“Yes,” he hissed.

Scowling, confused, she looked down at the ribbon, one end held in her quivering hand, the other still tucked inside his empty shell of a body.

It made her realize that when Pinfeathers had been piecing himself back together that morning at the fountain, he’d also been sealing the ribbon inside himself. But how had he gotten it?

“The bookstore,” she said, murmuring the words aloud as soon as it occurred to her. “You took it from the attic in the bookstore, didn’t you? It was there. The dream was real.”

His eyes narrowed into slits. “We . . . took it,” he said, the words clipped and sharp.

“Why?” she demanded.

“Because!” He snapped his head toward her, his frame crackling. Isobel flinched as a new fracture erupted across his face. “We wanted it,” he said.

“I—I don’t understand—”

“You can’t understand us. We don’t even understand ourselves.”

“Please,” she said, “please help me. Promise to help me find him and—and I can try to put you back together.”

He laughed, the sound low and continuous, deep and corrosive. And as he laughed, he began to crack apart, his body crumbling while the fault line in his face threatened to split wider. Then, as suddenly as it had come, his laughter ceased and his smile fell away. He seemed to relax as he rolled his head carefully in her direction, as though he knew that his next movement could prove to be his last.


“Is that why you came back?” he asked. “To fix us?”

The way he was looking at her now, his half-splintered face shorn clean of its malevolence—it reminded her of another face. A calm and quiet face.

“Varen?” she whispered.

His eyes, which had begun to fade out, the black murk within thinning into a filmy and translucent glaze, suddenly grew solid again.

She scooted herself still closer to him, cupping his cold, hard face in her hands.

“Tell me where he is,” she said, her voice shaking. “I know you’re connected to him somehow. I know you know where to find him.”

He lifted his hand toward her, and even when she felt his claws graze her cheek, she did not pull back.

“We’re still so very far from you, cheerleader,” he said. “Never as close as we appear.”

“Tell me where.”

“Home,” he said, smiling his jagged smile. “We are ever and always home now.”

With that, he allowed his arm to fall. As it met with the floor, it sent a vibration ricocheting through his body. The fissure in his face could bear no more. It split wide, and his head cracked in two. Instantly his eyes became empty sockets.

Staring down at him in numb shock and disbelief, Isobel scanned the rubble of the nightmare creature who had once taken so much delight in tormenting her. But no measure of relief came with his demise. Instead, as she pulled the ribbon free from his crumpled chest, a wave of sorrow swept over her as she thought she finally understood what he was.

In some way, he had belonged to the deepest essence of Varen’s being. All the broken pieces of himself that Varen had buried, all those bits that terrified his own mind, all accumulated into one beast, a deranged creature born out of everything he knew he wasn’t supposed to do or feel. An entity made of desires and emotions and all the longings Varen could never admit to anyone—not even himself.

And if the Nocs were demons, she thought, then they were the most personal kind. Shrapnel of the soul, Reynolds had called them. But then, did that make them soulless?

Isobel turned her head to look back at the shattered form of Scrimshaw, knowing at once whose portrait she had seen carved into his chest. It had been Virginia, Poe’s young bride. His Lenore.

Like Scrimshaw with the tiny etching just over his heart, Pinfeathers had carried her close too. Hidden within.

And just as Pinfeathers had changed, so had Varen.

It was the only thing that made sense. It was the only explanation for why Varen wasn’t here now. Why Pinfeathers had been waiting in his stead.

The shift she had feared had happened. Her dream of Varen in the bookstore attic had been no dream.

She felt something warm slide down her cheek.

Frowning, Isobel lifted one dust-caked hand and pressed her fingers to the place where Pinfeathers had touched her a moment before.

She lowered her hand and saw a smear of crimson.



Melancholy House

With a careful hand, Isobel wound the satin ribbon slowly around one trembling wrist.

Its softness helped to calm her, if only for a moment.

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