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There were no more crows.
Oh, the ordinary ones were still around. Two of them strutted around the sidewalk right now, bold and cocky as only crows could be, as they pulled apart a garbage bag they’d stolen from a trash can on the other side of the street.
But the important crows—the ones that only I could see gathered silently in trees or on rooftops, or following me like my own personal black cloud, the ones that warned me of something coming—those ones were gone.
I stared out through the half-closed blinds of the kitchen window. Half-closed, because I couldn’t risk being seen. Edie’s kitchen window, in Edie’s house, because that was where the ley line had unceremoniously dropped me after my witch ancestors had pulled me out of the cell Morok had left me in.
Edie’s house, because she’d left it to me in her will when she’d died in the fire in my house.
But no Edie. While I’d continued to hear her voice in my head throughout my struggles to learn my magick, my battle with the goliath, my killing of the Mages, I hadn’t heard a peep from her since I’d lost my magick in the ley lines. Just like I hadn’t heard the ancestors since their rescue. Or even my Claire-voice.
Like the crows, they were all gone. There was only silence. Emptiness.
And with the silence and emptiness had come paralysis.
Steam rose between me and the window, turning my view misty, and with a jolt, I remembered that the water was still running. I turned off the faucet, then looked at the soap suds and water spilling out of the sink and down the front of the dark oak cabinet to pool on the black-and-white tiled floor. My apron front was soaked. Goddess, but I was a mess—in every sense of the word.
I pulled the apron off over my head and dropped it in a soggy heap on the counter. It was a pinafore like the one I’d sewn for Keven, but in a solid blue linen rather than the pink flowers she’d requested, and without a frill on the pocket, and just thinking about it—and Keven—made me feel hollow again. Gutted.
I opened the cupboard under the sink and pulled out a cloth, then stiffly lowered myself to my knees beside the puddle. Goddess, would I ever move normally again? I was beginning to think the ley travel had inflicted more damage on me than just taking my magick. Five days I’d been back, and I still didn’t trust myself to so much as leave the house. Five days in the real world and Edie’s house, and I still felt like an intruder in both. As if I didn’t belong.
But neither did I belong in Keven’s world. Or Lucan’s. Or the Crones’. Not anymore. Not without my magick. Hell, I wasn’t even sure I could access their world anymore, and goddess knew I needed to, because I had to warn them about the traitor in their midst—Kate Abrams, police officer and midwitch, who wore the pendant she had taken from me. A pendant that marked her as the newest Crone, the Fifth Crone, except she wasn’t.
She couldn’t be, because she wasn’t even Kate anymore.
On all fours, wet rag clutched tight, I shuddered at the memory of the body that had pinned me to the filthy mattress in the filthier cell from which Lucan and I had rescued the Earth Crone. The fingers that had pried at the pendant clutched in my hand. The god I had seen behind the familiar brown eyes, inhabiting the body of the woman to whom I had once entrusted my own family.
Morok, god of darkness and deceit and lies, immortal enemy of humanity itself.
The god I had been destined to stop, once and for all, as the Fifth Crone. Until, as Morok himself had said, I’d been too weak to claim the power that had been given to me. Too inept to—
“Knock, knock!” a woman’s voice sang out as the back door banged open behind me.
My head sagged between my shoulders. Not Jeanne, I thought. Not now. But I pushed aside the reaction—uncharitable in the extreme after all my old neighbor had done for me in the past few days—and sat back on my heels. Pasting on a smile, I grasped the edge of the counter above me, pulled myself upright, and turned to face my guest.
Jeanne Archambault’s gaze took in the puddle I hadn’t quite conquered, then the water still trickling down the cupboard front. A tiny frown twitched between her eyebrows, and she regarded me with concern from behind her red-framed glasses.
Determinedly, I broadened my smile and pointed at the casserole dish she held. “Is that for me?”
Her lips pursed, and for a moment I didn’t think I’d succeeded in heading off her questions, but then she nodded. “My chicken and broccoli one,” she replied. “It should feed you for a few days. Help you get back on your feet.”
She held the dish toward me, but I made no move to take it. I couldn’t. As legendary as Jeanne’s chicken and broccoli casserole (smothered in cheddar cheese) might be in the neighborhood, the very thought of it turned my stomach and made my shoulders curl in around the omnipresent ache in my heart.
