Into the Dreaming Imaginative Fiction from Author, Reviewer, and Writing Coach Christine Amsden

Mind Games First Chapters

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Warning:

If you are new to the series, I strongly recommend you check out the first few chapters of book one in the series, Cassie Scot: ParaNormal Detective. This excerpt contains some series spoilers that would seriously undermine your enjoyment of the first two books.You can read them here.

Prologue

Evan Blackwood reached within himself for the magic – vast, untamed, and yet somehow vital – roiling just beneath the surface. It was as much a part of him as the blood coursing through his veins. And tonight it was the only thing that might save his life.

He channeled the untamed energy into an invisible shield a moment before a curse struck with what could only have been deadly intent. The glow of energy meeting energy lit the overcast twilight sky, casting an ominous glow across the door of the rickety shack behind him. The strength of the blow forced some of the shield energy to reverse course, creating a feeling reminiscent of a static electricity shock – except it hit every blood cell at once.

He gritted his teeth against the pain, willing it to pass quickly. Beads of sweat trickled down his forehead. That had been way too close. If his shields had come up a second later…

Focus.

Murmuring the words of the sleep spell he had readied for just such a battle, Evan scanned the line of white pines sloping down the steep hill, looking for his attacker. It was hard to make out anything in the dim light offered by an overcast evening sky, but then he saw something flicker off to his right. He clamped down hard on his instinctive response to lash out at the first sign of danger. This could be a trick. A brief look through his special glasses told him that the flicker of movement had, in fact, been mere illusion.

He maintained both his shield and his sleep spell, wondering how many attackers were out there and what other tricks they knew. His special glasses helped him spot two more illusions, but so far they hadn’t helped him see the truth.

The camera-mounted glasses had been Cassie’s idea, though Evan had never thanked her for the concept. Since magical illusion was a form of mind magic and cameras had no minds, they could see through it.

There. In front and just off to the left. Tying a whisper of energy to his prepared words, he cast the spell in what he hoped was the right direction. Then he held his breath until it hit its target.

The dark figure crumpled to the forest floor with a soft thud. One down. But how many to go?

Evan was getting better at combat magic, but tonight had him fearing he might not be good enough. His pacifist mentor, Henry Wolf, had refused to teach him, leaving him to learn on his own. At least his innate gift of telekinesis was well-suited to confrontation. It gave him an edge he felt no qualms about using. It did not, however, make him anything like invincible.

Most spells took time, preparation, and materials to cast, but with a little advanced preparation he could keep some spells ready to use at a moment’s notice. Shields were a common defensive strategy employed in this way, but Evan had been the one to hit on the idea of using the sleep spell as an offensive technique. Not only was it faster and easier to pull off than the more common stunning or black-out spells, but it carried less risk of permanent damage to the victim should things turn out to have been a simple misunderstanding.

In this case, there was no misunderstanding. The man now sleeping in the woods would have killed Evan with his death curse had Evan not defended himself. He could still feel the residual tingles here and there, though the shock had long-since worn off. He’d rid the woods of a low-life blood mage, and so far he wasn’t even breathing hard.

Don’t get cocky, he chided himself as he continued to scan the woods with both the camera and his own eyes. He still hadn’t gotten through the wards on the shack behind him, which was both good and bad. It meant that despite its shabby appearance, someone wanted to protect this rickety pile of lumber nestled in the Appalachian Foothills. But it also meant the guard now sleeping in the woods undoubtedly had allies of indeterminate number and strength.

Evan tensed, listening for the sounds of anyone else waiting to ambush him the moment he let down his shields. He couldn’t break through the wards with his shields up, making him a perfect target. Not for the first time, he wished he had backup, but Scott Lee refused to leave Eagle Rock at the full moon and Evan refused to let this wait another three nights. Dark sorcerers often carried out blood rituals at the full moon, which meant if he didn’t get inside that shack tonight, someone would die. He only hoped it wouldn’t be him.

Evan had put in a call to the local magical leadership, now unified under Alexander DuPris – an ambitious sorcerer with dreams of uniting the country. But they hadn’t given him anything aside from a vague, “We’ll see what we can do.” So he was on his own.

Taking a deep breath, Evan lowered his shields and turned back to the door hanging slightly off its hinges. To the naked eye, it wouldn’t look like much of a barrier. Even someone experienced with traditional protections would miss the power on this door if they did not also possess a sensitivity to magical energy. There were no plants, herbs, or runes here. There was only raw magical power, bolstered by the blood of the innocent. It was an unhealthy sort of energy, not at all in tune with the natural world.

Something cracked under Evan’s onslaught, a tiny gap in the flow of energy, but he could work with it. He began chipping away until the crack grew deeper and wider, creating a hole in the protection. Almost there. He just needed a few mores seconds…

Suddenly, Evan flew backwards, thrown by the force of an enemy he hadn’t seen or heard until it grabbed him around the neck and yanked him away from the door so hard that his feet momentarily left the ground. He slammed his shield into place, but too late – the attacker had followed him to the ground, landing atop him chest to chest. The man was inside the shield range, using extraordinary strength to pin Evan to the ground.

