Book Cover: Earth's Lair
Part of the Earth's Magic series:
Editions:E-Book: $ 3.99
ISBN: 9781773843155
Paperback / Print
ISBN: 9781773843162

I didn’t mean to unleash a curse.

Not so long ago, I helped my BFF save the world from a horde of the undead. It was a pulse pounding, adrenalized adventure, but now it’s time to return to my true calling, farming, a task that takes an interesting turn when a recently plowed field reveals the entrance to an old tomb.

Totally awesome.

Almost as spectacular as the guy who shows up from the Cryptid Historical Society to document the discovery.

Less fun? The jerk who broke my heart is back in town. If he dares to come near me, I will give him a piece of my mind right after a well-aimed kick.

Life is anything but boring as I juggle two men, the strangest dreams, and a pajama wearing goat who isn’t acting like her usual self.

And it might be my fault seeing as how I accidentally triggered a curse.

Excerpt:

Prologue

In a world where magic was allowed to flourish and secrets remained hidden for a reason...

The house settled into a quiet slumber with only the ticking of the clock in the hall as Mama and Papa went to bed. They thought me asleep already. Technically, I should have been. Only a new book by the king of horror had been released, and I hid under the covers reading it.

I shivered in delight as evil won over good and sighed happily as I placed the finished paperback on my nightstand. I’d take bad winning the day when heroes were dumb.

Don’t go in the haunted house at night on Halloween.
Do not take a shower when the power goes out.
Don’t go anywhere without a gun. Or an axe. Or something with a sharp blade. I kept my

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baseball bat tucked between the bed and nightstand and a steak knife under my pillow. Mom had given up trying to take it back. As if she could argue with my logic—What if the apocalypse hits and I get killed by a zombie because I only have a pillow to defend myself? It should be noted I’d never been attacked, but I would be ready if and when it happened.

As I settled into my pillow, my mind still whirling with the story, I stared at my window, the drapes open so I could see outside. Only rather than a night sky with twinkling stars, it erupted with gold and silver light.

Cool. Even more fascinating, the light appeared to originate from the ground and not the heavens above.

I didn’t think twice. I jammed my feet into my running shoes and grabbed a sweater before climbing out my window. Not the first time I’d slipped out.

The explosion of lights wasn’t on my parents’ farm, but I could tell where they came from. I rode my bike up the road to the property adjoining ours, about a mile away. The illumination brightened, and I’d have sworn I heard singing, beautiful and haunting, no actual words just a melody.

As I reached the driveway for the Samsons’ property, I braked in the gravel and listened, eyes half closed. What was making that beautiful sound and light?

It abruptly ceased.
Darkness fell harshly, as did the silence. Tears filled my eyes at the loss.
What happened? I put my feet on the pedals, ready to head down that driveway to find

out, when a figure strode from the shadows.
“Where da fuck you goin’, girl?”
I knew that voice. Leroy Samson. Son of Earl Samson, owner of the land beside our farm.

“Hello, Mr. Samson.” He looked a lot like his dad if younger. Always scowling and cradling a gun. Neither liked people.

“Go away.”
“Sorry to bug you. I saw a light.”

“No light.”

I frowned at the obvious lie. “There was, from over there.” I pointed past him. “And I heard singing, too.”

“No, you didn’t. You heard nothing. Do you hear me? Nothing,” he enunciated before glancing behind him. “Git before my father sees you and gets pissed.”

Why would he get mad? I’d done nothing wrong.

Still, it was late, dark, and I’d come alone. Perhaps I should leave before Mr. Samson lived up to his reputation among the kids of being a killer who dropped the bodies of his victims down a well. Whose body, the rumors didn’t say. We just knew there was something off about the Samsons.

I pedaled home, keeping an eye on the sky, listening for music. It was almost thirty years before I heard it again.

Chapter One

The flame on my lighter danced in the gentle afternoon breeze. The old Zippo— passed down to me by my grandfather, who used to smoke cigars, puffing hard on them while he verbally replayed his youth—remained lit despite the wind. Quality design at work.

I lit the end of the long fuse and ran for the grassy knoll. I ducked behind its solid girth and wrapped my arms over my head as I counted down.

Ten, nine, eight...

