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Now here’s YOU ARE THE BLOOD, by Grady Cole (aka Axel Howerton, author of the Ellis Award finalist HOT SINATRA and the forthcoming FURR)
YOU ARE THE BLOOD By GRADY COLE
Billy peers out from behind spread fingers, eyes watering at the fierce light of day. Even cut by tinted glass, and filtered through the black lace of the curtains, the sun is blinding. And warm. So warm.
“What are they doing now?” Drago grumbles from his dark corner near the bed. “Are they not ready yet?”
“I don’t know what all they gotta do. Whyn’t ya come and look for yourself. The light ain’t gonna hurt you. It feels good.”
“I am not afraid of the light, Billy.”
“I never said you was. Just come and see it.” The boy turns back to his vantage point, peeking through spaces to gather an idea of the action in the street.
“There’s Rado!” Billy shouts, jabbing a finger into the glass, “He’s lookin’ tough. Don’t worry. He’s gonna win, for sure.”
“I am not worried, damn you!”
The man in the street, tall and lithe, a cascade of auburn hair like fire all that is visible under a wide-brimmed hat. Thin fingers, usually bone-white, now covered in leather gloves, taper like gnarled branches, reaching from the cuffs of his long black duster. Three smaller figures, draped in black cloth from head to toe, faces and hands swaddled in cloth, not an inch of skin open to the sunlight. They fuss at Rado’s periphery, administering prayers and shouting to the wind.
“He’s gonna get him, alright. That stranger ain’t got no chance.”
“Has no chance, Billy. You sound foolish when you say it wrong.”
Billy scowls into his own face, reflected in the glass.
“You’re just sore, on account of being too chicken to come over here and see for yourself.”
Drago moves fast, a blur in the watery edges of Billy’s vision. Billy leaves the ground—flying—now folding into the mattress, air leaving his lungs in a burst of hot air as Drago comes down on top of him.
Billy winces, pulls his head back against the pillow, trying to minnow away, trapped beneath the iron-bar strength of Drago’s arms. Hot tears sting his face as he damns his own name, silently praying, terrified of Drago’s red eyes and his anger.
“No, Drago. Please.”
Drago hops up to sit, keeping a vice-grip on one arm, tugging to bring it to level, Billy with no choice but to follow, helpless to remove himself from Drago’s punishment.
Drago looks down at the arm, softens his grip, caresses it with a long, terrible finger. Bone white and thin like a birch sapling, the nails like talons curling from their terminus. Drago runs those fingers across Billy’s arm to trace the scars, themselves long, thin, white. Some are faded into the peach of his skin, barely visible. Fresher wounds still pink, wider and deeper.
“Shhhhhh. You should not say such things to me, Billy. Are we not friends? Compatriots? Have I not spared you? Every day you live is a day given you by me.”
“Yes, Drago,” Billy whispers, desperate to please.
“Yes?” Drago taunts, “Yes, what?”
Billy pulls gingerly at his captured limb, hoping to avoid what comes next. Drago tightens his grip.
“Not this time, Billy.” Drago snarls, “Arm!”
Billy squeezes his eyes shut, focuses on blocking out the pain. The terror.
It begins with a tickle, feeling Drago dragging his teeth across the length of the inside of his forearm, as he has done so many times before, teasing, playing.
Billy pleads again.
Drago pulls harder on the arm, more pressure this time, letting his cold breath play on the hairs of the arm, feeling the pulse beneath his lips, the tiniest capillary flush and full, brought to life by terror; his to own, to devour, to torture.
Deeper still, dragging his teeth through the layers of skin, feeling them peel away beneath him, the canals of sweet and salty red nectar coming slowly, ready to be licked or suckled, Billy trembling in his hands, heart beating faster and faster, muscles twitching of their own accord.
Billy pulls away again. Feeling the muscles cramp as his shoulder tenses against the flicker of Drago’s tongue against his now-raw skin. A movement outside catches his eye, a voice calling in the street.
“Drago!” he shouts. “Drago! It’s time!”
Drago runs his pointed tongue from Billy’s elbow to his wrist, moaning softly as he laps the red oozing from the boy, before relenting and releasing his hold.
Billy falls to the floor with the momentum as he tears his arm free of its captor. He clamps his free hand to the wound.
Drago is dabbing his mouth now, smiling at the boy cowering. Now turning away in disgust.
“Here, fool. you’re going to rot your arm, putting that dirty hand on it like that. Why must you be so foul?”
Drago’s kerchief lands a foot away from Billy. The boy lurches forward to grab it, before hunkering back into his corner, even as Drago steps tentatively towards the shrouded window.
“There he is.” Drago’s voice is a specter, hushed and thick with shadows of fear.
Billy is up, the white rag turning pink where it is now tied around his arm.
Billy creeps forward, hesitating as he comes closer to his companion, his master.
“He don’t look so bad.” Billy grumbles.
“They say he has killed other Princes.” Drago’s voice cold.
