Skip slumped exhausted in the saddle, letting himself lean back against Dante, that firm support and the strong band of Dante's arm around his waist all that held him in place. They'd ridden for hours, and Skip thought he'd never been so fucking tired in his entire life.
After the first few terrifying moments it had gotten easier. The horse-creature's gait was at least smooth and even, if terrifyingly swift, and Skip had gradually become accustomed to the smooth rocking motion.
"Where are we going?" Skip asked loudly. And how long until we get there?
"For tonight, only as far as a way house," Dante said. "It's not long now, never fear."
The dark-haired man was as good as his word; in only a few more minutes, the horse-creature stopped in front of what appeared to be a small log cabin, dark and seemingly abandoned.
"Stay where you are." Dante slid down from the saddle, leaving Skip to cling as best he could. It was too dark for Skip to see well, especially Dante's dark hair and clothes against the night, but he thought he glimpsed Dante's shape slipping around the cabin, as if checking the security of the place.
That looks pretty futile. I'd bet a million dollars the place doesn't even have a deadbolt, much less a good alarm system, not out here in the middle of nowhere.
He heard a click, as if of a key in a lock, and the squeak of a long-unused door opening. A few moments later there was a dim glow from inside the cabin; then Dante spoke right at Skip's side, startling him so badly that he nearly fell from the horse.
"'Tis safe, puisín," Dante said. "Come, I'll help you down. No doubt your legs are purely done in now."
Skip discovered to his humiliation that Dante was absolutely right the second his feet touched the ground, his legs buckled, and were it not for Dante's immediate support he would have fallen. He ached all over from the unaccustomed long ride, and he was absolutely exhausted. Dante made no comment, for which Skip was profoundly grateful, just swept Skip up easily in his strong arms and carried him into the cabin.
And cabin it was complete with logs and mud chinking and windows that were empty but for wooden shutters. There was a fireplace, presently unlit, a table, and a rough-hewn wooden bed, and that was all. Dante laid him down carefully on the bed, then disappeared out the door again, carrying the lantern (!) with him.
Good God, where do they get all this stuff? Not to mention the "rustic" cabin. Are we up in backwoods Canada somewhere? That would account for the woods, at least, and the cold nights. Or maybe it's one of those historical theme places or something?
Come on, Thomas. We rode for hours. What historical theme park could be that big? How the hell do you think you got from Dallas to Canada? And the horse still has paws in the front. Nope, we're still hallucinating, and believe me, it's a doozy. I should write this one down when I wake up if I wake up. If I really passed out in an alley sick enough to be this delirious, there's no guarantee of that.
Dante walked in carrying leather sacks saddlebags, Skip supposed and set them down beside the bed. He ducked back out for firewood, which was apparently precut and stacked somewhere dry, because he returned almost immediately and proceeded to lay and light a fire in the fireplace not with a lighter and newspaper, but with a handful of torn-up bits of grass, leaves and shredded bark, a piece of metal and a piece of stone.
Jesus, he's really into this. Look, he lit that fucker!
"I'll leave you to rest while I tend to Díoltas," Dante said on his way back out the door. "Sleep if you can. I'll have food and drink in a bit."
Skip was too tired to argue, although the bedding smelled dusty and musty and he was miserably suspicious that at least some of the woodland vermin must have made itself at home there.
Fuck it, hallucinatory lice or fleas or whatever? Come on, Thomas, your imagination's not that good.
He had no awareness of falling asleep, but he must have slept, because a moment later he opened his eyes to find that his clothes had mysteriously vanished and Dante was gently sponging him off with a cloth dampened in blessedly warm water. The cabin was warm, too, the fire blazing merrily and something that smelled like soup simmering over it. There was light coming in the cabin windows now, weak dawn light.
Under ordinary circumstances a man sponging him off like that, especially a gorgeous hunk like Dante, would have gotten his motor running in short order, but he was still tired, even achier than he'd been the night before, and the sick, nauseated weakness was starting to come back.
"Didn't know this job included bathing services," Skip joked tiredly, not fighting the sponge bath.
"You were filthy," Dante shrugged unembarrassedly. "And you'd soiled yourself."
