Author’s note – I’m participating in a little May Flash Fiction Challenge in a writing group I admin, so I thought it would be fun to share the fruits of that here, since otherwise I’m busy wrapping up Book II, Before the Dawn.
Today’s challenge, “Your character gets a threatening letter,” offered me the opportunity to write a little fan fiction for our own characters. How can I resist that? ~ J
Ben started down the steps of the RV and froze.
Mal nearly ran into his back. After a split second of thinking he did it on purpose to get another embrace, she saw his tension. His whole body looked like an over-tuned guitar string someone had plucked just to get it to snap.
She followed her original impulse and wrapped her arms around him from behind. Maybe he wasn’t playing around to steal another hug before their run, but he clearly needed the contact right now.
“Ben?” she prompted.
At the sound of her voice, something in him unlocked and he was able to breathe again.
“Sorry.” He sounded like someone had their hands around his neck. He cleared his throat and tried again. “Sorry.”
He paused, biting his lip. This was probably going to be an argument, but he felt like a live wire, like danger was suddenly all around them. He caressed her arms, wrapped tightly around his middle, and gently pried them away, squeezing her hands as he released them so she wouldn’t read the gesture as having to do with her.
He scanned the sparsely populated campground. No one appeared to be awake. The sun was barely up.
Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Nothing except the parchment envelope placed neatly at the foot of their steps.
Ronoven, Count and Marquis of Hell
“Mal, I need you to head back inside and close the door. Get Chris up, too. I’ll be right behind you. I promise.”
Her arms went stubbornly around him again. She couldn’t see around his broad shoulders, but she knew the subtleties of his voice and body language well enough to know he sensed a threat and was about to do that thing where he tried to face it all on his own.
She was going to break that particular bad habit if it was the last thing she did.
“Ben, what’s wrong?” He drew in another breath and held it. “You know I’m not going anywhere so spit it out.”
Roughly an hour seemed to pass before he exhaled slowly. “Do you have your knife on you?”
“Not your pocket knife. Your … I meant the weapon one.”
“I know what you meant. I always carry it now.”
“Okay.” Another long breath. “There’s an envelope on the ground with …”
“Ben.” Her voice lost some of its soft understanding. He clearly needed help. And he was going to get it whether he liked it or not.
“With my demon name,” he admitted.
Oh, how he hated that, hated that he had to say those words out loud, hated anything that reminded him he wasn’t just Ben Brody. Even more, he hated having to remind Mal of that fact.
“And my titles. Someone from Hell might be watching right now. Even if it’s not Hell, it’s still somebody dangerous enough that it doesn’t matter.”
Mal released him and drew the knife from the clever sheath Teddy had made her for the small of her back.
“Let’s see what it says. I’ll keep my eyes on everything.”
He sighed. “Okay.”
He drew his own dagger and carefully edged down the last few steps, eyes darting around, trying to look everywhere at once. He bent down to retrieve the envelope. As soon as his fingers closed around it, it grew almost unbearably hot in his hand.
He put it back down. It was treated with something not awesome for him. Something blessed, if he had to guess. Before Davi’s magic it might have lit his hand on fire, or at least blistered it. But now, it just stung. Still, it wasn’t a good idea to hang onto it. Just in case.
“You okay?” Mal stood next to him, but wasn’t looking his way. She was scanning the area, just like he, Chris, and Aife had taught her. In spite of the situation, he felt his lips quirk up at the corners. How did I ever get lucky enough to know her?
He found it easier to answer this time. She didn’t care about his, as she put it, demon bullshit. “It … um … I think it’s got something consecrated soaked into it.”
“Are you alright?” She moved like she’d take his hand to look it over.
“I’m fine,” he said hastily, holding it up before she could slip into her ‘team medic’ role. “But …” Why does asking her to do this feel like jumping off a damned cliff? He knew it was the right thing to do. For both of them. But his protective streak still had a hard time being reigned in. “Could you pick it up and see what it says? I’ll stand guard.”
She flashed him a little smile. He was trying so hard not to shut her out or close himself off to protect her. It warmed her all over when he did things like this. In her mind, it meant he really saw her as an equal. She didn’t like it when he treated her like she was better than him, exalted in some way. She bent and picked up the envelope, feeling it’s texture between her fingers, then sniffing it.
