Slumped in my chair, I tossed my napkin down onto the table—ready to keel over from the trough of food I’d consumed.  Tanner had insisted we grab a Full Scottish breakfast before hitting the open road, vowing it would be all the sustenance required until we reached our mystery destination later this afternoon.  Based on that alone, I should have known The Camerons Tea Room and Farm Shop would turn out to be Scotland’s version of a Cracker Barrel.  So the boulder sitting in my gut was my own fault, for not seeing the writing on the wall when our waitress had showed up with a teapot the size of an urn and two tall glasses of orange juice, followed by an announcement that she would be serving our meal in courses.

True to her word, she was back in an instant with our porridge, ladled into what looked to be a pair of modest mixing bowls.  And though I hadn’t entertained thoughts of what porridge might taste like since my Goldilocks days, it turned out to be a deceptively thinner version of oatmeal and much tastier than the Quaker Oats I was used to, especially after I’d loaded it up with plenty of sugar and blueberries.  So I’d basically cursed my stomach into a slow swell from the start.  Next to arrive was a mountain of toast, thickly-sliced, with an assortment of marmalades and honey and a plate of butter humped higher than a ski-slope.  And of course, all the condiments were farm-fresh and smelled so delicious that had to try them all, giving each their fair shot.  Then, when our last course landed on the table—a heaping medley of various breakfast meats & vegetables—I came to the indisputable conclusion that the stretch of a Scot’s tummy ran neck and neck with a West Virginian’s.  So naturally, I had to represent.

Keeping true to my longstanding commitment of cleaning my plate, I soldiered on, scooping and stabbing my food like a robotic arm of an assembly line.  And when my fork finally landed with a clank, I’d managed to clear my plate of its one fried egg, a rasher of bacon, sausage, tomatoes, mushrooms, and black pudding—everything, with the exception of the baked beans.  But my reason to leave them be had nothing to do with the bombshell of seeing baked beans sitting on a plate before noon.  Believe me, a Grits & Greens lovin’ Southern girl knew better than to throw stones when it came the dietary staples of a region’s cuisine.  My decision was more of a precautionary measure, considering the amount of weight I’d already packed on my tummy.  Tanner, on the other hand, didn’t shy away from them.  Though honestly, it wouldn’t surprise me if his farts rolled out smelling like a field of lavender and carried the hypnotic tinkles of wind chimes.  Still, I wasn’t eager to find out.

The café’s farmland setting was too picturesque to ignore as we stepped outside, which ultimately charmed us into taking a quick stroll around its grounds before heading down the road.  And as tranquil as watching all the pigs and goats and horses roaming and rooting about their pens proved, it served as a poignant reminder—that this was the first year I’d missed the West Virginia State Fair.  Though I doubted I would have gone, even if I’d been close enough to make the drive to Lewisburg.  Not without Daddy.  Not when I knew how much he loved that particular mid-August outing—an annual family excursion, dating all the way back to when I was still tucked in my mother’s womb.  Considering all the exciting events and entertainment the fair offered, Daddy had always insisted we swing by the livestock pens first.  A wise decision, knowing what a pain-in-the-butt it would have been trying to drag Chloe and me away from all the rides once we’d hit their carnival section.  Luring Charlotte away from the food vendors was just as bad—worse than bad when it came to her cravings for funnel cakes.  She’d knock a person to the ground in a cloud of powdered sugar if they tried snatching one out of her hands.

I could feel the Emotion Whisperer’s eyes assessing me when our steps slowed for a rooster and his faithful flock of clucking hens to clear our path.  “You’re not dwelling on any forbidden thoughts, are you?” he asked.

I shook my head and pressed out a smile.  “Just a stirring memory of my father — that’s all.”  Though his reference did accidentally trigger a somber thought about my wand, which technically, would be his fault.

We wandered over to a meadow wrapped in a rail wood fence, where I found myself fascinated by, of all things, the cows grazing inside it.  But they were cows unlike any I’d ever seen with their sweeping horns and long shaggy coats of red and brindle and yellow popping from the grasses so vividly.  Modern-day wooly mammoths—that’s what they looked like.  And the calves roaming about were some of the cutest and cuddliest-looking fur-balls I’d ever seen.

“Those are Highland cows,” Tanner remarked.

It figures…  You pretty much know you’re in an enchanting land when even their cows were daggone mesmerizing.  And my mind was set on petting one—a subconscious desire, undoubtedly.  The way I saw it, if a cow whose horns ran a close second to those of a chimera’s would let me pet it, then surely I wasn’t off-putting to all earth-roaming animals.  Maybe just elephants?

Tanner loosed a disbelieving laugh as I hopped over the fence.  “What are you doing?”

I shot him a doubtless look.  “Going to pet a cow.”  Staying true to my course, I steered clear of any calves as I crossed the field—keeping one eye on the cow I’d selected from the fold while the other scanned for any stinky surprises along the way.  And I could smell they were out here, hiding in the grasses as they baked in the sun-warmed soil, thanks to the guide of a gentle breeze.

Hoping not to spook it, I slowed my gait when I was a scant yard from the reach of the cow’s horns.   Then carefully, I eased towards the dun-colored bovine, mindful that one of its eyes was peeking out at me through the heavy curtain of its bangs.

From the moment my hand landed on its nose and then went on to brushing the faces of several others thereafter, every cow that wandered over let me give it all the lovin’ I wanted—without any sort of magical persuasion.  A pleasant surprise, granted, no matter how much it made me want that elephant to acknowledge me all the more.  So there had to be something about me it didn’t like?  Something wedged up its trunk?  Or its tail?  And that’s what I needed to figure out—before my dreams carried me back to that damned bedeviling jungle.