Evan wasn’t exactly a small man. He was over six foot tall, and he regularly worked his body alongside his magic. Yet this enemy had him immobilized as easily as if he were a small child. He wasn’t a small child, though. He was a full grown man with a powerful gift that he used instinctively whenever he felt fear or anger. It wasn’t something he had to exert effort to do. He scarcely had to think, and the things around him went flying.

Evan could not remember ever feeling so much fear – at least, not for his life. His only thought at that moment was to get his attacker away from him. He thought it with such force, with such raw panic, that his enemy should have gone flying, but instead it thumped a few inches to the side, fighting against Evan’s hold.

That’s when Evan recognized it as a vampire.

It didn’t look any different from a human, except for the feral yellow eyes that only manifested when it hunted. Evan had missed them at first as he’d fought for his life. Other than that, it was just a man – and not even a particularly big one.

“Crap,” Evan muttered, trying to hold it still with his will as he backed away. He knew he couldn’t hold the thing for longer than a few seconds. And he hadn’t prepared himself for a confrontation with a vampire. No crosses. No holy water.

It shouldn’t be here. Vampires didn’t usually get close to a community of sorcerers. And the tiny town of Appalachia was comprised entirely of magic users united under a powerful and, in Evan’s opinion, somewhat dictatorial council. No normals allowed.

Whatever should be didn’t change the truth. There was a vampire. And Evan had about two-and-a-half seconds to think of a way to fight it before it tore his throat out.

The seconds passed. Nothing occurred to Evan. The vampire broke free and lunged at him once again, fangs bared. Evan closed his eyes, wondering if this would be it. The only weapon he had left to him now was the anti-venom potion he had taken as a child. It would keep him from being thralled or turned, but it wouldn’t keep him from dying. Not unless this vampire knew nothing about it and he could pretend, as Cassie had once done, that he was under the vampire’s spell. Enjoying having his blood sucked out.

He shuddered. He might have had an obscene amount of magic at his disposal, but he didn’t think he could play that convincing a game of make believe. And it would kill him.

In that moment of certain death Evan felt regret, almost as sharply as he felt fear. In his mind’s eye he saw dark blue eyes, rich auburn tresses, and a wide mouth that often seemed to smile even when things were going wrong. Cassie would live the rest of her life without understanding why he had left town in such a hurry. He had abandoned her to the belief that he had turned against her, been bribed away from her, or fallen victim to some kind of spell.

It wasn’t true. He had merely been tipped off to the fact that he had wronged her beyond his ability to repay. Or acknowledge, even to himself.

He had been in denial.

The revelation, startling and belated, came to him in lieu of his life flashing before his eyes. He thought he’d left Eagle Rock to think or to find a purpose. Now he knew it was because he hadn’t been ready to tell her. He hadn’t even been willing to admit to himself that somehow, over twenty-one years ago, before either of them were born, the magic that should have been hers had instead gone to him.

He had lived with that magic, with that awesome power, his entire life. He thought he had always used it well. He was still trying to use it well, risking his life to save others from dark sorcerers. It was his, dammit! It hadn’t been his fault – he hadn’t even known – and now the magic was a deeply ingrained part of his self.

None of which seemed as important on the brink of death as the idea that he at least owed her the truth.

Saliva dripped onto the throbbing pulse point in Evan’s neck. He closed his eyes, felt the first touch of the vampire’s fangs, and then…

Something threw the vampire off of Evan with enough force to knock the wind out of both of them.

Gasping, Evan struggled to sit up. He searched for his rescuer but saw only a blur of moving darkness barely distinguishable as two separate beings. One was a vampire. The other… Evan had never seen a vampire hunter in action before, but he knew that one had just saved his life. Only vampires and the hunters who destroyed them could move like that.

Finally, there was a strangled cry and the action ceased. One figure slumped to the ground, a stake protruding from its chest. The other figure, breathing heavily, worked an axe free of his belt to chop off the vampire’s head. The separation of head from body was what truly killed the vampire. Otherwise, there was a chance it could reanimate when the stake was removed from its heart.

Evan let out a breath he hadn’t been aware of holding, struggling to come to grips with a second chance at life after he’d felt the sure knowledge of his own death.

When the victorious vampire hunter completed his messy task, leaving the decapitated corpse where it lay, he turned his gaze to Evan and called him by name.

“Do I know you?” Evan asked.

“No,” he said, “but you know my cousin, Cassie.”

“Jason.” Evan took an unconscious step backwards. Rumor had it that Jason had turned into a vampire. The other hunters were after him in force.

“That’s me.” Jason scanned the area, utilizing what Evan knew were heightened senses of sight and hearing. Evan just didn’t know if Jason’s superior senses came from the hunter in him, or the vampire.

“What are you doing here?” Evan asked, trying not to let suspicion taint his voice. Show no fear was a motto he’d lived by since middle school, and it was more vitally important now than ever before. The fact that Jason had killed a vampire hardly meant he hadn’t turned; vampires killed one another more often than hunters did.

“So far, saving your ass.” Jason flashed Evan a humorless smile that did not reach his eyes. Were they yellow? Evan couldn’t tell in the rapidly deepening twilight, not at this distance. The other vampire’s eyes had practically glowed yellow, but when they weren’t in the grips of bloodlust, a vampire’s eyes reverted to their natural color.

