The Burning of Jennifer Sweet

The house was abandoned, but there was still a presence there, palpable and malevolent.

I stopped on the road and looked at it.

The door opened, slow, as if someone were inside peering out, but there was only darkness.

I checked the oil in my lantern, and ventured toward the open door, suffused in shaded moonlight that was choked off by tendrils of black cloud like fingers from behind sliding over a screaming mouth to silence it.

The place was dusty, and the rustle of scurrying vermin was audible as they fled the intrusion.

She was sitting in the chair, spectral and beautiful; turning toward me, she bid me enter.

“You would hear my story?”

I found myself nodding, not trusting myself to speak. She bid me take the chair across from her, and her black eyes shuttered over with a milky film as she flooded my mind with her memories.

**************

The wolves, starving for game, were attacking.

Jennifer’s father had trained her in the impalement arts, and as she fought with the pack, severing limbs, and dodging her own share of fangs and claws that sought her life, her father was taken down, bleeding out his life on the moonlit grass, unable to defend her.

Jennifer redoubled her efforts, and the weapon released its lore to her.

As the pack bore down on her in force, she was ruthlessly efficient, butchering with the grace of dancer.

Some of the wolves, sensing easier fare, broke off, and the fight came to the village. Rather than save herself, she chose to stay and help them.

They saw her fight, saw the grace and power in her movements, the detached efficiency she used to dispatch the wolves, and grew afraid.

 

                                                                                ***********

 

“Take her,” the governor said.

 The ranks of merchants and politicians hired their strong-armed peasants.

She went quietly, but they beat and spit on her all the same; they threw trash and shit, glass and pottery, and when she slumped between those carrying her, they dragged her, not caring if her ankles snapped.

The torch flames danced in hypnotic rhythms, complementing her twisting and writhing, and flared with passion as she screamed her obscenities when they planted the stake, the piled kindling piercing her skin, adding blood.

“You are in the month of Duir, you fools!”

“Gag her,” the governor ordered.

They used a boy to clamber up the ladder and stuff her mouth with a filthy rag.

She spit on him, and his cheek sizzled, but he got the rag inside.

The crowd slowly gathered and milled about as she hung, wilting with the hours and her waning strength.

                                                                                ***********

“Burn her,” the governor said.

The fire crawled like an eldritch baby, hungry for sizzling flesh.

“Look!” the boy who gagged her yelled.

Jennifer was fading away, just as the fire was catching the hem of the ragged shift they gave her.

A black slit appeared in the stake behind her, and she seemed to be seeping through it.

“What type of wood did you use?” the governor asked the timberman.

“Oak,” he replied.

“Duir,” the boy said.

“What?”

“Oak, sir. It’s called Duir in the Druid legends. It means ‘door.’ She’s escaping.”

“How do you kn—?”

The crowd began to clamor and scream as the slit in the wood began to fill, and Jennifer was gone.

As they fled the dead wolves slowly blocked the path, their gory fur and red-fanged snarls striking a new and hopeless terror in hearts already quailing, and what had been a witch burning turned into bloody carnage.

The boy escaped.

                                                                  ****************

When the sun came up, Jennifer stood among the corpses.

She smiled at the pack that had killed her father and saved her life.

“Well done, my children. Sleep now.”

The wolves silently left her there in the rising sun.

As Jennifer turned to follow, unnatural flames blanketed the abbatoir, and took all day to burn.

 

*****************

“Are you satisfied, wanderer?”

I nodded, not trusting myself to speak.

The door opened, the moonlight pouring in.

“Follow the road.”

As I walked it, the dead wolves padded silently beside me, red eyes flickering in the darkness, their deep growls raising the hair on my arms.

They walked beside me to the edge of the forest, to the start of the hill country, and left me to my fate.

A small boy called my name. I hesitated, but he beckoned again and called.

As I started toward him I thought I heard, from all this distance away, her hovel’s door close, the lock bolting portentously behind me, but I dared not look.

 

*Art by Leah M. Gully/blogspot.com

 

Lover’s Pyre

I remember white snow seeming to glow on dark, foreboding mountain peaks, the bitter wind sluicing down the hills, through the canyons.

