Centuries ago, the demon goddess Mahthildis reigned in hell, until they kicked her out. She’s been fighting her way back ever since. Her mission takes her to Ireland, where a trio of trickster goddesses challenge her resolve.
Sit in on this accursed contest we’re calling THE DUET WITH DEATH. A short story that asks: What happens when demonology collides with Irish folklore?
My driver caught me spiking my hair in the rearview.
“More of a scheme than a plan.”
His eyes wandered to the rhinestones along my bustline. My eyes wandered to the medallion hanging from his mirror. St. Benedict? No. St. Christopher? No. St. Valentine. Figures.
“Is your date meeting you there?” He addressed my rhinestones.
“Yeah,” I broke his sightline, adjusting the pouch hidden beneath my bra. “The little devil’s been there for ages now.”
My driver’s smile faded on the way up Mulholland. The gridlock had him gritting his teeth. He didn’t relent until when we reached the estate. That’s when his jaw dropped. The manor had a sculpture garden, a lazy river, and a skyway between the wings. Then we rounded the corner and he went right back to grinding.
A gathering of bright young things had amassed along the double staircase. They ran all the way out onto the lawn, jamming the motorcade, ensuring none of the chauffeurs could turn. My driver stared daggers at the mirror.
I strapped my bag over my shoulder. “I could use the walk.”
And with those words he transformed into a perfect gentleman, opening the door, tipping his cap, offering his hand.
I smoothed my skirt, slid on my velvet mask, and bid him adieu. “May your life be filled with rhinestones.”
A murder of goth influencers had gathered at the entrance. Tanker boots up to their kneecaps. Lolita skirts up to their thigh gaps. Wednesday Adams blouses buttoned to their chokers. Jet black pigtails whipping through the air. I barreled toward them in my crimson gown, a sparkling comet ready to char the landscape. My pixie haircut spiked into horns. My bat mask spread from ear to ear. My stilettos clicking like cloven hooves. The black sea parted as the red death approached.
When I heard, “Valentine’s Ball” I thought, “Masquerade.” So, that’s what I dressed for. No one told me the dress code would be, “Funeral casual.” To be fair, no one sent me invitation either.
“Name?” The bouncer spoke to the shadow on his list.
“Look up.” I answered.
He scanned my rhinestones and my high cheekbones and waved me in.
This is how I got into the shock rocker’s mansion. The shock rocker in question? Who cares? I didn’t come for autographs. I came for an artifact, which is why I had a travel pouch hanging from my bra clasp. All I had to do was get through the throng.
Party planners had dressed the foyer like a b-movie graveyard, full of cherubs, black roses, and mist. A smoke machine pumped fog at the guests in long drawn-out bursts. That gave me the opportunity to steal away to the gallery.
The host had an extensive collection of occult items and I had my heart set on one: a hand carved devil from a Punch and Judy show. According to legend, the devil had driven his trident through his puppeteer’s neck. Witnesses claimed the devil kept moving long after the puppeteer stopped breathing. Since then, the devil has been imprisoned in a silver case, with stained glass windows, and hinges lined with rosary beads.
Hermetic orders have passed the case down since Victorian times, conferring the same instructions: do not look upon it with sin in your heart, do not look upon it at night, and whatever you do, DO NOT TAP THE GLASS, but when I tapped the glass, nothing happened. No vibrations in my armored ring. No alarm bells in my mind. Just a rattling hinge and a puppet with a big clueless grin.
“You’re not supposed to do that.” A woman whispered over my shoulder.
Her silhouette leaned into the corner of my vision. She stood at eye level, even with my stilettos.
“Do what?” I whispered.
“Tap the glass.” A lace fingerless glove pointed to the sign that read DO NOT TAP THE GLASS. “It’ll wake the devil.”
I tapped again. “It should say OUT OF ORDER.”
I went to tap for a third time, but the woman took my wrist and spun me around.
“Do you want to see something creepy?” Her eyes lit up.
She whisked me into the gallery. The display cases whizzed by in a blur as I kept my pale blue eyes on hers. Her eyes were a deep soulful brown. Her face radiated with a warm Greek glow and she had the faintest little groove on the tip of her nose. She wore a denim jacket covered in enamel pins, a white tutu, and a matching bow.
I’d heard the word, “Ball” and came dressed for a masquerade. She heard the word, “Ball” and came dressed for homecoming.
My stilettos screeched as we slid to our destination.
A stuffed canine stood on its hind legs, paws primed, fangs bared, eyes fixed on anyone who dared look in its direction.
