This is the completed first chapter for my upcoming novel, “The Crone and The Curse”, which will be available through Amazon, Nook, and Kobo. If you enjoy this chapter, consider purchasing Book One in the series The Atalante Chronicles.
I hate squirrels.
That thought ran through my head as I cowered behind a burning slab of earth. I had been working with my apprentice, James Masters, on finer control of pyromancy. That’s fire magic for the uninitiated. To minimize the damage to my back yard, — and to my neighbor’s yard, to be honest, — I created a protective barrier of energy around James.
We’re both wizards, in case that’s not clear. Geometric designs are used to enhance any magical energy placed within them. For training and duels, circles are constructed and imbued to create a barrier. Once the enchantment is up, no magic cast inside of the circle can escape. It also prevents magic created outside the circle from getting in. I don’t know about you, but as a wizard, I prefer to avoid a straight fight if I can help it. Circles come in handy when you want to let loose during a duel but don’t want to harm the spectators.
James had been directing a gout of flame in my direction. He was slowly getting the hang of controlling the flames, molding the burst into a compressed cone rather than an unbridled stream. Six months of training was paying off. Pyromancy is not a subtle form of magic. Even the best pyromancers in the Scarlet Assembly have to keep a tight rein on their creations to avoid collateral damage. Against most supernatural creatures, fire is still one of the most effective options.
And then I felt the heat coming from the Crown Royal bag around my neck.
I had a moment or two of clarity before the curse given to me late last year by the Scarlet Assembly caused an unfortunate mishap to occur — a mishap intended to bring about my death. Pulling the area’s ambient energy into my body, I channeled it into a spell, and said, “Columna!”
A block of solid earth seven feet in height and four feet in width burst from the ground directly in front of me. I’m built like a linebacker, just under six feet tall and wider than most door frames. I dove to my knees and pressed my shoulder against the earthen wall I’d conjured just as the squirrel broke the barrier circle. Apparently, the squirrel thought the area where the circle had been dug into the ground was the perfect place to look for food. Damned puffy-tailed rats.
James let out a sharp cry as the surprise of the protective dome’s collapse caused him to lose control of the fire spell he’d been channeling. It took him almost a full minute to close himself off from the energy he’d been using to cast the spell. By the time James got his magic under control, the wall was scorched.
“Nico,” James said, out of breath and frightened. The teenager rushed around the wall. “Are you okay?”
My apprentice was a few months shy of his 17th birthday. His sun-bleached hair was short and soaked with sweat from our training session. He wore a white tank-top, which showed off all the long hours he’d spent working on his mother’s horse ranch. He was lean and muscular but not defined like someone who went to the gym regularly. His hazel eyes were wide with terror for a moment until he saw me kneeling behind the barricade I’d manifested.
“I’m okay, James,” I said, exhaling sharply. Rising from the ground, I placed a hand against the block of earth and connected to the lingering magic that had created it. I said, “Retexo.”
The earthen wall flowed back into the ground. The only sign that there was a disturbance was the absence of grass that fit the width and thickness of the barrier. There was a small runway of blackened earth leading up to it.
“I didn’t mean to,” James said, but I waved off his apology.
“It wasn’t your fault, bud,” I said. I placed a hand on his shoulder and gave it a good squeeze. “Accidents happen. You were doing well. We’ve almost got that flame burst spell under control.”
His eyes lit up. I was reminded of the last time I’d seen him lose control of his power. His uncle, Terry, had been a blood sorcerer responsible for half a dozen deaths. Terry had hoped to use the untapped power James possessed to make himself like me. Sorcerers don’t have the same amount of magical might that wizards do. They can sling magic around, but not with the same level of control James or I could. Once a sorcerer learned to cast a spell, the spell acted the same way every time.
Terry had been a nasty piece of work. When I disrupted Terry’s power-stealing ritual, I connected with his mind just before his nephew incinerated him. Terry had murdered his own brother in cold blood for leaving him behind to deal with the deeply abusive grandmother who raised them both.
James didn’t know about any of that. I would not tell him. The kid had enough nightmares to deal with.
The mental intrusion I’d performed had disrupted the ritual, but not before Terry had extracted a significant amount of James’ potential power. When that magical power flowed back into James, his connection to mystical energies became equivalent to someone who had been training for a few decades in the craft. It made James’ magic more volatile, but also more powerful.
“You okay, Nico?” James asked.
