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.

 

 

 

The Wedding Feast

I knew even then, in all my horror, what a bloody, evil thing she was.

Knew it, and went still, knowing what she would do to me, with me, if I couldn’t defeat her.

I couldn’t defeat her.

In this cold, post-midnight silence, looking at the setting crescent moon cleave a path down the sky for the burgeoning sun, my blood steaming on the hard, snow packed soil, I try to feel regret, sorrow, and anger.

I don’t.

I close my eyes and try to pray, and the cold flicks my ear like a seductress, renders my prayer a moan as blood spurts when I try to speak.

I stop, and roll onto my back, and the pain grows worse when she smiles, her mouth red from rending me.

“Soon, lover,” she whispers, but her red mouth never moves.

The night, and everything about it, seems brighter, sharper, clearer than before.

They said there’d be fire. Why is there no fire?

My exhalations into the freezing cold leave in white, tattered ribbons, and the effort to draw air is taking a toll.

She reaches for me, pulls me close, but there’s no warmth in her, no tender flesh, just a corrupt perfection.

I didn’t want this.

Even as I think it, I remain uncertain.

We were walking, hand in hand. She said she loved me, I felt her arms around me…

      She’s cradling my head against her cold shoulder, and I turn to look at her face, and see the gates of mortality closing, see the fire there in her eyes.

Ah, there it is. Who’s screaming? Who’s crying?

I see a vortex of screaming, burning souls in her irises, and my own is swept up with them; a sudden wash of blood floods them over, and the fire flares beneath it, burning the image away.

The screams stop.

My breathing stops; if my soul was tossed into the fire, I never felt it.

Is it a shadow of life, or just a different one? I’m the same, yet I’m changed.

Her cold fingers trace my lips, her lips open, and her gore-speckled fangs gleam.

I kiss my maker, my lover, my demon-bride, and my own red mouth smiles against her neck.

Death leaves me, a petulant child whose parents ignore him; he will gather his toy soldier hunters and send them for us one day.

But tonight I bleed, and watch the red fires burn…

 

 

*art by Vintion

The Last Lamp Lighter

The mist comes early tonight.

That means they’ll be here soon; they hide in the mist.

The last of the day revelers seeks shelter from the chilly night, and I take my lantern, its little light a small but comforting protection against the things that walk in the starlight.

It allows me to see their eyes, which is only less terrifying than not seeing them at all.

They greet me now, some with sibilant whispers, some with solemn nods.

Why they stay, no one knows. They wander, lost, soulless, fleshless, without a destination. All their plans rot alongside them with whatever remains in the old graves, the headstones crooked and faded, broken teeth knocked out of nature’s mouth.

The tip of the ladder clacks against the cobblestones as I walk, tapping out a dirge to my own eventual demise. The ladder gets lower with every passing year as my strength to carry it fades, but they still expect me to do my job.

I must light the streetlamps.

The scrape of my own worn shoes gets swallowed up, the echo choked off by the thickening veil of fog.

It gets difficult to see, so I must hurry while the lamps are still visible; painted black, I will lose them in the darkness.

I walk a little faster.

They’re here now. Soft laughter, whispered conversations, arguments and vows of undying love, the laughter of a child, the song of a musician, sung in a language I don’t know, all swirl through the streets like autumn leaves caught in an eddying wind.

I hear my name, called in greeting as I climb to the first lamp, and open the creaky gate.

The wick sizzles and pops as the oil catches, and the flame grows and swells with its greedy need for air.

Satisfied it will survive the night, I close the creaky gate and descend.

Walking against the traffic of ghostly strollers, I feel the feather touch of ethereal bodies brushing against me, the hair on my arms wet, even as they stand on end.

The lamps, not at all high above, have gazed on these streets for time untold, and the people, long past and forgotten, still remember living life in the night because of those who came before me.

Long lost is the name of the first, but I am the last, and when I go, they will doubtless convert them to something more modern.

I don’t know what these wandering spirits will do then; indeed, I may walk among them.

For now, they rely on me to keep them from being completely obscured, however slight, and for now, I can oblige them.

Clack, clack, clack, creak, creak, clack, clack, clack.  The lullaby with no words awakens them, and I see them taking comfort in the small fires. I see them glowing like souls with memories against the misty onslaught of Time, who will reach down to scoop them all away again when my aching bones make the morning rounds.

And the small fires, like the distant stars, will be snuffed out one by one by one, until the day comes when Death places the bell over me, my own light pushed into darkness, and I join the midnight miasma of melancholic souls.

 

I’ll Hold You Forever…

Hold me.

I’ll hold you forever.

That was our phrase. We used it whenever one of us was feeling adrift, needing reassurance, needing to know things were well between us after arguing.

