Mother Blessing’s door slammed again.
She’d been doing this for an hour—coming out of her room, rolling around the halls, the rubber wheels of her scooter squeaking on hardwood floors, then going back in. Slamming doors like an eight-year-old throwing a tantrum.
Except most eight-year-olds weren’t potentially lethal. Is she in for the night this time?
Kerry wondered. Or just for a couple of minutes?
The answer could, literally, be that proverbial matter of life and death. Gotta get out of here gotta get out of here gotta get out
. . .
The door opened. Wheels squeaked. Barely breathing, Kerry closed her laptop and listened. Mother Blessing had stopped shouting so much, but she was muttering something under her breath that Kerry couldn’t make out. Panic gripped Kerry for a moment—the scooter was coming all the way down the hall to the guest room, the room in which Kerry had spent much of the autumn, learning magic at Mother Blessing’s side. Given what had transpired earlier—Season Howe informing Kerry, in front of Mother Blessing, that most of what she had been told about the mutual history of the two witches was wrong—Kerry couldn’t help feeling that Mother Blessing would not be in a jovial mood when next they met.
Kerry had power. She knew that now. She had learned well, and magic seemed to come naturally to her.
But she was nowhere near Mother Blessing’s level. If the old witch decided that it would be advantageous now to just take Kerry out, there would be little Kerry could do to dissuade her.
She held her breath for several seconds, but then the scooter’s wheels squeaked again as Mother Blessing turned away from her door. Kerry heard the door to Mother Blessing’s room open, and then slam shut again. Is she working up her courage?
Kerry thought. Why? What kind of threat could I be to her?
Sounds from Mother Blessing’s room filtered down the hallway to her. They could have been the sounds of Mother Blessing preparing for bed—it was past ten now, her typical bedtime—but rain still hammered the roof, and it was hard to be sure.
Kerry waited another half hour. The minutes dragged by like days, weeks. Finally the noises from Mother Blessing’s room died out.
Kerry was convinced that if she stayed, tomorrow would bring a confrontation with the old witch that she would probably not survive. She had successfully dodged it for tonight, probably because Mother Blessing herself was so weakened from the afternoon’s magical battle with Season that she hadn’t wanted to force the issue.
By morning Mother Blessing would have regained her strength. She would want to discuss the things Season had said—a discussion that would lead inexorably to Kerry’s concerns that she had been lied to since arriving at the cabin in the Swamp earlier in the fall. If Kerry lived long enough, she would most likely accuse Mother Blessing of having lied to her own sons as well—of sending them off to kill a witch they didn’t even know was their grandmother.
If Kerry was to get another day older, she had to leave tonight.
She had been ready for hours now, but she waited still longer. She wanted Mother Blessing to be deeply asleep. The old house’s floors could creak when she walked across them, and the last thing she wanted was for Mother Blessing to wake up and find her on her way out. That would precipitate the very confrontation Kerry was trying to avoid.
Every minute was torture, every tick of the guest room wall clock agonizing. She almost took out her laptop to write some more in her journal, but then stopped herself. She wanted to be alert, aware, in case Mother Blessing woke up. Losing herself in her diaries was a distraction she couldn’t afford. She couldn’t even pace, for fear that her steps would wake the witch whose house she shared.
Midnight passed. The witching hour,
she thought. Except for Mother Blessing, who, witch or no, almost always slept right through it. But then, I guess I’m a witch too, now. Not as skilled and practiced as Mother Blessing or Season Howe. But if being a witch is defined by doing witchcraft, then I am one. So I can observe the witching hour all by my lonesome.
She waited, and let Mother Blessing sleep.
When the clock ticked over to twelve thirty, Kerry decided she had waited long enough. Her bag was already packed. She tied her long black hair back with a leather thong, pulled a coat from the closet, wrapped it around herself against the cold and rain she knew were waiting outside in the dark, and opened her door. Her room was at the end of a hallway, and she had to go past Mother Blessing’s room to get out of the house. She stepped as lightly as she could manage, holding the duffel away from her body so it didn’t rub against her jeans. In her other hand she carried boots, which she would only pull on when she was at the door.
