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Never Look Away

Dream from last night. Putting it here. Current events, obviously, have been on my mind. ----------------------------------------------------

I am, quite suddenly, inside a wrecked vehicle. Some kind of SUV. I am a visitor or observer to this tragedy. I am sitting/hovering over where the driver should be. I am not the driver. The driver is dead. I have a vague awareness of his body in the bucket seat beneath me (although I do not physically intersect with that body). The front of him is covered with blood. It is clotting and slick, so dark in places, it's more like black pudding than blood.

There is a woman in the seat beside him. She is also dead. Her head lolls to the side by the window. There is blood spatter across part of the window, and there is a hole in the window, with the safety glass starred around it. There is blood all down her face. I can only see her one eye -- the right one -- it's open and staring. Her eye is dark brown. Her hair is black. Her skin is a deep brown. She looks to be in her twenties, maybe early thirties. I realize as I stare at her that she did not hit her head. She has been shot. At least one bullet caught her in the head, and there are flecks of things that shouldn't be on the outside of a body spattered on the window and a little on the headrest of her seat.

There is a dog in the car screaming, trapped somewhere on the floorboards. I can't see the dog, but I know that it's hurt badly. It screams without stopping -- a panicked, agonized, ugly noise, so loud and constant, I almost don't hear the woman in the backseat weeping and moaning and gulping for breath.

I turn in the driver's seat and I see the backseat passenger. She is an older black woman. Heavy-set. Her hair in braids, and while the whole of her hair isn't dyed blonde, some of it has been lightened, and it makes a pretty pattern in the braids, the faded blonde woven together with the brown.

This woman's skin is a different shade from the dead woman. Ashen. Perhaps because she's in shock. Her eyes are wide and her mouth hangs open as she stares at the dead woman in the seat. She is wailing and close to hyperventilating. There's something wrong with one of her legs -- she's right behind the driver, and I think his seat has been pushed back on her. She's wounded, perhaps trapped, but what has gutted her and riveted her to that seat more than any physical pain is the horror of seeing that younger woman slumped over in the front seat, the one eye staring at some point under the dash.

I think the younger woman may be her daughter.

I -- I am there and not there, not a physical presence, but perceptible. This often happens to me in dreams, especially dreams like this one, where I seem called to witness a terrible event.

I reach back to where the woman's hand rests on the shoulder of the driver's seat (there is a police officer at the wreck -- more than one, but I only see the black officer when he comes up to the passenger side of the vehicle). He breaks the window, yelling to shut that damned thing up. It's a dachshund mix, its back broken so the animal looks bent in half. It's out of its mind with pain, cringing at the feet of the woman in the front seat. When he sees it, he shoots it.

I know now where the bullet came from that killed the woman. Bullets. I think there were several fired -- I don't know what killed the driver. I never turn around to see the state of the windshield in front of him. I get the feeling the air bag didn't deploy, because of the state of his chest -- like the steering wheel smashed all his ribs. But there is so much blood on him, around him, I suspect he also has been shot, and this is why the vehicle wrecked.

The older woman -- I want to help her, feel compelled to ease some of her pain. And if she keeps staring at the dead woman in horror, I'm afraid she's going to slip further into shock.

I reach out my hand to touch her hand. When my fingers cover hers, she can see me. Her eyes flick in my direction.

I say, "Look away."

I mean it to be soothing. I mean for her to stop looking at the blood and the flecks of bone and brain.

She doesn't take it that way.

She meets my eyes with a fierce, proud, and unyielding passion. Her eyes are hazel, tipping toward green. In a low voice rough with tears but wrapped around steel, she says, "Don't you say that to me. I will look. I will memorize what she looks like in this moment. I will never blink or look away. To look away is to deny her death. Not this day."

The officer starts getting a door open then. I have no idea why shots were fired. I have no idea what started this, or how it ended. At her words, so full of determination and anger -- anger that I would even suggest she look away -- I begin withdrawing, chastened.

The dream fades. I wake with her words still lingering in my mind.

I will look.




Octobers Past

While digging through my hard drive in search of material for a new collection, I stumbled across several old journal entries. One in particular leapt out at me, as it was penned nearly ten years ago during one of my whirlwind vampire-themed tours in the month of October. It's little more than a snapshot of a few moments of calm where I could actually sit and reflect on my work and my life. October 30, 2005 Los Angeles

I'm standing on the veranda of the hotel watching the cars speed by. To my right, over the houses, I can see the rising hills of Hollywood. There are palm trees between the lanes of the streets and little Spanish houses of cream-colored stucco. It looks just like the movies.

