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.

Amaia’s Ending

There are times, even now, when she calls to me in the darkness.

I turn to look, but no one is there, not even when I light the torches, my footsteps echoing in the catacombs, carried to her by the freezing breezes that blow from every direction.

They are secret, these tombs, and the people above them sleep in innocence.

I alone have been cursed to know their secrets, but they rend my sleep. I hear the voices, the shambling, the clinking of the chains, and moans of the dying, already dead.

Why was I trusted with the keys to this damnation?

I toss, I turn, I drink, I whore, I pray, and yet, sleep proves elusive as the harlot’s love; it comes to play a part, and leaves me with an unfulfilled longing of the soul. The pain and loneliness became unbearable; tomorrow, I would go to the police, and tell of this place, then overmorrow, and overmorrow became a fortnight… my resolve fading with the setting moon and the fading stars.

These were my days, until the night I heard it, knowing it would come on my Name Day: my name, Markandaya, ‘death conqueror,’ whispered in the dark, on the cold, blue lips of an ethereal lover come to torture and kill not my body, but my spirit.

I could no more resist than the tide could fight the moon. The scent of pitch and stale bones combine to twist my guts to knots, but I walk through the pain and cold, little more than substance myself, anchored to a dying world.

“Amaia.”  ‘The end,’ in the Old Tongue; it said everything about her, and nothing at all.

She turned the corner, amber eyes catching the torchlight, searing my spirit, beating my mind into madness. She was dead, and had been since I first saw her. The cold emanating from her beat at the flame, and my skin crawled to get away from her reeking, magnificent presence.

“Are you ready, now?” she asked.

“I’ve been ready, vermin. You bait me yet again with death’s promise, but you will send me back. Why do you toy with me?”

She laughed, eyes dancing in the flames. “Because you amuse me.”

I fell to my knees, freezing, sobbing, all pride and dignity fled. “Kill me…”

Her hand caressed my cheek, numbing my jaw. “Are you asking for mercy?”

Please, Amaia. I beg of you…”

“Convince me that you want to die.”

I placed the torch between us, my hands seeking her throat.

She laughed. “Now squeeze, with all your might.”

I was too malnourished, and only managed to grip her neck the way a baby grips a ball, the pressure too light to do anything more than indent her flesh.

“Is that all?” She slapped me. “Pathetic.”

“Amaia…”

“Leave me, Markandaya. The secret to my eternal damnation lies within these walls. Find it, and come back when you’re worthy. Wound me, and I will kill you then.”

“You speak riddles, and risk battle, when I ask for death?”

She laughed again. “You are not a worthy adversary, therefore I’m not worried. I’ll summon you whenever I like, and torture you whenever I’m bored. I’ll be here forever, and so will you, unless you find the way to cut me.”

She lifted my chin on her fingers. “How long have we been together?”

I swallowed. “I…I’ve lost count. The days, the nights, they blend…”

“And yet, it is your Name Day again, and I’ve been faithful, have I not?”

“You’ve been evil.”

“That, as well. All have abandoned you, or they lie here with us. No one comes, darling. No one cares, but me.”

“I’d rather you didn’t…”

“And that is why I always will. Find the secret, and your life is your own again. Until then…”

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

I was in my bed, sitting up, the covers wrapped around me for warmth, my eyes wet, my nose running. I wiped it on the cover, and tried to stop shivering.

The candle in my room was almost finished, so I lit another; sleep would not be granted me tonight, and I couldn’t bear the darkness just now.

Putting my bare feet on the cold floor, I cursed and cried out my torment at the top of my lungs, and beat my fists numb on the frame of my tattered bed. What could rattle, did, with the force of my blows.

Spent, I lay back down, and stared at the ceiling. Killing her would release us both, and she said the key was within these walls. I had to find it, though it meant the end of my life.

And as the shadows of my calling danced on the thin walls, I began to dream of it, a small smile of hope lacing through the grief.

“Amaia.” The End, in the Old Tongue, had now become my prayer.

And somewhere, in the void of the Abyss, a dark god’s eyes opened.

 

 

Circle of Blood

I stood looking at the carnage, blinking from the sudden, searing flashes of lightning streaking across roiling black clouds.

