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.

Lamenting Lullaby

The snow shower was ending, and the moon shone bright, full and high and clear against a sky of black crystal, with shadowy clouds gilded by a silver nimbus, traipsing like gypsy scarves, obscuring and revealing the cold, glittering stars so far away.

On any other night, it was a breathtaking scene, but tonight, my hands gripped the cold balustrade of the balcony rail so tightly that if the moon itself were in them, I would have crushed it to powder.

Her cries reached me through the thick oaken doors, and her screams ripped the winter silence asunder.

They told me this might happen. I prayed that it would not, but now it has.

The midwives, bless their plucky souls, had been efficient in their ministrations, but now, the rest, being up to Jesika, had taken a turn for the worst.

They sent the youngest to tell me. “Mr. Laskin, you’d best come, sir.”

One look at her brimming eyes told me all I needed to know.

They told you…They told you! Be strong, Alexei. Be strong, and see her home.

I followed, biting back the sobs that threatened to burst my jaw.

They stepped back from the door like a parting black curtain, faces somber, eyes downcast and full of tears.

On the bed, my Jesika, trembling, the last of her strength fleeing, holding our twins in her thin, shaking arms, and smiling through the sweat that left her spent and sodden on ruined, reddened sheets.

“Alexei…see?”

The tears came, and I couldn’t see.  “I see, my love. They’re beautiful, like you.”

“My crowning achievement.”

“Yes.”

Her breathing hitched, and blood marked her lips as she coughed, reflexes making her hold the strangely silent babes tighter.

The young midwife wiped Jesika’s brow and mouth, and poured a sip of water through her lips.

“I’m leaving, Alexei.”

“I know.”

“They’ll be my legacy, too.”

“Yes, Jesika, and a worthy one.”

“You must name them. Take your time with that…” Her coughing racked her.

The babes began to slip from her arms, and one of the midwives took them while the other again cleaned her face.

“Your violin…” Jesika said, her voice weakening.

“What?”

“Your violin, get it. Play for me, Alexei. One last time.”

I bolted, retrieved it, not bothering to tune it, and ran back.

I heard the midwives crying before I got to the doorway, and stepped aside as they filed out.

The youngest who came to tell me of Jesika was still standing next to the bed, holding my children, looking at me, worry and concern for my sanity and her safety plainly seen in her expression.

“Mr. Laskin, her eyes…?”

“I see, child.”

“Her eyes are still open, sir. Would you…do you want me to…?”

“Place the children beside her.”

“Sir?”

“Place the children beside her, and attend them.”

One of the midwives came back to the door. “Natalya, we must –“

I shut the door in her face. “Attend them, Natalya. Please.”

She did as I requested, though she was uneasy.

“I’ll not harm you, child. I’m going to play for my family. My wife sleeps in death, and my children in life. I will play them a lullaby.”

She turned away from me as I tuned the strings, watching the children, not daring to look at Jesika’s frozen smile.

I began an improvisation, slow and in a major key, happy, but not bright.

The children opened their eyes, and looked at me with those sage stares, rapt, as if they knew what I was doing, and why. Brother and sister, bonded in life, already bereft of a greater fealty than I could give.

Natalya sat, trembling, her hands ready to catch them should they list, or cast themselves off the bed.

But they didn’t move except to blink, and gurgle, raising their little hands toward me.

And then I played for Jesika, a somber, loving dirge that was a testament to her will and strength and beauty, my fingers as sure of her song as my heart had been of her love.

The twins began to cry, as if they knew what I was doing, and why.

And when Jesika’s eyes closed, Natalya retreated to a corner of the room, her mouth open in a silent scream; her tears wouldn’t stop, and her breathing became hiccoughs. She was but a shadow, and time was lost to me as the song caught me up. In my mind, I danced with them in an open field, all of us smiling and laughing, but slowly, they faded from my grasp as I swooned, and fell.

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

“…lost them all?”

“…wife and twins, on the same night!”

“…on earth happened?”

“…murder…”

“…poison…”

“…went insane…”

I hear the whispers, the gossip, and I see the fear as they pass me, when they have occasion to be around me, which is rare. I rarely go out now. Soon, I won’t go out at all.

I don’t remember much, except a song; something in me remembers a song.

A lullaby, it was.

A lullaby for my family, now sleeping all together in the ground.

I kneel in the hard, hoary grass, and place the parchment of our wedding vows before me. Behind me, weeping angels mark the graves of my little ones, Viktor and Irina.

And by the ivory light of the winter moon, I tune my violin, and play, and play, and play….

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.

 

 

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…

ALL THINGS MADE NEW (2)

Chapter 2: Someone Like You

My basement room was sparse, and cool. He bought me leather bound journals with ornate, lovely covers so I could write out my memories and feelings when he was unavailable to speak with me.
We were friends, after a fashion, and spent long hours sipping wine as he showed me something of the world, and I grew to love the sound of classical music on rainy days, and was glad to clean and organize things to release the boredom of waiting for his experiments with my blood to bear fruit.
One winter night, he brought in a fresh victim: a boy, close to my age, and slight of build like me. He looked more angry than frightened, and I recognized the urchin in him. The ‘good’ doctor was nothing if not selective.
“Zurie, this is Nelo.”
He gripped Nelo by the upper arm, and though the boy’s head was down, I could see a palm print on his cheek.
“Nelo, this is Zurie. Say hello.” He pulled the boy’s hair until his head came up, and Nelo gurgled something from a split lip.
“Nelo tried to rob me, Zurie. I did to him what I did to you at first, and like you, he’s just eaten at my table. Unlike you, he tried to steal again. I thought it best you speak to him; his defiance made me lose decorum, and I thought maybe you’d like some company.”
Nelo couldn’t take his eyes off me. His aura was dark; he seemed more shadow than boy, and though he was frightened, I fascinated him. He almost forgot the doctor was holding him until he was shoved toward me.
I reached out to balance him as he almost tumbled to the floor, and he came up looking right into my eyes, our faces close enough to kiss.
“Hello, Nelo.”
He composed himself as I helped him gain his balance before he stepped back.
“Hello, Zurie.”
It seemed stupid to shake hands.
I looked at the doctor. “Did you bring him here for me to…?”
“Yes, of course.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a vial of new blood he’d reworked.
There’d been many failed trials before, and I’d stopped getting my hopes up. The doctor was incompetent, a pretender to the field, with delusions of grandeur and ‘One day’s’ that never came. Now, his home was shelter from the storms of life and nature, but I was growing discontent with crumbs.
The others I’d known, neither friends nor family, never looked for me. It was just as well; I wouldn’t have gone back.
“Brought me here to do what?” Nelo asked, looking back and forth between me and the doctor. “To what?”
I smiled, letting my fangs grow. He recoiled and backed away as I drank the vial. Nelo ran into the girth of the doctor, who now had a knife. He turned him toward me and put the blade to Nelo’s throat, pressing, but not breaking the skin.
“Stand still,” he said in the boy’s ear.
The knife helped with that. I bit my wrist and came toward Nelo.
His eyes roamed me, and with my heightened senses I could hear his heart, and smell the fear which became visible as he wet himself.
“Give me your hand, Nelo.”
He held it out, against his will. I cut it, and rubbed the wound across my wrist.
The doctor was watching, eyes wide, breathing shallow, hoping against hope.
Nelo’s hand began to steam, and he cried out. Tilting the blade, the doctor silently warned him again to stay still. He began to whimper and beg, wanting to be let go, swearing he’d tell no one.
I smiled at him again: “But Nelo, this is something you’ll want everyone to know.”
His body twitched, spasmed, and the doctor and I lowered him the floor, watching. Screaming and wretched, Nelo rolled over onto his stomach, blood in his mouth, and went still.
The doctor looked on, worry bordering on despair.
“Give it time,” I said.
He looked at me, nodded, not yet realizing his predicament if this was successful.
Steam rose from Nelo’s body, but moments later he still didn’t move.
“It didn’t—“ the doctor started to say.
Nelo coughed up more blood, moaned, and rested his cheek in the puddle, too weak yet to stand.
From the expression on the doctor’s face, I think he surprised himself.
I was beyond pleased, and my happiness would now extend and manifest itself into the world outside this room, and onto my former tormentors.
I looked at the doctor, now beaming at me with a full-on smile. “I did it, Zurie. I did it.”
“Congratulations, doctor. You did very well.”
Nelo was trying to get up, and once again I helped him.
“What happened to me? What did you do to me?”
“He,” I pointed to the doctor, “made you like me.”
“Like you?”
“Yes.”
His eyes roamed over me once more, taking their time; I smiled and let him see my fangs.
“Welcome to our family.” The smell of his blood was pungent; I wanted to kiss him, but I walked toward the door. “You have to feed now, Nelo.” He made you like me. Like me, he beat you. Like me, he fed you. And soon, you will be like me.
He was still confused, looking at himself, at the doctor, at me. “I… I don’t know how.”
“Don’t worry,” I said, locking us in as I smiled at the doctor, who now realized his predicament.
“I’ll show you.”

Inspired Bye

I couldn’t finish digging her grave.
Everything was sore: hands, legs, and my arms trembling from an adrenaline crash and the damp, rich, heavy soil.
I couldn’t stop crying, and my face was a mass of unpleasant liquids.
I couldn’t stop apologizing either, though she was already gone.
There’d be no cairn, for the land seemed devoid of stones, yet I would not leave her to the scavengers.
You don’t have to stay. The voice in my mind sounded muffled and far away, as if her spirit spoke through a thick veil.
“If I don’t stay,” I replied, “you don’t rest.”
I don’t want to rest.
That piqued my curiosity. “What do you want?”
For us to change places.
“You want me to die?
Yes.
“Why?”
So I might live.
“You’re the one who got sick on the journey.”
Yes, but you’re the reason. I traveled to look for you.
“To kill me?”
Yes. You shouldn’t have left me.
“You knew I wasn’t staying, Alisyn. You know I couldn’t.”
She said nothing for a while; she lay there, just looking up at me with those sightless eyes. I thought for sure I’d closed them, but I couldn’t honestly remember.
I tried to start covering her again, but the soil was so heavy. I couldn’t lift it to throw dirt on her face, to cover her eyes.
“I could still use my hands.” Scooping some soil, I began walking toward the top of the grave, and stumbled, as if something had pushed me from behind. The dirt flew, landing on her stomach, covering her hands.
Come rest with me.
“I don’t need rest.” I stayed on my knees, my hands resting on my thighs. “I need sleep.”
Come, then, and sleep.
“Not of that kind. You’re dead.”
Because of you.
“Stop saying that!”
She whispered it. Because of you. Come rest with me.
Something tugged at my sleeve. I snatched my arm away and swung at nothing, getting to my feet.
I tried to look away, and when I couldn’t, to walk away. I could do neither.
Rest. Rest, and start again.
“That’s not what you mean. You mean to have me in there with you!”
It’s peaceful here. When you leave, no one else will ever come here. You once said you loved me. Come here, if you do.
“You said you loved me too. If that were true, you wouldn’t ask me to do that.”
But that is why I’m asking. I want you with me forever.
Something shoved me from behind. I turned and wildly struck at nothing again, but the shove knocked me off balance; I was right at the edge of the grave, and reflexes made me lean the other way to regain my balance, which I did just in time.
What a willful man you are. A selfish man. I never knew.
“You did, Alisyn. You did, but you couldn’t accept it. It’s why…why I left.”
And now you’re here. I forgive you.
“I did nothing wrong. I didn’t ask you to come after me .” I was on the very edge of patience.
But you knew I would. You knew, but you couldn’t accept it. You can’t accept it even now.
I couldn’t pass up the opportunity for sarcasm: “And now you’re here.”
Sitting on the edge of the grave, I dangled my feet inside, over her body; I looked unafraid at the unseeing eyes that looked right through me.
I loved you. I love you still. Come, rest beside me.
I felt hands begin to rub my calves, finger spreading, massaging; as they moved, small wakes of pulsing light outlined them, leaving pieces of soil behind.
If I tried to stand, they would seize me; tears flowed afresh, and I didn’t bother trying to stop them.
“No. I want to live.”
What is life alone?
“Mine, to live as I please.”
Where’s the good in that? What’s the legacy of that?
The unseen hands moved to my shoulder; the ripples of light pulsed a bit slower, and dimmer. I closed my eyes as they spread a pleasant warmth through me.
“I know what you’re trying to do, Alisyn. Stop it.”
She laughed. You stop me.
Another surge of adrenaline came, and I slid back, fighting the languor that turned my bones to lead; I managed to make it to all fours, then fell on my side fighting for breath.
The hands took advantage, and rolled me, with no effort, into the grave to land on top of her.
Panicked, my eyes wide and darting, looking anywhere but into hers, I tried to find a purchase to stand up and climb out, but only managed to wriggle like a worm in the deadly fingers of a ten- year old.
“Alisyn, let me go.”
No, you selfish, willful man; I can’t trade life with you, but for once, I will be selfish and demanding:
You will stay with me.
As my vision darkened, I looked one last time into her face.
Her eyes were closed, and her dirt covered hands slipped into mine.

M is for Mortal

I knocked, like I always do, respecting her privacy, but there was no answer.
“Baby? Kora? Are you there?” I went to check the bathroom, but heard no water, so I went back to the door and turned the knob.
He was there, holding her in his arms as she whimpered, answering with a soft snarling purr muffled by the tender flesh of my daughter’s neck. I don’t remember what happened next, but I do know that I smashed his head until it was pulped, and held my daughter as the blood pumped out of her.
She was a pallid bust of herself by the time it was over.
You’ve taken your revenge, Kharis. Now I will take mine.
****************
In the morning, I waited until the fire collapsed the house, and carried my daughter’s body to the old church cemetery. There were no tools to bury her, so I put her in a large toolbox, and locked it.
“I’ll come back for you, angel.”
The scent of her blood was on me, the scent of the lemon shampoo in her hair lingered with it, a coppery sweetness that jumbled my feelings, but not enough to wash them both away.
They would scent my child’s blood, and come after me.  I would smell her lemon shampoo, and remember who she’d been, and what she meant to me.
*******************
I found the lair just before the sun went down, and waited in the darkness, sword in hand.
I heard the slide of heavy stone and the creak of ancient hinges as various coffins and doors were opened.
Kharis’ widow approached. “You killed him.”
The sword was already in my hand, and made her stop. “I did. He claimed my daughter.”
“That is not our way.”
“I know, but now, blood cries out for blood.”
“I’m not giving you mine, priest.” She smiled in amusement when she said it; I’d fallen, not bothering to get back up.
“Someone has to.”
Her soft laughter reverberated. “I like your confidence.”
The others were behind her, eyes shining, skin translucent and white-veined in the thickening shadows; that would fill in as they fed, but they wouldn’t be feeding tonight, if I had my way.
She turned her back on me, and walked out while the others came toward me, baring fangs and laughing.

***************
I spent the night in their stink, lifting their cold guts in my fingers, trying on their gold, admiring their sprawled out, open-eyed, red-streaked beauty.
There would be no pyre; I would not have them in peace. I half wanted them to rise, so I could kill them again, but the sword had done its work; there would be no pursuit, and no second chance at revenge.
No one left to kill meant no reason to stay.
I only had one left to hunt.
Your turn, Narkissa.

*************
She’d set my daughter free, and the two of them looked at me as I entered.
“Hi, Daddy.”
I wiped the tears and sweat from my eyes, but they returned as if I hadn’t. “My daughter’s dead.”
She smiled. “Good. That will make this easier.”
She looked at Narkissa for approval.
“Go ahead, darling.”
She ran toward me.
My sword came up.
***************
Slumped against the wall, my hands held Kora’s hair like a bundle of flowers; it was almost over.
Narkissa was enjoying herself, sipping slow at my neck and wrists; my veins were on fire from the bites, even as my body shivered from the cold. I heard the crunch of fangs popping, and felt the coursing venom sting.
I don’t know how long she took, but a languor washed over me that sapped my strength.
She was granting me the final mocking mercy of smelling Kora’s lemon shampoo for the last time.
The stink of my corrupted blood pecked at it like crows on the battlefield.
My vision grew dark, and the scent of lemons faded.
Then it was gone.

 

Trial by Combat

He sat on that enormous throne, cloaked in inky shadows, gazing down at me with eyes full of starlight, silver-white, penetrating much more than darkness.

I couldn’t stop trembling under that patient, terrible gaze.

“Do you know why I summoned you?” His deep voice reverberated in the high ceiling and bounced of the stone walls surrounding us.

“N-n-no.” I wanted to say more, to protest, but I was shaking so much I didn’t want to risk stammering too. I put the tip of my tongue on the roof of my mouth and swallowed what I wanted to say.

“They told me that you wish to leave. Is that true?”

The lie was on my tongue, but not before the blush was on my cheek.

I said nothing.

He leaned forward, terrible visage close to me, putrid and scarred, and th oozing  a pungent liquid that had ribbons of blood laced through it.

“Have I not been a good master?”

“No master of another man, no matter how beneficent, is good.”

He raised a brow, and let out a wheezing laugh.

“I’ve always admired you for not going down without a fight. But rest assured, Laras, you are well on the way down.”

“I’ve heard enough,” I said, straightening despite the pain in my back, enduring the pain of the whip scars that broke open and wept, hissing as it trailed across my skin.

Venom.

“It wasn’t enough I called you ‘king,’ but you wanted ‘master’ as well. I can’t give you that.”

The pain brought me to my knees, in spite of my will. “I won’t give you that.”

I passed out.

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

Perfumed ministrations roused me, and the sound of muted flutes.

He left me alive.

Someone was watching me, coming into focus, thinly clad, with large eyes that observed me with a blend of curiosity and the desire to kill.

“Your Highness?”

“Nailah, to you.”

She pulled me up by the thick braid I wore, and I braced for the pain, but there was none.

“I begged him for your traitorous life, Fihr. And because he refuses me nothing, he granted it.”

She wrapped my braid around her fist, and kissed me hard.

I tried to break it, but she grabbed me and held harder.

I gave in, and against my better judgment, kissed her back; her moan of triumph led to other things, and my first waking hours were occupied for a time.

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

They came for me in the morning, not bothering to knock, startling the princess as they plucked me from her bed like a feather, struck me to the floor, stomped me into it, and carried me out to the barracks.

A test, and I failed.

The day was full of rigorous training, and I was the target; fighting to the point of numbness, I prevailed over most of them, not having been trained in their way. I drew more blood than I spilled, which angered them more.

The sun was westering when I cried out; “How much more do you need from me?”

Call me ‘master.’ Say it, and know peace once again.

Every part of me hurt, every heartbeat an effort, every breath a trip uphill with a large stone to keep in front of me. He wanted it at every cost, and it would cost me nothing.

And everything.

I shook my head.

They began shouting curses at me now, but with a glimmer of grudging admiration in their eyes; nevertheless, they would redouble their efforts to break me now, before sunset.

I was fighting on instinct and adrenaline now, and soon there would be nothing left.

I was bleeding, and never felt the cuts, pummeled, and never felt the blows, but I remained standing, shaking on legs that wanted nothing more than to kneel, the word ‘master’ thick on my tongue like sour ale mixed with blood, and maybe a tooth or two.

I spat, and with that, my wavering ended.

I would rather die.

The sun was a red rind on the horizon when the last form broke from the ranks, moving unlike any of the others.

She was thinly clad, but well armed, and moved like a hunting cat in her prime.

I’d made love to her repeatedly only hours before. “Nailah…”

She was crying now, tears glimmering in the crepuscular gloom.

She took her stance. “Yield, Fihr; don’t be a fool. Yield now, and come back to bed. Say the word.”

Say the word, and be the most favored among them all.

Say the word, and know the comfort of a woman’s sheathe. I will let her have you, and give you men to fight your battles, and women to do your bidding. She is but the jewel in the crown I offer you.

“YIELD!” she screamed.

I saw the soldiers around us gaping in disbelief at my hesitation, saw the silver -white stars begin dotting the cobalt sky. Those eyes from the throne…

I heard the wind soughing among the trees.

Saw the last of the red sun’s rays reflected in the water on her cheeks, making them look bloody.

The memory of her scent, her arms, her kiss, and the things she did with her lips and hands flooded back into my mind.

It was so simple to say, and no one would know.

“Yield, please.” She sobbed this time, not wanting to kill me.

He was behind it, I knew, as surely as I knew my name.

“Yield.” Her voice was lowering with resignation as I hesitated.

Drop the sword, and all is forgiven…

“Yield, my darling. Please.

My own tears hot against my cheeks, I shook my head, and took my final stance.

Her cry of rage at my rejection tore my heart, and with all the last- stand vengeance of the defeated firing her eyes with hate, she charged.

 

 

 

A Choice of Poisons

They came in vast numbers to slaughter what remained of us.
For too long we harried them on every front, and every time they stepped on our necks, we seemed to grow new heads: here, a smashing of their flank as we split to take the vanguard and the rear; there, an explosion that killed them by the hundreds.
We were as children splashing away at the tide.
It all served to stir them to a frothing, raving mass of bloodthirsty vengeance seekers; they were as relentless in their desire to kill us as we were to survive.
In time, they resorted to other means: a dark magic where venom and blood combined to make them practically invincible.
The problem was they had the venom, and we had the blood. They plundered it from us and stored it for themselves, until their magicians could sustain its combined power and keep it from fading. They worked at it day and night.
From my high vantage inside the fortress, I could see the serpent army, the Ormarr, as we called them, spread out across the fields below, their bodies glowing with a faint, eldritch light.
The sword at my side brought no comfort, but there was another way.
“Stand aside,” I told the gatekeeper.
“Are you daft, boy? You want us to open the gates and throw flowers in their path?”
I looked at General Sarris, his craggy face mapped with scars and an old black eye patch over his left socket, a testimony to his many fierce and bloody campaigns.
“No, General. That was not my request. I said, ‘Stand aside.’
Seeing my calm demeanor, he considered me. In the silence between us I could hear the faint clank of weapons as men shifted, the crackling sizzle of nearby torches, and the dull murmurs of the dull creatures below us, bobbing and rocking like lanterns on a ship.
“I’m all that stands between these men and death,” I said. “The longer you wait, the stronger they grow.”
“Ator, have you forgotten your first night here?”
“I remember all too well, Sarris.”
****************
The camp fires were dying, and little by little the sounds of snores and released gas joined the night creatures’ cacophony, drowning out the small, crackling flames.
    A seasoned soldier eyed me openly, not challenging, merely assessing.
   “Do I pass your examination, sir?”
   He chortled, and came toward me, hands out. “Not looking to fight, boy, just want to give you some advice.”
   I nodded, but kept him in view.
   “When you’re out here, boy, waiting for demons to fight, no one in the rich towns cares that you don’t sleep at all, as long as they sleep through the night.
   “They don’t care that you can’t comfort your daughter after a nightmare, as long as they don’t have to face the living ones they created.
   “They don’t care if you have to die, as long as they get to live. You remember that, boy, and you’ll be all right out here.”
*******************
“You shouldn’t fight them alone,” Sarris said.
“I’m the only one who can take the venom.”
“You’re immune to the venom, true; not to being torn apart.
“I’ll be all right.”
“Well that much is true, boy, because you’re not going out there.”
I sighed, looked back out at the animated field of unnatural blasphemy, and again entreated them.
“Stand aside.”