Jorath flinched under the crack of his master’s whip. A hot flash of pain sliced across his back, followed by the tingling numbness of demonic corruption seeping into the wound. The blood that dribbled across his skin to splatter on the floor resembled nothing so much as drops of black ink.
“I am not pleased with you, Jorath.”
“My apologies, Master.”
A booted foot settled onto his shoulder and shoved him backward to sprawl across the marble tiled floor. “I don’t want your apologies, you idiot. I want my bride.”
“My Lord, I’ve scoured the world. None have survived the rituals. I’m afraid that such a girl doesn’t exist.”
“Then look in a different world.”
Jorath’s breath came out in a hiss. There was something he’d never considered, and he chided himself for his lack of sense. A fragment of an old story came to him about an exiled branch of the family tree, severed generations ago. His pulse quickened in excitement. Their descendents might still succeed where his own family had failed.
Slowly, Jorath climbed back to his knees. He kept his head down and his eyes firmly fixed on the boots in front of him. “Shall I begin immediately, Master?” he asked.
“Yes. You’ve wasted enough of my time already.”
Jorath scrambled backwards, not rising until he was near the door leading out of his family’s tomb. His master remained behind, not looking at him until Jorath had passed the threshold.
“Jorath,” his master said, his voice clipped. “Look at me.”
Jorath’s eyes, twin pools of rippling black liquid, locked on the feral yellow of his master’s. “This is your last chance,” his master told him. “Fail me again, and you’ll join what remains of your family in the Cloister.”
Jorath bowed low and backed out of the crypt. Outside, his sister waited for him. She leaned casually against the stone, her arms crossed and a smirk on her face. “Failed again?” she asked with a sneer.
“It’s none of your business.”
“Be sure to pass along my greetings to our father after Lord Ilrot gets sick of your incompetence.”
“You’re the only person our father would like to talk to less than me.”
“Maybe I’ll come by and find out after you’re sent there. It might be the only time I ever set foot in the Cloister. Our master actually likes me, you see.”
Jorath gave her a sour frown, and she laughed before swinging past him to enter the crypt. He snarled at her retreating form, but he didn’t dare follow her back into the darkness where their master dwelled. It didn’t matter. If he was right, he’d finally be able to set his own plans into motion. He would secure his freedom, and more importantly, his revenge on the tyrant who’d taken everything from him.
* * *
Mira let out an irritated sigh and dropped her purse on the kitchen table. She idly flipped through the bills from her mailbox and rolled her eyes at the preapproved credit card offers. Discover and Mastercard obviously didn’t realize where she worked, or that her student loans had first dibs on her very small paychecks.
“Tabbie,” she called out as the junk mail went into the trashcan. When her cat didn’t come running, she grabbed the treat bag and gave it a good shake.
“Tabbie?” she said again. The treat bag never failed to bring her cat running. “Probably got locked in the bedroom again.”
But Tabbie wasn’t in the bedroom, or the bathroom, or anywhere in the apartment. It wasn’t until Mira looked out a window that she saw what she’d missed coming home in the dark of twilight. A streak of red led down the street to a motionless lump of fur. With a gasp, she tore out of the apartment and sprinted down the sidewalk.
“Oh Tabbie. How did you even get out?” she whispered.
Her cat’s fur was stiff with dried blood where it hadn’t been torn away completely. Whatever had hit her had been something big, big enough that it had dragged her ten feet with its tires before kicking Tabbie’s body out the backside.
Tears spilled down her cheeks. She scooped Tabbie up, a task made all the more difficult because the cat’s body was stuck to the pavement. After a few moment’s struggle, she managed to peel the animal up and carried her to a corner of the apartment’s lot. Then she crossed the parking lot to knock on the building manager’s door.
“Mira?” an older man with a bristly mustache and a fringe of hair on the sides of his head said as he opened the door and saw her tear soaked face. “What happened?”
