Autumn Thorns by Yasmine Galenorn
Berkley (Mass Market); October 2015
Whisper Hollow, where spirits walk among the living, and the lake never gives up her dead...
Fifteen years ago, I ran away from Whisper Hollow, Washington, a small town on the Olympic Peninsula. But truth is, if you were born here, you can never really leave. I'm Kerris Fellwater and when I returned, I not only inherited my grandmother's house, but her gift. Like her, I must take on the job of spirit shaman. It's my gift-and my curse-to drive the dead back to their graves, because around Whisper Hollow, people-and secrets-don't always stay buried.
A trunk hidden in the attic throws my life into chaos. My mother vanished when I was little and I was told she ran away. But now it looks like she was murdered. With the help of Bryan-my mysterious and brooding neighbor-we begin to unravel the mystery of her disappearance, and in doing so, we unearth a dark force seeking to bury Whisper Hollow. Now, I must work with the dead, rather than against them, because our enemy will do whatever she can to destroy the town, and she means to start with me.
The road twisted, curving through a series of S turns as my Honda CR-V wound along Highway 101. To my left, the forest breathed softly, looming thick and black even though it was still early afternoon. Brilliant maple and birch leaves-in shades of autumn bronze and yellow- dappled the unending stands of fir and cedar. With each gust of wind, they went whirling off the branches to litter the ground with sodden debris. October in western Washington was a windy, volatile month. The fact that I was making this trip on a Sunday evening worked for me, though. There weren't many cars on the road, especially not where I was going.READ MORE
To my right, waves frothed across Lake Crescent as the wind whipped against the darkened surface. The rain shower turned into a drenching downpour and I eased off on the accelerator, lowering my speed to thirty-five miles per hour, and then to thirty. The drops were pelting so hard against the asphalt that all I could see was a blur of silver on black. These winding back roads were dangerous. All it took was one skid toward the guardrail, one wrong turn of the wheel, and the Lady would claim another victim, dragging them down into her secreted recesses.
It had been fifteen years since I had made this drive . . . fifteen years, a ferry ride, and about 120 miles. I grabbed the ferry in Seattle over to Kingston and then wound through Highway 104 up the interior of the peninsula, till I hit Highway 101, which took me through Port Townsend and past Port Angeles. Now, three hours after I had left the city, I neared the western end of Lake Crescent. The junction that would take me onto Cairn Street was coming up. From there, a twenty-minute drive around the other side of the lake would lead me through the forest, back to Whisper Hollow.
As I neared the exit, I veered off the road, onto the shoulder, and turned off the ignition. This was it. My last chance to drive past, loop around the Olympic Peninsula. My last chance to turn my back on all of the signs. But I knew I was just procrastinating against the inevitable. My life in Seattle had never really been my own, and this past month, when the Crow Man sent me three signs, I realized I was headed home. Then, last week, my grandmother died. Her death sealed the deal because, like it or not, it was my duty to step up and fill her shoes.
I slowly opened the door, making sure I was far enough off the road to avoid being hit, and emerged into the rain-soaked evening. Shoving my hands in my pockets, I stared at the lake through the trees. The wind was whipping up currents on the water, the dark surface promising an icy bath to anything or anybody unlucky enough to go tumbling in. The rising fog caught in my lungs and I coughed, the noise sending a murder of crows into the air from where they'd been resting in a tall fir. They circled over me, cawing, then headed north, toward Whisper Hollow.
Crows. I pulled my jacket tighter against a sudden gust of wind that caught me from the side. Crows were messengers. In fact, the Crow Man had reached out all the way to Seattle, where he summoned me with three omens. The first sign had been the arrival of his flock in Seattle- they followed me everywhere, and I could feel his shadow walking behind them, looming down through the clouds.
The second sign had been a recurring nightmare, for three nights running. Each night, I found myself walking along a dark and shrouded path through the Whisper Hollow cemetery, as the Blood Moon gleamed full and ripe overhead. As I came to the center of the graveyard, I saw- standing next to a headstone- Grandma Lila. Dripping wet and smelling of lake water and decay, she opened her arms and pulled me in, kissing me on both cheeks. Then she lit into me, tearing me up one side and down the other.
"You've turned your back on your gift- on your heritage. Face it, girl, it's time to accept what you are. Whisper Hollow is waiting. It's time you came home to carry on with my duties. It won't be long now, and you'll be needed. You were born a spirit shaman, and you'll die one- there's no walking away from this. Something big is coming, and the town will need your help. Don't let me down. Don't let Whisper Hollow down." Each of those three nights, I woke up crying, afraid to call her in case there was no answer on the other end of the line.
