Ever After

by Christine Morgan

Ever After
Christine Morgan (vecna@eskimo.com)
A sequel to "Passions." Mature readers only, please.
She found herself actually enjoying the drive through New England. The leaves, oh, the leaves were a symphony of color. All the shades of her own hair. The trip, which she'd originally intended to do in a day, wound up taking two because she frequently found herself slowing to admire the scenery and even the picturesque charm of the towns. She never would have thought it possible. The towns should have grated on her nerves. Living proof of how the world was dominated by those who built roads and homes and businesses. She should have instantly and instinctively loathed those she saw, natives and vacationers alike. But for the first time in a long time, she saw them as people. Not enemies, not vermin. Just people. Dusk came early this time of year. In the golden slanting late afternoon light, she stopped in a small town. She found a little hotel overlooking the lake, still open, still hoping to glean a few more dollars from tourists. On her way up to the front door, she noticed that the top floor rooms offered tiny balconies. She asked for one of those. The room itself was furnished in a quaint but comfortable style. The four-poster bed had a canopy edged with white eyelet, and the quilt was genuinely hand-made. The warm earth tones and mellowly gleaming wood complemented her perfectly, and each time she passed the mirror while unpacking her bag, she was struck as if for the first time by how she looked. A cafe down the street had patio dining for those who didn't mind the autumn cool that settled in once the sun sank behind the tall trees. She sat at a little round table by the rail, sipping a daquiri and nibbling on smoked fish while she watched birds skim across the water. From a nearby park, the sounds of playing children drifted on the breeze. She would have once been annoyed at the whining and squealing of whelps, but their laughter was carefree and melodious. All of those children had homes to go to, families. They were all loved, and none of them were alone. She thought of her own daughter, lost to her now and forever. Instead of the usual angry bitterness, she felt only a deep sorrow and regret. "Changing," she murmured, not fully aware she spoke aloud. "Changing, after so long." Her dinner arrived, fresh trout with red potatoes, a heap of tiny sweet carrots. She wished she had more time to linger over the meal, but was keenly aware of the horizon as this half of the earth rotated slowly toward the blackness of space. She became aware of a man watching her, perhaps working up the courage to come over and ask to join her. She examined him surreptitiously out of the corner of her eye. He was drawn by her beauty but held back by the air of confidence she projected. If he only knew, she thought. If he knew why I was here, where I was going, what I was hoping for. Confidence? Hardly. She finished her meal and declined the dessert tray with real regret, a regret which stung more when she saw another patron digging into a many-layered chocolate and raspberry torte. And there, another savoring a thick slice of cheesecake marbled with caramel swirls. Weakened at the last moment, she asked for some of each in a box for later. The man who had been watching her stood up, as if to make his move before she left. Although he was well-featured and nicely built, she was not interested, and thus gave him a gaze so cool it seemed a breeze blowing from the Arctic tundra. He swiftly returned his attention to his drink. She paid and walked back to the hotel. The playing children had departed, called in to dinner, no doubt, where there would be light and laughter and happiness. The sunset was an unfolding bouquet of roses. She went up to her room, locked the door, and drew the curtains. With the room cast into shadows, she slipped out of her clothes. Not the power suit for once. Faded jeans, a silky blouse of emerald green, low-topped walking shoes. An observer might have thought she was readying for a bath. But she made no move toward the bathroom to draw a tub. She stood in the middle of the room, feeling the nubby texture of the rug against her bare toes. Her skin began to tingle slightly. She took a deep breath and readied herself. As always, it wrung a cry from her. She muffled it as best she could and bent double, gripping double handfuls of her hair to keep from clawing at herself in an effort to dig out the pain. The first changes were internal. She felt and heard her bones shifting, grating together. A subtle rearrangement of organs, a skittering of her pulse as her heart grew additional chambers. Her toes splayed into claws, her heels rose sharply. Ribs and backbone ground into a different structure, the better to support the wings which birthed themselves from her shoulderblades like twin butterflies shedding their cocoons. Her