Briar House, Seaport, Rhode Island
Present Day

Raven Giancola let out a long slow breath as she clenched her fist around the handle of her violin case. Her mouth dry, she stared with angst at the ominous and dilapidated mansion, its cracked walls speckled with moss, its roof buckling under crawling vines.

A frigid briny wind scattered dead leaves at her feet and brushed strands of her hair against her cheeks. The silky fabric of her spring dress flickered around her bare thighs.

I need him. There is no other way.

She shifted her weight to the balls of her feet and proceeded across the path slick from the mist, careful not to slip in her delicate heels. Twigs crunched beneath her steps, stirring up the scent of dampness and decay.

Thornwood Huntington will have to help.

She gathered her resolve as she tiptoed through the muddy stone pathway. He was the one with the knowledge, her nonna had told her. The one powerful enough to do this.

Raven looked again at the mansion and her courage dimmed. She took in the blackened marbled steps, the grimy stained-glass windows, and the weatherworn Grecian statues from another era.

The ornamental façade of Briar House seemed to carry a single but powerful message.

Go away.

Perhaps as a mirror to the owner’s state of mind.

Or so people said.

The word around Seaport was that Thornwood Huntington, Warlock of the Order of the Black Oak, sorcerer, alchemist, and Keeper of Truths, never let anyone in. He lived secluded in the mansion he inherited as a child. Rarely seen in Seaport society events.

Yet Nonna Giancola, her own grandmother, a crafty strega and the warlock’s former nanny, had assured Raven that he would make an exception for the witch’s granddaughter.

Raven had no choice but to consult with him. Nonna had tried every spell she knew to open the true potential of Raven’s ancient violin. The legacy instrument would only unlock to the one musician talented enough to play it. But also—and that was where things were getting complicated—while someone blessed with the craft of sorcery intoned the appropriate incantation.

Years of practice since the age of three, countless musical awards, and work with many New England string ensembles had certainly made Raven’s talent worthy of the ancient violin. But Nonna’s magical powers had limits.

They needed Thornwood Huntington.

And so, Raven, trembling at his doorstep in her best heels, her precious instrument in her hand, was about to face the alchemist to persuade him to help.

Let’s do this. She stared at the thick wood door crossed with rusted ironwork, then lifted the brass knocker which featured a slither of ornamental snakes, their mouth open as if ready to bite.

Barely a sound echoed in the clear afternoon air, except for the occasional breeze rattling the bare oak trees surrounding the centuries-old mansion.

She struck the knocker upon the door three times and the thump resonated in the silence surrounding the property.

She flinched at the clank of a door unbolting.

Excruciatingly slowly, the stately door opened to a small elderly gentleman.  His brown suit was faded, his gray hair a little unkempt. He stared at her without a word, stooped over an antique cane of dark wood.

Raven gulped and hugged her case to her chest.

“Is Mr. Huntington here? I’m Raven Giancola,” she asked, her voice hesitant. “Mrs. Giancola’s granddaughter… I need to see him.”

The old man’s worn gaze narrowed on to her.  “Mr. Huntington is not seeing anyone today,” he finally said as he began to close the door.

“I really need to see him. My grandma—that’s Mrs. Giancola—told me he would be here today.” Raven shifted on her heels. “I would have called ahead but Nonna said it’d be better to show up in person.”

“I have the instrument.” Raven thrust her case under the old man’s nose.

Puzzled, his brows pinched together and his silence dragged on.

“It’s enchanted. That’s why I need to see Mr. Huntington.” She bit her lip. Was she supposed to mention the magic to this man? What if he had no idea of his employer’s powers?

She sighed in frustration at her predicament. A call or email would have been so much simpler. But what else was she supposed to do? Even Nonna couldn’t reach the recluse sorcerer easily.

Thornwood Huntington was completely cut off from society.

“Patience,” had said Nonna. “He’s a difficult man. Life has not been kind to him. All he has is his magic, and his studies. That’s all. He has no desires. No family.”

But she had assured Raven he would help her, even if only for curiosity. “Our Torricelli violin is famous with the Seaport warlocks. It’s our legacy. It’s been in our family since Tuscany.”

Raven forced herself to let out another slow breath to tone down her anxious request. “Please, ask him,” she said. “Just a few minutes of his time.”

The elderly man seemed to think it through. His expression softened and he motioned her inside Briar House, shutting the heavy door behind her in a shuffle of careful steps. He silently pointed to a wooded bench carved into the foyer.

