“Goodbye, friends!” Remr, standing on the stage where Never would soon play, waved to Dhashi, Row, and Ilkan as they disappeared into the Candlenights crowd. “They were nice,” she commented when Never came up behind her carrying an awkwardly shaped instrument. “I hope they get uncursed and… stuff…” Her voice trailed away.

“Uh, Remr,” Never shifted the heavy object in their grip, “can you move please? I kinda need to put this right where you’re standing.” But the Tiefling didn’t seem to hear them; she was staring into the milling crowd of revelers, frowning as if something there puzzled her. Never was about to ask what she was looking at when she shouted, “Wait!” and jumped into the throng of people. Never, who was honestly pretty used to Remr running off in pursuit of something science-related, set down the instrument and continued to prep for the show as if nothing had happened.

– – –

“Wait!” Remr pushed through the knots of slow moving people, using her Tiefling height to her advantage. Somewhere ahead of her, glimpsed briefly every few seconds between a gap in the crowd, a flash of lavender skin or white hair revealed her quarry. They played cat and mouse in this way through the brightly lit streets, past games and food vendors, performers and fortune tellers, all the way though the Candlenights celebration and into the dark city streets beyond.

Now that they were away from the crowd it was easier for Remr to see her still fleeing target. It was definitely another Tiefling with lavender colored skin and long white hair. The Tiefling dashed down a side street and Remr followed right on their heels, breathless but determined to continue the chase as long as she could. Luckily for her, the street down which her prey ran was a dead end and as she skidded around the corner she found the other Tiefling trapped by a high wall. Face to face, Remr was positive now of the other’s identity and they both stared across the distance between them for a tense second.

“I knew it was you,” Remr took a hesitant step into the alley. “La’lua, what happened? Why did you stop answering my letters? I thought…” She shook her head. “I didn’t know what to think. What are you doing here?”

“Remr…” The other Tiefling grimaced, her tail darting back and forth anxiously. “I’m sorry, I wanted to reply, I did, but there was no way…” She backed up a step. “I can’t explain. Just forget I was here, okay?” La’lua’s eyes flickered to the rooftops above and Remr knew what would happen. “Lua, wait!” Remr broke into a run, but before she could close the distance La’lua bent her knees and leaped high into the air, catching the edge of a rooftop and disappearing over the adjacent wall. Remr slid to a stop and caught her breath, dashing away the tears of frustration as they fell.

– – –

Remr reappeared during one of the band’s breaks, wandering backstage with an aimless expression as she searched for her bag. Never looked up from retuning their lute and asked idly, “Who were you harassing for a sample of their skin this time?” Remr didn’t answer. An uncharacteristic frown tugged at her mouth and her eyes were unusually distant. “Remr? Hello?” Never waved a hand in front of her face. “You okay?”

“Huh?” Remr blinked as if waking from hypnosis. “Uh… yeah. Totally. I just thought I saw the… churro cart. But, uh… they were out.” She managed a poor imitation of her usual smile to cap off the obvious lie. “Bummer, right?” Ignoring Never’s perplexed stare, Remr grabbed her bag and backed up. “Anyway, um, I should probably go do… science… stuff.” She flashed very half-hearted fingerguns at her friend. “Catch ya later.” Never watched her go, then went back to tuning the lute with a shake of their head, muttering, “She gets weirder every day.”

They say you’re born this way, that it’s not a sickness, not a fault, just part of who you are. Something natural and beautiful. But they aren’t the ones who have to live with it; they aren’t the ones who were never given a choice. How can they possibly understand what it’s like to desire something so perverse, so filthy? How dare they act as if this hunger is something to be proud of? They don’t wash the thirst for sweat and semen away with alcohol and sleeping pills. They don’t wake from nightmare fantasies, or fantasy nightmares, weeping with the repulsive longing to submit, to succumb, to surrender. They don’t have to live with the beast.

It’s a cruel joke to tell me I was born like this. Why me? What did I ever do to deserve imprisonment in my own traitorous flesh? I don’t care if they want me to embrace my disease, accept it as part and parcel of who I’m meant to be. I can’t. I won’t. I have to believe this is something that can be fixed. If it’s a taint in my blood then I’ll bleed myself dry. If it’s a corruption in my heart then I’ll cut the damned thing out. I’ll do anything, even if it means taking my own life, to destroy the monster I’ve become. I can’t be this man anymore.

Tanim edged up the darkened stairwell, the wooden steps polished to a dangerous sheen by hundreds of years of passing feet. At the top of the stairs he stopped and drew in a slow, calming breath, allowed himself a moment to gather his thoughts. No sense going in with his nerves already wound tight; he needed to remain clear headed or he wouldn’t be able to trust his own experiences tonight. He didn’t want anyone to refute his conclusions based solely on human fallibility.

