The Passing: The Dregs (Chapter 18)

  Abdiel being weakened by Tyrel was something I tried not to admit worried me. The problem itself was easy to solve by staying away from Tyrel, but the permanent solution, taking his life, wasn’t good at all.

    If Tyrel could neutralize my magic, what could I use to stop him from doing it?

    Several options presented themselves: assassinate him without using magic, but that would mean getting close to him. It wasn’t something I could hire out without the possibility of him finding out that I did..

    Changing a spell to see if it could get past his guard? That might weaken it too much, it wouldn’t do the job, and again, I didn’t know if he’d be able to trace it back to me.

   Trap him, then kill him? I didn’t know how strong he was in his own magic, but if he’d mastered the arts that could weaken a powerful spirit like Abdiel, harming human flesh was too easy.

   He told me when I met him that eventually everyone would use his services.

   I needed to find someone who’d done that, and find out why; it was a good starting point, but led to other questions. It wasn’t even discreet, the way people liked to gossip, but it was the least intrusive and obvious, hopefully giving me some knowledge of him other than what I possessed.

     Still, the inquiry could be traced back to me, and if he decided to attack he could take the element of surprise since I’d no defenses against him. 

    I decided to go from the lowest to the highest risk, though it would hurt Abdiel and the others.

    I’d have to go talk to him.

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

    I paid one of the Market’s urchin cutpurses to deliver the message for Tyrel to meet me in a neutral zone, then bound him to it with a curse that made his eyes widen and a spot of liquid fright spread across the front of his pants. 

    The neutral zone was a run down hole in the wall whose destruction, if it came to a fight, would likely be welcomed by the town, though the seedy, shady clientele that made use of it would find it inconvenient to replace. It had no visible name because the coloring and lettering on the crooked sign had faded from long exposure to bright sun and bad times.

    I waited for him outside rather than endure and fend off the idiocy I was sure to attract on the inside.

    When I saw his cloak among the normal garb as he walked through the thinning marketplace crowds, I gave silent thanks that he was prompt.

    I could feel Abdiel begin to shift within me. “This won’t take long, Abdiel.”

    See to it.

    My body tingled with a cold numbness as the magic fled.

   “Tina, why on earth would you come here?

   “No one knows me here.”

   “Nor me, for that matter. Were you hoping for witnesses if this ended badly? They’re not the kind that cooperate with lawmen. It’s not called The Dregs without reason.”

   He knows the name of this ratrap. So, he has been here some time, then. I hadn’t thought of fighting him around witnesses, but then, they might also not let things get out of hand.  

    Realistically, the chances of that were at slim to none, but at least slim was a possibility..

   Tina…

   “Shall we go inside?” he asked.

   “Goodness no, Tyrel. I have to make this quick.”

   “Ah, yes. I see the discomfort in you. What is it you want?”

   “To see if there’s a way we can work together.”

   “You’re joking.”

   “No, I’m not.”

      “How? I cancel your power out.”

      Tiiinaaa….

      “You told me everyone here eventually pays for your service. To do what?”

      “To dispel bad spirits. Most are just superstitious, and I take advantage of their fear, but some truly have them hovering about, usually mischief makers that someone sent to them for some misdeed. 

     “I don’t get into the middle of things, I just send the spirits…” He caught himself.

     This was a crossroads, and I didn’t know whether or not to reveal Abdiel had given me a vision; if I mentioned the power he had to send demons into the Void to die, he’d outright refuse me and our battle would begin in earnest.

    I shook my head before I spoke to bluff that I wouldn’t understand what he was about to say anyway, and to convey impatience. It wasn’t with him, but with Abdiel and his minions forcing me to keep myself still so I didn’t look like a stringless marionette.

    “Never mind,” I rushed to reassure him, “I don’t care. Let me think on it. You too. We’ll meet again soon to see what we’ve come up with.”

    “I’m…supposed to kill you.”

    Abdiel moaned. 

    “Then it seems I’ve trapped myself. I took a chance you might, and now, I can’t escape you.”

    He took a step back, considering it. 

    Run, Tina.

    I didn’t; whatever he was going to do, I wanted to see it coming.

    He turned sideways and his shoulders slumped. “Dammit girl, now you’ve got me curious.”

   My shoulders slumped too, and I had to tense my legs to put ice in the jelly they were turning into before I fell.

    “Tomorrow then?”

    “Yes. But not here. We meet back at the Crystal Harp.”

    “All right.”

    “I’d walk you home, but….”

    “That’s fine. I’ll follow you out though.”

    He nodded once. “Let’s hurry, then.

    Tinaaa! Abdiel’s voice was wretched with agony. 

