Curious about how to charm a killer? To honour Autumn Equinox, here is the prologue and first couple of scenes from To Charm a Killer—the book where it all began. I read one scene aloud last Thursday evening at Western Sky Books. Most of the audience were local and well-acquainted with Buntzen Lake, the forest where the witches of Hollystone Coven hold their Sabbat rituals. It was timely as we were on the cusp of Equinox.
Just be warned: this story contains scenes of a sexual nature and is intended for an adult audience.In the piece that follows, the witches celebrate Equinox, Dr. Sylvia Black tells the story of Mabon, and one of the witches spins a charm to catch a killer that turns everything upside-down.
But first we meet our hero, Estrada, and his best friend, Michael Stryker at Club Pegasus…
Prologue: Told Through the Eyes of the Killer
I came to the club that night to meet a witch named Jade, but left wanting something else—something I’d never known or wanted before.
Jade arrived at midnight, her long dark hair flying wild about her face, and I flashed the sign—the blood red pentacle etched on my forearm. It was Friday and the club was packed, but she acknowledged me, appraising me as a woman might a potential purchase. I didn’t like it—no man likes teetering on the edge of rejection, whatever his agenda—but endured it. Satisfied, she moistened her scarlet lips and grinned, then shimmied wide-eyed into the fray, bedazzled—as I knew she would be—by the power of the gothic nightclub, the blazing constellations in the darkling canopy, and the musky sweat of gyrating dancers.
Squeezing in at the bar like a shiny black beetle, she ordered a shot. Bodies swayed, inhaling her pheromones. I’d chosen well on both counts. Club Pegasus, tucked into a trendy notch of Vancouver, was a voyeur’s paradise. And Jade, in leather to her thighs and little else, drew their gaze. It must be primal instinct that drives humans yearning for unholy exploits, to swathe their bodies in the skins of animals.
When a server in fishnet sashayed by, I touched her arm and discretely ordered another non-alcoholic drink. Glancing back, I watched Jade swivel on the stool like a child on a carnival ride. I wondered how long she would play this game—thinking she was making me wait for her. Naïve and narcissistic, she was perfect.
Then, Michael Stryker floated by in a shadowy sea of silk and set my mind adrift. The legendary Stryker—self-christened Mandragora—was reputed to host orgies that could rival Caligula, and be tied to organized crime through his grandfather, who was the real money behind the club. Angular and tantalizing, with a libertine charm, Stryker’s straight honey-blond hair was parted in the centre and fell below his shoulders—a fitting frame for the hollow cheeks, painted lips, and black-lined eyes. He wore the look of a bygone era and he wore it well. When in full vampire persona, as he was tonight, he wore fangs and red contacts. Too bad he was a fraud. A man like that—
“Do you think he’s hot?” A pale ginger punk interrupted my thoughts. Balancing a martini glass between his freckled fingers, he hovered over me. “He thinks he’s the reincarnation of Lord Byron. I think he’s an ass.”
“Who gives a fuck what you think?”
“No need for brutality.”
“Beat it,” I said, and turned my back to him. I wanted no memorable moments this night, no tags, and no complications.
Sensing the punk’s disappearance, I glanced back to see Stryker sweep Jade’s hair to one side and flash his fake fangs across her neck. Startled by his crimson contacts, she flinched. To pacify her, he brushed her lips with the tip of his index finger, and when she acquiesced, slid it into her mouth.
Bitch.I had not spent hours chatting her up on the Wicca site only to lose her to him. I considered charging over to the bar to remind her why she had come to this club and who had given her the password. But I couldn’t do that. I could, however, take advantage of this scenario.
After turning Jade to face the dance floor, Stryker pressed in close behind her—one hand curled around her neck, while the other played her belly like a cello. Discerning his discrete cue, a slave-boy appeared with a tray of cherry-red shots that Stryker, it was rumoured, called blood clots and randomly laced with ecstasy. They each took one, clinked glasses, and downed the potion.
Feeling my eyes on her, she smiled coyly. “Come here,” she mouthed, cocking her head. While I considered this invitation and where it might lead, Stryker led her to the heart of the throbbing room.
I was about to intervene, when an intruder wearing sweats and a ball cap appeared. Running straight for Jade, his threat reverberated over the beats. “I’ll kill you, bitch.”
