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Bar Fight (fragment)

This is a cut scene from a work in progress that's currently getting an overhaul. The event that leads to the fight in question doesn't happen in the new version, but this piece still gives a fun little window into two of the main characters. When in Doubt, Use a Louisville Slugger

“You ok?” Eddie managed.

I nodded mutely, staring at the twitching mess on the floor. “You?” I breathed. My voice sounded hollow in my ears.

He scowled at the cuts and gingerly touched a swelling bruise at his hairline. “Little sore, but I’ll live.”

“Broke your bat this time,” I pointed out, laughing nervously

“Hunh?” Eddie asked, then frowned at gore-streaked split in the wood. “Guess I did. Think I killed it?”

I didn’t want to get close enough to the fallen creature to poke it with my boot. I really didn’t have to. Its head was caved in on one side and that grayish-pink goo that passed for its blood was all over the tiles.

“Safe to say you did,” I responded. Triumph vied with nausea. Then I saw the corpse sink in on itself, and nausea won. “Uh, Eddie?” It came out as a squeak.

We both stared as the wrongly jointed thing fell apart before our eyes. It was like watching one of those time-lapse images of a corpse rotting, only without the maggots and flies. Snake Eyes just collapsed in on himself, puddling into a gray and pink smear.

“That ain’t right,” Eddie gasped, stumbling back to keep away from the spreading goo.

I backed up with him, taking rapid, shallow breaths in an effort not to hurl.

“What the hell is going on, Allison? What are these things?”

Glass tinkled then crunched at the front of the pub. Our heads jerked up in unison toward the sound. Something else was crawling in through the broken window. Ashen-faced, with blank, black eyes. It didn’t look anything like the first one, but I knew on some level they were the same.

“Oh, God. There's more," I breathed.

Eddie groaned. “Wish I’d listened to Dad and bought a gun.” The big man backed up a few steps, finding a clear space among the overturned tables and chairs to stand. He planted his feet, squaring his stance and raising the bat.

The thing at the front of the pub gestured at me with a taloned finger. In a hollow voice, it said, “Give her to us and we will leave you. We have no quarrel with you.”

“Fuck you,” Eddie spat.

“Very well,” the cadaverous monstrosity replied.

It drew a deep breath, and its all-black eyes gleamed wetly. Speckles of shadow seemed to dance on the air in front of it, and it continued breathing in, deeper and deeper. The other two behind it crept closer to the shattered window.

“I think we might want to run,” I said. I had a sudden image of it belching a cloud of something vile and putrid and extremely poisonous. I didn’t want to be around when it did.

“Shouldn’t be long now,” Eddie whispered. But he started backing up with me.

A ghastly wail rose in the distance. Sirens. Lights flashed against the night, brilliant white, then red and blue. The dead-faced creature caught itself mid-breath, whipping its head around to peer toward the town square. The two vaguely human-shaped things behind it were already reacting, ducking down, then bolting. Gray-Face swiftly followed.

I loosed the breath I’d been holding, feeling my heart stutter in my chest.

“I guess even monsters don’t like to go to jail,” Eddie murmured.

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When Millie Comes Back

Many of you know I recently had to euthanize Cornelius, my loyal feline companion of thirteen years. Unconnected with Cornelius, I had written this short piece for a Pagan friend whose daughter was having trouble coming to terms with their own cat's passing a little over a year ago. It's a little piece of narrative fiction designed with a younger reader in mind. I've found myself coming back to it as I mourn the loss of my own cat. When Millie Comes Back

Millie was the family cat since before I was born. Mother said Millie just walked into her life one day and decided she was going to stay.

Millie was a bright-eyed calico with a cap of orange and a spot on her chin. Mother said she was the best familiar a witch could have, because she was patient when she needed to be, and she had a nose for magick.

Millie was a curious cat and she got into a lot of things. She liked to hide in bags and investigate every corner of the house. She would sometimes hop up onto shelves and knock little things down if she wanted Mom's attention.

But because she was a magickal cat, Millie knew never to touch the things on Mother's altar. She was a mischief-maker, but she understood what was important.

Because of her early antics, Mom thought of lots of names for Millie: Boots, for the time she got stuck in one. Trixie for all the pranks she played. And Shadow, because she was always following Mother around, especially during rituals.

In the end, she was just Millie. It's short for Millions, because that's how many names Mom thought would fit a kitty with such a big personality.

Millie was Mom's true and loyal companion. She followed Mom through many changes in her life. Millie wasn't too sure about Dad at first, but she grew to love him. And then I came along, and Millie was like a proud momma herself, always watching over me. She especially knew when I was sad, and would wander over and tickle her tail under my nose until I giggled.

When my little brother Devin came along, Millie would sit watching over him in his crib. When he threw one of his toys out, Millie would jump down and pick it up, climbing along dressers and bookshelves till she could drop it back in with the baby.

By my seventh birthday, Millie was an old lady cat. She didn't chase her toys as much, and when winter came, she curled over the heater because the cold made her joints ache.

When spring came that year, Millie moved around slower and slower. She slept a lot, but when she was awake, she made sure we all knew she still loved us very much.

Then one morning, Millie wasn't moving at all. She lay in her favorite kitty bed with her tail curled around her nose like she was sleeping.

Mother checked on the kitty, and said Millie wasn't sleeping. Some time in the night, Millie had died. We all cried then, me and Mother and Father and even little Devin, who was only three.

Although it was hard for her, Mother picked up Millie and laid her on a piece of her favorite blanket in an old shoe box. She let me and Devin pet Millie one last time. Then we all went out back to Millie's favorite climbing tree. Father dug a hole among the roots, nice and deep. Mother laid Millie into the hole.

I put her favorite catnip mouse in with her. Devin tossed in her jingle ball toy. Then Mother put one of the stars from her altar in the box with Millie. Very sadly, she put the lid on the box. Together as a family, we took handfuls of soil and covered Millie.

I went to the back of the garden and couldn't stop crying. Mother came and sat down next to me. She had tears in her eyes too, but she was trying to smile. She said, "I know it's hard, Kaylee, but Millie was an old cat. She had a long and good life, but she needed a chance to rest."

"Why did she have to die?" I asked. Mother wiped at my tears.

"Everything dies," she said gently. "But Millie will come back to us. Everything dies, but everything also comes back."

I wasn’t sure I believed it at the time and it didn’t help the tears, not at first. But Mother just held me and kept talking.

"Some people think that the dead go to a place called the Summerlands where it is always warm and green. It's a place for resting and getting away from pain. But you don't have to stay there forever," Mother told me.

"Millie might come back as a spirit. So don't be afraid if you feel her curled up and purring on your bed in the night. She's just dropping by to check in on her favorite people."

"Millie might come back as another cat, with a fresh new life. She'll start over again as a kitten, and that kitten might find its way here, because our hearts are tied together."

"Millie might come back as a new puppy. Souls can take many forms, and maybe now that she's done being a cat for a while, Millie might want to try something different. There's no rules against it, you know."

"How will I know that it's Millie?" I wondered.

Mother shrugged, "Your heart will know. But you can't look for Millie in everything. She'll come back in her own time, and if she wants us to know that it's her, she'll find a way. For now, her soul is off having its own adventures, and the best parts of this life she shared with us are still alive in all of our memories."

In time, it got easier. The next summer, we got a puppy. He was a wriggling ball of energy who had to run around sniffing everything. We called him Flash. He was a good and loyal dog, but he wasn't Millie.

Another cat came around after a few years. He was a wild old alley cat with a torn ear and a cautious disposition. He warmed up to us and became part of the family, but he wasn't Millie either.

And then I was almost grown and getting ready to choose colleges. And coming home from work, I heard something mewling out behind the store. I found a tiny little calico kitten with a cap of orange and a dot on her chin. She came right up to me and jumped into my hands, purring.

When I took her home, she got into everything, jumping onto the highest shelves and knocking over little things when she thought I wasn't looking. But she never touched my altar even though there were plenty of things there to appeal to a playful little kitten.

And my heart knew. I had found my Millie.

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The Wine of Lethe

I have an alter-ego in an on-going RPG who - among other things - runs a tavern. A growing body of fiction has developed from this character's interactions in his fictional, shared world, and I've found it refreshing to write pieces that must answer to nothing but the character, nothing but the sheer joy of telling a tale. Here is one from a late-night tavern encounter. The Wine of Lethe

She comes in late each night, battle-scars standing stark against her dark skin. Her name is Selvia, and I've never asked what she does or what company she associates with - if any. I suspect that her calling is much like that of my own crew -- and thus I know it is best not to ask. Besides, when they come into the Badger, they don't always come to talk business. Most come to forget the murder and bloodshed that is rife in the world.

Last night, she came to forget.

Her face was uncommonly grim. She's a proud woman, this Selvia, and she rarely carries herself with any sign of defeat. But you could see the burden of some loss in every line of her form as she approached the bar and asked for the strongest drink I had.

I've seen her drink. I knew not to bother with a glass. I handed her a bottle and let her try to drown whatever sorrows held her heavy heart.

Another came in and approached her. They spoke of what had to have been a job. A necessary killing - or at least one that was ordered. And Selvia, though she spoke little of the actual circumstances and gave no details away, made it clear that when she is given orders, she follows them.

No matter who that means she is asked to kill.

She went through two bottles of hard drink, as did her friend. I tried not to listen as they discussed in a circumspect fashion the incident that had leveled Selvia's mood to such a desperate state. When they left -- with a paladin of questionable intent hot on their heels -- the two women could barely stand.

I wanted to ask. But I knew better. And I had other customers.

She came in later, when the only other person -- beyond myself -- was a quiet woman intent on a hot meal before she made the final few steps of her journey home to her own bed.

Selvia -- still wobbling from her indulgences earlier -- asked again for the strongest I had. A glass this time. Even she didn't trust herself with a whole bottle -- and she probably knew at this point it would do little to dull the pain.

So I offered her the Wine of Lethe. This is not on the menu. It is not casually left in the cabinets under the bar. I keep the few bottles I have under lock and key. They are rare and precious, and what I have to go through to retrieve them is better left unsaid. I don't brew the drink myself - I've seen it done, long ago, and in this suspicious age, I know better than to dirty my hands with such a process. Better to use my memories to guide me to where a bottle might be hidden away after all these years.

But I digress. The wine is a vintage of no ordinary fruit. It is a product of magic - dark and complex. The bottle itself requires a rite to construct and more shadestone than is healthy for normal people to be around. And the fluid inside - murky, thick and with an oily sheen - is not something you drink for the taste.

The bouquet is like an abandoned field after harvest, when the last ears of corn rot on the stalks. It is like a late autumn forest, denuded of leaves, with all the bare branches whispering together under the lightless eye of the new moon. It smells of death, decay and emptiness -- and that is what it is. Lethe. Forgetting.

I explain it to her before pouring. I would never just thrust this on someone unawares. There is a moment in death - just after you've finished the messy part of dying with all the pain and delirium. In that moment before your spirits stands over your corpse in the Grey, there is a sudden sense of peace. All the pain leeches away and the limbs grow heavy. The lungs no longer crave air. The mind no longer races. This is not a release precisely, but you no longer care about the pain. You are heavy and numb and still.

That is the Wine of Lethe. It captures a taste of that moment. Just a taste -- it does not last.

But in her state, Selvia needed it.

I uncorked the bottle with its runed silver stopper. I poured the potent fluid -- black as old blood. And she drank.

I don't think she had believed me. When I picked her up off the floor, a little chill of death still clinging to her lips where they had kissed the glass, she murmured and fretted and asked for more.

More would likely kill her. I offered to show her the threshold, not push her over the edge.

I carried her to an upstairs room -- I won't let any harm come to those inside the Badger when I'm on shift, not if I can prevent it. I let her sleep it off.

She was gone once I woke for the day and braved the crushing light of afternoon to get to the tavern. I can only hope that little taste of the absence of pain helped soothe her restless heart.

 

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Killing Our Love

Another fragment from an unfinished tale -- a nightmare-memory of trauma past for an older and wiser main character. The dream – much like the train wreck of a relationship that inspired it – started innocently enough. I was over at Jeremy’s place, sitting at the table in the little kitchenette. It was a cramped attic apartment in an old house on Summit not far from Ohio State’s campus. The rent was cheap and all the furniture was second-hand, with a kind of half-hearted yard-sale charm.

I remembered eating pancakes at that table one of the mornings we both skipped classes and slept in. We rarely spent most of that time sleeping. Jeremy was an artist – passionate and intense and focused on experiencing every moment to the fullness of his senses. He was an amazing kisser and a pretty good cook. The pancakes were perfect, and he stood at the stove behind me in nothing but his boxers, frying up bacon to go along with them. He never minded the spatters of grease as they hissed against his skin. Maybe that should have told me something. But I didn’t question it at the time.

Not that it really mattered. All of this was old history, and even caught up as I was in the sights and smells of the dream, I knew it was over. There was nothing to be done. The dream cared little for my awareness of how this was all past history, dragging me through each agonizing detail as if it were fresh and new.

