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Atto’s Tale – Free Sample

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Chapter 5: An Unleashed Desire

“I think we would have been better off in the barn,” I conclude after doing a sweep of the farmhouse’s interior.

No matter how rundown the structure may look from the outside, inside is far, far worse.

Around the den, the remains of a couch have been strewn, as though an angry raccoon – or several – have taken out their small-clawed aggressions on it. Musty odor drifts up from the floorboards and in through the walls – a reminder never to take for granted the much feebler smells of the antiques found in Jerry’s Canned Heat Emporium. Overhead, fallen beams allude that it might not be a wise decision to venture to the second floor, lest we come crashing through the rotted wood and end up splintered and torn.

All in all, the place is trashed.

Ardette turns up his nose at a floor littered with fragments of waste and debris. “Yes, these accommodations are somewhat lacking. Especially considering the lavish motels you usually pick.”

“Very funny.” I kick at a tuft of couch fluff with my toe. “Sorry, Ardetto. Looks like we’ll be tracking mud into your precious vehicle after all.”

Ardette, never one for dirty things, wrinkles his nose in repugnance. “Ugh. I suppose running water and clean towels were too much to hope for,” he says.

“Way too much,” I agree. I pick a cleared spot of floor to stand in and do a final inspection of the accommodation that never was. “I wonder how someone could just leave an entire farm out here to rot away, anyway.”

Ardette has a theory.

“If I HAD to guess,” he says, attitude ripe, “I’d say it has something to do with the pooled power in yonder pond. Unusual things have been known to transpire at places of strong character. This being one of those places, the former inhabitants may have left for any number of reasons. A haunting perhaps.”

“Haunting?!” I take a reverse step into the corner.

“No, no.” Ardette fans the air. “Not a real one, mind you. I simply meant that condensed areas have the ability to twist nature and lead to paranoia.”

“And now I want to leave more than ever,” I say. “Let’s GO.”

But before I am able to make way for the door, Ardette catches me around the waist. From behind, his arm breaks across my abdomen. I’m pulled against him. “A moment, pit,” he says into my ear, low and soft. “I’ll be savoring this feeling.”

My pulse kicks. “F-feeling?”

“Mmhmm.” He takes the moment he demanded. In the meantime, I manage to say a single aching thing,

“Ardette.”

The thing comes out hushed. Standing motionless against his strong frame, the silence of the farmhouse has just hit me for the first time. It is the stillest sort of silence – a silence that makes me inexorably aware of myself and lends my ears the ability to hear a range of noises they wouldn’t otherwise have noticed. Breathing. Pulsing. The ruffling of a sleeve. I’d hear it if some distant floorboard creaked. Actually, I’d be glad for a distraction like that. But not a thing within the shambled farmhouse stirs, and so there’s nothing to hear but the own thudding of my chest.

My pores are pricked. My skin notices every bit of invisible air against it, but something much more obvious is Ardette’s arm remaining across my stomach. Inevitably, the enticement of it becomes me. My fingertips drift to his forearm’s warm skin. I connect with the hairs of his arm; the muscle beneath. Then I slide my hand until it meets his. Trembling, I hold him as he holds me.

“This reminds me of the place we met in our second life,” he says into my ear, voice keeping lower than low.

The second first time we met. I don’t even need to search my mind; the memory floats to the top on its own.

“The Osterflit keeper’s house,” I breathe.

I feel him nod behind me.

Yes, the humble abode of the deceased Osterflit keeper. Looking around with new eyes, I realize there is some similarity between this place and there. An abandoned residence in the middle of a forgotten field. An empty house. But places like this hold their own personality, too. In the absence of actual life, the structure takes on its own.

That feeling is the same here as it was there.

That time we met.

How annoying I found him then. Haughty and gaudy and persistent, and with an intolerable knack for reading my thoughts. But then there was a princely sort of charm about him too – something that made me want to see beyond his fronts.

He hasn’t changed. Not even the slightest, little . . .

Well, he no longer has horns, I guess.

The surrealism of it hits me.

This is what he meant about taking a moment. A moment for stepping out of the present and gathering what’s happened. A moment to absorb.

We really get to be together? After everything, we get another chance? A third chance.

How are we that lucky?!

Overcome, I spin to face my princely Daem. He doesn’t anticipate the action, and it reflects on his face. Taking him aback is a thing of scarcity. A thing I adore. Before he can say something snide, I wrap my arms around his neck in a hug. A non-sexual, non-nerve-arousing hug. I need him to hold me.

He does. He returns the gesture. Without cynicism. Without defense.

My cheek becomes pressed against his chest as he holds me in adoration. There is comfort. Safeness. I love him. I love him so much.

~

“My, my, having an overthinking again, are we? You know, my pit, if you aren’t careful, you’ll begin to develop unsightly worry lines right here.” Ardette flicks me in the forehead.

“Huh?!”

I’ve been caught in my head again.

Shoot!

The fault belongs with the coupe. Its sleepy rumbling, responsible for retreating me into my thoughts, is to blame.

Stupid fancy car.

The driver’s side window is cracked to allow a small amount of spring crispness into the air previously filled with only our exchanged breath. I use it to come to my senses. Guess invigoration has its usefulness after all.

“Do share what was so interesting in there;” Ardette lazes, glancing at me from the corner of his eye, “what was consuming your entire attention.”

I rub the spot he flicked and grumble, “Nothing really. It’s not like I was really worried about anything.”

