One heartbeat and our scenery had completely changed.  The polished, white marble walls of the shower were now a rougher surface of shadowy blacks and dismal grays.  A rocky niche, my mind flashed.  Too shallow to be a cave…  My stare strayed towards the light, to where a solid sheet of water poured in front of a rugged opening, blurring the mystery of what lay beyond its fall.

Tanner released his hold.  “Go ahead,” he urged.

I extended my hand and parted a section of the waters. Their touch was cool, carrying the slip of satin ribbons through my fingers.  After bobbing an intrigued glance to Tanner, I passed through the shimmery sheet, smoothing back my tresses as I stepped.  The briskness of the air and the rise of dawn captured my attention straightaway—a sky blazing with a seamless whirl of fiery oranges, blinding yellows, and brilliant pinks.  Without a doubt, this had to be the most incredible sunrise I’d ever seen.  So peerless and heavenly I wanted to summon a gust strong enough to send me soaring straight to it—as if basking in its light could cleanse every worry from my head.  Instantly.  Irrevocably.

And if the sight of that pastel masterpiece wasn’t spectacular enough, the airy part of my bottom lip dipped even further when my eyes fell to the dramatic scene that stretched before them.  Green…  So many lush and lively greens flooded the landscape, puddling like thick folds of velvet within the wide-reaching dale.  Awestruck, my eyes trailed the rich and earthy hue as it scaled the sides of hills and raced up mountains, straight to the jut of their crown-like peaks.  And the mountains themselves… They were so commanding yet serene, like sleeping giants cuddled up in fuzzy blankets of green.  I was more accustomed to the ones with rounded tops that bumped across the horizon in a virtually endless range.  Mountains whose rugged beauty stayed masked by the cover of trees—whether bare or bursting with leaves.  But these… These mountains didn’t lay claim to hardly any, just a few pines that ran along their bases, kneeling at their feet.  No.  These naked, roughly-hewn wonders could stand just as proud without them.  Nothing could hinder an ounce of their majesty.

Slowly, my gaze began its descent, bouncing between the gray rocks speckling their faces along the way.  I drew in an extra-deep breath, ensuring the crisp scent of grass and mountain mist soaked into every membrane along its path.  And though I knew I was incapable of shoving the whole wand-napping incident out of my head completely, I could see where an enchanting place such as this could curb a little my mental-obsession.  Possibly…  My biggest relief was that Tanner hadn’t whisked me away to some exotic jungle where stuck-up elephants roamed its lands and nip-happy buzzards rained from its skies.  That alone put my odds at an even 50/50.

Tanner wrapped his arms around my shoulders and feathered the back of my neck with a kiss.  The flush of my cheeks swelled to the point my face felt ablaze.  “Are we in Scotland?” I asked, hoping my guess proved correct.

Tanner whirled me around, unblinking.  “Did Silas tell you?”

“No,” I answered, humored by the strain seizing his eyes.  “A.J. had an Outlander marathon in the living room last Sunday.  Seven hours of commercial-free Scottish scenery tends to leave a mark.”  I scanned the lands again, my eyes sparkling.  “But it’s far more breathtaking in person.”

“Today it is,” Tanner rustled, his stare diving deeply into mine.  “And possibly tomorrow… And maybe some of the next.”

After teasing my lips with a moist peck, he scooped me into his arms and began wading a path towards the edge of the pond.  My feet were squelching onto the ground in an instant, where I also found myself completely dried-out—backpack, clothes, and all.  Truth be told, every time he wrung me out called to mind all the times he hadn’t.  Twenty-eight, if I was counting.

Tanner directed me towards a hill with a nod, and then the two of us headed off on a glorious morning hike through the Highland countryside.  “So?  Aren’t you even a little curious why I brought you here, of all places?”

Despite his warning of “no wand-talk”, I found the irony of our destination too amusing—too impossible to resist teasing him a little.  “Not at all,” I said boldly, posturing myself into a confident stance.  “You’re taking me to the fabled standing stones at Craigh na Duh so I can travel back in time and stop my wand from getting stolen.”  Then I braced myself for his response.

Tanner’s steps halted so swift and hard, he almost tripped over his feet.  “That’s your first strike,” he warned, his stare a touch more wary than chastising.

“Just kidding.”  Well, partly kidding…  “It’s an Outlander thing,” I clarified with a dismissive wave and a cheeky smile.  “I know they don’t exist.”  Unfortunately…  A wishful feeling churned inside me as my gaze floated to the drape of the misty clouds.  Why The Guardians’ couldn’t have infused just one of their gemstones with something as useful as that was beyond me.  They’d tucked every other handy ability inside them.  And what a miracle-maker that would be—a stone capable of cleaning your slate like the rub of an eraser.  Easy-peasy.  Of course, the Talisman who claimed such a wondrous stone would definitely need their own moonstone to go along with it—just to ensure they wouldn’t bleed-out and die from the number of requests they received.

I toed a rock loose with a light kick, as if I were casting a silent wish, and then let out breathy sigh.  “I suppose it doesn’t hurt to dream.”

Tanner’s brow bent mindfully.  “Time manipulation goes against the laws of the universe — particularly when it comes to fate.  Even The Guardians knew what a bad idea granting a gift like that would be.”  Tanner lifted his gaze skyward, a light laugh slipping past his lips.  “Besides, you think that diamond of yours is in hot demand.  Imagine the heat someone would feel claiming a power as game-changing as that…  Having to remain on guard at all times…  Constantly being hunted by an untold number of evil souls…”  He clicked his tongue.  “That’s an awfully grave burden for someone to bear.”

Despite my cravings for a countless number of do-overs, I had to agree with him.  A stone capable of twisting time and shaping the course of a person’s fate to their advantage would be far too dangerous for anyone to possess.  Just thinking about it made me paranoid, knowing the number of Talismans who’d be eager to seek out my most vulnerable past-moment, just to get a crack at snatching my diamond from me—or from Adamas for that matter.

“Well, when you put it like that,” I drawled.

“But there are real standing stones… Hundreds throughout Europe,” Tanner added, his eyes squinting from the glare of the sun.  “In fact, the majority of them are here and all across the UK.  But the stones themselves don’t hold an ounce of power.  They only amplify what magic lies at that particular location.  Stones were what people used back then… At least until they started erecting obelisks and tombs and more decorative markers.”

A grin bloomed on my face as I recalled one of the books I’d cracked open this summer, pulled straight from his collection of Veil journals.  “Because they’re sitting on top of a ley line,” I said proudly.

Tanner scrutinized me with a reflective and steady gaze.  “And there I was, thinking you were up on the seventh level hiding out — trying to avoid me all those times.”

I lifted a hand and pressed my fingers into a pinch.  “Maybe a little bit,” I confessed.

Tanner grinned and then effortlessly sliced his magic through the waters of a rushing stream we’d come upon, clearing the way for dry feet.  “So what else do you know about ley lines and their alignment?”

“I know that they’re essentially invisible highways of pure Veil magic that circle the globe in a grid — but that’s about it.”  The sight of his brow arching critically had me scrambling to mount a defense.  “Hey — You kept tapping that pen of yours on the desk downstairs,” I argued.  “It was quite distracting.”  Best I could recall, his not-so-innocent tick had carried the steady nag of a jackhammer, even in spite of the seven stories between us.  And I still remembered the fierce squeeze my hands had on the mammoth book, as well as what a struggle it had been not to pitch the daggone thing over the railing and onto his head.

Tanner extended a hand, helping me onto the bank of the stream.  “Fair enough,” he noted.  Then he released his hold on the water, letting it flow just as freely through its channel once again.

“So please, feel free to continue,” I insisted and shored up my request with a theatrical wave.  I even kept my opinions about the professor loving the sound of his own voice to myself, not wanting to risk him corking it permanently.  The more he revealed, the less I had to pore over thousands of ancient books and journals—some of which weighed as much as a small child, carrying an even smaller child on their back.

“I suppose the most important thing to know about ley lines is their location — specifically, the points where they cross and the number of ley lines that make up the intersection.  The more ley lines, the easier it is for someone to draw magic from The Veil.”  Tanner paused, his eyes pensive and his jaw hard, as if he was fighting off a bad memory.   “And depending upon the person’s intent and their mastery of spells, they can siphon enough to cause a tiny crack in The Veil, leaving a door temporarily open to The Darklands until it heals itself.”