We’d been defeated, the Oracle and me the only survivors of the butchery, now looking at the leavings of a human slaughterhouse, an abattoir of ill will and hostility, laid to rest.

Deandra, my wife, was the last, slain as she ran to my side; I was now a widower.

The tears were frozen on my face, and I saw the Oracle from the corner of my eye pulling her fur-lined hood tighter, watching me with tired, impatient eyes. She would leave, she said, in the morning, but would see me through this; we’d travel together through the dangerous parts, then go our separate ways.

Deandra was stiff now, with death as well as the external cold. This time, she would not hug me for warmth, or embrace me under our blankets, or tease me with her smiles as she held my cup of ale, turning her back to me as I reached for it.

“I can no longer warm you, Deandra. Not in the ways we knew.”

I set her on the prickling pyre: the last of the village firewood, the last of the kindling, the logs, the hay, then folded her hands across her stomach, stepping back to take a last look.

A blast of wind threw glittery ice in my eyes, and I had to turn away for a moment.

“Light it, please,” the Oracle implored. “I know you loved her, but we risk death ourselves when the light goes.”

I bristled, but she was right; even here, perhaps especially here, there was an urgency in the hunting of the nocturnal creatures.

Wind battered the flame as I approached the pyre. It had blown strands of her dark hair loose; they danced with abandon as the witches and fae creatures did when they thought no one was watching. There was enough fire left, though, that it did catch the wood, which began to crackle as the flame worked its way among the branches.

The gloom of night descended as the flames rose high, and the smell of burning flesh began to permeate the air. I stepped away, and watched the Oracle watching the fire. We just gazed at the flame for a while. I wiped the tears from my eyes, blaming it on the smoke.

In a few moments, the Oracle literally hissed air between her teeth, and pointed at the fire.

“Do you see her?”

“I don’t—”

“She’s there,” the Oracle put warm hands on my cheek, guiding my gaze. “She’s crying.”

“Crying? Crying? But how?”

“Go ask her.” She gave me a gentle shove

Something was present there, but it was in shadow, as if the fire lit an aura from the inside, a lantern with frosted glass. As I neared, Deandra’s spirit took her face from her hands, saw me, and came toward me. I couldn’t tell if she walked or drifted.

She’s not real; she’s still burning, there in the pyre.

I reached out to put my hands on her shoulders, but they passed through her, and got even colder.

“Deandra?”

It hurts, my love. The fire hurts.

“Deandra? That makes no…It can’t…You’re…”

It HURTS!  There was a slight echo from her ethereal shout. Was there no other way?

I flinched at the pain in her voice. “I…I’m sorry for that.”

It’s not your fault, I know, but it hurts all the same.

“What do you want me to say?”

 She reached up, and I felt her cold palm touch my cheek, hoarfrost spreading across my beard.  It’s all been said.

“Then what do you want me to do?

She gave me a sad smile. Come with me.

“You know I can’t.

The smile went away, and she opened her arms to embrace me. I know you haven’t tried.

“I don’t want to die.”

Her spirit stared at me as the smell of burning hair and flesh wafted toward me.

I looked away, turned to see the Oracle’s dark-clad back retreating.

“I have to go, Deandra. We need to seek shelter; it’s getting dark.” I turned to go, not bothering to call out for the Oracle to wait; with the wind and the distance she wouldn’t hear me.

Deandra nodded once. I have seen your future, my love.

“Do I want to know?”

The pyre flared as the wind picked up, and I turned away from it to shield my eyes and keep what remnant of warmth remained.

I saw a preternatural tear gleam in the firelight as she shook her head, her eyes downcast, her translucent image fading with the last of the light as a distant wolf’s howl heralded the rising moon.

 

Night Angel

 

I can see the darkness, as well as in the dark.

It is not the same thing.

I can’t be seen, but I am known by many names.

You can’t hide your true self, no matter how thick the overcoat.

I wonder if I’m cursed with a gift, or gifted with a curse?

It doesn’t matter, really. The visions are all the same, the sickness is all real, and there is no filter.

