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All the links for my stories can be found here!

The blog has been up for a couple of years now, and I figured it’d be a good time to compile the story links again! Click here to visit the page. All the chapters will have links to the other chapters for the story at the bottom of their pages. Also, if you’re here from Twitch for the Micro-Stories the link is here. Enjoy!

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Tales of the Graveyard Shift: The Greasy Goblin ~~ Chapter Eleven

Chapter Eleven

 

It turned out that Celinwel called the owner after she was released, and quit. So much for saving her to make my life easier. The night wasn’t that bad, though, since I forgot to account for Thea. She was efficient, quirky, though decidedly chatty about anime. I mean, I wasn’t sure how she was getting internet out in the Middle of Nowhere, Creepy Ass Woods, U.S.A., but it was probably highly illegal and I didn’t want to know.

As a weird speck of normalcy in the weirdest week of my life, I went to my nephew’s birthday party. They were lucky I showed up at all. Between sleepless days, working nights, and trying to solve a goblin murder to keep my brother’s tail out of the fire, I was dragging ass like a pug across a carpet. My only saving grace was that Saturday was my day off, and I’d managed some decent sleep before the party on Sunday. Slies had been conspicuously absent, but I wasn’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth and start to question it. I really didn’t want to wade through a pack of screaming children, but I needed to talk with my brother about a fair few things, which may or may not end with me yelling at him.

What kind of brother keeps the existence of the supernatural from his sister, and as a result she ends up beholden to a goblin leader to keep him from whatever terrible fate said goblin could concoct? A lame one, that’s who.

“Holly!” Candy’s voice cut across my nerves like the steel on steel squeal of a car collision.

If there was one word to describe Candy, it was ‘bombshell’. She was curvy, blond, stylish, and her eyes were a deep blue that almost seemed to flash indigo at times. Honestly, she was so perfect it was unreal. If she hadn’t had four kids with my brother, (and how unfair was it that she still looked that good after four kids?), I’d have guessed she was a robot.

She wore what I called ‘rich mom chic’, with a flowing, gauzy navy-blue shirt, black slacks you couldn’t call slacks because it was supposed to be ‘casual’, and silvery high heels. Her perfectly curly hair was swept into an up-do with a few artfully placed loose strands, and her various pieces of jewelry that could feed me for at least six months flashed in the low light of the entryway. The fact was, I was jealous, no two ways about it. She exuded grace like she was born to it, and the best I could manage on a good day was, ‘at least I’m not wearing sweat pants’.

“Hey, Candy,” I choked out without sounding too incredulous. I was getting better with time. It’d only taken me how many years to manage that? Still, point to me.

When I gave her a little wave her eyes widened at the soft cast on my hand.

“What happened to your hand?” she asked, some of the shininess in her voice wearing off. I should punch goblins more often.

“I, uh, lost my temper,” I said lamely.

She raised an eyebrow in expectation of more, but I simply smiled my most guileless smile, letting her know that was all I was going to say on the matter. I couldn’t very well tell her that a goblin healer had wrapped my hand, stating it was all he could do because goblin flesh was far too different from human for him to use his abilities. He said it was just fractured, but that I should still go to the hospital. I respectfully declined. I could barely pay for food let alone a medical bill.

“You wouldn’t happen to know where my dear brother is hiding, would you?” I asked, going for innocence, but probably not managing it very well.

“Oh, he’s—”

“Aunt Holly!” The unholy screech was my only warning before I was attacked by a pack of beasts, also known as my nieces and nephews. In total there were four of them: two boys and two girls, and they were all elementary and pre-school age.

At the moment I was only being accosted by three of them: Brielle, 7, Owen, 5, and Evelyn Rose, 3. Jason, the birthday boy, was turning 9 and likely commanding his birthday guest minions in some game of mischief or another. The child could wage a full-scale war from his tree house against the best military strategists out there, and I’d still bet on my nephew. If I hadn’t seen the birth certificate I would have sworn ‘Devious’ was his middle name.

“Hey, you three! Not causing too much trouble, are you?” I asked and hugged them close. Their behavior and my opinion of their mother’s name notwithstanding, I did love my nieces and nephews.

“Nope, just the right amount,” Brielle said, giving me a smirk to match her cheek.

I laughed, and turned at the insistent tugging of Evelyn Rose. She held her arms out to me in the universal toddler gesture of up, and I melted in the face of her forget-me-not blue eyes. Her hair was the white blond of small children, fine, and softly curling. It sat loose to her shoulders, because if anyone got near her with hair ties she threw unholy fits of rage.

I handed Candy the gift for Jason, and she tried to protest on my behalf since my arm was injured, but I waved her off with my good hand. I picked Evelyn up with one arm and she cuddled close to me, tucking her head beneath my jaw and resting on my shoulder. She took in a deep breath, and then stilled. Her sudden lack of movement made me freeze in response. Toddlers were naturally squirmy things, and any behavior outside the norm with them was cause for concern.

“Aunt Holly?” she said, her childish voice questioning and with an edge of confusion.

“Yes, Evy?” I asked, trying to keep my voice relaxed.

“You smell funny,” she said, and sat up enough for me to meet her eyes.

My breath caught in my throat at the sight: no longer blue, her eyes were the shade of mulberries, and the sensation of falling forward despite not moving threw my brain into full-out panic mode.

We’re falling! Primal Brain choked out, half in fear for us and half with instinctual fear for the potential to hurt Evelyn. Or maybe because of Evelyn.

We are not, but it’s unsettling, Rational Brain noted queasily.

“Evelyn Rose Bell—you will control yourself this instant, or you will be sent to your room!” Candy’s words rang out in the front hall, louder than they should have been but not in the sense of sound, and the reverberations made my bones ache.

Evelyn let loose her famous pout face, and I made to protest on her behalf, but Candy pulled her from my arms.

“Young lady, you know better. Now, go up to Nanny until your father and I are done speaking with Aunt Holly. Brielle, take her up. Owen, head out to play with your brother,” Candy said, issuing commands to each of the children in clipped tones I’d never expected from the perky woman.

As I shook what felt like fog from between my ears, I watched my nieces and nephews move quickly to do as their mother said. Apparently, this is what they meant by whipping out the ‘Mom Voice’.

When they were all gone Candy turned to look at me, and her eyes weren’t flashing indigo this time: they stayed that color. She stepped into my personal space and inhaled deeply right in front of my face, closing her eyes slowly as her lungs filled.

“Oh, Holly,” she said sadly, and opened eyes full of sorrow. “Come on, Joel is in his office. I think we all need to have a chat,” she finished, her voice soft.

When she turned and headed deeper into the house, I stumbled along behind her, my mind clearing more with each step. The newfound panic I’d discovered this week along with the existence of the supernatural was screaming and raking claws along my nerves, making me jumpy. I’d thought I’d already tumbled over my line of tolerance and found an equilibrium with co-workers, but this was family. Whatever was going on here was pushing me toward an edge in my mind, and I wasn’t sure I’d be able to climb back over. Even I had my limits.

Candy knocked softly, but didn’t wait for a reply before opening the door.

“Dear, I said I’d be down in time for the cake and presents. I’m alm—”

“Joel,” Candy said, her voice still soft.

I stepped into the room in time to see my brother’s head snap up and his brows furrow with concern at his wife’s tone. Then his eyes turned to me, and his head tilted in question. My brother and I shared the brown sugar colored hair, hazel eyes, and need for glasses, but in everything else we differed. He was tall like everyone else in the family, while I was short, and I took more after our mother in looks and he our father. Typical genetics. My brother was clean cut, no facial hair, and if he hadn’t hated the thought of traveling he might have followed in our father’s military footsteps. He cut a nice figure in his business suits when he was working, but here at home he was dressed in the same artful casual as Candy.

Candy closed the door behind me, and remained standing a little back and to my left.

“Hey, Buttface,” I said, trying to defuse the tension with my affectionately dubbed nickname for my brother, and waved my injured hand at him.

He snorted, and gestured to my hand. “Getting into trouble still, Stumblebum?”

I harrumphed and tried to cross my arms without jostling my hand. “Technically, this trouble found me.” Then I scowled at him. “In fact, I’m holding you partially responsible for this.”

He raised a single eyebrow, leaned forward on his desk with his elbows, and steepled his hands in front of him. “Oh, really? Do tell.”

“Well, it might have something to do with someone named Gozuk,” I spat acidly at him, yearning for a reaction.

I wasn’t disappointed.

Joel jumped to his feet, his eyes flashing with anger as he strode around the desk. When he started toward me I did my best not to take a step back in surprise or fear, I wasn’t sure which, and then his hands were tightly gripping my shoulders.

“He didn’t hurt you, did he?” he asked, his voice hoarse and low with fury and concern.

My eyes burned with the start of tears, but I knew if I started I might not stop, and I didn’t want to be a blubbering mess at my nephew’s birthday party. The fact was, though, that my brother and I might pick on each other to the point where we didn’t speak for months, but no one was allowed to lay a finger or level an unkind word in our directions. Making each other miserable was our prerogative and no one else’s.

“Not directly, no, but he put me in a situation, or a few, to be injured,” I said, my voice going soft like Candy’s. Then I turned my face up to search his eyes. “Why didn’t you tell me about…them?” I asked, hesitating on the last word.

Joel sighed and loosened his grip. He shoulders slumped and he looked anywhere but at me when he spoke. “We’re not allowed to. There are rules and governing bodies in the various supernatural factions that prohibit it. I wasn’t even allowed to say anything when I was questioned about having you as a manager at that fast food place. They thought since I was…tolerable, for a human, that you might be as well. If you had reacted poorly they would have simply wiped your memory and sent you on your way.”

He picked up my injured hand in his and ran a finger over the rough material of the cast. “Now I wish I had just told them you wouldn’t be able to do it.” Guilt was rolling off him in waves, and I sighed, exasperated.

“It’s fine, Joel. You didn’t know Stribs was going to get murdered and that Gozuk was going to drag me into it,” I said, and did something rare and unexpected: I hugged my brother. It was awkward, but we both needed it.

Candy cleared her throat, and when the two of us parted we both looked at her. Her eyes darted between us and then she broke out into a genuine smile.

“You two are more alike than you let on,” she said with a little laugh. It died almost as quickly as our hug, though, and her mouth turned down in a frown. “Joel…” she said, nervously, biting her lip. Her eyes darted to me, and the panic from earlier was back.

Joel sighed again. “Holly—”

“I’m not sure I want to know,” I said, interrupting him. My eyes were wide and panicked.

No, no, no, no, no, Primal Brain said in a sing-song voice, covering their figurative ears.

It would be better to know, Rational Brain said, not unsympathetic.

“It’s not about you wanting to know. It’s about needing to, to keep you as safe as we can. I expected at your job you’d stay in the shallower end, given the, uh, rabble that works there, but you’ve been thrown into the deep end, and we both know you’ve never been a great swimmer,” he said, his voice firm. He scanned my face, but whatever he saw there didn’t reassure him.

“How about you tell us what’s been going on, and then we’ll move on to more personal matters?” Candy suggested.

I didn’t know why, but her words calmed me. I wasn’t sure recounting my week would help me with whatever bomb they were going to drop on me, but it couldn’t hurt. We made our way over to the pair of couches that faced each other in front of a fireplace. His office was large, the walls covered with bookshelves filled to the brim with law books and accolades. Honestly, the whole room was probably as big as my small apartment.

After we settled, I told them about my very busy week. Joel’s eyes narrowed in parts, in particular when I mentioned Knight and Thea. The former I could understand, he was law enforcement and my brother was a lawyer. Not to mention Knight was a grade-A asshole. Thea, however, was a surprise.

“Please don’t drive her home again,” Joel requested, the words holding an edge of pleading to them that set the hairs on the back of my neck to attention.

I gave him a hesitant nod. I wanted to know why, of course, but I had a funny feeling I was going to get more information than I wanted in short order. I didn’t need to overload on it.

When I finished, Joel leaned back against the couch, his eyes narrowed in thought.

“I might be able to give you some directions to go in, or suggest some people that could help, but I’ll need some time to make some calls. Your, uh, association with certain people will make getting you help difficult. But I’ll try to get you something before you leave from the birthday.”

My brows furrowed at his words. “What associations? The people I work with?” I paused. “You called them rabble earlier. That’s rather rude, Joel,” I scolded.

Candy cleared her throat, and Joel deferred to her with a tilt of his head, which was the most shocking thing so far today. There was more to my supposedly airheaded sister-in-law than I thought, and I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of guilt at the realization. I hadn’t treated her like someone who had two brain cells to rub together, and based off current evidence I’d been somewhat uncharitable in doing so.

Still can’t get over her name, Rational Brain noted, with a sniff.

I silently agreed.

“The Owner of the Infamous Chicken isn’t only known for his talent with food; he also tends to collect outcasts. No one that would cause anything overt as a war with a faction, but those who were no longer welcome with their particular group.” At my frown, Candy continued, “Like Odella. She killed her Master, and though she was within her right to do so based on Code Sanguis, or vampiric law, no one willingly associates or invites vampires that kill their Masters to be around them, or join their Clan. It would be like inviting someone who assassinated the President to live with the newest President, or another world leader. They are seen as pariahs. Hence why The Owner took her in.”

I wasn’t sure I was comfortable hearing about Odella’s life, or rather undeath, from anyone but Odella herself, but Candy was simply trying to give me an example. I couldn’t fault her for that.

“So, you’re saying that everyone I work with, in some way, is an outcast?”

“Yes, and you working with them gives you an unofficial outcast status, too. It limits how much I’ll be able to help, given my position,” my brother said, his lips pressed into a thin line.

I sighed. I was never very good at politics—that was always Joel’s deal—but it sounded like I had indeed ended up in some deep garbage just by trying to be gainfully employed. Fate was having a laugh at me, She had to be.

