The Game Is On

This is the fifth part in an ongoing series circling around the character Vanessa Riley. It might work on its own, but I recommend you also read the previous parts to get the full story: I, II, III, IV.


There was never a time in his life when Devin Murdock did not feel haunted – be it by his past, the law or his own restless thoughts. But this is something different, and he knows it. Can feel it with every fiber of his damned being. If there ever was a haunted house, this is definitely it. And he just so happens to have the ill fortune of living here. If he’d been religiously inclined he would call it Karma. Now he just ascribes it to a cursed conspiracy between his own astronomically bad luck and the pettiness of the universe. And what a grand fucking conspiracy, at that.

One signal, two signals, three sign–

“Carlito’s Clean House, how may I be of–”

“Dude, it’s me, Dev. You have to send someone, this it getting fucking unbearable.”

A second of silence. “Look, we’ve talked about this. You can’t keep calling me here. Seriously. You’ll get me in trouble. I already hit you up with a place to stay, didn’t I? Despite you being a wanted fugitive and all that.”

“Pfh. They can’t possibly be looking for me anymore. That shit was long ago. And besides, this ‘place’ you got for me is already occupied. By fucking dead people. So if you–”

“Not looking for you anymore, huh? Then tell me why the fuck you’re hiding. Nah, ain’t no fooling me. If those coven people, or whatever you call them, found out you’re back in town they’d have your head. And that’s the truth, plain and pretty. I want nothing to do with that, or them. Or you, for that matter. I helped you once already, and if that house is not to your liking, well, you can find a nice shrubbery to sleep under for all I’m concerned. I’m getting married, Dev. I’m not risking anything more for you.”

“Carlos, don’t do this. You’re the only half decent exorcist – hell, the only half decent person – I know around here anymore. I need you, man. You can’t leave me like this, these ghosts won’t let me sleep, and–”

“Dev, let me put this simply for you. I. Don’t. Give. A. Fuck. Make peace with the dead, or don’t. I tried to warn you back then when you started fucking around with that dark stuff, but you didn’t listen. You knew what the penalty was, and now you’ve gotta live with it. You, not I. Sabes?”

“Carlos, listen. I’m back in town for a reason. Someone I knew, let’s call him an old mentor of mine, died and left some stuff behind. Powerful stuff. If I can only figure out where he hid it, I’ll be able to do… Well, close to anything. I’ll make it all up to you, and more. But to find it I must be able to think and plan, and those damned specters won’t let me do that. I’m going mad here. If you could just–”

A deep sigh. “You never learn, do you? Good bye, Dev. Don’t call me on this number again. Or rather, don’t bother calling at all. I’m blocking you.”

“Please, Carlos, I–” But the line is already dead.

And he’s standing, phone in hand, alone in a much too empty and extraordinarily haunted house at the outskirts of a city that doesn’t want him. The planks and boards all around him are already resuming their ominous creaking and the stale air is once again drawing breath for all the disembodied whispers that are to come.

Carlos has made his point, Dev can expect no more help from him. And now the radio’s going on in the next room, maddening static echoing between the silent and hungry walls.

Deeevin”, a barely audible voice slithers through the cracked speakers.

“Fuck this”, Devin says and leaves the house.

***

The problem with being a sacromancer of at least some renown is that pretty much everyone in the know either hates you for being “evil”, or wants to hurt you for their own gain. This rule makes no exception for Devin Murdock. He’s been on the run for almost a decade now, and the sweet taste of the vagabond life is beginning to turn sour. This alone would probably not have been enough to lure him back to the city from where he was once exiled, were it not for the extra persuading factor of the news that recently reached him.

Teneo is dead. The game is on.”

This short message had reached him in the middle of the night seven days ago. He had been busy getting drunk together with a priestess of Eir in an impressively pimped out hotel room, and initially he had just tried to ignore the vibrating phone. As soon as he had read the message, however, he had already been cold sober and on his way out the door. The blessings of heathen goddesses be damned, this was not an opportunity he was going to miss out on. The next morning had caught him already on a westbound plane, nervously tapping his fingers on the armrests of his seat.

Teneo had been Devin’s mentor before the latter was banished from L.A for practicing taboo. Now he is apparently dead – whether by more or less natural causes, Devin doesn’t yet know. What he does know, however, is that the person who brought him the tidings, though once a brother in learning, is now his mortal enemy and rival. Their mutual mentor has left unimaginable scholarly resources behind, and whoever finds them first will be the new king of the hill, as it were.

Devin can only speak for himself, but if he should come out the victor, the first thing he’ll do is to neutralize the competition. He doesn’t harbor any illusions whatsoever that his rival is not thinking the exact same thing.

***

He’s sitting on the porch, face in hands, when the red Ferrari pulls up outside the iron gates. He doesn’t notice it at once because cars often pass by on the road on the other side of the tall garden walls, but when the sound of the loud engine just won’t fade into the distance his curiosity finally forces him to look up.

The gates are closed of course – his paranoia wouldn’t have it any other way – but the rusty bars are far enough apart to allow him a clear view of the short driveway on the other side. Just as he lays eyes on the red streamline monster its driver’s door opens and a woman steps out. There’s something eerily familiar about her, and in Devin’s world that is not a good thing. To him, familiar equals danger in this city.

He rises slowly from the porch, unsure of whether to take refuge inside the house or to remain where he is. In the end, he ends up doing neither of those things. He starts cautiously walking along the overgrown stone slab path toward the gates, all the while fighting to keep his breathing and heartbeat in check. He’s not entirely sure why he’s approaching the woman by the car, but he is. Too late does he realize that this in itself is a bad sign, and too late does he remember to try to read her to learn her intentions. He is almost at the end of the path when he makes his attempt, and the instant mental resistance that as good as hits him across the face in response is all he needs to realize that this is really, really bad.

He freezes, just yards away from the woman in black watching him from the other side of the gate and a pair of mirror tinted sunglasses. Now that he is closer the feeling of familiarity has grown even stronger. Something, a memory perhaps, keeps itching at the back of his mind. He knows this woman.

“Hello, Devin”, she says and removes her sunglasses with a gesture worthy of Hollywood.

And the penny finally drops. “Vanessa Riley.” He can’t stop staring. She was just a girl, and now…

“It’s Vahri now, hun. Please never use that name again. Forget it if you can. Or else I’ll help you with that.”

He closes his mouth. Hopes vainly it did not hang open for long. Vahri. He nods. “So you finally awoke, did you? I knew It was just a matter of time, didn’t I tell you that?” He flashes her one of his rehearsed, sly smiles in a desperate attempt to regain control of the situation.

“Dev, darling, that trick might have worked when I was seventeen. But I’m not seventeen anymore, am I? And I have learned a thing or two since then, so please spare me the condescending pickup lines and open this gate and let me in. I need to talk to you.”

And for the second time in just a couple of minutes he finds himself doing exactly what she tells him to. “How did you know I was back?”, he asks as the ancient gates creak open. “How did you find me?”

“Oh, that was easy”, she answers as she walks past him towards the house. “I just wished upon a djinn.”

Chris Smedbakken, 2017-07-04

The Tale of a Man Who Wanted to Eat the World

(This is part IV of the story about Vanessa Riley. If you want to read the previous three parts, you can find them here, here and here.)