Your deepest secret is a meteor plummeting you to unseen but certain destruction.

There is nothing I can do, and nothing I would, given the chance, for I grow stronger, the darker your path.

Your evil feeds me; your blood is my nectar, your life, my sustenance.

I bathe in your fever’s sweat.

And I follow you, unseen, in the darkness of your home; I stalk you in the void of the never-ending chasm of your fragile, smoking soul as it drifts toward my immolating fingertips.

I am closer than your shadow, deeper than the marrow of your bones, but I make it so the only pain you feel is your own.

Feathers of needles will prick and pluck the strings of your nerves and muscles.

My leering, dark-winged soldiers will have their way with you in your own bed, and just for a little while, the nightmare shall be real before you wake, trembling and crying as I kiss your quivering lips.

Your screams are a melody, your wailing, a harmony; the inkwell of misery I use to write on your heart never runs dry.

I will grind out my pleasure on you in the waning moonlight, only to reap the husk of you at dawn.

Let me hold you through the night, for all eternity.

 

Night Ascending

When I heaved, spasmed, coughed, gasped and spit my way back to life, the moon was brighter than I’d ever seen, the stars pristine like precious gems, faceted and flawless in the silvered sky.

I could hear my heartbeat in my ears like the echo of a kettledrum covered with a soft cloth.

My maker smiled down at me. “And now, my friend?”

The punctures on my neck sent warm pulses deep into me; that would fade over time, when my body was fully informed that it was filled with a dead thing’s blood.

“It feels….” I had no words to do it justice.

He helped me stand while he watched me discover my newfound nocturnal powers.

I scented blood in a cacophony of scents and flavors; my very presence here seemed to radiate, alerting the dark spirits to the fact that there were now two of us. I could feel them leaving, but it didn’t matter.

Tonight, we’d hunt in the town proper, hiding in plain sight.

“Are you ready?”

His voice was a hook around my ribs; he could summon me at will, but he would not, at least in the beginning.

“No.” I smiled at him, my lengthened incisors keeping me from saying more.

He chuckled. “Good.”

I was truly grateful for his presence; I’d never been to the city, and though I had new skills, their unfamiliarity had me at a disadvantage. He understood that, so tonight he’d be there for my first kill.

***********

The silence between us was comfortable, and as we kicked fresh corpses into shallow graves of alley garbage, I felt my body adjusting to what it had become. He watched the advancing swell of wonder at my awakening, but as it beset me something else was manifesting, sharper than that of an undead newborn; the blood smell was magnified. I’d be able to tell if what I drank was corrupt, diseased, laced with any trace of death.

Some of these had been sick, and though I wouldn’t die, it was still unpleasant.

I could scent these husks we so unceremoniously buried; beneath the coppery tang was rot, a scent so strong that it drove me to distraction. Decay was accelerated in those we slew.

My maker saw my face change. His savage biting left his mouth with bloody drops falling from his short beard as he smiled at me. The city night contained the shifting, indigent colors of peacock feathers playing hide-and-seek with shadows, and flickering in my peripheral vision.

I spat, made a lemon-eating face, and he laughed.

“Ah, it begins. These unfortunates were sacrificed to sharpen your technique. We had to avoid witnesses, so I’m sorry such as these were your first. If you’re still thirsty, we can go down to the Bride’s Blood Inn; it’s full of undesirables no one will miss. There, you can drink your fill.”

Bride’s Blood Inn was by the harbor.

“Very well,” I said, giving him a single nod. “Is it always this intense at first?”

“It’s greater in some than others. The trick is to be careful; don’t take too many at one time.”

I put a hand over my stomach, the aftertaste of wretches’ blood still lingering.

“I won’t.”

We made our way down to the harbor. The moon was past its zenith, and Bride’s Blood had thinning trade at this hour, as last call loomed like a pirate ship closing fast on a slow-moving merchant vessel.

We took a moment to scan the bleary-eyed, besotted prospects.

“Good.” My maker looked at me.  “Not too many, but enough.”

“No more drunks’ blood after tonight.”

“Agreed.”