spine elongated into a tail. Her hands sprouted talons, two of the fingers melting together. Her milky skin darkened to blue like the coming into being of a universal bruise. Her face was the last to change. Her teeth receded to be replaced by sharper ones. Her forehead pushed forward and up into a bony ridge. Her ears stretched like taffy into points. The shadowy room was briefly lit by the ruby glow of her eyes. Demona raised her head, pleased that she had kept the agony of her transformation fairly quiet. It was different when she was at home, where no one could hear her. She listened for a moment to assure herself that no well-meaning neighbor or hotel employee was about to burst in, thinking her sick or hurt. All was silent. She opened her suitcase and removed the false bottom. The articles within were the only things she had not unpacked. She didn't need to worry about them wrinkling. Anybody who saw her in halter and loincloth was surely going to have other things to think about than how recently she'd ironed. She donned them quickly, as always relieved to be free of the necessity of human undergarments. In this form, her breasts were firmer and did not need the support that her human bosom did. And it just wouldn't do a woman of her wealth and power to go parading around braless. Never mind the advantage it would have given in the negotiating room. Last to go on was her jewelry. Earrings, headpiece, armband. She'd had them appraised on a whim and was pleased to know that the trinkets, taken from would-be invaders years before the fatal Viking attack, were worth a fortune. Although she had just eaten, she was hungry again. The change consumed energy, and not all of that energy was magical. Some of it came from her. The box of sinful dessert seemed to call to her, but she turned a deaf ear to it. She wanted her hunger as sharp as her senses. It was time to hunt. Returning several hours later, still damp from her swim but at least washed clean of the blood, she was sated and content. She crept silently through the balcony door and locked it behind her. The remains of her kill would be found the next day by a group of campers. It would start rumors of wild dog packs, or maybe even stir up those old tales about the deserted town in another part of the state. Demona didn't care. Like the original Angel of Death, she had passed over them, a winged shadow, touching their town briefly and never to return. She disdained the television, stretching across the bed on her stomach. She fished the newspaper clipping out of her purse and unfolded it, nibbling on torte and cheesecake as she read. At the top of the page was a photo of a building, its stone walls thickly grown with ivy, shingles missing from the turret roof, windows gaping like dead staring eyes. The bulk of the story was a review of the building's history. It had been constructed in the 1800s by a logging baron. Over the intervening decades, it had taken on many guises. A military academy, a hotel, a boarding school and even, the paper hinted, a whorehouse. It had been vacant for many years, slowly decaying while historical preservationists fought land developers. She read the headline again. Mysterious Millionaire Recluse Undertakes Restoration of Castle Lachlan. There weren't many millionaires with an interest in castles. And Xanatos, while proudly and determinedly mysterious like his father before him, had never been what one would call a recluse. Found you, she thought. After all this time. Found you. She folded the paper and put it away. Oddly content, her belly full of good meat, at rest in body and soul for the moment, she folded her wings around herself and went to sleep. She awoke human, with the sun peeking through the thin line where the curtains met. For some reason, the transformation from gargoyle to human was sometimes not painful at all. If she ever got ahold of Puck again, maybe she'd ask him about it before she tore his cute elfin head off. Then again, maybe she would let Puck go unharmed. She'd cursed him at the time, believing, as he did, that he had pulled the cruelest of pranks on her. But, with no alternative, she had quickly come to appreciate the advantages of her dual life. Hot showers, for instance. She took one in the quaint little bathroom, in an old clawfoot tub with a plastic curtain on a metal bar. The soap was economy and ordinary but servicable. Washing, lathering, she began to think about why she was here, what had brought her all this way. Memories made her breathing quicken. She slid her soapy hands over her breasts, imagining other hands there. Lower then, over her hips and thighs, then delving between them to the soft nest of auburn curls. She was rudely startled from her pleasant activity by the distant flush of a toilet in another room, dropping the pressure of her showerhead and dousing her in sudden cold water. It warmed almost at once but her mood was