Grim

 

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In light lingers dark

in dark, light.

 

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Here comes the messenger

Thunder cracked through the midnight sky. For a brief moment, the entire world flashed electric white as the lightening ripped a hole along the darkness. I stopped wiping the sticky table top with the worn cloth for a moment and listened. At the monstrous crack as if the night were splitting. 

Jim rolled the mop bucket and mop along the floor to the back. He’d just finished the floor, it’s sleek wetness on par with the glistening street outside. “Better hurry on home, B. Hell of a storm outside.”

If only he knew, I thought as I went back to wiping residue of the bars roaring business tonight. More people than usual had poured in, especially being as it was only Tuesday. But then again, the rain had given me a helping hand, pushing people off of the streets and onto my seats. 

“You get going. I’ll finish up here.” I yelled out at the swinging doors. 

“You sure?”

“Yeah. I’m almost done here anyway,” I yelled back. “Get going, Jim.” No sooner had I said this, Jim came out from the kitchen having already done away with his bartender aprons, and having donned his mustered yellow puff jacket. “You sure you don’t want me to wait for you?”

“Goodnight,” I smiled. Eager as hell for him to walk out. The sooner he did the better, for him anyway. There was no way I wanted him in the bar when the meeting was to go down. Jim was a pretty boy, and I hated seeing pretty boys destroyed. 

“Alright then, I’ll see ya!” He waved, pulled up the hood to cover his head and walked out into the downpour. 

I sighed. Finally! I switched the radio to the jazz station, poured myself a bourbon, pulled a stool down from the bar and sat down, glad to get off my feet. I liked it like this. When the bar was quiet, dark, and fairly clean. I stretched and rolled my neck and heard a few cracks. There was a tense muscle somewhere in my hairline I hadn’t been able to pull yet. It had been several days and now I was frankly pissed off. I drowned the bourbon, and poured myself another round before I finally heard the much anticipated door bell ding. 

“Took you long enough!” I grumbled, taking a straight shot from the bottle. I leaned over the counter, pulled another glass, poured a shift one, and slid it along to my side, waiting. 

The footfalls were heavy on the wooden floor. I waited till he was close, then, with a flip of my hand, a stool dropped beside me, and he sat. “Playing humans again?”

The grin lopsided half my face. I nodded and drained my drink before I finally turned to him. He hadn’t changed at all. The same bulk, shapeless, featureless. I could barely make out his eyes in the darkness. Another thunder cracked and lightening flashed, and in the brief seconds I saw the old scars on his face. Four long and deep gashes spanning the entire length of his face, from one corner of his hair line to the bottom of his jaw on the other side. 
“Bloody werewolves!” I raised my bottle of bourbon to his barely touched glass and poured myself another drink. 

“You saved my life.”

I nodded. “That I did, and it cost me a leg,” I said, knocking at the wooden excuse for a leg. Sometimes, I still felt a sensation, as if I could still curl my left toes. It hurt to think about them. I soured at the memory and drained the glass again, finally able to feel the familiar warm burn. “What do you want, Shade?”

“You’re gonna need this,” he pushed his glass over to me. “We’ve found him.”

I stared long and hard at my friend. If you could call him that. I’d known Shade, or Shadey, for as long as I had been alive, and I’d been alive a hell of a long time. 250 years to be exact. I wasn’t exactly your regular barkeeper, if God’s honest truth be told. In fact, I shouldn’t even be swearing by God, being the wretched thing I was. But by God, in all those years, I knew as much about Shade as any other Nighty did. Which was next to nothing. All I knew was, if it came down to saving my life and risking his own, their was no one else I’d trust for this. He’d saved my life more times than I could count. But then again, I’d returned the favor just as many times. 

“You in?” He asked. 

I looked once around my beautiful bar. The thing that had kept me sane over the last 100 years, and now that it was time to leave, I did feel a bit of nostalgia. I downed the drink he’d passed as one for the road, got off the stool and put it back up on the bar upside down. “I’ll get my jacket.”

It was time to stop playing humans. The time had come for me to be what I was meant to be, a terror in the night. By the time I’d walked back out, Shade was gone. Typical. 
There was a note left under my empty glass and I reached for it. ‘Meet you at the old haunt, 10am sharp.’

I rolled my neck again and pulled myself to my full height. Which was a lot more than I’d been playing as a five foot four inch, 50 year old bar hag by the name of Bell. I took a moment, waiting for the number to finish on the radio. Then turned everything off and walked out the door, locking it up for who knew how long this time. 

I walked out into the dark wet streets, and took a deep breath as the rain touched my face. I always did find peace in the rain. In chaos. In bleak moments. There was always peace. After all, it was all sun shine and rainbows after the storm, right? 
I walked away, away from Bell’s bar. Now I was Grim. And it was time to reap my reward. 

 

‘I thought you said 10am sharp!’ I teased as I felt the huge bulk of Shade coming my way. The floorboards moaning and moving under his unseen weight. ‘It’s now 2pm.’

Shade laughed. I could almost see him bring his wrist up and gander at the watch. ‘You know I can’t travel as easy during the day.

