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She was being hunted.
The darkness seethed with the bloodlust of the fanatics behind her. She couldn't see them, couldn't see anything except the shadows of the hollow that twisted branches into skeletal limbs and turned everything that moved into her persecutors. The shadows hid their faces, and their bodies, but the footsteps shaking the forest floor told her they were closing in.
An ancient name swam in Sadie's head even as desperation drove her deeper into the woods. Nola Bellam. Not her, not quite, but someone who was part of her.
The knowledge did nothing to alter her flight. Fear gathered like a fiery liquid in her chest, blocking logic, preventing clear thought. The trees, misshapen and grown together, bent lower. The ground grew rougher, the bushes more tangled. Wind swooped down in bursts to claw at her black robe.
She'd run from these same pursuers many times before tonight, as herself and as her ancestor. She was fast, but they were faster, and one of them was equally desperate.
Ezekiel Blume had raped Nola Bellam, who'd been his brother's wife. Nola had taken her child and escaped, but not to safety. Nowhere was safe in Raven's Hollow. Ezekiel had been hell-bent on capturing her before his brother returned to the area. On killing her before the truth came out.
Because ignorance was the mightiest weapon of all, he'd branded her a witch and set a group of fearful townspeople on her. He'd died for that in the end. They all had. His brother, Hezekiah, had ensured it.
Words and images blurred. Ravens dived now with the wind. One of them, as large as a man, landed on the path several yards ahead.
Something about him penetrated the haze in Sadie's mind, and she slowed.
"Keep running," he ordered, but she wouldn't. It was time to make things right.
Moonbeams silvered the trees. Ezekiel's knife slashed the air while his mob of followers held their torches high, circled and salivated.
Smiling at their fervor, Sadie raised her arms and let the glittering darkness enfold her.
When Ezekiel's blade struck, pain shot through every nerve in her body. A single cry kept the man-sized raven away. Tonight, the war was hers to wage.
So let it hurt. Let her blood be spilled. This time she wouldn't try to trick death. She would accept her fate, and in doing so, she would save a man from the evil that stalked him here in the heart of the hollow.
As she lowered her arms, a knife slid from her sleeve into her palm. Resolved, she closed her fingers around it. She saw Ezekiel's face in the gloom, lit from within by the madness that consumed him.
When his blade fell yet again, she aimed and plunged her own into his chest.
His eyes widened, his hand stilled. His body froze beneath its cloak.
Ezekiel dropped to the ground at her feet, blood flowing like a river from his wound.
Sadie's breath rushed out. She'd stopped him. There was no longer a reason for the evil to be called up, no need for the poison within it to destroy an innocent soul. The man-sized raven would turn back into what he had been, what he still should be, and life would resume its normal rhythm.
Yet when she turned to watch the separation occur, her heart stuttered.
The raven stood, as solid and malevolent as ever, half bird, half man, staring at her through eyes that glowed red and vengeful.
"What is done cannot be undone, Sadie Bellam. You have your own battle to fight, and he who is me to help you conquer what comes."
What did he mean, he who was him? Frustration linked with fear even as the creature closed enormous black wings around his body and dissolved into the night.
It started slowly, a mere thread of sound beneath the raging wind. She spun back, but saw nothing. No one.
"Daughter of the witch." Laughter permeated the silky voice slithering into her head. "Do not be deceived. There is no one in the hollow who can help you. All that you see tonight, your mind has conjured except for me!"
The voice rose to a roar as another cloaked shape reared up. This one wielded a much larger knife than Ezekiel's. She saw a gleam of insanity in the eyes that locked briefly on hers.
"Your blade struck a false mark, Sadie Bellam. Be assured, mine will not!"
As the knife pierced her skin, pain exploded in Sadie's chest. She knew then what it was to die. The taste of it was bitter copper in her throat.
The hollow faded in and out, and her mind spiraled into a pool of black. An iron fist closed around her lungs. She saw claws reaching for her from above.
And woke as she always did-gasping for air on the floor beside her bed.
* * *
"Variations on a theme."
Standing on the sidewalk outside the pharmacy in Raven's Hollow, Maine, Sadie rubbed the lingering chill from her bare arms and willed the nightmare that had spawned it away.
But the ice in her veins wasn't something her mind, or the unseasonal warm spell that had the early October temperatures hovering in the low eighties, could affect. It was simply there, so often in recent days that she was growing inured to it.
"You could exercise before you go to sleep," her cousin Molly suggested.
"Tried it. Didn't help."
"You said the dreams vary. In what way?"
Sadie considered for a moment. "The cast of characters is always the same. It's the setting that changes. But no matter where it plays out, I wind up on my bedroom floor, gasping for air and checking for blood."
"It sounds-not like fun. Especially the checking-for-blood part. Do you think you could be possessed? Or maybe channeling our ancestor?"
