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Embers of Fire

Guardian Witch Legacy

Etopia Press

Heat Rating: No Rating
Word Count: 87,983
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A chilling prophecy. A child in danger.

Following the defeat of the vampire elders, Guardian fire witch Arianna Calin and vampire prince Andreas De Luca are considering moving to his estates in Italy to raise their daughter in its idyllic setting. As if being descended from two powerful witch bloodlines wasn't challenging enough, Rayne was born with a mysterious star tattoo on her shoulder. Her parents suspect she is the Chosen, the focus of the Star of Esielen prophecy. But that's something to worry about in the distant future. Isn't it? After all, their child may be precocious, but she is only five.

Then the murders begin. The stench of demonic activity hangs over Olde Town, and a symbol carved in blood indicates Rayne may be the next victim. Suspicion points in several directions, including a rival vampire, a mysterious stranger, and a werehyena leader attempting to break the bank at Andreas's new casino.

Abandoning plans for a quiet life, Ari and Andreas hunt for the killers. While Rayne may someday have to face her destiny alone, it's up to them to make sure she's ready...and to keep her alive.

Excerpt

CHAPTER ONE



A crisp breeze caught the last of the early morning fog and swirled it over the gravestones. The Olde Town cemetery slowly emerged from the mist, its silent memorial to the dead marred by an unusual amount of activity. A uniformed Riverdale cop completed a final loop of bright yellow tape around several stone vaults and two small crabapple trees. CS techs snapped photos and set out evidence markers as they processed the crime scene.

With a hot Styrofoam coffee cup in each hand, Arianna Calin bumped her jeans-clad hip against the iron entrance gate, knocking it open, and slipped inside, her footsteps crunching the brittle September leaves. When an eerie chill nudged her senses, she swept the scene with a sharp glance.

Nothing she hadn’t expected. Not yet. Nothing bad enough to trigger her witch alarms. But then, it was a graveyard. The remnants of so many dead souls could mask a great deal.

She ducked under a high section of the bright tape and focused on the blond man in jeans and a dark gray sweatshirt crouched beside a still form. “ME’s not here yet?” she asked.

Lt. Ryan Foster, her partner from the all-human Riverdale Police Department, looked up and stood, his blue eyes lighting on the cups in her hands. “On his way. One of those for me?”

A smile touched her lips, and she handed him one, withholding further comment until he’d taken his first jolt of caffeine. “Dispatch said it was a stabbing. Human female victim. Is the suspect one of mine?” As a supernatural cop and guardian for Riverdale’s Olde Town district, Ari wouldn’t be notified of an RDPD case unless the Otherworld was involved. Usually that meant vampires or werewolves—the predominant species in town—had run amok.

“I’m not sure….” Ryan rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Sorry to drag you out so early on a hunch, but I have a weird feeling about this one.”

Ari nearly choked on her coffee. “Oh, no you don’t. That’s my line. There’s only room for one of us with spidey senses in this partnership.”

“Cop instincts,” he corrected. His early-morning face was grumpy, displaying his constant annoyance with things he didn’t understand. “It works for us mere mortals.”

“OK. Show me. What have you got?” She stepped around him, the humor slipping from her lips at first sight of the victim.

“Judge for yourself if something doesn’t feel off.”

Vivid red blood stood in stark contrast to the middle-aged woman’s light lemon sweater. Not a typical stabbing…her throat had been slashed, leaving a spray pattern of arterial blood on the fading grass around her and a glistening trail down the sides of a gaping wound. It had soaked her neckline.

Ari’s nostrils flared, taking in the sharp, metallic scent and seeking something more, whatever had triggered Ryan’s reaction. All kidding aside, working with him for eight years meant she trusted his gut feelings almost as much as her magic. “She hasn’t been dead long.”

“Yeah. Looks that way. The killer may have left in a hurry. He dropped the knife over there.” He nodded toward a glint of metal on the ground where a CS tech was snapping photos. “A jogger reported it. Called 911 about thirty minutes ago.” Ryan turned and gestured toward a young man being questioned by a uniformed officer. The witness leaned against a stone vault with his arms crossed, feigning nonchalance. “Says he found her like this.”

