Oak & Thorns

RELEASE DATE: JULY 2018

When Herne and Ember are approached by the matriarch of a group of water-horse shifters to help find her cousin's murderer, the Wild Hunt is drawn into a dark and shadowed world of the Ante-Fae.

But as the team delves into the details of the grisly death, they uncover evidence of a string of murders that leads them directly into the court of Blackthorn. Caught in a mire of political intrigue and shadow magic, will Ember and Herne be able to bring the serial killer to light, or will the King of Thorns manage to silence them forever?

 

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Chapter 1

I LEANED BACK in my seat, feet propped up on the desk, suspiciously eyeing the sunlight that gleamed through the blinds. It had been a chilly spring, with only sporadic sunshine, but now the weather seemed to be making up for lost time and the days were soaring into the seventies. I was grateful for the break from the rain and cool temperatures, but I wished I had time to get outside and enjoy it. The Wild Hunt had been swamped lately, and none of us had been able to take a day off for over three weeks.

Angel peeked around the door. “Got a minute?”

“For you? Any time.” I waved her in. Angel was my best friend and roommate. She was also the receptionist for the agency.

“Guess what?” She entered the office and dropped a file folder on my desk. “Yet another new case.”

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“Oh, lovely.” I stared at the folder for a moment, then grunted and lowered my feet to the floor. When I picked up the file and was about to drop it on another stack of folders sitting in my inbox, she stopped me.

“Not so fast. Take that file back out of the basket and read it. This one goes to the head of the pack.” She slumped in the chair next to my desk, looking as tired as I felt.

“Another priority case?” I closed my eyes, wondering what miscreants we were going to have to corral this time, and whether they’d be Light or Dark Fae. Not that it mattered. Both sides of my bloodline were batshit crazy and I had ceased caring which side of the fence our targets hearkened from. “Who called us in on this one? Cernunnos or Morgana?”

Angel shook her head. “Neither. This is a private case.”

I blinked. Herne was taking on a private case, now? The agency had been mired knee-deep in crap going down between the Dark and Light Courts to the point of where we should have advertised a two-for-one special. Apparently the feud between Névé and Saílle had been jammed full speed ahead, given how many fires we had been called on to extinguish. Some of them literally. A week ago, the Dark Court had taken potshots at a warehouse owned by Navane and they had burned it down.

I hadn’t been the only one wishing business would slow down. We all needed some breathing time. But I still had four open cases sitting on my desk, although they were all private. Stamping out collateral damage cases—or CDs, as we called them—always took priority.

Five cases, I corrected myself, now that Angel had added another to the mix. I retrieved the file from the wire basket and squinted at it as I read the label.

Foam Born pod—whidbey island

“So, what’s this?” I ruffled through the intake pages, frowning.

“As I said, it’s a private case. Herne wants you to sit in on the conference with the new client.”

“When?”

“Now.” Angel reached in her pocket and tossed me a candy bar. “Eat up.”

I groaned. Angel and I had made plans to go out to lunch at Joe’s Burgers, but this shot that idea to hell. My stomach rumbled at the sight of the chocolate, and I peeled open the wrapper. “I love chocolate, but it’s not a good stand-in for a sandwich.”

She grinned. “Take heart. I’m going to run out and get some fish and chips for our lunch. I should be back by the time your meeting’s over. I imagine Herne will call an agency meeting if he decides to take this case, so we’ll just eat here.”

“What’s the case about?” I skimmed the form until I came to the line regarding the client’s reason for approaching the Wild Hunt Agency. It looked like she—I assumed it was a she, given her name was Rhiannon—wanted us to look into a murder. Great. Another dead body. At least the case wasn’t a CD case.

“The only thing I know is that it’s an unsolved murder case. A cold case, no less.” Angel shrugged. “The Foam Born Pod are a group of hippocampi who live up on Whidbey Island.”

“Hippocampus? I didn’t know we had any of those around here.”

Not many people knew who the hippocampi were. Fewer still understood the nature of the water-horse shifters. While in the water, a hippocampus took the form of an actual water horse—but not the cute little seahorse creatures bobbing around in the ocean.

No, a hippocampus had the front half of a horse, with the tail of the fish. And they were huge. As they rose out of the water onto the shore, they could turn into startlingly beautiful white horses, or into human form. When a pod of them emerged together, it was astounding to watch as the elegant white horses came racing out of the sea foam. Poseidon hired some of them as his steeds in the depths of the ocean. They were as elegant in their water-horse form as they were on land.