The last time I’d had the casserole, I’d shared it with my then-protector, Lucan, in the kitchen of my then-house, now a burned-out hulk sitting on the neglected lot next door to Edie’s bungalow. Lucan had eaten most of it, picking out the broccoli bits, and I’d barely nibbled at my portion, too overwhelmed by the turn of events in my life—him, the house in the woods, a living gargoyle named Keven—to even pretend I had an appetite.
Much the way I felt now. Again. Still.
Jeanne slipped her shoes off, leaving them by the back door, and crossed the kitchen to open the refrigerator, where most of the baked spaghetti she’d brought me two days ago still sat. Her lips drew tighter. She closed the fridge and opened the freezer compartment above it.
“It freezes well,” was her only comment as she placed the chicken casserole inside and closed the door again. Then she turned to me, her gaze assessing me in her professional nursing way. “How are you feeling?”
“I’m good,” I said.
One of her brows rose above her glasses frames.
“Okay,” I amended. “I’m okay.”
Which was actually pretty freaking stellar, given the state she’d found me in on Edie’s back porch. And not quite true, either, given the soul-deep exhaustion that had plagued me since my return.
I was so tired. Tired of fighting—for and against—what I didn’t even really understand. Tired of trying to understand. And bloody tired of—not to mention irritated with—the part of me that still wouldn’t give up.
Life at sixty wasn’t supposed to be this complicated, damn it.
Jeanne’s eyes dropped to the cloth in my hand, and mine followed. I sighed. I’d clutched the thing so tightly that the water I’d mopped up was dripping into a whole new puddle. Awesome. My neighbor held out one hand, palm up, and pointed with the other at the table. Without argument, I handed over the cloth, limped to a chair, and eased myself into it.
Limped and eased, because that was how I’d rolled since the ley line and the ancestors had dropped me here. I didn’t know if it was because I’d had no pendant to protect me from the ley’s magick this time, or because I’d just made one too many trips through on my own, but this last one had almost been the literal death of me, and recovery from it was …
Unattainable. The thought slipped unbidden into my mind, and I thrust it away fiercely. Angrily. Challenging, I corrected myself. Because unattainable wasn’t an option. And thanks to Jeanne’s intervention and nursing skills, I was recovering, thank you very much. Just more slowly than I would have liked.
And much more slowly than I needed to. Because if I didn’t get my act together soon, Morok was going to win.
Jeanne cleared her throat, and I looked up to meet her expectant expression. I’d missed something, hadn’t I? Again.
“Sorry, I …”
“I asked if you’ve eaten today.” She pointed accusingly at the sink of dishes I’d been doing pre-flood. “Those look like dinner dishes, not breakfast.”
I considered lying in order to avoid a lecture, but my stomach grumbled its first interest in food in days, and I thought it best not to lose the advantage. I shook my head.
“I wanted to clean up first,” I replied. “I was going to make eggs afterward.”
She wiped her hands on a tea towel and pulled open the fridge. “Scrambled or fried?”
“Scrambled,” she repeated, making the words sound like a threat rather than a query, “or fried.”
“Scrambled,” I said. “Please.”
I watched her put two slices of bread into the toaster on the counter, and then take a frying pan from the cupboard beside the stove and eggs from the fridge. Bread and eggs that she’d provided for me, along with whatever other groceries were here. I honestly hadn’t paid attention beyond trying to refuse them in the first place. But Jeanne had overridden my objections, along with my attempts to protest her three-times-daily visits to check up on me.
Jeanne, it turned out, wasn’t quite the pushover I’d always thought her to be, despite her continued marriage to Gilbert, who had been the very definition of a crotchety old man even when I’d met him thirty years before.
I frowned at my neighbor’s ample, plaid-shirted back as she expertly cracked two eggs into a bowl and whisked them together. When I thought about it, the only thing she hadn’t pushed back on was my refusal to go to the hospital when she found me, despite my practically being at death’s door—and my insistence than no one else could know that I was here. Which begged the question of … why?
And for that matter, how? How had she even found me in the first place? I’d landed in Edie’s enclosed but still freezing back porch, crumpled against the back door in the middle of the late October night, and—
Beside the fridge, the back door to the porch slammed open, and Jeanne and I both jerked our heads around to stare at … nothing.