Chapter 80: The Murky Truth
“Who?” Percy asked, drawn in by this shocking revelation—yet terrified he somehow already knew the answer. ‘Just what kind of power would possessing the heart of a god give a mortal?’ The Earl shook his head in wonderment and blinked as Jade’s figure blurred before his eyes. He was beginning to feel lightheaded as well. The taste of copper in his mouth snapped Percy’s focus to the pool of blood forming on his chest. His nose was still bleeding.
“Now, now. Don’t be greedy,” Arachne reprimanded. Percy wasn’t sure if she was talking to him or the abomination that wriggled in Jade’s stomach, its head thrusting against her skin like some deformed unborn as it strained towards the Earl’s blood.
Percy’s skull cracked against the back of the tub as he flinched away from the eel that slithered further out of Jade’s throat and—sniffed?—at the bloody water.
“It’s not every bloodline that can control the power of a god,” Arachne lamented over the crimson pool. “You would have made a fine father for my brood.”
‘If you get any closer—I will blast your head off with a hurricane—the penalties be damned.’
“Don’t be afraid, little crow,” Arachne smiled, twisting Jade’s mouth further than it was meant to go as the eel wriggled back inside. Black sludge scraped off Jade’s teeth and fell onto the woman’s chest, where it hissed against her skin and hair like acid, leaving behind a dark green blemish.
Percy fought against the revulsion, dizziness, and pounding within his skull as he pressed a hand against his nose. “This—this all has something to do with Maura—doesn’t it?”
“Yessss,” Arachne hissed again. “Though, when I first met her, she went by a different name.”
“A different name?’”
The eel snickered. “Ahh, yes. Maura’s most guarded secret. She has many names, but only the gods know them all.” Percy blinked in confusion but remained silent. “I chose this hosssst to stay beside Maura and watch her growth. My child kept me abreast of any dangers in their world that threatened the little ice witch. Sadly, then and now, Maura displayed tendencies similar to Viktor’s child. When it became necessary, I brought this host to Lafeara to be near her once more—although she recognized us, she chose to stay away. Perhaps Maura managed to pick up my scent—why else would she avoid Jade, whom she used to rely on so much before? But no matterrr—I will find other means to persuade the Isbrand heir when the time is righttt.”
“If she knew what you were—”
“Awww, but you can not tell herrr, ahahaha!” The eel grinned. “That will be my parting gift to you, Percy Hawthorne. Forbidden Knowledge that you cannot share or repeat to anyone. You cannot even say that we’ve mettt—even to your precious Maurrra.”
The eel disappeared from view, and Jade appeared to choke for a moment as it wriggled further inside her body. Percy eyed the naked mannequin uncertainly as Jade raised her hands slowly, then snapped her crooked neck back into place.
“Ahhh, that’s better,” Jade smiled as she whipped the disturbing sludge-like liquid from the corner of her mouth. “Oops, wouldn’t want that getting out here.”
“Are you—alive?” Percy asked hoarsely.
“Alive?” Jade raised a brow as she smiled sweetly and tilted her head. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
Percy narrowed his eyes as Jade laughed, the sound inhumane as it gargled up her throat—from her other mouth.
“This shell is only temporary,” Jade explained with a condescending smile. “I had hoped it would last long enough to see Maura reach her destiny—but alas. Crossing between worlds can be so taxing on the physical form.”
“But enough of my secretsss,” Jade hissed as a devilish smile spread across her face. “I have one last morsel of knowledge I would impart to you regarding your god, Veles.”
The nerve in Percy’s cheek twitched in agitation as Jade crawled up the tub towards him, the monstrosity in her stomach ramming against his abdomen with devouring ferocity. Jade paused to press her hand against it, and the abomination stilled.
It was then Percy thought of the infant boy Jade had brought with her that Maura had seemed so fascinated by. ‘Was it a monster too?’
“Focus, Percy Hawthorne,” Jade crooned as she seized his chin with sharp, boney fingers. “Do you know why the Hawthorne bloodline has dwindled over the years? Have you ever wondered why every head of the family dating back to your great-great-grandfather never reached the age of fifty? The same for many of their brothers and sisters, sometimes even partners and spouses, who were strong and of a suitably pure bloodline.” The nail of her thumb scrapped across Percy’s lip as her green eyes poured malice and deceit into his unflinching gray pools. “Surely you’ve noticed that every Earl set to lead the Hawthorne family and the Nocturnem Coven has met an unfortunate end—but only after a suitable heir has been left behind; until the Hawthorne name dwindled from five powerful noble families down to one Earl.”
“What are you—”
“Even a god must pay the price to turn back time!” Jade whispered as she turned her gaze slowly towards the window behind them. “And Veles is desperate to correct his past mistake.”
‘Turn back time?’
