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Chapter 1

Frankincense - REVIEW THIS STORY

Written by Karen Bruce
Last updated: 01/02/2007 02:01:11 AM

Chapter 1

A demon vex't

The light retreated

The landscape darken'd,

The melody deaden'd,

The Master whisper'd

'Follow the Gleam.'

~ Lines 29-34 of Merlin and the Gleam by Lord Tennyson

The simple rituals of our lives. The actions that, through their repetition, shape them and give them meaning. For some, a ritual is something as simple as running of a stick along a fence and counting the iron beats; for others, it is brushing their hair with a thousand strokes until it shines with elfin fire.

Gambit's ritual is more unusual, more personal. He believes in the cards. Every morning before sunrise, he climbs out of bed and feels for the thick deck of cards at his bedside. Nervously, eyes closed, he peels of the top card and, by it, determines the nature of his day.

It is, in some ways, a crude form of fortune-telling - an attempt to control the uncontrollable: the shifting world of ghouls and demons that lie just beyond our perceptions. The parasites that feed off our own fear and weakness . . .

The last star fades from the sky on the morning of the day before Christmas, to be replaced by the pastel shades of the spreading dawn. Blindly, Gambit fumbles for the cards next to his bed and removes the top-most one. As he turns it over, he drops it, gasping as it scalds his fingertips. The solemn gaze of the Queen of Heart's stares up at him from where it falls.

Suddenly, plumes of green mist rise from the floor, bringing with it the scent of rich incense, Votive offerings to a much older, cruller god than was born in Bethlehem. Coagulating, the green mist solidifies, becoming a grotesque parody of a woman.

"My love," a dulcet voice coos, "Your thoughts are of that harlot. I thought that you understood the consequences if you did not renounce her."

Gambit remains silently, but stoops to retrieve the card. It seems as if the Queen of Hearts gazes accusingly at him now, demanding his complete loyalty. In that instant, he comes to a decision.

"I love Rogue," he defiantly declares, "De deal is off, Bebete."

The mist smirks at him, wrapping tendrils around his throat, heavy-light as a noose before an execution.

"I doubt that, Remy," she purrs, "You owe me."

"Oui, witch," Gambit's eyes glow with eldritch light, "Dat I do."

Thief-trained reflexes allow him to slip free of her deadly embrace and snatch the cards in one fluid motion. Bebete hisses, reforming into a cobra that rears and prepares to strike. Whispering a silent prayer beneath his breath, Gambit charges three cards and releases them. Without success. They scythe through her as if through so much thin air. Bebete twists, jade scales shimmering in the dim, dawn light.

"Oh my love," she chides, "Has no one taught you how foolish entering battle without prior knowledge of who your opponent is?"

She slithers up to him and winds sinuous coils around him in a rib-crushing embrace. Gambit's breath comes in ragged gasps as his lungs battle to expand under the pressure.

"Non, mademoiselle," he grunts, "Dat be one lesson I have learnt."

Suddenly, the small room of the boat-house is filled with brilliant , golden light, emanating from Bebete. She is glowing, burning, saturated with kinetic energy.

"My darling, what have you done?' she murmurs, reverting to her base form - a voluptuous woman, by anyone's standards. Her arms fall to her sides as she drops to her knees in supplication, or misery. As if unable to believe his actions, she runs slender hands over her blazing face.

Gambit does not look back as he runs out of the boathouse and into the dark night. Behind him, in a flash of white light, like a miniature supernova, the parasite explodes into a star of unsurpassed brilliance, that fades into sparks and ash. A rich scent fills the air, redolent of frankincense and burning resin.

He stands alone for a long time, while snowflakes drift and whirl around him, watching the smouldering remains of the boathouse, savoring the wild freedom of daybreak. Then, slowly, card in hand, he starts on his personal pilgrimage to the mansion to pay tribute to the Queen of Hearts.


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