“Once upon a time, child, there was a man with a heart like a stone and a soul like miles and miles of waterless wasteland. Although his mind did not lack in inspiration, nothing of warmth and beauty would ever grow there. But what he wanted in goodness and creativity, he made up for a thousandfold in wealth. And so it was that when boredom inevitably struck him it meant two things: that the remedy for said boredom was in plenty within his grasping reach, and that this remedy did without a fault spell misery, suffering and downfall for all those who struck his fancy as ingredients thereof.

In the beginning his victims were people, ordinary humans who had for one reason or the other fallen outside the sphere of societal respect and protection. They were the outcasts, the prostitutes, the slaves and the vagrants. They were the ones of whose disappearance or demise even the hungry tabloids did not write. They were the ones for whom nobody but the most religious would weep, and then only in the most duteous manner. They were the nobodys, the involuntary citizens of our civilization’s underbelly – and thus they were easy prey.

But this man was no vampire. He was human himself, and thus he was also a gregarious herd animal. He started off alone, but soon became many. As he converged with like minded predators a horde formed – a pride of lion men who all shared one mutual hunger; the hunger for ending boredom – the hunger for feeling, fucking and eating the world.

Over time, however, the abuse of outcasts, prostitutes, slaves and vagrants became prosaic routine for these mad, wealthy lion men. Boredom began sneaking its way back into their petrified hearts and their desolate souls. And with this came fear. Was this it? Was this all there was to life and its mysteries? For a short while there was chaos in the horde. Lion slaughtered lion just for the thrill of it, just to feel truly alive again. For a short while it looked as if the mad pride might collapse in on itself and be devoured by history. But then the Discovery was made.

To this day it is still not clear who is to blame. Is it the vampires, the changelings, the mages or the maybe the werecreatures of the night? Chances are we will never know. But somehow, in its intermutual chaos, the mad pride found out about our world, about us. And the existence of forces, elements and creatures so far beyond their wildest and most intoxicated dreams instantly granted them renewed, frantic focus; if there really were such things, the mad pride realized, they had actually not felt, fucked or eaten all of the world just yet. Far from it, in fact.

Then and there began a rabid hunt for everything so called “supernatural”. Like senseless poachers on hunt for lions on the plains of what is now known as Tanzania, these bored and wealthy men and women set out to catch us, to cage us and to slaughter us – all for their own wicked pleasure of course. This marked the perpetual end of boredom for them, and the start of the endless flight for survival for us. None of us went safe, vampires, changelings, mages and werecreatures alike.

This was long ago. The memory of the first hungry man would long since have been devoured by ignorant history, were it not for those of us who live and remember. I too have loved and lost, my child, and I too hold grudges. But my retaliation lies not in bloody iron or oaths of vengeance. No, instead it lies in the telling of this tale and the struggle to, through the passing on of knowledge and wisdom, prevent the mad pride from bringing harm to my blood ever again.

Remember this, my child: while once they went under the name of Fruitio Societatis, they might well have come to change their denomination in alignment with the prevailing time and age. They have been known to do so before. However, two things about them do not change, and those two things are these: Firstly, without a fault they ever brand their members with their mark of fealty, their seal of brotherhood. You shall know them by this mark, so remember it well. Two lines run like the foundation of a twisted Christian cross, only it is vitiated by six warped circles, each of them representing a sense that the mad pride believe themselves to be in possession of. Do not forget this, Vanessa, my child.”

And what is the second thing that never changes about them, aunt Thali?”

The second thing, child, is their unending blood thirst. Avoid them at all cost, because if they catch you… If they catch you, my child, they will feel, fuck and eat you. And not necessarily in that order.”


You can find the next part of the story here.

Chris Smedbakken 2017-06-14

On Dreams, Myths and Not-So-Ordinary Hunters

This is part III of the story about Vanessa Riley. It probably works as a standalone as well, but if you want to read the two previous parts you can find them here and here.


A sudden noise and sleep is gone like a spell. Deep, black shadows drape the room. It’s impossible to see. She sits up in her bed. No, some other bed, but still hers. Confusion, like in a nightmare. Where is she? Who is she? Her eyes wander the room. A sudden movement over by the door catches her attention. Her heart skips a beat. She freezes.

Don’t you fucking move”, he says. She is staring straight into the barrel of his gun.

She doesn’t fucking move. “You’re… that guy from before. From my party”, she hears herself stammer – though it’s not her voice. Far from it.

The stranger nods. “Yeah. And you’re the djinn we’re looking for. So now just tell me. Where’s Walter?”

Her eyes grow even wider. Djinn… What the f— But she doesn’t even finish the thought, because now she realizes there is a tattoo on his right hand and she has seen that symbol somewhere before and this is bad really bad and–

“Shit!”

She sits straight up in her bed. No, not hers, she remembers. Neferthali and that guy Ivers have turned hers and her vampire godmother’s floor into a love nest, and Vanessa herself has taken refuge in one of the exclusive hotel rooms that make up the lower floors of the tall building.

She’s breathing heavily, fear still clinging to her every cell. Fear still lingering from the nightmare, from what she saw in it. Who she saw in it. And as her breath catches up with her and her heartbeat and racing thoughts slow down just a little, she realizes two things. Firstly: the tattoo she saw in the dream. It belongs to that boogeyman group, or club, Neferthali has warned her about. And secondly: That wasn’t a fucking dream at all. The djinn we’re looking for… “Shit”, she repeats and jumps out of bed.

Vanessa is already out the front doors before she realizes that she has forgotten her phone. The hell with it, she decides. She has already wasted enough precious time. Frantically she hunts the street with her eyes for a taxi cab. As she stands there a red Ferrari pulls up right in front of her by the curb. It stops, and an expensively dressed youth with an expensive haircut climbs out of it.

“You the valet?” He lifts his expensive sunglasses for a split second to look at her over the roof of the car.

She… nods slowly, not entirely believing this is actually happening. “Yeah”, she murmurs, not sure if she’s even making herself heard.

He flashes her an expensive smile and throws her the keys as he breezes past her. “I’ll buy you a drink later, okay sugar?”

Vanessa slowly turns to stare after him as he enters the hotel and disappears. What the fuck just happened? She holds up her hand and looks at the car keys in disbelief. Nobody is this lucky. Nobody, if it’s not with the help of– And suddenly she remembers why she’s even out here in the street. Who needs her help, who is probably desperately wishing for help – maybe not even consciously. That settles it. She dives into the low car, head first, and has the engine running before the hotel doors have even closed properly behind the car’s original owner.

Chino. She hasn’t seen him since two nights ago at that club, but she heard his thoughts that evening and would recognize their resonance anywhere. It’s like a color, but… loud. As she races through the night city in her not-exactly-stolen car she knows that it was Chino’s room she saw in her dream, that it was his mind she must have slipped into by mistake. It has happened before with others, though not often. She knows that everything she saw and heard in the dream was real, and that it happened in real time. She floors the pedal and hopes against hope that she will not be too late. He had such kind eyes…

The only reason she knows his address is that she was bored and looked it up the other day – and the only reason she was able to do that is that the stupid mother fucker is dumb enough to be using his True Name in the address register. It must have been a simple thing for the hunters to find him. Idiot.

