FIRST CHAPTER: SCATTERED ASHES

December 1, 2017

 

AURELIA

 

It started just like they always do, from the blackness of sleep so deep the fabric of what was real and what was dream wove together to make what would be.

 

The room is small, an entryway or vestibule. A little girl had opened the door. It was a lovely walnut wood inlayed with a blue, green, and red stained glass window. A little red flower decorated the center of the oval. The floor was cream tile, Travertine or maybe marble. The mother’s heels clicked with an urgent gate as she walked towards her daughter.

 

The mother was tall with dark blonde hair, dressed in a pink skirt suit and elegant cream stilettos. She wore a simple strand of understated pearls around her neck. The girl was white blonde with two dutch braids in her hair and was wearing a nearly matching pink dress. She was young, maybe six or seven. She was deeply tan, as only children can get with their terminable immunity to the heat and sun.

The mother moved behind the girl, the surprise on her face morphing to fear so quickly, her face seemed to warp, like a piece of untreated wood left to the elements to rot.

Her hands gripped the daughter’s shoulders, shaking her violently in an attempt to get the poor girl to move, to back away from the looming shadow. The shadow was male, certainly, but the figure was backlit by the rising sun, so his face was left a mystery.

The mother recognized the man, though. She didn’t need to see the face to know what danger was before them, she could easily see the large caliber handgun gripped in his meaty palm.

The mother shrieked for the daughter to run, and roughly tugged the poor girl behind her back. But the daughter was either in shock or too scared to move because she stayed right there, clutching to the seat of her mother’s designer suit.

 

The man raised the gun slowly, calmly, 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 mother’s chest. A small trickle of blood bloomed over the heart of her blouse where the tiny hole appeared. She went down slowly, dropping to her knees first, sliding to her bottom and then to her side. Even in death she was careful not to fall on her child. The muzzle fired again and this time, the daughter fell, her wound considerably less pretty, given the caliber of the gun and her small size.

 

And right there 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 many decades ago. As per usual, though, I sat bolt upright in my bed, bedclothes tangled with my legs, damp with cold sweat. Perspiration forms on my forehead, and my tank top felt glued to my skin. My best friend Evan would call me a psychic, but I tell her daily she’s full of shit.

 

I’m lying. She’s usually spot on with most things that fly out of her mouth. It’s annoying as all hell, but just for curiosity’s sake, I pull my laptop onto the bed praying I don’t blow this beautiful piece of equipment up. This is my fourth laptop this year. I type the local news site into the browser. Sure enough, the breaking news story is of Victoria Carmichael-Ness, thirty-four and Vivian Ness, seven, who were gunned down in their University Park home two hours ago. The shooter, Victoria’s ex-husband, then turned the gun on himself. 

 

Figures.

 

You’d ask what kind of psychic I am. Well, I’ll tell you: I’m the shitty kind. I see maybe ten percent of what I should, and I can’t change a fucking second of it. I see what I see, and then I brace because it’s going to happen. There isn’t a thing I can do. 

 

Believe me, I’ve tried. It’s a waste of time, and it weighs too much on my heart.

And on my mind. 

 

Let’s not forget about the tenuous hold I have on sanity. I just thank the universe I live alone now. How many times could I have woken a roommate, looking like a horror movie reject before I booked a one-way ticket to a padded cell? I’ve already lived through one involuntary incarceration under an insane Primary’s thumb; a repeat stay is not in my future.

 

I’d rather chew a bullet.

 

Hiding my abilities when under constant surveillance is almost impossible. I’m a Seer, born with the ability to observe things that will come to pass in vivid Technicolor inside my little noggin, hence that lovely dream. I also sometimes randomly electrocute people without meaning to. Well, sometimes I mean to, but not all the time, and that is pretty scary. If people weren’t already looking at me funny before, which they are because as a Seer, my eyes freak people way the fuck out, they would after I zapped the crap out of them randomly. 

 

Then there’s the phasing. As a fledgling, I sometimes transitioned from my resting form to the ethereal without even trying. Meaning, when I got angry or upset, I would burst into flames, and my wings would pop out. I got angry a lot in those days.

 

Yes, I am a bloodthirsty little thing. No, I don’t have any problem inflicting violence when I deem it necessary. Yes, ‘when I’m pissed’ falls under the necessary column.

 

Okay, I should explain the eye thing. You see (pun intended) my eyes are a very pale, milky green. All the time. You remember old westerns where the old guy is blind, and he has those freaky eyes where the iris and pupil nearly blend into the sclera? Yep, you guessed it, that’s what’s going on here.

 

Only I’m not blind.

