by Teresa Cain
The blade was much lighter now as I put myself through forgotten paces under the watchful eye of a Japanese demon friend of Morte. Morte was watching as well, looking both thoughtful and worried as I sliced the air. Several half-joking remarks had been made about my face freezing in the scowl it wore, but my lack of response had made him long since fall quiet. He was worried.
He was worried? Hell, I was worried. I could feel my sanity slipping. At least, I hoped it was my sanity. I was more afraid that the rising violence within me had nothing to do with my state of mind but my state of humanity. My humanity was slowly starting to slide away into the depraved depths of my dark fae blood, and I had no idea what would happen if I let it do that.
My instincts were screaming for revenge on a parent I hadn't even liked. It didn't feel so much like a reason as it did an excuse to go paint a few walls and floors red with Eli's blood. It used my mother's desecration to entice me. It used Eli's treatment of me to provoke me. It begged and pleaded, howled and demanded.
I shrugged it off and brought the blade down in a savage rush. But it was damn hard not to listen to it. I knew if I gave into it, fighting Eli would be a lot easier. There wouldn't be any hesitation, no familial ties to stay my hand... oh yes, fighting would be so much easier.
But winning would be impossible.
"You were trained well," the demon finally said, nodding approval. "Even the years of neglect to your practice has not dulled your instincts."
"Thanks," I said through gritted teeth, giving the sword a few more swings. "Think I actually have a chance though?"
"All things are possible."
"That's encouraging." I swung the sword once more in a wide arc, then sheathed it. Giving the handle a fond little pat, I looked at him. "I know your kind tend to stay away from the more European creatures. But can you tell me if there has been any word of killings? Any demons coming up beheaded or immolated?"
He hesitated, then nodded sharply, scowling. "Indeed. There have been several slayings of late that match those descriptions. Was it Eli Thorn that did this?"
"He's been on a rampage," I growled, stabbing my fingers through my hair as a few sweaty strands fell annoyingly into my eyes. "There's been a total of fifteen kills so far reported, plus those among your kind - "
"Twelve found, so far."
"So that's twenty-seven.the longer he draws this out, the higher the body count is going to rise."
The demon shook his head, red locks falling across a handsome, if somewhat foxy face. That made sense; he was kitsune. I'd never heard of fox demons knowing swordplay, but in this day and age, I guess all things really were possible. "These past years have had strange tales of Eli Thorn. I remember when his hunts were only for those that truly deserved it...for that evil that made even your dark fae shudder in disgust. Now he hunts without rhyme or reason, killing even innocent children that have had no crime other than their existence."
"He dug up his suicidal wife, did a post-mortem on her, stuffed the hole left behind with some poor faery baby he'd killed, and a shifter child at that, then enclosed the whole thing in glass." I snarled, tightening my fist around the handle of the sword with enough furious strength to crack the wood. "I think we can safely assume he's long since gone dangerously insane. This is why I need to find him, and fast. New York is practically a breeding ground for us. It's easy to hide here, easy to form communities in all the vast disbelief that these people have to offer. That also makes it a perfect place for him to hunt, since the human populace can't be informed of our deaths. Our murders are our own to be avenged."
"And the longer it takes him to find you, the more he'll kill," Morte muttered soberly. "Shit. We can't let him find you."
"He'll take his own sweet time if I do," I said, nodding. "I need to find him."
"It will give you the advantage," the kitsune agreed. "Now, if you two will excuse me, I must be on my way. I have a mate and three kits I don't want to leave alone for too long at this time."
"Thanks for the help, Yuji," I said distantly, my mind still on other things. "Dammit, Morte. How am I supposed to find him in a city this big?"
"Well, you could post an ultimatum in the Personals section of the New York Times, I suppose. Or you could hire a skywriter. Rent the billboard in Times Square, maybe?"
"Aren't you just a bundle of laughs," I growled, swiping at my hair again.
He let out a condescending little "humph" and circled around me, lips twisted in a tight, wry smile. "If only you could see what I see, Roselyn Thorn. I wonder if you'd like it."
