I may have started off this past week with a tankful of optimism, only to find myself running on fumes as I neared its end.  The world kept turning on its axis and time appeared to be passing by seamlessly for everyone—everyone except for me.  I’d racked up an untold number of hours stressing and waiting, waiting and stressing, desperate to sense something from my diamond wand.  A whisper…  A tug…  A tingle…  But no…  All I felt—all I could ever feel was the crushing weight of deader-than-dead air.  Total radio silence.  I was a phone that would never ring, nor fire off the slightest “ping” of a text, I’d decided.  A face that kept staring at a computer screen, waiting to catch a Wi-Fi signal, only to get a No Connection message no matter how many times I tapped my finger.

And that was hell I’d been living in, day in and day out over the past five days.  No manner or degree of smile could fully mask the scar of disappointment it had left, despite how determined I was to keep it hidden.  So it would seem that I’d proven Maria’s assessment correct: a good actress, I was not.  Not if I couldn’t even fool Mike, a guy whose head was up their own ass ninety-nine percent of the time.

Tanner had searched for the creature every night this past week, all alone, using himself as bait—never finding a trace of it.  And what had been my contribution to the search?  Simply put, my instructions were “to keep an eye out for it”, to and from my classes, or whenever else I was out and about.  A strategy I found far too passive, particularly for someone whose blood was still boiling over a creature stealing her wand in the first place.  So, “keep my eyes open”, I did—with the help of some added magical assistance.  And I couldn’t have cared less how ridiculous I looked walking around with my right eye locked in a squint, holding the medallion in place like I was a supernatural version of the Monopoly Man.  And despite spelling my makeshift monocle with invisibility, cloaking the hard crinkle of the muscles securing it was impossible.  That would have required a head-to-toe veiling, and I wanted the creature to see me.  I needed it to stalk me.  Surely the creature wanted the same thing, especially if it suspected my purse did more than conceal my identity—if it held something magical, something valuable to me.  Sadly though, as I came and went, I never saw the creature or a glimmer of its magic.  The only things the unveiling power of the labradorite lens picked up were the glow of a few faeries now and then.  A surprising discovery, granted, getting to see all those Veil creatures flitting around their linked beings.  Still, I would have traded their sweet little faces for the ugly mug of that creature in a heartbeat.

By Friday, my longstanding dedication to my education was well into a downward spiral.  Lines of text were nothing but a blur, no matter how many times I read them.  Even throughout my lectures, I was far too distracted by the possibility of that creature showing up for anything to sink into my head.  All I did was look at the surrounding students’ faces through the medallion—whenever I wasn’t scrutinizing the ceiling or the floor or the walls of the classroom.  Except during Tanner’s lectures, fearing he would notice, and in turn, start speculating about how psycho-obsessed I’d become.  Though truthfully, all I wanted was to be out there, actively hunting that creature, non-freaking-stop.  It had come to Yardley looking for Tanner, and as a bonus, had found me, the Diamond Talisman.  Surely it hadn’t given up and moved on—I wouldn’t think.  Still, the chance of that scenario turning into a reality hung over my head like a nightmare I couldn’t shake.  So that made time of the essence, made devising a foolproof plan to catch it more crucial.  And sadly, that was where all of my concentration lay — on finding that sanity-robbing bastard so I could get back my wand.  Finding that creature and finding my wand…  That was the never-ending song playing inside my head—that same hair-pulling tune from the time my eyes opened in the morning until those hungry buzzards came to bedevil me in my dreams—night after night, after night.

My only relief, and I mean the only thing I found to be of any comfort, was Tanner—the unwavering hope that beamed in his eyes and the warm wrap of his arms.  That’s what kept me tethered to what mental faculties I had left.  And when he wasn’t physically around, soothing my worst fears and offering his reassurances, I used the cling of my bedsheets as a stand-in—a bed of roses to my plethora of worries.  I just hoped their magic was strong enough to hold.

 

 

A day that will live in infamy.

I remembered the first time I’d heard those words spoken by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, while watching a video in my Seventh Grade U.S. History class.  How poignant and profound they had sounded.  And though I hadn’t thrown in the towel as of yet and marked August 17th as a day that felt just as personally horrific and monumental, I feared that today just might make the cut—when it came to my credit card.

Though knowing how Katie’s parents had spoiled their little princess throughout her past birthdays, I was determined to make today just as special.  Aside from my BFF’s fashion-binge, a few necessity purchases for myself, and instructing the accountant to make some donations to my favorite charities, I hadn’t touched it.  That bank account was just sitting there, growing with interest and more revenue from Bea’s Weight-Loss company.  So why not spend a little of it on her?  The girl who didn’t stand a chance of receiving the first birthday card from any of her relatives, let alone a gift?  Sadly, not even from Bethesda.  But the most important thing on my agenda today was that I refused to let my bad mood ruin a second of it.  Even if it meant I had to call upon something I swore I would never use to mask my emotions ever, ever again—my amethyst.

Just like we’d planned, Katie was eagerly sitting on the steps outside her apartment building when I arrived at ten o’clock, hell-bent on keeping my visit under her cousin’s radar—as usual.  And of course, I didn’t object, seeing how it was “her day” after all.

Katie had the door already flung open and was hopping into the passenger seat before the wheels of my car came to a full stop.  “So where to, birthday girl?” I asked.  “Late breakfast or straight to shopping?”

Katie’s lips unfurled a proud grin.  “No food and no shopping.”

My foot slid against the brake pedal when my head whipped to hers.  “None?” I blurted, bouncing in my seat.  “You mean there’s no untapped Mecca of high fashion that you’re dying to plunder?”

Katie shook her head.  “You spent enough money on me the last time you were here.  So this time, I thought we could entertain ourselves with a few activities instead.”

“Whatever you want,” I said, still shaking off the stun from the shopaholic’s announcement.

It turned out that Katie’s “activities” had a theme, which was evident from the sign staring back at me through my windshield upon arriving at our first stop: helping me track down my wand.

 

 

 

 

So that pretty much scrapped any hopes of her birthday serving as a distraction.

I’d finally told her this past Tuesday.  She’d sensed something was bothering me, questioning me religiously since it had happened—demanding to know “why I seemed distant” and “what was wrong”.  And I’d felt bad keeping it from her, locked in my vault along with my other omission.  I just didn’t want her to feel like she’d become a dumping ground for all of my problems, especially after what I’d unloaded on her this summer.  Besides, I was still wrestling with the shame and humiliation of it all.  So when my BFF mentioned seeing a news story about the fire that had destroyed Xcavare’s addition to the university’s library, I swallowed my pride and told her everything.  And when I came to the part about my missing wand, the shrillness of her gasp rivaled a dog getting its tail pinched in a door.

I stared at the sign, my hand still on the gearshift.  “Katie, we should be doing something fun today.”

Katie sighed.  “Look, I know how that mind of yours works.  You may be physically sitting here — but it’s a million miles away.  And I want to help you,” she pleaded.  “I’ve spent the past week sneaking into Bethesda’s grimoires looking for spells that might work and calling around to find the best diviners when it comes to locating lost things — so you have to agree to it.”  Katie hiked her brow, her amber eyes etching an adamant line in the sand.  “And besides, it’s MY birthday.”

Truth be told, I was consumed with so much desperation I didn’t care whose hands were helping with the search.  And I couldn’t deny that this was probably the sweetest and most selfless thing she’d ever done, especially today, of all days.

I roused a humble and heartfelt smile.  “All right,” I conceded.  “It can’t hurt to try.”

So with that settled, the two of us strolled into the shop of Devianne Ravenwood, a mystical douser that boasted a one-hundred percent success rate—that came at a price tag of $300 dollars.

Once we’d been seated at the douser’s table, Ms. Ravenwood instructed me to tell her all about the object I sought—what it was and how I’d lost it.  And since I didn’t feel comfortable revealing that it was a sword or that it had been stolen by a creature, I simply told her it was platinum cross that I’d left at the university library.  I even drew her a picture of it, thinking it would help.

Ms. Ravenwood immediately handed me a forked branch that stretched roughly the length of my arm.  A “special” branch, she’d claimed, one from a two-hundred-year old willow tree that had been tended to by a coven of powerful diviners over the years.  Next, the douser directed me to wrap my hands around both its ends, holding the Y-shaped branch like I would the handles of a bicycle.  Then she whipped out her trusty wand, a tapered wooden stick that held a crystal of colorless quartz on its tip, and then used it to cast a circle around me, along with the picture I’d drawn inside it.

I sat there, patient and hopeful, as she chanted a slew of magical words in Latin, all of them aimed at calling upon her personal faery to infuse its powers into the branch, so I could find my lost treasure.  Then she began showering both me, and the dousing stick with an assortment of herbs, followed by an anointment of oil that reeked of hyacinths and something that carried the punch of skunk pee.  Ms. Ravenwood vowed that the spell had essentially turned the branch into a magical dousing-device that would point me in the direction of what I sought—no different than a metal detector locating coins on a beach.  Then the diviner stressed the most important part: making sure my head was focused and clear enough for its magic to work.  She even went as far as to take hold of my hands, just to check the clarity of my spiritual meridians.  To date, I’d never seen someone jump back in a fouler flinch.  The next thing I knew, the woman was snatching the dousing stick right out of my hands and swiping my card through her terminal again, issuing me a full credit.

“Come back when all the bats are out of your belfry,” Ms. Ravenwood had said, just before ushering us out the door.  Even as shocked and dismayed as I was, I couldn’t fault the diviner’s reluctance.  Not when she claimed such a stellar track record.

At the slam of Ms. Ravenwood’s door, Katie turned to me with an encouraging look.  “Maybe we can find a shrink that’s open on Saturdays?  You think?”

I flashed her a half-smile.  “I seriously doubt it.”  From the way we’d been bounced out of there so quickly, I probably needed something more along the lines of a mystical exorcist—someone chanting the crap out of my head to the tune of maracas made from turtle shells and fanning the smoldering trails of white sage all around me with a raven’s feather.

