Kathy aka K.A. Krisko… did you see what I did there? 😁… is my lovely author-friend who I met on GoodReads years ago. I loved her Stolen series, but then I read Cornerstone: Raising Rook, and it quite blew me away! This is grown up contemporary fantasy, in the way that Stephen Donaldson writes grown up contemporary fantasy (only not at all depressing, lol!). In fact, its probably more magical realism. I waited and waited for the sequel, and then she snuck it onto Amazon without so much as a glittery fanfare or a three minute warning! Needless to say, I devoured it, but she still left me hungry for more… in a lovely, satisfied, just-room-left-for-desert kind of a way. 😍 And don’t forget to Give the gift of a book this Christmas! Have a happy one!
Jack Bright lowered his binoculars and glanced over his shoulder. The quick look provided him with a view of Kyle’s backside. His cousin’s son was draped over the aft port rail, retching into the Pacific.
Jack turned away quickly. He knew he shouldn’t have brought Kyle, but the young man had begged him, partly to show his girlfriend a good time and partly, he claimed, because he wanted to see where his brother had died.
The Boston Whaler Conquest rolled in a figure eight pattern in the swells that reverberated off the rocky cliffs. The girlfriend, Terry, sat on the forward deck, her back against the front of the pilothouse. Her expression was inscrutable beneath over-sized sunglasses. She didn’t seem to share Kyle’s nausea.
Jack braced himself against the pilothouse on the starboard deck and raised the binoculars again. He followed the cliff face to the top, where the steeple of the castle’s chapel poked into the sky: dark, Gothic and malevolent.
The castle. That damned castle.
“The end of Earth as we know it,” Jack muttered under his breath.
Kyle staggered over, face pale, and gripped the grab rail. “You think he’s still up there?” he gasped, nodding briefly at the castle. “Maybe just held captive?”
Jack shook his head. “It’s been too long, Kyle. Korrin’s gone. We have to accept that. And this is the closest we’re going to get to that thing at this point.”
The hairs prickled along the back of Jack’s neck, and he looked up at the sky. There was a big black bird up there, flying lazy circles, gradually working its way down closer to the boat. Jack wasn’t fooled by the shape; that was no natural bird, but undoubtedly the castle’s Lorecaster, its wizard, flying his shadow-form in the shape of a raven. After what Jack had done, or attempted to do, to the castle, the young Lorecaster was a sworn enemy.
Jack strode over to the pilothouse, ducked through the door, and started the boat’s motors. He swung it around and headed further out to sea, partly to relieve Kyle’s nausea. But he slowed again just a quarter-mile south of where the castle loomed on the cliff. There, a huge slump littered the base of the cliff with debris, including the remains of five houses and some of their occupants. All of them had been Jack’s friends, co-workers and employees of the environmental lobbying group Earth Natural, of which he was president.
Jack felt a twinge of guilt as the boat slipped quietly by the slump. After all, he had, at least indirectly, caused the slump when he’d tried to blow up that cursed castle on the hill. His only consolation was that all of the people who’d died had known what they were risking.
“Hey, there’s a trail over there,” Kyle said plaintively, pointing to the cliff near the slump. “Maybe we can take a little hike.”
“That trail goes right up to the castle,” Jack replied. But Kyle’s pale face garnered some sympathy. Poor kid was still seasick.
“I can put the boat in around that outcropping past the slump,” he acquiesced. “I’ve done it before. You can scramble up to the top of the rocks there, and it’s far enough away from the castle to be safe.”
“Maybe we can wait there, and you can drive back and pick us up after you bring the boat home,” Kyle suggested miserably.
“The only road to this area runs past the castle and the Lorecaster’s house,” Jack said. “Sorry. You have to go home on the boat.”
They puttered past the outcropping and Jack swung the boat around behind it, bringing the bow up close to a big rock in a sheltered cove. Terry threw the bumpers over and scrambled onto the rock holding the bow line. Jack cut the motors and followed Kyle out of the pilothouse. There were several trees rooted in the cracks of the rock, and he tied the boat off to one of them with a quick-release knot.
Terry scrambled easily over the rock and jumped down to a bit of sand behind it. Kyle, a little heavy around the middle, followed more slowly. Jack waited impatiently. He might be twice Kyle’s age, but he was fit and agile.
Once off the rock, Jack led Terry and Kyle to the cliff and picked his way up through the boulders. He had visited this cove a number of times before. It was a way to get close to the castle, to observe what was going on there, without driving up to the isolated little neighborhood where it sat. He knew he could hike around the outcropping to the slump at low tide, but he’d also figured out how to scramble up to the top of the cliff.
