This story first appeared in Adventures of Sword and Sorcery magazine.  I hope to return to these characters someday.



                                                            Julia S. Mandala

    Princess Kathria burst into my chamber, flounces of pale blue silk and lace swishing with each indignant step.  "Vasha, how could you not tell me you were leaving?"

    I turned from the dressing table, my fist tightening on the wood handle of my hairbrush.  The bristles caught in a tangle, and I yanked the brush free, snapping a dozen strands of straight black hair.  My scalp burned with pain, a welcome distraction from the urgent desire to drain Kathria of her blood's magic.  "I see I underestimated the speed of castle gossip."

    With a practiced flip, Kathria tossed her golden-brown curls over her shoulder.  Her brown eyes filled with the tragedy only a thirteen-year-old can manage.  "How can you abandon me just when my magic is coming into full bloom?"

    "I'm sorry, your Highness, but there's something I must do." I smiled, an unexpected ache tugging at my chest.  "I'll miss you, but perhaps I'll return when I finish."

    "You won't come back.  I saw it in my dream."

    "What did you see?" I asked, setting the brush on the table.

    She dropped onto a stool beside me.  "I saw you in a wheel of fire.  The fire swallowed you and then you were the fire."  Kathria gave me an accusing glare.  "You're going back to the Halls of Night, aren't you?  To be like your family again."

    I shook my head, though the dream disturbed me.  Was I doomed to take Kathria's power and her life?  "I wasn't planning on going to the Halls."  I had intended to strike out for the eastern lands, perhaps to Cardrian or Soru, telling fortunes and communicating with dead loved ones.  It was an unchallenging but honest living.  "Maybe it was just a normal dream."

    "It didn't feel like a normal dream."  Her lower lip poked out.  "I think you should stay."

    "Kathria--"  My gaze dropped to the gray tiled floor.  I swallowed to ease my tense throat muscles.  "I . . . your power draws me and soon I won't be able to resist."

    She took my hands in her warm, soft ones.  "But you recognize the value of life now.  You're my friend.  You would never hurt me."

    My cynical side wanted to laugh, but the trust in her brown eyes touched me.  How had I become so fond of her in the mere six years since I had come to Farcharel Castle?  I had been hired to interpret King Guthan's dreams and to tell him mine when they spoke of danger or opportunity.  I also taught Kathria to use her budding dream magic.  But now that she neared adulthood, her blood's power called to me until I ached with hunger.

    "I was a fool to take this position."  I shook my head.  "I thought myself above temptation, but I was wrong.  Your father knows all about this and he agrees I should go."

    "When do you leave?" Kathria asked.


    Tears filled her eyes.  "Vasha, how will I manage without you?"  Kathria grabbed me into a hug.  Before I could react, she whirled and ran from the room.  I sighed.  Kathria didn't understand the forces that dragged at my soul.

    It is a small exaggeration to say all hellborn are evil.  Most of my race use their birth as an excuse for cruelty.  After an exuberantly pernicious youth, I renounced that life and struggled to suppress my vicious instincts.  Leaving the Halls of Night, I made my home in the mortal realm, where I didn't have to daily confront my family's brutality.  For two hundred years, I had walked a narrow rope, thwarting their plans when possible, but avoiding direct confrontation.  As long as no hellborn caught me acting against them, they pretended something else spoiled their fun.  I played the same game back, but felt far less comfortable about it.

    That night, I had a dream.

    "Kathria!"  I wrenched myself from the dream world and lurched upright.  Even in the faint moonlight spilling into my bed chamber, my hellborn eyes discerned every shape--the tall wardrobe, the two high-backed chairs standing sentry before a low, square table, four shoulder-high candle holders by the dead fireplace, my half-packed trunk.

    I slowed my breathing and considered my dream.  The raven, bringer of evil, had perched on Kathria's shoulder, while a fire wheel, the symbol of the Halls of Night, swirled above her head.  I threw off the covers and rushed to the wardrobe.  No sooner had I fastened a belt over my loose-fitting black gown than a heavy fist pounded on my door.  Opening it, I found Lothian, captain of the castle guard, his broad face grim under his conical helm.

    "King Guthan summons you to him," Lothian said, his gaze staying on the floor.
    I smirked.  Afraid of the evil eye.

