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The Price of Retribution
"Are you sure you want to do this?" For all his supposed power he had to admit that this mortal boy before him had left him somewhat unnerved with his capacity to adapt.
"Yes," Josh said, "for the fiftieth time, I want to do this. Now let's go."
"Okay, but if you get sick I don't want to hear any whining. Deal?"
"Whatever. How do you want me? On your back?"
"That wouldn't be safe," Michael said, "or comfortable. Come here." Josh stepped closer and Michael scooped him off his feet. He waited until Josh had wrapped an arm around his neck then said, "Hold on."
"As if I wouldn't."
Michael glanced toward the sky and within seconds Josh's house was receding beneath them. Michael forced himself to slow his ascent several times, fearing he'd make his passenger ill. After a time he stopped climbing and looked down at Josh's face.
"Are you okay?"
Josh looked at him for a moment, then shook his head in amazement. He looked down, to where his house was only a speck among many in the darkness. "This is incredible. To be able to just -- fly."
"Even after all this time," Michael said, "this is the one thing I look forward to. Simply leaving the Earth behind for a little while, skimming the clouds, feeling the dampness of rain yet to be born brushing across my face. There have been many nights when my feet have not touched a solid surface, when I've flown so high I could look down and see not a flat horizon but a curved one. Long ago I didn't know what to make of that. Then I heard the first theories that the earth itself was spherical and I knew. I knew those theories were true because I had seen the earth as a sphere as I moved above it under the light of the moon. But such things as science were not then important to me.
"There was so much else to see, to do, so many experiences yet to be had. It was the new that beckoned me. Now there is little left that is new. I may well have been the first intelligent creature to circumnavigate the globe, believe it or not. And it took not months or weeks or even days, but only a matter of hours. Hours, Josh, to circle the entire realm of human existence. The sheer exhilaration of it is beyond belief." His eyes came back to the present and focused on Josh, whose face was a mask of awe. "I would show you right now but I'm afraid the speeds at which I'd have to move wouldn't leave you able to enjoy the ride." Josh was staring at him intently, the novelty of his surroundings forgotten. A feeling of entirely human warmth flooded Michael as he realized Josh had been enraptured by no more than his voice.
"That's amazing," Josh said quietly, then rested his head in the hollow of Michael's neck. He looked up after a moment and asked the question Michael had been expecting for hours, since he'd first confided in the boy.
"How old are you?"
"Your religion -- or your popular culture, at any rate -- would have you believe I am a creature of supreme evil, the very spawn of its Satan," Michael said, giving Josh a small smile, "when in fact I am older than the religion itself. Much older. I have existed for just over six thousand years, Josh, though I can't claim to have been conscious during all that time. There were times when my life would darken, when I would feel a need to die greater than any you can imagine -- greater, I hope, than any you will ever have to imagine. I could not die, or perhaps was too terrified to, so I would simply sleep, sometimes for months, often for years. I slept once for almost five centuries. And each time, upon waking, I would find a world changed, perhaps just a little or perhaps changed so hugely that I would question whether I'd actually woke up at all, for the images around me would be so like those of a dream. That, of course, would be impossible, since those of my kind are incapable of dreaming -- or of true sleep for that matter, since our bodies require no rest and only grow stronger with the passing of time. It seems the longer I live the longer I am destined to live. Ironic, isn't it, that the longer I live the greater my urge to die becomes -- and the further from me death recedes."
"What about now?" Josh asked. His eyes shined in the pale starlight. "Do you want to die now?"
Michael smiled broadly and made a slow circle, enjoying Josh's weight in his arms. "No, not now. If you had turned me away back there, if you'd asked me to leave--"
"I almost did," again Josh leaned his head against Michael's neck, this time to hide his guilt. "I thought -- I don't know. I was just afraid."
"Now I'm not afraid. We've been friends so long. Well, long to me, anyway, but the blink of an eye to you. I don't know what I feel. Happy isn't quite right, but it's close. It must be fifteen degrees cooler up here but I don't really feel it, if that makes any sense."
"Perfect sense," Michael said. "Ready to go down now?"
"Do we have to?"
"Of course not," Michael replied. Then he dropped lower to give Josh a better view and watched his face as the earth slid slowly by beneath them.
* * * * *
They were still moving slowly, back toward Josh's house. Josh twisted in Michael's arms, trying to make sure he missed nothing in the passing scenery. He'd caught himself several times simply staring at Michael's face, an image of youth and beauty that might outlast the earth that had bore him, and had to remind himself he was missing out on the ride of his life. Yet his eyes were continually drawn back to those of the being who literally held Josh's life in his hands, hair tossed in the wind, eyes that looked in on a soul privy to the knowledge of the ages. It was during one of those long periods of silence, as Josh studied Michael's face, that the blow came, sending an enraged Michael and passenger tumbling fifty horrifying feet closer to earth. Michael yelled in outrage as he righted himself and immediately checked to make sure he hadn't accidentally harmed Josh in his attempts to keep them both from falling.
"What the hell--?"
Michael barely heard Josh's words. His eyes were scanning the skies around them, waiting for the next attack, for surely the attacker hadn't simply broken off. Which of his kind would be fool enough to make an attempt like this? Surely they would know the folly of attacking one of the most formidable beings in existence. It was Josh, of course, that had made the attack possible. If Michael hadn't been concentrating so foolishly hard on the mortal in his arms he'd never have been caught so unforgivably off guard. A vampire approaching his own strength could have easily made the first blow a crippling one, at least temporarily.
Michael looked down at Josh's frightened face, tried to decide what to say. Josh was in great danger now, more danger than he'd ever been in all his short life. Guilt flooded Michael at the thought and he forced it away before it could hamper the speed of his thoughts. He wouldn't be caught off his guard again. Josh looked at him, his eyes telling Michael more than he wanted to know. He'd gained the boy's trust and now Josh expected Michael to protect him, to save him from whatever waited in the darkness. But what to do with the boy? He certainly couldn't fight with Josh hanging off him this way and to set the boy down alone would invite disaster. Despite the other vampire's relative lack of strength or good judgment Josh would certainly be easy prey.
Michael began to climb, much too fast for Josh's taste. To the boy's credit his only complaint was a small, involuntary moan as his blood was forced into his lower extremities by the speed of their ascent. Michael scanned the landscape beneath him, his vampiric eyes flicking over the landscape, taking in and sorting the distant shapes below. He finally spotted what he required and dropped toward it.
"What are we doing here?"
"This is the largest tract of open land near here. I need open spaces to keep you safe. Distances are different for us." Michael didn't glance at Josh as he spoke, his eyes continuing their assault on the night.
Josh followed the vampire's gaze, saw nothing but stars and a few wispy clouds glowing under the gauzy light of the newly risen half-moon. He looked around, down at the broken earth under his feet. The ground here had been freshly turned, in preparation for the year's first planting. The field extended several acres in all directions. Anyone approaching would be clearly visible, even in the weak moonlight. And Michael, Josh suspected, would be able to see a stranger's approach in even near-total darkness.
