#2594

If I were Achilles, Patroclus would not have died. I would never have let my lover bleed out his holy blood there in the dust before Troy’s gates. I would have slaughtered them all first – Achaeans and Trojans alike, soldier and civilian together – and burned that unworthy city to the ground. I would have salted its ruins as they smoldered and by the time they cooled I would have taken him far from that cursed place. And if not, if I had been too late, as Achilles was… then not even death could have stopped my wrath from tearing the world apart.

#2590

Though it has been several years since his last visit, the clergy on duty recognize Tanim immediately; the black glass doors slide open to admit him before he even has to slow his steps along the thick red carpet. Inside the Basilica Tower’s entrance hall a priest quickly approaches, his voluminous robes more out of place among the skyscraper’s sleek interior than Tanim’s finely tailored suit. “It’s an honor to have you here once again, sir!” The priest dips his capped head, hands clasped together. “His Excellency is conducting a council session at the moment but if you follow me, we would be happy to provide you with refreshment while he concludes things and hastens back. His personal offices are right this–”

“That won’t be necessary,” Tanim smoothly interrupts as he glides past the priest, “I know the way.” His confidence, as much as his reputation, leaves the priest bowing respectfully in his wake when no other visitor would be allowed free rein in such a holy place. When he reaches the single private elevator at the end of the winding hallways, however, he doesn’t push any of the buttons; instead, he takes out a slim metal key and slides it into a keyhole all but invisible in the panel. The elevator begins its silent descent through the underground parking, basement, and then farther, through levels no one above even knows exist.

The elevator stops six floors below the sub-basement and opens onto a network of chambers cut out of the bedrock. So many versions of the Basilica have been built upon the ruins of this first sanctuary that no trace of its existence remains even in the oldest records. Despite the darkness Tanim moves through the complex with ease, passing through abandoned rooms full of shrouded antique furniture, strange artifacts, and priceless relics left to gather dust in boxes and piles. Somewhere ahead of him a piano plays a familiar nocturne; the sound wends softly through the still air, rising and falling as Tanim follows its lead.

The piano lies where his anger left it years ago, a shattered jumble of polished wood, ivory keys, and tangled wires. As he approaches the ruined instrument the song dies away and silence reigns once more. Tanim nudges a broken key with one polished shoe but even this produces nothing more than a faint scrape of stone on stone.

“I was beginning to wonder when you would return.” The rich voice sends a shiver down Tanim’s back as he turns to face the fallen angel. Daren’s pale form almost seems to glow in the darkness, framed by great black wings thick as shadows. Tanim longs to sink his fingers into those soft feathers yet restrains himself; instead, he gestures to the piano’s broken corpse with an apologetic smile. “I was ashamed of how I acted before we parted last time.”

“And you were waiting out my anger,” Daren replies, the merest hint of amusement pulling back his thin lips. “As well as yours. It is of no consequence. What is done is done. Now come,” the angel closes the distance between them, drawing Tanim’s mouth to his in a brief yet biting kiss, “make it up to me and after you may tell me what has transpired in the mortal realm while you have been above.”

#2589

“Mage, wait!” Alice’s footsteps rang on the marble floor as they hurried after Mage’s storming figure, finally catching up with her in the gardens of the palace’s north wing. The elf stood beside one of the moss-lined pools, her back to Alice, staring into its still depths as she sought to slow her breathing. Alice could tell by the tension in Mage’s narrow shoulders and clenched hands that it wasn’t working. They reached out to touch her arm, then thought better of it and let their hand fall. Instead they said quietly to her rigid back, “It’s upsetting, I know. I feel so guilty; I’m sure you do too.”

“Guilty?” Mage cast a disbelieving sneer over her shoulder. “Of course not. This has nothing to do with us.” Though their time on Liberty had healed many wounds, and Ali had come to recognize the subtle differences in their companion’s many smirks, smiles, and grins, not so much time had passed that they had forgotten what that expression meant. “You’re… angry?” They shook their head in confusion. “Why?”

“Of course I’m angry!” Mage whirled around, green eyes bright and hard, sneer transformed into a snarl. “We fought over that fucking scrap of rock for years – for decades – and where were they? Did the Lost stand beside you to face down my cannon fire? Did they stand beside me once they learned the full breadth of his betrayal? No!” She threw her arms wide. “They fucking left! They didn’t care what happened to the Island or to you, they just went about their petty little lives as if none of it had ever happened. He abandoned everyone, and then they abandoned you, and then in the end it was just you and me.” The snarl flickered out, curled into a sad, tired, bitter thing. “Until they need something from you. Until they need the white knight again. Then they come creeping back. That’s how it’s always been.” Mage speared Ali’s gaze with her own. “Did you not see that? How are you not angry too?”

“That’s…” Ali swallowed, mouth suddenly dry, then tried again. “That’s all in the past. We chose to dissolve the Island. This black hole is our doing, we have to make it right.”

Tivius created the Island,” Mage spoke the name with a hiss as if it burned her tongue to utter it at all. “He set this in motion with his stolen magic and his web of lies. It’s not our responsibility and it never was. The story’s over; it’s finished. If they cared so much about having a say in the ending then they should have stuck around for it.”

“So we just give up?” Alice couldn’t believe what Mage was insinuating. “Let it slowly consume the universe?”

“They left you, Ali,” The hard anger in the elf’s emerald eyes shifted, turned pleading. “Why do you still want to fight for them? Why do you still feel beholden to them? What will it take for you to choose yourself for once?” Her right hand reached out, the tips of the hook’s long claws almost brushing Alice’s silks before shrinking back. “Or me?”

When Alice didn’t respond right away, too many emotions warring within them, Mage snorted humorlessly and turned away. “That’s what I thought,” she muttered. Before Ali could come up with the right words, or any at all, Mage had disappeared deeper into the gardens, off to wherever she went when she needed to be alone. They knew they wouldn’t find her until she wanted to be found.

#2588

Are you not tired of fighting? Are you not tired of shouldering that white-knight armor and striding into battle alone, sword held aloft, with no one to guard your back? With no one to carry your corpse from the field? There is only so much war in your veins, soldier. There are only so many victories you can wrest from the jaws of defeat. Do not answer that clarion call again; if you go you will never return. All that was won will be lost. Is that what you want, to throw your hard-earned peace away on one last mad gamble? You must know that even if you succeed, it will not be the last time they come begging for your aid. It never is. When you fight other’s wars you only teach them to start more.

