Bayou Shadow Hunter
by Debbie Herbert

Chapter One

bayoushadowhunter

“Thunder Moon comin’ tonight.  Yer life is fixin’ to change.”

Grandma Tia’s sharp eyes settled on Annie after the candles extinguished.

Her grandma called the August full moon ‘Thunder Moon’ and proclaimed it a time of enchantment.  Annie had to admit it did appear magical and mysterious.  The forest beckoned with its thick canopy of trees draped in long tendrils of Spanish moss that fluttered in the sea breeze with a silver shimmer like a living veil of secrecy.

And so they had burned tiny scraps of paper where they’d written what they wanted purged from their lives.  As she’d done every month for most of her life, Annie had written only one thing.  The same thing.  She held the paper to candle flame, watching it catch fire and curl in on itself before the wind carried it away.  It splintered into tiny embers that flickered like fireflies before turning to ash.

Annie sat on the bed, hugging her knees to her chest and staring out the window, pondering her grandma’s words. She could use some change. Lots of it. If only she could get rid of . . . no. No point agonizing over that when she was so close to sleep.

A green glow skittered erratically in the swampy darkness.

Very pretty.  Annie turned away from the bedroom window, yawned and slipped into bed, pulling a thin cotton sheet over her head like a cocoon.

Wait a minute . . . she jerked to a sitting position and peered out the window across the room.  Each glass pane framed squares of refracted moonbeams piercing through tumbles of tree limbs.  A patchwork quilt of the macabre.

But on second glance, no green, glowing orbs of light dotted the night’s landscape.  Must have been a trick of the eye or the flash of a dream.  Perhaps it was merely that Grandma had planted the suggestion of something magical happening tonight when they had gone outside after dinner and held a brief lunar ritual.  Full moons represented death and change, a time for powerful magic.

A ball of light again materialized at the tree line, not more than twenty feet from their cottage. It burned blue at the center and green at the edges.  Annie instinctively touched the silver cross nestled in the hollow of her throat, palm flattening above the rapid thumping of her heart.

A teal stream of light broke away from the orb, forming a tail like a comet streaming across the night sky.  The pixilated specks of color were magical as fairy dust, coalescing into the shape of an arm, beckoning her closer.

Dare she?

Annie scrambled off the bed, feet touching the rough-hewn pine floorboard, still sun-warmed from the day’s ferocious heat.  She raced to the back door and slid into flip flops she kept at the entry.  Hand on the door, she paused and glanced to her left.  Grandma’s bedroom door was open and her deep, labored breathing wafted across the cottage.  Annie softly tiptoed to the door and peeked inside.

Grandma Tia’s hair was wrapped in a satin cloth that nestled against a white pillowcase.  Her lined face was relaxed in a way only produced by sweet dreams.  The weight and worry of time and life’s sorrows laid aside in a few hours of respite.

She wouldn’t rouse her from slumber.  Grandma Tia’s heart condition meant she needed rest.  Annie’s eyes rested on the red flannel gris-gris bag hung on the bedpost.  Which reminded her . . . she hurried back to her bedroom and lifted the pillow.  She grabbed her own mojo bag and tied it to the drawstring of her pajama bottoms.  Just in case.  A quick glance out the window confirmed the green light still hovered a few feet above ground.

Despite the lateness of the hour, humidity cocooned her body in a damp embrace the moment she stepped out the door.  To top it off, the light had disappeared again.  She sat on the concrete porch steps and lifted her hair off the back of her sticky nape, waiting and watching.

Probably nothing but swamp gas.  The night buzzed with a battalion of insects and she cocked her head to one side, listening, actively expanding her energy outward to pick up even the subtlest of sound – the wind swirling clumps of sand, the hoot of an owl far away—all against the eternal ebb and flow of the distant ocean tide.

What was she doing out here? Normally, she wouldn’t think of investigating something alone, but, like a cat, curiosity overrode her fear.

Something prickled her skin.  The air danced with a faint tinkling—like the fading echo of tiny bells rung from deep within the forest.  Annie closed her eyes, gathering the vibration of musical notes, assimilating a pattern: one, two, two, three, two, two, five, two, two.

Melodic patterns had called to her since kindergarten when a teacher handed out metal triangles and wands.  She’d pinged the base and the ringing vibration had shivered down her spine.  A living pulse that had been a first clue of her gift, her curse, her fate.  Other kids banged away on the triangles until the pureness of the music changed to an unbearable din and she’d run out of the classroom.

She’d been running ever since.

But tonight’s high-pitched bell notes made her feet itch to dance and throw her arms open to embrace the night.  It had a certain symmetry and lyrical quality that charmed.  It drew her, tugged at her soul . . .

