The Wages of Her Sins

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Fantasy  |  House: Booksie Classic


All debts come due, even for hemomancers. Lena knows that she deserves nothing less than death for the crimes she's committed, but that doesn't mean she's going willingly.

Submitted: April 29, 2018

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Submitted: April 29, 2018

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I

Everything bad happened in summer. It was a fact of life somewhere between truth and superstition which Lena had long ago come to accept. She still marked the passing of seasons with vigilant caution, for it took only the smallest mistake to bring catastrophe. For whatever reason, hemomancers like her seemed somehow more likely to fall victim to such lapses of discretion when the sun was high and the blood ran hot and bewildering. Even in the mild climate of Seattle's sprawling suburbs, the curse of summer loomed over her, challenging her to drop her guard and throw everything she'd won away, the price for her birthright.

The rain had been falling off and on all day, and the afternoon's close brought with it a new curtain of discontinuous downpours. The frosted glass windows of the kitchen were dark with gloom, though Lena found the pattering of droplets on the roof and walls of the condo soothing. The radio on the countertop buzzed with the dueling sounds of static and The All-American Rejects. The reception was always shit when it rained, but Lena didn't care. She was only using it as background noise anyway. Cooking was mentally numbing, and without suitable distraction her mind was liable to plunge toward dark memories she'd built her five-year lie of normalcy upon.

Dinner was half-finished when the front door of the condo swung open and a joyful sputter of laughter greeted her. Her heart sang a little song at her fiance's return from work. She smiled broadly to herself and listened to the rustling of a raincoat being hung up and boots being pulled off. A moment later, Ben appeared in the doorway to the kitchen. His brown hair was drenched but his suit was dry, save for a few splatters that were probably inflicted by the removal of his raincoat. "Hey, baby," he said with a grin.

"Help. A strange man is in my kitchen."

Ben barked a laugh as he made his way over to her. His arms snaked around her hips and pulled her close to him. She giggled as his lips found her neck. "What do you say we have a little dessert before dinner?" he breathed into her ear.

She frowned. "Dammit, you should've texted me. I put the gratin in like five minutes ago. After?"

Ben sighed into her skin. "Fine." His stubble rubbing against her cheek invited her chin upward, and he gave her a brief but deep kiss, infusing the distant taste of cigarettes into her lips. And just like that, he was retreating toward the living room, peeling his suit jacket off.

Lena gagged slightly once he was gone. She wished he'd stop smoking already. Her tongue scraped against her teeth, as though the lingering taste of tobacco and nicotine would come off like a crusty rash. "How was work?" she called after him. He gave back an answer which she couldn't hear over the radio's blaring.

Ben was a lucky man. He was barely out of college, but his future had been handed to him on a silver platter. His father, a first-generation Polish immigrant, had built himself a tiny construction empire with no more than a shovel and a handful of coins. An unfortunate heart attack had made Ben the owner of the entire enterprise, turning his father's American dream into a fitting frame for his bachelor's in business.

Lena thumbed the radio off, no longer reliant on its company. She cleared the cutting board of the iceberg lettuce before grabbing an onion and a cucumber from the basket of vegetables further back on the counter. Should've gone shopping before the rain started. It's just not salad without carrots.

Ben returned a minute later sans his formal attire. "Do anything interesting today?"

"Just the usual." Looking for a job that required zero skills and zero experience was a full-time job in its own right. It was times like this she bitterly wished she'd been financially able to continue college instead of dropping out like the social outcast she secretly was.

"Hmph. I'm telling you, I can give you a secretary position at the office. You could stop stressing yourself out so much, and the pay beats anything you can possibly find in the Recycler's wanted section."

"That's called nepotism. You don't want to go to jail, do you?" She hacked the end of the cucumber off and began to chop the rest into thin slices. "I don't want a job I didn't earn." If she was going to maintain employment, she at least wanted to feel good about it.

He laughed and sidled up behind her again. "Forget work and jobs for a sec," he said, once more slipping his arms around her waist. "Here's what I was thinking. Let's take a vacation."

Torn between the comfort of his arms and the tangible obstacle they presented, she struggled slightly against his grip. "Dammit, I'm cutting."

"You can cut and listen at the same time. I was thinking Italy, maybe. A couple weeks, just the two of us. How does that sound?"

She allowed herself to be taken in by his embrace. She rolled her head back against his chest and considered him from below. She navigated the knife by feel and carefully resumed chopping the cucumber. "Sounds like a lofty idea worth developing into something a bit more concrete."

"Couple weeks in Italy's pretty concrete, ain't it?"

"Remember last time you said we should take a vacation? Like a month ago?"

She could feel him thinking by the subtle rhythm with which his fingers played at the top of her jeans. "Yeah. Guess I kinda forgot that, didn't I?"

"You sure did." She chopped the last of the cucumber up and pushed it into a pile off to the side with the blade. "Get back to me when you've got something likely to actually happen."

Ben chuckled and kissed her cheek again. "Alright, fine, let's make it happen this time. What do you think? Italy or France?"

She hummed in thought, rocking back into him slightly. She rolled the onion to the center of the cutting board. "I have to be honest. I'm not much of a Europe fan."

"That's because you've never been there. Once you've seen the Rio Grande with your own eyes, you'll feel like a citizen of Italy."

"The Rio Grande's in Mexico."

"Ouch. Guess I need to polish my sense of humor a bit." He came in for another kiss on her neck, and Lena's breath stuttered.

Half-distracted by her fiance's appetite, she pressed the knife into the onion. But the skin was too thick. The onion rocked violently, and the blade slipped. All the force she'd put into the slice guided the blade right into the side of her hand, and the pain immediately brought her out of her Ben-induced stupor.

"Ahh, fuck!" she spat, her hand clawing around the pain. A steady stream of blood sputtered from the stab wound onto the counter and cutting board, shining like melted garnets in the incandescent lighting.

Ben released her and leapt away in shock. "Jesus, I'm sorry! I didn't--"

"It's fine," she answered, injecting some calm into her tone. "My fault." She did not hesitate before letting her mind rustle over the shed droplets and take control of them. In one mental motion, she pulled the blood into a single small puddle and then reabsorbed it into her wound. It was an act of singular familiarity, one she had performed a thousand times before without a second thought. She only realized her mistake when she heard Ben's shock and concern vanish into an awed silence. It took only a second and a half, but it was a second and a half that she immediately knew would change everything.

Her whole body went rigid, except for the fingers gripping the edge of the counter. The blade danced against the cutting board as the nervous tremors traveled up and down her arm. She dared to exhale and gradually turned to where Ben stood.

His tenseness matched her own, and it was apparent in each sculpted limb. His eyes were wide, his complexion drained of all color. "What. The fuck. Was that."

Holy shit, she thought to herself, very nearly whispering the words aloud into the thickening air. What was I thinking? All it took was one mistake, her father had warned her time and time again. She'd tried to believe that she had enough self-awareness not to do something so stupid as to use hemomancy in Ben's presence. But it was too late. She had to diffuse the situation, somehow.

Her mind reeled in a panic, and she hit upon an idea that she knew was moments too late to change anything. Without recourse, she forced herself to discard the ingrained habit that kept her blood flowing safely. It seeped out slowly at first, and then in a torrent that she hoped contained the proper amount of blood for such a wound. The sound of the fluid slopping to the floor filled her stomach with nausea. "Don't just stand there," she choked out, trying to contain the warble of helpless terror that overtook her. "I need bandages."

