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Long, long ago
As soon as he came to consciousness, he knew everything was different. He had wildness in his nostrils. Wildness and the acrid, sharp smell of blood. Before he opened his eyes, he tested his body, stretching and flexing, feeling the soreness all the way down to his bones.
What kind of dream had he had that would tie his muscles up in knots? What kind of awful nightmare that still haunted him with horrible images and nauseating smells like death surrounding him?
As he became more aware, he realized rocks and twigs stabbed his naked back and legs, and the early morning sun hurt his closed eyes.
He opened one eye to a slit and looked at his hand, his head filled with the gruesome dream and his joints and tendons aching as if he'd been tortured on the rack. But his hand was just a hand, with long blunt fingers, blue veins tracing its back, and broken, bloody nails.
Blood? Where had blood come from? The last thing he remembered was Mavra's face, contorted with hatred and fury as she screamed at him.
He closed his eyes again, oddly reluctant to face reality and the day, and instead let his mind drift back over the evening before.
Mavra had come to his home, unwilling to give up her single-minded pursuit of him. She had threatened him--threatened Irina. He'd thrown her out bodily, but her words, her curses, still rang in his ears.
He licked his lips and tasted blood. A sickening dread suffused his brain. Turning over, he pushed himself up to hands and knees, squinting in the sunlight, trying to orient himself to the world around him.
Ascarlet haze obscured his vision. He wiped sweat from his eyes with his forearm and blinked. The haze cleared.
The sight before him turned his soul to stone.
"No," he whispered through lips numb with shock and dreadful, fearful certainty. "Irina, please God no."
He crawled toward his wife, sickened and fascinated by the blood that matched the dark smears on his fingers and the metallic taste in his mouth. He prayed that his eyes deceived him, prayed the poor mangled body wasn't hers.
"Don't be," he begged. "Please, no." He touched the hem of her skirt and bunched it in his fist, so consumed by terror he couldn't breathe as flashing horrifying images from his dream clouded his vision.
The dream in which he was dark and sleek and powerful. The dream in which his massive jaws and thick, sharp teeth tore out a delicate human throat in less than a heartbeat. The dream in which everything familiar was alien, everything good was profane, and everything beloved was destroyed.
His fingers curled like claws and he dug them into his own flesh, trying to rip out his heart.
"So, Dimitri, now you understand."
The voice came from nowhere, from inside him, from all around him.
He raised his head and saw Mavra, her pale beauty darkening before his eyes as she took on her true form, the form of evil. He stared at her. If he could have slashed her throat with his fingers, his teeth, he would have, but he was too weak, too human now.
His sleek dark power was gone. His arms shook like a child's.
His insides churned with impotent hatred.
"Now you know I am as good as my word. How does it feel to have murdered your true love?" Mavra stood over him, triumphant.
"I thought you loved me," he whispered. "Why have you done this?"
Mavra's form wavered before his blood-hazed vision. Her eyes shone red and black in the bright sun, dark windows into a soulless void.
"Oh, I wanted you Dimitri. I warned you that I would do anything to have you. What a sniveling coward you are, crying over such as her. I should have known you were no match for me. You deserve your fate, Dimitri. And your pathetic little sweetheart deserved hers."
"Irina was good. She was pure and true. It was her goodness I loved. You are evil and a murderer."
"I did not kill her, my faithless one. You did. And hear me, Dimitri Korakov. I curse you from now until eternity. You will live again and again, but you will never be human. Each time you live, you will live but for one purpose--to kill your true love all over again."
Mavra's humanity was totally gone now, and in its place was a black, writhing form, sinuous and awful to look upon.
As Mavra's laughter faded into the mundane sounds of awakening day, Dimitri felt the last dregs of his humanity slipping away.
He looked at his hand which bulged and stretched painfully as he changed. He felt his joints creaking, his skin thickening, and in his last sentient moments he screamed a vow to the heavens.
"I swear, Irina, I will find you. If it takes until forever, I will find you. We will defeat Mavra. Then we will be together ever after.