"Safe from what?" Josh asked, the quiet finally overcoming his instinct to silence.
"The other one. You can believe it isn't far away. Not far away by the standards of my kind at any rate," Michael finally spared Josh one worried glance, then went back to scanning the sky and the field around them, his movements almost too fast for Josh to follow.
"Vampire? Another one," Josh digested that for a moment, then asked, "But why? Why would it want to fight you, I mean?"
"I'm not sure. My kind can hold and nurture a grudge with more tenacity than any other creature ever to grace this world, believe me. I believe that for some it is the only thing that keeps them from going to ground or, if they're weak enough, from greeting the dawn and finding solace in the fire. I can't think of any I might have wronged, but I'm sure there have been many. You must understand that my age keeps me safe from attack." He spared Josh another glance, this a wry grin, and added, "Most of the time."
Time passed, and Josh moved slowly closer to Michael, until finally their shoulders were brushing. Their fingers touched, the contact all too fleeting. Josh's fear lent him the temerity to reclaim that closeness, his grip on Michael's hand enough to have caused a mortal to cry out. After a while Michael spoke, though his eyes continued to move.
"There is another possibility."
"That the vampire that attacked me thought its first blow would be a crippling one. If it had been able to cripple me it could have fed on me. I would not have been permanently damaged by such an encounter, though I would have been quite weak in the short-term. You, I'm afraid, would have been killed had its assault been successful."
"But why would it have fed on you? And couldn't it tell you're not the type to be pushed around?" Josh asked, not seeming as frightened by Michael's words as he should have been. He did, however, edge even closer, taking comfort in the silent strength he knew to be contained in Michael's body.
"We can sometimes sense another's strength, though what we think we learn is often deceptive. Anyway, one such as myself would not normally be flying a young mortal about like a carnival ride. To answer your other question, there are two ways of gaining in strength. The first is simply with the passing of time. Of decades, centuries, even millennia in rare cases. The second is by cycling through our own bodies the blood of one who is stronger. Most of the time this exchange is a voluntary one. Only a fool would attempt to take by force the lifeblood of an ancient. Often as not such attempts are made by young ones who wish nothing more than an end to their own lives. More often than not that is exactly what they receive at the hands of one such as myself, the only creatures on the planet capable of giving them what they want."
Michael stiffened and Josh drew back, careful not to let Michael's hand slip away from him. "We'll have to finish this later," Michael said. "It's here."
* * * * *
Josh immediately spun around, looking for any sign of the attacker, his eyes flashing from the sky to the field around him. He saw nothing but the star-dotted firmament and the bleak grayness of the moonlit earth around him. Then, in a blur too fast for his eyes to follow, the attacker came into view and was gone. It took him a moment to realize it had alighted only a dozen feet away. He turned to find that Michael had already moved to position himself between the other vampire and his friend. Josh's breath caught in his throat as the intruder spoke.
"Have you truly grown so bored that such simple pleasures as this," with a disdainful nod the vampire, a man of indeterminate age, indicated Josh and his still-fierce grip on Michael's hand, "can please you? Really, I'm quite disappointed."
"As is equaled, I'm sure, by my disappointment in you," Michael said, breaking the link and advancing a pace, "who comes here to me, begging for death like some poor, disheartened youngling. If not for the fact that my friend would no longer be safe I'd simply take to the air and leave you here in your misery -- and know that leaving you in your own company is perhaps worse than even you deserve. As it stands I shall have to deprive myself of that particular pleasure when I deprive you of your life."
The intruder -- Josh couldn't think of him as anything other -- opened his mouth and laughed, a rich melodious sound that held nothing more sinister than a bit of conceit, such as that any man of charm and good looks might entertain. "You have been dabbling too long with this mortal trash, Michael. You always were a sentimental fool."
"My foolishness has kept me in good stead throughout a lifetime that has proven the supreme envy of such as you, Lefleur. You speak to me of foolishness, you who challenge me?" Michael took a step forward and then he, too, laughed, with a quiet malice that rippled Josh's spine with gooseflesh. "Tell me," Michael said, "when you felt your sanity breaking why didn't you simply burrow a hole for yourself and sleep until you could regain what passes for your senses?"
"Take to ground, you mean, like your precious Amanda?"
"What?" Michael's bantering tone was gone now, and he advanced slowly toward Lefleur. "By what right do you even speak her name?"
"By the right of blood," Lefleur's voice was taunting now, seductive, as if he had to taste each word and find it satisfactory before letting it roll from his lips.
"No!" Michael roared, his voice coming like a thunderclap. Josh staggered backwards, his ears ringing as if a firecracker had been loosed inside his head. He blinked away tears and saw the one Michael had addressed as Lefleur take a step back from Michael's slow approach. "If you have harmed her--"
"What?" Again the taunting voice, the one word grating on Josh's nerves even through the pain in his ears. He could only imagine, inadequately he was certain, the extent of Michael's rage as Lefleur continued. "I suppose you'll now make some noble and heartfelt speech about how you'll kill me slowly if I've harmed her, how you'll drag my death on for days and weeks of the purest agony imaginable. Perhaps even months, am I right?"
"No," Michael said, his voice now full of that eerie seductiveness. "You, who are but a youngling grown drunk on the blood of an ancient, think in terms of days and weeks and months. Your death will not come as quickly as that. A good death is a thing of art. It must be nurtured and cultivated, never done in haste; a thing that could perhaps take decades to be done correctly." Michael's grin chilled Josh's blood. His canines were extended, not grotesquely so, only a half-inch perhaps, tapering to needle points and glinting wickedly in the moonlight. Josh wondered absently what trick of musculature made that possible. "Who knows," Michael continued, "if something goes wrong along the way, why, one might have to let his subject heal and then begin again--" another grin "--just to insure it's all done correctly, of course."
"Well then," Lefleur said smoothly, "let us begin."
Then, with a rustling and blur of black clothing, he was gone.
* * * * *
Michael turned to Josh, his face unreadable. Josh only looked at him and asked, before he could think, "Who is Amanda?" And what was that he heard in his own voice? Possessiveness? Even jealousy? Certainly, in the face of all he'd seen--
"She is a part of my past, the first and only companion I have ever created. She grew to hate the gifts I'd given her, cursing them and, eventually, cursing me as well. When it became too much for her she went to ground, as I told you about earlier. She's been there for over eight hundred years, in a place known to no one," his eyes clouded as he said that, drifted further away. "No one, it seems, but Lefleur. He came to me many decades ago, attempting to seduce me for the blood in my veins. I refused him, seeing in him something so vile I could have never knowingly amplified it. He cursed me viciously, swearing revenge. When that failed to move me he became obsequious, groveling for but a few drops to help him survive, for, as he said, the world is a hard, unforgiving place. I left him with his misery and in all honesty believed another ancient would take his life shortly thereafter. It seems I was mistaken. And for that Amanda has suffered, who deserved no more suffering than I'd already given her. And now I have to go, to set right a mistake made years before you were born but which has placed you in mortal danger nonetheless. It seems I have an uncanny knack for hurting those I love."
