"What's this place called again?" A nasally voice drifted through the air.

"The Yellow Dragon." A taller read-haired woman spoke in a deep, throaty tone. "Like the flower." The two women paused at the edge of the crosswalk before the light changed. Not a single car was in sight. "It's supposed to be the secret to eternal life."

"Cool." Her high pitch caused Marlaea to wince as she followed them across the vacant road.

Marlaea had been following the two women for several blocks. She kept her mind occupied with the different ways she had considered killing them as they walked. The redhead seemed to be the brains of the pair, but she was still sub-par for intelligence by even considering the club. A simple stab to the heart or a slit across the throat would fit nicely. The blonde would have gone quickly to silence her obnoxious voice once and for all. Or, maybe, she would throw the blonde in front of a passing car for amusement. Joy and rapture from life emanated from the short, skinny woman beneath the black leather coat, and Marlaea wanted to vomit.

"Look at the line." The short little blonde wined at the number of people standing outside the doors. "We'll never get in with this many people waiting."

"Relax." Putting her arm around the woman's shoulders, the redhead guided her around the corner toward a side door. "I heard there was a secret entrance around the back."

The excited whispers from the two young women let Marlaea know her destination had not changed in all the years she had been away. She followed the two ladies around the corner of the chipped brick building to a side door only seasoned patrons knew about. Marlaea inched ahead of the pair and paused at the back of the small group of people waiting for entry from the bouncer. A stocky balding man smiled at Marlaea from where he leaned against the crumbling brick. She glanced away quickly.

"Pretty flower for a pretty lady." The man plucked Yellow Dragon from the flowerbox and held it out to her with a sly smile on his face. Politely, she raised her hand and refused with a gentle wave. "Oh, come on." He took a few staggering step toward her still smiling. "It's one little flower." The blossom was suddenly very near to her cheek. "What could it hurt?"

"I said no." Slapping his arm with the back of hers to get the flower away from her skin, the stinging sensation on her hand grew to overwhelming in seconds. Her eyes grew wide as she realized she had caught the petals with her movement. Using all her strength to hold back a scream, a low pain-filled moan managed to slip out.

"What's going on here?" The bouncer stepped from just inside the door.

Marlaea's vision began to blur as the stinging changed into burning on her skin. Pulling the sleeve of her silk jacket over her hand, she tried to look at the short chubby man. Grasping quickly for the handrail lining the crumbling cement steps, she tried to retain her balance long enough to get inside the building.

"Hey man, all I tried to do was give her a flower." The short balding man put his hands up innocently. Turning his attention to the woman who was in obvious pain, the bouncer caught a flicker of lavender in her green eyes. Blinking his eyes to keep the recognition from showing, he leaned down close to her.

"What are you doing here?" The bouncer whispered to her in a low enough tone no one else would hear. She glared up at him silently answering his question. "You need to get inside." Placing his hand on her shoulder, he glanced toward the door. "Quickly."

"Your guests." A subtle toss of her head indicated the others. She swallowed hard pushing down the rising pain from the burn on her hand.

"Three of you for now." Pointing to Marlaea and the pair of young women directly behind her, he pulled the door open for them to enter. "Black door at the end of hall."

Marlaea gestured for the younger women to enter first. She watched as the women fell into a single-file line, one grabbing at the other's hand for the courage to walk up the sagging staircase. The paint inside was peeling from the walls in large chunks, revealing cracked and bulging plaster underneath. Screams tore from both of their mouths as they jumped at the swarm of spiders crawling from within the door frame. Laughter soon overtook their screaming when they realized the silliness of their fear, and the two young women continued up the staircase to the left.

Marlaea kept her hand on the wall for the entire length of the staircase as dizziness began to shake her ability to walk convincingly straight. Her lungs burned within her chest and she could feel the pounding of her heart's desperate beats thumping inside her brain. She needed to find a private place. As she followed the two women through the black wooden door, she glanced around the room. Blinking several times to keep her vision clear, she searched the walls for a door.

"Excuse me." Marlaea's voice was a raspy whisper as she pushed passed the gawking ladies she had followed inside. A small bathroom sat in the farthest corner of the Prep Room, and she could see the shadows of the open door in the corner.

Slipping inside the small room, a sour garbage stench filled the tiny space, making each breath gag in the back of her throat. Taking shallow quick breaths was the only way she had discovered to try and pass the smell long enough to finish up her personal business. Lightheadedness overtook her, and she managed to slam the door closed behind her before crashing onto the cold tile floor. Marlaea cracked her head against the sink on her way down sending another stab of intense pain jolting through her body. The red rash on her hand from touching the petals of the flower was now boiling into blisters. After she fumbled through the small leather pouch inside her coat for a moment, she dumped the contents onto the floor.

