High Voltage – Karen Marie Moning

HE WOULDN’T HAVE SEEN the shooting star if the woman in his bed hadn’t fallen asleep, overstaying her welcome, filling him with the restless desire for a solitary walk on the beach. The ocean at night always made him glad to be alive, which was why he’d chosen to live so near it. Alive was the one thing he’d always be. Tonight, the sea was a shiver of dark glass, harboring secrets untold in her depths while on her tranquil surface stars glittered like diamonds. Life-giving, life-stealing, beautiful, a challenge to handle, worth learning to ride, full of fresh wonders every day—if he’d had a woman like the ocean in his bed, he’d still be there. He wasn’t a man that believed in signs from the heavens. He’d lived too long for that and knew if he were to receive a sign of any kind, it would explode from below in a shower of sparks and brimstone, not descend from above, a wonder to behold. For a few moments he watched the star scorch a path across a black velvet sky, leaving a streak of shimmering stardust in its wake. Then he turned away and stripped off his clothes to go for a swim. He was nearly to the water when he realized the star appeared to be headed his way and was much closer than it initially appeared. In fact, it seemed—if it continued on its current path—it might land on his beach. What were the odds of that? He arched a brow, considering its trajectory. Although he couldn’t gauge its velocity, the star certainly seemed to be on a direct collision course. With him. His laughter was deep, mocking; how rich that would be.

After so many eons, was he to be felled by a shooting star? Had he finally managed to offend both those who resided in the heavens and those that dwelled beneath? Was his sentence finite after all? He watched its approach, amused, daring it to find its mark. End his life. Obliterate him. He growled, “Do your best,” and closed his eyes, waiting for the impact. He’d seen the end come too many times to care in what guise it appeared. He didn’t need to watch. He knew what death was. Never final. Not for him. He waited.

And waited. Finally, he opened his eyes. The star had slowed to a crawl and was no longer speeding across the sky but tumbling slowly, lazily, directly overhead, perhaps a mile above him. He didn’t move a muscle. Come on, you bitch. Do it. The star plummeted abruptly, acquiring velocity as it fell. When it crashed to the beach a dozen paces away, impact buried it in a soft explosion of sand. One brow arched, he contemplated the indentation. The only other time the universe had singled him out for attention, it hadn’t gone well.

He was intrigued in spite of himself; this was an unusual turn of events for a man to whom nothing was unusual anymore, and hadn’t been for a very long time. Approaching the depression, he knelt and began to dig. When at last his fingers closed on the thing that had fallen from the sky, he muttered an oath and yanked his hands from the sand. It was blisteringly hot. And now it was covered again. He sat back, stretched his legs around the hollow, and excavated it more carefully, until a black chunk the size of his hand was revealed, with jagged, broken edges that glowed red as burning embers. So much for signs. So much for death. It was only a flat chunk of molten rock that had coincidentally plummeted to his beach while he’d happened to be out walking. He pushed up and began to lope toward the sea, but as he moved away from the fallen star a sudden breeze gusted a fragrance after him that stopped him in his tracks.

The monster within growled and inhaled greedily. Ah, the smell! What was that smell? He glanced back, nostrils flaring. Returning to the object, he stood above it, eyes closed, breathing hungrily, tasting the aroma with his mind. His monster was pacing now, restless and alert. Woman. The rock smelled of a woman: dark and vast, complex as the sea. She was life and death, mercy and ruthlessness, joy and grief. Complicated. Hard to handle. Worth learning to ride.

Where had it come from? Consumed by the mystery, he opened his eyes. Although he healed with remarkable speed, he was in no mood to burn his hands again so he stalked to a nearby tumble of rock and selected a long narrow wedge. Returning to the far-flung star, he nudged it with the stone, working it up the side of the sandy indentation so he could flip it over and examine it. Even with his hands a fair distance from the object, it cast enough heat to blister his skin. He, who believed in neither signs nor death, who, truth be told, believed in nothing at all, stared down for a long time, no bloody idea what to make of it. On the opposite side of the fallen star, etched by a quill of stardust, three words gleamed: I’M OKAY I’M THE SOULSTEALER HAD NO idea how long it slumbered. It didn’t know it was slumbering. It thought it had died. Strains of music shivered into the earth, burrowed deep into fertile soil, through rock, clay, and rock again, sinking deeper into iron, lead, copper, silver and gold, then an alien, immutable alloy until, at last, the ancient melody penetrated the tomb and nudged the deadly leviathan awake. Awareness dawned in slow stages.