Ardette drums the wheel. “What then, were you allowing to mull about in that distracted little skull of yours?”

Such a minor thing that if I answer, he’s going to sneer. But knowing him, he’ll imagine something worse than the truth if I don’t.

“Just that . . .” I start, guardedly. “I was kind of surprised our force ended up being wave.”

“Oh? And why is that?”

“Well, . . . eh-heh . . .” I prepare myself for insult. “First there was wind, and then fire, so . . .”

I’ll let him finish.

“You expected earth?” he says dry as toast. “As in Earth, Wind and . . . Tell me you aren’t serious! As though the forces of the world would follow twentieth century music trends!”

“Well!”

He puts a hand to his temple, shakes his head, and lets out a condescending, “EGH.” And then, “Really, pit? Really?

So he says, but the side of his mouth shows signs of amusement.

The amusement only puts me grumpy. I slump into the seat and stare out the window in a pout. It was a perfectly reasonable thought, as far as I’m concerned.

“You’re too much,” Ardette coos.

We continue to drive through most of the day, stopping only for gas. The pit-stop is also a prime opportunity to clean up, so before anything else, we make use of the station’s dingy bathroom, which has one of those pull-down cloth towels on a reel that appears to have been last changed . . . NEVER. We aren’t picky. Our muddiness has long turned into a caked layer. Though a change of clothes makes things slightly better, the small sink doesn’t allow for an adequate hair washing. After several neck-craned attempts, I give up, slopping my hair into an oversized bun atop my head.

Ardette has better luck. He exits the bathroom looking fresh and neat. And shaved?

“You really don’t like messy things, do you?” I size him up sourly. But sourness is hard to maintain when he looks so desirable.

He begins a saunter down the station’s aisles.

“Care for a bite, my pit? Perhaps a . . .” He frowns upon inspection of the rotating hotdogs in the station’s deli. “Never mind. I won’t allow you to eat that. Go find whatever else you’d like. We’ll stop at the first decent-looking establishment we come across for a real meal.”

A hotdog would have been fine for me, and for a second I think about grabbing one just to spite him – until I notice that the dogs have an unhealthy green tint about them. Not happening. I trot away to find something else.

Ardette is waiting at the counter with a bag of jerky when I return.

Like that’s so much better than a hotdog! Well, whatever. I plop my pickings onto the countertop. Ardette takes time to study them before tossing a bill at the cashier.

“A jar of peanut butter and a bag of potato chips?” he says with disapproval.

“Yeah! Have you ever tried it? You dip the chips in the peanut butter. But regular chips won’t work. These are kettle chips.” I pat the bag proudly.

“Uh-huh.” He chews his cheek, unconvinced.

“You’ll see.”

“I highly doubt that.”

. . .

Ten minutes later, I sit satisfyingly plopping peanut-butter-dipped chips into Ardette’s mouth.

And I’m smug.

“They aren’t anything special,” he sniffs.

That hasn’t stopped him from eating a dozen or more. “All right, then,” I say. “You indulged me. If you don’t like them, I’ll eat the rest–”

“I didn’t say they were bad. Another,” he orders.

I cock a brow at him.

He rolls his eyes. “If you please.”

I shove a particularly large one mounded with peanut butter into his face. He takes it with an unprepared crunch! Excess peanut butter dribbles down the corner of his mouth. He wipes it away with his finger and then, more invested than necessary, licks it off.

Oh please. Like I’d be affected by something like that. Yet I’m forced to look away.

It’s Ardette’s turn to be smug. “Next time you do that,” he says, “you’ll be the one licking it off for me.”

My neck rises in temperature. Stupid! There is great frustration in my body’s reaction to him.

“I’m the only one who could put up with your foulness, you know,” I tell him.

His response is quiet: “I am aware.”

Because I expected something snappier from him, I steal a look to make sure I haven’t gone too far, but instead of displaying offense, he looks oddly sentimental. “You’re the only one I’d want to,” he says, eyes still on the road.

I love his foulness.

We drive tranquilly an hour more before we reach a town. A small, backwoodsy sort of town, but a town nonetheless. A real town? Holy tomato sandwich! Haven’t seen one of those in a while.

By this time, the sky is dark. As we drove, the sun crashed into the horizon, painting the dash in ochre, but now that night has fallen, only midnight blue cloaks the distance, dotted with sparse light from the town. Without the threat of Sowpa’s ‘dark forces’ finding us, we haven’t a reason NOT to turn in at a decent time tonight. A real meal and a full night’s sleep. Sounds appealing.

Ardette pulls into the first food-serving ‘establishment’ he sees, a bar called Freaky Frankie’s. Freaky Frankie’s? Reminds me of the gas station dogs.

While I picture the undesirable, ill-hued things, Ardette takes care to park his beloved ride several spaces away from the rest of the bar lot vehicles, in a corner clear of streetlight.

“What’s that they say about paranoia?” I mutter.

“I rarely find it beneficial to follow advice from unnamed groups of people,” he says. He comes around the side of the car to open my door for me, then loops his arm through mine and escorts me into Frankie’s.

Inside, warm air welcomes us, infused with the smell of plastic seat cushions and lit by vintage baroque pendant lights that Jerry of Jerry’s Canned Heat Emporium would surely covet. Their dim glow shines over each booth and above a worn pool table stashed near the back wall.

