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The damned crows were everywhere.
The woods were black with them. Hundreds sat in the otherwise bare trees that surrounded the clearing, replacing the leaves that had long since fallen from the branches. Others strutted across the frost-tipped grass; more lined the path I was walking and perched along the peak of the house.
But the worst thing?
Unlike the ones that had been my harbingers before, these ones wouldn’t shut up.
I stuffed icy fingers deeper into my ears and scowled at the black-feathered horrors as I stomped toward the house They’d been arriving for days, now—the first group had moved into the trees the day after Samhain, and dozens more had taken up residence every time I looked out the window. And with the cacophony they made, I was increasingly annoyed to be the only one who even knew they were there.
Plus, they were giving me a headache.
“The crows again?” Maureen had asked at breakfast as I’d rested an elbow on the table beside my uneaten sausage hash and rubbed a hand over my throbbing temple.
I’d grunted the same non-response I’d been using whenever one of my housemates spoke to me these days, one intended to deter them from sharing their opinions on why the crows were tormenting me, why they didn’t think I should go after Lucan, why I should accept my losses after the battle with Morok and just let things be.
Suffice to say that I wasn’t much on speaking terms with my fellow Crones right now, and after a moment of pursed-lip silence, Maureen had returned to her conversation with Anne about the day’s chores.
I’d left the table then and retreated to the woods, too restless—and yes, angry—to remain in the house. I’d walked the familiar paths for more than an hour, but I was no better off now than I had been when I’d pushed past Bedivere on my way out the door and forbidden him from following me.
Bedivere, who had his own opinions about the Lucan situation. His own agenda.
On one level, I couldn’t fault him for it, because Lucan was, after all, his half-brother. But on another level, as much as I knew I should appreciate how he had taken over Lucan’s role as my protector, his constant, brooding stare—along with impatience he made no attempt to hide—had become as wearying as the presence of the crows. And I was done.
I was done with the daily growl of, “Well?” that greeted me when I stepped out of my bedroom in the mornings, behind which lay his unspoken demand to know when I would be going after Lucan. I was done with the former Crones’ refusal to help me do so when I’d asked them on Samhain. And I was done with being caught between the two—between Bedivere’s insistence that I go, and my housemates’ insistence that I stay.
My chin lifted as I stared across the clearing toward the stone house I shared with them all. The shutters sagged, the small windows were coated in grime, and a dead vine clung to the wall beside the front door, giving the building an abandoned air despite the five humans, one wolf-shifter, and gargoyle that inhabited it. The interior wasn’t much better, and there had been no improvements made since—again—Samhain.
Samhain. The night that the veil had thinned, and Edie had crossed over to stand with me and say her goodbyes before she made her final departure from my life. I’d tried to argue, to tell her that I still needed her, but she had only chuckled.
“Need me?” she’d said. “But you don’t, you know. You’ve outgrown me. You’ve outgrown all of us. And I am so, so proud of you … how much you’ve learned about magick and power and yourself. I am honored to have been a part of that journey. But now our paths diverge, because it’s time for me to join the ancestors.”
She’d hugged me fiercely, then, and her last words to me had been, “Now go follow that path of yours,” as she faded from my life forever. In that moment, I had been sure my path led to the Camlann splinter and Lucan, and resolve had filled me even as I’d grieved her loss. But the others …
The others had all but crushed that resolve.
“Even if we could,” Anne had said quietly, when I’d presented my intention to go after Lucan to them and asked for their help, “we’ve agreed we shouldn’t.”
I’d blinked at her, not quite trusting my ears. “You’ve … you’ve all discussed this already? Without me?”
I’d blinked at the others for good measure, and four compassionate but resolved gazes had met mine in turn.
“Our purpose as Crones,” Elysabeth had said, “was always to rid the world of Morok. We did that, Claire, and we cannot chance undoing it. If we were to be successful in opening another portal for you to go after Lucan—and without the Morrigan’s powers to aid us, that’s a big if—we don’t know what would happen. There’s no guarantee you’d be able to cross through it, or that you’d end up in the right place, or—” She’d held up a hand to forestall my response that I didn’t care, that I’d take the risk.
“Or,” she’d continued, emphasizing the word, “that Morok wouldn’t be waiting on the other side to return.”
She’d been right, of course. They were all right. I knew it, they knew it, and the way Keven carefully kept her back turned on the conversation made me think that she knew it, too. And I didn’t blame them for their caution, because if Morok did wait on the other side of the portal in Camlann, he would have recovered the half of his powers that had been split from him in that original splinter. The very idea of him returning here with that kind of power made my insides shrink.
