Enjoy the mayhem and remember your shotguns and hex-breakers, kids!
"But you will."
"And then we got the phone call and came here," Arik finished. He sat in an overstuffed armchair covered in gold fabric and red peonies. One leg was crossed over the other at the knee, and one foot was bouncing to a manic beat. "That's it. That's the entire story."
Mister Ţapul -- Lucas, please call him Lucas, he'd said -- sat in a chair that matched Arik's at another corner of their triangular seating arrangement. His dark grey slacks were impeccably pressed, his shirt had been starched within an inch of its life, but his shirttails were out, and the cardigan he wore was well-loved and patched at the elbows. Blaze liked him. Blaze liked anybody who approached chaos with an air of curiosity and fearlessness. It was rare and beautiful and damned handy.
After Blaze had fallen into the room, Lucas had suggested they sit and perhaps crack open a bottle of bourbon he'd found squirreled away in his sister's special liquor cabinet. Marjorie Ţapul had always been an eccentric, and it was in her house, cluttered as it was with scrolls and knick-knacks that ranged from stuffed bears to figurines of Saints to grotesque and politically-incorrect statues of lewd acts and the judgments of them, in which they sat. Lucas lived nearby in a townhome, or so he'd told them as they had gotten comfortable and had waited on Lucas' man to bring the drinks, and he was considering opening up Marjorie's house as a museum.
"An ode to the obscure," Lucas had said, laughing and thanking the handsome man who brought the bourbon. "She was a strange one, my sister. Was obsessed with religions, among other things, and the rituals that went along with them. But, I suppose, we're all afflicted with peculiarities. Some of us just have brands that are easier to hide."
"True," Arik had agreed. He'd been fidgeting and glancing at Blaze every time he thought Blaze wouldn't notice. Eventually Blaze had reached over and squeezed Arik's hand. Lucas had watched, a shadow darkening his face, though Blaze was almost positive it had nothing to do with homophobia and everything to do with regret.
"So," Lucas had prompted. "Tell me everything."
Blaze had been about to jump in and offer up an intricate lie that was composed of enough truth to make it believable. He had some skill in that area, after all, but Arik had shocked the hell out of Blaze and gone for broke. Arik had started with his father jumping off a bridge and had ended with their journey from the Fireward to the estate. Blaze had sank further and further into one half of a plush loveseat with gilded edging and dandelions dancing on the cushions, and he'd listened to Arik's frank, calm, but impassioned recounting of their lives together so far. Hearing it all put Blaze into a kind of fugue state. His lips went a little numb, and his extremities tingled like he was touching Arik when he wasn't. Blaze didn't mind; the reminder of their connection, real or not, was pleasant. It made him wonder if it'd be possible one day to have with Arik what he'd had with Doru; a constant link. To wake and walk and work knowing what your other half was doing, feeling, almost thinking… Blaze couldn't contemplate the possibility too long. He would start to cry, here in this grieving man's inherited home, and he might not stop for a full cycle of the earth around the sun.
Arik had told their story with a financier's account of detail, and he'd addressed the floor and the fireplace, mostly, but Blaze had watched Lucas. The Goat Man's eyes had widened once or twice, and he'd drained his glass dry by the end, but there was never once a glimmer of derision or damnation. Just interest.
Blaze approved, both of Lucas and of Arik's choice to spill all their guts, and a painful burbling began again in Blaze's insides. It had started in the shower, after they'd finished and were washing up. At first, Blaze thought he was getting sick or ill and was about to start bleeding out, but nothing like that had happened.
In the car, when the twisting, turning, knotty sensation had happened again, Blaze had huddled closer to Arik, breathed, and thought the feeling was… vaguely familiar. Distant, like one might remember old, old physical pain. With agony, Blaze knew, you remembered the sight of the knife piercing your skin. You remembered the well of blood, the horror that you really were so much meat and fragile bone, and the knowledge that such vulnerability would, most certainly, kill you. The pain itself was a sidelined ghost. It had happened, but its particulars were lost in the nightmare of your life draining out of your body long before it was time.
