tasteless ashes

“Forgiveness…? Why would I want forgiveness? I’ve never once been wrong. There is nothing to forgive.”

“How can you even say that …? You left the place in ruins. I can still feel the fire; I still have ashes under my fingernails and stuck to my lips. My hair reeks of smoke.”

At those words, your lips curl – that lopsided grin that once left me breathless –

(it does not still leave me breathless)

– and I am gaping, wondering how it is that you provided the spark, yet I am the one covered in soot and grime, smelling of your smoke. You look just as pristine as ever. Clean and untouched, seemingly untouchable. Your unbalanced smile could have been plucked from a Rembrandt painting.

“I think you have mistaken forgiveness for gratitude,” you say smoothly, that crooked grin widening –

(I am not breathless)

– as you move towards me.

(I am not)

“You’re welcome, love.”

(I am)

“Now let me taste those ashes.”

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Winter Kisses

“What is snow like?” you ask, your voice dreamy yet eager. You’re a summer child; you’ve never known snow, not truly. To you, it is as whimsical and harmless as the white fluff inside a snow globe.

I decide not to ruin this romantic notion for you. “It’s soft, and cold. And very pretty,“ I say. You frown, far from appeased. “It’s… difficult to explain. Ah, here.”

Feeling bold, I take your hands and hold them. “Close your eyes,” I command, and you do. “Now, imagine. It’s cold outside, but bright. The sky is perfectly white. Falling from it are specks that blend in so seamlessly with the horizon that you can’t even see them when you look straight up. But that’s not how you notice the snowflakes.”

“How do I notice them?”

“You feel them. When you tilt your head up, something soft lands on your cheek. It feels like this.”

I take a few seconds to appreciate this moment: you, so still, so close, your hands in mine as you wait with your eyes closed. Holding my breath, I flutter my lashes across your cheek. You instantly laugh, and your face turns a brilliant pink. I laugh too, heart fluttering, and I’m sure my blush is twice as bright.

“Snow feels like a butterfly kiss?” you ask, one brow raised skeptically. You haven’t tried to pull your hands from mine, so I squeeze them more tightly.

“No, not really,” I confess. My ploy has become obvious. I never was very clever. “And neither does this one.”

I don’t think you mind that my kiss is nothing like snow.

A Girl

Dusk was just beginning to fall on the final day of May. The woman took one look at the gray, cloudy weather before coming to the inevitable conclusion that she would take a cab.

She didn’t tell her husband. He didn’t know anything.

Wouldn’t know anything.

Her fingers felt oddly numb as she got dressed. Black pants, a black blouse, and her favorite black boots with a kitten heel. A silk scarf which she wrapped around her head to cover her long, honey blonde hair- also black. No makeup. She looked odd, she thought morosely, as she examined herself in the hallway mirror. Without her usual crimson lips, her entire face looked pale and bloodless. Plain. Forcing herself not to linger on the lackluster image, she turned away from her reflection and reached for her purse. The deadbolt lock clicked behind her as she briskly made her way to the elevator.

She and her husband lived on the 17th floor of a beautiful, renovated building in the middle of Manhattan. Across the street from the museum, right next to the park and the botanicals. It was a big apartment, too, even by New York City standards.

Too big for just the two of them.

The doorman wished her a pleasant evening as he held open the door. She nodded in response, giving him a forced smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes.

She was able to hail a cab almost at once.

“125th Street and Park, please.”

She adjusted the scarf on her hair as she sat down, crossing her legs. The stocky man in the driver’s seat turned to glance at her, raising an eyebrow questionably.

“East Harlem?” he asked in a gravelly voice.

“Yes.” Her own tone was icy, her words clipped.

He didn’t question her again. Just shrugged and started driving.

It was almost comical, the dramatic differences that just a few blocks could make in this urban jungle. On this street, you feel safe. On that street, you don’t. Safe, not safe. Safe, not safe.

Of course, she knew it was all just a state of mind; a sort of false gut feeling one gets while walking down certain broken sidewalks alongside empty lots or dilapidated old buildings, the streetlights overhead flickering or gone out completely. But those things were no real indication of danger…just as the absence of such ominous details was by no means a guarantee of security, either.

The truth is that no one is ever completely safe, not anywhere.

“You can drop me here,” she said as they approached the train station. “At the Metro North is fine.”

The man nodded at this, as though it suddenly made much more sense as to why this woman would be coming here. He pulled over. “Got a train to catch?” he inquired.

“Yes.” A smile to accompany the effortless lie.

She paid in cash.

The moment the car pulled away, she turned and made her way down the street at a brisk pace. She tried not to look too conspicuous, but she couldn’t help but instinctively pull the scarf tighter over her hair or look back over her shoulder to make sure no one was following her.

A cool droplet landed on her nose. Of course, of course it would begin to rain the moment she was no longer in a car. Why hadn’t she brought an umbrella? She quickened her stride, making a left at the next corner.

Luckily, it was a short walk.

