Wicked Embers – Keri Arthur

In the still darkness of this dream, Death was hunting. Her scent filled the air, as heavy as the fog was thick. I had no sense of where I was. There were no identifiable buildings here, no street signs, nothing that could provide a clue. Not even people. Just me, the foggy darkness, and the huntress who stalked this place somewhere up ahead. The night eddied around me but brought with it no sounds. Unease swept through me. In the hundreds of years I’d been dreaming of death, there’d never been one like this—one in which there was absolutely nothing that would enable me to pin down a time or location. And while I may have very recently sworn to stop interfering with fate and just let death take its natural path, I’d made that same vow dozens of times over the centuries, and it had never resulted in a dream like this. The night continued to slide past me, gelatinous and uneasy. The sensation of Death was growing stronger, but I could neither see nor sense what form she was wearing. And I had no idea why. Usually when my prophetic dreams hit, I was not only given a clear image of the time and location, but I was also shown how that death would occur. But here, there was no such clarity.

Some sorcerers and witches had the ability to hide their presence from either dreamers or astral travelers, but I was a spirit rather than a being born of flesh—even if I wore human form most of the time—and I could generally sense such magic being employed. But there was nothing here beyond the thick night and that steadily growing certainty of wrongness. It was almost as though my inner dreamer was having trouble pinning down the source of this death—and that in itself suggested whatever lay behind it was something I had never come across before. It was a scary thought, given the many years and many lives I’d had. Gradually, a sound that reminded me somewhat of the click of nails against stone began to echo through the fog. Loud at first, it grew ever softer, as if the source was moving away. And yet Death was nearer, not more distant. I frowned, confused, but I had little choice other than to keep moving. I knew from past episodes that the dream would not release me from its grip until the very end. It was an end I could stop if I chose to, but only if I was shown enough details.

The soft sound of nails continued to grow fainter, until it was barely audible again. But every intake of breath was filled with the foul presence of evil, and if I could have stopped, I would have. But the dream drew me on. Ever on. Something flickered through the darkness ahead. It was little more than a deeper patch of night, but I had no doubt it was the giver of death. I drew closer. The shape of the creature was fluid and oddly disconnected; it seemed to be made of embers rather than mere shadows, and it flowed from one form to another with ease. Sometimes it looked like a cat, at other times like a large bat that made the night eddy and flow around it with every sweep of its wings. Gradually, though, it settled into the form of a monstrous black dog.

A black dog whose paws were on backward. And even though I was close enough to see it now, the noise of its stained yellow nails hitting the surface under its paws was still oddly distant. It was as if there was a weird disconnect between reality and sound in this place; it made me wonder whether there was some form of magic at work even though I had no sense of it. I followed in its wake, and gradually the darkness gave way to forms and shapes. A dark street stretched ahead of us, silent and empty. The road surface was slick with rain, though I was immune to its touch. The creature ahead was not, and the scent of wet fur soon filled my nostrils. There were no cars parked in this street and no footpath. Butting up against the two old bluestone drains that lined either side of the road were varied fences—some were brick, some were wood, and some were little more than metal roller doors. Many were almost hidden by the old roses that scrambled over them, and tall trees—their tops lost to the darkness and the rain—towered above us.

The creature stopped and looked around. Its eyes were large, bloodred, and filled with hunger. It raised its long snout and sniffed the air, as if searching for a scent. Finally, it snarled, revealing canines that were needle fine and razor sharp. Then it leapt over the nearest fence and disappeared. The dream quickly followed, giving me little chance to do anything more than glimpse the graffiti that littered the old redbrick fence. The yard beyond was small and strewn with rubbish. A clothesline that was little more than several strands of wire strung between two wooden T-pieces dominated the right-hand side of the yard, and to the left was a large lemon tree laden with fruit. As the creature moved up the concrete steps to the tiny house’s back door, its shape became fluid again. With little effort, it slid underneath the gap between the door and the floor.

The dream forced me to do the same. The air inside the house was thick with the scent of garlic and meat, and it was so hot, the fires within my soul burned to life, as if eager to draw in the richness of it. The creature slunk through the house; its movements were cautious, wary, but its hunger was now so strong it filled the heated air and made my stomach turn. This death would not be a good one … Not that any of them ever were. As I drifted in its wake, I studied our surroundings, trying to find something—anything—that would clue me in as to where we were. The kitchen was small and neat, although a pot on the stove was beginning to smoke. If it wasn’t turned off soon, a fire was likely. But I doubted that was the reason I was here. I might be a phoenix, with fire mine to control, but this dream was about the strange creature and its intentions rather than about a house blaze. A newspaper lay on the edge of the kitchen counter, and the date leapt out at me.