 

And I wear contacts when I go outside because if I don’t people assume I’m blind, for one, and their face says they are squicked way the hell out, for numero dos. Also, when I’m pissed they kind of, well, glow.

 

Like an incandescent bulb, glow.

 

So the fact I’m not exactly human is really fucking obvious. 

 

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

 

Alrighty, so now that I have your attention - like I didn’t before with that craptastic vision of mine - let me explain the whole, not human, deal. No offense to the mighty Harry Potter Queen, JK, but I’m not a damn bird. 

I’m a person. 

 

I just happen, on occasion, to burst into flames, have visions, and electrocute people with a shield that I can’t seem to control.

 

Oh, and the wings, those are real.

 

And they’re a bitch.

 

The last phase totally ruined my favorite leather moto jacket. I’ve had that jacket for the last 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.

 

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.

I should know all these things for sure. I should be knowledgeable about my species. What I do know is that when you’re a Seer in my culture, at maturity, you get permanently blinded so your visions will be “pure” and then you get made into an Oracle. 

 

Our visions are important. Seers and Oracles alike see visions of death, and in seeing death, we can direct the Gentry (or normal, everyday Phoenixes – ones without additional abilities) 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. It is the only advantage from the price they paid when they gave away their eyes.

 

As in, they cut your eyes out of your head and smear the wound in Morganite. We can heal from anything, and I do mean anything - beheadings, explosions, whatever - but once a wound or our ashes comes into contact with Morganite, it’s all over. Meaning, we have to heal at the regular human rate, which is the slowest freaking healing rate ever and for mortal wounds, it means bye-bye. 

 

And bitches are wearing them as wedding rings nowadays.

 

That’s a fuckton of nope, right there.

 

Since I enjoy seeing with my eyeballs securely attached to my skull, I got the hell out of there before some Oracle decided it was high time for the torture to stop and for me to join the fold. Unfortunately, I was about twenty when I left (escaped, but who’s splitting hairs). In 1855, being an unmarried, wounded woman was a bit daunting to say the very fucking least.

 

I used to have a family. 

 

I used to have a lot of close friends. 

 

I had loved at one point. 

 

But the main problem with Oracles is the fact they believe they are omnipotent. When I know they are not. And when I refused to do what they wanted me to do, they tried to force it. By force it, I mean they had my Soldier kill the man I loved right in front of me.

 

Remember me mentioning I was two nuts short of a full bag? Well, that’s a part of it. Not all of it, of course, but hey, you can’t live for one hundred and eighty years without some bumps in the road. And one of those bumps is the fact I wake up a sweaty, basket case pretty much every night. 

 

Visions are a bitch, what can I say?

 

I stare out the huge picture window in the master bedroom with its view of the mountain range below. It looks so very different from where I started my life. There are fewer trees here in the subalpine Rockies than in the Pacific Northwest, and you can see the sun more days a year. The difference helps me breathe when I wake up this way. Seeing the sun and the blue sky goes a long way to calm me down when I should be rocking in a corner after one of my visions.

 

I get out of bed and immediately rip off the dirty sheets. It’s a ritual of sorts. I’d never be able to sleep tonight with the sweat of the last night’s nightmare/vision/tool of torture is still in evidence. My linen closet is full of king-sized linens with several coordinating colors to match the room. I’m an anal-retentive basket case, so sue me. I snap the clean sheets on the bed and get started bracing myself for the total fucking production tonight will be.

 

I have an art show this evening, and though it is effing July in Denver, I’ll be covered from neck to ankles to hide my two full sleeves and the rest of my ink. I’d rather not go at all and just get the check for any of my work that is sold. 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 am a shut-in 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 exhausting. 

 

She’s over exaggerating. I go out. Occasionally. 

 

To go 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 popped into my life and gave me someone to care for. She is the yin to my yang, the light to my dark, the Disco to my Heavy Metal. In reality, she’s a Wraith princess, the only child of John Black, the King of the Wraiths. Phoenixes and Wraiths are supposed to hate each other, but I couldn’t hate that girl if you 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 covering myself like a fucking nun.

 

So why cover up my sleeves, right? Well, I draw a whole lot of attention all by my lonesome, with the eyes (even though I mask them with lenses), the tatts, the boobs, and the ass. I’d rather not, but I’ve got what I was born with, and it’s a freaking bounty, alright? 

