World Without End (4) What’s in the Windsong

There was a rush of giddy exhilaration at the prospect of starting over as a new creation.
There was never a sense of being frozen, or dizziness, or even being in motion. It was as if someone put hands on my shoulders to keep me from moving.
I opened my eyes to watch the silver-blue snow and silent lightning swirl and writhe in the air. My new moonlight shadow color was also cascading over me, now down to my thighs, heading toward my knees. I was filling in like a flipped hourglass.
The brightness was like being inside of a star flinging its light into space.
My body trembled from the power of it, but I could hear my heartbeat, and it wasn’t rapid; I sensed the process would soon be finished.
A growing restlessness made me want to stand, to break free, but I knew the storm would stop when it should. Eager to see my new form, and what it could do, I wondered if there’d be anything left in the world to use it on.
My excitement tempered for the moment with those implications, my memories purged, I merely listened to the wind, heard the snowflakes patter against each other, and gave myself over to what the storm was doing to me.
I felt heavier, but my body wasn’t growing, at least that I felt. My senses were sharper, but there was nothing to see yet. My hair moved of its own volition, arranging itself. My skin kept getting little bursts of pleasure, and a sensual, primal languor washed over me. I wanted to take my pleasure, but my hands couldn’t move.
I was finally going to sleep, my thoughts perhaps too restless for the magic that was sluicing over me.
See it done, then.

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…

Head of the Pack (A Liar Fire Story)

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

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

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

 

Spellbound

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

Arch Enemies

Jullandro closed and locked the door, a foolish gesture against those who were coming; it was more of an act of misplaced faith than protective.
“It’s Archmage Irhan and his men.They’re hunting you, Aleina.”
She only smiled. “Let them come.”
“You can’t defeat them.”
“How do you know?”
Jullandro swallowed, not wanting to say, though not saying it would mean the death of the only friend he ever made.
“Better than you have fought against them, and none survived.”
“Did any of them possess this sword?” She placed the blade under his neck and lifted his chin on the point, making it pucker.
Jullandro swallowed again, eyes fixed on the blade, making him almost cross-eyed.
It was a scarlet metal, rare, with a dark beauty to it that held the eyes. The name Soul Reaver was engraved into it in elegant script that belied bloody intentions.
“N-n-no.”
“Then we don’t know if I can’t defeat them.”
Jullandro allowed himself an angry breath as she lowered the blade, putting it back in its sheathe. To him, fighting with a sword full of power wasn’t the same as fighting with skills against other men.
To be fair, however, she wasn’t fighting men; they merely looked the part.
They were dark mages who dealt in summoning, arrogant in their abilities despite countless tales about those who’d lost control of the summoned.
As they grew in power, they stole land and wealth, snatched women and children for slavery, slaughtered by magic the men who could fight, and the old people who could do neither, they cut down like wheat and burned in pyres.
Her grandparents had been in one of those.
He shook his head. Her own arrogance may actually make the difference.
Outside he heard them say, “She’s in here.”
“Run, Aleina. They know you’re here.”
She tied her hair back, and went out to meet them.

