GRAY predawn light snagged on the damp cypress needles. William leaned forward, gripping the cypress branch with his fingers to keep from falling. Above him Kaldar shifted in the tangle of maiden's hair moss.When he'd volunteered to scout ahead of the Mars, he didn't think Cerise would saddle him with her cousin. Kaldar's body moved quietly enough. His mouth was another matter.William squinted. From his perch in the cypress he could see the hothouse and a chunk of back wall about four hundred yards away. A short dark figure moved within the hothouse. As they watched, the hunchback swung a short shovel. Glass rang. Shards flew to the ground."What is he doing?" Kaldar murmured."He's breaking down the garden."William swung off the branch, leaped down to the lower one, and swung himself down, dropping to the ground."Where are you going?" Kaldar hissed."Inside. Spider and most of his people are gone. There are only a few agents guarding the place.""We're supposed to wait for Cerise."William activated his crossbow and headed to the house. Behind him Kaldar swore under his breath and hopped onto the soft ground. William padded through the cypress grove to the edge of the clearing and halted. The ground smelled odd.Kaldar caught up. "Trapped?""Yes."Kaldar picked up a rock and tossed it into the clearing. It landed between two wards. A green stem shot out of the ground, and a hail of needle-thin thorns peppered the soil, striking sparks off the rock."You got any money on you?""No."Kaldar grimaced. "What do you have?"William made a mental inventory of some twenty-odd items he'd pulled out of the Mirror's bag of tricks and hid in his clothes this morning. Not much he could part with. "A knife," he said."Fine. I'll bet my knife against your knife that I can walk through there unharmed."William glanced at the eighty-yard clearing separating them from the house. It would be suicide. "No."Kaldar rolled his eyes. "It's not the same without a bet."Cerise would skin him alive if he got her cousin blown up. It would be very entertaining. Therapeutic even. But it would make her cry. "No.""William, I need a bet; otherwise, it won't work. You have nothing to lose. Just bet me the damn knife."William took out his backup knife and thrust it into the ground at his feet. "Knock yourself out."Kaldar dropped his own blade to the ground and picked up the knife. His fingers ran along the blade, caressing the metal. He closed his eyes and walked into the field.His foot hovered over a spot; he turned, his eyes still closed, and veered left, then right. The toe of his right boot almost touched a patch of suspicious ground, then Kaldar swayed and spun away. He kept moving forward, lurching like he was drunk, jumped with liquid grace, froze, poised on the ball of his left foot, and conquered the last ten feet at a straight run.He spun around, hands raised, self-indulgent smile stretching his lips. "Ah?"A shadow flickered behind him. William leapt to his feet and fired twice. The first shot caught the agent's eye, punching him off his feet. The second bolt went wide as a smooth, spotted tangle of a body clutched Kaldar about his shoulders and pulled him up to the second-floor window.Embelys, William's memory told him. The serpent. No time to waste.William tossed a handful of the Mirror's bombs into the clearing. The tiny spheres detonated with an ear-shattering boom. Geysers of dirt and plant roots blossomed, hurling debris into the air. Guided by his instinct, William dashed forward as the dirt rained on his shoulders, pulling his favorite knife as he ran.He sensed the enemy ahead and thrust through the dirt with his knife. The agent whipped around, her hair a whirlwind of tiny braids above her muscled shoulders. A tide of red from the severed femoral vein drenched her leg. She gasped and went down. He didn't wait for her death.Shapes broke free of the brush behind the clearing savaged by his bombs. He caught a glimpse of Cerise out of the corner of his eye but kept moving.The house loomed before him. William jumped, caught the edge of the balcony, and pulled himself up, to where Kaldar's body had broken the wooden rail. A shattered window lay on the balcony's floorboards in a spray of glittering glass. He leaped over the razor-sharp dew, dived into the room, rolling as he hit the floor, and came to his feet, the blade poised for a strike.The faint sounds of a choked struggle tagged his hearing. They came from the room to his left. His kick broke the wall. He lunged inside. An agent spun at him from the right. William ducked the kick, thrust into the man's armpit, cut the throat of the second attacker and paused as the bodies fell.A gasp came from the right. "William!"Embelys's massive bulk fastened Kaldar to the wall. Her coil thrust through the paneling and twisted about his waist and shoulders, pinning his right arm to his side. His left arm lay on top of Embelys's chest, where her body bent before catching a thick iron rod affixed to the ceiling. The pattern on her coils was pallid and dull. Her head hung limply to the side. A long streak of blood stretched to the floor from her