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December 05, 2022

With No Announcement

By Mel Trent

First: The Lost Tree

1. Return Engagement

When Ilya Zharkov whispered in his ear, "I want to show you something," Sebastian Gauthier didn't think it meant getting into the car at three AM and driving until the sun had come and gone. Sebastian slept while Ilya drove, so it wasn't like he was missing anything. He could, and did, sleep anywhere, but he had hoped the treasure Ilya wanted to share was closer to home.

Sebastian didn't understand his relationship with Ilya. Ilya was ... weird. To say the least. They had met three years ago in a tiny club in Toronto where Sebastian had been trying to catch the eye of the fantastically gorgeous piano player, a small woman with spiky green hair and a big smoky voice whose beautiful songs were lost on the crowd. She hadn't seen him. She hadn't needed him.

Ilya, on the other hand, had spotted Sebastian right away and had waited until Sebastian had given up on the girl and had come to the bar for a screwdriver. Ilya had been impossible not to notice. He was a being of immense and subtle power, a wish granter, for starters. His eyes were a dark blue that verged on violet, and he had a smile that could charm the earth out of orbit. Most importantly, he had an aching need to be inspired. Sebastian had been hooked. He hadn't left Ilya's side since that night.

Since that night, though, what had he really learned about Ilya? They slept in the same bed, clothing optional, but were not lovers. Ilya had money, but Sebastian didn't know where it came from and wouldn't ask. If Ilya had any family, Sebastian didn't know about them. Ilya spoke English with no trace of a Russian accent and spoke Russian with no trace of an American accent. Ilya liked vodka and super spicy chicken curry. He was skittish around large dogs and birds, particularly their neighbor's big green parrot. He slept lightly and little but never seemed tired. He hated junk food and red meat. He loved music. He loved Sebastian. Whatever that meant.

To be fair, Sebastian wasn't exactly normal, but he understood his own oddness. He was a muse. He was there to inspire, and he couldn't do that by conforming.

Sebastian stirred out of sleep when he felt the car come to a stop. He rubbed his eyes. The scene through the windshield was murky in fading daylight and steady rain.

Ilya put his hand on Sebastian's knee. "We're almost there," he said. He smiled, a toned-down, slightly weary version of his normal break-the-laws-of-nature smile, but it still caused a melting, tangled, throbbing heat deep in Sebastian's chest.

"Almost where?" Sebastian asked.

"Where we're supposed to be."

The traffic light turned green, and Ilya drove on.

Sebastian watched the scenery scroll past. It was an ugly scab of a city. The architecture was boring but functional. The air seemed washed in dull, cold colors -- charcoal and sepia, the sickly orange of street lights and the deep blue pallor of despair. The blisters of color on the traffic lights were menacing. It looked familiar.

"Where the hell are we?" Sebastian asked.

"Pale," Ilya said.

Sebastian had lived in Pale for six months several years ago. Centuries, it felt like. He'd been drawn to the sheer weirdness of the place and the deep vein of creativity that pulsed just under its grey skin. He'd left when he realized there was nothing he could do for anyone there. The artists he'd befriended in that short period of time were so broken that whatever inspiration he offered hadn't come close to filling those profound cracks.

"Why?" Sebastian asked.

"You'll see."

"I hate it when you're cryptic."

Ilya grinned.

"Have you been here before?"

Ilya shrugged. "Passed through a few times."

"You know it rains all the time."

"Yes."

"You know why?"

"I've heard the stories."

"It really is cursed."

"Yes."

"You say that like it's a good thing."

"It's precisely why we're here."

A question jumbled up on Sebastian's tongue, but he swallowed it and looked out the window.

Ilya was uncannily sensitive to Sebastian's moods, had been from the moment they met and would go out of his way to humor those moods. Well. Most of them. The one that involved them tangled up in each other's limbs with their bed sheets glued to their skins with a variety of bodily fluids seemed to be the one mood Ilya either couldn't pick up or simply ignored. Now, Sebastian's black unhappiness to be in Pale again was either ignored or unnoticed. Sebastian folded his arms across his chest and slumped in the seat.

A few moments later, Ilya steered the car into a gravel parking lot behind an unremarkable building on a street of unremarkable buildings. Ilya started to get out of the car. Sebastian slumped even further, wondering if he could slither to the floorboard and if such a petulant display would have any effect on Ilya.

"What?" Ilya asked. He half turned in the driver's seat and put his hand on Sebastian's knee.

Sebastian pulled his knee out from under Ilya's hand.

"Sebastian."

"Fuck you."

Ilya sighed.

"You coulda told me."

"You could have asked."

Sebastian grunted, conceding the point but not willing to admit doing so.

"It's because of you. For you. Forgive me if I wanted to surprise you."

"Fuck surprises. I hate surprises." Which wasn't true at all. Sebastian adored surprises, delighting in the inspiration and spontaneity. Surprises made him feel as bubbly as a shaken can of soda.

"Would you at least come inside and let me show you this? If you're done with me after that, I'll take you wherever you want to go and you don't have to see me again."

Sebastian looked at Ilya, his eyes full of sudden tears. The thought of not being with Ilya broke his heart more thoroughly than it had ever been broken before. He wondered if it broke Ilya's heart, too, and from the look on Ilya's face, he guessed it did.

"Okay," Sebastian said. "Fine. Sorry. It's just ... I lived here for a while, and it's a hard place to live."

"I know. I didn't go into this not knowing as much as I could, and even then, I didn't go lightly."

"I don't wanna leave you. I love you."

"I love you, too."

"Then kiss me, asshole."

Ilya smiled. Gravity vanished, and Sebastian's heart floated into his throat. He closed his eyes. Ilya kissed him on the forehead and got out of the car.

Sebastian got out of the car and slammed the door. "You are such a fucking asshole!" he said.

Ilya laughed. "Come on, sweetheart," he said. "Let's get in out of the rain."

Sebastian curled his hands into loose fists, put his head down and followed Ilya through the back door of the building.

The inside smelled of fresh paint, new wood, cleaning chemicals, dust and rain. The walls of the softly lit hallway were painted a metallic silvery blue with dark brown branches along the top. Where the branches dipped low, unframed artwork hung like fruit. Hand-hammered brass plaques labeled the walnut brown doors along the hall -- restroom, employees only, storage, private.

The hallway opened onto a large room, painted the same as the hall and bearing more artistic fruit. At one end of the room, there was a big bar, and behind the bar was the tree from which all the branches emanated. Empty shelves lined the wall without doing much to obscure the tree. The tree crackled with an energy that Sebastian recognized as his own. He had almost forgotten that he inspired anything like this in Ilya.

At the other end of the room was a stage. It was rather small but perhaps big enough to accommodate a four-piece band. At the moment, it held only an upright piano. In front of the stage, there was a single round table with a single chair.

"Welcome to the Lost Tree," Ilya said. He took Sebastian's hand and led him to the table where he pulled out the chair and guided Sebastian to sit.

"This is ..." Sebastian began. He gazed around the space and could find no words to describe what he saw. His heart was beating sweetly fast. This wasn't just because of his musely influence. Ilya had said this was for him.

"Only the beginning."

Sebastian watched in silence, awestruck and love struck, as Ilya stepped onto the stage and sat down at the piano. Ilya was a skillful pianist and had mentioned long, tedious hours of childhood lessons, but Sebastian had never caught any hint of talent in Ilya's playing. Ilya played because he could and because he enjoyed it, but he always played without passion. Sebastian wasn't sure what to expect from the impending performance.