    “Lead on.” I slipped my hands in my pockets, rubbing my stomach so Tyrell couldn’t see how much I was hurting.

    He started walking and I followed at a distance that kept him in sight, but not close.

    “Better?” I asked Abdiel.

    Soon. 

The Passing: A Canceler’s Tale (Chapter 17)

     Tyrel had been their only son, well loved and dutifully cared for; he knew his parents thought him a good son because he overheard them say it, and so he tried to stay that way, but he was just a boy.  

 “Don’t go too far,” his mother said. But the woods always caught him up, and he wandered for hours, patiently waiting as he watched the creatures go about their daily routines. 

    Over time, he’d earned a position of trust among them, and was even able to feed some of them from his hand.

    This one day, his legs tired, and his own food supply gone, he walked back home along the small path he used when he wasn’t exploring. He’d be late for dinner and likely scolded, but his father always winked at him when his mother was done, and nothing ever really came of it.

    He suspected his mother knew, but chose to ignore his father’s insolence. She liked watching Tyrel eat, but she also scolded him about eating too fast. His father didn’t wink at that, so he slowed down and tried to exhibit more restraint.

    As he neared the edge of the treeline, his home in view, the screams and sounds of shouting were faint, but there. Strange horses were outside. Light colored things that didn’t quite look like horses, but he had no other name for them.

    The hunger gone, his stomach full of new, unpleasant feelings, tiredness forgotten, he ran faster than he ever had, not thinking, screaming for his parents as he took the small steps in a single flight and saw their bodies on the floor, eyes open. 

    His father’s neck was red, his mother’s at an odd angle. Their eyes were open, facing him, a large man with an oiled black beard and bejeweled appendices standing over them.

    There were two more men behind him.

    Growing careless, Tyrel charged them, roaring his rage.

    But he was just a boy.

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

Tyrel woke up in the back of a wagon that jounced along a rutted road.

    His hands were bound, and his body encased in a burlap sack.

   The large man who killed his family was watching him, and gave him a smile. “You’ve a fire in you, boy. Sorry we had to do that, but the Slavers Market’s about to start, and we didn’t have any bodies to bring. 

   “Ranged outside of our usual territory, we did. You put up a good fight for one no thicker than a swamp reed. We had quite a time with you, but the numbers…”

    His smile widened as he shrugged. 

   Tyrel’s throat was burning. “Water?”

    “Sure, son.” He ladled some into Tyrel’s mouth.

    “You’re selling me as a slave?”

    “They take a liking to you, it could be a nice life.”

    “They take a liking to me, and I’m going to find you, and kill you.”

    To his surprise, the large man laughed. “I look forward to the day, boy.”

    He knocked Tyrel out again.

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

    Water was splashed, and Tyrel woke up again still confined and bound. They pulled him out, not caring if the worn wood splintered him, or where. He was taken to a fragrant, lush garden and forced to his knees, still in the sack, before a towering man in white robes.

Tyrel’s anger rekindled as the slaver introduced him. “This here’s Master Gregory. He runs the Black Temple and supplies the Slave Market. He’s going to price you for me.”

Just to be defiant, Tyrel looked up at Master Gregory, who bent over and looked Tyrel in the face, seeing the anger in the eye that was still open, the one the slaver didn’t close with a hammering fist. The bloody lips set in a defiant grimace in his battered face.

   Master Gregory looked at the slaver holding Tyrel’s leather wrist bindings in his hand.

   “He has suffered greatly,” Master Gregory said. “Yet the rage has not burned out of him. His shoulders don’t slump in defeat, and he looks at me through one eye that shines with his murderous thoughts.

   “I will pay you for him, but I will not make a slave of him. We shall train him as a Canceller.”

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

   For Tyrel, time disappeared; he only noticed its passing in the change of seasons.

   He used the tough, demanding training as kindling, setting his nervous fears on fire as the dark beings and familiars he was learning to summon and control twisted and writhed in ethereal coils about him, engulfed in clouds of foul smoke and rancid mist, and burned with the sparks and tongues of unnatural flames.

    His Master’s gold and scarlet eyes held hard-won approval, his small smile leaving his verbal praise unspoken; he’d been right to train this one.

    “Now, toss your soul into the Void, my son. When they rush to seize it, seal them inside.”

    “What happens to my soul?” 

    “It will be returned to you when the Void is sated on demon flesh. It pulls them apart, as when a man is drawn and quartered. Their dying screams are a symphony to us.

   “You’ll feel the very earth itself grow lighter when we sever the ancient cords of long dead, forgotten magic that still holds her in thrall.”

   Tyrel could feel no such thing, but if his Master said so, he would not gainsay the man.

