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

Audio Story: “In the Heart of a Star”

Last night I sat up late and finished yet another recording of one of my short stories. This one is called “In the Heart of a Star”, and the original text from last autumn can be found here.



Recording audio versions of my stories turned out to be both fun and somewhat addictive. The music for this one was composed and recorded by a very talented composer named Kai Engel – I recommend you check him out!

I also noticed that the blog Words and Feathers hosts an October Open Mic event, and decided to offer this audio story as a contribution to it. If you like listening to stories, you should follow that link.

I hope you enjoyed listening to this story as much as I enjoyed writing and recording it. Feel free to comment, I am somewhat new to this and manically appreciate feedback (mohaha).

Until next time!

The Sound of Silence

When Sarah Johnson woke up it was well past noon – she could tell because the sun was already up. This far up north that didn’t happen early in the day during winter. She groaned as she moved and felt how stiff her arms and legs were. Her head hurt like hell and she realized that she was lying on a flight of concrete stairs. One of the steps pressed painfully against her right temple and as she drew closer to her senses a heavy nausea grew alongside the pain. Somewhere in the distance she could hear traffic passing but where she lay sprawled only the ringing in her ears broke the silence. Fuck. She had done it again.

The palms of her still numb hands slipped on a thin layer of ice as she tried to rise. With clumsy movements she managed to maneuver herself  into a sitting position on the stairs, and that’s when she saw the blood. She shivered. Where her head had been, the ice coating the concrete step was tinted a dirty, dark red. Her hand moved to her temple and the nausea rose as she felt the jagged edges of the cut there. The blood had coagulated or frozen and it was impossible to know how deep the wound was – but what she could feel of it was enough to make her flinch. Being drunk and falling asleep in stupid places was not entirely new to her, although most often it at least happen indoors. It was stupid, but usually it had ended well. This time however, she realized with a pang of fear, she was actually lucky to still be alive.

She dragged herself up with the help of a metal handrail running alongside the stairs. For several seconds she just stood there, panting heavily and trying to get her pulse to calm down. No matter how much her lungs worked, she couldn’t quite seem to get enough air into them. She felt lightheaded and the ringing in her ears persisted as she took in her surroundings. Below the stairs was a walking trail emerging from a tunnel running beneath a now silent railway track. She realized that she actually wasn’t that far from home. This was not the road she usually took from the bus but occasionally she did. It was a bit shorter but ran through a somewhat bad part of her area and was not the smartest choice after sunset. Drunk, badly dressed for the cold and unconscious in a bad part of town at night. She understood that she should count herself lucky to have woken up at all, even not considering the nasty cut to her head.

Using the handrail for support she managed to climb the stairs and ended up on a small yard surrounded by unkempt tower blocks. A chill wind tore at her sparse clothing and she hugged herself as she started staggering homewards. The prospect of a hot shower and a nice cup of tea afterwards kept her moving forward even as her entire body protested violently. That, and a promise to herself that she would never get so drunk again. At least not soon.

***

There was something wrong with the thermostat. She had turned it little by little until it was now all the way towards red, and still the water was lukewarm at best. She stood under the shower head and shivered like a leaf, desperation kicking in. This was the third shower she took tonight. The first one had managed to warm her, but once out in the living room and wrapped in four blankets before the TV she had quickly begun to feel cold again. Her lungs ached and her throat and mouth felt dry and sore. Spending the night out in the cold had certainly left its marks and she had understood that she was running an increasing fever. It had not been long before she was back in the shower again, but by then the real shivering fits had already begun kicking in.

Now she stood here for the third time. It was almost midnight and she was freezing like hell despite her best efforts to turn up the temperature of the running water. She had to call somebody, get them to fix this. But first she needed to take something for the fever. She stepped out of the shower and tore a dry towel from the rack, desperately draping it around her shaking body. When she turned to shut off the water she suddenly stopped dead with her hand on the tap. The soap bar resting on a plastic shelf right beneath the water spurting from the shower head had shrunk to an unrecognizable size. Like it had somehow melted away. She stared, blinked and then quickly turned off the water that to her trembling hand did not feel hot at all. Resolutely ignoring the heavy steam that had formed on her bathroom mirror she then hurried towards the kitchen, desperately hunting for aspirin.

