Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Cassiel Knight's Key of Solomon; Relic Defender

Cathryn, thanks for letting me post on your blog.
Recently, I was asked a question that took me back a bit and made me think about something at the core of why I’m a writer. The question was if there were parts of my debut release with Samhain taken from my real life. You know, some writers use past or current experiences and some have specific themes that teach a lesson or highlight a problem in society. And that’s great. But that’s not why I write or what I think about when I craft a story.

The answer to the question is that no, my stories don’t really take anything from my life – past or present. I write them for pure entertainment. For the joy of immersing myself in a setting, in characters I love being around (even the bad guys) and even for the research. Because I write stories with archeological (huge fan of Indiana Jones and Tomb Raider) and mythological elements, I set out to have an adventure – for my characters and my readers. Maybe there’s a message there – in the end – but I don’t conscientiously try to create one. My stories are my way of enjoying the world around me. Our daily lives are often fraught with stress and worries that, to me, are best relieved through the power of the written word. When I read and write – I want to be entertained. And that’s what I will always strive to do for my readers. Entertain. And hey, if you learn something along the way, that works too. Happy Reading!



Relic Defender: Key of Solomon

Coming March 1, 2011 from Samhain Publishing

Book 1 of the Relic Defender series



Trust no one…except the one who walks in the dark.


Anthropology PhD candidate Lexi Harrison never bares it all when she belly dances for a strip club crowd. She doesn’t have to—she’s that good. Every performance earns money toward her degree, and restores the sense of power her painful childhood ripped away.

Something is different about tonight. A man whose silver gaze seems to touch her skin beneath her veils. When a rowdy customer crosses the line, he comes to her rescue with the speed of a hawk—complete with wings.

Mikos Tyomni has never seen anyone dance like Lexi. Trust his tormentor, Archangel Michael, to put him in close contact with the cause of his downfall: a mortal woman. Particularly this mortal woman. The Defender. He has only thirty days to win her trust before Hell’s deadliest demon attempts the mother of all prison breaks.

No matter how sexy the messenger is, Lexi’s career plans don’t include some crazy idea she’s the last line of defense against the forces of evil. Until her university mentor’s murder leaves her holding the key to Hell. And fighting a losing battle against a passion forbidden by Heaven.

This title contains a dark and sexy fallen angel, bad-ass demons, a heroine with kick-assitude tossed together with mythology, archeology and a shape-shifting rock with a fondness for the gangsters of the 1920s.
Please check out my Virtual Book Launch website, www.relicdefender.wordpress.com to read more excerpts and for a chance to win some great door prizes.
            Chapter One
“Greed is a fat demon with a small mouth and whatever you feed it is never enough.”
            Janwillem van de Wetering
Chicago, Illinois
University of Chicago
Present Time

Lexi Harrison stalked the hallways of Haskell Hall, the sound of her low-heeled cowboy boots making a satisfying click on the tiled floors. A swift-moving current of fellow students within the Anthropology Department flowed around her, their frenetic movements signaling the approach of the end of the year. This late in the year, no one moved like the proverbial tortoise. Not when finals and dissertations were coming up fast.

In fact, if it hadn’t been for her professor’s urgent summons, by special courier to her apartment for Pete’s sake, she wouldn’t be here herself. Every spare hour, no, second, she had was slotted for polishing her dissertation.

Within the next month, she’d graduate with her PhD and be able to start her new job with the Anderson Wyatt archeological team in the cisternas of Peru. Her fondest wish come true. She didn’t have time to waste. Lexi pursed her lips. Except Professor Xaviera wasn’t just a professor. He’d given so much to her and in so many ways, acted as the father she never had. He called. She came running. No questions. Confusion, definitely, but no questions.

She came to an abrupt halt in front of his office door. A roil of unease curled in her stomach. Why the hell was his door closed? A gregarious man, he preferred a near constant ebb and flow of students and colleagues into his sanctum. A smile twitched on her lips at the memory of one occasion she’d come up on him arguing with the Dean and head of the Anthropology Department.
“I’m the oldest damn professor on staff, and if I want the damn door gone, the damn door should be gone,” she’d heard him shout.

