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Heart of Farellah – Chpt. 1

This is the tragic, beautiful tale of a girl without a soul.

I am that girl and this is my story.

Let’s start at the beginning.

Chapter 1: The Rite

When a songstress is born, she isn’t alone. A tiny, glistening thing resides very near to her soul. It is her song, and it accompanies her all her life.

Before I lost my soul, my song was buried deep, deep within me.

Until the day of the Rite.

On that day I lay in the grass. On that day everything changed.

~

I was just staring off across a noon-lit meadow that smelled familiarly of cherry blossoms, when a loud scurrying alerted me to the arrival of a girl that was far too small for her tail.

Or maybe her tail was simply too big.

Either way, the girl, who happened to be part-squirrel, came scampering into the meadow, disrupting the rest I’d long sought after.

“Aura!” she cried, slashing about the blades. “What’re you doing out here? Miss Danice sent me to retrieve you!”

She was too loud for a day so calm. I wasn’t in the mood. Not today. Not with the Rite nearly upon us.

But as the Squirrelean girl tipped her head forward, hands to her hips reprimandingly, I couldn’t help but grin. One of her ears was erect, while the other flopped forward. She looked ridiculous like that.

“You found me, Kantú.” I put my hands up in surrender. “And I thought I was being so sneaky, too.”

Kantú returned the grin. “You, Aura Rosh, are not sneaky.”

She was right. But neither was she.

“Anyway, what are you doing out here all by yourself?” she said, settling down beside me. The grass came up to her shoulders. She batted at it.

Truthfully, I’d just woken from a dream. But it hadn’t been a good one. Something about a cavern full of mirrors and a bright red light . . .

Not worth mentioning.

“Nothing much,” I said. “Just trying to mentally prepare, I guess.”

Though it was hard preparing for something I knew so little about.

Kantú was on the same page. She twisted the end of her bushy tail between her fingers and stared intently at the center of my forehead. “Wonder what even happens during the Rite,” she said. “Do you just wander around in the dark? Or what?”

I didn’t know, and I didn’t want to think about it. My nerves acted up whenever I did.

But Kantú wouldn’t let it rest.

“Well, your Rite can’t be much worse than Laria Lynn’s, at least,” she said. “Remember that? Something flew up her skirt, she tore it off, and when she came running out, the whole village saw her – exposed.” She let out a high-pitched chittering laugh. “I mean, how embarrassing!”

Again, I didn’t want to think about it.

Weren’t you saying something about Miss Danice?” I diverted through my teeth.

“Oh right! Miss Danice wants to go over some last minute songstress-ish stuff with you. She’s waiting at her cottage.”

I groaned. ‘Songstress-ish stuff’ was the last thing I wanted to do.

But Kantú was persistent. “She promised me a whole satchel of spring nuts if I sent you back.” An evil smile crept across her face. “So whether I have to carry you, drag you, or a combination of the two, you’re going!”

I rolled my eyes at her. “Addict.”

I wouldn’t put it past her to follow through with her threats, though. Besides, it was probably for the best that I meet with Miss Danice one last time before the Rite. Maybe she could even provide a little insight into what it entailed.

“Fine.” I stood, but not before letting out a sigh. “You probably won’t see me again until tonight, though, so wish me luck.”

Kantú bounced to her feet and wrapped her arms around me. “Good luck, Aura! You’re gonna do great, I just know it!”

I started towards town, but turned back to take one last look at my beloved meadow before fully committing. For some reason I felt sad. I’d only be gone until tomorrow, and yet . . .

Don’t forget me.

A large waft of cherry blossom-infused air surrounded me, seeming to answer my plea. Satisfied, I cut through the long grass to the dirt path that led to town.

Farellah.

My home was a simple village of log cottages, street merchants and dusty roads, with a culture ruled by song and legend. The mayor welcomed in a traveling trader only once every year or so, and by most accounts, Kantú was the most exotic thing the town had ever encountered.

In Squirrelean culture, one’s maturity level was not based on age, but rather by the size of one’s tail. As Kantú had an unusually large tail for her age, she’d been sent out into the world while still a child. She’d stumbled upon Farellah, by chance, and Marbeck Berfield, the town librarian, had taken her in as an assistant in exchange for rent.

We’d been friends ever since.

Anyways, Farellah.

The town had given me a headache all week, just at the nape of my neck. The sort of headache that pangs worst when you acknowledge it. People had been bringing up my Rite all week, causing the headache to swell.

My Rite. My coming of age. The ritual. The cave. The releasing of my song.

There was no escaping it.

It is said that oftentimes the nosiest of people live in the smallest of towns, and unfortunately, Farellah was smaller than the smallest of towns.

Ugh.

In the distance, I saw Miss Danice’s peach-colored cottage. She was the only person in town with a colorful one, having concocted a paste-like stain out of mud and morningberry juice. While hers stood out amidst the uniform wood-tones of the other cottages, the peach-color looked sort of sickly. I suspected she’d been shooting for pink.

It was something she’d never admit.

