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Archive for June, 2014

The Dragon Throne

The Dragon Throne

 

When Early was in the right mood, or the wrong mood, to be more accurate, she liked to play a game she called Chicken.

It was not an easy thing, being the One Tree’s Child. When it got bad, when the ennui or the boredom or the loneliness or the despair became too much for her, Early would dismantle the walls around the place she called home, this place called Earth, and offer herself up, naked, to any who thought to take her.

Bait for the sharks of the deep Void.

That she risked the lives of the beings who lived in this little reality well was part of the game. If she fell, the world would have a new Overlord, one perhaps not so benevolent as herself.

Early grimaced. Benevolent. That was rich. Benevolence was for the weak. It was a dangerous game she played, one that rose from the darkest part of her soul but she could not help herself. The power inside her, the one she had inherited, was a living and restless thing. It pressed at the limits she set for it, wanting more.

This game had another name. When she was being honest with herself, Early called it Suicide.

If she did not hold the power inside her on a short leash, if she did not contain it and direct its will, Early feared that the power of the One Tree would consume her in its quest to claim the infinite Oneverse as its own. The thing that haunted her, that made her use her power with painstaking care, was the thought that if she let the power have its way she would cease to be Early. Early, fortune and fate’s orphan, gathered up by the only mother she understood, the sentience contained within a water planet on the edge of a galaxy. Early, the Earth’s child.

But every child had to test the limits of its cage in order to grow and this child had a bloody minded bent.

The alarm clock said 3:30. Early lay on her bed and listened to the dreams of the planet. There was a reason the humans called this the dead of night. Nothing stirred.  Even in a city this size with its stores, and hospitals and police stations open 24 hours, this was the hour where even those who thought they were awake, slept, walking through the motions of their life in a somnambulant trance. It was the witching hour, when magic was least likely to go astray since the will of man ebbed at its lowest. Despite all their good intentions, humans had the unerring knack for fucking up everything they touched.

God save me from the cursed good intentions of men, Early thought as she tore down the walls that kept this place safe. Now it became a waiting game. Was it a testament to how brightly she shone in the Darkness, that something came? Something always came.

It had been waiting for her to make a mistake. To misstep and become vulnerable. She felt it. The weight of its attention preceded it like a wave in front of the bow of an immense ocean liner, pressing at her, lifting her up, and tumbling her mind about.

Early forced herself to relax and waited for it to kill her.

It was curiosity, really, that kept her still, her breath stopped in her throat. Curiosity consumed her, intense, cold, cerebral curiosity. She could not tell if the feeling was hers alone. The mind that touched hers was infinite, alien, and cold but it felt curiosity much like her own.

Did that make them kin?

As comforting as that thought was, she tested the power inside that mind and knew that it could dismantle her with a mere thought.

A tendril of power crossed the Veil between dimensions and curled slowly around her bed. Early resisted the urge to react. Was this what came next? Was she supposed to die? Could she die? What would it be like, death? Being dead would be a change at least, a change she could embrace in her foul mood.

Fool, she thought, end this. But then the choice was no longer hers. It reached into the core of her and stole her will.

Something massive followed that tendril of consciousness through the Veil and coiled around her. It could have crushed her like an ant. Instead it sniffed at her and shifted, forming a body that was almost human. Male to her female. Pleasing to the eye, he was. Falls of long black hair fell to his shoulders. Long and lithe was his body. It was as if he had gone into her mind and found her perfect lover. Which, of course, was exactly what had been done. Except for the eyes. Alien, they were, golden and reptilian. They never got the eyes right, she thought absently.

He took her somewhere else. The grass under her back was as soft as a fur pelt, the sky overhead awash with a strange violet light, the trees more animal than vegetable. He had not bothered to bring her clothes along.

Those golden eyes studied her body for a moment. She watched his face, in deep shadows under that mane of black hair. Hungry. He wanted her, like a starving man wanted bread. This frightened her. Early knew, were their roles reverse, she would have had no restraint when she felt so deprived. Her hungers and her urges always led her down destructive paths.

He dipped his head to taste her flesh and she thought he might actually eat her. She wanted to scream but could not find the will to do so.

But he only nuzzled her neck, where the blood pumped hardest. Shivers of fear and pleasure ran uncontrolled through her body.

“What an odd duck you are,” he mused, his breath hot on her skin

She could not think when he touched her. “Duck.” she echoed. What was she doing? This was insanity.

“You hate us all, keeping all of us at bay and yet you spend yourself recklessly until your walls come crashing down.”

He bound her, hand and foot, with ropes of light.

“It’s my berzerker side. Charge until forced to retreat.” she breathed, trying not to panic at being bound so and yet oddly excited.

“Is that what you call this? Retreat?” he asked, nibbling on the line of her jaw.

She bit his lip as he tried to kiss her. He caught her chin in a hard grip, lifting it to expose her throat. He smiled a feral smile, exposing his fangs, and dipped his head to feast upon her flesh. Early fought the bindings, fear lancing through her. Still no pain. Just more of the maddening nibbling.

“I should kill you,” she said.

“But you won’t.”

“I wont,” she agreed. Was there an echo in here, she wondered vaguely?

“Why do you spend yourself so? Do you not care who might walk through the Veil and claim you as their prize?’

“The kindness of strangers,” she moaned, his tongue having found the hollows of her left shoulder.

His head rose, his reptilian eyes narrowed, puzzled by her words. “I cannot decide if you are clever beyond reason or just mad.”

“Mad. I vote for mad. Who would depend on the kindness of strangers to get what they need?” she asked. Early did not like this pause in attention. She tried to slide across the Veil to free her hands but his eyes flared hot and his grip tightened on her throat, the other hand sliding slowly down her body.