*****************
The air was awash in power as she faced their assembly, and a small flash of doubt darted through her like a minnow in shallow surf.
The men before her had robes of red gold, tied with black silk; there were orbs of eldritch light full of arcane power around their hands.
Aleina took a deep breath to calm herself. She would give them no fear to feed on.
In the depth of his cruelty, Archmage Irhan appeared to her in the shape of her grandfather.
“What sick madness is this?” she hissed, charging the man, only to find him not there, and behind her.
He dropped the form, his alternative human shape standing there, chuckling.
“Are you so easily baited, child? Fortunately for you, we’re as ancient as we are. If we were so impetuous as to attack as soon as possible, we’d be extinct.”
He sighed, even though he didn’t breathe; the illusion was quite masterful. “But these are things you learn in time, with every foe you face.”
His broadsword cleared its sheathe. He lifted it as if it weighed no more than a feather.
“Sometimes, you learn too late.” With no further hesitation, he came at her, fast and swinging.
“Like when I twist this blade in your heart!” He lunged at her, almost knocking the parrying blade from her grip. He kept her backing away, and off balance, not allowing her to establish a rhythm of her own, or set up a counter.
She’d relied too much on the blade’s power, but didn’t know if they’d been able to counter it.
Speed was her only ally. His swings were wide and powerful, and if he connected, or knocked Soul Reaver from her hand, she was dead. As she struggled to find a way to sidestep him and get inside, she noticed the lights around the hands of the mages intensifying.
Their hands were raised toward the battle, and their eyes were closed in serene concentration, confident in Irhan’s ability to defeat the child.
Several thoughts flashed through her mind: they were countering her sword’s magic, or feeding him energy, or weakening her, or all three. Her arms were already beginning to tire, and her breathing was growing jagged. She trained hard, and knew that shouldn’t be this early in the fight.
With nothing to lose she made a desperate choice, ran toward the cluster of men.
Caught off guard, before he realized what she was going to do, the Archmage stood there as she closed the distance and severed the right hand off the nearest mage to them.
Blood spurted, and his scream of pain rent the air.
The lights around all their hands went out, and whatever link there’d been was severed too as the hand fell, twitching on the ground.
She ran back to the Archmage, and engaged him anew.
Her strikes proved too fast with his connection broken, and lifting the sword in his own strength became a task he wasn’t up for, backpedaling until he was against the wall of the house.
As the mages crashed from the broken link, they began to run toward her to physically kill her.
The point of Soul Reaver made the skin on the Archmage’s neck pucker.
“It’s a good thing I’m not as ancient as you; you see, there’s a place for impetuosity.”
He shuddered and thrashed as the sword pierced his throat, and his human form began to recede as he tried to escape.
The wave of mages cresting toward her crashed and collapsed inside their robes, piles of bone burning like embers, quickly crumbling to ash.
Aleina was overcome by how close she’d come to dying, and fell to her knees beside the dead demon.
Holding onto the pommel of the sword, she lifted her eyes as dim scarlet light emanated from the blade, and the blood she’d drawn seeped into it.
Did I imagine that? So tired…
Jullandro was there beside her, his hand on her shoulder, which he snatched away when she looked up.
“What’s wrong, Jullandro?” Her eyes felt hot, but not from tears. She used Soul Reaver’s pommel for support as she moved to stand.
“Come, let’s get inside.” He helped her to her feet, and kept his arm around her shoulder, taking the weight as she hobbled, weakened from the draining pace of the fight and the magic they used to attack her.
Reaching the house, he guided her to the looking glass. “Steady, now…”
Spots of blood dotted her flesh, and her hair drooped damp and lanky over her forehead, but her eyes were alight with a dull scarlet glow.
“What…?”
“I’m not sure, Aleina, but I think you’ve just become the Archmage.”
The sword fell from her grip, but her eyes were still shining.
    The sword…I didn’t know. The air around them grew charged with power.
All Jullandro could do was hold her as she turned from the mirror and cried.

 

 

Come Play

I decided to run from my parents that day, wanting to explore the mist inside the forest, tendrils hovering over the leaves and branches, like arms waiting to catch something.

I bolted.

My mother gasped, and called my name.

My father cursed and gave chase, so I went into the underbrush where he would stumble and thrash.

The thorns and branches snagged my clothes and nicked my skin with small cuts, but I ignored the pain.

The mist came slowly down to shroud me, concealing me from my father’s sight.

He called, and threatened, but his voice held a note of desperation and fear. A pang of guilt interrupted my guilty pleasure, and I started back.

It was after some moments that though I heard his voice, I couldn’t tell what direction it came from.

I was now as lost as he, and when I went to call him, the mist muffled my voice. It came back to me as if I’d put my hands over my ears; it was dull and flat, lacking resonance, little more than a croak.

I kept calling, my own voice giving rise to my own fear.

“Hush, boy. Come play.”

I whirled to see who’d come so silently behind me.

A girl, leached of all color, but pretty all the same, was looking at me with a pleased fascination, as if she’d found something shiny and new.

“Where am I? Can you take me to my dad?”

She giggled. “You’re in the mist, silly. There’s no returning from it.”

“What do you mean? That’s stupid. I know this forest–” I turned, looking into it, but there was nothing to see but grey-white vapor, slowly roiling through the air.

“Then find your own way, boy. But if you like, you can come play.”

“Play? Play where? Play what? Why do you have no colors at all?”

She laughed again. “So many questions…”

I grew angry. “Take me back.”

She grew serious. “There is no going back. Can you hear?”

“I heard you just fine, but I don’t believe you.” I didn’t hear my dad calling anymore, but I could hear my mother crying.

I smothered my anger. “Please, you have to take me back. They’re worried.”

“You were the one who ran away.”

“I was only joking with them; I didn’t know all…this …would happen.”

“But now it has, boy. And there is no going back. Come play.”

“Stop saying that!”

She stared at me in patient silence; I turned and stared some more into the forest.

The mist grew thicker, and soon the sound of my mother’s crying was gone too.

When I turned back, she was standing closer. “Come play.”

I tried to hit her with everything I had, to knock her flat. To knock her out.

But my hand ended up holding hers, and I saw the color begin to fade, no sign of blood or pigment.

I felt my veins harden, my heart slow to almost nothing, and it seemed that the mist slipped into my nostrils when I remembered to breathe again.

I heard the sound of children singing a rhyming song.

There was laughter, and music, and all hue was drained from me as she smiled, looking at me with those shadowy, beautiful, colorless eyes.

“Come play.” She caressed my face with her pale, bloodless hand.

“Let’s go,” I said, following her through the mist we breathed, the sound of children’s laughter echoing in my ears.

 

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.