Needed it, to know that things were well after we made love.

We stopped seeing each other the day I hesitated; she retreated from me and stayed upstairs, in her claustrophobic room, refusing me several times a day.

She’d always been quirky, effusive, but with a loose connection to reality. To hold her was to bring her back to herself, and me.

Those days are over, but I check on her now and then, and when I do, she gets stranger still.

In her hands is an offering, and whenever I look in, she holds it out for me to see; it seems to be something between a heart and a flower, but I see no blood, and there are no plants.

“What is that, Tavia?” I took a step further than I should have, and she pulled it away.

The silence seemed to pulse, and her eyes seemed to gleam in the semidarkness as she folded herself against the wall.

I stopped, and sought sanctuary in the doorway once again, keeping my distance.

“Tavia?”

She looked at me, the glittering light shining in her eyes from an unseen source, or perhaps from the object in her hand.

Slowly, she lifted it out to me again, trusting.

Slowly, I reached out my hands to take it. “What is it?”

The object pulsed, and I hesitated, but she didn’t pull it back. “What is this, Tavia?”

I kept one hand at my side now, lest I be bound in some way, and she’d be free to harm me.

My fingers were just grazing it when it pulsed again, and something locked my wrist so I could not break free.

As Tavia drew it back, it drew more of me inside of it, pulsing and growing.

The pain was keen enough to turn my screams to hoarse grunting; I couldn’t save myself, and I couldn’t kill her.

Bracing my free hand on the wall behind her, I pushed back against the dark force that seized me as quick and sure as a wilderness hunter’s trap.

She smiled, and her own hands began to glow asthe pull grew stronger. She was giving it strength to overpower me. Writhing like a hooked fish, I kicked and screamed and cursed at her, but all she did was give me her glittery eyed stare, seeming not to comprehend was she was doing, that she was killing me.

The force of the pull was like an ocean current, and I wasn’t fit to endure it long. My lone fist punching the wall behind her, looking to break through to find a handhold, was neither strong enough or sufficiently expert to find one.

“Tavia! Tavia, let me go!”

“I can’t, Jeral.”

“Why can’t you?”

“I am only a gatherer.”

“Gatherer?” I fought harder.

“I merely gather the souls and send them to my lord.”

“And who is this lord?”

Her smile was feral. “We don’t say his name, and you wouldn’t know it if I did.”

I stopped struggling. My strength was failing. “Why my soul?”

That gave her pause, and she gazed at me a long moment, watched me grieving the inevitable, ignoble death she was about to impose.

“I wanted to share with you. I tried.”

“It was too much.”

“But even so, could you not have loved me?”

I now gazed at her a long moment, and knowing death was imminent, saw no reason to be any more dishonest with her than I’d already been.

“I tried, and I tried to tell you we were losing it, but you were oblivious.”

She bristled at that, but stayed silent, and a dark film began to envelope the object in which she’d trapped me, tears running down her face as I was hidden from view.

I don’t know if I still existed physically, but when her lord came for me, I felt her hold me, the warmth of her soft hands seeping through the shell, and offer me up to him.

He took the proffered object in one hand, and ran the other along its surface.

As it passed over me, there was only blinding agony, and then—

I’ll hold you forever…

Mortualis

I look into the eyes of my mistress, and see an ember of hope yet burns.

She did not hear his heart skip as he promised he’d return, nor the cry of the infant daughter he’d made with another.
She did not see his late- night candles burning as he wrote love letters to her rival, pouring out his soul on the parchment, and on the morrow greet my mistress with a warm, false smile, a passionless embrace.

His mind whispered the name of the other, and shortly after he kissed my mistress, his mind whispered ‘farewell’.

For the loss of his love, she donned black mourning clothes, keeping vigil, a living silhouette against the gray sky and the churning chiaroscuro of the restless sea. Mizzle and tears mingled and beaded her eyelashes; through that wet prism, sitting on sodden shoreline rocks draped in seaweed and clusters of small crabs, she watched the horizon,
One day, a thread of humming harmonized the susurrating wave songs.
What sad and lovely melody is this you hum, mistress?
What primal melancholy chains you to these salted stones, the bell sleeves of your black dress fluttering, buffeted wings seeking shelter from the hurricane?
I took some steps toward her, and she let me perch on her wrist.
Teach it to me, that I may sing it back to you.
She looked right at me, as if she knew my thoughts, and began to sing:

“Love is the mask hate wears. Hate is the cloak of indifference.
“Indifference is the herald of abandonment. And I am lost in love.”
****************
She was patient with me, even as the words came with no melody; for all the sorrow in her heart, I could not become a songbird, but would have for her sake.
She stood to her feet, wiping a single tear from her eye, and when she looked at me, I knew I’d never see her again.

