twenty-seven steps.

She put her hand on the wall to steady herself. Margery jerked her fingers back as they met with something sticky. Twenty-five steps. She could do this.

Margery took the stairs as fast as she dared. They seemed to tilt and list beneath her feet. More than once, she found herself pressing against the wall for balance. She drew her hand back after a sharp pang. Margery didn’t lift her candle to check if it was blood that dripped from her fingers. Eight steps.

She made it to the top of the staircase and wanted to cry. This shouldn’t be so easy. She had an awful feeling that something had allowed her to progress. For what purpose, she didn’t want to imagine.

Margery froze at the top of the stairs, dreadful emptiness behind her and the terrifying unknown ahead. Something was waiting for her.

She set down the candle. Perhaps the faeries would watch it and miss her tiptoeing past. Part of her wanted to run back to the kitchen, but she knew it would be useless. Whatever waited would only pounce when her back was turned. She grabbed the iron poker with both hands, ready to swing.

Biting back a sob, she took a step forward. One step. Two. Something barreled into her. Soft and furry, it bit deep into her shoulder. Margery dropped to the floor, dislodging its grip. Still on her knees, she slammed the poker into the space ahead. It connected. She hit again and again and again, until it ran whimpering down the stairs.

That wasn’t so bad-

The swarm descended. Wings buffeted her face. Sharp threads caught her skin, tangling her like a net. They sliced into her clothes, but disintegrated where they met Margery’s bare skin. The sensation was almost like when she touched Helen’s skin, but the wrongness made her want to vomit.

She flailed. Screaming and swiping at the air, she struggled to step through the swarm. Margery pressed against the wall, wrapping her arms around her head. Dagger teeth bit into her again and again, but it was no worse than a cat. Margery could survive this. She just had to keep going. If she could just keep staggering alongside the wall-

Margery screamed as the claws sunk into her stomach. She imagined a hawk, ankle deep in her innards, as the creature ripped her frantic hands apart with something like a break. Screaming in unimaginable agony, she pried it away and beat it against the wall.

It shifted and squirmed in her hands. The other creatures took advantage of her distraction to dig deeper into her bloody midsection.

Thought escaped Margery, leaving her little more than an animal. Blind instinct propelled her forward. Sprinting and stumbling, she careened into walls.

Forward, forward, forward, her instincts demanded.

She lost track of why or how or even what was happening. There was nothing but pain and the ever-stretching distance of something she was trying to reach.

And then it was gone. The claws, beaks, and fangs disappeared as if smoke. She collapsed to the ground, bloody and moaning, but somehow still alive.

Light burst into existence as little beaming flowers sprouted along the edges of the library. Golden light shown from their petals, illuminating the single bookshelf and Nin’s gleaming head.

I didn’t think you’d make it so far.

Margery gasped, hardly able to breathe through the agony.

Nin sighed and snapped her fingers. In an instant, the pain receded. The wounds were still present, but Margery could think through the pain.

I’m not quite certain what to do with you. These wounds are nothing to me. I could heal you in a moment’s time, but the child will want to see your body before we leave.  

“Take me with Helen,” Margery panted. She’d earned that much. Assuming she didn’t bleed out on the abbey floor, she should look forward to a long life with her daughter. The ache of relief threatened to overwhelm her. She’d made it.

I really would’ve preferred you died.

Margery’s pounding, relieved heart went still.

She’ll be so much more moldable without you. It isn’t like you have anything to contribute to my empire.


No, no, no. Margery shook her head, unable to feel the aggravated wounds that must be present. Nin couldn’t do this, not after Margery had come so far. She wracked her brain for something to make her valuable. “I’m literate.”

A literate peasant. Hardly the most unusual person to find in a convent, but it is a useful skill. Unfortunately for you, I have many literate peasants in my valley.

“You promised.” Margery said. That meant something in the stories. First the salt ring, then the iron poker, and finally a broken vow. She wanted to wake Old Nan from the grave and shake her shoulders for doling out such useless advice in the nightmarish stories.

“Yes, and I always keep my oaths. She was quiet for a moment, content to watch Margery bleed onto the library floor. You could release me.

Why would Margery release her from a promise? She would die if Nin left her. She might die anyway, but she had a better chance inside the faerie’s valley.

Nin’s dark eyes bored into Margery’s own brown ones. England is a recently acquired territory of mine. Certain maintenance is required. The previous owners let the- I think you’d call them faeries- run wild. I sent the inhabitants away so I could drive the faeries out. If I’d left this town, for instance, in the pack of their migration, it would have been a slaughter. There would have been nothing left alive in this land.

Margery shuddered. Helen was right. They should have followed the nuns.

I will take one of you to my valley. The other shall be left behind to fend for themselves. The creatures you’ve seen are only the beginning of the exodus. More are coming. Bigger. She smiled. Hungrier.

