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By Joy Nash
Dorchester PublishingCopyright © 2007 Joy Nash
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThere was one big problem with practicing magic naked, Christine Lachlan thought sourly.
It made her horny.
And not just an "it would be nice to get some action tonight" kind of horny. No, skyclad-induced lust, at least for Christine, was more along the lines of "Goddess, I need it so bad I'm gonna go crazy if I don't get it right now." In other words, the kind of lust she hadn't felt in two years.
Since the last time she'd done this.
Starlight cast a sharp, sweet thrill through the high branches of the Roman pines, piercing the night shadows. Inside the circle of crushed sea salt Christine had sprinkled in the ancient dirt of Rome's Palatine Hill, she knelt with head bowed, palms upraised.
The night breeze raised goose bumps on her bare arms and sent an all-too-vulnerable shiver down her naked spine. Her baggy jeans and oversized sweater lay in a heap a few yards away, but they might as well have been two miles away on the floor of her cramped, rented room-on top of the rest of her dirty laundry-for all the good they did her. Right now, Christine's entire world existed inside her circle, where she knelt before the Goddess with no covering on her body, nodeception on her soul.
Pin-sharp pine needles and fragments of crushed marble bit into her knees. Her hair, freed from its braid, brushed the length of her spine. In the distance, the water-rush of traffic, punctuated by staccato splashes of horn, flowed along the Via dei Fori Imperiali, circled the Colosseum, and faded into the distance.
The prickle of restless desire tickled her thighs.
Goddess, how she loathed this.
She hated practicing magic while skyclad-the sensations it roused were too vivid, too real. Too dangerous. After Shaun's death, she'd sworn she'd never attempt it again, no matter what was at stake. Turned out she'd lied.
It hardly mattered that she didn't want to be here. That she'd rather be home, kneeling before a wobbly table spread with the beautiful square of indigo silk that had cost more than she'd earned in two weeks of hawking watercolors to stingy tourists. Within walls, protected by rune sigils, she could claim a small amount of safety. Here, amid Rome's most ancient ruins, naked under the sky, she was defenseless against her own magic.
The sensual lick of her power was as seductive as a man's tongue on her bare skin. Christine could do nothing but endure it. Her breasts grew heavy, the tips hardening. Her belly tightened with sweet fire.
If an Old One found her like this, she'd be in big trouble.
There was a very real possibility that could happen, despite the wards and the carefully drawn circle. An ancient vampire would have no trouble breaking her protections. Even the weaker undead-zombies, golems, and the like-were stronger and bolder than they'd been a few months ago. Not to mention more numerous. It seemed everywhere she looked, she saw another newly made vamp or recently resurrected zombie lurking in the shadows. And while she could defeat Young Ones singly, or even in pairs, she didn't want to think about what could happen if a horde attacked.
And then there were the demons.
She shut her eyes. Oh, Goddess. The demons. Tonight could end like the last time....
She was insane to attempt this. No, not insane, just out of options. For Christine, skyclad magic was the strongest she could summon. Tonight, she needed every last drop of her power.
The thin breeze stirred again, rustling dry branches. Italy was caught in the grip of the worst drought in its long history; the profusion of spring flowers that normally blanketed the Eternal City this time of year had died on the vine. Even the ancient pines and hardy olive trees were withering. Perversely, in the north, England and Scotland were enduring record rainfall. Their farms were drowning.
It was yet another sign death magic had gained frightening dominance over life magic. Christine had been watching the grim, inexorable tide advance for almost a year now. Drought in some places, floods in others. Famine and anguish everywhere. Death magic creatures were multiplying with alarming alacrity. Violence and vandalism were rampant. Even museums had been attacked, priceless works of art destroyed.
There was no end in sight-the living earth was fading, shriveling before a fierce, unrelenting onslaught of soul-withering darkness. Life magic-the source of all goodness-was draining from the world like water from a cracked sieve. Witches of the Light, like Christine, were trying to stem the tide, but it was a frantic, futile endeavor. Too many holes to plug, too many fissures to seal.
But this morning, she'd been given an unexpected reason to hope. A sudden cloudburst had poured life-giving water onto the drought-stricken city. Christine had heard it pounding on the roof of her attic apartment. She'd run up the twisted stairs to the terrace with every container she owned to collect as much of the rainfall as she could. Every drop was precious, even more so on this particular morning. It was the first of May-a Beltane rain held deep power.
It couldn't be a coincidence rain had fallen on the very day Christine had needed her deepest magic. The Mother Goddess blessed her mission. She was sure of it.
She splayed fingers on hard ground. The crusted surface was still damp, but underneath, the ground was as hard and unyielding as concrete. Drained of life, as the world was draining of magic. What could one witch do to stop the horror? Very little. But she wasn't alone. Not any longer.
