Burning Skies

The Guardians of Ascension (Volume 2 of 6)

Caris Roane

St. Martin's Paperbacks

The undead.
A state of being.
Not of vampires
But of the lost and lonely.
Oh, heart that cries,
Live and
Be satisfied.

Collected Poems, Beatrice of Fourth


CHAPTER 1


Got a death wish, handsome?
Marcus heard the woman’s voice in his head, but the sound was like gears grinding. He refused to respond.
He hit the gas harder on his Harley, leaned, took the curve in the road with ease, felt the vibration up both arms and smiled.
He wore sunglasses on a sunless Pacific Northwest day. Even in June, the weather could pile up overhead. It did today, so he took the mist and occasional rain in his face and still he smiled.
The retro Harley had arrived a week ago, and he’d finally left his boardrooms long enough to take the hog over to the Olympic Peninsula. He cruised the coastal route, preferring views of the wild ocean waters to the depths of forest, at least today. Sometimes he liked disappearing into the narrow inland roads where the conifers towered overhead and an entire world lived in shadow.
Hey, slow down, gorgeous. You aren’t that immortal.
Go home, he sent, his mind to her mind. The answer is the same … no.
Endelle, the Supreme High Administrator of Second Earth, was in his head again as she had been off and on for weeks now. He was tired of the same old, same old—Come back to Second Earth, return to the Warriors of the Blood, take up your sword, serve my sorry ass.
She might not have said serve my sorry ass. Those were his words and like hell he was going to do that.
He’d cut off his left nut first.
Aw, Warrior, don’t be like that.
Yeah, the bitch was back, somehow watching him, somehow reading his mind, somehow talking straight into his head and making another run at his sanity. She was one powerful vampire.
She was also a piece of work. Endelle had served Second Earth as Supreme High Administrator for most of her nine thousand years and she’d lost her subtlety her first day on the job. He loved her and hated her. Right now she was a gnat in his head and he didn’t have the means to swat her away. He sighed. There was no way he’d be getting rid of her until she’d had her say.
Whatever.
He went faster, twisting the accelerator, pushing the bike to its limit, to that place where the wheels almost broke loose and threw him into a deadly spin. Almost.
He used his preternatural senses to gauge the trajectory of each dip and turn in the wet road. He extended his hearing so he could determine what cars or trucks were headed in his direction and just how soon they’d pose a threat. See, he was being safe. Sort of.
Endelle had one thing right: He wasn’t that immortal. No vampire was completely immune to death. If he slammed hard enough into a wall of rock, or got his head cut off in a sword fight, yeah he’d be dead.
So just how much of a death wish was this?
He wore black leather, the only time he did. Leather kept the cold out, the moisture out. As he pushed along the coast, he was on a high. He felt good, a sensation that escaped him most days … and nights. For a man with billions, God his life sucked.
“I’ll ask you again,” Endelle said, only this time her breath was in his ear. “You got a death wish or what, Warrior?”
“Endelle, what the fuck?” he shouted into the wind. Her body was now plastered against him from behind. “What are you doing here?” One slip of his control and the bike would slide away from him, do a few flips, send him barreling into oblivion.
“You must be going eighty, ninety miles an hour. What gives?”
He gritted his teeth. Words punched out of his mouth. “Get off my bike.”
“Mm.” She wiggled her hips. “This feels good. And those vibrations … straight up my ass. I might just have to get me one of these.”
“What the hell do you want?” he cried.
“You know why I’m here.” She cuddled closer, her arms around his waist.
“I’m not going back,” he cried.
She fingered his hair. Who do you think you’re kidding? she responded, sending the words straight into his head. You’ve been letting your hair grow and we both know what that means. A few more months and you’ll have warrior hair.
The hell I will and get out of my head. He didn’t ease back on the speed.
He felt her sigh as she hugged him hard. “I need a man,” she shouted.
“Not gonna be me,” he shouted back, dipping the bike as the road curved to the left.
“Wasn’t asking, asshole.”
The arms disappeared. The warm press of body as well. Thank God.
The next second, however, she materialized on his handlebars, her knees in his face. He had to lean a little to see the stretch of road in front of him. It was somewhat straight for at least a few hundred yards. Shit.
“Dammit, Endelle! Get off my fucking bike!”
She was dressed in black leather from head to foot except for the small red feathers that trimmed the V of her vest. Come back to us, she sent. We need you, Warrior.
She leaned close and now he really couldn’t see the road, just the depth of her cleavage above a really low-cut leather vest, trimmed with red feathers. Her bare arms were wet from the rain and mist.
