Demon’s Dance – Keri Arthur

The phone rang sharply, a shrill sound that made me jump and drew an obscenity from my lips. I opened one eye and studied the old-fashioned clock on the bedside table. The numbers did a somewhat blurry dance before revealing it was three in the morning. I’d been asleep for a whole two hours. The warm body lying next to me echoed my obscenity as he groped for the phone. He hit the answer button and then said, voice husky with sleep, “Ranger Aiden O’Connor speaking—how may I help you?” Though I couldn’t make out exactly what was being said, I could hear the woman’s tone—it was shrill. Horror-filled. I turned and peered over Aiden’s bare shoulder. The number displayed on the screen was the ranger station’s; it had been diverted to Aiden’s phone because he was on call for the next couple of nights. While there were seven rangers within the Faelan Werewolf Reservation, Aiden was head ranger and seemed to believe it was his duty to take the majority of night calls. His dedication to his job was one of the many things I admired about the man, but it was at times like this I couldn’t help wishing he’d share the shift around a bit more. Of course, it wouldn’t be such a problem if the two of us actually went to sleep at a sensible hour. “Ms. Jenkins, you need to calm down—” The woman’s screech was so loud that even I heard it, and it had Aiden yanking the phone away from his ear. “Don’t tell me to fucking calm down,” she said, “I’ve just walked into the house to discover my goddamn boyfriend is dead—” “I heard, Ms.

Jenkins,” he said patiently. “But I can’t do anything until you give me your address.” She rattled it off and then said, “Do you think it’ll be safe for me to remain here?” Aiden hesitated. “Have you a neighbor you could go to? Just in case?” “Yes. I’m sure Mrs. Potts won’t mind.” I wondered if her Mrs. Potts was the same one who’d founded the Castle Rock gossip brigade. They’d recently declared the café I owned and ran with my best friend and fellow witch, Belle Kent, their “venue of choice” after I’d helped Mrs. Potts find her errant husband and, in the process, two grandchildren she never thought she’d have.

If it was the same woman, then I was sure she wouldn’t mind looking after the fraught Ms. Jenkins, if only because it would give the brigade something juicy to ruminate over. “I’ll have someone there in ten minutes,” Aiden said. “You can’t get here any sooner?” “I’m sorry, no.” She grunted and hung up. Aiden immediately dialed both Byron—who lived closest to Castle Rock—and then his sister, Ciara, who was the reservation’s coroner. Once both were organized, he turned, gathered me in his warm arms, and kissed me. “I think you’d better get dressed.” I blinked. “Why? From what I heard, it’s a simple murder—” “Except it may not be.

She mentioned bite marks, so we’re either dealing with a murderer with a weird fetish, or we have another vampire on our hands.” I doubted it’d be a vampire, if only because Maelle Defour—the woman who owned and ran the Émigré nightclub in Castle Rock—happened to be a blood sucker, and certainly wouldn’t appreciate another vamp stepping into her territory. While she’d promised the council not to take blood from the unwilling in exchange for secrecy about her presence within the reservation, it was a promise that wouldn’t hold if another vampire had set up shop here. Vamps did not like competition. But I couldn’t say any of that to Aiden, as the council hadn’t yet seen fit to advise the rangers about Maelle. I certainly wasn’t going to—I’d promised not to, and there was no way known I’d go back on that. The bitch was scary. “I never thought I’d say this, but I’ll be glad when the new witch gets here. At least he’ll be in charge of all supernatural investigations, and I might be able to get some solid sleep.” Which didn’t mean I wouldn’t be involved.

Aside from the fact the psychic part of my soul—the part attuned to evil and that kept tossing prophetic dreams of doom and disaster my way—kept suggesting this reservation was mine to look after, there was the whole wild magic factor to consider. Or rather, the fact that it had somehow become a part of me—a part of my very DNA. “You’ve only yourself to blame for tonight’s lack of sleep.” Aiden sounded far too cheerful for someone who was sleep deprived. “You were the one who insisted we watch the end of The Two Towers rather than going to bed.” “Because it’s the best of the three movies and can’t be watched piecemeal.” “I’ll argue about the first part of that statement later. Right now, we need to get moving. Up, lazybones.” He threw the sheet off and got out of bed.

