Writing Prompt ~~ Legacy

It had been more than two weeks since the fire, but the stink of it was still in her hair, on her skin. She took long showers twice a day, but the smell lingered. When she closed her eyes at night, the images came back to her. Images of the flames, of the way the dark varnish on her grandmother’s cuckoo clock, brought over from Germany when she immigrated here, bubbled and popped.

Most of all, though, Amelie remembered the heat.

Each night, she’d woken in a sweat from both the memories and the fear of them. She’d screamed herself raw each time as she clawed her way out of her mind, the thick smoke choking her as her throat constricted, trying to protect itself. It was as though the flames had followed her into the realm of dreams, intent on licking along her body, their tongues burning and pulling all the moisture from her skin as it blistered.

When she woke, though, her skin was pristine if only a little tender. And with each wakening, she’d remember it wasn’t her who’d been swallowed by the flames. When the fog of nightmares lifted and the memories came flooding back, she’d weep. She’d sob until her body convulsed with them and her eyes went gritty and dry.

She’d promised herself fourteen days. A fortnight to grieve in her soul, recover in body, and strengthen her mind. Two weeks for a plan to churn in her subconscious, sitting at the back of her mind like a slowly simmering stew.

When the new moon rose, leaving more shadow than light stretched over the quiet landscape, she left the hideaway. It had been Quinn’s idea to build it, and though she’d been foolishly over-confident enough to scoff at him for such caution, she’d humored him. He’d gone to work on the very back end of their twenty-acre property, making what amounted to a doomsday bunker, though their concern was less apocalypse and far closer to home. What she wouldn’t give to hear him say, ‘I told you so.’

She clamped down on the sob that tried to break through her swollen throat, and swallowed against it. If she started crying now, she might not stop.

Though she didn’t expect anyone to still be at the house, she took her time moving through the familiar woods. She placed her hands on the rough bark of the trees, like touchstones, and with each caress she was more grounded and less insubstantial. Her hold on the world had been tenuous at best these last two weeks, with the loss of so much that was dear to her leaving her adrift. The trees brought some of what made her, her back, like an artist drawing an outline for a character. Amelie was solid again.

At just after midnight she made it back to the clearing just behind what was left of their house. The night was still, and so was she as she assessed the ruin. She hadn’t been in any condition to do so when she fled, and looking at it now, some of the comfort from the forest withered and left her hollow like a rotted tree trunk.

After a time, she made her way to the wreckage, careful to not disturb too much in case someone came snooping around. The single cabin hadn’t been what most folks would consider much, but it had been enough for her and Quinn.

When she came to the back of the house, she knelt and cleared away fire and autumn debris from a small section of otherwise normal looking ground. However, when she worked her fingers into the earth, a small seam appeared and a trapdoor lifted. Not wanting the remainder of the cabin to collapse on her, she pulled out a flashlight and shone it into the dark cellar. As far as she could see, everything was untouched, so she made her way down the steps into the darkness. Once inside, she lit the lamps around the room. They’d never wired electricity down here, just in case someone with more than half a brain had been involved with planning their demise.

When the soft glow illuminated the small work area, everything really was intact, and she let out a small, shaky sigh. Then, when her eyes strayed over to the bookshelf, her breath caught in her throat. Her feet carried her over to the ceiling-high shelves before she could think to do it, and shaking hands grabbed a picture frame.

Dark eyes with a wicked sense of humor and smile to match gazed back at her. His auburn hair was tousled from sweat and hard work while he helped build their cabin, and dirt streaked through his face and trimmed beard. It was her favorite picture of him, and an ache spread through her chest.

“I miss you,” she whispered, and ran a thumb across the picture’s cheek.

This time, instead of a sob, something hardened in her, and she had to put the frame down before she cracked it and the glass when her fists clenched. Her eyes scanned over the books along the shelves, though she knew exactly where the one she wanted was. On the top shelf, high enough that she had to stand on tiptoe to grab it, she pulled down the dusty, dark tome. A cuckoo clock was not the only thing her oma had brought from Germany.

Oma had never shied away from the darker side of their abilities, saying the dark was as much a part of anyone as the light. Amelie, on the other hand, had never been totally comfortable with such things, and after learning them never had cause to use them again. Oma respected her decision on this, saying some witches remained in the light, others steeped in darkness, while most walked in the grey. Amelie had been more than happy to remain on the light side, though she never thought less of her oma for walking a darker path than her. That was just Oma.