“Okay,” I said, and took a deep breath. “While I don’t understand all of it, I’ll appreciate whatever help you can give me. They were so sure it was Celinwel, but that theory is trash now.”

Joel nodded, and tapped a finger to his chin as he thought. The silence between us stretched to the point of uncomfortable, and I squirmed a bit.

Just bite the bullet and get it over with, Rational Brain prompted.

I took a shaky breath and met both of their gazes with a pointed look. “Tell me.” The words had tumbled from me before I could think anymore on it.

Candy licked her lips and Joel grimaced.

“Do you remember how Candy and I met?” Joel asked tentatively, as though feeling out my mood.

Wow, apparently, we were going way back. I shook my head and pursed my lips. “At some work party, or something, right?”

Joel gave a nervous chuckle. “Yeah, that was the story we told. The truth is that Candy was…kind of…a reward for something I did for some…thing,” he said.

With each long pause between his words my eyebrows climbed higher and higher.

“Are you telling me someone gave you a person as a reward?” I spat, disgust thick on my voice, and I looked at Candy. I was expecting her support in my revulsion, but I was shocked to find a soft smile on her face as she looked at my brother.

“It wasn’t the best of circumstances, at least not in the eyes of humans, but our world doesn’t work the same as yours. Even the beings who ape humans closely, or were humans before, have very alien customs in the eyes of humans. It’s why we tend to avoid them. That, and the fact that humans tend to destroy what they fear,” Candy chided.

It was still a struggle for me to reconcile what I was seeing with their words. If what they said was true, she was basically a slave and she had no choice in the matter.

“So, he didn’t—” I made a waving gesture with my hand between the two of them.

Her eyes softened at my display of concern. “No, he was very gentlemanly. Despite what he was told about me and my disposition, he refused to do anything until we’d courted properly.” Then she laughed, the sound happy and warm. “It was the first time in my very long life anyone had treated me like a person instead of an object. I would do anything for Joel and the children,” she said, and took his hands in hers.

Watching them, I had to let go of my misgivings. It didn’t sit well with me how it had happened, but at the end of the day it was none of my business. And if they were truly happy, who was I to try and kick over their jubilant little sandcastle of love?

I took a deep breath, and let it out slow. “Okay. I can’t say I’m completely okay with this, but obviously my hang-ups are my own thing, and I’ll get over them. Or, I won’t, but I’ll keep it to myself.”

Candy’s eyes filled with tears, and Joel pulled her into a hug, whispering soothing words to her as he rubbed her back.

At my expression, Joel pulled back from Candy as she pulled an honest-to-goodness handkerchief from up her sleeve to dab at her eyes.

“She’s been fretting how you would react. Though I treat her as she should be treated: with respect and care, not everyone believes she deserves that. Your reaction means a lot, Holly. Ever since you took the job, we’ve been discussing how we were going to tell you everything.”

Something relaxed in my chest that I didn’t know had been tense. “You were going to tell me at some point, then?”

Joel and Candy nodded. “We decided on today, after Jason’s birthday, but then everything with the goblins happened and we were going to postpone,” Candy said. “But then…”

“But then Evelyn’s eyes changed and she said I smelled funny,” I prompted her to continue.

She nodded, but my brother laughed at the face I made when I stated what Evelyn said.

“Don’t worry, she says that about me whenever I come home from meetings with anyone except…her kind. Children, of any sort, are not known for their tact,” Joel said wryly.

My heart was in my throat and I tried to swallow around it. “You have to stop beating around the bush. I’ve already been lectured on asking a certain question,” I said, remembering Lia’s words with a blush of embarrassment, “so please, just tell me.”

Joel and Candy’s expressions were pained. “We just don’t want it to change how you act around the children,” Candy said, fear written plain in the way she held herself still, as though with one move she might break.

“Well, I already call them little hellions, what could be wo—” I couldn’t finish the sentence. When I’d said the word ‘hellions’, Candy flinched and lowered her gaze.

I clenched my hands, my breaths were coming out in quick, shallow pants, and chest was tight. It had been years since I’d had an honest to goodness panic attack, and though this week had pushed me pretty close, this had done me in.

“You-you’re demons?” I asked. The final word came out much harsher than I’d intended, but I’d had to push it out, or I wouldn’t have been able to say it at all.

Candy nodded, still not looking at me, and Joel gave me pleading eyes. Begging me to understand.

I stood up suddenly. “I-” I snapped my mouth shut against whatever was about to fall gracelessly from my mouth, and looked at the door. “I need a moment.”

Then I rushed from the room like a coward, and pretended I didn’t hear a soft sob right before I closed the office door behind me.

 

 

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Writing Prompt ~~ The Truce

Music: Bad things – Jace Everett

 

Depending on a person’s proclivity for nocturnal activities, it was either far too early or far too late for what walked through my kitchen door at 5 am.

I’d been minding my own business, getting ready for the day by drinking tea and reading some news articles on my phone before heading out for some off the clock, weekend training, when I heard the front door open and close. I barely managed to stop myself from rolling my eyes. My roommate/partner was dragging themselves in at an ungodly hour, yet again, after being out all night. It was unnatural, even among superheroes, for someone to get so little sleep and still be so incredibly…perky. My lip curled at the word.

Perhaps it was a byproduct of her power: energy absorption. She could pull energy from anything, ranging from solar rays, to sticking her finger in a light socket, to pulling calories directly from a living being. As a result, she was always on this rather strange, but natural for her, high. In all honestly, I believe it has scrambled her brains a bit, but there was no denying she was a good person, and utterly pure in her intentions and actions. Though she didn’t always make the best decisions.

I sighed and shook my head, turning my attention back down to the article on my phone. I was a few lines in before I realized the steps I heard coming toward the kitchen were too numerous and oddly staggered to just be the footsteps of one person. I sighed yet again, and did my level best to not succumb to the rising annoyance at the fact my partner had brought yet another acquaintance home.

I was vacillating between my two choices of interaction: no eye contact and only making noncommittal noises in response to her questions and exclamations, or the third degree, complete with scowls and sneers. Deciding on the latter, and putting my tea down on the table, I turned my attention to the doorway just in time to catch Felicity Kist—a.k.a Voltra—walk into the kitchen with the biggest, brightest smile.

She was light and goodness wrapped in a short, curvy body, graced with thick, flax-golden hair cascading down her back like a shining waterfall, with jewel-bright blue eyes, and dimples that could make men and women swoon at a hundred paces.

I narrowed my eyes and opened my mouth to admonish her when the second person came in behind her. At this point, my mouth dropped all the way open and my eyes widened to their limit.

Trailing behind her, seemingly willingly and at a level of unconcerned edging on boredom, was Lucas Trex—Nightmare—our archnemesis. He was what you expected from a villain: dark hair, dark eyes, lean and long-limbed, and devilish good looks that could tempt a saint with the smallest curl of his lips.

The only similarity between us was our height, both above average tall, but that was where it ended. I was bulkier, my eyes a washed out grey, hair the color of a good butterscotch pudding, and a square jaw.

“Felicity!” I exclaimed, and jumped to my feet, knocking over my tea and dropping my phone to the floor with a loud clatter. “You will explain yourself this instant!”

If anything, Felicity’s smile grew even wider instead of being tempered by my shock and anger. “I won him in a poker game, Asher!” she exclaimed, and even clapped her hands with joy. “Isn’t that wonderful?”

“You. What?!” My eyes darted to Lucas, who merely shrugged and started looking around the kitchen. “That’s not a thing, Felicity. You don’t win people in poker games. Has he used his powers on you? Are you under his spell?” I asked, panic welling in my chest as I curled my trembling hands into fists.

My stance was wary, ready to grab Felicity to draw on her tremendous energy and manipulate it into a shield to protect us from his attacks. Or to blast him from the face of the earth. There was a lot we could accomplish partnered up that we couldn’t do apart. She could somewhat manipulate the energy she gathered, but she didn’t have my finesse or skill for it. On the other end, I was unable to draw vast amounts of energy from my environment the way she could. Without her, I could maybe gather enough to shoot a few energy darts, with just enough power to sting but not really injure. And without me to help balance and direct her energy she’d be bouncing off the walls, or in the worst-case: explode.

Lucas scoffed. “Not likely. The girl’s brain is such a mess and runs at a ridiculous rate of speed. I’d be lucky not to go insane spending any time in there.” He was probably right about her brain, and his voice was smooth like sin and wrapped in chocolate. “Plus, I don’t do magic or spells—I’m no wizard or mage. I manipulate psionic waves to produce the most terrifying nightmares or most exquisite dreams,” he said, sounding almost offended that I’d called what he did magic.

“Completely beside the point,” I ground out, shaking off the way his words and voice conjured images in my mind with the words ‘exquisite dreams’. “You are our enemy, and you must have tricked her in some way to get in here!” I declared, finally reclaiming my scowl and jabbing my finger in his direction.

He simply raised an eyebrow. “Pointing is rude, you know. Do they not teach you manners at that sorry excuse for an academy you attended? Or the agency you joined?” At my growl he shook his head and sighed. “Pity.”

“You-you—” I sputtered, but gave up on interacting with the infuriating man. “We are taking him in now, Felicity,” I said, hissing her name.

She pouted. She actually pouted at me. “But Lucas said we could have some fun if I won him,” she said, turning her lightbulb bright and innocent smile to the man.

There it was. The curl of his lip that turned my knees to jelly and made my mouth so dry I could swear I’d swallowed sand.

“Yes, I did,” he purred, gently trailing a finger along her jaw. I thought I was going to have heart palpitations, and then he turned a sly glance my way and I knew I was. “Would you care to join us…Asher?”

In a moment of weakness, between sucking in a shocked breath and exhaling, he crippled me not with his namesake—Nightmares and terrors—but with the other, softer side of his power.

Candlelight, silk sheets, and tangled limbs. Soft touches, smooth skin, and throaty moans. The scene played behind my eyes as though I was there, amidst them. Then, as my real vision was peppered with black spots, I realized I’d stopped breathing.

I let out a strangled sound and my knees couldn’t take it anymore. I collapsed into the seat, panting, and holding on to the edge of the seat as though it was the only thing keeping me from disappearing into the dream vision.

“I’ll take that as a tentative, ‘yes’,” he said, and chuckled, the sound deep and wicked.

“Isn’t he lovely?” Felicity sighed in delight, and then turned her attention to me. “Don’t look so worried, Asher. We’re bound by a magical truce woven into the rules of the game. For 24 hours we can’t harm each other, in body, mind, or soul. For the span of a single day we can just enjoy-” She put one hand on his chest, “-each other’s-” Her other hand snaked to the back of his neck, “-company.” She gently pulled him down for a long, deep kiss.

For what seemed like an eternity, the only sounds in the kitchen, (aside from the blood rushing through my body with such force it made me lightheaded), were gentle sighs, the rustling of clothing, and the slow drip of my tea leaking to the floor.

Heat pooled through me like fire roaring through my veins, and I let out a barely audible, “Okay.”

At first, I thought they might not have heard me, but then they broke apart and turned my way. I wasn’t prepared for the both of them to level all their respective and considerable charms my way. I exhaled weakly at the magnificence of them, their lips full from kissing, eyes dark with lust, and bodies pressed together as though they were two halves of a whole.

As though they were of the same mind, they both held out a hand for me at the same time. I gulped, but stood, and walked on shaky legs around the kitchen to take their hands. Lucas licked his lips hungrily and Felicity smiled a small, secretive smile.

“I told you he’d be perfect to balance us out—the grey between light and dark,” she said, not taking her eyes from mine.

“Well, you’re not wrong,” Lucas agreed, or at least his version of it. Then his eyes traveled over the two of us. “I hope no one planned to rest for the next 24 hours,” he said, his voice going low and purring again.

I nearly melted right there. The effect of being so close to the two of them and hearing his words was heady and intoxicating.

Felicity laughed, the sound of it delicate and pleased, while I just stood there, trying to catch my breath and calm my wildly beating heart.

Instead of answering, she let go of our hands and turned around, heading to the stairs that lead up to our bedrooms. Lucas gave me another turn-your-brain-to-mush smile before turning on his heal and following her up the stairs, looking like nothing less than a sleek, dark predator seeking out his prey.

I let out one last shaky exhale and followed them.

Today was going to be a very long day.

Writing Prompt ~~ The Devil is in the Details

Music: release (A Tale of Outer Suburbia) by Hands Like Houses

I scowled at the small, plain wooden box sitting so innocently on the cheap, round kitchen table. Though plain might be a bit of a misnomer, maybe unadorned was better. It had only a bronze hook latch to keep the lid closed, and the wood appeared as though someone had fanned orange-red flames across unfinished wood and then froze them in place with varnish. I’d been told it was made from elder wood, but I hadn’t been concerned with the box. It’s what was in the box that drew my ire.

“That was not part of our agreement,” I said, the distaste in my words as heavy in the air as an impending storm. I then turned the same narrowed eyes to the ‘man’ across from me, and the corners of my mouth turned down in a sneer.

He wasn’t anything remarkable. In fact, he had a face and demeanor that the average passerby would gloss over and forget about almost the same instant they saw him. As though their eyes simply slid over him. Nothing stuck out as memorable, which had raised my suspicions all the more when I first caught sight of him almost nine years ago in the bookstore where I worked.

Everyone had something that caught a person’s eye to catalogue them: scars, birthmarks, mannerisms, body types, markings, smell, and so on. But this man was almost so bland he was invisible. It would have raised my hackles if I’d had them. I guess being half-Fae meant I was lucky I hadn’t been born with hackles. Human and Fae genetics could do some terribly interesting things at times.

He tilted his head, considering me, and his eyes that were some shade in-between brown and hazel searched my face for what I guessed was some small crack in my façade. I held my silence. One of the first things I’d learned when living with my ‘father’ was that it was far more difficult to find yourself in trouble if you held your tongue. It was a lesson I needed to be taught only once, and the scars that littered my back were a daily reminder for caution and quiet observation.

