Sneak Peak! – Chapter 1 of The Amulet of Caorunn

We want to make it clear that we aren't the ones making you wait for The Amulet of Caorunn, the seventh Jinx Hamilton book. Blame Jinx herself. As she's wrapping up the story, however, we did convince her to let us give you the first chapter as a sneak peek. Enjoy!

Chapter 1

One morning early in November, my best friend and business partner, Tori Andrews, handed me a wrapped package when I came downstairs from my apartment over the store. We have coffee together every day and discuss business, like what kind of beans we needed to order for the espresso bar.

That morning, we had a lot more to talk about than the merits of Hawaiian Arabica versus Brazilian. Her parents, Gemma and Scrap Andrews, just ended their 35-year marriage. The conclusion of the legal proceedings marked the beginning of a kind of migration from our childhood home, Cotterville, North Carolina to Briar Hollow.

Tori’s mom, Gemma, and my folks, Jeff and Kelly Hamilton, bought two buildings on our town square — Gemma across the corner from George and Irma’s grocery store and my parents two doors down from us past Chase McGregor’s cobbler shop.

Throughout the summer, in the months just after I took over the store from Aunt Fiona, I dated Chase, but we faced hurdles worthy of the Complicated Relationship Hall of Fame.

You see, I’m a witch — we all are, except Tori and Gemma use their abilities to study alchemy. Chase and his father, Festus, are werecats and the sworn guardians of our hereditary line, the Daughters of Knasgowa. However, witch and werecat magic aren’t compatible when it comes to what they insist on referring to as “mating.” The feeling against such unions is so strong, it amounts to a taboo among their kind.

Unfortunately, the McGregors seem to like the strong women my family routinely produces — they like us a lot. Festus still carries a torch for my mother, and I think he was kind of sweet on my grandmother, Kathleen Ryan.

Werecats live much longer than humans, which you can either see as a chance for more experiences and adventures or a ticket to greater heartbreak. The more I talk with Festus, I think both are true.

Am I human? That’s an idea I struggled with in the beginning. I didn’t know about my magic until I was almost 30 years old. I didn’t know that there are beings called the Fae who primarily occupy another dimension known as the Otherworld or that sandwiched between that place and the human realm is a no man’s land labeled simply the “In Between.”

Once, hundreds of years ago, humans accepted magic as just another part of nature. The Fae had great affection for humans and interacted with them routinely. But then a new idea began to sweep across the face of the world, the Christian religion.

As the power of the organized Church grew, humans drove magic into the shadows. Witch hunters hanged the accused, pressed them under massive stones to extract confessions, broke their fingers with thumb screws, and in some instances burned their victims alive.

The horrible truth is that the vast majority of those who died weren’t witches at all, a tragedy that caused tremendous pain for the real witches. One reason the Fae go to such lengths to keep their world and their affairs hidden from human view is because they’ve seen the horrors of human hysteria.

Coming into my magic, I struggled with the idea that I might be something evil. Here’s a simple but difficult fact; different doesn’t always mean evil. I am Fae. If I spend most of my time here in the human realm, I’ll live a fairly conventional span of years. But the more my powers grow, and the more time I spend in the Otherworld, the longer I’m going to be around.

At first, my powers scared me. I found the affairs of the Fae reality complicated and confusing. Now I’d describe myself as curious and excited. Let me try to explain.

I dated this guy in high school who loved to take pictures of bugs. Like most teenage girls — and even though I would describe myself as a tomboy — I drew the line at creepy crawlies. Not Jimmy.

“You don’t have to touch them, Jinx,” he said. “Just look at my pictures. These are the eyes of a butterfly, and see that long, curly tube? That’s called a proboscis. It works like a straw. The butterfly uses that tube to drink nectar.”

Jimmy showed me spider’s faces and the veins in the wings of dragonflies. He made me see that underneath rocks or on the bottom side of leaves or way back in the dusty corners of attics, there are alternate worlds. To the fly caught in the spider’s web, the monster coming toward it looks just as big as Godzilla up there on the movie screen.