Ilya rolled up his sleeves and put his fingers on the keys. For a moment, it seemed as if he would change his mind about whatever he intended to play. He seemed nervous, almost shy, states that didn't suit him but that Sebastian found flattering. Ilya shrugged off the hesitation and began to play.

The sound that poured from the piano was pure red rapture. The talent and passion that had been absent from Ilya's renditions of various classical pieces and pop songs was packed so densely into the notes he played that Sebastian expected to see holes punched through the stage. Then Ilya began to sing, and Sebastian was reduced to a happy, bubbling, warm puddle of goo in his seat. It was the most beautiful thing he had ever heard, and that was saying something.

Three minutes or so later, the song ended, and Sebastian lolled boneless and breathless in the chair as if he'd just had the best orgasm ever.

Ilya turned sideways on the bench, straddling it, which would have been sexy before but was now devastatingly so. Sebastian was jealous of the bench. "What do you think?" Ilya asked.

"What do I think? Holy fuck, I think you've been holding out on me the last three years," Sebastian said. He sat up on the edge of the chair. "I knew you could play, but ... holy fuck!"

"I wrote it."

"I know!"

"For you."

Sebastian didn't know what to say to that. He was used to being an invisible conduit for creative energy, and it was always a rush to know his influence had helped created something. He was never the subject of the art, though, and it was an entirely different kind of thrill. It went so much deeper than the intellectual and emotional intimacy he and Ilya shared and the physical intimacy they didn't.

But something wasn't right. Sebastian couldn't awaken a passion that was absent nor could he give talent where there was none. He could almost believe that Ilya had been able to keep the passion in check. Ilya was cool-headed by nature, and Sebastian had never seen Ilya anything but calm. Except for the first run-in with the neighbor's parrot, but that was different. Talent, on the other hand ... talent didn't have an on-off switch. It was there or it wasn't.

"Play it again," Sebastian said.

Ilya did, and while he was playing, Sebastian took his chair up onto the stage, placed it behind the piano and stood on it so he could lean over the piano and watch Ilya's hands. If there were any clues in the movement of Ilya's hands or in the sound of his voice, Sebastian couldn't find them.

When the song ended, Ilya looked up at Sebastian.

"I really wish you'd told me about all this," Sebastian said.

"I'm sorry," Ilya said. "I wasn't sure how you'd take it."

"What d'you mean? You thought I wouldn't like your songs?"

"No. The Lost Tree. It's something I've wanted to do for a long time. A cabaret club. I have a couple acts already lined up. Plus things like poetry readings. It's not the kind of thing you normally inspire in people."

Sebastian shrugged. "Inspiration doesn't discriminate. Scientists need it as much as painters. That's why the original nine couldn't cut it."

Ilya smiled briefly then looked down at the keyboard. He played a few soft notes. "There's something else I should tell you."

Sebastian said nothing. He had no clue where the conversation was heading. He was afraid he wouldn't like it.

"There are rules my kind must follow and consequences for breaking those rules. Never mind that I broke most of them in my first quarter century of life because I simply didn't know they existed. But the most important rule, the one with the direst consequence, is that we can never use our abilities to grant our own wishes." Ilya looked at Sebastian. "I couldn't ignore my dreams with you around. It got physically painful. I did most of this without wasting a wish, but ... but to make it work ..."

"You ... you wished for this? But ... what's the consequence?" Sebastian was trembling, afraid of exactly how dire the consequence would be. He knew very little about Ilya's kind, only that they could be generous and tender with others and tyrannically ruthless amongst themselves.

"Loss of power. I was allowed to keep one wish in reserve, but it can only be used for extreme circumstances. I've made little use of my power in the last several years anyway. I hardly notice it's gone."

Sebastian grinned as relief washed over him. "So if I wish for you to kiss me, there's nothing you can do, huh?"

"No, I'm sorry."

"What if I demand that you kiss me?"

"You could try it."

"Then kiss me, goddamn it."

Ilya stood up and leaned towards Sebastian, aiming a kiss at his nose.

"On the mouth," Sebastian said.

Ilya corrected his course.

2. Wishing on a Dream

Along with the rule against using one's power to grant one's own wish, and among many, there was a rule that forbade the wish granters from having sexual relations with other supernatural creatures. For most of Ilya's life, it hadn't mattered. He had had human lovers and mostly avoided anything that wasn't human. He had been in love before, but it had never happened as quickly and completely as it had when he had met Sebastian. Some nights, it had been enough to hold Sebastian's naked body against his and breathe in the scent of Sebastian's skin -- a smell vaguely like cinnamon, which matched the color of his hair, or like lightly creamed coffee, which matched the color of his eyes. Some nights, Ilya had wanted so badly to taste Sebastian's skin that his jaw ached with the effort to keep his mouth closed.

Now it didn't matter. Without power, Ilya was no longer bound to the rules of his people, but out of habit, he only pressed his nose against Sebastian's neck and breathed in the warm, spicy scent. There was no ache in his jaw now. He'd tasted what had tantalized him for the last three years and was satisfied.

So far, everything was on the right track, but there were still so many things that could go wrong.

Ilya waited until Sebastian was asleep before he got out of bed, pulled his clothes on and went downstairs. He wasn't going to sleep that night. He saw no point in trying. He could go over the finances. Again. Or inventory the alcohol shipment. Which he and Sebastian would do when they stocked the bar in the morning. He could ... well, he could sit on his stage and stare out at the empty dining room and wonder if he had made the right decision. He had given up nearly everything he was for the Lost Tree and for Sebastian. He didn't yet know if it had been worth it.

About Sebastian, Ilya had no doubts. The loss of power had been absolutely worth the consummation of their relationship. But ... but what?

Ilya wasn't prone to doubting himself. He was far from arrogant, but he was more likely than not to have confidence in himself and his endeavors. He wasn't sure why this was different. Maybe he was just feeling the loss of his power, but something Sebastian had murmured as he fell asleep kept echoing in Ilya's mind.

"Where did it come from?" Sebastian had asked.

"Where did what come from?" Ilya had asked, but Sebastian was more or less asleep at that point and merely repeated, almost incomprehensibly, his query.

And then he had added, with a coherence that startled Ilya, "The talent. It was never there. Where'd it come from?"

Good point. Ilya's talents were with people -- organizing, connecting, networking. He was a good pianist, but there was a gulf of difference between skill and talent. Certainly, he had never composed music and had never even considered trying until those little bits of songs started floating into his head and nagged him until he put them down on paper.

Ilya concentrated on the way it had felt to write his songs, comparing that sensation to the way he felt when he knew he was under Sebastian's influence. He could almost see it, like a hook forcefully dragging something out of him that had never been there in the first place. Sebastian's inspiration was softer, easier. It was still a pulling force, but it wasn't brutal. Not like writing the songs. So something else. Someone else. Another muse? But how ...

Songs hit him like hammers swaddled in layers of felt. His hands itched and shook. He felt flushed and cold at the same time, and if he didn't find a piece of paper in the next, oh, two seconds, he was going to start carving notes into his arm with his fingernails.

He didn't move. He fought the inspiration. He fought it so hard he tasted blood in his mouth.

Someone laughed at him. "You can ignore it," a woman's voice said. "And you'll go insane. Or die. Or go insane and then die."

Not willing to succumb to either, Ilya went into the office, found a few blank pages and sat at the table in front of the stage until two AM writing songs he shouldn't have been writing.