    "I was just coming to see him," I said.  "Someone must guard Princess Kathria.  I dreamed--"

    "It's a bit late for that, Lady Vasha."  Lothian's beefy fingers locked around my forearm and he pulled me into the wide, stonework corridor.  Candles in iron sconces left the vaulted ceiling peaks in shadows.

    I resisted the temptation to curse Lothian with a recurring nightmare.  But he was only carrying out Guthan's orders.  I resisted the temptation to send Guthan nightmares, as well.  Staring at Lothian's offending hand, I said, "Release me."

    He eased his grip, but didn't let go.  I could have broken free, but decided against it.  Something had happened and I wanted to know what.

    As Lothian half-dragged me into the vast throne toom, the temptation to curse him resurfaced.  Moonlight glowed through the blues, reds and greens of the arched stained-glass windows.  King Guthan sat on a gaudy gilt throne, the room's only furnishing besides the dozen candelabra posted along the walls.  He pushed to his feet, his pock-marked face flushed and his blue eyes searing me.  The jeweled crown rested askew atop his golden brown curls.

    "Which of your demon relatives stole Kathria?"  Guthan took four quick steps and slapped me so hard my head snapped back.  "Out with it, hellborn!"

    Blood heat surged through me.  My fangs pushed against my lips and from the red tinge in my vision, I knew my eyes glowed red.  Guthan took a hesitant step backward.  After a few deep, calming breaths, the room returned to its normal colors.  "I am hellborn, King Guthan, not one of your subjects.  I will be around long after you're dust, so I suggest you treat me with respect.  Now what happened to Kathria?"

    "She's disappeared from her bed.  Her antechamber was guarded, so she didn't leave that way."  King Guthan shrugged and raised his chin.  "I took your words seriously."

    "You were wise, Majesty.  Please continue."

    "The guard heard Kathria scream.  When he broke the lock on the bedroom door, he found the bed empty and the window open.  He ran to the window and saw a fiery red streak, like a bloody rainbow."

    "Sorcery."  I had no sorcerous powers, though Kathria's blood might have given them to me.  But several hellborn did, including my former lover Daegar.  Please, don't let it be Daegar--  I frowned.  "A hellborn could have opened a portal inside the room.  Someone wanted us to know a sorcerer took Kathria."

    "It could be a mortal sorcerer," the king said.

    I shook my head.  "A mortal would have no reason to take her.  They can't steal another's powers.  That reduces the possible culprits to a dozen hellborn."

    "So many?"  Guthan paled, making his pock scars stand out.

    "They all reside within the Halls of Night.  The search shouldn't be hard.  But if we don't hurry, I may be too late."  I chewed my bottom lip.  "I need a recently dead body--no more than three days--preferably a strong man's.  And some shackles in a cloth bag."

    "What for?" the king asked, then shook his head.  "No, I don't want to know."  He motioned to Lothian.  "Captain, find what she needs."

    "I don't think we should trust this . . . vampire, Your Majesty."  Lothian scowled at me.
    I waved contemptuously.  "Vampires are mere shadowy corruptions of the hellborn.  We don't need human blood for sustenance."  I glanced sidelong at Lothian.  "Though it makes a refreshing after-dinner drink."

    The captain took a sliding step away from me.

    "Vasha," Guthan said, leaning his head on his fist.  "Don't tease my guards."  He swallowed audibly.  "Bring back my Kathria.  She's all I have."

    Captain Lothian left me waiting in the Great Hall while he retrieved the shackles, then escorted me to the charnel house.

    Luck was with us.  The embalmer had the bodies of two men who had died that night in a fight over a card game.  They hadn't even started to smell.  I chose the less mangled one, just a clean wound to the heart.  The body was still clad in a blood-stained shirt, brown woolen trousers and patched boots.  Lothian and the embalmer stared wide-eyed when I slung the corpse over my shoulder.
 As the realization dawned in his eyes that I could have snapped his arm like a chicken bone, I grinned nastily at the captain .

    In the charnel house yard, I set down my burdens.  As the canvas bag settled on the ground, the shackles clinked.  Waving my hand in a circle, I chanted the words to open a gateway to Hell.  A large portal of swirling red and orange light yawned before me.

