The Pursuit

Last night I dreamt about you again. About the first time we met.

I was running through the forest, pursued by I knew not what. The creatures chasing me were as dark as the night, and in the forest, it is a dark night. I thought I knew the forest, I had walked through it many a time, but all that was clear to me was that I was lost. It seemed to me that on that night, the forest was cursed, or was it me that was cursed? The trees were closing around me. My pursuers were getting nearer, their snarls becoming louder. I wished for a place to hide, but feared derailing from the well-worn path. Instinct told me I was running in the wrong direction, away from the town, instead of towards it. Still, I ran. The forest had to end somewhere. But the further I ran, the thicker the trees got. I wouldn’t be able to run forever, but I could at least do my best to run for as long as possible, after all, there must be a limit to their strength too, surely? I was surprised at my own endurance, even as I allowed myself a small chuckle, you will not catch me that easily. No sooner had I uttered that chuckle than the trees parted in front of me.

I slowed down. Did the trees—move? They didn’t. It was a clearing, a little glade. On the far side of the glade there was a black shape, approaching me, growing larger. I halted.  Ambushed, I thought, this is the end. As the shape moved closer, I saw, in the moonlight, that it was a rider on a horse, and that rider was you. You raised your gloved hand, fingers spread-out. The creatures behind me went quiet. They must have retreated, for when I turned back to look at them, they were gone.

“Need a ride?”

It was you, offering me your hand. I took it, and you lifted me up into the saddle. I thanked you for saving me, but you shrugged it off with, don’t mention it. As if it was no big deal, as if it was not my very life that you just saved. “To town?” You were smiling, and, even then, I wondered if it was the most enchanting smile I’d ever seen.

We set off. “So I was running in the wrong direction,” I said. I explained to you that I had been babysitting the daughter of my friends in the village, and was taking my usual shortcut back home to town, when those creatures sprang out from nowhere, and started chasing me.

“I suppose now’s the time for the don’t-take-the-forest-shortcut-after-dark lecture,” I said. Days were getting shorter, I didn’t realise how dark it would get.

“On the contrary,” you shook your head. “Roam the forest whenever you want. They will not bother you anymore.”

I don’t know what it was about your voice. It was calm, and warm, and so reassuring, but there was iron in it too. I supposed there had to be. “They don’t usually wander that close to human habitat,” you added.

You talked to me about the forest. You knew every inch of it, you rode there every day. I said I’d never seen you there. Although, aside from that shortcut, I didn’t frequent the forest that much, not lately.

“I have seen you,” you said, “taking the shortcut.”

You threw it in there, casually, then continued your narration about the forest, the trees and plants, and how it changed with the seasons. The forest in autumn was magical.

“There’s a horse chestnut tree on my shortcut,” I said, “its leaves in autumn are pure gold.”

You smiled. “There’s even nicer ones deeper in the forest.”

As if, I thought, after tonight. But then again…

Sometimes, a smile is enough to tempt one back deep into the forest.

“Do you go to the village often?” you asked.

“Once a fortnight, at least. I visit my friends, the ones whose daughter I babysat tonight. I help her with schoolwork, she likes me.”

“You must be a good aunt to her.”

“I try.”

We reached town. I dismounted at the end of our main road. “I’ll make my own way from here,” I said. “Thank you.”

“I said, don’t mention it.”

“I meant thank you for the ride, you only said not to mention it for saving me.”

You laughed. “Pleasure.”

I patted your horse’s head. It was a beautiful beast. Not many people still rode horses in this part of the world.

“I’ll see you again soon,” you said.

“Will you?”

Our eyes met. You smiled again. You knew then, didn’t you? Perhaps you had known for a long time, before our meeting in the glade. I stood there, under the lights of the street lamps, my mind already turning our encounter into a story I’d one day tell my friends’ daughter, a story too fanciful for adults, but easily wrapped up in a fairy tale. You might have been a knight. No sword, no armour, but you did have a horse. But why was he dressed in all black, auntie?

Foolish notions!

