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Shadow silence, p.11
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       Shadow Silence, p.11

           Yasmine Galenorn
 
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  The twins simultaneously nodded—eerie enough in itself—then, as one, they said, “Follow us.” Without waiting, they turned and headed toward the entrance.

  I realized we’d lose sight of them if we didn’t get a move on, so I lurched forward, almost tripping over a half-buried rock, but Bryan steadied me and we followed them into the depths of the butte.

  As we entered the opening, I was half expecting a gate to fall down behind us, trapping us, but instead we entered a cavern the size of a high school auditorium. Five tunnels branched off from the back wall. A flickering yellow light cast shadows on the walls, but I couldn’t identify from where the diffused illumination was coming. It spread out through the entire cavern, and there seemed to be no main source.

  The cavern was filled with shadows and shades—some were ghosts, outright, who paid little attention to me. Others were members of the Unliving, and they stopped, turning to watch us as we passed by. The hairs on my neck froze to attention, and I could barely catch my breath. The scent of the grave lingered here, and decay. It felt like time itself had stopped the moment we entered the lair, and the weight of dirt and stone above us weighed heavily on my shoulders, pressing down so hard that I wondered if we’d ever find our way back out.

  The twins turned to the second tunnel from the left and silently led us toward it. I glanced back at Bryan, then swallowed my fear and followed them. By now, my breath was shallow, and I was sure the stench of fear was rolling off me like a noxious cloud. I tried to gather my wits.

  Morrígan, Lady of Crows, Lady of the Battlefield, strengthen me.

  And suddenly, from somewhere in the distance, I thought I heard the keening of a crow, long and sharp and echoing through the night.

  The passage walls were polished to a high sheen, and I realized the Unliving had wandered through here year after year, using the walls for support. Years of hands smoothing the dirt had caused it to glisten like dark marble. Behind me, Bryan made sure to keep close enough so that no one could interject themselves between us.

  The tunnels couldn’t be terribly long, not given how little distance there was between the cemetery and the lake. And sure enough, within a few minutes, the twins stopped at an entrance to another cavern. They separated, one to each side of the tunnel, and motioned for us to enter. I wanted to ask who they were and how long they had been here as servants of Veronica—their dress gave me no clue, for they were wearing old-fashioned garments, the kind a Ren-Faire troubadour might wear. Their hair was short and curly, and the style could have been from so many eras.

  As we passed by them, I paused. “Thank you.” I turned to the one on my right, staring into his glittering eyes.

  The fire within them flared, and a knot of fear rose in my stomach. But all he said was, “As you will,” and then a slow, cruel smile spread across his thick lips, giving him a predatory look.

  I swallowed again, then stepped through the opening with Bryan following.

  * * *

  And there she was. Sitting on a throne of bones. The bones were woven together like roots of a tree, human remains so old that I knew, just from looking, they were from centuries past.

  Veronica was sitting on the throne, shoulders back, so straight she might be a statue. Her skin was almost translucent, like milk-porcelain, and her lips were ruby red. Her eyes arrested me. They weren’t the black of the grave, but they were pure white, with brilliant green irises encircled by a ring of blue fire. Her hair was long and straight, jet-black and sleek as silk. Veronica was wearing a velvet dress—as white as mourning. And atop her head, she wore a diadem of gold, with an obsidian cabochon in the center. Diamonds sparkled from the circlet, scalloping the golden band.

  Bryan and I approached the throne—a ring of guards watching us—and I stopped a few feet away from her, my heart in my throat.

  “Well met, Kerris Fellwater, Daughter of the Morrígan, you jailor of ghosts, you demon to the dead.” Her voice blew through the chamber like it was snatched up the moment after she spoke and whirled off to other lands. “So you enter my kingdom for the first time, and so you are greeted.”

  She stood, and I could see the throne clearly. A skeleton was embedded in it—full, arranged so that she sat on its lap, rested her head against its skull, her arms on its arms. The ghoulish nature of the scene hit me, and I had to force myself to stand my ground. I quickly looked away, taking in the rest of the room.