August 25— today’s date. But was the dream showing me a real-time event—something no other dream had ever done—or was it once again showing me the future, even if only a few hours from now? I had no idea, because I could see no clocks in this place. Even the one on the oven was out of focus. We moved into a small hall. A stand holding several coats lay sideways on the floor—an indication, perhaps, that someone had left in a hurry. On the small table nearby were several unopened letters. Mr. James Hamberly, one of them read. Forty-two Highett Street, Richmond. I finally had a location.

Now I just had to see the death and decide whether I should interfere. Most of the time, it was better not to—I’d learned that the hard way—but even so, there were some deaths I just couldn’t walk away from, no matter the risk to my personal safety. Which was the reason why in this lifetime my back had become a mass of scars after I’d saved a child from a burning car, and why my heart had gotten all bruised and hurting again after I’d saved my ex’s grumpy ass. The creature paused and lifted its nose, then looked over its shoulder, its eyes bloody fire in the darkness. I wondered if it had some sense of my presence, but it made no move to flee and, after a few more seconds, it turned and went through the door on the left. Inside was a dead man. Shock hit me, its force so fierce and cold it briefly calmed the heat in the air and the fires in my soul. Why was the dream showing someone who was already dead? It wasn’t even a particularly fresh death, because Death herself was nowhere to be seen. So why was I here? No answers came, but then, they rarely did. I watched as the creature slunk to the bed, its backward paws making no sound on the wooden floorboards.

As it neared its prey, it seemed to grow, until it was almost the height of a tall human. It sniffed the covered form, then raised a paw and pulled the blankets back, revealing the man’s flaccid form to the night and the heat. The creature sniffed him from head to toe, and the scent of anticipation filled the air. My stomach roiled and the heat grew, but I had no flames in this dream state and no way to stop what was about to happen. The creature’s tongue flicked out and, almost lovingly, it licked the man’s rotund belly. I shivered again, despite the growing heat, guessing what was coming and not wanting to see it. But it wasn’t as if I had a choice. Again the creature’s tongue flickered out, this time centering on the area above the liver. It was almost as if it was marking its spot for penetration. It was.

With very little fanfare, the creature bared its teeth and pierced the exact spot it had marked. The cuts were small and precise, and it made no move to enlarge the wound. It didn’t need to. It was syphoning the man’s liver through its teeth … The dream finally dissolved, but the heat did not. I thrust up into a sitting position, suddenly aware that the flames in my soul not only danced across my skin but also across the sheets and blankets. It was a sensation that was thick and warm and luscious, but it was also very dangerous, considering my bedroom had no special protection against the heat that was mine by nature. But even as I started to draw it back into my body, the door opened and Rory burst in, his red hair burning in the light of my fire. He was a phoenix like me, but he was also my life mate—the spirit to which I was bound forever, and the being who meant everything to me, because neither of us could be reborn without the other’s help. And yet, while I loved him, I wasn’t in love with him. It was an unfortunate fact that paired phoenixes had been cursed with the inability to find emotional completion with each other, even though we could have children only with our decreed partner.

Of course, the other half of the damn curse was that love, for us, never ended happily—and it was something we’d both cursed more than once during our many lifetimes. He didn’t say anything, just sat down beside me, pulled me into his embrace, and drew the remaining heat and flames into his body. And though desire stirred between us, he did nothing more than simply hold me. “It must have been a bad one this time,” he said, his warm breath tickling my ear. “It’s rare for your prophetic dreams to end in flames like this.” “It wasn’t bad. It was just weird.” I pulled free from his arms and swept the hair out of my eyes. Like Rory’s, mine was red, though it strayed toward the copper end of the spectrum more than was usual for phoenixes. “This time the victim was already dead.

” He frowned. “Why on earth would you see that?” I snorted softly. “Why on earth do I even get them? It’s not like it’s an ability found in any other phoenix we’ve ever come across.” He half smiled. “True. But then, you always were a little different. It’s what attracted me to you.” “Like you even had a choice in that.” My tone was dry, and he acknowledged the point with a wider smile. When a phoenix hit sixteen years old, a ritual was performed to reveal his or her partner and, from that moment on, the two were bonded—whether they liked said partner or not.

Thankfully, I’d never heard of a bonding in which the partners hated each other, but it would certainly be a horrible situation to be in, considering that each phoenix in the pairing relied on the other for rebirth. I swung my legs past him and rose. The carpet was thick and warm under my toes as I padded across to the chair, grabbed my jeans, and pulled them on. “I take it you’re going to investigate this death, despite being able to do nothing to prevent it?” His tone held an edge that was both amused and resigned. “Yes.” I grabbed a sweater, gave it a sniff, and tugged it over my head. “I don’t think the death was the reason I was there. I think it was the creature.” Surprise flickered through his amber eyes. “What creature?” I sat down and tugged on socks.