“How did you know to come here?” After a pause Evan added, “I didn’t call your order. Didn’t even know there would be vampires here.”

“My order doesn’t know I’m around, and I’d appreciate it if you didn’t clue them in.”

“I think I owe you at least that much.” Evan rose to his feet, never taking his eyes off the other man.

“I don’t collect debts.” Jason kept scanning the area. “Why don’t you get your thing over with so we can get out of here? I’ll watch your back.”

Evan only hesitated a moment before getting to work. Vampire or no vampire, Jason obviously wasn’t intent on killing him right now. If he were, he’d have done it already, or let the first vampire do it to save himself the trouble. Evan didn’t feel safe, but he did believe he had found a temporary ally.

The hole he had made in the ward energy had largely resealed itself, but now that he had an ally of sorts he could devote more of himself to the task. He didn’t turn his back to Jason, but he did allow himself to relax enough to focus. This time, he was able to cut through the wards in less than a minute.

“We’re in.” Evan pushed open the door. Inside, a sea of illusions tried to convince him he had entered a sort of labyrinth. Wood-paneled corridors led to the left and the right in a way that suggested the shack was bigger on the inside – something Evan didn’t believe was possible. Between his disbelief and the camera-mounted glasses, he easily saw through the illusions that would have led him in a wide circle around their victim, who lay bound and gagged in a shallow hole in the middle of the room.

Rushing forward, Evan untied the young woman and helped her to her feet. She was so filthy that he couldn’t tell if her hair was a dirty blonde or if it was just dirty. She wore only a thin white gown that barely covered her torso, and she had been tattooed with the runes of the ceremony that would likely have been carried out the next night, at the height of the full moon. She had not yet been bled.

“Evan!” Jason called from just outside the door. “Company!”

Evan led the woman out of the shack and ordered her to stay in the shadows while he and Jason confronted the five men emerging from the trees. Two were vampires, their glowing yellow eyes giving away their identities and their intentions. The other three were probably human, but Evan felt a thrum of magic in the air telling him they were armed and dangerous.

He didn’t feel afraid at that moment so much as resolved. Maybe it was the directness of the attack – the fact that he could see what was coming. Or maybe he’d passed some threshold past which the fear couldn’t touch him. Either way, he knew what he had to do.

The two allies shielded themselves. Jason thrust something into Evan’s hands with a whispered order, “Use this to keep the vampires away, but let me handle them.”

Evan felt the familiar shape of the cross. After a startled moment of curiosity about how a suspected vampire could handle a holy relic, he nodded his understanding.

That was all the time they had for a strategy session. The vampires charged. The sorcerers let loose a volley of curses. The night filled with the flashing lights of magic hitting magic.

Evan had never experienced magical combat like this before. The vampires were fast, strong, and practically immune to magic. Jason’s strength and skill equaled theirs, one on one, but there were two of them.

Evan, too, was outnumbered. In his case, three to one. There was power in three.

The sorcerers linked and hurled a spell at Evan that his shield barely managed to absorb. The force of it sent him backwards several steps, and he once again felt the static-like shock. He didn’t let it rattle him, though. Show no fear. Show no weakness. Not now.

He fired back with a sleep spell, but it had no impact on the linked trio. As long as they remained linked, a magical attack wouldn’t work against them. But what if he could arrange a physical attack?

Studying the line of white pine trees, Evan found his target. Felled just right, the giant evergreen would crush all three sorcerers if they didn’t get out of the way. And it wouldn’t even take an ounce of his weakening magical reserves. His gift of telekinesis required nothing but intent, which he used now to pull the massive tree down. It cracked ominously at the base of the trunk where the wood splintered. Then it crashed to the forest floor.

Two of the men leaped away in time.

Evan had never killed anyone before. He felt an odd pang of – not quite regret – but a sense that this moment would change him. He had little time to reflect on the feeling, though. Two sorcerers remained, and if anything they would be more intent upon killing him now.

The men started running in a move that could only be described as a charge. Carefully preparing his sleep spell, Evan aimed it at the nearer of the two men. He might have overcharged it. Without the enhanced power of three, the man fell asleep so abruptly that his forward momentum sent him into a sort of nose dive at the ground. He landed hard and probably not without injury, but Evan spared no sympathy for the fallen attacker. He rearmed himself and sought out his final enemy.

The last man standing seemed to know that Evan had him outclassed and outgunned. He skidded to a halt, then turned on his heels to retreat.

Not this time. These men would pay for what they had done in the past and for what they had tried to do to the young woman still hiding in the shadow of the dilapidated shack. With a cry of bottled up rage, Evan threw the sleep spell at the man’s retreating back. It hit its target in his cowardly backside, sending him sprawling to the ground.

Any last vestiges of fear had gone the moment Evan felled the last human. He felt powerful now. Victorious.

With adrenaline still fueling him, Evan turned his attention to Jason, locked in mortal combat with both vampires. The three were nothing but a blur of motion. Evan wanted to help, but the deadly trio of combatants moved too quickly for Evan to tell them apart, let alone intercede.