I met Tanner back at the fence where I’d left him, arms propped in a lazy lean atop the fence.  His eyes flickered his amusement as I climbed over the top rail.  “I’ve never seen someone look so happy petting a cow.”

Since I wasn’t about to delve into a discussion that revolved around crazy dreams, I popped off an innocent shrug when I landed and simply stated, “I happen to like cows.”

“I know.”  Tanner cast a glance past my shoulder, eyeing the one that had followed me to the fence.  “I’ve seen your dinner plates.”

Needless to say, calling me out for playing with my food left me wracked with a good bit of guilt.  And of course, he just had to say it with the cow standing a foot away.  Even if I couldn’t make out its eyes through those mop-like bangs, they were on me.  Oh, I could feel ’em.

With our guts now feeling a little less Thanksgiving-stuffed, we climbed back onto the Harley and then zoomed off down the road, backtracking the way we’d come for several miles before charting a more southerly course.  All that Tanner would reveal about Day-Two of screwing-my-head-on-straight was that I would be experiencing a long overdue, normal human day of relaxation.  No meeting Talismans…  No training with weapons…  No creatures of any kind…  Nothing the least bit supernatural…  So basically, a total break from everything of the elemental persuasion—aside from the soothing effects of nature.

A smile of agreement stretched across my face as I nestled into a cozy spot amidst the muscles of his back.  Heading into the woods for a little soul rejuvenation was something even my own father was a firm believer in—his exact words being, “That taking some time out for an earthy path now and then kept the dirt and muck on your boots—and out of your head.”  So right now, completely removing myself from the supernatural-scene and getting a lost in nature sounded like the perfect thing.

Our sunny route took us through the western edge of The Cairngorms, which turned out to be a virtually untouched paradise of rugged beauty—each and every one of its landforms breathtaking in their own right.  For miles and miles, we cruised to a backdrop of bald mountains bathed in purple heather, and hills so intricately clad with rocks they looked artisan-carved.  Sapphire rivers weaved throughout the grassy green lands—some flowing lazily, ferrying mallards along their bends, while others carried swifter paths, their currents alive with the kick of salmon.  Surely we had to have stumbled upon some National Geographic series in the making, and there was a director hiding somewhere within the mix of all this perfection with a bullhorn yelling, Okay — On my mark, release the golden eagles and would somebody please tell the sun to get off its ass and get the north face of that mountain lit — ASAP!

A craving to stretch my legs had no sooner struck when Tanner pulled over beside the waters of a crystal-blue loch and then announced we were going for a stroll—after assuring me that this particular lake was completely landlocked.  I wasn’t about to make it easy for the sea-bitch.  Not after her stunt this morning.

With the drape of a cloudless sky over our heads, the two of us roamed along the glinting waters of the loch, tuning our senses to the bustle of the creatures in and around its banks.  Dragonflies the size of a finger buzzed across the water like tiny missiles, madly chasing down their targets while avoiding the snap of turtles paddling past.  And had I known we’d be seeing so many ducks, I would have tucked some toast inside my pockets to toss, which would have been as much of a blessing for my still-bloated belly.  Though out of all the creatures stirring about, the squirrels intrigued me the most; how they skittered through the sway of the grasses with such stealth, all of them keeping a watchful eye on the hawks soaring through the skies.  As was I, not wanting to witness some cute little critter being snatched up and carried off to its death—not on Happy Nature Day.  And with all due respect to the food-chain, I was fully prepared to fly up there for an intervention the likes of which some unsuspecting raptor would never forget.

Tanner reached a hand towards a bush bursting with tiny round berries whose skin matched the color and sheen of an eggplant.  He picked a few and placed them in my palm.

“They’re crowberries,” Tanner remarked.

My lips pursed a bit as I stared at the unfamiliar berries—the crow part of their name sounding the loudest alarm.  “What do they taste like?”

Tanner arched a questionable brow.  “Now where’s the surprise in that?”

In the time it had taken for his words to fade and mine to begin, the tang of every palate-marring food my parents had ever coaxed me into trying marched across my tongue with a vengeance—cough syrups included.  “You have to give me something,” I countered.

“Similar to a blueberry.”  Then he shored his claim up with a pair of heavy-lidded eyes that cried, Just trust me and try them already.

I weighed his claims, still eyeing them with hesitation.  “And you’re sure they’re safe to eat?”  Not that I thought for a second Tanner would try to poison me.  Not after saving me from a curse this morning—among other reasons.  My question was an automatic response, an inquiry raised strictly out of habit because of my father’s repeated warnings about snacking on unfamiliar berries in the woods when I was little.  Something I’d done when I was seven, while he and Samuel were fishing for bass along the banks of Lake Stephens.  So the repeated drive of my father’s lectures weren’t without merit.  Not after I’d painted the dashboard of his new truck in puke on the way home.  A feat I’d accomplished from the back seat.  Worse than that, we’d been on a stretch of road where there wasn’t a bathroom with a sink for twenty-five miles.  Which on curvy, mountainous roads was the equivalent to an hour of drive-time.  There was even some cute-talk about leaving his truck on the side of the road and hitching home.  Keys in the ignition, of course—hoping someone would do Daddy a favor and just steal it.

