Shadow silence, p.28
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       Shadow Silence, p.28

           Yasmine Galenorn
 
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  “Is this going to be something that’s going to make me unhappy? And therefore, make you unhappy?” I really didn’t want to hear that he was some pervert, or criminal, or anything that would make Peggin even more upset than she was.

  He just grinned and shook his head. “I promise you, you aren’t going to want to pop me upside the head after you hear this. I understand that tends to be your modus operandi.”

  “Well then, tell me what it is. I’m waiting.”

  “I’m rich. Peggin has no idea how much money I have. And to be honest, I never even think about it.” He paused, and then added, “Where I come from, I’m pretty famous. I made a great deal of money. I can easily afford to buy Peggin any house she wants. I know she won’t take it as a gift, and I know it’s too early to offer it to her outright, but I was thinking that I could be her landlord. She could buy it from me at a rate she could afford, with no money down, and eventually, loans can be forgotten.” Again, the edge of his lip tipped up in a quirky grin.

  I wiped my hands on a dish towel and turned to him, crossing my arms across my chest as I leaned against the counter. “Where do you come from? Every time we’ve asked you, you don’t seem to know the answer. I know that’s your business, but Peggin is my best friend and I want to make sure she’s safe. I like you, Deev. But I love Peggin.”

  He stared at me for a moment, and then soberly asked, “Have you ever heard of the theory of multiple worlds? Multiple universes?”

  “Are you talking about a parallel world?” It sounded preposterous on one level, but given everything we had been through, and everything that I knew about Whisper Hollow, I wasn’t about to pooh-pooh anything outright.

  “Sometimes, I close my eyes and I remember life in another place. And I remember seeing a spinning vortex in the woodland, and the next thing I knew, I was walking into Whisper Hollow. My first memory of Whisper Hollow is finding myself on Katega Lane. I don’t remember too much beyond the spinning vortex, except that I know I’ve always been an artist. And I know that I came here to find something. What that something is, I don’t know. All I do realize is that I am driven to create sculptures, and that somehow, some of them come to life.”

  “When did you set up your bank account?”

  “Three years ago. I found that I had a check in my pocket. I’d have to go back and look at who it’s from but it was cashier’s check, for a great deal of money. I know the IRS investigates large deposits, but something must have checked out all right, because I was never questioned. I think I’m here from a different universe, but why? I don’t know. And how do I make the sculptures that I do? Again, I don’t know.”

  I had no clue what to say to his revelation. But something about it struck me as absolutely true. I tried to imagine what Peggin would say to it, but for once I wasn’t sure.

  “For now, why don’t you just tell Peggin that you’re more successful than she thinks you are? And that you can invest in a house, and she can rent it for as long as she likes. That might go over better.” I didn’t like deceiving my best friend, but until we took care of that mark on her wrist, she didn’t need anything else to worry about. Deev could reveal his secrets after we were done with the ritual that night.

  He gave me a long look, then nodded. “That sounds like it might be the wisest move. And thank you, Kerris. This isn’t exactly something I like to make public knowledge. For one thing, I still don’t know why I’m here. And I don’t want the government breathing down my neck.”

  With that, I heard Peggin coming down the stairs. She had woken up again, which didn’t surprise me. I had given her a very mild dosage when I left with Sophia. As she entered the kitchen I went back to washing up the silverware and china. When she saw the cat, she gave a little cry and raced over.

  “Kitty Kare! You found her! I can’t believe that she survived.” And with that, she burst into tears, and sank down on the floor weeping. The walls had come down, and the reality of her loss had settled in.

  * * *

  Oriel had instructed Peggin to wear a simple white nightgown to the ritual and eat nothing after four P.M. She told me to dress in a black ritual dress, but I didn’t have one. So far, I hadn’t needed one. And since Peggin didn’t have anything in white—let alone a white nightgown—we went shopping during the afternoon.