We stopped for dinner at a little French bistro. Perhaps predictably, the prices were astronomical, although I felt a kind of soothing familiarity in the rapid patter of French between the waiters. My appetite was hardly prepared for the exoticism of escargot, but they advertised a boulangerie. Everything was whole foods and organic, but the loaves were huge and were just what I wanted. The clerk, in contrast to the waiters, stared blankly at me when I asked for un demi-pain aux noix -- even though nothing in the place was labeled in English. After three or four tries, I finally got my half-loaf, and we headed back to the hotel. The bread was thick and hearty, rich with sunflowers, dates, and molasses. As I chewed thoughtfully, Don asked, will that be enough for you? And I nodded my head. This was a bread that could be a meal in itself, and after a couple of mouthfuls I was full.

We had a long time to wait before Hex started. I was exhausted from the plane ride from Ohio, and so I laid back on the huge king size bed. Although I was used to traveling to California and experiencing a temperature difference of 30 to 40°, for once Hollywood was not much warmer than Ohio. The air was almost chilly, and I regretted leaving my elegant velvet cloak at home.

As I laid back upon the stiff comforter of the hotel bed, I stared at the ceiling and thought, "this is what my life has become." Traveling to a different city every weekend, sleeping in a different bed from week to week, living out of a suitcase. When Jay called, we talked in wonder as he walked through Central Park and I stared out at the hills of Hollywood. I had been in New York with him just the previous day. What a strange life this is turning out to be.



The Scorched Circle

A snippet, from a world where a young woman who thought she'd escaped from her past returns home only to discover her mother's secrets were much stranger than she ever dared to believe. Gingerly, I approached the flat expanse of lawn stretching on that side of the house. At one time, I seemed to remember a garden there. That was a long time ago, however, and now the smooth square patch was covered with over-long grass like everything else.

“Do you really want to do this?” I asked myself. But I kept walking, so obviously, some part of me did. That, or I was too exhausted to know any better.

The patterns I’d seen from mom’s studio weren’t as obvious up close. I had to bend and brush some of the grass aside to see any vestige of the strange markings. Once I did, however, I pulled my hand away in shock. The ground wasn’t just a little discolored. It was scorched. In a long, arcing line maybe an inch across, the grass was burned down to its roots.

None of the grass on either side of the line was even singed. That made no sense. I wasn’t even sure it was possible. I ran my finger along the dry, dark earth. My whole arm tingled like I was gripping a live wire. I jerked away, reflexively shaking my fingers. The sensation seemed to cling to them even after I withdrew.

Around me, a wind gusted up, whipping suddenly through the grass. The great bare branches of the oak creaked, and the heavy wind chimes on the porch clanged like alarm bells. I stood at once, my hair blowing wildly around me. The wind was coming from the northeast, the direction of the cemetery. Maybe that didn’t mean anything, but I hurried to the front porch anyway, feeling uneasy.



Never Piss Off a Storm Goddess

Never Piss Off a Storm Goddess The drive past the art museum seemed strangely familiar – or at least, the view out the window did. I couldn’t quite put my finger on the feelings bubbling up from the hindspaces of my Swiss-cheesed brain. Of course, Kessiel didn’t help matters any. He kept distracting me by thrashing against my seat, trying to yell from behind the gag. He made an impressive amount of sound, considering he was essentially limited to projecting through his nose.

At one point, he started kicking at the door behind Lil. She quickly put a stop to this. Fixing a chilly gaze on him in the rearview mirror, she spat, “Kessiel? I will cut off an inch of your manhood for every ding you put into this car.”

She meant it, too.

Kessiel made unhappy noises from behind the three layers of duct tape. They might have been expletives, curses, or nursery rhymes for all I knew. But he settled down.

Pretty soon we were at RockefellerPark, with its old, crumbling stone work and little cultural corners dedicated to the city’s various ethnic populations. Lil pulled into the park near the statue of Mahatma Gandhi, and I experienced another cloying sense of déjà vu. Maybe it was just a partial memory that survived the attack. Whatever it was, it was frustratingly elusive. Something kept drawing my eyes to the statue, but I couldn’t hold the thoughts long enough to understand their significance.

“Now what?” I asked as she cut the engine.