The muscles in my neck tightened.  No.  This wasn’t a topic he wanted to discuss—not here, not now—not when he’d purposely arranged this holiday-escape to clear my head.  And secretly, I knew why.  I was intrigued by Kamya’s attempt to send that creature back to The Darklands—without needing the transporting power of the oculus.  All Tanner had revealed was that the spell Kamya had used was too risky and had been forbidden by The Guardians.  Naturally, my curiosity had gotten the better of me, so I called her up and just flat-out asked the Ruby Talisman about it.  And though she wouldn’t go into any specific details, Kamya did confess to using an ancient spell that had to be performed in a precise location.  Now it made perfect sense.  She’d tried to shove that thing back across The Veil through a tiny hole—and it had crawled right back out, unbeknownst to her.  Just what I’d thought, I mused.  A classic horror-movie mistake — Not making sure the psycho-killer was good and dead… Or in this case, good and gone.

Tanner closed the book on our discussion with a warning about the dangers of pulling Veil magic from ley lines, the sternness of his words directed more at Kamya.  Though despite how brief and vague his lesson had been, it inevitably steered my thoughts straight to Lady Oleander.  I couldn’t help wondering if that was her “secret way” of accessing Veil magic, regardless of the fact that she hadn’t mentioned anything specific about ley lines anywhere in her book.  What I’d read was so artfully cryptic and vague, like she’d purposely written it that way with the sole intent of whetting your appetite…  Just to lure you in… To make you purchase more of her books if you wanted any real answers.  Sadly, a common trick of the trade these days.

The morning sun warmed our path as we carried on through the countryside — hiking up and down rugged hills, strolling across grassy meadows rich with wildflowers, and skipping along the rocks embedded in crystal-clear brooks.  And though the soles of our shoes kept well within the bumpy & blissful rise and fall of the terrain, our course seemed to be shadowing a winding highway off in the distance.  It wasn’t long before the towering chain of mountains had given way to a more thickly forested range of hills.  Having grown up in a similar setting, I knew that somewhere in the flatter lands up ahead, the tranquility of our scenic Highland surroundings would be taking a more civilized turn.  Then sure enough, a sign came into view as we headed towards the road.

 

 

 

 

 

 

If I didn’t already know that I’d been whisked away to a foreign country, the letter “A” routing the road would have been my first clue.  My second would have been the town’s Gaelic translation, which I’d ascertained after perusing Bea’s memories.  The name of the town itself wouldn’t have been a factor.  Not after my trip to Louisiana, having seen some of the trickier ones marking their cities and rivers.  The Tchefuncte River, being my personal favorite.

My head lifted to the warm glow of the sun as a crisp breeze ruffled my hair.  “So is there anything I should know about the area?  Or the people?”

Tanner’s eyes danced with sly amusement.  “Do you remember when I introduced you to Professor Martin at the Yardley benefit?”

A sneer tugged at my nostrils.  “Oh, I couldn’t forget him if I tried,” I sang crossly—with good reason.  Having detected my southern accent, Professor Martin made a point of asking me where I was from.  And even though I’d answered him with a very pronounced, “WEST Virginia”, he kept referring to my home state as simply Virginia.   Virginia, Virginia, Virginia—over and over again.  That was irritating enough, but then the professor took his infraction a step further when he committed the holy grail of offenses by calling my home state, “westernVirginia”—making a point of going real heavy on the western part, as if he was trying to class it up a notch.  I had to correct him FIVE TIMES.  Five-freaking-times before I’d resorted to cementing that fact into his highly-educated head.

A wave of pride hoisted my smile.  He’ll never forget the U.S. has FIFTY states ever again…

Tanner loosed a laugh, his mind no doubt recalling the irked vibe I’d had at the time—the one oozing hotly from my pores like lava from a volcano.  “Well,” he began, “that’s how Scots feel about themselves being referred to as English  — So be warned.”

“I can respect that,” I stated with an adamant nod.  “So tell me, what are Scots like?”

Tanner’s steps slowed as he processed my question, the golden flecks in his hazel eyes glistening with his thoughts.  “Actually, Scots and West Virginians have a lot in common.”

“Really?” I posed, now all-ears.  “How so?”

“For starters, they both lay claim to some beautiful countryside,” he voiced, extending a hand to the horizon.

My head bobbed from side-to-side, weighing his words like a set of scales.  Both were beautiful, though I still felt Scotland held the stronger lead.  Which admittedly, had me feeling nothing short of a traitor.

“And of course, there’s that unshakable affinity for woven plaids you both share,” Tanner continued, the creep of his grin unmissable.  “Though West Virginians’ prefer wearing it above the belts.”

My brow bounced in agreement, a touch humored and unable to deny that my own closet held its fair share—Katie’s too, after her Burberry-binge.   I poked his ribs.  “You joke, but if someone sought to put ‘plaid’ on the next election ballot, I bet it we could get it added to our state flag.”  Personally, I wouldn’t mind seeing those two fellows standing beside that rock getting a fashion makeover.  “What else?”

“Who do you think was partly responsible for bringing moonshining to the Appalachian area when they settled?” he submitted.  “And you can bet that even today, there are still plenty of folks around here who prefer their own homebrew — just like in your neck of the woods.”

I decided to chime in with a contribution of my own.  “Let’s not forget about their accent.”  Just thinking about all those g’s dropping off the end of all those ing-words had my hands clasping my elbows, wrapping myself in the sweetest of cuddles.

Tanner’s head tipped back, no doubt from the heavy roll of his eyes.  “That goes without saying.”

“So far, I’m likin’ what I’m hearin’,” I said.  “Anything else?”

“I suppose the last thing would be the people themselves.  Both are proud of their heritage and hold family in the highest regard… And they’re probably some of the friendliest folks you’ll ever meet.”

I smiled.  “That’s always important.”  And it just happened to be the thing I loved most about my home state.  All those smiling faces with their neighborly attitudes and laid-back demeanors.

Tanner’s face shone bright with amusement.  “You’ll find they get a kick out of self-depreciating humor — though they’re the only ones allowed to do it.”

“Naturally,” I agreed, mentally counting the number of times I’d found myself a little hot under the collar after hearing someone from another state tell a West Virginia joke.  Every toothless, backwoods & ignorant, kissin’-cousins one of them

Tanner continued, “And they’re just as much of a force to be reckoned with when riled.  But Scots tend to be more physical.  They prefer fists over shotguns.”

My eyes cut to his, teasing him with an incredulous stare.  “You mean they don’t have one loaded and propped in every corner?”

“Not hardly.”  Tanner laughed.  “Much stricter gun laws over here.”

So at the end of his clever analogy, I didn’t feel the least bit offended by Silas’ “you’ll fit right in” crack anymore.  In fact, I couldn’t have felt any more at home.

Within a matter of minutes, the two of us were strolling into the town of Drumnadrouchit, drinking in its village-esque atmosphere of cobblestone walls and ivy-laced buildings and charming streets—the entire town looking like a modern version of a fairy tale.

I noticed a large structure up ahead that carried the classic lines and adornments of a castle.  And as our steps carried us closer, bringing more of the stately building into view, my eyes zeroed in on a sign standing on the curb just in front of it.

 

 

 

 

 

I bumped Tanner’s shoulder.  “And you had me leave the oculus behind.”

“I’m sorry to inform you that there are no Nessies swimming these waters.”

So that was good to know.  Still, I found it slightly disappointing after noticing how devoted their community seemed when it came to maintaining the Loch Ness Monster’s legend; all the signs advertising tours that you could take by bus or watercraft, specialty shops showcasing tons of themed merchandise in their windows, and plenty of cutesy attractions to visit, one of which featured a large fiberglass replica of the creature.  Surely the locals would welcome a verified sighting, right along with the sharp bump in tourist revenue that would inevitably follow.

Tanner noticed my stare trailing one of the boats as it sailed past us.  “Thinking about taking a cruise?”

My head snapped to the cores of his eyes, needing to put the depths of my disbelief officially on record.   “Correct me if I’m wrong, but aren’t some lochs arms of the sea?”

“Yes.”  Tanner nodded to the water.  “This one connects to the Moray Firth…which is part of the North Sea.”  His lips twitched into a grin.  “Which is also a part of the Atlantic.”

“Then I choose not to tempt fate,” I said.  “I’d rather fight her on land.”   Truthfully, I didn’t want to fight Lorelei at all right now, fearing the look on her face when I extended my blade.  A spasm wrenched my neck.  My golden topaz blade, I griped silently.  I might even go deaf from the sea-bitch’s cackles—if I didn’t die from the shame and embarrassment of it first.

 “That would carry a bit more of an advantage,” Tanner agreed.  “But I can assure you that Lorelei has no idea where we are.”

