“What do you want from me?” Shane screamed into the maw of darkness between frosted gray evergreen trunks. “Leave me be!”

He whirled in a circle, panting plumes of dense white vapor into the winter air, crystals of ice forming on his colorless lips to match his artic eyes. The forest loomed around him closing in with ancient unspoken verdicts of guilt. Black branches bent heavy overhead with fresh snow, which had ceased only an hour before as Thomas’s blood had soaked the pristine white bed of death a mile away.

Shane staggered through the knee-high banks, finding tree roots and boulders beneath to propel himself greater distances in hopes of making it out of the forest alive. “He was the one who attacked me!” he screamed into the night, his powerful voice echoing through the dormant maze and circling back upon him like a flock of angry crows.

“Attacked you?” Came a male voice like a rush of wind through fallen autumn leaves followed by the click of a tongue, flint upon granite in rapid succession. “He attacked not at all. He was playing with you. Thomas always played… Now he doesn’t…” The voice faded away as if carried out to sea by the wind.

“Played?” Shane shrieked resisting the urge to rip the hair from the sides of his head in frustration and fear. “He tried to rip my face off! You call that playing? I thought he wanted to murder me!”

“Murder, no.” The voice purred. “Mangle, bruise, draw, quarter, dissect, compromise, and a variety of other curious acts, perhaps, but you can recover. You always have. Again, it was in jest he pursued. But you didn’t play by the rules. You can’t help your nature.”

“Rules? What rules? And my ‘nature’!” Shane scoffed, stumbling on the lip of a badger’s burrow as his concentration was consumed by the thoughts of his body rendered in Thomas’s long-fingered, pale hands, the feral yellow glee of the intent he was enraptured with obscured by a haze of Shane’s own blood. “And what might that be, oh one-who-does-not-dare-show-himself to me believe to be?”

“A killer.” The voice was prompt and unflinching in its verdict. A ripple of giddy laughter scampered around the perimeter of the forest.

“Killer.” Shane snorted under his breath in a plume of cold vapor with a mixture of hate and utter terror. “Killer. That’s what they think of me. Nothing else, because I am a vampire. After all of these years. Just a killer.”

“Not just because you are a vampire, Shane. You’ve been our friend for many years. But tonight you are just…a…killer.”

Shane halted in his tracks, confused and shaking from rage and exhaustion. He could feel dawn’s approach in his bones, a deep ache that pulled at the base of his skull and curdled his stomach. “No! I was defending myself you twisted motherfuckers! I was defending myself! He attacked me and…”

“And you enjoyed every last minute of drinking him dry.”

The voice spiraled through the branches above like sparrows being chased by a hawk up to the patches where the starry midnight blue heavens peeked through the tops of trees. Shane staggered back until he collided with the trunk of a tree. The vacant space of memory he thought erased suddenly emerged. There he stood gasping like a human warrior feeling the cold, undeniable solidity of the bark supporting his wiry frame as he stared up at the hole in the canopy above wishing his ability for flight had evolved sooner. He was still an earthbound creature after all of these long years. He cursed his Maker and himself.

“Yes…” His whisper evaporated before it left his lips as he savored the moment, even in its grisly detail. “It was…exquisite. Horrific and exquisite.”

Rustling of branches surrounded him, fifty feet away but closing fast.

“I cannot help how I feel when I kill! You of all of us should know what nature is!” He instantly regretted the confession, especially given that it was a friend that he had slain. The sound of footsteps through the snow halted. Shane dared not draw a breath. “You yourself have told me that we are the more civilized of our species. At least when it comes to such matters.”

Silence; some might have believed it a blessing, but Shane knew otherwise. Without hesitation he bolted, running through the glittering white moonlight patches and dark shadows with a speed he did not think he was yet capable of. Pressure like a vice upon his temples tightened until he staggered, dropping to his knees only to scrambling upwards again.

“Perhaps you are. But we are not. You took one of us, giving nothing in return. He only wanted to show you your true face, to teach you a lesson you must learn.”

