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The Cold Moon brought the winds, rushing in off the Strait of Juan de Fuca to whistle through tall fir and cedar and snake through the thick undergrowth, rattling the windows as they surrounded Whisper Hollow. Catching the town up in their icy embrace, they danced through the long December night. Up on Hurricane Ridge, the snow was clouding the Olympics, blanketing the peaks with a thick layer of powder. Down in the shadow of the mountains, the storms were bringing rain and sleet, and perpetual gray clouds that swept through on the atmospheric river.
I adjusted my coat and blew on my fingers, trying to warm them as I inscribed a band of runes in charcoal paste on the headstone. I was sitting on the grave, straddling the freshly mounded earth that covered the pine casket bearing Hudson Jacks's mortal remains. Saturday, he had left this world, dragged down into the lake by the Lady. She was ravenous lately, it seemed, and Hudson had been in the wrong place at the wrong time.
As I inscribed the runes, Ellia played in the background, her violin keening through the night as the wind picked up her notes and tossed them willy-nilly, almost as if the song and storm were doing battle. Her music strengthened my magic, as we bound the dead man to the deep dark of the graveyard. Penelope was waiting in her tomb to take his spirit with her into the Veil, my gruesome Gatekeeper who was terrifying and beautiful. Death's maiden.
To the side, Bryan stood watch. My protector and guardian shifter, he kept on guard for those who sought to disrupt me when I was too far into the magic to protect myself. He was also my lover. Fiercely protective, he crossed his arms as he surveyed the graveyard.
Behind me, the sound of the tomb opening told me Penelope was ready.
I stood and pointed my dagger at the headstone. Twin serpents coiled around the hilt in silver, and a crow was engraved on the pommel. The sigils on the blade began to glow as I whispered the chant of summoning I had found in my grandmother's journal.
"From the depths of your grave, I summon thee.
From the dark night of your death, I call thee.
From the icy grips of the Lady, I wrest thee.
Hudson Jacks, I command thee, stand forth in my presence."
I shuddered, wondering if I'd ever get used to the weight of the dead pressing in on my shoulders. I could feel them watching through the Veil. Those who still walked this world watched silently from their graves, waiting for their own chance to wander.
A moment later, there was a rush of energy as Hudson shimmered into sight. His form was translucent, and he looked as he had in death. Coiling vines draped around his neck where the Lady had taken him into her arms and dragged him below her icy surface. Hudson had been wandering since his body washed up on the shore, and twice now he had appeared outside his brother's window. The Lady's spirits often turned into Haunts, dangerous and hungry. Ellia and I needed to put him to rest before he became trouble.
I held out my hand to him. I had only been doing this for a little over six weeks, but I was learning fast. He gazed at my fingers, then at me, cocking his head to the side.
"You cannot refuse me. I am Kerris Fellwater, the spirit shaman of Whisper Hollow. I'm a daughter of the Morr’gan and you are bound to obey me. Let me lead you to the Veil, where the Gatekeeper awaits." The words themselves were a charm, strengthened by the strains of Ellia's song and the power of the Morr’gan.
Hudson paused. If he bolted, we'd have our work cut out for us. But a glimmer of relief appeared in his eyes and he held out his hand, placing it in my own. His fingers were like bees stinging my palm; the energy crackled and snapped, sparking against my skin.
I held fast, ignoring the discomfort and turned, leading him toward the tomb, where the double doors were open. Ellia fell in behind, still playing as her cloak fluttered in the wind, and Bryan followed, silently guarding our backs.
Penelope's mausoleum glowed from within, the blood of her chalice lighting the night. As the wind keened like a Bean Sidhe, merging with Ellia's violin to knife through the air, we approached the base of the knoll where Penelope had been laid to rest. Her crypt straddled the line dividing the modern graveyard from the Pest House Cemetery, where more dangerous shadows lurked. Built of cinder block buried deep into the shroud of grass and mounded dirt, the crypt was stained from time and weather.
A plaque affixed to the side of the door glimmered in the light emanating from inside. I knew the words by heart. Here Lieth the Mortal Remains of Penelope Volkov, Guardian of the Veil, Gatekeeper of the Graveyard. Enter and Despair.