With an incredulous laugh, Tanner threw the ones he held straight into his mouth.  “Yes.  They’re safe,” he assured through his chews.  “You might as well taste a little of nature as long as you’re out here, not just look at it.  It’s all a part of the experience.”

I shook my head, humored.  Said the guy who can detox and pump his own stomach… After a good-luck roll in my hand, down my hatch they went.  And he was right.  They did have a certain blueberry-like taste.  Still, they were nowhere near as sweet as the bushel I’d plopped into my bowl of porridge this morning.

My eyes trailed a wavy reflection of trees stretching along the loch, straight to a forest that bordered its waters up ahead.  Seeing the stain of their leaves whipped a cheery feeling inside me.  They were starting to change.  None of the ones around Yardley had shown any signs of turning yet.  Not that I’d seen.  Then again, I hadn’t been in the best of moods or claimed the clearest of heads as of late to even notice.  But being here, right now, with my mind consciously trying to tidy itself, I couldn’t stop myself from noticing.  And I was such an autumn girl, through and through.  I loved the approach of this time of year.

Tanner drank in the breadth of my smile.  “You seem to be enjoying yourself out here — despite its lack of cows.”

A suspicious person would think he was fishing for what had really prompted my cow-cuddling back at the farm.  But I chose to disregard it with an innocent smile.  “I am,” I answered, which was true.  It had been awhile since I’d taken some time out to enjoy nature—to really enjoy it and experience its wonderment.  Oh, I’d seen plenty of pruned trees and cut grasses and flowerscapes around campus, but it wasn’t the same thing as actually “being in it” and giving it the undivided attention it deserved—both its magnificence as a whole and all its intricately impressive parts.  But being out here like this, deep in its trenches…  It was such a glorious reminder that nature’s arms were always here, 24-7, ready to kindle a person’s spirits and calm all the chaos with its beauty, pure scents, serene songs, and the thrill of its adventure—something most of us took for granted.  Something I had taken for granted.

Tanner tipped his head to the sky, his gaze caught by the fleeting shadow of an eagle’s glide.  “There’s no better fuel for the soul,” he said aloud.  “And all it wants in return is respect, nothing more.”

“That’s very true,” I breathed.  A melodious chorus of chirrups and chirps directed my gaze to the line of trees we’d come upon.  I peered into the forest, scouring its depths with a sense of reverence.  From the lofty soar of the trees and the girth of their trunks, I couldn’t help but wonder how old it was… How many explorers its trails had seen and how many generations of creatures had called it home…  “It looks so ancient,” I remarked as I cut a glance to the tops of the trees, their tips pricking the sky like a pincushion.  “So tell me,” I began, riding a rush of amusement.  “Did you plant any of these yourself?”

“Not a one,” Tanner sang without missing a beat.  “I was far too busy discovering fire.”

I met his gaze, biting back a laugh.  I probably shouldn’t rib him so much about the tally of his years, but it was such an easy target.  “Truth,” I submitted.  “Does teasing about your age bother you?”

His expression stiffened.  “Is that your question for the day?”

“No,” I replied, my tone firm.  At first, I’d assumed his hesitation was merely an attempt to get off easy, making me use up my allotted question, but no…  He didn’t want to give me an answer.

I turned to face him fully.  “So it does bother you.”

“A little,” he replied, his words noticeably uncomfortable and forced.  “But not for any reasons you might be thinking.”

My stare drifted to a kaleidoscope of butterflies flitting around a cluster of bushes, stumped by his reply.  Now there’s a Question-of-the-Day…  What other reasons could there be — besides my naïveté?  Personally speaking, the fact that I knew such a fancy word should add a couple Big-Girl points to my score.  Part of me wanted him to elaborate; the other didn’t.  Why ask what I already knew?

“Does it bother you enough that you want me to stop?” I submitted and then went straight to assessing his expression, trying to ignore what I’d already read into his admission.  Admittedly, a tough chick-glitch to counter without a complete brain re-wiring.

Tanner pulled me towards him as he resumed his lazy strides, cradling me in the wrap of his arm to ease my concerns.  “No,” he assured.  “But I am keeping track of them.”

I fell into synch with his gait as we headed into the woods, feeling a bit bad.  “For the record — you called me ‘little girl’ first.”  Adding that did nothing to ease my guilt, despite its truth, nor alleviate the frustration I felt knowing Tanner had an issue with my age or his age or both, no matter how slight or regardless of what he’d claimed.  And now, I was left to ponder this “truth hurts” moment like I’d discovered an invisible pebble rolling around in my shoe.  Yes—I was as green, as green as the grass presently cushioning our feet.  The number of years separating us couldn’t be helped.  But the other…  That was the trickier part—the part that could only be fixed with time and experience.  Both of which came with a nag of uncertainty.

The forest had barely taken us into its arms when my thoughts were redirected by its hearty fragrance, a mix of pine and wildflowers that hit me like the intoxicating lure of a manly cologne and blindly urged me onward with every flare of my nostrils.  We hadn’t ventured into any old run-of-the-mill forest, I soon discovered, more like a sylvan canvas of fuzz and silk and grit exploding all around.  My senses were reeling to the point of feeling almost tipsy with awe from its beauty.