Miss Danice was the songstress under whom I was apprenticed. She was a vibrant woman, with a lavish vocabulary and a passion for the dramatic.

She flung open her door before I even knocked.

“Why, Aura, you kept me waiting for ages!” Her voice rang with over-exaggeration as she let me in. “Look at your hair, peach, it’s all wind-tossed! We can’t have you looking like that for the Rite. But we’ll get to that later. First, we must do one final review!” She exuberantly pointed to a worn wicker chair as if welcoming some foreign royalty to their throne. “Seat yourself, peach!”

I obeyed. I didn’t have much of a choice.

“Now then,” she continued, “are you nervous? Excited? Ready to discover your song? No matter, it’s not like there’s any changing the inevitable! Aha! I just can’t believe you’re already coming of age. My pupil’s all grown up! How about we start with a warm-up scale?” She held up a finger. “Recite the six regions of the Westerlands as you go!”

I hadn’t even gotten in a single word yet! And already she wanted me to sing?

But such was the way when it came to Miss Danice.

If I did any differently, she was sure to scold me with a tongue-click.

I took a deep, reluctant breath and began to sing a scale: “Carouth, Rendalt, Elenque, Abardo, Farrowel, Nor . . . Carouth, Rendalt . . .”

These were the regions of the Westerlands. Or so we’d heard. Farellah’s record tomes had only bits of legend about each of them, and the hand-drawn maps we’d received from travelers over the years were too inconsistent to be of much use.

One of them even told of an ‘Easterlands’ across the great ocean.

I wondered.

Flawless!” sang Miss Danice. “Next, let’s hear the Song of Juniper’s Cry. You do remember it, don’t you?”

I didn’t. I rarely remembered the songs that had been drilled into my head. I chuckled nervously as I tried to recall the words. Miss Danice clicked her tongue.

Several more clicks would follow, for the drilling would go on well into the late afternoon. My throat felt rough and dry by the time we were finished.

But Miss Danice was still full of energy, not at all affected by the vigorous hours of training, per usual, and intent on getting me ready for the evening.

“When I’m done with you, Aura Rosh, you’ll look positively radiant!

~

An hour later, I stood in Miss Danice’s bedroom, examining my reflection in her floor-length obsidian mirror. She was proud to be one of the few people in Farellah that owned such a rare artifact.

“You look lush, peach.” Miss Danice’s voice cooed behind me. “The color is fabulous! Your hair looks just like stardust!”

The purification gown I’d decided on was lavender. Miss Danice thought wearing it would make my silver hair look simply striking. But drawing attention to my hair – which the village women had always coined ‘peculiarly lustrous’ – would mean drawing more attention to ME.

My stomach protested with a gurgle.

“Thank you, Miss Danice.” I faked a gracious smile.

The songstress herself usually wore some sort of live bird in her hair as an accessory, switching them out each day to match her outfits. She had mastered a song that allowed her to control them using mist, putting them into a dazed stupor for hours on end so that they would behave.

I considered it imprisonment, more so than creative expression.

“No bird today?” I asked, searching her hair.

She patted her head. “Not yet, dear. I’m saving it for the ceremony.”

“R-right.”

“Well then, off you go. Don’t fret – you look enchanting, and that, my dear, is fifty percent of what counts. I’ll see you at the beach at dusk. Don’t be nervous, peach. You’ll do wonderfully!”

I started to leave but paused beside the door.

It was true I wasn’t much of a songstress, but I was far better off than I would have been on my own. Miss Danice was one of the strongest magic-wielders I knew. She’d offered so much of her knowledge, while asking nothing in return.

Some people were all good, it seemed.

“Miss Danice, thank you for . . .” – I didn’t know where to start – “well, for everything, I guess.”

I looked up at her, and she was staring at the top of my head. It took a moment for her to answer, and when she did, her voice was strange. “I should be the one thanking you,” she said, tone subdued. “You don’t know how special you are, Aura.”

Special? Only if she meant lower-than-average.

“You’ll understand someday . . .” A vacancy crossed her stare.

But if I wanted to press her, I wouldn’t get the chance. “Enough of that, peach! Your parents are waiting for you!” She reverted to her old, vibrant self, and flung her hand towards the door, dismissing the topic for good.

I shrugged it off and gave her one final hug as an apprentice before leaving her to decide which bird she would wear to the ceremony.

~

Breathe, Aura. This will all be over soon.

Dusk had come too quickly. I’d always found the beach a calming place. It wasn’t only the vibrant shells that were beautiful there, but also the grotesque snarls of driftwood, each different, each ugly but lovely.

Tonight, though, the beach was anything but calm. It was where the cave was waiting to swallow me.

As was custom, my parents accompanied me. They served only as escorts for the night, but I was treating them more like guards, struggling to hide behind them as we moved along the sand.

My mother was a thin, willowy woman with full lips and silky black hair that flowed loosely around her frail face as she walked. A raven goddess. At least it was her beauty the townspeople would be drawn to first.

At least I could hope.

