The Churning Black-Chapter One:
I could almost feel the heat. Almost. I watched the low flames silently carve a path across the floor, and waited. The flickering tongues looked hotter than they really were, though. The temptation was too strong, and I bet low enough to run my fingers through the yellow-orange crests. They weren't even hot enough to singe my flesh. A path was scrolled through the dirt and grime as if drawn by a steady calligrapher’s hand. The swirls and loops bent and twisted around themselves until they formed a perfect circle around me. I used to know the name of each glyph, but after all these years, it just didn't seem to matter anymore.
I waited. I’m not sure how long it was, but the flames slowly burned lower. All I could hear was silence. I’m not sure what angered me more, that I was left standing there for hours on end, or that I had grown so accustomed to it. The stone beneath the flames started to melt like candle wax, and still no one appeared before me.
Linear time was a concept I fought with constantly, but the flames never lied. It was hours before the darkness on the outside of the circle finally started to thicken. I heard the sound of wind, so faint at first I thought I imagined it. It carried the crackling of the great pits, and the distant thunder I once knew so well. I tried not to let my chest swell around the familiar ember. I wanted to go home so badly it hurt, but I had my pride. By the gods, I had my pride.
The darkness became absolute, so thick not even my eyes could penetrate it. It swirled and folded in on itself, swallowing reason. I smelled sulfur, and I felt my shoulders stiffen. Of course it would be her…
“There’s something different about you. No, don’t tell me…” Her voice was softer than I remembered. Despite my better judgment, my ears opened to the sound like a flower at dawn. I waited for the knife, “oh, that’s right, it’s desperation.”
“I’m surprised she let you out, Syra. Won’t her kennels get lonely?” I saw the faintest outline of her appear on the other side of the circle. She took her time moving around the edge. She studied me like a bug under a glass. She didn’t bother to dress, and her breasts stirred the ether separating the worlds. She stepped lightly, and her hooves pointed beneath her ankles like six-inch stilettos. It made her pale legs flex and gleam in the firelight.
“I missed you too, Amdusias,” she said, and turned to face the edge of the circle in front of me. She stuck out her bottom lip, and fluttered her eyelashes. Syra was raven-haired now, olive skinned, and her tail matched her hair. It tapered to a thin cord that fluttered behind her like a loose whip. “She was going to send Briel, but I convinced her not to. The Lords from Horan’s Deep weren’t finished yet.”
My mind filled with images of Briel being taken by the Infernal Lords, and the back of my hand itched to meet Syra’s face. “There will come a day when I will be free, Syra, and when I do-“
“You’ll what, cut me into pieces?” She reached up and dragged a fingernail down her cheek hard enough to draw blood. “I’ll cherish it, Amdusias. Every. Barbed. Lash.”
I bit my tongue and scowled, but she just threw her head back and laughed. Out of the deeper black behind her, I could hear the winds of the damned calling me home. I even took a step toward the flames before I realized what I’d done and caught myself. Syra’s eyes suddenly narrowed on me, and her mouth curved into a smile that stretched from ear to ear. It twisted her face hideously.
“My poor, poor Lord,” she blinked and her eyes and forced a tear that leaked into the thin line of blood on her face. When I didn’t respond, she sighed and dropped into a crouch, holding her hands over the flames. I watched her fingernails start to glow like charcoals. “She wants you to tell me about the girl.”
I rolled my eyes and looked over Syra’s head into the inky darkness. “I bet she does. But why you?”
“Because she knows how much I love watching you crawl on your hands and knees.” Syra glanced up, and the grin on her face parted to reveal a row of razor-sharp teeth. “And, because every time you lie to me, I’ll add ten years to your sentence.”
“It might be worth another few hundred years just to have my words spill from your mouth in her open chamber.”
“Try me, Lord.” Her eyes glinted black, and the flames shone like mirrors in them.
I smiled. “Fine, let’s just pretend I give a damn what you believe for a moment. By ‘the girl’ you mean Angelica.” I watched Syra’s tail swish behind her, and then it snaked between her open legs and began to toy with the fire under her hands. “There’s not much to tell, really.”
“She wants answers. You are in exile, Lord, you cannot bring a Duchess into her court unannounced!”
I laughed, and Syra’s smile contorted in her rage. “Ten years!”
I folded my arms across my chest and sighed, but I couldn’t keep the smile off my face. So, Angelica actually made it to court without being cut down. It had been a long time since a mortal impressed me. “Fine, you win. I’ll tell you what I can.” Syra’s head tilted against her shoulder and watched me closely. “I can’t remember how long ago it was, time moves sideways here.”
“Quit stalling, Lord, the heat is already fading, and if I return with nothing to report, I will heap as many centuries down upon you as she will allow. And then, I’ll take my time tearing your bitch to pieces.”
“You’re the one who left me here waiting for hours on end, Syra, so don’t play the innocent victim, it doesn’t suit you.” I tapped my chin and took a deep breath. “I first saw her perform at the Kenton palisade. Her voice was phenomenal. But the role was completely wrong for her-- a peasant with that kind of power shouldn’t have been an understudy for the lead.” I pursed my lips, thinking back to that night. The opera house was full of aristocrats in overpriced suits, wearing jewelry handed down through generations. The smell of polish lingered under the rich perfumes.