“It was some sort of shape-shifter, but nothing I’ve ever seen before.” “Given the number of shifters we’ve come across over the centuries, that’s saying something.” “Yeah.” I grabbed my boots. “This thing had multiple shapes, but the form it seemed to settle on was a big black dog with backward-facing feet.” “Backward feet? How did the damn thing even walk?” “Without any problem, from what I saw.” I stood up. “I have to see what is going on, Rory. I need to know why I was shown that thing.” He sighed and pushed to his feet.

“I know. But please promise me you’ll be careful. I would really love to get through one lifetime without either of us being killed before our hundred years are up.” I smiled as I walked over to him. While every phoenix could be reborn with the help of his partner, his life span each time totaled one hundred years precisely. I had no idea why or how that number of years had been allotted to us, but neither of us had ever gotten to that magical figure. The closest I’d ever come was ninety-eight. I draped my arms around his neck and kissed him. It was a gentle thing, but the promise of fire ran beneath it. We both had other partners sexually, but it never erased our need for each other.

In fact, phoenix partners had to combine energies every couple of days or we risked fading and could die— which was just another nail in the coffin when it came to finding happiness with whomever we fell in love with each lifetime. “I’ll promise to be careful if you promise to get your butt out of bed and actually make it to work on time this morning.” “Hey, my butt has made it to work with five minutes to spare on three occasions this week.” I grinned. “Then go for four—hell, even five. The fire chief will think all his Christmases have come at once.” “I just might, even if only to show you both it’s entirely possible.” He ran a finger lightly down my cheek before his touch settled on my lips. “I mean it. Be careful.

I really don’t like the sound of this dream, and I like the thought of your investigating it alone even less.” I kissed his fingertip, then said, “I know, but Jackson doesn’t get back from the job in Sydney until tomorrow afternoon.” I’d met Jackson only five weeks ago, after I became involved in the investigation into my boss’s murder. We’d gotten on so well that he was now not only my lover but also my business partner, as he’d offered me a fifty percent share in Hellfire Investigations, his PI agency. But he didn’t know about my dreams, and I really preferred to keep it that way. It was bad enough that I endangered my own life investigating them; there was no way I was going to risk someone else’s. And it wasn’t as if we didn’t have plenty of other problems at the moment without my adding to them. Rory’s concern deepened. “You haven’t told him about the dreams, have you?” Jackson knew I was a phoenix because my fire had helped saved his life, but I hadn’t mentioned the dreams because there’d been no reason to. “No, but—” “Em,” he cut in softly, “don’t make the same mistake with Jackson that you made with Sam.

” “It’s hardly the same thing,” I snapped back. “Damn it, you know very well why I didn’t tell Sam I was a phoenix, and he certainly didn’t give me a chance to explain why I need you in my life.” “I know.” He grimaced, caught my hands, and squeezed them lightly. It only made the anger flame higher. “Believe me, I know. But I was just thinking the other day—what if it’s about honesty?” “What?” “The curse. What if it’s all about honesty?” “No one is sure if the curse theory is even true.” I pulled free from his grip. “And it’s not as if we haven’t been honest.

For fuck’s sake, Rory, how many times has one of us been killed or burned because of honesty?” “Too many.” His voice was grim. “But we’ve never been honest with our partners from the very beginning, and maybe that’s the point of the curse. Until we are, maybe we’ll never find happiness.” “It’s hardly practical to be honest when humans fear the unknown.” I walked back to the chair to grab my leather jacket. “I know, but baby steps and all that. Tell Jackson about the dreams, Em. Besides, if one hits when you’re with him, he needs to be prepared.” “Maybe,” I muttered, not convinced.

“I’ll think about it while I go investigate this creature.” He snorted softly. “In other words, no.” I didn’t say anything—there was little point. We’d been together for a very long time, and he knew me very well. “I’d better go. The dream didn’t pinpoint a time, so there just might be a chance of stopping this thing before it starts anything major.” “Maybe I should come—” “No,” I cut in instantly. “Remember our rule, Rory.” That rule—only one of us could ever step into a dangerous situation at a time—had been made for a damn good reason after a particularly nasty event had almost taken us both out several lifetimes ago.

I might be getting a little weary of endless centuries of heartbreak, but I certainly wasn’t tired of life itself. He scrubbed a hand through his hair, leaving several bits sticking up at odd angles. “Okay, but take my bike. It’s not like you’re going to get public transport at this hour, and it probably wouldn’t be wise to catch a cab in case you have to leave in a hurry.” I nodded and followed him into the kitchen. After grabbing the keys from where he’d dumped them on the counter, he tossed them over to me and added, “Just don’t scratch her.” I grinned. “I think you worry about that bike even more than you worry about me.” “Well, it is a classic, and a brand-new purchase besides.” Amusement teased his lips.