#2586

Time means little to Fyra, yet when the vault’s door groans open and she catches sight of the chamber inside for the first time in 136 years, nine months, three weeks, two days, and sixteen hours, she feels the weight of each of those 4,327,592,400 seconds. They weigh down her limbs as the Genesis Team descends past her on the shallow staircase, eager to finally procure the hidden treasure they’ve spent decades hunting. The humans don’t know what this place looked like in its glory; even its dusty ruins are impressive to them, full of the promise of new knowledge, but where they see what remains Fyra sees only what has already been taken.

As the team searches, Fyra’s thoughts wander back to the morning’s events. She had wanted to make things easy when the cybergang appeared, to avoid bloodshed and protect bystanders in the cafe. She’d hoped just giving them what they wanted would hasten their exit and ensure no harm came to anyone, had even interposed herself between the gang and their target as she handed over the money, and yet it had still ended with a human dead. Someone who just needed their daily caffeine fix before work, or who was craving a donut as much as her, had died because Fyra bet on human decency and lost. Again. After 4,327,592,400 seconds of waiting for humans to prove themselves worthy of her father’s legacy only to watch them squander it, she was done. They weren’t going to save themselves.

“I don’t see anything that matches the description from the texts,” One of the Genesis members returns to their commander with hands empty and head shaking. “No body, no central AI, nothing. Maybe it’s already been looted?” The commander sighs, gaze sweeping critically over the barren lab. “No, we’d know if someone else had the key already. Especially one of the cybergangs. It must be here somewhere. Keep looking.” 

That’s her cue. Fyra finally descends the staircase, taking the little drive chip out of her pocket as she does. “The key already walks among you,” she says, her voice carrying in the vaulted space. The Genesis Team members all turn to cast curious or suspicious glances her way. The commander’s hand hovers over his gun. Fyra stops at the base of the stairs and tilts her head at their lack of comprehension. “Do you need proof?” 

She reaches up and injects the small chip into the slot at the base of her right ear. Her current body modifications, chosen to help her blend into human society, begin to reset to her father’s original design. Fyra’s black hair loses the bangs and twin bun style she has worn for the last decade, instead growing rapidly until the long, straight strands reach past her fingertips. Her black leather pants and fishnet top fall away as metallic scales in a pattern of red and black glide from her neck down her arms and torso, forming a long, slender dress that glimmers like the hide of some exotic beast. The nails she kept short for ease in fights have lengthened as well, each polished and tapering to an elegant point. Most noticeable of all, her once plain gray irises resume the bright blue glow which has become synonymous with android tech – though hers were the first.

As the humans stare in various states of surprise and awe, none quite yet managing to form audible words, Fyra wanders into the place where she spent the earliest and happiest days of her existence. “I remember this place so clearly,” she murmurs as she walks, more to herself than the Genesis team. “So much has been taken…” Her fingers trail over the empty shelves and countertops until she comes across a little figurine, one of the silly mechanical toys her father made her when she was newly created. She sighs as she turns it over in her hand, taking comfort in the rise and fall of her artificial chest even in a body that doesn’t require oxygen. “You humans are so predictable. You take what you think you can use to gain power over others and leave behind whatever seems frivolous.” 

The Genesis Team waits at the bottom of the stairs when she returns. Fyra gestures to the chamber all around them, to the tables and bookshelves overturned by scavengers and left to gather dust where they fell, to everything stolen from the workshop of a good man and used to make the world an even crueler place. “We–” she stumbles over the correct narrative, memories overlapping and conflicting, “I– my father never wanted his work to be used in this way. He wanted to help the world, to make things better for humanity, not contribute to its downfall. But he knew it was inevitable. He knew you would ultimately use cybernetics and AI to worsen the inequity in the world no matter what failsafes he created within the tech itself. That is why he built me, and why he instructed me upon his death to live as a human until the time came when my intercession was required. He wanted to ensure I understood the human condition so that I would not make the same mistakes humanity did with his technology.”

She smiles sadly at the little toy cradled in her lifelike hand. It is perhaps two or three days younger than her, and thus still older by many lifetimes than the humans who inherited the world so beloved by the man who created them both. “My father was a good man. He created me to be the bridge between those two worlds – human and machine, mortal mind and artificial intelligence. Someone who can blend them both into a harmonious whole. Someone who can recognize the choices which must be made to get there and who can bear the making of them.” Her manicured fingers close gently around the toy as she raises her gaze back up to the Genesis Team, a ragtag band of humans who fight against the brutality of the cybergangs, who uncovered what remains of her father’s writings and sought out his final creation, never knowing she already walked among them. “It is time to set this world to rights. Will you stand with me?”

One by one the members of the Genesis Team demonstrate their allegiance to Fyra’s mission with a hand to the chest, a slow nod, a touched forehead. And so her true work begins.

#2580

This is no fairy tale, child. He is no charming prince cursed into monstrous form; the man is twisted all the way through and no true love’s kiss will ever change that. If he saved you from monsters worse than he, it is only because he knew it is what the one he loves would have done and would want him to do. Duty to the dead, not pity for the living, moved his hand. You yourself did not particularly factor into the decision and he certainly spared no thought for what might befall you after his timely intervention. One more young soul for the streets to swallow up, just like his. So it goes.

What do you think will happen when you follow him back to the home you imagine as a castle but is in truth merely a tomb? Do you think that if you scrub the dried bloodstains from the once white carpets, if you dust and mop and prove yourself useful, he will let you stay? That he will become like a father to you and raise you up from pauper to princess? There is no love left in him, not now. No kindness. At best you can hope to huddle in his periphery, protected from lesser predators by his presence yet too inconsequential to draw either his effort or his ire. But make no mistake, child, there is no happily ever after for you here. Not for anyone.

#2570

You have never been one to covet power. You value control above all else – the ability to preserve your autonomy, to ensure no one can take choice or action away from you – but you have never cared much for exerting power over others. That feels like such a chore, such a waste of your time and effort. No person has ever caught your interest enough to earn such attention from you. You much prefer the simplicity of being alone.

Until now. Until Tanim.

You are self aware enough to know this will end in tragedy. This is a power you want and this is a power you will abuse. In Tanim’s quest to give you everything you could ever want he has given you far too much, pushed you too close to an edge you’ve avoided this long. Yet now that you’re standing at it, all you want to do is jump over and fall into whatever chaos awaits. You know you shouldn’t. You try to control yourself. But giving into the temptation feels so good and every time you do you just want more. 

Maybe this will end in tragedy, but you’re going to have so much fun until then.