One of the blurs suddenly flew away from the other two. Evan thought he recognized Jason, arms flailing wildly as he tried to right himself. Using his gift, Evan slowed Jason’s progress so that the hunter landed softly on his feet. Then, when the vampires charged toward Jason, Evan froze one of them in place. He could only hold the creature for a few seconds with his gift, but if Jason could get moving it might be enough.

Jason didn’t miss a beat. With a stunning display of strength and speed, he thrust a wooden stake into the captured vampire’s chest. Then, with barely a blink, they repeated the exercise with the other vampire. Evan held him for the space of a second or two while Jason thrust a wooden stake directly into its heart.

Everything went eerily silent. For a few minutes both men stood, panting, surveying the aftermath of the battle. Would they face further attack?

The rescued woman apparently didn’t think so. She ran out of the shadows and threw herself around Evan’s neck, trying her best to kiss him. He managed to sidestep her, but barely.

“What are you going to do with them?” Jason nodded to the sleeping sorcerers.

“Call the locals,” Evan said. They would arrange to pick up and hold the survivors until Evan could get in touch with Alexander DuPris, who had put him on the trail of these men in the first place. Evan tried not to think about the dead one. Dead at his hands. It still didn’t seem real.

“Alexander has been looking for these guys for a while,” Evan continued. “I wouldn’t have found them if it hadn’t been for the smallest drop of blood they left behind at their last ritual.”

Jason shuddered. “What do you know about that guy?”

“Alexander?” Evan asked.

Jason nodded.

“Not much,” Evan admitted. “He’s trying to unify the country and put a stop to people like these.”

“Hm,” Jason said. “Well, I’d appreciate it if you don’t mention my involvement tonight to him.”

“Am I supposed to tell anyone I saw you? People are going to wonder how I managed to handle all these sorcerers and vampires on my own. I’d think you’d want me to get the word out that you’re not actually a vampire.”

“What makes you think I’m not?”

Evan tossed the cross back at Jason, who caught it, deftly.

Jason stared at the cross, then he smiled. A real smile this time. “If you tell anyone about this, they’ll think there’s something wrong with you. Not that I’m okay. Trust me, you don’t want to be associated with me. You’re going to hear more rumors about me… some of them may even be true.”

Evan had no idea what to believe, so he said nothing. He would have to sort through all of this later to decide who to trust, and how far.

“So,” Jason said, running a hand casually through his hair, “I don’t suppose you’ve seen Cassie’s friend, Kaitlin, lately?”

Evan paused, trying to figure out how personal he wanted to get. But, he reasoned, Jason had broached the subject. “Yeah, I’ve seen her. I was the one who performed the binding after her baby’s wild magic nearly pulled a building down on top of her and everyone around her.”

Jason flinched. “I figured my aunt and uncle would take care of her.”

“Yeah, now.” Evan tried to feel charitable toward the man who had just saved his life, but the way Jason was abandoning Kaitlin, pregnant with Jason’s baby, made Evan feel unaccountably angry.

“She’s better off not knowing me right now,” Jason said. “Look, be careful who you trust.”

“Why?” Evan asked.

“Jason!” came an unfamiliar masculine voice from the trees.

“Who’s that?” Evan asked, the tension and battle-readiness returning to his body so fast it might never have gone at all.

“One of the reasons Kaitlin’s better off not knowing me.” With that, Jason sped away in a blur of motion too rapid for Evan to follow. For a long time, he just stared after the blur, barely aware of the young woman pressing herself against him in a blatantly seductive manner.

“I’m Evelyn,” the woman said.

“Evan,” he replied, trying his best to sound disinterested in her overt offer. He wasn’t dead, but he really wasn’t interested. Only one woman interested him right now. Cassie.

If there had ever been a chance between them, even in light of what he now knew, he had done a great job of messing it up last month. His only defense, which sounded weaker by the hour, was that she would have hated him if he had told her the whole truth.

She hated him anyway. And his attempts to make up for it by rescuing other women didn’t make him feel any better.

Tell her, his grandmother had urged. She was a seer; if anyone would know, she would, but still he hesitated. Strange that he could rush headlong into battle without blinking an eye, but talking to Cassie made him so nervous. Probably because in the end, she could hurt him worse than any enemy combatant could.

Evan pushed Evelyn away, as gently as he could. “I’m not free.”

For a second he thought she would argue, but she simply nodded and hugged herself.

He fished his cell phone out of his pocket and dialed his local contact number. When he told them what he had done, they agreed to send half a dozen men to help him clean up the mess. Then he called Alexander DuPris’s headquarters in rural Pennsylvania.

“We’ve been trying to take down that group for a year,” the man on the other end of the line said in an excited, squeaky little voice. “How long can you stay? I’m sure Alexander himself would like to talk to you.”

Evan had already been gone for three weeks, and Alexander might keep him occupied for a few weeks more. He wanted to go straight home to talk to Cassie now that he had bolstered up a little nerve. But, he reasoned, if he still had important work to do here then it could wait. Besides, this was his chance to actually meet the renowned Alexander DuPris face to face.