There was no thunder, which gave the scene an eldritch air.

Swarms of rats moved en masse over the mounds of corpses, taking such treasures as they could find.

The torrential rain cut the edge off the stench, but didn’t stop it.

An armored knight, his bare hands pierced with spikes, hung in the center of the palace door, a circle of blood painted around him. I didn’t know how long he was there, but the crows had taken his eyes.

It’s already started. I’m too late.

A short, hooded figure approached from under a pile of smoldering wood, stealthy, heading for the doomed knight. As he was hung with his weapons, they were going to loot him.

With his hands spiked, there was nothing he could do to stop them.  I think more than anything else it was the cowardice of the pending deed that rankled and made me call out.

“Leave him alone!”

The figure jumped; they hadn’t seen me through the downpour.

They scampered back into their hiding place. The urchins knew this backwater warren better than me. I lived here once, but never called it home.

The man turned his head in my direction, and I worked through the mounds of bodies to take him down.

“I’ll get you out of here.”

“No!”

I stopped, taken aback by his refusal.

“No. They’ll know it was you, and they’ll find you. I’ve nothing to go back to. Better I die here. Leave! Leave while you still can, while there’s still a chance you can—”

The serrated blade of a knife buried itself in his chest with such force that his body jerked, making a muffled thump against the door, and he went still.

A different hooded urchin stood there, smiling at its handiwork.

That could’ve been me.

I sighed, still looking at the knight, but speaking to the urchin. “What do you want?”

They answered me, retrieving the knife. “I remember you. You should leave, priest. There’ve been changes since you were exiled, and your Order is no longer welcome here.”

“Where do I know you from?”

They removed the hood: a girl with smooth brown skin, large, dark brown doe -shaped eyes that held an intelligence beyond her years, her form on the cusp of womanhood, but hidden beneath the soaked black cloak she wore.

“I’m your daughter; you took my mother, Sharrika, against her will.”

“Sharrika…?”

She came toward me. “I see you remember her name.”

“She was supposed to kill me.”

“Yes, and you did something to make her stop. She fell in love with you instead. What did you do, father?” She spat the word out like snake venom. “Rape her with a spell?”

I had no answer she would find acceptable.

“What became of Sharrika? What is your name?”

She spat on my robe, and I reacted, backhanding her across the face.

She sprawled over some bodies, sending the rats scurrying, then pushed off the pile, running back to me with the knife in her hand.

I didn’t want to hurt her, but I didn’t know what she was going to do; I tried casting, and felt a jolt to my own body that almost made me lose my footing.

She has powers. The bloody knife was at my throat, tilting my chin up.

Her breathing was raspy and harsh. “If you ever hit me again—!”

    “Tafari!”

The rain had intensified, but the figure that approached was only in a long red dress, clinging to the very curves my hands explored in better times.

Tafari took the knife from my throat. “This isn’t over, priest.”

Sharrika walked up to her, took the knife, and apologized, her eyes downcast. “Please forgive my daughter, sir. She isn’t married, and so has not yet been–“

“That’s none of his concern, mother!”

I was surprised at Sharrika’s candor; it wasn’t her way.

“Sharrika.”

She gave me a blank stare, tilted her head. “Do I know you? Have we met before?”

Emotions warred within me, but I nodded. “We have. I’ll tell you later. Let’s get out of the rain.”

A crow had landed on the knight’s soaked corpse, looking for fresh pickings. The rats persisted in their foraging among the mounds of rotting flesh.

She nodded and beckoned me to follow.

The rain fell harder, but she and Tafari took their time; it was a moment before I realized the rain was falling around them, not on them.

“Witches.”

I don’t know whether Tafari heard me, but she turned to give me a mirthless smile.

I ignored the threat, put my head down to keep the rain out of my eyes, and walked back into the eye of the malevolent hurricane that would shake my life to its core. It would have been easier if I’d turned and walked back through the broken gates, as Tafari commanded, never to return.

When all was said and done, I was glad I didn’t, but I wished I had.

