Nice to be back, and I actually have something to post.
Quick synopsis. Anabelle Sturgis is the Special Examiner to the King. She's also a Fire Witch. She's named the fire elemental who keeps her company Flicker. She is investigating the murder of a family member of one of the Fifty (the nobility in this world), a Water Witch who has drowned--an impossibility that puzzles Anabelle. A second murder, that of an Earth Master, has only deepened the mystery. Anabelle is making the Gorhams uncomfortable with her questions, and her brother has asked her to break off her investigation.
A soft sound broke the quiet. Anabelle looked up from her book.
“Mary? Is that you?”
Silence met her question.
Beyond the influence of the firelight and her small reading lamp, the dark house crouched like a waiting beast. Anabelle tried to shake off that fancy. She laid the book on the side table near her chair and stood, moving restlessly to the fireplace where Flicker murmured among the coals.
For no reason she could fathom, her nerves jangled and the hair on the back of her neck stood on end.
A sound like a snigger brought her gaze to the black square of doorway opening onto the hall. With unshakeable certainty, she knew someone stood in the hall just beyond the reach of the light, and she knew it wasn’t Mary.
Flicker hissed with a vicious sound that sent a shudder down her spine. Her gaze snapped back to the fireplace. The elemental stretched from the coals, flames shooting out into the room. Within seconds, the elemental had grown to bonfire size. Red flames reached out like claws and looped back upon themselves. In a sinuous movement, the elemental moved out onto the hearth, and the flames towered toward the ceiling. The roar of displaced air assaulted her ears, and a hot wind plastered Anabelle’s skirt against her legs.
“Flicker!” she shouted, and then tried to draw breath in the oxygen-depleted air.
With a howling and crackling that sounded like maniacal laughter, the elemental turned in her direction. Eyes so hot they glittered like diamonds fixed on her. A bright loop of flame snaked out and snagged her wrist.
Pain. Horrible pain like a thousand knife points digging into her flesh---
Anabelle screamed, high and shrill. A sound like drumbeats filled the room, continuing on past her scream.
Flicker let go of her wrist and subsided into the fireplace. Everything went white and dim, both at once. Anabelle put a hand in front of her dazzled eyes as the afterimage of the monstrous elemental haunted her vision.
The drumming sound resolved into a pounding fist on the front door.
“Anabelle!” Jonathon’s voice, pitched to be heard. “For God’s sake! Open the door before I kick it in! Anabelle!”
Giddy with relief at hearing her husband, Anabelle groped her way by memory alone to the front door, guided by the sound of the thunderous knocking. She released the deadbolts and felt Jonathon seize her in his arms.
“My God, Anabelle! Why did you scream? I heard you from out in the street!”
Still unable to see anything but the afterimage of the elemental, she whispered, “Someone is in the house, Jonathon.”
He didn’t waste any more words. She heard him pull a heavy umbrella from the stand near the door, and heard his cautious footsteps moving deeper into the house.
As Jonathon searched the place, gradually Anabelle’s vision returned. She could distinguish the outlines of furniture in the hallway, and the dim light from the sitting room became itself and not part of her dazzlement. Her wrist hurt with unbelievable sharpness.
Anabelle drew a deep breath. She shored up what remained of her courage and moved back into the room on shaky legs. The fireplace did not contain even a vestige of fire. Black and empty, as if no fire had burned there in hours. Except that heat still roiled in waves from the bricks.
Steeling herself, Anabelle held her wrist close to the reading lamp and examined it. An angry red welt encircled the pale flesh like a fresh brand.
“The window in the pantry is open. Whoever it was is gone now,” Jonathon said from behind her.
She turned and he sucked in a breath.
“Is that a burn? Anabelle, what’s going on?”
She blinked at him. “Flicker did it. But it wasn’t Flicker.”
“Flicker did it,” he repeated, shock in his face.
“It looked at me with such evil in its eyes!”
“Wait a minute. Looked at you? Anabelle, you know better than I do that fire elementals don’t have eyes.”
“I know,” she said, forlorn. “That thing wasn’t Flicker, Jonathon. My beautiful fire elemental is gone forever.”