But anger leaves her and is replaced by something that is embarrassingly similar to fear as soon as she pulls up outside his building and stops the car. She knows which window is his, and it is dark. Not just to the eye, but to the mind as well; as she lets her mental tendrils wind their way past the glass and the walls and the doors she feels instantly that there’s no one inside Chino’s apartment. It is completely empty.

Fuck, shit, ass!” She beats her palms against the wheel and screams straight into the silence. Of course they’re not here anymore, they’ve taken him. They’ve taken him for the Club, and now he’s going to be– And then she hears it. Or rather, she senses it. Like a tingle at the back of her soul, or a twitch inside her thoughts. Like a color, but loud. And she realizes that it’s him, calling. Not to her, but to anyone with the sense and senses to listen.

The weakness of the call, together with its crudeness, makes her believe that he’s not even aware he is calling out. That he is only desperately fumbling in his mental darkness for random straws to free himself with. She tries to answer him, but his loud colors are already lost again in the astral buzz of the mad city. No matter boyo, she thinks to herself as with revived resolve she restarts the stolen car. I know where you are now.

As she drives through the neon city and finally out of it she struggles ceaselessly to keep track of his movements. Every now and then she feels a flash of his presence far away and knows that she is still on their track. Suddenly, however, the presence disappears entirely. A cold hand clutches her innards; this can mean many things but none of them is good. She swallows, tries not to panic. By now she has already left the city behind and is speeding down a night black desert road. They cannot be far ahead of her now, and there are no alternative routes for them to have taken. For good or bad, and whatever has happened to Chino, she has them now.

Then she spots it. Further down the empty road, parked right at the border between asphalt and hard packed sand, sits an old, white Volkswagen – lights off, doors open. She doesn’t slow down. Out in the open landscape to her right she can also see shadowy shapes moving. Then the moon breaks through the clouds and for a heartbeat she can see them clearly.

There are three of them, one of the shapes standing a few feet away from the other two and aiming a gun, as one of the other two slowly circles the third shape in a fashion that seems both wary and mocking at the same time. The third shape doesn’t move at all, is standing still as a statue, and that’s what worries Vanessa – because she knows without a doubt that this third shape is Chino. What the fuck have they done to him?

And suddenly she catches herself and realizes that she is actually pissed off. That it’s not just the hunters, slash kidnappers, that are pissing her off – and that she probably hasn’t really ceased being pissed off since last time she saw him that night at the club. Also: that tonight’s events haven’t changed anything about that. You stood me up, you fucking idiot, and for my vampire granny at that. And now you have the nerve to disturb my sleep and drag me out on a rescue mission in the middle of the night. And to… to worry me, damn you.

She hits the brakes a bit too fast and the car, with its brand new everything, literally jumps to a stop. She lounges forward and for a heartbeat she is certain that she will go though the windshield. But thanks her lucky star (or whatever it is that people like she have) she has somehow, despite everything, remembered to fasten her seat belt somewhere along the road – and the air is just knocked out of her.

“Yolo”, she breathes painfully as she leans back from she strained belt, unfastens it and stumbles out of the car. She leans against the door for a couple of seconds as she catches her breath and decides that no ribs have been broken by the impact. Understanding that this is both a dangerous and embarrassing position to be caught in, she then hastily straightens up and walks around the car. It has come to a halt only a few yards behind the white Volkswagen – the kidnappers’ car. She casually draws her trusty knife and punctures the back wheels before she starts walking into the open field by the side of the road.

The three dark shapes still loom there, seemingly without having moved much at all. She keeps a steady, determined pace and doesn’t for a second take her eyes off the small congregation still far off in the field. As she draws closer she can hear voices in the distance.

“We only need to know where Walter is, you know. If you tell us we won’t hurt you”, the circling shape is saying.

“Well, not so much anyway,” the one with the gun adds.

The first one is silent for a moment, perhaps shooting his partner an angry stare. “If you tell us, no harm shall come to you. Or to your loved ones. If you don’t–”

“If you touch them I will kill you, you hear me?” Chino’s voice. Desperate.

“…if you don’t, on the other hand”, the unarmed man resumes after a deep sigh, “I want you to know that the little circle you are trapped in right now is spacious compared to, say, a bottle. And I will put you in one and leave you on a dusty shelf if you don’t cooperate.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Chino sounds confused now, and afraid of that which he don’t understand. But Vanessa understands all too well. Ritualists. Damn. She starts walking faster.

The unarmed man laughs. “Oh, so you don’t know? There are many things I can do to you. I know you’re a djinn and that djinns can’t die, but there might be worse things than dying, you know. And I just so happen to have an entire catalog of such things. So be a good boy now and tell us where we can find Walter, and this whole unpleasant business will go away. Just like that.”

The man with the gun must have heard her approaching, because now he turns around with a surprised look on his face. He nervously re-aims his gun at her. “Mike, there’s someone –”

The man called Mike tears his eyes from Chino and turns to her, an irritated look on his face. “Look, lady”, he says. “We’re in the middle of something here, so if you could just–”

But Vanessa, the old-blood magician also known as Vahri, just waves her hand and the armed man’s gun is knocked out of his hand. “Shit, Mike, she’s a–” She reaches out, places her hand on his forehead and causes him to instantly slump to the ground. In the flash process of forcing his mind into temporary slumber she also learns his name. Pete. How convenient.

The one called Mike adapts quickly to this new turn of events. “Back off”, he commands as he swiftly reaches behind his back and draws a gun of his own. In the light of the moon she just about catches a glimpse of the arcane silver symbols engraved on its sides. Jeez, I don’t want to be shot with that thing.

Vanessa doesn’t back off, however. She’s tired of backing off – sick of it, actually. “Fuck you”, she says and snaps her finger. And his time stops. He doesn’t die, mind you – he just, well, stops. Frozen in one single moment the one called Mike can do nothing but stare as Vanessa, Vahri, steps forward and with her brand new golden Converse shoe smudges out part of the circle drawn in the dirt surrounding Chino.

“Come”, she says as Chino stumbles out of the broken circle. “Before they come to.”

“But… What did you do to him? And that one on the ground, is he…?” He is confused and scared and she has no patience for this at all.

“No, he’s just sleeping. Come on now. I’m not sure I can do this again any time soon.”

“Why? Are your… powers, like, used up?”

“No, stupid. I’m just not angry enough anymore. Hard to be, what with you looking like a lost puppy and all. Let’s go.” She walks a few paces, then stops. “On second though, well, fuck it.” She walks back towards Mike, who is still standing just as she left him. She gives him one of her wriest smiles, knowing that for the moment he can do nothing – but that he still sees and hears everything. “Big bad ritualists like you shouldn’t play with guns, hun. It doesn’t become you. Here, I’ll take care of that for you.” And with this she reaches out and plucks the engraved gun from his tattooed hand. The symbols make her shiver, but she hides it well. “Until next time, sugarplum”, she says, turns her back on him and walks away with Chino close behind her – just like a lost puppy.

She keeps the gun in her lap on their drive back to the city. She doesn’t trust it, doesn’t know it. But she likes the weight of it, and for some perverted reason the closeness to those dangerous runes thrills her. Makes her feel alive.