Stunted firs clung to crevices here and there. Animal trails wound off through the deepening forest as they gained the top. The surge of the Pacific Ocean faded and the summer heat settled over them. A few insects landed on Jack’s arms and neck.
They turned north at the top of the cliff. After a quarter-mile walk, Jack motioned Kyle and Terry to stop and he crept forward alone. A small neighborhood lay beyond, a few summerhouses in little clusters. Jack could see the raw edge of the residential road’s pavement where the slump had taken the five houses closest to the cliff down to the sea below.
Kyle and Terry came up behind him and stood staring. The lower neighborhood, at whose southern edge they stood, was tucked in amongst the firs, drowsing in the mid-afternoon heat. The houses of the upper neighborhood were more exposed, and behind them the land rose steeply. On top of that rise stood the castle, sentient and malevolent.
Jack felt his pulse quicken. This was the closest he’d been to it in a long time, and he almost imagined it knew he was there. Involuntarily he stepped a little further behind the trunk of a tree.
“I can’t believe Korrin walked into that thing,” Kyle whispered. “He had a lot of guts.”
Or he was an idiot, Jack thought, but aloud he said, “Remember it wasn’t as complete then as it is now. The bigger it gets, the more powerful it becomes. I’m sure Korrin wouldn’t have gone in there if he didn’t believe he had the advantage.”
“He took the sword,” Kyle said, his tone reverent.
“Yes. I wish we could get it back,” Jack muttered. “One of the most valuable tools we had, and now it’s in their hands.”
Terry stood with her hands on her hips, a slight smile on her lips. She was not, after all, one of the Knights of Earth Natural, like Jack and Kyle. Kyle had told her about the castle, but Jack didn’t know if she believed it.
“You want me to walk up there and get your sword?” she asked. She grinned as she said it. “I’m not one of you, your castle won’t bother me. Right?”
“I’m not sure about that,” Jack warned. “Besides, we have no idea where the sword is. Somebody would see you if you went wandering around up there and would want to know what you were doing. Most likely the Lorecaster.”
“I’ve seen him before,” Terry said. “Kyle pointed him out once in Seaside Heights. He’s not so scary. Just a skinny guy with a unibrow and a ponytail.”
“Don’t underestimate him,” Jack growled. “He’s young and he doesn’t know his power yet. But it’s there, and he most likely knows you’re connected to us, too. He was flying his raven-shadow around earlier.”
Kyle and Terry both looked up at the sky, but the raven was not to be seen.
“You feeling better now?” Jack asked Kyle. “We should get back to the boat. This is risky. I don’t know how far the castle’s influence has spread, but we’re probably at the edge of it.”
“I guess,” Kyle sighed. “Just get us back to the marina as quick as possible, okay? I feel better when you’re going faster.”
Jack led them back through the woods to where the trail dropped off towards the ocean. He paused a moment, his eye caught by motion above them. The raven was there again, circling lazily high over the boat.
He let his eyes rest on the vessel a hundred feet below them. He’d taken the 27-foot ocean sport-fishing boat as partial settlement of a suit against a developer who’d failed to follow state environmental mitigation requirements. He’d named it the Natural Seize, a play on the name of his organization, Earth Natural. He smiled a little in satisfaction.
With a jolt of adrenalin, Jack realized that the Natural Seize floated free. It was no longer tied to the tree. The bow line floated in front of it, and it backed slowly away from the shore, bobbing and rolling.
“Hey!” Jack yelled, as though the boat might respond. He scrambled down the cliff as fast as he could, slipping and sliding on the loose dirt. Several times he went down on his butt. His hands scraped against rough rock. Small prickly plants clinging to the barren cliff side stabbed him. Finally he staggered onto the narrow gravelly beach at the bottom. He edged around the big rock on slippery stones. Waves washed back and forth, wetting his shoes. The boat floated just beyond his grasp.
Jack waded further into the ocean, the seawater shockingly cold. He felt his jeans grow heavy. He thought for a moment that if he was going to swim, he should take them and his shoes off, but he didn’t have time. The boat was picking up speed as it floated further out of the cove. He needed to get to it fast.
He sucked in a lungful of air, braced himself, and dived forward into the surf. He felt his knees hit underwater rocks and was glad he’d kept his jeans on. He made some forward progress into deeper water with a breaststroke and then switched to a front crawl.
He was a strong swimmer, but open ocean wasn’t his preference. Swells splashed him in the face and he tasted salt. The cold sapped his strength quickly, and his heavy clothes and shoes dragged at him. He flipped over onto his back for a few seconds to rest. Kyle stood on the shore, Terry on top of the big boulder, watching him. The raven circled overhead.