Amelie sent a silent prayer to her grandmother on the other side of the veil, asking for guidance. She took the book and the picture over to the small chair in the corner of the room and sat down to read.

Her thoughts were sharp as broken glass, and claws of rage raked through her as she poured over the spells.

It was sometime around dawn when she finally put the book down, her mind whirring with one possibility after another. As the cold, autumn wind shifted small amounts of rubble overhead, she looked at Quinn’s picture.

“They wanted an evil witch, and that’s just what they’ll get.”

Writing Prompt ~~ Magic Isn’t Real

He had hunted and hiked and led backpacking trips through these woods for twenty years, and he had never seen an animal track like that. At first glance, it resembled wolf tracks, which was impossible given that there hadn’t been wolves in these parts since before Richard was born. One reason his mind had jumped to wolf and not dog, was because they formed a single track instead of staggered. The other reason was the shape, but even that wasn’t exactly correct. The pads were the wrong size and shape for any canid, and the claw marks were too thick. Richard wouldn’t claim to be an expert, but he knew these woods, and there was nothing in it that should make tracks like that. Least of all a wolf.

What he did know, though, was right next to those strange tracks were shoe prints, size 11 ½ youth, with little stars and hearts amidst the swirling tread pattern.

“What’d you find, Rick?” the quiet, rumbling voice of the Sheriff asked from behind him.

Most people tended to whisper or speak in hushed tones in the woods on instinct, but that was just the Sheriff. You wouldn’t catch him raising his voice to break up a bar fight, if it came down to it. Not that it ever did. Sheriff Evans had what folks referred to as presence. The large man moved like a force of nature: you either got out of his way or were taken down in the process.

“Girl’s tracks are here. We’re lucky it rained for a couple days the other day, or I might not have spotted this,” Richard said, and waved a black gloved hand at the muddy forest floor, littered with leaves. He’d never been fond of being called Rick, but people were set in their ways, especially around these parts.

“And?” Sheriff Evans prompted, hearing the unfinished words lingering on Richard’s tongue with the keen perception honed by years of experience.

Richard huffed out a frustrated breath. “And some tracks that don’t fit any animal I’ve ever come across,” he said, and pivoted on the balls of his heavy-booted feet to face the Sheriff.

The man’s ice blue eyes narrowed on Richard, who stilled under the scrutiny. Richard had never broken the law, let alone given police any trouble or reason to distrust him. But it was still there, hovering beneath the surface.

Richard was an outlier in the community. Someone who made his living off the vast woods that most were content to avoid. Sure, people hunted and hiked and so on, but Richard lived and breathed these woods, and there was a wildness about him. It didn’t help that he looked the typical part of someone who spent most of his time in the woods: bearded, rough around the edges, clothes worn and patched, and with his wild black hair usually contained under a knit cap.

That otherness meant he’d never quite moved beyond acquaintance-level with most people. In fact, if they got more than a nod of greeting from Richard it tended to shock the good folk of Pinebrook. Most avoided his ever-present scowl and dark, hooded eyes. Those wanting to traipse about the woods only put up with his standoff-ish demeanor because he was the best around, and those that didn’t want to found someone less qualified.

“Explain,” the Sheriff said, but his wary gaze left Richard’s and began scanning the surrounding trees.

Richard, too, looked around. Though Richard was not a small man himself in weight, he didn’t quite hit the same numbers as the Sheriff who was built like a wall of muscle. When Richard looked back at their walking tracks leading to this point, Richard’s weren’t quite as deep as the Sheriff’s, as was expected. What made Richard’s body tense was the fact the unknown tracks were a depth between the Sheriff and himself. It didn’t bode well.

“I thought at first they were wolf tracks,” Richard started.

The Sheriff snorted at that, though he didn’t stop his surveillance.

“Yeah, that’s what I thought, too. Plus, the shape isn’t exactly correct. It’s strange, though. What kind of animal would have the girl walking with it, instead of just, well, eating her?” Richard pondered out loud.

The Sheriff’s head jerked over at Richard’s statement, who just shrugged at the man’s distasteful look.

“Tell me I’m wrong,” Richard challenged, though as respectfully as he could manage. To be honest it wasn’t much, but it was the best Evans was going to get.