***

When she awoke it was already dark outside again. She had slept through the entire day and the fever had given way to a numb and weak feeling in her entire body. She had expected her sheets to be all sweaty and damp but they weren’t. Instead, a disturbing, sweet smell had filled the room as she slept and she sighed as she looked over the edge of the bed to see if she had thrown up during the night. When she couldn’t find anything on the floor or in the bed she settled for opening up the window and hoping that it was just her illness-wrecked senses playing tricks on her.

Down on the street people were going about their business as usual, cars and pedestrians filling up the winter darkness far below her. She was struck by a strange feeling of unreality, as if she were watching everything through a thick two-way mirror, unable to be seen herself. This illusion was suddenly broken, however, when she noticed a person standing on the other side of the street with his eyes fixed on her building – staring straight at her. There was something deeply disturbing about his whole character and she began feeling sick again. Shivering she hurriedly closed the window, ignoring the putrid smell that still clung to everything in the room – especially to her. It was nothing, she was seeing things. She should call somebody, but the reception at the hospital had closed already and she didn’t feel ill enough to call the A&E.

***

Three sandwiches and a large glass of orange juice were staring accusingly at her from the low living room table between her and the television set. She knew she should be hungry but still couldn’t bring herself to eating or drinking anything. Instead she focused on the TV screen where the third season of Gilmore Girls  was served in marathon by her old and struggling DVD player. She really loved that series, had re-watched it four times already over the years. Laughing at the witty dialogues made her temporarily forget that something was very, very wrong with her.

She opened her mouth to burst out laughing at yet another absurd situation in the fictional family, when sudden panic struck her. She couldn’t make a sound. She tried screaming, but there was no air in her lungs and she realized that she had not been breathing for a long time. As if she had simply… forgotten to do it. She drew a deep breath and finally the noises from the TV were accompanied by her own sounds as she started sobbing uncontrollably – but no tears came. She then sat there in the couch, fixedly breathing deeply and rhythmically for a long time as if that could somehow erase the strange experience she had just had. Could a person die from forgetting to draw breath? She had never heard of it. Didn’t the body do those things on reflex?

She jumped as the phone rang. She didn’t recognize the number, but wanted so badly to hear another person’s voice that she answered anyway.

“Hello?” Her voice was rugged and dry. She was surprised at how hard it was to form words.

Silence. The sound of… not breathing, something else. Maybe a faint backdrop of traffic. Then, suddenly, a voice.

“Have you realized yet?” And somehow she knew. That guy on the street.

She dialed off, more frightened than her internal logic could account for. She got up and frantically closed the curtains. After hurrying through the apartment and turning off all the lights she wrapped herself in blankets and curled up at the edge of the couch, listening and shaking in the darkness and silence. Her pulse didn’t go up, however, and she realized that she had once again forgotten to breath.

***

She knew that she must be dreaming, but still she didn’t wake up. It was night. She was on the concrete stairs again, but facing their base. The frozen blood from the cut on her temple still glowed dark against the icy white covering the steps. She knew she should be freezing in the cold air, but she felt nothing. Below the stairs the narrow walking trail begun, barely illuminated by a flickering street lamp. The circle of its light didn’t stretch far from the base of the stairs, and beyond it reigned darkness. At the edge of the visible world she could see the mouth of the tunnel gaping at her. For the first time she shivered, but it wasn’t from the cold. She knew that she should be able to see light at the end of that short tunnel, but she saw nothing but blackness in there.

Despite herself she started walking down the stairs, step by step and fear growing inside her. She didn’t want to know what waited for her in there and still something beckoned her closer with its terrible silence. She stepped down onto the walking trail but stopped in the middle of the light circle cast by the lamp, feeling herself shrinking as she stared into the pitch dark. There was something very wrong about everything. It looked exactly like the tunnel she had walked through on so many ill advised night strolls, but she knew from the bottom of her very being that it was nothing like it. This was something much older, darker, deeper, something masquerading as the well known just to draw her in. She realized that there was faint sound echoing from deep within the tunnel and she knew that she had heard it once before. In the background of a strange phone call. She turned and ran, but the staircase was dark and slippery and before she could do anything the sharp concrete steps rose up to meet her.

