Monday, December 28, 2009

Turning Ash by Crymsyn Hart


Chapter One


Ashling stared at the pale stranger before her. If she hadn’t seen a picture of him, she never would’ve believed that Devlin was standing there. She wouldn’t have committed to meeting him in person unless she had talked to him on the phone first. Before that, there were hundreds of text messages and emails where she had spilled her heart out to this man. He didn’t judge her for the choices she made. Moreover, their long talks had blossomed into a good friendship. Finally, he suggested they should meet.
Half shrouded in shadows, Devlin leaned against the glass of the empty coffee shop. His shoulder-length hair was caught back in a ponytail. The illumination of the lights made his skin even paler than in his snapshot. A strand of hair, escaping the binding of the elastic, played along his high cheekbones in the gentle breeze. He was even more beautiful in real life than staring at his photograph. Ashling had committed his image to memory just in case she woke up and the photo was somehow gone.
She stood on the corner, still in the shadows, feeling the energy of the environment playing on her skin. She drew in the strength of the night, letting it warm her and feed her deep hunger. This man was also a psychic vampire. She licked her lips. Part of her wondered if she blinked would Devlin disappear? My nerves are getting the better of me. Maybe I shouldn’t do this. There were many stories of women meeting strange men from the Internet, and the women were never heard from again. She gripped the sides of her skirt and wiped her sweaty palms on the fabric. She sucked on her tongue ring, pushing it up and down inside her mouth, and clinked it against her teeth. Even her toes shook. This is ridiculous. He won’t hurt me. I’ve been talking to him for over a year now. I know him.
“Yeah, but how much do you know him?” Christa’s voice echoed in her mind.
More than I ever knew you before I told you what I was. And that didn’t stop you from hanging around me. Ashling dismissed her friend’s statement and drew in a breath. She pushed up her glasses. Car headlights blinded her, so she threw up her hand to protect her eyes from the glare and withdrew further into the velvet darkness concealing her even from Devlin’s eyes. Her eyeteeth tingled. A slow burn unwound in the pit of her stomach. This isn’t good. It meant her hunger was unsatisfied. The energy of the night wasn’t helping. Ashling had fed before she came to meet Devlin. Christa had allowed her to draw in some of her energy before she left. Normally, Ashling liked to feed while she was asleep and dreamwalking, but tonight her nerves were burning through the energy. She ran her tongue over her teeth and willed the hunger away. At times like this, when her hunger raged, it seemed she possessed actual fangs.
Smoothing the fabric of her skirt one more time, she stepped into the dim light of the café. Devlin wasn’t there. Somehow he had disappeared in the few seconds she blocked her eyes from the oncoming headlights. She turned and searched Massachusetts Avenue for him. If he was playing with her, there were too many shadows for him to be concealed in. Shit. He must have thought I wasn’t going to show and left. Regret consumed Ashling. Maybe it was all my imagination. Maybe I didn’t really see him.
A deep laugh erupted next to her ear, a velvet purr; she wasn’t sure it was coming from a human throat. Ashling spun around and found Devlin now resting against the telephone pole, gazing straight at her. A wide grin spread on his sensuous lips. The smile made him more breathtaking than the dark brooding photo he had sent her. A ladder of silver hoops hung in both of his ears. His smoky eyes were surrounded by long onyx lashes. A sprinkling of stubble ran along his chin. In the picture, his face was angled down so she hadn’t seen his eyes that closely.
“Devlin?”
“Ashling.”
Her throat went dry while she struggled to find the right words. Here was the guy, her savior sometimes, who had listened to her and helped her through the horrible bouts of hunger she’d had, the depression, and the rejection she’d experienced over the past year. It wasn’t easy being a psychic vampire in the world. Most of the populace thought she was insane for being what she was. When she finally found a small niche to belong to, a whole new world had opened up. She had discovered kindred souls among the online communities. There was always the possibility they were yanking her chain, but she was good at reading people. Just as she’d read Devlin the first time she had gotten a personal IM from him.