Skip felt his face heat.
"Sorry," he mumbled.
"'Tis hardly unexpected, given your illness," Dante said, apparently not bothered by the task of cleaning urine or worse off a stranger.
Skip was starting to get seriously worried now. Delirium and hallucination or not, this had gone on way too long. Not to mention that he'd never heard of anybody going to sleep or passing out and waking up again within an hallucination.
What do they call a long-term hallucination, huh, Thomas? Insanity. Great. We finally fried our last brain cell, huh? Well, you better hope that it's insanity, because insanity can be cured, and do you even want to consider the alternative?
"So " Skip swallowed hard and continued carefully. "What is this, um, threshold sickness?"
"A severe damage to the body's magical fields, sometimes caused by a magical attack," Dante said, continuing his sponge-bath, "but most often caused by a Gating gone badly awry. The most severe cases must be treated by magic or the victim can die of it."
Magic? Gating? But the word Skip focused on was die.
"Whatever you gave me before seemed to work okay, at least for a while," Skip said, hoping that a further dose was forthcoming. His stomach was starting to roil again.
"That is not a cure, nor a treatment," Dante corrected him. "Only a temporary palliative. And the danger of too long a use of it . . . " He frowned, looking deeply troubled.
Uh-oh. Looks like my next fix is in danger.
"What is it?" Skip asked, trying to sound casual. It wasn't methadone, that's for sure. Unless methadone's improved a hell of a lot since the last time I tried to kick.
Dante gave him an inscrutable look, as if considering whether to answer or not. At last he shrugged.
"My blood," he said.
"Your " Skip swallowed hard. The heaving in his stomach increased. "You gave me blood?" Oh Jesus. Oh shit. Come on, I'm not that creative. Or that twisted, either. Hell, my imagination isn't half that good.
"Not any blood. My blood," Dante corrected. He sighed. "I heal faster and better than those of pure human blood. My blood gives you some of that healing for a time only. I expect already you're feeling the need for more."
Skip felt himself trembling, and in the fire-heated cabin he couldn't readily attribute it to either the cold night air, his damp skin or even his nudity.
"Pure human?" he repeated in a whisper. "What the hell does that make you, then?"
Dante smiled bitterly, and seeing his rescuer for the first time in at least moderate light, Skip saw what he hadn't seen before the odd shine to Dante's green eyes, the slight elongation of his ears, and the sharply pointed incisor teeth, almost like a cat's.
"I'm halfling," Dante said quietly. "My mother was human, but she was stolen away and used by my father, who was a lesser darkling. A Feeder he was. She escaped him, but died bearing me. 'Tis the way of it with halflings, most usually."
"Making you what?" Skip croaked. "Some kind of vampire?"
Dante shook his head.
"Nay," he said softly. "I'm only half of Feeder blood. Sometimes I feel the hunger, but 'tis only a craving, not true need. I walk in daylight, although my eyes mislike the sunlight somewhat. I'm strong and fast, and I have the darkling senses, but I'm mortal. I'll grow old, though slowly, and one day I'll die. I heal fast and sure, but still I can be harmed and killed like any man."
Skip shivered more violently.
"So what were you doing in that alley?" he whispered. "Looking for a late-night snack?"
"As if I could stomach the taste of that vermin who troubled you," he said dismissively. "Nay, puisín, I was in town on . . . business. An errand for the High Lord, my employer. That completed, I'd stopped at the tavern for a last hot meal a venison pasty," he added rather wearily at Skip's expression, " before leaving the city, as Díoltas and I like to travel by night. I heard the fuss, and you know the rest."
Skip pulled the coarse blanket more closely around him.
"So do you make a habit of rescuing strangers in alleys?" he said suspiciously.
"'Tis not my way to turn aside while those scum rape one with neither weapons nor strength to fight back," he said. "In any wise, 'tis the law that crossovers are brought to the High Lord, and your clothing and speech gave me that thought. And when I saw your face "
"What is it about my face?" Skip said desperately, raising his hands to run his fingers over it again. He was bruised, all right, and he could feel some abrasions on his jaw and cheekbone, but it didn't seem too bad, and unfortunately he'd had plenty of experience in gauging his own injuries.
