Dana Alexander
Dana Alexander
Dana Alexander

Weaving fantasy, reality, and seduction...

Excerpt: A Light Within

Book 2: The Three Keys

Chapter 1

“Bleeding hearts will never survive. Foolish girl. Faster, Sara, run!” a booming voice said, breaking the silence like a thunderclap. All I could hear now were the gasps of breath that escaped me and the heavy pounding of my heart thudding in my ears. I couldn’t run fast enough to catch whatever I was chasing or escape from that which was close at my heels. The fact was I could see neither, but the sensation of urgency still tore through me. I tripped and fell, hitting my head.

I blinked open my eyes and felt as though I was trying to catch my breath. A trickle of cold sweat beading on my chest and back sent a shiver through me, as I gazed out the window over the foggy landscape.

“The road is a bit bumpy. Sorry it woke you,” Kevin said, glancing at me. “Are you okay? You look pale.”

“Yeah. I’m fine, thanks,” I said, swallowing hard. I slid a hand over the top of my head and straightened in the car seat. My heart was beginning to slow at the abrupt realization I was no longer in Ardan, another world immortals could travel to during sleep, but instead with Kevin on the mission to obtain the first key of enlightenment and, with any luck, rescue humanity. I must have dozed on the drive from the airport. I could see the faint outline of Doune Castle through the clouds at the top of the hill just a little way up the road.

“What scared you? Where were you?” Kevin asked, reading my thoughts.     

“I don’t know. Maybe Ardan. I didn’t recognize the world I traveled to this time.”

“We can wait here a few minutes if you’d like,” he said, pulling to the side of the road.

“No, no. I’m fine.” My head was throbbing with lack of sleep and the need for water. “Better to keep moving. Besides, we aren’t going to get less tired.”

After the narrow escape from the dark shadows hunting me the night before, neither of us had rested well on the nearly seven-hour flight from New York to Scotland. And now here we were, plunged into the center of our mission to find the guardian of the key, one of three that would rescue earth.

Better get used to this, Sara. There could be several sleepless nights on this journey. The gentle touch of Kevin’s hand against my cheek pulled me from my thoughts. I lifted my eyes to his, deep brown with flecks of gold winking back at me, reading every thought and emotion. Through tired eyes, I dropped my gaze to his lips and back to meet his stare.

“Let’s go,” I said.

We left the car parked on the side of the road and climbed up the long, cobblestone path toward the main entrance of Lord’s Tower, an extension of Doune Castle and a seemingly longer walk than necessary with the wind pressing against us, as though invisible hands urged us to stay away. I pulled my coat tighter around me as another gust blew fiercely past us. Kevin, undisturbed by the weather, tilted his head into the oncoming blast of cold air like a bull ready to charge his opponent. The sky was filled with shades of rain-heavy gray and white clouds, blocking out any trace of blue.

Under the shelter of the overhang, in front of two enormous wooden doors, Kevin and I glanced at each other with the knowledge of the dangerous venture that waited beyond the entrance. A few knocks upon the door produced no response until the third heavy-handed rap yielded a young woman dressed in a navy blue uniform with medium-length auburn hair and a tired look upon her face.

“I’m sorry but tours will not begin for another hour,” she said in a British accent. Her eyes dropped to the floor and the door began to close. Kevin took one step forward and placed a hand on the moving door, stopping it instantly and causing the woman to meet his gaze with surprise.

“Pardon the interruption, miss. We are not here to trouble you for a tour. We are expected by Mr. Ceanag (KEN-uhk) MacCristal,” Kevin said as a rather polished Scottish accent rolled off his tongue at the pronunciation of the name. “Is he available?”

“Yes, yes, of course. Do come in,” replied the young woman politely. We stepped into the foyer of the castle that was even darker than the gloomy, clouded sky outside. “Who shall I say is calling?”

“Doctors Sara Forrester and Kevin Scott,” I replied, smiling at her.

“Please wait here. It’ll just be a moment,” she said, then hurried down the hall and disappeared into a room.