She had almost made it when Mother Blessing’s bedroom door opened, spilling light, and her scooter nosed out into the hall. Kerry’s heart leapt into her throat as she spun around to see Mother Blessing glaring at her over her oxygen mask. The woman’s breathing was labored, her voice muffled when she spoke.
“Where are y’all goin’?”
This was precisely what Kerry had hoped to avoid. She hadn’t wanted a confrontation or a scene. She simply wanted to vanish, as she had from Northwestern University when she had decided that she wanted to come here, to the Swamp, to have Mother Blessing teach her magic so she could take revenge on Season Howe. That worked out great, huh?
Now, facing Mother Blessing’s glare, Kerry delivered the line she’d been practicing. “I’m . . . uh . . . going after Season,” she said. “She can’t be too far away yet.”
Mother Blessing just stared, her breathing Darth Vader–esque through the mask.
“You’ve taught me a lot,” Kerry went on. Her mind screamed at her to shut up, already!
but her mouth didn’t comply. “I think it’s time to move on, though. Got to stay on Season’s trail until I can kill her.”
Mother Blessing stared. Finally she spoke again. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“Yeah, well, I kind of do,” Kerry returned, defiance starting to rise in her. “So, thanks a lot and all, but I’ve got to get going.”
Obviously conversation wasn’t a good idea. Kerry dropped the duffel, tugged on her boots, picked it up again. Another glance at Mother Blessing, who was rolling in her direction now, her mouth scowling behind the oxygen mask, and Kerry stepped out the door.
“No!” she heard Mother Blessing cry behind her.
Kerry slammed the door and ran through driving rain to the shallow-bottomed skiff Mother Blessing kept for traveling out of the Swamp. She hurled the duffel in, pushed it off the bank, climbed in, and shoved the oars into the oarlocks. As she started to row, she glanced back toward the house—which always looked like a tumbledown old trapper’s cabin from the outside—and saw Mother Blessing silhouetted in the doorway, her arms raised in the air. That,
she thought, terrified, is not good.
But with strength that came from working hard around the Swamp for weeks, she dipped the oars into the murky water and pulled.
It was impossible to tell where the water ended and the trees began, and just as hard to know where the tops of the trees merged with the sky. Moonlight filtered through only in rare spots. Trees were a wall of black against black. The toads, crickets, night birds, the rare and piercing howl of a bobcat, were all but drowned out by the pounding rain and the occasional crack of thunder, adding to Kerry’s confusion and disorientation.
At this moment, however, she was more concerned with steering the shallow boat between the trees and not grounding it than with direction. She needed to find her way through the honeycomb of canals and creeks to someplace where she could catch a ride far away from here, but it wouldn’t do her any good to get away from Mother Blessing if she killed herself trying. Since she wasn’t sure who had killed Edgar Brandvold, or why—and since she had told Mother Blessing that she’d left the minivan at his place when she arrived and found Edgar murdered—she didn’t want to risk going back there. Mother Blessing had not been happy about her leaving, and if she were going to try to stop Kerry—or to send her simulacra to do that—the van would be the obvious place to start.
A flash of lightning momentarily illuminated a barricade of tree trunks right before her. Kerry put her oars to water and pulled backward, trying to brake herself, to lessen the impact of imminent collision. At what she figured was the last moment, she raised an oar and thrust it out before her to stave off the bank. She felt the oar hit the bank, felt the boat stop in the water just before it rammed.
But when she tried to lower the oar to the water again, something held it fast. She yanked at it, but to no avail. Whatever had her oar wasn’t letting go—and, she realized, it was drawing her in toward the bank. Simulacra?
Kerry wondered. If she’d just snagged it on something, she would be able to free it, she was certain. She had a flashlight with her but hadn’t bothered to use it, since it would have meant taking a hand off the oars. Now, though, she released the stuck oar and grabbed for the flashlight at the top of her duffel bag. She drew it out and flicked it on.