“Who indeed? “ he said, his fingers finding the place between her thighs. She gasped, her body arching against him. “Ahhh,” he whispered as he claimed her mouth. “I have found your weak spot.”

“Whatever,” she whispered to herself as waves of pleasure spread through her. Early let go. Let them take her where they may. He was a very good lover, as lovers went, careful and conscious of controlling her pleasure.

Early endured her pleasure. It was a remote thing. Frustrated, he drew it out, this game, beating at the barriers in her mind but she gave him everything but her True Name, which she held safe and secure in the darkest part of her soul. She would not allow him to touch it, just as she would not allow her body to succumb to the love making.

“Are you made of ice, then?” he growled finally.

“I am the Queen of Ice,” she acknowledged, writhing under his touch.

In the end, he allowed himself his own pleasure. As it crashed through his mind, she remembered who she was and what she had been waiting for.

She walked into the core of him, stole his name, and downloaded his memories into her own mind. The burst of information filled her with its brightness. She cried out, then, as the power of him filled her to overflowing. This was the wave she had been waiting for. It crashed through her, the ripples of power and pleasure making her shudder uncontrollably until, finally, as the information faded from her conscious mind, her body went limp.

He roared as the backlash of her pleasure leaped between their bodies. She ignored him. Let him leave, thinking himself a skilled lover. Later, she would sort what she had stolen, at her leisure, letting the new memories filter through her consciousness, ever after remembering them as her own.

Early sucked the bindings of light into herself and was opening the Veil, getting ready to leap away when a memory surfaced, bright and clear, catching her attention.

Early froze, stunned. Turning, she caught his mind, imprisoning it, her material hand burying itself in his chest, her fingers curled around his heart. He hissed, a wild thing caught in her trap but he did not test her temper. A strange emotion kept him still. Curiosity, Early realized in wonder. There was that gods cursed curiosity again.

“Clever bitch,” he snarled. Early ignored the insult. Instead she reached into his mind and show him the memory.

“What is this?” Early asked. It had been the golden dragon worked into the back of the throne that had first caught her attention. Now, it was the woman seated upon the throne that made her heart skip a beat.

“What do you care? It is old, that memory. Useless to you. Let me go.”

“Who is the woman?” Early asked, squeezing his heart in her fist.

“She is dead, her bones gone to dust long ago,” he snarled.

Early growled in frustration. “A name, damn you. What is her name?”

“She was the last Dragon Lord. They called her the Blood Queen because she spent her people to the last in a feud over territory.”

“That is a lie. Give me a name!” Early yelled, shaking him like a rag doll. Her erstwhile lover groaned in pain.

“Malice!” he gasped. “They called her Malice. She died eons ago. The line of the Dragons is extinct. How do you know it is a lie?”

“What?” Early rolled the name around in her mind. Malice. Malice. It was so little but it was more than she knew a moment before.

“What is a lie?” he asked, pushing her hand out of his chest with his own. “What do you know of the last of the line of the true system lords?”

Early shrugged.

“No, really,” he insisted, sitting up. “I like to think of myself as an expert on the Dragon Lords. Enlighten me, oh powerful one.”

“You will laugh,” Early said. biting her lower lip.

“You have had my heart in your hand. I would be a fool to laugh.”

“In the beginning, when I woke after touching the One Tree, after killing the White Elephant Lord, I had many memories. I do not know whose they are, these memories but I remember her, this Malice. She had a Consort and a child. They were betrayed and as the cohorts of the Betrayer overran the palace, killing everyone, she sent her child away, off into the winter lands, hinter lands, past the lands of the centaurs and unicorns… I …” Early shook her head. “The memories contradict themselves. It is quite frustrating.”

“No one survived the coup.”

“What do you know? Were you there? I know a true memory when I feel it.” Early rose to her feet, wanting a distance between them.

“Think you,” he insisted. “Where did they take her, this child?”

Early eyed him warily. He was not to be trusted, surely, this thief in the night. But what would it hurt? She opened the Veil and stepped through, pulling him with her. They stepped out onto a beach made of pebbles. Treeless crags topped with snow surrounded the long thin body of water. An ancient stonehenge marked the grassy meadow just above the beach. Early released him and wandered towards the standing stones.

“What is this place?” he asked, stooping to dip his fingers in the frigid water.

“The humans call it Scotland. That is Loch Roag. These are the standing stones of Calanais. It was a hasty escape. Pell-mell, they raced, across a dozen dimensions. They ripped a hole in the world and all manner of strange things wandered through before they remembered to close it again. The humans here have been fey ever since.”

“You remember this?” he asked in wonder, following her. She paused at the edge of the stone circle. Even now, thousands of years later, the stones still sang with the last vestiges of the desperate power that had punched a hole through so many worlds.

“Earth has many such memories. I have suckled at her breast while she sang them to me to ease my soul.”

The ebony haired god-ling stared at her. “Tell me that you are not mad.”

Early watched him slyly out of the corner of her eye. “Perhaps it would have been better had I been mad. The humans here have a teaching tale that cautions against lusting after the knowledge of gods.”

“You think you are a god?” he asked. He held the judgement out of his demeanor but she could hear the sneer in his voice.

“There are no gods. Just beings who wield varying levels of power. Does the ant think me a benevolent god because I do not trod upon his children? Perhaps. But what then, when I squat and shit upon his head? Manna from heaven, the ant thinks. More fool he, for not knowing when he is being shit upon.”

He laughed. “Oh, my dear, I pity the fool that finally wins your heart when you are grown. His life will never be the same again.”

“Whatever,” Early said with a shrug. She had given up all hope in that quarter. She trailed her fingers across the stones. Their power lanced up her arm like a thousand pins and needles. She remembered a memory that might or might not have been her own.  “You said something else that was incorrect. Can you stand another bit of truth?”

