I’ll Hold You Forever…

Hold me.

I’ll hold you forever.

That was our phrase. We used it whenever one of us was feeling adrift, needing reassurance, needing to know things were well between us after arguing.

Needed it, to know that things were well after we made love.

We stopped seeing each other the day I hesitated; she retreated from me and stayed upstairs, in her claustrophobic room, refusing me several times a day.

She’d always been quirky, effusive, but with a loose connection to reality. To hold her was to bring her back to herself, and me.

Those days are over, but I check on her now and then, and when I do, she gets stranger still.

In her hands is an offering, and whenever I look in, she holds it out for me to see; it seems to be something between a heart and a flower, but I see no blood, and there are no plants.

“What is that, Tavia?” I took a step further than I should have, and she pulled it away.

The silence seemed to pulse, and her eyes seemed to gleam in the semidarkness as she folded herself against the wall.

I stopped, and sought sanctuary in the doorway once again, keeping my distance.

“Tavia?”

She looked at me, the glittering light shining in her eyes from an unseen source, or perhaps from the object in her hand.

Slowly, she lifted it out to me again, trusting.

Slowly, I reached out my hands to take it. “What is it?”

The object pulsed, and I hesitated, but she didn’t pull it back. “What is this, Tavia?”

I kept one hand at my side now, lest I be bound in some way, and she’d be free to harm me.

My fingers were just grazing it when it pulsed again, and something locked my wrist so I could not break free.

As Tavia drew it back, it drew more of me inside of it, pulsing and growing.

The pain was keen enough to turn my screams to hoarse grunting; I couldn’t save myself, and I couldn’t kill her.

Bracing my free hand on the wall behind her, I pushed back against the dark force that seized me as quick and sure as a wilderness hunter’s trap.

She smiled, and her own hands began to glow asthe pull grew stronger. She was giving it strength to overpower me. Writhing like a hooked fish, I kicked and screamed and cursed at her, but all she did was give me her glittery eyed stare, seeming not to comprehend was she was doing, that she was killing me.

The force of the pull was like an ocean current, and I wasn’t fit to endure it long. My lone fist punching the wall behind her, looking to break through to find a handhold, was neither strong enough or sufficiently expert to find one.

“Tavia! Tavia, let me go!”

“I can’t, Jeral.”

“Why can’t you?”

“I am only a gatherer.”

“Gatherer?” I fought harder.

“I merely gather the souls and send them to my lord.”

“And who is this lord?”

Her smile was feral. “We don’t say his name, and you wouldn’t know it if I did.”

I stopped struggling. My strength was failing. “Why my soul?”

That gave her pause, and she gazed at me a long moment, watched me grieving the inevitable, ignoble death she was about to impose.

“I wanted to share with you. I tried.”

“It was too much.”

“But even so, could you not have loved me?”

I now gazed at her a long moment, and knowing death was imminent, saw no reason to be any more dishonest with her than I’d already been.

“I tried, and I tried to tell you we were losing it, but you were oblivious.”

She bristled at that, but stayed silent, and a dark film began to envelope the object in which she’d trapped me, tears running down her face as I was hidden from view.

I don’t know if I still existed physically, but when her lord came for me, I felt her hold me, the warmth of her soft hands seeping through the shell, and offer me up to him.

He took the proffered object in one hand, and ran the other along its surface.

As it passed over me, there was only blinding agony, and then—

I’ll hold you forever…

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Mortualis

I look into the eyes of my mistress, and see an ember of hope yet burns.

She did not hear his heart skip as he promised he’d return, nor the cry of the infant daughter he’d made with another.
She did not see his late- night candles burning as he wrote love letters to her rival, pouring out his soul on the parchment, and on the morrow greet my mistress with a warm, false smile, a passionless embrace.

His mind whispered the name of the other, and shortly after he kissed my mistress, his mind whispered ‘farewell’.

For the loss of his love, she donned black mourning clothes, keeping vigil, a living silhouette against the gray sky and the churning chiaroscuro of the restless sea. Mizzle and tears mingled and beaded her eyelashes; through that wet prism, sitting on sodden shoreline rocks draped in seaweed and clusters of small crabs, she watched the horizon,
One day, a thread of humming harmonized the susurrating wave songs.
What sad and lovely melody is this you hum, mistress?
What primal melancholy chains you to these salted stones, the bell sleeves of your black dress fluttering, buffeted wings seeking shelter from the hurricane?
I took some steps toward her, and she let me perch on her wrist.
Teach it to me, that I may sing it back to you.
She looked right at me, as if she knew my thoughts, and began to sing:

“Love is the mask hate wears. Hate is the cloak of indifference.
“Indifference is the herald of abandonment. And I am lost in love.”
****************
She was patient with me, even as the words came with no melody; for all the sorrow in her heart, I could not become a songbird, but would have for her sake.
She stood to her feet, wiping a single tear from her eye, and when she looked at me, I knew I’d never see her again.

