Flameout – Keri Arthur

The throaty roar of machinery shattered the peace of the cemetery. Deep in the old trees and on the other side of the road that channeled drivers up to the mausolea, light shone. It was fierce and bright against the thick cover of night, but it oddly cast the man who stood at the very edge of its circle into shadow. I paused on the side of the road and took a deep breath. It did little to calm either my nerves or the churning in my stomach. I had no right to be here. No right at all. And I certainly knew that shadow wouldn’t be, in any way, happy to see me. But I couldn’t stay away. I had to see with my own eyes the lack of a body in the grave the excavator was digging up. While it might have been only a few days ago that I’d physically confronted the man who was supposed to be buried there, some insane part of me couldn’t help hoping that it hadn’t been Luke, that it had instead been some sort of doppelgänger. Not for my sake, but for the sake of the shadow ahead. After another useless deep breath, I crossed the road and walked as silently as possible through the old eucalypts that dominated this section of the cemetery. Although given the man ahead was infected by a virus that had basically turned him into something of a pseudo vampire, I’m not sure why I bothered. He’d sense my presence long before I actually got there.

Whether he’d acknowledge it was another matter entirely. The excavator’s engine suddenly cut out, and the ensuing silence was eerie. It was almost as if the night was holding its breath, waiting to see the outcome of the grave being opened. As I neared the site, the shadow turned. Despite the darkness, his blue eyes had an almost unnatural gleam, and, as ever, I felt the impact of them like a punch to the gut. But if he was in any way surprised to see me, it wasn’t showing. But then, Sam Turner probably knew me better than almost any human alive, given our rather intense—if altogether too brief—relationship five years ago. “Evening, Emberly.” His voice gave as little away as his expression, yet it ran over my senses as sweetly as a kiss. “I was wondering when you’d turn up.

” “There was always a chance the sindicati were lying when they said the leader of the cloaks was your brother.” I shrugged. “I needed to be sure.” He raised an eyebrow. “Why would you disbelieve them when you confronted Luke face-to-face?” “I know. I just . ” I paused and shrugged again. “You just keep hoping that you’re wrong, that it’s someone who looks like my brother in charge of the red cloaks rather than Luke himself.” A bitter smile momentarily twisted his lips. “I know the feeling.

” “The red cloaks” was the nickname given to those infected by the Crimson Death virus—or the red plague, as it was more commonly known—and it was a virus Sam had running through his veins. Those infected generally fell into two categories—the ones who were crazy and kept under control only by the will of the red cloak hive “queen,” and the ones who kept all mental faculties even though they were still bound to the hive and its leader. No one really understood why the virus affected some more than others, although the powers that be suspected it very much depended on whom you were infected by. Of course, there was a third, much rarer category involving people like Sam and Rochelle—Sam’s lover and another member of the Paranormal Investigations Team. They might be infected, but they had no attachment to the hive, and did not fall under the will of its leader. How long that would last, no one could say. All anyone really knew for sure was the fact that this virus had the potential to become a plague even worse than the Black Death. It wouldn’t just kill millions; it would change them, thereby making them an even greater threat to those who remained uninfected. Unfortunately, the two scientists who’d been leading the charge for a vaccine were now infected themselves, and under the control of the hive. As situations went, it was pretty damn dire.

And it wasn’t helped by the fact that the sindicati—the vampire equivalent of the mafia—were also after both the scientists and the missing research notes. Vampires could be infected as easily as humans, but I suspected their interest in a cure was more monetary based than self-preservation. The government had already gone to great lengths to keep this outbreak a secret, so it was a given they’d pay billions to get either a vaccine or a cure. The man who’d been operating the small excavator climbed out of the cabin and walked to the edge of the grave where a second cemetery worker already stood. He looked down into the hole for a second then glanced at Sam and said, “Do you want me to start the opening procedure now, sir?” Sam nodded, the movement sharp. Abrupt. Tension rolled off him in waves and held within it hints of fear and resignation. He might not want the leader of the cloaks to be Luke, but he, like me, had all but come to accept the fact that this time, the sindicati had been telling the truth. Not that Anthony De Luca—the leader of the faction currently trying to wrest control from the vampires they considered too old-school and out-of-date to be running the sindacati, and who’d given me the information—had had any reason to lie. He’d thought he was safe simply because he had sole control over both Mark Baltimore’s and Professor Wilson’s original research notes and that it would protect him from both his red cloak partners and from his opposition in the sindicati.