Annie opened her eyes.  More than a dozen orbs of light danced in the distant darkness. They were a rainbow of colors and sizes and varied in brightness.

That’s where the music came from.

They called her, beckoned her to draw near.  She rose unsteadily to her feet, light-headed with awe, and slowly stepped away from the cottage.  The lights bobbed and darted behind and between the oaks. All at once, the orbs disappeared, as if someone had turned off a switch.  Annie ran toward the woods. For once she ran to the music instead of away from its source.

Wait for me. Dont leave me behind.

As if hearing the unspoken words, a bluish-green orb flashed. A spectacular, southern aurora borealis. It was the first, lone light she’d seen from the bedroom window, as distinctive and individual as a human form.  She ran across the yard, plunged into the woods, down a narrow trail littered with pinecones and broken twigs.  Black night, thick with heat, pressed around her body, yet she stumbled forward, ever deeper.  More lights bobbled ahead, just beyond reach.  Mosquitoes buzzed her ears and nipped her arms and chest.   The sulfur smell of swampland grew more pungent and sharp.

Annie didn’t care.  The blue light glowed like a lantern against the darkness and the crystalline notes played from its burning core.  Low-lying branches scraped her arms and face and her legs grew wooden with exhaustion as on she walked, following, following ever deeper.

A clearing opened onto a muddy bank and Annie pulled up short at the sight of a brackish pond.  Mud gooshed over her sandals and between her toes.  The slimy sensation worked like a face slap.  Blackness plunged the night as a cloud passed over the moon and the glowing orbs vanished once more. The music stopped and silence gathered, dense and foreboding.

“Umm . . . hello?  Anybody out there?”  She didn’t know whether she felt more foolish or frightened.  She lifted one foot out of the goo and almost lost a sandal.  “Terrific.  This is just great.”

Screeching erupted—as if a parliament of enraged owls or a volt of vultures were descending on her for interloping on their territory. Annie clamped hands over ears and squeezed her fingertips over the ear canals, but the noise and pressure on her ear drums felt like a bomber plane taking off inside her brain.  Turning blindly, she ran, desperate to escape the sound attack.

What the hell is this? Where is it coming from?  It was like a combination of an animal screech, a howl of pain, shattering glass and a jarring, jumbled chorus of dissonant chords, as if someone were banging an untuned piano.

Silence crashed the darkness.  Annie leaned her back against an oak tree and hunched down, panting.  Relieved the noise had stopped, but expecting it to return any moment, her body was coiled and tense.  She grimaced at the stitch in her side and tried to regulate her breathing to a slower pace.   Calm down.  Think.

She tilted her head upward, rough bark grazing her scalp.  The moon glowed, laced with a web of black thread from the treetops.  The sky held a thin promise of dawn, evidenced only by a violet hued line in the east that graduated to black by degrees.

Great. So she knew where east lay.  But that was the extent of her internal compass.  And it didn’t help her figure out how to get back to the cottage.  Best to stay right where she was and wait for daylight.  If she was lucky, someone, maybe a hunter, would be along, or she would recognize some landmark once the sun emerged.

How could she have been so stupid as to trot off at night into the bayou after a will-o’-the wisp or whatever that light was?  She shuddered. Focus.  Right now there were rattlers and water moccasins and gators to worry about.  And who knew what other cursed creatures roamed the land.

She swatted at a mosquito nipping her arm.  Hmmm.  Could snakes climb trees?  A glance upward revealed that seeking higher ground was a non-option.  The nearest limb was several feet above her standing height.  When she recouped her strength, perhaps she should search for a stone or stick just in case . . .

“Help me!”

The deep baritone voice rumbled along her spine.

Annie scrambled to her feet and searched the shadows.  “Who’s there?”

Silence.  Okay, she was going to be that person in the headline news who is lost in the woods and found days later, a nut case raving about swamp monsters and Big Foot and saying she’d been carted away by aliens on their UFO.

Nothings out there.

“Please.”

The anguish in that word was too tortured not to be real.  Annie shivered despite the heat and sweat coating her body.  Ignoring someone else’s pain went against all her healing instincts.  “Where are you?  Who are you?”

An orb manifested not ten feet from where she stood.  No warning, no gathering of light, no sound.  One second before loomed a dark void, and in a clock’s single tick, the orb absorbed the space.

The blue-green light swirled and pulsed like a breathing, living thing.  The same orb she’d seen first from her bedroom window.

So the question was no longer where or who but, “What are you?” she whispered.

“The shadows trapped me.”