"You think I'm channeling a three-hundred-year-old ghost?" Even knowing Molly was serious, Sadie quirked her lips. "Okay, I doubt that. And possession's even more out there. My guess is it's a residual memory."
"Of our cousin Laura's death?"
Dropping both her sunglasses and a firm mental shield in place, Sadie regarded the cloudless blue sky over Raven's Hollow. "The anniversary of her murder's coming up in ten days."
"Yes, but, Sadie, Laura died twenty years ago."
"I know. Look, this topic's too uncomfortable for me right now. I need to move past it before I spook myself into doing something ridiculous, like consulting a hypnotist. All I wanted when I came into the drugstore was to show you a preview of tomorrow's B-Section headline." At Molly's level stare, she rolled her eyes. "Yes, fine, and buy a bottle of Tylenol."
Satisfied, her cousin lifted the ponytail from her neck. "You've bought two bottles of Tylenol in the last week, Sadie. You don't usually go through that many in a whole year." She frowned. "Meaning you have a problem either at home or at the newspaper. And since you put in three years with the Philadelphia Inquirer and two more with the Washington Post, I can't see our Mini-Me daily overstressing you. So, home it is. And seeing as you live alone "
"Right, good, got it." Sadie waved her to a halt. "Your deductive skills are as sharp as ever-and FYI, the offer for you to come and help me run the Chronicle stands."
Her cousin's mouth compressed. "You know I'm not good with people."
"Molly, you're a pharmacist. You talk to people all day long."
"I'm in control-well, sort of in control behind the counter. Reporters have to wade into unfamiliar territory and be cheerful, sneaky, sly, whatever it takes to gain an interviewee's confidence."
"I said help me run the paper, not trick your friends and neighbors into telling you all their dirty little secrets."
Molly let her ponytail drop and her shoulders hunch. "I hear plenty of secrets without wading or tricking. Too many some days. Example, Ben Leamer's sister came in this morning."
"Ah." Sadie worked up a smile. "Boils or hemorrhoids?"
"Both. She went into detail for forty minutes."
"And I'm complaining about a few nightmares. Having said that, and seriously hoping you won't elaborate on the state of Dorothy Leamer's hemorrhoids, I'll ask again, what did you think of my headline?" She dangled the sample copy for her cousin to see.
Raven's Cove's Oldest Resident Breezes Into His Second Century.
"It's good." Molly pushed her hands into the pockets of her smock. "The photo of old Rooney in his cottage is perfect."
"Why do I sense a but?"
"Don't you think you're rushing things a bit? Rooney Blume's birthday is two weeks away."
"And the Chronicle will be running stories about his extremely colorful life until he reaches that landmark date."
"That's the point. What if he doesn't?"
"Reach the landmark? Why wouldn't he?"
"Because he's a hundred years old. He could die any day. Any minute. Writing ahead might jinx him."
Tipping her sunglasses down, Sadie stared. "Have you met the man? Rhetorical question," she said before her cousin could respond. "He smoked a pipe until he was ninety-two. I hate to think how much whiskey he knocks back in a day. He tells dirty jokes nonstop at the dockside bar that's basically his second home in the Cove, then laughs until his face turns bright red. If none of those things have gotten him, me writing a series of articles two weeks ahead isn't likely to do it."
Molly's chin came up in a rare show of defiance. "Maybe that's what your recurring dreams mean."
"What, you think they're telling me not to fly in the face of God and/or fate? They're stories, Molly. Feel-good articles that will, I hope, help stop the residents of our twin towns from going for each other's throats every time one's name is mentioned to the other. I'm sure this kind of resent-the-twin thing doesn't happen in Minneapolis or St. Paul."
"Raven's Hollow and Raven's Cove aren't twin towns. We're more like evil stepsisters. The Cove has nasty raven legends. We have a history of witches. You'll never mesh those two things. Just-never."
As if cued, a man Sadie recognized from Raven's Cove strolled past. His name was Samuel Blume. He carried a racing form and a rabbit's foot in one hand and a copy of the Chronicle in the other. A huge smile split his weathered face.
"Afternoon, ladies. I see you're forecasting big rain and wind tonight, Sadie. Must be your Bellam blood rearing its witchy head, because the radio and TV both say sunny and hot for at least three more days."
She shrugged. "You choose, Sam. My newspaper's going with the rain and wind."
"Good thing I brought my lucky charm. I'll be sure to get myself out of here and home safe before whatever storm you're brewing up hits."
"I rest my case," Molly said when the man moved along. "We're Bellams, he's a Blume. He assumes we're all like our ancestor. It's a battle of sarcastic wills. Hollow witches versus Cove ravens. Whose legends pack a bigger wallop?"
"Well, now you're getting weird." Sadie used the folded preview edition of the Chronicle to fan her face. "We're not supernatural versions of the Hatfields and McCoys, and we're definitely not Cinderella's stepsisters in town form. Besides, the Raven's Hollow police chief's a Blume, and he doesn't believe in legends at all. So pax, and thanks for the Tylenol."
