Wicked Wings – Keri Arthur

You’re the scrawniest, most ungrateful pig of a cat I’ve ever had the goddamn misfortune to come across, you know that?” The cat in question stared at me with a look that could only be described as utter satisfaction. He was an orange tabby with a pale, fluffy mane that made him look like a miniature lion and a coat that had random tufts of fur sticking out at odd angles. He looked older than Methuselah, even though he was only a little over three. The spirit within the cat, however, was not young. I shook the hand he had all but shredded, flicking droplets of blood across pristine white tiles. “I should let you starve, you ungrateful wretch of a thing.” The cat blinked, his mismatched eyes—one amber, one blue—glinting in the shadowfilled kitchen. It wasn’t my kitchen, and it certainly wasn’t my cat. I was just here to feed the thing. Monty—my cousin and the cat’s ‘owner’—had gone to Melbourne to have the external fixation devices on his leg removed and to begin full rehabilitation. Nearly two months had passed since the soucouyant had kidnapped and basically broken him—or at least his left tibia—and between the hospital stay and his inability to move about with any sort of ease, he’d been less than pleasant to be around. Much like his cat, really. Thankfully, the run of foul spirits and demons invading the Faelan Reservation—the only werewolf reservation in Victoria, and one of seven in Australia—had gone from a tidal wave to a trickle. We’d only had a couple of minor demons wander in seeking prey during that time, and Ashworth—the Regional Witch Association representative who now lived here, and who’d once again stepped into the vacant reservation witch position until Monty regained mobility—had little trouble dealing with them. I dumped the rest of the tin’s contents into the cat’s bowl, then rose and did a wide detour around him, moving across to the sink so I could run water over the wound.

The cat bent, took a sniff of the fish, then raised a paw and pushed the bowl away, a look a disdain on his face. “Listen here, buddy, you may have Belle wrapped around your dangerous little paw, but she’s not here today. You eat what I give you, or you starve.” The cat studied me for a moment, then rose and, with a flick of his fluffy tail, stalked from the room. “Felines,” I muttered, and thanked God my familiar was not only human , but also my best friend. Generally, familiars came in the form of animals—mostly cats, like Monty’s orange nightmare—or a spirit. No one really knew why Belle had become mine, and no one had ever really cared enough to find out. I’d certainly never questioned it—why would I, when her presence in my life was the only reason I stood here today? I turned off the tap, dried the wound, and then dragged the first aid kit out of the pantry. After spraying the three deep slashes on the top of my hand with antiseptic, I tossed the first aid kit back, then filled up the ungrateful feline’s water bowl. Thankfully, Belle was back tomorrow—she’d gone down to Melbourne to see the latest incarnation of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and had decided to stay overnight rather than do the latenight drive back to Castle Rock—so she could resume feeding duties.

The wretched cat seemed to like her; or, at the very least, he didn’t go into berserker mode the minute she walked through the door. But then, aside from being a witch, Belle was both a telepath and a strong spirit talker; if the cat did decide to flex his claws and cause some damage, she could certainly return the favor. Clever spirits did not mess with her. I grabbed my handbag from the table and slung it over my shoulder as I headed for the front door, my footsteps echoing on the wooden floorboards. Other than his bed, a sofa, and the largest TV screen I’d ever seen, there was very little in the way of furniture in any of the rooms. It had all been destroyed—along with the house Monty had temporarily set up in—when the soucouyant had kidnapped him. The loss hadn’t actually fazed him all that much, simply because anything he really cared about—including his classic 1967 V8 Mustang—had been secured off-site. As I swung the front door open and unsnibbed the wire door, the cat began to wail. But this was no ordinary caterwaul. It was a deep, haunting sound, and it sent a chill up my spine.

Something was wrong. I spun and ran back down the hall. The cat was in the laundry, staring at the back door. I slid to a halt and quickly looked around. There was nothing untoward visible, and certainly nothing that in any way suggested danger. The cat looked at me, gave another long, deep yowl, and then pointedly gazed at the door again. Frustration stirred. “There’s a goddamn cat flap next to the freaking door— use it.” The cat gave me a disdainful look, then, with another flick of his fluffy tail, did so. I muttered obscenities under my breath and spun around.