The voice rumbled in her gut, vibrating in her being.  “You’re . . . trapped in the light?” she asked haltingly.

“My heart beats within.  Look.”

At the core of the blue light shone a concentrated mass of teal that swelled and contracted. In out, in out, pulsing with the cosmic rhythm of life.

A heart.

Not the flowers-and-lace, cupid sort drawn by five year olds, but the its-alive-and-its-real-and-it-beats kind.  Annie’s breath hitched and she took an unsteady step backward.   She couldn’t stop staring at the fist-sized gelatinous mass of muscle that pumped and wobbled.

“I need out,” the low-timbered voice pleaded. “Help me get out.”

She shook her head violently, her own heart pounding a song of fear. “I don’t know how.” And even if she did, no way was she freeing . . . whatever it was.  Not until she knew its true nature.

“My name is Bo,” it said.  “Find Tombi and tell him I live.  He’s in grave danger.  Trust no one within the circle.  I was betrayed.  And if he was ever my true friend, he needs to find that betrayer. I can’t be released until then.”

“I don’t know this Tombi person,” she protested.

“He’s coming now.  Tell him to beware.”

Annie swung her head in all directions but saw and sensed nothing in the shadows.  “Why don’t you tell him yourself?”

“He can’t hear me, witch.  No one ever has but you.”

“Oh,” she breathed.  “That’s why you brought me here.”  It . . . Bo . . .  either knew her grandma or of her reputation.  “I think you want my grandmother, not me.  I’m only here on a visit and—”

“Warn him.”

The light shifted, swirling in individuated sparkles and growing smaller, denser.

“Wait,’ she called out sharply.  “Where are you going?”

But it had vanished.

A man slipped into her presence, silent as a windless sky.  He leaned against a cypress, arms folded, face and body as unyielding and hard as the ancient tree. Eyes and hair were black as the night and the only lightness on his figure was a golden sheen on his face and arms.

Friend or foe?

Silence blanketed her mind.  A condition she normally welcomed, but not now. Where was her accursed ability when she needed it? Not the slightest syllable of sound surrounded the man.

“Who are you?” she asked, hoping her voice didn’t portray fear.

He stepped closer and she willed her feet to remain rooted to the ground, to cloak the fear.

“Who are you?”  His voice was deep, sharp-edged with suspicion.

She’d been wrong.  The golden sheen of his skin wasn’t the only thing that stood out in the darkness.  The man’s eyes radiated a copper glint like an encapsulated sun with rays.  His teeth were white and sharp.

He didn’t wait for an answer.  “Who were you talking to?  There’s no one else out here but us.”

“I was talking to myself,” she lied.  No sense exposing herself to ridicule.

“Roaming the woods alone at night and talking to yourself?” He scowled. “You must be crazy.”

Despite the scowl and rough tone, the icy touch of fear at the base of her spine thawed a bit.  This stranger could think what he wanted about her mental health and lecture her ad nauseum about the idiotic decision to follow the wisp. At least he wasn’t attacking her. If he meant harm, he could have lunged forward and grabbed her by now.

“Yes.” Annie agreed. “I’m totally off my rocker.” Wouldn’t be the first time someone thought that.  “How about being a good Boy Scout and help me find my way home?”

“First tell me your name and why you’re out here.”

“Fine.  My name’s Annie Matthews and I saw a strange light from my bedroom window.  Like an idiot, I decided to check it out. Now can you please get me out of here?”

He stared, those strange copper rays in his irises warming her insides.  Abruptly, he turned his back and stepped away.

What a jerk.  Annie’s lips tightened to a pinched line. “Hey—wait a minute.  Are you going to help me or not?”

The man didn’t even look back, but motioned with an arm for her to follow.

She let out a huge sigh. Jerk or not, her best bet was to follow him out of the swamp. Annie stumbled after him and onto the barest sliver of a trail.  The narrow foot path was canopied by pines and oaks, obscuring the full moon light.  Her toe caught under a tree root and she pitched forward, freefalling.  She braced herself for the impact of packed dirt to face.

Strong arms grabbed the sides of her waist and her chest bumped solid flesh. Annie raised her chin and stared deeply into the brown eyes. “Th-thank you,” she whispered. His hands above her hips held fast, steadying her— burning her. Annie’s hands rested lightly on his chest and she couldn’t move or speak.

A low, thudding bass note, a drumbeat, pounded in her ears. Was it from her heart beating faster, or was sound escaping his controlled aura?

“I forget you can’t see like me.”  He took one of her hands in his.  “Stay close.”

Before she could object, or ask what his remark meant, he pulled her forward.

