((AN: This is just a little something I came up with and thought I'd put up, just to show that I'm alive here. Actually been working on another original story, a Fantasy series that I want to publish. No, sorry, it's not Remnants, not yet. x3
As for this short story...well...it's hard to explain where this idea came from. XD But if my muse bugs me enough, it gets written; and it's actually among the darkest things I've ever come up with, I'll warn right here and now. Let's just say that I delved into an alternate idea of where demons and spirits might originate, and then gave the story to one such demon to tell for himself. See what people think about it.))
I believe that I might have amused Mary when she dropped in on me this morning, me sitting at a table in my club before the opening hour and her seeing me eat my weight in breakfast eggrolls. I don't really need to eat any sort of mortal food; but when I wish to indulge in the absolutely beautiful sense of taste, it's more often than not eggrolls, and always from the small Chinese place nearby in town. They have the best stuff; next to the pizza place of course.
Ah, but I always get ahead of myself when I'm writing about my day. Someday someone will read this and be rather confused about some things; namely why I am insinuating that I'm immortal.
The short version of the story is that I am.
My true name is Mardirith; but humans must call me by my given name of Mark Streuth. Giving a mortal your true name, if you are Ether-Born, gives them the power to control or oust you out of existence. So we are very careful to never confess it, not unless we are completely certain that the human we entrust it to will never misuse it.
My sister Maribel, who goes by Izabel in human form, and I live in a small town some few miles from the coast, nestled in a patch of woods off the main roads and a long distance away from the highway. It's a small enough town that many recent maps don't even mark it. But it's big enough to have a close, thriving community, a police force, and even a mayor. It was formed nearly three-hundred years ago, in the early 1700s; a very historical place. It even has a museum, and some of the big houses have been here for at least a hundred years and have been remodeled and painted over time.
And we have been here since its founding.
Of course, I won't give away too much of the back-story yet; after all, going by the title, you'd guess by now that you will hear it as I tell it anyway. Meanwhile, we will go back to current events.
I sat and ate my food in quiet solitude at one of the many tables of the club that Izabel and I own together; by day it is a seemingly simple restaurant with a stage. Sometimes there are even karaoke singers.
But after the sun sets, it is a popular, booming strip club. Many would pity or despise that fact, but we aren't ashamed to have such a thing to our name; it is a business like any other. Just one that offers a place with drinks, music, and entertainment in an otherwise quiet, traditional town, fulfilling the same purpose as olden burlesque shows. The women (and men) who work it have enough fun, too. We keep our employees happy, and at the same time we Ether-Born gain our sustenance.
See, among other things, we feed on emotional energy. The greatest amount of what we "eat" comes out of emotional lust; of which there is plenty here. We had the idea long ago to build the club to provide such an emotional release for the people, and at the same time we gain what we need without having to...well, in the kindest terms, to steal it, as would usually be our purpose among the mortals.
The money certainly isn't bad, either.
But I digress; you've probably already guessed what kind of entity I am. I am known as one among the most ancient of demons. In German folklore, I would be called Teutonic. In Zanzibar, Popo Bawa. In Chile, the Trauco. In Southern Africa, Tokolosh. Perhaps sharing the same tendencies as the South American Boto, though the river dolphins bearing the same name are gentle as anything.
But in the common English tongue, my name is borrowed from Latin, "To lie upon".
Incubus. A common enough title to garner primal fears.
In my true form, I have pale white-blonde hair with two black horns erupting from my skull, torn ebony bat-wings from my shoulder-blades, and a long, spaded tail. I lack these as a human, and my hair is jet-black. My eyes stay an interestingly bright, poisonous green either way. Ever the shape-shifting incarnation of lust, I can spread fear through a human's consciousness even in sleep, and my other powers match many of those of lore. As have my actions in the past.
But let's hear the rest of the story, shall we? Judge me when I'm finished.
It was a quiet morning, and I often spend them either walking the town or spending time with Izabel, or food, or both (when she isn't busy with taking care of the club's bills and other accounting). The club doesn't open until about noon, and being unable to sleep, time for us is relatively slow and agonizingly cyclical. But, gotta pass it somehow, and we'll always have plenty of time to pass.
Not too long into my feast, though, I heard the office doors from the back open and looked up to see Mary Summerton—though she'd rather these days go by her maiden surname of Gale—stepping inside.
I watched her coming and greeted her with a smile, albeit a smile full of food. She was a beautiful, skinny woman—when I first saw her, she was a rather unhealthy type of skinny. Now though, she's on her way to looking much better, with more color in her soft, pale cheeks. A woman of thirty years of age, she looked innocent and young, but one look in her grayish-blue eyes would give you the idea of hidden depths. She wore her long brown hair in a tight ponytail, and a modest dress over her equally-modest shape like a young middle-class woman would have worn in the early 1800s, colored in deep green hues. Some days we have talked her into wearing comfortable modern jeans and shirts, but she seemed to have a permanent old soul inside and out.