broken. She hastily completed her shower, washing her long red hair with shampoo scented like strawberries. Clean and dry. She dressed simply yet attractively. White linen skirt with red trim, red poet's blouse, low-heeled shoes, and a white scarf tied over her hair. She packed, paid, breakfasted at the same cafe on apple- cinnamon waffles smothered in whipped cream, put down the convertible top of her car, donned a pair of sunglasses, and was on her way. As she drove sedately down the main street of the little town, she drew many glances and was pleased. The drive was even nicer today. The sky was the shade of blue usually only seen on postcards, dotted with perfect white clouds. Against that backdrop, the vibrant trees seemed aflame. Once out of town, she drove swiftly and well. The map fluttered on the seat beside her, weighed down by a state travel guide. The computer console below the dashboard showed a rough outline of the state and main roads, but this region was slow to change and being dragged kicking into the modern age. Yet, at the same time, she'd had to go to three different places before finding an adequate map, because nearly _everybody_ relied on the computers. She spared the map an occasional glance, thinking to herself that it was so much easier to fly over all the trees and landmarks instead of having to ferret out the human-made roads. Maybe the humans knew that too, which was why the onboard computers had become so vital. Shortly before noon, she found the brown and white historical marker, with an arrow. She turned, noting that the road was in shabby repair but recently used. By some large trucks, she guessed, seeing scraped bark and broken branches lining the road. It was bumpy but not too bad, and gravelled enough to minimize dust. The road went on and on. Just as she was beginning to wonder if the sign had been wrong, she rounded a bend and slammed on the brakes. Her guidebook and map tumbled onto the floor but she barely noticed. Her car was at the top of a rise. Below, the trees gave way to a rambling meadow, hip-deep in grass and wildflowers. Crumbling rock fences meandered through the field. In the middle was a gentle hillslope, at the top of which stood the castle. She could almost imagine she had gone back in time. Easy to believe that soon pavillions would fill the meadow, that knights would joust and archers compete, that maidens would be all aflutter over their champions, that minstrels and jugglers would entertain, and overlooking all would be the stern lord and his lovely lady. It had not been built with defense of the land in mind, or housing for thousands of soldiers and servants. It had been built by one man as a home for his family, a home which would have been considered arrogantly huge but for a castle was really very small. The ivy in the newspaper photo was gone. The stone walls looked sandblasted and clean. The shingles had been replaced. Wooden scaffolds surrounded the building, unoccupied because it was Sunday. No worker's trucks crowded the circular gravel drive. One car, black and sleek as a panther, was parked near the wide front steps. A flag flew from the top of the turret. A flag she hadn't seen in centuries. The banner of Moray. She backed the car up and parked where the woods concealed it from the castle. An approaching engine would give him too much time to prepare. She wanted to surprise him, catch him off- guard. It was the only way. It was risky crossing the meadow. He could be watching from one of the deeply recessed windows even now, drawing a careful bead on her with a laser rifle. She kept walking, a ball of anxiety weighing heavy in her stomach, her every step anticipating a searing blast. None came, and she soon detected the sounds of hammering from the other side of the castle. She hastened her pace, skirting the front entrance and going through what must have once been a lush garden-ringed lawn. It was a weed-choked mess now, but that could be easily remedied. Around back, she saw some outbuildings. Something that might have originally been a stable but had at some point been turned into a garage. A gardener's shed. A poolhouse next to an empty, mud-caked swimming pool, the diving board starkly out of place. She looked up, toward the sound. There he was. High on a ladder, repairing a shutter. He was shirtless, his broad back gleaming with a second skin of sweat. Snug shorts clung to his muscular legs. His thick silver hair glinted in the sun. The rhythmic flexing of his strong arms as he hammered a nail made her heart pound in time. She swallowed hard and heard a dry click in her throat. She wet her lips. "MacBeth," she called. He hit his thumb with the hammer and she winced as her own thumb felt the pain. He turned and saw her. His eyes first widened in shock, then narrowed in anger and suspicion. He jumped from the ladder and seemed to hang an eternity in midair, and she could not tear her