* * * *

When Devlin’s instant message box popped up, she was browsing some threads on a message board. She had almost ignored it, but something in the way he phrased his question intrigued her. His icon on the forum was a smiley face. Most of the logos reflected something of their owners’ dark personalities. Hers was a little picture of one of her Living Dead Dolls, Lilith to be exact. The smiley face should’ve turned her off, but staring at the blinking cursor while he waited for a response, Ashling studied his introductory question. It read:
“Are you happy, Ashling?”
Was she happy? What an inane question to ask. Of course she was happy. Her fingers poised on the keyboard of her laptop ready to make some snide reply, but the query echoed through her thoughts. Was she happy? She had a boyfriend. She was keeping the hunger at bay. She had a job she liked. Her roommate was great. There were no problems in her life and the online community was revealing more psychic vampires every day. Even though she was finding them, a small part of her never felt they were completely like her.
So she typed her response. “Most of the time.”
“What about right at this moment? If you could capture it and freeze it, would you be happy?”
“Yes,” she replied, but doubt lingered in her mind.
There was a pause, as if he was laughing. A low chuckle echoed through her darkened bedroom. I’m hearing things. It’s my imagination giving this crazy guy a personality.
“I’m not so sure about that.”
“Why? Can you make me happy?”
“I don’t know. I was only posing the question. I love to make people think.”
Ashling snorted when she read the response. He certainly made her think. “Well, are YOU happy?”
“Of course. I’ve just met you.”
Blood rushed to her cheeks. Why am I blushing? I don’t know this guy from a hole in the wall? He could be a depraved serial killer for all she knew. “Well, that’s nice of you to say, but you don’t know me.”
“But I want to know you.”
“Well, I don’t want to know you.” Ashling closed the lid of her laptop, shutting off the contact with the mysterious IMer. For the rest of the day, their small conversation stuck in her head. Even while she was at work pouring drinks, the band on stage couldn’t pull her mind off the conversation. When she arrived home that night, exhausted, smelling like cheap beer and cigarettes, she opened her laptop. The little white box remained, waiting for her to reply. She shook her head and closed the computer again. If the guy really wanted to talk, then he would have to wait until she had showered and gotten a little shut-eye.