We were sitting in a pool of shadow, tucked back beneath the trees. In the rearview mirror, I could just make out the figure of Gandhi, caught in mid-stride with his walking stick.

“Now I get answers,” she said.

She reached over me and popped open the glove compartment. She was small enough that she had to practically lean across my lap to do so. I expected to get a noseful of the heady scent of spice and vanilla that always seemed to cling to her. Instead, I smelled ozone and fresh summer rain. At the same time, I felt a raw and primal terror crawling up the base of my spine. It curdled in my gut and made my heart leap to my throat. There was absolutely no reason for it. No reason at all.

And then Lil grabbed what she was seeking in the depths of the glove compartment. She sat up, moving off of me. The feeling faded almost immediately. Puzzled, I turned to study her face. Her gray eyes caught the light, only there wasn’t any light to really catch. Despite this, they flashed in threatening tones of gunmetal and silver. Her hair seemed wilder, her features fierce. She exuded death and danger as surely as she also exuded sex and perfume.

Almost as soon as I realized that, I felt a pressure shift in the car. My ears actually popped from it. There was a flash of metal that was not her eyes. She was holding a knife, her treasure from the glove compartment. She flipped the blade open with her thumb. It was elegantly curved and wickedly sharp, about four inches long. Long enough to kill.

Kessiel must have realized something was up, because he had fallen completely silent. I noticed then that Lil was holding the knife angled so that he could see it from where his head was pressed up against the door. She gazed down at the blade for a few moments and started chanting. She ran the ball of her thumb along the edge of the blade, leaving behind a thin trail of blood. The pressure in the car intensified, to the point where it started to feel electric. Then the wind gusted so hard, the trees around us groaned. Acorns rained down on the hood of the car along with some of the last dead leaves of autumn. And then it was just rain. With a blinding flash, the heavens opened up, and huge, fat drops hammered down upon the car. It had been close to freezing a few hours before, but now we were in the midst of a raging thunderstorm.

Lil looked up from her contemplation of the dagger, her eyes the color of lightning-torn clouds. With a grin that promised suffering and pain, she clambered into the backseat and straddled the prone form of Kessiel.



Just a kiss

Another deleted scene from an ongoing work (don't ask how many works-in-progress I'm juggling right now. It probably isn't a healthy number). I don't even know if the romance blossoming in this scene will stay in the series in question. That's the great and terrible thing about writing book-length fiction. It's like a choose-your-own-adventure unfolding in your head, and at times, all the different paths and possibilities exist simultaneously. It's often hard to pick only one. Just a Kiss

“That location is important. I think there’s a chance he’ll try to use it again, and soon,” I continued. I went to my jacket to retrieve the print-out of the Street Witness map. I had just started smoothing it out on the coffee table when Lopez got abruptly to her feet.

“I’m sorry. I can’t do this,” she said.


She started heading for the door. “I can’t do this,” she repeated. “I can’t live in your world. It’s too much.”

“Rita, wait." I scrambled to my feet and hurried after her. "I’m not asking you to believe it. Just accept that he believes it.”

She turned her back to me. I’d been so focused on my own anxieties about explaining things, I’d managed to tune out everything she was feeling. But now the connection surged open, and I belatedly felt the crushing weight of her fear.

“No. I can’t believe that things like this exist. Belief like that is what killed my mother." She nearly lost the iron in her voice to the quaver of unshed tears.

That sound wrenched at me. I reached out and seized her arm. I wasn’t sure if I’d meant to comfort her or keep her from leaving. It hardly mattered, because the minute I touched her, everything got tangled between us. I couldn’t tell where her fear ended or my urgent need to erase it began. We just clung to each other.

And then we were kissing.

*                      *                      *

I broke it off first. I wasn’t exactly sure how – I literally couldn’t remember the last time I’d been with someone and kissing felt really damned good. But underneath the urgent, breathless yearning to pull Rita as close as I possibly could was this subtle feeling of wrongness. I think she sensed it, too, but it didn’t telegraph to her body. Her hands were restless, tracing lines of sensation up and down my back through the thin fabric of my T-shirt. Whenever her fingertips brushed passed my wings, I caught my breath with the intensity of the sensation – she couldn’t feel them, but I sure as hell could. She dug in her nails when I finally managed to pull away.