I kept the droop of my lower lip on full display, scoffing at his assertion.  The only way he could be one-hundred-percent sure of that was if she were DEAD.  Lorelei had spies roaming the globe in her stead, and she’d always managed to find Arica, no matter where her sister was hole up or how long it took—facts that had come straight out of his mouth.  And I couldn’t ignore sea-bitch’s two-legged absence this past full moon.  Based on the fierce burn in my gut, it had to have something to do with whatever payback she was planning.  And I wasn’t about to make it easy for her.

“The boats have sonar.”  Tanner captured me from behind with a tight squeeze.  “So it’s not like we wouldn’t see her coming.”

I glanced back at him.  “After what I did to her scalp — Hell no,” I reiterated.  “Trust me, my head doesn’t stand a chance of getting any clearer out there.  Not when it runs the risk of her chopping it off.”

Tanner whirled me around, and if only for a second, I could have sworn I spied a teasing glare of, WUSSIE flashing in his eyes.  “Then it looks like we’re biking to Inverness.”  He pointed down the street, to a shop with a sign hanging above its door.

Wilderness Cycle…  I couldn’t think of a more idyllic choice for such a lovely day—or a safer one.  “Perfect,” I replied, my insides smiling with delight.

After acquiring a pair of cyclocross bikes—Tanner’s the color of night and mine as blue as the sky above our heads—the two of us were pedaling down the road to Inverness, the next leg of our journey.

It wasn’t long before our wheels were rolling past a sign that marked the outskirts of the city.  Correction—our finish line, after Tanner had challenged me to a race, betting that he could beat me there.  Which, he didn’t.  But only because I may or may not have been responsible for that crazy and totally out of the blue gust that blew his butt off the road.  And I was sorry about the tree he’d slammed into.  Though nowhere near sorry enough to stop.

Though Inverness was unmistakably a much larger town than the others we’d traveled through, its appearance was equally as charming—a city steeped in history yet carried the welcoming feel of a small community.  Of course, I didn’t know too many small-towns that boasted so many courtly-looking buildings and sky-piercing bell towers at every turn, let alone a sprawling castle of red sandstone that sat atop a hill like it lorded over the land.  Which oddly had me thinking of my hometown of Welch and its courthouse—a strikingly similar instance where the prettiest building in town stood like a watchman atop its own little hill.  And the residents of Inverness were no exception to its small-town flavor, their cheery faces nodding to us on every street and at every turn.  Even the air here smelled just as clean and nature-kissed as it had back in the heart of the mountains.  So rousingly crisp and meadowy-sweet, they could bottle it up and sell it as air-freshener.  Now all I needed was a taste of their food to give it an instant five-star rating.  Surely it had to be just as perfect, palate-wise.  Tanner insisted that I had to try haggis while we were here.  And I assured him that I would, even in spite of his reluctance to tell me what kind of dish it was—other than “meaty”.  In the end, it didn’t matter.  I’d eaten turtle unknowingly and had liked it.  Though I did make him promise not to shout out any specific ingredients until I had an empty stomach—for both our sakes.

We were cruising along the road that hugged the River Ness when Tanner pointed to a three-story, stone-clad building where a row of terraced houses ended.  I followed him, reducing my speed as I veered towards the structure.  Then we hopped off our bikes and stowed them in a rack within a modest courtyard that extended from its front.  As we headed towards the building’s entrance, a bronze statue standing within one of the flowerbeds captured my attention with enough force to send me drifting towards it.  There wasn’t an inch of the figure that my gaze didn’t miss, particularly the steadfast grip the warrior had on his hilt and the way his blade was propped soundly at his side.  And I was well aware of who the statue depicted.  One of Scotland’s greatest heroes—if not the greatest, depending on whom you asked.

I felt the weight of Tanner’s approach, every suspicious and skeptical ounce of it.  “Do I even want to know what you’re thinking?”

Busted… “Probably not.”  That was the downside of not wearing my ruby cuff—my emotions lighting the air like a stink bomb.

He stepped closer.  “Go ahead… Tell me anyway.”

I directed a nod to the statue of Braveheart and yielded a sigh.  “I was thinking to myself, now there stands a Wallace who can hold on to their sword.”

With an unamused glare, Tanner held up two fingers—notifying me of my second strike—and then ushered me towards the building.  He opened the front door with a sigh.  “I’m starting to think I should have arranged a lobotomy instead of a holiday.”

“You asked,” I defended as I breezed inside.

Though I hadn’t paid too much attention to the exterior of the building upon our arrival, its interior sure got my full attention, especially now that I realized I was standing inside a little Bed & Breakfast style inn whose lobby carried the homey feel of a living room—its walls blooming with delicate pink roses, cushy chairs staged throughout the stretch of its hardwood floors, and Victorian knickknacks rounding out its decor.  Though no matter how cozy or relaxing the establishment appeared, it wasn’t enough to wash away the nervous feeling that clanked through me like the drop of an anchor chain.  The Titanic’s, I was almost certain.  Having my own bedroom at Tanner’s house was one thing.  So was staying the night in his apartment or even on his island.  But there was something strikingly different about us checking into an inn while on holiday.

The closer our strides carried us to the front desk, the more my head flashed with numbers.  Two rooms?  One room?  And ironically, whatever his answer turned out to be, I knew it would leave me flustered.  Talk about a no-win situation.  Aside from the constant churn of my desires, aside from my determination to know more about him before diving into anything more intimate, aside from the “little girl” implication that hearing him request two rooms would infer, aside from that rock of Gibraltar façade when it came to his restraint, facts were facts: I was still on my period.  Even if I was at the tail end of its trickle, the thought of sharing a bedroom connected to a bathroom with a tiny trashcan setting beside its toilet was downright cringing.  I could already picture what its insides would look like—a mound of caterpillars cocooned in toilet paper.  Flushing them wasn’t an option.  With my luck, something as small as a Tic-Tac would stop the damn thing up.  My ears were even ringing to the irksome tune of, I think I need a plunger.

Nope—not quite the take-home memory I wanted.

I loosened a knot from my throat.  So much for “head clearing”…  Though I supposed I could cough up a topaz to throw in there and turn them invisible.

Upon our approach, a distinguished-looking gentleman sitting in a mauve wingback chair folded his morning paper and rose to his feet, smiling.  And after extending us a jovial greeting, he cupped his hand around his mouth and hollered, “Greer, darlin’ — We have guests.”

An older woman, looking around the same age as her mate and claiming hair almost as silver, emerged through the doorway, swiping a feather duster over everything along her path.  “Good mornin’,” Greer said with a pleasant smile.  “I take it the two of you are lookin’ for a comfy room to lay your heads.”

“Yes,” Tanner replied and then shot me a mysterious glance.  “But only for one night.”

I stood there like a frozen doe, my eyes wide and my ears pitched like a tent.  But not because of his “one night” request, since I knew we weren’t going home until Monday.  It was strictly from the fact that he hadn’t challenged the woman’s inquiry of only “a” room.  Which I was pretty sure that even in English-speaking Scotland meant “one”.

My insides twisted.  One room with four walls and a big ole bed that even a blind person couldn’t miss… Putting my monthly-cycle aside, Yes—I’d thought about IT.  Quite a lot, admittedly.  No thanks to his decree of “waiting until I’m ready” and the rage of my hormones.  No different than finding a lone piece of cake in the fridge that had a note tacked to it that read, “Don’t Touch.”  Hungry or not, knowing it was off-limits made me crave it all the more.   But those thoughts were in private or during intimate moments.  At no time had they ever come in the presence of strangers or had felt as in-your-face as this.  And if “head clearing” was on his agenda, what kind of therapy was he thinking?

I tried shaking away the thought.  Surely I was overanalyzing the situation, what with being thrown off-guard so abruptly.  And maybe—just maybe, I could halt the churn of my wild speculations, if I could only get my heart to stop beating all the daggone air out of my chest!  That would be a big help.  Huge, as a matter of fact.

Luckily, Edmund pulled Tanner off to the side for a moment, suggesting local spots we should visit.   So that afforded me some time to put my thoughts in-check before he could sense my worry.  Though if he hadn’t picked up on the thundering pound of my nervousness already, he was bound to later…when my emotions beat him into a full body cast.

You’re being ridiculous, I chastised myself silently.  You’ve slept in a hammock with him — practically on top of each other…  Still, it wasn’t an actual bed like the one in his Naples apartment.  The one that sat across from “the sofa” he’d chosen to sleep on, I reminded myself.