He’d been wrong—at least when it came to the latter. With De Luca now dead, the notes he’d so carefully guarded were out there somewhere in the wider world to be found, as, apparently, were the backups of Professor Wilson’s notes. Of course, the two sindicati factions and PIT weren’t the only ones currently scrambling to find those notes. The red cloaks undoubtedly were, too. They might control the two scientists, but their job would be made far easier if they didn’t have to start from scratch. The cemetery worker climbed into a harness and was lowered into the opened grave. There was a soft thud as he landed on the coffin’s lid. It wasn’t a wooden sound—it was metallic. I glanced at Sam in surprise. “You buried him in a metal coffin?” “It’s lead-lined rather than mere metal, and the choice was out of my hands.

” His voice was grim. “The government didn’t want to risk toxins leaching into soil—not when we have no real understanding of the virus.” I frowned. “But isn’t the virus transferred via a bite or scratch? Besides, it can take twenty years or more for a normal coffin to decompose, so it’s doubtful whatever is left of the body by then would actually infect the soil.” “Maybe. Maybe not.” He shrugged. “I can understand them not wanting to take the risk, however, given there are toxins out there that remain viable basically forever.” “Yeah, but this is a virus, not a toxin.” “A virus that transforms cells in a way no one yet understands.

In any case like this, it’s better to be safe than sorry.” “So why not cremate him?” “Luke didn’t believe in it.” I frowned. “I didn’t think Luke was religious.” “He wasn’t. He had this weird fear of being declared dead only to wake up as he was going into the cremator.” Sam shrugged. “I know that wouldn’t have happened, but a regular burial was the least I could do for him.” If the authorities were so worried about contamination, I had to wonder why they hadn’t insisted. But then, maybe they’d also feared this thing could mutate and become airborne.

As the worker aboveground tossed what looked like a bolt cutter down to his partner, Sam made a low sound deep in his throat and strode into the full circle of the nearby floodlight. It gave his short black hair an almost bluish shine, and somehow emphasized the leanness of his athletic frame. There wasn’t a scrap of fat on him these days; it had all been eaten away by the virus he was still fighting. But while all that was left was muscle and bone, he was still a very good-looking man. Of course, given the fact that the heart of a phoenix is fated to find love only once each lifetime, and Sam was my allotted love this time around, I’d be attracted to him no matter what. I trailed after him. The metal coffin gleamed in the shadows of the grave pit, its surface untarnished by time or earth. There was no indication of damage or attack from either within or without; it could have been buried yesterday rather than over a year ago. The worker inside the grave seemed to be struggling to get the casket open, even with the use of bolt cutters. The padlock was huge.

The government really had been serious about not letting any contaminants out. So how the hell had Luke escaped? “Is that the same padlock he was buried with?” I asked. Sam shrugged. “It looks like the same type, but I guess we’ll know for sure when the damn thing is opened.” I could have gotten it open in half a second. Even if the lock were made of tungsten metal, it would have melted quickly enough under the full force of the flames that were mine to call. But that would have meant revealing myself as something other than human to the two cemetery workers, and I wasn’t about to risk that. Vampires and werewolves might be out and proud, but the rest of us remained well and truly closeted—and with damn good reason. While humanity had, on the whole, accepted the presence of vamps and weres in the world with surprising calm, there were still many who figured their very existence was a crime against nature, and one that needed to be dealt with. Nightly hunting parties were a growing problem, even if it was one the vamps and weres had so far ignored.