 

 

Midnight Son (5) The World Through Haunted Eyes

Indeed, the songbirds were singing again, likely celebrating our departure; the carrion birds would be a different story.
I said nothing of the distinction; if she wanted to enjoy the songbirds, so be it. She had her elbows on her knees and her eyes closed, listening.
Looking at the sky, I saw the stars already fading as we left our childhood home. Like them, something faded within us too. Perhaps it was the illusion that we could somehow salvage ourselves from a parasitic existence and come out whole, with some lingering trace of humanity.
I looked over again at my little sister. Such an innocent pose, a little smile on her face, as if only hours ago that smiling mouth hadn’t been devouring the meaty guts of our oldest family servant.
Semele didn’t seem innocent to the fact that what she did was monstrous; it was her ability to somehow shut it off, or out, when the killing was over. She’d be like a normal girl her age again, just that quick, as if nothing happened at all, even to her remorse wanting to bury Cassis, sounding for all the world like he only slipped and fell.
There was yet within her then a sense of remorse, of connecting with empathy for the results of her actions.
Connection.
The ghoul that infected Semele had nursed her, however briefly, and a connection between mother and child was yet possible. I had to get her to try to find it, if it existed, but I was willing to wait.
Before I went to sleep, I decided to draw her out on the matter.
“Semele, I have to ask you, what happens to you when…?”
She opened her eyes; they held a heavy, melancholy wisdom of life beyond her years.
“I get cold, Ingrum. I feel my heart slow, and my senses heighten to foul things. I smell rank water and corpses, and blood, and I start salivating, sometimes to the point where it drips from my chin.
“I grow stronger too; you saw what I did to Cassis. My nails sharpen, and all of my teeth, not just the incisors, like yours.”
She looked off, scanning the woods. “And I have to feed. There are corpses in the forest that I made, bones now. Bones of people and animals.”
“And Cassis?”
She sighed. “He was right there when I woke up.”
“Wrong place, wrong time.”
“Yes.”
“I want you to try something.”
“Alright.”
“That creature nursed you to make you what you are; there could be a connection of some sort, a bond you can feel.”
“I’ve tried. This is a goose-chase. If I could feel her presence, I’d tell you.”
A desperate anger began rising in me; I’d gone out of my way to make her aware of the cost, we weren’t an hour on the road, and she was practically giving up before we started.
“Maybe it works in proximity. I want you to keep trying. If you don’t, or can’t, we can turn around now, and you can just keep adding to your pile of corpses!”
She flinched, and her eyes welled. She tried to answer, but she only sobbed, and started to cry.
“I’m sorry. Just trying to make you realize that even if we find her, she’ll be difficult to kill. You’re one of them, and we’re not familiar with them. We found the book, now we have to use what it told us. If you would really be free of this, you have to be committed to seeing it through all the way.
“I need to be sure that you are.
“Don’t answer me now; think about it while you drive. The sun’s almost up, and I need sleep. If you turn back home, we never bring this up again, and we find another way.”
She wiped her eyes and nose on the hem of her dress, and nodded.
I handed her the reins; she took them without looking at me.
“Sleep well.” Her voice was clipped. That bothered me, but I knew she’d think on it. When I woke, she’d have an answer.
I really didn’t know what it might be, but I’d be lying if I said part of me hoped she’d say no. We were isolated and remote enough. We could hunt together, and feed, and no one would know…
I shook my head free of that illusion. If enough people went missing long enough, and frequently enough, we’d be first on the list. They’d burn the forest if they wanted to get us, of that I had no doubt.
On its face, the idea wasn’t unappealing; we’d both get the peace we wanted.
But if there was a chance we could be free, and live, we owed it to ourselves to take it.

