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Stay With Me

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Ahri had first met Benji along the edge of a creek. 

He was probably only eighteen or nineteen summers at the time, just a boy from a small village with scraped-up knees, scruffy hair, and a bright smile that had drawn her in like a moth to a flame. 

She had been young as well, young and foolish, not yet old enough—not yet wise enough—to know why befriending a human was such a bad idea. (Then again, hindsight is always twenty-twenty, and in fairness to herself, it really hadn’t felt like one at first.)

Benji was strange—strange in that he didn’t think twice at the fact she was clearly not like him. He knew it, she knew it, she had even warned him herself that she was dangerous and her self-control may falter, and yet still day after day he came back.

They’d toss pebbles across the water like they had all the time in the world. He’d tell her about his family, about his mother’s embroidery and his father’s fields, about the town’s gossip and the morning’s weather. Ahri had always hung onto every word. 

Fall turned to winter and then winter turned to spring, and in what felt like the blink of an eye, Benji grew. His face became sharper and worn, stubble lined his chin and bags rested under his eyes. Despite that, he still kept coming back without fail. 

When it rained, he still came. When it snowed, he still came. On the hottest of summer days, he still came.

Benji had kept coming back until the day he couldn’t anymore.

All that remains now of the Benji she knew is a large stone and upturned dirt, the boy she remembers long having grown and lived and died. And yet here she stands—young as the day they met, his memories ringing in her head, the taste of his soul lingering on her tongue like day-old fish.

She wants to vomit.

The little part of Benji in the back of her head gently shushes her worries.

“I knew it was a risk from day one, Ahri,” he says, “and I still chose to come back. It’s not your fault I tempted you. I was good as gone anyways. This way was painless. It was easier.”

She runs her fingers over the carvings in the headstone.

For you, yes. But I should have known better. 

Ahri disappears into the bushes when she hears footsteps, leaving behind a flat, rounded pebble on top of the grave.

His family builds her a shrine. Ahri doesn’t know if she wants to cry or laugh at the irony.

She watches as his great-grandchildren tell stories of her around the campfire like some sort of spirit, a mythical deity who had guarded their ancestor’s livestock and stood by his side until the day he died.

They speak of her as if they knew her, ignorant of the fact that while yes—she had often kept Benji’s livestock safe from the coyotes, she always had taken a little something for herself. A sheep here, a cow there, it was not often enough for Benji to care, but still a loss regardless.

They pray to the very creature that preys on them, ignorant of the fact they lie in the belly of the beast.  She’s not nice enough—no—not cruel enough to correct them. They offer her their hopes, serve her up their dreams on a silver platter, and she breathes in every last wisp of it like the greedy creature she is.

It is an addiction, and it is one that they feed all too readily. Fresh fruit, the heart of a freshly-slaughtered goat, beads and jewelry and shiny things galore; anything she could think of is readily and easily offered in exchange for protection.

The high of it all fades quickly when a body is left on her doorstep. There is no happiness, no joy, no peace; there is nothing but fear, and it is acrid, rotting, wrong.

Godhood is a heavy burden to bear, and it is one Ahri had never wanted. She leaves the rest of the offerings untouched and moves on. 

Moss grows on Benji’s grave, the creek eventually runs dry, and what remains of his lineage moves on to greener pastures. People still come to the shrine regardless, but their patron saint no longer listens.

Cleo is another mistake. 

Her hands are soft in a way Benji’s never were, her body all curves and grace instead of sturdy and stocky and awkward. Perhaps it is their differences that allow Ahri to walk right into the spider’s web once again without even realizing it.

Ahri is drawn to Cleo by pretty colors and silks, the scent of expensive incense and myrrh on the desert sands. Finely-manicured hands guide her own and soft lips smile from behind the gaze of the mirror as deft arms drape her in finery.

Cleo is wild, spontaneous, and in every way just as much of a free spirit as Ahri is. She is like a storm, ungraspable, blowing through the cracks of whatever tries to contain her. 

Ahri is not foolish enough to stay a second time, but Cleo weaves her way in and out of Ahri’s life like an expert, showing up at balls and bazaars and disappearing just as quickly, seemingly everywhere yet nowhere at all.

Some little naive part of Ahri reassures herself that she cannot lose what she never had in the first place. She learns very quickly, however, that if you do not stake your claim on something valuable, someone else will. 

The Emperor’s consort, people tell her, an honor. Ahri knows Cleo well—such a title is not an honor, but a cage. She waits for the day the storm will blow her way once more, but it never comes.

Very quickly, robes that had once felt softer than the gentlest of caresses become fire on Ahri’s skin, a burning, painful reminder that she had yet again let herself wander far too deep into dangerous waters.

Silk and wine and other such luxuries—Ahri finds—are worthless without someone to share it with, the memories that come with them unfulfilling. 