A bouncer jumped him, but spiking on adrenaline, the man shook himself free. Then a second bouncer appeared, hooked his arm around his neck and squeezed. The body crumpled and hit the floor. As they dragged it out by the armpits, the crowd cheered like Romans.
Stryker crushed Jade’s face into his shoulder and stroked her hair. Was she crying? Telling secrets? Apologizing? She claimed to be single and available. Was that a lie? I hated that women were liars.
Then, a sudden flash of fire from the stage illuminated him.The magician, in tuxedo and burgundy silk cape, hovered between two flaming torches. His raven hair, slicked back in a French braid, hung halfway down his back. Chiselled cheekbones and charcoaled eyes, his mouth was thick and perfect, his lips heart-shaped. Leaping off the stage, the magician landed in a fiery flourish and bowed to the applause. Then cruised the dance floor, laughing, and tossing flames from hand to hand as effortlessly as apples.
I knew his face. His photograph graced the glassed marquee outside the entrance. Though stunning, it had never affected me like seeing him did now, in the flesh.
I said his name. “Estrada.”
He turned, and our eyes met through a sea of bodies. When he walked toward me, I spilled my drink. Tried to turn away, and couldn’t.
It was Stryker who broke the spell. Sliding his hand under the magician’s cape, he clutched his hip and drew him in. Clinging to the vampire’s arm, Jade watched the fire swirl around her, until at last, Estrada tossed it high into the air and it vanished. As the music intensified, the crowd swarmed, and amidst the sweating bodies, I lost sight of them.
Slipping out past the gate into the September street, I found the broken jock, still unconscious and slouched against the brick wall beneath the magician’s marquee.
I stood staring at the image. It could have been a cover shot for GQ. Posing in a white tuxedo with tails, a burgundy orchid in the lapel, his loose hair caught the wind and flew back in a mass of waves. The deep brown irises of his kohl-edged eyes had been photoshopped to a piercing gold, and in a strange language those perfect lips uttered a private invitation.
“Estrada,” I whispered. “I accept.” What else could I do?
Nothing is But What is Not
Estrada took a deep breath and winked at Sensara, who stood staring at him from across the path. “It smells primal in here,” he said. “Kinda turns me on.”
“A dust bunny turns you on.” With no makeup and her sleek black hair caught up in a high ponytail, she looked about sixteen, though she was a decade beyond that.
“I’m serious, Sara. This forest reeks of life, especially after the September rains. Can’t you smell it?” Estrada loved the primordial odour of wet earth, imagined his beginnings in the first fecund ooze—a microscopic amoebic creature, not yet conscious of the magical transformation that would one day occur.
“You reek of life.” She rolled her dark almond eyes and shot him a look he didn’t comprehend. They were best friends, yet Sensara put up such a front, he could rarely read her—something he considered unfair given her psychic prowess. The high priestess of Hollystone Coven, Sensara Narato’s reputation was legendary in New Age circles. The police even employed her occasionally, despite her connection to Wicca—something that irked him, as he neither liked nor trusted cops. “No, wait—” She sniffed the air like a rabbit. “It’s not life, it’s cinnamon.”
“But cinnamon is life. Who can live without it? It’s as essential as fire, earth, air, and water.”
“Ah, of course. Cinnamon. The fifth element.”
Sensing her sudden shiver, he offered his jacket. “Catch a chill when you were out last night with Bud?”
“His name is Bert.”
“Right, Bert. The accountant.”
The punch to his arm was so swift, Estrada lost his balance. Teetering, he caught himself before his heavy backpack dragged him down. They were on their way to celebrate the Autumn Equinox with the others, and it was loaded with squash, apples, and bottles of wine. When he righted himself and stopped laughing, he found her standing in front of him with her hands on her hips—a raging anime heroine.
“Bertram Bellows is a motivational speaker. People pay two-fifty a day to attend his workshops and he packs them in. He’s not throwing fireballs around some sleazy nightclub downtown.”
With pursed lips, Estrada cocked his head and considered this last insult. He was not sure what she detested more—his gig as a magician in a Vancouver goth club or his relationship with the manager. He suspected the latter.
“Have you slept with him yet?” he asked.
“That’s none of your business.”
“Old Bert can’t be too motivating if you’ve been going out with him for two months and he still ain’t got you naked.”
“We’re building a spiritual relationship.”
“So are we, but I ‘d get you naked in a minute, if you’d let me.”
