CERISE sat in the grass. The cut on her breast had stopped bleeding. Strangely, it didn't hurt, not as much as she thought it would have. Her blood always clotted quickly, and she usually got away with a bandage where other people needed stitches.A few yards away Erian dragged a corpse by its feet onto the growing pile of the dead. He should've nursed his wounds, instead of pulling corpses around. Erian turned toward her, flipping the corpse. Excitement lit his eyes, his teeth bared in a rigid grin. He looked deranged, lost in a maniacal glee.Blood poured from the corpse's mouth. Erian laughed, his voice bubbling up from his throat.The delight on his face disturbed her to her core. This wasn't Erian. Erian was calm and quiet. He didn't laugh at death. Didn't revel in it.The feud was over, Cerise told herself. He'd waited for his revenge for so long it might have driven him a bit unhinged. The Sheeriles were done, and once they cleared the field, Erian would return to his normal self. But she would remember that rigor mortis smile forever.She sighed and looked at the body he was dragging. The cadaver's pale head bounced on the ground, and more blood escaped from its mouth. The face seemed familiar . . . Arig. She almost didn't recognize him without that leer. Death wiped all expression off his face, and now he seemed just another boy, cut down too early.Cerise wished she felt something, something other than regret. The Sheerile brothers were dead. The feud was over. She should've been celebrating, but instead she felt empty, scraped clean of all emotion. Only regret remained. So many people dead. Such a waste. A waste of people, a waste of life.If a rock fell from the sky and hit her head, killing her, she wouldn't care. She was spent anyway.William dropped on the grass next to her. "It was a good fight.""Yes. You slaughtered thirty people single-handedly.""I meant you and Lagar."Cerise sighed. "If I was my father, the family would follow me anywhere, but I'm not. I had to prove that I was good enough. The next time I may have to lead them against the Hand, and I need them to follow."In the center of the clearing the men had strung up Lagar's body. He hung upright, off a wooden pole, and people piled peat and mud around the base. Three buckets full of mud already waited next to the body. Richard and Kaldar brought a large plastic bin over and set it by the buckets.William looked at the body. "Why?""We're going to invite a swamp spirit into his body. There are many spirits in the swamp. They used to be Gods, the Old Gods of the Old Tribes who fled into the swamp centuries ago. But the tribes are long gone, and now their Gods are just spirits. There is Gospo Adir, he's the spirit of life and death. There is Vodar Adir, he's the spirit of water. I'll be calling Raste Adir, the spirit of plants.""To what end?"She sighed. "We don't know where the Hand took my parents or why. We need to find out where they are and what they want. Plants have a lot of vitality. Enough to revive a dead body. The things I'm looking for are locked in Lagar's brain. He was a careful man. He would have to know what Spider planned to do with my parents, or he would've never made a deal with the Hand. Raste Adir will meld with the body and find that knowledge for me.""Fusion." William spat the word as if it were rotten."Not exactly. Fusion melds a living human with the plant tissue, smothering the person's will. Lagar is dead. There is no will left. We just need the information stored in his mind. Don't look at me like that, William. I'm trying to save my family."The disgust slid off his face. "Is it dangerous?""Yes. The old magic is starving. If I'm not careful, it will devour me."He opened his mouth."I have to go now." Cerise pushed off the ground and strode to Lagar's body, where Ignata and Catherine waited. Look on, Lord Bill. You showed me your bad side. This is mine.Ignata dumped a bucket of mud over herself. Catherine joined her, holding the bucket, awkward and uneasy. Cerise picked up the third one and emptied it over her head. The cool mud slid over her hair, smelling faintly of rot and water."I wish Grandmother was here," Catherine murmured."She can't," Ignata said."I know, I know. I just . . . I wish it was over.""Me, too," Cerise murmured.Catherine stopped. "Why, do you think something will go wrong?"Cerise almost cursed. "No," she lied. "Nothing will go wrong. I'm just tired, bloody, and covered in mud. I'd like to get home and sleep, Cath.""I think we all would," Ignata said.Catherine sighed and poured the mud over herself."Let's just get this over with."Cerise popped the lid off the plastic bin. Three bags filled with ash sat inside. She passed two of them to Ignata and Catherine, and kept the third. Fear cringed deep inside her.Just get this over with. Just get it done.Cerise pulled the bag apart and began