She walks away into the shifting sands with the wind at her front and does not look back.

Ahri keeps to herself for a while, but finds herself drawn out again when the incessant pull of hunger makes itself known and impossible to ignore.  

The first thing she does is look for a party. They have always been great places to feed, and as soon as she charms her way in the door, it doesn’t take long for her sights to narrow in on a man who’d had a little too much to drink. 

Before she can approach, another woman grabs his arm. She’s gorgeous, hair dark like wine and straight as an arrow. It’s clear that she knows knows it, too, with the way she glances back towards Ahri briefly, eyes sharp. 

She raises a finely-groomed eyebrow and splays her hand across the man’s chest as if to say come and take him from me if you dare. 

The way the man looks at her is drunk, following her hand’s movements up and down his chest like there is nothing else in the world. The way she looks at him back, however, is disinterested at best. The woman gives another glance towards Ahri before she raises a finger up towards her and curls it inwards.

Come hither, her eyes say. Follow.

Ahri finds herself weaving through people, the world around her dulled and blurry but for the woman her legs move to keep up with. She can smell Cleo’s perfume, hear Benji’s laugh in her ear, and everything is nice, all of it just so lovely she could forget about everything

The illusion breaks with a splash of blood on her face. Gone is the sound of Benji’s voice, gone is the feel of silk on her back, the world is suddenly clear. 

Ahri blinks.

“I see…” comes a voice, calm, low, and smooth as butter. “You aren’t what you appear either, are you? How interesting.

Ahri’s eyes move to the source of it, and the woman from before rises from a bloody corpse, eyes golden and glowing. Long, twin appendages stand above her shoulders like cobras poised to strike.

“Why, you look half-starved, even. Poor dear.” A hum echoes over the telltale click clack of boots on marble. “With the state you’re in, it’s no wonder I didn’t realize it at first.” 

Ahri freezes when bloody claws trail their way up the curve of her jaw.

“It’s a shame, really. I may have let you live were I in a better mood.” Lips move up next to her cheek with a small smile. “Perhaps I would have even felt generous enough to toss a scrap to the poor dog practically begging at my feet.”

Every nerve in Ahri’s body comes alive in an instant, primal, scared, feral.

On instinct, she reaches out for the source of energy in front of her and pulls. The rush that goes through her veins is dark and wild, threatening to burn her alive from the inside-out if she isn’t careful.

The woman stumbles back, eyes shocked and posture drooping, drunk on the high of false promises and stolen dreams.

Ahri takes the opportunity to book it while she can.

They meet again a few years later at a party by the water. 

The band is loud, but Ahri can’t hear anything over the sound of her own pulse thudding in her ears. 

A sharp gaze follows her from across the room. The woman’s face is different this time, hair curly and blood red instead of ink black, but her eyes are just as Ahri remembers: golden, catlike, dangerous. 

It is clear from the way the woman frowns slightly when Ahri glances over that she is not all too pleased about the outcome of their last rendezvous. 

Ahri meets her gaze head on, defiant, strong.

You may be a monster, but so am I. 

The frown turns to an amused smile.

Are you? her expression dares, Prove it. 

This time, it is Ahri who draws her in, layers of magic pulling ever so slightly, bringing the woman closer like a fisherman pulling in his catch.

The crowd parts like the red sea as the woman makes her way forward, steps confident and languid. It is clear that she does not come Ahri’s way because she is forced to, but because she wants to; every movement she makes is careful and controlled.

“It’s not often I run into the same face twice,” she says, as they circle each other like sharks. “Although… you do look to be in far better shape this time.”

“I have you to thank for that,” Ahri admits. Deceptively soft hands slowly make their way onto her shoulders as they dance to the beat of the drums. “You gave me quite the energy boost, you know.”

“Don’t expect to make a habit of it.” The woman leans forward until Ahri can feel her breath on her neck, cold and airy. “I won’t let you steal from me again.”

“If you couldn’t stop me when I was half-starved, what makes you think you can now?” Ahri coos back, curling her fingers inward just enough for claws to poke into flesh. “I could simply feed off you again and leave.”

“You flirt with death, my dear.” A single hand drifts off of Ahri’s shoulder, moving down her arms towards the small of her back. “Tread carefully. Usually most people don’t get the chance to do so more than once.”

“I’m not most people,” Ahri counters, letting her own hands wander dangerously close to where she knows invisible knives hang ready and waiting above. “I have watched empires rise and fall; I flirt with death because it cannot touch me.

“You know, it intrigues me how for someone with so much power, you do so little with it.” The hand on Ahri’s back moves lower, past the layer of magic hiding her tail from view, fingers running through fur before letting go. “You kept me waiting, hiding the way you did, and I am not known for my patience.