“Do you know why it is that Saints can see the future?” Jade’s green eyes narrowed above a cunning grin as she watched his confusion grow. “Because they lived it once before.” Her fingernails glided across Percy’s cheek up into his hairline. “You have lived this life before Percy, but you are not a Saint—so you do not remember.”
“No, but you will—” Jade replied with a disturbingly delighted smile, “—because you will be Veles’s next sacrifice if his goals for Maura are not fulfilled in this lifetime—just like your Father.”
The pounding in Percy’s head seemed ready to explode through his ears as he drew in a shaky breath through his mouth. “How—do I know—you’re not lying.”
“Oh, I always lie!” Jade grinned as the eel chuckled eerily below her throat. “And yet—I have been known to tell the truth—occasionally.”
“Then how can I believe a word you say!”
Jade’s green eyes gleamed with Arachne’s power as she closed the distance between them with a murderous smile. “Because you have Veles’s blessing, Percy Hawthorne, so you know which part was truth—and which were lies!”
‘You think it’s that easy to tell when a goddess is lying?!’
A sharp pain burst through his skull as Jade’s lips, and the eel’s fangs, bit against his mouth. Darkness swam before his eyes as dense a curtain draped over his soul. His limbs remained bound beneath the cold, damp water that rose steadily up his chest, neck, over his mouth and nose—drowning out all conscious thought.
Percy’s eyes snapped open. His mother’s office room stood before him distorted as if submerged in water. Constance sat at her desk with letters and documents spread out before her. The Countess was focused on one letter, an expression of disbelief and pain twisting her vividly young features.
Percy watched as the familiar shadow of a black crow with blood-red eyes appeared on his mother’s shoulder and whispered into the Countess’s ear.
“Your husband has betrayed your marriage, the covens, and his god. You must kill him, or the house of Hawthorne will fall and your precious child with it.”
The letter fell from Constance’s hand as she slowly rose to her feet. Her topaz-blue eyes gazed into the distance as she clutched her chest and seemed to repress a scream. The crow vanished as the young Countess rushed to the office window then flung it open. The summer breeze ruffled through her sable-brown hair as she gazed down at an eight-year-old Percy flying a kite in the backyard beside her husband, Ethan Hawthorne.
“Yes,” Constance whispered in a hollow voice as a single tear ran over her trembling lips. “I must protect Percy.”
Pain burst through Percy’s head as Jade pulled away. “No!” the Earl panted in disbelief, then stared in horror the eel licked blood from its fanged mouth—his blood. Percy’s lips, tongue, and neck burned as he turned towards the side of the tub and vomited.
“Ohh, there’s no need to react like a virgin—then again, with this taste—I suppose you still are one.” Jade chuckled as she gripped the sides of the tub and stood, struggling beneath the weight of her enlarged belly.
‘It’s not possible—what Arachne showed me—can’t be true. Why would Veles—’
Jade panted weakly, then clutched her belly with one hand while she lifted her leg over the side of the tub. Percy averted his gaze as the mannequin clutched her belly with one hand, then grunted and lifted her leg over the side of the tub.
‘Arachne said herself she lies more often than tells the truth. But—’ Percy shivered, then stared blankly at the empty, drained tub beneath his limbs. ‘What the hell does she need my blood and bathwater for?’
Even though it was a small price to pay to have her away from him, Percy felt unsettled. And the way Jade’s glowing eye ran over his exposed figure—as if the monstrosity inside her were sizing him up for a meal—made his flesh feel tainted, violated. The need to wretch burned like acid against his bleeding tongue and lips as the cuts from the eel’s teeth flared awake in pain.
The sound of horses and a carriage echoed past Jade’s damp feet as she moved away from the tub towards his hanging bathrobe.
“I trust you will provide Maura with a suitable excuse for my absence. I’m afraid this shell will only hold up for a little while longer, and I have other children to nurture and grow.”
‘Does that mean—she’s leaving?’ The flicker of relief that flooded Percy wasn’t the only thing preventing him from bolting for the door now that his arms and limbs were free. The darkness growing in the corner of his eyes suggested that standing right now—might be too much for his current physical state.
Jade—Arachne—turned back towards the tub as she tied the belt of the robe around her swollen belly. “Oh, and I have something to return as well.” The Winter Rose dangled from Jade’s hand as she moved to sit on the edge of the tub beside Percy. “It would appear Viktor helped your little Baroness change that naughty love enchantment you tried to use on her.”
Percy caught the diamond rose as she dropped it on his chest but kept his gaze focused on her treacherous face.
His senses picked up the sound of the Manor door opening as Russell welcomed Serilda home.
“Your eyes are begging me to leave,” Jade whispered as her gaze drifted in the direction of Percy’s focus. “Ahh yes, your sweet cousin. She wouldn’t be a bad shell to hold onto either.”
The blast of wind the scattered Jade’s bathrobe and hair behind her was but a pathetic attempt on Percy’s part. He pressed the Winter Rose against his mouth with a fist as bile and blood rose up the back of his throat.