"The way you're holding yourself, the look in your eyes." He shook his head, still smiling. "Why don't you go shower and go on to bed, 'Carlie.' Busy times ahead of you. Go shower, go relax... go screw the incubus again, why don't you? I wonder if you'll notice a difference."
"You have been in a decidedly weird mood ever since we got back. I oughta be the one acting strange."
"You think you aren't?" He snorted and waved a hand. "Go on, Carlie. You're making me feel old and tired. And I'm not much older than you."
I looked at him a moment longer, but he'd turned his back to me and was staring out the living room window out at New York, apparently lost to his thoughts. Sighing, I made my away across the cleared room, all its furniture having been shoved against the walls to give me space to try my sword hours earlier. The rug beneath my feet was wrinkled from the sparring I'd tried with Yuji. It had been fun, although my anger hadn't let me realize that. But now the red hot fury I'd felt was starting to cool into an icy calmness that would be much more beneficial in a fight. My blood wasn't screaming at me anymore. It was whispering.
What had happened to the smart ass little girl who'd woken up in this penthouse room, listening terrified as a demon and incubus had discussed her future over her supposedly unconscious body? Where were my acidic comments now?
"Something about him bothers me," I said, stopping at the door.
"Besides his insanity?"
"I never once saw Eli do anything that would betray him as anything other than human. Not once in seventeen years. If he isn't human but just really good at hiding it, then why would my being inhuman bother him like it did?"
"Maybe he's a half-breed like yourself. Maybe he hates his inhuman side."
"But... why would he automatically decide I wasn't his daughter if he has inhuman blood?"
"Maybe his inhuman side isn't shifter," he said slowly, "and even if he was a half-breed, and that other half happened to be shifter, then it wouldn't explain how you could be so recognizably half as well. You wouldn't have had enough in you for the blood to even show. Well, maybe in little ways. I've seen some people with only a quarter blood or less capable of changing their hair and eye color on command. But that's about it. You definitely wouldn't have a faery mien."
"So there's no way my blood would show as much as it does if he was a half-breed and I was really his," I mused. "And if somehow he actually is fully inhuman and not shifter, the only reason he would have to hate me is because my mother really did cheat on him with something else inhuman."
"But a bastard in his home and a cuckold's horns wouldn't account for this full-out war against everything inhuman," Morte added. "Unless he thought by killing everything in sight he might end up killing his wife's partner in adultery. He might have gone insane and denied his blood, locked himself in human flesh. But that would mean not showing any hint of supernatural abilities."
"Like wall-walking," he agreed. "And this would have happened after your thirteenth year, when your blood revealed itself. So why didn't he show it at home before then?"
"God, I don't know," I muttered, rubbing the bridge of my nose. "I can't even think straight right now. I've had too many shocks to my system today... first those ghouls and Renaeka's body, then finding Mom's body made into that disgusting trophy... all that on top of yesterday's shit."
"Go to bed. Forget what I said about Aerael. Go to bed and get some real sleep. It's not going to be any easier to think tomorrow if you don't."
"Yeah," I said tiredly. "'Night, Morte."
"Good night, kiddo. Sleep tight. Don't forget Thooloo."
I padded through the quiet penthouse, still brushing at those errant locks of hair. Yep, the adrenaline surge was definitely dying. I was also quickly reaching that point where I was getting too tired to sleep. Ever get that? You've pushed yourself so long and hard that you've not just hit exhausted but shot on by to the other extreme? You just lie in bed tossing and turning and slamming around, praying one of your frantic flailings will cause you to hit your skull on the headboard and knock you unconscious. I hate that.
Hell. So many questions.and I felt the answers were right there if I could just reach out and grab them. So many things I'd been taking on faith... but sometimes faith fell through. A child believes her parents are deities, that all power in the world resides in the pinky finger of Mommy or Daddy. Then Daddy starts to drink, starts to hit or worse... starts to show his mortality. What does that tell the child? What should that tell the child, rather.
