By Willow Taylor
"Can't start a
Victor Shelly didn't ask for much from life; a bed (at least half the time), clove cigarettes (that didn't taste like they'd been spiked with camel shit), and good food (that one didn't have to get drunk to enjoy). And mostly, he got it. He also liked to travel alone, because traveling with other people was not worth the trouble. But he hadn't had that for months. Now he had someone trailing along behind him, who'd ask questions at inconvenient times, complain that his feet hurt, sneak up on Victor when his guard was down wearing a fright mask, and guard his back in situations the devil would run from.
He called himself Shaper, and God only knew what he was. Shaper said that he'd woken up in a lab, in a Guild House somewhere, with vague, uncertain memories, with a fried black bird and a white porcelain mime/kabuki mask by his head. The people in the room had started screaming, and he'd run through the halls, crashing through doors, and stealing a guild medallion to open the portal. Which is how he came crashing from nowhere into Victor's life. All Victor knew was that Shaper seemed normal - until he put on the mask, which would then blend with his skin and give him supernatural powers, the least of which was to literally grin from ear to ear, which creeped Victor out no end; and to grow evil thick talons. They still weren't sure of everything that the mask did - but they did know that Shaper hated to be parted from it, so he wore it at his waist attached with a long chain. For some reason, Shaper had become almost as attached to Victor as he was to the mask. Victor really wished that wasn't so, and that he could just go on alone. Attachments were dangerous things. And the small drifter really didn't think he was up to killing Shaper. Mostly because he'd taken to ducking behind the risen creature when all hell broke loose, and both of them were still alive.
"Hey Victor!" called the youth. Victor turned and sighed, arching his eyebrows. Shaper in his trench coat and jeans was up on a rise beside the road.
"Check that out." The wind caught the creature's hair and flung it out. Victor took a deep breath. He smelled rain and smoke. Taking a drag on his clove cigarette, he scrambled up the rise. A half valley over, There was a town, with trails of smoke raising up from chimneys. A bit further away was a thunder head, sweeping shadows over the spring leaves.
"Look at what Shape? The town or the storm?"
"Yes." Shaper half turned and gave Victor a still disconcerting normal smile. Victor snorted and blew smoke out in gust of spicy scent. "I think we're gonna get wet Victor."
"Stands to reason."
"Could you get any more laconic?"
"Yes." Victor favored his tagalong with a smile of his own.
"Do me a favor and don't be."
"So you don't think we'll make it to the village before the rain?" Shaper asked, sliding down the slope back to the road.
"We might. But I wouldn't count on it."
Shaper made a face at Victor and rolled his eyes. Angel hid his smile behind cupped hands as he lit a fresh clove off the last one.
Damp and sprinting, the pair leapt in unison onto the porch of Potted Dross, the inn of the town they had spotted earlier that day. The town itself was called Rainbow's End. Victor shook like a long haired hound, spraying water about the half porch.
"Steady now!" yelped Shaper. "I was just starting to get dry."
"Serves you right for doing that creepy thing anyway," Victor grumped and clumped into the tavern, leaving Shaper to finish re-drying through controlled energy alone.
The inn wasn't that big, but it was nice. It was ostentatious, as gaudy as it could get. It was on the trade route, so it got enough business to pay for it. But patrons at the inn knew it. They knew that the velvet was flocked paper, hardwood paneling was merely veneer - and somehow that made it all the more appealing, than those inns that sought to deceive with those tricks. But a few of the luxuries were completely real. The featherbeds for instance. Victor sighed and tucked his hands behind his head. Getting damp and cold always made him sleepy. He rolled onto his side to blow the candle out then settled in again, drawing the warm blankets up to his chest. Victor relaxed and closed his eyes, drifting away.