For a moment, neither of them moved, and then he winked, and she flung her latté.
“Jesus, Sara.” He ripped off his scarf and wiped his face and hair. Luckily, most of it had missed his leather jacket. “If the mention of sex makes you crazy, you need a good—”
“That’s not it.” Another shiver. She rubbed the goose bumps on her arm. “I don’t know what it is.”
If only she would trust him. Unable to bear seeing her look so defeated, he knelt before her. Then, with a flick of his left wrist, he produced a perfect pink buttonhole rose. “I apologize for my crude intrusion into your private life, and I mean that Sensara.”
“Yeah, yeah, Sir Lancelot.” She tucked the rose behind her ear and smiled. “We should go. They’ll be waiting.”
Mesmerized by the forest, for a while Estrada walked in silence. There was no death in this Pacific woodland, only transformation as the dying nourished the living. Miniature ferns sprouted from crooks and hollows of disjointed upper limbs. Mushroom colonies hovered in crevasses, their thin stalks twisting like snakes as they competed for space, their rusty caps perfect circles.
Cocking his head like a raven, he flung back the long dark locks that tumbled across his eyes. “I love these shaggy tree folks.” He touched the soft hairy mosses that draped in fractured folds from the decaying limbs. Hearing no objection, he rambled on. “This forest could be Fanghorn. Maybe we could conjure up our own Treebeard. Befriend an Ent. Can you imagine all these trees ripping up their roots and marching off like Birnam Wood to Dunsinane, only true Canadian pines, rustling and dragging their—”
Sensara gasped and hugged her chest.
“What?” he whispered.
“Shiver? That’s three. What is it?”
“I don’t know, but I feel sick. Something’s wrong.”
Grounding himself, Estrada shot imaginary roots from the soles of his feet deep into the earth’s crust. If there was one thing he trusted, it was Sensara’s radar. “We’re almost there. Come on. We’ll cast the circle.”
At the signal tree, they veered off a grass-flecked game trail between massive ferns. Buntzen Lake simmered below, a smoky emerald in the growing dusk. Ancient granite mountains encircled the water, their snow-tipped spires still harbouring scattered traces of last winter’s storms. Pine spikes jutted like slivers from the distant peaks, split only by immense mottled rock that gaped through the trees—faces of mountain spirits and Old World giants.
When she shivered again, the energy shot through the air and up his arm like a jolt of lightning. “Jesus. I felt that.”
“Something’s coming, Estrada. I don’t know what it is or how to stop it—but unless we do, people will die.”Estrada rolled his eyes as he and Sensara entered the clearing. “Oh, here we go.” After silencing him with a backhand to the gut, she stepped in front.
Jeremy Jones was hunkered down with his back to one of the thick grey hemlocks with a garish, and undoubtedly original, silver sequined dragon bag lodged in his lap. He’d etched a circle around himself in the dirt with the jewelled athame he clutched in his left hand, and was smoking a cigarette with enough intensity to power a train.
“Finally,” he said. Relief trickled off him in dull ripples. “Did you see that sign back there? Bears and cougars live in these woods. It’s dated September 20. That’s yesterday. I could have been killed.”
“Did you sing?” taunted Estrada.
“Yeah, you’re supposed to sing or shake bells to frighten the scary forest creatures.” He relished playing with Jones, found it energizing, like a wolf on a rat.
“Funny, Houdini. You weren’t sitting here alone listening to branches crack. And these bloody crows! They’re the size of flamingos.” The birds croaked and garbled overhead, enticed by his metallic haze. He was lucky they hadn’t carried him off.
“They’re ravens,” said Sensara, ignoring the nasty reprisal Jones shot her way. “The indigenous people of this coast revere them.”
“Yeah, I’ve seen the art. But did you know that cultures revere that which they most fear? Like the volcano gods?” Sensara rolled her eyes and bit her lip. She was a woman who picked her battles. Hearing no reply, he crushed his cigarette out in the dirt and stood up. “Whatever they are, they’re ugly and annoying. I wish they would just go away.”
She cast a silencing glance at Estrada. Was in no mood for shenanigans. “Pick up that butt,” she said. Sensara hated cigarettes. Especially hated that two members of her coven smoked.
Although she was trying to keep the peace, Estrada knew that she had her own issues with Jeremy Jones. They hadn’t known him long and he’d just come off, what she termed, Wicca probation. He recalled how they had discussed Jones at length one evening over a bottle of Shiraz.