“You don’t belong here, noble raven, any more than I do. This is but an open and foggy grave. I’m leaving, and so should you.”

I heard her feet crunching pebbles into the silt, the steps echoing slightly between the sloshing waves as the gray day took her into its chilly arms, and hid her from my sight.
But the memory of her sad eyes and sweet voice felt heavy inside me, and I could no more take wing if a predator plucked me from these dizzying heights, bit me open, and supped on my heart.

So now I, a black-beaconed lighthouse full of darkness, keep watch from the watery, wind-ravaged stones, calling her letter to her lover, somewhere out there in the mist.

*art by Cindy Grundsten

Khaalida

I remember the rain; its steady patter went long into the night.

Normally, it soothed me as I played the music of string quartets, their soaring notes lilting in the background as I wrote.

This night was different; I was restless, and the words I needed eluded me, flashing like sunlit fish scales in fits and starts of inspiration. It was to the point where even the steadfastness of the quartets could not quiet my mind.

Something was wrong.

I sighed, closing my eyes, and as the first violin began its haunting, plaintive solo, I fell.

Through the viscera of the void, I plummeted with the velocity of a star hurled into space by the strong right arm of its celestial creator. There was no time to scream, for as fast as I fell the darkness rose to meet me.

Roiling smoke, thick, black, acrid, and pungent with midden smells rolled back on itself, peeling away to reveal a darkness so utterly devoid of light that it made me shiver suddenly, uncontrollably, even as I fell.

Panic rose like gorge in my throat.

The solo violin gave way to a chorus of voices, soft as feathers, rising up through the dark.

I’ve been waiting for you.  It was more than one voice, but said ‘I’; my terror had a thread of curiosity running through it now.

The blackness cascaded in an ascending torrent, and when it struck me I could no longer see its source, or its evil.

As it surrounded me, arcs of lavender, violet and silver white light streaked around the cosmic hole. I said a small and silent prayer, hoping the deity of us all might hear, and act on my behalf.

Then I knew no more.

 

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

The voice behind me was no longer a chorus. “You’re finally awake.”

I turned to see the comely form of a demoness, radiating a seductive malevolence.

“Who are you?” My mouth was dry, and the words took some effort to form.

She laughed, as if I’d made a joke she truly thought was funny; her body swayed and undulated as she walked toward me.

“The proper question is, what am I? “

Putting one hand on my shoulder and the other around my waist, she leaned over and put her mouth next to my ear. Around her, the scent of honeysuckle warred with that of burnt flesh.

“I am every secret, twisted thought you ever possessed. I am the soul of your conscience, and know you better than you know yourself.”

I sought to run, but she pulled me in tighter, her voice breaking down my resistance.

“I am the fanged serpent with the honeyed tongue in the garden, on my belly under the moonless sky, hearing the vibrations of those who seek my life.

“I am the web of man’s violent lust for the unattainable, except in the recesses of his imagination. There are multitudes still writhing in my strands, never to be free.

“I am Khaalida, the fantasy of nightmares.”

She stepped back from me, her hand on my chest. “Will you not embrace me, on your own behalf?”

My eyes grew warm, my breath shuddery. I wanted to move her hand, but my strength was as a wilted stem.

“You would so burden me?” I replied.

“You were called to us. To serve us. We watched you run, and we followed, hunted, for many years. You were wily, and filled your time as our power faded. There were times we struck, but you managed to escape.”

She took my hand in both of hers, stepping in close. “You’ve run long enough. We’ve hunted you long enough. The days grow short, the trail more difficult.

“We need you, now.”

I shook my head, extricated my hand. “I’m sorry.”

She sighed, but it was not one of resignation. “The time for regret is past; the time for excuses, done. What will you do with all you have to say? Leave it unsaid?”

Lifting my chin on her fingers, she wiped a tear with the pad of her thumb. “What will you do with me?”

There would be no getting away from her.

