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Shadow silence, p.8
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       Shadow Silence, p.8

           Yasmine Galenorn

  “O Gracious Morrígan, Queen of Shapeshifters and Mother of the Fae, I call to you. Let my message find its way to you on the wings of the Crow Man.” I paused, collecting my thoughts. “I’m not sure what we’re up against; twice now I’ve felt a dark shadow hover over the town. Please guide me in what I need to know. Please guide us in finding out how to cope with the Ankou. As your daughter, and spirit shaman, I ask that you answer.”

  I knew better than to wait. The Morrígan would answer when she was ready.

  I rose and gathered the upholstered doctor’s bag that my grandmother had left to me with all her tools in it. It was time to go talk to the Matriarchs about the Screaming Tree and the Ankou.

  * * *

  My meeting with the Matriarchs didn’t go exactly as I had expected. For one thing, Oriel—the Heart and soul of Whisper Hollow, in essence the gatekeeper of the town itself—had listened quietly as I explained what the forest sprite had told me.

  After I finished, she turned to Ivy. “Have you seen much of the nature spirits lately?”

  Ivy shook her head. “They’ve been quiet. But then, during autumn and winter, they tend to fall into silence. There’s work for them to do during these seasons but it’s more internal to the ecosystem. But I’ve sensed a general unease through my gardens.”

  “I felt a shadow—first the other day, then last night. It’s like some great cloud has moved into Whisper Hollow and is watching over the town. It feels dangerous, and I found myself wanting to hide from it. I felt that if it saw me, it might . . . snatch me up or something.” I knew that sounded ridiculous, but when I examined my fears, there it was. I felt like whatever I had seen was watching—looking for something, though not me in particular, and I didn’t want to be on the other end of the microscope.

  Oriel was first to speak. She was around fifty-five or so, the age my mother would have been if she had lived, and was a plump, earth-mother personality. A golden braid circled her head, and for some reason I kept thinking of her as Scandinavian, though I was pretty sure her roots lay elsewhere. She ran a boardinghouse, mostly for single men and passersby through the town, and she had a deep, elemental-based magic that seemed to hold everything together.

  “The Gray Man.”

  Ivy jerked around. “You think he’s come out again?”

  Oriel nodded. “I think he may be reemerging. I doubt that has anything to do with the Ankou in the forest, but it would explain the feeling Kerris is getting.”

  “If so, we’re in for a spate of missing people. We should warn the loggers, once we know for certain, along with their kin who live in the woods.” Ellia picked up her teacup, her gloved fingers cautiously holding the delicate bone china. Ivy had made tea, but true to her word, they had looked to me to provide the goodies. I was glad that I’d stopped by a nearby doughnut shop for a box of éclairs and Danish.

  I watched them for a few moments as they lapsed into silence. They seemed to be discussing this without actually saying a word. I could feel the crackle of energy running among the three. Finally, I cleared my throat.

  “I’m afraid I don’t understand whatever language you’re not speaking,” I said with a wry grin. “Is there any way I could be included in this conversation?”

  Ellia let out a loud laugh and slapped her knee. “I told you she was a firebrand, Oriel.”

  Oriel lowered her glasses, peering at me over the top. “You’re coming along fast, my dear. Your grandmother was keen with the Sight, but you—even though you’ve always had it, you’ve come so far since you returned.”

  I nodded. The fifteen years I’d lived in Seattle, I had found a way to use my abilities. Ghost hunting, for one, kept me active and kept the energy from backing up on me, which could be dangerous. But since I had come back to Whisper Hollow, my abilities had exploded and I sometimes felt like I was walking between worlds, constantly aware of the expanded realities going on around me.

  “Have you heard the legends of the Gray Man? Did Lila ever tell you about them?” Ivy stood, crossing to a bookcase near the table.

