Mourning Cloak

Mourning Cloak

Kato Vorsok is a man deserted by his god. A failed hero living in exile, he wants nothing to do with his old life.

Until the night he encounters a wounded mourning cloak—a demon that can walk through walls, dissolve into mist, and spear a man’s heart with a fingernail.

She calls him by name. She knows his past. She needs his help.

 And she is his key to redemption.

Mourning Cloak is a science fantasy novella of about 22,000 words.

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Excerpt

The mourning cloak flutters against my shop window, eyes dark and wide, mouth open in soundless desire. Her pale hands scrabble against the glass that separates her from my bottles—the opaque green of the darkly bitter clava, the translucent pinks and peaches of fruit mixes, the speckled earth tones of the nutty milks, all frosted from the alchemical ice vaporizing around them. She’s been here every night this week.

It’s the smell, I tell myself. The drinks, the pastries. She’s attracted by their smell.

And then her eyes, grey lurking on the edge of black, with no pupils or irises or whites, just dozens of hexagonal facets, look at me.

She looks at me. Sees me.

My hands and feet go cold. The glass I’m polishing slips from my fingers, falls on to the granite counter. Cracks.

She knows. Somehow, even after two years of keeping my head down and staying home at nights, she’s found me.

I’m a dead man.

The warding bells on my door jangle. A party of bright young things, cheeks red from the cold, sweep in with a dance of colored ribbons and sparkles at their throats. Lights flicker in the square behind them. Across the street, shadowy figures bubble out of the double doorway of the rhyme house. The taste of night is as bitter as sorrow on my lips. The smoky caress of death lingers on my face.

The bells clang together, the door crashes shut. And there is no more cold or night or death, but the warm honeyed scent of my shop and the tramp of shoes and the rustle of fabric and rhyme house bills as the young things throw off their coats and call out to each other and to me.

“…piss-poor performance…”

“… you having?”

“Peach paradise… could use it…”

“… cold as Gamina’s tits…”

The mourning cloak can’t have come for me.It’s been too long. I throw the cracked goblet in the trash, rim glasses with salt and sugar, uncork bottles, top with berries and sliced citrus, put on the affable smile of the drink-mixer.

But then, who knows why the cloaks come at all?

***

She’s still there when they leave for the trams, those young ones with the aliveness of milk in their skin and the future bright in their eyes. They don’t see the mourning cloak, thanks to the protection of their baubles and the embroidered ribbons woven into their hair. When they brush past her, she shrinks away from their vitality, paper-thin and chalk-white in comparison.

I’m not fooled. I’ve seen a mourning cloak slide through a wall and spear a man’s heart with a fingernail.

In all my nights of hunting, fueled by red rage and corrosive vengeance, I’d only ever managed to kill one of them.

My wards are all that keep me safe from this cloak.

***

She follows me from window to window as I stash bottles in the icebox, wipe tables, put up chairs and stools, mop the floor. She’s there when I turn the sign from OPEN to CLOSED, lock the door, twist the valves shut on my flow bottles and turn off the overhead lights.

She’s there, at the mouth of the alley, when I take out the trash under the yellow glare of the banish light. The last trolley of the evening sounds a low, mournful note on its horn as I slam the dumpster lid. I have wards all around my shop and my rooms at the back, but she doesn’t test them.

I’m a little disappointed. I pay good money and a monthly vial of blood for my wards. I’d like to see if the mourning cloak will flame and burn like the ward woman promised.

No such luck. She stands at the end of the alley, her cloak shivering all around her. She stretches her neck, stands on tiptoe, holds out those weak-looking fingers to me, as if pleading.

That helpless damsel routine may have worked for other men.

You know, the ones found with their bellies ripped open and their organs turned to ooze.

The trolley clanks away in the distance, the sound of metal on metal soon swallowed by the night.  I take the trash can inside and lock the door. I get my jar—the precious jar whose contents cost me half again as much as the wards did—and lay out a thin unbroken trail of white powder all along the inner walls of my shop and rooms.

And then I go to bed, and listen to the howls of eerie men and the snaps of cobble crunchers as I fall asleep.

Mourning cloaks are not the only reason I live behind my shop.

***

I snap awake in the dark. Pressure on my chest, pressure against my ears, pressure on my eyelids, squeezing them shut. I can’t see, I can’t hear, I can’t breathe.

My limbs won’t obey me.

Pop! Ears clear, chest heaves, eyelids fly open. The room takes a deep breath. I swear the walls expand outward in relief.

Then it hits me.

Magic. Someone’s worked magic.

Right next to my shop. My rooms. My bed.