“You don’t belong here, noble raven, any more than I do. This is but an open and foggy grave. I’m leaving, and so should you.”

I heard her feet crunching pebbles into the silt, the steps echoing slightly between the sloshing waves as the gray day took her into its chilly arms, and hid her from my sight.
But the memory of her sad eyes and sweet voice felt heavy inside me, and I could no more take wing if a predator plucked me from these dizzying heights, bit me open, and supped on my heart.

So now I, a black-beaconed lighthouse full of darkness, keep watch from the watery, wind-ravaged stones, calling her letter to her lover, somewhere out there in the mist.

*art by Cindy Grundsten

Khaalida

I remember the rain; its steady patter went long into the night.

Normally, it soothed me as I played the music of string quartets, their soaring notes lilting in the background as I wrote.

This night was different; I was restless, and the words I needed eluded me, flashing like sunlit fish scales in fits and starts of inspiration. It was to the point where even the steadfastness of the quartets could not quiet my mind.

Something was wrong.

I sighed, closing my eyes, and as the first violin began its haunting, plaintive solo, I fell.

Through the viscera of the void, I plummeted with the velocity of a star hurled into space by the strong right arm of its celestial creator. There was no time to scream, for as fast as I fell the darkness rose to meet me.

Roiling smoke, thick, black, acrid, and pungent with midden smells rolled back on itself, peeling away to reveal a darkness so utterly devoid of light that it made me shiver suddenly, uncontrollably, even as I fell.

Panic rose like gorge in my throat.

The solo violin gave way to a chorus of voices, soft as feathers, rising up through the dark.

I’ve been waiting for you.  It was more than one voice, but said ‘I’; my terror had a thread of curiosity running through it now.

The blackness cascaded in an ascending torrent, and when it struck me I could no longer see its source, or its evil.

As it surrounded me, arcs of lavender, violet and silver white light streaked around the cosmic hole. I said a small and silent prayer, hoping the deity of us all might hear, and act on my behalf.

Then I knew no more.

 

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

The voice behind me was no longer a chorus. “You’re finally awake.”

I turned to see the comely form of a demoness, radiating a seductive malevolence.

“Who are you?” My mouth was dry, and the words took some effort to form.

She laughed, as if I’d made a joke she truly thought was funny; her body swayed and undulated as she walked toward me.

“The proper question is, what am I? “

Putting one hand on my shoulder and the other around my waist, she leaned over and put her mouth next to my ear. Around her, the scent of honeysuckle warred with that of burnt flesh.

“I am every secret, twisted thought you ever possessed. I am the soul of your conscience, and know you better than you know yourself.”

I sought to run, but she pulled me in tighter, her voice breaking down my resistance.

“I am the fanged serpent with the honeyed tongue in the garden, on my belly under the moonless sky, hearing the vibrations of those who seek my life.

“I am the web of man’s violent lust for the unattainable, except in the recesses of his imagination. There are multitudes still writhing in my strands, never to be free.

“I am Khaalida, the fantasy of nightmares.”

She stepped back from me, her hand on my chest. “Will you not embrace me, on your own behalf?”

My eyes grew warm, my breath shuddery. I wanted to move her hand, but my strength was as a wilted stem.

“You would so burden me?” I replied.

“You were called to us. To serve us. We watched you run, and we followed, hunted, for many years. You were wily, and filled your time as our power faded. There were times we struck, but you managed to escape.”

She took my hand in both of hers, stepping in close. “You’ve run long enough. We’ve hunted you long enough. The days grow short, the trail more difficult.

“We need you, now.”

I shook my head, extricated my hand. “I’m sorry.”

She sighed, but it was not one of resignation. “The time for regret is past; the time for excuses, done. What will you do with all you have to say? Leave it unsaid?”

Lifting my chin on her fingers, she wiped a tear with the pad of her thumb. “What will you do with me?”

There would be no getting away from her.

“I will embrace you.”

She sighed, but it was not in relief. “Every part?”

“Every part.”

She pulled me close, and faded inside of me. If there was a sensation such as excruciating bliss, I felt it then.

“I love you,” she said.

I wept. “And I, you. We’ll be together, always.”

“Not always happy,” she admonished, “but always together.”

I felt her smile, and I did too.

The strains of a lone violin echoed in the distance, and the darkness dissolved, nestling deep inside of me, sheltered from the pattering rain, and the dark words smeared beneath the water that dripped like ashen tears from the paper.

I was outside, and never remembered leaving.

“Khaalida…”

Together.

 

Circle of Blood: (3) Trial and Error

      The castle was bedecked in scarlet and black, the colors of mourning.

     The nobles’ sibilant whispers and the dignified sobbing of the queen’s ladies were bubbles in an aural swamp, rising to sink into the marbled stones of the high-ceilinged hall.