gaze from his body. The longing burned in her, a fire that none of her other lovers had been able to quench. The longing held, even when he landed with catlike grace and hefted the hammer ominously. "What are you doing here?" he demanded. "I finally came to my senses," she replied. Comprehension dawned in his steel-grey eyes. "You mean it is over? You're finally ready for it to end?" She shook her head. "No. I didn't come here to kill you. Or to be killed by you. I'm unarmed." "I suppose you expect me to believe that." "Search me," she invited, offering a slow, rich smile. He glared at her. "Then what are you doing here? I'll not be pulled into another of your schemes, you treacherous witch!" That blow hurt worse than the hammer, but she did not let it show. "I came here because of Paris." "Paris." He spit the word out like it tasted bad. "Your plan to imprison me failed. What do you want, alimony? Not a chance!" "No, no. We were both betrayed in Paris. I was a fool to believe Thailog. I didn't come here to talk about money." "Then get on with it. You're wasting time." "Time. Time is all we have, MacBeth. Time and lonliness. I am tired of being alone. So are you. It doesn't have to be that way." "What are you suggesting?" he said, horror in every syllable. "I want you," she confessed simply. "I want to be with you. Now and forever." "Don't do this to me, Demona!" he growled. He dropped the hammer and grabbed her, fingers sinking into the soft flesh of her upper arms. "What are you up to?" "Nothing," she said, meeting his eyes squarely. "No plots. No trickery. It makes sense, don't you see? Both of us, alone for all time, bitter and tired, nothing to live for, nobody to share our lives with because they all grow old and die. Except for each other. You and I _are_ one, more than any other two could ever be." "This is insanity." He shoved her away. "Get off my land." "Don't you remember how it was between us?" she asked. Hot blood slammed into his face. "No!" "I remember," she said softly. "I remember everything." "It never happened!" he raged. "I wanted to pretend that, too. But it did happen, MacBeth. It happened and was beyond anything either of us have ever experienced, before or since." Her fingers danced lightly over the buttons of her blouse, each one obligingly springing open at her touch. Warm sunlight fell on her skin. "That's enough!" he said warningly. She undid the front hook of her bra and skimmed her hands over her bare breasts. "Can't you feel it?" she said huskily. "Can't you feel how much I want you?" "Stop it, Demona!" His voice was strained. "I know you can," she said, ignoring his protest. She let her gaze drop deliberately down, where his clothes did little to conceal the effect she was having on him. "I'll not fall prey to your seduction again. I'm not a fool, Demona. You snared me once. I learned my lesson." "But now I've learned mine," she said. "I finally have. I'm tired of fighting. Tired of hating. I want a chance to love again." "Love!" he scoffed. "You don't know the meaning of the word!" "Then teach me," she said. "Show me." He hesitated, then frowned grimly. "You are poison, woman. I'd sooner trust a snake." "You're right, you don't have any reason to trust me. And every reason not to. I'll go if that's what you want. If you can look me in the eye and tell me that you feel nothing." He met her eyes firmly. Opened his mouth to speak. "I ... cannot," he said, looking away. "Much of what you have said makes sense to me. Which is the worst cruelty of all. Perhaps I am yet a fool. I could almost believe your sincerity." "Believe," she breathed. He crushed her into his embrace. She uttered a wild cry of joy at the feel of his strong arms tight around her, that cry quickly lost as his lips claimed hers. She plunged her fingers into his thick hair. Her bare breasts pressed against his equally bare chest. The spell that bound them together was more than immortality. When in proximity, each felt the other's pain. In Paris, and again now, they found that they shared pleasure as well. Each touch, each caress, each delicious fevered burst of desire, grew in strength as it traversed that bond, a candle in a hall of mirrors, reflecting a million dazzling glows. By knowing his response, she knew exactly what best pleased him. And he likewise, instinctively finding her weakest sensual vulnerabilities because he, too, felt her reaction. Her other lovers had sometimes cared only for their own pleasure, or if they focused on hers it was as if they felt engaged in some competition, some contest, as if they were being graded on how swiftly they could please her. Not so with MacBeth. Her pleasure _was_ his, and his in return hers. With him, it was a delight to go to her knees before him and take the length of his stiffness deep into her mouth. Always before, she had found it a wearisome chore, something that the man enjoyed but gave her nothing more