Technically, I had no idea how long it would take for the spark to light the –

Kaboom!

The ground underfoot trembled as the dynamite I’d planted exploded. The end result? A shower of rocks and dirt.

Once the intentional apocalypse ended, I stood. Dust hung in the air, making me glad I’d remembered to wear my goggles. The last time I’d forgotten and ended up in the emergency department with a doctor chiding me as he removed debris from my eye. Very unpleasant, although I did enjoy wearing the eye patch as it healed and shouting, “Arrr, matey,” at anyone who stared in my direction. I really didn’t give a rat’s ass what people thought of me.

Some women waited to hit their forties to ooze confidence. I wrangled mine at an earlier age. No shame. No filter. No fucks to give.

As I trudged in my yellow galoshes, decorated with red devil duckies, toward the pile of boulders I’d decimated, I noted the recently created stumps spread out over the acre I’d been clearing for the last two weeks as part of my farm expansion.

You were looking at a bona fide farmer. Me, Annie Jenner, sole owner of the farm I’d inherited before the age of twenty. A property and business I chose to keep despite the naysayers—also known as that asshole at the bank—trying to convince me to sell it to developers.

“You’re only nineteen. You don’t really want to tie yourself to a farm. You should go to school in another state. See the world.”

I could see the world on television. I refused to give up the farm that had been passed down in my family for several generations. I did leave for a while to attend college the next state over. I wanted an education. Running a successful farm was more than feeding animals and planting seeds. Just ask my daddy. It was hard work and the reason he chose to ditch farming for a job in town. Daddy told me he wasn’t a farmer, despite the fact his dad and his dad’s dad were.

It must have skipped a generation because I loved the land. While I didn’t have a magical green thumb like my best friend, I knew how to get things to flourish. Plants or animals. It took me a while—working full-time in town and then part-time as I got the farm going—before I could make the switch. Even then, I worked on a small scale.

A recent zombie invasion—which I’d helped prevent along with my BFF Mindy, a goblin named Mungo, and some dude working for the Cryptid Authority—had left me with empty barns and paddocks. A necromancer had zombified all my livestock as part of her devious plot to take

over the world, which failed, in part due to me.
After the fact, it was a fight to get the insurance company to pay out. Good thing social

media had recorded video evidence to prove my claim. Nothing like showing the adjustor one of my zombie cows rampaging down the street, chasing school children, to get him to admit maybe I was telling the truth. As if I’d lie about something like that. The vindication of winning almost offset my annoyance that my previous claim—when aliens beamed up my stud bull—failed to pay out. Apparently, the tiny burned circle left behind wasn’t proof of little green men.

Anyhow, back to the farming. Given my success, it was time to expand, which gave me a good excuse to blow shit up.

I tromped through the newly created field, noting all the hunks of rocks strewn from one end to the other. Others might have been daunted by all the stone. I saw what it would become: the rocky liner for the new pond I’d been meaning to put in. Tomorrow, I’d hook up the landscape rake to my tractor and drag the debris into a pile.

As the dust settled, I got a clearer look at the remains of the mound I’d blown up using the dynamite bought off the back of a truck from a guy who also dealt in fireworks. Technically, illegal, but the legit places couldn’t beat his price. Add in the fact I didn’t have to apply for a permit and I could explode shit to my heart’s content. The advantage of living in the boonies. The one time someone came asking if I’d heard or felt anything strange, I’d managed wide-eyed awe about the savage storm that blew through. The bylaw idiot bought it, although that might have had something to do with the jar of moonshine I sent him off with.

The spot I’d exploded still showed a layer of rocks that would require removal. Some were small enough I could toss them by hand, exposing the larger chunks remaining. One more blast would have cleared it, but then I’d have a crater in the ground that I’d have to fill. Less work to yank them free with my tractor.

Thinking of work had me wondering about the odd pile of rocks hidden in the previously gnarly forest. A possibly manmade tower of stone, perhaps some kind of totem or marker or a cairn. Would I find some skeletons?

I should be so lucky. What I wouldn’t give for something exciting to happen to me. I mean, yeah, my animals being turned into zombies to panic the populace was kind of cool, and helping my BFF track down a necromancer to end her reign of evil was epic. However, I was only a sidekick to her illustrious battle. Mindy was the one to save the day and get the guy. Lucky bitch. Good thing we were best friends or I’d have totally made a play for her boyfriend, Reiver. I did have a thing for bad boys, even though it got me into trouble.

