Magic Rocks. Hop on for the Ride!

 

Happy is a State of Mind

 
We’re part of the first wave of human beings who’ve been obsessed with being happy. If a generation is roughly twenty-five years, that would make today’s twenty-somethings about the third generation since “happy” rose to ascendency.

Why is that, anyway? Well, if you roll the clock back a hundred years, most of us were too busy to worry about whether or not “happy” made the daily hit parade. Take my grandmother, for example. A Russian immigrant, she had seven children. Between laundry, turning out three meals a day for nine people (without convenience foods) and managing a large, rambling house, she didn’t have time to worry about frivolous things. And even though she would have had a hard time articulating it, she derived a sense of personal satisfaction from a job well done. Of her six children who survived to adulthood, every single one had a college education.

In my psychotherapy office over the years, I saw lots of people who would say something like, “I’d be happy if only…” Take a look at that sentence fragment and read it again. Yes, it means exactly what you think it does; and it has interesting implications. It means whoever said it has cut themselves off from the possibility of true happiness if they don’t get a certain thing.

I’d like to take that one step farther. In my experience, people who live their lives this way keep raising the bar. They finally get what they thought would make them happy. It doesn’t, so they set their sights on something else.

It may sound simple-minded, but how we feel is under our control. If we tell ourselves we couldn’t possibly be happy because— (you fill in the blank), we’ll never be. But it works in reverse as well. The most conscious, fulfilled people I know carry their joy within them. And they find things to nurture that bliss in simple, everyday events.

We are like crystals. We reflect our inner nature. Self-acceptance is the key to nearly everything. So, set realistic goals. Celebrate successes. Regroup when something doesn’t happen as you may have wished. Instead of waiting for the universe to conform to your expectations, see what you can give that might shift some karmic balance.

Writing is a neurosis-inducing endeavor. And a fairly narcissistic one. I can’t speak for other writers, but what’s made it work for me is having a sense of who I am independent of my identity as a writer. I think you almost need that to deal with the plethora of negative feedback. Actually, I’ve come to value diverse opinions (and feedback when I’m lucky enough to get it). Both give me direction for how to grow myself as an author.

Along the road, I’ve done a fair amount of critiquing and editing and I’ve been amazed at how difficult it is for some of my peers to accept anything other than glowing commentary. Having a second, third, and fourth set of eyes is invaluable, even if some suggestions from different folk compete with one another. For that fact, if I pick up one of my own stories that I haven’t worked on for a few weeks or months, I’m far better able to see its weaknesses.

Growth and change mark our progress more than “happy”. And the ability to look at our own efforts with some level of objectivity is a gift.

How about all of you? Does anything in this post resonate? Anything you’d care to share is always appreciated.
 
 

Part of me can scarcely believe I’m wrote this series. Vampires have been the bad guys in my Bitter Harvest series and my Gatekeeper series and several others. Not so in the Cataclysm books.
Maybe I named the series what I did because turning Vampires into heroes was cataclysmic for me. Mortals are a sketchy lot. When the reality of magical beings got a little too close, they banded together and fought back. Silly of them, huh? Even an army of humans isn’t a match for a couple of determined magic-wielders, but they’re going to have to figure that out on their own.
Ariana is a great heroine. I’m excited to tell you her story. And Conan is perfect. He reminds me of my own wolves: noble, principled, and courageous as hell.

Here's a sample from Harsh Line, first of the Cataclysm books:

Chapter One, Ariana
“You shorted me again.” Standing straight, I locked gazes with the liquor distributor for my nightclub.
“You’ve miscounted…ma’am.” Defiance fairly dripped from the burly driver as he dared me to contradict him. Greasy black hair was stuffed beneath a dirty baseball cap. He had dark eyes, a million wrinkles, and a beer gut hanging over his too-tight jeans.
Ha! I could rip him limb from limb with one hand tied behind my back, but no reason to let him know that. “Shall we count them together?” I adopted my best dumb-female mien. Not easy because it was so not me.
“Maybe some other time.” He thrust an invoice at me with a pen clipped to the board beneath it. “Running late.”
“I’ll just bet you are. Look, Roger. Either we count them, or you can take the whole mess back to your truck. And I’ll find another distributor.”
A shocked look bloomed on his beefy face. Red splotches marked both stubble-coated cheeks. About six feet two, he was the same height as me, but he outweighed me by a good hundred pounds. “I don’t have time to do that, either,” he sputtered. “You’d better sign off on the fucking shipment.”
I waited, but he stopped shy of tacking “bitch” onto the end of his statement.
I glanced at the invoice, snatched up the pen, and scratched corrections onto the sheet. I wrote in a new total, signed it, and handed it back to him. “There you go, bud.”
“But—but you can’t just write down any amount you want.”
I shrugged. “Just did.” I crossed my arms beneath my breasts and shook strands of black hair out of my face. “Two choices, Rog. Accept my figures—and I did count the boxes as you carted them in here. Or take everything back to your truck.”
“I didn’t see you count nothing.”
“Yeah well, I did. You shorted me the last two times, and I don’t trust you.”
He stared at me, mouth opening and closing like a gutted fish as his pea-sized brain absorbed he’d have to come up with the difference for the cases he’d clearly sold to some black market trader.
“What’s it going to be?” I pressed. “I’m a busy woman. A while back, you said you didn’t have time to count the cases, so presumably you have a schedule as well.”
He turned on his heel and stalked out of my back room. It opens onto an alley, and I pulled the heavy, wooden door shut, dropping an aluminum bar into place to secure it.
Breath hissed from between my clenched teeth. I’d stayed out of the slice of daylight cutting through my open door, but my skin still had a burned feeling. I’m a Vampire. One of the old ones, so daylight isn’t the scourge for me it is for the newer batch, but it’s still not pleasant. 
I can go outside during the daytime, but I view it as a last resort.
Being my usual, methodical self, I recounted the cases of booze. I’d been right on with my tallies. Five hundred and twenty-three bucks of my order was missing. Either the bastard driver was skimming off the top, or the liquor distributing company was purposefully shorting me. Regardless, I’d give the distributor—Northwest Spirits—a call to alert them.
My money was on Roger, not the huge distributor. Northwest Spirits had a reputation to uphold.
A low growl wafted from the corner of the stockroom where I parked my Harley. Except it only looked like a motorcycle. I covered the distance from the door to the corner and asked, “What do you think?”
“Ripping his fat throat out is too good for him.”
I tossed a leg over the bike and settled onto the plush leather seat. “It may come to that,” I muttered.
Beneath me, the motorcycle illusion shimmered and shifted until I was astride Conan, a shapeshifting dire wolf I’ve been hanging around with for the past 500 years or so. He snarled, but I didn’t take him seriously. I did dismount, though. He’s good with me on his back when he’s masquerading as a bike, or at least he tolerates me.
It’s the only time, though.
I walked around until I faced him and buried my fingers in his lush black-and-silver pelt. Amber eyes regarded me with their usual inscrutable lupine expression. As if I were prey. Or could be.
Back in the day, we used to hunt together. I got the blood. He got everything else. Not that we’d given up hunting, but we had to be far more discreet. He laid his muzzle on my shoulder; I scratched his ears.
“We should leave.” Capable of speech in wolf form, his words came out garbled, but understandable.
“Where would we go?” He and I had had this conversation before. Many times.
A frustrated growl rumbled from his throat. I let go of him, walked to a chest freezer, and pull out a cow’s leg bone with a good bit of meat still clinging to it.
“Buying me off?” Bitterness lined Conan’s question, but he snatched up the treat and proceeded to annihilate it. Powerful jaws crunched through bone as if it were made of cardboard.
I left him to it and trotted out of the storage room and into the huge main section of Ascent, a nightclub I own. Buying it might not have been one of my better ideas, but it was my baby. Win, lose, or draw. Unlike some bars, we didn’t open until seven in the evening. I had zero interest in pandering to stone-cold alkies, the ones who substituted booze for breakfast.
Besides, being open when it was light out held obvious problems for me.
I went to work tumbling chairs back onto the floor from where the cleaning crew had balanced them on tables and thought about Conan. By virtue of a rare genetic mishap—and intervention from a gifted mage—he’d become an extraordinary type of shapeshifter, capable of any form he wanted to adopt.
The genetic part was supposition on my part, mostly because Conan was one of a kind. I’ve lived a long time, and I’ve never seen another supernatural creature anything like him.
I came across the wolf when he was a gangly puppy. Hiding at the bottom of a shallow well in a small village in the Carpathian Mountains, he’d been in bad shape. My heart had gone out to the scrawny pup. Vampires don’t keep pets, except as a blood source, but something about Conan drew me. Magic ran strong in him, and I couldn’t walk away from his plight.
For the first few months, his survival had been nip and tuck. I’d had to keep all the other Vamps away from him, for one thing. And then, I’d had to locate a Sorcerer who understood the small wolf’s brand of power. The Sorcerer hadn’t wanted to work with me, but I can be persistent.
Vampires are gifted with persuasion, or we’d have faded out of sight long ago. I gave the Sorcerer my word I wouldn’t harm him, and I didn’t. Long story short, the wolf and I have been together ever since. Not because of magic, but because of loyalty to each other.
Saving someone’s life creates a solemn bond, especially for me since ending lives is more my style. Or it used to be. Now I sneak blood from slaughterhouses—and the occasional morgue. It’s not any more appealing to me than that frozen bone was to Conan, but we have one another to bitch to.
Misery loves company.
We do still hunt from time to time. Fresh animal blood beats dead human blood every time.
He’s been bringing up leaving more and more often, but everywhere except maybe the north and south poles are war zones. I suppose we could get by in a frozen wasteland, but it would be lonely—and cold.
The wolf had dreamed up turning into a motorcycle as cover. When it looks like I’m riding it, I’m really riding him. He’s damned fast, and creates realistic motor sounds. He’s never admitted this, but I think he has fun with that illusion. It gets him out into the world with me. 
Even though he could craft a human form, he never has.
I stood back and surveyed my club with its scarred wooden floor, round tables, and staunchly made chairs. After a few brawls where customers had broken cheaper seats, I’d spent the money for ones resistant to damage. Several large windows ran the length of the nightclub. A raised dais near the back hosted occasional live music.
Unlike many establishments, I served everyone. Ascent was a place no one talked about what they were. A spot where humans and magic-wielders established d├ętente. I have very good ears—it’s part of my Vampire magic. At the first hint of trouble, I make certain the parties take it outside.
A key slotted into the front door lock, and Ruby Brighton hustled inside, relocking the door behind her. “Hiya, boss,” she called cheerily and headed for the bar.
“Hiya back.” I waved.
