The woman across from him was as old and weathered as her shack near the sea, and her cold eyes were the same stormy green as the chill waters washing along the shore. Her mouth was set in a perpetual frown, but her words were warmer than her countenance.
“Ye’ll drive yerself mad if ye do this,” she said, her voice gruff from disuse, but her tone soft. Knowing.
“If there’s a chance, then I have to find her. I won’t lose her this way,” he insisted. He didn’t raise his voice, but the resolve there was firm. He leaned on the table, and his tan, work-roughened hands supported his solid weight.
“She were lost long before she sought the sea,” the woman replied, softening further, but never turning away from the desperate grief shining in his honey brown eyes.
He wasn’t the first, nor would he be the last to seek her here, and she made a point to never turn away from the pain of those who sought her out. She could do no less, but no more, either.
Just like the others, he ignored her words and asked; “How did you make it back without going insane?” He looked to the large conch shell sitting high on a shelf.
Her eyes followed his. Even in the low light offered by the overcast day, it gleamed, and the dark red lines on the shell were like runnels of blood spiraling against the pearl white.
Her very bones ached with the question, and as she turned back to meet this stranger’s eyes, she wondered if it was time. There was a strength in him that had little to do with his stature, and more to do with the fire she saw in him. His soul burning bright through his eyes. Such a soul just might have the strength needed.
He barely heard her over the wind off the sea when she whispered; “I made a deal.”
“A deal?” he asked, his voice losing its frenzied edge as it gave way to confusion.
She didn’t answer him as she stood from the table and hobbled over to the shelf. Her hands shook as she extended her arms to their limit to take the shell down. When her fingers had barely brushed it the wind picked up, whistling through gaps in the wood and howling around the shack.
“What deal?” he asked again, a heaviness settling into his gut like an anchor hitting the seabed.
Her back was to him, hunched, but not from age. More like she was folded tight around the shell. Then, even though her words this time were not loud, they found their way to his ears all the same.
“An exchange. Do ye still wish to find her?” she asked.
The weight in his stomach grew heavier, but he swallowed, trying to wet his dry mouth before he answered; “Yes. With everything I am.”
She turned to him then, her mouth set in a soft, mournful smile. Her eyes were full of sorrow, and like the little shells on the beach that held tiny pools of the sea, the tide was more than they could hold, and tears spilled down her cheeks. When the first drop hit the wood of the floor, the wind shrieked its warning, but it fell on deaf ears. He was lost in the endless depths of her eyes.
“Good. Because that is what it will take,” she said. Then, faster than he’d imagined she could move, she smashed the shell on the floor.
It was later, when he woke, hungry, cold, and alone in the shack, that he finally understood. His eyes were grainy as he opened them, and the coarseness of the dried saltwater along his skin was rubbing it raw. Seaweed green eyes looked across the floor of the shack, but the shattered conch was gone. As was the old woman. His humorless exhale of a laugh ended in a shudder. He curled in on himself, cradling his own shell protectively with his shivering form.
The conch was an all-over pale pink color, like the roses his wife would lovingly tend in their garden, while the underside of the flat portion was the gleaming porcelain of her skin.
“I’ll never leave you again,” he whispered, the words raspy from his dry throat.
The shell pulsed with warmth in his hands, and he held on even tighter to it as the sea of grief washing along the shores of his mind drew back. Even if only for these few moments.
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.