“Aura, you aren’t nervous, are you?” Her voice was melodic, as always.

I didn’t need to answer. My sweatiness was an answer all on its own.

“But why, Aura? You look so beautiful! And no one in our family was born without a song. You’ve got one, I’m certain of it. Father and I can’t wait to hear its release.”

My father nodded silently in agreement. He was a quiet fisherman, more at peace with the fish he caught than in the presence of people. Ceremonial things like this didn’t interest the shy man, and I didn’t blame him. Fishing sounded more appealing to me at the moment too.

Tonight, the moonlight made his gray hair shine to a silver that almost matched mine, though it was only a trick of the light.

“Release the best song, Aura.” Mother squeezed my arm. “For you and for Illuma too.”

Illuma.

My older sister.

My dead sister.

The girl stolen by the sea.

The girl that loved attention and ceremony.

She’d been uniquely beautiful even as a child, with deep violet hair, and light gray eyes that weren’t milky or dull but that shined like the moon.

Illuma.

Illuma.

Illuma.

Mother read my face. “Aurie Pie, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said anything. Don’t look so sad. Illuma is watching you from beyond the Mistlands. Always.”

Always.

We arrived at the beachside hut with only moments remaining until the gong would sound. My parents set off to join the rest of the villagers, who were slowly trickling into their respective places on the beach.

Miss Danice had decided on a blue twitfoot to draw out the slate in her blouse. It looked content enough perched within her bun, but . . .

I smiled weakly, ultimately feeling sorry for the bird.

I scanned the crowd for Kantú but couldn’t find her through the mesh of faces. There was Mayor Berfield with his mother, Marbeck Berfield; Laria Lynn, looking uneasy in a tan bonnet; Parnold Rekrap, the blacksmith . . . but still no Kantú.

She was probably sleeping in my stead out in the meadow. That was fine. Better that only one of us had to endure this.

Bong! Bong! Bong!

The crowd hushed as the gong sounded.

Stomach dropping, I made my way out of the hut and into the salty night air. The purification gown billowed around my bare ankles. I was shaking, though the air held no chill.

With the voices of the other songstresses surrounding me, I moved through the cool sand to the water’s edge.

I had attended only two other Rites in the past, but I knew their words by heart.

I wasn’t a great songstress. I could rarely remember the Songs of Old. The songs of the Rite were different, however, for though I had learned hundreds of songs – songs for festivals, for births, for mealtime – there were none I loved more than those of the Rite. Memorizing them had always come easily for even a lower-than-average songstress-in-training like me.

Over my shoulder, the village priestesses looked tribal, performing the steps their ancestors had performed for hundreds of years. Each of them had a wand adorned with bells – a chimbree – which they waved through the air with precision and poise. According to legend, tonight they were not only priestesses; they were something celestial. Angels of the night illuminated by the firelight.

The warm breeze off the coast was seductive as it swept past my cheeks and tangled my hair. I waited at the edge of the beach, feet immersed, swaying to the music.

Until, all at once, it stopped.

The opening act had ended. It was almost time.

That familiar pang at the nape of my neck acted up. So many people were there to see, and so many people would see should I happen to fail.

Mayor Berfield stepped forward. He was a tall, balding man with an oversized mustache that curled over the side of his mouth and dangled well past his chin. “Who speaks for this girl?” he said, voice echoing even in the openness of the beach.

“We do,” said my parents in unison.

“And who can attest to her knowledge of the Songs of Old?”

“I can!” came Miss Danice’s eager reply.

“Are you ready, Aura Telmacha Rosh?”

Was I?

This was all happening so much faster than I’d anticipated, but there was nothing I could do to stop it.

“Yes, Sir,” I replied, determined that my voice at least remain calm.

“Then let us begin.”

At his command, the other songstresses lined up behind me and started to sing – a myriad of confident larks belting in unison. Was I really qualified to join their numbers?

Maybe I was, after all.

When I opened my mouth, some internal force came through:

The time is passing, moon is waking,

Heart is formed to song be taking.

Sisters of Farellah, a new song is opened,

The moon is waking!

That was it. That was all I had to do. As the crowd fell silent, I stared out across the water, holding my breath. There was one dreadful millisecond when nothing happened . . .

. . .

. . .

. . .

But then a bright blue light shot out of the water and hovered above me a moment before skipping down the coast and zooming into the Cave of Discovery.

It had worked?

I squinted to be sure.

It had actually worked!

The light was a good sign; it meant that I wasn’t a dud or anything and that my song had the intention of being released that night. The heavy anxiety I’d carried all week melted away and was replaced by pure, sweet relief. I wasn’t a failure. My song was alive inside of me, and I would become a real songstress soon. It had all been worth it.

“It’s time.” Mayor Berfield’s voice rang through the silence. “Make your way to the sacred place, songstress-to-be!”

Nodding, I took a deep breath and started down the beach.