I’d gotten an offer for grad school at UCLA. It was an amazing opportunity, and it came with an assistant teaching position and a stipend that meant I could support myself. I was so excited.

Then came the phone call. It was Jeremy. Those four dreaded words. “We need to talk.”

If only there had been more talking. But he was drunk or high already. Why had that never seemed like a problem before that night? I wanted to reach back in time and shake my naïve twenty-two-year-old self and tell her to get the hell out of there, to run before things went south of good.

The thin ginger-haired girl sitting at that table wouldn’t have listened anyway. That past self knew everything in the world there was to know about love, and she believed with a faith both blind and unshakable that if she just sat there and let him work through his anger, everything would turn out ok. It always had before.

But then he pulled the gun. It had been his grandfather’s. An old police-issue revolver. I wondered if his dad even knew it was gone from the case in the den at their house.

With the benefit of hindsight, I could see half a dozen opportunities for taking that gun away. There was a point where he still had the safety on, swinging it around almost carelessly while he ranted about how I was putting my career over our relationship, how I was selfish. A blind cow. He actually said that. All the hushed and lovely things he had whispered in that back bedroom were burned away with the acid of those words.

Blind cow.

            I should have used the anger from his insult to spur me into action. Should have kicked him. Fought. Fled. Half a dozen sensible, survivable things – and yet all my twenty-two-year-old self managed was to sit there, stunned and weeping. I wanted to grind my teeth and shake her – shake me – because I could feel all the old emotions in the dream, even the ones I knew to be patently stupid.

The worst was the fact that I felt like it was my fault. Like I needed to apologize to the maniac threatening me with a revolver.

The dream played on to its inevitable conclusion. Jeremy yelled about how he was nothing without me, swore I couldn’t abandon him, that I would be killing him. He went from waving the gun around to pointing it at me, demanding my apologies, making me swear over and over that I would never leave him.

The problem was, I was scared silly and couldn’t manage more than a hoarse whimper. I just sat there, feeling sick to my stomach and gawking at him, the words strangled in my throat.

Then he put the gun against my chest and I found my voice, at least enough to say “no” and “please stop” in between the hiccupping sobs. The dream, of course, was hyper-real in that way that some trauma dreams can be, so I could feel the cold, hard muzzle of the gun pressing against my sternum. Jeremy pressed it so hard against me, the tops of his knuckles grazed my left breast. He leaned over me, gun still shoved into me, and buried his face in my hair. I wore it long back then, and it was strange to feel the thick, heavy curls spilling down my shoulders and my neck. Jeremy was weeping now, too, and he murmured things into my hair, his breath hot against my ear. And even with the hard edges of the firearm digging into me, I still couldn’t bring myself to believe that he would actually shoot me. If I could master my fear enough just to talk to him, my twenty-two-year-old self truly believed that love conquered all – even this madness.

And then he was screaming again, pushing the gun hard against my sternum to punctuate each insult. I was paralyzed by all of it, my arms held loosely at my sides. I think that was the worst of it, at least from my current perspective. It’s not like I was ever tied down or restrained. I just sat there stupidly, enduring the whole thing. That part made me sick. That I could have been such an idiot about it -- ever.

I closed my eyes at some point, finally realizing that I was probably going to die in that kitchen, my blood spilling across the ugly yellow tile. In real life, my eyes had been closed for what came next, but that never stopped me from seeing it in every gory detail in the dream.

Very suddenly, Jeremy whipped the gun away from me. He had been shoving me so hard into the back of the chair, I fell forward a little bit in the absence of the pressure. Jeremy screamed the same refrain I’d heard on and off through the whole ordeal: “You’re killing our love!” Flecks of spittle flew from his lips – his terribly kissable lips – and his hazel eyes were wild.

Then he took the gun and he shot himself. He was smart enough to know not to put the gun against his temple and fire. That was never a guarantee. No. He put the barrel of the gun just behind his front teeth, I could hear them clicking on the metal. Then he angled it up and back, pulling the trigger.

My eyes flew wide at the sound of the bullet leaving the chamber. There was so much blood.

Jeremy crumpled to the floor at my feet and I still couldn’t move. I was literally paralyzed with fear. I sat there shaking and crying and staring at his corpse until sirens started up in the distance. And even when the cops arrived pounding on the door, I couldn’t bring myself to get up from that chair. They had to break down the door.

I could still hear the plaintive wail of the sirens –

And then I woke with a start, so drenched in sweat that the thin T-shirt I wore in lieu of pajamas was stuck to my breasts. My wild mess of curls clung damply to my forehead, tangling over my eyes.

The sirens were still blaring.

It took me the better part of a minute to realize that I was hearing my cell phone – which, for the record, didn’t sound siren-like at all. Squinting blearily at the clock on the nightstand, I cursed half a dozen obscure Celtic deities and fumbled for the phone. It was three in the morning. The only good thing about my phone ringing at three in the morning was that it woke me from that damned dream.

 

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The Rest is Silence

This little piece grew from a scene in a roleplaying game. I often escape to RPGs when writer's block rears its head. There is a certain immediate gratification in sharing stories and character development with other players. He swept her up, carrying her off to the little room deeper in the crypt. Then he laid her gently on satin sheets of the deepest red. He laid a chill finger lightly against her lips, whispering, "The rest is silence."

From there on, he spoke only the language of lip against lip, teasing her with the frisson of light nails dragged down bare skin.

He broke the edict once, after pulling away to slip off his shirt. Languorously she lay, studying the intricate pattern of the ritual scars curving across his torso. She was still clothed. She lifted her eyes to his, her question clear.

"For you? Nothing you do not wish. Nothing you do not invite," he murmured in response.

And then he bent over her, his white hair spilling forward to tickle her cheeks. He sought her mouth, his teeth sharp against her lip, nipping but not yet hard enough to draw blood.

He trailed kisses along her jaw, down to the little hollow where her pulse surged beneath soft skin. He laid his lips there, lightly, breathing the scent of her. He teased himself with the promise of her life and heat, eyes closed to hide the crimson fire that burned within their depths.

A kiss there, then the flick of his tongue. He held his lips upon her thudding pulse. His teeth grazed the sensitive skin, and for a moment, it seemed he teetered on the edge of seizing her -- ripping flesh to release the crimson heat within -- but he drew away, heaving a breath as he mastered himself. She watched him the whole while with half-lidded eyes.

When he bent to her again, he trailed kisses all down her neck as the nails of one hand traced lazy circles of sensation upon her other cheek, eventually twining lightly in her hair.

When he finally reached the base of her throat, he lay his body across her, wiry muscles shifting along his bare shoulders and arms. He leaned his face against hers, nuzzling, his breath soft upon her skin. And then in that place where shoulder meets neck, he took her, sealing his mouth around the flesh and teasing with his tongue before finally slashing with the two sharp teeth.

Stars stood out briefly upon her vision with the two brilliant points of pain. And then rolling, cresting pleasure followed the sweet flow of blood - not much, it seemed, just enough to taste, enough for his magic to connect. She felt his tongue dart along the edges of the little wounds, summoning a tangle of sensations. Pain and pleasure, sharp and soft all in a jumble.

As her blood flowed to him, the death-touched power flared upon his scars. He seemed lit from within by a glimmering dark-light, and all over his shoulders and torso, he gleamed with elegant runes. They pulsed in time with her speeding heart, and then the magic took her, too, gliding along her nerves like lightning, dancing on the inside of her skin.

They lay twined together, his mouth locked upon her flesh. But neither of them were close to their bodies. They were someplace else. Floating, immersed in sensations that had no adequate name.

When he finally drew away, she had no idea how long they had lain connected in that sweet and aching moment. He pressed lips still rouged with her blood against her mouth, questing with his tongue. She could taste herself upon him - copper and sweet.

She met his eyes again, silent in her question. His own eyes, crimson, spilled with stolen light.

"The rest we save till later. A promise, yes?"

She nodded.

He sealed it with a kiss.

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Crime Scene

Psychic Madison Stone and her detective friend Joe Fazio are characters I've played around with for nearly a decade now. I've not quite settled them into a story that I'm entirely happy with. So they remain among the fragments and false-starts, waiting on just the right chemistry of plot and world-building.

            Madison’s phone went off right as the students started leaving her last class. She jumped at the unexpected sound, then furiously blushed, hoping no one noticed.  Normally she turned her phone off during lectures. She had a strict rule that her students do the same. She must have forgotten, but maybe it was for the best. It was hard to mistake detective Fazio’s ringtone. It wasn’t a call she should miss.

“I’ll be right with you,” she said to the small knot of students gathering to ask her questions. She still hadn’t gotten used to being center stage in an entire room full of young adults, and it was worse when half a dozen of them mobbed her at the end of a lecture. She tried not to look nervous, but still managed to fidget with her straight blonde hair, tucking a loose strand of it behind one ear. She smiled apologetically. “I have to take this call.”

She ducked quickly out of the classroom and tried to find some relative privacy a little ways down the hall. Snapping open her little phone, she said, “Hey, Joe. What’s up?”

“Maddy!” Fazio’s full-throated voice greeted her from the other end. “I got clearance to bring you in on a case. You got time for a trip to the Southside?”

Madison chewed her lip as she paced. “Well, I need to stop by my office and put a few things away,” she said. “But sure. I can make it. How soon do you need me?”

She heard Fazio cover the phone and say a few things to somebody else. The words were muffled, but the emotion still translated. Cases with Fazio were never good, but something about this one seemed to have ruffled him more than usual. After a moment, he took his hand away from the receiver and said, “How fast can you get here, kid?”

“It’s five-thirty on a Wednesday in Chicago, Joe,” Madison remarked. “What do you think? How far is it on the Southside?”

“A couple of streets over from the old Union Stockyards,” he replied. “Take the Pershing exit, then hang a right --”

“Hang on, Joe,” she said. “Let me grab a pen. Just give me the address and I’ll GPS it. I always get lost when you give me directions.”

“Now whose fault is that?” the detective teased. “No one else has trouble with my directions.”

“Well, no one else is me, Joe,” Madison replied. “Give me the address and I’ll get there faster than if you try to give me some kind of short cut.” She stepped back into the classroom as she spoke, going to the podium where she had left her notes. She rummaged through the papers there, trying to come up with a pen.

“Fine, fine,” Fazio grumbled. “Though I don’t know why you can’t pick it out of my head.”

Madison laughed. “You know it doesn’t work that way,” she said. “Not usually.” She made a frustrated sound as she gave up looking for a pen among the stack of papers. She bent down to her over-sized purse instead. Hair swinging forward, she pressed the phone to her ear with one hand and tried simultaneously to rummage for a writing utensil and keep the hair out of her eyes with the other. One of the students still waiting to talk with her figured out what she was looking for and helpfully offered his own pen. It took Madison a few heartbeats to realize that he was holding it out to her. She took it, smiled gratefully, and went back to the podium where she could jot down the address.

“You only got to deal with me and two uniforms once you get here,” Joe said. “Mike headed back to start the paperwork.”

“I don’t think your partner likes me very much,” Madison observed as she folded up the paper with the address and slipped it into the pocket of her slacks.

“Staunton?” Fazio laughed. “Don’t take it personal, kid. He doesn’t like anyone very much. Of course, another decade of doing this work, I don’t know how friendly I’ll be either.”

“I don’t want to think about it. You’re a barrel of sunshine already, and you’ve only been working homicide for three years,” Madison replied. “Look, I’ve got to finish up here before I hit the road. I’ll be there as fast as I can, Joe.”

She could almost hear his curt nod on the other end of the phone. “See you soon,” he said, then hung up.

She flipped shut the phone, then turned to the young man who had handed her the pen. Belatedly, she realized that all the other students had wandered off during her phone conversation. This guy was the only one left. He looked as nervous to want to talk to her as she often felt being the focus of so many questions.

“Brian Larson, right?” Madison asked.

He nodded, hugging a notebook to his chest. He had clear brown eyes and a complexion that suggested some sort of mixed ancestry, though she couldn’t guess what. Whatever it was, it didn’t help him with facial hair. He was trying, unsuccessfully, to grow a beard and goatee. Mostly, it looked like he had some dirt on his upper lip. She found the sheer awkwardness of it endearing.

“You wanted to know if I really meant for you to read all of The Power of Myth and the Huston Smith chapters between now and Friday,” she said. “And the answer is yes.” Anticipating his objection, Madison continued, “Moyer’s book is a really quick read. I promise you’ll enjoy it. There are even pictures.”

Brian Larson blinked. “But Miss Stone,” he responded. “How did you know what I was going to ask you?”

Madison smiled, her green-flecked eyes dancing merrily. “I’m psychic,” she teased. “And thanks for the pen.”

He took it as she held it out, then slipped it absently into a rear pocket of his jeans. He looked like he was going to ask something else, but she stopped him, tapping the faceplate of her phone.

“I’d love to chat some more,” she said, “But you’ll have to catch up with me during office hours tomorrow. Right now, I’ve got a date with a corpse.”

