I stayed there until flashes of muted color surrounded me. Reds. Silvers. Golds. They swirled together, and I slipped through them, falling back through the nights, through the years, until I was small and helpless, standing before my father.
I could see him clearly, his hair a coppery red in the lamplight. His square jaw covered in several days-worth of a beard. Straight nose. Eyes the color of pine.
“What a pretty, little flower. What a pretty poppy.” Papa leaned in, kissing the crown of my head. “I love you more than all the stars in the sky.”
“I love you more than all the fish in the sea.”
“That’s my girl.” Papa’s hands trembled on my cheeks. “Cora?”
Momma came forward, her face pale. “You should’ve known she would find a way down here.” She glanced over her shoulder. “You trust him?”
“I do,” he said as Momma took my hand in hers. “He’s going to lead us to safety….”
Wind roared like thunder through the inn, coming from a place that was not here. Voices rose, ones that didn’t come from Papa or Momma, but from above, somewhere beyond the whirlpool of colors at the other end of the nothingness.
“Who remains?” a male voice reached me, the same one that had found me when I was drifting toward the silvery light, but it was now hoarse and faint, weary and weakened.
“Just us,” another deep voice replied, this one strained. “We don’t have to worry about the guards. I think Jasper decided it would be best if they were…no more.”
“Not an issue for now.” There was a pause. “We won’t make it back to the Cove, but there is…” He faded out briefly. “We’ll have to make it work just in case she… Do you think you can move?”
There wasn’t an answer for a long moment. “I…I don’t know.”
I fell again, slipping back through the years once more.
“Stay with your momma, baby.” Papa touched my cheeks, drawing me away from the voices. “Stay with her and find your brother. I’ll be back for you soon.”
Papa rose and turned to the door—to the man who stood there, watching from the small crack between the panels. “Do you see him?”
The man at the door, whose hair reminded me of the beaches of the Stroud Sea, nodded. “He knows you’re here.”
“He knows she’s here.”
“Either way, he’s leading them here. If they get in here…”
“We don’t let that happen,” Papa said, reaching for the hilt of a sword. “They can’t have her. We can’t let that happen.”
“No,” the man agreed softly, looking over his shoulder at me with strange blue eyes. “I won’t.”
“Come, Poppy.” Momma pulled on my hand—
The voice pulled me beyond the colors and the nothing.
“I don’t know what will happen from here.” He sounded closer, but even more tired than the last time his voice had reached me. Each word seemed to require an effort that he was quickly losing the ability to give. “She breathes. Her heart beats. She lives.”
“That is all that matters,” the other voice said, less strained. “You need to feed.”
“Bullshit. You were barely able to get on your horse and stay on it. You’ve lost too much blood,” the other argued. “She’s going to wake eventually, and you know what will happen. You won’t be able to take care of her. Would you like Naill or Emil to service you, or would you prefer that they service—?”
“Naill,” he barked out. “Get Naill, dammit.”
There was a rough chuckle, and I slipped away, only to hear sometime later, “Rest. I will watch over both of you.”
I was gone again, but this time was different. I slept. I slept deeply, where only fragments of words reached me. But in that place, I became…aware that I had parts. A body. There was a warm, damp touch to my brow, my cheek. It was soft. A cloth. It swept over my lips and under them, along the side of my throat and between my breasts. It disappeared, and then there was sound. A trickling of water, and then the cloth returned, gliding over my bare arms and between my fingers. The touch felt nice. It lulled me, letting me slip back into the heavy sleep and fall once more.
I was that child again, grasping at my mother’s bloodied arm. They had gotten inside, just like the man had warned. The screams. There were so many screams, and the shrieks of those things outside the window, scratching and clawing at it.
“You’ve got to let go, baby. You need to hide, Poppy—” Momma stilled and then wrenched her arm free.
Momma reached into the kid leather boots I liked to shuffle around in, pretending that I was older and bigger. She pulled something out, something black as night and slender and sharp. She moved so fast—faster than I’d ever seen her move before, spinning around as she rose, the black spike in her hand.
“How could you do this?” Momma demanded as I scooted to the edge of the cupboard.
And then I was above the colors, in the nothingness once again, but I wasn’t alone.
A woman was there, her hair long and floating around her, the color so pale it was like spun moonlight. Her features were familiar. I’d seen her before in my mind while in the Temple. But now I thought she looked a bit like me. There were freckles across the bridge of her nose and on her cheeks. Her eyes were the color of dew-kissed grass, but behind the pupils, there was a light. A silvery-white glow that seeped out, fracturing the vibrant green.
Her lips moved, and she spoke. Her lashes swept down, and a tear fell from the corner of one eye—a blood-red tear. Her words sent a jolt of icy shock through me. But then she was gone, and so was I.
A pins-and-needles sensation was the first thing I became aware of. It started in my feet and then crawled up my calves to spread over the rest of my body. Heat followed. A fever swept through me, drying my already parched throat. Thirsty. I was so thirsty. I tried to open my mouth, but my lips felt sealed together.
My toes curled, and I didn’t like the feeling at first. It caused the rest of my flesh to become aware of the blanket lying on me and the mattress under me. My skin felt too sensitive, the material too scratchy.
I was so thirsty.
My fingers twitched against my bare stomach. The skin felt jagged, uneven. I concentrated on my mouth, willing my lips to part. If I could open them, I could ask for…for water. No. I didn’t want water. I wanted something else.
I wasn’t thirsty. I was…hungry. Starving. I forced my lips to part, and a shallow breath worked its way in. There were scents. Fresh pine. Something wild. My skin started to tingle and grow tight, becoming even more sensitized. My ears vibrated with sound. A whisper of a breeze. A fan churning lazily. The sound was pleasant, but I was hollow, an empty void.
I was so hungry.
I was so hungry, I ached. The inside of my mouth throbbed, and everything inside me felt as if it were drying out, becoming shriveled and brittle. My muscles cramped as I struggled to open my eyes. They felt sewn shut, but I was hungry, and I needed to open my eyes. What felt like a lifetime passed before I managed to pry my lashes apart.