Sheriff Evans grunted, then considered the tracks again. “You’re sure they aren’t human?” he asked.

Richard shook his head. “Even if they were wearing something weird on their feet to try and confuse us, the impressions wouldn’t look right. When people are making fake tracks, they either press straight down or don’t walk naturally, and it shows in the tracks,” he said. Then he indicated the sides and depths of the footprints. “This has the natural gate of something that single tracks and walks on four paws, like a wolf.”

Sheriff Evans considered the tracks. “But it’s definitely not a wolf?” The lilt at the end of the sentence indicated the Sheriff was making it more of a question than a statement.

“No, not a wolf, but some kind of animal,” he said, his voice going soft. Whatever it was, he didn’t think it boded very well for the girl.

“Well, we can’t stand here and debate this anymore. You follow the tracks, and I’ll follow you,” Sheriff Evans said.

Richard nodded, and off they went.

They weren’t the only people out looking for Heather Turner, aged six, missing from her home on the edge of town. When her parents called her in from their backyard for lunch, they thought she was playing hide and seek with them. When they couldn’t find her, and instead discovered a place in the fence where the chain links had been pushed aside just enough for a small child to get through, they panicked.

When the initial search led them not far down the road and into the forest, they’d put out the call for volunteers and called in the SAR—Search and Rescue—dogs. They lived on the edge of enough wilderness that they had a couple of full-time trackers. The first real indication that things weren’t quite right was the dogs’ refusals to track. Not just a, ‘I can’t follow the scent/There is no scent,’ situation. This was a tail between their legs, one of them peed themselves, and they refused to budge, type of refusal. These dogs weren’t new, or scared of much of anything, but their behavior had put the SAR team on edge.

That’s when they went to get Richard.

He’d been gearing up to help with the search when the Sheriff himself had pulled up and explained the situation, and what had happened with the dogs. He’d been concerned about that, but not enough to put him off going into the woods to search for a little girl.

Now here they were, following the tracks of Richard didn’t know what, and they were headed to the lake. Not just any lake, but Arrowhead Lake. There were a few bodies of water in these parts, but the one that was the biggest and in the deepest part of the forest was the Arrowhead. Shaped like its namesake, it was where, to put it not-so-delicately, the crazies lived. Mostly they were an assortment of backwoodsman and survivalists, and they guarded their privacy and land jealously. If Richard was barely on the tolerated side of amicable for the townsfolk, the Arrowheaders were the scapegoats and go-to for every which thing that went wrong in these parts.

Richard looked back over his shoulder and locked eyes with the Sheriff. His lips had thinned out and his eyebrows were drawn down in a mighty frown. He knew where they were headed. He motioned for Richard to stop, and called his fellow lawmen over the walkie.

“We’re going to head to the main road and call in to Walt. I don’t want to start some kind of FUBARed fire fight with the Arrowheaders because someone gets pissy we’re on their land,” Sheriff Evans grumbled, and started to head west toward the only road to the lake.

By the time the two men managed to get there, there was a patrol car waiting, with a CB ready to go. No one up here had lines for phones, or likely the patience for them.

Sheriff Evans got Walt on the CB, and he agreed to come out. Probably twenty minutes later the old man came ‘round the bend in his beat up ’55 Chevy, expertly avoiding or going over potholes that were as familiar to him as his own land. Walt was the unofficial spokesperson of the Arrowheaders, which really meant he was the only one willing to talk before he pulled his gun.

By this point, the deputy and Sheriff were chomping at the bit to get moving again. There was a kid missing, and each minute that went by wasn’t doing her any good.

Walt got out of his truck and hobbled on over to the Sheriff, though Richard hung back. While the Arrowheaders weren’t as hostile toward him as they were to law enforcement, they weren’t exactly buddy-buddy, either. He was too wild for the townsfolk, and too tame for Arrowhead.

Walt was like a piece of chewed up old leather leftover from a saddle that was rode hard and put away wet. He’d survived WWII with his body mostly intact, but in mind not so much. Sometimes when people were talking to him, he gets a faraway look in his mud brown eyes. Richard had learned the hard way with a broken nose to never touch him when he’s like that. He had a shaggy white mane, and a beard to match that he could almost tuck into his belt.