She doesn’t tell Chino that the car is stolen, or that he is stupid for using his True Name when he is so obviously stalked by hunters – especially when those same hunters seem to also be expert ritualists, and maybe something more as well. She doesn’t tell him much at all, actually. Because she has her own troubling thoughts to ponder. Thoughts that she is apparently young and stupid enough herself not to have thought until now, when the damage is already done. After the initial panicky babbling on Chino’s part it thus becomes very quiet in the car for several minutes.

“Vahri, I–”, he starts finally.

“Don’t thank me”, she interrupts him.

“I wasn’t going to, I–”

“Yes you were. You’re an open book to me. So don’t thank me, because I think I have just made everything so much worse than it already was.” She doesn’t take her eyes off the road, except for the flash moments when she scans the rear view mirror to make sure they are not being followed. Yet.

Chino casts her a frightened glance in the mirror. “What… what do you mean ‘worse’?”

“Just what it sound like, I’m afraid. Worse. I suggest you take your friend Ivers and check into some incognito hotel tonight. I have to check on Neferthali.”

“But–”

“Chino, those were not ordinary hunters, okay? They weren’t prepared this time, but next time they will be. And we can’t let them get the first strike when that happens.”

“You called him a ‘ritualist’… is that what you mean when you say ‘not ordinary’? Because not much of what happens to me nowadays is ordinary to me, and if you expect me to know stuff about–”

“Sorry for interrupting you all the time, but that’s the exact reason why you should listen to every word I say like they were quotes from the Bible. Well, or the Quran, if that’s what you prefer.”

“I’m not religious.”

This actually surprises her. For a heartbeat. “Alright, well, then you listen to me like I had the key to your maths test or whatever, okay? Whatever rolls for you. When I say you have to hide, you hide. Understand? And I suspect your friend has to hide as well, because now those hunters are pissed off and they won’t settle for truth anymore. They’ll go for dare. And in their dare, you die. Capish?”

A moment of slight hesitation. “Okay… I guess I’ll hide. For now. And I guess I’ll be able to stand Ivers. For a while. But you have to tell me what’s going on, Vahri. You said before that those hunters weren’t ‘ordinary’ hunters. What did you mean by that?”

She bites her lip. Just thinking about the possibility of her fears being true is making her feel sick. They were just supposed to be myths, ghost stories to scare young, reckless mages into submission with. Gods forbid, can they actually be real? “Did you see their tattoos?”, she says finally.

“Well, no”, he snaps back. “I was totally busy with not being killed or tortured or whatever sick stuff those people were threatening me with. Of course I should have paid better attention to their gang tattoos instead. But please enlighten me, were they of the Azusa 13, the Bloods or the Crips? Because that really makes a difference now, doesn’t it?”

She shoots him an angry glance, and he falls silent. “You fucking idiot, you haven’t grasped one thing I’ve told you so far, have you?” She takes a deep breath and chews at her thumb nail. “You’d be lucky if it was one of those gangs that came after you instead of what I suspect this is. Have you every heard of the Enjoyment Club?”

He opens his mouth to reply, then just shakes his head.

“No”, she sighs. “Of course you haven’t. I wouldn’t have, either, if it weren’t for my, well, special family conditions. Neferthali knows just about everything, and I guess she thought this was one of those things I needed to know as well. But I always thought… I never suspected that the Club was real. Never.”

“But… What is this club?” Chino must have picked up on her change in attitude, because now he sounds worried as well.

“The Club is… Well… If they’re real, it’s really, really bad.”

“What the fuck, Vahri, just tell me!” Fear is turning into anger now. An entirely human reaction, she observes.

She considers for a moment. “No”, she says.

“But–”

“I can’t tell you anything about them yet, because I don’t know how much of what I think I know is reality and how much of it is fairy tales and ghost stories. I have to find out more first. It might be that I’m entirely wrong, and then telling you about them would be just stupid in all ways. Give me a couple of days and I’ll find out more, okay?”

Chino doesn’t seem entirely pleased with this answer, but finally he nods. “Okay”, he says. “A couple of days. But after that I’m not hiding with Ivers any more, okay?”

She says nothing, just concentrates on the road until they are well within the city limits again. She lets him off outside his apartment, after making him promise to just go inside to pack the most important things – and then leave. Contact Ivers and go into hiding. He actually promises before disappearing into the darkness of the stairwell.

Vanessa herself lingers outside for a few minutes, until she sees the light go on in his apartment windows. Then she starts the not-exactly-stolen red Ferrari again and drives off into the dawning Los Angeles morning. I have to make sure Neferthali is okay, she thinks. And get that damned Ivers out of our home. He’s nothing more than trouble waiting to happen. And then… Then I’m not going to rest until I find out what the fuck all this is about.

And as she drives homeward for the last time in very long, she can’t yet possibly know that in a few days’ time she is actually going to look back on this very moment and wish to gods she never believed in that she had simply walked away and let this whole thing just be.


(Part IV of the story about Vanessa Riley can be found here.)

Chris Smedbakken, 2017-06-10

The Art of Dating (With Your Vampire Granny as Wingman)

This is part II of the story about Vanessa Riley. It works perfectly well as a stand alone, but if you would still like to read part I first, you can find it here


Her father’s mother once told her that love conquers all, and this might very well be true. But in that case, and Vanessa learned this early on, it normally doesn’t conquer anything for very long. Love at first sight, especially, seldom manages to conquer her attention for more than a messy quickie nowadays. To be fair, though, she should probably ascribe this to her own disinclination towards getting people killed rather than anything else.

She’s sitting at the glossy table, sipping her drink and letting her eyes wander the room. Window shopping doesn’t do it for her anymore, but then again not much else does either. She sighs, and the exhalation turns into drunken laughter before she’s able to stop herself. How the fuck did her life take this turn?

“Well, it’s not rocket science”, she tells the guy leaning towards her across the table. “It all started with the vampire.”

She tells him everything, because she’s bored as fuck, and he listens – of course he listens, it’s a fantastic story. He’s more drunk than her but still manages to nod in all the right places, his hungry eyes making it perfectly clear that he expects this social deed to yield some kind of reward later. She’s a little disappointed that he doesn’t freak out when she tells him about her mother decapitating her junior high sweetheart, but hey some people are just hardened assholes. He probably doesn’t believe her anyway.

“So now I’ve been living with my vampire godmother for seven years, protecting her from hunters and the sun and her own bad taste in men. And women. And me myself… Well, I try to stay clear of either. At least as far as relationships go. You can call me Vahri, by the way.” Neferthali taught her early that names have power, and that if Vanessa Riley wanted to become older than twenty she’d do best to shed her true name, at least publicly, and don a new one. A shadow name, as it were.

The stranger nods and nods and realizes too late that she has stopped talking seconds ago. To his credit he swiftly collects himself as soon as he does. “Ehrm, oh. So, well, are you, you know… A vampire too?”

She rolls her eyes and bites her lip. Don´t snap at him. He might be stupid but he’s hot as hell… as well. You don’t need him for conversation once we leave this place. “No, I’m not a vampire. I’m what they call a magician. No, not like Harry Potter but almost. I read and control minds, amongst other things.” Yeah, boyo, I wouldn’t be telling you all this if I didn’t. You won’t remember any of this tomorrow.