But this went beyond finding out parents are fallible.
I let out a strangled little scream and hit my forehead several times with the heel of my hand. It was there, right there, and I couldn't see it!
Blinking, I realized I'd stopped in front of Aerael's door, which was cracked as usual. "Yeah?"
"Are you all right?"
"As well as I can be."
There was a long pause, then he called, "Come in here, if you would."
"No offense, but I really just want to take a bath and go to bed - "
"Just for a moment, Roselyn. Please."
Sighing, I pushed open the door and stepped inside, noting right away that he was naked. Somehow, sleeping with a guy will make you notice little things like that in a completely different way. Too bad my nerves were too shot to appreciate the view.what there was of it. He was lying on his stomach atop his sheets, his wings lying limp on either side of him, his chin resting atop folded arms as he watched me.
"I'm really not in the mood tonight, Aerael."
His lip pushed out in an adorable pout. "What? Now that you've had me, you've lost interest? I'm devastated."
"It's not that! Come on, I'm emotionally drained here. I need sleep."
"What if I told you I'm not offering sex, but simply the comfort you so very need?"
I smiled tiredly and shook my head. "I wouldn't believe it. You think I haven't thought all this through? Sex is all an incubus can offer. You think I haven't been told by everyone in this city not to get attached to you because incubi/succubi are totally incapable of the gentler emotions towards anyone but their own progeny."
"Yet you still did it," he pointed out.
"Yes, well... nobody wants to die a virgin. It's embarrassing." I heaved a sigh and pinched the bridge of my nose. "No, that's a lie. Look, I did something very stupid and fell in love with you. It probably started when you saved me from those punks in the alley the first time we met and grew from there. But do you have any idea what it's like knowing all you can be is a meal? It's as bad as falling in love with a vampire! But I'm not one of those sad types to confuse sex and love. I know exactly what I can expect from you."
He raised up and propped his cheek on one fist. "And you believe everything people tell you? Roselyn, I'm so disappointed."
"Naen told me. Are you saying I can't trust information straight from the horse's mouth?"
He snorted at the name. "Look, Naen is - an idiot. Even for an incubus. He likes to delude himself as being above such pansy emotions like love and compassion - "
"Well, let's not forget that you are considered Unseelie, Aerael. Incubi/succubi are evil fae that feeds off the dark emotion of lust."
"And you're half an evil dark fae that feeds off the dark fear of a person's own death. Not that I've ever seen you do it, but I guarantee your friend Morte in there scares the shit out of nice, normal people on a nightly basis. Besides, you were more than willing to play with the evil lord of lust last night."
He was rising to his knees now, more pissed than I'd ever seen him before. His golden eyes were flashing with rage. "You proclaim love from your perch high above atop your beloved pedestal of humanity, Rose-a-lyn." He bit off each syllable of my name, mouth twisting as if he'd tasted something nasty. "You really think you're still human? Tell me, what was really going through your mind as you sparred with the kitsune?"
He smiled at my silence. "You had to fight against taking his shape and putting your sword through his heart, didn't you? All the years you've clung to your humanity, hiding yourself behind that mortal skin, and you're no better than Morte or any other doppleganger in the world."
I stayed silent. What could I say? He was right. Raw emotion had stripped away every illusion I'd clung to since my 13th birthday, leaving me exposed to a truth I had no choice but to face. I had no right casting stones at him.
"It still doesn't change the fact that I don't believe you can love," I said quietly.
"Perhaps not. But then, perhaps 'love' is just a pretty word for poetry." He slid slowly off the bed, keeping his wings hunched defiantly behind him as he slowly moved towards me. "Perhaps the fae cannot love because such a thing does not exist."
He suddenly swung behind me, arms and wings wrapping around us both as he pressed his mouth to my ear. "But I adore you. I worship you. You are all I see when I close my eyes. No matter where you go, your scent is around me, your touch is on my skin. I cannot look at any woman and not see you here in our home. Do you have any idea what you've done to me?" he hissed.
