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Containing the novella, A Dream of Stone and Shadows, Book 4 in the Dirk & Steele series
There are those who do terrible things in this world, and those who simply watch. Charlie would do neither. Imprisoned, his only release is through his own destruction—or through Aggie Durand. Sweet as a kiss or a rescued child, she is the one dream he does not dare desire. As an agent of Dirk & Steele, she could be his salvation. Today, Charlie’s dream is waking.
Dark Dreamers is part of an anthology with the wonderful Christine Feehan, featuring a reprint of one of her earlier Carpathian stories, Dark Dream. For more information, please visit her fantastic website at: www.christinefeehan.com
Charlie’s brothers were made of stone, so the conversation was rather limited within the confines of his prison. Still, he tried, because he remembered the life of before, the life of midnight runs and wild scents, the life of a bright moon floating halo-like in the sky, full and pregnant on the heavens. A good life, even if much of it had been hidden.
Good, however, was not the word Charlie would use to describe his current circumstances, though in all honesty, he thought it possible to feel a small amount of pride that he had done as well as he had. After all, he was not stone. The curse that had taken his siblings had not reached as far as his flesh – an accident of fate, as far as he was concerned – and though the witch had a taste for his flesh – in all manner and form – he had managed to plead some favors with the hag, as a matter of courtesy. The witch had some manners left to her. Not many, but enough.
For example, she cut out his heart whenever he asked her to. Which in recent days, was quite often. He did not think she minded; hearts were her favorite to consume: roasted with peppers, diced and fried with ginger, stewed with carrots and onions. All manner of preparation. Charlie could smell himself now, filling the air with a rich scent that did nothing for his appetite, but which most certainly had the witch’s stomach keening high for a tasting, perhaps with a dollop of rice.
There was nothing better than a gargoyle, when hungering for flesh. Or that’s what the witch liked to tell him. Charlie could not, in principle, agree – though he did acknowledge that as far as an endless food supply went, his kind were good to go. Gargoyles were not so very easy to kill.
And destroying their natures? Even more difficult.
It was the reason Charlie’s brothers were still cast in stone. If they ever, in their hearts, agreed to the witch’s demands of obedience and degradation, the granite would flake away into flesh, crack and turn to dust upon their bodies. All it took was one word: Yes.
But, obviously, all three of them were too stubborn for that, and had been for quite some time. Charlie was glad of it. As lonely as he was for their company, he really could not recommend joining the living again, especially with the witch as a mistress. She had, to use the modern colloquial, issues.
Of course, so did Charlie. And one of those issues was a little girl named Sarah.
“She’s alone,” he said to his brothers, who crouched around him in a semi-circle, frozen in varying poses of shock and horror. “And they’re hurting her for money and pleasure.”
It was a hard thing to hear himself say. Charlie hated it. Hated Kreer and her son with a passion second only to his rage at the witch. Perhaps he had grown accustomed to the hag and her whims, but that did not mean he understood them, or that he felt any compassion for her motives. She had stolen his entire family from their lives – good, modern, integrated lives that had taken years to cultivate – and made his brothers nothing more than stone dolls, ornaments who could still think and feel, forced to mark the passing of time as a kind of stupefying torture, while he – he lived. Lived, and tried to make the best of it, because some day he would ferret out a way to break the curse – or maybe she would just grow tired of the exercise – and then, freedom. Sweet and happy freedom.
You are living in a dream world.
Yes, well. Everyone needed goals.
Like helping children escape their own prisons, those human captors who in their own ways gave the witch a run for her money. She was sick, but at least she never targeted children. Not to Charlie’s knowledge, anyway.
But there were others who did, and Sarah – poor little Sarah, with her dreams so full of heartfelt distress – was the last and final straw. Charlie, during one of his excursions, had felt her from the other end of the world – a small voice, crying out – and he, dead and dreaming, with his soul separated from his body while his heart and lungs and various other organs grew back from the witch’s cuts, had broken a cardinal rule of his kind and stepped from the shadows to help her.
He could not stop himself. Gargoyles aided, they protected, and though times had changed and forced his kind to adopt different lives – more human, less circumspect – he could not turn away from his nature, or the child.