Needing a distraction, I went ahead and signed our names to the register that Greer had placed in front of me, artfully scripting my letters as I wielded the quill with painful precision.  A psychiatrist watching me right now would swear I was trying to release all of my stress by shoving it through the tips of my fingers.  And they would be correct.

Greer nodded to the golden topaz on my left hand.  “Is that your weddin’ ring?” she inquired.

My fingers shied into a curl.  “No,” I replied, feeling the awkward heaviness of my fist.

Greer arched an eyebrow.  “An engagement ring, perhaps?”

Quickly, I replied with a discreet shake of my head.

Tanner returned to my side just as Greer whirled back around, her hands proudly brandishing two keys.  “Here you are… Two keys for two different rooms — with two separate beds.”

Problem solved…  And here I was stressing about his assumptions.  Little did I know how short of a jump it was from nervous to embarrassing when it came to the assumptions of others.  My bad.

We acknowledged her backbone with a pair of polite smiles and then took our keys.  Greer snapped her fingers.  “Edmund, take him upstairs.”  Then she turned to me with a sugary grin.  “I’ll be seein’ the lass to her room personally.  The finest room we have to offer such an innocent, yoong, yoong thing.”

The fact that each of her words had been accompanied by a pert squeeze of my cheeks, oh I knew what she was thinking.  I didn’t need, nor want the accompanying audio of “he’s too mature for someone your age” blaring inside her head.  I’d got enough of it from Samuel.

The proud beam lighting Greer’s emerald-green eyes sent my mind on a reflective drift as I followed her down the hall.  And oddly enough, what I found myself thinking about was Beatrix.  In particular, the little game she’d always made a point of playing whenever first hearing a stranger’s name.  After scouring through enough of my fallen-mentor’s memories, I discovered that “Greer” essentially meant “watchful” and “vigilant”.  And with respect to ensuring that old-fashioned values were upheld in her establishment, I couldn’t think of a better choice.

My room turned out to be located at the back of the inn, right next to the adorable couple’s bedroom.  I started to insert my key into the keyhole when Greer requested that I hold on for a second.  Then I watched as she disappeared into her bedroom, and within seconds, a loud, “BUZZZ” blared from the lock in front of me, jerking me into a flinch.

Greer popped her head into the hall.  “You’ve got five seconds to put your key in before I have to press it again.”  So without further delay, I shoved the key into the keyhole and gave the knob a quick turn.  Greer waved her hand dismissively as she joined me in front of the door.  “It’s just a wee bit of extra security,” she assured and then motioned me into the room.

Oookay, I hummed as I trailed her through the doorway.

One step into the dated bedroom confirmed my suspicions as to whose room this had been: their daughter’s.  With warm and sentimental eyes, my gaze glided over every girly touch—the miniature dollhouse that sat on a stand beside the closet, all the porcelain dolls and teddy bears propped on various shelves, framed pictures of teen-heartthrobs, and a four-poster bed with a ruffled white coverlet fit for a princess.

Greer patted my back warmly.  “This was my daughter’s room.  She was such a darlin’.”

I gave her a polite, acknowledging smile as I stepped towards the window, looking to take a peek.  Though despite the airy nature of the lace panels, they didn’t allow for much light into the room.  Not when they had to compete with the thick, wrought iron bars striping the glass behind them.

Greer pulled the panels back to a close.  “But she may have fancied the lads a bit too much.”  And with that, she swatted my cheek twice and then made for the door.  “Let me know if you need anythin’.”

My stare remained glued to her backside until the door had come to a close.  And again, I about jumped out of skin at the fire of that buzzer.  Nope.  This wasn’t the finest room in the house, more like the one most fitting.  The only thing it lacked was a fancy placard on the door that read, Virgin Vault.

I leaned toward the cheval mirror, needing to check my reflection.  Not written on my shirt or stamped on my forehead.  I shrugged.  Maybe “virgin” puts off a scent?

I dropped my backpack beside the bed, tickled by a thought.  Oh, I bet I find a shotgun in their bedroom

Tanner came to spring me from my frilly cell within a matter of minutes, insisting that we head off to take in some of the sights The Great Glen had to offer—which turned out to be the area’s nickname, same as the fault line it sat atop.  So it seemed this was Phase-Two of his plan to recalibrate my head—historical sightseeing, with a touch of Geology.  But I was game.  It had been a while since I’d toured any landmarks or dated structures, well over nine years ago on one of our family vacations to South Carolina.  Best I could remember, Daddy had dragged us to every fort, battlefield, and restored mansion before our tires finally came to a stop at Myrtle Beach.  Of course, Chloe and I were young and impatient and had the attention spans of gnats when it came to historical outings.  But now that I was older, and here with present company, I planned on savoring every minute of it.  Best of all, it was the perfect way for me to discover things about his past, without having to hound him directly.

Hopefully.

First on his agenda, was a stop by Culloden Moor for a stroll across its hallowed grounds.  A.J. would have been in Outlander heaven, because this was where the Battle of Culloden had taken place, back in 1746.  And I started to take some pictures, with the intentions of showing them to her.  Until it dawned on me that I couldn’t explain how the hell I’d ended up here and not in Boston with Katie.

Our steps lingered as we walked across the field, taking in all the stones rising from the ground, stones that served as markers for the various clansmen who’d lost their lives.  An array of flags whipped throughout the somber stretch of green as well, each of them denoting where the rival forces had been positioned.  And though I’d seen my fair share of battlefields over the years, dating back to my sixth-grade trip to Gettysburg, this one seemed the saddest.  The Jacobite Highlanders were clearly outnumbered, to the tune of 3000 men.  I couldn’t have asked for a more sobering reminder when it came to how many alive & kicking Talismans there were roaming the earth, barely a handful compared to the number of creatures The Darklands’ claimed.  And I wasn’t counting the ones that were here, hiding in the shadows or stalking their victims out in the open, under the cover of their magic.  I still had a hard time imagining that The Onyx would want to break apart The Veil and bring that degree of brutality and chaos to our world—that anyone would.

Reduce it to nothing but blood and rubble…  And who was the one in charge of holding the biggest stick to keep that from happening?  Me—empty-handed and stick-less me.  I took a deep breath, swearing that I could almost smell the phantom-like after-odor of muskets being fired and taste the metal tang of blood on my tongue.  As far as I was concerned, bringing me here, to such a desolate spot, was an epic fail in Tanner’s manual of head-clearing.  And he needed to flip on over to the next page, like quick, before the roll of my gut had my body hunched over and hurling.

I was about to request that we leave, when Tanner dropped to the ground and asked me to join him.  The firmness in his tone made it feel like more of an order than a request.  So now I was queasy and curious.

“Why?” I asked, regardless that my rear was already halfway to the grass.

“I just thought you might like to see a ghost,” he said casually.  “That’s all.”

My mind instantly recalled the apparitions of Mayan warriors that had appeared at El Tajín, on the morning Kara and I were trying to escape Federo.  “A ghost?” I echoed.

Tanner nodded.  “When a warrior falls in battle, a piece of their soul remains behind to keep watch over it.”

My eyes swept the rolling scene of grass and stones and whipping flags in front of me.  “How do you see them?”

“They’re not like faeries or wraiths, so you don’t need any magical assistance.   Humans can see them too, just as easily as we can.  All one needs is a little pinpointed focus.”

A light laugh drove my stare straight to the clouds.  “I’d stand a better chance of seeing one using the medallion.”  My eyes dropped to his, mindful of his request.  “You know, the one you made me leave behind.”

Tanner flashed me an assessing grin.  “Right now, you’re probably correct… So, since that’s the case, I’ll just have to bliss you into it.”  Before I could say a word, he added, “I won’t have to extend very much.  I doubt you even feel it.”

Truth be told, I didn’t need that much persuading.  “All right,” I said and extended my hand.

Tanner pulled me towards him.  “No.  Sit in front of me.”  I scooted my rear back towards him, and he grasped my arms with a light squeeze below my shoulders.  “Now, concentrate on clearing your head, and I’ll do the rest.  Just let me know when you want me to start blissing.”

After taking a preparatory breath, I closed my eyes and then eased it from my chest.  The focused dip I’d taken into my mind was unpleasantly revealing.  Psychologically-speaking, it reminded me of a swamp—a dreary terrain filled with the muck of pent-up rage.  There was so much of it pooling inside me, clogging my head—some directed towards the creature, though most of it was aimed at myself.  Those were the layers that felt the thickest, the most smothering.  The ones I needed to break through first and foremost.