3. Jordan's Misgivings

The sign taped to the glass of the door was a plain sheet of paper with a drawing of a tree in colored pencils and under the tree, neatly printed in black marker, the name of the club -- the Lost Tree. The tree was odd. Jordan Mars couldn't say what exactly about the drawing was odd; it just was.

Jordan had told the owner of the Lost Tree that he would stop by at nine. He was ten minutes early. He pulled at the door, half expecting it to be locked, but it opened. He stepped into the dim space and looked around. A strange sensation crept through his body. It felt sort of like he had stepped into another world without leaving the one he was in. It wasn't a bad feeling. It wasn't frightening; just uncomfortable and unfamiliar. He was used to occasional fleeting glimpses into the hidden part of Pale, but this was much stronger than anything he had ever experienced. He wanted to shudder but couldn't manage it.

The weird tree was painted on the wall behind the bar, its impossible branches wrapping around the room and bearing art like fruit. It was even more unsettling in that iteration, and Jordan was at a loss to explain why, alone in that empty space with that tree, he felt that way.

He shook it off and walked a few steps further in. "Hello," he said.

A moment later, a tall, good-looking blonde man appeared at the threshold of the dining room. "Yes?" he asked.

"I'm Jordan Mars."

"Oh, yes, of course." The blonde walked towards Jordan with his hand extended. "Ilya Zharkov."

They shook hands.

"Sorry I'm a little early. I tend to get an early start because of this." Jordan lifted the cane in his right hand and tapped the shaft against the heavy brace that caged his right knee.

"You should have told me. I could have come to you."

Jordan shrugged. "It's a nice day. Relatively speaking."

Ilya smiled. The earth seemed to stop spinning for a second. "Let's sit." He gestured to the one table in front of the stage and its single chair.

Jordan hobbled over to the chair and sat. Ilya sat on the edge of the stage. "No office?" Jordan asked.

"It's a mess right now. We got in late last night and haven't had a chance to do much cleaning up. I like this space much better."

"It's ... um ..."

"Be honest, Mr. Mars."

"Jordan."

"Of course."

"If you want to know the truth, this place kinda freaks me out."

"I do appreciate the truth."

"I don't know what it is. It's strange. Neutral but really strange."

"You're psychic?"

"Only on a rare occasion."

"Ah. That's to be expected then."

"I ... suppose." Jordan shifted in the chair, but it wasn't his body that was uncomfortable. The tickle of psychic energy was stronger now that Ilya was in the room. "You're not human."

"No."

Jordan glanced over his shoulder at the door and wished he could still run.

"I'm completely harmless."

"Right. Things like you are never completely harmless. Neither are things like me, really."

"So what is it you want from me?" It came out more hostile than Jordan intended, but he was more than a little off-kilter now. He hadn't expected to be dealing with a non-human.

"Advertising. I've seen some of the posters you've designed and printed for local bands and other venues. I like your work, and I think it would be a good fit. I have a few other avenues to go, but I don't think they would be consistently reliable in the end. Obviously, the money is an issue at this point. I'm still solvent, but until I can recoup some of the costs, I want to be cautious."

"Sure. But I don't do that kind of work for free."

"I'm not asking for that. I'm hoping we can work out an exchange of some sort."

"Exchange for what?"

"What do you want?"

"What d'you mean?"

Ilya leaned forward a little and put his elbows on his knees. "Let me explain the point of the Lost Tree."

Jordan had the sudden urge to get his small sketch book out of his pocket as if he would need to take notes on what Ilya was about to tell him. He was pretty sure there wouldn't be a quiz later, but maybe that wasn't what he wanted to note. When Ilya didn't continue right away, Jordan did take his sketch book out.

"Do you believe that Pale is cursed?" Ilya asked.

Jordan opened his sketch book to a blank page. "It's not a matter of belief for me," he said. "I feel it. It's a fact."

"And that makes things feel a bit hopeless, doesn't it?"

Jordan shrugged. He fidgeted with the stubby pencil.

"I know I can't fix it. To the extent that I can, I want to heal people, to offer an oasis in the gloom."

"Uh-huh." Jordan wasn't looking at Ilya any more. The pencil was seeking out lines on the page.

"There have been flashes of hope here before, but they don't last. They flame out in tragedy. I want to build something sustainable. Art can heal."

"You're really fucking idealistic, Ilya. Especially for something as old as you seem to be."

"And you're horribly cynical for someone so young."

Jordan frowned at the image the pencil was finding.

"At any rate, that's what I want to do. That's what I'm offering."

It was a tragedy mask. Except it was no stylized piece of pottery. The face was human, and Jordan could see the color of the skin and the eyes and see the shimmer of tears hanging just off the lower lashes. He could feel the quiver in the chin under the downturned mouth. Abruptly, he put down the pencil and closed the sketch book.

"So with that in mind, what is it you want?"

Jordan looked down at his feet, trying not to focus on the cane or the brace or the way his knee, despite multiple surgeries and physical therapy, was still skewed. "You can't give me what I want."

"Oh?"

"I want my wife and daughter back."

Ilya's frown wasn't as charming an expression as his smile, but it made Jordan's heart wobble all the same. The tenderness and sympathy were almost too much. "I'm sorry," he said. "I don't ..."

"They were killed in a car wreck two years ago." Jordan shoved his sketch book and pencil back into his pocket and swallowed back the hard lump in his throat.

Ilya said nothing. He kept his gaze on Jordan's face as if he expected something important or miraculous to happen there.

"It was my fault. Indirectly. I ... why am I telling you? It's none of your business."

Ilya shrugged slightly.

Jordan sighed and looked around the room. Having had time to grow accustomed to the vibes the place gave off, he was beginning to find it comfortable. "I want to be able to heal."

"I think I can help you get there."

"How?"

Ilya smiled, and stars exploded. "That's up to you."

4. Never Far Enough from Home

There was a very old graveyard tucked up in the northwest corner of Pale behind a subdivision of modest homes. No one had visited the graveyard for a very long time. Probably, no one knew it was there. The grass and weeds obscured the stones, and the gravel path that led to the graveyard was almost invisible from the road. It was a good place to park for the night. As long as you didn't mind the ghosts.

Eliot Montoya didn't mind the ghosts at all. He preferred their company to that of humans. Ghosts had no interest in emotional sadism.

Eliot sat in the back seat of his car, his legs stretched out between the front seats. He played short bits of songs on his guitar, accompanying the rain that pounded his car. It seemed like it was time to give up. He had been in Pale for three weeks, had applied for every available job he could find, interviewed for almost all of them and still had nothing to show for it. He had a few hundred dollars left and an interview for a teller position at the bank in the morning, but he had very little hope of getting the job. He had a master's degree in theatre arts and most of his work experience was along those lines. And bartending, but even the bars in Pale didn't want to hire him.

Thing was, he didn't really want to leave Pale. It suited him.

The strong smell of cypress trees filled the car. "Well. Isn't this a charming little bed and breakfast spot," a sudden passenger said.

Eliot said nothing, just plucked out random notes.

Melpomene, the muse of tragedy, turned in the passenger seat to face Eliot. She pouted at him. "Aw, what's the matter, sweetie?" she asked. "Another bad job interview?"

"Fuck off, Mel," Eliot said.

She giggled. "I really do like watching you suffer, Eliot."

"I know. So why don't you go back to watching?"

"Because I have an offer to make."

"Not interested."

"You don't even know -- "

"Not. Interested."

"Even if I said I would lift the curse?"

Eliot stopped playing and looked at Melpomene. She was grinning at him in a way that made his skin crawl.