Fuck.
He had one of two choices—cliff leading to the ocean or mountain wall.
Yeah, fuck.
He swung to the right and went over the cliff. “You are such a bitch,” he shouted, hitting airspace.
With preternatural speed and a bit of levitation, he folded off his black leather jacket and black T-shirt and, at almost the same time, mounted his wings midair. He turned into the wind and headed … down. He had power and he was fast, goddamn fast, but not faster than the gravity that took his bike down a slope of seaside cliff. His Harley bounced off a couple of trees, slid over stone outcroppings, then landed in a huge-ass fucking pile of driftwood about thirty yards from the surf.
He let the obscenities fly.
The gasoline in the tank did a nice pop-and-flare that turned to a pitiful stream of black smoke under the drenching mist and rain.
He trained his wings into the offshore breeze so that he didn’t roll. He hovered above the wreck, his mouth still a tumble of profanity.
“Aw. Too bad.” Endelle now stood on the largest water-stripped log, looking down at the wreck, her arms folded over her leather-feather chest. She didn’t smile as she lifted her gaze to him. She just stared. Damn, her eyes looked ancient. He always forgot that about her. Vampire life gave longevity to muscle, skin, and bone, youth returned and savored, but the eyes never lied.
She smiled. “You ready to stop playing spoiled-little-rich-boy? You ready to do some man’s work again?”
He flipped her off as he drew in his wings, supporting himself in the air with old-fashioned levitation. As soon as the last of the feathers and connecting mesh support disappeared into his back, he folded to his house on Bainbridge Island, straight to the master bedroom. He thumped his way to the bathroom, shoulders hunched, fists so tight that both arms hurt. He stripped, got seven showerheads to steaming, then stepped into his shower.
“Damn, Marcus, how much you been working out? You have the ass of a god.”
He turned to face her, and naturally her gaze fell to his jewels. She shook her head and sighed. “You warriors are so fucking hung and I really do need a man.”
“Get the hell out of my bathroom. Get the hell out of my house and get the hell out of my life.” He turned to face the water, grabbed soap and lathered.
“You don’t have a choice on this one.”
“The hell I don’t. You had one favor. You called it in. I served. We’re done.”
“That was four months ago. I’ve decided I get another one. You do a lot of squat-thrusts? Hey, what’s with the mist? And do you really think I can’t see through that shit?” She snorted. “But if you’re feeling modest, mist away.”
Mist. He should have known better than to try. Mist was designed to confuse the mind, and a powerful mist could confuse the mind of mortals and ascenders alike—just not the leader of Second Earth. Endelle was too damn powerful. Still, it was his bathroom. Privacy would have been nice.
He stopped talking. There was no point. Endelle was as stubborn as the rotation of the earth. But then, so was he. She ought to know that. He wasn’t four millennia for nothing.
“Morgan’s not sleeping very well,” she said.
At that, he stopped moving the soap around his chest. Endelle rarely called Havily by her first name.
Havily Morgan.
Oh. God. Havily. The woman meant for him. The one he craved. The one he fantasized about making love to every goddamn night.
So the fuck what? he sent, the soap moving again.
“She told me about the fennel, vampire.”
“What fennel?”
“She smells you, Warrior. You know what that means.”
“Don’t call me Warrior. I’m a businessman and I’m not going back. Not for you. Not for Havily. Not for anyone. I belong here. I’m happy here.” Sort of. Besides, he’d made one helluva life for himself on Mortal Earth and after seeing the war up close and personal again, he wasn’t having it, not any part of it.
“Morgan drags in to work every morning now. You know anything about that?”
He rinsed off, left the shower, pushed past her and grabbed a towel. He dried his hair first then worked his way down his body. Yeah, he knew something about why Havily might not be sleeping very well. It was his dirty little secret and the hell if he was going to share it with Endelle. What was going on between them was private, a word Endelle respected about as much as she respected his mental shields.
“That’s what I thought,” she murmured. “You’ve been getting into her pants with no one the wiser. You enthralling her or what?”
At that he rose up and glared, straight into her brown eyes. “You think so little of me that you believe I would enthrall her?”
“No. I don’t. I just can’t figure out what’s going on because that little twat of yours has shields I have one helluva time bypassing.”
He glared a little more, then his gaze dropped to the red feathers. They were small, crimson, beautiful. “What are they and where are you getting them?” One of his corporations operated in the fashion industry. Yeah, he was a businessman first.