I loosed a sigh.  If only...

Looking more determined than ever, my BFF whipped out her list and then we headed off to our next stop — a new age mysticism emporium called The Pink Elephant.  I didn’t take it as a good sign going in, though I wasn’t about to tell her that.

Katie and I were there for almost two hours, browsing through the shop’s witchy-wares while we waited on its proprietor, a witch by the name of Magnus Drabek, to fashion a magical candle that he claimed would give me peace and patience.  He assured me that if I let its wick burn nonstop, by the time all the candle’s wax had melted away, what I sought would be presented to me.  It wasn’t quite the specific timeline my sanity was craving, but I could live with it.  Though as soon as Magnus emerged from the back of the store, wheeling the candle out on a hand-truck, my hopes for a speedy recovery waned.  And judging from the pillar’s size, the damn thing wouldn’t fit in the back seat of my car, let alone its trunk.  But it turned out that the store offered delivery.  So I requested that it be sent to my BFF’s apartment, instead of my dormitory.  And it wasn’t because Tanner would know that I’d been to a witch-shop, or that A.J. would worry about me burning down the dorm and boiling all of her fish in the process; Katie’s place just had much higher ceilings.

Our third stop on Katie’s list led us to a woman named, Sadie — Sadie the Seer, according to the neon sign hanging in her living room window.  Cassie had given Katie this particular diviner’s card, along with a promise that Sadie was the most skilled scryer that she’d ever seen.  And despite my initial reservations, it turned out that Sadie was the only one to give me any hopeful and credible information.  And I didn’t know whose expression was brighter when the woman gazed into her crystal ball—hers or mine—especially when she began describing my platinum, cross-shaped hilt to a T.  And in the middle of all her hand-waving and chanting, when Sadie announced that she’d found it, I almost jumped out of my seat, feeling a happy-dance was in order.  Then I waited on tenterhooks for her next words, my breaths eager and my hands gripping the sides of my chair to keep me from squirming.  And if she didn’t hurry up and spit out an answer quick, I was reaching in there and pulling it out myself.

After issuing her crystal ball one more ceremonial wave, Sadie met my gaze with pair of eyes so confident they were blinding.

FINALLY, my mind screamed silently.

Sadie cleared her throat with the command of an opera singer and then laid her hands down on the table.  “What you seek, child … rests inside your purse.”  I stared numbly as I watched her eyes fall upon the handbag lying in front of me.  “Your brown one,” Sadie specified.   Then, with an air of triumph striping her brow, the scryer rose from her chair.  “That is all I see,” she stated, followed by, “Two-hundred dollars, please.”

Bless her heart… Mine too, just for getting my hopes up.  Katie’s as well, judging from the way my BFF was beating her head against the edge of Sadie’s padded table.

So it would seem that despite my willingness and fake-upbeat attitude, I still managed to tarnish my BFF’s day.

Though Katie’s list called for two more stops, I thought it best just to quit while we weren’t ahead.  I didn’t think I could take any more disappointing outcomes.  And Katie agreed—thankfully—no arm-twisting required.  Though she did ask me swing back by The Pink Elephant, so she could pick me up a few much-needed charms: one for good luck, one for focus, and one for hope.  At first, I thought I was looking at three tiny ink-blot tests, because I swore I saw some version of a hilt in every one of them.  Though I didn’t dare tell her.

 

 

 

 

 

I fixed my stare to silver charms as Katie pointed to them, matching each of the Chinese symbols to their intended blessings.  Three dimes lay in my palm—that’s what they looked like to me.  And it was these three, teensy-weensy pieces of silver that were supposed to quash all of my bad luck, clear the snakes out my head, and bolster my faith?  If anything, now they were something that should have come super-sized; those little black lines couldn’t possibly hold the amount of magic it would take to achieve all that.

Needing to kill a little time, we ended up at a Starbucks close to where Tanner had made reservations for a late lunch / early dinner—his contribution to the birthday girl’s day, which thrilled Katie.  A thoughtful surprise, I’d thought as well, when he’d told me about it last night.  Though when I stopped to think about the fact that the restaurant was located in Medford—far, far away from the majority of Boston’s shopping districts—I suspected there might be another reason he’d chosen this particular spot, aside from his ravings about their food.  The time it had taken us to drive over here would have forced Katie to wrap up her retail excursion (had we actually gone shopping), therefore giving my credit card a break.  And if that was the case, I considered his gesture doubly thoughtful.

At five minutes till four, we started walking down the street, headed to Bellissimo.  Upon our arrival, we learned that they didn’t officially open their doors until 5 o’clock, so we would be having a “private dining experience” until then, which tickled Katie all the more.

An elegant palette of soft whites and muted grays greeted us when we stepped inside the restaurant.  Chairs stained the color of espresso sat around sleek tabletops of stainless steel, gleaming all the more thanks to the Edison chandeliers dripping from the ceiling above them.  The décor was undeniably modern, aside from the vintage feel of the bronze tiles that accented the ceiling.  The restaurant’s only source of color came from the abstract paintings that hung along its walls—their hues vibrant, their subjects carefree, and their lines lively—adding just the right amount of whimsical contrast to the starkness of the room.  And as long as any of their faces didn’t wink at me or give me the impression that I was being watched, I was good with them.  The hostess seated us in a more secluded section to the back of the restaurant and then drew its raw silk curtains halfway, affording us even more privacy.

Since neither of us had eaten anything, we had no qualms about stuffing our faces with any of the Italian entrées listed on the menu.  After ordering a platter of fresh mozzarella & prosciutto drizzled in basil and olive oil to start us off, we each settled upon the Steak Pizzaiola and arugula salads as a main course.  And an extra plate of calamari that we fully intended to share.  Along with a small order of gnocchi—but only because our waiter insisted that theirs was the best around Boston.  A challenge our tummies were eager to accept.

And one of us may have shouted a request to keep the focaccia bread coming.  But that was it.

It wasn’t long into our meal that I was second-guessing my theory as to why Tanner had chosen this particular spot, when every dish arrived looking like an epicurean masterpiece and every forkful had our taste buds exploding with a medley of savory herbs and juices—each bite more scrumptious than the last.

Midway through our main course, my guilt began rearing its ugly head.  Katie had made “her day” all about me, without mentioning the first thing about a birthday present.  Surely there was something she wanted.  Something she’d had her eye on for a while.

“So,” I began, my fork readying another bite of gnocchi.  “What can I get you for your birthday?”

Katie shook her head.  “I told you, Shi — I don’t want you buying me anything.  Not after spending so much money on me this summer.”

I shook my head right back at her.  “I’m not counting that as your birthday present.  I’m getting you something, whether you like it or not.”

Katie cocked her head as she studied my expression. “Well…” she drawled.  “There is something I’ve been thinking about.”

I knew it…  And for a second, I got the funny feeling I’d just been played.

“And best of all, it won’t cost you a dime,” Katie added.

“Oh, then I’m definitely getting it for you,” I said, my words forceful and breathy.

“Silas,” Katie said.

My fork hovered just below the gape of my mouth.  “Y—You want to borrow, Silas?”

Katie waved her hand and let out a laugh.  “No.  I don’t want to borrow him at all.”  Her expression turned serious as she placed her hands on the table, her eyes casting the sincerest gleam I’d ever seen.  “I want you to kill him.”

Her words struck my ears like the shatter of glass, and in the seconds that followed, it was as if the entire world had crashed into dead silence.

Katie’s hands flew up defensively.  “Now, hold on a sec — It’s not what you’re thinking.  I just want you to try to kill him.  He’s not going to die or anything — because I’m going to sweep in and save him.”

A hard gulp cleared the last bite of gnocchi I’d taken from my mouth.  “So he can be your genie,” I said, trying not to trip over the words as they tumbled from my lips.  “Is that about right?”

Katie nodded, her eyes carrying the shine of newborn stars.  “A change would be good for him, don’t you think?  You told me that he’s never had a woman as his bonded master.”

My head fell into a disbelieving tilt.  “So you’re lookin’ to break the glass ceiling when it comes to genies?”  I reached for my water.  “How revolutionary.”  I even added a snarky raise of my glass before taking a swig.

Katie patted the corners of her lips with her napkin.  “Thank you.  I thought the same thing.”  My only response was a blank stare.  “So?  What do you think?”

“NO,” I grunted.  “Here I am, struggling with telling Tanner about your witchy secret-life, and you’re wanting me to rip his genie away from him?  Someone who’s like family?”

Katie pointed her finger knowingly.  “And what better way to keep your secret safe — just between the three of us.”

I didn’t have the heart to tell her that Silas didn’t work that way.  I shook my head.  “No,” I repeated, praying it would stick.  “And I still plan on telling Tanner — SOON.”

Fine,” Katie groused, crossing her arms.  “I figured it was worth a shot.”  She averted her stare and scolded herself with a headshake.  “I knew I should have waited until the next time he really pissed you off before I asked.”

“It wouldn’t make a difference,” I assured her.  My stare fell to my plate, trying to wrap my head around the sheer insanity of her request.  The fact that she was truly serious had me questioning who needed the help of a shrink more, her or me?

Katie leaned towards the table restlessly, as if she could feel every ounce of my condemnation—crushing her like I’d dropped a house on the witch.  “You know, it’s not just about his powers and what he can do.”

I met her lean.  “Then why would you ever want him bonded to you?”

Because…” Katie paused and clenched her teeth.  Then I watched as she squirmed around in her chair, trying to twist out words that didn’t want to come.  “Because being bonded to a genie is the closest I can ever come to being a supernatural, a real supernatural — like my best friend.”

I didn’t know what to say or how to respond to that.  So I just sat there, staring at her slack-jawed.  But I knew it wasn’t jealousy fueling her desires—more like fear.  And if my suspicions were correct, the last thing I wanted to discuss on her birthday was the day her human body hit the ground—for the second time.  Though if someone were to do a risk assessment, speculating the length of our lifespans compared to our lifestyles, I was the one who’d be kicking the bucket long before she would.

