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, looming thick and black even though it was still early afternoon. Brilliant maple and birch leaves—in shades of autumn bronze—dappled the unending stands of fir and cedar. With each gust of wind, the leaves went whirling off the branches to litter the ground. 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.
To my right, waves frothed across Lake Crescent as the wind whipped against the darkened surface. The rain shower turned into a downpour and I eased off the accelerator, lowering my speed to thirty-five miles per hour, and then to thirty. The drops pelted 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 depths.
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 Seattle, I was nearing 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 eased off the road, onto the shoulder, and turned off the ignition. This was it. My last chance to drive past the town and loop around the Olympic Peninsula. My last chance to turn my back on all of the signs. But my life in Seattle had never really been my own, and this past month, the Crow Man had sent me three signs, calling me home. When my grandmother died last week, her death sealed the deal. It was my duty to take over her post.
I opened the door, making sure I was far enough off the road to avoid being hit, and stepped into the rain. Shoving my hands in my pockets, I stared at the lake through the trees. The wind whipped up currents on the water, the surface dark and dangerous. The rising fog sent me into a coughing fit as a flock of crows spiraled out of a tall fir. They circled over me, cawing, then headed toward Whisper Hollow.
Crows were messengers, and so was the Crow Man. He had reached out to me over the past few weeks, sending me three omens. The first sign had been the arrival of his flock. Crows began to follow me everywhere, and I could feel him walking behind them.
The second sign had been a recurring nightmare, for three nights running. Each night, I found myself walking along a shrouded path through the Whisper Hollow cemetery, as the Blood Moon rose overhead. As I came to the center of the graveyard, I saw Grandma Lila, standing next to a headstone. Dripping wet and smelling of lake water, she embraced me, kissing me on both cheeks. Then she lit into me.
“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 come home. You’re 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 needs 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.
The third sign came last week. 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 work, deep in thought, when I glanced at the store next to me. There, staring from the storefront window, 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.
One of the rules of Whisper Hollow echoed in my head. If you see the Girl in the Window, set your affairs in order.
That was all the proof I needed. I went home and began to sort through my things. The next day, a letter from Ellia arrived, informing me that my grandparents had plunged off the road, into the lake. The Lady had claimed them.
She was a hungry bitch, the lady of the lake was, and neither age nor status mattered to her. She marked whom she chose.
The car hadn’t surfaced, and neither had my grandfather’s body. But Grandma Lila had been found on the shore, her hands placed gently over her chest. 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 began to rise.
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, 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. She was Maine Coon, through and through. 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 loud yowl. He was always vocal, and he was not amused. Daphne, a tortoiseshell, just snorted and gave me a look that said, Really, can we just get this over with? Littermates, they were three years old. 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. There was the crux of it. The people in Whisper Hollow were my people. And even though I had run away, 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 when they get out of hand. The gift is my birthright, from the day I was born until the day I die. My training’s incomplete, 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.
Like my grandmother, and her mother before her, I’m a daughter of the Morrígan. Our matriarchal line stretches back into the mists. 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, my actual magic is minor, except when it comes to the world of spirits and the dead. There, my power blossoms out.
When I turned eighteen, after a major blowout with my grandfather, I ditched everything, took my high school diploma and 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. As the years passed, I moved into a high-rise, and I worked my way up from barista to managing the store, but it was just a way to pay the rent.
At night, I tackled my second gig—one that made little money but kept me sane. A few months after I arrived in Seattle, the headaches started. If spirit shamans don’t use their powers, the energy builds up and will implode. At best, ignoring the power can drive you mad. At worst, it can kill you from an energy overload.
So I found a gig with an online e-zine investigating haunted houses and paranormal activity. The ghost hunting kept the headaches at bay. I spent all my spare time tromping through haunted buildings, looking for the ghosts who were troublemakers.
When I found them, I’d drop a hint to the owner. About fifty percent asked me to deal with the spirits. Kicking astral butt kept me from falling over the edge of the cliff into la-la land. I did my best to create rites and rituals from what training Lila had given me before I left home. For the most part they worked. I’d had 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 a few cursory friends, but no one I could trust. I kept in touch with Peggin, but she was the only one from Whisper Hollow who knew where I was, other than my grandmother and Ellia.
Mostly, I read a lot in my spare time. I’m a speed reader and I have a photographic memory when it comes to what I read in books. Turns out, I had a lot of time to pursue my hobby.
You see, once people find out that I talk to spirits, it goes one of two ways: Either they’re afraid of me, or they glom onto me hoping for a glimpse of the future, especially lottery numbers. My talents don’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, the date usually ends. At first, their fears bothered me. After all, the boys in Whisper Hollow had accepted me for who I was, quirks and all. But after a while, I decided to just stop dating.
But now…now I’m headed home, where everybody in Whisper Hollow is eccentric. Everybody’s just a little mad. And if I’m honest, I’m actually looking forward to it. Especially since my grandfather’s dead and can never bother me again. At least, that’s my hope. Because in Whisper Hollow, the dead don’t always stay where you plant them.
I yawned. As I struggled to sit up, I wondered where I was, but then I remembered. Home. I was home. For the first time in a long while, I had slept soundly. 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. After setting up the litter boxes in the utility room and locking the cats in there for the night, I called Peggin to let her know I was back in town. After that, I dropped on the sofa to think about what to do next. The next thing I knew, it was morning.
