On Sable Wings

On Sable Wings

by Libby Faucette

 

1

Banished.

For Maree, it was a lesson in abandonment and humiliation. For her brother, Prince Ephen, banishment was a lark. He embraced their new status with pride, with his usual scathing wit, and used their removal from court to embellish his reputation with new shades of devilry. His cronies flocked to his side, of course — all young, impressionable sorts, those covetous of Ephen’s dark good looks, those enamored of his famous largesse with all who followed him. So when Ephen fled their uncle’s court — taking Maree as well, despite her bitter tears — he did so with a court of his own, leading his band of rakes into exile like a beautiful, sneering pied piper.

And he was beautiful, without question. Tall and slender, with porcelain skin and the fine bones of their father’s house, Ephen was a study in preternatural delight. His hair, black as a midnight ocean, hung down his back in an elegant queue. Long, sooty lashes framed his dark eyes above an aquiline nose and a cruel, sweet mouth. He set off his dark features and fair skin by affecting a wardrobe of seamless black — as did his courtiers-in-exile, those confidantes who styled themselves “Prince Ephen’s Ravens.”

There were six of them, those tittering companions. They shared Ephen’s dais, sitting three to a side, sprawling in their chairs with long-legged indolence as their prince playacted at ruling from his ebony throne. Imitating their prince in all things, they spent their days draining glasses of wine and perfecting the sugared melancholy of their poetry and their wit.

Occasionally, they abandoned poetry for whispered, sighing music.

Sometimes, they drank while contemplating death.

No. Death. Maree could hear the capital letter when they tasted the word. Nothing in their world fascinated the prince and his Ravens so well. Death and its accompanying oblivion — the dream-like effects of their spiced, drugged wine were but a pale imitation. No grim specter, the prince’s Death — his beloved, his feminine Divine. There was no room for reaper’s scythe in Ephen’s court, for the clatter of shrouded bones. Death was a goddess in Ephen’s eyes, as terrible and dark as the prince himself. Beautiful in Her pallor, an angel wrapped in great sable wings with rustling, enfolding feathers, each as soft as a lover’s touch.

Death was exquisite. Death was unchanging.

Death was perfection.

 

2

Death was also a serving girl. Both Ephen’s pleasure and his sacrificial offering, she hung naked by her wrists, her dark hair flowing down her back like a Stygian river. A stream of bright blood ran down her body, curving past the swell of a breast. Maree could feel the cuts, each one twisting inside her as she watched, but she was careful to keep her revulsion to herself. Stoic reserve was acceptable in Ephen’s court, frightened hysteria was not — a truth she had learned quickly enough; their ties of blood had never protected her from her brother’s games. Maree sat quietly, as always, compelled at the foot of his dais, her hands clenched tightly and hidden in the folds of her dress. She watched, sickened and horrified, as the prince’s ghoul made another deep and elegant wound in the poor girl’s flesh.

Blood welled. Dripped. It glinted in the light of the great hall’s many torches. No cry escaped the servant girl’s lips; the drugged wine the Ravens had forced on her dulled even the sharpest pain. She hung with her pale cheek pressed against her arm, her wide dark eyes staring sightlessly across the hall. A new rush of blood painted her leg and dripped delicately from her toe. The drops pattered on the floor and formed a small pool, very dark against the stone.

Beautiful, the Ravens murmured. Simply exquisite. Sycophantic ecstasy. They stirred on either side of the dais, breathing their approval of Ephen’s artistry. As usual, their prince remained silent, lounging in his affected throne, his slender fingers tented beneath his chin. Silence held its own mystique, and Ephen cultivated it, but Maree could guess his thoughts. He had, after all, instructed her in his “art” on more than one terrible occasion.

See her perfection, he had whispered, his lips brushing her ear. He had cupped her breasts in his cruel hands, the long line of his body pressed tightly against her back. Flawless white. Shining black. And now the blood, welling from her wounds, flowing in an unbroken river. Pristine, Maree. Untouched. The clarity of its line. Do not be afraid, sweet sister. This is Death.

Maree fought back a shudder.

Beautiful. Graceful. Perfect.

She schooled her face to stone.

