I’ve saved this story for last because I believe that it best personifies my goals as a writer.  This is a fantasy story with a protagonist that I consider both interesting and twisted.  Whether this is my best short story or not is difficult to say, but it is probably my favorite of these five. 

 

Bonded by Blood

 

The market smelled different than usual.  While the stale breads and sour cheeses enriched the streets with a welcome hint of familiarity, the finest aroma was in short supply.  I pushed through the crowd and stepped up to the clearing in front of the tonic shop.  There was always a clearing in front of the tonic shop.  I leaned against the support beam and looked back at the pudgy little proprietor in his stained apron.  In all my visits to the market I’d never seen him make a sale.  Nor had he ever shooed me away.  Part of me wanted to eat him, if only for his own sake.  But the skin was too oily and the meat too fatty.  I needed something fresh and palatable.

 

I kept an eye over the crowd and inhaled the warm summer air.  I could smell one of them.  The aroma was faint at first, but with each breath the scent grew stronger.  Like cherries, rain, peppermint, and every pleasant thing woven into one sense-tickling incarnation.  She walked towards me.  Long golden hair and a little pink dress too formal for a pit like this.  Her eyes flickered towards mine.  Pale green like the lake on an autumn day.  My favorite flavor. 

 

She brushed passed my overcoat and stopped at a nearby jewelry booth.  My forehead started to sweat and I could feel my heart thumping.  I scooped up a vial of tonic and unplugged the cork.  The reek of wood alcohol and lavender flushed her from my sinuses, but I kept her visage safely in my peripherals. 

 

She slipped a silver ring over her finger and admired its shine from every angle.  A ray of sunlight caught her in the eye and she smiled, placing it carefully back upon the rack.  clasped the tonic in my palm as she turned away from the shop, heading towards my favorite little side street.  “The deer trap” I called it.  It was the quickest way from one side of the market district to the other, but too dark and narrow to have any shops of its own. 

 

I tossed the shopkeeper a coin over my shoulder.  I heard it clink against the ground. 

 

I followed her, watching each step; praying she would make that turn.  Every third breath I inhaled from the tonic to keep my wits.  She stopped and turned towards the deer trap.  I began to salivate.  This was it.  I followed her under the shade of the towering gray warehouses and under the eyes of no one.  I knew every alley.  Every unspeakable little crevice.  Every dry lump of soil waiting to nest a fresh pile of bones.  I licked my lips and slipped the glove off my left hand.  My nails started to itch.

 

She froze. 

 

And then I froze.  She turned and looked at me with those pale green eyes.  A smile crept onto her face and she opened her mouth. 

 

“Lantern.”

 

I felt a sharp point sticking into the small of my back and I raised both my hands.  A hard, gravelly voice tickled my ear.  “Don’t move mate or I’ll stick the blade so deep you’ll be able to read the inscription.”

 

“Easy now,” I said.  The man smelled like rotting meat and horse manure.  How did I miss him before?  “Take anything you want.  I’m not looking for trouble.”

 

“Yeah, well you better be worth our while.  I saw you waste coin on that pee-water tonic.”

 

“You were tracking me that long, huh?”

 

“I could tell I had you the moment I saw your eyes,” the woman said.  “A free bit of advice.”

 

I felt the man’s meaty paw grasp my wrist.  “What the hell is this?  Jen, you gotta come see.  He’s got claws or something.”

 

So her name was Jen.  I expected something longer and with a “v.” 

 

“Shut up, Reggie.  That doesn’t make any sense,” Jen said. 

 

“No, this guy’s some sorta freak.  He’s got these big long fingernails.”

 

“Please, just take my money and go.”  I clasped the tonic tightly in my right hand. 

 

“I don’t think so.”  Reggie pulled back his blade.  “I’d be doing the world a favor to get rid of a freak like you.”

 

I clenched my teeth and threw the tonic over my shoulder.  Judging from Reggie’s delicious scream it hit him right in the eyes.

 

I turned around and extended the claws on my left hand.  He swung his sword heavily and with the desperation of a dying possum.  I ducked, but the blade clipped my hat and sent it spiraling to the dirt.  My horns exposed, I butted him in the face with my forehead.

 

“W-what are you?”  He dabbed at his lip and checked it for blood.  There wasn’t any yet.

 

I thrust my hand into Reggie’s chest.  The claws plunged through his sternum like butter and I smiled as warm blood pooled up in my palm.  I looked up at his face and bit a healthy chunk from his cheek before letting him drop.  Too chewy.  An insult to the refined palate.  I spit it out and turned to the young woman.