But Ben's gaze drilled right through her. His face was wan, and his glistening eyes begged her to deny the truth. His jaw gaped, teeth angled toward a dawning realization that even the fountain of blood splattering against the pristine floor could not distract him from. "Hemo," he whispered. "You're a hemo."

She shook her head. The trembling had moved to her shoulders and hips. "Ben, I..."

"Tell me it's not true." His voice shook with loss, as though he'd walked in on her in the midst of a torrid affair with his best friend. Lena would have done anything to soothe him, to convince him that it wasn't what it looked like. But the sting of her betrayal invaded his features and consumed him from within. The look of supreme pain and vulnerability gave way to a grimace. "I knew it was too good to be true," he hissed. "I knew there was something fucking wrong with you!" He turned and tore out of the kitchen. "But a fucking hemo!?"

"Ben, don't do this!" Though she meant to say it in a reassuring tone, it came out in the same hysterical warble that ran through each thought. Her legs almost refused to move as she chased his retreating back. The flow of blood stopped and reversed. There was no hiding it anymore. But maybe there was still a way to walk away from it. "I didn't... I didn't want you to have to know," she called at him. "Ben, listen to me. I didn't mean to trick you. I just... Ben, stop, just talk to me for a minute."

He didn't pause for even a second. He rounded the couch and advanced with silent purpose toward the bedroom. Not a single word answered her desperate cry for reason.

"Ben, come on! Wait!" She willed her legs to move her faster, but something was fighting her. On some level, she knew she had only a small window to escape. But love was the gravedigger of logic. She chose instead to stay and chase, and so she pursued him down the hall, crying his name and trying to stop the tears that were already forming.

He disappeared behind the door of the bedroom, and a loud clatter rang from within.

She was almost to the door when it swung back open and he reemerged. In his hand, he held a pistol--and he was pointing it square at her. Tears and sobs transformed his face into something hideous and unrecognizable. "Monster," he barked, his hands quaking and making the barrel of the gun bob erratically from side to side. "You fucking monster! Give my Lena back to me!"

Her breath left her vacant. There was no fear in her heart. Only an ache she knew she deserved. Her own tears came hotter than before, blurring the sight of his face. "Ben. Don't do this. Please. I love you."

"Love?" A hysterical, rage-filled sob cut the word to shreds. "You're a fucking hemo! What do you know about love!?" Clumsily, he racked the slide of the pistol and aimed it straight at her head.

One mistake is all it takes, she heard her father saying again. Quiet indignation, self-loathing, resignation. As she stood there, staring down the barrel of her fiance's gun, she was horrified to find Ben's terror-stricken visage warped unrecognizable by his fear and hatred. It was an expression burned into her brain, one that by its very recollection proved what she knew about love--and about hate. That expression transported her back to a night five years earlier. Moments, separated by years of placebos and lies, bled together. The unthinkable happened: the face of her beloved had become the face of Tyler Lamm.



II

Lena had only been seven when she was made to understand her precarious place in the universe. It was a time of enviable innocence. It was back when her parents did not think twice about allowing her and her twin sister Rebecca to run alone through the wild forests of Georgia, on the outskirts of the town of Sonora. Theirs was a small community, but one their parents had sheltered them from. It took only a single mistake, her father had ominously warned, for everything to fall apart. Lena didn't know what was meant by that, but that balmy afternoon would be the last time she could claim such ignorance.

The leaves overhead dripped with syrupy light, making the forest glitter in green and gold. Lena and Rebecca were out playing near the base of Maiden's Rock, where the maple and holly trees fought for the right to rule the shaded gullies and mulchy groves. It was their own little haunt, a place only they knew about. They'd spent the whole summer playing in those hills, just as they had since as far back as they could remember. It was a place they were free to paint the air with their blood without worry, a place they could cut loose and be free.

On that day, they'd been playing all sorts of blood games that hemo children seemed genetically predisposed to learn to play regardless of upbringing. Rebecca had won the last three games of Red Wine White Wine, as so often she did; for some reason, Lena could never get the edge over her when it came to forming blood hoops without unsightly blemishes. "I'm bored," Lena complained as she let her airborne designs collapse and swim back into her bitten thumb. "Let's play hide and seek."

Rebecca scrunched her face in an exaggerated pout. She always hated changing games when she was winning. "Okay," she said at last, a playful sparkle coming to her gray eyes. They looked almost gold in the royal glow of the woods. "Loser's it."

Lena frowned at her. "No, winner's it. Remember? That's the rule."

Another small pout momentarily obstructed Lena's view of her mirror image. "Fine," Rebecca allowed.

The game proceeded as so often it had as the two took turns dashing beneath bushes and lying as still as possible to avoid detection. Each round lasted only a few minutes before a tag landed and the baton and burden of the seeker were passed. The afternoon grew warm and lurid. The game gradually dragged the twins further toward the trail leading up to the base of Maiden's Rock.

It must have been the hundredth round of their game, and the sun was beginning to sink lethargically toward the horizon. With Rebecca's counting loud in her ears, Lena made her way down a partially cleared slope cutting through an impenetrable wall of trees. There she found a gnarled, pale ash tree that looked like it had once been split apart by lightning. The overgrowth around the tree provided a large amount of cover behind which she could hide while still having a vantage point of most of the area. She clawed her way up the tree until she got to the first branch. She then shifted around and perched on it, ducking down behind the luxuriant curtain of leaves and branchlets from the neighboring vegetation. And there she waited.

Birds flitted and fluttered from tree to tree overhead. The smell of recent rains filled Lena's lungs with each breath, and the dazzling kaleidoscope of sunlight scattering through the canopy briefly seduced her into a trance. Finally, Rebecca appeared from further up the trail. She was hopping two steps at a time, pausing, and tilting her head every which way to listen. Lena held her breath and put her mind on vanishing beneath the birdsong and croaking of frogs. The whispering of the breeze rustled over and through her.

"You're here somewhere," Rebecca announced confidently into the air. "You can't hide from me." With a giggle, she lifted her thumb to her mouth and bit into it, re-opening the wound. A trickle of blood spilled down her hand and then drifted freely into the air. The dark liquid sparkled brilliantly in the blooming, scattered light.

Lena almost choked. You're going to cheat? Is that how you've been finding me? She concentrated on keeping her blood flowing calmly. If Rebecca tried to use her own blood to find her, she would be ready to camouflage her bloodstream's reaction. If you wanna find me, you'll have to do it the real way.

The blood morphed and churned until it formed two long rods of fluid, a childish imagining of dowsing rods. Satisfied with her creation, Rebecca closed her thumb wound and gave a proud, musical laugh. "You're mine, Lena!"

Rebecca then commenced stumbling to and fro. The blood dowsing rods swung about randomly, with no regard for Lena's actual position. Lena breathed out a sigh of relief to see that her sister was not actually cheating, but rather playing that she could. She relaxed her focus, and her sister's dowsing rods didn't care. Rebecca kept giggling and sputtering as she stumbled closer and then further away.

As Rebecca's focus gradually came to bob toward Lena's wounded tree, there came a rustling of branches and leaves uphill. Lena's attention immediately snapped to the sound, hoping that it would be one of the elusive deer that roamed the forests surrounding Sonora. But from the surrounding thicket of maple, only thirty feet away, a man appeared. He was thin, shirtless, scraggly. He wore khaki shorts and held a bulbous walking stick in one hand. As he emerged, Rebecca's infectious laughter drew his eyes right to her.

