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Fire from many torches flickered along the battlements, obviously readied for their arrival. The flame-light sent shadows snaking up the chipped, gray stones. Far behind the curtain wall, blackened spires stabbed into the clouds.
As Anthony exited the carriage, he searched the high-arched windows for any signs of life, but found nothing. His eyes didn't stay there long. However, they were quickly drawn to a skeleton chained to the base of a tower. A single vulture pulled at one of the meatless arms in quick, snapping motions.
Anthony swallowed hard.
There was a stretch of dense forest behind the carriage that gradually climbed into the mountains. Anthony could hear rustling within the treetops, and the shrieking of unknown animals. He could only imagine what waited within the shadows, ready to spring from the forest at any moment. Two other men exited behind, dragging with them a young woman whose wrists were bound behind her back in heavy rope.
An older, balding man, Douglas McCall, stuck his hand in front of the woman's face. "How many fingers am I holding up?" he asked, voice stern.
The woman's lips curled into a slow smile. "I'm blindfolded, remember?" she said, unaffected by his tone.
"Don't give us that! We know what you're capable of," the other man, Jeffery Sensing, replied, coming behind her. His tone was biting, hinting at something more, something wicked. He was on the thick side with stringy, blond hair that never looked clean. His face was round, skin pale and doughy.
"Ah, because I was convicted of witchcraft ... I must be lying," she teased, smile opening into a grin.
"You're damned right!" Jeffery snapped, purposely causing her to stumble as they began walking.
The drawbridge was wide enough to accommodate their carriage, but the three men had been given strict orders to leave it behind and walk the young woman to the castle themselves. Because of superstitions concerning the woman's otherworldly powers, Anthony wondered if the judge had been afraid of her possessing the team of horses on the drawbridge, and causing them to run over the edge and into the moat. As if sensing his concern, the woman turned her head to him.
A flood of chills enveloped Anthony's skin, and he couldn't help shuddering.
"Get moving!" Jeffery barked, pushing her ahead.
Anthony caught up with Douglas, and whispered, "I have a bad feeling about this." This was Anthony's first time accompanying Douglas and Jeffery on the job, and he didn't know what to expect.
Douglas smiled. "It'll be fine. I've been doing this for nearly twenty years. It's not that hard, really."
Anthony shook his head. "But ... it was like she was looking at me."
Douglas snorted. "Impossible. She would have already escaped if she could see."
Anthony feigned interest. "Really?"
"Yes. The eyes of a witch is a most powerful weapon."
Anthony scratched the back of his neck out of nervous habit. "I ... had no idea."
"Touch me, Anthony. Free my soul with your love," came that familiar, haunting voice as Anthony's thoughts turned back to the night before. He felt his muscles respond to the memory, and tried to control his breathing.
She had enticed him with her lustrous red hair and curvaceous figure, but he resisted her ... at first. Her eyes had been the lure: pale sapphire with flecks of bright green. It hadn't just been the color. The shape had been captivating as well: rounded at the center which held the illusion of innocence.
But she was far from innocent. She had worked her magic over him until he took her into his arms and loved her ... again and again, unable to resist returning, unable to turn away. Anthony knew that he had relinquished his soul that night.
He also knew that she wouldn't be going into that castle.
That's right, love, Her voice knifed his thoughts. You belong to me now, and you'll help me to escape.
Anthony froze in his step, head spinning. Douglas noticed the distressed expression on Anthony's youthful face and frowned. "You feeling alright, son?"
Say my name, Anthony. It's written in your heart.
Anthony exhaled sharply, fists clenching at his sides. Douglas leaned in closer, inspecting Anthony's face. Jeffery had paused with the young woman, and threw a peculiar glance their way.
"No," Douglas gasped, drawing back. "Anthony ... tell me you didn't--"
But Anthony's thoughts were far away. He remembered vividly the night he had loved her. Even his senses remembered; she lingered within his nostrils, on his tongue, and against his skin. He had never felt so intimately drawn to something before.
"Satine," Anthony said.
"No!" Douglas cried, but his voice was cut short by the heavy beating of wings. In the distance, far above the castle's highest spire, a pair of winged creatures were descending toward them. Anthony caught their shadows as they passed over the clouds and swallowed hard.
At once, Jeffery tugged Satine roughly toward the castle, tripling his steps. Her lovely, red hair streamed around her face, and she laughed. "It's futile!"
Douglas met Anthony's eyes, and panic flashed within them. "How could you do this?" he whispered. "I left you in charge for just one night!" He shook his head in disgust. "I trusted you, Anthony."
Anthony's blue eyes shined with impending tears. "I'm sorry," was all he could reply before Douglas turned away and stalked after Jeffery.
