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Shadow silence, p.10
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       Shadow Silence, p.10

           Yasmine Galenorn
 
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  “It’s never a good omen when somebody tries to silence the Screaming Tree,” Oriel said.

  They worked silently, affixing their wards around the area, and as I watched I began to appreciate how strong these women were. They were part of a legacy that had been passed down from the Morrígan, as was I. It made me want to be strong in my own right, and I realized—I didn’t want to disappoint them, even more than not wanting to disappoint myself.

  * * *

  Thursday went by uneventfully. I had slept deep after our trek through the woods, and it was a relief the next day to have an entire day spent with nothing but errands and shopping. I bought groceries, did laundry, cleared out part of the garage—though I had no desire to dig into Lila and Duvall’s store of cobweb-encrusted boxes just yet—and spent an hour on the phone, convincing Peggin she was not allowed to move into her new house or even go over there by herself till we were there to help her. I still didn’t like the thought of her living there, but there wasn’t much I could do about it. So I just gritted my teeth and made the best of what I still thought was a bad situation. Bryan was out of town for the day, so I spent the evening curled up with a good book and the cats.

  But come Friday, I was jittery. I knew it was because I was due to head out to Veronica’s at dusk. Facing the Queen of the Unliving wasn’t anything to laugh off. People went into her lair and never came out again, and very few knew the workings of her mind. I wasn’t sure what it entailed to become a member of the royalty of the dead, and I had no clue how the kings and queens of her shadowy realm were chosen, but I was smart enough to recognize the power inherent within them. I didn’t delude myself that I could do anything to stop her, once she set her mind to something. The spirit shamans could control the general members of the Unliving, but I had never heard of one controlling a king or queen of the realm.

  As I dressed for the evening, I took extra care. I was meeting royalty. Perhaps she wasn’t alive, or a recognized monarch by most people, but she would notice if I showed up looking like I had just rolled out of bed. I chose my best black jeans, and paired them with a beautiful blue embroidered V-neck sweater. I almost fastened a silver belt around my waist but then remembered that she might have an aversion to the metal and chose, instead, a black leather belt. I slid on black velvet ankle boots, and brushed my hair back into a neat ponytail.

  Bryan had taken as much care—he was dressed all in black, wearing black jeans, a black button-down shirt, black leather duster, and platform boots. With his scruff of a beard, and the tousled hair that coiled around his ears, he looked like he had stepped out of some European vampire movie. In other words: hot.

  I turned to him. “Are you ready for this?”

  He set his jaw and shrugged. “Do you think we’ll ever be ready for this?”

  “Not exactly, but I guess we don’t have a choice, do we?” I sucked in a deep breath and looked at myself in the mirror. “Do I look too . . .”

  “Soft? Yes. But if you wear the leather jacket you bought, it will help. And braid your hair—it looks more severe that way. You don’t want to show weakness to someone like Veronica. She may play ball with the customs, but she’ll be watching you for any chink, any crack. Remember: She’s one of the Unliving, and as their queen, she’s going to have an ego to match.” He slid his eyes over me. “Damn, you’re hot. I want to fuck you right now.”

  Even his voice set me off. I caught my breath. “If we could get out of this, I’d happily stay home and fuck your brains out. But we have to go. It’s time . . . and I don’t want the Hounds to somehow swoop in and curry her favor before I get a chance to meet her and cozy up to her. I don’t know if that could happen, but I don’t want to take a chance on it.”

  He leaned against me as I turned to the mirror to check my makeup, pressing his body against my back, spooning me. I could feel him, hard and erect against me, and I groaned, wanting him, wanting to strip off my clothes and crawl into bed.

  With a low chuckle, he wrapped his arms around my waist and leaned down to whisper in my ear. “Can you feel me? Can you feel how much I want you? How much I need you?”

  “Yes.” My words caught in my throat. His breath was hot on my neck, his voice rough. He nuzzled my neck with his lips, brushing back my hair with his face to kiss the skin beneath. I squirmed, heat rising between my legs as I let out a ragged breath.

