Queer Horror

Path Of Corruption

Steve Berman

Let's start with the truth: I was following him. There, now I can set the tone. Not that I usually stalked people, but he was different. Struck me hard and fast, like an accident, only the feeling was welcome.

So I waited outside the shop, peering into the windows as if browsing from the street. I was more than a little surprised that he was making a purchase. Not the sort of person to frequent a gallery, especially not the sort of gallery that this was. Were weird masks crafted from tooled leather and animal bones along with crepe and burlap wings his taste? That thought almost made me walk away and leave the stare of that something--once a raccoon or perhaps a possum--perched atop a calfskin helm in the display that was accusing me through empty sockets.

Yet I was held fast, watching as he purchased a mask, a wide piece with fluted edges and scrollwork around the lips. When he left the store, not even pausing to offer me a glance, I stood by, breathing in his smell. One more inhale and a minute's passing happened before I followed him. I was not aiming for capture, but merely the thrill of the hunt. I could let my eyes follow the length of his young frame, supposedly with little risk.

He led me to Jackson Square; on this weekend, it was full of both tourists and regulars, the artists displaying their paintings and caricatures along the wrought iron fence binding the park. In my two years of living in the Crescent City, I had never seen anyone walk that park.

A snack at L'Madeline's seemed his goal. I sat down outside on a metal bench and waited. Resting and inert, I felt little like a predator. Embarrassment for acting in such outlandish fashion crept over me. I had kept my secret too well, preventing any overt betrayals even if I wanted them to be shown. So if I ever was attracted to another guy, desire was kept locked away tight behind my eyes.

But this one made me act, even to this little degree, for approaching him was still out of the question. I had caught him on a side street to Royal, standing there watching with a host of others at a one-man band playing in the middle of the street. How could you not be taken by him? With his slim physique and wild black hair that so contrasted with his pale skin. A night dweller that had crept out for some reason to take a glimpse of the sun and its crowd. His clothing was worn, jeans almost tattered to shreds. He was definitely not one of the university crowd I normally hung out with, and did not have the brashness of a local. What he did have was quiet and furtive eyes that I thought would never find me. "Dance," I whispered, "you were surely meant to dance," but only his foot moved in time with the music.

He left the cafe to walk down the alleys that led back to Bourbon Street, an infamous thoroughfare of the Quarter, which was truthfully a disappointment during the day. Those walkways had the rare person traveling besides us, but still I followed, my mind often urging me to turn away, but never quite vehement enough for the rest of me to listen. Yet, I wondered why he did not turn around and confront me, as my footfalls were neither quiet nor calm. Perhaps he simply chose to ignore my existence. The thought did not have much appeal to me, but I was saved when he left the known parts of Bourbon. He passed the Line.

All newcomers to the Quarter hear of the Line if they spend any time downtown. Eventually the tourist trappings fall aside, the restaurants fade back, and you are only left with gloomy looking buildings. Most are bars of some ill repute squatting down, ready to gorge themselves on sodden customers. I had learned from the classmates I occasionally socialized with that beyond the almost visible line were places a normal guy, a straight decent fellow, just shouldn't go. Gay bars, rough spots, leather dens, areas where your ass either got shoveled or kicked in. And though the warnings were taboo entreaties, I had never before had the courage, or that much inclination, to cross.

I watched him go with a sigh of regret. He never looked back, and neither did I. The walk back to the streetcar stop seemed so bland in comparison.

Somewhere, I heard that New Orleans has two different patron gods, each presiding over not different parts of the city but rather the times. During the day, it is the sly Mercantile, the one who stands grinning behind the counter. He may be met as a sophisticate selling artwork or antiques, or be the street dealer with lewd T-shirts and garish Mardi Gras posters. But he will try to sell you something, anything, ‘name your price littl' lady.’