The building looked exactly as it did the last time she saw it. Several boarded-up windows, the concrete on the front steps beginning to crumble at the corners. The porch light was off. Despite the uneasy feeling in the pit of her stomach, she approached with confidence. Once, twice, three times she knocked on the door.

There was shuffling. An irritating screeching sound, like furniture being dragged across the wooden floor. An ominous thud, as if someone had just dropped something heavy.

Then the door opened. Just a few inches, as it was quite clearly and visibly restrained by a thick, chain lock. An almond shaped eye peered down at her, framed with black eyeliner and thick lashes. It narrowed suspiciously at her appearance.

One eye alone was enough to intimidate the hell out of the anxious new arrival, but she wasn’t about to let it show. She cleared her throat before speaking.

“Hello, I have an appoint—”

“You’re early.”

The blonde woman balked, momentarily losing her composure. Few people ever spoke to her that way—so…so rudely.

“I… yes, but—my name is—”

“Mrs. Flores…?”

She blinked. “Yes. Yes, I am—”

“You’re early.” The voice cut her off. Again.

“I know. I apologize, but—”

And then the door slammed in her face.

For a moment she simply stood there, completely aghast. How—how dare she do that! She was a paying customer—a very well paying customer, and it was raining—

She raised her clenched fist to knock again, much more aggressively this time, when there was a clinking sound and the door swung open.

Before her stood an incredibly imposing, rather irate looking woman.

She was tall, very tall—good Lord, she must have been over six feet!—with dark skin and even darker eyes. Lithe and poised, she was clothed in a clingy dress in a deep, ruby red. Her onyx eyes were narrowed as she continued to glare downwards arrestingly, and maybe it was just the thick, winged eyeliner, but there seemed to be something rather…feline about her.

The striking woman tilted her head to one side as she took in the full sight of this uncomfortable looking entity at her doorstep—who was now dripping wet and rather frazzled. The blonde felt highly uncomfortable under that scrutinizing gaze. It was bordering on inappropriate, the way her eyes shamelessly roamed up and down her entire body. She swallowed thickly, waiting to be invited inside.

“Come in… Mrs. Flores,” she finally said as she stepped aside.

“I… thank you.” The door shut behind her, and the other woman locked it at once. “I apologize if my coming here early has—”

“Wait in here.” She gestured lazily towards a couch on the other side of the room. Again! This woman had no manners at all, continuing to interrupt her like that. She opened her mouth to say something else, but already, her newfound nemesis had turned away from her. “We still have a lot of prep work to do.” She spoke over her shoulder as she walked away, opening a door at the end of the hall.

“I—wait!” Mrs. Flores called out, frustrated. “Will you—can you tell Sylvia I’m here?”

There was a pause. She was spared a quick, condescending glance. “Of course,” she said shortly, and then she left to go into another room. The door shut behind her.

Feeling incredibly apprehensive, Mrs. Flores lowered herself into a seated position on the aforementioned couch. It was the kind that looked cushy, yet was surprisingly stiff and uncomfortable. She checked her watch.

It was only twenty to nine. She was early.

She took in the seemingly ordinary room as she pulled the scarf from her head, folding it neatly into a square and placing it in her handbag. There was an old TV in the corner, a couple of cushy, but probably equally deceptive and uncomfortable arm chairs, a book shelf with a rather interesting array of books… She was just reading all of the various titles when the door at the end of the hall opened again.

A sigh of relief escaped her lips as she stood, smiling.

“Sylvia.”

The person who’d just appeared had an aura about her that was nearly the exact opposite of the previous woman. Joyous and sunny. She was short, stout, and exceptionally curvy, wearing a bright yellow dress the color of sunshine. She smiled in return, exposing a set of brilliantly white teeth.

“Anne,” she said, opening her arms in a clear invitation for an embrace. “How are you, honey?”

Sylvia radiated a warmth that was positively contagious.  Her height barely leveled with the other woman’s shoulders as they hugged, even with her thick hair piled high in a bun on the top of head.

“I’m fine, thanks—I’m sorry I’m early, I didn’t think that it—”

“Oh, you’re fine!” Sylvia exclaimed, batting her hand in the air as if to physically brush the concern aside. “You’re completely fine, dear. Some of my younger apprentices are a bit moody, is all.” She laughed, then looked pointedly at the other woman’s stomach for a moment. “Are you feeling… ready?”

Anne nodded excitedly. “Oh yes,” she breathed. “I’ve done everything you said. I am… I’m completely ready.”

The stout woman beamed, clapping her hands together jubilantly. “That’s what I like to hear!”

Anne smiled back. She must not have masked her nervousness nearly as well as she thought, though, for Sylvia placed a hand on her shoulder and squeezed it reassuringly. “Oh, don’t you worry, honey. You’re in capable hands. We have a one hundred percent success rate.”

She gave another wide, vibrant grin. “Now… about the rest of your payment…?”