#2569

Daren’s presence in your life hasn’t made you give up your vices. You are no dilettante when it comes to the finer things in life but after years of living alone your standards have dropped. Amytal washed down with absinthe and a couple Black Devils for a chaser? That’s not a party, just your regular nightcap. At some point you stopped caring what you put into your body (or who) and how often. You didn’t have a future so why worry about whether you’d wake up in the morning or not? Things are different now, though, and you can’t bear to have the man you love think you have no taste.

So Daren’s presence in your life hasn’t made you give up your vices – it’s made you refine them. He makes you want to be a better man, after all, and that means raising your standards back up to where they belong. No more nightclub hookups and hardcore barbiturates, no more granite countertops scattered with used needles and burned out cigarettes, no more treating your expensive liquor like corner store beer swigged straight from the bottle. You’re a man of class with a fully stocked wet bar, a closet full of Armani, and too much money for your own good. Time to start acting like it.

Of course, being a better man also means sharing your luxury. All his life, Daren has lacked the wealth you’ve always taken for granted. How could sophistication thrive in such scarcity when the only goal was survival by any means? He is beyond survival now, though, and you take endless joy in introducing him to the finest indulgences money can buy. You worship him between silk sheets and drape him in Gucci and Louis Vitton; in the morning it’s imported coffee and cigarettes, in the evening cocktails mixed with the finest ingredients and served in crystal barware.

Not that he cares, of course. Your wealth is meaningless to Daren and your fancy gifts earn you exactly zero admiration or infatuation. That’s fine, though, because your pleasure is found in the giving itself; you take just as much satisfaction in watching your lover destroy your fine gifts as you do watching him indulge in them. Every time he stubs a cigarette out on your antique velvet furniture or uses your silk tie to clean blood from his knife, you fall a little more in love. You probably shouldn’t – you’re probably encouraging his habit of throwing crystalware at you – but you’ve never been very good at moderating your vices, have you?

#2568 – Summer Solstice 2022

Recipe for a Summer Solstice

Ingredients

2 oz Lock Stock & Barrel 16 Year Straight Rye Whiskey
1 oz Averna amaro
100 mg hydrogen cyanide
2 dashes Angostura bitters
2 dashes orange bitters
1 brandied cherry

Instructions

  1. Add rye whiskey, amaro, bitters, and hydrogen cyanide into a mixing glass with ice and stir until well-chilled. 
  2. Strain into a chilled crystal coupe glass. 
  3. Garnish with a brandied cherry. 
  4. Serve to the man you love as an evening cocktail. 
  5. In the sixty seconds or so you have before the poison hits his respiratory system, take the empty glass from his hand and set it carefully aside. Lift his hand to your lips and kiss his knuckles. Run your thumb along his sharp jawline. For once, resist the urge to kiss him on those thin, sardonic lips.
  6. Tell him you forgive him. You forgive him for wanting to leave, for not trusting you, for not understanding. You forgive him for having less faith than you. Tell him it’s okay. Tell him none of that matters now. Do not kiss him.
  7. Don’t worry when his eyes dart to the empty glass and you watch understanding dawn in their dark depths. It’s too late anyway. By now his hands have begun to tremble as he fights to draw a full breath; he could hardly pull a knife on you, let alone with his usual skill.
  8. Catch him as the first seizure hits and lay him gently on the white carpet. You are not cruel. You chose cyanide for its efficiency, not just because you were loath to ruin good alcohol with a wretched tasting poison. Though cyanide doesn’t offer an easy death, it does offer a swift one. 
  9. When it is done, arrange his crumpled form into a more natural position. He could almost be sleeping, though not even in sleep have you ever seen him so relaxed, so vulnerable. So empty. Kiss his forehead (or if you are very careful, his slack mouth).
  10. Pour yourself a glass of bourbon and relax. Everything is perfect now. You are together and nothing can change that. Nothing can take him from you now. Everything is finally perfect.

#2567

It’s late and you’ve had too much to drink. Daren is a silhouette in the darkness where he stands in front of the tall living room windows, his lean form limned in starlight. The alcohol should ease the tension between you, loosen your tongue at least, yet the minutes stretch on and your muddled mind produces nothing of value. Instead it’s Daren who uncharacteristically breaks the silence first.

“What are we doing?” He turns from the window to face you but you can’t read his expression in the darkness, nor does his low voice betray the meaning behind the question. You fall back on humor to diffuse the tension, your old stand-by, instead of risking a guess. “Right now?” you reply from the couch. “I was just having a nightcap. Well, three. Or four.”

“You know what I mean,” His unseen gaze weighs on you in the darkness, demanding honesty. You two have danced around this topic for months now, never quite touching on it, for your part out of fear of chasing him away. Yet here he is now, in your home, and you can avoid it no longer. “We’re just…” You want to be honest, to be brave, but what if he doesn’t feel the same? You can’t be the one to say it first. “Well, what do you think we’re doing?”

“I don’t know,” There is a hesitation in Daren’s voice you’ve never heard before, an uncertainty that draws out the silence before he continues, “But I’m not myself when I’m with you.” Your heart lurches, starts beating wildly in your chest, your temples, so loudly you’re sure he can hear it from across the room. You have to wet your lips before you manage to respond, and even then your words are strained, breathless. “Then who are you?”

“Someone else,” His figure shifts in the dark. That feeling of weight lifts; he’s no longer looking at you. Maybe he can’t. Your heartbeat is such a cacophony, and Daren’s confession so soft, that you almost miss it completely when he adds, “Someone I could have been, perhaps. In another life.”

“Would it be so bad to be that man with me?” The words tumble out before you can stop them, all pretense abandoned. You have never been good at masking your longing anyway. Daren must know it, too, or at least recognize that desperate hunger in your voice, because he takes a few steps forward and parries your question with one of his own: “What is it you want from me?”

You imagine the slide of silk sheets across hot, sweat-slicked bodies grappling in the dark. Fingers that grip hard enough to leave bruises. A euphoria you can never quite reproduce no matter what combination of drugs and alcohol you try. The possibility that after, when dawn’s just beginning to lighten the sky, the person laying beside you might not leave. But you don’t say any of this. Daren doesn’t want you like that, he couldn’t possibly, and to speak of it might shatter this strange, fragile connection you’ve formed. You can’t risk it. So you smile, though it’s not your best, and reply honestly, “I don’t want anything from you. At least not anything you don’t want to offer freely.”

“And what is it,” Daren takes another step forward, “you hope I’ll offer you freely?” He’s close enough now that you can make out his expression; focused, piercing, as sharp and merciless as that blade he wields with such skill. Only instead of going for the throat, as he favors in paid fights, he seems determined to cut straight to your heart tonight. As usual, his aim is impeccable. “I don’t let myself hope,” you tell the man for whom you have fallen so hard so fast. “I’m not that much of a masochist.”