*                      *                      *

The corpse was long gone by the time Madison arrived at the crime scene. So were the guys from the coroner’s office, and so were all of the forensic techs. As Madison found parking and walked up to the run-down apartment building, the only official cars left were Fazio’s beat-up Ford Taurus and one lonely cop car, parked near a fire hydrant by the curb.

Madison was a little surprised to find an honest-to-goodness apartment building in this part of town. Most of the apartments in the area were converted houses, two or three stories at most with fenced-in entrances only a little ways from the street. The apartment building stood out from everything else, a dingy glass and concrete cube with stark lines that couldn’t be softened by any of the surrounding trees. A high metal fence with vertical bars surrounded the whole complex, making it seem more like a prison than a residence. Given the relative poverty of the area, Madison suspected that, for some people, it was.

Sheets of old newspapers and tattered plastic bags had fetched up against the fence, tangling in the lower branches of the trees. The aluminum casing of an empty whippet shone dully in the gutter and Madison stepped around what looked like the torn end of a used condom on a broken slab of sidewalk. She grimaced. Of course she had to wear her open-toed pumps today.

“Oh, Joe,” she muttered to herself, “the places you take a girl.”

She paused at the front entrance, trying to recall the apartment number so she could buzz to be let in. 531 was the number she’d scribbled down during her phone conversation nearly an hour before. Of course, most of the numbers on the wall were illegible. Belatedly, she realized that the security lock on the second set of doors had been busted out long ago. So she let herself in, striding past two residents who loitered in the downstairs hall. They eyed her suspiciously as she walked by, her crisp burgundy pantsuit in sharp contrast to their stained hoodies and sweatpants. She found the elevator and headed up to the fifth floor. Despite some colorful graffiti, on its ceiling and walls, the elevator seemed well-maintained. It was the first sign that anyone cared about things in this apartment building at all. As the elevator trundled up past the other floors, Madison dug in her purse for her ID card. She slipped the lanyard around her neck, fidgeting with it as she waited for the doors to open.

The moment Madison stepped out onto the fifth floor hallway, she was assaulted by the smell. It wasn’t the usual grease-and-garbage stench of poverty she might expect in a residence like this. This was the scent of death, pure and simple. A primal part of her brain reacted instantly, making her heart race and her stomach seize up in knots. She tried to breathe through her mouth to alleviate some of the stink, but that didn’t help very much. If anything, it made things worse, because now she could practically taste the sickly-sweet rot of the corpse.

Perhaps in response to the smell, the hallway was empty. Of course, given the neighborhood they were in, Madison suspected that the neighbors weren’t being curious more out of a desire to avoid any personal interactions with the police. She wondered how long it had taken them to report the murder. You didn’t get a stink like this from a body sitting over night.

A couple of uniformed officers stood at the far end of the hall, keeping watch over the only open door. Clutching the little ID badge she had for such occasions, Maddy cautiously approached the two uniforms. She didn’t recognize either of them. Before she could launch into any awkward introductions, Fazio stepped through the doorway and into the hall. He was chewing on a toothpick, a habit he’d picked up ever since he stopped smoking a few years back. He plucked the toothpick from his mouth and greeted her.

“Maddy! Glad you could make it on such short notice,” he said. “Sorry about the smell. Decomp like this, the stench pretty much soaks into the walls, not to mention to rugs and the floorboards,” he added cheerfully, fiddling with his toothpick. His manner seemed light-hearted, but his dark eyes looked shadowed and worn.

Madison tried to repress a shudder. “Thanks,” she told him. “I get the picture. So what’s special about this one?”

Detective Fazio’s face grew serious. He glanced furtively at the two uniforms and said, “Well, we probably should have called you in on one of the others first.”

“Others?” Maddy asked. “You mean this isn’t the first one?”

Again, Fazio’s eyes flicked over to the two silent men standing near his side. Madison knew that look, and Fazio was going to have some serious explaining to do once they were away from the crime scene and out of earshot of the other cops. She hated it when he kept things from her.

“We had these other two murders with ritualistic elements,” Fazio began. “The first victim was a gay stripper. The second one was a transsexual. We figured the ritual elements were just window dressing and the murders were really sexually motivated. Hate crimes, maybe.” He stopped, cleared his throat, and shrugged. “After this one, we’re going to have to rethink that theory. This victim was a woman. By all accounts, straight. And she was black. The other two were white. I don’t need to tell you how unusual it is for serial types to switch the race or gender of their victims.”

“Three murders and you already think it’s a serial case?” she wondered. “What the hell’s past that door, Fazio?”

“Well,” he said, rocking back on his heels, “I was hoping you’d be able to tell me, Ms. Professor.”

Fazio stepped aside and motioned her into through the door. She could feel the eyes of the other two cops boring holes in her back the minute she entered the crime scene. She had been called in on cases with the Chicago police before, mainly because they didn’t bother employing an occult specialist of their own. It’s not as if they got a huge number of occult-oriented crimes in the city. Most of the cases Fazio pulled her in on involved teenagers who were using occult images like upside-down pentagrams to make their otherwise ordinary crimes seem weird and scary. But every once in a while, Fazio made an excuse to call her in on crimes that didn’t have such an obvious occult twist. From the way those two stone-faced cops were glaring at her, Maddy wondered how much the other officers had guessed of her real purpose at those investigations. Despite the image portrayed by a few New Agey TV shows, most cops resented having a psychic called in on their cases.

She needn’t have worried about the presence of an occult element at this particular crime scene, however. The minute she got far enough into the room to see past the couch, the circle was unmistakable.

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Fragment: First Blood

I rarely play with high fantasy, but here is a fragment from a little tale set in a world where a vampire-like race had once ruled. Ousted by the mortal populace, they were driven into hiding, and now their younglings are sent out to live among mortals for a period of time to learn how to hide their nature so their bloodlines can survive without being hunted any further. I had been at Castle Basaril for barely a month, but I already knew it was a bad idea to get on Chancellor Veyan’s bad side.

The Chancellor was a thin-faced man with a nose sharp as a razor. His rheumy blue eyes were too close-set and they always seemed to turn slightly inward, as if peering at the high, pointed bridge just in case it disappeared. His lips were almost as thin, and they seemed frozen in a perpetual sneer.

In my duties at the castle, I tried to avoid him as best I could. Given the fact that my real reason for working at the castle had everything to do with learning how to blend in among the mortals, I did my best to remain invisible to the Chancellor and all his men. So when the Chancellor called on me to attend him in his private chamber, I knew it was bad news. What could he possibly want with a page of my lowly rank?

As I entered, he looked up at me with those bleary eyes, the blue more vivid because they were so bloodshot. He gestured for me to shut the door and take a seat. Wordlessly, I did. I sat awkwardly in front of him, staring at my shoes. Someone of my rank was not supposed to meet his eyes unless instructed.

“Shaelindor, isn’t it?” he asked in a high, reedy voice that grated on my sensitive ears.

“Yes, my lord.”

“We have some things to talk about, and I want you to look me in the eye as you answer.”

Frowning a little, I looked up. I tried not to stare. He had such wrinkles about his eyes and lips, and the skin hanging from his jowls reminded me of wax beginning to go soft and melt. I thanked the Silent Lady that I would never look like that. Quietly, I said, “Yes, my lord.”

“You come from Keselwyn, in the Eastern Provinces, do you not?” He spoke to me as he would a lad of seventeen. Of course, that’s what he believed me to be, and there was nothing in my official papers that would suggest otherwise. I gritted my teeth and endured it.

“Yes, my lord,” I said humbly for the third time. I dug the nail of one finger into the palm of my hand and hoped he didn’t notice.

He consulted some paper in front of him. “And by my count, you have been here almost three months.”

“It will be three months on the Hearth Festival, sir,” I responded, still fidgeting.

“Hmm…” he muttered, and as he said this, he pursed his lips so the wrinkles around them grew even more pronounced. I tried to look at the tapestry behind him while still appearing to meet his gaze.

“Well, Shaelindor of Keselwyn, I’m not sure how they do things out where you’re from. By my reckoning, Keselwyn is not what we here in Basaril consider rightly civilized,” he sniffed with obvious disdain, “But I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt this one time.”

I felt a cold lance of fear jolt down my spine, and I sat a little straighter, my heart racing. Could the servant-girl I visited in the night have been awake after all? I used my best calming spell to lull her into a deep sleep before I made the cut so I could feed. Discovery was a terrifying prospect, but I forced myself to remain calm. “About what, sir?” I wondered.

He sniffed again, shuffling the papers. “We hold our women very dear here in Basaril, young man. Their greatest asset is their virtue because this insures that they will bear their husbands strong – and legitimate – children. In Basaril, we take a very dim view of those who would lead our virtuous daughters astray.”

I continued to keep my silence, admitting to nothing. My heart pounded harder, fear now mixed with indignation at what he was implying. I would never think of a mortal woman in that way. Copulating with an animal seemed more appealing.

“I have word from a credible witness that you were seen leaving the Lady Vitessa’s quarter the other night. Now, the lady Vitessa is a young woman of irreproachable virtue, and this is one of the qualities that has made her a desirable match for her future husband, the Knight-Champion Ardenthal. Her father, Lord Solaris is exceptionally proud of the marriage he has recently arranged for his middle daughter, and he would be deeply aggrieved should anything arise that might threaten that happy union. There should not even be a whisper of doubt as to the lady’s virtue.”

Here he settled his watery gaze on me and let it sit for a few long moments. I tried not to squirm.

“Now,” he continued, “I am certain that even someone like you who hails from such a backward little province and holds his rather minor position at the sufferance of Lord Xarxes – even you are not so unwise as to engage in any act that might call into question the lady’s virtue. In fact, I am certain that you wandered by the lady’s quarters by accident while you were out after hours taking a stroll. And with that in mind, my advice to you Shaelindor of Keselwyn, is quite simple: in future, take your strolls elsewhere. That is all.”

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Speculations

Author's Note: A continuance of the story-thread from "Hidden Chambers of the Heart." In this snippet, Matthew seeks to learn more about what he witnessed between his former lover, Elizabeth, and the mysterious and reclusive artist, Percival Lawrence. You may recognize Matthew from my paranormal romance novel, This Heart of Flame. These snippets are excerpted from the 1998 unpublished work that gave rise to Matthew and his world. Speculations 

After what I saw that night in suite number ten, I found myself consumed with the possibility that Percival Lawrence was a vampire. I had to know more. Knowing Halaina’s own interest in the topic, I approached her butler, Robert.

"You don't think I could borrow Halaina's copy of that vampire novel, do you?"  I asked.  I felt strangely self-conscious about wanting to read it, but I knew I didn't have the patience to wait until I was through teaching classes tomorrow to try finding it at a bookstore.  With the play in town, every copy was probably sold out anyhow.

"Dracula?"  Robert inquired.

"Is there more than one?"  I responded, trying to recall some of the titles Elizabeth had mentioned to me.

"Christina Rosetti's uncle wrote one as well," he informed me.  "It's called simply, The Vampyre.  Halaina owns both of them."

"Could I borrow them both then?"  I asked. Robert quirked a brow at me and guiltily, I tried explaining, "I haven't been sleeping much the past couple nights, and I'm looking for something to occupy my time."

Still looking somewhat skeptical, Robert nodded and said, "I'll run up and get them presently.  Sarah, could you watch the front desk for a few moments?"

The coat-check girl hurried over, smiling at both Robert and me.

"Thank you, Robert," I said sincerely.  While he was away, I chatted with Sarah.   On a whim, I asked, "You don't know anything about Percival Lawrence, do you?"

"He tips well," she chirped.  "And he's always polite."

"How long has he been coming here?" I pressed.

She thought about it, then shrugged. "At least as long as I've been here, and that will be two years in the spring."

Two years.  I hadn't been frequenting Arkana for more than two months, and already everyone seemed to know there was something unusual about me.  How had Percival been coming here for two years and escaped notice?  Perhaps he and Elizabeth had only been playing out a fantasy after all.

"Is there anything unusual about him?"  I pursued.

"There's something unusual about everyone here," she responded with a little smirk.  "That's what this place is for."

I had to concede to her there.  I stopped pressing the issue and chatted with her instead about inconsequentials until, with a terrible clatter, Robert arrived back down in the elevator.  He had three volumes tucked under one arm.

"Halaina sent down a third book as well," he said, holding them out to me.  "It's a collection of stories by LeFanu.  The story she said you should read is entitled 'Carmilla.'  She marked the page.  Also, be very careful with Polidori's book.  It's from the 1820s and the spine is getting weak."

"Thank you, Robert," I said, glancing at each of the three covers.  Wesley was right.  Dracula was lurid.  Bright yellow, with red lettering, it had a picture of the Count crawling head-first down a castle wall.  There was nothing at all romantic or compelling about the portrayal.  Did the publisher even realize what the tale was about?  "Give Halaina my thanks as well.  I'll have these back to her before the week is out."