Ask anyone, they’d tell you I had bad taste in men. Always had. But none as horrible as the first to break my heart. If that bastard ever showed his face, I’d smash it in. But he’d left, a coward in the night, with no care to the damage he’d wrought to me: mind and body.

As I walked around the remaining rocks I’d have to yank and move, a bleat from behind had me turning to see Jilly, a recently adopted pygmy goat with a short but sharp horn between her eyes, floppy ears, and no nipples despite being female. I couldn’t have even said why I took her in given she’d never produce milk or ever give me edible or sellable meat. And before you act shocked, keep in mind, I was a farmer. Everything on my farm served a purpose. Crops for food. Animals, too. I didn’t do pets. The cats in my barn? They were for mice. The dogs? Herding my sheep.

But Jilly, the oddball goat? She’d been part of the assets of an estate auction. The guy

beside me started bidding on her, joking to his companion she’d make an excellent circus freak. It bothered me enough that I overpaid for her clumsy butt.

You know how goats are usually agile climbers? Not my Jilly. She tripped over her own legs. Got her single horn stuck in everything. And, yes, despite that bony protrusion and lack of boobies, she was most definitely female. A mishmash of parts that didn’t fit in anywhere.

Like me.

I’d grown up with people making fun of my appearance. My hair was a wild, curly mess that, when brushed, poofed out into a massive halo. I didn’t have the patience to braid it and rather liked it au natural. My skin color wasn’t dark enough for some, too light for others. Adding in freckles and the way I dressed for comfort rather than style had led to me being teased and bullied. The only people who accepted me for me were my parents and Mindy.

Not that I cared what people thought. I took pride in my unique style. All that to say I looked at Jilly and saw myself. Awkward, not fitting in anywhere, but going about blithely confident and happy because I wasn’t about to let anyone make me believe I wasn’t worthy.

“What are you doing here, fuzz butt?” I chided.

She took that as an invitation and came trotting as fast as her four legs could carry her, which involved a sway to the left, a wobble to the right, and an almost face plant.

“Careful,” I warned as she only barely missed stepping in a rut that might have hurt her

leg.
The squeak uttered by Jilly had me snorting. “Don’t give me attitude. I’ve seen you in

action, fuzz butt.”
As if to prove me wrong, she danced atop the pile of rocks left behind, and almost

managed to look graceful until she slid off a stone and crashed, muzzle first. As if that stopped her. She popped right back up, tongue lolling in a smile.

I shook my head. “Such an idiot.” But a cute one. “Come on, oh four-legged accident waiting to happen. Let’s go get the tractor.” Because the ATV I rode out on didn’t have the right attachments to do the work needed.

Jilly hopped on the back, shaking with excitement. She loved going for rides, usually with her tongue hanging and ears flopping around, because those suckers refused to stand up straight. Once we reached the farm, she ran lopsided back for the barn. I followed her pink-pajama

butt, because, in my world, pet goats belonged in pajamas.
At Christmas, she’d worn a set with flashing Christmas lights along with a matching strand

around her tiny horn. It should be noted I’d worn something of the same fabric to a Christmas party at my best friend’s, which caused Mindy’s boyfriend, Reiver, to exclaim, “What the ever- loving fuck are you wearing?” Whereas Mindy just nodded and said, “At least it’s not as bad as the year she came dressed as a roasted turkey.” Replete with a gravy-scented perfume. To get me back, Mindy made me healthy muffins for a week. Her cruelty knew no bounds.

As I strode past a paddock, I waved to Benji, one of the new farmhands, who was dumping some vegetable scraps and barley into a trough for the pigs. The scrawny suckers would need fattening before they’d turn into bacon and pork chops.

Mmm.

Don’t act shocked. Remember what I said about judging? Food was a necessity. And while veganism might be fine for some folks, I would always be a girl who loved her protein, unlike my vegetarian BFF who would only eat plants and ethically sourced eggs and dairy.

