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.
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-people did.
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 got this.”
He glanced over his shoulder and smiled. "
I frowned. “Why don’t you open it?”
“Because you’ll like what’s in it.”
I sniffed the envelope. “It’s not non-scent meat, is it?”
“Open it and see.”
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’t you?”
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 full moon.”
I glared at him. “I was just a later-bloomer, that’s all. It’s not my fault I wasn’t born in this town.”
He piled the bacon onto two plates and slid one in front of me with a wink. “I think you’re catching up pretty well.”
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 girl does?”
“You’re still going to have to wait.”
I slumped my shoulders and took a hefty bite of bacon. “You’re going to be the death of me, you know that, don’t you?”
He leaned forward and pecked a kiss on my lips. “I expect it. A mating’s for life.”
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, were you?”
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 to it.”
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 to be.”
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 hurried over.
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 help her?”
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 with her?”
The woman stroked Genevieve’s forehead. “She will sleep for a while, but when she awakes she will be her human self.”
Her father started back. “Not. . .not her shifter self?”
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 asked her.
Genevieve’s mother grasped the woman’s arm. “Will she be okay?”
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 very soon.”