With each step, the waves licked my feet, trying to tug me into the ocean with every retreat. I’d never been allowed this close to the cave before, and the nearer I got, the more ominous it looked. I shivered and diverted my eyes, instead glancing over my shoulder at the water – a usually tranquil sight that was now black and treacherous.

No comfort there!

After a few more steps, I paused at the entrance, unsure of what was to come. Was my sense of unease part of the Rite, or was there validity to my unrest?

Either way, I had no choice but to enter the mouth.

I continued into the damp, musty cave, stumbling over wet, moss-covered rocks as I went. Eventually the sounds of the village died out, giving way to utter silence. Still, I proceeded further and further into the darkness.

Droplets of cave water trickled down my forehead.

Gross.

No matter how long I stayed in the darkness, my eyes never seemed to adjust. It got to the point where I couldn’t tell for sure if my eyes were open or closed.

After several minutes, an earthy scent filled the air.

This would be worth it, I told myself.

Soon the song that had been with me since my birth would be released out into the world. An ancient magic of my own to command.

I wandered on aimlessly awhile longer, growing more and more uneasy with each step deeper, until the sound of falling rubble caught my attention, stopping me in my tracks.

A cave creature?

The rubble tumbled a bit more and then was quiet. I strained my darkness-shrouded eyes to find the source of the disturbance, but before I could detect anything, creature or otherwise, a hand covered my mouth.

It was unmistakably a hand.

But there wasn’t supposed to be anyone here!

Panic began to well. If someone from the village had crept in here, this whole thing would be for nothing! The Rite would be voided, and I’d have to go through all of that again!

Who would want to sabotage me?!

“Mboumf?!”

I meant to protest, but my voice was muffled, caught up in the hand pressed to my lips.

And then something strange happened.

The captor’s grip suddenly felt . . . different.

Warm, but not just warm.

Familiar.

This captor was someone I knew.

And the warmth coming from them was . . .

I closed my eyes and let it into my skin, and my heartbeat quickened in response. But not just my heartbeat; my blood liked it, too. It became alive, slithering down my veins and twisting through my body in warm enjoyment.

Without really thinking, I stopped resisting.

“Scream not, or I shall kill you where you stand.” Despite the familiarity of the warmth, I stiffened when a woman’s cold voice cut through the darkness in front of me. She had a strange accent, unlike any I’d heard before.

Foreigners in Farellah?!

“You are too harsh, Cousin,” said a second voice. It was my captor. Male. His tone was mild. “Do not fear, Rosh child,” he said, turning his attention to me. “We need to take you from here. The safety of your village depends on it.” He held me closer. “This is the best place to do it. No one will tread into the cave, for fear of disturbing the ritual. We will have a day’s advantage.”

They were taking me?

But why!?

And also . . .

My body felt warm. Captivated. Intoxicated . . .

Whoever these people were, their touch contained some sort of subduing power.

“Enough of this!” spat the first voice impatiently. A burst of red light shot from its direction and headed straight for me.

I heard the male whisper, “Sorry,” before everything grew hazy and my body fell limp.

Get the rest of the story herehttps://www.amazon.com

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Sil in a Dark World – Chpt. 1

brindiful-72dpi-1500x2000 good

Chapter 1: A Daem’s Lament

Sil says I have a problem with authority.

I say Sil’s a twit.

Technically, I have a problem with certain authorities. But it isn’t my fault. Being the prince of the underworld comes with a smidgeon of baggage.

Authority, on the other hand, would disagree. He’d say I deserve whatever trouble I’ve encountered. He’d say it’s my comeuppance. My comeuppance? What a farse. I deserve nothing but the utmost respect. The utmost honor. A treatment first class in nature. A plush pillow beneath my royal –

“ARE YOU ALMOST DONE IN THERE, YOU LITTLE DEMON? Because some of us mortals have morning practice, you know! You better get outta there and let me brush my teeth or SO HELP ME!”

That charming voice belongs to Sil. She’s in love with me. She just doesn’t know it yet.

“For the last time,” I tell her, “I’m not a demon. I’m a daem. The two races are unequivocally different.”

“Whatevs,” she says through the squalid bathroom door, “I don’t care if you’re an elf or an imp or a fairy; your time’s up! I swear you’re worse than any woman!”

“Shut up, Sil.”

Yet Sil persists. “No matter how many times you mess up your hair it won’t make a difference! We all know you spend an hour to get it looking like you don’t give a hoot!”

I smile to myself. Not because I enjoy the insult, but because Sil is leaning against the door. I can sense it. And not based on sound or vision or experience, either. It’s simple, really. I can smell her. She smells like mint. A crisp, addictive scent. Delicious.

Very quietly, so as not to arouse her suspicion, I put my hand to the knob. The knob is different than the one on Sil’s bedroom door. They’re all different. Sil’s house is a ramshackle mess of mismatched doorknobs and unmade beds and uncompleted sets of things.

I reach to the sink and cover the sound of the turning knob with running water. Sil won’t see it coming. For her disrespect, she’ll be punished.

