A vignette

Old Friends

The salt-breeze played with the miniature horses’ manes and tails, brushing a caress through Poseidon’s hair where he sat in the small meadow pasture, near the estuary stream running through it.  He was far enough from shore that the stream stayed fresh enough for the horses to drink, except for strange tides like they’d been having recently.  So, he sat with his ponies, monitoring the rise in salt water, and preventing it from sickening his pets.

The breeze whispered news in his ear, and he frowned lightly, pushing himself to his feet and ambling downstream toward the shore.  Where the stream came out was the only sand beach on his property.  Usually, when he had trespasser (like the breeze had told him was happening now), that’s where they settled.

He honestly didn’t mind, most of the time.  His land was isolated enough that the usual trespassers were either young people looking for a picnic spot, or older people wanting away from the noise of the youngsters.  He usually just warned them to pick up after themselves, and left them to it.

His favorite pony nudged him in the back of his knee, whickering as she followed him.  He chuckled, leaned down, and scratched under her mane.  She whickered again, nosing his hand in affection (and in begging for treats).

He shook his head, patting her as he straightened.  She whinnied, kicked and bucked, then raced back over to the rest of the herd, settling back into grazing.

Poseidon watched her go, then stepped into the stream, letting it wash him down to the shore and out to sea so that he could observe his trespasser.  He turned on his back and floated for a few moments, relishing the feel of his ocean, and doing a quick check to make sure there was nothing he needed to do…and noted that his trespasser was wading in the shallows.  It felt like a woman, and felt…familiar.

He swam to shore, and his jaw dropped.  He did indeed know this woman, in every sense of the word.  “Medusa?” he yelped.  “What are you doing here?”

She spun, her lovely face going slack with shock, her hair writhing.  All of it.  She wasn’t wearing a stitch of clothing, and he noted that Athena’s curse extended to her body hair as well.  “Poseidon?  You live?”

He smiled gently.  “Of course I do.  I’m retired, but still around,” he told the only woman he could ever tolerate spending time around.

There was a reason he didn’t get along too well with his niece.

She smiled, wading over to him and taking his hands gently, smiling up at him.  “This is a very pleasant surprise,” she said.

He glanced down at her, noting that the centuries hadn’t touched her body in any way, then looked away from the gently weaving, quietly hissing snakes at her crotch.  “It is.  What are you doing here?”

She grimaced.  “I was hoping to find a bit of deserted beach to spend the day sunbathing.  I can’t exactly blend in with the general population,” she said, petting then pushing one of the snakes’ heads away from her face.  “Usually, I go around with my head covered, and fully dressed.”

Poseidon waved his hand at the surroundings.  His sand beach was surrounded by high hills, and the little cove was sheltered (and hidden) by high rocky outcroppings.  “I understand, but you’re safe here.”

She smiled again, her bright blue eyes warming.  “Thank you, Poseidon.”

He let go of her hand, brushing his through his hair.  “Well, it’s the least I can do for you.  It is, after all, my fault that you have to be careful.”

She gurgled a laugh.  “Not entirely,” she admitted, eyes sparkling.  “Athena was such a bitch to me when we met that I took quite a lot of joy in defiling her temple and altar.”

He shot her a quick grin, then darted in to kiss her cheek.  “I’ll be back in a little bit,” he said, ducking away from the suddenly angrily hissing snakes.  “Damn.  I bet that makes a few different activities difficult,” he said, winking at her.

She was giggling helplessly as he dove back into the water to swim around to his house—where he’d left his phone.

He had a niece to pester.  He was tired of living alone, and he’d just found the only woman he’d ever cared to spend the time around.

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Sample chapter

Here’s the first chapter of The Last Pendragon.  The book should be available for sale sometime next week.

Let me know what you think.

I

I’d been running for too long already.  My breath came short, burning in my lungs and stabbing me just under the ribs on my left side.  I could hear them right behind me and see them on either side.  The part of my mind that never stopped analyzing and calculating my chances noticed that though I could feel the heat of the furry bodies around me, and though I could feel the breath of the wolf behind me, I should be feeling more than that—unless they were herding me somewhere.  Just as I reached this conclusion, I tripped on the uneven ground.  As exhausted as I was, there was no way I could have caught myself.  I clenched my teeth against the scream I would not grant those enjoying the chase as I started to fall.  I knew, at that moment, that I was going to die.

I was wrong—the two wolves on either side leaped in under my hands as I uselessly reached for something, anything, to keep me on my feet, and steadied me until I could regain my balance.  Another bit of data supporting my realization that they were taking me somewhere specific, I thought, as I sensed more of the pack close in around me.

The werewolf pack I’d angered surrounded me, chasing me into a small clearing that held a large slab of stone in the center like a dais.  The charcoal wolf, obviously the pack leader, lounged on the center of the stone.  One of the wolves behind me leaned against my legs, trying to force me down to my knees.  I refused to cooperate, locking my joints.  I was going to die.  I knew that.  But I was going to die on my feet.

The charcoal wolf barked.  It sounded like the command it obviously was; the wolf behind me whined and stopped leaning into the back of my legs. I glanced around the edge of the clearing, startled and beginning to wonder if I was dead yet or if I still had a chance.

“Woman, pay attention,” said the wolf in front of me.  Startled, I looked back to the dais.  The pack leader had shapeshifted from fur covered wolf back to naked human, and sat cross legged on the stone, leaning his elbows on his knees.  I resolutely stared at his face, ignoring his nudity.  Apparently, that amused him: he chuckled.  “You’ve given us good sport so far, but you’re starting to bore us.”

I shrugged, trying to catch my breath.  That was really hard to do—I was so thirsty that my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth.  “What do you expect?” I panted, my voice thick.  “I’m only human.  I can’t run all night without either rest or water.”

The pack leader threw his head back and laughed.  The rest of the pack echoed his laughter in their howls.  “Well and bravely said, woman.  Very well.  You shall have your rest and your water. ”

“How long do I have?” I asked.

“Long enough to drink and catch your breath,” he replied.

“How will I know that my rest is over?”

He cocked his head and grinned.  It wasn’t friendly.  “You’ll know.  Don’t take too long.”

The wolf behind me gently took my wrist in his mouth, tugging me toward the left.  I shrugged and followed.  No reason not to, after all; if they were going to kill me, they were going to kill me.  Still, I rather thought that they wouldn’t go against their pack leader.

He led me to a large creek or a small river, one where the banks were low.  I suspected that this was the same creek I’d fallen in earlier when I’d lost my flashlight, but there was no telling whether it was upstream or downstream, or how far.  A stone path had been laid down to the edge of the water.  The wolf let go of my wrist, whining, and nudged me toward the water.  I didn’t need prompted again; I waded into the water until it reached my thighs, pulling the scrunchie out of my shoulder-length hair to let the air reach my sweaty scalp.

I fell to my knees in the middle of the creek, and ducked my head under the water, trying to cool off, then surfaced, flinging my hair out of my face.  I could feel the air rasping through my lungs, and fought to slow and steady my breathing.  To take rest as I could.  It had been a long run, and the night was only half over, if that.

I lowered my face to the water, drinking without regard for whatever microbes might or might not be living in the mountain stream.  I was too thirsty to care, and besides that, I wasn’t sure if I’d live long enough for dysentery to become an issue.  As I drank, I strained my ears to hear sounds of pursuit over the sound of the water flowing over the rocks in the stream bed.  Nothing yet.

I sat back on my heels, focusing harder on slowing my breathing and heartbeat, trying to quiet the pain in my side.  Before Dad had gotten so sick, I used to run.  I’d run a full marathon every year I’d been in college, but I wasn’t used to exercise like this anymore.  The exhaustion of muscles long disused might well mean my death if I couldn’t find the second wind I knew I had.

The crack of a dry branch and the sound of a large animal snuffling at the top of the bank what sounded like a few yards upstream let me know the reprieve they allowed me was almost over.  I lowered my face back down to the water for another drink before I staggered up and on my way.

I was still kicking myself over leaving Dad’s Smith & Wesson .44 magnum, despite the fact that it wasn’t an ideal camping gun.  I was really kicking myself for selling the camping guns.  I could have used one, a few hours ago—it might have bought me enough time to get to a road and flag someone down.

On the other hand, it might have also got me killed by the rest of the pack.

I really wished that I’d waited another week before hiking into the mountains to camp.  One more week would have had me here after the full moon had come and gone, and I would never have stumbled into the clearing where the werewolves were having their time of the month.

***

Hiking into the Blue Ridge Mountains was easier than hiking into the Rockies.  Dad and I had done both (among others), before he’d gotten sick.  I’d taken a deep breath of the crisp, clean, spring mountain air.  This was the first vacation I’d had in the more than ten years I took care of Dad while he was dying.  I planned to take several weeks and just camp up here, since I was between jobs.  I don’t know when the next job will come along, but I need to be rested from the last one before I start looking.  Thankfully, it’s not urgent.  Dad was smart: he made sure to buy long term care insurance, and deeded the house to me.  He hadn’t needed to sell it and move into a nursing *home, and after he passed on I was able to sell it for enough to live on until I find a new job.  Even if that takes a year.  Or five.

The ground leveled out as I reached the top of the thickly forested foothill. The trees gave way, thinning as the ground leveled out, and I looked around a small clearing that I’d hiked into.  Any road was more than three difficult miles away, due south.  My car was further, just a bit—the park’s parking was on the edge of the park, four miles away.  That suited me just fine.  I’ve been too much around people the last few months  Dad spent some time in the hospital, where it took a significant amount of bullying on my part to get the doctors and nurses to give a man who wasn’t rich the care that any dying human being deserved.  Though it was bad enough at first, it got worse once Dad had slipped into a coma three weeks before he passed.  I’d talked to myself a lot.  I’d talked to him, too, but I never knew if he heard me.  He slipped gently from that coma into his final rest. Then, everyone he’d ever known (that was still alive) came to the funeral, and each and every one had to pat my shoulder, pat my back, and tell me that they remembered me from when I was little.  One creepy old friend of Dad’s patted my butt, telling me I looked just like my mother.

