Night Jackals (Enclave of Paradise short story)

Chapter 1: Chased

  In the razed city he called home, now full of booby trapped debris and mines placed around by the infiltrators from Above, the Enclave was a lot more dangerous now than it had been since the rebellion failed. 

     The place had a name of its own once, but he’d been born into the time of war and had been too young to say it.

     Now, it seemed no one remembered it. 

     They called it the Enclave of Paradise, as sarcastic and bitter a name as they could get without being openly profane, though he saw no reason they shouldn’t be.

      At the moment though, Chase was panting for breath, running from the night jackals who were hunting him in a pack of four. 

     He could hear them spatter and splatter through the chemically laced ‘rainwater’ from Above. 

     The Night Jackals were new. No one had seen them come, and no one noticed them until their numbers were sufficient, 

      Then they went on a few tentative hunts, feeding mostly off animal strays. 

     They picked off people walking alone or drunk. If they happened to be both, it made for an early night when the alcohol hit the jackals’ bloodstream

.

     He had a flashing thought that was supposed to be, of all things, humorous: They’re chasing Chase.

    He dismissed it as not funny, and turned to see the pack of four coming for him. 

    What was even more chilling was the fact that they ran completely silent, with no warning. It happened so fast that it was effective in keeping down the neighborhood population.

    The Night Jackals were killers in their own right, relentless, patient, and silent as Death’s reaper.

     His gun was charged, but he’d lose ground for sure if he stopped to fire it, and he was no good at running and shooting simultaneously.

     Chase’s breathing grew labored.

     The jackals closed, beginning to yip as the excitement of the pending kill gave them adrenaline. 

     You’re not gonna make the gates, Chase. Take cover in the rubble. 

      He muttered a curse. The rubble was where the traps, bandits, other ferals, orphans, street people, and who-all-else-knew what was in there.

      Still, it was now or never. 

      He changed course, and the jackals grew more cautious. They were clever animals, Chase would give them that much, but that’s as far as he wanted to take it. 

      He measured the jump into the pile of metal, stone, and glass.

      Ready? Three steps.

      Set? Two steps.

      Now! 

Chapter 2: Trapped

      There was no cover, but he fell into a hole and gashed his arm on something spiky.

      The thwarted pack of jackals growled in frustration, losing sight of him, but not his scent.

      He realized, only after he bit his lip and wiped the tears of pain from his eyes, that he trapped himself.

        He heard one of them climbing, carefully, picking its way up so as not to cut itself.

        It had the luxury of time. 

        Chase went to pull his gun, but his arm was shaking and he couldn’t land a grip on the handle. 

        He couldn’t see it, but the other three jackals circled the heap to find another way in on the ground. What he did know was that he was losing precious seconds bumbling his firearm.

       He gripped his right wrist in his left fist and breathed deeply despite the flaring pain along his forearm and biceps.

       The jackal now scented the blood that ran from Chase’s wound.

       It growled deep in anticipation of the feast, then slipped, losing its footing.

       Chase heard it yelp, and the others answered.

       After a tense silence, he heard them climbing, picking their way up once more as their paws struck tin. 

       He couldn’t stay there now even though he had the gun. Times were hard and they were hungry; they’d attack him as a pack even though space was tight.  

       Looking around, he saw nothing he could shove to dislodge them again.

       Another low growl came from above, and a drop of blood fell on his gashed arm.

       The alpha was staring at him, its paw dripping. 

       Having nothing to lose now, he screamed and fired.

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

      Singed, the jackal barked, retreated, then growled low again.

      The other three cleared the top, and Chase circled as fast as he could, still screaming, still firing.

      He hit two of them in the face. One fell back down the heap as it died, and the other ran off with its lower jaw destroyed. 

      Two left

      The Alpha peeked over again, and snarled, 

      Chase felt his arm going numb and his fingers tingling; he had no idea how he was still holding the gun, or how long he’d be able to keep it. 