  The chamber was of moderate size, draped in silver and black velvet, and in the center of the room a large fire pit roared with ice-blue flames, giving off the chill of etheric fire. Members of the Unliving filled the room, standing silently, waiting for Veronica to direct them.

  As she descended the stairs from the throne—I counted seven—I steeled myself, feeling like I was caught in a late-night movie, a silent thriller from days gone by. But there was nothing left but to go through with the meeting.

  Veronica crossed the room to me and I realized just how tall she was—far taller than Penelope, taller than anyone I had ever met. She must have been near to seven feet, towering, and her dress crested around her full breasts, the sweetheart neckline trimmed in silver. The dress flowed around her legs, shrouding her body, and the closer she got, the harder it was to focus on anything but the Queen of the Unliving standing in front of me.

  “Kerrissssss . . .” My name hissed through her teeth. “I knew your grandmother. I knew your great-grandmother. I’ve known so many of your kind through the ages. And each spirit shaman is bound to silence, on the honor of the Morrígan’s name, when I tell them my secrets. For I am as much a daughter of the Goddess of Battle as are you.”

  I stared at her, wondering what she meant. I had read nothing of this in Lila’s Shadow Journal.

  Veronica held out her arm and pulled up her sleeve. There, on her arm, was the same symbol that I had been born with. At the base of my lower back, I had a birthmark—a crow, standing on a crescent moon, the mark of the spirit shaman. The members of the Crescent Moon Society wore similar symbols as tattoos, but spirit shamans were born with it. As I stared at Veronica’s wrist, I realized that it, too, was a birthmark.

  I looked up at her, realizing what this meant. “That is no tattoo.”

  She inclined her head. “You understand.”

  “You were a spirit shaman.”

  “As are you, now.”

  A cold sweat broke over me and I ducked my head, not wanting to ask the question that bubbled up in me. But her gaze drew my own back up, and magnetized, I stared at her. A veil of fire flared up, flames dancing around me, consuming me with its heat. But the flames did not burn, and they seemed oddly welcoming.

  “When . . . how . . . did you become . . .” My words trailed off.

  She smiled, and her teeth were beautiful, needles of glistening bone that could rend and tear. Suddenly, her destructive beauty hit me full force and I found myself longing for her touch.

  “Spirit shamans who turn their back on the Morrígan become the royalty of the dead. We can never escape her. Once given, vows cannot be undone. I am bound and unbound, servant and yet master, lover and betrayer of the Mother of Phantoms. One of my curses is that when asked by a spirit shaman, I must tell my story, as a warning.” Her voice, so smooth and lovely, was filled with anger and I could sense the desire for destruction hovering right below the surface.

  “What did you do?” I had to ask. There was no way I could leave this chamber without knowing what Veronica had done to incur this punishment.

  Veronica laughed, her voice throaty and rich. “I killed my protector and my lament singer, and I handed my village over to an invading prince for diamonds and jewels. The same crown I wear here, I wore as his bride. We razed the country, tearing it to shreds . . . destroying all who lay in our path. Until I met an army led by the Morrígan, and the Phantom Queen herself threw me down, and cursed me to forever walk the world. ‘Queen y
ou are,’ she said. ‘And queen you shall remain, over the dead, forever trapped in a world of your own making.’ And so I became one of the Queens of the Unliving, and was sent from my home, to wander the world until I found a place to settle and make my lair.”

  By the way she told it, I could tell she had relayed the tale many times over, to other spirit shamans. And then—just as I was searching for something to say—a crow flew through the tunnels to land on my shoulder. It screeched in my ear.

  Pay long attention, my daughter. For this is the fortune of those who betray their oaths to me. Learn, as your grandmother learned, and her mother before her, what happens to those who renege on their duties to me. Demand the vow from her.

  And then, the crow vanished as if it had never been.

  I swallowed again but this time I felt stronger. The Morrígan was with me, and she wouldn’t let Veronica harm me if I stayed true. “The vow . . . I demand the vow.”