“I was borrowing a young man from a townhome a few blocks away. He was rich, handsome, and normally quite shy. I rather enjoyed the charade for an hour or two, but I got bored before long.” Syra didn’t take her eyes off of me, and her hands stayed in the center of the flames to keep warm.
“The opera was something inane, a tragedy in three acts. It had a queen, a scheming courtesan, and a collection of sinister figures posing as her heroes in order to overthrow the kingdom.” I smiled at her, the irony was monumental. “During the second act, Angelica took the stage and began a long, sorrowful aria that drove every other thought from my head. I heard something rare in her that I hadn’t heard in years.”
“Like what, celestial purity?”
“Hardly. And since you don’t have an ear for anything less than a kennel whistle, I won’t waste my time explaining it.”
Syra scowled at me. “Ten more, my Lord.”
The price was worth the look on her face. “I didn’t wait for the show to end, just made my way to the dressing room backstage. It wasn’t hard to persuade one of the stage hands to let me in. I sat at the row of dressing tables and waited for her.”
“According to the clock on the wall, I had just over two hours left until I would be stripped from my host. One of the queen’s more delightful limitations, Syra.” I closed my eyes for a moment and drank in the memory. When the stagehand walked Angelica in, I could hear the quiet heat in her voice. “This is completely ridiculous, I told you that I’m--” Angelica stopped when her eyes fell upon me, sitting by the dressing table. I stood slowly and she rounded on the stagehand, but he just bowed slightly, and closed the door after him.
“I don’t know who you are, or what calling me in here was supposed to accomplish, but—“
“I was moved by your performance, and felt compelled to meet you. I apologize if it comes as a shock.”
She glanced around nervously, then squared her shoulders. “While I appreciate the sentiment, sir, I hardly think ambushing me here is appropriate. If you’ll excuse me.”
Syra threw her head back and laughed. When her mouth opened, I could see diminishing rows of teeth leading to her throat. “She walked away from you? You have been among them too long, my Lord. They’ve even made you start to think like them.”
I waited for her to finish. “If you’re ready, I’ll continue.”
Syra’s Cheshire smile was back and she bent impossibly low to the flames and swept her arm out. “By all mean, Amdusias. I forget myself.”
“I stepped closer to her, and crafted a single long-stemmed rose behind my back. I handed it to her, and then smiled with all the charm my host could create. She looked confused for an instant, and then blushed. I told her she should get back to the wings before she was missed, and she nodded.”
“I waited until midnight in the alley behind the opera house, and left poor Joseph laying against the trash cans. I passed through the basement windows, and then drifted under the stage until I found the trap doors. The lights were already turned low, so no one noticed the darkness seeping up through the floor.”
I skipped over the finer points of how I managed to track Angelica through the streets, following her cab like a stray current of air as it slipped through the city streets. Syra wasn’t interested in the nuances, and the chances were heavily stacked that she wouldn’t tell the queen any of them anyway. I remember thinking it was strange that Angelica kept the rose. I saw it in her hand, the tip peeking out under the edge of her garment bag.
“She lived in a tall apartment building, one that only had one window and a balcony. I watched her put the rose in a vase, and she stared at it for a long time before getting ready for bed.”
“And that was when you claimed her as your own?”
“I did nothing of the sort. I watched her undress, her limbs tired from the constant anxiety of performing. She fell into bed without a care in the world. I didn’t have long to wait. The glass was inconsequential, and I only had to whisper my name to plant the seed of my desires into her.”
“She turned over in her sleep, and I pulled back enough to watch her completely. Her eyelids fluttered, and her breathing started to rush between the soft whimpers mortals make. She didn’t wear clothes to bed, so when her hands moved to tease her breasts, there was nothing to stop them. Her thighs squeezed together, and when her fingertips pressed tightly against her nipples, she moaned aloud.”
I watched Syra’s tail lash between her legs, and despite the anger on her face, her own nipples were growing hard. “Angelica was lost in her dream. I could have thrown her through the window, and she would never have awakened before hitting the pavement. Her eyes shot open, but it meant nothing. The desire pulsing through her veins was for me, and me alone. Angelica reached for the wetness seeping between her legs and ran her hand over it like I wanted her to. She teased the soft folds and ran her fingers up and down the edges of her labia. She toyed with her clitoris, rubbed it, made the pliant nub of flesh stand proudly for my inspection. She mewled, a sound so close to begging for release that I allowed her to climax. She clenched her teeth and groaned before curling into a tight ball of delirium.”
I saw the look in Syra’s eyes—she wanted more. Her tail barely moved between her legs. The flames were almost gone, and darkness was bearing down on her. “And then nothing, Syra. I let her sleep with the thought of my fingers touching the outermost edges of her delicate folds, of my tongue savoring every inch of her.”
Syra howled in rage as the flames blew out.