Friday, April 3, 2020

Short Story Friday: The Monster in the Lake (Part 2)

The Monster in the Lake, Part 2 is below.
(For Part 1, click here)


The Monster in the Lake
Part 2

Johi Jenkins



 The Girl

He didn’t kill me, Amka thought for the hundredth time that afternoon. She sat cross-legged on the floor eating supper with her family, but her mind was back in the cave. He could have killed me, but he didn’t.

The monster had grabbed her arm, easily, yet he had let her go when she pulled back. She had known he was deceivingly strong, and very quick; yet she had let her guard down. He could’ve killed her, but he hadn’t. At the very least he had a conscience. He wasn’t a vicious demon.

And also for the hundredth time, she looked at her forearm and wrist where he had touched her. The rich color of her skin had looked so sharply contrasted in his pale, grayish hand. He had looked so … so frail.

He could be dead by now, she thought as she ate a piece of bread. The thought was upsetting.

She was worried about him!

She stood and excused herself. “Mother, Father, I must go prepare for the hunt.”

Her mother smiled. “Amka, you looked worried all supper. Do not fear. You are the best huntress we have. You will find this creature, and kill it.”

Amka felt blood rush to her cheeks and looked down. She tried to keep her voice from betraying her. “Thank you, Mother.”

She walked to her late uncle’s hut. It was the farthest hut from the village; he had used it as a sentry post. He’d had no wife and no children, so when he died Amka had taken over it. She still lived with her parents, but often stayed here, especially of late as she had been hunting the monster.

The monster …

The sun was still up. About six hours had passed since she had left him tied up and bleeding in the cave. He might be dead already, she thought again. The notion gnawed painfully at her insides. She tried to shake away the unwelcome commiseration as she prepared her tools and hunting gear. She needed to focus and bring food to her family today. She shouldn’t care for a murderer.

And yet she found herself leaving the village away from her usual hunting grounds, her feet taking her along the lake toward the secret cave, walking at first, then running. By the time she reached the entrance to the cave her heart was about to burst, and she finally slowed down. I just need to know what became of him, she told herself as she walked the passage to the spot where she had last seen him. She would be cautious. But her heart raced on. She couldn’t tell if the apprehension she felt was the dread of facing a blood-drinking monster again, or the idea of finding him dead.

The answer was obvious as her heart swelled with relief upon seeing him sitting up against the wall of the cave. He was now deeper in the shadows, away from the light coming down the opening above, but her eyes had adjusted to the dark and she could see him. His wrists were still tied and he looked worse than he did the last time she had seen him. Except … the expression on his face. She didn’t understand it. There should have been concern for his own wellbeing, or anger at her, or distrust at the very least. After all, she was to blame for his current predicament.

But his face, trained on hers, was lit with something like … happiness?

“Hello,” she said awkwardly, standing about ten feet from where he sat.

“Hello,” he repeated.

She smiled despite the circumstances. He had repeated the greeting in her language. Then she remembered she had resolved to be cautious, and immediately dropped the smile. She cleared her throat.

“Um, I came back to help you. I feel … sorry … for doing this to you. So I will bring you an elk for you to … drink.”

He just looked at her, curious or confused, she couldn’t tell.

“How much … blood do you need? A big elk”— she motioned wide with her hands—“or something small, like a goat?” She brought her hands closer together.

He shook his head. “No kill … animals.”

“What! Why not? You drank from all those animals before, didn’t you?”

“You …” he shook his head and said a word in his language, while feigning an angry face, “before. I feel … sorry.”

I was angry before when I called him out on killing the animals, and he’s sorry, so he doesn’t want me to kill an animal for him? Was that what he was saying? She was shocked. In the short time that had passed he’d somehow picked up enough words to communicate with her.

“I didn’t understand then,” she explained. “That you needed blood, I mean. You need to eat what you need to eat. So I’ll hunt something for you.”

“No kill,” he said again.

“I can’t just persuade an elk to come here willingly!” she cried, exasperated—and at that moment a new thought occurred to her. A dangerous one. “Wait. Would you have to … kill … the elk, if I bring one in here alive?”

“No kill. Drink … a little bit.” He held his thumb and first finger close together, as he had earlier that day.

Here goes, she thought. “Then … I can help.” So much for being cautious. She ignored her inner voice of reason and grabbed her blade from its sheath in her boot. She pointed the tip at her wrist; the same spot he had bit on his own wrist hours before. “Take a little bit.”

Shocked, he shook his head. “No.”

“It’s fine, I won’t die,” she insisted.

He shook his head again, and lowered his head, looking away from her. But not before she caught a glimpse of something—hunger.

Although he resisted, she could see the need in his eyes, in his demeanor. And she felt responsible for it, for weakening him. So she ignored him and brought the tip of the blade to her flesh. She took a second to take a breath, steeling herself.

But the blade disappeared from her hand.

No,” he said again, and was suddenly standing next to her, his restraints snapped without effort. He held the blade in one hand in the air above her, the other hand around the wrist she had intended to cut.

What … what just happened?

Even earlier, the first time he’d grabbed her hand, he hadn’t been in this close proximity to her. Now his body was mere inches from hers, and her free hand rested on his chest pressed between their bodies. The scales on his clothing were a thing to behold; but she couldn’t spend the time examining them as she would’ve wanted, because her whole attention was engaged elsewhere. On him. On the feel of his fingers around her wrist. And his face, his eyes. The irises were a clear, green color she’d never seen in a person before.

Amka’s heart beat erratically. His closeness forced her to acknowledge the feelings she’d been feeling all day, but that she hadn’t had the courage to admit to herself.

That she was attracted to a monster.
  

 The Monster

Thal had meant to push her away. He had underestimated his hunger before and killed a man; he wouldn’t let that happen again. He was famished now, and weak; an immense threat to the girl. He didn’t know if he could be able to stop after a little bit, as she was offering.

But when he held her wrist and felt her warmth so close to him, and her hand on his chest, it was much, much harder to resist her. He might have fought the attraction he felt, though, except that as he looked into her dark brown eyes he saw her thoughts were aligned with his.

Against his better judgment he released her wrist and dropped her blade onto the cave floor, then brought his arms around her. One hand at her lower back pulled her body against his, and the other one traveled to the roots of her fierce black hair, gently turning her head to expose her neck.

He lowered his face to her soft skin. Then he bit her.

“Ah,” her little whimper escaped her lips.

Her blood touched his tongue and his life wholly shifted before him. His arms tightened around her, pulling her even closer. The person he thought he was, and everything he’d ever thought he wanted, all disappeared; he wanted nothing except this girl and her sweet blood, and her supple body in his arms. Her mind opened to him, and he felt her great pleasure past the brief shock of the bite. Her mind was full of him. Her face lifted to the cave ceiling.

If this is dying, I don’t mind so much.

