torch, 1995
flambeau@strangeplaces.net

Standard disclaimer: this is a work of speculative fiction. The writing is not done for commercial purposes and no copyright infringement is intended. This is the sequel to For all tomorrow's parties and may not make much sense to those who haven't read that story. It was something of a surprise to me, too. Warning: this contains some extreme violence (at least what I consider extreme violence) and also some mild sensuality. The poem Armand quotes from is Lay your sleeping head, my love by W H Auden. Do not archive this story without permission.

The black angel's death song

We are travelling very fast, but not faster than my thoughts.

I am trying to understand — not what we are doing, but who we are, doing it. Trying to understand myself.

Slow work.

There are only a few things I am absolutely certain of. I have always had the ability to make others love me.

This is not a boast, you understand. It has at times been a veritable curse to me. At first I did not even realize it. But the love, the sometime obsession I inspired was always sooner or later brought to my notice. And I realized that this was something I had to understand about myself, something I had to learn to control. So I did. I also learned to use it.

It was self-defence. Because I was always blamed for it, anyway. If others were going to hold me responsible, I might as well be responsible. And so I grew adept at the manipulation of others' feelings. I learned how to caress their minds and influence their visions so that in the end, they saw me as I would have them see me.

That was always easy. What I showed them was what they wanted me to be. I was perfection in their eyes.

There have been times when I have failed, and it has made me furious, and it has made me afraid. To suddenly doubt your one sure and undeniable talent is a terrible thing! It made me know fear and anger and it made things very complicated for the longest time.

But then — everything changed. When I met him. My Daniel.

At first, it was with him as with so many others. He appealed to me, a little. He had spirit, and a foolish passion. I wanted to drive him crazy. I wanted to make him love me.

And yes, I succeeded. But in the process, the same things happened to me.

He wouldn't give in to me! Yes, he loved me, and yes, I had turned him into a ragged wraith, a dying madman. But he didn't blame me and he wouldn't give in to me. He wouldn't accept what I gave him, but demanded everything I had. He was different from the hypnotized boys I had kept with me in the deep vaults of underground Paris once, murmuring seduction in their ears and feeding off them and keeping them so lost in love of me that they never once noticed what was being done to them.

Ah yes, Daniel was different. He did not think that I had made him love me. He just loved. And he wanted the blood, wanted to be with me. To be my equal. The seduction had not drowned him, overwhelmed him. Even in his worst delirium he held on to that thought.

And I came to realize at the end, when he lay there dying in his mortal body, loving me, not blaming me, that I did not want him to be like the others. I did not want to even try to manipulate him any more. Fighting with him for control of his mind and soul, yes, that had been fun.

But the fun lay in the fight, not the thought of winning. And if I made him like myself — oh, the glory of that realization! He would be with me constantly. The fight would go on, always. He would be stronger, and I would have made myself weaker, and we could lock ourselves into an eternal loving struggle and be together for all time.

I loved him. He had not made me love him. I loved him all the same.

And it does go on. Here in our speeding across the night of the world, because he has declared we must move, go somewhere, anywhere. I was afraid for him before, afraid that this time had broken his spirit as nothing else ever could, but now he is back here with me and he is pulling me along into the present, into the future.

We are riding on a train. Clinging to the roof of a freight wagon, the wind whipping us mercilessly. Around is the bleak and desolate landscape, a sere expanse of earth. In the distance I catch glimpses of rural communities struggling to rebuild, and the flashing metal fences of the Christ-campers, keeping the unbelievers at a distance.

This is not a comfortable way to travel. Daniel says he needs to return to reality, he does not want our luxury, the distance it brings, he needs to slip back into the stream of time and understand it.

I am not certain that I understand anything. But I will follow him. I would follow him to the ends of the earth, for what he brings into my life that it would otherwise lack. Adventure. Excitement. The challenge of the unexpected. But most of all the presence of his relentless and constantly questioning soul.

His arm is around me. The hair blowing into my face is half mine, half his. I place my lips against his ear and ask over the roar of the wind, "Where are we going?"

"Down into hell," he answers, and kisses my neck.