“A little import shop on Central Two. They come from Mortal Earth. Someone’s raising cardinals in Tucson. Don’t worry. It’s organic. The feathers are collected after the birds are slaughtered.”
“You’re a walking PETA nightmare.”
“You gone vegan on me, or what?”
“No. I still eat steak.”
She looked him up and down. “I know what you mean. Still prefer meat myself.”
He rolled his eyes, swung the towel around his hips, and strolled into his bedroom. Apparently he wasn’t getting rid of the bitch until Labor Day … maybe. And here it was only June.
“Spill it, Endelle. I have meetings this evening until ten.”
He heard her sigh as he worked his way through his sock drawer. He glanced at her and frowned a little. Sighing wasn’t high on Endelle’s list. He straightened up. “You worried about hurting my feelings?”
“No. It’s just one more fucking thing I can’t control. So here it is. I’ve been getting this feeling lately that something’s going on with Morgan, something big. And … I’m worried. I know you’ve been seeing her, somehow, though I haven’t got the how of it figured out yet, but just be careful, would you? And if something out of the ordinary happens, be prepared.”
“You never liked her.”
She jerked her arms at him, her fingers spread cat-like, then shouted, “What the fuck does that have to do with anything? The truth is, I never gave a shit about Havily Morgan one way or the other except that she’s been just one big fucking disappointment from the day she ascended. You wouldn’t know about that because you’ve been here tickling your balls for the last two centuries, but her rite of ascension was a BFD with no payoff. The future streams were all lit up about her, that she needed protection, lots of it, that she would make this huge contribution to the war.
“So of course I gave her Luken as her Guardian of Ascension. I’m rubbing my hands together thinking now we’ve got something, now we’ll see some real shit. Then she ascends and all she’s got are some super-powerful mental shields that make it hard to get into her head. That’s it. Shields. What the fuck good are shields to the war effort?”
He couldn’t help but smile. She probably wasn’t even aware that she was now standing on the arms of the leather club chair near the window.
She looked down at her stilettos. “Shit. I just punched holes in your chair. Ooooh. I feel sooo bad.”
He wagged his head back and forth then moved to the side of his bed. With a pair of socks in one hand and the towel snug around his waist, he sat down. “You’re too impatient,” he said. “You always were. Some powers emerge over time. Look at Kerrick. He can fold now, right? He had all that power but until he completed the breh-hedden with Alison, he couldn’t fold. Now he can. I couldn’t fucking levitate for the first thousand years. Havily’s only a hundred years on Second Earth. Give her time.”
Thoughts of the breh-hedden stopped his mind for a moment. He still couldn’t believe that the breh-hedden had actually touched his life. For centuries this extreme form of ritual mate-bonding between Warriors of the Blood and powerful women was believed to be nothing more than a myth. Then it had hit Warrior Kerrick when his breh, Alison Wells, began her rite of ascension four months ago. Shortly after, Marcus had been struck down as well.
“Listen up, asshole,” Endelle cried, “because you may have just made both my points. First, I don’t think she’s got time because I have this sinking pit of a feeling in my chest about her. Do you hear me?”
He stared at her, the hair on the nape of his neck rising, but he said, “You’re screeching like a bad off-Broadway actress. Why the drama?”
She narrowed her eyes. “And my second point, asshole, is that I think Havily needs you to get her where she needs to go. She’s holding back. Big time. I think she’s more powerful than she knows, but she can’t let go. You could help with that. You’ve got a lot of vampire years under your belt.” She smiled. “By the way, that float-and-mount you did, watching your wings come while you just hung midair, that was some powerful shit.”
Whatever, he sent. He tossed the pair of socks into the air then caught them. He did this again and again.
“Not coming back,” he stated. Maybe if he said it often enough, she’d take the hint. “But … I will watch out for Havily.” He couldn’t help that. It was in his nature and, yeah, the breh-hedden had struck hard four months ago when he’d been back on Second Earth to help out for a few days. It had started with catching the scent of honeysuckle and ended with a kiss that almost turned into full-on sex—in less than a minute. Jesus, when he thought of what he’d almost done to Havily that last night and what she’d almost let him do … Christ.
None of it mattered, though. Havily lived on Second Earth. He lived on Mortal Earth.
Except at night. She came to him in his dreams—that weren’t dreams—every night.
Endelle sighed. Again. “Whatever, asshole. But if something happens to her because you can’t be bothered, then that shit’s on your head.” She lifted her hand and was gone. Finally.
He sat with the towel around his hips, his socks once more in his hand, his feet flat on the floor.