It wasn’t long before I rumbled the tractor back to my newly created field. The previous week I’d removed the trees I’d felled, the copse I’d taken down old and gnarly. The trunks twisted and stunted, the branches barely producing leaves. It made me question the quality of the soil, only analysis of it by a lab I trusted indicated the perfect balance. Despite the appearance of the trees, this dirt was made for growing stuff.

Before I’d bought the acres of land bordering mine, I’d often imagined those woods were haunted. The previous owner, Leroy Samson, had reinforced that belief with his barbed wire fence and no trespassing signs. He’d often been seen, shotgun cradled in his arms, guarding his borders. Against what, no one ever knew.

Poor Samson got eaten by zombies the night my animals were kidnapped by the necromancer. When his property went up for auction a few months later, not only did I buy Jilly at the estate part of the sale but I snatched up the property, too. I had dreams of my farm expanding enough to eventually allow for me to raise alpacas and ostriches. The latter’s eggs were worth a fortune to chefs.

The moment the adjoining property became mine, the first thing I did was tear down the fence separating the land. I followed up by taking a chain saw to those useless trees, so dry and rotted they wouldn’t even make decent firewood. As I exposed the land long hidden from the sun, I discovered the tall mound of lichen-covered boulders, too big to easily move.

Okay, not entirely true. I could have hired a crane to relocate them, but personally, I preferred blowing shit up.

Jilly sat in a lined metal basket welded to the back of my seat on the tractor. She bleated in excitement as we rumbled our way onto the field. As I reached the blast zone, I lowered the bucket to scoop the remaining chunks of rock. One by one, I removed them, trundling across the field to the edge of a ravine that led to a creek—more like a raging river this time of the year, just after the winter melt.

The rocks went tumbling over the edge, a no-no that would get me in trouble if the town inspectors ever found out. They wouldn’t because then I might stop giving them deals on farm- fresh produce.

The rubble diminished until only one massive slab remained. It was almost square in shape and flat to the ground. And me without any more dynamite.

I improvised and slammed the bucket down on it. The rock cracked, but before I could think of scooping the pieces, the chunks fell into the chasm that opened beneath it!

Chapter Two

Holy fucking shit! I’d not expected to find a hole in the middle of my new field.

I hopped off my tractor, thudding hard on the ground. My knees complained. Might be time to get into Grandma’s recipe books and make some of her special salve—minus the bat wing and eye of newt, which she’d once drunkenly confided was to screw with people.

I headed for the edge of the opening in the ground, halted, and wondered at the stability of the ground. I glanced at the tractor, but it was fine. And I’d had to slam the rock pretty darned hard to get it to crack.

Fuck it. I moved for the hole and noticed the stone blocks framing the opening. I blinked, but the clean-cut rock remained, forming a border and... Wait a second, were those stairs? Oh, hell yes, there were stairs going down.

Excitement threatened to burst my body into gooey meat chunks as I discovered an honest to God—

Um. What had I found? No idea other than it was interesting as fuck. And me without a flashlight.

“Dammit!” I didn’t have a damned thing to light my path because my dumb ass forgot to charge my phone and it had less than five percent. I eyed the direction of my farm. A long trip back. I should try improvising first. After all, I did have my lighter. I’d fabricate a torch to take a peek.

Before I could scavenge for a proper hunk of wood, Jilly stood on the top step and gazed with curiosity at the darkness below.

“Don’t go down there.” Who knew what kind of hazards might await my clumsy goat.

Jilly nodded as if in agreement, which led to her losing her balance, and next thing I knew, she went tumbling down.

So of course, I went after her. No torch, nothing but a hint of panic.

The waning afternoon light didn’t penetrate far, only enough for me to realize the stairs descended a fair bit. When visibility became poor, I put my hand on the stone wall, surprised to find it warm rather than cool to the touch. The smooth stone possessed regularly spaced seams, showcasing a straight and solidly built place. But why? For what?

My goat let out a plaintive bleat that didn’t echo one bit, as if the place absorbed all

sound.
“I’m coming, fluff butt. Don’t move.” Here was hoping she’d listen this time.
I lost count of how many steps I’d gone down before I realized either my eyes had

adjusted to the darkness or it was getting lighter below. Soon I could make out the stone stairs and the walls. The source of light appeared to be coming from the landing that marked the end of my descent, not that I saw any bulbs, candles, or even torches. Nothing to actually cause anything to illuminate, and yet I could see. I also found my dumb goat.