How I met Mary is another long story; but the short version is that I had saved her from a very abusive husband, who ironically is also a high-ranking cop. We keep her safe in our apartment complex just across the street behind the club, and she helps us out by doing odd jobs at our workplace in the evening. She's the kind of sweet, timid but strong-willed woman who could live leisurely on the kindness of others, but refuses to.
In my three-hundred years here among humans, Izabel and I have become a little more like humans ourselves. Prick us and we bleed; threaten those we care about, and we will fight. She jokes that I have become softer than she is—but I'm not bothered. I will allow myself to care, and especially for the woman who stood before me that morning with a playful grin on her face. The woman whose nightmares I have banished and into whose dreams I have pried on many occasions.
The woman who knows what I am and still smiles at me, because I saved her.
"Wow," she laughed, gesturing at my still-very-full plate of eggrolls. "You think maybe you have enough of those?"
"Probably not," I replied with a mouthful of food before swallowing to speak clearly. "But you know me; I can't help it. Shu Jin's stuff is the best. But I am being kinda impolite. Here, have one."
"Thanks," she obliged with a roll of her eyes and sat next to me. "Next thing I hear, you'll have eaten the town out of those."
"I almost did once," I smirked. "Remember the supermarket strike a year or two ago?"
"You had something to do with that?" Her eyebrows quirked.
"Let's just say there's a reason that the best food is restaurant food," I said nonchalantly, earning myself a snort from Mary as she grabbed another eggroll.
She munched for a moment, and then chuckled. "I wonder if these are the things you really lust for."
"But of course. Lust doesn't just refer to the sins of the flesh," I pointed out. "It describes an insatiable desire for anything. In my case, carefully-prepared fried things."
"You know your seven deadly sins; lust and gluttony all in one," she observed with joking mirth in her eyes. How I loved to see her mirth, despite what she had been through in her life.
I swallowed my next bite quickly and raised my finger for emphasis. "And for the tenth time, am not from Hell; I am from the Ether. Hell is an invention of human wrath."
"I know; I can't help but tease though," she chuckled shyly.
The thing about Ether-Born is that we have been around in human folklore, imagination, and presence for as long as they have existed on the planet. The Ether is an in-between place near to a world of spirits where the essence of everything exists; and from that plane, so long as the influence on the mortal plane is strong, we can cross. Many types of us hide on the Earth; good and bad.
Demons are and have been among them. We are created as creatures of base darkness and evil; but like all Ether-Born, if we are able live long enough on the mortal plane (a rare occurrence), we have the ability to choose for ourselves to change such attitudes, so long as our abilities allow.
Three-hundred years isn't enough to change our mischievous acts, and my love for manipulating the dreams of women; or even tasting their fear, when I am in the mood to play in their nightmares. But the time was enough to make me better than what I was. It was enough to understand, to empathize, and to want to put myself between another living soul and mortal danger.
It was about in the middle of these musing thoughts that Mary broke the silence with a question. "Mark? You said that you...Ether-Born?...are created if you're summoned, or if there's a great amount of emotional energy associated with you around?"
"I did, yes," I confirmed, pausing in my eating to watch her.
She played with a fold of her dress; a nervous reaction. "How'd you and Izabel come to be here?"
My brow furrowed as I took in her question, and I looked away briefly.
She stuttered out a quick explanation, her gaze darting down to her lap. "I-I'm sorry if it's something you don't want to answer. I was just...you know, curious."
I couldn't really fault her curiosity. It's something that all humans have, and it's a good trait at that. It had just taken me by surprise, how amazingly open-minded that people of the modern era could be. I should have expected it of her.
"No, Mary, don't be sorry," I said with a reassuring touch of my fingers on her shoulder. "It was just unexpected, is all. But," I frowned, "It's a pretty dark story. Are you sure you want to know what could possibly summon creatures like us—an incubus and a succubus—into this world? It wouldn't do any of us good to frighten you further."
Mary paused, biting her lip as she thought. But when she raised her eyes to meet mine, despite the timid lines in her face, I saw finality. She nodded. "I just want to know more about you. And what could make you into the kind people that I know today, despite what you hold back."
A small smile crossed my face, and I pushed the plate with the rest of the eggrolls toward her, leaning back in my chair. "Alright. I'll tell you. If," I raised my finger, "You promise to keep it to yourself."
