Safe Travels/Heart Stone AVAILABLE NOW and…Fight like a girl!

Current events IRL changed my 2015 game plan so…Act One: Safe Travels of For Whom the Heart Stone Burns is AVAILABLE NOW at Amazon and ARe (& soon at Barnes & Noble)!

SafeTravels

Becket built his life around unbelief in the magic Theo, his uncle and guardian, had devoted his all to…until Theo vanished. Grief-stricken, Becket followed Theo’s clues, sending him through a stone grid to Ket. With no magical ability, Becket must find Theo in a land where dragons roam the lowlands and magic evolved in men and women who aren’t apex predators and have settled in high aeries to survive.

Locating his uncle, however, is the easy part. Becket is a bibelot – non-magical. And Theo is recovering from a wild magic storm that hit his expedition to the lowlands. He can’t control his power.

They can’t go home.

Elders will permit a second expedition and Theo’s sole hope of obtaining frequency stone to stabilize his magic, but only if he allows seers to scry Becket’s sentinel first. Too bad the protector scried for Becket is Theo’s rival in this strange otherworld, another caster named Kellan Fik. And Kellan knows Theo and Becket aren’t what they seem.

Handfasting his enemy may be Becket’s best and only chance.

I’m currently working Act Two: New Beginnings so that’s still coming on or very near my original plan to release Act One at the end of May. (Basically, I shifted the timeline for this project forward a couple months). Act Three will roll out when it’s ready, my target for that being this fall since it’s so dreadful long. For all of you who’ve wondered if I’m capable of producing a sequel? I’ve discovered that when I work a minimum of one book ahead and throw in an abundance of glorious woo-woo, I’m all over that shit, LOL. Those of you not pleased about getting this in three acts…Honestly, the story is so massive I couldn’t do it in one go without entering the Land of Precious and reining as queen. Heart Stone was always going to be divided, just a matter of how I split it, where, and why. As Heart Stone has been plotted, these manageable chunks were logical to me, creatively on point, and avoided the story becoming pretentiously long and unwieldy.

So! I hope you enjoy the start of Becket’s journey with Kellan!

In other news and very much on the personal front…

I want to emphasize I AM OKAY. I’m not in pain or anything like that. I’ve been doing extremely & shockingly good and that’s the God’s honest truth. That said…I’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer, a very aggressive one, so my treatment (which I’m well into at this point) is likewise aggressive. My BC showed up during self-exams between regular mammograms – plain old bad luck, guys. That’s all this is. Everything that can be done is being done, though, and my chances are G-R-E-A-T! I’m still me too. Upbeat. Scrappy. Cracking jokes and looking for the adventure in every single day. I don’t – and won’t – give up. Ever. Don’t you dare give up on me, either. I WILL BEAT THIS!

While I do, if you’d add me & my family to your prayers and wing positive energy & kind thoughts my way, that would mean the world to me. Please don’t be sad. If I can be positive, you can too, I promise. I’ve officially declared myself a YOU CAN DO EET zone of upbeat happy! Fun socks, purple wigs (!!!with dreds!!!), and all manner of random absurdity abound! I will be – and already have been – the most fabulous patient my medical team has ever seen. Same ole Kari: SHAMELESS FUN IS MINE, ALL MINE. :D :D :D

As for work…I’m not disappearing. This is not goodbye. I’ll still be around, writing and updating as I can. In the meantime, I’m fighting like a girl – a redneck girl who fights dirty. And cheats. ;-p

My love to you all,
Kari

p.s. If you want to do something for me, seriously, prayer and kind thoughts are numero uno on my list. I don’t like to be preachy, never thought that was appropriate for me in this space, but IRL, I’m quite devout. Liberal, LOL, but devout. Prayer and positive energy – my daughter’s Pagan boss has been doing some sort of altar thingie for me and I’m sure not too proud to say HELL YES to any perky boost I can get! – all of that genuinely does mean a great deal to me. Otherwise…The best gifty you can give me is to schedule any overdue mammograms and self-examine every month without fail. Mark this day on your calendar, if that’s what it takes, but GROPE YOUR BOOBS, LADIES! I’m laughing, yeah, but not really joking here. Do it now. Do it TODAY. Learn what is normal for you and if you notice anything even slightly amiss, I want you to leave skid marks on the asphalt on your way to your mammo clinic. You are never, ever, ever too busy to (potentially) save your life! I should know. Zero bullshit, routine mammos & self-exams just saved mine.

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Heart Stone, Chapter Four

SafeTravelsClick on the fabulous cover Lou Harper created for me above or click here to jump to the Heart Stone hub page on my website to catch up on chapters 1-3!

Chapter Four

The room Becket entered was as barren and lifeless as Toreth’s room lower in the aerie, this space remarkable only for the entire opposite wall, which opened to a smaller version of the terraces Becket and Toreth had scaled to reach Theo. Standing columns dotted this far narrower lip of jutting rock, each pillar alive with sprouting herbs. A slight breeze brought the zesty fragrance of basil to Becket, a chill whisper that rustled the hair at his temples.

Becket furrowed his brow and narrowed his eyes. He squinted. No, not herbs. Not an assortment, as in a kitchen garden. Only two varieties, rosemary and basil, filled the scant space with green. A crop then and no one was in a better position than Becket to comprehend why certain herbs tended to be grown in such abundance. The hairs on Becket’s arms stood on end at the evidence of witchery—Theo’s stubborn magic. And beyond the columns, the sheer drop of the mountain’s face revived Becket’s earlier vertigo in the span of a heartbeat.

No power in heaven or on earth—or Ket—could compel him to go farther.

Disconcerted, he stepped to the side, shuffling to the right with his spine pressed to the rear wall. Brazen, Toreth stalked in and jerked short when his grip on Becket’s hand yanked him to a halt. He glanced over his shoulder and then rolled his eyes. “Is it cold? Like before?” Toreth asked as Master Seer Hannick followed them into Theo’s quarters.

“No,” Becket replied, puzzled because he’d been on terraces like this one only moments ago. The exertion of climbing the spiral staircases had warmed him, but even with the rising of the sun, the outside temperatures still should’ve been bone-chilling, not this cool draft. He studied the missing wall separating the interior space from the lush herb towers. “Not glass,” he decided.

“Ignorant of permeable barriers. That’s shocking, even for the lowlands.” Hannick smiled rapaciously as she perched on what looked like an extremely uncomfortable stone chair sculpted from the underlying rock floor.

Ignoring the seer, Toreth tugged Becket from the safety of the rear wall. “You know these plants, yes? They are powerful, but benign,” he said, voice cajoling. “These terraces are for the use of private casters and so are narrower than farming terraces below. That can be unsettling, but I’ve your hand. I promise not to release it. You won’t accidentally fall through.”

“I’m not scared,” Becket said, but he resisted Toreth’s pull.

“Of course, he won’t be allowed through. No one without the caster’s heart stone can breach that barrier,” Hannick said, tone waspish and then her breath caught. Her lavender eyes widened as she peered from Becket to another doorway leading deeper into Theo’s quarters. “That’s what I sensed, the warble from Douglas’ heart stone…and nothing else,” she said slowly. “Interesting.”

Toreth didn’t smother his wince fast enough to escape Becket’s notice. “It’s all right,” Toreth said to Becket, his assurance quavering only a little. “Come.”

Becket shivered, not from the cold this time, but from the predatory scrutiny of the seer. He stiffly allowed Toreth to guide him to a couch formed from the underlying rock several comforting yards from whatever separated the interior room from the outside cold and the herbs inexplicably thriving in it. Never relinquishing Becket’s hand, Toreth sat and Becket sank down beside him. Fat cushions and swaths of a thick, silky fabric draped the stone, relieving the ascetic severity of his seat.

“How old are you?” Hannick demanded, her intent regard fixed squarely on Becket.

“We await Caster Douglas.” Squeezing Becket’s hand, Toreth smiled at the seer. “As elder kinsman, formal introductions are his right.”

“Not if the boy is a bibelot past his majority, it isn’t.” Hannick leaned forward, strange eyes sparkling malicious delight.

“Becket?” a shocked gasp rang out.

Becket sprang to his feet, pivoting to face the source of that voice, so dear to him. Uncle Theo gaped from the doorway leading deeper into his quarters. His hair, always shaggy, had grown in the past year, a wealth of skinny russet braids surrounding his unnaturally pale face and falling just past his shoulders. He’d lost weight, a lot of it, the sacrifice bringing forward sharply angled cheekbones and amplifying the jut of his dimpled chin, his pallor painting the freckles across his nose in stark relief. Becket had never believed he resembled his uncle, consoling himself instead by the thought of vaguely favoring his father, but with the extra padding gone, Becket couldn’t deny gazing at Theo was as good as looking in a mirror.

An opulent mirror.

While Becket’s clothing, stolen from Theo’s last consignment, boasted the embroidered flourishes Toreth’s plainer wardrobe lacked, Becket’s ill-fitting tunic and leggings were rags compared to Theo. Citrines glinted at the collar, cuffs and the waist of a supple yellow tunic cinched with a stamped leather belt. His leggings were a richer shade of gold studded with chips of blue agate along the outer leg seams. Intricate loops and curls in white and chocolate brown thread ornamented spacing between the gemstones of both garments. Beneath the tunic, Theo’s shirt—silk rather than linen—glared white as snow, sleeves billowing at his biceps and narrowing to a point where circlets of twined rosemary hugged his wrists.

Despite the strange dress and the worn lines etching his face, this was Theo, though.

Alive!

As giddy relief consumed Becket, his uncle swayed slightly. A woman a full head shorter emerged behind Theo from the other room and grasped Theo’s elbow to support him.

“Uncle,” Becket said. Toreth, too, stood and angled his body, placing himself between Becket and Theo, to Becket’s exasperation. “Are you okay?” Becket asked around Toreth’s intruding bulk, though Becket could see Theo wasn’t okay at all. “Theo?” he asked when his uncle just gawped at him. Becket stepped forward to cross the room to him. Would have if Toreth hadn’t halted him with an iron hand at his bicep. “Damn it, let go,” he told Toreth.

“No, he’s right,” Theo’s companion said, looping an arm around Theo’s waist to guide him to a thick pile of pillows mounded on the stone floor next to the doorway. She lifted her mouth to whisper in Theo’s ear and round-eyed gaze never faltering from Becket, Theo nodded.

“I thought you were without kin or hold?” Hannick said suspiciously.

“A necessary subterfuge,” Theo said, words stilted as he allowed the dark-haired woman to seat him near the distant doorway. “Thank you, Analise,” he said to her and squaring his shoulders, faced the seer. “Life for my ward is dangerous and travel without an escort especially so,” he said to Hannick. His hard stare abruptly focused on Becket. “Fraught with hazards he is hardly capable of understanding.”

Becket’s spine stiffened. He refused to be cowed by Theo’s glower. “I—”

“—cautioned him to remain silent of our connection,” Theo said in a growled warning. “My journey to the aeries was necessary to make my fortune and thereby secure his future, but protected only by my heart stone, he didn’t dare reveal our kinship, nor could I. Until we reunited, Becket was safe only as long as he stayed unknown and hidden.” Theo laughed dispiritedly. He rubbed his eyes. Shot Becket a frustrated glance. “Didn’t I tell you not to follow me?”

“You vanished, Theo,” Becket said, his irritation seeping into his voice. Still, Theo was here, heart beating, blood still pumping. Annoying, pushy, arrogant. But alive. “I was coping with it,” he said, the aching loss of that yet sharp within him. “I would’ve coped,” he said, swallowing the lump forming in his throat, “if I hadn’t found the second set of stones. Once I realized…suspected you might not have been…You aren’t dead. As long as you aren’t dead, you don’t get to ask me to stay away.”

Theo snorted. “I didn’t ask.”

“How old is he?” Hannick demanded again.

Toreth’s grip on Becket tightened.

“Tell her,” Theo said, shoulders bunching.

Vague alarm coiled inside him, but Becket turned to the seer. “Twenty-three.”

“The season?”

Baffled, Becket glanced at Theo who gritted his teeth and said, “He was born in the spring.”

She smiled gloating satisfaction. “Perfect.”

Something forbidding and feral glinted in his uncle’s eyes, a flash Becket had never seen before. “He isn’t ready,” Theo said. “He’s going home.”

“The first bibelot Nitcha aerie has produced in nine seasons squandered on the lowlands?” Hannick laughed. “Hardly.”

Theo pushed to his feet, his body vibrating with anger.

Toreth shoved Becket behind him and carefully back-stepped, herding Becket from the brewing confrontation that had balled Becket’s gut. “If I tell you to drop, don’t question it,” Toreth hissed to Becket. “Hit the floor.”

“I said he’s going home,” Theo said, fists at his sides.

The air seemed to have been sucked from the room, replaced by an electric zing of menace, but the seer calmly stood. “Master your magic, Caster Douglas.”

“Yes, do sit down, Theodore. You’ve destroyed this room twice already and I tire of clearing it,” Analise said, returning with a tray bearing four squat cups smelling strongly of pine and honey. ”Also, I suspect you desire to keep the boy intact and losing control of your power would needlessly risk him. Fyrre?” she asked sweetly, presenting her tray to the seer.

Theo grimaced.

Hannick, however, preened and accepted one of the cups. “Your minder is a treasure,” she said, admiration lacing her voice. She sipped the drink and hummed in gratification. “Truly a credit to her craft.”

“Minding a caster so powerful is my honor and pleasure,” Analise said, black braids colored with crimson streaks briefly veiling her serene features when she dipped her head in recognition of the compliment. “The aftereffects of his brush with wild magic, while troubling, are temporary—and fading if Caster Douglas is not vexed apurpose.” Her smile charmed the sting from the subtle rebuke. With both parties thus chastised, she crossed the room to offer the tray to Toreth. “Set yourself to minding the boy, have you?”

Chuckling, Toreth selected a cup from the tray and deftly passed it to Becket behind his back. “When his time comes, the caster—and bibelot—chooses his minder. It doesn’t work the other way around,” Toreth said, taking his own cup. “Everyone knows that.”

“And he’s chosen you,” she said. Heat leached from the contents, warming the thick stone cup in Becket’s hand while Analise nodded to Theo, seething on the other side of the room. “He’ll appreciate the significance once he’s calmed.” She ducked around Toreth to smile at Becket. “Drink up, sweetling, and don’t let your kinsman’s bad temper taint your reunion. Theodore worried for you and missed you terribly.”

“But what—?” Becket started to ask, but was silenced by another tightening of Toreth’s hand over his.

“Hush,” Toreth murmured.

“Fuck you,” Becket said. “I want answers.”

Toreth glowered, his grasp on Becket’s wrist like steel manacles. “Then, listen. Pay attention.”

Snickering, Analise rushed to serve Theo.

“You are too much under the sway of wild magic to be properly matched. Of that, we are of one accord,” Hannick said, her spine rigid but her tone measurably more conciliatory. “But the boy is ripe, his majority perilously close. Obviously, he’s chosen his minder—Don’t begrudge me my desire to scry his sentinel; I didn’t write the covenants.”

“No, you merely take advantage of them,” Theo said, drinking from his steaming cup.

“Let’s not waste time on lies. You represent the elders.”

Hannick arched an eyebrow. “By the horn, you are blunt,” she said. “But I’ve been told that of you. Very well.” She lifted her cup to her lips and sipped. “You know I cannot leave your quarters without winning your guarantee…” She smiled waspishly. “…to Nitcha, of course.”