Gradually, the pines and oaks and sycamores became more twisted and tangled, the curves and kinks of their trunks so dramatic and unimaginably surreal.  Some carried the footing of bridges as they arched along the ground, while others stood more upright, leaning against each other no different than a couple of pals bending into each other’s ears, whispering their secrets.  The rest stood perfectly erect, as statuesque as chaperones at a high school dance, vigilantly on the lookout for flasks and roaming hands.  My fingers bumped across the lattice-like bark of an ash, tracing its grooves.  The trees claimed so much personality, even as they stood like statues, rooted in their designated spaces.  And for a moment, I felt we’d interrupted a party and our steps had sounded some sort of alarm that had them stilling their trunks in whatever poses they held, as if Mother Nature had hit a pause button on her mystical remote.  And as much as a total little girl thought as that might be, it sure would explain the subtle feeling I had of us being watched.  But it wasn’t a hostile vibe, more like surprised if anything.  And magical.  Definitely magical.  But the pretend kind—the kind found only in make-believe lands or tucked inside the head of a child’s vivid imagination.

Something else impressed me the deeper the two of us trekked—the richness of all the colors and how they grew more stunning with each of our steps.  It was almost as if an artist had run through here with a palette of their favorite hues and armed with their trustiest brushes; twisting whorls of purples on shrubs to make them pop with flowers, then splattering golds and oranges onto the rocks and the barks of trees for a punch of lichen.   Even leaving their marks on their branches, raking each of their limbs with long, lacy strips of gauze.  And the slants of sunlight peeking through the canopy above just accented the colors and textures all the more, spinning my head with visions of fairy tales.

“This has to be the most enchanting forest I’ve ever seen,” I marveled, waving my hand through one of the streams so I could watch the specks of pollen dance like glitter across my skin.  And if I’d had a blue ribbon on me, I would have slapped it on the closest tree and awarded Scotland the title of First-Prize.  It should be a crime for one country to be so damn beguiling.

Our steps slowed to a breathless stop at the sight of a milky pond, its turquoise waters pooling in the ground like a sunken bowl of sea glass.  Delicate rivulets coursed a lazy trail along the wall of rocks to its rear, winding though a maze of moist moss dappled with delicate white flowers.  I breathed an enamored sigh.  Everything about this spot was soft and serene.  “The only thing it’s missing is a rainbow.”  An abrupt afterthought twitched my lips into a smile.  “That, and possibly a unicorn.”  Surely if one existed, this would be its secret watering hole.

“I think I can handle one of your requests.”  Without lifting or twirling a finger, Tanner steered his powers to the pond.  Countless bubbles broke out along its surface, all of them bursting vigorously, creating a thick layer of mist before my eyes.  And when the shafts of sunlight struck its surface now, they refracted the colors and glow of a rainbow.

My eyes sparkled at the impressive array of translucent hues.  “It’s nice to see you’re finally putting those elemental powers of yours to some good use,” I commended.  Instead of soaking me all the time.

Tanner tossed a casual hand to his masterpiece.  “That’s nothing.  I’m hell on an ice sculpture.”  He looked to me, where I stood smothering a laugh of disbelief.  “I have very talented hands,” he assured, his tone carrying the press of a rubber stamp.

Feeling the prickle of heat on my cheeks, I smiled and turned my attention back to the colorful ribbons, eager to drink in their glow as they shimmied in the light.  Such a sunny sight…  What I wouldn’t give to feel that radiant and bright and buoyant.  I leaned towards the pond and extended a hand into one of the shafts, bathing my arm in its light until it carried a solid sheen of vivid hues and glistened with tiny beads of water.  If the moon’s role was a nightly reminder of holding on to hope during dark times, then a rainbow was the sun’s contribution: one that was meant to drive its point home like an out of the blue smack in the face.  And what a reminder it was—perfect in every way—right down to its promises of clear skies, brighter days, and glittery pots of gold.

And with any luck, a cry for help from a diamond sword.

I caught a distinct gleam in Tanner’s gaze, as if his eyes were churning with a thought.  Feeling the hover of my curiosity, he turned to me.  “I can’t think of a better place to kick-start your faith.”

I swiped the moisture from my arm.  “And how’s that?”

His eyes shone with a blinding air of confidence.  “By clearing and charging your chakras.”

My chakras?” I echoed skeptically, flicking the water from my fingertips.  “I thought today was all about taking a supernatural hiatus?”

“On the contrary, humans have them too,” he countered.  “They’re the pockets of magic that make up a person’s spirit.  Soul magic, in a sense…  And giving them a boost when needed keeps a person’s mind and body functioning at its optimum best, no matter if they’re supernatural or human.”  Tanner took a confident step towards me.  “Everyone needs a re-birth now and then.”

My fingers stroked the length of a fuzzy cattail as I contemplated his assertion.  “So you think clearing my chakras will kick-start my faith?”

“Let’s just say it will give you a clean slate,” Tanner clarified.  “Though it’s far from an iron-clad guarantee.  You still have to consciously commit to putting your trust in faith.  Think of it as a warning system that’s been fine-tuned.  It’ll make you more aware of your perspective…  More conscious of when you feel your hope starting to slip.”

My mind went on a pensive drift.  When it came to mediation, there was a multitude of techniques and schools of thought, as well as a vast range of consciousness levels a person could achieve—each of them intended for a specific purpose.  And where was I on that spiritual ladder of achievement?  Barely off the bottom rung—now that I could relax enough without falling asleep.  And that was to a cheesy track I’d down loaded from iTunes.  So “clearing and charging my chakras” sounded a touch tricky.  Definitely more complex than fifteen minutes of listening to a chanting voice over the background of a waterfall.

“I’ll guide you through it,” Tanner added, sensing my doubts.  “It’s not as difficult as you think.  Not when you tailor your thoughts with the right visualization.”

“The right visualization?” I echoed.

