Flame Kissed Chapter One

AURELIA

It starts just like they always do, from the blackness of a sleep so deep, the fabric of what is real and what is dream weaves together to make what would be.


An entryway or vestibule, the room seemed small. A little girl had opened the door, a lovely walnut wood, inlaid with a stained-glass window. The mother’s heels clicked against the cream-colored marble floor with an urgent gate as she hurried toward her daughter, her pink skirt suit swishing against her legs as she fiddled with the simple strand of understated pearls at her neck.


“I thought I told you not to—”


The girl’s white-blonde hair practically gleamed against her skin as her mouth formed an “O” of surprise. She was young, maybe six or seven, and deeply tan, as only children could be with their terminable immunity to the heat and sun.


Moving behind the girl, the shock on the mother’s face morphed into fear so quickly her features seemed to warp, like a piece of untreated wood that had been left to the elements to rot.


She gripped her daughter’s shoulders, shaking her violently in an attempt to get the poor girl to move, to back away from the looming shadow. Clearly male, the figure was backlit by the rising sun. The woman recognized the man, however. She didn’t need to see his face to know what danger lay before them—she could easily see the large caliber handgun gripped in his meaty palm.


Shrieking for her daughter to run, the mother roughly tugged the poor girl behind her back. But her daughter was either in shock or too scared to move because she stayed rooted to the spot, clutching the hem of her mother’s designer suit.


Slowly, calmly, the man raised his gun as if he had all the time in the world to take his shot. The muzzle fired once, and a tiny hole appeared in the woman’s chest. A small trickle of blood bloomed over the heart of her blouse. She went down slowly, dropping first to her knees, sliding to her bottom, and then to her side. Even in death, she was careful not to fall on her child. Again, the muzzle fired, and this time, the daughter collapsed, her wound considerably less pretty, given the caliber of the gun and her small size.


And in that tiny little vestibule, in what was surely a beautiful home of a nice family, the mother and daughter were left to cool in their drying lifeblood.


* * *


I should wake up screaming, but I don’t. After these many years, dreaming night after night of the horrors people inflict on one another, I stopped screaming several decades ago. As per usual, though, I sit bolt upright in my bed, sheets tangled around my legs, damp with cold sweat.


My best friend Evan would call me a psychic, but I tell her on the regular she’s full of shit. Psychics know things before they happen, and I do. On occasion.


But not enough for me to actually make a difference.


Not enough to save the people who need saving.


And just once? I’d really like to be wrong.


For curiosity’s sake, I pull my laptop onto the bed, praying I don’t blow up this beautiful piece of equipment. I have a bad habit of frying electrical devices when I’m upset, and watching a mom and daughter get gunned down in their home definitely puts me in the “agitated” column. In fact, this is my fourth laptop this year.


Closing my eyes, I take a deep breath. Once marginally centered, I type the local news site into the browser. Sure enough, the breaking news story is of Victoria Ness, thirty-four, and Vivian Ness, seven, who were gunned down in their University Park home two hours ago. The shooter, Victoria’s estranged husband, then turned the gun on himself.


Figures.


What kind of psychic am I? Well, evidently, I’m the shitty kind. I maybe see ten percent of what I should, and I can’t alter a single second of it. I see what I see, and then I brace myself because it’s going to happen. There’s nothing I can do.


Believe me, I’ve tried.


Just once I’d like to have a vision I could change.


Just once I’d like to see something other than how and when someone will die.


But I know my fate, and sanity just isn’t in the cards for me.


Staring out the huge picture window, I take in the view of the mountain range beyond. The craggy rocks and giant boulders are so vastly different from where I started my life. There are fewer trees here in the subalpine Rockies than in the Pacific Northwest, and the sun shines more days throughout the year. The heat, the sun, the smell of dry earth—all these differences help me breathe when I wake from a new vision.


A new death.


Seeing that blue sky goes a long way to calm me down when I should be rocking in a corner.


Getting out of bed, I immediately rip off the sweat-soaked sheets. It’s a ritual of sorts. A fresh start. A means of washing away a death I can’t change, and the helplessness of another life gone. Snapping the clean sheets on the bed, I begin bracing myself for the total freaking production tonight will be.