Eye liner and lipstick skittered across a small pocket mirror. A hair brush and wallet fell next to them. With one more shake the canvass case fell onto the pile. Numbness crept into her left arm stemming from the blisters on the back of her hand. Only once before had she been foolish enough to touch one of the flowers discovering her extreme sensitivity. Grabbing at the case through her blurred vision, Marlaea knew she had to act fast to stop the effects or she could die.

Sweat poured down her face as she struggled with the zipper. Flashes of her memory from the day her life and been lost clouded her vision. She tried to blink them away. The bland colors of the room and the dim single light bulb began to fade in and out as her eyelids grew heavy. Drawing a liquid filled syringe from the holder inside the back, the memory won and her consciousness failed causing her to dropped limp onto the floor.

"A beautiful flower for a beautiful woman." A tender smile curled at his lips as her handed the blossom to her. A glittering diamond caught the sunlight as her fingers rested on her lips.

"Xavier, you are too much a charmer." She nearly giggled as she reached out her hand and accepted the gift.

"That is why you are marrying me, is it not?" His lips curled into a smile as he brushed his fingertips over her cheek. "These flowers are the secret to eternal life, my sweet Marlaea."

"Is that true?" Marlaea remembered hearing the legends as a child, but she had never believed.

"Eat the bloom and find out for yourself."

"Just to humor a romantic." With a smile, she bit the bloom off in her mouth and began to chew the silky yellow petals. A salty sharp taste came across her tongue instantly followed by searing pain. "What have you done to me?" She coughed up the mangled bits of flower onto the ground and grasped at her throat. Her mouth was now numbing with the pain flooding through her body. "That is poison."

Marlaea fell to the ground coughing as her lungs began to burn. Her chest heaved in and out but no air would come to her aid. Collapsing onto the ground at his feet, she coughed harder and the burning moved into her throat as she reached for Xavier. As he glanced down at her writhing in pain, he smiled to himself and turned away.

"I never said how eternity was carried out, my dear." The joyful sneer on his face began to blur as dizziness consumed her. A simple chuckle danced from his mouth. "One bloom kills your mortal soul." As he pulled a matchbook from his pocket, he lit a cigarette. "Two blooms kill your physical body." Drawing in a deep drag, he puffed out the smoke and started walking away. "And, you do not have to eat the second." He flipped the half-smoked cigarette onto the ground and never turned back.

Her eyes fixated on his boots while the gentle tapping of his footsteps along the bricked path faded into the night. Tears streamed down her cheeks as she kept reaching for him. Blackness clouded her eyes and hatred boiled inside of her chest when she realized he was leaving her.

Her eyes shot open with a deep gasping breath. Rubbing her eyes as hard as she could to chase the blurriness away, she managed to prop herself up against the wall beside the sink. Dizziness was still pulling her vision back and forth as she sat on the cold floor of the small bathroom. After Marlaea grabbed the syringe off of the floor, she pulled her left arm from her jacket and shoved the needle into the first vein she could see. After a previous encounter teaching her the effects of the petals after the change rendered her unconscious, Marlaea had been taken to an elderly Chinese herbalist. The gray-haired man said nothing, but gave her a vial of liquid. She had always kept it close since then.

Closing her eyes and leaning her head back, she was finally able to draw in a full breath of air. The dizziness cleared quickly, and the blisters from the back of her hand slowly turned back to nothing more than just an itchy red rash. It had taken her years to learn why the petals were so dangerous to her; once the poison of the flower is in the veins, the protective film of the flower reacts violently. A flower defense mechanism. She balanced her weight on the corner of the sink, Marlaea pulled herself up off of the floor and stood steadily in front of the mirror. After she took a paper towel and blotted the sweat from her face, she bent down and shoved all of the clutter from the floor back into her pouch.

Drawing in a deep breath, Marlaea hoped the scene she had caused outside in the alley had been lost when the witnesses entered the building. It would cause complication to her plan if Xavier found out she was there to see him. Her presence at his club was a surprise she preferred to spoil herself. She shivered at the thought of the man she was once naive enough to consider marrying. But, that was before he destroyed her life, before she knew what he was. Her eyes narrowed at her reflection as she wished she could still feel the hatred she had once had for him.

She pulled out the eyeliner for a quick touch-up and combed her fingers quickly through her long black hair. The deep purple highlights stood out like flames against a midnight sky. Such a vibrant color had not been her choice when the beautician grabbed the wrong bottle, but it would fit in unnoticed next to the others in the club. One final glance in the mirror had her opening the door and stepping back into the Prep Room of the club.