I stepped into a beautiful, tiny, nearly perfectly circular clearing in the trees.  The ground, thickly padded with fallen leaves, was nearly level—perfect for building a fire ring and pitching a tent for an extended stay.  This looked like as far as I needed to get, at least for the night, so I slipped my hiking backpack off my shoulders.  I’d stay here, and decide whether or not to go on tomorrow.   It wouldn’t take long to set up camp: all I needed was a tent and a fire.  Oh, and someplace to keep the food where animals couldn’t get at it.  Unfortunately, it took the majority of the day to get to this spot, and I didn’t have much light left to find firewood with.  I shrugged.  “If I don’t start now, I won’t have a fire,” I muttered.

The sun sets fast, up in the mountains.  I had a good armload of dry deadfall gathered by the time it sank below the horizon, but not enough for the night.  I thought about it, and decided it would be a good idea to start a fire now, and finish finding dry, dead wood after I’d set it up.  I already had a fire pit prepared, the basic circle of bare earth surrounded by rocks, so it didn’t take long to lay a small fire.  The fire pit was about five feet in diameter, and the fire was really small—even though we’ve had a wet spring so far, it’s not a good idea to take chances.  I squatted in the dirt, watching the flames catch and grow, dancing in the twilight.

I must have lost track of time, because when I stood to finish finding enough wood to last the night, the full moon was rising above the mountain, looking huge amongst the trees.  I sighed, looking at the shadows under the spring foliage, and decided my flashlight wasn’t a bad idea.  I reached into my tent and grabbed it, turning to go in a direction I hadn’t gone yet.  I eyed the moon, the thin canopy of the small clearing, and the placement of my tent.  I hoped I’d be able to sleep; I’d forgotten the moon would be full.  I had no idea it would be this bright.

I clicked my flashlight on, then quickly flicked it back off.  The moon was bright enough that the shadows it cast and the shadows from my flashlight played hell with my depth perception.  “What the hell,” I muttered, stepping over the ring of stones on the other side of the fire from my tent, “I’ll have enough light.”

Deadfall was more plentiful on this side of the camp.  I scowled, scolding myself for forgetting my dad’s basic instructions on where to find the most wood: level ground, under heavier canopy.  Climb the trees during the daylight for more that hasn’t fallen yet.  I could almost hear Dad’s voice as I remembered.

I shouldn’t have let myself get distracted.  While I was busy listening to my memories, I tripped over a depression and stumbled into another small clearing.  I grabbed a tree to help me catch my balance, straightened and froze, staring into the eyes of a charcoal gray wolf as he looked up from the kill his pack feasted on.  Something about the pack didn’t seem right.  I frowned, trying to think of what drew my attention.  The charcoal wolf cocked his head, his ears laid back.  He looked at me almost like he was reading my mind, hearing me realize that no wolf pack shared prey so equally, or had individual wolves as big as these were.  His upper lip lifted in a silent snarl, and he sprang over the deer.  I stepped backwards, putting the tree between us, trying to move slowly enough he wouldn’t see me as prey.  As soon as the tree blocked me from his sight, I turned and ran back toward the campfire.  I couldn’t hear whether he chased or not, but did not look back until I made it to the fire.  I turned.

A naked man stood at the edge of my camp.  His eyes were the same as the charcoal wolf’s had been.  Long dark hair hung loose around his shoulders.  “Woman,” he said, his voice rough with anger.  “You have seen something this night that you never should have seen.  You have been somewhere this night you never should have been.  In this place, this night, you are other, and you trespass.  My wolves and I will give you until we are finished with the feed.  Then we chase.  If you make it to a road, you will live.  If not…”  He shrugged.

I stared, for a long moment, shocked speechless.  I could feel my brain trying to catch up, trying to make connections.  It just wasn’t working.  He stared back, then seemed to decide I wasn’t going to say anything.  He turned.  “Wait,” I said, throwing out a hand.  As if that would stop anything from happening.  “What are you talking about?”

He looked over his shoulder.  “This,” he said.  He sank toward the ground, moonlight and shadow twisting around him, blurring his outline.  I blinked, and the charcoal gray wolf blinked back.  He snarled silently, and stalked into the shadows.  Something in my brain clicked, and I stared for a moment, goose bumps crawling down my spine, arms, and legs.  I’d been face to face with a myth.

I took a deep breath, slowly let it back out, trying to convince my goose bumps to lay back down.  They, predictably, didn’t listen.  I looked up at the moon, paced around my camp, trying to convince myself that I’d been hallucinating.  It didn’t work.  I paced faster and faster, then turned abruptly and clicked on my flashlight, looking at the tree line.  A wolf stared back at me.  I don’t know how he managed, but he looked amused.  The moonlight shivered around him, while he rose to his hind legs, shifting into human form.  “Run, woman, run,” he taunted.  “If you just stay here, we’ll just kill you.”

I didn’t wait to watch him shift back.  I ran.  I flicked on my flashlight and started running down the way I’d come up, straight toward my car.  It had taken me four hours to hike up to the site I’d chosen to camp, so I didn’t know if I’d make it or not.  I just knew I had to try.

The light from the flashlight swung crazily, making me a little dizzy.  I knew that the werewolves would have an easier time tracking me with it on, but they’d also said they’d give me a head start.  I could not afford to sprain anything, not now; the flashlight would stay on.

The ground was uneven.  I ran as fast as I could while staying upright.  A couple of times, I slid down steep slopes on my butt, barely managing to stay in control.  I lost track of time as I ran, but I made it down the steep foothill much, much faster than I’d made it up.  I looked forward, setting myself to run on the gentler, nearly flat slope, down through the tree line, to where I’d left my car parked.  I built up to my top running speed, then abruptly tried to stop, skidding to a depression, and tumbling into a roll as my foot caught on the edge.  Several wolves sat, stood, and lay just inside the tree line.  I didn’t know if it was the werewolf pack or not, but I was willing to bet that it was.

I turned to parallel the tree line, and a half a dozen wolves paralleled me, keeping between me and safety.  They let me get to within sight of my car—within sight of the charcoal gray wolf sitting on my luggage rack, on my trunk.

“Shit,” I gasped.  The pack edged closer to me, several lifting their lips in snarls.  I turned, set myself to run back up the steep foothill, wondering if I could make it to the other side of the undeveloped area, to a road on the other side.

I wasn’t familiar with the part of the foothill I was running on, now, but I couldn’t afford to run slower.  I tried to run back across the side of the hill, back to the path I had taken up, but they were there.  I turned back to the unknown ground, running as fast as I could in the dark, bitterly aware I was being herded.  I picked up my speed, trying to pull ahead of them a little.  I knew damn well I wouldn’t be able to pull ahead of real wolves that were hungry, but this pack of werewolves wasn’t hungry.  I was hoping that they were bored enough to want good sport, and was determined to give it to them.  Maybe I’d survive, that way.  I glanced back over my shoulder; they were falling back a little.  I put on a little more speed, beginning to hope.

I dodged, ducked, climbed trees and doubled back.  I flicked off the flashlight and turned off of the path I’d run up, and back.  I didn’t try to get back to the other path—the pack had made it clear that they would not permit that.  I ran the other way, along the side of the hill, tripping where it merged with another hill.  I shoved myself back to my feet, wishing I had the breath to curse.   Sticks cracked and dead leaves rustled under my feet.  I heard a small stream, somewhere, but couldn’t tell where.  I didn’t want to turn on the flashlight, didn’t want to throw away whatever advantage I had gained by doubling back and changing direction.  I didn’t know that I’d gained any, but I couldn’t bear to think otherwise.

The ground abruptly gave way beneath my feet, and I fell.  I slid and rolled into a steep creek bed, splashing down hard into the knee-deep water, getting bruised on the stones.  I lost my grip on my flashlight, and lost it.  I scrambled up, wishing the full moon wasn’t full, but at the same time thankful for the light, now that I’d lost the flashlight.  No, on second thought, I wished the moon wasn’t full to begin with: then, I wouldn’t need to see to run.

I ran along the creek bottom, looking for a way to climb out.  In a way, the creek was a blessing: it would break my scent trail.  I wasn’t ready to bless it quite yet, though.  Both sides were too steep to climb, and I still had to find a way out.  I thought I could see one, not too far ahead.  A tree, its roots undermined by the flow of the water, had fallen into the creek.  Its trunk made a narrow, steep, but passable ramp up the soft, dirt bank.  I debated taking it: it was an obvious way out, and that might give them an idea on where to pick me up again.  Then again, I didn’t know when I’d find another way out.

***

The fat, full moon had passed its zenith a while back, and was halfway to the western horizon, telling me that I’d run for more than half the night.  I stumbled and fell, scrambled up, fell again.  The ground was uneven, and covered with leaf litter, sticks, branches, and rocks.  My stomach, lungs, and legs burned with effort—I’d run all the way through my second wind, and wasn’t sure if I had a third—but I could not stop.

A creek bed lay in my path.  I could smell the water, knew that it ran over moss-covered rocks in the bottom of a man-deep ravine.  This was the same creek that I’d fallen in earlier, where I’d lost the flashlight, and had had to wade downstream until I could find a way out that wasn’t too steep to climb.  Probably the same creek where I’d taken the one, single rest and water break that the pack allowed.  On the bright side, though, it had broken my trail the first time I’d fallen in.  I’d just not wanted to see it again, and I could not turn; they were too close behind me.  I reached the edge, feeling it crumble, feeling my thighs and calves burn as I launched myself through the air.  I didn’t quite make it, landing on my stomach on the ledge of the other bank.  I started to slide into the ravine, scrabbled across the ground for grass, roots, anything to pull myself the rest of the way up with.

A hand caught my wrist, hauled me up onto the bank.  I couldn’t see much of my rescuer in the dark under the trees.  The sky was clear and the moon still bright, but he stood in shadows.  At least, I thought it was a male, from the strength of the grip.   I couldn’t tell, though.  It was too dark to see the other who stood on two legs as more than a shadow.