“Oh. Yes, of course… I have it here…” She reached into her purse, pulling out a folded yellow envelope. Sylvia took it with a rather snappish gesture, suddenly all business. She opened it at once and pulled the contents out, flipping through the thick stack of bills with an impressive deftness that indicated quite clearly that she had done this many times before. Just a few seconds later and she seemed satisfied, her illuminating smile back in place.

“Great.”

Anne exhaled a breath she hadn’t known she was holding.

The money didn’t matter to her. She’d already figured out a way to hide the expense from her husband. It hadn’t been easy, but, then again, she’d had months to figure it all out. Months of preparation and planning had gone into this, and finally, the night had come… Months, because it had to be on a new moon, it had to be on the last day of a month, it had to be when she was at a certain point in her cycle…

The specificity of it all is probably what sold her. Anne was desperate, yes, but she was also educated. Smart.

She knew this was the right decision. Her intuition was telling her this was legitimate, and her intuition had never been wrong before.

“Now, there is still a lot of prep work we have to do… Normally I would offer you tea, but you can’t have ingested anything for a full day before we start—which you haven’t, right?” She raised one perfectly contoured eyebrow, and Anne nodded vehemently. “Good, good. I’m sure you’re thirsty, but don’t you worry, you’ll get something to drink soon enough…just wait up here for bit longer, and I’ll have someone come get you when we’re ready. Feel free to read or something while you wait.” She motioned towards the book case.

“O-okay, thank you.” Sylvia gave her one last, vibrant grin before shuffling away. Anne watched as she went, listening to her loud footsteps and she descended the staircase behind the closed door.

She returned her attention to the shelves and picked something at random, resuming her seated position on the couch. Anne opened the book, and, even though she scanned the text in the appropriate orientation, she barely took in a single word of it. Her gaze ghosted over the letters sequentially like someone barely brushing their fingertips along the tops of piano keys. There were worlds to get lost in, there, in those pages, but she remained firmly within the confines of her own, anxious mind.

She took a deep breath. With a great amount of effort, she attempted to put her chaotic thoughts into some semblance of order. Sylvia had told her what to expect, what would happen… There was very little that Anne needed to do, actually. Other than not eating or drinking anything all day, her only other responsibilities included simply being present on the right day, and, well…lying there.

“It’s not so easy for the rest of us, that’s for sure!” Sylvia had laughed in one of their previous meetings. “But for you? It’ll be easy. You just need to lie still. We’ll do all the work. It’s like a dance, you’ll see.”

She didn’t call it a ritual. When Anne had asked if that’s what it was, Sylvia’s face had gone uncharacteristically frigid. Cold.

“I don’t categorize these things. It…simplifies them in a way I don’t like.”

Anne didn’t try and label it again.

“So… I just lie there.”

Sylvia had nodded, and her momentary iciness had melted away at once. “How long will it take? The—the process, once it starts?”

She’d shrugged rather nonchalantly. “Depends. You want the best of the best? All of the gifts that we can offer?”

“Of course.”

“It’ll be awhile. Hours, I’m sure. Ha! I’m going to sleep for days afterwards!” But the plump woman seemed to find this notion delightful rather than terrifying. She’d slapped the table so hard and so unexpectedly that Anne had jumped in her seat. “But hey—you get what you pay for! Don’t worry, honey,” she’d said as she took in Anne’s scared face.

“For you, oh, it’ll feel like a dream. You’ll see.”

Anne had handed over the first payment that day.

She wasn’t sure how long she waited there, sitting in that living room with an open, unread book in her lap. Had they forgotten her up here? Surely not…but it had been nearly an hour, and maybe, maybe something had gone wrong down there, perhaps this wasn’t going to happen tonight after all, and she was just starting to really work herself up into a panic when the door flew open. She was so caught off guard she actually yelped.

It was the woman in red from earlier who had come to retrieve her. She beckoned towards Anne with a single finger, an elegant, ‘come hither’ motion. Her gaze was still daunting, but she looked marginally less agitated, now.

“We’re ready for you,” she said.

Anne stood. She trailed behind timidly as they descended the dimly lit passageway, down the creaky, wooden steps…down, down, down…

They stopped before another closed door at the foot of the stairs. “You’ll need to get undressed, first.”

“I…I what?” Anne gaped. She had certainly not been informed of that particular detail.

“Get undressed.” Her previous annoyance was swiftly returning.

Anne wanted to argue, but found that her words crumpled and died in her throat under that intense glare. Instead, she nodded curtly and began to get undressed. The other woman pointed at a table, indicating that she should leave her clothes and purse there.

Disregarding her own bashfulness, Anne stripped until she was completely nude. To hell with feeling embarrassed. She could do this.

Would do this.

She fought the urge to cover up her exposed breasts with her forearms. Her companion chose not to examine her body so speculatively this time, at least. Instead, she looked right into Anne’s unwavering eyes. With no emotion on her face whatsoever, she nodded, almost as if in approval, and turned the doorknob. She pushed it open and stepped to the side, just as she had when she let Anne in from the rain, and motioned for her to pass through.