It awoke slowly, murkily, like a noxious bubble rising in a methane swamp. What had dared disturb its dreamless slumber? Even as awareness swelled, it knew the answer.
Another champion had taken up the sword. Another dared question destiny, dared rail against the curse. The champion likely did not even know yet who he was.
That was the way with champions.
As awareness coalesced and self began to emerge, she remembered.
There had only been two who had dared to challenge the destiny she had wrought.
The first dear one, whose faithless love had provoked her with lying words and fickle heart. He had brought the curse down upon his line.
Then later, one other foolish knight, with more brawn than brains, who had tried in his puny human way to banish the curse with might. That one, with noble goodness flaring, had been a tastier morsel than the first, faithless one.
And now, a third had been born.
She writhed in famished agony. So long. So long since she had fed. So long since one had been born with a will strong enough to challenge the curse.
Aye. This one was strong, stronger even than the first two. Consuming this champion's innate honor and goodness could provide sustenance for aeons. She throbbed and squirmed, anxious to devour the champion and return to her dreamless sleep.
But no. The longer the suffering, the tastier the morsel.
And this champion would suffer long--longer than the other two.
She savored the anticipation. Yes. She was ready to feed.
But there was something else. Something that worried at her long dead consciousness. Something familiar, something good. She sent tendrils of awareness out, now ignoring the foolish, brave champion's delicious aura, seeking the other. The source of the disturbing familiarity.
Her essence darkened, thickened. Mavra's hunger grew as she tasted the bitter tang of purity.
She had returned. And as with the champion, this object of his misguided desire was unworthy. Mavra stretched and writhed, gathering power.
This would be a double feast. The faithless lover and his trollop.
Slowly, she became aware of the physical world around her. Time, for her, was a flowing river, unending, unstoppable.
The champion was growing older before her eyes. The girl had just been born and now, already, she was a toddler. Mavra sucked energy from the earth, from the air.
She'd prefer to spend lazy aeons torturing the two. But these humans were so frail, their time on earth so short.
Hunger seethed like black smoke, longing and anticipation turned corporeal as she focused on the new champion. He was beginning to learn his true calling.
It was time.
Alexei Korakov lay totally still, eyes closed, heart pounding, waiting for the odor of evil to dissipate from his nostrils. As his heart resumed its normal rhythm, he assessed his surroundings. The hot tangle of sheets, the blanket of darkness, the chill that whispered over his sweat-dampened skin.
He was in his bed, safe. It had been a dream.
Dragging himself up, he went into the bathroom and splashed water on his face and neck, then cupped his hands and rinsed his mouth, sluicing away the musty smell and metallic taste that clung to him.
Where did they come from, these dreams that seemed more real than reality? He'd thought he'd conquered them after his grandmother had died.
Without her to constantly remind him of his evil heritage, he'd managed to mold his life into a semblance of normalcy.
Normalcy. He looked up at his reflection in the bathroom mirror, a corner of his mouth curving into a mocking smile.
So why, after all this time, did he once again feel evil's hot breath on the back of his neck, hear his babushka's voice in his ear?
Never forget who you are. Never. You are the Korakov. You can never let anyone close. If you do, it will begin all over again.
Twenty years later, the memory of his grandmother's cold voice still made him shudder. He hunched his shoulders against the feelings, against the memories, but his heart ached with loneliness.
There had been a time when his grandmother's voice hadn't been cold, when her arms had comforted him in the night, and her lullabies had chased away shades that lurked in the darkness.
But then one night, curled against her, he'd dared to tell her of his dreams.
She'd recoiled as if he was the monster he'd run to her to escape. The horror on her face haunted him to this day. And she'd never touched him again.
Now the dreams were back. They'd returned when he'd come here, to this remote area in northern Mississippi.
The move had seemed like the perfect solution. He hated cities--their crush of humanity only served to remind him of his grandmother's words. The large open areas in the west were not to his taste, either. Their barrenness fed his melancholy.
He preferred the semitropical jungle of the Deep South. The lush foliage made a better hiding place than sparse grass and stubby trees. Its temperate climate was safer than the mountains, where he risked death from exposure.