We sat there in a wake of eerie silence, neither of us daring a look at each other.  Thankfully, our waiter stopped by our table like a knight-in-shining-armor with a beautifully decorated cake for two in his hands—a confectionary work of art smothered in white rosettes of rich buttercream icing.  He placed it in the middle of the table, dropped a white candle in its center, and then started searching his pockets for a lighter.  After issuing us a sincere apology, the embarrassed waiter hurried off on a mission to find one.

Katie bounced a nod between my ruby and the candle, severing the awkwardness.  “You want to hit that?”

I smiled. “It doesn’t work that way.”  Not that I’d discovered.  Though Padimae had no trouble pulling a flame from it.  I directed a glance around the room.  “And even if I knew how, the food’s far too good and restaurant’s too pretty.”  That alone guaranteed I would burn it straight to the ground.

Katie grinned.  “Then we’d better wait.”

Still feeling the lingering traces of tension in the air, I thought of something that would put a smile on the supernatural wannabe’s face.  “Did you know that the one time of the year when you can count on your faery being present is on your birthday, when you light your cake?”

Katie’s grin widened.  “You don’t say.”

“It’s true, and it’s up to your faery whether or not your wish comes true.”

The waiter reappeared at our table, proudly holding a long electric lighter in his hand.  Then straightaway, he clicked out a flame and issued Katie an official, “Happy Birthday,” before leaving us to our cake.

I rose from my chair.  “Wait — Not yet.”  I removed my labradorite medallion from around my neck and handed it to her.  “You can see it with this.”

Katie took the medallion and raised it to her eye.  And though I couldn’t actually see what she’d perceived through the magical lens, I knew her attempt had been a success just from the amazed gape of her mouth and the catch of her breath.  She even paused to wave at it for a little bit and then squealed with delight when it waved back.

“It likes me,” Katie bragged.

With the wax starting to puddle at the base of the candle, Katie handed me back the medallion and gave me the order to start singing, only to change her mind not a second after.  Which, for the sake of her faery’s ears and the chances of it still liking her and granting her wish was a very, very wise request.  Then Katie closed her eyes, smiling with all of her heart, and blew out her candle.  And I wasn’t crazy.  I knew what she had wished for, just from the blinding glints of naughty her eyes flashed when they opened.

Oh, she’d better pray that Silas never ventures a dip inside her head.  He would have that scheming-soul of hers ripped out of her body and shoved back inside that diamond pendant so fast—faster than I could fire off a distress flare to Asher.  I could even picture his brazen genie-butt hanging her from the kitchen window like a sun-catcher—his own sparkling, diamond trophy.  After all, he was still a faery at heart, and they loved all sorts of shiny and glittery things.

With the meal and tip already covered, our bloated bellies plodded a path towards the exit not long after we’d killed off the cake.  “I’m serious about the birthday present.  I have to get you something,” I insisted.  “So what do you want?”  I held up my hand.  “That doesn’t involve attempted-murder.”

Katie slumped with a sigh as the attendant opened the door.  “I suppose you can get me an iPad.  My Kindle is out of memory, and I could use one for my design classes.”

I trailed her out the door.  “Then we’re off to find the closest Apple Store.”  With the sun slowly setting in the sky, I wound a hand through the bend of her arm, linking us at our elbows.  As we started across the street, the sudden lock of my knees had me stopping cold on the curb, unable to step an inch further.  An eerie sensation had quivered through my body—straight through my body—entering my chest with a push and then fading out my back.

Katie scrutinized my breathless expression.  “What’s wrong?”

I didn’t want to alarm her, not knowing the source of the unnerving sensation.  I rallied a smile.  “Nothing.  I just thought I left my keys in there for a second,” I lied and then started across the street, my eyes covertly scanning all around.

Nothing…  There wasn’t anything remotely suspicious, not that I could see.   Needing a more thorough look, I slipped my arm out of our hold, pretending to buckle over with a sneeze.  And when I straightened back up, the medallion was invisible and firmly locked into place.

My Charger was just up ahead, no more than twenty feet.  Thankfully, Katie was too busy window-shopping to notice the harsh squint of my eye.  I was quick to unlock her door, so she could get in first—so she would be safe.  I hadn’t spied anything of the mystical-persuasion ahead of us, so it had to be behind us—if it was still there.

After preparing myself with a quick breath, I steeled my mind to whatever that the eerie sensation turned out to be, no matter how hideous of a form it took.  But most important, I didn’t want whatever was back there to know that I was onto it—thanks to the magic detector I’d jammed into the socket of my right eye.

Casually, I walked around the rear of my car, prepping myself for a glance when I opened the door.  The pause I ended up taking was far from subtle.  Though in my defense, what I’d seen looked more like a ghost than it did a creature.  So yeah, I was a bit stunned.

After sliding into my seat, I laid my purse on the dash, pretending to search through it, as I slipped in covert peeks out the windshield.

“What are you looking for?” Katie asked.

“Mints,” I replied, which turned her focus back to the screen of her cellphone.

I collected as many details as I could in between my glances into the handbag.  Its appearance was spectral in essence, trailing from its form like flames dancing on a gentle wind.  Height-wise, it looked to be about six-feet tall, judging from the passersby on the street.  And its magic didn’t swirl or spiral like the skinwalker-creature’s had when I’d gazed upon it through the medallion.  The luminance of this thing’s magic was more centralized, clinging to its form the way a faery’s would, like the glow of an aura.  But it wasn’t a faery—that, I was certain.  For starters, faery forms were smaller and more defined.  And their movements more energetic like hyperactive fireflies, their attention darting all around, unable to stop themselves.  But this thing remained mouse-still where it stood, thirty-feet away.  Even its coloring was all wrong.  A faery’s spectrum spanned like a rainbow—their hues vivid and cheery.  But this… This thing was drenched head-to-toe in a cold hue of opalescent black, except for a faint glow of blue light that lay in the center of its chest.  And after taking all that into account, I formed a guess as to what this phantom-like entity could be—the only other “otherworldly being” that could roam within the fringes of the mystical plane that lay between the earth and The Veil, safely concealed from the eyes of both humans and supernaturals.

A wraith, I affirmed as I removed my handbag from the dash.  And it was just standing over there, showing no signs of aggression, just watching us—watching me.

“I found one,” Katie announced, startling me into a slight flinch.  “Like two minutes ago.”  My BFF homed in on the harsh squint crinkling my eye.  “So whenever you finish up your little peep-show, I’ll start shouting out directions.”

 

 

 

I glanced at the time on my cellphone before pitching it onto the mattress beside me.

11:47 AM

I’d been awake for almost an hour, and I still couldn’t force myself out of bed.  Not when all that lay outside its bounds were chapters and more chapters of textbooks I had yet to read and a new iPad I needed to set up.  Katie had suggested I get one—a “convenient necessity”, as she’d put it—so I wouldn’t have to lug around my textbooks.  So I picked one up for myself, along with a digital voice recorder.  Another convenient necessity, I’d deduced, considering how preoccupied I’d been with scanning for creatures during my lectures.  Taping them from here on out would easily rectify that—if I could scrounge up enough will to play them back.  But my intentions were good.

My mind drifted back to when Katie and I were at the Apple Store, and then afterward, when I was taking her home.  That wraith had showed up again, not long after we’d started browsing.  And though it never darkened the doors of the store, I could see it watching me from across the street.  I’d assumed it was the same one, judging from its shape, coloring, and the damn thing’s glue-like cling.  I pretended to be oblivious to it, mostly because I knew it couldn’t hurt us.  Well, not really.  Not that I’d read—just nudge us, or brush through us, leaving only a faint kiss of an eerie feeling.  But then, when it followed us back to Katie’s apartment, I got a little worried that it might be following her instead.  So just to be certain, I passed on her offer of coming up to watch a movie, walked her to the door of her apartment, and sent her off with a final, “Happy Birthday” and a hug.  Then I drove about a mile down the road and popped into a convenience store for a Diet Coke, hoping I would catch it outside.  Sure enough, I did.  So that had me breathing easier for Katie, though not-so-much on my end.  Needless to say, the lengths that I’d pushed my Charger, I was surprised my engine didn’t throw a rod I was bookin’ so fast down the road.

I contacted Tanner and told him about the wraith right as I was entering the city limits of Yardley.  He wasn’t too thrilled to hear about the possible “otherworldly tail” I’d picked up.  So I wasn’t the least bit surprised when he’d informed me that I was to let him know as soon as I was in my dorm and to turn on the water to the shower because he was coming over.  Which, I did—after I’d hosed off any incriminating traces of my day’s witchy-adventures.

I gave him another account of what had happened upon his arrival—a more cool-headed one, this time.  Then he confirmed my suspicions.  I had been shadowed by a wraith.  And as troubling as hearing that had been, his next announcement was even more disturbing to my ears: that the wraith I’d spotted could be linked to the creature that had taken my purse—my wand.

Enough blood had drained from my face to send the room spinning.  And here I’d been wanting that creature to stalk me.  Openly stalk me.  Praying it would.  But not like that… Not in secret, slinking around like a spy.  And once the shock of all that had settled in, my coloring came back—now that I was seeing a thousand shades of red.

Tanner assured me that the creature itself was nowhere in the area, that it had simply sent a shadow of its dark magic to gather information.  Thankfully, the wards I’d placed on the apartment would serve to keep it out.  Though I wouldn’t have minded a pop-in the least little bit.  Not as long as that devious, supernatural-bastard was courteous enough to leave me a ransom note.

Tanner stayed with me the entire night, keeping a constant check outside my window with the medallion.  Only the wraith never showed up again—not once.  So maybe it knew I’d spotted it and was upping its game, more determined than ever to destroy my sanity.

After slamming the lid on my reflections, I finally rolled out of bed and wandered into the living room, where A.J. was sitting on the sofa.

“I didn’t know you were here,” A.J. said with a surprised laugh.

I shuffled to the closest chair and plopped onto its cushions.  “I’ve just been lying in bed.”  As a matter of fact, I’d probably still be in there right now if it weren’t for the tireless rumbles of my stomach.