    "Good luck, Lady Vasha," Lothian said grudgingly, bowing his head and making a sign against evil.

    I rolled my eyes, lifted the body and the bag holding the shackles, then stepped through the gateway.

    Shadows and shivery breezes swirled around me.  A vast, boulder-strewn cavern, cold and forlorn, spread before me.  Shades of men and women, slightly darker than natural shadows, darted about.  I had arrived in the realm of the rejected dead, in the small Hell that held those whom the god Parinel had condemned.  Yet no spirits tormented the dead.  Parinel had finally faded into oblivion, not too surprising, considering that not long after Ambrose's death, his people were conquered and forced to accept new gods.  Not having to battle tormentors would make retrieving Ambrose far easier.

    Sensing my presence, several shades who sometimes assisted me crowded close.  I greeted each hurriedly, then called for Ambrose.  With my help, his shade thickened to a more solid form, a burly, young man with a stubborn, square jaw, and dark eyes that gazed adoringly at me.

    Feeling guilty and uncomfortable, I set the corpse down.  "I need your help.  I brought this body for you."

    Ambrose's shade melted and seeped inside.  The limbs stirred and the eyes opened.  They were blueinstead of brown, but through them I saw Ambrose.  I offered him my hand.  He took it in his grave-cold grip and pulled himself up.

    Ambrose didn't release my hand, but I made no comment.  The rejected dead craved physical contact more than anything else.  He bent at the waist, his free hand massaging the stiffness from the corpse's knees.  The flesh of his borrowed face was grey and sunken at the cheeks and dark circles pooled around his eyes.  The body would continue to decay, but should last until we found Kathria.

    I smiled over the dull ache in my heart.  For eight years, he and I cheated and charmed our way across six kingdoms--one too many, it turned out.  I hadn't considered the eternity of torment it would lead him to.  "I've missed you."

    "I understand why you avoid this place," he said, the corpse's thick, unfamiliar lips twisting into a very familiar wry smile.  "What brings you here now?"

    I explained the situation and my plan, vague though it was.

    Ambrose nodded.  "That will only work if we surprise the culprit.  Even a warrior's strength can't match a hellborn's."

    "You can hide until I give you a small compulsion to come to me."

    He scowled.  "I thought you were past that."

    Before my change of heart, I forced the dead to do my bidding.  Now we traded favors; sometimes I found bodies they could use for a day or two, sometimes I performed a service for their surviving families.  "It's just a signal, so we can take by surprise whoever stole Kathria.  I won't control your actions."  I cocked my head.  "You haven't asked for payment."

    Ambrose shrugged.  "It's reward enough to do something useful.  These days, hell's true torture is the lack of purpose--nothing to do, nothing to look forward to.  I don't know what I'd do without your odd jobs to relieve my boredom."

    Without my aid, he couldn't see the living world, couldn't touch or speak to his fellow shades.  Swallowing a lump of guilt, I whirled my free hand and spoke the words to open the gateway.

    "There's a trick I'd like to learn," Ambrose muttered.

    Still holding hands, we stepped through swirling orange and red light and stood before the Halls of Night.  Five obsidian towers stretched up from the high black stone walls that glittered in the dull light.  Fires crackled and sparked in stone pits, raising an instant sweat on my back and upper lip, while the sulphurous stench burned my nose, eyes and throat.

    I hadn't brought us to the main entrance, with its grand staircase and three-story double doors of solid gold.  Instead, we stood at the secret side entrance I created in my youth.  The glassy stone warmed where my fingers probed for the latch.  The door wasn't sealed with magic, for I lacked that power and magic was too easy for others to detect.  I found the latch in an indentation.  The mechanism clicked and the door creaked inward.  We crowded into the narrow, dark hall.

    "Light," I said.  Small crystals embedded in the walls glowed faint red, enough light for the hellborn, but dim to mortal eyes.

    Ambrose looked around, a reckless grin on his borrowed face.  "Another nice trick."

    "It's like creating the dimensional portals--fire is a power all hellborn possess."  The air didn't smell as musty as it should have after two hundred years of neglect.  Shrugging, I led Ambrose down the passage to what looked like a dead end.  "But we can only gain stronger magics by taking powerful blood in Xaxos' name."