"Do I have your attention? Yes? It's been two thousand years, and as much as I like the show, I think it may be time to move on."

"Closer to three thousand, but I'm not counting."

"It doesn't get me off the way it used to."

"Maybe you need Aphrodite's help with that."

Melpomene scowled and punched Eliot's thigh. Not hard but enough to make him sit up and draw his legs back. "I've told you a hundred times don't mention that bitch's name around me."

"Closer to a million, but I'm not counting. What do you want?"

"I want you to get rid of a muse. He's one of the new ones. I'm sick of all those little upstart bastards taking away my power. Do you have any idea how hard it is to inspire people when I have to share with all those new muses? As if my sisters and I weren't enough."

"Apparently you weren't."

"Shut up. Listen. It'll be easy. You don't have to do anything but be his friend. And you can be very, very friendly, Eliot. Then your little curse will go to work, and he'll die a horrifically tragic death, and his pretty boyfriend will break. I'm already fattening up that calf. What a tasty treat he'll be when it's all done. But that's all you have to do."

"And you'll take the curse off me?"

"Yes."

Eliot thought about it for a moment. He didn't need even a second to consider the answer, but he wanted to make Melpomene wait. "No," he said.

"What?"

"No."

Melpomene leaned towards Eliot, grinning. "I bet I can make you change your mind."

"I bet you can't."

"It is July, you know. Hurricane season. I've seen that lovely little cottage your parents moved into on the Gulf coast. It would really be a shame if a nasty storm blew through there."

"That's low. Even for you."

"I've been very good about leaving your families alone. I didn't have to, of course."

"If you hurt them, I'll kill you."

Melpomene clapped her hands and laughed. "You are a delight. Now. You'll find the muse at a club called the Lost Tree. Take your time. There's no hurry. But the sooner you handle it, the sooner I leave you to get on with your pathetic life."

Melpomene was gone before Eliot could say anything.

Eliot leaned back and closed his eyes, listening to the rain hammering his car and wondering what he could do to foil Melpomene's plan.

Second: Weaving

1. A Muse's Musings

Sebastian couldn't sleep. It was a rare occasion when he couldn't flop down wherever and be asleep within seconds. There had been maybe three other times in his life, his very long life, when sleep evaded him, but not one of those times had been anything like this.

For most of Monday, there had been enough to do to keep Sebastian from thinking. Once he had finally crawled out of bed close to ten, Ilya made breakfast and told him about Jordan Mars while they ate. They cleaned and organized the office, stocked the bar, rolled tables out of storage and into the dining area. They interviewed a couple of potential bartenders. They met with the editor of a literary magazine called The Spiral about hosting a reading event. Eventually, though, things slowed down, and Ilya, uncharacteristically, had fallen asleep almost as soon as they got into bed.

Ilya hadn't mentioned what he had experienced Sunday night, but Sebastian could feel the residual energy from the influx of inspiration. He had wanted to ask Ilya about it but never had the opportunity. There was still time. He wasn't too worried. Not yet anyway.

Muses could go bad. When there had been only nine, there hadn't been much competition for work. But the world changed; inspiration splintered until there were hundreds of non-specific muses. Because they were non-specific, they could inspire anything from art to atomic bombs, and because of that, there was competition. Sometimes, a sufficiently starved muse went vampire, stuffing a chosen victim with more inspiration than the victim could handle and then draining off that energy. The victim didn't usually survive.

Sebastian had never resorted to that. He had learned the trick of uncovering creativity in the most unlikely sources. He had hung around such varied people as a police detective, a politician, a fashion designer, a high school math teacher, an engineer and a gardener. He liked musicians the best, though, but so did a lot of muses. Music and visual arts were pretty easy to inspire, and finished pieces were easily accessible to everyone, which offered a huge return on the investment.

One thing muses never did, though, was muscle in on another's territory. The new muses had enough respect for each other that they would never try to inspire someone already under a muse's influence. So why the hell was Ilya being inspired that way? It didn't make a lot of sense, and it made Sebastian antsy.

He sat at the kitchen table, flipping through one of Ilya's notebooks and trying to pinpoint the energy. Some of it was his. Some of the songs were about him, after all, but there was a difference between the emotion that went into the songs and the inspiration to put that emotion into song in the first place.

If there were any kind of energy signature on the pages, Sebastian couldn't feel it. So that meant one of two things. There was something wrong with him that was causing Ilya's inspiration or ...

Something prickled the back of Sebastian's neck. It felt like a spider creeping carefully along his hairline. He rubbed his neck. No spider, of course, but the prickle didn't go away. Something with some kind of power was close by, and whatever it was, it was watching him.

Sebastian went over to a window that looked down onto the street that ran in front of the club. The street was empty. All the buildings around the Lost Tree were dark. The misty rain billowed through the orange glow of the street lights, and someone was standing under one of the lights, looking up at Sebastian.

Cold sweat needled Sebastian's pores. He bolted away from the window, down the stairs and to the front door, but by the time he had fumbled the lock open and stepped out onto the street, the figure was moving away. Sebastian went after him.

"Hey!" Sebastian yelled.

The man -- no, not a man; there was something distinctly not human about him -- stopped but didn't turn around. He turned his head, not quite looking at Sebastian. Sebastian couldn't see his face. He had a hat pulled low over his eyes, and the collar of his black rain coat was turned up. All Sebastian could see was the faint glare of the street lights off one lens of a pair of glasses.

"Who the fuck are you?" Sebastian asked.

"Doesn't matter," the creature said.

"Well, if you're gonna be stalking me, I think it kinda does matter. And what are you?"

"Nothing."

"What do you want?"

"That's a loaded question."

"Are you the one trying to -- "

"No. I'm not a muse."

"But you know what I'm talking about. You know something. You know who's doing it."

The man looked forward again, lifting his head slightly towards the sky. He said nothing but made no move to walk away, like he was debating the merits of giving away whatever secrets he was keeping.

Sebastian took a few more steps towards the stranger. "Who -- "

"You and your partner should get the hell out of Pale."

"We just got here."

"So? If you stay, that'll just give her more time to poison your partner and try to kill you."

"What? Who's doing it? Just fucking tell me already so I can -- "

"Don't try to fight her. You're not strong enough."

"Are you?"

"Hell no."

"I want names, damn it. Who's doing this? Who the fuck are you?"

There was another moment of silent consideration, and then the stranger said, "Melpomene." He walked away and vanished around a corner before Sebastian could ask any further questions.

2. Contingency

The sun hadn't yet risen when Ilya woke up, but the darkness was fading from pitch to charcoal. He rubbed his eyes and turned over. He was disappointed to find himself alone in bed, but the disappointment quickly turned to worry. Sebastian never got up before Ilya did, especially if the sun wasn't up.

Ilya got up, went to the bathroom, pulled on a pair of pajama pants and a thigh length flannel robe and went to the kitchen to start a pot of coffee. One of his notebooks was lying open on the kitchen table. He frowned at it. He hadn't left it there.

While the coffee was brewing, he went downstairs. Sebastian was sitting at the piano, his arms folded on top of the keyboard cover and his head down on his arms. Ilya sat down beside Sebastian and put his arm across Sebastian's shoulders.

Sebastian stirred a little.

With his lips brushing the curve of Sebastian's ear, Ilya whispered, "Wake up, sweetheart."

Sebastian made a soft grunting, sighing sound and blinked his open. He mumbled a question as he sat up and knuckled his eyes.

"It's early," Ilya said. "What are you doing down here?"

"Couldn't sleep."