Ruby’s rainbow hair hung to shoulder level. Today it was red, blue, and violet. The violet matched her eyes. Ruby was Fae, and hundreds of years old. Like so many ancient beings, she looked about thirty-five. Today she was garbed in her usual black slacks, white shirt, and leather vest. She far preferred bare feet, but I insisted she wear shoes. Fae blood is…unpredictable, and the bar floor often has bits of broken glass.
If someone pissed her off, her blood might shape itself into a weapon. Shoes were a simple solution.
Everyone who works for me has some variety of magic. I’ve tried mortal employees, but they’re too damned fragile. Always one excuse or another for why they can’t do something.
“We’re out of port and scotch. Did the shipment come?” Ruby quirked a black brow my way.
“Yeah. Fuckers shorted us again. This time, I spoke up.”
“Really?” She blew out a noisy breath. “How’d that go?”
“Predictably. Roger played dumb. I scribbled in the number of crates he delivered, initialed it, and wrote in the amount I actually owe.”
“Mmph. You planning to call the company?”
“I am, indeed.”
“Who else is working tonight?” she asked.
I smothered a sigh. Immortals had their own set of challenges as employees. Some didn’t get along very well with others. It made crafting the schedule an ongoing dilemma. Of course, most magical beings loath Vampires. Somehow, I’d managed to move past that with my staff. The ones who couldn’t suck it up were long gone.
I rattled off a spate of names. Ascent is a big place. We can seat a couple hundred, and we’re often full. Full enough to keep three bartenders, a few circulating waitresses, and a bouncer busy.
I’d just turned around, intent on helping Ruby haul liquor crates from the storeroom to behind the bar when the fine hairs on the back of my neck quivered. “Did you feel that?”
Ruby slitted her eyes. I both felt and saw power shimmer around her, turning the air a delicate silver. Fae magic smells like wildflowers soaked in Irish whiskey, alluring as hell.
“Crap,” she cried, dove across the room, and threw her body over mine. We crashed to the floor the same moment as the biggest of half a dozen windows exploded, shattering and littering my freshly mopped floor with a million bits of glass.
Fuck. Please let this be a random event and not my bar specifically targeted because someone figured out what I am.
“Let me up.” I struggled beneath Ruby, but she’s as strong as I am.
“Not yet,” she said.
“But we have to go after whoever did this.”
She rolled off me. “You’re not thinking. What were you planning? If you sink your fangs into someone’s neck, they’ll discover what you are.”
She didn’t have to say the rest. Ascent would be finished once it became public knowledge a Vampire owned it.
“All right, all right,” I groused. “But I’ll be damned if I cower on the floor like a ninny.”
Conan loped in from the storeroom, huge jaws snapping. Saliva spooled from his jowls.
“Ooooh. You’re so beautiful,” Ruby cried and tried to hug him.
He shook her off and glared at the busted window. “Who?” he growled.
“We don’t know, sweetie,” Ruby told him.
“Erm. Maybe we do,” I muttered. “I did a fine job pissing Roger off. Probably cost him a few hundred bucks. And maybe his job—once I’m done talking with his employer.”
Half of me had been expecting another blast until I looked around and saw the small boulder someone had chucked through the window. I got up and walked over to it. “Pretty low-tech,” I mumbled.
“Sounding more and more like Roger,” Ruby said. “The original low-tech dude.”
A quick glance at the clock over the bar told me it was five thirty. “I’m going to call Northwest Sprits,” I said, “and then I want to go for a little spin. You up for it?” I asked Conan.
“And if I’m not?” he growled.
“I’ll take the car.”
“With me in the back. You are not going alone.” The wolf shook himself from head to tail tip.
“If you’re coming anyway, I’d rather ride you.” Licking my lips, I grinned at him. “Maybe we can do a little hunting.”
“I hate mice,” he informed me loftily.
“How about a nice, fat sheep?” Ruby squatted next to him.
“Don’t,” I snapped. “You’ll get him all excited for nothing.”
Him and me both. I was hungry. I hadn’t fed for the last two days. Vampires don’t have to eat often, but we do need food occasionally. Blood from living creatures was so much better than the horrid crap I pilfered from a nearby slaughterhouse. I had to do a whole lot of fantasizing to get morgue leavings down without heaving them back up.
Conan whined. My stomach growled.
To divert myself, I dug my cell phone out of a pocket, scrolled through contacts, and called Northwest Spirits. It was late enough, I didn’t expect to do much more than leave a message, but the gal I usually order from picked up on the second ring.
We had a decent conversation. She at least sounded sympathetic. I offered to take pictures of today’s delivery to verify my side of things, but she told me it wouldn’t be necessary.
“Well?” Ruby asked after I hung up.
“I got the impression this wasn’t the first complaint they’ve fielded about Roger,” I told her.
“Interesting.”
Conan trotted to the door. His brand of power made a whistling noise and smelled like rain-wet rocks. I wasn’t surprised to see the Harley where the wolf had been. Silver and black, just like Conan, the bike glowed invitingly. Nothing like magic to dress something up.
“I’ll get the door,” Ruby offered. She patted the bike on her way past it. “Someday,” she said, clearly angling for a ride.
“Tell her only you,” the wolf said into my mind.
“I heard that, sweetie.” Ruby grinned. It made her look about sixteen with her hanks of parti-colored hair. “Can’t blame a gal for trying. I’ll get a leg up on clearing all that glass away.”
She raised her hands. Magic crackled from them, and the glass swirled upward, forming a column. Once it was all flowing the same direction, she cracked a portal, and the remains of the window vanished.
“Too bad replacing it isn’t that simple.” She made a wry face and cut the flow of magic still shimmering around her. “What do you want to do for tonight?”
“Plywood?”
“Works for me,” she said. “I’ll get the guys on it as soon as they come in.”
“We should have enough in the back from last time,” I told her.
Ruby let her glamour fade. For a moment, she looked ancient and furious with her red wings, pointed ears, and golden eyes with vertical pupils. “Mortals are scum.” She spat the words.
“Not all of them.” My words surprised me. Vampires don’t usually stick up for humans.
She sidestepped my palliative observation. “I say we replace all the glass with something that doesn’t break.”
“Go for it.”
“Really? Last time you said it would be too dark in here.”
I shrugged. “I’m a Vampire. Dark is where I live.”
I grabbed my full-face, metallic-blue helmet off its hook near the bar and straddled the Harley. Its faux engine was already purring. No keys for this bike. No fuel, either. Made it an ideal road companion. Nothing to lose, and no reason to stop. Ever.
“We’ll be back by opening time,” I told Ruby.
“No rush,” she called above the escalating roar of the Harley’s engine.
Like I said, Conan has a hell of a good time with his motorcycle imitation. He reminded me of a little boy going vroom-vroom-vroom as he slid a toy truck across the floor.
“Where are we going?” I switched to mind speech.
“Where else? Sheep hunting?”
Aw crap. “Um, Ruby was only kidding.”
We skidded out the door and made a hard right into the never-ending flood of traffic on Mercy Street. Horns blared. I hunched my shoulders and ignored them. Like I could control Conan even if I tried. The sun was down. Soon it would be full dark. My fangs wanted to drop, but I held them back.
A wild, feral part of me longed for ascendency. I was sick of adapting to the modern world. Fuck all of it. For once—for tonight—it could adapt to me.
An enthusiastic woof deep in my mind told me my wolf was with me 100 percent of the way.
*****
Keep right on reading Harsh Line
Resilient, kickass, and determined, Aislinn Lenear walls herself off from anything that might make her feel again. Until a wolf picks her for a bond mate and a Celtic god rises out of legend to claim her for his own. Power so old, deep, and chilling it hurts to think about it will overrun Earth if nothing changes. Furious, fighting back, Aislinn gathers allies, putting her life on the line.