With the lens of his camera, Jimmy changed my perspective on what I saw going on around me and what I didn’t. That’s how I feel about being Fae. I’ve been given a different lens to see a part of life most people don’t know about and couldn’t handle if they did. For me, that knowledge carries extra responsibilities.

Magic, like all life on this planet, sprang from the natural order, but that includes a system of checks and balances. If you’ve ever heard of Newton’s Third Law, you’ll have some idea what I’m trying to describe. “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.”

Where there is light, there is also dark.

If you’re going to fully appreciate the story I’m about to tell you, we need to turn our attention back to the 12th century for just a minute, to two men, Gregorius Chesterfield and Henri de St. Clair. Both were Fae wizards and Knights Templar. They rode together to the Crusades not to fight for the church, but to ensure that the magical artifacts of the “Infidels” were not destroyed or worse yet, used to commit evil acts against humankind.

Gregorius had a son named Irenaeus, and Henri fathered a daughter named Brenna. Neither of those two children possessed hereditary magic and both, in time, made a deal with the darkness to become “made” practitioners — the first Creavit.

Nine centuries later, people like me are still trying to clean up their messes. The Creavit are immortal, ambitious, and prone to play power games with little thought to the collateral damage they might cause.

Just a couple of weeks before Tori handed me that wrapped present, Irenaeus Chesterfield kidnapped my brother. We got Connor back safely, but Chesterfield managed to get his hands on the Amulet of Caorunn, an artifact that might have the ability to sever the realms and set Chesterfield up to rule over the humans as a Creavit dictator.

When I reached to accept the gift Tori was holding out, I spotted Rodney peeking out of the collar of her sweater.

“What’s this all about?” I asked. “And I see that we have an audience. Good morning, Rodney.”

The black and white domestic rat held up one paw and waved in response. Then he pointed at the packaged and mimed ripping the paper.

“Hold on,” I laughed. “Let me at least sit down.”

Rodney is something of a mystery. He was left at the front door of the shop shortly before I took over from Aunt Fiona. Clearly, he has no trouble communicating with us — even to the point of using a computer keyboard — but he remains mum on the subject of his life BBH (Before Briar Hollow).

“He’s not the only curious one,” Tori said. “You might as well show yourself Darby.”

Our in-house brownie immediately materialized by her elbow. Invisibility is only one of Darby’s many, many talents. Honestly, I don’t know what we’d do without the little guy for all kinds of reasons.

A disturbing amount of my life tends to be lived in metaphysical disarray, But physically? We could be on the cover of Better Home and Garden. Darby keeps the store, the lair, and our apartments immaculate — and he cooks for us —  all of which makes him six feet tall in my book. (He actually stands just under 2’11”.)

“Well,” I said, “and good morning to you, too.”

“Good morning, Mistress,” he said cheerfully. “We can hardly wait to see if you like your gift. Please do as Rodney says and rip the paper off now.”

“Won’t happen,” Tori said, as I sat down and began to painstakingly apply the edge of my fingernail to the first piece of tape. “She’s just like her mother  — peels the tape and folds the paper.”

I almost had the first piece of tape off cleanly when I stopped. “Wait a minute,” I said, “aren’t we short one spectator here?”

On cue, a Barbie-sized green witch on a broom banked low over the espresso counter, zipped into the scene, and came to a hovering halt in front of my face.

Glory is a former archivist for the State of North Carolina colorized and shrunk by — you guessed it — Irenaeus Chesterfield. The Creavit wizard sent her into our shop as a spy, with vague promises that he’d restore her to her normal self if she helped him get what he wanted.

That was never going to happen regardless of what Glory did or didn’t tell him, something she figured out when her cover was blown. She defected to our side because we enlarged her from 3 inches to her current towering 6.5 inches. Well, that and she’s absolutely terrified of Chesterfield.

“I thought you had to be around here somewhere,” I said. “You’re cutting it a little close flying through the shop just before we open, aren’t you?”