* * * *

“Are you daydreaming?”
Ashling blushed and looked away. She had completely tuned Devlin out. “Sorry.”
“No need to apologize. You’ve always been so down to earth when we talk and not up in the clouds.” Annoyance peppered his voice. Devlin lived a few hundred miles away in New York City, while she was in Boston. They had arranged the meeting a few weeks ago when they both had a few days off, so she didn’t want him to think his trip was a waste of time.
She shook her head. “I’m not, really. I was just thinking about the first time we met. When you IM’ed me and asked me if I was happy.”
“Are you?”
“Yes.”
He smiled this time, which lit up his dark eyes. Ashling bit her lip harder, tasting blood. Fantasies of her and Devlin threatened to overwhelm her, but she had a boyfriend. She and Evan had dated for three years now. They were good together. He was a normal college student, but underneath his Polos and khakis lived a rocker with some outrageous tattoos. Ashling hadn’t told him about her nature, and he wasn’t pleased when she informed him that Devlin was meeting with her.
“Why don’t we go inside? It’s getting a little chilly out here.”
She nodded and headed toward the café. Ashling reached for the door, but Devlin got it first. Blood seared her cheeks, hurting her face from blushing so hard. She’d had butterflies in her stomach on the subway ride over, but those fluttery little insects had morphed into dive-bombing hawks, churning her stomach. She ducked inside, glad the interior of the café was dim. There were plenty of nooks and crannies where she could hide, especially upstairs. They walked to the counter. She got a hot chocolate with shaved dark chocolate on top of the whipped cream. Devlin ordered peppermint tea. He didn’t seem the type who went with tea. She assumed he was a hardcore kinda guy who drank his coffee black. Devlin followed her up the winding staircase to her favorite spot next to the window. Tonight she paid no mind to the bustling street below because she was too enamored with having Devlin here in the flesh. Part of her yearned to reach out, touch him and fling her body against his to feel if he was solid. Devlin slid into the chair across from her, careful for not even his boot to bump her knee under the small table.
Ashling poked at the dark chocolate slivers with her spoon, not able to meet his eyes yet. She tried to keep her hands steady. What do we talk about? I’ve told him all my secrets. He knows so much about me. Even more than Evan. Devlin could be my best girlfriend. She tried to place her spoon on the rim of the saucer, but it clattered and spattered her with hot chocolate droplets.
“Shit,” she muttered. Her right eye started to twitch. Ashling grabbed a napkin, dabbing at the spots on her cheek and then on the table. Devlin’s fingers landed on the white napkin, pinning it to the wooden surface still leaving centimeters between them.
“Ashling, focus.” His voice was soft yet commanding. She dared a look into his smoldering eyes. They reached into her soul and captured her. She drew in a breath, nearly choking on the air. The heat from his fingers brushed against her flesh and enticed the hunger. The temptation to pierce his aura and drain it slowly, savoring it, pressed on her mind. Her teeth ached again. His gaze held hers, but she regained control and finally looked away.
“Sorry, Devlin. I’m normally not this discombobulated when I meet new people.”
“I don’t bite, Ashling.”
She laughed. “You could if you wanted too.” Devlin also professed to drinking blood on occasion, but mostly he got by on energy the way she did.
Devlin flashed her his perfectly white teeth. His canines were long, giving him natural fangs. “You’re absolutely correct. I could bite if I desired, but there’s no one appetizing in here at the moment. Except you, of course.”
Ashling snorted. “Now I know you’re lying.”
His eyes and his expression darkened. “I’m not kidding. You don’t give yourself much credit. I’ve been typing to you for over a year now, and you always come off as this cocky, self-sufficient woman who has her shit together. Maybe I was wrong about you. They do say meeting people in person can squash the preconceived ideas we have of them and what they will be like. Do I have the wrong idea?” He drew back in the chair, crossing his arms over his chest, putting up his guard again.
Ashling closed her eyes and gathered her wits. His words stung, but she didn’t want him to get the wrong impression. Sure, she was freer to talk on the Internet because there were no walls, no inhibitions. Fantasies were created and enacted through chat rooms or online games every day. A sudden chill wrapped around her spine from the draft. She opened her eyes and stared down at the passing pedestrians. They were near Harvard Square, only a few blocks from the illustrious college. Most of the walkers were students and weren’t plagued day by day with an incessant rage burning through their veins. They didn’t believe in vampires. They focused on term papers and grades. Each mind, each aura, was like nails in her flesh. On the nights she was particularly pissed off, she could barely be around anyone. Sometimes Evan thought she was anti-social, but he didn’t know the half of it. She had confided everything to Devlin, and now he was questioning his judgment. Why did he come out here then? He must think I’m a total ditz.
