A Tangle of Secrets

Town of Superstition: Book Four

Thaddeus and his family and friends have returned from Iron Gulch and Thaddeus’s summer of magical awakening to a very different life. For one, he has both his parents for the first time, though his mother is still haunted by terrors and powers she can’t yet control. Teofil, Thaddeus’s gnome boyfriend, is consumed with finding Thaddeus’s evil uncle Lucian and answers about what happened to his brother, and he spends his days sequestered in Leopold’s library, pouring over the old wizard’s journals. When Thaddeus starts school and makes friends Teofil doesn’t like, there’s tension between them for the first time ever.

Thaddeus’s problems don’t end there. It’s harder and harder for him to conceal his magic, especially when facing the school bully. He’s lost, confused, and lashing out, and for once, he finds no solace in those closest to him. His enemies are hiding in plain sight, biding their time, until the Bearagon reappears and instigates a fight not everyone will walk away from.

Excerpt:

Teofil looked around the library to make sure no one was near before he leaned in and lowered his voice. "Try something less specific, like how an un-gifted would explain something unusual."

"That's interesting."

Thaddeus stared at the computer screen as he thought about Teofil's suggestion. A thought came to him and he leaned forward again to type. He had no luck with the words "strange," "unusual," "weird," or "odd." He sighed and looked up at the ceiling as he thought about all of the things he had seen. The trolls near the Lost Forest, the reaper grub they had saved Dulindir from, and then the water sprites in the Wretched River. All of those creatures paled in comparison to the goblins and ghouls, which in turn had fallen under the terrible claws of the Bearagon inside the mine.

The Bearagon.

"I've got it," Thaddeus whispered.

"What?" Teofil looked to the screen. "I don't see anything."

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"Not yet." Thaddeus typed WEREWOLF and pressed Enter.

One article was returned, and Teofil drew in a sharp breath.

"The Bearagon," he whispered.

They smiled at each other before Thaddeus clicked on the link. The article was from the previous November and told of how two hunters from out of state were stalked by a large animal while camping one night. They had first thought the animal to be a bear, but when they left the tent to investigate, found a much larger and more ferocious beast waiting. One of the men went so far as to call it a werewolf.

"That's got to be it," Teofil said.

Thaddeus nodded. "I agree. This was months before my dad and I moved to Superstition. The Bearagon was sighted here in the area before we moved to Superstition and it started stalking me."

"Does it say where they saw it?" Teofil asked.

Thaddeus scanned the article. "Nothing specific. Just says in the woods northwest of town, a little north of Evergreen Pass."

"I wonder how far away that is?" Teofil sat back. "Maybe we could take a look there before we need to get on the bus for home."

"Let's ask." Before he got up, Thaddeus clicked the Print button and grabbed the printout of the article from a printer located near the librarian's desk.

When they asked the librarian about the location of the woods north of Evergreen Pass, she shook her head. "You're much too young to be out there on your own. If you're hunting, you'll need a license and an adult to accompany you."

"We're not here to hunt," Thaddeus said. "We just heard the view is especially nice in that area."

The librarian narrowed her eyes. "You may fool your parents or teachers with that kind of malarky, but you're not fooling me. There's been no sign of the monster for weeks, now you both scoot on home."

"Weeks?" Teofil exclaimed.

"We just knew about the sighting from last November," Thaddeus said.

"You'll not be hearing anything more from me," the librarian said and turned away to check out some books for a woman.

Thaddeus and Teofil returned to the room with the wide and shallow drawers. Pulling open the drawer marked AUGUST, Thaddeus grabbed all of the issues and carried them to the table at which they'd previously sat.

"We need to read more carefully," Thaddeus said as he moved his gaze down the copy on the front page.

"How did we miss it?" Teofil wondered.

"We fell into a routine," Thaddeus said. "Or they covered it up."

A few minutes later, Teofil let out a quiet gasp. "Here it is. The article's title is a bit misleading though. It says 'Another Large Bear Sighting?'"

"Where was it sighted?" Thaddeus got out of his chair and rounded the table to sit beside him. "Was it the Bearagon?"

"I don't know," Teofil replied as he ran his finger down the copy. "It's kind of vague."

