Five lights hang above.
They dazzle and entice me.
My life begins now.
I wake, Marlea in my arms, the glow of five torches around me. Her breasts press against my body, her leg entwines around me. It doesn’t feel like affection, but rather ownership. The only thing she’s wearing is a content smile, pleased to have her way I suppose.
This is the devil’s deal. I gently push her aside, she’s out cold asleep, I could shake her or scream and she would likely sleep through it. I run my hand across her body to confirm, she only reacts with a playful squirm.
Not now. I force myself away, sitting up to glance about. The room seems off. The walls were pristine and white, rope dangled from the ceiling free of blood and sweat.
“There was a man there before,” I say. I glanced back to wait for Marlea’s response. Gentle snoring was the only answer I get. My clothes lay in a heap in the corner of the room; Marlea’s robe was folded neatly atop her boots.
What happened to the blood? I look around and find none of it. I knew the persistence of blood; it was hard to clean off. I am no stranger to getting it on my clothes. I pace around the room until I finally see crimson, in the form of foot prints. Panic hits me; I realize they’re from me.
I lift a foot to find it bare and clean. I am naked as the day I was born and no odor comes from me, the musky smell of sex is conspicuously absent from the room. My eyes turn to the bloody foot prints, but they are gone.
Maybe they never existed.
I hurry over to my clothes and throw them on haphazardly. They’re warm and clean, likely more than they were when I bought them. The familiar sleeveless black shirt brings me comfort. The simple slacks feel refitted somehow my body feels stronger, my legs thick with muscle to match my arms. I’m in the best shape I’ve ever been I confirm it with a hard strike to the stone wall.
White paint splintered and fragments scattered like wind. I pulled back my hand and shook it idly, a crater marked my random violence. “I am stronger…”
“Of course you are.” Marlea says in a slow drawl.
“Finally up huh? I was worried I killed you,” I say, though I had no doubts she was fine.
“You took in the carnage of this room into yourself. We added more to it by making love here. The dark one embraces all carnality,” she slid off the bed.
I smirk. “Making love? That’s what you call it? I would think it was more like fu—“
She puts a finger on my lips. “No need to be crass.”
I nod quietly.
“Do you have concerns?” She pulls away her hand giving me permission to talk.
“Well yeah… I mean… this room was…”
“So where does this leave us?” I say.
“Where ever you want it to. Do you have a preference?”
“I wouldn’t mind having you in here on a nightly basis.” I rubbed my chin. “I can’t say I’ve ever met a woman half as beautiful as you.”
“My, aren’t we charming? “ She raised a brow. “But that’s curious. You want to sleep in here, with me, nightly?”
“Yeah. Why not.”
“You aren’t scared? Or distraught? No sense of illness, conscience?”
“Well, I did see some imaginary bloody footprints or whatever, but I ain’t getting spooked by something that probably means I just need some food in my belly.” I laugh.
“Odd… you’re hungry?”
I consider this a moment and find myself completely sated. There have been times I’ve woken up from a slow day and wanted to eat a dozen eggs after a big dinner. It’s jarring; I know I didn’t eat anything the day before.
Marlea smiled cordially. “I thought so. The visions are normal. But if my body is a key factor in your cultivation, it is yours. You’ve exceeded our expectations.”
It left me with a bad taste in my mouth. Not only am I not hungry, but I wasn’t pining for Marlea either. The prospect of having her in my bed nightly was fun, but now I was content to carry on a fairly normal conversation.
I reach out and pull her close, I kiss her but it feels forced. There is no sense of longing inside me, no arousal. There’s no foreign taste of blood in the kiss, instead it is bland and without spark. All I can do is stop and look down at her.
“Are you finished?” she says, “You have work to do.”
“Yeah, I guess so.” I frown.
“We don’t have anything assigned to you now; you’re free to wander the city. Return here at night fall.” She slid her hands to her waist. “Shall I wait for you in here?”
“Wait. You said I had to work…”
“Wandering around the city is work? Ain’t I a convict now?”
“True. Hoal is a convict… but…” she gestures to a mirror. “See for yourself.”
I approach the mirror cautiously and see someone I don’t recognize staring back. Far too handsome to be me, no, handsome isn’t the word. Pretty. My hard earned scars are gone, replaced with perfectly smooth skin, gentle eyes and almost delicate features.
“…the fuck?” I turn to Marlea. “I ain’t me?”
“If anyone asks, Hoal is dead.” She smiled slyly. “It is true in a way; you’ve been given new flesh and blood, taken from another.”
My eyes widen. The man hanging in the room, that’s where I saw the face before.
“Fine. I’m going out.” I storm past her. I wonder what stops me from just packing up and going to another city. One piece of ass wasn’t worth this craziness, no matter how fine.