And now, with the silence looming in the library and the fire crackling and the wind blowing branches to rat-tat-tat against the tall windows, Blaze felt the churning in his guts a third time. Or maybe it was the fourth. Or maybe… it'd been there ever since he'd seen a man with dark hair and kind eyes in his Vision dreams.
Hope. Blaze was pretty sure what he was experiencing was desire for things to get better and the hope that maybe, just maybe, they could. Hope was a badger trying to chew its way out of Blaze's innards, and Blaze was happy to let the little fucker do what it wished.
"Huh." Lucas went to take a drink, discovered only melting ice, and reached for the decanter the servant had left behind. "So you think I can solve your riddle and you're telling me that you," Lucas looked at Blaze over the rim of his glass. "Are over three-hundred-and-fifty years old?"
"We don't really expect you to believe it," Blaze said.
"Fuck that," Arik said. "I do expect him to. He needs to."
"No, actually, I don't."
Both Arik and Blaze turned to Lucas. "I don't," Lucas repeated. "I don't need to believe it at all in order to think about it. That's like saying I have to believe in Santa Claus to research Saint Nicklaus. Or that I have to shake hands with Satan to study Dante's seven rings." Lucas shook his head. "It's a hell of a story, gentlemen, and for what my opinion is worth, I think it's as real as anything can be to the two of you."
"Want to see him cut his finger off?" Arik asked. "It's inspiring on the belief front."
"No, no," Lucas said. "I think I can do without that. Though I have seen a man brought back from the dead."
"Excuse me?" Arik asked.
Lucas nodded. "Mmhm, I was in a god-awful little shack two hours outside of Saint Petersburg. I was interviewing a woman who was, as best as my research could tell, the last of a line of witches descended from a cult that was one of the earliest records of groups that worshipped Lilith. Or, well, their version of that figure. Anyway, a man had died and his wife and son brought his body to the woman's house while I was there. She let me stay, saying that I wouldn't believe what my eyes would see, anyway, so there was no harm. She took the end bones of the wife's fingers and the pinky toes of the little boy and mixed them into some sort of vat. She poured the substance down the dead man's throat, and just after midnight, he sat straight up, wheezed, and asked for a dram of vodka."
"Sweet Jesus." Arik put his hands on either side of his head, as though worried his brains might explode out of his ears. Blaze drank.
"No, sweet witchcraft." Lucas looked at Blaze. "That woman sound like the sort who cursed you?"
"Could it have been the same woman?" Arik asked, and Blaze loved the man's ability to tie final straws together at their frayed ends.
"No," Blaze said.
"How do you know? You've survived all this time. Why not her?"
Blaze studied the amber color of the bourbon. "I know because she's dead."
"How do you--"
"You killed her, didn't you?" Lucas asked.
Arik's eyes went round and though he paled to the color of snow on the sides of city streets, he swallowed and waited for Blaze to answer.
"I never said I was a good man." Blaze couldn't make himself speak louder than a mumble.
"Tell me," Arik said.
Blaze watched the fire dance in the darkness of Arik's eyes. He died and was reborn and died again in the desire to manipulate fire as he'd been born to do. There'd been a time, so long ago, now, that Blaze could hardly remember it and never thought of it, because it was more painful a loss than even Doru, damned as he was by such a prideful admission, that he could have gazed at the flames' reflection in Arik's irises and seen their secrets. He would have known the way and could have lead them both on the right path. He would have solved this riddle, this personal Quest, long ago. Which was, of course, why the witch had taken such a gift from him.
"My curse was that so long as her blood was upon this earth, so was I doomed to wander it." Iron bands wrapped around Blaze's chest, making it hard to breathe and harder to speak. "I would never do what she had done. I couldn't fathom it. But I kept tabs on the family lines. I could tell you the dates when each of them died out. None exist today.