They sat close, heads nearly touching as they both read the article. It was short in both word count and details, but as he read it, Thaddeus could put together the scene quite easily.

COLLAPSE

The Battle of Iron Gulch

Town of Superstition: Book Three

The Battle of Iron Gulch

Thaddeus Cane has finally reached the foot of Wraith Mountain. He hopes to find his mother—changed into a dragon by the witch Isadora many years ago—and bring her back to Superstition to live with him and his father. With Teofil, his garden gnome boyfriend, and Teofil’s mother, sister, and their new elf friend, Thaddeus discovers that getting to his mother will not be as easy as they’d hoped. They are forced to shelter in the small town of Iron Gulch where Thaddeus’s father takes a job to secure the equipment they need to climb the mountain.

The longer they stay in Iron Gulch, the more Thaddeus comes to believe things in the town are not as pleasant as they appear. When a new and vicious enemy reveals itself, Thaddeus and his group are thrust into a fight not only for their lives, but for the lives of the Iron Gulch residents. As the battle rages, they discover Thaddeus’s mother and struggle to free her and end Isadora’s tyranny once and for all.

Excerpt:

The fire crackled, and tiny sparks and embers spiraled up toward the velvety purple sky that stretched overhead. Something rustled in the grass a dozen or more feet away. Thaddeus got to his feet and Teofil stood alongside him.

“Did you hear that?” Thaddeus whispered.

“I did,” Teofil replied.

“Where’s your father?” Miriam asked, and when Thaddeus looked around, he found her and Astrid standing and looking off into the darkness as well.

A chill of fear went through him, leaving him as cold as if he’d swallowed water from the Wretched River. He was in motion before he realized it, sprinting out into the darkness that surrounded their small campfire. The grasses parted around him, the sounds of the tall blades like conspiratorial whispers.

“Dad?” Thaddeus called. Nathan did not answer, and so he tried again, a little louder, squinting into the dark.

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A warm glow suddenly appeared, revealing Teofil standing a few feet behind him, shoulders and expression tense. Then Thaddeus realized that Dulindir had followed him as well, his hair glowing with starlight and illuminating the immediate area.

“He was walking off in this direction the last I saw him,” Dulindir said and pointed.

A shout that sounded like his father prompted Thaddeus to break into a run.

“Dad!” Thaddeus shouted. “Where are you?”

“Thaddeus, wait!” Teofil called, and Thaddeus could hear him coming up behind. But Thaddeus could not wait. His father had been gravely ill just days before, grazed by a troll’s poison dart, and Thaddeus worried that Nathan might not be strong enough to fight off another threat.
In his panicked rush to find him, Thaddeus very nearly passed his father by. A rustling off to his left brought him to a stop, and then Dulindir stood beside him, illuminating the area. Nathan lay on his back, struggling with a small creature he was trying to pull off his chest.

The creature was small and dark in color. It had short but powerful-looking limbs, each of which appeared to end in hands tipped with claws. Spikes ran from the crown of its slightly flattened head and along its spine to a stubby tail.

“Dad!” Thaddeus exclaimed as Nathan struggled to keep the thing from biting his neck.

“Stay back!” Nathan shouted without looking at him.

“Goblin,” Dulindir said and looked over his shoulder as he pulled out his sword. “They are rarely alone.”

Frustration, fear, and anger seemed to collide within Thaddeus as he stood helplessly by, watching his father fight for his life. He clenched his fists and bit his lip as a warm tingle started within his chest. It traveled down his arms and seemed to pool in the palms of his hands, stinging slightly as it instilled within him the need to act, to move, to do something, anything.

Thaddeus thrust out his arms, fingers curled into claws as he released a shout of rage. The heat in his palms seemed to leap from his hands, directed right at the goblin. With a jolt the creature stopped struggling with Nathan and looked over its scaly shoulder to fix Thaddeus with a hostile look. It felt to Thaddeus as if he now held the goblin in his hands, even though he stood at least a dozen feet away. And the goblin seemed to be feeling Thaddeus’s touch as well, because it pulled out of Nathan’s grasp and turned to face him, still standing on his father and holding him in place.