Theo grudgingly saluted her with his cup. “To Nitcha.”

“Which the elders serve,” Hannick averred. “As do we all.”

Foreboding shivered down Becket’s spine.

“Drink,” Toreth urged him. “Fyrre will warm and steady you.”

“I don’t want it,” Becket objected.

Toreth scowled at him, as though the implied importance of Becket’s wishes confounded him.

“Your magic is too erratic to be joined to an appropriate helpmeet so we must have the boy. The covenants require him to be handfasted by spring, anyway. In making his announcement now, you will declare Nitcha as your adopted home and the elders will be content,” the woman said, intractable. “We are not, however, without sympathy for your plight. Or lacking in generosity.” She drained her cup. She settled it at her feet and the smile she offered Theo didn’t reach her eyes. “In exchange, the elders will grant your petition to mount another expedition. But your hearth must be declared with Nitcha first.”

Theo jerked to attention. “A second expedition? You’ll support it?”

Shoulders squared, spine ramrod stiff, Hannick nodded. “With no less than four support casters under your supervision and a company of heroes, each fully blooded.”

“What?” Becket demanded at Toreth’s swiftly indrawn breath.

“Drink your fyrre,” the man irritably said. “It grows tepid.”

“I want to know what’s going on. I’m not a child.”

“Then stop acting like one. Drink.”

He pushed the cup into the small of Toreth’s back. “You drink it.”

“For God’s sake, Becket, it’s just pine tea and an excellent source of Vitamin C, which—if you’ve been here long—your body sorely needs. Unless you’d like to add a case of scurvy to the complications heaped on my plate,” Theo said and then returned his wary gaze to the seer. “What’s the catch?”

“Aside of handfasting your ward to his sentinel?” the seer primly asked.

Theo waved a delusory hand. “Yes, besides that.”

Handfasting? Sentinel? Becket hurriedly gulped his tea, elbowing Toreth. “What’s a sentinel?” he whispered.

Toreth’s glance at Hannick was glacial with contempt. But also leery. “Later.”

Unaware—or uncaring—of Becket’s quiet exchange with Toreth, the seer leaned back in the chair, fingers steepling at her waist. “A trio of scouts to forage and gather seedlings will accompany you, headed by Caster Farendel.” She licked her lips. “She was quite perturbed she didn’t number among your last exploration party.”

Theo laughed. “She should be glad of that, considering how the expedition ended.” He curved the corner of his mouth to flash a wry grin, his first genuine display of emotion to the seer thus far. “Farendel’s no fool. If she’s determined to bear the risks and is willing to leave mineral discoveries to me, all right. Done.”

Only the jolt of Hannick’s hands in her lap betrayed her surprise. “Truly?”

“I have conditions as well.”

Hannick twisted her mouth to a polite smile. “Go on.”

“I lead the team.”

“Naturally.”

“Including the heroes,” Theo added, his gaze guarded but resolved. “They follow my command and no other.”

The seer inhaled a deep breath, released it. “That can be arranged.”

“Caster Douglas,” Toreth said. Just that. Only that. His call was even, his voice modulated and smooth. His grip on Becket even loosened.

Theo nodded, as if he’d anticipated Toreth’s interference. “I know,” he said to Toreth, giving Becket scant attention before refocusing on Hannick. “I have conditions for scrying Becket’s sentinel as well.”

Her mouth pursed. “Elder kinsman traditionally do,” she said, though the tightening of her jaw proved her far less eager to barter matters pertaining to Becket than those involving whatever adventure his uncle had set his heart on.

Smile cagy, Theo leaned back and regarded the seer over his cup with frank calculation. “I swore promises to his sire before he and the boy’s mother crossed over, when Becket was just a child. Blood oaths.”

Challenge lit Hannick’s lavender gaze. “No seer would risk the ill luck of defying such a vow.”

Theo grinned his triumph. “As Becket chose his minder, he must also select his sentinel.”
Her lips pressed into a thin, disapproving line. “Of course, he’ll choose of his own volition. We aren’t lowland outlaws or Rithuan savages,” she said, voice tight. “No bibelot—or any citizen of Nitcha—opposing his or her handfasting has ever been forced.” She shuddered, but Becket interpreted it as a signal of her outrage at her questioned professional integrity rather than abhorrence of what she protested. “Scrying for the strongest possibilities of a successful match is a very specialized skill, an art…” She squawked, hands rising in ire.

“Becket chose his minder outside his home and hearth in the lowlands, independent of his kinhold,” Theo said. “He must be permitted to choose his sentinel free of such obligations as well.”

Hannick chopped a hand through the air. “I’ll open the candidate pool to one or more of our allies, but only if a suitable mate isn’t found for him at Nitcha first.”

Becket’s eyebrows winged up, shock exploding inside him.

Mate?

“I disagree.” Theo lazily tipped his head. “A sentinel from Melaeum, for example, would be most fortuitous.”

“M-mate?” Becket mumbled faintly, pulse buzzing in his ears.

“Shh,” Toreth said.

The seer angled her head, regarding Theo with new appreciation. Her blonde hair and purple wrapped braids caught the first beams of the fully risen sun through the non-window wall. “Yes,” she said on a long drawl. “They are rather put out about your trade in herbs, aren’t they?”

Theo spread his hands. “Confirming the Melaeum alliance with a handfasting of my kin to those whose business I may have damaged could soothe those ruffled feathers.”

“The elders will be pleased with your cooperation and forethought in this matter.” Hannick shot to her feet, her excitement demonstrated by her sly wink at Theo. “I must at least try to match him at Nitcha. The elders would expect that, but I’m sure I’ll find more fertile ground for him elsewhere.” She marched to Toreth and held out her hand, palm up. “His heart stone.”

Toreth pivoted to Becket.

“Oh hell no,” Becket said, hands raising to press the rose master stone into his sternum under both shirt and tunic.

“Take it. Quickly,” his uncle said. He nodded at the windowless wall to the terrace. “We’re losing the light.”

* * *

Becket was young, but he was healthy. Fit. And taller than every person in the room. So it took all four of them to wrestle the milky rose master stone from him. Panting, glaring at Theo for his betrayal, Becket brushed himself off as he pushed up from the floor while Hannick dropped the heart stone into the sunken pool of water. “Get away from me,” Becket said, slapping away the supporting hand Toreth offered him. He glowered at Toreth when the man had the audacity to look hurt by his rejection.

“Shut it, kiddo,” Theo said and then peered down and into the water with the seer.

“Mugwort?”

“Also camphor and catnip,” she responded, drawing out a small leather pouch tied to the belt cinching her tunic. “I’ve already mixed the herbs.”

“Fresh is better,” his uncle said. “Analise?”

Theo’s companion returned from the next room with a bowl filled with sprigs thick with green leaves. She passed the herbs to Hannick who quickly assessed each, rejecting some and crumpling others in her fist before casting them into the water with Becket’s stone. “Releases the plant’s essence,” Analise said in an undertone to Toreth who, abandoning Becket, had approached the others kneeling at the pool.

The seer, Toreth, Analise, and Theo leaned over the water expectantly.

More woo woo. Fantastic. Becket pressed his lips firmly together and examined the tear in his leggings, originally rented as he’d scaled the terraces to the top hold, now ripped wider after the scuffle over the stupid stone. The scrapes on his palms hurt too.

“The outcomes aren’t as clear as I’d like for him in Nitcha in any case,” Hannick said. “No need for subterfuge about widening the search, after all.”

“Melaeum?” Theo prompted.

“Melaeum,” she answered and reached for more herbs.

“This is bullshit,” Becket said, raising his hand to hook a finger into the fairy stone Toreth had tied to his throat.

“Don’t,” the man shouted and jerked upright, as though he felt the danger of the second stone’s removal like the throb of a phantom limb.

“Why the hell not?” Becket snarled, fed up with all of it. With Theo and rock climbing. Uncomfortable clothes and foods he only partially recognized. But especially with infernal God damn magic. He anchored his finger in the cord fastening the fairy stone to him and tugged the cord taut in threat. “This isn’t for good luck, is it?”

“No, it isn’t.” Color draining from his face, Toreth shook his head. “At least, not entirely.”

“Why?” Becket persisted, ignoring Theo and the seer at the pool. “Why bother with a lie to convince me to wear it in the first place?”

“You’re a bibelot,” Toreth said, pushing to his feet. “Bibelots don’t understand magic.”

Becket gritted his teeth. “Try me.”

“All right.” Toreth blew out a stuttered breath. “Without my sigil, you would’ve never been able to pass through the wards my kin cast around the farm terraces below to keep out intruders,” Toreth said, palms raised as he inched toward Becket. “I share their blood so the wards accept me, but not you. With that stone, my kinhold’s magic accepted you as an extension of me and let you pass.”

“Bibelots must not be as stupid as you believe because I comprehended that.”

“You are very strange. Even for a bibelot.”

“Remember that.”

“Release my sigil and I swear I will.”

“But I’m not on the lower terraces anymore.” Becket tightened the pressure, the cord biting into the meat of his finger. “I shouldn’t need your fairy stone and your borrowed magic now.” Satisfaction bloomed when Toreth halted, strain stiffening his body. “You still aren’t telling me the truth.”

“You have more than enough power, as is.” Toreth glared. “And you are shockingly perceptive for a bibelot.”

Yeah, he was so powerful, he hadn’t even managed to hang onto his other stone. “I want answers.”

“Carrying a trace of his magic—accepting his gift—shows you’ve chosen him as your minder,” Analise answered, shifting to stand by Toreth. “He wouldn’t have been able to enter these quarters without it.”

Replaying the win/win deal he’d struck with Toreth in his mind, Becket appraised Analise. “If I remove it, you’ll kick him out.”

“Caster Douglas will.” At Becket’s incredulous stare, Analise shrugged. “Theodore has been ill, but he’s not without his resources. If you wish your minder gone, take off his sigil and he will be no bother to you anymore.”

Still exerting pressure on the cord holding the fairy stone to his throat, Becket transferred his attention to Toreth whose returning stare and the proud set of his shoulders reflected only steady resolve. Wasn’t the man still a little concerned that Becket might renege on his end of their bargain now that Becket knew? “You lied to me.”

“Only by omission,” Toreth said. “I fulfilled our agreement by delivering you to your kinsman. As I said I would.”

“You were guaranteed a position in the top hold as soon as you put the rock around my neck. Why did you let me believe I had any sway over that? Or anything to barter with you for bringing me to Theo that was of real value?”

“You have sway. You can remove my sigil whenever you please,” Toreth said, “and trust me, its presence around your neck is very valuable to me.”

Behind him, Theo and Hannick talked in quiet voices, their business with the water apparently finished. Becket’s rosy stone lay in a puddle on the edge of the small pool. “I’ll fly to Melaeum and if Caster Fik is agreeable, return with him as quickly as possible,” the seer said.

Theo squared his shoulders. “I’ll need time to procure him a proper wardrobe—”

“You have until tomorrow,” Hannick said, rising from her knees. “If Caster Fik a disagreeable or doesn’t appeal to the boy, I’ll widen my cast to other potential sentinel matches, but the elders will accept no further delays. No need to rush the handfasting—a troth announcing the joining of your ward with Fik will suffice.”

“I won’t force a decision he’ll have a lifetime to regret,” Theo said.

“Troths have been severed before.” The seer fluttered indifferent fingers. “As long as the pledge declares your hearth with Nitcha, preparations for your expedition can begin immediately thereafter.”

Becket reappraised Toreth, who at least wasn’t setting him up with a mate. Becket lowered his hand from the fairy stone, disgruntled when Toreth appeared not surprised in the least by this move. The man had gotten Beck to Theo. “A deal’s a deal,” Becket said.

Master Seer Hannick beamed at Becket. “Exactly.”

Theo glared at the seer and Toreth both. “A deal is a deal only when the terms continue to benefit all parties.”

While Analise and Theo escorted the woman to the door, Toreth joined Becket by the rock couch. He frowned at Becket’s injured hands. Stripping off the fingerless gloves, Toreth guided him to the pool of water to rinse the shallow scrapes. He dropped the string weighted by Theo’s stone over Becket’s head and tucked the still-damp rock under his clothes to return it to the naked skin above Becket’s heart while his uncle made his polite farewells to the master seer. “What is a minder?” Becket finally asked.

Toreth glanced under his lashes at the exiting seer before returning to his task of setting Becket to rights, now rolling Becket’s gloves back down his hands and forearms. “A partner, of sorts. Minders care for and support casters in all things. Bibelots too.” His lips curved to a small grin. “As your minder, my duty is to you and to you alone. I ensure your well-being and the most advantageous circumstances for us both.”

“And a sentinel?”

Bemused, Toreth shook his head. “The same.”

“Liar,” Becket said. “You’re laughing at me.”

“Yes, I’m sorry.” Supporting Becket’s injured hands, Toreth rose and helped Becket to his feet as well. “Amusement is a much more comfortable response than fear.”

Becket blinked at him, consternation replacing his irritation. “Fear?”

“You terrify him,” Analise said, rejoining them.

Toreth squeezed both of Becket’s wrists, a self-castigating smile gracing his lips. “Utterly.”

“Good.” Theo said, stalking to them, the frailty he’d shown the seer replaced by rigid ill temper now that she’d gone. He glared at Toreth. “Give me one reason why I shouldn’t throw you over the edge,” he demanded, a tip of his chin indicating the narrow terrace planted with basil and rosemary.

“He chose me?” Toreth said, his own sneer returning. “Or does a bibelot’s free will count for nothing?”

“Lay off, Theo. He knows,” Becket interrupted, glancing pointedly at Toreth. “About me. He knows.”

“Suspects,” Toreth corrected.

“All the greater motive to toss him down the mountain,” Theo replied, startling when Analise intertwined her fingers with his. “What?”

“Your magic,” she said with a tight smile. “Your control is slipping.”

Toreth had already guided Becket several steps in retreat.

Theo watched Toreth again angle his body between Becket and Theo. “Oh,” he said, his brow furrowing as he considered Toreth again, his green eyes glittering with curiosity instead of hostility. “Well. Hm.”

Becket shoved Toreth aside, though he only managed to dislodge Toreth’s surprisingly steady bulk a little. Enough to spy his uncle staring at Toreth, at least. “He brought me to you. I owe him,” Becket said, ignoring the nervous jangle in his stomach when Toreth clasped Becket’s hand. “We do.”

“The bibelot chooses his minder,” Analise said.

“Or hers,” Theo grumbled.

Analise calmly nodded. “Or hers.” She winked at Toreth. “He is your Becket’s choice.”

Theo grunted. “He can fetch the kiddo decent clothes to wear to meet his sentinel then.”

“And my trunk,” Becket said. “I brought things from home.”

“Gods help us,” Theo said and arched an eyebrow at Toreth. “I suppose, if I have to put up with you, I should know your name.”

Hand clasped with Becket, Toreth bent formally at the waist. “Toreth.”

“Your kinhold?”

“None that claim me.”

“Of course not.” With his free hand, Theo rubbed his temple and winced. He glared at Becket rather than Toreth, though, which was somewhat of an improvement. “Be glad I like you. Very glad.”

“Or you’ll taunt me into joining your woo woo,” Becket said, his stunned disbelief at where the past days had taken him overriding everything else, “where you’ll mate me to some stranger I’ve never laid eyes on so you can go look for more fucking rocks?”

“Oh, I do like him.” Analise laughed, her unencumbered arm holding her stomach as she guffawed. “He’s not as stupid as he looks.”