"You really have no idea, do you?" Dante said softly. He shook his head. "Of course, you've never seen the Vizier. Never you mind. In time perhaps we'll understand the meaning of this. Meantime " He touched Skip's forehead, sighing slightly when Skip flinched back from him. "You're fevered again, puisín. Before long the pain will come again. Shall I give you "
"God, you think I'd let you feed me more of your blood?" Skip exploded with all the energy he could muster. "No fucking thanks!"
Dante gazed at him seriously.
"I'll no' force you," he said quietly. "It's a damnable choice, I know, but the choice is yours. Well, I'll keep you as comfortable as I can. Try to rest . . . Skip."
And Skip tried, truly tried, but as the sun rose the nausea grew. He alternated between chills and fever, and he couldn't stop the helpless shaking of his limbs, or the cramps that seized him with frightening intensity. Now he was sure he had either gone hopelessly insane or, although he could barely manage to entertain the notion, this all was somehow impossibly real. He knew concussions, he knew withdrawal, and this wasn't either. Okay, maybe it could be some horrible exotic bug he'd picked up, but he couldn't imagine what virus or bacteria or whatever could be halted, however temporarily, by drinking somebody's blood.
Dante nursed him quietly, bringing cool cloths for his head when he was hot, piling blankets over him when he was cold, silently cleaning him when he helplessly soiled the bed. He brought a cup of what smelled like hot broth, and Skip did his best to drink it, but it came back up a few minutes later.
As the day wore on, Skip felt himself growing weaker and sicker and panic started to set in. He didn't flinch anymore when Dante came to wash him or sponge his hot forehead; once more he found the strange man's strength comforting. So what if the man was half a demon or darkling or Feeder or whatever the hell he said he was? Skip couldn't remember the last time someone had treated him so gently. Had seemed to care.
"Dante?" Skip murmured at last when the taller man returned to the bedside with a cool cloth for his head. "Am I . . . dying?"
Dante gazed at him soberly, an unreadable expression in the green eyes.
"Not yet, puisín," he said quietly. "It'll get worse before then."
"I don't want to die," Skip whispered, amazed to realize it. He'd wished himself dead for so long that the desire for life took him by surprise.
"And I don't want you to," Dante admitted, his tone vaguely wondering. "But it must be your choice. I wish you'd choose to live. I do," he repeated, this time with a note of pain in his voice.
Skip agonized over the choice a moment longer, then gave in.
"I want to live," he whispered, clenching his teeth as a new fit of shivering shook his body.
Dante stilled, his eyes gazing into Skip's.
"Yes?" he said softly. He laid his palm against Skip's cheek. "Yes?"
"Yeah." It was hard to get his words out past the shaking that made his teeth chatter. He said it again, more loudly. "Yes. Please?"
"Of course, puisín, of course," Dante said hastily, some unknown emotion flashing through his eyes. "No need to ask twice. Be still, bide a moment."
Then he was gone from Skip's side, and Skip could see only Dante's back near the fireplace, could only track his actions by sound: The gurgle of liquid into a cup, then more ominous sounds: The scrape of metal, then a quieter dripping sound. Skip tried not to think what those sounds meant, but his stomach knew; he barely rolled to his side in time before he vomited weakly over the edge of the bed, even though he had nothing to bring up but a little bile. Immediately Dante was back with a damp cloth to clean his face, then sliding his arm behind Skip's shoulders to help him half sit.
"Easy, puísin," Dante soothed, swishing the cup in his hand to blend its contents. "I know, I know, but it's not so bad, you'll feel better soon. Try not to think about it, eh? Only a little wine, that's all. Think of pleasanter things."
Skip fought down a new bout of nausea that left him shaken and covered in cold sweat.
"Don't think I know any," he gasped.
"Mmmm, 'tis a hard cold world, puisín, but there's good things, too," Dante murmured. He dipped his finger in the cup and moistened Skip's lips with the liquid. "Just that much for now, see if it stays."