At the other end, a lone cowboy sings out-of-tune to a decade-old song. Something sappy about a missing wife and dog.

Gag. I really don’t like that stuff.

Lined along the bar are a few men and a woman who clearly thinks her iron-curled bangs make her quite the catch. All of them talk too loudly and laugh too enthusiastically for what is mostly likely a conversation lacking in nature. Yet they laugh and talk and laugh. All except for a man at the end, who remains silent and stares into a half-full beer as though the amber within holds the secret to happiness. For him, maybe it does.

Ardette strides through the room, inspecting booth tables as he goes, until finally finding one he deems worthy of our company. He gestures that I should take one side before scooting into the other.

I’m fairly certain the sign upfront said to wait to be seated, but Ardette isn’t the type to wait for something trivial like that. It’s probably better this way, anyway. He would only have caused the hostess grief for picking out a table with a smudge on it or something.

A few minutes later the bar’s one waitress – a relation of Frankie’s more than likely – holds a pad of paper before her nearsighted eyes and asks if we’d like to try the special – a type of trout, apparently.

“We’ll pass,” Ardette says, turning his nose up at the thought of fish from this rundown of a place. Instead, he orders a Reuben and whiskey. I order a burger and cola. And when we are finished, the waitress tucks the paper pad into her busty shirt and waddles away. I am left alone with Ardette beneath the dusky glow of vintage light, in a squeaky seat, while the pleasant sounds of drunken laughter and off-tune country and glass clinking surround us.

Ardette leans into the booth, arm over the back of the seat, and watches me. He says nothing; just watches.

It’s stuffy in here.

I avert my eyes into the happy hour menu.

It’s really stuffy in here.

And for some reason, I can’t think of a single thing to say. Not. A. Thing. Even though there’s so much to say, so many things to ask, so much to find out about him – the past lives he’s had, his experiences in this current one – I can’t bring myself to say anything. I can’t find even one word.

I venture to look at him again, and he’s still watching me, mouth entertained.

My stomach does a twist and my eyes again flee – this time to the shoddy pool table.

Why is it so stuffy in here!?

“Tut. Tut,” comes a coo from across the table. “Suppose it says something to our chemistry that I am able to make you nervous after all of this time.”

So that’s it; I’m nervous. Leave it to him to discern it before me. But wait. I’m nervous? Out of the blue? I wasn’t nervous in the car. But I’m definitely nervous now. I can feel my pulse in my neck. For what? It’s not like we’re about to share a bed again. And we’ve spent a lot of time like this the last couple of days. In close proximity. Not to mention, shared so many . . .

I bite my lip.

Thinking about kissing him makes it worse. To heck with that!

I look at him again and lie, “I’m not nervous.” But my neck knows the truth. It flares in heat.

“That so?” says Ardette. Eyes agleam, he leans forward, rests his elbows on the table, and begins to rub a thumb along his chin. “Well, that’s good. I worried you might be all giddy –” His eyes almost appear to flash red – “Considering it’s our first date.”

First date. First date? First date?!

Those last two words slither into the air and circle my head in a wrapping motion, forcing it to begin thinking. Over-thinking, to be more specific.

Our first date. Our first date ever. Just the two of us. Alone. Where other people can see us and assume we’re together. My pulse accelerates in my neck, so much so that it blocks my throat from opening. If I’m not careful I just might pass out.

  1. No matter what, I can’t let that happen. Because it would be awful.

Because Ardette would only gloat over making me swoon.

I fumble for something smart to say, and just when I worry my tongue has somehow fallen out and is flopping around on the floor, my salvation comes in the form of the busty waitress returning with cola and not only one but two whiskies.

She sets them on the table and wobbles away.

I eye the whisky suspiciously. Why’d she bring two? Ardette gestures at the happy hour menu. “Two-for-ones. Didn’t you notice?” He slides the second drink at me. “Drink up.”

“But I can’t–”

“Oh, Aura. The rules of this world are senseless. And besides, your soul is much older than the required age. Drink. It’ll help you get over your nerves.”

Guess that’s true.

In the hopes that it’ll allow me the courage to look Ardette in the eye, I bring the glass to my mouth and tip it back, but cannot hide the foul taste from my tongue. My mouth wrinkles in repulsion.

Ardette sniggers. “Here–” He reaches for my cola and begins guzzling it down.

“Hey!”

And when it is half gone, he pours the whiskey into the remaining cola, and gives the glass a shake. “Try that,” he says.

Mixed, the second drink is much better than the first, although the aftertaste is still nasty. I resort to drinking down the whole thing before I can taste it. Glug. Glug. AH.

I set the glass onto the table and wipe my mouth with the back of my hand.

All of this Ardette watches with traces of alarm, and when I am through, he injects, “Well, well. That was an interesting choice, my pit.”

I understand what he means after the waitress returns with our food. Something about the way her nearsighted eyes squint seems much funnier this time around. Oh. So whiskey is strong as far as alcoholic drinks go. So I downed the beverage too quickly on a stomach filled only shallowly with kettle chips and peanut butter. So it’s already beginning to affect me.

Smiling evilly, Ardette orders another for himself, and consequently, one for me.

The burger is thick and feels like a rock falling into the liquid of my stomach. A satisfying plop comes at the end of each swallow. Mmm. Turning brave from the liquor, I catch Ardette’s eye and smile like I’m remembering a joke. But there is no joke. Just a slight jumbling of my mind. Ardette returns the smile with one more puckish and shakes his head.