The third sign came last week, a day or two after I had the last dream. Signs always go in threes. Always have. Third time's the charm, true. But bad things happen in threes, as well. I was walking home from a morning gig at work, deep in thought, when I glanced at the store next to me. There, staring from behind the storefront, was the Girl in the Window. A cold sweat broke over me, but when I looked again, she was gone. It couldn't have been her, could it? The Girl in the Window belonged to Whisper Hollow and she was never seen outside the borders of the town. Squinting, I craned my neck, moving close to the pane. Blink . . . it was only a mannequin. But mannequin or not, my gut told me that I had been visited by the sloe-eyed Bean Nidhe, dripping wet and beckoning to me.
One of the rules of Whisper Hollow echoed back to haunt me. If you see the Girl in the Window, set your affairs in order. This was all the proof I needed. I went home and began to sort through my things. The next day, an express letter from Ellia arrived, informing me that my grandparents had gone off the road, claimed by the Lady of Crescent Lake. She was a hungry bitch, that one, and neither age nor status mattered in her selection of victims. The car hadn't surfaced, and neither had my grandfather's body- no shock there. But Grandma Lila had been found on the shore, hands placed gently over her chest in a sign of respect. Even the Lady knew better than to get the Morrígan's nose out of joint by disrespecting her emissaries.
And now, a week later, I was on my way home to take Lila's place before the dead started to walk. I sucked in a deep breath, took one last look at the lake, and returned to the car.
"What do you think, guys?" A glance into the backseat showed Agent H, Gabby, and Daphne all glaring at me from their carriers. They weren't at all happy with me, but the ride would be over soon.
"Purp." Gabby was the first to speak. She stared at me with golden eyes, her fur a glorious black, plush and thick. The tufts on her ears gave her an odd, feathered look, standard Maine Coon regalia. She let out another squeak and shifted in her carrier. Not to be outdone, Agent H-a huge brown tabby and also a Maine Coon- let out a short, loud yowl. He was always vocal, and right now he was letting me know that he was not amused. Daphne, a tortoiseshell, just snorted and gave me a look that said, Really, can we just get this over with? They were littermates, three years old, and I had taken them in from a shelter after they were rescued from an animal hoarder. They had been three tiny balls of fluff when I brought them home. Now they were huge, and- along with Peggin- they were my closest friends.
Frowning, I squinted at them. "You're sure about this? You might not like living in Whisper Hollow, you know. It's a strange town, and the people there are all . . . like me." I stopped. That was the crux of it. The people in Whisper Hollow- they were my people. Even though I hadn't been home in fifteen years I knew that both they, and the town, were waiting for me.
Gabby pawed her face, cleaning her ears, and let out another squeak.
"Okay. Final answer. Head home, it is." With a deep breath, I pulled back onto the road, turning right as I eased onto Cairn Street. We were on our way back to Whisper Hollow, where the ghosts of the past were waiting to weave me into their world as seamlessly as the forest claimed the land, and the lake claimed her conquests.
I'm Kerris Fellwater and I'm a spirit shaman by birth, which means I connect with the dead. I can talk to them, see them, and drive them back to their graves if they get out of hand. At least, that's the goal and job description, if you want to think of it as a profession. The gift is my birthright, from the day I was born until the day I die. My training's incomplete, of course, but instinct takes me a long way. And I've always been a rule breaker, so doing things my way seems the natural order of things.
As my grandmother was, and her mother before her, I'm a daughter of the Morrígan. Our matriarchal line stretches back into the mists, as do the spirit shamans. I can feel and see energy, and I can manipulate it-to a degree. Some people might call me a witch, but the truth is, most magic I can cast is minor, except when it comes to the world of spirits and the dead. There, my power truly blossoms out.
When I turned eighteen, after a major blowout with my grandfather, I decided to ditch my past, the town, and anything resembling family, so I took my high school diploma and the two hundred dollars I had saved and headed for Seattle. I found a room for rent in the basement of a house and a job at Zigfree's Café Latte. Over the years, I moved into a high-rise, and I worked my way up from barista to managing the store, but it was just something I did to pay the rent on my shiny new apartment.
At night, I slipped out into the rainy streets to take on my second gig- one that made very little money but kept me sane. A few months after I arrived in Seattle, the headaches started. I knew what they were from, and the only way to stop them. If spirit shamans don't use their powers, the energy can build up and implode-not a pretty future, to say the least. At best, ignoring the power can drive one mad. At worst, it can kill from an energy overload.