So, we both sat there in cumbersome silence waiting for the other to break. Unfortunately for me, I didn’t have the endless patience that celestial and immortal beings were capable of, and after my clock ticked to ten minutes of nothing I broke.

“Why exactly are you trying to give me my soul back?” I asked and smoothed my features into a bored, indifferent mask. I did it not only to stave off my headache before it could become a migraine, but also because it never paid to show a veritable god that you were curious. Maybe satisfaction brought a curious cat back, but I’d never been tempted to test the limits of just how much ‘immortality’ I’d inherited from dear ol’ dad.

“Do you not want it back?” he asked, curious.

My scowl was back quicker than someone could snap their fingers. I was fortunate he wasn’t from my pantheon, or else the reaction would leave me as nothing more than a splotch of gore in my unfortunately decorated kitchen. The 70s were not kind in regards to such things, and no, calling it retro didn’t make it any less regrettable. But cheap was cheap, and this was what I could afford.

Of course, his position outside my kind’s usual avenue of worship was why I’d wound up in this delicate situation in the first place.

“I think my continued existence in the world of the living is enough of a reason to never want it back, actually,” I replied scathingly.

“But you’d have your magic back,” he offered calmly, and not responding to my irritation. He was still watching me for something, some reaction.

I scoffed, leaned back in my chair, and took a sip of my rapidly cooling tea. My mind was tumbling through precisely why that was the first reason he thought I’d want it back. I’d lived just fine for nearly a decade without it.

“Magic isn’t everything,” I said, finally deciding on a nonchalant response, and shrugged my shoulders to support the words.

“Maybe, but you would have been able to help your friend,” he said.

The words weren’t cruel, per say, but they had the same impact as a car wreck. It knocked all the wind from me and brought my thoughts to a screeching halt. My chest ached with the weight of grief, and the responsibility of a ruined life hung heavy on my conscience.

I closed my eyes against the sharp pain that stabbed through my heart when her face floated into view. There’d been so much blood, and though I’d learned long ago to not let such a thing bother me, it was the fact that it was her blood. Half-Fae were tougher than humans by a large stretch, but we could still be injured a hell of a lot easier than full-blooded Fae. It took immense torture, a twisted purpose and will, and/or a weapon enchanted with the express purpose to kill their kind to have an effect on them. I’d watched one Fae who was hit fully by a semi-truck on a highway walk away with nothing more than a bad temper at the ‘inconvenience’.

So when Seirian showed up on my doorstep out of the blue utterly mangled, her usually kind smile gone beneath a mask of gore, I’d rushed her to the closest approximation of a healer I knew. Unfortunately, not all magics are compatible, and the hardiness of the Fae meant she healed faster than Aubert could fix things. As a result, with her Fae magic fighting his shamanic power, the best he could accomplish was the minimize the scarring. Seirian was now the only Fae I knew confined to a wheelchair.

Of course, if I’d had my healing powers I could have healed her far more effectively, and likely almost back to perfect. On the flip side of that, using my powers would have drawn the Hunters I’d been avoiding for nearing two decades right to my location. They thought I’d been merely suppressing my powers, and not that I’d managed to finagle a deal with a Devil. Not necessarily the Devil, though I wasn’t sure I’d know the difference unless he told me. Devil was just a broad classification of upper-level demons, the same way Fae covered a lot of ground in terms of beings originating from the British Isles.

At any rate, since magic is tied so closely with the soul my power disappeared into the box along with it. That ‘plain’ box was the only thing standing between me and a faction of supremely cheesed off beings that wanted nothing more than to see me flayed alive. At best.

I opened my eyes to meet his gaze once more. As though someone had pulled the plug on my emotions everything drained away, leaving me with an emptiness I hadn’t experienced since we’d removed my soul.

“Wishes and what-ifs are as substantial as pixie farts, Karroth. Risking my neck now won’t heal Seirian and would only result in ushering in my demise. So, I ask again: why are you trying to give me my soul back?” I asked, my voice hoarse from unshed tears.

Something rippled beneath Karroth’s skin, and his eyes flashed with the catastrophic hellfire that pervaded his realm. It was a sobering reminder that, while I may not be a being of his pantheon, he was more than capable of killing me with the barest of thoughts with or without my powers to defend myself. It would be like a gnat picking a fight with a dragon.

“We need your assistance in getting through a ward to retrieve something that was stolen from us, Gwyneira Nic Trahaearn, lesser daughter of the Tylwyth Teg, and we would have your cooperation in exchange for sanctuary,” Karroth said formally and with Power behind the words, capital ‘P’ and all.

And when he said my name, despite the fact that all of my essence was set behind the highest wards the Devils possessed, it still rung my very being like clapper of large bell. It made every cell in my body hum, and for a moment it disrupted the bindings that held my glamour together.

There is power in knowing the Name of a thing, and though my human blood could disrupt some of said power, it did not cancel it out completely. As a sentient being, my Name didn’t lend someone control over me, but it made it impossible to not reveal my true self if they put their own Power behind Naming me. There are a few ways to see the true form of a Fae, and this was one.

Karroth’s eyes widened for a moment, as he’d never taken liberty with my Name or pushed my glamour aside. Therefore, he’d never seen what I truly looked like. Of course, it wasn’t every day that Devils and Fae crossed paths.

My glamour skills were a sight better than some of the snootier, higher-level Fae, because they reveled in flaunting their forms. I, however, was trying to not attract attention. The image I presented to the world with my magic was a woman with average looks, bordering plain, butterscotch blond hair that fell in waves to my mid-back, pale skin that was more suited to a redhead, and cornflower blue eyes.

What I truly looked like, though, wasn’t too terribly far off from the glamour, and I had the famed and fancied pale coloring of my people. Glamour works best when you don’t deviate too far from the original, though. The one thing that was always the most difficult to adjust was my hair, which was white as the driven snow, but the same length. Not being higher nobility meant I was already pushing the limits with how long my hair was now. Of course, I wasn’t exactly waltzing through the courts, so the danger level wasn’t too high. If they caught me, the length of my hair would be the least of my transgressions.

My eyes were normally a liquid cobalt blue that shimmered iridescent in the light, and my skin was so pale it was almost translucent at times. High cheekbones and delicate bone structure belied the innate strength that came with being Fae. Unfortunately, the glamour couldn’t help me with keeping said strength in check. I’d learned to be cautious after freaking out a co-worker when I’d overestimated lifting a large box of books and launched it across the room.

The real issue came with the glowing. My father’s people tended to glow with their power and emotions like wicked deadly lightbulbs. It wasn’t an all the time thing, but when strong emotions took us over or we were using our powers it tended to happen. I hadn’t had to worry about that since the removal of my soul, but I was glowing now. It likely had to do with Karroth using my Name, and how it may have tapped into some level of power in my very cells that went beyond what was in my soul.

I pushed my shoulders back and tilted my chin up to look down my nose at the Devil.

“You sure know how to flatter a lady by mentioning her lowly position with her people. Have you divested yourself of your kind’s famed silver tongue? Or am I simply lucky enough to be in the presence of the one Devil with less tact than a human?” I asked caustically.

I wasn’t the most devious of my kind; I couldn’t think a thousand moves ahead and I had no head for politics or sensing out ulterior motives. I was, however, enough in my right mind to try and buy time by playing on etiquette. He’d insulted me, and until such a thing was redressed I had time to think of a few questions and settle myself.

His eyes flashed with that inner fire again, my renowned peevish behavior finally scratching the surface of his calm façade. His apology was stilted, and only marginally genuine, but I inclined my head in acceptance. I didn’t have enough magical or political clout to do anything but accede anyway.

My glamour had finally settled back down and flowed back over my person like water filling an allotted space, smoothing over the surface. I let out a sigh at the familiar, almost imperceptible weight of it. To be exposed in such a way was disconcerting, to say the least, as though I suddenly found myself naked in front of him. That particular thought sent blood rushing to my face, and unfortunately the glamour didn’t conceal that.

Karroth raised an inquiring eyebrow, but I ignored him and cleared my throat.

“This sounds less like a favor and more like subtle demand. Why do you need me to get beyond this ward? You far outstrip me where power is concerned,” I noted, and watched his expression flash through varying emotions before settling into a rueful grin. Why such a sight had alarm bells clamoring in my brain and my instincts screaming like a banshee, I couldn’t say. The smile was pleasant enough, but there was something lurking beneath the surface that didn’t sit well with me on some level I couldn’t identify.

“I told them you wouldn’t just blindly want your soul back. They aren’t used to people who give up their souls for reasons other than greed and power,” Karroth said. Though his grin faded, amusement still danced in his eyes, like the flickering flame of a candle.

I snorted in disbelief and shook my head. “Cowardice isn’t a much better reason,” I pointed out.

“Is it truly cowardice to recognize when you are outmatched and take appropriate steps to ensure your survival?” he asked, continuing the vein of her observations. It was almost like he didn’t want to talk about why he was there, either. Or at least not directly.

“Some have pointed out I could have simply rolled over and faced my death like the nobility in my blood demanded.”

It was Karroth’s turn to snort. “As though any of them would sacrifice their own self-preservation to do the same.”

I tilted my head in assent. “You’re not wrong.” I paused, and took a moment to consider his words, ‘and we would have your cooperation.’ Pretty words with a very strong suggestion toward giving them what they wanted. Yes, he’d offered me sanctuary with the Devils, but, in a way, I was already halfway there by not being in possession of my soul. Was taking that step worth the risk of putting myself out in the open? Not to mention sanctuary and protection were two different animals. It was like the difference between a nice fence and a pack of guard dogs. Or a prison.

I grimaced in my thoughts only. There’s no telling what sanctuary meant to them. It could mean setting up wards on my house, person, place of work, and so on. Or it could mean they’d take me to one of their dimensions and I’d be trapped there. Forever. There wasn’t enough benefit to me to take the chance.

“Your offer is a most gracious one, Karroth, but regretfully I must decline at this time,” I said, using my ‘court polite,’ voice.

Karroth’s face remained calm, but his eyes gave the barest of twitches at my change in tone and answer. I wanted to point out he was the one to get all formal first, but I refrained. He was not pleased.

“We believed the offer of sanctuary to be a generous one,” he said, leaving the question hanging in the air. What about the offer was not satisfactory?

I wanted to sigh. “As I said, most gracious. However, I find myself wondering about a fair few things in regards to this agreement,” I said, tone only mildly curious, and leaving my own question on the air. May I ask questions?

The smallest spark lit his eyes, like an ember swirling from a campfire; the smallest flare and then gone. He nodded.

“First: what does sanctuary mean in my particular case in relation to the Devils?” I asked, trying to cover as much ground as possible while also being specific. If I had only asked, ‘What does sanctuary mean?’, he could rightly give me a quote out of the dictionary which might not cover what they considered sanctuary, and what it mean for me.

This time it was the corner of his mouth that tugged upward just a hair. “We would welcome you to our court,” he said, voice almost purring, as though the idea intrigued him in some way.

For me, though, it froze my insides and a stab of shock went straight through my heart. My eyes widened involuntarily, and my breath hitched. “While I would be most honored,” I said, my voice on the edge of stuttering, “such an accommodation would not be compatible with how I would like to live at this current time.”

For a moment he said nothing, and then his smile pulled a little higher. “That is unfortunate,” he said, mournfully, despite his unperturbed expression. “Our counter-offer is to place wards on your home.”

“That wouldn’t do me any good once I left,” I pointed out.

He shrugged. “It is a compromise. You have been offered full sanctuary on our terms, or partial on yours,” he said dispassionately.

I bit my lip, but knew he wasn’t going to budge on that. “What about an offer of protection for when I’m outside my home?”

He tilted his head in consideration. “What form of protection would you consider adequate?”

“Considering we’d be dealing with the higher Fae, like my father,” I said slowly, trying to think of what rank of demon wouldn’t be considered too high, or too low. “I’d wager nothing short of a Knight or sentinel, or two, would be sufficient.”

His eyebrows rose slowly. “You must think rather highly of yourself.”

I laughed, but it was a humorless sound, and brittle as thin ice. “I am no catch, Karroth. However, I have flouted not only a court full of easily pissed off Fae nobility, but also a Queen when I killed the first Hunter she sent after me. It is not for me that I ask for such power in protection. It’s for the poor, soulless demon, so that they’ll be of a sufficient power to protect us both, or at the very least themselves.” I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, the phantom pains from my encounter racing along my nerves like ghosts of agony past. “Anything less would be asking for a slaughter,” I finished, my voice hoarse.

After a few moments of silence, I looked up at Karroth, and he was watching me thoughtfully. “As you say.”

It was neither an agreement or a denial. Guess I’d just have to wait and see, though I was still not considering taking it back. They still weren’t offering me anything to sway my decision.

“Even if both provisions were met—wards and a guard—I still don’t see what’s in it for me,” I said, watching Karroth as I spoke. I didn’t trust the Devil for anything beyond our original deal: him keeping and using the power in my soul as he saw fit, and his discretion on keeping our arrangement and my current whereabouts to himself. The thought of what he might be using my soul for made something in my gut curl and twist, but there was nothing for it. There had been no other way.

“Don’t you want to know what it is you’re going to help us get before I…sweeten the pot, so to speak?” he asked.

He paused just before saying the last, and I narrowed my eyes at the hesitation. I wasn’t sure what his offer was, but it didn’t sound like something I’d actually like. It made the whole situation more suspicious than it already was.

“Fine,” I conceded, going with his suggestion. “What is it you and the Devils are trying to get back?”

“Cerridwen’s Cauldron, or rather, the Cauldron all leaders of the Underworld had a right to, until She took it for herself,” Karroth said, the latter half of his statement an aloud musing.