Ephen’s ghoul stood beside his handiwork, his grotesque head drooping between his shoulders. The surgically sharp cutting tools dangled loosely from his large gray hands. At a sign from the prince, the ghoul incised another wound, his quick precision giving the blood little time to wet the blade. Yet oddly, for all his skill, there was no pleasure in his terrible face. Maree could even believe he sorrowed, which was passing strange. It was both comforting and terrible, that half-glimpsed, ghastly sadness, and it fascinated her beyond all the grim marvels and horrors of her brother’s court.

He suffers, she thought, behind that monstrous face.

 

3

That the ghoul truly was monstrous needed no debate. Like the rest of his malformed kind, the ghoul Tamuni loped along with dragging knuckles, like some hideous skeletal ape, his gray skin stretched tight over his sharp collection of bones. His scalp gleamed, pale and mottled, beneath the stringy gray remnants of his hair. Black eyes glittered in the depths of skull-like sockets. His lips hung like strips of decaying meat, concealing teeth both hideous and sharp.

Yet he did not frighten Maree. In the matter of monsters, she rather preferred those who, unlike her brother, wore their horror for all to see.

The ghoul had been in the castle a full season before they properly met, and at the strange and surprising hour of sunrise. Maree liked that quiet hour; the prince and his Ravens retired with the dawn, the palace settling into the only semblance of normalcy it would ever have. Released from the court at Ephen’s departure, Maree wandered cool corridors of echoing stone, alone and in search of a deeper solitude still — when a chance glimpse at a balcony alcove revealed a squat, gray figure hunkering in the gloom.

The tiny balcony, closed on three sides, roofed in stone, overlooked the sloping green mountainside and the forest crouched at its feet. A ruined town, long since abandoned, was still lost in the forest’s shadow far below. Vines grew over the balcony stones, twisting their snares around crumbling pillars, while the rose-pale sunrise cast the leaves’ rustling, patterned shade across the ghoul’s half-hidden face.

She said softly, “I thought you were a night thing.”

His head jerked up at the sound of her voice, his posture hinting at flight. Maree stopped just inside the balcony arch, her palms lifted in a gesture of peace. The ghoul’s flat nostrils quivered, like an animal scenting danger, and while he did not relax, neither did he flee. Maree dared a cautious step closer, her eyes riveted by his face.

“I thought,” she began again, “that ghouls preferred the dark?”

A piebald tongue flicked over his lips. “The dark,” he echoed haltingly. His voice was hoarse, his accent thick and strange. “The dark is not safe in this house. The in-betweens, there it is safe.” The ghoul withdrew slightly, his gray body and dun clothing blending with the shadows where the rising sun could not reach. “Here, it was safe, too.”

“It still is. I will tell no one.” Maree entered the balcony proper, her silken skirts rustling as she moved. She took a seat on a curving bench beyond his protective shade. He appeared to relax at last, although his eyes remained fixed and wary. “I think I understand,” she said. “It is safer when the sun rises.” She turned her gaze to the sunlit mountainside below. “After nightfall … this house is haunted.”

The ghoul blinked slowly and tilted his head. “Haunted by the living.”

She smiled then, in sympathy, and found herself oddly delighted when the ghoul returned the smile, his thin lips splitting over yellowed, monstrous fangs. It should have terrified her — those teeth could crush bone! — but it did not. She looked down, amused in spite of herself, and shyly smoothed her skirts with a nervous hand.

“I have never met a ghoul before.”

“I’ve not met a princess. Ghouls … we are common as fleas.”

Maree laughed a little. “But not in palaces?”

He shook his head. “Our homes: they are the sorrow gardens.” At Maree’s frown of confusion, his smile twisted. “The bone yards. Cemeteries.”

“Then it is true.” She hid her revulsion well. “You eat the dead.”

“All things feast on the dead. Even you.”

“Not on corpses.”

Tamuni made a grinding sound deep in his throat; it might have been a laugh. “What is the meat on your table? Even plant-stuff was once alive. Corpses all.”

“But you eat dead humans.”

“I am not human. It means nothing.”

Maree sat back, nonplussed. “Do you … eat the corpses here?”

The light appeared to dim in his eyes. His smile faded in turn, leaving behind the ghostly unhappiness she had glimpsed once before. “It is my nature.”

“As is murder?” It came out sharper than she had intended.