Her thought sobered him up and broke through his stupor. He forced his head up. It was over too soon.

“Why did you stop?” she asked in a daze. He understood the meaning of her words exactly.

“I … good,” he said, testing the words. In his own language he added, “Thank you,” and stepped back to give her some air.

But he saw her neck was still bleeding. Tentatively, he reached a hand up to her neck where he had bit her. He could heal her, but he felt he ought to ask her first.

May I touch?” he asked in his language.

She didn’t understand the words, but she grasped the meaning well enough. She nodded.

So he brought his finger to one of his fangs and bit, and a bright red drop of blood appeared as she watched with wide eyes. He spread his blood over the two small puncture marks, and heard her surprised thoughts as her wound healed and the pain receded.

She touched her neck. “It’s all healed,” she said, rubbing her fingers over her smooth skin. “No pain. No wound. How did you do that?”

“My blood healed,” he said, extending the finger he had bit, showing her there was no wound there anymore, either. Then he lifted the hem of his now tattered garment and showed her his side where her spears had pierced his skin. “No pain. No wound.”

He heard both her gasp and her internal exclamation of surprise upon seeing him fully healed. And then her silent regard: He is so beautiful.

As his mind automatically added the words to his growing list of her vocabulary, he was thrilled to discover that particular one—beautiful. Excitement over learning the word—and the context in which she had thought it—made him smile.

“You heal so quickly,” she said in awe.

“You feed me. I healed.”

But her pride in helping him turned to guilt in the next instant, as the family person she called Uncle appeared in her mind. Thal had seen this thought before. He stepped back from her and looked down, ashamed.

“I’m sorry for … uncle,” he said.

He felt her surprise. For the first time, she wondered if he could read her thoughts. It was a strange thought to her, the idea of hearing thoughts. Thal realized humans didn’t have this ability. But she didn’t ask him about it—yet. Instead, she thought of her uncle again. She had cared for him deeply.

“Why did you kill him?” The night of her uncle’s death, a month ago, flashed before her eyes. She contrasted what she’d then called the monster with the monster before her now. She didn’t think of him as a crazed animal anymore; she looked for an explanation in her mind. She remembered he had run away limping when she had approached. She wondered if he’d been hurt, then.

He nodded at her unspoken question. He bent and grabbed her blade from the floor where he’d dropped it. “I killed elk. Uncle …” Thal mimicked tiptoeing.

Snuck up on him, her mind provided, understanding him.

“… and then he … hunt me,” he finished, and he mimicked stabbing his back. He didn’t have a word for stabbed yet.

Realization hit her. There had been a dead elk next to her uncle’s body, she remembered. And that explained the monster’s limping—her uncle must have stabbed him. “Oh,” she said.

“I hungry,” he recounted sadly. “I drank from uncle. I take … not a little bit.”

It had been an accident. Thal had been raised with a healthy fear of humans, the sun dwellers. After leaving his underwater cave he’d hunted animals easily enough, but he’d been careless. He’d left the carcasses for the wild animals to feed—it didn’t occur to him that humans might find them and wonder who or what was behind the animal killings. When the man attacked him, he had defended himself, and drawn blood. Blinded by hunger, and perhaps fear, Thal drank until the man stopped struggling. Only when he heard shouts behind him did he remember that engaging with humans was something he should avoid at all costs.

He’d fled and retreated to his underwater cave, and only returned to the surface when he strictly needed to, once a week when he was hungry; and even then, he’d hunted far from the village. But he didn’t realize someone had been hunting him.

“I’m sorry that I hurt you, too,” the girl said, and he could see she was remembering their first encounter two nights before; how she had attacked him while he’d been looking down at her, distracted. She was embarrassed that she had attacked him without provocation, as her uncle had done.

And yet Thal didn’t blame her. He understood now that it was her duty; she’d thought she was protecting her people from a monster. When he’d heard the footsteps behind him as he had tried to free the little goat, he’d realized another human was trying to kill him, but he hadn’t expected it to be a girl. He’d been mesmerized by her beauty. As a true hunter, she had used his weakness against him and stabbed him. He’d run away, but instead of staying out of sight he’d come back like a fool the next night, hoping to see her again.

Instead he’d almost met his doom.

“But you … came back to help me,” he pointed out. “And you … feed me.”

He heard the embarrassment in her thoughts again and saw her blood rush to her cheeks. Her skin color was so warm and exquisite; he yearned to touch her again.

“I had to,” she said, and in her mind she added, I wanted to.

“Wanted to?” he repeated.

She looked at him curiously. How does he know what I’m thinking? “Can you hear … what I’m thinking?”

“Yes,” he said. “I can hear.”

Impossible, she thought, in denial. But then she thought of several times he’d answered an unspoken question. “How?”

I just do,” he said in his language, shrugging, as he had no explanation either in her language or his. Hearing thoughts was as natural to his people as hearing sounds, or speaking.

He is so different, she thought. What an odd creature. Her eyes traveled over him. His height, his long arms—then they fell on his wrists. Specifically, on what was left of the ropes that adorned his wrists.

“You broke my restraints so easily,” she pointed out. “But why didn’t you, earlier? You could have gotten free anytime. You could’ve walked out of here anytime.”

He shook his head. “No walked out. Night creature,” he attempted to explain, pointing at the light coming from the opening above. He was weak and the sun was still out. But he could have broken her restraints. He didn’t though, because they were hers. He looked down at his wrists with affection. “You restraints me,” he answered.

I restrained him, her mind understood his faulty use of her language. “I only tied you up because I thought you were dangerous. I’m sorry.”

“No sorry. I’m not dangerous to you.”

Again she looked at him in awe. “How are you learning my language so quickly?”

He didn’t know how to answer that exactly. He could hear the thoughts that accompanied the words she said, so he very easily grasped the meaning of each word or group of words. And he remembered every word that she said. “I learn quickly.”

“Well, then,” she said, sitting down on the cave floor, “now that we can talk, tell me who you are. And … your name. My name is Amka.” She placed a hand on her chest, pointing at herself.

“Amka,” he repeated, instantly loving the sound of her name. He sat down across from her, then pointed at himself. “Thal.”

“Thal,” she repeated.

They both smiled.
   
***
  
The Girl
  
Amka had grown up hearing tales of blood-drinking demons that some remotely ancestral tribe had encountered ages ago. Children told the stories to scare their younger siblings; they were supposed to be just that: children’s tales. But after talking to Thal for several hours, engrossed in the history of his people, Amka realized the stories were likely based on real events that had been downgraded to fiction over the last hundred years. The more he talked the more she wanted her time with him to never end; but unfortunately the sun had other ideas. She kept glancing at the opening above them, getting sadder by the minute, until Thal noticed.