The new female voice echoed through the whorls of his mind, careening from one skull plate to the other like a bat beating itself against a cave wall. The others that had chased him, flitting through the night with sparrow grace and perching just beyond his preternatural sight had been fae, but now it was one of their Court far older than the young ones in pursuit that admonished him now. Incorporeal now in her power, her essence irrevocably interwoven with the strands of time, her capacity for grace the wind, and her ability to hate the molten core of the planet itself. Shane coughed, trying desperately to force the shields around his mind from being obliterated and cast to the corners of the earth like shards of glass.

She’ll crush me from the inside out, he gasped silently trying to focus on the snow to keep from colliding with the trunk of a tree.

“I’m sorry!” he screamed into the night, clinging to the base of an old evergreen, his nails deeply scarring the gray bark. The scent of sap rose as the warm coppery scent of blood traced its way down his fingers to his palms, running beneath the cuffs of his long gray coat. He choked on a sob, his fear too consuming even for tears. “What can I do to make this right?”

The silence was deafening. The pressure transferred from his temples to the base of his neck as if a giant had taken hold of him. Before he could protest he was yanked away from the tree, his fingers raking deep long gashes through the trunk.

“Finish the game Thomas started.”

Shane wasn’t about to ask if he had a choice.

* * *

“Bet you a bottle of wine I can bed any woman in this bar.” Without the faintest of niceties Thomas threw himself with drunken elegance into the bench facing Shane. Settling himself to drape one long thin arm over the back of the booth, he propped his left leg up on the cushion, leaning against the wall, his right hand resting his ceramic stein of ale on the heavily scarred and lacquered tabletop.

Shane looked up from his philosophical meanderings about existence he contained to a small red leather journal. For a moment he considered Thomas with a wry lifting of one eyebrow and a small smile. The man seemed to never change; literally and metaphorically. He laid his pen down across the open spread of pages and folded his hands over the scrawling cursive secrets that were never so secret that he did not torment the willing with them regularly.

“Pray tell why I would enter a bet like that?” Shane listened with a comical smugness that came from an intimate familiarity with this course of conversation with his friend.

Shane cracked his neck. “Because you like to amuse me.” He winked and took a drink from his mug.

“So why not something more challenging than taking the waitress home?” Shane sighed and leaned back in the booth. Thomas’s lust for the staff, male and female, was legendary. Around them the dimly lit tavern buzzed with the regular patrons, off from work and beginning their Friday nights with hearty laughs and harsh criticism of their coworkers.

“Waitress?” Thomas scoffed.

“You’ve already had her, haven’t you?” Shane smiled and took a sip of his vodka.

Thomas’s grin widened, toothy and mischievous, as always. “A hundred times, my friend. A hundred times!”

“Right, I’m sure.” Shane was torn. A particular concept he had been trying to untangle was left dangling like a participle in the middle of the page beneath his pen, yet he could not deny the charisma that was his merry friend across the table. Thomas had accused Shane of being too serious on occasion.

Serious no, thoughtful yes, Shane had argued.

The “Thinking Man.” Thomas replied.

No, just always thinking. Shane said, feeling him fold in upon himself like wings.

There is your fault, Shane stated and walked away. You’re always thinking. Live a little. Think on it later.

Shane had been offended then because he thought his private studies patronized and, he might be nudged to admit, he still carried a grudge toward that haughty evaluation. But he couldn’t dismiss the truth and it ate at his core like a cancer he was unsure how to remove without killing its host. It was a symbiotic union, his quiet observation, recollection, and he. It worked. Until questioned.

“That one.” Thomas pointed his index finger, stein still gripped in his fist, at the petite raven-haired beauty leaning against a man twice her size at the edge of the bar.

Shane looked the couple up and down—a normal college-aged pair, though probably graduate students, dressed in jeans and T-shirts. Unassuming and innocent, he scanned their auras and, to his amazement, found nothing negative in either. Their sins, if such indiscretions were to be called such, were so minor as to be barely a blemish upon the surface of their beings.

Unicorns, he thought, they’re as rare as unicorns. Fuck. Of course he’d pick those two.

“They’re in love,” he stated simply and turned back to Thomas, eager to watch his friend’s assessment in body language and facial expressions alone.

“Yes, I know.” Thomas grinned as he pulled long and hard at his drink. “That’s what makes it all the more a challenge. Look at them—blissful, sweet, serene, utterly at peace with each other. Everything is perfect. They’ll never see it coming.”

