The Phoenix Chronicles Book #4
Being the leader of the supernatural forces of good isn’t as cool as it sounds. For one thing, I had to put the world first. So everything else was second, third, four hundred and fifty-ninth. And we’re talking important things like love, friendship, family. Which is how I ended up killing the man I loved.
Oh, I didn’t kill him twice. I killed two separate men. One didn’t stay dead, the other... I’m not so sure.
Yes, I’m in love with two different guys. It was news to me, too. Add to that the beginning of the end of the world and you’ve got chaos. As anyone who’s ever experienced it can tell you—chaos bites.
Since the night my foster mother died in my arms, leaving me in charge of the Apocalypse, chaos had been, for me, standard operating procedure.
Several weeks after I’d killed him, Sawyer invaded my dreams. He was a Navajo skinwalker—both witch and shape-shifter, a sorcerer of incredible power. Unfortunately his power hadn’t kept him from dying. Considering that he’d wanted to, I doubted anything could have. I still felt guilty. Tearing out a guy’s heart with your bare hand can do that.
The dream was a sex dream. With Sawyer they usually were. He was a catalyst telepath—he brought out the supernatural abilities of others through sex. Something about opening yourself to yourself, the universe, the magical possibilities within—yada-yada, blah, blah, blah.
I’d never understood what Sawyer did or how. Not that it didn’t work. One night with him and I’d had more power than I knew what to do with.
In my dream I lay on my bed, in my apartment in Friedenberg, a northern suburb of Milwaukee. Sawyer lay behind me. His palm cupped my hip; he spooned himself around my body. Since we were nearly the same height his breath brushed my neck, his hair—long and black and sleek—cascaded over my skin. I covered his hand with mine and began to turn.
Our legs tangled; his tightened, along with those fingers at my hip. “Don’t,” he ordered, his voice forever deep and commanding.
He nipped lightly at the curve of my neck, and I gasped—both surprise and arousal. I knew this was a dream, but apparently my body did not.
With hard muscles rippling beneath smooth, hot skin, he felt so real. Living for centuries had given Sawyer plenty of time to work on every muscle group for several decades, honing each inch to a state designed to make women drool. He’d be perfect if not for the tattoos that wound all over him.
To shift, most skinwalkers used a robe adorned with the likeness of their spirit animal. For Sawyer, his skin was his robe, and upon it he’d inscribed the likenesses of many beasts of prey. Sometimes, in the firelight, those tattoos seemed to dance.
“Why are you here?” I asked.
“Why do you think?” He arched, pressing his erection against me.
I couldn’t help it—I arched, too. Sure, it had only been a few weeks, but I missed him. I was going to miss him for the rest of my life.
Without Sawyer the forces of good—aka the federation—were in deep shit. Certainly I was powerful, and would no doubt get even more so, but I’d been thrown into this without any training. I was like a magical bull in a very full china shop, thrashing around breaking things, breaking people. So far I’d been able to keep those who followed me from getting completely wiped out, but only because I’d had help.
“It’s a long trip from hell for a booty call.”
His tongue tickled my neck in the same place he’d so recently nipped. “I’m not in hell.”
“Where are you?”
He slid his hand from my hip to my breast. “Where does it feel like I am?”
He rubbed a thumb over my nipple, and the sensation made me tingle all over.
“I know you’re not here,” I said. “You’ll never be here again.”
Sawyer didn’t speak, just kept sliding his thumb over and back, over and back, then he sighed and stopped. I bit my lip to keep myself from begging him to start again.
His lithe, clever fingers brushed across the chain that hung from my neck, then captured the turquoise strung onto it. “Why are you wearing this?”
Sawyer had given me the necklace years ago. I’d taken it off only recently. When he’d died, I’d put the turquoise back on. It was all I had left of him. I hoped.
“I—” I paused, uncertain. I didn’t want him to know how badly I missed him. How I rubbed the smooth stone at least a dozen times a day and remembered.
“I’m glad,” he said. “It brought me to you.”
At first I’d believed the necklace was just jewelry. It had turned out to be magic, marking me as Sawyer’s, saving my life on occasion, and allowing him to know where I was whenever he wanted to.
He let the turquoise fall back between my breasts. “What was the last thing I said to you?”
I stiffened so fast I conked the back of my head against his nose. The resultant thunk and his hiss sounded pretty real to me, as did the dull throbbing in my skull that followed.
“Phoenix, what was the—”
“Protect that gift of faith.”
He ran his palm over my shoulder. “Yes.”
“What does that mean?”
I closed my eyes, drew in a deep breath. Right before he’d said those words, Sawyer had said a few others. Words that had kept me up nights almost as much as his death had.
I chose to leave a child behind.