The pack, silent in its chase, appeared on the other side of the ravine.  The leaders skidded to the very edge of the bank.  The second rank skidded into them, jostling them.   The charcoal gray one, the leader, fell in with a startled yelp and a splash.  They circled, noses in the air.  Clearly, they smelled my rescuer, as well as me, and were unsure. Only heaven knew why; they had no problem with killing one.  Another shouldn’t make a difference.   Their leader, in the creek bed, growled and grumbled with annoyance as he tried to get back onto the bank.  Without direction, they neither attacked nor retreated.

The charcoal wolf climbed out of the ravine, pulling itself onto the bank in front of my rescuer and me.  I shrank back, tried to run again, but my rescuer kept hold of my wrist.  I couldn’t budge him—or her—so was forced to stay.  I wasn’t sure any longer that my rescuer meant my rescue or my death.  I tried to still my sobbing breath, tried not to fear.  It was hard; I had been running since moonrise, waiting for the teeth on my ankle, my knees, the back of my neck.  I stood as still as I could manage, breathing hard and shaking, waiting for the deathblow.

The charcoal wolf rose up on his hind legs, shadows flowing around him and hiding him as he stood.  He stepped into the moonlight, his long black hair flowing loose past his shoulders, streaked with gray, his face lined.  “What are you doing here?” he asked, voice harsh with the effort of the change.  “Why have you interfered with our hunt?”

“You hunt the wrong prey,” my rescuer answered.  The voice, a smooth androgynous voice, held no anger, no inflection.

The leader of the pack frowned.  “She is not yours.”  The doubtful tone of voice turned the statement into almost a question.

“I never said she was.  However, nor is she yours to kill at your pleasure.”  There was no doubt, now.  About two things.  My rescuer was a man, and my rescuer really meant to rescue me.  I raised my chin, looking at him from the corner of my eyes.  If he wasn’t going to kill me, though, why hadn’t he let me go?

“She is other,” the pack leader said, puzzled.  “She should not be here.  She trespasses on our hunting grounds.  For tonight, she is ours to kill, or ours to let live.”  He chuckled, low in his throat.  It sounded more like a wolf’s pants than the sounds a man should make.  “She’s given us good sport.  I had almost decided to let her live.”

“She will live.  At least tonight.”  My rescuer stepped between me and the pack leader, into the moonlight.  I stared, trying to get a good look at him, but moonlight and shadows wavered around him, blurring any definite impressions.

The pack leader shrugged.  “So you say.  But what about tomorrow night?”

“That is not your business.”  I thought I could make out broad shoulders, very pale skin and hair.  I could see nothing else clearly, except for his fists, clenching and unclenching as if he was exerting an enormous amount of self-control.

The pack leader shrugged again, turned, and sank back into his four-legged form.  I backed away from him as he loped a short distance away from the ravine, turned, and took a running leap to land neatly on the other side.  The pack melted back into the shadows and vanished.

“Thank you.”  After his answer to the leader of the wolf pack, I wasn’t sure whether I was saved or not.   I refused to think about it.  I was alive, and that counted for something.  As long as I was alive, there was a good—very good—chance I could get out of this.  If I just kept my wits.

My rescuer turned and looked at me.  Though the moon shone full on his face, his features were still indistinguishable.  “For what?” he asked.

“Saving my life.”  The night’s effort hit me all at once.  I leaned against the tree next to me, my vision tunneling out.  The last thing I saw was him, as he leaned in close, reaching out to catch me as I fell.

New story

I’m planning on completely re-structuring, adding to, and remaking this into a novel.  The finished version will be completely different from this short story.

Enjoy!

True Believer

He had been running for a long time.  He didn’t know why anymore; all he wanted to do was lie down and sleep.  He knew he couldn’t, nor could he slow to look for something to eat or drink.  Whatever was behind him was catching up.

*

“Hello, Jonah,” the leggy blonde said as she sprawled in the chair beside him in the student union.  Her voice was the deep, husky contralto of his fantasies.

He looked up from the exams he was grading, and frowned.   Her golden hair was fashionably tousled, her full, black skirt fashionably short.  Her red, scoop-neck baby tee, and the cleavage it exposed, competed for attention with a heart-shaped face with high, sharply defined cheekbones, enormous, dark eyes, and full, pouting lips.  He tried to remember if he’d met her before, and if so, where.  After a few heartbeats, he decided he didn’t.  “I don’t know you.  Do I?”

“Not yet.”  She winked.  “Maybe you will after tonight.”

He blinked.  “Are you propositioning me?”

“Yes.  Are you interested?”

“I don’t know you.”  He started shuffling his students’ exams together with hands that trembled.  He was so tempted he could taste it.  “And I’m married.”

“I know that.  I know your wife.  I know your wife doesn’t even attempt to satisfy you anymore.  I know your wife is leaving you right now.  As we speak.”  The blonde crossed her long, long legs, staring into Jonah’s eyes.  She licked her lips and leaned towards him.  “Are you sure you don’t want to know me?”

Jonah stared down at the exams in his shaking sweating hands, and shook his head.  Given the problems that they’d been having lately, he wouldn’t be surprised if this woman was telling the truth.  He didn’t think so, but he wouldn’t rule it out until he got home.  He stood to leave.  “Until I know differently, I’m a married man.  If I get home and find my wife—and all of her belongings—gone, I might regret this.  Maybe.  Someday.  If she hasn’t left me, I never will.  Regret this.”

She shrugged, which did interesting things to her chest.  She didn’t seem to be wearing a bra.  “Your loss.  You’ll see me again.”

Jonah shuffled his students’ exams around to free his right hand.  He offered it for her to shake.  “I didn’t catch your name.”

She didn’t shake his hand; she leaned forward and pressed it to her cheek.  “You can call me Ash.”

He jerked his hand away as if she’d burned him.  “Goodbye, Ash.”

When he looked back, she sprawled provocatively on one of the couches—one leg stretched along the seat, the other foot dangling over the floor, propped up on her elbows—watching him walk away.  From where he was standing, there by the door, he could see that her hair color was natural.

*

He didn’t remember, now, how long he’d been running.  He didn’t know what he was running from.  He’d been running long past a second, or even third, wind, and the stitch in his side was nearly doubling him over.  He was so thirsty that he couldn’t even pant anymore.  Soon, whether he wanted to or not, he’d have to stop.

*

Jonah pulled up in front of the home he and his wife just finished paying for.  He noticed that his wife’s car was still there.  The woman—Ash—apparently hadn’t known what she was talking about.  His wife wasn’t leaving him.  He smiled, glad he hadn’t given into temptation this time, either.

He pulled into the driveway next to his wife’s car.  Like always.  Like always, he thought about having a garage built to shelter their cars from the elements.  But, like always, he found an excuse not to.  Today’s excuse was that it had rained and washed both cars the night before, though his was dusty again from parking on campus next to the main drive through campus.

He put the car in park and opened the door, reaching for his satchel with his right hand while fumbling the keys with his left to find the key to his front door.  With the recent crime spree around the professors’ homes, he’d told his wife to keep the doors locked, whether she was home or not.  He jogged up the steps and tripped over the top one, just like always, and dropped his keys.  He reached down and picked them up by the house key, just like always, and fitted it into the lock.  The tumblers disengaged and he pushed the front door open.  The comfort of routine helped ease away the last of the tension in his shoulders and trembling in his hands.

“Honey, I’m home,” he called, setting his satchel on the front table.  She didn’t answer, but he wasn’t really concerned.  He usually had to go to her.  He shrugged out of his favorite gray tweed jacket with the leather elbow patches and laid it on the table with his satchel for pickup in the morning, just before he left.

“Honey?” he called, walking into the living room.  She wasn’t there.  He loosened his tie and went on into the kitchen.  He draped the navy and red tie over the back of the nearest chair in the breakfast nook, and went through into the dining room.  He stopped short.

On the table, the mahogany slab trestle table, was his wife.  She was spread eagled, pinned to the table by four of their set of six solid stainless steel steak knives.  She’d been raped; he could see that from where he stood.  It looked like she’d bled out from her wrists and ankles; he couldn’t see anything else that could have killed her.  And there was a lot of blood.  Her blood ran off the edges of the table, pooled on the floor, ran across the polished hardwood to where he stood.  He was standing in her blood.

Jonah backed away, slapping his hand over his mouth.  He gagged, turned away, and vomited onto the threshold between the kitchen and dining room.  He hadn’t had anything to eat that day, so it was mostly bile and liquid, running back to mingle with the blood pool.  He stepped over the puddle he’d made and staggered to the phone in the kitchen.  He dialed 911.

*

He didn’t know how much longer he could keep running.  It was getting harder and harder to stay on his feet.  The ground was starting to slope and dip, but he couldn’t see it.  He couldn’t see much, now.  His vision had narrowed until it was like looking through paper towel tubes taped to his face.  What he could see he couldn’t see clearly.  Fatigue blurred the narrow field of vision.  Eventually, he’d be running completely blind.

*

Jonah had been in the station for hours.  Or days.  Or maybe only minutes.  He didn’t know.  He couldn’t think.  He didn’t really even see the standard black and white tile floor he was staring through; instead, he saw his wife, sprawled over the dining table (which was now in the crime lab instead of in their dining room).

“Professor Smith?”

A man’s voice, hoarse with decades of cigarettes, pulled him out of his reverie.  Jonah dragged his eyes up from the tiles.  “Yes?”  He didn’t know how his voice could sound so normal under the circumstances.  His wife was dead, in the most horrible way he could imagine.  His eyes were so dry they burned, so dry he couldn’t see properly.  He blinked, and the plain clothes officer came into focus.  The officer bulged out of a brown suit that needed the waist let out, with a matching coffee stain on the end of a chartreuse tie.

“I’m Officer Brown.”

Jonah stared up at him for a moment before understanding sank in.  “Officer.  My wife is dead.”

Brown took a deep breath and sighed, straining the buttons on his shirt and making Jonah glad that the suit’s jacket wasn’t buttoned.  He sat down on the bench in the hall, next to Jonah, but about an arms’ length away.  “I know that, Professor.  I was wondering what you could tell me.”