 

3)

The odors of sweat, piss, cheap ale and bad cooking assailed us at once.

“Kitchen’s closing; if y’ want somethin,’ best tell it quick.”

My maker chuckled. “I think we’ll thank the gods for their mercy, and leave it at that.”

Her brow wrinkled in confusion, not sure of the levity in his remark. “Drinkin,’ then?”

“A cup of piss, since we’re not buying a plate of shit? All right.”

She seemed to want to be angry, but couldn’t quite pull it off; when she looked at us again, she didn’t bother to try, just twirled away from us with an indecipherable muttering that could have been anything from ‘Be right back’ to ‘Drop dead.’

“Stop being mean. It’s not her fault the place is a dump.”

“No, I don’t suppose it is.” He sighed. “Choose quickly, though. This place depresses me.”

“Depresses you? We just drank blood and left a bunch of wretches under mounds of trash.”

“We left them in their shells; what made them people left long ago. I’ve had enough, and dawn is coming.”

He sounded testy, so I didn’t push the issue. “All right. What about the serving girl?”

He shrugged, watching her move through the furniture, both wood and human: “Pretty enough, and fairly daft. Looks sober, and competent at her menial job. She hasn’t been drinking, so she might put up a fight. Makes the blood hot, and fright will push it out faster; you’ll have to gulp for the first few spurts. After that, you’ll settle into it. Over time, you’ll find your pace; it’s different for every one of us.”

“I didn’t know that.”

“You didn’t know a lot of things, and now,” he spread his arms, “You have only to discover it all.”

She came back with slopping tankards.

He paid, and she made change from her cleavage. He rubbed the money between his thumb and index finger as if rubbing a nipple, looking at her.

She caught herself watching and broke away, blushing furiously.

I shook my head at him while he laughed.

The beer tasted every bit like horse piss, so we left it unfinished. He gave her a tip well over what she and the beer deserved, and we waited for the place to close, keeping to the shadows.

****************

My eyes widened at the taste; her blood was virgin.

I moaned with unexpected delight and pulled her closer, widening the holes in her vein, her hands slipping from my arms, spending what little strength there’d been in a futile effort to rebuff me.

She sagged against me, her sighing spirit leaving behind her unclean soul; I laid her down like a memorial wreath on a beloved’s grave. We left then, letting the feral urchins, cats, and vermin do what they would to her.

As if the gods were opening a sleepy eye, the sky pinkened, and false dawn began to give way to true.

My maker smiled at me. “We must part ways. It was a wonderful night for you.”

“It was, and I have you to thank.”

“Until tonight.” He left me there, his footsteps softened on the salted, sodden planks of rotting wood.

I was still thrumming with a gradually fading high.

Virgin’s blood. I am blessed even in damnation.

 

4)

I heard multiple people walking quickly behind me, the resolve in them unmistakable; they were in pursuit.

Alley urchins silently surrounded me, cutting off my path. I was more curious than scared.

 “You foul thing!”  The voice of the girl I killed. Ignoring the urchins, I turned to see the waitress standing there, pale and violated, streamlets of crimson running down her neck where I thought I’d left nothing.

“What is this?”

She strode through the urchins’ circle, her dead eyes teary. “You took my blood; it was meant for another.”

“But I killed—”

She seized me by the throat and bore me to my knees, and though I didn’t need to breathe, her intention to kill me was a quiet fire in her eyes. The sky grew a little brighter; the sun god rolling over in his bed to have a better look.

The urchins tightened their circle, whispering.

I felt my eyes widen, and I struggled against her unrelenting grip, my nails scoring her pale arms.

She hissed with the pain but couldn’t bleed; she flexed and bore down harder.

In desperation I tried to break her wrists, but whatever the urchins were saying was draining me of strength.

She allowed herself a smile as she bent me backward, my legs trapped beneath me. I couldn’t kick out, but I felt the strain of my heels pressing into my spine.

“You killed me, love, but m’ sisters came to help, told me to take m’ revenge.”

I was weakening. She was telling me she was a witch, had been sworn into a coven.

Virgin blood. Bride’s Blood…

“Ah, now y’ get it.”

