The air seethed. Energy flowed unchecked, spiking as it passed through the humans writhing in time to the pound of the bass, twining unseen about bodies wholly absorbed in the movement of their own mortal flesh. Smoke hung heavy, the acrid scent of cigarettes melding with the sharp tang of dry ice. Spangle and glitter winked through the haze, coating sweat-soaked skin grinding against sweat-soaked skin.
And through all, the energy pulsed.
I leaned against the bar, my eyes drifting closed. It lulled, this energy, with a brand of seduction I’d seldom felt. My limbs weighed heavy, making even slight movement a scream through muscle. Small explosions thickened my blood, and I imagined a shower of sparks and light inside me, so beautiful and so deadly.
If I let go, the intoxication would consume me.
The stray thought broke the spell. Straightening, I ignored the lure of the energy, the ecstasy in my blood. I had come tonight with purpose. Tonight, I was to Gather.
My Gathered had led me here, to this place, the likes of which I had not frequented for an age. I had gained entry with little trouble, my costume of young revel-maker the same as any other patron. It was a small room for so many people, though the space was ruthlessly utilised. The large stage directly opposite the bar was little more than a rectangular block raised from the dance floor before it, covered in cables that snaked around consoles and speakers and equipment I could not name.
Behind the centre console, a disc jokey held a headphone to his ear as he manipulated the turntable before him. He was strange, this creature. Baggy garments concealed his form, making it impossible to discern if he were made in a pleasing shape. A bandana wrapped about his crown, though it appeared he had no hair to cover, and sunglasses obscured his vision, absurd in the darkness of the club.
What was the point of his garb? Surely the purpose of a place such as this was to advertise sexual attractiveness. The females on the dance floor understood this covenant, little more than strips of cloth wrapped around their writhing bodies. This man’s clothing implied he thought himself unattractive and the presence of the glasses intimated he was dim.
Humans were impossible to understand.
I turned from the disc jockey, the enigma of his garb too strange to contemplate further. There was no need to face that direction to maintain my vigil. The mirror behind the bar would alert me when the headline act took the stage.
My throat parched, I soothed it with a pull of water, though nothing could be done about the dryness in my eyes or skin. The smoke had started to affect me, and I would not have long to complete my purpose. Another sign that mayhap I was no longer fit for the task.
More and more I found I could not endure the rigours of this world. I feared I grew weary. In my younger days, it had been an honour to be chosen, an unlooked-for privilege to defend my people and our way of life. I had striven to prove myself worthy, and to this day I remained one of the best Gatherers amongst my people.
But the last few…their faces…I found I was unable to disregard their faces as I had a million before.
I stared at myself in the mirror. My complexion had yellowed, the darkness under my eyes deeper than when I had entered. My hair, usually golden, lustrous and coiling around my shoulders, looked as if straw.
It was the smoke. Smoke affected my people horribly. Smoke was responsible for the sallowness of my skin, the sheen in my eyes. Smoke painted the facsimile of uncertainty on my expression. Only smoke.
“What are you drinking?”
The words grated, but the blast of energy their speaker exuded made me momentarily speechless. Ecstasy ran through me and, shuddering, I battled to regain my composure.
The man who’d addressed me, he was young and, unlike the disc jokey, he understood the appeal of well-fitted clothes. His thick brown hair had been ruthlessly shaped into what he no doubt thought was the height of fashion. He looked not unlike a porcupine.
Analluring smile painted on sensuous lips faltered, though he appeared to gain some confidence as he continued. “Your drink looks mighty interesting. Would you mind telling me what it is? Might order it myself…and maybe one for you.” This last he said with a wink.
He was attractive in the human way, with long legs and a firm stomach. As he noticed my perusal, his body subtly changed stance, his chest incrementally broader as he drew back his shoulders, his height marginally taller as he elongated his neck. His arms were well muscled and his face was pleasing to gaze upon. Under other circumstances, I may have allowed him to persuade me to spend…time with him.
“I won’t have sex with you.”
He looked stunned. They often did.
“What?” he finally stammered.
“I won’t have sex with you,” I repeated. “You’re better off finding someone who will.”
His expression darkened as the beginnings of anger stirred. I sighed. Humans. Always I had to prove myself.
I grabbed his hand. Astonishment chased away anger, but then his features twisted with pain as I started to squeeze. He tried to bear if for a few moments, as most men do, but in the end his breath exploded from him, sweat coating his skin.
I let go, settling back into the bar. I had not broken bone, but he would undoubtedly retain soreness for a few turns of the sun.
The man was now staring at me as he cradled his hand, his expression equal parts incredulousness and fear. And why wouldn’t he look thus? To his eyes, I appeared a normal human woman, slightly more attractive than average, but still, only human.
I turned my attention back to the stage, the man no longer of interest. The disc jockey had completed his work. Stagehands scurried and scampered, dismantling the equipment with quiet efficiency. Soon, nothing of the disc jockey was left. Now, the props of a band were displayed, the minstrel’s guitar, the drummer’s kit, the singer’s microphone.
Between a breath and the next, I slipped into alertness. Every sense trained on the stage, making the microphone sharply defined, the dull metal glinting in the harshness of the spotlight. I cared not for the others who were to perform. I only cared for him.