Jilly stood in front of a massive stone door etched with a giant eye framed in zig-zag lashes.

“Cool,” I breathed as I stood in awe before the portal that was at least ten feet tall. No handle to open it, nor even a keyhole to unlock it. What lay behind? Ancient temple? Crypt? Treasure chamber? Did it matter? In this moment, I was Indiana Jane. Intrepid explorer. I just needed a hat and a whip.

Instead, I had muddy overalls, rubber galoshes, and a goat who thought it a good idea to lick the door.

“I don’t think that’s going to open it, fluff butt,” I advised my pet.

Jilly bleated and continued to lavish the stone portal with her copious spit. Which didn’t do a thing.

For a second, I thought of running to get some more dynamite, but blowing up a random pile of rocks was one thing. Even I knew better than to destroy something this historic. This type of mystery should be reported to those equipped for handle it. The problem being, if I told anyone about it, they’d probably declare my field off-limits. Steal whatever lay on the other side. Ruin my chance at a proper adventure.

Ugh. What to do?
I put a hand against the stone. Icy cold in comparison to the walls in the stairwell. Maybe the cairn of rocks had hidden this staircase and entrance for a reason. What if

what hid beyond was evil? A portal to somewhere really bad? It would explain my ornery neighbor’s stance on trespassing. Did I want to accidentally unleash the forces of Hell, or worse, upon my world?

Sigh. I could hear echoes of my best friend in that worry. A younger me would have said fuck it, open the door! However, I liked to think at almost forty I’d matured enough to know

better.
“Guess I need to be responsible about this.” I grimaced. Adulting sucked.
Before heading back up, I rubbed the door, groped it, knocked on it. I drew the line at

lavishing it with spit like my goat. When it became obvious I wouldn’t be opening it, I snapped my fingers. “Let’s go, fluff butt. Feels like dinnertime to me.”

“Blaaaah,” Jilly agreed.

We made the long trip back up the stairs, and I slouched in the tractor going home. Tired legs couldn’t trump my excitement over my find.

A mystery. In my field. I immediately called Mindy to tell her all about it.
“I found a secret set of stairs going deep underground!” My exuberant version of hello. “Where?”
“Old Samson’s place. That new field I’ve been clearing. I think I might have found some

kind of tomb. You should see the size of the door at the bottom. It’s huge.” “Please tell me you didn’t open it,” Mindy exclaimed.
“I didn’t.” Then a whiny, “Because it’s locked or something.” “Thank cupcake.” Mindy sighed in relief.

“What’s the worst that could have happened?”

“Toxic gases. Supernatural prison...” Mindy had a list that ended with the end of life as we knew it. “Promise me you’ll call a pro to look at it before you do anything.”

I sighed. Mindy sure had a way of guilting a person into being responsible. “Fine. I’ll get someone out here to check it out.”

I hung up, and then, before I could change my mind, I made the other call.

“Cryptid Historical Society, how may I direct your call?” a perky feminine voice asked.

“Hey, so I’m not sure if you’re interested, but figured I should call ‘cause I found something on my property.”

“Object or body?”

“More like secret underground stone passage with a giant locked door engraved with an eyeball.”

A pause followed my words before the receptionist with a montone voice recovered with a huff. “Please hold.”

I didn’t hold for long. The next person I spoke to could barely contain their excitement at my description.

“Don’t tell anyone what you’ve found, or do anything with it,” they admonished.

I agreed, only because my legs told me I could fuck off if I thought they were doing that trek up and down those stairs again anytime soon.

That night I went to bed and had a dream. I dreamed of the night I saw the light in the sky and heard singing. But this time, the show didn’t abruptly halt and I kept riding down Samson’s driveway toward that light, which came from a hole in the ground that looked an awful lot like the one in my field.

As I got closer, the singing became clear.

“Save me. Save me.”

How? I had no idea who asked, just that I wanted desperately to help that voice. As I reached the light, I tried to look down, squinting against the brightness.

I reached, head turned to the side, trying to avoid closing my eyes. Judging by the dry scaly texture, what grabbed my ankle wasn’t human.

