I have time.
It’s not much, but it will have to be enough.
She was lithe, tall, and strong. Beautiful, if not for the blood-lust that
dominated her life; Beautiful, if the blood she was after wasn’t mine.
Rounding the corner of the loosely cobbled wagon road, I found main street and all of its store fronts closed and quiet for the night. The tavern was only three doors up, but I knew I wouldn’t find any help there. I knew not a soul in the village, and I had no reason to expect sanctuary or help of any kind.
The street was empty. The Shags had all been cut loose to feed for the night. It wouldn’t have been easy to steal one anyway, even out this far into the wilds. Even out here on the Fray, settlers trained their Shags to kill would be thieves. I knew ways to turn a Shag’s loyalty, but they all took time, and besides, there weren’t any around; their pungent smell lingered, but there wasn’t a Shag for at least a thousand wheels.
Most of the village’s buildings were in decent repair, exposed wooden surfaces treated against weather, lacquered against age. Most shop’s had signs there were cared after, the lettering clear even in the dark. One building though, several doors down beside the Rook’s Inn, had no sign, and the front was boarded up, deserted.
I glanced over my shoulder, and then ran to the shop closest to me, an apothecary by the Milk-Leaf painted on the sign. The shop had a porch with a low roof extending out over it. I scanned the street one more time, then leapt silently up to the overhang, and pulled myself carefully and quietly onto the roof.
Crouching low, I looked and listened.
She was farther away than I expected. There was no comfort in the extra distance though, only a little more time.
She was stealthy and agile, a predator. She moved quickly, but also cautiously, always cautiously. I’d learned over the last several months that she never moved without care—her will power stronger than her desire to drain me and pike my skull. I left a slingback for her once that took a neat slice out of her ear. She’d been even more wary since, but I still couldn’t shake her from my trail.
I stood and moved quickly along the roof tops, heading for the abandoned building. As I neared the tenement, I thought how similar it was to the Rook’s. The abandoned building might have been the village’s original Inn, or maybe a Town Hall. It was large enough to host the village population and then some. There was a large hole in the roof of the building, whatever it once was, and I jumped over to it. The creaking sounds as I landed were unsettling as the materials shifted beneath me.
Peering down through the opening into the dark, cavernous space below, I could make out rows of benches, but little else. I closed my eyes, and concentrated, perfectly still for a moment: I felt the cool air on my skin, heard the clicks of birds’ beaks on bone—feeding in distance—heard roaches scurrying through the walls and floorboards as they fucked and fed, and smelled a freshly killed deer and the Shag that fed on it—and there, maybe thirty feet from the that Shag—was the murderous Bella. Her scent was hot and anxious, but her heart beat smooth and regular. I could tell by the sounds she made that she was circling the Shag, careful not to disturb it, careful not to give herself away. I was satisfied that I’d earned that much respect. She must have thought it was a trap though I’d nothing to do with it.
I sat at the edge of the hole in the roof and dangled my feet down, and then carefully lowered myself inside. There was more creaking and swaying, but the wood held. I still couldn’t see much. The only light was lunar, and it entered the room through slivers and cracks in the roof and walls.
There was a tugging at my shoulder as I swung around trying to see the ground. I’d caught my shirt on a nail.
Doesn’t matter. She would find me here whether I left an obvious trail or a subtle one. Besides, the shirt was threadbare, tattered and loose. I didn’t need it anymore. I let go of the roof and felt the shirt tear and pull apart as I fell. I landed hard, but managed to miss the benches. Several months of dust and dirt were kicked up around me mixed with the pungent smell of decay; even the wood smelled sour with rot.
My eyes adjusted and I realized the building was a church. There was a stage and podium, and an enormous cross at the back of the room. I mocked the oversized symbol with a sardonic bow of my head, hand to my chest. If anyone had cared for the place—if anyone in this town believed in anything anymore—I might have been burned where I stood.
Walking around the church, I tested the columns and beams. They were weak. The whole place would come crashing down around me if I hit one of the supports hard enough.
I picked a corner, and hid myself in the darkness. I took several deep breaths, preparing myself, readying my body for communion. Maybe it was a little blasphemous considering the location, but I didn’t choose the name for what I was about to do. I exhausted my breath, pushing everything from my lungs, and then I waited. I waited until the panic for air began, and then I waited, for the panic to subside. I waited until there was brightness and lightness in my head, and then I waited until there was only blackness and absence. I waited until I felt dead, and then I was ready.
I drew in a slow, thick breath. I opened my eyes and mouth and stared into nothingness. Gradually, shapes emerged from the nothing. There was scent and warmth, sound and taste, forming a synesthetic view of the building, of my world. The vision was soft, a ruddy map of roaches and shags, and birds and rats. But the map made up for its lack of fine detail with its emotional resolution. I knew what and where each creature was, and I knew what they wanted. I felt saliva pooling in my mouth. Eventually, I was sure I was drooling, but I stayed in my trance.