The gory legend surrounding the Hanged Man Inn began, or perhaps ended, with the suicide of the Reverend Aaron Smith in the late 1700s. An investigation launched upon discovery of his body hanging from the rafters of the Blackbird Inn revealed Smith as the perpetrator of a total of thirteen murders over half as many years. The reverend’s private journal, found hidden beneath a parish floorboard, uncovered a sordid tale of illicit affairs with young men conducted at the very inn where he had taken his life. Smith believed these men to be incubi sent by the Devil to tempt him to a life of sin and so destroyed them all as they wore out welcome or allure, each killing more horrific than the last. It was now popular belief that the ghosts of his victims haunted the inn, trapped at the place of their bloody demise. Thousands of paranormal enthusiasts flocked to the inn each year, hands clutching reprinted copies of Smith’s diary and suitcases full of investigative equipment. Tanim doubted most of the stories of incoherent screaming, headless specters, and invisible attacks were true, of course, but couldn’t pass up the opportunity to prove that first hand.

Raising his digital voice recorder, habitually double checking the full battery life left in the device as he did, Tanim moved down the hallway. He trailed his free hand along the wall, counting each closed doorway as he passed by. He would return to these rooms later to take EVP recordings but his eagerness drove him to start at the heart of the haunting: the attic where Smith had ended so many lives, including his own. The current owners of the inn had transformed the attic room into a single suite reserved for those whose desire to stay a night in death’s chambers knew no monetary limit. Tanim spared a moment at the door for an appropriately dramatic pause, then crept inside. Moonlight filtered through rippled windows illuminated reproduction furniture and lovingly laundered white lace linen. The room looked nothing like it had when the reverend lured his victims to their deaths, of course, but the period décor still made one feel as if Smith’s victims might appear at any moment, alive and unaware of their impending doom.

“Is anyone in here? Can you hear me? Can you answer me?” Tanim left a long pause between each question, allowing time for the recorder to pick up sounds outside his own hearing range, and tried not to feel too silly carrying on a one sided conversation. “If there is someone in this room with me, please say something. Say anything.”

Silence. Of course. No investigator had ever recovered anything more from an EVP session at the Hanging Man than the sound of settling old wood and winter wind whistling beneath window cracks. Not exactly the stuff of horror movies. Tanim snorted and turned back to the door.


He recognized the phantom on sight. The reverend’s diary described this particular young man in almost lurid detail, whole pages devoted to his angelic features, his piercing black eyes, the taste of his sweat and the heat of his flesh. Tanim hadn’t been able to read those passages through in one sitting, physically sickened by the reverend’s perverse obsession and violent fantasies. By the time authorities had found Daren’s body buried in the forest behind the parish, all that could be determined was that his jaw had been broken, his spine snapped, and his body dismembered; the more gruesome ghost tales preferred to presume the poor boy had been alive throughout. Of course, the lingering fragment standing before Tanim betrayed nothing of his horrific end. Neither blood nor bruises marred skin so pale it shone silver blue in the moonlight. The dark, flat eyes which stared back showed no rage or sorrow, fear or helplessness. Nothing remotely human at all, in fact, which somehow unnerved Tanim more than anything else about this moment.

Tanim swallowed, suddenly at a loss for what to do, to say, to think. He wanted to ask a thousand questions but each one died on his heavy tongue and he only managed to choke out, “you were his first…” Pale lips moved as if in reply but no sound emerged from the specter and as quickly as he had appeared, Daren vanished. Tanim rushed to review the EVP, desperate to discover what the lingering spirit had said, only to find his recorder’s batteries drained and useless.

“Do you know how many times I’ve died?” A long drag on the cigarette can’t mask the trembling of his hand, nor the acrid smoke disguise the sneer twisting his mouth. “How many times I’ve been torn to pieces? Beaten? Burned? Raped?” He draws again on the cigarette. The embers spark a brief light in his eyes but fail to warm his frozen gaze. “I can’t remember which moments are real and which are nightmares or hallucinations; everything’s muddled by fever and fear. Maybe some of those delusions are even sick fantasies. Maybe after thirty years of madness not only have I lost my memory, but I’ve lost the ability to discern between desire and revulsion as well.” He laughs as if amused by the notion of his own corruption. “I guess suffering makes masochists of us all, huh?”

There’s no comfort I can offer that he would accept. What must it be like not to be able to trust your own memories? To question every experience and sensation because you have no anchor to keep you steady, no grip on reality? It’s little wonder he believes himself a psychopath. All he’s ever known is the sickness, the fever nightmares, the drift between unconsciousness and waking hell. No man could suffer such torture with his sanity completely intact.