But at night, well, New Orleans becomes the domain of the Truck Driver, an avatar cruel and crude, laughing while he spills his beer on your sleeve, promising to show you sights never seen before, but all guaranteed to arouse. His language is blunt and to the point. The Mercantile wants your business, thrives on it; the Truck Driver couldn't care less, because he knows you have come to watch and don't feel like going home early. Or hungry. And since I like to think of myself somewhat sophisticated if not downright neurotic, I often avoided offering myself to the Truck Driver.

At night most of the French Quarter is alive and crawling down Canal and Bourbon streets, with the other streets asleep except for the rare insomniac. Normally I am of little mood for crowds of drunken folk, seeking only to lose myself in a book back at the dorm. But one night late this past semester I sought refuge in their madness; for three weeks, I had been barraged with papers and tests, and the notion of just once losing my identity seemed like the perfect medicine. Come morning, should I regret something, well, that was a New Orleans tradition, too.

I had come down on the streetcar with friends, letting them act as faulty guides and chaperons. With my hurricane clutched firm, and my college sweatshirt on as a warning label to the locals, I was ready to drink in deep that night. All was fine, even the two hours spent in the strip joint. I enjoyed the rank smell of sweat and smoke more than the dancers, who seemed all too eager to leave the stage; their social security checks must have been waiting for them in the back. But I was a consummate actor, in part thanks to the no-cover-charge-but-necessary-three-drink-minimum rule, and my friends never saw my disinterest in flouncing breasts.

Outside the club, I took a moment to clear my head of vapors. The brick walls here are great for this purpose; one can lean against them and feel the world coming back into focus. Perhaps I should suggest that a bit of powdered brick added to chicory coffee might serve as a hangover remedy.

My renewed perception let me spot him down the street. The clothing was so similar to what he wore the night I first saw him, that I wondered if I wasn't having some weird Dixie-beer induced flashback. But no, it was through the passing mob that my eyes were teased with him standing in front of a trader's shop, one arm casually draped around one of the cast-iron horse heads, relics from when busy folk had to tie up their steeds.

I rapped my head against the wall ever so slightly, letting my friends chuckle at the display. I was trapped. To simply leave them would invite questions, none of which I could readily answer. But the desire to go to him was strong, making me think recklessly. My mind on a rampage, I muttered something up getting a refill and wandered into the crowd. I prayed they would not follow as I waded past the doomsayers, smelling rank like bad bologna stuck between their sandwich board signs. When I could no longer see my pals and my last link to school and sanity was gone, I headed directly towards him.

This time his eyes were on me, casually, as I approached. I nearly lost my nerve, but to have come so close and then break away was too disheartening to contemplate. So, we met besides the black horse head with its bit of rust peeking through the bad paint job. Never having been so close to him, I was a bit surprised at his age; I would have guessed him a couple of years younger than me, but his confident pose had not a drop of inexperience. And since I did not yet have the strength to stare him straight in that delicately featured face, I found myself watching his long fingers that were idly stroking the post's huge nostrils.

"Whew, its good to get out of that crowd. Felt like I was going to be swept along the street." My voice had a nervous edge to it, making me cringe slightly as I finished.

He shrugged. "Nights here are like that." He had a soft voice, barely above a whisper. "Surprised to see you here, thought you were more of a day walker."

The remark was received and noted; so he had known I was following him that day. "Yeah, but something brought me out tonight. You seem to blend-in here." I added.

"That's not a compliment." And he flashed me a grin.

"Are you waiting for anyone?" Hope was at my fingers, ready to fly off to the river if he should answer yes, that he was waiting for someone else, someone better looking, perhaps taller or bigger, without an East Coast accent that betrays seduction.

"Sort of, but seeing as you're here, guess I might not have to."

I was confused, but merely nodded, feeling it the right thing to do. "Umm, you want to go somewhere and get a drink and talk?"

"Sure, I know a place."

I followed him as we made our way along the sidewalk, avoiding the packed street to make faster time. I was so nervous that one of my school chums would catch sight of me that I kept my eyes trained on his backside, which was not altogether a bad sight. Before I knew it, the crowd had thinned out to mere stragglers. We had reached the damned Line, again.