neck, where William's knife protruded from her flesh."Thanks for the knife." Kaldar's face went red with effort. "Help me get the whore off of me."A tremor echoed through the house. It reverberated through William's skull, shaking his teeth as if they were loose in his jaw."I could use some help," Kaldar's voice rasped.Another tremor pulsed, like the toll of a colossal bell, and William staggered from the pressure."What the hell is wrong with you?"Inside William, the wild raised its ears. Someone was calling him. He turned toward the door. The call resonated through his skull, directly in his mind, bypassing his ears. If this was magic, he'd never met it before."Be still and don't make noise.""Don't go! Help me, damn it!" Kaldar punched Embelys's corpse with his free fist. "Sonovabitch!"A cry full of pain and longing echoed through William's head. He ran through the door and to the hallway, heading toward the source of the screaming. The intensity of the mental wail was enough to make his heart skip a beat.A door came into his view at the end of the hallway, a dark rectangle shivering with tiny magic aftershocks. The source of the call lay behind it. William broke into a run.The Hand's magic danced on the door's surface, breaking into smoke-thin coils of pale green. He kicked the door. It flew open.A sweet scent filled his nostrils, heady and liquid-thick, like the odor of old buckwheat honey. Something stirred within the room, outside his field of vision. William bared his teeth, stepped inside, and closed the door behind him.An enormous flower bloomed in the corner of the room. Its roots, thin and studded with chunky tuber-like vesicles, spread across the floor and walls in a reddish net, leaving only the windows bare. The roots swirled together into a thick squat stem, from which protruded three wide leaves. Red liquid pumped through the veins of the leaves, adding a pink tint to the sections of green.Three massive petals, gray and spotted with flecks of green, rose above the leaves. They were closed, hiding the center of the flower like hands folded in prayer.A jerky quickening ran through the network of roots. William stepped back.The roots crawled, unwinding from the far corner, revealing a desk and three long, flexible tentacles stretching from the flower to a four-feet-tall cocoon.With a rubbery menacing strength, the tentacles peeled the cocoon from the wall and brought it across the room, uncurling as they moved. The last coils slid, straightened, and a body fell at William's feet with a wet thud. The tentacles froze in the air, as solid and unmoving as a cypress stem.Fuck me.Hydraulic movement. He'd learned about this during his time in the Adrianglian Legion. The tentacles couldn't move until the plant replenished its supply of liquid.William knelt by the body. The corpse lay on its back. A man. Probably. The exposed flesh of its face and neck was unnaturally smooth and swollen, its color the deep swollen purple of a fresh bruise. The cadaver's mouth gaped open. The puffy eyelids lay half-closed over the milky orbs of the eyes.A tiny tendril of the root snaked its way onto the corpse's cheek. The sharp tip of the root, enclosed in a rough, almost bark-like cone, probed the dead flesh, and thrust through it. The skin tore like wet paper. A thick torrent of viscous bloody fluid spilled forth and streamed across the dead cheek to the floor. The nauseating stench of rotting meat erupted from the body. William leaped back.Other roots reached for the corpse, the vesicles pulsing like tiny hearts. The plant was drinking the corpse's fluids, consuming them like water.The petals quivered. The spots of green that flecked them crawled, moving away from the petal's edges to blend into a single green stain at the base of the flower. The roots kept pumping. Deep red liquid spread through the veins in the petals, turning their gray to red.William raised his blade. If it tried to drain him next, it was in for a hell of a surprise.The flower's veins contracted, pulling the petals apart with agonizing slowness. Something moved with the flower.With a whisper, the petals snapped open, bright red and stiff like the tail feathers of a posturing peacock. A burst of yellow pollen erupted into the air, floating in the draft like powdered yellow snow. The honeyed odor flooded the chamber.William coughed. His eyes teared, and he wiped the moisture with his hand.A body lay within the flower. Nude and bald, frail to the point of emaciation, it rested on its back within the lower bell-shaped petal. Its legs vanished into the flower's core. The bluish tint of the corpse's bloodless flesh offered a stark contrast to the petal's garish crimson.Another unlucky bastard being eaten.By now the flower's whips would have regained the liquid. If he were to strike, he would have to get past them first.The body opened its eyes. They looked at him in silent plea and for a second he thought he was looking at Cerise.William caught his breath.The roots crawled aside, opening a narrow path to the flower.He took it.The body's hands opened, revealing a sunken chest and thin bags of skin