His strident tone had ricocheted down the hallways bouncing off eardrums and making glass shudder. Her professor had lost that battle. One of the few to her knowledge. Since then, she’d never seen the door closed. Until now.

She knocked once before entering. At first, she didn’t see the tall, lean almost Icabod-Cranish skeletal figure of Professor Xavier.

“Please close the door, Lexi.”

Was that her professor? The soft, scratchy voice was nothing like his normally robust and booming tones. After complying, she turned toward the large armchair sitting near a small floor lamp. Professor Xavier sat in the tattered chair, his elbows resting on his knees.

Actually, what he did could not be called sitting. Like a deflated vinyl doll, he slouched, his lean frame bent as if only a little air kept him upright. To her searching gaze, he looked defeated. Broken. Her stomach lurched. As if he’d been forced to do something he didn’t want to do. Were all her carefully crafted plans about to come crashing down like a house of cards? The unease twirling in her gut kicked into high gear.

“Professor, you wanted to see me?” she said.

He didn’t move. Didn’t lift his head. Didn’t twitch. She waited a few seconds. Caught herself rocking with impatience and forced herself to stand still. Then waited a few more seconds. “Professor?” she asked when the seconds stretched into a long-ass minute.

His narrow shoulders lifted into a huge sigh. When his eyes plunged into hers, she started, her weight shifting backward at the lost expression in his dark gaze. What the hell was wrong with him?
Xaviera’s lips pulled into a weak smile that didn’t reach his eyes. “Thank you for coming in.” He gestured to the ladder-back chair that sat opposite his. “Please have a seat. This won’t take long.”




Christ, she felt like a first year student facing down a tenured professor instead of a doctoral student having a conversation with a beloved mentor. She moved around the chair and sat.



“Is there something you need from me?” she asked. “Am I in trouble?”



He sighed again. “No, no. You are not in trouble.” Xaviera wobbled to his feet and stood swaying.



Instead of concern, worry flooded her system. “Professor, are you okay?” Had she ever seen him ill? She couldn’t think of a single time. Yet, right now, his gray tinged skin looked as if he’d just crawled out of the grave.



Another weak smile. “Yes, my dear, I’m fine.”



He walked over to his wall to wall bookcase and pulled out a thick book that looked as if only force of will kept it together. With gentle fingers, he opened the cover. She caught the flash of something gold. Not a book then. Some kind of safe to hide valuables? But, the device looked so real. Even from where she sat, she clearly saw the uneven edges and heard the crackle of pages.



“Actually, I have something to give to you,” he said as he studied the object in his hands.

She felt her eyebrows rise. He had something for her?



Xaviera turned around and stuck out his hand. “Here.”



Equal parts reluctance and compulsion swept through Lexi. Those were followed by a bone-deep warning that his gift threatened to change her perfectly planned life. The life where she’d leave Chicago. Leave Illinois altogether.



About damn time too. The decision to finish her degree at the old age of twenty-six, originally a good idea, soon lost its charm by the time she reached thirty. Nevertheless, Lexi wanted to be done. Done and gone. Too much pain from a lost, lonely childhood haunted Chicago’s streets. Haunted her.



“Please, Lexi. Take it. It’s important.”



With slow movements, she took the box and pulled it near. Her eyes widened. Good grief, was that real gold? She smoothed the tip of her finger over the top. The smoky luster of the gold had a pitted and scratched timeworn appearance, the edges joined as if fused by hand in high heat. Even the rounded corners spoke of handling and environments that took hard edges and whittled them into velvety lines.



Sigils from various religions decorated the burnished sides. An ankh, a cross with a loop at the top that meant eternal life to the ancient Egyptians, took a prominent place on the front, near the latch. On a side panel, the moon in her three phases, waxing, waning and full equaled womankind. As in mother, maiden and crone. Another one she recognized symbolized Thoth, the Egyptian God of the Moon, Magic and Writing. The largest and most recognizable symbol, a pentagram, covered the lid’s surface.



