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Spring has sprung in Apple Hollow, and our werewolf couple Trixie and Orion are invited to a Blessing of the Tree where a new shifter will be born. Unfortunately, the ceremony doesn’t go as planned and it’s discovered that someone has attacked the Tree, the very center of the hollow and all that keeps it safe. Our heroes are approached by the caretaker of the Tree, Sage, and entrusted with the task of finding the culprit.Trixie is reluctant to take on this new mission. Something doesn’t feel right, and it isn’t the mold in the air giving her allergies. She finds herself in the role of diplomat as the whole of the hollow begins to turn against Sage, Mab, and others following rumors of secret powers behind the peace in the valley. A murder attempt and a successful murder lead them down a road of uncertain fate as they race against time, and Trixie’s better judgment, to a final finish that will decide more than just the life of the Tree, but her own reason for existing.
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Copyright © 2018 by Mac Flynn
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Continue the adventure
Other series by Mac Flynn
The letter came in a bright green envelope.
It was a usual spring day in this strange little town I now called home. Children scampered past me on the way to school. Birds flew overhead, new arrivals returning from the south. A truck drove past me driven by a man-bear. The neighbor down the street was mowing their newly-greened lawn by chewing on it as all the goat-peopledid.
I plucked the envelope from the mailbox out front of the house and eyed the strange-colored container with suspicion. The letter was addressed to both Orion and me. I walked back inside the house with the bills in one hand and the envelope in the other.
"Do any leprechauns live in this place?" I asked Orion as I walked into the kitchen. He stood at the stove firing up a heaping helping of bacon.
He shook his head without turning around. "No. Just witches. Why?"
I held up the envelope. "Because we gotthis."
He glanced over his shoulder and smiled. "Openit."
I frowned. "Why don't you openit?"
"Because you'll like what's init."
I sniffed the envelope. "It's not non-scent meat, isit?"
"Open it andsee."
I sighed and tore open the top. "All right, but this better not be a joke." Inside the envelope was not a werewolf treat, but a letter printed on white paper. I read aloud the notice.
Orion and Trixie,
You are cordially invited to the Blessing of the Tree for Genevieve Capra.
I lowered the letter into my lap and frowned. "Who's Genevieve Capra?"
"The daughter of the goat down the street."
"When's the Blessing?"
I wrinkled my nose. "Is this such a good thing for a kid to go through?"
"Yeah, but do you remember what happened to us after I went through mine? I mean, this isn't going to be some erotic show, is it? And how come she didn't just wander up there like I did and take a bite? Why the ceremony?"
He turned around with a pan full of finished bacon and smiled. "Always the reporter, aren'tyou?"
I folded my arms across my chest and tapped my foot on the floor. "That doesn't answer any of my questions."
He scratched the back of his head and sighed. "To be honest I don't know why your Blessing was so different. Maybe it was because you weren't from around here." He glanced over his shoulder and gave me a wink. "What I do know is you were slightly older than the average person who bites into an apple, and our little romp happened because there was a fullmoon."
I glared at him. "I was just a later-bloomer, that's all. It's not my fault I wasn't born in thistown."
He piled the bacon onto two plates and slid one in front of me with a wink. "I think you're catching up prettywell."
I picked up a piece and tore off half of it. Bits flew out as I spoke. "I'd be going faster if we didn't have to solve all these problems."
Orion took a seat beside me and took the notice from my hand. "It says here the Blessing's tomorrow. No wonder Goat's out there mowing the lawn this early in the season."
I swallowed my bacon. "So what happens at a normal Blessing?"
A sly smile slipped onto his lips as he tucked the letter back into the envelope. "I think I'll save that as a surprise."
I rolled my eyes. "This isn't some birthday party where the guests don't know the presents and the birthday girldoes?"
"You're still going to have towait."
I slumped my shoulders and took a hefty bite of bacon. "You're going to be the death of me, you know that, don'tyou?"
He leaned forward and pecked a kiss on my lips. "I expect it. A mating's forlife."
My cheeks betrayed me with a blush that I shook off. I turned away and chewed on my food. "Well, at least promise me the Blessing won't be too surprising."
He held up his hand. "I solemnly swear it won't be too surprising."
"You were never in the Boy Scouts, wereyou?"
Not withstanding the not-too-honest swearing from the not-Scout, I went to the Blessing feeling like the odd-man out. A flood of people walked the short trip up the road and onto the wide path that led to the Tree, and I suspected all of them knew what to expect during this ceremony.