How could I have known, how could I have had any idea that I would never be the same again, that the memory of your smile and the tiny dots of light in your slate grey eyes would stay with me forever, how could I have known?

And yet, something in me could not just let go. Those creatures. They don’t usually wander close to human habitat, you said. So why were they there, why tonight? And—my reason returning—why had no one ever heard of them? In a village, where they never missed a chance to tell tales, where any rustling of leaves could spark the most fantastical stories?

They will not bother you anymore.

But, what were they?

And earlier, you said: “I have seen you before. Taking the shortcut.”

I could have just say goodnight. Or—

“So,” I said, “how did you do it? How did you stop the monsters?”

Still smiling, you leant down and spoke: “Oh, darling, don’t you know? I’m the greatest monster of them all.”

The Knife Is Sharp

It’s just you.

It has been just you for a while.

You don’t think about the people that used to be there, in the past, not anymore. The painful memories can still haunt you. You got away, each time, you survived, at a cost of not letting anyone else come close. You grow to like it that way. Your life is quiet, peaceful. From time to time, you dream about the great, the impossible, and of one who would understand. But it’s only dreams. All the beautiful things that you love, you enjoy them without company. Most importantly, you have yourself.

Then he enters your life.

At the most unlikely moment of all unlikely moments, in the most unlikely place of all unlikely places. It is like that sometimes. He stands in front of you, tall and imposing, and your first thought is, how can a man’s eyes be this dark? For his eyes are dark, so dark, they are filled with darkness. He smiles and stretches his hand towards you. “Come with me.” His hand is slim and pale, with a large black ring on his middle finger.

You take his hand.

A new world opens to you. He takes you everywhere, gives you everything. His minions wait on you hand and foot. Surely this is too much, you think. It is too much. “Anything worrying you, my love?” he asks. You tell him. He laughs. There is no such thing as overindulgence, he answers, put that out of your mind. So you do. After all, why shouldn’t you enjoy life to its fullest, after… after everything.

He takes your hands into his. “I have known fear too.” He speaks in a low voice. “And pain. And despair.” He gently rubs his thumbs over your knuckles. In that moment, you understand what you share. And you’re not afraid anymore.

You embrace the lifestyle and the lifestyle embraces you. The dreams have come true, the impossible has become possible. He is real, the one that understands. It’s you and him now, the two of you. Your companion to enjoy your beautiful things, and he shows you even more.

Still, you cannot forget the knife. He always has it with him. He lets you hold it and admire it. It’s exquisite, he gushes, exceptional work of craftsmanship. You see your face reflected in the blade. It is of an unusual silvery colour, the blade; the hilt is black. Even from a distance, at a glance, one can see the knife is razor-sharp.

So? What use is a blunt knife, anyway? You hand the knife back to him, he slides it in the scabbard on his belt. He offers you his arm. “Shall we go?” And you go. To pleasure, joy, happiness. And luxury, always luxury.

The grand midwinter ball approaches. He’s talked about it often, you recognise it as the most important event of the year. Your gown has been made for you, a rich red brocade. When you try it on, you never want to take it off. You swirl in it, yes, it’s the real thing. “I can’t wait for the ball,” you tell him, and he smiles.

The day finally arrives. You dress up in your red gown, he’s in his usual black. The ball takes place at a castle in the mountains. It is an old castle, hundreds of years old, with battlements and towers and turrets. The great hall is all lacquered dark wooden floor and long mirrors, several crystal chandeliers hang from the ceiling. The music plays loud and clear and you dance. You spin around on the dancefloor, under the dazzling lights; there are numerous other couples, but you only have eyes for each other. You know he finds you beautiful. He doesn’t have to say it. Those dark eyes of his have not looked like that at anyone else. So you dance, step and slide in a flawless harmony—who knew you could dance this perfectly?—and it feels like you’re flying. You twist backwards, his arm holding your waist. You just want to show off, he says, smiling. He likes it.

And that’s when you ask the question. “How long will this go on for?”

“How long will what go on for?”

“This. Us. Our life together.”