Tanner nodded.  “Most people conjure images of a glowing light… Though in my experience, I think something that symbolizes growth works best,” he explained.  “And it helps to have the right coach.”

His immodesty lit my face with amusement.  “So what do you visualize?”

He took a beat before answering, his pause purposely mindful.  “A geyser,” he replied.  “Building and building until it finally erupts.”

It sounded like an ideal mental image for a water elemental.  “How often do you clear yours?” I asked, no different if we were talking about rotating the tires of a car or changing its oil.

Tanner leveled his gaze, his eyes white-hot and focusing on mine intently.  “A lot.”

“Oh,” I replied, feeling a touch off-kilter after noticing the suspect hue of mulberry that had overtaken his hazel eyes with the force of a flash flood.  And knowing my cheeks were on a fast track to the color of cotton candy, I hopped like a bunny back to our discussion.  “So you’ll strictly be guiding me?”

“For the most part,” Tanner replied.  “But I will have to use a little of my power, since I need to establish a solid connection to your soul — so I can sense if they’re truly cleared.”  I started to voice a suspicion, when he added, “But absolutely no blissing.”

I tilted my head, still feeling a little on the fence.  Though I supposed in the grand scheme of things, a little bliss was nothing compared to the all-inclusive pass I’d be granting him—to my soul, no less.  And that was on top of him already having full-access to my emotions.  Talk about feeling exposed.  I should just strip off all my clothes so the outsides could match.

“So?” Tanner posed.

In the end, when it came down to the bottom-line, I knew I needed all the cosmic juju I could get, despite any reservations.  I could deal with the embarrassment of being soul-naked if it put me one step closer to finding my wand.

I threw up my hands.  “All right,” I agreed.

Straightaway, Tanner lowered himself to the ground and cast a glance around to my rear.  “Plant your root chakra right here,” he requested, patting the patch of moss in front of him.

As requested, I dropped onto my knees, facing him.

The risqué red-violet hue that had set in eyes a minute ago grayed like the last traces of twilight.  “Maybe you should turn around,” he said, a hint of wariness slowing his words.  “Let me tap into them from behind.

My breath hitched as my mind recalled an illustration I’d seen while surfing the web for mediation advice this summer.  What little info I knew about chakras was general; like the fact that there were seven points of energy, they mimicked the colors of a rainbow, and their alignment ran in a straight line from your rear to the top of your head.  And with respect to his self-imposed ban, a few of those hotspots were no different than rounding bases—with the possibility of sliding into home.

“Gotcha,” I muttered and then turned around.  I’d no sooner settled into a spot and was crossing my legs when Tanner lifted me up and propped my butt onto the caps of his knees—positioning me in a slant, the same if I’d had a pillow tucked underneath my rear.  If he’d only told me where to sit from the get-go, then maybe my gasp wouldn’t have come out sounding like the yelp of a frightened pup.

With smooth and deliberate slowness, Tanner began easing his hands up my spine, and I found myself arching more and more into his fingers the higher they climbed, clinging to his touch the way a cat bunted its head when winding a person’s leg.  Every muscle—eager and all in.  And the arousal he’d incited was sobering; for the first time, falling asleep would be the least of my concerns.  Upon reaching my neck, he feathered his fingers through my hair, fashioning a section he’d gathered into a loose bun.  Then came the warm caress of his breaths tickling my nape. It wasn’t two seconds later that my white-winged savior stepped in, ringing her warning bells like a town crier, imploring me to get my shit together.

Sound advice, I affirmed, which I heeded immediately—in spite of the odds.  Though I supposed if worse came to worst, I could always pretend it was Silas back there.  A plan that had a lower-than-low likelihood of succeeding, what with my coach’s oh-so talented hands and the fact that my imagination simply wasn’t that good.

“Now,” Tanner began as he leaned into my ear, his voice pouring into me like the melt of caramels.  “Take three deep breaths.”  He slid his hands to the front of my rib cage, stopping underneath my breasts.  “Then focus on letting go of your worries with every release.”

Acutely aware of the cup-like curl and location of his fingers, it seemed I would be striving for the mindset of a Tibetan monk if I wanted this chakra-charging endeavor to be a success.  With that affirmed, my eyes fell to a close, and then with my utmost concentration, I drew my first deep breath into my lungs.  My shoulders rose as I brought forth my greatest fear: that I may never see my wand again.

Tanner pressed his fingers into my skin.  “Now, picture something pouring through you — something powerful enough to drive out your fears,” he rustled.  “Then cast them to the wind as you release your breath.”

I conjured an image of a radiant white light spilling into me, flooding my insides to the point where nothing but its molten blaze remained.  Then I contracted the muscles of my core and ripped all thoughts of never holding my wand again from my lungs until the last of its murk blew across my lips.  My next breath came smoother, as did my second biggest worry: my obsession with the opinions of others—their thoughts of me and my abilities, as well as what they would think about a creature stealing my wand.  Though judging from the rough evacuation of that particular bugaboo, keeping Worry #2 out of my head might prove to be the toughest of the lot.  I’d driven on smoother backwoods roads compared to the bumps I’d felt as it four-wheeled across my tongue.  Then, as I prepared for my third and final breath, what I’d conjured came to me in the form of a hope—a prayer for strength and endurance while traveling along my destined path.  Confidence.  Acceptance.  Patience.  Those were the things I feared I would never have enough of—three things that could only be changed through my own resolve.  So on my last exhale I imagined a cake loaded with lit candles, and with a mighty breath, I channeled the air through the pucker of my lips and made my wish.