The realization shot me out of sleep. I woke and sat up in my bed, sweaty and gross.

Scared.
Which kind of freaked me out. How could I be scared of a silly dream?
A hot shower and breakfast did much to reassure so that by the time the handsome

stranger arrived, I was feeling in fine form.

So fine that when I opened the door, I drawled, “Please tell me you were sent here to stud.”

Chapter Three

I’d propositioned a stranger. It was bad even by my lax terms. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that how it sounded.” Remember how I claimed I was in my don’t-give-a-fuck years? It should also be noted I had some weird social awkwardness when it came to cute guys. As in I said the stupidest things.

To his credit, his jaw didn’t drop, but he did frown. “Are you Annie Jenner?”

“Who’s asking?” I eyeballed him more closely, looking past his handsome face to the rest of him. A blond hunk wearing tan cargo-pocket chinos and a long-sleeve shirt layered with a battered leather coat, but no hat or whip. Instead, he held a satchel. Had to be the historical society fellow.

As for my outfit? I’d opted for leggings patterned with pumpkins and a bright green sweatshirt that had a smiling vegetable exclaiming, “So excited, I pea-ed.” Add in hair that chose to pretend there was humidity and it completed my look.

“I’m Annie. You must be the CHS fellow.” I held out my hand for a shake. He replied with a strong grip, and I noticed the callouses on his hand. Not just a book nerd.

“I’m Howard Cunningham. Archeologist and historian. I hear you found something interesting.”

“Fuck yeah I did,” I blurted out, only to slam my lips shut. Me and my big potty mouth.

His eyes crinkled at the corners when he smiled. “Don’t contain your excitement on my account. I’d say it was warranted.”

“It was pretty cool.” I’d not been able to stop thinking about the mysterious door. I wish I’d thought to grab my dying phone before I’d gone down after Jilly. Wished my legs would have agreed to another trip last night.

“Can you describe it for me? I’d like to hear about it in your own words and not those relayed by my colleague.”

“Sure.” I went into an account that didn’t include dynamite or my illegal dumping of rocks and breaking of a possible historical monument.

He eyed me with intent interest the entire time. When I finished my tale by describing the eye on the door, he said politely, “May I see?”

I nodded. “It’s a fair distance, though. Tractor’s in use by Karra, one of my farmhands. She’s prepping the delta pasture, so we’ll take the ATV. It will be faster than on foot.”

“That sounds perfect.”
Wait until he realized he’d be riding behind me.
My machine was gassed and ready to go with a small bag of tools—that might have

included a sledgehammer—strapped to the rack at the back. You know, in case we needed to bust our way in. That door could not stay closed forever. I had to know what lay behind it. Needed

to see.
I’ll admit that strong desire worried me. I’d been around enough weird stuff to admit it

might be artificial, a compulsion triggered perhaps by some kind of spell around the door. At the same time, who wouldn’t want to know what lay behind the mysterious portal? Maybe it was the tomb of some ancient queen with all kinds of expensive jewels.

“I assume that’s our ride?” Mr. Cunningham stood by my side, making me realize he was many inches taller than me.

A shiver of delight hit because I did so love a man who made me feel dainty. Mock me all you want. I might be a strong, independent woman, but sometimes I wanted to let go. Be the fucking damsel in distress. The one on the bottom making him do all the work.

“Hope you don’t mind getting a little muddy.”
“It wouldn’t be a real discovery without some dirt. Where do you keep the spare helmet?” The fact he asked almost made me cringe. “We don’t have any.” I shrugged. “When you’re

used to running machines on a daily basis, you kind of forget about using them. We know better than to drive like idiots.” Most of the time. The exception being that time Mavis, my damned cow who survived the zombie apocalypse by being at the vet, got pregnant and turned ugly. Mooing as if possessed, the cow chased me out of her pasture at a speed that almost killed me. “Will the lack of helmet be a problem?”

“Given your head appears nicely shaped and you’ve not lost your wits, I shall trust to your expertise. Although I do wonder where I’ll be sitting.”

I did my best to not smirk as I said, “Behind me.”

“Will there be enough room?” He inclined his head as he asked what turned out to be a valid question, given Jilly, wearing her cloudy pajamas, had claimed the passenger seat of the

ATV.
My little goat bleated.