He was just a boy

The Final Lesson

A draft buffeted the torches, a wind as urgent as the mage’s mission.

“How long will you indulge her in this, my lord?”

“What’s the matter?”

“She has no control, and the things she conjures with her mistakes are losing their patience. So far, they have been, let’s say, understanding, but if they decide to stay because she disturbs their rest, there will be nothing we can do to send them back.”

“Why not? Isn’t that what you do?”
“It is, my lord, but it is not who we are. Were it not for the containment that separates our worlds, it would be far worse than it is now. As it is, those who report such things as haunting and possession mean the containment has its weak spots, and is being assailed at all times.”

The king’s expression darkened. The queen reached and took his hand, and he jumped a bit, startled at the unexpected contact.

“Perhaps it’s time to reconsider,” she said. “You know she’s willful, and if she’s not listening…”

The king’s face softened at her, but not when he looked back at his mage. “Is there no other way?”

“I wish there were, my lord, but sadly, no.”

“And if she tries to conjure in her anger, or when she’s alone?”

“We’ve put safeguards in place for those very circumstances.”

A ponderous silence fell as they all waited for the king’s answer, and the mage found himself growing anxious.

Your life is at stake, just as much as ours. Make no mistake about that, and don’t be a fool. We will let them kill her if you tell us to continue.

“Stop her lessons,” the king said.

The mage couldn’t hide his relief. “Thank you, sire.”

As he turned to go, Princess Lillian came in, pointing her finger at him. “It’s his fault I almost lost control!”

“Lillian,” the queen said, “that isn’t true.”

The mage looked down at the girl, his face a veneer of quiet menace. “Have a care, child.”

“Don’t threaten my daughter,” the king said.

The mage briefly forgot himself. “Don’t threaten her? She threatens all of us with her incompetence.”

“Get out.”the king’s voice was quiet, but the threat behind it was palpable. “I’ll have your entire Order slain.”

The mage bristled.  “I think not, O king. When next you need magic,” he looked at Lillian, “she has neither the skill, the control, or the attitude to properly wield a spell.

“To the point, if she continues making errors in her casting,  something will eventually get through, and there will be consequences none of us will be able to handle, and we will all die.

“It would have happened already, had we not been able to contain the thing she conjured.”

“For that, at the very least, we are most grateful,” the queen said.

The mage nodded his gratitude, but added to his list: “She is impetuous, and can’t be trusted to not attempt a cast if our presence is required elsewhere.”

“What of your own acolytes/” the king asked.

The mage gave him a patient look: “She’s your daughter, sire. They’ll not gainsay her, much less try to stop her.”

He looked once more at his queen, who again shook her head at the persistent question behind his eyes.

He looked at his daughter, and his face and voice were heavy with regret. “Very well, stop the lessons. She’ll pursue other things, and perhaps my wife will prove more of an ally then.”

The royal couple looked at their child, thinking she’d fly into a rage.

Instead, she gave them an eerily detached look, as if they were peasant strangers she never met who’d dared approach her, and left the room in utter silence, almost as if she hadn’t been there at all.

“Set a watch on her, then.” the king ordered.

The mage spoke again: “Such magic as she has, she would know if she was followed and spied upon, but there might be a way to undo it.”

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

The spells were arcane, complex, painful, involving bloodletting, but if he didn’t stop her, there’d be no telling what she’d unleash.

He’d tried to tell them not to start, but her father was wet clay in her hands.

The queen, sensing what the mage sensed was beneath the surface, also tried to convince him, but the final word was his.

And now they were here.

Royalty were a silly lot: give them one heir, and they indulge them to the point where they became insufferable; give them too many, and they became paranoid, killing whoever they believed the strongest threats, be they sons or daughters.

The lot of them are mad.

He made his way down to the cellar-crypts.

Someone stepped from the shadows, a cowl over their heads, and sheathed a dagger into the mage’s heart.

He managed to pull the hood off the man, and didn’t recognize the stone face and cruel eyes staring down at him as the knife twisted, and as his eyes closed, he saw Lillian emerge behind the assassin, watching him collapse on himself like a marionette being cut loose from its strings.

PART 2:

Lillian was supposed to be in bed, but here she was in the cellars, looking at the corpse of the only man who stood in her way.

“The power is mine now!” She gave his lifeless form a few hard kicks, until the assassin politely pretended to clear his throat to bring her back to reality.

She looked up at him. “You did well. Thank you.”

“Spit on your thanks. Where’s the other half of my pay?”

“There’s a leather purse on a pedestal by the door. Pick it up on your way out.”

His laughter was low and hollow before he replied. “And something will be down there that can break me in half, allowing you to keep the money. Do you think I’m stupid, child?”