“I had never heard of them, so after she filled out the form, I took the opportunity to do a search. It’s amazing what you can find on the Net.” Angel giggled, rolling her eyes. “Never search on ‘horse people’ with safe-search off.”

“I can imagine.” I pushed myself to my feet. “I’d better get in there before Herne comes looking for me.”

“Somehow I don’t think you’d object to that,” Angel said, a knowing smile on her face.

I snorted, glaring at her, but she knew I didn’t mean it.

Herne and I had been dating for three months, and I was just settling into the idea that I was in an actual relationship again. So far, so good. We hit it off, and our chemistry was like flash powder—igniting at the slightest touch. Add to that, we enjoyed each other’s company. I just hadn’t quite come to terms with the fact that I was dating the son of a god.

* * *

I TAPPED ON Herne’s office door, waited a moment, then quietly opened it. Peeking in, I caught his attention. He waved for me to take a seat by the desk.

Herne’s office was a veritable jungle of plants, with walls the color of robin’s-egg blue, and a white ceiling that was suggestive of clouds. A huge rack of antlers was mounted on the wall, polished and glowing. They were a nod to his father—Cernunnos, the Lord of the Forest. Beneath them sat Herne’s desk, old walnut, dark and gleaming, and he sat in a leather chair behind the massive desk.

The room held two pairs of wingback chairs, one set by the desk, the other guarding an end table. Against the wall near the chairs and end table stood a locked glass case, holding several crossbows, a number of daggers, a sword, and various other weapons. A daybed in the corner, complete with comforter and pillow, provided him with a place to catch a nap when he was working late on a case. All in all, the office felt like old money, luxurious but not indulgent.

An elegant woman was sitting in one of the chairs by his desk. Her pale skin had a faint tinge of blue to it, and her hair was plaited back into a long braid, creamy white and looking as soft as spun silk. In comparison, her features were chiseled, angular to the point of rigid. She had rich brown eyes, and she was dressed in a cerulean linen pantsuit.

Herne stood as I approached the desk. Close to six feet tall, his shoulder-length hair was swept back in a neat ponytail, and his beard was well trimmed. He was lean and muscled, with piercing blue eyes that shimmered with a magical light. Every time I looked at him, my pulse raced. I knew every inch of his body by now. Beneath those tight black jeans and that hunter green V-neck sweater, Herne truly had the body of a god.

“Rhiannon of the Foam Born, I’d like to present Ember Kearney, one of our investigators. I asked her to sit in on our meeting since this is a complicated case.”

Etiquette in the world of Fae demanded that I allow her to dictate whether we shook hands. I gave Rhiannon a gracious nod, and she gently held out one hand, so I accepted with a firm shake.

“How do you do?” I sat in the chair next to Herne’s desk.

“Pleased to meet you, Ember.” She gave me an appraising look, one that I was well acquainted with. Anybody connected with the Fae could usually pinpoint my heritage.

“So the rumors are true. You are one of the…” She stopped, her cheeks flaming, come to life from their delicate porcelain. “Forgive me,” she stammered. “I didn’t mean—”

“I understand. There really isn’t a good term for my heritage.” I knew what she had been about to say, and it wasn’t a word that I’d expect out of such a pretty mouth. Technically, in the common Fae tongue, I was what was known as tralaeth, or tainted blood.

I was half Light Fae, half Dark Fae, and I was anathema to both sides. Neither court accepted me. In fact, I was considered an insult to the race, even though they pretended my kind couldn’t possibly exist. My parents had been murdered because of their love, and if I had been home at the time, I would have been killed as well.

“I truly didn’t mean any insult,” Rhiannon said, casting her gaze at the floor.

She sounded so sincere that I believed her. I wasn’t one to hold a grudge if somebody made an honest mistake.

“Why don’t we start over? I’m Ember Kearney, and you’re Rhiannon of the Foam Born, and here we are.”

Herne took it from there. “Now that the introductions are over, Rhiannon, why don’t you tell us what the problem is. I wanted Ember to be here, because when I looked over your intake chart, it’s obvious that this case will require our entire agency’s focus. If we accept the job, that is. And it’s always helpful to have a second set of ears present during the initial meeting. Do you mind if I record our conversation?” He held up a digital recorder. “It helps me focus on what you’re saying rather than me having to take notes.”

I pulled out a notebook. “I prefer pen and paper.” I winked at her.

“I don’t mind.” She took a deep breath, and her smile faded.

Herne clicked on his recorder, recited the date and the case number, and then asked Rhiannon again if she agreed to the conversation being recorded.

“That’s fine.”

“Please state your name for the record.”