Ilya ran his fingertips through Sebastian's hair. "Come upstairs and go back to bed." He kissed Sebastian's temple and started to stand up.

Sebastian, suddenly far more awake than ten seconds before, grabbed Ilya's arm and looked at him. The fear in his eyes made Ilya sink back down to the bench and put his hands against Sebastian's cheeks.

"We need to talk," Sebastian said. "Like seriously need to talk about some serious shit."

Ilya said nothing. He had never had a discussion with a lover that began "we need to talk" end well.

"About your songs. The inspiration. I -- "

Ilya hushed Sebastian with a soft kiss. "Let's talk upstairs. You're shivering, and there's coffee."

Sebastian hesitated for just a moment and then nodded.

While Sebastian went to the bedroom for a sweatshirt, Ilya poured coffee for them both and took the mugs to the living room. Sebastian joined him on the couch a moment later.

"What happened?" Ilya asked. He knew something had happened. Sebastian didn't get that agitated over nothing.

Sebastian held his mug in both hands and let the steam hit his face. He said nothing.

"Sebastian, please. Whatever it is, I can't do anything until you tell me what happened."

"I don't know that you can do anything anyway. It's Melpomene."

It was Ilya's turn to say nothing. Whether he could fight a goddess was irrelevant. He wasn't going to try. It would be suicide.

"I couldn't sleep because I couldn't stop thinking about it," Sebastian said. "And I couldn't figure it out. It wasn't making any sense at all. And to do what's being done to you ... muses like me aren't strong enough for that. None of them would do it even if they could. It's rude. So I thought maybe it's something wrong with me, that my power's going sideways or something. But that doesn't make sense either. So that left one option. It's one of the original nine. And just when I was thinking that, I felt this ... presence ... watching me. I saw him when I looked out the window and went down to talk to him. He wasn't terribly helpful, but he did tell me it was Melpomene."

"Who was he?"

"No idea. He wouldn't tell me. He wouldn't tell me what he is either."

"Not human?"

"Definitely not human. He said we should leave Pale."

"That won't happen."

"Yeah, I know. Even if we did leave, she still has her hooks in you. She'd find us no matter what."

Ilya watched Sebastian as Sebastian put his mug down and curled up into a ball at the end of the couch. Ilya thought he had considered every possible problem he would encounter, but it hadn't crossed his mind that another muse would interfere. "Sebastian," he said.

"Mmm?"

"Go to bed, sweetheart."

"Mmm."

Sebastian didn't move. He was already asleep. Ilya draped a blanket over him and went to the kitchen with his coffee. The only solution he could see was to find whoever had warned Sebastian and get more information. He just didn't know how he was going to do that when he had no idea what he would be looking for.

3. I've Just Seen a Face

Jordan hadn't been able to concentrate properly since his meeting with Ilya. He tried to work, but his focus invariably slipped back to Ilya's offer of healing. He had already decided he would do what Ilya had asked. A handful of posters wouldn't be difficult to run off, and he had ideas of where to post them. He would need to get details from Ilya; that could wait a bit. What couldn't wait were the images he kept seeing in his head and the thoughts that came with them.

He sat in his office at Ink&Water, the literary magazine he owned and edited (although he did little of the actual work these days), scowling at the scene growing on his sketch pad. It wasn't subtle -- a crashed car, flames leaping up from the crumpled vehicle, blood sluicing down the asphalt, a figure in the flames, arms outstretched, head back, crucified in fire. But was this phoenix only beginning its self-immolation, or was it rising from the ashes?

He wondered when healing started. How would he know? Would it itch like a cut on his hand? How would he know when the healing was done? What if the scar was just a mask that could split open at the slightest irritation? How could he heal from what felt like dying? What if he couldn't?

Tears started to sting Jordan's eyes, and he closed them, pinching the bridge of his nose.

Someone knocked on the door. Jordan looked up, startled, and his heart shuddered hard enough to take his breath away for a second. The young man standing in the doorway looked like someone Jordan might have once dreamed about. He was of average height and slender build, his bones probably laced with lithe, hard muscles. His thick, dark brown hair was stylishly messy. Black framed glasses drew attention to his big, dark brown eyes. His skin was olive toned, hinting at something Spanish or Mediterranean in his ancestry. He was dressed in light grey slacks with a matching vest over a red shirt, thick-soled black boots with red laces and a small, thin silver hoop in his right nostril. He had a hat in his hand and a black rain coat over his arm.

With some effort, and hoping he wasn't drooling, Jordan said, "Can I help you?"

"I hope so," the man said. "There was no one at the front desk, so I'm not sure I'm in the right place. I was hoping to pick up my payment and contributor's copies from the March issue. I had an address issue that never really got resolved."

"Yeah, I can check on that. Come on in and have a seat." Jordan stuck his pencil in his mouth and pulled up the March contributor spreadsheet. He heard wood splinter when the visitor sat and realized he had bitten down on the pencil to keep from staring at the man's crotch. "What's your name?"

"Eliot Montoya."

"I should have your check and copies in my office." Jordan got up and hobbled over to a wide filing cabinet along the back wall of his office. He could feel Eliot staring at him; not at his crooked, caged knee, although Eliot could hardly fail to notice that; but at his ass, his shoulders, the back of his neck as he looked down to search the files. It felt incredibly good to be looked at like that. Of course, it was probably all in Jordan's imagination. It had been two years, after all, and he'd hardly allowed himself to appreciate an attractive man or woman in that time. Penance for his infidelity and the ill-conceived confession that drove Leda to leave him. He thought about Leda and Zoë, the way they must have screamed, and the unwanted lust evaporated.

Jordan turned away from the filing cabinet with the envelope in his hand only to find that Eliot had gotten up and was standing at the corner of the desk. Trying his best to look nonchalant, Jordan held the envelope out to Eliot. He figured he needed to say something, but he had lost the power of speech.

"Thanks," Eliot said.

"Um. You're welcome. I'm Jordan Mars, by the way."

Eliot smiled, and they shook hands. "Nice to meet you."

"So you're living in Pale now?"

"Yeah. I've been here for about three weeks."

"Where?"

"Wherever isn't a tow-away zone."

"You're living in your car?"

"For now."

"That's not exactly ..."

"Safe? Comfortable?" Eliot shrugged. "I manage. Well ... thanks again."

"Sure, no problem."

Eliot headed for the door. Jordan eased himself back into his chair, relieved that the ordeal of attraction was over, but Eliot had stopped in the doorway and turned back.

"Hey, Jordan," Eliot said. There was hesitation in his voice, as if the next thing he said would be embarrassing or weird.

"Yeah?"

"I don't really know anyone in Pale and haven't had time to do a lot of exploring. Where's a good, cheap place for lunch?"

There were a couple ways to answer. Jordan could take it as a hint to ask Eliot out on a date and do just that. Which was stupid and impulsive and quite possibly just plain wrong. He could, as Eliot probably expected, name a couple of nearby restaurants and be done with it. He did neither. "What time is it?" he asked.

"Almost twelve-thirty."

"Shit. I didn't realize it was so late. No wonder no one was up front. Have you been to Hobart's?"

Eliot shook his head. "Where's that?"

"About half a block from here. It's not cheap-cheap, but it's a lot more reasonable than some places. And it's good. Come on, my treat. A welcome to town kind of thing." There seemed to be about a five second delay between Jordan's mouth and his brain. He hadn't wanted to couch the invitation in anyway that could be construed as a date or an act of charity. Too late. There it was.