Death. That was the irony. He should welcome death, not avoid it.
He looked at his hands, dripping with water. Those hands could force a cold, shapeless slab of marble to yield up its deepest secrets. They could hold a mallet and chisel like another pair of hands might hold a lover.
His phone rang, startling him. He grabbed a towel and wiped his face, then glanced at the phone's caller ID. It was Joe.
"Hello, Doctor Field," he said. "You're up early."
"I'm on my way out the door. Haven't heard from you in a while. How are you?"
Alexei passed the towel across his neck and chest, and then down to his belly, blotting the droplets that had splashed there.
"I'm well." His friend sounded concerned, but there was another note in his voice. A note of excitement. "And you?"
"I thought I'd let you know that Melanie is spending Christmas with her family."
Melanie. Alexei grimaced as the familiar weight of guilt pressed heavily on his chest. "That's--that's good news."
"Yeah, it is. I'm very proud of her." Joe paused. "I thought you'd want to know."
Alexei rubbed his bare chest, where a dull ache had begun, and blinked to rid himself of the image that still haunted him after fifteen years.
"Right. Thanks Joe." He was never good at small talk, not even with the friend who'd saved his life more than once. Sometimes he thought that for Joe, he was just another lost cause, like Melanie. "What are you doing for the holidays?"
Joe cleared his throat. "Actually, I'm going with Melanie. Her parents invited me."
"So she's not doing quite as well as you'd hoped. My guess is very few patients take their psychiatrists home with them for family visits."
"She's not my patient. Somehow you keep forgetting that. I've never actually treated her."
A technicality, Alexei thought, hearing the irritation in Joe's voice. Joe had taken Melanie under his wing on that unforgettable night and had barely left her side since.
"Anyhow, her parents are spending the holidays in Aspen. They thought I'd like to go skiing."
"Why do you do this to yourself, Joe? She is not your responsibility. She's mine."
"You know why I do it."
Guilt gnawed at him. "Yes. I haven't forgotten. You do it for me."
For a brief instant there was silence on the other end of the phone. "Not entirely. How many times have I explained to you that she was already unstable before that night?"
"No. Let's do." Joe's voice rose in anger. "You're an arrogant prick, Alexei. There's no denying that what she saw was horrifying. Hell, I didn't see it and I thought I was going insane. But even you can't cause psychosis by your mere presence. Melanie is schizophrenic. She was destined for a life of medication and therapy."
Alexei listened to Joe's tirade, suffering his anger as he had dozens of time before. Joe was the psychiatrist, but Alexei had no trouble making this diagnosis. His friend was in love with Melanie.
Alexei would never say that to him. That was for Joe to tell, if he ever admitted it to himself.
Joe sighed. "I'm in the car, so I should concentrate on driving."
"I'm truly glad that Melanie is doing well. Is there anything she needs?"
"Besides all the money she and the clinic could possibly ever use? No. You're doing more than enough."
"All right then--"
"Alexei, how are you?"
He pushed his fingers through his hair and gazed toward the front window. The early morning sun was blocked by a huge chunk of black marble that sat in his front yard.
His fingers twitched and a deep, visceral thrill echoed through him as he stared at the black stone. He curled his empty hand into a fist and looked down at himself.
His sex stirred. His fist tightened.
"I can't work on this piece with gloves on." He heard the strain in his voice.
Joe grunted. "Have you tried working on it without them?"
"You know I can't do that."
"I thought that was why you bought that isolated place. So it wouldn't matter if you--"
"It matters to me."
"What's different about this piece? Wearing gloves certainly hasn't stopped you from becoming the country's most mysterious and celebrated sculptor so far."
"I touch this rock through the gloves and there's nothing there. You wouldn't understand. I can't shape this--this beast without touching it."
"So what will you do? You've already denied yourself everything else. Are you going to stop sculpting too?"
"No!" he growled. "But I can't lose control. You know that."
"I've told you before, I could prescribe something."
