A Dragon’s Courage

From the time they were children, Akia hunted with her brother and his friend, Jakra: they fought, wrestled, swam, fought some more, fished, camped out, made fires, made trouble, and her brother noticed that Akia and Jakra eventually began to make eyes.

Jakra loved Akia’s fierceness, but only from a distance. Up close, her eyes bore too deep into his soul.

She knew he loved her, and would often fix him within her slate gray stare to watch him shift and blush, and she would smile, and try to go to him, but he would always find an excuse to rise, to run without running.

But she would have no other, and his fate was sealed.

She’d seen the rough ways of men; Jakra was indeed different, and sometimes they teased him for it, sometimes, not good-naturedly. That was fine; what he lacked in experience, she would see that he made up for in enthusiasm, and as he gained love’s knowledge, she would reap the benefits.

She would bear him many fine, strong children.

He disappeared into the trees, and she, being a superb huntress in her own right, decided he’d run long enough. She would chase him like a wounded stag, and have her prize.

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

“She loves me, I know, but I’m afraid.”

“Of what, boy?”

“That’s just it. I don’t know. She’s like…”

“She’s like nothing, boy, she is, a warrior born. And you…?”

“I’m not. Not like her.”

“Your wish then, boy. Out with it.”

“I would have the courage of…of a dragon.”

The crone, removing her supplies, hesitated at his words. “Are you sure? If I bind you to her, that is what remains.”

Jakra nodded, too surprised at his own words to say more, not willing to risk losing his chance.

Akia waited, watching, to see what would be done.

The crone chanted, and crimson tendrils of light slid up Jakra’s body like baby snakes; before Akia’s eyes, his limbs lengthened, changed, grew claws and scales.

“NO!” She ran toward them.

He turned at the sound, his serpentine eyes growing dull; he didn’t recognize her, and that, she couldn’t bear. The rest of his face was beginning to change, elongate, and before his lips disappeared,          she kissed him.

“No, you fool!” the crone shrieked.

Fire arced from Jakra’s lips, and Akia fell, writhing in pain.

The crone hissed and cursed, packing her bag.

The pain receded. “What…happened…to me? My f-f-face…feels so…strange.” Akia sat up.

Now the old woman cackled, phlegmy and raw. “You got what you wanted, dear, and so did he.”

“What? What are you talking about?”

The crone bent, took the girl’s hand, and guided it to her cheek, where something scaly writhed beneath her fingers.

“You tricked him!” Akia gasped.

The crone’s wretched smile held no amusement. “And now you have him; this is the only way you will ever kiss him now.”

“I’m going to kill you, you old bitch.” Akia was shaking, her voice seething between clenched teeth.

The crone straightened. “That may be, child. But not today.”

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

The forest was gone now, as was her brother.

She was a lady in a foreign land, no less fierce, but had long ago traded her hunting leathers for silver necklaces, blood-red gems, and fine dark dresses, though they were of no value to her.

Jakra the Red Dragon, now branded to her cheek, now living under her skin, uncoiled himself, and stared into her slate gray eyes with his slitted green ones, with the courage of a dragon. His love was now a primal, feral thing, but his heart, hot within his glowing chest, was now beating for her, and her alone.

She picked up the knife, and turned to where the crone lay bound to the altar.

“Today,” she whispered in the old woman’s ear.
 

Midnight Son (4) Morning Song

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

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.”

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.

 

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.

 

 

 

Melchora’s Revenge

I was almost at the end of the King’s Woods, my bloody satchel of rabbits trailing flies and banging against my back as I fled the wardens’ horses.
The men were good riders, and chased fast and hard, their horses well trained and responsive, but I knew the woods well, having skulked about it for years. I ran toward the only place I knew would provide temporary solace.
Melchora’s cottage was on its own land, where she settled after the Purging, just outside the boundary of the King’s Wood proper. She all but dared them to try to move her. She was a dark beauty with a grace, elegance, and maturity that belied the malevolence of her craft, and from what I was told, her cravings.
As much as I wanted to skirt the area entirely, being subject to a witch’s whims was better than throwing myself on the king’s mercy and his warden’s justice.
A choice of poisons, as they say.
Realizing where I was headed, and that they weren’t going to catch me, they turned aside and cursed my lineage, promising the next time would be the last.
They tried to move her, but she’d move the house to different locations, or hide it, or duplicate it as they ran from place to place looking for the real one. After some time, she tired of the sport, and they tired of the spooking, and came to an uneasy understanding; if she didn’t attack anything, they’d leave her in peace.
As they rode away, I sat down in the grass and put the satchel next to me; the flies were gone, but the smell of blood seemed stronger, wafting in the otherwise pleasant breeze.
A small house of dark stones appeared in front of me, surrounded by a dreary fog, and the sky seemed to darken even though the sun was high. The hairs on my neck were standing, and a flash of fear brought me to my feet.
Silence filled the air, not so much as a bird, and the wind itself seemed to stop in mid-motion.
The door opened, and Melchora appeared; she didn’t walk into it, she appeared.
I stood there gaping like a child at a magic show.
She looked at the satchel. “You’re on my land, poacher. That’ll cost you two rabbits.”
Her voice snapped me out of my ogling reverie, but I had to swallow a few times before I could finally speak. “Fair enough. You want I should cook them too?”
She smirked. “If you’re offering…”
I went toward the cottage, fighting my very bones to move as they resisted.
She took the satchel and sauntered in ahead of me, letting me have a good look at her, and not caring.
*****************
We ate in an oddly companionable silence.
The wine she poured was good but not heady, not that I knew much about them. I was an ale man.
A fire crackled and hissed pleasantly as we sipped out of plain goblets until she broke the silence.
“I remember you.”
“From where?”
“From the Purging.”
Her gaze was assessing, measuring.
I put down the goblet.
“I—“
“You were there. I remember. “
“I was under orders…”
“You laughed. All of you. You ran us down and slaughtered us as you laughed. You pissed on our burning corpses, and laughed.”
I stood. “Melchora…”
“You shouldn’t have come here.”
My skin grew tight. “Melchora!” My voice was higher, lighter than even when I was a boy.
My body changed.
*****************
Brown hair, lank and damp, kept falling into my eyes as I ran, gulping air as the horses bore down on me.
A large heavy fist grabbed some and lifted me off my feet as another cut off my path with his horse.
Whoever grabbed me let me go, and I fell into the dirty mud.
“You’re not going nowhere, witchy-bitch.”
A hand covered my mouth, and two grabbed my kicking legs…
*******************
I woke up hurting, bleeding, coughing blood, my lungs burning, my eyes stinging from the smoke that surrounded me, flames licking at my bloody legs. I reeked of urine, realized it wasn’t mine.
The sound of cheers, the glow of the moon, the heated, fetid breeze brought me to a sharp realization.
They were burning me alive.
“Melchora!”
You shared your life with me, witch hunter; I’ll share my death with you.
Through the darkness, the sound of a soft and evil laugh reached me.
I’d never felt so alone…