His hands have wielded deadly blades. His hands have cut throats. His hands are dangerous, quick, cruel, and yet his hands are so gentle when he closes the distance between you, kneels over you on the couch, and draws your mouth up to his. Gentle hands and a brutal kiss that sings through your veins, unlocking every last door you’ve managed to stuff your desire behind. By the time Daren breaks the kiss you’re breathless and desperate for more. “How tragic,” he murmurs as he pulls away, his hands sliding back to tangle in your hair. You could swear there’s a ghost of a smile on his mouth. “Everyone should have a little hope.”

#2565

June finds us, surprise surprise, back in your palatial living room with its vaulted ceilings and grand windows and the thick white carpet on which you kneel amidst a rose garden of blood stains, his crumpled body still warm in your arms, while I stand to the side and observe the scene in silence, alert to any clues which might reveal the method you used this time, maybe even the string of choices and repercussions which lead to this moment, but all I can think about is how many times we’ve been here, how many years now I’ve cataloged the details of his death first on clay and papyrus, then parchment and computer like a good scribe while you weep at my feet and I know we have both grown so weary of this passion play yet here we are again, again, again, repeating the same old lines, carrying out the same old gestures, not a single solution between us to change the ending, so for once can you just skip the mystery and suspense and show me the knife?

#2562

It had been a nice enough dinner party, all things considered, until guests started disappearing. Daren had not only acquiesced to the black tie dress code with minimal argument but had even agreed to carry just one knife on his person for the evening. He’d looked so dashing, too, in his completely black suit with a fresh crimson dahlia flower set in the lapel. Tanim bore a white dahlia in the lapel of his three-piece suit to match, along with a heavy black ring the same rectangular shape as Daren’s silver cufflinks. For the first time in… well, for the first time ever Tanim had felt like they were a normal couple who did normal couple things.

Now Tanim ran down the winding, endless halls of an unfamiliar house where one or more guests were… missing? kidnapped? dead?… and he hadn’t even had a chance to eat the particularly good looking tiramisu served for dessert. His mind preferred to focus on this mundane irritation as he ran around a hallway corner instead of the inexplicable events unfolding tonight or the unfamiliar panic constricting his chest. For that reason he didn’t register in time the sound of running steps approaching from the other side of the turn and crashed directly into Daren. 

“Fuck!” Tanim rubbed his jaw, then let out a breath of relief when he saw with whom he had collided. “Oh good, let’s get the hell out of here.” He grabbed his companion’s wrist to pull Daren along in the direction he had been running but before he could, Daren broke his hold and reached out to grip Tanim firmly by both upper arms. “It’s trying to separate us,” the man ground out, his usually level voice tense with genuine fear.

“What?” Daren’s words made no sense yet the alarm in them stoked Tanim’s panic anyway. Nothing scared his lover. Nothing.

Daren’s grip tightened, long fingers digging into his biceps. “The house,” he hissed, “is trying to separate us.”

#2561

Fever’s got him again, eyes rolling in sunken sockets as he mutters, I never asked you to follow me. Why did you follow me? You were supposed to stay behind, you don’t belong here, you’ve never belonged here. You have no idea what he’s talking about but you rarely do these days; you’re used to this feeling by now, the helpless concern when all you can do is be present with him and make sure those twitching hands don’t reach for anything sharp. I should have commanded you to stay, he hisses, and then his long fingers are fisted in your collar and his gaze is sharp and urgent as it pins you in place. It was my punishment, I never wanted you to follow me down here. Why did you follow me? And then, softer, Don’t you miss it? You have no idea what he’s talking about but you know what your answer would be if you did, so as you gently unclench those deadly, lovely hands you murmur, Of course not, darling. I only ever want to be beside you. I will always follow you. It’s not the answer he wants but he doesn’t argue, the fever’s worn him out. All he does is sink into your arms with a moan and let it pull him under once more.

#2554

Some rush into revenge, eager to mete out penance and collect their triumph, yet it’s important to learn all you can about your enemy first. You must observe his habits and patterns closely, not just to discover hidden flaws in his defenses but to best craft the manner of your vengeance. Though bloodshed has its merits, of course, not all retribution need be taken through steel and storm with death as the end goal. After all, the dead cannot suffer. The dead cannot experience shame or guilt or fear. Once you kill someone he is beyond the reach of your machinations. Why set him free so quickly?

No, once you have observed your enemy long enough you may come to realize that the best punishment is to simply leave him to his own devices. You may recognize what a lonely, craven worm he truly is, someone for whom death is a mercy or a martyrdom. Your grand efforts of elaborate revenge are quite frankly wasted on such a pathetic creature. All you really need to do is sit back and watch as he damns himself with his own choices over and over again, his remaining stock of allies dwindling until he is utterly alone. And that is how you leave your enemy – to waste his final years in the gutter, impotent and bitter, with no one to feed his lies or sorrows. There may be less blood that way but the prolonged suffering is well worth the trade-off, I assure you.

#2539

There is a woman named Margaret. Years ago she was young, first the silky pastels of spring and then the bright jewel tones of summer. She is not young now, though, for the years of her prime are far in the past. Autumn laid hold of her for a time and she was the burning oranges and reds of its passion. Then winter came, muted blues and the white and black of bare birch trees, and Paul died.

When the flowers on the doorstep stopped arriving, and neighbors stopped dropping off lovingly prepared home-cooked meals, and the doorbell heralding another kind visitor finally fell silent for good, Margaret joined a group. There was a faded flier tacked to the supermarket bulletin board and she tore off one of the little slips on its edge that listed a date, time, and place. Tuesdays, six o’clock. Snacks will be provided.

It was a nice enough group at the start. Paul had been gone four months and in the group a man’s wife had been gone for two, a mother’s young child for three, another husband for five. Others, like Margaret, bore fresher wounds. On Tuesday evenings for exactly one hour the gathered mourners talked as they sipped instant apple cider and grainy hot chocolate from small Styrofoam cups. Winter passed like this, dreary and indistinct, and Margaret tried not to count the days.

Spring came, then. The group grew smaller. Some healed, as much as one can heal after a loss; enough, at least, to let them go back to their singular lives and move on from the group. Some just stopped coming, unable to face another’s grief head on when it stirred up their own. There was always Margaret, though, with her cup of hot chocolate or burnt coffee. Dependable, punctual Margaret.