“I’m good, kid,” I said, trying not to sound fatigued. “Channeling power quickly can be draining.”
James seemed to take my answer at face value. “I take it we’re done for today?” he asked. There was barely masked disappointment in his voice.
I nodded. “Go on home,” I said. “We’ve got the rest of Spring Break to train.”
He gave me an enthusiastic hug and ran off to grab his shirt and the bag of extra clothes he’d brought with him. He was about to head over to his car when he stopped and said, “Nico, who’s that?”
I walked around the side of my home and saw a finely dressed gentleman standing at the gate to my property. He was reed-thin, with a prominent forehead and cleanly cut gray hair. The suit he wore screamed money. Tailored to fit his slight frame, the charcoal-gray suit had a matching vest underneath with a soft blue tie in an impeccable Windsor knot. He held a leather portfolio bag under his right arm.
“You are Nicodemus Atalante, I presume?” he said. His voice was clipped but precise. He folded his arms in front of his body, clutching the leather bag in both hands. It wasn’t a nervous gesture, but it put off the vibe that he was not pleased to be waiting outside the gate.
“I am. May I have your name, sir?” I asked.
“Emmett Rubis. I represent a party who would like to contract your services,” he said with a slight bow of his head. “Is there somewhere we can talk privately?”
I gave Emmett a nod. Turning to James, I said, “Head home, James. Give your mom and Bart my best. Come back Wednesday.”
“Okay,” said James, who walked over and pulled the gate open for Emmett to enter. He kept a wary eye on the man. The older gentleman fixed my apprentice with a withering, dismissive gaze. Before getting into his blue sedan, James looked to me and said, “Don’t forget. Mom needs to know if you plan on coming to the wedding.”
I gave my apprentice what I hoped was a cheerful smile, though I didn’t really feel it. “It’s still six months out.”
“Yeah,” said James. “But you know she’s going to keep pestering you until she gets an answer.”
I nodded. Patricia Masters was a formidable woman, but I liked her. She’d insisted on paying me for James’ lessons despite my protests. Finally, I said, “Tell her and Bart that I wouldn’t miss it for anything.”
The beatific smile returned to James’ face as he got in the car and started it. After James had driven off, I motioned for Emmett to follow me into my home. The attorney had been watching the exchange with cold disinterest.
My house is actually a refurnished office building in the Drew Park area of Tampa. The owners experienced a run of bad luck and sold the place. I had nothing to do with it. Well, almost nothing. It made buying the property easier, though. Convince enough people that a building is haunted and the property value plummets.
The first room we entered was my office. The gnomes I’d contracted to help change the building had done a magnificent job of containing the ambient magical energy from so many enchanted items within this room. If they hadn’t, I wouldn’t have so much as a blender in the house that didn’t get fried inside of a minute. Enchanted items give off a perpetual wave of energy that disrupts electronics.
I took my seat at my desk with my back to the door. Behind me were filing cabinets that I had hollowed out to store various alchemical supplies. Bookshelves lined the rest of the walls, except for the shelf where I kept my mortar and pestle and some crystals. Above my desk hung a stuffed alligator, a gift from a friend overseas who insisted every wizard should have one.
Emmett kept his expression blank, but I could see it was an effort. I could tell he was not entirely comfortable being here. That’s usually the case for mundanes (non-supernatural people) when they encounter a space crawling with anything occult. He sat down opposite from me and took a moment to scan my desk. I watched his gray-blue eyes survey the papers scattered over the desktop. His gaze lingered on the stack of bills showing past due stamps on them.
“Business slow for you?” he asked. His voice had the finality of a hammer hitting a nail.
“More so than usual,” I answered. “Who is your employer and what I can do for them?”
“Him,” Emmett said. “My employer is Tobias Morgenstern. He is a collector of occult antiquities. He’s made a recent acquisition and wishes to have it appraised for authenticity.”
My eyebrows went up. I smelled money. Someone who collects old items is not normally on the up-and-up. Speaking from experience, I said, “A collector. What has he gained?”
“I’m not at liberty to discuss that. However, Mr. Morgenstern asked me to look into who in the area could provide such a service.” Emmett’s eyes narrowed. The fact that I’m built like a small refrigerator and can control magic didn’t seem to intimidate him. “Your name came up during my research. I understand that you have experience in this field?”
I shrugged. “Some,” I said. “I’ve been hired by other… collectors to acquire items in the past.” Before I could continue, the phone in my kitchen started ringing.