"Don't," Josh said softly, Michael's last words obliterating what remained of his fear. He went to Michael and embraced him, youth lending vitality to the ancient. Strange, he thought, that such a powerful and ancient creature would surrender to his embrace and tremble in the weak circle of his mortal arms.
Seconds passed, with Josh clutching Michael close to him, feeling oddly protective of the vampire. The sheer absurdity of that would have struck him as funny another time. Now it seemed somehow appropriate. How could the two of them be so impossibly far apart in so many ways and still be so close? How could Josh stand here, knowing the nature of the creature who stood before him, and not be afraid? Be so unafraid, in fact, that he was even now trying to give the other as much comfort as he could? A deeper look into his motives only brought his confusion into starker contrast, and he pushed the thoughts away, deeming them a selfish waste of time.
"Michael, do you think Amanda might be dead?" Josh lifted his head and for a moment was transfixed by the contours of Michael's neck, the smooth line of his jaw, and the light smell of the other's cologne mingling with the cool of night and the freshly turned earth.
"No, she's not dead. Horribly wounded, perhaps. Maybe hurt so badly it will take decades, even centuries, for her to heal. If that is the case . . ." he trailed off, not wanting to finish the thought.
"You're worried that her mind might not be so lucky, aren't you? That such an experience might have finally driven her over the edge?" Josh ran his fingers through the other's hair and Michael leaned forward so that their faces touched and Josh felt warm breath against his chilled ear. So normal it felt, so right. So human. A host of errant thoughts slipped through to the surface; again he deemed them unworthy and shoved them aside, this time violently.
"That's part of it," Michael began, as oblivious to Josh's thoughts as the other had hoped. "She might not have been able to stand it -- if he was able to take her then that in itself is a bad sign." Michael pulled back, met Josh's eyes. The pain in their depths was like an open wound. Josh dropped his eyes away in the face of it. "To think that he had her and she did not even resist! Her will to live must have completely left her. If that is so then the healing, if any was needed, would take considerably longer. If he simply fed and left her be she should be fine in only a few days, maybe hours." Michael turned away and shook his head sadly. "Unfortunately, that does not seem to be something Lefleur would do, does it?"
"No," Josh said softly.
"You'll be safe now. I'll take you home and come to you later."
Without another word Michael glanced upwards and seemed, for all Josh could see, to simply vanish. Lefleur had been fast but Josh had still been able to spot him. Maybe that was a good sign. A moment later Michael was back, saying Lefleur was nowhere nearby. Josh stepped into his arms. As the earth receded beneath him he wasn't surprised to find there seemed to be no awe left in him.
* * * * *
Josh's parents were hours in their bed when the two alit, unseen, beneath the gnarled oak outside Josh's window. Josh shivered as he surrendered to gravity once again. He saw concern flicker through Michael's eyes and suddenly found himself in those powerful arms again.
"I should have insisted you bring a coat," Michael said. "It has become too easy for me to forget such things, I'm afraid."
"I can imagine." Josh said nothing further, afraid of losing this precious moment of closeness. Emotions battled within him, fear warring with -- what? But he knew the answer, had known it for months, even when Michael had been nothing more than a beautiful, articulate young man much like himself. Or so he'd believed. Now he knew the truth, and knowing, gave it voice.
"I love you, Michael. I know I'm nothing to you, maybe even only a toy, like the man in the field said . . . so young and stupid--"
"Josh, hush," Michael said, moving so that their eyes met. "You are my life. I've lived a hundred lifetimes, my soul has died inside me a thousand times. You've given me life, made me care about the world again, made me see it again, be a part of it. I can speak in more tongues than you've ever dreamt of, yet I can't seem to find the words."
"There are only three that matter," Josh said quietly. "And they lose nothing in translation."
"I love you, Josh. More than anything," Michael said. One of his hands brought Josh's chin up, their lips close enough that their breath became one. "Anything," he said again, and Josh felt the whisper of those lips on his. Josh surrendered, responding but not forcing, needing but not demanding, the cool night air forgotten as his hands, finally free, explored the hard contours of Michael's back, the smooth column of his neck, the delicate outline of one ear.
Michael broke away, briefly, and that momentary loss reminded Josh that he must breathe. But then that soft warmth closed over his lips again and hands that could rend him apart danced over his body with such gentleness his knees gave way under the strength of his need. The earth seemed to fall away beneath him and he wondered if he truly floated free in Michael's embrace or simply seemed to. If he opened his eyes he would know. They remained closed. He did not care.
"May I show you something? A gift?" Michael asked, their lips brushing with each syllable so that the heat of the words flowed into Josh's body like live things, his spine shivering at the welcome assault.
"Anything." The word was a breath given substance.
Their lips met again, and the world was gone. Josh soared free, the earth a formless blur beneath him, the familiar constellations above. The air was so rarefied he scarcely felt its tug as it fought to tear this intruder from its playground. He flew higher, faster, as if bound for the stars themselves, the pull of the earth more a thing remembered than experienced. Then, in a supreme act of defiance, he dove, his own will and the pull of the earth sending him plunging toward the surface, it hungry to reclaim that which had so nearly escaped it. His clothes roared into unfelt flames around him, the wind tearing savagely at his ears. Yet there was no fear, even as the great planet grew beneath him, became the whole of existence; in the barest second details leapt out until he could almost count the rows of beans and corn in the field over which he descended. And then, just as the pull of the greedy earth grew strongest, he darted again for the stars, and the earth shrank away once more, its prize stolen. All too quickly, with a pang of regret, he felt once more the cool night air against his mortal body and opened his eyes to find Michael meeting his gaze intently. The regret, if it had been at all, vanished.
"That was incredible," Josh said. The words were lacking.
"And seeing it through your eyes made it new for me. Thank you."
Josh only looked at him, unsure how Michael could be thanking him for such a beautiful image.
"Shall I walk you inside?"
"Michael." Michael waited in silence for Josh to gather his thoughts. "You're leaving."
"Only for a few hours, I promise."
Josh opened his mouth to speak, to beg Michael to stay, and said, "I understand. You'll be back in the morning?"
"First thing," Michael said.
Michael walked him to the door, and, with a simple kiss and a whispered "I love you" made himself part of the sky.
* * * * *
Josh was out of Michael's range of vision in seconds. For some reason he'd felt a very human chill when the boy had finally been lost to his sight. Michael had told the boy he'd be safe. He wondered, as the earth flew by beneath him, if he'd been completely honest, and why. Of one thing he was certain. Lefleur had quite possibly harmed Amanda, who had lain helpless; if the bastard touched Josh, Michael vowed, he would make the creature's death unfold for a hundred years, each minuscule instant encompassing enough pain to kill any thousand mortal men. Never had he felt for another as he did for Josh, even Amanda; never had the prospect of eternal life been so appealing as in the waking dreams of that life spent with Josh. Amanda had been his closest friend for so many years, yet in the end she simply could not adapt to the new life she'd been given. Her pain had consumed her, eaten her from the inside. Among Michael's kind her condition was referred to lately as the vampire's cancer, for which there was no cure.