pouring ash in an even line, drawing a circle around Lagar's body.It would've been so much easier if Grandma were here, but she wasn't.GRANDMOTHER Az took Emily's face into her hands and held her gently, like she used to do when she was a tiny babe. A mere slip of a girl, Emily brimmed with magic. Az sighed. Of all her children, Michelle had the most magic. Little wonder Michelle's only daughter would be the same.Before them the ward stones shielding the Sheeriles' territory dotted the swamp forest. That's where Kaitlin hid, thinking herself safe and secure in her manor, behind her old wards. She thought them impenetrable. Well, not for long, you demented crone. Not for long. It would end today.Mikita and Petunia watched them."Are you sure, chado?"Emily nodded."Such a good girl you are." Az smiled, noticing the tiny tremors troubling the girl's hands. Scared child. Scared, scared. "Very well.""What do I do?""Just stand here next to me. Gaston, are you ready?"Urow's youngest son nodded his head - butchered his hair that wolf, yes, he did - and adjusted the backpack strapped to his back."Remember, the Fisherman's track. That's your way back. The wards keep things out, but they won't keep you in. Don't stay there. Don't wait for it to happen, or you might not get out."He nodded again."Off we go, then." Grandma rested her hand on Emily's shoulder, feeling the hard knot of the muscle. "It's all right," she whispered. "Trust your grandmother, child."The girl relaxed under her fingers. Grandmother Az stood straighter and gathered her power. It came to her like a cloud of angry bees, pouring from the leaves and the ground in a flood centered on her. This was the old magic. Mire magic. It had once built an empire the likes of which the world had never seen before. All was gone now, but the magic remained.Emily gasped. Hungry, Az pulled the power from her, more and more. Emily shuddered and went down to her knees. Her head drooped, her dark hair fanning her face, her magic streaming into Az's fingers. In that magic, the magic from a living human body, that was where the real power lay.Az could see it now, the storm of magic draping her like a dark mantle, billowing in the wind of the phantom currents. The witch's cloak, they called it.Az felt Emily's heartbeat flutter in her, weaker and weaker. Enough. She could've taken more. Some part of her longed for it, longed for the power, but she shut that part of her soul off, slammed the door in its wailing hungry face. She let her go, although it took all of her will to do it, and her grandbaby fell facedown into the soft earth.The witch's cloak coalesced, shaped by her will. Here's to you, Kaitlin. May you rot in hell with your spawn.Az punched the air, throwing all of her weight into the strike. The magic burst along her arm, a dreadful needle aimed at the heart of the Sheerile land, where their manor lay. The stones shook in the earth and two of them went black.A shadowy path opened in the wards, only four feet across and straight as a bolt."Now, Gaston! Go!"Urow's youngest dashed along the path and within two breaths vanished from their view."There he goes," Az murmured. "So fast. Like the wind."Her legs crumbled under her, but Mikita's hands caught her before she fell. The ward stones grew paler and paler, slowly returning to their normal gray color. The protective spells were flaring to life, reclaiming the path she had made."Getting too old for this," Az murmured before sleep claimed her.CERISE emptied the last of the ash, took a small embroidered satchel from the bin, and stepped into the circle, aware of her two cousins joining her. Catherine's face was bloodless even under the mud. Ignata bit her lip.They stood at the pole. Cerise took a small step forward. No turning back now. She had to do this and she had to do it right. The old magic was unruly and always hungry. Asking it for help was like playing with fire. Give a hair, and it would swallow you whole. Fear skittered down her spine. Cerise pushed it away.Mom, Dad, hold on. I'm coming.Ignata began to chant, gathering magic to her. A moment later Catherine's low voice joined in.Cerise tugged the silk strings of the satchel, dipped her hand inside, and brought out a handful of seeds. She had only done this twice before, both times with Grandma Az leading, and it terrified her so bad, she had nightmares for weeks afterward. Raste Adir drove people wild. If you slipped up, your body was no longer yours. It did things on its own, and all you could do was watch in panic. Raste Adir made you forget who you were, and if you weren't careful, you would forget yourself forever.Her fingers shook.Cerise passed the satchel to Ignata, who closed it and took it out of the circle and came back, still chanting.Cerise knelt before the mound of mud and peat under the pole, where Lagar's blood dripped down, and gently