"And when I learned that she still lived, some hundred years after I'd woken in a clearing soaked with the blood of my family, my lover, and my own veins, I… I had to see. She'd made it to the New World, and she'd carved a niche for herself by becoming the incarnation of evil spirits. I found a trail of terrifying stories. I found a camp of Natives. I found a path into the darkest part of the forest nearby, and I found her lair." Blaze paused to drink and to smile at the silent, flickering fire; his stolen best friend. "Everyone sleeps," he said. "Even a sorceress. Especially an underfed, old sorceress. And cold steel solves a great many problems."
For a while, only the wind spoke in scratches on the panes, but finally Arik said, "Good." He stood, he bent, he kissed Blaze's hair, and he said, "Good," again, before shakily turning toward Lucas. "Bathroom?"
"Out those doors, first hall on the left, first door on the right."
"Thank you." Arik kissed Blaze again and left.
"He's a good man," Lucas said, after a moment.
"He is." Blaze wondered if dying would be like this: an ache for what and who you loved, a rush like you were about to dive off a cliff with a parachute that may or may not open, and a deep, abiding melancholy that was finally awake and stirring in your bones because somewhere, somehow, you knew the end was nigh.
"Soft, maybe. But good," Lucas commented.
"Not soft." Blaze tore his gaze off the doorway. "Not like you mean. He's seen plenty. He just still feels it all."
"I see," Lucas said, though Blaze knew he really didn't. "So the family lines are all gone?"
"I'm still cursed. I had noticed."
Lucas gave a startled, small laugh. "I'm sure. Have they ever found any evidence of strangeness in you? Of this curse?"
"Doctors and the ilk."
"Ah. No. There've been tests run. I've not always been able to avoid it. I bleed, some good samaritan takes me somewhere, and they find nothing. My blood is normal. My organs function just fine." It's my soul that's the problem; it's cursed.
"So you're stuck, then? In time but not place?"
"Forever young. Forever wandering."
"I'm sorry," Lucas said, quietly and horrified.
"I think you know I can't help you."
"Oh?" Blaze said, because it was the most vague thing he could say.
Lucas waved his hands. "I could tell you a hundred stories of strange things I've seen. But if what you say is true, none of them would be a surprise to the likes of a person with your experience. I know history. There are dozens of books, here, that my sister had and that you could read, all about people and religions. I've got thousands more tomes at my home and access to even more online. But it's all… struggle and horror. And it's other peoples' struggles. Other peoples' horrors. It's not personal to you and what you're going through, anymore than anything else is. History is nothing more than a series of right turns that take us straight back to the sins of our forefathers. I don't know if we ever… overcome them."
A flash tore through Blaze's mind--
SINS OF THE FATHER
--and he hissed, one hand flying to his temple. It was a Vision of sorts, though it was very, very rare for such imagery to hurt.
"Are you all right?"
"I'm fine," Blaze lied. "You were saying?"
Lucas's look was wary, but he sipped his drink and continued. "I love that you two came here, today. It's the first time I've felt alive in years. When your boyfriend marched in here, demanding answers…" Lucas chuckled. "It was like seeing myself from the outside in. But I don't think I can help you. I don't have any insight. I've had none of your kind of Vision while I've sat here, listening to your macabre and incredible story. I'm just an old man." He paused. "An old queen. Who went searching for answers in books because I couldn't figure out the greatest riddle of my life."
The fire flickered low. "I didn't know why my parents chose to take out their disappointment in me on my sister. She was younger, beautiful and smart, but not as beautiful or as smart as the eldest gay son. For all the girls I didn't kiss, for the women I didn't marry, for the babies I didn't have, she got the punishment. She was fat. She was ugly. She was lazy. She wasn't going to amount to anything. Lucas was out exploring the world with Granddaddy's money, and what had she done to impress them, lately? She'd not see a cent of any of the family fortune unless she stopped smoking. Stopped drinking. Lost weight, got her nose fixed, and became the model citizen who finished college and got married and got knocked up like a good little girl.