She smiled. “Yes, because it’s right behind you.”

The assassin was picked up on barbed claws that pierced his torso, slammed him into the high ceiling, and slammed his body hard on the stone floor, then knelt beside it and looked at the girl, a question in its eyes.

She nodded. “Do it.”

The creature tore it open, and the coppery, meaty smell of blood mingled with the scent of waste permeated the air, making Lillian retch and back away as the thing feasted.

 

PART 3: 

It found her.

She almost screamed at the sight; it was gorged, bulbous, bloody, almost leering at her in its sated state, its muzzle steaming with cooling gore, its red eyes glowing in the semi-dark.

As it approached, the torches behind it flared before snuffing out, as if they’d been smothered by an unseen hand.

Lillian, are you sure you have the power to do this? 

She’d watched the whole thing, dazed and frightened, her feelings of triumph turning to a wary certainty descending slowly into a rising panic.

Lillian?  The creature came further, and more torches died.

She swallowed, breathing shallow, and as she backed away her legs seemed to get heavier.

Lillian, will you answer me?

Another step, another torch.

She heard the words in  her mind. ….impetuous…willful…

Lillian! I want to return. Send me back.”

She was backing toward the pedestal by the door; there was nothing on it. He’d been no fool after all.

She began to cry. …impetuous…willful… she found herself against the door.

A gory claw, cold and rancid, brushed her cheek.

   Ah, I see. You can’t. The man you killed, he could.

“Please….”

You shouldn’t summon what you can’t control, princess. He told you that, didn’t he. You’ve trapped me here. Tell me, do you remember what happens if we can’t return?”

“You kill the living.”

Yesss, you remember. And this is a good place to start, here among the the dead. Now would be a good time to begin and… how fortunate, little conjurer, that we begin here…

Lillian heard more claws skittering in the darkness, and stopped.

…with you. 

The last of the torches went out, and Lillian’s screams shattered the night-crypt silence.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Lady at the Top of the Stairs

On a father-daughter day out, they decided to go visit the old castle ruins as their last stop. It was off-season now, and the tourists were gone, but still available to the locals to access for another week before it officially closed.

 Best of all, he thought, it’s free.

Riva took off like a shot.

Hopefully her last burst of energy, and she’ll sleep on the way home. Did I have that much energy at seven?

He was tired now, and looked forward to dinner, a long hot shower, and being with his wife. It had been a good day, and he was hoping for an even better night.

She was already climbing the old castle’s stone stairs, enjoying the crunch of the autumn leaves beneath her pink Barbie sneakers,  by the time her father made the clearing and saw her there.

“Riva, come back, come down. There’s nothing up there, honey. You’ll fall.”

She smiled at him, the one that melted his heart like hot butter. “No I won’t, Daddy. The lady told me to come up. She said she won’t let me fall.”

“What lady?” Then he realized, her imagination had taken hold; this had just become more serious for him. Had the stairs not been as high, worn, and jagged as they were, he might have even laughed, but they were, and he was afraid for his little girl. At the top of the stairs, there was only a precipice, and if she fell, bones would be fractured, if not broken.

The sun was setting, the wind was picking up, and her hair was blowing all about her face like an unraveling bird’s nest.

He made an effort to keep his voice calm, patient, reassuring.

He put his arms out and opened his hands, flexing his fingers in a ‘come here’ gesture. “There’s nothing at the top of the stairs of the stairs, honey, no lady there. It’s good to pretend, but it’s getting late. Riva, you need to come down now.

“Don’t be scared. Daddy’s got you.”

She stared at him a moment, her little face as serious as he’d ever seen it, then she  pointed back up the stairs. “I’m not pretending, Daddy. She’s right there.”

She turned and looked back up, then back at him, fear in her eyes.

“You’re making her mad.”

He sighed. There was nothing to do now but go and get her. Kids, man…

“Riva, I’ve had enough. We’re leaving. Now.” He started walking up.

“Daddy, no.” She went up another two steps.

He took bigger strides, skipping steps now. “Don’t worry, honey. Daddy’s coming to get you.”
“Daddy stop! She’s going to hurt you.” Riva began to cry, and turned to run.

He just caught the bottom of her jacket, pulling her back, but something strong, sudden, and fierce  grabbed his arm, broke it at the elbow. Crying out, he released his grip, stunned and frozen in place as the pain shot through him.

Then it pushed him down the stairs.

Still dazed and hurting, he tumbled down a few steps and fell off the side, onto his back, hitting his head on a stone. It was bleeding, and he couldn’t move his legs. A cold, creeping numbing took hold of him, cradling him in its arms.

I’m going into shock.

At the top of the stairs, he saw the lady whispering into Riva’s ear. His daughter turned and looked back down at him, wiping her eyes, and waved to him.