“Do try to recover quickly, Earl Hawthorne,” Jade murmured with cynical sympathy. “Veles won’t have any use for a sickly, weakened pure blood. Even if you are the last to hold the Hawthorne name.”
The sound of Serilda’s voice and footsteps ascending the steps towards the second floor echoed closer. Percy felt his heart lurch with fear as his cousin turned in the direction of his room.
“Ah well—it’s not as if this is goodbye forever,” Jade lamented as she stood once more and closed the folds of Percy’s bathrobes over her dripping figure.
Percy watched her. Blood dripped through his shaking fingers as he struggled to breathe through his nose. Jade opened the bathroom windows, and the sound of steady rain filled his ears even as his cousin called out his name from the very next room.
Jade sat against the windowsill and leaned out to fill her palm with the falling rain. “Ramiel’s Popes are always claiming the world will end in fire or frost—but I wonder, would it not be more reasonable to drown everyone instead? At least that way the earth could recover and thrive after all these mortal parasites have been wiped out.” She turned and grinned maniacally at the trembling, pale Earl. “What a paradise that would be for my children.”
Jade’s damp black hair disappeared below the window ledge as the bathroom door burst open.
“Percy!” Serilda snapped angrily. “It’s one thing to completely leave me on my own with—” She stumbled to a halt as her moss-green agate eyes locked in on Percy, slumped over inside an empty tub, his lower face and chest covered in blood. “Percy—what?”
The Marchioness rushed to the tub and grasped Percy’s head tenderly as she tilted his bloody nose and mouth towards her. “Percy Hawthorne, don’t you dare die on me! Don’t you dare—leave me alone! Russell!”
“My Lady!” Russell’s panicked footsteps rushed from the hallway to the bathroom. The butler’s gaze swept from the Marchioness kneeling over a bloody unconscious Earl then whipped towards the open bathroom window. “Guards!”
“A doctor, Russell!” Serilda shouted as her fingers fumbled beneath Percy’s nose, waiting for a sign of life. Black droplets of blood dripped onto her fingers as Percy breathed out weakly. “Bless all the gods.” Serilda sucked in her lips then quickly shook herself. “Russell, help me get the Earl to his bed!”
“His robe is gone,” the butler stammered as he hesitated by the counter.
“It’s too late to worry about modesty now, Russell! The towel will do. We need to move him!”
“Allow me!” Captain Flint said firmly as he entered the bathroom and pulled a black cloak from his shoulders. Serilda quickly stepped aside as the Mercenary Captain draped it over Percy’s body then lifted the Earl in his arms.
The Marchioness grabbed the butler’s arms as the Captain carried the unconscious nobleman to the bed and laid him down. “I will go fetch the Crow Sisters. If this is some form of poison, they will help us identify it.”
“You think someone poisoned the Earl?” Russell gasped.
“Look!” Serilda pointed to the pool of blood and vomit beside the bath. “This is no normal illness. A mortal doctor would be useless and ask the wrong questions.”
“Yes—” Russell nodded and clasped his shaking hands together. “While Hawthorne’s Master is unwell, the servants of this house will listen to the Marchioness.”
“We must waste no time,” Serilda replied determinedly as she wiped a handkerchief against her bloody palm, then moved forward to help Flint cover the Earl with a blanket. “Captain, you and your men will surround the Mansion and keep the Earl and his household safe while I’m gone. No one is allowed to leave or enter until I know what happened! Say nothing of his condition—if one of his enemies has made a move, we must avoid alerting them of their success.”
“Understood, Marchioness,” Flint replied with a formal bow.
Serilda nodded and smiled her gratitude two both of the Earl’s loyal servants. She turned back to Percy and pushed aside his damp curls to kiss his forehead. “I will be back, cousin. I will not let the gods take you too.” She leaned back and wrapped her fingers around Percy’s cold hand as she withdrew—then froze as she noted the bloody necklace trapped tightly inside the Earl’s grasp. “What is—”
Captain Flint noted her attention and leaned over to unfurl the Earl’s stiff fingers.
“The Winter Rose!” Russell exclaimed in surprise. “But that was—”
“A gift to the Baroness of Averley,” Serilda breathed out sharply. Her moss-green eyes flared with anger before she turned and moved away from the bed and the stricken Earl with trembling focus.
‘Maura, I swear—if you did anything to hurt Percy—I will tear you apart limb from limb!’
She raced down the steps and through the Manor to the basement. Once inside the safety of Anthraticus, Serilda pulled a necklace with a midnight-blue sapphire signet ring and whispered a summoning spell against its surface.
A few impatient minutes later, three witches in the blue robes of the Twilight Coven approached and bowed before her. “Lady Kensington, what is your command?”
“Bring me two witches from the Coven of Crows. They must be proficient in poisons and curses. And send another to check on Lady Maura’s safety and movements this evening. Someone dared to make a move against our Witch King. I would know who—and why.”