“Do you need to get that?” asked Emmett.
“I have a messaging service. I’ll get to it later,” I replied. I took a deep breath and concentrated on activating my Vision. Wizards have a second sight that allows them to see the auras of people and their surroundings. The aura reveals the emotional state of the being and whether they are a supernatural creature. Emmett’s aura was a splash of orange shading around a black center. Based on that, I could tell he was a studious, detail-oriented man, not one to forgive slights against him. He also lacked any sign of supernatural power.
When my sight returned to normal, Emmett was staring at me with a curious expression on his face. I raised a hand in apology. “I was checking to make sure you’re human,” I said.
“How… interesting,” he replied. I could tell he wasn’t pleased, but he kept that from showing on his face. “The matter at hand?”
“Yes,” I said. “You want me to authenticate an item for Mr. Morgenstern, sight unseen and with no foreknowledge of what the item is. Sound about right?”
“Correct. You have a reputation in the occult circles. I do not want Mr. Morgenstern to be defrauded.” Emmett’s expression hardened as his posture stiffened.
“Very well,” I said as I grabbed a small notepad and jotted down a number. I passed him the note and said, “This is my fee.”
If the number of the page had any effect on him, Emmett didn’t show it. “That is unacceptable,” he replied.
“Then find another authenticator,” I replied. I felt my face tighten as I stared at the attorney. “I have no way of knowing ahead of time what your employer has acquired. He could have gotten his hands onto something dangerous. The price for the job includes any potential hazards that could arise.”
Emmett tore the piece of paper off the pad and placed it in his portfolio bag. His eyes narrowed as he stared at me. “Mr. Morgenstern has the ultimate word on your employment. I will convey your price to him.”
My heart dropped, but I did my best to keep it from showing on my face. Money had become tight in the months since I was cursed. I needed this gig, but I would not let this pompous ass get my services for nothing. Keeping my voice level, I said, “That’s fine. You have my number?”
Emmett nodded and rose from his seat. “I’ll be in touch, Mr. Atalante.”
As courteously as I could manage, I rose and opened the door for Emmett. Putting on my best shit-eating grin, I said, “Enjoy your Easter holiday.”
Once Emmett left, I closed the door and activated the protective spells built into the door frame. Pressing my back against the door, I exhaled slowly. If Morgenstern agreed to my price, I’d be able to keep my home and get rid of most of my debts. I hoped that Emmett wouldn’t scuttle the deal.
I went to my kitchen and grabbed the phone to dial my answering service. A pleasant, feminine voice came through the speaker.
“Nico, it’s Angela. Got some news we need to discuss. I’ll see you tonight. Usual time.”
Hillsborough Sheriff’s Deputy Angela Blackwell was a friend. We’d met during the Terry Masters case. Despite never having experienced the supernatural before, she’d stood by me and Bart Majester to save James from Terry and his mistress, Magdelena, a female vampire. Bart had been gravely wounded during the fight. I’d directed Angela to get him to a hospital while I dealt with Magdelena.
It had been a rough fight and she’d gotten the better of me. Magdelena had taught Terry the invocation spell to siphon magical power from the organs of living people. She had hoped to use Terry as a weapon to take over the Tampa Bay area from her brother, Manuel Vega, the ruling lord of vampires.
It hadn’t worked out as she planned. Terry immolated the smug bitch and left her to die before James barbequed Terry. But Magdelena had slithered away and gone into hiding. I hadn’t been able to locate the conniving vampire since her disappearance, even with Angela’s help.
I spent the rest of the afternoon cleaning myself up and cutting up some rare steak for my familiar. As dusk settled in, I deactivated the protective spells on my door and settled into my office chair. Just as it was getting dark, there was a knock.
I opened it to find Angela dressed in a black shirt and dark jeans, her brown hair pulled back into a tight bun.
“You forgot the pizza and beer,” I said, ushering her in. We exchanged a quick hug as she passed me and started pacing.
“No lessons tonight,” she said. “I’ve got good news.”
After the Masters case, Angela had decided she wanted to know everything she could about the supernatural. My familiar and I had been holding lessons once or twice a week with her, going over the finer points of the kinds of preternatural creatures she was likely to encounter — and what she could do against them. She was an apt student. Plus, she usually brought pizza and beer.
I closed the door and crossed my arms as I faced her. “Let’s have it.” “I found her,” said Angela. “I found out where Magdelena is hiding.”