 

“Are you a demon?”  Her legs shook as I grabbed my hat and slipped it atop my head.

 

“No need to be alarmed.”  I approached rhythmically like a snake; arms folded, watching her every breath.  “I promise this won’t hurt.”   

 

“Stay back you foul thing.”  She pulled a small bow from behind her back with an arrow already loaded.  She drew the string.  A snake’s head was tied to the front of the arrow; its mouth agape.  Fangs pointing straight at me. 

 

I stopped to wipe the blood off my mouth and lick my fingers clean.  A nice blend of salty and savory.

 

“So now what?”  I waited to see if she’d struggle at keeping the string taut.

 

“Now you tell me what the hell you are.  And then I shoot you anyway.”

 

“I fail to see the upside.”  I smiled.  “But like so many of you humans I do love talking about myself.”

 

“Stop playing games.  This venom kills demons.”

 

“Then you already decided what I am.”

 

“Demons attack town from time to time but they do it in groups.”  Her arm started to shake.  We both inched forward.  “You’re not like the others.  They sprout from the ground.  They don’t talk or wear clothes.”

 

I sighed.  “A demon walks into a bar.  As you so eloquently pointed out, she’s not wearing any clothes.  Three drunken men tie her to a barstool and indulge every one of their darkest carnal desires.  A few months pass.”

 

“So you’re the punch line.”

 

“Exactly.”

 

I opened my palms and watched her eyes.  I thought I could catch her off guard with a quick charge, but she let the arrow fly before I took a second step.  I had half a snake head embedded in my chest before I could look down.  It burned like hell and put a hole in my coat the size of a copper.  I wrapped my hands around the arrow shaft and pulled it out.  A nice, crunchy sting.  The wounds weren’t too deep but I could feel the cool bite of poison spreading across my chest.

 

I planted my feet and licked my lips.  Nothing left to lose.  Jen would make a lovely last meal.  She still smelled sweet, but more of a sticky-caramel sweet.  The type of sweet that rots your teeth and doesn’t sit well in the morning.

 

Good thing I didn’t have morning to worry about. 

 

I tore across the street and grabbed her by that silky golden hair of hers.  I swung her around and held her by the forearms.  She gasped and flailed with her limbs, but I held on.. 

 

“Let me go.  I can get you the antidote.”

 

“Antidote?  Don’t take me for a fool.”  My grip loosened slightly. 

 

“I keep it in small vials at a nearby storehouse.  In case of an accident.”

 

“I think you’re lying.”

 

“No, but there’s not much time.  If you kill me, you’ll die too.”

 

I released her and she tumbled to the ground.  I watched her sit in the dirt, wondering what it would be like to eat a woman in her own storehouse; antidote in one hand, her heart in the other.

 

She stood up and dusted off her dress.  I expected her to run.  She should have run.  But she backed away slowly, watching my eyes to make sure I’d follow her. 

 

The ground started to shake and we both froze.  The rumble resonated underneath the road, tickling my heels. 

 

“Demons,” I said.

 

“What?  Where?”

 

I opened my mouth but the flaming holes sprouting from the earth answered for me.  Two gaping wounds peeled open from the ground, firing molten rock and smoke into the air.

 

Jen watched, nearly cowering beside me.  I could feel her body shaking and I could smell her fear.  I had to bite my lip to keep from biting hers.  She tried to run but I grabbed her by the wrist. 

 

“In here.”  I shoved her over a hay bale into one of the dark alleys.  It was a great place to enjoy a meal without being seen.  Anything to buy a few seconds.

 

The first demon crawled out of the hole, grasping the cobblestone road with its claws as those waiting below shoved it towards the surface.  Its tongue drooped as it looked past us towards the marketplace.  Screams began to emanate from the shops.  They grew exponentially and I knew that demon holes were already sprouting up everywhere. 

 

Before long the streets became flooded with men and women attempting to escape from the shops.  They screamed and trampled each other in an orgy of panic, aimlessly heading towards a safe zone that didn’t exist.  Every escape route would soon be sealed by another hungry mouth. 

 

Jen tugged on my sleeve.  “We’ll be trapped in here if they come after us.”

 

“They won’t.”  I pierced my forearm with one of my own claws.  I squeezed out a drop of blood and held it over Jen.  “Drink this.”