 

 

Spellbound (2): Old Rivals New Plans

Too many years later, Nira was still beautiful, though the fire in her eyes had mellowed.
Dignified, serene, and haughty, she looked more like the queen she was destined to become.
“What do you want, Nira?”
“For you to be quiet. To look at you. There is no rush.”
“I’ll not pleasure you.”
She laughed. “I can get that from any guard here; for that, I would not send for you.”
I bristled at the sharp suddenness, and stupidly replied. “Good to know.”
A brief spark in the eyes, then she gathered herself.
“Enough.” She waved her hand.
I was going to banter some more, but it was time wasting; I wanted to be free of her, and for her not to engage me meant she was just as eager.
“What do you want?”
“I want you to kill someone.”
“Who?”
“A woman.”
“Why?”
“She wants my throne.”
“Why?”
“You needn’t concern yourself with reasons. I will point you in the direction you should go, and like a good hound, you’ll find the trail, flush her out, and slay her.”
“You seem to be fond of calling me a dog.”
“You seemed fond enough of acting like one. Stay for dinner; I’ll go over the plans with you then.”
“I don’t want to, but I don’t really have a choice.”
Her smile was imperious, mocking, and condescending. “No, you don’t.”
The guards who led me away last time, a bit more careworn than before, approached me.
“Come along.”
I went. “Nice to see you again, gentlemen.”
That got a smile from the older one. “Some things never change.”
I looked back over my shoulder. “No, she doesn’t.”

**************
They treated me to a hot bath, and washing the gritty dirt and sand off, as well as the stink of the camel, was a luxury I enjoyed even after the water was scummy and tepid; I never wanted to leave.
There was a soft knock at the door, bringing me out my torpor. “Leave the towels outside, please.”
No answer, and I didn’t know if they’d gone away, so I said it again. Silence.
It was customary of servants to give answer, and I became a bit anxious; I got out of the water and retrieved my knife from the nightstand.
“Who’s there?” I moved toward the door, hastily donning my traveling robe, which, unlike me, wasn’t washed; I couldn’t answer the door naked, as if a knife couldn’t penetrate the robe. It will, but you can catch the blade in the sleeve and go from there.
I opened the door.
Nira pushed me back inside, her mouth and hands moving; relaxed from the bath, I thought I wouldn’t be able to satisfy her, but I responded quicker than I cared to admit.
“This…is no…way…for a queen…to act,” I said between harsh, hot kisses.
“No,” she said, kneeling. “It’s not.”
She yanked my robe down, kissing and licking, taking me in her hand.
“Oh, look. You’re going to pleasure me after all…”
“I thought you weren’t going to send for me.”
She looked up at me, smiling. “I didn’t.”
The fire in her eyes, as it turned out, hadn’t mellowed at all.

****************
We did have dinner, far later than we thought; the sullen serving girl tried to smile, and eventually Nira told her to stop.
“Go to bed, child. We’ll see to ourselves.”
The girl curtsied, and her smile of gratified relief was genuine. “Good night, your graces.”
Nira overlooked the mistake. “Good night, Jenara.”
I fell to, ravenous, as Nira watched, taking bites of her own, little and careful where I gobbled and stuffed.
“We have more.” She smiled, amused at my bad manners.
I took a large sip of the strong, dark beer they were famous for here. “Plans,” I muttered, wiping my moustache with the back of my sleeve.
“Patience, my friend—”
“I’ve been patient long enough.”
She shook her head. “And you think I’m arrogant.”
I took another sip of beer.
“You’re determined,” she tried again. “Am I that horrible?”
“I’ll ask you a question: Am I here of my own will?”
It was her turn to fall silent.
“Your plans.” Pushing the dishes away, I leaned with my elbows on the table, and looked at her around my hands as I rubbed them on a linen napkin.
She told me, ending with “You leave at first light.”
“Alright.”
She finished her wine, red lips smiling at me over the rim of her red crystal glass. “Well, maybe second…”
I laughed, desperate and mirthless, knowing I had absolutely no power to refute her; what scared me more, I didn’t want to.

 

Reflections of the Heart

Finally, the end of the day; I’d anticipated it since this morning, knowing the schedule ahead of me. I didn’t want to do the presentation, because I didn’t think I could. But I did.
The accolades seemed sincere enough,  but I never could determine what was really in people’s hearts. Since no one stabbed me in mine when it was over, I took the praise at face value.
Trust issues are sort of a thing with me, so I keep a small circle of acquaintances; I don’t think I ever let anyone in far enough to call a friend.
At the end, the boss was smiling. The steely-eyed men of our top client seemed pleased as well. I filed it away for the annual raise groveling when my review came, but tonight was deemed  a special occasion.
One of those steely-eyed men asked me out, and because I didn’t know how to politely decline after winning a hard-earned victory (and not being willing to endanger it, to be honest), I said yes.