Torches were lit along the dark corridor, leaving me to wonder if it was for effect or actual purpose. The castle was indeed fit for a lord, to be sure. My eyes couldn’t help extending the length of the walls, taking in brick by ancient brick, and wondering what life in the castle must have been like in the late fourteenth century, during the Stewart Dynasty or later as the castle stood during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms and the Jacobite Risings in the seventeenth century. The elegance of such hardened refinement was breathtaking even from the dark foyer.

I placed a flattened palm against one of the bricks and felt an energy run from it through my hand, as if the fourteenth-century walls wanted to speak of all the goings-on. I heard the voices of what sounded like soldiers, loud voices of men, some shouting commands, a rustling of several footsteps, and a single distant scream from a woman. I pulled my hand away and returned to the silence of the small space we occupied. My extrasensory abilities had become even stronger than I’d realized over the last few weeks.

“When you spent time in Scotland, did you happen to tour this castle?” I asked Kevin. My fingers flicked over one of the brochures on a weathered wooden table against the wall. “Do you know about the rooms contained within?” I lifted my gaze and peered down the hall after the vanishing echo of footsteps.

I never visited this one, he replied in thought. Kevin had been communicating via telepathy more in the last few days in an effort, I guessed, to get me to exercise my ability. He wanted to keep our communication between us and away from curious ears, too. The practice of telepathy just wasn’t that natural to me. “It’s been years since I spent time in this part of the world, growing up with my father, after my mom…” He trailed off, not wanting to finish recalling the memory of his mother’s murder, for which he had been a witness at the tender age of seven. His brow had a slight wrinkle. I stroked a hand down his arm. He stepped closer and wrapped an arm around my shoulder. “Are you cold?”

“I’m thawing.” I tilted my head toward him and flashed a grin. The angular features of his jaw met at the center of a squared chin. His dark chestnut hair showed a few lighter waves. And the eyes, with a hint of a shadow of fatigue beneath them, pulled me into him and stared straight through me just like they had when I’d awoken in the ICU of the hospital where he had been my attending physician. Because we had bonded millennia before now, he could feel my energy from the moment I’d arrived in the ER, clasping at life’s fragile hand, following an accident that had brought us together and engaged the quest for the keys. And yet I still had no memories of our previous lives together.

He squeezed my shoulder and kissed an icy cheek, his breath hot against my chilled skin. The contrast sent a warm, tingling sensation down my neck and across my shoulders. It was a feeling that made me want to curl into him and forget finding keys or those they would rescue.

“How much time do you think we have before the dark forces track us?” I asked.

Even with my growing anticipation of getting to the first key, my thoughts had never left Tarsamon, the demon that directed the evil that had recently been ordered to hunt me. I was an increasing threat to him and to his forces sucking the energy out of the humans to create an existence for the dark energy. By the time we’d fled New York, Tarsamon’s shadows had accelerated their effort to consume the weaker humans who allowed fear and anger to drive them by absorbing their energy like famished vampires. Such behaviors were fuel to the dark legion—the more of it that existed, the easier the humans were to devour.

If I were to fail the quest, the Soltari—the ethereal governing order over the realms that maintained the balance of good and evil—would forever break the bond I’d shared with Kevin across lifetimes. The Soltari engaged an Alliance of immortals to carry out the details or rules of the Order. The penalty hanging over our heads would be for losing all the lives on Earth. As if the task of staying alive and finding three hidden keys wasn’t complicated enough, the additional threat that faced us was, I supposed, intended as a driving force toward success.

“With your energy like a beacon to him, we don’t have much time at all,” Kevin answered in a hushed tone. “Where we go to find the key will be up to Mr. MacCristal. And we must rely on the guardian in order to access it. As a custodian of the key, he’s spent a lifetime preparing for the possibility he would be called to lead you to it. What we need is for the rest of the team to arrive here as soon as possible to provide protection for you. Matt and Juno are on the next flight out. Elise and Aria can’t…”

 The clicking sound of footsteps interrupted further discussion on the matter of our team but quickly disappeared.

“Elise and Aria will be here within a day or so,” said Kevin.

“Do we have that long?”

“We don’t have a choice.”

“But Tarsamon’s ability to track us… He could find us before we can get to the key.”

