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.

 

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Midnight Son (5) The World Through Haunted Eyes

Indeed, the songbirds were singing again, likely celebrating our departure; the carrion birds would be a different story.
I said nothing of the distinction; if she wanted to enjoy the songbirds, so be it. She had her elbows on her knees and her eyes closed, listening.
Looking at the sky, I saw the stars already fading as we left our childhood home. Like them, something faded within us too. Perhaps it was the illusion that we could somehow salvage ourselves from a parasitic existence and come out whole, with some lingering trace of humanity.
I looked over again at my little sister. Such an innocent pose, a little smile on her face, as if only hours ago that smiling mouth hadn’t been devouring the meaty guts of our oldest family servant.
Semele didn’t seem innocent to the fact that what she did was monstrous; it was her ability to somehow shut it off, or out, when the killing was over. She’d be like a normal girl her age again, just that quick, as if nothing happened at all, even to her remorse wanting to bury Cassis, sounding for all the world like he only slipped and fell.
There was yet within her then a sense of remorse, of connecting with empathy for the results of her actions.
Connection.
The ghoul that infected Semele had nursed her, however briefly, and a connection between mother and child was yet possible. I had to get her to try to find it, if it existed, but I was willing to wait.
Before I went to sleep, I decided to draw her out on the matter.
“Semele, I have to ask you, what happens to you when…?”
She opened her eyes; they held a heavy, melancholy wisdom of life beyond her years.
“I get cold, Ingrum. I feel my heart slow, and my senses heighten to foul things. I smell rank water and corpses, and blood, and I start salivating, sometimes to the point where it drips from my chin.
“I grow stronger too; you saw what I did to Cassis. My nails sharpen, and all of my teeth, not just the incisors, like yours.”
She looked off, scanning the woods. “And I have to feed. There are corpses in the forest that I made, bones now. Bones of people and animals.”
“And Cassis?”
She sighed. “He was right there when I woke up.”
“Wrong place, wrong time.”
“Yes.”
“I want you to try something.”
“Alright.”
“That creature nursed you to make you what you are; there could be a connection of some sort, a bond you can feel.”
“I’ve tried. This is a goose-chase. If I could feel her presence, I’d tell you.”
A desperate anger began rising in me; I’d gone out of my way to make her aware of the cost, we weren’t an hour on the road, and she was practically giving up before we started.
“Maybe it works in proximity. I want you to keep trying. If you don’t, or can’t, we can turn around now, and you can just keep adding to your pile of corpses!”
She flinched, and her eyes welled. She tried to answer, but she only sobbed, and started to cry.
“I’m sorry. Just trying to make you realize that even if we find her, she’ll be difficult to kill. You’re one of them, and we’re not familiar with them. We found the book, now we have to use what it told us. If you would really be free of this, you have to be committed to seeing it through all the way.
“I need to be sure that you are.
“Don’t answer me now; think about it while you drive. The sun’s almost up, and I need sleep. If you turn back home, we never bring this up again, and we find another way.”
She wiped her eyes and nose on the hem of her dress, and nodded.
I handed her the reins; she took them without looking at me.
“Sleep well.” Her voice was clipped. That bothered me, but I knew she’d think on it. When I woke, she’d have an answer.
I really didn’t know what it might be, but I’d be lying if I said part of me hoped she’d say no. We were isolated and remote enough. We could hunt together, and feed, and no one would know…
I shook my head free of that illusion. If enough people went missing long enough, and frequently enough, we’d be first on the list. They’d burn the forest if they wanted to get us, of that I had no doubt.
On its face, the idea wasn’t unappealing; we’d both get the peace we wanted.
But if there was a chance we could be free, and live, we owed it to ourselves to take it.

 

 

Reflections of the Heart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She was right: this was no dream.

My heart…