Lena's blood froze, and time seemed to follow. The man was staring at Rebecca, who had not yet noticed him. Her sanguine dowsing rods swiveled and shook, betraying the power that ran through her veins. And the look of fury on the hiker's face solidified the terror of discovery their parents had long instilled in them. Lena wanted to cry out to Rebecca, to tell her to drop the blood, to run and hide, to do something, anything. But she was paralyzed. This was everything she'd ever been warned against.

It all happened in a flash. The hiker broke into a sprint toward Rebecca, lifting his walking stick high above him and bellowing a savage cry that sent the birds scrambling for the air. Rebecca, at last noticing that she was not alone, turned just in time for him to smash her across the head with the wooden rod. She went down, and Lena began to scream.

The man looked up at the sound of her voice. His face went pale, and his eyes darted to and fro. His stance shifted, and he angled his walking stick out defensively. He threw a glance behind him, then gave the girl at his feet another long look. Rebecca was squirming in a crumpled heap, crying, her face and dress mottled with blood. Panic apparent in each motion, the man raised his staff again and brought it down upon her head. Once. Twice. Rebecca's cries morphed into something horrific, wet, and unrecognizable. On the third strike, there came a loud crack, and her screams went silent.

But Lena's only grew louder. Her howling must have been truly ghastly, she would later think, for a clear panic overtook the hiker. He dropped his bloody walking stick, reached down, and grabbed Rebecca by her legs. The tears mercifully washed away the details as her sister's battered body was dragged uphill and into the brush, where she and the man vanished.

The scene sank into Lena's stomach like a dagger. She could barely keep her balance as she lurched off the branch and fell to the ground. The image of her twin sister's bludgeoned face floated in scalding inkblots in her eyes. Her angelic strands of golden hair, streaked with mud and blood, spread messily about in all directions. Disbelief mounted with each nauseating punch of her pulse. She threw up, but it did nothing to blunt the horror of the fifteen-second loop. She had to do something, but the only thing she could think to do now was to hurry home and find her parents.

And so she ran, screaming, all the way home.

A horrible blur dulled the passage of time. It was almost dinner time when she eventually arrived home to their woodland cottage. When her mom and dad came running, she could only babble incoherently at them. Somehow, between Rebecca's absence and the few discernible words Lena spat at them, they seemed to understand. Silence hung thick in the air. Lena's memory of that night would forever be dominated by the burning of her eyes and the cramps in her cheeks from her hysterical sobs.

The wounded family huddled in the living room the whole evening, crying and trying to comfort one another. The only time they stopped was when her father clicked the TV on, hoping aloud for some answers from the news. The media deigned to answer their prayers not long after.

Lena clutched her security blanket tightly and stared, shaking, into the old CRT and its ghostly reporters half-hidden beneath falling sheets of static.

"Sonora was shaken late this afternoon," a woman said, "when a hiker had an encounter with a hemomancer up near Maiden's Rock. Fortunately for local man Tyler Lamm, he not only managed to walk away alive but was lucky enough to kill the hemomancer in the process. The hemomancer, a small girl between six and eight years of age, remains unidentified as of air time. It is unclear whether she was a member of the community or just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Tyler Lamm, meanwhile, seems to have had quite a windfall from this encounter. Word is that Kaiketsu and Plasmatech have already contacted him with offers to purchase the body. If the original estimate is correct, and the hemo is only seven or so years old, then I believe that will make this the youngest ever bagged."

"Interesting to note," the other anchor chimed in, "Sonora has not had any hemomancer reports at all since the great hemo hunts. Frightening to imagine that they can still be lurking around after all this time."

"Indeed it is. Terribly frightening. Lucky we have heroes like Tyler Lamm looking out for the community and keeping us safe. But still, everyone must remain vigilant. All outdoors lovers are advised to steer clear of Maiden's Rock. Where there's a child hemo, there's usually more to be found."

The relevant news report petered out and was replaced by something paste-colored and discontinuous. Lena, still young in the ways of the world, could only sit there clawing at her blanket hard enough to leave marks in the fabric. "What happened to Rebecca?" she asked, though she already knew enough to make the question a hopeless appeal for succor.

Her father was glaring death into the TV. His jaw was so tight she could see his muscles throbbing from exertion. "Rebecca's gone, Lena. The bad man got her."

"Is he going to jail?" That, too, she asked in her naivety.

"No, honey," her father said, voice dry and cracking. "He's not. Because he's a hero."

Hero. The word sat in her ears, gnawing at her mind and laying eggs. "But how can he be a hero?"

"Because," he said, "anyone who kills a hemo is a hero. That's the way it is."

How could a girl of seven hope to make sense of such an unjust truth spoken so bluntly? "But... why?"

Her mother wiped her tears with a handkerchief and stood, muttering to herself about dinner. She vanished, leaving an electricity buzzing between Lena and her father. His posture slumped, and his shoulders shook with sorrow. Never once had Lena seen him like this. The weight of Rebecca's death seemed to have robbed him of his voice, but the blatant injustice of the news report could not sit undecoded.

"Why?" Lena choked again. "Why would anyone wanna hurt us?"

Finally, he met her tear-filled gaze. His eyes concealed a pain no seven-year-old should ever have had to see. "One day you will understand," he said. "You will understand what we have done. Why we deserve this. I'm... I'm sorry this is the way you had to find out. I'm sorry I didn't do more."

"Dad?"

"This is why I told you to hide yourselves." He frayed and cracked before her eyes, collapsing into a sobbing wreck upon the floor. Her father, the man who she had always thought invincible, was weeping. The sight crushed Lena, ground what remained of her heart into powder and scattered it on an umbral wind. "Kakrinolas, forgive me. I would never have let you go out in the woods alone if I thought that..."

Her mouth was dry. Words came as aimless fragments of thoughts. "But we can't... Rebecca is... Somebody has to do something about the bad man."

But her father shook his head. "There is nothing to do." He rose to his feet once more, snuffing out the fit of sorrow that had brought him low. "All we can do is be more careful from now on. I hope you now understand why we have told you to hide your power." He walked over to her and pulled her into a tight hug. "We cannot force you to stay inside. But you are forbidden to go anywhere near Maiden's Rock, ever again. It's too dangerous. You have two lives to live now, Lena. I won't lose you, too. No matter what."

Lena only distantly heard him. Her mind had been caught on the resignation in his tone. Was it not a parent's duty to protect their children, to avenge them whenever something bad happened? The TV had certainly made her think so. But the reality was that she was now being held by a man she could not convince herself she recognized.



III

Rebecca's death festered. Lena cried for weeks, barely ate, prayed to whatever power there was that the bastard who had killed Rebecca would be arrested and put away. Years later, she'd rue her own naivety. Weeks turned to months. The sorrow rotted in Lena's heart, twisting and changing her. She couldn't stand to look at her parents. They could have done something--anything--but instead chose to keep living on in silent cowardice. What would Rebecca have thought? She'd been stolen from them all, and her mom and dad cared only enough to cry impotently while her killer was walking free.

Through the months, the name Tyler Lamm became inescapable. Not only was he now a verified hemo-hunter, a title which carried no small amount of prestige, but he had become wealthy with blood money. The sale of Rebecca's corpse to the highest bidding hemotech giant had turned Tyler into a rags-to-riches superhero, an inspiration to would-be hemo-hunters the nation over. He had, apparently, been a warehouse worker before fate had seen their lives intersect in the shadow of Maiden's Rock. Now, he was living the high life. He had even churned out a book about his encounter with Rebecca, which had only cemented his rapidly swelling celebrity.