  Veronica laughed again, but this time it was short and brusque. “She’s been here, I can sense her. You know, at times, the loss of her protection cuts like a knife.” She paused, then cocked her head, and shrugged. “As it was, it shall always be. Hold out your hand.”

  I did, trepidation filling my heart. But I felt impelled, and by now I was learning to follow my instincts.

  Veronica took my hand in hers, staring at it. “So soft, and so vibrant and filled with life.” A hungry note entered her voice and I almost pulled away, but she held tight, using one of her long black nails to gash the pad of my palm. Then, doing the same to hers, she pressed her wound to mine.

  “By the sight of the Morrígan, by the wing of crow and the kiss of magic, I bind my service to you, Kerris Fellwater, spirit shaman of Whisper Hollow, however I might help and serve. So promise and vow, I do. By my name, Veronica, Queen of the Unliving, Fallen Daughter of the Dark Mother, Watcher from the Land of the Dead, under the moonlight and wind, I give oath.”

  As she spoke, her voice took on a plaintive note, and I realized that tears were trailing down her cheeks. Veronica was crying, and as I held her gaze, I saw how the depths of years had weighted her down, resting on her soul and shoulders. And I saw something more—regret, and the wistful desire to let go and become vapor . . . to retreat to the Veil for good.

  I brought her hand to my lips and gently kissed the top of it. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

  Her lip trembled. “Do not make my mistake, Kerris. Never forget the power of she whom you serve. The Morrígan is the mother of your existence. She is the brilliant queen, and she is a terrifying destroyer. She will never let you forget that you belong to her. Don’t allow arrogance to rule you. It’s far, far too late for me. I’ll never walk again in the sunlight. I’ll never cross the Gatekeeper’s doorstep. I’ll molder here in the depths until I wither into a husk, and then one day in the far future, the wind will blow me away, and I will finally find peace.”

  And then, the intimate circle surrounding us gave way and she stepped back, returning to her throne, once again the arrogant queen of the Unliving.

  “What help do you seek today?”

  I stared at her, looking for any semblance of the woman who knew she had made a dreadful mistake, but would forever pay for it. But the Veronica who was weary and tired had vanished, and once again, I was facing the cold visage of a long-dead ruler.

  “There are Ankou in the forest up on Timber Peak. The forest Fae say you didn’t summon them. I need to know if you have any clue as to who brought them forth and what they are doing here.” I shored my shoulders back, feeling stronger and less afraid. I knew her secret now, and I realized she wouldn’t hurt me. She couldn’t.

  Veronica shook her head, once again taking her seat on the bones of the dead. “No, I did not summon them. But the Hounds did. And their chew toy—the toy they underestimate. The old bitch of the forest is a threat, Kerris. Magda is what I sought to become. She serves a darker goddess than the Morrígan, and she seeks to destroy all that is wild and wonderful and out of her control in this town. There are fifteen witch bottles in the forest that are the summoning vehicles. Have the Matriarchs destroy them. The Ankou that run rogue carry Arawn’s power, and they can and will begin harming the villagers.”

  She paused, then motioned to the entrance. “That is all I can do.” And with that, she fell silent.

  I waited, but she merely turned away and I realized the meeting was over. The twins joined us, and motioned toward the doorway. I glanced at Bryan. He was standing there, waiting, looking almost frozen as if he had no clue what had been going on. A moment later, he followed me as we turned to leave.

  I glanced over my shoulder when I reached the entrance to the tunnels. Veronica was staring at me, and once again, I saw the trace of a tear on her cheek. I found myself crying, too, and I reached up, touched one of my tears, and held it up toward her. She nodded, a ghost of a smile crossing her lips, and then—before I could say another word, the light in the chamber vanished and everything went dark.

  As we threaded our way out of the tunnels and found ourselves back in the Pest House Cemetery, I said nothing. All I could think of was what I had found out. Veronica had been a spirit shaman who had turned her back on the Morrígan. And this was her fate.

  Bryan seemed to snap out of whatever silence he had been steeped in when we hit the graveyard, and he turned to me. “Are you all right?”