“I don’t know.  My wife is dead.  I told her to keep the doors locked.”  Jonah dropped his gaze back to the tile he’d been staring through when the officer had walked up to him.

“The only door unlocked was the one you came in through, Professor.  What can you tell me about your day?  Were there any suspicious characters in your neighborhood when you left this morning?”

“I didn’t see anyone strange.  I never see anyone but early morning joggers.  I go to my office for early hours so that I can come home early.  My wife likes it that way.  Liked it that way.”  Jonah took a deep breath, let it out through his teeth.  He didn’t see the tile floor.  He saw the mahogany slab, with his wife.  “She’s dead.”

“Yes, Professor.”  Familiar scratching sounds told Jonah that the officer was recording the interview on a piece of paper.  “What about when you came home?  Was there anything different?”

“Not that I noticed.  I even tripped on the top step.  The indoor/outdoor carpet on the porch is loose, and I always trip there and drop my keys.  My work goes on the table, with my jacket, the tie goes over the back of the nearest chair in the breakfast nook, my shoes go under the sideboard in the dining room.”  Jonah stopped, gagged.  The pool of blood replaced the tile, the mahogany slab.  That was where the day went wrong.  “Not today.”

“So you didn’t notice anything different?”

“I very rarely notice anything different.”  He tried to smile.  He knew it was a failure even though he didn’t have a mirror.  “Helen always said I didn’t notice anything that wasn’t in a book.”

“In a book? That’s right, you’re a professor.  What do you research?”

“Ancient religions.”  Jonah let the failed attempt at a smile join his gaze on the floor.  He sighed.  “I tried to be a good husband.  I loved my wife.  I never cheated on her, no matter how many chances I got, or who offered.  She said it wasn’t enough, told me she hated competing with my research.  She felt cheated, even though she had plenty of time to back out before we got married.  I told her while we were dating that I probably wouldn’t ever change.”  His eyes burned.  There were no tears to sooth the pain.

“Tell me about your day today.”  Jonah looked up at the officer, frowned.  Brown offered him what seemed like a genuinely sympathetic half-smile, and shrugged.  His pencil stayed poised above his notepad, ready to take down anything Jonah offered.  “You may have noticed something that you didn’t consciously think of.  I want as much detail as you can give me.”

“I can do that.  But this may take a while.”

“We’ve got all the time in the world.”

As Jonah predicted, the interview took hours.  He liked his days structured.  Every minute was accounted for, from how long he generally took over coffee, to when and what he taught, to office hours, to meals to research.  He told the officer everything he could remember, even the students he’d caught trying to cheat on the exam that morning.  He went through his day, minute by minute, from the time he left home until the time he returned.    He mentioned the girl—Ash.  It seemed irrelevant, but Jonah wanted to be thorough.  Brown didn’t comment one way or the other.  Brown wanted to know what Jonah had done the day before, and the day before that.  Wanted to know what he was researching, when and where he did his research, and how long he took each day.  Jonah answered questions like a machine, unthinking.  Honest.

“Thank you for your cooperation, Professor Smith.  Where can we reach you?”

“Can I go home?”  Jonah was so tired his eyes were sticky.  When he closed them, they didn’t want to open.  But he didn’t want to close them, either; when he did, the image of his wife as he saw her when he first stepped into the dining room, burned into his retina, was there to meet him, promising him nightmares worse than any he’d ever had.

“We’d rather you didn’t.  Can we drop you at a hotel?”  Officer Brown seemed genuinely sympathetic, but that could be just the training.  Jonah wasn’t sure he’d notice the difference at the best of times.

Jonah rubbed his forehead, trying to think.  His head felt like it was packed with cotton batting, and he couldn’t stop staring at his wedding band.  “I need the satchel on the front table—thank God I don’t have to have those tests graded until the day after tomorrow at the earliest.  Clean pants, a clean tie, and my jacket.  Underwear and socks.  Shoes.  I teach tomorrow at eight and ten, and I have office hours from ten until noon.  Usually I’d be home by a quarter after, but I probably will just stay at the office tomorrow.  I’ll need my car, too.  How long will I have to stay at the hotel?”

Brown reached across the distance between them, squeezed Jonah’s shoulder.  “I’ll have someone escort you to your house so that you can pick up some things for a few days in the hotel.”

Jonah jumped.  He’d been thinking; he hadn’t realized he’d spoken his thoughts.  “Thank you, Officer Brown.”

*

He clutched his side, now.  His run was more of a fast stagger.  His eyes were fixed on the ground right in front of his feet.  He couldn’t see very far, now.  He was too tired.  He could barely see his feet.  He stumbled, kept running.

*

Jonah parked in the lot of the Ramada, thankful that the police had let him pack enough for the duration of the investigation.  After that was over, he planned to have some professional movers pack his books and the rest of his clothes, and sell the house.  Everything there would remind him of Helen.  He didn’t think he could stand that.

He stepped out of his car, reached back and took his suitcase from the back seat, grabbing his satchel with the other hand.  He still had a baker’s dozen of exams to grade, and it was still long before midnight.  He spent a couple of minutes memorizing the license plate number so that he wouldn’t have to come back out—and so he wouldn’t have to think about what he’d left behind.

The man behind the desk looked up with a professionally friendly smile.  “Will you be staying with us tonight, sir?”

Jonah nodded.  “I’ll be staying here for a month at least,” he said.

“Very good, sir.  If you’d fill these out?”

Jonah took the forms, raced through them.  The license plate number went down first, so he wouldn’t have to worry about forgetting it.  The rest was easy, especially since he was using a credit card.  The clerk handed him a key card, told him his room number, already turning to the person behind him.  He picked up his suitcase and turned.  As he turned, his gaze swept the lobby.  He dropped his satchel.

Ash was waiting by the door.

*

He knew it was inevitable.  His vision was so blurred he couldn’t see his feet clearly anymore, much less what was in front of them.  His run had become a stagger.  His legs shook, his breath came hard.  The stitch in his side was more like an awl boring a hole in him for something larger than thread.  He couldn’t go much farther and he knew it.  It was inevitable.  He stumbled.  Fell. 

*

“Ash?” he asked.  He staggered a little as he stepped away from the desk.  He told himself it was only because his suitcase was heavy, and he hadn’t had anything to eat since breakfast.  He always waited for lunch until after he got home.  It was long past the time that he’d have had dinner, on any other day.  Really, though, he knew it was something else.  He wouldn’t let himself think about what else it could be.  It had to be hunger.  Had to be.  He stopped, next to the door.  Next to her.

She smiled.  “You remembered me.”

He didn’t see how he could possibly forget her.  Somewhere in the back of his mind, he was regretting having turned her down earlier.  And somewhere else in the back of his mind, the part that remembered what she’d said earlier wondered if she had been involved in rearranging his life.  “You said my wife was leaving me.”

“Do you want to talk about this out here?”  She reached out and tucked her hand through the elbow of the arm he carried his satchel with.  “Why don’t you invite me up to your room?”

He thought about it.  His wife was lying on the medical examiner’s table.  He felt bad for even contemplating inviting this woman up to his room.  But it couldn’t hurt anything—now.  Vows only held until death.  “This way.”

*

He landed on his knees.  Hard.  His breath sobbed in and out of his lungs.  The thing behind him was catching up.  He pushed himself to his feet.  He’d be damned if he’d just lie there and wait for the beast chasing him to catch up.  He lurched into a staggering parody of a run.  He was so exhausted it was the best he could do.  He wished he could have some water.  He couldn’t stop, though.  Even falling took too much time.  He could hear a woman’s deep, husky chuckle behind him.  He had to keep going.  He forced himself to pick up speed.

*

Ash took Jonah’s key card and opened the door for him.  He stepped through and dropped his suitcase on the floor.  His satchel full of the student exams that he still had to grade he set on the table.  Ash closed the door, stepped into his arms and kissed him.

At first, Jonah froze with surprise.  Then, he wrapped his arms around her, cradling the back of her head in his hand, kissed her back.  He intended for it to be a short kiss, but allowed the kiss to go on for longer than he initially planned.  It felt good to have a woman in his arms, to kiss a woman who kissed him back with passion.  It had been so long since his wife had kissed him like that that he couldn’t remember how long it had been.  But, he had to know.  He gently disengaged.  “You said my wife was leaving me.”

Ash smiled up into his face.  Her eyes were so dark that they seemed like bottomless pools.  “So she was.  She’s gone, isn’t she?”

Jonah pulled away, decided he needed to unpack.  Right now.  He turned away, lifting his suitcase onto the bed.  He flipped the latches open, lifted out a stack of clean underwear, set it on the bed, reached for his socks.  Stopped.  Clenched his hands. He didn’t want her to know that he was starting to shake.  He could feel her, feel her warmth, smell her scent.  His awareness of her suddenly hit him, and he straightened, readjusted himself.  He cursed himself under his breath.  His wife was dead, but so recently that he hadn’t fully comprehended it yet.  “What have you done?”

“I’ve freed you, Jonah.”  Her deep, husky chuckle rubbed him like velvet.  “Didn’t you want to be free to worship at another altar?”

*

He staggered to a stop.  He couldn’t run anymore.  He had nothing left.  Nothing but defiance.  He turned and glared into the pitchy blackness behind him.  He couldn’t see anything, but he knew it was there.  “I don’t believe in you!” he screamed.  His tongue felt thick, stuck to the roof of his mouth.  His voice was almost gone from the lack of moisture in his throat.

*

Jonah choked, cleared his throat.  He picked up a pair of his socks—his wife had folded those for him the last time she’d done laundry.  He’d hated doing laundry, and had been gone, that night, researching.  His research had certainly paid off.  He’d found another reference insinuating that the worship of Ashtoreth had been linked to the Jewish myths of Lilith.  “Worship at another altar.  You mean you killed her.”

“Yes.”  She stepped closer, slipped her arms around him from behind.