A.J. bit her lip, her expression taking a sympathetic turn.  “If you don’t mind me making an observation — You seem awfully down.”

“Just a little homesick,” I fibbed.

A.J.’s eyes sparkled.  “Well, do you have any plans today?  Going anywhere or doing anything?”

“No,” I replied.  I had too much catch-up to play when it came to my studies to go anywhere.  I couldn’t even risk a supposedly “quick” run around campus to search for that creature.  Knowing how pissed I still was about being secretly stalked by its wraith, I’d be out there storming around well after the sun had gone down, rest assured.

A.J.’s face lit up like an explosion of fireworks.  “Great!”  Then she sprang off the sofa and grabbed a DVD case from one of the shelves beside the TV.   “Then prepare yourself for an 18th Century roller-coaster ride of love, warfare, and time-travel!”

Oh,” I breathed, genuinely surprised.  After weighing my present mood with the scope of my attention, I was able to settle my TV vs. Textbooks debate in under three seconds.  “Okay,” I replied.

A.J. glanced back at me while waiting for the tray to open.  “Hey, do you think your friend would like to come over and watch it with us?”

I shrugged.  “I suppose I could call Katie and ask her.”

A.J. flushed.  “Oh, she’s welcome too.  But I was talking about Mike.”

Mike?  Mike and The Outlander?  “I don’t know,” I muttered, almost stumbling over the words.  I didn’t have the heart to hurt her feelings with an honest guess of , Oh, I seriously doubt it.  Unless I led him to believe that it was like Game of Thrones, but with more sex and violence.  A total whopper of a lie…  Then again, after finding out that the jock had an artsy-side buried underneath that hard cocky-coating, he might just prove me wrong and actually like it.

“I’ll text him,” I said with an agreeing smile.

To my surprise, Mike accepted A.J.’s offer, and I was kind of glad he was coming over.  I’d called him that evening, following everything that had happened at the library, while Tanner was out searching for the creature. Mike was gone by the time I’d returned, though he’d left me a note, telling me that A.J. had taken him to get checked out by a resident she knew at the campus clinic.  He’d also promised in big, bold letters to keep his mouth shut about the whole thing.  Still, I’d called him to see how he was feeling physically just as much as how he was mentally.  What I’d discerned from his voice was nothing more than the shock of having slept with it settling—well, having slept with a supernatural human “HER” as far as he knew—and from getting waylaid by, and I quote, “a roid-raging, psycho-chick”.  I’d already asked Tanner about the risks of him turning into a half-demon, needing to prepare myself for the worst.  Tanner said that any change would be instant, and if he hadn’t turned into skinwalker already, he wouldn’t.  So that was some good news.

It didn’t take long for Mike to arrive, and to both of our tummies delight, he’d brought along a couple of pizzas.  His thoughtfulness had me feeling a bit taken aback, though it was nowhere near as surprising as how comfortable he seemed around A.J., like they’d been friends forever.  I didn’t even know her that well, which was one of the reasons I’d blown off my studies for her DVD marathon.  I’d been gone the entire weekend before and pretty much all of yesterday, and I didn’t want her thinking that I didn’t want to be sociable—or didn’t want to be around her, specifically.  Then, after Mike handed A.J. a notebook, I discovered the reason behind their cozy behavior.  Apparently, A.J. had been tutoring Mike for over a week.  Where the heck had I been?

Oh, yeah…  Out looking for my wand — butt-deep with blinders on.  That’s where I’d been.

So for the next seven hours, A.J. and Mike chilled on the sofa in front of the TV and chatted, while I sat silently sulking in my leather chair, trying to lose myself in the story and not cringe every time someone flashed a sword.  And the show was good, just as A.J. had described it—a perfect blend of romance, action, and tons of drama.  But I couldn’t help feeling so sorry for Claire’s husband, knowing the pain and frustration and confusion over where the hell his wand had gone—where his wife had gone, I mean.  I even entertained the thought of having Tanner take me to The Wasted Warrior for a shot of Emerald Eyes.  But even that wasn’t without its bugaboos.  And taking a chance on a random vision that may or may not show me holding my wand somewhere down the road was a gamble I simply couldn’t stomach at the moment.

Mike was still sitting on the sofa with A.J. when I headed off to bed, telling them that I had a date with an elephant.  A.J. smiled, looking like she knew what I was taking about.  Mike and his clueless expression, on the other hand, waited until I’d left the room before he asked A.J. if that was “chick-code” for something else.  And I didn’t dare reach a hand into his head to see if he’d gone where I’d suspected.  Though on a positive note, it would seem that having sex with a humanoid creature hadn’t emotionally scarred his one-track mind a bit.

 

 

 

Shortly after my rise Monday morning, I discovered what a twisted sense of humor Mother Nature claimed.  For the second month in a row, Aunt Flo had decided to help me usher in another full moon.  So now, it was official.  My cycle was synched to a sea-bitch.  Lovely.

As soon as my classes ended at noon, I hopped into my car and headed straight to Tanner’s house for twenty-four hours of lock-down—just me, Tanner, Silas, and Katie.  Yep.  I wanted my BFF where I knew she would be safe, just in case Lorelei decided to make good on her threats.  Tanner didn’t mind.  Silas didn’t either, not when it gave him the opportunity to entertain someone besides me.  The fact that it turned out to be Katie—the witch I was keeping in the closet—was just added gravy.

Katie twisted in her dining chair, head shaking, while her knife and fork hovered over her beef wellington.  “I still can’t believe that this is where you spent your summer,” she huffed.  I’d given her a tour upon her arrival, starting at the main level of the house that carried straight down to the lagoon, where I introduced her to the frisky orca.  Eyes-rolling, Katie finally lowered her knife and made her first cut.  “From where I’m sitting, you didn’t have anything to complain about.”

“You should have seen it when the dungeon still held five creatures.  Trust me — it loses its sparkle.”

Katie speared a piece of pastry-wrapped beef and pointed her fork at me.  “Umm, I was including them in my assessment.  Remember, I was stuck in a two-bedroom flat with a Bitch-zilla by the name of Bethesda.”

Although Tanner hadn’t arrived yet, I didn’t like that she’d mentioned her witch-cousin so casually in front of Silas.  Talk about a conversation prompt that was a disaster-in-the-making.

I even cringed when Silas opened his mouth to speak.  “Ms. Wallace…”

I released the hold I had on my breaths.  “Yes, Silas.”

“Would you kindly ask your little witch friend to stop looking at me in that manner.”

I cringed, knowing precisely what desirous look he was talking about.  Katie’s not-so-subtle Smeagol eyes.  I was honestly surprised she wasn’t rubbing her hands and licking her lips.

Katie swallowed her bite and set down her fork.  “Like what?” she asked, aiming for innocent.

Silas leveled his gaze to hers.  “Like I’m a fluffy little dog you would like to plop in your lap for a cuddle and a brushing.”  He stroked his silvery hair with a shudder.  “I can practically feel the clip of a bow atop my head.”

“I’m sorry,” Katie said, twirling a strand of her auburn hair around her finger and smiling prettily.  “I’m just intrigued.  I don’t mean any harm by it.”

My stare fell to my plate as I chewed on my bite of beef.  Yeah, right

Silas scowled at her and then turned directly to me.  “Your other guest this summer wasn’t as rude.”

I stiffened at the sight of Katie bristling.  “You invited someone to this five-star mansion retreat — before me?” she huffed.

My eyes cut to the loose-lipped house steward, primed with daggers.  And with Katie wearing the diamond I’d given her, I was going to have to work double-time to keep her out of my head.  “I didn’t invite anyone,” I said defensively.  “They just kind of showed up.”

“That’s true,” Silas concurred.  He aimed his gaze to the flames flickering from the chandelier.  “What was that handsome chap’s name?” he posed, tapping a finger to his chin.

Now I really, really wanted to kill him—bypassing the whole “attempted” thing all together.

“Tyler,” I replied, trying my damnedest to temper my glare.

TY?” Katie blurted.  “Ty came to visit you?”

Silas picked up her goblet and refilled her tea.  “Yes.  He stayed the night as well.”

Bastard.  “It was late,” I blurted and then flicked the full heat of my stare to the big mouth holding the pitcher.  “At Silas’ insistence,” I stressed.

“And it was a good thing I did,” Silas chided.  “It allowed the two of you plenty of time to catch up.”  An evocative grin smoothed the wrinkles of his face.  “What a clear and beautiful night it was…”  He lowered his gaze to Katie.  “It made the perfect backdrop to their moonlit dance out in the courtyard.”

I couldn’t bring myself to look at Katie.  Instead, I just sat there eyeing the blabbermouth just as murderously cool as a gunslinger with the tips of their fingers ready to draw their weapon—only mine were itching for the tattoo on my left wrist.  “I never told her anything about him coming!” I grumbled to him telepathically.

“I know,” Silas lobbed back just as hushed.  “I know everything… Though my favorite part is the soulmate omission.  You, Ms. Wallace, deserve the Best-Friends trophy, hands down.”

My eyes shot to Katie as soon as he stepped out of the dining room.  “Charlie sent him,” I said quickly and then explained everything.  How Ty had followed me from her apartment when I’d left.  And that Charlie had told him how down in the dumps I’d been, courtesy of Naomi, and how he’d suggested to Ty that seeing a friendly face from back home might boost my mood.

“And as far as us dancing,” I began, twisting in the seat of my chair.  “That was my way of letting Ty say goodbye to Bea.  I never told him what happened, and it was the best way to give him some closure.”

“Shi, you don’t have to explain anything,” Katie insisted, all too casually.  “I went out with him one time — one time in tenth grade.  I’m over him.”

I might have believed her, had I not caught the liar Facebook-stalking him this summer.  Then again, it could have been all those wishful thoughts her head was determined to muddle as we sat here — the ones that were roaring like the wheels of a freight train.