“Feeling better, are we?” he asks.

The second round of whiskey comes, and this time I don’t feel the need to mix it with anything but burger. Bite. Sip. Bite. Sip. First date jitters cast aside, I’m finally able to converse normally.

“SO Ardetto.” I set down my glass and toss a fry leisurely into my mouth. “What’s your major, anyway?”

“Biomedical Engineering.”

“Whoa, really?”

I wait for him to reveal that it’s a joke. He doesn’t.

“Yes, really,” he says disgruntledly.

“You’re kind of a nerd, then?”

“I’m KIND of trying to make sure we have an enriched life this time around.” He picks a piece of lint from his collar and eyes it with disgust.

But going to college for something like that takes preparation. Even before he found me, he was already planning things like our future? Plotting out the way our life would be together? Losing no faith that this time would be our time at last?

A bit of those jitters return. I take another sip from the glass. “I can’t imagine you sitting through a lecture, no matter how I try,” I tell him.

“And I can’t imagine you, the great savior of the world, waiting around that hoarder warehouse without any direction nor thoughts of your future.”

Harsh. “I don’t know. I just always felt like I was waiting for something,” I tell him. “I don’t even know what. Just something.” But the moment the confession comes, I sheepishly understand. “Or someone,” I add. It is as much an admission to myself as it is to him.

It’s Ardette’s turn to preoccupy himself with his food.

By now, my second glass of whiskey is nearly gone. So is my burger. The sad sounds of that unfortunate soul’s country continue to resound in the air. It’s horrid. Isn’t there someone else who’ll step up and take a turn?

I finish off the whiskey and allow it to sink in. It begins to creep around my body, somewhere between my stomach and my ribs.

Fiddling with his unused fork, Ardette is saying something about the way he thought I’d become a social worker or something. I’m not paying attention. I decide it’s my turn to speak.

“Ardetto . . .” I purr across the table when the warmth of the liquor is at its peak.

Ardette again settles into the plastic cushion and tosses an arm across the back of the seat. “Yes, my pit? Feeling warm, are we?”

“Were you a frat boy?” I ask with a giggle. “Because it seems like you’d be a frat boy.”

At this, his countenance stiffens. “Ugh. Of course not. Don’t lump me in with those moronic types.”

I giggle at him some more. The waitress returns to take our plates. “Another?” She nods toward my empty glass.

“I don’t think–” Ardette starts.

But I beat him to it. “Do you have anything that doesn’t taste so awful?” I blurt.

Looking unenthused, the waitress proceeds to ramble off something with two types of juices in it.

“Perfect!”

“It isn’t part of two-for-ones,” she warns.

“That isn’t a problem,” Ardette says dryly. He wants no part of something so fruity. As the curvy woman leaves, he turns his attention on me. “Fixing to become sloshed, are you? Well, I can’t say I’m not interested to see you drunk, my pit – as I recall, I’ve been responsible for your intoxication once or twice before – but I hope for your sake you don’t become . . . unruly.”

But while he’s lecturing, I am transfixed on his mouth. Why is it always such a focal point? Magnetic, almost. Soft. Warm. I chew my own in remembrance of his taste. Ardette swallows. “And for my sake, I hope you do,” he says, staring at my moving lips. Then he shakes his head and stares off across the bar in an attempt to remain cool. “I’ve a feeling this night will be another test of my morality. Fantastic.”

The third drink is indeed much better tasting. Fizzy and sweet and with only traces of bitterness.

“Ardettoes . . .”

“Aurelia?”

I scoot into the wall. “Come sit by me?”

By his reaction, it is just the sort of request he was hoping for. The dragon in him looks at me through his lashes with dark pleasure. “Gladly.” Like a silent thief, he slips around the table and into my seat, and loses no time bringing an arm around my shoulder and pulling me into his side.

My heart gives a kick, but is quickly stifled by the warm dizziness skulking through me. It feels good to be right up next to him. I allow myself to melt against him. My cheek falls against his chest; my fingers rest upon his solid abdomen. His free hand he uses to pull at a curl of his hair. His other he grazes along the top of my arm, near the shoulder.

It sends a shiver through my neck.

He feeds off of the effect, whispering, “Can I have some of you?”

It is an inquiry I’ve heard from him before, in a lifetime long ago. My response is a kiss to his neck. And then another that is deeper than it ought to be in a public setting.

“My, my, cherry pit,” he says. “You should feel fortunate that I’m an honorable man.”

“Hah!” I giggle into his neck.

He pushes his mouth into my hair, which is still holding a small amount of dried mud, and breathes.

His grazing hand on my arm moves down the side of my ribs. My body gives another shiver. “We should leave, Aura,” Ardette speaks against my hair. “We really must.”

I nod. It’s all right if we leave. Because it’ll mean I’ll have survived our first date. Ardette flags the waitress for the bill, and while he’s settling things, I realize that the room has gone silent. The depressed cowboy has returned to the bar, taking seat next to the downtrodden man staring into his glass.

An impulse, fueled by the liquor in my veins, overcomes me.

“Excuse me, Ardettoes.” I prod my dragon out of the seat. He obeys only because he’s amused by my sudden stricken determination, and before he can stop me, I have moved halfway across the room to the place where the microphone waits.

. . .

“You weren’t lying. You really can’t sing at all, can you?”

We drive through town in search of an elusive bed and breakfast mentioned by the nearsighted waitress.

