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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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.

 

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.

 

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.

 

 

Ravella’s Bounty

She walked the night forest, sky blue light on her fingertips lighting the dark, twisted paths through the primeval woods she saw grow from the beginning.

She moved now in silence, embracing the quiet, but the night creatures grew still in abject terror and reverent fear at her passing; she’d culled their souls to her purposes before, and they hide, though she finds them all the same when they’re needed.

It was said of her that she desired to be among humanity once more.

As I tracked her she’d circled me, finding me before I saw her.

“You seek to kill me?”

“Yes, Ravella.”

“To what purpose?”

“Gold and lands. No more hunting. No more fighting.”

She considered me as I regarded the blue flame on her fingers. “Lower your weapon.”

“Will you compel me if I don’t?”

“No. Lower it.”

I will never be able to say why, but I did.

“Serve me, hunter, and I’ll see that you have all you desire.”

“The king has proclaimed you a blight on the land to be removed.”

“And what do you say?”

“I do the king’s bidding.”

“But there’s no reason to; I’ve harmed no one.”

“Even so, he lives in fear of you and your kind.”

She stepped closer: “Fear is crippling; you’re not afraid. You’re standing here before me, seeking my life, regarding this light. Is it to light my way, or is it, in fact, a soul I balance between realms?”

“I…I don’t know.”

“Follow me, and find out.”

“The king—”

She put a finger to my lips; the scent of honeysuckle wafted under my nose. “He is not as powerful as he believes. There are things all around us, even now, that don’t even know his name.”

The finger left my lips as she continued, and they were cold where she’d touched them.

“You understand this. There’s blood on your hands, and a man’s plans follow him into the dust of his birth.”  The realization and answer to her question came at once; she’d already taken the king’s life, his soul shining in her hand.

I found myself growing sad. “Give me the light; let me restore him.”

“You know who this is, then?”

“I do.”

“Then why restore him, after what he did to you, sending you here to risk your life?”

“He was my king. You had no right.”

“Hear me well, hunter: neither did you, to anyone’s. To rob a man of his life is a profane thing, no matter the hand that does it, no matter the method used.”

“There are reasons.”

“The reasons are as varied as the methods, hunter. The end is the same.”

Her words poured like cold water in my ears, and gave me pause.

She walked past me, pressing deeper into the forest, and like a vassal, I followed.

 

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

The crypt was underground, awash with oracular illumination.

I thought to throw my blade at her back, now unwilling to face her, but she’d know, and what would become of me then?

“You keep them here?”

“I don’t keep them, hunter. They choose to stay. I could no more bind them here than I could love them.”

“And what of me?”

You, I have bound.”

“Though you don’t love me?”

She stopped, turned to face me. “I wouldn’t bind what I loved.”

“You speak in riddles.”

“No, hunter. You are true to your nature, that’s all. I didn’t compel you to come here. You were free to let me go, and free to go, were you not?”

I realized she was right; I’d felt no magic bring me here.

We were in a chapel of sorts, the ceilings lost in shadow, black candles burning with that spectral blue light.

“Where am I? What is this place?” I asked.

She smiled, cupping the blue flame in her hands as she lifted them to her mouth.

“Home.”

“Ravella! Don’t–!”

She blew out the light, and I felt myself dissolve into the darkness, her soft laughter revealing that I’d become the hunted, and fallen prey.

She desired to be among humanity once more, but on her own terms.

No more hunting.

No more fighting.

No more.

Let’s Prey

Let us, for the love of God, stop pretending we’re strangers to blood.

I struck you because you struck my sister; you hit her so hard that she died.

And you expected me to do nothing? To let you walk away? To experience the freedom of life and movement she no longer enjoyed?

I’m glad, then, she didn’t tell you about me. Glad that we were estranged. Glad she never answered my letters, once I told her of my choice.

I will concede, however, that you fought valiantly that night, beating back our attackers, even killing two or three; I can’t recall.

Your blade flashed among their limbs, and you looked every bit the warrior, doing the work mostly in silence.

And when it was over, you tended to her first; your ministrations preserved her until she could get proper care.

But I remained still, and the marks were already in my neck; you should have killed me then, but I guess you thought they’d murdered me, and decided to let the authorities handle it.

The young fool, she believed you when you said you loved her, believed you when you said you could offer her better.

Instead, you only traded one darkness for another, your need for someone bending to your will as primal as ours, but without the power to make it happen.

Bewildered, she fled from you, but rather than seek a weaker victim, you hunted her; was the trophy of her mortality worth the effort it took to track her, and slay her like the wounded animal you made of her?

And now you die, by my hand, by the very damnation you said you’d rescue her from.