“Thanks,” Becket said in wry acknowledgment. “I think.”

* ~ * ~ *

A little early, but didn’t think anyone would mind. ;-)

Hope you’re getting on your Irish (or by all means, borrow some of my Irish) and enjoyed Becket’s adventure and discoveries on Ket! Chapter Five will come at Easter — or if I get busy during that holiday too, Easter-ish, LOL.

HAPPY ST. PATRICK’S DAY!

Kari

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Heart Stone, Chapter Three!

Happy Valentine’s Day! If you’ve missed the first 2 chapters of Act I: Safe Travels of For Whom the Heart Stone Burns (aka “The Opus”) you’ll find them posted in the Heart Stone Hub.

Since we last visited Becket, I pleaded most shamelessly for the highly talented Lou Harper to create a lovely, Lovely, LOVELY cover for my beloved opus, which she did, delivering something completely fabulous, just lookee!

SafeTravelsI’m in lurv — LOL. Thanks again, Lou! You are truly one in a million. :D

And because I went to the trouble of begging and pleading for the cover, I’d figured I’d best get off my duff about slapping together some sort of blurb for my beloved opus so:

Becket built his life around unbelief in the magic Theo, his uncle and guardian, had devoted his all to…until Theo vanished. Grief-stricken, Becket followed Theo’s clues, sending him through a stone grid to Ket. With no magical ability, Becket must find Theo in a land where dragons roam the lowlands and magic evolved in men and women who aren’t apex predators and have settled in high aeries to survive.

Locating his uncle, however, is the easy part. Becket is a bibelot – non-magical. And Theo is recovering from a wild magic storm that hit his expedition to the lowlands. He can’t control his power.

They can’t go home.

Elders will permit a second expedition and Theo’s sole hope of obtaining frequency stone to stabilize his magic, but only if he allows seers to scry Becket’s sentinel first. Too bad the protector scried for Becket is Theo’s rival in this strange otherworld, another caster named Kellan Fik. And Kellan knows Theo and Becket aren’t what they seem.

While Becket travels to Kellan’s home in the tree canopy of Melaeum, Theo ventures to the lowlands for frequency stone, but reports of disaster come quickly.

Handfasting his enemy may be Becket’s last chance.

Goodness gracious alive, this set-up business is taking FOREVER. Okay, here’s the deal. I’m uploading the 6 chapters of Act 1: Safe Travels of the opus (oops, sorry, I mean, For Whom the Heart Stone Burns) on my website on holidays leading up to Beltane, May 1st. Chapter One was uploaded Christmas Day. Chapter Two was uploaded New Year’s Day. So if you haven’t caught either of those yet, just click on the links cause otherwise, Chapter Three below (and now included in the Heart Stone Hub here) might be a tad confusing. You can look forward to Chapter 4 on St. Patrick’s Day. Chapter 5 will be uploaded at Easter and finally, Chapter 6 and the end of Act 1: Safe Travels will go live on Beltane, May 1st. That’s about 32K of free altogether, but I’ve been in a very wtf-ever mood lately so…why the hell not? LOL.

All that said, here’s the next bits of Becket’s adventures (and misadventures) — I hope you’re enjoying your holiday and this trip of mine into freebie crazytown. ;-)

My love to you all,
Kari

Chapter Three

A day passed while Becket waited for Toreth to scheme a means of sneaking Becket from Toreth’s room in the burrows of Nitcha to Theo in the top hold. “I can’t march you through the aerie and unbind the entrance of a top holder’s quarters,” Toreth grumbled into a bowl of thin soup flavored with chunks of unidentifiable root vegetables, a pebble-sized grain that tasted strongly of pine nuts, and crumbled basil Becket had shared from his trunk. “Even had I the power to gainsay a top holder’s protective wards, you can’t appear in public areas.” Toreth glared at him, as though all of this was Becket’s fault. “No low holder could resist the temptation. You would be handfasted or dead before we climbed the first spiral.”

“You resisted,” Becket pointed out.

“I am no typical low holder. Your presence proves that. I can cast.” Toreth’s brows lowered, a thunderous growl working from his chest. “You fouled the summoning at the last, but I managed the necessary magic.”

“You pulled me into your circle,” Becket agreed, focusing on his dinner. “I wouldn’t be here, if not for you,” he added to ensure Toreth knew exactly where Becket assigned the blame for his predicament.

“Goddess knows where you would’ve presented if I hadn’t cast widely.” Toreth flicked his braid over his shoulder, irritated lines bracketing both side of his mouth. “And you were supposed to be a demon.”

Becket’s total void of demon ancestry had been an endless source of annoyance to Toreth, almost as problematic as Becket’s lack of magic. “Get me to Theo and I’ll guarantee your entry to the top hold, no matter whose fault the wrecked summoning was.”

Over the past day, Becket had learned a great deal about his host. For one, until Becket had intruded into Toreth’s circle, Toreth had worked as a miner, the lowest strata of the social hierarchy here and the young man’s lone alternative after leaving the security of his kinhold, which Becket had eventually surmised were extended family groups. He hadn’t been able to shake loose why Toreth had parted from his family. About that, Toreth remained tight-lipped, but of the mines, he spoke with loquacious contempt. Only those incapable of casting or lacking kinhold connections to an appropriate craft were relegated to digging stone from the mountain.

Toreth’s determination to cast proved his ambition. “No more tunnels, I promise,” Becket said.

Toreth rolled his eyes. “Without magic, you can swear no oath, bibelot.”

Becket’s nose wrinkled at the epithet, yet unsure whether this designation for one devoid of magical power was grave insult or high honor. Toreth’s attitude when he referred to Becket as a bibelot went either way, depending on his mood. Just now, Toreth was playful so Beck elected against taking offense, instead pressing harder. “Theo will be grateful.”

Snorting, Toreth returned his attention to his meal. “He abandoned you.” His critical tone relayed his estimation of Becket’s uncle. “And I’ve word of your kinsman as well.” He frowned as he picked at his food. “Caster Douglas has been secluded in his quarters since leading an expedition to the lowlands last season.” He glanced at Becket, growling in disgust at Becket’s blank stare. “At least pretend you know the dangers of which I speak.” He pounded the floor with a fist. “Have you no sense of self-preservation?”

Becket’s heart pounded. “Theo’s hurt?”

With a sharp wave, Toreth dismissed Becket’s concern. “Lowland storms,” he said through gritted teeth. “Your kinsman’s party is rumored to suffer the aftermath of wild magic from one of these storms. And I’ll wager Nitcha’s entire supply of dragon’s teeth you’ve no notion what that means.” He stabbed an accusing finger at Becket. “Physically, he is said to be fit, but if you don’t soon learn guile, you won’t long be—despite my efforts. Or his.”

Relief at Theo’s well-being jellied Becket’s knees. When he opened his mouth, Toreth lifted his palm to quiet him. “No! Listen and heed me. He can’t protect you,” Toreth said. “Not won’t. Can’t.

Becket bristled. “Theo knows what he’s doing.” If nothing else, Becket’s presence here proved that. “And I can take care of myself.”

Toreth grimaced. “Such claims only confirm you are in more trouble than you understand.” The room abruptly darkened, not just the night Becket was accustomed to on earth with its array of starlight and the moon’s waxing or waning glow, but the utter black of quarters deep in the guts of a mountain. “Charge the light stones,” Toreth commanded, voice implacable. “If you can fend for yourself, producing light should be no small task.”

Becket fumbled inside his tunic and thanks to his Bic, he produced some God damn light. In the flicker of the lighter, he smirked at Toreth.

Who snarled ill temper. “Swing open my door then. Leave. Try.” Toreth laughed, a bitter sound rather than one of genuine mirth. The light stones perched in shallow depressions along the walls of Toreth’s quarters suddenly flared, returning the room’s brightness. As Becket’s pupils adjusted, Toreth waved at the pool of water at his quarter’s center. “Go ahead. Scry your kinsman. Let him know where you are.’

“That’s not fair,” Becket grumbled, replacing the Bic in his tunic. “You can’t scry him, either.”

“I’m not his kin. Or his fosterling.” Toreth crossed his arms over his chest. “As your elder kinsman, your heart stone should link you to him. It does not.” He tapped a foot. “You have no magic. Nor, apparently, does your kinsman, at least not reliably. How can you not grasp your peril?”

Oh, Becket appreciated that. “Just get me to Theo.” Everything would be okay, as long as he made it to his uncle. “He’ll vouch for you. You win your promotion to a higher level of the aerie. I win my uncle back.”

“Caster Douglas solicited a master seer before his expedition last autumn. The elders would never have permitted a foreigner to assemble a team of lowland explorers otherwise. The disturbance of his powers caused by the wild magic storm that overtook the expedition stalled the seer’s search, but the top hold’s patience is at an end.” Toreth blew out a long breath. “I can smuggle you into the top hold with the seer’s visit, but what then?”

“When?”

Toreth pinned him with a cold, assessing stare. “How old are you? Why is your hair shorn if your kinsman lives? From whence have you come? And why has there been no rumor of your existence until now?”

Becket waved the questions away. “When can you take me to Theo?”

“I have never met anyone so much a menace to himself.” Rubbing his temples, Toreth sighed. “Barring, perhaps, me. Fine. We’ll leave before dawn.”

* * *

Overruling Becket’s vehement protests, Toreth had left Becket’s trunk in his room when they crept from Toreth’s quarters while the rest of the aerie was largely still abed. “By the horn, stop fidgeting,” Toreth hissed in the quiet of a terrace in which they’d taken refuge after a terrifying but thankfully brief race through a series of narrow twisting corridors and cramped staircases.

“I’m not fidgeting. I’m shivering,” Becket whispered, teeth chattering as he crouched behind Toreth who, for all his arrogance and censure, was a good foot shorter than Becket. “You’re not much of a windbreak. Is it always so cold here?”

Toreth tossed an incredulous glance over his shoulder. “Yes.” He turned back to the towering cliff face in front of them. “If you swear to never again ask what conditions are normal, I’ll obtain a cloak and gloves for you on our way.”

Becket rubbed his palms together for warmth. “Done.”

Chuckling, Toreth shook his head. “Stay.”

While Becket shuddered in the chill morning, Toreth crawled into a maze of pillars dripping with the husks of dead and withered plants, all that separated them from the towering cliff wall. His shadowy form blended into the pre-dawn gloom. As soon as Toreth disappeared in the dark, Becket reached for the stone necklace Toreth had given him before opening the door to leave his rooms and, indeed, fidgeted. “Fairy stone,” the man had said, tying the necklace close to Becket so the rock, pierced by a weathered hole just off center, nestled in the hollow of Becket’s throat. “It’s the only sigil I have, save my blood, to disguise you as of my kinhold.” He flashed a tight smile. “Guards the bearer against ill fortune too.”

Becket hoped so. He had a feeling he’d need all the good luck he could scrounge.

When he spotted a Toreth-shaped silhouette scaling the cliff moments later, he changed his mind—Toreth needed the charm more than Becket did. Especially if Toreth had the insane idea that Becket would follow him up that wall. Uh uh. Not a chance. Heart stopped, breath locked in his lungs, he watched Toreth’s rapid ascent, like a spider scrambling up the sheer rock Becket would’ve sworn hadn’t the shallowest of fingerholds, but as the horizon blushed on the cusp of sunrise, he realized the escarpment had been smoothed only at the terrace’s level. Ten feet up, just out of reach, jutting edges and cracks gave Toreth leverage to heave himself upward. Becket’s heart didn’t start beating again until Toreth scooted over the top.

He craned his neck, staring up the dim mountain, where the tip of the aerie disappeared into wispy clouds. Theo was up there? How far? With the horizon lazily brightening as day chased away night, Becket’s gaze hopscotched upward right and left, tracing black lines of similar terraced gardens chiseled from the mountain marching skyward.

He jumped, startled, when a coil of rope flew over the side of the high crag beyond which Toreth had disappeared. It unraveled on its way down, one end anchored with Toreth and the other puddling scant yards from Becket. Toreth’s head emerged over the side of the cliff. He waved Becket to the rope.

Becket shook his head. He wasn’t climbing, even with a safety line.

Toreth pointed an adamant finger down to the rope’s end.

“No way.” Becket flashed a finger of his own.

Apparently, the fuck-you finger required no extra interpretation on Ket. Toreth’s soft though no less furious snarl filtered from above. “Do it. Now.”

After two years of training and three more working a full roster of clients as a massage therapist, Becket was strong. He didn’t have the physique of a weightlifter and his back injury from the wreck still occasionally troubled him, but constant exercise of his hands and arms had developed muscle by the plenty. Wending slowly through the rows of pillars to the rock wall, he trailed his gaze along the rope from the bottom to Toreth waiting above him and knew he could physically handle the climb. He hadn’t hesitated because of anxiety that his body wouldn’t pass the test.

He’d said no because he was afraid of heights.

Well. Fear was such a strong word, wasn’t it? Not entirely accurate. He wasn’t afraid. High places just made him dizzy. And a little short of breath. Sometimes, his heart sped up and he broke out in a cold sweat. A panic attack halfway up a cliff didn’t strike him as an especially smart risk to take.

Closer up, though, he could see that Toreth had tied Becket’s end of the rope into a makeshift harness, which was a good deal more comforting than a simple safety line. When he glanced up, surprised, Toreth’s shadowy figure pantomimed threading his legs through the variously knotted loops and Becket’s relief warred with pride.

Relief—and his desperation to reach Theo—won.

He pulled the tangle of ropes to his hips, heeding Toreth’s exaggerated motions showing him how to cinch the harness tight. Positive he’d fastened himself in as best as he could, he gave Toreth a thumb’s up and the other man again disappeared above. Seconds later, the rope pulled taut and Becket lifted from the ground as Toreth hefted him upward.

Stupid, really. Becket was bigger than Toreth. Becket thought he had a fair shot at beating Toreth in a fist fight as long as magic wasn’t involved in the scuffle. Toreth was lean, fit, a body that had filled out with compact muscle from mining. But Becket was stronger. Toreth would wear himself out hauling Becket up terrace after terrace and Becket needed Toreth at one hundred percent. Becket certainly had no idea what he’d face in the top hold or how to gain access to Theo.

At the same time, the notion of scaling the hard granite unaided churned Becket’s stomach. Or maybe being so far from the ground had done that. He snapped his eyes shut, hoping if he didn’t see how high he was, then he might hold onto to his hurried breakfast of bland grains. Since he was no coward, he opened his eyes, though. Don’t look down. Skin crawling, he braced his feet against the rock, straightened his legs, and helped Toreth by rappelling up the wall.

Toreth must have been stronger than Becket had given him credit, because the man yanked him over the lip of the precipice fast. Becket abetted Toreth’s tug by digging his feet in and pushing while his fingers scrabbled at the hard unforgiving rock. At the top, he rolled to his back, stared up at the lightening sky, and willed his stomach to settle while he sucked in gulps of oxygen.

Toreth materialized above him. “Three more climbs,” he whispered. He made short work of stripping the harness down Becket’s thighs and his suddenly wobbly legs. “Thrice more and we’ll be high enough to access the interior spirals unimpeded.”

Shuddering, partly from the cold stone leeching into him through his thin clothes, Becket dragged himself to his feet. He staggered after Toreth who had already winded the rope around his torso. He reached up to begin his ascent. “Three,” Becket said, swallowing sour bile as Toreth scaled the next terrace’s cliff face like Spiderman. “Yeah. Right.”