The fresh spring leaves of the trees waved in a breeze as we trudged through the woods. The flow of shifters arrived at the meadow in which stood the ever-green apple tree. A dozen rows of chairs ten chairs deep with an aisle between the rows stood before the small mound that harbored the sacred plant.
Armel, the Sentinel bear of the Tree, welcomed everyone with a smile as he stood off to one side at the rear of the chairs. The corners of his lips looked a little tense, though.
I paused at the opening to the meadow and furrowed my brow. The thick, luscious leaves of the Tree looked a little off, like they didn't have the fine luster of healthy life. I wrinkled my nose as a rotten odor passed over my nostrils.
Orion nudged me. "Something wrong?" he whispered.
I shook myself and shrugged. "Probably just a trick of the light."
"You wrinkled your nose," he wondered.
I rubbed the bottom of my nose and shrugged. "Probably all this rotting vegetation. It's my first spring as a werewolf, so I'm probably not used toit."
We grabbed a pair of seats at the back and close to the aisle. I watched the other guests come in. One of them was the motel's proprietor, Troy.
I nudged Orion with my elbow and nodded at the old guest. "Does he show up to all of these things?"
Orion followed my gaze and frowned. He shook his head. "No. I've never seen him away from his motel."
A flutist struck up a haunting tune. The remaining guests took a seat and the murmurs stopped. Everyone turned in their seats and looked at the rear. I followed their gaze and watched as a man of forty stepped out of the trees. By his side was a young girl of sixteen. Their arms were looped together like that of a father and bride.
They walked down the aisle together in time with the slow melody. The father smiled and bowed his head at the guests. The girl's smile wavered and her eyes were fixed on the tree. They walked up the small hill where they faced one another before the large trunk.
The man smiled down at his daughter and squeezed her hands. "My little Genevieve, it gives me great pleasure to bring you here to the tree for your Blessing day." He looked up at the tree and swept his hand over the plant. "Now choose your apple. Be who you were meant tobe."
Genevieve let go of his hand and turned to face the tree. Her eyes zeroed in on one particular apple that hung from a low branch. She walked over and raised her hand. The apple glowed a little and dropped itself from its branch and into her hand. She smiled as she turned the fruit over in her palms. There was a faraway look in her eyes as she tilted her head to one side and examined the apple.
Genevieve lifted the apple to her lips and took a big bite. She closed her eyes and dropped her arms to her side. Her body glowed like the apple. The light was so bright that I blinked against its brilliance.
The light gave off a pulse. Genevieve's eyes flew open. She opened her mouth in a soundless scream as the light around her flickered. Patches of fur burst from her flesh and her face became distorted as a gray-colored snout elongated her nose, but left her mouth in place.
The young girl collapsed amid the cries of her parents. Her father caught her before she hit the ground and cradled her in his arms as his wife rushed to his side. Several of the audience members hurriedover.
A beautiful young woman stood from the chair in the far left corner. She had long blond, sun-colored hair that hung to her waist and eyes as bright green as the apples on the tree. Her attire was a simple loose blouse with bell-shaped cuffs and blue jeans.
The woman walked up the few steps to the crowd. Those in the rear noticed her and parted. She strode through the crowd and to the young girl and her distraught parents. The mother looked up at her. Her cheeks were streaked with tears. "Please help her. Please."
The young woman smiled down at her. The mother slipped out of the way and the stranger knelt by the young girl's side. Genevieve's transformation had paused before the finish so she was stuck halfway between human and a goat. Short, stubby horns stuck out of her forehead and her wide eyes showed that her pupils were rectangular.
Her father cradled her in his lap, but looked up at the young woman. His lips quivered. "C-can you helpher?"
The woman looked down at Genevieve and her face fell as she studied the pitiful state of the young girl. She lay her palm on the young girl's forehead. Genevieve gasped and arched her back. Her mouth widened and her body trembled. The fur and horns slipped back into her body. Her eyes returned to those of a human. She let out a garbled scream that had hints of a bleating sound.
Her father held her tight against him. "Genevieve! Genevieve!"
Genevieve gasped and her eyes rolled back in her head. She fell back into her father's arms and her head lolled to one side. Her father's eyes widened and he whipped his head up to the young woman. She was smiling as she watched over Genevieve. "What's wrong withher?"
The woman stroked Genevieve's forehead. "She will sleep for a while, but when she awakes she will be her humanself."
Her father started back. "Not. . .not her shifterself?"
The young woman raised her eyes to his and shook her head. "No. I have halted her change, at least for the moment."
"What's wrong with her?" he askedher.
Genevieve's mother grasped the woman's arm. "Will she beokay?"