“Sometimes I wonder if I’ll wake up and find you’re just a delusion like all the rest,” The cigarette burns forgotten in his hand as he stares into some future I can’t share. “I think I’ll open my eyes one morning and be back in that shit hole apartment, laying in a pool of my own bloody vomit. You’ll have been nothing but a fever dream; nothing but a desperate fabrication of my damaged mind. Wouldn’t that be ironic? The one time I actually want the lie to be the truth?” His gaze slides over, holds mine, and the disassociation in his eyes sends a crawl of unease up my spine. A part of him believes this hypothesis. He holds me forever at arm’s length so when I do finally disappear, it won’t hurt. He doesn’t expect me to stay. Even when he’s staring straight at me he doesn’t really believe I’m here. I’m just another insubstantial phantom in a lifetime of terror and loss.

My poor lover is so thin skinned, so quick to bruise and bleed. Words cut him to the bone and leave wounds which tear open again at the slightest provocation. He doesn’t have the armor of apathy and disdain that I do. Where I can turn my back on the hurled insults, the cruel whispers and spiteful glares, each one lands a fresh blow on his unprotected flesh. He breaks beneath their loathing like a sapling stripped and battered in a storm. I wish just once he would turn his fear and sorrow to fury and hatred instead. Anger would cleanse him, burn away infected, necrotic flesh and speed the healing. I want him to fight back, to spit his blood in their faces and laugh when they flinch away from the taint. We can’t change the world but we can sure as hell bear our battle scars with pride. If he would just embrace the rage, learn to strike out instead of backing down, he’d never spare a tear for their slurs or condemnation again.

“Don’t do it,”


“Check the time,” Tanim glanced up from the stack of paperwork spread across the desk between them just as Daren began to roll his shirt cuff back to uncover his watch. “It’ll only depress you.” The warning came too late, however, and the younger man groaned theatrically. “Oh, fuck me. You’ve got to be kidding. And here I was foolish enough to hope I might actually get to sleep tonight… might as well set up a cot in my fucking office.” He rubbed at his face, massaging pounding temples that ached for another pot of coffee. “Why are we the only ones stuck at the office on a miserable Monday night, anyway? Where’s Jonathan? Or Mark? Why aren’t they slaving over this deadline with us?”

Tanim offered a helpless shrug and leaned back in his chair, raking stray hair off his forehead. “Jon is home with his new baby. She has colic or something; his wife’s been throwing a fit that he isn’t home in time to help her out. And tonight is Mark’s anniversary. Family comes first, at least if you have colleagues to sucker into taking on your part of the project.”

“Suckers indeed. We’re god damned martyrs if you ask me,” Daren folded his arms with a huff. Clearly sick children and romantic celebrations rated low on his list of reasons to skip work, especially if your friends suffered the consequences of your absence. “But if it’s all about family togetherness, why are you still here? You’ve got a wife waiting at home, too, but you always stay late. Do you just have more mercy on poor singles like me than our fellows do?”

Daren expected a sardonic reply from his companion, not the strange flicker of emotion which passed over Tanim’s weary features instead, an uncharacteristically vulnerable mixture of sorrow and denied desire. “I’d hurry home if I had someone like you to come back to,” Tanim replied after an awkward silence, voice strained and gaze averted as if to hide the truth of his admission.

And then he could not turn away at all. Daren’s fingers were tilting back his jaw, warm mouth covering his own in a kiss begun gently but soon drawing him in with possessive, needy force. Tanim surrendered to the man’s hunger without thought or hesitation, a low moan rising and dying in the back of his throat as slim fingers fisted his hair. Only the eventual need for breath forced their lips apart, and Daren lowered his hand with obvious reluctance as he pulled away. “Damn,” he muttered around a resigned exhale, pained smile twitching at the corners of his freed mouth. “I was hoping that would suck.”

“Sorry,” Tanim ran tongue over teeth, savoring Daren’s taste, a grimaced grin dragging at his own lips. “It was pretty good, wasn’t it.”

“You’re not making this any easier, you know,” Daren retreated behind the desk as if its bulk might prevent another monumental lapse of judgment. His eyes fell to Tanim’s hand upon the polished surface; light from the single desk lamp gleamed mockingly off the golden wedding ring. Tanim followed the line of his gaze and quickly drew his arm back as he realized what caught Daren’s attention, twisting the burdensome band back and forth in his lap in nervous habit. The silence between them stretched out, grew oppressive and uncomfortable as they stared anywhere but at each other.

“So, uh,” Tanim tried to clear his throat of its sudden choking lump and shuffled awkwardly through scattered papers in an attempt to turn both their minds to a safer topic. “Where were we?” Grateful for the proffered escape, no matter how thinly veiled, Daren slid back into his chair and tried to focus on the meaningless task at hand. “Here, last quarter’s report.” As he slid the file across the desk he caught sight of his watch and groaned. “Ugh, at this rate we’ll never get out of here…”