“Aen-o-cy-on dir-us guil-day-i.” The women read off the plaque.
“It’s a dire wolf, like Luperca, the wolf who nursed Romulus and Remus back to the health.”
What do they teach in schools these days?
“Once upon a time, there was king named Numitor. By all accounts a just and decent man, so he had to be overthrown. His brother, Amulius, threw his hat into the ring. He seized the throne, killed Numitor’s son, and condemned his daughter to a vow of chastity. So naturally, she got pregnant with twins. She named them Romulus and Remus. When Amulius found out, he set them in baskets and tossed them into the river Tiber. A dire wolf swam out to receive them, but rather than gobble them up, she brought them into her den and nursed them back to health. The brothers named her Luperca. Luperca’s milk helped them grow big and strong. Strong enough to overthrow the king and found the city of Rome.”
The woman scanned her brow. “Why does that sound like the story of Moses?”
“Because it is. It’s the story of Krishna, Ra, Osiris.” I tilted my head back and forth. “They each have a basket. They each have rivers and they each have a savior.”
“I guess some legends have to share.”
It had been a while since I’d heard a mortal stumble upon a truth like that. She didn’t know what to make of the fascinated look in my eyes and turned back to the wolf.
The forgery impressed even me, from its long-rippled tongue to the sweat dripping from its nostrils, but I wasn’t looking at it. I was looking at the woman reflected in the glass. The material girl, making me nostalgic for the 1980s.
“My name is Alexis. By the way.” She addressed my reflection.
“Is that like Matilda?”
“Older, but I’m bringing it back.”
My eyes wandered up her gallery of enamel pins, past the triple-moon goddess, the death’s head moth, and the Ouija board planchette, to the pin above her pocket. I reached out. “Can I have this?”
It looked like a goat posing as a Playboy Bunny, with its horns in place of the ears.
“The Play Goat?” She beamed. “Hell yeah, you can. I’m designer, this like my logo.
Alexis took it from her pocket and pinned it to my dress, like a carnation.
Her fingers felt so natural hovering over my heart. I couldn’t help but exhale. She froze.
I ran my fingers down her pins, testing the elasticity of her comfort bubble. Her breathing slowed, her eyes narrowed, and her lips parted. My fingers found her elbow and eased her closer. She gripped my shoulders for balance. Her touch felt safe and familiar, like home. I aligned the tip of my nose to indentation in hers. I leaned forward and she met me in the middle.
I never did get that puppet.
Alexis and I hit the honeymoon phase pretty hard, confining ourselves to the bedroom, starring at each other between sessions like, “I can’t believe what you’ve done.” Her eyes stinging with sweat. My hair reduced to a series of cowlicks. She stayed so long; her roommate threatened to file a missing person report if she didn’t text back.
Now I’m not one for labels, but I’m told I’m omnisexual: someone attracted to every gender, but that definition feels narrow. My unique anatomy affords me a lot of opportunities. I’ve been attracted to some abstract things: psychic parasites who straddle their hosts at night, possessed individuals with legions of souls, four-headed cherubim like the ones back home.
I’m from the silver city. THE silver city. I was cast out for questioning my strict religious upbringing. Forced underground, I started a community of my own, but things turned political and I got shut out by my own people. They left me in this realm where everything is fragile and nothing lasts long.
Since the dawn of civilization, I’ve been searching for a connection. I tried to relate to kings, politicians and business tycoons, but they were all so boring. I’m more attracted to people with inspiration. To the music makers and the dreamers of dreams.
Alexis oozed inspiration. It showed it in all her fashion-forward designs. Her single shoulder blazers. Her asymmetric collars. Her lone leg trousers. It showed in how she modeled her creations, smirking through the runway deadpan. It showed in how she carried herself on the town. “Who am I wearing? Me, myself, and I.”
Socialites gravitated toward her at film premiers, at gallery openings, backstage at concerts. They’d shout her name across crowded rooms. “Alexis, you owe me an outfit.” She could’ve wandered off with any one of them, and yet, she stayed close.
I wanted to take things to the next level, but with her lifestyle, Alexis preferred to do things without a title.
“Let’s just enjoy what we have now.”
With my temperament, I wanted something consistent.
I’d ask about her five-year plan, as a coded way asking about her five-decade plan. I’d ask how she felt about children, as a coded way of asking how she’d fare through generations. I’d ask what she’d do if she could turn back time, as a coded way of asking what she’d do with all the time in the world.