“What is this?” She looked up and met her mentor’s brown gaze. Her head canted. His expression looked, well, odd. Part satisfaction, part anger and part something else. Something she couldn’t identify. Wasn’t sure she wanted to identify. Because, to her searching eyes, it looked too much like terror. What the hell would terrify her fearless professor?



“It’s a gift, Lexi. Think of it as a reward for finishing.” Deep lines at the corners of his mouth flattened and softened. “I’m proud of you.”



“Professor, this box is much too valuable. I can’t accept it.”



“A small trinket.” He waved a hand, the gesture dismissing her protest. “Still, you’ve earned it. I’ve never known as student so dedicated to learning as you have been. It has been a pleasure being your professor.”



She resisted the urge to duck her head and giggle. This courtly and respectful behavior was so unlike Xaviera. So unlike the larger than life, give ’em hell and take no prisoners attitude she usually had the joy of experiencing. This new side, along with his drained appearance, triggered a flight sensation that crawled over her skin.



However, she owed him more than that so all she said was, “Thank you, Professor. I’ll treasure it.”



He nodded and patted her shoulder before moving away. With a heavy grunt, Xaviera sank into the seat he’d vacated. Instantly, he seemed to forget she was in the room. His eyes took on a burning, faraway look. Really, what the heck was wrong with him tonight?



“Professor?” No response. He just sat there staring at something only he could see or maybe he stared at nothing at all.



She stood and went to crouch in front of him, her weight balanced on the balls of her feet. “Professor Xaviera. Are you okay?”



For a second, she didn’t think he heard her. His eyes cleared, and he focused on her, staring straight into her eyes. She rocked back, intending to stand when his hand shot out and grabbed her at the elbow jerking her to a halt. Off balance, she fell to both knees.



“Lexi, you must be strong for what lies ahead. I’ve done the best I could to prepare you but I fear it wasn’t enough. Trust the one who walks in the dark.”



“What are you—?”



Her question broke off when Xaviera threw back his head. He stilled with his eyes turned toward the office door. He unwrapped his fingers. She looked down at the small red marks then looked back at him. “Take the box,” he said. “Go now.” He did not meet her gaze.



Lexi tucked the gold box into her backpack, straightened and turned to leave. At the door, she looked back over her shoulder. The man who was more than a father still would not meet her gaze. Almost as if he was ashamed—her head tilted—or guilty.



“See you later, Professor.”



She grasped the knob and twisted only to feel the knob slip through her grasp and the door gave way. Her momentum, not anticipating the easy give of the door, propelled her forward until she collided into another body.



Instinctively, she rebounded and fell back a step. Hard fingers snagged her shoulders, their heat burning through her T-shirt into her skin. She let out a soft growl. For the second time in less than ten minutes, she’d been grabbed forcefully. Two times too many for someone who hated to be touched. With a shake of her shoulders, she wrenched free.



Only then did she look at her manhandler. He was not handsome. Oh, hell no, not handsome. Such a tame word to describe the man standing in the doorway of her professor’s office. Other descriptives came to mind. Proud. Compelling. Arrogant. Smoldering sensuality in the curve of his lips and silver glint in his dark eyes.



“My apologies.” He bent his head in a brief nod. “Did I interrupt?” His voice pitched low was obviously meant to be soothing. That’s the last thing it was.



Lexi resisted the urge to cross her arms over her chest and raised her chin. “No worries. I was just leaving.” She held his thoughtful gaze, her own unwavering.



A slow smile tugged at the corners of his mouth before he stepped fully into the office and away from the exit. Without another look, she left but before the man closed the door behind her, she thought she heard him say, “Until the next time.”