The ship is like a world in itself. It is huge. And run by what seems a skeleton staff. So terribly few of them, to control this monster that follows the whale road and fears neither wind nor waves. Loners mostly, men and women who do not wish for company and dislike even to speak. They avoid each other in their metal prison, and stare at the sea whenever they can.

Two vampires could hide here for a very long time. If they did not need to hunt. So much space, and so little blood.

"Do you even really need it any more? The blood?" he asks me.

"Some," I say. "And I want it. The need goes away. The desire doesn't."

Daniel is silent, then he laughs. "No, desire never goes away," he says.

We are in a small room, a metal compartment deep down below the level of the sea, where artificial light shines day and night and the constant hum of electricity vibrates through the walls. No one uses this room. The bed has a mattress but no sheets, and the desk is bare of all save a small lamp, dusty and forlorn.

In this kind of light, Daniel's hair can sometimes look almost white. And then he turns his head and around his head floats a cloud of ashes. It is in a state of constant change, his hair. I reach out and touch it, rub it between my fingers, feelings its softness and at the same time the brittle quality of each individual strand. Stepping close to him, I rub his hair over my face, smelling it, feeling it against my lips, my cheeks.

"You are beautiful," I say. "Do you need the blood? Do you need it now?"

He is silent. Then I feel his hands move, cup my shoulders then slide down my arms to my hands. His nails scrape delicately along my palms, then up on the inside of the arms, tracing spirals over the wrists.

"The need is unimportant," he says. "The desire isn't." And he looks straight into my eyes, his own madly violet, an impossible color. "It used to be that one drop of your blood would send me into a spinning vortex of ecstasy, would make me pass out from sheer delight. Overloading my nerve synapses with pleasure."

"When you were mortal. 'But in my arms till break of day Let the living creature lie...'"

"Yes," he says with an odd half-smile, "it is different now, isn't it?"

Not so different, I think. To me, he is still 'the entirely beautiful.' Not so much for the regularity of his features, which is less than perfect, nor even for his rare and lovely coloring that has caused so many over the years to find him attractive. The beauty I see is that of love, the love I feel for him. When I look at him my heart stands still and my breath catches. As though I were mortal again.

He runs his hands through my hair, brushes it off my neck. Then he bends down and places a gentle kiss in the hollow just above my collar bone. I turn to him, into him, my arms going around him, and I search for his lips with mine and find them and we kiss, bite, melt into each other, the passion as sudden and sure as the arc of a lightning bolt across the sky.

"'...but from this night Not a whisper, not a thought, Not a kiss nor look be lost.'"

A vortex of ecstasy. What a way with words he has, my beloved, my lover.

When my eyes open again I know it is a new night though down here the light never changes, and only the inexplicable senses of a vampire can tell me that time does indeed go on in the larger world that surrounds the smaller one of the ship and the very smallest one of our little room down here.

We are lying together on the bed, Daniel's arm under my head, my legs entwined with his. So close. I see that I have ripped his shirt off, and there is a small stain of dried blood in the center of his chest. I want to lick it away, but at the same time, I don't want to move.

Later he wakes also, and turns his head and looks at me. "Do you want it, then? Blood? Mortal blood?"

"Now?"

"Yes, now," impatience in his voice.

I consider the question. "Yes," I say.

He breaks our embrace, our tight togetherness, and sits up, running his hands through his hair and even yawning. Then he bends down and picks his shirt up off the floor. "This is ruined," he says indifferently.

"You still have your jacket."

"I don't care." He is looking at me again. "If you want the blood, then get it. Call them, Armand. Surely there is someone here who wishes to die in your arms tonight."

"Call them..."

Suddenly I don't want to, don't want the blood. But, "Go on," he says.

So I close my eyes, and extend my senses, and send out the sweet lure that has caught so many tired and desperate souls on so many nights before. The promises of eternal rest, and understanding, and a release in love.

I would not take the unwilling, only those who were ready to depart. To die. I would cause as little harm as possible. And I never wanted for victims. There are so many who want to die.

