Victory's Price

Copyright © 2011 Samantha Rouse

All rights reserved.

Chapter One

Spilled blood, no matter how dark, no matter how tainted, was almost invisible against this crimson sand. And a limp body, no matter how cruel its life had once been, was nothing more than a dirty mark on the surface of this pristine hell, a place of dust, desolation and empty sky.

He had attacked her. He had attacked her with passion and arrogance, with more pleasure than duty alone would allow. He had attacked her with the perfect weapon, a thing that had danced with almost as much delight as its master. It had been a devilish rapier, and he a devilish man; all sharp edges, cruel shine and blood lust.

And she had killed him.

She had killed him with a pitchfork.

Cal dropped the implement, struck suddenly immobile. The cursed thing unsettled the dust, stirring up tiny clouds at her feet.

But he was dead. And such details meant nothing.

Though her face was calm and her hand steady, it was all she could do to keep the Phoenix contained. The beast boiled inside her and the flames of its desperation burnt hotter, once more, than the desert sun that beat upon her back.

Cal's mouth moved to form words of apology. But her voice was rusted from lack of use and she had spent too many years alone, but for her goats, to speak now.

Besides, an apology to a dead man was a futile one indeed.

As his blood soaked into the lifeless ground, trickling along hairline cracks and dripping, sickening, viscous, over the edges of a hundred tiny fissures, Cal stood over him. Her breathing was laboured already, the sweat pouring from her back.

And still the Phoenix fought.

This man was dead, his heart still. And with his sacrifice a legend had been reborn, the Phoenix bursting into life along every inch of Cal's veins. It was strong, it was fresh, and it battled tirelessly for life.

She had not prepared herself for this. She was not ready.

Cal closed her eyes, focusing on the beast. It burnt too strong, the flames of its anger flooding agony through every inch of her being. But still she pushed it down, trapping its will beneath her heart, anchoring its passion to her bones and drowning its anger in the darkest pit of her stomach.

Sighing, Cal leant over his still form and delicately brushed his eyelids shut. She could not pretend to be troubled, no matter how desperately she wished for it to be true. She would have given anything for even the smallest kind of innocence but there was no denying that the Phoenix lived only to sate its hunger with bloody murder, and that the creature had found itself in gleeful victory a hundred times over.

Truly, he had never stood a chance. As soon as he had drawn that thing, he had died.

In the darkness behind her eyes the beast screamed and she knew now was the time to leave. Now was the time to start forgetting again.

Standing, Cal's eye caught sight of his sword and such a simple thing stopped her heart. In that moment, a moment that had been preceded only by the void of lost memories so horrific that even the space left behind was a dark and terrible thing, she knew what it meant to feel true fear.

She longed for his blade, more than she had ever believed she could long for anything. The desire struck something in her, something that was as much herself as it was the beast in her soul. It went past craving and far into the heart of human need.

Deep, behind the walls she had built and time had strengthened, the Phoenix fought for freedom once again.

He had been one man in this empty desert, a place of dust, dirt and those with only hate in their souls. But with one brash deed and a few seconds of clumsiness, he had awoken the darkest part of her.

The metal of the blade ignored her terror, whispering cruel temptation, and offered up a single, sweet promise. It wanted the Phoenix, it wanted her soul. It wanted the way of the Stars, of fire, fury and darkest sin.

And to answer its plea would set her free.

She did not know how long she had spent in this exile, an exile at her own hand, but it had taken her millennia to cage the beast of her blood lust. It would be too easy to draw his weapon from the dust and release her body to its control. She did not need to fear losing herself: Cal was Phoenix more than she was herself. It was only that she had lived too long in the fog, mind numb and heart sick, that, until today, she had even dared hope the essence of her evil had gone.

Cal's fingers hovered over the metal and it flashed in the desert sun, reflecting the stoniness of her face. It called and she longed, longed to give in, longed to live again, her breath stopping as this one small act and the will of a single blade flooded her mind. The Phoenix bathed in the sensation, in the taint of all sin, and slowly she reached down, hand shaking beneath the weight of her desire.

And it was her memories that saved her, the memories she had been hiding for so long that she had almost forgotten why. But still the history of her path rose up in her mind again, rose up like the Phoenix itself, and began to evoke the musings that would tip her into insanity. She remembered why she was here. She remembered what she had done. She remembered who she had lost and Cal knew, knew with certainty, with fear and with a grief so strong she had once thought it might stop her heart, that locking away such a crucial part of herself was not a matter of choice. She could not die physically, so she would kill her mind and pray only that it might be enough.

Turning, Cal left the body in the dust. He had brought back the Phoenix and he had paid the price. Now it was up to her to quench the fire in her soul. She did not live a true life, for the minutes slipped her by, not a single one with the power to impact upon the deep scars of her memory. But already this moment had become too much and she craved the return of her mere semblance of life, for fear that the Phoenix might grow strong, for fear she may lose the only sanity that remained to her, a sanity that was already a torn and tattered thing.

As she walked away, Cal's scattered herd returned to amble placidly at her side. The creatures crowded her legs, directing her broken body home. Absentmindedly, she entwined her fingers in the forelock of her eldest matriarch and the goat relaxed beneath the presence of her hand.

Cal's eyes were glazed, empty, but, though the battle with the pitchfork was over, had been dealt with too worryingly easily, the one in her mind had only just begun. She stepped forward blindly, abandoning the boy to the desert.

The Phoenix screamed, her heart wept and she did not look back.