“He ain’t shit.” Billy, moving closer, regaining his confidence, feeling the danger subside, Drago distracted by this stranger in the street.
Billy ducks under the curtain to get a closer look, no longer afraid of the light, face pressed to the glass of the window, cool against the warped tint, a haze of sepia between him and the street.
The man on the opposite side of the street turns to stare directly at him. Eyes lock. Billy sees it. Ignores it. Questions it in the back of his mind.
Drago is behind Billy, whispering “They say he is an Old One. One of The First, from across the Seas.”
Billy, huffing, says it again. “He ain’t shit. Rado’ll take him out easy. Rado is gonna be King.”
The Stranger is large, more squarely built than any of Drago’s people. The Stranger is bulky beneath his large coat, which covers him from ears to feet. The brim of his hat droops as if it has recently been wet, pulling down to shade what isn’t already covered. He has no acolytes to service him or call his name out to the daylight. He stands alone and stares across at Prince Rado, champion of the Nights Breed, the someday King.
“He ain’t gonna win,” Billy says once more. “’Course, if he did… you’d be the Prince.”
Drago answers with cold breath, pressing his sharp teeth into the soft skin of Billy’s exposed neck. “Shut your mouth,” Drago snarls.
Billy is trembling, eyes closed against the shadow of his own death behind him, when the call rings out.
The acolytes point to the sky, to the fiery glow of the sun, directly overhead. The one furthest from Billy sounds the bells with a wave towards the church tower. The peals of brass crash through the empty streets like strange thunder.
Drago, caught off guard in the midst of his bullying, nipping Billy’s neck, tasting the copper warmth of red again. He shudders at the thought of Billy filling his mouth. He is licking his lips when…
Billy squeals and drops away, back to the window, hand to his neck, feeling the sticky heat of his precious life.
Drago lunging, shoving Billy to one side. “Move, stupid!”
Billy is up on his knees next to his master, heeling at his side, peering out the window, waiting. Waiting for…
The black shrouded acolytes raise arms together. The bells stop. The silence is electric.
They call out into the street, across the red dirt to the Stranger where he stands like a statue. Their benediction echoes in the open air.
“You are the blood,” they call, “That which flows from the Earth.”
The Stranger simply nods his head. Rado keeps his head bowed in mute prayer. These are the words. The same words. Every night upon waking, every night when they broke the fast.
“From the Night. To feed. To Fulfil. To bathe us in the blessed light of Darkness,” they continue.
“You are the blood, and the blood must flow.”
The acolytes fall to their knees at Rado’s side as his jacket and hat whirl free of his body. Rado is a blur of bone and muscle, a white ghost spinning through the air, his weapons flying in majestic synchronicity.
The boys watch, enrapt, aware of every mote of dust swimming between them and their hero. The hush of a hundred voices behind tinted windows on both sides of the street as the Night’s Breed wait out the seconds with lightning rising in their chests, nails curled in clenched fists, red eyes wide despite the sun.
The Stranger rolls to one side as the Prince Rado’s hand-spears splinter into the wall behind him. The Stranger’s coat stays on, but flies open as he comes to his knees, revealing some devil contraption firing missiles that sing through the air and catch Rado with deadly force.
One. Two. Three.
One takes his shoulder, one in the leg, dropping him to his knees, the last through the throat with the sound of a steak hitting the plate. The bacon sizzle follows as he folds forward into the dirt, the dreaded sun taking him layer by layer as his flesh burns away into embers on the wind.
The acolytes scream and turn to run, each of them taken by a single shot from the Stranger.
Drago screams and covers his eyes.
Billy is so close to the window. He can see it. He is sure now.
The eyes. The Stranger’s eyes. They’re blue.
The word rises up in a choir, being screeched all around him, fiendish wails from all the halls of the Night’s Breed. Feet pounding on floorboards as they scramble away from the windows, away from the sun.
The Stranger looks towards the window, towards Billy. He has something in his hand, a stick? A tube? A scroll of some kind? It rolls to the wall and strikes with a thud. It seems to flicker at one end. Is it a candle? Billy is wondering at it still when Drago grips his arm and tears him away, throwing him across the room towards the door.
“Get me to my chambers, you fool!” he commands, screaming, face contorting as he unleashes the full madness of his terrible maw, jaw stretching, row upon row of knives inside.
Billy is thrown against the wall as the blast tears open the building where he had stood mere moment before. Drago flying through the air like a toy, like a doll. Glancing off of the bed post and leaving one arm behind him on the floor.
Billy coughs and waves the smoke away from his face, watching dumbfounded as the light, the sunlight, streaks in through the smoke, followed by a boot, and then another. Billy’s eyes rising up from the floor to gaze in disbelief as the Stranger waves his weapon through the room.
The Stranger steps slowly into the room, kicking Drago’s lost arm to one side, and aims the weapon at Billy before leaning in close and whispering into Billy’s wide blue eyes.