“Bye, Daddy.”

The last thing he saw was the lady bending down to pick his daughter up, the bright pink of her sneakers fading to gray, then her jeans, then her jacket… the lady stepped off into the air where nothing was, and vanished.

He closed his eyes, waiting for death, hearing her last words over and over in his head, each time getting softer and further away.

Bye, Daddy.

 

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…

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.

 

Who Really Dies?

It was cold, and not just from nature’s winds collected in the dull, gray stones that comprised the walls. The presence of spirits was almost claustrophobic, like hungry children around their mother’s skirts.

What makes them so reluctant to let life end? To not go the places they were called, or where they’re needed?

 Life.

The life tied to the gold and obsidian altar wasn’t an ancient one, but all of ten years. They burned her tongue and voice -box so she couldn’t scream; screaming broke their concentration, and that could be dangerous for them.

They didn’t drug her, so she’d feel the pain.

They told me the gods I served required blood in payment.

What is it about life that gods want so desperately to intervene, and need it so desperately for their wantoness? Why can’t they leave it be?

She looked at me as I rose from the high-backed chair to approach the altar, the chalices placed beneath the holes to catch her life. There were four gold ones on each side, the silver, mine, in the middle.

I wonder if it will grow colder when her soul is released?

I pulled my cowl over my head, the top draping down in front of my eyes so I wouldn’t see hers.

With every step, I had to renew my resolve. My hand grew numb, tightening reflexively around the handle the closer I got to her.

When this is over, you’ll be a full wizard priest. If her blood doesn’t reject you, next year at this time, you’ll drink from a gold chalice for your anniversary.

I chanced a brief glimpse; she was watching the blade now, prey looking at the slow unveiling of the serpent’s fangs, its attitude cavalier, infusing its victim with death.

Nothing personal, my dear.

Her tears began to fall, her throat laboring with silent screams and pleas for long-dead mercy.

You shouldn’t! You can’t! You mustn’t! over and over in a howling, silent litany.

The gods require your blood. My magic requires your blood. My life needs yours to end that it may continue. It is unjust, I agree, and out of balance.

I raised the knife above her sodden face.

She thrashed, raging with every ounce of her young strength; I admired her heart, her fight, and I punched her in the stomach to get her to stop.

She went rigid against the bonds, struggling for air.

It is unjust, and out of balance, but so be it.

I struck.

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

Her soul joined the spectral throng, and in the frozen silence, I could hear the ping and patter of her spilling blood, making the chalices ring. The notes of the gold were sweet, but the silver a special, discordant note with a different rhythm, out of harmony with the rest.

You are yet different, boy. You are still not worthy yet.

Her spirit took its place beside the others, and accused me, even as her body thrashed against her bonds. The others moved aside to welcome her, though she stood apart.

The chief priest took the silver chalice, and gave it to me first, waiting.

I drank the virgin blood deep, quickly, lest I truly taste the essence of her soul, its ripped threads mere remnants to the realm of life.

If she could have turned it to poison, she would have.

I drained the chalice, and the others watched and waited.

The blood did not reject me, and I was feted by a royal feast and far too much drink; I wanted to enjoy it, but kept seeing her terrified, wet, wretched eyes moving from mine, to the blade.

The chief priest noted my distraction. “What’s the matter?”

“I’m not feeling well. I’m…I’m sorry.”

“That’s unfortunate. However, the ritual has been completed. It has been a long day for you, my son. I give you leave to retire for the night, if that is your wish.”

“It is, Elder. Good night.”

“I’ll make your apologies. Good night, young priest.”

I managed a wan smile, and left the banquet hall.

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

Chapter 2:

In the hours after midnight, there was just me, the candles, my thoughts, and the shadow of the girl standing in front of me, the details of her face lost in the ash gray shades vaguely shimmering in the light of the flame.

The pits of ivory that replaced her eyes drew me deep, ice amidst the fire.

“You’re not supposed to be here.”

 I did nothing.

“You were needed.”

Was I?

“You were told. Our parents were told.”

Our parents are dead. They hung themselves when I went back to tell them what you did.

“It couldn’t be helped.”

You don’t care about what you did to me?

“I cared very much. I needed your blood.”

To achieve this?

“Yes.” There was a pain in my chest.

This will not bring you peace. We will come to you. We will visit you.”

“Stop,” I whispered, covering my ears. “Please, stop.”

You didn’t stop the blade. You could have; they might have forgiven you. But I will not.

“GO AWAY!”

She faded.

You took my blood, but not my life…

3)

I couldn’t answer the door when they knocked.

My body lay on the bed, still, swollen, and racked with vermin.