“Ah, okay”, he says, again disappointing her with his all too apparent non-out-freaking behaviour. “Can you show me something then?”

Oh, not again… “No. Definitely not.”

“Oh, comon. Some little trick. Please.”

The terror in Brian’s eyes. The sound of his steps disappearing down the stairs. Brian’s dead body… Snap. “No. Fuck you. What’s wrong with you, anyway? You’re not supposed to believe any of this.”

He looks at her in silence for several heartbeats, neither taken aback nor affronted by her suddenly lashing out at him. “There’s many things wrong with me. I’m broke, I’m probably on the brink of becoming unemployed and apparently I’m also extremely easily fooled. As a direct consequence of this, I am also a djinn. My name is Chino. Questions?”

“A… djinn?” She can’t even pretend to be cool about this. Okay, boyo, you win. She leans forward.

“Yeah, but not by choice. I was tricked, you see. It’s a long story, but suffice to say I promised to look after some guy’s flowers and his cat, and this ended me up as some kind of vacation substitute with magical powers. And yeah, his cat wasn’t really a cat either but some terribly obnoxious guy who was turned into a feline three hundred years ago because he couldn’t keep his mouth shut or whatever. And I was stupid enough to un-cat him so to speak. He’s that guy over there at the bar, if you were wondering. The one with his hands all over that pale woman in black.”

Vanessa turns towards the bar and instantly lets out yet another fit of involuntary laughter. “Him? Are you serious?” The dark haired man in the crimson suit looks handsome enough, and not a bit like a cat, but it is his company that surprises her. “That’s Neferthali”, she laughs. “My, well, the woman I told you about. The–”

“The vampire?” Now it’s Chino’s turn to look surprised, finally.

Vanessa nods. “Yeah, exactly. And they seem to be pretty… well acquainted.” As she speaks she can see how the couple merge in a deep kiss that seems to have no end at all. Suddenly Neferthali opens her dark eyes and meets Vanessa’s gaze over the man’s shoulder. She smiles. Before Vanessa knows it her ancient governor is leading the man in the crimson suit across the room towards her.

“For fuck sake, no…” The djinn at the other side of the table looks away as they approach, apparently not very keen at all about Vanessa being confronted with his friend, the ex-cat. Still, he’s obviously not un-keen enough about it to wish the situation away, because just a few seconds later the two are standing beside their table.

“Vahri, meet Ivers”, Nefethali says as she allows the man to wrap his arm around her waist. “I have known him for nine centuries, but haven’t seen him for three. Thus we have much to talk about.”

Who even uses the word “thus” in speaking? Vanessa can hear Chino’s sarcastic thought as clearly as if he had spoken the words. It’s almost a wonder the others can’t hear it too. Out loud he says: “There’s a good reason you haven’t seen him in so long. I’m sure he’s been eager to tell you why?”

Neferthali raises one of her delicately shaped eyebrows as she turns to her cavalier. “Oh, is that so?”

The one called Ivers bites his lip and clenches his free hand. “Well, no. I mean, of course there’s a good reason, but non that I would wish to bore my lady with”, he says and even manages a gallant smile.

“He’s been a cat. There, now you have one more thing to talk about.” Chino flashes Ivers a victorious face, but then accidentally meets Neferthali’s eyes and is instantly caught.

“A cat, you say?” Her voice is like golden nectar, and when Vanessa sees Chino’s face melt before the vampire’s gaze she knows that her date for the evening has been effectively ruined. Once again.

She takes a long draught from her ceasing drink and pretends not to pay attention while her audaciously gorgeous ancestress talks Chino up and gracefully inquires about everything from his name to his preferences in women. She is not angry, she is pissed off. Why must this happen every fucking time we go out together? She snaps out of her frustrated thoughts at a cold but delicate hand caressing the side of her face.

“Vahri, doll. Me and the young djinn here are going for a stroll. He has such interesting stories and I’m just starving to hear them. You do not mind, I’m sure?”

Vanessa waves her off with an irritated frown. “No, gran, of course I don’t mind. I just laid eyes on him first but please go ahead. Just remember to wipe his memory afterwards because I accidentally slipped and told him everything. You know, like I always do.”

Neferthali gives her a long look, then shakes her head. “Vahri dear, you worry too much. He’s a djinn, remember? It is alright for him to know these things.” And with this she lets her arm slither around Chino’s waist and leads him off into the crowd. Within seconds Vahri can’t see either of them anymore.

She shakes her head in not-so-surprised disbelief. “Oh, of course. How stupid of me”, she mutters and turns back to her glass, just to once again discover its miserably empty state. Then somebody settles down beside her – slightly too close – and she looks up again. It’s the other guy, the one in crimson. Ivers.

He smiles broadly at her and on any other night he would have been a catch. Tonight, however, has taken a turn for the sour and she is definitely not in the mood to be talked up by her godmother’s sloppy seconds. “What the fuck do you want?”, she mutters and once again tries to drink from her empty glass. This time she succeeds. She doesn’t realize she should be surprised until after several deep gulps.

“I’m Ivers”, he says and extends a meticulously manicured hand. “Do you wanna go somewhere, or…?”

“So you’re a djinn too?”, Vanessa sighs as the reason behind her unexpected refill suddenly sinks in. “Wonderful.”

And with that she rises from her chair, grabs her bag and leaves the table.

“Wait, I thought we could… talk.” The voice of the older djinn sounds almost mopish behind her, but Vanessa doesn’t turn around. Instead she extends a gracious middle finger before elbowing her way towards the exit. She’s had enough of bullshit for one night.

And as she exits the club and walks off into the late summer gloom a realization strikes her. Love doesn’t conquer all, she muses bitterly. It’s shamelessly well preserved, antediluvian fucking vampire grannies that do that.


(You can find the next part in the story about Vanessa Riley here.)

Into the Dark

Vanessa Riley’s problem wasn’t that she fell in love with idiots – it was that she fell in love with everybody. She only needed to talk to somebody for ten minutes to fall irrevocably head over heels. No wonder that the morons got to her; they were the ones that made the moves, after all. And to make things worse, she herself was not your average girl-next-door – nor was her family the most average of families. This fact, without a fault, tended to secure her the less-than-average moronic suitors as well.

The first one, not counting all the cute elementary school flings littering her back story like embarrassing piles of unicorn poop, had been a vampire. She had been fourteen years old, mesmerized by the writings of a certain Mrs. Rice and consequently swiped right off her feet by his charm, bottomless eyes and knowing, poetic voice as he spoke her name. It was an intense, crimson and incredibly sexy affair. She had given him her overrated virginity and lots and lots of blood. He had given her almost as much in return and promised to take her “into the night”, as he had so eloquently put it. The romance ended almost as swiftly as it had begun, with her mother finding out and chopping his head off with a rusty shovel – it being all that had been readily at hand in the heat of the moment.