But she couldn’t be sure. Too much noise in the hallway. Her shoulders lifted into a shrug. Who cared? She had more important things on her mind. Her professor’s weird behavior and the gift of an expensive gold box. The final draft of her dissertation on her laptop eagerly awaiting her return.



Meanwhile

Somewhere in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt

“Bring it to me,” Beliel called. He rocked, wrestling with the urge to join the five men struggling to climb the dune’s steep incline. By the black waters of Styx, he’d waited long enough.



Scorching light from the mid-day sun beat down on top of his head. He swiped a trembling finger through the liquid hanging on the end of his nose. A drop escaped and fell to his grit-covered mouth. Cracked lips soaked up the salty wetness.



“Lucifer’s balls,” he snarled. “If the dolts moved any slower the shifting sands would reshape the dune before they reached midpoint.”



“Indeed, master,” the misshapen figure crouched at his side crooned. Gaarp peered up at him. The soul-stealer’s over-sized mouth stretched wide. Pointed teeth, gray and jagged, flashed. “Shall I—encourage—them to move faster?”



Beliel shifted closer to the edge. The ground softened. Ripples flowed out from under his feet and traveled downward pushing the fine sand and pebbles into waves. He halted and fixed his unblinking gaze on the tableau below.

“No. Not while they bear the vessel. Until they’ve delivered the relic, I still need them.” He narrowed his eyes. “Afterward… We’ll see.”



“Yes, master.” Gaarp giggled. “Still, they are rather clumsy and vulgar.”



As if to underscore his words, one of the men wobbled, sandaled feet slipping. He lost his balance and fell to his bare knee. Debris clattered and plunged back into the recently excavated hole. The bronze jar tilted precariously, rocking on the oak plank.



“Careful, you idiots,” Beliel shouted.



Seemingly possessed with a will of their own, his hands reached out. He growled and curled his fingers into two hard fists. Without the book, he could not touch the vessel. He dug the nails deeper into weak flesh. The pain from the mortal body he occupied was a reminder of how limited he was. How stymied by the constraints placed on him by Solomon. Even from his grave, the bastard reached out to stop him from reaching his goal.



Beliel glanced down. Gaarp leaned forward. Small eyes, dark and rapacious, stared at the humans. Dark, oily saliva oozed from his open mouth.



“Gaarp,” Beliel spat. The soul-stealer whined as he tore his gaze away and looked up. “Do not damage them but go remind the humans the price they’ll pay if they destroy the vessel.”



Gaarp shivered, his pebbled skin swelling as his true form manifested. Formed of hellfire, Syndon demons had the ability to shift from a solid into a gaseous shape. The grayish cloud that was once a four-foot high demon with a taste for human souls sped down the side of the dune and wrapped itself around the men’s heads.



Several men paled, their faces graying under the light beige dust. Even with the soul-stealer whispering threats and warnings, the clumsy oafs recovered their balance and continued their mincing slide and step upward. A smile pulled at the corners of Beliel’s lips. Gaarp definitely had his uses.



At the top, within a few feet of where Beliel impatiently waited, the men halted and placed the vessel before him. In testament to the weight of the urn, their panting breaths broke the early morning hush, an odorous delight of garlic, zangabeel root and foul breath tainting the faint breeze.



His nostrils flared. He took an abrupt step forward then halted as common sense fought for, and won, control over chaotic emotions. His hungry gaze drank in the physical embodiment of his desires. Every nerve in this mortal shell twitched with anticipation. To know that after centuries of searching, he was within a mere breath of time to having the means, and the power, to wrest Hell from Lucifer.



Mystical sigils and wedge-shaped patterns writhed, etching their protective spells deep into the ageless bronze jar. Scriptures and symbols guarded the seventy-two spirits imprisoned inside with the sole purpose of preventing what he intended to do. His lips spread into a thin-lipped smile.



“Soon, my brothers. Soon you’ll be free.” He reached out, quivering fingers hovering over the still bright metal. The impulse to caress the sand-polished exterior, to smooth his fingers over the sharp-edged sigils, shredded his self-preservation. He could not stop his fingers from moving closer.