Michael flew, his eyes scanning, his ultra-sensitive ears prepared to hear even the slightest brush of Lefleur's clothes. Michael looked down at his own shirt, now hanging in shapeless tatters about his body. The speed at which he was moving had ripped it apart. He ripped it away and turned hard, eyes and ears straining. In moments he was hovering over Josh's house once more. All was quiet there. Josh stood at his window looking out. Their eyes met, or seemed to, then Josh looked away. He couldn't see this far into the night. Michael flew on.
The sky was already beginning to brighten in the east when Michael finally laid eyes on Lefleur. The other was dropping swiftly, his angle of descent taking him directly over Josh's house. Michael waited the barest fraction of a second, just long enough to know the other hadn't spotted him, before he moved, panic and anger warring for dominance. He'd been a fool . . .
* * * * *
Josh was standing at his window, his hands curled into fists at his sides, when he saw Lefleur drop from the sky about twenty feet from the front door. His breath caught in his throat and he gripped the small cross at his throat reflexively. He'd put it on the moment he got home. He'd even looked for a clove of garlic in the pantry downstairs, figuring that if vampires could exist then it was only logical that there must be some sort of defense against them. He turned from the window and dropped onto the bed to think. He never heard the front door open, heard no steps on the stairs. He screamed for Michael when his door burst open. The creature was on him before he could move. By the time Josh's mother made it to his room there was nothing left to prove anyone had been there but the broken shards of window glass glinting in the moonlight and a small crucifix attached to a broken chain, just another bit of glitter in the wreckage.
* * * * *
Michael came to a halt outside Josh's window. Inside the house lights burned in almost every room. Had his ears been human they would have still heard the feminine sobs coming from somewhere inside. In the distance he heard the sound of approaching sirens.
"Damn lot of good the police will do you," he whispered, and was gone.
Lefleur was easy to spot, moving slowly under his burden. Michael closed to within fifty feet before speaking.
"Lefleur! Why are you doing this? You know what I will do to you. You know your life is now forfeit. Release him and I will allow you the luxury of a quick death. Harm him and I'll introduce you to a thousand realms of pain. Listen well, Lefleur, and end this now."
Michael silently closed the gap by half. Lefleur never slowed. Josh was putting forth no resistance, but whether that was because he knew any resistance would be futile or because Lefleur had rendered him unconscious Michael didn't know.
"Oh, no, my friend," Lefleur said. "You're quite wrong. You will either back away from me and leave this one to my tender ministrations," Michael saw Lefleur's hand encircle Josh's throat and heard a small moan from the captive, "or I will relieve him of what he calls life. The choice, you see, is entirely yours. At this stage I have little to lose. What will it be?"
Damn you! Michael raged silently. He should have known, should have anticipated this. He'd let his worry for Josh cloud his thoughts -- But was it worry, his mind demanded, or arrogance? Now was not the time for self-doubt, not when Lefleur controlled the game.
"You see, Michael, you brought me years of pain, when you could have made it so easy. You could have given me but a few drops of your precious blood and spared me years, centuries, of pain, of fear, of hiding like vermin when the east begins to brighten!" Lefleur stopped so suddenly Michael almost struck him. The vampire's hand still held Josh's throat and Michael quickly backed away. "And now you would give that blood to -- to this?" He gave Josh's head a sharp jerk, causing the boy to cry out in pain. Fresh rage erupted and Lefleur grinned broadly, his small fangs glinting in the moonlight. He lowered his hand only to replace it with his mouth, tiny fangs against Josh's throat.
"If you break the skin," Michael said quietly, "I promise you I will tear your head from your shoulders. There would be nothing to stop me."
Lefleur's head snapped up at that and for a brief moment his fear was etched plainly on his face. Then the infuriating smile returned and the bastard's hand went once more to Josh's throat.
"You will back away now." With a nod he indicated the ever-brightening eastern sky. "You see that? You wouldn't want me to be caught up here carrying this when the sun rises would you? In case you've forgotten, not all of us can withstand direct sunlight. It does awful things to our complexion."
Michael looked at the brightening sky, looked back to Josh, trapped there in the monster's embrace. Lefleur would die a thousand deaths for this; he would beg for death as a starving man begs for bread.
"You'll regret this. Believe that."
Then Michael turned and was gone, faster than even Lefleur's vampiric eyes could follow.
* * * * *
The rage consumed him as he flew, crawling out of his belly, reaching icy fingers into the depths of him, taunting him for his stupidity, for his helplessness. He pushed himself faster, his mind rebelling at the thought of how far from Josh he was traveling with each second. He reached down absently to touch his jeans, found them hot, as he'd expected. If he kept pushing himself this way they'd burn themselves off him. He slowed, then alighted in a wooded area some two hundred miles from where he'd started. Northeast, he noted absently.
He barely noticed the brightening sky. The light of the sun hadn't been of concern to him for longer than he cared to remember. Lefleur, however, would soon have to find a place well concealed from the rays of the sun, for although its rays probably wouldn't kill him the agony he'd experience if they fell on him directly would be severe. Michael's mind fixed on that image, of himself holding Lefleur by the throat, helpless, as the sun rose; he imagined the screams as his skin began to darken and crack, as his eyes began to dry and shrivel in their sockets like over-aged raisins. He let go of the fantasy and slammed his fist into the nearest tree. It shuddered from end to end in an explosion of bark and shredded wood. His arm penetrated the great pine almost to his elbow and he pulled it away dripping with sap. Three more punches rained down in quick succession and the great tree finally surrendered to gravity, tearing itself a path to the carpet of leaves and pine needles that covered the forest floor. Even through his rage Michael felt shame at what he'd done, killing a living thing in selfish rage. He reached out and ran his fingers over the splintered stump. So arrogant, he thought, so stupid. Then he leaned his head against the dying stump and wept silently as the sun rose, strong and bright and oblivious to the pain of those who moved beneath it.
* * * * *
Josh woke abruptly and was standing before he'd had time to wipe the sleep from his eyes. He'd lost consciousness after Michael disappeared. Lefleur hadn't been as careful with his passenger as Michael had. The landscape had begun to whip by faster than his mind could register the images and then blackness had washed over him. Josh glanced around, surprised that he wasn't bound in some way. But why would Lefleur need to bind him against escape when one well-aimed blow could take his prisoner's head off? The room was lit by a bare, dust-covered bulb, the corners full of shadow, the roof barely visible. He could make out stone walls and large timbers supporting the roof, which seemed to be wooden. The floor was dirt, on which he'd obviously been tossed with little ceremony. There didn't seem to be any furniture at all, only a few benches and some shelving built out from the walls. All of them stood empty but for a thick layer of dust -- nothing that could be a weapon, assuming such would do him any good anyway. There were no windows and he couldn't make out a door anywhere. The room felt tight around him and smelled of years of dampness and mold. So he was underground, then, with no obvious way out. If only he could find some way to find the light of day--
There was a rustle that seemed to come from all corners of the room at once, then Lefleur was standing before him, his face placid, his arms folded negligently across his chest.