I blocked out the horrible images of what had come after those statements with what had come not long before. He’d crept into the room where I was chained to a bed, a prisoner of my own mother, a woman I’d thought long dead. She’d been a winner. Five minutes in her company and I no longer regretted being an orphan.
The situation had been dire, yet he’d seduced me. I hadn’t wondered why until he was gone. My hand moved to my still-flat stomach. Had he left a child behind in me?
I had so many questions. I didn’t get to ask any of them.
“You need to wake up now.”
“Phoenix,” he said, then more softly, “Elizabeth.”
Most people called me Liz, but Sawyer never had.
“There’s someone here.”
In the next instant I scrambled toward consciousness, and as I did the sound of his voice, the weight of his hand, and the warmth of his body faded.
“Someone or something?” I asked.
“Both,” he answered, and then he was gone.
My eyes snapped open, my hand already reaching for the silver knife beneath my pillow.
The world wasn’t what it seemed. Beneath the facades of so many people lurked half demons bent on our destruction. They’re known as the Nephilim, the offspring of the fallen angels, or Grigori, and the humans.
They’ve been here since the beginning, glimpsed more often in times past when wolf men and women of smoke were commonplace and gave rise to the legends we now see on the screen at the multiplex.
Unless you’re me, and then they show up in your apartment.
My fingers wrapped around the hilt of the knife even as I stilled, waiting for the slight buzz that signaled evil creepy thing to wash over me. But it didn’t.
I sat on the edge of the mattress, eyes narrowing, ears straining, then I took a deep breath, and my skin prickled. The bed smelled of Sawyer—snow on the mountain, leaves on the wind, fire and smoke and heat.
“Dream my ass.”
Downstairs, outside, came a soft thud then the scrape of something hard against the pavement. A shoe? A toe? A claw?
As I crossed the room, I could have sworn fur brushed my thigh. I glanced down but saw only the flutter of the loose cotton shorts I’d worn to bed along with a worn and faded Milwaukee Brewers T-shirt.
An odd cry drew me to the window, where I kept to the side and out of sight. New moon and the sky was dark, the stars dim this close to the city. The single streetlight in Friedenberg revealed nothing but empty sidewalks and dark storefronts. Which didn’t mean anything. Nephilim rarely used the front door. They didn’t have to.
Uneasy, I glanced up—only shadows on the rooftops. Of course those shadows might become less shadowy at any moment.
“Psst. Kid.” I kicked the cot shoved against the wall in the corner.
My apartment was an efficiency located above a knickknack shop. I owned the building, rented out the first floor, and was considering renting out the second. I rarely came to town these days. The only reason I was here now was that I’d promised my best friend I’d attend her daughter’s ninth birthday party. I owed Megan so much, the least I could do was show up when she begged me to.
“Luther!” I nudged the makeshift bed again. I didn’t want to touch him if I didn’t have to.
I’d been psychometric since birth, I assumed, since I couldn’t remember a time that I wasn’t able to touch people and see where they’d been, what they’d done. In the case of the Nephilim, I could see what they truly were. Or at least I could until recently. Now I had Luther for that.
“Wha—? Huh?” Luther rubbed at his face. His kinky golden-brown hair stuck out from his smooth brown skin even more than usual.
“Getting any bad-guy vibes?” I gave the boy credit; he woke right up.
“No.” His head tilted; his hazel eyes narrowed.
“You sleep pretty deep.” From what I heard, most kids did, though Luther would say he was no longer a kid but a man.
He swore he was eighteen, but I had my doubts. Tall and gangly, Luther had huge feet and hands. Many Nephilim had believed Luther’s awkward appearance meant he was slow and clumsy. However, Luther moved as quickly and gracefully as the lion he could become.
Luther was a breed—the offspring of a Nephilim and a human. Being part demon gave him supernatural powers. Being less demon than human meant he could choose to fight on the side of good. A lot of breeds did.
“I’d hear Ruthie if she had somethin’ to say. Wouldn’t matter if I was sleeping or not.”
Ruthie Kane, my foster mother, had been the former leader of the light. Now I was. In the beginning, she’d spoken to me on the wind, in dreams, or in visions, to let me know what flavor of evil lay behind a Nephilim’s human face. Now she spoke through Luther. I had demon issues.
“There’s something out there,” I said.
Luther’s silver knife appeared in his hand as quickly as mine had. Silver kills most shifters, and if it doesn’t, the metal at least slows them down.
“Ruthie talking to you again?” Luther was already making his way toward the door that led to the back stairs.
“No.” I paused to retrieve both my gun and Luther’s from the nightstand—if a silver knife works well, a silver bullet works even better—then I hurried to catch up.