 

1

The only person I hated more than Evan Blackwood, I decided the night he slammed his door in my face, was my father. Or perhaps, I decided a few days later after dismissing the idea that Evan had fallen victim to some sort of spell, the only person I hated more than my father was Evan Blackwood. After all, though misguided, my father had had my best interests at heart when he meddled in our relationship. As for Evan…

Evan…

Hearts literally break. I guess I knew that because the same thing happened when my parents disowned me, but the phrase “broken heart” is unfairly synonymous with the end of a romantic relationship. Trust me, hearts break for many reasons. So my heart had already felt tender from scabbed-over wounds by the time Evan dealt his blow. After the new damage, I didn’t think I would ever be heart whole again.

I railed at my father, demanding time and again to know what he had said or done to Evan to make him leave. Dad flatly denied putting a spell on Evan and called him a coward for not telling me the whole truth. I called him a coward for the same reason but he claimed his hands were tied by some kind of debt.

I knew firsthand how the restrictions of magical debt felt. I had just lived through the experience of having my life and fortune irrevocably tied to another, subject to his every whim. Which didn’t mean I forgave my father for his silence, not when he had clearly said something to Evan to chase him off.

So I hated my father. And I hated Evan. And I hated myself for hating when it didn’t even help. It made things worse. And I knew, deep down, that I could only hate both men so much if in reality, I loved them.

Over the next few weeks everyone shared his or her advice for repairing my broken heart. (The part caused by Evan, not by my parents.) Some said it would take time, while others said I should start dating other men. Kaitlin said I should swear off men entirely as she had done, but I wasn’t the type to irrationally blame an entire gender for the actions of one or two of its members.

While I accepted the well-meaning advice of friends and family, I knew what I needed to repair both parts of my broken heart. I needed closure. I needed the truth. But my father couldn’t talk, and Evan had left town for the summer.

Life doesn’t always supply us with answers but it doesn’t change our need to live it. Truth is often subjective anyway. Time and bitterness eventually made me wonder if I should stop caring about the truth. For a while I did just that. Stopped caring. Right around the time I met a very special man who ended up claiming the tattered remains of my heart: Matthew Blair.

The Blairs and the Scots were what some people might call friends or friendly acquaintances, though I called them allies. The relationship only worked as long as each family needed something from the other. I’ve known friendships that worked the same way, but usually with a warmer regard to mask the underlying truth.

I didn’t really know Matthew, probably because we had never had the need or opportunity. At twenty-six he was five years my senior, so we had not attended school together. Rumor had it that he had also skipped a couple of grades, separating our academic ages even more. I did know that he was a state senator. I had even voted for him in the last election based on family recommendations and his stated beliefs. But my knowledge stopped there.

Then one day he slid into my life almost as if he had been there all along.

It was my fifth week back at the Barry County Sheriff’s Department, a blistery hot August day that had everyone moving too slowly to break the law. Or so it seemed from my excessively dull morning. I had one open murder case, but with no leads I spent the morning on patrol with my partner, Rick, who didn’t like me. Rick, a balding middle-aged man who liked to wear mirrored sunglasses so no one could see his eyes, was one of those who didn’t believe in magic. Either that, or he despised it, I couldn’t be sure which. He seemed to go back and forth from day to day at the flip of a switch. If I could have found the switch I would have toggled it to disbelief over hatred, but nothing I said seemed to make much difference. He was always worst on Mondays and Thursdays because his church’s pastor spent Sundays and Wednesday evenings preaching hellfire and damnation.

That particular Monday morning had been no different. By lunchtime all I wanted was a few minutes away from him, but it’s hard to shake a man when he’s driving. I did, at least, talk him into swinging by Kaitlin’s Diner so I could see a friendly face or two.

Rick was still on some tirade about the heat, possibly trying to blame an August heatwave on sorcery, or perhaps the wrath of God, when I got the oddest sense of foreboding. It was a tingle, one of those things that is easily dismissed in the moment but, in retrospect, makes you think, I had a feeling…

Upon entering the diner my impression of danger strengthened, though it took me a minute to pinpoint the source of the threat. I noticed two things at once: First, Mrs. Meyer’s oddly shifty gaze as she worked the cash register, and second, the nervous expression of the stooped, middle-aged man standing opposite her.

The tinkle of bells startled the man in front of the register more than it should have. He turned slightly, took a good look at Rick and me in our deputy’s uniforms, and let out a cry of alarm. The next thing I knew he held a pistol in his shaking hands. “Don’t move!”

I froze. In that microcosm of time between instants, I gathered that Rick and I had interrupted a robbery and the man probably thought someone had called the cops. There was a sense of desperation about the man that made him seem wild and unpredictable – a dangerous combination, especially for a man holding a deadly weapon.

When time resumed, everyone in the diner began to panic. More than a few people screamed. Dishes fell and broke. Everyone scrambled for cover, most sheltering under tables.

In the midst of the chaos, the man’s shaking hand jerked upward and fired a shot into the ceiling, showering plaster and debris all !over a quaking Mrs. Meyer.

“I said don’t move!” He brought the gun back down and aimed it at me. “Drop your weapon.”

With painstaking slowness, I moved my fingers toward my sidearm. To my right and just behind me Rick stood stock still, not going for his weapon at all.

“Don’t try anything!” the gunman warned. He waved the gun at Rick. “Drop your weapon, I said!”