where breasts used to be. The blue eyes tracked his movements. If she was younger, if her face had a bit of fat and her skin was smoother. If she had blond hair . . ."Genevieve," he whispered and coughed, expelling a mouthful of pollen from his throat.She stretched her hand to him. He took her icy fingers. The same reddish liquid that had flooded the veins of the petals and leaves was making its way through her torso, bulging the vessels under her nearly transparent skin.She opened her mouth. A wave of magic smashed against him. William went down to his knees, gasping for breath. A vision of Cerise flickered before him. Her sword was carving Embelys's flaccid body, cutting Kaldar out. She was in the house. He blinked and the image of Cerise vanished.Genevieve's mouth contorted, struggled to form a word. William's eyes burned from the pollen that swirled in the air about them in a snowfall of tiny powdered stars. It filled his mouth and his nose, it burned his throat. "Before ..." Genevieve whispered. "My daughter ..."Her whip swung toward the desk and rolled back, twisted about his shoulder with a gentleness equivalent to a caress. A leather journal fell at his feet."No choice . . . made me ...""She knows," he told her. "Cerise knows.""Tell Sophie ... So sorry ...""I will."She squeezed his hand. "Kill me . . . Please . . . So Ceri . . . doesn't have to ..."The knife felt heavy in his hands, as if filled with lead. He raised it.She smiled. Her fragile sharp-boned face, her sunken cheeks, her eyes drowning in pain, all of it lit, united and transformed by that weak smile, made radiant and timeless. William knew he would remember it to his death.He swung. The blade sliced cleanly through her flesh. Her head dropped to the floor and rolled, releasing a torrent of blood from the stump of her neck. It splashed onto the floorboards, and the roots stretched toward it. The vesicles pumped, sucking up the liquid in a cannibalistic cycle even as blood continued to flow from the wound.William picked up the journal off the floor.Her head lay on its side. She was still smiling and her blue eyes focused on him. "Thank you," bloodless lips mouthed.The pollen had clogged his lungs, sapping his strength. William pushed to his feet and staggered to the door, half-blind, stumbling, exhausted, and weak. His hand found the handle, and he lay on it with his weight. It fell away before him, and he crashed into the hallway. The cool smoothness of the wooden floor slapped his cheek.The door.William dragged himself upright, shut it, and sagged against it. His lungs burned. The last whiffs of pollen swirled around him.William concentrated on the rising and falling of his chest. His hands flipped the journal open on their own. Long streaks of cursive lined the pages, too out of focus. He wiped the last tears from his eyes and brought the journal so close the pages nearly touched his nose.R1DP6WR12DC18HF1CW6BY12WW18BS3VL9S R1DP6WG12E 5aba 1abaaGibberish. No, not gibberish, code.A rapid staccato of footsteps echoed through the hallway. He dropped his hand to his side, letting the journal hang along his leg.Cerise rounded the corner, Richard behind her. She raced toward him."Are you hurt?"William shook his head and tried to tell her he was okay, but words wouldn't come out. He dropped the journal into her hands. Understanding slowly crept into her face. She turned corpse white and tried to push past him. "Let me in.""No," he rasped. His voice finally worked."I have to see her!""No. She didn't want you to. It's over."Richard caught her shoulders. "He's right. It's done.""Let me see my mother!"She jerked from him, but Richard held on. "It's over. It's all over and she's resting now. Don't taint your memories. Remember her as she was. Come on. Let's get William into the fresh air."Cerise said nothing. Her shoulders slumped. She gulped and slid her shoulder under his right arm, while Richard pulled him up. Cerise's arm wound her way around William's waist. He thought of telling her he wasn't that weak, but instead leaned on her and let himself be led out of the house into the sunlight.THEY had set the house on fire. It burned like a funeral pyre, belching thick acrid smoke into the air. The flames consumed the old boards with a loud snapping, snaked their way up the walls, melted the glass of the hothouse, and Posad's plants hissed and wailed as the fire sank its teeth into their green flesh. Nobody arrived to stop the blaze, and even if they had, the fire had spread too far and too fast.Cerise refused to leave. William sat next to her. He felt her pain, sharp and brutal. There was nothing he could do, except sit next to her. She didn't cry. She didn't rave. She just sat there, radiating grief and fury.Soon the whole structure stood engulfed, no more than a mere skeleton of stone and timber wearing a mantle of heat. She sat on the edge of the clearing, reading the journal in the light of the raging blaze, until the roof crashed with the thunderous popping of ancient support beams, spraying glowing sparks everywhere, spooking the horses, and forcing the two of them to retreat from the heat.