He crossed it with ease, then turned back to see my passage. Again it was too late to turn back. I wished that a shock of sorts had traveled up and down my spine as I crossed into strange territory, but it felt all too slick and painless. Seeing me step over, he again flashed me that grin that was oh-so-promising.

Farther down the street, we reached a small doorway. Beyond it, the room was dark with dim splotches of light from weak bulbs hanging in the rafters. Small tables and chairs were placed haphazardly about, each covered with what look like remnants of cloth. Several people sat close together on the floor, amid pillows and covers. The bar was low, with too many bartenders milling about, fighting over the odd customer who wanted something to drink. A dim chord of music hung in the air, supplied by an unseen guitar. It was mournfully apparent that conversation, offers and promises, perhaps even deals of flesh were the draw. What was the minimum here, I had to wonder.

We sat at one of the few empty tables. It was odd how such a quiet place could be so crowded; amid all the whispering, mouths barely seemed to move. I was disappointed that all sorts of couples sat down with their drinks; I had expected, had even hoped for, something more blatantly gay as a site for my initiation.

The drinks were set before us; there was no choosing apparently. I took a sip from the wet glass and found it bitter but strong. My companion seemed as relaxed as ever, just content to stare at me it seemed, yet ,as I was to learn, the demeanor I saw was actually a carefully constructed wall. In a subdued voice, I was forced to start the conversation.

"My name's Preston."

I felt that offering my hand would seem childish and utterly inappropriate for what I was hoping would happen that night.

He was more than a moment in responding. "Brandon."

My hand shook a little, but as I cast my eyes about the room to avoid dwelling upon it, I replied. "An interesting place. Never saw anything like it before. Almost Bohemian."

With a slight smirk, he said. "A lot of the hustlers take the johns here to settle terms before going farther, and then there are a number of places nearby to go. Haitian cabbies drift about like checkered sharks in case it’s a hotel job."

I took a hearty gulp of the drink after that. As my throat burned, the truth crashed down, taking everything apart like a dropped puzzle. I knew that ‘innocent’ was written on my hands, but never I thought ‘naïve.’ Where to look? The table, the floor, my arms, all covered with fragments of my fantasies. Odd that he was clean.

"Don't tell me you didn't know." He playfully rolled his glass between those pale hands. "You approached me, after tracking me for a long time, the other day."

I was still in shock, my mouth open, no doubt. I came to when I heard "Enough of this," and he rose to leave. My arm shot forth and grabbed ahold of his hand. His skin felt cold and clammy and my first instinct was to let go and rub warmth back into my fingers.

"No. Please stay. It's all right with me. Really."

He sat back down, but still I could feel that more brick-and-mortar had been added to the wall that separated us. I wanted to knock it down before sharing anything with him, but realized that sitting between us was the Truck Driver, squinting and hooting, offering to pull away Brandon's shirt and to let me see a little skin before I went further.

On such unfamiliar ground, with no maps or guides, all I had left was one recourse. That was to feel my way around him and hope to find some crevice that would let me travel inside. My emotions seemed overwhelmed by him, traveling the gray area between simple lust and the yearning for intimacy. In all my twenty years, neither had ever been accomplished.

"What are. . . what are your rates?"

"Depends on your needs." He loomed closer, reaching across the small table so that his fingers brushed against my hand that held the drink. The touch was shocking, not only from the erotic stroke that traveled my skin, but also the clammy and cold nature, as if his temperature worked on a different scale than mine.

I timidly enwrapped his hand my own fingers, ignoring the cold and damp. As I spoke, the words tasted as bitter as the drink, but they had to come out. "I want . . . I want to sleep with you. To spend the night, maybe the morning." I said the words quickly and then grabbed my glass to finish off my drink.

The smirk was back in full force, making his face look almost bestial. "Not just sleep. . ." he intoned.

He was enjoying making me squirm with my request. Damn, I wanted the waitress to bring me another glass so that I might speak some more, but now the bar looked empty, and the guitar sounded too loud. My mouth was open but only small, guttural sounds came out. I think I was shaking, perhaps a few drops of sweat fell onto the table.