  “No, I don’t think so, though the name sounds familiar.” I ran through all that I had read in Lila’s Shadow Journal. I had my own now, and it began the way Lila’s had, with one minor change. It read:

  Traditions & History of the Spirit Shamans

  Generation 50: Kerris Fellwater

  Daughter of Tamil Fellwater

  Daughter of the Morrígan

  My grandmother was the forty-eighth generation. My mother would have been the forty-ninth, if she had lived. I hadn’t finished reading the Shadow Journal—it was a lifetime of spells and rituals that I needed to learn—but so far, I hadn’t seen anything about a “gray man.”

  Ivy returned from the bookcase, a slim volume in her hand. She offered it to me. “I don’t want you taking this book out of the house—it’s one of the few copies still in existence and I’ve got it heavily warded to keep any prying eyes from finding it. But you can read it when you come over.”

  I glanced at the title, Gray Men and Black Mists. A quick vibration ran through my fingers, and I realized I didn’t like holding the book. “What the hell?”

  “You felt it, then?” Ivy leaned forward. “That book was written forty years ago by one of Whisper Hollow’s residents. He vanished shortly thereafter, but your grandmother found the manuscript and had it printed off and bound. She owned a copy, I own one, Oriel and Ellia each own one, and the Crescent Moon Society has one in its library. Lila’s copy should be somewhere in your house.”

  “I’ll search for it.” I flipped through the pages. A sketch caught my eye. It was a thin-bodied, long-necked creature, looking human and yet . . . not. He had a bald head and wide, rounded eyes, his nose was almost flat against his face, and his skin was somewhere between gray and the sepia of old photographs. My stomach lurched. Whatever this was, I didn’t like it.

  I stared at the image for a long while before asking, “What kind of spirit is this?”

  “That’s just it, dear,” Oriel said, leaning forward. “We’re not entirely sure, though we have speculated a lot. But his kind have been seen in the forest up near Timber Peak. Strange lights have been spotted in the sky there since the founding of Whisper Hollow.”

  I realized just what she was saying. “Are you trying to tell me we have . . . aliens . . . around here? On top of everything else? UFOs?”

  Ellia shrugged. “I don’t care what you call them, we just know they don’t belong to our world. Though I doubt they come through on actual ships—at least not physical ones from our realm. The lights seem to coincide with when ley line activity flares, and when the sun sends magnetic storms our way. I personally think the Gray Man—or men—are interdimensional creatures and that they are able to cross over from their world to ours during those periods. The increased activity can create viable doors between worlds—doors through time and space.”

  I tried to take it in. It wasn’t that I was skeptical. After all, I was a spirit shaman, I worked with ghosts and saw forest sprites and was the daughter of a goddess. But that we were also dealing with interdimensional creatures . . . it felt like too far, too much to comprehend. And yet . . . and yet . . . something about it resonated.

  “What about Bigfoot? Is Sasquatch related to the Gray Man?” Over the years, Sasquatch had made himself known around the area and it never felt like this was his natural home, if that made sense. He felt . . . other. The way he came and went, appearing one moment and vanishing the next, led me to wonder if perhaps he, too, wasn’t darting through doorways in time and space.

  “You begin to understand,” Ivy said. “We do think he’s related to them, though how, we don’t know. In fact, at times I believe the Gray Man hunts him. Sasquatch is volatile and unpredictable, and can be violent, but he bears no evil nature. The Gray Man? He’s dangerous.”

  I let out a long sigh. “What about th
e mist? The black cloud? Why do you think—why does this book think—that they are connected?”

  “Because when the black mist appears, it has the same feel as the Gray Man, and the lights up on Timber Peak begin to appear again. We’re thinking it’s possibly the doorway through which the creatures come.”

  I let that set in for a moment. The thought that we were being spied on made me nervous. “Do you think the mist itself has a consciousness? Because what I saw felt alive and very much aware. I really didn’t want to be anywhere near it because I felt it might pick up on my presence.”

  Ellia took the book from me, cautiously avoiding my fingers even though she was gloved. She flipped through it till she came to the passage she was looking for, and then handed it back. “Read.”

  I scanned the paragraphs.