And as I fill this ship with my silent cry I am almost caught in it myself, in its promises, its gifts. Never has it sounded so true before. Can it be that there is a peace somewhere that goes on forever?

Then the call takes on words, words that are not mine, I am whispering to everyone living on this ship.

"Lay your sleeping head, my love, human on my faithless arm..."

Yes, to sleep. Soft and gentle. On my faithless arm.

And they come. Not one sad soul, but all of them. When I open my eyes, the door to our little room is open, and in the cramped hallway outside is the entire staff of this gigantic ship. Some of them are in working clothes, some wearing rain-slicked bright yellow macs, others in pajamas, roused from sleep. All of them with glazed eyes, caught in the waking dreams my call has created for them. All of them looking for the peace they believe can be found in my arms. They want to sleep forever in my arms. Every one of them wants to die.

And I feel their sorrow. They are crying out to be released from it, they want to give it to me, it pours into me, a stream, a river, I am set adrift, lost in an ocean of sorrow. And I have to take it from them and give them peace in return. This is what I do. This is how I hunt.

Daniel is watching me. He is laughing! I can see it! His eyes are laughing silently. "No," I say. "No. NO! This is not the way it is! Do you hear me! This is NOT the way it is!"

The mortals stare at me. They look bewildered, still wrapped in the promises I have given them. And those promises are false and untrue and they must know this.

"They can't hear you," Daniel says.

"I do not bring peace," I say. "I do not bring sweet sleep. I — am — death. And it is terrible!"

In a rush I send it all to them, as potent and convincing as the siren's song I sang before. Who I am. What I am. And that I want to kill them, tear their throats out, drink their blood. Drain them. Faithless, indeed. I will not be gentle with them any more.

And almost at once they start screaming. And they begin to run.

Daniel is laughing out loud now. "How perfectly wonderful," he says. "Now what do we do?"

I stare at him, surprised at the question. "Now? Now, we hunt. There are sixteen of them. Let's see who catches the most."

With a whoop, he's out through the door, and I follow. We run in different directions, chasing the fleeing mortals.

The first two kills are almost too easy. A woman tries to hit me with a fire extinguisher and misses; I leap at her and almost tear her head from her body. The blood fountains all over me, all over the walls and the floor. I drink it in, as much as I can catch in my mouth, then I drop her body and pounce on the screaming man she tried to protect. Him, I grasp almost gently around the waist, and sink my fangs into his throat so I can drink properly. And the wonderful feeling of his life flowing into me is so strong that I begin to crush him in my arms as I drink, wring him out like a dishcloth, wanting everything he has to give. His bones are ground into flour between my fingers.

I leave the bodies together and continue on my hunt. In the distance I can hear crashes and screams, the sound of my darling Daniel being the terror of the night.

A rapid scan tells me there are more mortals hiding this way. Like a proper villain, like a real horror movie monster, I open every door on my way along the narrow corridor, even though I can tell whether the rooms are empty or not. I want the waiting mortals to hear the thud as the doors hit the walls, I want them to know that I am coming closer and closer. I can hear the sound of their hearts beating in utter fear!

One man tries to hide behind a door when it opens. I squeeze into the narrow space with him, smile at him, a wide smile so he can see my teeth.

"Are you afraid of me?" He nods mutely, eyes white with terror. "You should be."

His fear tastes heavenly, flooding my mouth. I am counting in my head as I chase the mortals down. Four... five... six... seven. I can't get enough. It makes me feel so strong! And I don't have to soothe them or stroke their little fears or make everything well as I send them down into eternity. I am a killer pure and simple. A taker of life not a bringer of death. It feels wonderful.

Stalking the eighth mortal, a woman who has crammed herself into a half-empty container among the cargo, I turn a corner and find myself nose to nose with Daniel. There is more blood on him now and he is smiling. "Fancy meeting you here."

"How many?"

"Eight. She's yours if you want her."

"We'll share," I say, thrilled by the thought of that intimacy. And together we swoop down on our one remaining victim and rend her limb from limb. Together, we lick at the blood, then taste it from each other's lips. Need is unimportant, desire isn't; and in the end, the desire is the same.