Turned out, though, that he had a family of his own. Fierce old things that didn’t take lightly the death – much less murder – of one of theirs. The fact that his beheading, by some, was unfortunately interpreted as an escalation of the age old cold war between vampires and mages didn’t exactly make things better. The final price and outcome of this seemingly innocent high school romance thus became an increased enmity between two up until now passively warring factions, the violent death of her mother and the turning, as it was likewise eloquently termed, of her own twin sister. They haven’t spoken much since then.

After that she lived with her father for a time, long enough to finish high school. He and her late mother had already been divorced for some time before her death. However, due to him priding himself with having a werewolf somewhere far back in his lineage, nobody had deemed it necessary to intervene in the name of secrecy when their relationship ended. What this intervention would have meant, though, Vanessa didn’t learn until later – and then it was the hard way.

What she did learn at this time, however, was the complete, merciless and entirely uncensored truth about her unusual family tree. Vanessa had already been made aware of her mother’s abilities, that she had been a magician of some renown and that Vanessa herself was expected to someday develop some degree of powers of her own. She hadn’t been aware, though, of the fact that her mother’s family could trace their lineage as far back as ancient Egypt, and that as good as every generation up until now had sported their share of supernatural creatures. Those who never displayed any magical abilities of their own were quickly swept up by the vampires, changelings and ritualists surrounding the family at all times. Thus they had made themselves a name over the millennia, and thus the prospects of the normal life Vanessa Riley had always hoped for instantly seemed farther away than ever. But time had passed and Vanessa had made due and eventually learned to cope with the new state of her world.

Her second boyfriend, not counting all the high school one nighters littering her teens like secretly thrilling but forbidden cigarette buds, had been a magician himself. She had been almost eighteen and had fallen head over heels before his cunning eyes, sly smile and somewhat rough ways. Being finally together with someone who was actually allowed to know her family’s deepest secrets had been a great relief. Up until then none of her friends or partners – save for that one who “got away” – had been residents of the proverbial world of darkness that her own family of secret mages, werewolves and general misfits were a part of.

She could talk to him about all the things that confused and frightened her, and the fact that he was just two years her senior sat really well with her father. They shared one intense summer and then he went to prison. Not your usual, mundane prison, mind you. Rather it was the kind of prison where mages are sent if they, gods forbid, meddle with things more dark and dangerous than what is considered sound, safe and sane by the local coven leaders. The people who came for him made sure to perform thorough interrogations of Vanessa as well, but soon lost interest when it became clear that she hadn’t even awakened to her powers yet. Without them, it was impossible for her to have broken any arcane laws serious enough for them to care. She later learned that he had been exiled from the city, but by then she had already moved on.

Vanessa Riley’s third real boyfriend had actually been an ordinary, human guy. He was the same age as her and they met by chance through a language class they both took after finishing senior high. She was nineteen years old and had only three months earlier discovered that she could see people’s auras and read their minds. Her father had been delighted hearing about her powers, but also somewhat saddened. He had told her that before long the rest of the family would take interest in her and that she then might have to move on with her life – whether she wanted it or not. That this moving on would occur sooner rather than later, and that it would rip open the seams of a world she already believed entirely upside down, was nothing he had told her, though.

The ordinary guy’s name was Brian and when she was with him Vanessa could almost allow herself to believe in a normal every day life where the most groundbreaking thing that could happen would be the neighbours coming by for a cup of sugar. She stayed over at his place more and more frequently and was soon endowed with an empty drawer in one of his closets. They talked about enrolling to the same college, buying a car and skipping town, renting a flat and moving in together and many other things. It all felt so serious that one late and drunken night, as they lay gazing at the stars out on Brian’s balcony, Vanessa decided to tell him everything.

They were both drunk and when she began talking about telepathy, auras and mind control his first reaction was to laugh uncontrollably. She couldn’t help but to laugh as well, but when she realized that he thought the whole thing was a joke she stopped.

This is real”, she said. “I’m not fooling around.” She sat up and stared at him and eventually he stopped laughing as well – at least long enough to draw breath.

Okay, I hear you.” He had to fight back another fit of laughter before continuing. “So you can read minds and make people do stuff. And why haven’t I noticed this before?”

She sighed impatiently. “Because it’s a secret and I was afraid you would freak out. Besides, I learned to do these things only recently.”

At this he finally stopped laughing and managed a somewhat serious look. “Alright, babe. Show me. What am I thinking about?”

Me. You’re thinking about me.”

Well, okay, but that one was easy. What about now?”

You’re still thinking about me, stupid. But without clothes now. You’re also thinking about fish for some reason. Kinky.”

This made him pause, but only for a moment. “I don’t know how you did that, but come on babe, just admit that this is a joke so I can kiss you already.”

But it isn’t –” He reached for her and started pulling her closer, seemingly already haven dismissed the subject as a drunken prank.

She panicked. She had just opened herself up to him like she had never dared before, and here he was, on the edge of joking it all away. “Stop”, she said – and he did. Way to quickly.

Brian stared at her, frozen at an arm’s length’s distance. The terror in his eyes spoke for itself. “What the hell did you do?”

An icy hand gripped her spine. What did I do? What have I done? “I’m… I’m sorry, Brian. I –”

But he had already gotten to his feet and quickly backed away from her. “Don’t”, he said. “I don’t know what you did but I… I can’t…” He backed into the darkness of the apartment. She tried to follow but he held up both hands and shook his head violently. “No, please. Just don’t. I need to…” And with that he turned his back on her and fled out the door.

She stood in his dark living room for several seconds, just listening in shocked silence as his echoing footsteps disappeared down the stairwell and were finally cut off by the sharp sound of the main entrance closing far below. Not until then did she sink to the floor, collapsing in a sobbing pile and feeling the tears stream down her face.

They found Brian’s body the next day. She had fallen asleep on the floor of his apartment and did not awaken until she got the call. The policeman on the other end had gotten her number from her father and was empathetic but matter-of-fact when he told her that Brian was dead. He had been found in a park close to his home, lying under a bush with his neck broken. The police wanted to talk to her in person as soon as possible, seeing as she was possibly one of the last people who had seen him alive.

Vanessa was numb when the call ended and almost couldn’t bring herself to answering when her father called a few seconds later. He came to pick her up and the subsequent ride over to the police station was an eerily silent one. The investigators asked her about the night before, what they had done and why he had left home. She told them that they had fought over some trivial thing – couldn’t very well tell them the truth. They asked her many questions but in the end seemed to accept that she didn’t know anything about his potential enemies, debts or addictions.

On their way home in the car that evening her father tried his best to check on her, console her or at least make her talk. He failed on all three points. As they entered the driveway she still hadn’t spoken a word that wasn’t in reply to a direct question. She was in shock and walked through fog on broken glass. They walked into the house and her father went to the kitchen to make her some chamomile tea. Then he froze on the threshold. When Vanessa caught up with him and saw Her, the woman sitting on the couch, she wasn’t even surprised. She had never seen this woman before and still she knew who she was.

“Neferthali”, she said tonelessly. She didn’t have any tones left.

The woman nodded and rose. “It’s time”, she said and strode over to them, her crimson silk dress flowing behind her as she moved. Vanessa thought that her long raven hair reflected the darkness outside the windows.

“You, you can’t –” Vanessa’s father stuttered as he tried to speak.

“Yes, Jim”, the tall woman said. “I’m taking your daughter. It’s clear as day that you can’t handle her.”