Some would call this divine intervention, but the divine has nothing to do with us; it’s simply an elegant veneer over visceral savagery, the age-old life- and- death drama played out between predator and prey.

There is no refinement or culture to us, just more time to learn, to polish our acts, and our silver. More time to stack our gold, build our libraries, and study humanity, gleaning from the fallen grains of its heightening depravity, and dizzying plunges into hedonism.

We increase as you decrease, and time is a merciless crucible to human frailty.

Seeing you now, slumping against the wall, the paste of your life’s blood smeared on it as you try to hold onto your sad, useless existence, and having the taste of your tobacco and whiskey-laden blood stinging my cold lips, brings to me a satisfaction beyond revenge.

I’m sated.

Amaia’s Ending

There are times, even now, when she calls to me in the darkness.

I turn to look, but no one is there, not even when I light the torches, my footsteps echoing in the catacombs, carried to her by the freezing breezes that blow from every direction.

They are secret, these tombs, and the people above them sleep in innocence.

I alone have been cursed to know their secrets, but they rend my sleep. I hear the voices, the shambling, the clinking of the chains, and moans of the dying, already dead.

Why was I trusted with the keys to this damnation?

I toss, I turn, I drink, I whore, I pray, and yet, sleep proves elusive as the harlot’s love; it comes to play a part, and leaves me with an unfulfilled longing of the soul. The pain and loneliness became unbearable; tomorrow, I would go to the police, and tell of this place, then overmorrow, and overmorrow became a fortnight… my resolve fading with the setting moon and the fading stars.

These were my days, until the night I heard it, knowing it would come on my Name Day: my name, Markandaya, ‘death conqueror,’ whispered in the dark, on the cold, blue lips of an ethereal lover come to torture and kill not my body, but my spirit.

I could no more resist than the tide could fight the moon. The scent of pitch and stale bones combine to twist my guts to knots, but I walk through the pain and cold, little more than substance myself, anchored to a dying world.

“Amaia.”  ‘The end,’ in the Old Tongue; it said everything about her, and nothing at all.

She turned the corner, amber eyes catching the torchlight, searing my spirit, beating my mind into madness. She was dead, and had been since I first saw her. The cold emanating from her beat at the flame, and my skin crawled to get away from her reeking, magnificent presence.

“Are you ready, now?” she asked.

“I’ve been ready, vermin. You bait me yet again with death’s promise, but you will send me back. Why do you toy with me?”

She laughed, eyes dancing in the flames. “Because you amuse me.”

I fell to my knees, freezing, sobbing, all pride and dignity fled. “Kill me…”

Her hand caressed my cheek, numbing my jaw. “Are you asking for mercy?”

Please, Amaia. I beg of you…”

“Convince me that you want to die.”

I placed the torch between us, my hands seeking her throat.

She laughed. “Now squeeze, with all your might.”

I was too malnourished, and only managed to grip her neck the way a baby grips a ball, the pressure too light to do anything more than indent her flesh.

“Is that all?” She slapped me. “Pathetic.”

“Amaia…”

“Leave me, Markandaya. The secret to my eternal damnation lies within these walls. Find it, and come back when you’re worthy. Wound me, and I will kill you then.”

“You speak riddles, and risk battle, when I ask for death?”

She laughed again. “You are not a worthy adversary, therefore I’m not worried. I’ll summon you whenever I like, and torture you whenever I’m bored. I’ll be here forever, and so will you, unless you find the way to cut me.”

She lifted my chin on her fingers. “How long have we been together?”

I swallowed. “I…I’ve lost count. The days, the nights, they blend…”

“And yet, it is your Name Day again, and I’ve been faithful, have I not?”

“You’ve been evil.”

“That, as well. All have abandoned you, or they lie here with us. No one comes, darling. No one cares, but me.”

“I’d rather you didn’t…”

“And that is why I always will. Find the secret, and your life is your own again. Until then…”

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

I was in my bed, sitting up, the covers wrapped around me for warmth, my eyes wet, my nose running. I wiped it on the cover, and tried to stop shivering.

The candle in my room was almost finished, so I lit another; sleep would not be granted me tonight, and I couldn’t bear the darkness just now.

Putting my bare feet on the cold floor, I cursed and cried out my torment at the top of my lungs, and beat my fists numb on the frame of my tattered bed. What could rattle, did, with the force of my blows.

Spent, I lay back down, and stared at the ceiling. Killing her would release us both, and she said the key was within these walls. I had to find it, though it meant the end of my life.

And as the shadows of my calling danced on the thin walls, I began to dream of it, a small smile of hope lacing through the grief.

“Amaia.” The End, in the Old Tongue, had now become my prayer.

And somewhere, in the void of the Abyss, a dark god’s eyes opened.