His thought-hearing ability was quite handy for their communication, she noted, but it had its disadvantages. Such as then, when he heard that little voice she had been ignoring for the last hour telling her she had to go back to take care of her hunting duties. She’d come back empty-handed two days in a row, and the village jerks would be sure to point it out if she didn’t bring something today. And for that she needed daylight. Which was quickly retreating.

“You have to go back home,” Thal surmised, in his newly-learned language of hers. He only had a tinge of an accent. “Don’t be sad. I’ll come back tomorrow and meet you again. And as for today, don’t worry. I can help you catch anything you need.”

“Oh, that’s … thank you,” she accepted his offers, trying to hide the excitement from her voice at the thought of seeing him again the next day.

So very reluctantly they left the cave together. If the amount of light left bothered him, he didn’t show it. He brought down a boar for her easily enough, an animal she rarely hunted because they were huge and their tusks were dangerous. Thal even carried it for her. They continued their talk until the path they walked along the lake turned inland toward her village. There they stopped to part ways. He had to go back to his underwater cave, he’d told her, and he couldn’t very well walk her to the village. People would faint.

Very carefully he slung the boar over her shoulders, and as he stepped closer to her the excitement and awe that had filled her most of the afternoon talking to him, and later witnessing his hunting skills, quickly dissipated. Gloom crept in again over their impending separation, despite his assurance that he would come back. What if he didn’t?

“As soon as the sun sets,” he promised, “I’ll be in the cave.”

“I would like that … very much,” she admitted.

She didn’t know how to part with him, because she’d never needed to part with a guy she liked; and also because most of her physical faculties were presently occupied holding the boar steady over her shoulders.

“Until tomorrow, then,” she said.

“Until tomorrow.” He was smiling as he turned and walked into the water.

Amka smiled too as she watched him dip underwater with a final wave at her. Then she walked the rest of the way home with the smile plastered on her face. She barely felt the weight of the animal slung over her shoulders. She went straight to her house, getting cocky when passing villagers commended her for a kill that wasn’t hers, but that no one knew it wasn’t. She dropped it off outside her hut on her father’s stone slab. Her mother and father always dressed her kills and took care of the other nasty details.

After freshening up she returned to her late uncle’s hut to return and clean all her hunting gear. She dropped off her weapons, then grabbed a water basket and walked to the well. Her mind full of Thal, she didn’t notice Aruk casually leaning against a nearby tree until he spoke. The sun had gone down already and it was getting dark very quickly, but she still kicked herself for not seeing him there as she approached.

“That monster looked quite like a pig,” he said. “I thought it was supposed to be a giant fish?”

Amka had no intention of letting the little dung ruin her mood. “You’re more than welcome to join me in the hunt one day, if you and your pal Torren want to learn how it’s done.” She couldn’t help the biting sarcasm in her voice.

“I don’t think so,” he said slowly.

Her body immediately shifted into defensive mode. Aruk’s tone had changed—her mind took note of several details all at once: his body language, his stance, the size of the tree he was next to, which could hide a number of threats to her. And something else, perhaps most significant of all: Aruk was never one to initiate a provocation. That was always—

She whipped around almost too late. She ducked, avoiding being nearly skewered by Torren’s spear. She kicked out at him as she ducked, but only managed to push him away a few feet. And piss him off.

“What the hell?” she asked them, needing an explanation. They were jerks, yeah, but she never expected Torren to attack her. And with a freaking spear! And yet she saw Aruk had grabbed his own spear as well.

So this was how it was going to be. Two armed against one unarmed. Attacking her from behind, too. Cowards.

“Good evening, huntress Amka,” Torren said. His voice was malicious and full of hatred. “I hope your day has been pleasant so far. It won’t be so pleasant now, I fear.”

Again she wanted to kick herself. This level of dislike coming from Torren must have been brewing in him for a while now, and yet she had never noticed. She always took his taunts as just harmless jealousy. Clearly there was something bigger going on. How had she missed the signs?

“Why?” she asked him, circling around him, placing both of them in her line of sight.

“The hunter must be the strongest,” Torren said simply. “And you’re not the strongest.”

Amka cursed silently. She should’ve known. She was older than him by a few years, and throughout their childhood she’d always been bigger and faster than him. He was still young, around seventeen, but in the last few years he’d caught up with her in size and was now taller. She was still faster and a better hunter, though. Or so she had thought.

They charged. Aruk circled around her, trying to flank her, while Torren thrust with his spear, over and over again. She danced out of the way, while simultaneously analyzing their moves and looking for an opportunity to grab either of their spears; but after not even a minute of this, Aruk, so impatient, decided to just barrel toward her. She side-stepped at the last second and managed to land an elbow to his temple … but the distraction was all Torren needed, and he rushed at her again; this time, the spear caught her arm as she wasn’t as fast to side-step the charge. The cut stung but it wasn’t deep. Yet, it was enough to incite them further. And worse: break her confidence.

She stumbled back, and as they both looked at her savagely, she knew she would not be able to dodge their next charge. Anger filled her heart as she was forced to accept her imminent fate.

But a strange new sound broke through the darkness. It was like the sound of waves crashing against the shore, or wind howling through a narrow crevice. In an instant Amka’s anger vanished and she smiled. The two sadists in front of her didn’t even have a chance to see the blur that came barreling toward them from behind, but she did.

Thal crashed against Aruk, and the vile young hunter went flying into a tree with a sickening crack that no human could ever survive. Amka cringed at the sight of him, at the same time that she heard a whimper. She turned to the sound—and saw Thal had grabbed Torren by the neck, and had forced him down on his knees, choking him.

She had the pleasure of seeing Torren’s eyes filled with a savage fear. “See … he’s real,” she couldn’t help but say.

Thal looked into her eyes, and into her mind and her darkest thoughts, probably, because he nodded almost imperceptibly right before he turned back to the whining Torren in his hand. He squeezed, and Torren’s neck snapped with a satisfying crunch. Then he let go, and her enemy’s body crumpled to the ground.

Amka ran to Thal, and he pulled her into a tight hug. The confrontation and the terror of what had just happened finally caught up with her, and she shook and gasped, clinging to her savior. She had never felt so vulnerable as she had moments before Thal had appeared; and now in his arms she felt the safest she’d ever felt, despite learning that he could crush her into pulp if he so desired. His speed and strength had taken her by surprise.

After another moment she calmed down. Then she realized she was … wet? She pulled back, puzzled, and noticed Thal was wearing a tunic that was plastered to his chest and dripping with water.

“I came directly from my home,” he explained, still holding her. “I felt something was wrong, almost as if I could hear your thoughts from far away.”

“They jumped me. And it took me by surprise. I feel so … stupid.”

“Don’t,” he said, and brought her close to him again. “You’re clever. You trapped me. You could’ve killed me. They were just … cheaters.”

Cheaters. Anger flashed again in her mind. She looked down at Torren. They got what they deserved. And yet, they hadn’t. Aside from a quick moment of fear, they had died too quickly. They deserved worse.