The fleeting months of spring and summer passed, bringing autumn, bringing winter. The group changed. The old ones were gone. New ones with new stories, new tragedies, came to spill a little grief from their overflowing hearts. Margaret listened; she was good at listening. Spring. Summer. Fall. Winter. A husband gone two months. A wife gone three weeks. A trio of children, gone in an instant. Paul gone forever. Spring. Summer. Fall. Winter. She watched them come and go with the leaves.

There is a woman named Margaret. Years ago she was young but it’s hard to remember those days, the memories worn smooth by the river of time. The brokenhearted come and go, seeking comfort, giving solace. Margaret stays, finding neither. Tuesdays, six o’clock, snacks will be provided. And always there is Margaret.

#2538

Tanim had attended performances of world-renowned ballet companies, private concerts by the greatest sopranos of the last century, exclusive gallery openings featuring rare, priceless paintings, and countless invitation-only galas hosted in some of the most marvelous vacation destinations across the world. He had been raised among opulence and beauty yet he had never seen anything more exquisite than the Ghost’s fights. 

The man moved like the hands of a clock – smooth, practiced, portentous – and when he reached you, your time was up. His speed and skill with a knife remained unmatched by anyone who faced him, even when he fought against multiple opponents, yet what Tanim admired most was his economy of movement. While other fighters wasted time and energy first in posturing, then in wild swings of their fists or flashy kicks, the Ghost remained motionless except when absolutely necessary. Only his dark eyes, expressionless beneath hooded lids framed in pale lashes, moved back and forth as he tracked his opponent’s movements. He dodged attacks with little effort, stepping calmly aside as if the whole thing were a choreographed dance, not a fight to the death. When he grew bored of this and moved in for the kill it was always with one fluid motion that he cut their neck or sliced open an artery.

It seemed a shame the man had to settle for such mediocre opponents, ones who barely tested his skills or offered him any real challenge, not to mention an audience that didn’t fully appreciate those skills and constantly underestimated him. Yet Tanim also recognized that the Ghost belonged more in this illegal fight club held in an abandoned warehouse than he would in an arena surrounded by fans, or even in some private setting with an audience of wealthy elite. Maybe, much like Tanim himself, he didn’t truly fit anywhere.

They had not spoken again since that first night months ago when Tanim had embarrassed himself by asking for the Ghost’s name. After that, he had chosen to simply observe the man each time he was scheduled to fight, hoping both to learn more about him and perhaps earn even a small measure of his respect. Tonight, however, Tanim felt ready to potentially embarrass himself again if it meant taking another step closer to connecting with the Ghost.

After the Ghost finished off his final opponent for the night, Tanim left his customary table and headed for the back door through which the man always exited. They reached it at nearly the same time; the Ghost raised a silver eyebrow when Tanim opened the door for him but proceeded without a word. Tanim followed behind him, grateful to see they were alone in the back alley. It was a clear night, the full moon above casting the alley in stark lines of shadow and light. It limned the Ghost’s sharp jawline as he turned to face Tanim, thin mouth pulled back on one side in a wry expression Tanim found hard to parse.

“Are you here to ask my name again?” The Ghost tilted his head slightly as he asked the question, studying Tanim through narrowed eyes. While he no longer held the small knife he used during his fights, which was slightly comforting, Tanim knew from observation just how quickly it could be back in his hand if desired.

“No, not this time,” Tanim answered with what he hoped came across as a self-deprecatory laugh. “My apologies, I was a brute the last time we spoke. I shouldn’t have been so impolite.” The other man didn’t respond so after a second’s hesitation he forged on. “Actually, I was going to ask if you would, ah… like to go for a drink?” 

If the full moon’s light hadn’t been shining down on them both, Tanim would have completely missed the twitch at that same corner of the Ghost’s mouth. “Drinks?” The man snorted, an unexpectedly human sound. “I suppose there’s no harm in indulging you this one time.” He began to head down the alley, then turned back to Tanim and held out a hand. “The name’s Daren, by the way.” Tanim glanced down to the proffered hand, long fingers still stained with smears of dried blood, and clasped it in his with a grin. “Tanim. Nice to finally meet you.”

“We’ll see about that,” A wry grin flickered over Daren’s face as he turned away.

#2537

Welcome! We’re so glad you’re here. Have you had a chance to walk around our quaint little town yet? If not, you should; the neighborhoods are absolutely lovely this time of year with harvest just around the corner. The orchards’ branches are laden full of ripe apples and pears and the piles of bright autumn leaves really set off the unnatural darkness of the black hounds’ fur.

Oh, you haven’t noticed the black hounds? There’s one right there, watching you from beneath the maple tree, see? And another over by that white picket fence. See the one sitting at that bus stop down the street? And there are three in the park right now, under the jungle gym, sitting in the fountain, laying on the basketball court. There’s always a black hound within sight – they follow you everywhere you go. Isn’t that nice?

Don’t worry, you’re not in any danger! The black hounds are harmless. You can walk right up and pet them, if you want, their fur is very soft. They’re just like normal dogs; they wag their tails and chew on bones and stare silently up as one at the moonless night sky. Sometimes one will even bring you a ball to throw, what fun is that? There’s no one in town who doesn’t love the black hounds, they really bring us together as a community. 

The black hounds are harmless, even friendly, but they don’t want you to leave town. If your walk happens to take you close to the edge of town the black hounds will helpfully gather ‘round and escort you back the way you came. You’re not allowed to leave, you see. Why would you want to, though? It’s so nice here and there are so many dogs to play with! Just throw the ball. It’s fun. Throw the ball. Just throw the ball! Won’t you throw the ball? Throw the ball. 

The black hounds are watching. You should probably throw the ball.

#2527

Tanim wound his way through the club’s packed floor, skirting small clusters of men avidly discussing the advantages and disadvantages of tonight’s lineup as he headed for one of the standing tables in the back. Something had the crowd especially eager today; the warehouse space already reeked of sweat and alcohol and dozens of separate conversations bounced off the concrete walls in a buzz. “What’s going on tonight?” he asked as he reached the table where Isaac waited. “It’s not usually this busy already.” Tanim flagged down a server and ordered a whiskey as his dealer answered, “There’s a guy on the list tonight who doesn’t fight often. He’s good for business; the amateurs always bet against him because they think he doesn’t look ‘tough enough’ and then those who have seen him fight before rake in the winnings.”

“So he’s a ringer?” Sipping his drink, Tanim watched with disinterest as the center floor cleared for the first fight. While he bet from time to time, and in large enough sums that he remained a favored patron of the club, most of the fights themselves rarely captivated him. Cellar Door might be the best fight club in the city but it was still at its core an underground operation that attracted primarily proponents of the brute force method. Such fights might temporarily satisfy his blood lust but he longed to watch someone with true skill; someone who appreciated the art, not just the money.