When the goblin moved, it seemed to move within Thaddeus’s grip, and the sensation was so startling, and the feel of the creature so disgusting, Thaddeus reacted without thinking. He flung his arms to the side as if throwing it far away from him. To his astonishment the goblin was hurled off his father’s chest and sent spinning high into the air, an annoyed and surprised yelp fading away into the night.

The heat in Thaddeus’s palms cooled immediately, and he stood staring down at his hands. Dulindir, Teofil, and Nathan all stared at him as well, and then Nathan broke the stunned silence by falling flat on his back and laughing long and loud up at the night sky. After a moment, the rest of them followed suit. The laugh felt odd but refreshing to Thaddeus. He approached and reached down to help his father stand.

Nathan clapped a hand on Thaddeus’s shoulder and squeezed. “Apparently either you or someone you care about needs to be in danger for you to conjure magic.”

Thaddeus grinned and shrugged. “I guess so. Hopefully I can learn to do it without the danger.”

“We’ll work on that,” Nathan promised him.

“We should move back to the fire,” Dulindir said. He had his back to them and stood staring out at the grass, which was shifting quietly in the slight breeze. “Goblins rarely travel alone, especially this far from a mountain, and light hurts their eyes.”

Thaddeus helped Nathan pick up the wood he had dropped when the goblin attacked him, and they made their way back to the fire.

COLLAPSE

The Well of Tears

Town of Superstition: Book Two

Thaddeus Cane’s life changed when he learned he is the son of a witch and a wizard, and now he’s undertaken a mission to find his mother, who was cursed not long after Thaddeus was born. He enlists the aid of his father, Nathan; his boyfriend and neighbor, Teofil Rhododendron, a garden gnome; and Teofil’s mother, brother, and sister. As they journey through a world that seems normal on the surface, they meet many magical creatures, some kind and helpful, others evil and dangerous. When Nathan suffers a life-threatening injury, Thaddeus might be forced to abandon the quest to find his mother in order to save his father.

Excerpt:

“Long ago,” Astrid explained, “there came a great sickness that swept across the land. It infected those who lived in the forest and surrounding country, and it was quite deadly. Many died from it, and those who cared for their loved ones who were first infected caught it as well, until only a handful of survivors remained.”

“How awful,” Thaddeus said.

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“They never found out where it originated,” Astrid continued. “And so they buried all the bodies in a long pit, somewhere deep inside the forest. After many years, the infected blood from all of those bodies found its way into the soil and, finally, the roots of the trees around the grave. Those trees grew darker and twisted, and bore fruit that tasted vile and sour. The foul fruit attracted evil into the forest, and as time went on, the magical creatures who had survived the sickness left the forest and the darker beings took over. The gravesite has since been lost, and any who have gone in search of it have never returned.”

“Wow,” Thaddeus whispered. “That’s quite a story. And we have to go through this forest?”

“Just keep in mind that’s what it is,” Nathan said. “A story.”

“Suit yourself,” Astrid said. “But I’ve heard the story from more than one source.”

“You forgot the best part,” Fetter piped up.

“What do you mean?” Astrid asked, her voice edged with annoyance.

“About the well,” Fetter said.

Astrid sighed, and Thaddeus glanced back in time to see her roll her eyes. “You and that ridiculous well,” Astrid said.

“It’s the best part of the story!” Fetter nearly shouted.

“Keep your voices down, both of you,” Miriam scolded them gently. They all fell silent a moment, then Miriam said, “And you did leave out that part, Astrid.”

“See?” Fetter immediately said. “I told you!”

“Shut up!” Astrid snapped.

“Oh, for the love of geranium, both of you keep still!” Miriam said. She marched up to get between Astrid and Thaddeus and lowered her voice as she told the part of the story Astrid had skipped. “You see, the people who lived within the forest had no idea what was making their loved ones so sick. It could be something they were eating, or maybe the water they were drinking. To be safe, they dug a new well far outside their village. At first, the water they pulled up from this new well was cool, clear, and plentiful, but soon it dried up, with no explanation or reason. Those who still remained would gather at the edge of the well and lower the bucket with hopes of finding just a little bit of fresh water, but there was none to be had. They cried as they circled the well, so very thirsty and still heartbroken from the loss of their loved ones, and soon their tears filled it up, but that was too salty for them to drink, so they had to move away.”

