The drink was thick and bitter. It crawled down Victor’s throat slowly, seeming to take all the skin and tissue with it. When it hit his belly, however, he sighed in resigned comfort. His prey had gone to ground, and he had no hope of finding it this night. So, he indulged. Just a few sips of the foul liquor to ease the ache in his bones; in his soul.
The air around him was brisk, on the cusp of cold. Victor sighed again; he knew that the cold that was soon to come would turn to bitter, frozen misery. I should light a fire, he thought, but he hadn’t the will; the desire. Cold would make him uncomfortable, even miserable. Cold would further diminish his drive; his motivation. Cold might even hurt him: frostbitten toes and fingers aching and eventually rotting off while he walked the tundra.
But he would still survive. If there was one thing Victor knew, it was that he would not die from something so petty as a cold winter night in the mountains of this forsaken wasteland. He silently cursed the stars that shone apathetically above him. He wished that something so mundane, so peacefully boring, as a frozen night would do him in at long last. He knew better. The stars gave no response to his blasphemies against them, nor did the crusted snow or the silent trees. Not even a breath of breeze answered his miserable condemnation of his own cursed existence.
Nor did he expect acknowledgement. He had begun this mission, hadn’t he? This hunt? And he knew, with a terrible, self-loathing surety, that he would continue it to the end, frostbitten toes and all.
One more drink, he thought, uncorking the bottle and raising it to his lips. Then I’ll let sleep take me and start again in the morning.
The bottle halted halfway to his mouth, however. “How many times must we play out this farce, Victor?” The voice was silky and as cold as the night from which it emanated. Victor didn’t move, holding the bottle halfway to his mouth; somewhere between panic and rage. “How long will you hunt me?” the voice slid like blackened smoke into Victor’s mind, where it coalesced and twisted itself around his thoughts, leaving him feeling at peace, as if a soothing balm had been rubbed over his soul.
Fight it, he thought. The demon’s weapon is deceit.
The demon continued, ignorant or uncaring of Victor’s struggle against the silky menace of the creature’s voice:
“How long before you give up? Look at you. You’re an old man now, Victor. Far too old to be spending nights in the woods with no one to keep you company but the snow and the stars. You cannot win, my old friend. You’ve known it all along.”
With a sudden strength of will, a sudden resolve that must have been buried deep within his heart, Victor pulled the bottle to his lips and drained the contents at a gulp. The previously vile liquid gushed into his mouth, down his throat, spreading into his limbs and muscles, invigorating every sense he had available to him. It tasted like some divine nectar, pulsing life and strength into every fiber of his being.
With a roar Victor stood and hurled the empty container in the direction of the voice. A ghostly swish of fabric and the sound of a glass bottle tumbling against twigs and snow and bare earth were the only reward he received for his outburst. He scanned the darkness around him, fiery with rage and liquor and unfinished business.
Nothing. No silky voice, no whisper of fabric, no flashing fangs or slashing talons. Victor turned to the stars once more. A scream of defeat and desperation broke forth from his lips, seeming to carry with it all the misery and hate and rage that had carried him on his mission to destroy the beast. He fell to his knees, the scream dying like his hope. The dirt beneath him was hard and cold, echoing his soul; his life. Tears flowed silently down his cheeks, into his frosty beard, where he imagined they would eventually dry up, as had his dreams and his will.
The chuckle that came lazily out of the darkness was filled with scorn and pity. “Forgive me, Victor. I do not mean to laugh at you, but you must understand how incredibly entertaining this is for me. How long ago was it that you vowed to end me? Forty, fifty years? I lose track. But now, here you are, all those decades later, reeking of stale booze, kneeling in the frozen mud, weeping like a child. For some reason, I always thought my victory over you would be more dramatic. That I would walk away bloody and barely alive, having fought you to the death and nearly losing. But this? No, I never expected this.”
Victor muttered into the silence that followed.
“What’s that?” came the silky, oily reply, still with laughter in its voice.
“I said,” Victor spoke up, “you’re not alive.”
“Oh, come now. No need for such childish remarks. We are equals, you and I. Well, maybe not equals, but you’re not far below me, comparatively. And what about you, old man? Are you alive? You’re frozen half to death, two decades past your prime with nothing and no one to show for it, and you’re weeping into your scraggly beard, dirty and miserable. Is that life? Some would beg to differ.”
A long pause followed as Victor looked into the darkness before him, where the demon’s voice had been sliding from. He had no words to dispute its claim: he had been so long without the company of friendly people, without smiling eyes and mouths, without laughter and consolation, without a warm body beside him on a cold night, without the jovial companionship that all men took for granted. He was a husk; a shell of a man tracking and hunting the parody of one. Life was a relative term now.
“Come,” the silk parted the darkness, behind him now. “Let us sit and talk. It’s been so long since we’ve done that. I’ll make a fire and you can warm yourself.”
Victor spun on his knees, the joints creaking in protest, at the sound of the creature’s voice.
With a sudden flash, the darkness was banished, his eyes stinging with the sudden brightness of blue and orange licking up into the inky black. When the ghost images of purple and gold died behind his eyelids, Victor opened them, knowing what he would see.