And really, what was the danger? No one believed in magic anymore. No one, that is, except those already capable of it—and Charlie didn’t think any of them were going to rat him out, assuming of course that those particular elements even paid attention to the life of one insignificant gargoyle. And if they did, then shame on them for letting the witch go on as she had.
He said as much to his brothers, and he pretended they agreed. He also pretended they approved of him summoning in the witch with her long shining knife.
“I was just about to eat,” said the hag. Her blonde hair bounced in a high ponytail, the ends of which skimmed her pale delicate shoulders. She wore an off-the-shoulder number, white and glittery. Charlie noted a flush to her cheeks. She looked very girlish.
“Are you also expecting company?” he asked, tracing the sand beneath him with one long silver finger.
“I am,” she said. “How do I look?”
“I prefer you as a brunette,” Charlie said. “You don’t look as dangerous.”
“Liar.” She smiled and her teeth were sharp and white. “Besides, I don’t need to worry about looking dangerous. My guest tonight knows exactly what I am.”
“Silly. An asset.”
That was disturbing. “I thought you preferred working alone.”
“What I prefer is that you not ask so many questions. Don’t worry,” and here she smiled, once again, “I’ll take care of you, no matter what.”
“How very thoughtful,” he said. “Really.”
The witch stepped through the circle drawn in the sand. His prison, a mere line of light. She held up the knife and waited.
“My heart, please,” he said.
“It is always the quick deaths with you,” she said. “And I suppose you want me to remove everything else, after that?”
“Yes,” he said.
“You really are peculiar,” said the witch. “I can’t imagine why you think death is preferable to the company of your brothers.”
The witch was not quite as all-knowing as she imagined herself to be. Charlie imagined punching his thumbs through her bright glittering eyes and then eating them like sugarplums. He said, “It’s not the company of my brothers I’m trying to get away from.”
“Clever,” said the witch, and shoved the knife into his bone-plated chest. She missed his heart on purpose, which required hacking at him for some time before she got it right. Blood spattered her face and dress. His brothers watched.
Charlie, dying, hoped the witch’s guest arrived before she had time to change.
* * *
The line between life and death was a thin one for a gargoyle, and Charlie, though he had never found much occasion before his captivity to walk it, found that he had some talent navigating the world beyond his body. He could see things about people – private, unconscious, things. As a dream, a disembodied soul, almost nothing was hidden to him. He could peer into hearts and heads, and while he was not so nosy as to pry deep into places he did not belong, being able to explore the world as a ghost did alleviate the suffering he left behind. If only for a little while.
And the witch was totally clueless, which made the experience all the sweeter – and more – because Death was also a good opportunity to explore possible avenues of escape for himself and his brothers. Charlie did not know what kind of spell the witch had put them under, only that someone must be familiar with it, or know what could be done. Haunting the witch for that information was impossible, even dangerous. The shields around her thoughts were simply too tight, and Charlie feared pushing – that somehow she would sense him – recognize him, even, and the game would be up. No more death. No more escape into the world.
Sarah changed everything. Not, perhaps, Charlie’s approach to the witch, but his approach to everything else in his life, which suddenly seemed burdened down with unnecessary secrets, the hands of the past reaching out to hold him down. He was not human, and though he had masqueraded as one for years and years, to help this child, even as a ghost, demanded that he give up some of that hard earned anonymity, the illusion of separation between himself and others, the world and his personal, singular, I. Never mind that Charlie was a prisoner, that he had lost the right to solitude. Reaching out was far more intimate, because it was his choice, his connection to make, and the consequences would be greater still than any the witch could impart upon him.
But it was worth it when Sarah, trapped in darkness, turned to the sound of his voice, and though she was afraid did not lose herself, and though she had been abused so horribly by men, thought hero when she listened to him speak.
Words were not enough to express what that did to him, and it was not pride that made him warm, but something deeper – genetic, maybe, a biological imperative that had been suppressed in his psyche until that moment, that bloom of recognition when he thought, My kind have given up our souls for safety. We murdered ourselves the moment we forgot what we could do for others. What we should do, no matter what. No matter the risk. It is not us or them, but all of us, together.