“Mr. Sanders. My cat… she got out somehow, got hit by a car.” Mira’s voice broke for a second, but she composed herself and continued. “Can I borrow a shovel and bury her?”
“Oh you poor girl. That’s terrible. Here, let me get my keys and I’ll come help,” Mr. Sanders told her. He ducked back into his apartment for a second and led her across the property to a shed set up in the back corner.
“Why don’t you go get it,” he said as he grabbed a shovel, “and I’ll get started.”
By the time Mira came back, he’d already broken through the top layer of soil and started digging. Mira tried to take the shovel, but he shooed her away with soft words and a comforting shoulder pat. It didn’t take long for him to finish. Mira found her eyes wandering, looking at anything but that hole. They followed the edge of the parking lot and scraped by windows and doors one after another, unseeing.
A silhouette stood in her living room windows, backlit by the lights of her kitchen. Mira’s eyes had half gone past it before she registered what she was seeing. She let out a soft gasp, but before she could say anything, Mr. Sanders turned to her.
“You can put Tabbie in now,” he told Mira. “Do you want to wrap the body in anything before you do?”
She only looked away for a second, but by the time she’d looked back, the silhouette was gone. Mira cast a long, lingering gaze at the window, but there was nothing there.
“Mira?” Mr. Sanders said softly.
She tore her gaze away from the window and shook her head. “No, it’s ok. Thank you, Mr. Sanders.”
She placed Tabbie in the grave and held a hand out. “I’d like to bury her, please.”
Reluctantly, Mr. Sanders let go of the shovel. He watched in silence as Mira poured each shovel-full of dirt on the cat. When it was done, he took the shovel back and steered her toward the apartments. “Go get cleaned up,” he said. “I’ll put this away for you.”
Mira thanked him again and drifted across the lawn. She hesitated, her hand on the door knob, before shaking her head and entering her apartment. Nobody jumped out at her, and it wasn’t like there were a lot of places to hide. It was silly, but she locked the door behind her and checked her bedroom and bathroom anyway. They were as empty as she’d logically known they would be.
She’d just finished scrubbing her hands and arms when someone knocked on her door. It was Mr. Sanders, holding a full bottle of Jack Daniels in one hand. “I think perhaps you could use a drink,” he said when she opened the door.
“I… yeah, I guess I could.”
She pulled two glasses out of the cupboard and set them on the table. Without speaking, Mr. Sanders poured their first shots. When they were gone, he poured another. Mira stared into the glass for a few seconds, then tossed it back too. She held out the empty glass to him, but he shook his head.
“Give it a few minutes,” he told her. “In the meantime, I know this isn’t something you’re interested in, but I can get you the paperwork to reduce your rent by twenty dollars a month for not having a pet.”
“Thanks,” she mumbled.
“Unless you think you’re going to get a new cat right away?”
Mira shook her head. “No, no more. I’m sick of everyone dying. It’s like I’m cursed.”
“Well, you know,” Mr. Sanders pointed a finger toward the ceiling. “Everything happens for a reason and all that.”
“Tell that to my Dad. Or my sister. I’m sure they’d be comforted to know that there was a grand purpose behind their car accident.”
“Er… you still have your mother?”
“She died to cancer when I was little.” Mira couldn’t keep a note of bitterness out of her voice.
Mr. Sanders blew out a heavy, helpless sigh and said, “How about another drink?”
An hour and six more shots later, Mr. Sanders stood up and gave Mira a hug. “I’m sorry, Mira. Are you going to be alright tonight? Is there someone I can call for you?”
“I’m fine,” Mira said. “Just going to take a bath and go to bed.”
Mr. Sanders released her and scooped up the half empty bottle. “If you need anything, don’t hesitate. I’m just a few doors down.”
He wobbled out the door, leaving Mira alone with her thoughts. She sat at the table for half an hour, silent and unmoving. Eventually, she started her bath running and poured herself a glass of wine.