  “I have to admit, I’m scared. The fact that Corbin is going to be there scares me even more. I can’t see any reason for him to be, except that he’s a doctor. And that means that they’re right, this ritual will put my life in danger.” Peggin gave me a frightened look. And she didn’t frighten easily. But the last few days had shaken her to the core. I hoped we could rebuild her self-confidence without any problem.

  “You’ll managed to pull through this,” I said. “You’re a strong woman, Peggin, and I have so much faith in you. Besides, I won’t let anything happen to you. You’re my best friend. My BFF, and I’ll always have your back.” I glanced at the clock. It was two P.M. “Let’s grab a bite to eat before we finish shopping. Since you can’t eat after four, let’s get whatever you want.”

  Peggin snorted.” You aren’t by chance offering me a last supper, are you?” As I stammered, she rolled her eyes and waved off my protest. “Actually I am hungry. And since I have no idea what’s going to happen tonight, I want fried chicken and I want an ice cream sundae. Where can we get both?”

  “Lindsey’s Diner, of course. She learned to make fried chicken from her mother, I gather. And you know Mary Jane’s fried chicken was the best ever.” When we were teenagers, we had hung out at the diner just for the fried chicken.

  We bustled in, and spent an hour eating and chatting about nothing in particular. Finally, we had to get moving even though both of us were reluctant. I paid the bill, insisting to Peggin that she could pay me back later by taking me out for coffee. We stopped in at Hortense’s Dress Shop, where I found a flowing long black dress that seemed like it could be used as a ritual dress, and Peggin was able to buy a white nightgown. She held up a white corset, but I shook my head.

  “I don’t think that’s what they’re talking about, and you’ll make it very difficult for Corbin to do whatever he has to do.” I said, giving her a grin.

  “Spoilsport,” she said, and chose a simple cotton shift. I wanted to believe that her joking around meant that she wasn’t afraid, but I realized it was part Peggin, part bravado. I played along because there wasn’t anything else I could do. She needed me to be strong so she could be strong.

  We went back to my house, and I gave her and Deev some privacy. I didn’t know what was going to happen, and I wanted them to have some time alone before we faced whatever it was we were going to face. I headed up to my ritual room, and knelt before the altar.

  “Great Morrígan, please, whatever you do, help Peggin get through this. She may not be my lament singer, and she may not be my protector, but she is as much a part of my life as either one of them. I need her, Deev needs her, and this town needs her. Protect her and walk her through this ritual.”

  As I stared at the altar, at the statue of the Morrígan that was placed front and center, it began to glow with a faint light. The light began to fill the room and I felt a quiet sense of peace descend around me. It wasn’t melancholy, and yet—there was a sense of loss about it.

  Every time you walk through a dark pathway, you lose something. You lose a little bit of the sense that the world’s fair, you lose a little bit of your naïveté. But you also gain from your journey. You gain strength, and wisdom, and the realization that you can survive more than you thought you could.

  The voice drifted away and I wasn’t sure whether it was my own thoughts, or whether the Morrígan had been speaking to me. Either way, I rose and silently walked out of the room. It was time to dress for the ritual.

  * * *

  Deev didn’t like being left at home, but I gently told him that he would simply interfere
with the ritual and with Peggin’s ability to concentrate. Finally, he quit bothering me about it.

  “Watch the cats, we’ll be back as soon as we can. I promise to call when we’re done.” I handed him the remote and made sure he had plenty of snacks. He had actually been quite complacent about using the wheelchair and I had the feeling Corbin had him scared stiff.

  When we reached the boardinghouse, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I had been there a couple of times since Aidan moved there, but I had never seen Oriel’s inner sanctum.

  The living room had several of her guests reading the paper, watching TV—the usual. I recognized a writer who had come to Whisper Hollow to write a story about the town and never left. I couldn’t remember his name, though I thought it was Shawn. He gave me a wave and went back to his book.

  Oriel led Peggin and me into a back room that I knew was her own private parlor. She walked over to the grandfather clock and reached around behind it. A moment later a secret door slid back to reveal a staircase leading down. Whisper Hollow was full of secret passages, it seemed.