So on a whim, I decided to ignore the voice inside my head, the one that was imploring me to keep my mouth shut and not tempt fate.  “You know,” I began, “Ty did mention something about finding his soul-mate this summer.”

“Good for him,” Katie mumbled and then shoveled another forkful of beef wellington into her mouth.

“I just thought you’d like to know—”

Shi — Can we please talk about something else,” Katie voiced through her chews.  “I really don’t care about Tyler Smith’s love life.”

I flashed my palms.  “All right.  If that’s the way you really feel, you won’t hear me mentioning another word about Ty.”

Katie nodded briskly.  “It is.”

A sharp poke stabbed my brain.  “Oh, Ms. Wallace,” Silas chimed in.  “Though I commend you on your neutrality, even I truly fear the size of the bite that derriere of yours will suffer when this omission comes to light in the end.”

Regretfully, I couldn’t disagree with him.  Though technically, her refusal afforded me an out.  A slight one.

Despite the how blasé her façade may have seemed, I took Katie down to Tanner’s library after dinner.  Surely letting her peruse his collection of spell books would offset the undertones of her mood.  And come to find out, they did, the rows and rows of grimoires working like the magical charms that they were.  I could only wish I had that much enthusiasm when it came to reading anything right now.

I stared at the clock, fighting off the coil of my muscles.  A quarter till eight… The moon had been officially full for the past five hours, and Tanner still hadn’t arrived.  So naturally, I was well past the mark of concerned, regardless of Silas’ repeated assurances.

Katie tugged the collar of her shirt away from her neck and leaned across the table.  “Can you smell anything, now?

I already regretted telling her about me “coming into my senses” the fifth time she’d asked.  And with witches included, naturally, the witch-in-training wanted to know what sort of vibe her magic emitted and what it smelled like.

“Katie, I told you — I don’t sense anything.”  And that was the truth.  “But Tanner said that only experienced witches emit a vibe.”  Another truth.

Katie chewed on her pen.  “You mean like, older witches?”

I just went with it.  “Exactly… And, it depends if they were blessed with any extra earth magic.”

“Well, I suppose that makes sense.  But you would tell me if you sensed something from Bethesda, wouldn’t you?”

“Of course,” I flat-out lied, all insistent and innocent-eyed.  I hadn’t picked up on any vibes from Bethesda the last time I’d seen her, when the three of us were at The Wang.  Then again, I didn’t recall sensing anything from any of the other witches there either.  All I remembered was the heavy smell of roses flooding my nostrils and filling my head—that, and witnessing the magic of those peacocks.  In fact, the feather I’d collected was still crackling just as strong with its magic.  “But the next time I see her, I promise to let you know if I can feel or smell anything.”  Lies all lies…  Only a crazy person would confess to something like that.

Silas breezed into the room, claiming that he was in here to clean—which, in genie lingo, translated to “snoop”.

“Ms. Wallace, would you please instruct your friend to refrain from copying the closely-guarded, ancient supernatural spells.”

I rose out of my chair and looked to where she sat across from me, hiding behind a pyramiding stack of grimoires and journals.  “Katie!” I scolded.

My BFF stopped writing long enough to rock out a shrug.  “WHAT?

Silas peeked over her shoulder and rattled off a stream of tsks.  “Why are you researching faeries?” he inquired, his eyes heavy with contempt.

Katie batted her lashes, as if that could rid her eyes from any guilt.  “So I can get to know mine better,” she submitted.

Silas sneered.  “Hoping it will grant you more of its magic?”

Katie smoothed her lips into a feline smile.  “Yeah.  Something like that.”

Little did my crafty BFF know that I was sitting over here, almost at my wits end trying to block her thoughts from the probe of Silas’ magic.  I had to get him out of the room—like fast—before my head exploded.

“Silas, would you mind if Katie and I had some alone-time?”  Then I shot a covert message to his head, filled with lies about how I didn’t want to fuss at her in front of him.

“It would be my pleasure,” Silas stated with a graceful nod.  Then, as he was departing, the one-upping genie waved his hand at Katie’s notebook, making all of her hard work vanish into thin air—blue guidelines included.

Katie closed her notebook and slammed her pen down on the table.  “Uh!”  Then she pushed back her chair and stalked him out of the room with a fiery glare.  As soon as he’d disappeared, she picked up her iPad and swiped a finger across its screen.  “He’d better start being nice to me,” Katie grumbled as she angled the camera lens over the page of the journal she’d been copying.  Two “click-clicks” and the witch-wannabe was back in business. 

I shook my head as I watched her snap pic after pic.  “Too many of those and you’ll eat up that thing’s memory as well.”

“Tell me something I don’t know,” Katie muttered.

“You’re kidding?” I gasped, knowing I’d bought her the one with 256 Gigabytes.

“Nope.”  Katie started scrolling though her pages.  “It’s all this stuff for my classes that I had to put on here.  Illustration and patternmaking programs and my textbooks…  They take up a lot of memory.”

I held out my hand.  “Can I see?”  Katie handed it to me without hesitating.  It wasn’t long into my checking that I discovered the real culprit.  “Oh, it couldn’t possibly have anything to do with your three-thousand eBooks.”  I wasn’t exaggerating either.  And I was just taking about the ones on her Kindle App.  I was too scared to tap on her iBooks—or her Nook App.

“I can’t delete those,” Katie defended.  “Most of them are books about witchcraft.  And I don’t want to put them on The Cloud.  What if I need one, and I’m nowhere near a Wi-Fi signal?”

I rechecked her Kindle App and started reading off titles.  “They’re not all about witchcraft,” I said and began calling out a few of them.  “My Alpha to Tame…  Bad Boys and Blood Lust…  And Ravished by the Dragon?”  I flicked my stare to hers.  “Seriously?”

“I can’t part with my fantasy books,” Katie objected critically, as if I’d told her to get rid of her heart and both kidneys.

I couldn’t stop my chuckles.  “Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings are fantasies.   What I saw are nothing but romances with a smidgen of fantasy,” I said, pinching my fingers.  I shook my head, my grin toothless and wide.  “Most of them bordering on Vamp and Were-porn.”

“Hey — Don’t let the bare-chested and buff guys on the covers of fool you.  Those books are great research when it comes to the accuracy of supernatural lore.”

“Bullshit,” I charged.  “I bet if I were to open up, In the Arms of My Were-Bear, I’ll find nothing but the hot sections highlighted.”

A guilty giggle slipped past my BFF’s lips as she reached over and snatched her iPad out of my hands, protecting it with a tight cuddle.  “Not all of us are fortunate to be in relationships right now,” she countered.  “Or have random guy friends drop in for innocent moonlit dances.”

My right eye quivered into a steady twitch.  Oh no…  There wasn’t a bit of truth in that teasing.  Knowing she’d shown her hand, Katie quickly apologized and assured me she was only kidding.  Though as much as she liked going for the jugular, I knew the truth.  The dance she understood, but she was far more pissed at me for not telling her.  And now, I was more resigned than ever to let their fate play out.  Oh, she was going to be mad at me, fury the likes of which I’d never seen.  But once she’d wrapped up her tirade and reined in her rage, there’d still be a little face-rub left on the table.  And smear it in her mug I most certainly would—like only the very best of bosom friends could.

Though for my sake, fate had better have one bang-up of a destined meeting planned for them—because if not, I was totally screwed.

Thankfully, Silas came strolling back into the room.  And simply for him being the one who’d put me in this hairy situation in the first place, I shot him one of my I-hate-you glares.  Going off the triumphant gleam in his eyes, he knew exactly why I’d done it too.

Silas cleared his throat.  “Maybe if we spent more time focusing our head on missing swords instead of sharpening the daggers in our eyes, we might start hearing the calls of our wand.”

“It’s not as easy as it sounds,” I argued.  It wasn’t a second later that a thought rushed to the forefront of my mind.  “Do you think a howlite could lead me to it?”

Silas’ stare turned painfully critical.  “For your sake, I hope not.  That would mean Ferrol stands a chance of sniffing it out.”

“I doubt he could, seeing how he’s still very much an enemy.  Surely the wards on the purse would prevent it.”

“Are you talking about the howlite you used to find my body?” Katie asked.  I nodded.  “Do you know where it is?”

“No,” I replied, sulking.  “It wasn’t on Bea when I collected her things.”  I rubbed at my temples, needing to soothe the sting of that particular memory.  “With my luck, it probably rolled into that pond of acid right after the Onyx showed up.”

“It wouldn’t be of any use to you anyway.  Not in your current mental state,” Silas assured.  “The ability for a howlite to work requires two things.  Something personally connected to what you are seeking and a focused mind.  And if you had the latter, you wouldn’t need the howlite.”

I slumped into my chair with a grumbly sigh.  “Why does everything revolve around focus?  Can’t something work without it?  Just one-freaking-time?”

Silas patted my head.  “Not with your run of luck.  Besides, a person can’t claim true victory or success without it.”  His head struck a thoughtful pose.  “Seems like a destiny-decreed life-lesson to me.   One you’re in desperate need of.”

“Possibly,” I muttered.  I didn’t know of too many esteemed leaders who could only focus on one thing at a time.  I loosed a sigh.  “Or maybe it’s karma screwing with me.”

Silas rolled his eyes.  “Have we forgotten what I said about naming things?”

“Something about if you personalize your problem, it won’t seem so elusive.”

“What an excellent memory you have,” Silas gushed.

I looked down to discover that he’d poofed the creature journal on the table in front of me.  He’d even gone as far as to open it to its last entry, which was the one I’d made using a variation of his name.

Silas handed me a pen.  “Shall we aim for something original and creative this time, or will we be sticking to smart-alecky?”

I went ahead and scribbled a name down on its parchment page, dubbing it a “Mimic”.  Straightforward and simple.  And that was precisely what the creature could do: mimic any person or background with perfect precision.  Then I slammed the book shut and shoved it off to the side.

Katie was about to say something when Tanner came walking through the door, without a scratch on him.  And considering Lorelei’s past attempts, I found it oddly unnerving.

“Did you run into her?” I asked.