Sadie turned to leave, but a tiny sound from Molly stopped her.
"Problem?" she asked, turning back.
"No. It's just-you look very nice today."
Sadie glanced down at her green-black tank top, her long, floaty skirt and high wedge sandals. "Thank you-I think."
"You seem more city than town to me."
"Okay." Her eyebrows went up. "Does that mean something?"
"I wonder how long you'll stay."
"I've been here for two years so far, plus the seven I put in as a kid."
"I've been here my whole life. You have a transient soul, Sadie. I think you'll eventually get bored with the Hollow and move on."
"Maybe." She waited a beat before asking, "Is that a bad thing?"
"For you, no. But others belong here."
It took Sadie a moment to figure out where this was going. Then she followed her cousin's gaze to the police station and heard the click.
"Ty and I were only engaged for a few months. We realized our mistake, ended the engagement and now we're friends." Her eyes sparkled. "A Bellam and a Blume, Molly. Can you imagine the repercussions if we'd challenged the natural order of things and followed through with a wedding? Although," she added, "it's been done before, and neither the Hollow nor the Cove fell into the Atlantic as a result."
"Are you teasing me?"
"Yes, and I'm sorry. Really. I know you like Ty. It's good. I like him, too, just not the way a potential life mate should."
Molly's cheeks went pink. "Everyone likes Ty. I didn't mean-I don't have a thing for him."
"No? Weird," Sadie repeated. She grinned. "Bye, Molly."
With a quick-and she had to admit-somewhat guilty glance at the station house, Sadie started off again.
The fact that it took her fifteen minutes to make what should have been a two-minute walk no longer surprised her. Ten people stopped her on the sidewalk to jab fingers at the clear blue sky. Thankfully, only three of the ten inquired about the source of the Chronicle's forecast.
She didn't think any of those three actually believed in witches of the warts-and-pointed-hats variety, but more than a few of them probably subscribed to the notion that Hezekiah Blume, founder and first citizen of nearby Raven's Cove, had, upon marrying Nola Bellam, in reality wed a witch.
According to Cove legend, the union had led to a fatal fallout between Hezekiah and his younger brother, Ezekiel. Ezekiel had tried to kill Nola, Hezekiah had ultimately killed Ezekiel, and the entire tragedy had ended with the gates of hell blasting open between the two towns-in the literal sense back then and still in a figurative one today.
Taking her right back, Sadie thought with a sigh, to the beginning of last night's dream.
Resisting an urge to swallow more pills, she pushed through the doors of the wood and stone building that housed the Chronicle.
She'd inherited the newspaper from her uncle two years ago. Next to the techno-sleek environs she'd known in Boston and D.C., it was a New England dinosaur, complete with antique wiring, fifty-year-old basement presses and fourteen employees for whom the word change had little or no meaning.
It had taken her the better part of a year to nudge the place past the millennium mark in terms of equipment. The employees continued to be a work in progress. But she considered it a major step forward that several of them had gone from calling her Ms. Bellam to Sadie over the past year.
She spent the remainder of the afternoon reviewing advertising layouts with her copy editor. At seven o'clock precisely, the man creaked to his feet. "My knees have been acting up all day, Sadie. Figure you could be right about that storm after all."
"The weather center in Bangor could be right," she countered. "I'm only the messenger."
"Said Tituba to her inquisitor." With a wink and a grin, he limped off down the hall.
"I give up." Rising from her desk, Sadie rocked her head from side to side. "Call me a witch. Call everyone with the same last name as me a witch. Make the nightmares I've been having go away, and I'll accept pretty much any label at this point."
She knew she'd be putting in at least another hour before packing up her laptop and heading home. With luck, a little overtime would help her sleep better. Unless the predicted storm arrived with thunder and wound up sparking another dream.
"Well, Jesus, Sadie," she laughed, and forced herself to buckle down.
She had the ad layouts sorted, two columns edited and was endeavoring to make sense of a third when the phone rang.
With her mind still on the article-who used Tabasco sauce as an emergency replacement for molasses in oatmeal cookies?-she picked up.
"Raven's Hollow Chronicle, Sadie Bellam speaking."
For a moment there was nothing, then a mechanical whisper reached her. "Look at your computer, Sadie."
The darkest aspects of the nightmare rushed back in to ice her skin. Her fingers tightened on the handset. "Who is this?"
"Look at your in-box. See the card I've sent you."
Her eyes slid to the monitor. She wanted to brush it off as a bad joke. Wanted to, but couldn't. Using a breathing technique to bolster her courage, she complied.
"Do you see it?"
Her heart tripped as the image formed. The "card" showed two animated ravens. One was locked inside a cage. The other was out. The free bird used a talon to scratch a word in what looked to be blood. It said simply: