Can’t Stay, Can’t Leave

 

Eddie
I captured an outdoor table at our favorite local coffee shop as my girlfriend went inside to get the coffee. It was a pleasant midmorning, and casual strollers who got up before noon were enjoying the coolness of the morning.
Jill was inside getting the coffee.
There was a distant booming noise, as if thunder were rolling across the ground.
The air went white, and the temperature searing; my table flipped over and into me as a massive gout of firs shot down the avenue. Tumbling out of control down the street, seemingly no more heavier than a piece of paper litter, a blast of wind picked me up and threw me further, and the white of the sky grew brighter until it suddenly went black.
Death is a mercy.
*******************
I don’t know why I’m still alive; that shouldn’t be.
There are places where the rubble still smolders.
The radiation is patiently nibbling at my flesh, pulling bits of scraps like a jackal sneaking up on the panther’s kill.
I want to die. I need to die.
I’ve seen myself, and Jill wouldn’t have me now, if she was still alive.
Jill…Still, I feel her arm around my waist, see her hair shining in the sun, and the smile in her eyes as she laughs at another one of my dumb jokes. It’s either sincere, or she’s a good actress, but I love that she makes the effort if she is acting.
I’m going to miss her laughter.  I start to cry.
I’m all alone here. 
Just for the hell of it, I reach out to touch her…

Jill
The shards went everywhere, hit everything.
People died from the places they went, and no matter how I try, I can’t look away from the carnage.
Eddie’s gone, but so is the chair where he was sitting.
The rest of the people are piles of bloody ashes in the street, up and down the block.
Arcs of hot light are streaking the air, so I stay low, looking for survivors, for first responders, for anything, but nothing is moving.
No one is coming.
I know I’m in shock, but I don’t scream, I just focus on trying to find Eddie, knowing it’s stupid to try, but there’s nothing else to do now.
There’s certainly nowhere to go.
I don’t even know what the hell went wrong, but it went wrong fast.

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

I don’t know why I’m still alive; that shouldn’t be.
The air shimmered in front of me, in the shape of a hand.
Jill, you’re hallucinating; don’t be stupid.
But just for the hell of it, since no one’s watching, I reach my hand up, and invisible fingers grasp mine.
Eddie?
Hands touch without meeting, and I don’t know what he sees wherever he is, but we stay like that because I can’t go to him, and he can’t come to me.
I’m going to miss his stupid jokes. I start to cry.
In the distance, I hear the first of many sirens start to wail.

Midnight Son (3) Seeking Answers

Among the upper shelves, the library had a chilly draft from a vent somewhere; it helped preserve the older works, though given the right conditions they’d also turn to kindling.
It was after midnight when I found the book; it had a plain, black leather binding with no lettering on it that I could see. I couldn’t open it, but the vibrations of dark energy it sent through me made me eager to be rid of it.
Fortunately, it wasn’t large and unwieldy. I managed to carry it down the ladder and keep my balance. Seleme lit lanterns instead of candles to prevent any accidents from sparks, and took them to the large table.
She looked hopefully at the book in my hand and stood beside me eagerly as I spoke the spell that opened it. She gave it her best effort, but her eating had burdened her and made her sleepy. Her head rested against my arm, so I moved it gently when I had to turn the pages.
I woke her with a gentle kiss on her forehead. “Get up, little girl. Your big head is hurting my arm.”
She smiled up at me, and sat up, rubbing at her eyes. “I’m sorry, Ingrum.”
“It’s all right. I’ll see you in the morning.”
“Good night.”
“Good night.”
The blood smell on her clothes was less than before, but still strong.
“Bathe, Semele.”
“I will,” she said, not turning around.
   She’ll have nightmares. She always does after a kill. The victims scream at her, and tonight it will be Cassis.
I moved her lantern to the other side of me, to illuminate the book better, but the angle wasn’t good, so I blew it out and kept the one.
The remaining light seemed more intimate, and helped me focus.
In a few minutes Seleme came back with a goblet and tray and put them on the table.
“For your troubles.”
“Thank you. Now bathe and go to bed.”
She kissed my cheek. “All right, grumpy. You’re welcome. Good night.”
“Good night.”
Before she walked out, she turned back again. “Ingrum?”
I sighed. “Yes?”
“Bury Cassis. We shouldn’t leave him like that. It’ll be worse for me if you don’t, and he’ll grant me no sleep at all. They scream at me, Ingrum. Why do they scream?”
I sighed again, but different this time. She sounded so lost.
“I don’t know. I’ll see to Cassis, don’t worry.”
“Thank you.”

******************
Between my sipping and snacking, the light of false dawn brightened the window a few shades when I finally found what I needed, and of course, it wasn’t good news.
The beast thing that infected my sister was a ghoul. Not as mindless as zombies, but equally terrible in their cravings. Semele was of the vampiric variety, craving blood, but also flesh.
Semele wanted me to kill her, or break the curse.
To break the curse, I had to find the one who cursed her.
To find her, we’d have to leave home.
The light in the remaining lantern sputtered out for lack of oil.
I closed the book, found myself in the window, goblet in hand, staring at the brightening sky, ruminating on the possibilities of where such a band could have gone in ten years, and I had to consider Semele.
It would be faster if I didn’t take her, but there was no telling what would become of her if I didn’t.
I’d let her sleep, but not too long.
Every minute we delayed would mean a longer hunt for our quarry, and I’d grown impatient with a restless anger; seeing my sister helpless and disgusted with what she was now kindled in me a desire for revenge.
I emptied the goblet, and calmed myself.
All I have is time.
A sad, bitter laugh came out of me, echoing in the high ceiling as I left the goblet on the windowsill, and went to put Cassis in the ground.

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.

 

 

 

Lyra’s Harp

 

The manacles were tight, chafing my wrists, my flesh lined like dried beach mud, blood pooling on their rusted edges before making red rivulets down.
Flies still drank from the wounds, surely infecting me.
Things sloshed and grated inside where they’d broken me.
My tongue kept running over what was left of my teeth.
The guards carried me drooping between them like a prize buck.
Broken indeed.
I tried to gain my balance so I could walk and they let me go and tripped me; I fell on my face, hurting my already swollen jaw, deciding at that moment to stop struggling.
They dragged me now, pulling me up by the chain between the manacles, making me pump my legs to get my feet under me, but they pulled too fast.
The cool marble slithered against my kneecaps as the draft in the high-ceilinged hall chilled my sweat.
I shivered.
“Where are you taking me?” I slurred, my voice little more than a raspy, gravelly whisper.
They didn’t answer.

*************
Decked in opulent gold and white, the Hall was festive in appearance, full of light and color.
After the drear of the dungeon it hurt my eyes, so I averted them.
The sound of laughter mocked even as the guests moved away from the stench and appearance of me, lest the vermin that burrowed into my rags leap onto new, expensive sources of nourishment.
On the raised dais was Lyra, the royal harpist, with skin of honey wrapped in cloth of gold, with a single thick, raven plait of hair adorning her left shoulder like an ebony laurel.
A delicate, intricate armband of gold and rubies rested on her bicep, the jewels refracting the candlelight into sanguine embers.
Her slender arms seemed to ripple the very air itself as she played the large, gleaming harp crafted specially for her skill.
I knew not the song, but its melody was high and clear, sweet and haunting.
I knew not if I cried through swollen eyes, knew not if her beauty inspired the song, or the song enhanced her beauty.
A guard’s rough fingers burrowed into the lice-laden scruff on my chin and tugged my head down.
“Avert your eyes, you craven cur. She is not for such as you.”
I tried to speak. “We were—“
A fist hammered my right cheek and another warm streamer of blood dribbled down my lips to my chin to spatter the immaculate tile beneath me.
I dimly saw her react, infinitesimal though it was; a small hitch of breath, a quick sideways glance of alarm, covered as quickly as it came.
I didn’t know if anyone saw it other than me, but for me it was water in the desert.
Betrothed…we were betrothed.