“We’d be safer to count on it and take any precautions we can.”

I’d come a long way from the days just before I’d met Kevin. I’d learned early on never to trust anyone, with a mom who put me up for adoption at the age of eight to be with her boyfriend and a father who was nowhere to be found. I’d been betrayed by the very people that should have cared for me the most. Fortunately, I’d found a good home with my adoptive parents, Mary Ann and Robert Forrester, that helped me to ease out of my shell the tiniest bit with a good dose of love and by being taught wealth was nothing to take for granted but to share with those who helped others, through their foundation. In my short time with Kevin and our small team, I was only starting to trust those sent to protect me on this mission. And despite how normal things appeared for the moment, there was no time to waste searching for the key, not with the dark shadows close at our heels. Two days could literally determine the fate of the world.

My cell phone buzzed to indicate an incoming message. I pulled it from my coat pocket and pressed the button to see a picture of the symbol that had led us to Scotland flashing. The medallion reflected a tree, a sun, and three triskeles. Gaelic lettering was imprinted along the edge. A smaller version of the same detail had been forged into the hilt of my sword, tucked neatly in its case in the car. Though we were in the right area to find Mr. MacCristal, I believed the first key was not at Doune Castle. It couldn’t be. The Professors in Ardan, who helped guide us, said the Druid priests had left the key in safe hands to be guarded until the appropriate time came to relinquish it. If that was true, and I had no reason to believe it wasn’t, it wouldn’t be held in a castle that had the traffic Doune has seen over centuries, including the imprisonment of government troops captured during the Battle of Falkirk. No indeed. Something so valuable would not be hidden in a place where it could accidentally be found. I would need to put my faith in Mr. MacCristal, that he would be able to lead us to the exact location. I turned as the soft sounds of footsteps from the hall interrupted my thoughts.

“What is it?” Kevin asked, referring to the message I’d received.

“A reminder to get moving.”

I pressed the button again and slipped the phone into my pocket. Kevin shook his head, knowing there was little we could do to hasten our way through this mission.

The symbols, kept safely in Ardan, were believed to hold information for three different locations, one for each key—Scotland, the Yucatan Peninsula, and Egypt. Each symbol had lettering, hieroglyphs, or images that were like clues to individual puzzles and each had a guardian that we had to find first. The guardian knew the way to the gateway, a portal to the realm where the key had been hidden thousands of years earlier by the Soltari, a powerful entity that held the balance of good and evil in its governance. The Alliance of Souls, to which I belonged, handed down the order of the Soltari. And it was my mission to set the balance between light and darkness right again and push Tarsamon’s evil from our world. This could only be accomplished by harnessing the power of all three keys of enlightenment.

“Good mornin’ to ye. I’m so sorry to keep ye waitin’.” A stout man greeted us in full kilted attire.

Costume or culture?

The man’s hair was cut short around his ears, with no effort to hide the patch of baldness at the crown. It was medium brown in color with graying sprigs sneaking out beyond the darkened areas on his round head, revealing his age, I guessed, to be in his early fifties. My attention always went first to the eyes of those I spoke with, to seek the truth in their words. The blue of his were smiling at us in half-moons as he reached out a hand in welcome, first to Kevin, then to me.

“Good morning,” I replied, extending my hand. He lifted my fingers gently to his lips. His thumb grazed the silver ring I wore, a symbol identifying me to others involved in our mission as the only person able to hold the keys. The ring had been set like glue on my finger since Cerys, a spiritual equal to Kevin, had placed it there a couple of months earlier.

“My name is Robert Watson, I’m the constable of the castle. I understand ye are to meet with Mr. MacCristal,” he said in a thick Scottish accent.

“Yes,” Kevin replied. “He should be expecting us. Is he here?”

“He’ll be along directly. I’ve been asked to see ye to your quarters and perhaps offer some refreshment after your long journey. Might ye have baggage I could attend to?”

“Yes, in the car,” Kevin said. “I’ll bring it up.”

“Please, sir. I’ll see ye fit to your room and then attend to it directly.”

“That’s very kind of you. Thank you,” I said, touching Kevin’s arm.