Like most werewolves, he was on the lean side, but his body was well proportioned and nicely muscled, and he did have a rather nice backside. I stretched the kinks out of my body, then wearily climbed out of bed and started getting dressed. “I really wish you could be the reservation witch—it’d make more sense now that you’re linked with the wild magic.” He held up a hand to stall my almost instinctive response. “And yes, I know you’ve never been through accreditation or whatever you call it, and would therefore never be government approved.” Accreditation—or lack thereof—was certainly a good enough reason for never becoming a reservation witch, right alongside my decided lack of knowledge and training when it came to spell craft. But the true reason was the fact that the reservation witch was basically the government’s mouthpiece and was expected to remain in regular contact with the high witch council. Given I was on the run from my parents, I had no intention of doing anything that might have them looking too closely at this place. Of course, Castle Rock had now been without a proper witch for well over a year, and it had placed the entire reservation in a dangerous situation thanks to the presence of a large wellspring that had been left unguarded for entirely too long. Wild magic was neither good nor bad, but it would always draw the darker forces of the world if left in a raw, unprotected state.

While that was no longer the case thanks to the spells both Ashworth—who’d been sent here by the Regional Witch Association to chase down a soul stealer, and who’d then stepped into the reservation position temporarily—and I had placed around it, the repercussions of leaving it unguarded would be felt for years to come. In many respects, we were lucky the situation wasn’t even worse, as there was a second wellspring here—one that Canberra didn’t as yet know about. But both the ghost of the reservation’s previous witch—Gabe Watson—and the soul of his werewolf wife— Katie, who also happened to be Aiden’s younger sister—protected that one. “Neither you nor I nor anyone else should be relying on my link with the wild magic, Aiden, because I shouldn’t even have it.” My voice held the slightest edge, one that was based on trepidation of a future possibility I could see coming and didn’t want. “I have no idea if it’ll even last. This reservation deserves someone who knows a hell of a lot more about spelling than me.” And if I put that statement out there in the universe often enough, maybe it’d listen. “And I think you’re downplaying your role and your magic far too much, Liz.” He sat and pulled his boots on.

“It wasn’t the RWA witches or the heretic hunter who took out the various evil entities that have hit us in recent months. It was you—” “It was never just me,” I cut in curtly. “And there was always a high degree of luck involved. Sooner or later, that luck will run out.” His gaze met mine. Though his expression gave little away, I knew he sensed my fear. Knew he understood that it didn’t come from the possibility of death, but rather discovery. I took a deep breath and changed the subject. “I doubt we’re dealing with a vampire —they generally don’t leave bodies littered with bite marks.” Something flickered through his blue eyes—annoyance or disappointment or maybe even both—but all he said was, “If it’s not a vampire, then what else could it be?” “There’s all manner of supernatural beasties that don’t mind taking a bite or two out of humans.

” I paused, and then, in an attempt to lighten the mood, added, “And apparently a few werewolves who don’t mind the odd nip or two, either.” The smile that tugged at his lips didn’t quite dispel the annoyance in his expression. The confrontation I feared—the one where I either told the truth about myself or walked away—was looming ever closer. “Only when begged. Which you did—and rather loudly.” Which was certainly true. But then, he did do some of his best work with teeth and tongue. I grabbed a tie and swept my hair into a ponytail, then shoved my feet into sandals and slung my purse over my shoulder. While I didn’t have much in the way of witch paraphernalia with me, I’d gotten into the habit of keeping a small, bubble-wrapped bottle of holy water in an inside purse pocket. There weren’t very many situations in which it wouldn’t provide at least some protection, even if it was something as simple as forming a protective circle over which evil could not cross.

He swept his keys, phone, and wallet from the bedside table and then said, “Ready?” I nodded and headed for the stairs. His house was a lovely two-story, cedar-clad building situated on the curving shoreline of the Argyle Lake and, aside from the two en suite bedrooms upstairs, had a ground floor that was a combined kitchen, dining and living area. Light poured in through the wall of glass that dominated the end overlooking the lake, and though the moon was currently in a waning phase, her power sang through my veins. It was a force all witches could feel, and one that could greatly amplify the strength of spells. I crossed mental fingers and hoped that I didn’t have to use her tonight. That whatever had caused the death of Ms. Jenkins’s boyfriend wasn’t supernatural but rather a simple murder—an affair gone wrong, perhaps. After a couple of tumultuous months dealing with vampires, soul-sucking spirits, and a heretic witch determined to claim the larger wellspring as his own, we really deserved a few months of peace. But that rather annoying prophetic part of my soul said a month was all we were ever likely to get. That peace wouldn’t be ours until the whispers of an unguarded wellspring finally stopped echoing through the darker places of the world.