I was contorted, getting weaker by the second as she pressed, my head now almost touching the ground.

“Witchery’s older than yer damnation, love. Man gets…” she searched for the word, “dominion… over earth, but th’ women-folk took another.”

My spine snapped as she straddled me now, her eyes wild, and the dead, dry vein in her neck pulsing as she gritted red teeth.

“The dominion of spirits. N’ spirits, y’see, spirits can’t die.”

The urchins added their hands to hers, and I felt more vertebrae give way; I was paralyzed, and though I could heal, the relentless pressure made sure it would not be fast enough, or complete.

The sun god was up, and my skin began to smolder.

“N’ maybe, jus’ maybe, love,” she tilted my neck so I looked right into the rising sun, “our spirits’ll walk th’ land together. Wouldja like that?”

I closed my eyes, but it was useless. I felt them begin to burn.

She said her last words into my ear. “N’ then we’ll visit y’ maker. He’s next.”

The urchins’ hands tore hot, soft skin from my face, and she laughed until I stopped screaming.

 

Lilli Beth Comes Downstairs

Lilli Beth’s mother called, and called, and called.

“What could be the trouble? Go look in on her, Allison, and see if she’s well.”

Me, the servant, had to go see if her child was well, with her standing right next to me.

Still, I did like the child. At least, I used to.

I started walking up the stairs, thinking perhaps she really didn’t hear her mother; as I got closer to the top, I called out too.

“Lilli Beth! Lilli Beth! Come downstairs, please. Your mother wants to speak to you!”

Perfect silence.

She wasn’t one to nap, but she made no noises playing with her dolls and tea set and such either; the more I thought about it, I guess I liked her because she was quiet, and simply didn’t do much. She wasn’t sullen, but seemed like she was going through the motions, distracted, and looking up at things that weren’t there.

The more I thought about it, the weirder it got, and I felt a small pang in my gut.

I reached the top, looked down the hall, but all the bedroom doors were closed.

“Lilli Beth?”

I walked toward her bedroom, put my ear to the door, and heard her talking.

“I want a new mommy.”

“Why?” Another voice, but no one had come over, certainly not to visit her.

“Mommy doesn’t care. Allison takes care of me. I like Allison. She’s better than mommy.”

“Are you sure, Lilli Beth? Are you sure you want me to do this?”

“Yes. I’m sure. Mommy doesn’t care, and I want Allison to be my mommy.”

“Alright. Get ready.”

I was about to call her when I heard a thump.

Pushing open the door, I saw Lilli Beth’s body on the floor, an ivory mist covering her, moving, roiling in on itself, hovering for a long moment, then seeping into her as if she were a sponge.

The room was freezing, and what I was watching was so surreal that I didn’t even scream.

“ALLISON! Is she up there?

Lilli Beth turned to look at me, and I began backing out of the room.

“Hi, mommy.”

“L-L-Lilli Beth…?”

She got up, but something had taken her soul; she was pale and her dress was filthy, as if she’d come out of  a grave.

“Will you be my new mommy, Allison?”

Her smile made every hair on my neck and arms stand on edge, and the red in her eyes was a manifestation of damnation.

I found I just wanted to live.  “Y-yes, yes, darling! Wh-whatever you want.”

“ALLISON!”

Lilli Beth walked past me, still smiling, and walked down the hall toward the staircase, hefting the cleaver for a better grip.

“Don’t yell, mommy. I was sleeping, and Allison woke me up.

“I’m coming downstairs now.”

She turned the corner, and as she went down, I heard her old mommy start to scream.

Dark Justice

The alley where I found my her was ripe with dirty people lined along the brick walls and sleeping under wet cardboard, on mattresses of trash, with rats and feral cats and dogs for pets.

Covered with the filth of life and the cruelty of people, I saw my Liandra in their midst, and in the rank wetness and soft patter of rain, I held her as the blood tears dripped. Everything in me wanted to scream my rage at the Council that banished her, but I did one better, and issued a challenge to the vampire king.

I took Liandra back to the catacombs, cleaned her, dressed her in a fine gown, and styled her hair; I would carry her in to my audience with King Edron, and have my day of reckoning.