She took the glass with her as she settled into the bath. Tabbie’s death had brought back memories of her college graduation. It should have been a happy time for her, but her family had died in a car accident on their way upstate to see her get her degree. Instead of a celebration, it had been a double funeral.
The degree hadn’t even been worth anything, apparently. That was her own fault though. Everyone had told her not to get an arts degree. She just hadn’t listened. As it turned out, customers just wanted their change and their burger, not a discussion on the philosophical nature of commerce.
It might have been the wine, or the heat, or maybe both, Mira didn’t know. Whatever it was, she found herself dozing off. The sound of her wine glass shattering against the bathroom floor snapped her out of it. With a sigh, she leaned over the side of the tub and scooped up the shards into what was left of the glass.
She pulled one large, jagged piece out of the glass. Its edge glinted in the light, oddly hypnotic. Mira stared at it as she held it up. “Everyone dies. Even my cat.”
She brought the glass down and tapped it against the skin on her wrist. “It’s not fair,” she said. “What’s the point anyway?”
* * *
Jorath leaned forward and watched the girl. It was almost time. As he’s suspected, killing her cat had pushed her over the edge. It had been a tricky bit of work to bring her to the right emotional state and keep her isolated enough to steal her away, but he was mere seconds from all his hard work paying off.
He lurked in the void between worlds, drifting like a scrap of shadow as he waited. Pulling her out of her own world would require precision. If he waited too long, she’d just be dead. If he took her too early, the transition would kill her.
The first spot of red appeared on the girl’s wrist. Before she could slide the shard of glass any further, he dropped out of the void into her bathroom. She was so focused on her own pain that she didn’t even notice his presence. The lights flickered and popped, one after another, until the only illumination was the distant glow of the street lights coming through the blinds.
Time slowed down for her, like she was some machine winding down, moving slower and slower. Jorath leaned over the girl and placed his hand over hers, held the glass shard steady where it had pierced her skin.
She looked up at him for the first time, and he saw confusion cut through the heartache. “No,” he hissed. He couldn’t allow her to be distracted from her own inner turmoil. Any outside influence would ruin the magic, leave her susceptible to the pull of the void.
Dead, his voice whispered in her mind. All of them. Your fault, really. If not for you, they’d never have made that drive. If not for your carelessness, she’d be safe inside instead of buried in a hole. No one left for you. No reason to go on.
The girl’s eyes squeezed shut and she dragged the point of the glass shard. Jorath’s hand guided her, gently redirecting her own so that the shard sliced skin, but missed the vein. The illusion held, and he let his magic wrap her in shadows.
He pulled her into the void, cloaked in his power. Its emptiness, the raw, unfeeling mass of it, pressed on her, but there was nothing inside her mind for it to take except the pain. It would eat away at that too, given enough time, but for the moment, she was insulated.
It was enough. They emerged into a world of pouring rain and dark skies. Jorath released the girl, who toppled over to land facedown in a puddle in the grass and lay there. Roughly, he hooked his foot under her and flipped her over onto her back so that she didn’t drown.
A fierce grin spread across his face. He’d done it. He’d taken her! All that remained was to make sure she survived long enough to do what he required. Humans were frail though, and he knew that if he abandoned her, she’d likely die in the night to nothing more than the weather.
Jorath studied her with clinical indifference. Her skin had already started to take on a blue pallor. Blood still dripped from the cut she’d given herself, not enough to be lethal, perhaps, but still something to be addressed. With a snort of disgust, he hefted her naked body over one shoulder and carried her under the nearby trees.
The boughs were thick enough to keep off the worst of the rain, but did nothing to stop the cold. Jorath swept his own cloak off his shoulders and shook the water off its surface. He tossed it over the sleeping girl and disappeared into the darkness.
“Sleep,” his voice echoed from past the trees. “Recover your strength. I need you to be ready for the journey ahead. I need you to survive until the end.”