I didn’t get far; the cat’s howling began again and this time held a deep note of demand. For whatever reason, I was meant to follow him. “Hang on, hang on.” I ran down the hall to lock the front door and then headed out the back. The cat was sitting on the rear fence, but disappeared down the other side when it saw me. “If you’re having fun at my expense, I’m not going to be pleased.” The cat yowled in response. Again, it was filled with urgency, and trepidation pulsed through me. My psychic senses might be attuned to evil, but cats in general were far more sensitive to the other side, and this was no ordinary cat. If evil hunted in the growing haze of dusk, he’d sense it far sooner than me.

I grabbed the top of the fence, hauled my butt over it, and jumped down. Thankfully, Monty’s new townhouse backed onto bush, so I didn’t have to worry about neighbors calling the rangers on me. Not that that would have been too much of a problem in a situation such as this. Aiden, the head ranger, happened to be my lover, and while that didn’t give me a pass to commit any sort of crime, all I had to do was tell him Monty’s familiar had sensed a problem and had wanted me to follow him. The last few months had provided a very steep learning curve for the rangers in general—and Aiden in particular—when it came to witches and magic, but they now trusted us in a way I’d never thought possible. Of course, they’d also had little other choice. Our magic was all that stopped this place from being overrun by evil, 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—and the big one in this reservation had. The cat disappeared into the lengthening shadows crowding the trees, but a short, sharp yowl gave me direction. I followed the sound, the crunch of leaves and the snap of twigs audible under every footstep.

Another cry, this time to my right. I ducked under a low-hanging tree branch and ran on, my gaze sweeping the area but seeing or sensing little that suggested there was anything to be worried about out here in the scrub. Maybe the snotty little creature was giving me the runaround… I continued following the yowls, but never actually got close enough to spot the damn cat. Sweat trickled down my back and dripped from tendrils of hair hanging over my eyes. Summer had finally slipped into autumn, but apparently no one had notified the appropriate weather gods, because the day had been hot and muggy, and neither had noticeably eased now that dusk was giving way to night. I swiped at a droplet hanging onto the end of my nose and slid down an incline to a creek—one that thankfully wasn’t very deep. I picked my way across the trickle of water, using various rocks as steppingstones and then scrambled up the bank on the other side and ran on. The shadows were getting longer as darkness closed in. I paused to grab my phone out of my purse, flicked on the flashlight app, and continued. The caterwauling was at least closer now, but the light threw crazy shadows across the trees and trepidation stirred anew.

Not because of the shadows, but because my instincts were finally kicking in. Something was out here—something other than a cranky cat playing a prank on a witch he disliked. I crashed through a strand of young wattle trees, gaining scratches across my bare arms, and ended up in a clearing. The cat sat in the middle, his tail swishing from side to side. Beyond him, in the distance through the scrub, came the twinkle of house lights and the soft roar of car engines. Civilization wasn’t that far away—but neither was evil. I shivered and resisted the instinctive urge to reach for Belle. I wasn’t in any sort of danger, and she deserved a decent time-out both from me and from whatever new piece of darkness intent on destruction had decided to step into the reservation. I took a deep breath and flexed my fingers, trying to ease the tension as I walked across to the cat. He looked up at me and then at the ground.

Obviously, I was meant to find something. I squatted next to the orange menace and studied the leaf-littered area through narrowed eyes. There was nothing immediately obvious to see, and the vague sense of evil drifting across my senses certainly wasn’t emanating from this particular spot. The cat raised a paw, sharp claws exposed. I leaned away instinctively, but this time, he didn’t aim his weapon at me. Instead, he pawed at the leaf litter and then gave me a somewhat pointed look. I couldn’t help but grin. That look suggested if I didn’t quickly do his majesty’s bidding, the claws would once again find a home in my flesh. I held out a hand, fingers splayed, over the area he’d clawed. Prophetic dreams and the ability to sense evil weren’t my only psychic talents—I was also gifted with psychometry.