Billy stares after, still wide-eyed, as the Stranger steps past him, strange metal jangling at the back of his heavy boots. The Stranger steps over Drago, and into the hall, and each time his weapon whistles it echoes, and ends with a cry and the sound of another body crumbling to the floor in embers.
Drago moans beside him, and Billy stands, wincing at the pain at the side of his neck, where Drago had bitten down on him.
“Billy, please,” Drago whimpers. “Please.”
Billy looks at the boy. Hardly a boy. One hundred years old but no different than Billy to the eye. A hundred years of death. It comes like a secret voice echoing in Billy’s head.
Billy crouches closer, tempted to poke at the ragged stump where Drago’s arm had been separated. It would grow back, he knew. There were precious few dangers to being a Prince of Night’s Breed, but he would need blood. Billy’s blood. Who else was left to serve him?
“Billy. Arm.” Drago croaked weakly.
Billy scowls, stands and begins to back way, still listening for the whistling of the Stranger’s weapon. He can hear the screams from all around him. There are more Strangers out there. More humans. Not cattle like Billy’s people had been. His mother, his father, his siblings… All devoured by the Breed, or turned into pets. Playthings. Snacks.
Billy feels the warmth of the sun at his back.
“Arm!” Drago shouts, coughing. Pierced in at least five places, but not thoroughly enough to burn. Billy feels the heat rise up in him, a fury he has never known before. Humans. Real humans. Here.
Drago kicks, snaps, bites at Billy, taking small chunks from his forearm, dragging talons through the skin on the backs of his hands, but Billy drags him the length of the room.
“Billy! No! No Billy!”
Billy hears the cries of misery, the whistles, the jangling of the boots. The clomp, clomp, clomp of destruction.
Billy stares down at the face of his tormentor, his friend, his companion. His Master. Drago is the only kindness he has ever known, the only tenderness. Drago has given him his life. Every day he breathes is a day gifted him by his Master. These are the words he has heard upon every waking for as long as he can recall. Billy stares down at the face of the boy. Hardly a boy.
A hundred years old. A hundred years of death. It echoes again.
Drago spits and bares his fangs.
“I will tear your heart, beating from your chest! You will watch me swallow it whole! You filthy son of a…”
Drago screams as the light hits him, an unearthly shriek as his body begins to burn. His skin sizzles, crackles, and flakes away—consumed. Flames burst from his chest and his thin, white fingers smolder like kindling as they reach for Billy.
Billy squats next to him, and wonders at the lack of heat from the cinders that rise up and dance off in the breeze. Carrying away ten years of terror. A hundred years of death.
Billy stands, eyes watering in the blinding light of noon, turning at the sound of jangling metal at his back. More footsteps.
“He ain’t one. He’s not burning. Leave him be.”
“Better get out of here, kid.”
Billy squints into the dazzling light of a sun he has never known, makes out a shimmering figure ahead of him, long black coat, wide hat. The figure becomes two, two men stomping off to opposite sides of the dusty street. Billy rubs at his eyes with a bloody sleeve, then puts a hand to his brow to block the sun. He sees Rado’s hat lying next to scattered piles of dust. He picks it up, dusts it off, sets it on his head. It is far too big, but cuts the sun enough that he can see.
Billy wanders away from the street, past more men in black coats, past more screams and whistles and jangling boots. Past the cattle, stumbling and confused, clambering over one another to nervously search their surroundings. These are not his people. Not since birth. He is different now. Alone. They are mere animals, waiting for slaughter. He comes to the gates at the edge of town. He doesn’t look back. By sundown, Billy is high in the hills, looking down at the flames where his life had once been, watching the men as they mount their horses and ride away in the blessed light of darkness.
Billy sits next to a fire of his own making, a fire for himself alone. He is wrapped in the long black coat of the Prince of Night’s Breed, clutching the strange spear that has set him free. The words are still playing in his ears. An echo that refuses to fade.
“You are the blood. That which flows from the Earth.”
Billy looks out across the plains, beyond the smoldering ashes of his home.
“From the Night. To feed. To Fulfill. To bathe us in the blessed light of Darkness,”
Billy slides his arm free of the bulky canvas coat, eyes gleaming with tears as the flickering of the firelight plays against the white lines that run across his forearm.
“You are the blood, and the blood must flow.”
Billy looks at his hands. The hands that have killed the Prince of Nights Breed. The Nights Breed that was now ashes and fire.
Billy feels the difference in his mind. He feels the freedom of his thoughts. He looks out across the vast ocean expanse of the black night sky.
He screams out. Again and again.
But there is nothing left for him there.
Billy holds the jagged shard of glass against his flesh, balancing it between the lines, the traces of Rado, the remnants of his existence.
“You are the blood,” the words echo in his memory.
And the blood must flow.
“You Are The Blood” © 2015 Axel Howerton
Originally published in Tall Tales of the Weird West – © 2015 Coffin Hop Press