Stumbling to the bathroom, I showered, then settled in at the vanity. I grimaced. I looked as tired as I felt. Circles underscored my eyes, but they would clear up with enough water and a 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 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.
A reminder of what I was.
The birthmark looked like a tattoo. In the center of my back, it was right above my butt like a natural-born tramp stamp. It was the shape of a crow standing on a crescent moon, and it was jet black. The mark of a spirit shaman.
I slid on my panties and fastened my bra. At a solid size eight and a 38F cup, I was happy enough with my body. I liked my curves—and I had plenty of them. I jammed my feet into my jeans, pulled on a snug V-neck sweater and patted my stomach. I needed to find a gym. I loved working out, favoring weight-lifting and the stationary bike. Unlike so many women, I ate what I liked, preferring meat and vegetables and the occasional pasta dish. I loved my junk food, too, but tried to limit it to a few times a week. But I was a caffeine freak, and I made no apologies for my addiction.
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—I wandered into the kitchen. Next order of the day: secure caffeine. Life always looked better after a pot of coffee.
Morning light filtered through the kitchen window, silver from the overcast sky.
The kitchen was spacious, with an eat-in nook—a large window by the table overlooked the backyard. I ran my hands along the smooth countertops. My grandparents had renovated during the time I’d been gone. The laminate had been replaced by quartz; the white cabinets had been switched out for dark. All the appliances were 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, and the kitchen still felt cozy.
On the counter stood a shiny espresso machine. I spotted a grinder and a container of beans. Grandma had loved her caffeine and I’d inherited my addiction from her. Grandpa Duvall had preferred tea—strong and bitter, like him.
I peeked in the cupboards. Tidy shelves were filled with packaged foods. The refrigerator, however, was spotless and empty, with just the bottle of creamer I’d bought when I pulled into town. When I’d called Peggin to tell her I was coming home, she had promised to clean it out for me. One less task I’d have to deal with.
I pulled a couple of shots of espresso and added creamer. As I carried my mug to the table, the phone on the kitchen wall rang, startling me out of my thoughts.
Who the hell was that? Peggin was out of town till Monday night, and she was the only person who knew I had come home, besides my lawyer. Hesitating, almost hoping it was a telemarketer, I picked up the receiver.
“Kerris? You’re really back! Peggin called me. You got my letter, I trust? I’m sorry about your grandparents, my dear.”
Ellia. No matter how many years it had been, I could 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. “I was going to call you before I left Seattle, but figured it would be best to talk in person. Grandma Lila came to me in a dream; she told me things are happening in town. What’s going on?”
“There have been stirrings in the forest for the past few years. The Lady has been overly active, and the spirits are on edge. Penelope’s having a hard time keeping them reined in.”
I frowned. Penelope was in charge of holding the Veil closed. That she was having problems spelled trouble. And when the Lady of the Lake was hungry, nobody was safe.
“What changed? Has Veronica been at it again?”
Veronica played both sides. Both friend and foe, depending on her mood, most of the time she ignored the living. But when she thought up some agenda, she’d turn the town on its ears. I was thirteen when Veronica decided to throw a grand ball for the dead. The results had been hair-raising.
Ellia paused. “No, I don’t think so. I have my suspicions, but I don’t want to discuss them over the phone. Over the past few months, encounters with Haunts and the Unliving have increased. Since your grandmother’s death, the dead have been raising hell. I’ve tried to play the shadows to sleep, but my songs won’t work without a spirit shaman.”
I licked my lips. I’d have to take charge faster than I thought. On the night of the new moon, the lament singers and spirit shamans would go to the graveyards to calm the dead who had not yet passed beyond the Veil. And when the dead went walking, they’d corral them and send them back to the grave.
The Veil existed between the worlds, like a massive transit station for the dead. A nebulous place of mist and fire and ice, the Veil housed spirits who hadn’t detached themselves from the world of the living. They weren’t ready to cross the threshold and move Beyond.
Around the world, the line between realms was usually well-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 nebulous here, and ghosts walked easier. Now, with Grandma Lila dead, the door had been thrown open.
Grandma Lila had been a strong woman, though Grandfather fought her every step of the way. Oddly enough, Grandma Lila hadn’t been paired with a shapeshifter. I wondered if that would be my fate as well, but there was no one I could ask now that she was gone.
I shook off my thoughts. “When can we meet?”
“Tonight, at my house? Six p.m. You remember where I live, don’t you?”
“Fogwhistle Way. I don’t remember the number, but I remember your house.”
“That’s right—337 Fogwhistle Way. It’s good to have you back, Kerris. I’m sorry about your grandmother. We needed her. And now, we need you.” With that, Ellia 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 south. A storm was coming in 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.
“I’ll let you out when I get back from town. Until then, you just stay in there.” I wanted to go through the house first to make certain there was nothing that could hurt them, or allow them to escape.
Reaching for my jacket and purse, I paused, my hand on the doorknob. A shadow rolled past. It reached out to examine me. Cold and clammy, it tickled over my skin before vanishing. Whirling, I glanced around the kitchen. But the room was empty.
“I’m home, Grandma,” I whispered. “I just hope you’ll be around when I need you.”
A goose walked over my grave. Whatever was going on, I knew I was going to need all the help I could get—from both sides of the grave.