I forgot that my hand was still over his until he squeezed my fingers. "No problem, I see what you need. Pay for the drinks and let's get going."

My open wallet was a siren cal, two waitresses showed at the table, each eyeing the other balefully over the bill. No words were said, so I threw down a twenty and leave them fighting over the paper. As I turned, I noticed Brandon was leaning against the doorway waiting for me. Now that an arrangement had been made--though I did not recall a price even mentioned--his stance had changed. Before, his slim build seemed ready to quiver, if not twist and dance about. Each step that he made, was made with wild abandon. Now, his hips were cocked like a gun, his tread slow. He languished about, his arms spread wide at times to stroke the buildings along his side. I had a nagging hard-on for him, and stuck my hands in my pockets to help conceal my interest. He noticed immediately and began to laugh, an oddly loud sound when compared to his normal low-level of speech.

We went along a maze of streets and corridors until we came to a inner courtyard, a rare sight that most folk who walk the French Quarter never see. Often, they contain old fountains or lush gardens. This one was bare except for several crates stacked like precarious towers and a metal gate set before stone steps down one wall. Brandon had one foot on a slim staircase that led to the upper floors of an adjoining building.

I gave one more glance to the odd gate, since basements were rare in New Orleans due to the below-sea level nature of the city, and I was pondered where those steps led. But all Brandon had to do was to call out my name once, and my raging interest returned to what could happen atop the other flight of stairs.

Once inside, I found that the upper floor was riddled with rooms. Behind closed doors I could hear sounds and moans, but couldn’t tell if all were sounds of pleasure. Subconciously, I realized now how dangerous my situation was. I had come to an area of the city with no clear way of getting home, and led by a complete stranger. For a moment, the urge to run, break away and head back to the safety of my dorm room crept over met, but before it had time to act, I had followed Brandon into one of the rooms.

The room was small and cramped, containing a futon and an old chest. A Salem Witchcraft poster hung on one wall, along with a bizarre display of slate shards. A pile of stones decorated the center of the room, seeming more than haphazard and was disturbing to look at. Other than a few clothes scattered about, the rest was old carpet.

Brandon shut the door behind us and leaned against the wood. I waited for a few minutes basked the moonlight that streamed in through a window and feeling somewhat at a loss for words or actions. He just stared at me with those dark eyes. Reacting to my hesitation, he walked to me, stepping so close, I could feel his cool breath on my face.

"Take off my clothes." His was a demand not a request.

My hands trembled as they went to his shirt. The tips of my fingers brushed against smooth, cool skin as I pulled it off. His chest was slim but toned, nearly snow-white, except for the darker rings around his nipples. All I wanted to do was caress him there, but I know that would not be following whatever rules had to exist in such situations. I knew that he had to be naked completely, so his worn jeans were next. As I unzipped them, he stepped closer to me, until our bodies were nearly touching. I pushed down the denim to expose a pair of black boxers, which showed the strain of Brandon's erection. I pushed the jeans down further, passing, with admiration, firm, muscular legs with not a wisp of hair to be seen.

I helped him out of his sneakers, peeled off his socks, and then his jeans. He stood there in his underwear, the darkness of which contrasted with his skin so that it looked like his body stopped at the waist only to begin again in mid-thigh. I was entranced by the contrast; and one of my fingers had to reach out and touch his boxers just to ensure that it was indeed fabric. My hand ended up on the inner side of his leg, and I began to lazily stroke skin that was as smooth as milk.

I looked up to see a half-smile on Brandon's face, and realized even as I saw it that I could accept that. I brought my own face closer until we were brushing against each other. The sensuality between us rose and I became aware that my own dick was still constrained, which reminded me that I was still fully dressed.

As I stood there, one of his hands went to my neck, cupping itself underneath my chin. To my flushed skin, it was a cool compress. I sucked in my breath, feeling the blood race around his touch. Then, that hand drifted down, over my shirt and to my waist. It hesitated a moment before sliding up between the fabric and my skin.