As we followed the constable into the Great Hall and on into Lord’s Hall, I could swear I heard faint whispering coming from all around me, as if thousands of voices were whispering at once. I couldn’t make out what was being said. I glanced toward the ceiling to see carved faces in the beams above my head. Are they there or am I imagining it? It must be the cleaning staff working nearby, preparing to open the castle to visitors, and their voices are just carrying over, I told myself. In whispers? I knew better than to doubt my senses, but I couldn’t help it.

Kevin leaned closer. “I hear them, too,” he said into my ear.

Sound most certainly echoed from wall to wall in the great empty space. But the eyes in the faces I’d seen felt as though they were following us as we moved through the hall.

“Mr. Watson, as old as the castle is, do you have any visitors who’ve witnessed ghost sightings?” I asked.

“Ah, we do get the chasers of them, ye see, those that hope to find ’em. But I’m sure it’s nay more than a shadow, or perhaps their own that frightens ’em.” He chuckled under his breath and shook his head, dismissing the notion. “More like silly nonsense, if ye ask me. But the belief keeps them coming ’round.” Kevin and I glanced at each other at the mention of shadow. My attention lifted once more to the ceiling.

As the door opened for us to exit, a breeze greeted us. Hurry, it seemed to say in a whisper that stretched from behind us as we stepped through the doorway.

We continued through Lord’s Hall and outside, down a set of stairs leading to a large, grassy courtyard below. Beyond was a small stone cottage that reminded me of the French country homes I had visited a couple of times as a girl with Mary Ann and Robert, near Cumberland, Maryland, during a summer vacation. The cottage was no more than two bedrooms, with a bath in one and a sparse but adequate kitchen area consisting of the basics—an electric stove, small sink, and a refrigerator that resembled the smaller iceboxes found in the 1950s, a relic that had found its place in the quaint Scottish home. I immediately felt surrounded in comfort.

“I hope this will do?” the constable asked. I nodded and smiled, thanking him. “My wife, Mairi, tends to the guests in the house and will be up directly to see to any needs ye may have. I’ll return straightaway to take ye to see Mr. MacCristal. It won’t be long.”

With that, the door closed with a slam, leaving Kevin and me in the peaceful company of each other. I gazed around the room as a noticeable chill sank through my coat and touched my skin. The air in the home seemed a bit stale and I wanted to open windows to clear the place. Instead, I grasped the edges of my coat and pulled it tighter in a feeble attempt to retain what little body heat I still had. We stood in silence, taking in the accommodations and feeling trapped for the moment, at least until the constable returned.

“I’ll start a fire,” Kevin said, echoing my thoughts. Before he could reach for the firewood stacked neatly in a large basket by the hearth, a quick knock at the door came just before it opened, letting in a fresh burst of cold air no more than the forty-two degrees the car registered on our drive to the castle. A short, plump woman entered, wearing a knee-length gray dress and white apron. Masses of white and gray curls were pinned to her head and she smiled at us as she held a basket covered in cloth over her forearm and stepped into the room. She looked rather like a sweet old grandmother straight out of a fairy tale.

“Good day to ye,” she said in a pleasant voice, setting the basket on the table in the living area. “I’ve brought ye some fruit and baked goods from the kitchen.”

“Good morning. Mairi, is it?” I asked, trying to impart the accent I had heard in the constable’s voice earlier.

“Yes, lass. So pleased to meet ye.” She took my hand in hers and shook it lightly.

Her eyes grew round as saucers and her mouth fell open. “Good heavens! The man forgot to light ye a fire. You’re freezin’, lass. Never mind,” she said, patting my hand. “I’ll set to it directly.” She released my hand and touched my arm before she turned away.

Kevin and I watched as Mairi scurried from the fireplace to the kitchen and each bedroom. Kevin stood motionless, like one of the two wooden beams in the corners of the room, while the cheery woman mumbled dissatisfaction as she flitted around the cottage, tidying the already immaculate space. I lifted the cloth covering the basket of food and opted instead to stand by the recently stoked fire. I glanced at Kevin and couldn’t help but laugh under my breath as he watched in astonishment. It was as if we were caught in a movie whose scene had been set to fast-forward. Before I could blink, the fire was stoked, a half of a ham Mairi had pulled out of the icebox was sliced and returned to the refrigerator for later, two bottles of spring water were placed next to fresh flowers at the tiny blockwood kitchen table, and two heavy woolen blankets in a green and blue tartan plaid were perfectly folded and placed on the end of each bed.