And we reach the point where mere mortal blood cannot satisfy us any more, and cling to each other, this strange caress of sharp teeth and hunger, this painful heaven. Joined so intimately. United, we are bodily sharing what is not of the body...

Take my blood. Take my thoughts. Take these feelings, see, this love I have for you, and this unending being, my whole existence, see, here is the real color of my soul. You can have it. You can have it all. I love you.

Things have shifted between us. Something is different. "We've killed them all," he says. And indeed the whole ship is silent, bereft of its human echoes.

I smile. "That was wonderful."

There is a glint in his eyes as he looks sideways at me. "The hunt? Or what came after?"

"The hunt, of course," I blink widely, innocently. "What came after was... better."

And for a wonder, he looks almost embarrassed. I relish the moment.

"There is a minor problem now, you know," Daniel goes on hurriedly. "We are on this huge ship in the middle of the ocean and there is no captain..."

I shrug. "It's all done by computers, isn't it?"

"That is not the point. The point is, do you want to stay on this ship for however long it takes for it to get to wherever it is going?"

"Not really, no." I turn and begin to walk away from the hold.

"Hey! Armand! Where are you going?"

I flash a grin at him over my shoulder. "To play with the computers, beloved."

No, I cannot reprogram the ship's computers, or steer us on a different course. But I know enough to scan the seas for other ships, and see how close they are. And I do find something, reasonably close and going to be closer still if we continue on our present course.

Daniel hangs over my shoulder, staring at the screen where little blinking green dots move slowly over the black surface. "Which one is us?"

"Here," I point, and smile at him. "And this," I gesture at a second dot, "is where we're going."

"When?"

"Now. If we want to get there before dawn."

We go out on the vast deck. I look around: metal, metal, metal. This ship is an island of metal.

"This way, right?" Daniel points. When I nod, he gives me a wide grin and vaults lightly over the side of the ship; moments later I hear a splash.

I leap after him and sink also into the depths of the sea. It is vast and salt and unpredictable and I admit it used to frighten me a little. But Daniel is swimming ahead of me, fast, and I follow him, thinking mortals would envy us this, our ability to stay underwater for so long, to swim so fast, to descend so deeply without taking the least harm. It is a new adventure.

I taste the salt water, feel its myriad currents, its cold but curiously comforting embrace. There is life everywhere around me, but what is most striking is that the water itself feels alive.

I instinctively know how to move and so I use my greater strength to catch up with Daniel; then I stay by his side. He looks at me and through the green shimmer of water I see that he is happy.

We clasp hands and move forward as a single entity. The water washes all the blood away.

* * *

"This is certainly different." There is a sly joy in Daniel's eyes as he looks around the cabin. "Our luck that it was unoccupied..."

I nod. The new luxury cruise ship is almost as huge as the tanker we have left behind, but other than size there is no similarity. Here what is considered old-fashioned charm is combined with modern technology, and the cruise passengers can choose between playing quoits on the deck and plugging into their favorite dungeon from the desk console in their cabin.

Most of them even dress the way they imagined cruise passengers used to dress back in the middle of the 20th century. Daniel has emphatically forbidden me to tell them exactly how wrong they've got things.

As long as we aren't seen leaving or entering the cabin, all will be well.

"I want to go to the Starlight," I say. "There is to be some old-fashioned dancing. I do so want to see what they imagine that is."

Daniel grins. "Vintage disco?" he suggests. "You'll be wonderful at that. I remember you watched 'Staying Alive' at least fifty times—"

"I did not!" He merely smiles. "Want to come with me?"

"I want a bath first. I'll come down later."

I kiss his cheek decorously. "Fine. I'll see you then."

"Yes, all right..."

As I walk towards the door I see that he's pouting ever so slightly.

"What?" I turn back.

"I thought the combination of me and a huge bath tub and fifteen different kinds of bath oil would be something that appealed to you."

I smile. "It does. But the lure of the last century is too strong for me..."