A silent shadow slipped across the floor, and chalk white feet fell silently on the smooth boards. Victor rolled over in his sleep, and the shadow paused stock still. After a moment it continued its passage towards his bed. For a moment silhouetted in a distinctly female form. She knelt beside Victor's bed and looked at him, blinking slowly wide, pink eyes. She gave a soft sigh, admiring his features. Angel's eyelids twitched, and he sat up, arm going under his pillow and coming out with a gun. With no more sound than a passing breeze, the woman leapt out the half-opened window, and into the night. Victor blinked and looked around, trying to figure out what had woken him. The rather paranoid drifter made a slow circuit of the room, checking under the bed, and in other places, equally unlikely. At last he climbed back into bed, to sleep.
And once asleep, he dreamed of flames. They danced like a soul lost in his vision and wreathed the ground at his feet. It wasn't that Victor was afraid of fire, per se, it was only the natural unease of any man at the unchecked power of an inferno. At last the dreams of fire stopped and he drifted further into slumber. The shadowy female figure reappeared and sat at the window watching him sleep.
The next morning, Victor came downstairs yawning. Shaper, already awake, was eating a huge breakfast at a table off to one side, and motioned Victor over, piling eggs and sausage onto a fresh plate for the slim man.
"Sleep well?" asked the risen, smiling before raising his cup to take a drink.
"Not really." Victor shrugged and stretched out.
"I could tell, your haystack is even more of a mess than usual." Since Victor had gone to the trouble of brushing his hair that morning, he frowned at Shaper.
"Did I hurt your feelings?"
"Then drink your coffee." Shaking his head, Victor did so, and turned his mind to the other part of his dreams. He didn't usually get erotic dreams, if only because he got interplay of that sort on a regular enough basis his body didn't crave it enough for his subconscious to bring it up on its own. Besides, those tended to be more straight on, and less circumspect and lover-like.
When a waitress came by, Victor stopped her to inquire how far it was to the next town.
"Aren't you staying on?" she asked. "From the state of your clothes that ye sent to the washer, you've been on the road a while."
Angel smiled kindly at her. "Yes, but no. No reason to stay."
"That's too bad," she said and smiled broadly in a suggestive way.
"Trust me," butted in Shaper. "You don't want anything that'd make him stay." Angel flashed him a killing look and the risen bowed his head over his plate, pretending to be absorbed in the food.
"Don't pay any attention to him," Victor said "His head wasn't sewn on tightly enough." The barmaid laughed, thinking that a fine joke, and Shaper kicked his friend under the table.
"It's about two, walking to Milminsford," she replied. "And beyond that is the larger town of Chandler's Pass, where these foothills hit the mountains."
"These aren't mountains?" Shaper asked mournfully.
"These?" laughed the barmaid. "These are barely foothills."
"Ick," said the young man, sinking into himself, and ruefully remembering how sore his legs had been from walking up and down those "foothills" for the last few days.
"We'll probably be spending another day in Rainbow's End," Victor said, hiding another smile in his drink. "So our laundry'll be complete, visit the bathhouse, things like that."
"Ah, Potted Dross has a fine bathhouse," the maid said. "I can show you to it when you've finished your meal."
"That is a fine idea," Victor said, and smiled at her. The pretty maid smiled back, and returned to her rounds.
"How do you do that?" demanded Shaper. "I know I'm at least as good looking as you, but how come you always get the girls??"
"I have no idea what you're talking about," Angel said, applying himself to the food.
Two days later, refreshed, the pair continued on their way. Victor had gotten information on the surrounding area from the maid, Tulé. As she'd said, Rainbow's End was a very quiet town. The story went that a rainbow had in fact touched down there, and spoken. As long as the townsfolk where honest, their town would know peace. But other towns in the area of course, were not that fortunate. Nothing really bad of course, but Milminsford had a small vampire problem, just enough to warrant its own hunter, and of course, Chandler's Pass had all the troubles of a large town.
"Two days walk before we get a real bed again," moaned Shaper. "And through these bedamned 'foothills.'"
"You could just find a job in some town," Victor said smiling broadly. "Then you'd never have to walk again."
"I hate you. You know that don't you," Shaper said with a glare.