    "And that's why someone took the princess?"

    "So I assume."  I stepped through the illusionary wall into darkness, pulling Ambrose after.

    "I didn't think you could work illusions," he said, his cold lips brushing my ear.

    "Daegar made that."  A jolt of unease struck my gut.  I would rather confront the dark god Xaxos than Daegar, my childhood playmate and later my first lover.

    I called for light and a faint red glow filled my study.  Bookcases covering three walls held books on dreams, the nature of the dead, torture, mortal pain and suffering.  Daegar and I had extensively researched new ways of tormenting our prey.  I blocked out the memories that tried to follow.  This was no time for guilt.

    Boot prints disturbed the dust beside the reading table and chair, and a path had been torn through the lacy spider webs that covered every surface.  "Someone has been here recently."

    Ambrose nodded.  We followed the path through the webs, but sticky silk still clung to our clothes.  Pushing past a door, we entered a corridor that stretched so far the obsidian walls appeared to meet.  At irregular intervals, silver doors reflected the crystals' red glow.

    "This whole area belongs to you?"  Ambrose squinted down the seemingly endless corridor.  "Where does everyone else live?"

    "In their own dimension."  At his furrowed brow, I explained, "In essence, we each have the entire Halls of Night to ourselves.  But we can travel between the dimensions through the portals--"

    "I understand well enough," Ambrose said, raising a staying hand.

    We strode down the corridor until we came to a door guarded by two waist-high obsidian dragons.  "Hello, Achnaye, Arcalis."  I patted each cool stone head.  Their shiny, black eyes blinked and their necks creaked as they craned to look up at me.

    Ambrose gasped and jumped back.  "You didn't make those either."

    "They were a gift from my father."  I sighed.  "From long ago."  It had been so long since he smiled on me.  At the few family celebrations I attended after my change of heart, he neither looked at nor spoke to me.

    Achnaye stared up at me with a forlorn expression.  "Achnaye anger Vasha?"

    "No."  I hadn't realized the stone creatures could miss me or even feel true fondness.  "I didn't leave because of you."  Urgency tugged at me, but I pushed it aside and stroked both heads.  Arcalis looked more resentful, but he suffered my touch.  "I'm sorry I couldn't take you with me."

    "Why no take?" Arcalis asked sullenly.

    "You can't exist outside the Halls of Night," I said.  "And I can't live here anymore--because of my family, not you.  Now, pets, have you seen a mortal girl?"

    "She scream like harpy," Arcalis said, baring obsidian fangs.  "Hurt ears."

    "Daegar take to pain room," Achnaye said.

    My hope crumbled into dust.  How could I face Daegar as my enemy--and in the chamber where we had performed many experiments on the nature of pain and the limits of human endurance?  The horrors we had committed--

    I can't go back to that room.  I pictured Kathria, laughing and tossing her golden brown curls, her eyes full of dreams as she talked of her hopes for the future.  Then I thought of her in Daegar's hands and shuddered.  I would go.

    "Thank you," I said to my pets.  "I'll try to visit more often."  When I removed my hands, the stone dragons fell still, their animation lost.  "Let's go."  When I turned, Ambrose stayed rooted, almost jerking me off my feet.  "What?"

    His cold fingers traced my lips.  "This Daegar--you told me how close you once were."
    "The past, Ambrose."  I scowled and pulled him down the corridor until I reached a silver door with a fire wheel etched in its center.

    "Be careful," he said, taking the bag holding the shackles.  "I'll wait for your signal."

    Giving him a watery smile, I slipped through the door.  Crystals already cast their lurid glow over the room.  Kathria lay on the wood plank table that had hosted many tortures and vivisections.  Ropes pushed through holes in the table bound her wrists and ankles, and her golden brown hair fanned out around her as though arranged.  On a smaller table, wicked steel cutting instruments with polished wooden handles glinted in the red light.

    "Vasha!"  Kathria's face lit with hope.

    I took a step closer, and it struck me with the force of a blow--her blood's power, thrumming through her frail mortal body.

    "Intoxicating, isn't it?" a husky voice said in my ear.

    Kathria's brown eyes widened until the whites stood out and she shrank away as best as her bonds allowed.  I turned to find Daegar, a dimensional doorway closing behind him.