  I nodded, softly. “I . . . think what she told me . . . I’ll need to process it for a while.”

  “What she told you? That Magda is responsible for the Ankou?”

  As I listened to the nuance in his voice, I realized that Bryan had no clue of what had actually transpired. I started to ask what he remembered, but then Veronica’s words rang in my head. And each spirit shaman is bound to silence, on the honor of the Morrígan’s name, when I tell them my secrets. And I knew right then that I would never be able to tell him—or anyone—Veronica’s secret.

  No sooner had the thought crossed my mind than a cawing echoed overhead and I glanced up to see a single crow perched on a gravestone, staring at me. The Crow Man, it was. And as the stars began to spin, I fell into his world.

  * * *

  The Crow Man and I were walking across a long spit of grass beside the rolling waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. A log, towering timber once, lay weathered, stripped of bough and limb, driftwood on the shore.

  For a while, we just walked. It was nice—the weather was calm, the sky a strange blend of orange and blue shimmering against the wispy clouds, and I estimated it was near sunset. The shore was a field of pebbles, leading down to the sand and froth of water breaking against the dunes. I felt like I could breathe, that a weight had been lifted off my shoulders.

  The Crow Man leaned over to pick up a sand dollar. He held it out to me, showing me both sides, then chucked it far out into the water. He shaded his eyes with his hand, staring at the rolling waves that flowed through the strait.

  “The lake has been cloistered long from its sister waters.” His voice was soft, echoing in the stillness of the shore. “Not all water is cleansing. Not all spirits can be cleared.”

  I thought of the Pest House Cemetery. “I think I understand that. Some spirits root too deep; they become part of the land itself, correct?”

  He nodded. “You learn. And some spirits become part of the water—when the waters are bound against their own kind. When the lakes and ponds run deep, but not free. Energy gets trapped. Spirits become chained. There is no purification strong enough unless channels be dug and the waters washed clear.”

  We came to another driftwood log and I settled myself on it, staring out into the choppy waters. The wind whistled past, ruffling through my hair, blowing it every which way.

  “What you are telling me . . . I cannot clear the Lady from the lake, correct?”

  “Peaches are sweet, and you speak the truth.” He wink
ed at me, sitting on the end of the log, hands pressed on his knees as his headdress shaded his face. “And Veronica, she will remain in her post. You cannot help her. Don’t think to try.”

  This was some of the clearest advice the Crow Man had ever given me, which surprised me. Usually, he spoke in riddles. I cocked my head, squinting at him with a puzzled look. “Why are you telling me this?

  “Because, you are who you are, Kerris Fellwater. You might look to intervene. And that . . . would be a bad idea. Better I tell you, than you find out the hard way.”

  A flock of crows appeared behind us, winging their way to land near our feet. They circled him, their incessant cawing falling into silence.

  I gazed at the birds. One, in particular, was watching me. As I stared back at it, I had the distinct feeling our conversation was being monitored.

  “She sent you, didn’t she? The Morrígan? To warn me.”

  He shrugged, but a flicker of a smile brightened his face. “She has her ways, she does. Now, Veronica was warned, as well—Cease the warring. Go back to your post. She ignored the signs. Three, I sent her, and three more, and three again. She ignored them all. Those were dark days.” He paused, then added, “Her name was Véronique at that time.”

  I pressed my lips together. That the Morrígan had warned Veronica and given nine signs and that she had ignored them was a lesson to be remembered. There would be no salvation for her, no freedom from the living death she endured. She had chosen her path and only when the Morrígan was ready, would she be freed. The Crow Man was right, I had been—in the back recesses of my mind—wondering if there was anything I could do to help the spirit.

  “She seemed so remorseful . . .” I didn’t phrase it as a question, but an observation. I didn’t want the Morrígan thinking I was questioning her judgment.

  The Crow Man shifted his foot, making a tunnel in the sand with his toe. “A bluff is as good as a trump, if you are playing with someone who trusts you to tell the truth.” He held out one hand. In his fingers, he held a coin. “Heads or tails?”

 
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