Anthony's heart felt heavy with fear when he looked to the sky again. The creatures cawed eerily, their voices mighty like thunder.
"What the hell are they?" Jeffery cried, breathless.
"Harpies," Satine laughed. "And they just love human flesh. It's a treat they don't get too often."
The first one came swooping down so swiftly it was as if it had fallen from the clouds. Its taloned feet clamped down upon Jeffery's shoulders with such force that the bones made an audible crack. Jeffery released Satine with a scream, and she crumbled to her knees, swaying there.
The thing was a horror to behold with a crude, beak-like nose, and wire-thin lips stuck in a perpetual grimace. Its eyes were wide and cruel, the color of sunlight, and its hair hung in matted, blond strings, nearly blending with its plumage. Each feather was edged with a brownish hue that darkened on the tips and sides of its massive wings.
Anthony kept back, eyes wide, mind reeling.
The thing cocked its human head, making eye contact with its prey. "Scream," it demanded in a hissing, feminine voice. "I want to feel your pain."
The second one came upon Douglas in a black blur, nearly knocking him off of the drawbridge as he flailed madly, trying desperately to escape the harpy's cruel talons. But there was no escape. Douglas ended up pinned to the ground on his stomach as the black harpy tore through his clothes, beginning to strip the meat off of his back
Anthony crumbled to his knees, moaning. He shielded his eyes, wanting to escape from this nightmare. "Stop it!" he repeated as tears ran down his cheeks. "Just stop it!"
Then he heard the sound of beating wings, and the screams distanced. When Anthony opened his eyes, both the harpies and his friends were gone ... save for a few puddles of blood. Anthony exhaled sharply, and his eyes widened in realization.
Satine came before him, wrists unbound and blindfold gone.
Anthony wondered what kind of horrible fate she had saved for him.
"Don't be afraid," she said, voice tender. "You have aided me in my escape, and that deserves a reward."
Anthony blinked. "A reward?"
She smiled, eyes bright as sunlight glinted off of her hair, turning it to fire. "Yes, Anthony. Whatever you desire I shall make so."
Anthony dropped his gaze to the puddles of blood and sighed. "But my soul ... it's gone," he whispered, eyes lifting. "You have taken it just as you have others."
"That's true," she agreed, voice casual. "You relinquished it to me when we made love."
"And you ... used me ... controlling me, making me say your name," Anthony said, sniffing back more tears that threatened to come.
"Also true," Satine smiled. "But I can return it to you ... if that's what you want." She came closer to him until he could smell her earthy scent. "To be whole again."
Anthony drew in a deep breath, captivated by her eyes. "How?" he asked.
Her long, agile fingers moved to his cheek and climbed through his hair. There was a coldness in her touch, but he no longer feared as she leaned in, and her lips pressed against his. It was as if a missing part had been restored, but he couldn't explain the feeling further than that.
Satine withdrew, smiling. "There," she simply said, and he knew.
"Thank you," he whispered, breathless.
Satine turned away from Anthony, her sweet-smelling hair brushing across his cheek. "Maybe our paths will meet again some day." She paused, glancing at him over her should and smiling. "Maybe under better circumstances."
Anthony nodded as he turned to watch her go. His voice came out small when he said, "Yeah."
She began walking. "Understand, Anthony. I took no pleasure in watching your friends die. I care only for my survival. That's why I am constantly on the move. I can't stay in one place for too long.... You see what happens if I do."
Soon her billowing, red hair was barely discernible amidst the trees' heavy foliage. Anthony took one last look at the puddles before going to the carriage. His heart felt heavy with sorrow as he began to climb inside.
He stopped, feeling a tugging at his heart. Immediately, Anthony rushed around the carriage and into the forest.
"Wait!" Anthony cried.
"Yes?" Her voice came from behind him.
Anthony whirled around, breathless. "Please take me with you!"
She tilted her head curiously. "You know that wouldn't be fair to you."
"But it's what I want ... please, just take me with you." Anthony shook his head. He pointed behind Satine, toward the carriage. "If I return--"
"Then you'll be fine," Satine interrupted, "They'll blame me."
Anthony dropped his head in defeat. "You may have returned my soul, but something will always be missing." He shook his head. "Ever since that night ... I felt something."
"Darling," Satine whispered, gently stroking the side of his face, "Don't you realize it was only an illusion? You still feel me inside of you, but it will soon wear off."
He looked at her, into her pale eyes. "No, this is real. And it's my choice. I want to be with you."
Her lips spread easily into a smile; it lit up her entire face. She chuckled softly. "As you wish, Anthony, but please be aware of what you're getting yourself into."
Anthony could only smile. "Nothing matters ... as long as I'm with you."
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