I nodded. I knew. Shade wasn’t exactly visible, but it would still be hard to fool the mortals of his footfalls. I was rather surprised the old floorboard hadn’t given under him. After all, they were as old as this town. ‘So where is he?’

‘Bell, Bell, Bell!’ The callous laughter of the one I’d been seeking for centuries bubbled around me, vibrating off the walls of the derelict house. It was deemed haunted by the locals so they barely hung out here. ‘You’re still just as beautiful.’

‘Show yourself!’ I spat in spite of knowing I should hold back. He’d never dared come face to face with me since the day I almost tore his throat out. But then again, lovers are known to have a spat every now and then. We were no different. ‘How long are you going to hide from me, Val?’ 

‘How much longer are you planning on staying angry with me?’ 

Shade shifted his weight and a board dangerously creaked beneath him. ‘Give us a moment, will you, Shadey?’

Once the floor stopped shaking, my hand automatically went to my hips. I was beyond pissed. ‘If you’re here wasting my time, I am in no mood for your wooing. You always were terrible to begin with!’

A figure glimmered in front of me, as if made of all the floating dust moats from the air. His face was the last to form, and even though I hadn’t seen him for good 200 years, it still knocked the wind out of me. ‘You were always a beautiful man,’ I gasped despite myself.

He smiled, though it was barely like the smile I remembered. ‘I need your help, Bell.’

‘What can I do?’

‘You’re the only one who can help me die.’

I was not used to dizzy spells. I didn’t even know I was faltering. The house started warping around me. I could even see Val scoot by my side in order to hold me up, but in the end it was Shade’s strong grasp I felt on my shoulders as he steadied me and sat me down on a ratty old lazy boy I’d be caught dead sitting on otherwise. 

‘Easy, Bell. Easy.’

‘Belladonna!’ Val’s voice floated once more around me, and all that remained was his floating dusty head. ‘You know what I’m saying, don’t you? The time has come.’

I blinked at his face, reaching out with my hand to caress a cheek of the man I’d loved all my life, but felt nothing but air and saw nothing but swirling dust. ‘No.’ The word escaped me as if someone else had uttered. ‘No.’

‘I’m so sorry, Bell.’ Shade was saying somewhere above me. 

‘No.’ A whisper escaped me again. Shocked. I wasn’t ready yet. I wasn’t ready yet.

 

As daylight faded, Shade became more and more visible. I hadn’t moved the last three hours. I couldn’t. Not really. Not after what I had to do. “How long have you known?”

Shade shifted his hefty weight against the opposite wall that groaned in protest. “A few years.”

“Is that why you’ve been avoiding me?”

He sighed. “You know I only come to this realm if I have to.”

“You had to now, didn’t you?” I couldn’t help but scoff. Had I really seen Val just hours ago asking me to kill him?

“He kept away from you as long as he could, Bell. Give you that normal you wanted.”

A tortured laughter escaped me before I could contain it. My stomach churned. “I’ve lived these years alone on top of a bar for the last 140 years, serving booze to drunkards, Shade. Before that, we all know those years weren’t my finest moments.”

“He hurt you.”

“He didn’t hurt me.” I shook my head and pushed myself up off the dusty floor. “He ran away. That’s what he did.”

“He couldn’t watch her die.”

“Neither could I.” I squared my shoulders. I wanted to leave that place. Wander the streets with my thoughts, but I couldn’t see a damn thing in the darkness. “Mind showing me light?”

In moments, a slender white flame flickered in front of my eyes. Beneath them, the titan’s giant stone hands glowed a faint green, like lichen on trees. He took my hand in his and passed the flame over, where it floated just over my palm where it whooshed into a geyser before falling back down. No heat, no sting. Just a bright column of light. 

“Don’t let the darkness claim you, Bell.” Shade whispered. “Don’t fulfill a vow you once promised to break.”

I clasped my hand into a fist and watched the darkness fall. I could not bear for him to see tears rolling down my face. I was not that young scared Bell anymore. No tears for me, not this time. I wiped them away and patted Shade gently on the arm before slipping past him. “I can’t let the darkness go yet.”

I walked out of the old house into the night, making my way over and around any obstacle. I had a lot of thinking to do and a long night ahead, so I began walking. Aimless some would say. But what would they know about a troubled heart that still dreams. It was a long time ago, long time ago since it beat. 

Maybe there was a way out of this. The promise. The curse. The stinking bloody memories. 

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A promise made

I stood at the end of the Great Hall, as they used to call it. It wasn’t just any hall. It was the Great hall, tucked beneath the massive palace grounds, in the belly of the cavernous caves that lined the coast. They say that in the Golden Era of King Maylord VI, some thousand years ago, the hall used to dazzle with the likes of nobility of all realms. They still say some portals may yet be open to those lost realms. Now, the only realm we knew of were the faeries, the elves, the dwarfs, and of course, the useless selfish hoards of humans. We didn’t much like mixing with the humans. Too many questions, too many breathes wasted and none grew wiser. I wasn’t exactly any of these creatures either. I’ve always been in the mixed realm they called the Limbo. As far as I knew, Limbo had started out as a realm for the outlaws, the criminals, and sometimes the crème of the crops who were banished for politics. As of 1200 years ago, the band of outlaws formed their own community, and it was a mix. No beings were discriminated against. That was until Maylord’s descendants were overthrown during a coup orchestrated by their own relative during an upheaval. Only a few had survived. A few who were very heavily protected by a legion of guards.