Sensara believed Jeremy was a catalyst who provoked contrasting situations to trigger others into personal realizations. However painful or irritating that seemed, people like him were necessary to stimulate growth and change. According to her, the world needed people like Jeremy. She admitted her own issues of trust and tolerance escalated in his presence, but that was because she had work to do. Estrada had listened intently as Sensara revealed personal information that rarely made it past her protective shield, learning more about her that night than in five years of friendship.
Estrada believed the world needed Shiraz more than people like Jones.
If it was up to him, the man would be gone. But it wasn’t. Hollystone Coven was Sensara’s creation, so she made the rules. It was a microcosm of the world, in that no one who belonged was like anyone else. The small Wiccan group was strong in its diversity. People brought unique passions and skills, along with idiosyncrasies and conflict.
When she finally wound down that night, Estrada confessed. “I know it will stunt my spiritual growth, but I want to smack him just once.” She laughed and shook her head. She thought he was joking, but he meant it. It was his respect for her that stopped him. That, and his admiration for the self-made entrepreneur. He knew what it was like to create something from nothing, and Jones was an exceptional designer. Specializing in medieval clothing and ritual tools, he’d made a fortune through Regalia, his online shop, designing costumes and paraphernalia for film and theatre companies around the world. He’d even created two of the costumes Estrada wore when he performed his magic act at Club Pegasus. Jones frequented the club and liked to point that out to people.
Estrada broke the awkward silence. “You do recall we are a coven of nature-revering witches intent on saving the planet in its entirety? Not just the cute and cuddly creatures.” He produced an apple from his pocket, in the conventional way, and took a bite. “That’s why we choose these remote natural locales for our ceremonies.”
Jeremy rolled his eyes and mouthed the syllables, blah blah blah.
Estrada continued, encouraged by the man’s irritation. “Our aim is to connect with the forest creatures in a positive way. Especially the elementals.”
As they were all aware, Estrada dreamt of seeing faeries. He believed in their existence, had read a great deal about them, and tried several methods to see them. One woman named Dora Van Gelder wrote of opening the pituitary gland to enable a different kind of seeing. Situated in the centre of the forehead, it was known in many cultures as the third eye. According to Van Gelder, this third eye could sense the subtle vibrations of faeries and make them visible.
It hadn’t worked. Nor had countless hallucinogens, or sleeping in the woods under the full moon, or doing both simultaneously—though perhaps that accounted for his passionate earthy connection.
“Oh I know, Merlin. If the faeries appear, I’ll send them your way.”
“Keep your faeries, Jones. I do fine on my own.”
“Yeah. Well, so do I.” Jones lifted his robe and tucked the butt into the pocket of his jeans. “And I did feel something watching me. I’m not crazy…just a city kid that feels, you know, vulnerable, way out here.”
“Maybe you’re right,” Sensara said, as another shiver spun through her body. Most of them were city kids and wild places like Buntzen Lake were well out of their comfort zone.
“Oh great. The priestess has confirmed my fears.”
“Blesséd Mabon!” said Daphne. She stormed into the glade, followed by Dylan and Sylvia. All three were loaded down with supplies.
“Blesséd Mabon,” they echoed.
Dropping her backpack, Daphne crossed her arms over her chest to curb the jagged ginger waves that emanated from her upper body. “Have you heard? Another woman disappeared in Vancouver. Raine called just as we were leaving.”
Estrada hoped to calm her down. “Women disappear all the time, for all kinds of reasons.”
“This is the third this year,” said Sylvia. They’d obviously been discussing the news as they walked. “The first disappeared just before Yule last December. The second, just before Beltane at the end of April. Now, here’s the third, gone just before Mabon. It’s perplexing.” As she struck a match to light her cigarette, anxiety spread like silt over the glade.
Sensara lit a bundle of dried sage. After smudging herself, she walked among them, fanning and offering the aromatic herb, cleansing the negative energy with the comfort of familiarity.
“I hope the police do a better job than they did with the Downtown Eastside women,” said Daphne. Her girlfriend, Raine, had loved a woman who disappeared and turned up later on the list. The mention of that horrific tragedy sickened them all. “It happened right over there.” She gestured east, toward the degraded pig farm where the DNA, and other horrific evidence of several missing women had been appropriated by forensic experts. Convicted on six counts of second degree murder, another twenty never made it to the courtroom and hovered in the air like vengeful ghosts. No one uttered his name. It was too fresh and too close, mere minutes away through the clouds.