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

As I got ready, I checked my reflection using gran’s old mirror, an antique she left to me in passing, telling me it was enchanted. She’d been something of a wiccan or psychic, or some combination thereof; I loved the old dear but I thought she was a little crazy.
Still, she loved me even though I scoffed, and it was nice to know that if the need for cash grew urgent, I could get a good price.
I fussed with my neckline til I had enough teaser cleavage, dreading every passing second toward him picking me up. When the whole look was girly-girl enough not to make him feel threatened, on impulse I took a flower from the vase and placed it just-so in my hair for an exotic touch. It bordered on trying too hard, but I decided to risk it.
“Faint heart never won rich businessman.” As soon as I said it, I winced.
Was I that shallow, that money was the first thing to occur to me? I was disappointed in myself. That took more reflection than I was willing to commit right now.
As I’d been getting ready, the temperature in the room had dropped to the point where I hugged myself for warmth. I checked the thermostat, but it was where I always left it.
Someone called my name, faint and distant, almost too low to hear.
Maurelle.  I chalked it up to date jitters, but then I heard it again, distinctly behind me. Maurelle.
I turned just as a soft, pale light suffused the room, but from the other side of gran’s mirror. A reflection not my own, twin but for the malevolence in her eyes, beckoned me to her.
“How…?” I backed into the wall, staring at myself getting angry with me for being scared.
Sister…come here.

I could feel myself trembling as I walked toward her, my roiling thoughts trying to label and organize, and failing. There was no analysis to be made of this.
Place your hand in mine; I have a gift for you. From Gran.
“This is a dream…”

She chuckled. It is not, but you may call it that if you like.
“No! I know what this is! You…you need me to escape.”
I do. Let me take your place. I know what’s in this man’s heart. And yours. I will get it for you.
“But you’re not me. I can feel the evil on you, even through the glass.”
I’ll not deny it, sister.
“What’s your name?”
Her eyes widened with mock innocence and hurt. The same as yours.
“Liar!”
She smiled, and I swear my skin crawled.
Let me in.
I wanted to back away, but couldn’t.
Touch the glass, Maurelle.
“Not until you tell me your name.”
She was casting a spell on me; my shoulders grew heavy, and I could feel my body weakening.
I am called Magena. Touch the glass, before you succumb.
I don’t remember touching it, but my hand suddenly felt dipped in ice, and I saw the blood when the glass broke. Magena gripped my wrist, pulled my hand to her chest, and smeared the blood on her cold, pale skin, on her quickening heart. She threw her head back, her voice chanting as fleeting dark images flooded my mind, visions of the place where she’d emerged.
The faces of those underworld beings would have driven me insane; if she’d been around them, she already was. If I was the gateway, what did it say of me? Of Gran?
The world spun in delirious circles, and I shouted something out, a word of incantation I didn’t know I knew, something that completed the spell.  Magena was beside me, translucent, but solidifying quickly.
I wanted to stop her, but I was fainting. She caught me as I fell, and gently laid me on the floor, my head in her lap, stroking my cheek, the air rife with the coppery tang of my blood on her chest.

Rest now, sister. I will take care of you.
Her voice was soothing, condescendingly patient, like you’d speak to a wayward child spinning out of control. They comforted me like a blazing hearth in high winter, and the darkness covered me like a mother’s love.
Don’t worry, Maurelle. I will see to your steely-eyed man. I will see to your whole life, now. I am your gift from Gran; in her heart, she hated you for mocking her.

She took the flower from my hair, put it in hers, and the last thing I saw was the vibrant pink turning black.

Magena’s sultry laughter rang in my ears, as my sight faded with my hopes of ever waking up again.

She was right: this was no dream.