"Of course I will," she replied ardently. "I mean, I kept what you really are to myself this far, haven't I?"
I felt the energy of her sincerity, and knew that she wouldn't tell even under duress.
And so, with a deep breath, I told her my story.
Long ago, this town was merely a hunting village in the mountains; a tiny settlement, but swiftly growing, for colonials looking to forge new lives in the wilds of the new world. The Witch Hunts had died out a good decade before, but the village was made out of the remnants of those Puritan-minded families; many of whom still believed that the supernatural had a great presence in the world of humans.
Living here back then, in a time when the law was being written and the courthouse, prison, and gallows were seeing use, was a woman by the name of Marion Streuth. She had a build similar to yours, bright green eyes and reddish-blonde hair. In public, she was always regarded as a kindly and sweet girl, albeit very quiet. Fairly smart, as well, at least insisting on learning to read like the scholars.
But sweet as she was, she had a sad life. I won't go into the horrid details of her childhood; but it goes without saying what would cause her as a woman to feel isolated and her life controlled. What would cause her to seek her only solace in carnal pleasures, away from judgmental and prying eyes night after night.
Marion knew that what she was doing wasn't good or natural; but it couldn't be helped, for it had a strong hold of need on her emotions. She tried dutifully following her religion, but felt defeated and abandoned by God, for her prayers were never answered.
So, as either a hobby or a grab for salvation, she looked for enlightenment in a study of the occult. She took interest in learning of the religions of other cultures, all of which seemed forbidden if they were different. Marion would save her money, go to the nearest town, and buy books of spells and incantations. "For references for our church annals," she'd say. In these books, she found another happiness for a time.
Each night, in the dead hours, she would read and memorize every incantation. Holy and unholy, summoning and curses—all of it. She prayed in an ancient and forbidden tongue for more control of her life, for sicknesses on those she hated, for Hell to torture every soul that had forced themselves upon her and thus forced a love of lust into her head.
She grew more obsessed day by day, more isolated. Waiting for her spells to come to fruition. Practicing in the darkness of the woods, something had attached itself to her head and grew on her emotions like a parasite.
Then one day, she was caught. Betrayed by one of her many suitors, they captured her and searched her things. Found the books.
Marion was brought before the court and accused of adultery and witchcraft. And she didn't deny either; in fact, she was proud.
She spent the last months of her life in the prison. It was more like a dungeon; an underground holding place of cells. She knew only darkness and lantern-light, walls of gray, and shackles of iron cutting into her skin. Meager food that at times she refused to eat until her body was pained. Rusty water. She eventually became naught but skin and bones.
The girl felt the time passing. And then one night, what would become her very last, she began to chant one of her spells. Delirious from hunger and dying of thirst, her words were jumbled, but the emotions were strong and desperate. Over and over again she cried, chanting, summoning. Blood from the chains scraping her wrists fell onto her face and mixed with her tears; finally completing her ritual.
And over in the darkest corner, shadowed from the flickering lantern's glow, something opened. She never noticed when a path to the dark realm of the Ether swirled apart like a silent void. Neighboring prisoners would have felt a cold chill in their bones, but nothing more.
She did notice when I slunk out, all but shadow, with eyes like hers staring at her, into her heart. The first thing I felt when I entered was her fear. And it drew me closer. It only grew stronger when I longingly whispered her name, dispelling the solemn quiet of the prison. She knew what I was and what I had come for.
She was afraid. But somehow, whether it was her last conscious decision or through the desparation of her languishing body, she broke through that tension and begged me to end her life. To take her past the threshold of the mortals and to wherever her soul deserved its eternity.
I moved closer, touched her cold skin beneath threadbare clothes. I pressed tightly to her...inside of her...so close that her breath became shallow. She didn't struggle; she could have, however weakly, but she didn't. I absorbed her meager life energy, and knew what I was through her, my summoner. I was a representative of her curses, her emotions. I was her lust; what she hated and loved. I was her death, but as she wished it.
I was her mercy.
And so, as she slowly slipped away in my hold, I spoke to her, whispering against her ear.
"Pray for thine soul. The reaper approaches; pray, and thou wilst be taken where thou art meant to be."
I didn't mock, like a hateful demon would. She murmured intelligibly, finding solace in me. I held Marion until she was gone, and released her soul, wherever it would go.
I sat silently in that cell with her body for a long time, but the energy of the Ether still lingered. There was a shimmer in the air and movement in the shadows of the corner. I knew that when I killed her, I also released what was feeding on her in life.
She appeared, looking much like me; and like Marion. Same green eyes, same hair (though longer), same demonic features. A succubus that manifested from her spells and her emotions. Representative of the same lust that I was, and also of the girl's regrets. I knew that she was my sibling, summoned by the same person; however differently.