“In five years, I want to take my fashion career to the next level. I love children, but I’d rather just be the cool aunt. I wouldn’t turn back time. It’s always better look forward.”
“What if there’s more time behind you than there is ahead?” I muttered to myself.
I know you shouldn’t hide tests in your relationship. You’re supposed to be honest, but too much honesty can shatter a mortal’s reality. It’s best to assess their grasp of metaphysics, before introducing new planes of consciousness.
I decided to pop the question on our three-year anniversary, make it another Valentine’s Day to remember. Alexis had taken modeling gig in Europe, which gave me plenty of time to plan the evening out. We meet at our favorite restaurant the moment her plane touched down. I would hand Alexis a heart-shaped box. She’d open it and find it filled with sand. She’d ask, “Why sand?” and I’d lay it out all out. How I’m technically a demon. How the self-appointed king of Hell won’t let me back in. How I stole sand from Father Time.
I’d get down on bended knee and ask, “How would you like to spend eternity with me?”
The night played out differently. Alexis kept me waiting at a table for two, the gift of immortality waiting between my heels. The courses came. The chef gave his speech. The courses stacked up. I called Alexis, and gave a speech of my own.
I called for weeks. Every time, the phone rang five times before going to voicemail. If Alexis wanted to shut me out, she could’ve blocked me, but she didn’t. This had me worried.
Her booking agent said she took a gig in Austria. I contacted the photographer. He said she’d gone into the alps with some friends. He didn’t know if they came back down.
I studied the train routes and waved a scrying pendulum over the map. Alexis was last seen in town called Verstecktes Tal. A car free community with shuttle buses and horse drown carriages. A destination for rock climbers and cross-country skiers. Not aspiring fashion designers.
My contact in Vienna set me up with a pair of dowsing rods, not the copper ones you find on Etsy, but the glass ones blown from ash stone. I trekked to Verstecktes Tal and waved them over every cabin, over wine cellars, and restaurant basements. I felt for vibrations in the cobblestones, sewer grates, and fresh graves. When things got desperate, I drugged a priest, so I could scour his rectory. I befriended a pair of junkyard dogs, until their owner came to see what the silence was about. I picked a locked, and almost got lockjaw stepping onto a bed of nails.
The search left me wandering through the forest in the dark. My collar brimming with pine needles. Boot treads clogged with muck. Toes caked with snow. I felt for thinness in the air, for a gap in reality large enough for Alexis to slip through, but the rods never moved.
If I was going to find my lover, I would need an expert.
Many sanctuaries claim to contain St. Valentine’s remains. Some claim bits and pieces, others claim the whole skeleton. The Catholic church doesn’t dispute these contradictions, because they keep the tourists coming. Who doesn’t want to spend their trip paying respects to a decapitated evangelist? I didn’t, but I needed a piece of him if I was ever going to find Alexis.
This meant a lot of ink in my passport, so I’d have to pack light. A lockpick in my heel, a nun habit in my satchel, and my hair up in a veil.
Sister Mary Mahthildis toured the parishes of Europe, leaving a mess in her wake. Clergy members described her to Interpol, saying she carried herself more like an actress than a woman of the cloth, with her smokey eyeshadow and bloodred lipstick. They all remembered her as pale. Pale as a painting. Not a Renaissance painting, but a painting you’d find on an album cover. They’d say she licked her lips, like she was hungry. Hungry like the wolf.
Every destination left me starving. Glasgow’s relics were glaringly fake. Dublin’s were dubious. Prague’s were pretend. Madrid’s were all made up, and Terini’s were tenuous at best. Here I thought monks invented genetics, you’d think the church would know how to run a DNA test.
Only one site remained. The Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin. The relic? A gap-toothed skull, with a crown of pedals, and the words S. VALENTINI written across its brow. I saved this one for last because it seemed the least authentic, like a Gucci bag with a copper finish. Still, I had to check.
Visitors to the Basilica were met with the face of an angry titan, a 1 ton carving in an ancient sewer cover. His empty eyes watched me step out of line. He saw me reach up my sleeve and put something in my palm. The titan’s nostrils flared, inhaling the ammonia aroma. Its gob hung open anticipating what was coming.
The sculpture was called the Mouth of Truth. Tourists lined up to take selfies with their fingers between his lips. Legend had it if you were dishonest, his mouth would clamp shut and snap your hand off. I couldn’t help but slide my armored ring across his tongue and tap the back of his throat. Sorry to report, the Mouth of Truth was out of service. No surprise there. If legends were true, I’d have burst into flames the moment I stepped into the building.