Racks of clothing cluttered the floor of the entry just as it always had. Shelves of shoes and wigs and cases of jewelry and makeup lined every inch of wall space around the room. Marlaea took a deep breath. The smells of cheap lipstick, fresh leather, and Lysol swirled into her nostrils. She had come in here more times than she could remember, all with the same motive, but never completing her self-given task. Someone else had always been too close for a safe completion. A slight sense of relief washed over her as she realized nothing really had changed. Perhaps his poor defenses had not changed either. She could only hope.

Scatterings of people rushed here and there around the room picking out clothing they wanted to try on and choosing what they would wear for the night inside. It had always been a tradition of the club to allow guests who were unfamiliar with the darker side of fashion to borrow proper dress for the evening. If Marlaea was still the sheltered child she had been when Xavier had pretended to court her, she believed would have been among them. But, she had grown hard and wise in her years since that night in her fathers' garden. The justice she had hoped for from removing such a threat to innocence had brought her to America, and she had immersed herself fully in the throes of the gothic style.

"Where did you get those boots?" The question came from behind Marlaea, tearing her attention away from the little brunette standing in front of the dressing room.

"Pardon?" She turned to see a stocky woman in her late thirties admiring her age-old boots.

"Those boots are gorgeous." As the woman reached out to touch the soft leather, Marlaea resigned to being nice. "Did they come from here?"

"Nothing this wondrous ever came from here." Marlaea propped her leg out so the woman could get a better look. "Paris." The woman looked up at her as if she were studying an extinct dinosaur. The accent must have caught her attention. Quickly, Marlaea tried to make her accent less 18th century London and more 21st century American. "I found 'em a few years ago."

Marlaea hated having to cover her own voice to sound American. She had always loved her accent dearly, but confused reaction from people who heard more than a single sentence at a time from her were enough to remind her of the difference. Who many would believe she had walked the same streets as Austen and the Bronte Sisters. No one. Not even the ones with their superstitions and desires for finding the way to eternal life would believe it was actually possible from eating a flower. It was too simple, and that was why there was such a large price to pay. The price of a soul.

She grimaced to herself and recalled the tenderness in Xavier's eyes when he had proposed, the same he had when he gave her the flower. After she awoke from the ordeal, the crippling pain gone and replaced with numbness, she knew his show of feelings had been just that: a lie. It was then she truly wished to feel, to revel in the hatred she had only moments before the complete loss of her soul. The flower was only grown in one place anymore, and that was in the small window box of the back entrance to the Yellow Dragon.

A wooden door painted vibrant yellow was all that separated the Prep Room from the main floor of the club. Falling in line behind a group of women entering into the noise, she slipped inside the shadows and smoke clouds of the dimly lit bar. Loud music thundered against the black walls as she walked down the stairs to the dance floor. Spying her target near the back of the long room, she wove between grinding people and talking groups. The bar was always full on Friday nights which made her wonder if she would have the strength to complete her task tonight with so many innocent people around.

Pushing her way passed the crowds waiting near the bar, she aimed for a small side hallway that led to a rickety, disgusting bathroom and a narrow set of spiraling stairs. The image of seeing Xavier suffer as she had was her only goal. Crashing against the wall, finally out of the crowd, she took a few deep breaths to try and calm herself down. Her heart had started pounding again with the presence of so many living beings. She hated them all for being soulful. She hated herself for being so blind.

Grasping the railing of the staircase, she slowly worked her way up to the office of the man she had come to see. As she paused in front of the door, girlish giggling mixed with his hearty laughter drifted through the wood. Knocking softly against the wood, she waited to hear if either of them noticed. With the continuing of the giggles, she assumed neither had. Marlaea was in no mood to wait for a convenient time, so she turned the handle and slipped silently into the room.

The same pasty white, skinny blonde she had followed into the club was perched in the lap of the black-haired muscular man she remembered. He held a tiny yellow blossom between his fingers, rubbing it suggestively across her lips. Another giggle came from the girl as he traced circles on her thigh with his finger. A black vinyl skirt hung on her bony body below the protruding bumps of her ribs, the milky skin nearly glowing next to matching bra she barely fit into. Standing in the doorway, Marlaea saw innocence in the young woman; the same she herself had once possessed.

"You always did enjoy sharp things, Xavier." Marlaea glanced at the swords gracing the wall of his office over the mantle.

"What the hell?" An angry growl drifted from his mouth as he turned in head toward her. "What are you doing in here?" His eyes narrowed as he glared at Marlaea as she stood in the shadows. "What do you want?"