I have an art show this evening, and though it’s July in Denver, I’ll be covered from neck to ankles to hide the ink on my skin, wear contacts to cloak the eyes that mark me as what I am, and pray that no one finds me. Yes, it’s Denver, and yes, even grandmothers are inked these days, but it’s the eyes that get people.


As a seer, I was born with the ability to observe events that will come to pass in vivid Technicolor right inside my little noggin. And my eyes? They marked me before I ever had my first vision. My irises are an extraordinarily pale, milky green. Like in old westerns where the elderly guy is blind, and he has those freaky eyes where the iris and pupil nearly blend into the sclera? Yep, that’s what I’ve got going on here.


But my sight is better than most humans. Likely better than most Ethereals, too. But the Ethereal community prefers not to remember we even exist—our presence reminding them that there’s no such thing as a true immortal. Everything dies. Witch or warlock, wraith, or even a meager human, they all perish in the end. And when they do, flames and wings are what you better hope you see.


It’s better than the alternative.


And let’s not get into the fact that sometimes I randomly electrocute people without meaning to. If people weren’t already looking at me funny before—which they are, because my eyes freak people way the hell out—they would after I randomly zapped them.


So I wear contacts when I leave my home, because if I don’t, people assume I’m blind, for one, and they act all awkward and try to help me do stuff or get around. Or numero dos: their faces say they are skeeved way the hell out. Also, when I’m pissed, they kind of, well, glow.


Like an incandescent bulb, glow.


So the fact that I’m different is really fucking obvious and that doesn’t even touch on the flames.


Or the wings.


Hello, my name is Aurelia Constantine, and I am a phoenix.


No offense to Greek mythology, but I’m not a damn bird. I’m a person. I just so happen—on occasion—to burst into flames, have visions, and electrocute people with a shield that I can’t seem to control. Oh, and those wings? Very, very real.


And they’re persnickety little bitches to boot.


My last phase totally ruined my favorite leather jacket. I’ve had that jacket for the past twenty years. They just don’t make leather like they used to. Replacing it was a pain in the ass, and in the end, I had to have it custom made.


Also, I don’t age. Or die. Wait. I take that back. I’ve died. A lot. I just don’t stay dead.


I’ve looked thirty-ish for the last one hundred and fifty years or so. Since I was born about thirty years prior to the aging halt, I’m assuming my kind ages at a normal rate until we reach our bodies’ maturity. Then we stop aging altogether.


Or it could just be me.


I should know all these details for sure, should be knowledgeable about the basic facets of my species, but escaping my Legion at twenty means I was never taught several important aspects of being what I am.


What I do know is that when you’re a seer in my culture and reach maturity, you get permanently blinded so your visions will be “pure”—whatever the hell that means—transforming a lowly seer into an oracle.


Our visions are important. Seers and oracles alike foresee visions of death, and in predicting death, we can direct the gentry to the dead or dying to send the souls on to be reborn. Seers cannot change the outcome of their visions. Oracles, however, have enough advanced warning and the power to change the future.


In my mind, it is the only advantage for the price they paid when they gave away their eyes.


One hundred and eighty years I’ve been alive, and for nearly all of them, I’ve been running. Hiding amongst the humans so ignorant of our existence. Trying so hard to blend in, not get caught again by the people I once called family. Doing my best to make sure I don’t lose what little autonomy I have left.


But all it takes is one person to put two and two together and realize I’m not human.


All it takes is one person to notice my differences or see me change into what I really am.


All it takes is one person to remember me, and I’ll be fucked.


Truth be told, I’d prefer not to go to the show at all and just get the check for any of my work that’s sold. I’d rather change into fresh pajamas, order takeout, and binge Supernatural for the five-zillionth time. But Evan, who does double duty as the curator for the James Gallery and the poor soul who calls herself my best friend, has decided I’m a shut-in long enough three hundred or so days a year.


Every single opening, she makes me go and pretend to look at my art like a real live person, who breathes and speaks and shit. It’s utterly exhausting. Personally, I think she’s overexaggerating. I go out. Occasionally. To get tattoos and groceries—but so what? That counts as out, dammit.


Why she’s my friend, I’ll never know.


I say that, but I know why. She’s my friend, because when I was at my lowest, when I thought I couldn’t go on another day, she crashed into my life and gave me someone to look after. She is the yin to my yang, the Disco to my Heavy Metal.


