Eston snarled, thrashed, shook me a little by the throat, but then a root snapped up like a rearing viper and grabbed the arm that held me captive, yanking it down to his side. I stumbled backward, freed, gasping, and fell promptly to my ass, blinking up at Eston.
"Hazel!" Hunter roared, somewhere behind me.
"Here!" I called, my voice just above that of a croak.
"What—Help!" Eston cried out as a thick root twisted and squeezed around his waist. He grunted and bent over, doubled in half, as the root around his arm forced him toward the ground. "Help! Hazel! Stop this. Stop this!"
"You were just a bit of stage dressing, Eston," I said, watching the ground churn, crawling backward slowly. "Nothing important."
Eston's face was dark, whipping up to glare at me. "You little human cunt. I'll make you—" But the following words were eaten as a muddy root drove itself into Eston's mouth, down his throat, brilliant blue eyes bugging wide.
"You should've known your place," I whispered, shock wiping away feeling.
A pair of legs skidded and slid onto the ground, and my view of Eston's panic and fear, his understanding of imminent death, were blocked from my gaze by the beautiful sight of Jude, pale and worried, his hands sweeping in soothing brushes over my body.
"Fuck, you've been gone for ages. Are you all right?" Jude gasped out.
There was a gruesome squelch from behind Jude, and I flinched at last. Stop, I thought to the roots, but it was too late. I'd offered Eston up to them, wanted to watch him tortured the way he'd surely done to Beth and Margaret. And they'd worked hard tonight, earned their feast.
"Bring her away from there," Hunter ordered.
A pair of red hoofed feet landed on the gravel out of the corner of my eye. Jude drew me into his chest, his hand on the back of my head carefully tucking my face into his chest as he lifted me from the ground. Ronan's wings surrounded us, muffling the hungry, violent sounds of the roots.
"This way, toward the house, almost everyone is out now," Ronan said. His cheek nuzzled the back of my head. "Are you all right, nut?"
"I'm fine. I'm okay. I got lost in the roots on my way out. I found Con. Are you both—Is everyone okay?"
I twisted in Jude's arms, studying the pair, finding Jude scuffed but unharmed and Ronan safe. I craned my neck to see around Ronan's wings, searching for a glimpse of Hunter, but my gaze remained shielded until they'd carried me a satisfying distance away. Ronan stepped back, and I gasped at the sight before me.
Someone had tried to start a fire in the house, no doubt to burn away the trees, but it was already smoking, a spray of water catching light as it poured out the window. Still, the small blaze and the remaining flickering lamps inside offered enough light to reveal the squirming, strangling life of the roots as they burrowed and twisted and shattered through stone. The walls were alive, writhing, and the roof was crumbling. The rowan trees had arched their branches into the top stories, tangling together in their effort to tear the house apart.
A crowd was gathered outside, figures struggling in monsters' arms—humans who hadn't realized they were being held by rescuers, not new captives. My heart ached for them, but my eyes didn't stop searching.
"Where's Nireas?" I whispered, pushing around Ronan's side. I released a tiny sob at the sudden sight of my orc standing proudly before me, his cheek cut and bleeding.
Hunter gathered me up in his arms, and I sucked in a breath of his summer flavor, kissing his throat. "Thank you," I whispered into Hunter's skin, but the words were for the woods. My men were safe. Or at least…
As quickly as relief came at seeing one of them, the determination to reassure myself that Nireas and Constantine were safe as well struck hard.
"Wait, little one," Hunter said, catching my wrist in a gentle grip, tightening his hand and tugging me closer as I tried to pull away. "Nireas is coming. Are you hurt?"
I shook my head, although in truth, my throat was burning and my left ribs ached from my tussle with the warlock.
"Antin? And Con? Where are—Oh!"
My hands flew over my mouth as an enormous figure appeared, backlit by the pulsing red glow of the house's now crooked maw, six arms spread wide to hold open the front doors before they could crumble in. Bowed bodies ducked under Nireas's arms, the final exodus a mix of young women and monsters.
Hunter released me and I ran forward just as Nireas leapt from the front steps, his heavy, dark tail draped limply over one arm. And behind him followed Constantine.
My knees tried to falter as I ran, and I ignored their weakness and the claw of stone under my feet.
"We left a few bodies inside," Asterion called out to Hunter. "No one we want to recover."
I ignored him, the sobs and screams, the gentle growls, and ran toward my men. I reached Nireas first, flying up into his arms with a jump, eagerly wrapping myself around him. His arms surrounded me, banding around my hips and thighs and back, squeezing me to his chest.
"Are you hurt?" we asked in unison.
"The killer was Eston," I said.