He’d deal with it, though. If only to prove to Toreth that he could. No whining.

Becket almost broke that oath at the top of that escarpment. He’d scraped his hands and torn the leggings over his right knee on the way up. His palms stung, alarming Becket since he made his living with his hands. He would have complained then—if he’d managed to catch a lung full of air before Toreth scrambled up the next cliff’s face.

He definitely would have bitched about the last ascension, but Toreth thrust a hooded cape at him as soon as Becket joined him at the top. “We farm these outcroppings and workers occasionally leave items behind,” he said. “Don’t let the fabric billow during your climb.”

Becket hurriedly donned the promised garment, grateful for the extra warmth. The mindless panic during his ascents had gripped him so fiercely he’d little attention for the cold numbing his fingers. “Thank you,” he said…to Toreth’s shadow. The man was already several feet up the wall.

Did he not tire? He must be exhausted after hauling Becket’s dead weight up several hundred feet. Becket wasn’t a big guy, but at two hundred pounds, he was no dainty flower, either. Even recalling and imitating rappelling scenes in action/adventure movies, Becket’s efforts couldn’t have helped Toreth much. When he reached the top this time, Becket heaved to his hands and knees more quickly, fast enough to catch Toreth’s rapid untangling of the rope’s other end from a pulley.

Huh.

“My forebears designed and carved these terraces from the mountain,” Toreth said under his breath as he gathered the rope. He wedged the coil behind the pulley gears and snatched long gloves abandoned on a stone shelf beside it. He tossed the gloves to Becket. “My kinhold has been farming them ever since.”

His disparaging tone and the grim set of his jaw didn’t invite questions so Becket, shaking from nerves and the frigid temperatures, simply pulled the gloves up his forearms, frowning when he encountered two holes at the tip—a smaller one for his thumb. His fingers fed through the larger gap, as a grumbling Toreth demonstrated. “Roll the fabric down your fingers to warm them,” Toreth instructed and then eyed Becket balefully as sunlight finally glinted on the highest surrounding mountain peaks. He yanked, ungently, the hood of the cloak over Becket’s head and secured it at Becket’s throat. “Volunteer nothing inside. Say nothing. Do nothing unless I have done it first.” He gave the cloak a final jerk. “Follow my lead. As much as your kinsman’s seer may suspect you are not what you seem, she will not know unless you confirm it.”

Becket frowned. “You said Theo’s stone would mask my lack of magic only superficially, that I couldn’t hide that long.”

A corner of Toreth’s mouth curved. “I didn’t mean your status as a bibelot.”

“The only other thing that makes me different is coming through your circle,” Becket said, confusion swirling inside him. “Theo came through the stones and nobody—”

“—can ever know,” Toreth smoothly interrupted. Snickering, he clapped Becket’s shoulder. “Come. A seer’s power is strongest at dawn and dusk, when the influence of the sun on the physical and the moon on the spiritual intermix. We’ve no time to squander. Just do as I say and we will both finish this day with our positions considerably improved.”

* * *

Becket fretted over Toreth’s revelation so intently he barely noticed the path Toreth forged to the top hold, Toreth’s hand firmly gripping Becket’s and forcing Becket to keep pace. True, Becket only had Toreth and the sparse accoutrements of Toreth’s quarters to judge, but he’d believed all on Ket possessed the powers Becket had denied and Theo had coveted throughout Becket’s entire life. Technology had been noticeably absent. Becket had furtively tried his cell phone only once and hurriedly turned it off to conserve his battery before burying it in his trunk after he’d confirmed the phone was useless. Toreth’s magic powered everything, from the light stones perched within shallow depressions in the walls to speckled heat stones upon which Toreth cooked meals. Magic triggered the release of Toreth’s door. It activated the pool of water—a scrying pool, Toreth had explained, for communication and divining—in the middle of Toreth’s quarters.

Magic was everywhere.

Toreth calling him into his circle hadn’t struck Becket as extraordinary, not here and in this context. Theo travelling through his stones to Ket, either, for that matter.

But that was a big deal. Toreth’s warning that Becket should not speak of it testified to that. What could that mean?

They winded up stairs cut into stone and corkscrewing steeply within the mountain, each stair’s edge weathered by the march of countless feet over time. After Toreth dragged him up what felt like thousands of spiraling steps, Toreth led him through an arched door and into a higher level of the aerie. The stairway’s exit opened into an airy hall, astounding because wide spaces with cathedral ceilings had been noticeably absent in the burrows below. Instead of cramped, gloomy corridors, the hallways branching off this boundless chamber stretched wide enough to comfortably receive several men and women side by side. Lifting his gaze in amazement as Toreth shepherded him through the cavernous space, Becket mentally contrasted the elegant stone flourishes that detailed the area against the sparse lines in the burrows from which they’d come. Here, too, the people strolled, some in purposeful marches but most ambling lackadaisically. The haste of below wasn’t in evidence in the top holds. Becket blended in with the embroidered trim on his tunic. Others, like Toreth, in basic clothing meandered through the hall, but damned few.

“Let me do the talking,” Toreth said as he steered Becket to a side corridor. “Master Seer Hannick,” he called ahead to a woman dressed ostentatiously in a purple tunic and leggings, the color as vivid as Toreth’s startling eyes. Unlike Toreth and many of the others they’d passed in the hall, her honey blonde hair hung freely to her waist, with only thin braids at either side framing her face. Purple threads, intermittently wrapped around the slender braids, caught the morning’s first light. “Master Seer Hannick,” Toreth said again.

She slowed, whether to greet them or in surprise to be hailed, Becket didn’t know. Toreth slipped by her side, his sure grip tugging Becket along. “You are to the quarters of Caster Douglas? We’ve business there as well.”

“Have we met?” The seer narrowed her eyes—also purple, if more a pale lavender—on Toreth. “I’d been told Caster Douglas has received no visitors since his return from the lowlands.”

Smiling, Toreth raised the hand he’d clasped with Becket’s. “We aren’t visitors.”

Hannick’s eyebrow arched. “Indeed?” At Toreth’s nod, her chilly scrutiny shifted to Becket. He resisted the urge to straighten his clothes at the critical line wrinkling her forehead and the frown that thinned her lips. “The elders and seers have not been apprised of kin to Caster Douglas.”

Toreth deflected the criticism with a beaming smile bright enough to melt the rock under their boots. “It’s a surprise.”

Becket snorted. You bet. But he kept his yap shut, belatedly mirroring Toreth’s manufactured smile when the seer stared at him. “Well, he’s the look of Caster Douglas and his power, though not as strong, shares the same strange warble…” She scowled, leaning toward Becket. She flicked the hood from his head with a darting finger. “Whatever has he done to his hair?” Hannick glared at Becket and Toreth both. “If Caster Douglas presumes a death in his until now non-existent kinhold will delay our long-deferred consultation—”

“Not at all,” Toreth said, the wooden smile increasing its wattage to supernova intensity. “Hearing tales of the expedition and believing his kinsman had crossed over, the boy cut his hair as his mourning sigil. As is proper.” He stopped at another arched doorway and bowed to Hannick. “Mistaken, of course. Caster Douglas survived the disaster and now, here we are.”

“Yes, here we are.” Toreth’s effusiveness didn’t fool the seer, judging by her frown. Nervous flutters stirred in Becket’s stomach when Hannick pinned her assessing stare on him. “He doesn’t know you’ve come, does he? Nor want you in Nitcha. He hasn’t sent for you. I’d know.”

Becket gulped, shifting his glance to Toreth for guidance, but the man just smiled. “Uh…No,” he admitted, shifting on his feet in the uncomfortable boots made for Theo. “But he’ll be glad to see me.”

The seer chuckled. “I sincerely doubt that, but his reaction will be entertaining nonetheless.” She nodded at the door, which swung inward. She waved to the unbarred entrance. “By all means, after you.”

* ~ * ~ *

You can look forward to more of Becket’s adventures (and misadventures!) on Ket on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17th so…mark your calenders! :-)

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Available NOW ~ Tame a Wild Human!

TameAWildHuman_1800x2700HRDrugged, bound, and left as bait on the cusp of the lunar cycle, Wyatt Redding is faced with a terrifying set of no-win scenarios. Best case: he survives the coming days as a werewolf pack’s plaything and returns to the city as a second-class citizen with the mark—and protection—of the pack. Worst case: the wolves sate their lusts with Wyatt’s body, then send him home without their protection, condemning him to live out the rest of his short life as a slave to the worst of humanity’s scorn and abuse.

Wyatt’s only chance is to swallow every ounce of pride, bury his fear, and meekly comply with every wicked desire and carnal demand the wolf pack makes of him. He expects three days of sex and humiliation. What he doesn’t expect is to start enjoying it. Or to grow attached to his captor and pack Alpha, Cole.

As the lunar cycle ends, Wyatt begins to realize that the only thing to fear more than being sent home without the pack’s protection is being sent home at all.

READER DISCRETION ADVISED.

“I really enjoyed this book. Parts of it are brutal, there is lots of violence, lots of forced sex. Wyatt needs to decide if he will be safer with the wolves or back with humans. I found this book really well written, with a fantastic storyline that stretches the imagination to full and a very blunt plot. There is no insta love that you often find with shifter books. Yes this is a book about shifters but it has a very different take on the paranormal world…” (5 Stars, Queer Town Abbey)

“…She writes great animal shifters – they usually don’t play by the rules, they do some filthy, squeamish things and revel in their nature. Was this dark? I guess? My scale is pretty warped so it wasn’t scary or extremely dark to me, as more hot and cool. Because the beast in this story is the human…” (4 stars, Boy Meets Boy Reviews)

Tame a Wild Human Book Tour Hub

Available at:
Riptide
Amazon
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Heart Stone, Chapter Two

If you missed Chapter One, click here. :-)

Chapter Two

If Theo had warned Becket not to follow him, logically, Becket should be able to do so. His uncle hadn’t just begun gathering an additional set of stones then. He’d finished that set. Since Theo had been adamant that Becket possessed no magic of his own, the second collection of stones also must’ve been infused with Theo’s will and intent. Otherwise, the magic wouldn’t work. Becket just had to figure out how to use the rocks his uncle’s power had already charged.

Theo hadn’t made that easy.

Throughout the house, his uncle had distributed the spare set of rocks he’d collected for his casting grid. He hadn’t just stowed them in the workroom. They were everywhere. Becket found a stone in the tin holding Theo’s peppermint tea, another in his uncle’s coat pocket, and a third in the oven. While Becket was reasonably certain the envelope’s sliver of milky rose-hued stone was the most important of the set, he needed the entire collection if he had any hope of repeating whatever his uncle had been up to. According to diagrams in the grimoire, Theo had charged his grid with twelve stones. “Twelve,” Becket muttered under this breath. “The number of completeness, harmony, and government of the natural order. Representing space and time.”

Twelve stones minus the five Becket had found in the workroom, the master stone in the envelope, and the three others he’d discovered in the rest of the house left three undiscovered.

Locating Theo’s three missing stones had taken two weeks.

But that was okay because three years ago, Theo had begun recording the results of his research and trials with the stones in his grimoire in code. Not just a single code. Uh-uh. Nope. Theo had employed multiple ciphers to cover his tracks, frustrating Becket’s efforts to solve the puzzle of his uncle’s actions over the last few years. He understood little of what Theo had deemed worth noting in his book. Decoding sections of the grimoire demanded every moment Becket could spare from his search for the missing stones.

Parts of Theo’s book were simply in one of the several foreign languages in which Theo was a conversant. For example, in one of the grimoire’s many lists, his uncle had used the Latin names for herbs: lemongrass, sage, mint, feverfew, rosemary, and thyme. Theo had concentrated on stones, but he had a working knowledge of herbal remedies, enough to assemble a decent assortment of emergency medicinals…if not for the fact that the list had been labelled as semina—seeds.

Why the hell had Theo needed seeds?

A simple substitution cipher in another entry in the grimoire had also concealed the name and address of a seamstress. When Becket had called the woman, she’d remembered Theo. Vividly. His uncle’s disappearance had resulted in the abandonment of a large consignment order—prepaid, thank God, or she would’ve sold the lot months ago.

“Three natural dye organic hemp tunics: blue, black, and green. An equal number of linen shirts, one silk overtunic with embroidered rosemary sprigs at the collar and cuffs. Four pair of durable leggings, also hemp,” the lady had said over the phone, “and achiral deerskin boots in size twelve, which I subcontracted out. Not my specialty.”

Becket pinched the bridge of his nose, cell pressed to his ear. “If you don’t mind checking, when did he place the order?” he asked, trying and failing to tamp down his bewilderment.

“Two years ago for the initial order, but he added a second order for these extra pieces last fall,” the seamstress replied. “Listen, are you picking up the consignment or not? If Mr. Douglas changed his mind, I can offload the items as Halloween costume pieces.”

Becket had indeed picked them up. The clothing was of a soft but no less sturdy fabric with straight, even stitching at the seams—a notable improvement over costume quality, and after he returned to Theo’s house, Becket was pleasantly surprised to realize most of the pieces fit him passably well. Becket was broader through the shoulders than Theo and the sleeves were a little short. Becket was a couple inches taller than Theo too, but with his leggings tucked into the boots, no one would be the wiser about how high the hem of each leg rose above Becket’s ankles. The boots, however, were a problem. They’d been tailored to Theo’s precise measurements. Becket took a double-wide shoe so Theo’s larger size wasn’t a deal-breaker, but stuffing newspaper in the boots hadn’t helped with the extra room at the toe. Still, the bad fit wouldn’t cripple him if he didn’t walk in the boots long.

So he had clothing. He tried not to think about what he had clothes for.

Nevertheless, most of the grimoire remained a mystery to him. He recognized drawings of plants, but had no clue what species they were—when he very well should have—nor could he decipher Theo’s coded descriptions despite hours studying the text. The animals were easily identifiable. Dragons gathered in a meadow, a gryphon in flight, chimera eating what appeared to be a stag, a pair of manticore facing off with talons raised in threat…Theo had sketched mythical creatures by the dozens, from whole-page portraiture to quick line drawings. His uncle’s imagination disagreed with legends in many aspects. A chimera was supposed to possess a goat head on its back, not goat’s horns bracketing a leonine face. Harpies weren’t beautiful, either. Theo’s dragons should have been much bigger and medusa stood on two legs rather than the torso blending into an anaconda-sized serpent’s tail.

The beasts disconcerted him and the sketched plants mystified him so he concentrated most on understanding Theo’s ritual for how to use the stones. Becket had one shot at this. Just one. He didn’t believe in magic, but for the sake of argument, if magic existed, he didn’t have any. According to Theo’s earliest entries in his grimoire, the stones would’ve absorbed ambient power from Theo before he vanished, but Becket had no means of recharging them if his first attempt went awry. His margin of error was zero. He must get it right. Must.

Again, the drawings helped. Thanks to Theo’s artistry, Becket knew where to place each stone inside a casting grid encircled by his uncle’s standard sea salt. Once he’d matched the numbered teardrop shapes to elixir recipes on earlier pages, the series of diagrams made more sense. Dots surrounded each teardrop, which Becket interpreted to represent the number of drops of each elixir used. Theo had stowed numbered jars in a workroom cupboard with his grid mats so Becket didn’t have to create the elixirs himself. Which was lucky. In the improbable event Becket wouldn’t have screwed up making at least one of the fourteen necessary elixirs, he couldn’t read Theo’s encoded directions, anyway.