It not only allowed me to find misplaced items and sense emotions via touch, but also gave me the ability to trace—or even slip into the mind of—the person who owned whatever item I was holding. The latter was not something I did very often— I’d heard too many tales of psychics getting trapped within the minds and emotions of others to risk anything like that without a very good reason. A distant wisp of energy ran across my skin; whatever I was meant to find wasn’t close. I frowned and moved my hand around in an attempt to get a stronger signal, but the wisp faded the further I went from the point the cat had clawed. I moved my hand back and caught the vague tingle again; either the item had been dug into the ground or whatever connection it held to the wearer was fading. Maybe even both. I carefully dug into the leaf litter, making sure there was nothing hidden in amongst the rotting matter before tossing it aside. After several seconds, the tingling got stronger and I caught a glimpse of leather. It looked like a watch strap, although how it had ended up here, buried under so much debris, I had no idea. It couldn’t have been here for that long, if only because any sort of resonance would have faded if it had—and that suggested it had been deliberately buried.

Either that, or something very strange was going on. Which, knowing this reservation, was entirely possible. I moved the remaining leaf matter away from the half-buried watch. The face was shattered, which suggested it had been stepped on. Whether deliberately or not, I couldn’t say. I grabbed a small tree branch and used it to carefully scrape away the soil—which was surprisingly soft considering the long, dry summer we’d had—from the rest of the watch, then carefully picked it up. And saw the dried, almost gossamer-fine brownish-cream tendrils hanging from the end of the catch. It wasn’t cotton or any other sort of manmade material. It looked like flesh. Dried human flesh.

My stomach twisted, and I swallowed heavily. “That’s not what I think it is… is it?” The cat gave me a look. One that said, “You know the answer, so why ask?” My phone chose that moment to ring, and the sharp sound made me jump. I looked at the screen, saw it was Monty, and hit the answer button. “Aren’t you supposed to be resting in hospital?” “Yes, but I am still reservation witch.” His voice was tart and filled with frustration. “I want to be kept informed when evil stirs.” “Given your familiar is sitting right here beside me, I hardly think you can claim to be uninformed. And I’m not entirely sure evil is respon—” “Seriously? There’s skin—human skin—on that watchband. If that’s not a sign of evil intent, I’m not sure what is.

” “Yeah, but it could be an old evil rather than new. The skin isn’t fresh, and the watch was buried. Besides, if there was a dark spirit or demon roaming around the immediate area, wouldn’t your wretched cat have sensed it?” “My cat does have a name.” “And it’s one I refuse to utter until he stops attacking me.” “Accord him the same sort of respect as Belle, and he just might.” “Belle doesn’t claw the hell out of my hand the minute she sees me.” Although I daresay she’d been tempted to swat me over the head on more than a few occasions over the years. Monty snorted. “Eamon says he did sense something in passing, but lost the trail in that clearing. Have you tried to track the owner of the watch yet?” “No, because someone rang before I could.

Hang on.” I brought the watch into the light. “There’s an inscription on the back—Congrats on graduating, love Mom and Dad.” “Which suggests the watch isn’t something the owner would have lost willingly. Is the catch broken?” “Yes.” He grunted. “So it’s minutely possible that—despite the strips of skin—he didn’t realize it had fallen off. Can you hustle and do that reading?” “If you’d stop bloody talking, I might just be able to.” He grunted again. It was not a happy sound.

I half smiled and wrapped my fingers around the watch face, trying to avoid the bits of dried skin, but nevertheless catching a couple. I shivered at the papery feel of them, but concentrated on the faint caress of energy and unleashed the psychic part of me. For several seconds, nothing happened. All I could feel, all I could sense, was shadows and darkness. I frowned and tried to go deeper—tried to get some sense of not only who owned the watch, but also what might be happening to him. Nothing. Frustrated, I tightened my grip and pressed it harder into my palm. A dark force rose to resist me—one that didn’t belong to the watch’s owner, or even to whoever he might have been with. That barrier was death—one that had occurred days ago. Which was rather odd, given how deeply the watch had been buried—or was that merely the result of someone covering their crime? Was there, perhaps, a whole lot more than just a watch to be found here? “Anything?” Monty said.