I let the knob click tiny-like. And then I pull. But what I want to occur doesn’t. Sil anticipates what I’m up to. She grounds her feet and pushes the door from the other side with all her girlish strength – and for a girl, she’s quite strong. The door barrels into me and I stumble backwards.

It doesn’t stop there. The tile of her bathroom floor is slippery. I fall on my ass.

Wonderful. Really suave on my part.

Sil doesn’t laugh. She simply looks smug. Why can’t she be more charming or civil or submissive? She’s that way with other people. But with me, she’s nothing but crass and imbecilic.

“Sorry,” she says. “Demonic trickery doesn’t work on me. Guess it’s not that hard to outsmart the powers of evil.”

“I am not a DEMON!”

This time the insinuation makes me angry. Angry enough that I want to grab whatever sharp thing I can find in her clutter of a room and stab her through her soft middle. But as mortals may die from something like that, I resist the urge.

Sil walks past blasé and begins to brush her teeth. And what flavor does the delightful girl use? Not mint. Not even bubblegum. Grape. Revolting. Who uses grape toothpaste? “Are you just going to sit there, demon boy?” she says with a mouthful of lathered spit.

“Attractive Sil. Really attractive.”

She spits and wipes her chin on the back of her hand. Vulgar. Of all the plum mortal women, why does it have to be her? Why is she the one to whom I’m shackled? For another month I’ll be forced with her twaddle. Piss.

She takes the dryer from the counter. A large piece of the cord’s plastic is missing, giving way to the wires beneath. I don’t think it’s very safe, but I say nothing. Maybe if I’m lucky she’ll electrocute herself.

When Sil turns on the contraption, however, any ill wishes I have for her are blown away with the heated blast of air as it moves past her neck, for it pushes the scent of mint directly into my face. I greedily take in a breath of the stuff. Intoxicating. The scent of her is better than anything.

I can’t help myself. I move to the space behind where she stands.

“What do you want, lurkey?” she says. She sees me in the mirror, though I don’t know how – The damn thing is smudged and dirty enough to blur any images shown.

“We only have a month left, Sil,” I tell her. “Don’t you think we should . . .?”

“What?” She switches the dryer off. “What do you want now? Can’t a girl get ready in peace, without a creepy demon lingering around?”

No matter how hard it may be, I ignore her insults. Were our situation different, I’d have offed her long ago. “Do you want to try again?” I say through teeth that are even tighter than my fists.

She stiffens. Good. I’ve made her nervous. At least I have a little power left. And her response to the proposition is a stammer. “N-no.”

Not very convincing. I’ll bet she wants to try again. All she needs is a soupçon of persuasion. “Come on, Sil. You know the deal. One month, so –” I take her wrist and hold it against the cracked counter, then lean into her, bringing my mouth close to the back of her neck. She shivers.

“So,” I say again. “Why don’t we try? Right here. Right now.”

But Sil is a stubborn girl. She sidles from my grasp.

“So that’s it then?” I ask her, dismayed and maddening.

“I don’t know what you expect to happen. This whole thing is unbelievable. Nothing’s going to change even if we do try again. Sorry, demon boy, but your horns are gone for good.”

She strikes a nerve.

My horns. I feel my hair where they used to be. Their absence is something I’m not yet entirely used to. Sometimes I forget and end up scratching at nothing. Those small pointed things, they’re what this all about. This situation. If I want to regain them I’ll have to follow the rules of the deal.

Sil walks to her bedroom and leaves a trail of mint. Watching her makes me reconsider. It’s more than just my horns, isn’t it? They’re important, true, but it’s also about authority. It’s about THE authority. The big one.

Authority says that I don’t know about altruism. Authority says that if I want to become a ruler I must first experience something sacrificial. And the greatest sacrifice, I’m told, has something to do with love. For that reason the high authority, my adoring father, King of Dhiant, has seen to it that I’m exiled to this place, to the world of mortals, and pegged me with the least affectionate girl imaginable.

Affectionate or not, I must make her love me by the end of the month. No, that’s not all. WE have to ‘fall’ for each other by the end of the month. Whatever that means. The only thing I know for certain is that if I don’t follow the rules of the deal, I’ll lose everything.

A penchant for deals. I suppose we have something in common with the demons after all.

Sil is putting on a sweatshirt. It’s the same one she wore yesterday. I shake my head and begin to dig through the mire that is her bedroom floor until I find a blue one I haven’t seen her wear before. “Here,” I tell her. “This smells decent enough.”

Sil checks just to be sure. Finding no offense, she shrugs and changes into it. How she can live that way is beyond me. But then again, I live that way too now, don’t I? There’s no helping it.

“Ready, little demon?” She picks up a plaid rucksack formerly strewn over the back of a chair.

Little? Hardly. SHE is the little one. With a small frame and a small mouth. A black ponytail that swings when she walks. Skin that is tan. Arms that are toned. She’s average. Beneath the interior lights anyway. And she remains as such all the way to the front door, whose knob is as different as all the other ones – a brass bobbin.