Tamuni looked away. He was silent for a time, studying the pale sky beyond the balcony wall. “I take no pleasure in those games,” he said at last. “I am not what your brother would have me be. I am not an instrument of Death. I do not serve dying. I serve all that comes after.”

“We all serve Death in Ephen’s eyes.” Maree followed Tamuni’s gaze over the sunlit mountainside. “He has strange thoughts. Romantic ones, I suppose…”

(beauty, grace, perfection)

She glanced at the ghoul once more, and was surprised to find he was watching her again. His black eyes gleamed in the shadows from the mottled gray ruin of his face. He was like a scrawny, misshapen toad, squatting wise in the darkness.

He whispered then, “Your brother is a fool.”

 

4

Tamuni was a slave to the prince’s amusements. Maree was Ephen’s unwilling partner in exile. Both prisoners, then, in their own fashion, it was unsurprising that a friendship grew between them. Maree avoided the court whenever she safely could, yet every sunrise found her sharing the ghoul’s odd company in the balcony shadows.

There, Tamuni told her stories. Stories about the countryside beyond the mountains, where ancient trees grew in ruined courtyards and dark rivers wound through lands that had no name. The ghoul told his stories like a poet, painting vivid word pictures in blacks and grays and moon-bright silver. His memories were of the night, but a softer, friendlier night than the one behind Ephen’s walls. Together, they spoke in hushed voices, and soon Maree shared his shadows, sitting in his corner with her dress tucked beneath her, the ghoul’s shoulder touching her own. She could smell him, a sweet faint carrion stink, but it no longer repulsed her — if it ever had to begin with. It was only the smell of the dead, and the dead had no power to harm her.

And yet, Ephen’s court could not be avoided forever.

The time came when Maree found herself trapped in Ephen’s great hall once more, an unhappy witness to atrocities committed on those lovely enough — and unlucky enough — to attract her brother’s attention. Ephen bade her attend him. She sat stiffly in his lap, her eyes focused on nothing, as he unlaced her bodice and slipped a cool hand within.

“You, too, are beautiful,” he whispered. The Ravens tittered, undressed her with their eyes, but she had grown used to her brother’s perversions and looked straight ahead, any shame she might have felt now subdued beneath numb despair. One day he will grow weary of me, too, and I will bleed beneath Tamuni’s hand —

“You incompetent fool. What have you done?”

Maree tensed as Ephen’s hand tightened on her flesh. She looked up, sudden terror shaking her from her daze, to find Tamuni standing frozen beside Ephen’s latest victim. Blood dripped from the ghoul’s blade and splattered the floor, but it poured from the newly made, ragged wound in the serving girl’s side. The ghoul’s knife had somehow slipped; no other explanation fit. A thick flap of skin sagged loose, gaping like a raw red mouth, as dark blood washed down her body and bathed her legs. It looked too dark and bright to be real, like paint, with a heavy, somehow meaty stink that made Maree’s gorge rise.

It had never been art, whatever Ephen might think, but now it was abattoir.

“What have you done?”

Ephen shoved Maree from his lap. She stumbled away, clutching her bodice closed. The Ravens fluttered and whispered around him, brows arched and eyes askance. “You have ruined her,” the prince spat at Tamuni. “Perhaps you should be ruined likewise. Carved up in the butchery like a slab of stinking meat…”

Maree glanced nervously at Tamuni. His face was as carefully expressionless as her own, but something strange and new burned behind his eyes. It startled her. It frightened her as well, for if Ephen should see it, too…

She turned back without thinking, reaching for Ephen as he rose from his chair.

“Brother, please –”

“Be silent.”

She caught his arm with insistent hands. “Please. The ghoul does not deserve your wrath. He made a mistake. Think of his talents before now.” Ephen sneered and tried to snatch free of her hands, but she held on tightly. “You cannot expect perfection,” she pleaded. “Is he like your Dark Lady, then? To never err?”

That stayed him. The prince stilled, his dark eyes narrowing in thought. Maree still clutched his sleeve, but she knew him. The worst of the storm had passed. She felt her heartbeat begin to ease, her stomach unknotting in relief. The Ravens, too, seemed aware of the change, for they reclined to a man, their excited whispers subsiding behind pale and elegant hands. Ephen visibly relaxed, his anger shifting like magic to his usual false and languid benevolence. He took Maree’s hands from his sleeve and lifted them to his lips, where he pressed a gentle, mocking kiss to her fingers.