Balancing herself perfectly on the broom, Glory put her hands on her hips. “I’m not the one taking forever to open the present,” she said. “Get on with it!”

“Yeah, what she said,” Tori agreed. “Come on, Jinksy. I bet you’re even going to fold the tissue paper, aren’t you?”

“Of course,” I said, removing the lid from the box, “who in their right mind would waste . . .”

As I drew the first layer of tissue aside, the words caught in my throat. Rodney’s eyes went wide, and he put one paw over his mouth. Glory let out with a “wow” that made her wobble in mid-air, and Darby stood on tiptoe to get a better look.

A book bound in dark leather lay nestled in the silver and blue tissue, its hand-tooled cover bearing a majestic tree I recognized immediately; the Mother Oak that grows in the center of Shevington. That’s the Fae sanctuary in the Otherworld founded and still governed by my many times great-grandfather, Barnaby Shevington.

The decorative border around the tree panel bore perfect miniature depictions of the flock of dragonlets that greet me every time I pass through the portal to Shevington. My embossed initials appeared in the lower right-hand corner in elegant gothic letters, NJH.

“I designed the cover, but Connor made it,” Tori explained. “We had Mr. Pagecliff do the binding and enchantment. Write all you want to, Jinksy. You’ll never run out of pages. Every witch needs a grimoire to help her study her magic.”

Darby nodded solemnly. “Mistress Tori is correct,” he said. “The shelves in the archives hold the grimoires of your ancestors and those of many other great witches and wizards.”

Our building sits atop a fairy mound, which resides cloaked in the In Between. If other people go downstairs, they’re in a cluttered, dirty space filled with spiders big enough to saddle.

We enter a work area equipped for our needs and elegantly furnished with leather chairs and sofas, lush Oriental rugs, paneling, bookshelves, and a fireplace that never goes out or needs cleaning.

The fairy mound also serves as an archive for Fae documents and artifacts. In Myrtle’s absence, Darby tends the collection.

“Thank you,” I said to Tori, with tears in my eyes, “both of you. I’ll call Connor later and tell him how much I love it.”

Tori grinned. “You’re welcome,” she said, “but there’s more. Open the cover.”

Gently lifting the grimoire — my grimoire — clear of the tissue, I opened the book, delighting in the intoxicating smell of new leather. Inside, resting in a loop next to the pages, I found a breathtaking black pen overlaid with an intricate design of crimson swirls. It took me a minute to realize the lines formed a great bird. The wings stretched out to wrap the barrel as if the creature strained to reach the golden nib.

“That’s from Barnaby and Moira,” Tori said. “Same deal as the grimoire. You’ll never run out of ink and if you need to draw something, just think about the image you want to create and the pen will do the rest.”

Tori knows me better than anyone. Without magic, I can’t draw a straight line with a ruler.

“Alchemy?” I asked.

Moira is the resident Alchemist in Shevington. She and Granddad are in a relationship, which they try and fail to keep secret.

Tori nodded. “The ink contains a formula to aid in the transformation of raw ideas.”

Running my fingers over the design, I said, “And this is the Great Phoenix, the bird that rose from the ashes.”

As a Daughter of Knasgowa, I also serve as a kind of priestess to the Mother Tree. In Latin, I’m called Quercus de Pythonissam, the Witch of the Oak.

Now, before you ask, I don’t fully understand the responsibilities of my job — or I didn’t then. The complexities of the Fae world and its interaction with the human realm represent a long learning curve. The intricate connections stretch back for centuries.

The Fae lead incredibly long lives. My grandfather, who was born in 1125, will turn 891 this year. Just before Christmas, he confessed to us that his real name is Barnabas Chesterfield. Irenaeus is his younger brother by five years. The dynamics of their relationship are, in modern psychological terms, “dysfunctional” at best.

There’s some accouterment that comes with my position as Witch of the Oak — a sentient staff named Dilestos, and an amber amulet encasing a single feather of the Phoenix.