Something had her oar, all right, but it wasn’t one of Mother Blessing’s manufactured men. It was a bald cypress root sticking out from the bank. It had wound itself three times around the end of the oar and was waving it like a magician with a wand.
Kerry knew the root could not have grabbed the oar like that without help. Mother Blessing was trying to stop her—and using the Swamp to do it!
While she watched, another root snaked toward her. She ducked away from its grasp. It came again, and she bashed it with the flashlight.
That wouldn’t hold it for long. She clicked off the light and jammed it back into the duffel, zipping the bag closed to keep out the rain. With her remaining oar—no way would she be able to fight the tree for the other one, not while it had dozens of roots that might attack her—she pulled hard against the water, alternating sides of the skiff to keep on an even course.
She was only a few yards away from where she’d lost her oar when she felt something damp brush her face. A spiderweb,
she thought, or some low-hanging Spanish moss.
Either was possible here. She swiped at it with one hand—and it snaked around her wrist, pulling tighter as she tried to tug away.
Kerry screamed and yanked her arm. Whatever it was—she thought she felt leaves on it, like a vine of some kind—wouldn’t let go. She swung at it with the oar but couldn’t break its grip. It started to lift her up out of the boat.
Panic threatened to overtake her as she struggled against the vine. Another one wrapped around her waist and tightened there, like a belt cinching up. Her free right hand dropped to her own belt, but the knife she wore sometimes in the Swamp wasn’t there, and she remembered tossing it into the duffel when she’d packed.
When the next vine looped around her throat, she thought it was all over. It closed tightly on her, cutting off her airway. By now she was mostly out of the skiff, could feel with her feet that it was drifting away from her.
Which was when she remembered that she was a witch too.
A kind of calm settled over Kerry’s racing mind. Mother Blessing was turning the Swamp against her through magic. But she wasn’t the only magic-user around. She had taught Kerry quite a few tricks—but more important, she had taught her philosophies and systems. She may not have known a specific spell to free herself from living vines, but that didn’t mean she was defenseless.
With her throat closed off and one hand out of commission, speaking the Old Tongue and making the correct gestures was tricky. But she managed to croak out the word “Kalaksit!”
and curl the fingers of her free hand toward her palm while splaying the thumb out. White flame crackled at her fingertips. She felt herself relaxing even more, letting the now-familiar sensation wash over her—the thrill of power, the rush of magic. Raindrops sizzled against her fire. Aiming by the light the flickering flames provided, she pointed at the vine that encircled her throat and willed the fire into a narrow, straight blast. It cut the vine as keenly as a laser.
Next came the one around her waist, and then her arm. Kerry dropped back down to the skiff, but unbalanced, she went over backward, landing faceup in the shallow water. She allowed herself a bitter smile. It hardly mattered; she was already drenched from the rain. The flames at her fingertips died in the creek, but that was okay. She could always make more.
She climbed back into the skiff, found the remaining oar, and started to row. Okay, then,
she thought as she churned the water, driving the boat quickly up the creek. Mother Blessing is definitely opposed to me leaving. Don’t know yet if she’s homicidal about it, but she’s obviously serious.
Kerry rowed and rowed. Her arms started to ache, her shoulders and back protesting from the effort. The rain gave up, and by the time light started to show itself, patches of silver and pink visible through the leafy ceiling to the east, she knew something was wrong. She had been making for the old Slocumb site—the blasted, cursed township Season and Mother Blessing had once shared—and she should have reached it within a few hours. Navigation had been difficult in the dark, but even so. . . .
More light filtered in through the trees and Kerry saw a bank that she recognized, with roots reaching through the bluff of clay and diving into the water, a big, pale mushroom sticking out of one like a dinner plate wedged halfway in. She had seen that bank at least an hour or two before, on one of the occasions when she’d taken out her flashlight to gauge her path. She was positive she hadn’t been rowing in circles—the Swamp wasn’t so well organized that one could even do that intentionally. Which could only mean that the Swamp itself was shifting, changing itself around in an effort to keep her here. What if it isn’t Mother Blessing?