We tossed our knives on the kitchen table. The kid reached for the door, but I shouldered in front of him. Luther was a rookie. Sure, I’d been on the job less than four months, but I was the leader, which meant I got to go through the door first.
In the past a seer—someone with the psychic ability to recognize a Nephilim in human form—worked with several DKs, or demon killers. However, that arrangement had gone to hell when the Nephilim infiltrated the federation and wiped out three-quarters of the group. Now the remaining members pretty much did whatever they could. Seers became DKs, DKs became seers, and everyone killed anything that got in their way.
“If Ruthie still isn’t talking, then how do you know something’s out there?” Luther asked reasonably.
I wasn’t going to tell him that I’d had a dream visit from the dead. Not that such news would be a shock. Luther got visits from the dead every damn day. I just didn’t want to share right now. Right now I wanted to know what was out there, and then I wanted to kill it.
I crept down the stairs, silent on bare feet. Luther was even quieter. He’d been born part lion. He couldn’t help it.
A door led into the parking lot behind the building. I opened it but didn’t step out. Instead I listened; Luther sniffed the air, then our eyes met and together we nodded. Deserted as far as we could tell.
“Don’t shoot anyone I’ll have to dispose of later,” I cautioned, a variation on Don’t shoot until you see the whites of their eyes or, in federation-speak, Don’t kill a human by mistake.
Most Nephilim disintegrated into ashes when executed correctly, eliminating impossible-to-answer questions and the annoying necessity of bloody body removal. People were another story.
Luther’s only answer to my caution was a typical teenage sneer combined with an irritated eye roll. I didn’t have to touch him to know his thoughts.
We stepped outside. No one shot us, not that a bullet would do much damage. Supernatural creatures, even those like Luther and me—more human than not—healed pretty much anything but the one thing common only to them. Which meant the killer had to know what that single thing was.
I indicated with a tilt of my chin that Luther should go around the building to the left, while I moved to the right. We’d meet back here then check out the dark gully at the far end of the lot where the Milwaukee River gurgled merrily.
My gaze shifted in that direction. There could be something hiding there—several somethings. Although the lack of a warning from Ruthie indicated that whatever I’d heard had probably been human.
Not that a human couldn’t be a huge pain in the ass. They usually were. And anyone sneaking around in the dark just had to be.
As I slid along the side of the building, back to the wall, I caught movement near the river and spun in that direction, gun outstretched. For an instant I could have sworn something slunk there, low to the ground, a black, four-legged ...
I blinked, and the shadow was just a shadow, perhaps a log with four branches, perhaps the reflection of a distant streetlight off the river. There were also foxes in Friedenberg, a few coyotes, and dogs galore. But that had looked like a wolf.
My only answer was the high-pitched keening of the wind.
I lifted my face, waiting for the air to cool my skin. Instead humid heat pressed against me; there wasn’t even a hint of a breeze. Not the wind then, but definitely a wail.
I sprinted toward the front of the building. Every instinct I had shrieked for me to skid around the corner gun blazing, but charging into the open was a good way to get my head blown off. I didn’t think even that would kill me, but it would take a long time to heal. By then Luther could be dead.
There was also the added concern of a possible pregnancy. I didn’t want to be pregnant, could think of little I wanted less than that, except maybe slow, torturous death by Nephilim, but what was, was. If I carried Sawyer’s child, he, she, or it was all that was left of his magic, beyond what he’d given to me. I had to protect his gift. I’d promised.
Fighting the adrenaline, I peeked around the edge of the building. Four am on a Saturday and Main Street was deserted. Friedenberg boasted its share of taverns—this was Wisconsin, after all—but they’d closed on time, and everyone had skittered home.
Not a sign of Luther.
“Kid?” I didn’t want to shout, but pretty soon I would have to.
I hurried along the front of the knickknack shop, so intent on the next corner I nearly missed what rested in the shrouded alcove of the doorway. I’d already scooted past when what I’d seen registered. I stopped and took several steps in retreat.
On the landing sat a blanket-shrouded basket. Despite the lack of light in the alcove, and the lack of color to the blanket—either black or navy blue—I still detected movement beneath.
The back of my neck prickled, and I had to fight not to slap at an imaginary mosquito. I dared not touch that area unless I meant to. Sawyer wasn’t the only one with tattoos, nor the ability to use them.
Had someone brought me a basket of poisonous snakes, tarantulas, or Gila monsters? Maybe something new like a land shark, a water-free jellyfish, a teenie-tiny vampire. Believe me, I’d seen stranger things.
The wail I’d heard before came again—from the basket. I leaned over, caught the end of the coverlet with the barrel of my Glock, and lifted. What I saw inside made my heart beat faster than any vampire ever had. I let the blanket fall into place and nearly tripped over my own feet in my haste to back away.
Someone had left me a baby.