Robert nodded.  Sarah ran off to retrieve my hat, cloak, and cane.  Remembering what had stood out in her mind about Percival Lawrence, I gave her a sizeable tip and headed out into the night.

I spent the remainder of the night and most of the next morning reading.  If I had been expecting Stoker's book to be great literature, I was sorely disappointed.  The first fifty pages were almost enough to discourage me from reading any further, and once I got past the limping introduction, the tale, with all its tedious melodrama, wasn't much of a reward.  Polidori's shorter novel was no better.  The introduction to the characters Aubrey and Ruthven seemed promising, but then the tale degraded into a series of lurid events and coincidences that seemed a stretch of the imagination even in a Gothic romance.  LeFanu's story was more satisfying, although the ending seemed a bit contrived.  By the time I was ready to head off to the college, I found myself more confused about the subject of vampires than when I had started out.

All three stories agreed on one point: vampires drank blood.  Beyond that simple fact, individual interpretations varied widely.  Both Dracula and Carmilla preferred to sleep during the day, and when they had to be up before sunset, they struggled against an overwhelming sense of torpor.  Ruthven didn't seem to mind the day, so long as he had his requisite moonlight.  Dracula had an affinity for wolves, while for Carmilla it was great cats.  Garlic, wild roses, mirrors, stakes through the heart -- all the rest of it was a confusing jumble of nonsense.  Trying to get to the heart of what each story portrayed, I came to the conclusion that a vampire was something -- Stoker had used the term undead -- that had once been mortal and human, but had somehow become changed.

Of course, here was where I had a little laugh.  All three stories implied that this change involved the working of infernal powers, a fact which I knew to be patently false.  Thomas White had made the same mistake of assuming that those creatures he understood to be demons, and therefore infernal, could somehow confer upon him immortal life and magickal powers.  Immortality wasn't something I could give away, though sometimes I'd have loved to exchange it.  And I didn't know anything of magick.  In fact, I made it a point to avoid the kinds of people who did.   I knew about spirits and ghosts, but only because I cohabited with them for the better part of my existence.  Once White had exhausted all my knowledge in that area, there was precious little he could get from me except sex and slave labor.

I mulled things over while I walked to the school.  I knew one thing for certain.  My kind had nothing to do with the creation of vampires.  If we did, I'd know a great deal more about them than I did.  I almost wished I had devoted a little more time to folklore.  Considering what I was, it seemed only reasonable that I would, but frankly I'd avoided all things occult precisely because of my nature.  My existence was strange and complicated enough without adding anything more to it.  Whenever I had a say in the matter, I devoted my time almost exclusively to carnal and aesthetic pursuits.  But now I wondered if there wasn't a bit more to the world around me.

Fiction was clearly no help, so after my afternoon lectures, I strolled over to the university library. I was surprised to discover the extent of their collection on mythology and folklore. After spending more than two hours pouring over various esoteric texts, however, I only succeeded in confusing myself further with regards to the undead.  The more I read, the further away seemed the possibility that Percival was anything other than an ordinary man with a less than ordinary fetish.  Yet my brief foray into the texts on demonology which I also found in the university’s collection convinced me that no one who claimed to know anything about the supernatural had any idea what they were talking about.  If the texts on demons were so far from the truth, then it only made sense that any information I might find on vampires was equally skewed.

Of course, I should have realized all that from my readings the night before.

Finally, I abandoned my research, admitting to myself that I had no head for the occult anyway, and neither did any of the other scholars whose works I had spent the afternoon studying.  I decided to meet Percival Lawrence on my own terms.  I wasn’t certain it was the wisest idea, but I determined to seek him out in his home. Charity was a small town. It shouldn’t be difficult to learn where he lived.

 -- M. Belanger

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Hidden Chambers of the Heart

Author's Note: This is another excerpt from the 1998 work which gave rise to most of the characters in This Heart of FlameHere, the incubus Matthew discovers that he is not the only one at Club Arkana who has a secret, and to sate his curiosity, he secretly spies on his ex-lover Elizabeth with her new beau, Percival Lawrence. (this snippet occurs prior to the events of "Keeping Secrets," published earlier to this blog): Hidden Chambers of the Heart

Elizabeth sat at a small table tucked far away in a remote corner of the club.  She was still looking pensively at herself in the mirrors, but she was no longer alone.  A man sat across from her, reading to her from a book that lay open between them.  She strained forward to hear him, her eyes gleaming.  She had every look of heightened arousal about her; the flush on her cheeks stood out starkly against her pallid face.  Her features were suffused with an agonized yearning, yet strangely she did not look at her companion.  Her rapturous eyes were fixed upon her own reflection in the mirror, as if part of her arousal lay in seeing it etched upon her face.

I held back, studying the scene.  Her companion was none other than Percival Lawrence, the member of the club who had stormed from the stage production of Dracula a few nights before.  Although it was hard to be certain, I suspected that he was reading to her from that self-same story.  The lurid yellow of the binding was just visible beneath the outspread pages.  My curiosity aroused, I found an unoccupied table nearby and settled down to watch them.

Over the music of the orchestra and the murmur of the patrons, I could almost hear him.  I couldn't catch any words, but it seemed that there was something deep and richly mellifluous pitched just beneath the usual sounds of the club.  As I strained to listen, the velvet undertone faded away, and he closed the book with a sense of finality.  It was indeed Dracula.  Elizabeth looked from the mirrors along the wall and regarded his eyes through the smoked glasses Halaina said he always wore.  He lifted a hand to caress her face.  He wore his nails longer than most men, but on him, it gave his long fingers an added elegance.  He whispered something to her, earnestly regarding her with dark, half-hidden eyes.  She shivered and placed her gloved hand over his, pressing it further against her cheek.  Then, fluidly, he rose, turning his hand around to clasp hers.  With a genteel and studied grace, he led her toward the back rooms.

I was going to leave them to their private pursuits, and let my issues with Elizabeth drop right then.  It was clear to me that she had found another surrogate for her obsessive fantasies, only this time she had chosen a darker angel for her romance.  Percival certainly fit the part with his unnatural pallor and dark, burning eyes.  I found myself wondering what he would do to her with those graceful long-fingered hands.  Curiosity got the better of me, and I strode from my table, hurrying to see which room they would escape into so I could find the corresponding viewing chamber.

I made it through the mirrored doors just in time to see Percival closing a door behind them.  To my disappointment, it was suite number ten.  One of the few rooms back here that afforded no peepholes for voyeurs. Then I remembered Halaina’s secret panel, giving her the only access to that supposedly private room from her personal suite.  Feeling supremely naughty and all the more excited for it, I walked back to Halaina’s rooms and, not even bothering to turn the gaslights on, slipped immediately into the little closet that served as a viewing chamber. I settled quietly as possible onto the trunk pressed against the wall and leaned my eye up against the peep hole.  The lighting in the next room was frustratingly low, but once I adjusted, I could see the two figures clearly enough.

Percival had taken his jacket off and lain it over a chair, but still retained his shirt, vest, and trousers.  The book, I noticed, sat on the seat of the chair, partly obscured by his jacket.  Elizabeth was still fully clothed, wearing a gown of deep burgundy satin accented with ribbons and lace.  The wide band of black velvet she had taken to wearing was still snugly in place on her throat.  The hint of a smile playing about her darkly rouged lips, Elizabeth bent over a Victrola, her little hand slowly working the crank.  While she was thus occupied, Percival carefully removed his dark glasses and set them aside.  The change was remarkable.  His eyes were deep-set and very striking.  For a moment, I was reminded of the actor Alexander's burning gaze which, turned even briefly upon the audience, sent the ladies swooning.  In the next moment, Percival had shaken loose his hair.  The gleaming dark waves fell a little past his shoulders, spreading across his back and curling softly around his face.  The frame of dark hair made his face seem gaunt and starkly pale.

Elizabeth finished with the Victrola, and the music of a waltz rasped into the room.  Brahms, I thought, though it was distant and thready from where I sat.  Percival approached her, took her hand in his and bowed over it, bringing it gently to his lips.  She whispered something, and her eyes were enormous, glinting as they had when she had been lost in her reverie on angels that night with me.  Then he took her in his arms and they danced, slowly, sedately, keeping flawless time to the music.

I leaned back from the peephole to give my eyes a rest.  It was strange.   I had never seen Elizabeth this subdued, at least sexually.  She clung to Percival as they danced, and I could hear those sonorous silken tones of his rumbling underneath the music of Brahms.  He seemed to be soothing her.  He stroked her hair, leaning his cheek against her cheek and murmuring in her ear.  She shivered against him and looked ready to weep with the intensity of her feelings.

They danced together until the end of the song.  Then Elizabeth paused to switch the music.  Now the Victrola played something low and almost threatening.  Minor chords filled the room, deepening the shadows.  Mozart's Requiem.  It didn’t strike me as exactly a romantic air. Elizabeth reached up and unfastened the ribbon at her throat, letting it drift to the floor.  Then she returned to Percival, and they swayed together slowly in a modified waltz step to the new music.  Percival bent as if to whisper something in her ear, but this time he lightly kissed her jaw.  She shivered again, her eyes half-lidded.  She let her head drift back, arching her neck a little toward him.

Still swaying as the music crescendoed, Percival bent and kissed her throat.  The way they were standing, I could see her face over his shoulder as her features alternately flushed and grew pale.  Her lips were parted and her eyes tightly closed. She looked for all the world like a woman at the very apex of her passion, and yet all Percival continued to do was bend with his lips to her throat.

I desperately wanted to see what he was doing, but his back was mostly toward me, and when he bent over her neck, his long dark hair fell like a curtain across his face, covering her throat and cascading down her bare shoulder.  Elizabeth arched suddenly against him, back bowing against her corset, her head thrown back and her eyes tightly shut. Her fingers were hooked like claws into the back of his vest. I could hear mewling little cries escaping her throat. Percival remained transfixed, his face buried against her throat, those long-fingered hands steadying her at her shoulders and her waist.

I strained against the wall in the closeness of the closet.  They still did not move, only grew more intense in their posture.  What kind of hold did this fantasy have upon her, if she could be thus transformed by a simple kiss?  Or was it something more?  I thought of Halaina and her discussions about the compelling figure of Dracula.  But of course, that was a play. I had never met a vampire, nor did I know that they could exist. Yet now, I felt the thrill of possibility aching in my chest.  Could Percival be such a creature?  And was I, an incubus, in a position to doubt such a thing?

But maddeningly, all I saw in the room beyond were two people locked in an intense embrace.  And even without his curtain of hair, I doubted I would have been able to see anything significant.

Suddenly as it had begun, it ended.  Elizabeth gave a little gasp, and seemed to swoon in Percival’s arms.  He caught her delicate body easily, lifting her onto the bed.  He eased her against the pillows, and all the while his back was to me.  He leaned over her, and I heard the resonant tones of that soft, deep voice.  Her name, perhaps, said soothingly several times over.  The long-nailed fingers of one elegant hand tenderly stroked her cheek.  She stirred beneath his touch, her eyes fluttering against pale lids.  Percival left her stretching languorously on the bed while he bent to retrieve the ribbon for her throat. Now his face was to me, but there was nothing I could read into his pallid, foreign features.

Then something strange occurred.  As Percival crouched for the ribbon, he brought his head up sharply, searching the room in my direction.  He was poised on the balls of his feet, elbows resting on his knees, the ribbon held loosely in the fingers of one hand.  It was a strangely feral pose.  There was no way he could see me. I was hidden on the other side of the wall, and even the little peephole that afforded my vision of the darkened room was minuscule, cunningly hidden among the pattern of the wallpaper. Nevertheless, he fixed his gaze on me.  It was impossible, yet there he was, looking directly at me.  His posture tensed more severely and for a moment, I could have sworn his dark eyes gleamed with a light of their own.

“When I discover who you are,” he growled, the velvet tones of his voice carrying clearly to my ears, “There will be a reprisal.”

I sat in the closet, stunned, every nerve jangling. Percival shot a final look of warning in my direction, then turned swiftly to where Elizabeth still dozed upon the bed.  Hurriedly, he retrieved his jacket, book, and glasses, then helped rouse Elizabeth.  She seemed dizzy and weak, murmuring and leaning against him. He helped her stand, practically carrying her. Never once did he take those smoldering eyes off of me. Shaken, I had to pull away from the peephole. I couldn’t bear the weight of those eyes one moment more. There was definitely something unusual about the artist Percival Lawrence, and sitting in the shadows of Halaina’s private rooms, I vowed that I would discover the truth, regardless of his threats.