"I see you've finally decided to join me," he said. "I'm afraid the trip here was a bit taxing on your rather delicate constitution."
"Well," Josh said, with a touch of a smile and as much of Lefleur's soft seductiveness as he could duplicate, "unlike Michael, you had to be concerned with the coming of the sun. My own delicate constitution aside, I'm sure you made the trip only as unpleasant as your safety required."
Lefleur's eyes flew wide for the barest second, then his face was placid once more. "Perhaps I can see why Michael is so taken with you, boy. Your temerity is refreshing. To a point."
His eyes glinted and he moved as a blur to stand immediately before Josh, so that when he came to rest his cool breath brushed the boy's cheek.
"I take it I was supposed to jump backwards, right? Maybe even cower before that display of power?" Josh smiled again, like a mother watching her son ride his bike for the first time without the training wheels. "Michael could have made that trip three times before you decided to go at all."
Lefleur's face contorted with rage and by the time Josh realized he'd pushed the creature too far he was already sliding across the floor, the imprint of Lefleur's palm burning hotly on his cheek. He tucked his shoulder under him and managed to get to his feet, trying to ignore the darkness and odd flashes of light before his eyes. If the blow had carried any more force he'd have lost consciousness. He turned to face Lefleur, who was standing next to him once more.
"You be careful, boy," Lefleur breathed, leaning so close their noses nearly touched. "You may play this game well, but don't for a moment let yourself believe you can win, boy, not for a moment. You are nothing--"
"Kill me, then," Josh said. "Kill me! But you won't, will you? You won't because I'm the only thing stopping Michael from tearing you apart. You won't because you are as afraid of him as you would like me to be of you. Do it! Tilt back my head and rip my throat out. And then it will be over. There will be nowhere you can hide from him, not one precious moment when you will sit comfortably without every hint of sound sending you into terror for your life. So do it, kill me. Or just shut up. I am most likely dead, but I have hope. You have none."
This time the blow wasn't simply staggering. Josh came to rest on the cold dirt near the wall and didn't move again.
* * * * *
Full darkness hadn't yet fallen but the sun was safely tucked away beyond the horizon when Lefleur threw open the heavy oak door of his most recent home and stepped outside. The boy remained below, where he'd fallen. Lefleur almost howled in rage as Josh's words tumbled once more through his mind. The boy had aimed his barbs with a precision and skill that belied his years. The sky continued to darken, hastened by a large cloud bank to the west. There would be rain tonight if the wind held. Lefleur closed the door behind him and started walking slowly across the open field in front of him. When night finally fell he glanced upwards and made himself part of the night sky. He did not look up as a dark speck separated from the clouds and descended slowly on the darkened brick home he'd just left behind.
* * * * *
Michael stood with his back to the door for a moment, just long enough to make sure Lefleur hadn't turned back. He'd be hunting now, Michael guessed, remembering the thirst and how it could so consume those it afflicted that they could scarcely think beyond the need. He turned his attention to the door. It was bolted from the inside. So Lefleur's mental abilities had progressed far enough for him to manipulate objects at a distance. Michael's own abilities in that area were not inconsiderable, though he'd always found them distasteful. It would have been neater to use those abilities to throw the bolt, but Michael chose instead to give the door a nudge. The bolt made a satisfying shriek as it was wrenched from the door frame. He stepped across the threshold into darkness and scanned the interior. There was no furniture in the room, nor any bulbs in the roof fixtures. Vampires had little use for human comforts or artificial light, but Michael was still disturbed by the starkness of Lefleur's home. Of course, if these were only temporary lodgings--
--Josh's heartbeat. He heard it suddenly, tapping in his ears like the beat of a faraway drum. He turned, trying to trace the faint sound, but the house was large, all stone and wood, which bounced the slight sound around a dozen corners before it reached his ears.
He called again as he found his way to what would have been the kitchen in a normal home. The cupboards all stood empty and there was no hum of electricity from the various large appliances around the room. The sound grew a bit stronger here and Michael traced it to a large oak door, much like the one at the entrance, which he assumed must lead to the cellar.
"Michael?" The word was muffled, but obviously came from below.
Without thinking Michael lifted his hand and shattered the door to splinters. He was down the stairs, scooping Josh into his arms, before the dust raised by his entry had had time to settle.
"Michael!" Josh buried his face in Michael's chest and embraced him fiercely. Had Michael been mortal it would probably have been painful. Michael held him for a moment longer then gently disengaged, his face serious.
"You're okay? He didn't . . . do anything?"
"No," Josh answered, then added, "Well, he did smack me around some, but I think I asked for it."
Michael grinned at that and embraced him again. "Somehow I don't seem to have a problem imagining that. Now," he became serious once more, "I know you probably want to be far away from here, but I'm afraid we're going to be here for a while."
"So you can take care of Lefleur," Josh said. He met Michael's eyes for a moment, then looked away. "So you can find out about Amanda. About what he did to her, where she is. I understand."
"There is more to it than that. If I simply take you from here I might not be able to find Lefleur if he should return while we are gone. He'd certainly not return here after that, and he has plenty of time to play his games. I would have to secret you away somewhere -- and your parents, your friends, anyone he might harm because of you -- or I'd have to guard all of you round the clock. It would be more practical to finish it here." He waited for Josh to respond, but the other only met his eyes, then looked away, but not before something flickered through his eyes. "What's wrong?" he asked, turning Josh to face him.
"I -- nothing, I guess. Just a little spaced. Never been kidnapped by a rogue vampire before," Josh met his eyes again, this time with a glint of humor. "You wouldn't believe some of the stuff I said to him, Michael. I was so stupid! He could have -- well, he could've done anything he wanted to. Except that he couldn't, could he? Not with you out there somewhere. When I pointed that very fact out to him he came upside my head with what felt like a tire iron. Anyway, how did you find me?"
Michael grinned, and turned toward the stairs. "I don't think I should tell you." Josh seemed about to protest, so he gave in. "When you and Lefleur took your little trip this morning the sun was rising rapidly. He was trying to get wherever he was going in a hurry, but he could only move so fast and still keep you alive. He was heading in this direction, he was moving at a certain speed, this place is extremely isolated, it's within a reasonable radius. Voila. Now you've taken all the magic out of your rescue. Happy?"
Josh harrumphed, then said, "I don't give a damn about magic, long as I don't have to face your buddy again without you around."
"I don't think you'll have to worry about that," Michael said. The previous morning's thoughts swarmed over him after he spoke. He'd been such a fool. His arrogance had nearly cost Josh his life. Well. Not again. "Here's the way we're going to do this," he said, heading for the stairs.
* * * * *
Some hours later Josh sat on the front steps of Lefleur's dilapidated manse, his hand picking absently at the peeling white paint on the steps. He felt like a fool, sitting here in the open, waiting for Lefleur to return with murder on his mind. Yet Michael had explained what was going to happen, in detail, to allay Josh's fears. There was no danger. Supposedly.