Human flesh burned and shrank away from the Lord’s fire, his weapon burrowing through fragile mortal skin and tissue to seek the demon hiding inside. Skin sizzled and split. Clear fluids splattered, spitting and evaporating as they touched the metal. The crippling pain the human soul felt was nothing to Beliel. Like the buzzing of a biting insect, a mere inconvenience.



“My king, the humans grow restless.” Gaarp said his voice the rough scratch of iron on stone. The soul-stealer kept his vaporous shape as he drifted by Beliel’s side. “They huddle and bleat like foolish sheep.”



Beliel lifted his head. “Picku mater!” he swore then spat at the ground.



A violent shudder ripped through him, and he flinched backwards, away from temptation. Even clothed in the covering of mortal skin, he could not touch the vessel. If he continued to try, the spell’s power would destroy him.



Low mutters and oaths drifted toward him. He blew out a hissing breath, and his gaze swung to the workers. Shuffling feet kicked up sand and dark eyes wide enough to see large expanses of white returned his glare. Their frightened gazes skittered from his face to his charred arm and back again.



“Indeed. Sheep. An apt comparison.” He chuckled, a hollow sound that lacked amusement. “Time to deal with the unbelievers.”



He withdrew his hand and licked blistered lips. A tall, lean human with heavy brows shading tiny eyes, stepped forward. An expression of disgust wrinkled his thick nose. Shaggy hair threaded with gray lay in greasy tendrils to his shoulders.



“What is this?” The human gestured to the vessel then to Beliel’s blistered and blackened arm.



Pinning him with an unblinking stare, Beliel used his non-injured hand to unroll his shirtsleeve. The rough fabric scratched burnt skin and fresh needles of agony jabbed raw nerves.



He ignored the pain and growled, “This is not your concern. The felous I paid you did not buy your curiosity. Do not make me forget my offer. Back away.”



The human’s eyes widened further, the dark centers constricting. He yanked himself away, his hands up, palms facing outward. Beliel lowered his chin and smiled, a tight smile he knew didn’t reach his eyes. Yes, human, be afraid. His gaze sharpened on the ashen face. Afraid will make you smart. Afraid will keep you alive.



Bah. Ignorant mortals. They expected a treasure. Wealth. What were riches to him? The vessel’s inhabitants had far more value than mere gold, jewels or the flimsy paper these mortals called money.



Shutting out the greedy men, Beliel considered the beginning of the end of his plans. He circled the jar. Now that he had the vessel, all he needed was the—. He came to a shuddering stop.



Where was it? A crash of panic swept through him. In his borrowed chest, his heart turned into a block of ice. It should be there. Momentarily speechless, he circled the vessel again. And again. Each empty pass around the shining foundation of his plans bounced an insidious chant throughout his mind. Not there. Not there. Not there.



No matter how hard he looked, the Key was not there.



Beliel’s stomach churned, acid roiling upward, filling his throat. His fingers clenched and unclenched into tight fists. Surely, the mortals had brought everything from the well. Even they could not be so stupid as to leave anything behind. With effort he inhaled, fighting nausea, and drew in a spicy mix of sun-baked metal, salty sweat and pungent dust.



“Where is the Key?” The words came out in a harsh, raw sound, echoing with all the horror of Hell. He fought to keep his power contained. To keep from popping through his flesh suit like overripe fruit bursting in the heat to reveal his real, hell-birthed form hidden beneath.



Matching expressions of confusion lined the men’s foreheads. “The book. Where is the book?” he ground out between clenched teeth. Stupid humans.



“Mawlana, we found nothing else. No book.” A stout man, the one who’d slipped on the dune, babbled as his companions tried to quiet him. “Just the jar. The pit was empty.”

Blood rushed to Beliel’s cheeks. In the space of a blink, he stood in front of the startled man. Before the foolish mortal could flee, Beliel punched his hand into the human’s neck, tearing through flesh, and ripped out his throat. A gurgling shriek pierced the air. Warm blood spurted, cascading down over the man’s chest to form a scarlet puddle in the sand. A second later, the man’s lifeless body fell to the ground.