Aiden’s truck was parked out the front of the building; the lights flashed as he hit the remote, flaring briefly across the lake’s dark but still water. He didn’t switch on the siren until we were out of the park and on the main highway. It took us just under thirty minutes to get to Castle Rock. Aiden sped through the main part of town, then swung right and drove through a number of dark side streets until we were up near the secondary college. After a final turn, he pulled up beside the two green-and-white ranger SUVs already parked there. The house was a simple double-fronted, fibro-cement building that was painted in what could only be described as baby-shit yellow. The roof tiles and the front door were dark brown, and there were cream-and-brown-striped canvas awnings pulled halfway down over the only two windows in the front of the building. At the far end of the long drive was a carport; parked inside were two vehicles—a Mercedes and a new-looking four-wheel drive. The house might be modest, but the occupants obviously weren’t struggling for a buck. The front door opened, and a familiar figure strode toward us.

Like most Marin werewolves, Byron was tall, with dark amber eyes, brown skin, and brown hair that had a slight tinge of red. Surprise flitted across his expression when he saw me, but all he said was, “There’s no sign of intruders or a break-in, and all the doors were locked from the inside. Whoever did this was invited in. Ciara’s inside examining the body.” “Have we got an ID yet?” Byron nodded. “According to his driver’s license, our victim is Kyle Jacobson, and he’s twenty-nine.” “Wolf or human?” “Human. There’s no indication of a struggle and no obvious sign of death, although the body is riddled with bite marks.” “Of the vampire variety?” I asked. “The only vampire bite I’ve seen was on the neck of that teenager, and she didn’t have the same sort of bruising as this bloke.

” Byron shrugged. “I guess it depends on whether every vampire has a different style of feeding.” “They tend not to,” I said. “While the length of their canines can vary—and some of the older ones even have the ability to retract them totally—the incisions generally have the same look. Unless, of course, they simply tear at the throat, and that’s usually the province of newly created vamps who haven’t gotten control over their blood lust.” Byron blinked. “I think that’s more information about vampires and their teeth than I ever wanted.” “Let’s just hope that’s not what we’re dealing with here,” Aiden said. “Have you talked to Ms. Jenkins yet?” “No, but Mrs.

Potts came out when I first arrived to admonish me for the time it took to get here. I dare say we’ll be getting a bad rap around their gossip table.” So it was the same Mrs. Potts. I had no doubt she was already aware of my presence here, and that I’d be quizzed about it on Tuesday when we opened again. “There won’t be anything bad said—not if they want their usual coffee and cake.” “I suspect the decision as to whether they prefer gossip over your cakes will be a very tough one for them to make.” Byron returned his gaze to Aiden. “You want me to dare the lioness’s den and grab a statement from Ms. Jenkins?” Aiden shook his head.

“I’ll do it once I talk to Ciara. Head home, and I’ll update you tomorrow.” “Thanks, boss.” He nodded at me and then walked away, whistling softly as he headed for his car. Aiden glanced at me. “Ready to confront whatever mess lies inside?” “Whatever lies inside is not going to be anywhere near as stomach churning as a wolf that’s been skinned.” “Which is something I’d really like to believe, but after the events of the last couple of months, I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to say that with certainty.” “We will. It’ll just take a couple of years before the darker forces realize the wellspring is protected and there’s no point coming here.” “A statement I don’t find comforting.

” He led the way across the parched-looking lawn. Once we’d put on the disposable shoe protectors either Byron or Ciara had dumped near the door, we entered the house. It was as basic on the inside as it was on the outside—there was a central hall off which there were a number of rooms, and what appeared to be a combined kitchen-living area at the far end. The air ran with hints of lavender and orange and was almost too warm, but there was no immediate sense of evil or death. Which didn’t mean anything—there were plenty of supernatural beings clever enough to conceal their presence from psychics like me. But I had no sense of a ghost, either, and that meant this death had been ordained. Unless, of course, said ghost hovered over his body. Many of them did in those initial few hours—some because they couldn’t accept what had happened, others because the manner of their death confined them to a certain area. Despite what many non-witch textbooks might say, there really were no set rules when it came to either ghosts or shades. Aiden walked into the second room on the right.