One hand stole upwards, touching under my chin and tilting my head back so I had no choice but to look at him. "I cannot bear the touch of another woman, Roselyn. I feel - unfaithful. Untrue. But without a healthy diet of human lust I would wither and die. Have you any idea what I've had to do?"
I suddenly did. I didn't want to laugh, because we were in the middle of a very strange argument and because I could hear an undertone of embarrassment in his voice. I could also feel odd shiftings in the body pressed tight against me. Certain things were starting to protrude while others sort of... stopped. My eyes widened in horror as his facial features became exquisitely delicate and far prettier than mine - naturally, that is.
"But - you hate being a succubus," I squeaked in sudden homophobic fear while my mind raced with the thought, I'm pressed against a woman, I'm pressed against a woman, I'm pressed, oh shit, I'm pressed against a naked woman!
"It's the only way in my heart I feel I am remaining faithful," he, er, she said, nuzzling my ear. "I don't mind... for you."
"Aerael," I said softly and slowly, "too much shit has happened to me today. I am so not in shape to handle this." I felt him fall back into a much safer shape for my mental process and sighed. "Thank you. How the hell did this argument start, anyway?"
"I all but admitted I'm in love with you. You freaked."
"Oh yeah." I turned around in his embrace and buried my face in his chest. "Sorry. It's just - I don't know."
"It's just that I really don't think I'm going to survive any fight between me and Eli. And I don't want to find love on the eve of my destruction. That's just unfair!" I looked up at him, his face blurry from behind my sheen of tears. "Why couldn't you have told me this when I could enjoy it, you rotten bastard!"
"Die? You think Eli really stands a chance against you?" He shook with laughter beneath my hands. "Have you looked in a mirror lately?"
"Huh?" I suddenly found myself maneuvered towards the huge framed mirror that hung on the wall. "Aww, come on! The last thing I wanna see is myself pressed obscenely tight against a naked guy with wings. I'm having a bad enough day without being embarrassed by my cheeks flaming red."
"Look at yourself," he said, ignoring me - as usual. "Just look and see if you see what the rest of us have noticed about you tonight."
He released me and stepped to the side, curling his wings around himself in a black feathered cocoon, which left me feeling very alone. So I did what he asked and turned to stare at myself in that big ol' mirror, expecting to see the scrawny teenager that I always saw. Even when I wore my shifter form, I still looked like a scrawny teenager... a scrawny teenager with skin like obsidian, but still a scrawny teenager.
I was indeed wearing my faery mien, and disturbingly enough, I had no idea how long I'd been like this. It seemed that ever since I'd started living here, I'd grown more and more comfortable with it. Now when I wore it, it didn't seem like such a big deal. Someday I was going to do this out in public - my discipline was slipping.
"This has nothing to do with sloppiness," Aerael said suddenly as if reading my mind, lowering his wings so I could see his face. "It has to do with you and what is happening."
"And what is happening."
A slow, pleased smile spread across that beautiful face like a slow dawning of the new day. "Isn't it obvious, Rose-of-my-heart? In the face of so much horror around you, that beautiful dark blood of yours has finally awoken. There are no half-breeds among us, not for any length of time. Children of mixed blood must choose their side, and one blood will always burn out the other. Methinks by those shadows in your burgundy eyes that you've chosen your side. These horrors have drawn you to the stronger blood."
And there it was. There was the truth I'd feared ever since I'd woken up months ago with an incubus and monster arguing my future. I thought I'd feared their acceptance because it would make me inhuman and forever cut me off from the normal world. Now I knew what I'd really feared, subconsciously feared, was an eventual choice that I'd one day have to make. I'd feared the day that I would cut myself away from the mortal, human world. Something deep inside knew the truth of Aerael's words.
What I chose here and now would decide my future. I could cling to the shreds of my humanity and run out and away from Aerael and Jade and Morte and all the rest of the strange, inhuman world and wrap myself in a blanket of mortal banality for the rest of my days - or I could embrace it all.