“Drink him,” she offered, nodding at Torren. She knew Thal hadn’t drunk nearly as much from her as he could have. He had to be hungry still. And there Torren was, perfectly good food about to go to waste.

Thal looked hesitant, but he did a little shrug, agreeing with her. He finally let go of her and took a step back. “You’re right. No need to waste.”

He grabbed the body liked it weighed nothing, and sliced the neck open with a fingernail. “So it will look like it was a spear,” he explained, before he covered the cut with his mouth, drinking deeply.

Amka didn’t flinch.

When he was done, he dropped the body to the floor again, then turned to the well behind him and cleaned his lips and mouth with water, as if washing away something distasteful.

“Was his blood as revolting as he was?” she asked.

Thal laughed, returning to her. “No. It was alright. But I had your blood, and that was heavenly, so I’m ruined forever to the bland blood of others.”

She smiled, his laughter and his compliment improving her mood infinitely. She couldn’t resist him anymore. So she reached up and kissed him.

She felt his momentary surprise, then his immediate response. His arms went around her again, and he kissed her back. Slowly, but deeply.

Oh wow, she thought. This is better than I imagined

She had to wake her parents, the elders, and maybe a villager or two to explain what had occurred with Torren and Aruk. But it could wait a bit. As Thal’s lips moved over hers so sweetly, everything else could wait. She was content to just drift in the surge of feeling that engulfed her.
   

To Be Continued






~~
Next part should be the last. I don't really know for sure, though.
Stay safe during the quarantine!



Friday, March 27, 2020

Sneak Peek Friday: Ten Lives

Christian Terry shared a quote from his book Ten Lives, The Respawn Saga Book 1. Check it out!


"The morning was hot and bright. The six started marching as soon as they had packed their camp. It wasn’t long before the group had come across the three-fingered statue. The image they had seen on the map earlier did not do it justice. It stood majestically over them. At over ten feet tall, it loomed with clinging jungle vines draped around it. The group took a moment to gawk at the sight then, shortly afterwards, became aware of their surroundings. The missing men that had been sent this way before them, there were no signs of them having been this far. No footprints or any type of trails were left behind, leaving the six of them baffled. Suddenly something caught Mike’s eye: what the stone statue was pointing at. Hidden behind large hedges and vines in the distance was a gravelly road, and beyond it was a long stretch of silver, half the width of a football field but just as long. Large trees were lined up on both sides with outstretched limbs hovering over the shiny strip of land. “What is that?” Mike asked as he delicately set his backpack near the base of the statue before he tiptoed toward the chrome ground. Mike crossed the grass and stood at the edge of the metal strip, staring down at his own reflection. He tentatively stepped out. Whatever metal this was, it didn’t make a sound as Mike’s size sixteen shoes walked across it. A small obelisk stood just on the outer right side of the silver strip. It was shaped like a pyramid with a small red jewel on its apex. It couldn’t be the fire emerald could it? Mike decided that it would probably be a good idea to leave it alone for the time being. No one leaves things as valuable as that out in the open, he thought to himself. After ignoring the obvious bait, he walked the entire length of the silver walkway. That’s when the trouble started. As he neared the end of the walkway, a chill ran through his body, and he could see his breath escape his mouth. He looked down at his arm. The “X” was glowing. Death? He looked around furiously for what could possibly kill him. What he saw was the rest of the group. As the group marched toward him, he noticed Louis fidgeting with the stone obelisk, struggling to take the jewel off of its top. “Lou!” Mike barked, but before Louis could react, the obelisk shifted backward, and the ground began to tremble. The shaking left them all fighting for footing. There was a loud screech. The silver strip was disappearing underneath them! It resembled a mouth as it opened, swallowing Ariel, Piggy, Brackar, and Mercury into its murky abyss. Adarha ran toward Mike as the ground beneath her feet yawned open. She jumped toward him, clutching what little of the path was left. “Help, please!” she cried. Full of determination, Mike ran toward her and slid, barely grabbing her arm before she let go. “Gotcha!” Mike shouted. He was hanging over the edge, but the ground kept retracting. He scrambled backward, but not fast enough. He fell."

Start reading this book for free: http://a.co/f1CbZrU

Monday, March 16, 2020

Sneak Peek Friday: Tracked on Predator Planet

Sneak Peek Friday comes late on Monday (sorry!). Author Vicky L. Holt shared the first chapter in the second book of her Predator Planet series, Tracked on Predator Planet. See below for a link to her first book, Hunted on Predator Planet. Enjoy!




Tracked on Predator Planet

I roared at the white-furred pazathel-nax that snapped at my boots. For some kathe reason, the devil dog picked me out as the weakest in the pack. What a load of kathe. I could kill any of my brethren in a couple of tiks. Even Naraxthel. Ha. Especially Naraxthel, now that he was smitten with that useless soft female. It was better he had left us when he did, otherwise the devil dogs would be disemboweling the both of them.

“Run ahead!” I shouted to the three hunters. “Pull them away! I’ve got this mutt!”

I watched them draw the rest of the pack away, Raxkarax feigning a lame leg. I swung my raxtheza but missed the dog’s gray-white head. I parried its muzzle with my double blade, and soon its blood sprayed upon the groundcover. Two more swipes with my blades, and the dog lay dead, its entrails steaming in the rain-swept air. I double-checked my sight-capture was working. The Ikma Scabmal Kama loved to see death and mayhem.

A huge crack of lightning split the air, and I heard a sizzle in my earpiece. I watched in awe as a giant tree fell across the trail, shuddering the ground with its enormous weight.

I looked through sheets of rain, to the trail my brethren had followed, but they were gone. I heard distant shouting. Wary the devil dogs would sneak around and flank me, I cleaned my blades and jogged off the trail, finding a lesser used game path to head in their general direction.

A snarling log hit me in the shoulder and knocked against my helmet. I fell to the ground with a curse and felt the teeth of a lone devil dog worry my elbow joint. I growled and unsheathed my short sword, stabbing it in the belly. I silenced its high-pitched whine for good. I stood and aimed a disgusted kick at the huge blood-spattered corpse. More curses followed when I slipped in the mud of the trail, almost falling on my ass. I heaved great breaths from exertion, feeling heat from my anger flush my skin from my arm pits to my neck. I scowled and frowned, waiting for more pazathel-nax to lunge at me from the ikfal. Crouching in wait, I held my blades ready.

Rain poured over my armor, washing the blood and gore from its seams, as well as powering the cells. A fuzzy static pierced my earpiece. I cocked my head. “Hello? Raxkarax?” More static. “Natheka? Raxthezana?”

Kathe. That dog jostled my comm when he pounced on me. The sight-capture feed blew out as well. Once the rain stopped, I would remove my helmet and try to fix the delicate technology. For now, I was isolated.

Alone.

Out of communication range.