"She left home when she was twenty, and she never looked back. She made a living out of collecting things. She found items that other people would treasure, and she charged a fee for her service. She had adventures that my parents' couldn't fathom, much less appreciate, and she was the only one who ever accepted me as I was. Now she's dead. And I'm alive. And what have I found? What have I learned? What do I know?" Lucas shook his head, maudlin in his cups. "Only that I'll need all my resources to pick up her journey where she left off. To keep finding things for people; to keep searching for answers.
"And, I suppose, I know one more thing. And it's why I know I don't think I can help you." Lucas leaned forward, forearms on his knees. He had eyes to match the bourbon.
"I've only seen fifty-nine years. It doesn't hold a candle to your supposed multitudes, but this much I know to be true, and it seems to be something you've forgotten or never learned: when you search for answers," Lucas said, with gravitas that made Blaze's ears ring, "you rarely, if ever, find them outside yourself."
A click resounded in Blaze's mind, as though the tumblers had turned on a combination lock that would open a safe. Blaze's breath froze, and a zing of current went through him--
Pain. He's in pain.
--and from somewhere in the bowels of the house, Arik started to scream.
Blaze was on his feet before he registered leaving his seat. He was running before he remembered how to untangle legs from feet from gait. He was tearing through hallways, past pictures and mirrors and sconces, before he understood that he was heading for the sound of his lover's terror like a bloodhound on the hunt. His breath rushed in his ears. His heart pounded in his chest. His blood flowed hot in his veins. And he knew without doubt that he would tear anything or anyone in half for Arik. He would stand between Arik and any foe, be it animal, metal, or human. With his immortality, he'd see Arik never harmed, never hurt, and always saved. If Blaze was torn into pieces, he would will consciousness into each of them, and he'd find a way to cover and to protect Arik. He'd save Arik from anything, boredom to bullets, and when he found the closed door through which Blaze could feel the thrum of Arik's fear, Blaze barreled into it. When it didn't give, he kicked it in, and the old door gave beneath the force.
The bathroom was large, with wide, dark crown moulding and matching cabinets. There was a claw tub set on a dias, and a glass shower that could fit six. A double vanity ran along the wall to Blaze's left, and there was an archway that lead into an adjoining chamber where, Blaze assumed, the toilet was. The floor was stone and marble with grey throw rugs, and huddled on one that had been scooted to the corner made by the end of the vanity and the wall, was Arik. He had his arms around his knees, his head bowed, and his fingers were locked together, hands shaking.
"Arik?" Blaze asked, but it did not inspire the reaction Blaze wanted. Arik put his hands to his ears and screamed again.
"Should I get some help?" Lucas asked, and Blaze took a second to see that both Lucas and the serving man were crowded into the hallway behind Blaze.
Blaze held up a hand, patting the air in a Don't Know, Please Hold, gesture, and Blaze crept closer to Arik.
Pain… so much pain…
"Dragul meu…" Blaze tried, and Arik whimpered. Arik didn't look up, didn't stop shaking, and Blaze gave up caution. He walked over to Arik, sat down, and touched one of Arik's icy hands.
The bathroom drained of color and shimmered like a road meeting a line of torrential rain. Frost crackled across the floor, crept up the wood trim, and snaked across the windows. The light dimmed to a dull haze. Blaze's ears popped, and then they were filled with a continuous pulse, which Blaze quickly realized was a heartbeat. Arik's or his or the devil's, Blaze couldn't know.
"Arik?" Blaze asked, voice hushed. But when Arik looked up from his knees, Blaze saw it wasn't Arik at all. An old man with pure white eyes, who might be Arik if Arik had been in his seventies, gaped at Blaze.
"Mul!" Blaze gasped. "Spirit!"
The mul's mouth moved, and from the direction of the door, Blaze heard a voice. It was a whisper, but spoken as though the person saying the words was bellowing, and the tones were diminished by injury and distance.