“Jesus,” said Jeremy. “Way to wreck the mood.”
“That happened years ago, Daphne,” said Sensara. “Things have changed with all the publicity, the trial, and the missing women’s task force.”
“Besides, those women were whores and drug addicts,” said Jeremy.
Estrada snarled, and Sensara clutched his arm.
“They were women,” declared Daphne.
“Yes,” said Sylvia, “and these women are witches.”Estrada smiled as he watched Dylan drop a gourd, dust it off and hand it to Sylvia, who placed it on the altar. It was his first Mabon ceremony and he was nervous, his innocence enviable.
Perhaps because he couldn’t ever remember feeling innocent himself, Estrada was drawn to the shy kid with the Trainspottingaccent. Over the summer, they’d gone hiking and shared stories. Both he and Dylan had been fatherless boys, whose crossing of miles and cultures had led to discoveries about the complexity of the world and themselves.
Dylan was obsessed with stone lore. His grandfather introduced him to megaliths in Scotland when he was ten and sent there by his sluttish mother (his adjective). He carried their photographs in his wallet like they were his family. Magnificent stones carved with cup and ring marks. Some, set in circles five thousand years ago, the work of prehistoric artisans. Dylan’s grandfather lived near a place called Kilmartin Glen—a cemetery rife with the spirits of ancient clansmen and their kin. It was there that the medieval grave slabs and burial cists first spoke to him. Estrada asked him what they said.
“It’s hard to explain. Sometimes it’s just feelings and images. Other times I hear voices.”
Estrada had heard of stone mages and believed he had much to learn from the boy who devoted his life to communing with stones.
When it was time to begin, they stood and admired the altar against the backdrop of the misty forest. Draped with a dazzling saffron scarf courtesy of Jones, yellow candles burned to signify the sun that would dissipate in the coming months. A cornucopia of freshly harvested produce—hazel nuts and pinecones, crazy knobby gourds, striped squashes, Indian corn, fat apples, and juicy grapes collected from the local farmers’ market—was strewn about the altar. Incense smoked on the brazier and spread into the dusky sky. After the ceremony, all would be donated to the local food bank. That was the coven’s way of giving back to the community.
They took their positions and Sensara cast the circle to claim their sacred space. Three times, she walked clockwise around the outside, chanting, while pointing her crystal-tipped wand and chanting,
“I conjure this circle as sacred space.
I conjure containment within this place.
Thrice do I conjure the Sacred Divine.
Powerful goodness and mystery mine.
From East to West and from South to North.
I cast this circle and call Magic forth.”
After returning to her place at the altar, Sensara said, “We will now call the spirits of the four directions into our circle.”
Having acted as her high priest for three years, Estrada understood it was a position of trust which legitimized him in the eyes of the coven. Though he was known as a player around town, mostly because of his liaison with Michael Stryker, he had never crossed boundaries within the sanctity of the coven. Not that it had ever come up. Jones frequented the club, but the others respected his right to privacy, as he respected theirs.
For this ceremony, each of them had created an invocation to call in the spirit of the direction they represented.
Dr. Sylvia Black, a professor of Celtic mythology, stood in the East, the place of intellect. She placed her glass jar with its flaming yellow candle on the ground. Then she stood facing out and drew an invoking pentacle with her athame as she spoke. “Powers of the East, of wind and air, of thought and breath, I invite you into this sacred circle. Aid and protect us with light and love.”
Jones followed. Swirling his bright orange cape, he mimicked the fire he invoked. “Powers of the South. Force, passion, and heat, enliven our spirits with power and magic. Hail Fire Spirits of the South!” His candle exploded in a flash of smoke and fire. He’d obviously sprinkled a pinch of magician’s flash powder on the flame again.
Estrada rolled his eyes and wanted to smack him. He hated the way Jones used parlour tricks like pyrotechnics, and reamed him out regularly for cheapening the rituals with dramatic bullshit. “Harry Potter,” he muttered. But, Jones ignored him, too caught up in his own spectacle to notice. A subtle act of revenge for this afternoon’s mockery? Perhaps. After the stench cleared, the ritual continued.