She hissed my name, knowing it forever and yet also for the first time. "I was rather fond of that soul."
"She was dying," I replied, knowing her name in the same way and saying it back. "Thou wouldst have had to let her go."
We fought for a while at first; we only saw each other as rivals. But eventually we knew to work together, for there was nothing that we would have of this world alone.
We stayed hiding in the dark reaches of that prison for as long as it stayed in use, some fifty years. Marion's body had long rotted, and she was removed when they had to do it; I never knew to this day what was done with it. We were a constant presence, feeding on many other prisoners in the same ways. For many, we were their dying nightmares. For others, their mercies. Nobody ever thought to cleanse the place of spirits. And thus, we grew stronger and less ethereal with more lives that we haunted and, eventually, ended.
We only left when the prison was closed forever and forgotten, and things were built over it. We escaped at night when we could still access the powers of shadow to slip into the cracks of doors.
We stayed in the forest near the town, slowly but surely venturing into it as it grew and changed with the world. Soon, we blended with the mortals. Nobody really questioned our presence, so long as we were secretive about it; if you look human, nobody thinks twice whether you are. We got jobs, rose in the ranks, pretended to die and appear again when people suspected our eternal youth; new faces and names to new generations. We kept our old habits, but learned restraint. Learned how to give dreams as much as nightmares. Heal as well as hurt.
Perhaps it was the mercy that we were created with; perhaps it was the sad plight of our summoner that allowed us to look at the lives of humans as fragile and easily manipulated. It's even hard for us to know why we eventually turned out this way. But over the decades—the Industrial Age, the World Wars, the moon landing, through every medical and scientific breakthrough and all of recent history—we lived.
And over time we also learned more. We knew that the people who would despise us in one life would eventually give way to new people, and new, better first impressions. We took human names and kept the surname of Streuth, as we were—are—still a part of Marion. And when we had saved enough money over the many years we earned it, we built this place.
Which leads back to the present day.
Mary was watching me attentively when I ended the story; I could see sadness in her gaze and feel it from her soul, as well as a twinge of doubt about me.
I shrugged and sighed. "That's how we came to be. We've always been here; and probably always will be. Wherever Ether-Born are created, we are anchored. We could travel, but eventually just like humans, will return home."
She finally let out her breath. "Wow. That's...there's no words. Would be hard to believe if I hadn't seen you and your powers with my own eyes. But, that poor girl...it's so sad, what became of her."
I nodded solemnly. "She passed painlessly—that amount of good I can claim. And despite our origins, Izabel and I now try to spend our time atoning for our nature."
A well of silence passed between Mary and myself. I kept my gaze to my knees, but I could still feel her own eyes on me.
Finally though, her comforting touch found my hand on the table. "If it were me, I would believe that no amount of atonement would do. But it's admirable that you still wish to try. And...and as for me, I'm still glad to know more about you, whomever you are."
I looked up again, heartened. The woman still keeps surprising me with her strength and adaptability.
I chuckled, easily returning to my sense of humor as I repeated a joke of hers from back when I revealed myself. "Beats the hell out of vampires still, right?"
"Completely," she laughed and shook her head. "And besides, it's pretty neat to hear more about the town's history. I wonder if that prison eventually collapsed, being underground."
"It was reinforced well with stone," I said as I reached back to my plate of eggrolls for a second helping. "It's still here, in fact."
Mary's eyes widened with interest; she did love her history. Despite her homely look, she'd had a dream of dabbling in archeology. "It is? Where?"
I tapped the floor with my shoe. "About two or three levels beneath our feet."
Her jaw dropped, and she turned her head downward and back again. "You're kidding! You had this club built right over the 300-year-old prison?"
"It was our first home, however macabre, and it holds our anchor spot. Even if it were destroyed, the energy would still linger. Over the years its existence was forgotten; so when we got enough money we made sure to buy the plot of land and preserve it. You'd be surprised how well old architecture fairs underground. Just look at the catacombs of France, for example."
"Well, still," she shook her head, still bewildered. "It can't be that well-preserved anymore."
I gave her a grin. "I'll prove it."
She looked up at me, incredulous. "What, like take me down there?"
"Mm-hm. Right to the very cell in which we were created. We can make a tour out of it. After all, you're working here, so you should know every nook and cranny."
I could tell that the idea intrigued her; intrigued, and frightened a little. But her curiosity seemed to win over any doubt. "...Can you show me?"
My grin grew, overtaking my face. I was sure that I must have looked impish, staring at her fascinated gaze with more than a little amount of smolder in my own.