The fire was warm and glowing with natural light. Some would expect something wicked and blackened and furious, but it brought to mind memories of his long-distant childhood, camping in the woods with his parents and two brothers, as far from any living soul as they could possibly be. Nothing unnatural or unwholesome about it; just the flames dancing and swirling around each other in a perfect display of nature’s harmony between order and chaos.
The figure across from him was a shadow. The orange flames between them obscured the features of the creature. The voice was clear as moonlight, though: “Sit, old man, and we’ll talk. If you feel the need, we can establish a truce. I won’t kill you if you don’t try to kill me. Sound reasonable?” No reply came. “Good,” the silk continued. “So, tell me of the world of men. It’s been so long since I spent any time amongst them, what with having you hot on my tail for so long.”
Victor was silent, but he slowly rolled back onto his haunches, then let his legs collapse beneath him, sitting on the cold hard ground. The warmth from the fire seeped into his skin just as his liquor had seeped into his muscles. He hated himself for relishing in it; for the sigh of contentment that escaped from his lungs without his permission. He hated himself that he was glad for the company of the demon. He had been so long without someone to talk to, or even listen to, that he found the closeness of the creature comforting in a terrifying way.
“Well,” the silky voice of the shadow weaved through the smoke and heat shimmers of the fire, “since you’re being so taciturn, I’ll start. We used to be good at this, you know? Anyhow. The battle rages, as it always has and always will. I’m very little informed, being of such low status in their eyes, but the gist is the same as it always has been: this side is winning, then that, then the first again, and there’s going to be some cataclysmic, deciding blow from one side or the other sometime in the near future. It’s all bullshit, if you ask me. Like I said, I’m not exactly privy to the plans of the higher-ups, but I’ve been stranded here for long enough, listening in, to know that it will probably never change. You know what I think, old friend? I think that they enjoy the struggle; enjoy the war. I mean, why else? It’s been going on for, what, millennia, eons, since the dawn of time, before? You’d think that they’d have a clear victor by now if either side really wanted it to end, don’t you?”
Victor stared silently across the gaping void of dancing light that seemed to be getting smaller and smaller with every word the silky voice uttered. The swirling, smoking flames were a barrier, a blessing, a curse. His brain rattled in his old skull. His thoughts bounced like electricity through his tattered mind. Energy flooded through him; invigorated him.
Victor cleared his throat. He could sense, almost feel the expectancy of the silent shadow across from him.
“What They do,” Victor croaked, seeming to have to wrench the words up from his writhing bowels, “is none of my concern. You are a beast, and I’m going to destroy you. That’s all that matters.”
He felt that the finality of his words should’ve been met with something more than a sinuous chuckle, but that was all he got from across the ever-shrinking void of flames and light.
After a pause pregnant with crackling logs that were not there, the creature spoke:
“You know, Victor, I’m not exactly what you think I am. You believe me to be some sort of demonic presence clothed in human flesh and hungry for human souls.” A grunt from across the fire was all the confirmation the silky voice needed. “Not true, my friend. I shed that abhorrent desire long since. I don’t bathe in human blood or feed on the innocent lamb, so to speak. I have grown far beyond that; far beyond those silly desires. I’m something else entirely now; something with purpose.”
The creature let his words hang on the darkness; flutter in the light of the preternatural flame. Victor cast his gaze, at once sharp and blue as well as dull and pacific, across the top of the fire. He hated this thing. He had hated it for so long now that he disremembered the beginning, when they had talked over fires similar to this one, only without the cold hatred and need for vengeance and reckoning. Yet, despite the hate he clung to like a last breath, Victor could not but acknowledge the demon’s poise and serenity; i’s eloquence and smooth manner; the sheer simplicity of its words. He wanted to bathe in the calmness of the voice emanating from the shadows; to sink back into days long past, when he had known and been sure. But he held on to his hatred as embers hold on to a wet branch, refusing to give in, to give out.
“I don’t believe you,” was all Victor could mutter. It seemed so inadequate, this declaration, yet it was all he had the will to announce.
“Ah, Victor,” came the silky voice through the smoke and light. “Ever the stalwart being of virtue and stupid stubbornness. You do believe me. You just can’t admit that to yourself.”
Long moments passed in silence. Long moments in which Victor thought and hated and believed and despised. How to let go of something that has been harbored so long, so deep within yourself? He could not let go. Not now, not after so long. But the figure was there, across from him, just as it had been so many times before.
Ah! Before! Before the hatred and the malice. Before the vengeance and the longing for justice. Before peace had left him, and hope had abandoned his soul. Before frozen nights and burning days of desire for retribution. In his deepest heart, Victor wished that he could embrace that past; he could remember all the times long since vanished into cold smoke; when the two of them sat and talked and talked, into the starless, moonless, sunless hours of the night, when nothing else mattered but their connection, their desire to learn from one another.
But all that was past; all those desires for times long gone were no more potent that the smoke that drifted up to the stars.
Victor cleared his throat and his mind: “Let’s say I do believe you. What then? Are we to be friends? After what you’ve done?”