On the anniversary of Rebecca's death, Lena was a year older, a year wiser, a year angrier. Her mother's stomach had grown over the past months, at last culminating in the birth of her younger brother, Clive. Her parents celebrated as though he were the second coming of Rebecca. When her mother returned from the local hospital with the newest member of their family swaddled close to her, Lena was overcome by jealous anger. Had she ever seen that sparkle in her mother's eye even once? Had Rebecca? Instead of righting the wrong exorcised into the world by Tyler Lamm, they had instead brought forth another potential victim of man's bloodthirst.

It was then that Lena decided her parents were useless. They didn't understand, not like she did. They had only lost a child, while she had lost her other half. And so if her parents wouldn't do anything, then she would take it upon herself. She would see the man punished for his crimes against her family. She would get revenge for Rebecca, no matter what it cost her.

The very next day, Lena began to train. Every spare moment she had, she would slip out to the forest--far from Maiden's Rock, she assured Mom and Dad--and seclude herself. Her parents had resolutely refused to teach Lena and Rebecca how to properly utilize their hemomancy; they had hoped that in forbidding it they would shape the two of them into proper human beings who would be able to integrate safely into society. And what a great idea that had been. If her parents would not teach Lena how to use her blood, she would do it herself. Merely moving it around in pretty ribbons was easy enough. But that was not hemomancy. Even at her precious age, she knew the truth: that hemomancy was a weapon. It was a weapon that ordinary people feared more than anything else.

And so she spent hours and hours every day forcing herself to push her own limits. Controlling blood for longer, moving it faster, using more at once. She attacked trees with bullets of compressed blood until the bark began to strip. She lifted stones, tore leaves from branches, uprooted bushes. And that was all before she accidentally discovered the secret to forming hemocrysts. The first time she'd, on a whim, bade a floral wreath of blood to freeze, she was rewarded with a beautiful, glistening ring of crystals, each as sharp as a knife. This, she decided, was the essence of hemomancy. It opened new horizons of combat, turning her playful swirling of crimson patterns into a potential storm of blades.

Seasons passed. Years. She eventually realized that it was not enough merely to master hemomancy. She could not rely solely on the power that man had evolved to detest. She had to go further; she had to temper her entire body into a weapon. Doing so would, she reasoned, push her hemomantic capabilities even higher. Though she was only eleven at the time the thought occurred, an obsession began to form. She had to become stronger than any hemomancer before her.

Running. Jumping. Swimming. Climbing. She began to learn not only how to use her new hemocryst toys, but mundane weaponry. She started with sticks, umbrellas, axes, screwdrivers--anything common enough that she could reasonably approach Lamm with one hidden behind her leg. They were all clumsy and ineffective. She soon discovered knives. They were brutal and simplistic tools for cutting, inferior in every way to just opening her veins and forming a hemocryst of whatever desired length. But throwing them was different. They had punch to them, potentially deadly force. If she had to, she could send a throwing knife tumbling into her target's throat without exposing herself as a hemomancer.

It began with knives stolen from the kitchen drawer. They were unwieldy, poorly balanced, and seemed to flip the wrong way whenever she tried to throw them. But she kept practicing with different styles and strategies, and over time began to develop a rapport with the blades. After a while, she could hit a target tree fifty feet away with near-perfect accuracy. She tried different knives, eventually graduating to blades designed for throwing. She was becoming faster, stronger, more accurate. And this increase in accuracy extended far beyond throwing mundane sheets of metal; she could now send a dozen hemocrysts into a target and split each sequential crystal down the center with the next. The idea of missing an attack became an absurdity born of her past weakness. But it still wasn't enough. She had much farther to go still.

One day, when she was fourteen, she had been sent grocery shopping by her mother, who was preoccupied with undoing some mischief Clive had gotten himself into. On the way back from town, she passed their small electronics store. The front window was full of overlarge televisions, some of which were only as thick as a dictionary. She'd intended to walk on past and continue home, but happenstance had other ideas. She caught sight of that face burned into her psyche. She stopped in front of the shop, transfixed by the magnificent detail of the HDTV wasted on such a parasite as Tyler Lamm.

"When you're an outdoorsman like I am, you learn to feel when things ain't right," Tyler said, his voice grating on Lena's ears. It was clear from his accent that he was from further south, for it was rare to hear someone so close to Atlanta speaking with such a pronounced drawl. "And believe me, things were definitely not right that day up at Maiden's Rock."

Lena's teeth clenched.

"What was going through your mind when you first realized that you'd discovered a hemomancer?" the hostess of the talk program asked.

He licked his lips. His rough, scraggly cheeks and heavy eyelids had not changed at all over the years. "Well, I'll tell ya, I was scared. Real scared. You hear about these stories, but ya never think it can happen to ya. Not in America, not anymore. It was crazy, like somethin' out of your worst nightmare."

"So what happened? If you don't mind reliving it for those who haven't read your book."

A spark of pride rent the dark of his pupils. "Gotta say, at first I was real cautious, ya know? 'Cause even the tiniest ones are dangerous. Perhaps even more dangerous than the adults. That little girl hemo I bagged was one frightful creature, howled like a banshee at me, moved like something out of Hell, like it wasn't even solid. I was scared for my life. But I knew that Jesus was lookin' after me, so I crossed myself, looked right into the creature's bloodshot eyes and said, in the name of Christ I command you to begone! And that seemed to weaken it. The unholy are weak to the names of the divine, you see. I won't bore ya with the details of it all. It was quite a struggle, but in the end, good won out over evil."

Lena was overcome by the urge to reach through the screen and strangle the man to death. Struggle. How fucking dare you. It took a non-trivial effort to stop from smashing the bag of groceries against the glass and alarming the passersby.

"Anyway," Tyler continued, "I've been travelin' a lot lately. Up to St. Isabeau, up to Augusta, meetin' with other hunters. Goin' on some expeditions into known territories where hemos have had a presence in the past."

"And have you found any more hemos?"

He gave her a knowing smirk. "You'll need to read my new book if ya wanna know that. But let's just say that America has never been safer from the threat of hemomancers. And I'm committed to makin' sure it stays that way."

"Which is why you're opening the Academy."

Tyler chuckled. "Hey now, ya ruined my pitch. Had a perfect lead-in too."

"Sorry."

He laughed again. "Yess'm, that's why I'm openin' Tyler Lamm's Hemo-Hunting Academy. To spread all the wisdom I've learned, and to show that anybody can be a world-class hemo-hunter with only a little trainin'."

"Can you give us a preview of the types of skills applicants at your Hemo-Hunting Academy can expect to learn?"

"Nope. Ha, just kiddin'. Nah, but one of the core tenets of the Lamm style of hunting, as I like to call it, relies upon, as I said, the names of the divine. And it don't matter if you're Christian, Muslim, Jew, atheist, whatever. What matters is what these words of divinity represent. They're the weakness of devils and demons in all shapes and sizes. We'll also be havin' classes on how to make your very own silver bullets on a budget. The course culminates with an actual huntin' expedition into the woods up and around Maiden's Rock, not only 'cause that's where I found my first--that's right, first--hemo, but 'cause there're ol' Creek legends datin' back thousands of years that say that's where demons gather on the full moon. So we'll go and take a look. Put everything ya learn to use in a real-life scenario."

"Sounds quite exciting. Thank you very much for coming out this evening."

"My pleasure."

"This has been Tyler Lamm. If you're interested in joining Tyler Lamm's Hemo-Hunting Academy, it's four hundred dollars a pop. Seats are first-come-first-serve, so don't wait to sign up."