“That, my dear, depends entirely on you.”

“So I can stay as long as I want to, and leave when I want to?”

“Oh no, it’s not that simple.” He throws his head back and laughs. “This has only been a prelude.”

“A prelude to what?”

“To something bigger. And better.”

“For how long?”

“For eternity.”

Shivers run down your spine. “And how will it be done?”

“You only need to use the knife.”

The knife. You should have known it would have to be the knife.

He leads you outside, to the gardens. It’s dark, the moon is a waxing crescent. The ground is covered in snow, but you’re not cold. You’ve not felt cold since you met him. Snow in the night has a different colour, silvery grey. A bit like the knife.

The knife.

“For all of those who have hurt you,” he says, patting the scabbard on his belt.

“But that’s in the past.”

“Is it?”

His question makes you pause. The past it may be, but the scars haven’t faded, if they ever will. “I have everything I want now—and you.”

“You didn’t think that would come without a price, did you?”

Did you?

“N-no.” No, it would not come without a price.

“If you use the knife, everything will be yours.”

“What if I don’t?”

“Nothing,” he shrugs. “You go back to your previous life. But you will remember this.”

“Can I think it over?”

“You don’t have much time. It’s got to be tonight, before midnight.”

That still gives you several hours yet. The night is long, after all, it is midwinter.

“What would you prefer me to do?”

He doesn’t answer. You stand there quietly. You hear music coming from the great hall, another waltz. An owl hoots.

The knife is sharp, you think, always so sharp, razor sharp. But the knife has never been sharpened, you know that for a fact. It has never been sharpened, ever, in its entire existence. And how long is that existence? The history of time, your inner voice whispers. No, this is no ordinary steel. This is devil’s steel.

“This castle,” you gesture towards the very structure, “it belongs to you, doesn’t it?”

“It does. So do many things.”

Yes, they do. “You, too, can have it,” he continues. “If you take the knife.”

But you can’t, that is just it. It’s not you. This has been amazing, for sure, but—

“Has it even been real?”

“Of course it has. I said a prelude, not an illusion.”

“But my old life—“

“Is still there. Your job, your apartment. You can return.”

You liked your job. And your apartment.

“I will not see you again.”

“You won’t.”

You look into his eyes. It seems as if they deepen, and you feel yourself falling into that darkness. You and him for—what was it he said? For eternity.

You pull back. You cannot allow yourself to become that. Not even for him. 

“Why me?” you ask.

“You must know why.” His voice softens. “You and I, we are the same.” He stretches his hand towards you, but this time you don’t take it.

You shake your head. “I can’t.”

Somewhere down beneath your consciousness, you knew what he was, from the start. The dark eyes. The power. The decadence. “I know the truth,” you say.

“I never lied to you.”

“You didn’t tell me who you were.”

“You didn’t ask. In any case, you know now.”

“About those things that happened to you… in the past… that was true as well, wasn’t it?”

“It was. I told you I never lied.”

He doesn’t lie, you know. He doesn’t need to. Your eyes fall on the black diamond on his finger. “I should have known you were the villain all along,” you say.

You won’t mind going back to your old life, you were quite happy living it. But can you truly live again, without the only one who ever understood you?

You will keep the memories. Some sweet memories, at last. You’ll relive them, over and over again.

But your souls have touched.  Nothing will ever compare to that, ever.

“So, what’s it going to be?”

His tone, as if he was asking what you want to order for dinner, is charming and infuriating at the same time.

But you have no time for either.

The knife is drawn from the scabbard. The hand that holds it is steady.

The blade glistens in the moonlight.

His lips curve into a smile, and it’s that type of smile that thinks it knows you better than you know yourself.

Music still flows from the great hall, couples are dancing, and the knife is sharp.

You look him in the eye.

“I’m not like you,” you say.

He holds the gaze. “But if I’m the villain,” he says, amused, “why is it your hand that is holding the knife?”

Inspired by OWLG #225 prompt “look the devil in the eye”, which I slightly modified by changing “the devil” to just “him”. Thank you for reading!