Shane’s stomach turned. Even as black-hearted as he had become over the years at the idea of humanity itself and so willing to flick aside a life like a gnat upon his dinner plate, the refusal of manipulation of true love was one torment he stood his ground on. Many had questioned his stance, asking how he could even tell in humans, and other creatures, the difference between lust and love. There was a resonance, a civility of the soul that permeated the combined auras of the two individuals when in the presence of the other. He may shatter the existence of life itself in the hands of the corrupt and watch the shards glitter in their palms, but to come across a truly innocent soul was a rarity in any age. He had known love once, he was certain of it, though it felt now like a long-abandoned cobweb stretched thin and wavering across his memory. He wanted to believe that he had felt as those two felt now, comfortably ensconced in each other’s quiet adoration.

Snorting and clearing his throat he returned to re-read the last sentence he had scrawled in his notebook.

“You’re disgusted,” Thomas said with a strange smugness that made Shane’s skin tighten defensively. Why did his friend always try to provoke him so?

He looked up at Thomas for a long silent moment. “I’m content to write and be one with my inner asylum of muses. Can we not do this dance this evening? I just don’t have the stomach for it.”

“Weak stomach. An excuse I haven’t heard before.” Thomas shifted, his face growing disturbingly serious. In the low ambient light it seemed his eyes shifted from deep brown to a reddish gold.

Shane saw the change and leaned back in the booth, laying his pen down beside his journal and spreading his hands flat upon the tabletop.

“Now, brother, no need for confrontation.” Thomas set his stein down and folded his hands properly before him. “I wasn’t trying to force your hand in anything untoward. Just trying to have a jest…or two. The night is young.”

“What do you want, Thomas?” Shane drew a sharp deep breath through his nose, attempting to not let it exhale as a growl. His body bristled, his defenses on high. “I’ve seen you play with your conquests. This is different.”

Thomas raised an eyebrow, one side of his wide mouth twisting into a sarcastic impersonation of questionability. “What? Them?” He gestured with a pinky finger at the couple by the bar. “Do you really think that they are a challenge? And, yes, I heard the ‘unicorns’ statement. No, not hardly. Just sheltered. And, no, I do not consider them the lucky ones.”

“Why not?” Shane asked.

“Sheltered? Are you serious? You would prefer them to be sheltered? From the pain and anguish and heartbreak that makes the molds that forms the human consciousness? Take a look at them, a really hard look at them. There’s nothing there.

Just preplanned expectations set forth by their parents, expectations fulfilled with another expectation that other ‘dreams’ spoon-fed to them by nannies or counselors or media moguls that America is the land of all things good for those of the upper class. They delude themselves with images of an essence of jadedness they could never achieve. They feel untouchable because of their so-called innocence that their religion has beaten into them with visions of an unobtainable heaven and excruciating hell. They fight every day for that balance. They’re always perched just on the edge. It wouldn’t take much to push either one over the precipice. You know that. We have played with that balance every night for eons. Why do you look so aghast at my evaluation when you’ve made it a hundred times before?”

Shane swallowed hard, unable to muster a solid argument. He tried, like forcing a lump of granite from his lungs, but before he could formulate words Thomas snatched his journal out from between his down-turned hands—the speed his fae brother displayed still amazed him leaving him feeling slightly inadequate, angering him. He snarled and lurched forward, snatching at the book gripped in Thomas’s hand.

“Shhhhhh—My brother, calm yourself! You don’t want to draw unwanted attention, do you?” Thomas’s infuriating grin never faded.

“Give it back to me!” Shane hissed, low and angry, “I told you once not to touch that which I write in.”

Thomas raised an eyebrow. “And I told you I never listen to laws.” He thumbed through the pages as the bar swirled around them in a strange uniform complexity of undulating sound and scent—hard-waxed tables embedded with two decades of human emotions, lights dull from age and cheap circumstance, entities of base existence co-mingling for the sake of not being alone.

And it struck him in that instance. Not being alone… If only humanity could appreciate the aspect of “alone” before beckoning to another then perhaps they might not spend so much of it in angst and isolation. He reached for his journal in which to notate the notion but was met with a raised palm. Thomas’s attention was on the pages before him, reading carefully.