Dylan was to call the Spirits of the West. His violet candle glittered in a cobalt-blue jar. Estrada watched the kid’s hand tremble as he set the candle down on the ground and the earth lit up in its circumference. As Dylan etched the invoking pentacle with his willow wand, its silvery threads conjoined like sparklers. Estrada felt his anxiety and sent him a visual wave of peace. Flowing across his sapphire robe in lilac shimmers, a sense of calm enveloped him, and the invoking words flowed from his lips.
“Powers of the West, please hear my refrain.
Powers of water, of ocean, of rain.
Powers of dreamtime, of pleasure and pain.
Join in this circle and with us remain.”
Dylan glanced at Sylvia and caught her subtle smile. He’d obviously sweated to create a quatrain of rhyming iambic pentameter that conveyed the essence of his element. A witch took time and pleasure in creating ritual pieces, especially words, as they held such power.
At last, it was Daphne’s turn. She was the quintessential earth goddess, so it was fitting that she would invoke the Powers of the North using her brown candle. A landscaper by trade, her hands were dry and etched with dirt from long hours spent digging and planting, tending and beautifying the gardens of the planet.
“I call the Ancient Earth Powers, spirits of fertility and all creation, spirits of mountains, valleys and plains, of rich soil, cracked rock, and desert sands. Be with us in this time of equal day and night. I welcome you into our circle of light.”
Sensara nodded. “Our circle is cast. We are between the worlds.”
Like ancients, they settled cross-legged on the ground. Language and symbols transported them to places unreachable in the mundane world. That was what drew Estrada to Wicca and kept him enthralled. That, and the power they created.
“Tonight we celebrate the Sabbat of Mabon,” said Sensara. “The Autumn Equinox. This is the second of only two days in the year when light and dark is in perfect balance. Tonight also, we celebrate the second harvest of all the food that grows in our fertile land. We have all brought produce from the local market and are grateful to live in a place where we can grow so much to nourish us body, mind, and spirit. Mabon is a time of thanksgiving.
“We will begin with a silent meditation. You may invite the gods and goddesses of your choice into the circle. You may ask for blessings, help, or guidance from the appropriate powers, whatever you feel is needed at this moment.
“A few cautions before we begin. Be careful what you ask for, and pay attention to your words. Remember the Wiccan Rede. Do no harm. And, the Law of Three. Whatever you cast out will return threefold. Blesséd Be.”
When Sensara roused them, she was distracted, off-centre in the grey mist that was rapidly descending on the darkling wood. The others didn’t notice, but Estrada caught the subtle twitch in her eyelid, and the glassy stare that meant she was looking beyond them into waters only she could navigate. Perhaps, she was still feeling ill, or perhaps she had seen something disturbing in her reverie. She may even have caught sight of something just outside the circle; or worse still, something within. He observed warily, as she called on Dylan to play some music.
As he adjusted his bagpipes, Dylan’s anxiety faded. “I wrote this tune for my grandfather, Dermot Dylan McBride.” Estrada was baffled by the kid’s ability to manage the complexities of the ancient instrument. A magician was adept at sleight of hand, but Dylan’s fingers danced with real magic. “I am named for him and inherited his passion for the pipes. Grandad can play a tune on a whiskey bottle. I can’t do that yet.”
The boy was humble. He travelled the world with the university pipe band. Estrada had recently watched him perform at the Highland Games and razzed him about his tartan kilt, knee socks, and the furry rodent that bounced between his legs.
“Grandad’s a kitchen player, born in Tarbert. That’s a fishing port in Argyll, on the southwest coast of Scotland. He’s seventy-seven years old, but you wouldn’t know it. He’s white-haired, weathered and tough, a Presbyterian, but we can’t hold that against him. He was there for me when I needed him. So this tune is for you, Grandad. I can see you now, standing on your front lawn, staring out over the harbour at Loch Fyne.”
The drone began rich and low in the belly of the pipes, then swelled as the music flowed into a realm of its own‑—a pagan terrain of lilting trills that emerged from some past blood memory. The spirits of Dylan’s ancestors swirled around them like grey ghosts in the trees, as the pipes conjured memories of ancient rebels charging into battle; as well as modern heroes revered in ceremony and planted in the earth to that same gut-wrenching sound.
Daphne cried. Jeremy looked overwrought, but then, judging by his ginger hair, he likely had Celtic ancestors of his own. Really, it didn’t matter where people came from, Dylan’s music could catch the human heart and wring it inside out. He finished the tune and put his pipes away as they all sat stunned in the wake of his magic.