“Now, just relax and feel your connection to the earth and all its magic,” Tanner whispered as his hands smoothed down my sides and around to the center of my back.  “I’m going to start at your root chakra,” he continued.  “And I want you to picture a seed planted in the soil.  Think about it growing and thriving while my words linger in your head.  Then the moment I can sense your chakra is clear, I’ll move on to the next one, and then the next, until all of them are charged.”

A confirmation wasn’t needed, not with him holding such an intimate connection.  His hands descended my back, his fingers diving lower and lower until they took a set pause at the tail of my spine.  His words filtered into my head like a purr.  “This is your root chakra…  The place where your carnality resides,” he began.  “Your will to survive… Your instincts…  Along with all of your deepest desires.”

 How fitting my first one turned out to be the spot that ruled my yearnings, particularly in light of the ones I was fending off right now.

Determined to maintain my focus, I homed in on the rhythm of my breaths, feeling their roll coming and going as fluid as the waves of an ocean.  Slowly but surely, my thoughts plowed through the tangled fringe of physical distraction, and I found my center.  Then I anchored myself enough to my mind that Tanner’s touch became an extension of my body, his magic melding seamlessly with my own.  Even the steady chirpings of birds in the background had faded into nothing more than an insignificant hum.  Then unexpectedly, I felt the nudge of a toasty tingle beneath me, burgeoning as it pulled up from the ground.  It was a kiss of the earth’s magic, warm and glittery, and I could feel it seeping into me.  Little by little, the sensation kept growing and growing in its heat and intensity.  Its essence and had no sooner climaxed when a burst of luminance appeared and began spiraling around the image I’d drawn of my tiny seed.  At first, the swirling light moved slow and steady, then churned faster and faster the longer I focused on being in control of my instincts and desires, and then adamantly refusing not to let them hold dominion over me.  And though I’d never experienced the essence of an actual “color” before (only the vibes of magical powers and their scents), something about the light spinning around my seed called to me hot and fiery, filling my head with an image of red.  It wasn’t long before I sensed the vortex blazing into more of a crimson hue.  Between that, and the rise of Tanner’s fingers I assumed I’d officially cleared my first one.

And the feeling was…exhilarating.

Tanner moved up to my second chakra, where I sensed more of his magic being channeled into me—markedly more than he’d used on the first one.  Though I wasn’t about to wreck my concentration with any guesses.  Not after he’d explained that this was the spot where my emotions lay, as well as my mind’s creative perspective… Which, come to find out, also served as my sensual command center.

And he was right there—tapped directly into it and all its bareness.

Refusing to let that derail my concentration, I shoved any wild speculations into a chamber of my mind and closed them off like the slam of a steel door.  With them safely tucked away, I focused even harder on the image of my seed as it lay there, planted in the ground, being nurtured by the soil and showered with the fall of cool rain.  As I listened to Tanner speak about my creative mind and the importance of viewing the world through eyes that were eager and innocent enough too embrace its magic, I sensed my seed cracking open and then felt its roots digging deep into the earth.  A warm sensation spread from my chakra’s core as it kept turning and turning until it carried the soar and dance of flames raging from a pyre—its light burning just as wicked-hot and vivid-orange.

Confusion started to niggle at me as I waited for the rise of Tanner’s hands.  He wasn’t budging, not an inch.  Part of me questioned if I’d charged it enough; the other part—my suspicious & paranoid-side—had me wondering what the heck he was sensing from that particular pocket of energy.  Namely, what sort of frequency a virgin broadcasted from her nether region?  And since I didn’t want to know, I drew in a suck of air so deep it sent a crack blaring from my spine.  A second hadn’t passed when felt his fingers moving on up the line.

Hint received, I breathed with a sigh of relief.

My next chakra, he expressed with a velvet hush, was the haven for my self-confidence and personal power—the spot from which I drew my assertiveness and intellect and extracted my energy.  I reached deep inside myself and shot an extra dose of radiance its way.  Again, my chakra’s color intensified as a tiny sprout broke through the earth and reached for the light, the core of its essence shining as bright and golden as the sun.

Upon arriving at my fourth, I sensed an uptick in the beat of my pulse.  The reason came to light when he explained that this was my heart chakra—the place where love for myself and others dwelled, hand in hand with my compassion, acceptance, and forgiveness.  Upon that reveal, I made a devout affirmation to stop blaming myself for that creature taking my wand and moving forward—resigned to a fresher outlook.  Then I pictured my sprout thriving and thickening into a hearty stem as it grew and grew and grew.  And in the end, the green coloring my chakra mirrored the hue of my stalk.  A beautiful shade that I dubbed Scotland green—a green as pure as baby grass that awakened your soul with calls of being reborn.

 My fifth chakra, I learned, embodied truth and destiny.  It was my guidance system that would serve to keep me on my intended path.  This was the spot where my fears could be transcended—the spot that revolved around faith.  Then he stressed how crucial it was to my destiny, and how its magic would guide me effortlessly throughout my life, unfolding everything I needed when the time was right.   This was where patience would be key.  So again, I reached deep inside myself and summoned an extra helping of my power around this particular charka.  I sensed it slipping into a cool burn, its beam as clear and blue as the sky above my head.  Then I watched my stem shoot into the shape of a baby plant, twisting upwards as it birthed branch after branch, all of them abundant with the bloom of delicate leaves.