Something smacked the side of the tub. Water gurgled. And while Blaze was fixated on the marble dias, a half-man-half-goat stepped through the toilet room archway. Blaze startled with a grunt, and he fell on his ass. He held on to the man who may or may not be Arik, refusing to let go, and Blaze watched the goatman step on cloven hooves into the main part of the bathroom. In one hand he held a Bible. In the other hand, he held a sickle, like the ones used to cut the wheat grass that protruded from the goat's too-wide mouth. Red eyes burned, caught fire, and melted down the goat's cheeks. Its sloping head went up in smoke, and the animal man began to thrash as though it held on to an electric fence. Words appeared in its white hide, above its nose: păcatele phuri.
"Sins of the elders," Blaze whispered, and the goat bleated in an echoing roar before taking off at a dead run for the opposite wall. Its feet carved divots out of the stone and left trails of smoke behind, but when it reached the wall, it wasn't a wall any longer; it was a meadow. And at the edge of the meadow was a forest. And that forest was on fire. And in that inferno, Blaze knew the goat would be slaughtered.
When the voice spoke next, it came from above, angry and terrible: "REVIEW."
Something banged in the tub and the whole thing shook. The marble tile around it began to crack and crumble, bits of it flying at Blaze. Blaze put himself between the shrapnel and the huddled man, and from behind them, in the direction Blaze could not see, a woman said, "Hello, Stea."
Blaze felt a dampness spreading between his thighs and understood, in the clinical detached way of someone not in their own body, not really, that he'd wet himself. He turned, though he was screaming at himself from across the room not to look, not to do it, oh God, please, fuck all the gods… Mama, please… don't let them hurt me… no…
The Machwaya wise woman witch was headless, just as Blaze had left her in that miserable den of bone and blood. She held her own head by the filthy hair and her other arm was wrapped around the naked, mutilated body of what had once been a boy with dark curls and a winning smile.
The witch's eyes gleamed. "I always loved your father."
Blaze's bowels were liquid, but he spat and cursed in the old tongue. The witch just laughed. "I always loved him, and he sold you like chattel to the highest bidder. Do no harm, you say. Only for the good, you say. You swore. He broke your sacred oath!"
The witch's roar sent a wave of nausea through Blaze and another trickle of wet warmth down his leg. He pitched forward and dry heaved onto the cold rock. Doru tried to break free, to come to him, but the witch pushed her hand between his ribs, and Doru jangled in death knells.
"You were the most powerful," said the witch. "The most beautiful. The strongest of will. Your father offered you to better his land, his people, and his pride. And I took you, and I'll take you again. Every day of eternity. I'm still with you, Stea. I always will be. But he..." She pinched Doru's nipple, and when he began to cry, the slash in his throat began to bleed. "Will never be yours to see...to feel… to taste..." The witch's tongue slithered out from between her lips, and as a never-ending rope, it wove through the air to lap at the blood at Doru's throat. She moaned, eyes rolling. "So sweet."
Blaze's mouth was full of sand, his mind full of ceaseless screaming, and when the voice came again, it was right at his left ear.
It came from everywhere, and the water was brackish, murky, and so cold it stole life from all it touched. Its stench was retch-making, open sewer and death, and the water dripped from the high corners of the room. It began to pool from the spaces between the stones on the floor. It oozed from the walls, making the wood bulge and buckle, and it sloshed over the side of the tub.
Blaze was suddenly in the middle of the room. He was alone. Arik was gone. The man-thing that might have been Arik had left. Lucas and the house faded away as though they had never been. Darkness engulfed Blaze, left him naked and small and weeping.
"Grandmamere…" Blaze whimpered, hugging himself. "Where are you? Don't leave me, Grandma--"
The witch's head appeared next to his own, and he could not flinch away. He could not run. Her blades were at his throat, his belly, and his balls. They sliced, and he cried out, and the witch bit his neck.
"Go and see," the witch said, around a mouthful of skin and blood. "Go and see, pretty Stea. Go and see."
