“So is this why you came back?” she asked. “To try to get me to change my mind? To tell me that it’s too dangerous? That I shouldn’t go?”

“Honestly?” she said. “If I thought it would do any good, I might try.”

Isobel gaped at her. “How can you even say that? Especially when you’re the one giving speeches about not giving up? Weren’t you the one who cornered me and told me I needed to do something?”

“I never said we shouldn’t do something,” Gwen said, anger building in her voice. “I just don’t know if going to find this Toaster guy is the right something.”

“What else is there? How else am I supposed to reach Varen? Did you happen to bring a book with you that answers that question?”

“No!” Throwing up her arms, Gwen plopped down on the edge of Isobel’s bed. “Look,” she said, bracing one hand at her brow. “I’m sorry. You’ll have to excuse me if I’m not too keen on the prospect of attending my best friend’s funeral. It’s just that I know you don’t understand what this all really means. And that’s why I came here today. So you’d have some idea of what you were walking into. You love Varen. You’ll do what it takes. I get that. I do. But there’s something you should consider about why this all happened in the first place.” She paused before continuing and drew in a slow breath, her hands knotting in her lap. “Demons . . . they don’t just waltz into your life and take over for no reason,” she said, her voice going soft again. “They might knock on the door, but ultimately, you have to be the one to invite them in.”

Isobel sent her a questioning sidelong glare. “What are you saying?” she asked. “That Varen brought this on himself? Gwen, she lured him. The book says that. You read it yourself!”

“I don’t think it’s a secret to either of us that Varen answered the call when the phone rang, Isobel. There’s no denying that he went seeking her out in return. You said yourself he was writing about her, giving her power.”

Isobel pursed her lips. Unable to counter the accusation, she folded her arms and turned from Gwen, then made her way to her window, where she stared across the street to the line of cars parked in front of Mrs. Finley’s yard.

“Listen,” Gwen went on, “I know it’s not something you want to hear, but somebody has to say it. Varen’s missing right now because some part of him at some point wanted that to happen.”

Isobel’s gaze narrowed, her eyes following a large crow as it swooped down from Mrs. Finley’s roof. Rounding the oak in the front yard, it flittered to perch on one of the snow-dusted branches, only a short distance from a second, larger crow she hadn’t noticed until now. She hugged herself tighter as they cawed at each other, the feathers around their necks bristling.


“There’s one more thing you need to know,” Gwen said.

Isobel remained quiet, torn between wanting Gwen to continue and wishing the bombardment would cease.

“I already told you that my grandmother came to me in a dream last night.”

Outside, the smaller of the two birds took off, dive-bombing the larger, who swooped out of the way just in time. Then they flew off together, one chasing after the other, their squawking echoing through the neighborhood.

“The hamsa.” Isobel lifted a hand to her collar. She brushed the silver metal of the charm, which had grown warm against her skin. “You said she told you to give it to me. Why?”

“Protection,” Gwen said. “She said you would need it. So don’t take it off.”

Isobel’s fingers left the charm. Reaching up, she snapped the lock on her window into place. Grabbing the lace curtains, she pulled them closed, then glanced over her shoulder to see Gwen rifling through an outer pocket of her messenger bag.

“It wasn’t just my grandmother who I saw in the dream, though,” Gwen said. “There was somebody else there too. The whole time, the two of us were just wandering around this mazelike garden, all enclosed and made up of tunnels covered in roses.”

Like flint striking in the dark, Gwen’s words snatched Isobel’s attention.

“What did you just say?”

“A rose garden,” she said, and removed a white sheet of paper from her bag. “Sort of like a network of rooms and tunnels covered in roses, all of them red. That’s the only way I know how to describe it.”

Images of a dome-shaped room surrounded by roses flashed through Isobel’s mind, telling her that she had been there too. She could even picture a screen of falling petals, the velvety slips of red tumbling between her and someone else, someone leaning in close.

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