Quand le chat n’est pas là, les souris dansent.
When the cat is away, the mice will play.
A Nest of Mice
Bayberry, eyebright, belladonna
Fang of an adder, eye of an owl
Sprinkle of flora, spray of fauna
For purpose fair or possession foul.
Ichor of friend and ichor of foe
A soul stained black as starless night
For in the dark dost spirits flow
One to another in seamless flight.
The spell is familiar, oh yes, familiar indeed. Our favorite. She lets us read it often. The grimoire. The page. The spell. Our fingers trace each pen stroke, each faded letter, and they tingle with promise. They promise we’ll never be alone, and we believe them. We believe her. Because we aren’t alone—we’re never alone—and mice live in nests with dozens of other mice, with scores of them. They burrow together to raise their pups, their children, and they find warm, dry nooks with plenty of food and magic. They find crannies without sickness, without death.
Our fingers curl on the parchment, gouging fresh tracks.
Death. Death, death, death, our friend and foe, as sure as breath, comes for us all.
But not me.
The dead should not remember. Beware the night they dream.
We tear at the paper now, shredding it to pieces. To angry bits. It scatters like ash in the snow. Like memory.
Mice burrow together, yes—they keep each other safe and warm—but when a pup in the litter sickens, the mice will eat it. Oh yes. They gobble it down, down, down to nourish the mother, the nest. The newest born is always sick. Always small. We shall devour the sick little mouse, and she shall nourish us.
She shall nourish us.
We shall prey on her friends, her friends—a snarl tears from my throat at the word, at the empty promise—and we shall feed them until they are fat with grief and guilt, with frustration and fear. Where we go, they will follow. Then we shall devour them too. And when we deliver the sick little mouse to her mother at Chateau le Blanc—when her body withers, when it bleeds—her soul shall stay with us forever.
She shall nourish us.
We will never be alone.
Mist crept over the cemetery. The headstones—ancient, crumbling, their names long lost to the elements—pierced the sky from where we stood atop the cliff’s edge. Even the sea below fell silent. In this eerie light before dawn, I finally understood the expression silent as the grave.
Coco brushed a hand across tired eyes before gesturing to the church beyond the mist. Small. Wooden. Part of the roof had caved in. No light flickered through the rectory windows. “It looks abandoned.”
“What if it isn’t?” Beau snorted, shaking his head, but stopped short with a yawn. He spoke around it. “It’s a church, and our faces are plastered all over Belterra. Even a country priest will recognize us.”
“Fine.” Her tired voice held less bite than she probably intended. “Sleep outside with the dog.”
As one, we turned to look at the spectral white dog that followed us. He’d shown up outside Cesarine, just before we’d agreed to travel the coast instead of the road. We’d all seen enough of La Fôret des Yeux to last a lifetime. For days, he’d trailed behind us, never coming near enough to touch. Wary, confused, the matagots had vanished shortly after his appearance. They hadn’t returned. Perhaps the dog was a restless spirit himself—a new type of matagot. Perhaps he was merely an ill omen. Perhaps that was why Lou hadn’t yet named him.
The creature watched us now, his eyes a phantom touch on my face. I gripped Lou’s hand tighter. “We’ve been walking all night. No one will look for us inside a church. It’s as good a place as any to hide. If it isn’t abandoned”—I spoke over Beau, who started to interrupt—“we’ll leave before anyone sees us. Agreed?”
Lou grinned at Beau, her mouth wide. So wide I could nearly count all her teeth. “Are you afraid?”
He shot her a dubious look. “After the tunnels, you should be too.”
Her grin vanished, and Coco visibly stiffened, looking away. Tension straightened my own spine. Lou said nothing more, however, instead dropping my hand to stalk toward the door. She twisted the handle. “Unlocked.”
Without a word, Coco and I followed her over the threshold. Beau joined us in the vestibule a moment later, eyeing the darkened room with unconcealed suspicion. A thick layer of dust coated the candelabra. Wax had dripped to the wooden floor, hardening among the dead leaves and debris. A draft swept through from the sanctuary beyond. It tasted of brine. Of decay.
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