Tanner shook his head.  “Silas told me she hasn’t been around here either.”

“No,” I replied.  “She hasn’t.”

“Wonder why?” Katie interjected.

I didn’t think for a second that Lorelei was heeding Nerina’s warning, not after that snake-in-the-box she’d left for me.  Maybe she had gone over to Katie’s apartment…  Or maybe she was in Welch—right now.

My chair came flying out from underneath me as I shot to my feet.  “I need to make a couple of calls,” I said, rushing towards the door.

Tanner followed me into the hall.  “Your house is warded,” he called out.  “Seraphina did it personally, right after she left with Lorelei.  “She warded Samuel’s as well.”

As relieved as I was to hear what the Moonstone Talisman had done, it didn’t assuage all of my worries.  “I still want to give them a call, just to make sure they’re okay.”

Tanner offered me a soothing smile before I headed up the steps.  Raced up the steps, actually.  I flew into my bedroom, snatched hold of the antique receiver, and went straight to dialing.  I never realized how long it took for that wheel to spin back around or how aggravating the drag of its “hiss” sounded until now, when I was in a foot-tapping panic.

My sister answered on the fourth ring.  “Hey, Chloe.  Is everything okay there?”

Yyyeah,” Chloe replied.  “Why wouldn’t it be?”

A fair question, considering how anxious I must have sounded.  “I just haven’t heard from you — that’s all.  Is Charlotte there?”

“Yeah — but she can’t come to the phone right now.”

“Why not?”

“Because she’s on a date, and he hasn’t left yet!” Chloe snapped.

“Okay,” I bit back.  “Well, would you tell her that I called?”

Chloe grunted.  “Do you really think she’ll care?”

“No.  But will you tell her anyway?”

“Oh, I plan to,” Chloe said bitterly and then hung up the phone.

I stared at the receiver, my brain battered with confusion.  Though it wasn’t because of how she’d terminated our conversation, so abrupt and bitchy.  Just mentioning my name to Charlotte would surely piss off my mother.  Chloe knew that.  So why do it at all, knowing it would taint the air of the terrible-twosome’s happy little home?

I called Samuel next.  I hadn’t spoken to him in almost two weeks, not since that awkward conversation about Tanner.  I’d honestly been waiting for him to call me.  But he hadn’t.  So that served as a glaring testament to how strong his feelings were on the subject.  And it didn’t help matters when my call shot straight to his voicemail.  But then later, when I headed upstairs to catch a signal, I saw where he’d sent me a text, less than a minute after I’d left my message.

 

 

 

I knew he’d been working back at the mine part-time, but he could have picked up, could have taken some time out for his surrogate daughter.  I looked pitifully back at the screen.  At least he’d called me, “honey” and had said he would call me back.  So all things considered, I’d gotten a confirmation that Samuel was all right, and his response wasn’t as ruffling as I’d first thought.  Nowhere near as bad as it could have been.

 

 

 

 

So at the end of my imprisoned twenty-four hours, once the full moon had begun to wane, I found myself feeling far more worried than I was relieved.  Lorelei never made an appearance.  Not here, not in Welch, not anywhere we’d uncovered.  And I knew—knew in the marrow of my bones—that she was up to something.  So now, I was all the more bound and determined to be ready for whatever scheme she was crafting.

True to his text, Samuel called while I was driving back to Yardley.  And I almost broke out into tears at the sound of his voice because I hadn’t heard it in so long.  He could tell that something was wrong with me too—kindly pointing out that the pitch of my voice carried the mope of a sad country song.  And despite my assurances that everything was fine and that I was just coming down from being on guard about Lorelei, my devoted and stubborn-headed surrogate father was determined to drag it out of me.  So instinctively, he moved on to Katie, questioning if we’d had a falling out because of our separation.  And after issuing him my next denial, his arrow shot straight to Tanner, of course, followed by a lecture about our “skewed” age-difference, as he so delicately put it.  Just going off the speed in which he’d fired his accusation, I was pretty sure Samuel had all of his beefs already loaded in his chamber.  And then, regretfully, I got a little snippy with him over it—when I’d suggested that there weren’t too many females running around who were technically in Amethyst Talisman’s age-bracket.  I regretted saying it just as soon as it had flown out of my mouth.  And then I regretted saying it even more when Samuel retorted—wanting to know precisely how many female Talismans there were roaming the earth.  I kept my reply simple.  That I didn’t have an accurate count, and that I’d only met a few.  But I’d sure-as-shit caught his hint.  His subtle suggestion that there were other tails, much older and more mature tails that Tanner could be sniffing around instead of mine.  And as much as I wanted to be mad at him, I couldn’t.  Samuel was the only living father I had now, and he was just expressing his concerns out of nothing more than love.  And I’d been guilty of the same thing with Ms. Marion.  Even if I had let a few of my dirty looks slip out by accident, I’d kept my thoughts to myself—because I’d thought he was happy.

And then, no sooner than I’d hung up with him, I was pulling off the road and slamming my brakes to a stop.  My eyes turned teary as I reached for my phone, needing to call Samuel back with an apology—for totally forgetting his birthday.  It was yesterday, and I’d mentioned nothing of it when I’d left him that message last night nor shot him any additional texts drowning in birthday-themed emojis.  Even any thoughts of sending him a present had totally slipped my mind.  And I’d always made a point of doing something for him—dating all the way back to when I was little and used to cut his cards out of daggone construction paper.  And that was the moment I knew—when I truly knew how blindingly fixated I’d become, straight to the point that I would be so absentminded about someone so dear to me.  I had let that creature and finding my wand consume me—let it rule my every thought and dictate my actions, whether I was awake or asleep, conscious of it or not.  All those buzzards may have been in my dreams before the bottom had fallen out from under me, but they’d stayed up in the sky.  Not one of them had tried to eat me alive before I’d been robbed of my wand.

And now that I was fully aware of the depths my obsession had sunk and how crippling it was, I needed to find a way to end it—before I came completely undone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Labor Day weekend—the last hurrah of summer.  I stood at my bedroom window, breathing in the bustling scene outside through its charming cascade of harlequins.  Smiling students littered the campus sidewalks, all of them in a hurry, all of them carrying bulky bags stuffed with enough essentials to last them through Monday, for whatever adventure lay on their horizons.

I was headed to Tanner’s.  Partly because I’d spent the last weekend with Katie, though mostly, I felt the time had come for my long overdue witch-confession.  I was stressed out enough over finding that creature, recovering my wand, my nightly torture of buzzards and Babar, and studying for my classes—on top of my omissions.  So the least I could do was strike one of them off my list of bugaboos.  And aside from not wanting there to be any secrets between us, part of me was hoping that my confession would be freeing enough to help me to hear the calls of my wand—even if what hit my ears only amounted to something as miniscule as a burp.  I’d take anything that offered some sort of encouragement over the past two weeks, one day, twenty-one hours, five minutes, and four seconds of dead-silence nothing.

I reached for Lady Oleander’s book and shoved it into my backpack.  I’d finished reading it last night.  Well, more like finished skimming it.  Page after page, the High Priestess had talked about the paradise that existed beyond our world — a place human eyes couldn’t see, couldn’t imagine existed.  And though Lady Oleander had never referred to that glorious land of milk and honey by a specific name, I knew she was talking about The Guardians’ utopia of Caleumn.  Nothing about The Darklands was ever mentioned nor anything with respect to its demons or how they fed off the ill-will and evil deeds of humans.  All in all, it was really a book praising Gaia, like it was written by the most devout fan-girl.  And what Padimae had revealed was true, at least according to what I’d read.  Lady Oleander claimed that Gaia had appeared to her, in the flesh, when she was a little girl.  The High Priestess even offered proof—well, verbal proof.  Apparently, Gaia had marked Lady Oleander with a special sigil as a gift, bonding it to her flesh.  Now there was a photo I would love to have seen.   Too bad there wasn’t a picture of it anywhere throughout the book, only an explanation as to why it hadn’t been included.  The mark was magical, something that could only be viewed by the eyes of true believers.  So with my interest piqued, I contacted Padimae.  And though the Voodoo Queen had heard and read the same thing, she hadn’t seen the High Priestess’ mark for herself—at least not on her exposed flesh—and then made a point of stressing that even she would require visual proof.  And Padiame planned on getting it too, since she’d been charged with keeping an eye on the High Priestess for Seraphina.  The Moonstone Talisman needed someone to get close to her, and Padimae was the perfect choice with her power and connections within the witch community.  Though Padimae confessed that she hadn’t uncovered anything of grave importance as of yet.  But her gut told that there was more to the High Priestess’ story.

I closed my backpack with a firm tug of its zipper and then slung it over my shoulder, propped alongside my crappy purse.  I figured it would be best to bring it along, if nothing more than to bring Tanner up to speed about Seraphina and Padimae’s collaboration.  Surely he’d want to look through it for himself.

Again, I took a pass on using the portal in the shower.  Though this time, my reasoning stemmed from not knowing how Tanner was going to take my admission, despite the number of passes he’d given me on other things.  Even I knew his convictions about witches would prove different.  And though I’d planned on staying at his home the entire holiday, I just might find myself having to run all the way to Katie’s apartment—all because I’d chosen not to drive my car.

A.J. was in the living room, lounging on the couch, eyes closed, plying her temples with a battery of circles from her fingertips.  She looked exhausted, like someone definitely in need of a relaxing, three-day weekend.

The shuffle of my entry popped her eyes wide-open.  “Off to see your friend?”

I nodded.  “Yeah… I’m off to Boston,” I lied.  A half-lie.  Though I wasn’t going to see Katie, an errand I needed to take care of required a quick trip that way, before I could head to Tanner’s house.  Actually, a little past Boston, to Foresythe—where I would find the closest Bass Pro Shop.  I’d never missed one of Samuel’s birthdays before, and I had some serious making-up to do.  And with Tanner having to meet Malachi at his downtown office, a couple hours of guilt-ridden belated-birthday shopping would keep me from having to listen to Silas’ mouth for longer than I had to until he arrived.  The way I saw it, everyone was a winner.