And with that she grabbed Vanessa’s hand and walked her back towards the door. Vanessa tried to turn, to seek her father’s eyes, but Neferthali stopped and grabbed her chin. “You stupid girl, you don’t understand anything, do you? Running around and telling sleepers about the Family and all. Obviously you can’t even handle yourself.”

Her grip was firm as rock and Vanessa could do nothing but stare into those deep, dark eyes that had seen civilizations rise and fall. She shivered involuntarily. “I didn’t tell him about the Family”, she said, tears welling up in her eyes. Tears of shame that she didn’t herself know the origin of.

“No, but you would have”, the woman said. “It always starts this way, with a stupid little girl telling an almost as stupid boy about magic. The rest is history. That’s how it started with your mother and father, and that’s how it started for your mother’s parents before her. Were it not for your father’s animalistic heritage, I would gladly have killed him as well when that sad relationship ended. Yes, Jim”, she said and turned her head halfway towards Vanessa’s father for a split second. “That’s the truth and you know it.”

Vanessa’s father didn’t say anything, but Vanessa could see from the corner of her eye that he was gripping the door frame tightly and stared intently at them. She herself snapped out of her frozen state for a moment when Nerferthali took her ancient eyes of her.

“What… do you mean ‘as well’?”, she whispered.

Neferthali met her eyes again, absolute controlled calm emanating from her eyes. “Like I killed your sleeper boy last night, of course”, she said. No malice in her voice, no sadistic pleasure. Just coldly, calmly establishing a fact.

“You, you killed Brian?” Vanessa felt her legs go weak and her voice tremble as she uttered the terrible words. “You killed him. You.”

Neferthali nodded. “I did. He was leaving you and he knew too much. I had to.”

Vanessa felt the tears break forth again and could do, would do, nothing to prevent it. “He wasn’t leaving me. We would have worked it out. He would have come back, just needed… He just needed some time, that’s all.”

The ancient woman sighed – more as a rhetoric gesture than because she needed the air. “Maybe he would have. But he would have left again, he was a lost cause. Not made for this kind of darkness. You know this, Vanessa. You always did. And still you told him. This makes you the real killer, not me. I’m just protecting the family, like I have always done. I only wish your mother would have let me take you sooner. That would probably have left her alive to one day see you learn from your mistakes.”

So many thoughts, so many disturbing, provoking, heartbreaking concepts. Brian’s death her fault. Her mother’s murder and her sister’s turning just as much. Learn from my mistakes… Yes, she thought. Maybe they were all because of me. And the prospect broke her, pulled her apart with such force that she couldn’t even try to resist it. She would have fallen to the floor if her vampire godmother had let her. She who had, according to the family myths, guarded over her progeny for thousands and thousands of years.

Neferthali picked her up, cradled her in her cold, hard arms like a baby and carried her out through the door. Vanessa shook uncontrollably and her only anchor to sanity then and there was the vampire singing softly to her in a language lost to all but the dead and forgotten gods of yore.

And behind them inside the house her father let out a roaring bellow that was not of a human throat, but still dared do nothing to save his last living daughter from this creature older than modern time itself.

“His first change, finally”, Neferthali mused smilingly as she carried her young ward away. But by then Vanessa Riley had stopped listening to anything but blind panic a long time ago. And thus she was carried off into a night more dark and dangerous than what any coven leader, however hardened, would consider sound, safe and sane.

And that was only the beginning.


You can find part II of the story about Vanessa Riley here.

Chris Smedbakken 2017-05-24

River Ghost

This is an old text i wrote back in 2008. I still like the concept of the story, and I’m happy to see that my grammar wasn’t completely off even back then. But if I were to rewrite it today, I would make a lot of changes. I’d definitely make it shorter, and less pompous. I’d love to hear your opinion – is the story worth rewriting?


There are and always will be soul collectors in this world.

A long time ago, in the years when your great-grandmother was young, there lived in a small village near the great forest a young man with his mind full of dreams. In the year of this story’s place taking, the summer was as warm, green and beautiful as a summer could ever be dreamt to be, and the village enjoyed itself accordingly. Festivities were being held almost once a week at the dancing place in the middle of the forest, where the swirling river met the lake.

The joyful mood inspired this specific young man – a violin player – to propose to the object of his lifelong affection. The girl accepted gladly, and for many weeks they met and danced together at the gatherings in the forest.

Tradition had it that a couple may not undertake the wandering to these gatherings together until they were wedded, and thus this young man walked alone or together with his friends to the festivities each week, to meet his future bride at the scene of the dancing. The young two were very happy and everyone looked forward to the upcoming wedding.

But fate wanted it otherwise. One evening, when the air was even more pleasantly warm than usual and the birds sang clearer than ever in the trees, the young man happened to walk on his own to the gathering. He was late and all his friends had gone before him. When he got to the part of the road where the forest trail crossed a whirling stream by means of a wooden bridge, he suddenly though he heard singing from the water.

Confused, he leaned against the rail to gaze down into the foamy depths, and was amazed to find the most beautiful creature he ever saw gazing back at him. Large black eyes framed by flowing hair the color of water, she had the body of a fragile water lily but radiated with an inner strength that seemed to contain the ferocity of the ocean itself. The river ghost rose from her flowing containment and placed herself upon a rock in the stream, where from she sang to him.

His friends came back to look for him when dark crept up from the hills and the shadows cast by the trees began to fade into the surrounding gloom. Lanterns were carried along the path, and they were greatly relieved to find him uninjured on the wooden bridge crossing the stream. He hastily lowered his violin, strings still reverberating from previously played notes, and looked to the ground, a strange sort of shame suddenly making him want to flee.

They did not notice this, however, and laughingly scorned him for his lazy nature and heartily prodded him along back to the dancing. He followed without a word, and when he cast one last, longing glimpse over his shoulder upon stepping off the wooden bridge, the gentle river ghost of a woman was gone.

He left his heart in the stream that night, however.

His friends noticed that something was amiss with their companion – or maybe “amiss” is not the right word for it; he seemed suddenly more colorful, more joyful and more keen to practice his music whenever there was time for it. And none of these changes would have been interpreted as negative, had they been described to an outsider. But his closest ones wondered.

He had never been one to show his emotions very openly, and even the promise of a coming wedding between himself and the girl he had coveted for as long as he could remember had not sent him flying high like this. They settled, though, for the conclusion that this sudden joyousness was due to a delayed insight about what was to come.

The young man himself did not tell anyone about his nightly encounter – or encounters maybe is a better word, since this was not the last time he met with the watery phantom by the river stream. In fact, he tended to walk alone to the dancing quite frequently after that first evening, and it was not rare for him to be absent from these gatherings altogether thenceforth.

His bride-to-be was a little worried at this, but his friends calmed her by saying that he had much to think about and tend to before the wedding. And although they themselves did not fully believe this explanation, she left it at that and continued with her own eager preparations as tradition saw suitable and without further inquiry.

And so the nights, weeks and months went by quietly in the little village. When the people heard soft violin tunes coming from the forest, they simply took it as the highly fitting and not at all unusual wanderings and contemplations of a young man soon to give up his naïve life in boyish freedom for something new and much bigger. In reality, he was not playing for himself at all.