 -- M. Belanger

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The Gambling Man

Author's Note: Most of you know I'm a gamer. In 1995, 1996, and 2000, I designed, wrote, and ran the Vampire: The Masquerade live action role-playing events at the gaming convention Origins. I did not do this single-handedly (long-time friend Jason B. Crutchfield wrote a number of characters for the 2000 game) but I wrote the lion's share of the story and character histories for each of the 150-200 characters provided to players at these games. And in typical me fashion, I didn't skimp on these stories. Most of the character histories were short stories in their own right. These character histories constitute a massive body of work that really only holds any relevance within the context of the game. But some of the characters are fun to pull out and revisit again, like the Toreador Dean Marshal Callahan. Dean Marshall Callahan: Clan Toreador

Dean’s mother worked as a saloon girl in their little Missouri town.  By night, she also did some horizontal business out of her one-room apartment located above the aforementioned saloon. That’s how Dean came into the world.  There were a number of men who might have been Dean’s father, but the most likely candidate was the town’s sheriff, due to Dean’s striking resemblance to the man.  While Dean took after his father in appearance, he inherited his moral values from his mom.  He pretty much grew up in the saloon, and from age twelve onward he was gambling, smoking, and flirting with the other girls.  He made pretty good money at cards, supplementing his mother’s income when business was slow.  He also had a knack for playing the piano, and this served him for a legitimate job.  Around the age of fifteen, he had saved himself a good chunk of cash and, feeling a little restless in the soul, took off down the Mississippi on a riverboat.

Dean was a rambler.  There was no doubt about it.  But he had the kind of talents that suited that sort of life well.  He always made his way in the world, whether by playing cards or setting down at the piano and entertaining folks with his tunes and his beautiful voice.  His natural charm and charisma got him a long way, and even when he got caught cheating at cards, his easy smile and eloquent words could usually get him through without a fight.  Dean spent many years traveling up and down the Mississippi, stopping at a town now and again, but mostly always keeping on the move.

Only the outbreak of the Civil War convinced Dean that it was time to lay low and maybe settle for a while.  Around that time, he was in the Carolinas.  Even he wasn’t sure quite how he’d got there.  He ended up in Charlotte and established himself at one of the local watering holes, playing the piano and playing a few hands of cards when the money ran low.

It was here that Dean met Gerald Langtree.  Gerald was a southern gent if Dean had ever seen one.  He had fine cut clothes, elegant but never flashy.  He was always polite and courteous, and was especially deft with the ladies.  Gerald started being a regular customer at Dean’s little hideaway, always coming in after dark had settled on the town and staying nearly all night long, listening to Dean play and sometimes indulging in a game of cards.

Now, Dean’s gambler’s instincts told him there was something up with Gerald.  It wasn’t a bad impression – just that the man had a secret.  And this secret was something that intensely fascinated Dean.  And so in their many conversations together, Dean tried dragging this secret thing out of Gerald, always probing gently into Gerald’s past and asking leading questions.  Gerald opened up to Dean like a flower, telling him about his family home in the Carolinas and all the long-gone days when Gerald had nothing more pressing to do with himself than paint and study his art.  He told Dean how the estate was burned down in a slave revolt and looted by Yankees, of the harrowing escape Gerald had to make by night taking only the clothes on his back and what money he could shove in his pockets.  Gerald lamented the loss of his family home, but what seemed most important to him was all the artwork that had been burned.  He said the art hadn’t been very good – second-rate at best, but at least it showed him how he’d progressed over the years and how far he’d actually come.

Dean developed a real liking for Gerald.  And despite all the wild adventures Gerald recounted to him, Dean felt like he still hadn’t managed to get at the heart of Gerald’s fascinating secret.  Then one night, Gerald approached Dean at the saloon and asked if he’d come with him to one of the back rooms for a private discussion.  Dean had never seen Gerald so serious in all his life, but underneath that seriousness was a private kind of joy.  Intrigued, and guessing rightly that he was soon going to learn the secret he’d been digging for all these long nights, Dean left his spot at the piano and followed Gerald back.

That night was a night of revelations and wonder for Dean Marshall Callahan.  In that back room, Gerald explained to Dean that he was an immortal, a Toreador vampire to be exact.  He asked Dean if he’d want to join him in that way of life, and maybe travel the country together, enjoying the night.  Dean couldn’t see anything wrong with Gerald’s offer – and the thought never crossed his mind once that Gerald was bluffing, because a hard-core gambler like Dean knew a bluff when he saw one.

It didn’t take a whole lot of thought on Dean’s part to say yes.  Gerald warned Dean that he wasn’t the only vampire out there.  There was a whole society of them as well, and that society had all manner of rules.  Gerald was going to be breaking one of those rules by embracing Dean, as he didn’t have his elders’ permission to do so.  So he and Dean would have to leave Charlotte, even though the war was still going strong, and lay low for a while

The two traveled West, dodging soldiers as they went.  They saw some serious brutality during the few skirmishes they bypassed, and it left a mark on the both of them.  Although both men were capable of taking care of themselves in a fist fight, an all-out war was another matter entirely.  It seemed like the wisest thing for them to do was to leave the fighting to the fighting men, and pass their own nights quietly in socializing and playing cards, waiting for the big fight to get settled.  They got back on the riverboats that had been Dean’s traveling home for so many years, and tried to pretend the war and all the concerns it brought with it did not exist.

Around about the 1940s, Gerald got word that his own sire was in the city of Columbus, Ohio.  Now, Gerald’s sire had been passing through the Carolinas, and he gave Gerald the embrace and moved on.  While he spent some time with Gerald, explaining the ins and outs of vampire culture, Gerald never really got a chance to know the man who had brought him into such a wonderful and dangerous life.  Gerald and Dean were getting tired of rambling across the country, and so Columbus seemed as good a place as any to settle.  The fact that Gerald’s sire, George Bellows, was the primogen of clan Toreador in Columbus only made the deal even sweeter.

Gerald and Dean have called the city their home since that time.  Although Dean’s rambling spirit has been nagging him to move onward to new horizons for the past couple of years, Gerald is the sort of man who puts down roots once he likes a place.  The desire to move and see more of the world is about the only thing that Dean and Gerald don’t agree upon.  Otherwise, they’re a tightly knit pair, each involved in similar aspects of the city, each helping the other out in issues of status, reputation, and clan politics.

Dean holds Gerald in high regards, practically idolizing him.  He suspects that Gerald feels that Dean is a better Toreador than himself, mainly because he’s always talking about Dean’s natural talent and artistic passion, in contrast to what Gerald considers to be his own lack of talent and vision. Dean’s been in the argument with Gerald before for many, many years – he thinks Gerald is selling himself short as far as talent goes, and tries to remind his sire of this whenever he can (without sounding like a broken record, that is.)  Dean seriously respects Gerald.  He’s the father Dean never had, in addition to being Dean’s best friend in all the world.  Gerald’s about the only person the cunning Dean trusts, and the two have had to watch one another’s back in more than one life-or-death situation in the past.

-- M. Belanger

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Keeping Secrets

Author's Note: In September 1998, all in a flurry, I wrote a piece of historical fiction (these days, it would be labeled paranormal romance). It ended up being about 200,000 words long and in desperate need of revision. Parts of it come together in later works (many of the characters from that initial, rambling piece ended up in This Heart of Flame), but I was never able to salvage the original book. I've picked and poked at it over the years, because there are scenes I wish I didn't have to lose -- but they exist now like islands that were once the tops of mountains, jutting up from the water after a terrible flood. One of these lonely fragments appears below. The narrator is Matthew, who also narrates This Heart of Flame. He's learned a secret about the artist Percival Lawrence -- a secret he breaks into Lawrence's house to confirm. Keeping Secrets

Percival's house was all darkness.  I let my horse trot up to the front lawn, then slid off his back.  Stroking his flank, I made certain he would wait for me.  He stepped out into the lawn and began patiently cropping grass.  Silently, I crept around the outside of the house.  I noticed a sliver of light, muted and weak, slipping out from one of the basement windows.  That was where I would look first.  I stepped around to the back door.  It was, of course, locked.  I planted my hands above and beneath the knob, pushing inward with gradually increasing force.  I heard the snap before I felt the thing give, and I caught myself just in time before all my weight carried me crashing to the floor.

The door swung inward, creaking.  I stepped into a kitchen as pristine as it was unused. The lack of foodstuffs hardly counted as proof, but I added it mentally to my growing list of peculiarities connected with Mr. Percival Lawrence.

Everything was utterly silent.  It was unsettling.  I closed my eyes, trying to feel where he might be.  Even to my subtle senses, however, the house seemed empty.  Either Percival truly was not home or his talent for going unnoticed extended even to the subtle level.  I suspected it was the later.  Regardless of what my senses were telling me, I was certain he was here somewhere.  The basement seemed the likeliest place.  I searched around for a way down, and was rewarded when I caught sight of a faint sliver of light creeping out beneath a door set into a set of stairs.  This door, too, was locked, but it pulled outward.  It was a relatively easy task to snap the lock and pull it open.

The stairs leading down were mostly in shadow.  Only a faint light filtered up from the rooms below.  I leaned cautiously onto the first step, hoping it would not creak.  I pressed my hands against the walls on either side of me to lessen the impact of my weight.  Satisfied that I could proceed in relative silence, I glided the rest of the way down.  All I could see at the bottom was a blank wall.

The stairs were enclosed, so I had to wait until the last step to even look around.  From what I could see of it, the basement had been made into a studio.  Crates and chunks of stone were arranged in a near corner.  The lightsource was coming from my left.  I crept round the corner of the stairs and started into that room when something leapt out at me.  It had been crouching in the shadow of the staircase, lying in wait.  Too quickly for me to react, I felt hands seize upon my shirtfront.  I was lofted into the air and carried backward, pinned against the wall.

I looked down at my captor.  If there had been any doubt in my mind what Percival Lawrence was, they were laid to rest in that instant.  Percival stood beneath me, holding me above his head, his features fixed in a snarl of rage.  His lips were drawn back from his teeth, and I could distinctly see his pronounced canines.

"You!"  he growled.

I let him dangle me in the air, the bricks of the wall pressing roughly against my back.  If he expected me to struggle or cry out, he was disappointed.  I was staring in wonderment at what I saw in his mouth.

He seemed to quickly realize this.  Not relinquishing his hold on me, he closed his eyes briefly, apparently trying to master himself.  The expression of fury seemed to melt from his face.  Abruptly, he let go of me, turning away with a snarl of disgust.  I slid down the wall, dropping heavily to the floor.

I crouched there, stunned to speechlessness for the next few moments, but not because of his rough treatment. Because of what I saw.

There were statues arranged throughout the room, half a dozen of them.  All were life-sized or a little larger.  They were magnificent, practically breathing with life.  Every detail was flawlessly evoked from the stone, nearly down to the pores on the skin.  I recognized a number of individuals from the club.  They may as well have been standing there before me.

"I thought you said your work was flawed," I said wonderingly. It was barely audible.  I had forgotten to breathe.

Percival rounded impatiently on me.  He was wearing a plain white shirt with the sleeves rolled up.  He was covered with a fine white dust, nowhere more thickly than his hands and upper arms.  It made his already pale skin as white as the marble of the statues around him.  Flakes of stone stood out in his loose, dark hair.

"What are you doing here?"  he demanded.  He made no attempt to hide his teeth now.  The pronounced canines were obvious and menacing.  "Never sneak up on me like that.  I could have killed you."

I straightened, dusting myself off.  My attention was still captivated by all the wondrous statues.  Even Halaina's work was not so fine.

"I don't break that easily,"  I responded a little tersely.  "Percival, you never said your work was like this.  These are amazing."

I walked past him to the nearest sculpture.  It was of Elizabeth.  I caressed her shoulder and arm.  It was like touching living flesh, except that it was cold.  Smooth, perfect, every muscle could be felt beneath the skin -- it was flawless.  Her face, the way she held herself, the tilt of her head ... he had captured everything vital about her in the stone.  I could have kissed those lips.

"Don't fondle the sculpture,"  he said, his voice sharp with disgust.

Reluctantly, I withdrew my hands from the statue of Elizabeth.  "Can we talk?" I asked, hoping that despite my rude intrusion, his answer would be yes.

-- M. Belanger

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Masquerade

Author's Note: This was a character study from a writing journal I kept years ago. It's crammed with similar bits and pieces, oddments written from the perspective of potential characters. Some of these characters reappear in later works, but some, like the brooding narrator in this piece, remain undeveloped and unnamed.  

Masquerade

Fall. The rising wind that skirls the leaves round the bases of the trees makes me hungry. The dark and the cold feelingly remind me what I am.

I want to hold someone down and pull the life from them, feel it seeping into my bones until my whole body thrums. I want to feed until the shrieking husk quivers empty in my hand. I want to feed until I cannot take any more.

But these are kinder days, and I cannot indulge such passions. My hunger swells with each passing night, and there is no respite for the likes of me. I can go among the milling crowds and sip a little here, a little there. But it is nothing compared to the old days, and it cannot be. The first offense would be to reveal what we truly are. For now, even those that know about us are unafraid. We have played the charade until we can hide even here. Vampires in plain sight, because it’s all pretend: cunning contacts, acrylic teeth. Nothing’s real to people in this age of CGI.

The few who might suspect that there is more to the tale are shouted down from their Internet soap boxes and called mad. Only what we want to put forth about our natures is ever truly heard.

But still I long for what we once could have. I want to take a mortal on the street – any of them, any one I please. To feel that power once again. To fully, completely indulge.

