The Phoenix Illusion – Lisa Shearin

It was the third night in a row of strobe-like lightning with no thunder and no rain. That should have tipped me off—it should have tipped us all off—but it didn’t. I’d been having too much fun lately. Not that I didn’t deserve it. I did. Deserved it, needed it, wanted it, and welcomed it and its bearer with open arms. Besides, it was my birthday. Who didn’t deserve to have fun on their birthday? We were down the street from SPI headquarters at the Full Moon. The neighborhood bar and grill was our favorite hangout, so I’d picked it for my party. Note that I said “party,” not “surprise party.” I hate surprises. As a kid, it didn’t matter how good my family thought they were at hiding surprises from me, I knew one was coming and I didn’t like it. Even if a person I trusted told me I’d love it. I might like—or even love—what the surprise was, but I hated what it did. To me.

I was one of those people who got a side order of anxiety to go with any kind of surprise. Maybe it all went back to me being a control freak—and a terrible liar. What if I got a present and I didn’t like it? When I was little, I had an aunt who made dresses for me. Let’s just say she had a thing for pink bows—a lot of pink bows. Big ones. It almost made me want to stop having birthday parties. Nothing was worse than unwrapping a present and not being able to fake a thrilled response. I didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. It wasn’t that I didn’t like getting presents. I did.

It was simply better for everyone concerned that I knew what it was beforehand. My name is Makenna Fraser and I work for SPI (Supernatural Protection and Investigations). In my professional life, I have a skill that eliminates a certain kind of surprise. I’m a seer. I can see through any shield, ward, or spell a supernatural being can use to disguise itself from the human population. My ability also applies to cloaks and veils that render their wearers invisible. SPI is in the supernatural criminal apprehension business. You can’t apprehend what you can’t see. That’s where I come in. I go with our agents or commando teams and point out the supernatural perps they can’t see, so they can take them down or out.

That wasn’t to say my professional life wasn’t chock-full of surprises. It was. The kind only someone named Rambo would enjoy, but at least I didn’t have to act happy to see them. In fact, most times it was perfectly acceptable for me to shoot it full of lead or—on occasion—silver. Or better yet, get out of the way so our commandos could do the same. As much as I wanted to be as badass as my coworkers, I’d come to accept that it simply wasn’t gonna happen, but that didn’t stop me from training and trying. It was the least I could do for the people who had to work with me. I was from the mountains of North Carolina, a proud Southern girl, and was determined to stay that way, even though I now worked and lived in New York. I loved my adopted home and would—and had—put my life on the line to defend it and its people, but I’d always consider Weird Sisters, North Carolina, home. Today in the office, I’d gotten a cake in the break room, and been on the receiving end of an embarrassing (to everyone concerned) rendition of “Happy Birthday.

” The party at the Full Moon was a casual gathering of my closest friends/coworkers, with dinner and open bar. The owners were like a work mom and dad to us all, and they’d offered to close the bar for the night for us—and for them. It was the week before a full moon outside the Full Moon. The owners were werewolves. Bill and Nancy Garrison were from my home state of North Carolina and offered a slice of Southern hospitality to New Yorkers. The Garrisons had embraced the hide-in-plain-sight credo of supernatural concealment. They billed the Full Moon as New York’s Official Werewolf Bar and had decorated it accordingly. Heck, there was even a little gift shop up front. It was a meat lover’s paradise where the steaks were rare, the barbecue tangy, and the iced tea had enough sugar in it to make a spoon stand on end. It also had the distinction of having one of the best collections of single malt scotches in the city, scotches that’d put even more hair on a werewolf’s chest.

The coming of the monthly full moon made life awkward for the Garrisons and two of their staff who’d come with them from south of the Mason-Dixon line—their office manager and the head bartender. The rest of their employees were either supernatural beings or what SPI called clued-in humans (those who wouldn’t scream and run away at the sight of a furry and fanged boss). Going all furry and fierce once a month made it somewhat difficult to run a business, especially a restaurant. As the Full Moon’s barbecue pit master, Bill’s monthly inconvenience of increased hairiness presented a big problem with potential health code violations, not to mention the possibility of scorched fur. In another couple of days, Bill would hand the cooking honors over to his assistant and the human chef who ruled the roost in the kitchen. It’s a misconception that werewolves go stark raving loony during the full moon. They’re more irritable during their special time of the month, but they aren’t gonna go nuts and rip your throat out. Unless you give them a good reason, in which case, they’d be glad to oblige you. All of those in attendance were friends of mine who were also coworkers or people connected to work who knew what we did. My partner Ian and his girlfriend Kylie were here.