dropped the seeds onto the mud.Magic shot through her in an electrifying pulse and spread, tingling, through her body, spilling from inside out. Beside her Ignata swayed. Catherine murmured the chant like the soft whisper of the wind through the leaves.Grandmother Az's words streamed through her mind. Don't give in. Don't forget who you are.The magic swirled within her and rushed out, like the tide, sucked into the mound.The seeds moved. Their outer shells cracked. Tiny green roots thrust through, pale and fragile.The magic poured out of Cerise in a heady rush, feeding the plants.The roots thickened, raising the seeds, burrowing deep into the bloody mud, turning brown. Green sprigs spiraled up, twisting about the pole, biting into Lagar's body with green shoots, climbing higher and higher.Sweat broke out on Cerise's forehead, mixing with the mud.Leaves burst on the shoots, bright, vivid, their tiny veins red like Lagar's blood. Lagar's corpse disappeared beneath the blanket of green.A deep ache gnawed at her insides. The mound demanded more magic. More. More.Buds sprung from the greenery and split open. Flowers unfurled, yellow and white and pale purple, sending dizzying perfume into the air. It swirled around Cerise, sweet like honey. A giddy happiness flooded her. So beautiful . . . Her body swayed, dancing. She tried to stop herself, but her limbs escaped her control.Catherine crashed to her knees and laughed softly.Mom . . . Dad . . . Focus. Focus, damn it. Cerise bent over the mound and spat onto the leaves. "Wake."The green mass shivered. A muted roar rolled through the clearing as if a dozen ervaurgs declared their territory all at once. Magic shot through the leaves, ancient, powerful, and hungry. So hungry.Lagar's face thrust through the rustling leaves, framed in the cascade of flowers, his skin dusted with golden pollen.Raste Adir had answered the call.Lagar's eyes glowed with verdant wild green. Thin shoots snaked from his body, hidden beneath the moss and leaves, reaching out to her, ready to drain her dry, filling her mind with promises. Cerise saw herself caught in the branches, her body a dry husk, one with the green; saw the shoots surge further, saw kneeling Catherine become a spire of green; saw Ignata lifted off her feet by a vine, her face serene and lost among the blossoms . . .Cerise jerked back, raising her defenses. No. You get back!The old magic hovered just beyond reach. Its pull was so strong.On the ground Catherine sobbed, happy tears spilling from her eyes. The vines reached for her.Cerise stepped in front of them and gathered her magic. It rose behind her in a dark cloud, splaying forth. The shoots shrank back, shivering.That's right. Get back, stay in your place.Cerise squared her shoulders. She was a swamp witch like her grandmother and her grandmother's mother and her grandmother's grandmother before her. She had skill and she had power, and the old magic wouldn't wrestle her mind from her."Where is my mother?"Lagar's mouth opened. A cloud of pollen erupted from his throat, swirling in a glittering cascade like golden dust."Answer me."Ignata made a small mewing noise behind her.A shimmer ran through the pollen. An image rose within the cloud: a vast field of water with a lonely gray rock rising out of it like the back of some beast, and beyond it, a hint of a large house . . . Bluestone Rock. Only a day away!The branches reached for her. She snapped her witch's cloak and they fell back."Where is my father?"The pollen shifted. No image troubled the cloud - Lagar didn't know."What does Spider want from our family?"The branches swirled, winding tighter and tighter. Lagar's eyes flared with dark green like two swamp fire stars. Something burned deep in that glow, something terrible and powerful, clawing its way to the surface."Obey!" Cerise snapped.The pollen glittered once again, shifting into a tattered notebook . . . It looked like one of Grandfather's journals.Lagar's body split like an opening flower. Dark blue tentacles sprouted from it, streaming to her through the image in the pollen.She pushed her magic before her like a shield. The tentacles smashed into it with a ghostly howl. The pressure nearly pushed her off her feet."Run!"Behind her Ignata grabbed Catherine and pulled her up to her feet. Cerise backed away. Her nose bled. Her head grew dizzy."Clear!" someone called. She stumbled out of the circle. The tentacles flailed behind her, reached the ash, and shrunk, shriveling."Burn it!" Richard stepped into the circle and hurled gasoline onto the leaves from a bucket. Someone flicked a match. The greenery went up in flames.A howl of pain burst from Lagar. He screamed like a living thing being burned alive.Catherine sobbed, rocking back and forth.Cerise curled into a ball and tried to block out Lagar's cries. Now they knew. Now they knew where to look.KAITLIN