Wildfire Phoenix by Zoe Chant


Chapter 1

He fell.

He had been falling for a long time now. Or perhaps that was only an illusion. Time had little meaning in dreams.

Perhaps, for the dreamer, this was a nightmare. To him, it was strangely peaceful. No storm winds; no thunder. Nothing above, nothing below. Just silence, and darkness, and falling.

He shouldn’t be here. He knew that, without a doubt. He should call on the storm to turn this fall into flight, and leave this little dream for the greater one. Go back to the sky, and the lightning, and his endless, lonely duty.

But he was tired, so tired. And it was quiet here. He could rest.

He could almost be content to fall forever.

I know what it’s like to be scared to wake up.

At first, he mistook the voice for his own. Even though he’d been trying to return for years, he was afraid to wake up. It would mean confronting the consequences of his failure. He’d left such pain and ruin in his wake. How could he ever atone for that?

In his darkest moments, sometimes he was glad that he didn’t have a choice. That he couldn’t wake up. It was easier to be lost in the storm than to come home.

I know what it’s like to be tired of fighting.

He’d been fighting for so long. The horned serpents; the storm; his own weakness. His entire existence was a battle without end. That was the burden he’d accepted—that he’d demanded. He’d wanted to be the hero, and his wish had been granted. He was needed.

In his darkest moments, sometimes he wished it would all stop. That the storm would let him go, so that he could rest at last.

It could have been his own voice.

But it wasn’t.

You’re safe now.

Her whisper wrapped around him. Darkness still surrounded him… but it was different now. Not an emptiness, but a presence.

Your animal’s gone.

Without willing it, he found that his headlong fall had slowed. Warmth enfolded him like vast, sheltering wings. He hung weightless in the void, held up by her strength.

It can’t hurt you anymore.

No dreamer had ever spoken to him like this. They’d shared their fears, their desires, but never echoed his own. Who was this woman who saw him so clearly? Who spoke words from his own soul, as though she knew the hidden center of his heart?

He had to know. He needed to know. He needed it more than silence, or safety, or peace.

He reached into the dark… and found her hand.

Zephyr opened his eyes.

He was lying on his back. A woman bent over him, almost close enough to kiss. He knew that face—the elegant line of her brow, the soft curves of her lips, the rich brown of her skin. But when he’d seen her before, it had been through storm clouds, and at a distance. Everything seemed small when viewed from the sky.

Now she filled his world.

Her hand rested against his chest, covered by his own. He felt her twitch, like he’d startled her. In reflex, he tightened his grip, his fingers stiff and clumsy. She could have pulled away from his weak grasp without any effort at all, yet she stilled. Her eyes locked on his as though nothing else existed.

“Oh,” the woman whispered, and it was the voice that had pulled him from dreams. “It’s you.”

Yes,he wanted to say, but the word wouldn’t come. His mouth was as dry as if filled with sand. Every breath rasped in his throat, sharp and painful. His whole body felt disused, like an abandoned house finally unshuttered and opened to the light.

There was something wrong with that, but he couldn’t worry about it now. Not in her presence.

The sheer rightness of her flooded his every sense. Only a thin sheet separated her palm from his bare skin. The heat of her seared all the way to his heart.

As though in a dream, she leaned even closer. His breath caught. He longed to rise to meet her, but he held still. Whatever happened, it had to be by her choice. Closer, and closer—

And the sheet burst into flames.

Ah. Still a dream, then.

The woman yelped, jerking her hand away. She snatched the sheet off him, hurling it to the ground. Her heavy work boots crushed the newborn fire, leaving nothing but a ghost of smoke rising into the air.

He levered himself out of bed, with effort. He had to put a hand on the wall to catch himself as the floor tilted under his bare feet. The whole world felt like a soap bubble that might pop at any moment.

That was to be expected. None of this was real, after all.

Zephyr hardly needed impossible spontaneous combustion to deduce that. His own body betrayed the truth. He was human, and so this could only be a dream.

The woman was still stamping at the sheet, though not even embers remained of the threatened fire. She seemed almost in a frenzy. It was as though she feared the whole room might erupt into an inferno if she dared to stop.

“It’s all right.” His voice came out strangely; a bone-dry rasp, as though he hadn’t spoken for months. He reached for her shoulder. “The fire’s gone. You’re safe now. I promise.”

She flinched away from his hand, her breath coming in quick, shallow gasps. When she looked at him, her eyes were bright with reflected flames. He wondered who she saw.