“You have no pity,” he groaned, shaking his beautiful head.

“They are not extinct, you know. The Dragon Lords. Well, almost. Does it count as extinction if only one exists and no more can be made?”

Her lover froze, his face averted and thus he stayed for the space of a breath or two. “Tell me,” he breathed finally.

“The Consort still lives. I have met him.”

“What?” he said, his head whipping about. “Where? Here?”

Early laughed. “God, no. I doubt this reality could contain a thing such as him. I cannot say where he is. I, like you, have been studying the lost Lords.  Stuck my nose where it did not belong one too many times. Finally, he grew weary of my intrusions and sent his cohorts to kidnap me that he might scold me for my childish ways in person.”

“To a different reality well? What was it like?” he asked carefully.

Early shook her head. “I cannot remember. It was in the time of the One Tree and the While Elephant Lord. I was new to the ways of power. My understanding was chaos and everything hurt.”

“You remember nothing? No clue?”

Early studied the stone under her fingers. A ray of sunlight broke through the ever present cloud cover, making the flecks of mica in the black stone shine like stars in the night sky. “It was unnatural, the place they took me.”

“What?”

“They were space faring creatures, once, the system lords. In the beginning of the Oneverse. That is where he retreated when the Citadel of the Dragon Lords was lost. Into space. But it is odd….”

“What was odd?” he asked carefully, his voice trembling with some hidden emotion.

“There were no stars in the darkness around him.”

He threw back his head and laughed. She caught the wash of his emotions as he let the human form go. Joy. Triumph. Vindication. Where the ebony haired man had stood, something massive now filled the center of the stone circle. Early tried to get a sense of its form but he stepped away, sliding out of this world and back into his own.

“Oh, shit,” she breathed out, remembering where she had seen the like of that form before.  “There are two of you.”

Her departed lover, taking on his true form, looked just like the Consort’s space faring shape. A horrible thought occurred to her.

“Come back,” Early yelled at the sky. “You still stink of our love making and you are male. He will think you come to challenge him and he will surely kill you.”

There was no answer. “Stupid males,” she growled to herself.

Early tried to imagine the outcome of those two meeting for the first time. The Consort had called her Daughter. What would any father do upon meeting the man who had just ravished his daughter? Early grimaced and set about rebuilding the walls around this place. They were both going to be really pissed off after this.

She put extra attention into the circles of energy that surged out of her core, pushing them out as far as she could. She could keep out one but she doubted very much that if they joined forces, she could keep out two Dragon Lords.

If she was lucky, they would kill each other and that would be the end of it. Early grimaced. It was a fool’s wish, that.

“Gawddammit, anyway,” she said, stamping her foot. “This is not how I expected the day to go.”

The stones looked back at her, reproachful in their silence. Early stuck her tongue out at them. “Whatever …” she said, stepping through the Veil and back again, onto the sidewalk in front of her favorite wine shop which happened to be on the rue Daguerre in Paris. They always had her favorite champagne in stock.

Early, upon consideration, bought two bottles. Her sister Connie would be awake by now. Maybe they could both get roaring drunk while Connie regaled her with her latest horror stories from the Coroner’s Office. Early was in the mood for a little light-hearted fun.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The War God

The War God

Early woke with a groan. The headache was only just getting started but it promised to be a big one. She stumbled blind into the bathroom and threw up. It did not help. Snarling in fury, she directing the energy of her emotion toward the thing that caused it. The pain receded to a dull ache. Fine. They wanted to play. She would play.

She slipped on a black t-shirt and a pair of jeans. A pair of black keds completed her outfit. In the next moment she was out the door. She did not wait for the elevator but took the 8 flights of stairs in a semi controlled fall. At the bottom, she slammed through the fire door and out into the alley. There she paused to get her bearings.

There was a chill in the air. She blew out her breath and watched it form a cloud in front of her face. The thin t-shirt was no protection against the elements but she burned hot, having just come out of dreamwalking. As long as she was playing power games, she would be fine.

Sniffing the ethers she followed the stink of demon down the alley and around the corner. Not much was open this time of night. She passed an all-night liquor store and had walked past it when a thought occurred to her. She back tracked and went in, buying a pint of the worst white lightning money could buy.

Six blocks on, the singing let her know she was getting close.

A heap of rags and cardboard wedged in an alcove of a retail building shifted a bit. A gnarled hand rose in the air and waved at her.

Early snorted. The demons were getting too bold by far.

She squatted by the noisome hovel and pulled back a cardboard flap. A grizzled old man blinked back at her owlishly. He grinned at her, the smile impish, showing all his rotten teeth.

Early snorted, not amused in the least.

The demon must have been new at this. He bungled the possession for a moment and the old man regained control. A look of fury came over his face.

“Get away! This is my house!” he said shrilly, pulling a kitchen knife from his clothing and brandishing it at Early.

Early held up the bottle of booze and shook it in the neon glow of the storefront sign. “I thought you might need a bit of a pick me up, old father. It is a cold night.”

“Why would you give me a drink? Are you trying to poison me?”

“Look,” Early said, breaking the seal and twisting the top off. She took a huge swig. It burned all the way down. She tried to take a breath but the fumes made her choke.

“Oh, holy Christ! How do you drink that stuff?” she wheezed, trying to breathe as tears streamed down her face. She made a move to throw the bottle away but the old man’s hands snatched it from her, putting a ninja to shame with his speed. He wiped the lip of the bottle with his dirt encrusted palm and then took a drink that drained a quarter of the bottle. Sighing in contentment, he closed his eyes and leaned back against the stone wall. Early reached out to screw the cap back on as his hands went limp and the bottle drooped.

“You want to talk to the thing inside me, don’t you?” he said faintly.

“Yes, please,” Early said.