He leaned into her arms.  He couldn’t help himself.  He caught what he was doing, and stepped away, to put his socks and underwear into one of the drawers.  Really, he just wanted to be a little farther from her.  “You couldn’t have.  My wife was raped.”

Ash laughed.  Her deep, husky chuckle wasn’t like velvet anymore.  “I know.  I did that, too.”

Jonah swallowed.  His wife’s head had been at the far end of the table, her feet toward him, pinned with her legs spread.  He’d seen the semen, still wet between her thighs, pooling on the table beneath her.  “You couldn’t have.  It was a man that raped her.”

“Yes.”  Ash pulled a chair around so that she could watch him unpack.  Waiting.  “Let me tell you how she died.  I entered your house just after you left.”

He sank down onto the edge of the bed.  “The doors were locked.”

“Hush.  I didn’t come in through the doors.  Your wife was still in bed.  I went upstairs, and brought her down.  She struggled, but I’m stronger.  I took her through the kitchen so that I could get the rest of the set of those nice stainless steel knives that you used on your steak last night while you read your research.  While you wished for simpler times, like the ones you read about.  While you wished you could do to your wife what I did in your image.”

A finger of ice traced Jonah’s spine, made him sit up straighter to hide the shudder.  “In my image.  What the hell are you talking about?”

“Your wife died thinking that the one that pinned her to the table and raped her was you.  It was your face above her, your voice that mocked her, your hand that slapped her when she screamed.  It was your penis that violated her.”  Ash’s smile was no longer sexy; her dark, deep eyes burning pits rather than bottomless pools.

“How?” he whispered.

“Don’t tell me that you’re still in denial about who I am,” she whispered.  “I thought my first worshiper in this century would be wiser than that.  You’ve certainly done enough searching for me that you shouldn’t be surprised that you’ve found me.”

Ashtoreth.  “You—”   He choked, tried again.  “You don’t exist. You were the attempt of a primitive people to explain a hostile environment.”

“Oh, but I do exist,” she purred.  “I exist under many names, in many forms.  I am that which would destroy mankind.  I am that which nihilists worship.  I am that which the so-called Christ tried to defeat in one of your greatest religions.  I am that which Mohammed fought against while he was forming his religion.  The Israelites fell into my worship many times, and fought against me when they didn’t worship me.  You’ve searched for me for a long time, long enough that your will gave me shape.  Gave me power.”

“I don’t believe in you,” he whispered.

*

Two pinpoints of darker darkness appeared in front of him.  The inky blackness swirled, revealing a many-breasted, deformed humanoid figure.  He forced himself to straighten, his breath sobbing in and out of his lungs.  “I don’t believe in you,” he whispered, watching the thing solidify into the demon he’d been searching for.

“That’s all right,” she said in a husky contralto, reaching out and laying a burning, taloned hand on his shoulder.  “I believe in me enough for the both of us.”

Fortunate One

A flash in my peripheral vision caught my attention, and made me take a look over my shoulder, convinced that something had just entered the blind spot in my rear-view mirrors.  Nothing there, but I was so sure that I’d seen something.  A half-heard chuckle made me curse.  Everywhere I went, they found me.  And I was getting tired of the constant companionship.

*

It all started when I was about ten.  That’s when I started seeing things that I was certain no one else was seeing.  Beautiful things, some of them.  Tall, willowy, graceful men and women who smiled and watched over me and the other children.  Butterflies and moths with bodies and faces of tiny men and women, fluttering over flowers and swirling around the swing sets and streetlamps.  Others that were utterly beautiful, and utterly indescribable.

Other things—and these were the things that made me certain that no one else saw—were terrifying.  If others had been able to see what I saw, they would not be playing dodge ball so calmly with those creatures so nearby.  Monsters that made me glad for the ones who watched over me and my friends.  Some of them looked at us with such hatred that it made me afraid…

Yeah, they kept me company in my geekly youth, but some of them got me into a lot of trouble.  And it seemed as if I couldn’t escape them.

 *

I pulled into my driveway, still cursing.  Over the last ten years, I’d had eight different apartments in eight different cities in eight different states.  Twice, I was able to transfer within the company I was working for.  The rest of the times I’d moved, I’d had to find a new job.  I was getting bloody tired of the routine of breaking my routine six years ago.  I never was able to make friends, and I was damned lonely.

I slammed the door on my ancient, battered, rust colored Honda.  I’ve never been sure if the rust color was the original paint, or just rust.  One of the nasty tempered creatures with four legs and a delight in getting me in trouble was dancing before my front door.  I stepped up onto the porch and kicked it out of my way.  Due to my frustrations, I kicked it hard enough that it landed in the street, more than ten feet away.  I felt guilty for half a breath—until I remembered all of the times that a similar creature had pinched girls’ rears, and I’d gotten slapped for it.  I snorted, “Serves you right, you little bastard,” as I unlocked my door.

It climbed to its feet with a shriek of rage, and I gave it the finger as I stepped inside and closed the door.  I’d learned through long experience (and reading in the occult section of every bookstore and library I’d ever been in) that nothing could cross the threshold of a home uninvited, not without expending a lot more power than those guys had…or else, be completely and totally normal human.

I kicked my shoes off and shrugged out of my jacket, hanging it on Grandpa’s coat tree just behind the door, eyeing my work polo with distaste.

This shade of green was so not my color.

I sighed, leaning against my front door, rubbing the bridge of my nose.  It was almost time to move again.  Those things were causing me major problems at work, and making it damned hard to get anything done outside my house.

I padded down the hall between the bedroom (door on the left) and the bathroom (door on the right) to the living room…and stopped short.

One of the Beautiful Ones sat on my ratty blue and white sofa, legs stretched out along the seat, and my TV remote in its hand, arm stretched out changing the channel.  It looked up at me in its stunning, almost androgynous beauty, and lowered its hand to its lap, displaying that it was actually female.  She smiled, a predatory expression I’d never seen on one of their faces before.

I reached into my pocket, feeling for the fast-food chain paper packet of table salt I kept there for emergencies…only to find that it wasn’t there.  I took a deep breath, and turned my eyes away, then turned and headed for the kitchen.  “May I offer you something to drink?” I asked.  I was proud that my voice trembled only a very little.

“Yes, please, mortal.”  The voice was a warm, husky alto that a phone-sex operator would give their left tit for, and it didn’t fit her at all.  “I would greatly appreciate one of the green cans of soda without caffeine that you have in your appliance, there.”

“The Sprite, or the ginger ale?”

“The latter, if you please.  Gather something for yourself.  We have much to discuss.”

Well, shit.  I opened the fridge and got a ginger ale for my uninvited guest (who I hoped like hell left most of her power outside my door), and headed into the kitchen to put a cup of coffee into the microwave for myself.

And while I was in the narrow galley kitchen with its single sink, I grabbed a handful of salt packets and jammed them in both pockets.

I puttered around until the microwave went off, then carried my coffee cup and the unopened can of soda back out to the couch.  I handed the soda over to the Beautiful One, then dragged the wheeled chair out from in front of my computer.

Forgive me, but I did not want to share seating with her.

She smiled as if she could hear my reservations, and studied the top of the can briefly before taking the pull tab between a tapered index finger and long, slender thumb and popped it open.  She took a sip, and closed her eyes, sighing.  “It’s almost worth dealing with mortals for this,” she murmured.

I said nothing, wrapping my hands around my favorite mug with the D20 on the side, sitting on zero with critical fail printed in bolded all caps beneath it.

I suddenly wished I’d picked a different mug as she turned vivid purple cat-slanted eyes on me.  “So.  Human.  You have been able to see things you shouldn’t have for long years.  To quote one of your…sages, ‘how’s that working for you’?”

I’d just taken a sip of my coffee when she quoted Dr. Phil, and choked.  I barely managed to avoid spraying coffee all over her—which likely would have been not a critical, but a fatal fail, given the way she had been eyeing me the entire time I’d been home.  “It’s not,” I replied, still strangled on a little bit of very hot, very bitter, very bad coffee that had gone down the wrong pipe.

“What would you give to have your life return to normal?” she asked, swinging her legs around to sit up straight and lean toward me.

“That depends,” I said slowly.

“Upon?”

“What you’re asking.”

She smiled, a very cold, very nasty, very hate-filled baring of teeth, rather than anything remotely friendly.  The hair on the back of my neck not only stood on end, but started trying to do the tango.  “It’s very simple.  All we ask is…nothing.”

“Nothing,” I said doubtfully.  “I don’t think I understand.”

She smirked.  “I know.  Mortals never do, until the moment is upon them.  Just remember: when that moment comes, you do nothing.  And we leave you in peace for the rest of your life.”

I closed my eyes, fighting back the feelings of frustration and depression.  I felt like I was totally out of my depth, here.  There was a chance, somewhere, of being able to have them leave me alone…if I could understand what was being asked of me.  And if I could live with what was being asked of me.  “And if I choose to do…something?  When whatever time comes?” I asked carefully.

“Then you shall find that your life becomes even more unbearable than it has been to this point,” she whispered, her breath hot against my ear and neck.

I lunged out of my chair, diving away from where she had to have been standing, drenching myself and the brown carpet in still-too-hot coffee.  I lost my balance entirely and landed on my right hip and left elbow, staring back toward where I’d been sitting.

Only to find that I was now completely alone in my apartment.

I’d have thought I’d dozed off and had a very strange bad dream, but for the half-empty can of cold ginger ale left sitting on my coffee table.

I scrambled to my feet and backed away from the couch and coffee table, reaching into my pocket and snatching out a couple of salt packets, ripping them open, and tossing the grains around me wildly.

Nothing changed.  She wasn’t hiding under magic.  She was just gone.

I staggered into the kitchen, still clutching my now-empty coffee cup by the handle, and shakily poured another cup.  I stuck it in the microwave I’d had since my quickly-aborted attempt at college (don’t ask—it involved jello-shots, the beings I had only recently admitted were the fey ones from the crunchy granola new-age hippie pagan movement, and a sorority swimming pool), and quickly punched in a minute and a half to heat another cup of coffee.