Ari narrowed her eyes. The witness was a werewolf barely out of his teens. That answered one of her questions—how a passing jogger noticed a body inside the cemetery. The wolf had picked up the scent of a fresh kill.

Noting his defensive posture, she sighed. Not a lot of trust between human authorities and Otherworlders. “You do realize he’s a wolf?”

“Yeah, he told us. But so far he’s been cooperative.”

“Did he see the killer?”

“Says not, that the cemetery was empty, except for her. I checked him over. No sign of blood splatters on his clothes or hands.”

She nodded. Stabbings were messy. Not a likely suspect—unless he’d shifted. “I’ll have a word with him.”

She walked over to listen in on the wolf’s interview. He dropped his attitude at her approach, either recognizing her face or sensing her Otherworld authority.

Taking a furtive sniff, Ari verified Ryan’s impression. No trace of blood or the adrenaline rush that accompanied a kill. Both odors would have survived a shift. “You didn’t see who did this? Smell or hear anything unusual?” she interrupted.

The young wolf shook his head, a strand of his shoulder-length chestnut hair falling across his face. He swept it back with one hand. “No. It was too quiet…if you know what I mean. No birds or crickets. Not a sound.”

As if nature had paused for death. Yeah, she knew what it meant. He’d narrowly missed the killer. Maybe scared him off. “Do you know the victim?”

“Not really. I’ve seen her in the cemetery on my morning runs. She always smiles and waves.”

Satisfied they wouldn’t be turning a killer loose, she left the uniformed officer to finish up and rejoined Ryan for a closer look at the body.

Nothing about the woman shouted victim. Caucasian, late forties, medium height, short brown hair. Pleasant enough features, the pastel sweater already noted, and serviceable jeans. No handbag, no car parked nearby. Probably lived in the neighborhood. A bouquet of freshly picked flowers lay scattered a few feet away. An early morning visit to decorate a grave. Why would someone want to kill her?

Ari bent down to inspect the neck wound. Her long, honey blonde hair fell forward, almost touching the victim, and she quickly scooped it behind her ears. The fatal wound seemed oddly uneven for a knife. Straightening, she crossed the dozen intervening feet to the weapon. Blood glistened on the smooth blade of what appeared to be a four-inch kitchen paring knife. She took in its scent, studied the blade again, her brows deepening into a frown. “It’s her blood all right. But it’s not the murder weapon.”

“How do you figure that?” Ryan’s voice was brusque as he started toward her; Ari turned him back by pointing at the body.

“It doesn’t match the wound edges. They’re jagged, not a clean cut. A deeply serrated knife might have done it, but I’d put my money on a tear from a hooked object or a large talon or claw.”

Ryan did a one-eighty to stare at the young jogger. “Like from a werewolf?”

“Could be, but not this kid. He’s clean.”

“So the knife was hers? Maybe used for cutting flowers.”

“That’s a good guess. The killer must have taken it away from her, inadvertently smeared it with blood, gave it a toss.”

Ryan snorted and stuck his hands in his pockets. “So I don’t even have a murder weapon.”

Ari shrugged, but her response was cut off by the excited voice of a new arrival. Chene, her apprentice guardian.

“What’s going on? I heard the dispatch call.”

Ryan frowned at the interruption. Ari turned to watch the young eagle shifter cross the graveyard. Long, straight, ivory-colored hair, sharply defined features, coal-black eyes, and a cocky swagger. Ari suppressed a grin. Although barely out of her teens, the shifter was wise enough to keep her know-it-all attitude just under control. Not a warm and fuzzy personality, but Chene’s ability and can-do spirit had earned Ari’s respect and growing affection.

Chene drained a blue can of energy drink and stuck the empty in her backpack. “Olde Town’s finally had some action?” She flashed a bright, inquisitive glance and stood on her toes to look over their heads.