Plus, there was the very real concern that the Morrigan herself would take exception to my use of her powers and take them away—along with my life. So yes, all in all, the risks were enormous, and yes, I understood why they refused their help, and yet …
And yet, the resolve hadn’t altogether gone away. It had nagged at me incessantly, peppered my dreams along with images of Lucan’s wolf disappearing into the portal with Morok, dogged my every daytime step. It was driving me as mad as the crows were, and now I was done.
“Not if you stand out here all day,” my Edie-voice observed dryly. Because the woman herself might be gone, and her ghost might be gone, but apparently I was going to carry on discussions with my version of her voice forever. I rolled my eyes at myself—and the voice—and then sighed. She—it—had a point. Putting the conversation off wouldn’t make it any easier.
A movement in the window to the left, the sitting room, caught my eye. I shifted my gaze to the tall, broad-shouldered figure framed there. Bedivere, who hadn’t followed me but still watched me. Tension crept up my spine and seized my neck. I shrugged it off in irritation, dug my fingers deeper into my ears, and resumed my march through the crows toward the house.
Done, I reminded myself. Screw the damned harbingers and whatever warning they were trying to impart. I would take my chances with the Morrigan, and with the others. I was going after Lucan with or without them. I had no idea how, yet, but—
The front door to the house opened, interrupting my thoughts. Keven’s granite bulk stood in the opening, my traitor of an orange cat draped contentedly around her shoulders, and I squeezed past both into the entry. The gargoyle closed the door behind me, cutting off the crow cacophony outside. Or at least making it faint enough that I could withdraw my fingers from my ears.
Closing my eyes, I inhaled as I counted to seven, held the breath for another count, and then released it on a third. Then I repeated the sequence. Why a count of seven? I hadn’t a clue, apart from having read it somewhere an eon ago. Any other number probably would have worked, too, but the important thing was that it did work. My shoulders descended nearer to their rightful place, my jaw unclenched, and my resolve settled deeper into my bones.
I opened my eyes to find both gargoyle and cat watching me, Keven’s hand outstretched and waiting to take my cloak. I unclasped the garment and let it slide from my shoulders, then handed it over. She turned to hang it on a hook behind her while I removed my boots and slid my feet into the felt slippers waiting for me.
“Where are the others?” I asked.
“In the sitting room.” The gargoyle nodded her head toward the closed door to the left. “There’s tea.”
“Good,” I said. “Because I’m done.”
Maureen, Anne, Elysabeth, and Nia were seated on stools set before the crackling fire, cups of tea balanced on their laps. Nia had one hand extended toward the flames, their long thin fingers spread to absorb the warmth. Elysabeth, perpetually cold ever since the Crones’ encounter with Morok in New York City—not to mention her sojourn and near starvation in the fetid cell before that—clutched at a gray woolen shawl wrapped around hunched shoulders. Anne cradled a cup in both hands on her lap, her gray-streaked braid pulled over one shoulder as she stared into the dancing flames and nodded at whatever a highly animated, scarlet-haired Maureen was saying. And beside the window stood the omnipresent dark cloud in the house that was Bedivere.
I hesitated in the doorway. This would be so much easier if I had an actual plan. Any plan. If I could tell them what I needed from them, how I would get to Lucan, how I would get back again. But I had nothing. No plan, no map, no clue as to how I would do this. All I had was the certainty that I had to try—for Lucan, and for myself, because I would never know peace if I didn’t.
Maureen’s gaze connected with mine across the room, and her hands stopped above her head in mid-illustration of her point. “Claire,” she said. She settled her hands back on her lap and exchanged looks with the others, then continued with a note of cheer as forced as any I’d ever heard, “You look half frozen. Come and get warm.”
I looked down at the arms I’d wrapped around myself. I was indeed rubbing my hands over them as if chilled, but it had nothing to do with the temperature. At least, not the ambient one.
Avoiding the frost behind Bedivere’s scowl, I joined the women around the fire, settled onto a stool, and murmured my thanks as I accepted the cup of tea Nia poured for me. They nodded and set the teapot back onto the hearth at the edge of the fire. Silence sat over us for long seconds, broken by the crackle and snap of a pine log sending sparks up the chimney as I sipped my tea and gathered my arguments. At last, I opened my mouth to speak, but before I could utter a sound, Anne and Bedivere interrupted me in the same breath.
“So,” Anne began.
“You’re wasting time,” Bedivere growled.
The rush of wings filled the room, swallowing both their words.