The world itself seemingly drew in a deep, shocked breath and froze at the former half of his words, and when it released everything shattered.

“What?!” I screeched, standing so suddenly that my chair toppled backward. “Are you insane?” I hissed, all polite pretense pulled away like ripping off a band aid.

“I suppose that depends on your point of view, but for the purpose of this discussion, no, I am not insane,” he replied, still calm.

Well, now his earlier reticence about telling me anything made sense. I wanted to shake him, maybe scratch his eyeballs out, just something violent to break the tranquility of his demeanor. Instead, because I valued having my lungs remain in my chest instead of being ripped out because I attacked the Devil, I settled for clenching my fists uselessly at my sides.

Of all the things I expected him to say, that particular one wasn’t even in the same universe as any of the others that had rattled around in my mind.

The Cauldron held the power of knowledge, inspiration, and rebirth, and Cerridwen was a Dark Goddess of many who called the British Isles home. And I meant Goddess with an upper-case ‘G’. There were little gods, goddesses, and demi-gods running around, but Cerridwen was a Power. As far as I knew she was the rightful owner of the Cauldron. I’d never even heard speculation it wasn’t hers, even among those outside her pantheon and worshippers. If I thought I was in a bad place with the courts of Fae, the wrath of a Goddess was nothing in comparison. It was pure, unadulterated suicide.

“You’re joking, right? Pulling one over on me?” I asked, breathless and foolishly hopeful. Karroth wasn’t a prankster, and he rarely ever joked in such a manner. He might tease me to make me uncomfortable, but this was well beyond that.

“I cannot say that I am. She has long kept the Cauldron to herself, thinking it could buoy her powers as her following in this world waned. The Cauldron was never meant to remain in the power of one Power of the Underworld for so long. It is one of the anchors in our realm, and it was high time it was returned to Cynosium, before the damage is irreparable,” he said, his voice going low and determined.

Cynosium was the middle realm of the Underworld, like the center of a starburst design with the various Underworlds as the points at the end of the beams radiating outward. Outside of that I didn’t know much about it, as I’d never had cause to. I made it my life’s mission, quite literally, to not visit or involve myself in the matters of the Beyond and Below.

“I don’t know how I can help with that…” I started weakly, and then my mind snapped to one of my father’s rants after I’d failed spectacularly at ingratiating myself to his Queen during one of her balls.

You are nothing more than an aberration on our vaunted family tree. How one such as you could be descended from our Dark Mother, I will never know. I thought it would be enough to cleanse your vile human taint, but apparently I miscalculated,’ he’d sneered.

It was that night, when the coldness of his gaze let me know I’d outlived any potential usefulness he’d planned for me, that I made my escape. I took nothing from my room, just found what I considered my most normal-looking clothing, dressed, and slipped out of the faery mound. I’d been a reverse changeling; instead of a Fae leaving a Faery child with humans, I was a half-Fae left at the entrance of the mound after my father’s unfortunate tumble with a human. Which was a story I’d been beaten within an inch of my life for asking about. I still didn’t know the circumstances.

As for the rest of what he said…Cerridwen was also known as the Dark Mother among the Fae, and I sucked in a breath at the realization.

“You need something from me, but not me,” I said, my knees going weak. I kept a tight grip on the table to hold myself up.

Karroth nodded, and for the first time I saw something stir in his expression that lent credence to the stories of Devils. Their utterly devious and cruel nature. A slow smile crept over his face, and it was not nice in any way, shape, or form. It was very much what I imagined a goblin looked like when it came across an unsuspecting fairy and had it for a snack. Predatory.

“Those of Cerridwen’s line aren’t plentiful, and almost never leave the mounds. Even when they do, it’s only every few hundred years, if that, and never alone. They would never allow themselves to be captured, and we needed someone alive to get what we needed.” He paused here, and his gaze sharpened on me. “And then along came a half-Fae, Hunters on her heels, and desperate for a normal life. Someone with the blood of Cerridwen in her veins. Though it is weakened by your human side and seeming to get more so each day you are without your soul, it is still there. A spark of that power is what we need to get past her wards.”

As he’d continued talking, he’d leaned forward until maybe half a foot separated us, his eyes looking up into mine where I still stood. I was not an incredibly tall person, so his face wasn’t all that far from mine. I swallowed hard but couldn’t move.

“I still don’t see what’s in it for me,” I said, my voice barely more than a whisper.

His smile went sharp and rueful again. “I had hoped you would simply go along, maybe in some gesture of defiance to your father’s people, but I should have known your fear ran far too deep.” He snapped his fingers, the sound cracking on the air almost like a whip. “Remember: this was not how I wished to go about this, but I have no choice,” he said, his voice low, but not really sounding very sorry at all.

“Everything before a ‘but’ statement is a lie,” I said, offhand.

“Perhaps,” he mused, and the sound of the front door opening and closing set my nerves on edge.

“Who…?”

Then she was there, moving her wheelchair into the kitchen, and I couldn’t breathe.

“Hello, Gwynnie,” she said, her voice soft and alluring, the accent lilting and rolling the words from her mouth like a tumbling stream.

I finally sucked in a breath past the tightness of my throat. “Hello, Seirian,” I said, barely choking the words out.

There was an air of resigned melancholy about her, like a haze diminishing her old, exuberant nature. Her usual emerald green eyes that sparkled like dew on fresh spring leaves, were instead dull. Her smile was small and sad, her skin an unhealthy pallor instead of shining white like moonlight. Her hair, which was more a shimmering platinum than white like mine, was pulled back in a ponytail. She’d told me after she healed, it made it easier to hide some of the scars on her scalp. Because, oh yes, scars littered her body like a battlefield strewn with dead soldiers.

Yet, she didn’t hate me for what happened, even though it was our friendship that had the Queen and my father destroying her life. Terrible did not even begin to describe what I felt over it. I wanted to crawl under a rock, curl into a ball, and die the slow death I deserved.

“Wh-what are you doing here?” I asked, though the part of my mind that wasn’t riddled by guilt had already started working through that.

“The Cauldron, Gwynnie, it can heal me,” she said simply, and made a small gesture to the Devil. “Karroth approached me about persuading you go along with this. However, I would never ask you to do something to put yourself at risk. I’m just glad I got to see you again, since you’ve been avoiding me. And I know that you would never let something silly like guilt get between our friendship,” she said wryly.

I saw her smile widen a fraction just before I cast my eyes down to the floor in shame. I didn’t think it possible, but her words made me feel even worse.

“You should be furious at me,” I said, my voice cracking.

“I could never be angry at my one and only friend,” Seirian said.

I squeezed my eyes shut against the tears I’d promised her I wouldn’t cry anymore. Seirian wasn’t a noble, in fact she’d been my servant at court, but I counted her as a friend and treated her as an equal. Which only made my father even more furious at me. That list was a long one.

“I-“

“I swear to the gods, if you say you’re sorry one more time I’ll learn to walk again just to beat the snot out of you,” she said cheerfully.

My head snapped up to look at her, and despite her tone it didn’t reach her eyes. She may not be mad at me as I thought she should be, but she wasn’t happy. Seirian was a being of cheer and light. She deserved to be dancing in the dappled sun of a forest floor in a piece of forest unseen by human eyes. Instead, she was here, in a city, dying the slow death of a Fae kept too long among humans and their modern technology and pollution.

I took a small, faltering step forward and reached out for her hand. When she reached forward and took mine in hers, her gasp was sharp in contrast to my slow, rattling exhale. Fae were touchy-feely creatures, and to have gone so long without touching one of our own, even a simple touch like this one, was a painful reminder of what we were lacking.

Our natural magics danced over each other’s skin, though mine much more muted than hers.

“Oh, Gwynnie, you feel like you’re on death’s doorstep,” she said in a choked whisper, voice bordering on horror. “Why would you do this to yourself?”

My small huff of a laugh was self-deprecating and bitter like the dandelions little Fae loved to eat.

“Like death, eh? What was the better choice, then? A slow, painless death over the centuries of torture they likely have planned for me?” I asked. Not meaning to sound as harsh as I had, but it was still there.

Some part of me had known being separated from my soul had the potential to kill me eventually. The changes over the last nine years or so had been gradual, creeping things. Until, one day, I realized everything around me had become muted: colors were subdued, food was ash, smells muted, music flat, and there was no feeling anything through the haze. I could still experience the range of emotions, but it was all on the surface—nothing pierced too deep. Except fear, it seemed.

Seirian’s hand gave mine a little squeeze. “We can do this Gwynnie. We have to, for the both of us,” she said, her eyes searching mine.

“At worst, maybe if we try this our deaths will be quick,” I joked.

Seirian raised a single eyebrow, letting me know she did not appreciate my dark humor.

“So, will I be able to report a favorable outcome to my masters?” Karroth asked.

He’d been quiet during the entire exchange, and I turned my gaze to him. His posture, words, and expression were the very definition of neutral, but there was that fire behind his eyes again.

My options were not fantastic. I could choose a slow death from lack of a soul, slowly fading out of existence, and keeping my friend crippled. I could do this, and then they’d slaughter us sooner or later. Maybe Seirian would survive, but she had a bad habit of trying to defend me, so she’d likely die, too. Of course, we might succeed, and that was the rub. Hope was as deadly, or more so, than despair.

I had no doubts that, given my blood and access to the Cauldron, they might have a decent chance at wresting it from Cerridwen. I just wasn’t optimistic on my chances as collateral damage. Because, if the Devils pulled this off, they would surely know I was involved. As Karroth pointed out, coming across this opportunity was rare, and rare circumstances were easy to pinpoint.

I sighed. “Fine.”

Seirian’s grin was the biggest I’d seen it since before her maiming, and even Karroth seemed to be genuinely excited about my answer.

“So, just how are we going about this convoluted form of suicide?” I asked, trying for humorous.

Seirian, buoyed by the light at the end of the tunnel of her injuries, took her hand from mine and wagged a scolding finger at me. Telling me to stop being so fatalistic.

Karroth, on the other hand, simply cleared his throat once she was done and started detailing the plan, because that’s where one of the Devils’ deadliest power lay: in the details.

Writing Prompt ~~ Penance

Song: “Wrong Side of Heaven” by Five Finger Death Punch

~~We’re going to ignore the 3-5 paragraph stipulation, because I’m wordy and I’ve wanted to write something for this song for a while. Enjoy!~~

 

 

An unfamiliar sky greeted him when he opened his eyes. Roiling black clouds were heavy with the threat of rain, and their thunder was rumbling like rocks in an avalanche. The storm was so close, the reverberations of sound were a concussive pressure in his chest. Lightning flashed, and its fingers of electricity reached greedily across the sky, as though trying to grab the clouds and pull them back to the storm’s center.

Despite the severe menace the weather presented, his chest ached at the sight; it reminded him of home. The nostalgia it generated was a bone-deep throb. Though it wasn’t generated by any physical pain, the psychological anguish still manifested itself in a very real, very visceral way. It was so unlike the desert he’d been in more times than he cared to remember or count. He closed his eyes against the burning tears, but he couldn’t keep them that way forever.

Wherever he found himself, it wasn’t the place he closed his eyes as he went to sleep last night, and the thought should have sent panic racing through him like a wildfire. It didn’t. His body was lighter than a feather, and the air around him was a serene cocoon. Something in him, something he recognized as not being a wholly healthy reaction, tried to grab for the familiar anxiety and anger to throw in front of him like a shield. It wasn’t there. There was…nothing.

“Finally awake, I see,” a soft, kind voice spoke from somewhere beyond his feet. It was both familiar, and yet not. Something he could grab onto for some measure of recognition and control, but different enough that there were no lingering emotions attached. It was unsettling.

When he sat up, the peaceful cocoon remained, but the place he found himself was anything but. He’d been laying on some kind of stone wall, much like the one he’d seen in pictures of the Great Wall. When he shifted his weight and put his hand down on the stone to help him stand up, it was as though he connected to some kind of awareness in the stone. While his comparison to the Great Wall may have been accurate in looks, whatever this was far older than anything he’d ever heard of—anything on Earth, that is. The sheer age of what he stood on was crushing him, and he couldn’t move. Couldn’t breathe. Whatever had maintained the cocoon before shattered, and panic flooded him like the breaking of a dam.

A small hand touched his shoulder and the connection to the wall broke. He fell backward, landing on his ass, and his neck nearly snapped from how quick he looked up to whoever had touched him.

“It is okay. The first time anyone connects with the wall is a uniquely terrifying experience,” the same voice from earlier spoke. “The purpose for which it was built make it a very unique structure.”

He scanned her face, and just as with her voice it was familiar yet not, as though someone had taken different features from the women in his life and created another person altogether. They blended beautifully: his mother’s kind smile, his daughter’s dancing grey eyes and long brown hair, his wife’s elegant nose and eyebrows, and his gran’s heart-shaped face and single dimple on the right side. She wore some kind of flowing white dress that was far too pristine for such a place, and to top it all off she was also barefoot.

“Who are you?” he asked, speaking for the first time. His voice was raspy, as though from disuse or screaming, though it didn’t hurt. In fact, for the first time since he was in high school, nothing hurt. If he hadn’t already been sitting, that shock may have knocked him back down. His knees weren’t aching, there was no revolving sharp and throbbing pain from his lower back, and his ears weren’t ringing. Though he’d worn glasses since second grade, when he reached up there were none on his face yet he could see perfectly.

“I am many things to many people, but I think you know who I am.” This time there was an edge of sadness in the voice and smile, and it nearly broke his heart to see such sorrow in eyes so like his daughter’s.

“I’m dead, aren’t I?” He barely managed to get the words out, nearly choking on them.

When she nodded, he clenched his fists at his sides, and ground his teeth against the sob trying to break away from the knot of anguish lodged painfully in his chest. Though his mourning was silent, he couldn’t hold back the tears that streamed unchecked down his cheeks.