My heart…

Head of the Pack (A Liar Fire Story)

It was Debra’s third night out with what the locals called, ‘The Pack,’ young delinquents preying on those who came through after their lecherous festivities in the Town Proper, as the Pack called it.
Touristy and ripe with rich foreigners, it was a pick-pockets playground, but the law was vigilant there.
The Pack stayed on the outskirts, waiting for stragglers and strays.
Omni threw the old woman to the ground, and yanked her purse from her feeble hands. Debra heard a bone snap, and winced as the old woman screamed, but she didn’t dare stop Omni; he’d do worse to her if she interfered, like he did the first time she took pity on a mark.
This mark didn’t go quietly, cursing him roundly; Debra found herself surprised, and wondered if the woman was younger that she wouldn’t give Omni a run for his money.
“Shut up, ya decrepit ol’ bitch!”
He kicked the old woman in the face and knocked her out, left her there with a bloody mouth as he walked away, Debra trotting behind him.
He mentored her while rifling through the old woman’s belongings: “Cash is cash, little thief. Young, old, don’t matter, as long as what comes out of ‘em is green. If that don’t happen, then what comes out is red.” His phlegmy laugh haunted her dreams that night, and she cried, afraid for her own fate, but there was nowhere left to go.

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

Tonight, they did more of the same, but this time he was warming to retelling the tale of that night. She was listening to him now, his speaking voice an echo of his laugh, raspy with impending cancer and callous living, bragging, holding court outside the alley in front of the rest of them.
“She wouldn’t let go of her purse, so I swung her around by it ‘til she let go. I never meant to break her arm or nothin’.
“It were an accident.”
“Yeah, okay, Omni. But even after, you kicked her lights out.”
He lowered his eyes. “Yeah, yeah, I know. Things got the better ‘a me, thas’ all.”
“Broke her up, pretty good, Omni.”
“Forgot you was a fighter?”
“No, I didn’t forget, ya moron! Like I said, it got the better ‘a me. She was callin’ me names and screamin, then the darkness came, and I didn’t send it away. This time, I didn’ send it away.”
A tall man in a dark suit was coming toward them; they spared him a wary, cursory glance, until Jim spoke again.
“She had no chance against you.”
“Well, like I said, I didn’ mean t’do it. Lay off it, Jimmy.”
Jimmy laid off, looked at the stranger, who’d stopped just outside the circle, a bit too close.
“Anyone got a light?”
They looked him up and down; he wore a well-tailored suit, understated ring that they knew to be worth something. His watch, too.
The cigarette was black; not sold here, then. An import.
Mark all over him, in fluorescent neon green.
Cal took his lighter and lit the smoke.
“Thanks.” He looked at Omni. “You’re Omni, right?”
Omni gave him a crocodile’s grin. “I know you?”
The stranger shook his head. “Heard of you. Why do they call you Omni? Is that your real name?”
Omni pushed his way through his small crowd of sycophants and stood before Nefarion.
“You got yer light. Best be on yer way, Mr. Suit.”
The man made no move to go away. “You didn’t answer my question.”
Omni pushed the man’s shoulder with a small jab. “Don’ have to, n’ not goin’ to. Move along, fer fuck’s sake. Ain’t gonna tell you again.”
As he spoke, his entourage slowly circled the man.
“I’ll tell you why,” the man said. “They call you that because you provide everything these losers need.” His arm swept out to include the gathering. Debra shrank back as Omni took the bait.
“Well, la-de-da, fellas. Th’ fancy’s callin’ ya losers. While he ain’t ‘xactly wrong, he’s outta line, talkin’ to us like that.” He turned from the man to look at them all, making sure they were with him.
“Wouldn’t ya say?”