    Sorcerer, enchanter, chimerian--master of illusion, emotion and the blending of creatures into new beings.  He watched me, his black eyes glittering with hard amusement.  Looking at his familiar, fine-boned face, the sensual curve of his lips, my breath caught in my throat, and my fingers ached to twine in his curly dark hair.

    "Stop it, Daegar."  I turned back toward Kathria.  "Your enchantments don't work on me."

    He stepped into my line of vision and placed a hand under my chin.  "I'm not using magic, Vasha.  The magic is between us."

    I snorted.  "Still the same tired lies."

    "Ah, you know me too well."  His grin turned sly.  "What brings Virtuous Vasha back to the decadent Halls of Hell?"  He stepped aside and swept an arm toward Kathria.  "Could it be this delicious morsel?"

    "You took her to tempt me," I said, the words barely pushing through my narrowed windpipe.

    He snatched up my hands and pulled me closer to Kathria, whose face was pale and mottled.  As I neared, her blood's power struck me again and my entire body ached with longing.  My fangs pushed against my lips.  I could almost taste the warm, coppery blood.

    Daegar leaned close until his warm lips tickled my ear.  "Xaxos will forgive all if you take this power and return to his service."  He moved his head lower and his fangs teased my neck.  I shivered.  "Take the power, Vasha.  It's yours by right of birth."

    Kathria gasped and strained against the ropes.  Her thrashing kept exposing the milky white promise of her neck.  Through lust-heightened senses, I smelled her sweaty fear and heard her heart pounding like a frantic bird against the bars of its cage.

    "This is your place, Vasha."  Daegar's hot, moist breath caressed my flesh.  "This is what you were made for.  We were never meant to be bound by mortal views of right or wrong.  That's like sheep dictating to the wolf."

    I turned, moving into his arms, letting my fingers twine in his hair.  I hadn't realized how alone I'd felt these past two hundred years.  My body drank in his warmth, his fire, a fire no mortal man could match.

    "That's my Vasha."  Daegar's teeth traced the length of my neck, leaving tiny pinpricks of pleasurable pain.  "Now let's celebrate your return.  Take this girl's power in Xaxos' name."

    I turned toward the tantalizing power wrapped in the fragile body.  The rhythm of her heartbeat pounded in my skull.  I stepped closer.

    "Vasha, you can't do this," Kathria said, her expression bruised.

    "It's just one mortal, Vasha."  Daegar's body pushed mine closer.  "Mortals' lives are brief.  What meaning can they truly have?"

    Desperate hope filled Kathria's eyes.  "You once told me that part of what made mortals' lives so meaningful was that they did so much with the little time they had.  You said after your friend Ambrose died and landed in Hell because you led him astray, you learned that length doesn't determine a life's value--actions do.  Vasha, don't you remember?"

    Those were my words?  I shook my head, trying to think through the bloodlust hazing my thoughts.

    In my eight hundred years, I had seen kingdoms rise and fall, old gods fade and new ones take their place.  Kathria was thirteen.  Thirteen years passed like a month to me.  What was one mortal life worth in the grand scheme?

    "What are you waiting for?"  Daegar's fingers dug into my shoulders and he pushed me closer to that white neck.  The large vein, visible through Kathria's milky skin, jumped with each panicked heartbeat.  Daegar's teeth teased the skin on my throat, no doubt intending to drive me to a frenzy.  I fought to master the mad desire that pulled at my soul, that pulled me toward her power, toward her exposed neck, toward her death.

    I shook my head sharply, tried to reason past my bloodlust.  Most mortals were like me, a mix of warring natures.  But they fought their animal side.  If mere mortals could master their evil, so could a hellborn.

    Ambrose, come to me!  I sent the summons, then turned to Daegar.  Grabbing his wrists, I held his arms at his side while I pressed against him.

    He laughed softly.  "Time for that later, Vasha.  Drink, then we'll have our fun."

    The door opened and Daegar's head jerked up.  His black eyes narrowed and he wrenched free of my grasp.  "You disappoint me, Vasha.  But if you don't want the power, I'll take it."