And he carried that with him the first time he followed Sarah from her basement prison into the well-lit living room of an old farmhouse, and found a startling array of equipment: cameras, televisions, sound machines. Thousands and thousands of dollars worth, and farther beyond, in other rooms, he sensed more: offices, computers, editing equipment; an infrastructure dedicated to the subjugation of innocence.
And subjugate it they had, Mrs. Kreer and her son, Andrew. Both their minds were tight, as were their hearts – as difficult to read as the witch – but he did not need to push deep to know what they were about. All he had to do was watch, ghostly arms wrapped tight around Sarah as her captor prepped the child for his show of horrors. Sarah hated Andrew – feared him, too – but she thought, I am not alone and I am warm – and Charlie kept his word. He did not leave her. Not until he felt the tug, the inexorable rush, and he was forced, unwilling, back into his healed body. The living could not exist without the soul – to resist would be committing to a true death, and Charlie was not ready for that.
But he did ask for the knife again. And again. As many murders as he could squeeze into the witch’s schedule. He needed to die, and stay dead, for as long as possible. The pain was momentary, easily endured, nothing at all compared to what Sarah suffered. What she would continue suffering, unless he helped her.
Charlie’s options, though, were rather limited. As a ghost, he had a form, but no real ability to affect his physical surroundings. The best he could do was scare Mrs. Kreer and her son – which he tried, on his second visit. The old woman did not give any indication of noticing him – and her son was much the same, except for one violent shiver which was just as likely due to a bad meal, rather than Charlie’s presence. It was a piss poor reaction and Charlie had no explanation for it. Sarah most certainly could see him when he chose to materialize – though admittedly, he did so with a very toned down version of his face and body. The girl was traumatized enough without seeing what he really looked like.
So. If he could not help Sarah himself, he needed to find someone who could. Tricky. The world was a big place. He had almost six billion candidates to choose from. Kind of, anyway. He liked to keep his options open.
He narrowed his search based on location; Sarah was being kept in Washington State, in a little town in the mountains northeast of Seattle called Darrington. It took him far too long to discover her location – a weakness on his part, because every time he died he went straight to the child. A compulsion. He needed to know she was all right. Still alive. And then, of course, he would say a word or two, and before long his time would run out and back under the knife he would go again.
But Sarah was being held on the west coast of the United States, and that seemed as good a place as any to start his search, beginning first with her mother. He knew where she lived; the address was easy to take from Sarah’s mind. She came from a house in the Cascade Mountains, only several hours away. Charlie went there. Just one thought and poof. Faster than light, a speeding bullet.
Charlie did not tell Sarah he was going to her mother, and was glad for it. He did not tell her what he found. He did not tell her that no one had found the body, and therefore, no one had reported the girl as missing. Sarah and her mother had lived a very isolated life. Perfect targets, well chosen.
And there were other complications, too. The Kreers. Their reputation in the community they lived in. People…liked them. Which was vomit-inducing, but unchangeable.
It all made his burden heavier, though, and suddenly the candidates he found – good men and women, professionals, even – were not good enough. Honesty and integrity was not an adequate standard by itself, nor was a desire to do good.
Charlie wanted more out of the person who helped Sarah. He wanted someone who would throw his or her life into the effort with as much intensity as a parent for a child, with all the dedication and commitment that such devotion required. He wanted someone who would not give up. He wanted someone who would fight to the bitter end to see Sarah safe.
He wanted someone who would love the girl as much as he did.
So he drifted – pressured by time and patience, because every day was a day that Sarah got hurt—listening to thoughts and hearts, looking and looking for that one bright song. He was relentless, could not remember a time in his life when he had felt such implacable drive, and he wondered at himself, at the way he had spent his life before now; drifting around the world, moving from city to city, immersing himself in books and learning, walking streets only to pretend to be something he was not, because it was easier and safer than wearing his true inhuman face. Casting illusion through shifting shape.