I stood up and motioned for her to follow. She did, striding along behind me and right through the empty club to the grandiose front. We headed for the door that hung off stage-left. She didn't question our destination; before I would take her anywhere locked off from the general public, we would have to get the keys from my sister.
Through the door and into the hallway we passed, a white-painted corridor with bulletin boards and posters that employee areas would have in most any building. At the end lay our office, and the door was still ajar. Inside we could hear typing.
At the oak desk in front of a computer was Izabel, concentrating on her accounting forms and various other tasks and paperwork for the business. This was her environment during the day, where mine was outside. With the top of her long black hair and its red undertones pinned beneath a headband and wire glasses resting at the tip of her nose, she looked every bit the logical, meticulous co-owner in her human guise.
Where I found my mortal hobby in eating and wandering, Izabel found hers in mathematics and problem-solving. She and I were balanced opposites. Chaos and order, red and blue. She only indulged in her own chaotic side on ladies' night at the club, twice a week. But ultimately, I took care of employee relations and hiring while she took care of everything else.
"Hey, Izzy," I called.
"Calling me that is as bad as calling me 'Jezebel'. Don't do it or you'll die," Izabel stated and looked up at us once. Her lip quirked in a smile, and she was still furiously typing. "There you two are. Not getting into trouble, I hope?"
"Not if we can help it," I snorted and gestured to her drawers. "Do you have the keyring to the basement there somewhere?"
She stopped her quick finger-work and swiveled her chair around so that she could rummage in the confines of the desk. "I think so, yeah. Here," she tossed the keys up to me, and I caught them easily in my right hand. "Wha'dya need 'em for? Lose something down there?"
"No," I replied cautiously. I traded a glance with Mary, and then looked back. "I want to show her the cells."
That certainly stopped her typing dead in its tracks. She slowly turned and gave me a look halfway between "worried" and "you're crazy".
"I probably shouldn't have just thrown the keys," she finally muttered after a pregnant pause, taking off her glasses and facing me with her arms crossed. "You told her the story?"
"I wanted to. She asked."
Izabel grimaced. "And you don't think that won't cause any problems later."
"Mary has no reason to tell anyone," I argued.
"It's true," the girl spoke for herself, coming up beside me. "I really was just curious. But..." she held her hands in a humble manner in front of her, "...But I won't pry if you don't want me to, Izabel."
The look on my sister's face softened slightly, regarding Mary, but she didn't reply.
I bent over the desk. "Look. I'll take responsibility for this. I saved Mary and brought her here. And if we are going to keep her in hiding, then she has a right to know whatever she needs to in order to trust us. To trust me. Please, sister."
Her eyes narrowed at me, and we communicated in a silent, knowing debate. Izabel was worried that our long-hidden cover would be blown; so was I. But I also knew a trustworthy soul when I saw one. Mary's was as kind and benevolent as any; she was bound for Heaven—should such a place exist in the realm of spirits, and I hoped that it did—despite her association with us.
Finally, Izabel relented with a long sigh and replaced her glasses. She reached into her bottom drawer and pulled out a surgical mask, offering it to Mary. "You'll need that down there, sweetie; the place has grown lots of fungi and molds that'll agitate your lungs. And who knows what you might be allergic to." She faced me. "As for you, brother, just be careful. I'll be here to help, but this is your ultimate responsibility."
"I know," I acquiesced. "Thank you."
"Thank me later when I have this damned account finished," she muttered and dismissed us with a wave of her hand. Clutching the keys, I led Mary out of the hall and back into the sunlit quiet of the club. This time, we crossed to the stage-right door, where lay the entrance to the cellar.
I looked through the ring of keys in my hand, and Mary peered over my arm between them and the entrance. The metal circle held eight different keys, each for one door in the building. Seven of them looked fairly recent enough; but one was an old-time iron key, slightly rusted but still useable. We had kept it in great care, though it appeared to have come from a museum. Some of the curious employees had asked before whether it had gone to any of the doors, and we simply said that we kept an old key there for decoration. It looked so out-of-place, it was humorous.
Her eyes were frozen to that key until I moved the one I found for the cellar to its lock. It opened with an easy click, and I flicked the light switch just inside the door. We saw the bulb below flash brightly and then set off a dim, steady illumination. I was suprised at how long it lasted without being changed, and set a mental note to do that at some point.
As I descended down the dusty concrete stairs, Mary silently followed, her eyes wandering to every new and unseen corner of the building. Just to be cautious, she had placed the surgical mask over her nose and mouth as we traveled further down.