His thoughts were a maelstrom, slowly pulling him toward a central and overwhelming realization. When he reached that pivotal conclusion, he stood on shaking legs, turned his eyes away from hers, and looked beyond the wall to see what lay beneath such a violent sky. Desolation. Barrenness. Craters and scorch marks littered the rocky ground, as though countless battles within thousands of wars had been waged there.

Yes, he knew who she was, or rather She, and he also knew where he had to be. He looked back at her.

“I…I’m in Hell, aren’t I?” The question was a whisper, and no query had any right to contain the number of emotions this one did: regret, shame, rage, woe—the list was endless.

“Yes.” The word held no righteous anger and no condemnation. It was more like a bittersweet wine, laced with sadness, understanding yet disappointment, and resignation.

He wanted to rail against the word, howl against the injustice, and beat the reality of his situation into submission. He hadn’t been a perfect man by any stretch of the imagination. He knew he had flaws just as every human had flaws, but he never thought he’d be here. Flashes of other things outside his time in battle moved through his mind. Things he’d said in anger to loved ones, his pride getting in the way of good sense and advice at times, and other things that he wasn’t proud of. Maybe there was more to come to grips with than just what was at hand. He swallowed back his anger, though his breathing was quicker and laced with panic.

“No, no one is perfect, and when I gave you free will I never expected perfection; just the very best each of you was capable of. I could ask no more than that. There are many stories and beliefs about what I am, and what I allow and will not allow, but there are a few rules that one is never justified in breaking no matter the circumstance. Killing takes away the life and free will I bestowed, and passes judgment that none hold the right to pass except me,” She said softly.

A thousand scenarios tumbled through his head in an effort to justify ending someone’s life in one circumstance or another, and She tilted her head in consideration as though She could hear each thought.

“There is no leeway to be found here. There is always a choice. Human justification holds no weight in divine decree.”

This time he could see Her thoughts, and each held a counter to the ones he’d had. He bowed his head in shame, and his shoulders sagged beneath the weight of it.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered. Not in a pleading way, like a child offering apology to avoid punishment. He did feel remorse, but there was also grim determination that lined the amends like the lead lining of stained glass. “I’m not sure I would have changed anything,” he admitted. “I did what I thought was right. What needed to be done. I held no joy in killing or malice toward my enemies. I simply did what I thought was best to protect those I loved.”

She nodded, but there was no change in Her eyes or resolve. “I know. I have heard those words countless times from a myriad of beings across endless worlds. There is no changing this. As I said: there is always a choice.”

“However, there is a middle ground to be found here,” another voice said this time.

She had been so captivating, he hadn’t looked beyond Her during their conversation. The other one was male and held the same dizzying mixture of features from the men in his life: the coal black hair of his father, the grim line of lips like his grandfather, the hawk-like nose of a favorite superior, and the sky blue of his son’s eyes.

“Middle ground?” he repeated the question.

The other man nodded. “Yes, a middle ground between righteousness and damnation. A path for those who cannot pass beyond the shining gates yet do not deserve the endless suffering visited upon the wicked. Well,” he amended thoughtfully, “at least not the suffering beyond that of their own making.” The blue of the man’s eyes were hard and unforgiving. “This road is not an easy one by any measure. It takes a strength of will and soul few possess. Some cannot take it and they break. Others do their due diligence and find salvation on this road. So, shall you hear the options?”

“Is there even much of a choice?” he asked, and then almost smacked his forehead when She laughed in amusement and smiled a small smile. The man huffed his own amusement and shook his head.

“There is always a choice,” they all said together.

His amusement faded as the reality of what was going on settled about him like a heavy blanket.

“What is this middle road?” he asked.

She clasped her hands in front of her. It couldn’t be from nerves, but the gesture was so very human. She looked over the battlefield with a measured gaze and lifted her chin toward it.

“All forms of existence, no matter what they are, require a balance. Light and dark, yin and yang as some of your spiritualists believe. Whatever you call it, everything has an equal and opposite. I have existed from the beginning, I am the Light. God, Elohim, Allah, Gaia, Almighty, Thor, Zeus, and countless others, to name a few just from your Earth. And from the beginning there has also been the Darkness.”

When the final word fell from Her lips, something in his soul trembled. It was a fear born from the primal part of his brain, something understood and innate in his very being.

“Just as there are soldiers of Darkness, what some call demons, there are also soldiers of the Light: angels.” She turned from the battlefield and gestured toward the man, who nodded. “Your humans have interesting concepts for not only me, but for others associated with me as well. Sometimes things get jumbled, misinterpreted, and misrepresented. You might know him by the name Lucifer—” he stiffened, and Lucifer’s eyes hardened further, “—among others. However, I could only give this task to the best of my followers. I asked my strongest, and most pure and trusted to take on this task. He has borne the burden with grace, humility, and resolve, despite any misunderstanding some beings may have of him.”

When She smiled this time at Lucifer, it was like the first spring sun breaking over the horizon after a long, hard winter. Lucifer bowed his head, the picture of humility.

It made him feel as though he were intruding on a terribly private moment. However, he didn’t have to wait overlong for her to continue.

“He guards these walls, keeping the Darkness at bay as best he can, ensuring all manner of evil does not run rampant through the worlds. Such a task would take an army, however, and not all those of the Light have the constitution that Lucifer has. As such, when a warrior of certain specifications dies they are sent to this limbo, to be offered a choice.

“You can join the denizens in the pit, be cleansed by fire and pain so that your soul may once again be fit to join the cycle of souls moving back into the world. How long one spends in the pits is up to them to work out, but generally it takes no more than a few hundred years. However, you will not rejoin the souls of those you cared for in your previous life. Most of the time souls move within the same general circles. If you choose the pits this breaks that circle, and you join a different one.”

She paused. He thought of his family and friends, and how, no matter how screwed up things got, they always felt right. Good. More goodness than he deserved, in fact. He closed his eyes against the threat of tears.

“And the other choice?”

“You join Lucifer in his battle here on the front lines for a no more or less than a thousand years. Once you have completed your penance, you may rejoin your circle of souls from this previous life. There is a risk with this choice just as with the other. Sometimes souls are destroyed in battle just as readily as the fire, in which case you cannot rejoin the cycle. These are the things you must consider before you choose.”

A thousand years of battle, or the pits. Could he handle that? He wasn’t sure. Perhaps, with the context of this particular war being different, maybe he could find solace in the battle instead of turmoil. There was no question of right or wrong here, and such clear lines were a saving grace in their own right.

He made to speak, but stopped and licked his lips, wondering if his request would be too forward.

“You are not allowed the peace of mind that comes with reuniting with your loved ones in the Beyond or watching and guarding over the ones still alive from above. Not even for a moment to, ‘check up on them one last time’,” Lucifer said, his voice hard and words grim, reading the man’s thoughts. “This is a road you must travel alone. There is no comfort along the way, save at the end if your soul does not break under the strain or perish in battle. You are here to atone, and there are no rewards until you have properly done such.”

The words sank in, and for the first time since he’d woken up here he felt utterly alone. Adrift. Then something wormed its way at the back of his mind. It was as though he had heard those words before. Maybe at church? But that didn’t seem right…

When he looked at Lucifer, something shifted in the angel’s eyes. “I’ve traveled this road before?” he asked.

The corner of the angel’s mouth twitched, or maybe he was seeing things, because his expression was just as harsh as before. “Some souls,” Lucifer said, looking down his nose at him, “are more stubborn than others, and have been through this process a few times,” he acknowledged.

He had always been stubborn, as his father could well attest. “You would test the patience of a Saint,” his father would say at times. Or an angel, he thought now, looking over at Lucifer. It might have been more amusing if he wasn’t staring down the barrel of a thousand years of fighting demons.

“Maybe it’s time to take a different path,” he said slowly, testing how he felt as the words fell from his mouth.

Lucifer tilted his head, scanning his face. Then Lucifer strode the few steps that separated them and lifted a single finger to rest on his forehead.

“That is your choice to make. Just know that the cleansing by fire, while atoning and humbling, can leave an impression on the soul. A…fear if you will. You will still be you, but somewhat not, which may not be a bad thing.” Lucifer shrugged noncommittally. “It may be what you’re looking for. However, you have been through two cycles with me, warrior, and I can say with certainty you are more suited to this form of repentance. Still, let me give you a taste of the fire and then you can decide,” he said.

Something rose in the man’s eyes, as though the brightest and purest of flames licked the edges of his irises. Then he was consumed by that fire, and there were no words for the complete and utter agony that encompassed his body, mind, and soul. Then Lucifer lifted his finger and the flames retreated. He fell to the floor and lay in a pile of shaking limbs and shuddering breaths. Intellectually he knew it had only been seconds, but it felt more like hours.

“Lucifer, that is cheating. He needs to make this choice free from influence.”

“I know his soul, and the flames might cleanse him, yes, but he has the soul of a warrior. There is a reason he keeps ending up here, time and again. He is not weak, and the pits are far worse for those like him. Stubborn. He might never rise from it. He would break before he bends.”

“He does not seem to be learning much from these cycles, though. Maybe he should be tested by the fire,” She suggested.

“He is learning, though slowly,” Lucifer countered. “Some take more time. He has proven worthy of this choice despite coming back here again, or he would not be here as per the magic binding this place. Plus, he is only on his third cycle. Patton, or whatever his name was this time around, is far worse than him. He is on, what, his eighth? Either way, it is his choice. We are as bound to these divine rules as they are.”

By the time Lucifer had finished talking, he had managed to get to his feet. He couldn’t help but feel their conversation was more for his benefit, giving him time to weigh the pros and cons. He took a deep breath and looked slowly between the two of them.

“I have made my decision,” he said, and then locked his eyes with Lucifer’s. “I will fight.”

Lucifer nodded, and this time a small smile did grace his lips. He then spun to face Her and bowed. “Thy will be done.”

She nodded, and then turned and smiled one more time at him. “May you find penance and peace with your choice.”

He nodded back, at a loss for words, and then She disappeared in a small flash of warm light. The man and the angel waited until the warmth of Her presence faded, and then the two of them locked gazes. After a moment, Lucifer huffed out a breath as though coming to some conclusion.

“Welcome back to front lines of Darkness, warrior, now take my hand and we will leave this place of limbo and visit the real battlefield,” Lucifer said, and held out his hand.

When he took the angel’s hand there was a moment of darkness and suffocation, and then noise exploded around him. Men and women of a dizzying number of races were moving around, going about the business of war. The clash and din of battle beyond the edge of the wall made him set his shoulders back in grim determination.

Though he was sure the next thousand years would test his resolve and soul, and were sure to be gruesome and potentially permanently fatal, for the moment he could see the light at the end of the very long tunnel.

Despite the misgivings lurking at the back of his mind, when he approached the man Lucifer said would be his commanding officer, he couldn’t help but feel as though some part of him had found home.

I can do this, he thought and smiled a fierce smile, maybe the third time is the charm?

Writing Prompt ~~ Of Fire and Rage

The lake was still and shiny as glass, as if he could step on it and walk all the way across. It was one of those days when anything seems possible, and he stood there, breathing deep and imagining taking the first step. Then the cracking of the ice like a whip cutting the air. He shivered, the phantom sensations of frigid water washing over him, swallowing him down. Inhaling water. Sinking. Drowning.

It had been a day where anything seemed possible, just as every day with her had been, and just as quick as Hope had taken root in his soul, She’d ripped it to shreds.

Though the lake whispered sweet nothings to him like the lover he’d just lost, his feet remained firmly on the shore. The snow crunched beneath his black combat boots each time he shifted his weight, and the cold seeped into every last inch of him with icy, grasping fingers. He didn’t shiver. In fact, anyone looking on might believe he was at ease, admiring the lake. The only sign of tension was out of sight: his fists clenched in his jacket pockets.

That, and the blood.

It wasn’t the first time he’d been covered with it, though he wished such things had been left in his past where they belonged. But he’d let his guard down and this was the price. He sighed, and turned his face upward to lock onto to the Heavens above, containing thousands of stars, a full moon, and darkness between them all that didn’t hold a candle to the cold dark that consumed his soul. His crystalline blue eyes were flat and dull.

“For over a thousand years I have served you,” he said, the edge of his voice ragged. “Why?” he asked, the word ripped from the rawness of what remained of his soul.

No answer. There never was. He growled, and ran a hand over his blood-spattered, bone white hair.

“Forgive me,” she whispered. “I’d never want to add to your pain, but I wouldn’t trade this time for anything. I love you.” A weak smile lovingly graced her lips, and she brushed an errant lock of his hair from his forehead. Then her smile faltered, her usually warm, caramel eyes slid to a distant point over his left shoulder, and her arm fell to the floor of the cabin. She was gone.

He clutched her tighter to him, his face buried in her shoulder and hair. Even over the multitude of death scents hanging heavy on the air—blood, bowels, burned flesh, and more—he could still smell her. Vanilla, cinnamon, and apples. She’d joked that it probably had nothing to do with what she actually smelled like, and more his insatiable sweet tooth in regards to baked goods.

He’d run his hands through the thick, wavy, golden brown locks each chance he had, and this would be the last. He didn’t even care that said hair was covered in blood. The already drying, tacky fluid on the strands left trails of it on his face, as though someone had raked their claws across it.

He didn’t move for some time, and though his muscles screamed and cramped he refused to break the moment. To leave her. Eventually, though, he did. The only signs of his grief were the clear tracks of skin cutting through the red.

He hadn’t been able to leave her there, amidst the bodies and scattered bits of demon decorating what was left of the main room like gory confetti. But when he’d broken the shovel on his first thrust trying to penetrate the frozen ground, he fell back on the old ways.