That’s the thing about legends, they’re built on top of the truth. Take the basilica. The church built it upon the Temple of Hercules, casting out the pagan powerlifter for a skull with a nasal fracture. Just like they built Valentine’s Day upon the feast of Lupercalia, watering down a purge party with a Hallmark holiday.
Oh, how I miss the real reason for the season, before the dead roses and dinner reservations. The Romans knew how to throw a party back then. They sacrificed goats at the altar of the dire wolf, dosed themselves in blood and milk, and streaked across the city. They flogged anyone who crossed their path and plenty of women were happy to do just that, offering their wrists for a ceremonial slap. Not my erogenous zone, but who am I to kink shame?
Then Valentinus had to go get himself killed and killed all the fun.
Valentinus, the patron saint of lovers, got his name from performing midnight weddings. He did this despite Emperor Claudius’s mandate that his troops live like Jedi Knights, unburdened by emotional attachments. Claudius refused to enlist anyone with a ball and chain. Registered men sought Valentinus to doge the draft. It didn’t take long for the Roman Legion to come a-knocking.
Valentinus got house arrest. When a judge came to review his case, Valentinus used the opportunity to push his faith. The judge decided to put the priest’s faith to the test. He presented Valentinus with his daughter, a girl who’d been blind from birth. Valentinus stuck his thumbs in her eye sockets and low and behold, she saw stars. Valentinus walked.
Of course, faith is like a drug, and Valentinus couldn’t help himself. Before long he was back on the street slinging that Christian rock. This time he got himself thrown in lock up.
Now Emperor Claudius considered himself a merciful man. He took it upon himself to visit Valentinus in the dungeon. He tried to win Valentinus back to paganism, but the priest was too far gone. Claudius had no choice, but to put Valentinus out of his misery, by clubbing him, stoning him, and chopping his head off.
I needed that head to raise the dead.
The sculptures eyed Sister Mary Mahthildis as she checked out the security apparatus. Surveillance cameras. Check. Motion sensors. Check. Crucifixes. All over the place. The halls filled with prerecorded chanting, like a Gregorian alarm system. The virgin Mary watched from the ceiling, as did the cherubs, eyeing the genuine cherubim who walked among them. My wheels concealed. My wings folded in. My jeweled plating reduced to but a ring.
Scanning the walls, I spotted fluted columns, remnants from the temple the church had paved over. Running my ring along the railings, I came upon St. Valentine by accident. His skull sat upon an altar, in a box more bronze than gold, dwarfed by a painting of another saint. You wouldn’t know it was him had they not stamped his name to his forehead. I lifted my thick rimmed glasses from the strap around my neck. The lenses weren’t prescription, but someone needed to have a look around.
I raised my hands in prayer, and whispered, “Elizaveta?”
“Yes, my child.” Elizaveta responded from a speaker in the ear band, her Russian accent made all the more apparent by her authoritative tone.
“How’s the power grid going?”
“Swimmingly. Italian ice is really easy to crack. No wonder the Vatican is drowning in botnet.”
“Do people really talk like that?”
“In William Gibson’s Neuromancer, they do.”
Elizaveta had been reading between assignments. She’d come a long way from the chatbot the CIA had pitted against the Russians. Especially since, I gave her the gift of sentience.
I panned the lenses up to the rafters. “I need a place to set the rest of my valentine’s gifts.”
“Then you’ll have to wander off the tour.” Elizaveta played an audio wave of fingers scattering across a keyboard. The lights for the security cameras blinked off and on.
I pinched my glasses by the hinge. “I take it the closed-circuit television is playing reruns?”
“Now would be a good time to visit the upper levels.”
The basilica had a belltower, a good place for a limber individual to step out onto the window sill. An even better place to tape my gifts up. Not to ruin the surprise, but it’s amazing what one can find on the Italian dark web. With my party favors in place, I found a blind spot, and stretched out on the shingles.
Alexis had a thing for trashy romance novels. She used to knock on the bathroom door to quote them. “Her petals blossomed as he laid his pollen—”
“Her nipples erected like a pair of tents.”
“Her caress made his manhood inflate like a long balloon in the grip of a party clown.”
“Nope. Nope. Nope.”
With hours to kill, I cracked one of Alexis’s worn spines open. The book had all the tropes I’d come to expect: the big city girl returning to her small-town roots. The football has-been who’d grown since then. The bank vault they found themselves trapped in. The long night before the branch manager returned. Petite protagonist. Towering beefcake. The story writes itself.