In days long past, I could place my hand upon a chest and crush the living heart within. No fear, no terror, no ecstasy, nor any other passion could release so much delicious life as that incandescent moment of death.

It’s been so long since I’ve supped on the last breath of a lover. And nights like this, I miss it the most.

-- M. Belanger

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In Dreams

Author's Note: Those of you who have read my short fiction collection, These Haunted Dreams will recognize the following tale. This is the story which opens that collection and, I feel, helps set the tone for the rest of the book. This particular tale was inspired by Blue Oyster Cult's classic Don't Fear the Reaper (if you've never heard the song, listen to it here). You can see distinct echoes from the song in some of the imagery at the end. For a live reading of this haunting tale, click here.

In Dreams

He came to her in dreams.  Not every night.  No, that would have been too kind.  Instead, he teased her with his presence, coming every once in a while, seducing her twice in one week, and then disappearing for almost a month at a time.

The dreams, when she had them, were wonderful.  In her waking hours, she would hear the velvet of his voice, the soft breath against her ear.  The memory of his words was so vivid that it drowned out every other sound on her morning ride to work.

And his touch.  Whenever he came to her at night, all the next day, she could feel him still, like soft electric fire burning in her skin.  Sometimes she would sit at her desk for hours, staring blankly at the computer screen, completely caught up in the memory of his hands all over her.

She did not know him, this strange dream lover.  His face was one she had never seen before – the high, sculpted cheekbones, the thin, perfect nose, the lips that seemed chiseled from living stone.  He was pale – pale as the moon in her dreams, and it seemed that his skin nearly glowed.  Jet-black hair, like a raven’s wing, spilled over his forehead and down the back of his neck.  His eyes, too, were black, or so it seemed.  In the dreams, these held a strange dark-light, and she could never gaze on them for very long.

He would just arrive in her twelfth floor apartment, moving from the balcony to the side of her bed.  She never asked how he got there.  It was, after all, a dream.  And yet how vivid, how sensuous these dream-visits were, until she felt that she truly had a lover, even though this lover had no name.

Months into this strange seduction, she began to go out looking for him.  Somehow, she knew to seek him only at night.  She went to the bars and the nightclubs, dressing in velvet and her slick vinyl boots. Over the weeks, she saw many strange, pale people.  Once or twice, she thought she spied him, but then the young man would turn and the cheek wasn’t right or the eyes were too dim.  It seemed like he was always one step ahead of her, and she could feel his presence lingering everywhere she went.

If a club wasn’t open, she would wander the Village, sitting and watching the people walk their dogs through WashingtonPark.  Sometimes she could feel his presence moving behind her, but then she would turn, and there was nothing but shadows and the sound of the wind.  She knew that he was teasing her, leading her along in some deft seduction. The harder she sought him in the waking world, the longer it would be before he returned to her dreams.

She had resigned herself to being patient, some time after the leaves began to fall.  It was getting too cold to sit all night in the park, although she would still sometimes go out to one of the clubs.

The chill of November was in the air the night she lost her wallet.  She had money in her pocket, but it wasn’t enough to pay for cab fare.  With a bitter wind coming off of the Atlantic, she didn’t relish the thought of walking ten blocks home.  So she found the F train and tried to look inconspicuous as she waited on the platform, shivering in her fishnets and her thin vinyl coat.

It was a Sunday night.  She expected the train to be empty, but instead it had a crowd.  It was nothing compared to the hoards on the morning commute, but she still had to work to find herself a seat.  Several people were standing, fingers twined in the loops overhead. Others were stretched out across three or four spaces, vagrants escaping the night’s chill by riding the train endlessly back and forth

As it was so often lately, her mind was on him.  She gazed out the window, not even seeing the shadowed, stained walls as they sped past her eyes.  She was focused so completely on her internal landscape that she almost didn’t see the pale face reflected beside her in the grime-smeared glass. But for some reason, her eye caught the image and stuck.  It took a moment for the face to sink in.

He was sitting on the other side of the train from her, his dark eyes focused on something far away.

She turned around, half expecting him to not be there when she looked.  Like some phantasm, she feared that he existed only in the glass.  But there he was.  The lights of the subway played upon his pallor, till it seemed he should glow with a light of his own.

The train plunged into a tunnel, rattling wildly along its tracks.  Yet he hadn’t disappeared.

“You!  I know you!”

She couldn’t help herself.  The words echoed through the train.

Slowly, he turned and regarded her.  Those strange, dark eyes seemed to sizzle on her skin.

“Hush,” he said, drawing his dark coat about him.  “Don’t make a scene.  I’ll come to you tomorrow.  Just before the morning.”

The train was jerking to a halt.  He stood, and it was as if the train was moving for everyone but him.  His hands were in his pockets, and he didn’t even seem to brace his legs.  And yet so effortlessly he rose and glided to a door.  She sat riveted to her seat, her eyes, unblinking, fixed on him.  She wanted to run after him, but he was out and the door was closed before she could get her legs to work.  Her heart fluttered against her ribs like a panicked bird in a cage.

It was only after he exited the train that she realized his lips had never moved.

*                      *                      *

Tonight, she thought, and stared through the letters on the screen. Tonight, just before morning.

In agony, she struggled to focus on her work.  His voice had been exactly like it was in her dreams.  But had she dreamed it?  His lips had never moved.  The other passengers, though they reacted to her outburst, seemed insensible to him.

And the way he glided, as if gravity held no power over him!  The train could have shaken itself off its tracks, and he would have been standing there, calm and poised, with everyone else thrown to the floor around him.

What was he?  All those weeks, all those months, that question had never come.  Had she never wondered?  Or had she been afraid to ask?  Was there any chance that he would have answered as he whispered to her at night?  No, he spoke to her in dreams, but it was the language of the bedroom.  In all the time he had been coming to her, she had not even learned his name.

The day dragged by.  And then it was evening, and she made a point of taking the train. She searched the faces, but of course, he wasn’t there.

Just before morning.

She stopped at the vegetarian diner a block from her building.  But she couldn’t eat.  Every time the door opened, she almost jumped up, looking for him.

The elevator ride up to her apartment was torture.  There were five other people, all standing too close.  And of course, the worst of it was, none of them were him.

She stripped out of her work clothes and took a hot bath.  But the steam and the scent of lavender did nothing at all to soothe her.

Those eyes, those high, pale cheekbones!

She turned on the computer and surfed the ‘net.  She found herself checking forums over and over again, desperately searching for some new topic, some line of conversation that could occupy her mind.  In the reflection of her face on the screen, she could almost see him.

At nine o’clock, she took off her bathrobe and slipped on her black lace gown.  She turned off all the lights but left one candle burning, a lone tea-light in a votive holder that glimmered on her nightstand.  She lay on her back among the pillows.  She stared at the ceiling, and the flickering flame of the tea light made the patterns in the plaster come alive.

What was she waiting for?  Should she sleep?  Or did he mean he’d really come, for the first time more flesh than dream?

Eleven o’clock found her tossing, her long red hair tangled on the pillowcase.  Midnight came and went.  She got up and put on music, hoping the quiet tones would ease the wait.  The clock seemed to draw her eyes to it every quarter hour.  She turned her face away, and then would look again: one-thirty, one-forty-five, two AM.

Sometime, she dozed.  She woke to a sound on the balcony.  Somehow she heard it over all the city noise.  A gust of chilly wind greeted her as she sat up, kissing her skin through the thin lace of her gown.

There was a light out there.  She could see it glowing faintly through the muslin of the curtains.  Twelve floors below, motors growled and horns blared.  Four-thirty in the morning.  New York was never asleep.

She pushed the covers back and placed bare feet upon the floorboards.  The chill brought her more awake.  She was awake.  She was sure of it.  This was no dream.

And then that figure moved behind the curtain.  The soft glow upon the balcony marked his stately silhouette.  He was thin, so thin and delicate, and yet she knew the strength that vibrated in those limbs.

He didn’t have to call to her.  She threw open the doors.  He was leaning against the balcony railing, arms crossed upon his chest.  The wind blew his hair about him and she thought of ravens taking flight.

She ran to him, her arms outstretched.  She had no words for the joy she felt, the profound sense of completion.  When he moved, the wind caught the edges of his long silk trench.  It made a sound like wings.

Then the wings were everywhere, and the wind, and the lights of the city as they streamed by like a river that had burst its banks.  And the stars that were streetlamps and the stars in the sky went all topsy-turvy until finally she felt herself in his arms.

They were standing on the pavement, twelve floors below the balcony’s edge.  She could still see the cars and streetlights, but strangely, the city seemed to hold its breath.  The sounds were distant and muffled.  Even the sirens were quiet as they came, heralded by flashing lights.

“I can be with you,” she murmured, breathless.

“You are with me,” he said.

She felt his hands squeezing her shoulders.  They were cold, but they were his.  She laid her head against his chest.  She heard only the wind.

“You have no heartbeat,” she whispered.

“No,” he said.  “I never have.”

Softly, he stroked her hair.  She gazed up at him, and found she could meet those dark and distant eyes.

“How did we get here?” she wondered.  “I mean down here, on the street?”

He pointed to the pavement behind her.  She almost didn’t look.

The flashing lights were a blur around her.  The cars and people screaming were hazy and indistinct.  It was like standing in an impressionist’s painting of the city, everything too blurry to be real.

“How did that happen?” she asked.  She cringed away from it, clinging to his chest.

“Isn’t that what you wanted?” he responded.  “You wanted to be with me.”

“To be with you…” she sighed.

His arms were cold around her, but still she found comfort in that embrace.

“Take me away from it,” she pleaded. “Take me away from it all.”

They turned away from the mess on the pavement. Her hand in his hand, they danced away on the wind.

--M. Belanger

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The Rose Garden

Author's Note: This is from the unpublished collection Fairy-Tales for the Disenchanted, the same anthology that holds both the Long-Suffering Queen and Pills and Potions. The Rose Garden

A woman once tended a glorious rose garden, which blossomed all the year with huge, white blooms.  This woman had a daughter, and when the daughter was old enough to go out into the rose garden, the mother reluctantly agreed to let her go out for a bit each day.

However, the woman feared for her daughter for she knew that the roses of the garden had sharp and wicked thorns.  So every day, the woman went around the rose garden, plucking off the thorns.  The garden was big, and so she could only attend to her task in stages, and for this reason, she forbade her daughter from going into any part of the garden where she had not first pulled off the thorns.

Then one day the woman had to go into town on an errand.  She was gone longer than she expected, and her daughter, impatient for her chance to view the splendid blossoms of the garden, opened the gate and went in alone.  Without her mother, however, she did not know what part of the garden was free from thorns.  She determined not to let her fear of being pricked keep her from enjoying all the beauty the garden had to offer, and so she roamed around it all day and late into the evening.

As she explored the garden more thoroughly than she ever had before, she became aware of a particularly comely rose bush twining upon itself in the very center of the garden.  The white blossoms were huge and heavy with fragrance, and the daughter determined to have the largest one for her hair.  She pushed past the grasping canes, stretching herself out to her full length to pluck her prize.  Just then, her mother returned from her errand, and, seeing what was about to transpire, she called out for the girl to stop for she had not yet taken the thorns from that particular bush.

Either the daughter did not hear her warning or she did not heed it, for she grasped the blossom in her hand and plucked it from the bush.  As she did so, her finger caught on a thorn.  She gasped in surprise and wept a little, but held the blossom all the tighter for the pain.  Once she had plucked it, she marveled at her prize, for the flower she held in her hand had been stained a deep crimson by the blood from her wound.

Her mother admonished her severely, but the daughter grew to love the thorns on the roses. Certainly that first crimson rose was more precious to her for the pain that it had caused.

-- M. Belanger

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Sacrifices

Author's Note: It's no secret that I'm a fan of H. P. Lovecraft. I discovered H.P.'s weird tales through Stephen King, who cited Lovecraft as one of his own influences (thanks to my grandmother's love of his work, I was reading Stephen King from the tender age of 9 onward - which may explain a few things).  Several of my early short fiction pieces were written in emulation of Lovecraft's style, such as this bit of flash fiction, penned in 1994: Sacrifices

I do not know whether you can hear me, my love. I do not know whether you can understand. Your glaring eyes gaze sightlessly into my own as I clasp you to me, but I cannot overlook their heretical glint of reproach. It stabs at me even as death steals the luster from those twin orbs that so recently read the truth in the pages that led us both to this glorious and forbidden ritual.

Your final lack of faith was the ultimate treachery. I only did what was necessary. I did what needed to be done. You agreed up until those last few moments. You understood that sacrifices had to be made. It was in our power to usher in a wholly new age, to awaken a force which could shatter the barriers of our narrow little world. With just one sacrifice, and we could lift this petty little world up to realms where the gods themselves fear to tread.