If Eliot was at all put off by the suddenness of the invite, he didn't show it. In fact, he smiled a half-shy, half-devilish grin. "That sounds good," he said.

4. Pilot Light

Eliot left the restaurant in a daze. He had planned to pick up the check and the contributor's copies and be on his way. He hadn't expected to be so dazzled. Admiring the scenery was one thing, but Jordan was more than a pretty face. Eliot allowed himself to entertain the notion of spending more time with Jordan for about a minute. He was sure that any kind of relationship with Jordan would be fulfilling. It was nice to dream of possibilities, of friendship, of love, of partnership with a kindred spirit. But it couldn't happen. There were too many obstacles. So Eliot put the thought out of his head. Or tried to.

By then, Eliot figured the muse would be looking for him. He'd taken a foolish chance stalking the place like that. He hadn't wanted a direct confrontation and had been surprised when the muse came out to interrogate him. He wanted the curse removed as much as he didn't want to help Melpomene. It was a shitty situation to be in, and he couldn't think of any way out of it.

Eliot took his guitar to the park and sat on the steps of one of the many small gazeboes. He didn't play his own songs. That would make him too obvious. Subtlety was safer. He hoped. He had a small audience in no time. Men and women in suits paused and tossed a few coins in his guitar case. A young woman with a baby on her hip stopped when the baby started to coo happily about the music. A cop on horseback clomped up and watched suspiciously. The horse seemed more interested than the cop did. A bent old man with vibrant blue eyes shuffled up through the crowd and dropped a fifty dollar bill in the guitar case before shuffling away, smiling beatifically, to listen from a safe distance.

Twenty minutes later, the muse showed up with a tall blonde. The muse shoved his way through the small crowd while his partner stood back and watched. The muse scowled. Eliot finished the song he was playing and put his guitar down. The crowd moaned their disappointment but took the cue and started to move away.

When the only ones left were the muse and his partner, the muse said, "Okay, who the fuck are you?"

"Why do you need to know that?" Eliot asked.

"You don't just tell me shit like you told me and expect me not to try to find out more. That starts with you since Melpomene is a little out of my league."

"She's out of all our leagues. Leaving is your best bet."

"We're not going anywhere," the blonde said. He moved closer and put his hand on the muse's shoulder. "My name's Ilya. This is Sebastian."

Eliot looked from one to the other and said nothing.

"I'm guessing you don't care for her plan."

Eliot shook his head. "I don't like it, no."

"But what are you getting out of it?" Sebastian asked.

"Doesn't matter. This isn't about me. It's about you."

"All right, fine. It doesn't matter. You don't matter. Whatever. Melpomene's the problem, not you. So what am I supposed to do?"

Eliot looked down at his hands. He couldn't answer that question. He supposed he could ask Melpomene to leave them alone, and she might actually acquiesce. She wasn't doing much of anything anyway. It was all up to the curse now. Maybe this was what she had meant for him to do all along.

Ilya reached out and put his fingers under Eliot's chin and gently lifted Eliot's head. "She's done something awful to you, hasn't she?" he asked.

Eliot shook his head, as much to remove Ilya's touch as to answer the question.

"Maybe we can help you."

"No. I mean, I'm sure you could, but no. I'd rather you didn't." Eliot gathered up the loose coins and bills in his guitar case and stuffed them in his pockets. He closed the case, stood up and started to walk away.

Sebastian grabbed Eliot's arm. "Wait," he said.

"I'm sorry," Eliot said. He pulled his arm out of Sebastian's grasp and left them standing there, confused and concerned.

Back in his car, Eliot contemplated compass points in his head. Of the four, not one of them seemed appealing. As dour as it was, he was falling more in love with Pale every day. He didn't want to leave. He wanted to get a normal job and a normal apartment and have a chance to explore the city, both its normal side and its not so normal side. And there was Jordan. It didn't seem to matter that they had only just met and only spent a couple of hours together. The thought of Jordan was like a tiny but constant flicker of flame in Eliot's mind, but the only way to keep that flame alight was to leave.

Third: Devising Devious Deeds

1. The Invocation

It wasn't a good idea. Not at all. Even thinking about it made Sebastian uneasy, but the thought of sitting around waiting for Melpomene was even worse. If the creature in the park wouldn't explain things, then maybe Melpomene herself would. It wasn't a good idea. Too much could go wrong. Melpomene might take it as an opportunity to finish her work, but that was fine. Sebastian would rather have the whole thing over with.

The only problem was Ilya. The Lost Tree's opening night was Saturday. It was already Wednesday. Ilya's divided attention was stressing them both out, and no matter how many times Sebastian insisted that Ilya not worry about Melpomene, Ilya worried.

So getting it over with sooner rather than later was preferable.

Wednesday afternoon, Sebastian told Ilya he was going for a walk. Ilya and Jordan were working out poster designs, and there was nothing for Sebastian to do. He pretended he was curious to see how Pale had changed since he'd lived there. Ilya would know better given the chance to think it through for a moment, but Sebastian didn't give him that.

It was raining hard, a passing cold front adding its freight of moisture to the curse on the city. Sebastian didn't let the rain deter him. He hunched under an umbrella and headed to the park. Gentle rolls of thunder followed him.

He heard the music well before the gazebo was in sight. He didn't celebrate the correctness of his intuition. He hadn't yet decided if this was the right thing to do. Either way, he knew damn well it wasn't a good idea, but right things and good ideas weren't always the same. Something had to be done.

He stomped up the gazebo steps, closed his umbrella and dropped it. The guitar player glanced up at him but didn't seem too surprised.

"I've had enough of this bullshit," Sebastian said. "I'm not sitting around waiting any more."

"Why are you telling me?"

"Because I need your help. First, you need to tell me who you are. And what you are. And you're not gonna get out of it by telling me it doesn't matter."

"There's nothing either of us can do. You're wasting your time."

"If you don't like her plan, why the hell are you sticking around? Why don't you leave?"

"I don't know."

Sebastian sighed and shoved his hands in his pockets. He was getting nowhere. If he were half as charming as Ilya, he would know the entire story already. As it was, he was only scared and angry and impatient. "I guess I can't make you tell me anything, but I don't get it. Why warn me and then keep all the details to yourself? You know that's not helpful, right?"

"I know."

"So?"

"My name's Eliot. I used to be a tragedy mask. An actor fell in love with me and prayed to Aphrodite to make me real, and of course, she did."

"Because that's what Aphrodite does. Why'd Melpomene give a fuck about that?"

"I was her tragedy mask."

"Oh."

"Yeah. So Mel cursed me to have tragic relationships for eternity. She said if I helped her get rid of you, she'd lift the curse. When I said no, she threatened my parents."

"How do you have parents?"

"I figured out the trick of making myself young. They adopted me."

"Clever."

"I thought that if I warned you, you and Ilya could leave. If you left before I had any opportunity to get to know you, then there wouldn't be a chance of the curse doing you any harm. When I realized you guys weren't going anywhere, I figured I'd leave. But I can't go. Not now. I met someone I want to get to know better. I don't want to go."

"You'd let me and Ilya die so you can get it on with someone you hardly know?"

"No."

Sebastian thought it over for a moment while Eliot looked down at his fingers on the guitar strings. "Wow, you really are fucked, aren't you?" Sebastian said.

"The answer's easy," Eliot said without looking up.

"What? Run away? No, I don't think so. That doesn't make Melpomene less inclined to kill me or get her curse off you."

"I can live with the curse."

"Yeah, I know, you've done for centuries now, whatever. That's not acceptable."

"Why do you care?"

