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Charlotte felt Laeves Keep crumbling. Falling apart. Dying.

And she was dying with it.

Flames whisked across the ceiling above her, fingers of fire creeping up the stairs, hissing at the toes of her boots.

She strained to gather any magic she could, faded and gasping in the darkest corners of her mind. To stop the fire would be impossible but she might be able to break whatever spell it was that bound her.

The last of her magic slid like cool dew drops down her fingertips, nestling in her palm. Charlotte curled her fingers over it lightly as if holding a fragile feather.

There wasn't much left, barely more than a breath of energy. It fluttered in her palm, too rapid and frantic, like a bird's heart, reflecting her own fear, horror, and pain.

She had failed.

Alexander was well and truly dead. The spirits of her mother and ancestors had vanished, most likely killed, tethered magic unspooled from their familiars, their spirits released into the ether. The Endless One was loose, freed by her to take as many souls as he wished.

And she was going to die here, alone, if she didn't find some way to protect herself.

Charlotte closed her eyes. She brought her hand to her chest, smooth witchcraft pooling just above her heart. It was tempting to hold onto it, to keep even a small portion in reserves so she wouldn't lose all of her magic.

But she let it go anyway.

Shivers of relief rippled across her sweat-slick skin. Her abused, tortured lungs rattled in her chest, her breathing rough and thick.

Magic surrounded her, trembling and shaking, in a silver globe of light. It was barely able to sustain itself as it provided sanctuary against the onslaught of the fire. But it held.

All she could do now was hope that it was enough.

***

"Charlotte."

A voice, soft with familiarity, came to her, anchoring her through the darkness she drifted in.

Was this what death felt like? She'd had no time to anchor her spirit to a familiar. Was she untethered? Doomed to drift for eternity?

"Charlotte, come back."

Her eyes fluttered. Not dead then. Hazy gray filled her vision, with silhouettes shifting and gliding around her, too indistinct to identify.

Charlotte groaned. She was alive after all. Alive and aching. Her throat was husky dry and her tongue felt thick, heavy.

A hand, warm and gentle, curved under the back of her neck, raised her head a few careful inches. Liquid touched her lips and she gulped, once, twice, three times.

Then it was taken away.

She reached out, grasping, desperate for the sweet water that had flooded her mouth and washed away the bitter taste of ashes. But it didn't get rid of the sourness of defeat.

"Let your body adjust first," the voice said.

The tone was soothing, low. Not quite a whisper but comforting just the same.

Dreading what reality held in store for her, Charlotte blinked repeatedly, widening her eyes to clear her vision.

She expected to see Laeves Keep in flames around her.

Instead, Jonathan's face filled her vision. He released a short, quick breath of relief and smiled faintly.

"There you are," he said. "Almost thought you wouldn't pull through. I should have known better. You inherited your mother's iron will as well as her magic."

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