“Oh, it wasn’t that bad, was it?” I say, words admittedly a little slurred.

“About as bad as a cat taking a bath,” is Ardette’s reply.

“Mean!”

“Would you prefer dishonesty?”

“No . . .” In truth, I am already fully aware of what a terrible singer I am.

Ardette sniggers. “You up there belting out your heart for Frank’s most devoted patrons.” His lips purse. “At least you looked adorable doing it.”

Whatever. I’m warm, and happy, and sleepy. Too sleepy to care that I’ve just made an ‘adorable’ fool of myself.

Fifteen minutes later, we find the bed and breakfast. A large white house, Victorian style, sits amidst a night-blanketed yard complete with neat fence and rolling garden. “How quaint,” Ardette notes in a drone. Yes, he’s being sarcastic, but the word adequately describes the place perfectly. A quaint, quaint getaway at the edge of a small, small town.

The wheels make a crunching against the dirt of the lot as we turn into a space. I like that crunch. Cruuuunch.

Noises are much more pleasant than normal at the moment. Like my ears can feel them more than hear them. There’s something magical about the way their tonal quality hits me. And while I’m lost in sound-induced pleasantness, Ardette is shrewdly examining our surroundings through the windows, checking for any hiding fiends that may be waiting.

He notices the anomaly first.

Of course he does – because I’m not suited for shrewdness just now. Each time I move my head, whatever was previously in view grows a tail. The picture through my eyeholes repeatedly blurs until my mind catches up with my eyes.

“Is that a sword?” I hear the shrewd boy mutter. When I turn to look at him, he’s stretching his neck to see out the dash, squinting at a sign above us – the bed and breakfast’s sign. He squints a moment more before –

“You have got to be kidding me!”

– in a lightning move, he turns vicious.

Now, inexplicably fuming, he unbuckles himself and storms from the car. Confused, I fumble for the handle, but per usual, he reaches it first. “Tell me, if you’d be so kind, how we always manage to find ourselves in the least desirable of places!” he spits at me upon opening the door.

“What? Atto?” I’m too discombobulated to be much help.

He notices my perplexed expression. “Apologies, Aura. Don’t worry about it.” Head shaking angrily, he helps me from the car, then moves to the trunk to collect our bags.

I don’t get it. I don’t get it at all! I strain my eyes to see the sign, but it’s too dark, and my focus is too off. He said he’d seen a sword up there? A bed and breakfast with a sword on its sign?

“And for another thing,” he mutters vilely into the trunk, “how is it that a town of such puny population maintains a bed and breakfast specifically catering to Dungeons and Dragons?! It’s hardly a lucrative notion!”

Dungeons and Dragons? As in that roleplaying game?

“Personally, I like dragons,” I tell him earnestly because it is the first thought that comes to my mind.

“Hah. Hah. A comedian you’ve become, have you? Come on, drunken pit.” With that, Ardette grabs hold of my wrist and pulls me with him up the walk into the world’s first D&D B&B.

Inside is a bizarre sight indeed. I know so, even in my current state. In what I can only imagine is the collaboration between a senile woman and her whimsical grandson, the interior is filled with crocheted doilies, floral patterns, and pointless bric-a-bracs . . . as well as cases and cases of tiny monster figures, and bookshelves lined with rulebooks. At one time this was unquestionably just a regular bed and breakfast. I can tell. The rest of this fantasy stuff was added later – an afterthought resulting in pure mishmash.

But if I want to learn the reasoning behind such madness, I can’t. The person working is neither the senile woman nor her grandson, but a pretty girl with dark eyeliner. I determine – without much good reason – that she knows nothing; and so while Ardette goes to speak with her, I begin to browse the foyer.

Ceramic cat figurine . . . Sack full of polyhedral dice . . . Painting of a little girl in a sunhat . . . Box labeled ‘Dungeon Masters Only’ . . . Just-for-show tea set . . . Little plastic elf toy? To that, I scoff.

Everyone knows all elves have green hair.

“Aurelia, I’ve gotten us a room upstairs.” Ardette calls to fetch me just as I’m glaring at the yellow-haired elf. “Their roleplay, or what have you, starts at ten if you’d like to join.”

I wonder how much of a roleplay can be had, considering there were only two other cars in the lot, one of which probably belongs to the eye-lined girl.

To answer my unspoken question, Ardette continues, “Apparently many enthusiasts live around here. They don’t rent a room, per se, merely come for the game.”

“So that’s how they manage to stay in business.”

He nods. “Let’s get to our room before they begin arriving, shall we? I’ve a feeling they won’t be our kind of people.”

Realistically, though, they’re probably exactly our kind of people. Regardless, I haven’t the energy to argue with him now.

Fearing my own sluggishness, I try to step lightly up the stairs. This only results in overcompensation, and I end up prancing like a pompous horse. Ardette walks behind in case I become unsteady. Oh dear. I’m a hindrance.

The door to our room comes, but I pass it.

“This way, my pit.”

I backtrack.

Ardette pushes through the door and tosses our bags onto a wicker chair in the corner. “I made sure to get us a room with a bathroom en suite. You, stinky pit, may wash first.”

But not before taking in the room’s incredible ambiance. An oak dresser, topped with framed pictures of people from the 80s. A white hat placed on the wall like art. A pale comforter atop a four-poster bed. This bed, at least, looks much more inviting than the buggy, and again, appears NOT to rotate.