“I will embrace you.”

She sighed, but it was not in relief. “Every part?”

“Every part.”

She pulled me close, and faded inside of me. If there was a sensation such as excruciating bliss, I felt it then.

“I love you,” she said.

I wept. “And I, you. We’ll be together, always.”

“Not always happy,” she admonished, “but always together.”

I felt her smile, and I did too.

The strains of a lone violin echoed in the distance, and the darkness dissolved, nestling deep inside of me, sheltered from the pattering rain, and the dark words smeared beneath the water that dripped like ashen tears from the paper.

I was outside, and never remembered leaving.

“Khaalida…”

Together.

 

Circle of Blood: (3) Trial and Error

      The castle was bedecked in scarlet and black, the colors of mourning.

     The nobles’ sibilant whispers and the dignified sobbing of the queen’s ladies were bubbles in an aural swamp, rising to sink into the marbled stones of the high-ceilinged hall.

    Nakira, the Healers’ leader, stood before the king, her pristine alabaster robe giving her the aspect of a pale spirit gliding through blood.

  “I’m sorry, but I could not save her, my king.”

 Ohlin’s tears came unbidden, uncontrolled, and in front of his court, unwelcome; his jaw tightened and his shoulders tensed.

I was the only one who saw him clench his fist, though I honestly didn’t think he would use it. The blow sent Nakira sprawling from the dais, the crack of fist on bone was a sudden piercing as she tumbled down into an ungainly heap within the robe, now stained with flecks of blood.

Amid the screams, gasps, and exclamations, she was helped to her feet, her cheek swollen, a trickle of blood in the corner of her mouth.

He then passed his sentence in the most soft, reasonable voice, given the circumstance, as if he was discussing plans for a pleasant outing.

“Take them out of here,” he told the guard, who gave him a curious look.

“She’s alone, your majesty.”

“No, fool. I meant take them all out of here, out of the kingdom. Drive them into the wildlands. Kill any who resist, by whatever means you need to use. Don’t pursue them further; leave them to their fate.”

The cries and screams receded to the deeper voices of the council’s earnest cautions for temperance and mercy, all falling on deaf ears and a stone heart covered in ice; in his grief he was resolute, and would not be swayed.

Nakira looked to the captain of the guard, reading his lips as he held up an index finger: ‘One day.’
They escorted her outside, gave her a horse, and sent her away at a gallop.

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

He spoke to me in private.

“They’re not to reach the wildlands. The men of your Order will execute them on the way.”

“King Ohlin, it would be more prudent to let them go.”

His gaze on me was deathly calm, his next words holding a concealed dagger poised to cut the thread of my existence if we betrayed him.

“See it done.”

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

Sharrika was crying, and Tafari simmered below boiling.

We’d be at the palace soon.

Sharikka let go of my arm, struggling to get herself under control

“Do you remember?” I asked.

“Just…just flashes.” She stopped walking, hugged herself tighter. “Dogs, horses, fire and screams. We threw spells back at them, spells that did things, put things, inside their armor. Nakira wouldn’t retreat. She called in the Blood Covens.”

The Blood Covens lived on the fringes of the wastelands, separated even from each other, but they all practiced blood magic to one degree or another, all of it lethal.

“That’s why they use the circles of blood? To protect their territory?”

“Yes, and the hanging of the knights they defeated, in full armor, in the places they were victorious. As I said, strictly to show their power.”

“Then why the binding spell in the clouds?”

“To keep the king’s men from pursuing. It was supposed to lose strength, but…” She looked up just as a long flash slithered among the storm clouds, turning their undersides to lilac, but smelling of sulfur.

“But why would they make the spell bind other witches?”

“They confronted Nakira, said she was weak, said it would be best if they claimed the lands we would have settled in the countryside. They wanted us to join them, but tired as she was, of the whole thing, really, she refused.”

“They killed her?”

“I don’t know. Don’t see a reason why they wouldn’t.” She had to get herself composed again.

Tafari had walked some distance away; that had to stop if she was going to fight.

“Is she going to be alright?”

Sharikka hesitated before she answered. “I don’t know.”

“If she’s going to fight—”

She gave me a sharp look of frustration. “She’s not ready to fight!”

That was a stronger reaction than I was expecting. I gave her a moment, then took her by the forearms to step in and make sure I had her attention.