The space beyond was ominously dark. A solitary, flickering light came somewhere from the back of the room. With only the briefest moment of hesitation, Anne entered.

The door shut behind her. She was enveloped in darkness.

Before she could say or do anything—was that a fire back there? Inside?—Anne felt a set of hands on either side lightly grip her by the shoulders. Two masked individuals, but she could hardly see them as her eyes were not yet accustomed to the sudden bleakness. Gently, wordlessly, they guided her to a low table—she couldn’t help but think altar—that was in the center of the room. It looked to be made of some kind of stone. They slowly lowered her into a seated position at one end of it. It was cold against her skin; she felt her entire body instantly break out into goosebumps.

Once more, she opened her mouth to ask something, but then she saw a familiar silhouette emerge from the shadows to approach her. It was Sylvia; even in the darkness that was obvious, but at the same time… It wasn’t Sylvia at all. This woman radiated no warmth, no joyous, friendly light. Her face, too, was covered completely in some kind of decorative mask. As she drew near, Anne was just able to make out the details of it, her eyes finally adjusting to the dark-

Was it supposed to be a skull? But no—not a human skull, at least—there was definitely something animalistic about it-

“Drink.”

Anne glanced down to see that a cup was being offered to her. A wooden goblet, filled with a dark, thick liquid. Tentatively, she took it. She was rather surprised to see that her hands were shaking. The liquid within the cup hardly moved at all as she shakily brought it closer to her chest, viscous as it was.

…Was this a mistake?

She stared down at her own reflection in the contents of the goblet. Wetting her lips, she swallowed back the bile that threatened to crawl its way up her throat.

No. She could do this.

Would do this.

Still trembling, Anne brought the cup to her lips and drank. It tasted like copper. Suddenly, her deprived body seemed to spring to life, and she instinctually drained the goblet in seconds. Ravenous, insatiable, she licked the residual droplets from her lips, thirsty for more—

But then the cup was being pried from her fingers. The soft, capable hands from before were once again on her shoulders, and she was being tilted backwards, lain down on the altar—she could hear laughter, familiar and airy—

“Good… Now remember, just lie still…” Sylvia’s voice, but there was something different about it, almost sardonic, and it sounded as though it were being spoken from somewhere high above her… The soft hands released her, and her body felt so warm, now, so heavy

Sylvia had turned away. Someone else—also masked—darted quickly out of the dark corner of the room, handing her what looked like a walking stick, some kind of long, wooden staff. She took it, and the masked person backed away, retreating back to the shadows. Sylvia held it in her hands for a long moment, high above her head, reverently, almost… And then, quite suddenly, she slammed the end of the staff on the floor, and it made a sharp, rapping noise—

She did it again, and again, and again… a rap, rap, rap, repeating the motion until a rhythm was established.

Rap, rap, rap… rap, rap, rap…

And then the music began.

First—a single drum.

It was a deep, resonating bass. Anne could feel its low tenor in her very bones. A boom to disperse the light, tense tapping of that staff, and with it, the pounding of her blood pumping in her veins—

Boom—rap, rap, rap—boom—rap, rap, rap

Her own heartbeat was loud in her ears. It was a part of it, another metronome-like instrument to the music in the room—

Figures, three—no, four—, emerged like corporal shadows from the corners of the room. They all wore masks of what also looked suspiciously like bones. Their skeletal faces shone in the dim, flickering firelight from behind, and they almost seemed to be floating on their own accord, as their bodies were so difficult to make out… as if they were a part of the darkness, too… But they were moving, slowly and methodically to the hypnotic beat of the simple yet powerful music… A kind of rudimentary dance… Occasionally, Anne would see an arm here, a leg there…

She didn’t notice exactly when it happened, but soon more dancers had joined the foray… How had she not noticed that there were this many people in the room? It was dark, yes, but—there were six now, at least—no, seven…? They all moved in synchronization, but they were encircling her as the moved in step with the beat, their arms all repeating the same motion, their bone white masks facing her… Anne’s mind felt sluggish and slow as she watched them… What had Sylvia given her to drink? Had she been drugged?

…Was this a mistake?

The music stopped.

The dancers became still at once, their arms now down at their sides. Waiting. For a few moments there was no other sound in the room but the soft cackling of the fire…and Anne’s heartbeat, which was now so thunderous that surely, she thought, everyone else must hear it, too, that powerful, forceful, thrumming sound—

Then the silence was shattered.