“The Importance of the Face.” Thomas read the title of the page he read and paused. He raised his eyes to meet Shane’s for a moment as if begging for an explanation. Shane felt paralyzed.

“The human face has been referred to by psychologists such as Wilhelm Reich as ‘character armor’ and Wittengenstein as a ‘picture of the human soul’. In the case of Levinas, he referred to the human visage as a gateway citing: when we look at a person’s face we are gazing beyond empirical reality to something transcendent, to that which cannot be ‘thematized’ or made a subject for knowledge.” Thomas paused and raised his eyes momentarily to meet Shane’s. “Well, aren’t we the scholar.”

He quickly dropped his gaze before Shane could reply and continued his recitation. “It is a mask, this outside presentation, but one that emits the frequencies of the soul that lays beyond. But how does this concept relate when the creature in question is no longer human? Our faces are masks, but are they gateways to our souls?”

“Interesting.” Thomas drummed his fingers on the page of the journal as he continued reading Shane’s scrawling longhand in silence. “Very interesting.” His mouth curled into a feral grin as he concluded the passage on the page. “You make some interesting points. I had no idea you were such the philosopher.”

“There are a lot of things you don’t know about me.” Shane suppressed a snarl. “May I have my journal back now?” Shane held out his hand, offering Thomas the opportunity to return the book willingly.

“I have to beg the question, though,” Thomas raised his eyes again to meet Shane’s. “How can a creature that never shows his true face ever have the ability to philosophize about the significance of another’s features, let alone your own. How many centuries have you hid behind that mask? Do you even know yourself what your true face looks like.”

“I do,” Shane said quietly. His palms itched as adrenaline raced through his veins.

“I’ve never seen it,” Thomas challenged.

“You know my rule.” Shane snatched the journal out from under Thomas’s palms in a flash imperceptible to the human eye.

Thomas’s fingers paused in mid-drum after making contact with the tabletop, hovering as he waited for Shane to finish his statement.

“My true face is reserved for those I trust with my life.” Shane closed the journal and placed it in his black, leather satchel beside him.

“You don’t trust me?” Thomas straightened, leaning back in his seat, his palms flat against the surface of the table.

“There are reasons for that.” Shane replied quietly. It was still a sore subject to dredge up a decade later, a decade that felt like a mere few minutes.

“After all of this time?”

“I bet I could pull it out of you.” Thomas’s voice darkened, though his grin remained etched as if in crystal across his lean face.

“Hardly. And you’d be a fool for trying.” Shane glanced over at the couple Thomas had been eyeing as his earlier challenge. The woman was watching Thomas unabashedly even wrapped within her lover’s arms. Silently he commended his brother for his ability to seduce without even attempting first contact—his mere mental acknowledgment of interest in the other party was often enough to send an entrancing vibration to snare their attention.

“A fool? Well, I’ve been called worse.”

Shane surveyed the crowd, acutely aware of Thomas’s gaze burning into the side of face. He knew the type of mood Thomas was in. “You’re going to try, aren’t you? Regardless of whatever I say?”

“Of course, brother.” Thomas sat back in his seat and raised his mug to his lips.

Shane shouldered his satchel and rose from the booth. Without comment he slithered through the idle patrons like an eel in vintage gray wool to the rear exit. Thomas was quick to follow.

“Must we do this now?” Shane pulled the collar of his coat up against the cold, tucking his scarf inside.

It was a gesture not made for want of warmth, but an old human pantomime irreversibly ingrained on the pattern of his being. He gazed out over the small paved lot with its smattering of snow-cropped cars and up at the sloping dark forest beyond the sleepy little town. The clouds had finally dispersed to reveal a sterling night sky pregnant with a glowing, omniscient moon.

Thomas stalked around Shane as if sizing him up for a prize fight before facing him, his legs planted shoulder-width and bent, his hands coming up in unison to gesture the emphasis of his next suggestion, his right still gripping his mug of ale. For a moment he hovered there, his head cocked slightly to one side as a deranged smile torqued his lips in a manner that made Shane desire a few more feet between him and his old friend.

“Truth or dare,” Shane said. There was no question here, but a declaration, a statement of the present reality.