I wasn’t aware that Tanner’s hands were no longer on my back when I felt my elbows lifting, my arms floating upwards until they were level with my eyes.  My sixth chakra, The Third Eye, as Tanner had called it, was the hub my intuition—my center for divine wisdom.  This was where I would discern what I needed without the aid of actions or words.  But it was also a spot where illusions and unchecked doubts could lead to poor decisions.  So with that, I vowed to always go with my gut, giving it the final say in every decision from here on out and accepting whatever outcome as a part of my destiny.  Soon, I sensed my chakra igniting like a bulb on a Christmas tree as my energy swirled and swirled around the deepest shade of indigo I’d ever seen.  And when I focused on the stem of my plant, I realized a bud had taken form on its top.  Then, as its sepals ballooned and broke apart, an image of a flower burst forth in my mind.  What had blossomed was a beautiful sunflower, warm and happy and thick with overlapping petals that circled a plentifully seeded core.

With Tanner’s feathery guide, my hands lifted higher, stopping above my head where my seventh and last pathway awaited—my crown chakra.  As I sat there, my hands far enough apart to feel the force of an invisible ball pressed between them, I imagined my flower receiving all the rays it needed, knowing that it would always bend towards the sun—never turn from its light.  This was the spot where my soul and the universe existed as one, a place of courage and humility, where serenity could only be claimed beyond the constrictive binds of vanity and arrogance and ego.  And as I hoped to be one of those blessed few to reach such a magnanimous state, at the top of my head spread a halo of violet that shined just as brilliant as the irises of the guy who sat behind me, holding my hands to the sky…  The guy who always held me up, no matter what, with a pair of arms that felt more like wings to my soul.

My eyes opened with a flutter as Tanner lowered my hands.  A keen sense of newness draped my frame as I sat there, breathing in the enriched pine-laced air and listening to the forest’s song.  Everything seemed more crisp and vivid, like I’d upgraded my senses to Nature 5.0.  I’d never felt more awake or alive in my entire life.

Tanner smoothed his chin along the side of my neck.   “See, that wasn’t so hard,” he remarked.

“You were right — as usual,” I replied with a slight glance, well aware of the added rosiness plumping my cheeks.  “All I needed was the perfect image in my head.”

He stretched his eyes purposely.  “And?

I schooled my features as I turned a touch more to slide him an impassive look.  “Well, you’re no Silas.”

 Tanner cocked his brow and then thrust his fingers into my sides, straight to my most ticklish spot.  I wrestled free of his torture and flung myself onto moist patch of moss, desperate to escape.  He was on top of me just as I turned over.  “You do realize that there’s an arsenal of water sitting over there at my disposal, don’t you?”

“You know I like teasing you,” I said.

The pad of his finger traced the curves of my lips.  “Oh, I’m aware…  And you’re quite good at it too,” he breathed, his eyes tunneling the blaze of his conviction into mine.

As I lay there, entranced by both the passion streaming from his words and all his physicality, thoughts of how he’d lingered at my second chakra churned in my head.  It sure felt like he was checking to see how ripe the peach was before plucking it off the tree.  “So tell me,” I began, lifting into a sitting position and forcing him up along with me.  “What did you feel when you were back there?”

“Your soul’s essence — for starters,” he replied.  “Then the burn of every color.”

Not exactly the answer I was looking for…  “That doesn’t tell me what they felt like.”  I adjusted into a stiffer stance.  “I mean, were some of my chakras more congested than others?”  My head slipped into a tilt.  “Or more active?”

Based on his faint smile and the cheeky flash of plum in his eyes, he knew what I was really asking.  “Perhaps,” he rustled.

I pointedly turned my head towards the pond, feeling a flush about to strike.  Then suddenly, the misty veil blanketing the water breezed towards me like a sheet ripped from a clothesline, and I was enveloped with its touch in an instant.  A drizzling of moist droplets lay atop my skin—all of my skin—its drench having seeped through my clothes, evident from the wet cling of cotton curving my breasts.  The next thing I knew, a rush of warmth was spreading through me, its charge passionate and scintillating, and I caught the brilliance of its light as my body exploded into ripples of color.  He’d showered me with the rainbow, drenching the whole of me with his magic—teasing me with every ounce of him and his soul.

One heartbeat and his hand now lay around my nape, drawing me towards him and pinning me with those lavender eyes.  “Does that answer your question?”

The void in between my breaths was all the time it took for him to have me down on my back, plush and cushioned against the mossy ground—the perfect angle for that masterful tongue of his to indulge in its lush dips.  And I knew from the first brush of his lips that these kisses were different.  More heated and soulful and magical in essence, like some intense connection had carried us away to some sort of otherworldly plane of existence.  All of my senses felt ablaze and amplified.  The feel of his hands on me had me wanting even more of his touch, and I couldn’t get enough of his musk and vanilla scent or taste enough of his lips…  My cells were so fervently awake and driven by a fierce craving to consume every ounce of him that I could.  And if this unadulterated wave of ecstasy was a direct result from clearing and charging my metaphysical pipes in the arms of nature, then hand me some magical Drain-O, throw my butt in the woods, and call me the Energizer Bunny of chakras—because I wanted this soul-searing feeling all the time.

Then abruptly, the sound of cracking branches shattered our fevered moans and slammed us back to reality as we broke from our embrace, both of us searching for its source.  The rustling movement seemed to be coming from the bushes all around, circling us where we lay.  With our hands ready to reach for our weapons, our intruder emerged from the brush, followed by another, and another, until we found ourselves surrounded by a herd of reindeer.  Actual reindeer were right here—not penned up in some petting zoo.  And from the unwavering lock of their wide and curious eyes, they’d been watching our make-out session in the woods.  So it would stand to reason if a rainbow was Mother Nature’s gift of hope, then Rudolph and his battalion of sentinels were her chaperones—tasked with making sure everything within its bounds remained protected and pure.  At least that’s what I interpreted from their weapon-esque racks of antlers and their dark-eyed, judgmental stares.

