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Authors: AJ Krafton,Ash Krafton

The Heartbeat Thief (9 page)

BOOK: The Heartbeat Thief
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“Can’t tell you. Can only show you.” He moved away from the rail, drifting backwards away from her, out of the gazebo and up the path toward the main walk of the path.

She followed, tugged along in his wake by the unseen ties that bound them. “But what if I change my mind?”

“Death is a doorway that closes behind you. So, my
bien-aimé
, is this.” He paused in the middle of the path, spreading his hands wide. “I will pause you between breaths and let you keep this perfection forever. Search your shallow heart. Can you truly say no?”

Despite the fear, she knew she could not resist him. He’d bewitched her, first with his teasing word play and then with the deeply dark heat in his eyes. He’d never been like any of her suitors. And, as recalcitrant as she’d been to allowing herself to be married off, she knew he was more than capable of capturing her heart. When she thought of forever, his was the only face she saw. “Will you be with me on the other side?”

He laughed loud enough to turn heads of the passersby. “There is no other side. Just this one.”

“Let me think about it.” She toyed with her lower lip, fluttering her lashes and leveling a round of her coyest charm at him. Surely she could bargain with him. “Another day.”

“No. Today. This moment. If you choose to pass, I will wipe from your mind everything you’ve ever known of me. I will vanish from your heart as suddenly as I had captured it.”

He’d vanish?

She remembered how she felt when he had left her standing on the railroad platform. The sudden bareness, the overwhelming sense of abandonment that had nearly crushed the air from her lungs. The only thing that had preserved her sanity was her determination to find him again.

She knew that were she to dismiss him now, she would feel that again, for the rest of her life, without ever knowing why. There would be no saving measure of reunion. She would be abandoned over and over again every time she opened her eyes, haunted by a spectre she wouldn’t remember.

That idea, the thought of living in torment, was enough to steel her resolve. She hugged herself, chills shuddering through her slender frame. “Will it hurt?”

“A moment only, but you won’t remember it.”

She swallowed, her tongue like thick floss. That was it. There was no alternative.

She took a deep breath and nodded.

When he smiled and reached his long hands for her, and the shadows rose about him like a swarming twilight, she knew with frightening clarity that his last words had been a complete and savage lie.

Part II: Afterlife

 

“With such precautions the courtiers might bid defiance to contagion. The external world could take care of itself. In the meantime it was folly to grieve, or to think. The prince had provided all the appliances of pleasure. There were buffoons, there were improvisatori, there were ballet-dancers, there were musicians, there was Beauty, there was wine. All these and security were within. Without was the ‘Red Death.’”

 

Edgar Allan Poe, The Masque of the Red Death

 

 

Daylight dimmed around them, reality fading away, reducing itself to thin shades. The people, the park, and the sky sealed themselves off from the pair. They were alone on the grass, and all about them, the world had lost its vibrant hues and stood painted now in muted tones of grey. No color, no heat, no sun. A thin light misted down upon them from an unseen source.

Limbo. That was the only way to describe such a lifeless place.

Slowly, she shifted her gaze toward the one who had brought her to this impossible place. And when at last she beheld him, her heart erupted into a pounding so fierce it boomed in her ears.

Knell was no longer Knell.

Gone was the handsome seducer, the pale perfection of his cheek, the dancing mischief of his eyes. Now, he seemed composed of stone and shadow, gaunt and powerful at the same time. He reached a slender pale hand out for her, long fingers splayed like talons.

No. She would not fear him.

What he had promised would be the end of fear, forever. Biting her lips, refusing to see the darkness he’d become, she opened her arms wide, opening herself up to him, surrendering her will.

And he descended upon her with a smile.

He surrounded her somehow, encircling her and breathing her in. He raised his cupped hands, caressing her cheek, her neck, her shoulders, lower—

He plunged his hands into her chest.

Her trepidation exploded into outright terror. The alien sensation was an obstruction to breathing, to standing. Her brain sent out a steady stream of
get it out, get it out, get it out—

She felt him grasp something inside her and he yanked. The pain was indescribable. He tore her, ripped her, and he pulled something, pulled it away—

That thing snapped free of her and she staggered back, the force nearly tripping her.

With a gusty breath, he nodded. “That was tough. You had quite a grip on this.”