“Seriously?” Shane turned away and walked to his rusted 1965 Pontiac Acadian, opened the driver’s side door, and tossed his satchel into the back seat. He stared at Thomas, his left hand holding the door open while he leaned against the frame. “You really think a game of Truth or Dare is going to make me drop my guard?”

Thomas arched an eyebrow, his smile fading as a strange darkness crept in around the edges of his features. In the sidelong light cast by the dull tavern exit his eyes shifted colors again, deepening from icy blue to forest green.

“Truth,” Thomas said again, slowly, “or dare.”

“Fine,” Shane exhaled and closed the car door before crossing his arms over his chest. Beneath the irritation that pricked his skin like steel wool an unexplainable, yet stifling anxiety that gripped him cold and hard at the center of his chest. “I’ll give you three tries. Then I’m leaving. I have much better things to do with my time than stand out in the snow feeding your madness.”

Thomas waited.

“Truth.” Shane finally decided.

The cruel smile returned to Thomas’s mouth. “You still harbor resentment for my seduction of Diana.”

Shane narrowed his eyes, tilting his head slightly to the side, “That’s not exactly a secret. Harbor? Hardly. Wear it on my sleeve. Absolutely. Just as you keep your hatred of me for my turning of her in your hip pocket for easy access. It’s honestly amazing we even call each other ‘brothers’ anymore.” He paused. The silence between them was accented by the occasional hissing of tires over snow and asphalt.

“Is that what this is about?” Shane felt his defenses gather tight against him, cold and formidable. The unanswered question hung like razor wire between them.

“You don’t get to ask the questions.” Thomas denied Shane’s inquiry. Any and all joviality in his previous demeanor had evaporated like steam, replaced by hostility. “Truth or dare?”

Shane uncrossed his arms, his fists curling at his sides. “Truth.”

Thomas tossed his empty mug aside into the snow and took a step towards Shane. “It eats at you still, the fact that you made her your progeny and yet she still came back to me because she couldn’t stomach the idea of being taught her new life by a monster.”

“She never left me Thomas. She couldn’t of her own volition. I will always be her Maker. I was not her keeper, though. She could sleep with whatever she liked,” Shane said the words, but he knew, no matter the iron and ice in his tone his bitterness tainted his conviction. “As for being a ‘monster’, she would never call me such.”

“Really? Are you so certain of that? In all of the atrocities you’ve committed over the years, the lives you’ve destroyed, the spirits you’ve broken, you do not think you have earned that title?” Shane sneered.

“Who are you to speak? Your body count may not be as high as mine, but trust me, you’ve done your fair share of destruction over the years.” Including my own… Shane let the last sentence ring in his mind. His pulse raced until his skin vibrated with adrenaline, his vision tunneling in on his brother. Why was Thomas provoking Shane so?

Out of the darkness the realization nearly knocked the wind from his lungs—it was the ten-year anniversary of Diana’s death. Only a year after her blood transformation she had disappeared. For weeks Shane and Thomas had searched for her, combing the earth for signs of her. In the end it was Shane that finally discovered her remains, tucked into the hollow root system of an old evergreen tree high in the mountains beyond the town. Every night afterward Shane tormented himself as the memories emerged with questions as to how he could not have known she was in distress or why it had taken him so long to locate her body, for their bond could not be severed, even in death. Thomas had been beside himself in his grief—Shane had retreated from the world, sinking into a melancholy that was perhaps far more destructive than even the havoc that Thomas had inflicted on the unsuspecting who dared to cross his path.

“Thomas, careful,” Shane cautioned. “I know what night this is. I miss her too. There is no need for—”

“Truth or dare?” Thomas cracked his neck and took another aggressive step toward Shane. “I get one more. Remember?”

Shane swallowed hard, his fangs elongating as the scent of Thomas’s bloodlust enveloped them both. He didn’t want to choose for there was no choice that would not lead to war.

Quietly, cautiously, Shane answered, “Dare.”

“I dare you to take me back there. Show me where you found her.”

Shane was speechless. Deadly silence suffocated the space between them. “Why? Why would you want me to take you there? Why revisit that?”