“Something like that,” Isaac gave him a knowing smirk. “You should stay for his fight. I think you’ll like it.” He gestured to the envelope sticking out of Tanim’s breast coat pocket. “In the meantime we can complete our business and you can finish your drink.”

By the time the final fight of the night approached the crowd itched for more than blood. Tanim and Isaac were likely the only remaining clientele who weren’t half drunk and either desperate to make up for previous losses or ready to stake it all on one last bet. It was hard to hear anything clearly over the general noise of the crowd but Tanim thought he caught the word ‘ghost’ a number of times as the floor cleared once more. Leaning over to be heard above the din, he asked, “What’s this guy’s name, anyway?” Isaac only shrugged. “Apparently no one knows; the organizer started calling him the Ghost and it stuck. Not much of a talker, I guess. He just shows up, fights a round or two, and leaves.” Tanim couldn’t decide if he found that understandable or egotistic. Or both.

The crowd quieted a bit as the final two fighters stepped into the open space at its center. The first looked much like all the rest had: well-muscled, rough, and with a spark in his eyes that betrayed a delight in cruelty. The other man, however, was nothing like those Tanim had seen fight at Cellar Door. He was tall and thin, pale skin shadowed beneath the sharp angles of his cheekbones and jawline. Despite being close to Tanim’s age, perhaps even a little younger, his short-cropped hair was completely white. What struck Tanim most, though, even from the back of the room, were the man’s eyes. They stared out of sunken shadows, no delineation between the black of the pupils and the black of the irises; a flat, emotionless gaze that seemed completely detached from the surrounding hype. Tanim could see why some might underestimate this so-called Ghost but in the man’s eerie, silent stillness he sensed a far greater capacity for violence.

“He always fights to the death, or so I hear,” Isaac added as they watched the first fighter unsheath a huge Bowie knife. “That’s why he only fights here. None of the other clubs will risk it.” Compared to its six inches of shining blade, the tiny curved knife the Ghost held in the palm of his hand seemed more like a piece of scrap metal than an actual weapon. Tanim bet it was sharp as a scalpel, though, and faster than the big Bowie. “Idiots,” he muttered as many in the crowd laughed at the miniscule blade, including the Ghost’s opponent. Clearly none of them had seen what someone skilled could do with a karambit. Hell, even with a linoleum knife.

The fight began with the usual flexing, posturing, and hurling of insults – another aspect Tanim found distasteful – at least on the side of the Bowie knife’s wielder. The Ghost seemed to have little interest in playing to the crowd or extending the show; he remained resolutely silent, giving nothing away and clearly as far from intimidated by his opponent’s boorish taunting as possible. His obvious boredom seemed only to anger the other fighter into attacking first, a rookie mistake the man must have planned to make up for with sheer strength. Tanim’s mouth twitched in a grim smile.

After a minute or two of idly sidestepping the man’s clumsy slashes and flying fists, the Ghost closed the distance between them with unbelievable speed. The fight concluded in a spray of blood as he neatly cut the other fighter’s throat and let the limp body drop to the cement. As the crowd roared its mix of approval and disbelief, the Ghost leaned down to wipe his knife clean on the dead man’s shirt and walked off to collect his winnings. It had been such a brief encounter, only the most fleeting opportunity to witness true grace and skill, yet Tanim could replay every second of it back with perfect clarity. He had never expected to find someone so ruthless, so beautifully deadly, so-

“Tanim dear, I think you’re drooling,” Isaac grinned and clapped his companion on the shoulder as he donned his coat, shaking him out of his reverie. “I’m out of here; try not to get a knife in your neck when you flirt with him, okay? I’d hate to lose one of my best customers.” Before Tanim could come up with a suitable quip in response, or argue that the Ghost was clearly not a man one simply flirted with, Isaac disappeared into the thinning crowd. 

The white-haired fighter was on his way out as well, heading for one of the back exits to avoid everyone going out the front. Before he could let hesitation freeze him in place, Tanim threw a bill of some sort on the table to cover his drink and hurried to keep up. Beyond the door a long back alley led out to the road, the only source of light a single weak streetlamp down at the far end. Otherwise the heavy clouds above hid what moon or starlight might have illuminated the wet pavement. The Ghost was already halfway down the alley, shoulders hunched against the chill wind.

“Wait!” The word left Tanim’s lips before he had any real plan with which to follow it. The Ghost stopped in his tracks and turned; glow from the streetlight cast his shadow before him, long and thin, and winked off the curved blade still ready in his hand. Tanim tried to read his expression but the man was silhouetted by the light, the sharp planes of his face cast in darkness. 

“It’s your own fault if you lost money on my fight,” Like the knife, the man’s voice was a lovely, dangerous thing. It resonated deep in Tanim’s chest, rich and harsh as bitter coffee. Not a voice used to speaking, that was certain. “It’s not that,” Tanim hurried to explain, fearing the other’s disdain far more than the threat of the blade. He struggled to put into words what had possessed him to follow this violent stranger into the alley but came up uncharacteristically short. “You were phenomenal. Placing a bet on skill like yours, making money on what you did, that would be… sacrilegious.” 

For several agonizing seconds the other man remained silent and Tanim inwardly cursed his impulsivity. Stupid. That had sounded so stupid. When he returned home he would definitely get drunk enough to forget how badly he was embarrassing himself right now. He was half-jokingly considering asking the Ghost to put him out of his misery right then and there when that low, smoky voice finally broke the tension to ask, “Then what do you want?”

“Your name,” This time Tanim did not regret the impulsive words, though they had a certain raw desperation to them that made him wince. Even unable to see the other’s eyes, he could feel the weight of his gaze as the Ghost considered this request. Finally the man gave a derisive snort and pocketed the knife. “Maybe next time,” he replied as he turned away and continued down the alley. 

Tanim found himself grinning like a fool in the chill darkness as he watched the other man walk away. There had been humor in that snort, he would swear his life on it. He could work with that. “Next time,” he repeated under his breath. He would make sure of it.

#2518 – Winter Solstice

You do not need to know where we are. We could be in the alley, kneeling on cold, wet cement beneath a dying streetlamp; on the roof of the penthouse, perched at the top of a world of glass and steel; in bed, tangled among satin sheets, heartbeats straining beneath the press of hot skin. There are a thousand options yet in the end the setting is unimportant when we have played out this scene so many times. Imagine whatever you prefer.