opened the lid of a mother-of-pearl box. Her fingers brushed the treasures within. A lock of Lagar's blond hair, cut when he was a child. The tip from the first arrow Peva had shot. One of Arig's twigs . . . She remembered when Peva had told him that his fingers were too weak for a good draw, and for a while wherever Arig went, he had a twig in his hands and would be snapping little pieces off of it.She pursed her lips. Where did she go wrong? How could she have raised weak sons that had failed her?She looked up at the mirror that hung on the wall and touched the wrinkled skin around her eyes. Old . . . She had grown old. She had given all of herself to her children. That's what a mother was supposed to do. And they failed her.Kaitlin glared at her reflection. Her skin may be sagging. Her hair may be graying. But her will was iron. It was in her eyes, just like her father used to say. "You have iron in your eyes, Kaitlin. You're strong. Life will hurt you, but you'll survive, my daughter. The iron doesn't give in."She squared her shoulders. There were magics she could work. Dark things, vicious, forbidden things she could let loose on the Rat pack. And all of the old crone's magic couldn't save them then. Oh, the Guard would come, and the militia would gather and whine about the outlawed magic. Let them come. She would hold them off.Perhaps she could even start anew. Time had robbed her of her fertility, but there were plenty of children in the Mire. She could pay some woman for a good strong child, and Kaitlin would have another son. And this time, she would make no mistakes.She turned to the couch where she had left her shawl and frowned when it wasn't there. For a moment she searched and then saw it hanging over the porch railing, where she had stood this morning seeing Arig off.Strange.She felt around for a trace of foreign magic and found none. The shield of wards stretching from her house remained intact. Besides, none would dare to enter her domain. Nobody would be that stupid.Kaitlin strode onto the porch, tiny sparks of power breaking over her skin. She passed her hand over the shawl. Nothing. Not spelled in any way, the pattern as intricate as ever. She must've forgotten it here on the porch.Kaitlin lifted the shawl, wrapped it around her shoulders, and stood for a moment, breathing in the Mire smells. The afternoon was winding down. Soon the night would fall. The dark time. The Rats would be in their Rathole, celebrating, bloated with wine and success. She had a few things to show them.A faint prickling in her hand made her glance at her fingers. Thin gray residue sheathed her fingertips. She stared at it, puzzled, rubbed her fingers with her thumb, and gasped as the skin and muscle peeled off.Shocked, she whirled, searching for traces of offensive spells, chanting to raise her defenses. Power surged and formed a reassuring, solid wall of magic to guard her from the world. She could chant herself out of it. Again and again she whispered, but the skin on her fingers refused to heal.The shawl. She tore it from her body and screamed as the skin on her neck came off with it. Numbness crept into her fingers and seeped into her arms.This couldn't be. She was iron! She was strong.Her legs failed, and Kaitlin crumpled onto the porch. Numbness clutched at her chest. Her heart skipped a beat . . . The numbness burst into pain. It surged through her body, ripping into her insides with savage teeth.She tried to call out to the workers in the stable, but pain had locked her throat in a fiery collar and her voice refused to obey.I'm dying . . .She wouldn't let the Rats have the land. Not her land, not her house, not the wreck of a body that once had been her husband. With an enormous effort of will, Kaitlin poured the remnants of her life into one last magic.GASTON dashed along the twisted Fisherman's track. He had tossed the sack and iron tongs he had used to handle the shawl into some bushes to reduce the weight, but it didn't make much difference. His legs were beginning to tire. Gaston leaped over a fallen tree. The weeds flanking the overgrown path slapped his shoulders as he ran, dusting his skin with yellow spring pollen.Behind him a roar rose, a dull muted sound like the voice of a distant waterfall. He glanced over his shoulder and saw weeds snap upright in the distance as if pulled straight by an invisible hand. Pines groaned in protest.He ran. He ran like he had never run before in his life, squeezing every drop of speed from his muscles until he thought they would tear from his bones. The roar grew louder. Tiny rocks pelted him. The air in his lungs turned to fire.Gaston saw a glimpse of the river ahead and launched himself toward it.Not going to make it.He hit the water and dove deep into the gloom. A tiny ervaurg shot past him, spooked by his presence.Above him the sky turned yellow.