He held up a shimmering mass, a glistening veil that twisted between his fingers, clinging like a congealed pudding. Deep within pulsed a spot of red, the size of a rose petal.

“What is that?” Her voice was strained, the pain between her ribs melting away like icicles in sunlight.

“That, my dear…” He smiled, teeth gleaming in the grey mist. “Is your life.”

She clasped both hands, palms splayed, over her breast. “But I breathe!”

He shrugged, turning his wrist to allow the mass to ooze between his fingers, playing with the essence of her life. “It’s a hard habit to break. I suppose you will continue that for quite some time.”

“How can I be alive?”

“I only separated your life from your spirit. Your spirit still animates you. But this…” He stowed the essence of her life in his cloak. “Free of this, you are free of the march of time.”

He bowed before her, a gesture more mocking than reverent. “Welcome, my lady, to time as viewed by the gods.”

Her eyes darted wildly about the confines of the limbo in which they stood. An eternity of this? Is this why she’d traded her life? “But this place is so dismal—”

“We won’t stay here,
bien-aimé
. I told you, there is no other side. This is merely a secret place. We will return to the world you know. But first, a gift on your Unbirthing day.”

He held up a gold necklace, a delicate chain from which dangled an ornate pendant. A ruby-red stone glinted and pulsed, the only splash of vivid color in this place. “You must wear this always. It contains the essence of the spell I cast. If you take it off, you break the spell. I think you know what that would mean.”

His dark tones left little room for interpretation. He fastened it around her neck, careful to avoid tugging her hair. She reached up and grasped his wrist.

And held it. His flesh was firm, cool but not cold. He twisted gently, testing her grip, but did not escape her hold.

She grinned. “You can’t vanish on me anymore, can you?”

He pursed his lips, his expression hard to read. “An unfortunate condition. You are officially of my world now. Within, or without, we now stand upon the same ground.”

“You mean you won’t float away or melt into thin air?”

Gently, he extricated himself from her grip. A troubled light dimmed his eyes and he swallowed, throat moving painfully. “I won’t have to. But there is something you must learn to do.”

“What is it?”

“You must learn to be a thief.”

“A thief?” She laughed, the sound so out of place. She’d never had to steal anything in her life. “Of what?”

“Life. Your spell must be fed, one heartbeat at a time. You must learn to steal them from the living. One here, one there. A person will not notice a skipped beat, and they must never know it is you who is making them skip.”

He raised a long finger in warning. “And you must do it, or the spell will fade and die. Steal the heartbeats and they will be stored in the locket you now wear. I will seed it with the first.”

He pulled the shimmering mass of her life from his pocket and dug his fingers into it, picking through the gel until he reached the red glow. Plucking the scarlet flutter free, he stowed her life once more into his coat.

Taking the amulet in his other hand, he thumbed a tiny latch. A lid popped open with a tiny
snikt
, revealing a compartment within.

Gently he settled the red pulse into the locket before snapping it shut again.

“But why do I have to steal them?” She pressed her fingers to the locket, its unfamiliar weight upon her chest.

“Tell me,
bien-aimé
, does your heart beat beneath your palm?”

She closed her eyes and pressed her hand flat to her chest.

Her heart was still. Her chest felt empty, like a bird’s nest in the fall, hollow after life had flown. All that remained now was the winter to come.

“I feel…” Her thoughts had become liquid pools of confusion the threat of drowning imminent. “Nothing.”

He smiled, wide with ravenous delight.

Seeing that smile made something thump low in her stomach. So twisted. Normal men didn’t smile at things like that. She had just told him she was
dead

But he knew that. He was the one who had ripped the life out of her. No sense in wasting an admonition on someone like that.

He titled his head toward the shades that passed around them. “Out there, your heart will have to beat. Not quite as often as theirs, but magic has a rhythm that must keep on. Steal their heartbeats and store them for those times when there is no one around to steal them from.”

“You will stay with me, won’t you?” That was the purpose of living forever, wasn’t it? To be with him, to add those purloined moments together and spin an endless yarn? “I don’t want to be alone—”

“Sometimes, you will.” A new tone crept into his voice, then, one that was far from arrogant and delighted and cruel. He busied himself with his cuffs and avoided her gaze. He seemed to want nothing more than for this moment to pass.

She had no particular use for a moment like this right now and so was content to oblige him. If all that he had said was true, she could have time enough later. Time enough…

More than time enough. The realization was finally taking root in her, that she was free from the threat of time and age and death. This was an opportunity, one to seize with both hands.