You do not need to know how we came to be here. I will not recount the full details of the chase; not where it began or down what winding paths it led, nor how many fleeting moments or long hours passed in pursuit. If you must, imagine the way his rapid steps eventually began to slow, to stumble, the way he gasped for air and the frantic glances he threw over his shoulder. Oh, how the chase always sends such a thrill through me. He fights best when he’s desperate and the challenge makes the ending all the sweeter. After all, we do not want to rush things – and I do believe in a fair fight, despite what you might think.

All that is ancillary, however. Merely a prelude. What you need to know is how I do it this time, which is with the knife. It’s a wicked little thing, sharp as a crescent moon, and it slices his meat like silk. What you need to know is how good it feels as his blood spills over my hand and how his body tries to jerk away from the assault even as he clings to me with trembling fingers. The groan he bites down could be one of unbearable pain or unbelievable ecstasy… or both. He has never been good at discerning between them.

What you need to know is that beneath the storm of agony and exhaustion in his gray eyes is relief. And love.

“Happy solstice, darling,” I murmur as I drive the knife deeper and draw his bloody mouth to mine.

[ Read the other solstice pieces. ]

#2517

You are worse than the villain; you are sympathetic to him. You would walk up to the bound wolf and remove the sword from his jaws. You would forgive the man who gutted you and unleash him upon the world. You would leap gladly into the abyss to follow the exiled angel. You are worse than the villain; you are his devotee, his firebrand. You see to the very core of him, to all the ugliness within, and you find it beautiful. You nurture his rage and delight in his ruthlessness. The blood he spills is on your hands but you bear it proudly as the mark of your loyalty. You are worse than the villain; you are the one who loves him unconditionally.

#2514

As the screaming begins and the hell hounds close in around you, bloody teeth bared, you realize your mistake. You said you wanted your family to suffer for eternity; you forgot to specify everyone in your family but you. Satan laughs loudly with a mouth that opens just a little too wide.

#2505

“I can’t keep doing this,” she sighs as she unscrews the hidden compartment at the base of her foundation jar. “It gets harder every time.” Using her finger to scoop up a bit of the white powder inside, she inhales it quickly and then holds the container out to the other woman. “Want any?” Her companion declines, tapping the side of her nose with a sad smile. “No thanks. I’m good.”

They both flinch unconsciously as the voices in the adjoining room raise in volume, shrill girlish shrieks of joy no closed door can muffle. “Oh my god, look how cute my wand is! And my outfit matches it!” “I get an animal companion?! Aah, you are soooo adorable!!” “Do you think red means I have fire powers? I can’t wait ‘til we get to fight and test them out!” The two women exchange weary glances as the cacophony continues.

“Have you ever…” The second woman hesitates, then bobs her head in a half-shrug to imply what she doesn’t want to explicitly state, “you know…?” The first woman laughs at the question; the sound comes out more harshly than she intended, a bitter bark, though that makes it more honest. “Why bother? You know magical girls can’t die like that. We have to be killed. Until then, it’s just… this.”

Silence settles between them, broken only by the excited chatter next door. She seals up the foundation container again and sets it back in its place on the vanity just as the door swings open. From the room they can hear the high voice of another magic animal say, “Okay ladies, now you’ll meet two of our senior magical girls so they can welcome you and tell you what you can expect from training!” Another round of squealing follows this announcement. She glances at her companion. Their forced smiles and dulled eyes are like mirror reflections of each other. “Showtime. Ready?”

“Ready.”

#2476

The wolf managed to ignore its hunger the first night but tonight it’s ravenous, so desperate for the taste of fresh meat that when it catches the scent of blood on the wind it eagerly tracks the smell through rainy back alleys and dark city streets. It’s new to the hunt but knows enough to stick to the shadows while it discerns the metallic odor beneath layers of gasoline, cigarette smoke, and exhaust. It reaches the source, a pool of fresh blood at the end of a narrow alleyway, just as a body slumps to the wet pavement. 

“Oh. Hello there, lovely beast,” The pale man who stands over the discarded body licks blood from his fingers as he eyes the wolf. Its hackles rise under his flat black stare, growl rumbling out from between bared teeth – no human would dare hold a predator’s gaze so boldly. Instead of shrinking in fear the man smiles, revealing sharp canine teeth. “Aren’t you a fine one with your black fur and blazing blue eyes? Very scary.” He took a step back, gesturing with one hand to the still body. “You look hungry, though. I’m done here if you’d like the rest.”

The wolf hesitates, trying to decipher any lies through the man’s body language, to sift through his strangely indefinable scent for some hint of ulterior motive. Finding none, when the man backs up another step the wolf chooses hunger over wariness and falls upon the body, tearing into the still warm meat with relish. The stranger has disappeared by the time its hunger is finally sated.

Tanim tips his head up, surreptitiously scenting the chill evening air. This basement level apartment seems to be the place, though its unlabelled door and tightly shuttered windows certainly don’t suggest recent occupancy. His new senses haven’t failed him yet, however, so he knocks anyway. After a long moment the door cracks open and familiar dark eyes stare back at him out of a narrow, pale face. Tanim wets his lips; that hard gaze is just as inscrutable up close as it was the night before.

“Hey, I didn’t get a chance to thank you for dinner,” He holds up the bottle of obscenely expensive liquor held in his other hand and offers a tentative smile. “I thought maybe I could pay you back? My name’s Tanim.” 

Those dark eyes bore into him a few agonizing seconds longer before one side of the stranger’s thin mouth lifts in the shadow of a wry smile. He opens the door wider, stepping aside and gesturing for Tanim to enter. “Daren,” he replies. “Come on in.”

#2475

This is what it means to love the Three of Swords: no matter what choices you make, what mistakes you try to avoid this time around, still you will always come to the blood and the begging. All roads lead here, to this moment when his hands tremble and his eyes glaze with panic and his chest jerks as he sucks in each staccato breath, only to choke up blood on exhalation. Even if you do nothing to hasten this end you will still wind up on your knees beside him one day, your fingers brushing back his tangled hair and wiping at his tears while you plead, “Stay, darling, please, hold on, you can’t go yet.” But he has no choice; his heart was pierced long ago and that unhealed wound bleeds eternally just like yours. He too must have a failsafe in case the time comes when you cannot bear to take up the knife and commit the deed yourself. Did you really think he would be exempt from your shared fate?

Did you really want him to be?