Earth’s Requiem:
In a world turned upside down, where virtually nothing familiar is left, Aislinn is conscripted to fight the dark gods responsible for her father’s death. Stripped of every illusion that’s ever comforted her and battling evil on her own terms, she’s turned into a one-woman army.
Fionn MacCumhaill, Celtic god of wisdom, protection, and divination has been laying low since the dark gods stormed Earth. On a clear winter day, Aislinn walks into his life and suddenly all bets are off. Awed by her courage, he stakes his claim to her and to an Earth he's willing to fight for.
Aislinn’s not so easily convinced. Fionn’s one gorgeous man, but she has a world to save. Emotional entanglements will only get in her way. Letting a wolf into her life was hard. Letting love in may well prove impossible.

Earth’s Blood:
Clinging to their courage in a crumbling world, Aislinn and Fionn vow to save Earth, no matter what it takes.
In a post-apocalyptic world where most people have been slaughtered, the Celtic gods and a few humans with magic are all that stand between survival and Earth falling into chaos. The combination of dark sorcery leveraged by the enemy is daunting. Destruction is all but certain if the small enclaves of humans who are left can’t get past their distrust of the Celts.
Blending dystopian urban fantasy with romance, Earth’s Blood turns into a proving ground for Fionn and Aislinn’s love. Headstrong and independent, the pair run up against each other’s demands time and time again. In the end, they learn to savor every moment in a bittersweet world where each day may well be their last.

Earth’s Hope:
Aislinn Lenear has traveled a long road since the dark gods invaded Earth better than three years ago. After seeing her father slaughtered in front of her, and her mother sink into madness, she built strong walls around her heart. First her bond wolf, and then Fionn MacCumhaill, changed all that, but she and Fionn are far from home free.
Four of the six dark gods are still sowing destruction, and they’ve joined forces with Lemurians, a desperate lot, running just ahead of the tide of their own mortality. In a bold move, the Lemurians try to coopt a group of young dragons, and very nearly succeed.
In a fast-paced, tension-riddled closure, Earth's Hope sweeps from Ireland to the Greek Islands to the Pacific Northwest to borderworlds where the dark gods live. Fionn and Aislinn’s relationship is strained to the breaking point as they struggle to work together without tearing one another to bits. Fionn is used to being obeyed without question, but Aislinn won’t dance to his tune. If they can find their way, there may be hope for a ravaged Earth.
*****
Here's a sample from Earth's Requiem