“Yes, please,” he said, mimicking her school girl politeness. “You got them all in a tizzy, don’t you? Got ’em on the run. Come to parlay, they have.”

“Have they?” Early said, her curiosity peaked. The old man’s head drooped. Early reached out and patted his hand. “Go to sleep old father. I will watch over you and see that you are kept safe.”

The homeless man began to snore. Early crawled into the box and closed the flap. She did not stick around to enjoy the ripe aroma. With a swift mental shift, she was in the between place. Between the Veil and the reality called Earth. It was a thin place, perhaps only a nanosecond wide, but it was big enough since all such places were infinite and dimensionless.

The old man lived mostly in this place, which was not unusual for the schizophrenics and the autistic. He lay next to her, snoring. The rot gut had done its job. Something else lay hidden under the heaps of rags he called clothing.

“What are you doing in there? You want a parlay? Come out and parlay.” Early said, prodding the lump.

“The High Council is not amused by your childish tricks,” said the lump. “The Dark Lord is furious. He has petitioned the Council to have you deposed.”

“Can they do that?” Early asked hopefully. Nothing would please her more than to get this white elephant of a planet off her shoulders and out of her hair.

“Truth be told, they are terrified to try. What were you thinking? We did nothing to deserve this new attack. Call off your dogs and let us seek a compromise like adults.”

Early frowned down at the lump. She had a vague notion what this was about. That crazy idea, the idea meant to keep the Dark Lord at bay and out of her business, had obviously born fruit. But truth be told, she never knew what form her magic would take. Being a self taught god-ling and having learned her lessons from having her magics go wildly askew, she had never stopped being amazed by the results.

“I?” Early said, trying to sound innocent. “What did I do? I am the Child of the One Tree, newly born into the worlds of power. What am I compared to the ancient and great beings on the High Council?”

A pair of ebony wings rose out of the body of the old man, flapping in agitation. “You deny that this is your doing?” it squeaked in outrage.

“What?” Early asked, genuinely confused. “Have I harmed you? If so, I am truly sorry. It was not intended.”

“Sorry. Sorry? Sorry is for recalcitrant children. This is the serious stuff of true power. No self respecting demon will come near this place anymore.”

Early was starting to feel genuine alarm. “I didn’t … dear god, tell me I have not … killed anyone. I cannot … I did not wish …” Early bit her lip to keep it from trembling as a single tear rolled down her cheek. “You do not understand how difficult it has been,” she whispered hoarsely. “I make mistakes all the time. Big mistakes.”

An ebony head rose out of the old man. “Are you crying?” the demon said in wonder.

“No,” sniffed Early, hastily wiping away the tear.

“Liar. You are crying. Why would you cry? You are the most powerful being in the known Oneverse. The High Council is only now beginning to understand the scope of your talents.”

“Talent. Talent without skill. I am a bull in a china shop,” Early said forlornly. “I have broken the Oneverse, haven’t I? Tell me the truth.”

“Dont’ be silly,” said the demon, coming out of the old man to hover over her. It reached out a hand to touch her but sanity returned to it just in time and it contented itself with a fatherly look of concern. “No one can do that. You have just made it uncomfortable for anyone who does not know the rules of this place to come anywhere near you.”

“You came,” Early said, wiping her eyes and looking up at the demon. “What the hell …” she breathed out in wonder. “Are you … are you sparkling?”

The demon pressed its arms around its body. “No,” it said, a pained look on its face.

“No, really. I can see it. You are sparkling, like that boy in the horrible vampire movies. Why are you sparkling? Doesn’t that make it hard to blend into the shadows?”

The demon glared at her. “Do you think I did this by choice. You did this, you and your cursed magics.”

Early pressed her hands over her mouth to hide the grin that could not be contained. Bits and pieces of a laugh escaped from between her fingers.

“Funny? You think this funny? This is nothing,” he said, gesturing towards his sparkling body. “Horrible, horrible magics happen to the armies of dark things who have been sent against you.”

Early tensed, alarmed. Armies. They were sending armies. Her mouth went dry.

The demon did not notice her shift in attitude. He kept on complaining. “Think you, upon the humiliation, to be a dark minion and to find yourself suddenly turned into an animal of the cute and cuddly kind or a mythical creature and then, the ultimate of degradation, finding that you fart rainbows.”

“Rainbows?” Early asked faintly, now profoundly confused. “Why would the dark minion armies fart rainbows?”

“No!” squeaked the demon, stamping its sparkly foot. “That is my question. That is the High Council’s question. Why rainbows? It serves no purpose but to distract. It would be better that you just kill them. Cruel is your nature, Lady.”

“I am not cruel,” shouted Early, jumping to her feet. She ground her teeth together in frustrated rage, unable to say more. But it was a lie. She knew it to be a lie. The ways of power were all cruel. One could not hold its reins without trampling the innocent. The innocent were there, underfoot, helpless and ignorant, crying out as they died, confused to the bitter end.

The demon cringed away from the power inside her rage. He shuddered, sparkling brighter, and then burst out into song. Early recognized the tune immediately.  It was the latest rage among the six year old girls, all of whom knew the lyrics by heart and could sing it complete with the hand gestures of the cartoon character who sang it.

Early stared down at the demon, mouth wide open in wonder. A light was dawning inside her brain. This. This was the magic of this place, contained for ten thousand years by the despotic Overlord who died by her hands. All she had done was light a spark in the darkness. Well, more than a spark. She had shifted time a wee bit, twisting it and looping it so the energy that had created the Oneverse now inhabited every particle of this planet including the minds who lived on it. All it took to use that power was a little imagination.

The demon was now singing a the warthog’s song. She had given the children of the world the power of gods. This is what bloomed.

She could not decide which was funnier. The fact that a demon was singing that song or the look of torture on the demons face as he tried to contain the happy lyrics but still managed to belt them out with a great flourish of head and hands.

