SULPHUR & SMOKE
Living in a big city means witnessing all kinds of strange things, and Paris is no exception. You get used to the eccentricities of your fellow man pretty quickly. But when this particular man stopped short in front of me with preternatural grace and a fervent grin, it set my teeth on edge.
“Excuse me,” I muttered, shuffling around him and trying to avoid his gaze.
As smoke pooled around his face and under his hood, ice flooded my veins. He reached up to catch the tendrils, to shape them, and remake his features.
For that’s what his kind did, and had done, for centuries.
I didn’t know how he’d found me here, since I’d spent years covering my tracks, never staying in one place for too long. Yet as that unmistakable stench of sulphur and acrid burning filled my nose, I instinctively tensed.
I didn’t wait to see what new form his face had taken. I sprinted down the block, dodging bistro tables and passersby. He was not so considerate. People screamed and shouted, and the sour smoke somehow still assaulted my senses as he gained on me. My chest ached, but I pushed harder, willing my legs faster. His wry voice found me next, its silky tenor shivering down my neck.
“After all these years, this is the greeting I get?”
One of the smoke tendrils caressed my cheek, and I shuddered. I turned a corner, my shoes skidding on the rain-slickened pavement, and plowed through a tour group marvelling at the surroundings. The exterior of the Louvre was always a formidable sight, but it was nothing compared to the shifter on my heels. He grabbed my arm and yanked me to a stop.
“Come now,” he whispered, his voice resonating deep in my core, “I only wish to speak with you.” His face had morphed into a different man’s, all sharp angles and dark stubbled jaw. But his eyes were the same as the day I met him—deep brown with blazing embers at the center.
I twisted out of his grasp. “So you can spellbind me again?”
He unfurled a slow smile. “That was a fun few decades, wasn’t it?” His fingers brushed aside my hair, and I flinched.
The tour group was gawping at us now, so he led me down a side alley away from any mortal onlookers. My pulse throbbed, and I still tasted his bitter smoke on my tongue, but I couldn’t pull free again. He was too strong, too consumed with purpose, of which I wanted no part. Amongst the bins and trash bags, he stopped, his eyes softer than I’d ever seen.
“I’ve been searching for you for so long,” he said achingly, wistfully.
I couldn’t look away, couldn’t escape the fathomless depths of those brimstone eyes. He hadn’t lost his gift for revealing only the briefest flashes of vulnerability, made all the more alluring for their rarity. But the age-old anger flared within me. I’d been running from him for so long, I couldn’t lose myself to his charms so soon.
“After what you did to me,” I hissed, “I never wanted to see you again. Ever.”
“Now, now,” he said, wryness creeping back into his voice, his smile, “You didn’t hate every moment. You took to your magic—and your immortality— with great enthusiasm. You’re a natural, as I always said. And I could still teach you so much more. Like this…” He trailed his long elegant hand in the air between us and conjured more smoke, the gentle iridescence hinting at its feature-morphing capabilities. “You broke our agreement before I could complete your education.”
A spark of desire flickered in me to finally learn how to change my appearance at will. But I knew that madness lay that way, and I needed to end this conversation and flee before I lost my nerve. For while I didn’t yearn to return to my spellbound state—a compliant zombie with no real free will—I knew the temptation to acquire his kind’s unique ability would be almost too good to pass up.
“What do you want?” I asked, gritting my teeth.
He took my hand and stroked my palm with his thumb, his skin cool and smooth. The burning embers in his eyes clouded over, until he looked—almost—normal.
“I need your help.”
My breath caught at the gentleness in his gaze, his touch. I pulled away, frowning at this shift in the haughty immortal who I’d known for centuries. Who had plucked me from nothing and decided to teach me the ways of shifting. Who had shown me how to unravel magic from the very matter around us, how to bend time to my will and survive for as long as I wished—and how to really, truly, finally live. But for all the wonders he had bestowed upon me, there was a price, and I had long ago refused to pay it.
Yet here he was, asking for my help.
I squinted at the wavering outline of his handsome features. I’d never fully trusted him, and after he’d betrayed my trust, there was no forgiveness left in me. But damn if there wasn’t still some curiosity.
The breeze strengthened, and the shifter gasped as his body began to dissolve. With a grimace, and considerable magical effort, he re-materialised, holding himself together as if another gust might scatter him into ashes. His hand found mine again, his eyes pleading.
“He’s back. Which means my power is waning. Our bond was the strongest I’ve ever known. I can’t fight him without you.”
The city of lights seemed to swirl around me, and the man of shadow in front of me—once the most solid thing in my life—was ghosting before my eyes. It seemed immortal shapeshifting had its own price after all.
I clenched my jaw. “I’ll help, on one condition.”
“Name it.” He always thrilled at making a pact, but this one would be on my terms.
“You’ll teach me everything,” I hissed. “I mean it. Everything. No more secrets, no more convenient lies of omission, so you can dangle your immortal wisdom in front of me and gloat, as you love to do. And no spellbinding this time.” My eyes narrowed at him. “Do we have a deal? You can tap into my power, but I will learn everything you know.”
He chuckled, but with more awe than mirth. “Astute and insatiable as always.” He wrapped his arm around me. “Deal.”
I stepped into the enveloping warmth of his embrace, and the maelstrom of smoke emanating from him. As the soft grey fog surrounded us, his brimstone eyes flared back into life. We were together again, and it shocked me how much it felt like home.
Yet as my sight darkened, his eyes blazed into hellish ferocity. My pulse leapt in fear—but it was too late. I gave in once more, and let the sulphur and smoke take me.
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