A light flickered to life over the tub of dark water, and Blaze didn't want to look. He didn't want to see. He cried and he cried, but his feet carried him forward. Each step sliced a piece off his body. First his toes. Then his fingers. Then the tip of his nose. He tried to stop each time something cut him. He tried to run. But there was only forward unless he wanted to return to the maws of the witch woman.
Blaze had to climb the steps to reach the tub, and they were endless. Up and up and up he went, and he kept saying a name--
--screaming it like he called to a particular god, but he didn't know this Arik, and Arik didn't know him. Didn't answer, didn't come, didn't stop it. There was only Doru, who appeared in parts and chunks and halves as Blaze climbed. There was only his father, dead and bleeding, his mother, fallen in a heap, his grandmamere, open-eyed and bloated, and even though it hurt, Blaze started to run -- to flee up the stairs. If the only way out was to climb and head higher, then he would fly toward the blackened sky. He would scamper on nubs. He would crawl.
And so he did.
The side of the tub was hot, not cold, and when Blaze found it, he huddled against it. His skin smoked and burned, but that was all right. The silence ate at him in a way the witch's teeth and the blades and the cold could not, and Blaze longed for the cuts and the pain. He longed to feel, to be held, to hold. He needed to disappear, he needed not to be here, so he wadded what was left of himself into as tiny a ball as possible, and perhaps he slept. Perhaps he dreamed. Blaze wasn't sure; when he was aware of himself, he couldn't remember a thing.
But something drip… drip… dripped onto his spine, and that was real and that was awful. He ignored it, eyes squeezed shut, but finally he couldn't help it anymore. Blaze opened his eyes and saw he knelt in water that wasn't water at all, but blood. Black, congealed blood that had no right to roil like it did. The dias around the tub was coated, runnels dribbling over the edges, and Blaze called out. He didn't want to touch the stuff. He didn't want it near him. Around him. In him.
"...out. Let him get it out!"
"It's killing him!"
Blaze wiped his face and stood, his bare ass on the edge of a warm structure, and he'd forgotten again. He didn't remember getting here, or why he was here in the first place. But when he brushed the carved, stone well behind him, he remembered Doru's kisses like a jolt down his spine. He remembered the witch, death, pain, and a walk that had taken three centuries and more to finish. Blaze shied away, not wanting to know, but his flesh had burned and stuck to the lip of the well. He couldn't get free. He opened his eyes and he looked at it, really saw it, and gazed upon a shallow, round pool encircled in stone that had been cut with runes. Symbols like Grandmamere had shown him, made him carve into the rocks that ringed their cooking fires. Symbols that would keep him safe.
There was something in the pool, something that kicked at the sides.
And there was something more than just this starless night, this endless black, this pool, and the runes and himself… Someone else, someone important...
"Stea," the witch whispered.
"Are you watching?" a ghost asked.
"BLAZE!" Arik screamed.
Arik. That name again. And when Blaze turned, he looked down, and when he looked down, he saw a man under clear, clean, shining water. The man was sleeping with a smile on his face. He was curled up on his side, a hand under his chin, and it took a moment for Blaze to recognize himself.
Someone was sobbing and saying his name, over and over, and with that chant ringing in his ears, Blaze reached into the water with his free hand. It was boiling hot, as though it was--
--and before Blaze could touch his own arm, the sleeping Blaze's eyes opened. The Blaze in the tub looked up at the shattered, fractured, bleeding Blaze looking down, and in each others' eyes they saw a screaming witch growing smaller and smaller, retreating into a forest with a goat, and everything was on fire.
"I forgive you," Broken Blaze and Sleeping Blaze said at the same time.
"And I, you," they said together.
"And I, you," said the ghost.
"And I you," said the witch from far, far away.
Just as she had right before Blaze had cut her throat and taken her head.
When Blaze woke up, he was in Arik's arms, soaking wet and aching from head to toe. He was in a room with tall windows, rich rugs, and it smelled like life and death at the same time.
And Blaze smiled.
To be continued...
Until next time!
Tune in next week for more.