“That’s too bad.” Ahri pulls away. “I have all the time in the world.”

She’s gone in a flash before the woman can respond.

Ahri stays near the coast for a while. 

Something about the ocean air is calming, and the way the wind brushes through her fur in the early morning is refreshing, novel. It doesn’t say that way forever, of course, but it’s a brief respite from the doldrum of sameness that seems to rear its head at every corner. 

Trips to the market in the morning become an easy routine. She learns the usuals quickly, and in a constantly changing world, the faces at the market always remain the same. It’s probably the largest reason why when Jonah the tuna guy isn’t at his stand in the morning, Ahri knows something is wrong. 

The air smells sweet—overly so, tinged with the odor of a creature that should not be here. This is no party, no hunting ground, and for her to be here is strange at best, but Ahri cannot ignore the evidence staring her right in the face. 

There is a clear trail, and Ahri follows it until she reaches the entrance of a nearby alleyway. The taste of iron in the air immediately confirms her suspicions. Jonah’s corpse is mangled, nearly unrecognizable if not for the shreds of his soul that are littered around it. 

Ahri can feel her nearby. She doesn’t know where exactly the demon is, but the wisps of black smoke lazily playing around Ahri’s ankles make her presence obvious.

“You’re rather hard to track down, you know.” A face materializes by the back of Ahri’s shoulder, and it takes all her self control not to jump in surprise. “It’s a bit frustrating, considering the way you keep running off with your tail between your legs.”

“I was always told it isn’t smart to talk to strangers.” Ahri turns to come face to face with the devil herself. She is a brunette this time around, but no less gorgeous than the last face she had worn. “Especially ones who threaten to kill you.”

“We don’t have to be strangers, you know.” The back-end of a living knife trails its way up Ahri’s neck to her chin. “We have so much in common, love. It wouldn’t take long at all to get to know each other if you gave me the chance.”

“Do we?” Ahri challenges, pushing away the blade with the edge of her claws. “Because you just ate one of my favorite tuna merchants.”

“Ah.” With a glance towards the body, the woman turns back with a small, smug smile. “My apologies. You made me impatient. I found myself in need of a snack while I waited.”

Ahri scoffs in disgust. “Do you have no self-control?” 

“Oh, I do. It’s just far more exciting to let loose, I find.” The woman brings a bloody hand up to lick at her fingers. “You should try it sometime. Here, I’ll help you—try a taste. You’ll love it.”

Her other hand is offered up, but Ahri pushes it away.

“What, exactly, do you want?” Ahri asks, done beating around the bush.

A smile. “A name, to start.” 

Ahri raises an eyebrow. “You first.”

“With pleasure. You can call me Evelynn, darling.” The grin widens. “I look forward to hearing you scream it.”

Ahri smiles back, playful and predatory. 

“Ahri. Be sure to yell it loud and proud, because you’ll need to if you want to find me again.”

Evelynn is nothing if not persistent. Before long, their meetings turn into somewhat of a game, and as much as Ahri would like to claim otherwise, it’s exciting.

It’s something constant—a surprise, but one she can always count on coming eventually. Sometimes it takes only a few years; others, it takes a few decades. At the end of it all, Evelynn always eventually tracks her down.

Why, exactly, she’s so insistent on it, Ahri doesn’t know. Evelynn never gives her time to think about it, nor time to think about the fact that she is letting herself wander into bad decisions once again. With curves that would have made Cleo jealous and strength that puts Benji’s to shame, Ahri finds herself slowly drawn in without even realizing it.  

It’s not that she isn’t aware this is dangerous—Evelynn is wild, untamable, hungry. If Ahri let her, she would take everything and still come back looking for more.

Some days, Ahri finds herself very close to doing so. When delicate fingers rub around the bottoms of her ears in that way that just makes her melt, it is only the faint pull of energy at her chest and the cool press of metal at her back that reminds her she is playing with fire.

Bodies are yet again piled at her feet, but this time, Ahri does not turn away. She can’t. She, too, is hungry. Ahri takes. She takes and she takes and she takes. The scraps of fear and anguish left behind are quickly lapped up by the hyena following her every move.

“There you go, love,” Evelynn urges, practically purring in her ear. “You’re so much prettier when you stop trying to ignore what you are.”

“And what, exactly, am I?” Ahri asks, even though she knows the answer very well.

A fool. Tell me that I’m a fool, just a stupid little girl playing at being a man in a monster’s skin.

“Interesting,” comes the answer, instead. “It’s far more fun to play games when your opponents have a bit of fight in them.”

“And what will happen when we run out of games to play? Will I still be interesting then?”

Will you leave, just as everyone else does?

“We won’t.” Evelynn smiles, and the confidence in which she says the words sends chills down Ahri’s spine. “And if we do, I’ll simply make more.”