Alexei's chest burned with anger and frustration. "Forgive me if I'm not interested in chemical castration."
"I know. I think you're right about that. Your nature is where your talent comes from. So chain yourself to the marble. I doubt even you could pull over three tons of rock."
"Believe it or not, I have considered that."
"Don't do it alone, though. Why don't I take some time and come down there? We could experiment with different drugs. I could watch you to be sure you didn't harm yourself."
"Or you?" he spat. "No. I came here for the isolation. I'll manage. I've ordered a pair of sealskin gloves. They're thin, more flexible. I'll try them."
"Alexei, call me. Day or night."
"Thank you. I will." Alexei pulled his gaze away from the seductive sheen of the marble. "Enjoy your holiday."
Alexei disconnected and tossed the phone down on the bedside table, his attention on the marble. He stalked over to the door and flung it open, breathing deeply of early morning freshness and feeling the contrasting sensations of warm sunlight and cold air on his naked body.
In front of him, its sleek surface absorbing the light, refusing to give it back, stood the obelisk that haunted him. From the first moment he'd laid eyes on the chunk of marble, he'd seen the beast inside it. He saw it now, even though he'd not yet laid chisel to stone. His fingers twitched as the craving to touch it became almost unbearable. It was as strong as desire, as compelling as a beautiful woman. His gaze roamed hungrily over its gleaming surface. There were its muscled haunches. There the massive head, the delicate ears, the powerful jaw. He had to free the beast from its cold, black prison. But the thought sent a shuddering chill through him.
He swallowed against bitter nausea as his nostrils caught another repulsive whiff of evil on the morning breeze. It was beginning again. Was it the marble?
He'd always known he hadn't conquered the beast that raged inside him, but through incredible willpower and self-denial he'd managed to keep it asleep. Now, because of the black marble, his fragile peace was shattered. Sleep had ceased to be a haven; solitude was no longer a sanctuary. If he wanted to sculpt this piece, he had to stop running. He could no longer ignore the monster that possessed him, no longer deny his heritage.
Naked, he approached the slab of stone and placed his bare hands on its icy surface for the first time. Fear and desire arced through him like a bolt of lightning. He threw his head back and gasped audibly.
His penis hardened immediately and painfully, sucking strength from his limbs. His skin grew cold with sweat. His back arched, his thighs tightened, and his hips ground forward. His body screamed for release.
Revulsion scalded his throat like bile. Struggling to maintain control over his muscles, he bowed his head and flattened his hands against the unyielding stone until they burned with the cold. Panting, exerting all his strength, he pulled back. His fingers cramped. His knuckles and joints bulged. He arched his neck and felt the familiar tensing of his jaw. The urge to flex his fingers and stretch his straining muscles became unbearable.
"No," he grated through clenched teeth. "I will not give in this time." To his own ears, his voice sounded changed, deep and rough, like a growl. He was beginning to lose himself in the painful stretching and growing of his joints and muscles. Fighting the inevitable, he struggled to think coherently. He had to stop the haze of desire that was wrapping itself around him. But how? His fingers stretched and curved. His haunches throbbed with strain.
Stop the lust. Stop it!
He clenched his jaw and wrapped his hand around his penis, crying out with the shock of cold on the sensitive, engorged organ. Then he cupped his testicles in his other hand, a scream torn from his throat as his blood turned to ice, as lust was burned away by shocking agonizing cold.
Concentrating all his will on his hands, he let go of himself and turned toward the house. He stumbled. A shudder wracked him, nearly knocking him to the ground. His penis began to deflate.
He looked at the pinched whiteness of his fingers and felt a tortured triumph. He'd touched the marble with his bare hands and not been transformed by it. He'd stopped the seductive power of his lust.
Perhaps now he could begin to shape the beast. If he dared touch it again.
Drusilla Jordan almost stumbled over the dead rabbit. She recoiled with a cry when her booted foot touched the soft, yielding mass. Looking down, she gagged. It was barely recognizable. The little body was covered with blood.