“This is a grandma’s room,” I say assuredly.

“Yes, yes. Now into the bathroom with you.”

Ardette scoops my things from the wicker chair and tosses them in after me. I let my clothes fall into a pile on the bathmat and then step into the shower, which has a bottom so cold that it forces me to stand on my tiptoes until the water has washed over the whole of it.

Mmm. Soapy. Bubbly. This shower is longer than my everyday showers. Mainly because I’m staring at the way the water falls over my hands as though it’s incredibly complex science. My fingers fumble. They’re lazy. Yet somehow, I manage to get every last speck of mud from my hair. I manage to haphazardly shave my legs. I manage to turn the faucet and dress in a towel. Just like I do at home, I walk from the bathroom, to the bedroom, with a towel wrapped around my middle, clamped to my body by my armpits.

Only . . .

This isn’t home.

And there’s a hungry dragon waiting in the other room.

When he sees me, he says nothing, though it looks as though he’d very much like to say more than nothing. Jaw tight, he stares at my exposed collarbone a handful of seconds, breathing only through his nose, before swallowing and shoving past me into the bathroom. Once there, he closes the door with more energy than necessary. I wouldn’t say it’s a full slam, though.

“GET DRESSED.” His words come through the door.

Followed, a minute later, by my bag, which I left lying on the tiled floor. Taking Ardette’s side, it comes flying out at me without restraint.

The second time Ardette closes the door, it’s a full slam.

Whoops.

Realizing my mistake, I hurry to dress, comb out my hair, and hop onto the lumpy bed. Lumpy or not, this one is much safer than the last. Far fewer kinky things happen in a B&B than in a pioneer’s fantasy suite, I assume. Then again, if this is a roleplay themed place . . .

I shake the idea away and listen to the hum of shower coming from underneath the bathroom door. Since when do showers sound so . . . inviting? My intoxicated mind begins to drift.

He’s in there. Completely naked. Separated by just a door. One door. I doubt it even has a lock.

Ardette. Ardetto. Ardettttoooesss.

At this very moment, water is falling over his chest and back and shoulders. His hair is wetly plastered to his head. He’s wiping the water from his eyes and rubbing at his face. Chin. Jaw. Neck. All trickled with sliding drops of wetness. The space between us is filled with magnetic particles that fight to pull me to him.

I bring a hand to my mouth and press into the plush of my bottom lip. I am not fearful like I was last night. That feeling is still back with freaky Frankie. Now, I feel only the desires previously clouded by my nerves and thoughts and anxieties.

I want him.

I want to feel his mouth against mine, tasting me as I taste him. I want him to throw my body onto the pale comforter. To force my hands and bite my lip. I want to wrap my legs around his waist and become tied up with him, tousled in the sheets.

I want to be lost in him. Consumed with nothing but him. Forever and ever and ever.

The water stops, and I hear him begin to dress. I find myself sitting on the edge of the bed, gripping the mattress.

Eventually, the door to the bathroom opens. The navy sweatpants are back, framed by a cloud of steam from the shower. At the sight of my dragon, my chest takes in an uneven breath that it forgets to release.

Ardette begins a smug strut into the room. “Why, my pit, what a surprise. I thought you’d be out cold.” He shifts to wryness. “That, or cowering in a corner, wrestling with your conflicted yearnings.”

There’s no confliction. Ardette’s chest is exposed. His stomach, too, down past the navel. Desire. I feel nothing but desire for him.

From here, everything happens fast. I feel as though I’m floating behind a body that has begun spontaneously acting on its own as it hops from the bed and rushes the unassuming twenty-something. Before I know it, my mouth is thrown on his; my fingers are ensnarled in his wet hair.

Ardette attempts to say something through the kiss, but gives up after the third word, and begins kissing me back. Passionately. Deeply. Slowly. In the middle of the grandma’s room, our mouths move together.

We were made for this.

As pictured, he lifts me from the ground effortlessly, but doesn’t toss me onto the bed; instead, he takes me to the edge of it, sets me down and continues to move his mouth with mine. With intention. I clutch at his back and wrap my legs around him and pull his body over mine. He obliges by crawling onto me.

I want him. Hundreds of years I’ve waited to have him. If I don’t have him now, I won’t be able to live.

His hands find the bottom edge of my cotton shirt and begin to slide it up my waist. This starts a sinful feeling low in my stomach. But it isn’t a bad thing. It’s indulgent. Gluttonous. Meanwhile, I, too, am pulling at the waistband of his pants, fighting with my sloppy fingers to be productive.

He pulls away from my hungry mouth long enough to pant and say, “All mine.” Then he moves to my neck and wets it with his mouth. I let out a cry, soft, as his hand finds my chest.

“I love you so much more than anything,” I say. But because of the alcohol lingering within me, the words are slow to come out. They’re too slow. Too lagging. And they ruin everything.

When he hears them, Ardette stops. He leaves his hand on my chest a moment longer, caressing me gently with his thumb, before sliding it away. He does not lift himself from my body.

“You, my pit, are drunk,” he says into the bed over my shoulder. “And I, my pit, need to leave.”

Leave? N . . . No! That’s the last thing I want!

“What are you . . .” I bumble. “Why?

“Because I love you.”

“Then stay.”

But in flash, Ardette is off of me. He finds a shirt, throws it on, and leaves out the door, while I remain grabbing at the place he just was – the place his warmth has yet to leave.