“You are right. Only Death may never err, our great Lady of the sable wings. And — ‘til now, at least — the ghoul has served us well.” He flung a careless command in Tamuni’s direction: “Cut down our plaything, slave, and leave our sight.”

Tamuni hesitated only a moment, then he bowed and moved to obey.

Ephen arched a sardonic brow at Maree. “Familiarity has made you bold.”

“Too bold?” she murmured, looking at their hands.

“Perhaps.” The smile was audible in his words. Sharp, now. Predatory. “Perhaps you should pay for your impudence with a kiss, sweet Maree. Sister mine.”

She did, privately swallowing her despair. She allowed his touch (for there would not be a choice, not now, not ever) and suffered herself to be led away to her brother’s black apartments. Acquiescence was always the price, but for once she gladly paid. Only when the night was over, when she once again walked the cool, silent halls of her brother’s palace, would she come to regret what had passed. The quiet shade of their balcony awaited, and an accusation she had no wish to bear.

But Tamuni, for his part, said nothing when she appeared. He made room for her in their corner, and when she gathered her skirts close and sat, he surprised and shocked her by reaching for her hand. The touch of his clawed fingers was dry and cool, but it was a silken thing he placed in her upturned palm. Moist, soft, as delicate as a butterfly’s wing. She opened her fingers and held its beauty toward the dawn.

It was a trumpet-shaped bloom, its petals white, its scent musky-sweet.

“A ghostflower,” Tamuni murmured. He met her eyes; something indefinable passed between them. “Clinging vines. They grow on the mountain and up the palace walls. They only bloom in the twilight hours. Before the dawn. Like you.” His eyes searched hers, his gaunt face softened with a longing she only now could see.

Maree could not speak — but with him, there was no need.

 

5

“Tell us a story,” Prince Ephen said.

Many days had passed, and summer faded with autumn’s smoky burn. The prince had tired of his pretty playthings; with his Ravens, he had moved to more esoteric pursuits. Blood and murder no longer enhanced the beauty of his court; autumn, he decided, was the time for myths and legends. The tragic haunting of the moors, the deaths of ravished maidens, mysterious wraiths behind artful shrouds…

“Tell us a story, my ghoulish friend,” the prince said with a lazy smile. “Your kind must know many such tales. Tell us a story of home — your gardens of sorrow.”

Maree shot a worried glance at Tamuni, now lurking in the shadows of the hall. Asking Tamuni about his home was a cruelty at best. The ghoul did not answer at once — whether from surprise or painful memory, Maree did not know. His momentary silence caused Ephen to frown and shift impatiently on his throne.

“Are you ill, slave?” Ephen gestured at the Raven sitting beside him. “Wine for the ghoul, Cotré. Make him drink. Some wine will loosen his tongue. Come here, ghoul,” he commanded roughly, and took the brimming cup from Cotré’s hand. He sat forward, smiling. Cold. “A gift for you, for many months of admirable service. Drink. Tell us tales of your land, where your kind live in the courtyard of our lady Death. Drink to the fortunes of your favored people.”

“My people,” Tamuni said softly, “are no more.”

Ephen’s smile broadened and became openly cruel. He brandished the goblet with a mocking flourish. “Then drink to their memory instead.”

A heavy, terrible silence spun out between them. When Maree thought she could bear it no longer, the ghoul shuffled forward to take the goblet at last.

“I would be surprised to find you missed them overmuch.” Ephen sat back, amused and pleased. “With all the wonders of this court at your disposal. Drink, ghoul, and give us a tale. Something appropriate to our mood.”

Tamuni raised the goblet and swallowed. A flush rose in his sunken cheeks. “What tale,” he asked, wiping a hand across his lips, “would suit my lord?”

“A tale of our Lady,” a Raven said. “As our prince commands.”

The remaining courtiers repeated the suggestion, their excitement rustling in the rafters of the high hall like so many restless wings. Ephen gestured; Cotré topped off Tamuni’s goblet. At her brother’s feet, Maree watched all with a frozen face.

“My people,” Tamuni said. “They tell no such tales.”

“No tales of the Lady?” Ephen arched a brow. “Surely you jest. How can a ghoul live among the dead, in Her Holy of Holies, and not tell tales of its Queen?”