“It’s okay,” I tried to make my voice sound soothing. “You don’t want to hurt anyone. If you put the gun down, we can work something out.”

My gun was halfway to the floor when Rick suddenly withdrew his weapon and aimed it at the gunman, pairing the two of them off in a good old-fashioned Mexican standoff. “Drop your weapon!” Rick shouted.

For a second, I truly believed I would die. The gunman looked crazy and desperate enough to start shooting at a moment’s provocation. I even thought I saw his finger tighten around the trigger.

The gunman opened his mouth as if to speak, but then something rather odd happened. The only physical signs were his eyes, which took on a sudden vacant expression, and his fingers, which went limp. His gun clattered to the floor.

Not sure what had just happened, but not about to let the opportunity pass me by, I rushed up to the man, kicked the gun away, and twisted his hands behind his back. He didn’t even resist as I forced him to the ground, slapped cuffs on him, and patted him down in search of other weapons.

Rick came up beside me. “You shouldn’t have lowered your weapon. I had it under control.”

I doubted it. I wasn’t sure what had happened, but Rick’s move might have gotten me killed. It wasn’t the right time to discuss it, though, so with one knee on the gunman’s back to make sure he didn’t move, I radioed the station for backup. After that, I scanned the crowd for signs of injury. Everyone seemed fine, if rattled, but one face in a nearby booth caught my attention.

Matthew Blair, state senator, son of the mayor, and powerful mind mage, winked at me. Casually, he unfolded his wallet, slid a couple of bills onto the table, and walked outside. But he left me in no doubt that he had used his talents on the gunman to force him into docility.

On a positive note, Rick left the department that afternoon. I’m not clear if he quit or if the sheriff fired him, but he decided to head up private security for his church. I couldn’t feel too surprised when I’d never had a partner last much longer than a month anyway.

* * *

The last weekend in August, Mom talked me into attending the family’s annual back-to-school picnic even though Dad would be there. I knew Mom felt caught in the middle where we were concerned, and at a time when she and I had only begun to heal our own fractured relationship, but I didn’t know how to change things. She had begun calling me whenever Dad left the house to give me a chance to spend time with her and the kids without him around. I appreciated that, although I knew avoiding Dad couldn’t be a long-term solution.

Which was why I drove to my parents’ private lakefront pavilion that weekend, where my extended family had already amassed for the celebration. Dad and his brother, John, had hamburgers cooking on the grill while Mom guarded the dessert table from tiny fingers. John’s wife, Leslie, spoke animatedly to my mother, while her three teenage children played Frisbee golf with Juliana and Isaac. Dad’s elderly uncle sat with his son and son-in-law, playing a card game, while his daughter and daughter-in-law filled balloons with water and stored them in an ice chest. They had five children between them, from two to nine, adding to the cacophony. When the whole family got together, a state of advanced chaos joined in, so it was a while before I noticed the new additions to the group.

Grace Blair managed to look regal even seated on the wooden plank bench of a picnic table. The white-haired seer had predicted that:

Beware your heart and soul, for before he is done, Evan will have broken them both.

I had stubbornly refused to believe it at the time. Now I believed, but did not understand, particularly when it came to the part about Evan breaking my soul.

Grace’s daughter-in-law, Caroline, sat across from her, daintily nibbling on a carrot stick. James Blair, the town mayor, stood next to the grill with my father, sipping a Coke. His two sons, Robert and Matthew, sat with my brother, Nicolas, who looked less than thrilled with the seating arrangements. He had an odd, strained expression on his face, as if he were deep in concentration. Or perhaps in the middle of casting a spell.

Even though my parents had dealings with the Blairs, their presence at a private family outing baffled me. My parents made frequent campaign contributions that they traded for favors, but they typically mingled at campaign fund raisers or town hall meetings, not at family picnics.

Among other things, the Blairs weren’t “out” as sorcerers. They had done a better job than any other family I knew at hiding their magical identity, possibly because mind magic allowed them to make slight alterations of memory to anyone who found out. My immediate family knew, but only because it suited the Blairs for us to know and because we held the information as a closely guarded secret.

The extended family, on the other hand, did not know. At least, I didn’t think they knew. Almost all had magical talent in abundance, but they lived quieter, subtler lives than my parents, and did not have access to the sort of money we had. Dad had never told me how he’d learned alchemy, but the knowledge hadn’t come from his family and he didn’t share it with them, even if he did share some of the monetary results. I sometimes got the impression that Dad’s brother, John, resented him for it. John flatly refused to take money from Dad, but they always got along well enough.

The next few minutes were full of hugs and greetings, during which time Adam sneaked at least two cookies. Since he passed one to me I decided not to rat him out.

“Cassandra,” my father said, leading me away from the family and steering me toward our unusual guests. “You remember James Blair, his wife, Caroline, his mother, Grace, and his sons, Matthew and Robert?”

I nodded to each in turn, my gaze lingering on Matthew as I remembered the assistance he’d provided a few weeks earlier. I have to admit that I had never really thought of him as an individual until that day, only a part of the nebulous whole that was the Blair family. Everything I knew about him was a product of what I knew about them – that they were mind mages, secretive, and political.