Margery’s mouth went dry. It should’ve been an easy choice. Any decent mother would choose to save their child’s life.

But Margery had fought so hard to live. It didn’t seem fair that she should die after suffering so much. Helen, she tried to make her mouth say, but the words died in her throat. Margery wanted to live.

If I take Helen, she will live in the lap of luxury. She will have fine clothes and shelter. She will be educated to the highest degree, both in magic and in the manner of the best scholars. Helen will never know hunger, loneliness, or the prosecution she would face here. She will have a wonderful life and will work wonders you could never dream of.

Margery grimaced, unable to imagine the life Nin described. Helen obviously possessed something of the power the faeries had. Perhaps she could fight her way to safety. Perhaps both of them could stay behind and take their chances with the faeries.

Nin leaned forward, the black pits in her eye sockets never leaving Margery. A mocking smile played on her lips. If you come with me, you will also have food and shelter aplenty. In fact, you shall never want for safety. I will shut you into a small cell in my dungeon and wall off the entrance. Magic shall put food before you, so you will never have the opportunity to speak with anyone. I may visit on occasion, but only when I remember how very displeased I am to have lost a promising child like Helen.

Nin tilted her head while Margery drowned under the weight of such a future. Like her, you shall also have a long, long life. I’ll make sure of it. I have spells to keep you warm, to keep you clean, to keep you from bashing your head into the brickwork. You’ll die of old age.

“Please,” Margery gasped. The picture painted was more horrifying than any monster. How long would Margery live under such conditions? Ten years? Thirty? Old Nan had died older than anyone remembered, and Young Nan had still been spry when Margery was packed away to the abbey. “Leave us both.”

Nin chuckled. You or her. Would you rather a quick death or an agonizing life?

“Helen,” Margery said. The words tasted of ash. And blood, but there was quite a lot of blood spilling out of her.

What a touching display of motherly devotion.

“Wait!” Margery cried out as Nin stepped forward. “She’s a Farcrier. Don’t let her forget.”

She comes from a line of town-criers? How illustrious.

“Farcriers.” It was important. Helen had no legacy from the woodcutter, and Margery couldn’t tarnish Johnny’s memory by giving his away to his murderer’s bastard. “My family can be heard from one end of town to the other. We are the Farcriers. Don’t let Helen forget her heritage.”

Very well. I will ensure she remembers that she is Helen Farcrier.

Margery sobbed, knowing Nin wouldn’t wait for the faeries to finish her. For the first time, Margery realized she wasn’t actually a nonbeliever. She knew God existed, and she hated Him for what He’d let happen. Margery had been a good Catholic. She’d said her prayers every night and never complained about long church services. All her life, she’d lived as the priests commanded.

All her piety hadn’t stopped the woodsman from killing her husband and wrecking her life. She lost everything, and God let it happen. When they weren’t whispering about contracts signed with the devil, her neighbors had held up Margery’s survival as an act of divine mercy. The suggestion only made her anger fester.

As she stared into the black, merciless eyes of Nin, she realized she’d gotten it wrong. Faith never promised to keep evil away, only that there was something peaceful after death.

She wondered if sacrificing herself for Helen was enough to offset six years of disbelief and bitter words. She wondered if she were sacrificing herself at all, or if it was Helen she was sacrificing to the monsters of Nin’s valley.

Margery shook her head, desperate. She wasn’t ready for death. She needed more time. “I don’t want to die.”

Nin laughed.

The sound curdled Margery’s blood. Something clicked inside her brain, and suddenly she was laughing. The world was bright and lovely. Margery dug a thumb inside her stomach wound and pulled fistfuls of squishiness out. She clawed at the skin and muscle, digging out the organs and laughing all the while. The world was beautiful. Even the memory of pain vanished in the face of such joy.

She clawed at her face until she could dig into the bloody trenches and pull back the skin. Her giggles were softer now, but no less emphatic. Margery clawed at her eyes until she scooped them out of her skull. She yanked them from the dangling cord with a soft plop.

Like an unripe plum, she thought, laughing even louder.

She dug into the empty sockets, full of incandescent joy.

The end.

Author: Louise Rainey

Louise Rainey is an author and apocalypse enthusiast. Although she primarily writes in the fantasy and science fiction genres, she’s been preparing for a myriad of untimely disasters since childhood. It’s possible she might’ve read a few too many survivalist books at an impressionable age. Regardless, she’s ready to rock n’ roll at the first sign of zombies, and a Yellowstone eruption will never take her by surprise. When she’s not preparing for the demise of her Texas home, she’s baking, listening to the same song on repeat, or playing with her gorgeous cat, Robin and her monster-dog Percy.

Louise has a degree in psychology and neuroscience and an unofficial doctorate in Random Ridiculous Knowledge. As a child, she won several writing contests, and she’s been trying to top her blue ribbon at the state fair ever since. Her latest published books include Benevolent Keepers and The Frog Eater.


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