The yellow lines on the highway sped by in a blue, and we flew through the night, and we felt free. But we weren’t, and we knew it. We were running from something, and running away was never the path to freedom. I thought about telling John to turn back. I thought about suggesting he leave me, and save himself. He might do the latter, since I’d forced my company on him, but he would never do the former.
“The Master will be furious,” I said in a whisper, barely even able to say that much out loud.
At first, John said nothing. He concentrated harder on the highway than the empty stretch of road really needed; either gathering his thoughts or avoiding them altogether.
“You forced me to take you along, and in doing so agreed to my terms. If you won’t go through with it you can get out of the truck, but I’m not going back.” He growled the last part.
I bit my lip, trying to keep down the fear welling inside. He made no mention if I would be alive if or when I got out of the truck. Dead men tell no tales, and such.
The life of a regular slave and a fight slave were as alike as a river and an ocean: similar, but vastly different. There was no love lost between the two kinds, but as our paths intermingled like deltas of the aforementioned bodies of water, we did our best to not make each other miserable. Most of us.
The demons in charge did that well enough on their own.
There were different types of fighting circles to cater to the desires of the demonic: human, non-human, and a bloody mix of the two. Last, but not least, there was a circle purely for disgraced demons. Like ‘John’.
He’d done something to piss off some higher ranking demon hundreds of years before I was born, and was thus thrown into the fighting pits. When he’d taken the opportunity to escape, I had demanded to go along.
“So?” he asked.
His hands gripped the steering wheel, knuckles white from the pressure, and it caused the ghostly scars that littered them like corpses piled over one another to disappear. We’d stolen the truck, because car theft was more difficult to track than John’s demonic teleportation. They also couldn’t summon him, because when he was thrown into the pits they’d flayed his personal summoning symbol from his shoulder. That way a human couldn’t accidentally help him escape.
A sharp pain followed by the coppery taste of blood filled my mouth. I’d bitten too hard. My lip throbbed and I licked the pooled blood before it spilled down to my chin. Running away might not bring true freedom, but sure as the Hell we were running from, we could try.
“Keep going,” I said, the words breathless and out of my mouth before I could stop them.
Reporters are trained to develop a sixth sense, a nose for when a story smells fishy. And something about this one wasn’t right. First of all, werewolves can’t swim. Something about their mass and water didn’t work well together. They could in human form, of course, but the werewolf floater–read dead, drowned guy–was naked. Werewolves had incredibly flexible rules on nudity, but the middle of a Michigan winter was a bit much even for them.
Which brought me to point two: by all rights, the lake should have been frozen. In fact, most of it was. Every part except a perfect circle of liquid around the dead Were, as though someone had pointed a huge hairdryer downward and melted the ice.
“They’re sayin’ his higher than normal body temp caused the ice tuh melt, as he was shiftin’ back,” the gruff, older Detective Larson spat. He was sitting by my desk, slumped down, an ever-present scowl on his grizzled face.
“Well, you know the Shrews–they’d try to cover up a war by saying it was a minor disagreement over cheese,” I said, and scoffed. The SRU–Supernatural Response Unit, or Shrews–were notorious for downplaying everything.
But even they were reaching with this one, because reason number three was sitting right by my desk. Every detective I knew would rather eat his pension than talk to a reporter. Especially one barely above Townie status.
“Yeah, but they were really tryin’ tuh play this one off. Not to mention…” He paused.
“What?” I prompted, politely. Detective Larson was already irritated he had to come to a reporter about this when he hated my ilk. He hated me, too, just an iota less than the others. Or maybe being an out-of-towner was my advantage.
He still scowled at me. “The lake still isn’t frozen. Not even the tiniest bit on the surface.”
“Sounds like magic, not some cockamamie accident with a drugged out Were,” I agreed. “Maybe you should let the Shrews handle it?”
This time he scoffed. “Not a chance. That kid was my nephew. Like I’d leave this investigation up to those backbiters.”
“How did you know?” I asked, not sure I wanted the answer. I thought I had been careful. I thought she wouldn’t notice the signs.
