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.

 

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Reflections of the Heart

Finally, the end of the day; I’d anticipated it since this morning, knowing the schedule ahead of me. I didn’t want to do the presentation, because I didn’t think I could. But I did.
The accolades seemed sincere enough,  but I never could determine what was really in people’s hearts. Since no one stabbed me in mine when it was over, I took the praise at face value.
Trust issues are sort of a thing with me, so I keep a small circle of acquaintances; I don’t think I ever let anyone in far enough to call a friend.
At the end, the boss was smiling. The steely-eyed men of our top client seemed pleased as well. I filed it away for the annual raise groveling when my review came, but tonight was deemed  a special occasion.
One of those steely-eyed men asked me out, and because I didn’t know how to politely decline after winning a hard-earned victory (and not being willing to endanger it, to be honest), I said yes.

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

As I got ready, I checked my reflection using gran’s old mirror, an antique she left to me in passing, telling me it was enchanted. She’d been something of a wiccan or psychic, or some combination thereof; I loved the old dear but I thought she was a little crazy.
Still, she loved me even though I scoffed, and it was nice to know that if the need for cash grew urgent, I could get a good price.
I fussed with my neckline til I had enough teaser cleavage, dreading every passing second toward him picking me up. When the whole look was girly-girl enough not to make him feel threatened, on impulse I took a flower from the vase and placed it just-so in my hair for an exotic touch. It bordered on trying too hard, but I decided to risk it.
“Faint heart never won rich businessman.” As soon as I said it, I winced.
Was I that shallow, that money was the first thing to occur to me? I was disappointed in myself. That took more reflection than I was willing to commit right now.
As I’d been getting ready, the temperature in the room had dropped to the point where I hugged myself for warmth. I checked the thermostat, but it was where I always left it.
Someone called my name, faint and distant, almost too low to hear.
Maurelle.  I chalked it up to date jitters, but then I heard it again, distinctly behind me. Maurelle.
I turned just as a soft, pale light suffused the room, but from the other side of gran’s mirror. A reflection not my own, twin but for the malevolence in her eyes, beckoned me to her.
“How…?” I backed into the wall, staring at myself getting angry with me for being scared.
Sister…come here.

I could feel myself trembling as I walked toward her, my roiling thoughts trying to label and organize, and failing. There was no analysis to be made of this.
Place your hand in mine; I have a gift for you. From Gran.
“This is a dream…”

She chuckled. It is not, but you may call it that if you like.
“No! I know what this is! You…you need me to escape.”
I do. Let me take your place. I know what’s in this man’s heart. And yours. I will get it for you.
“But you’re not me. I can feel the evil on you, even through the glass.”
I’ll not deny it, sister.
“What’s your name?”
Her eyes widened with mock innocence and hurt. The same as yours.
“Liar!”
She smiled, and I swear my skin crawled.
Let me in.
I wanted to back away, but couldn’t.
Touch the glass, Maurelle.
“Not until you tell me your name.”
She was casting a spell on me; my shoulders grew heavy, and I could feel my body weakening.
I am called Magena. Touch the glass, before you succumb.
I don’t remember touching it, but my hand suddenly felt dipped in ice, and I saw the blood when the glass broke. Magena gripped my wrist, pulled my hand to her chest, and smeared the blood on her cold, pale skin, on her quickening heart. She threw her head back, her voice chanting as fleeting dark images flooded my mind, visions of the place where she’d emerged.
The faces of those underworld beings would have driven me insane; if she’d been around them, she already was. If I was the gateway, what did it say of me? Of Gran?
The world spun in delirious circles, and I shouted something out, a word of incantation I didn’t know I knew, something that completed the spell.  Magena was beside me, translucent, but solidifying quickly.
I wanted to stop her, but I was fainting. She caught me as I fell, and gently laid me on the floor, my head in her lap, stroking my cheek, the air rife with the coppery tang of my blood on her chest.

Rest now, sister. I will take care of you.
Her voice was soothing, condescendingly patient, like you’d speak to a wayward child spinning out of control. They comforted me like a blazing hearth in high winter, and the darkness covered me like a mother’s love.
Don’t worry, Maurelle. I will see to your steely-eyed man. I will see to your whole life, now. I am your gift from Gran; in her heart, she hated you for mocking her.

She took the flower from my hair, put it in hers, and the last thing I saw was the vibrant pink turning black.

Magena’s sultry laughter rang in my ears, as my sight faded with my hopes of ever waking up again.

She was right: this was no dream.

My heart…

Head of the Pack (A Liar Fire Story)

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

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

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