A round of knocks on the door had my pale and weary roommate hopping off the couch like a jackrabbit.  A.J. glanced at the clock.  “That’s Mike,” she announced and then rushed off, headed to her room.  “Could you tell him I’ll be out in a second?”

“Sure,” I said.  It’s Labor Day weekend… How much tutoring does he need?  I’d kind of thought the self-professed slacker would already be one step away from gone.

I opened the door and waved him into the apartment.  “Hey, Mike — A.J. will be out in a second.”

I started to head out when his hand snatched hold of my arm, gripping it like he was clinging to the edge of a cliff.  “Wait — I need to ask you something,” Mike blurted.

The serious look throbbing in his eyes had me shifting my backpack into a more comfortable position.  “Okay.”

Straightaway, Mike led me over to the sofa.  As we sat down, I noticed him directing a furtive glance towards the hall.  Whatever was about to cross his lips required discretion—that was evident.

Mike’s chest rose with a deep breath.  Then he forced a heavy stream of air from his nostrils.  “I wanted to talk to you about that girl.”

My eyes flashed with sympathy.  “Mike, I already told you — Physically, you’re fine.”

“I understand that,” he assured.  “But I still want to know a little more about her.”

Why now?  I sighed, fighting my unease.  “All right.  What do you want to know?”

Mike stared at me, his eyes bouncing around his sockets like a kid trying to muster the courage for a jump into the deep-end of the pool for the first time.  “What kind of supernatural was she?” he finally asked, his words anxious and rushed.  “I don’t know much about them, but if anything in the movies or books is true, then they aren’t all the same.”

Why didn’t I leave five minutes ago?  Whether I wanted to or not, I had to respect Mike’s objections to me tampering with his head, despite my reservations.  “Some sort of skinwalker.  It can change into any person it imprints on, and it can blend into any background… Like a chameleon.  It’s called a mimic.”  Saying the name I’d given it out loud for the first time had me feeling just as raw as when I’d written it down in the journal the other night.

Mike stared at me long and hard for a couple of seconds, his eyes unblinking.  Then his face began to pale, and I noticed he seemed robbed of breath.  I started to shake him, just to make sure he was all right, when his hands went flying in the air and pushed mine away.  “IT?” Mike snapped.  “Don’t you mean, SHE?

I pulled back with a jerk, eyes wide and my thoughts mindful.  “I didn’t say ‘it’,” I protested, thinking I honestly hadn’t, though I was pretty sure I damn-well had from the frozen look of horror set in his eyes.

Mike cut a nervous glance towards the hall, which I’d assumed he had done to make sure A.J. was still out of range.  Then he leaned closer and articulated his words, sharp and slow.  “YES — You did say IT.”

I sagged into the cushions of the sofa, wishing I had a ball-peen hammer to smack my own head with.  And I didn’t dare a peek into his mind.  A highlight reel of every Sci-Fi movie-monster from the past thirty years—that’s precisely what I’d find.

“Shi, if that chick was really an ‘IT’ and can change its shape, then what did ‘IT’ really look like?” Mike demanded, nostrils flaring.

See, I knew it… A voice whispered to my mind, imploring me to proceed with caution.  So that meant I was going in, choosing my words wisely and lying my ass off.

“It looked … human-ish,” I replied, which sounded much better than humanoid.  At least to me, it did.

Mike raked his hands through his hair and then his torso slipped into a rigid rock—back and forth, and back and forth.  “Okay… So it was humanish,” he echoed in a heated trance.  “How human-ish?”

Damn, he wasn’t making this easy.  I yielded a clueless shrug.  “I don’t know… Human-ish enough?

Mike exhaled a long and weighty breath, clearly an attempt to relieve his tension.  Then he took hold of both my hands like he was clinging to them for dear life.  “Shiloh,” Mike began calmly, “What I’m asking you is what it looked like.”  His throat bobbed, struggling to form his next words.  “Was it…”  He paused and took a hard swallow.  “…Was it feminine-ish?”

I stared at him apprehensively, feeling nothing but the rush of cool air in my mouth.  “Mike, does it matter?”

His head broke into a vigorous battery of nods.  “YES — To me, you bet it does!” he insisted with a dire sense of conviction fueling his tone.

I looked deep into his eyes, silently contemplating.  I couldn’t believe we were actually having this conversation.   I’d still be showering off right now if it had been me, which was a reminder that I hadn’t replaced the family-sized bottle of Listerine that I’d snagged from A.J.’s cabinet after the swabbing my own mouth had received.

I started to reply, only for him to cut me off with a firm point of his finger.  “And let me stop you right there,” he warned.  “This is about me,having a preference.  I’m still entitled to one, you know — no different than anyone else.  And I shouldn’t be judged for it.”

I cast him an affronted glare.  “I’m not judging you,” I assured him, “…What I am, is worried about you.”  And I was.  I fierce pang of sympathy had me biting my lip.  “Mike, are you absolutely sure you don’t want me to—”

No!” Mike spat, his tone unyielding.  “I don’t want you messing with my head!”  He let out an exasperated sigh.  “All I want is for you to tell me the truth.”

 I sat there, staring at him in a vacuum of stark silence.  He looked so pained—the grasping at straws kind of pained that left no rhyme or reason to your thinking—and I couldn’t stand him looking like that.  Feeling that way.  That creature had already done a number on me, shredding my sanity, and I refused to let it do one on him too—tormenting his thoughts in a different way.

Screw it, I thought and started scrambling for the right words.

“Well,” I began, “It reminded me of a really muscular, flat-chested Barbie doll — but without hair.” Which, in hindsight, would technically make it a Ken, so I quickly added, “And with gray skin.”  And what I’d said was truthful.  It wasn’t like I’d seen any dangly organs down there or had some insane monster DNA test to prove its sex either way.  If it even had one.  And it could have very well been a female.  Unless Kamya had hacked something off…  An equal possibility, considering how pissed she’d been and the suspicious track of the scar I’d seen.

Mike’s head rocked from side to side for a moment, contemplating my admission.  His expression crinkled into a sneer when he finally met my gaze.  “So what you’re saying is … is that she was flat-chested?

I was surprised his face wasn’t melting onto the floor my glare was so corrosive.  “Oh, so now you feel deceived?”  Mike started to say something when I shoved to my feet.  “Don’t answer that!” I warned, shaking my head, still blown away by his gall.  “So does that put your mind at ease?”

Mike rose from the sofa, his color returning, and cast a humble bow my way.  “Yes — and my genitals thank you for it.”

Idiot, I grumbled silently.  I should do both him and the world a favor and mentally neuter him right here.  At least for the semester.

A.J. broke up our exchange when she entered the living room.  “Are you ready to get started?” she asked Mike.

“Why, yes, I am,” Mike replied, with a noticeably more spry demeanor and then the two of them headed for the bistro table.  I stood there for a moment, watching their exchange.  Even A.J. seemed perkier, her brown eyes brighter and the skin circling underneath them showing no signs of the fatigue they’d held a short while ago.

“Bye, Shiloh,” A.J. said, beaming, and added a quick wave.  “Have fun this weekend.”

Then it was Mike’s turn.  “Yeah, Shi — Bye.”  Though his wave was more smart-assy.  Still, it seemed just as eager as hers.  Almost like I was being rushed out of here.

I glanced back at them one more time before slipping out the door, feeling the creep of a gross shudder inching down my spine.

No, I refuted, shaking off the thought.  She’s too smart to fall for his crap.

 

 

Patiently, I sat in my Charger and waited for the wrought iron gate to open, at least enough for me to squeeze through.  Shopping at had taken a lot longer than I’d expected.  So had my trip to the FedEx store shortly after.  Though knowing how guilty I still felt for missing Samuel’s birthday, I could have very well stayed at the Bass Pro Shop until I’d bought out their entire fishing department.  Which he might think I’d done, once his twenty-one boxes arrived on his doorstep Wednesday afternoon.

 

The lights inside the house were doused when I entered the foyer, painting the scene in a wash of shadows—a sure sign that Tanner hadn’t arrived.  Though I did find it rather peculiar that the house steward hadn’t turned up to greet me.  The front doors had simply swung open as I approached and then closed just as smoothly once I’d stepped into the foyer.  Talk about a great start to a holiday weekend.  Nevertheless, my curiosity had been piqued enough that I hollered his name—twice.  The first, I’d directed up the foyer staircase and the other, I’d fired off inside the cave.  The more time that passed without me receiving an answer, the more hopeful my thoughts grew.  I hadn’t made it halfway to my bedroom when my steps shifted into more of a jubilant skip, fueled by a delightful fantasy—that Tanner could have possibly sent Silas away for the entire weekend.

 

I stepped into my bedroom and closed the door still beaming at the thought of it.  What a happy coincidence, I mused.  I could see the nosey house steward trying his best to physically intrude upon my confession, knowing he wouldn’t be happy just listening to the audio from another room.  Then, as if the universe had seen all the gleeful twirls I’d been spinning throughout my room, I was jerked right out of my vision and thrown back into reality when three anally-crisp knocks pounded on my door.  I crashed onto my bed with a defeated sigh.  Compared to the haunting march that signaled Darth Vader’s approach, I found Silas’ cadence just as foreboding.  I glanced at the bedside clock.  Especially at a quarter till midnight

 

I shoved to my feet with a groan.  “Come in.”

 

Silas strolled into my room looking as chipper as ever.  “Where’s your backpack?”

 

I pointed to the chair sitting closest to the door.  “Over there.  Why?” I asked as I watched him strutting towards it.

 

After ripping back its zipper, Silas turned my backpack upside down and then proceeded to dump its entire contents onto the tabletop.

 

 My eyes throbbed at the sight of Lady Oleander’s book smacking the wood.  With a huff, I raced over and shoved it between two of my notebooks.  The last thing I needed was the hands of the house to snatch it up, along with a, What’s this?  Which would then be followed by him rushing off to show it to Tanner.  I wanted to be the one who brought it to his attention—on my terms, not his.