The melody erupted all around her—the heavy drum, the rap, rap, rap—but much faster now, and with it something that sounded vaguely like a flute, perhaps—and maybe a tambourine, metallic cymbals being rapidly shaken—the dancers had begun moving again, and, just like the music, their actions were much more chaotic, quick and frenzied, and no longer in synchronicity—they whirled and spun, agile as they danced around Anne’s body, who lay motionless on her back on the altar, unmoving and trying very hard to be unafraid—their movements were somehow simultaneously graceful yet wild, beautiful and yet oddly…disjointed…

Their masked faces darted in and out of focus, the firelight illuminating one for a moment before they were swallowed by darkness again, only to resurface somewhere else in the room—

Anne’s head was swimming. Her heart was racing impossibly fast, too fast, and the music, was it getting faster, too? She tried once to lift an arm, but it was so heavy, she didn’t think she could will herself to move at all—

And then one of the masked figured was upon her. So sudden was their proximity that Anne would have screamed if her throat did not feel so tight and constricted. The skeletal face was hovering just a few inches from her, and she could vaguely make out a pair of glistening eyes beneath it—the flames reflected in their dark depths, their very gaze made of fire—

Hands were gently laid on her stomach, then, surprisingly soft and warm. She was sure her entire body would have jumped in shock at the unexpected touch if her body were not so heavy. Then she heard it, a low, sultry whisper, emanating from behind the mask…

“…Beauty…”

A strange sensation, then, in the pit of her stomach… Like something pulsating and warm, furling inside of her… Her spine arched involuntarily at the bizarre feeling, which was not exactly unpleasant… The hands then retracted, and the figure looming over her swiftly returned to the darkness, rejoining the dance—

Only a few beats later, and another one was upon her. Its mask was also bony white and skeletal, but this one reminded Anne of some kind of canine, a fox, maybe… It also placed soft palms on her stomach, and there was another wave of undulation from within—

“…Wit…”

And then they were gone… A third one, then, just as quickly—its face concealed behind a mask that was something like a cat—

“…Grace…”

It retreated back into the darkness… The dancing was getting more and more heated, and Anne thought she heard laughing—the familiar sound of Sylvia’s contagious laughter, but it sounded more manic than Anne had ever heard it… Where was she, where was Sylvia? She could not see her in this darkened room, and the way her voice bounced off of the walls, it was impossible to know which direction the sound had come from—

Another dancer came forth, repeating the same action as the previous three. This one looked something like an insect, Anne thought wildly.

“…Dance…”

Gone, the warmth in her belly now so hot that it was bordering on uncomfortable—her heart was pounding, pounding, and were there several people laughing, now-?

The next masked figure had a structure that reminded Anne vaguely of a mouse. It leaned in close to her face as its fingers slid over her bare stomach…

“…Song…”

And now she was certain, as that dancer stepped away, that there was more laughter. The dancing was becoming wilder and more frantic by the second, and they were laughing and jeering—Anne could barely remain focused on them, her vision blurring—but she could see their silhouettes in the flickering light, the way they chaotically turned and whirled around each other, spinning and stomping, cackling as they moved—it was completely wild—

Another dancer came to her, this one birdlike—

“…Music…”

Her entire body was scorching hot, now, she was burning up, could feel the beads of sweat forming on her forehead—another figure was about to approach her, was just about to place its hands on her stomach when jarringly, unexpectedly, a different dancer intercepted—they were flung aside, the first time such a violent collision had occurred– which was shocking, really, considering how chaotically and unpredictably they seemed to be moving—the diverter descended upon her instead, but her hands were not gentle nor were they soft—they were cold and hard, pointed nails digging into the soft flesh of her stomach—Anne felt the convulsing form within twist uncomfortably—

This mask was serpentine, and from their throat emanated an icy, high-pitched note… They said nothing, no words, only a long, drawn out hissing sound… A chill was emanating from their talon-like fingertips, and a sharp pain exploded in her stomach, cold and piercing, like being stabbed with a jagged shard of ice—

No, no, this was wrong—

Anne had just managed to feebly raise one arm when the figure was shoved forcefully away from her. The frigid fingers released their hold on her body, and the dancer went sprawling onto the floor—yet the terrible cold in Anne’s body lingered, she could feel it coiling around her womb like a snake—

Some of the laughter had faltered, and she thought she heard shouting—screaming, but muffled, oddly muted—this was wrong, it had gone wrong—Anne tried to raise her hand again, to move—

But then another dancer was inches from her, placing on her stomach warm hands that began melting the iciness away at once… The mask, Anne couldn’t make out the details of this skeletal creature, her vision was far too hazy, now…but the pain was receding, the chill from her bones dissipating…

There was still some broken laughter from the shadows, shrill and high… But it was becoming ever fainter, with a strange, echoing ring to it, as if she were hearing it from within a cavernous tunnel… the darkness in the room was becoming denser, the already dull, wavering light waning… The masked figure which was looming over her leaned in to her even closer, so much so that it was touching her face, and the materiality of the mask did, indeed, feel like bones against her skin…

She drew in a deep breath, and her body once again felt completely warm and heavy. The darkness was closing in, encircling her, consuming her… No longer able to fight it, Anne slowly closed her eyes…

It was in that fleeting moment where she teetered on the edge of unconsciousness that she heard it. One last, velvety whisper in her ear…

“…A girl…”

NYC

Vicious

I wanted to save you.