The silky voice was without mirth: “Friends? No, Victor, friends is the wrong word. I was never your enemy, and you will come to see that, before the end, but friends we will never be and have never been. I would give up a thousand days in the sun, a million nights beneath the stars of your world if it meant that you and I could be friends, but it was not written thus, and we both know that to be true.”
“I hate you,” Victor muttered, feeling the cold seep once more into his bones, as if the fire between them was but an illusion of his frightened and frozen mind. “I would not want you as a friend. I would want you as a carcass, for the worms and birds to feed on, for that is all you are good for. Even now, across the fire, I can smell your evil, your deceit, your malevolence. I will kill you before this night is done.”
Victor’s recitation was met with a sigh that fluttered on the heat of the fire between them; a sigh of longing and pity, of resignation and a touch of scorn.
“Do you remember the first question I asked you, Victor?” the voice came; it was still silky as a starless night, trembling with blackness, but there was now a soothing warmth to it, as if it came from half-forgotten memories of blankets and bed-time stories.
The question hung on the air as Victor nursed his hate, bringing it back to a boil.
Finally, Victor’s tongue was able to utter the response, filled with apathetic scorn: “You asked me if I had a match. You smoked back then, and you needed a light.”
The chuckle sounded almost human. “No, before that. I asked you a question in the restaurant, and you answered me. Do you remember what the question was?”
Victor thought back to that day. He remembered the greasy-spoon restaurant he was in. The smell of bacon and charred coffee. The greyness of the sky outside. The desperate-looking waitress with a run in her cheap stockings. The elegant-looking man that walked past his slimy table as if he was on his way to the restroom. The man pausing, just next to Victor’s shoulder.
The question the man asked him.
The answer Victor had given him.
“I remember,” Victor said across the campfire.
With an eagerness that astounded the old man, the silky voice asked, “What was it, Victor? What was the question?”
Victor sighed and looked into the darkness, hoping to glean some sort of reasoning from the shadowed shape beyond the flames. He saw nothing, heard nothing, that would explain this new and obscure line of questioning.
Finally, Victor said, “You asked me if I can forgive myself.” A pause hung between them like a curtain, the fire dancing joyously, unaware of the tension. The stars looked down, unabashed. The trees with their feet in the dirty snow were silent.
Victor remembered his response to the stranger. He had been young and full of malice and grief and vigorous, youthful dreams. His lack of respect was his badge of pride. His bitter sarcasm was a show of power.
He was young, in charge of his destiny, and unafraid.
“Can you forgive yourself?” the stranger had asked, passing as if he was on his way to take a piss.
“Go fuck yourself, asshole,” had come the response through the steam of a fresh cup of coffee.
The silky voice pulled him back from the first day he had met the demon: “Yes, Victor. That was the question.”
The creature told him this as if it should invoke some epiphany, but Victor simply stared across the fire, waiting for something more.
“Well,” the silky shadow asked, “can you forgive yourself?”
With a suddenness that took hold of him like a heart attack, Victor was thrust into memories.
His first was a kitten. He’d found it on the side of the road, alone and helpless with a broken leg. He’d taken it home and nurtured it back to health. The watery brown eyes had looked at him with such unconditional love. The leg was better in a week, and Victor had been happy; proud of himself. He remembered the fur burning: it crackled and hissed like a demonic snake. It smoked and smelled terrible, and Victor had smiled.
After that the animals were easier. They came and they loved him, each and every one, and he smiled when he smelled the burning fur or the blood; the tortured incomprehension in their eyes.
But he needed more.
The girl down the street was not much bigger than a dog. He helped her and held her and told her stories of gleaming palaces lit by torches made of gold.
The girl had screamed. It was not something he was used to, but he smiled all the same.
On and on it went, from kitten to girl to older girl to young women to mothers and fathers and priests and carpenters and waiters and truck drivers and aspiring actresses. They all looked at him with love and kindness.
They all screamed, confused.
Victor snapped back to the fire, the flames licking up to the stars, hungry. He could feel the expectancy of the shadow across from him.
“Well,” the silk asked, “can you forgive yourself?”
Victor broke into tears for the second time that night, and possibly the third or fourth in his life, and said in a whimper, “No! I can’t forgive myself!”
The sobs that wracked his old and withered body faded but slowly. His bones felt weak and tired. His soul was crushed beneath his burden of guilt. His hatred writhed within him as it always had.
When finally his sobbing was under control, the shadow sighed mournfully and said, “Very well. I have failed, and so have you. Good bye, Victor.”
The shadowy figure was gone. It didn’t dissipate, as Victor had imagined it would. It simply was no more. The fire sputtered its last breath and died, leaving no glowing embers of hope behind.
Tears streaked silently into Victor’s scraggly beard, not wanting or needing to be noticed by the man who shed them.
Sitting, Victor fell into darkness. He thought of demons and kittens and greasy-spoon diners. He thought of hunting and darkness and shadows.
With his dying breath, knowing that he couldn’t forgive himself, that he therefore could not be forgiven, he thought of flames.
For he knew that was where he was heading.