So I hunted around till I found a gig for a penny paper that later turned into an online webzine as the Internet grew into something more than an oddity. I investigated haunted houses and paranormal activity. On the side, I evicted a number of ghosts. The job didn't pay much, but that didn't matter to me. The coffee shop kept me in rent and food money, but the ghost hunting? That was what kept the headaches at bay. I spent all my spare time tromping through haunted buildings, looking for the ghosts who were troublemakers-the dead who were too focused on the world of the living to do anybody any good.
When I found them, I'd drop a hint to the owner, and about fifty percent asked me to come in and deal with the spirits. And kicking their astral butts, so to speak, is what kept me from falling over the edge of the cliff into La-La Land. I began to create my own rites and rituals from the training Lila had given me before I left home, and for the most part they worked. There were a few missteps, some of them embarrassing and a few downright dangerous, but overall, I managed.
In my personal life, I kept to myself. I had met a few friends but no one I felt like I could trust, other than keeping in touch with Peggin. Mostly, I read a lot, and I'm a speed reader and I have a photographic memory when it comes to what I read in books.
I have a lot of time to pursue my hobby. See, once people find out that I hang with spirits . . . well . . . it goes one of two ways: Either they're afraid of me, or they glom onto me in hopes of gaining tomorrow's lottery numbers or finding out if old Uncle Joe had actually squirreled away money somewhere and forgot to leave a note about it in his will. Being a spirit shaman doesn't make for easy dates, either. When guys find out that I can chat up their dead sisters or friends and get the lowdown on what they're really like, that usually ends the date. At first, their fear- couched as "It's not you, it's me"- bothered me. After all, the boys in Whisper Hollow had accepted me for who I was, quirks and all. So it seemed like a pale excuse. After a while, though, I learned to ignore the brush-offs and eventually, I stopped dating, for the most part.
But now I was going home, where everybody in Whisper Hollow is eccentric, in one way or another. Everybody's just a little bit mad. And I realized that I was actually looking forward to it. Especially since my grandfather was dead and could never bother me again. At least . . . that was my hope. Because in Whisper Hollow, the dead don't always stay put where you plant them.
I yawned, blinking. As I struggled to sit up, I wondered where I was, then it hit me over the head. Home. I was home. Stretching my neck, I realized that, for the first time in a long while, I had slept soundly. The master bedroom was on the main floor, but when I'd pulled into town it had been past seven. After stopping to grab a burger and fries and a few things at the local convenience store, I reached the house around quarter past eight.
I'd been exhausted, more emotionally than anything else, so I had set up the litter boxes in the utility room and locked the cats in there for the night, After I called Peggin- my best friend from high school and the one person I'd kept actively in touch with while I was in Seattle- to let her know I was back in town, I dropped on the sofa to think over my next step. The next thing I knew, I was waking up, still dressed, and morning was pouring through the partially opened curtains.
Stumbling to the bathroom, I showered, then sat at the vanity. As I leaned in, trying for a decent makeup day, I grimaced. My face looked as tired as I felt. Circles underscored my eyes, but that would clear up with enough water and another good night's sleep. My eyes were dark today- they varied from almost golden to a deep brown depending on my mood. Right now, they were mostly bloodshot.
I brushed out my hair and braided the long, brunette strands to keep them out of my face while they dried. At thirty-three, I had yet to see a gray hair, for which I was grateful. As I shifted, looking for my bra and panties, I caught the reflection of the mark on my back and paused. A reminder of who I was. Of what I was. It was a birthmark, though it looked like a tattoo- and it was in the center of my back, right above my butt. If it had been actual ink, they would have called it a tramp stamp. But I had been born with it, as had my mother and grandmother. It was the shape of a crow standing on a crescent moon, and it was jet black. It was the mark of a spirit shaman.
I slid into my underwear and then fastened my bra, shimmying to position my breasts in the cups. At a solid size eight and a 38F cup, I was happy enough with myself. I liked my curves- and I had plenty of them, in the classic hourglass shape. I hurried into my jeans and a snug V-neck sweater and patted my stomach. I did need to find a gym, though. I worked out a lot. I tended to favor weights and the stationary bike, though mostly for health and strength. Unlike so many of the women I met, I wasn't on a diet and I ate what I liked, preferring meat and vegetables and the occasional pasta dish. I ate my junk food, too, but tried to keep it to a few times a week.
Finally, I was ready to face the day.
You mean, face a new way of life, don't you?
Fine . . . face a new life. Happy now?
Yeah, I guess so.
Snorting- I usually won most of the arguments I held with myself in my head- I wandered into the kitchen. Next order of the day: secure caffeine. Life always looked better after a pot of coffee, and as a former barista, I made a mean cup of java.
