The old hag, because that’s what she was now, laughed in a low chugging sound that rattled around in her chest. She held out a hand toward me, clenched into a fist. Slowly, she opened it with her palm up. Resting in her hand was the Jerusalem Stone I’d left her.
“You tried to use it,” I said. “You promised you wouldn’t.”
“And I lied,” the witch hissed. “What? Did you think only the Black Guard could tell lies? Only hunters were allowed to break their vows?”
The fire in the hearth blazed higher as if feeding off her bitterness and anger. In the light, I saw that the hand holding the Stone was curled into a claw. Worse, it was blackened. No, worse than blackened. It was charred as if the Stone had caught fire but she’d refused to let it go.
“What did you try to make it do?” I asked. In my heart, I knew the answer, yet I had to ask. Everything that had happened since walking into the cottage somehow felt out of my control. Like I was on a path I couldn’t get off. And I had a bad feeling the path was leading me somewhere I didn’t want to go.
“Why is it that I’m made to suffer?” she asked, ignoring my question. She took a hobbling step closer. “I was the one who was wronged. You see that, don’t you? Anyone can see that.”
I remembered the dozens of Talib, the small-bodied creatures that had been everywhere the last time we were there. Each one had an identical head grown in the witch’s cauldron. All of them made to look like her murdered son.
“Where are the Talib?” I asked.
She clutched the Jerusalem Stone in her hand, and smoke rose from her fist. The air reeked with a burning smell. “I just wanted … I wanted …,” she whimpered. “I just wanted to take back what those monsters stole from me.”
As she said the words, I looked past her to the wall where the firewood was stacked from floor to ceiling. Only now, I realized it wasn’t firewood at all. It was all the heads of the Talib, rows and rows of bodiless heads, piled up ten or twelve high across the length of the wall, their eyes all open and staring at me.
She noticed me staring and turned toward the heads.
“I tried to bring him back,” she said. “You can see how hard I tried. But the Stone refused to work for me. I knew I should wait until I had three, but I was impatient. I thought one might do it. I thought that one might be enough.”
My body tensed. What she was saying wasn’t far off from my own thoughts. I hoped the reunited Jerusalem Stones would be enough to turn both Eva and Daniel back into their human forms. Shakra, the Lord of the Vampires, had told me it could be done, that she knew the Stones had performed this transformation before. But bringing someone back from the dead? That was entirely different.
“But what happened? Why are they all …all …?”
“Why are all my children without bodies?” the witch asked. “Because the second I tried to use the Stone, somehow all the magic I’d used to bring them alive was gone. The heads just rolled off onto the ground. The bodies, the ones I’d spent so many years gathering, all fell to the ground. Worthless.” She turned as she spoke and stared into the fire, losing herself in the flames. “I should have waited,” she mumbled. “Should have waited to get the other Stones.”
Her hand with the Jerusalem Stone in it fell open again. That terrible smoke stopped. Somehow, I had to get that Stone and get out of there. I was starting to regret coming by myself. “Bella,” I said. “You and I made a pact. You swore on your son’s name that you would return that Stone to me if I was able to get the Stone from the Lord of the Demons. I’m going to unite the five and defeat Ren Lucre for good. Give it to me so that I can continue my quest and make him finally pay for what he did to your son.”
She continued to stare into the fire, but she must have heard me because she answered in a whisper. “But you’ll fail. Just like your father before you. Just like your mother. Traitors, the both of them. In their own way.”
I took a step forward, fighting down an impulse to pull my sword. “Why do you say that? What do you know about them?” The Lord of the Demons had said something similar to me. Said I was a pawn in a game I didn’t even know I was playing. Even Aquinas had hinted there was part of the story about my parents that I didn’t know. I was starting to get a little tired of it all. I wanted answers.
The witch only smiled, pleased that I was upset. “A trade, perhaps? The other Jerusalem Stone for the truth about your parents. About Aquinas. About this fool’s quest you’re on. Give me the Stone and I’ll tell you everything.”
“Whatever you tell me will be lies,” I said.
She lunged toward me, moving faster than I imagined she could. One second she was by the fire, the next she was right in front of me, her face a grotesque sneer. “I might be the only one willing to tell you the truth,” she rasped. “Give me the Stone. Give it to me now.”
I took a quick step back and pulled my sword. “No, you give me the one I left with you,” I said. “Look at the way it’s burned your hand. Look at what trying to use it has done to you. It won’t bring your son back. I’m sorry.”
She jerked back sharply as if I’d slapped her. “You’re sorry?” she asked. “Did you say you’re sorry?”
“Give me the Stone. Please,” I said. “I don’t want to fight you.”
“You don’t have to fight me, Jack,” the witch said, clenching the Stone in her fist again. Black smoke rose from it immediately. She raised both hands over her head as if she was about to throw something at me. “All you have to do is die.”
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