Christine had always been a solitary practitioner of the Craft, but in the past months panic had driven her to an Internet café to search online for other witches as disturbed as she by the rising evil. The worldwide Coven of Light had accepted Christine into their fold. She wasn't sure she felt comfortable being part of a group-artists tended to be very independent-but what choice did she have? She had magic, strong magic, though she'd avoided using the deeper aspects of it these past two years. No more. The stakes were too high. The Coven of Light needed her. So here she was, naked, preparing to call up forces she knew damn well she couldn't control.
She pressed her hands more firmly into the moist earth. She slowed her breathing; searched the deepest part of herself. Shifting, she nudged her knees apart. The magic of the fallen rainwater flowed into her fingertips, up her arms, and down her torso in a sparkling wave. The breeze rose again, seeking the exposed feminine flesh between her thighs. A mortifying heat rushed through her stomach ... into her breasts ... to her neck and face. Her nipples tingled and drew tight.
She inhaled sharply. Goddess, how she hated this.
The urge to bolt toward her clothes was strong. She wanted to cover herself with her hands, bend forward to cloak her body with her hair. Anything to stop this feeling of being so exposed and vulnerable.
She forced herself to remain motionless. She was beyond pride. There were no choices left: last night, disaster had struck the Coven. An American witch had very nearly been killed during a spell designed to bring help to the world. Christine had to achieve the failed spell's purpose now, on her own. Because the alternative-a world ruled by demons and death magic-was a reality far too horrible to contemplate.
With a shaking hand, she reached for the wine bottle near her right knee. Every drop of Beltane rainwater she'd collected was inside. Working the cork free, she poured the precious liquid into the shallow brass bowl that lay between her spread knees.
Power rippled over her skin. Her breasts responded with an ache. A tremor coursed through her belly, pooled low. Water splashed over her fingers; her mind sank into a light trance. The city, the night, the outside world-they all faded. There was only her sacred circle, her carnal hunger, the sense of drifting, helpless, on the edge of the world.
Unsteadily, she set down the bottle. Splayed her right hand over the scrying bowl. Slowly, reverently, she dipped her finger in the water and traced a single rune.
"Uni." She spoke the name of the Mother Goddess in her guise as Goddess Queen of the Etruscans. Uni had been the first deity recognized by humans in this ancient land. Her name meant "The One," and Christine knelt atop the buried ruins of a temple erected long ago in her honor.
"Mother," she prayed. "Show me."
Power rippled across the water. It slipped into her fingers and pulsed into her veins. The consuming surge of magic released a panicked flood of adrenaline. Christine knew only too well that power this elemental, once unleashed, could not be stopped. Like any living thing, once born, it sought its end.
Power rose, demanding Christine's complete honesty, her complete faith. Her complete submission to the will of the Goddess. Christine had thought she was prepared. But it was hard, harder than she'd remembered. Because of the past. Because of Shaun. Because the magic required she do something she'd not dared in two long years.
An urgent whisper rippled over her soul. A tremor claimed her body in an automatic response that was stunning in its blatant sexuality. A throb sprang up between her legs. An unwanted moan escaped her throat.
She needed to move. The compulsion shamed her-she didn't want to feel this way, needy and out of control. Didn't want to surrender to the urge to rock her hips in a pathetic parody of the sex act. But she couldn't stop herself from doing just that.
This was why she'd shunned her deepest magic since Shaun's death. She couldn't bear to remember what it had once been like, performing the sacred rituals with the only man she'd ever loved, before his greed and her own misplaced faith had destroyed him.
Another wave of sensation. More control lost. She closed her eyes. A mistake-with her sight gone, she felt the magic all the more acutely, in every part of her body. She forced her shoulders to relax, knowing she had no choice but to accept what she'd started. Be careful what you ask for. Her fingers sank deeper into the shallow water. She stroked a second rune on the surface of the brass bowl.
She bowed her head. "Uni, show me. Show me your son."
Opening her eyes, she lifted her hands from the bowl. Abruptly, the water's surface went silver-still, like a mirror. She leaned forward, letting her focus go soft. A roar like ocean surf sounded in her ears. A wave of giddy delight washed over her; a surprised gasp spilled from her lips. Her body felt light, too light, as if it were floating into the sky, or falling from above. Her spirit-essence thinned, rippled almost painfully in its freedom.
The water glowed silver-bright, reflecting the spatter of stars overhead. Christine's spirit-essence drifted toward the light. Sank into it.
Mother, show me your son.