than a sore jaw. This time, she felt what he did, and knew the intense sensation of her lips sliding along the shaft, of her tongue warm and teasing. She could have gone on, but sensed what he wanted and drew back. He knelt with her, both of them wordless in passion, and helped her shed the rest of her clothes. She had never been nude in the sun before, and its hot radiance lay over her like another lover. He eased her down in the tall grass and bent to her breasts, covering them with kisses, first flicking his tongue across her nipples, then sucking at first one and then the other, his hands gently kneading the soft flesh. He moved down, a trail of kisses, while she held his head and urged him onward, parting her thighs and shrieking to the sky when he took his first taste of her. As she had known what pleased him, so he now knew what pleased her, and acted eagerly upon that knowledge. At last he rose over her and she reached to guide him. He sank into her willing heat and fanned it into a fire that threatened to consume them both, but they would burn gladly, they would never wish this flame to end. Fused together, body and mind and soul. In the extremity of their climaxes, even thought was shared. And memory, so that he knew how she had wistfully watched his happiness with his long-ago Gruoch, how she had admired his strength and hidden a yearning even from herself. And she knew how he had looked on her with fascination and desire all those centuries ago, keeping silent for the sake of his wife and out of certainty that Demona herself would react with vicious scorn. And they both knew why they had never been able to bring themselves to strike the final killing blows. Love had stayed their hands. Love they had never admitted or even understood. Until now. After, lying in the matted grass while a welcome breeze blew over them, he traced the countours of her face tenderly. He seemed about to speak when three shadows fell over them. They rolled away from each other, coming up in identical alert crouches, ready to spring either in attack or escape. Shutterclicks of images raced between their minds like a photo gallery of old enemies -- gargoyles, robots, Hunters. None of the above. Three forms drifted above the meadow, arms outstretched, long thin fingers moving in arcane patterns. Their gowns and hair rippled. "This was not our spell's intent," said the blonde. "For love to ease time's long lament," the redhead added. "Immortal soul and living fire," the brunette chimed in, "combined in pure and fierce desire." "The Weird Sisters!" Demona hissed. "Even if we had weapons ..." MacBeth said. "Yet chosen have these age-old foes," the blonde said. "To stand together 'gainst worldly woes," the redhead continued. "No more to sorrow, no more to grieve," the brunette said, "or so they would think to believe." "That sounds like a threat!" MacBeth dove for the hammer, and all three Sisters cast a wary eye to its metal head. "We do not come to do you harm." "So keep your peace and rest your arm." "Nay, we reward this romance wild, with priceless gift, with precious child." "What?!?" Demona gasped as the last word fell from the moonpale lips of the brunette. The trio of fey joined hands. "Let this gift be now bestowed, a debt full paid that once was owed, for serving us and Avalon, in days to come and days agone." As they spoke, a cloud of glowing blue mist grew in the middle of their circle. MacBeth was at her side. She reached out without looking and found him reaching for her. They clasped hands in the strange light which now seemed the only illumination in the day, the sun weak and powerless, the world tinted twilight's hue. "What Puck has done we'll not undo," the sisters chanted, "but add a new enchantment to. Let child weather change's storm, within unharmed and safe and warm." The blue mist coalesced into a sphere, which shot cometlike skyward. It then streaked toward MacBeth and Demona, spun around them in three rapid orbits, and struck Demona's stomach. She recoiled but there was no impact, the sphere plunging through her to emerge harmlessly from her back. It climbed skyward again and burst like a firework in a blinding flash. The day returned to normal. The sun beat down again, the sounds of birds resumed, the absence and silence and emptiness of the sisters' visit disappeared. Of the sisters themselves, there was no sign. Demona slowly raised her head, an amoeboid afterimage hanging in her vision. She blinked until it went away and looked up at MacBeth. An awkward silence, heavy as wet wool, hung between them. She waited for his reaction, not even sure yet what her own was. He kissed her on the forehead, then embraced her. "I'll have you know," he murmured into her hair, "no child of mine is going to be born outside of wedlock." * * The End

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Ever After / Page Copyright 1996 - Tim Morgan / vecna@eskimo.com