The flood of relief flowing out of the pack overwhelmed Hayden's senses. They had jumped to conclusions when Joshua said 'she didn't stand a chance'. It wasn't her. Avery's body wasn't here, and he didn't have to watch his brother shatter.
Hayden closed his eyes for an instant, calming his heart and pushing down the dread brewing in his stomach. He needed to keep his head.
When he opened his eyes Hayden saw his family standing at the bars of the cell, staring down at the body of their enemy. A sick, twisted sapien who had put their friend through so much pain. Adelyn reached through the bars to pick up the fox figurine. She looked up at Khalil in confusion.
"What is going on?"
She searched the room for answers but her eyes eventually came back to the fox in her hands.
Hayden had been worried about Roedin's anger, then his grief. Now he was worried about Roedin's sanity. His brother was clearly unable to process, emotions flowing through him while he searched for the appropriate reaction. Hayden couldn't tell if he was happy that Ferrik was dead, or angry that someone else had done it, or confused about the reappearance of the fox, or concerned for his mate. It was probably all of these things and more. Roedin's body trembled as he fought for control.
"Where is she, Adelyn? Hayden? She's not outside the law," Khalil said with a dark tone.
"You think a mortal girl did this? Took out your guards and killed a sapien locked behind bars?" Arctos asked.
"You're right, that does seem far-fetched. But it wouldn't be hard for two faunids," Khalil retorted.
Arctos snarled but then an evil grin came to his face. "Believe me I would have jumped at the opportunity. But if it had been us you would be scraping him up with a shovel."
Hayden ignored the alpha prime of Terraly and stepped close to his brother.
"Roedin, I know this is hard, but you need to tell us. What do you feel? What do you feel through the bond?"
Roedin's breathing was ragged as he dug deep into his soul trying to sort out his emotions from those of his mate.
"Fear. Always fear. She covers it up, or laughs it off, but it's always there."
"Is she in the castle?" Khalil demanded.
Roedin shook his head. "She's far, I can't even tell if it's her I can feel, or the absence of her."
Adelyn reached for his hand. She carefully placed the wooden fox in his palm and closed his fingers around it.
Hayden turned to the others. "Take him back upstairs. We'll sort out a plan away from this mess."
Khalil stayed to speak to the guards about dealing with the body while the Corinthians moved off down the hallway, Arctos and Niamh keeping a careful eye on Roedin.
Behind them Hayden whispered to Sari, "They're asleep. Can you see?"
Sari glanced around then crouched and placed her hand on the face of the unconscious cell guard. She slipped into his dreams, searching for the events of the night before. She pursed her lips and stood, motioning for her mate to follow her down corridor.
When they caught up to Adelyn she was whispering with a young groom. The groom spotted Hayden and Sari and fled the hall immediately. Adelyn simply joined the pair in their march back to the apartments without saying anything.
They were each so lost in thought they nearly collided with a blond kitchen maid practically fleeing the apartment suite. Adelyn was about to grab her arm and prevent her from leaving when Niamh called out, "It's alright, we've already spoken with her," and alpha prime let her pass. They entered the suite and approached trio standing in the living room.
"What did you see?" Hayden asked Sari immediately.
She shook her head in frustration. "It didn't make any sense. They guard were together before their shift and stopped at the kitchens to fill their canteens. After relieving the day guards, they clinked canteens solemnly, sat down where we found them and drank the bottles down in one go."
Hayden nodded. "The cook put a sleeping potion in their bottles, but they knew it and drank anyway."
Niamh's jaw fell open. "They were in on it? Were they bribed?"
Sari frowned and shrugged. "I didn't see that, but I didn't have a lot of time to go digging around. What did the kitchen maid have to say?"
"Not much unfortunately," Arctos sighed. "The last thing she remembers was going to the washroom outside the trial. That's when the spell must have been cast to switch her out for the real Avery. There's no way anyone could have snuck in past the wards."
"So someone grabbed Avery in the washroom and then replaced her with an illusion so we wouldn't suspect, then bribed two guards to take a sleeping potion, then killed Ferrik, then...what?" Adelyn crossed her arms and scowled. "This isn't adding up."
"Avery did it," Roedin said quietly.
It was the first thing he had said since the dungeon. Then he chuckled sadly.
"She did it."
There was a tinge of pride in his voice.
Arctos watched his brother with pity. "Roe, she's strong for a human, but how could she have killed him with one blow?"
"The hemlock knife. Leo made her a dagger of steel fused with hemlock. She used it when the camp was attacked and again here. One well-placed blow. She promised herself at least two, but she only need one this time."
Realisation dawned on each of them in turn.
"The kitchen maid was in on it too. She works with the cook. She was waiting in the washroom for Avery to come in," Niamh explained.
"It was the same spell Avery learned from the old crone, the one that held an illusion through the burning of the incense. I found Avery studying the amulet in the library weeks ago," Arctos added.
Adelyn shifted on her feet. "There's a horse missing."
Hayden looked at her sharply. "The groom you were speaking to in the corridor?"
Adelyn nodded and then coughed to cover up laughter. She was giggling uncontrollably. Hayden gave her a disgusted look.
"Addy. Adelyn, it's not funny," he admonished.
"Actually, it's very funny. There may be sapiens out there who don't want to see humans as part of society, but apparently not in Khalil's pack!" Adelyn wiped the tears from her face and collapsed down on the sofa. "She befriended half this castle when we were here in the spring! The servants are the ones who pulled this off. The ones who saw that justice would not be served to a second-class citizen and took matters into their own hands. The kitchen maid, the guards, the stable grooms; they were all in on it!"
Sari jumped in. "I gave Avery the wooden fox back after we determined it wasn't cursed. She left it next to Ferrik to tell us it was her." A smile came to her face as well and she shook her head in wonder.
Hayden looked at the females in turn and pursed his lips considering the implications for their territory.
"If Avery claims responsibility, it prevents Caiaphas from starting a war with Terraly. It could leave the humans vulnerable to his wrath except that he would have to admit that his son was killed by a mortal. I don't think his ego could take that. Plus, he'd have to prove that it was her and he doesn't know about the connection with the fox, or the conspiring servants."
"Well played, Avey," Arctos said with a grin.
"But where is she now?" Roedin asked, unable to mask the pain in his voice. "Wandering through the faunid ranges on her own?"
Arctos shrugged. "How hard can it be to find one human, especially one who has a knack of standing out?"
Sari glared at him. "That's not reassuring, Arctos."
But Roedin hardly noticed. He was using every bit of magic to reach down the bond and try to feel his mate. The connection was weak and before it broke he tried to send down his love and reassurance that they had figured out it and were not far behind.
Find me. When this is over, find me.
Avery stopped the horse on a ridge that offered her a sweeping view of the hills in the distance. Heat bugs had begun their intense shrill already, indicating that the day would get even warmer. She tilted her face to the sky and let the sun fall on her expose skin, her jacket long ago stuffed in a saddlebag. She reached back and pulled out a canteen of water and took a long drink. She could see the stream below where she would refill.
The birds called around her; she knew each of their names. But not that one. There was one she hadn't heard before. That species of bird clearly didn't live around the cabin. She listened again and committed the song to memory.
Then she turned the horse and began walking again, heading north in search of answers.