"Who me? Who could hate a face like this?"
Victor flicked the butt of his clove into the fire and sighed. "Alright Shaper, I'm going to go through this one more time. There are nightwraiths and panthergists out there. If we don't take turns keeping the fire going, then they'll sneak up on us and tear our balls out by the roots. And it's your turn."
"They'll really...?" Shaper said, looking stricken.
"Absolutely." Victor rolled over and pulled his blanket over his head to hide his smile.
A slim figure gilded out of the trees and looked over the campsite. Her eyes passed over Shaper, sitting bolt upright, and fast asleep, to Victor's sleeping form. The fire had long ago burnt low, and flickered on the edge of going out, mere coals. Beyond the ring of trees, somewhat less human figures moved, getting closer. Moonlight lit a pure white face and pink eyes, pretty features marred by a frown. She sighed, and reached out, grabbing Victor's blanket's edge, and whipping it into the air as hard as she could. This of course, brought Victor awake. He looked around, and at his blanket flapping back to the ground. Then at the fire, dying, and the approaching creature.
"Shaper, wake up!"
"I'm awake, I'm awake!" Shaper said, then yelped. "Is that a panthergist?"
"It's gonna rip off my balls!" wailed Shaper. The vaguely cat-shaped thing paused and blinked glowing green eyes.
"Panthergists don't care about your balls," sighed Victor. "I just told you that to keep you awake, and apparently, it didn't work."
"Oh..." Shaper slipped the mask up over his eyes and blinked, as it melded with his skin. "So it's alright?"
"No, they have a tendency to rip your soul out, but if I were you, I wouldn't worry, because I don't think you have one."
"Oh bite me."
The creature took that as an invitation and leapt at the risen, knocking him off his feet and into the remains of the fire. Victor leapt too, grabbing at the creature and trying to pull it off his traveling companion. A silver knife whipped out of its hiding place and into the side of the beast.
"You are so stupid, Shaper," he said while he held on.
"I know, I know, I tried! I'm just not as tough as you," Shaper grumbled, clawed hands digging into the throat of the creature.
"Don't look at its eyes!"
"Oh like I'm going to..." Shaper's wisecrack died into a hideous scream.
"Oh great." Victor reached forward and laced his fingers between the creature¹s fangs, forcing its head back as the teeth lacerated the thin leather of his glove. He was straddling the creature and holding its head back now - the next slash of his knife nearly took its head off. Victor fell backwards and sighed deeply, then raised a hand and licked the half demon panthergist blood off of it, as well as his own. "This night had better get better," he snarled, fangs that had escaped their sheathes glinting in the moon light. Shaper, now silent, stared up at the night sky without moving.
Victor poked at the fire, and then turned to look at Shaper, who was propped against a tree.
"You useless bastard, you went and got your mind affected." He added another log, grumbling about how he hadn't thought Shaper had had enough brain for the panthergist to hold onto. So he didn't notice as the same slim figure that had woken him snuck up to Shaper, and smiled, then passed her hands in front of his face - and snapped. That noise made Victor turn in time to see Shaper blinking and shaking his head, coming awake. Angel put it down to just one of those things that Shaper did.
"... stare deeply into its eyes and recite sonnets." Then he blinked and looked around. "What happened?"
"The panthergist invaded your mind and started to eat your soul," Victor said, rocking back on his heels and looking over his shoulder slightly.
"Oh. You saved my ass again didn't you?"
"God only knows why," sighed the dark haired drifter, standing and dusting off his pants. "It's almost dawn. Why don't we just get going." He stretched. Shaper looked at him aghast.
"You're not serious are you?"
"Well I'm obviously not getting any more sleep so..."
"What about me?"
"You've had more than your share," frowned Angel.
"Well I'm wide awake now, so you might as well sleep."
"Huh," Victor muttered, but lay back down, listening to the snapping noises of Shaper gathering more wood.
design ©2001 by Cindy Rosenthal
Dancing in the Dark © 2000 by Willow Taylor
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