Those were gunshots she'd heard. A Chicago girl might not be used to the cacophony of a winter night in Mississippi, but if there was one thing a Chicago girl knew, it was the sound of gunfire.
Someone had killed the rabbit and left it. On her property. Anger flushed her skin. She had never understood the fascination with shooting innocent animals. Maybe when hunting had been necessary to keep food on the table, but not now--and certainly not on her land.
Far off in the distance, muffled by the trees, she heard a shout and dogs barking. Setting her mouth, she started toward the sound. Another gunshot, alarmingly close, cracked the early morning silence and an unearthly wail split the air.
"Wha--" Dru jumped. Her breath caught. Her shoulders tightened. That shot was entirely too close.
The woods went totally still. Tension shimmered in the cold silent air.
Then sound exploded all around her. Dru threw her arms up to shield her head as something heavy crashed through the underbrush.
An enormous black cat soared into view through the trees, its gaping mouth open, its white teeth gleaming, and its yellow eyes wild. It skidded to a halt not ten feet away and growled low in its throat.
Dru froze, her gaze riveted on the brilliant amber eyes. She couldn't run, couldn't scream. The animal held her in thrall.
Another gunshot rang out and the cat screamed and jerked. A puff of fur rose from its shoulder. The bullet slammed into a tree behind her.
"No!" she cried.
The cat threw its head back and roared again, clawing at the air with one massive paw, then leaped directly at her.
She dove for the ground and watched in terrified fascination as the long muscled form stretched out above her. She could have sworn the earth shook when it landed inches beyond her.
The cat's head turned. This time its eyes reflected pain and shock. Dru crawled toward it, compelled by a force she couldn't define to reach out, to help the magnificent creature.
As if it understood her intent, the cat shook its head then bounded away. When it came down on its injured leg, it stumbled, leaving a patch of blood in the snow. The inky form disappeared into the woods.
"Oh dear God!" Dru breathed into her cupped hands, struggling to stop the stunned gasps that crowded her throat. Before she could gather her wits enough to sit up, more noise assaulted her ears.
Two men appeared, crashing through the trees. They were dressed in camouflage coveralls with orange vests and orange baseball caps. Each carried a gun.
"Oh, man! Look, Bill. Blood in the snow. I hit it!"
The taller, older man spotted Dru, and his face turned pale.
"Oh, Lordy. Ma'am? You okay?" Bill asked as he shifted his rifle from his right hand to his left and reached for her. "You ain't hit, are you?"
"Don't touch me," she said shortly, holding up her shaking hands. She sat up and then slowly pulled herself to her feet, testing her wobbly knees before she put her full weight on them. "Who are you and what are you doing here?"
The younger man leered at her. "I could be your dream come true."
"Knock it off, Trey." Bill took off his cap. "Name's Bill Mason, ma'am. We been hunting, and we just chased a big black cat or something through here. D'you see it?" His voice was high with excitement.
Dru dusted her hands on her jeans, noticed how they were trembling, and clenched them into fists. "A--a cat? No." It took a huge effort not to glance at the bloody spot on the snow.
Her anger returned, fueled by the image of the cat's oddly intelligent, pain-filled eyes.
"I asked you a question. What are you doing here, on my land?"
"Your land?" Bill Mason laughed. "Beg your pardon, miss, but this here's Arnie Jurdan's property, rest his soul. He give us permission to hunt."
She crossed her arms. "I am Drusilla Jordan and Arnold Jordan was my uncle. This is my property, and I want you off it--now."
The younger, bulkier man moved to stand beside Bill Mason. It struck Dru that she was in the middle of nowhere confronting two men holding guns, one of whom had already made his coarse manners perfectly clear. Although her heart pounded with apprehension, she set her jaw.
"No shit? You bought Arn's place?" The younger man swaggered up to Dru. She could smell beer on his breath. "Well, that's great news. Where you from, honey? Why don't you and me--"
"Shut up, Trey. Now, miss--"
"My name is Ms. Jordan."
"Miz Jordan." Bill Mason pronounced her name perfectly, his voice mocking. "We ain't hurting nothing. Arn used to let us hunt all the time."
