Along the Line

Cal hummed under his breath, a song from his human days. It hadn't made sense back then, but now it crescendoed in his blood, a call to arms, a shift in the kaleidoscope to create a pattern that shimmered with truth and resolution. The night was fragrant and sticky, saturated with prophecy. He'd seen fear in Orien's eyes earlier, all blinds of pretense pulled up and away as Cal had slammed him against the wall. Orien knew Cal could turn into a dervish of revenge, hate spinning and flashing from him, a self-contained tempest of destruction. And still, Cal also knew he would come; he'd summoned him and Orien would answer the call.

The hour had arrived for Cal to offer himself to the one he was convinced had led his beloved to the slaughter. Orien was a shaman, but also a skilled guide in the arunic arts. What could possibly be a more perfect ritual oblation before the sacrifice than aruna? With sanity fading as surely as that of a dying star on the cusp of going nova, Cal awaited him. Feet propped on a dusty dresser, he combed his hair, gazing sightlessly at the revenant with its hypnotic violet eyes that were reflected in the mirror.

"'There must be some way out of here,' said the joker to the thief," he crooned softly, the old tune as fresh and clear on his tongue as though he'd just heard it on a radio. "'There's too much confusion, I can't get no relief.'"

With a steady hand he poured himself more wine and took a swallow. Just then the energy shifted; he'd not heard the front door, but he could sense Orien's presence in the house, silently ascending the stairs with hesitation. Cal felt it all. Hyper-aware, he was a note plucked by mocking forces in the universe, the catastrophic overtones ringing through the ethers, a threnody for Orien.

"Come in," Cal said, letting his feet drop to the floor and placing the comb on the bureau. "Wine?"

"No thanks."

Orien looked at him with the gaze of a wary dog, beaten by his master for reasons unknown and returning despite his instincts, hoping for kinder treatment.

"Cal, I tried to reach Thiede, to get some answers, for you and me. I know you don't believe me, but look at my face. Look into my eyes— you'll see I'm telling the truth. He's not answering. I don't know why not. I'm worried, Cal."

Cal silently handed his glass of wine over to the shaman. His owlish gaze had been locked on Cal's face, but at last he blinked, his focus sliding down to the proffered glass, which he accepted.

"I'd be worried, too," Cal said ambiguously. "Then again, Thiede's never spoken to me the way he does to you."

He rose from his chair: lithe, predatory, enticing. Few could resist him, and tonight Orien succumbed to his hopes that aruna would be enough to begin to chip away at Cal's demons. That prospect was etched on Orien's face, or perhaps it was a rare glimpse of fragility. For Cal, it was enough.

"I'd expected your claws, and to take home teeth marks," Orien gasped a short while later as Cal feasted on his ouana-lim, gorging himself on the flowering stalk, an azure pike.

"I hope you're not disappointed," Cal drawled as best he could around Orien's glistening phallus.

Orien's laugh was a low rumble of disbelief. "No, no. The legend of your skills seems not to be legend at all." He gasped as Cal, in a fluid movement, straddled Orien's pelvis and sank down on his ouana-lim with a groan of pleasure. "It's fact," Orien said, awe in his roughened voice.

A menagerie of retorts flew through Cal's head, but instead he focused his energies on taking the two of them to heights of ecstasy. He'd locked away thoughts of Pell when he'd sent out the silent siren call to Orien; this actually was healing aruna of a sort. They were futile darnings at the edge of a yawning, irreparable tear that had slashed his heart.

Orien and Cal were both masters at compounding energy on energy, at finding the most fulfilling weave to the other's weft as Orien thrust into Cal's body again and again. Cal rode him hard as phosphorescent arunic sparks danced around them like fireflies. Orien's lightning struck— Cal fell down and down with him; they were torrents in a thundering waterfall until he came back to himself. Boneless, he slid off and collapsed at Orien's side. Orien's face shone with sweat, his always-unruly hair now a riotous mess around the wide curve of his shoulders. A smile bloomed slowly on his lips; his eyes were pools of relief and gratitude. Cal realized they'd not shared breath and was glad because he no longer felt in control of his mind or body. He had no idea what Orien would see if they pressed their lips together and his breath swam in, what images might swallow him whole.

Cal kissed Orien on the forehead and then flung an arm over to the bedside table, retrieving a cigarette. He lit it with a wave of his hand and the intention for a flame in his mind. As he smoked, in quiet voices they talked about familiar things of no consequence, the flag of an unspoken and untrue armistice flapping gently in the breeze.

This is all a dream, a nightmare sent to me, Cal thought to himself as the last shred of his corroded sanity stepped outside of his corporeal self. It watched dispassionately, this Calanthe ghost, as the air grew heavy, suffocating with the energy of Cal's violent, murderous storm. The more Cal hacked at Orien's struggling body with the knife he'd stolen from the kitchen, the quieter the room seemed. It was as though nothing else in the world existed except for Cal's vengeful wrath, shouted in crimson splatters all over the walls, sheets and floor.

"'No reason to get excited,' the thief, he kindly spoke," he sang sotto voce as Orien let out a last, syrupy gurgle. "There are many here who feel that life is but a joke." Cal regarded his handiwork, a gory masterpiece of revenge. There was an element still missing, though. Thiede had a hand in this, in taking away Pell forever, and Thiede needed to know just how wrong it was to have taken Cal's desert flower.

"Flower," he said to his reflection in the mirror, taking a bloodied hand to scrape the hair away from his face. "I'm a flower. Calanthe. Should have been called Nightshade. Or Hemlock."

He stuck the knife through a pocket, the blade tearing at his trousers and pointing away from his thigh.

"You really need to quit talking to yourself," he chastised his mirror image. "Hara will talk."

He shook his head at the irony of that statement. He had just killed Orien. There'd be a price on his head: he was marked, a pariah, a murderer.

The Nayati beckoned to him. Everything was off— somehow he was strong, able to hoist Orien's lifeless body over his shoulder, to go down the stairs and out of Seel's front door without them waking up. Saltrock was under his spell, hideous and inescapable. The Aghama needed a sacrifice, and Cal had provided one. It was harder work, heaving up the shaman's body to the rafters, his entrails holding him above the altar.

For a fleeting moment, Cal considered torching the building, sending Orien's spirit off in a more showy fashion. The Nayati could serve as a pyre easily enough. Bone-crushing fatigue overtook him as he gazed at his former friend, the conspirator he believed had led Pell to his death, now gutted and silent. It was time to go.

Flick stood out in the moonlight on Cal's path, a frightened fawn as Cal passed. He told Flick in vague terms about the offering, and returned his knife. "Outside in the distance a wildcat did growl," he sang under his breath. "Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl." He saddled his horse, which seemed irritated to have been woken up and fitted for a ride at this hour of not-quite dawn.

"All along the watchtower," Cal rasped, urging his horse on with the heels of his boots, wiping some of the blood from his hands to be able to grip the reins. "All along the watchtower…"

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