 

See, no one knows what I look like, or that I’m a selling artist. Or as it happens, the selling artist at the shows I attend displaying my artwork. Only my initials are on my canvases, and very few people know I’m a girl. If I’m being honest, I’d like to keep it that way. I guess it’s a throwback to the days when I had to con a guy to stand in and sell my art to galleries for me because women were not considered ‘serious artists’. And, unfortunately, those days are in the recent past, not fifty to one hundred years ago. Art is my constant, my therapeutic outlet. It’s also my primary source of income. 

 

Well, that and gambling… I’m a Seer. It’s not really gambling if you know you’re going to win.

 

So tonight, I’ll be covered from my neck to my ankles, I’ll be wearing color contacts and glasses I don’t need, and effing Spanx on my boobs to tape those huge motherfuckers down. Then I get to wear the ugliest, baggiest suit ever, in a color I freaking detest, brown. Not just any brown, either, a lovely shit-brown. Zero makeup and hair in a severely cinched bun. The general plan is to look as unattractive as possible. I’ve been confused as a beat reporter, wait staff, a parking attendant, but no one has come up to me and accused me of being the artist, so I think the disguise is working for me.

 

Again, though, why the disguise? Well, I left my Legion rather abruptly after my husband, Lucien, was murdered. And by abruptly, I mean I attacked anyone who came within striking distance like a feral fucking animal. To my credit, I was severely wounded, losing a baby, and just watched my husband die, so the crazy was warranted. But still, slashing people with a Morganite knife, at least in my culture, is more than frowned upon. 

 

I found out rather quickly, captivity and me just did not suit. 

 

I’m not a fan of torture so much either.

 

Rhys did end up helping me escape, the bastard, but it’s his fault I was stuck there in the first freaking place, so I’m not giving him too much credit. But, still, he got me out of there, putting his ass on the line and making it so he had to live in hiding, too. 

 

He had more to lose than me, and though I feel bad he lost it, he’s still the fucknut who killed my husband. I still can’t stand to look at his pretty face, not that I’ve seen it in the last fifty years or so. 

 

Even so, I know he watches, as Soldiers are wont to do. I hate that we are bound. I hate that out of all people, he was chosen for me. I hate that my choices did not matter. And why would they have? 

 

Being born with these eyes meant I didn’t get any choices at all.

 

I shower in a hurry because after reminiscing over my sordid past, I realize I’ve been sitting in silence, and I’m now running twenty minutes behind schedule. That right there is enough to drive Evan right out of her fool mind. She can just relax, though. She knows I would rather paint instead of attend this freaking farce. 

 

I get to wear my disguise, pretend I’m not at an event I don’t need or want to go to in the first place. 

 

While in hiding from a Primary who will get off her ass and look for me eventually. 

 

Stellar thinking on my part. I seriously don’t want to go tonight.

 

Suddenly, I hear “Shake Your Groove Thing” playing from my phone. How 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! Goddammit Ari, get your ass in gear!”

 

“I’m getting a very bad feeling about tonight,” I whisper, but I say this every single time. This time, though, it’s the whisper that catches her attention.

 

“You see anything?” she breathes. Evan knows too much. 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,” comes through the line on a broken gasp. “They’re huge patrons. They were supposed to be here tonight.”

 

A deep chill goes down my spine. Houston, we have a problem.

 

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

 

“We’ve been through this. 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 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.”

 

“Yeah, yeah. Don’t make me regret it. 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. The things I do for you.”

 

“Snacks.”

 

“Yeah, yeah. I got your snacks.”

 

“Thanks. See you in forty-five.”

 

I hang up and rush through the disguise prep, but instead of the dowdy outfit I was planning on, I opt to dress in attire that would be easier to fight in. In lieu of the brown suit, whose added fabric would hinder movement and ease of weapon retrieval, I pick a nice pair of fitted black straight-leg slacks with a good, thick heft to them. I pair it with the matching jacket that helps conceal my tattoos, boobs, 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, platform booties with the weapon loops sewn into the inner lining. 

 

You may think I can’t run, fight or walk in these beauties, but you’d be wrong. These are the most comfortable pair of shoes I own. And likely, they are the most functional.

 

I still put in the emerald green contacts, but I lose the fake glasses. I put my hair up in a bun at the back of my head, but I throw in a few stainless steel spikes (or bo-shurikens) as hair sticks. I love them because they are as thin as knitting needles 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. I also load and stow a Glock 19 in the specialty made left-handed spine holster.

 

And Evan wonders why I don’t go outside.

 

As I head out to the garage, the cool finger of dread I feel, starts flicking me in the head. I step back inside and carefully open the gun cabinet disguised as a full-length mirror and pick up a few extra mags of ammo for the Glock and stow them in the ammo loops in my left bootie.

 

Alright.

 

I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.

 

 

 

 

 

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