Chapter One
Aislinn pulled her cap down more firmly on her head. Snow stung where it got into her eyes and froze the exposed parts of her face. Thin, cold air seared her lungs when she made the mistake of breathing too deeply. She’d taken refuge in a spindly stand of leafless aspens, but they didn’t cut the wind at all. “Where’s Travis?” she fumed, scanning the unending white of a high altitude plain that used to be part of Colorado. Or maybe this place had been in eastern Utah. It didn’t really matter anymore.
Something unnatural flickered at the corner of her eye and she tensed. Standing still bought trouble with a capitol T. She swiveled her head to maximize her peripheral vision. Damn! No, double damn. Half-frozen muscles in her face ached when she tightened her jaw. 
Bal’ta—a bunch of them—fanned out a couple hundred yards behind her, closing the distance eerily fast. One of many atrocities serving the dark gods that had crawled out of the ground that night in Bolivia, they appeared as shadowy spots against the fading day. Places where edges shimmered and merged into a menacing blackness. If she looked too hard at the center of those dark places, they drew her like a lodestone. Aislinn tore her gaze away.
Not that Bal’ta—bad as they were—were responsible for the wholesale destruction of modern life. No, their masters—the ones who’d brought dark magic to Earth in the first place—held that dubious honor. Aislinn shook her head sharply, trying to decide what to do. She was supposed to meet Travis here. Those were her orders. He had something to give her. Typical of the way the Lemurians ran things, no one knew very much about anything. It was safer that way if you got captured. 
She hadn’t meant to cave and work for them, but in the end, she’d had little choice. It was sign on with the Lemurians—Old Ones—to cultivate her magic and fight the dark, or be marched into the same radioactive vortex that had killed her mother.
Her original plan had been to wait for Travis until an hour past full dark, but the Bal’ta changed all that. Waiting even one more minute was a gamble she wasn’t willing to risk. Aislinn took a deep breath. Chanting softly in Gaelic, her mother’s language, she called up the light spell that would wrap her in brilliance and allow her to escape—maybe. It was the best strategy she could deploy on short notice. Light was anathema to Bal’ta and their ilk. So many of the loathsome creatures were hot on her heels, she didn’t have any other choice. 
She squared her shoulders. All spells drained her. This was one of the worst—a purely Lemurian working translated into Gaelic because human tongues couldn’t handle the Old Ones’ language. She pulled her attention from her spell for the time it took to glance about, and her heart sped up. Even the few seconds it took to determine flight was essential had attracted at least ten more of the bastards. They surrounded her. Well, almost.
She shouted the word to kindle her spell. Even in Gaelic, with its preponderance of harsh consonants, the magic felt awkward on her tongue. Heart thudding double time against her ribs, she hoped she’d gotten the inflection right. Moments passed. Nothing happened. Aislinn tried again. Still nothing. Desperate, she readied her magic for a fight she was certain she’d lose and summoned the light spell one last time. Flickers formed. Stuttering into brilliance, they pushed against the Bal’tas’ darkness. 
Yesssss. Muting down triumph surging through her—no time for it—she gathered the threads of her working, draped luminescence about herself, and loped toward the west. Bal’ta scattered, closing behind her. She noted with satisfaction that they stayed well away from her light. She’d always assumed it burned them in some way. 
Travis was on his own. She couldn’t even warn him that he was walking into a trap. Maybe he already had. Which would explain why he hadn’t shown up. Worry tugged at her. She ignored it. Anything less than absolute concentration, and she’d fall prey to his fate—
Vile hissing sounded behind her. Long-nailed hands reached for her, followed by shrieks when one of them came into contact with her magic. She snuck a peek over one shoulder to see how close they truly were. One problem with all that light was it illuminated the nasty things. Their backward sloping foreheads leant them a dimwitted look, but they were skilled warriors, worthy adversaries who’d wiped out more than one of her comrades. Their insect-like ability to work as a group using telepathic powers scared her more than anything. Though she threw her Mage senses wide open, she was damned if she could tap into their wavelength to disrupt it.
Chest aching, breath coming in short, raspy pants, she ran like she’d never run before. If she let go of anything—her light shield or her speed—they’d be on her, and it would be all over. Dead just past her twenty-second birthday. That thought pushed her legs to pump faster. She gulped air, willing everything to hold together long enough.
Minutes ticked by. Maybe as much as half an hour passed. She was tiring. It was hard to run and maintain magic. Could she risk teleportation? Sort of a beam me up, Scotty, trick. Nope, she wasn’t close enough to her destination yet. Something cold as an ice cave closed around her upper arm. Her flesh stung before feeling left it. She snapped her head to that side and noted her light cloak had failed in that spot. Frantic to loosen the creature’s grip, she pulled a dirk from her belt and stabbed at the thing holding her. Smoke rose when she dug her iron knife into it.
The stench of burning flesh stung her nostrils, and the disgusting ape-man drew back, hurling imprecations in its guttural language. She snaked her gaze through the gloom of the fading day, as she assessed how many of the enemy chased her. Aislinn swallowed hard around a painfully dry throat. There had to be a hundred. Why were they targeting her? Had they intercepted Travis and his orders? Damn the Lemurians anyway. She’d never wanted to fight for them.
I’ve got to get out of here. 
Though it went against the grain—mostly because she was pretty certain it wouldn’t work, and you weren’t supposed to cast magic willy nilly—she pictured her home, mixed magic from earth and fire, and begged the Old Ones to see her delivered safely. Once she set the spell in motion, there’d be no going back. If she didn’t end up where she planned, she’d be taken to task, maybe even stripped of her powers, depending on how pissed off the Lemurians were. 
Aislinn didn’t have any illusions left. Her world had crumbled three years ago. She’d wasted months railing against God, or the fates, or whoever was responsible for robbing her of her boyfriend and her parents and her life, goddammit, but nothing brought them back.
Then the Old Ones—Lemurians, she corrected herself—had slapped reason into her, forcing her to see the magic that kept her alive as a resource, not a curse. In the intervening time, she’d not only come to terms with that magic, but it had become a part of her. The only part she truly trusted. Without the magic that enhanced her senses, she’d be dead within hours.
Please… She struggled against clasping her hands together in an almost forgotten gesture of supplication. Juggling an image of her home while maintaining enough light to hold the Bal’ta at bay, she waited. Nothing happened. She was supposed to vanish, her molecules transported by proxy to where she wished to go. This was way more than the normal journey—or jump—spell, though. Because she needed to go much farther. 
She poured more energy into the teleportation spell. The light around her flickered. Bal’ta dashed forward, jaws open, saliva dripping. She smelled the rotten crypt smell of them and cringed. If they got hold of her, they’d feed off her until she was nothing but an empty husk. Or worse, if one took a shine to her, she’d be raped in the bargain and forced to carry a mixed breed child. They’d kill her as soon as the thing was weaned. Maybe the brat, too, if its magic wasn’t strong enough. 