I looked up at the large domed ceiling and could only see the flickering white flames floating as if in gentle breeze, not that there was a breeze inside. I’d been practicing my flames for the last two months and all I could manage was a spark that lasted few seconds. Pretty embarrassing seeing how I was from the line of Phoenix Guards known for their aptness with the fire element above all else. It was safe to say I would not be getting into the Legion of Guards anytime soon, if at all. Every single member of my family were in the Legion, vowed to protect the Royal Family at all cost, every last one of them. Even my younger brother, Cian was already mastering through all his training and was now on the list for the qualifying trails.

“You are not dancing, Belladonna,” Lord Bradan Lowrie approached me. He wasn’t a man I was very familiar with, but almost all of Limbo was familiar with his reputation. He was not a man I wanted to notice me. “Such a beautiful young lady should not be standing alone I dare say!”

“I have a twisted ankle, My Lord.”

He eyed the hem of my dress where my ankles should be. “It’s simple magic my dear, to heal sprained ankles.”

I nodded. “But not for someone who is still struggling with her lessons, Sir.”

He turned then, cutting me off from the rest of the hall. His towering self inches from me. He smiled, a smile that churned my stomach. I could only imagine what he was thinking and even that made me feel ill. “Shall I heal it for you, Bell- adonna?” He leaned in. His warm breath falling on the nape of my neck and I did wish then that I hadn’t agreed to put up my hair. I could faintly feel his lips brush against my skin. “Oh how I love a damsel in distress.”

I stepped back, only to feel the wall hit my back squarely, and faintly smiled. “I’m fine, Lord Lowrie. But thank you for your offer.” I tried to slip past him as calmly as I could, but soon felt his hand on my arm.

“Not running away from me, are you young miss?”

I could feel the spell ripple my skin where he touched. I tried to say no, but the room whooshed in and out of focus and I felt myself swagger. “Please, let me be.”

“And let a lovely thing like you go?” The sinister smile on his face made me panic. Worst yet when I knew I was under his mercy. Blasted spell. If only I knew how to deflect them. Alas, I knew no such thing. The panic welled in me as he looped my arm through his and started leading me across the floor, towards the south exit, to the portal that led to Faerie land. A land not many ventured to. A land I knew next to nothing about.

“Excuse me, Miss Blight?” A young man stood in our way in strangely colored clothing.

“What do you want, jester?”

The man nodded to Lord Lowrie and then to me. If only I could ask him for help. Instead, I stood emotionless, clasped to Lord Lowrie’s arm and feeling sick. “Miss Blight’s mother is looking for her past half hour. They are heading back home and have asked all attendants to help find Miss Blight and bring her to their carriage.”

He nodded to Lord Lowrie and offered his arm to me. “Allow me to escort Miss Blight to her carriage, milord. While you are free to go about enjoying the evening.”

I felt Bradan’s reluctance to let me go. His hand gripped my arm in vice grip before he passed my arm over to the young man, huffed and turned around, disappearing into the dancing crowd. 

The jester led me out the side door, and we happened upon a small ledge overlooking the great sea where I could finally breathe. “Please,” he pointed at my arm. “May I?”

I nodded, still feeling remnants of the enslaving spell on me. I couldn’t yet move on my own but my mind was my own now. “Thank you, for saving me inside.”

He nodded and reached for my arm gently. He pushed aside the material and there, on my forearm, almost the entire length of my forearm was a black bruise in the shape of manacles. Very large manacles. “Nasty spell this one. Lucky I noticed him casting it when I did otherwise no one would have detected it after it was already cast.”

“What is it?”

“Worst sort of enslavement spell. Ancient dark arts. Arts that have been banned for anyone other than royals and the Legion since Maylord Era. You can imagine why, after the coup."

I nodded, watching him examine the bruise intensely. He seemed to be muttering a spell I vaguely recognized, though the language was foreign. The manacles clamped tighter around my arm and made me wince. “What is your name?”

He held my arm gently, allowing me to clasp his as hard as I could. “You may call me Val, though my name is Valor.” He pulled what looked like a small black obsidian from his pocket the size of a pebble. “Please close your eyes. This is going to hurt.”

I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. “Val.”

 

When I opened my eyes again, I found myself back in front of my pub. I had walked hours simply to get back to where I started. I was tired, I was sad, and worst of all, I hadn’t slept in over two days. I let myself in, walked through the deserted floor and up to my apartment. I fell on the bed, pretty much exactly how I had fallen on my bed all those years ago after Val had rescued me. How was I supposed to kill the only man I’d ever loved? 

“You promised.” His voice gently echoed in my ear.

“I know,” I whispered back, feeling our realms merge even while sleep swept over me. “Just give me a little more time to dream while I still can.”

 

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