Then I reached out and hit the stop button as the air pressure in my apartment changed.  I peeked out of my kitchen, and nearly cursed out loud.

The fucking sliding door was standing open, with a tall, slender, androgynously-pretty male standing just inside my door.

“Excuse me,” he called out.  “Is the master of the house at home?”

I sighed, scrubbing a hand through my hair.  Then I stepped out of my kitchen.  “I am.  And how did you come in?”

The man smiled, a gentle, kind expression that stood in stark contrast to the woman’s.  “I came through your door.  How else?”

“Not what I meant,” I sighed.  “Everything I’ve seen and read says you can’t pass a threshold uninvited.”

He shrugged one shoulder.  “We can, but usually choose not to.  It’s a matter of courtesy, you understand.”

“Now that you’re here, is there anything I can get for you?”

“No thank you, young one.  I came to ask your aid on behalf of my family and abused children overlooked by your government,” he said, stepping around the puddle of coffee on the floor and seating himself in the office chair.

“Excuse me?” I said.  “I don’t think I understand.”

“You can see us.  We noticed that you saw us, and the others when you were still but a child.”  He paused, reached up, and fiddled with an earlobe nervously.  “You may be the only mortal on this land mass who can.  There were once thousands, but the ability has faded as mortal numbers grew.”

I waited.  And then realized.

Nothing.

“I see why you’ve come to me,” I said slowly.  “What I don’t understand is what you want from me.”

He held up one hand, palm in the air.  “We want you to be our…ambassador, if you will.  We want you to take money we give you, and create something that can help children suffering abuse.  There are so very many, and so few are being helped by those whose livelihood it is, while those in good homes are removed for no good reason.”  He flung both hands into the air, and blew a frustrated breath out through his nose.  “It’s infuriating.  We have the money to help the helpless, but no longer the ability.  Too many can no longer see us.

“At least, not without someone there who can see us.”  His bright green eyes snapped from the floor up to meet mine.  “With you there as an intermediary, we can use your ability to help others see us.  To interact with the world again.  To help the children again, as we used to do.”

I made my way around the end of the coffee table, and sank down onto the end of the couch.

That was one hell of a request.  I’d had several classmates that I’d suspected were abused.  I’d never seen anyone with the ability to do something about it lift a finger to help.  Not once.

I took a deep breath.  Let it out.  Leaned back and dropped my head back onto the back of the couch.  “There’s more than one faction of you people, isn’t there,” I said quietly.

A moment of silence had me glancing over at my guest.  His attention was focused on the half-empty can of ginger ale in front of me.  He sighed.  “Yes.  There is.”

“The other side doesn’t like mortals.”

“No.  They don’t.  We’ve always done our best to stand in the way of them harming anyone.”

I turned my eyes back up to the stained sheetrock ceiling with the crumbling popcorn texturing and random spots of glitter.  “And how will they react if I choose to help you?”

“Badly,” he admitted.  “But we won’t let them harm you.”

“How do you define harm?” I asked quietly.  “Actual injury, or day-in, day-out harassment that permits me no rest?”

The reluctance in his voice weighed heavy on my conscience.  “I’m afraid injury is the only thing we can protect against.”

I sighed and closed my eyes.  “I was afraid of that.  My life has been a living hell since I left home.  The other side hasn’t left me alone for long.  I cannot stay in one place for long without the harassment starting again.  I can’t keep a job, friends, a home—can you protect me from that?”

The silence was longer, this time.  “No,” he said quietly.  “But we can fund your basic needs.  You’ll never want for money, or for a home.”

“And what good is that money if I can’t use it to buy what I need?” I asked.  I couldn’t look at him as I built my case for doing…nothing.  “Every time I leave my house, I’m followed.  I can’t provide for my basic needs because…something always happens.  A fire alarm goes off just after I’ve loaded my cart.  The money I just got cashing my check is counterfeit.  The registers go down.”

“They got to you first,” he said flatly.  “What did they promise you, and what did they ask?”

I drew in a deep breath through my nose, and let it out slowly through my mouth.  “They asked me to do nothing.  And in exchange, they’d leave me alone for the rest of my life.  Or, they’d make it even more of a living hell than it already is.”

“So you’ll sit back and refuse to aid those who need it most,” he said flatly.  I could hear the outrage in his tone.

“So you’ll sit back and refuse to prevent my life from becoming worse,” I said, sitting up and looking into the blue, blue eyes of the tall, slender man in my rickety, wheeled desk chair.

He ran frustrated hands through long, blond hair.  “There is nothing I can do to prevent it,” he hissed.  “Our courts are equal in power.”

I shrugged.  “And through doing nothing, you are forcing me to make the choice to do nothing.”

“And the children?” he hissed.

I looked away.  This was far harder than I thought it would be.

Then I thought about a life that I’d finished unpacking from the last move.  People I’d started to meet at the little geeky book and game shop I’d just found on one of the little one-way streets in this oddly-laid-out little town.  A job that was paying my bills, and was beginning to feel the effects of my harassment, a job that I might be able to keep, if I just did…nothing.

“How long will it be,” I asked quietly, “before the harassment that I face in taking care of my necessities extends to my brakes?  If you do nothing to protect me, then there’s nothing I can do to help you.  Not for long.  They said they’d make the rest of my life a living hell if I did…something.  She never said how long the rest of my life would be.”

He stood, looking down at me so sadly that I could feel it on my skin.  “And how long will the rest of your life be if they leave you alone?” he asked.

I looked up, startled, but he was already gone, in the same way she had left.

Well, shit.

Here’s hoping for a long, boring life, all spent in one place.

But now, I wasn’t counting on it.

And now, I wished that I’d chosen the other option.

I was going to have to look into an electric shaver, I decided as I pushed myself to my feet and went to look in my fridge for something to eat.  I damn sure didn’t think I could stand to look in the mirror long enough to shave with my normal disposables.

Girls’ Night Out

This story is a lot darker than the others I’ve posted.  The main characters are depraved followers of Dionysus, and I don’t use the word “depraved” lightly.  The three women are Maenads.  Bringers of chaos, savagery, and destruction, and they glory in their acts.  I’d considered putting it in The Godshead, but decided not to.  Not only does it not help the loose plot move forward, but also doesn’t suit the tone in the rest of the stories. 

***

“…and fires rivaling those following the earthquake in 1906 are still burning tonight in parts of San Francisco, as peaceful protesters…”

A guffaw drowned out the newscaster as three women pelted the television with popcorn, disturbing the quietly pretty patterns of patchouli incense smoke.  The brunet in the tie-dyed peasant blouse and skirt snorted, “Peaceful, my round Greek ass.”

“Indeed, sister,” a blond that might have been pretty had her hair been brushed and her face clean agreed.  “That was one of the least challenging riots to start since that last slave rebellion in Sparta.”

The brunette smirked.  “I think there was more forcible sodomy in this ‘peaceful protest’ than there was in Sparta’s entire history even before we got involved.”

The blond interrupted, “Yeah, smelled worse than the Aegean stables, too.”

“…the ferret that the group put forward as their titular leader when approached by the city’s mayor is still missing…”

The brunette smiled.  “True, that.  Getting the ‘peaceful protest’ to spill out of its containment was almost too easy.”

A freckled redhead giggled.  “Satisfying though,” she mused.  “Almost as much fun as that time I rode Francis through Mecca.”

The brunet leaned around the blond to raise an eyebrow at the redhead.  “Francis?”

The redhead giggled again.  “Yeah.  You know.  Francis Bacon.”

The blond snorted.  “Oh, gods, that’s awful!

The brunet sighed, rubbing her temple with her left hand.  “How many times have you changed his name, now?”

“I’ve lost count,” the redhead confessed.  “He seems to find it amusing, and he always knows I’m talking to or about him.”  A soft, grumbly grunt from the miniature pig in the redhead’s lap seemed to agree.  He rolled over onto his side, and started to snore.

An image of fire creeping up a steep hill, building by building caught their attention.  “Authorities are too busy trying to put out the fires to calculate the human toll of this event.  Rumor has it that a good many of the peaceful protesters are dead, though there is no confirmation of numbers, nor of identities.”

“And rapes!  We can’t forget the rapes!” the blond squealed, bouncing on the couch.  The miniature pig on her lap was sent rolling down her outstretched legs and onto the floor.  He heaved a sigh and stretched, before moving over to the television to eat the popcorn on the floor.  He slowly swelled to his full size, crowding the living room.  “Oi!  Down in front, piggy!”  The giant, six and a half foot tall, two ton boar lifted his head, grunted once, and shrank back to lap size.  She pouted at the television when the image flashed back to the professionally grave newscaster.  “Phooey.  I know there were rapes.  Even on camera.  I made sure of that.”

“Sister, they’re too busy trying to put out the fires to figure out the individual crimes, yet,” the brunette sighed, rolling her pig onto his back to scratch his chest.  He groaned in contentment, stretching all four legs into the air before going limp again.  “They’ll get there.  But these jokers won’t ever admit that it was their ‘peaceful protesters’ squatting in the parks that started the riot, the fires, or have been murdering, raping, and pillaging. ”

“…representatives have stated that the rates of forcible rape are far less than other refugee camps around the world…”

All three women stared at the screen in slack-jawed amazement that that statement was actually uttered with a straight face, then sputtered into incredulous laughter.  “They have got to be kidding!” the brunette snorted.  “There are so many rapes in this riot that they’re going after the corpses because there’s not enough fresh meat.”

The redhead snorted.  “And of course, they got it in the wrong order.  It’s pillage, loot, rape, kill, then burn.  This bunch is dumber than the perverts and prudes in Mecca.  At least they raped the live ones.”

“Ooh, look,” the blond squealed, pointing at the television screen and bouncing some more.  “They’re actually showing some of the violence!”

“…panicked protesters fleeing the fires overran the tents set up to treat the tuberculosis victims…”

The brunette grabbed the television remote and muted the volume, while all three stared intently at the images on the screen.  All three sighed when the picture cut back to the newscaster without the sign they were waiting for.  Finally, the redhead broke the silence.  “Do you think the rumors were true?”