“I’m Rhiannon, the Matriarch of the Foam Born Encampment.”

“And why are you here today?”

She cleared her throat. “I’m here because a little over a year ago, my cousin Jona disappeared. He was missing for over a week.”

“What was he doing when he vanished?” Herne asked.

“He was on his way to a meeting over at the grange.”

“Grange?” I knew the word “grange” meant farmhouse in the UK, but I wasn’t familiar with any other use for the term. “You mean your house?”

“No. On Whidbey Island, the SubCult still has a grange.” She paused, then realizing I really didn’t understand, added, “The grange is a farmers’ organization. A number of the Foam Born are small farmers. My cousin raises blueberries. It may seem an outdated custom, but the S-C Grange—the SubCult Grange—offers our community a chance to talk over issues that human farmers don’t have. And trust me, there are plenty.”

“Thank you,” I said as I jotted down the reference.

“Anyway, Jona was headed for a meeting over at the grange and he never showed up. Nobody there thought anything was wrong when he didn’t show, because Marilyn had recently had a baby. That’s Jona’s wife. The other farmers thought he stayed home to help her. It wasn’t until Jona didn’t come home after the meeting that anybody realized anything was wrong. Marilyn started to worry around ten p.m., the usual time Jona returned from the meetings. But sometimes they can run late, so she waited until near midnight before texting him. When he didn’t answer, she called him and was sent right to voicemail. That’s when she contacted the sheriff.”

Herne chewed on his lip. “What day did he vanish?”

“May thirty-first. So it’s been a little over a year.”

“Do you remember what the weather was like?” I wasn’t sure if it would be pertinent, but it made sense to gather every scrap of information we could.

“It was raining. We had a big thunderstorm that afternoon. After the thunder and lightning passed, the rain came down the rest of the day. It didn’t let up for a week.” Rhiannon stared at the floor. “Before the police arrived, Marilyn called me and I hurried over to their place. His parents are still over near Greece. They stayed behind under the water when we decided to immigrate to the land, so Marilyn turned to me. You see, Jona and I grew up together. He was my best friend.”

“How did Jona and Marilyn get along? Were they happy?”

I wasn’t sure how he managed it, but Herne had the ability to ask discerning questions like that without insulting the client. Somehow, he inserted just the right inflection into his tone to avoid sounding like a jerk. It was a skill I admired, but hadn’t been able to emulate.

“Marilyn and Jona adored each other. They were married for about three years. They wanted to start a family right away, and they were thrilled when she got pregnant. There was a scare with the baby, but it only brought them closer together.”

“What kind of scare?” I asked.

Rhiannon’s eyes misted over. “Ryan almost died during his birth. Marilyn’s labor came on so fast that she didn’t have time to get down to the shore. Our people must be born beneath the water or they’ll suffocate. It was touch and go whether she’d make it to the water before he came out, but luckily a neighbor had a swimming pool. He offered it to her for a birthing pool and everything worked out. Anyway, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody as much in love as they were. When Jona died, it devastated Marilyn. I think that Ryan is the only reason she managed as well as she did.”

“Walk us through what happened. What did the sheriff do?”

“She asked a lot of the same questions you are. Both the sheriff and her deputy are Fae. I think Light Fae. They followed the path Jona took to the grange. Even though it was raining, he decided to walk. My people aren’t shy about water. But they didn’t find anything out of the ordinary. The next morning, a search party went out the moment dawn broke. They combed the area but the only thing they found was his phone, which was under a bush. It looked like there might have been a scuffle in the mud. It was difficult to tell, though, given how hard it was raining.” Rhiannon shook her head. “We all went searching for him, but it was as though he had just vanished from the face of the earth. At least, until a week later, when they found his body.”

“Would you like a glass of water?” I asked. She looked far too pale for comfort, even though I knew that was her natural pallor. Herne flashed me a silent thank-you.

Over the past couple of months I had learned to break the tension by offering to fetch water or coffee or anything else that would give our clients a chance to gather their thoughts. It gave them time to breathe when they were talking about painful subjects, and it tended to prevent breakdowns in the office.

“Yes, thank you,” she said. “I still can’t believe he’s gone. It’s been a year and I still expect him to come dashing around the corner, laughing and saying it was a bad joke.” The tears were thick in her throat, but she maintained her composure, only her eyes exposing the sorrow in her heart.

I poured her a glass of water from the jug on the sideboard. Herne waited for a moment before he asked the next question.

“Where did they find his body?”

She flinched, closing her eyes briefly. Then, taking a deep breath, she answered.