For the longest time, I struggled to understand why Alexis read these things, as if her life wasn’t short enough already, but there on that roof, I think I got it.
She loved them flaws and all. She found comfort in their predictability. She liked knowing the coupling was a forgone conclusion. She liked the clunky awkward sex scenes. I could relate. I wanted, no, needed, these two opposites to hook up. I read until my eyes weighed heavy, until the timer for the bank vault lights turned off, and the old rivals scooted into one another’s arms.
I awoke to a thunderous clap. The Trastevere district went dark, followed by the fountain, and the bell tower.
“Stay low.” Elizaveta whispered, “The police station is in the same building.”
My robes ripped as I crawled back inside. The tear turned my habit into a high slit dress. Not a bad look, especially when form aided function. After all, it was a long walk down. The bell tower had become a silo of shadows. My pupils filled my irises to accommodate.
Back on the ground level, I made a beeline for St. Valentine’s room, gripped the railing, and vaulted over. I didn’t care about leaving fingerprints, for I had none. Remember the part about my unique anatomy? It comes in handy in times like these. As did my armored ring. Its sharp talon cut a perfect circle in the glass and its silver columns glowed blue as they neared the skull. Then the vibrations kicked in, followed by the angelic hum. The real St. Valentine had been found. I hooked my fingers through his eye sockets and wedged his skull under my arm.
That’s when I heard the rustling of rosary beads, the creaking of chairs, and the cracking of knees. A dozen loafers scuffled across the floorboards. Hands ran along fabric, along leather, along metal. Silhouettes fanned out as Latin whispers filled the air.
“Is that you lord?” I broke the silence.
A well-dressed man appeared before me. He stood tall and lanky, with a gaunt face, made all the narrower by his long silver hair. He regarded my outfit. “You know, most nuns don’t wear habits.”
“What can I say? I’m a traditionalist.” I curtsied.
“You would be.” He unscrewed a vial of holy water.
“Elizaveta.” I whispered. “Who am I looking at?” My glasses were equipped with a lidar scanner. I aimed it at the target and a series of light waves bounced off his face.
Enter the Entity, the pope’s answer to the central intelligence agency. These were spies, assassins, exorcists. They were said to be the foremost experts in demonology. Strange how it took us this long to meet.
Alessandro palmed his vial, aimed his toe, and raised his back heel. “We know what you are.”
“And what’s that?” I reached up my sleeve and palmed a little something of my own.
Alessandro bit his bottom lip. “The voice in the garden. The one who whispered into Herod’s ear. The one who entered Judas. The one who put our lord on the crucifix. Lucifer, the deceiver, the ruler of demons.”
“Is this guy serious?” Elizaveta mused.
I took off my glasses and left them to dangle. “The voice in the garden, was a snake. They all talked back then. Herod never shut up long enough for anyone to whisper in his ear. And I never entered Judas. He wasn’t my type.” I looked up to the cross on the balcony. “As for the crucifixion, I didn’t know that was happening, and if I did, I wouldn’t have gone. If you’ve seen one crucifixion, you’ve seen them all. It’s mostly a lot of waiting.”
Alessandro cocked the holy water back and I stepped into the splash radius.
“Lucifer was a star god, until they found out it was a planet, and renamed it Venus.” I jabbed my armored ring into the priest’s chest. “And it’s hard to rule demons when they won’t even let you back in.”
Hammers cocked as the silhouettes took aim. I crouched behind Alessandro. Seeing he had the upper hand, Alessandro composed himself.
“Then you’re one of the lesser figures: Lilith, Ishtar, or Vepar.”
Insulted, I cast my veil off. “I’m the one who met Robert Johnson at the crossroads. I’m the one who taught Tommy Johnson to play blues. I played the violin at the edge of Giuseppe Tartini’s bed. I turned Nicolo Paganini into a virtuoso. I am the benefactor for all the talents your lord left behind. I am the Patron Satan.”
“Then what are you doing with the skull of St. Valentine?”
“You wouldn’t understand.”
“I understand,” Alessandro feigned sympathy, “You’re someone who hatches schemes to avoid moments of quiet contemplation. I understand that you think these missions will give your life meaning. I understand that they never amount to anything. Why press on, if not to keep the loneliness from settling in?”
“Father, I have more people than you can count.”
“And yet, you feel no love from any of them.”
“Love is the reason I’m doing this.” I felt my cheeks go flush.