I no longer felt the cold; I turned my newfound magic on myself, and spilled my own blood to counter what I’d done.

The ashen shades of my family came to me, and greeted me with warm, black, hollow smiles, their ivory eyes the same as hers, and yet, I felt something emanating from them.

I’ve reunited us. Do you forgive me now?

They embraced me, and my question was answered.   I understood their need now.

The absence of the corporeal wasn’t the end of life.

The draining of blood did not imprison the soul.

It was a different kind of freedom, more profound than any magic.

We vanished as the door opened, and I heard them exclaiming I was dead.

I would’ve smiled, if I could, and I knew the wizards’ academy no more.

 

Prey for the Hunter

The city night lay before me, naked, splayed, open and wet, its gray, stinking, rotted skin painted in gold, waiting for me to taste it. Its flashing neon eyes held a practiced naivete with a predatory gleam.

I was all too eager.

The lights beguiled me with their changing colors, hypnotic patterns of strobe light pulsing to electronic rhythms of pumping humanity, feral pheromones permeating the air of hollow festivities that accompanied their mocking gyrations of mating.

It was all they thought of, all they pursued, and their souls were still black with empty longing.

It was a void I would fill to their heart’s content, and then, its demise.

 

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

Her name was Valerie, and I didn’t know whether she was brave or stupid for coming out alone, though some say they’re one and the same.

Sadness seeped off her in a plum colored aura, loneliness so profound I almost felt it.

“Anyone sitting here?”

She looked up from sipping her drink. “No.”

“Do you mind?”

“Yes, I do actually.”

“You don’t want me sitting here?”

“I picked the corner of the bar for a reason. I don’t want to be surrounded or cornered, and annoyed. Okay?” The sad loneliness had cloaked the bitterness.

I smiled, spreading my hands in an ‘as-you-wish’ gesture, and started to walk away.

“Hey,” she said.

I turned.

“Sorry. That was extremely rude of me. Sit here if you want.”

I smiled again, not letting it reach my eyes. “I no longer want.”

I moved to the restaurant section, feeling her eyes track me as I went to get a table, running a gauntlet of young women chatting me up, flirting, openly staring, but I rebuffed them all, biding my time.

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

The waitress didn’t seem to want to leave me to get my order, and wrote her number on a napkin that was already there. I turned it over after she went to place my order.

I didn’t look at the dance floor or the bar, but the air began to reek of desperate sweat as voices grew louder, the rhythms grew more primal, the lyrics lewder, and the hour late.

“Hey.”

I didn’t look up as she slid into the seat across from me, sliding a drink across the table. I took it between my hands, twirling the glass, studying the liquid inside.

“You’re gonna make me work for it, huh? Okay. Fair enough.” She settled back. “I’m really sorry.”

I looked up, but said nothing. She smiled at my mock-hurt silence. “I thought I was being a bitch…”

I laughed then, and she brightened up, taking advantage of the opening. “You probably think it’s stupid to come to a public place to be alone. It is, but after a while, you get the hang of it.”

“Has it been that long?”

Her smile sobered a bit. “Longer.”

“I’m sorry. No hard feelings.” I took a sip of the drink so she’d stay, then put it down. “Long story?”

Her eyes glimmered, and she nodded as I gave her the napkin. “It’s clean.”

She took it, saw the number written on it, and tried to give it back. “You have a number on here.”

“Don’t need it anymore.”

“Okay. Thanks.”

She wiped her eyes as the waitress came back with my drink, and narrowed her eyes at Valerie’s sudden presence, saw the napkin in her hands, then shot me a look as well.

I shrugged, looked over at Valerie. “Order whatever you want. Long tales require large meals.”

“Really?”

“Yes.”

She ordered, and the waitress flounced off in a huff; Valerie made an ‘ah’ face, realizing whose number it was, wriggling her eyebrows at me.

I was beginning to like her.

“Fast worker,” she teased.

“Sometimes it just falls into my lap.”

She laughed. “Not touching that.”

I let the innuendo pass; didn’t want to overdo it.

“So, tell me,” I said.

“You can’t be serious.”

“Why not? You came all this way, and you’re getting a free meal; you owe a guy.”

She smiled and shook her head. “All right. Remember, I tried to spare you.”

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

He didn’t think I knew what he was, but he had no idea I knew from the first.

The scent of him wafted over to me long before he reached me; it was stale, not exactly foul, but old, like newspapers left too long in a moist basement.

Smooth, well-dressed, and actually handsome, had he been human I might have played a different card, and things might have gone much differently.

I was lonely, and tired of hunting these things. They always managed to get to ground somehow, and I was off again. Too many flights to count, too many hotels to remember. More than once, I wanted to throw it all down and walk away, but something wouldn’t let me.