Looking at him now with fresh eyes, I wondered what else lay beneath the mysterious surface. He looked a lot like his father, not all that tall but powerfully built, with sandy hair and green-gray eyes. His face wasn’t precisely handsome, but it had a certain charm that could become more appealing with time. He smiled at me, the expression transforming his face, and I suddenly wondered if he had caught me staring.

Turning my head quickly away I acknowledged my father’s earlier question with a slight nod, but refrained from asking the question burning through my mind: Why are they here?
“I hope you don’t mind the intrusion,” Matthew said as if he could read my mind. “We heard some rumors yesterday that troubled us, and we wanted to talk to your father about them. Didn’t realize you had a get-together today.”

“I told you it was no problem,” Dad insisted, though his agitated tone belied the words. “There’s always too much food anyway. I invited them to join us.”

“What kind of rumors?” I asked.

The Blairs hesitated, looking around at the gathered horde. They were probably making sure no one could overhear. With all the noise I didn’t think they needed to worry. After a minute, James nodded, as if satisfied.

“A guy named Alexander DuPris has men in the area,” Dad said, picking up the thread of the conversation. “He’s trying to round up all the practitioners for a magical conclave in two weeks.”

I’d heard that name before in connection with a nationwide magical unification effort. Evan had been more than a little interested in the idea, which, just at that moment didn’t endear me to it.

“This guy’s dangerous,” James said. “He’s got alliances with local councils in cities across the country and I’m told he has one of the strongest gifts of charisma anyone’s ever seen.”

“So does my six-year-old,” my father said dismissively. “I’ve learned to say no, and I bet you could fend it off even better.”

James shook his head. “Don’t underestimate this guy. He’s left the rural areas alone so far, but we’re just about all that’s left now. He even got Little Rock on board, and from what I’m told, they went to him.”

Shock lit up Dad’s face. “Little Rock? I’ve never run into a bunch of practitioners who hate outsiders more.”

“Exactly.”

“When did this happen?”

“Little Rock? Last month. Mostly, he’s gotten the bigger cities, but the idea is spreading whether or not we pay attention to it.”

Dad shook his head. “He’ll have a lot more trouble here.”

“Wait a second,” I said. “What is he doing, exactly?”

The four men stared at me as if I’d intruded into some kind of secret all-male society. Dad had never been comfortable talking to me about magical politics. Since he didn’t have a problem discussing them with Nicolas, I couldn’t be sure if his attitude was sexist or magically elitist. I suspected the latter.

Matthew finally answered my question. “He seems to be trying to create a shadow government within the United States to govern magic users. At the moment, he has a loose alliance of local councils, but he wants to create a national backbone that includes an executive, legislative, and judicial branch.”

It didn’t sound all that terrible to me but as a semi-outsider, I didn’t feel comfortable saying what I really thought: That these men simply wanted to continue being able to do anything they wanted without someone breathing down their necks or telling them what to do. James and my father were proud men who had created their own personal codes of ethics that ruled their lives. In their cases I thought it basically worked, but not all men subscribed to a code of ethics. I didn’t see the harm in everyone getting together and setting some standards… then enforcing them.

“There isn’t any harm in making rules and enforcing them,” Matthew went on, once again leaving me with the odd feeling that he could read my mind. “We just think those rules need to be established at a local level. The first Blairs moved to Eagle Rock in the mid-1800s to escape some pretty tyrannical elders who had control over most of Virginia at the time. A century before that, the family fled from the governing council that still controls the United Kingdom, and now most of Europe.”

“So basically, there’s nowhere left to run?”

“Cassandra!” Dad said. “That is no way to talk to our mayor and senator.”

“It’s all right,” Matthew said, the ghost of a smile playing at the corner of his lips. “She may even have a point, although it doesn’t change the fact that I think we should enforce laws at the local level to help protect our independence and anonymity.”

“Anonymity?” I arched an eyebrow.

“Independence,” Matthew said. “You’re free to cast spells in the streets, and we’re free to remain safely anonymous.”

“And of course, if there were a local ruling council, you’d be free not to let them know you existed so you could keep doing whatever you wanted? And if they ever did find out about you, you could run away again.”

“Cassandra Scot!” Dad said, his face turning red. “Watch who you’re talking to.”

I knew what he meant, but I didn’t care. My face, too, had reddened, and I let all the Blairs know what I thought of their independence and anonymity. “Yes, I’m talking to people who could hurt me badly if it weren’t for my family standing behind me. Good thing I have that luxury.” For now, I added silently. Ever since the disownment spell, I couldn’t trust them entirely.

The Blairs stared at me, James’s expression passive and Matthew’s a bit wide-eyed, but it was the younger brother, Robert, who grew angry. “We don’t go around hurting people, or threatening people, or cursing people. Do you have any idea how many people we’ve helped?”

I had no idea, which made me feel somewhat ashamed, but I didn’t back down.

“Calm down, Robert,” Matthew said. “She’s entitled to her opinion.”

It was true and yet Matthew’s calm statement made me feel more ashamed than Robert’s hostility. Truthfully, I didn’t have an opinion, only grievances, and I certainly didn’t know enough about the Blairs to lay those grievances at their feet.

“I’m going to go help Mom,” I said.

Mom already had more help than she could use since Caroline Blair was dishing out plates of food for the young children, so I wandered into the nearby trees to give myself a chance to cool down.