“Whatchoo doin ‘round here, Evans?” Walt said with his usual ornery tone. His wild, bushy eyebrows were drawn down, and even in his late sixties the man was scrappy as ever.

“There’s a little girl missing, Walt. We’re just trying to find her and get her home,” Sheriff Evans said matter-of-factly, holding his hands out in front of him.

Walt’s eyes narrowed dangerously.

“You think we had somethin’ to do with that?” asked another voice from over by the truck as Walt opened his mouth.

The Sheriff’s head snapped over to a boy standing not far from the front-passenger side of the truck. He was your typical, surly teenager: whip-thin, like he’d have a hard time putting any muscle on him, and dark brown hair cut long enough that it fell in his eyes, which were the same brown as Walt’s.

“And you are?” Sheriff Evans asked, suspicion evident in the set of his shoulders and tone of his voice.

“That’s my grandson, Matthew. Now answer the boy’s question,” Walt said, still glaring at the Sheriff.

“We aren’t sure,” Sheriff Evans admitted honestly. “We followed some tracks to the edge of Arrowhead property and stopped to get ahold of you.”

“Whatchoo mean you ain’t sure?” Walt spat. “Either yer here to try and arrest one of us, or yer just causin’ hate and discontent.”

Sheriff Evans glanced back at Richard, who sighed.

“They pulled me in to track when the dogs refused to do it,” Richard said, leveling a significant look Walt’s way.

Walt’s eyebrows shot up. “You mean Tommy’s and Jerry’s dogs?”

Tommy and Jerry were the SAR guys. They didn’t just handle the SAR dogs, they were some of the best trainers around for them.

Richard nodded. “Pissed themselves scared.”

Walt and Matthew exchanged a worried glance. The silent communication after hearing such news might have been expected and natural to the two lawmen, but Richard didn’t miss the something extra that passed between them.

“Whatchoo think it was?” Walt asked, bringing a heavy scowl down on Richard.

“Can’t say; never seen tracks like that. Looked wolf, but wrong, and weighed somewhere between me and the Sheriff,” Richard said, and shrugged.

Though the motion was nonchalant and the words casual, (as though Richard spoke of man-sized beasts roaming their forests every day), his gaze was subtly sharp, watching Matthew. The old man could hide his guilt from St. Peter himself, but the boy was young. He hadn’t learned to hide that well, yet.

And there it was, the small twitch of the kid’s shoulders at the description of the tracks.

“Well, long as you ain’t sayin’ it were one of us, I’ll do the rounds with ya. Boy, you stay here,” Walt said, his words emphatic and brooking no argument.

The boy glowered, and Richard might have guessed it was part of an act if the kid hadn’t been a teenager. Angst came as naturally to them as breathing.

“Deputy, you’re with us. Richard, stay here in case anyone else shows up. Tell them we went to speak to the residents, and to fan out around the Arrowhead border to see if there are any tracks leading out. They are not to go into Arrowheader land. Got me?” Sheriff Evans asked.

The only reason Richard didn’t tell the man he could save his commands for his lawmen and stick his orders where the sun don’t shine, was because a little girl was in danger. Instead, he nodded, and the three of them headed to Walt’s truck. The deputy jumped in the back, and Sheriff Evans got in the front seat with Walt. As the truck was turning around on the narrow road, the boy and Walt exchanged one last, telling, worried look, before heading back toward the lakeside properties.

Once the truck was out of sight, Richard turned to the kid.

“Tell me what you know,” Richard said, his voice low and cutting to the chase.

“I—”

“Shut the hell up, and save your lies. I know you know something, and you’re going to tell me so I can save the little girl. That way her parents won’t have to lower a tiny coffin into the ground,” Richard growled out.

The boy’s eyes went wide at Richard’s morbid words, and he paled.

“It-it’s not what you think!” he blurted out, his hands clenched.

“Then tell me what I should think,” Richard bit out, quickly losing patience. He didn’t have time for Arrowheader bullshit. He hadn’t thought they’d had anything to do with it, but after those looks, he knew they knew something. It was bad enough he was keeping this from the Sheriff, but he’d be damned if their secrecy was going to hurt a little girl.

“Not long ago, a woman moved into Derrick’s old cabin. She’s Russian, just off the boat, and with an accent so thick you can barely understand her on a good day, let alone when she’s riled,” Matthew said.

Richard made the ‘go-on’ gesture, urging the kid to get to the point.