Endelle was right. Something was going on with Havily, because from the first night that he’d folded back to Mortal Earth, she’d been coming to him while he slept. And as much as he wanted to believe it was just a dream or some kind of weird-ass ascended fantasy, she was real. She was also really naked.
He would wake up with her either balanced on his hips or in the act of impaling herself on his rigid cock. She just wasn’t aware of what she was doing, at least not initially, because she appeared to be caught in a dream.
The trouble was—and his conscience beat the shit out of him for this—he couldn’t seem to bring himself to stop this nightly ritual or whatever the hell it was. Partly because he couldn’t quite make sense of what was happening between them or even where they were … exactly. His bed remained the same, but the room faded to a line of very dark shadows all around the edge as though he were someplace other than his house on Bainbridge.
When it had first happened, he really had believed he’d been caught up in some kind of freak-shit preternatural dreamscape so he’d helped himself to the experience, savoring her body. Unfortunately, his enthusiasm as he grabbed her forced her to awaken, and she fled, dematerializing from his arms. So it had been real, but not real, a dream, but not a dream. All he knew was that his skin carried her honeysuckle scent until he showered the next morning. The experience was real, even though he couldn’t explain how it was real.
So help him God, he hadn’t turned her away once, but he should have.
God help him, he should have.
*   *   *
Havily Morgan craved and she despised herself for it.
She sat on the side of her bed, the sheet and comforter drawn back. She wore a soft cream negligee, and boy did she need her sleep. Her mind and body were exhausted from another day of service to Madame Endelle. The woman put the b in bitch as well as the i and the t and whatever.
She leaned forward slightly, releasing a heavy sigh. But it wasn’t Endelle that weighed her heart down now, that spiraled her daytime exhaustion into a dark cavern of despair. No, it was Warrior Marcus and her complete inability even in her dreams to stay away from him.
She stared out the window, which overlooked her small patio and a good portion of Camelback Mountain. The hillside was nothing but a black monolith this late at night, a dark presence of ancient volcanic rock burnished by the desert sun, dotted with prickly pear and scattered oily creosote shrubs. Lizards lived back there. Scorpions. Rabbits. Coyotes.
She’d like to crawl among the rocks and maybe disappear. Maybe then she’d get a good night’s rest.
She turned and put her hand on the sheets, smoothing the wrinkles out of the black silk. She’d purchased the sheets a week after the dreams began because they were the same sheets that were on the bed, the ones in the dreams, the dreams where she encountered Warrior Marcus—every night.
A sigh caught her again. The chances she would find a good night’s sleep in this bed were slim-to-good-luck-with-that.
Ever since she’d met Warrior Marcus, she’d been stuck in an in-between place, neither here nor there. She was Marcus’s lover, but she wasn’t his lover; what happened between them was real but it wasn’t real.
She just didn’t understand what was going on and worse, she didn’t know how to stop what happened between them every night. Worse and worse, it was always the same. She would fall asleep and somehow in her dreams she would strip out of her nightgown, search for him and find him and be with him.
He would by lying in bed on black silk sheets and very much asleep. She would draw the covers back and he would be naked. She always looked at him, a long lingering look down the length of his powerful warrior body as though she couldn’t get enough of the sight of him.
She would engage with him in a very sensual way. She would put her nose to his body and take in his extremely erotic scent, a blend of earthy grasses and licorice, like fennel. Arousal would seep into her until the vein at her neck throbbed. She would then let her fantasy take flight and she would mount him. At some point he would awaken, or perhaps he never was asleep, she just didn’t know. His desire for her took many forms, the answering buck of his hips, the way his arms would skate up and down hers, the way he lunged for her throat with his fangs.
But as she drew close to that sweet place of ecstasy, she would always, always, always wake up to absolute horror at what she was doing. She had come to believe that he was doing this to her, that somehow, being the powerful vampire he was, he was summoning her to his bed and seducing her in her dreams.
For that she despised him almost as much as she despised herself for going to him every night.
What followed was also the same. She would draw away from him and out of the dream-like state in a strange swishing glide that would return her to her bed, on her knees staring at the wall above her headboard. Being returned to her bed made her think the experience had to be real yet she just didn’t know the how of it.
Lately, however, when she would return from being in this dream-fantasy, she would fall on her face and sob her heart out. That the fantasy left her sexually frustrated was half the difficulty. The other half belonged to the cravings that had gripped her heart, her body, her veins for the past four months. She was in a constant state of torment and had been from the moment she had met Warrior Marcus.