“If that’s how you think of murder,” Ryan said. He hadn’t quite taken to Chene, but Ari thought it was just a matter of time. She suspected his reluctance had more to do with what the shifter stood for—Ari’s potential replacement—than anything Chene had or hadn’t done. He didn’t adapt well to change.

Ryan stepped aside, giving Chene a full view of the murder victim.

“Oh, jeez. An old lady. Why would anybody knife her?” The shifter’s wide-eyed expression turned thoughtful. She jerked her thumb toward the werewolf, the only civilian present. “Don’t tell me he did it?”

“He just found the body.” Ari let the “old lady” comment pass for now. They'd have to discuss it later. She sighed. From Chene’s point of view, forties must seem light-years away. “I see Doc’s here…and the cemetery caretaker. Maybe one or both can shed some light on this.”

Doc Onway, Olde Town’s medical examiner, had grayed in the past couple of years, but he was still lean and energetic, his tongue sharp and his opinions as jaded as ever. He left his black Buick in front of the gate and strode briskly toward them swinging his medical case.

Ari said a brief hello, but beyond grunting in return, the doctor was already focused on the victim’s body. While Chene followed Onway to observe his examination, Ari intercepted the second man hurrying up the road.

“Is something wrong?” Stanley Gibson arrived out of breath, his weathered face lined with stress. He ran a busy lawn service, and for the past twenty years, he’d also been the caretaker of Olde Town’s three cemeteries. “More vandalism?”

“Not exactly.” Ari cocked her head. “Have you had recent trouble?”

“Some minor stuff is all.” He tried to peer around her.

“Like what?”

“A couple of headstones knocked over, trampled flowers, gouges in the lawn. You know, kid stuff.”

“Caught anybody?”

“Naw. But I will.” He squinted at Doc Onway, Ryan, and Chene, their huddled forms blocking his view, and his anxious expression deepened. “What’s all this about?”

“There’s been a death. A murder.”

“What?” Gibson stared at her, uncomprehending. “How…how could this happen? Who is it?”

“It’s a woman. We haven’t yet identified her. If you feel up to looking, maybe you can tell us who she is. But let me warn you, it isn’t pretty. Her throat was cut.”

“Oh my God,” he whispered under his breath. His face drained of color, and Ari grabbed his arm to steady him. “Is it Nettie?”

“We don’t know.” Ari led him toward the huddled group. His body gave off conflicting signals as he dragged his heels yet peeked ahead for a first glimpse that would refute or confirm his fears. Doc, Ryan, and Chene moved aside just enough for him to see the victim’s face. Gibson stopped, his body almost curling upon itself, but he stood his ground. “It’s her. Nettie Traynor. Sweet, kind lady. Who would do this? Every morning she came at dawn—no matter the weather—to put flowers on her daughter’s grave. Lives…lived in the white A-frame, green trim, just down the road.”

Ryan dispatched an officer to secure the victim’s house. When her partner returned to his discussion with the doctor, Ari stayed with the caretaker. “Have you seen anyone suspicious around here recently?”

“No, but I’m not around every day. Not many visitors. I’m pretty sure Nettie was the only regular. The lady across the street would know.” He inclined his head toward a beige cottage, and Ari saw the front curtain move. “Sissy Rose keeps an eye on the place and calls me if there’s a problem.”

Ari walked across the street and knocked on the door expecting to see an elderly woman, but Sissy was in her early fifties, worked from home doing data entry by remote, and could number the cemetery visitors in the past month on two hands. “Nettie, of course. Stan Gibson. A ginger-haired gal I figured was looking for a relative’s gravestone the way she poked around. A couple about my age. He had a camera, so tourists up from the Market, I suppose. A tall, lanky guy who didn’t stay long or show much interest, as if he was just killing time, and three young women pushing baby strollers. That’s it until the jogger stopped this morning. You need to know when they were here? I jot everything on a calendar.”