  The stairwell was well lit, with a sturdy railing—nothing like the dark basement that had been in Peggin’s house or the steep hidden stair in Niles’s garage. The stairs were carpeted, probably to hush the sound of footsteps. As we headed down, the door closed behind us. Twelve steps later and we were in a private basement—in a large sitting room, with three doors off of it.

  “That door leads to the restroom. The center door leads to my ritual room. The door on the left is a private chamber. Never enter it unless you have my permission. I have guardians set and they will not differentiate between friend or foe. If you have to, go ahead into the bathroom and then come on into the ritual room. I’ll meet you there as soon as I am ready.” She vanished into her private chamber.

  “I think I need to use the bathroom,” Peggin said.

  I nodded. “I’ll wait for you here.” I settled into one of the chairs, trying to think of anything I could to take my mind off what was about to ensue. It would help if I knew what the ritual was, I thought. Then again, if it was as dangerous as Oriel and Ivy had indicated, maybe not.

  A few moments later Peggin returned from the bathroom, her eyes red. I realized she’d been crying. I gave her a silent hug and we headed into the ritual room.

  Bryan was already there, as were Corbin and Starlight and Ellia and Ivy. They were gathered around what appeared to be a massage table. I blinked. Somehow I didn’t expect the ritual to be all that relaxing. I glanced around the room.

  Oriel’s ritual room was quite different than mine or Ivy’s. Each wall was painted to match one of the elements. The north wall was a jungle. East was covered with clouds. South was a volcanic expanse. And west was the rolling ocean. In front of each wall stood an altar table, dedicated to the element it represented. There were crystals everywhere, from small spheres of lapis lazuli to quartz spikes the size of a small ottoman. The ceiling was painted to represent stars and galaxies, and recessed lighting provided a dizzying array of faerie lights.

  Peggin gasped, lowering herself to a chair next to Corbin. “This is incredible. Can you feel the energy here? The walls are practically singing with it.”

  Ellia leaned forward, a gentle smile on her face. “They are singing. I could hear their voices—the ancestors live within this room. Or rather, it provides them a portal through which to speak. On the surface, the Heart of Whisper Hollow seems a gentle soul, but do not mistake that gentleness for weakness. Oriel is more powerful than all of us put together.”

  Starlight stood, a somber look on her face. “Ellia is right. And we are each here for a reason. This ritual can be a dangerous one, but it is also a powerful blessing. I am here to represent Starlight and the Night Sky.”

  Ivy stood. “And I am here to represent the Element of Water.”

  Ellia stood. “And I, Air. I am the breath and the song.”

  “And I am the Fire.” Aidan stood, flashing a soft smile to Peggin.

  They all looked at me, and I suddenly realized why I was there. “I suppose I represent Spirit, don’t I? And Bryan—” I turned to him.

  “I am the guardian and sentinel of this ritual and of the Spirit.”

  Oriel entered the room at that moment. She was dressed in a white gown that flowed over her curves like a Grecian toga. Around her neck she wore a cloak of fur, and around her head a circlet of woven holly. She carried a staff in one hand with a carved wooden crow affixed to the top; its sparkling eyes glittered like diamonds and might well have been.

  “And I, I am the Heart and the Earth. I am she who protects the village. I’m she who embodies the essence of Whisper Hollow. I am the town incarnate, and I look after my people.” She turned to Corbin and inclined her head. “And today, for this ritual, we have the spirit of Healing with us.”

  I glanced at Peggin, who looked absolutely petrified. Given any other day she would have probably been totally entranced, but since she was the focus of the rite, I had no doubt that she would rather be anywhere else than right here.

  Oriel nodded to the massage table. “Peggin, take off all of your jewelry and your shoes and lie on your back on the table. If you have any piercings, please remove that jewelry as well,” she said with a smile.

  Peggin blushed. “Is there somewhere I can do that privately?”