Michael had outlined everything in only a few minutes, and Josh, having nothing practical to suggest, had agreed. The remaining hours they'd passed in conversation, tales of the distant past and of places long since turned to dust that had so enraptured Josh he'd forgotten his surroundings completely. There was no Lefleur, no threat of death, or perhaps something far worse, looming over him. There was only Michael, a charismatic enigma whose words had woven a spell inside which all other concerns dwindled to nothingness. Perhaps the most entrancing were the tales of regret, of lost opportunity. Michael had met some of the greatest figures in history, and some whom Josh didn't recognize but whom he suspected had been cheated by the bias of those who wrote the histories. Others had been painted by history as great leaders or thinkers, yet Michael described them as butchers or as intellectual pirates, taking credit for the ideas of those low-born and thus not eligible for such intellectual heights.
Josh had asked at one point how Michael came to be, how he had survived the millennia. Michael had only looked thoughtful for a moment and turned away. "I was given a choice," he'd said, after a while. "Had I not accepted the gift I was offered I would have aged and died -- immortality, though! I didn't have the strength to refuse, I suppose. At times I am grateful that I didn't, as now, even though I know what I have to do in a short while. Other times I wish I had been able to summon enough courage to embrace the natural death I was offered. What is the point? Why am I here? Mortal men have been asking themselves that question since before even my time. Imagine how pressing that question would become if you'd been asking it with no answer for thousands of years. Sometimes I wonder if there may be something more, after this life and this body are gone. What if this immortality is depriving me of that? What if there is nothing, or if there is something so horrid our minds can't even comprehend it? Sometimes, though, I think of death simply because, for better or worse, the questions would all have their answers."
They'd lapsed into a reflective silence after that, comfortable in each other's arms, until, after a time, Michael had stood, announcing that time was short. How Michael sensed Lefleur's approach even Michael did not know. It seemed to be a rare gift among his kind. "How do you know when you are not alone?" he'd asked. "It is simply a feeling."
And Josh had found himself sitting here on the steps, with the paint flaking away beneath his restless fingers, waiting for the return of a monster he'd not believed in the day before. He didn't have long to wait, for he'd been there less than a quarter hour when a muted thump and the rustle of heavy clothing brought his eyes to bear on Lefleur, who looked at him warily from some yards away.
"Ah, you're home."
"And you are not where you were left," Lefleur observed, then he moved and Josh found himself once more in the creature's embrace. "Where is he?" Lefleur breathed into his ear. "Where!"
"He's gone, as if that isn't obvious."
"You take me for a fool, boy. He would not simply walk away while I still live. He may be arrogant and stupid, but that only serves to harden his resolve." He lifted Josh over his head, perhaps intending to slam him to the ground, perhaps intending to draw Michael from hiding.
"Wait!" Josh screamed, terror in his voice. "Please. Wait. He's gone because I sent him away. Because he wouldn't do as I asked."
Lefleur still held Josh over his head, the effort seeming to cost him nothing. "And what did you ask?"
"I asked him to make me what you are," Josh said, bitterness turning his voice dark. "He would not. He was beset with grief for his precious Amanda and would not grant me the blood she might need to heal whatever it is you've done to her." Josh thrashed violently in Lefleur's grasp and said, "Which is as well for you, you bastard. I'd have killed you the second you'd had time to recognize the face of your executioner."
Lefleur burst into laughter filled with true humor, not as unpleasant a sound as Josh would have thought. Then the vampire tossed Josh negligently to the ground, without malice, seemingly with little thought at all. Josh managed to take the landing on his shoulder and rolled a few feet away. He rose unsteadily, looking pure hate at Lefleur, who only laughed all the harder.
"Boy," he said, "your rage is ill-directed, I'm afraid. You see, some time ago I too asked for some of that precious blood. Like you, I was rebuffed, to put it in pleasanter terms. Dear Michael does seem to be quite the prude on such matters, doesn't he?" Another gale of laughter. Josh let his expression soften a bit. Lefleur said, "Just as it would have cost him nothing to share it with me all those decades ago, it would have cost him nothing to grant your own rage-induced request. I have treated you quite unkindly, haven't I boy? Well. Anyway, Michael could have brought you into the fold, as it were, and risked nothing for poor Amanda, whom I left quite unharmed, by the way, though a bit paler than usual I should think. It wouldn't do to harm her irreparably when I may need her, ah, services again. Took me decades to ferret out her little hidey-hole. Poor dear. But she didn't seem to mind." He looked thoughtful for a moment, then chuckled. "We aren't so different, you and I, are we, boy?"
"He lied," Josh said quietly, mostly to himself. Then, with rage distorting his features once more, "So, what now? You kill me? And Michael searches for Amanda to give her the gift that would have saved me. Even though she has rejected it and wastes it in a rat-infested burrow somewhere. Do it, then, and take whatever strength you gain from me and pluck the arrogant bastard out of the sky!" With that Josh charged at Lefleur with all the strength and speed his rage-amplified muscles could supply. The other simply reached out and caught him, stopping him dead.
* * * * *
Lefleur pushed Josh backwards, hard enough to send him stumbling, but not hard enough to topple him. Michael watched it all from his spot in the trees, half a hundred yards distant. He heard the vampire laugh again as he turned toward the house. Josh followed, rage still boiling if the look on his face was any indication. He'd played his part well, Michael decided. In places he'd been almost too convincing.
"I don't think I'll kill you right now -- Josh, isn't it? If you'll step inside we can talk. I'm afraid I can't offer you much comfort." Lefleur stepped to the threshold and grimaced theatrically when he saw the shattered door frame. "Not very subtle, is he? Ah, well, I don't much worry about burglars anyway."
"You're not going to kill me?" Josh asked uncertainly. He stepped forward slowly, following Lefleur inside.
Michael, careful to make not even the slightest sound, took to the air and dropped gently outside the house. Fortunately, it didn't seem Lefleur shared his ability for sensing his own kind. He'd been counting on that, to keep Josh safe. The worst was over now. Josh would see his own part through, then it would be Michael's turn.
* * * * *
Josh stopped at the doorway, still eyeing Lefleur warily. He knew what those hands could do and had no intention of getting too close. "You'll prolong all this, then?"
Lefleur looked genuinely taken aback when he turned to face Josh. He said, "Of course not. If you want to die, simply say so and I will make it so. If not, I have another offer to make."
Josh stepped deeper into the house, wishing for light as the shadows closed over him. He stopped, still a respectful distance from the vampire, looking now more curious than afraid or angry. He let hope seep into his voice as he said, "Offer? You would share your blood with me?"
"There are conditions, of course. In light of recent events, though, I don't think you'll find it too hard to agree to them."
"You want me to help you bring Michael down," Josh said, smiling. And, at Lefleur's nod, "I also have a condition. Two of them, actually." Without waiting for a response, he said, "First, I want to share him once it is done. We will take what he was unwilling to give!"
"Well said, boy, well said," Lefleur said. He looked genuinely pleased by this turn of events. Josh did his best to look equally pleased. Lefleur said, "And what is the second condition?"
"He told me that his blood was for Amanda," Josh began, "and that I could have nothing. I know you want her for yourself, but I will not help you unless you tell me where I can find her."