Damned if I could name what it was.

I made my sob story about my career, brought the loneliness into the picture, purging my world-weariness into his seemingly waiting ears, when the whole time he’s staring surreptitiously at my throat.

My dinner was filling, but not too much so. I wasn’t prepared to take all night. He was overconfident in his ability to read me, but I’d been at this much longer, and gave him nothing that would arouse his suspicion, just his curiosity.

He bought it all, wiping my eyes, making his voice low and comforting, but I found that I did have to avoid his gaze. There was a power in it that registered, which was rare on hunters like me. I said some silent curses, hoping I wouldn’t have to be careful, and now I would.

He might have noticed I didn’t look long at him, or thought it was just me being ashamed of my inglorious past, a decades-long walk of shame and failure, one after the next.

Having poured out the last of my highs and lows, he cupped my cheek, a slight chill to his hand, and straightened up in his seat, finishing his drink.

“You’re a marvel, Valerie.”

I blushed dutifully. “You’re just saying that.”

“I am, but you are. I wish I could’ve been there for you.”

I flipped the hair, composing myself, leaning across the table as I risked a stare. “Why would you want to share my miserable existence?”

“To cut it short.”

A little thrill of panic went through me. “Which one: my misery or my existence?”

He shrugged. “Feeling adventurous?”

“You’re serious?” I was still in character.

“Yes.”

I shrugged, finished my own drink.

He paid, and we left.

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

This time I won the perpetual game of hide-and-seek. There were moments through the years it had been closer than I’d like. This one was old, and strong, and I felt the thrum of power whenever he looked at me.

My wards held, but barely, and he never guessed my true motive, but there was no denying my need, and certainly no denying his; we stripped each other like whittling knives, rough and uncaring, rolling along the wall as the clothes came off, then the floor. He picked me up and dumped me like a grain sack, twirling his fingers in slow circles, his tongue teasing me with all his experience as I held him pulsing in my hand.

It was more like a fight than sex.

Each of us unleashed on the other with our bodies, leaving bruises, scratches, bite marks, as we made each other scream and grunt like the rutting beasts we became.

In the end, he bit deep as I stabbed him, and the rush was so powerful it almost knocked me out.

When he felt the silver blade go in, he bit harder, releasing into me.

We held on for dear life, seeing who would die first; I thought he would crush me between his powerful hands. To say he was taking everything from me into himself wouldn’t be wrong. I’d never felt so helpless, and so possessed. So fulfilled.

My heartbeat was loud in my ears even as it softened, fading with every pulse, even as my passion heightened, seeping with his every thrust.

I ground out what would be the last of my pleasure, and felt the cold creep up my limbs, his seedless semen coating my barrenness, as I released on him, a primal scream wrenched from my bleeding lips as I bucked against him, my vision exploding with countless stars.

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

Being Old World, I had no one to walk the day for, no reason to indulge in experimental talismans and new treatments; they left me agitated, still affecting the bloodstream, all the more because the blood wasn’t mine.

The silver dagger was cold in my chest, twisting where my heart used to beat; unsuspecting, I’d wrapped her hair around my left fist, keeping my mouth busy on hers before the end, her sounds mingling with my own to create something ancient as the act itself, and new as springtime. She’d slipped the blade underneath, and into me.

Her blood tasted of the Spanish Ports I remembered from long ago.

Her nails were like firebrands down my back, scarring as they clutched me.

I was helpless to defend myself as I sucked harder at her throat, neck muscles taut as she gurgled, blood bubbling on her full and tender lips between gasps.

She arched against me, even as I bore her down, our bodies insatiably lusting for their last sensations; we wound up suspended off the bed as we wrangled, fighting for control even now, wanting it to end, and wanting it to go on forever.

All these years later, I’d let my guard down on a night I felt indestructible, and this vampire hunter, lovely, lonely, and formidably vulnerable, put an end to my immortality. I wouldn’t enter eternal glory, but if this was what it felt like, even for a moment, it was enough.

 

 

Ravella’s Bounty

She walked the night forest, sky blue light on her fingertips lighting the dark, twisted paths through the primeval woods she saw grow from the beginning.

She moved now in silence, embracing the quiet, but the night creatures grew still in abject terror and reverent fear at her passing; she’d culled their souls to her purposes before, and they hide, though she finds them all the same when they’re needed.

It was said of her that she desired to be among humanity once more.

As I tracked her she’d circled me, finding me before I saw her.

“You seek to kill me?”

“Yes, Ravella.”

“To what purpose?”

“Gold and lands. No more hunting. No more fighting.”

She considered me as I regarded the blue flame on her fingers. “Lower your weapon.”