“She’s my daughter too, and we must make her ready. If you’re going to fight the Blood Covens, you’re going to need all the help you can get. Frankly, I’d let them have the place; it’s full of bloated corpses and blighted lands, and it reeks of carrion and waste.

“It will take years to clean up, so why do you even want it? If they rule, there’ll be no sanctuary for you here.”

She sighed, taking her arms from my hands, a gentle sweep of her own arm indicating all the land within view.

“Without a ruler, this place could be a haven for those of us who don’t practice blood rituals. We’re a vital link in the chain, even if weak. One thing remains true through all our lore: balance is essential to order. If the Blood Covens want to rule, they’ll use us as ambassadors and healers to fool the leaders of the lands they occupy.”

“You’ll become a servant.”

“Yes, but just for the moment. In time we’ll rebuild, restore our numbers, and bite the serpent’s head when we get the chance.”

I sighed at her naivete. “Sharrika, you’re talking about infiltrating, attacking, and killing the leaders of the Blood Covens. They went rogue centuries ago; they’ll see you coming long before you’re prepared, and take hours killing you, and everyone allied with you, for sport.”

My stomach sank as I saw her start to smile in the middle of what I was saying. “That’s where you come in.”

We started back toward the palace; she didn’t take my arm again.

“Finish your story,” she said.

 

Who Really Dies?

It was cold, and not just from nature’s winds collected in the dull, gray stones that comprised the walls. The presence of spirits was almost claustrophobic, like hungry children around their mother’s skirts.

What makes them so reluctant to let life end? To not go the places they were called, or where they’re needed?

 Life.

The life tied to the gold and obsidian altar wasn’t an ancient one, but all of ten years. They burned her tongue and voice -box so she couldn’t scream; screaming broke their concentration, and that could be dangerous for them.

They didn’t drug her, so she’d feel the pain.

They told me the gods I served required blood in payment.

What is it about life that gods want so desperately to intervene, and need it so desperately for their wantoness? Why can’t they leave it be?

She looked at me as I rose from the high-backed chair to approach the altar, the chalices placed beneath the holes to catch her life. There were four gold ones on each side, the silver, mine, in the middle.

I wonder if it will grow colder when her soul is released?

I pulled my cowl over my head, the top draping down in front of my eyes so I wouldn’t see hers.

With every step, I had to renew my resolve. My hand grew numb, tightening reflexively around the handle the closer I got to her.

When this is over, you’ll be a full wizard priest. If her blood doesn’t reject you, next year at this time, you’ll drink from a gold chalice for your anniversary.

I chanced a brief glimpse; she was watching the blade now, prey looking at the slow unveiling of the serpent’s fangs, its attitude cavalier, infusing its victim with death.

Nothing personal, my dear.

Her tears began to fall, her throat laboring with silent screams and pleas for long-dead mercy.

You shouldn’t! You can’t! You mustn’t! over and over in a howling, silent litany.

The gods require your blood. My magic requires your blood. My life needs yours to end that it may continue. It is unjust, I agree, and out of balance.

I raised the knife above her sodden face.

She thrashed, raging with every ounce of her young strength; I admired her heart, her fight, and I punched her in the stomach to get her to stop.

She went rigid against the bonds, struggling for air.

It is unjust, and out of balance, but so be it.

I struck.

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

Her soul joined the spectral throng, and in the frozen silence, I could hear the ping and patter of her spilling blood, making the chalices ring. The notes of the gold were sweet, but the silver a special, discordant note with a different rhythm, out of harmony with the rest.

You are yet different, boy. You are still not worthy yet.

Her spirit took its place beside the others, and accused me, even as her body thrashed against her bonds. The others moved aside to welcome her, though she stood apart.

The chief priest took the silver chalice, and gave it to me first, waiting.

I drank the virgin blood deep, quickly, lest I truly taste the essence of her soul, its ripped threads mere remnants to the realm of life.

If she could have turned it to poison, she would have.

I drained the chalice, and the others watched and waited.

The blood did not reject me, and I was feted by a royal feast and far too much drink; I wanted to enjoy it, but kept seeing her terrified, wet, wretched eyes moving from mine, to the blade.

The chief priest noted my distraction. “What’s the matter?”

“I’m not feeling well. I’m…I’m sorry.”

“That’s unfortunate. However, the ritual has been completed. It has been a long day for you, my son. I give you leave to retire for the night, if that is your wish.”

“It is, Elder. Good night.”

“I’ll make your apologies. Good night, young priest.”