Ian Byrne was SPI’s top agent, and Kylie O’Hara was the director of SPI’s Media Relations department. She lived for crisis management, and when you were an agency responsible for hiding the supernatural world from humans, you pretty much lived in crisis mode. To add an extra touch of irony, Kylie wasn’t human. She was a dryad. Ian was human. Mostly. Way back in his ancestry was an ancient Irish demigod, but he didn’t let that get in the way of being one of the guys. SPI, even more than the mortal world’s alphabet agencies, did work that you simply couldn’t talk about. Secrets must be kept for the safety of those concerned and for ongoing investigations. SPI was the same with one big difference—even if we could talk about what we saw at work, people would think we were nuts.

SPI’s best allies were humans who were in on our world’s big secret and didn’t freak out. Monsters were real, supernatural beings existed alongside us, and magic was as much a fact as gravity. I was sure there were people who denied the existence of gravity, just like there were those who denied other scientifically and historically proven facts and events. Some people wouldn’t recognize the truth if it bit ’em and had ’em for breakfast. There was a whole world out there that humans didn’t see. Their next-door neighbors might be plain vanilla human, or they could be any number of supernatural beings with their more alarming physical features either disguised by magical spells, or with devices developed and worn for the purpose of keeping a supernatural from being identified as such by their kept-clueless neighbors and coworkers. Humans had an unfortunate tendency to go all torchy and pitchforky when they discovered inhumans anywhere in their immediate vicinity. That was SPI’s main mission: Keep the peace by keepin’ ’em clueless. My hometown was full of all kinds of supernaturals. And being a seer, I’d grown up seeing each and every one of them.

For me, supernaturals were the norm rather than the exception, which was probably why I didn’t think twice about having a goblin as a boyfriend. My momma had warned me about bad boys. Rake Danescu was a very bad boy—in all the very best ways. Though to hear my family talk, my dad had been a bad boy. Like mother, like daughter? Moth to flame, and all that? Rake Danescu had gone from being an SPI person of interest to being an agency ally. He was now my person of interest and occupied the one and only spot on my most-wanted list. For the first time ever, I had myself a serious boyfriend. Though Rake was definitely a man, not a boy, but I had no problem with the semantics. Regardless of what the rest of the world wanted to call our relationship, it didn’t change what it was. He was mine, and I was his, and that arrangement suited me just fine.

We were supposed to have taken a trip to North Carolina so Rake could meet my family, but work had gotten in the way. Most notably, Rake’s new job. He’d recently been appointed governor of the goblin colony here on Earth. It wasn’t a job he wanted, but with the corruptness of the previous governor and his henchmen, Rake knew he was needed. He cared about his people and took his new responsibility very seriously. We’d postponed the trip until the end of next month. Rake enjoyed being with my coworkers more than he did the upper-crusters at the events and parties he was expected to attend as one of New York’s wealthiest men—and as the new goblin colonial governor. He’d told me more than once that me being by his side was the only thing that made those events bearable. To tell you the truth, “uncomfortable” was the nicest way I could describe accompanying Rake to the goblin events. A more accurate description would be “mouse in a room full of sadistic cats.

” Not that they necessarily wished me harm—at least not most of them—but I was a human. Goblins considered humans, as well as elves and every other supernatural race and species, to be far beneath them. Goblins were what my Grandma Fraser would call snooty. I think that was why Rake preferred my friends to his acquaintances. They knew who he was (a goblin spymaster), what he was (a badass dark mage), and how he was (inscrutable as all get-out), and they accepted all of it. At least they did now. That hadn’t always been the case. Rake had come a long way in their estimation. A lot of that had to do with him putting himself in the worst kind of danger to save them from the worst kind of death. He’d been right there on the front lines with them more than once.

That kind of bravery and selflessness was remembered, appreciated, and rewarded with friendship. I knew that Rake appreciated it. In his line of work, there weren’t many people he could trust. As a result, Rake didn’t have that many friends, and even though he hadn’t come right out and said it, I could tell he was truly happy when he was around mine. Slowly but surely those defensive walls of his were coming down. Rake walked the talk and put his money where his mouth was, and all that. As a result, folks at SPI finally believed that he didn’t have an ulterior motive for any of it. Acceptance and trust of Rake was a relatively new thing for me, too. The night I’d met Rake had been my first day working for SPI. To get his way, Rake had never been opposed to throwing in a little seduction.

Not that he wasn’t good at it. He was. Oh boy, was he ever. But I’d been warned about him, and my guard had been up. Mostly. Hey, I was only human, as most goblins were all too fond of reminding me. Maybe that was part of what had attracted Rake to me. Goblins played games. Heck, their games played games. With goblins you never knew what was real and what was just another way to get what they wanted.