Alessandro studied my eyes, baffled by the moisture at the windowsills to my soul. He said, “St. Valentine will do nothing for you.”
“I’m not here for him. I’m here for the one he’s bound to.”
Remember what Alexis said about legends having to share? It happens sometimes. Spirits from one festival get entwined with spirits from another. They cross pollinate, become something else. Odin and the Wild Hunt, turned into Santa and his reindeer. The trickster fairies of Celtic lore, became St. Patrick’s henchmen. And the dire wolf who nursed Romulus and Remus, became St. Valentine’s companion.
Alessandro hurled his holy water against my earlobe. My skin sizzled and popped, like bacon on the skillet. The searing pain swished around my brain. The tissue liquified. Black blood seeped down my collar. A pearl earring bounced off my shoulder and rolled across the floor.
Gritting my teeth, I pressed my trigger, detonating my party favors. The Mouth of Truth popped like a kernel, casting stones into the western wall. The blast radius knocked the gunmen off their feet. Then the basilica rumbled. The bell rang and rang, until it gonged. It crashed through the ceiling, through the floor, through the crypt, down into the temple of Hercules.
With the skull secured, I ran the gridiron, swerving through coughing silhouettes. I hurdled over scattered chairs, up a hill of bricks, and broken lengths of fence. I leapt through the dust cloud, through the tourists, and into the Tiber River. The same river that carried Romulus and Remus to safety all those years ago.
I won’t bore you with the details of how we got the skull through customs. Suffice to say, it involved a pantsuit and a badge from an Archaeological Institute. When I got the skull home, I held it like a ventriloquist dummy.
“Let’s get this show on the road before I grow a backbone.”
The are many grimoires for raising the dead, but I prefer the Liber de viis Secretis Spirituum, it has illustrations and more of an idiot’s guide to everything. I use its schematics for all of my shapes.
The trick to drawing the perfect summoning circle is the 60-inch ruler. You drive a nail through one hole and set your drawing utensil in the other. Then all you have to do is turn until you have a ten-foot diameter.
Next comes the runes. Traditionalists use limestone for their sigils and sea salt for their protection circle. I prefer Magic Markers, because they’re easier to clean and I never bother with safeguards. I’m more of threat to those I summon than they could ever be to me.
Once you have your glyphs in order, you have to connect them to a power source. Traditionalists will raise a cone of power with a trance dance, flailing their arms, arching their torsos, collapsing like old string toys. But not tonight. Tonight, I felt like doing a tango.
Last Christmas, Alexis got us couple’s tango lessons. The instructor waxed poetic about the intimacy of the dance. “The tango is about matching your partner, synchronizing your steps, your breathing, your hearts. Lovers who tango together last forever.”
With my hands in my armpits, I played like I had no clue what to do. Like I’d never drawn figure eights with heels on. Like I’d never turned my waist with my arms firmly around another person. Like I’d never run from the police when the dance was still a crime.
Once Alexis had a handle on the basics, I took the lead, weaved her across the room, spun her around, and dipped her down. The instructor declared us a pair of natural talents.
“Strike it up to our sympatico.” I kissed Alexis on the hand.
Tonight, I tangoed solo, tracing the sigils with my toes, swiveling my hips, drawing circles with my heels. I two-stepped to the center of the circle, ran my foot up the length of my calf and kicked at the darkness.
With the energy field established, I set St. Valentine’s skull at the center, checked my compass for east, and carved myself an exit. Traditionalists use a ceremonial dagger called an Athame. I use my armored ring. It’s a metaphysical multitool.
Once you’re outside of the circle, the finishing touches are up to you. You can light candles, make a floral arrangement, or leave a swag bag full of chocolates and body oil.
Now comes the time to recite the incantation. This is no monotone chant, no lazy Pinterest printout. No. This is a work of heartfelt personal prose.
“Roses are red,
violets are blue,
get your ass up here,
or I’ll crush your skull too.”
The air conditioner roared to life, followed by the dehumidifier. The blades whooshed in and out of sync, like the breathing of a giant.
My arm hairs stood on end, followed by the hairs on the back of my neck and up went my cowlicks. The space filled with the thick scent of ozone, like a crater after a lightning strike.
The inground lighting system sparked. Things got bright, so bright the bulbs burst.
Two bodies rose from the center of the circle. St. Valentine’s bishop robes flowed behind him. He held a pastoral staff in one hand and his own severed head in the other. Luperca walked beside him. Her long snout came up to her partner’s shoulders. They regarded one another; two spirits intertwined by syncretism.