That I could feel such pleasure in his stroking my chest was astounding, I feared that I would completely collapse into a quivering mass if and when his hand went lower. I could not help but sigh and softly moan. My eyes were closed.

He never said a word as his hand left me. The loss of such contact was frightening; all of a sudden I was left disoriented. I opened one eye to see that he was stretched out on the futon, one hand stroking the front of his boxers as the other did a slow wave to bring me closer.

The fact that I would have to undress myself caused a wave of disappointment. I saw again how immense and intact the wall that Brandon had built, remained. For the last few minutes, I had been lost in fantasy. The fact that I was paying for a night's passion, however exquisite it may turn out to be, returned and threatened to dull my desire with self-disgust. My hands fumbled in removing my clothes. If he noticed my inner turmoil, he said nothing to ease my thoughts.

Stripped bare except for my briefs, I crawled onto the futon besides him. He still wore that almost-grin. Along with adrenaline, my blood carried doubt, the whole mixture making me feel weak and lost as I laid there. Brandon leaned towards me on one elbow and with his free hand began to brush his fingers through my hair. His touch was so gentle and comforting that it felt like I had just drunk a tonic to chase away my fears.

He leaned in to kiss me. His mouth was chilled, but rather than disturbing, I found the sensation delightful. Wickedly I had to wonder what it would feel like if he went down on me with that cold tongue. I held my breath for as long as I could, letting him explore. My arms went around him, almost sliding along as they made their way to his back. I gripped him close, desperate to bring him closer to me.

At some point, he was atop me, rubbing his whole body against me, bringing shivers along the length of my spine. Then he rolled over, disengaging himself. Rather than speak, he guided my hand down to his crotch. The nerves along my arm readied themselves for what my touch would find.

I slid his boxers down, exposing his erection. Around the base was a sparse arrangement of black hair that curved down to his scrotum. I leaned in closer to marvel at the dichotomy: it was both the softest skin and yet it felt so hard. I let myself rub along the length, now and then gliding down to cup his sack in my palm.

When his hand pressed against the back of my head, inching me closer to his cock, I knew what he wanted me to do. I expected his cock to have a taste, but instead there was just a certain firmness that was still delightful. Even here, there was the coolness of Brandon's flesh, and I wanted to warm him with my breath and throat.

I had no idea if I was pleasing him; he just lay there calm, looking down at me as I slipped my lips again and again over him. Finally, he lifted my face from his crotch. I moved slowly, not realizing that Brandon had managed to slide behind me and that I was now facing the mattress. Moments later I felt something sliding slowly inside of me, and then withdraw. As the movement returned again and again, I was drew heaving breaths as a tide of pleasure and discomfort ebbed and ripped through me. I could not help but collapse forward and hug the edges of the futon, and I heard him laugh in delight to my response.

How long it lasted is beyond me. With a massive moan, I came into the folds of the sheets below me. Soon after, he pulled out from me, then turned me over to watch as he jerked off. His semen sprayed all over his chest and groin, and I was held enthralled by the sight. As his labored breathing eased, he dipped a finger into the streaks of cum and held it up it to my face as an offering. I hesitated, and found him pressing it closer to my shut lips. I opened and took his finger in, tasting him deeply, feeling his salty seed lay on my tongue.

We then slept together. Come morning, instead of a shared kiss, he had me go down on him again. I did so without complaint.

Afterwards, I gave him whatever money I had left in my wallet, leaving myself only enough change for the streetcar ride back home. He led me back through the streets until we came to a part of Bourbon I recognized. I said good-bye, he merely nodded.

But I was not left alone so easily. It seemed that I spent all my time was in remembrance of that night. Perhaps I should have been disgusted, for, to some, I was merely used. But I did not feel this way. Rather my attraction to Brandon had grown beyond the physical. I wanted to meet the challenge of piercing his wall, to find and love the true teen that lurked within. Are most defrocked virgins so naive?

The very next night I returned to Bourbon Street to find him. Now that I knew what sort of person I was dealing with, the hunt was easier. He greeted me with only a smirk, but this time as we entered the brothel, he held onto my hand, guiding me back to the room.