She should be terrified alone in the woods with a stranger.

But for the first time since hearing the voice inside the wisp, Annie felt safe.

The narrow trail of dense shrubs and overarching tree limbs gave way to a wider, more open trail illuminated by the Thunder Moon. It was as if he were leading her down a silent passage that exited a nightmare.

At the edge of the tree line lay an open field. Weeds and brambles rippled, silver-tipped from moonbeams and glistening like drops of water dancing on waves. A glow flickered in Grandma Tia’s cottage, a lighthouse beam signaling home.

Annie glanced at the man’s chiseled profile. Harsh, fierce even. Handsome seemed too pretty a word to describe him. He was powerful, a force of the night.

“Beyond this field is a dirt road that leads to County Road 143. Know where you are now?”

She laughed, giddy with relief, and pointed to the cottage. “Of course. That’s my grandma’s house. Her name’s Tia Henrietta. Maybe you’ve met her before?”

“The witch in the woods?” Surprise flickered in his eyes. “I should have guessed. Are you one as well?”

She tugged her hand away from his. “No more than you.”

His hand reached out and stroked the red flannel mojo pouch belted at her waist. “What magic is this?”

“Gris-gris bags. My grandma makes them. For protection.”

“Didn’t work, huh?”

“Sure, it did. It brought you to me and then you brought me home.”

His lips curled. “I don’t know what kind of magic your grandmother claims to have, but that pouch didn’t help you when the willow-o’-the-wisp conjured you into the woods.”

“What do you know of them?” she asked, burning with curiosity now the danger had passed.

He ignored her question. “So you followed this light. What happened next?”

She bit her lip. “Looks like I’m the one doing all the talking. How about I tell you one thing, then you tell me one thing?”

He nodded. “Deal.”

“Okay then. The light disappeared a few minutes. When it came back, something inside it spoke.” Annie took a deep breath. This wasn’t easy to talk about. This was partly what alienated her from everyone. The crazy sticker on her forehead.

But the man didn’t flinch. “What did it say?”
Annie hedged. Once again, she was doing most of the talking. “Tell me your name.”

“Tombi. Tombi Silver.”

She inhaled sharply and his eyes narrowed.

“What is it?” he demanded.

“The voice. It mentioned you by name.”

He leaned in and grabbed her arms, not bruising-hard, but enough so that she couldn’t run away. “What. Did. It. Say?”

What the hell. This wouldn’t be the first time she’d been used as a conduit for messages.  Best to relay it and get on with her life. Otherwise, the wisp or spirit or whatever that thing was, would keep appearing in some form or another until it had its way.

“It said you were in great danger and to trust no one, not even in your inner circle. That there’s a betrayer in your ranks and if you were ever his true friend you need to find the betrayer so he can be released.”

She didn’t think it possible the man—Tombi—could look fiercer, but he did.  He let go of her and shook his head.

“No. I don’t believe you.”

Annie hitched her shoulders and raised her palms. “Fine. But that’s what the thing told me.”

“Did it have a name?”

“Bo.”

Ringing flooded Tombi’s ears.  Theres worse things than witches.  Much worse.

“What did Bo say?”

Annie recoiled and he realized he was shouting. With great effort, he toned down the volume of his voice. “Tell me what he said.”

“He’s trapped inside a wisp and wants you to free him.”

Guilt and anger heaved in his stomach.  “I’ve been trying to find him for weeks. Why didn’t he come to me? I was his best friend.”

Bo. His blood brother and childhood comrade. Always reliable. Always quick with the jokes and the laughter. And the only man who could make Tallulah laugh. His sister hadn’t smiled in months. Not since Bo died. Sometimes he wondered if she ever would again.

Was your best friend?” Annie’s eyes rounded. “What happened to him?”

Tombi gritted his teeth. Oh, she looked innocent enough. Standing there in her flower-print T-shirt and drawstring pajama shorts. Brown hair tumbling in waves down to her hips. At first glance, she’d appeared a mere slip of a girl—skinny and all legs.

His eyes shifted to the fullness of her breasts and slight swelling of her hips. Definitely a woman. A very sexy woman. Not that it mattered. Evil spirits roamed in many guises.

“He died. Snake bite.” He watched her closely, checking for signs of guilt or glee.

She shuddered. “That’s horrible.”

“Died right where I found you tonight.”

Annie crossed her arms and looked downward apprehensively. “I hate snakes. Was it a rattler or a water moccasin?”

“Rattler. He died alone out there in the woods.” How many times had he imagined Bo’s horrible death? Imagined him feeling the rapid, burning spread of venom in his veins, knowing he was doomed.