The young woman patted her on the hand and smiled at her. "There is no need to worry." She glanced over her shoulder and her eyes met my gaze. It was like looking into a bottomless pool of water that captured my every attention. "The tree will guide her to her true calling verysoon."
Armel stepped up to the crowd and raised his thick arms above his head. "The ceremony is over. Please return to your homes."
The crowd reluctantly turned away from the family and Armel herded them down the aisle. Orion stood behind me, and we were both trapped between two rows of chairs.
I took one step into the flow of people, but Armel grabbed my shoulder and pulled me back into the row. "You two stay here," he commanded before he strode past us with the other audience members beforehim.
I glanced over my shoulder at Orion. "So I'm guessing this isn't how things are supposed togo."
He shook his head. "No. The girl was supposed to change completely into a shifter."
"Has this happened before?"
"No, at least not during the ceremony."
I raised an eyebrow. "Thenwhen?"
"Do you remember Jerry's daughter? The girl with the stripes on her cheeks?" he askedme.
I snorted. "How could I forget a tigergirl?"
"She tried to transform into her shifter self shortly after her ceremony and was trapped halfway between forms. That's what's usually happened in the past." He looked past me at the girl on the ground. "This is far worse."
"I think getting caught in-between isn't all that great," I countered.
He pursed his lips. "This shows that the problem is with the tree, and not with the kids who have gotten stuck in-between."
I returned my attention to the small group at the base of the tree. "So who's the woman?"
"Her name is Sage, the guide of the Tree," he toldme.
I turned to him and raised an eyebrow. "Thewhat?"
"The guide," he repeated. "Think of her as a nurse to the First Bite ceremony. She's there in case someone doesn't eat enough apple or eats toomuch."
"So what does she do when those things happen?" I askedhim.
"I guide them to the right balance."
I spun around and yelped. The woman stood just behind me with a smile on her lips. She'd been kneeling beneath the tree several yards away only a second before.
Sage tilted her head to one side and studied me with that peculiar lopsided smile. "I don't believe we've met, Miss Lyal. My name isSage."
I folded my arms over my chest and frowned. "Have you ever thought about changing your name to Sneak?"
She chuckled. "Most who know me wouldn't dare suggest I do anything."
"Well, call me special," I quipped.
"We do," a voice spoke up. Troy came up behind her, and he, too, had that same strange smile. "That is why we need yourhelp."
"Help with what?" I askedhim.
Troy looked past me. I turned and watched Armel stride past us and up the aisle. He climbed the steps and lifted the unconscious Genevieve into his arms. Her distraught parents followed close behind as he led them out of the meadow. That left Orion and me with Sage andTroy.
I cast a side-glance at the pair and arched an eyebrow. "Help with this? How?"
Sage's face fell and she bowed her head. She clasped her hands together in front of her and slowly opened them. In her palms was a yellowed leaf. I frowned and glanced up at the apple tree. The pure-green canopy was now speckled with the yellowed leaves.
"So the tree has yellow leaves. What's the big deal?" I askedher.
Orion pursed his lips as he studied the leaf. "The leaves on the Tree have never changed color, nor dropped."
"Maybe you guys need a fertilizer and not me," I returned.
Sage tipped the leaf into one palm and stretched her hand out to me. "Touchit."
I frowned. "I don't want to touchit."
"Touch it, and you will understand the problem we present to you," she toldme.
I looked up at Orion and arched an eyebrow. "Seriously? Touching aleaf?"
He shrugged. "What harm could itdo?"
I sighed and turned back to the woman and her leaf. "All right, heregoes."
I took the leaf. The moment my fingers wrapped around its crinkly surface a terrible pain stabbed into me. Needles stabbed every part of my body and my stomach did flip-flops. My shaking knees collapsed beneath me and I dropped to the ground. I leaned over and exorcised my lunch onto the ground.
Orion grabbed my shoulders. It felt like his hands were a vise slowly squeezing my bones out of my skin. "Let go!" I shrieked. He jerked his handsback.
Sage knelt in front of me and set her hand on my clenched fist. A soothing warmth slipped into my trembling fingers and up into the rest of my body. I took a deep, shuddering breath as she opened my hand and took the leaf. The pain vanished the moment the leaf ceased to touchme.
I looked up into her sorrowful eyes and searched them for answers. "W-what wasthat?"
"The pain of the Tree," she told me. She looked past me at Orion. "You may touch hernow."
Orion helped me to my shaky feet and I leaned against his shoulder as I watched Sage stand and tuck the leaf into her pocket. "Why's it in that muchpain?"
She pursed her lips and glanced at the great Tree. "I believe someone has poisoned it with black magic."