 ***

She woke with a start to a dark room filled with silence. Not even the sound of frantic heartbeats pulsing in her ears broke the eerie calm anymore. She got up, almost retching from the putrid taste sticking to her tongue and to her teeth. The smell was everywhere now but she didn’t even dare open the windows. What if he was still outside?

Her entire body felt stiff and almost didn’t obey her command to move into the bathroom. On the way there she glanced at the answering machine. She had been away from work for three days now and people were starting to call. She was desperate to talk to somebody, but somehow she was too tired to reach out. As if it would require a tremendous effort to penetrate the two-way mirror she had imagined earlier.

She tuned on the light in the bathroom but was instantly blinded and had to turn it off again. Her eyes didn’t seem capable of adjusting to the light anymore. She splashed some water into her face, hoping that it would make her feel better. It didn’t. She met her own eyes in the mirror and drew a shocked breath. She was so pale. Dark rings under her eyes and in the hollows of her cheeks made her look almost… dead. The insight frightened her and she hurried to turn on the light. And then she screamed.

It was not the mattness of her hair and her eyes, or the blueish tone of her skin. No, it was the sight of the scar at her temple. It had not healed at all and the edges of it seemed to have stretched and torn, as if the skin was beginning to come off from the skull. Reflexively her hand went to her mouth, and she stared into the mirror in horror as she realized that only two of the fingers on her right hand had their fingernails left. She bent over the toilet to throw up, but nothing came out. Nothing moved inside of her. It was as if all her organs and processes had actually stopped.

She screamed, a rough, parched scream that scared her even more, and dug her fingertips into her scalp as she staggered away from the mirror. Large bits and pieces of hair came off without her even tugging at it. She screamed again and ran into the living room.

She grabbed her phone and frantically dialed the emergency number, failing two times before her trembling fingers got it right. They left a viscous, sticky residue on the blinding screen but she didn’t care about that right now. She was falling apart, she couldn’t breathe and when she brought the phone to her face she realized that the putrid smell was actually emanating from her.

She almost couldn’t hear the operator’s voice as they took the call – were her ears shutting down as well? She groaned inarticulately, unable to make her tongue obey her.

“Miss? Can you hear me?” The operator’s voice fought its way through the two-way mirror and Sarah made another desperate attempt.

“Aheullph ghe”, she screamed and then realized that she could not close her jaws anymore. A guttural sound escaped her throat, but now she could barely hear herself. The world was growing silent. Even her vision was fading by the minute. Desperately she stared at the screen of her phone as it went from blurry green to an even blurrier red. The operator had ended the call. She tried to find the redial function, to find any function, but all she could see now was light and darkness.

Sarah screamed again, but this time there wasn’t even an attempt at coherent language. She didn’t know what was happening, but her body was shutting down all around her and there was nothing she could do. She didn’t even know if she was still sitting on the floor or if she had fallen over, all her senses were an ambiguous mess of dull impressions now and even her thoughts were sinking into a thick, clammy fog.

Then suddenly: a sound. The doorbell. The small vestige of her that could still feel panic and hope started kicking and screaming, forcing her near numb body to crawl towards the front door. She had heard the doorbell ring, she was sure of it. Or at least as sure as she could be of anything in this state. It must be someone from work, come to see how she was doing. They would help her, drive her to the hospital, everything would be alright, she would not die, she would not fall apart, she would not… She could not reach the door handle. Panic. She started scratching at the inside of the door. Faintly, uselessly, like an old, weak cat. She heard the doorbell ring again, closer this time. Don’t go away, she thought. Don’t leave me. I’m in here, I need help…

“Ah, fuck it”, a voice muttered on the other side of the door. She somehow recognized that voice. Then there was another sound, a scratching and then a click. Warm light flooded over her as the door opened towards the stairwell, blinding her again and making her try to shut her eyes. She realized that she couldn’t. A dark shape towered over her where she lay on the hallway carped, its silhouette a blurry blackness against the yellow light from outside. The shape stepped over her and closed the door, then bent down and looked straight into her dry, half seeing eyes.