Unlike creatures from other realms or dimensions, demons were bound to the earth and did not disappear on death. It was messy business, killing demons, even more so covering the evidence up. The human idea of what they thought their world was versus what is was, was tenuous and fragile. Humans tended to react rather violently at any disturbance in regards to their concept of their world. He could only be glad that his training in the early years happened when telling someone you were hunting demons got you praise, instead of a ‘go straight to the institution’ ticket.

The cottage burned brightly enough that someone might have wagered that white phosphorus had been thrown into the one-room structure, but that wasn’t the case. Lower-level and construct demons—demons created from the blood and/or flesh of more powerful demon—had highly flammable blood. It was not uncommon for larger demons to scoop up a handful, eviscerate them, set them on fire, and then lob them at opposing forces.

He grimaced as one particularly gruesome battle surfaced in his mind. A village, a hot summer, lots of straw, thatched-roof huts, and a horde of construct demons.

After setting the cottage ablaze, which would surely attract the local authorities no matter how remote their location, he moved back over to her cairn. Though he knew it was an abuse of powers, he could not bring himself to care. They could take his power, for all the good it’d done him, and shove it up their self-righteous asses. He’d used the hot, white light that burned deep within his core to carve out a footstone. The cairn itself overlooked the lake, and he would have done better for her if the fight had not taken so much out of him.

 

Emily Grace Farwell

25 December 2017

“Hope is seeing light in spite of being
surrounded by darkness”

 

“You were my light,” he rasped, his throat protesting the abuse it’d received between the yelling and smoke inhalation.

He looked to the sky once more and scowled. “I might not have been your most well-behaved soldier, but no one deserved this. Were you trying to teach me I didn’t belong here? Well, bang-up job.” He ground the words out from between clenched teeth.

When he turned his eyes back down to the cairn, his glower softened for a moment before snapping back in full force.

“Damn you, Emily! I told you how dangerous it was to be with me, but you never listen. You let optimism and hope guide you, and it set you on the path to your grave.” He shook his head. “I know I’m to blame for this, and you could have had so much—“

“God, you were always pathetic,” a female voice interrupted him, the tone half exasperated and half disgusted.

His frown deepened and his lip curled into sneer. He turned around and took in the figure near the tree line. She was tall, her body hard, lean, and scarred from countless battles. Their uniform had received upgrades over the centuries, evolving with military trends. They currently sported cargo pants, long-sleeved, lightweight tactical combat shirts, combat boots, and armor that consisted of a vest as well as pieces that covered just about anything but their joints. A deviation from the conventional might be their magical shielding that channeled their inner power through the plating, as well as gorgets and inner-thigh plating to discourage werewolves, vampires, and anything else that might want to gain access to a major artery for a snack or quick kill. While a solider in the desert had to worry about IEDs, their brand of combat was more concerned with not having your throat torn open by something with fangs. The material was magically enhanced to be just about anything one could hope for: lightweight, temperature-controlled, flexible, and nigh indestructible. Of course, they never did seem to get away from the red color scheme, which was as dark as a full-bodied red wine like Syrah.

Her platinum white hair was cropped nearly as short as his. Flint grey eyes matched the brittle laugh she let out at his regard, and it sounded as though it was sharp enough to make the air bleed.

The one thing she was not carrying was her sword, which sent a shock through him that trembled down to his very core. No one went anywhere without their weapon. Ever. Even within their stronghold, no one was ever to be unarmed. It was as good as him looking at her naked, which still didn’t even begin to cover how weird it was, since he knew she showered with the damn thing strapped to her back.

“Sabrael,” he greeted, tone cautious. His snarling anger had drained away in the face of her…bareness.

Her eyes narrowed, but a small, vicious smile quirked the corner of her mouth. “I told Them it would get even your temperamental attention, Desh.”

Tadeshiel—Desh—scoffed. “Considering it’s almost like you’re flitting around missing a limb, I’d say so,” he replied scathingly.

“Is that how you’ve felt the last three years?” she asked, tilting her head to the side as she considered him.

Her words jabbed at him like tiny knives in his weakest spots. “That’s not your business,” he hissed, and spat the words at her like venom.

“So that’s a yes,” she said brightly, and ignored his growling in favor of examining her nails. “No one believed you’d last this long, and especially not the human, what with her being as fragile as they are.” She tilted her head to the cairn.

“Also none of your business,” he said, tone low and warning.

It was her turn to scoff. “Not my business? You mean when my partner abandons the Order we’ve been a part of for over a thousand years, and then taking up with a human no less—”

“I—”

But she overrode him, “—after everyone told him, over and over that it was a bad idea, even by those who had been through the exact same situation? But no, it’s none of my business when the High and Mighty Tadeshiel, He Who is Perfect in Every Way, Slayer of Armies, Possessor of the Thickest Skull in the History of—”

“None of those are my proper titles—”

“—the Order, One Who Knows Better than All, up and abandons us—me!—in the middle of the biggest battle, during the biggest war we’ve had in centuries. That doesn’t concern me?” Her voice had reached a fever pitch with her final word. Her eyes bled from their usual grey to molten gold as her power rose with her anger.

In the face of Desh’s numb silence, she continued.

“Do you realize what you put everyone through when you laid your sword down? I can’t even begin to recount the ramifications, since we were in the middle of a battle and one of our Imperial Legates walked away!”

Still, he said nothing.

“I don’t even know why they sent me out here to speak with you,” she said, her disgust almost palpable on the air like slime. “You’re nothing but a co—”

“I watched him die!” Desh shouted, his chest heaving witht he sudden onslaught of emotions Sabrael’s presence had evoked.

Sabrael’s expression was one of bewilderment. “Who…?”

Desh ran a hand through his hair. He’d done that a lot today. “Douma.”

She raised a single brow. “Douma?”

Desh blew out a sigh and nodded.

“The…healer?” she questioned, not quite able to place the name. To be fair, she had her own legions to oversee, so the fact she could even come close to the mark was impressive. Though, she’d always had a knack for memorizing troop names, faces, and abilities so could put them in a weird ranking system in her mind as to their usefulness. Also, it made punishments easier when she could identify all her troops on sight. He couldn’t figure out how she did it.

“Yes,” Desh said, exasperated. “The healer. He was…newer to our ranks. Under 100. Bright kid.”

Sabrael pursed her lips into a thin line at the mention of the healer’s age. “That’s practically a toddler.” After a small pause, though, she sighed. “Desh, we die all the time. I mean, not as often as the demons, mind you,” she said, and a ghost of a smile played over his lips. “It’s all part and parcel of what we do.”

Desh growled again. “I know that. It wasn’t necessarily the fact that he died, it was more how everyone behaved after it.”

A mop of curly black hair, a lopsided, dimpled smile, and eyes that Desh realized now were so close in shade to Emily’s it made his chest ache. The demons had exercised their evil tendencies to the upmost of their ability when they came across the tent of injured warriors. Though immunes were trained in combat, they were caught unawares. None survived.

Desh walked into the small clearing where his immunes used to be, his eyes searching for one face in particular. When he found him, body cut nearly in two as it covered an injured warrior, there was no question in Desh’s mind that Douma had tried to protect the injured with his own life.

‘He was probably waiting for you to show up and save the day,’ a voice had whispered in his mind. A cruel thought from the darkest recess of his mind, and one that had repeated like a mantra since that moment, slowing wearing away at his sanity.

He’d tried to regroup and secure the area, but what he saw on the faces of his soldiers made his gut twist: knotted eyebrows, narrowed eyes, curled lips and wrinkled noses. Disgust. Whether it was at the situation, him, or both, Desh didn’t know. They didn’t want to expend forces to secure a clearing of dead bodies, despite the fact that each of them had been saved by the immunes at one point or another.

It didn’t matter that, logically, the commander in him knew they were correct. All he could think about was the young man who spoke with such passion about being an immune, he’d nearly put Desh’s eye out as he moved his hands with his words. Between the sight of Douma giving his last breath to save his patient, and failing, and what Desh saw on the faces of his soldiers, he was done. Desh looked into each and every face around him for some flicker of guilt or remorse, but when none was forthcoming he drew his sword. Leveling his coldest sneer at the lot of them, he thrust his sword into the blood-soaked earth, turned on his heel, and left everything he’d known for a thousand years.

Now here he was. Douma and Emily were dead, and all he had gained was a seething, thick pool of bitterness and grief weighing on his soul.

She was quiet in the face of his prolonged silence, but tilted her head to let him continue. Feelings and such weren’t really her area of expertise or comfort, but she did care about keeping her mission success rate as close to perfect as possible. She was ruthless and efficient; she applied pressure and words expertly to achieve the desired results and emotions, even if she didn’t completely understand said emotions herself. This contributed to her high success rate, and she’d be damned if Desh was going to try and screw that up—again.

They were opposites in just about every way, but their opposition complemented each other, which is why their legions always worked closely together. Where he was compassionate, she was merciless. Her pragmatism tempered his idealism, and while they were both intelligent, she was shrewder in tactical thinking while Desh was more perceptive with the emotional element. Sabrael was authoritative in her command, while Desh was participative.

And that was where the problem came in.

When he said nothing more, she scowled. “You got too emotionally attached to one of your subordinates, and when everyone else didn’t stop in the middle of a battle and sob along with you, you took it upon yourself to just abandon us?”

He could understand how she might perceive it that way, but… “Douma was young, exceptionally talented, and proud to serve, but none of that mattered to them. Some of Malgareth’s forces managed to break the line close to where the non-combatants were positioned. I had told Tearny, the Prime Immunes, to move camp earlier in the day, but he argued that many of the gravely wounded could not be moved.” His voice went soft at the last part, because that had been his first mistake, borne from his compassion.

Sabrael honed in on it like a bird of prey on a field mouse. “So instead of moving everyone else save the gravely wounded, whose chance of living was less than everyone else around them, you let your subordinate play on your kindness. Instead a handful being slaughtered they wiped out your Immunes, including this Douma,” she finished.

As she spoke, his demeanor shrank in on itself as her words beat him about his head and heart, making him small and frail. There was a howling in the back of his mind, like a storm ready to break upon the shore of his sanity.

“I revise my previous statement: you’re a coward and an idiot.”

He snapped. In his fight with the demons that took Emily’s life, he’d known his physical abilities had deteriorated over the three years he’d been away. Chopping wood was not an equal replacement for near-constant battle training. However, when he flashed across the clearing to attack Sabrael, he realized just how far he’d fallen.

Construct demons were pathetic, and the only advantage they usually had were numbers. That’s what happened with Emily. That and the fact she was human and fragile, and all he had were his personal magics and no sword. Sabrael, on the other hand, was not a construct demon. She’d always been top of just about every class they took, and she relished hand-to-hand combatives.

Sabrael turned, his fist missing her face. She grabbed his arm, continued his momentum with a slight adjustment, and her power flared. Her strength easily tripled with the surge of energy, and the trees surrounding the clearing never stood a chance.

Sabrael flashed to the impact crater past half a mile of splintered evergreens. He was dazed, and the disturbed snow of the trees created a slight haze and drifted slowly to resettle on the land. Though he’d recover quickly, it wasn’t quick enough if he needed to defend himself from her if she decided to go on the offensive. So when her face appeared in his field of vision, he stiffened. A thrill of terror sped through him like rabbits being flushed from their burrow, and his mind scrambled to clamp down on the dread threatening to overwhelm him. She was smiling. Sabrael only smiled when she was going to kill or heavily maim something.

“I—” he spluttered, trying to find the words, willing his body to cooperate.

“I feel better now, don’t you?” she crooned.

His eyes widened.

“Now,” she said, her tone deadly calm and smile sickly sweet, “I read the after battle reports, which were as painful to procure as it would be to drink incaendium piss—” Desh flinched at that glorious imagery, “—because fully half of both our forces were slaughtered. All because you decided to let personal guilt outweigh your duty and responsibility to your people. Not mine, not the Order’s, yours,” she said, the last word hissing and full of contempt.

“Sabr—”

She kicked him in the ribs. It might not have looked like much, but the cracking that reverberated through his body followed on its heels by searing pain and an inability to breathe begged to differ.

“I’m not finished. It’s rude to interrupt,” she said, voice calm again.

When he finally managed to drag in a breath, he coughed, and could not fully breathe in. His chest was tight, and his vision started to darken around the edges. Sabrael rolled her eyes and leaned over. He tried to move away, but she dug her finger painfully into the spot she’d kicked and he writhed in response. As her power moved through his body, it was as though someone had poured molten metal through his veins. His back arched and his fingers curled with the need to claw at something.

He’d forgotten how much healing hurt, especially coming from someone as unsuited to it as Sabrael. Yes, any of them could heal, but with a lack of a healer’s precision and temperament, it was like cutting off a limb to cure a broken bone. It worked…sort of. The only reason Desh could stand it was the fact they were of a similar potential strength. If she tried this with someone further down the respective ladder than them, they could die from the shock.

When she removed her finger, and along with it her power, he sagged back into his crater. His consciousness and body were floating in the wake of so much foreign power running rampant through his body.

“Drink this, or you’ll be useless for the next day,” a voice said, the words floating like dandelion fluff through his mind.

Something cool and hard pressed into his lips, but when he didn’t open his mouth the voice scoffed with disgust and forced it open. The liquid that hit the back of his throat was refreshing and cool like a mountain stream, followed closely on its heels with what felt like lightning dancing over his nerves. Desh gasped, and then coughed when some of the potion went down the wrong way.

When he’d relearned how to breath, he opened a bleary eye. Desh didn’t know how long he lay there, out of his mind, but when he came to Sabrael was sitting on a stump, her chin propped in the palm of her hand. Her eyes were back to their usual grey, her power having receded to just below the surface.

Given what Desh knew of Sabrael, he wasn’t sure if staying silent or speaking would contribute to his continued existence. As she watched him like a bug she was deciding whether or not to crush, Desh took a chance.

“Why are you here, Sabrael?” The words came out roughly, reflecting his weariness like a mirror.