“No,” the brunette replied swiftly.  “They can’t be.”

“But what if they are?”  The blond sniffled.  “What if our lord is…”

“Don’t say it.  At worst, he’s bored with us.  He isn’t gone,” the brunette hissed.  “If it were true, we would no longer be able to affect the emotional states of those around us.  We wouldn’t be able to create such transitory majesty and glory like that,” she finished, waving her hand at the screen.  She took a deep breath, unwilling to voice the last truth that kept their hopes alive.

The newscast flipped from images of the riot to a newscaster standing in front of a megachurch.  The caption across the bottom described a drunken orgy at a singles bible study.  The brunette Maenad sighed and turned the television off—with no more coverage of their riot, they’d never see if their lord sent them a sign of approval or not.

We would no longer exist.

Sibling Rivalry

This story was also cut from my upcoming anthology, not because I didn’t like it, but because it didn’t really work with the plot that had jumped out at me.  Actually, this story was one of the ones that was harder for me to cut because I liked it so well.  So, without further ado…

Apollo wearily climbed out of his Jaguar convertible, and climbed the front steps of the brownstone townhouse.  It had been a very long day at the university—the literature and music classes in the morning were a lot of fun, but the afternoon in the teaching hospital had turned a little tragic.  Half of the patients his small classes of young student doctors had seen were children.  They’d had a new young patient brought in that day—a toddler boy who’d been roughly shaken by a babysitter.  The child would make a full recovery, but the delay in treatment caused by the investigation into who shook the baby made his job harder.

He leaned his forehead against the steel-cored wood front door, fumbling through his pockets for his keys.  He jammed the correct key into the lock and unlocked the door.  He gratefully turned the key in the lock, then twisted it just a bit farther to open the door.  Just as he stepped inside, the sun broke below the cloud cover in a spectacular red, orange, coral, and gold sunset that painted the entire sky.  He paused for a moment, just to drink in the beauty, and gently pushed the door closed, refreshed.

He loosened his tie, unbuttoning the collar under it with the same hand, and reaching into the coat closet for a hanger with the other.  His favorite gray-blue tweed jacket with the gray suede elbow patches (the one he privately thought of as his literature professor jacket) lived in the closet down by the door, because he rarely thought to get a jacket from the closet in the bedroom when he dressed of a morning, and rarely had time to run back upstairs for one, when he finally did think of it.  And Kat, the girlfriend that had recently moved in with him, didn’t seem to mind.

He’d met Kat on campus, when she’d come to interview for an open position in the English department where he taught one section of Classics every semester.  Tall, slim, with gold hair, blue eyes, and long legs showcased in a pencil skirt and nearly-knee high riding boots, she’d immediately reminded him of the one that got away so long ago (stupid Eros and his stupid lead arrows).  So, he’d set about charming her.

Succeeded, too.  They’d had three dates before she’d gone to bed with him, and six months before he’d gotten her to move in.  Surprisingly, he hadn’t tired of her—in fact, he’d only gotten fonder of her the more he got to know her.

Maybe this one would last a little longer than the ones he’d been with before.

He headed toward the kitchen, wondering if there would be anything started for dinner, yet.  It didn’t bother him, if not—there was this new little Greek delivery place that had opened up a couple weeks back.  He’d gotten a menu and slipped it into the drawer with the other fast food delivery menus.  Sometimes both were too busy with grading to even think about cooking for themselves, and Kat didn’t like the idea of having domestic help.  He wasn’t sure if it was a class thing, or a privacy thing.

The stove was cold, but the coffeemaker’s on indicator light still burned green—the burner kept the coffee hot for two hours after the pot had been turned on.  There was still about two cups left in the pot, or about one of the giant mugs that both he and Kat liked for their coffee.  As he noticed the coffee and that it was pretty recently made, though, the light went off.

He shrugged, and reached for his mug, a tall, squared, black ceramic mug from their local big chain grocery/department store, hanging on the mug tree next to the coffeemaker.  He still had grading to do, even after the long day, after all; one mug wouldn’t hurt him.  A whole pot wouldn’t hurt, and if he found he still needed some after the first cup, he’d darn well make it.  He filled his cup and turned around, leaning against the counter and shuffling through the handful of menus in the drawer next to him.  The Greek place’s menu—and phone number—was in the top middle of the stack.  He tucked it under his arm, picked up his cup of coffee, grabbed the phone off the charger, and headed toward the living room, and the door to the study.  He rarely presumed to order for Kat.

As he passed the stairs to the second floor, he heard a soft, familiar moan drift through the air.  He stopped short, grinning, and set the cup of coffee, the menu, and the phone down on the table next to the stairway, and toed off his shoes.  He unbuttoned his cuffs and pulled his shirt off over his head as he crept up the stairs.

If she’d gotten started without him, it was only polite to not keep the lady waiting while he disrobed, after all.

He was down to his boxers and socks, shirt, undershirt, and slacks discarded on the way past the laundry chute, by the time he reached the master bedroom door.  His grin widened as he heard Kat’s breathing quicken and a more guttural moan escape her.  He quietly turned the doorknob and opened the door.

And froze.  Yes, his Kat was in bed.  Yes, she was in the middle of things.

She was not alone.

“Artemis, what the fuck are you doing with my girlfriend?” he sputtered.

Apollo’s dark haired fraternal twin sister looked up from where she was propped up on her left elbow, leaning over the beautiful blond in the bed, right hand busy between the other’s legs.  “What does it look like, dear brother?” she purred.

Kat screamed, scrambling for the comforter bunched beyond their feet, and yanked it up to her chin.  Tears welled up in her eyes—Apollo wasn’t sure if they were from frustration, embarrassment, regret, or something else entirely.

Artemis, on the other hand, was smirking like she’d just won a contest.  She hadn’t moved when Kat had, except to duck back out of the way as the blond had lunged down to grab the pale green comforter, and her right hand was now hidden under the comforter that Kat had just pulled over them.

Kat shoved Artemis flat onto her back, away from her, scrambling out of the bed and taking the comforter with her, and wrapped it securely around herself.  “You were using me!” she snapped.  “Weren’t you?  That look in your eyes and tone in your voice says it all.”

Artemis’s smug expression faded into one of mixed confusion and remorse as she watched Kat’s reaction.  “Kitty-Kat, it’s not just that,” she said softly.

“But it was at least a little bit, wasn’t it?”  Kat’s voice was soft, sad, and trembling.  “You were using me.”

Artemis’s smirk finally totally disappeared, and she sat up, reaching out for Kat, who stepped back.  Apollo reached out and touched Kat’s shoulder, pulling her into his arms and turning her away from the bed.  He kissed her forehead.  “That’s what I’d like to know,” he said, voice hard and glaring at his sister.  He could be mad at her for his own sake later.  Right now, Kat was hurting, and Apollo wanted it to stop.

“Maybe at first,” Artemis said quietly.  “I mean, you tricked me into killing one prospective partner, and have spent our entire lives making sure nobody gets near me.  So, yeah: I came up with this idea to try to get whoever you were currently seeing into bed behind your back.  Just my luck, it happened to be a woman.

“Something went wrong, though,” Artemis finished, looking down.

“I’d be willing to bet that that something was that you fell in love with her, and she with you,” Apollo said softly.

“Yeah.  We—I—have been keeping the relationship quiet.  I didn’t want you to know.  I wanted to stay with her, not just score to piss you off.”  Artemis inhaled deeply, then blew the breath out harshly.  “I may have started out using her, but it’s not like that, not now.”

Apollo twisted his chin around to try to look down at his girlfriend where she had her face pressed against his neck, but she burrowed closer and wouldn’t look at him.  He felt her shoulders quiver a bit, and realized she was crying.  “There’s something you didn’t know.  I think she was trying to work things around to bringing you out of the wardrobe, so to speak.  We’ve been talking about this for a while.  Kat’s bi, I don’t mind, and we were talking about a girlfriend for her, one that I’d know about, but wouldn’t necessarily join her with,” he said quietly.  “I think she was trying to pave the way to bring you in.”

“No, I didn’t know that,” Artemis said.

“Were you just using her to get to me?” he asked, rubbing small circles on her upper back and glaring at his sister.

“Like I said: at first.  Then, I started to like her, and then I fell in love with her.  We’ve been seeing each other for nearly as long as you guys have.”  Artemis sighed.  “It wasn’t supposed to be this way.”

Kat hiccupped against Apollo’s shoulder.  Apollo sighed.  Usually about this time in the fighting over something, one or the other would try to destroy what they were fighting over, so that their sibling couldn’t have it.  He didn’t want that to happen to Kat, and for the first time in his life, was willing to share.  He studied his sister closely, and could tell that she felt the same.  “Well, sis, I think you have an apology to make,” he sighed.

“Apollo, I—”

“Not to me.  Her.”

Artemis climbed out of the bed, not bothering to cover her nudity, and walked over to where Apollo held their crying girlfriend.  “Kitty-Kat,” she said softly, touching the other woman’s shoulder.  “Hey.  I’m sorry.”

Kat twisted around in Apollo’s arms.  But she made no move to respond in any other way.  Artemis took a deep breath.  “I’m sorry; I want to try to make this right.  What can I do?”

“You can start by getting dressed,” Kat said flatly.  “I don’t want to look at you naked, right now.  You, too, Apollo.  I don’t appreciate being the rope in a tug of war.”  She pulled away from Apollo, and gathered her dignity with her comforter, and made her way into the walk-in closet in the master bedroom.

Apollo and Artemis watched her walk away and then looked at each other.  “I really blew it, this time, didn’t I?” Artemis asked.

Apollo sighed, moving over to the dresser that held his at-home clothes.  “I really hope not, sis.  This is the first time I’ve been this happy.”  He fished out two pair of sweats, two pair of socks, and two tee-shirts.  He raised an eyebrow and held up one set of clothes.  Artemis nodded, holding out her hands to catch the clothing Apollo tossed to her.  “If you’ve screwed this up for you, you’ve screwed it up for both of us, and it’ll take me a long time to forgive you for that.”