Early light filtered through the kitchen window, silvery and gray with the overcast sky. The room was spacious, with an eat-in nook, and a large window by the table that overlooked the backyard. I ran my hands along the smooth, cool countertops. My grandparents had renovated during the time I'd been gone. The laminate had been replaced by granite; the white cabinets had been switched out for dark. All the appliances were now stainless steel, and tile on the floor had replaced the checkerboard linoleum. But the walls were still the same warm gold color they had always been- although the paint looked fresh- and the kitchen had the same cozy feel.
On the counter stood a shiny stainless steel espresso machine. Spotting a grinder and a container of beans next to the machine, I smiled. Grandma had loved her caffeine and I'd inherited her addiction. Grandpa Duvall had preferred tea- strong and black and bitter. I opened a cupboard at random to find neat, tidy shelves of packaged foods. The refrigerator, however, was empty and spotless. A few days ago, when I told her I was coming home, Peggin had promised to come in and clean it out for me. Apparently, she had managed to do so before she left on vacation. I breathed a sigh of relief. One less task I'd have to deal with.
I pulled a couple of shots of espresso and added some of the creamer I had picked up at the store the night before. As I carried my mug over to the table, the phone on the kitchen wall rang, startling me out of my thoughts. Who could be calling me? Peggin was out of town till Monday night, and she was the only other person who knew I had come home, besides my lawyer.
Hesitating, almost hoping it was a telemarketer, I picked up the receiver. "Hello?"
"Kerris . . . you're really back. Peggin called me. You got my letter, then? I'm sorry about your grandparents, my dear." Ellia. She sounded shaky, but no matter how many years it had been, I would never forget the lilting sound of her voice. When I was little, I'd clutch my grandmother's hand as we followed Ellia into the graveyard. She would sing, leading the way, her violin in hand. I had been mesmerized by her songs.
I propped the receiver on my shoulder, shrugging to hold it up to my ear as I peeked in the various drawers, looking to see what might be there. "I was going to call you, but figured it would be easier to talk in person. I suppose we'd better meet. Grandma Lila came to me in a dream; she told me there were things happening in town. What's going on?" I knew I sounded abrupt, but Ellia had never been aces in the diplomatic department either, and she didn't expect it from anybody else.
"There have been stirrings in the forest for several years. The Lady has been more active over the past couple of years, as well. Spirits are on edge, Kerris. Lila noticed this before she died and told me. We think Penelope's having a hard time keeping them over on her side." Down to business, all right.
The news didn't bode well. First, Penelope was usually pretty good at keeping the Veil closed. That she was having problems was a bad sign. And second, that the Lady of the Lake was hungrier than usual meant nobody was safe.
"What changed? Has Veronica been at it again?" Veronica could be friend or foe depending on her mood, though mostly she was interested in her own agenda and tended to ignore the living. But if she got her mind set to an idea and had to turn the town on its ear to achieve her goals, she wouldn't hesitate. We had seen that when I was thirteen and Veronica decided to throw a grand ball for the dead.
A pause. Then- " No. I have my suspicions, but I don't want to discuss them over the phone. Let's just say that over the past few months, things have begun to escalate with more Haunts, more Unliving. Your grandmother started to investigate, but then . . . Anyway, since her death, the dead have been walking more. I've been doing my best to play the shadows to sleep, but my songs won't work right without a spirit shaman to lead the rites for me."
I was nodding, though she couldn't see me. The night of every new moon, the lament singers and spirit shamans went out to the graveyards to calm the dead who had not yet passed beyond the Veil.
The Veil was a world between the worlds- it was a transit station for the dead, in a sense. A nebulous place of mist and fire and ice, where spirits wandered, not fully detached from the world of the living, and not yet ready to cross the threshold and move on to the Beyond. In most cities and places on the planet, the line between worlds was highly defined and it was easy for the Gatekeepers to guard the dead and keep them reined in, but in Whisper Hollow, things were different. The Veil was strong here, and so were the ghosts.
And now, with Grandma Lila dead- without a spirit shaman to perform the rites and escort spirits into the Veil to begin with- the lament singers' songs would not work. And while Penelope held the ghosts at bay as much as she could, until she was able to persuade them to cross the threshold and leave behind all they had once been, the dead were still able to return and walk the earth.
Grandma Lila had been a strong woman- a stronger spirit shaman than I could ever hope to be, though Grandfather fought her every step of the way. I never knew why, but I knew that he wasn't her protector. In fact, unlike most spirit shamans, Grandma Lila had not been paired with a shapeshifter to watch over her. I wondered if that would be my fate, as well. She had never broached the subject during my training, and I had been too nervous to ask.
Shaking off my thoughts, I tried to push away my self-doubt. "When can we meet?"