Fire ran through Lena's veins as the broadcast concluded. She stood there, seething, her fingernails digging into her palms. She had, from time to time, stopped to question whether or not she was treading the right path. Had she found her sister's slayer humble, remorseful of his actions, she feared that her humanity may have moved her to show the man mercy. But there was little threat of that happening. He was an animal, a peddler of snake oil who was greasy enough to fit in a bottle himself. Every time she'd seen his name, heard him speak, looked upon his damned face, her heart had been driven by violent impetus toward her training, toward her coming revenge. And that night, too, she ate quickly before slipping out to her secret site with an order of magnitude more urgency.

Lena was sixteen before she was finally confident that she was ready. Eight years of brutal training. Eight years of perfecting her hemomancy. Nine years of fermenting hatred. Everything, every push-up done, every hemocryst formed, every mile run and knife thrown--it was all for Rebecca. And on the warm July night she set out, list of names and addresses from the town library in hand, she hoped that Rebecca was watching, wherever she was.



IV

Committing the most excessive part of the deed had been simple. As she'd learned from her preparatory research and casual questioning of townsfolk, there were only three people whom Tyler Lamm spent time with as more than business associates. On half the nights of the week, most of them would gather and play poker or go fishing on the lake. It had taken a little searching, but she'd eventually come up with addresses and places of businesses for each. They would serve as appetizers and little more.

She started with Todd Silas, a truck driver for the local brewery. It was the easiest thing in the world to walk into his house through the unlocked front door and split him apart with bloodcrystal shards before he even had the chance to scream. She left him pinned to the wall of his living room, his wife-beater tattered and sopping. Next was Jeff Long, a consummate loser with a penchant for mooching booze money off his friends. When he wasn't at the bar, he was working on his hunk of junk pickup behind his trailer. It was there that the police would find him, throat and wrists opened and body smashed under the truck, the cinder block holding it aloft having mysteriously been kicked out from beneath it. Finally was Rick Yeoman, the butcher. She found him in the back of his shop, covered in blood and flaps of pork. She filled his gut and throat with knives, just for a change of pace, before leaving him drained among the rest of the meat.

Finally was the residence of Tyler Lamm. The grisliest work of the evening was over in a crimson blur. Tyler's wife--whose name Lena did not even know--tried to save the children, but nobody could run from Lena now. She was one with the anger and hatred, and cut apart each of her victims as if they were Tyler himself. She would not allow the thought that she was no better than him to derail her revenge now; her life had one purpose and one purpose alone, and there was no revenge more perfect than the resplendent carnage of massacring every single person Tyler had ever cared for. When she was finished, the four bodies littered the floor of the master bedroom, and a lake of blood soaked the carpet completely through.

All that remained was to wait.

Tyler returned home just after ten. He came in the door muttering, face red and glowing with the dizzying sparkle of inebriation. Lena imagined him calling his buddies before hitting the bar, wondering why none of them had picked up. She was content to sit there in the shadows of the living room, watching, and allow him a final moment of blissful ignorance before she took her final prize.

Tipping gently from side to side, the man removed his jacket and hung it up on the hook. Its removal revealed the holstered revolver at his hip, the great hero's Excalibur, his Crux Caedis. She could taste the satisfaction dripping off him with each movement he made. Even when he was alone, he exuded a thick, syrupy smugness. But soon there came a specter of confusion, at first only a hint. The legendary hemo-hunter of Sonora surely expected his faithful family to greet him upon his return, no matter how late his imbibing had kept him away. The fact that he was still alone seemed to slowly weigh upon him, pressing in on him from the shadows.

"Martha?" he called out. The house answered with a low groan. "Martha, where y'at?" He proceeded from the living room without exploring the darkness. He wandered further into the bosom of the home, turning lights on behind him as he did. His gait was unsteady, clumsy, but now driven by purpose. Lena followed from her hiding place, creeping as silently as a panther stalking its prey.

In a drunken stupor, Tyler checked most of the bottom floor before ascending the stairs to continue searching, calling his wife's name like a carnival barker. When at last he came to the master bedroom, Lena witnessed every single dream and hope in the man's body die in one glorious, exquisite fireball. A feeble shriek spilled out of his chest, and his knees wobbled. "Martha? K-kids?" The pile of corpses answered him with silence, their faces twisted into ghastly, godless expressions of terror.

His despaired sobs came in an explosion that rang off the walls and ceiling. The strains gave Lena a sense of unparalleled euphoria. This was what she'd been waiting nine years for. She was going to savor her victory. She allowed her legs to carry her down the hall toward the broken man, who now knelt in the threshold of the red room. She made no attempt to conceal her footsteps anymore. "Don't worry," she said. "You will be with them soon."

Tyler jumped in fright and turned abruptly around. When he saw her standing there, fear utterly enveloped his face. But his look of horror and loss soon departed, replaced by something far more helpless. His tear-filled eyes bulged, and the color receded somewhat from his blazing red face. His lips shook, and a quiet whimpering slipped through his clenched teeth. "No," he breathed, the sound little more than a pitiful warble. "It can't be you. You're... you're dead. I killed you."

She could only imagine the paradigm-shattering sight he was seeing. With her long blond hair and dull gray eyes, she was Rebecca's spitting image. She grinned a devilish smile at him. "Demons cannot be killed by men such as you," she said, stalking further forward.

The man retreated a step, the soles of his shoes sinking into the deep red pool on the floor. The squelching sound ripped his attention for a moment away from her, and the horror gathering in his aura fed Lena's cruelty. "No, it can't be. It can't..."

Lena's pulse throbbed through her. Her palms were on the cusp of sweating. "It was quite exquisite. Slashing their throats and letting them bleed out together. They screamed, howled, for you to appear and save them from this demonic bloodfiend. And now you have arrived, far too late to save them." She coated each word with sugar and arsenic.

The final realization of the scene's reality began to tug at Tyler's brow, shaking his entire face in involuntary convulsions. He bared his teeth, his cheeks glowing as red as the floor.

Lena advanced one final step forward, leaving her only five feet from Rebecca's murderer. "What are you waiting for, brave, heroic hunter of hemos? I am right here. Show me the fruits of your anger. Your loss. Send me to hell, where we both know I belong."

Tyler's body was rigid, but his fuse fizzled shorter with each breath that stirred the sepulcher's air. It burned out mere moments later. With a shout, he reached for the holster strung at his hip and drew his handgun. He pointed it at her, a howl of impotent rage growing and warping his face into something inhuman. The barrel of the revolver bobbed to the sides, and then she was staring right down it. He thumbed the hammer back and dropped it in one practiced motion.

But blood was already streaming through the air, both from her wrists and from the ocean of gore in the bedroom. Wiry tendrils, moving with physics-defying speed, streaked toward her, collapsed together, and condensed into an instantaneously formed hemocryst. The bang came a moment too late for Tyler's revenge fantasy. His bullet struck the hemocryst floating before her. The crystal shattered into a million fragments that dusted the air with glistening ruby slivers. Liquid blood, released from the broken hemocryst, swirled and spiraled in the air between them.

His scream was barely audible beneath the crack of the gunshot. In a panic, he dropped the hammer again. Another flower of blood exploded into existence, turning the bullet into a crumpled hunk of inert metal. Three more shots followed, and three more hemocrysts appeared to challenge him. A galaxy of blood needles and droplets hung in the air when the last bang had resolved into a painful, echoing ring.