If they ever did decide to react to the situation, heaven help humanity. The lock finally snapped. The coffin was unlatched, and then the bolt cutter was exchanged for a rope. Once it was securely tied to the lid portion of the coffin, the worker was hauled out. “We’ve been ordered to stand well clear of the grave when the coffin is opened.” He tossed the rope to Sam. “Give us five minutes before you do so.” Sam nodded. His grip on the rope was so tight his knuckles were white, but his expression remained as neutral as ever. He hadn’t always been this calm, this controlled.

And while it would have been easy to blame the virus, I doubted that was the true source. Any man who’d killed his brother, and who felt a personal obligation to hunt down as many of the cloaks as he could, would have both witnessed and caused much bloodshed. In that sort of situation, you had two choices— control your emotions or go crazy. The former was always a better option than the latter. I knew that from experience. The two men climbed into the excavator. A heartbeat later, the machine was turned and began to trundle away, its bright headlights piercing the shadows. Once it was out of sight, Sam moved around the grave then glanced at me. “You ready?” I nodded and took my hands out of my pockets. Sparks danced across my fingertips, tiny fireflies that spun into the night and quickly disappeared.

Just because I knew Luke wouldn’t be in that coffin didn’t mean someone—or something—else wasn’t. Luke had never been stupid; he’d know he couldn’t possibly keep his resurrection a secret forever and that, eventually, his grave would be checked. He’d have something planned—of that I had no doubt. Sam took a deep breath and released it slowly. His tension echoed through me. With a quick but powerful motion, he yanked the rope back. With little sound, the lid opened. The coffin was empty. Nothing waited within. Not a body, not a trap.

The sparks died as my tension slipped away. “Well, the sindicati weren’t lying. Neither were your eyes.” Sam’s voice still held little in the way of inflection, yet I could feel the rise of anger in him. It wasn’t, in any way, aimed at me, but it was fierce, dark, and thick with the desire to hunt, to kill. Goose bumps fled down my spine, and it was all I could do to stay where I was and not run from the sheer force of it. “Luke is alive.” “Not only alive, but in charge of the red cloaks.” The words were out before I could stop them, and I silently cursed. I really didn’t need to poke the proverbial bear any further, if only because the darkness within him—the darkness that was the virus—had risen along with his anger, and that was very, very dangerous.

He might not want to harm me, but who knew what would happen if that darkness ever gained full control. “Yes.” His gaze rose to mine. In the blue of his eyes, grief shone. Grief and disbelief. Despite the evidence, despite his words, despite me telling him what I’d seen, he still didn’t want to believe his brother was capable of so much chaos. “What will you do now?” The desire to go around and comfort him was so strong I actually took a step toward him. But while the Sam of old might have welcomed such an action, this one certainly wouldn’t. Not from me, at any rate. “I’ll do exactly what I’ve been doing.

” The grief had disappeared from his expression, but the anger remained. “And this time, when I find him, I’ll make sure he stays dead.” “Good luck with that,” an all-too-familiar voice said. “Because you certainly haven’t had much success so far with your quest to erase us.” I jumped and swung around, flames instinctively burning across my fingers as I scanned the night. Luke’s voice had come from the trees to the left of the floodlight, but there was absolutely no sense of him. As far as I could tell, there was no one and nothing nearby in that section of the cemetery. “Come out and face us, Luke.” Sam’s voice was low and very, very controlled. “Or are you still that same little coward hiding behind excuses and the strength of others?” “My, my, we have gotten bitter since the infection, haven’t we?” There was an almost jovial note in Luke’s cool tone.

“But then, I guess hunting a killer that is little more than a ghost will do that to anyone.” “You’re no ghost,” I snapped. I desperately wanted to unleash my flames, but it would be a pointless action until I actually had a target. “You’re not even immortal. And you certainly bleed as profusely as anyone else when shot.” “You’re right.” His voice was still amused, but the edge of ice was stronger. “I do owe you one for that shoulder wound, you know. And bringing that building down on top of me was very impolite of you.” I snorted.