 

“Why did you do that?” I snapped.

 

 “Because Professor Grey wants you to pack some clothes.  Casual dress, nothing too fussy.  And he requested that you be ready when he arrives.”  Silas slipped out his pocket watch.  “Which is in roughly nine minutes.”

 

“We’re going somewhere?” I asked.

 

“Yes.  That’s what typically follows when one packs a bag of clothes for a couple of days.”  Silas looked to the ceiling, his eyes weary.  “It’s a pity ninety-five thousand dollars doesn’t buy the education it used to.”

 

Needing more details, I chose to ignore him.  A couple of days?  Away?  From here?  From my wand?  Surely it had to be important, like something to do with a creature.

 

“Do I need the oculus?”

 

“No,” Silas stated.

 

“Any extra weapons?”

 

Silas shook his head.

 

I sighed.  “Will I be doing any training?

 

“Again, that would be a ‘no’ — to all of your questions.”

 

My hands dove straight to my hips, gripping them with a frustrated clench.  “Well, do you know where we’re going?”

 

The offense on his face burned through me.  “Of course, I know,” Silas huffed.  “I know everything.”

 

I snorted.  “That goes without saying.”

 

“Yes,” Silas concurred and then took a purposeful step closer.  “Everything.”

 

 Now I was the one offended—by his insinuation and the likelihood that he had seen Lady Oleander’s book.  “Can you at least give me a hint?” I pleaded, wide-eyed.

 

The house steward laid a hand over his heart.  “It pains me to say that I’m not at liberty to tell you,” Silas said facetiously.  “Professor Grey wants it to be a surprise.”  Then he cocked his head to the side, his smirk undeniably wry.  “But, what I can tell you is that proper English isn’t a requirement.  So you should have no trouble blending in.”

 

Despite not having the first clue as to what he’d meant, the gist behind the house smartass’ tongue was crystal-clear.  Though one thing was certain: wherever Tanner was taking me, judging from his list of what-not-to-pack, it had nothing to do with anything Talisman-related.  And as touched as I was, it didn’t scrub away the grit of how undeserving I felt.  Nor what I suspected the reason behind this thoughtful gesture would turn out to be.

 

“He’s coddling me, isn’t he?”

 

“Most likely,” Silas jabbed.  “But do be a good sport about it.  Surely you don’t expect him to sit around all weekend and watch you sulk.  It’s his holiday as much as it is yours.”

 

“I’m aware,” I harrumphed.  “And I haven’t been sulking.”  Silas honed a critical stare.  “Not that much,” I amended, only to be greeted by an even sharper pair of eyes.

 

“Try to come back with your head on straight, would you?” Silas urged and then strutted off, headed for the door.

 

I lifted my left wrist and flicked my finger just above the tattoo underneath my ruby cuff, pretending to fire Asher’s arrow at him.  Now there was one bull’s-eye I could surely hit.

 

I collected my empty backpack, scrunching it together with an anxious squeeze.  We couldn’t go anywhere. I hadn’t given him my witch-confession yet.  And besides that, I couldn’t leave town.  I needed to stay right where I was, in case my wand called.

 

Tanner breezed into my room, his stare falling immediately to the empty backpack in my hands.  “Why aren’t you packing?”

 

I laid my backpack down on the table.  “Because I can’t go anywhere — not anywhere far,” I clarified, not wanting to seem ungrateful.

 

The amusement on Tanner’s face was like a harsh ray of sunlight smacking my eyes after stepping outside a cave.  “That’s rrright,” he drawled.  “Because of your wand — Because you know where it is,” he submitted with quizzical amusement.

 

I released the pucker I had on my lips.  “You know I don’t,” I muttered.  “But it’s still reason enough not to leave.”

 

“I see,” Tanner intoned.  “So you don’t mind if I head off without you?”

 

Words escaped me as I looked back at him.  Lucky for me, the cavernous gape of my mouth spoke volumes.

 

“It’ll just be for the weekend,” Tanner assured.  “Silas will be here to keep you company.”

 

His countenance was so impassive, I couldn’t tell if he was kidding or not.  So I snuck a glance at that telltale artery that had never steered me wrong before.  Not one fling or throb or pulse.  He was actually serious.  Well, damn

 

“Of course, I could stay,” Tanner posed.  “That way, we could do something together over the holiday.”  He took a step closer, eyeing my intently.  “Something fun.”

 

The cunning look in his eyes suggested that it would be anything but.  “Like what?” I asked.

 

“We could swing by a hospital.”

 

“Back to Transcendence?  Hoping that I’ll heal enough people to clear my head?” I submitted.  Or so I can pick out my room

 

Tanner lowered his gaze.  “Not exactly.  I was thinking something more along the lines of locking you in a cancer wing with only one sapphire and a hundred ill patients and then letting you make one of two choices — healing one of them, or knowing how rare those stones are, choosing to heal none.”

 

A heaviness washed through me, dragging my stare to the floor.  What he’d suggested hit me harder than any of his physical punches ever had.  My shoulders slackened with my next breath.  “And what good would that do?”

 

“Hopefully it would make you finally realize that you always have a choice.  Because I promise, even the person with the worst outlook in there would still have more hope than you do right now.”  Tanner smoothed his hands under my jaw and lifted my gaze to his.  “You’ve chosen to become obsessed, instead of accepting what happened and holding on to hope.  I know how hard you’ve been trying to hide your feelings.  But now, it’s time you let them go.  Choosing to have faith can seem like the most difficult choice to make, and that’s because it’s the choice that takes the most courage — But it’s the only one that will give you any peace.”  His fingers stroked the plane of my cheek.  “Shiloh, I’ve been where you are — worse if you can imagine — so I’m painfully familiar with the struggle.  And I don’t like seeing you this way.  You can’t let one thing consume you… Let it box you in like this.”  His eyes lightened into the most earnest lavender hue I’d ever seen as he cradled my face.  “You can’t let the world pass you by… I won’t allow you to make that mistake.”

 

I could feel my stare pulling from his, solely from shame.  “Tanner, that wasn’t some random sword.”

 

“I know,” he said, his tone soft and consoling.  “And it could have happened to anyone.”  Tanner lifted my stare to his with a gentle tip of my chin.  “Anyone.”

 

I peered into his eyes, swept away by the depths of his concern.  And still, I couldn’t shake the humiliation of it.

 

“That creature could be on the other side of the globe for all we know,” Tanner added, his words hitting me like a punch to the gut.  “But no matter where it is, one thing remains certain.  The wand is useless to it without you.”

 

No matter how much truth lay in his words, it didn’t make me feel any more empowered, or any less stalked for that matter.  I yielded a sigh.  “So either I’ll find it, or it will find me?”

 

“Precisely,” Tanner assured with a firm nod.  Then he reached for my backpack and handed it straight to me.  “Now, I want you to throw a few things in here and come with me.”

 

I sighed and turned to the table.  “All right.”  I collected my iPad.  “But I have to find some time to study.”

 

Tanner snatched the iPad out of my hand and tossed it onto my bed.  “You’ll have plenty of time when we return on Monday.  And I promise, when you come back with a much clearer head, those words will stand a much better chance of sinking into it.”

 

I wasn’t sure how he was going to accomplish that feat.  Not when the sponge I was rocking upstairs held the density of a granite boulder in its current state.  And no matter how relaxing or blissful any time I’d spent with Tanner felt, I seriously doubted if even a weekend trip to his island could permeate it.  And going there wasn’t a possibility anyway.  Not when he needed the power of one more full moon to fix the magical door that I’d accidentally blown to hell.

 

Tanner reached into his pocket and pulled out a green tourmaline.  “Here,” was all he said.

 

I collected the stone to the silent tune of me singing, No sleep for me.  Not for a while at least.  With a surrendering smile, I cracked open the tourmaline and breathed in its reviving essence.

 

“You’ll thank me for that,” Tanner assured and then made for the door, grinning.

 

As instructed, I started filling my bag with some casual clothes—jeans and tees and undies, along with some basic toiletries.  Ten minutes later, I was knocking on his bedroom door across the hall.

 

Tanner opened the door with a teasing grunt.  “It’s about time.”  Then he took my hand and started leading me into his bathroom.

 

“So where are we going?” I asked, my feet dragging with the remnants of my resistance.

 

“You know the drill.  You’ll have your answer when we get there.”

 

 “That’s not helping me to relax.”  Knowing my attempt to score some info had fallen on deaf ears, I added, “Who’s to say we won’t run into a creature on this trip?”  And still, the lock of his lips held true.

 

Tanner waved a hand towards the shower, commanding the water to flow from the spout with the rush of a waterfall.  “Is there anything else you want to leave behind?”  He shot a blatant glance towards my wrist.  “You really don’t need two weapons.”

 

“I suppose I don’t,” I conceded, obliging his request.  An uneasy feeling flickered through me when I reached to slide the cuff off my wrist.  From here on out, it was up to me to either strive for faith or keep a tight lid on the crazy.

 

“There,” I said as I handed it to him.

 

“That too,” Tanner insisted, nodding to the labradorite medallion.

 

I laid my hand over it, pressing it against my chest.  “Why?”

 

“Because you don’t need the reminder, and that medallion has contributed its fair share to your problem.”  He shook his head, his eyes as stern as they were seductive.  “You’re coming back with a clearer head—a much clearer head—and you can’t as long as that thing is still hanging around your neck like a noose.”

 

I let out a compliant sigh as I took off the medallion and handed it to him straightaway.  “Anything else?”

 

“Just one more thing.”  His gaze never left mine for a second.  “A promise…  No thinking or talking about missing wands.”  Even he could tell from the strain of my eyes how hard that was going to be.  “All I’m asking is that you promise to try.”

 

“I promise,” I breathed.

 

“Good.”  Tanner took my hand and guided me towards the falling water.  “Now you don’t have to worry about me leaving you there.”  After a giving me a wink, he wrapped his arms around me, and in an instant, I felt the magic of the water and his blissful caress carrying me away.