"You know what I want, Xavier." She put a seductive edge into her throaty whisper.

"I'll come down for you later." He planted a final kiss on the nose of the skinny bone-sack sitting in his lap and pushed her up. The woman glanced at Marlaea. A hurt furrow dug between her brows as she pulled down her skirt and rushed out the door.

"Still decorating with medieval weaponry?"

"Of course." Leaning back in his desk chair, he clamped his fingers together behind his head. "I could not imagine myself decorating with anything else."

"I am glad for it this time." The sharp edges of the blades glittered in the dim light of his desk lamp. A singed gray suit of armor flanked the stone fireplace.

Gold flashed in his blue eyes as he looked her over at her. Marlaea knew she was not the woman he had met so many years ago—that girl had been a peasant with a simple dress and big dreams. The woman standing before him now—long black hair highlighted fuchsia, a contrast to the lavender color her eyes used to be, a long fitted silk coat that flared out at her hips and drifted over her curves to her ankles, and heeled leather boots made her the woman he had always dreamed of having. Marlaea reminded herself of the dark desires he had always had for her. As she shifted her weight, the folds of her coat parted enough for him to see the boots that went up to her knee.

His mouth began to water slightly at the thought of having her beside him as he had planned. She was beautiful when he chose her for his partner, but now she was a vixen he could not deny. Xavier's desire was obviously not cooled by the presence of a woman he knew hated his very existence. He shifted his position enough for her to see the full extent of his arousal. Her eyes never left his.

"You always did like blondes." She moved forward slowly to stand in front of the desk.

"But never for keeping." He stood slowly from his chair and walked around the edge of his desk. Propping himself against the front of the wooden block, he ran his hand down her arm. "Blondes are meant to be toyed with and used, and then cast aside once you've had your fun." Grabbing her arm forcefully, he pulled her close. Marlaea had chosen it specifically because he had always loved the smell of lavender and vanilla when she wore it. "Not like you. You are meant for great things."

"Meant for great things?" She pulled her arm away with a short loud laugh. Slow steps pulled her away from his grasp and lead her toward the mantle beneath the swords. "Is that why you cursed me?"

"I cursed you to be by my side."

"You cursed me because I was young and foolish." Lavender flashed in her eyes as she glared at him over her shoulder.

"I gave you eternal life." Pressing the tips of his fingers together, he scoffed at her ungratefulness. He leaned forward onto the desk and whispered to Marlaea. "You should be thanking me."

"Thanking you." Her words snapped harshly as she slammed her fists onto the wood. "For what, exactly?" Leaning her weight forward onto her hands, she glared into his blank eyes. "For allowing me to see my entire family wither and die while I was trapped youthfully vibrant?" She raised her voice drawing in deep breaths. "Was the pain a gift, as well?"

"Everything was a gift." Marlaea's shouts did not alter his mood. Xavier opened his hands and dropped them into his lap. "I wanted you." Anger stirred within her again. "I still do."

"Physical appeal was the only thing that ever mattered to you." The tone of her voice slipped into a low, solemn timbre as her expression cleared. She shivered from a sudden surge of rage.

"As I remember, you were the one who accepted my offer." Tilting his head to the side to look at her, his eyebrows raised with the corners of his mouth. "You obviously felt something for me."

"So you assumed." Stretching to reach the handle of the sword, she cracked the blade out of the wooden holder. "Now I will show you how wrong you were."

A guttural laugh rolled from his mouth as she turned to face him. Xavier shook his head at her furry alerting Marlaea to his obvious unbelieving that she could cause and really damage. Using this to her advantage, she dropped her arms down to pull in her shoulders and show fear. As her feet moved hesitantly across the carpet, he laughed a little louder. Pausing in front of him as he shook his head, she thrust the silver blade deep into his chest. A gasping noise gargled through the blood gathering in his throat as he clutched his hands around the blade.

"Is that all?" Blood spurted from his mouth as he smiled. Pulling the blade from his chest, he dropped it onto the floor and stood tall. "Are you serious?" Slamming his palm against her throat, he swiftly pinned her against the bookshelf. Her hand squeezed the muscles of his wrist trying to free herself. Xavier let out a short laugh. "You are not match for me, Marlaea."

As he lifted her by the neck and slammed her body down on the desk, Marlaea's head cracked against the hard wood. Her sight faded black for an instant as her arms dropped beside her. Stretching her arm out across the cool wood, she searched by touch for anything she could use as a weapon. When her hand met with nothing but empty space, she slammed her fist into the side of his face. A momentary lapse in his grip gave her a window to try and break away.