His sycophants looked the man over, and he looked back, his own gaze carrying a calm confidence that gave them pause. “This isn’t your fight, guys.”
“It is if I say so.” Omni took another step forward, and jabbed the man’s shoulder again.
“Really?”
“Really.”
Nefarion looked them over as they tentatively shuffled forward; their hearts weren’t in it. “For the last time, my fight’s not with you. What you do with that information now is up to you.”
“Hit this fucker, boys.”
No one moved.
“Ain’t this some kinda chickenshit business…” Omni’s fists were on his hips.
“You’re the one he wants,” Cal said. “Seein’ as how yer a leader n’ all, pushin’ grannies around and breakin’ their arms, let’s see what y’ really got.”
The others nodded, murmured agreements, and stepped back; Omni found himself alone, if not isolated.
The stranger still seemed at ease, which made Omni uneasy.
“Go to it, Omni.” Jim said.
The stranger waited.
Omni waited.
The stranger arched a brow. “Nothing?”
They waited some more, saw Omni shift and shuffle, but his heart wasn’t in it either.
The Pack drift began to drift away.
“Hey…where ya goin?”
Cal stopped, and they all turned; in that moment he became the de facto leader of the group, if Omni wouldn’t act.
“Last chance, Omni.”
Omni looked back at the stranger, who held out his arms in a welcoming gesture.
Backed into a complex corner, Omni rushed at the stranger, who never moved. To his credit, he didn’t hesitate, landing some blows that seemed to do damage.
He messed up the stranger’s suit, and had his lip bleeding; his small cadre got back into it, except Cal.
He’s being suckered, and he’s too stupid to know it. Cal started walking.
Look, Cal! Don’t go! Omni’s winning!”
He’s gonna die, the dumb shit. Fuck it. I’ll watch him go…
Omni had the man’s arm behind his back, his forearm locked around the man’s neck, pressing hard; in their excitement, none of the others had seen the man’s expression hadn’t changed at all, though his jaw was swollen and his mouth bled.
He ain’t human. Cal wasn’t surprised as the revelation hit him. The devil came a – calling.
The stranger relaxed in the hold, and his suit began to smolder.
At first, they thought the cigarette had set the suit on fire, but as the stranger’s eyes began to glow, they stepped back. Their expressions alerted Omni to the fact that something wasn’t right.
He pushed the stranger away, but just as quickly found himself grappling face to face as the stranger turned and wrapped his hands in Omni’s jacket sleeve, pulling him close.
Omni tried to shove him, but the strangers skin was hot. “What the–?”
Omni fanned his hands trying to cool them, backpedaling. He began to turn away, but the stranger pulled him off balance by his right sleeve, dangling him like a fruit, a punched him twice in the face,
Omni was on the edge of consciousness; the stranger tightened his grip and twisted, breaking off Omni’s right arm at the shoulder, and set it on fire, blood spurting onto his left pants leg.
The others broke, but there was an unseen barrier.
Panicked screams and pleadings rent the heating air, and they began to cry as well as sweat.
One by one, they burst into flame, except for Cal. He only looked at Nefarion as those around him burned. Nefarion stuck his chin out, indicating Debra, standing outside the circle, her eyes wide and her mouth open.
Cal nodded; he’d look after her.
“Go, then.”
Cal walked through the firewall to stand beside Debra, and they both stared at the spectacle of immolation; the crackling, sizzling fire, made the air wavy with heat. Human bodies twitched and dripped bloody fat as they melted away like Nero’s living torches, unrecognizable as human anymore.
“Let’s go,” Cal said. He put his arm around her shoulders, guiding her away.
Still standing in the center of the carnage, Nefarion could see Debra turn back for one more look, and smile.