Kerry wondered as the icy hands of fear gripped her again. What if it’s Season
—or the Swamp itself? What if it doesn’t want me to leave? Will I ever get out then?
But Kerry Profitt was the Bulldog, she reminded herself. It didn’t matter who—or what—was trying to keep her here. The only thing that mattered was that she was determined to get out, and so she would. She drifted past the familiar bank. Now that the sun had come up, she knew which direction east was. Slocumb was to the east, and a highway ran alongside the Great Dismal in that direction. She would find an exit, at one spot or another.
Kerry had traveled maybe another half mile when the water started moving faster under her boat. It took her in the direction she wanted to go, so she let the current carry her, using the oar only to keep herself away from the banks. A family of feral pigs watched her race by from a bluff; crows and three snowy egrets took flight at her rapid approach.
Then the creek widened, and ahead she could see where it joined with a broader canal. By now she was completely lost—she was nowhere she had ever been before, or, more likely, the Swamp had never been configured in just this way before. She put the oar to water to help ease herself into the canal, but when her smaller tributary hit the larger one, the water there rushed faster than she had ever seen water move here. It was like a river’s rapids, not like the near-stagnant swamp water she was used to. Her heart raced as she tried to steady the shallow skiff, but the little boat was no match for the sudden flow.
Water roared in her ears and splashed ahead of the skiff, and Kerry found herself spinning around and around, the oar useless to stop her. Then the tiny craft was hurled against a jagged bank, where it splintered. Kerry snatched up her duffel bag as the water rushed in, and hurled it up onto the bank. The water in the Swamp was rarely deep, but things lived in it that she didn’t want to encounter if she could help it—water moccasins and alligators foremost among them. Grabbing exposed roots, she pulled herself onto dry land, where she sat down hard and watched the boards that had once been the skiff separate and float away.
The waterways were the highways of the Swamp, Kerry knew. There were trails on land, but they were mostly animal paths, unsuited for anything as big and ungainly as a human being. Kerry was slender enough for most trails, but when they wound underneath spreading ferns and fallen trunks, they could be impassable even for her.
Still, it didn’t look like she had much choice now. She headed vaguely east until she found a faint track and then followed it.
And still Mother Blessing wasn’t done with her, she discovered. After maybe a mile or so, Kerry discovered that she was being followed. She heard the chuffing sound of a big cat first and froze in place. Slowly, carefully, she turned and looked back down her trail, and after a few minutes a bobcat showed itself, its strange golden eyes fixed on her. But the bobcat wasn’t alone—a black bear parted the brush and stood beside the feline. Kerry knew that would never happen in nature—only Mother Blessing’s intercession could have made those two creatures into allies.
Knowing that didn’t make Kerry feel any better about it. Either one, bear or bobcat, could do a lot of damage if it attacked her. Both acting together, impossible as it was to imagine, could easily tear her to shreds.
She could defend herself, of course. But the idea of hurting either of those animals, forced against their own natures to cooperate in her destruction, was repellent to Kerry.
Fighting the tremor in her knees, the urge to run, she turned away slowly, showing them her back. She then continued down the trail she had found, heading into the morning sun, moving at a steady clip—not running, but not slow.
Behind her, she heard the animals keeping pace.
To panic, to run, would certainly bring them both charging down on her. This way they remained at bay, tracking without charging, while she tried to think of a way to reverse the spell that had enchanted them.
No such reversal came to mind. Kerry was exhausted. She hadn’t slept since yesterday morning, Thanksgiving, which seemed a lifetime ago, and then the battle with Season, the effort of rowing all night—it was no wonder answers weren’t coming to her as quickly as they might have.