She watched him hobble down the darken hall then she huddled on the entrance’s seat, crushed by the spaciousness of the hall, its huge gilded chandelier weighted with crystals above her. She stared at her shoes, crossed her ankles and gripped her violin tight.

The dormant instrument was already of high quality. But it needed to be beyond good if she was to win a place in the Seaport Symphony.

Two days. That was all she had before her audition for the coveted spot. She could not fail. A lump of emotions lodged in her throat. This was the only way she could remain in town to take care of her dad. The only way she could earn enough income for the medical bills piling up from the chronic pain brought from his accident at the mill years ago.

Just two days. And so many worthy musicians vying for the one position. She had to do anything in her power to get the job.

Anything. She sighed. Yes, this was the only way.

She tilted her chin up as she straightened her spine. The sorcerer would have to help. He owed Nonna that much. She’d taken care of him as a child when he lost his parents and never asked for anything in return.

“This way, miss.” The old man’s feeble voice echoed in the hall.

She jumped with relief, steady on her heels. She would finally meet the great Thornwood Huntington, heir to the Huntington fortune and son of the late opera singer Leonna Wood.

She would get her violin opened.

Raven followed the elderly butler down an extensive hallway paneled in dark wood and where hung portraits of people now long gone. The urgency to have her violin unlocked receded as she wondered what type of man would live completely cut out from the world in this cold cavernous relic of a house.

She was soon to find answers as they stepped through a neglected chapel then down a set of narrow stone steps toward the crypt underneath. The small hall opened to a large room walled with stones and entirely lit with candles. The gloomy chamber was lined with glass cabinets, each filled with an assortment of curiously shaped jars of dubious content.

“Master Thornwood, here’s Miss Giancola.”

“Thank you, Mac. Just let her in.” The voice sounding from the back of the chamber contained a rich warmth that sent a shudder deep down to the middle of Raven’s chest.

She stepped in farther and was struck by the force emanating from the wide shadow bent over the thick wooden worktable. The warlock slowly unfolded his tall body, his wide shoulders taking too much space in the cramped chamber.

His gaze hit her full force as it caught hers.

Icy, with a still darkness, his pupils were like frozen obsidian. She swallowed, falling in the depth of its intensity. She forgot everything she’d meant to say, the air thickening in her lungs.

“Miss Giancola.” He leaned back lazily on his stool, crossed his arms as a slow smile curled his lips. “Mrs. G’s granddaughter.”

“I have the instrument,” Raven blurted. She held the case closer, as if her violin was the only thing protecting her from his dark presence.

He slid from his seat. “I see.” In a mere few steps, he closed the distance between them. “The famous Toricelli violin.”

Raven craned her neck to look at him, inhaled a scent of spice and mystery and took a step back.

Her lips parted as she studied the well-cut muscles under the plain black t-shirt. A bracelet of many leather cords and silver strands were the only thing breaking the defined planes of his arms.

“I really need your help, Mr. Huntington.”

“Thornwood, please,” He cocked an eyebrow at her. “Your grandmother was very dear to me, Miss Giancola. Raven, isn’t it?”

Warmth pooled inside her to hear her name on his lips. “Nonna said you were the most powerful of the Order. That you would be able to unlock it. I’m a good player. I just need the right magic.”

“Is that right?” He considered her carefully.

“I’ve heard of what you can do.” She narrowed her eyes at him with intent. Nonna had told her how he would neutralize any mystical artifact with the potential for harm, and could even rewrote ancient spells to best suit his needs.

He inhaled deeply before saying, “Then you know I don’t mingle with people outside of the Order.”

“My nonna…”

“Is…was, an exception,” he said. “Mrs. G. was good to me at a difficult time.”

“We really need your help.” Hope settled on her heart. “You are the only one who can.”

A shadow crossed his features. “I don’t doubt your grandma means well. But I’m afraid it’s not possible.”

“Please, you have to.”

“I’m sorry, Raven…Miss Giancola. But I can’t help you.” He leaned back on his heels, leg spread wide, and crossed his arms, a cold expression erasing any warmth he’d previously shown.

She frowned, a knot formed at her stomach. “But why? Nonna said…”

“As I told you,” he stared down at her, standing his ground, “I don’t interfere with people outside of the Order.

“And furthermore, Miss Giancola,” he added, his eyes turning to slits. “It’s time your family releases the Toricelli violin to my care.”

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