Last seen being attacked by the vicious pazathel-nax.

My breaths increased; my heart raced. The tendons in my neck tightened.

I could not have planned this any better if I had spent ten cycles arranging it. A gust of breath escaped my lungs. If I was dead to Theraxl, I was free. I only paused a second to leave my prized blade sunk into the body of the dog. No living Iktheka would leave his raxtheza.

I spun on the trail and tore off in a different direction. Careful to step on springy undergrowth instead of black mud, I chose to hide my trail sign.

I ran for several zatiks, sometimes leaping to grab hold of a low branch and swing myself forward a veltik. The farther I ran west, the freer I felt.

No more sight-captures for the Ikma. No more nights in the Ikma’s pungent lair, filling her baser needs while my promise of posterity withered and died. No more lengthy feasts in the dining halls, pretending to be humored by others’ stories or females’ batting eyes.

On Ikthe, I was Iktheka alone, beholden to no one save my goddesses.

Holy Goddesses, I thank you for the gift presented to me. May I use it to give you glory.

My armor felt lighter. I felt a sensation like cool air lift from my belly and burst forth out of my mouth. A laugh.

Shaking my head at my foolishness, I ran on, headed for the private glade I sometimes escaped to for precious moments of solitude. I liked it because it was defensible on three sides. Protected by a defile of rocks on one side, a gulch on the other, and flanked by a stream on the third, it was perfect. It had access to the bounty of the forest on the north side. I smiled. I would be there in three days’ time, and then I could scheme how I might live out my days as an exile on Certain Death.

I stopped for short meals of speared jokal over small fires. I built them under the heaviest canopy, that the smoke filtering through the leaves became invisible. I obscured my footprints, choosing rocks and treefalls to walk upon, or reversing my walk, in places where prints were inevitable. Leaping and jumping, climbing trees or crawling through bowers, my trail sign was untraceable. Once the heavy rains descended, I would be but a memory of a dream to my fellow hunters.

I slept in the vee of the red tower trees and killed the animals that threatened to kill me first. On the morning of the third day, I smiled at the Sister Suns. Soon I would settle a camp. I would dry meat and use my hands to build a semi-permanent shelter.

I lowered myself from the tree, pulling a jeweled talathel out and twisting its jaws until they popped. I threw it to the ground for the jokapazathel and loped the remaining veltik to my glade.

I slowed to a walk, unhurried for the first time since my adolescence. I reported to no one now, save the Holy Goddesses.

Using my gloved hands to part the foliage, I came upon my glade through the deep woods. Already I heard the babbling waters of the stream where large glisten-fish swam upstream. They made a delicious soup. My mouth watered at the thought.

My eyes caught a movement, and I stilled.

I switched to my heat-vision and cursed soundly.

Holy Goddesses, do you now play a joke on your servant Hivelt? Do mine eyes see another soft traveler in truth? Do you play with Hivelt?

I zoomed in on the figure. There, in front of a small ship, stood a person of Yasheza Mahavelt’s race. I watched in disbelief as they gathered sticks and twigs and placed them in a huge pile at the back of their ship. They had been collecting for days, it would seem.

My eyes widened as I scanned the site, switching back to my natural vision. A drying rack had strips of meat and pelts draped over it. The traveler built a cairn of rocks at four corners of the glade. Another large boulder sat against the rock outcropping, a concave center collecting rainwater.

My breaths came in short bursts. My heart seemed to slow with time. I blinked, willing the sight to change. It didn’t. The soft traveler’s industry belied Yasheza’s race. Perhaps this was another race? Naraxthel’s Yasheza ran from him and hid. She took baths. This one—this one worked.

I watched for several jotiks, checking my camouflage settings obsessively. When she left her site to approach the tree line, I faded further back into the ikfal. What was she approaching so carefully? Flailing movement at ground level caught my eye. Ah. This traveler set traps.

The mahavelt’s suit was identical to Esra’s. I retreated into the ikfal an extra step but waited to see the face. If it was a female, I would turn and run, if it was—

They turned to look at me, but I knew I made no sound, my armor at maximum stealth settings. My camouflage obscured me. But she—I could see her face.

Luminous silver eyes, like the scales of the glisten-fish, saw through me and pierced the empty place where my heart was not. They shone out of a darker skin tone than Yasheza Mahavelt’s. The contrast was striking.

Her brows turned down as if she could detect my presence, and her mouth frowned. Her eyes narrowed, and she dropped her wood, taking steps toward me.

Run, Hivelt. Run and hide.

My face grew hot and I clenched my fists. My heart hammered in its heart-home, and I took a great draught of air. The little industrious trespasser built a homestead in my glade.

I reached for my raxtheza, and my hand came away empty.

She took one more step, then cocked her head. I watched her lips move as if she spoke, but I heard nothing. She turned away and resumed checking her snare.

My heart returned to its usual pace, and I relaxed my hands at my side.

By all appearances, this female intended to stay. But I would observe for a few days until I decided if she deserved the raxfathe and death. Naraxthel spoke of corruption in Theraxl ways, and the Ikma Scabmal Kama revealed it to be so, but that didn’t mean the raxfathe didn’t have its place in the order of things. Especially when an uninvited interloper took up residence in my place of solitude and serenity.

I snarled and snapped my teeth, remnants of the pazathel-nax fight hounding my thoughts. I watched her progress along the tree line, and my eyes tracked a path to a spot in front of me. There! A clever snare utilizing a sapling sat within a long stride from me. A dead jokapazathel hung limp. Seeing she was preoccupied with her load, I cut the rodent loose and kept it for myself. A tribute.

Death and fury would be my companions tonight. I retreated further into the ikfal and climbed a tree.


Saturday, March 7, 2020

Short Story Friday: The Monster in the Lake (Part 1)

Here is a short story slash snippet that I wrote:


The Monster in the Lake
Johi Jenkins


The Monster

Against years of his mother’s constant warnings, Thal wandered outside to the human world.

She had wanted to keep him safe, and the human world was anything but that. But in the end she had known that his destiny lay above the lake surface in the land of light; that he couldn’t live the rest of his life underwater. So she hadn’t made him promise to stay beneath. Instead, she had used her last breath to tell him how much she loved him.

And for many years after her death he had stayed in the underwater cave, living off the large mammals that shared his aquatic world. But these past long months it had become more and more challenging; the temperatures were warming outside and the animals that used to swim year round his cave had dwindled in numbers or migrated elsewhere. Food had become scarce and he’d been starving. So Thal left the safety of his cave and swam up to the surface.

   
The Girl

The goat bleated pitifully and Amka’s resolve almost faltered. She hated using the young female as bait, but it had been a week since the last attack, and Amka was sure the monster was coming tonight; she would take no chances. The monster had been attacking every seven days, and the sounds of easy prey would lure it here; she was sure. And she was going to kill it.

