Authors: Vicky Burkholder
Crystal Keys Book 1
Published by Liquid Silver Books, imprint of Atlantic Bridge Publishing, 10509 Sedgegrass Dr, Indianapolis, Indiana 46235. Copyright © Published 2013, Vicky Burkholder. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the author.
Manufactured in the United States of America
Liquid Silver Books
This is a work of fiction. The characters, incidents and dialogues in this book are of the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is completely coincidental.
For centuries, four women have held the keys to Lemuria, a land where magic is real. They and their Protectors are all that stand against The Brotherhood, a group of exiles who want to return to and control both Lemuria and the gateway.
Cassandra Richards, Keeper of the emerald key, has grown up knowing about her powers but not about the amulet she wears or why it is suddenly so important. Stalked, kidnapped, and threatened with a horrible death, she must turn to the one man who scares her more than the Brotherhood. They’ll just take her body. Nicodemus will take her soul.
Nic wants nothing more than to protect Cass, but he can’t do that if she won’t let him. Nor can he deny the pull she has over him, but he’s not sure if he’s under a witch’s spell, or something deeper. Both Nic and Cass struggle to deal with their powers and their attraction while on the run from a cult with murderous intent.
Dedicated to Bob, my ultimate hero and protector, my family for their support, and the Bootsquad–you know who you are.
“Send me back. I have to save her.” Nicodemus’ boots clicked on the dark tile in the small room. Three women watched him pace from where they were seated on their stools in front of a large backlit loom. No other light shone in the room. Though his voice did not echo, he could see neither walls nor ceiling, only the three women and their work. He’d been here before and each time, felt both closed in, and open to the universe.
“I must return,” he insisted.
“What you ask is not possible,” the oldest of the three said. “Her spirit has already moved on and the guardianship of the key has passed to another, though still in her line.”
“But you weave the threads. You can send me to her. You can ensure I’ll find her.”
“We weave as we must,” the second sister said. “You have been granted more than any other Protector.”
The third took up the narration. “Twice have you been sent and twice have you failed in your duty.”
His head hung. “I know I ask a lot. Don’t doubt my appreciation. But I didn’t fail in my duty to the key. The key is safe.”
“Which is why you live,” the first said.
Why I lived?
“The doorway must remain closed,” she said. “The keys will be scattered. Though each contains its own power, together they hold the secret to the realm of magic. A realm that must remain closed to humans. You must always protect the key—even if doing so means sacrificing the Keeper.”
“I can’t protect against an unknown. Who is the shadow following her?”
“We do not know,” the three said together.
His breath caught. “You don’t know? That’s impossible.”
“And yet, true,” the first said. “We know there are more of those who claim membership in the Brotherhood of Ahmit, but not the leader. Even if we put a name to each, it would be from a different time and place, of no use to you. This will be your last chance. If you fail this time, there will be no reprieve. Your thread—and hers—will end.”
“But she is the Keeper of the first key.”
“And when her thread ends, a new Keeper—and a new Protector—will be chosen. The Council of the Immortals has set the boundaries for your return. Your connection to her is too close. You have lost your objectivity. When you return to humanity, you will have no memory of your past lives, nor will she. You will have no help from any of the Immortals. You will live as a human.”
“The boundaries are impossible. I’ll never find her without help.”
The eldest sister pulled a thread from one side of the tapestry and introduced it to the pattern. As she wove, she smiled at Nic. “Trust, Nicodemus. And love.”
“But…” A blinding flash and deafening thunder tore the words from his throat, and he knew no more.
Cassandra Richards clicked the mouse to open her mail. It had been a busy day at the store and this was the first moment she’d had a chance to catch up. Instead of the list she expected, a file immediately opened, spreading an image across her entire screen.
“Damn. Damn. Double damn.” She flicked her long braid over her shoulder and stomped her foot on the plank floor, bringing her aunt running. “Shards and slivers.”
Minerva appeared in the office doorway. She fit the nickname of Minnie perfectly, but few dared to call her anything other than Minerva. Barely five feet tall and thinner than a straw, she was full of spit, wit, and grit. Long years had sharpened her features—and temper. Being a witch gave her a power few believed in, but anyone meeting her would accept.
Cass took after her aunt in power and temperament, but not size, although at four inches over five feet, no one could call her tall. Like Minerva, though, people knew Cass for her calm demeanor. If a situation called for a cool head, Cass could handle it. Except this.
Minerva stood, hands on hips, her eyes wide. “I heard you curse. Tell me I heard you curse. You never curse. I curse, the whole world curses, but you don’t curse. What happened?”
Cass pointed at her monitor. After receiving dozens of the files, she didn’t need to see it to know exactly what the screen showed—a picture of a nude corpse lying on an altar surrounded by robed figures. In the background, a masked character held a heart in one hand, a long, bloody knife in the other. In the shadows people hung in chains. Though she couldn’t see the faces of those in chains, the corpse on the altar had her features. At first, the e-mails had sickened her. Now, they just made her mad. A picture on the wall in front of her wobbled and Cass glared at it.
“Control, Cassandra. Control.”
“I’m trying, Aunt Minerva.” She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and exhaled slowly.
“Good thing I got rid of all the breakables in here,” Minerva muttered.
Cass spun her chair around and glared at her aunt. “I heard that.” She pointed at the monitor. “I thought Greg fixed this so I wouldn’t get any more. And look!” She punched several buttons on the keyboard. “I can’t even get rid of it. Nothing’s working. I can’t even reboot. It’s worse than a damned virus.”