That bit of bling currently hangs around the neck of my second father and dear confidante, Colonel Beauregard T. Longworth. In the interest of full disclosure, I will tell you Beau’s technically dead. The amulet allows him to have corporeal form.

“It’s perfect,” I said, standing and pulling Tori into a hug. “I love all of it.”

“We just thought maybe starting to work on your grimoire would help you get a handle on everything that’s happened this year. Consider it an early birthday present.”

“Great,” I said, releasing her and wiping my eyes, “your birthday is three days after mine, and there is now literally no way I’m going to come up with a present for you that is anywhere near this awesome.”

“Yeah,” she grinned, “but you’ll try, which means one way or another, I’ll score something cool. That’s a win/win in the Tori column.”

I was so blown away by the thoughtfulness; I could have easily dissolved into a sentimental, crying lump. Instead, I squared my shoulders and said, “Okay, show’s over. Tori and I have to get to work and you three need to get out of here so we can open up.”

For Rodney that simply meant burrowing back into Tori’s sweater. Darby winked out of sight on his own, and I held the basement door open to Glory could fly back downstairs to the lair.

She hovered in mid-air a few inches in front of my face before making the descent. “Jinx Hamilton,” she declared, “even if you do have an awful, terrible, evil, scary wizard trying to get you pretty much all the time, I think you may be the luckiest witch alive.”

With that, she zoomed through the doorway, disappearing into the darkness below. As her words sunk in, a feeling of gratitude washed over me. I couldn’t agree with her more.

That feeling stayed with me all day and put a spring in my step that night as I carried the grimoire down to my new alcove in the lair.

When our friend and mentor, the ancient being we called Myrtle, lived with us, I thought she was responsible for any additions to our subterranean headquarters. But then Myrtle was forced to merge with the Mother Tree to heal from exposure to a toxic artifact, and the lair went right on expanding and improving itself anyway.

With no input from us, the fairy mound anticipates our wants and needs, generally before we realize what those things mights be.

The day after my brother’s return, I walked downstairs and found an alcove outfitted with a desk, bookshelves, a comfortable, easy chair upholstered in soft fabric, and a tiny private fireplace. An unseen hand tugged at me to investigate more closely.

“Is that for me?” I asked.

In response, a curtain dragged itself across the arched entry way. Woven into the pattern in my handwriting was the message, “Please do not disturb. Thanks, Jinx.”

That made me laugh, but when I stepped through the curtain into the cozy space, I immediately appreciated just how considerate the fairy mound had been. The covering didn’t just shield me from prying eyes, it substituted the soothing sounds of a forest and running water for any external noise.

When I retreated to the alcove with my new grimoire, I had the curtain open and was sitting in the desk chair looking at the book and thinking. Under the desk, my feet bumped against the leather satchel my mother passed on to me months before. It contained all the private notebooks kept by my matrilineal ancestors.

Next to the chair, Dilestos reclined in a softly padded niche created specifically for her comfort. I knew the staff felt contented because the raw quartz set atop the polished oak pulsated slowly and emitted a barely discernible but completely companionable hum.

I thought I was alone until Festus McGregor sauntered into the alcove, jumped into the easy chair, circled three times, and lay down with a sigh. Festus lives in his small werecat form to better accommodate the limitations of a lame hip. In their large form, both he and Chase are mountain lions.

“Well,” I said, eyeing him a little sardonically, “make yourself at home.”

“Don’t mind if I do,” the ginger tom said placidly. “It’s nice in here.”

“It is,” I agreed, “but I don’t know why the fairy mound decided to make a space especially for me now.”

“Because you need it,” Festus replied without hesitation. “That’s how the fairy mound works. It sensed you needed some place for private reflection and created it for you. This alcove should come in pretty handy when you’re up to something you want to hide from the rest of us.”

He delivered the last line with an eye whisker waggle that told me he already had me dead to rights. Trust me, if you need a fast buck, play cards with me. I can’t bluff to save my life — at least not with someone who knows me as well as Festus does.

I might have dated the son, but I also cultivated a good friendship with the father. Festus can be an irascible old coot at times, but he’s also one of the most honorable men I’ve ever known — with two legs or four. If I told him what I was working on, the information would never leave the alcove.