Her mouth was still tilted up to me, lips plump and red from being crushed against mine. I gently gripped her shoulders, holding her at a distance while not quite able to bring myself to let go. Colors danced in the air between us, whirling like some fervid storm. My head resounded with an empathic feedback loop as everything we felt was shared and painfully amplified. She must have felt it, too, even if she didn’t understand what was happening. Her dark lashes fluttered as she slowly opened her eyes. She blinked like someone waking from a dream. Her pupils were huge, making her dark eyes appear jet-black as she gazed up at me.

“Why’d you stop?” she murmured. The words came out as a sultry purr.

“Why’d we start?” I responded carefully.

She sighed, moving to lay her head against my chest. My brain told me to keep holding her away from me. My arms pulled her in close. Her cheek made a nest of the slight depression at the base of my ribcage. “Long day. Felt good. Been wondering if you could kiss,” she responded. “You can.”

I swallowed hard. My heart knocked against my ribs like it was trying to reach her face. My pulse hammered lower, making my jeans feel too tight. Her face wasn’t the only thing pressed up against me. With suddenly dry lips, I managed to say, “I don’t know if now’s a good time.”

She shrugged against me, tracing the lines of my abdominal muscles through my shirt with the edges of her nails. She made an appreciative sound.  “I feel something every time you touch me,” she said.

“That’s what I’m afraid of.”

“We’re adults. There’s no need to make a big deal about it.” Her hands continued lower, plucking at the waistband of my jeans.

“I’m kind of a fan of doing things only when both parties are in full control of their faculties,” I objected. Hell was it tough to get those words out. I managed to peel her away. Holding her at a distance again, I said, “And you’re not. This is something special. Regretting it later would kill that.”

She huffed impatiently at me. “Jesus, Zack. It doesn’t have to be anything. You’re attractive. I’m attracted. End of story.”

She really wasn’t making it easy to take the high road.


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Playing by the Rules

Some day, I'll have to release a novel with a variation that's like a director's cut. In the process of completing a manuscript, there are so many scenes that get recast or wholly removed. This is one such scene -- another altercation, because I love writing fight scenes. At this point, the root work it's drawn from has changed so much, it's nearly impossible to tell where it came from.  I still like it, though.

Playing by the Rules

“Um, you can let go of me,” I said. I pulled away slightly.

He dropped his hands without comment.

Lucid hazel eyes bored into me. No eerie light was required to add to their intensity. In that quiet tone that nevertheless invested each individual syllable with tremendous weight, he asked, “What do you want from me?”

“Uh,” I faltered.

Suspecting that someone might actually be an inhuman monster was a whole lot different than actually confronting them about it. My mouth went dry, and all of my reasonable-sounding conclusions about what Khalid was and how he might have known my mother nearly eighty years ago suddenly seemed anything but reasonable.

He pressed his sculpted lips into a thin, unhappy line, saying, “Please, stop feigning ignorance. It’s insulting to the both of us, don’t you think?”

I fought to recover the confidence I’d had just moments before. Heart in my throat, I mumbled, “That depends on what I’m being ignorant about.”

Khalid rolled his eyes. “I know it was you the other night. I could feel your observation. For someone who can hide their nature so completely in person, at a distance you are regrettably clumsy.”

I blushed to my hairline. So I really saw him doing those things, and he caught me watching him. I ducked my head guiltily, letting my hair swing forward to hide how red I was. Nervous laughter escaped my throat. I tried to talk, to utter anything intelligent, but my mouth and my brain were at war – and they weren’t including me in the negotiations.

Khalid studied me with his piercing eyes, mistaking my flush of embarrassment for one of anger. “Thalia, I don’t have to be your enemy. Truly, I don’t want to be.”

Finally, in a rush, I managed, “Was that what you said to my mother?”

I expected to see some reaction of shock or incredulity. Raised eyebrows. Something. But he simply shook his head, his frown deepening. “I don’t know what Elondra told you before she passed, but I assure you, she misjudged me.”

“So you did know her,” I gasped. My legs went all watery. I started teetering, dimly aware that I was nearing shock.

Khalid reached out again to steady me. I jerked away, nearly tumbling backwards. I dug the heels of my boots into the damp grass of his front lawn just to stay standing. He kept his hands extended, still trying to catch me as I swayed drunkenly.

“Please don’t touch me!” I cried.

He took a step backward, nodding his head politely. “As you wish,” he murmured. He thrust his hands into the pockets of his trench. Casting a worried glance over my shoulder, he murmured, “But I’m not so certain we should have this discussion out here. Others are gathering.”