Lena's mind was stretched thin between every hanging shard and drop. Thin, but invincible. She was one with the blood, and the fact that her perception was sharp enough to catch bullets in flight was testament to how powerful she had become. She moved her mind only slightly, and the airborne blood responded by recombining into a cyclonic spiral that swept around her in imposing concentric torrents.

The gun tumbled from Tyler's grip. His fingers were shaking too violently to hold it any longer. "How...?" It came out voiceless, an empty gesture.

"Let me guess," she said. "You believed the old legends that silver bullets were our Achilles' heel. How insipid." She clenched her fist. Two coiled pillars of blood grew from the lake in the bedroom, like a pair of drills made of garnet. With a grotesque fluidity, they pierced Tyler through his arms from behind. A desperate scream filled the air. Lena licked her lips and willed the hemocrysts to rupture and spread, growing bladed roots through his bones and muscles and joints. His agonized howls brought her to ecstasy. She could feel Rebecca with her, cheering her on.

The crystal spikes through his arms held him aloft, and the growths within kept him from moving. Crimson rivers ran sloppily down his shirt. He looked like the crucified Christ creature humans were so fond of worshiping. She could see his muscles contorting and clenching as he struggled against the jagged filaments supporting his arms. He was suspended helplessly before her. At long last, Rebecca's murderer was completely at her mercy.

"Well?" she asked, strutting a few precisely measured steps nearer. "Why do you not invoke your exalted names of the divine? Go on. Cry out for your Father! Your Son! Your Holy Spirit! Call them all, if you believe they care enough to intervene on your behalf."

The man's eyes bulged further, as though he had only then recalled that he possessed a secret weapon. "L-Lord," he sputtered between shallow, gasping breaths. "Jesus. In the name of Jesus, I-I rebuke thee. Begone. In the name of Christ!"

Lena allowed the silence to crush the man's feeble hope into nothing.

His head slumped, and his struggling began anew. His muscles strained against themselves, and the desperation filling his soul overflowed onto the floor in streams of tears and spittle.

"Seems nobody is coming to save you." With a violent surge of force, Lena lunged for the crucified man and slammed the heel of her boot into his shoulder. At the same moment, her branching hemocrysts pressed him back against her foot. A crack from within brought his screams an octave higher, and his whole body contorted acutely as she ground her foot against his fractured collarbone.

The blood vortex swirling around Lena tightened. She willed it to collapse into a series of perfect hemocrysts that bloomed in the palm of her hand. But she would not stop there; her goal was beyond such a mundane weapon. She had become far stronger than any hemomancer before her, and she was going to see to it that Tyler saw the true power of their kind.

The glittering hemocrysts vibrated as her will ran through them. Their density grew, drawing them inward until they reached the point of collapse. A musical cracking twinkled through the air, and the formation shed excess material in a shower of needles and thinned plasma. Her fingers wrapped around the hilt-like formation at the base of the weapon. It was a long, squared blade, fashioned after a medieval broadsword and formed from impossibly dense bloodcrystals. The surface of it was deep red, as reflective as metal and just as strong.

Lena had accidentally discovered the technique in the course of her training. Bloodsteel, as she called it, was incredibly sharp and unbreakably strong; however, it required a constant and excessive level of focus to stop it from melting back into its raw, liquid state. There was no reason to ever use such an impractical weapon when steel was readily purchasable, but there was value in the theatric. This was the culmination of her entire life; practicality was nowhere on her radar.

She raised her bloodsteel blade and laid it against Tyler's neck. "Tell me something, brave hunter of hemos. What do you think the most horrible power of a hemomancer is?"

His wet face quivered repugnantly, pitifully. He babbled at her, like a baby begging for milk.

"Come now. Use your imagination. I could peel you apart with crystal blades. I could exsanguinate you in a matter of moments, from even the tiniest cut. But that's not what I'm going to do. In fact, let's put a stop to this whole bleeding business." A minor motion of her mind staunched the flows running from his pierced shoulders and brought the blood back to a steady flow through his veins. Mental bandaging had never had a more malicious purpose. "There. That's better. Just imagine how much pain I'm free to inflict on you now that we don't have to worry about you bleeding out."

His tearful wailing came in sputtering coughs. It was only the beginning.

"If you still believe in God," she said, "you'd better pray He lets you die quickly. Because I won't."



V

The television broadcast the next afternoon was interrupted by a breaking news report. Lena had been sitting in her room, drowning in malaise, when she heard that all-too-familiar brass fanfare from the living room, where Clive had been watching cartoons while her parents bickered over finances. She already knew what the report would contain, but still she found herself wandering, against her better judgment, into the living room. The brandy-colored wood paneling seemed to entomb her as she entered, and she suddenly found it difficult to breathe.

"This is a Channel Four breaking news broadcast," the anchor announced in a hasty stream. "We have just received word that local hemo-hunter and hero Tyler Lamm has been found brutally murdered in his Sonora home this very afternoon. Also counted among the dead are his wife and three young children. This brings the total death count this weekend up to six, including Rick Yeoman of Butcher's Block, who was reported dead late last night."

Her mother gasped and covered her mouth with one hand at the news. Her father stood abruptly to his feet. Lena did everything she could not to reveal the turmoil brewing inside her.

"Due to the fact that these ghastly murders have targeted Lamm and those around him, law enforcement officials have issued a statement that the slayings were likely committed by hemomancer agents. Police have elevated the hemomancer threat level to red for the county. Police are asking that everyone stay indoors unless absolutely necessary and to report any suspicious activity to their hemomancy hotline. They further ask that anyone with connections to Tyler Lamm contact them immediately, stressing that those connected with the hemo-hunter may be in mortal danger. Meanwhile, Channel Four advises all families to immediately go over your hemo-terrorism preparedness plans with a--"

Her father glided a step forward, bent down, and turned the TV off mid-sentence. The room became still.

Clive, clearly confused, looked back and forth between Lena and their dad. There was a static tension building, one which the eight-year-old was somehow more attuned to.

Their father turned his gaze directly upon Lena, and his slate-gray eyes held hers. They tunneled straight through her stoic exterior, piercing right into the well of her internal conflict. "This was you," her father said. His voice bristled with indignation and shock. "You killed them."

Her chest was heavy. The silence scraped at her withered resolve. "He killed Rebecca," she answered. "All I did was return the favor."

A gasp crashed down on her from her mother.

Clive stared at her, his brow wrinkled. "Who's Rebecca?" he asked. The rest of the room ignored him. The brewing storm had nothing to do with him, and Lena had intended to leave him to his innocence in any case.

"How could you do this?" her father demanded. "Your... We tried to raise you well. After all we've fought and bled and sweat for, you reject it all and go off to slaughter half a dozen people? For what!?"

Her mother's calm imploded at her dad's outburst. "Those were innocent people, Lena!" she screamed. "That Lamm bastard I could understand, but his wife? His children?"

Lena's mouth was dry. Her lips were beginning to tremble. "I'm not proud of what I did. But I can't really say I'm sorry, either. I did what I did to make a statement. That man was no hero. He wasn't even a hemo-hunter. All he did was beat a child to death with a stick. Nobody should worship a child-killer like him. And those who do are no better than him. They don't deserve to live."

"Child-killer?" Her father's face paled. "He kills one child, and in return you kill three. In what universe does that make you better than him? All you've done is become a monster far worse than he ever was."

His words were barbs in her heart. Deep down, she had hoped her family would understand what she had done. She hadn't expected them to praise her, for there was nothing heroic about her actions. She had merely expected empathy, or at the very least silent respect that she had avenged their youngest's murder. Instead, they were content pretending that Rebecca had never existed. And worse, they intended to champion all the outrage of the humans who had worshipped at the feet of her killer.