The laughter could not be controlled this time. She laughed until she cried. She laughed until she lost control of the dimensional shift and rolled out onto the cold sidewalk awash in its sickly neon glow.

“Oh, don’t mind me,” said the demon dryly, glaring at her from the old wino’s eyes. “I will just wait here while you enjoy yourself.”

Early wiped the tears from her face and rejoined him in the place between the worlds. She reached out to open a door into the the places of power beyond this reality but paused for a moment.

“Ach. Forgive my rudeness. I was just relieved to hear that I had not done something irrevocably bad. Let me send you on your way. But do this one thing for me. Tell your masters I am healing this place. It will take its own sweet time, this healing. The White Elephant Lord was a vile bastard who took a sick pleasure in feasting upon the fear of humans. One cannot undo ten thousand years of harm overnight. Farting rainbows is just an unfortunate side effect of the process. I cannot control it. I will not control it. You have your armies. Well this is my army; seven billion humans who are totally clueless about their own power. This will be a journey of self discovery. For me as well as for them. You all have two choices. Help or stay away.”

With a thought, she opened the door and sent it home. With another thought, she healed the Veil, making it whole once more. Turning, she stepped back into the world and headed home.

“Fucking armies. Gawdammit,” she breathed as she stomped down the sidewalk, worry settling down like a dark cloud around her heart.

A sound made her stop. It was the old wino. He was singing that song. She could almost smell the frost on the air. She shook her head and smiled. Her life had become a royal farce. Shakespeare could not have written one better.

She turned and continued walking. It was cold out. The city slept soundly around her, unaware of their danger. Armies farting rainbows. There would be hell to pay for that one, when the walls finally fell from around this place. She would worry about that when the time came. One thing was certain. She had made an enemy of the Dark Lord.

“Whatever,” Early said with a shrug. She broke into a run. She had left a perfectly fine dream to come out here and she meant to pick it up where it left off and finish it. How often did one dream that one was a dragon?

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No Sancuary

No Sanctuary

 

Early shifted her backpack off her shoulders, dropped it at her feet next to her motorcycle helmet, and pressed the doorbell. Faint chimes echoed inside the house. A moment later, Constance opened the door, a grin on her face.

“You made it,” she crowed in delight.

“Only just. The freeways in this town are a nightmare.”

“I know, I know. Give me a hug.” Connie grabbed Early around the neck and hugged her close. Early pressed herself against her sister for a brief moment, memorizing the feel of her body and the texture of her t-shirt under her hands. Constance smelled faintly of lavender and beta-dine solution, an unfortunate mixture.

“How goes the job?” Early asked, picking up her stuff, the smell a reminder that Connie worked in the morgue as a forensic pathologist.

Constance shrugged. “A body is a body. Death is the great equalizer.”

Early raised an eyebrow. Connie was lying, of course. She loved her job. Loved puzzling over the remains of the vacant eyed dead, the last silent statement of every human after they lost the battle with mortality.

Early unzipped her backpack, pulled out a bottle of very expensive Cabernet, and handed it to her older sister.

“Ooohh, you are a demon sent to pervert my good intentions,” Connie breathed out softly as she admired the label.

“I shall loosen thy tongue, fair maiden, with my seductive potions. You shall tell me everything by night’s end,” Early said with a grin. It was an old joke between them.

Connie laughed as she carried her prize into the kitchen. It was a light laugh, free of cares and burdens. Early frowned. Something was up. Connie was never this happy. Ever.

A horrible suspicion wiggled in the back of her brain like a maggot in ripe meat.

The clink of glass told Early she had time to investigate. She let her eyes relax until everything around her became a faint blur and then she stepped out of the world. It was a little step that did not take her far. The walls of the world fell away to reveal an endless plain of light. This was the place just behind the facade of the world that few people saw. A shadow flickered in and out of existence close by. Early watched it as she let the curtains of her mind fall back into place. It was out in the garden. Early moved towards the french doors and pulled back the sheer white curtains. The rose bed was new, the earth newly turned, the rose canes only just beginning to fill out their naked forms, a few red flowers trying valiantly to bloom. A man-form hung forlornly just above the few sad looking plants. He looked oddly familiar. Early tried to get a sense of his nature, that she might understand why Connie felt it necessary to end his life and use his body as fertilizer. She tasted him and frowned. There was nothing extraordinary about him. He was just an average human, stupid and unaware of the harm he caused as he trampled through other people’s lives.

Early marked his death down as bad luck. Bad luck to be so ignorant. Bad luck to have fallen under Connie’s gaze. Bad luck to have met her when her cycles were low and her walls were down. Bad luck to be born male.

Early stared at the ghostly face. It struck her suddenly, why he seemed so familiar. With his dark good looks and he ruggedly craggy face, he could have been their father when he was younger, back when he had been in his prime, back when he had been fucking anything that moved. Early shuddered and snarled. It was instinctive, what happened next. She could not control herself, no more than Connie could. A blade, long and curved and made of darkness formed in her hands. She sent it into the heart of the ghost. It froze in the intense cold and then shattered as her magic found its mark. Pieces of it turned to smoke and blew away on an invisible wind.

“Bad luck to look like him,” Early hissed as she struggled to control her rage, the power of the blade still singing in her veins. Where was that wine? It was the only thing that would take the edge off.

Early let her eyes phase in and out of reality. Clean. At least the roses looked better, their crimson color less blood-like without the ghostly taint. Early grimaced. Connie would be mad. She suspected that her sister liked the ghosts in her garden. Perhaps they kept her company.

Early could not undo what she had done. The ghost was gone. Gone. Like wiped from existence gone. No passing through the Veil for this being. All that he was, all that he had been, had just ended, here, in this moment.