Estrada flinched as something brushed against his thigh, but then Sensara called out, “Time to dance. Time to raise the power. Time to make the magic happen.” And jumping up, they prepared to dance.
“We all come from the goddess and to her we shall return, like a drop of rain flowing to the ocean,” she chanted, then grasping Estrada’s right hand, she pushed him off in the rhythm of the Grande Allemande.
He greeted Daphne with his left hand and began the counter chant. “Corn and grain, corn and grain, all that falls shall rise again. Hoof and horn, hoof and horn, all that dies shall be reborn.”
They danced around the circle, singing the contrary chants, feeling the energy build with the sound of their voices and the rhythm of their footfalls. Panting and touching, swimming in the musical breath, they built to a climax and then fell, laughing in the dizzying vortex of their creation.
“We have raised the power in the sanctity of our circle,” shouted Sensara. “Libations and blessings for all.”
This was Estrada’s cue to join her at the altar. The others stood pensively as Sensara held a silver chalice in both hands and he filled it with red wine. The rich aroma of sunburnt grapes and spices filtered through the twilight. After setting down the bottle, he picked up a medieval dagger encased in a black sheath and tipped in silver. Holding it in his right hand, he unsheathed the six-inch blade and held it aloft to salute the moon.
“As the chalice is to the goddess,” said Sensara.
“So the blade is to the god,” he said, and plunged it into the cup.
“United the god and goddess create blessings for the earth and for all,” they chanted together. Sensara leaned forward to meet him in a swift sacred kiss, as was customary, but as their lips touched above the chalice and the blade, Estrada grew aroused. Sensations magnified. Sparks exploded from his skin. Blood tingling, pupils dilating, his flesh hardened and he stood electrified—the Horned God.
As Sensara held the cup to his lips, he sipped and stared into her coppery eyes. Part of him shouted, This is wrong. While the other laughed, enthralled. You are the god and she is the goddess.It was all he could do not to pull her to the ground. He waited for her to speak, but she turned her back to him and passed the cup to Daphne. Standing rigid, wanting, like a wolf poised to spring with every ounce of blood pulsing in just one place, he glimpsed the too obvious protrusion beneath his black cloak.
Daphne mumbled something about ecstasy and Dionysus being in the circle and passed the chalice to Dylan.
Estrada crossed his arms over his chest in a feeble attempt to control the pounding of the blood and the shuddering desire that would not dissipate. Skin tingling, the vibration careened through his palms, rushing up and down his body in dazzling waves. He watched Sensara remove the lid from the dish that contained the corn cakes. If she felt like this and could still maintain control, she was something other than human. Dylan passed the chalice to Jones, but before he could speak, Estrada caught Sensara by the shoulders and spun her around.
Grasping her cool cheeks in the palms of his blistering hands, he brushed his lips against hers. Lowering his heavy lids, he screamed his desire,I want you. I want you now.
Arching her back, she opened her mouth and caught his invading tongue with equal passion. He felt her fingers crawl up his back beneath his cape. Grinding her belly against him, she caught and held him with her thighs, and they danced to the beat of some brooding blood rhythm.
“Hey! Get a room,” yelled Jones.
Estrada ignored the sniggering, the delicious scent of her urging him on. As his passion deepened, he loosened her dark silky hair and drank the wine from her tongue. Her spine arched like a cobra as he backed her up against the golden altar and laid her down, covering her body with his. Pausing for what seemed an eternity he stared into her eyes and sang of his love. Then, running his hand up her leg beneath her gown, he pushed aside the flimsy fabric that barred his way, clutched, and growled. She gasped, then moaned. Catching her bottom lip with his teeth, he reached inside his robe—”
The urgent cry caught his attention, as in the periphery a great black shadow careened across the circle, straight at them.
“Rem-ing-ton!” A girl appeared chasing something. A dog—a big black dog that was wolfing down their cakes. Grasping it by the collar, she dragged it from the circle and dashed into the woods.
Then Dylan bolted.
In the after-second, Sensara shoved Estrada off with a vicious thrust. Careening over a log, he fell on his back with a thud that knocked the wind clean out of his lungs.
“You can’t break the circle!” she shouted after Dylan.
“She’s been watching us,” he yelled back. “She’s scared.”
Estrada lay on the forest floor and fought for just one breath.