 

I didn’t want to be saved.

 

I grew up hearing about you.

About how you were a destructive force of nature. You did terrible things and you planned to do more. …More. That’s a good word for you, isn’t it? You always wanted more—more power, more glory, more fame. It was never enough. You killed innocent people to get it, breaking yourself into a million little pieces in the process until you had no humanity left.

More power, more glory, more fame.

Your victims carried their stories on their backs, tragedies of loved ones lost at your hands that weighed them down with every trudging step.

I grew up hearing those stories about you.

I thought you were a monster.

 

I lived my life in fear of you.

Or the idea of you, at least. That someone, someday, would threaten all that I believed in, would rise from the ashes of my fires to oppose me. A leader to rally those who were burdened under the weight of their losses.

The weak are many and when they are oppressed they are powerless, but unified, they are strong. I knew this. I was always scanning the horizon, watching the ashes for signs of life.

I lived my life waiting for you.

I thought you would be a martyr.

 

The first time I saw you, I thought that I was right.

You were a monster.

Your skin was riddled with scars and lines, your eyes were bloodshot like someone who never knew rest. There was something stirring in the depths of those irises that made my skin crawl. When you spoke, your voice was unnaturally cold. Your words were shards of ice, and they left me shivering and afraid.

You said that I didn’t need to fight you.

You said that I could back down and no one would get hurt. I wasn’t a threat to you, not really, not yet. We both knew it. You offered me a chance to recant, and promised that if I did, you would spare me and everyone who supported me.

But that was a lie.

Nothing could have stopped you from hunting me down, because you just needed someone to focus all of that hatred on, didn’t you? You needed an obsession, and I was willing to be that object of your unwitting fascination. A living, breathing, human target.

It kept your focus off of the other living, breathing humans.

You told me I was weak.

 

The first time I saw you, you were barely more than a child.

Young and wild, that perilous, sophomoric age where you know just enough of the world to act confidently but not enough to do it wisely. You proved that at once. You were brave, yes, but you were reckless.

I could have killed you, then.

I could have, and in hindsight, I should have. I questioned my own actions for a long time afterwards. Why had I let you slip away? I told myself that it was because it would be disgraceful, to kill a child. That I was above such cruelty.

But that was a lie.

You fascinated me.

I could see at once why they were impressed by you. You were the very image of hope, with the perfect, tragic story to accompany those starry eyes. You were defiant, you were bold. They called you a prophecy.

I could see why.

When you spoke, your voice was unnaturally warm. It made me think of slow-burning embers and future pyres. There was fear in your eyes when you looked at me, alongside that fire, but you stood tall and proud, regardless. You were covered in the ashes of my battleground, you were a warrior in charcoal armor. You were bold.

When I offered you redemption, you even had the audacity to laugh.

You told me I was wrong.

 

We didn’t see each other for years, after that.

We may not have come face to face, but you were with me all the time. One way or another, you managed to worm your way into my thoughts like a parasite. A bombing here, a shooting there. Sometimes, your massacres didn’t even make sense; it was like you just couldn’t stand to let the dust settle. You were a cyclone of destruction, and your tyranny only intensified as time went on.

I saw your image every day…which is saying something, really, as you kept your photograph out of the papers. You didn’t exactly have a face that people could trust. No, you ruled from the shadows, controlling politicians and figureheads like puppets on strings, a spider weaving an intricate web that was as falsely beautiful as it was honestly deadly. Everyone knew who you were, but few knew what you looked like. You were the stuff of nightmares, and they all had their own versions of you in their head.

But I had seen the reality.

They said it was because of me, that your bloodlust had become so manic, but I didn’t think so. Your attacks were too sporadic, too…messy. I thought you were going insane.

I thought you were a monster.

 

We didn’t see each other for years, after that.

We may not have come face to face, but you were with me all the time. You plagued my mind like a sickness that I could never quite recover from. I would hear whispers of you and your rebellion. A raid here, an congregation there. I tracked each and every one with a deadly reprisal, leaving no stone unturned in my attempt to find you. Sometimes, I could tell that I had been close, so close. I was a bloodhound and I could smell your scent still lingering in the air, could taste you on my tongue, your ghost taunting me, laughing at me.

I heard you all the time…which is saying something, really, as I had only heard your voice once before. It was that laughter, that audacious, smug laughter that haunted me…but your words were everywhere, too. Your ideals from the lips of others, your seeds of hope that you planted in various towns and cities, and I would vicariously hear your stories through their voices…

But it was that laughter that drove me mad.

I followed your phantom everywhere, and nothing could deter me. I thought you were becoming too influential, too…powerful.

You were supposed to be a martyr.

 

It was only a matter of time before one of your own betrayed you.

You and your whirlwind of chaos was bound to backfire eventually, and it did. A man who had known you in his youth, who had followed you from the beginning, became a victim of your unintentional wrath. You killed his son and called it an unfortunate circumstance.

You told him that this was war. Accidents happen.