Skip licked his lips, shuddering again, but this time with something less definable than nausea or chills or spasms. Some part of his body, or maybe the tattered remnants of his soul, tasted that aromatic essence hidden within the tang of the wine and howled in pure unleashed need. Suddenly he wanted, needed, more than those few scant drops, wanted to drink and drink and drink to fulfill a thirst that seemed to reach its roots down into the depths of his being.
"A little more now," Dante said soothingly, moistening Skip's lips again. "Feel the warmth of the fire, like a warm hand holding you close. Think of a quiet evening before the fire, after a hot bath maybe, lying naked on the furs, all warm and clean and softness under you, a nice mug of mulled wine at your elbow, sweet with honey, cheese melting before the fire and a fresh loaf to eat with it, and outside the crickets are singing sweeter than a bard."
The rim of the cup was against Skip's lips now, and he sipped cautiously at first, then drank thirstily. The heady drought seemed to burn through him, but it was a sweet consuming fire, like passion, like desire. Stronger now, he reached up, seized the cup in both hands and drained it to the dregs, his tongue searching out the last drops. Disappointedly he let Dante take the cup from him. He looked up to see understanding in Dante's emerald eyes understanding and a less definable emotion.
"Aye, the hunger has a fever all its own," Dante said quietly, stroking Skip's hair back from his face. "It'll pass, never fear."
"What if I don't want it to pass?" Skip whispered. He didn't feel weak now, or nauseated. He was still trembling, but they weren't tremors of illness. He reached up to slide his hand around the back of Dante's neck, pulling his head down to Skip's.
Then he was tasting those lips, that mouth; after a brief surprised hesitation Dante responded, answering Skip's kiss with a hunger that matched the smaller man's, lips opening, tongue probing. Skip moaned and let Dante plunder his mouth, fingers locking on Dante's shoulders to hold him close.
The kiss became deeper and harder, more passionate, until Dante's sharp teeth cut his own lip and Skip tasted that heady liquor again, this time undiluted with wine, and the sheer shock of it stilled him. He could feel the hunger, the fire and not only his own. With a suddenness that banished his own hunger, his own desire, Skip realized that the time had come, as it always did. Dante had saved his life probably more than once had tended him and sheltered him and treated him, and just as it always did, the bill for services rendered had come due.
Skip closed his eyes and took a deep breath, steeling himself.
"It's all right," he said, ashamed of the quiver in his voice.
Dante drew back slightly.
"It's all right," Skip repeated, a little more loudly. "You can fuck me if you want to."
Dante pulled back sharply, and this time the play of emotions in his eyes was easy to read shock, closely followed by understanding and sympathy. Dante stroked Skip's hair back again, then eased him back to the bed.
"Hush, muírnigh, you don't know what you're saying," Dante murmured.
"I pay my bills," Skip choked.
Dante looked slightly puzzled, but shook his head.
"You needn't pay your way with me, not with your body or anything else," he said. "Mayhap I'll find the one who did this to you, and then " His voice hardened, and his eyes darkened with an expression that Skip thought maybe those men at the bar had seen in their last moments of life. "Mayhap then there'll be payment made, and not by you."
Skip shivered again, prompting Dante to tuck the blankets closer around him; after a brief hesitation, Dante slid onto the bed beside him but on top of the covers, pulling Skip close. Skip found himself amazingly drained and tired, a pleasant languid fatigue in the wake of all that emotion, and wearily glad of Dante's strong arm around him, anchoring him somehow.
"Why do you care?" he murmured, hovering on the edge of sleep. "I'm nobody to you. A stranger."
"Shhhh, muírnigh, I care," Dante said quietly. "What I've seen of you, I've seen with more than eyes, and what I see draws me to you. And what we've shared " He touched his lip. To Skip's amazement there was no sign of the cut from his teeth. "It creates a bond between us that will grow. Already you feel my hunger. Each time there'll be more." He sighed. "I must get you to proper treatment quickly. Yet if you're too ill, you can't travel. So we are trapped, you and I, muírnigh, inside a circle of blood and hunger, at least for the time."
Skip closed his eyes again, and as he slid into a dreamless, restful sleep, he surprised himself with an involuntary thought.
There are worse places to be trapped. And worse people to be trapped there with.