      The Alpha’s face disappeared again, and while Chase watched, the night jackal behind him jumped.

      Chase crashed into the opposite wall, the gun falling out of his hand.

      It became a race for throats, and Chase barely won as the jackal’s neck twisted in desperation beneath his hand. The scent of blood seemed to increase the jackal’s strength, and its eyes went from gold to red as it thrashed to make its escape. 

      Chase managed to turn it on its side, lest the claws scratch his almost useless right arm. 

      Putting his full weight onto the jackal’s ribs, he squeezed its neck to limit movement. 

      It seemed to take a long time for it to die; had his right arm been good, he would’ve broken its neck. As it was, he was so focused on killing it he forgot about the Alpha. 

      Powerful jaws clamped his bicep and the fangs sent a fresh wave of pain through his arm as he cried out.

      His arm jerked back and slammed the jackal’s head into the wall of junk surrounding them, hoping its head would get cut open, but instead it lost its grip and fell stunned to the floor. 

      Chase took the opportunity to stomp the other one’s ribs into its lungs, and it died with a loud yelp.

      Hurriedly, Chase looked for the gun; he’d fire it left handed if need be, but he didn’t see where it had skittered under a pile of rusted tin and busted garbage bags the rats had opened nightly.

      The Alpha was recovering. 

      Chase kicked it twice in the head, dropping it. 

        His right arm now hung useless at his side.

        He had to finish this now. 

        The rats were gathering after scenting fresh blood, some of them already at the dead body Chase made. 

        He grabbed the Alpha by its tail and slammed it into a side wall of horizontal tin panels, cutting it. 

        The noise from the jackal was loud and piercing, hurting Chase’s ears, but he swung it twice more, slicing is back open.

        Past the point of fighting, the jackal whimpered, its eyes turning red as Chase pushed its neck onto a rusted tin panel and scraped its neck back and forth in a sawing motion. 

       More chittering rats came as jackal blood spurted over Chase’s clothes and face. 

       A wave of exhaustion came too, and he found himself fighting to stay conscious.

Chapter 3:  Escaped

        Chase vomited.

        The scent of blood and guts, the increasing boldness and numbers of the rats, and the fact that he almost died were beginning to take their toll.

        Standing near a wall of rubble, he swatted at a rat that jumped on the wound in his arm. Slapping it off hurt it more, but it had to be done before the rat got its teeth and claws into him. 

        He just needed to get out, but couldn’t climb now without making a path through the rats. 

        For now, they were still concentrating on the jackals, but they were sniffing the air at his rising fear, and he had to kick the closest ones away to keep space around him. If they started to climb his body, he was lost. 

        Taking a breath, he carefully scanned for a handhold; he’d have to start with his right arm to see if it could take the stress. The climb wasn’t long or steep, but it would take effort. 

        The light coming through the holes in the ground above Paradise was starting to move west, and Chase knew he couldn’t afford to lose the light. 

          A movement in his peripheral caught his attention. 

          The rats were growing sluggish, even beginning to stand still.

          What’s happening to them?

          Clearing his mind, he went back to his search, and saw a space just above his head between two cast off doors that he could slip his hand through. If they held his weight, he’d use them to search for the next one.

           The rats began chittering. Some had fallen on thier sides, and others on their backs.

           The jackal’s guts….something’s wrong with them.

            He grabbed the end of the door above his head, the gash in his arm sending pain that made him bite his lip and breathe heavily through his nose as consciousness feinted to elude him again.

Once more it passed, and he pulled at the door. It held.

He put his left hand in the gap, and stood on his toes. Moment of truth.

Taking another deep breath, he pushed off, finding a foot hold somewhere below just as a rat jumped onto his leg. In desperation he swung his leg back and slammed his boot back into the foothold, and the rat fell.

Chase pushed up on his arms, and began to climb, giving vent to a growl of effort that sounded a lot like the jackals.

He put his left hand in the gap, and stood on his toes. Moment of truth.

Taking another deep breath, he pushed off, finding a foothold somewhere below just as a rat jumped onto his leg. In desperation he swung his leg back and slammed his boot back into the foothold, and the rat fell.

Tensing as a couple of pieces dislodged and fell along with it, he kept still.

When nothing more crashed down on him, he  began to climb, giving vent to a growl of effort that sounded not unlike the jackals.

Chapter 4: Freed

He lost track of everything but the next handhold and foothold.

Time faded, and the pain in his shaky right arm eventually numbed with adrenaline, but was still bleeding since he couldn’t bind it. It was slow, but it was there.

He was working against both as the last of the light faded and the adrenaline wouldn’t last.

Among the surviving rats, some began to pick the carcasses of their dead, and others tried to find a way up the pile to Chase.

He took a glance up, and liked his chances, but the rats were just as determined.

A beam of bright light lit the precarious catwalks above his head, and he muttered a mild curse of frustration as he lifted up enough to be able to reach the top.

Search party or patrol? Friend or foe?

He heard the sound of boots drawing close.

“He came this way.”

“Why?”

“Who knows? We’ll give it five more minutes. I don’t want to be down here when it’s dark.”

Chase knew the voices. “Over here, guys.” 

The sound of boots came faster.

The yipping of night jackals could be heard in the distance.


Spending the Night

He was twice cursed: once to walk the night, and twice, to feel every cosmic shift of the stars, to hear its spirits calling, crying, and keening all around him.

He saw the roiling atoms of life grind and flow to make the very dark that cloaked his hands with frost, and burned his skull with eyes of fire.

Even the spirits paused in their wanderings to let him pass.

The damned saw him in all his splendor, the gems and gold that bedecked and dripped from his limbs, and the exalted blessed fled from the sight of his malformed, wretched nakedness.

And when he wished it, all fled from his presence, leaving him to hear his own feet crunch, splash, shuffle, and run, feeling the pain of never resting, even when the silence of a universe devoid of gods and magic mocked his tears where the trails scraped like small claws and tasted of brine, and he would beg for death’s peace.

Death would reveal himself, shake his silent skull ‘no,’ and disappear. Again.

And step after he weary step, he wandered on.

And wanders still.

Red Redemption

She thought she was done all those years ago, though she’d only been a child.
The huntsman who saved them had taken all the glory for himself, and rightfully so, for she’d been duped by the spell the wolf cast over her eyes.
But now, the son of the slain one had taken revenge on the huntsman in his dotage, and his own daughter had barely made it in front of the hunting pack that scented her, knew her, and tirelessly pursued.
In the small hours when the starlight gleams brightest, flattering the false vanity of moonlight, her knocking on the woman’s door was a hard and tuneless knell that echoed through the dark forest shadows.
Taika, they called the woman now: The Magic Spell.
**************************
With grandmother dead, Taika shunned the world and apprenticed herself to a dying hag seeking a novice, promising herself to never be vulnerable and powerless again.
The hag was a hard taskmistress; Taika earned every scar she received from those long, hooked and jagged nails that made her correct her mistakes.
When the hag died, her pyre would not burn. Taika then gave her withered corpse to the river’s muddy banks, and let the creatures have their way.
The huntsman’s cowardly daughter was content to tend Taika’s house until she returned.
Taika left at first light.
**********************
In the clearing, she faced the Alpha.
The thing stood on two legs now, piercing blue eyes crystalline in the darkness.
“You wear the red witch’s hood?”
“Yes, Alpha.”
“These village fools have summoned you to redeem yourself, and reckon with your past?” As the drool fell from his maw, it hissed at his feet.
The lambent red and yellow eyes of his pack surrounded her.
“Yes, Alpha. Just me and you.” she said.
“They know better than to interfere,” he reassured her. “Is this fight to the death?”
Her twin knives gleamed in the moonlight, silver fangs in human hands.
“To the death.”
Snarling, they locked.

Come Out, Come Out…

Lyle stood in front of his sister Lyla, his left arm around her. She pressed so hard against his back he thought she’d climb inside of him.

They were looking into the closet at deep blue wolf’s eyes staring back at them, possessed of a contemplative intelligence not naturally found.
They were trembling, but it was Lyle’s duty to protect her, and that’s what he was going to do no matter what.

“Why are you scaring us?”

   Scaring you? The deep, disembodied voice made them both jump and flinch at the same time, though it hadn’t shouted.

   Why do I scare you? What have I done?

“Y-y-you won’t sh-sh-show y-yourself…and y-you k-keep scaring L-Lyla!”

     I do, but why are you scared of me?

“Y-you sh-should g-g-go.”

   Go where?

“I-I don’t c-care. J-just go.”

    I just whispered Lyla’s name…

“We don’t want you here! P-please g-go.”

The voice laughed softly, and serrated teeth flashed in a cruel smile.

Lyle turned away, holding on to a thread of resolve.

   I admire your willingness to sacrifice yourself Lyle, but you can’t.

“I’m doing it…”

   I haven’t attacked you. It’s Lyla I want.

“W-we’re twins. We go together.”

   No. It isn’t your turn.

“You can’t take me instead?”

    No.

“Why?”

   I’m losing my patience, child. Stand aside.

The blue eyes brightened and moved closer to the closet’s edge.

The twins took a step back, and Lyla gasped in Lyle’s ear. His arm around her tightened for all that it was behind his back.

“You can’t take my sister away. I won’t let you.”

   Lyle, stand aside.

“No.”

In the mirror Lyle saw Lyla look down and away, and she began shaking her head and pointing as she whimpered Lyle’s name.

Lyle took another step back, as if it made a difference, and glanced where she was pointing.

From under the bed bright green eyes peered up at them. A jagged toothed smile promised a bloody death as a woman’s soft, mellifluous voice spoke to them.

   Ah, there you are, children.

A long bony arm came out from underneath the bed, covered with decayed flesh and leggy things that moved beneath the skin.

  Follow me, Lyle. I can take you….

Lyle moved away as the closet door opened and the monster’s horned head emerged into the dim moonlight.

Lyla’s grip on Lyle was painful; she wasn’t letting go, no matter what happened.

“We’ll die together,” Lyle found himself saying.

To his surprise, Lyla, calmed down.

“No, we won’t,” she said.

The other monster began to slither from under the bed.

   Defiant little bastards, it said.

Lyla stepped from behind her brother.

Lyla! What are you doing?” he gasped.

Lyla bunched herself into a crouch, and snapped up as if her body were jolted, her arms, legs and back stiff as if she was going to fly apart.

Her piercing scream thundered through Lyle’s ears, and he put his hands on them to find them bleeding.

She drew breath without seeming to and screamed again.

Lyle saw slashes appear on the monsters’ flesh.

Their own roars of pain gathered energy, but Lyla screamed again.

Lyle was rolling on the floor, blood in his nostrils; the monsters were desperately trying to scramble back, but the portal had closed.

Black blood flowed underneath the closet and from under the bed.

The monsters roared at the top of their lungs, so loud and terror filled that Lyle felt the hairs on his arm might pop out from fright.

Lyla gave a final scream that shattered the mirror and windows.

The first monster crashed down, slamming the closet door against the wall hard enough to leave an indent. The monster under the bed kept twitching, its dead skin rupturing with scattering vermin until it stopped moving.

Lyle’s head was between his knees, hands still on his ears, blood leaking through his fingers.

Lyla went to him, held him, and kissed his cheeks.

He pulled back, looked at her flowing tears with silent, screaming faces inside them.

The whites of her eyes turned scarlet, the reptilian irises gleamed amber and gold.

“It’s all right, Lyle. They won’t hurt us anymore. Sometimes I forget…”

 

 

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.

 

Ingrate

(Same picture, different POV)

The room spins, and the light dims.

I hear my heartbeat in my ears, slowing, growing fainter as the seconds tick.

My life’s blood soaks me in warmth, caressing old flesh in death even as it cradled newborn skin at birth.

No, I will not miss this world, but I did at least think I would miss my child, until she made an end of me; she walked away as I cascaded down the wall, my feeble hands scrabbling for purchase that wasn’t there, and couldn’t hold onto if it was.

Her high heels clicked on the hardwood floor, tiny hammers banging tiny nails into my soul as she walked away.

“Annalynn…” My throat burned as it squeezed out her name. I needed water, but I could feel the craving turn for something richer, thicker, red, and warm.

I shook my head.

My vision was blurring, and my heartbeat slowed even more.

And the day I brought my murderess home bloomed in my vision like the sudden clearing of clouds after a proper storm.

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

Something was inside the writhing white sack in the middle of the road, the rain turning it beige in the headlights of my car.

“Teddy, stop!”

I almost hit the sack, but managed to swerve in time; even before I righted the car she was out the door, and the sound of human wailing cut through the patter.

A baby? Someone left a baby in the sack, on the road, on a rainy night; I knew what would happen next, but never thought of what happened later, until it was over.

Janice came back with the writhing contents of the sack in her arms, and we never told a soul we suddenly had a daughter.

Questions were asked, suspicions raised. “Janice’s sister died. This is her niece, Annalyn; it was in the will she be raised in a good home. No one else, it seemed, wanted her.”

We had no paperwork to back this story, and though eyebrows arched and tongues wagged, no one called the authorities to find out the truth. The child seemed healthy enough after all, and we weren’t struggling financially, and did they reeallly want to get involved…?

Annalyn, our adopted child, grew up happy and strong, bright, gregarious, fearless almost to the point of recklessness.

Her keen wit held a sharp tongue, and she championed herself through the pecking order of school cliques and would-be bullies.

By her fourteenth year, the boys began circling, smelling blood and hormones, but what I managed to rebuff she encouraged, indeed, deigned to catch.

Janice grew ill, and Annalyn grew temperate just long enough to ease her fears until she passed; I think the tears were real the day we lowered Janice to the earth, but when she looked at me with a small smile gracing her lips, like a spider standing behind a fly, I knew something else was amiss.

She wasn’t home much after that, and her disdain for my despair at losing Janice was only exceeded by her contempt for my authority. I searched her room when she wasn’t home, and found not only evidence of boys, but a fascination with the undead as well: books, drawings, magazines, and letters from a boy named Daray.

I decided to confront her, though I was nervous. I put my hands in my pockets to hide the fact that the tremors of my eventual demise had started.

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

“Daray turned you? Made you? He’s damned your soul, is all he’s done. And Janice…she was wrong to bring you back here. You’ve done so much harm.”

“I’m grateful to you, papa. Really, I am, but I have to go.”

“You killed my Janice.”

“I know you think so. There’s nothing I can do about that.”

“There is.”

“What?”

“Die!” I ran toward her, my aged gait shambling and off center; she easily sidestepped me and tripped me, laughing low as I scrambled up before she could hit me again, but she made no move to fight.

“I don’t want to hurt you, papa.”

“That’s all you’ve ever done.”  I knew it wasn’t true even as I said it. We’d spent many moments together, her on my lap, a book in her hands, reading to me, her hair tickling my neck as I leaned over her shoulder…she’d been so sweet, such a bright child.

I broke down, weeping, and to my surprise she came, put her arms around me, kissed my grizzled cheek.

“I know, papa. I’m sorry about ma.”

Finding I needed the illusion of comfort more than I thought, more than I liked, I sniffled; my arms finally returned her hug. “I miss her too.”

The sudden drop in temperature made me think I was dying in Annalyn’s embrace, and I tried to step out of it. Her nails penetrated my gut as she pulled me back, her eyes boring into mine; I was mentally caught in a vortex, a heightened sense of vertigo causing a rush of panicked adrenaline to surge through me.

I bucked, jerked, thrashed against her, my body instinctively knowing it was under attack. Her fingers plunged deeper into my stomach, pulling something inside taut, clutching; blood seeped through my shirt.

She bared her fangs in a feral smile, and bit my neck.

I shivered from the freezing cold, and grieved with abject horror at what she’d become.

When? How? Am I dreaming? Is this real? Did Janice…?

When she let go, the pain hit with such force I crashed against the wall, trying clumsily to regain my footing.

Daray was in the doorway, watching me the way one watched snakes catch mice.

“Why, Annalyn?” So cold…

She stopped, and though she didn’t look at me, I felt her gaze like a weight.

“You want to be with Janice, papa. There was room in your heart, your life, for no one else. You said I killed her, that I separated you.”

She half turned then, seeing me slump against the bloody wall. “Isn’t it only right that I be the one to reunite you?”

“Anna…”

“Goodbye, papa. Greet Janice for me.”

The room stops spinning.

The light fades.

The seconds slow down.

My heart…

 

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.

Never Let Me Go

The night we met was magical; the love we made, torrid and heady, then slow, almost reflective, eyes opened when we kissed.

Vows were taken, oaths sworn, and powers revealed, each to each.

The smell of your sweat and perfume dripped and mingled with my own labors to bring you bliss, and lingered on me so that the memory still haunts.

Heated needs seared our souls together, and maiden blood sealed the covenant that you’d never depart.

The night you left in silence to slink away, bathed in moonlight, soaked in stars, I panicked, raging at the heavens and the deceit of your secret escape.

I vowed to find you; the bones of beasts I used litter the land. And after all this time, even now, clutching your writhing flesh, I find you supple and pliant in my grasp.

Your gasps of pleasure are now gasps for air, but my heart is dead to your wiles, and no longer beats at your pleasure, though it still beats, just not at my will.

I would choose death, but it will not choose me.

Your promises are puddles drying in the desert’s dust, and all we had to say to one another now blows in sandy strands across the dunes, seeking refuge from cold affections.

And since I cannot hold you, I leave you in another’s embrace; his light will give you peace in the darkness, and tell the night hunters where you are.

One last time, I trace your form beneath my fingers, one last time to take your scent with me back on the path home, to remember you.

And I will hear your screams, and I will weep for the bitter lesson one must ever learn in sworn fealty and devotion to the heart of another.

Never let me go.

*Original art by phanou.36.deviantart.com

 

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 (2) Friend or Foe

We returned to Sharrika’s cottage.

They left me outside while they argued, and at first, I couldn’t hear, but they got louder when Tafari opened a window as Sharrika began to make a fire.

“I stopped him, Mama.”

Sharrika’s laugh was another new layer to her personality, something she’d seldom indulged. “Did you really think that was you, Tafari? You haven’t the skill. Not yet.”

Good to know.

There was a brief silence, then Tafari’s voice. “Why is he here?”

The light from the hearth fire crept up the wall, its glow pulsating in the window panes as it cast their shadows; they were standing close, as mother and daughter should be. I didn’t belong here, but I let the feeling go before it took me over. I was tired, and the shock of the sights I’d just witnessed were still being processed. I was prone to do or say something stupid that I’d regret.

Like backhanding your daughter in the mouth? I shook my head, a small mirthless smile on my lips. Yes, something like that.

“I don’t really know,” Sharrika said, “but he may be able to help us.”

“Do you really not remember him?”

“No, I don’t. But I know the Order. They’re warriors as well as priests; he may be able to help.”

“Or if they get to him first, they’ll use him to stop us.”

More silence; Sharrika hadn’t considered that. Tafari was young, but jaded. She’s surrounded by rotting bodies, threw a knife into a man’s chest, not without force, spit on my robe, and threatened to cut my throat. ‘Jaded’ might be an understatement.

I’d have to watch her.