“There is no queen. Death is.” The ghoul gazed into the depths of his wine, as if divining some unhappy future only he could see. “We live in its shadow, yes. Because we are its shadow. We eat its flesh. We live in the tombs that are its temples.”

“She, you mean,” Ephen said. His voice held a note of warning.

“She, he, it. Names mean nothing.” Tamuni looked up. “Death is no goddess. Death is dark. Death is cold. It is beneath the grounds, beneath the stones –”

“Silence.”

Defiance flickered in Tamuni’s eyes. “It is the corpse, sweetened by rot –”

“Enough!” Ephen unfolded from his chair to tower above the ghoul. Tamuni fell silent at once. He stumbled away from the prince and his Ravens with a narrowed, hunted look. He clutched the goblet to his chest, the blood-red wine sloshing down his front, staining his rags as Ephen descended from his dais and started toward him.

“Do you taunt me deliberately?”

“Ephen, please.” Maree was on her feet, propriety forgotten as she rushed to her brother’s side. She put a hand to his chest. “Do not be angry! It means nothing! He did not mean to anger you. He was not thinking –” Oh, forgive me, Tamuni, she thought, shooting the ghoul a look of desperation. “He has no experience with court –”

“Be silent.” Ephen swung toward her, vicious and sudden. His hand connected with her mouth. She spun from the blow and fell heavily to the floor. Agony swelled her lips; she could taste blood on her tongue. Yet the ghoul was temporarily forgotten. Ephen crouched swiftly beside her; she saw his mocking smile through a haze of tears.

“So lovely, even when you bleed.” He gripped her chin in his strong fingers, turning her head toward the dais and his Ravens. “Look.”

A sudden crash punctuated his command. Maree flinched, and Ephen released her. He faced the ghoul, who had dropped his goblet; the fine porcelain had exploded in a hundred pieces. Wine splashed the ghoul’s feet, there was a mess before the dais, but it was the look on Tamuni’s face that caught and held Maree. His eyes had narrowed to slits. Thin nostrils flared with unmistakable fury. His lips peeled away from horrific teeth in an expression that pressed a cold and terrible finger to the base of her spine.

Yet Ephen’s smile was worse. “I think I shall kill you,” he told the ghoul. He said it with all the conversational weight of considering what to have for dinner.

“I beg forgiveness. My prince.” He bit off that titled courtesy with a snap, but Tamuni’s next words seemed to cost him greater effort still. His voice grated. It creaked. “I had … a thought. A sudden one. I did not tell you all I knew. It was forgotten. I am a fool.”

Ephen’s eyes narrowed. A speculative silence held. Tamuni’s eyes stuttered from the prince’s thunderous face to the remains of the shattered goblet on the floor.

“I remember now. Stories, as you said. Told when I was young.”

Ephen eyed the ghoul for a moment more, the latter waiting with lowered gaze, then the prince turned and remounted the steps to his throne. Maree was forgotten. She rose shakily from the floor and returned in silence to her chair. Her mouth felt fat and swollen. Blood oozed in a tickling, maddening trail from the corner of her mouth, but she dared not wipe it away.

“So, our Lady touched you after all.” Ephen took his seat with a flourish. He lifted his brows as he regarded the ghoul at his feet. “I repeat my command,” he said softly. “Tell us a story. One of these childhood tales you have so recently remembered.”

At a gesture from the prince, a serving girl scurried forward to clean up the broken goblet. Tamuni stepped uncertainly out of the way. It brought him closer to Maree, but she was too afraid to lift her head, to meet those strange black eyes.

“Perhaps your dark Lady brought the memory forth,” Tamuni said. “Another folk live among the sorrow gardens. Not ghouls, these folk. They are above my kind. As Your Highness is above the common folk, those who lived at the foot of the mountain.”

“Go on.”

“Death’s own people,” Tamuni said, “if there are any in the world with that claim. Death has touched these folk. Made them her own.” He rubbed his clawed hands as if they pained him. “They have no fear of death. They have become death. They do not age, or sicken, or die. They haunt the living from mansions of sadness and know neither fear nor pain. They have…” He paused, searching for words in this tongue that was not his own. “…the Lady’s favor.”

“As we have not our Lady’s favor?” a Raven sneered.