But when we reach the outside, Miss Average undergoes a transformation. Today is sunny. And because it is sunny, we are about to experience the magic of the mortal world at its best. The sun hits Sil the way it always does and her eyes become a transfixing sunlit blue. Electric, crystalline blue. A quality that redeems. Under the influence of the sun, Sil is . . .

Sexy. Really, really sexy.

“What?” The sexy girl wipes at the corner of her mouth. “Toothpaste?”

I shake my head and try not to stare. I can’t let her know what I’m thinking. It’ll only give her an advantage.

We begin to walk. The air is cool. By afternoon, the earth of the ground will warm, but for now, it’s cool. It isn’t unpleasant, though. It’s just different. It’s always hot in Dhiant. Unless it snows. Only then is it tepid. This world is different. With a sky that’s changing and a horizon that’s clear, this world itself isn’t better or worse than Dhiant. Just different. It’s the mortals that make it unbearable.

We continue to walk, and as we round a corner, the sun shifts to our backs. Sil reverts to normal. The magic is lost, though the mint smell remains.

Were I to kill her, I’d leave her body in the sun where it would glow forever. But in the mortal world, dead things stay dead, and killing her would have adverse effects. What other way is there to preserve her beauty but death?

It’s thoughts like those that remind me of the morbidity of my nature.

We walk along the potholed road. Uneven. Rough. It makes scraping noises beneath Sil’s shoes. She drags her feet. She always does unless pursuing some end she sees significant.

Other than the noise of her laziness, it’s quiet between us.

“What do you think of me, Sil?”

I don’t know why I want to know. Suppose I’m bored. Or maybe the fact that time continues to move has put me on edge. Maybe I’m worried that we won’t make it before the end of the month.

“Hah?” Her tone is skeptical. “What do you mean?”

“Isn’t it obvious? What do I look like to you?”

“Besides a demon?”

“Demons are vile, Sil. I told you, I’m a daem.” But I won’t let her distract me from the question. “What do you see when you look at me?” I ask.

She doesn’t give it any thought. “A pale, sun-deprived transfer student?” she says. “Someone who cares about his appearance way too much?”

“The only reason you say that is because you don’t care at all.” Groan. “I mean specific physical traits, Sil.”

She squints at me. “Hm. You don’t quite match. Your hair’s like a bar of chocolate, but your eyes are black like those gross black jelly beans. I dunno.”

Candy references? Of course she’d use something like that. But that isn’t what I meant. I want to know if she’s starting to feel attracted to me, but it doesn’t seem that way. Frustrating.

I sigh. “My eyes are actually red, Sil.”

“Look black to me.”

Mortals.

We reach the school before most others. Sil’s morning practice makes it so that we have to. The school is an old school, in the way that the town is an old town. Count’s Fieldbo. It was the scene of a great battle during the Samel Reign. Not that any of the Earth dwellers are aware of it. The school is the shape of a box, five stories high on a corner lot. In a town as small as Count’s Fieldbo, all students are housed together. Two classes of each level. We belong on the top floor. They call us ‘juniors’.

The title is insulting. There’s nothing junior about me. Sil on the other hand . . .

“See you inside.” Unusually cordial, Sil waves to me and trots to the fields across the street from the school. Conditioning drills with her volleyball team. The reason for her toned arms and small frame.

There she goes. My ticket to the glories entitled me. More importantly, my ticket home. She jogs across First Main without a second thought.

On impulse, I call after her. “Sil! Stop!”

She stops in the middle of the street but is in no danger. The road is clear.

I meet her where she stands. “Before you go, Sil, we’re going to try again. Just one more time.”

Her mouth begins to stammer once more. “N-no, demon. I told you it won’t change anything.”

But I grab her around the wrist. She will try again. Right now.

I tuck some loose hair behind her ear and bring my lips close to her lobe. “Do it,” I whisper. My mouth is close enough to her ear to feel the warmth, the aura, surrounding her body. The minty smell is strongest when I’m within that field of her energy.

“I have practice,” she says meekly. She’s shaking a little. I can feel it in the palm of my hand. Her eyes have found a place to hide in a bush beyond my shoulder. I won’t let them run. I spin her body to face her towards the sun. Magic happens. Her dim eyes brighten. A dark islanded pupil surrounded by a sea of blue ice.

I’m caught off guard. I swallow it down. It’s just a reflex. That’s all. Not like it’s anything deeper than that.

In the middle of the road we stand, in a town that’s near dead. She and I stand and wait for something to happen. A sign of affection from either of us.

“Try it,” I say. “I won’t let you go until you do.”

She could very well pull away, but she doesn’t. I don’t know why. I never know what she’s thinking. “Fine,” she says. “But not here.”

“Then where?”

She is annoyed. “I dunno! How about . . .” She looks to the fields. “Over there?”

It seems like as fine a place as any, so I agree. Dropping her hand, I let her lead the way. The first field is masked by a line of trees that have yellowed leaves, and a stout brick building. Sil moves through the trees and to the other side of the structure. So that’s it. She wants to make sure none of her teammates see.