I was a fool.
“Really? You have to ask me that? I was trained since birth to hunt and kill your kind. We both know you have a better question to ask,” she said, her eyes lit by a fire only mortality could provide. Vitality. Life.
Indeed, it was that warmth that drew my kind like moths to a flame. She had been no different than countless others, when she’s caught my gaze from the other side of the room, amber eyes sparkling with mirth.
“Why didn’t you kill me that first night? Why string me along for almost a year?” I asked, getting to the heart of the matter, though mine no longer beat. Even being dead couldn’t keep the pain of heartache at bay.
She shrugged, and broke eye contact first; so confident in my feelings for her she assumed I wouldn’t attack. She likely wasn’t wrong. I was a sucker for love, even at five-hundred years and counting, and she’d strung me along like a lovesick pup. My Maker, were she still among the undead, would probably ask to be staked all over again at the stupidity of it all.
“What fun would that have been?”
Seduction was chief amongst the hunters’ tactics, preying on our need to feed and bask in the glow and life of humans. However, it was also a weapon that could cut both ways, at times.
I stepped in close. She tensed, but made no move to grab a weapon. Her mistake.
When I leaned in to kiss her, she relaxed into my embrace. Our lips met, eyes closed, and for a few moments more I could pretend she wasn’t here to kill me.
Quicker than human sight could follow I grabbed both her wrists in one hand, and the back of her hair with the other. The silky, dirty blond strands were soft in my grip, and her familiar scent enveloped us both.
Yet, instead of struggling she smiled. Cold, cruel, and satisfied.
Pain like I’d never experienced in life or undeath radiated through my chest. In my haste to one-up her I’d forgotten something about hunters:
I’ve lived in this town almost my whole life, and most of the time that’s fine by me. But in late fall when the sky fills with birds migrating south for the winter, traveling thousands of miles, I get homesick for places Ive never been. Places like the Appalachians, where you can get away from the towns, head into the mountains, and see all the stars. Or maybe the muggy warmth of the south where the cold rarely touched, and if it does, it does so briefly.
Then there are days where I long for places I’ve been before. Like the ruins of castles in the UK. Where the ghosts whisper and the stone speaks of an age of Ladies, Knights, and bloodshed. Or the misty rain of the Pacific Northwest forests, and splendid sunsets against Mount Ranier.
Of course, when you’ve lived somewhere for 30-odd years, it’s almost an automatic response to say you want to travel. Like when someone asks the parents the gender of their baby and they reply with; “It doesn’t matter as long as it’s healthy!” Even if they secretly want a boy or girl.
“Wouldn’t you like to get out of here, and travel the world?”
“Sure!” Then you paint a wistful glance on your face, and tell them about places you’d like to visit someday, or ask them where they’ve been.
There are still others who say they’d never want to leave, and the small town life is for them. But they could leave if they really wanted. Unlike me.
You wouldn’t think there was a downside to killing an evil witch, famed in these parts for her proclivity for eating children. However, as a mercenary far from home, and used to the traveling lifestyle, she couldn’t have nailed me with a worse punishment. Except maybe death.
Maybe I shouldn’t have engaged in relations with her, but how was I supposed to know the mayor’s daughter I’d been mutually seduced by was the being of evil I’d been sent after? Sometimes evil is downright cute, with a bubbly personality, button nose, and rosy cheeks to boot.
With her dying breath she’d chained me to this podunk town for eternity, and if I tried wandering beyond its limits I’d be knocked unconscious until back within said limits. I tried so many different ways to get out that first year, and had been found in many a strange situations by the townsfolk, out cold, they thought me a drunk. I wasn’t that first year, but then on out I surely was.
So, yes, I get homesick for places I’d never be able to see, the ones I have, but most of all for home.
Perhaps it was a dream, she thought. Perhaps, if she pinched herself, she would wake up. But she didn’t want to wake up. She wanted to stay in this dream world where laughter, soft and sweet, washed away the pain in her chest. Like waves over the sand with words etched into it, each rush over the shore took more and more of the writing away, leaving it clean and unmarked. Helping her forget.