The basement was quiet, but not eerily so. I could hear the steps of scattering roaches, and of the small family of rats that fed upon them. The underground chamber filled about half the width of the first floor, and half the space. But it was still a good expanse of a room, storing things like old shelves and extra tables and chairs, as well as costumes that hadn't seen the light of day in years. There were boxes and chests sealed tightly, keeping secrets that even we have long forgotten about.
On the walls hung old framed portraits from decades past. We'd been asked about those, too, and we passed them off as old family pictures. The earliest was a very grainy black-and-white photo from 1830, showing myself and Izabel together in front of the old town hall building. The most recent had us at the opening of the club as it was today. Each one between the first and last spanned the decades, gaining clarity and color, and showing our changing styles; but we had stayed the same.
Mary couldn't help but observe each one with silent awe, and I watched behind her. I couldn't rush her; I wanted her to explore and to learn. She reached up and touched one of the pictures, clearing away spots of dust with her fingertips. "These are you?"
"Yep. Heh; ever since the invention of the camera, we liked to have pictures taken for every half-century or so that we managed to live. We always liked how humans are able to appreciate memories and history through their photos."
Mary nodded slowly, taking her fingers off the wall and brushing the dust away with her eyes closed. "I need to get my family's old photo books out of storage someday, when my husband isn't at the house."
"We'll help you set things right," I murmured to her. "I promise."
"I couldn't ask you to, Mark," she breathed, giving me a gentle smile through her eyes. "But thank you. Anyway," she turned and looked around. "I don't see another door. Are we still above the cells?"
"Or thereabouts," I hummed and motioned for her to follow me, stopping in front of the far side of the room. One of the large wooden shelves had its own position over a wide, empty wall, and I looked it over for a moment before moving to the left side and leaning my weight against it.
It took some effort, as I hadn't moved the giant piece of furniture in quite some time, but it eventually slid away with my shoving. Behind it, there was concealed a section of red brick wall framed with cracked paint and very different from the appearance of the flat gray walls of the basement.
"A part of the cellar was once used to store wine barrels during Prohibition; this club started as a small-town speakeasy. Very little police interference around here," I said as I heaved my weight against the brick. "Eventually it was boarded up carefully with my supervision. It was the best way I could think of to cover the underground entrance."
"This is all so exciting," she whispered. "Like a treasure hunt in an ancient tomb."
"Except I have Indiana Jones beat," I grinned. "I'm not afraid of snakes. Now, hang on just a second..."
It took more of my strength to push the fake wall inward and to the side, but Ether-Born are built physically much stronger than any human, to the eternal thanks of our design. With a few grunts, I managed it, and we stood before a shadowed, forgotten room that the light only partially touched. About a quarter the size of the basement, we stood framed between two long wooden shelves of wine bottles. Some of the wood had rotted away with time, and we could smell the remnants of the alcohols that had spilled long ago.
On the other side of the room, there was a crate filled with more bottles. I pushed it aside, and the dust flew up to reveal a square indent of concrete. Pulling that up, there lay a termite-eaten wooden trap door.
"Is that mask on tightly?" I inquired of Mary, and she confirmed with a nod after checking the string. "Good. Try to keep your breathing level, though."
"What about you?" she asked. "You aren't affected by airborne poison?"
I gave her a confident smile. "Being immortal means being immune to any disease, toxin, and the flow of time. There's no need to worry about me. Now, stay close, and watch your step."
I reached down and pulled the trap door upward, the hinges creaking loudly with unattended complaint and making the depths echo. I took a few tentative steps inside, and then pulled Mary by the hand with me.
On the bottom, we faced a corridor of complete darkness and silence. The remnants of the lamplight above showed me a hook right beside our heads, with an old lantern on its end. There was just enough oil left inside for a steady candle glow, and I soon had our path lit.
"A few people have discovered this place before, during the rum-running days," I said, mostly breaking the silence of the disconcerting underground for Mary's sake. "But Izabel and I had convinced them that we were using it as more storage space. Once we could hide this door, nobody's ever found it since. You're the first human to be here in years."
She chuckled uneasily. "I should probably feel lucky about that, but all I feel is...cold."
I couldn't say much to that. It would only get worse as we went. I just held her hand and kept the lantern aloft, breaking more of the darkness. "Just stay with me."
She complied easily, and we walked further and further into a path that turned twice around. The environment around us soon changed. From concrete to mortar, mortar to dirt, and dirt to stone, heavily marred and cracked with time.
As soon as the tunnel became all of that same broken material, we passed an open rectangular space with empty indents where hinges would be.
"That was the door to the outside, long ago," I murmured. "We're inside the fore-chamber of the prison. The guard's hall."
She nodded, too intrigued to speak, entranced by the portal into history through which we walked.