“Bring him inside,” Sharrika said. “We’ll get him dry, and maybe drunk. He’ll talk to us then.”

I was fine with both, and given it was said so openly, I had to wonder if the window staging was also for my benefit. There were few times I felt I was in over my head, but dealing with witches, good or bad, whatever the strata between those categories, was always risky.

Tafari opened the door, heat still behind her eyes. She’d hold that slap against me though she was the initiator.

I hoped it wouldn’t come to killing her, but if being my child meant nothing to her, it had to mean nothing to me if I was to survive. That would be hard to do, but I would do it.

 

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

The hearth fire and wine warmed me.

Tafari sulked on her bed as Sharikka tended the fire, keeping the poker handy.

I smiled inwardly; the fact that they trusted steel over spells was a bit ironic. I didn’t point it out.

“Why did you come back? Your Order was exiled, and none of you were to return.”

I took a sip of the dark wine, found it to my liking. “We were exiled, but not disbanded. We went elsewhere to settle, but the momentum of what we were trying to do was lost. We agreed to take leave, and come back to try again in a year’s time.”

“Why a year?”

“Some had families to tend, others needed to replenish their magic. The magic we waged here took a great toll.” I drank more wine, trying to fend off the memories of the screams and sights. No one, it seemed, bothered to clean up. “Why would you stay in the midst of…this?”

“Where would we go, that wouldn’t be attacked again? The invaders have already moved on. These clouds full of lightning bind us in place. It strikes those who try to leave. We can’t figure out a way to break it.”

“And you thought I might be able to help you with that?”

“I do, but only because we want to leave. We’re not going to fight again. Some went ahead to try to stop them, but the ranks are only thinning.”

“And the knight hung by his hands?”

“An example. A display of power to show the futility of steel against magic; they hung him in full armor, and left him to the crows, flies, and the elements. He was tough, and lasted awhile.”

“Tafari killed him.”

“I granted him a mercy we didn’t get,” she said.

“Indeed,” I said. “And the circle of blood?”

Tafari sat up and answered. “Their signature; they cut you, and draw a circle of your own blood around you, with different killing spells that discourage rescuers. Some of them are painfully cruel, and quite gory.”

“But nothing happened to you.”

“I didn’t try to rescue him.” Her tone was mocking, but I ignored it.

“You want me to break the clouds, and you gain your freedom. Are you the only two left alive?”

“The only two that matter,” Sharrika said.

“Seems a waste of binding, since you don’t pose a threat.”

“Who said we didn’t?” Tafari asked.

“Sharrika just told me you weren’t going to fight anymore.”

“They didn’t know that. Truth be told, neither do we.”

Sharrika looked at her; I couldn’t read her expression, but she didn’t refute the statement.

My patience and sense of caution were at an end. “I’m done. I’ll leave in the morning. This war isn’t over, and whatever you two want to do, or not do, doesn’t affect me. There’s no reason for me to free you at cost to myself.”

“Why did you return, then?” Sharrika asked.

“I came back to live out my days, and die in peace. I didn’t know the slaughtered were left to rot, and I didn’t know you were still here until Tafari told me.”

“And now?”

“That’s for you to answer.” I finished the wine.

“You said you’d tell me how we met.”

“I will, but not tonight.” I couldn’t suppress a yawn. My bones felt like warm butter.

Sharrika stood. “You’ve traveled far. Sleep. We’ll revisit this in the morning. Let the fire die.” She headed for her bedroom.

I nodded, already feeling the effects of the wine. I heard the lock click on her door, and Tafari lay back down, humming tunelessly as she turned her back on me. I sensed the guard spell around her.

With the pattering rain, the crackling fire, and the scent of wet lavender laced through with the nightmarish stench of putrefying bodies, my own flesh gave way to exhaustion. I folded my robe for a pillow, and stretching out on the rough hearthside rug, I slept, dreaming of circles of blood floating toward my eyes, and the knight staring at me with empty sockets, his red tears shining in the flashes of silent lightning.