I can do this, I affirmed, needing to accomplish this one simple task, especially if humans could do it with no magic required.

A canopy of stillness fell over me as I rode the rise and fall of Tanner’s chest, my other senses drinking in the soft sigh of the grasses and the fragrant notes of a flower I couldn’t place.  It could have happened to anyone — to anyone… I repeated, over and over and over, until the words Tanner had spoken carried the lulling rhythm of waves rolling along a shore.  And the very moment I sensed the first signs of my head feeling a bit lighter, I opened my eyes and instructed Tanner to go ahead and bliss-away.  Though after considering how congested all that muck made me feel, I should have demanded he just go ahead and bliss the daylights of me—even if it did only shatter it temporarily.

As my breaths fell into synch with his, I kept my eyes attentive, my mind focused, and my receptors open to the boundless feel of his power.  Within seconds, a faint pulse of magic breezed over me, and I homed my stare.   Nothing lay on my horizon, not to the left nor to the right of it.  Still, I sensed a peculiar mystical-tickle coming from somewhere.  I started to look towards my left again, when suddenly, the translucent face of a man darted into view, his eyes staring at me upside-down from where he stood to our rear.  So that was the second time I’d been spooked by a ghost.  Undoubtedly an occupational hazard of theirs.

With the apparition of the man aware of my stare, he started to draw back, and I followed him over my shoulder to see him straightening his stance.  The kilt-clad clansman acknowledged me with a casual nod before drifting off, his iron and wooden shield just as sheer and glowing as the warrior’s spectral white form.

When my stare returned to the field, I spotted more of them, hundreds more of the fallen Jacobites patrolling the grounds with their weapons like attentive soldiers.  It had to have been a pleasing sight to them, seeing this tribute and knowing their courage and sacrifice was still honored to this day.

I scooted away from Tanner and turned around.  “That was kind of amazing.”

He rose to his feet, helping me up alongside him.  “What?  Seeing them, or that you actually managed to clear your head enough to see them?”

“Seeing them,” I said.  “The head-clearing part doesn’t count — not when you have to help.”

“What if I told you that I didn’t do anything?”  Then he turned with a grin and started towards the spot where we’d parked our bikes.

I quickened my strides to catch up with him.  “But you did — I felt you.”

“Oh, I know.”  His tone was teasing, if not a shade cocky.  “But at no time did I release even a drop of bliss to you.”

 I searched his eyes.  “Really?

Tanner nodded.  “Imagine that.  You made a conscious choice to adjust your focus.  And it wasn’t that hard when there was an instant reward.  Now you just need to strive for that same level of focus when there isn’t one in sight.”

I gave him a long look—a very, very long look.  “I don’t think I’ve ever felt more like a lab-rat in my entire life.”

“I suppose it was a bit of an experiment.”  He shot a look to my head.  “Just to see what I’m up against in there.”

I glared at him as I pulled out my bike.  “So where to now, and what sort of therapy should I expect?”

His expression softened as he reached for my hand, luring it towards his mouth.  “After the lab-rat remark, I think it might be wise to take milady to a castle.”

Airy tingles swirled inside my chest from the warm caress of his lips against my skin.  Between that, and hearing the velvety way ‘milady’ had rolled off his tongue had my toes curling—just to keep myself grounded—knowing I could float away at any second.  The next thing I knew, my mind was adrift with visions of him dressed like a dashing prince.  Shamefully, yes… An honest to goodness, plucked straight from the pages of a fairy-tale prince—Cinderella stamped & approved.  A handsomely embroidered doublet…  Sleeves that bloomed along with the thrust of his muscles… Along with a pair of breeches that gripped every inch of his powerful legs and clung to the shelf of his ass like a glove.  So if he really wanted to dangle a piece of cheese in front of me—right there it was.  Though if he ever decided to take requests, my first choice would be his gladiator garb, hands down.

Within minutes, we were rolling onto the regal grounds of Cawdor Castle, a picturesque stronghold of turreted stone walls and lavish gardens and drawbridges that had me feeling like I’d been swept away to another time—part of me wishing I had.  After parking our bikes, Tanner informed me that the castle and its owner served as Shakespeare’s inspiration for Macbeth.  But strictly for inspiration only, he stressed, claiming that the Thane of Cawdor was nothing like the character from the story, and at no time had the man ever been visited by three witches bearing any prophecies that he would rule the land.  And based on the gravel in the Amethyst Talisman’s tone throughout his talk of witches and prophesies and how destructive a person’s quest for power could prove, it was safe to say that Macbeth wasn’t one of his favorite books.  That, or he’d been chewing on rocks the entire time.  Truth be told, I could have done without the witch-reminder myself.  Monday would be here soon enough.

Once we’d started roaming the halls of the six-hundred-year old structure, I couldn’t have asked for a better tour guide.  Aside from the castle’s intricate architecture, the grandness of its tastefully decorated rooms, the family portraits and tapestries, the antique furnishings, and all the interesting odds & ends from the period, my favorite part was Tanner pointing out all the things that had changed from the handful of times he’d been here—before its museum days.  And though my curiosity was spinning, wanting to know the reason for his visits, I didn’t press him for anything specific.  And by specific, I mean anything too personal.  One, because if he wanted me to know he would tell me… And two, because it was literally ancient history.  So I simply enjoyed his random details and kept anything of the sensitive-nature where it needed to remain.  Of course, that didn’t stop me from sneaking in a subtle hint about my secret “prince fantasy”, making a general comment about wishing I could have seen him dressed like a dashing nobleman from those romanticized days of old.  His response came as a bit of a downer, which was something along the lines of, “When an era is over, I don’t make a habit of reliving it — particularly when it comes to its clothes.”  Though I especially liked the touch he’d added at the end of it—that grueling, guy-grimace—like I’d just handed him a dress and tube of lipstick and then demanded he put them on.  So I simply smiled and reminded myself that this trip was all about me holding on to hope, which I would definitely be doing in this particular case.

After a quick trip downstairs to check out their dungeon, we headed outside to a path of walkways that flowed through a tract of lovely gardens—all of them boasting a beauteous array of flowerbeds, hedge mazes, statuary, and fountains.  We strolled quietly for a while, letting only the delicate chirps from the birds play upon our ears.  And despite running into plenty of other folks enjoying their day all around us, our peaceful backdrop felt just as secluded and serene as his island.

A weighty question bubbled inside me the longer we walked along the stones.  No doubt fueled by the battle that was being silently waged in my head—a battle of wills that I truly wanted to win.  So if I stood any chance of shaking off the heaviness, I needed to get my thoughts off my chest.  Even if I did run the risk of being served my third and final strike.

“Do you ever feel old?” I blurted.

The Amethyst Talisman’s smooth strides skidded to a halt.  “Right now, I do.”

“No, that’s not how I meant it.”  I paused, grinning.  “Well, not really.  I was talking about the weight of your years.  Do you ever feel its toll?”  Here I was, grappling the forceful press of ten months worth of supernatural issues.  Ten months compared to his almost twenty centuries.

“Of course, I do.  Though personally, I prefer the term, ‘weathered’,” he clarified with a stern smile.  “And yes, some years left me with more honed edges than others.”

I rolled my eyes.  “They’re not all sharp.”

“Most of them are.”  He looked sidelong at me, his eyes sly.  “The soft ones are just for show.”

I picked at my nails.  “Do you ever miss any of those times?”

“I don’t miss them… But if you’re asking me if I could go back and change anything, then my answer is yes.  Everyone feels that way about something.”  He arched a brow.  “And I have a pretty good idea where your question is coming from — which has nothing to do with our surroundings or anything to do with my past.”

A quiver of a smile served as my only acknowledgement as I collected my thoughts.  And I was still in the process of shaping them when I noticed a more contemporary sculpture up ahead and became instantly intrigued by its presence.  It wasn’t like any of the other classical statuary we’d seen throughout the gardens; its styling was far more modern and definitely out of place for such a period-oriented setting like a castle.

I stared at the giant concrete sphere, eyeing its curves like a globe had magically appeared before me—right down to imagining the lines of continents and all their countries.  And within all of that wide-openness, my wand could be anywhere — even at the bottom of an ocean.  Which wasn’t a far-fetched thought, knowing it had seen its sands before.

“You know,” Tanner began, “There is something that can weather a person just as easily as time.”

Oh, no… That didn’t sound the least bit like a lecture brewing.  My fingers halted the day-dreamy lines they had been drawing on its surface, and I turned to him.  “And what’s that?” I asked, respectfully swallowing his bait.