"Mr. Mason, I don't condone hunting."
Trey laughed. "She don't condone hunting, Bill. Well, what do you condone, honey?"
"That's not going to make you real popular around here, Miz Jordan." Bill frowned and pushed his orange cap onto the crown of his head. "This here's some of the best hunting land in the county, especially since that damned Russian bought and posted the Hardy place. You going to make a lot of people unhappy if you post your property against hunters. It ain't right to let the wildlife just grow. They overrun the woods and then they starve to death."
"That's a ridiculous argument," Dru said vehemently. "These animals are beautiful. They deserve to live wild and free."
Bill Mason studied her for a few seconds. "You saw it, didn't you?"
"Saw what?" Her heart pounded.
"You know," Trey said, "the panther. Man, it was huge. It must've run right over you. If we could bring in a panther we'd be famous."
Dru turned to stare at Trey, who took her gaze as an invitation and moved closer.
"Famous," she spat, disgusted. "For killing a beautiful wild creature with a high-powered weapon. What a hero."
The two men worried her. As soon as word of the big cat got out, she would have orange-bedecked hunters swarming all over. She took a step backward and spoke to Bill Mason.
"I didn't see anything, Mr. Mason, except a little rabbit with its head blown off. I guess the rabbit is part of your 'kill the wildlife to save it' campaign?"
She straightened her shoulders, looked him straight in the eye, and pulled out her cell phone. "Now, are you going to get off my land, or do I have to call the sheriff?"
Bill Mason took off his cap and wiped his forehead with his forearm. He fitted the cap back onto his head with care. "Come on Trey, let's get out of here. Miz Jurdan's throwing us off her land."
Trey laughed and reached out to put his arm around her, but she jerked away, which only made him laugh more.
"Well, Ms. Jurdan, when you talk to my cousin, Sheriff Caldwell, say hi for me and tell him he won't get to hunt in his favorite place on Arn's land no more."
"Good-bye, ma'am, and Merry Christmas," Bill Mason said. "Trey, get your horny butt in gear and let's go." The two men disappeared back the way they'd come.
Dru's legs were feeling wobbly again, so she sat down on the ground and pushed her fingers through her hair. She glanced at her cell phone's display. She already knew there was almost no service in this area. Sure enough, she didn't even have one bar. Despite her brave threat, she'd be lucky if she could even make a call without getting dropped.
"Damn closed-minded, chauvinistic rednecks," she muttered, trying to hang onto her righteous anger. But even fueled by her bracing words, her anger at the hunters couldn't hold a candle to the enthralling fear that buckled her knees.
The sight of the huge black cat flying over her head had released a terror as overwhelming as the thrill of a horror movie, although the vision she had witnessed was like nothing she'd ever seen on a movie screen, much less in real life.
"What are you?" she whispered, looking toward the spot of blood on the ground. Her heart pounded so hard that she put her hand over it to steady its frantic beating as she braced herself to stand.
Her hand touched something warm and sticky. She looked down. Blood. It must have dripped as the wounded animal vaulted over her head. Her muscles tightened. A wounded predator was one of the most dangerous creatures in nature. For a few seconds she had been in real danger. But knowing the cat was dangerous didn't lessen her fascination with it. She had never in her life seen such a magnificent, powerful creature.
From its massive head to its powerful haunches, every inch of the cat was perfectly formed. Its fur was as black as a black hole, absorbing all light, too dark to shine, too deep to touch.
Then there were its eyes. Wide, golden, haunting eyes, eyes full of knowledge, full of pain.
Dru shivered as she headed back to her house. There were two dangers out there. Animal and human. She wasn't sure which danger she feared more. She did intend to post her land against the hunters.
Stepping inside, she looked at the rifle on the rack beside the front door. For the first time, she thought about the implication of its being there. The uncle she'd never met had felt it necessary to keep a gun handy, and he'd lived here all his life.