Slowly but surely, Theo’s grimoire yielded treasure in the form of, if not firm details of which Becket could be confident, at least an actionable procedure.

Nothing left to do but wait for the full moon.

If Becket drove back to Hagerstown to pack his entire inventory of essential oils in the interim, so what? He’d left his clothes, all of his photos barring those inside his mother’s heirloom broach, and his books, hadn’t he? Not his journal. If what Theo had done…if it worked…Becket might need the pages he’d filled with notes about which essential oil blends worked best for this ailment and that injury as well as how to best apply the oils. Theo’s interest in herbs might have been limited to acquiring seeds, but not Becket. As a certified aromatherapist, he was intimately aware of the beneficial healing properties contained in each bottle in his kit. His journal—his own sort of grimoire recording his experiences with his oils—would go too.

Go where? That much Theo’s grimoire had revealed: Ket.

Since Google had been catastrophically unhelpful, the name was all he knew. Unless Theo had immigrated to Siberia, that is. According to the Internet, Ket was a language spoken there. Becket lightly fingered the thin cloth of one of the tunics he’d hung in the workroom to goad him as he labored at deciphering the grimoire. The fabric might be comfortable for a cool summer night in the Poconos, but not much colder. The loose designs of the tunics, shirts, and leggings also allowed too much air circulation to optimize heat retention. Its wearer wouldn’t stand a chance in the Russian north. So Becket was betting on not needing his passport to visit Siberia anytime soon.

Ket had turned out to be another mystery added to the heap.

Or not.

Because Ket didn’t exist.

Nowhere. That’s where he was going tonight. Because there was no such thing as magic. His parents were gone, Theo was dead, and Becket would have to learn to cope with his loss.

After casting Theo’s grid. He’d make himself accept it then. He would find the strength to move on. Just not now. Not until there was no other option left. Messing in Theo’s magic was nuts. Becket didn’t believe in any of it, but…Theo was all Becket had. Not just because his uncle was the only family Becket had left or because the accident had made them both wary of letting others too close. Not even because pagans tended to end up the targets of prayer chains, at best, and otherwise condemned to fiery hell. He didn’t often agree with his uncle, but Becket understood him. Theo understood Becket too. As much and as fiercely as they’d fought, he and Theo loved each other. Since the moment Becket had awoken in the hospital after the wreck, it’d been he and Theo against the world and Becket wasn’t ready to let that go. Couldn’t. Not yet.

If there was a chance Theo was still alive, any chance at all, Becket had to try.

Pressing his lips together, he snatched the clothes hangers from the wall hook. The green tunic. Definitely. That garment felt a little looser across the chest and he liked the dark olive color as well as the central panel embroidered with what he’d initially mistaken for poison ivy. Like Theo’s sketches, however, the stitching was slightly…off. Poison ivy didn’t have spiny thorns, for one, and the woody stems along the bottom edge of the tunic sported clusters of ovoid purple berries too. Kind of like Virginia Creeper, except Becket had never known any variety’s leaves to have rounded rather than serrated edges and didn’t ivy come in compound leaf structures with odd numbers? This one had six leaves in each bunch. Exactly six. He’d counted.

He draped the tunic over his bed beside black leggings and one of the linen shirts. The rest he crammed into his trunk. Theo had taken supplies with him. As near as Becket could tell, his uncle had made seven trips and with each journey, Theo had packed freight. Pity Becket hadn’t been able to decode all of Theo’s lists, but the trunk he’d bought at Goodwill several years ago was roughly the same dimensions as the crates in the barn, which Becket had become increasingly convinced must have accompanied Theo back and forth. Becket had already retrofitted his own trunk to protect the essential oil bottles that were his stock in trade for transport to client appointments outside the clinic. Removing the tools he used in massage from his customized trunk to make room for other supplies seemed wisest. Theo’s consignment clothes. Becket’s smartphone and tablet, Mom’s broach, a few basic toiletries, several ice packs for the oils, and the biggest bottle of ibuprofen he could squeeze into the trunk. Just in case. God only knew what he’d face when…if…he reached Ket.

Glancing at the clock, he grunted and headed to the bathroom. He’d waited almost two weeks for the next full moon after he’d deciphered that component of Theo’s ritual. He wouldn’t miss the time window again. He lingered in the shower, enjoying the pelting hot water. When his toes pruned, he turned off the faucet and slung a towel around his hips. Steam wisping around him, he shaved the russet shadow of stubble from his jaw. Brushed his teeth. Stared at his reflection in the mirror.

Was he really doing this?

He didn’t look crazed by grief. Tired maybe. Dark smudges under his eyes attested to his sleepless nights. Every time he shut his eyes now, he went back to the accident that had taken his parents’ lives and hospitalized him for months as a boy. Somehow, in his dreams, the pickup that had skidded into his family’s sedan transformed into one of Theo’s dragons before impact, and when Becket started screaming, his father wasn’t driving the car anymore. Theo sat at the wheel, his delighted grin in the rearview mirror endearingly familiar. In Becket’s nightmares, the agonized screams that joined his before rapidly fading into the dreary blood-soaked night hadn’t belonged to Dad. They’d been Theo’s.

Yeah, he hadn’t been sleeping much.

But that didn’t make him crazy.

He’d been rational and lucid when he’d called Sadie that afternoon. He’d felt like a jerk telling her he needed more time off work to pack up Theo’s house, especially when his boss had been so compassionate and understanding. “I know accepting your uncle’s death has been hard for you,” his boss had said. “Take whatever time you need.”

He hated lying. He wasn’t good at it, which he’d been proud of until he’d stood inside his uncle’s largely unpacked home while he begged Sadie to hold his job. If she’d realized Becket was chasing clues to Theo’s disappearance instead of dealing with Theo’s estate, Sadie would’ve had Becket’s head on a pike.

Being a liar didn’t make him nuts, either.

Entertaining the slimmest hope that his uncle’s stupid rocks would…take him somewhere…to Theo…to Ket…did, though.

He scowled at his reflection in the mirror and then stomped into his bedroom to dress in Theo’s get-up. No underwear. Chrissakes. At least that was one passage in Theo’s grimoire he’d managed to decode: the importance of dressing the part. His uncle hadn’t exercised as much caution, or competence, in hiding his tracks in his grimoire accounts at the beginning of his trips through the stones. Theo had arrived in Ket the first time in blue jeans, a chambray shirt, and a pair of loafers, which had attracted unwanted attention—the hostile kind—from lowland dwellers, whoever they were. Theo hadn’t repeated that mistake. When he returned two months later with his odd assortment of seeds, the seamstress had outfitted him accordingly.

Outfitted Becket too.

He tugged the shirt over his head. He’d tried it on before and scrutinized the carved bone buttons at both cuffs and his throat. The fabric pulled taut over his shoulders and chest, but his tunic would hide that. The shirt sleeves fell short of his wrists so he skipped buttoning them, instead rolling the cuffs up his forearms. Next, the leggings. Thankfully, they draped loosely rather than hugging like spandex or lycra. Would be difficult to hide a hard-on in the damn things, but Becket guessed that was what the tunic was for. After he yanked it over his head, the green fabric fell to mid-thigh. He sat on the bed to pull on the awkward boots, sans socks.

And that was that.

A quick glance at the clock told him he was on schedule.

After throwing inside last-minute items from the bathroom and his suitcase, Becket hefted his Goodwill trunk, muscles hardly straining at the weight as he carried it into Theo’s workroom. He’d cleared the space of furniture earlier, Theo’s battle-scarred desk and worktable now cluttering the bedroom his uncle hadn’t occupied in a year. He’d cleansed the room twice today by tracing a smoldering white sage smudge stick along the lines of the room’s entrance, both windows, and the many doors of Theo’s cupboards. Nevertheless, once he’d settled the trunk at the center of the room, he grabbed another smudge stick. He repeated the process a third time, feeling more than a little foolish as he outlined all entry points of the workroom in clockwise sweeps of the bundle of burning sage while he said, “Any spirits and energies not of the light, begone, for you are unwelcome here.” At least Becket had watched Theo perform cleansings throughout his teen years. He knew what to do. And if Theo had done it, so would Becket—crazy or not.

That task accomplished, Becket checked red pillar candles flanking bowls of sea salt he’d placed at each corner of the workroom. He lit each candle, flicked off the light switch, and then dropped the smoking smudge stick into an urn set aside for that purpose. The scent would permeate the air as the ritual continued, keeping the energy pure…or so Theo had insisted in Becket’s youth.

In the center of the room, with Becket’s trunk beside it, lay Theo’s grid mat, which was a square of red silk to which pattern lines and signet locations for each stone had been drawn. The importance of placing the stones at precise points on the grid was vital to the success of the grid’s cast, but the mat was Theo’s, the line markings his. Becket had no concerns that the gridlines weren’t true. Next to the mat, waiting to be placed, rested the stones Theo had spent over a decade of his life acquiring. The twelve rocks were no bigger than Becket’s fist, the most powerful rose-tinged stone a great deal smaller. For those rocks, Theo had thrown everything away. Including Becket.

Inhaling deeply, Becket took the sage scent into his lungs and shook the negative energy off. That wouldn’t help. The idea that a properly consecrated circle might was probably a good measure of Becket’s nerves…and desperation. He lit his master candle, a white pillar selected from Theo’s inventory, and tossed his Bic onto the trunk. He grabbed the bag of sea salt, careful to grasp it with his left hand, not his right. Theo’s instructions had been explicit about that. The consecration would be wasted if he used his dominant right, his giving hand, for the blessing. So with his left, he tilted the bag toward the candle’s sputtering flame as he said, “God of fire.” He waved the salt in a clockwise motion. “God of air.” He bent to dip a corner of the bag in a dish of rainwater he’d collected the day before. “Goddess of water.” Finally, he brushed the salt against the floor, where he’d sprinkled clods of soil from the back yard. “Goddess of earth.” He straightened. “Bless this salt with safety and protection from all who would harm.”

He smiled while he walked around the circumference of the room, pouring a line of salt from the bag to form an unbroken circle. For a guy who had sneered at magic since his teens, Becket thought he was handling this pretty well. Hadn’t laughed once. Also probably a measure of his sanity, but what the hell. Hadn’t he repeatedly sworn over the past year that he’d do anything—anything at all—for the stingiest chance of seeing his uncle again?

Tonight, he’d prove it.

He rested the mostly depleted bag of salt on top of his trunk and retrieved the diviner’s sage smudge stick necessary for officially beginning the ritual, the dried stems of this very hallucinogenic variety of sage pressed tightly together and wrapped in a doubled crisscross pattern of red twine. Instead of lighting the smudge stick from his Bic, he thrust the tip into the urn where the cleansing smudge stick still smoldered. While he waited for the diviner’s sage to kindle, he closed his eyes and regulated his breathing by inhaling through his nose and gently blowing out through his lips. For each breath in, he visualized positive energy streaming into and fortifying him. With each exhale, he released his misgivings about trying this stupid magic crap in the first place, his niggling fear that perhaps he wasn’t as mentally sound as he should be, and most of all, his despair over Theo’s loss. He let it all go. His anxieties, his misery and desolation. His unbelief.

This would work.

It had to. Because Theo could not be dead. Becket had accepted his parents’ deaths only after ugly fights with Theo, who had patiently explained that summoning them wouldn’t heal Becket, wouldn’t ease the ache. Sometimes he still hated his uncle for that. Theo wasn’t here to stop him now, though. He’d drag Theo back from wherever he had vanished. Kicking and screaming, if need be. How dare Theo leave him alone?

That his outrage and hurt hadn’t flared as intensely as before was Becket’s first indication the diviner’s sage had lit. When he opened his eyes, smoke wafted sinuously in a spiraling pirouette. The flames of the candles outside his circle danced in time with his heartbeat, the soft glow like cotton wool wrapping around him.

He blinked at the pair of smudge sticks in the urn, struggling to focus on the diviner’s sage bundle with its red twine wrap. Fuck, that stuff was quick. No wonder Theo was always smiling.

Squaring his shoulders, Becket resisted the buzz. He must finish quickly, before the hallucinogen incapacitated him. “God of fire, bless me,” he said, voice more dopey and husky than he would’ve liked as he lit the first of four shorter white pillar candles from his master candle and settled it at the north corner of Theo’s grid mat. “God of air, hear me.” He placed the second candle, then the third and fourth, the candlelight accompanying his plea to the four elements with the master candle, representing spirit, constituting the final fifth element.

Petitions done, Becket placed his most recent photo of Theo at the center of the grid and then gently settled the first stone on top of the picture. The rose-colored shard served as his master stone despite its diminutive size. Trembling, Becket carefully measured out three drops from the amber bottle Theo had marked with the number one, splashing the surface of the stone. He closed his eyes and whispered, “Take me to Theo.” Opening his eyes, he stoppered the elixir bottle and pushed it aside.

The next stone went easier. The green flourite belonged at the top of the grid, with no picture of Theo beneath to distract him as five droplets from the second elixir bathed the rock’s green surface. “Take me to Theo.” He positioned sodalite at the bottom of the mat, followed by a single drop from bottle number three. “Take me to Theo.”

Becket didn’t know his uncle’s prayer, how he’d worded the intent he infused into each of the stones in his first collection of rocks. After weeks of trying, that passage of the grimoire was as much an enigma to him as from the first, but knowing wasn’t necessary. Becket knew what he wanted, after all, more than his pride, more than his questionable sanity, more than…anything. “Take me to Theo,” he repeated, stone after stone, sprinkling every subsequent rock with however many drops Theo had designated from whichever bottle.

As fast as he worked, by the time he’d positioned and activated all the stones, the room had begun a jaunty spin and shadows thrown from the candles undulated against his skin, the stones, and the grid mat. He giggled—a giddy sound that hadn’t fallen from his lips since the car accident when he was a boy. Following Theo’s casting instructions had become an increasing challenge to him. He wondered if he’d keep his brains stapled inside his skull long enough to complete the grid.

Hands clumsy, he spilled the thirteenth gem elixir across the grid when he was supposed to spatter only the agate. Snorting with laughter, he shoved the bottle away, uncaring when it toppled and liquid streamed. He’d come too far to stop now. He’d just have to hope his clumsiness hadn’t fouled the grid. “Take me to Theo,” he said and cackled.

One last elixir.

He retained the presence of mind through the fog of hallucinogenic sage to heave Theo’s aggravating grimoire next to the bag of salt and the Bic on top of his trunk. Then, Becket took three tries to unstopper the final elixir’s bottle. Vision graying, he could barely make out the master stone. Had to wet the master stone and make his plea to reunite with Theo. His tongue had glued to the top of his mouth, though. The candlelight both in and outside his circle of protection shone like baby stars plucked from the night sky, the burning heat from these stars causing the walls to drip like hot wax.

That couldn’t be right.

Walls didn’t melt.

The master stone resting atop Theo’s photograph wasn’t glowing either.

Screw counting the drops. Becket upended the fourteenth elixir over the not-phosphorescent rosy master stone, a dart of remorse piercing him when the bottle’s contents washed over Theo’s picture as a flood. Forgetting the grid, Becket fumbled for the photo, determined to save it from the swampy wreckage. He didn’t remember his petition until he’d clutched the photograph against his chest. “Please,” he said, his bemused exultation fading swiftly to wretched mourning. He’d lost his parents. Why Theo too? Was Becket cursed to lose whoever he dared love, to always be alone?

So tired.