“Not putting things into perspective.”  Then he took hold of my hand and roused a smile that breathed with as much warmth as it did warning.  “In fact, if a person doesn’t make an effort to refine their frame of mind enough to loosen its choke, it can kill their spirit far faster.”  The squeeze he issued my hand struck my skin like an exclamation point.  “No amount of years can hold a candle to something as soul-robbing as that.”

“It’s not that I don’t want a clearer perspective,” I said, my words firm yet weary.  “It’s just hard to turn off my thoughts…and even harder to turn off my fears.”

Tanner yielded a sympathetic smile.  “No, it’s not.  Not with the right perspective.”  He laid his hands on my shoulders and turned me towards the sculpture.  “Imagine that sphere is the world, and here you are,” he said, nodding to the ball of concrete and then to me.  “So how does it look from where you’re standing, compared to its true size?”

“It’s small,” I muttered.

“And if I asked you to rip it out of that flower bed right now, is it small enough that you could withstand its weight?”

My lips roused a half-smile.  “Of course.”

He slipped behind me, his lips hovering at my ear.  “And if you can shoulder the entire world from this angle, then there isn’t one of its problems that you can’t handle,” he vowed, the depth of his tone striking a chord.  “From this vantage, no one can get under your skin and nothing can stand in your way.”  Tanner turned me towards him, aligning his gaze to mine.  “When you stop making your fears bigger than what they are and start viewing the world this way — from faith’s perspective — your mind is strong enough to rise above them.  It’s the place where your fears have nothing else to do but become your friend — not your ruler.”

I stared at the sphere—the world, my world—disarmed by the truth of his words.  The only reason I was allowing that creature to consume my thoughts was because of my wand.  Because of how embarrassing it was…  How weak it made me look in the eyes of others.  How ashamed I felt for not protecting it.   No matter how angry I felt or how much I wanted to kill that thing, it was my own fears that were shredding me from within.  My fear that I would never see my wand again…  Afraid of what other Talismans would think…  The panic that came from a problem with no solution…  But it did have an answer—a simple course of action and yet the most difficult road to take.  Letting go of my fears—surrendering all of my fears and worries—and placing them on faith’s wings.  And if I didn’t make a conscious effort to do just that, no matter how hard it may seem, my mind would always be a slave to them, and I would never hear the first cry from my wand.

I turned around with a determined look lighting my eyes.  “Point made, Professor Grey,” I said with a nod and then issued him a smile, a gesture that beamed my full compliance.

“So would I be correct in assuming that there will be no more silent thoughts or talk of missing weapons for the remainder of our getaway?”

I released a committed breath.  “Yes.”

“Good.”  Tanner twined his fingers around the denim loops at the waist of my jeans, and my back arched into him as he drew me towards his lips.   “You don’t how close you were to me whipping off my belt right here.”

I broke from his gaze with a turn of my head, desperate to fight off a laugh.  But not from his tin-belt crack.  Actually, it was from the looks I’d caught coming from a trio of older women who’d overheard him as they walked past.  And judging from how fast their fragile necks had snapped and the gape of their eyes magnified from behind their glasses, I’d say they were downright scandalized.  Well, two of them were.  The one in the middle batted Tanner a wink when he glanced back to see what I’d found so amusing.

Then with a gentle tug, the two of us resumed our garden stroll with my fresher outlook in tow.

Not long after our guts had cried out a fierce round of rumbles, we found ourselves sitting at a table inside The Cawdor Tavern, browsing their lunch menu.  We settled on a couple of hot-toasted, bacon & Brie paninis, along with two brownies drizzled with warm Belgium chocolate sauce for dessert—plus a side order of haggis.  For it to have been listed on the menu as a meat pudding, I had to say it was pretty good.  Nowhere near as gamey-tasting as some of the mystery-meats that Daddy or Samuel had ever dragged out of the woods and slapped on our dinner table over the years.

We headed back to Inverness straight after our meal, looking to immerse ourselves in the city’s intimate charm.  And charming it was, no matter which way our steps turned, whether winding a leisurely path along the River Ness or weaving a more explorative trail through the bustle of its downtown streets.  Seeing all the old-world buildings with their embellished façades and intricate trimmings had me wishing architects never stopped designing structures this way because of the presence they radiated—the care and passion that had gone into creating them, aside from their beauty.  Each of them breathed with their own personality, their own history, like they all had their own story to tell, no different than the soul of a human being.  And I respected Mike Riverside all the more for his dreams of bringing past treasures similar to these back to life in lieu of tearing them down for the sake of cost, modernization, or convenience.

While strolling through the heart of the city, we came upon a curious median separating one of its streets.  At first glance, the long divide looked like outcrops of hewn stone jutting from underneath its pavement, rough and erratic, with three birch trees bursting through the slabs of rubble—a symbol of life rising from all the destruction.  It turned out to be sculpture marking a violent earthquake that struck the area back in 1861.  Stamped on the sides of its raised sections was the town’s motto: Open-heartedness, Insight, and Perseverance.  Three very profound and heavy-hitting words.  In fact, I found them hitting so close to home (particularly that last one), I had a sneaky suspicion that fate had hijacked my tour at some point throughout the day.  Fingers-crossed, I was taking it as a good sign.

We were leaving the quaint iron and glass ceilinged confines of the Victorian Market District when the melodic cry of bagpipes called from somewhere off in the distance.  The lure of their ceremonial whine felt so emblematic of the Gaelic culture, too evocative not to notice.  Tanner, on the other hand, seemed nowhere near as affected by their call—probably because he’d heard them millions of times before.  Then suddenly, I noticed a suspicious grin unfolding on his face, followed by his steps slowing to a pensive stop.

The next thing I knew, he’d linked his hand with mine, and we were trailing the notes across one of the bridges on a hunt for their source.  The soles of our shoes ended at a park, where a crowd of spectators had gathered.  Through the narrow gaps of the shifting bodies, I spotted a sprawling field lined with various festive tents and colorful flags waving along its edge, each of them bearing a specific coat of arms.  And scattered throughout the stretch of green, in the center of all the excitement, were hundreds of kilt-clad men and women flexing their muscles for a showy tournament.

 

 

 

 

With a mannerly wave of his hand, Tanner stopped a gentleman walking past.  “I thought the games were earlier in the summer,” he submitted.

“They usually are,” the man replied.  “But it rained so much the city had to move them.”  He shook his head and huffed a laugh before heading off.  “Didn’t think the ground would ever dry out.”

Tanner turned towards the field, his eyes bouncing between the competitors with the speed and strike of a pinball.  His search ended when a gratified smile stretched across his jaw.  “We couldn’t have come at a better time.”  Tanner pointed a finger towards a group of men dressed in the same weave of kilt—a tartan of crimson and evergreen and ocher—all of the men in-the-flesh testaments to body-builders everywhere.  “Do you see the fellow in the black tank?” he asked.

My eyes homed in on the guy Tanner had singled out.  At least I thought it was guy.  For all I knew, I was staring at a mountain of muscles capped with auburn hair.  My stare remained on the burly man as he ran through a round of stretches.  “Yeah,” I muttered, still blown away by the freakish breadth of his brawn.  “Who is he?”  I was guessing he went by a nickname—something like, The Celtic Crusher.

“A friend,” Tanner replied.  The sound of staticy feedback crackled the air, and then an official made an announcement that pulled the strapping wall of steel straight out of his stretch.  I trailed his intimidating strides across the field, straight to the man holding the microphone.  And after the powerhouse’s name had been formally announced, a memory from one of my summer lessons in the totem room blazed a path to the forefront of my mind.

Oakley, I repeated as a sweet hush fell over the boisterous crowd.  Oakley MacMillan…  “The Sphene Talisman,” I breathed, without question.  My gaze snapped to Tanner.  “You didn’t bring me here just for a getaway.”

The sparkle in his eyes heightened.  “You still want to meet other Talismans, don’t you?”

“Yes,” I whispered, pushing my answer past a swell of delight lodged in my throat.

With a tender stroke, Tanner brushed his fingers along the curve of my jaw.  “You don’t need a wand for that,” he assured, his words impassioned.  “But he’s only part of the reason we’re here.  Clearing your head is still the most important thing.”

