The spell to start my car didn’t work that evening, so I contacted the repair service and walked home from the office through darkening drizzle, rather than being ripped off by the Instant Transportation System. Rain insinuated itself inside my upturned collar. Typical: they spend a fortune on improving the fireballs and blasting spells, but nothing on controlling the weather.

“Can I see your papers, sir?” said a voice behind me.

I turned with the practiced air of having nothing to hide, but my mind was racing. Had he heard my thoughts, and would he consider them disloyal? I’d always doubted the rumours of the police using mind-reading devices, but I wasn’t so sure at that moment.

It was reassuring that his fireball-thrower was still in its holster, although his hand rested on it, but his face was blank and unreadable as they always were. I fumbled the papers from my inside pocket and tried to stand calmly while he scanned them. Everyone feels paranoid in this situation. Or maybe just me. It’s not as if anyone discusses it.

He looked up at last. “Seen any of the damned, sir?”

The question threw me, as was no doubt the intention, but I was able to answer truthfully, “Of course not. I’d have reported it if I had.”

The policeman nodded, pushing his face into a smile that didn’t suit it. “I’m sure you would, sir. Sooner there’s not a damned left, the better. Evening.”

I nodded vigorously as he hand my papers back, though his words disturbed me. The damned were abominations, to be sure, but there were rumours of them being fed alive into furnaces when caught. Probably just propaganda by the damned-lovers, I reminded myself. The government knew best.

I glanced about as I trudged through the dreary streets, searching out subtle signs of the damned. There are ways they can pass for normal, but it’s said you can always feel the difference. That man there, wearing dark glasses in the evening? No, I didn’t get a sense of wrongness from him. Perhaps I should have followed him, but it was cold, and I was probably mistaken.

It’s not just the physical differences that make the damned revolting. All of us use magic, and some are talented enough to manipulate it, making and repairing the devices we rely on and the spells that drive them. The damned, though, live within magic and use it to interfere with our minds and souls, bewildering decent people into their foul clutches. There’s nothing natural about them.

It wasn’t till I’d spoken the spell to turn on the light in my hallway that I saw the vagrant girl clearly, though I could make out little of her, swathed in a shapeless, threadbare coat and a hat pulled down, shadowing her face. She’d been sitting against the wall of my block, soaking and miserable, and had asked for my help. The shelters were all full, she’d claimed, and she offered to make it worth my while if I let her stay the night.

Why did I agree? Maybe I felt a little sorry for her, but her suggestion aroused me too. It was a long time since I’d been with a woman, and the delicious trace of huskiness in her voice had its effect on me.

“You can hang those things here,” I told her. “I’ll make you a hot drink.”

The girl hesitated a moment before nodding. She took off the battered coat to reveal torn, stained clothes and soft curves that sent anticipation coursing through me. She paused a moment more, before removing the hat and facing me. She swallowed.

My guts turned over.

She had a heart-shaped face, with a sweet mouth and short, dark hair, but it was dominated by the elongated eyes with irises of burnished gold. Even though the eyes were frightened, they looked deep into me.

She was one of the damned.

“Keep away from me.” My voice rasped in my throat. I didn’t realise I’d backed away till I collided with the wall. I was almost too scared – almost – to notice that my arousal had increased.

“I’m not going to hurt you.” Her voice was huskier than ever, seduction wrapped in honey, as she approached me. “I’m lonely. Just let me spend tonight with you. Show you I’m no different from you. I promise, you won’t regret it.”

Reaching down, she brushed her hand over my crotch, and desire surged through me as if by magic. For that moment, I didn’t care who she was. I pulled her, unresisting, into the bedroom.

I was too aroused to be gentle or subtle, but she met me in the same spirit. If she were only doing this to get a bed for the night, she hid it well. Holding her afterwards, floating together down to the caverns of sleep, the last thing I heard was her crooned whisper, “You’re different, I know. I love you.”

I wanted to ask what she meant, but the insistent current drew me down into oblivion.

I stood beside the girl, holding her hand, in a meadow sloping down to a quiet, winding river. A couple of trees waved over us, and a wood stretched from the far bank. Sun and blue sky were offset by a ripple of breeze fanning my hair. Every colour was more vivid, more beautiful, cleaner than I’d ever seen before.

She nestled against me, her head resting against my chest. She was small, like many of her kind – her kind? what did that mean? – just the perfect size. I’d never been so happy.

“Isn’t this better?” she murmured, glancing up at me. Her lovely, golden eyes gleamed. “You’re so beautiful inside. I felt it as soon as you came near me.”

“Beautiful?” It must be true if she said so, but I didn’t remember anyone calling me that before.

“Come and see.” She pulled playfully on my hand, and I followed her down to the river. The water rippled and shimmered a little, but her reflection was clear and as lovely as the reality. Beside her stood a splendid figure, with a face of compassion and love, and…

I jerked awake. A dream? No, it had been too vivid. She’d enchanted me, trying to make me believe…What? That I was too loving to betray her?

Her breathing was even beside me, and I slipped out of bed, panic rising. I had to get away. Grabbing a dressing-gown, I fled into the living-room, and my terror took me to the message-globe. I spoke the spell to link with the police.

I’d been sitting for a while, numb and mindless, after the call was over, when I looked up to see her standing in the doorway, a sheet wrapped hastily around her. There was a stunned look in those weird eyes.

“What have you done?” she whispered.

“You tricked me.” I pushed my confusion away by yelling at her. “You used your magic to bewitch me and make me dream…that.”

She stared at me, her eyes a little glazed, and slumped down onto the floor. “I was trying to show you what you really are. I didn’t bewitch you. I thought…”

“I’ve called the police. They’ll be here soon.” Was I threatening or warning? Perhaps she’d have time to get away. They wouldn’t throw her into a furnace, surely: that was all lies. Though why should I care?

She tried to get up, but collapsed again, despair in her eyes. “No, no, you’re not like that. I know you…”

She still hadn’t moved, though there were tears in her eyes, when the police broke the door open.

They left me alone at last, after several sessions of questioning about why I was consorting with the damned, though I think they’re still watching me. I convinced them she’d bewitched me into letting her in, but I don’t believe that. At least, the magic she used was older and more natural than the tricks of her kind.

Why didn’t she run? Maybe what she did to me exhausted her. It almost seemed, though, that she’d no will to resist. Because I’d betrayed her.

I hope she’s all right. The government assures us that the damned are sent to institutions where they’re taught the evil of their ways, to be turned into obedient servants of society, but I dream every night of fire and screaming, and it’s as if I’m surrounded all day by ashes and blood. As if I’m damned.

Nyki Blatchley is a British author and poet who graduated from Keele University in English and Greek and now lives just outside London. He has had about forty stories, mostly fantasy or horror, in publications such as Penumbra, Lore, Wily Writers and The Thirteenth Fontana Book of Great Horror Stories. His novel At An Uncertain Hour was published by StoneGarden.net in April 2009, and he’s had novellas published by Musa Publishing and Fox & Raven, among others. He’s currently working on a fantasy trilogy called The Winter Legend.

For more information on Nyki and his writing, please visit http://www.nykiblatchley.co.uk/

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