“Yes, well, that should do it,” she said, rubbing her hands on the apron as she scanned the room for any chance item out of place. For the first time since realizing I was cold, she glanced at Kevin and then me. The smile I wore at seeing Kevin’s astonished look remained and we both thanked her as she made her way out the door.

“You’d think she believed we were on a honeymoon or something with all the attention,” I said, shutting the door behind her and giving it a forceful push as it stuck two inches from closing.

“She probably does. I wouldn’t think Mr. MacCristal is sharing the details of the quest with just anyone. We’d have received quite a different reception if he was.”

Kevin peeked into the basket and settled on a piece of fruit.

“You should eat something, love,” he said. “Once we meet with Ceanag, I don’t know when there will be another chance.”

I remained by the stone hearth, where the fire was now blazing, reluctant to leave, even though my stomach was grumbling. Kevin brought the basket of goods over for my perusal, slid a hand over my hair, and kissed a temple. I smiled up at him through tired eyes and plucked a pear. My thoughts went back to our mad rush from New York and I tried not to think of the dark shadows that couldn’t be too far behind us.

With no other choice, we’d had to leave Aria and Elise to face the two remaining massive hurricanes that were headed for the southeast coast of the US, and also one of Tarsamon’s efforts to reduce the human population quickly. Elise and Aria were gifted in their otherworldly abilities to affect the elements of nature. The last I’d heard, three of the five hurricanes had pushed away from the coast, back into the Atlantic. Once the last two were safely contained, Elise and Aria would join the rest of the team on the quest, hopefully in a couple of days.

How long can it take to find a key? Gazing into the fire, I took a bite of fruit and patiently waited to meet with Ceanag. Finding this key was only the first step to stopping the evil that was moving faster into our world. We had a longer voyage ahead for the other two keys.

 I turned to see Kevin sitting on the sofa. He reached for a magazine on the side table and flipped through the pages without directing much attention toward them. He assured me that the other members of our team were safe. So why was I feeling a sense of unrest? If C-05, someone who I was sure had left our side to join forces with Tarsamon, was on our trail, I was in potentially greater danger as the moments passed. Kevin hadn’t told me that, but he didn’t have to. I could feel the tension and worry from him as he explained the details of our trip to Scotland during the flight. He wasn’t blocking his emotions from being felt by me now, a rare thing in the time I’d spent with him so far.

I could feel so much from everyone around me, but it struck me numb from the moment I’d met Kevin that I could not feel what he felt as an empath. It was a gift, or some might consider a curse, to feel the emotions of people around me. But it gave me insight into the truths they carried. It was most useful in my practice as a psychiatrist, while at the same time, it was a burden to carry my own feelings and to feel those of the people near me.

Tension encircled Kevin even more so now than on the plane. It had grown rather quickly since arriving in the little cottage. I could feel from him a level of impatience that he was stifling with increasing difficulty at waiting to meet with Ceanag. I took another bite of the pear and watched him. He looked like a champagne bottle that had been shaken and was ready to pop. I knew it wouldn’t be much longer before he would seek out our contact himself, refusing to hold our mission up any longer under the confines of the constable and his cheery wife.

I rubbed the warmth over my arms from the heat of the fire and wandered through the cottage to get a better look at the rooms and view from the single picture window in each of the two bedrooms. Soft, handmade quilts covered the beds with a floral design, while a plaid tartan throw, of unknown clan descent, lay neatly folded over the arm of a white stuffed chair near each window, similar to the one Mairi had placed on the end of the bed. There were worse places to be held up waiting for someone. I immediately began to feel the lack of sleep catching up with me and with it a sudden desire to pull back the soft quilts and snuggle beneath for a long nap.