Miriam gave a nod and adjusted her pack across her shoulders. “To this day, that well remains, somewhere deep within the Lost Forest, filled with the shimmering tears of a great number of magical beings. The magic contained within that Well of Tears is powerful indeed, because it’s the collected power of all of the enchanted creatures.”

“The Well of Tears?” Thaddeus whispered.

“That’s what they call it,” Fetter said from the back of the line. “Isn’t it a great name?”

Astrid made a disgusted sound. “It’s a horrible name. Ridiculous and romantic, and not even a good part of the story. No one’s ever seen it, and do you know how many tears it would take to fill a well? It’s not even possible!”

Thaddeus followed his father, who forged a path through the tall grass. As he walked, his thoughts strayed to a mass grave filled with the bones of magical beings surrounded by dark, twisted trees and a well filled with tears, and he wondered—not for the last time, he was sure—if he would ever stop being surprised by this strange new world he had discovered.

COLLAPSE

Stakes & Spurs

Venom Valley Book Two

Stakes & Spurs
Part of the Venom Valley series:

Dex Wells, former deputy of the prairie town of Belkin’s Pass, awakes to the sound of screaming. He is chained to the wall of a cave, prisoner of the powerful vampire Balthazar, who has turned many of the residents of Belkin’s Pass into vampires like him, and used most others as food. Balthazar keeps Dex as bait, hoping to lure Dex’s lover, Josh Stanton, into the caves and capture him. There is something different about Josh, Balthazar senses it, but what that difference is he can’t quite tell.

Josh Stanton can raise the dead. It’s a power he’s always had within him, and something he’s considered a curse. Now, however, he’s discovered that the risen dead can bite through vampire skin and bones. If he can just learn to control the power and, with it, the dead he’s resurrected, he might be able to save his lover, Dex, from Balthazar’s caves. But there’s still a bounty on Josh’s head for a murder he did not commit, and he ends up back in Belkin’s Pass with Glory, a half Indian, half white former saloon girl watched over by a Native American spirit. Together, they gather the few residents left alive and make a stand against the rampaging vampires and the wolves under their control.

The arrival of two members of the US Army, however, throws their careful plans into uncertainty as Josh is taken into custody. Can he convince the Army men the truth of their outrageous claims? And can Dex be saved before Balthazar turns him into a vampire as well?

Excerpt:

The rain had not let up, and Josh was soaked through, cold to the bone, which made the first flush of heat inside of him that much more noticeable. It started in the middle of his torso and slowly spread through him the closer they rode toward town. As the heat slid through his veins and dug into his limbs and organs, Josh swallowed past the fear in his throat and looked at his surroundings, because he knew what the sensation meant.

Death was close.

Staggered towers of rock gleamed dark in a flash of lightning, and he realized with a start the route Sheriff Haden had taken to get back to town so fast. It was passable but seldom used by travelers due to the rugged terrain.

And it would take them right past the Belkin’s Pass cemetery.

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Josh closed his eyes and focused his energy and attention away from the bodies buried ahead. He was tired, though, and could feel them lying there, starving and cold. He could almost smell the damp earth pressing in around them, feel the cold in their bloodless limbs, the hunger for flesh should they awaken.

He needed to learn how to control this power, harness it, and use it only in extreme situations. Raising the dead was a sacrilege, an affront to the natural law of life and death. He needed to understand it, work through this power, and use it to keep the dead in their graves and not lurching toward people, hungry for blood. The power ran deep inside him, though, and he didn’t have a firm grasp on it. If he got near a body, it would rise and attack him and anyone with him, hungry for flesh, for life.

“Dark’s comin’ fast.”

Glory’s voice brought him out of his thoughts, and he looked at the sky swollen with thunderheads. She was right. The sun, hidden by heavy thunderheads, would almost be down.

“Shut up back there,” Deputy Wallace snapped.

“We need to get inside,” Josh called up to the men. “It’s not safe out here after dark.”

“I wouldn’t think you’d be so eager to be inside,” Sheriff Haden said over his shoulder, “seeing as how you’ll be spending a long time inside a jail cell.”