He flipped back over and started swimming again. The rocking of the boat became more pronounced as it reached the edge of the protected water of the cove and began to encounter the larger waves of the open ocean. It was drifting southward, too. There was another outcropping that way. Another couple of minutes and the boat would slam up against the cliff. If the motors were damaged too badly he wouldn’t be able to start it and turn it into the waves, and it would eventually founder and break up against the rocks. The consequences would be dire. He was pretty sure he couldn’t make it back to shore at this point. His only chance was to get to the boat and get aboard.
He poured the last of his strength into his efforts. Another two minutes and he reached the starboard side of the boat. The outcropping loomed, each wave washing them nearer. Jack grabbed one of the bumpers and hung on to rest for a moment. Then he let go and dropped back into the water. The ladder was around the back; he worked his way aft.
The dual motors stuck out at a steep angle as he’d lifted them to avoid any rocks on his way in. The burred edges of the propeller blades caught at his arms as he went around them. For a moment he had a nightmare vision of the motors coming on by themselves, but he didn’t think the Lorecaster could do that. He was in more danger from the cliff, now just feet away.
Finally he grabbed the ladder and heaved himself up. He staggered forward and yanked open the pilothouse door. The boat shuddered as the starboard outboard struck the rocky cliff. A moment later the port motor roared to life and Jack spun the wheel to bring the lolling Conquest around into the incoming waves.
Jack steered the boat out into the ocean and swung around to make the correct approach to the cove. Bringing it alongside the rock was a little trickier with only one motor, but he didn’t want to start the starboard one until he’d had a chance to take a look at the propeller.
Terry grabbed the rail and held the boat in long enough for Kyle to step aboard, then jumped on herself.
“You want me to drive?” she asked through the pilothouse window as Jack brought them out away from the cliffs. “You need to warm up.”
Jack glanced at her. “You know how?”
“I’ll be okay out here,” she replied. “You’ll just have to take over when we get to the marina.”
He relinquished the wheel to her and stepped out into the sun on the back deck. He kept an eye on the castle retreating on the horizon as he stripped off his wet shirt and shoes. Kyle handed him a towel, and he roughed it through his hair and over his chest.
Drier and warmer, he stepped back into the pilothouse, away from the wind. Terry didn’t seem to be having a problem piloting the boat. Jack leaned against the window to her right and allowed himself to consider how close a call that had been. He realized he was shaking, from the exertion as much as from the chill.
“You think that was a coincidence?” Terry said after a few minutes.
“You think the castle’s trying to kill you?”
“Me and everyone else it doesn’t like.” Jack glanced through the back window of the pilothouse, but they were too far away now to see the steeple. “Can’t say I blame it; I tried to blow it up once.”
A long moment went by. “So you believe the castle’s alive, then,” Terry finally said.
Jack ran a hand through his wet hair. “Not exactly. It’s inhabited by some sort of entity that lives in its stones. And it’s evil.”
Terry shrugged, but she kept her eyes on the ocean in front of the boat. “What’s evil, after all?”
“Well, I’d say some alien intelligence that wants to change the Earth as we know it is evil,” Jack said. “The castle’s growing, and the more it grows, the more rocks it inhabits and the more powerful it gets.”
“Me, I’d say that evil is something that can only be done to people by other people,” Terry replied. “Maybe you should back off and quit pissing it off. Seems like it’s got all the power in this relationship.”
Jack sat down on the forward berth and rested his elbows on his knees as the Natural Seize cut the water smoothly up on plane. Backing off was one thing he couldn’t do. There was Korrin to avenge, and all his friends who’d been lost in the slump he’d created himself. That was the most important, because he had to prove to himself that their deaths were both unavoidable and meaningful. He couldn’t agree with Terry; evil had to be an external thing. And he knew where it lay: inside that castle on the cliff, not inside his own mind.
K.A. Krisko currently lives in northern Colorado with her two Australian Cattle Dogs. She grew up in the Mojave Desert and Sierra Nevadas in California, went to college in Colorado and Arizona, and received an MS in Forestry. Since then she’s lived in states from Texas to Montana. She enjoys outdoor activities like hiking, walking the dogs, mountain biking, skiing, and snowshoeing, and indoor activities like DIY, reading and writing, as well as dog training and trialing in K9 Nosework.
She has published a number of fiction and non-fiction literary shorts, a number of fantasy-fiction novels: The Stolen Trilogy (“Stolen”, “Crypt of Souls”, “Hyphanden’s Box”) and “Cornerstone: Raising Rook,” and one mystery.