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.
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?
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.
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!”
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.