My eyes flew to the oak tree – or at least, to where I knew the oak tree should be. It was too dark to see anything save for a hint of the gnarled branches looming next to the massive old Victorian. A little late, I realized I hadn’t left any of the lights on in the house. Not so much as a porch lamp.

“You can see them?” I breathed. My heart’s frantic rhythm echoed in the tremor of my voice.

“The crows?” he asked. “Yes. And I can sense the others. Can’t you?”

“N-no,” I managed, shaking my head. “Er … I’m not sure.”

His finely arched brows drew together and he tilted his head slightly as he regarded me. “What kind of game are you playing?” he wondered.

I didn’t have an answer.

“Thalia, please,” he begged. “I’m only looking to take back what your mother stole from me. Is that really so unreasonable?”

“Do you mean the painting?” I asked. I forced myself to focus on the details. Details, not fear. I needed to let go of the fear.

Behind us, something raised a ululant cry. We both jumped. It was definitely not the crows.

Eyes fixed on something in the distance, Khalid asked, “Are you sure you will not reconsider taking this inside?”

“What, so you can attack me behind closed doors?” I demanded.

“You know I can’t hurt you,” he snapped. A little of that cold light leapt behind his eyes. “Your mother made certain of that. But even if the choice remained to me, I would prefer to resolve this without violence. Why can’t you people understand this?”

By the end of it, he was nearly shouting, so I shouted right back. Anger was always my best refuge from fear.

“What people? What choice? I don’t even know what you’re talking about!”

He regarded me narrowly. “Either you are even better than your mother at hiding the true nature of things or you are not lying,” he murmured. Then his head snapped up, his eyes widening as he stared at something behind me. “Thalia, look out!”

Before I had time to react, Khalid shoved me roughly to the ground. I dropped everything as I went down, car keys and cell phone flying in opposite directions. I started yelling about it, but I was interrupted by a familiar, bone-chilling hiss.

The creature was back.

I scrambled backwards in a panic. In front of me, Khalid shrugged out of his trench, tossing it aside. Under the coat, he wore slim black jeans and a long sleeved shirt of deep amethyst silk. For reasons I could not fathom, he began unbuttoning the shirt as he stepped to meet the creature lurching into his yard. The hideous thing was swift but ungainly, still clad in the torn and soiled clothes from the previous night. Nictating membranes flicking, the intruder narrowed its eyes at my neighbor.

“I have no quarrel with you, brother,” it slurred, ashen lips barely able to close around its mouthful of teeth.

“I am most certainly not your brother,” Khalid answered stiffly. “And you will have a quarrel with me if you don’t get off my property.”

The creature hissed and skittered suddenly on his wrongly-jointed legs, circling to the left in an attempt to dart around the other man. But as fast as the monster was, Khalid matched it speed for speed. The gray-faced creature loosed an irritated snarl.

“There is no need for me to fight you,” it complained. For a big, nasty monster, it sounded bizarrely petulant.

“You are giving me a reason,” Khalid replied. He finished unbuttoning his shirt and tossed it to the grass in the direction of the coat. Wiry muscles rippled beneath the brown skin of his slim and hairless chest.

The creature looked as puzzled about Khalid’s stripper act as I was. But I wasted no time trying to figure it out. As those two were posturing in the yard, I scrambled to my feet and headed for Khalid’s porch. I desperately hoped his front door was unlocked.

“What is she to you?” the creature demanded. It danced back and forth, testing Khalid’s reactions. “If you want her also, we want her for the same reason. She has something that belongs to my sister. Let us both take her then, and make her surrender what was stolen.”

“We may want the same thing,” Khalid acknowledged coolly. “But I somehow doubt that we share the same method.”

With an aggravated snarl, the creature leapt. It sailed through the air, heading straight for me. Khalid moved faster than my eyes could track. He placed himself squarely in the creature’s path. I thought he would attack, but he only blocked the impact, bringing up his arms and thrusting the aggressor back.

Looking slightly dazed, it angled its head querulously like a dog, studying Khalid. “If you want me gone, then attack,” it hissed.

“I would prefer you simply leave.”

Its second set of eyelids flickering, the monster lunged – but didn’t carry through. Instead, it watched as Khalid prepared to meet the blow, but lowered his hands as soon as his attacker drew up short. A strange, staccato hissing emanated from the creature. I realized it was laughing. It was a hideous, chilling sound.