I stood up and pulled the curtain over the archway.

Festus fixed me with a satisfied cat face. “I thought so,” he said. “What are you up to?”

“I asked Hiram Folger to do me a favor,” I replied.

This time those ever-expressive eye whiskers drew together in a decidedly feline frown. “You mean the dead guy out at the cemetery? The one who pitches on the baseball team?”

“Yes,” I said. “You know that Tori and Beau have ghosts from all over the south wanting to play in the Dead Majors?”

Through an odd series of events, I had a sort of ectoplasmic, ball-playing Pinkerton Detective Agency at my disposal. After Beau became solid and moved in with us, Tori got him interested in baseball. Soon interest turned to obsession, and the Colonel organized his deceased friends at the graveyard into two opposing teams.

When a trio of local ghost hunters — one of whom was currently employed upstairs as our barista — managed to get footage of a game in progress, the video went viral on YouTube. Although I’m still not sure how, a ghost buried in the Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville, Kentucky got wind of the incident.

Said spirit happened to be Henry Clay Pulliam, the deceased 1906 president of the National League, who contacted our spirits about organizing a league for players from the other side.

Beau and Tori wanted to do it, but I only got on board after we struck a deal with the local team. The Briar Hollow ghosts could play and even host out-of-graveyard opponents, but in exchange, they had to become our actual “spooks” — as in intelligence agents. When you’re constantly the target of outlaw Creavit, you want boots on the ground even if they’re transparent.

“Yeah,” he said, “I know about the League. Me and Rube are planning to make book on the season.”

Rube, a raccoon, works as a containment specialist with the International Registry for Shapeshifters and does undercover work for the Division for Grid Integrity. I know Rube through Lucas Grayson and his partner, Greer MacVicar. The Mother Tree recently assigned the two DGI agents to work with me, and they’ve become lair regulars along with the rest of us.

Holding up my hand to stop Festus, I said, “Don’t tell me. Ignorance is bliss where you and Rube are concerned.”

“Fine,” Festus sniffed, “but I was going to offer to cut you in.”

“Moving on,” I said. “I asked Hiram if he could get me in touch with someone inside the Raleigh ghost community. He talked to a dead player for the Raleigh Capitals and came up with a name.”

Festus eyed me with an odd mixture of suspicion and admiration. “Are you trying to recruit outside the legal process and run in a ringer? Because if you’re into that kind of game fixing? I have serious respect for you.”

“What? No! Festus!” I said. “Could you get your mind off gambling and listen to me? I’m trying to get us a lead on where Chesterfield went the night Connor and Gareth got away from him.”

Chesterfield kidnapped my brother, but Connor escaped aided by a somewhat hapless amateur alchemist named Gareth who had been trapped inside a chess set since 1890. Gareth managed to transport them both inside Chesterfield’s fountain pen and back out again when the wizard absent-mindedly left the writing instrument in his Raleigh hotel room.

We believe he went to meet with a thief named John Smyth to arrange to buy the Amulet of Caorunn, another Fae pendant, but this one crafted from amber derived from the Mother Rowan and encasing three rowan berries.

“Do Barnaby and Moira know about this?” Festus asked.

“No.”

“Lucas and Greer?”

“No.”

“That uptight boy of mine?”

“No,” I said, with exasperation. “Let’s not turn this into a game of twenty questions. You’re the only person I’ve told.”

“What’s up with that?” he asked, with genuine curiosity.

“I’m tired of running around like some little kid asking permission from the grown-ups,” I said. “Does everything have to be some major coordinated plan all the time?”

“It does not,” Festus said, with a note of approval.

I started to thank him and then realized that would more or less contradict my little declaration of witchly independence. I swear to you the old cat read my mind and bailed me out.

“So,” he said, “who did the dead guy tell you to see?”

“Mary Willis Mordecai Turk,” I replied.

Festus’ eyes expanded. “That can’t be her real name,” he said.