 

The demons began picking ruthlessly through the crowds without prejudice.  Their scaly violet skin blended beautifully with the carnage around them.  They cut through flesh like crops during harvest.  Men and women fell in a shower of gore and I stood amazed; envious of their efficiency. 

 

Jen stood up intending to join the crowds in their vain effort.  I grabbed her by the collarbone and slammed her against the adjacent wall hard enough to make her vision fuzzy.  I could smell her adrenaline and it made my stomach groan. 

 

“Let me go.  Please.”

 

“Drink my blood.”  I shoved my dripping arm into her face, smearing a good bit under her nose.  I could see a demon watching us from the corner of my eye.  Staring at my prized possession while saliva oozed from its mouth.  “They won’t be able to detect that you’re human if you drink my blood.”

 

“Why do you care?”

 

“We don’t have time for this.”  The demon approached us, tearing through the streets and pushing aside the half eaten corpses in its way. 

 

She pointed towards it.  “There’s one coming.  Let me go.”

 

“If I let you go it will eat you.  And then I’m going to be very upset that I didn’t eat you first.  Drink my blood.”

 

She grabbed my arm, but it was too late.  The demon tore through the hay bale and reached out for Jen with a filthy claw.  I stepped in front of her and swung at the demon’s face with my left hand.  My nails ripped through its jaw, embedding squarely in its forehead.  I could feel its brain tickling my fingertips.

 

I pulled my hand out, but the nail from my middle finger remained embedded in the creature’s skull.  I looked down at my hand.  It was the first time I’d ever lost a claw.

 

“It’s the poison,” Jen said.

 

I showed her my hand, looking at her between my remaining nails.  “You need to get me that antidote.” 

 

“I will.  Do I still need to drink your blood?” 

 

“Well, I suppose you could drink his.”  I ran my finger along the demon’s jaw and collected a small sample of its dark, viscous blood.  I put it in my mouth.  “It’s a bit bitter though.”

 

Jen shuddered and touched the bottom of my arm with her fingertips.  She bent over slightly and sucked a drop of blood off my wound.  She frowned and soured her face, struggling to swallow it.  I felt insulted.

 

“Did it work?” she asked.

 

Her sweet smell dissipated.  I looked at her and felt no more compelled to eat her than a brick wall.  “Yeah.  It worked.”

 

The demons began dispersing as quickly as they’d arrived.  They left a few remains; mostly bone and sheets of skin.  I strolled through the remains looking for anything of value.  A few torn up pieces of clothing.  Some mangled organ meat.  I picked up an arm and looked over it.  Just bone and a few tendons.  Not even worth biting into.  I tossed it back to the dirt.  “Everyone who didn’t get eaten is safe now.  Except from me.”

 

“I don’t feel any safer.”  Jen peeked around the corner of the building with bloodshot eyes. 

 

“I can’t eat you now, so you’re safe.”  I rummaged through the remaining remnants but nothing left passed for dog food.  “Now take me to the antidote before I lose any more body parts.”

 

She sat on her knees glaring at the dirt as if thinking of a lost love.  I knelt in front of her and lifted her chin with my index finger so she’d meet my eyes.  “I said, take me to the antidote.”

 

She pushed me away and buried her face in her elbow.  “There is no antidote.”

 

My hands began shaking.  I could feel the claw on my index finger starting to loosen.  Not one to be left waiting I yanked it out like a loose tooth with my other hand and tossed it aside.  “So I don’t have much time.”

 

“I thought you’d be dead by now.  I didn’t know it would work so slowly.”

 

“It doesn’t hurt yet.”  I started back towards the marketplace.  I figured maybe there’d still be some good meat back around the open air booths.  Maybe I’d still have a shot at the tonic shop owner.

 

“You’re just going to let me go?”

 

“I can’t eat you.  You’re tainted with demon blood.  You’d taste terrible.”  I walked back to the market.  Blood soaked the ground, but the street was abandoned aside from a few bones.  I sat upon the collapsed pillar of a trinket booth and looked out over the street.  Cheap pendants and chains spread across the ground like golden ooze, sparkling under the sunlight. 

 

A tiny silver ring caught my eye.  Half buried in dirt, the side pointed towards me.  I picked it up and blew off the dust. 

 

“Help me.”

 

I shoved the trinket into my pocket and lifted the midnight blue canvas from the ground behind me.  A shopkeeper laid trapped underneath the pieces of a shattered support beam.  I recognized the charcoal beard and weatherworn face.  His wrinkled hands grasped at the dirt and he looked up at me with desperate eyes. 