“At the bottom of the ravine, near the shore. The police didn’t let us know until the next day. I’m not sure why they waited so long, except they probably didn’t want us mucking up the crime scene. Jona…his body had been mangled. He had over a hundred puncture wounds on him, but the coroner couldn’t tell us what caused them. Apparently, his throat was so scratched up inside that it looked like someone had taken a giant razor blade and shoved it down his throat, scraping it round and round. There was no blood left in his body.”

The tension rose in the room and I could tell she was trying to keep control. I waited a beat, then asked, “Vampire?”

In cases of exsanguination, that was always my first thought.

“That’s what the police thought. Or at least, what they told us. Any of those punctures on his body could have been from a fang, they said. But what kind of vampire bites their victim all over their body? And how the hell did they rip up his throat from the inside? We asked a lot of questions, and got a whole lot of nothing for an answer.”

“They wouldn’t tell you anything else?”

“Well, one of the deputies made the mistake of telling us that Jona had been alive as recently as the day before, but the sheriff barked at him and he clammed up. So whoever had him kept him alive for a while.” Again, she closed her eyes. We all knew what that meant.

“Were all the wounds made at the same time? The coroner would be able to figure that out.”

“I have no clue. We asked, but as I said, nobody ever got back to us.”

Herne was frowning. “Did they say anything else? Anything at all?”

She thought for a moment, then shook her head. “A few days later, the cops told us they would probably never be able to find the killer because ‘vampires move around too much.’ The case is still unsolved, even though they stamped ‘vampire kill’ on it. But since we don’t know exactly who killed him, it’s considered a cold case. And everybody knows that once you label a death as a vampire kill, you might as well kiss any further investigation good-bye.”

The look on her face told us what she thought of the way the police had handled the case.

“Did anybody ever come forward? Were there any witnesses?” I was finding myself pulled in.

She shrugged. “I don’t know. The police shut us down. All they would say was that we needed to let it go and move on. It’s been a year, but after the first two weeks, I don’t think they lifted a finger on the case.”

“Why did you wait until now to come to us?”

It was never easy to fathom why our clients came to us when they did, especially with older cases like this, but we always asked. Usually there was some sort of trigger that sparked off the sudden desire to find a resolution.

Rhiannon worried her lip for a moment.

“Marilyn has tried to make a life for herself and her son. As she should. Three weeks ago, she confided in me that she was going on her first date since Jona died. She said that she owed it to her son to move on. I guess…”

“You aren’t ready to move on,” I said softly.

She nodded. “It feels like everybody has forgotten Jona. I suppose I’m angry. Oh, I didn’t say anything, because I wouldn’t hurt her for the world, and I know she’s doing what she needs to. But Jona was brutally murdered and everybody’s acting as though he just moved away. I want closure, damn it. I want to know who murdered him. Every time I go to the police—and I’ve been there several times throughout the past year—they’ve told me go home and talk to a therapist. They say there’s no way they can ever figure out who killed him. But I know full well that it wasn’t a vampire.”

And there it was, her reason for sitting here in our office, asking us to help.

“Playing devil’s advocate for just a moment,” Herne said, “why don’t you think a vampire killed him? I’m just trying to get a feel for what strikes the wrong chord for you.”

Marilyn hesitated, then said, “I’ve become acquainted with some of the local vampires. Every single one of them told me that it couldn’t be a vampire kill. They keep close tabs on their community. One of the vampires—his name is Rayne—told me to look into the history of the island. I’m not sure why, but that’s all he would say. So I decided to come to you. I chose you because I’ve heard of the work you do, and you aren’t on the island. I didn’t want anybody who might be…”

“Paid off by the authorities?” Herne asked, a faint smile on his face.

She nodded. “Yes. Exactly.”

He tapped his fingers on the desk. “You do realize this will be an expensive investigation? We’ll have to drive up to Whidbey Island and stay for a few days, at the very least. And we can’t guarantee any results, although we will do our very best.”

Rhiannon waved off his comments. “I’m the Matriarch of the Foam Born Encampment. With that title comes the keys to the treasure chest. I can afford your fees.”

“All right.” Herne began jotting down a string of numbers and I realized he was putting together an estimate of the retainer.

Without skipping a beat, she pulled out her checkbook. “Just name the figure and I’ll write you a check right now.”

Herne looked at me. “What do you think? Should we take this on? We’ve had a busy season and I know everybody’s tired.”