The most powerful of the enemy were actually blends of light and dark magic. When the abominations, six dark masters, had slithered out of holes between the worlds during a globally synchronized surge linked to the Harmonic Convergence, the first thing they’d done had been to capture human women and perform unspeakable experiments on progeny resulting from purloined eggs and alien sperm.
Aislinn sucked in a shaky breath. She did not want to be captured. Suicide was a far better alternative. She licked at the fake cap in the back of her mouth. It didn’t budge. She shoved a filthy finger behind her front teeth and used an equally disgusting fingernail to pop the cap. She gripped the tiny capsule. Should she swallow it? Could she? Sweat beaded and trickled down her forehead, despite the chill afternoon air.
She’d just dropped the pill onto her tongue, trying to gin up enough saliva to make it go down, when the weightlessness associated with teleportation started in her feet like it always did. Gagging, she spat out the capsule and extended a hand to catch it, but it fell into the dirt. Aislinn knew better than to scrabble for the poison pill. If she survived, she could get another from the Old Ones. They didn’t care how many humans died, despite pretending to befriend those with magic. 
Her spell was shaky enough as it was. It needed more energy—lots more. Forgetting about the light spell, Aislinn put everything she had into escape. By the time she knew she was going to make it—apparently the Bal’ta didn’t know they could take advantage of her vulnerability as she shimmered half in and half out of teleport mode—she was almost too tired to care.
She fell through star-spotted darkness for a long time. It could have been several lifetimes. Teleportation jaunts were different than her simple Point A to Point B jumps. When she’d traveled this way before, she’d asked how long it took, but the Old Ones never answered. Everyone she’d ever loved was dead—and the Old Ones lived forever—so she didn’t have a reliable way to measure time. For all she knew, Travis might’ve lived through years of teleportation jumps. No one ever talked about anything personal. It was like an unwritten law. No going back. No one had a past. At least, not one they were willing to talk about.Voices eddied around her, speaking the Lemurian tongue with its clicks and clacks. She tried to talk with them, but they ignored her. On shorter, simpler journeys, her body stayed with her. She’d never known how her body caught up to her when she teletransported and was nothing but spirit. Astral energy suspended between time and space.
A disquieting thump rattled her bones. Bones. I have bones again… That must mean… Barely conscious of the walls of her home rising around her, Aislinn felt the fibers of her grandmother’s Oriental rug against her face. She smelled cinnamon and lilac. Relief surged through her. Against hope and reason, the Old Ones had seen her home. Maybe they cared more than she thought—at least about her. Aislinn tried to pull herself across the carpet to the corner shrine so she could thank them properly, but her head spun. Darkness took her before she could do anything else.
* * * *
Not quite sure what woke her, Aislinn opened her eyes. Pale light filtered in through rough cutouts high in the walls. Daytime. She’d been lucky to find this abandoned silver mine with shafts that ran up to ground level. It would’ve drained her to keep a mage light burning.
Is it tomorrow? Or one of the days after that? 
Aislinn’s head pounded. Her mouth tasted like the backside of a sewer. It was the aftereffect of having thoroughly drained her magic, but she was alive, goddammit. Alive. Memory flooded her. She’d been within a hairsbreadth of taking her own life. Her stomach clenched, and she rolled onto her side, racked by dry heaves. Had she swallowed any of the poison by accident?
A bitter laugh made her cracked lips ache. Of course she hadn’t. It didn’t take much cyanide to kill you. Just biting into the capsule without swallowing would have done it. She struggled to a sitting position. Pain lanced through her head, but she forced herself to keep her eyes open.
The world stabilized. She lurched to her feet, filled a chipped mug with water that ran perpetually down one wall of her cave, doubling as faucet and shower, and warmed it with magic. Rummaging through small metal bins, she dropped mint and anise into the water. Then a dollop of honey, obtained at great personal risk from a nearby hive. When she looked at the mug, it was empty. Her eyes widened in a face so tired any movement was torture, and she wondered if she’d hallucinated making tea. Since she didn’t remember drinking the mixture, she made another cup for good measure.
Liquid on board, she started feeling halfway human. Or whatever she was these days. As she moved around her cozy hobbit hole of a home, she glanced at beloved books, a few odds and ends of china, and her grandmother’s rug—all that was left of her old life. By the time she’d developed enough magic to transport both herself and things short distances, most of the items from the ruins of her parents’ home had been either pilfered by someone else or destroyed by the elements. She’d come by her few other possessions digging through the rubble of what was left of civilization.
Aislinn sucked in a deep breath and blew it back out. It made her chest hurt. Had the Bal’ta injured her before she’d made good on her escape? She shucked her clothes—tight brown leather pants, a plaid flannel shirt, and a torn black leather jacket—and took stock of her body. It looked pretty much the same. The long, white scar from under one breast catty corner to a hipbone was still there. Yeah, right. What could have happened to it? There might be a few new bruises, but all in all, her lean, tautly muscled form had survived intact. Before the world had imploded, she’d hated being a shred over six feet tall. Now she blessed her height. Long legs meant she could run fast.
She wrinkled her nose. A putrid stench had intensified as she removed her ratty leather garments. Realizing it was her, she strode to the waterfall in one corner of her cave and stood under its flow until her teeth chattered. Only then did she pull magic to warm herself. It seemed a waste to squander power on something she should be able to tolerate. Besides, despite sleeping, she hadn’t totally recharged her reserves. That would only happen if she didn’t use any more magic for a while. Aislinn thumbed a sliver of handmade soap and washed her hair, diverting suds falling down her body to clean the rest of her.
Something threw itself against the wards she kept above ground. She felt it as a vibration deep in her chest. It happened again. She leapt from the shower and flung her long, red hair over her shoulders so she could see. Soapy water streamed down her body, but she didn’t want to sacrifice one iota of magic drying herself until she knew who—or what—was out there. Mage power would alert whatever was outside to her presence, so she snaked the tiniest tendril of Seeker magic out, winding it in a circuitous route so no one would figure out where it came from. Seekers could pinpoint others with magic. That gift was also useful for sorting out truth, but it wasn’t her main talent, so it was weak.
Her magic found a target and she gasped. Travis? How could it possibly be him? He didn’t know where she lived. Had her Lemurian magelord told him?
“Aislinn.” She heard his voice in her mind. “Let us in.”