  “You’re making it hard for me to concentrate.”

  “You’re just making me hard in general. You always do. I love the way your body fits against mine.” He caught my ear with his teeth and tugged gently, avoiding my gold hoops.

  Most men had wanted to fuck me because of my boobs—they were huge—and then they had complained about the rest of my size. I wasn’t stick thin, by any stretch of the imagination. So Bryan’s adoration of my body came as a welcome relief. But more than that, he respected me, and he loved talking to me. The combination was irresistible.

  “If we don’t get a move on, we won’t make it out of the bedroom, you know,” I murmured, turning to wrap my arms around his neck. I tugged on his lip with my teeth, then kissed him, full and deep and dark as he moaned into my mouth. But I managed to catch hold of myself and I pushed him back. “Later. After. I’ll probably need it to take the edge off the worry. This isn’t going to be a cakewalk, you know.”

  “I know. Come on, killjoy. Reject me and then make me go out hunting through a moldy old graveyard.” But he grinned when he said it, and held out his hand. I took it and, gathering our jackets and my purse and bag of goodies, we headed out to the car.

  I had thought of asking Peggin to go with us, but decided the last thing she needed was a trip into the land of the Unliving. Ellia stayed home, given Penelope’s warning. We drove down to the cemetery, even though we could have easily walked—too many times after my encounters with the dead, I found I needed to get my ass into a diner or a bar or anything to touch base with the living again, to remind myself that I was still a living, breathing woman.

  Veronica’s lair was at the back of the Pest House Cemetery, against the base of a high grassy butte overlooking the lake. The lair was located within the hillock, and from what I knew, was a labyrinth of tunnels. The Pest House Cemetery was the oldest part of the Whisper Hollow Cemetery. During the 1800s, a network of institutions had sprung up around the country, meant to house those with TB and other communicable diseases that were, at that time, incurable. The patients were usually quarantined to protect the community, though it really meant incarceration, and they were left to die in squalid conditions. In most cases, they were buried in cemeteries next to or near the Pest House.

  The Pest House Cemetery was located directly behind the old Pest House, which I had not braved a look-through yet. The Pest House was dilapidated and had to be straight from the mid-1800s. There was a faded sign over the weathered house, which was as large as a two-story barn. The letters on the sign were so old that I couldn’t make out what they once said, and the outer walls of the house were so weathered that most of the paint had flecked away, leaving gray wood beneath, its color tinged with moss and mildew. The windows were long broken, but shards of glass remained in the corners, and here and there metal trim and hinges had rusted away.

  The steps leading up to the Pest House were falling apart, and the chimneys—there were two of them—were both broken, with chinks and pieces of brick scattered on the roof and on the ground below. Dark windows on the second story loomed like blank eye sockets, and every time I saw the Pest House, I could sense spirits inside, watching over the grounds.

  I remembered that, as a young girl, the cockier jocks in school used to dare each other to go break into the Pest House. But as far as I recalled, nobody had ever been stupid enough to do it. For one thing, everybody knew that Veronica’s lair was near there. For another, to get to the Pest House, you had to go through the Pest House Cemetery, and it was roundly accepted that the most dangerous
spirits were found there.

  The paths of the dead were numerous, but these spirits fell into an odd combination of Haunts and Mournful Ones. They were so uneasy from their deaths, most of which had been painful and at the hands of neglect and disease, that they had merged into the background, intrinsically bound to the land. That happened at times, though it wasn’t all that common.

  When someone had been violently murdered and their body wasn’t found—whether forever, or for years—this could happen. Or it could occur in cases like shipwrecks or accidents, where the deaths were violent and the bodies left behind.

  When that happened, there was no exorcism possible. The spirits were there permanently, odd mutants of the astral plane who could harm others, and often reached out to do so in their anger and pain. Many of those who died in the Pest House had remained behind, and they wandered the cemetery and the old house, seeking revenge for their inhumane treatment.