Together we agreed that our fear was merely a symptom of ignorance. Together we agreed that we could not withold that gift which was ours to give to blind humanity. We had endured so much to gain the necessary formulae. We shared in gathering the materials for the ritual, we chanted the forbidden syllables in glorious unison. Never, until that final moment, did your voice falter. Not once. But didn't you realize, my love? We all had to make sacrifices. Why must you glare at me so bitterly? You got the better end of the deal, I assure you. I had to sacrifice the thing I held most dear. You -- all you had to sacrifice was your life.

I will miss your scent and your soft, soft touch as I walk through the shadowed corridors of this brave and terrifying new world. And I will think on you fondly every time I lay eyes upon the eldritch creatures born of your spilt blood. What price is a little pain to become the mother of terrible new gods? What all-too-human weakness could possibly have prompted you in that last moment to cry, "No!"

Despite your repulsive instant of cowardice, I shall continue to kiss you and, as is my duty, spill my seed. The old world crumbles around me, and in just a few breaths, I will look upon the new world with the lambent eyes of a darkling god.

I promise: I shall carry your memory with me eternally. And in time, I know that you will forgive me for what needed to be done.

As for myself, I have aeons to decide whether or not I shall ever forgive you.

--M. Belanger

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Innocence and Experience

The following dark little tale grew out of a character history penned for one of my Vampire: the Masquerade games. For those unfamiliar with the series, there's a family of necromancers known as the Giovanni. Little Violet just might be a Giovanni girl (the title, of course, is a nod to William Blake). For a live reading of this twisted yarn, click here.

Innocence and Experience

She was a quiet little girl, never speaking unless spoken to. That was expected of her. Her family was very Old World in their values. Which is to say, they felt that little girls existed to grow up and become wives, and those wives were similarly expected to grow large and become mothers. A little girl wasn’t much of anything else but more babies, waiting to be.

Violette didn’t like that idea. That was her name. Little Violet. And she was expected to take after her namesake: sweet and silent and shy. She never told her family how she really felt. Her family wouldn’t have cared, anyway. They were always too busy with the Work. The menfolk went out and dug in the cemeteries while the women stayed home, raising the little ones.

Violette didn’t like the other children. They couldn’t see the things that she could see. Instead of having tea parties with her cousins, Violette liked talking to her special friends. Her aunties and her mother and all her little cousins couldn’t see her friends – but, then, no one would have expected Violette to see them either. Her friends were part of the Work, after all, and seeing them was something that only the menfolk in the family were supposed to do. That’s what they all thought, anyway. They would have known differently, had they bothered to talk to Violette. But they never did. After all, she was only a girl.

So Violette spent all her time whispering to her friends. Her friends were all dead, but she didn’t mind. They were very good listeners. And none of them cared that she was a girl. They didn’t even care that she came from that family, the one so many others shunned in the marketplace. No, her friends were understanding, attentive, and kind. Each night, they gathered round in a glimmering host. They laughed with her and they  told her things. Secret things. They talked about Daddy’s Work, digging up the corpses and polishing the bones. They talked about Grandfather and his friends who used the bones to call and sometimes bind the spirits of the dead. Her friends didn’t like the bindings, but they told Violette how it was done. They loved her and they trusted her, because she hated the men in her family as much as they did. Each night, Violette listened and grew cunning in the ways of the spirits. And the menfolk in her family were none the wiser.

As Violette grew from a quiet little girl to a quiet young lady, the men in the family started to pay attention to her. Most of it was the wrong kind of attention. Her uncle Pietro was the worst of the lot. He liked Violette perhaps a bit too much.

Violette was twelve years old.

When Pietro came to her in the night, she endured it. She didn’t know what else to do. Pietro was so very strong. And he promised not to make it hurt if she kept still and just let him do it. Daddy was away in the cemetery that night. Of course, he wouldn’t have stopped it. She knew he didn’t care.

But Violette’s friends were furious. They ranted and raged from their shadowy side of the world. When Pietro was gone, Violette sat in a corner, silently weeping. Her friends tried to soothe her from their side of the world. They told her to be strong, and they promised vengeance for what Pietro did.

Pietro wasn’t like the other men in the family. He didn’t know the Names or the Words to call. He might see spirits out of the corner of his eye, but he had no talent for talking with them. This was why he was often left at home. He worked as a lowly guard for the family. But Violette’s friends told her this was a good thing. It meant that he could not defend himself. If they struck out at him, he would not be able to strike back.

They promised to get him back for what he did to Violette. They told her that they were going to do it when Pietro was asleep so there wouldn’t be anybody else around. Violette wasn’t certain at first about their plan, but her spirit-friends were insistent. Eventually, she overcame her fear. She wanted to see him get hurt. She was still afraid, so she crept to the kitchen and pulled a knife from a drawer. She told herself it was just in case Pietro woke up and tried to do the thing again. The knife might keep him away.

When the spirits descended upon him, he woke up, all right. But he wasn’t worried about Violette. He didn’t even see her there at first, standing quietly in the corner of his room. She held the knife tucked away in the folds of her dressing gown. Pietro was shouting wildly at the spirits as they shook his bed and struck him from across the Veil. Welts and scratches appeared on his face and on his hands. The spirits called him mean things that he couldn’t hear, but he could certainly feel the blows.

By the time he noticed little Violette in her dressing gown, she had already raised the knife. The spirits held him pinned to the bed as she moved. Then she used the knife, pushing it into him again and again. As the spirits held him, she said the Words and recited the Names, and before she knew it, Uncle Pietro was screaming from inside of the blade, his spirit bound even as his body lay in a bloody heap upon the bed.

Then little Violette cleaned herself up and spent the rest of the night playing with Uncle Pietro and all her dear, dead friends.

-- M. Belanger

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Immortal: Dracula's Return (Final Scene)

Author's Notes: This is the end, folks -- to this story, at least. Thanks to all who have come along for the ride. I hope you've enjoyed this little window into the adventures of Mara, Livia, Johnny, the mis-directed Marica, and Vladimir the Third, Son of the Dragon.  

 

Act VII Scene XI

(Cut to the second floor of the tower.  Marica lays stretched out on the floor, a pool of blood beneath her. A small trickle of blood runs from between her parted lips. A wisp of something disturbs the air above her.)

Vlad: (voice over, echoing) Marica. Loyal Marica. I am so sorry that I failed you.

(A tendril of mist lightly brushes a strand of hair back from her cheek. The mist floating above and around her becomes a little more visible.)

Vlad: (voice seeming to emanate from the mist) I will make it better. We will make it better.

(Throughout all of this, Marica remains still as death. We see the mist coalesce and seem to blanket her. Tendrils drift into her parted lips. As the mist begins to fade into her body, Marica convulses, blinks, and draws a ragged breath. Astounded, she sits bolt upright, looking everywhere at once. After a moment, she calms a little, lays a hand against her chest, checks for the bullet wound, which is now gone. She takes a deep breath. Then she grabs a knife and flees from the tower.)

 

FIN

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Immortal: Dracula's Return (Act VII, 10)

Author's Note: Livia's been freed. Marica's been shot. And Vlad has plunged to the foot of the tower as Mara looks on. Secrets are revealed, and we have almost come to the very end ... Act VII Scene X

(Cut to Mara who stands in the middle of the scattered bodies of Dr. Morgan and the others. She is in the process of doing a back-breaker move with the final vampire from that group. Motion at the window catches her eye, and she looks up in time to see Vlad tumble from the window. He falls directly onto the stakes below.)

Mara: (wincing) Ouch.

(Mara tosses the broken vampire aside like a pile of dried sticks, then goes over the where Vlad is still twitching on the stakes. He is stretched out on several impaled bodies, his weight driving them further down. A stake emerges from his shoulder, from his side and from the opposite thigh. One arm, outflung, is pinned neatly through the middle. Blood oozes from his mouth and he struggles to turn his head to watch Mara as she approaches.)

Mara: I guess they don’t need my help up there anymore. You know, I kind of feel sorry for you. When I touched you, I saw why you did all this. It wasn’t for power or greed. You wanted to be a better leader for your people, someone who could bring them the stability they so desperately required in a difficult time. It was stupid as hell, but at least it was noble.

(Mara touches the side of Vlad’s face almost tenderly.)

Mara: That book wasn’t meant for anyone like you. I’ve never forgiven myself for losing it. Honestly, it probably shouldn’t even be written down. There’s so much you couldn’t know, so much you would never understand. You bound yourself to this body, to its hungers, its needs. That’s not the point of immortality. What we are, what we’re supposed to be is something free of mortal flesh – the body is just something we wear for a time, and then we leave.

(Vlad makes a monumental effort to speak, causing more blood to bubble up from his mouth.)

Vlad: Help me.

Mara: You slaughtered my entire household. Raped my women, killed them. Killed me, for that matter, when I was helpless and making my transition. Couldn’t you figure out why they were protecting that boy?

Vlad: (weakening) I have never begged…

Mara: I could leave you here, tied to this body. It would rot around you, and you’d never be able to leave. But I can’t do that. Not even to my worst enemy – and you are by no means the worst of my enemies. So let me show you something. Let me help you out of this broken flesh. And if you can figure a way to come back again, then maybe you deserve to be one of us.

(Mara closes her eyes and focuses. The lightplay begins. Vlad stares at the second face visible beneath her own.)

Vlad: (with sudden, stupefied recognition) You –

(Mara extends one hand, wrapped in wisps of light, and lays it over Vlad’s heart. Ripples of light begin to go through him and her hand sinks in to grasp something deeper than his flesh.)

Vlad: The alchemist. That was … you?

Mara: Jeez. Took you long enough …

(Mara lifts her hand, clutching a wispy ghost of Vladimir the Third. She holds him out in the air beside her, then gently lets him go.)

Mara: Sort things out from that side. Maybe you can learn. (she turns to go, but pauses) Oh, and a word to the wise. That thing with the crosses. That’s all you. Do yourself a favor and don’t be such a superstitious bastard.

(Livia and Johnny, leaning on one another, emerge from the tower.)

Johnny: Who you talking to, luv?

Mara: No one, not any more. How are you two?

Livia: Alive.

Johnny: I got roughed up a bit, but I’m just ducky. I kind of like being indestructible.

Mara: Don’t get used to it.

(Johnny whistles at the carnage in the street.)

Johnny: Damn, Mara, you do all that yourself?

Mara: What do you think took me so long?

(Livia goes up and hugs Mara.)

Livia: You didn’t have to come. I knew you would, but you didn’t have to.

Mara: Livia, you are my life and my most precious companion. You think I would abandon you?

(Mara’s head snaps up and she scans the sky to the east. The beginning of dawn is visible against the mountains.)

Johnny: Don’t tell me there’s another one.

Mara: Sshh. Listen.

(After a moment, a sound becomes audible to the others.)

Mara: Helicopters. Someone must have seen the fire.

Johnny: So it’s over. Really, really over?

Mara: Not yet. Come here and let me take care of something.

Livia: You gifted him, didn’t you? I knew he couldn’t have done that on his own. Isn’t that against the rules?

Mara: What was I supposed to do, let him get slaughtered? I thought you liked him more than that.

Johnny: (blinking) She does?

(Livia blushes and shoves Johnny playfully toward Mara.)

Livia: Go get it over with before the choppers come.

Johnny: Is it going to hurt?

Mara: Remember what we did back in the van? It’s the same thing. Just exhale when I tell you to, and if you feel something tugging in your chest, just relax and let it go.

Johnny: I’m not going to suddenly feel everything that happened to me up there or anything, am I? Because I think I’ll drop over dead.

Livia: Of course not. You weren’t dead to begin with.

Johnny: That’s good to hear. OK. I’m ready, then.

(Johnny closes his eyes and tries to relax. Mara steps right up in front of him and puts her hands on either side of his face.)

Mara: Open your mouth.

(Johnny opens. Mara leans in and breathes deeply. Little wisps of light begin to flow from him to her. A glow forms in the center of his chest and passes up his throat. He gasps a little as it exits his mouth to return to Mara. She steps back, takes a few breaths as the glow fades. Johnny staggers. Livia is at his side, helping him stand.)

Johnny: Oh, I have those brain tingles again!

Livia: Brain tingles. That’s one way to put it. Should we flag down the choppers, Mara?

Mara: Hang on. I have one last thing I need to do.

(Mara searches the base of the stakes and finally comes up with the book. She wipes some blood and dirt from its cover, then recovers her rucksack from the street.)

Johnny: What? You just going to walk away with an archaeological treasure like that? Shouldn’t it go to Alex or something?

Mara: It’s mine, Johnny. It’s what I came here for.

Johnny: Yours?

Mara: I wrote it. It got lost when that man killed my family. I’ve been looking for it for a very long time.

Johnny: You’ve just totally lost me. But I’ll take your word for it. The book’s yours. Anyone asks, I don’t know a thing. … Uh, speaking of things I don’t know. Who was our master vampire friend, anyway?

Livia: You won’t believe me, even if I tell you.

Johnny: After all I’ve been through? You’d be surprised what I’ll believe.

Mara: He was Vlad Tepes, better known as Dracula.

(Johnny fights not to laugh.)

Johnny: Riiiiiight! Tell me another one!