The monster only attacked at night. It was quite dark tonight, and in her hiding place the monster wouldn’t see her when it attacked the goat currently stuck in the mud. Her plan was simple; to attack the monster while it was busy. Her blade was sharp and her legs eager to pounce. She waited.

She almost missed it—but the goat’s shrill cry alerted her to the spot where a shape had appeared, hovering over the ill-fated animal. She meant to wait until it attacked the goat, but her adrenaline sent her running towards the monster, as quiet as only she could be.

Still, it heard—and it whipped around so fast she didn’t have time to stop or change strategy. Something strong connected to her chest, and she went down into the sticky mud, face up, air knocked out of her. The monster she had been so sure she would kill had somehow gained all the advantage on her. As the thing that had hit her pressed her down into the mud—it was an arm holding her down, she realized—she looked up and faced her death.

It was a … man-like creature. She couldn’t see it well in the darkness, but it looked like a man, his body covered in scales, his face framed and partially hidden by long thick hair. At least, the face and eyes staring down at her looked like those of a man; only it—he—looked like nothing she had ever seen before. And she realized he was distracted, staring down at her, and the pressure in her chest had lessened. Then he bent down and sniffed her.

She didn’t wait—her arm went up with all her might, and her blade connected with his side. He yelped in surprise and backed away, and she tore out of the mud and ran away as he ran the opposite way.

She continued running until she reached her village and woke the young hunters, Torren and Aruk, to have them keep watch. They were her least favorite people, but as the village hunter it was her job to keep the village safe. She had already expected their taunts, so they didn’t really surprise her.

“You saw the fish monster? Are you sure it wasn’t your imagination, huntress Amka?” Torren asked as he grabbed his spear. He was always the first to start the jeering.

“It’s a real monster, Torren,” Aruk said in a sarcastic voice. “A monster that somehow only she saw, and that kills animals but doesn’t actually eat them.”

Amka was the best hunter in the village ever since her uncle, the last hunter chief, had been killed a month ago. These two young idiots could taunt all they wanted, but they weren’t ever going to match her speed and stealth. She brought in more game than anyone else. She knew who she was, and who they were. She was above their petty insults.

But that didn’t keep her from wanting to show them she had been right.

“You boys are probably right,” she said. “It’s my imagination, so keeping guard should be no problem for you.”

She left them there and went back to her hut. She lay awake for some time, plotting. After deciding what to do, she slept a few hours. Then she spent the next morning setting up her trap.

The trap consisted simply of covering an opening at the top of a mountain cave; she would get the monster to fall though it and land on a row of well-placed spikes in the cave below. She had discovered the cave by accident when she was young, almost falling through the same opening. She wouldn’t have survived the fall; it was quite a drop. The cave was far from the village, but she was positive that she could lure the monster there.

She had learned from her mistake and knew not to face the monster directly; he was much faster and stronger than her. But she hoped he wouldn’t resist the scent of a small piece of the elk that she had brought to her family the previous day. She carefully placed it on the false floor covering the opening; when he reached out to grab it he would fall through. Easy.

As an extra incentive, she had placed the meat within the folded breechcloth that she had worn yesterday—the monster had sniffed her; maybe he had a good sense of smell and he wouldn’t resist the prey that had attacked him last night. She had considered the goat; the poor thing had found her way back home to the village, looking for her mamma. But Amka felt guilty and decided to use leftover meat instead.

Her masterwork finished, with still plenty of light she retreated to the safety of the village. He’d never attacked there. She hoped after tonight, he never would.

***

Amka was up at the break of dawn the next morning and armed herself with as many weapons and rope as she could carry. She said goodbye to her parents, hugged her mother extra hard, and gave a kiss to her little siblings. She was excited and hopeful but was not conceited enough to blindly trust her skills. The monster had taken her by surprise once before.

She left when the sun was high enough in the sky that it was very bright. As she approached the cave from the top, she heard nothing, saw nothing. But when she saw her trap her heart jumped with excitement. The false floor she had carefully strewn over the opening of the cave had fallen in; carefully she peeked inside, and saw the body inside in a pool of blood.

She had done it!

She rushed to the bottom of the hill, to the hidden cave entrance. She had beaten him by simple cunning. She knew the area well, and he did not.

She came in, cautious but thrilled. And there he was. The monster was …

In the low light that filled the cavern from the opening above, she could see the man-like scaly creature was just … a boy. A young man about her age. His skin that had appeared to be scaly was just some sort of clothing or armor. The exposed parts of his skin that appeared to be gray were just caked with clay. But his face and shoulders, and bits of other areas where the clay had washed away, she could see his skin had been very pale and was now very red, as though burnt by the sun.

And now he was dead.

For some reason the kill had not brought the joy she had thought it would. Her earlier excitement when coming down the mountain had all but vanished, replaced with a strange unhappiness.

The supposed monster had been just a boy. And he was so strange-looking. So pale. She was … embarrassed that she had tricked him. How long had he lain broken at the bottom of the cave before he died? Had he suffered much?

She was supposed to take his body back with her to the village, though, to show everyone that the monster did exist and that she had been right all along. And that she was able to kill it because she was a good huntress and her uncle had been right about her in selecting her as his second in command, not long before he was killed.

By this boy at her feet.

She shook her sympathy aside and crouched next to him, then began to remove his body from the tangle of spears and sharp sticks that had been his demise. She saw several had pierced his body. She took them out carefully, grimacing at the broken flesh. When she finished, she dared look at his face again, pushing a strand of matted hair off his cheek.

Then she saw him looking at her.

She jumped back, afraid. Survival instincts made her temporarily regret pulling the spears from his body, but only for a moment. She realized right away he didn’t look like he could move. But, just to be safe, she tied his hands.

As she worked, a new excitement replaced her fear. He was alive. Maybe he would live. She would …

She would what? Sew him up and send him back to where he came?

But she couldn’t kill him. He looked so skinny and so pitiful. Her uncle had been a brawny man. How did this … boy… kill her uncle? Unless … unless it hadn’t been him. But no, she recognized the scales.

The day her uncle had been killed, she was the one that had found him, with a creature bent over him. When she approached, the creature lifted its head and ran away, but not before she had caught a glimpse of what appeared to be fish scales covering its body.

“You killed my uncle, didn’t you? You’re the same monster that killed all those animals, and my uncle.” It was more of a statement to herself, as she didn’t think he’d answer.

But he did.

In a different language, he said a few words.

That he had a language, and a soft voice, not just grunts or animal sounds, took her by surprise. He was a person.

But he’s a murderer! She corrected herself.

“It had scales like you, like that … thing … you are wearing,” she added. The image flashed before her eyes again. The scales, the size was the right size.

Something like understanding flashed before his eyes, as though he was remembering something. As though he had understood her.

He nodded, and pointed at himself, and at his scales.

“Do you understand me?” she asked suspiciously.