Maree watched covertly from the side of her eye as Tamuni lifted his head. He appeared to ignore the Raven; he spoke directly to Ephen instead. “To know Death, my prince — to truly know Her — you must pass through her embrace. You must be reborn. You and your Ravens are very much alive, whatever your devotion to the Lady. These wampyrs — they have passed through Death, let live in the world of men –”

“Vampires?”

Ephen laughed, incredulous. The Ravens followed suit, high and raucous, their jaded merriment echoing in the rafters. Maree dared a glance at Tamuni’s face, but he was impassive. As patient and unmovable as the mountains.

“Vampires are a tale to frighten children. They do not exist.”

“As I do not exist?” Tamuni asked. “They are very real. As real as ghouls.”

Ephen tilted his head and narrowed his eyes. Maree watched him openly now. She could read the parade of speculative thoughts as they marched across his face. Vampires — all knew the tales of such creatures. No life flowed in their veins. The heart within them did not beat. Yet they lived all the same. Were they safe, then, beneath the wings of Ephen’s dark Lady? Pale things, preternaturally beautiful. Deathless, ageless. Immortal.

“And you have seen these wampyrs?”

“Yes, my prince. In the sorrow gardens. In the cemetery, at the foot of the mountain.” He did not add where my people were slaughtered, where you had me enslaved, but Maree could hear it in his voice, even if no one else could. “You did not see them. You took me at dawn, and they cannot bear the sun. But there, among the resting dead, those touched by the Lady reside.”

Hunger flashed in Ephen’s eyes, sudden, swift, and gone.

“Whom might they welcome to their court?”

“Beloved of the Lady, they would welcome you as one of their own.”

Ephen sat back, his eyes half-lidded and secretive now, a smile slowly curving his lips. The Ravens’ whispers of anticipation filled the hall. “You will take us to the foot of the mountain,” he said. “You will take us to the sorrow garden where we found you. You will introduce us, yes? You will be our ambassador.”

Tamuni surprised Maree by bowing deeply. “It would be my honor.”

She lifted her gaze, daring at last to lock eyes with Tamuni. His own were cold, and bottomless, their black depths holding the promise of eternity.

 

6

It was a silent, expectant party that walked the forest path down the mountain the following sunset. Mounted on horses, Ephen and his Ravens led the way, Tamuni loping on foot near Ephen’s side. Maree rode behind them all, the hood of her cloak pulled low over her face. Ostensibly to hide her bruises, it had the added benefit of allowing her to watch them all, unseen.

The forest thinned as they reached the deserted town.

Tattered clouds pulled free of the moon, permitting a ghost-light to bathe the tumbled ruins in silvered shadows. Tamuni led them northward, along a narrow lane that skirted a crumbling wall. There, the trees drew back as the road dipped between the hills. From a rise in the path, the company looked down on a long-abandoned cemetery, encircled by tumbled foothills that cast the tombs and the leaning markers into shadow.

A wind blew cold over the mountain. Ephen dismounted, his Ravens quickly following suit. Maree slipped from her horse more slowly. Resting one hand against the warmth of its neck, she remained close beside it, watching as her brother and his lackeys descended the path and climbed rattling stone to reach the deep bowl of the waiting graveyard. Even in their funeral finery, they still seemed wrong and out of place. They were too bright somehow, as if their life were a vibrant affront to the endless brooding silence of the sorrow garden.

Maree, for her part, had no desire to join them. For the first time in her life, she stood above them all, a quiet sentinel with the mountain at her back. The night wind stirred her cloak, its black velvet flapping around her.

“Princess?”

Tamuni seemed to materialize beside her. He had straightened to his full height, bringing him level with her own. The moonlight painted his mottled skin and traced dark hollows in the angles of his face. It gleamed in his night-black eyes.

“Whatever happens,” he whispered, “do not go down among the stones.”

“No.” She held his strange, steady gaze. “Only stay with me.”

He smiled — always a terrible thing — and looked out over the cemetery, where Ephen and his Ravens peered impatiently between the tombs. “Look, princess,” the ghoul said softly. “Your brother called, and Death gives answer.”

The Ravens were whispering. Pale hands pointed at the darkness, where something had begun to move, something beyond the edges of moonlight and shadow. Maree reached for Tamuni’s hand, unthinking, her slender fingers entwining with his own. Her eyes widened behind her hood. Things began to stalk from the darkness — two of them, three — to halt a few paces from the edge of Ephen’s court. Yet the night still partly concealed them, but for the gleam of sickly pale skin in the shadows.