For the next two weeks it continued this way. Rarely did I fail to find him, once even chasing away another potential customer, though Brandon seemed little bothered by the loss. My studies suffered as the task of college paled in comparison to the task of creating a romance with a prostitute.

My newfound dedication began to pay off. Brandon must have developed some fondness for me as he began to refuse my money in the morning. When he took it, it was half-hearted born of a need. Soon he was less demanding during sex, allowing me to slow down each caress and find time to savor each taste and touch.

The next step was far too easy, and I found myself staying with him each night, together roaming the streets where he would show me parts of the city few had ever seen. The wall was crumbling; I could hear bits of masonry fall as he guided me about, holding my hand during these private tours of decayed courtyards and manses.

During the day we would mostly sleep, venturing out only when bored. I abandoned most of my belonging back in my dorm room, taking only the essentials. The only way to embrace him was to turn my back upon the old life and walk a new path.

Sometimes I worried that Brandon did not return my true feelings. Was I only a diversion in his life, one that would last only so long before apathy returned? If so, I drowned my concerns in bitter drink and his heady presence; I would mourn that loss when it was presented to me.

Now as a night dweller, I met the other boys who lived in the building. Like some secret clan, they all spoke in whispers, each I saw holding back a frenzy threatening to come unleashed. All were hustlers, though some catered to more exotic clientele. At first I found them distant towards me, like I was only a shadow amongst them. Soon, as they saw how much time Brandon and I were sharing, they began to speak to me, confide in me the events in their lives. I wanted them to let their guard down and regard me as a friend, but no, there still existed a bit of that wall between me and their breed. The story of Remus was fresh from only last semester's teachings.

Then one cloud-covered night, with the threat of rain driving most from the open street, Brandon led me not to the room to spend one more night in each other's heat, but to the building's courtyard. He was quiet, the only snatches of conversation he uttered were both vague and unsettling. Something was going to happen that night, besides the thick showers that so-often patronized New Orleans. I had begun to believe that this was my last night with him, that tomorrow he would tell me to return to my old ways, to sunlight and textbooks… and loneliness. There was some measure of truth and foresight in this, as now the old ways are lost for me.

The courtyard looked different when lit by fire. All the boys were standing about, many of them carrying handmade torches. I counted several faces hidden behind a variety of sordid masks. Here one crafted from broken porcelain, there a leather bondage visage complete with zippered eyebrows and lips. One of the boys brought Brandon the odd mask he bought so long ago, which he donned without a word to me. It was almost as if I could physically see his wall rearing up to prevent me from reaching him. The brickwork was far older than the flesh it contained.

A deep groaning of tortured metal sounded as the iron gate was unlocked and thrust wide open, and the procession began to climb down the steps. Brandon need not have pushed me ahead of him; I wanted to go down and see perhaps the one aspect of his life that had remained hidden from me.

The descent was rough on my senses. Flickering torchlight revealed only dripping stone walls decorated with patches of repellent fungus. They were all so silent, only the crackling of the fires and the sound of our feet falling upon the tiles reached my ears. The stench of musty earth was thick in the cool air.

How long we walked down those steps, I could not guess, but finally, we reached bottom. My teeth were chattering against the cold, and I dreaded brushing against the stonework around me. I followed the others, but was careful to stay near Brandon. I believe we passed a few unlit chambers, all looking archaic and unsafe to venture into. Someone from the lead of the procession had begun to hum a strange tune that rose and fell in time with our footsteps. Soon other voices joined ours, and I fear to say that some of them emanated from those dark rooms.

The corridor ended in a large circular chamber, and the line of masked and unmasked wound its way around a huge pit set in the floor's center. In the dim light, I could just make out the remains of mosaic tiles surrounding the hole. But if they were to decorated with words or icons, I was unfamiliar with the language. Even though it looked more like a pool of black water than a hole of depth, I could hear wind whistling up from the mouth of the hole,.