She lay beneath a tree, the leaves rustling in the wind and dappling the sun and shade across her face. Her eyes were closed, and she soaked in the sun’s warmth, the cool breeze across her skin, and the sense of utter joy that surrounded her. Whole. Complete.
The voices of two children floated around her, and they were making up some nonsensical game as children were want to do. It was lyrical, as though they spoke, played, and danced to some music only they could hear.
A noise sounded in the distance, jarring, like the needle scratching across a vinyl record, and she frowned. Not the distance, but THE DISTANCE. The outside. Real.
The wind died, and with its disappearance so too went the voices of the children. She bolted upright, her eyes shooting open.
“Seth! Jocelyn!” she said, crying their names into the night air, which was stale and slightly humid in her bedroom. Thunder rumbled and rain pattered against the window. She rubbed her eyes. The storm must have woken her. Yet, this pain in her chest and rising panic in her throat were not caused by nature’s intrusion on her dream.
She threw back the sweat-dampened covers and padded down the hall, her bare feet silent on the hardwood floor. She skipped the board that creaked, the instinct to avoid it as ingrained in her as the whorls on the wood.
As she made her way down the short hall and to the only other room in the small house, her breathing came faster and her heart raced. Something wasn’t right. She opened the door, the well-oiled hinges swinging it open as silent as cat’s paws.
A short sob left her constricted throat, punctuating the night like a knife in the gut as she remembered. As she saw.
At first, we thought the black liquid was oil, that we’d struck it rich and we’d be able to retire and live in leisure. We actually started writing down all the ways we’d spend the money. Our first choices were the usual, to buy a big house or a fast car. Jack decided to get a nice combination of both and go with a yacht. Then a strangled cry rose through the night from the direction of the oil, where we’d left Owen to guard the site.
Before we could do more than stand in response to the sudden noise, Owen burst through the treeline at the edge of the camp. He stumbled, fell, and rolled once down the small hill before coming to a halt, rocking back and forth on his back. His hands covered his face and he was keening, high and piteous, like a screaming rabbit. It sent goosebumps along my flesh, and raised the hairs all over my body. Our shadows were thrown large across him, making it difficult to see what was wrong. A couple of us moved, so the campfire light could illuminate him, and the bile rose in my throat at the sight.
His hands were burned, but not like that from a fire, but a steam-type burn. They were red and angry, like a lobster coming from the boiling pot still alive and thrashing. The skin and flesh were engorged and falling away from his hands. Between the trees rustling in the ominous wind and Owen’s moaning, we approached in trepidation. Rey got to him first, and with his hands trembling he reluctantly pulled Owen’s away from his face. It was something out of a nightmare.
His hands had only caught some of the damage, and he was missing the flesh over his right cheekbone. There was nothing left to save of his right eye, ear, and scalp, either, like they’d been blasted away.
He was babbling incoherently, and we leaned in close. We could only make out one word: run.
It was too late by then, we just didn’t know it yet. A roar echoed through the night like some slavering demon come up from the pits of hell, and my heart stopped. What broke through the treeline this time made Owen’s injuries look like sunshine, kittens, and happy thoughts.
“You here to finish me off, Sweetheart?” she asked in a lightly accented whisper, barely audible over the rolling thunder as its grumbles dissipated and the patter of rain on the muddy ground.
There was no emotion in her voice, just as there was no life left in her pale blue eyes. No will to live. Even the chill of her pale flesh beneath his hands was able to pass through her clothing and his gloves, as though death was already claiming its next.
His hair, darker than the night sky between flashes of sizzling, white lightning, was sopping wet and escaping the braid he wore at the nape of his neck. Still, it couldn’t touch the darkness of the scowl that furrowed his brows over one, luminous amber eye, and the eye-patch he wore over the ruin on the right side of his face.
“You had that handled well enough on your own, I’d wager,” he said. His words were clipped, and the anger in them was like the first rush of desert heat when leaving the cooler air of mag-temp buildings.