He strode onto the stage, confident that every eye followed and that all who saw, lusted. His skin glowed, even under the smoke and the hazy lighting, warm and inviting and making one’s fingers itch to stroke the silky texture. Flowing like fire to lick at his shoulders, his hair seemed an impossible mix of red, crimson, brown and blond, a glory that captured shadow and light as he moved. The wide breadth of his shoulders and chest he’d encased in a white shirt, left unbuttoned to mid-chest to display his impressive physique. Only I knew he needed no gymnasium to sculpt such a form.
His face poetry, his eyes soulful, his lips holding a sneer, he was the embodiment of every human’s fantasy. And he knew it.
Hips rolling, every move sinuous, he strode to the microphone, one perfectly formed hand grasping the stand. Intense green eyes looked over the crowd, his gaze electric, magnetic as he drew all eyes to him.
I watched from the bar, unimpressed and unmoved. Most of our race needed but a glance, and it was done. This one…this one was expending too much energy on too many humans. What he had planned went against every one of out tenets.
His lure faltered. The humans around me blinked and looked away from the stage, some bewildered by the sudden lack of tension. The hush that had fallen upon the room at his appearance dissipated, the din rising once more as his grip on the crowd slipped.
He had noticed me.
My gaze level, my expression calm, I stared at him. It unsettled the Gathered, I knew. Nothing of my uncertainty showed on my face, and he knew not of my war between duty and doubt. I simply looked at him, and in my look was a dictate given. He knew of my demand. Desist, or face the consequences.
I had little hope of capitulation.
His composure recovered, his eyes skittered from mine, casting about the crowd. His power redoubled. The humans grew still, their rapt gazes drawn to him once more.
Assured of his draw, he looked back at me, taunting me. I felt the pull of his power, felt the lure of my own. Together, we could decimate this place, and feed on the remnants in a twin orgy of bliss and death.
None of this I showed. I stayed calm, though I seethed. Though he trapped me with want. Though he tempted me with the knowledge he was like I.
As if in a daze, I watched him stroke the microphone, his eyes locked on mine. Though somewhere inside me I was shamed, I wanted him to do it. I wanted him to sing, to use his voice, to drown these humans in thrall. I wanted the blast of energy, the life force that would hit us and consume us, the frenzy that we would feed from even as it fed from us.
I wanted, but I could not have. I would not. I was here to Gather. Our people had stayed secret for untold millennia. One rogue siren would not change that. We would not invite vengeance and reprisal upon ourselves with the mass murder of countless humans. Though it was bliss, we would not steal what was not ours.
This was why I was here. To protect our people. To kill this siren.
His voice hit the first note. Clear, crystalline, the perfect sound hit the air, reverberating through the throng of humans. Immediately, they fell under its power. A wave of energy rose and battered in all directions, overwhelming in its force.
I gasped. My knees refused to hold me. I grabbed the bar to keep from falling, but the bliss…it was too much.
It kept coming. Over and over the ecstasy battered me, forcing me against the bar, grasping it like a lifeline, my whole being focussed on the rapture coursing through me.
I’ve no notion how long I basked, broken by rapture.
Something brushed me. Annoyance dimmed the ecstasy. I swiped at the thing, determined to recapture rhapsody. My fingers dug into something warm, pliant. An arm. A human’s arm.
I recoiled, the lure broken. Around me, humans lolled, close to death even as they lifted their faces to the creature killing them. I saw the man who had approached me, his face slack, his eyes dim as he grew wasted, his life force slowly stolen.
This is what I’d been sent to prevent. This. I could not participate. I could not. I would not let him-
I pulled a shroud around me, one comprised of training and will. Concentrate. I was a Gatherer. I would not allow this…rogue sway. So…I Gathered.
A whisper of power. A slight thread. So incongruous and yet so devastating. The weave snaked from me, past the enthralled humans, and flowed into him. Unnoticed, it gathered and took, and then returned, the power resting inside me once more.
In between one note and the next, his voice faltered and died.
I watched as realisation dawned in him. Eyes grew wild, hands frantically tore at his throat and yet no sound issued. Still he tried, uselessly mouthing words and sounds. He looked over to me, his gaze imploring and I turned my back, the image of his silent scream burned into my mind.
Numbness outweighed the satisfaction of a job completed. I made my way through recovering humans, each baffled by what had caused such lethargy. This. This was what I could no longer face. This is what banished the sense of rectitude, the belief that I had done what was right and just.
What I had done was kill him. A few days he would cling to life, but those days would be spent in searing agony, growing steadily worse until he died, friendless and alone. I had Gathered his voice, taken it inside me, and without the thing that defined us, the thing that made us, he was no more.
Gathering. It was the punishment, the deterrent, for those whose actions would expose our kind.
Leaving behind the remnants of almost destruction and the soon-dead siren, I pushed open the club door, bracing myself against the ill wind that assaulted me as I stepped out into the night. Hunching my shoulders, I strode toward the forest and the gateway to our world, concealed within the depths of the trees and shrubs. With every step, I saw his face, the horror and devastation as he realised what I had done to him.
Wiping at my cheeks, I hastened my walk, trying to outrun the image of his scream. The guilt twisted through me, razor sharp.
Mayhap there would not be another. Not for me.
©2009 Cassandra Dean