A voice close to me ripped the silence. "Ia Nyogtha! Erikthnar l'hor kadishtu . . . Ia Nyogtha! Ygnaiih Nyogtha k'yarnak!"

I was horrified to see Brandon's mouth move beneath the mask, those lips that I had spent so much time touching with every part of my being, now twisted to spit out such obscene sounding words. His voice was no longer a whisper, but seemed like the hoarse screams of some dying animal pleading for release. The others around me took up the chant, hurling it from one to another, until the last shouted it down to the pit. Shards of slate were then tossed into the pit, making no noise, meeting silently with whatever lurked there.

That something that dwelled in the darkness of the chasm responded to the entreaties. I could swear that above their hoarse shrieks I heard a terrible sound, like the lapping of thickened water. Their shouting intensified as they began to leap up and down, shaking their limbs.

One boy held out his hand. . . and was touched by something from the pit! A stream of blackness, deeper and darker than any my eyes had ever seen issued forth and snaked around that boy's pale wrist. It moved like liquid; and sounded like poison.

Each of the boys began to howl, stripping off whatever clothes they wore. I watched as they finally freed themselves to twist and jump, a dance both graceful and horrific. Tentacles of the black thing shot forth to touch their skin, stroke their naked bodies with a lover's touch as they laughed and cavorted. Their firm erections were jolted by the creature's lingering touch, as if it sought out the most potent heat of their bodies, wanting to steal it from them. Several came, showering the blackness with their pale cum, all the while howling with glee.

I had not noticed until now that some of the boys had brought bags along the descent. From them they dumped animals into the pit, letting the darkness swallow up a grand course meal. I say animals, and resist dwelling on the few things that squirmed and bawled as they fell.

My mind screamed for release and I ran from the room. Even as I stood hunched over in the hallway, my thoughts shrieked, wanting peace and forgetfulness. I trembled and cried, wondering if it would not be best to rip my eyes free and cast them aside for having betrayed the rest of the body.

Before my clawed hands could move, I heard someone enter the corridor from that accursed room. I looked up to see Brandon standing over me, his mask slightly askew, his naked body glistening with an iridescent slime. Even then lust caught me, my eyes glancing downward to note how rigid he was.

He lifted me up gently, to meet his face. Then I watched as one of his fingers reached down to his chest and brought back a daub of that muck. He held it before my eyes; I could see the oily sheen it had. Then he offered it to my lips. I could read nothing of his thoughts through the mask. But the decision was made, had been back in that bar past the Line weeks ago. Before he had a chance to withdraw the offer, I wrapped my mouth around the finger and sucked hard. The slime tasted acrid and felt like cold slush falling down my throat. But I did not gag or show any signs of suffering. Brandon let me taste his finger for several minutes, and then he withdrew it and returned to the festival, leaving me alone again in darkness. I slipped down the wall, knowing that something black had entered me and was festering in my gullet. When they brought me back to the surface, Brandon had to carry me back to his place. I sank into a deep sleep troubled with images of dripping black water.

I awoke to the little sunlight that crept through the boarded windows. To my side, Brandon was still asleep, his face serene, so different from the mask he had worn the night before. I rose without disturbing him and, dressed only in underwear, took the stairs down to the courtyard.

Here I am. The hours have passed, and I have been staring at the closed gate. What happened last night was no delusion, I am sure, but rather something like a wedding. But to what am I married?

The night came upon me while still in this fugue. The air holds a slight breeze warm against my bare skin, and I wonder just how cool my touch is now. Nobody forced this path of corruption upon me, nor did they place my hands on the metal bars and aim my eyes to those dark steps. I am solely to blame.

But to what end?

A light touch on my shoulder does not startle me, and I find the fingers assuring. I turn to find Brandon before me, naked in the night. He takes one of my hands in his, guiding it to his bare chest, against the smooth skin. We come closer and know that inside we both share a black taint. Together we make our way back to our room. For the first time, I am master upon the bed, selfishly taking before I give any pleasure. Afterwards we lay together and now I know that for all my waking moments when I dreaded the path I walked, the companion I had found along the way has made the harsh price worth it.

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