Grinning, I slip out the door and hear a thump against it as it closes — he probably threw a shoe. Going down from our luxury suite to the lounge on 'C' deck, I catch sight of myself in one of the many smoky mirrors that cover the walls. Perfect picture of a young gentleman, neat brown suit, white shirt, hair in a well-combed pony-tail... it's more 1990s than 1950s, but I doubt anyone will know that.

In the lounge there are well-dressed mortals everywhere, milling along the bar, crowding around tables. A few brave souls are on the dance floor, cheek to nervous cheek, aware that everyone else is watching them.

I know from experience that the bartender will serve me, although he thinks I'm really too young to drink, because he fancies me.

This infuriates Daniel, which amuses me no end. Fascinating to think that even now he doubts me. I have done for him what I would have done for no one else, living or dead. But somehow I find his jealousy too endearing to try to dispel it completely...

The bartender gives me a fine single malt. He knows better by now than to try and put water in it. Of course, I don't drink. But I can enjoy the aroma of fine spirits if I remember not to breathe in too hard.

I take my glass over to a small corner table where I intend to sit and watch. To my surprise I see that it is not unoccupied as I first thought. Someone is lying on the floor curled between one of the chairs and the table legs.

I sit, reach down and gently seize a shoulder. "Are you all right?"

The curled figure sits up so suddenly that the table shakes and I have to take hold of my glass to prevent it from falling over.

"No!" It is a young girl. "I want to die!"

"I see."

She is silent a little, then says, "Don't you want to know why?"

"No." I lower my head and sniff appreciatively at the whisky. "You'd do much better to stay alive. On the whole, it's far more interesting."

"I want death." She rolls her eyes. "Oblivion."

"What if there's a hell? Or a heaven, for that matter. Just imagine having to fly around and play the harp."

She looks up at that, straight into my eyes, and I can see a distant spark of humor that drowns all too soon in her misery. "You're cold."

"Get up off the floor," I tell her. "Sit in a chair like a normal human being. Here, have some of this." I push my glass at her. When she has drunk a little, and choked and gasped, and wiped the tears from her eyes, I take the glass back. "All right, so tell me. What do you want to die for?"

"You said you didn't want to know."

"I lied."

She stares angrily at me. "Life if pointless!" she claims.

I think about it. Random it is, and difficult.

"You may well be right. But so is death, and much more final. You'll get there in the end anyway, so what's the rush?"

The girl begins to cry softly. I put my hand on hers. "It's terrible," she says.

"You don't really want to die," I say. "You just want not to have to be unhappy any more. But my advice, for what it's worth..." I break off as a shadow falls over the table. It is Daniel, regarding me thoughtfully. He only accords the girl a passing glance.

"Yes?" he says. "What is your advice, exactly?" The girl looks up and makes a sad face.

"That if you are alive, it is worth almost anything to stay alive. While you are alive things can change; there is no change in death. I suffered all my life, I suffered untold agonies for the longest time." Mortal and immortal, I suffered. Body and soul, I suffered. For hundreds of years, I suffered. The sheer horror of my time in the Venetian brothel will always be with me. The centuries without love wore grooves in my soul. "Yet I do not regret staying alive. And I have found happiness... beyond my dreams."

"Happy endings," she says dismissively, but there is something new in her voice.

"Not an ending, a middle, or muddle if you like. We know that '...the grave will prove the child ephemeral,' but you don't have to prove that you can die, we all know that. Try to prove that you can live," I say.

Daniel looks at the girl. "Go on," he says. "Fight back." Then he turns to me and there is a small tender smile on his face, and his eyes are shining. "May I have this dance?"

There is no way that I can refuse that smile. There is no way I can refuse this offer. I rise, and decorously allow him to lead, and we move across the dance floor and the other dancers give way to us.

"Do you know where this ship is going?" I ask.

"No." He kisses my cheek. "I never thought to hear you preach the gospel of life."

"Why not?" I smile up at him. "A life is a terrible thing to waste. And I should know."

He holds me even closer and we dance, and dance, and dance, and I'm humming along to the music ever so softly, it's a new and different song and we're together in space and time and everywhere. Death is terrible and we are alive.

And he loves me. I didn't make him love me, but he does all the same.

* * *

I'll be your mirror

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