With a hideous, piercing screech of pleasure, Gaarp rushed to the human, covering the corpse in a greasy sheen. When the dead man’s soul tried to flee, the soul-stealer’s hungry jaws locked onto the human’s animus and tore it to shreds. The body jerked a few times before collapsing. Now, instead of the rotund shape, a red-stained, flaccid heap of tattered, filthy clothing littered the ground.



With the human’s severed throat still in his grip, Beliel lifted his gaze to the remaining men. Like a falling set of dominos, one after the other turned from the body of their downed companion to face him. They backed away. Fear, stark and vivid, glittered in wide eyes.



Casually, he tossed the chunk of meat at the corpse and shook off most of the sticky substance from his fingers. The rest he rubbed on his clothes. His gaze stayed locked on the humans’ terrified faces. What did they see? Blood red eyes filled with flame? A shadow of what he really was showing through the thin shell of the mortal skin he wore?

He bared his teeth. The scent of their horror permeated the air like the smell of moldering fruit. Sweet and sour. Teasing tastes of decay. Tantalizing fodder for an empathic demon’s delight. The workers continued to retreat, stumbling over each other in their exodus.



“Wagef!” When his command in their language to stop had no discernable effect, he thrust out a hand and muttered an incantation. His breath wheezed through his teeth with the effort it took to work power within a human form.



As if jerked to a halt by ropes around their bodies, the humans froze. A smile of satisfaction twisted his lips. He’d prefer to rip their bodies into tiny pieces and let Gaarp have their souls, but Beliel could ill afford to lose these mortals. Who would then carry the vessel? None with the taint of Hell could touch it. As much as he might want to kill them, he needed these humans alive, instead of serving as food, for a while longer.



He waved a hand in dismissal. “Take the vessel to El-Arish. There is a ship waiting.”



With another spell that left his muscles quivering, he implanted the compulsion to do as he commanded. On quick, if a bit shaky, legs, the three men got into the truck. The grating rumble of the engine lingered longer than the dust and view of the battered truck.



Beliel jerked his head at Gaarp. “Go with them. Make sure the vessel is safely on board the ship then report back to me.”



“And the men, my king?” Gaarp purred. “What of them?”



“I have no further use for them.”



A low, gurgling chuckle came from the soul-stealer. “Thank you, my king.” With a crackle of sound and yellow-green flash of light, the Syndon demon disappeared.



Beliel glowered at the vessel’s empty resting place. Whirling sand coated the outside edges. Within days, blowing sand and detritus from the whirling desert storms the land’s inhabitants called simoons would fill the pit, obscuring all signs of its existence. As it had for centuries.



He drove his fist into the center of his burned palm. The burst of agony washed over him like waves on a shallow reef. He welcomed the pain even as the human inside writhed in torment. If the simpletons had indeed searched each inch, by the fires of Hell, where was King Solomon’s Key? Where was the pretender’s spell book, the book that contained the magic he needed to not only release the spirits but also take their power for his own?



Lucifer’s balls, he needed the cursed Key. Everything depended on his ability to unseal the vessel. If he could not… No, he refused to think it.



If the Key was not with the vessel, then only the Defender could have it. Damn it. This meant more time wasted. He’d been a fool not to keep watch over the humans’ protector. No matter. His minions would find the Defender; the book would be his and soon after, so would the kingdom of Hell. Backed by the power of seventy-two fallen spirits, Lucifer would not be able to stand against him.



With an ease born of centuries of use, Beliel ripped his spirit from the abused body of the human. Just before he entered the Under Realm, he glanced back at the crumpled form of his host. Wide eyes stared unseeingly at the cloudless sky. In the deep lines cut into the mortal’s face, crippling pain wrote a message of horror.



Ah, yes. Beliel smiled. He’d have it all.