Us no doubt meant his bond creature was with him. When Hunter magic was primary, humans had bond animals. His was a civet with the most beautiful rust, golden, and onyx coat she’d ever seen. Should I? Indecision rocked her. Her cave meant safety because no one knew about it. No one who would tell, anyway. She dragged a threadbare wool shift—once it had been green, but there were so many patches, it was mostly black now—over her head and shook water out of her hair.
A high-pitched screech reverberated in her head. Something must’ve pissed off the civet. Travis shouted her name again. He left the mind speech channel open after that. Locked it open so she couldn’t close it off. Edgy, she wondered if he was setting some sort of trap. Aislinn thought she could trust him, but when it came right down to it, she didn’t trust anyone. Especially not the Old Ones. The only thing that made working with them tolerable was she understood their motives. Or imagined she did. She still hadn’t forgiven them for killing her mother. Poor, sick, muddled Tara.
“Aislinn.” A different voice this time. Metae, her Lemurian magelord. The one who’d made it clear two years before that, magic or no, they’d kill her if she didn’t come to terms with her power and fight for them. “Save your comrade. I do not know if I will arrive in time.”
All righty, then. 
The civet yowled, hissed, and then yowled again. Travis made heavy, slurping sounds, as if at least one lung had been punctured. Was saving anyone even possible? Dragging a leather vest over totally inadequate clothing, Aislinn slipped her feet into cracked, plastic Crocs and took off at a dead run along a passageway leading upward. The Crocs gave her feet some protections from rocks, but not from cold. She veered off, picking an exit point that would put her behind the fighting. When she came to one of the many illusory rocks that blocked every tunnel leading to her home, she peeked around it. No point in being a sacrifice if she could help it. Travis wasn’t that close of an acquaintance. No one was. 
She froze, disbelieving. Christ! It couldn’t be. But it was. Though she’d only seen him once, that horrible night in Bolivia when her father died, the thing standing in broad daylight had to be Perrikus—one of six dark gods holding what was left of Earth captive. Bright auburn hair flowed to his waist and fluttered in the morning breeze. Eyes clear as fine emeralds one moment, shifting to another alluring shade the next, were set in a classically handsome face with sharp cheekbones and a chiseled jawline. His broad shoulders and chest tapered to narrow hips under a gossamer robe that left nothing to the imagination. The dark gods were sex incarnate, which was interesting, since the Old Ones were anything but. Promises of bottomless passion had been one of the ways the dark ones seduced Druids and witches and all those other New Age practitioners into weakening the gates between the worlds.
Heat flooded Aislinn’s nether regions. She wished she’d paid better attention when humans who’d actually run up against the dark gods had told her about it. Something about requiring human warmth to feed themselves, or remain on Earth, or…shit, her usually sharp mind just wasn’t there. She couldn’t focus on anything except getting laid.
Her groin ached for release. One of her hands snuck under her clothing before she realized what she was doing. No! The silent shriek told her body to stand down, damn it. Now was not the time, and Perrikus definitely not the partner, but her body wasn’t listening. Her nipples pebbled into hard points and pressed against the rough wool fabric of her hastily donned shift. 
Wrenching her gaze to Travis—and her mind away from sex—she was unutterably grateful he was still on his feet. Wavering, but standing. The civet, every hair on end, stood next to him, a paw, with claws extended, raised menacingly. 
“You know where the woman is,” Perrikus said, his voice like liquid silver. 
Aislinn heard compulsion behind the words. Hopefully, so did Travis. 
“I followed you here,” the dark mage went on. “I heard you call out to her. So where is she? Tell me, and I’ll let you go.” 
The civet growled low. Travis spoke a command to silence it.
“I’m right here.” Aislinn stepped into view, glad her voice hadn’t trembled, because her guts sure were. 
“Aislinn,” Travis gasped. He lurched in a rough half circle to face her. “I’m so sorry—”
“Can it,” she snapped. 
The civet hissed at her, probably because she’d had the temerity to raise her voice to its bonded one. 
She leveled her gaze at Perrikus. “You said he could go. Release him—and his animal, too.”
That lyrical voice laughed. “Oh, did I say that? I’d forgotten.”
“Let him go, and I’ll, ah, give you what you want.” Should buy me a couple minutes here. “Just turn off the damned sex fountain. I can’t think.”
His hypnotic eyes latched onto hers. “Why would I do that, human? You like how it feels. I smell the heat from between your legs.”
“Bastard. I liked it a whole lot better when I thought you were just a comic book character.” Aislinn wondered how much juice she had. This was one of the gods. Even if she was at her best, she didn’t think she’d prevail in anything that looked like direct combat. “What do you want with me?” she asked, still seeking time to strategize. It wasn’t easy with what felt like a second heart pounding between her legs. She wanted to lay herself at his feet and just get it over with.
“What do you think?” He smiled. Fine, white teeth gleamed in that perfect jaw. “Children. You have power, human. Real power. And you’ve only now come to our attention.” He walked toward her, nice and slow. Sauntered. His hips swung with his stride. He was ready, huge and hard, under those sheer robes. Unfortunately, so was she, but she clamped down on her craving.
Aislinn ignored the moisture gushing down her thighs and reached for her magic. Travis limped over, joining hands with her. The civet wedged itself between them, warm against her lower leg. She felt the boost immediately, and her sexual hunger receded a tiny bit. Enough to clear her mind. “On my count of three,” she sent. “One, two…”
“No. Do just the opposite. He won’t be expecting it. Pull from air and water. I’ll blend fire. Aim for his dick. It’s a pretty big target just now.”
Power erupted from them. Even the civet seemed to be helping. Since she’d never worked with an animal before, she wasn’t certain just how the Hunter magic worked. Aislinn concentrated hard to keep the spell’s aim true. Travis was injured, so she took more of the burden. 
Perrikus chanted almost lazily. Maybe he was drunk on his own ability, so egotistical he wouldn’t guard himself. Her spirits soared as soon as she realized Travis’s gambit had worked. Perrikus was using the counter spell for air and water. He hadn’t counted on the tenacity fire would give their working. Moments later, a muffled shriek burst from him, and he grappled at his crotch.
“Bitch.” No honey or compulsion in that epithet. He lunged for her. 
Aislinn sidestepped him neatly, letting go of Travis. In a half crouch, she trained all her attention on their adversary. Hands raised, she began a weaving she hoped would unbalance him. Air shimmered at the edges of her vision. 
“I am here, child. Take your comrade to safety. He carries an important message from me.”
“Me—”
“Do not speak my name aloud. Go.”
The shimmery place in the air sidled in front of Perrikus. Fiery motes lapped hungrily at his transparent robes. Not waiting to be told a third time, Aislinn shooed the civet into Travis’s arms, draped an arm around him, and pulled invisibility about the three of them. The last thing she heard as she guided them toward the warren of passageways leading to her home was Metae baiting Perrikus. 
“I was old before you were hatched. How dare you spread your filth?”
“Wh-Where are we?” Travis’s voice gurgled. It had taken time to help him cover the half mile back to her cave. The civet made little mewling noises as they walked, sounding worried about its human partner.