Once the tears ceased, however, the real frustration began, because it was Warrior Marcus’s scent that lingered on her body. For hours afterward, as she tossed on her bed, she would smell his rich erotic fennel scent and her body would tremble. Cravings for him came in waves and she couldn’t make them stop. The breh-hedden had her cornered and trapped with nowhere to go but to wait for the dawn and for her next workday to begin all over again.
Would to God that she had never met him.
So she sat on the edge of her bed, exhausted, in need of rest but knowing that the night would play out as all the others and once more she would be deprived of rest.
She closed her eyes. She wrapped her arms around her chest. Surely she could choose differently this night. Surely just once she could avoid seeking him out in her dreams, holding his sex deep inside her, waking up frightened and unfulfilled then falling away from him to return to her bedroom.
She hated this ritual yet she craved and couldn’t seem to stop it.
Something needed to change, but what?
As she finally climbed between the sheets, she vowed that she would alter the future, no matter what it took. There had to be some way to stop the dreaming.
With a commitment made, she closed her eyes and began drifting toward sleep. She mentally sent out the affirmation, I will change this.
She released a heavy sigh.
I will change this.
At last, sleep came.
*   *   *
Tend to Havily’s dreams.
Alison Wells awoke uncertain what had disturbed her sleep. She was alone in bed, her usual state since her warrior, Kerrick, was out battling, and would be through the night, not returning until dawn. She wore one of his black T-shirts and lifted the hem, pulling it up to her nose. She smiled. The shirt smelled like Kerrick, the warm scent of cardamom-and-man combined, the telltale scent being the most remarkable aspect of the breh-hedden. According to Kerrick, she smelled of lavender, while from the first moment she had met him, his spicy cardamom had filled her with the deepest cravings.
She craved even now, but she’d have to wait until dawn to find the relief she needed when Kerrick finally tumbled into bed.
During her ascension four months ago, she’d endured three of the most frightening, challenging days of her life when she’d left Mortal Earth to ascend to Second Earth. The process had been extraordinary; she’d answered her call to ascension by demonstrating power at one of the dimensional Borderlands, she’d battled death vampires to stay alive, she’d fought the fierce and powerful General Leto in an arena battle and won. When the three-day period drew to a close, she underwent a ceremony at Madame Endelle’s palace. Endelle had imbued her with the relative immortality of Second Earth and with the vampire traits of fangs.
But what had awakened her?
Tend to Havily’s dreams.
The familiar voice spoke inside her head, a masculine voice, which belonged to a Sixth Earth ascender known simply as James. From the time of her ascension some four months ago, James had communicated telepathically with her several times. She couldn’t explain why, but she had developed a fondness for the vampire, sensing in his presence great warmth of spirit and certainly a desire to help Madame Endelle and the war effort.
James had become her occasional guide as she moved through her new duties on Second Earth. Originally, Alison thought Endelle was to contact James, but he had made it clear that for now Alison was to be the go-between, the one he used to offer what limited help he could to Endelle’s faction.
She closed her eyes and concentrated. What’s up, James? she sent.
Haven’t got much time, he responded. You need to keep tabs on Havily, stick close for the next few days and encourage her in her dreams, which are not dreams, and do what you can to give her a push in Warrior Marcus’s direction. Do you understand?
Sort of, she sent. Now, why couldn’t James speak in less cryptic sentences? Dreams that aren’t really dreams?
She heard a soft masculine chuckle inside her head. Now, what would the fun be in that, he sent, which also meant he had read her thoughts.
Alison was so new to the world of dimensions, yet so heavily burdened with responsibility, that she couldn’t quite find the same humor in the situation. James, I wish I could laugh about this as you do, but do you have any idea how badly the war is going for Madame Endelle? How close Commander Greaves is to world domination?
A long pause followed. Yes, he murmured. I do, which is why I’m here.
You’re from Sixth Earth and have all this power, she sent, so why don’t you just fold your ass to our world and take care of business?
She heard James sigh before he sent, My dear, you don’t know how tempting that would be, but it simply isn’t allowed, it isn’t the way life is meant to unfold. If higher powers solved the problems, then mortals and ascenders alike would just sleep away their existence. We’re meant to strive, to grow strong, to overcome. It is the way of the world, immortal and mortal alike.
Must you give me a reasonable answer?
He chuckled again, a soft breeze-like sound that made her feel homesick for something she didn’t understand. She had been living on Second Earth for such a short time, but these four months had been the happiest, most fulfilling of her life.
He sent, Just tend to Havily’s dreams.
Dreams that aren’t really dreams?
Precisely. Then he was gone.


 
Copyright © 2011 by Caris Roane