He realized that you were too far gone, then, and he came to me.

He told me all about you.

For the longest time, I saw your image and remembered your words like shards of ice, and I assumed that was all that you were. A stock photo of a villain, a mass murderer who had killed so many and would kill so many more. You were the reason I never had a family, why so many others never had a family; the reason I lived in squalor, traveling under the guise of darkness from one town to another, building an underground army while living on breadcrumbs and scraps.

You were a two-dimensional picture. There was no depth to you, no story, and that made you easy to hate.

…Then he told me all about you.

He told me where you came from and how you grew up. He told me about the terrible places you’d been, about the horrible, unspeakable things that happened to you when you were a child.

Yes, even that.

He knew all of the skeletons in your closet…and he laid them out before me, one by one. Bone by bone.

The pieces came together and suddenly you were no longer a picture but a person, and you had a story.

And that was when I realized that I had been wrong.

 

You were my obsession.

 

One day, I looked myself in the mirror and jumped, because I thought it was someone else.

It had been a long time since I’d seen my reflection. That’s the kind of life I’ve been forced to live, because of you. One where I rarely see the inside of a home with luxuries such as sinks, bathtubs, and mirrors. But one day I did, and I was devastated by the person staring back at me.

I had acquired more than a few scars of my own. My skin was tanned and there were lines forming around my eyes that were not from smiling. Still bold, but I looked…worn. My eyes seemed distant and detached, even to myself. There was something stirring in the depths of those irises that made my skin crawl.

I was staring at myself, but it was you that I saw.

I turned away from the silver of the mirror and never looked back.

Life was a vicious cycle and I wanted out.

 

It was only a matter of time before your selflessness consumed you, and you came to me.

I knew that it must have been destroying you from the inside out, hearing about all who suffered at my hands for joining you, following you, concealing you. How many people would you allow to die for your hopeless cause before you surrendered?

It was only a matter of time.

…When you finally appeared to me, I hardly recognized you.

You were no longer the charcoal child I met in an ash-covered battleground. You were an adult who was burdened under the weight of loss. Still bold, but you looked…worn. The fire in your eyes had gone out; those smoldering embers had been replaced by vacant, bottomless pools of darkness.

You were brave, but you were exhausted. And you had come to me for rest.

I always knew you would.

I always knew you were a martyr.

 

It was just you and me.

You couldn’t have known that I knew everything about you. That a traitor had poured out all of your weaknesses like water into my empty cup and that I had consumed them all.

I knew you better than you knew yourself.

I knew that you would be too fascinated to not hear me out, in the end. Too captivated to not listen.

You were obsessed with me.

 

You were supposed to surrender.

You were supposed to beg for mercy, to fall to your knees and plead for the lives of your comrades, for their children, for their children’s children. You were supposed to show me that you had always been weak.

…How did you know that?

How did you know?

Why didn’t I strike you down, then?

…Why couldn’t I kill you?

 

For being such a destructive force of nature, you were surprisingly easy to cage.

I felt so stupid, having you bent and broken before me, weak, and being unable to hate you. I wanted to hate you, it was easier to hate you. Life was so much simpler when you were a stock photo of a villain with no depth and no story.

I told you I was sorry, and that I forgave you.

You weren’t a monster.

You were a victim.

 

…Why couldn’t you kill me?

 

I wanted to save you.

 

I didn’t want to be saved.

ring of fire

 

The Devil’s in There

Some say the chasm has always been there.

Some say it appeared after the city did; that God, angry with the sinners, broke apart the Earth in his wrath. Some say that the first King purposefully built his kingdom there, around that gaping hole in the ground; that he’d thought to use it as a punishment for criminals. Question the King’s rule? Into the pit of hell with you.

The kingdom did, subsequently, have an exceptionally low crime rate. Hellhole aside, it was probably one of the safest places on Earth.

For everyone but the Sacrifices. And there were human Sacrifices. One every year.

There are many versions of the story of how it all began, dozens of theories, but the people of the cursed island all firmly believed in one thing—the Devil is in there.

The Devil is in there, and every year a human sacrifice must be made to appease it.

Or the Devil would get out.

Each autumn, a Sacrifice is chosen. Random. Every single name of every single person in the city is in that lottery. Adults, old people, children.

The Devil doesn’t have a preference.

Once chosen, that’s it. There is no escaping the beckoning. Some Sacrifices have tried, but none of them made it very far before some tragedy befell them. They would get in their boats and try to cross the sea, only to be crushed by sudden, unnaturally tumultuous waves. They would hide in their homes behind locked doors, only to suffer from mysterious and fatal heart attacks.

No. Once chosen, the Sacrifice’s fate was sealed. And so they went—better to face a death with honor where, supposedly, there is at least a fraction of a chance that they could survive. That they could be the one to beat the monster at its own game.

Naturally, that was just some false hope to give the Sacrifices the strength to remain upright as they were accompanied to the Devil’s playground. No one ever lived. No one ever won. The bodies of those poor, doomed souls always reappeared in the City Square.