Ari looked up from her notes. This sounded promising. The calendar Sissy produced had notes scrawled all over it, but the woman unerringly found the pertinent entries. Ari recorded them in the pocket notebook Ryan had insisted on giving her.

“What about descriptions?”

That’s where Sissy Rose let her down. Beyond the vague details she’d already given, she could only recall that one of the young mothers or nannies had worn cutoffs Sissy considered way too short.

Ari returned to the cemetery, not sure she’d picked up anything of interest. The tall man, maybe. Who’d choose a graveyard to kill time? Nobody really stood out. She gave the list to Ryan and pulled Chene aside. “Ryan’s first instinct was to call me. I’m not picking up anything abnormal, but something triggered his sixth sense. I want to know what it was.”

“How…in the middle of all this paranormal energy? What are we looking for anyway?”

“Just do your best. Find me a predator. Anything that can kill.”

Chene rolled her eyes, grinning in response. “Gotcha. Exclude nothing. I’ll take the far side.” She loped off to get started.

Ari watched for a moment. The shifter was immature…and brash…but she was talented. If Chene kept developing as quickly as she had the last year, her skills would soon allow Ari to pursue other plans…if she really wanted to. She and Andreas had talked about settling down on his Italian estate in Tuscany, a chance to live as a normal family. Time for each other, and a haven to raise their child away from the violence inherent in any Otherworld community. She’d dreamed of sunset picnics, harvest time in the vineyards, and horseback riding over the rolling hills. Maybe that time was coming sooner than expected.

Over the last two years, Andreas’s business ventures had been partially transferred into other competent hands, and he was working hard to smooth out the growing pains in the North American Vampire Alliance he’d helped to organize. Despite opposition from a small band of dissenters, led by the volatile Prince Donovan from Utah, she was confident he’d work it out soon.

She’d begun to shift her duties too, giving Chene increasing control over routine work. Until this morning, Olde Town hadn’t had an Otherworld-related, violent death in eight months, only nine incidents in the past three years. For a large Otherworld community of three to four thousand, it was remarkable and a big change from the days when the now-extinct O-Seven, the vampire council of elders, had bred paranoia and shed blood around the world…including Olde Town. While the district still had its share of fights, among or within the various clans and races, nothing recent had been difficult to resolve. In some ways it made Chene’s preparedness hard to judge. If this case wasn’t a false alarm, maybe it would be the shifter’s first real test.

Shaking off the thoughts that often left her unsettled, Ari focused on her immediate task and threaded among the monuments and gravestones on the west side of the cemetery. She sent out tendrils of magic, probing for traces of energy that didn’t belong there. She ran her fingertips along vault walls, attuned to the slightest vibration. And of course, there were many. But nothing unique enough to spike her magical alarms.

Chene had chosen to probe the older sections often frequented by remnants of old souls grown stronger and angrier over time. Sorting out anomalies would be more difficult, and Ari had intended to check the area herself. She hadn’t objected to Chene’s choice out of concern of undermining the shifter’s confidence. She trusted her apprentice, but the level of experience wasn’t there yet. Ari took a quick glance. Chene’s search seemed right on the mark—looking behind each tombstone, rattling the locks on the larger vaults.

What did Ari hope to find? A killer crouched behind a monument? Long gone. But an Otherworld predator should leave some trace of magical energy. Or maybe a dropped artifact. A scent. A demon portal. The thought made her frown. Was that a possibility? Geez, what was the matter with her? An established portal and a constant stream of demon intruders would have been detected years ago. She was looking for something recent, more subtle…a trail to follow. So far there was nothing to support Ryan’s gut feelings.

A prickle ran across her back. Ari stiffened and did a slow, complete turn, scanning the far corners of the cemetery, the woods behind the rear fence, and the sleepy town in front. Seeing nothing, she stretched her neck, relieving the tension in her shoulders, and continued her search.

Ari finished first and waited by the front gate. When Chene approached, the shifter shook her head, and Ari gave a single nod in response. Whoever…or whatever…had killed Nettie Traynor had gotten away undetected. At least for now.