“I’m afraid it is,” I replied. “She haunts a place called Mordecai House that dates to around 1758.”

“When you say ‘haunt,’ exactly what do you mean?” he asked warily.

“What’s the matter, fraidy cat?” I said. “Since when do you have a problem with ghosts?”

From time to time the spirit of Festus’ father, James makes an appearance in the lair, usually to have a conversation with Beau. The two of them are Lodge brothers. James found Beau’s body on the battlefield back in 1864 and arranged for him to have a Masonic funeral. That act of kindness created a bond between them that no form of death can shatter.

“For your information,” Festus said, “I’ve gotten enough ectoplasm in my fur from hacked off haunts to last me through all nine lives and then some. If this one is a slimer, I’m not your cat.”

“Who said I wanted you to go talk to her?” I asked, feigning innocence.”

“Oh, please,” Festus scoffed. “How are you supposed to take a hop through the Raleigh portal without someone noticing? I go up there all the time.”

I sighed. “Okay, busted. Will you do it?”

“Sure,” he said, “what do you want me to find out?”

Opening the top drawer of my desk, I pulled out a map of Raleigh and laid it on the ottoman in front of the chair. Festus sat up and leaned over to look at the map.

“This,” I said, pointing to a spot, “is the hotel where Chesterfield stayed the night Connor and Gareth escaped, and this is Miss Shania Moonbeam’s Divinatory Emporium where they asked for help thinking she was the real magical deal.”

“Miss Shania is the real deal alright,” Festus muttered, “a real deal nutcase.”

“Now stop that,” I said. “She’s very nice, just a little over the top.”

“Whatever,” Festus muttered, still studying the map. “This is interesting,” he said, pointing with the tip of one claw. “Look how close the hotel is to Chesterfield’s old apartment.”

“Exactly,” I said. “The restaurant where he met with John Smyth has to be close, but there’s always the possibility he took a cab somewhere. I’m hoping Mrs. Turk can put the word out on the ghost grapevine. If a spirit saw Chesterfield and this Smyth character, maybe we can get some real information on their meeting.”

“As in, did any goods trade hands?” Festus said. “Okay, I like it. I’ll go talk to Mrs. Turkey.”

“Do not start, Festus,” I warned. “You be polite to this woman. She’s been haunting the house since 1937. She wears a gray dress and plays the piano. Sometimes she only appears as a mist. Very benign stuff. I figure you can get in and out unseen.”

“Of course I can,” Festus said, puffing out his chest. “I’m a professional. If she can help us narrow the search, I can talk to the street cats and see what they know.”

That took me off guard. “Street cats?” I asked. “You don’t mean other werecats, do you?”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Festus said, stretching and yawning. “I mean street ferals. I may be a werecat, but I do speak Felinese with a perfect North American accent. How do you think I talk to your cats?”

“About that,” I said, “are you the one who put it in Yule’s head that nothing but pâté is acceptable?”

“I just explained to him the delicate art of the protest barf,” Festus chuckled. “Did he get your shoes like I told him to?”

“He did,” I said, “but I’m a little surprised you eat cat food. I’ve never seen you eat anything but human food.”

“I get hungry for something ethnic now and then,” Festus said, “but that crap you’re feeding your guys is disgusting. I mean seriously, would you eat anything labeled ‘chopped grill’ that costs forty cents a can?”

“Well, I . . . I never thought about it,” I sputtered.

“I suggest you get on that,” Festus said, hopping to the floor and switching his tail. “If your guys don’t start seeing some quality tuna and salmon coming through the door, I’m moving them up to advanced regurgitation resistance tactics. You’ve been warned. I’ll get back to you on the Mrs. Turkey thing.”

And with that, he slid through the curtain and was gone.

About the Author

Juliette Harper is the pen name used by the writing team of Patricia Pauletti and Rana K. Williamson. As a writer, Juliette's goal is to create strong female characters facing interesting, challenging, painful, and at times comical situations. Refusing to be bound by genre, her primary interest lies in telling good stories.

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