 

I knew this man.  He smelled so strongly of pepper and seawater that it permeated his merchandise.  At least it used to.  I couldn’t smell him at all anymore.  I sighed and prepared to take advantage of an easy meal. 

 

I extended my claws.  Another one fell out.  The man reached towards me with a gnarled hand.  “Please, spare me.”

 

I looked at my hand and back at the man.  He didn’t look tasty.  He didn’t even look like food.  I retracted my claws and stood up.

 

“What are you doing, demon?”  Jen snuck up on me and I nearly jumped from my skin.  I didn’t have to turn to see her.  I could hear her pulling the string on her bow again.

 

“I was simply going to eat this man.”

 

“No, you’re going to make him drink your blood.”

 

“What?”  The man and I spoke at the same time.

 

She addressed him.  “He’s a demon.  Drink his blood and other demons won’t recognize you as food.  It worked for me.”

 

I shook my head.  “You’re starting to annoy me, woman.”

 

“Yeah, well you should have killed me when you had the chance.”

 

“Vengeance is more of a human thing.  But I’m starting to see the appeal.” 

 

“Y-you’re a demon?”  The man looked up at me; eyes filled with surprise. 

 

I removed my hat to prove it, but both of my horns fell harmlessly to the ground. 

 

“I don’t want to drink his blood.”  The man struggled to free himself, wincing from the pain in his legs.  He looked at Jen.  “Since you drank his blood, can I not drink yours instead?”

 

I shook my head.  “It doesn’t work that way.  You have to drink the blood of an actual demon.”

 

I reached out and offered the man some of my blood.  He licked it off with an almost apologetic look on his face.  I turned to Jen with my head low.  “They shouldn’t bother him now.”

 

“You’re acting different.  The poison must be getting to you.”

 

“Yeah.”  I watched as the last claw fell off my hand.  My head was swimming.  I couldn’t even identify half the emotions racing through.  “If I’m going to die soon, I think it might be a good idea to immunize as many people as I can before that happens.”

 

“Really?”  Jen tilted head back.  “That’s awfully strange coming from you.”

 

“I’ve never faced death before.  Might as well do something with the last few hours.”

 

“You actually want to help the town?”

 

“I don’t know.  I’m not thinking like myself anymore, but I’d like to do this.  Before the demons come back.”

 

She nodded.  And then she smiled.  I felt bad for ever wanting to eat her.  We helped free the shopkeeper and looked around town for people to inoculate with my blood.  We found dozens of them and I felt contented knowing that I had a chance to meet with each of them.

 

“The best place to go next is the hospital,” Jen said.  “Even uninjured people are probably gathered there to meet up with loved ones.”

 

I swallowed and kept my mouth shut.  I only knew the hospital as a place to get a meal that couldn’t run very fast.  People poured out the doors, crying and holding one another.

 

“Hey, listen up.”  Jen’s voice pierced the whines of the crowd like a spear.  “The demons are eventually going to come back, and when that happens, we need a way to survive it.”

 

“There’s nothing we can do.”  A young man in torn clothing clutched his wounded arm.

 

“There is.”  She pointed to me.  “This is a demon.  He’s going to die soon, but before he does…”

 

“A demon?”  The crowd became restless.  I adjusted the brim of my hat to avoid seeing their eyes.

 

“Listen to me.”  Jen raised her voice.  “Each person here needs to drink just a drop of his blood.  I did it myself and I was spared from the demon attack.”

 

“He doesn’t look like a demon.”

 

“How do we know he won’t attack us?”

 

“I won’t drink the blood of a foul creature.”

 

The crowd noise grew overwhelming.  I tried to protract my claws for protection.  But there were none left.  I’d made a mistake by following Jen this way. 

 

A large man with a patchy beard and a belly as big as a wheelbarrow split through the crowd.  He held the edges of his coat and looked my body up and down.  “I know this demon.  It’s the one who killed my wife about a year ago.”

 

I didn’t know if he was right or wrong.

 

The man glared at me with venom in his eyes.  “He chased her down an alley faster than I could keep up.  I never saw her again.  Never even found her body.”

 

Now I remembered.  My heart started to race.  I took a step back.

 

“He’s going to pay for what he did.  Let’s tie him up.  We’ll march him through town and bleed him dry.” 

