Summer thunder shook the house as Trish Sinclair finished the incantation, punctuating it with a startled exclamation that extinguished the black candle on the coffee table.
Eerie timing, but surely coincidental. After yet another day of writer’s block, Trish had invoked a simple inspiration spell, but those didn’t generally bring down the wrath of nature.
Sighing, she closed her mother’s book of shadows, marking her place with the advance check for the third volume of The Spellcaster’s Grimoire, her bestselling series on recreational witchcraft. At the rate she was going, there would be no third installment.
Trish had used all the harmless, sparkly spells from her mother’s grimoire for the first volume. Benton Moorcroft, leader of the local coven, had supplied enough for the second. But all that remained were incantations more dangerous or complicated than she felt comfortable giving to the public.
Thunder crashed again, the flash of lightning brilliantly outlining the closed window blinds. Not the result she’d hoped for from the inspiration spell. Clearly the universe would provide her no epiphany tonight, nothing more exciting than a storm.
She ambled into the kitchen, opened the pantry, and scowled at the cans and boxes.
Carbs would be good consolation. Instant hash browns, instant mashed potatoes—ah, mac and cheese. She grabbed the box, ripped it open, and started water boiling for the noodles.
This writing business was getting to be too much like work. She’d have to bug Benton again for new material. As old as he was, and with so much experience, he’d probably forgotten enough trivial spells to fill an encyclopedia. He’d just have to dredge up a few more for her. Otherwise, she would be revealed to the world, or at least her agent and editor, as the two-trick pony she probably was.
On the other hand, Benton might not be so helpful now. He was a bit peeved with her for spicing up Volume Two with the creepy legend from her mother’s book of shadows.
The windows rattled with the rumble of thunder once more, closer now, as Trish blew her bangs from her eyes, tossed her hair over her shoulder, and drained the noodles.
She contemplated the entire stick of margarine the directions called for, shrugged, and dropped it into the pot. She added the orange powder from the foil packet, stirred, and abracadabra, behold comfort food.
Maynard, Georgia had been built two hundred years ago around an excavated, boulder-sized crystal that channeled the hidden energy of the universe and served as the source of the town’s magic. Soon after the community’s founding, the coven leader appropriated the group’s ancient book of spells and used it to harness the stone’s flow of power all for himself. The coven historian, the Keeper of the Grimoire, used a summoning spell to gather the other witches and warlocks—who burned their leader alive. Trish didn’t see what the problem with publishing it was. The story sounded apocryphal, yet added to the truthiness of The Spellcaster’s Grimoire. And got copies into the Regional Books sections of the local bookstores.
She did feel guilty she hadn’t told Benton she was going to include the legend of the grimoire and the crystal. She had put clues together from things Benton had said and inferred that the grimoire had not been incinerated in the warlock’s funeral pyre, but still existed. Not only that, she was pretty sure Benton was the Keeper of the Grimoire. She’d told herself he’d be flattered by her broad hints that even today the coven leader protected the grimoire.
Still, the fact that she hadn’t told him about it before turning the manuscript in was a pretty good indicator she’d unconsciously known she shouldn’t publish it. But if the legend wasn’t true, why had he gotten so upset? Even if it was true, why had he gotten so upset?
Whatever, she was starving. Emotionally, anyway.
As she spooned a giant orange noodle-glob onto her plate, something heavy slammed hard into the sliding glass doors to the back yard.
“Holy freakin’ crap!”
She jumped and dropped the dish to the floor. The plate shattered, sending shards of stoneware and clumps of mac and cheese in all directions, but her gaze was on the door.
A body slumped against the glass, a haggard face plastered to it in a smear of blood.
Her pulse and breath racing, Trish started again in recognition of the crumpled form.
Stepping around her ruined dinner, she ran to the door and opened it carefully with one hand, catching his weight with the other as he collapsed into the kitchen.
“Benton! What—” She gasped as he fell against her, and she saw the intricately fashioned hilt of a dagger protruding from his back.
“Ohmygod, ohmygod . . .” Trish felt dissociated from reality, from her own body. A moment ago she’d been making comfort food, now the world had shifted on its axis, and she had a bloody medical emergency on her hands. Panic raced through her. She didn’t even know CPR.