We ended up inside a large, clear space that had long been devoid of any furniture; emptiness where a desk and chairs used to stand. Metal torch sconces and lantern hooks were still embedded high above us in the walls, though the echoes of faraway crumbling indicated that they wouldn't be there for long. The heavy smell of dampness and mold assaulted our senses, as did the cold of the underground. It wasn't freezing, but I saw Mary shiver nonetheless.
At the other end of the room stood one last door, nondescript and made of heavy iron with but a mere square window of bars to view the inside. It was sealed with a padlock, for which I produced the old key.
"Hope this thing can turn," I muttered as I inserted it. The tumbler moved with only minor resistance, and it snapped open in my hand.
Mary traded one more glance with me, and then I pushed the door open, the hinges howling in the dead quiet.
The circle of light from the lantern's glow seemed to shrink as we moved inside. Despite the lack of air circulation here, the room was colder. I felt Mary's hesitation to follow me, knowing now that her nerves were standing on end and she was ready to run at the slightest sound. But she kept one hand on my shoulder, steadying herself.
Clouds of dust moved around our feet and gave the dark room the appearance of being in fog. We walked through a large corridor with evenly-spaced indents on each side, all of them opening to eight-by-eight foot square cells. There were maybe twenty of them in all in this one space; the rest of the prison had long fallen victim of cave-ins, leaving only this portion intact. Nearly all of the cell doors had been destroyed, but many still had broken bars sitting near their entrances. Only two had them still standing in rotted hinges. Inside of the others, we saw broken beds or freely-swinging chains, or smelled the heaviness of decay.
"Wow," she breathed. "My god...it really is still here...an 18th Century prison. Oh, I can't imagine having to ever stay down here."
"I'm happy that you'll never have to know," I murmured back, moving my lantern back and forth as we walked slowly through the center of the cell block. "But so many people have had the misfortune. So many lives." I closed my eyes, reliving the memories of my haunting. They both invigorated and chilled my blood, and still the scents of their flesh were strong...
We eventually passed one of the cells; and as we did, Mary froze in her tracks, her body taking a brief fit of shivers.
I turned back to her, and she held her upper arms. "I just...I just felt a really strong chill in my spine all of a sudden," she whimpered, her eyes darting around like those of a frightened mouse.
"That's the energy of the Ether," I informed, my eyes locked on the door. "This is it. This was Marion's cell."
Mary held her breath, and I pulled the bars open.
The lantern flickered, trying to hold a steady light. The interior of the cell looked like all of the others: empty. The floor was filled with dirt and bare stone. Rusted metal chains still hung from the wall, whose blood-stained shackles once held Marion's wrists and others before and after her. Mary continued to shiver, encountering energy that didn't belong in the mortal world. One corner—the very corner that birthed me in its shadows—refused to accept the light of the lantern. If I were to step over there, surely it would go out. I moved inside.
"I-I don't wanna go in there," Mary whispered, taking a few steps back and shaking her head. "It feels...I think I can imagine hearing her crying..."
With her watching me from a careful distance, I bent down and felt the metal of the chains in my palm. I remembered every second of Marion's breath with perfect clarity. I could still feel the last warmth of her body on mine. Her sadness above all that came after her. I was absorbed in the past, kneeling in that cell for the longest time.
I felt that I could hear her voice again too...
"...Mark? Can we leave now, please? I don't think...I don't think I can stay here much longer..."
Mary's pleading snapped me out of my reverie, and I remembered where I was.
I felt a sudden surge of urgency. I turned and quickly stepped out of the cell, closing the door behind me and breathing as harshly as if I were running. The lantern was dropped at my feet with a harsh clatter, the light flickering violently.
Her head tilted, and she reached for me. "Are you okay?"
"Don't touch me," I growled quickly, and then calmed myself with a loud sigh, meeting her frightened eyes. "Sorry. I forgot how strong it was. I think I was nearly forced into my real form."
I reached for her and pulled her to me, regaining some comfort in the warmth of a living body and letting her receive some reassurance in turn. Her mind calmed a little when I brushed my fingers against her brow, using a power of mine. It was similar to one that I had used to ease her nightmares when I first found her.
I stopped it only when I remembered the horrid visions of fear that I caused that way. The thought of ever doing to Mary what I had done to those prisoners...a part of me was urging me on, and yet...
She felt startled by my insistent hold. This energy was unknown to her, scared her, didn't know really what it did to me...but she still didn't pull away.
"But are you okay?" I asked after a moment, loosely wrapping my arm over her shoulders. "Maybe it wasn't a good idea to bring you down here."
I felt her shuddering against me, but she held firm. "...No, it's fine. I'm okay. I'm glad I got to see it. But...this place feels like death itself."