  “The black mist often precedes a period of activity where the Gray Man and the sky-lights are vivid and prominent. Members of the Crescent Moon Society have offered several possibilities for what this mist is. One, that it’s actually the vehicle through which these creatures move—the portal between the worlds. Another, more favored speculation—and the one this author tends to believe—is that the mist is a scouting agent for the Gray Man/Men.

  “That it precedes their appearance and seeks out the most likely targets. For what that purpose is, we don’t know, but every time the mist appears, one or two humans vanish from the town. On rare occasions, they have been found, wandering in the woods alone, with no memory of what transpired during the time they were gone. The mist is usually accompanied by a feeling of dread, or fear—as though some calamity is about to befall the viewer. More than one witness has admitted to running for cover, in hopes of not being seen.

  “One of the few discrepancies noted is the size and shape of the mist. At times it appears small and compact, moving like a dark circle against the sky. At other times, it’s reported as a larger, hazier fog slowly rolling over the area. But it’s important to note that regardless of the shape or size, the mist is always blacker than the sky, even at night, and blots out visuals of the stars and moon should it cross their path.”

  I set the book on the table. “Well, that sounds about like what I sensed. I can’t tell you if I actually saw it; sometimes it’s hard to discern between inner and outer sight. But I know what I experienced is the same thing described in this book.”

  Ellia glanced at Ivy, who in turn glanced over at Oriel.

  “Well, we should make a trip up to Timber Peak for several reasons. And we do so while it’s daylight. One, we need to check on the Screaming Tree and look for signs of the Ankou. Two, we look for any discernible signs that the Gray Man is returning.”

  “Are they related?” I asked her.

  “I doubt it. The Ankou don’t seem to have much truck with the alien spirits around here.” Oriel frowned then. “But we can’t be sure. But given the Ankou are members of the Unliving, and that these seem to have escaped from Arawn, the god of the dead, I rather doubt it. I think, though, the energy of the Gray Man and the black mist can exacerbate the emergence of the Ankou. Like charging a general area with a massive battery. Anything in there, even if it’s not related to the battery, becomes activated.”

  She stood. “Well, then, if we’re headed up to Timber Peak, I’ll go put on my walking skirt. Kerris, you’re dressed for the woods already. Ellia, Ivy . . . bring your gear. I’ll return in twenty minutes and we’ll drive up.”

  I straightened my shoulders. “You mean you’re going up there today?”

  “Of course,” Ivy said. “And you’re going with us. There’s no time like the present and it’s vital we don’t leave any chance of the Ankou invading the town for later.”

  I blinked. I hadn’t expected them to immediately jump into action. In fact, I had thought that we’d sit around, talk about it, and then present the issue to the Crescent Moon Society. My consternation must have appeared on my face, because Ellia laughed.

  “You really don’t think we’re going to fob this off on Gareth and his men, do you? Not until we know what’s actually going on.”

  “I . . . I didn’t know.”

  “The buck stops here, my dear.” Oriel placed a gentle hand on my shoulder. “We’re the ones who keep Whisper Hollow safe—well, as safe as we can. It’s up to us to investigate threats. The last outbreak of the Gray Man sightings was . . . oh . . . what . . . thirty-two years ago? When you were just a baby. Something had to have happened for the mist to return. While I’m gone, Ivy, can you check the solar storm readings? Look for mega storms, especially those that caused any activity as far as the aurora borealis in our area. Look back as far as . . . oh, I’d say six months.”

  “Will do.” Ivy headed over to her desk and fired up her laptop as Oriel excused herself.

  As the door closed behind her, I turned to Ellia.

  “I think . . . I’m a little bit afraid,” I said.

  She smiled. “You should be—the Gray Man is nothing to mess around with. But you’ll be with us, and we have our ways of keeping out of his clutches. As time goes on, you’ll meet more and more of the spirits who make this area their home. Oh, I know you’ve heard of a lot of them, at least you did when you were a child, but the fact is that the spirit shaman is responsible for a whole lot more than pushing the dead back into their graves. You’re a shaman, a daughter of the Morrígan. You are called to her service to protect the people she watches over. And she is Whisper Hollow’s patron goddess, regardless of what the Hounds may think.”