“You are one of the bound ones!” it cackled, pointing with a bony finger. “How much did they take from you? Can you even hunt for yourself? My sister cannot.”

Through gritted teeth, Khalid replied, “I may not be whole, but I assure you, I am quite capable. Come at me,” he taunted. “You’ll find out soon enough.”

“Why not strike me now, leech?”

Khalid’s nostrils flared at the insult, but he simply stood his ground. I tried the door at my back. It was locked. Of course. I started looking around the porch for anything I might use as a weapon. Unless I wanted to assault Khalid’s attacker with one of the previous resident’s garden gnomes, I was out of luck.

Without warning, Khalid ran at the creature, his usually melodious voice raised in a primal yell. I only saw him from behind, but his expression must have been terrifying, because even the monster was taken aback. It lashed out as soon Khalid was within range, its long, ragged nails laying open the other man’s chest. Khalid had to see it coming, but he didn’t try to dodge or even defend against the blow. He just left himself open. With an ugly cackle, the creature pressed the advantage, grappling with Khalid and driving its claws into his bare stomach. The deep, bloody gouges looked almost black against Khalid’s dark, muscled flesh.

“You cannot fight back!” the monster cackled. “I will tear the flesh from your bones, and you cannot fight back.”

“I can now,” the wounded man responded. His voice was quiet, but carried deadly threat.

Eyes flaring gold, Khalid snarled fiercely. As his blood flowed, he stopped merely defending and instead matched the aggressor blow for blow, tearing gobbets from the creature’s cadaverous flesh. The pinkish goo that served the monster for blood flowed sluggishly, but soon it covered Khalid’s face and hands. The fight was vicious, but half the time they were both moving so quickly, I could barely keep track of who was doing what. I just saw flashes of Khalid’s dark limbs, gleaming like the polished wood of some living statue where they weren’t covered in blood.

Unlike the previous night, once the monster started losing, it didn’t simply dissipate into a skirl of shadow. Khalid drove it back to the edge of the yard, finally pinning it to the ground. Battered and bleeding, the creature thrashed weakly, trying to drag Khalid’s hand from its throat.

“Traitor!” the creature spat.

Through gritted teeth, Khalid responded, “If that’s the way you want to see it. Now go. Unless it’s your aim to kill me?”

Khalid sounded almost hopeful.

The creature loosed a vicious, gurgling hiss. “If you do not end me, I will end you.”

“Is that a promise?” Khalid asked, swiping a long strand of black hair back from his face. He was smiling.

“For this insult? Yes,” the monster spat. “I will come back night after night and face you until one of us falls.”

“Perfect,” Khalid answered, and his eyes were twin lanterns in the dark. “You have just threatened my life.”

With that, he snapped the creature’s neck.

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Another fragment cut from a work in progress. The protagonist discovers a strange symbol apparently scorched into the grass of her lawn. Given that this symbol appears in the location where her mother reportedly died, she finds the symbol - most clearly visibly from the third floor tower of her home - both ominous and intriguing. Enigmas

Gingerly, I approached the flat expanse of lawn stretching on that side of the house. At one time, I seemed to remember a garden there. That was a long time ago, however, and now the smooth square patch was covered with over-long grass like everything else in the yard.

“Do you really want to do this?” I asked myself. But I kept walking, so obviously, some part of me did. That, or I was too exhausted to know any better.

The patterns I’d seen from mom’s studio weren’t as obvious up close. I had to bend and brush some of the grass aside to see any vestige of the strange marks. Once I did, however, I pulled my hand away in shock. The ground wasn’t just a little discolored. It was scorched. In a long, arcing line maybe an inch across, the grass was burned down to its roots.

None of the grass on either side of the line was even singed. That made no sense. I wasn’t even sure it was possible. I ran my finger along the dry, dark earth. My whole arm tingled like I was gripping a live wire. I jerked away, reflexively shaking my fingers. The sensation seemed to cling to them even after I withdrew.

Around me, a wind gusted up, whipping suddenly through the grass. The great bare branches of the oak creaked, and the heavy wind chimes on the porch clanged like alarm bells. I stood at once, my hair blowing wildly around me. The wind was coming from the northeast, the direction of the cemetery. Maybe that didn’t mean anything, but I hurried to the front porch anyway, an uneasy feeling roiling in my gut.

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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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