“Go to bed, Aura.”

That is the last thing I hear from him for the night, followed by the brisk stomping of a frustrated man’s footsteps.

I am angry and confused and tired. Mostly tired.

Before I know it, I’ve fallen asleep.

~

The night is spotted with dreams.

When they end, and when earliest dawn light is streaming through a checkered curtain over the room’s sole window, I wake. I’m curled into a ball, and I can feel no warmth coming from any other body in the bed.

That’s because there isn’t another body in the bed.

Ardette’s sleeping form is limp in a chair. Not the wicker one, but a plump paisley armchair in the opposite corner. His neck is cranked to the side unnaturally, and a wad of shirt is stuffed between his ear and shoulder as a makeshift pillow.

I blink at him. Why is he there?

I can’t begin sorting through the events of last night just yet. I have to go to the bathroom before anything else. I give my knees a final hug before deciding to rise, and find that my leg has a lovely long patch of hair running up the center. My slapdash shave job from last night left me with a mohawk. How ladylike.

I trot to the bathroom to relieve myself, in the meantime, giving a quick dry swipe up the center of my leg with the razor. I half-brush my teeth and do a quick run through my hair with the brush on the counter for good measure.

All right. Now halfway decent, I return into the room. Some part of my routine was loud enough to wake Ardette. Shoot. Even though I was so quiet! He sits in the chair, bags under his eyes and frowning adamantly at me.

“Well, I was up all night lost in a cursed forest,” he says.

The absurdity of it gets to me first.

“You were playing that game?”

“You’ll be pleased to know I am well on my way to becoming a level two Cleric.”

“Cleric?” I say. “Out of everything?”

“I was trying to maintain integrity while knowing you were up here, vulnerable and willing.”

I don’t entirely understand. The events from last night are still hazy.

Rising from the chair, Ardette goes on, “You, my cherry pit, are the cruelest type of woman.”

Sounds like a clue, but I don’t quite grasp it.

Peeling back the covers on his side of the bed, Ardette persists, “I waited until I thought it safe to return. Until I was certain the beast within you had calmed.”

“Beast . . .?” It comes waffling back to me. Ungainly and ruthless. OH! Last night I was unruly. Just as Ardette feared.

“Oh Creator!” I cup my mouth to contain the gasp that wishes to exit. “I was all over you.”

“Yes, you were. And I you. And it was one of the most enjoyable moments of my present life. Now then–” He hops into bed. “Allow me a few hours of gropeless sleep, would you?”

I stand frozen in the bathroom doorway.

“Now, now, Aurelia. You can’t tell me you aren’t still tired. Wouldn’t want our angel to have a hangover, would we? The forces would be so disappointed.”

At his invitation, I walk timidly across the cold floor and crawl into bed beside him. Because I’m suffering of guilt, I lie facing away from him. His breathing is already turning heavy. I hear it coming out of him deeply. He’s exhausted.

“Sorry about that,” I say quietly. “I should have controlled myself better.”

He doesn’t respond, so I add, “You know, you probably could have . . . I mean, I really love you so much, and I really wanted to . . .”

“I would never, like that,” he says, perturbed. “Not if you wouldn’t even remember it.” His tone drastically changes to something passionate. “I want you to remember every last movement.”

I am quiet.

Ardette’s breathing becomes even.

“Thanks,” I whisper, feeling even guiltier.

And then I roll over to face him.

His dark eyes are closed; his face tired. He doesn’t look innocent, as some boys may, resting like that. He doesn’t look like a puppy or any other young animal. He looks like a sleeping lion. A proud, dangerous dragon, always.

And he isn’t all the way asleep yet.

The dragon, reaches for me and pulls me to him like a gathering of blanket. I kiss his cheek to show my remorse, and together we sleep again.

Each time, it feels more natural than the last.

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The Death and Romancing of Marley Craw – Chpt. 1

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Chapter 1: Not Dead

All of this – this whole entire thing – is my cousin’s fault.

Blame him if you need someone to blame.

If that pompous little pimple hadn’t forgotten to pick me up from work, I wouldn’t have ended up down this torn-up, run-down, smells-like-dirty-foot alley in the first place.

Forgetful little scab.

Little.

Little is relative, really. Milo’s actually two years older than me. The only nineteen-year-old still waiting for a growth spurt. A spurt, I’m guessing, that’ll never come. Scrawny limbs to match a scrawny brain, too many nights cooped up in the basement playing DotA, not enough nutrients – if you ask me, excessive hermitude’s to blame.

Blame.

There’s that word again.

Blame. Blame. Fault.

Maybe this isn’t Milo’s fault, after all . . .

Okay, if it isn’t Milo’s fault, then the fault definitely falls on Howard – Howie ‘The Mix’ O’Neil – who wouldn’t let me leave work until I’d listened to his most recent masterpiece. The whole. Damn. Thing. Now there’s a good chunk of time I’ll never get back.

Speaking of which, masterpiece is relative, too. Layering one pop song on top of another isn’t any great feat when all the songs already sound the same.

Growl and hiss. If Howard hadn’t kept me, there’s no telling how things might’ve ended up differently.

There’s no telling.

Okay, so maybe this wasn’t Howard’s fault, either.

I’m a reasonable girl. Downright down-to-earth if you ask me. The only person I can really blame this on is myself. At any point in my seventeen years of existence I could have taken a self-defense class or two. I could have beefed up my arms a bit. Instead, I’m just wimpy old me, without the pipes to defend myself.