Something fluttered briefly behind her eyes, which had tears running down both sides of her face, and he took in her disheveled appearance. Her wet, pale, ash blonde hair was pooling in the mud, which was also spattered along the back of her uniform. It was made of the typical material the Cynosures used: lightweight, deceptively strong, formfitting, and covering her from the top of her neck to the top of her boots. It would deflect everything from knives to the intense rays of the harsh sun that beat down mercilessly over Heartland. However, she was missing the head gear for it: a low-hanging, pointed hood to shade the eyes, and a fitted face mask to protect the mouth and nose from dust and dirt kicked up by the desert winds. The fashion for kertilla varied between civilian men and women, but the Cynosures–soldiers of Heartland–all wore the same, simple type.
It had been months before Fyna had relented and taken her kertilla off, stating it was helpful even on his ship out on the vast oceans. Graeym couldn’t imagine how anything so suffocating, not to mention something that limited your vision to such a degree, could be helpful. But it hadn’t hurt anything, so he’d just shrugged it off, and silently admired the way the sun tanned Fyna’s flawless skin as she wore the kertilla less and less.
Grief raked through his chest like the claws of the sea-dwelling saerens, who dragged sailors to their blissful deaths in the depths. He clamped down on the emotion by clenching his jaw, swallowing hard, and cursing Fyna and her final request of him.
With her memory as fresh in his mind as the first breeze after a sea storm, he saw the ghost of Fyna in her younger sister’s features. The delicate brows, elegant nose, and angelic lips were all a few years removed from the life Fyna had crafted at sea with Graeym.
But this was not Fyna, and it took every ounce of his willpower to keep that rooted firmly in his mind.
“Your sister sent me,” he said, his words less angry and more final, like the throwing down of a gauntlet.
When she jerked in shock at his proclamation, he gripped her wrists tighter, and shifted his body weight to prepare for her to try and buck him off. Mostly because her service weapon was scant inches from her hands, which were now balled into fists ready to fly at his refined nose or strong jaw. Her lips curled into a snarl, her nostrils flared, and she did indeed try to buck him off.
Graeym maintained a calm facade, but his patience for her behavior was wearing thin, and fast. It had never been his strong suit, and his crew–well, his former crew, anyway–knew the signs for when their behavior was intolerable for their Captain.
Unfortunately for Edlyn, she didn’t know, and Graeym lost his cool.
“Stop! Or so help me, Enos, I will finish what you started!” he barked at her, a mere inch from her face, his words ending in a growl.
She froze, but instead of being in fear for her life her eyes narrowed. “You are that filthy pirate that killed my sister,” she hissed.
He’d expected it; the Cynosures would have sown their own story of how the magus deserter had perished. It still made him want to scream wordlessly at Edlyn until his throat was raw. To vent at the only person on the other ‘side’ he had access to.
Fyna’s final words came to him, like a murmur amidst the howling winds of the hurricane of his agony; “Find my sister–Edlyn. Tell her I love her. Tell her…I’m sorry, but that I had to do it. Please, Graeym.”
Like a fool, he’d agreed, and held her till she passed. The attack orchestrated by the Cynosures had been swift and deadly, taking Fyna and most of his crew. Of course, the Cynosures had used actual pirates to take down the Abyssian sailors, and Abyssia–not wanting war with the Heartlanders–denounced Graeym and his crew. Calling them traitors and murderous pirates. Because, what were a few sailors in the grand scheme of peace?
Graeym, grievously injured and grieving, had been carried off by his few remaining loyal crew to a healer. He was still getting used to the change in depth perception that losing his right eye had caused, and his numerous, newly healed scars littering his body were still tender to the touch.
“I am no pirate, but if that is what you would prefer to believe, kill me now. It will save me the trouble of dealing with you.” He was only half-serious, of course. He also left out the part where he’d told his men waiting for him just over the crest of the hill, that if she did manage to kill him, to kill her in turn.
It would have been simpler for them all if she’d just agreed and shot him. Life was anything but simple, however.