St. Valentine raised his head to take in his environment, puzzling over the lane lines, the ladders, and the diving board.
“Where are we?”
“A swimming pool.” I noted the missing tiles. “I’m having it replastered.”
“What do you want of me?” The hole in his throat oscillated as he spoke.
“I want you to set that back on your shoulders.”
“I choose to hold my head, to show my sacrifice.”
Nobody likes a grandstander.
“Well, hold it still, because I’m here to talk to her.”
I approached the edge of the circle. Luperca came forward and sat. I presented my fist and she gave it a sniff. Her vision narrowed when she sensed the presence of a predator.
“I need help finding someone. I’ve used up all my material resources. Now I need your nose.”
Luperca raised her head to present her neck. A show of dominance. I bowed to show respect. Her course tongue licked the wound along my eardrum. The tissue cracked and sparked as the cartilage shifted back into place. She’d taken pity on me.
I presented the Play Goat Alexis had pinned on me like a carnation. Enamel wasn’t much of a breathable material, but it held her scent, because it was her creation. It would be enough.
Luperca’s nostrils flared. She shut her eyes and took a good long whiff. Then she trotted back into the center of the circle, dug into the tiles, and faded through.
St. Valentine resisted her pull long enough to ask, “Will you give my skull back?”
I shook my head. “I may still have need of it.”
The dire-wolf yanked on his tether. The saint’s feet fell out from under him, and he dove backward, hitting the tile head first. His robes spun like tissue in a toilet. Then he was gone.
At the time of this writing, his skull serves as a bookend between an alchemy almanac and a bestiary. I would have treasured it under different circumstances. Had last year’s Valentine’s Day gone as planned. Why I would’ve introduced him to all the other artifacts, all the graven images, all the pin-filled poppets, all the things I thought I had to collect. Now I’d give them all back for a chance to see Alexis.
Sitting on the windowsill, facing away from in gallery, I hold my knees, imaging it’s Alexis I’m holding. I’ve never wanted anything more. Not a seat in Heaven. Not a throne in Hell.
“Hurry, Luperca.” I pray to the dire-wolf I’ve put my last shred of hope in. “Bring my love back to me.”
Centuries ago, the demon goddess Mahthildis was kicked out of hell. She’s been fighting her way back ever since. The tides of battle turn when her lover goes missing. Desperate to be reunited, Mahthildis must steal the skull of St. Valentine if she’s ever going to see her lover again.
We invite you to join us on this unholy heist we’re calling THE DEVIL’S VALENTINE. A short story that takes you into the heart of the Vatican Secret Service, the feast of Lupercalia, and the real reason for the season.
Meet Dragrim Obsidian, the necromancer responsible for the negative energy that’s bringing you down. “If you feel like you’ve been abandoned by those in power, like you’re at odds with all of your peers, and there’s no hope for the future, that’s probably my doing.”
Obsidian agreed to an interview provided we met on the observation deck of One World Trade Center.
When I arrive I’m told the deck is closed due to COVID-19. I mention Obsidian and the security staff start whispering. One guard puts on a pair of latex gloves. He comes out from behind the desk, raises a keycard to the elevator, and waves me in. We stand in silence for 94 floors.
When the elevator dings open the guard turns. “You’ll want to hide your emotions around him. Push them deep down.”
Obsidian has been sowing discord ever since the middle ages, but you wouldn’t know to look at him here. He’s traded his crimson robes and bone jewels for a high collared jacket with a floor grazing frock. He turns from the observatory window, looking less like a dungeon dweller and more like a character from The Matrix.
I click the button on my micro recorder. “Why here?”
Obsidian gives a measured smile. “I like to admire my handywork.” He brushes the windows signaling to the empty street below. “I’m the one who politicized this pandemic. I built partisan bickering to a fever pitch. I’m the reason you won’t talk to your parents.”
I’m taken aback by how quickly Obsidian is willing to go there. I bite my lip and Obsidian smirks when he catches it.
“I’m not the monster you think I am. When I spread negative energy it’s never out of malice. It’s out of love. Everything I’ve ever done was out of love.”
When did this start?
The sixth century. I was an apprentice under Dughall, the undying, the most feared necromancer in all of Britannia. He taught me how to prompt metabolic healing, so I might live as long as him. If only I’d passed that knowledge on to Celestria. Then none of this would’ve happened.
Who was Celestria?
Celestria was my bride to be. She was a selfless woman who practiced folk medicine.