  As Bryan and I made our way from the car through the cemetery, past Penelope’s tomb, we came to the iron gates that separated the rest of the graveyard from the Pest House Cemetery. By the looks of them, they hadn’t been opened in some time. Vines were twining through the iron spikes that made up the gate and the fence. Beyond the gate, the trees seemed a bit wilder, looming darker and more unkempt. I knew for a fact that the lawn care service seldom came back to this area. They were as afraid as the rest of the town of what lay beyond the fence row.

  I grabbed hold of the latch holding the gate shut and turned to Bryan. “Are you ready?”

  He grimaced. “I’m as ready as I’ll ever be. I know this is something you have to do, so I’ll refrain from asking if you’re sure you want to go gallivanting in there.”

  I let out a long breath. “Thank you. It would be so easy to forget this and go home. But I can’t. If my grandmother had lived, I would have met Veronica by now, and I wouldn’t have to cope with this fear. But I can’t put it off any longer. Not with the Hounds and Magda out there.”

  Taking another long breath, I exhaled and pushed open the gates. Rust showered down to cover my hands as the metal gave a shriek of protest. The sidewalk was covered with debris from the windstorms. I licked my lips, then glanced over at Bryan before setting foot on the path. He swung in behind me, following close. The moment we walked through the gates I could feel the shift in energy.

  It was wild here, like an injured animal hiding in the shadows to lick an infected wound. I shivered. Veronica’s lair was to the right of the Pest House, and so I veered onto what I thought was the right path. It was hard to tell where the flagstones were. We were now in an area that was so overgrown and entangled that even the headstones were covered with ivy and moss. No one had been back here to tend the graves in a long time. I wondered if it would help. If we watched over the graves and remembered the dead, would that calm the unrest? But even as I asked myself the question, I knew the answer was no. No amount of remembrance, no amount of reverence would be able to pry the spirits from the land.

  “There are some angry entities here,” Bryan said.

  “They have a right to be angry. They were tossed into this house, ill with either tuberculosis or other contagious diseases, and they were left here to die. No one came to visit them except the doctors—and they wore strange, odd outfits that made them look like aliens. The doctors spent as little time as they could checking in on the patients. And the nursing staff were a joke. They didn’t want to catch what the patients had either, so they would bring a vat of soup or gruel, and a bag of bread, and drop it off. I doubt anyone here ever got proper medical attention for any wounds or for their illnesses. From what I read, when the place was closed and cleaned out, the blankets they found were mere rags, and the mattresses were nothing more than straw pallets on the floor. They made the patients bury the dead so that they wouldn’t have to touch them. All in all, it’s a grim reminder of how dangerous so many diseases used to be.”

  Bryan let out a soft breath. “I really wasn’t aware of how bad it was.”

  I nodded. “Most people don’t even know that these places existed, but they were common across Europe and—even though not quite so common here—they were found around the country. I imagine there are plenty of them around, rotting in fields, and people have no idea what they really were. They probably think they were just abandoned houses.”

  I stopped for a moment, holding out my hands. Bryan stood, arms crossed, keeping watch as I closed my eyes, trying to tune in to the energy of the area. A cold chill raced over me. I opened my eyes slowly, willing myself to see what there was to see.

  As I glanced around, vaporous spirits appeared in my line of sight. They filled the graveyard, sitting on gravestones, wandering through the cemetery, misty forms with angry expressions. My stomach clenched as I felt their pain. Not only had they suffered the pain of their illnesses, but they had suffered neglect and malnourishment and mistreatment. From the reading I had done, I was also aware that the inmates had abused each other, the stronger ones stealing food from the weaker ones. And since men, women, and children had been forced to live together in the same houses, rape was not uncommon.

  I shook my head, reaching out to Bryan to steady myself. He took my hand, kissing it gently.