 

Spellbound

Chapter 1: Exiled to Freedom
There was a fierce wildness to her beauty, something in the eyes that would catch you like a kite and fling you end over end into the clouds, only to rip tear the heart asunder and dash it back to the unyielding earth.
I found myself in a perpetual state of tension between exhilaration and desolation, never knowing which was next, or for how long it would last once manifest; I only knew that when she summoned, I must go; that was as constant as the tide.
That we would wind up killing each other one day was as certain as sunrise.
For now, I was on his way, sweaty in the desert sun, trying not to fall asleep; to keep my mind occupied, I gave sway to the memory that kept nudging me like a horse’s nose.
*********************
“I don’t understand,” she said.
The sweet scent of the garden flowers now seemed to him like a cloying fog, and I fought the urge to gag.
“You don’t need to understand; you need to let me go. Take off the spell, Nira, and I’ll be on my way.”
“And if I don’t?”
“I’ll find a way to leave anyway.”
She smiled, still not understanding. “What are you going to do, kill me?”
I neither moved nor replied, and in the protracted silence, it finally took hold.
“You would!” She stood up. “You will!”
“We had our time, Nira. Now, I would be free. You can’t hold me hostage. If you don’t break the spell, I’ll find a way, but if killing you is the only way to make that happen, I’ll do that too, if I must.”
She started to cry.
“You can’t have my freedom.”
“You can’t be with someone—”
“You bound me to you, Nira! This whole thing is a farce!”
Her hands were covering her face; when she took them away, her mascara was smeared. The fire in her eyes told me I was closer to dying than ever before.
Her voice rasping with hurt pride, her rage seethed through gritted teeth: “I release you from my service. You’ll be paid, and your passage from the land secured. But as penalty, you shall be branded with an ‘O’, now that you’ve forsworn your oath.
“Your return from exile, in any form, to this land, now carries a death sentence.”
“I expected no less.”
“You have until sunset.”
“Thank you, Nira.”
Her eyes flashed again, her voice stronger with venom this time. “Do not speak my name again, you oath breaking, traitorous bastard of a dog.”
I nodded, and turned on my heel, knowing before I felt something hit my back, making me stumble; I heard the crystal goblet that struck me shatter on the floor as I walked a gauntlet of hostile stares, pushes, shoves, spit, and slaps from her servants and councilors, who also went out of their way to trip me.
Nira watching, said nothing. Did nothing.
I was bleeding and bruised, my face filthy, my cheeks stinging.  The pain of the spell breaking left me too weak to fight back. The guards lifted me like a sack of grain, and took me to the torturer for branding. I remember the smell of smoking steel, and starting to scream. When I woke up, I was outside the city gate.
Sunset was imminent, and despite the pain in my cheek, I ran, even after the dirty sweat on my face burned it more.
I made it out alive, only to be called back when she needed me, unable to resist, though she used no magic. At least none that I could tell. Conditioned to serving her, it didn’t matter how far I roamed.
She said I would die if I returned.
She never said how long it would take.

Midnight Son (4) Morning Song

I had to make the old cleric’s coffin, so it was crude by necessity.
As I shoveled the dirt, Semele came over when I was halfway done.
There were tears in her eyes, but she wasn’t crying full out. “I couldn’t help it.”
“I know, Semele. We’ll leave, and we’ll find her.”
“She could be anywhere.”
I smiled. “Then we’ll search everywhere.”
She smiled back, then looked down at the grave again. “I’m sorry, Cassis. I’m sorry I made you suffer.”
“Want to help?”
She nodded.
“There’s another shovel in the shed.”
She left to get it, and came back. The soil was rich and soft, and she took more on the blade than I thought she could.
“Don’t get dirty, Semele.”
“Who’s going to care?”
“Don’t get saucy with me, either.”
She stuck her tongue out at me and crossed her eyes.
I chuckled and shook my head. “Are you packed?”
“Yes.”
“We should leave soon.”
“I know. How are we going to go, Ingrum? You need to sleep.”
“I was going to trust you to drive the wagon.”
“I can’t. The horses are too big. I’m not big enough to handle them.”
I sighed; hadn’t crossed my mind. She was growing, but at the rate of whatever it was that infected her, not a human rate. “I’ll have to hire someone, then.”
“There’s no one around.”
“Then you’ll have to drive it. We can’t stay, Semele.”
“All right. I’ll just keep tight on the reins.”
I felt some trepidation, though she seemed up to the challenge. “Get us to the next town, and I’ll hire a driver.”
She nodded. “Are we finished with this?”
I was tired of digging, and Cassik was already picked apart; if the wolves got him, who would know?
“Yes.”
“I’ll get my things.”
While she was gone I looked at the brightening eastern sky, counted the money I allocated for expenses, having stashed the rest that was readily available among our belongings. The rest would have to be sent for as soon as we settled.
I could either bargain with or compel someone into doing it. I decided to compel, just to cut down on the risk factor to ourselves.
“I’m ready.”
We took a last look around at the morning shadows slowly dissipating.
“I’m satisfied to remember it like this,” she said.
I nodded. “Time to go. I’ll ride with you for a bit, then hand you the reins.”
“All right.”
I helped her up to the buckboard, and she settled in, then got up beside her, and snapped the reins, made a sound that got the horses moving. The wagon lurched forward.
“Do you hear that, Ingrum?”
“What?”
“The birds are singing again.”