"You didn't do this to make a statement," her mother said through a snarl. "You just did this to make yourself feel better."

Lena averted her gaze to the curtains, her stomach churning. "And so what if that's true?"

Her father shook his head, bewildered and horrified. "Who are you? This is not the Lena we raised."

She returned a glare to him. "No. This is the Lena Rebecca deserved. If I had been strong enough in the first place, she wouldn't have had to--"

"Will you think about what you're saying!?" His shout broke against the walls and left a ringing behind. He took a deep breath, but it failed to calm him. The anger only seemed to build. "You can't live on in the past. Killing those people won't bring Rebecca back, it's just going to tarnish her memory!" He took a few more deep breaths and pinched his brow. A visible effort hindered him when he looked her in her eyes again. "You. You are the very reason that man was hailed as a hero. Leave. Now. You belong among your own. Not among chameleons like us."

It took so long for his words to sink in that his patience evaporated.

"Out!" he screamed, thrusting one finger toward the front door.

The air fulminated with the anger pointed toward her. Bitterness swirled through her chest and mind. Ears still ringing with her father's voice, she swallowed her retort and silently marched into her room. She packed a bag hastily, afraid if she took too long he would say something even more painful. When she returned to the living room, she found him standing, arms crossed, as if to bar her entry to the home beyond him. Seeing her with her bag on her shoulder did nothing to soften his heart, and her mother's sobs from the couch held no pity for her. Clive watched with confusion from behind their parents. His shoulders sagged with a fragment of the realization that was now eroding Lena's state of mind.

On the way out the door, Lena stopped one final time. "Hemomancers and humans were never meant to coexist," she said. "There's no point in pretending to be something you're not. Because eventually, you will be found. And then you'll stand alone, no longer a hemo and not even close to a human. I'd rather be a monster than sit by and watch as everyone I love is stolen from me one by one."

And with that, she walked out of the cottage and out of her parents' life, forever.

Life became a numb blur for Lena after that night. She wandered about, took odd jobs for just enough money to survive. She hopped from one hostel to another, lived hand-to-mouth, and gradually drifted westward. The tale of the Sonora Ripper traveled parallel to her aimless trek. She would sometimes hear whispering, in hushed voices, that hemo-hunters were being targeted, and that a war was on the very brink of erupting. She heard, too, that an uptick in reports of hemomancer activity had been observed in the months following that red summer's conclusion.

Lena found herself lost, trapped by the very fulfillment of her single-minded mission. Her entire life past nine had been devoted to killing Tyler Lamm. And now that he was dead, what did she have? She had no hobbies. No aspirations. And now, no family. No money. No chance of living on without squashing her resentment for humanity and, like her parents, becoming a chameleon. What bitter irony, she thought, to have burned her sole bridge home only to be forced to conform to the very same lifestyle she had resented her parents for trying to live. She wished she'd weighed her words with greater clarity. And soon, she began to wish she had never devoted herself to the pursuit of vengeance in the first place.

Rebecca's death was a tragedy. But there was a lesson in it. Her parents had tried to present it as such, as a sign that a single mistake could spell the end. But she hadn't seen it at the time. Instead, she had gone and done something horrifically foolish. She began to dream of the innocent people she killed. Remorse came, slowly but surely, gnawing at her peace of mind. Believing humans to be the enemy did nothing to mend the wounds a thousand years of mutual slaughter had opened. It only pried them wider and infected them. If she hadn't been so damned self-centered, she could have made a difference that mattered. She could have watched after Clive, the little brother she barely knew. She could have made sure that what happened to Rebecca never happened again. But she'd traded the opportunity for damnation.

Lena ended up in Washington some months after leaving home. Being an underage girl with no money, connections, or legal proof of existence left few opportunities. It was pure chance that she'd happened upon a flyer for a scholarship contest, sponsored by Plasmatech of all fucking entities, asking for submissions of stories from those affected by hemomancers. On a whim, she submitted a spun yarn invoking the terrible name of the Sonora Ripper. She told of how the Ripper had slain her drunken, abusive father. Cut free from her bonds, she proceeded to wander across the country in an aimless stupor until she arrived in Washington a penniless vagabond. The story apparently so moved the submission administrator's heart that he called every hostel in Seattle trying to find Lena. It was fortuitous that the story had never been thoroughly fact-checked. That stroke of luck, combined with knotty interstate laws on orphan residency, earned Lena a hefty scholarship to a school of her choice. It was as though the universe itself had taken pity on her and handed her a second chance she knew she did not deserve. That fall, Lena started at Bellevue College.

The first day of class felt surreal. She walked in wearing a freshly bought blouse and jeans, her hair sparklingly clean for the first time in ages. A pair of textbooks sat heavily in her arms as she made her way through the lecture hall. The venue was smaller than she had imagined, with seats cozily close to one another arranged in a tight little amphitheater around a stage and projector screen. Up at the front, the professor was hastily preparing for the class while deflecting questions from the more sycophantic students. Other teenagers were chatting and laughing around her. Some were reading, while others were sketching in fresh notebooks, trying to ignore the students around them.

Lena could tell at once that she was the youngest in the room by at least a year. If that didn't make her stand out enough, then the fact that she'd gotten a fully-funded trip to the college probably put her on some list somewhere. But nobody seemed to pay her any mind. They were too busy being students--being human--to notice any shibboleths she was in the process of committing.

Human. Chameleon. Traitor to her blood and to Rebecca. She settled into one of the only free seats she could find, between two students who looked identical to the others. She spread her textbooks on the arm-mounted table in front of her and tried to convince herself that everything was fine, that this path forward was not a mistake born of delusion and desperation. Still, she was racked by uncertainty, doubt, claustrophobia. Gazes from all over the room needled her. The others were looking into her, through her, judging her for her deeds and her identity. She was surrounded by people who would kill her at the smallest hint she was a hemomancer. It was impossible to suppress a quaking tremor that spread from her lower back.

"Are you alright?" the boy next to her asked. Being addressed brought her momentarily out of her downward spiral. The boy was taller than her and had short, brown hair. His jaw was long and sculpted, his features sharp and attractive. He was conventionally handsome, masculine but at the same time gentle, like an overly smooth sculpture the artist was afraid to damage by finishing.

"Yeah," she said, flustered. "I'm not really sure what to expect, is all. First time at college for me." It was a convenient excuse for being terrified of the mob of potential murderers around her.

The boy chuckled lightly. "I think it's probably most of our first time. Mandatory class for freshmen and all. Just relax, everything will be fine."

The platitude did actually calm her nerves somewhat. She let out a slow breath in hopes that it would satisfy her raging stomach. "Yeah. You're right."

He let out another low, almost musical laugh. He leaned slightly over the armrests dividing their seats and lowered his voice. "Your accent is adorable, by the way."

Accent? Embarrassment stung her. She had never thought of herself as having one before. What was the socially acceptable thing to say to such a remark? "Thanks?" She hoped it didn't flag her as a bloodfiend.

"Sorry, that probably sounded really weird. It's just not too often you run into southern girls up here. Where are you from?"

She stopped herself before she spoke the name Sonora. "Georgia," she said. It was more than specific enough for some random guy.

"Wow, quite a distance to travel for college. I guess let me be the first to welcome you to the rainy North." He smirked at her, and his smile filled her with a strange feeling. It was a warm, genuine smile that convinced her, no matter how briefly, that she really could fit in, that if she tried hard enough she could actually belong. "The name's Ben," he said. "What's yours?"