Stay focused. She’s coming.
If I wasn’t careful, the communion would consume me; communing without intending to feed was dangerous, the hunger would be great and lead to mistakes or madness. But I needed the edge.
There she was. Bella crept along the shadows, surveying the town. She smelled divine, healthy and sweet. In my state, Bella looked like a floating sanguine siren. Each movement was a throbbing pulse of hate-filled desire. She made her way around the buildings…
Coming my way.
I needed to stay in control. The bitch was more than a siren in my hunger-addled mind—her blood was sanctified—she was a meal that would last years. Some call those who survive the blood ritual, “angels,” but I don’t. Still, my desire for her was immeasurably intense. Whether she was touched by god or not wouldn’t stop me, but my desire to live through the night might.
Bella was on the rooftops now. Tracking me directly. I just needed a little taste. If I reached out, just extended myself a little more, I could taste her without even touching…
Ahhhhh! It felt like a hot nails were being driven through my skull. I grabbed my head and fell forward onto the floor. I tried to break communion, but I couldn’t. My muscles clenched and seized uncontrollably. I writhed around on the floor, blind and helpless, pressing my hands to my head as hard as I could.
What the fuck is going on!?
The hot nails turned into searing burs flowing through my veins. Excruciating pain was echoed by every nerve in my body. I began pounding my arms against the floorboards and when that didn’t help, I started banging my head against the ground. I couldn’t feel anything, but the burning.
Bella had a Slough Demon with her! The blood of one anyway. You can’t look at a Slough Demon without getting pulled into the black pit of its curse. They leech on the souls of their prey and suck them dry. Not normally a problem for me, but the Slough Demon’s curse is its blood; tasting one, even in communion, causes cells to rot and burst. If I didn’t break from its hold soon…
Rolling around on the ground, I was kicking up dust, desperately trying to stop the pain. Clever girl, clever girl. When had she had time to pick up that kind of charm? For months she’d tracked me, and she’d never left my trail long enough to take a piss. When the fuck had she found and killed a Slough Demon?
I could feel her eyes, those ensorcelled silver eyes, shining down on me from above. Bella was watching and anticipating, savoring my capture. It was shit to be trapped like this, to not even be able to fight after all this time. If I was finally going to hell, I wasn’t going to go whimpering on the floor of a church.
I found the strength to stand, used the pain to fuel my determination, and charged into one of the support beams. But I’d misjudged the integrity of the building. My shoulder split open against the beam, and the old church quaked and shuddered, but the roof did not fall.
I was still blind, trapped in the Slough Demon’s curse, my blood bursting. I couldn’t see her, but I could feel that bitch, Bella, smiling. I held my shoulder; it was already slick with the blood pouring out of the wound. Dropping down to my knees, I began shaking. Then I heard strange laughter. It was maniacal, insane. It was frighteningly familiar.
With a soft thud, Bella dropped into the church. She walked over to me, and stood behind me within arm’s reach. She spoke. Her voice was strong and articulate. I didn’t recognize the words she used, a language I could not understand. Or maybe the hysterical, sobbing laughter was obscuring her words? I couldn’t be sure. It didn’t matter. I couldn’t move. I was buried alive by the darkness.
She continued to speak, beautiful words if they weren’t the words of my undoing. I heard the slipping sound of steel against leather as she unsheathed a sword.
Finally, my shaking slowed, and the laughter stopped. Warm blood was trickling out of my ears and out of my nostrils, but I was finally calm. I wished that Bella would stop her sad verse and be done with this. As if in answer to my wish, she abruptly stopped. She stopped mid-sentence, and seconds of silence followed.
Bella began backing away slowly. She took several steps away from me.
I heard glass shatter, and the Slough Demon’s wretched hold was released. My awareness came charging back to my broken body and I saw Bella turn and run. She kicked through the door, only barely breaking her stride.
I was dizzy. I rolled my head around and I saw shadows writhing around me as though they were alive. Pressing my bloody hands into the floor I tried to lift myself up, but I was too weak. I stared at my blood on the floorboards; it was disappearing into the wood. Lifting my shoulder from the boards, I was mesmerized as my blood dripped from my shoulder onto the planks and was soaked up almost instantly.
Rolling over onto my back, I looked up into the night sky through the hole in the roof and smiled. Then I half laughed and half choked, coughed up some blood, and then I laughed some more.
Somebody buried a fucking demon on this ground. Not some lower echelon minion, not some fool practicing dark magicks, not some blood-sucking undead lurker, no, not this. Something truly malevolent cursed this ground, and I guess it was happy to see me.