Maybe I wasn’t being fair to the Blairs, especially Matthew. The man had helped me with a gunman and otherwise been nothing but polite to me. The trouble was I had evil sorcerers on my mind all the time now, and had ever since David McClellan had been murdered.

If anyone deserved to be murdered, David did. The man had made a living from selling dark and cursed objects. Including some, I suspected, which contained trapped human souls. Evan even suspected him of doing some of the trapping. Yet for years he had thrived in our community. Now that he was dead I was supposed to find and arrest whoever had done it. I’d have been more inclined to hand the person a medal, but the McClellans and their allies expected answers.

Would Alexander DuPris’s unifying efforts stop men like David? Or would those allies end up corrupting the power structure?

“Hey.”

I jumped, then spun. Matthew Blair, full of power and grace, strode toward me from the picnic area, thankfully alone.

“What are you doing here?” I asked.

He smiled, and I found my eyes drawn to his mouth. “You seemed upset.”

“Oh, it’s nothing that hasn’t been bothering me for the last 21 years.” I smiled and shrugged.

When Matthew took another step closer to me, I took a subconscious step back. A sign of weakness, I knew, but Matthew was an unknown quantity. And he made me nervous. I mean, the guy was a mind mage, capable of altering people’s thoughts, feelings, and memories. What might he do to me without my even knowing it had been done? At least with other practitioners I could see or feel whatever they might throw at me.

“You don’t like me, do you?” Matthew asked.

“I don’t know you,” I countered.

“Very diplomatic.” He smiled, sending an odd, shivery sensation running down my spine. “So why don’t we get to know one another? Ask me anything.”

“Can you read minds?” The question bypassed my brain and went straight to my mouth. You don’t ask sorcerers about their powers. It just isn’t done. When I realized what I’d said, I clapped a hand over my mouth and started to apologize.

Before I could, he held up a staying hand. He nodded, once, very slightly.

“You can?” The admission stunned me, since I doubted anyone outside his family would know. Though I supposed if he thought I might use the knowledge against him, he could always erase it later. But it didn’t explain why he had told me in the first place.

“I thought being honest with you might help us become friends,” Matthew said.

In this case, I didn’t think the truth would help him much. How could I be friends with someone who could read my every thought?

Matthew’s face fell. “I understand. It’s why I don’t tell many people. But it’s not like it’s something I can help.”

I hadn’t meant to hurt him. As a rule, I hated hurting people. Wincing, I wondered what I could do to make him feel better, especially when he could read the truth in my mind – that I really didn’t think we could be friends. Words, I could control. Thoughts were something else entirely.

“Can’t you block it out?” I asked, finally.

He shook his head. “I think of it as hearing thoughts rather than reading minds. When you say you can read minds, it leaves the impression that you can close your eyes and stop seeing the thoughts. For me it’s is a lot more like trying not to hear a loud noise, especially when someone broadcasts her thoughts as loudly as you do.”

My cheeks went a little pink. What did he know about me just from listening to me think? Anything was possible. I sometimes lived a bit of a fantasy life in my own head and lately, most of my thoughts had been about Evan.

“Why do you want to be friends with me, anyway?” A possible answer flickered through my mind, too quickly to examine, leaving me with the odd impression that I was forgetting something. I didn’t usually forget things. Matthew was a mind mage and self-acknowledged telepath so…

Of course if Matthew posed any actual danger to me, my parents would intervene. Prejudice could cause wariness more easily than anything else, so wasn’t it more likely that, having braced myself for a mental whammy, I had imagined him giving me one?

Matthew took my hand in his. The simple gesture drew me back to the present, warming my skin where we touched. It didn’t feel anything like Evan’s heated caresses, which always carried in my mind the expectation of his erotic kiss. But it made my skin tingle and my heartbeat quicken.

“I want to be friends with you because you’re a very interesting and attractive woman.”

My breath caught, my first instinct to refute the compliment. I was no great beauty, though I supposed I might be attractive enough. I had been more attractive when I’d had access to my mother’s amazing hygiene potions.

“Don’t put yourself down,” Matthew said.

I looked away but left my hand where it was, enjoying the warmth of his touch. I hadn’t realized how much I had been craving basic human contact over the past couple of months.

“Now may not be the best time,” I said. “You probably know that I’m still not over Evan.”

“I do know. He doesn’t deserve you.”

“Or want me,” I said bitterly.

“I can help you forget him,” Matthew said.

For a moment I thought he meant with magic, and I drew my hand back in alarm.

“No, not with magic.” Matthew leaned casually against a nearby tree. “I could, of course, but you never learn anything if you just forget everything that causes you pain.”

“Oh.”

“I was thinking in a more traditional way. We could start with a ride on my boat tomorrow, just the two of us, and see where things go from there.”

His eyes held mine, and though a part of me still felt uneasy, I couldn’t think of a single reason to refuse. A handsome, powerful, charming man wanted to spend time with me. It might not go anywhere; he might decide he needed a more powerful woman than me by his side, or I might decide I couldn’t handle his politics. He might break my heart again, but it was already in pieces. Besides, how could I repair it until I started to live, love, and risk again?

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