 

I reached back with a closed fist and punched the man in the nose.  A satisfying pop rang through the air and I prepared to follow it up with a nice elbow to the chin.  He reeled back and I felt pressure on my arm.  Another human clinging to me like a scab.  I kneed the man in the gut, but before long the others swarmed me.  I gasped and struggled, but the weight of their bodies nearly overpowered the putrid smell of their flesh. 

 

“Don’t fight it,” Jen said.  “If you want to make up for what you did, this is what you’ll have to do.”

 

“I’m not that person anymore.”  They tied my arms behind me so tightly that the ropes dug through my skin.  I couldn’t feel my hands.  “I only want to help.”

 

“You’re dying and delirious.”

 

“No, you don’t understand.  You said that venom is toxic to demons, right?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Maybe only my demon side is dying.”

 

The men turned me around towards the crowd.  So many faces.  Some of them familiar; most of them not.  The large pot-bellied man approached me holding a dagger as if it were a dinner knife.  He sniffled and spit a glob of bloody phlegm into the dirt as he waved the blade over my face.  His tongue jutted out like a dying eel as he calculated precisely where he wanted to make his cut.  He held it to my head.  I gritted my teeth as he raked the blade slowly across my eyebrows.  The sting sent a cool shiver down between my shoulder blades. 

 

The blood tickled as it ran over my cheek.  People began dabbing it with their fingers, sucking up drops of it without ever looking into my eyes.  I peered out for Jen as they forced me to march.  She stood against the backdrop of a dying sun; cold and indifferent.

 

After the villagers finished marching me through town, they threw me into a filthy jail cell without speaking a word to me.  It smelled like decomposing flesh and I cupped the wound on my forehead, worrying that it might get infected.  I kicked the dust and filth away from one little corner of the cell and slept there by sitting upright against the wall. 

 

The first night passed and then the second.  I spent my time counting bricks and watching the guard.  I wondered what he was thinking.  Every hour or so during the day, the guard would bring in new people to cut me open and drain my blood.  I developed scars across my face and arms, but the cutting didn’t hurt anymore.  I began to look forward to it.  As the days passed, I knew with certainty that the venom wouldn’t kill me. 

 

I stopped pleading with the guards.  They didn’t believe I could ever be human.

 

One afternoon as I was counting the bricks on the wall the door to the cell opened with a hideous creak.  I sighed and rolled up my sleeve.  They hadn’t cut above my elbow yet.  A soft voice called to me.  “How are you?”

 

“Jen?”  She wore a burgundy dress and a warm summer smile.

 

“They’re going to let you go.  Everyone in town has tasted your blood.  I’ve been begging them to release you and they finally agreed.”

 

I didn’t know what to say.  I struggled to my feet and stumbled out of the cell with my head hung low.  I didn’t have the words to thank her but I managed a weak smile.  She patted my back as I smelled the outdoors for the first time.

 

 

I sat outside the café across from Jen as I held a fine red wine from the Tistari province.  It had been three weeks since the humans released me and I finally felt as if they considered me one of their own.  I looked down at my clothes and smiled.  A puffy white shirt and functional grey trousers. 

 

The market was beautiful this time of year and I didn’t know of any place to catch a better view.  I took a sip of my wine and leaned back in the chair.  The flavor was rich and fruity with a hint of cedar. 

 

Or so I was told. 

 

Truthfully, I had no taste for it.  The color reminded me of the days when I could drink human blood and feel invigorated with every drop that hit my tongue.

 

I swirled the glass and felt a light rumble underneath my feet.  I smiled and finished the wine in one solid gulp.  Cracks began to form in the ground around me and soon flaming magma sprouted up all around.

 

“What’s going on?  They’re coming again?”

 

I shrugged.  “It will be a short trip if everyone here truly tasted demon blood.”

 

The fiends erupted from the earth in numbers greater than ever.  I lifted my feet onto the table and watched them tear through humans as they cried for mercy.  It was a joyous feast for the ears. 

 

“You said your blood would save us.”  Jen stood up in front of me, tears welling in her eyes. 

 

“I said that demon blood would save you.”  I smiled, noticing the big violet demon reaching up behind her.  “I’m no longer a demon.  I’m a human just like you.”

 

Her blood spattered across my face as she was torn into giblets before my eyes.  I licked a drop off my chin and promptly wiped it from my tongue.  Not quite the taste that I remembered.  Still, with all the new human emotions and experiences stretched out before me, I think I liked vengeance best of all.

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