Sometimes days later, sometimes weeks.

Sometimes, they would return with no hands. Sometimes, they would return with no eyes.

Always, without a heart.

No one knows when exactly the Labyrinth began to be built around the chasm. To those living in the city, it has always been. Hundreds of years ago? Thousands? It hardly mattered.

What did matter was that the mass of winding walls kept the monster—and the hellhole—trapped inside, safely away from the citizens of the Kingdom.

The legend goes that one year, a young priest came to the island. He arrived in a modest fishing boat with only a small crew of followers, devout supporters who had come to witness the death of the Devil. They had heard of the Labyrinth and the Devil within, and the priest declared that he was chosen by God to vanquish the monster himself.

He brought with him a gleaming sword, claiming it to be blessed by the Lord. It was, he said, to be the only hope for vanquishing the Devil and banishing it back into the hellhole from whence it came. Supposedly, he even looked the part of hero. A blonde youth of the priesthood with a tall stature and broad shoulders. He entered into the maze to raucous cheers and cries of good fortune.

His body appeared just days later.

No hands, no eyes…no heart.

And no sword.

They say that the sword must still be in the Labyrinth. Each year, the Sacrifice was reminded of this scrap of information as though it could be their saving grace, like they were not being sent to certain death, to horrific mutilation by a monster in a maze.

Find the sword. Kill the Devil. Break the curse and make your way back out of the Labyrinth.

Easy.

Or die, like every Sacrifice. Know that you’re ensuring the safety of the kingdom for another year. That your death was noble.

But Michael, just like everyone else in the cursed kingdom, knew there was nothing noble in being sacrificed.

This year, the name called was that of his twin brother.

“Gabriel?”

“Gabriel Damon.”

He swallowed back the bile threatening to claw its way up his throat as he relived that moment. The world coming to an abrupt halt as his brother’s name rung hollow in his ears, as though someone had scooped out all of his insides and replaced them with empty air.

He took a deep breath as he faced the entrance of the Labyrinth.

The islanders referred to the entryway as ‘the Weeping Rock’. It was called this because the only way to gain access to the maze was to make an offering of blood on the stone. To ensure that only the Sacrifices could enter, and, of course, that the Devil could never get out. Years and years of offerings being forced to do so had left a permanent, rust colored stain on the rock’s surface. It looked as though it was weeping a dull scarlet.

Otherwise, the outside of the maze was just gray, colorless stone. A deceivingly nondescript wall that that seemed to stretch on forever. The fortress was so tall that it blocked out the feeble rays of sunlight which attempted to shine through the ubiquitous clouds, though the sun was still low in the sky, hardly past daybreak. He’d snuck away from his home in the middle of the night, knowing full well that someone would try and stop him if they were aware of what he was doing. Because everyone knew it was suicide to enter the Labyrinth.

But how could anyone expect him to not go after his brother?

“Maybe he’ll be the one.”

“He could do it, Gabriel is so strong, so clever…”

Words that were said ever year. Empty, meaningless. Spoken in voices that were already void of any hope, falling flat from the lips of those who bothered to say anything at all, when really what they were thinking was, ‘I’m glad it wasn’t me.’

He shifted the bag on his shoulder nervously. Gabriel had been in there an entire day now. But he wasn’t about to wait around on edge with the rest of the islanders until his brother’s bloody corpse inevitably appeared in the city square, heartless or worse. He was going in. He was going to find Gabriel, and they would survive together.

Find the sword. Kill the Devil. Break the curse and make your way back out of the Labyrinth.

Easy.

He pulled a small blade from his bag. Nothing special, just a knife he used to gut the fish he’d catch. But it was sharp, and that was all he needed. He steeled himself as he sliced open his palm. The blood blossomed from the cut at once, a vivid scarlet, so violently red against his pale skin. He placed his hand on the Weeping Rock and watched as the blood oozed down the surface, adding his own crimson tears to those of years past. To his brother’s.

For a moment, nothing happened.

Then, just as he removed his hand from the stone, the rocks began to shift. They moved on their own accord, sliding eerily backwards and to one side, allowing him just enough space to pass through. Then they were still. Beyond the entrance, he could make out only another wall which looked exactly the same as the one he now stood beside.

He turned and gave the Kingdom one last look. From this far away, it seemed less like a city and more like a maquette. Tiny pinpricks of black dots of dark forms that were the outlines of homes, churches, schools. The castle where the King lived, which he knew was much larger than any other construction, hardly looked impressive from here.

One last sweeping glance, and he turned to face the still open entryway of the maze, waiting for him. It felt like the air was crackling around him in anticipation. He could hear the thundering of his heart in his chest, a violent thrumming that reverberated throughout his entire body.

He nervously flexed his bleeding hand. Ruby droplets fell steadily to the ground below, leaving a teardrop trail behind him as he stepped forward.

Michael entered the Labyrinth.

hole