I erupt from the sheets. Jab feet into slippers, grab the loaded bolt gun from the side table. A bedpost trips me up; I stumble and swear in the darkness. I find the doorknob—or it finds me when I run into the door. I wrestle with it and burst from the room, shambling and hairy-chested, muttering threats in a sleep-deep voice.

Sera used to say I was part bear. For a moment, she flits at the edge of my memory, her voice teasing at my ears, her hair in shades of bronze and gold sliding into view. I push her away.

But because I thought of her, I step into the small room that serves as my office and take the sword. I hold it by the sheath and manage to buckle it at my waist without touching its hilt.

That sword cost me more than money or blood. Every time I use it, it drains me even more.

But I need it. Just in case I have to kill the cloak.

I step over my powder line—oh so carefully, so it can ward my empty bed and financial papers and beverage bottles —and thrust open the outer door.

I was always a fool.

But no one –no one–worked magic that close to my shop and got away with it.

***

The banish light is off, the alley clothed in shadows. The residue of magic—cinnamon and burning—lingers. I taste it on the tip of my tongue.  Too herbal for kana rats, not flowery enough for wither women. Not the ozone taste of eerie men, nor the sickly-sweet rot of the smaller demons.

But there is a taint of something dark in there—the hint of rain on the wind, the foreboding of a storm. Earth smells, like that of eilendi magic, but with an electric zing.

At least three kinds of magic happened here. I can be sure that only one of those was from my wards.

If Toro or one of his do-gooders has been here, if this is one of their maggoty notions of helping me… My fists clench, I half-raise the bolt gun as if an eilendi were about to jump out at me, spouting prayers and pious exhortations to return to the fold.

I had needed eilendi help before. I had vowed never to ask for it again.

Static raises my hair.

I growl out a pass code, then jab the button on the wall to force more current into the banish light. It stirs, flickers, settles into a sullen glow that oozes into the street.

There. Darkness within darkness. A shape, huddled against the wall.

I put my hand on a sword-hilt molded for my grip. A hum of recognition and pleasure threads from it and into me, but I ignore it. It’s not time for those games.

I walk over to the shape, turn it over with my foot.

The mourning cloak’s face is pale amidst midnight hair and black wing-cloak. Her hands are reddened, crooked into claws, one of her wings ripped to shreds. Pale amber blood seeps from the slash at her throat.

Good. She’s dead then.

Let the scavengers deal with her body. I shift my feet, ready to go back to my interrupted sleep.

Her eyes open. The black has receded, showing hints of white.

In fact, her eyes are not black at all, but a deep brown. A warm, human brown.

She keeps her burnt hands cradled against her abdomen. She cannot move, not like this, but her eyes say, Help me.

My hand tightens on the hilt, and the sword sings into eager, bloodthirsty life. Use me, wield me… together… red tides of blood… Warmth blazes down its length, draws a line against my thigh.

I should not have kept it.

But like I said, I am a fool. I’ll keep the sword, if only to show that it is no longer master of me.

“Call your own kind to take care of you, mourning cloak,” I say. My voice is rough with sleep and anger. Can she understand me, this demon in humanoid form? I could kill her now, but it would be a crueler end to leave her to the predators of the night.

Let the cloak suffer, as Sera had suffered.

Her lips move, shape themselves into impossible words. I stiffen, then stoop closer to her face. Her breath smells sickly-sweet, a mix of honey and blood.

“Kato Vorsok,” she says. “Kato Vorsok.” She repeats it like a litany, as if my almost-forgotten name, my deep dark secret, were no more than a nursery rhyme. “Kato Vorsok.”

Kill her,whispers the sword—or the part of me the sword brings to the fore. Be rid of the evidence. I glance around, as though passersby lurked in the alley to hear that Kettan the drink-mixer was once Kato Vorsok, Taurin’s Chosen.

No more. It is past. It is behind me. I am no longer a hero.   

The mourning cloak suddenly arches her back, hisses in pain. Her eyes are almost normal, almost intelligent, almost aware. “Kato Vorsok,” she insists. The blurry buzz in her voice is gone, and she’s looking right at me.

She’s nearly human. She knows my name.

I growl, low and tortured in my throat, drop my hand from the hilt, cutting off the sword’s bloody croon from my head. I bend, swing the mourning cloak into my arms. She is light, as if made from cloth and skin, and her thin gold blood is sticky on my hands.

“Kato Vorsok?” A question. Hope in her eyes.

One cannot run from the past. It always finds you. Catches you up. Trips you in places you least expect it to.

“Yes,” I say, and carry her into my house.