“Revisit? You never would tell me where it was you found her. You never showed me. All of these years I’ve tried to peel back the layers of your mind, get inside and find just one tiny glimpse, but no. You keep those secrets to yourself, you selfish bastard.” Thomas snarled, his lip curling to reveal clenched teeth.

“No,” Shane shook his head. Inside he trembled as the memories of Diana’s mangled remains awkwardly folded in unnatural angles amidst the gnarled roots and dirt invaded his mind like blue-black beetles scurrying towards his consciousness. “I can’t. I won’t. Let her rest.”

“Why? What are you hiding, brother?” Thomas took yet another step forward, closing the space between them.

“You’re never going to let this go until I take you there, are you?”

Thomas’s silence was answer enough. Shane felt bile rise in the back of his throat. His keys were still clutched in his right hand, digging into his palm. He turned towards the car and opened the door.

“You can’t back out of this. You agreed to my challenge and you chose ‘dare’.”

“Shut up and get in the car.”

* * *

A few miles outside of town, up a winding dirt road that seemed almost too rough at times to be manmade, they drove with only the sound of the tires hissing through the snow. Shane kept his eyes focused on the treacherous highway illuminated by dull headlights whose only purpose was to keep the local authorities from pulling them over. Thomas leaned against the passenger door, his forehead pressed against the glass as he stared blankly out into the night. The aggression that had seethed just below the surface of his being a half hour before had curled in upon itself, tucking in its tail and laying its head low. From behind their carefully constructed defenses each tested the other from time to time, trying to find the weak point in the wall to slip in undetected and listen. Neither was successful.

Shane pulled off the main road and parked on the shoulder that met the mountain itself. He turned off the engine and dimmed the headlights. The glistening black forest around them came to life in the moonlight, pristine snow lining the ground and dark gray limbs of the trees that towered above them. Shane studied the silhouettes of each trunk certain his eyes were playing tricks on him—the bark seemed to shift from time to time as if a shadow were passing in front distorting the natural patterns.

“Are you certain you want to do this?” Shane asked quietly.

Thomas opened the door and exited the car.

Shane stuffed his keys in his pocket and followed suit. “This way.”

Down the side of the mountain they trudged through the ankle-deep snow, winding a serpentine path to where the ground leveled out for about ten yards before plunging down again to a semi-frozen river at its base. Turning east Shane led Thomas through the hibernating forest to the one place he had hoped to never return.

Shane’s foot began to crack a twig buried beneath the snow. He halted as he realized his uncharacteristic misstep, but the sound had already escaped, echoing up out of the canyon like a flock of angry ravens.

“I believe this is it.” Thomas’s voice was dark as the night itself.

Shane whirled around, perplexed and panting as his heart thundered in his chest. Words failed him as he took in his surroundings. Slowly he dropped his gaze to the ground and traced the disjointed line from his staggered footprints to the mouth of nature’s tomb that had cradled his love so carefully in death.

“How did you know…?” Shane’s blood turned to ice in his veins.

“Look up brother,” Thomas whispered. “It’s time to answer for your crimes.”

The fine hairs along Shane’s arms bristled as the sound of wind rushing past in a cyclone about him blotted out the natural sleeping silence of the forest itself. His body perfectly still, he raised his eyes to find Thomas standing directly before him.

“What exactly do I have to answer for?” Shane stood his ground, suppressing a growl that rumbled deep within his chest.

“Your secrets you keep well, but not well enough. Just once was enough for me to slip in and see the horrible truth.” Thomas half choked on the words he attempted to snarl. Suddenly, he was behind Shane again, whispering in his ear, “You say you loved her. How can you murder that which you love? Let me show you your true face.”

Thomas’s arm locked around Shane’s throat as a sharp pain arced down Shane’s jaw from his ear to his chin, the cold fire of silver splitting his flesh causing him to cry out in agony. Reaching up he grabbed Thomas by the shoulders and hurled him forward over Shane’s head sending him flying into the trunk of an ancient evergreen a few feet away with a crack. Snow sifted down from the lowest branches upon impact, dusting Thomas’s body in a fine white powder. Hot blood poured down Shane’s neck, seeping into the collar of his coat as the silver kept the wound from closing immediately. As the flesh began to knit together again, he drew his forefinger along the incision as he watched Thomas gather himself at the base of the tree, crouching with the bowie knife still gripped in his right hand.