It remembered then. The arrival of the Faerie, the endless, unwinnable war, the lies and deception, the loss of power. The torture. The conquest. The brutalized face, the mask. The incarceration, the disease that claimed it, until finally it was a shade among shadows. Mask clattering to age-old stone, it had become as insubstantial as air. At the end, with the last vestige of its awareness, it managed no more than a feeble protest. It had once believed itself obdurate, eternal, unstoppable. It would make certain of that this time.

The pupil in denial; I can’t take my eyes of of you “I SMELL BONES!” SHAZAM EXPLODED, whiskers bristling with excitement. “Bones everywhere. Thousands and thousands of them! You take me to all the best places, Yi-yi!” He slanted me an adoring look before launching himself at the earth and digging, sending tufts of grass and dirt flying. “Stop digging,” I exclaimed. “You can’t eat those bones.” “Can, too. Watch,” came the muffled voice. “No, I mean, you’re not allowed to eat them,” I clarified. He ignored me. Dirt continued to fly, mounding rapidly behind him.

“Shazam, I mean it. You promised to obey my rules. My expects,” I reminded, using his often-stilted manner of speaking, “bars on your cage.” Head buried in the dirt, he said in a muffled voice, “That was then. This is now. Then, I didn’t have a home.” “Shazam,” I said in the warning tone I knew he hated. But heeded. Pudgy body wedged halfway into his hole, my Hel-Cat stiffened and inched out— exceedingly slowly and begrudgingly—and glared at me. Dirt dusted his broad nose, his silver whiskers, and clung to his long, silver-smoke ruff.

He sneezed violently, licked his nose then scrubbed it with a furious paw. “But they’re bones, tiny red. They’re already dead. I’m not killing them. You said I couldn’t kill anything. You didn’t say I couldn’t eat things that were dead.” His eyes narrowed to violet slits. “You bofflescate your expects. You bofflescate my head. Who even does that?” Bofflescate wasn’t a word I knew—he had many of those—but I intuited the meaning.

“These bones are different. They matter to humans. We bury them in certain places for a reason.” He spoke slowly and carefully, as if addressing a complete idiot. “Me, too. So they’re easy to find when I’m hungry.” I shook my head, a smile tugging at my lips. “No. These are the bones of people we care about.” I gestured at the dark silhouettes of gravestones that stretched for acres around us.

“We don’t eat them, we bury them so—” “But nobody’s doing things with them and they’re rotting!” he wailed. Slumping on his haunches, he splayed his front paws around his pudgy white belly. “You give bones. I find bones. Same thing. One good reason why I can’t eat them,” he demanded. I debated trying to explain human burial rituals to him, but many of our traditions defied his comprehension. A bone was a bone was a bone. Convincing him that graveyard bones carried an emotional and spiritual attachment to humans, unlike the cow or pig bones I sometimes brought him, could take all night, and leave him just as bewildered as he’d begun. And me exhausted.

I gave him the only answer that worked at a time like this. The answer I’d hated as a kid. “Because I said so.” He rose to his full height, arched his back and hissed at me, baring sharp fangs and a long black-tipped tongue. I returned his snarl. With Shazam, I didn’t dare yield or say “just one bone, just this time” because in his mind if a rule could be violated once, it was no longer a rule and never would be again. Unless, of course, it worked in his favor. His eyes turned flinty. Mine cooled to emerald ice. He cut me a look of scathing rebuke.

I switched tactics and flayed him with an expression of reproach and disappointment. His violet eyes widened as if I’d struck him. He shuddered dramatically, toppled over, collapsed on his back, and began to weep with great, hiccupping sobs, clutching his paws to his eyes. I sighed. This was my best friend—the last remaining Hel-Cat in existence. Powerful, often brilliant beyond comprehension, most of the time he was a wildly emotional hot mess. I adored him. Sometimes, when he flashed like wildfire between feral and neurotic, feeling every facet of his life so intensely, I saw myself as a kid—too much to handle. I’d been kept in a cage for most of my childhood. I didn’t own a cage and never would.

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