And dizzy. He gulped, hugging Theo’s picture tighter to him and fought down brutal nausea. He wouldn’t be sick, not on top of everything else. Except he was afraid if he didn’t sleep, right this moment, he might puke whether he wanted that or not.

Ill, forsaken, he fell against his trunk, cursing the hallucinogen needed to cast this grid as his lashes drifted down. “Take me to Theo,” he mumbled and—gratefully—passed out.

* * *

Becket squinched his face, the ungentle tap on his nose rudely yanking him from the vapid fog caused by the smoldering, drugging sage of the casting grid.

“Open,” a male voice commanded. An irritating voice.

Not Theo’s. Groaning faintly, Becket ignored it.

To his great peril, since the unseen stranger flicked his nose again. “Damn it, stop,” Becket grumbled, limbs still gluey and uncooperative which said nothing of his throbbing head and the alarming roil of his stomach.

“Open,” the man insisted.

“Fuck off.”

Apparently done babying him, the stranger grabbed him by both ears and lifted Becket’s head off the hard floor. “Obey me.”

He gave that every ounce of the attention it deserved and had almost slipped back to sleep when whoever had decided to rip his ears off opted to pry his eyelids apart instead. “Ow!”

“Open your—“

Glaring, Becket scrubbed his face with his hand while jerking his head away. “What is your problem? How’d you…” The demands trailed off as soon as his bleary eyes focused on the stranger. “Your eyes are purple,” Becket said, flummoxed.

“Yours aren’t red.” The stranger frowned down at him, royal purple eyes sparkling like twin amethysts in an otherwise ordinary face. Tawny hair had been pulled into a braid at the stranger’s nape, the thick rope of twined hair resting on the shoulder of a tunic similar to Becket’s, though the stranger’s lacked embroidered accents. “You aren’t a demon,” the man said.

“Er, no.” When Becket shifted to sit up, the guy gave him room to maneuver. Where was he? Not Theo’s workroom. Not anymore.

With dazed and growing astonishment, Becket noted the smooth beige stone of the floor beneath him. Solid. Like granite. Definitely not the oak hardwood in Theo’s house. This room’s walls seemed to be made of the same stone as the floor, a shadowy ledge along one side piled high with pillows and swathes of vibrantly colored fabrics. He’d awoke next to a thin lip of brick circling a pool of water sunk into the floor at the room’s center, Becket’s nose wrinkling at the strong mineral scent wafting from it.

Was he still high?

He feared he wasn’t. The scowl of the stranger who had roused him felt real enough, as did the hard surface pressing into his aching back. Relief sprinted through him when he realized he’d scrambled to lean against the long edge of his trunk. So that had made the trip too.

God Almighty, where was he? What had he done?

Just as quickly, dread flashed through him. The stones! Frantic, he glanced around, spying the bag spilling salt across Theo’s grimoire next to his trunk as well as the orange splash of his Bic, but no stones, only the tiny shard of Theo’s rosy master stone in a crease of his tunic. Becket caught it before the stone tumbled and he lost the thing.

How could he return without the stones?

Theo. He had to find Theo.

“Answer me in truth. Are you demon-born?”

Becket clasped the master stone in his palm. “I’m no demon,” he said.

“Not even a little?” the stranger persisted, head angling as he studied Becket from one perspective, then another. He rubbed his jaw. “You could be half-demon.”

Half—? No, Becket was better off not thinking about that. “Where’s Theo?”

“Got a little demon blood farther back in your kin line?” the guy asked, completely ignoring him. “A grandsire perhaps?”

“What? No! No demons,” A belated shiver ran through Becket because, in spite of the warm undertones of the color, the stone floor was as cold as a crypt. “I’m looking for Theo. Theodore Douglas.”

The man rocked back on his heels and Becket’s pulse sped a few beats when he spotted the same boots he wore on his own feet, distinctive because there was no right or left foot, both being identical. “What’s your name?” the guy demanded.

Mind scrambling, Becket tried to recall if Theo had ever mentioned not revealing his true name because that would give the magic wielder power over him…or if he’d seen that in a horror movie. “What’s yours?”

“Toreth.” The man’s eerie purple eyes narrowed. He dipped a hand to a woven belt securing his tunic. Toreth caught one end of a length of jute threaded through the belt. Gaze never wavering from Becket, he deftly knotted the cord. “You look like a top holder to me. What’d you interrupt my cast and wreck my circle for?”

When Becket swiveled to pop open his trunk, his lower back throbbed, but the ache wasn’t bad. After working the combination and removing the lock, he lifted the trunk lid. “I was searching for my uncle. What’d you yank me into your circle for?” Ah, heaven. The contents of the trunk hadn’t shifted so the bulk bottle of ibuprofen Becket had picked up at the market that morning was still on top, his roller bottle of peppermint oil snugly beside it.

“I didn’t mean to drag you into my cast,” Toreth said and when Becket looked over his shoulder, Toreth tossed him a similar stretch of cording. “You should knot that,” he said when Becket only stared at him, perplexed.

Not jute. Momentarily distracted, Becket examined the cord, perplexed at the silky feel of the coarse-appearing fibers. “Why?”

Toreth’s eyebrows winged up. “To bind the magic.” His mouth thinned. “Something went wrong. I was summoning a demon and instead, I called you. I don’t want to leave that door open so I tied my binding knot,” he said, voice wondering but impatient. “You should do the same.”

More magic mumbo jumbo. Great. But something had taken him from his uncle’s house in Lancaster and to…wherever this was. So he quickly tied a knot, hoping against hope that if the binding knot differed from the same overhand knot Becket used to tie his shoes, Toreth wouldn’t notice. “There.” Since Becket didn’t have a belt like Toreth’s, he draped the cord over his shoulder. “Happy?”

Biting his lip, Toreth nodded.

Disaster averted, Becket returned his attention to the contents of his trunk and bypassing both the ibuprofen and peppermint oil, he reached for the bundle of red cloth containing his mother’s broach. He unwound the scarf, unwrapping the jewelry cushioned within. He passed the broach to Toreth, whose curiosity must have overcome his pique since he now leaned over Becket to spy inside the trunk. “Go ahead. The latch is on the right side,” Becket said, shoving Theo’s grimoire, the salt, and his lighter into the trunk for safekeeping. “The picture on the left is Theo’s.”

While the man admired the broach, unsurprisingly since it was such a beautiful piece, Becket pitched the master stone into the trunk as well and uncapped the roller bottle he’d filled with a mix composed primarily of sweet almond and peppermint oil last night. He applied the blend on both temples and across his forehead, the relief from the throbbing in his head from the diviner’s sage almost instant. Becket returned the bottle to the trunk. He shook two tablets from the ibuprofen bottle too, because as lovely as peppermint oil was, it only took the edge off his headache. The abuse to the muscles of his back would catch up with him sooner or later. Preferably much later.

“You must be a caster’s son,” Toreth said, words reverent as his thumb traced the ivory spray of roses inset in an obsidian background that comprised the cameo of Becket’s broach. Toreth’s fingernail skated the gold edging of stems dripping thorns. “What is your sire’s name?”

“Uncle,” Becket corrected and nodded at the broach. “Theo Douglas, but he might have adopted another name here. Hence, the photo.” He arched an eyebrow. “I am in Ket, right?”

The man’s head bobbed in a slow affirmative, but a spark of new anxiety danced in his purple eyes. “You are in the burrows of Nitcha,” he said. “Which is an aerie in the Lagenore Peaks.” He paused, as though expecting some sign of recognition from Becket. When Becket produced what he hoped passed for a vague acknowledging grunt, Toreth gulped. “On Ket.”

“Oh.” The tension Becket hadn’t realized he’d been holding in his shoulders unloosed. “Well, that’s all right then.” He waved at the broach now clenched in Toreth’s white-knuckled fingers. “Theo’s picture is inside.”

Toreth’s eyes abruptly rounded, a gasp wringing from him as he dropped the broach to the stone floor and scrambled to the farthest wall in retreat. He gaped in shock.

“What now?” Annoyed, Becket stretched for the broach the guy had carelessly dropped, bending over it to inspect and ensure Toreth hadn’t broken or scratched his lone family heirloom on his mother’s side.

“You’re a bibelot!”

Satisfied Toreth hadn’t damaged a piece of jewelry that had passed down his mother’s dwindling family line for five generations, Becket glared at the man. “What? Never mind.” He opened the broach, spreading the hinged cover to reveal the pictures inside—his parents on the right and Theo on the left. “This is him,” Becket said, pointing at Theo’s photo. “My uncle. I need to find him.”

“Yes, you do.” Face wan, Toreth nodded. “We must locate your kinsman. Immediately.”

Becket smiled. Finally! They were on the same page. “Do you know him?” When Toreth only blinked at him, Becket pushed the opened cameo forward to prompt the guy to look at it. “Please. He must be around here somewhere.”

Stepping an anxious foot forward, Toreth snatched the broach. He didn’t study the photos until he’d retreated again. “Powerful magic,” he murmured and glanced up. “He gave you a heart stone? Your kinsman.”

Gazing over his shoulder and into the trunk where he’d tossed Theo’s rose-hued master stone, Becket shrugged. “I guess.”

Toreth’s attention flicked to the trunk, then returned to Becket. His spine stiffened. “You didn’t steal the stone. You haven’t run from your kinsman.”

“I’m trying to find Theo, not run from him.” Regardless of Toreth’s sudden inexplicable skittishness, Becket shuffled toward him. “You know him? Theo. You’ll help me find him.”

Toreth looked down at the photo and rubbed a fingertip over the glass protecting the snapshot. “I know of him.” When Becket beamed a smile, Toreth—slowly—returned it. “And yes, I will help you…?”

“Becket,” he said, joy bubbling up inside him because it had worked. He would reunite with his uncle. Theo was alive!

“I will escort you to your kinsman, Becket,” Toreth said. He crossed the room and groped inside the trunk until he retrieved the rose master stone. He snatched the cord Becket had inexpertly tied from Becket’s shoulder. Toreth’s forehead furrowed at Becket’s knot, but his disapproval didn’t stop him from looping the cord around Theo’s master stone, Toreth’s nimble fingers tying a cradle for the rock at the midpoint of the cord very near Becket’s sad excuse for a binding knot. Toreth tied the ends of the cord together, forming a circle and dropped the makeshift necklace over Becket’s head. “Hide the stone under your clothing, against your skin, and never remove it. That will mask your lack of magic for a short time at least. It tricked me, after all. But I am no caster, nor top hold elder. Others, too, will identify you as a bibelot at brief acquaintance, even with the aid of your heart stone.” He sighed, tucking the surprisingly warm stone under Becket’s layers of tunic and shirt so the rock dangled against Becket’s sternum. “This won’t be easy.”

Becket shrugged. “Nothing worth doing ever is.”

* ~ * ~ *

New Years. A time to put away the old, but also a time of new beginnings. LOL, funnily enough, that’s my working title for Act II of Heart Stone. Amuses me. Exceedingly.

To be perfectly blunt, I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m at a fork in the road and not sure yet which path I’ll take. Know one thing, though–just one. I believe in this book. What I’m uploading is finished stuff. Never seen by any publisher or editor, no, but I’ve been over it a thousand times. Definitely not ugly first draft material, though I hope you’ll forgive me any rough spots. When I send something to a pub, this is what they get. Before I start polishing for self-pub, this is my starting point. Act I is over for me, at least until I decide WTH to do with it, if I do anything commercial at all. I’m now working Act II, which is wonderful and challenging…and incredibly frustrating. LOL. The work always saves you. Always. Sure as hell saves me.

Anyhoo, for the time being, uploading chapters on holidays sounds very gratifying so I’ll do Chapter 3 on Valentine’s Day. Safe Travels (Act I of Heart Stone) has 6 chapters, around 30K words (this son of a bitching story is very fucking long — feel free to insert many, many more highly creative curse words of your choosing/preference here), so I suppose I’ll need more holiday targets to shoot at to push Act I from my desk onto yours. Does St. Patrick’s Day count as a holiday biggie? It should. Y’all can guzzle green beer until your pee turns a festive green, have at it, but you haven’t lived until you’ve had my corned beef, nobody makes it better and you can take that to the bank, baby, LOL. So yeah, I’m counting St. Pat’s. So it’s Ch3 on Valentines, Ch4 on St. Pat’s, Ch5 at Easter. Hm, need another holiday for the 6th chapter. Beltane? Would certainly be fitting.

May 1st it is then. There’s my deadline. Even as long as this story is, I’ll certainly have finished the whole of Heart Stone by then and should have figured out what, exactly, I’m doing too (if we ever truly know, which in my experience that answer is no, not really). In the meantime, if you remember to hit me up on the next several holidays, you’ll get 30K — the first part — of this story for free, bare minimum. Not as a promo gambit, I’m sorry to say. Who knows, maybe some are willing to give away 30K to kickstart a book, but nah, that ain’t me. Isn’t a measure of promo genius/insanity (take your pick), nor any grand altruism on my part either, but more a cue of my wtf-evers. Still, 30K is more than some of my pay-me-some-moneys titles. For now, I’m just enjoying the writing and really, is there a better way to kick off 2015 than that? Nope, I say. Nope, nope, nope.

Here’s to 2015 — may the coming year be a scary, awesome, wicked fun ride.

Kari

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For Whom the Heart Stone Burns

Act 1: Safe Travels

With mortar and pestle, grind together two parts rosemary and one part patchouli while focusing on a journey free of obstacles. Form the herbs into clay and flatten into an amulet. Holding jade in your dominant hand, infuse the stone with your will and intent for safe and successful travels. Press the charged stone into your amulet and place it between two purple candles. While lighting the candles, repeat:
Bless’d by the light of Lady Moon,
I’ll reach my destination soon.
This trip shall safe and happy be
for all concerned, including me.

Chapter One

Becket wiped weariness from his eyes, smearing God only knew how much dust and cobwebs over his sweaty face before he reached for the packing tape to assemble another box. An army of sturdy wooden crates waited downstairs. He’d filled huge ones with Theo’s collection of apothecary bottles containing tinctures with labels in his uncle’s neat flowing script and dated the summer before he disappeared. Another crate held Granny Douglas’s china. Still more protected pictures and paintings that had hung on the walls on the first floor. Becket had discovered the packing crates in the barn behind the house, dozens of them. Who knew where Theo had found them or why he’d dragged them to the house in Lancaster. Becket had used them for the items he’d haul to a storage locker. Cardboard, he’d saved for stuff in Theo’s cramped and cluttered workroom.

The crap he never wanted to see again.

Candles. Stones. Amulets. Bunches of crumbling sage, dill, and angelica. Dried herbs and trinkets spilled from every corner and nook, piled atop stacks of worn leather books. Hung from both windows and the door’s lintel.

Where did you go this time, Theo? What ugly mess did you land in?

Familiar tension bunched Becket’s shoulders.

What the fuck happened?

Blowing out a long breath, Becket let it go. Again. Instead of giving in to grief and maddening unanswered questions, he set the box he’d taped together on a clear spot on Theo’s worktable. Because Theo was dead. Didn’t matter where his body was buried or what might have brought his uncle to that unhappy end. Becket was still alone. He grabbed files, books, and the scattered detritus of Theo’s life and stuffed them into the box, already anticipating what dragging this shit to the burn barrel would do to his back. Theo would’ve been pissed, but at least the bonfire would be personally satisfying to Becket. If the son of a bitch hadn’t wanted Becket burning his magic crap, he should’ve stuck around. Instead, the flake had died on him.