He lifted his hands and seemed to notice his restraints for the first time. Then he held his thumb and first finger very close together, showing her a small space between them. A little bit, she understood he meant.

“I’m not going to untie you until I know the truth.” She pointed at his tied wrists and shook her head, emphasizing no.

He nodded.

“Why did you do it?”

He didn’t understand that, and only gave her a questioning stare.

“Why did you kill the animals?” She thought of the several dead elk and the two large buffalo she had found over the last month, dead and discarded. But she also thought of her goat, alive with her mamma goat.

He said a word in his language and rubbed his belly.

“You killed because you were hungry?” she guessed.

He nodded.

“But you didn’t eat them.”

Something was off. He looked like a nice person. Maybe only because he was tied up.

“Are you still hungry?”

He nodded.

“Did you eat the meat I left in the trap?” she pointed to the opening above.

He followed her pointing automatically, but as he looked up to the bright opening, he squinted and looked sharply away.

“Ah, I forgot you’re a night creature,” she said. “The meat. Did you eat it?”

But he wasn’t looking at her anymore; his eyes were closed tightly. Frustrated, she looked around and found her breechcloth easily enough. The meat was still inside.

“Here, eat it,” she offered, bringing it close to his hands.

He opened his eyes and made a face she didn’t understand, and shook his head.

“What is it? You don’t eat elk? You don’t trust me to feed you? You’re upset that you fell for this particular piece of meat?” At each question he would just shake his head, and she was getting very frustrated, until she all but yelled, What is it?”

Then very swiftly he grabbed her arm and pointed to the inside of her wrist, saying some words in his language. Alarmed that he had grabbed her, she pulled her hand back and fell silent. He then touched his own neck. She didn’t understand what he meant, so she just shook her head.

Looking frustrated, with some effort he sat up, and brought his tied hands to his mouth. Then he bit his own wrist. She gasped as she saw he had drawn blood. But he wasn’t done—he thrust out his bloodied wrist for her to see, then very deliberately brought his open wound back to his mouth, and drank.

She gasped.

She remembered the animals, a similar bite on them. And her dead uncle, how his neck had been ripped open.

At this, the boy nodded. Then very slowly, he bared his fangs, pointing at one of them.

She understood, and was terrified.

He was a monster.

She ran. Out of the cave and into the safety of the light. Back to her village, running.