“Seems like it was maybe soaked in consecrated salt and holy water. It smells a little oceany. Feels gritty, too.”
Ben couldn’t help the lopsided grin that pulled at his lips. “Alright Miss CSI, but what’s it say?”
She slit the envelope with her knife, then put the blade back in its sheath. She unfolded the letter inside, careful not to rip the stiff, crinkly paper. It wasn’t parchment like the envelope, but it was something other than plain paper. It felt strange in her hand. The ink was rusty colored. And the letter stunk.
“Blood,” Ben said in a disgusted almost whisper.
Mal’s nose did an involuntary wrinkle that he usually found adorable, mostly because not much grossed her out. Right now all it did was make him swallow hard, his momentary smile fading into a frown with the fluid ease of muscles that remember it too well.
She quietly read the short message aloud.
“I know what you are. I know who you are. I need demon blood. This letter represents the dregs of my last acquisition. How convenient that you’re here in a body that belongs to you.” She paused for a breath and realized Ben was holding his again. “Surrender yourself in the clearing by the stream immediately, and I won’t curse the rest of your party to oblivion. If you don’t, they’ll die a bloody death, in terror, and it will be on your hands.”
He still hadn’t breathed. He tried; tried to speak, too. But his brain and body were having none of it.
Mal’s eyebrows drew together in concern. “Ben?”
He was actually contemplating going to that clearing and giving himself up.
Nope, not happening, Brody. She made a snap decision.
Turning toward him, she reached into his front pocket as provocatively as she could and retrieved his lighter. Not that he really needed it with his ability to light things on fire psychically, but he liked to fidget with it.
Finally, he gasped. “Hey! Getting fresh while we’re being stalked by some dark witch or worse, because lots of magic-abusing pricks like demon blood, too, is probably a really bad idea.”
She forced a natural looking smirk onto her face even though she was, truth be told, shaking a little. “Since when does me getting fresh ever end badly for you?”
She sparked the lighter to life and held it to the corner of the note and envelope. It caught slowly, burning with a smoky orange-yellow flame that told her she’d been right about it being treated with salt. She walked the burning paper over to the campsite’s fire pit.
Ben followed, right on her elbow, dagger still in hand, eyes taking in the whole area. “What are you doing?”
“Making sure this can’t be used to track us.”
Ben smiled. “Good idea. I hadn’t gotten that far in my thinking, I guess.”
Because you were thinking of giving yourself up, she thought, but didn’t say. At that moment the flame reached the letters and they popped and sparked, burning red and deep blue alternatively. Ben’s brow creased and he mumbled in what sounded like realization. “Huh.”
“Someone you know?” she asked, half teasing.
“Actually, I think so,” Ben nodded slowly. “Most likely Zuhal. A friend. Such as they are in Hell.” His eyes watered with the stink of sulphur and the images it conjured in his mind. He almost sighed with relief that telling Mal something more of Hell seemed marginally easier this morning. “He’s probably fine though. He’s always trading his blood to lovelorn witches for …” He cleared his throat, suddenly blushing furiously all the way up to his ears. “Favors,” he finished awkwardly.
Mal dropped the letter into the pit before it could singe her fingers. She slid an arm around him for a brief hug. “Let’s go wake up the others so we can get out of here.”
Ben glanced around again, then sheathed his knife. “I like the idea of getting right the Hell out of here, but what are we going to do about this threatened curse?”
She opened the door to the RV, but turned to give him an encouraging nod. “Protection spell, obviously. I’ve been practicing. Besides, we’ve got our own badass witch, and Chris, and you.”
They got inside and turned on the lights, eliciting groans from their sleeping travel companions. “The vibe I got off that letter was it was written by somebody pretty powerful,” Ben said, chewing his lip.
She cocked an eyebrow. “Some dumb evil witch doesn’t scare me.”
Ben pulled her into his arms, feeling himself relax already, even though he was certain there was real danger here. “You’re not scared of anything,” he said, voice full of admiration as he buried his face in her tangled curls for a moment and kissed the top of her head.
Except losing you, she thought.
What she said was, “Damn right. Let’s get them up and get out of here.”
He squeezed her again. “Whatever you say, Mal.”