“You’re not wrong, Devlin. Sometimes, being what I am, what we are, I forget that I’m still a person. I haven’t been bullshitting you all these months.” Ashling switched her gaze from the window and met his. She wished she could read his eyes. They were so cold. “I’m sorry if you thought I was a flake. Look, I’m ecstatic that you drove here to meet me, but you’ve never told me what you’re like in person either. We’ve talked on the phone, yeah, but that doesn’t mean that I get to watch your expressions when you talk. Have you been jerking me around this past year?” Now it was her turn to sit back in her chair and cross her arms over her chest, mirroring him.
Silence hung in the air between them. The clanging of spoons and the din of voices from the lower level of the coffee shop filtered up to their table. Her fists were clenched. Devlin’s face twitched, and then deep, rich laughter tumbled from his lips while more strands of dark hair escaped his ponytail.
“Ahh, Ash. You’re something else and you’re correct. I’ve never hinted at my moods. I know more about you than you do about me.”
“Well, then, why don’t you impart some of your glorious history to me?” Ashling picked up her mug of hot chocolate and finally took a sip. The destabilized cream had melted into the hot beverage. The sweet and tart flavors of the dark chocolate lingered on her tongue after she swallowed.
Devlin played with the tag on his peppermint tea. His long fingers wrapped around the ceramic cup, and she noticed he wore an onyx ring set in silver on his left middle finger. The stone matched his eyes. “I have too many secrets to tell you all in one night. Some of them you wouldn’t believe.” Devlin’s right hand left the warmth of the cup, sliding across the table. His fingers remained a hairsbreadth away. She wondered why he still didn’t touch her.
Ashling leaned across the table feeling her hair sweep over her shoulder, blocking her view of anyone coming up the stairs. She didn’t touch him, respecting his space. “Devlin, you can tell me anything. I won’t judge you. You haven’t judged me.”
His gaze flicked to the stairs. He inhaled, struggling with whatever he desired to tell her. Before he answered, her hot chocolate splashed her face, dropped into her lap, scalding her legs and messing up her glasses.
“Ouch! What the fu—” A whoosh of air went past her head. Suddenly she was shoved to the floor and had her glasses knocked off. Screams erupted around her, and there was the clamor of feet on the stairs. Squinting, she tried to make out what was going on, but without her glasses, everything was blurry. There was more commotion downstairs, the sound of breaking glass and a very human groan. Dark laughter. She felt around the floor for her glasses until her fingers latched onto something soft and squishy, not her glasses.
Heavy footfalls pounded on the stairs again. She strained and saw Devlin’s blurred, black form in the corner with someone else behind him. Her fingers found her glasses. Drawing herself up, she sat on a cushioned bench, wiping her eyeglasses on her shirt. She settled her glasses on her nose and discovered one of the lenses was cracked. Thankfully, she had another pair at home, but then she saw her friend. Devlin had a man pinned against the far wall, with his hand wrapped around his neck. A terror-stricken look adorned the man’s features. Devlin’s long black hair tumbled to the middle of his back and hid his face. Her gaze darted to the table where they had sat. A large silver knife protruded from the spot where her hot chocolate mug had been. Trails of drying chocolate ran down the walls and the window next to the table. White porcelain was scattered all over the table and the floor. There was another knife embedded in the wall a few millimeters from where her head had been.
What the fuck is going on? Who the hell is that guy? Why did he attack us? She got up and walked toward Devlin.
“Stay back, Ash!” he growled.
Ashling nodded while backing up a few steps. Her gaze locked to the man Devlin held.
“You’re pretty. It’s a shame you have to die too.”
Before she could respond, Devlin punched their attacker in the stomach with his free hand. The assailant barely flinched. “Who sent you?” Devlin asked.
The man grinned. “I’m only the welcoming committee. More will come.”
Devlin said something under his breath, and a look of terror washed over the man’s face. Devlin released her attacker and stepped back, but the man was still pinned against the wall. Ashling froze. An unseen force descended over the room. Purple energy crackled around the man. Suddenly the air was ripped from her lungs. She tried to pull in a breath, but was too focused on the horror before her. Her attacker’s chest was smashed in by some invisible force. The cracking of his ribs echoed in her ears. The sound reminded her of someone popping bubble wrap. Blood spattered all over the wall, dotting her glasses and landing on her cheeks.
Blue energy gathered around Devlin. He was the one unleashing the power that was covering the man. Devlin pulled on the energy again. This time, he pierced her aura. Her hands flew to her throat. She gasped for air, but she was choking. She couldn’t tear her gaze away from her assailant. His face was flattened. Sirens and shouting erupted outside. Devlin smiled, dipped his finger into the blood covering his victim’s torso and licked it. He drew in more energy. This time, it seemed someone crushed her windpipe. Her limbs grew cold, and darkness crept in on the edge of her vision. Ashling desperately tried to draw in a breath, but Devlin didn’t notice. She fell to her knees and reached out to Devlin. Right before she passed out, her attacker’s brains exploded on the wall, mixed with the crimson of his blood.