As I entered the crypt, the crystal chalice stood on the dais, the crimson liquid within churning like a kaleidoscope. My own blood was in there, along with the blood of other spirit shamans, lament singers, and guardians who had held their posts during Whisper Hollow's history. It was rumored that every Gatekeeper's chalice contained a drop of the Morr’gan's blood, as well. This is what kept the glass intact and the liquid within in a perpetual motion, a glowing, whirling vortex. I dipped one knee in front of the chalice, acknowledging the Gatekeeper.
And there she stood, to one side. Penelope in all her gruesome beauty. Dark veins of black blood trailed out from the raccoon mask that shrouded her eyes. She looked fragile as porcelain, fragile as a picture from long past, ready to dissolve at the first whisper that touched her. Her hair was upswept in a chignon, blond tendrils coiling down to her shoulders.
Penelope towered over me, six feet tall and gaunt in a black dress that fell to her ankles. The dress shimmered with sequins, the sheer material revealing the bones that thrust against her alabaster skin. But jutting out from her body from within, as if she were a voodoo doll turned inside out, were the tips of long nails, surrounded by glistening splotches of dried blood. She looked as though some crazed inner carpenter had gone mad with a nail gun.
She glanced at Hudson's spirit, a hungry look filling her eyes, then back at me. "He reeks of lake water and her scent. We will cleanse him and remove her binding."
"Yes, he was taken by the Lady a few days back. She gave up his body fairly quickly, though. I don't know why." Usually the Lady kept them longer, tying them to her while she fed on their spirits before she loosed them back into Whisper Hollow.
"Perhaps he was not to her taste." Penelope laughed, making me shiver. I had gotten used to her appearance by now, but she still scared the hell out of me. I had no clue as to how extensive her powers were and I wasn't sure I wanted to know. The fact that she was Ellia's older sister didn't help any, either.
I let go of Hudson's hand, and he glanced at me, a fearful light in his eyes.
"Go on, it will be all right." I gave him a gentle nod.
Penelope held out her own hand, and he reached out to touch the nails jutting from her wrists. He glanced up at her-he was not a tall man-and she gave him a soft smile and took hold of his fingers.
"Welcome to the Veil, Hudson Jacks. Take my hand, love, and join my dark kingdom."
It was the same greeting each time, and each time, the spirit would smile dreamily and follow her into the Veil. As I watched, she gave me another nod. I turned and walked out of the crypt to where Ellia and Bryan waited for me. The doors behind us swept shut with a thud, and that was the end of Hudson Jacks.
We returned to his grave, Ellia still playing. I had one last spell to weave before we were done for the night.
I pressed my hand against the charcoal rune stream, and sprinkled Rest Easy powder on his grave. As I stood and circled the grave, deosil-clockwise-with my dagger pointing out, I invoked the charm that would, with all luck, keep Hudson by Penelope's side until he was ready to move on from the Veil to . . . wherever it was that spirits wandered after they left this world.
"Do not rise. Do not wake. Do not the Veil, now forsake.
Do not whisper. Do not walk. Do not dance and do not talk.
To the Veil, you shall remain, within the Gatekeeper's domain."
As I finished, there was a hush, and then the sound of crows echoed through the graveyard. The charm had taken. The Crow Man was watching.
I turned to Ellia. She switched to a tune that made me weep no matter what mood I was in. I had learned over the past weeks that it was customary for the spirit shaman to weep over the dead, to mourn them even as she drove them to the Veil. It was an honor, my duty to remember them. I knelt, my tears falling on Hudson's grave, as I filled a little jar with graveyard dirt and labeled it. Then we were done. I wiped my eyes and stowed the jar in my bag along with my dagger and other tools. Ellia slowly lowered her violin.
Bryan silently crossed to my side and held out his arms. I leaned into his embrace. Each spirit had a personal story. Each spirit left a legacy and a family behind, even if we never knew what that legacy was. I was the last to bid them farewell as they crossed between the worlds. Sometimes, I would be the only one to ever remember them. Whether beloved, or lost and forlorn, they all faced the spirit shaman last-all over the world, we were often the last mortal the spirits would see before crossing into the Veil.