Ciara was examining a wound on the victim’s arm but glanced up as we entered. Like Aiden, she was tall and rangy in build, with short blonde hair that gleamed silver under the room’s rather bright light, and eyes that were a deep blue rather than the usual amber of a werewolf. But then, the O’Connor pack were gray wolves, a color that tended to be somewhat rare amongst Australian packs. Most were brown, red, or black; the O’Connors ran the full gamut from silvery white to a blond so dark it was almost brown. The bedroom was basic and rather unromantic, although the patches in the plasterwork suggested they’d been in the process of doing it up. Aside from the queensized bed, there were two rather ratty-looking bedside tables—one of which was stacked high with romance novels—and a couple of freestanding wooden wardrobes that had also seen better days. The air here was even hotter than in the hall, and it had my “other” senses prickling. That heat wasn’t the result of a long week of above-average temperatures, of that I was sure. There was something to be found here—maybe not in this room, but definitely in the house itself. “What have we got?” Aiden stopped at the end of the bed.

“Aside from a naked and very dead male?” Ciara grimaced. “Multiple bruising and puncture marks, but no other wounds and no immediately obvious reason for death.” “Do you think we’re dealing with a vampire?” “Hard to say without opening him up and seeing the size and location of the lividity— which,” she added, with a glance my way, “is where any blood remaining in the body after the heart stops pumping will settle in direct response to gravity.” “Ah.” I stopped beside Aiden and studied the man on the bed. He had a shock of vivid red hair, dark stubble around his chin, and pubic hair that was black, which suggested red wasn’t his natural color. There were multiple blue-black marks on both his arms and his inner thighs, and all of them rather weirdly resembled love bites. If this was a vampire attack, then he or she was acting outside known norms. I ignored the growing sense of trepidation and returned my gaze to Ciara. “Which of the bruises have puncture wounds?” “All of them.

” “Is it okay if I look at one?” “Sure—do you want gloves?” I shook my head. “I have no intention of touching him.” I moved around the bed and bent to examine an arm wound. It wasn’t hard to see the bite marks, and they certainly did appear vampiric in nature. And yet, doubt stirred, if only because most vamps didn’t leave this type of bruising behind. But it wasn’t like I was an expert when it came to vampires. My experience was limited to what I’d read in the books Belle had inherited from her gran and the bits and pieces I’d learned during my encounters with both Maelle and the vampire witch who’d come to the reservation seeking revenge. “The wounds are definitely penetrative,” I said, “but vamps aren’t the only supernatural creatures who dine on their victims’ blood.” “I’m not sure I really want an answer to this,” Ciara said. “But what sort of creatures are we talking about?” “Off the top of my head, there’s the lamia, a type of demon who takes on human form to seduce men and then drain them when they’re asleep.

There’s also a Scottish fairy that’s a cross between a succubus and a vampire.” I hesitated. “But if he didn’t die of blood loss, then we could be dealing with something like Kitsune—they don’t actually take blood, but rather their victim’s life force.” “How likely is it to be the latter?” she asked. My gaze swept Jacobson’s body again. Despite the bruising, he still very much looked like a man in his late twenties. “Unlikely. Everything I’ve read about them suggests the process seriously ages the victim.” “If the autopsy can’t pin down a cause of death,” Aiden asked, “is there any way to reveal what type of supernatural creature we’re dealing with?” “I can’t sense his ghost in the house, so other than asking Belle to make contact with his soul, no,” I said. “There’s certainly nothing within this room to suggest what might have done this.

” Aiden’s gaze narrowed. “Does that mean you’re sensing something elsewhere?” “Maybe.” I hesitated. “It’s the heat, more than anything. It just seems rather unusual.” “We’re in the midst of a heat wave,” Ciara commented, “and these old places don’t have much in the way of insulation.” “I know, it’s just—” I shrugged. “Something feels off, that’s all.” “In what way?” Aiden asked. “If I knew that, I’d say.