I stared deep into my reflected eyes and saw the choice had already been made.
Bowing my head, I relaxed in places I hadn't realized I had. It was like unclenching some tired muscle I'd had tensed for years. Suddenly, for the first time in nearly five years, I was completely content and at ease with myself. My eyes closed as my head fell back, and a wave of complete and utter relaxation flowed over every inch of me. I could have melted into a little puddle of goo for all I knew.
Something disappeared in the sudden rush of heat that flowed over and through me, something that felt small and insignificant. Something I'd clung to like a pack rat, never knowing when I'd need it. But its use was long gone, and I could throw it out, burn it with a clear conscience. It took me a moment to realize that it was my humanity being burned away by the heat of my faery blood, and a momentary twinge was my only mourning for its passing.
I'd sunk to my knees, my eyes still closed and head thrown back as I reveled in a rush better than orgasm. Sex made two feel like one, but I felt whole all by myself. It was a wonderful feeling.
I felt Aerael kneel behind me, pressing his chest to the back of my head and leaning forward until my head slid up and I was leaning against him. His hands stroked down my arms until they curled around my wrists, thumbs rubbing enticingly over the skin.
"Now look at yourself," he whispered in my ear. "This is what a shifter truly is."
My eyes opened slowly and I looked into the mirror, blinking at what I saw. My reflection was much, much different than I'd ever seen before. This was no conscious change. This - this was who I truly was?
The female in the mirror had her own beauty, but I was willing to bet few humans would see it that way. My skin was still black as obsidian, but there were differences now. Strange red markings dotted and swirled on my skin here and there. A band of red circles draped around my collarbone like a necklace. A stripe of red curled around each forearm like a spiraling armlet, and more encircled my wrists. The midriff top I wore had ridden up enough to see another band of three red circles lying across my lower abdomen like Orion's Belt. Three red tiger stripes curled up over my jaw on each side, and three more circles adorned my forehead like a circlet.
It took me a moment to look past those markings and realize more had changed. My face had grown even more delicate, almost triangular, and my eyes had gone childishly large in that face. The mouth was small but full-lipped over teeth much more pointy than they had been. The ears had grown longer, larger and pointed, rising from a mane of hair that was now exactly the color of fresh blood. It was also much longer than the jaw-length bob I'd been wearing moments before. It flowed down my back and pooled on the floor around me like a cloak.
The body hadn't changed as much, though the scrawniness had disappeared. I simply looked small, delicate and exotic, a petite little faery doll. What was truly frightening was how innocent I looked with those wide, reddish eyes and that lovely little mouth, how fragile my small and well formed body appeared. But I saw the darkness behind those innocent orbs, felt the strength in this tiny frame.
"Anyone who sees me like this," I started slowly, "will immediately underestimate me. I look as dangerous as a kitten."
"All female shifters do." I felt him smile against my hair. "Only a male shifter knows what you can really do."
"I know what I can really do," I murmured, feeling very content with myself. "I can feel it. I feel - "
"Yeah. I feel like I could tear a man's heart out through his chest and make him watch me take a great big ol' bite out of it while he dies."
"Just any man, or just Eli?"
I smiled, eyes falling closed as I shook with silent laughter. "Oh yeah. Me and Eli are gonna dance. I feel much better about the whole thing now. The little bastard doesn't have a chance in hell."
Letting out a content sigh, I twisted around until I could wrap a slender arm around his neck and pressed myself close to him. How different he looked through truly faery eyes. So much more beautiful... darkly beautiful. Like any dark fae, he looked like the night and shadows come to life. And something about my faery blood made falling for him feel all the safer, as if I now knew just what kind of hold I had on him. For the first time, I could feel it. It felt wonderful.
As I lifted my head and pressed my lips to his, I decided I wasn't all that tired after all. Hell, who needed sleep anyway? That's what the daylight hours were for.
design ©2001 by Cindy Rosenthal
Bargains ©2000-2001 by Teresa Cain
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