In reality, she’s a wraith princess, the only child of John Black, the Wraith King. Phoenixes and wraiths are supposed to hate each other, but I couldn’t hate that girl if someone paid me. Other wraiths are a bit sketchy, but Evan, she is the light in the darkness.


I just wish she’d let me stay home and avoid this whole mess.


So far, I’ve managed to maintain my anonymity. That’s what Evan is for—because she can be in the spotlight when I can’t. She has the freedom to move from city to city, selling, curating, being an all-around wonderkid where I cannot.


All because of my stupid Legion.


So tonight, I’ll be hiding in plain sight, eating finger food and drinking cheap wine like any other art-consuming hipster, pretending I’m not the one who painted the pretty pictures.


Suddenly, “Shake Your Groove Thing” blasts from the speakers of my phone. Why Evan thought Peaches & Herb was an appropriate ringtone, I’ll never know.


“What?” I answer, knowing she is T-minus three seconds from an Opening Day meltdown of Chernobyl proportions.


“Where in the blue fuck are you? You were supposed to be down the mountain already and driving into Denver, and your ass is probably still sitting in bed! You do this to me every single time. Dammit, Ari, get your ass in gear.”


“I’m getting a very bad feeling about tonight,” I whisper, but I say this each and every time.


This time, though, it’s the whisper that catches her attention.


“You see anything?” she breathes.


Evan knows too much. Well, Evan knows pretty much everything. I know she feeds most of the information to Rhys, but I can’t muster up the courage to tell her to stop. Evan is like a dog with a bone.


“Nothing but a murder this morning. You know the Ness family?”


“Yeah, I do,” is all that comes through the line on a broken gasp. “They’re huge patrons. They’re supposed to be here tonight.”


A bone-deep chill races down the length of my spine.


Houston, we have a problem.


“Well, they’re not coming. I don’t think I am, either.”


“We’ve been through this.” She sighs heavily. “You have to be here, Ari. You have to see how your work affects people, how it moves them. If anything, I’m begging you to be here for me. Victoria was a friend.”


I feel horrible. I’m sad for that family, but only on the periphery. Evan actually knew her.


“I don’t have to do anything. Especially since you’ve been ditching our sparring sessions and avoiding me for the last month.”


“But—”


“But, I will…for you. Give me ten and I’ll be heading down the mountain.”


“Thank you.” The relief in her voice hits me square in the chest.


“Yeah, yeah. Don’t make me regret it,” I say with a roll of my eyes she can’t see. “There better be yummy snacks.”


“Of course there’ll be yummy snacks. What kind of operation do you think I’m running here? I have to give the patrons something since the artist is conspicuously missing. Again,” Evan huffs. “The things I do for you.”


“Snacks.”


“Yeah, yeah. I got your snacks.”


“Thanks. See you in forty-five.”


Ending the call, I rush through the disguise prep, but instead of the dowdy outfit I was planning on, I opt to dress in attire that will be easier to fight in. In lieu of the brown suit, whose added fabric will hinder my movement and ease of weapon retrieval, I pick a nice pair of fitted black straight-legged slacks with a good, thick heft to them. I pair it with the matching jacket that helps conceal my tattoos and spine holster.


I choose a blousy, sapphire peplum top to go under the jacket (because I’m a freaking girl and I need the pretty). In the same vein, I pick my black leather, four-inch wedge-heeled booties with the weapon loops sewn into the inner lining. One would think I couldn’t run, fight, or walk in these beauties, but they’d be wrong. These are the most comfortable pair of shoes I own, and likely, they’re the most functional.


Shakily, I still put in the emerald-green contacts, put my hair in a bun at the back of my head, and throw in a few stainless-steel spikes as hair sticks. I love them because they are as thin as knitting needles, sharp as knives, and hide in plain sight.


Just in case the shiver of fear I feel is the real thing, I slide three thin throwing knives in the holder in my right bootie, and load and stow a Glock 19 in the specialty-made left-handed spine holster.


And Evan wonders why I don’t go outside. Wearing enough weapons to satisfy me is a production and a half.


As I head out to the garage, a cool finger of dread prickles at the base of my neck. Just in case, I step back inside and carefully open the gun cabinet disguised as a full-length mirror. Picking up a few extra mags, I stow them in the ammo loops of my left bootie.


Ready as I’ll ever be.


Let’s just hope I don’t die again.

 






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