Gargoyles were not the only kind with such gifts. Charlie knew those others by their eyes. Golden and bright, like twins suns. Animals. Pure shape-shifters, in the truest sense of the word. A long time since Charlie had seen one of them. Almost twenty years, at least. He wondered how many were still left in the world; if they outnumbered the gargoyles and other creatures of the arcane and uncanny. In these modern days, what was considered normal vastly outweighed its opposite, though pockets remained, often hiding in plain sight. Clinging desperately to secrets, because the truth was unthinkable. Charlie could not imagine what the media would make of someone like him, what governments and scientists would do to a person so radically different from human. The heart might be the same – all the emotion and passion – but the body – the flesh –
Flesh meant nothing. Flesh was nothing but a vehicle, a means to an end that Charlie desperately missed as he searched for help. In his body, he could have stormed the farmhouse, taken Sarah away – but he was trapped across the ocean, in a city near the sea, and he had nothing to give the little girl but a promise.
I will help you.
Charlie gave up on Washington state and moved to Oregon. Passed over that state in a day. California was his last hope; after that, he would begin moving farther inland. Three days searching, and time was running out; he needed to find someone fast. All those high expectations – his convictions—just might have to fade to the side in order to get the job done.
And he was ready – he was ready to do it, come what may – when he felt a tug on the edge of his spirit. A call.
He followed it. He had no choice; he felt like he was listening to Sarah for that first time, only the mind and heart behind this voice was stronger, older, wiser. No pain, but determination – a resolve so stubborn and powerful, Charlie felt it strike his own heart in a perfect sympathetic echo.
He focused in on that call, binding himself to the imprint of the mind attached to it, and went, dropping his spirit into the middle of a storm, a tumult, spinning wild against thoughts of pain and anger, and there, at the center –
She was very tall, with skin the color of deep bronze; a woman easy to hold on to, with shapely legs and a small waist; broad shoulders and strong arms. Nothing girlish about her; just solid strength, easy confidence. And her mind –
Charlie lost himself inside her head, rolling through her thoughts, which were impossible and unending and fast – so fast – quicksilver and mercury and lightening rolling into one flashing vision of cars and bullets and dying men and he heard – I have to stop this – I can’t let him go – and – Quinn, be careful –
He pressed for her name and found – Agatha – and there was another man beside her – Quinn – but his thoughts were quiet in the shadow of her mind, and Charlie watched, appalled and fascinated and terrified, as Agatha threw herself against death, fearless, all to stop –
A man who hurt children.
Charlie pressed himself deep inside Agatha, burying his soul against her own, sharing her life as she fought with all her strength to take down the man she hunted. When she breathed it was for him, and he breathed for her, curling around her lungs, beating her heart until it was his heart, until he could not tell where he ended and she began, and it was wrong – wrong to be so close to someone without permission, but he could not help himself because to be in a mind so strong, so wild and chaotic and perfect, was a drug.
He had his champion. Right here. His huntress. The perfect woman for Sarah.
The perfect woman for you, a voice whispered.
Charlie pushed that thought away. He had not come looking for himself. His heart did not matter. He had a mission, a little girl to save. She was the only one he had time for.
And besides, humans and gargoyles did not mix. Not ever, and not unless deception was involved. The physical differences were just too great.
Yet he wondered, as he finally untangled himself from her soul, what it would be like. He wondered, because it came to him in increments, bits of stunning truth, that the woman was even more extraordinary than he had first imagined, and he saw things inside her head – impossible things – that made him question once again the world around him, turn the paradigm upside down.
PRAISE FOR Dark Dreamers
“Liu’s exceptionally original tale is the latest in her “Dirk & Steele” series and returns to her world of telepaths, shape-shifters, and other unusual creatures for a story of enchanted gargoyles and villains who prey on children. A clairvoyant agent and an imprisoned gargoyle find impossible love in a sensual tale that will have readers guessing until the end.”
“As with all Dirk & Steele novels, the same characters make repeat performances with added infusions of affable, heroic characters with an appropriate amount of wit and humor. The impossible, the improbable, the unbelievable and yet perfectly believable, is Liu’s forte. How the author manages to take what could be a nasty circumstance and spin it into something just the opposite makes this author an original—and refreshing—voice in this genre.”