A shiver flashed over her exposed skin. Her breasts grew heavy, weighted with need. Desire spiked, drawing another gasp from her lips as power swirled through her circle. She shuddered. The magic was strong, too strong. This aching feeling of yearning, of wanting something so bitter and so sweet-it was more than she could bear. But to stop now would mean abandoning her last chance to find him.
Kalen, Immortal Warrior.
He was one of five Immortal protectors, created from the union of an aspect of the Mother Goddess and her human priests in the years when humans had been new to the earth. The forces of death magic had been incredibly powerful in those dark years. It had been Kalen and his brothers who had guarded the infant human race, defending them against evil. Trained by their goddess mothers, gifted with godlike strength, possessed of magical weapons and powers, including immortality itself, the Immortals had been invaluable allies to those early human settlements struggling to stay alive.
The five Immortal brothers-Kalen, Adrian, Darius, Hunter, and Tain-were an enigma. Created of life magic, they meted out death. Demons, zombies, golems, vampires, sorcerers-none could stand against them. Championed by the Immortals, those first human settlements thrived. Eventually, men and women learned to fight their own battles and the Immortals appeared less frequently. Finally, during the Middle Ages, they disappeared for good.
Now they were needed again. Desperately. Just a month ago, an American witch named Amber Silverthorne had been investigating the death of her sister, a member of the Coven of Light. Dark forces had been involved. While pursuing a lead, Amber had encountered Adrian, the oldest Immortal, and together, the pair had discovered the truth behind the recent surge of death magic. The rise in evil was the work of Tain, the youngest Immortal. Insane and emotionally enslaved by an ancient and powerful demon known to Adrian as Kehksut, Tain had vowed to drain every drop of life magic from the human world.
Using death magic doorways known as demon portals, Tain was able to move freely between human and demon realms, appearing instantly in any location he desired. His spies were legion and his power vast. Demons and the undead all over the world were eager to aid Tain's evil vision.
According to Adrian, only the other Immortals could stop their brother. And so last night, on the Eve of Beltane, the Coven of Light-witches on six continents-assembled in spirit to speak the words of the Calling, the ancient spell that summoned the Immortals to battle. But something went horribly wrong and the magic shattered, very nearly killing Amber. The missing Immortals had not appeared.
Christine had discovered that the Immortal Warrior Kalen was the son of the Mother Goddess in her guise as the Etruscan Goddess-Queen, Uni. As the only Coven witch dwelling in the Etruscans' ancient homeland, it was up to Christine to call on Uni for help. Surely the Goddess knew where her son was.
Her gaze lost in the silver-still surface of the rainwater, Christine willed her body to go soft. She allowed the sensuality that entwined so deeply with her magic to take control of her body. "Goddess," she whispered. "Great Mother ... Uni, Queen of Etruria ... Show me your son."
The throbbing between her legs intensified, quickly becoming unbearable. The exquisite knot of desire in her belly tightened. Her lungs grabbed for oxygen, taking too much. Her head grew light. It took all her effort to focus on the bowl. On the sacred water.
"Show me. I beg you."
A thought dropped into the still pool of Christine's mind.
He is here, daughter.
The shimmering surface shifted. Shadows moved like clouds across its face. Silhouettes deepened, sharpened.
She leaned close, not daring to blink or hardly even to breathe. The fleeting impression of a cliff, steep and rugged, a broad, rocky island separated from a coastline by a narrow swath of angry gray sea.
Like a fairy-tale dream, a castle clung to island cliffs. Its somber gray walls and the intricate crenellations of its battlements traced a large square around a high central tower. There were several garden courtyards inside the castle, formed by the lines of lower buildings spanning the distance between the central tower and the perimeter walls. A gray shroud of rain cloaked the scene.
Her corporeal body seemed to dissolve as she slipped deeper into her trance. The castle drew closer; the walls melted away. A new scene formed in a cavernous room lit only by a large, leaping fire. Christine's eye was drawn to movement amidst a pile of furs and cushions spread before the generous hearth. A man and woman lay there, limbs entwined.
Clothing had been discarded in a heap nearby; she caught a glimpse of tartan plaid wool, the gloss of black leather. The lovers were nude, the man clearly dominant, the woman spread beneath him. He was as dark as she was fair-the man's tawny skin and dark hair contrasted sharply with the woman's pale complexion and red hair. Her vivid locks were cropped short and slicked with gel around her delicately pointed ears.
She wasn't human, Christine realized with a start. The beautiful woman was Elven. Or Sidhe, as Christine's Scottish grandmother had called the race of sensual Celtic life magic creatures. Christine experienced a stab of something very like jealousy. Of course an Immortal would choose a magical lover. What human woman could satisfy a demigod?
Excerpted from Immortals by Joy Nash Copyright © 2007 by Joy Nash. Excerpted by permission.
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