  “Ivy, please escort Peggin to the bathroom.”

  We waited in silence for a few moments until Peggin returned, still blushing.

  “She’s ready,” Ivy said, retaking her position.

  “Very good. Take your position on the table please, and try not to be afraid.” Oriel waited until Peggin had stretched out on the table, then walked over to stand by her head. She placed a soft hand on Peggin’s forehead and motioned to her wrist. “Please extend your wrist. We need to look at the mark.”

  Corbin walked over then, and took hold of Peggin’s wrist, staring at the black filigree. “Close ranks.”

  Oriel motioned to the rest of us. “Take your positions. Kerris, you will stand on the other side of Peggin’s head, across from me. Bryan, stand at her feet. The rest of you know the drill.”

  Ivy walked over to Peggin’s right side, and I recognized that she was standing in the west. Ellia took her place opposite Ivy, on the left side. Aidan stood beside Bryan, in the south position. And Starlight surprised me with her agility when she climbed up to stand on a nearby dais.

  “We’re ready. Ellia, please do the honors.”

  Ellia began to sing, and her voice flowed into a field of energy that circled over to Aidan, who picked up the melody and joined her. The energy snaked around to Ivy, who added her voice to the circle, and then to Oriel, who began to sing an underlying harmony. Once again the energy moved back to Ellia to complete the circle.

  The flowing current was so strong that I could see it, a whirling ring of power, blending the green of earth and the pale gold of sunshine in early morning sky. It merged into the brilliant reds and oranges of flame, and then entered the churning currents of deep blue water. The ring of energy moved on to merge back into the green. The Elements surrounded us, circling us with a ring of protection, a ring of power and strength.

  As I watched, entranced, Starlight added her voice and it felt like a rain of sparkling stars began to descend over us. Bryan began to sing, contra tone, a foundation of protection, and then—without realizing I was doing so—I added my voice, the mournful call of the spirits. We kept singing, kept the energy flowing as Corbin held out his hands, and then slowly lowered them to the edge of the massage table beside Peggin. He began to shift form, to transform into a snake, his skin taking on the scales of a diamondback rattler, as his body elongated and narrowed.

  Everything took on hazy quality as I found myself drifting into the energy, and all I could hear was the calling of crows. I wasn’t sure if their cry was coming from my own throat or from a
long distance; I wasn’t even sure what was happening except that Corbin was now a five-foot-long rattlesnake coiling on Peggin’s chest. He reared up, fangs exposed, and a part of me wanted to scream and knock him away, but I knew this was all part of the ritual and it was the only thing that we could do to save Peggin from the Lady.

  She lay there, silent and mesmerized, unmoving, and I wondered if she had fainted, but her eyes were wide open as she stared at the snake on her chest. The crows were screaming in my ears now as Corbin lunged, sinking his fangs into Peggin’s throat. She started to scream, then suddenly fell silent as convulsions took her. Corbin slithered back, and then—in another blur—he transformed back into himself.

  Peggin was foaming at the mouth, convulsing in a seizure so hard that I was worried she’d break her neck. Then, she arched, her body stiff, and collapsed.

  Corbin felt for her pulse. “She’s dead.”

  CHAPTER 19

  I began to scream, but Oriel grabbed me by the shoulder. “Hush, this needed to happen. Watch and learn.”

  I tried to catch my breath, tried to remain calm, but it was difficult. I had disrupted the flow of energy and Ellia had to start it again. When it came my turn to join in, I forced myself to breathe, forced myself to focus on the task at hand. Within less than a minute the circle was running again at full speed, and I shoved my emotions down deep, watching Corbin carefully. The realization that he was a snakeshifter was a shock, but there was no time to think about that now, no time to analyze what was happening.

  He waited for a moment, brushing Peggin’s hair back from her face. Then he took hold of her wrist again and held it out and as we watched, the mark faded from sight. And then it hit me—the mark wouldn’t leave until Peggin was dead. Therefore, we had had to kill her in order to save her.

 
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