Stupid. It would do her reputation some good for them to see her alone with a guy!

Sil stops beside the building and scans the surrounding area before dropping her bag. “Okay,” she mumbles. “But we have to make this quick, demon boy. I can’t be late again.”

Always in a hurry. But that’s to be expected. With so little time on their hands, mortals have no choice but to rush.

“What do I have to do again?” she says, looking to the ground.

Timid girl. She knows what she has to do, yet she asks every time. I smirk to myself. She stalls because she is nervous. That’s acceptable. I can work with nervous.

I take her shoulder and gently push her against the wall of the brick building. Scowling, she resists, but it isn’t because she plans to weasel away again. She’s merely letting me know she won’t willingly become submissive.

We are shaded at the moment, but even if I can’t see her sexy eyes, it’s enough if she does her part. I hold her to the wall and capture her gaze. The rules say we have to maintain eye contact. “Okay, Sil,” I say. “Go ahead.”

Her scowl deepens. “You’re the worst thing that’s ever happened to me,” she says.

“Likewise. Now do it.”

With her hand still trembling, she grabs the bottom of my shirt. Her fingers are in a clutch. Her teeth are clenched. Her brow is cross. Then she slowly releases the grip of death and slides her hand beneath my shirt, upwards along my abdomen and to my chest.

“Ah! Hands of ice!” I can’t hold back. Her touch is frigid.

For the first time Sil’s scowl falls. “Heh. Heh. Heh.” She laughs like an old man. Her eyes become satisfied slits. “Mmm. Nice and warm,” she says, and cruelly flattens her full cold palm against the center of my lungs.

“J-just get it over with, would you!? And buy yourself some blasted mittens!”

“Why?” She shrugs. “I already have several pairs.”

Right. Probably buried in that slop of a house. I roll my eyes. “I’ll help you look when we get home.”

“Home?” Sil shows surprise. “You’re calling it that now?”

Oh. It was a slip of the tongue. “Never mind. Just say what needs to be said already. Hell, I thought you were worried about being late.”

“Oh yeah,” she mutters absently.

Oh yeah she says. What a birdbrain.

Her hand is still chilled on my chest, but it’s warming. She’s borrowing some of my heat. When it reaches a degree warm enough, she begins to recite the lines,

“Blood and smoke. Soul and shadow. Heart and void. I . . .” She falters.

“Come on, Sil. Finish it.”

“But it’s so cheesy!”

“Don’t look at me. I didn’t make the rules.”

Her mouth turns pouting. “It’s also embarrassing, you know. Why don’t you have to say anything, demon boy?”

“Because my part comes after yours, and only if yours works.” I remove the hand holding her to the wall and use it to tip her chin upwards. “Don’t look away,” I tell her. “It won’t work if you look away.”

“It won’t work period,” she grumbles.

“Positive thoughts, Sil. Positive thoughts.”

“If I say it and it doesn’t work, you’ll let me go, right?”

“For the time being.”

With hand against the skin of my chest, she clears her throat and begins anew, “Blood and smoke. Soul and shadow. Heart and void. I . . . I . . .” She cringes. “L . . . love you . . .”

She stops there.

But that isn’t the end. My name. She has to say my name for it to work. I raise a brow expectantly.

“. . . Wayst,” she finishes, voice small.

There it is. Wayst. My name is Wayst.

Pushing against the hand on my chest, I bring my body to hers, my face to hers, and wait for the signal to begin my part. Our energies are mixed. Our scents are mixed. But the signal doesn’t come. Damn it all, it doesn’t come.

“Ugh! Piss!” I force her hand harder against my chest. “Why won’t it work?!”

She shoves me away. “Hm. I dunno. Maybe because it’s a big walloping LIE?”

Or maybe she isn’t doing it correctly. She isn’t trying hard enough. “Stupid human,” I growl. “Why can’t you just be cooperative?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means why can’t you just admit that you love me?”

“Because I don’t! Obviously!”

I reach for my nonexistent horns. “Well, why the hell not?”

“Seriously?!” She looks at me as though I’m dense. “You’re kinda stupid. Have you ever even been in love?”

I don’t get it.

“I’ve loved plenty of women, Sil. I’m good at it. I don’t get why you won’t let me love you.”

“Look, demon boy. I don’t know how things are in Hell or wherever, but loving someone and ur, having . . . making love with someone are two completely different things.”

So she keeps saying.

“That makes NO sense,” I tell her. “And I’m not from Hell. I’m from Dhiant.”

But Sil isn’t listening. With a stern forehead she takes up her rucksack. “I don’t have time for this, demon. I’m already way late. WHY I let you talk me into this remains a mystery.”

While I stand and fume, she turns on heel and trots away to the fields. Damned spry thing. Like a brawny little rabbit. It pisses me off. I bang my head against the brick of the stout building and slide into a slumping position. Two weeks I’ve been in this place, and no progress has been made. Nothing has changed.

Well, one thing has changed.