"Tonight at my house? At six p.m. You remember where I live, don't you?"
I let out a slow breath. This was my job now, my heritage. I owed it to the town. "Fogwhistle Way. I don't remember the number, but I remember your house."
"That's right. Three Thirty-seven Fogwhistle Way. I'll be waiting for you. It's good to have you back, Kerris. I'm sorry about your grandmother. We needed her. And now, we need you." With that, she hung up.
I glanced out the kitchen window as a flock of crows rose into the sky from the maple in the backyard. They circled the house once, then headed out to the south. A storm was coming in from the north, off the Strait of Juan de Fuca. My gut said that it would barrel through the forest and hit us by afternoon.
Deciding I needed more caffeine, I pulled another couple of shots, then checked on the cats, setting down fresh food and water for them. They were freaked, of course, but they were safe and I'd let them out of their prison once I returned from shopping. I wanted to go through the house first to make certain there was nothing that would hurt them- no open windows, no rat traps.
With one last glance at the kitchen, I reached for my jacket and purse. As I paused, my hand on the doorknob, a wave of shadow rolled through. It reached out to examine me, cold and clammy as it tickled over my skin. Then, as I blinked, shivering, it vanished. Whirling, I glanced around the room, searching the corners. But the kitchen was empty.
Something was looming in the town, all right, and whatever it was, it knew I was back.
"I'm home, Grandma Lila," I whispered. "I just hope you'll be around when I need you."
And right then, I knew that- before whatever this was had ended- I was going to need all the help I could get . . .from both sides of the grave.COLLAPSE
A.J. Roach: Devil May Dance
Android Lust: Saint Over; Here and Now
Black Angels, The: Don't Play With Guns; Holland; Indigo Meadow; Young Men Dead; Bad Vibrations; Black isn't Black
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club: Feel It Now
Bob Seger: Old Time Rock & Roll
Bobbie Gentry: Ode to Billy Joel
Broken Bells: The Ghost Inside
Buffalo Springfield: For what It's Worth
Celtic Woman: Scarborough Fair
Crazy Town: Butterfly
Damh the Bard: Gently Johnny; Obsession; Willow's Song; The Wicker Man; Morrighan; The Cauldron Born; Cloak of Feathers
David Bowie: Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed; Fame
Death Cab for Cutie: I Will Possess Your Heart
Dizzi: Dizzi Jig; Dance of the Unicorns
Donovan: Hurdy Gurdy Man; Season of the Witch
Eastern Sun: Beautiful Being (Original Edit)
Eels: Souljacker, Part I
Fatboy Slim: Praise You
Fats Domino: I Want to Walk You Home
Faun: Tanz mit mir; The Market Song; Hymn to Pan
Feeling, The: Sewn
Flight of the Hawk: Bones
Garbage: #1 Crush; Queer; Only Happy When It Rains; Push It; Not Your Kind of People; Bleed Like Me; I Think I'm Paranoid
Gary Numan: Dead Heaven; Splinter; Here in the Black; When the Sky Bleeds, He Will Come; Petals;
The Angel Wars; Down in the Park;
Gotye: Somebody That I Used To Know
Heathen Kings: Rambling Sailor; Rolling of the Stones
In Strict Confidence: Silver Bullets; Snow White; Tiefer
Johnny Otis: Willy & the Hand Jive
Lady Gaga: Teeth; I Like It Rough
Ladytron: Black Cat; I'm Not Scared; Ghosts
Lenny Kravitz: American Woman
Lord of the Lost: Sex on Legs
Loreena McKennitt: All Souls Night; The Mummer's Dance; The Mystic's Dream
Mark Lanegan: Phantasmagoria Blues; Gray Goes Black; Wedding Dress; Riot in My House; The Gravedigger's Song; Methamphetamine Blues
Matt Corby: Breathe
M.I.A.: Bad Girls
Morcheeba: Even Though (Acoustic)
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds: Red Right Hand
Nirvana: Plateau; Lake of Fire; Where did You Sleep Last Night?; Heart Shaped Box
Pierces, The: Secret
P.J. Harvey: In the Dark Places; The Words That Maketh Murder; Good Fortune; The Colour of the Earth; Let England Shake; Bitter Branches
Rachel Diggs: Hands of Time
Screaming Trees, The: Where the Twain Shall Meet; All I Know; Dime Western
Sweet Talk Radio: We All Fall Down
Tamaryn: While You're Sleeping, I'm Dreaming
Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers: Mary Jane's Last Dance
Verve, The: Bitter Sweet Symphony
Voxhaul Broadcast: You Are the Wilderness
Zero 7: In the Waiting Line