Early checked the air above the azalea bushes and then turned to check the honeysuckle in the corner of the garden. The honeysuckle still carried a shadow of death but the ghost under the azaleas had long since faded.

These were not the only ghosts created by her sister. Early was not sure how long Connie had been killing. At least since med school. Probably from the moment she left home for college. She had never questioned Connie about her macabre hobby. Early respected her sister too much to invade her privacy.

Early sighed. It was a dangerous game Connie played but she could not be faulted for it. Early was not going be the one to judge her sister for her actions. It would be hypocritical, considering what she herself did for a living.

Connie came into the living room bearing two crystal goblets full of dark red wine.

“Your roses are new. I like them.”

Connie smiled as she handed one glass to her little sister and took a sip from her own. Early tried not to laugh. Were Connie a cat just caught with cream on her whiskers next to an empty bowl, the look of innocence on her face could not have been more telling.

Early smiled and tugged Connie over to the couch. They would talk for hours, long after the bottle had been drained, and then fall into exhausted sleep, holding each other, still talking. She loved Connie the best of all her sisters. They were all fucked up but Connie was unapologetic about it. It was good that she could find happiness in simple hobbies. So what if she killed an occasional asshole. Everyone had monsters in their closets. You did not reach their age without learning to deal with them. Connie’s monster wore their father’s face. Early’s monsters were not nearly as benevolent.

******

Early got up at dawn and went for a run. It was cold and spitting rain. She dressed in her winter running gear, gortex over silk long-johns. There was a park on the bluffs above the bay a couple of miles from Connie’s house. Early jogged down to the overlook and stopped by a bench, using it as a prop to stretch out her hamstrings. The wind blew down the waterway, smelling of ice and open ocean. No sane person would have been out in such weather.

A middle aged man in a teal jogging suit walked by, dragging a reluctant cocker spaniel who wanted nothing to do with the great outdoors on a day like today.

“Good morning,” he said, pausing to let the dog pee. The dog sniffed at the landscaping disinterestedly as it planted all four paws against the gusts of wind.

“Hey,” said Early, nodding.

“Nice day,” said the man.

Early looked up at the leaden sky.

“I guess so,” Early said.

“You know what they say. Beware the blue elephant,” said the man casually.

Early giggled. These clandestine meetings always amused.

The man looked nonplussed. He glanced around, looking for another jogger in black gortex.

“Uh. oh. sorry. Long has he reigned,” recited Early.

The man relaxed. The dog gave up trying to escape its leash and contented itself with huddling against the lee side of its master legs

“Cardinal Bennini sends his regards.”

Early studied the man. There was a sharp intelligence lurking behind those eyes. This thing might go better than expected.

“How is the old reprobate? Is he still buggering the young guards down in the basement of the papal barracks?

“I am sure I wouldn’t know,” sniffed the priest. Surely he was a priest. Someone high up in the local bishopric, at least. Bennini would send only those he could trust and the cardinal trusted only those within his brotherhood.

“What do the holy fathers need with an itinerant ghost buster like me?” Early asked. It was a facetious question. She knew perfectly well what they wanted. She had felt the presence beating against her brain pan ever since she crossed the state line.

He failed to rise to her bating, her sense of humor now a familiar thing, apparently.

“Ghost buster? I was told you were the Holy See’s assassin.”

Early could not control the laughter that burst our of her innards. “Assassin? That is a bit rich. More like janitor. I clean up their messes for them. It is a mutually beneficial arrangement. I get loads of church gold and you all get to pretend the world is a kind and benevolent place. God forbid that the general population should find out that all the prayers in the world cannot keep out the dark forces waiting for you just on the other side of the Veil if just one of you opens a door and lets them in.”

He said nothing but it was apparent from the look in his eyes that he was a non-believer. Ach, she thought, sadly, what had the priesthood come to? Were there no zealots left in the Catholic church?

“My car is just up there. Shall we go?” the priest said with a glance up toward the park entrance.

“What? No introductions?” she held out her hand. “I am Early.”

“You can call me Joseph.” he said, returning her firm hand shake. It was obviously not his name. Fine. It was not like she needed to know who he was. Bennini’s leg men were clones of Bennini, cold, calculating, power-hungry.

“Joseph, as in Mary’s husband?” Early asked. “A non-believer, by all accounts. Prophetic or ironic, that?”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“Never mind. Lets get that dog out of the cold.”

*****

The monastery had been built in the early 1800’s out of stone quarried from the local mountains. Retrofitted for the 20th century in the early 1950’s, it now boasted central plumbing and heating. But there were not enough light bulbs on the planet to beat back the shadows that clung to the cold stones. Where the light failed, darkness pooled like a living thing.

Early hated the place on sight. Even without the demon in the basement she would have hated it. Two hundred years of men loathing the flesh they inhabited had left a stink about the place that was hard to bear. Was it any wonder that one of the monks had snapped or that a demon had been hanging about waiting for just such an event?

Joseph drove around the back of the monastery and let her in by a small posturn gate. They met no one as they descended two flights of stone steps into the lower levels. Early glanced into the open doors as they passed. Cells, used perhaps in the early days as places of punishment for the more stubborn initiates or places of meditation for the monks who embraced self torture as a way to achieve transcendence. Now it was deserted and stank of dry rot and mildew. The moaning coming from the end cell just added garnish to the horror film atmosphere.

Joseph stopped before a heavy wooden door, pulled a large skeleton key from the pocket of his teal track suit, and fitted it into the lock. It turned easily and without a sound. Early followed him into the room. A chain had been attached to an eye bolt in the ceiling. The other end was wrapped around the waist of a painfully thin old man. Monks robes hung in tatters from his shoulders revealing bruised and torn skin.