    He shoved me to the ground.  Ambrose clapped an iron manacle around Daegar's extended right wrist.  Roaring in pain, Daegar clubbed him in the chest.  Ambrose skidded across the floor until his head hit the wall.  He crumpled into a heap, his eyes unfocused, one leg twisted under him at an unnatural angle.

    Daegar clawed at the iron around his wrist, crying out whenever his left hand touched the manacle.  The other manacle dangled just above the floor.  I tugged my dress from under my knees, then dove for it, grabbing the iron with both hands.  Pain beyond screaming, beyond thought, seared my hands, as though I had grabbed molten lava.  My leg muscles went limp and I fell flat, still clutching the chain, my weight pulling Daegar on top of me.  Agony radiated through my entire body, and every fiber of my being screamed at me to let go.  Daegar's free arm dangled right by my hands.  The iron drained my strength, but I scooted the open manacle toward him.  He jerked his arm away, then rolled off me, almost tugging the manacle from my grip.

    From the corner of my eye, I saw Ambrose hunching like a worm across the floor.

    "Free . . . Kathria," I gasped.

    Ambrose shot me a sarcastic look and resumed his slow crawl toward me.  "How would I get her out?"

    He had a point.  I rolled over to face Daegar's pleading black eyes.

    "Stop this," Daegar said through clenched teeth.  "Or we can . . . never go back."

    I tried to push my arms toward him, but the iron had paralyzed them.  Ambrose's hand locked around my wrist and thrust my hand forward.  I clapped the manacle around Daegar's left wrist and let go.

    Daegar's roar of pain and rage echoed off the walls and ceiling.  With shaking arms, I pushed to a sitting position, then rose on legs that still thrummed and twitched with the memory of pain.  I shuffled over to untie Kathria's bonds.

    "I knew you wouldn't do it," she said, though the tears on her cheeks belied her trusting words.

    Shame blocked my throat.  Kathria rolled off the table, then rubbed her raw wrists where the ropes had left bloody welts.

    Ambrose gingerly sat up and took my hand.  His thumb massaged my tense palm.  "You were strong enough, Vasha.  In the end, you were strong enough.  It's time to let go of your guilt--about the past, about me."

    I swallowed the painful lump.  "You know?"

    "The door was open a crack."  Ambrose gave a self-deprecating smile.  "I never blamed you.  If you hadn't led me astray, I would have found it for myself.  And if my death taught a hellborn the value of life, maybe I was worth something after all."

    Tears spilled onto my cheeks.  I swiped them away and whispered, "I love you, Ambrose."

    He tried to stand on the broken leg, but grunted and fell back onto his seat.  "Pain.  Even that's a welcome change.  Ah, well."

    The body dropped to the floor and his hand slipped from my grasp.  Ambrose's shade slid out of the body.  I spared Daegar a last uncertain glance, then the three of us headed for the door.

    "It's war now, Vasha!" Daegar shouted, pain driving his voice higher.  "I will dedicate eternity to destroying everyone and everything you care about.  You'll never find peace--"

    My body trembling when we stepped into the long corridor.  I closed the silver door, shutting out his words.

    Ambrose sighed.  "Time to go back to my boredom, eh?"

    I shook my head.  "I can't leave you in that hell.  You'd be at Daegar's mercy."

    "And he has none," Kathria said, her brown eyes flat and hard.  Daegar was a master of mental torment.  Xaxos only knew what he had done to her.

    "I suppose being a shade in the mortal world would be more interesting," Ambrose said.

    "I'll find you bodies when I can," I said.

    Ambrose gave his wry smile.  "A gruesome occupation."

    "You helped save my life," Kathria said, bowing her head to him.  "My father will find you bodies to occupy."

    I wasn't sure King Guthan would be so anxious to order people to give my companion their dead loved ones, but we could worry about that later.

    "What about Daegar?" Ambrose asked, nodding toward the door.

    If I left him there, it could be months, perhaps even years before someone found him.  My gut twisted with guilt and self-loathing at the thought of leaving him writhing in agony for so long.  Once I returned Kathria to her father, I could tell one of my relatives where Daegar was.

    Then I looked at the haggard lines the ordeal had drawn in Kathria's face, at the loss of the innocent trust in her brown eyes.  "Let him writhe."

    I summoned the gateway and we stepped through the swirling red and orange light.

                                                            The End

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