"You will not harm her, boy. She is a treasure in the strength she offers."
"I would only drink. Not much, just enough so that one day I could tell him I had been there, I had tasted what he longed for all these centuries. It would be fitting," Josh finished, smiling even though his insides knotted themselves in fear. This was the moment. If Lefleur suspected--
But the vampire only grinned. "Yes, I think it would be," he said. He closed the distance between them suddenly, his eyes dark. "Or is that truly the reason you want to know? Perhaps you hope to weaken me when you drink, taking away both strength and knowledge, leaving me to your dear Michael? Perhaps I should be done with it now. If I am wrong I have nothing to lose, do I boy? But if I am right . . ."
"No!" Josh protested as Lefleur's iron grip tightened on his throat, lifting him from the floor. The world tilted crazily and filled with whorls and flashes of color as consciousness was leeched away. Josh tried to protest again but his throat was closed too tightly to let the sound slip by. Agony built to a crescendo and he called out, in silence, for Michael.
* * * * *
Michael spared no time for the door, bursting instead through the wall and surging toward Lefleur. Half his shirt ripped away and a cut opened on his shoulder and closed again before he even had time to feel it. So intent was Lefleur on the murder he was committing that he never saw what was coming until Michael caught the arm that held Josh and broke it at the elbow. Josh was flung, limp and unprotesting, against the wall. He sank to the floor as Lefleur staggered backwards roaring in rage and pain. Michael advanced too quickly for Lefleur to do anything more than turn half-away and caught Lefleur's throat much as Josh had been caught. He lifted the vampire off his feet and squeezed. Lefleur beat weakly at Michael's arm, looking down in mute terror.
"Arrogance," Michael said, his voice low. "It was my arrogance that began this, and now yours that has ended it." Lefleur struggled, using both arms now, since the other had healed already. One of the gifts he'd stolen from Amanda. He tried to speak and Michael tightened his grip. He turned to look at Josh, crumpled against the wall. A piece of the shattered door frame had come loose as he struck and now hung in his hair. The boy's chest rose and fell. His heartbeat was solid and steady. Dark purple splotches were already darkening his neck, but no real harm had been done. Michael smiled, and when he turned back to Lefleur the creature cringed away, or tried to.
"He will live," Michael said. "You will not. And if he chooses, he shall have me in any way he desires." Michael realized the truth of that only after it was said. He pushed it away. "You will have nothing. What you will do, however, is tell me where Amanda lies. You will tell me this now, or I will coax the knowledge from you slowly. Choose." He lowered Lefleur to the floor, relaxed his grip enough for him to speak.
"Please," Lefleur began. Michael lifted him once more, hurled him across the room. Michael was on him before he could move.
"I will tell you," Lefleur said, "if you will let me live!"
"That is not an option. You will tell me, then you will die. It is only the timing that matters." That said, Michael smiled once more and snapped his neck.
* * * * *
Michael's search of the house took only seconds and turned up exactly what he'd expected. He didn't think Lefleur would heal his ruptured spine as easily as he'd healed the broken arm, yet he intended to take no chances. He returned to the room where Lefleur lay, an empty bedroom on the second floor, well away from Josh, who remained unconscious. Lefleur lay on the floor, his head still canted unnaturally, like a backward-looking owl. As Michael looked on, the head snapped around with the sound of bone against bone.
"Do that too quickly," he said, gathering up the items he'd piled in the center of the room, "and I'll simply do it again."
Lefleur gave no response and Michael turned away. He kicked open the attic door and unburdened himself of his load. There was a length of chain, maybe fifteen feet, each link twice as thick as Michael's thumb, and three padlocks the size of his doubled fists. He smiled, thinking of what Lefleur had intended. He went below again and returned with Lefleur, who was almost totally healed and who made the trip in charged silence. When he saw what lay on the floor he drew back in terror. When Michael pulled him to the window and threw it open to reveal the glowing eastern horizon he actually wailed.
Josh made the trip to wakefulness slowly, fearful of what he might find when his eyes opened. When he could no longer deny consciousness or the pain in his throat he opened his eyes. If he was alive then Michael had certainly intervened. That meant he'd taken care of Lefleur, so where was he? Josh sat up and something dropped from his chest into his lap. Michael's shirt, different from the one he'd worn the morning before, in tatters. Michael had taken the time to make him comfortable, in some small way. Everything was going to be all right. He smiled and pulled the shirt to his chest for a moment, then pulled himself upright. His throat felt leathery on the inside and horribly swollen and abused outside. If Michael had been any slower . . . but he'd had to make sure Lefleur wasn't bluffing, certainly, before he interfered. For Amanda's sake.
Josh sought out the kitchen, and was pleasantly surprised when the faucet produced a stream of fresh water. He hadn't expected a vampire to need running water, but then, they did bathe didn't they? He dipped his mouth beneath the stream and drank greedily. His thirst slaked, he cupped his hands under the water and doused his face and tender neck. No permanent damage, he decided. He thought of Michael again and walked over to the ruined cellar door. No sound from below. Surely Michael wouldn't have simply left him here. Unless he'd induced Lefleur into giving over Amanda's whereabouts, of course . . . but he wouldn't believe Michael had deserted him until he had proof. He could be hurt, for all Josh knew. He cursed his selfishness and stepped down into the dimly lit cellar, only then realizing he'd been able to see clearly in the upstairs rooms. It was almost sunrise. False dawn was nearly over. The cellar was as empty as he'd suspected. He was almost to the top of the stairs when the first scream came, preternaturally loud, especially in the still of the morning. Another scream, then another, then the morning was full of them until Josh thought he'd go mad, the sound drilling into him until his eardrums vibrated like struck piano wire. Hands clasped to his head, screaming as if he could drown the noise out, he tore through the front door and ran until the screams faded. The sun had climbed over the trees and shone down from the clear azure of morning.
* * * * *
Josh caught movement some distance off and turned toward it. Twenty feet away a rabbit had hopped out of the woods, ears erect, nose twitching. The screams continued. Josh lifted a hand to his neck, which was throbbing neatly in rhythm with his heart, and grimaced. The rabbit looked at him for a moment, thumped its back feet twice in alarm, and disappeared into the woods. He shifted his position against the huge pine and wondered how much time had passed since dawn. The sun still hung low in the east. An hour, maybe; at least that. And still Lefleur -- Josh had decided the sounds must be his -- screamed on. One moment would bring the low, guttural howls of some giant animal in the throes of unimaginable pain, the next the high-pitched wails of a tortured banshee. It had not stopped, not once, all this time. A human throat would have torn itself apart by now, but Lefleur's still gave voice to a suffering that gave Josh gooseflesh with his attempts to imagine it. Surely it would stop soon.
A breeze stirred, lifting his hair from his brow, and a small rustle behind him told him the rabbit or one of its cousins was still nearby. He thought of Michael, of the screams, and plucked a dead pine needle from his pants leg. It crumbled at his touch.