Not that I didn’t try.

I kicked at him, sure. Kicked him right in his downtown, too. It didn’t do much good, though. Before I knew what was happening, that creep was on top of me, and then . . .

And then what?

There was screaming. My screaming. But it was muffled by some nasty-tasting piece of fabric. A sock or a glove or a wad of towel. And then . . .

Well, I don’t really want to think about that.

And now, here I am, lying behind the old movie theater, with my arms tied over my head and a trickle of red leaking from my side.

Gross.

One thing is certain: I’m not dead.

Well, not yet anyway.

But the trickle of red is quickly starting to pool and my head feels light – like that one time I locked my knees in marching band. That time, I went down like a zebra on the Sahara. . . . Wait, do zebras live in the Sahara, even? Meh. Geography isn’t really my strong point.

Or would that be zoology?

Above me, the sun hides behind a foggy sky. I can still see its shape, but it’s smogged over by cloud. People don’t die this way. Not in the daytime anyway. This whole thing would be much more predictable if it were the dead of night. Yeah, I can see it now: Defenseless girl walks along a shady alley with nothing but a flickering streetlight overhead. Briskly, she scurries, stealing glances over her shoulder, when–

BABAM! A rapist strikes.

Rapist.

Let’s change the subject, shall we?

Sigh. I wonder what’s going to happen to me now. I can’t foresee anyone walking by, and when I try to move, the trickle of red turns into a stream. So what, I’m just supposed to lie here and wait for THE END? Well, that’s just great! I’ve got things to do. I can’t be bothered with something like dying. Carmen and I were supposed to go to Robbie’s cabin this weekend, and then I was FINALLY going to let Noah Carmichael – who’s a little weird and has this unhealthy obsession with all things Russian but all-in-all’s pretty cute, I guess – kiss me!

Guess THAT won’t be happening.

Stupid Milo. Stupid Howard. Stupid rapist. 

Rapist.

Can’t say I’m fond of the word. But what else would you call him? Criminal? Jerkwad? Murderer would work too, I guess. And pervert.

Oooh! Got it! Pedophile. I won’t be eighteen till next month, after all.

Groan. None of those words make it any better. This is by far the worst, worst, worst way to go. Whoever finds me is in for a treat. Hello world, take a look at my . . . well, all of me.

Everything’s getting fuzzier. Colder. Distanter. Distanter? More distant, I mean. Eh, who am I kidding? I’m not so great with grammar, either.

Fuzzy. Cold. Distant. Numb. Drifty. Red.

No, I’m definitely not dead.

But I’m almost dead.

. . .

. . . . . .

. . . . . . . . .

“Marley?”

Through the fuzz, a voice says my name, but I can’t answer it. My mouth stopped working some time ago. So did my lungs.

“Marley Craw, right?” the voice says again.

Shoot! It’s a guy’s voice. Well, that’s humiliating. It means I’ve been seen – all of me’s been seen.

Don’t look. Please don’t look. I’m not normally this . . . exposed.

There’s the click of a pen, followed by the sound of scribbling. “Marley Craw,” says the voice. “Female. Human. Seventeen. Red hair . . .” The scribbling turns vigorous as the unknown person scratches out what he’s just written. “Fake red hair. Naturally a brunette.”

Well, he doesn’t need to say it like that! So sue me, I like dye.

“Green eyes. Wound to the abdomen. Scrapes on the arms and wrists. Discoloring on neck. Bruises at the inner thigh. But what really did her in is that gash on the back of the head.”

Gash.

Oh, excuse me; I didn’t realize I had a gash.

The scribbling carries on. “Morality is at a six. Charity is at a four. Seems like she’s right on the fence. Believes in God, but not particularly devout, so she doesn’t get a free ride.” The scribbling stops. “Marley Craw, can you hear me? Would you say you have love for your fellow man?”

That depends which fellow man.

I can’t say my answer, but he seems to hear it anyway.

“Heh.” The pen clicks. “All right, I’m going to assign you two different reapers, Marley Craw. We do that sometimes, when a soul isn’t leaning particularly one way or another. Two weeks should be enough to determine where you’re going. If we were under old law, you’d go straight to purgatory. Lucky for you, that place was closed up some two-thousand years ago. Expect your reapers later today. Here’s my card if you have any questions.”

Through the haziness, something flutters down from the sky and lands on my numb stomach.

“Beck Lemmings. That’s me. And beneath that’s my number. . . . Well, I expect you can’t see it right now, but take a look once you’re up, okay? Okay. All done here. Goodbye, Marley Craw.”

He’s . . . leaving? But I need help!

There’s nothing else. Not a single clickety pen click.

Fine then! Leave me here! See if I care!

Ugh.

Smell you later, Beck.

Reapers and purgatory and God. Who knows what the hell that was about? The guy could have at least helped me up. Or called an ambulance.

. . .

. . . . . .

. . . . . . . . .

Brrr. I’m cold.

So super insanely cold.

No . . . wait.

I’m not cold. I’m hot. I’m so hot that it feels cold! It feels like I just ran into a sauna after a dip in an icy lake! I did that one time, you know. It was at summer camp and . . . oh, what does it matter?

I’m deathly cold. I’m deathly hot.

And then I’m just fine, and I find I’m standing over the naked body of a dead girl with dyed red hair.

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Sil in a Dark World – Chpt. 1

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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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