Dizzy with an adrenaline rush, she lowered Benton to the floor, kneeling and cradling his upper body in her arms, barely aware of the tears stinging her eyes.
She had to get her shit together. Now. Get that knife out. As she stared at it, a dull shimmer emanated from it. Magic. She cautiously touched the hilt, then wrapped her fingers around it and pulled.
Benton screamed, and she cried out herself, releasing her hold on the dagger, leaving it in him.
Now what, now what? Her pulse pounded in her temples like a tympani, scattering her confused thoughts. She couldn’t handle this herself, she had to get help. “Hang on, I’m calling 911!”
Benton turned his face up to her. “No . . . Trish . . .”
“Shhh!” She rose and started for the phone, but he grasped the hem of her jeans.
“They . . . they can’t help me,” Benton wheezed, his eyelids half-lowered, his head dipping. “Listen. You’ve got to protect the book.”
She kneeled beside him again. “I’ve got to call for an ambulance!”
“Trish!” Benton grabbed her blouse and pulled her face close to his.
“I’ve brought terrible trouble to you, girl.” He coughed, and blood bubbled on his
lips. “I’m going to give you a two-part spell in case she finds you. Then you get out of here, get Aidan, and get the book. If she gets her hands on it . . .”
He was delirious. Shaking with frustration, Trish tried to pry his fingers loose from her blouse. “I’ve got to call 911! I’m getting help, or you’re going to die.”
He shook his head. “I’m already dead, you can’t save me. But here’s what you can do. What you must do.”
Trish blinked tears from her eyes, her emotions chaotic and her breathing so fast she was lightheaded. She had to get him to cooperate. “Okay, say what you’ve got to, then I’m calling.”
“Hush, listen! You exposed our secrets, silly girl, and you’re going to make it right!”
His words cut her to the core—silly girl—she knew the truth when she heard it.
Benton’s head sagged again. “Sorry . . . Blade of Truth . . . The witch . . . she wants the grimoire.” Bright blood further stained his teeth as he spoke. “You revealed . . . that the book still exists. You’ve got to protect it, keep it from her.”
“So it is true?”
Taking a deep breath, Benton continued. “Go to Aidan McCarthy . . .”
“The town drunk?” She said, confused. McCarthy lived in a double-wide on a large wooded lot at the edge of town. He was rumored to have a Masters degree in philosophy, but he did pickup manual labor for a subsistence living. When he wasn’t working, he was at a bar or getting stoned in his trailer. He had a reputation among the local witches as a loner, a renegade, allegedly more powerful than anyone else in Maynard. Ironically, they feared he was going to have eight too many beers some night and start mouthing off about magic and witches, but McCarthy was the only magical resident of the town who’d flatly refused to talk to Trish, let alone contribute a spell to her collections.
“Tell him . . .” Benton’s breath rattled as he paused. “Tell him you’re the guardian now. He’s got to help you. Aidan was once my pupil. He can get you past my spells.”
“Okay, okay,” she said. Whatever it took to get him to let go of her. “I’ll call him. Right now I’m calling the EMTs.”
Benton shook his head, spraying droplets of blood on the linoleum. “Wait.” He blinked, his eyes losing focus for a moment, then fastening on her again. “I’ve got to give you the spell to get away from her. She’s not far behind me.”
He was losing it. “The witch? The person who did this to you?”
He shushed her. “Listen and remember. Escape spell. You can handle it, you’re good at illusions. Well, passable.” He clutched her hair, drew her face close to his, and said a nullification spell that would prevent the spell he recited next from taking effect. Then he murmured a simple incantation in her ear and repeated it. “Have you got that?”
She nodded, tried to move away, but he yanked her hair again and said, “The second part, to animate the constructs . . .”
After he’d done another nullifier and given her the rest of the spell, his fingers loosened, and she pulled them from her hair. “Okay. But now I’m calling 911.”
“No time. You have to leave.”
Trish got to her feet, shaking, wobbly on her heels.
Thunder exploded just outside, the sound of angry gods.
At the front of the house, a deafening banging began, the door and windows rattling in their frames as if battered by a hurricane force wind.
Benton looked up from the floor, eyes fluttering. “She’s here.”