My true face… Shane thought. The mad motherfucker is trying to skin me!

“Thomas, please don’t make me—”

Thomas launched himself at Shane with a howl, his knife raised over his head. Before Shane could consider his next move his instincts ignited, stifling his reason—the night became a blur of red and black shadows for a heartbeat. As the distortion ebbed he found himself standing over Shane, his hands covered in gore. Upon his tongue he tasted blood. Reality solidified as he exhaled, the grisly sight of a hole large enough to reveal the blood-soaked snow below gaped through the center of Thomas’s chest. Thomas’s throat looked as if it had been savaged by a wild animal—Shane’s veins hummed with the warmth of new blood, yet he could not remember his fangs ripping into Thomas’s veins. The knife was nowhere to be seen.

Shane staggered back a pace, shaking, “Damn you!” he screamed. “Why? Why couldn’t you just let it go? You crazy bastard!” He grabbed fistfuls of hair on either side of his head and screamed as the agony of the memories of Diana’s broken body, limbs gnawed upon by wild animals and insects, gruesomely resurrected in his mind’s eye.

“You shouldn’t have done that.” A woman’s voice hissed through the branches of the trees.

Shane spun around, staring wildly up at the foreboding forest looming over him. “Who’s there? Show yourself!” he shouted.

“Thomas only wanted to show you your true face. Now we must do it for him.”

Shane looked down. Thomas’s body had vanished—only the dark red stain of his life was left as evidence upon the forest floor. Shane began to run.

* * *

Through the sleeping white forest the invisible hands drug Shane, down the steep mountainside to the frozen river below. He tried to speak, to demand answers, to beg for mercy, but could find no force within his lungs to form sound. Upon the bank, between two large outcroppings of boulders the pressure caused him to drop to his knees. There the racing water still rose to the surface where the ice was thinnest, shimmering with an iridescent mystery all its own.

“Look!” came a man’s voice, deep as the roots of the evergreens themselves.

Shane stared down into the water and ice at his reflection. Confusion scattered his thoughts like shrapnel against the walls of his skull—the image was not his own, but that of Thomas.

He found his voice again, “This is an illusion,” he whispered to himself desperately. “This is an illusion!” he repeated, shouting it to the unseen as he struggled to stand.

“This is no illusion, Shane. You’ve denied your true face for far too long. You’ve kept too many secrets from yourself, playing games.”

The past rushed by in the water between the broken shards of ice and black rock and in it he witnessed the twisted truth—his obsession with Diana and his ultimate destruction of her at the end of an unfounded jealousy. There had been no Thomas to seduce her away, but only a name that had consumed Shane and, in turn, taken on a life of its own.

The pressure on the back of Shane’s neck dissipated until only the cold night air crept beneath his collar. He stared down at his hands—they were clean.

“I killed her,” he whispered through numb lips.

Dawn hovered at the edge of the world casting a deep purple bruise to the clear night sky and burdening his bones with leaden immortality. He raised his eyes to the water again and this time his own haunted reflection gazed back full of sorrowful disgust. He was only faintly aware of his hand reaching into his coat pocket, his fingers wrapping about the icy steel of his knife. The click of the knife as the blade was released echoed between the mountainsides until it faded into nothingness. He watched himself as if he stood two paces behind his own body as the knife rose to the ear that once before Thomas had cut—he drew the knife in one swift continuous movement around the edge of his entire face. With a howl he threw hurled the blade into the river and before his skin could knit itself back together, he reached into the wound and ripped the flesh from his face.

Blood poured from his exposed skull down his throat, soaking the front of his shirt as he knelt in the snow holding his face in his hands like strange leather mask. Fighting the darkness that crept in around his vision he staggered to his feet and with another strangled cry threw his visage into the freezing current.

Shane would not die from his wounds. But, perhaps, he might, in time, grow another face, a mask to hide his future atrocities from himself and the world. Tonight, however, the truth could not be hidden.


* Gabrielle Faust is an acclaimed author of horror and science fiction, an entertainment journalist, and an avid collector of voodoo dolls. Visit her website at http://www.gabriellefaust.com Twitter: @Gabrielle_Faust *

Illustration: Scene from Vampyr (1932)