Dru studied the weapon, wondering if she could shoot it. She glanced into the dining room, where her laptop computer was set up. She could probably find out everything she needed to know about firing a rifle off the Internet, if she could bear the slow speed of dial-up. She supposed she was lucky that her uncle even had a phone.
She made a cup of tea and stood in the living room, looking out the window at the landscape, which appeared to have been dusted with powdered sugar. Who knew it ever snowed in Mississippi? Of course, this was the northernmost region in the state, only an hour or so from Memphis. Jimmy Bryson had told her it snowed at least once during the winter, and sometimes it stayed on the ground for days.
With a start she remembered the hunter's last words. Merry Christmas.
It was Christmas Day. A searing streak of guilt and sadness tore through her. Her first Christmas without her mother. Suddenly, the pretty scene outside the window turned blurry.
A lot had happened in the past three months. She had buried her mother and inherited a new home from an uncle she hadn't known existed.
Her father's brother.
Her mother had never mentioned any relatives, but then her father had died when she was five. Her mother's smiles had died with him.
The lawyer who'd contacted her had told her Arnold Jordan had been a moonshiner, the "black sheep" of the Jordan family.
"Moonshiner!" she had laughed. "Didn't they go out with prohibition?"
"No, ma'am." Jimmy Lee Bryson had shaken his head solemnly. "Old Arnie's moonshine whiskey was always prized for its pureness."
Moonshine and Mississippi. She'd have never dreamed she'd have anything to do with either one. She chuckled to herself as she finished her tea and sat down at her computer, pushing the idea of Christmas to the back of her mind.
She needed to get some work done. Maybe she would work on the new logo for Solly Bernstein's restaurant. She turned on the computer and picked up her electronic sketch pad, but her hand kept moving the stylus in graceful arcs, drawing slanted, narrowed cat eyes and long sinuous bodies over and over again. She printed them out, one by one, but none of them even came close to what she'd seen. Somehow, she wasn't capturing the intensity, the magnificent wildness, of the black cat.
Finally, yawning and shivering, she looked up. The day had grown dark while she'd been daydreaming and drawing cat eyes.
She closed her laptop. After downing a carton of yogurt she picked up the computer drawings and lay on the sagging couch in front of the fire. She pulled a quilt over her, stopping for a second to trace the tiny hand-stitched triangles that made up the repeating pattern.
As an artist, she appreciated the intricate design and detail. The workmanship was a marvel. There were dozens of the priceless hand-sewn antiques lying around the house like rags. They must have been made by her uncle's wife who, according to the lawyer, had died ten years before.
She lay for a long time studying the drawings, until they drifted to the floor as the waning fire mesmerized her with shadows dancing on the walls. Finally, she slept.
Mavra wound her way through the chill darkness, following the scent of goodness and purity. The familiar essence teased her hunger as she clung to the agonizingly slow pace of the human world.
It was nighttime, the time when the frail bodies of humans demanded rest.
She found the girl. Slipping like a tendril of smoke through the walls, she paused, savoring the helpless vulnerability of the sleeping female.
Her sweet essence, so familiar, teased Mavra's senses. She fed on the girl's aura. So satisfying. So delicious. So familiar.
Irina. Mavra's essence seethed. So you have finally found your way back. Your pitiful human body was so easy to break. Do you think this pathetic creature will be any stronger than you were?
I will have you again, trollop. I will taste your fear, your trust, your human blood. I'm surprised your spirit even survived.
Of course the girl didn't answer. Mavra hovered over the slight form lying on the bed. She had no idea that she was host to the spirit of the long-dead slattern who had stolen Mavra's chosen champion.
The human moaned and twitched restlessly.
Mavra retreated, leaving the girl unharmed. She had accomplished her purpose. She'd grounded herself in the physical world. She swirled and gathered strength as she slipped back into the snow-dotted woods, floating close to the earth, her senses attuned to the detection of life-force.
The torture was about to begin. Mavra's anticipation glowed red. She would terrorize these humans and savor their fear as long as their strength held out.
Drifting through the underbrush, she sent out tendrils of awareness, seeking life.
She needed a host.