At his words, something uneasy passed through her expression, followed quickly by her wiping her face clean of any emotion, and looking down and away. “My sister was no fool, pirate,” she spat the word at him like venom, trying to deflect his attention to her guilt, “and she did not trust easily. I will listen to your tale, but if I do not believe you, I will kill as as surely as the sun will rise.”
“Fair enough, but just so we are clear: I am armed, and will not hesitate to kill you should you reach for your weapon. I am here as a favor to Fyna, nothing more. I can do this just as easily with you dead as I can with you alive.”
Her eyes met his, fluttering to an all-over pale gray before fading back to their usual blue, and then she raised a single brow. “That is a lie.”
He growled, and silently spat another curse at Fyna. “You are an Axiom. A truth-sayer.”
She nodded, and her body relaxed beneath his grip. “I do not have to use my powers so overtly, as I just did. Most of the time I can get a read, or ‘feeling’, without doing so. However, I wanted you to know before we spoke.”
“Why? Wouldn’t you have more to gain by not telling me?”
“Because I do not lie knowingly, either directly or by omission. Not telling you before we spoke would have too much flavor of a lie for my comfort.” Then she looked away again, squirming just a hair in his grip as though uncomfortable with what she was about to say. “You are not the first to arouse my suspicion in regards to the means of my sister’s death,” she admitted. “Can I get up now?” she asked, tone as neutral as she could manage.
He hesitated a moment, eye flicking to her weapon, but released her and backed away quickly to avoid an attack, hand going to his right hip but not drawing his own weapon. Not yet.
She rose slowly, keeping her hands away from the weapon. When she stood, she pushed her mud-clumped hair back over her shoulder. The rain was still falling, but it was a warm, summer rain, common at the bottom of the mountainous border between Heartland and Abyssia. So while they were wet, they were not chilled.
Edlyn motioned to the closest crop of rocks, a couple of which were the perfect distance for two not-quite-allies to converse, and the two made their cautious ways over and sat down.
Graeym told Edlyn all that he knew, all that Fyna had suspected, and why she’d deserted and started to work for the Abyssia, whose strength came from the ocean. Corruption was at the heart of Heartland, and a country who traded heavily with Abyssia for resources not found in the desert could be swayed toward better treatment of its people if pressured with losing said resources. What was in it for Abyssia? The influx of Heartland refugees would would slow in the face of better conditions at home, or that was the hope.
Fyna had never made it that far, however, only having spoken with Graeym’s upper command once. She’d been placed on his ship in the hope that she’d be safe as far from Heartland’s desert as they could get–out on the ocean. There was a lot they didn’t know, but with Edlyn’s help, maybe Graeym could carry out the vision for a better future for her people that Fyna had painted for Graeym.
Well, that would be a positive byproduct of him getting his revenge for them killing a woman he’d grown to love, but who he’d never had the courage to tell. He left that part out.
“So, are you in?” he asked.
She considered his words, the silence extending between them as the final drops of rain fell from the sky. The gray clouds didn’t part and the sun didn’t shine down on them in a sign from Fyras, god of fortune, that their path was luck-laden, but Graeym had never put much stock in fortune or luck. He usually made-do with sheer willpower alone.
“Yes. I will see this path to its end, whatever that may be,” she said, and nodded.
He nodded in return, and they both stood to leave. As a sign of their agreement, he walked over, picked up her weapon, and handed it to her butt first. She’d extended the first token of trust by not grabbing it and trying to kill him, even though he told her he was armed, and now it was his turn.
As she took it and holstered it, her outfit was still incomplete. There was something that he’d wondered from the moment he found her abandoned kertilla at the bottom of the hill, followed by her on the top of the hill, kneeling, gun pointed toward her head.
“Why did you take your kertilla off? Fyna wore hers more than I figured must have been comfortable.”
She glanced at him, then toward the sky, and a small, sad smile graced her lips. “I’d never felt the rain on my face before, and I guess I wanted to know what it was like before I died,” she said.
He took a deep breath, and dipped his head once, in understanding.
Maybe she was more like Fyna than he’d first thought.