The trees are dying for the year. I can see them from where I slump, yellowing, separating the fields from the street. I’ve even seen some around Sil’s house that are painted cranberry and amber. And the mortals find them beautiful. Even they see the appeal of watching something wither. I can appreciate that outlook. After all, I’ve contemplated killing Sil many times before.

I wonder if I’ll kill her before the month is through.

><

“There you are, demon boy. I was beginning to think you’d returned to Hell.” I find Sil waiting for me at the door to the classroom. “Suppose it was foolish to think I’d be so lucky, though,” she adds.

Ugh. Her hair is all sweaty. What was the point of fixing it? There’s nothing to be done but to wrinkle my nose at her. Taking the hint, she lifts her arm and blatantly sniffs her pit. “What? Do I stink?”

“No, you still smell like . . .” Mint. But that’s my little secret, so I correct with, “You smell decent. You just look sort of rank, that’s all.”

“Meh. No biggie.”

The bell rings and we take our seats. I’m in the back corner, near the window. Sil’s on the opposite side of the room. She sits with two of the girls from her team. Both are tall. One is fat. Porked up on cow’s milk, no doubt. Mortals drink so much damned milk. Sucking the juice out of creature with horns seems a bit barbaric to me. Then again, I’ve always been a sympathizer for things with horns.

I watch the two girls interact with Sil. Sil is bright and cheerful and strange. The side of her personality she never shares with me. Watching her is entertaining, but it’s also dangerous. Sil’s ‘appropriate behavior’ receptors are broken. I’ve only been here for two weeks and I already know they are. In the midst of interacting with others, she usually begins to dance or coo or sing or squawk, and I have to look away.

What a humiliating person.

Today, though, Sil isn’t too bad. She’s reacting something from her earlier practice with a conduct that’s milder than usual. Ah. I speak too soon. At the peak of the story she puffs out her cheeks, places her hands above her head, and begins wiggling her fingers, resembling some sort of bloated moose. Her friends burst out laughing. The fat girl can’t contain what I can only assume is brimming jolliness, so she doubles forward and slaps her knee.

Sil has a way with people. People that aren’t me.

“Staring at Sil again, are you?”

The copper-haired tick behind me has taken an unusual interest in my relationship with Sil. I don’t know his name. I’ve made it a point not to become acquainted with any of them. I say nothing. The teacher’s started going over the week’s mod schedule. Those of us taking Chemistry are to report to senior classroom two.

“Come on, Tran,” the tick coaxes. “Share your findings, man.”

Tran. Because I’ve made it a point not to socialize, the natives have coined me with the name ‘Tran’. Short for transfer student. Oh, the cleverness of humans.

I put an elbow over the back of my chair and convey my displeasure at being bothered. “What findings?” I say.

“We all know you’re staying with her. What’s she like at home? The same way she is here?”

“For the most part.” I’m not sure what he’s getting at, but my small patience is shriveling into something nonexistent. “What’s your point?”

“You’re part of an exchange program, right?” the tick persists. “And ever since you got here, you’re always staring at her. Have you two . . .?”

“What?” My dryness is at full force.

“Are you gonna try to crack her?”

“Her skull?” I say the first thing that comes to mind.

“What? Dude! No.”

Oops. I’ve said something inhumane. Luckily, the tick takes it as a jest.

“Eh-heh.” He laughs uneasily. “Anyway, Sil’s the most oblivious girl in Count’s. Poor Keek’s been her best friend for years, and even he says it’s hopeless. I was thinking you with your suave, out-of-towner charm you might be able to woo her or something. Is that your endgame?”

Hm. Surprisingly accurate for a tick.

I’m finished speaking with him, though, so I stop there and turn to face front. The teacher’s written some undistinguishable scrawl on the whiteboard. I pretend to copy it into a notebook.

“Psst.” But before I know it, the tick is at it again.

“What?” I hiss, not amused.

“Best of luck to you, man. Never once has Sil Tenor shown any interest in guys or chicks. If you figure out her fancy, be sure to share the wealth. I’ll make sure it doesn’t go unrewarded.”

But there is no reward he can offer that I’d have even the slightest interest in, so I don’t give him an answer one way or the other.

The teacher’s tosh continues to fill the whiteboard. Everything remains the way it was. Out of boredom I let my eyes travel to Sil. She looks to be paying attention, but I know better. I’ve seen her notebooks. Nothing but doodles and the like. She’s probably busy scribbling a deformed version of the instructor complete with bulbous neck growth or billowing shoulder pads or both.

Disobedient girl.

But while I’m right about my mark’s disobedience, it turns out I’ve misjudged her intent. When she looks up from her notebook, pencil in hand, she doesn’t look to Señior Tosh for artistic stimulus. Instead, the person her dimmed eyes drift to is . . .

Wait, is she drawing me?

What the –?

To make matters worse, the twit flashes an evil smile before returning to her work.

I don’t know why, but it’s imperative that I see that doodle.

I might end up killing her before the month is through.

But not before I see that doodle.

And not before we try again.

We’ll try again and again, and only then might I kill her.

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