“About two hundred feet below whatever’s happening up there.” Aislinn flung a hand upward. “Do you have Healing magic?” She pushed him through the thick tapestry that served as a door to her home and caught the civet’s tail between fabric and rock. It hissed at her and then ran to Travis, light on its feet.
He nodded.
“Use it on yourself. It’s not one of my strengths.” Aislinn knew she sounded surly but couldn’t help herself. She’d never wanted anyone anywhere near her home. Her body, ignited by Perrikus’s execrable magic, screamed for release. Nothing she could do about that so long as she had company. Not much privacy in the one room she called home.
“Make a power circle around me.”
Grateful for something to do, Aislinn strode around him three times, chanting. She felt Travis pull earth power from her as he patched the hurt places within himself. Satisfied he had what he needed, she retrieved her mug, got one for him, and made tea. In addition to goldenseal, she added marigolds to the decoction. Both held healing qualities. By the time she finished brewing tea, his color had shifted from gray to decidedly pink. His eyes were back to their normal brown. Moss green was his power color. She wondered if it was sheer coincidence that the civet’s eyes were the same odd shade. She understood her Mage and Seeker gifts. The other three human magics—Healer, Hunter, and Seer—remained shrouded in mystery.
Aislinn looked hard at Travis when she handed him the tea. Dirty blond dreadlocks hung halfway down his back. He was well past six feet, but thin to the point of gauntness, his skin stretched over broad shoulders. A leather belt with additional holes punched in it held baggy denim pants in place. Battered leather boots, split along one side, and an equally worn leather vest over a threadbare green cotton shirt made him look about as ragtag as she always did. No one ever had new clothes. She patched what she had until the fabric fell apart. Then she looted amongst the dead, or possessions they’d left behind, for something else she could use.
“Thanks.” He took the tea and shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot. “You have books.” Surprise burned in his tone. “How did—?”
“You didn’t see them,” she broke in fiercely. That’s what happened when you let people into your house. They saw things they weren’t supposed to—like books banned by a Lemurian edict.
“Okay,” he agreed. “I didn’t see a thing.” He hesitated. “Don’t worry. I wouldn’t get you in trouble. You just saved my life.”
“Did you fix your body?” Aislinn grimaced. That didn’t sound very friendly. Pretty obvious I’m trying to change the subject. “Sorry. I’m not used to entertaining.”
He looked away. “Yeah, I’m better. I’m not used to being anyone’s guest, either.”
“How’d you find me?” she blurted. Not all that polite either, but she really did want to know.
“Metae and Regnol, my Lemurian magelord, told me to give you this yesterday.” Scrabbling inside his vest, he drew out an alabaster plaque. About the size of a domino, it contained an encrypted message. “I tried to make our rendezvous on time, but everywhere I turned, something went wrong.” He paused long enough to take a breath. “I won’t bore you with the details, but it was past dark when I made it to the coordinates. You weren’t there, but I knew you had been. Traces of your energy remained.” He ground his teeth together. “I also sensed the Bal’ta. Because I feared the worst, I called the Old Ones—”
“What?” she broke in, incredulous. “We’re never supposed to—”
“I know that.” His voice rose over hers. “I was desperate. They told me not to bother reporting back if I didn’t get the message to you. Anyway, they didn’t even lecture me for insubordination. Metae told me where to find you. And a whole bunch of other stuff about how she’d wanted to tell you herself, but couldn’t break away from something or other.”
Aislinn gulped her tea. It was hot and made her mouth hurt, but at least the lust eating at her like acid ever since Perrikus turned those gorgeous eyes on her, receded a bit. Maybe it might, just might, leave her be. She’d even been wondering about a quickie with Travis—after he healed himself. Heat spread up her neck as she blushed.
“What?” He stared at her. 
The civet had curled itself into a ball at his feet, but it kept its suspicious gaze trained on her.
“Nothing.” She put her mug down and held out a hand for the plaque. “Let’s find out what was so important.”
Nodding silently, he handed it to her before sinking onto one of several big pillows scattered around the Oriental rug. The cat followed him. “Do you mind?” He pointed at a faded Navaho blanket folded in one corner of the room.
“Help yourself.”
“Thanks.” He unfolded it and draped it around his shoulders. “Takes a lot of magic to do Healings. I’m cold.”
With only half her mind on him, Aislinn held the alabaster between her hands. It warmed immediately and began to glow. She opened herself to it, knowing it would reveal its message, but only to her. The plaques were like that. The Old Ones keyed them to a single recipient. Death came swiftly to anyone else who tampered with their magic. Metae’s voice filled her mind.
“Child. Your unique combination of Mage and Seeker blood has come to the attention of the other side. They will stop at nothing to capture and use you. The Council has conferred. You will ready yourself for a journey to Taltos so we may better prepare you for what lies ahead. Take nothing. Tell no one. Travel to the gateway. Do not tarry. Once you are there, we will find you. You must arrive within four days.”
“What?” Travis squirmed clearly uncomfortable. He knew he shouldn’t ask, but couldn’t help himself.
She shook her head. Alone. Destined to be alone—always. Sadness filled her. Images of her mother and father tumbled out of the place she kept them locked away. Memories of what it had felt like to be loved brought sudden tears to her eyes.
“Come here.” Travis opened his arms. “You don’t have to tell me a thing.” 
The civet growled low. Travis spoke sharply to it, and it stood, arched its back, and walked to a spot a few feet away, where it circled before lying down. 
Mortified by how desperately she wanted the comfort of those arms, Aislinn dropped to the floor and crawled to him, taking care to give his bond animal a wide berth. The blanket must have helped, because when she fitted her body to his, it was more than warm. The sexual heat she thought she’d moved beyond flared painfully in her loins. When he cupped her buttocks with his hands and pulled her against him, she wound her arms around him and held on.
“There,” he crooned, moving a hand to smooth her hair out of her face. “There, now. Let’s take comfort where we can, eh? There’s precious little to be had.” He laughed, sounding a bit self-conscious, before adding, “Even I could feel Perrikus’s spell. Got me going, too.”
He closed his lips over hers. She kissed him back, too aroused to be ashamed of her need. 
*****
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As promised, I'm rotating sale books in my online store.
Some of you have asked why I lower my prices there and not across the board. Two answers. The first is simplicity. I don't have to wait for a vendor to respond to a price change request. The second is I actually do far better financially putting my books on sale. I get most of the .99 from my own store. From Amazon, a .99 book only nets me .35. The other vendors pay about .40.
I'm also hoping you'll get used to buying direct. It helps me and gives you the same great books to buy.
Be sure to check out my online store. It's a win win for us both.
Many of you missed having a picture of Dru in the last newsletter, so here he is again. His first birthday is the 27th. Amazingly, we both survived his first year. He is such a sweetheart, and his busy jaws are getting better at discriminating between approved chew toys from unapproved ones. See you all next time.

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