“Well, there you are. You are a terrible hard one to reach, you know that?” Then she knew who he was and all she could feel suddenly was fear. What has this man done to me?

She tried to scream at him, to accuse him, to plead with him to leave her alone, to let her live, to help her…

“What was that?”, he said and she could have sworn that there was an unpleasant smile in those words. “Oh no, you’re not dying sweetie”, he said in a voice that didn’t try good enough to actually sound kind or caring.

She tried to protest, but his blurry silhouette just shook its head and put a finger to its lips to silence her. “No, not dying. Dead already, rather. Matter of fact, darling, I’m kind of surprised that you haven’t noticed. What with that smell and all. But what do I know, people never cease to surprise…”

He was silent for a moment, seemed to be eyeing her over. Sarah made a final attempt at speaking, but only succeeded in making the last trace of air leave her lungs in a tortured groan.

“Come, come, none of that now”, he said. “Being dead is not that bad, there are many perks to it actually. But yeah, you have obviously let yourself go way to far. But no worries”, he added and rose to his feet, “Vincent’s gonna fix you right up.”

She could hear his steps retire as he walked into the living room. She couldn’t even draw breath anymore. “Vincent, by the way, that’s me”, he continued from the other room. “In case you were wondering. But I reckon you’re not doing much of anything right now. Dead and walking for three days without feeding, well, that must be considered a rather crazy feat.” He was doing something over there in the living room, but it was not until he reemerged in her field of vision that she realized that he had removed the carped from the floor.

“People will probably talk”, he breezily continued, as if this was the most normal thing in the world. “Sure, they’ll say that it was mostly my fault for not reaching you sooner, but as I said honey, you’re a terribly stubborn specimen to say the least! Anyway, enough about that now. We have to get your rotting ass out of here so that my people can clean out the apartment. Can’t leave it stinking like this now, can we. Oh, is that your finger on the floor? Never mind, I’ll have someone bring all your parts later. Now, I hope you’re not offended if I do this…”

She could only stare blankly, flaccidly, as he bent down, put the carpet on the hallway floor and started wrapping her in it, rolling it around her layer by layer until all she could see was darkness and all she could smell was her own rotting body.

He lifted her up and carried her away, closing the door behind him as he went. He might have put her in a car, because soon she could hear the faint sound of an engine. All the while he kept on talking in that jovial, carefree tone of voice. She could hear him distantly through the thick fabric of the carpet.

“Don’t worry, sweetie. You’re no Miss Universe right now, but as soon as we figure out what your vitae is we’ll get you right back on track, you count on it. We’ve all been like you once, nobody’s judging. Or, well, maybe some, but not I. I’ve seen worse, I tell you. Having died and still not being able to, you know, leave the body… Well, I’ll tell you this. The first couple of weeks will be quite rough on you, I’ll be honest. Eating human flesh or souls or whatnot, I’ll admit it’s a bit different. But you’ll get used to it. I sure did. ”

The man called Vincent kept on talking, but Sarah had stopped listening. Something was drawing closer, she could feel it. Something old, something dark. The car stopped and he picked her up again, started walking. Entered a door, passing through an echoing corridor and then descending some kind of stairs. And that’s when she heard it, that sound. A sound she had heard only two times before, but which she had learned to fear more than anything. It was the sound of silence, the sound of darkness. The sound of beyond. And the terror she felt at the realization of where he was taking her awakened finally the last remnants of faltering force within her and she screamed.

***

Vincent stopped talking as the muffled hysteria from within the carped made it clear that she was not listening to his friendly explications anymore. He sighed and glanced around to make sure that nobody was close enough to hear her. Of course nobody was, he was too good to make sloppy mistakes like that.

“Now, now”, he said tonelessly and realized – not for the first time – that empathy and reassurance were not his strongest points. “No need to panic, darling. We’re just going home.”

Then he jumped down onto the subway tracks and started walking into the crossroads darkness where things were not as under the sun and where people like him – and her – could live in secret and shadows and madness. “Welcome to Twilight”, Vincent murmured, half to himself, as he crossed the line where the light from the platform couldn’t reach them anymore, and they were gone.