“Of course.”  Knowing what sort of power Oakley’s stone held, I was practically panting at the thought of securing one of my own.  It was the answer to one of my problems of late—my inability to retain jack-shit from any of my textbooks.  But having a sphene…  Having a beautiful, tri-colored stone of red, green, and gold would change all that.  From what I’d learned about a sphene’s abilities this summer, anything you read was magically embedded into the appropriate lobes of your brain…  Instantly…  Permanently…   Blessing even the most stubborn of heads with a photographic memory.  And that was only the half of it.  A sphene widened your field of vision, honed your tracking to that of a laser-guided missile, and increased the rate of your reading speed, which drastically reduced your face-time with a book in hand.  Tanner had told me about the first time he’d used one, while reading Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace.  Twenty-eight minutes.  A book that would normally take an average reader thirty-three hours to finish, he was able to consume and remember every detail, word-for-word, in a little under thirty minutes.  The time it took to mix up and bake a flipping cake.  I could blow through Tanner’s entire library in a couple of weekends.  Maybe less with my diamond giving it a boost.  Every cell in my body was buzzing with excitement and want.  I could actually start reading books for sheer pleasure again—a prospect that I’d stowed away, at least until the day my hands had officially packed their first snowball in hell.

Tanner bumped my arm and then pointed to my mouth.  “You’ve got a little drool on your chin.”

I smacked his finger away.  “Oh, I do not,” I huffed.  Though I was quick to sneak in a wipe when he turned away—just in case.  “So what’s he like?”

Tanner tilted his head, the sun crinkling his eyes as he weighed his thoughts.  “Extremely focused…  A bit reserved — particularly around strangers… He’s probably the most intelligent fellow you’ll ever meet.”  A mindful smile eased across his jaw.  “He’s a hard one to outsmart, that’s for certain.  And he hates it when someone gets the better of him.  And as far as his personality goes, a lot of Talismans think he’s arrogant and stingy with his stones, but he’s not.”

An alarm boomed like a cannon in my head.  “Then why do they think he is?”  Surely there was a reason.

“Because he prefers his own company, and he’s selective about who receives his stones,” Tanner explained.  “Oakley feels his gifts were meant to help humans, so for him to grant one to a supernatural speaks volumes about what he thinks of their character.  Only a handful of Talismans have one.”

“So basically, he’s a brilliant, bookish recluse who’s picky?”

“In a nutshell,” Tanner said with a casual shrug.  “It took Kamya a century before he gave her a stone — and that was roughly fifty years after she’d given him one of hers.”

“Oh,” I mumbled.  A sinking feeling in my gut sent my hopes of getting one of his stones plummeting along with it.  Was it too much to ask for someone a little more mellow and freehanded?  Or perhaps something kittenish to knock the edge off that block of granite façade?

“But before I introduce the two of you…” Tanner began, “We’re going to have a little fun.”

A wary feeling slinked down my spine.  Oh, I’d seen that particular naughty hue of violet spinning in his eyes before.  Run-for-your-life Raisin—that would be its name on the Pantone Color Table.  “What kind of fun?” I asked, my words slow, if not hesitant.

“The bad kind, of course,” he replied with a wily grin.  Tanner fixed his stare to the Sphene Talisman, where he was picking up an iron weight by the loop of its chain for his first event.  Oakley positioned himself underneath a bar and then lowered himself into a squat.  Then he started swinging the boxy weight like a kettlebell—back and forth and back and forth.  Once he’d worked up enough force (or at least pretended to), he sprang into a straighter stance and released the weight with a fling over his head.  It cleared the bar—rather effortlessly—and then dropped to the ground on the other side.

Tanner let out an annoyed grunt and slumped his head in shame.  “It’s like watching a sumo wrestler toss a pacifier.”  Then the Amethyst Talisman slid his eyes to me, the heat of his seductive stare imploring my compliance.  “The least we can do is make him work for it — honestly.”

An invisible smack of disbelief sent my mouth flopping open.   Undeniably, a kiss from karma to serve as a forewarning.  “No,” I stated firmly.

Tanner wrapped his arm around my shoulders, ignoring the blinding glare of, You’re crazy my eyes were casting, and extended his other towards the field.  “Look around — Look at all these contestants who’ve trained so hard for this day.  All these unsuspecting humans trying to earn a simple prize, and they can’t.”  The shroud of his eyelids fell heavy.  “And do you know why?”

I dismissed his accusation with a frivolous wave.  “Oh, it’s just an advantage,” I said, unblinking.

Tanner quirked a brow.  “It’s only an advantage when you use your abilities against other supernaturals — not humans.”

I didn’t know which was swaying me more: the tease of his solemn performance or the truth underneath the guilt-trip he was trying to lay on me—because he knew that stood a good chance of working.

Tanner turned his attention back to Oakley, to where the Sphene Talisman stood waiting for a couple of men to raise the bar above his head before commencing with his next toss.  A cunning gleam churned in Tanner’s eyes.  “Yeah, he may be as strong as an oak, but I have a feeling he’ll fall just as hard.”  Tanner turned to me, the blaze of his stare as rampant as wildfire.  “With the help of a little wind.”

As I stood there, battling through the minefield my moral dilemma, one of the officials made an announcement, stating that Oakley MacMillan was the reigning champion for each of the heavy events—a title he’d held consistently for a decade.  Though in fairness, the official was quick to extend a hopeful statement of encouragement to all the other competitors.  Then the man concluded his address with a comment about Oakley’s age: how the years had only made him stronger—younger as well.  The next sounds I heard were a chastising stream of “Tsk, tsk, tsks” clicking beside my ears, courtesy of the King of Cheaters standing to my right.  With the toe of my foot dug into the grass, I pressed out a hard pivot to face him.  And dammit if that roguish façade didn’t make him look ten times hotter.  Proof enough that no matter what your convictions may be, a good enough whiff of bad-boy could sucker any gal into doing their bidding, given the right time and place.

“So?  What do you say?”  Tanner’s eyes shot like an arrow to his unsuspecting mark, where Oakley had completed another toss.  “Do you want to help me right some wrongs?”  He arched a thumb towards the field.  “Ten whole years worth.”

 He could spin this any way he wanted, but in the end, it was just good old-fashioned guy-ragging.  I looked deep into his eyes, not feeling the least bit ashamed of my desperation.  “Do you know how badly I want a sphene?”  And he could bet that if one were to land in my palm right now, I’d be doing backflips up and down this entire stadium — in my underwear.  “Lest you forget how my attempt to get an iolite from Maria turned into one major disaster.”  My head crashed to the ground.  “And you’re wanting me to commit self-sabotage.”

“It’s not self-sabatoge,” Tanner argued.  “Oakley is not Maria.”  He guided my gaze back to his.  “And as insane as what you might think this sounds, pulling a stunt like this may even ensure you a stone.  It takes Oakley awhile to warm up to someone.  Think of this as a possible fast-track.”  He grinned.  “A way of pulling the turtle out of his shell.”

More like jerking him out of it…  I hadn’t heard a more ridiculous line of bullshit in my entire life.  And what did I have to lose?  Oh, nothing much… Just a stone that can etch the information of whatever books I read into my brain cells with the force of a sandblaster — practically at light-speed…

Tanner grabbed hold of my wrist and then steered me through the throng of spectators gathered around the field, his sights set on Oakley.  Guilt churned in my stomach as I studied him at a much closer angle.  Oakley had one of the sweetest faces sitting atop all that brawn, which included a pair of warm eyes the shape and color of toasted almonds.  And underneath them, his cheeks bloomed with a pinch of rosy against a youthful canvas of ivory skin.  Even the round contours shaping his face lent him an air of boyish innocence.  He couldn’t hurt a fly—at least from the neck up.  Though from the neck down, a mere press of his thumb would surely send a supernatural down in the dirt for a starry-headed nap, whereas a human, on the other hand, would experience the spiritual call of a blinding white light.

Tanner leaned into my ear.  “Don’t let that gentle giant façade fool you,” he warned, as if he knew what I’d been thinking.  “He’s not as cuddly as he looks.”

I let out a groan.  “Please tell me that the two of you are really, really good friends.”

Tanner cocked his head with a bump of his brow.  “Good enough.”  He latched on to my shoulders when I turned and twisted me back towards him. “It’s not like you’re going to hurt him.  In fact, Oakley will probably thank you for it.”

A doubtful laugh boomed like a cannonball from my lungs.  “Thank me?”

“Believe it or not, Oakley hates shows of strength.  He’s only out on that field because of his cousins.  Trust me, he would much rather be in his library with a book propped in his face — anything other than standing out there, being the center of attention with his muscles on parade.”

The claps and cheers of the crowd sent my attention back to Oakley.  He’d just completed another successful toss, and the two men were now raising the bar to the top notch.

Tanner leaned into my ear.  “You know, he doesn’t have a diamond of his own.  Adamas was long gone before Oakley was bestowed his sphene.”