He made me beg for her life, and granted it, but in a cruel mockery of my anguish, sent her away from me.

I didn’t know how she actually died, but the banished weaken in power, and they’re forbidden to feed.

She thought I would rescue her, but as her powers faded and they held me confined I could no longer track her scent to follow.

He was the King; he would know those things.

 

****************

The throne room was full.

I heard the others gasp as I carried Liandra’s corpse to our sovereign, and saw the quiet rage move the muscles in his face, like a shark skimming the surface of an ocean stirred to storm.

The paleness of her lifeless skin was a stark contrast to the persimmon light of sunset splashing the colors on the floor in jigsaw shapes, a kaleidoscope with veins of marble running through its patterns.

He leaned forward, his anger unhidden now, and everyone’s eyes were riveted.

My eyes never left his.

“I should burn you for this,” he growled. “You profane my throne room.”

I took my time, gently laying Liandra’s corpse on his royal rug.

“You profaned my wife.”

He spat, then laughed. The others laughed too, nervously, in the shadows.

Wife, did you say? Our kind can’t marry. We take flesh, not wives.”

“We were committed. I made her.”

He sat back, steepled his fingers. “Ah, there was your first mistake. Your second was to love your creation.”

I was trembling with contained rage, but he might have taken it for fear.

“I would make allowances for your youth in being one of us, but you said you understood the rules.”

“I did. You shouldn’t have banished her.”

“She spurned me.”

“And I just told you why!”

He came toward me so fast that I flinched. “And I say that is not a reason!”

Up close, his rage was a palpable force, and his eyes held my death in them.

He looked down at Liandra, then up at me. “Yet, I am a merciful king. I will give you an opportunity to put this behind you. Keep in mind that your decision, whatever it is, won’t bring her back to you.”

The shadows shifted, and the slayers came into the last of the sunlight as a servant lit candles.

“A torch!” he called, and another attendant scurried to bring one.

He held it out to me. “Kneel, and set her corpse alight, and I will consider the matter closed.”

It was my turn to spit and laugh.

He wiped his face, then struck me with the torch, the fire licking my skin like a demon lover.

I fell, and scrambled back to protect Liandra’s corpse, but I was too late, and it caught like pitch.

I screamed as he called his slayers forward, and they held me on top of her as the fire caught my own robe and started on my own flesh.

Liandra…

The room slowly emptied as my screams faded, and King Edron’s laughter set the sparks to dancing as they leapt and whirled in the gloom above us.

At least we, my love, we are now together.

 

 

 

Last Steppes

Clouds cover the evening sun, smother it, choke its light to thunderous darkness.

Rising wind sings a dirge over the sere landscape, whipping the sparse, bare trees tied to the ground through sheer determination.

I chant my song in a whisper, and the steppe wolves answer with yips and howls, and the notes blend and greet each other in mourning.

The lonely cries of strange birds respond to the call, and fill the empty spaces where there’s no room for even mournful music.

The stars form a chain around my spirit, the moon a metal ball around my heart.

I will not wander this land again, and fall to my knees in anguished relief as the scavengers gather, their eyes feverish for my flesh.

My soul will rest in the clouds.

The sound of rushing waters fills my ears, as my eyes run with the last of hot tears that freeze in the evening air.

A bare, stooped, and twisted tree provides rest for my back, and greets me as a brother whipped by the cords of a lonely, battered life.

There is nothing left.

There is no one here to see me die.

There is no one here to witness that I ever lived.

Free me, I pray.

My consciousness slithers down the branches of my bones, and out across the rocky soil.

And as a final blessing, the snow falls, gently at first, then gathering strength and speed.

It covers my tattered rags that were once clothes, whisks away the smell of my living rot.

I close my eyes, and naked oblivion spreads her legs, opens her arms, and bids me to lie with her.

If I could, I would run to her, but I walk; she is a patient lover, smug in the certainty that I am hers.

I give myself over completely, the fire of life grows dim on the other side as she embraces me.

Her smile is as dark as her purpose.

Welcome home, my love.

We kiss.

I die.