“Will you compel me if I don’t?”

“No. Lower it.”

I will never be able to say why, but I did.

“Serve me, hunter, and I’ll see that you have all you desire.”

“The king has proclaimed you a blight on the land to be removed.”

“And what do you say?”

“I do the king’s bidding.”

“But there’s no reason to; I’ve harmed no one.”

“Even so, he lives in fear of you and your kind.”

She stepped closer: “Fear is crippling; you’re not afraid. You’re standing here before me, seeking my life, regarding this light. Is it to light my way, or is it, in fact, a soul I balance between realms?”

“I…I don’t know.”

“Follow me, and find out.”

“The king—”

She put a finger to my lips; the scent of honeysuckle wafted under my nose. “He is not as powerful as he believes. There are things all around us, even now, that don’t even know his name.”

The finger left my lips as she continued, and they were cold where she’d touched them.

“You understand this. There’s blood on your hands, and a man’s plans follow him into the dust of his birth.”  The realization and answer to her question came at once; she’d already taken the king’s life, his soul shining in her hand.

I found myself growing sad. “Give me the light; let me restore him.”

“You know who this is, then?”

“I do.”

“Then why restore him, after what he did to you, sending you here to risk your life?”

“He was my king. You had no right.”

“Hear me well, hunter: neither did you, to anyone’s. To rob a man of his life is a profane thing, no matter the hand that does it, no matter the method used.”

“There are reasons.”

“The reasons are as varied as the methods, hunter. The end is the same.”

Her words poured like cold water in my ears, and gave me pause.

She walked past me, pressing deeper into the forest, and like a vassal, I followed.

 

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

The crypt was underground, awash with oracular illumination.

I thought to throw my blade at her back, now unwilling to face her, but she’d know, and what would become of me then?

“You keep them here?”

“I don’t keep them, hunter. They choose to stay. I could no more bind them here than I could love them.”

“And what of me?”

You, I have bound.”

“Though you don’t love me?”

She stopped, turned to face me. “I wouldn’t bind what I loved.”

“You speak in riddles.”

“No, hunter. You are true to your nature, that’s all. I didn’t compel you to come here. You were free to let me go, and free to go, were you not?”

I realized she was right; I’d felt no magic bring me here.

We were in a chapel of sorts, the ceilings lost in shadow, black candles burning with that spectral blue light.

“Where am I? What is this place?” I asked.

She smiled, cupping the blue flame in her hands as she lifted them to her mouth.

“Home.”

“Ravella! Don’t–!”

She blew out the light, and I felt myself dissolve into the darkness, her soft laughter revealing that I’d become the hunted, and fallen prey.

She desired to be among humanity once more, but on her own terms.

No more hunting.

No more fighting.

No more.

Let’s Prey

Let us, for the love of God, stop pretending we’re strangers to blood.

I struck you because you struck my sister; you hit her so hard that she died.

And you expected me to do nothing? To let you walk away? To experience the freedom of life and movement she no longer enjoyed?

I’m glad, then, she didn’t tell you about me. Glad that we were estranged. Glad she never answered my letters, once I told her of my choice.

I will concede, however, that you fought valiantly that night, beating back our attackers, even killing two or three; I can’t recall.

Your blade flashed among their limbs, and you looked every bit the warrior, doing the work mostly in silence.

And when it was over, you tended to her first; your ministrations preserved her until she could get proper care.

But I remained still, and the marks were already in my neck; you should have killed me then, but I guess you thought they’d murdered me, and decided to let the authorities handle it.

The young fool, she believed you when you said you loved her, believed you when you said you could offer her better.

Instead, you only traded one darkness for another, your need for someone bending to your will as primal as ours, but without the power to make it happen.

Bewildered, she fled from you, but rather than seek a weaker victim, you hunted her; was the trophy of her mortality worth the effort it took to track her, and slay her like the wounded animal you made of her?

And now you die, by my hand, by the very damnation you said you’d rescue her from.

Some would call this divine intervention, but the divine has nothing to do with us; it’s simply an elegant veneer over visceral savagery, the age-old life- and- death drama played out between predator and prey.

There is no refinement or culture to us, just more time to learn, to polish our acts, and our silver. More time to stack our gold, build our libraries, and study humanity, gleaning from the fallen grains of its heightening depravity, and dizzying plunges into hedonism.

We increase as you decrease, and time is a merciless crucible to human frailty.

Seeing you now, slumping against the wall, the paste of your life’s blood smeared on it as you try to hold onto your sad, useless existence, and having the taste of your tobacco and whiskey-laden blood stinging my cold lips, brings to me a satisfaction beyond revenge.

I’m sated.