But she thought of him all day.


~~~
Edit: Part 2 is here!


Friday, March 6, 2020

Snippet Friday: Sneak Peek from The Binding

I've read and loved The Binding by Victoria Clapton, so I thoroughly enjoyed this short snippet she shared last week (February 28). Find works by Victoria here:




My short walk to Jackson Square had a surreal, rapturous feel to it, heightened by a lone musician, sitting on a darkened stoop, playing an empyrean melody that transcended passersby into a higher realm of awareness. As my first full day here in New Orleans began to wind down, I was beginning to understand that this wonderfully overwhelming energy of always "going with the easy flow" was not only tangible but also never-ending.



So far, I had yet to look out onto the street and find it empty. People were constantly moving about. With the daylight long-faded, the artists and musicians had mostly packed up their belongings, instrument cases, and easels, leaving behind the empty spaces they had occupied by day open for evening tarot readers to set up folding card tables which they would cover in scraps of velvet and satin and glowing candles as they waited for curious tourists to inquire about their future.



I took a moment to gaze up at the brightly-lit stained glass windows of St. Louis Cathedral. The various colors sparkled brightly over the night, serving as a bright beacon of hope for the city. This magnificent display of Catholicism stood erect only twenty feet away from the myriad of card readers, and in some unexplainable way, they seemed to fit well beside each other.



Following a whim, I passed several nice restaurants and boutiques as I made my way to the crosswalk where I could safely cross Decatur Street and climb up the levee to Artillery Park. From the street, I could not see the river that I knew to be close, but I had a hunch that I would be able to see it once I'd climbed all the stairs to the top.



My hunch was dead on. The views from the park were nothing less than stunning. In fact, this was the perfect spot to see Jackson Square and the cathedral in all of its magnificent glory.



And when I turned in the opposite direction, I was instantly filled with delight. Before me was the Mississippi River. I turned in a semi-circle, not sure which view I should marvel at first, until I realized I could walk down the other side of the levee and actually go to the riverfront.



A British family standing near me taking pictures was about to do just that, and I overheard them call the walkway that ran beside the river "the Moonwalk". Not wanting to intrude upon their space, I waited for them to walk down before I headed in the same direction.



For as long as I could remember, I have been drawn to water. It has a calming effect on my mind when my its workings feel electric, and it was here at the waterside where lights were found dancing off the water ripples that I finally sat down on an empty park bench and let go of the first-arrival urge to rush around New Orleans.



City lights cast prism rainbows upon the water while soft white lights from the bridge and a slowly passing riverboat cast an older, more orange tinge upon the tiny waves. The combined illuminations decorated the waters of the Mississippi.



Lost inside my head, in my own creative world, allowing only a polite nod or smile, I mostly ignored the few people that walked by while I daydreamed about what might happen next. So far, my spur-of-the-moment decision to uproot my life had been a fortuitous adventure. Smooth and exciting, I had high hopes for the future days ahead. That is…until I was approached by a pair of strangers.



"What is a pretty thing like you doing out here all alone? How about some company, sweet thing?"



I looked up from the haze of my lazy river dream to see a man and a woman dressed in the popular Victorian Steampunk fashion that I admired but had never really had the money to try.



"I am enjoying some peace by the river." This was my reply, for I did not wish for company. I hated to seem rude, so I didn't say whether the two could join me or not.



As if in a choreographed dance, the two of them moved fluidly around opposite sides of me, taking up the remaining room on both ends of the bench. They were uncomfortably too close for strangers, and I felt trapped.



While I tried to figure out what sort of situation I was in, I took in their appearance much closer. The man and the woman were unnaturally good-looking and flawless, in a creepy way that seemed inhuman. Both were shorter than me. The female had brown doe-like eyes and doll-like ringlet hair that should, but didn't, make her seem innocent rather than sinister. The accompanying gentleman had a lighter chestnut colored hair that he wore at shoulder length, and his eyes were light in color, possibly green. Their angular appearance was so model-perfect, so similar to one another that they could have been either siblings or perhaps, twin flame lovers.



Not enjoying their sudden invasion to my space, I moved, in an attempt to rise from the bench. 



"Where are you going, pretty thing? We were just about to get to know one another." The woman declared possessively.



"Zyl, this one smells like…" The man's voice sounded slightly worried, but his concern bothered the woman little.



Cutting him off, she focused on me, "Now, what brings you to our city?"



As she spoke, she brushed her fingers through my hair, and I had to keep myself from shivering. These were the type of night walkers that Aloysius had warned me to avoid while out in the ancient streets. I was not frightened as I perhaps should have been at being cornered by two freakish strangers, but I instinctively knew I should get away from them as fast as possible.



Both of the creeps leaned in closer to me, the woman moving to re-position my hair. My hand knocked hers out of the way as I tried to stand up again. This time, they both grabbed an arm, holding me down as the female draped her arm around my shoulders. This was not good. I needed to get away from these nuts.



"Zylphia Lynum and Ambrose Northgood, I believe you are needed elsewhere." A strong voice, filled with distaste, emanated from the shadows behind the bench where we sat, and I recognized it immediately.



Again my body betrayed me. The two moved away from me instantly, disappearing into the night without a word, and I should have left too. Yet, I remained sitting there, frozen, not by fear, but by the same deep yearning that had brought me blindly to New Orleans.



"You shouldn't be here," he said as he stepped into the light where I could see him.



I desperately wanted to give a snarky come back but was immediately taken aback as I found myself speechlessly gaping at Demien instead. He was standing there beneath the lamplight in a stunning greatcoat, as if he'd just stepped out of a Jane Austen novel. It was a humid night. He should have been sweating in that coat, but he seemed comfortable. Goddess in heaven and hell, he was gorgeous.



Silence wrapped around us as he gracefully sat down beside me, making no noise at all except for the rustle of a white paper bag he carried in one hand. In his other hand, he carried a cup. Both Aloysius and Josephine had warned me to stay away from this man, but I was pretty sure he'd just gotten me out of a dangerous predicament. Plus, curiosity and questions overwhelmed me.



"You know those two creeps?" It wasn't the best question. Obviously, he did know them.



"Why are you out here alone at night?" he snapped. His sheer disapproval was emphasized with his last three words.



…because this is a free country. I am a grown woman. It's none of your business.



I thought all of those things and worse, but did not say any of them.



"Zylphia and Ambrose are…they won't bother you again. You are fortunate that I saw you walking to the riverside alone. If you intend to stay in this city, and I suggest you don't, you must learn caution and common sense. If you want to see the city at night, take one of the Touchets along for protection."



My mouth was wide open in disbelief. I could feel the night air on my teeth. I knew I looked foolish. The tone of his voice had shifted from anger to great concern. I didn't understand.



"It's beautiful," I mumbled. All of my years of arguing with my father and brothers should have aided in dealing intelligently with this over-opinionated man beside me, but no…I, once again, had said something stupid.



"Yes, this city is a unique place," he concurred.



"Especially at night. At least I think so. I've only viewed a small section since I moved here two days ago. Tonight was my first venture out."



"And you attracted their attention…" Beneath the street lamps his face showed no emotion, yet I sensed confliction within him. "Here."



"What's this?" I wondered as I took the bag without a thought.



"Beignets and a cup of café au lait. You passed right by Café Du Monde and didn't stop."



"You were watching me?" True, my friends had warned me to stay away from him, but I thought their warnings came from his being a total malcontent, not because he was a stalker.



"A friend owns a bar down the street. I saw you pass by, noticed you were alone, and assumed that since you were being foolish, you would need my help."



He'd insulted me again. 



"Where do you get off? That's the second time you've insulted me. You don't even know me." I couldn't believe his audacity. I also couldn't believe how much his opinion hurt me. I didn't even know him. Why should I care if he liked me or not? I'd spent my life living with people who didn't like me.



"You'd be well on your way to dead had I not been waiting on you to do something ill-advised. No one would have batted an eye. Locals are well-acquainted with your type. You come here in search of good times and a flirt with the supernatural, but you have no idea what really waits lurking in the shadows. You get yourself in trouble, and then we have to clean up the mess. Eat your beignets before they cool off."



"Dead? What are…?"



"Eat and drink a little of that coffee."



"I don't want…"



"Sybella Rose," he said my name as if it were painful to pronounce, as if those two words were much more than just my name.



He knew my name…probably from the same source that I learned his.



"Demien…" I hesitated because his facial expression twitched when I spoke his name. He seemed to be struggling with something. "Look, you are right. I don't know what I am doing, but here is where I am meant to be. It's the only place I can be."



Before finishing what I had to say, I pulled out one of the beignets covered with powdered sugar from the bag and took a bite, failing to keep the messy white sugar from getting on everything.



Oh hell, I was going to die of overwhelming delectable-ness of food in this town. Not wasting time on words, I held up the bag to Demien to offer him one of the fluffy little pillows of awesomeness. He declined as he pulled napkins out from a jacket pocket and waited for me to finish off the doughy square.



When I came up for air, I asked. "What were they?"



"What? Not who or why…"



"No, what?" I insisted. As a great consumer of fiction novels, I am aware of all manner of creatures that go bump in the night. "There are two kinds of beauty. One, like the kind Aloysius and Josephine carry, is physically appealing, but their real attractiveness comes from their soul. They are both true individuals."



"And the other kind?" He sounded like he didn't want to hear the answer.



"Well, like those two who were just here, their beauty is distracting, nasty, sneaky, oily…wrong."



A low deep rumbling sound erupted from Mr. Cranky himself. I looked over to see that Demien was laughing.



"WHAT they are doesn't matter. You probably wouldn't believe it if you knew, and even if you did believe it, knowing the truth never benefits the person who knows. They almost always end up dead or worse."



I detected bitter truth in his words and wondered what made him such a pessimistic entity. "Okay, so illuminate me on this. I have supposedly walked into a situation I am not equipped to handle, but I'm not allowed to learn the truth so that I may be better informed so that I may be safe because the truth is also danger. Demien, what do you propose I do? And do NOT say leave the city!"



I carefully closed the paper bag, sealing in the freshness, so that I could eat the other two beignets later and sipped on my café au lait as I waited on him to speak.



"Learn what you can from Josephine, anything and everything she might teach you. Eat at least one meal a day from Aloysius' kitchen. And wear this always. Never take it off."



He was removing an oval amulet from his neck, a black stone embellished with a faded silver fleur-de-lis. As he placed the necklace around my neck, careful not to entangle it with my hair, his eyes caught mine. I leaned in closer to him. I could not help it. I needed to be nearer to him. My fingers reached up, desperate to touch the lines of his face. I wanted to kiss him.



Demien moved to the far side of the bench fluidly, like the scary two had moved, and quickly.



"Sybella Rose, stop. I am more dangerous to you than those two ever could be. Do as I said, all that I said. And don't seek me out. This amulet will deter others like me from harming you. It will not, however, protect you from me."



He was gone before I could reply, and I was left with an intense yearning to yell at him again. I looked all around me in every direction. After all of that, I didn't believe for a second that he had disappeared completely, leaving me, once more, alone in the big bad dark. But he was nowhere in sight. When I stood up, I realized I was gripping his amulet. Again, I felt a sense of wrongness within me. I should be scared, but I was not. Instead, irritation and suspicion filled me.