Maybe he hadn’t worked through his anger yet, but the fire was still a good idea. Cathartic. Becket frowned at the mountains of stuff still to go through in Theo’s inner sanctum, where he felt the presence of his uncle most, even not quite a year after the man had vanished.

He’d hoped his uncle would turn up for months. Of course, he had. Theo was…Well, Theo was Theo and his uncle had been so obnoxious the last couple of years, Becket had made the drive from Maryland to the boxy little house in Pennsylvania less and less frequently. He regretted that now. If he’d been around more…Becket frowned and stuffed a stack of loose papers into the box. No, what-ifs had made him crazy enough. He was done with that. The harsh truth was nothing he could have done would’ve mattered. If Becket had still slept in the bedroom down the hall, preserved since he’d turned eighteen and gotten the hell out, Theo would be just as gone. If anything, moving out had helped. Instead of shouting, he and Theo had learned to talk to each other. Sort of.

Still, he’d hoped. Theo had disappeared before. In high school, Becket had grown accustomed to envelopes with a crisp twenty or two inside, taped to the milk in the fridge.

On the envelope, he’d invariably find:

B ~ Following a lead on a frequency stone. Back in a few days.

or,

B—Invited to Elsie’s for Beltane. See ya next week, kiddo!

Taped. To. The milk.

He’d asked Theo once, why duct-tape notes to dairy products?

Theo had grinned his most infuriating smile and saluted Becket’s habitual glass of milk with a bottle of Coke. “Because you are far too responsible to neglect your bones.”

So when Theo had vanished last fall, Becket hadn’t been unduly alarmed at first. Theo took off sometimes and once Becket moved out, there was no milk to which to affix explanatory notes. Except Theo hadn’t returned. Not this time. With Theo’s history of wandering, the cops hadn’t been willing to take a missing person report until Becket drove to Lancaster and found Theo’s wallet and cell phone in the same spot as the box Becket now packed on Theo’s worktable. Not that the police could do anything. What leads were there to follow? Becket had found Theo’s jeep parked in the garage. Barring the automated bill payments Becket had set up years ago and regular royalty deposits from the occult books his uncle had authored, there’d been no movement in Theo’s bank accounts, nor credit card charges. Nothing was missing in the house, no signs of forced entry. No threatening emails or mysterious texts, either.

Theo had just…vanished.

Becket had been optimistically convinced Theo would show up one day, though. His uncle, who had been younger than Becket was now when Becket’s parents had died, would appear at Becket’s Maryland apartment and flash his incorrigible smile. He’d spin another tale about chasing stupid stones and…and…and…and Becket would brain him with a 2×4, probably. Theo would be as aggravating, as flaky, and as devoted in his weird way to Becket as ever. And he’d be alive.

He hadn’t given up that fantasy until the anniversary of the car wreck. Theo knew how hard that day was for Becket. Theo was a selfish asshole occasionally and a lousy guardian frequently, but he had never failed Becket when it counted, not on that day.

Until last week.

When Becket had finished grieving, as much for the uncle he now accepted must be dead as for his lost parents, he’d asked Sadie to shuffle his appointments to other massage therapists and made this final drive to Lancaster. Fortunately, Theo had put Becket’s name on the household accounts the first time he’d screwed up paying the electric bill while he was on one of his adventures; closing up the house wasn’t as difficult as it could’ve been. Theo had even added Becket’s name to the deed of the house two years ago. Never mentioned that to Becket and boy, hadn’t that caused a few interesting moments with the cops? They’d eventually stopped looking at Becket as a suspect, though, and hey, Theo’s odd foresight had made settling his estate considerably more convenient.

All Becket had to do was pack up the house.

Too bad that had turned into an emotional minefield. Everything haunted Becket. Theo’s clothes, still smelling faintly of burnt sage and the horrible peppermint tea he drank. His uncle’s favorite mug, the one Becket had given him their first winter solstice together. The photos of a much younger Theo arm in arm and grinning with Becket’s dad…Had Becket ever thanked Theo for displaying those snapshots? For sharing stories and memories of his parents that had kept them alive for Becket?

He closed his eyes while the hurt ebbed and flowed.

Theo had been a pain in the ass. They’d fought bitterly and Becket was man enough to admit part of that was his fault. He’d been twelve when the accident had orphaned him, but he’d known better. Had been raised better. He’d been an angry little shit to Theo, who at the age of twenty had never once shied from instant parenthood, though walking away would’ve been easier. Becket had rewarded that with six years of solid misery before heading to college. Theo might’ve been relieved if Becket had stayed out all night in his teens, partying or boosting cars. His uncle would’ve known how to deal with a punk, having been one himself in that not too distant past. Coping with a snotty tween who insisted on organic spinach, balanced checkbooks, and espoused a devout belief in absolutely no such thing as magic had been a shock to him.

Becket would give anything—everything—to argue with him one last time. Figuring out how to disagree had taken years, learning the hard way which swings were safe to take and which punches should be pulled, but once he and his uncle had hammered out their rules of engagement…

God, Becket missed him.

He hooked an old cane chair with his foot and sat at the worktable, leaning his forehead against the box. As an adult, Becket still didn’t believe in magic and, in fact, was sure Theo’s silly pursuit of stones had probably cost his uncle’s life. If Becket hadn’t been so mocking and cruel, his contempt fading to strained civility in only the past few years, would Theo have confided in him? If Becket had recognized the dangers into which his uncle had recklessly waded, might he have warned Theo in time? Why hadn’t Becket offered to accompany Theo on one of his trips? Expressed even casual interest instead of cool disdain?

He should’ve been there for Theo. Becket had failed him—the one person who had stuck by Becket, no matter how terrible Becket had been to him. Becket lifted a shaky hand and pushed his fingers through his hair, feeling that regret seep into his bones.

He’d loved Theo. Just not enough.

And now, he was gone.

Becket’s shoulders drooped.

He couldn’t burn Theo’s work. He wanted to. The needful fury to destroy it all jolted into him and zipped through his nerve endings. Magic, Theo’s cursed magic, had stolen his uncle from Becket. The contents of the box and everything else in this room had killed Theo. Becket might never know the details behind his uncle’s disappearance, but of that much, Becket was positive. Magic had happened to Theo, the dark underbelly of his uncle’s delusions.

Rather than packing up Theo’s occult debris and hauling it to the burn barrel on the other side of the barn, Becket grudgingly reached into the box for the first fat file. Saving Theo wasn’t possible. It was far too late for that. But, inside this box, he might find clues to what had taken Theo from him. If not the box, maybe the bookcase. If not there, perhaps the cupboards. Theo’s grimoire was here too, hidden away. The police had never located it.

Becket opened the file, smothering a wince at the picture of a blood red stone resting on a bed of white silk. One of Theo’s damn stones…and to Becket’s shame, he wasn’t sure which rock this was. He turned the photo, relieved to see his uncle’s handwriting on a page photocopied from a book—red jasper. Theo had attached the info to the back of the photo.

Becket bent to his work.

He wouldn’t fail Theo again.

* * *

He didn’t notice the first hint unveiling the secrets of Theo’s disappearance immediately. Or the second clue. Or, for that matter, the third. Not consciously, anyway, but some instinct had compelled him to place the stones in a pile on the worktable. Not magic. Not power. Had Becket believed in such nonsense, which he didn’t, no one could have been more convinced that Becket possessed not a stingy sniff of magic than Theodore Douglas. His instincts were good, though. Even Theo had said so.

Becket had amassed a pile of five stones, all roughly the shape of his fist and uncut, at the center of the worktable before the significance hit him.

These rocks weren’t Theo’s stones.

After contentious teen years with Theo, Becket knew what the stones his uncle had collected looked like, the color variations and shapes. In a fit of temper, he’d thrown the flourite chunk through the living room window once. Theo had been so proud at Becket’s loss of his rigid self-control at the time that he hadn’t flinched at the expense of replacing the window glass. Becket hefted this green flourite, felt the hard edges pressing into his palm, gauged the weight—not the same stone. He studied a blue rock he identified as blue lace agate and looked closely at the pattern of striations. The bands of dark blue were wrong. The agate Theo had enjoyed fidgeting with had a wider base too. And the enormous yellow citrine. Theo hadn’t owned one that big while Becket had lived here. Becket would have remembered.

Granted, Becket had moved out five years ago. Theo undoubtedly had gathered many stones since and without the expense of raising a teenager, his uncle would’ve also had more money for those purchases. Becket had the sneaking suspicion the other green stone on the worktable was an emerald—a natural gemstone, since Theo would’ve eschewed lab-created stones as magically corrupt. That emerald would’ve cost a pretty penny.

Excitement zinged through Becket, anyway. Because these stones, strange and unfamiliar, were important. Theo had been picky about his rocks, often foregoing a purchase because the sample wasn’t perfect, and once a stone had met Theo’s exacting standards, he’d moved on to the next rock on his list. Once obtained, he never looked for that stone again. “Why start collecting a second set of rocks?” Becket glared at the stones, as if the gems and crystals on the table had set out to thwart him. “And what was he planning to do with them?”

The problem was, no matter the years Theo had invested in studying stones, the countless leads he’d traced, and his uncle’s program of careful acquisition throughout Becket’s youth, Becket had no idea of these stones’ ultimate purpose, as a set. Becket vaguely remembered his uncle casting grids of rocks in precise patterns to achieve specific effects. He just didn’t know what goal Theo had believed this combination of rocks would fulfill. Health? Wealth? Wisdom and foresight? Depending on each stone’s position and how Theo charged the grid, there could be hundreds of possible hoped-for results, but Theo had never spoken of what he had believed this collection would accomplish. Becket’s sole hint was his uncle’s stubborn insistence this unique set of stones channeled powerful magic—cursed, exasperating, and irrational magic. A magic that had gotten Theo killed? Most likely.

Staring at the rocks, Becket wondered. And worried.

Had Theo finally completed his collection?

Becket couldn’t remember a time when Theo hadn’t toiled at completing this set of rocks. When the lives of Becket’s parents had snuffed out on a wet highway almost a dozen years ago, Theo had possessed four stones including the dark green fluorite a teenage Becket had later hurled through the window. While Becket had doggedly perfected schoolwork his guardian had never expressed the slightest interest in reviewing, Theo had studied ripped and dusty books with battered covers in search of the next stone. The first stones had been easy. Theo had told him that much before Becket’s grief-fueled contempt had squashed further overtures about Theo’s “obsession with fucking rocks.” Whatever Theo had intended for these stones, several were common and readily obtained. One or two others, like the emerald, would’ve been costly, but barring the price, Theo would’ve faced no obstacles acquiring them. Theo had worked tirelessly on the few not so easily located. The man had staked years of his life into finding those rare stones.

“He wouldn’t have squandered time and money on extra stones until he’d finished his collection.” Becket traced the edge of the yellow citrine, the cold hard surface smooth under his finger. “And he wouldn’t have bothered acquiring additional stones for a second set unless he was sure these stones were effective.”

Logic told him his uncle had completed his collection…and used them. Since Theo had bought these additional stones, the first set must have worked. Fantastically.

Had Becket been so closed off to Theo’s fascination with the occult that Theo hadn’t been willing to celebrate the achievement of his dream with Becket? Or at least mention his goal’s fulfillment?

Becket grimaced, but then walked back his self-recriminations because Becket had never been able to shut Theo up, not really. He’d been more discreet—secretive?—the past couple of years about his adventures in magic, but the man couldn’t help himself. Theo didn’t believe in subtlety. Or tact. When Theo brought home a new stone, he couldn’t resist showing it off and rhapsodizing over it as though the chunk of rock was a lover. He’d tediously regaled an unwilling and increasingly hostile Becket about the properties of new acquisitions since forever. Even before his parents had died, Becket had been capable of reciting the metaphysical properties of the green fluorite he’d tossed through the window in subsequent years, ironic considering the stone was reputedly protective of its bearers not only in the spiritual realm but in physical space too.

It definitely hadn’t protected the window.

Theo had just laughed. And showed off his next new stone. And the next.

Becket was grateful for the meticulous notes and resources in Theo’s office. They revived his memories on which stone was which and what each was used for, but this was only a refresher, not a crash course. Becket knew. He just needed a prompt or two to recall Theo’s excited rumble extoling the virtues of blue lace agate, which relieved tension and stress, or sodalite, which intensified creativity and vision. After living with his uncle for six years and delighted rhapsodies from Theo in the years since, Becket was a grudging expert on the woo woo properties of probably every rock, crystal, and mineral on the planet.

Yes, Theo would have told Becket he’d completed his collection.

That he hadn’t indicated, strongly, that Theo had believed he had sound reasons to keep that information from Becket, reasons that had little to do with Becket’s reluctance about the subject. That had never stopped Theo before. Yet, his uncle had suddenly decided to stop sharing. Why?

What had he needed this particular combination of rocks for?

Frustrated, Becket shoved away the reference book he’d been reading…or rather skimming for Theo’s margin notes. Who cared about Theo’s alteration of the book’s directions to create fluorite elixir? Not Becket. It was water, for chrissakes. Water a rock had soaked in. Adding sodalite at the last to amplify flourite’s boost to spiritual journeys was probably very interesting to nuts like Theo, but what did that have to do with his uncle’s disappearance? Not one whit.

The answers weren’t in the stacks of papers, books, pictures, maps, and files. What happened wasn’t in the loose pile of stones Becket had accumulated while picking through Theo’s workroom the past two days, either. Curious that Theo had dispersed his precious rocks rather than grouping them in one spot, though. The floor safe Becket had experienced no little challenge opening, for instance, would’ve been a sensible hiding place for all the stones, especially considering the monetary value of some of the rocks, but when had Theo ever behaved rationally?

Searching Theo’s house hadn’t resolved any of his questions. If anything, those questions had multiplied. The stones were silent, though. Just lumps of minerals and crystals, of gems. Theo’s wealth of references, maps, and pictures didn’t tell the story of what Theo had hoped to achieve with this stone set, either. Not that Becket could discern.

Theo’s grimoire.

Becket had to find it. His uncle’s diary of spells, rituals, and reports of his activities in the occult would tell Becket everything—probably more than he wanted to know. Where was it?

Not in Theo’s workroom. Becket had invested two sleepless days and nights going over this space. Somewhere else then. In the house—Theo would’ve kept his grimoire close.

Becket pushed back from the worktable, mounded high with books yanked from Theo’s shelves, none of which had told him a blasted thing. He stretched to relieve the kinks in his back, which throbbed dully, and entertained the idea of a Percocet or three. But after surgeries and physical therapy resulting from the accident that had killed his parents, Becket had long ago sworn a solemn vow against pharmaceuticals that muddied his thinking and dulled his senses. Never again. Wintergreen would do the trick. He vaguely recalled emptying his bottle of salve last night, but he never traveled without his massage table and his case of essential oils. Wintergreen, cypress, and marjoram. He’d make more salve. He’d be all right.

He’d resume his search for Theo’s grimoire in the morning. The sooner he found it, the better, but he’d be more effective fresh. He hadn’t slept in days unless dozing over an encyclopedia of herbal tinctures counted, which Becket’s spine informed him didn’t count at all.

If he guaranteed his rest with the help of lavender swiped from Theo’s stash, there was no one but Becket to know. Or care. Depressing thought, but that didn’t stop Becket from shuffling to the kitchen, where he brewed a tea with enough lavender in it to knock him on his ass. No more dreams. He couldn’t take the nightmares, not tonight. “Salute,” he whispered to the midnight black of the back yard through Theo’s kitchen window before downing the steaming mug in one gulp.