Bull’s-eye…  Who knew that Tanner could be just as convincing as my red-suited devil?  If not worse, I assessed.  But at least I had some wiggle room.  I dropped my head in surrender.  “All right.  What do you want me to do?”

Tanner pulled my hands to his lips, planting a grateful kiss on each set of knuckles.  “Whatever I ask — with both of us tucked under your golden veil, of course,” he added.

“Of course,” I sang back.

Once we were shrouded from head-to-toe, I turned to The Sphene Talisman as he bent into a squat, preparing for his last toss.  I couldn’t help thinking that Tanner might be onto something.  Oakley did look kind of miserable out there, his rigid expression more annoyed than focused.  The weight in his hand was so tiny compared to his biceps.  He could sling that thing over the bar with his pinky toe if he wanted—while lying on his back, blindfolded.  I watched him as he rocked and rocked and rocked until his back straightened with a thrust of his legs.  Then he released the weight into the air.  And as he stood there, bored and unaware, I conjured a stream hard enough to stop the weight from going over the other side of the bar.  Then I braced myself with a cringe as it dropped back to the ground—on a collision course straight for his head.  Luckily, The Sphene Talisman happened to glance up a second before it struck and then rushed to dive out of its path.  His body pitted the ground in a spray of turf and dirt all around him.  The entire crowd exploded into a collective gasp—except for Tanner, who seemed disappointed that I’d missed his head.  Oakley shot to his feet and stared down at the weight, confusion furrowing his brow and his face as red as a beet.

Tanner patted my back.  “Don’t worry.  You’ll get him on the next one.”

I gritted out a smile and turned my attention to a troop of girls taking part in a dancing competition nearby, their kilts flaring and legs kicking nonstop.  Great, I groaned silently.  Karma was going to have a field day with this one.  And I didn’t think for a second that the Talisman pulling my strings would share in a bit of my misery.  She didn’t roll that way.  Not for me, she didn’t.

So for the next hour, the two of us became Oakley’s pesky little shadow.  Of course, it didn’t take the Sphene Talisman long to realize something was afoot—something magical, that is.  Not after attempting his next event, the Caber Toss.  And toss that tree he did—only to have the caber bounce off the ground before taking its final tumble, where it then came flipping back towards him.  Despite turning my head (unable to look), I could tell precisely how hard both Oakley and the caber had landed from the tremor that rocked the ground.  Even the bagpipers stopped playing to question whether or not they’d felt the beginnings of an earthquake.  Oakley had no sooner got back onto his feet when he took to scanning all the chuckling faces in a heated fit, determined to find out whose hands were responsible.  A part of me wanted to drop Tanner’s veil, shove his butt onto the field, and then yell, “It was HIM!”  That was just how furious the keeper of my prospective sphene looked stomping and grumbling around on the field.  Regrettably.

From that point on, anything Oakley threw—be it an iron weight or a heavy stone—only made it as far as the toes of his shoes.  With the exception of the hammer, which looked more like a long skinny rod that held a weight on its end.  Yeah… That one was kind of an “oops” on my part.  I figured the netting of the safety cage would stop the hurl of that high-speed hammer dead in its tracks.  Who knew its fibers had enough spring to send the damn thing bouncing back towards him, where the weight on its end nailed him smack in the gut.  But it didn’t hurt him physically, though his pride was another story.  And Oakley’s cousin-clansmen weren’t the least bit consoling—all of them a mixture of pissed-off and confused and embarrassed by his efforts.  Though there were some spectators who looked genuinely concerned for Oakley’s safety—the few folks who weren’t standing around with their cellphones hoisted to record their videos.  And there was one woman that I’d noticed whose eyes shone with sympathy throughout his struggles, her pretty saffron-colored shirt making her stand out in the crowd of hecklers.  Though even she blushed back a light laugh now and then.  But only after she realized he wasn’t hurt.

 The last event turned out to be a team effort—a gritty battle of Tug-of-War, along with his fellow cousins.  And apparently, we were getting in on the action as well.

Under the cloak of my golden veil, we secured a spot in front of the anchor on the opposing team’s side, after I’d given two of the men an order to scoot—one moving a couple steps up and the other a couple steps back.  So we were crammed pretty tight in our spot, which was the only part about this venture I didn’t mind.

At the fire of the official’s whistle, the two of us eased into our tug.  We started out with enough resistance to keep the MacMillan clan at bay, until Oakley’s frustration reared its head.  And that’s when we started tugging harder, little by little—the same as he did, the two of us keeping pace with the Sphene Talisman’s mounting efforts.

It wasn’t long before Tanner whispered into my ear to go wide-open, which I was glad to hear.  Particularly when Oakley was getting a boost to his powers—courtesy of my diamond amplifying it.  Even if he didn’t know where it was coming from or why.  So as soon as I heard Tanner’s command of “NOW,” I tunneled down deep into my powers, rousing all the strength I could summon from my diamond, and then tugged on that rope like I was ripping up a mountain.  As soon we felt the brute force of the weight heading towards us, we both let go of the rope and then quickly jumped out of the line.  When we looked back through the swirling haze of dirt and grass, Oakley and his entire clan of MacMillan cousins were plowing a trench into the ground face-first, all of them on the other side of the center line.  The way their bodies were packed, they looked like a slick-with-sweat muscle sandwich wrapped in plaid.  Though to be fair, most of the other clan was down on their rears too.  But at least the anchor was still standing and shouting with his other teammates in victory.

Tanner nodded to Oakley, where he lay on the ground grumbling.  “Time for me to say hello,” he said and then popped off a roguish wink as he emerged from the cover of my veil.  My curtain was staying closed—at least until I felt assured that Oakley wasn’t in a murderous mood.  And that rested solely on whether or not Tanner ended up getting clobbered.

Tanner’s steps came to a halt beside the Sphene Talisman’s head.  And the moment when Oakley finally realized someone was standing there, wanting his attention, he turned to the pair of Timberlands and looked up.  Based on the fitful flashes of red, green, and gold I spied burning in his eyes, Oakley was planning a thousand different ways to pay back the scheming Amethyst Talisman.

Oakley twisted onto his knees and slammed his fists on the ground, cratering the earth with a pair of holes that swallowed his hands.  “I knew this couldn’t be the evil doin’ of just any arse!  Didn’t know it would turn out to be the crowned prince of them!”

Tanner jerked his chin to Oakley’s kilt.  “You’ve got some dirt on your skirt.”

Oakley loosed an insulted grunt as he shoved to his feet.  “That’s funny comin’ from a lad who wore a leather mini.”  The Sphene Talisman balled his fists and snorted, unable to stop the shake of his head.  “I can’t believe I was taken down by those piddly little things you call muscles.”  Oakley gave his biceps a purposeful flex.  “Especially when I’ve never felt stronger in my life!”  His stare turned shrewd and assessing.  “How did you do it?”

 I sent out a blinding mental flash, so that anyone standing in our vicinity would ignore my sudden, otherworldly emergence when I lowered my veil.  With that taken care of, I dropped my mystical cover and flashed Oakley a humble wince.  “With a little help from the Diamond Talisman.”

I extended my hand, though I was tempted to make a couple of passes in front of Oakley’s eyes—anything to snap him out of his daze.  Something about his stunned expression struck me as odd.  Something that I was pretty sure had everything to do with the fact that I was female.  But not in a sexist way, just going off the blush staining his cheeks and the chivalrous stance he’d shifted into.   When Oakley finally reached to take my hand, his hesitation was similar to the caution one would use when approaching a stray dog.  Though as soon as he grabbed hold of it, the Sphene Talisman’s eyes lit up, flashing with sparks of red and green and yellow.  His stare fell to his muscles, riding the raw rush of his own powers being amped up, the feeling as foreign to him as it was fierce.

Then, without the slightest warning, Oakley whirled his torso towards the smirking Amethyst Talisman, where he darted towards Tanner’s brow and butted him square in his forehead.  A crack rent the air like a car-crash, and I flinched into a gasp, knowing Tanner had to have felt it clear down to the knobs of his ankles.  The next sound that came was much softer, which was Tanner’s backside thudding onto the ground with the dull pound of a lead domino.

Oakley turned back to me and huffed out a knowing laugh, pride shining through his smile as blinding as a lighthouse beacon in the dead of night.  “So you are.”

My stare immediately shot to Tanner.  I was giving him five full seconds to get his turtle-snatching butt up—before I summoned a bolt to his chest like a magical crash-cart…just for leaving me holding the bag on this one.