VI

"Who the fuck are you!?" Ben spat, face blazing. The gun held firmly in his grip was rattling from side to side, rocked by tremors of every blackened emotion imaginable. Each of those emotions was a flame stoked by the truth of what Lena was, by the mistake she had spent the last five years forbearing. He stomped three huge steps out of the bedroom, holding the gun threateningly at Lena's head.

She matched each step with a like-sized retreat into the hall. "Ben," she choked through her sobs. "Please. Don't." Her hands were raised in surrender, but it was a surrender that served only to humiliate. The rabid shade of the man she had loved snarled before her, a haunting reminder of all that had come before.

"Give me one good reason I shouldn't, you monster," he spat.

The tears burned hotter in her eyes. The palpable venom dripping down each word made it clear it was a rhetorical request. Even if it wasn't, she knew there was nothing she could say to change his mind. And even worse, she knew he was right about her. She was all that and more; a monster, a murderer, a butcher. After what she'd done, she wasn't worthy of living. If Ben truly hated her so much, then she would give her life in penance for her crimes. It would be her gift to him, a solemn, unspoken apology for having entwined herself with him.

One day you will understand. You will understand what we have done. Why we deserve this.

Those old words shattered the illusion that nearly bound her to her fate. No. Ben knew nothing about her, about what she was or what she had done. He knew only hate for her kind. Like Tyler Lamm and his ilk, he blindly followed the well-trodden path of ignorance and malice. Lena knew she deserved no less than death for what she had done. But Ben ending her would not be justice. He had no right to her judgment, no right to render the wages of her sins.

Whether it was muscle memory or the voice of an indignant ghost whispering into her ear, whatever remorse she had crystallized into violent conviction before another tear had seeped from her eyes. No. She wasn't going to let him kill her. She still had two lives to live.

Her lifetime of training returned to her in a single godless moment of clarity. The cut in her hand began to seethe.

Ben's finger crunched the trigger of the pistol.

Blood exploded from her. A crimson fractal bloomed, a liquid flower bursting around a perfect hemocryst. The kinetic force of the bullet ruptured the crystal, scattering shards through the air. A moment of shock and awe splashed across Ben's face, and Lena seized her chance. The shattered fragments reacted, and the hanging droplets began to change. Her fist clenched, and a thousand sanguine needles collapsed on him from all angles.

Ben screamed as the storm of hemocrysts swept over him. A large spike pierced his hand, throwing the gun from him. At the same time, the myriad smaller spines stabbed and slashed at his face and chest. The pain etched in his lacerated face should have filled Lena's heart with agony, but her mind was eclipsed by the carnage. She stoked a stream of blood into a great and violent whorl. It swept through the air like a sickle, crystallizing just in time to rip through Ben's chest and send him sprawling to the floor.

Their blood mixed, splattering across the walls and staining the carpet. Lena's lungs were starved, her entire body smoldering. It was all the same. In the end, she wasn't like them. She couldn't coexist with them. Not now, not ever. All the love she had felt for Ben vanished in that moment, replaced by an acidic, volcanic hatred. If he was willing to kill her over her being a hemo, then how could he claim to have ever loved her in the first place? But she knew that was rationalizing the end she had already decided upon.

The whirling scythe of blood streaked back toward her, drawn to her hand. It tightened into a red whirlwind fed by an even more voluminous flow from her injury. The liquid sublimated, condensed, and formed a lattice of hemocrysts which then collapsed into one another. The crystals reached an impossible density and then shattered in a hail of microcrysts and unusable plasma. At the epicenter was a theatric weapon resembling a medieval broadsword. The bloodsteel was heavy in her grip, familiar. It had missed her. She allowed gravity to drag the weapon downward as she trudged toward her fallen fiance.

Ben struggled to crawl away from her. His blood poured from a thousand cuts all over him, the greatest volume gushing from the slash in his chest. Pitiful gasps and groans spilled against the carpet. His fingers clawed into the freshly vacuumed material, leaving red smears wherever he touched.

As Lena stepped over him, his whole body shook with a palpable terror. With an apparent effort, he turned to gaze up at her. His wide eyes were full of tears, his mouth agape and twisting around words he hadn't the strength to speak.

Lena choked the pity. Pity was weakness, especially when wasted on humans. Strength surging through her arm, she lifted her bloodsteel sword and angled it right at his throat. His eyes bulged, and his whole body froze. Finish the job, her mind screamed. Finish him, before you do something stupid.

Her single moment of hesitation birthed a silence that Ben filled with a single word. "Why?" he choked, the sound wet with injury and betrayal.

Lena's blood flashed to a boil. Of all the things he could have said to fill that moment of hesitation, he had chosen the one least likely to save him. She clenched her teeth and scowled death down into the pitiful man. "That's what I should be asking you."

For the first time, she allowed her power to ripple through his body. Unsurprisingly, his blood obeyed her. As a final kindness to him, she would make it quick. She thrust the point of her bloodsteel sword into his neck, and the flesh yielded effortlessly. A flourish of her arm split his throat apart. A liquescent scream rang for only a moment before it was overtaken by a helpless gurgle. Blood rained across the carpet and walls. Her power roiled through him, bidding his veins to evacuate every last drop.

"I loved you," she hissed down at him. In response, he only flopped and struggled like a fish that had been gutted.

The carpet was soaked red by the time Ben's thrashing ceased.

Lena's bloodsteel sword landed on the carpet with a moist thud. She relaxed her mind. The weapon began to fracture and leak as its form grew unstable. Her head was swimming. The smell was abhorrent, familiar, predatory. She sank to her haunches, feeling numb all over. Her fiance's face was unrecognizable, and that was probably for the best.

She buried her head in her hands. Contempt solidified in her stomach. Contempt for humans, for her own weakness, for Ben. But not for herself. She felt no remorse. Only numb release, a freedom she never wanted. She had once more been released from her mask, from the chains that bound her to hide her true self and assimilate with the humans that had the audacity to preach such tenets as love. The question which had always leered from the periphery again mocked her. Without Ben, what did she have? Without him, who could she even pretend to be?

Was she delusional to think she could cast off the past and forget what she truly was? If so, then so was every hemo before her who had attempted to hide in plain sight, sheep among the wolves. Like so many before her, tragedy was the only thing awaiting her at her charade's conclusion.

Her fingers pressed absent-mindedly into the sopping carpet, and she watched as a shallow pool of fluid rose in answer to the pressure. Numbness. It didn't depart. But she knew she had to leave. If the police came to investigate the gunshot, she would be discovered. Even if she had succeeded in becoming the strongest hemomancer alive, she would never pass a scourge test. Certain death, or life uncertain. What choice did she even have?

Though her body was as heavy as a marble statue, she flowed back to her feet and gazed down at Ben's corpse. With her anchor to humanity severed, she was adrift. She left the condo in a daze and a fresh change of clothes, the sum of her mortal wealth stuffed into a duffel bag on her shoulder. Her immediate path was uncertain, save one facet: she would need money to live. Half a college education had done her no favors, and that meant she had only one skill worth a damn or a dime.

And so gravity drew Lena eastward, toward the epicenter of the churning conflict between Lord Malthus of the Rose and Lady Leblanc of the Orchid. It was a path she had never intended to walk, but before she knew it she had burned the way behind her. But that was alright. For revenge, she had turned herself into a weapon. It would be a waste not to put it to use.


© Copyright 2018 Bartholomew Lander. All rights reserved.

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