A knock startled me, ringing through the stillness like the thunder of a coming storm. I turned toward the door, realizing I must have been just as anxious as Kevin to get going. He was already standing on the front steps as I arrived to greet the constable, with an air of relief in his expression.

“Well now, here ye are,” Mr. Watson said as he stepped past me and set the two bags and cases containing our swords inside the entry. “I was asked to give ye this, miss,” he said, turning to me and reaching into his inside coat pocket. “It was just delivered this mornin’, nay but five minutes ago, with special instructions that it not be left for ye but handed directly to ye.” He paused and scratched his head. “Aye, the man was quite insistent,” he added, handing me a small, unmarked box covered in white paper. It reminded me of the mysterious package I’d received in my office not more than a week ago that, once opened, was determined to be my sword sent from Ardan. It, too, had arrived unmarked and in a similar plain box.

“What man?” asked Kevin.

“I dinna know exactly. A delivery person, I suppose. Odd-looking fellow he was,” he replied with a shrug.

I peeled back the paper and lifted the lid of an antique wood box to see all three symbols had in fact been delivered safely as the great gray wolf Karshan had promised at my last visit to Ardan. I glanced from the box to Kevin and he nodded once, acknowledging the mental image, my view, of the symbols.

The wolf was an ally I’d met in Ardan, one of many who would aid me in the mission and who’d told me the symbols would be delivered. Karshan had mentioned he had the same ability as all of us to cross the boundary of current life into the parallel world of Ardan and back if necessary. I’d learned that the immortal members of my team could do this while dreaming. But there must be another way to cross over, because in my hand were the symbols from Ardan, and the danger Tarsamon brought wouldn’t wait for us to sleep.

“Thank you, sir. I’ve been waiting for this,” I said, shifting my gaze to Mr. Watson. “Is Mr. MacCristal at home?” I felt an urgency to get the symbols to Ceanag and avoid the curiosity I sensed from our host. The small bow-tie mouth of the constable opened and shut.

“Aye, I just spoke with him on my way up,” he replied. “He’s asked me to bring you to his home. If you’re quite ready, you can follow me.”

As we headed down the path toward the constable and his car, I felt an odd sensation to take a detour. I shook off the notion as a simple distraction and kept pace with Kevin down the path from the small cottage. The wind continued to blow in mighty gusts, whipping my hair about my face. Carried high on its breeze, I heard my name. This time I stopped and turned my head away from the car.

“What is it?” Kevin asked. He stopped with me as Mr. Watson waited steps ahead of us with the door open to the large Austin Princess, a 1964, I guessed from a glance. It was a transportation car, not particularly fancy but classy enough for carting people with its resemblance to an older-style Rolls Royce.

“I can’t go with you,” I said to him.

“Why? What is it?” I could feel him searching for an answer in my thoughts that could not be read, not because I blocked him from his ability to do so but because I didn’t know.

“I have to go there.” I shifted my eyes past him. “To the River Teith just beyond those trees.” I lifted a chin in the direction of the river.

“I’ll go with you. We can meet Ceanag later.”

“No,” I replied, staring off into the distance that was calling me toward it. “I have to go alone.” I turned to face him, handing him the box. “Take this to Ceanag. I’ll catch up with you. Ask Mr. Watson to return for me.” I pulled a few long strands of hair away that had blown across my lips and turned into the wind. “They will be safer with you, for now,” I said, feeling his protest at delivering the symbols without me.

“I don’t like this.” He stared into my eyes knowing that he couldn’t argue with the guidance to lead I’d been granted by the Alliance.

“I’ll be fine.”

He let out a breath. “All right,” he said reluctantly. “But if you’re not back within thirty minutes, it won’t just be the constable who returns for you.” I nodded to him as he touched my arm. He felt through my coat the silver bracelet he’d given me as a gift at his home in the Cape and seemed comforted that it would let him know the moment I was in danger by sending a signal indicating where he could find me, like a GPS device. Kevin cupped a hand along my jawline, stroked a thumb over my cheek, and kissed the space between my brows. “Be careful.” He turned with the small box in hand and, with a few long strides, reached the car, stopping only to say a few words to Mr. Watson.

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