” “Do you want to look around?” “It may be nothing—” “Or it might be something,” he cut in. “I don’t think any of us would dare discount your concerns after the last few months. Yell if you find anything.” “Of course.” But I didn’t immediately leave the room. Instead, I walked around, skimming a hand above the various surfaces and items. Prophetic dreams and an odd ability to sense evil weren’t my only psychic talents—I was also gifted with psychometry. On a surface level, the talent let me trace misplaced items and sense emotions via touch. But on a deeper level, I could track missing people or slip into the mind of whoever owned the item I was holding, allowing me to see and experience whatever was happening to them at the time. The latter was not something I did very often—I’d heard too many tales of psychics losing themselves in the minds of others, and I wasn’t about to risk anything like that.

I did have one advantage over most other psychics, though—Belle. She wasn’t only a witch, but also my familiar. It was a situation that had caused great consternation to my powerful blueblood parents—not only did I have the audacity to be severely underpowered, but I also had the temerity to have a lower-powered witch as a familiar rather than the far more acceptable cat or spirit—even though that was something I had no control over. But Belle’s presence in my life had saved it more than once—she was, in fact, the best thing that had ever happened to me. And here I was thinking that award went to Aiden. Belle’s thought whispered into my mind, her mental tone soft enough to suggest she wasn’t entirely awake. While telepathy was one of her psychic skills rather than mine, the ability to share thoughts was one of the many benefits that came with her being my familiar. He falls into the “best thing right now” category. What are you doing up? It’s four in the morning. I had to pee.

What’s your excuse? Aiden was called in on a murder. And he’s dragged you along to the crime scene? Why? Suspicious bite marks. A groan ran down the mental lines. Don’t tell me we’ve another vampire. That I can’t say for sure as they’re not exactly traditional bite marks. At least the new witch arrives today. He can deal with the damn problem. Hopefully. Hopefully? I’m not liking the sound of that. It’s that whole thing about counting chickens.

I just don’t want to jinx things. I finished the sweep of the room and headed for the door. There was nothing untoward here—nothing other than the heat, anyway. Which should have been a relief but instead only ramped up the trepidation. You can hardly jinx something that’s already a signed and sealed deal, Belle said. But the witch isn’t yet here. Until he is, I’ll continue worrying. And about more than his arrival. I had little doubt he’d get here; it was more the possibility it’d be someone we knew that worried me. There were a lot of witch families in Canberra, and the chances of that happening were remote.

Extremely remote. And yet, I couldn’t escape the notion that that’s exactly what we were about to face. Belle’s concern ran down the line. Is this another of your premonitions? Do I need to start packing? I’m not running anymore, Belle. I hesitated. I’m not entirely sure it’d even be possible. Her concern increased. Because of the wild magic? For whatever reason, I’ve developed an affinity with the power of this place—and it’s an affinity that’s growing. I don’t think it’ll let me leave. But you’ve been beyond the boundaries of the reservation more than a few times with both Aiden and me.

Yes, but none of them were permanent. The wild magic—or at least the portion controlled by Katie—would have been aware of that. I hesitated again. Of course, it’s possible these fears are nothing more than my natural instinct to expect the worse. She snorted, the sound reverberating loudly through my brain. Given the wild magic has somehow mixed itself with your DNA, I doubt it. Besides, your instincts haven’t led you astray very often of late. No, they hadn’t—and that in itself was somewhat scary. My instincts had been hit and miss my entire life—right up until the point we’d entered this reservation, in fact. I had no idea if the change was due to the wild magic or whether something stranger was happening.

I walked down the hall, discovering two more bedrooms, a bathroom, and a laundry but no real source for the growing certainty something other than a vampire had been in this house. I’ll keep all bits crossed that it’s wrong this time—at least when it comes to the new witch, she said. Especially if it turns out this place is the end of the line for us. Would you be upset about that if it was? Warmth and a mental hug briefly filled the link. Hell no. I love the café, I love this area, and I’m more than ready to settle down. And finally have a real life somewhere. She didn’t add that bit, but we’d been friends for so long now that she didn’t need to. Guilt slithered through me; it’d been Belle who’d paid the greater price when we’d run from Canberra. Her entire family was very close, but the situation I’d run from had been so extreme that even her mother—one of the few people we’d actually confided in—had said it would be better if we stayed out of contact.

You didn’t force me to go with you, Belle chided softly. I might be your familiar, but I still had the choice. I did it because I wanted to. I took a deep, somewhat shuddery breath and released it slowly. One of these days, I’ll make it up to you. I swear.

.

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