“The men who took your daughter will return when the sun goes down,” Glory said. “They’ll take anyone they find on the street or anyone who invites them into their homes. No one in town is safe anymore, don’t you see?”

Haden reined in his horse and turned in the saddle. A quick movement brought his gun up, and Josh found himself impressed with the swiftness of the man’s draw even as a tremor of fear worked through him. He never knew the sheriff was so adept with his weapon.

“You’re not to speak about my daughter!” Haden shouted. “Not a word about my Hattie should come from your dirty whore mouth, do you understand?”

Josh looked over at Glory, watched her jaw tighten, and saw her sit up high and straight in the saddle. The muted final rays of light behind the storm clouds glittered in her dark eyes. Just when he thought she might say something to encourage Haden to shoot her, Glory surprised him by giving the man a single nod.

Relief unwound within Josh’s gut, and he looked back at the sheriff, continuing to slowly work his wrists within the wet and loosening ropes.

“What in God’s name…?”

Haden stared between Glory and Josh, past them, and his expression changed from anger to confusion and then to fear. Josh looked over his shoulder to see a number of figures striding toward them through the rain, a line of wolves just behind.

“Vampires,” Glory said.

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Cowboys & Vampires

Venom Valley Book One

Cowboys & Vampires
Part of the Venom Valley series:

In the frontier town of Belkin’s Pass, as a vampire quietly feeds on the local saloon girls and their customers, a tragedy teaches resident Josh Stanton he has the ability to raise the dead. Knowing he is now a wanted man, Josh flees into the arid plains of Venom Valley.

Dex Wells, the town deputy and Josh’s best friend, catches up with Josh. During the confrontation, both men realize their friendship is truly something deeper, and Dex has to decide if he’s a man of the law, or a man in love.

As Josh and Dex ponder a viable course of action, the vampire circles ever closer, drawn by Josh’s power and gathering his forces against them.

Excerpt:

The thing across the room finally managed to find its balance. The books it had knocked from the table lay in tatters at its feet. Bright white gashes marred the surface of the side table she had lovingly polished so often over the years. Agnes stood, long skirt twisted around her legs, blouse torn in several places to reveal pale skin beneath. Her head hung down, chin against her chest, silver hair a long curtain that hid her face from his view.
Until the thing slowly turned its head and locked its cold, dead gaze on him.

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Nothing of Agnes remained. Josh swallowed hard, feeling as if a large, hot stone had been stuffed in his throat. The fire burned fierce now, and sweat coursed down his body. His fingers fumbled with the rifle, working to cock it, his eyes locked on the thing as it turned and took a lurching, unsteady step toward him. Hands that had soothed his forehead when he had been sick with fever and held wet cloths to his skinned knees curled now into claws, eager to tear into him.

Josh double-checked to make sure the rifle's safety was off and that he had chambered a shell, then dried his palms on his breeches again. He took several deep breaths, watching as the thing lurched closer, its hands reaching out, fingers stiff, dirty nails ready to gouge his flesh. It was halfway across the room. Another five staggering steps and it would be upon him.

He stood and raised the rifle to take aim. His hands shook as the thing moved closer, its foot stomping hard against the floor. He licked his lips and dried his eyes on his sleeve. The lamp flame flickered again, slinging shadows around the room and across Agnes' chest.

As it approached, its steps became more certain. It was learning to walk again, and fast.

Josh blinked and thought back to Agnes's lessons on shooting. He could almost feel her standing behind him, arms around his shoulders, lips close to his ear as she said, "Don't pull the trigger. Squeeze it. Slow and steady."

"I'm sorry," he whispered and squeezed the trigger. The rifle bucked in his hand and the flash lit the room, burning an image of Agnes's cruel, hungry face on his mind.

The thing jerked back, a dark hole blossoming on the blouse covering its left shoulder. It took a step back, seemed to hesitate a moment, then stepped toward him again.

Josh cocked the gun and moved around behind the chair, raising the rifle to his shoulder. His vision blurred and a tear slid down his cheek, forcing him to dry his eyes on his sleeve.

He shot her again and let out a frustrated, horrified gasp as the bullet tore into her throat. Her head snapped back and she staggered a few steps, hands reaching up to cover the black hole in her skin. Josh could see her jaw working as if she were trying to swallow the lead, then she lifted her head and pinned her cold, dead eyes on him.