“Give me a call once you figure out what is going on.” “I will.” I blew him a kiss, then grabbed my handbag and headed out of our apartment. Lights came on as I strode toward the elevator even as the shadows reclaimed the area behind me. They’d begun replacing all standard lighting in the building’s public areas—except for the lobby, which was manned with security twenty-four/seven—with movement-activated ones nearly a year ago, but it was only in the past few days that they’d finally gotten up to our floor. I rather liked the idea of them, if only because they gave advance warning that someone was approaching. A handy thing, considering that we were now on the outs with the sindicati, the vampire equivalent of the mafia, and definitely not an organization anyone with any brains would want to be on the wrong side of. But it wasn’t like we’d had much choice. They’d not only kidnapped both me and Jackson, but they’d held him ransom in exchange for the missing notebook that held my boss’s research on the cure for the deadly red plague virus. It was a virus that had the potential to turn the human race—and some supernaturals—into insane pseudo vamps, and even with Jackson’s life at stake, there’d been no way I was about to let the sindicati get their grubby mitts on something like that.

While I had no doubt that the sindicati, who had their fingers in just about every level of criminal activity imaginable, were a major headache to law enforcement, they’d be nigh on unstoppable if they got hold of a drug capable of changing the human race—and some nonhuman ones. Because they would use it to threaten and control. So I’d arranged a little subterfuge of my own, and the exchange had gone off without a hitch. Almost. But at least the sindicati would find no joy in the notes, as the virus that had been placed into the computer that held them would activate the next time the device was booted up, and everything on the hard drive would be rendered unreadable and unrecoverable. We were expecting reprisals, and the fact that they hadn’t responded, several weeks later, was scary. But then, vampires did have all the time in the world to plot revenge. A soft chime announced the elevator’s arrival. I stepped inside its warm interior and pressed the basement button. The door closed, and, in no time at all, I was astride Rory’s fierce black Norton Commando and thoroughly enjoying being able to stretch her out in the near-empty Melbourne streets.

Highett Street looked nothing like what I’d seen in the dream. For a start, the street was wider, with two lanes of traffic as well as room for cars to park along either side. And there were not only footpaths but big old plane trees that cast deeper shadows across much of the street and the nearby houses. James Hamberly’s house was hidden behind a six-foot green metal fence, and if the number of weeds and bushes scrambling over it was any indication, the front yard was as wild as the back. I parked the bike, took off my helmet, and immediately heard it—the electronic shrieking of a fire alarm. I swore and ran for the house. “Is Jamie all right, then?” I jumped and half swung around. The voice had come out of the darkness that enclosed the house to my right and, after a second, a woman appeared. With her white hair, pale skin, and the overly large dressing gown that flapped loosely in the slight breeze, she almost resembled a ghost. I took a deep breath and walked on.

“I don’t know, because I’m not in there yet.” My somewhat offhand reply obviously didn’t please her, because her voice was sharper as she said, “You know him, then?” “Old friends.” I paused to unlatch the rickety metal gate. “Could you go inside and call the fire brigade? That’s the fire alarm going off.” I didn’t wait for her answer, just ran up the old wooden steps and headed for the front door … and discovered it was open. Just a crack, but since the creature hadn’t entered the house this way, James Hamberly was either lax about security or, as I’d suspected earlier, someone had left in a hurry. I pulled a sleeve over my fingers and carefully pushed the door open. Even without entering the house, I could feel the dance of fire; the heat of it washed across my senses, stirring the embers within my soul to life and making me hungry to taste its sweetness. I stepped warily into the house. Air brushed heat past my face, and I glanced up, seeing a vent several feet away.

The heating was not only on but turned up. Hamberly had probably cranked it up when he’d gotten home, just to take the chill off the air, but why would he then go to bed and leave a pot to burn on the stove? Again the heat of the flames washed across my senses, but I ignored its siren call and headed into the bedroom I’d seen in my dream. The creature was gone. Only the dead man it had dined on remained. I swore yet again, then spun and headed for the kitchen; I needed to take care of the fire before I did anything else. The pot on the stove had caught alight, and flames raced up the walls and across the ceiling, fierce and bright against the darkness. I stepped closer, flung my arms wide, and called them to me. The fire reacted instantly; thick fingers of flame leapt from both the ceiling and the walls and flung themselves at me. It spun around me, the intensity of the fire increasing until it was a maelstrom that roared with heat and power. For several seconds I simply enjoyed the close dance of the storm that didn’t touch, didn’t burn, but only fed.

Gradually, though, I became aware of approaching sirens. With a regretful sigh, I drew the maelstrom into my body, and, god, it was glorious. And it made me wish Rory were here to share the heat and the passion that such a moment always created. But that was not what I was here for, and time was running out.

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