************
2)

The king’s priest held up a staying hand, and they hit me no more.
The chief councilor standing on the king’s right smirked as the guard grabbed my hair and made me look up.
“That is enough,” the priest said.
Lyra had ceased playing, but would not look at me; I couldn’t blame her, though I wanted her to more than anything.
The guests were watching too, curious, having no context of what came before this bizarre turn of events.
I was bearing the scrutiny of the entire hall in a defeated state not knowing, or caring, what happened to me now.
Finally the king spoke. “It is my understanding the two of you were to be wed? Is that right?”
I dared not speak; somehow I found the strength to nod though a shooting pain seemed to set my head on fire. I knew brains could swell from beatings. I wondered if that happened to me. I had some time to figure that if Lyra wasn’t looking at me, it was more than she could bear.
I am grotesque.
“Is that something you still desire?”
“Yes, your Majesty.” It took more effort than it should have just to speak; my broken teeth were mangling my words.
“Why? You do know I had your harpist in my bed?”
I hadn’t known, and I guess I showed it.
Lyra…she had no choice. He made her do it.
“She was not a willing participant, but eventually she relented. At least physically. Not that it mattered.”
He leaned forward on his throne, for some reason studying my broken face intently.
“Do you still want her now?”
If I said no he would kill her without a second thought, and I couldn’t live with that more than the fact that he’d dishonored her.
“With all my heart.”
He sat back, smiling. “Fool.”
He said something in the priest’s ear, and I saw his brows arch and his eyes widen.
“Are you sure, majesty?”
“Have you known me to ask you anything twice?”
The priest swallowed, shook his head, and turned to the guards still holding me up by the manacles.
“Bring him.”
Lyra’s face was dawning with a realization that I was still too stunned to see.
The king turned toward her. “To me, harpist.”
Her eyes downcast, she stood, smoothed her skirts and approached the throne, doing obeisance.
“Look upon him.”
Fighting everything in her telling her not to, she did, her eyes glimmering.
The king steepled his fingers under his chin. “She loves you, yet. I wanted to see if she would hesitate, or shut her eyes, or look away. As battered and bloody as you are, she yet looks upon you.”
It was as if the hall had emptied and a storm cloud gathered inside.
He turned to the priest. “Marry them.”
Murmurs of shocked surprise and even some protest rippled outward among the guests.
This was not seemly, by any standards, for a king to do, but the sycophants among them applauded what they thought to be his mercy and generosity.
The priest opened his mouth to protest.
“MARRY THEM!” The king’s long knife was in his hand; anything further would spill the priest’s own blood.
What smattering of applause there’d been came to a dead stop.
The priest flinched back, and his shoulders drooped as he reached for Lyra’s hand.
Squaring her own shoulders, knowing now her fate was sealed to mine, she took it as the guards once again dragged me by the chains, now coated with flesh as well as blood, before the throne. They grunted with effort now as my weight had borne them down but they’d not been told to let me stand.
The priest babbled, droned, incanted.
I heard nothing, saw nothing, and somewhere in the midst of my shame, Lyra’s gentle, calloused hand touched my swollen cheek.
I smelled the sandalwood on her palm, and saw the deep rich red of her painted nails.
In my periphery I saw her profile, head up, eyes front, soldiering for both of us through the humiliation that marked our union. She would not bend before this king, nor break before this court.
“You may kiss the bride.”
The guards looked to the king, who nodded.
They helped me gain my feet, balance me, and the priest put Lyra’s hands in the middle of my flattened palm and broken fingers.
He nodded at me once, then stepped out of the way.
Lyra wiped my mouth with her sleeve, and gave me a light but lingering kiss on the lips.
The king roared at them in rage to execute me, even as my heart seemed transported, even as they snatched me away and dragged me off to butcher me.
Lyra had thought to heal me, and would now be a widow on her wedding day.
Her screaming for them to stop and pleading with the king for mercy he would not grant were the last notes I heard from her in this world.