Artemis sighed.  “It really doesn’t seem like the grudge I’ve been carrying over Orion is as big a deal as I always thought.” She glanced at the door to the walk-in closet.  “Come on, little brother—she needs some space right now.”

He walked over to the closet door.  “Kat, we’re going to go get dressed elsewhere.  Just come out when you’re ready.”

There was no response, but neither Apollo nor Artemis expected one.  He followed his sister out the door, and they split in the hall, Apollo heading toward one of the spare bedrooms, and Artemis heading for the guest bath.

Apollo heard the shower start as he was leaving the guest room, and headed downstairs to make another pot of coffee.  He snagged his mug, the phone, and the menu on his way into the kitchen, and stuck his cooling coffee into the microwave to heat back up.  It beeped as he was rinsing the carafe to refill the reservoir.  He finished setting the coffeemaker to brew, and took his coffee to the kitchen’s four person breakfast nook.

He heard the shower in the guest bathroom stop, and the one in the master bath start, and stared into his coffee, waiting for his sister to appear.  When she did, he nodded toward the coffeemaker and the mug tree beside it.  She didn’t say any more than he did, just helped herself to mug and coffee before drifting over to sit across the table from her younger twin brother.

Together, they listened to the sounds Kat made as she finished her shower, dried her hair, and got dressed.  Apollo glanced up at his sister, and blinked.  She hadn’t bothered drying her hair, but the wet ends dangled at least an inch above her shoulders.  He was used to her hair reaching halfway to her waist, and tied up in braids.   “When did you cut your hair?” he asked.

Artemis’s upper lip twitched.  “You’re just now noticing?” she asked.

Apollo rolled his eyes.  “Well, sis, that didn’t seem really important when I came in.”

Artemis blushed and sighed.  “Look, I thought you were going to be a lot longer—she let me hear the message you left on her voice mail about the little kid.  By the way, how did that go?”

“Kid’s going to be okay.  One of the cops is going to have to recover from a bruised ego, though.  Thought his job was more important than mine, and didn’t want to let me take care of the kid before he was done with his investigation.”  Apollo shook his head.  “I don’t get some people and their priorities.”

“Neither do I,” Kat said from the kitchen doorway.  Both twins looked up and Apollo stood to go to her.  She waved him back into his seat, and headed for the coffeemaker and her own mug.  She ignored the twins as she poured her coffee, then headed for her special flavored creamer in the fridge.  Apollo winced as he noticed she reached for the chocolate creamer—the one she saved for when she was really upset.  She took her time adding the creamer, the sugar, and adjusting each to suit her mood.  Then, she turned around and leaned against the counter behind her, facing the breakfast nook.

“I kind of suspected, on an unconscious level, that you were that Artemis.  That he was that Apollo,” Kat began.  “Not on a conscious level—it’s hard for someone who was raised Catholic, even if they’ve left the church, to believe that you guys exist, and I never really made the connection between the two of you.  That said, you’re so much like him that it felt right, like I wasn’t cheating on him.  It makes sense—how I fell in love with you both, and how both of you, who are more alike than either of you want to admit, fell in love with me.

“What I didn’t suspect was that you were using me.  I don’t know if I can forgive you for that, but I can try.  You are going to start to try to make up for using me by having dinner with us.  We’ll talk—all three of us—and we’ll go from there.”

Apollo and Artemis blew out a breath in a relieved sigh.  Both stood up at the same time, and converged on Kat, wrapping arms around each other in a three-way hug.  They stood there quietly for a moment, then Apollo’s stomach growled, followed by Artemis’s.  Kat giggled.

“Supper time,” Artemis said, looking between Kat and Apollo.  “Are we staying in or going out?”

“Delivery Greek okay?” Apollo asked, holding up the menu.

A Meeting of Strangers

This story doesn’t fit in my Modern Gods world, but it’s a fun one.  I wrote it in high school, if that tells you anything about my psyche.  So, without further ado…

It was a cold, December evening.  The sky loomed overhead, gray, overcast, and heavy with a snow that refused to fall.  The devil shivered and grumbled on horseback.  He topped a small rise, brightening as he saw a lone cowboy huddled miserably over a small, smoking campfire.

The devil grinned, taking on the guise of a rich Easterner.  He rode up to the fire, dismounted, and turned to face the cowboy.  “How do, cowboy,” he said pleasantly.

The cowboy tipped his hat back and looked up at the stranger from under the wide brim.  He was gaunt, hollow-eyed, and skeletal.  Except for his burning gray eyes, he looked like he’d been dead for a couple of days.  It was a shock to hear the pleasant, gravelly voice with which he spoke.  “Howdy yerself, stranger.  Set down.”

“Thank you,” the devil replied.  “Don’t mind if I do.  You got anything to eat?”

The cowboy shook his head once, his gaze never leaving the stranger’s.  “Nope.”

The devil, disconcerted, asked, “Well, are you hungry?”

“Yep,” the cowboy answered.

The devil hurriedly left the fire for his saddlebags.  Something about this starved cowboy seemed vaguely—not wrong, just—not right, and he couldn’t put his finger on what it was.  “You’d better be watching this, Claudias,” he whispered into the evening’s chill breeze.

“I am, master,” the wind moaned.

Returning to the fire, the devil put some leftovers on to heat.  “Cold night, ain’t it, cowboy?” he remarked.

“Yep,” he replied softly.

Unnerved, the devil prattled on.  “Don’t talk much, do you?”

“Nope,” came the short reply.

The devil finally realized what seemed so wrong.  This gaunt, half-starved cowboy was somehow making him, the Lord of Hell, nervous.  He looked up from the beans and salt pork over the fire and forced himself to meet the cowboy’s gray eyes.  “What’s your name, cowboy?”

“Depends,” the cowboy grunted, upper lip curling in a silent snarl.

The devil dropped his eyes back to the beans.  “On what?”

“On why you want to know,” the cowboy replied, low voiced.

Silence fell over the small camp.  The beans finally warmed to a palatable temperature, so Old Nick dished them up and handed a plate to the cowboy.  A rare smile accompanied the cowboy’s few words, “Much obliged, stranger.”

They ate in silence.  The cowboy finally turned from the Easterner and lay down, pulling his hat down to cover his face.  The devil smiled and whispered a single word.  Time crawled to a standstill, and with a sigh of relief, the devil dropped his disguise.

“Where are you, Claudias?” he called into the evening breeze.

A minor demon appeared before his disguised master.  “I’m here, master,” he answered.

“Did you learn anything?” the devil asked.

Claudias hung his hideous head.  “No, master.  He doesn’t say enough.”

The monarch of hell stroked his chin thoughtfully.  “I wonder who he is.”

Claudias sidled closer.  “Master, maybe we would learn more if he knew who you really are,” he suggested, cringing away from the expected blow.

The devil raised a hand to backhand the little demon, then stopped to actually consider the suggestion.  “Maybe you’re right,” he said thoughtfully, lowering his hand.  “I’ll try it.  Disappear, you ugly little son of a gun.”

Claudias wilted in relief and faded into invisibility. Satan whispered softly, and time unfroze.  He pointed a misshapen forefinger at the cowboy and grinned wickedly.

The cowboy moaned and began to thrash around.  He sat bolt upright, screaming wildly.  Still panting, he looked around.  All was the same as it had been when he’d gone to sleep except for one thing: the devil now sat where the stranger had been sitting before.  “Who the hell are you?” he snarled, vicious in his fear.

The devil shrugged.  “Which name do you want me to use?  I have a thousand.”

The cowboy his hard at the stranger at his fire.  “Just tell me one,” he replied, deadly cold.

Satan shuddered, bothered by the complete lack of fear on the cowboy’s part.  “Well, most of your kind call me Old Nick or Old Scratch,” he replied weakly.

The cowboy smiled grimly, and looked down to roll a cigarette.  Time again came to a screeching halt, this time without the devil’s command.  Startled, he glanced around, and found Claudias groveling on the ground at his feet.

“What is it, Claudias?” he asked impatiently.

“Master, beware!  You don’t want his soul,” the little demon exclaimed.

Irritated, Satan kicked the imp lying prostrate at his feet.  “I need every soul I can get.  Why shouldn’t I try for his?”

The small demon cringed away from his master’s cloven foot.  “He doesn’t have one, my lord.”

“Don’t be absurd,” the fallen angel snapped.  “Every human has a soul.”

Claudias began to fade, and raised his face to his dark master before he was gone completely.  “Ask him again who he is, master.  You’ll see.”

As soon as the little demon was invisible, time thawed from its standstill to its normal flow.  The cowboy finished rolling his cigarette, lifted a small, burning twig from the edge of the fire, cupped his other hand around the freshly rolled cigarette to shield the fragile flame from the sharp, cold wind.  His hungry, haunted eyes reflected the dancing flames.  He took a deep drag, exhaling rudely in the devil’s direction.

Finally, after a long, uncomfortable silence, the devil burst out, “Who are you?”

The cowboy, speaking around the butt of the cigarette, replied, “Why d’ya wanna know?”

The devil waved a hand impatiently, fanning away the tobacco smoke that the cowboy kept directing toward him.  “I’m behind.  I need to gather in more lost souls.”

The cowboy smiled grimly.  “You don’t want me.”

“And why wouldn’t I?” the devil persisted.

The cowboy looked away and leaned back, pulling his hat back down.  Flipping the cigarette but away into the fire, his smile widened, though it still didn’t reach what the devil could see of his eyes. “Because I’m still hungry. I was here long before you were, and I’ll be here long after you’re nothin’ but a story that mothers use to scare their children.  I reckon I’ll be seein’ you before long, in the scheme of things.”

The devil turned to stare into the fire.  From time to time, he glanced at the neutral force of nature embodied seated beside him, thinking of the delicious irony that Fate had set up in this meeting.

Lucifer and Death both sat in silence, watching the fire die down to embers, watching the warm embers fade into cold ashes.  As full dark settled, both vanished into the night, leaving only the ashes of the now-dead fire.