They were kind of like cats in that respect. I’d always been more of a dog person, but I had a soft spot for any cat that rubbed up against me. Rake had rubbed up against me. Mostly metaphorically, but on occasion literally. I’d finally come to believe that it was because he liked me, not because he wanted anything. Well, aside from the obvious. And I had to admit, all that rubbing felt oh so much better now without any clothes in the way. “What are you thinking?” Rake purred against my ear. We were snuggled in a booth watching our friends getting seriously competitive at an after-dinner game of darts. Rake was politely sitting this one out because he was entirely too good at throwing sharp, stabby things.

Actually, so were my coworkers. The target’s bull’s-eye was getting a serious workout. Bill and Nancy were gonna have to replace the board after tonight. “Nothing,” I told him. It was the go-to answer when you got caught thinking something you didn’t want to admit—at least not in public, surrounded by your coworkers. “You were smiling.” Now so was he. Two could play that game. “Hmm, was I? I can’t imagine why.” “Now you’re blushing.

” “Must be warm in here.” Rake scooched even closer. “Could it be something else?” I made a show of pondering. “Um…no.” “Well, if you’re sure.” His fangs darted in for a quick nip on my ear. He knew that made me crazy. But I knew what made him even crazier. Payback would be sweet. Later.

Suddenly, a tingle that had nothing to do with Rake’s nibbling ran down my back. Rake had frozen, all his senses on high alert. In seconds, the pressure in the room increased to an excruciating level and immediately dropped. It was like the onset of the worst sinus headache ever. Then my ears popped. Painfully. Kenji Hayashi, half-elf and SPI’s IT and communications guru, quickly stuffed a napkin under his now bleeding nose. He wasn’t the only one. The pressure drop was followed by a boom from outside. Close-by outside.

It wasn’t an explosion, at least not the kind caused by explosives. It was magic. The big kind. The kind that didn’t happen by accident. Then the power went out. The bar area of the Full Moon was away from the restaurant’s front windows. It was so dark back here that I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. The Garrisons had emergency lights, but apparently those weren’t working, either. I felt and heard Rake quickly slide out of the booth. “Everyone stay put.

” His voice came from halfway to the front doors. “I’ll take a look.” As a goblin, Rake had some serious night vision. The Full Moon was warded. The Garrisons didn’t have defensive magic of their own, and most times they didn’t need it. Most times fur, fangs, and fury were all that were needed to deal with any incident. This wasn’t one of those times. We considered the Full Moon as an extension of SPI HQ. As such, the Garrisons had allowed our battlemages to ward the bar with enough defensive magic to keep out anything SPI’s enemies could conjure up. And while the Garrisons didn’t have any magical skills, they had an ability the rest of us didn’t.

A highly developed sense of smell. Rummaging sounds came from the bar. Seconds later, two battery-powered lanterns were switched on. Nancy brought one over to the seating area. Then she paused and sniffed the air. “Fire.” Bill raised his nose that in a few days would be a muzzle and took a whiff. “Half a block east.” A fun night with friends had officially turned into unwanted business. Training and instinct took over.

We weren’t the NYPD, so we couldn’t storm out the front doors with our guns drawn. Not to mention storming anywhere would’ve been stupid until we knew what we were dealing with. But now that we had light, we could go find out. A second boom shook the floor under our feet. Rake was standing on the sidewalk outside the front doors. He was staring down the street in shock. Ian, Kylie, and I joined him. Adrenaline was good for all kinds of things. It gave you time to figure out how not to die a horrible and messy death. It also gave you time to figure out just what the heck you were looking at, and how best to deal with it without dying said horrible and messy death.

That being said, adrenaline was absolutely no help when it came to telling my mind what to do with what I was seeing. It was that bizarre. There was a vacant lot two buildings down from where we stood on the sidewalk—a lot that had been vacant when we’d walked to the Full Moon from work. It wasn’t vacant anymore. A three-story building was smack dab in the middle of it and was fully engulfed. Sirens in the distance signaled that New York’s finest firefighters were on the way. The nearest station was only six blocks away, and I was no fire expert, but even I knew there wasn’t going to be anything left to save. The fire was burning too hot. Too hot for a normal fire. But the air wasn’t hot.

It was downright cold. Cold enough to see my breath. The temperature had to have dropped at least forty degrees from the time we’d walked over from headquarters. The flames engulfing the structure were circling in on themselves toward the center of the structure like a tornado; and above the fire the sky glowed like a golden aurora borealis. The fire and the glowing sky were the only light in the immediate area. None of this was normal. Rake stared in shock and disbelief. “That’s my house,” he managed. I heard him, but that couldn’t have been what he said. “Your what?” “My house.

From Regor.”

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