“Well, not long after she moved in, we started noticing strange things. Things would go missing and turn up in weird places, and we’d find weird tracks around cabins after hearing noises at night. Stuff like that.”

“Okay, so you think this woman and this…whatever it is are connected?” Richard asked, just to get the boy to clarify. Because he’d bet his bippy she had something to do with it.

Matthew nodded. “It’s, well, like I said. Not what you think.” Then he looked around the deserted woods and bit his lip, indecision and guilt wringing the kid’s conscience like a wet rag.

“Take me to her,” Richard said.

The boy’s eyebrows shot high and went knotted, while his eyes grew wide as dinner plates. “She’d have my hide, sir! She’s meaner than a mess of hornets with a kicked over nest!”

It shocked him that the kid called him ‘sir’, which he most certainly wasn’t used to, but he didn’t have time for this.

“You’ll think she’s a day-old kitten compared to me if something happens to Heather Turner, boy.”

The kid’s shoulders slumped and he grimaced. “Alright, but I’m hanging you out to dry as sure as the sun rises.”

Richard nodded. “You help me save that little girl, I don’t care if you throw me to a whole pack of hacked off Russian biddies. Now, move,” Richard said, and gave the kid a nudge.

Richard knew, vaguely, the location of all the dwellings around Arrowhead, but he couldn’t remember exactly where Derrick’s place was. He’d died last year, too old to get through another harsh winter up in the woods with minimal supplies. While he wasn’t too keen on taking the kid with him, he needed him as a simultaneous guide and white flag. People would get riled if they saw just Richard, no matter how much more they tolerated him than they did the townsfolk. No, having the kid was like a hall pass in a place the teachers would shoot you if you were caught without one.

After a long walk and many worried glances at the sky from Richard as the sun made its inevitable trip toward the horizon, they finally made it to the cabin. It was in better repair than last he’d glimpsed of it, many years ago, but he didn’t have time to admire the scenery. Search and rescue never boded well in the dark, let alone when some unknown creature was involved, and time waited for no one. Not even missing little girls.

He stalked right up to the cabin and pounded on the door. Before a fourth knock could land, the door was yanked out from under his fist. A scowling, royally ticked-off woman stood there, her pale grey eyes flashing.

“Vat is the meaning of this?” she asked, her accent thick on her tongue like molasses. She had her hands on her generous hips, and the long, thick braid of her chocolate brown hair snaked down over her equally generous chest.

Not the time, he ground out, annoyed with himself.

She barely came up to Richard’s chin, and he met her glower with one of his own.

“We’re looking for a missing girl. Six. And I think you know something about it,” Richard said, his words clipped.

She reared back a bit at this, her eyebrows shooting up. “And vhy vould I know about this girl?”

“Because I found some incredibly strange tracks alongside hers, and I’ve been told that ever since you’ve moved here, people have been finding strange, unidentifiable tracks around their cabins.”

Panic flashed through her eyes like a shooting star: there and gone just as quick. But it had been there, and Richard latched onto that like a hound on a scent.

She’d gone quiet, and her eyes darted behind him to Matthew. When she saw the boy, shuffling his feet like all the guilt in the world had been placed on his shoulders, she sighed.

“You said leetle girl? Six?” she asked. At Richard’s nod, she shook her head and started muttering in Russian, clearly irritated. “It’s not vhat you think,” she said.

“So I’ve been told,” Richard ground out. “Now, take me to her.”

The woman—he realized he hadn’t even asked her name—grabbed her coat from by the door. Richard moved out of the way so she could close it. After doing so, she set off toward the woods on the opposite side from where they came in. Richard followed the sway of her braid down her back as she moved, and the boy brought up the rear. He wasn’t comfortable with two Arrowheaders flanking him, but it couldn’t be helped. There was no way the boy would leave him with one of their own, and he wouldn’t have listened to Richard if he’d tried to tell him to stay.

They weren’t long heading into the forest when the woman came to a halt, and Richard almost ran into her. He hadn’t realized he was following her so close. She inhaled deep, tilted her head to one side, as though listening for something, and changed her direction at a sharp westward angle, heading deeper in. After about the same amount of time she stopped, and this time Richard inhaled with her.

Forests always held smells of growing things, or of wet dirt like now, and sometimes rotting things, but this was a different smell. It was familiar, and not. Like the smell of a cut Christmas tree, even though there were no evergreens here, but it had a bitter edge, like tree sap on your tongue.