She simply continued to look at him for a moment, not answering. Just as he started to say something else, she spoke.

“We want you back.”

The words froze his insides as though he’d actually plunged into the lake as he had imagined earlier.

“No.” It was a knee-jerk, instant response. The word hadn’t finished forming in his mind before it flew from his lips.

She raised a single eyebrow, the one on the right that was bisected by one of her many scars.

“Wallowing in self-pity for three years isn’t enough?” she asked, scathingly.

Desh scowled. “I just buried someone I loved, and you want me to jump back into the fray?”

Sabrael snorted and shook her head. “As if they’d put you in charge again after what you pulled? No.” She paused and cast a sly glance his way. “Despite the mess you left, I managed to beat back the demon horde, and as a result I earned a shiny new promotion. My record has never been better. We recently won a major battle and they offered me a reward. I chose you.” She shrugged.

Desh’s eyes bulged. “But you said They sent you to talk to me—”

“I lied to make you angry,” she said, cutting him off with a nonchalant wave of her hand as well as her words. She scanned the surrounding area. “And it worked. It broke the tension you were holding like a taut bowstring, and made you stop and listen because I could beat the wings off you right now. Now, do I have your attention?”

He quieted but held his glare. She’d manipulated him, and easily at that. He gave her a grudging nod, his teeth gritted against lashing out with words, and his fists clenched, because using those had proven equally as useless.

“Good,” she said, looking like the cat who ate the canary. “As I said, you were my reward.” She paused again and sniffed, looking down her nose at him. “Though maybe not a good one. This was my one chance to bring you back into the fold with minimal fuss, because they want to keep me happy and winning battles.”

“I still don’t see how this benefits me. I don’t want to go back,” he said, grumpy and dare he think it, even pouting a bit? He didn’t like to lose, and Sabrael had him at a distinct disadvantage.

She huffed out an annoyed breath. “If you’d shut up, I’m not finished,” she snapped.

Desh shut his mouth accordingly, though he still didn’t lose the scowl.

“I knew you’d need an incentive, but I haven’t gotten there yet. First, I want you to hear my terms, and if they are agreeable to you then I’ll tell you why I think you’ll jump at the chance of coming back. Okay?” she asked. She stood up then, hand going to her hips as she gazed down at him in his pathetic state. She knew he just needed a little push.

He didn’t like it, but she was going about this in a very fair way for him, but instead of being relieved, it made him all the more suspicious. Instead of luring him with the incentive, and then forcing him to give into her demands, she was giving him the chance to hear her demands, decide if he could handle them, and then walk away if he couldn’t.

It stank as bad as day-old fish left baking in a high summer heat…

“Fine,” he snapped back.

…but something niggled at the back of his brain, driving him forward.

“Good, now these are my demands…”

She droned on for the better part of fifteen minutes, outlining what would and would not be expected of him. It came down to the fact that Sabrael found herself rather displeased with the combat teachers, stating all the good ones had died, retired, or joined the fight on the battlefields. She was wroth about the whole situation, and the lack of proficient teachers was producing sub-par subordinates. This simply would not do.

She offered him an instructor position, but he’d hold no power—not even allowed the usual authority of a magister. She would assign him someone to dole out punishments and rewards and assist him in any way she deemed necessary. He’d be an old wolf with no fangs, teaching the young pups how to be a proper wolf. It wasn’t the worst thing in the world.

If she had concerns about his pride getting in the way of having no power while she held it all, then he could definitely say no one had been watching him the last three years. They’d written him off, just as he’d wanted. That being said, it was hard to get upset over hurt pride when you had none anymore.

“Okay,” he said quietly, “those aren’t the worst terms given what I did. They are agreeable, and fair.”

Her eyes went a little wide, and it made him smile. He’d surprised her, and it was an interesting, yet somewhat gratifying, feeling.

“Just like that?” she asked, incredulous.

Desh nodded. “Just like that. Now spill, and tell me why you think I’ll come back, even with such a kind offer,” he said, though he couldn’t keep the mocking tone out of his voice. Nothing in Heaven, Hell, or on Earth would get him to go back…

“Malgareth is back.”

…except maybe that.

Eyes blacker than the void, heartless as a force of nature, curved horns, and a cold smirk danced in his vision, which had gone an alarming shade of crimson. A casual and cruel taunt on the battlefield, suggesting that he should check on his immunes instead of wasting time losing a fight with him.

He closed his eyes, and his body shook with the force of the rage that howled through him like a tornado of fire and fury. Desh was glad he was still laying on the ground. He wasn’t sure he could have kept his feet in the face of that revelation in combination with his recent healing.

When he opened his eyes again, Sabrael’s face was split with a feral, pleased grin at the expression she saw on his face. He took in a deep breath, let it out, and narrowed his gaze on her.

“When can we leave?”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Song Inspiration: Demons by Jacob Lee

Writing Prompt ~~ Late Bloomer

She believed in me in a way no one else ever had and no one else ever will, and I betrayed her. The worst part is she doesn’t know. She still thinks I’m her best friend, keeper of her secrets, and most of all human. The human part might be negligible, and betrayed might be a bit strong of a word. You never know how someone will react to you being Other, and I only told him every detail of her life to protect her. That had to count for something, right?

I internally cringed away from her bright smile as she approached the table, but outwardly I planted a warm, welcoming smile across my face.

“Erik! I thought you said you wouldn’t be able to make the study session today?” Dani—Danielle—asked, and sat down at the table.

I pushed her favorite drink, an iced cinnamon dolce latte, across the table to her. It was my job to remember the nuances about her, is what I told myself, but after she sat down and moaned in pleasure at the first sip my mouth went dry.

“Change of plans,” I said, and shuffled my books across the table to make room for her.

I was the youngest pack member, a mere pup at thirty, but thanks to the curse I didn’t look a day over eighteen. I fit right in on the college campus, but even that would not have gotten me this particular honor if I hadn’t proven myself beforehand. Countless scars and battles over the years meant I was decently high up in the pack structure, and a life-debt meant I’d sooner cut my own throat than betray the pack leader. That combination had earned me this assignment.

Dani leaned back in her seat, eyes closed, and sipping on the sickly sweet drink that left her smelling of espresso and cinnamon for hours after she finished it. My keen sense of smell was usually a disadvantage in places such as this, but I gripped the edges of my chair to keep me from leaning forward and inhaling her scent as deep as my lungs would allow. It was only when the wood groaned in protest did I release it.

“You okay? You seem a little tense,” Dani said, and quirked an eyebrow. Her luxurious, brown sugar curls framed her slender face and shoulders in the same carefree manner as her personality. She looked more like her mother, Shannon, with her rich caramel skin and plump lips, but her storm gray eyes were all her father’s, Arthur. Werewolf genetics were funny that way.

“Just nervous about the finals, I guess,” I said, prying my eyes away from her long legs, and shrugged.

She scoffed. “You have a 4.0,” she said, incredulous.

“Even the mighty fall,” I said.

She rolled her eyes at that, and I couldn’t help the half-smile that broke across my face.

“I told you not to take that drama class. It’s turned you positively angsty,” she said, and wrinkled her nose.

A full-blown grin broke across my face.

“Much better. Now, should we study for our dreaded finals?”

I cracked open a book to our Biological Physics class and sighed. “Well, if you insist.”

She just laughed and opened her laptop.

My eyes scanned the page, but my heart wasn’t in it. Dani had no idea she was the pack leader’s daughter, which was something her mom and dad had agreed on in the divorce. The 90s hadn’t been a good time for supernaturals, or Others. Some Senator’s kid was killed, mangled, and partially eaten by a ghoul, and there was a lot of angry shouting about putting us on lists, making us register. It even got bad enough that at one point there was serious consideration about putting us on a hunting list. Open season on all Others, anytime, anywhere.

It never passed, but when you’re a human married to the werewolf pack leader of a big chunk of your state and you’ve got a toddler, it puts things in perspective. Arthur only asked that Shannon keep Dani with the pack until she was three. If, during her third year, she hadn’t exhibited any supernatural abilities they could go on their way. The time passed, Dani was as normal a toddler as one could hope for, and Arthur signed the divorce papers and gave Shannon full custody.

It tore him apart. However, when I took the assignment, the one thing Arthur was adamant about was not asking Dani if she knew her father.

I snuck a quick glance at her. She had her head in her hand, tangling her fingers in her hair, and her eyebrows were furrowed in concentration. It was a bitch of a class we were taking, but the sight sent tendrils of warmth through me.

“You could help instead of stare, you know?” she teased.

“How are you supposed to learn if I gave you all the answers?” I asked. I turned a page, even though I hadn’t really read it.

She let out a disgusted scoff, dropped her notes, and crossed her arms over her chest. “You sound just like my mom.”

“Oh, no, not the parent comparison. I’m wounded,” I said, monotone, and then flipped another page.

She crumpled up an errant paper and threw it at me. It hit my head, and I looked up at her, mouth hanging slightly open. “Ouch.”

She smirked. “You’ll live.” Then she turned her gaze to my notes, eyebrows lifting slightly. “But I won’t if you don’t share your notes,” she said.

I sighed, and the smirk grew to a wide grin. “You only want me for my brains,” I lamented, and slid them across the table to her.

“That’s not true,” she protested, and took the notes from me like a hungry child taking a cookie. “You buy me coffee, too.”

“Pardon me.” I laughed, but the noise caught in my throat as though I would choke on it. I caught a scent that didn’t belong: wolf. My fists clenched beneath the table on reflex. I slipped my hand into my right pocket and grabbed my phone. I’d practiced the movements countless times to make sure I could do this without looking, but my hand shook as it moved over the touch screen, and I could only hope it worked.

Dani’s eyes flicked up to me and stayed, perhaps sensing some tension, and her brows drew down in a frown as she tilted her head.

“Wha—“

“Look, I know this is going to sound weird,” I said, my voice low. I scanned the crowd as I spoke, my eyes flicking over far too many faces in such a small space. “But I need you to walk over to the end of the counter, and when it starts, hide beneath it.” My eyes locked with a male’s not far inside the door.

His eyes were a glowing amber, and tension sang through him like an over-tightened guitar string ready to snap. He was a beast, and I wasn’t just noting his Were nature. His shoulders were wide, arms gorilla-like, and legs so thick they could kick a hole through my soul. Since introductions weren’t likely, I’d decided to call him Behemoth.

“You’re right, that does sound weird,” she said. She laughed, but when I didn’t respond it died on her lips. “You’re serious,” she said, and this time she clenched her jaw when she frowned.

“I need you to move. Slowly. Please,” I said, adding a hint of pleading to the request.

She looked at me for a moment before shaking her head. “I must be crazy,” she said under her breath, and likely to herself, but my hearing was beyond that of a human’s.

I stood when she did, and being a head taller than her allowed me to keep Behemoth in my sights. She started to gather her things.

“Leave it. It’s not worth your life,” I said, my voice already deepening with an edge of a growl.

Her spine went rigid. “What the fu—” She stopped midsentence when I turned my eyes to hers, breaking eye contact with Behemoth to bring my point home.

Her eyes widened as mine bled from their usual cornflower blue to the yellow of molten gold.

“Move,” I growled.

As she moved, her body trembling, Behemoth moved, too. We frequented the café enough that Dani and I knew everyone here, so when she made it to the counter she said something to the girl. Just as I went around the table to confront the male, the barista pulled the fire alarm. The jarring scream made me flinch, and that was when Behemoth attacked, leaping over the heads of everyone as they fled the café.

I used his momentum to carry him past me, dropping low and pushing him with my hands. Chairs and tables snapped beneath Behemoth’s weight, and people screamed as he crashed through them like a bowling ball through pins. I growled against the pop of pain in my jaw as it elongated to compensate for the larger, sharper teeth. My fingers broke and reformed in a smooth, agonizing transition, and my nail beds burned as claws pushed the human nails out of the way. Even having one of the most effortless and best partial transformations didn’t save me from the pain.

Behemoth was breathing hard as he stood up, but it didn’t keep him from growling at me. His hair was an indeterminate color, since it was shaved so close to his head, but it made it easy to spot a few cuts already knitting themselves back together. Behemoth had to outweigh my lean frame by at least thirty pounds of muscle, probably more, which meant I had to go with a brain over brawn strategy. Of course, that wasn’t anything new for me. Most of the pack outweighed me.

This time when he charged he kept his feet firmly on the ground. When he was close enough, he tried to throw a punch, but I slipped into his guard, and used my shoulder to redirect his movement, again.

“Leave. Now.” I said as he stumbled.

Behemoth let out a barking laugh and recovered easily. “Not a chance, boy. I’m here for the girl. Leader’s orders.”

My insides froze. The whole reason I’d been assigned to Dani was because Shannon said she’d received threats against her life and Dani’s. One of the female pack members who didn’t hate Shannon had been assigned to her. Even though people were skeptical about the situation at first, when the formal challenge for pack leadership came to Arthur it was far more plausible. Shockingly, werewolves weren’t always honorable in how they take over a pack. Arthur’s territory was substantial enough that he’d had a fair few challengers over the years, but this was the first time they’d targeted his family. Why have a physical fight, when you can bring someone to their knees by capturing their family?

It was about this time that the remaining people scrambled for the exits. The staff who hadn’t thought to run for the door, tripped over each-other in their rush to the employee area.

In a few moments, only Behemoth, Dani, and I remained in the building.

He planted his foot behind him and lunged to close the distance between us. Unlike before, he was expecting a redirection of energy, and as we connected, he slammed his fist into my ribs.

I pushed his head towards the floor, hoping to unbalance him at worst, or slam him at best. I achieved neither as he ducked, dug his newly forming claws into my waist, and slung me back towards the counter.

Thankfully, throwing a person’s body against the wall behind a bar, like in action movies, is hardly the deadly affair they make it out to be.  Messy? Sure. Deadly? Not so much. It has even less effect on a Were, considering most of the items were coffee-making paraphernalia. I could feel some broken mugs crunching underneath me, but I was otherwise okay. Except for an odd burning sensation on my hand.