Finally an idea occurred to her. The animals had been set on her trail by Mother Blessing, no doubt with malicious intent. They hadn’t attacked her yet, but Kerry was convinced that they would when their instincts told them she was a threat or when she tried to run. She didn’t know how she could alter the programming, but she was pretty sure she could change their target. She stopped, then spun around, facing them again. Speaking a couple of the magic words she had learned, gesturing with both hands, she pointed toward a nearby puddle and raised the water from it. With the water that now hovered in the air between herself and the animals, she sculpted the image of Mother Blessing—all three hundred pounds or more of her, complete with scooter, oxygen tanks, and beehive hairdo. She tried to look into the eyes of each animal, and she drove into their minds the concept that this person was their enemy, their mutual target. Finally she hurled the water sculpture at them. Bear and cat both flinched away, but it splashed against them, harmless but soaking.
When it was over, both creatures regarded Kerry almost casually, and then looked this way and that, up and down the path. They were no longer fixed on her, she believed. She waved her arms at them, and they backed away, turning and going back the way they had come.
Kerry didn’t know how long Mother Blessing’s spell would last—or how long her own would, for that matter. But if it held, and if these two unlikely companions found their way to Mother Blessing’s cabin, the old witch was in for an unpleasant surprise.
The path twisted and turned, widening here, narrowing to almost nothingness there. Always it led east, which was where Kerry had decided salvation lay anyway. So she stayed with it as best she could.
In another hour or so, she could hear the rush of cars on the highway. She struggled to place her weary feet. The duffel was so heavy she was regretting having brought it. The world no longer seemed to conspire against her—when vines snatched at her ankles or thorns tore at her sleeves, they were simply doing what vines and thorns naturally did. But she was almost ready to admit defeat anyway, not sure how long she could continue the hike. The sound of cars perked her up a little. But they were still at some distance, with plenty of thick swamp between her and them.
She drove herself on. When her mind started to wander, when she began to lose her focus, to fall asleep on her feet, she reminded herself of Mace Winston, whom Season had killed back in San Diego during the summer. That summer had changed everything for her—had taken a life that was moving in one direction, as surely as the creek that had carried her skiff, and spun it around just like the canal had done the little boat. Summer had introduced her to Daniel Blessing, three hundred years old and, as it turned out, the love of her life. She allowed the memory of his smile, kind and genuine, to fill her for a moment. It brought her a few seconds of peace, reminded her why she was doing all this. He was the handsomest man she’d ever seen—centuries old, sure, but witchcraft, she had learned, was the original Botox and didn’t even involve needles or deadly germs.
But the summer had also brought Season Howe into her life, and Season had killed Mace, and later Daniel. Then, during the fall, when Kerry was in the Swamp learning from Daniel’s mother, Season had apparently tracked down Rebecca in Santa Cruz, and Josh in Las Vegas. Josh hadn’t survived the encounter. The only ones remaining from the summer house in La Jolla were herself, Rebecca, Brandy, and Scott.
Finally Season had shown up here, in the Great Dismal. Where it had all started, so many years before. Here she hadn’t been able to defeat Mother Blessing and Kerry, but neither had they been able to triumph over her. It almost didn’t matter—the things Season had said were enough to make Kerry rethink everything that had happened since August. She had been motivated by thoughts of revenge against Season ever since Daniel had died.
Now it wasn’t so much revenge that spurred her on, although that was still a factor. Now—just since yesterday afternoon—what Kerry discovered she wanted most in the world was the truth. She wanted to know who had destroyed Slocumb. She wanted to understand the relationship between Season and Mother Blessing, wanted to know what Daniel and his brother Abraham had known about it.
That quest, instead of just simple revenge, kept her putting one foot before the other, ducking branches, dodging thorns. She tried to remain alert, worried that Mother Blessing would have turned the Swamp against her in ways she hadn’t encountered yet. But her eyes grew bleary and her concentration flagged.
Until finally she topped a low rise and saw, at the bottom of a weed-choked slope, the highway she sought. Highway 17 ran north-south here, along the edge of the Great Dismal Swamp. It would take her away—away from Mother Blessing, away from Season Howe.
It was so beautiful, that strip of lined asphalt, that Kerry thought she would cry.