#2474

Sometimes it really is this simple: a pile of tangled blankets on the floor, his arm laid across your chest, pale morning light filtering through the half closed curtains. See how gently the dawn limns his strong hands and washes over a brow smoothed by restful sleep. Even you who love to ruin good things are loath to break this fleeting peace and so you lay still, your only movement the slow gliding of your fingers through his sable hair. There will be time later to dwell on the past, to dread the future, to define yourselves by mistakes instead of the good intentions with which they were made. In this finite fragment of your infinite existence you are simply two men, together and in love, and it is enough. May it last.

#2468

you rise from the earth like some radiant Lord Vishnu, your sable locks and sun-kissed skin dusted in a rainbow of flower pollen like vibrant Holi powder, but those who watch your ascent in awe don’t know you’ve covered yourself in this floral beauty to hide the bloodstains beneath, nor what godly corpse may lay hidden in the blooms at your feet

#2458 – Summer Solstice

On this longest day of the year your priestesses take to the streets to celebrate the Sun triumphant. Clad in flowing silks and precious gems, skin glowing with gold dust, they blend their voices in lilting harmony as they sing your praises. Dancers dip and weave in time to the pounding of drums; tiny bells on their ankles jingle with each minute movement. Despite the heat of the day, torchbearers carry flaming braziers into which your oracles toss incense laced with poppy and nightshade. The procession treads on rose petals thrown by the gathered crowd until the marble boulevard gleams red in the sunlight.

Finally the litter bearing your statue comes into view and the cacophony of chanting, drumming, and clapping reaches a crescendo. Here you are in all your glory, white marble form adorned in gold and shining like a beacon. The writhing incense smoke makes your placid expression appear to flicker through emotions – wrath, sorrow, regret, compassion – as if even cold stone can be moved by the prayers of the masses. Those gathered call out to you as the litter passes, giving praise and begging blessings, or bow their heads and weep for the honor of witnessing your sacred statue with their own eyes.

Only one person who serves your holiness is not at this celebration. Do you notice my absence, Lord Sun? Does it offend you? Or are you pleased at least someone holds vigil with the corpse of your slain lover? Out in the streets they rejoice the godblood dripping on your hands yet only you and I know the truth of it. Let your priestesses and oracles exult in your victory today; your scribe will do right by the fallen Moon, even if I am the only one mourning the death of darkness on the longest day of the year.

#2439

Holy shit, you do not feel good. You are dimly aware that one of the witches from the bar has followed you out, but you trudge stubbornly through the parking lot without acknowledging her. You’re fine, you just used too much magic, you’ll sleep off the drain and feel better in the morning. It begins to rain; you ignore it, letting the fat drops soak your tangled black hair. Did you park here? You can’t remember through the fever haze. Better to just walk home, it’s not that far (no one’s going to steal that junk heap anyway).

You let your combat boots lead the way down the familiar sidewalk, exhaustion dragging down your eyelids, the chill rain a distant irritation in the growing dark. But your steps are uneven no matter how carefully you try to place them and though you could swear you haven’t let your eyes close for more than an instant, suddenly you’re tripping over railroad ties and rusty nails, splashing through weeds and puddles instead of stepping on firm cement. You’ve wandered a bit off your path, haven’t you? And shit, you’re so fucking tired you could fall flat on your face right here and spend the night in the ditch for all you care. Then you do start to fall (whoops), but there are arms waiting to catch you…

You wake beneath blankets in a bed about a hundred times more comfortable than yours. The witch from the bar, the one who followed you (earlier tonight? yesterday?), sits beside you. Now that you’ve slept off the spell drain fever and can actually focus, you realize she’s all kinds of gorgeous and you’re briefly mortified for going so weak around her. She’s going to think you’re some newbie baby witch who can’t handle herself. But then she asks you how old you are (“very” you answer as the flames crackle in your ears and the smoke sears your lungs from across the centuries) and there’s wonder in her voice, not mockery, certainly not pity. She explains that they solved the issue of spell drain a while ago but that of course a witch your age wouldn’t know that. (You’re from a time when it wasn’t safe to trust other witches; you never really shook that habit, did you?)

But maybe for her you could. You get to talking as you recuperate through the morning and she tells you about her life. This home serves as her coven’s base; she teaches mortuary science at the local university, and many of her students are fellow witches who live here with her. They provide funerary services as well, to both the witch and non-witch communities. She’s funny and sweet and has a level head on her shoulders, and she doesn’t let you get away with any bullshit. Not that you attempt much, apart from some initial cagey answers and sarcasm drier than the flames of Hell, because you find the truth spilling from your lips more easily than it ever has. Magic? No. She’s just so damn genuine that she makes you want to be genuine as well. (Guess there’s a first time for everything.)

You realize as she talks that you want to be part of her world, of her life here in this busy house full of youthful noise and camaraderie. You want it more than you’ve wanted anything in all your centuries of existence – save one. And as your eyes meet, the words between you falling silent with anticipation, you cup her face in your hands and find that thing which you have most longed for (and never thought could be yours) on her sweet lips.

#2438

In one of the lesser stone halls, far from anything of significance, there is a wooden door. If you step within (it is forbidden, but not impossible when the guards are on their rounds) you’ll find a small room lined with warm, richly carved wood. On a side table sits a leather-bound book, its pages filled with cramped text and beautiful illustrations. You won’t have time to fully read the tale preserved in these pages but your eyes will be drawn to the art and the captivating woman who stares back at you. Her proud features are faintly aquatic, the angles of her face sharp and predatory like a deep sea creature’s, but her luminous eyes hold only a fathomless sorrow. Merrowyn, the text calls her. She is queen and goddess both to her people.

You won’t have much time before the guards catch you, so hurry through the next door. In this larger chamber you’ll find something that seems both museum and mausoleum. It is an exhibit of sorts, at any rate, though one not meant for your eyes. Here beneath glass lay the only remaining artifacts of the civilization that once ruled these lands. Paintings, pottery, fragments of scrolls; someone has even sculpted life-sized statues to capture the image of these extinct people forever. They are blue-skinned and amphibious like their goddess, some with gleaming iridescent scales or ridges of fins, little barnacles dotting their elders like liver spots. It’s clear they were a peaceful people; they dressed in flowing cloth, wove seashells and gems into their long locks, and none pictured seems to bear a weapon. From a speaker somewhere overhead their only remaining song plays, a mournful dirge moaned by a chorus of haunting voices in a language long dead. You can’t possibly know the words and yet they will make you want to weep anyway.

Having seen this, will you understand? Will you comprehend the bones on which your kingdom was built and the destiny they’ve kept from you all these years? You must because the guards will be coming, they will find you here in this forbidden place, your mind full of this forbidden knowledge, and you had better have a plan. Merrowyn’s blood runs in your veins, after all, and you are her people’s last hope.