The woman’s gaze dropped lower. She made a strangled sound and whipped round, putting her back to him.

He looked down.


Still, despite his nakedness, it didn’t seem to be that kind of dream. Which was a relief, because it was always awkward to try to politely extricate yourself from someone who thought you were their long-lost ex or favorite movie star (or, on one memorable and deeply confusing occasion, Albert Einstein).

“My apologies.” Zephyr concentrated, visualizing clothes. To his mild surprise, nothing happened.

That was interesting. Most people’s dreams were like wet clay, easily shaped. Some were harder to alter than others, set in certain patterns by strong emotions like rage or despair. But he’d only ever encountered one person strong-willed enough to utterly reject his gentle, subtle influence.

Now, he could add one more person to that vanishingly short list. This woman’s dream was rock solid. No matter how he pushed at it, nothing changed.

And it was astonishingly detailed. The room was plain, but the simple furnishings—a bed, a chair, a small table—were accurate down to the last shadow. He could feel the chill of the scrubbed floor through the soles of his feet. He could even smell their surroundings—the sterile sharpness of antiseptic, and the faintest trace of smoke.

A hospital room, he realized, taking in the steel-framed adjustable bed. From the level of detail, this must be a memory of a real place, and one where the woman had spent a lot of time. Perhaps she had watched over someone here, holding their hand until the bitter end. Or maybe she was here now, fallen into an exhausted slumber at her loved one’s bedside.

Zephyr hoped it was the latter. For her sake, he wanted to be a comforting dream, not one of grief and loss.

“It’s all right,” he said again. Since the dream still stubbornly refused to respond to his power, he bent to pick up the scorched sheet, wrapping it around his waist. “Don’t be afraid. I’m here to help you.”

You want to help me?” The woman shot him an incredulous look over her shoulder. Her eyes were deep brown now, human, with no trace of that eerie inner fire. “Shit! You shouldn’t even be standing up!”

Whirling back round, she descended on him like a short and very localized tornado. Without her even touching him, Zephyr found himself back on the bed, blown there by the sheer force of her determination.

“Lie down,” the woman ordered, pointing at his pillow. “Just—just stay there and don’t move. I need to, to get a doctor or someone.”

“I’m fine.” The world was spinning again, but dreams did that sometimes. Ignoring a lurch of nausea, he forced himself back upright. “Please, talk to me. Tell me about this place. What does it mean? Why is it important to you?”

“You’re in a private care facility. You’ve been in a coma for three months.” The woman raked a hand through her close-cropped curls. “And I’m probably not supposed to tell you that in case you go into shock or something. I’d better go and find—shit! Buck, I have to call Buck!”


The name went through him like a knife. But of course she knew his uncle. She was one of the shifter firefighters in his hotshot crew. Why was she dreaming about a hospital? Was someone fighting for their life because he’d failed to protect them?

“Who’s hurt?” he asked urgently, guilt twisting in his gut. “Was it the horned serpents? Did they attack?”

She ignored him, already on her phone. “Buck, it’s me,” she said, speaking rapidly. “Get back here, right now. Zephyr’s awake.”

He froze.

“No, no sign of it so far,” the woman said into the phone. Her eyes flicked to Zephyr. “Though he’s, uh, acting a bit weird. I’m going to—hello? Buck?”

The woman lowered the device, one eyebrow quirking. “Okay. I guess that means he’s on his way.”

Zephyr’s heart pounded in his ears. He lifted one hand to his face, tracing the line of his jaw. Slight stubble rasped against his fingertips. He could feel the press of his own touch.

“Zephyr?” the woman said, for the first time sounding less than certain. She was watching him, brown eyes worried. “You okay there?”

“You…” He swallowed, his throat tight. “You can see me. You see me.”

“Uh, yeah.” She put her phone away, slowly, as if he were a wild animal who might spook if she moved too fast. “I work for your uncle. He’s coming back now, as fast as he can. I’ll stay with you until he gets here, okay?”

He stared down at his hands, turning them over. Human fingers. His own hands.

His own face.

But in his head…

“This can’t be right,” he whispered. “This can’t be real.”

“Stay calm, Zeph. You’ve been asleep for a long time, but you’re better now. Everything’s going to be fine. I promise.”

He barely heard her. He was too busy listening. Holding his breath, straining to hear…


No storm in his soul. No lightning. Nothing.

This wasn’t a dream.

He was home.

And the Thunderbird was gone.