I eased the fierceness of my grip. “No. Whoever owned the watch died a few days ago.” “No ghost?” “Not that I can sense, but Belle’s the spirit talker, not me.” “You can’t contact her? Get her out there?” “No, I can’t, because she’s in Melbourne rather than here.” “What’s she doing in Melbourne?” “That’s none of your damn business, dear cousin.” He chuckled softly. “So I guess this is basically a false alarm.” “Not necessarily.” I carefully placed the watch on the top of the leaf pile, then scooped up a bigger stick and began shoveling more dirt aside.

“It strikes me as odd that it was buried so deeply.” “You think it was deliberate?” “I do.” And we’d find out soon enough if I was correct or not—if whatever else might be buried here wasn’t too deep. “It might be worth going to grab a shovel,” Monty commented. “It’d be quicker and easier than a damn stick.” “Have you got a shovel at your place?” “Well, no, but I’m sure Aiden or one of the other rangers can supply one.” “And I’m sure they’ll be pleased about me calling them out over a broken watch unless it’s attached to someone’s arm.” “Other than those strips of skin, there’s no sign of bones and, according to Eamon, no smell of decay or putrefaction to suggest a body,” he commented. “So why do you think it was attached to an arm? Wouldn’t you have seen some sign of said arm when you dug the watch out?” I grimaced—something he’d see only if his link with his familiar was deep enough to be using the cat’s eyes. “Once you’ve spent some time in this reservation, you’ll discover ‘would have’ and ‘should have’ often don’t—” I stopped as my makeshift shovel hit something solid.

I swallowed trepidation and then carefully scraped away more dirt. And found the arm. Or, at least, what looked to be the bones of one. I pushed away from the gruesome find and landed heavily on my butt. Several breaths did little to ease the churning in my stomach or the growing certainty that this was the beginning of a new reign of terror from yet another dark spirit. “A fucking arm that’s been picked clean?” Monty’s voice held a mix of disbelief and excitement. “How awesome is that?” “I can think of many words to describe the find, Monty, but awesome isn’t one of them.” “Well, no, the death isn’t awesome, but the fact we’ll be hunting down a creature capable of doing such a thing is.” “You’re certifiable, you know that? And may I remind you that you’re in Melbourne and won’t be hunting down anything in the immediate future.” “And may I remind you that rehabilitation doesn’t stop me from participating in at least the research side of things.

” His tone remained decidedly upbeat. Obviously, being attacked by a soucouyant hadn’t in any way dulled his initial excitement over finally getting some magical action. “Besides, I’ve already been cleared to continue rehabilitation in Castle Rock, so I can be the control center while you and Ashworth do all the legwork.” Amusement bubbled through me; Ashworth would be mighty pleased to hear he’d been reduced to legwork. “This is all presuming that the bones were buried recently. My senses might be wrong—” “Since when has that happened?” “Well, not in recent months, but still—” “Exactly,” he cut in. “So stop with all the doubt bullshit and get the rangers in so we —” I tuned out the rest of his sentence as a faint and yet agonized scream ran across the night—the scream of a man rather than a woman. The sort of scream that only happened in those final few seconds between the realization of death and death actually hitting. The sound died as abruptly as it had started, but an ominous pulse of power now ran through the darkness. Its origin was not of this world, but rather the supernatural.

Demon. The word whispered through my brain, and fear chased after it. A sane person would have run in the opposite direction, but self-preservation was something that had become somewhat spotty since I’d stepped into this reservation. Perhaps it was the connection to the wild magic; perhaps it was simply the growing certainty that there was to be no more running for Belle and me. That this place was home, and unless we did our utmost to take care of it, it would become hell on earth for everyone within—whether or not Monty or Ashworth or any other witch was here. Which was a rather weird thought and not one I had time to examine. I scrambled upright, grabbed my phone, and ran after Eamon. “Monty, call the rangers for me. Tell them where we are and what’s happening. Then call Ashworth, just in case.

” “Will do. Be careful.”

.

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