Orion frowned. "Are you sure this wasn't an accident? Or maybe a mistake?"
She shook her head. "No. The signs have been there for quite some time, so whoever has done this has poisoned the Tree over many months."
"The kids half-transforming?" I guessed.
Sage nodded. "Yes."
"And you want us to find out who it is before someone else gets hurt?" I added.
She smiled and bowed her head. "Wedo."
"'We?'" I glanced to my left where Troy slipped into my view. I arched an eyebrow. "So you're in on this, too?"
"I am," he acknowledged.
I glanced between the pair. "So how many people know about this poisoning?"
"Only Troy, Armel, the Librarian and myself," Sage toldme.
Orion glanced at the entrance to the meadow. "And after today the rest of the town is going to know something's wrong."
I folded my arms across my chest and frowned. "So why do you think we're good for this job? And why didn't you tell the police sooner? You might've caught the guy by now instead of waiting forus."
"We waited for you," Troy correctedme.
I arched an eyebrow. "Whyme?"
Sage glanced over her shoulder at the ancient overgrown bush. "We did not know the severity of the problem until the Tree brought you here. That was the sign that assistance outside of our community was needed." She turned to me and met my gaze. "You were needed."
I held up my hands. "Wait a sec. You're trying to tell me the Tree brought me here, turned me into a werewolf, and had me go through a bunch of mysteries just so I could solve its apple problem?"
Sage smiled. "Fate is strange, is itnot?"
I ran a hand through my hair and pursed my lips. "I wouldn't use those words, but saving a tree? I know it's alive, but it's not alive-alive."
"You felt its pain," Sage pointedout.
"Yeah, but-come on. Me? I'm just a reporter." I glanced at Orion. "Help me outhere."
He shrugged. "I don'tknow."
My face fell. "Some help you are. . ." I muttered as I returned my attention to the two expectant people in front of me. "So what exactly do you want me todo?"
"Find the source of the poison and stop it," Sage toldme.
"If you guys haven't figured that how can I?" I pointedout.
Troy chuckled. "You have a way of finding trouble."
"And trouble makes headlines," a voice spokeup.
Orion and I glanced over our shoulders as Troy and Sage looked behind us. A woman of thirty with a long red felt overcoat walked toward us. She wore a white blouse and a short red skirt beneath the coat, and in her feet were a pair of black flat-foot shoes. Over one shoulder was a leather strap for a large leather bag. In her hand was her smart phone that she held like a voice recorder.
Armel hurried up behind her and slipped in front of her, blocking her path. "You were told to leave."
The woman put her hands on her hips and glared at him. "And let the first interesting story about the tree go unreported? Not on my watch."
"It's all right, Armel. Let her through," Sage toldhim.
The woman gave him a wink before she slipped past him and over to us. There was a sly smile on her face as she stopped between our pairs and looked from one side to the other. "My my, doesn't this look interesting. The town elders gathered around the tree with the newest addition to the community." She shoved the phone in my face. "That makes me wonder if any of you can comment on the recent bungle by theTree."
I pushed the phone away. "Who the heck areyou?"
She drew the voice recording machine back and glared at me. "Careful with the phone, wolfy. It's not easy or cheap getting the UPS to deliver all the way outhere."
Sage looked to me but gestured to the woman. "Thisis-"
"Loretta Hopper," the woman interrupted as she held up her hand for me to shake. "And you must be the famous TrixieLyal."
I ignored her hand. "Should I knowyou?"
The smile faltered a little as she drew her hand back. "No, my beat doesn't follow you, or it didn't until the Tree decided to wig out and nearly kill akid."
"The young girl was never in any danger of dying," Sage assuredher.
"But can you say for sure that it won't happen next time?" Hopper countered.
"There will not be a next time," Sage insisted.
Hopper's eyes flickered to me. "So you have someone on the case? Someone other than the police?"
"I cannot comment at this time," she replied.
Hopper held the phone close to Sage's face. "But as a town leader and the caretaker of the Tree, can you guess as to what happenedhere?"
Sage shook her head. "No, but I can assure you and your readers that the problem will soon be found and repaired."
Hopper drew the phone against her own lips. "Do you mean to tell me that even after all this time, all these months of kids getting stuck in-between you still don't know what the problemis?"
"If you will excuse me, I must speak with Armel." Sage brushed past her and walked over to the burly man who now stood at the entrance to the meadow. Together the pair left thearea.
"You can't run from the press forever!" Hopper shouted as they disappeared down the path. She turned back to us and smiled. "Does anyone else care to make a comment?"
"I still didn't catch why you're asking these questions," I pointedout.
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