He was stomping closer from the other side, obviously intending to finish what he started before making off with Dani. I started to rise, and that’s when I noticed it—I had put my hand on some schmuck’s hidden flask that hit the floor during the scuffle. Some snobby trust-fund college kid was about to lose his heirloom.

Behemoth peeked over the bar and smiled menacingly. “There you are.”

I did the only thing I could think of as he lunged at my neck for the kill. I slammed the flask as far down his newly-formed muzzle as I could, my own arm be damned. His eyes went wide as the burning silver of the flask took full effect, and I realized my hand was stuck in his mouth. In a panic, I dug my other hand under the bar and upended it from the mounts, shoving it towards his body in an effort to dislodge us. As he swung wildly and gagged, frothing and smoking at the mouth, one of his claws managed to snag the neck of my shirt, and he dragged us onto the main floor, stumbling over the broken bits of bar.

Behemoth must have decided this wasn’t his day and he needed to heal and regroup, because he made for the exit with me in tow like a wolf on a mission. I grabbed for anything with my other arm, desperate for something solid to use as a weapon against him. He gripped my shirt tighter and began shaking his head back and forth, slinging me like a ragdoll. When he finally made it to the exit, my hand closed on something solid and heavy near the door. I then proceeded to smash him over the head with a wild swing from a fire extinguisher.

He let out a muffled yelp and stumbled, as smoke billowed out of his mouth like a demented dragon. Then he started to bleed from his new head wound, and my inner nature took over. I generally function okay in front of blood and violence when I’m not in a life or death struggle with another Were and in my human form, but it’s quite different once the animal side takes over. A short time later I came back to myself, deformed extinguisher in hand. Behemoth lay in the doorway, smoldering skull now a flattened mess just inside the door. His jaw must have relaxed and released my hand at some point, because I had reacquired ownership of it—or what was left of it.

“I guess sometimes alcohol is the answer,” I wheezed, trying not to think about my hand. Of course, my eyes strayed down to it, and I quickly looked away and swallowed. Silver worked on us like acid but worse. If I didn’t take care of this soon, losing my hand would be the least of my worries. I could die from silver poisoning form too much contact with the flask. My options weren’t looking too fantastic.

“Erik!”

My head snapped up, and I met Dani’s wide eyes. I’d seen the look before. It was usually a combo platter of fear, loathing, and a primal urge to murder the Other before it ate you. I tried to walk away, but my traitorous body was having none of it, and I stumbled and fell to my knees.

There was a gentle touch at my shoulder, and instinct made me jerk in surprise and try to get away, but I was too weak. The hand gripped my shoulder tighter to help keep me from falling completely over, but it also trapped me. In this much pain, so close to my full form, the beast inside me howled and snarled in fear and anger. It came out as a low growl that should never come from a human throat.

Then nails were digging painfully into my shoulder. “Erik!” The voice was familiar, but there was a thread of command in it like a pack leader. All pack leaders had a mantle of power that came with the stations. It allowed them to exert almost complete and total control over the members of their pack. But all alphas had this magic quality to them that compelled subordinates and betas to obey. Not all alphas were pack leaders, but all pack leaders were alphas.

“We have to get you to my dad,” the voice said.

My brain wasn’t keeping up very well, but I did manage to look up at whoever was speaking and give one long, slow blink. It looked a lot like Dani, but it couldn’t be Dani.

“Who are you?” I asked.

“Shit. The silver’s eating your brain, or something. It’s me: Dani,” the voice said.

“You can’t be Dani.”

“Why?” she asked, incredulous.

“Because Dani doesn’t know her dad, or know I know her dad.”

If she rolled her eyes any harder they would have fallen out the back of her head. “Oh, please. My mother told me about him eons ago. Hard not to, really,” she muttered.

Then, for the first moment in the last few moments, I noticed something different about her.

“Your eyes!” I said.

“Caught on, have you?” she asked. “It wasn’t easy, you know, keeping all this from you. Mom thought they’d just send some brooding, stalker-looking guy to watch me from the bushes, but no, they sent you. It was so hard to keep my real scent masked. It’s been a pain and a half. Looks like I don’t have to do that anymore, though,” she said, and smiled.

Dare I say it was almost wolfish? I could only gape.

She sighed. “That big brain of yours can grasp so many things, but a late bloomer werewolf is what confounds you? Weak, dude.” Then she hauled me up and threw me over her shoulder.

This was the closest I’d ever been to her, and despite my injuries I couldn’t resist. I inhaled deeply and for the first time I was able to truly smell her, and it. That unmistakable scent of werewolf.

“Satisfied?” she asked, and huffed in amusement.

I blushed, and was thankful that she couldn’t smell the blood rushing to my face any more than it already was.

I grunted, and then hissed as a fresh wave of hellish pain pulsed from my hand. We made it to her car and she set me down on my feet to lean on it while she opened the door. Sirens were wailing in the distance, and my heartrate picked up. I’d never be able to show my face here again, and then my heart squeezed as I realized the same went for Dani.

“Don’t worry about it,” she whispered, “I’ll figure something out.” Despite her brave words, I could smell regret washing off her in waves.

She got me in and buckled, and pulled out of the lot slowly just ahead of the emergency vehicles. A tightness in my chest eased, and I finally relaxed back into the seat. Well, as best I could given the state of my hand.

“Looks like it’s finally time to meet dear, old Dad. Won’t this be fun?” she joked.

I could only groan in response. Fun wasn’t what I’d call it, but with Dani, who knew? One thing was for certain, everything was going to change. But as I was being dragged under by the darkness eating at my consciousness, I couldn’t say that was a bad thing. I just hoped my text got to Arthur, otherwise this was all going to be one hell of a surprise.

Writing Prompt ~~ Optimism

 

Artist Unknown

 

The music drifted out of the club like a vibrating pulse. I could feel it in my bones. The night was alive with possibility. I could even imagine myself finding a date.

My, aren’t we feeling ambitious? A pompous, scathing voice raked like claws across my thoughts.

My insides shrank, like a flower withering under the first bite of frost. I slunk in through the door after flashing my ID to the bouncer, whose muscles had muscles. His bald head shone with sweat from the humid heat of the night, but I shivered beneath my jacket. I headed straight for the bar and ordered a drink: “Whatever tastes good.”

It was just a thought. I frowned, and fidgeted with my drink, taking a small sip. It probably had some ridiculous name I would never remember, even if I’d asked, and the sweetness of it sat heavy on my tongue.

Optimism doesn’t suit you.

No, I argued, it doesn’t suit you. It suits me just fine. I jutted my chin out and tilted my head back, throwing the rest of the drink down my throat. It might be sweet, but it still burned. Thankfully, no one could hear me cough over the music.

Yes, which is why you’re currently housing a Wraith, Katherine, because we just feed off positivity. Did you think I could last this long if I was housed with a soul bathed in Light? Or that this would have ever happened if you weren’t of the dark?

The question raised the fine hairs on my body, and I shuddered, curling in on myself. Believe me, I didn’t mean to capture you, Wros, it was an accident.

Wros harrumphed. Yes, and what a happy accident it’s been, he said, voice dripping with venom.

D-did you just quote Bob Ross? I sat up, and my eyes went wide. Before Wros answered, one of the bartenders had taken my sudden movement as a signal to come over.

His eyes were a jewel-bright green, and his hair was cut short on the sides, a little longer on top, and had that, ‘I just rolled out of bed,’ tousled touch. It was dyed aquamarine, and went with the mermaids and bubbles theme the club had gone with. His lips curled into a smirk at my shocked look.

“See something you like?” he asked.

I blushed, hard, while the heat from the alcohol coursed through me. “May I have some water, please?” I managed to stammer out.

His smirk transformed into a full-on smile as he poured me a glass. “One water,” he said, and slid the glass toward me.

I thanked him, and took a sip. The cool water was a near nauseating contrast to the fire in my blood, and I had to swallow a couple more times after drinking to keep the water down.

The bartender chuckled and shook his head. “Let me know if you need anything else,” he said, and winked.

It was roguish, unexpected, and it made me blush again.

I like that one, Wros said, his voice a low growl rumbling through my mind.

I winced, and tilted my head down. My long, curly, dark copper hair shifted and fell forward, hiding the right side of my face. It was a habit I’d had since childhood, and something I’d never managed to grow out of.

Of course you do. I sighed, and my shoulders slumped.

Then I sat up, tucked my hair behind an ear, waved the bartender back over, and ordered another drink.

 

 

****

 

The park wasn’t far from the club, and was better than a seedy alley any day of the week, but especially on a Saturday night. Most of them had been occupied.

A soft moan floated through the night, and my head snapped around to see if anyone heard. We were alone, save for the breeze rustling the leaves in trees, and the occasional distant siren. My heart raced at each small noise, and I licked my lips, nervous.

I’ll never get used to this.  My chest was tight. I straddled the bartender’s—Gabriel’s—waist, and looked down at his recumbent form. The only way this could have been worse was if we were naked.

You’d be shocked what you can get used to given enough incentive, Wros said, ever the pragmatist.

What, like not dying?  I asked, the bitterness of my words and the aftertaste of Gabriel’s soul resting on my tongue like dark chocolate. I wanted to roll my tongue over it, like hard candy, even though there was nothing physical the soul left in my mouth. I wanted to savor it, and spit it out at the same time.

Precisely, Wros crooned. He rolled in my mind, like a content, fat cat. Our current predicament meant that if we didn’t consume souls, we’d both die. I guess I wasn’t cut out to be a martyr.

Gabriel’s brows were pinched, as though in pain, and he likely was. I’d only taken part of his soul when I’d kissed him, causing him to lose consciousness. Wros really needed to pick smaller targets, because Gabriel had almost brained himself when I barely caught him as he fell to the ground.

I laughed at the thought, the sound brittle like shattered Christmas ornaments. Such concern for a man I was about to kill. I smoothed a finger across his brow, willing it to relax, and brushing his bright hair from his forehead. He moaned again, but his face relaxed, and I let out a breath I didn’t know I was holding

If it makes you feel any better, he’s a bit of a womanizer, Wros said, trying to throw me a balm to soothe my conscience.

“It doesn’t,” I said out loud. Yet, I bent over him again, my hair creating a curtain around us. An illusion of privacy, seeing as how Wros was ever-present in my mind and seeing everything through my eyes.

At the thought I closed my eyes, and pressed my lips into his again. Wros stretched out through me, like fog rolling through a midnight graveyard in the middle of winter, and took over my movements as I surrendered control. I did this when I knew I wouldn’t be able to finish what I started. I was not only a killer, but a coward to boot.

Wros moved my hands to cup the sides of Gabriel’s face, and his power unfurled like a poisonous flower from my lips, sucking at what remained of the man’s soul. He coaxed it out gently, like a monster under the bed convincing a child to leave the safety of their covers.

The grass withered beneath us as Wros’ power spread, and then drew back as all of Gabriel’s soul was pulled into us. Wros withdrew into my mind as I sat up, and Gabriel’s head lolled to the side, his bangs just long enough to fall over his closed eyes. All that remained was the physical body, and it would expire in three days’ time without the return of his soul. Even if we did return it, it would be damaged, as Wros had already started the process of ‘digesting’ it.

I stood, my legs wobbly, and I stumbled away. Like a junkie leaving the spot they shot up at. As the breeze blew through the park and I shuffled off to my car, I frowned at the cold feeling on my face. I brushed my cheeks to find them wet, and my eyes widened as I realized they were tears.

“Tears are the silent language of grief,” I whispered, my voice hoarse.

Leonardo da Vinci, Wros commented idly from his spot in my mind.

I stopped in my tracks and clenched my fists.

Don’t! Wros growled, trying to lurch through me to take over as the thought in my mind sent my body into action.

I shrugged off his control. Too late.

 

 

****

 

Another Friday was here, but instead of lurking outside the clubs, I was outside the hospital. It was difficult to not look suspicious when you’re hanging around outside all day, but I couldn’t move.

I’d chewed my lips and nails into oblivion, and my stomach rumbled from hunger. Wros wasn’t speaking with me at the moment, but I considered that a side bonus to the situation. I had a sharp pain my shoulders, because every time the front entrance to the hospital opened, I tensed up.

This time, though, I saw what I was waiting for and I let out a shaky sigh.

You know you’ve doomed him to a life of feeling perpetually unfulfilled, Wros said, and narrowed his eyes at the sight of Gabriel through mine.

He was gaunt, and his shoulders were hunched a little, as though he were fragile and barely holding himself together. Then someone appeared from behind him—an older woman who had his elegant nose and soft smile. Gabriel smiled in return, and though it was a ghost of the one from last Friday, it eased something in my chest.

He might heal.

Wros rolled his eyes and threw up his hands. You are the worst necromancer I’ve ever had the displeasure of knowing.

I stood up from the bench, and slipped away.

We still have to eat, you know, Wros said, softly and not unkindly.

My hands were shaking as I opened my car door. I know.

Then why? What made him different from the others? Wros pressed.

That, I don’t know. Maybe you just suck at picking targets, I said, trying for humor.

Wros shook his head and scoffed, disgusted.

As I pulled away from the curb I mulled over the question. It wasn’t a line I hadn’t already crossed before Gabriel, many times at that, but whatever it was about him wouldn’t let me follow through that night.

Usually, Wros telling me of their misdeeds as he read their souls was enough to get me through, but who was I to judge? I killed people to keep an undead terror and myself alive.

Saving him doesn’t make up for the others. Though, admittedly, the others were a lot worse in character than that one. Wros pondered for a moment. I’ll try to find someone worse. Would that be better?

I sighed. No, but until we find a solution that’ll have to do.

Like I said, optimism doesn’t suit you.