"Agnes," he said, his voice high-pitched and strained in the room. "You gotta stay dead. You would not want to live like this."

He worked the lever of the rifle and, even as his blood practically boiled beneath his skin, a cold clutch of fear gripped his stomach when the lever froze in the open position. Jammed.

"Shit," he hissed and looked down at the weapon. He struggled with it, sweat running off his nose and dripping onto the rifle, leaving dark drops on the wood stock.

Cold fingers gripped his arm and he screamed. Jerking his head up, he found Agnes reaching over the rocking chair, the back of it bouncing between them and keeping her from getting a good purchase. Her mouth stretched wide, saliva spilling over her lower lip, teeth glowing in the lamplight.

Josh jerked his arm free and the thing staggered, unbalanced by his sudden movement and the rocking chair. It looked down at the chair a moment and Josh could almost see it thinking, figuring out it kept them apart. It pushed the rocker aside and reached for him again, eyes shadowed now with the lamp behind it.

He stepped away, his back coming up against the wall, and he realized he was cornered. It had trapped him.

His fingers continued to work the jammed lever as the thing advanced. It dug cold, cruel fingers into his shoulders and leaned in, mouth wide. He braced himself against the wall and kicked it hard in the stomach. The thing staggered back, nails tearing through his shirt and digging furrows into his skin.

Josh cried out and jerked on the lever again. It moved this time and he felt the shell seat itself before the lever closed.

It was coming for him, fingers clutching for purchase.

He lifted the rifle to his shoulder, closed one eye, lined up the sight on the middle of the thing's forehead, and squeezed the trigger.

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Blood & Stone

Venom Valley Book Three

Book Cover: Blood & Stone
Part of the Venom Valley series:

Josh Stanton’s mother has been held prisoner by the vampire Balthazar for fifteen years. As Balthazar has turned the residents of Belkin’s Pass into vampires under his control, Josh, his lover, Dex, former saloon girl Glory, and US Army Sergeant Walker Maxwell, fight to contain the undead uprising. As Josh struggles to control his power to raise the dead, the group is pursued to the abandoned Fort Emmerick. There they make plans to take the battle to Balthazar’s cave in a desperate final move to not only save Josh’s mother, but put an end to Balthazar once and for all. Will all of them live to see Balthazar vanquished at last?

Excerpt:

"Come outside, Joshua Stanton." The voice was quiet, the timbre low, promising release and an end to Josh's exhausted struggle. "Open the door and step onto the porch. Let me kiss you, taste your blood, compare yours to that of your man's."

Josh shuddered awake and staggered to his feet, his hands tight on the barrel of the musket. His eyes were gritty from sleep and he couldn't seem to focus on where he was for a long, frightening moment. Then, in a rush, it all came back to him: Dex had escaped from Balthazar, they had taken refuge in the Belkin's Pass church along with Sergeant Maxwell and his few remaining soldiers. And he had fallen asleep during guard duty.

"Come to me," the calm, deep voice beckoned. "Step outside, join me."

Josh turned to peer through the narrow gap in the boards nailed over the window behind him. "Never, you foul monster. Leave us."

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A deep chuckle floated in from the dark night beyond the glass. "You're running out of time, Joshua. Your man is closer to vampire than human now. One mistake, one careless moment, and he will join me. We can end this now, tonight, and spare all those sleeping around you the pain of day after day of struggle. You are the one I want, not them. Come join me, teach me of this secret power, and live forever by my side. Just open the doors."

Josh shook his head as he scanned the dark shadows that hung around the empty buildings across the street. Would Belkin's Pass ever be like it had once been? Filled with people and goods and commerce? He didn't think so. It would be consumed by the prairie, abandoned and haunted. Right now, in the depth of night, surrounded by evil, it felt to Josh as if the whole country had forsaken them.

He gathered his courage from the corners of his soul and said, "I will never join you. We'll come for you, you know."

A pair of glowing red eyes appeared before him, and Josh stepped back, a gasp slipping from his lips. Before he could be caught by Balthazar's stare and put under his spell, Josh looked away.

"Oh, I hope you come for me," Balthazar whispered. "I do, indeed."

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