I rested my head on Bryan's shoulder. He was familiar, he smelled of safety and love and passion. Like me, like Ellia, he was a child of the Morr’gan. As he leaned down and pressed his lips to mine, I glanced over his shoulder. The moon had broken through the clouds. She was shimmering against the grass, and as I watched, a murder of crows flew past the silver orb, winging their way toward us and over our heads.
"The Crow Man is walking," I whispered. "Something's going to happen."
As I spoke, the clouds rolled in again, and a hail of rain broke over our heads. As we raced for my car, I glanced back at Penelope's tomb, where a faint light shimmered from the knoll. The crows had landed on the tree over her mausoleum. Yes, something was up, and I had no doubt the Crow Man would make sure I was right in its path.
Our work done, we sped through the night to Lindsey's Diner, the hot spot for Whisper Hollow residents who wanted a late-night snack. Peggin, my best friend, and her new beau-Dr. Divine-would meet us there. I still wasn't sure what to think of Deev, as he had told us to call him, or D-D as Peggin called him. An artist, he had been drawn to Whisper Hollow like a moth to a flame. The town was like that. If Whisper Hollow wanted you, you would somehow find your way here to stay. If the town didn't like you, it spit you up and out, and if you resisted going, it would feed you to the Lady or one of the other spirit beings that lurked in the shadows.
As we pulled into the parking lot, I saw Peggin's car. I eased into the spot next to it. As I turned off the ignition and stiffly stepped out of the driver's seat, I glanced down at my jeans. Dried splotches of mud dappled the denim, but at this point I didn't care. I just wanted something to eat, and to catch up with Peggin, who had been swamped at work the past week.
Bryan wrapped his arm around my waist as we headed into the diner. "You okay? You sure you're up for this? We could go home and I could make you something to eat there."
I caught my breath. His touch sparked me off no matter how tired I was, and I flushed just looking at him. He was five eleven, with dark brown eyes that shifted color depending on his moods, and his hair grazed the top of his shoulders, tousled strands the color of wheat. Bryan Tierney looked to be in his thirties, but he was actually over 140 years old-he was my protector, a wolf-shifter guardian, a son of the Morr’gan.
"No, I want to see Peggin. It's been over a week since we last got together."
He laughed. "You two are inseparable. I love that you have her for a best friend."
"She's your friend, too. You know that anybody that has my back is good as gold in her book." I glanced over my shoulder.
Ellia was two steps behind us as she checked her phone for texts. The older woman was over seventy but looked timeless and was as fit as anybody I knew. She was tall, with long silver hair that flowed over her shoulders. She was wearing a pair of linen trousers, a button-down blouse, and the flowing floor-length green cape that she always wore when we went out to tend to the dead.
I pushed through the door as we came to the diner, and the smell of burgers and fries assailed me, making my mouth water. The restaurant was open till two a.m., and Lindsey had remained true to her mother's vision. It was outfitted in retro-fifties style, but updated and clean. The menu had more choices, and they even made specialized dishes for allergy sufferers, but overall, it was still Mary Jane's Diner, under her daughter's name.
I started to look for Peggin but Debra-Su, who worked the night shift as a waitress, pointed me toward the back corner booth. She knew who I was looking for. She handed me three menus after seeing who I was with.
"I'll be there in a moment. They haven't ordered yet." She winked.
"Thanks, Deb." I took the menus and threaded my way through the tables toward the booth.
Peggin heard my voice and was instantly on her feet. My best friend-and the only one I had kept in touch with on my fifteen-year sabbatical from Whisper Hollow-she was a firecracker. At five seven, she was a few inches taller than me, and stacked in all the right places with a plump hourglass figure. Her rich coppery hair was natural, and she was one of those wisecracking brainy women who caught you off guard, flouting the stereotypes. She was about as athletic as my cats, she dressed like a fifties pinup girl, and she carried a gun with which she was a deadeye shot.