Sebastian shrugged. He didn't care, really, but Eliot seemed nice enough, and letting Melpomene have her way with him didn't strike Sebastian as a good idea. He sat down and took a paper bag out of his jacket pocket. "It's not that I care what happens to you," he said. "Or what happens to me for that matter. She's hurting Ilya." He took a black votive candle, a lighter, a small white dish, a paring knife and a sprig of cypress out of the bag. He looked at Eliot.

Eliot stared back at Sebastian and said nothing. He understood what Sebastian meant to do, that was clear, but what he thought of the plan wasn't obvious in his expression.

"I don't know what else to do," Sebastian said.

"She could kill us both."

"But she's hurting Ilya. I can't live with that. I don't expect you to give a fuck about that, except I think you do in some way. But what about this person you just met?"

"That's not -- "

"Quit telling me it's not important. It is. You'd have left if it didn't matter."

Eliot was silent for a moment, and then he said, "Okay." He put his guitar in its case. "Okay, let's do it."

Sebastian nodded. Victory but a grim one. He lit the candle and put the cypress sprig in the dish. "Your blood or mine?" he asked as he picked up the paring knife.

"Both." Eliot held out his left hand.

Sebastian carefully opened a small wound on the side of Eliot's hand and watched as drops of blood fell onto the cypress sprig. He handed the knife to Eliot, and Eliot cut Sebastian's hand. Once their blood was mingled on the sprig, Sebastian touched the candle flame to the sprig and began the invocation.

2. Hello, Is It Me You're Looking For?

If Ilya had had any second thoughts about the Lost Tree, they vanished as he watched Jordan draw a rough mock up of the poster design. He still wasn't convinced that opening night would go according to plan, but he felt reassured that things would work out somehow. He wondered if it was something about Jordan that made him feel that way. Jordan's psychic ability was, as Jordan had said, miniscule. He might catch the flicker of an aura around someone for a second if there was a certain resonance. He was sensitive to the presence of energy. He sensed nearby ghosts but couldn't see them clearly. It was almost like an allergy. It took a particular stimulus to kick the sixth sense into gear. Absent that, and Jordan saw and felt no differently than an ordinary person.

Except that even then, Jordan didn't seem ordinary. Once Ilya had given Jordan the details he needed for the poster and began to work on the design, they sat in the dining room and talked. Ilya asked about Ink&Water, curious as to how Jordan had come to own and operate a well-established literary magazine at such a young age.

Ink&Water, it turned out, had been in Jordan's family for generations. He had inherited it from his father, who had died of cancer when Jordan was only nineteen. Jordan's father, unwilling to concede his terminal condition, had nearly destroyed the magazine. Too sick to handle the day-to-day operations and too stubborn to admit he needed help, Jordan's father let bills go unpaid. Advertising contracts lapsed. Contributors went unpaid. Employees scrambled to keep things going, but they had come very close to losing the whole thing. When Jordan had taken over, everyone told him to declare bankruptcy and let the thing die with his father. Jordan had his father's stubbornness, though, and didn't listen. Bankruptcy was the only way to fix the money issues, but Jordan worked to take advantage of the situation rather than give up. Even with a wife and young child to think about, Jordan devoted everything to saving Ink&Water. And it paid off. Seven years later, Ink&Water was profitable and, more importantly to Jordan, was one of the best literary magazines in the country.

It was an impressive feat. Ilya was drawn to that kind of tenacity, and he was glad that Jordan had decided to work with him. Despite his earlier reservations, Jordan seemed to believe in what Ilya was trying to accomplish. It was a good sign, Ilya thought, to have someone other than Sebastian believe in him.

Suddenly, Ilya's fingers began to itch. There was music in his head, not just song. It felt like entire symphonies were trying to burst wholly formed from his fingertips. He was vaguely aware of Jordan's voice somewhere outside the music, but he couldn't comprehend the words, much less respond. Then the front door opened. Ilya looked up, hoping to see Sebastian.

The woman who walked into the Lost Tree wasn't human. She wasn't tall, but she was imposing nonetheless. She carried with her an air of power that made Ilya's eyes water. She wore a knee-length robe of black muslin, leather buskins and a crown of cypress. She had a knife in her right hand, and there was blood on the blade.

"I was really hoping to take my time with this," she said. "I like to savor these moments. They're so rare these days."

"Melpomene," Ilya said.

She grinned. "Do you know that for sure, or are you guessing?"

Ilya shuddered as songs twisted harder within him, trying to dig their way out in spite of his resistance.

Jordan had dropped his sketch pad and moved to put himself between Ilya and Melpomene. Ilya put his hand on Jordan's shoulder. "Get out of here, Jordan," he said.

Jordan shook his head.

"Please. You can't help me."

"Don't run off on my account," Melpomene said. She took a few menacing steps forward. "Jordan, was it? Well, if you're involved with the little bastard muse and his lover, you really should stay. Because I really want to take as much from him as I can." She paused and cocked her head thoughtfully. Then she narrowed her eyes and grinned wider. "Oh, that's lovely. You're the one Eliot thinks he's in love with. Oh, very nice indeed. Now I insist you stay."

Ilya took a handful of Jordan's shirt into his fist and tried to push Jordan towards the door. "Jordan, you have to get out. Now," he said.

Jordan didn't move.

Ilya's hands were bleeding and aching as if his bones were turning to ice. He tried to stand and couldn't. The room swayed and dimmed.

Melpomene laughed. She walked up to Jordan and shoved him aside. He went down awkwardly and yelped in pain, but Melpomene didn't pay any more attention to him. She loomed over Ilya, holding the knife to his throat. "Sing your songs for me, Ilya," she said.

3. Dazed and Confused

When the jolt of pain passed, Jordan crawled towards the wall and sat up. He wasn't sure what had thrown him off more -- Melpomene's arrival or what she had said about Eliot. How would she know about Eliot anyway? And did it really matter when she was holding a knife to Ilya's throat?

Jordan looked around for some kind of weapon. His cane was too far away. He wasn't sure he trusted his strength enough to make a chair a viable weapon. What did that leave?

What else? His mind. His tragedy.

"Hey, Melpomene!" he shouted.

She turned her head towards him, her lips peeled back from her teeth in a sneer. Did she have fangs now? Jordan couldn't tell.

"Leave Ilya alone. He doesn't have what you need. He's in love with Sebastian. He's not feeding you any tragedy. That's nothing but love. Why don't you come feed on me? I've got tragedy for you."

"Jordan, what are you doing?" Ilya asked.

Jordan ignored Ilya. Melpomene took the bait and was moving towards Jordan. She said nothing, just continued her slow advance like a hungry predator.

"That's right," Jordan said. He pushed himself to his feet. "You can smell it on me, can't you? Where do you want me to start? How about my mother? My mother committed suicide when I was three. Sylvia Plath style. My mother was a poet. A good one. Successful in her small niche. Teaching and all that. But it didn't heal the wounds depression gave her. She'd been suffering depression all her life, and by the time anyone realized she needed help, it was too late."

Melpomene paused and licked her lips as Jordan forced the memories up from the depths of his mind. He remembered going into the kitchen, hungry and wondering about lunch, only to find his mother lying on the kitchen floor. He had sat beside her, trying to wake her up, until his father came home. "Daddy, Mommy's been asleep all day and won't wake up," he had said. He couldn't remember if he had cried then. He didn't know what had happened, and it was years before he understood it, but he remembered the fear he'd felt when she didn't respond to him. He remembered his father's despair and the emptiness in their lives from that day on.