Cautiously, we rose to our feet as the herd edged towards us.  Then one by one, the reindeers circled us, each of them taking an investigatory sniff before heading on their way, though none of them dared a brush with either of our hands.   My stare slid to Tanner, where he stood tightly eyeing the herd as they filed behind the largest bull and cut a trail through the forest.

I was about to rejoin Tanner when one of the smaller ones turned back and nuzzled its head under my hand, wanting me to pet it.  So I obliged the elegant creature.  After stroking its furry white mane with a couple of scruffy rubs, the reindeer lowered itself to the ground and then rolled onto its back with a heavy plop.  My stare blanked a bit when it hiked its long limbs in the air, no different than a dog angling for a belly rub.  Though I had to say, the stiff point of that crude and questionable fifth limb the male reindeer was flashing had me rooted where I stood, my mouth more than a little cracked.

The bull had no sooner wiggled its rear when Tanner blew a sharp whistle that shrieked to the tune of, Beat it!

Startled, the reindeer rolled over and sprang back onto his hooves with a wobble.  Then he was off like the wind, hurrying to catch up with the others.  I looked to Tanner, whose eyes were fixed to the creature, glaring at it.  “Not a fan of reindeer?”

“I like them just fine,” he replied.  “Though I’m not too fond of druids — particularly ones in drag.”

My head spun back to the fleeing bull.  Though instead of a reindeer, my eyes fell upon a slim-framed tawny-haired boy, no older than fifteen, sporting a pair of antlers growing out of his head roughly the length of a ruler.  As soon as the mischievous magic-maker caught the infuriated drop of my jaw, he lifted a sheepish hand and then took off on a mad dash deeper into the woods.

Yeah — You’d better run, I fumed.  Talk about feeling duped.  And I hadn’t sensed so much as a trace of earth magic coming from him, which led me to believe that this particular forest was their order’s home, and somehow it was warded.  I turned to Tanner.  “Why didn’t you say something about him being a druid sooner?

“I wasn’t sure myself until the little bastard rounded back.”

“Why couldn’t I sense their magic?” I asked.

Tanner laid his hands on a nearby tree and drove his powers into its bark with a stout press.  It took him a few focused-seconds, but when he finally shoved off the tree, he announced, “Because the roots of the trees are warded.”

He motioned me over and had me lay my hands on the trunk in the same manner.  After a moment of focusing my energy, I picked up its earthy vibe, along with its convenient magical scent, which just happened to be, of all things, pine and dry leaves.  A convenient mask.

Tanner continued, “With no walls or borders out here, druids weave their magic into the roots to form a hedge of protection.”  He scanned the trees, shaking his head.  “Concealing their magic and alerting them to any intruders.”

The magic was strong, stronger than I’d ever sensed.  Most wards had an airy feel, but not these.  Its fibers were woven as tight as chainmail.  “I see what you mean.  They’re powerful — very powerful.”

Reminded of my past experiences with the sticky ramification of wards and what a spider web they could prove, I asked, “Why didn’t they bind our powers or keep us from entering?”

“Druids are the embodiment of peace and good will.  Restricting what the universe has given goes against their ethos… The laws of nature that they live by,” he added.  “They see it as a sign of disrespect to bind what was given, whether its access to a person’s powers or this forest.  So to protect themselves, they rely on awareness and camouflage.”

As pleasing to the ears as that was, I couldn’t help but ask, “Do they ever fight?”

Tanner nodded.  “Yes, if their order is threatened….  Or if the trees tell them to,” he added.  “They see a tree’s magic as an extension of Gaia.  Whatever they glean from the trees, they abide by…whether it’s a message of peace or vigilance or even aggression.”

Despite how amicable and benevolent Tanner made them sound, I turned back to the spot I’d last seen the boy, still ticked, and yelled, “Well, I hope he enjoyed his rub!”

 “Oh, I’m pretty sure he did,” Tanner laughed.  “And now, he’s got a story to tell his friends.”  He wrapped his arm around my waist, guiding me away with his steps.  “Let’s hope he doesn’t embellish — for the sake your reputation.”

Another surge of anger had me lobbing a red-hot glare over my shoulder, hoping he was still within earshot.  “Just so you know, I’ve seen bigger on a Boston Terrier!” I hollered.  Not the nicest thing to yell at a pubescent teen, though in my defense, his ploy was about as lowdown & dirty as a snake’s belly in a wagon rut.  And besides, it was the truth.

I looked to Tanner, feeling an explanation was a touch in order.  “Katie’s roommate brought home a stray when I was there this summer,” I remarked and left it at that, eager to put the topic of freakishly large animal genitalia to bed.

A punch of regret socked me in the gut when Tanner took my hand as we headed out of the forest.  I hated that something magical had cropped up on what was supposed to be a supernatural-free day.  And though druids weren’t “witches”, I had no doubts that their loyalty to Gaia and some of their beliefs made them witchy-enough in Tanner’s book.

“Sorry,” I said with a noticeable cringe.  “It was a fluke.  It could happen to anyone.”

His hand slid to my back.  “Yeah,” Tanner sang, consoling me with a few pats.  “Keep telling yourself that.”