The old man muttered to himself, a conversation that held his complete attention. It took him a while to notice that he was not alone. The feral smile vanished. Screaming in fury he leapt at them, arms outstretched, fingers curled into claws. Joseph did not react. Perhaps he knew from experience just how far the chain reached. The old man reached the end of his tether running at full power. With a tremendous jerk he stopped, the recoil sending him flying. The monk landed on his back, in the center of the cell, gasping for breath.

Early studied the room. The tripods in the corners caught her interest. Cameras with their own sophisticated light sources. “You are recording this?”

“Yes. They are wired to transmit from the roof to two remote off-site locations.”

“You have the high and the low end of the spectrum covered?”

“And electromagnetic. If it is generating a dimensional field, we will see it.”

Early grunted. She would have preferred privacy. Oh well, it was neither here nor there. The demon was not her problem. If anyone was going to be generating a field shift, it would be herself.

“I have a job to do. From now on you will say nothing, do nothing unless I say otherwise. Are we clear?”

Joseph nodded.

She walked over to the old monk. He had resumed his muttering. It was gibberish. There was blood on his hands. Small shards of glass littered the floor. Early glanced up. Somehow the old man had broken the only light bulb in the room, ten feet above his head. Early used the toe of her shoe to flip aside the skirt of his robe. Strange runes were carved into the skin of his thighs.

Early took the steel blade hidden in its sheath on her calf and used it to cut away the filthy robe. Tossing aside the cloth, she pulled a cheap camera out of her pocket and stood straddling the naked monk while she snapped a half dozen photos. The writing covered most of the flesh on the front of his body.

Early stowed the camera and nudged the monk with the toe of her running shoe.

“Hey. Wake up. Talk to me.”

The monk tossed his head and moaned.

Early looked over her shoulder at Joseph. “What is his name?”

“Brother Benedict,” Joseph informed her.

“No, his name. The name his mother gave him.”

“James. James Robert Hughes.”

Early went down on one knee. Putting a knuckle into the sternum of his bony chest, she pressed hard. The monk gasped in pain.

“Wake up, Jimmy. I need to talk to you. Come back to the world for a minute.”

Something like awareness appeared in those old eyes. “I am the vessel. I am the message and the messenger,” he whispered desperately.

“Yeah, I know,” Early said. “Do you know what you wrote all over your body, Jimmy? Do you know what it means?”

“The Dark Lord is coming. He will not be denied his prize.”

“Whew, imagine his disappointment when he does not get it,” Early said absently as she unfocused her eyes and went to the place behind the world. The monk did not disappear as most humans did which meant he was near to death and making the preparations for crossing through the Veil. What sat upon the old man’s chest was what interested her.

An ebony skinned being with wings made of the darkest night stared back at her. Not ebony like a human, the color not caused by melanin, but ebony the color of stone, the blackness making the white crystalline eyes all the more striking.

“Gawddammit, you are a hard one to get a-hold of,” it said. “Do you know how hard it is finding a receptive zealot on this continent?”

“An unfortunate side effect of my magic. I mean to purge the world of them. What brings a soldier of the High Council to the realm of the White Elephant Lord?” Early asked.

The demon snorted in derision. “He was a fool, that one. We were all glad when you erased him from the timeline.

Early flinched. The Lord of White, the Elephant Lord, had reigned over all that was human since before anyone could remember. When the Tree of the World caught her mind in its trap and seduced her with its power, she had gone mad for a while as the whole of the Oneverse crashed into her mind and changed her forever. Earth, the White Lord’s playground, had been a wasteland of shadows back then, crushing her with its weight. She had pushed back. In a fit of outraged fury, she killed the Elephant Lord, creating a hole in the hierarchy of the Oneverse, a void that she had been forced to fill with her own heart, pretending to be the overlord to hide her crime. Eventually, the High Council caught on to her ruse. They did not seem to mind her killing one of their own. They just hated that she had not joined their exclusive club.

Early shook off those feelings of guilt. She did what she did because it was necessary. Humans were not meant to have gods run rough-shod through their minds. Human. She had not thought of herself as human in such a long time.

“I have come bearing tidings,” the creature recited, ignorant of her inner turmoil. “It is not lightly that I have crossed through the veil. This is a cursed place. I feel myself fading even as we speak. How can you stand …”

“Demon, I do not have all day. Cut to the chase.” Early sighed impatiently.

“Greetings and salutations from the High Lord. He … “

“Can I get the abridged version of this message?” Early asked. “We have an audience.”

“A priest,” the demon sniffed in disdain. “They were the Elephant Lord’s minions but look at him. He does not realize that his Lord is dead and that you now reign here.”

“Demon! I grow impatient.”

“Exactly,” said the demon. “The High Council grows impatient with you, Lady. It is time to shit or get off the pot, they say. What is the good of having the Child of the One Tree manifest itself at last if it chooses to stay hidden and locked away in this god-forsaken corner of the Oneverse?”

“What does it matter if I am here or if I am there. The weight of my existence has already shifted reality to my favor.”

“Ah, Lady,” the dark angel said sadly. “It is not good that you live in isolation so far from your kind. Your loneliness is a living, palpable thing that seeps out of your self imposed jail and taints the fabric of all reality.”

“I am not alone. I have a very large family.”

“Humans,” scoffed the angel. “They are no fit companion for the One Tree’s Child. Come away with me. Meet with the Council.”

“Why the rush? I will come in my own sweet time. If I am the Child, then you should respect my wishes.”

“Lady, you must choose a Consort soon. It is unseemly that you have no one to balance your power for you.”

“I hold the full weight of all the worlds in my mind. What need I with a Consort?” Early said, shaking her head at the notion of a mate.

“It is not your mind that concerns us. Can you deny your heart? Where is the balance in that?”