“If you want to run, you can.” Marlea says in lithe manner.
I freeze and turn to her.
“You will serve us even without our comforts provided. It works out better for us actually. Things are so much more delicious when they are chaotic, though I would miss contributing to your growth.” Marlea’s eyes were wild. It reminds me of the eyes of a practiced opponent. The ones that loved to hurt people. Was this how people saw me?
“I was just considering it. I’ll be back,” I say, “You make sure you’re ready for another wild night.”
“I am.” She straightened, wearing an amused expression. She looked comfortable and confident nude as she did in her robes.
I leave the room and walk the hallway. Backtracking comes easy; it isn’t long before I find the wall of black mist. I saw the other women pas through. Curiosity gets the best of me. I reach out and touch the mist, pain shoots through my hand as it is yanked forward. I roar in anguish, a guttural noise that sound more like a beast than human.
It takes my new found might, every ounce of it to try and yank my hand free. Instead it pulls me in closer, near the shoulder. Shadows cling to skin, flesh, and muscle shredding it to leave nothing but bone. The shadows feast, eager to devour that as well. Helplessness grips me as it tears through my skin of my arm. Desperation fuels my escape, I pull back to see nothing but a skeletal frame. Blood erupts just past my shoulder; the wall of mist pulls it closer, drinking it in.
I stagger backwards, desperate to escape. I try to shake the shadows free, but they recede on their own, like a dwindling flame. I close my eyes tightly, praying to blink away the wound. It remains. When my eyes open however, the bleeding stopped. Muscle sprouts from the flesh of my forearm and twines around my skeletal arm. Blood pumps through veins and skin erupts from the red tendons.
The sensation is exhilarating yet excruciating. My hand flexes and tenses every careful motion leads me to conclude my hand was not restored, but improved. Holding them side by side proves it. My right hand is faster, more responsive.
I stand and approach the wall of shadow again it gnashes and reaches for me. Tendrils of black smoke reach and try to tug at my skin, beckoning. I place my hand in again, nothing. The shadows swirl harmlessly around my reborn hand. They cling but do not bite, like a small animal in the hand of its master.
I bring it close to my face, and they react the same way: Harmless and docile.
My face had been replaced the same way. And now the shadow welcomes it. I grit my teeth and plunged my left hand into the shadow. Pain erupts in my arm, but I endure. The shadows tear through my flesh down to the bone, but I remain steadfast. I leave my arm in the shadow; I feel its warmth, the delicious agony it produces.
Pain is how I live.
It’s how I can tell I’m here.
I do not fear you.
Having my arm in the shadow mixed the two sensations into a blissful cacophony of stimulation. This was nothing like getting punched in the face. It was being made and unmade in the same breath. It was a touch of death itself. I was mocking death, it feels awesome.
When I pull my arm back it is entrenched in shadow, acting as a sleeve to my new flesh. I flex my arm, testing its new might. Power radiates through it. The shadows instead of fleeing sunk into my skin, becoming a part of me. I let them. They mean me no harm.
“You’re bold.” Marlea’s voice speaks from behind me. I turn to find her dressed in her robes once more. Real disappointment wells within me. My hunger for her has returned.
“What is this?” I rub my arms, appreciating the new power within them. I feel like a hole in a wall is tiny now, I can knock a wall down.
“The blessing of the master,” she says, “You’ve taken well to it, but take his final gift with caution. When it touches your heart, there is truly no going back.”
“So you did this too?”
“Yes… but…” She glanced away. “If the master touches your heart, you die.”
“Then how did you—”
“I didn’t. It isn’t a matter of surviving it. It’s a matter of preventing it.” She lowered her gaze. “All men die. It’s a matter of when and how.”
I brought a hand to my chest. I could feel the shadows within me creeping towards my heart. I was suddenly keenly aware of my own mortality.
“Nothing’s changed then,” I say.
Marlea’s face filled with surprise.
“You said it yourself. All men die. Who gives a shit if it’s sooner than later? I’d rather die young and strong anyway.” I crack my knuckles. “So what do I have to do to maintain it?”
“I’m sure you can guess.” She fixes her eyes on me.
“Done. This world is full of trash anyway. There are more people that deserve death than life. You want me to feed the beast? I’m your man.” I grin, it was a sweet deal really. I can think of a dozen bozos that could use a dirt nap.
“So you understand? Why we need you to wander about?”
“Yeah. You want me to off people? What do I do about their bodies?”
“That won’t be a problem.” She glanced down the hallway.
My eyes widened. The room full of blood, bodies, parts of bodies, and his lack of hunger.
She nodded. “You will devour them.”