"Do not get ahead of yourself." He slammed her back down onto the desk. "I knew the day would come when you would try to kill me." Xavier added his other hand to the vice around her neck. His nostrils flared in anger. "I have been waiting so long, and your feeble attempt insults me."

"It is all you deserve." Marlaea choked out the words straining her throat. She attempted another swing, but her muscles refused to comply and there was no power behind the motion.

"I wonder how you can still hate me after so many years have passed." His expression shifted quickly as he leaned down over her body. Xavier's hand traced down her side coming to rest on her thigh. "It must be from those last few moments of your existence with a soul." The softness in his eyes melted away with the rising of his anger. "When you realized you were nothing more than a body with a face."

Forcefully, he pressed his lips against her. As she pushed her lips apart, she bit his bottom lip as hard as she could. A shout of pain exploded from his mouth as fresh blood covered the dried, red splotches on his chin. Warm liquid ran down his neck and dripped onto her chest as he leaned away from her face. She grimaced at the rusty taste and smell. Squeezing his fingers tighter around her neck, she gasped for air wondering if he would break her windpipe. Marlaea struggled against his grip and spit on his face.

"Stupid girl." Xavier slapped her hard across the face. He tugged her upward by the throat and brought her face close to his. "You were always so beautiful." A breeze blew past her as he ran with her toward the wall. She felt the plaster of the wall give and crack under the force of her body as she hit it. "No wonder I want you."

"I did feel something for you then." Marlaea's fingernails dug deep into his wrist as he held her against the wall. Blood began to flow over her fingers as she broke through his skin. "But I feel nothing but hatred for you now."

"Only a soul can feel." Xavier slapped her again and lifted her away from the wall. His blue eyes flashed black as he slammed her into the bookshelf again. "You have no soul."

The shelves cracked and splintered into her shoulders from the force. She could feel the warmth of her own blood trailing down the skin beneath her coat. Xavier grinned at her agony as he pulled her forward and dangled for a moment. He let out a short chuckle before dropping her battered body onto the desk once more. A tear slipped from the corner of her eye as the pain slowly seeped through her body.

Marlaea closed her eyes trying to push the pain away and regain enough strength to fight. Pushing her arm out over the desk for one final attempt to locate a weapon, her fingers brushed over the thin metal strip of a letter opener. Her body did not have enough strength to grasp it. Another surge of pain jabbed into her back as he leaned more weight on her throat. She almost wanted him to kill her. At least if she were dead, she would not feel so alone. In death she would be free. But, he would still be alive to corrupt and destroy. A new wave of strength coursed through her veins as she remembered what he had done to her.

Finally able to grasp the letter opener tight enough in her fist, she slammed the thin piece of metal into his rib cage. A laugh escaped through his clenched teeth as Marlaea's eyes searched the room for another weapon to defend herself with. Her eyes caught a glimpse of a shimmering blade. Thrusting the toe of her boot between his legs, his grip loosened instantly as he stumbled backward holding himself. A violent cough tore from her throat as she gasped for air. Marlaea pushed herself up from the desk and approached the mantle once more. He straightened his posture swallowing down the pain and stepped closer to the desk.

"You think a little knife will kill me?" Growling through clenched teeth, Xavier shook his head at her. Pulling the letter opener from his ribs, he threw it onto the desk.

"No, it will not kill you." Her voice rasped through ragged breaths and he flashed a red-stained smile in her direction. She pulled the other sword from the placket and raised the blade to his throat. "But this will."

The smile faded quickly from his lips as the blade slit through the soft skin of his neck. Blood poured from the wound as she grabbed a battle axe from the suit of armor in the corner. She glared up at him and took one final swing finishing the job of beheading her foe. As his head thumped down onto his desk with a bloody splat, the axe fell from her hands and stuck into the floor.

Marlaea looked at the limp corpse lying in a deep red pool of blood. The blue carpet began turning brown as it absorbed the lifeline of the dead man. Turning on her heel, she moved to the window. Pushing up on the window sill, the wood creaked and cracked but refused to budge. She shoved her elbow through the glass shattering splinters over the iron fire escape. Carefully cleaning the shards from the edge of the window, she climbed through the opening. Xavier was dead and no one else would fall victim to his whims.

"Hope." She whispered softly into the night air. A smile gradually crossed her face as a twinge of brightness smoldered in her stomach. "He was wrong."

As her feet stepped down onto the iron platform, glass pieces crunched beneath her weight. Slow steady steps echoing softly into the night air took her down from the second story. Snapping and popping rocks underneath her boots were the only noises in the alley as she moved toward the sidewalk outside the building. For the first time in many years she finally felt hopeful that justice would prevail in her existence.