"But that's not all. That's just the beginning. I had my own depression to deal with, my own teen angst about not having a mother, about accepting my sexuality and telling my father about that and all the other shit kids go through. But this is the set up for the big one. I had a girlfriend, and I got her pregnant during spring break our senior year. We got married right after high school, and we really thought everything would be okay. We had jobs, we had supportive families. Everything was great, great as it can be for a couple of eighteen year olds with a baby. Then my father died when I was nineteen. He left a huge mess for me to clean up with the magazine, but I did it.

"Now here comes the big one. Are you ready for this? Feed on this, and you'll never have to feed on anyone again, I promise."

Melpomene stopped in front of Jordan and stroked his cheek with the tip of the knife. "Tell me," she said.

"I cheated on my wife. I wanted a man, and I thought I could have a lover and a wife and everything would be fine. Because I was never going to love Britt the way I loved Leda, but Leda was never going to be able to do for me in bed what Britt could. It never occurred to me to tell her before anything happened, that she might be okay with it because she knew I was bi. But then one night when I was out with Britt, we got mugged on the way out of the bar. That's how my knee got fucked up. After that, I told Leda the truth about my relationship with Britt. She didn't care that I'd have sex with him. She cared that I lied about it, that I didn't have the balls to be honest with her. She decided to leave and take our daughter with her."

Melpomene leaned closer and ran her tongue slowly along Jordan's neck. Her mouth was cold. He shuddered and closed his eyes, felt the tears in his eyelashes. "They left you forever, didn't they?" Melpomene asked.

"There was a car crash a week later. She had called me, said she wanted to talk. She missed me. Zoë missed me. I missed them. Britt was avoiding me. So I told her to come home, we'd talk, work something out. But she never made it."

Jordan dredged up the memory of the phone call from the police, hours after he had expected Leda to show up, the cold that had settled into him, the tears he hadn't been able to control. The grief, the guilt, it was all there, and so was the art he had made to deal with it.

Melpomene's teeth grazed Jordan's skin.

4. You Motherfuckers, You'll Sing Someday

Eliot ran. The Lost Tree wasn't that far from the park. Nothing in Pale was that far from anything else, but it felt like hundreds of miles. The rain was still coming down in waving silver sheets. He was soaked. He could barely see through the rain on his glasses. But he didn't stop.

Sebastian's invocation hadn't gone as planned. Melpomene showed up, all right, but only long enough for Sebastian to throw down his gauntlet, Melpomene to laugh at him, cut a wide gash across his chest and vanish again. Sebastian's wound wasn't deep and didn't bleed much. What worried them both was where Melpomene would show up next. She couldn't sit back and watch any more. She would go after Ilya. That was bad enough. When Sebastian said that Jordan was there, too, Eliot felt as if a hand had reached inside him and began to drag filthy, ragged fingernails across his heart. Then Sebastian told him to go. Eliot had grabbed the paring knife and ran.

The curse was still on. Sebastian could die of supernaturally accelerated gangrene. Melpomene could kill Jordan. She was certainly going to kill Ilya. And all of it was Eliot's fault. He shouldn't have tried to warn Sebastian and Ilya. He shouldn't have had lunch with Jordan. He should have left as soon as Melpomene made her offer. Too late to do the right thing now. All he could do was run and hope he could stop her.

He was running too hard to come to a full stop, so he slammed into the front door at almost top speed. Thankfully, it was a sturdy wooden door with only a slender panel of frosted glass. Still, the door rattled alarmingly in its frame when he hit it. He turned his head in time to avoid smashing face-first into the door, but the bow of his glasses snapped with the impact. The glasses flew off his face, and the distance smeared into one grey blur.

He tried to turn the doorknob. It didn't budge. He slammed his palm against the door. "Ilya!" he shouted. "Jordan! It's Eliot! Open the fucking door!" He smacked the door until his palm was red and stinging. "Ilya! Jordan!"

He was about to start trying to shove the door open with his shoulder when the knob turned. He fell into the Lost Tree and into Ilya's arms. He hardly noticed. What he saw was Melpomene pressing Jordan against the wall, her mouth at his throat.

"Melpomene!" he shouted.

Melpomene turned her head. Eliot wasn't sure, but her mouth seemed darker than it should have been, as if it were stained with blood. She laughed at him. "This worked out far better than I anticipated, Eliot," she said. "I should thank you for this." She laughed again and went back to feeding.

Eliot wasn't listening. Sound was just as blurred as vision. He tightened his grip on the paring knife and stalked towards Melpomene. Ilya grabbed his arm, saying something about a knife, but Ilya was still weak from whatever Melpomene had done to him. He couldn't hold Eliot back.

Eliot grabbed a handful of Melpomene's hair and jerked her head back. Yes, her mouth was black now, and the ink-dark ichor of inspiration was pulsing out of two small punctures in Jordan's neck. Eliot pulled Melpomene back further, yanking her head down as he did. He raised his arm to jam the paring knife into her neck. She twisted in his grip and thrust her right arm forward.

Eliot felt a burst of searing hot pain just below his breast bone and fell back. Melpomene fell on top of him. Ice water flooded his body when she yanked the blade out and raised it to stab him again. Eliot heard Sebastian shout, "Melpomene!" Then there was the sound of breaking glass, Melpomene shrieking and the strong stench of alcohol. Nothing followed.

Coda: The Love You Make is Equal to the Love You Take

At midnight on Saturday, Jordan woke up as an extra weight jostled his bed. He sat up on his elbows and watched as a cloaked figure gently tucked Eliot into his bed. Jordan could see the unbearable glow of the goddess seeping from the folds of her cloak. She turned her head and smiled at him when she realized he was watching. He squinted. If he was ever asked how beautiful Aphrodite was, he wouldn't be able to answer. She may not have been beautiful at all. He could barely look at her.

Jordan and Ilya had both been surprised when Aphrodite showed up at the Lost Tree for Eliot. Sebastian, distracted at the time with explaining to Themis and Hermes what Melpomene had done, explained to them later that Aphrodite was Eliot's mother. She had been weeping, it seemed, although Jordan and Ilya couldn't say for sure. She had left as quickly as she had arrived and gave no explanation.

"He still needs rest," Aphrodite said as she smoothed the fold of the blanket over Eliot chest. "You must not touch him or try to wake him until an hour after dawn." She smooth his hair back from his forehead and kissed him.

"Why?" Jordan asked.

Aphrodite gave him a wry smile. "For the same arbitrary reason Orpheus couldn't look at his wife as they left the underworld. Because one of us said so."

"I seem to recall that didn't work out too well."

"Lesson learned, then. But to be honest, acts of resurrection aren't easy on the resurrected. The magic that saved his life might very well end yours. And, of course, because I said so."

"Right. What about ..."

"Melpomene's curse? Gone. Be good to my child, Jordan."

"I will."

Once Aphrodite was gone, Jordan turned onto his side and lay there watching Eliot. He wanted so badly to touch Eliot, just to assure himself that Eliot was really there and really alive. After a few minutes, he got up, took a painkiller, drank a glass of wine and fell asleep on the couch.

It was well after dawn when Jordan woke up to the burbling of the coffee pot. He wondered if Ilya had had anything like what had happened in mind when he made his offer. Jordan doubted it, but he couldn't doubt that he was well on his way to healing.

Article © Mel Trent. All rights reserved.
Published on 2011-03-28
1 Reader Comments
Lydia
03/31/2011
12:00:13 PM
As usual I read it all in one gulp. Darkly satisfying.
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