Early cocked her head. Something else was up. The demon angel was not saying everything.

“I can read the runes,” Early said, gesturing at the old monk’s body. “Did you mean to tell me this or were you just doodling to pass the time away? Someone comes. Who comes?”

“Tsk,” the angel said, with a shrug. “You will find out soon enough. The Dark Lord is not content with waiting. He comes. Already, the weight of his attention is unraveling your magics that hold this place secure. You might have noticed, if you had been paying attention.”

“I am not stupid,” Early snarled, her annoyance with this interference instinctive, her rage, as always, hovering just under the surface, waiting to be released.

“No, I would never say that, Lady,” the ebony angel said, holding out his hands to mollify her. “Perhaps you have just been distracted. In any case, you have refused to make a choice so the choice will be made for you.”

“You think me such an easy mark that I will let someone destroy the life I have built here? Let him come. I will fight him. We will see who wins.” Early growled.

“You choose neither Light nor Dark and yet only Light can defeat the Dark. Thus a choice will be force upon you. You cannot stay unchanged, no matter what you wish.”

“I will find a way,” Early said, half to herself. They did not count on the depth of her stubborn will and her loathing of the powers of authority. She hated being dictated to. She hated the feelings of helplessness and vulnerability that came with all the other baggage. She knew who she was. She was a warrior. Her human family had taught her that. The games she learned to play with her human father had honed every warrior skill she had. If she could resist him, she could resist anyone.

The demon considered her solemnly. After a long moment, it nodded. “Yesssss,” it whispered. “I think you will. Blessed be thy will, Child of the Eternal Night. I will dance with joy when you ascend to your throne.”

“Whatever,” Early said, slicing the fabric of the world with her cold, curved blade. A vortex formed in the hole she made, the winds sucking the demon away. She healed the wound with a thought and the wave of a hand.

Closing her eyes, she let go of the power that held her in the wee space between the walls of the world.

Early took a long breath and looked down into the eyes of the old monk. The glimmerings of sanity were returning to those rheumy eyes.

“I know you,” the monk whispered in wonder. “You are …”

Early pressed her fingers against his lips. “Hush. You are free. I shall grant you what you were looking for. Your god awaits you on the other side of the Veil.” A knife, one that existed in this reality, one she kept hidden in the sleeve of her running shirt, fell into her palm. In the next instant it had found the meat of the monks neck, slicing it to bone. Early phased in and out of reality as she danced away from the fountain of blood.

“What did you do?” gasped Joseph, leaping in to save the old priest. His hands pressed at the wound but it was too deep and too big. Early knew how to kill. She was very good at it. No doctor in the world could set this to rights. The pool of blood on the floor grew as the light in the old man’s eyes faded.

“My job,” snapped Early. She bent to retrieve the monk’s robes, using it to clean her blade before she slid it back in its sheath.

“Holy Christ! Are you insane? You were successful. The demon was gone. Why kill the old man?”

“Because he was weak.”

“What?” Joseph stood up and turned on her, his height and weight suddenly intimidating in the small, enclosed space.

“He was the target. He was always the target. Ask. Bennini will tell you. The old fool opened a door and let something horrific into the world. He would be a weak spot ever after. Things would try that doorway and he would not be able to resist them. It was only a matter of time ’til he repeated this insanity. Trust me. I know this from experience.”

“You talked to the demon. What did it say?” Joseph asked stepping towards her.

Early sidled away from him, towards the door. She would prefer not killing this man if she had a choice. “I do not know what you are talking about. My job is done. I expect my payment to be in my account within the hour.”

Joseph tapped his ear. “The techs are telling me strange things. They say you disappeared. That none of the cameras could register your image for a few seconds. That the dials redlined for a moment, right before the everything returned to normal.”

“So? A glitch in the system, perhaps. It is none of my business,” Early said with a shrug.

“The readings have not been normal in this room since they brought Brother Benedict down here.”

Early met his stare, not sure which blade to use when she killed him.

“What care you how I do my job if the job gets done?” Early said, her voice hard edged and threatening. “If you could have fixed this mess you would have done it long since. Do not question what you have no hope in hell of understanding.”

She reached the door and lifted the latch without ever taking her eyes off the priest. Joseph’s hand moved. He very nearly died, then, had he not stopped himself mid gesture, acknowledging his defeat.

“I will let myself out. Goodbye.” Early said softly. Her employment by the good Fathers was nearly at an end, she thought sadly. Too bad. The High Council would have to find another way to contact her.

*****

Early was sitting on Connie’s front stoop when her sister drove into her driveway. A half empty bottle of champagne sat between her feet. An idea was forming in the back of her mind, the vaguest of vaguely crazy thoughts, so bizarrely crackpot that it made her laugh. Without compromising herself and her own visions of her life, she just might bring the High Council and the randy Dark Lord to heel.

The demon said she would have to become Light to defeat the Dark Lord. She would enjoy proving him wrong.

Early took a swig out of the bottle and held it out to Connie as she drew near.

“It is a sacrilege, what you do to good wine. What is the occasion?”

“It’s payday,” Early said. “I deserve a treat.”

Connie took the bottle and drank deeply before handing it back.

“Oh, my. That is some good shit. Your taste in wine is impeccable, as usual. Shall we take this party into the house?”

Early rose to her feet and hugged her sister around the waist. “Of all the sisters you are my favorite,” Early said with a soft hiccup.

“I’ll bet you say that to all your girlfriends,” Connie said with a laugh as she unlocked the front door.

“Nope,” Early said. “Just to you. Of all the women in the family, you are the fiercest, the bravest. You put up with me. I think I scare the shit out of the rest of the family.”

“Why do you think that?”

Early snorted and took another drink. “Because I scare the shit out of myself. The scariest thing I know is the thing that looks back at me out of the mirror.”

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