Tombi drew a rasping breath. “He shouldn’t have had to die alone.”

“Nobody should,” she agreed. “How—how did he get trapped in a wisp?”

“You really don’t know?” he asked sharply.

“No.” She squared her shoulders. “I’ve only been out here a few weeks visiting my grandma. Lots of weirdness down here, even more than usual this summer. Stuff I’ve never seen before. Or heard.”

“About what you heard . . . what did Bo say exactly?”

“I told you. There’s a betrayer in your ranks. He wanted me to warn you of danger.”

A likely story. Wasn’t that the way evil sank its fangs into people? It insinuated and manipulated fear and mistrust where none existed. Until you become paranoid and relied only on your own wits for survival. He’d seen it so many times over the few years.

“I don’t believe you.”

She shrugged. “Suit yourself. Don’t shoot me, I’m just the messenger.”

“You always go around hearing voices?” he sneered.

“Yes.”

Her quick, short response surprised him. “You do?”

“You already think I’m a witch so—what the hell—yes, I hear things. Not voices usually.  I hear music around people.”

“Music?” He snorted. What kind of strange magic was this?

Her lips compressed in a thin line. “It’s what drew me to the woods tonight. I heard the most beautiful music—it sounded like fairy bells.”

Tombi considered Annie’s words. “Did you smell anything?”

“Hmm? No. Not unless you count the constant smell of the ocean. Do the wisps have a certain smell?”

“They can. Will-o’-wisps appeal to different people different ways.” With him, they tried to mask their foul odor under the clean, sweet scent of balsam fir. He’d learned not to be drawn in by it.

“Your turn,” she said, casting him a curious look. “What are you doing running around the woods in the middle of the night?”

“Chasing shadows.” A half-truth.

Annie scowled. “Not fair. I answered your questions.”

As if there were anything fair about life.

The silhouette of an old woman appeared at the cottage window. Impossible to see her facial expression from this distance, but the prickling of his forearm skin alerted Tombi that she watched. Somehow, through distance and darkness, the old lady’s eyes clamped upon them.

Witch.

And this Annie girl was Tia Henrietta’s direct descendent. She was a perfect target for the dark spirit ruler and his host of creatures, potentially more valuable than a normal human who possessed no sensory power whatsoever. Had she been tainted yet by evil?  Despite her scowl and crossed arms, she looked as harmless as a kitten with her big, wide eyes and skinny arms and legs.

Dont be fooled by appearances. Tombi met her challenge with evasion. “There’s evil and dark shadows in the bayou that you’ve never imagined. If you’re not part of it, best you don’t learn.”

She cocked her head to one side and stilled, as if listening to something he couldn’t hear.

“What is it?” Tombi asked sharply. “Do you hear something?”

She nodded. “It’s faint, but distinct.”

Could this girl really hear other’s auras? Tombi shifted his feet and concentrated on containing his energy. The only sound in the night was the constant rolling of distant waves and the eternal screech of insects.

“It’s gone now,” Annie said. “But I heard your aura. Finally. I’ve never run across someone that I couldn’t.”

An undertow of intrigue tugged his mind. “Well? What do I sound like to you?”

“Drumming. A deep bass note. Steady as a heartbeat.”

He studied the delicate features of her face, the heart-shaped chin, small nose and wide brown eyes beneath arched brows. Air charged between them, a sexual energy that rolled over him in unexpected waves of desire. The jackhammer beating of his heart exploded through his normal wall of self-control. The darkening of Annie’s brown eyes said she heard it. Her gaze dropped to his lips and Tombi leaned in . . .

“Annie?”

The old lady’s voice cut through the night. It felt like ice water dousing his fevered skin.  At the cottage, Annie’s grandmother leaned her considerable girth half out of the window.

“Whatcha doin’ out there? Who’s that with ya?” she yelled.

Soft, moist heat brushed his left jaw. Startled, his gaze returned to Annie.

“Thank you for bringing me home.” Her voice was breathless and her hair was tousled and wild. She stretched up on tiptoes and planted another quick, chaste kiss on his cheek. “I have to go now.”

Annie ran through the moon-silvered field and he followed her slight figure until she entered the cottage. Bemused, he lifted a hand and traced his chin and jaw where her lips had momentarily caressed his skin. The memory of those quick kisses left him feeling anything but chaste. Why had she kissed him?

The light in the cottage blinked out but Tombi lingered, reluctant to resume his hunt. For a small interlude, Annie had pricked through his armor, had touched something deep inside.

Bewitched him.

Copyright © 2016 by Debbie Herbert
Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A.