  “Oh look—there have been a number of solar storms within the past few months, any number of which have spawned off the aurora. I think we may be onto something.” Ivy sounded far too excited for what we were talking about.

  “Great. Lovely.” I swallowed the lump in my throat and picked up one of the éclairs. If we were going to knock on the door of some alien interdimensional critter out there, I was determined to do so on a belly full of chocolate.

  * * *

  Timber Peak was named for all of the tall timber that had been logged from there over the years. Now it was protected land, and all of the trees and undergrowth had grown back. It was obvious where the clear-cutting had taken place—the trees were shorter there and all the same height—but the endemic flora was returning, and hopefully would be allowed to flourish and restore the area to its natural beauty.

  The old logging roads were still in existence, used mostly by hikers, mountain bikers, and snowshoers to reach the backcountry. They could be precarious, though, washing out during rainstorms, and icing over during winter when snow reached the higher altitudes. There was also a main road leading to the lodge at the top of Timber Peak, although it, too, often fell victim to washouts and rock slides.

  I had left my car at Ivy’s. We were all in Oriel’s SUV, a huge old tank of a vehicle. I had a feeling the SUV could ford a river and come out kicking. As I got in the backseat with Ivy, I glanced behind us into the cargo area and saw several blankets, what looked like a survival kit, a pair of snowshoes, a pickax, and a shovel. Nobody could say that Oriel wasn’t prepared for the unexpected.

  We passed the Unitarian Universalist church on Forest Drive, then Juniper Mall. Shortly after we passed Elkwood Lane, we turned left onto Timber Peak Drive. We were headed northeast, out of Whisper Hollow. The grade on the road steepened abruptly and within a few minutes we were surrounded by the forest on both sides.

  The rain was holding off, although the ever-present clouds cast a pall over the town. I wasn’t sure whether it was because I was in a car filled with women who carried strong magic, or perhaps my own abilities were heightened, but I could sense creatures from the forest watching as we passed by. It was an uncomfortable feeling, as though we were headed into territory that—while we weren’t exactly unwelcome—wasn’t ours in which to play. We were guests here, and the forest spirits weren’t going to let us forget it.

“Can you feel them?” Ivy asked. She was watching me carefully.

  I nodded. “Do you know who they are? Or what they are?”

  “Forest creatures, sprites, Fae, the spirits of the loggers and miners that still live in these woods. Maybe Bigfoot himself. There are beings out here for which we have no name, beings that have never been human, and who never interact with humanity. The forest is alive; that’s one of the first things I learned when I moved here.”

  “Every forest is alive,” Oriel said from the driver’s seat. “Some are older than others and they sleep. Some of the ancient forests are still awake, and they brood in their silent long thoughts. New forests are often young and playful, and may not understand how precarious their existences are. Some, filled with creatures like the pixies, are dangerous for the unwary. Timber Peak . . . this whole area . . . it’s a chaotic area inhabited by volatile energies. The woods don’t necessarily hate us, but they don’t welcome us either. We’re fair game, if we overstep our boundaries.”

  I listened, keeping my mouth shut. There was a lot I had to learn, and these women would help teach me if I let them. My grandmother might not be able to guide me in the intricacies of my post—that I had to learn from her journals and trial and error—but the three women in this vehicle could make my path so much easier.

  “Aidan comes up to the woods a lot. He loves Timber Peak, he told me,” Ivy said.

  I stared at her, surprised. “You and Aidan talk?”

  That my maternal grandfather was hanging out with my paternal grandmother was news to me. Since he had returned to Whisper Hollow, settling in quietly in Oriel’s boardinghouse, I had slowly begun to forge a relationship with him. The Hounds still had it out for him, that much I knew, but we would do what we could to keep him safe from them.

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