“Get down, fluff butt.” I waved my hands to shoo her. Jilly shook her horn in reply. I swear at times she understood me.

“Is that a goat?” Cunningham asked.
“Yup. Although I don’t think she realizes it. She likes going for rides.”
“There’s room enough for us both if she’s okay being in my lap.” A surprising offer. He

approached my goat and reached, fingers extended for Jilly to sniff.
Bold, but, at the same time, cautious.
Jilly froze before her nose twitched. She went through a disjointed shiver before making

a noise and butting into his hand. Given she also loved my cactus and required me pulling the needles out one by one, I sometimes wondered about her judgement.

“Well, that took all of five seconds,” I muttered as the traitor decided she now loved the archeologist. Given she liked few people—only me and Mindy were allowed to touch her—this raised the hot dude in my estimation.

He tucked his satchel on the front rack of my ride, using the bungies to hold it. Then held out his hands.

“May I?” he asked my goat, and Jilly graciously allowed him to scoop her before he seated himself on the back, a pajamaed goat in his lap. It was ridiculously cute. Better than a man and a baby. Way better because this was within my reach. I just had to act cool. Sexy. Other women did it all the time.

I went to swing my leg over the ATV and felt the ping as a stitch ripped. I jerked my leg down too fast, lost my balance, and fell on my ass.

Oof. There went graceful. I popped to my feet as Cunningham graciously pretended not to see my lapse.

“I forgot something. Be right back.” I raced into my house, changed my pants to ones without a hole—I couldn’t do anything about the fact he’d probably notice I now wore overalls— then raced back outside.

“Shall we?” I hopped on, this time without mishap, while, at the same time, chastising myself for not ignoring the tear in my leggings. Whatever happened to my rule, take me as I was, ripped pants and all? As I raced for forty, still alone, it occurred to me I might have to relax some of my conditions.

Cunningham did not grab hold of me during the ride over to the mystery doorway. I tried to get him to, taking some of the most jostle-filled options on the path over, like riding through the furrowed field, making us bounce. He didn’t scream or place his big, manly hands on my body. He held Jilly cradled to his chest.

Fuck him for being an adorable gentleman.

When we arrived by the hole and I slowed to a stop, he finally leaned close to say, “Thank you, Ms. Jenner.”

Butterflies exploded in me like I’d not felt in a long time. “You’re welcome. Call me Annie.” “Only if you’ll do the same.”
“Sure, Annie.” I giggled. Giggled at my own super lame joke.
“Actually it’s—"

“Howard,” I interrupted. “I remember.” I tried to not hear a quack as I thought of Howard the Duck. Don’t Google it. Dear God. You searched it, didn’t you? I warned you.

He grimaced. “Only my mother ever calls me that. My friends call me Ward.” A much sexier appellation. “That was a fun ride,” he added as he slid off the back of the ATV with my goat. He did me the pleasure of bending over to put Jilly on the ground. Nice view.

I knew what kind of ride I’d prefer to give him. He’d be doing more than thanking me. He’d be cross-eyed, panting, and limp as a noodle.

I took my sex seriously and strenuously.

The man straightened, and my goat gazed upward, showering him with adoration. We apparently had the same taste in men. I wasn’t sure what that said about me.

Ward removed his satchel from the ATV and pulled out some boring stuff. Camera. Measuring tape. No bullwhip, pistol, or a metal censer swinging on a chain, belching smoke to combat possible evil spirits in the area. He even erected a tripod for the camera and began snapping shots. A few clicks in, the questions began.

“This area appears recently cleared.”

“Because I only started clearing this patch after the spring melt. I bought the place bordering mine in winter. Soon as the ground thawed, I began expanding.” I had plans for Earth’s Bounty, the name I’d given my organic and ethical farm.

“I’m assuming there were trees before.”
“Yup. They surrounded this whole area.” I swung my arms.
“It would explain why your discovery remained hidden for so long. The report you called

in indicated there used to be rocks covering the aperture?” “A huge pile of them.”

“Natural in formation?”