Then, she started speaking in Russian. “Vykhodi, Leshi! Vy znayete, chto ne mozhete derzhat’ devushku.”

He was about to tell her to stop, and speak English, when there was a rustling in the brush to their left. What walked through the brush was impossible for his eyes to reconcile with his brain. It looked like it was covered in green fur that wasn’t fur, but instead grass the color of olives. It was tall. Far taller than anyone Richard had met in his fifty years, and its head was decorated with a crown of autumn leaves. Its eyes were intense, and the black of fresh churned, deep forest earth. They bore into Richard as though it could see his very soul, and maybe it could.

“What—” he barely managed, the word strangled.

Before he could finish, though, the creature’s cradled arms moved forward, as though it was offering him something. When he looked down, it was the first time he noticed what the creature carried. It was Heather Turner, fast asleep, a peaceful, content smile on her face.

There was a noise like the groaning of trees and the rustling of leaves in the wind, and it was coming from the creature. Richard couldn’t move. Of all the things he expected, this wasn’t it.

“He says he’s very sorry. He vas lonely, and just looking for someone to play vith. In human years, they aren’t far apart in age,” the woman said, her voice soft and sad.

When Richard turned wide eyes to her, her face was haunted by some memory playing in her mind. It wasn’t too far off how Walt looked during those times it was a bad idea to touch him.

“Take her,” she said, her voice urgent.

Richard jerked at the words, and his arms automatically went forward to take the sleeping child from the—him. He rustled a bit, and where his grass-like fur touched Richard’s flesh, it was cool, but not so much so that the child would have taken chill in his arms.

Heather scrunched her face a bit as she moved between the two, but quickly settled down. Richard just held her there, still not sure what to say.

“He is the last of his kind—a Leshi. Something you might call a forest spirit, or fairy, that can shapeshift. They vere hunted to the very last. My family has alvays been vith them, protecting and being protected in turn. Ve came here for better life,” she said by way of explanation. “Now…” she trailed off.

Richard realized what she meant. There was almost no way to explain the situation away. Heather never would have made it up this far without some kind of help, and someone would have to take the blame. A thought slowly formed in Richard’s mind.

“Unless she wasn’t found here,” Richard said slowly, his first words to the two Arrowheaders since leaving the cabin.

After a moment, hope lit a joyful fire in her eyes so fierce, it almost made Richard take a step back.

“Of course, we’ll need your friends help,” he said. Richard looked over at the creature, who nodded once, and slow.

Da. Of course!”

It wasn’t too long after that Heather Turner was found, tucked away and asleep in a tricky little hole in her favorite tree in her backyard. Her parents hadn’t even known it was there. When they hugged and kissed and scolded her for not answering when they’d all called for her, she simply told them about the most wonderful dream she had. There was a large wolf in it who changed into a boy, whose skin was made of grass, and they played in the woods. Her parents merely shook their heads, and apologized profusely to all those involved in her search and rescue.

Everyone was just glad she was found safe. No one mentioned the behavior of the dogs. Or the strange tracks walking right next to those of a child who had the exact same shoe type and size as Heather, heading to Arrowhead Lake.

In fact, the only thing that changed was the frequency of Richard visiting Arrowhead. The townsfolk wrote it off as a simple case of a man wooing the first new face to grace the town in a couple of decades. It helped his case that Tatiana’s face was pretty as any to look at. Once you got past her temper, that is.

And if people sometimes spotted a large, green creature that sometimes looked like a man, and other times a wolf, walking in the woods that disappeared like magic in the blink of an eye? Well, it just wasn’t spoken of. They weren’t a town of gossip-mongers like those hippie-dippy types with their Bigfoot in the Pacific Northwest. No, they were a private folk, and they kept such things to themselves. And if lost hikers spoke of lights in the forest, like fairy lights in the stories of old, leading them out and to safety, well, they chalked it up to dehydration. Magic wasn’t real; everyone knew that.

 

 

********NOTE************
For anyone who speaks/reads Russian, I apologize ahead of time: I only had Google Translate at my disposal, and I did the best with conveying the accent that I could. This is what Tatiana said in the woods:

“Come out, Leshy! You know you cannot keep the girl.”

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 ~~ 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.