  “There’s nothing you can do for them. You can’t release them, and you can’t make things any better. I’m afraid you’re just going to have to accept that they will always be here, always be reliving their deaths and their lives.” He wrapped his arm around my shoulder then and kissed the top of my head. “It’s a painful reality, love.”

  I caught my breath and swallowed the tears that had welled up. I had to accept there were some things I had no control over. I could do my best to keep them from harming others, but I couldn’t put them to rest and I knew it.

  “I know, and thank you. Thank you for being here with me.”

  We passed through the graveyard then, heading toward the grassy knoll that led up to the butte overlooking the lake. It was difficult to see in the darkness here—there were no lampposts scattered around to light the way. Bryan was holding the flashlight. But up ahead, against the incline of the slope, I could see a dark opening with figures milling around it. We had reached Veronica’s lair.

  I froze, staring ahead as the flashlight flickered in the darkness. I had been afraid of meeting Penelope, but she was civilized, and she worked with the spirit shamans. Veronica, however she might have been in life, was fully one of the Unliving. While I knew she wouldn’t attack me, I also knew that she could be a formidable enemy, should I get off on the wrong foot with her.

  I glanced up at Bryan. “I can’t believe I’m really doing this. I mean, I know I have to, but sometimes my life seems so bizarre when I stop to think about it. I am standing out here in a haunted cemetery, waiting to meet someone who is technically a monster. Why the hell did I volunteer for this job?”

  Bryan let out a laugh. “The fate of your birthright, just like it’s the fate of mine. Believe me, I don’t relish this either. I’d rather be home, curled up with you on the sofa, watching TV and eating chips. Or in the bedroom, making love. Or even at the community center playing bingo. Right now any of the three sounds vastly more entertaining than what we are about to do. But we don’t have any choice, as you so eloquently pointed out earlier.”

  I wanted to smack him, using my own words against me, but I settled for a long sigh, then resolutely turned toward the hillock, and marched forward to meet a dead queen.

  CHAPTER 7

  I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was on my guard. Bryan walked stiffly behind me, and I could tell his wolf was up—listening, sensing, waiting for anybody to make the wrong move. For a moment, I thought about asking him to shift before we reached the lair, but then decided I wanted him in human form. He could listen and catch nuances I might miss. Two pairs of eyes and ears were always better than one.

  As we approached, Bryan aimed
the light so that the beam illuminated the ground in front of us, rather than at eye level, as a courtesy to the Unliving. They weren’t all that overly fond of light. Two figures—men, by the looks of them—stopped, turning toward us, while the rest ignored us. They crossed the distance between the opening into the hill and where we were standing. They had to be the guards sent to escort us.

  As they approached, I wasn’t sure what to expect. My experience with the actual Unliving had been extremely limited. I was used to Haunts and the Mournful and the Wandering Ones . . . but the Unliving were a different breed. I wondered if they would wear their death masks. And even though I knew they weren’t anything like what zombies were supposed to be like, my mind couldn’t help but go there.

  Bryan stood close enough to jump to my defense, if need be. I wasn’t sure what to do next, so we just watched and waited.

  The guards were twins and looked to be around fifteen—which probably meant they had died at that point in their lives. They were tow-haired, and tall. But the light in their eyes came from an unnatural fire—white flames that glimmered in the dark expanse of their eyes—and they shimmered in the darkness, their bodies sparkling with a pale green nimbus. The boys stopped in front of me, staring at me for a moment before slowly inclining their heads in a truncated show of respect. Whispers surrounded us as other members of the Unliving suddenly crowded in.

  I cleared my throat. I wanted to both show respect and yet take control. I might be in Veronica’s territory but my station afforded me a status over the community of the dead.

  “I am Kerris Fellwater, and I’m the spirit shaman of Whisper Hollow. This is my guardian, Bryan. I have an appointment with Veronica.” As my voice hit the air, it made me jump, it shattered the silence so completely. The sound of the living was always incredibly solid compared to ghostly voices.

 
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