“Yes and no. I mean, I doubt Mother Earth dropped them in a neat pile, but at the same time, they weren’t fitted or mortared into place. Like it was just a cone-shaped tower that started out wide at the bottom and thinned at the top. All kinds of rocks, except for the one at the very bottom. It was square and flat in shape.”

“Did it bear any symbols or signs?”
“Nope.” Not that I’d seen, but then again, I’d not really examined it.
“How did you remove the rocks?”
“Tractor.” I omitted the dynamite step, but he had to know given he glanced to the sides

and couldn’t help but see the shards littering the field. I hoped he didn’t ask what I’d done with the bigger chunks. In retrospect, this might get me in trouble. Think they’d believe I’d lost them all by accident?

“It appears some of the stone fell into the hole.” He pointed.

“The last one broke when I tried to remove it with my tractor.” I waited for an admonishment that didn’t come. What did a girl have to do in order to get put over his knee for a spanking?

“A good thing you thought to move it, or we might have never found this historical site.” Ward knelt by the stone edging the descent into the ground. “How far do the stairs go?”

“Far enough.” My legs remained sore from my single climb the day before.

Ward took more images, this time moving around with his camera, followed by measurements, dictating the results into his phone, along with observations. Boring. When would we get to the exciting part where we opened the door? Or celebrated the find with sex?

Ward removed a large flashlight from his satchel.
“You won’t need that. There’s light at the bottom,” I advised.
“So you mentioned, but the rest of the journey was in the dark, correct?” At my nod, he

said, “Then best we bring a few things just in case.”
Good point. He also brought a bag that he said contained bottles and bags to take samples

and even a portable ultraviolet lamp.
When Ward had packed a knapsack with what he deemed essentials, he flicked a switch

and aimed a flashlight at the hole. The bright beam did much to dispel the gloom, revealing stone walls and stairs, some littered with the broken rock from the day before. “Ready to go?”

“Am I ever.” I practically rubbed my hands in glee—my thighs, on the other hand, groaned. Let them bitch. This was my find. My mystery. No way would I sit this one out. My goat on the other hand chose to remain atop.

I headed down the steps, avoiding the stone that had landed on the first few when I broke the barrier. Having gone up and down once already, and with an actual light this time, I didn’t hesitate. I skipped—okay, more liked glomped, each galosh hitting the stone hard.

Ward didn’t say much as he swung his light side to side. Occasionally he stopped and took a picture of the receding square of daylight that marked the entrance. We went deep enough we lost sight of it and only had his tiny, bobbing light to mark our path. He kept up with my pace as I went down the straight path. Like literally, straight down. An odd choice. Large staircases usually spiraled.

Who knew how long or how far in the descent the light began to flicker, but a few more steps and it went out completely.

“That’s weird.” Usually a weak battery meant fading illumination. Not instant death.

“Odd. It was fully charged before we left,” Ward mumbled as he clicked the on/off switch and then resorted to slapping it. Nada.

“Hold on. We’ll use my phone’s flashlight.” I’d remembered to charge and bring it this time. I pulled it from my pocket and, despite how much I squashed the power button, it wouldn’t come on. “My battery is dead, too.”

“Interesting,” Ward mused aloud. “It appears there is a phenomenon messing with electronics. How far are we from the bottom?”

“Don’t know, but I’m going to guess close. And is it me, or can you see a little?”
He hesitated before saying, “You’re right. The darkness isn’t absolute. Shall we continue?” We continued down at a quicker pace, and the stairwell brightened.
“There’s no visible light source,” Ward mentioned as we neared the landing, the end of

our journey down.
“Not that I found. And I think it’s getting brighter. First time I came down, it wasn’t this

noticeable.” The brightness around us showed off the intricate stonework, fancier than I’d realized the day before, with the stone parts forming swirling patterns.

Ward placed his hand against the stone wall. “There is magic here.”

“No shit,” I muttered. Even my mostly human butt could feel it. My mom had some elf genetics, but they appeared to have skipped me. As for Dad, no cryptid at all according to him.

“Here is the door you mentioned. A most incredible find.” Awe filled Ward’s words as he stood in front of the portal with its giant carving.

“Do you know what this place is?”

“Yes, although it was thought to be a myth. If I’m correct, though, then you have found the tomb of Satrina.”

“Who?”
“Satrina, the last dragon.”

COLLAPSE