“Very well, then.” She smoothed her dress and flipped her fiery hair over her shoulder. It was time now to prove he’d made no mistake in choosing her. She was clever and intelligent, his perfect pupil. He’d see that no other woman would be the companion he desired. “How do I learn to steal these heartbeats?”

“We practice.” Like a gentleman, he offered her his elbow. Arm in arm, they strolled along the path, the grey haze of limbo encompassing them still.

She could get used to this, she mused. The oddness to the light, the filmy existence of the world around them, even his brittle appearance. He was everything to her, had been even before he’d assured it by stealing her life.

If this was death, she’d happily remain here with him for eternity, arm in arm, a pretense of a happy ending. This would be enough.

His gaze, watchful and sharp, darted from person to person as they passed unnoticed through the park. After a moment, he lifted his chin and grinned. “On her.”

Senza followed the line of his gaze to a lone woman standing at the split in the path. Her gown was plain but clean, her appearance a simple grace. She had a basket on her arm, full of fresh nosegays.

A flower girl.

Patting her hand, he released Senza. He shimmered momentarily, nearly fading from sight, before returning with the decidedly frightened woman. One moment, she’d been selling nosegays and the next, she’d been popped into this nightmarish place. Her terror was a bitter flavor on the heavy air.

He found Senza’s eyes and smiled that smile again.

This time, she felt it mirror upon her own lips.

He held the trembling woman fast, his arm around her waist, pinning her against his chest. Her terrified protests melted into a scream that filled the air like ribbons at a parade.

“Shh.” He stroked her hair, murmuring in her ear. Her eyes glazed, her mouth slightly agape. “Better, my dear. We only use our inside voices here.”

He glanced up. “See,
bien-aimé
? A volunteer. Now, come closer.”

She could see the difference between their bodies, the pulse of life beneath the woman’s skin. The poor girl nearly glowed with life here in the dimness of limbo. Life cast a sheen over her that was like the sun on a dewy summer morning.

It awakened a hunger like she’d never known.

Hunger, desire to possess that pulsing life. It washed like a scalding lust through her, flooding every limb, every nook of her being. Nothing else mattered but that life. She wanted it. She craved it—

She needed it. The locket upon her breast was empty, gnawing at her like a hungry belly. It demanded to be fed. Senza licked her lips, eyes locked on the subdued woman, afraid to come closer, yet wanting nothing more.

He watched her with keen interest. “You are eager,
bien-aimé
. Learn to restrain yourself or you will draw suspicion. You must be your cool and arrogant self. Detachedness is key. Now, first, you find a pulse.”

He dipped his head until his cheek touched that of the disoriented woman. “My dear, show my beloved your wrist.”

The woman raised her hand, palm up, fingers listless, mouth slack, eyes vacant.

“Stroke her wrist,
bien-aimé
. Feel her pulse?”

Senza brushed her fingers along the woman’s skin and, when she glanced over her pulse, she latched onto her arm.

“Easy!” He chuckled, pulling the woman out of her grasp. “You don’t want to crush her. Crushing is bad. You are anchored to her pulse. Feel the rhythm. Follow the beats. Immerse yourself only a moment—you might get lost in it and that would be the end of this little trick. Now, steal a beat. Flick your fingers away and bid the beat to follow.”

Her hand hovering over the woman’s wrist, she steeled herself against the pulse that beckoned to her, calling her to become submerged within. Senza dropped a lone finger to her flesh. The hum of life, so tempting, so heart-achingly beautiful—it tugged at her essence, drawing her along.
Come with me
, it intoned.
Come with me, I am life, I am all

No. Clenching her teeth, restraining her longing to follow, she pulled herself free of the pulse’s hypnotic sway, and remained a spectator, a watcher, apart. The hum and the song of the woman’s heartbeat dimmed, becoming simple thumps beneath the skin once more.

She counted the beats, measuring the pace, waiting for her chance, and when the moment came that she could wait no longer, she opened herself to it and
felt
the beat, felt it like a warm glow on her fingers, like dipping into warm pudding.

The pulse clung to her. It traveled up her arm, hitting her heart with a thump of pleasure that made her gasp.

“The first one is always a treat.” He smiled slyly at her.

BOOK: The Heartbeat Thief
13.79Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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