Minerva whipped out her cell phone and hit speed dial to call Greg, a local cop and part-time P.I. who specialized in computer crimes and was married to Cass’ best friend, Dori.
“Greg? Cass got another file from the Brotherhood…Yes, I’ll tell her…No, she has the store records on mine, like you said…Yes, see you soon.” She turned to Cass. “He says not to touch anything. He’ll be right over.”
They both jumped as the bell over the entry door to their store jangled. Minerva grinned, then shook her head. “Must be a customer. I’ll go. I’d rather you didn’t see anyone at the moment. You’d probably turn them into stone or something.”
Cass blew a wisp of hair off her face and worked at opening a crate on the floor between her and Minerva’s desks. At least Minerva’s computer—the one where they kept all the business records for their store—couldn’t be compromised.
Cass could hear Minerva talking to a customer but ignored their conversation and bent to open a box. Shipments she could handle. This one held candles and incense and she inhaled deeply of the aroma. She looked up when her aunt stepped back into the office. “No sale?”
“You need to take this one, Cassandra. He wants to talk to the person who makes the jewelry.” Minerva paused. “Cassandra? Watch this one. There’s something about him that bothers me.”
Cass studied Minerva’s face. If something bothered her, there had to be a good reason. “Anything in particular?”
“Not yet, but I’ll let you know shortly.”
Cass nodded as her aunt pulled out her tarot deck.
As part of their shop, Madam Minerva’s Mystical Manor, Cassandra designed and made jewelry, some with gems, and others with crystals or minerals. Each stone had different properties and, depending on what the customer wanted, she could create a piece for healing, prosperity, or other needs. But, as she always told her customers, they had to do some work too. The crystals weren’t infallible. Free will had a lot to do with what happened.
Cass dusted off her hands and rose from the floor. She headed out, her braid swinging against her back, her dark skirt flowing against her shins. A long counter separated the store from the office. Unlike most duplex shops with the stores to the front and offices in the back, she and Minerva had opted to put their office to one side. For them, the setup worked better. No hauling heavy shipments from the front of the building to the rear. The delivery people dropped the boxes and crates off right at whichever door worked better for them—front or back.
Cass put on her “customer smile” and turned to the man waiting at the counter. Although he had his back to her, Cass judged him to be in his midthirties. He had shoulder-length light brown hair with a smattering of gray pulled back in a queue, jeans, and an expensive-looking sweater. Cass noted all this and more in less than a second. As a merchant, she excelled at sizing people up, knowing instantly whether they wanted to buy, browse, or steal. Her powers allowed her to sense people’s intents—not as well as Minerva, but enough to help her with customers. This one’s appearance said buyer, but she waited to see his face.
Oddly, she couldn’t read this man beyond his looks. She rubbed at her arms, wondering at the irritating itch that grew stronger as she drew closer to him. She shrugged off the strangeness. Minerva would let her know. Cass didn’t like to use her powers unless necessary. She preferred to live as normal a life as possible, though Minerva made that a challenge.
“May I help you?”
The man turned and Cass stepped back, her hand going to her necklace. Her fingers touched the pendant, silver filigree in an inverted triangle surrounding a large central emerald. She’d received it from Minerva on her eighteenth birthday. Her aunt had also presented a similar pendant to Cass’ best friend, Dori, and urged them to wear the pieces all the time. Most of the time, they did. When Cass wore hers, she felt safe. As if nothing in the world could harm her. Strange, she knew, but then, many things about her life fell on the strange side of normal—like this man. Cass resisted the urge to rub her arms again, though every hair stood out. She let go of the jewelry, forcing a nonchalance she didn’t feel.
“Yes, ma’am. I’m looking for a special necklace. I heard you might be able to help me.”
He had a crisp British accent Cass normally found attractive, but in this man, it gave her the chills. His dark eyes seemed to bore into hers, and then fastened on her pendant. She kept the smile pasted on her face and forced away a shudder. “I do. What are you looking for?”
“That’s an unusual necklace you have on. I’m looking for something similar.”
Cass clasped her pendant again. Her most popular work, she often made copies of the piece and sold them. But she didn’t think this man wanted a copy. “The design is called ‘Magic.’ I have them here in the case. The more popular ones use lapis lazuli in the center. Are you looking for a particular stone?”
A tingle went through her and she knew her aunt had settled a protection spell over her and the shop. The sensation did much to allay her unease. She turned as the bell on the front door chimed, relieved at the interruption. Because of the store layout, she could see Greg at the front. She stared over Greg’s shoulder, looking for the top town cop, her on-again-off-again boyfriend, Steve. He’d always been much more into their relationship than she had. He had a good sense of humor, good looks, and ambition, and cared about her. All good qualities. But she’d always felt there was something missing. Some spark she didn’t feel when she was with him.
When he didn’t show, she turned away, disappointed but not surprised. She knew his job kept him busy, but she thought he’d come when he knew she was in trouble.
She turned back to her customer. “If you’d like to see them?”
Minerva emerged from the office to greet Greg. When she did, Cass noted her customer’s face. His visage had gone from model-handsome to terrifyingly dark and black in less than a second. If Cass hadn’t been watching him, she would have missed the transformation.
“Maybe some other time.” He strode to the front of the store and slipped out past Greg and Minerva.
Cass hurried to the front. “Hi, Greg. Steve busy?”