    Nakira, the Healers’ leader, stood before the king, her pristine alabaster robe giving her the aspect of a pale spirit gliding through blood.

  “I’m sorry, but I could not save her, my king.”

 Ohlin’s tears came unbidden, uncontrolled, and in front of his court, unwelcome; his jaw tightened and his shoulders tensed.

I was the only one who saw him clench his fist, though I honestly didn’t think he would use it. The blow sent Nakira sprawling from the dais, the crack of fist on bone was a sudden piercing as she tumbled down into an ungainly heap within the robe, now stained with flecks of blood.

Amid the screams, gasps, and exclamations, she was helped to her feet, her cheek swollen, a trickle of blood in the corner of her mouth.

He then passed his sentence in the most soft, reasonable voice, given the circumstance, as if he was discussing plans for a pleasant outing.

“Take them out of here,” he told the guard, who gave him a curious look.

“She’s alone, your majesty.”

“No, fool. I meant take them all out of here, out of the kingdom. Drive them into the wildlands. Kill any who resist, by whatever means you need to use. Don’t pursue them further; leave them to their fate.”

The cries and screams receded to the deeper voices of the council’s earnest cautions for temperance and mercy, all falling on deaf ears and a stone heart covered in ice; in his grief he was resolute, and would not be swayed.

Nakira looked to the captain of the guard, reading his lips as he held up an index finger: ‘One day.’
They escorted her outside, gave her a horse, and sent her away at a gallop.

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

He spoke to me in private.

“They’re not to reach the wildlands. The men of your Order will execute them on the way.”

“King Ohlin, it would be more prudent to let them go.”

His gaze on me was deathly calm, his next words holding a concealed dagger poised to cut the thread of my existence if we betrayed him.

“See it done.”

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

Sharrika was crying, and Tafari simmered below boiling.

We’d be at the palace soon.

Sharikka let go of my arm, struggling to get herself under control

“Do you remember?” I asked.

“Just…just flashes.” She stopped walking, hugged herself tighter. “Dogs, horses, fire and screams. We threw spells back at them, spells that did things, put things, inside their armor. Nakira wouldn’t retreat. She called in the Blood Covens.”

The Blood Covens lived on the fringes of the wastelands, separated even from each other, but they all practiced blood magic to one degree or another, all of it lethal.

“That’s why they use the circles of blood? To protect their territory?”

“Yes, and the hanging of the knights they defeated, in full armor, in the places they were victorious. As I said, strictly to show their power.”

“Then why the binding spell in the clouds?”

“To keep the king’s men from pursuing. It was supposed to lose strength, but…” She looked up just as a long flash slithered among the storm clouds, turning their undersides to lilac, but smelling of sulfur.

“But why would they make the spell bind other witches?”

“They confronted Nakira, said she was weak, said it would be best if they claimed the lands we would have settled in the countryside. They wanted us to join them, but tired as she was, of the whole thing, really, she refused.”

“They killed her?”

“I don’t know. Don’t see a reason why they wouldn’t.” She had to get herself composed again.

Tafari had walked some distance away; that had to stop if she was going to fight.

“Is she going to be alright?”

Sharikka hesitated before she answered. “I don’t know.”

“If she’s going to fight—”

She gave me a sharp look of frustration. “She’s not ready to fight!”

That was a stronger reaction than I was expecting. I gave her a moment, then took her by the forearms to step in and make sure I had her attention.

“She’s my daughter too, and we must make her ready. If you’re going to fight the Blood Covens, you’re going to need all the help you can get. Frankly, I’d let them have the place; it’s full of bloated corpses and blighted lands, and it reeks of carrion and waste.

“It will take years to clean up, so why do you even want it? If they rule, there’ll be no sanctuary for you here.”

She sighed, taking her arms from my hands, a gentle sweep of her own arm indicating all the land within view.

“Without a ruler, this place could be a haven for those of us who don’t practice blood rituals. We’re a vital link in the chain, even if weak. One thing remains true through all our lore: balance is essential to order. If the Blood Covens want to rule, they’ll use us as ambassadors and healers to fool the leaders of the lands they occupy.”

“You’ll become a servant.”

“Yes, but just for the moment. In time we’ll rebuild, restore our numbers, and bite the serpent’s head when we get the chance.”

I sighed at her naivete. “Sharrika, you’re talking about infiltrating, attacking, and killing the leaders of the Blood Covens. They went rogue centuries ago; they’ll see you coming long before you’re prepared, and take hours killing you, and everyone allied with you, for sport.”

My stomach sank as I saw her start to smile in the middle of what I was saying. “That’s where you come in.”

We started back toward the palace; she didn’t take my arm again.

“Finish your story,” she said.