The lavender had begun working on him by the time he’d blended more deep pain relief salve and applied it to his stiff back in practiced clockwise strokes. “Better than Percocet,” he said, lips curving as he screwed the lid on his pot of salve and then chuckled at the zen-like drag of lavender on his frayed nerves. “Better than Xanax too.”

Why had his uncle concentrated on rocks instead of the herbs and essential oils a thousand years of alternative medicine had confirmed were effective? Mixing a salve didn’t require make-believe magic powers, just knowledge and skill. “Not that the cops don’t think I’m a kook too,” he said and laughed. “Princes of woo woo, the both of us,” he told a picture of a beaming Theo that he hadn’t yet removed from the upstairs hallway as he made his slow way to his bedroom. “For all my loud protests, this apple didn’t fall far from the crazy tree.” Becket paused at his bedroom door, grateful Theo had never rubbed it in when Becket had chosen to go into massage and aromatherapy. While his chosen field had risen in respect as science had begun supporting the credibility of massage and aromatherapy techniques, Becket was painfully aware most still believed he was as much a fruit loop as his uncle.

“No healing grids, though, or stone sets. No elixirs,” he mumbled, stripping off his sweatshirt. He unbuttoned his jeans. Shoved them down his legs. He needed a shower, but couldn’t muster the energy. “Stupid lavender.” He yanked the comforter back from his bed. “Talking to myself too. Thanks for turning me into a nutter, Theo. Thanks a lot.”

Exhausted, he barely managed to douse the lamp before his head hit the pillow. Lavender didn’t usually affect him so intensely. As he flopped on the mattress and squirmed for a comfortable position, preferably one that wouldn’t twist the muscles of his lower back into an agonizing pretzel, he was forced to admit the past few days of sorting out Theo’s disrupted life had been harder on him than he’d anticipated. Stress and anguish had eroded him away. “Where are you, Theo?” He sighed, wriggling around a lump in his mattress. “You believed in magic. The house must be saturated with your powers by now, even after a year of your absence. I’m finally willing to listen. Prove that your magic exists.” Frowning, Becket shifted on the bed again. “Help me.”

Naturally, no aid came.

Because there was no magic in the world, this house, or his room. Never had been. The only change here was his old lumpy mattress, which had finally and decisively thrown too many springs for comfort since his last overnight visit to Pennsylvania. Blowing out a dispirited breath, Becket heaved himself from the bed. He’d just have to flip the damn mattress. Or else wake tomorrow with the muscles of his back singing a chorus of misery.

On went the bedside lamp.

Off went the comforter, pillows, and sheets.

Becket glared at the bed and more specifically, the uncooperative mattress. Moving it when his back was already sore? “This is going to hurt.” He’d never backed down from a fight in his life, though, so he leaned down to grasp one edge. Grunting, he slid the mattress off the box springs and onto the floor—

Revealing a thick black leather volume.

Theo’s grimoire.

Foreboding skittered up Becket’s achy spine. Bone-weary and dopey from the lavender, he gazed around the room as though the magic he’d called forth might miraculously produce Theo as well as the book, but alas, no. With numb fingers, he wedged the mattress between his nightstand and his old dresser. He eyed the white envelope duct taped to the cover of Theo’s grimoire warily, his stomach roiling.

Wasn’t magic. There was no such thing as magic.

Just Theo being Theo again.

Weirdo.

Like knows like, didn’t it?

When he reached for the envelope, Becket’s hand still shook.

B~
If I haven’t made it back…I’m sorry. But you know I had to try.
I trust you to finish what I can’t. Scatter the second set of stones, and then bury them. Burn everything else.
I love you, kiddo.
T

Instead of the usual twenty, Theo had tucked a thin shard of a milky rose-colored stone inside the envelope with a scrap of paper. Heart thudding as he read his uncle’s last words to him, Becket knew he would not honor them.

Don’t follow me.

* ~ * ~ *

So. Unedited, but the start of what I’ve been working on the past little while. No idea on a release date. More of this will be coming, though. Not the whole book, sorry, but more of part 1? Why the hell not? LOL

Wishing love and laughter to you & yours during this holiday season…

Kari

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Ho Ho Ho — Flash Fic Holiday Blog Hop!

ffhbh_badge4-200Ready for some heart-warming holiday cheer? Click on the image above for some fantastic (and FREE) flash fics from some of your fave M/M authors! And read on for my holiday contribution…

Proof

Lane stared at the ornament. The canned Christmas carols piping through the store’s sound system faded away, as did the crowd animal rumble of holiday shoppers. He forgot the irritation of finding a parking spot, his worry about money, even the constant fear of doing the wrong thing. Again. The transparent glass ball nestled atop its cheesy display of fake evergreen bunches and red ribbon captured his entire focus, holding him transfixed.

The ornament was fragile, the glass so thin and delicate Lane feared leaning closer to examine the useless bit of frippery more closely, as though even his breath might shatter the thing. Why had the shopkeeper placed the ball so prominently in a high traffic area, when only one accidental nudge from a customer could send it tumbling from its precarious nest? One moment of inattention and carelessness promised a disaster of shattered glass, impossible to sweep free of the store’s thick carpet. Someone could get hurt.

Still, the twinkling lights reflected on the curved surface of the bauble just so, mesmerizing him. He needed to move. Jason wanted to pick out an ornament, a special one recognizing their first holiday together. Lane had only met the gregarious florist late last summer, outside his neat little shop near the methadone clinic. Instead of cringing from a scruffy ex-con in a battered leather jacket, Jason had smiled at him. Lane’s scraggly ponytail, three days of unshaven stubble shadowing his jaw, and the prison pallor that had marked him as newly paroled hadn’t put Jason off. He’d chattered. Graciously thanked him for rescuing the enormous spray of blooms and greenery that had been tipping from his overburdened arms. He’d let Lane help carry deliveries to his shop’s van, then invited him back for coffee later.

As though Lane was no more dangerous than the spray of lilies going to some rich bitch’s wedding.

He’d gone back for coffee all right, even though he’d already gotten his methadone and the clinic was across town from the cheap room Lane rented and well out of his way. Groaned through the exquisite blowjob Jason had treated him to in the back of that van too. Kneeling over Lane’s dick, Jason had looked up at him after, a stray curl of sunny blond hair falling over his forehead, his lips shiny with spit, red, and swollen. Those lush fuckable lips had twisted into a beaming smile and Lane had been a goner. Done for. Game over. He’d been hooked on that mouth—and Jason—ever since.

Whatever Jason wanted, Lane made damn sure he got.

A boyfriend with a steady job? Check. Moving crates through a warehouse on the docks might not be glamorous, but it paid well. Just enough to cover his half of the rent and utilities when he and Jason had moved in together.

A lover who wasn’t a junky? Check. Maybe he’d intended to rob Jason that first day. Maybe not. Not one sunset passed without Lane craving a fix, but he hadn’t shaken Jason down for cash last summer or gone looking for heroin since. Instead, he’d become a regular at the clinic that had seemed so depressing and impossible the morning they’d met.

Lane had learned to order the fancy coffees Jason liked, how to uniformly chop vegetables his boy needed while cooking their meals, and that falling asleep with a short, skinny bundle of bones that smelled of the roses Jason worked with settled something deep and troubling inside him.

Lane couldn’t remember the last time he’d cared about the holidays or decorating a tree, but if Jason wanted to invest three hours of a rare Saturday off work canvasing specialty stores and boutiques for a first Christmas together ornament, Lane would make damn sure they found exactly what had popped into his demented head as perfect.

Like maybe this ornament.

He didn’t startle at the arms looping around his waist under his coat or at the warm weight pressing behind him. The familiar scent of flowers wafted around him even before Jason leaned his head against Lane’s bicep. “I thought I’d lost you,” Jason said. “In the crowd.”

“Never.” Not in the crowd. Not to prison. Not to the monkey riding Lane’s back. Anywhere Jason was? That was home. Lane would never be lost again. He shifted his hands to cover Jason’s, now clasped around Lane’s middle, and squeezed to return the hug he still couldn’t quite believe was his any time he wanted. He jerked his chin to the display. “What about that one?”

Blond hair spilling around him like a golden halo, Jason tipped his head this way and that, blue eyes sparkling with interest as he examined the pretty, delicate bauble. “The year is etched in the glass,” he said, his low voice lifting with interest.

“You said my present had to have the year on it.” Not that Lane cared about the damn ornament, whether Jason’s gift included snowmen or penguins dripping scarves, neither of which had passed Jason’s muster as good enough. Nor had the countless ornaments Jason had inspected over the course of the morning. Lane would’ve been satisfied with the crystal heart in the first store they’d visited, but not Jason who knew exactly what he was looking for and wouldn’t stop until he’d found that. “I like the snow,” Lane added, which he supposed was true. Fluffy flakes of God knows what had settled within the clear globe on display, glittering faintly.

“You do?” Jason looked up, transferring his concentration from the ornament to Lane.

He nodded. “Yeah.”

“You aren’t just saying that because you’re tired of shopping,” Jason said, eyebrow arched dubiously. “Because we can stop. I can finish looking by myself later.”

“I’m not tired,” Lane lied. Nothing would convince him to suggest a halt to this mission until their prize had been won. Doing this together was important to Jason. “I really do like it.” He’d liked twenty other ornaments before this, too, but he opted against mentioning that. Smarter.

“Oh.” Glance still suspicious, Jason resumed the obsessive inspection of this store’s quarry. He frowned. Squeezed his arms around Lane’s waist. “You don’t think it’s too…too…breakable? The glass looks thin. If we aren’t careful, very careful, this won’t last a year.”

And when he’d first met Jason, Lane had been positive they wouldn’t last the hour. The day. A week. “This is the one,” Lane said, suddenly as certain of that as he was of the man whose arms held him tight, “and it’s my gift. You wanted me along to pick the right ornament. This present had to be perfect. That’s what you said.” When Jason just blinked up at him, Lane couldn’t resist bending down for a brief kiss. To hell with the other holiday shoppers. If they were offended, they could fuck off. “This is what I want. We won’t break it, I promise. We’ll be careful.”

Hadn’t the both of them been careful so far?

Finally, Jason flashed that smile. The same grin that had conned Lane into helping instead of robbing Jason that first morning, that had charmed him into the back of Jason’s van later. The one that had melted him in ways even Jason’s extremely skilled blowjob hadn’t. “If you’re sure,” Jason said.

“I am.” Lane had never been so sure of anything in his life. No matter how fragile or delicate both he and that ornament were, nothing could be safer. He had faith, not just in Jason. Lane wasn’t the same shaky man Jason had seduced, not any more. Lane had faith in himself. “Now go pay for my gift so I can take you home and thank you properly.”

“All right then.” Jason hugged Lane’s middle tight before perching on tiptoe to kiss Lane again. “Merry Christmas.”

With Jason’s kiss still warming his lips, Lane smiled too. “Merry Christmas, baby.”

* ~ * ~ *

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Black Friday Bargain Basement Smut!

Hoping you had a fantastic Thanksgiving! I did make it home so I’m 100% full of happy. :-)

But…now it’s crazypants Black Friday time. Y’all been shopping yet? I have. In my pjs, no bra, on my couch, cause if you think I’m going to hie my butt out the door to join in the Black Friday melee, you’re nuts, LOL. I value my life too much. Also, I’m broke. ;-)

Anyhoo, if you aren’t all shopped out, I’ve got a deal or two for you!

IDont

99 cents

at all vendors

thru Christmas Day!

and…

BlackFriday_newsletter

Including:

CollaredMed$2.39

Foreshock_590x900

$0.69

BumpInTheNight_500x750$4.49

 

Happy shopping…and happy reading!

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Pervy Werewolves? Hell to the yes! Tame a Wild Human

TameAWildHuman_1800x2700HRCOMING JANUARY 19TH!

Drugged, bound, and left as bait on the cusp of the lunar cycle, Wyatt Redding is faced with a terrifying set of no-win scenarios. Best case: he survives the coming days as a werewolf pack’s plaything and returns to the city as a second-class citizen with the mark—and protection—of the pack. Worst case: the wolves sate their lusts with Wyatt’s body, then send him home without their protection, condemning him to live out the rest of his short life as a slave to the worst of humanity’s scorn and abuse.

Wyatt’s only chance is to swallow every ounce of pride, bury his fear, and meekly comply with every wicked desire and carnal demand the wolf pack makes of him. He expects three days of sex and humiliation. What he doesn’t expect is to start enjoying it. Or to grow attached to his captor and pack Alpha, Cole.

As the lunar cycle ends, Wyatt begins to realize that the only thing to fear more than being sent home without the pack’s protection is being sent home at all.

* ~ * ~ *

Baby, it might be cold outside, but I guaran-damn-tee your January will be scorching. :D My sooper seekrit shifter smutorama, Tame a Wild Human, is available for pre-order right the feck NOW at Riptide.

WOO HOO!

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Better late than never? MATING SEASON!

It’s not very often an author misses her own release date, but…ahem…Demonstrably, that happens. At least it happens to me. Mortifying, really. Dh’s been ill and although he’s on the mend now, it’s very true to say the last little while has not been fun times in the Gregg neighborhood. Vast understatement. With one thing and another, “Mating Season”’s release sailed right past me. (Good God!)

MatingSeason_500x750

He didn’t believe in the monster of the lake . . . but that didn’t make it any less real.

When Danny needs a getaway, his best friend goads him into a week-long hiking trip. Who cares if local superstitions and old wives tales warn the wary to avoid the lake once summer nights turn chilly? The trails are still pretty, the wildlife just as plentiful, and the fall colors beautiful for the lens of Danny’s digital camera. Nothing sinister could happen, not here.

Danny was wrong. Assaulted by lusty tentacles that push his body—and his sanity—to the brink, Danny is then held captive by his best friend, betrayed for the sake of science. Unable to escape and terrified of the changes in his body, Danny’s alternatives are few. He will be returned, over and over, to the monster.

But maybe his future isn’t as bleak as it originally seemed.

Many, MANY thank you’s and sincere gratitude to those who noticed “Mating Season” had begun to strut without my head’s up and made “Mating Season” a site-wide bestseller at ARe as well as bestseller on Amazon’s Gay & Lesbian Horror list. Wow. God’s honest truth, that made getting back to work a whole lot less of an ordeal. So…thank you!

For those of you who didn’t know about the release, my bit of super duper creepy tentacle smexin is available at:

Riptide
Amazon
ARe
Barnes & Noble
and other retailers!

Please heed the content warnings, which I don’t have in front of me at the moment, but trust me, are plentiful. With reason. If “Mating Season” doesn’t turn your crank while freaking you right the hell out, nothing will. I kitchen sinked this one, you are hereby forewarned, LOL.

Buuuuuuuuuuuuuuuut…if the tentacle festival of smutty woot that is “Mating Season” happens to strike you as an OMFG Yes Please this Halloween, you might want to check out the other single releases from the Bump in the Night anthology in which “Mating Season” initially appeared: Laylah Hunter’s “Resurrection Man” as well as Heidi Belleau and Sam Schooler’s “Blasphemer, Sinner, Saint.” My hearty congrats to those authors on their releases!

Finally, a brief heya to newbies (and veterans in the m/m writerly mosh pit too, for that matter)…The next time you think you screwed up? HA! At least you didn’t miss your own release date, man. Farkin embarrassing. Egads.

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