* * * * *
The screams ended abruptly, not tapering away but collapsing into silence as if they had never been. For a moment the morning was naked without them. Josh looked toward the house. The sun stood directly over the peak of the great roof. He guessed he'd been sitting here for two hours, maybe, and now that the screams were gone he was unsure what to do. The rabbit rustled the brush again, still foraging. Josh envied it. He sat a while longer, waiting for the noise to return. He stood and walked back toward the house, brushing absently at clinging bits of leaves and dirt and pine needles.
He jumped backward as the scream tore through his head, barely gripping the banister in time to halt his fall. He stood just below the second-floor landing. Moments passed, his hands pressed against his ears. Silence, then several dull thuds, a low moaning. He continued up the stairs to the second floor. At the end of the hall a small door opened into dimness. Josh could make out a narrow, steep stairs beyond.
The attic door stood open. Josh crept silently forward, a broad grin spreading across his face. Michael stood at the east end of the room, sculpted muscle bathed in sunlight. He hadn't seen Josh, but was staring fixedly at something in front of him, just out of Josh's line of sight. A smile lit his face and he said something Josh couldn't hear. Then he stepped forward, arm raised. Several more dull thuds, more moaning. Josh instinctively dropped to a crouch, hands protecting his ears, but there was no assault on his senses this time. After a time he stood and crept forward. Michael was engrossed with whatever he was doing and still hadn't noticed the intruder, who peered around the doorway just as Michael raised his hand once more and lashed out at -- at the thing hanging in tatters from a chain looped over the rafters. He'd expected something horrible, but nothing like what he now confronted. He turned away, recognizing but not recognizing Lefleur, and gasped involuntarily.
Michael's head swung around and, seeing Josh, he smiled. Josh looked from the chained lump to Michael, grinning in all his ageless beauty, and shook his head, unable to find words, any words, to offer.
"Take a look at your tormentor," Michael said at last. "He'll harm no one else, that I promise you."
Josh took several steps deeper into the room, stopping only when the smell washed over him. This time it was his nose he protected, not his tortured ears. The stench was unlike anything he'd smelled before, burnt meat and death, as if someone had thrown a rotting animal, hair and all, onto a griddle. His eyes watered and he turned away, vomiting through his fingers. He made it to the door and collapsed against the frame, his insides still churning. Michael was coming across the room now and, behind him, what was left of Lefleur moaned weakly. The realization that it still lived, was alive, washed over him and he turned away and vomited again. Then Michael was holding him, telling him everything would be okay. Josh wanted to push him away, to run down the stairs and away from the thing in the chains, but consciousness receded as inexorably as the tide.
* * * * *
Josh returned to consciousness for the second time that morning, his mouth foul with the taste of bile. Michael stood over him, looking concerned. He realized Michael was holding one of his hands, stroking it absently. He sat up, realized he was on the small landing outside the attic door, which was closed now. Memory of what lay beyond it made him shudder.
"I'm sorry," Michael said. "I should have known, I should have checked on you." He looked miserable and glanced away.
Josh only looked at him. What was one supposed to say? Michael released his hand and backed the two steps to the door. He was magnificent, Josh thought, looking at him, and when the mold from which he was created shattered the world should have mourned the loss. Josh looked at the door, then back down the stairs.
"I need a drink of water," he said.
Michael stood back a few paces while Josh rinsed his mouth and then drank. Josh turned to him, but without a smile. "I understand, Michael. You have to know about Amanda, no matter what. Lefleur is evil. I know that." Something flickered across Michael's face. "What?"
"I already know," he said, not meeting Josh's eyes. "He told me before the sun ever rose. Told me everything."
Josh turned back to the sink, gripped it fiercely. "Why, then? What need was there for -- for what is up there?"
"It is what he deserves!"
"Is it? Why? Because you say so? Because you are stronger, because you are wiser? Maybe," Josh faltered for a second, then pressed on, stronger, "maybe that is wisdom I never want to learn."
"Josh, I'm sorry--"
"For what? For being what you are? Who you are? How can you be sorry for that? It makes no difference."
"Lefleur is evil! He has destroyed countless lives, would have destroyed yours! He is vicious--"
"And you aren't? There is next to nothing left of him, Michael! If I hadn't known what he had been I'd never have been able to tell. And you torture that little bit that is left." Josh had stepped forward as he spoke and now stood close enough to Michael they could almost have kissed. The idea tore at him, tortured him, and he spun away.
"I don't understand this."
"When will you kill him?"
"I will do it now, if that's what you want."
"Damn it, Michael! After what I saw up there I can barely concede that he still lives, but after what I saw up there I'd also say let him live, if he is able!"
Michael looked stunned. "That is a mercy he would not show you, Josh. He would have no second thoughts, no compassion, no moral arguments within himself before he tore you apart and left you broken and in agony to die where you fell!"
"Maybe you're right. Maybe he should die. But what I saw up there was something beyond justice, Michael. It was medieval, pain given for the sake of giving it; torture in the name of good or justice or right, while all of those things stand far removed from that room!"
"You're right," Michael said. He turned away, headed for the door.
Josh stopped him with a hand on his arm. "What are you doing?"
"I'm going to end this," Michael said, "the way it should have ended hours ago. I'm sorry. Perhaps I owe even Lefleur an apology, but I think an end to his suffering will suffice."
Josh nodded and turned away, wrapping his arms around his chest. He watched Michael until he disappeared up the stairs, then left the house to sit next to his pine tree and listen for rabbits.
* * * * *
He'd been there only a few minutes when Michael emerged from the house and crossed the distance between them. Josh stood to meet him.
"It's done," Michael said. "We can get on with things. Your parents must be worried sick. You'll have some explaining to do." He paused for a moment, then added, almost shyly, "If you go back."
"I'm going back," Josh said. "I'm an adult. They'll understand. I'll think of something."
Michael looked at him, then shook his head as he realized what was coming. He reached for Josh, who stepped away.
"Josh, please . . . I don't understand?!"
"I know," Josh said, turning away. He started walking toward the weed-choked access road on the far side of the house, half expecting Michael's hand on his shoulder with every step, wondering if he'd have the strength to keep going if that hand fell. When he got to the edge of the road he glanced back to his tree. Michael was gone. A rabbit hopped into view, eyed him a moment, went about its foraging. He walked on. After a while he began to cry.
To be continued? Josh still has quite a bit of love for Michael, to be sure. Not to mention lust. And just how human is Michael? Has his age allowed him to partake of human pleasure once again, as it has allowed him to greet the sun without fear? He's shown that he can be as gentle as he can be vicious, so who knows. Maybe Josh could be in for the romance of his life, if he could find a way to forgive Michael, or at least to understand him. And one must admit the sex would most likely be quite spectacular.
This is the first time I've posted a story, here or anywhere. I don't really fancy myself much of a writer, but these characters started bugging me months ago and this was the only way I could get 'em to shut up. For a while. Since I wrote this, they've started up again. There's another adventure here, if there are readers who want to come along for the ride . . .
Copyright 1998. This work may be archived freely as long as it is kept intact and you ain't makin' money off the deal.