I managed a wan smile, and left the banquet hall.

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

Chapter 2:

In the hours after midnight, there was just me, the candles, my thoughts, and the shadow of the girl standing in front of me, the details of her face lost in the ash gray shades vaguely shimmering in the light of the flame.

The pits of ivory that replaced her eyes drew me deep, ice amidst the fire.

“You’re not supposed to be here.”

 I did nothing.

“You were needed.”

Was I?

“You were told. Our parents were told.”

Our parents are dead. They hung themselves when I went back to tell them what you did.

“It couldn’t be helped.”

You don’t care about what you did to me?

“I cared very much. I needed your blood.”

To achieve this?

“Yes.” There was a pain in my chest.

This will not bring you peace. We will come to you. We will visit you.”

“Stop,” I whispered, covering my ears. “Please, stop.”

You didn’t stop the blade. You could have; they might have forgiven you. But I will not.

“GO AWAY!”

She faded.

You took my blood, but not my life…

3)

I couldn’t answer the door when they knocked.

My body lay on the bed, still, swollen, and racked with vermin.

I no longer felt the cold; I turned my newfound magic on myself, and spilled my own blood to counter what I’d done.

The ashen shades of my family came to me, and greeted me with warm, black, hollow smiles, their ivory eyes the same as hers, and yet, I felt something emanating from them.

I’ve reunited us. Do you forgive me now?

They embraced me, and my question was answered.   I understood their need now.

The absence of the corporeal wasn’t the end of life.

The draining of blood did not imprison the soul.

It was a different kind of freedom, more profound than any magic.

We vanished as the door opened, and I heard them exclaiming I was dead.

I would’ve smiled, if I could, and I knew the wizards’ academy no more.

 

Nechama’s Journey

From the time I was small, the land was dark. Vines grew with nettles, and leaves with fine thorns. Even its flowers lack color, a pallid vibrancy unpleasing to the eye.

My childhood home was dark, full of candles, with shades drawn and shadows painting our walls.

There was mother’s room, too. But mother was gone now, and father forbid me to enter it.

“Why?”

He glared at me in silence that would brook no further insolent questions, and walked out of my room, slamming the door.

But I was only a child, and his glaring authority only turned my childish curiosity to unhealthy obsession. What don’t you want me to see, father?

  He always took the key with him when he left.

He hired a nanny for me, daft as she was strict, but she was prone to drink, and more often than not I’d find her sleeping; not being old enough to take advantage of it, I said nothing to father.

I made attempts to pick the lock when he was gone, and nanny was in her cups; one day she caught me at it.

“Eh, girl. What’s this wickedness?”

I’m ashamed of how easily the lie and tears came to me: “It’s father. He’s mean: he locked my dolls in here, and I can’t play with them now.”

She seemed to be thinking, the glass in her hand sloshing a bit as she watched me cry, then she seemed to make up her mind.

“A girl oughtta have ‘er dolls. I’ll let you in, but it’ll be our secret, eh?”

I smiled, hugging her, almost making her drop her drink. “Thanks, Nan. You’re the best…

She took my arms from her legs. “A’right, child. No need t’get mushy, eh?”

She used a hairpin, and the lock clicked open. Given her addiction, she probably practiced on liquor cabinets and doors in other homes all the time.  I thought she’d go in and see there were no dolls, but she didn’t.

“Come get me when you’re done, girl. Don’t forget.”

“I won’t, Nan.” I made as if to hug her again, and she scooted away.

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

Inside, more darkness: sparse, dark window shades covered with thick dark curtains, the room furnished in fluted, elegant, black furniture, and planks of dark wood on the walls. It seemed more a cellar bedroom than a part of the rest of the house.

I shuddered. There was absolutely no relief, no break of color or light anywhere to be seen.

Then I saw it, framed in the branches of a long- neglected plant, the glass beginning to shimmer and brighten.

A mirror. As soon as I saw it, I knew that’s why father kept me out of here, but it was a chance for me to see what I looked like, so I mimicked Nan in my head: What’s a girl to do, eh?

As I drew close, I began to cry as soon as I saw what was taking shape inside the glass. Westering sunlight laced through wispy clouds, broken up in spots of yellow and blue, the shadows of distant hills silhouetted in the distance, a calm lake leading to a lonely shore.

That’s where mother went; that’s why she left.

I looked back at the open door, heard father come in. He saw Nan sleeping, and yelled at her as she blubbered her apologies. Fearing the worst, he came running up the stairs.