It sounded like a difficult case, but I wanted to take it. There was something behind this—something that wasn’t right. “Hey, for a chance to get away to Whidbey Island? Even though we’ll be on a case, I can use some time out of the city, and I think the rest of us can, as well.” The thought of getting away to the relatively unpopulated island where we could breathe clean air and saltwater appealed to me.

“All right,” he said, nodding. He turned back to Rhiannon. “How about if we drive up to Whidbey Island for a few days? We’ll see what we can find out. If it looks like the case is going to hit a brick wall, we’ll call it quits. I don’t want to drain your bank account. If we do find anything, then you can make a decision whether you want us to continue.” He pulled out a retainer form and jotted a few notes on it. “Take this form to Angel at the front desk. You can pay her and she’ll give you a receipt. We have to wrap up some things here in the city, but we can start in a couple of days. Will that work?”

Rhiannon breathed a long sigh of relief and nodded. “Thank you. Just knowing that you’re going to even take a stab at it gives me some hope. And right now hope is all I’ve got.” She stood, shaking our hands. Then, clutching the form that Herne had given her, she exited the office, closing the door softly behind her.

COLLAPSE

Playlist for Oak & Thorns:

Alice in Chains: Man in the Box; Sunshine
AWOLNATION: Sail
Band of Skulls: I Know What I Am

The Black Angels: The Return; Evil Things Don't Play With Guns; Holland; Love Me Forever; Always Maybe; Black isn't Black; Young Men Dead; The First Vietnamese War; Manipulation; The Sniper
Black Mountain: Queens Will Play
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club: Feel It Now
Boom! Bap! Pow!: Suit
Broken Bells: The Ghost Inside

Camouflage Nights: (It Could Be) Love

Cobra Verde: Play with Fire
Colin Foulke: Emergence, Caravella
Corvus Corax: Filii Neidhardi; Ballade de Mercy
Crazy Town: Butterfly

Damh the Bard: Obsession; Cloak of Feathers; The Wicker Man; Spirit of Albion
David & Steve Gordon: Shaman's Drum Dance
Death Cab For Cutie: I Will Possess Your Heart
Donovan: Sunshine Superman; Season of the Witch
Eastern Sun: Beautiful Being (Original Edit)
Everlast: Black Jesus; I Can’t Move; What It’s Like

Fatboy Slim: Praise You

FC Kahuna: Hayling
The Feeling: Sewn

Fluke: Absurd
Foster The People: Pumped Up Kicks
Garbage: Queer; #1 Crush; Push It; I Think I'm Paranoid
Gary Numan: Ghost Nation; My Name is Ruin; Broken; I Am Dust; Here In The Black; Love Hurt Bleed; Petals; Cars (Remix)
Gorillaz: Kids With Guns; Hongkongaton; Rockit; Clint Eastwood; Dare

The Gospel Whiskey Runners: Muddy Waters
Gypsy Soul: Who
In Strict Confidence: Forbidden Fruit; Silver Bullets; Snow White; Tiefer
Julian Cope: Charlotte Anne
Justin Timberlake: SexyBack

The Kills: Future Starts Slow; Nail In My Coffin; DNA; You Don't Own The Road; Sour Cherry; No Wow; Dead Road 7

Korn: Freak on a Leash
Lorde: Yellow Flicker Beat; Royals
Low with Tom and Andy: Half Light
Marilyn Manson: Personal Jesus; Tainted Love
Mark Lanegan: The Gravedigger's Song; Riot in My House; Phantasmagoria Blues; Wedding Dress; Methamphetamine Blues
Matt Corby: Breathe

MIA: Bad Girls
Motherdrum: Big Stomp
Nirvana: You Know You’re Right; Come As You Are; Lake of Fire; Lithium; Heart Shaped Box

Orgy: Social Enemies; Blue Monday
A Pale Horse Named Death: meet the wolf
Pearl Jam: Even Flow; Jeremy

People in Planes: Vampire

Puddle of Mudd: Famous; Psycho

Rob Zombie: Living Dead Girl; Never Gonna Stop

Roisin Murphy: Ramalama (Bang Bang)
S. J. Tucker: Hymn to Herne
Scorpions: The Zoo
Screaming Trees: Where the Twain Shall Meet; Dime Western

Shriekback: The Shining Path; Underwaterboys; This Big Hush; Now These Days Are Gone; The King in the Tree
Tamaryn: While You're Sleeping, I'm Dreaming; Violet's in a Pool
Toadies: Possum Kingdom
Tom Petty: Mary Jane's Last Dance
Wendy Rule: Let the Wind Blow

Wild Cherry: Play that Funky Music

Zero 7: In the Waiting Line

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Oak & Thorns