At the Slaver's Association
The Caravan Arrives
Paying a Call
There Goes the Neighborhood
At the Realm of Thorns
At the Consortium
Through the Looking Glass
Clipping a Raven's Wings
When Once We Were Mortal
Neighbor of the Beast
The Hunter, Dawn
Realm of Thorns home
The Slaver's Association
There Goes the Neighborhood
Two beads of emerald light pierced the air over a mist-shrouded mountain range. A tiny knot of sable-pelted muscle swam along with those lights, and the outline of wings was murky, at best, on this moonless midnight.
The bat circled downward through ribbons of fog until the details of a mountainside came into focus - wiry scrub brush, struggling branches and occasional veins of exposed granite. Little distinguished this peak from its neighbors - it was neither squat nor imposing, dark or light, home to any more or less vegetation than the rest.
What it did have was a trail of cold, a crystalline path glistening upward around the mountain like a coil of rhinestones - not visible to human sight, but shining like a beacon to the bat, as if it were a signature meant for only one pair of emerald eyes in all the world to see.
The night creature made a steep turn towards its final descent. The trail ended abruptly at a gash in the side of the mountain - a mere sliver of black between two boulders - and the bat banked sharply on its side and coasted through the opening, seemingly to be swallowed up by the rocky outcropping. With that, the path pulsed and faded, and the mountainside was once more just a mountainside, even to undead eyes.
Inside the mountain, that opening blossomed into a needle's eye, with just enough breadth to allow the continued beating of wings, but walls so high that they disappeared into infinite blackness.
The bat hovered a moment, then proceeded down the narrow passage towards a glimmer in the dark. Suddenly, the gentle thrushing of wings boomed and echoed, and the flying beast swept into a cavernous vault.
The light of a single torch glinted off the sheen from damp granite walls, and the shadows quivered with cold, hollow expectation.
Plumes of mist began to unfold from the bat's floating torso; like columns of ash drifting from the sky, channels of smoke spilled from the leathery wings, blossoming sparks on the way groundward as they filled in the curved silhouette of a woman's figure...
Half a decade was barely a blip in a life of more than 500 years, and the time between Rhy'Din, Hollywood, and here had wrought little change.
There she stood, latex catsuit shining, soothing as night dreams, but toxic as an oil slick in reality, torchlight casting highlights in all the right places. One gloved hand rested at her hip while the other wriggled through a riot of curls to tame them around her shoulders.
If anything, the set of her chin was more determined than ever, her lips more bloodstained, her complexion more like white marble than anything human. And any trace of humor or compassion had long since been leeched from the eyes that once sparked like jewels, leaving only endless greed and cruel amusement.
Tugging a pair of cat's-eye shades to rest on the bridge of her nose, Rose glanced around to survey the scene before her. Skepticism turned to resignation, with one raven brow lifted to a point, one corner of her mouth tucked into a smirk.
"This is your idea of an appropriate accommodation?"
It wasn't immediately clear to whom she was addressing the question - even when Raymond stepped out of the shadows, the ghoulish grey of his skin made him one with the granite walls.
A new flame materialized from his palm, and he lifted the lighter enough to show clearly the derision in his eyes.
"Hey, when you find something better, you let me know."
Rose's eyes narrowed to slits - and she grinned, but slowly.
After five years, they knew each other well enough. She'd almost come to recognize his sarcasm as a familiar comfort - he was like a sparring partner who never grew weary on his feet.
He would pay for that remark, of course, but later.
Clasping gloved hands at the small of her back, she strode forward - Raymond fell into step behind her, fumbling with a second torch to light the way.
The air was mausoleum cold, and damp, but the stale odor of mildew was beaten back, gradually replaced by the cloying perfume of roses, as they travelled into the belly of the mountain.
A trunk and two large wooden crates stood against one wall, and a third against the opposite wall with its lid propped open. As she passed by, Rose reached in and let her fingers drift absently across a tray of silver choke-chains.
Proceeding past the crates, Rose turned a ghost of a smile on a tall "X"-shaped package wrapped in moving blankets, brown paper and twine.
"Get that unpacked before the next twilight," she snapped, "and the chair as well." With a flourish, she gestured toward a fourth crate, this one perfectly square and nearly as tall as Raymond. "And the painting - I want it to be the first thing I see when I rise."
She stopped and levelled a gaze at him, daring him to challenge her command. She knew how the canvas bothered him, and it brought her no end of delight to force him to handle it.
No challenge tonight, though - he answered with an absent nod, and barely a hint of sarcasm touched his lips.
They stopped before an alcove, conveniently shaped and just large enough for a human to stretch out in. It held a pile of cushions, some new and covered in rich burgundy velvet, some fashioned from a worn brocade that was clearly much older.
Tugging at the fingers of one glove, Rose plucked it off and reached down to pat one of the cushions. Greeted by the solid resistance of the soil inside, she allowed a smile to flicker across her lips.
"I suppose this will have to do," came her velvety sigh. "I trust there is another entrance."
"Yeah, some tunnels leading up from the forest floor. It's pretty hard to navigate unless you know where you're going, but I can show you later-"
"Now. You'll show me now," she interrupted. "I'm famished after that flight, and I'd like to bring my dinner home."
Cold amusement leapt to her eyes, then, as the tip of her tongue flicked out to skim across the pearly point of a fang.
Raymond hadn't slept in years. Not at all, not beyond the first few weeks in Rose's company. Lucky that he didn't need it - even if he could find some peace in dreams, she would only infiltrate and turn them to nightmares.
He'd seen the girl again and again, himself through the girl's eyes, his own mother and her horror when she discovered that her boy was no hero after all...
Always, the faces morphed into Rose's - cold alabaster, sloe-eyed amusement and a mirthless smile.
So while his Mistress slept, he spent his daylight hours occupied in other pursuits. Over the years, he had become travel agent, mover, housekeeper, and even some sort of flimsy bodyguard. But mostly, he spent his time in quiet contemplation. It was all that was left to him, and all that thinking was enough to make him crazy. Still, it was better than dreaming.
Life with Rose, he'd decided, was a special ring of hell, created just for him.
On this morning, their first morning in a strange new home, he had wedged himself sideways into the passage and was peering out from between the rocks, to see what he could of the land.
It was grey, yet, the sun not quite ready to make its first appearance. In less than an hour, a family would find that one of their children had gone missing. From where, he didn't know - he could make out some smoke coming from the other side of the mountain range that might indicate a village to the north, but it was impossible to say what lay beyond that.
Later, when he had unpacked the crates and disposed of the small body, he would venture outside and try to reach the summit above. Maybe the fog would have burned off by then, and he would be able to see as far as the coast. Maybe it would tell him more about why Rose had chosen this place, instead of returning to her country estate in Rhy'Din.
It was the dawn of a new day, in so many ways.
To read the rest of the story click here.