“Next time we meet, I’ll make sure the damn building actually kills you.” “Oh, I have no doubt that the next time we meet will be the last time—but for you rather than me.” “Says the man who’s currently hiding behind shadows and trees,” Sam said. “Come out and face us if you’re so damn confident.” “I would love to, but, unfortunately, the aforementioned building collapse has seriously curtailed my movements in the short term.” Which suggested he wasn’t actually near. I frowned and glanced over at Sam. He half shrugged and motioned me to keep on speaking. “I can assure you, Luke, that wasn’t my intention.” Sam stepped out of the floodlit area and merged with the deeper darkness of night.

It was a vampire trick, one the virus had gifted him. I wasn’t sure if all those infected with the virus got the ability, as few of the madder red cloaks—the ones who had the scythelike brand burned into their cheeks—seemed to use it. Luke did have the ability, but even if he were using it, I should have sensed him—unless, of course, he was using some form of magic to distort my senses. But if he was close, why hadn’t he said anything about Sam leaving the grave site? Was that exactly what he wanted—me and Sam separated—or was there something else going on here? “Oh, you made your intentions clear enough.” The last shreds of amusement had left Luke’s tone. All that remained was ice and fury. “Now let me make mine clear—” “We’re all very aware of your intentions,” I cut in. The quickest way to annoy Luke had always been to interrupt when he was speaking—and when he was angry, he tended to react without thought. Right now, with Sam off in the trees trying to find him, keeping his attention and annoyance on me would hopefully mean he wasn’t paying attention to everything else that was going on around him. “But history is littered with would-be dictators like you, and each and every one of them was doomed to failure from the beginning.

Just as you are.” “They weren’t in possession of a virus capable of infecting the world and making it mine,” he spat back. “The world would be yours for only as long as it takes to make a cure or a vaccine.” I crossed my arms and wondered why the hell Sam was taking so long. Surely, given the clarity of Luke’s voice, he couldn’t be that far away. “By the time that happens—if it ever happens—my army will be vast,” Luke growled, “and not even your flames will be strong enough to stop my rampage.” “I wouldn’t be so sure of that, Luke. You’ve only had a very small taste of what I’m actually capable of.” “Ah, but now that I have, I can work on ways to counter it.” A chill ran through me.

The flames of a phoenix certainly could be curtailed, and one of those methods had been employed by the sindicati only a few nights ago. The last thing I needed was a psycho like Luke getting his hands on that sort of magic. “You might want to talk to Parella about how well that worked out for him,” I snapped back, glad my voice was absent of the fear churning my gut. “Oh, if I ever get near that piece of vampire scum, talking is the last thing I’ll be doing with him.” Meaning Parella had better watch his back, because I needed him alive. I had no love for vampires or the sindicati, but Parella and I had something of a truce going—he’d agreed to keep his men off my tail until I found Wilson’s backup notes. It gave us breathing space—not much, granted, but at least it meant there was one less group we had to worry about. If he got himself killed, there was no guarantee his replacement would keep that agreement. My gaze swept the tree-filled darkness beyond the floodlight. I still had no sense of Luke, though I was aware enough of Sam’s position.

His presence reminded me of a winter storm—filled with ice and the promise of fury. So why was it taking so long to uncover where Luke was—or wasn’t? “Look,” I said, my tone holding a hint of the frustration that swirled through me. “It’s been nice catching up with you again, but is there any point to this whole conversation? Have you decided to hand yourself in or what?” He laughed. It was a high, not altogether pleasant sound. He might not be one of the crazy ones, but he sure as hell wasn’t far off it, either. “There is a point to everything I do,” he replied. “And you had better remember that.” I snorted. “Yeah, okay. If you say so.

” He made a low sound that was an odd mix of a growl and a curse. “Perhaps a small demonstration —” “Oh, don’t feel obliged,” I said. “Because we both know it will seriously hamper your domination plans if you lost any more of your soldiers right now.”


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