The river ghost was faithful to him and waited for him in silence on the rock in the water whenever he chose to show up – but always in moonlight. It was as if her voice would not carry in the cruel heat of the daylight sun, and since she appeared to be half siren, half serenade, she could not take form where her singing would not be heard. Every time he came, he played his violin and she sang with it.

No thought of his did go to the poor girl who awaited their forthcoming wedding with anticipation, as all his mind was on the music he and the water made together. The others stopped expecting him at the dances after a while, but this did not bother him at all. He came up with new tunes – they heard it – and he slept with a new kind of peace at night. But always after returning from the forest stream.

One thing troubled his mind though, namely the nature of the watery romance. Their music was beautiful, but he realized pretty soon that she could not leave the water and come to him. He tried once, twice, even thrice to wade out into the river to her – but as soon as the ripples from his movements reached the hem of her whirling silver gown, she would fade from his grasping fingers as soon as a bubble bursts on a foamy surface. This was his only sorrow during this brief time of otherwise unbroken ignorant bliss.

The wedding was nigh. On the evening of fate he wore the attire of ceremony his father had worn before him, but walking towards the ground of feast – the same as where the dances had been held all summer – he discovered the rings had been forgotten and was forced to turn back. The congregation moved along as he ran as fast as he could back to the village.

Seeing his bride dressed up in her ceremonial dress had caused him to wake from his delusions of a watery romance. Knowing that the life he would have with this girl would be possible in all the ways his brief river crush had not been, he had decided to go forth with the proceedings. This insight had reached him only the night before.

The rings in hand he did not know why he also brought his violin on a whim, but legend has it that evil fate was in the air that evening, intervening. Or maybe it was the work of forces beyond understanding.

In any case the village was understandably empty and quiet when he ran back towards the forest trail, noises being heard only from far away in the woods where the preparations were hurriedly being finished. He reached the trail and had to slow down a bit, lest he trip on any of the roots and twigs scattered everywhere on the path and get dirt all over his fine clothes.

Had he kept on running, he might have missed and passed by the little man sitting on a stub right before the bend in the road that would take him to the bridge over the stream, but he did not. And as he did not miss him, and as he, in spite of everything else, was a polite and mannerly young man, he stopped, surprised, and asked the man if he needed any help.

The young man might have still made it to the ceremony, had he been of a more suspicious nature – but he was not. And thus he did not up and run when he got an evil grin for an answer, or even when the man made his offer. He said he knew about the affection the young man held for the siren of the woods, and about the dilemma they suffered. He had the solution. He had the spell.

Should the boy accept he would, at a small cost, be able to be together with his singing shade for all time, hearing her sing and play to her every night henceforth. Time would never separate them and neither would daylight, since he would be given the ears to hear her and the eyes to see her even when day was upon the world like a ravenous fever.

Should he reject, he would be free to continue on his way and proceed with the imminent ceremony, never laying his mind upon the matter again. But he had to remember this was a one time offer. It would never be made again.

For all he knew a full year passed between them as he stood there, unable to think coherently. Then he reached forth his hand and offered it to the stranger, who smilingly accepted it in not quite a shake but a firm, long hold. Music started somewhere further down the path – the dancing had begun. But if he, somewhere in his distraught mind, still cared about that, or about the young woman who laughingly spun around in her last dance of freedom in the glade beyond the stream right then, he did not know it himself.

For at that moment, all his thoughts were fixed on the river ghost that he had all but forgotten about only minutes before. And the world spun deliriously around him as he apprehended the wonder of the situation. He would have her, he would be with her, he would play for her and hear her sing. He would never have to forget about her again. Ever.

The stranger was gone. Had he even been there? Who had? Why was he standing in the middle of the road with his violin and bow uncased?

There was music down the path, somewhere in the deep forest. Why? But it was merry, and seemed to accompany in major the beautiful minor key melody that flowed towards him from the stream further on. It was a woman’s singing. Or the ghost of a woman.

He walked down the path like a man in a dream, and did not notice he had brought the violin to his shoulder until the smooth surface of the ebony chin rest touched his skin. And he didn’t know there was such music in his mind until his fingers picked it out in harmony with the heavenly song in his ears. And then he reached the stream.

She was all the wonder he knew she would be, and somehow he could see that more clearly tonight. She was more than a specter now, more substantial. Where the moonlight touched her it did not shine through, but rather illuminated her. He lowered his pace and approached her slowly. And this is where all the love stories would have you listen to endless descriptions of the light in their eyes, the smell of the air, the sound of the night around them.

This one will not.

She beckoned him forward and he started to descend the slope down to the whirling water – all the while playing his salute to her in fast, almost madly swirling notes. He reached the span of the small bridge and got ready to enter the cold water. But one more step, and he began to feel a resistance. Moving got harder with each inch he closed in on her, and he ended up sinking down on an old stump standing beside him. Walking had gotten too hard.

He felt dizzy and blamed it on the heat of the past day, but he never ceased playing. And she kept singing, even though her voice had taken on a worried shade.

Then his arms began to feel heavy. He let them drop, and the music stopped. He let the violin rest on his knee, and thought he needed to sleep for a minute or two. Just for a short while. But then he saw the expression on her face, a look of pure terror he had not thought a phantom could express.

She reached out for him with an all too solid hand, and when he held out his own hand he gasped in surprise and horror, for now he understood why he could see her. He also understood why he could not move anymore, and what the strange man – he remembered him now – had meant with ‘a small price’.

His hand and arm was draped in vines and so, he saw when he with difficulty turned his head, was the rest of him. Of his legs there was nothing left but a strangely sculpted extension of the stump he was sitting on, and he could feel the cold creeping up his torso where this woody infection was spreading. He tried to scream; out came an inarticulate grunt. He wanted to thrash and turn, but his whole body was turning into wood.

He turned his gaze back to her, and saw that her face had settled into an expression of solemn sorrow. He saw now that she could not leave the rock in the stream any more than he could move from the wooden stub. They were both specters now. And she started singing again – a sad, dark song of drowning slowly.

She reached for him, and he reached for her. But they both knew that they would never touch, never reach quite far enough. He stopped breathing – there was no need to anymore.

His arm stiffened that way, and he never moved again. But in his mind he lifted his violin to his shoulder and played for her again, and she sang. And they have been silently playing and singing ever since.

What happened to the wedding party is not for this story to tell – maybe its tale was never told – but when the guests and villagers came walking back the path hours later, they never found him. They didn’t even notice the wooden statue until days later, and no one associated it with the lost boy. Except maybe his now lonely bride-to-be, who was found on several occasions afterwards sitting by the stream, leaned towards that strange statue, seemingly listening to some inaudible music. But she could never explain it, and as the years passed she forgot and moved on.

But if you happen to pass by that stream near the village in the forest – it may well have turned into a full scale city by now, for all I know – pause for a moment and listen. It might be that you hear faint tunes from the whirling water, and you’ll know that it is their song. He will never lift his violin from his knee again in human sight, but he will forever play to her all the same. And she will sing to him, invisible in daylight, from her rock in the middle of the stream.

Lost boy and River Ghost, together and still not, forever.

And the strange man added one more soul to his collection.