Livia: I told you, you wouldn’t believe it.

Johnny: Count fucking Dracula? No way! He’s got to be taller than that.

Livia: The helicopters are getting closer.

Mara: We should at least let them know about Jack and the others back at the factory. They must have had a terrible night waiting and wondering about us. Come on.

(She puts her arms over Johnny and Livia’s shoulders and walks them down the street.)

Mara: So, Johnny. It seems you’re interested in my Livia, here. It just so happens that events a little while back left her without a gentleman companion. But if you’re serious about seeing her, there are some rules I need to lay down.

Livia: Mara!

Johnny: You talk like you’re her father.

Mara: (laughing) I’m way too old to be her father. So. Rule number one …

(Fade as they continue toward the van.)

--M. Belanger

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Immortal: Dracula's Return (Act VII, 9)

Author's Note: Johnny fights Marica to free Livia, then has his new powers pushed to the limit when Vladimir III enters the fray. (only one scene, you say? Why, yes. I'm drawing this out. We're almost to the end and I find it's best to savor such things.) Act VII Scene IX

(The second floor of the tower. Johnny is just climbing in over the ledge of the window that overlooks the sea of pillows. Livia is struggling with Marica, who has a knife. Still shaky from his climb, Johnny struggles to sight Marica with the gun.)

Marica: You! What’s so special about you? How dare you steal him away?

Livia: Lady, you can have him. Just fucking let me go!

(We hear a repeat of Vlad’s cry from below. Marica’s head snaps up and she turns to see Johnny about to fire his gun.)

Marica: No!

(Marica grabs Livia and uses her as a living shield. Johnny overcompensates, and his shot goes wild, sinking into the wall. Livia struggles as completely as her bonds will allow. She does not look as hurt as she did before.)

Johnny: Fuck. I hate these things.

(Two things happen at once. Johnny jumps down from the windowsill into the pile of pillows. The unusual footing catches him unawares. Livia, on her end of things, swings her head back sharply, connecting with Marica’s face. Marica cries out, then shoves Livia away. She lands heavily on the wooden floor, skidding a little.)

Marica: You just try getting up to cause me more trouble.

(Marica charges Johnny before he can recover his footing and get another shot in with the gun. They grapple and he goes down, losing the gun in the pillows. With Johnny down, Marica fights to stab him with the knife. Marica grins as she gets in a near miss, and Johnny stares at her mouth.)

Johnny: Bloody hell, woman, you’re not even one of them. What’re you doing on the vampires’ team?

(Marica ignores him, lunging with the knife. They wrestle, the pillows skidding on the hardwood floor. Johnny grabs a pillow and uses it to block the knife as Marica slashes at his face. Then he kicks her off of him.)

Johnny: (digging in pillows) Where’s the gun? Where’s the fucking gun? (his hand finally lands on something) Gotcha!

(Johnny turns his back momentarily on Marica. As he does, she jumps on him and plunges the knife into his shoulder.)

Livia: Johnny!

Johnny: Fuck. Oh fuck.

(Johnny’s eyes are wide and his face drains of color. We can see the tip of the knife emerge just beneath his collar bone. The hand with the gun goes limp, and he makes a small, strangled sound, body jerking, as Marica rips the knife back out. He tips slowly over onto his back, eyes fixed on the ceiling, lips still mouthing the word “fuck”. Livia has, at this point, managed to roll into the table and knock one of the remaining knives off. She uses this to cut her bonds, and is starting to get to her feet as Marica heads back toward her. Livia is a little unsteady on her feet after having been so tightly bound.)

Livia: Oh, circulation. Damn.

Marica: I will cause you such pain!

(Marica and Livia grapple, each with a knife. Vlad charges up the stairs, taking stock of the situation.)

Vlad: Marica! You are not to kill her! Marica, don’t waste her precious blood!

(We return to Johnny, flat on his back in a small pool of blood. He blinks and begins to stir, flexing the fingers around the gun.)

Johnny: Damn. I’m not dead?

(He glances down, touches the tear in his shirt, exposing skin that is visibly healing around the wound.)

Johnny: Well that’s bloody convenient. (the amazement quickly passes as he recalls their desperate situation) Livia!

(Marica has managed to drive Livia to her knees and his bringing her knife up for a deadly strike. Johnny sits up and aims the gun. Vlad is trying to determine if he should intervene with the girls when he sees Johnny. He snarls and dives at this more immanent threat. In the split seconds before Marica hits Livia and Vlad connects with Johnny, we see Johnny get Marica in his sights.)

Johnny: Come on, come on. And – fire!

(Zoom to Marica. A bloody hole blossoms on her back very close to where her heart should be. She staggers, and her knife hand stops in mid down-swing.  She has a shocked and lost look on her face. As Livia flinches away from her, she falls slowly to her knees.)

Marica: Voi – vode?

(She lists sideways and topples to the floor. A small trickle of blood colors her lips.)

Johnny: Damn. I actually hit her… (he scrambles back as Vlad lunges at him) Oh shit!

Vlad: (bellowing) How dare you? How dare you!!!

(Vlad picks Johnny up bodily and launches him at the wall. The impact brings plaster and dust down from the ceiling.)

Johnny: I’m sorry I offed your girlfriend, but she was kind of trying to kill mine. No hard feelings, right?

(Vlad snarls and grabs Johnny again. He pulls Johnny’s face close to his, flashing fangs and glowing eyes, then whirls around and throws Johnny the entire length of the room. Johnny crashes against the wall right next to the window. Johnny practically goes through the wall. He slides slowly to the floor as dust and debris filter down.)

Johnny: That smarts. I think I should have broken something, but look at me. I can still stand. Well, sort of.

(Vlad stalks over to beat on Johnny some more. Livia in the meantime has scrambled over to the pillows and is going for Johnny’s dropped gun.)

Livia: Down, Johnny! Get down!

(Vlad stands right in front of the window, about to grab Johnny for a final go. When he hears Livia, he whirls around in time to see her level the gun at him. Johnny dives for cover and Livia fires the gun at Vlad over and over. Each shot makes him stumble back a bit more until the small of his back is against the windowsill. Livia’s final shot catches him dead-center of the chest, sending him tumbling out to the street below.)

--M. Belanger

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Immortal: Dracula's Return (Act VII 7-8)

Author's Note: The final confrontation between Mara and Dracula reveals the identity of the mysterious alchemist and the source of Vlad's vampirism. Act VII Scene VII

(The front of the tower. Mara and Vlad continue to face off in front of the regiment of stakes outside the tower. Marica is still visible at the second floor window, holding Livia by the hair.)

Mara: (indignant) Is that a bite mark on her neck? You fed on her you bastard!

Vlad: Of course I did. Isn’t that what she is for? Your blood-whore?

Mara: (balling her fists) How dare you –

Vlad: I knew it when I saw the brand. Like your necklace there, I’d seen it before. What magic do you work on them to make their blood so sweet?

Mara: You fucking pig! They’re bred for something finer than blood. Who are you? How do you know about the Sinesti?

Vlad: It’s my turn to make the demands now, isn’t it? I’ve shown you Livia. She is safe, if only for the moment.

Mara: (thinking silently to herself) There’s something vital here I’m missing, some key that links this man to my past. It’s obvious he got the book at some point, but how does he know my marks, my family?

Vlad: First I want the book. I know you brought it.

Mara: And if I don’t?

Vlad: That’s very simple. (calling up) Marica? Do you see the little knives on the table near you? Please take one and cut Livia so we can watch her bleed.

Marica: Nothing would please me more, voivode.

Livia: Go ahead and cut me, bitch. It’s only flesh.

Mara: No. Stop. I’ll give you what you want.

Livia: Mara!

(Mara takes the book out of the rucksack and holds it out to Vlad. She waits for him to come to her to take it.)

Mara: (internally) Come on. Just a little closer. Put your hand where I can touch it, then we’ll see what’s really going on … almost … almost … gotcha!

(Vlad reaches out to take the book. The moment his hand comes close to hers, she grabs it. There is a sound like a sudden inhalation. Vlad’s eyes widen and we seem to dive into his pupils. A flurry of images begins to play across the screen, occasionally interspersed with an image of Mara and an image of Vlad as they stand there, eyes locked on one another. All the images last only a few seconds, appearing just long enough for the major details to register:)

Image 1: Vlad in full armor, leading a group of soldiers to the foot of theSaracenTower at a time when it was part of a larger fortification and everything was in good repair.

Image 2: Chaos in the halls, and Vlad seizing a fleeing woman by the hair. She bears a half-moon brand at the base of her neck. He seems puzzled by this.

Mara: (voiceover) You invaded them? You killed my people? Where was I?

Image 3: A library. A hooded figure sits behind a desk, the book open before it. A necklace nearly identical to Mara’s is prominent on his chest. Vlad approaches the figure cautiously, dagger pointing at its chest. With the tip of the dagger, he flips back the hood. There is a resemblance to Mara, but more specifically to the second face we have seen underneath hers. The man’s eyes stare glassily into space; he has been dead for several days.

Vlad: (voiceover) The alchemist…

Mara: (voiceover) That’s your alchemist?

Image 5: More mayhem in the tower. Men and women with the crescent mark throwing themselves on a prone figure. Vlad’s soldiers tear them away. Vlad approaches the figure. It is a boy, lying insensible. Disgusted and confused, Vlad gestures for him to be killed.

Mara: (voiceover) You killed the boy? No wonder I can’t remember anything!

Vlad: (voiceover) It was a mercy. He was half-dead already. You saw? He did not move!

Mara: (voiceover, disgusted) You still have no idea what you did. You understand none of this! What then,Vladimir? How did you become what you are now?

Image 5: Vlad in the library, pouring over the book, comparing the script to notes scribed on vellum in several different languages.

Vlad: (voiceover) Such secrets it held! The key to eternal life. You act like I am an idiot, woman, but I understood enough. All it required was sacrifice.

Image 6: Vlad in a stone chamber, braziers burning at the four corners, a stone slab in the center covered in a white linen cloth. A young man, healthy & muscular, is bound to the stone table. Vlad holds a shallow copper bowl in one hand and a small, wickedly curved dagger in the other. He approaches the man with the knife.

Mara: (voiceover) You killed him and drank his blood? That’s not what it meant. You’re supposed to die yourself, then become him! That’s the sacrifice, you fool!

Images 7 & 8: Vlad, with the bowl full of blood, carving sigils into his own flesh. He dips in the dagger, then carves more signs, carefully mingling his blood with that of the sacrifice.

We get a second perspective of the sigil-carving, white flesh accented with swirling lines of dark blood. Vlad finishes. His face is pale, his brow is beaded with sweat. Trembling with exhaustion and pain, he drinks from the bowl.

Mara: (voiceover) No wonder you’re so tied to the blood.

Image 9: Vlad, looking pale and dead and still, stretched out on the stone table. The sigils have healed to pale scars. He looks dead, then his entire body convulses, eyes fly wide, and he screams like a newborn. His eyes glow red and his fangs are prominent.

Mara: (voiceover) You perverted the ritual. I can’t believe it even succeeded. You had no idea what you were doing –

(Johnny’s voice intrudes suddenly on the telepathic space.)

Johnny: (voiceover) Mara! She’s got a knife! She’s going to cut Livia!

(As Johnny’s voice breaks in, we get a final image in the rapid telepathic slide-show. This is of the second floor of the tower, Johnny lifting himself onto the back window, gun in hand. Marica and Livia struggle near the front, Marica brandishing a knife at Livia. We cut immediately back to where Mara and Vlad stand locked together in the street. Vlad’s eyes go wide with sudden fury.)

Act VII Scene VIII

(Mara and Vlad standing in the street. Vlad’s eyes flash a wicked red. He snarls and rips his hand out of Mara’s grasp. The connection is abruptly broken.)

Vlad: (shouting up to the tower) Traitors! Marica! He has a gun!

(Vlad shoves the book at Mara, knocking her back several feet. He turns to run into the tower, yelling over his shoulder.)

Vlad: Morgan! NOW!!!

(Mara lands on her back in the street. She tilts her head back and from this awkward perspective sees Morgan and about half a dozen other vampires streaming out of the houses behind her.)

Mara: Shit.

(Mara jumps to her feet as they swarm her. As she stands, she calls her power. Her eyes glow with white fire and the other face, made of translucent light, seems to press against the inside of her skin. She braces herself as they come at her, loosing a primal yell in which her own voice is lost in that deeper, masculine tone.

As her whole body is wreathed in rising, pale wisps, we see for the first time white-hot lines of fire trace sigils down her arms and her torso. They are very similar in pattern to the sigils carved on Vlad. Then all the vampires crash into her, trying to drag her down. She begins to fight, bellowing into the night. She catches one vampire, throws him several feet to crash into a wall. Like a ballet dancer, she dodges two others, striking a third in the chest and ripping out his soul. They just keep coming. She moves faster and faster, dodging, grappling, landing blows. When she gets a little breathing room, she glances up at the tower.)

Mara: You’ve got company, John!

--M. Belanger

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