It’s now or never, Nechama. Surely, he’ll punish you…

I reached out my hand, felt the warm breeze skim over the water, making small ripples,  saw the sunlight on my skin, felt its heat as bright lights burst and laced through the dark branches that held the mirror.

My body was fading, the lights on the branches extending, lacing around me, over my arms and legs, surrounding my head like a halo of stars.

Goodbye father…

      He saw me step through, and I turned at the sound of his voice calling mother’s name as he ran toward me, but it was too late.

The glass began to cloud over.

He sank to his knees, putting his face in his hands, his sobs of grief breaking my heart, breaking the mirror, breaking our bond.

Forever.

 

(MirrorMirroronthewall: Original art by Shadowheart69)

Prey for the Hunter

The city night lay before me, naked, splayed, open and wet, its gray, stinking, rotted skin painted in gold, waiting for me to taste it. Its flashing neon eyes held a practiced naivete with a predatory gleam.

I was all too eager.

The lights beguiled me with their changing colors, hypnotic patterns of strobe light pulsing to electronic rhythms of pumping humanity, feral pheromones permeating the air of hollow festivities that accompanied their mocking gyrations of mating.

It was all they thought of, all they pursued, and their souls were still black with empty longing.

It was a void I would fill to their heart’s content, and then, its demise.

 

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

Her name was Valerie, and I didn’t know whether she was brave or stupid for coming out alone, though some say they’re one and the same.

Sadness seeped off her in a plum colored aura, loneliness so profound I almost felt it.

“Anyone sitting here?”

She looked up from sipping her drink. “No.”

“Do you mind?”

“Yes, I do actually.”

“You don’t want me sitting here?”

“I picked the corner of the bar for a reason. I don’t want to be surrounded or cornered, and annoyed. Okay?” The sad loneliness had cloaked the bitterness.

I smiled, spreading my hands in an ‘as-you-wish’ gesture, and started to walk away.

“Hey,” she said.

I turned.

“Sorry. That was extremely rude of me. Sit here if you want.”

I smiled again, not letting it reach my eyes. “I no longer want.”

I moved to the restaurant section, feeling her eyes track me as I went to get a table, running a gauntlet of young women chatting me up, flirting, openly staring, but I rebuffed them all, biding my time.

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

The waitress didn’t seem to want to leave me to get my order, and wrote her number on a napkin that was already there. I turned it over after she went to place my order.

I didn’t look at the dance floor or the bar, but the air began to reek of desperate sweat as voices grew louder, the rhythms grew more primal, the lyrics lewder, and the hour late.

“Hey.”

I didn’t look up as she slid into the seat across from me, sliding a drink across the table. I took it between my hands, twirling the glass, studying the liquid inside.

“You’re gonna make me work for it, huh? Okay. Fair enough.” She settled back. “I’m really sorry.”

I looked up, but said nothing. She smiled at my mock-hurt silence. “I thought I was being a bitch…”

I laughed then, and she brightened up, taking advantage of the opening. “You probably think it’s stupid to come to a public place to be alone. It is, but after a while, you get the hang of it.”

“Has it been that long?”

Her smile sobered a bit. “Longer.”

“I’m sorry. No hard feelings.” I took a sip of the drink so she’d stay, then put it down. “Long story?”

Her eyes glimmered, and she nodded as I gave her the napkin. “It’s clean.”

She took it, saw the number written on it, and tried to give it back. “You have a number on here.”

“Don’t need it anymore.”

“Okay. Thanks.”

She wiped her eyes as the waitress came back with my drink, and narrowed her eyes at Valerie’s sudden presence, saw the napkin in her hands, then shot me a look as well.

I shrugged, looked over at Valerie. “Order whatever you want. Long tales require large meals.”

“Really?”

“Yes.”

She ordered, and the waitress flounced off in a huff; Valerie made an ‘ah’ face, realizing whose number it was, wriggling her eyebrows at me.

I was beginning to like her.

“Fast worker,” she teased.

“Sometimes it just falls into my lap.”

She laughed. “Not touching that.”

I let the innuendo pass; didn’t want to overdo it.

“So, tell me,” I said.

“You can’t be serious.”

“Why not? You came all this way, and you’re getting a free meal; you owe a guy.”

She smiled and shook her head. “All right. Remember, I tried to spare you.”

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

He didn’t think I knew what he was, but he had no idea I knew from the first.

