Sometimes he heard a heartbeat beneath the floorboards.
There was an old story he’d heard once, shared in slurred sentences between bar bugs, about a man who’d hidden a body beneath his floor and who’d been haunted by the sound of a phantom heartbeat. But this wasn’t like that. This wasn’t like that at all. It was the ground itself that breathed, a sickly-sweet death rattle, and he stood above it, calmly washing one glass after another.
He knew what it fed on. He’d seen the blood and magic spilled in this bar. He’d seen the guns, the knives, the raw horror of a brain-spattered brick. He’d watched the corpses as they sank beneath the floorboards, beneath the dirt, with a sort of disinterested boredom. He’d seen it all before. He’d see it all again. He felt the earth shudder and heave and breathe beneath him, and he felt it still when his mistress walked through the door.
She walked through time like a wardrobe, shrugging off years she was finished with like an old coat and setting things anew again with a bright red dress. He saw time reverse. He saw corpses rise up from the soil to dress themselves again for their own murder. But still, their blood remained in the soil. Her magic demanded it.
The soil would be fed.
He felt a heartbeat beneath his feet, deep and steady, but it did not frighten him. It gobbled things up, blood and magic both, but it would not get him. Her mark on his head forbade it. Her magic made the two of them brethren, soil and bone together, and they could coexist like that. Sort of.
Sometimes he allowed fine whisky to drip down his fingers to the floor below. A drink shared between comrades. A sacrifice to the blood below. Insurance that the heart below him would keep right on beating.
The earth, this world, the magic that hung around them all like cobwebs. All of it rested in her finely-manicured hands, stained with blood and desperation as they were, and to him, it felt like home. It was the only home he’d ever known, a simulacrum of blood and magic.
Sometimes he heard a heartbeat beneath the floorboards, and it was the only one he heard. His own chest was silent.