Silence fell among the tombs; only the ceaseless wind sighed between the broken stones. It was Ephen who broke that silence. He pushed through the circle of his courtiers, striding with easy grace toward the waiting wampyrs — for what else could they have been, these waiting night-things? Ephen’s eyes flashed with excitement.

“Immortal ones –” he began.

The first wampyr cut him off with a hiss.

Ephen’s brows drew down, his expression warring between anger and surprise. The creatures stepped closer then, leaving the tombs behind. Maree’s hand clutched Tamuni’s; a rustle of shock and fear rippled through the Ravens. If she had once thought Tamuni monstrous, he was nothing to the things now creeping from the dark.

There had been three. Now, there were suddenly more than she could quickly count. They crept from the creaking doors of tombs, from behind the tombstones and into the terrible light of the death’s-head moon. If they had been human once, they were no longer. Waxy skin stretched over their faces and made long talons of their skeletal hands. Their eyes bulged, gleaming white. Dead lips peeled away from needle-like teeth. Bits of hair still clung to their scalps, tattered fabric still clothed their forms, but there was nothing remotely alive about the things surrounding Ephen and his court.

“Look well upon them, my prince.” Tamuni’s voice was huge, powerful, ringing out over the graveyard, echoing off the stones. The prince looked up, but his companions kept their staring eyes on the creatures stalking toward them. The Ravens’ faces were frozen, to a man, in rapidly mounting terror. “Look well, my prince,” Tamuni said, the wind carrying his words. “Your desire called the wampyrs. They have come.”

Ephen’s face darkened with rage. He flung an arm toward the monsters and their terrible advance. “These are not vampires! These hideous, stinking — !”

“The tales you know are a lie. The old tales would have given you truth.” Tamuni looked at the vampires closing in, his smile sharpening at the sound of the Ravens’ cries. “I gave you truth. Death touched these folk. Made them her own. They do not age, they do not sicken and die — but they hunger.”

The wampyrs began to howl.

They gibbered, slavered, scenting blood on the wind. The boldest of them rushed the Ravens, its long, thin arms shooting from the darkness to enfold a man at the edge of the company. It tugged him against its chest, dragging him to the ground as the remaining undead surged forward and past him, shrieking. Fabric tore. The Raven screamed as the vampire sank its fangs into his flesh, then the scream became a gurgle as the monster ripped out the Raven’s throat, bathing its face in blood.

“Listen,” Tamuni murmured, so only Maree could hear. “Death comes.”

The princess and the ghoul stood like statues on the graveyard’s crest. Maree could taste blood on the air, coppery and cloying. The wampyrs could taste it too; their voices rose in a snarl of feral joy. They threw themselves at Ephen’s court, ripping the Ravens from their fellows, falling on them in twos and threes as they tore clothes and flesh with equal abandon. The Ravens shrieked their agony at the sky.

Ephen bellowed with rage. He turned in a ceaseless circle, his sword in hand as the wampyrs advanced. He stared in horror from one grinning maw to the next.

See their perfection, Maree thought. Flawless white. Shining black. And now the blood. Pristine. Untouched. The clarity of its line…

“This is death,” she echoed, a whisper. “Beautiful, graceful, perfect.”

The wampyrs rushed on Ephen. He screamed in fury and fear, his sword flashing in the moonlight. Maree watched, solemn as a child, as her brother disappeared beneath an ocean of pallid flesh. His cries became shrieks of agony, drowned by the snarls of the dead.

“Princess?”

She turned to look at Tamuni. He was as hideous as ever, but she saw him with different eyes. His black gaze brimmed with emotion. His hand was strong in hers. Here were the gray arms that had saved her, here the fangs and his terrible smile.

Here were the black lips she kissed.

The wind caught her cloak, billowing it behind her as his arms closed about her waist. The moon shone down on the dying and devouring alike. Beautiful, graceful, perfect, she thought, safe in Tamuni’s embrace, his hideous mouth parting to taste her own. The night was filled with the wind, with the sound of sable wings.

They walked away hand in hand, leaving Death and the vampires to their feast.

 

END

Copyright © Libby Faucette (2017). All rights reserved.