"The energy of death is strong here, yes," I agreed. "There are some forces in this world that you can't get rid of, not easily." I breathed out again and took the lantern, relieved that I could find the will to release her. "Let's get out of here."
And so we quickly left, locking each door behind us that we opened. Across the iron door, through the tunnels, up into the fresher air of the basement. I hastily placed the concrete slab back into its place at the back of the hidden wine cellar just as the lantern blew out. I placed it onto the crate, and pushed the heavy box back over the indents to once again collect dust.
We paused to catch our breath in that hidden dusty space, the smell of fermented grapes filling our senses. I still felt the energy from that cell igniting memories in my head and in my heart.
Being immortal can have a few weak points: one of which being that one year you resolve to do something, and then forget why after a couple hundred more. And it was then that I knew why Izabel looked so uncertain about the idea. She always did have a better head.
Mary was carefully dusting off her dress when I managed to look up at her again. "That was frightening," she sighed, releasing a slight chuckle. "But insightful."
I shook my head, a smirk playing on my lip. "I'm glad you enjoyed it. Have to open it up for Halloween, maybe."
"Absolutely," she laughed, idly looking around the different wine shelves. I had to truly smile; there was no end to the girl's wonder, and it was a part of what I adored about her.
Thoughtfully, she picked up a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon from the shelf and observed its dark crimson color, dusting off the label. Her gaze then slowly faded, as did her smile. "I can't stop thinking of the feeling of that cell though," she murmured. "It was...so full of anguish."
"Yes," my eyes closed. "If I could cleanse that energy, I would. But she left her mark with her death, like all of the others with restless, injured souls." I met Mary's eyes, green to gray-blue, past to present, demon to human, pain to understanding. "To this day I only hope that her soul departed for Heaven, or what passes."
The addition of a third voice surprised Mary more than me, and we looked up to see the form of my sister, Marion's other half, shadowed in the door. Izabel looked just as solemn as we all did, coming closer into the basement's glow.
"You really think it did?" Mary inquired of her.
A kind smile crossed her face, more peaceful than any would appear on a succubus again. "My dear big brother forgets that I was there in her mind and body to the very last. When I tried to trace her soul, I found only the power of light blocking me. So I know that she's safe now in eternity, free of pain. The cell is still haunted by the remnants of emotions and the Ether, but that's all they are. Remnants."
"And you've never told me this before, why?" I asked, feeling understandably perturbed.
Her smile turned into a smirk that matched mine so well. "You'd have tried to turn into a human much earlier than the 21st Century, knucklehead. I had to keep you from getting soft somehow. Now I hope you're done; it's about time to open. I already let the girls in and told them you'll be up to discuss the show tonight."
"Ah, right!" I smacked my forehead as Mary tried to stifle her laughter. "Where does the time go?"
"Knowing you, in the garbage along with your leftover eggrolls," Izabel muttered and turned away with a flourish and a swing of her hips. "See you two!"
I watched after her with narrowed eyes. "She threw away my eggrolls. Woman's got payback comin'."
"Oh, relax," Mary laughed, picking up the bottle that she had grabbed from the hidden cellar and handing it to me. "Maybe you can have something good to drink instead."
I chuckled and winked at her. "And it's aged to perfection, just like me." I inspected the bottle with a hum, and a thought struck me. I looked toward the gray shadows of the cellar, and I could still pinpoint the indents in the floor. Underneath was a world in which time stood still, so long as Izabel and I walked this Earth.
"It's funny. From where I'm standing, the phrase in vino veritas is very appropriate now," I murmured.
She laid her hand on mine, smiling in a way that made me believe that she, too, had the ability to heal. "Look at it this way. You have all the time in the world to remember how you've improved, and improve further. Something that Marion never would have had a chance to do."
I met her smile and squeezed her hand. "In three-hundred more years I will never match the wisdom of a human."
"I still think you could be wiser than me sometimes," she shrugged and nodded toward the wall. "Let's get that hidden again, and get the place up and running."
"Your wish is my command, milady," I smiled my most charming smile and gave her back the bottle of wine. As quickly as I could with heavy materials, I replaced the wall and the set of shelves, sealing away the past once again. "And I doubt your statement, but let's just say wisdom is relative and leave it at that."
She followed me upward and into the main building, and smiled at me even still when she walked back to the office and I was left to greet my employees.
I suppose that every living thing knows the feeling of a memory that will never fade with time. And Ether-Born, whether demons or angels or spirits, all will have lifetimes of memories to bury.
But having a story like mine to tell, and a woman like Mary who will listen, it reminds me that every lifetime has something worth remembering.