The scent of him wafted over to me long before he reached me; it was stale, not exactly foul, but old, like newspapers left too long in a moist basement.

Smooth, well-dressed, and actually handsome, had he been human I might have played a different card, and things might have gone much differently.

I was lonely, and tired of hunting these things. They always managed to get to ground somehow, and I was off again. Too many flights to count, too many hotels to remember. More than once, I wanted to throw it all down and walk away, but something wouldn’t let me.

Damned if I could name what it was.

I made my sob story about my career, brought the loneliness into the picture, purging my world-weariness into his seemingly waiting ears, when the whole time he’s staring surreptitiously at my throat.

My dinner was filling, but not too much so. I wasn’t prepared to take all night. He was overconfident in his ability to read me, but I’d been at this much longer, and gave him nothing that would arouse his suspicion, just his curiosity.

He bought it all, wiping my eyes, making his voice low and comforting, but I found that I did have to avoid his gaze. There was a power in it that registered, which was rare on hunters like me. I said some silent curses, hoping I wouldn’t have to be careful, and now I would.

He might have noticed I didn’t look long at him, or thought it was just me being ashamed of my inglorious past, a decades-long walk of shame and failure, one after the next.

Having poured out the last of my highs and lows, he cupped my cheek, a slight chill to his hand, and straightened up in his seat, finishing his drink.

“You’re a marvel, Valerie.”

I blushed dutifully. “You’re just saying that.”

“I am, but you are. I wish I could’ve been there for you.”

I flipped the hair, composing myself, leaning across the table as I risked a stare. “Why would you want to share my miserable existence?”

“To cut it short.”

A little thrill of panic went through me. “Which one: my misery or my existence?”

He shrugged. “Feeling adventurous?”

“You’re serious?” I was still in character.

“Yes.”

I shrugged, finished my own drink.

He paid, and we left.

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

This time I won the perpetual game of hide-and-seek. There were moments through the years it had been closer than I’d like. This one was old, and strong, and I felt the thrum of power whenever he looked at me.

My wards held, but barely, and he never guessed my true motive, but there was no denying my need, and certainly no denying his; we stripped each other like whittling knives, rough and uncaring, rolling along the wall as the clothes came off, then the floor. He picked me up and dumped me like a grain sack, twirling his fingers in slow circles, his tongue teasing me with all his experience as I held him pulsing in my hand.

It was more like a fight than sex.

Each of us unleashed on the other with our bodies, leaving bruises, scratches, bite marks, as we made each other scream and grunt like the rutting beasts we became.

In the end, he bit deep as I stabbed him, and the rush was so powerful it almost knocked me out.

When he felt the silver blade go in, he bit harder, releasing into me.

We held on for dear life, seeing who would die first; I thought he would crush me between his powerful hands. To say he was taking everything from me into himself wouldn’t be wrong. I’d never felt so helpless, and so possessed. So fulfilled.

My heartbeat was loud in my ears even as it softened, fading with every pulse, even as my passion heightened, seeping with his every thrust.

I ground out what would be the last of my pleasure, and felt the cold creep up my limbs, his seedless semen coating my barrenness, as I released on him, a primal scream wrenched from my bleeding lips as I bucked against him, my vision exploding with countless stars.

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

Being Old World, I had no one to walk the day for, no reason to indulge in experimental talismans and new treatments; they left me agitated, still affecting the bloodstream, all the more because the blood wasn’t mine.

The silver dagger was cold in my chest, twisting where my heart used to beat; unsuspecting, I’d wrapped her hair around my left fist, keeping my mouth busy on hers before the end, her sounds mingling with my own to create something ancient as the act itself, and new as springtime. She’d slipped the blade underneath, and into me.

Her blood tasted of the Spanish Ports I remembered from long ago.

Her nails were like firebrands down my back, scarring as they clutched me.

I was helpless to defend myself as I sucked harder at her throat, neck muscles taut as she gurgled, blood bubbling on her full and tender lips between gasps.

She arched against me, even as I bore her down, our bodies insatiably lusting for their last sensations; we wound up suspended off the bed as we wrangled, fighting for control even now, wanting it to end, and wanting it to go on forever.

All these years later, I’d let my guard down on a night I felt indestructible, and this vampire hunter, lovely, lonely, and formidably vulnerable, put an end to my immortality. I wouldn’t enter eternal glory, but if this was what it felt like, even for a moment, it was enough.