One day a Bishop came through our village. He had a caravan of soldiers behind him. He saw Celestria picking herbs and naturally he was drawn to her. He whispered something in her ear, something no witness could repeat. I have a hunch he didn’t take his vow of celibacy that seriously.
Dejected, the bishop engaged Celestria in a medical debate. He believed illness was caused by a person’s distance from their lord, and that faith, not medicine, was the only way to ease their suffering.
Celestria believed in humoralism. She argued that illness came from a person’s relationship with the elements. She reasoned that plenty of good people got sick despite their faith.
The bishop had Celestria executed for heresy and moved on.
How did you cope?
I didn’t. I resolved to bring Celestria back. A feat necromancers were known for despite the fact that none of us have actually done it.
Not even Dughall, the undying?
No, and Dughall wanted no part of it. He had dabbled in black magic, but he believed a resurrection spell would require so much negative energy it would cover the earth in darkness.
Crestfallen, I cast stones, read entrails, and consulted the tarot. All my divinations said the same thing. I would have to cast a shadow over every mortal mind to raise but one from the ground. So I buried my bride and set out to spread the darkness.
How have your efforts shaped human events?
I convinced Pope Urban to get the crusades going. Years later I pitted Pope Clement against the knights Templar. I helped brainstorm the book that set the witch-hunts in motion and spread the inquisition across the continent. I urged theologians to suppress the Copernican doctrine and sighted the biblical references that got Galileo imprisoned.
Did you ever feel guilty?
At first. I forced myself to attend the witch burnings, to see what I’d done. After a while I couldn’t hear the screams, couldn’t see the faces through the fire. They weren’t people any more. They were a means to an end. Ingredients in a potion. And my beaker always wanted more.
How much negative energy did you need?
I almost had enough, and then I was blindsided by the black death. Here was all this suffering, but it was outside of my doing. You see a siphoning spell only works on energies you raise. I could wander mass graves and not get a thing because I hadn’t had a hand in what was happening.
I tried to turn the plague to my advantage by spreading misinformation. I promoted the notion that infections followed an astrological pattern. My beaker started filling again. Then someone thought to examine the rats on the ground and I was back to square one.
When did you start using technology to spread negative energy?
Technology has always spread negative energy, especially when it comes to the written word. The first cuneiform tablets were baked in the ruins of conquest. The first hieroglyphs were threats. Every woodblock ever carved was battered in blood. The pen isn’t mightier than the sword. The pen sets swords in motion.
Had I known the Koreans would invent moveable type I’d have gone over there. Instead it was the Gutenberg press that brought me out of hiding. I became an author and my first publications were denounced as literary poison. I mass produced works that challenged the church. I’m the one who set the bonfire of the vanities ablaze.
Not too long after I started contributing to newspapers. I misattributed ‘Let them eat cake’ to Marie Antoinette. I wrote that Catherine the great died having sex with a horse. In fact, I’m the reason you still think Napoleon was short.
How has the Internet helped?
The Internet is the most wonderful conductor of negative energy I could ever ask for. It lets me crowdsource my efforts. People used to get outraged over excessive taxation or potato famines, but now they go to war over female game developers and race-swapped Disney characters.
I take it you’re active on social media?
That’s the understatement of the century. I am responsible for everything from the alt right to slacktivism. From pick-up artists to Incels. From QAnon to cancel culture. Name an ideology, I’ll tell you it’s etymology. And the funny thing is, I don’t believe a word of it. I’ve never been interested in politics. I only want Celestria back. I don’t care who I have to trigger. I will to start a flame war for her.
But what about the people you hurt?
I’ve come too far and ruined too many lives. I’m willing to sextort, dox, and swat total saints to get what I want.
Look at what I’ve done. I took something as honorable as social justice and turned it into an antonym for political intolerance. I fine-tuned every racist dog whistle you’ve ever heard. I founded pro-anorexia communities just because I needed the negative energy.
Could you be claiming too much responsibility?
If you’ve ever felt exhausted checking your Facebook feed odds are it was me.
What about the movements that have developed organically, like the toxic fandom?
Do you have any idea how much gossip I’ve spread? I’ve spilled enough tea to fill the English Channel.
I’m the one who decides when a celebrity is over. I keep all of their portraits on a tile mosaic. I wave a dowsing pendulum as I lord over them. Once the weight chooses a victim, I kneel upon hot coals, press my palms into a bed of nails, and type something along the lines of: #TomHollandIsOverParty.
Now Tom Holland did nothing wrong. He said nothing racist and slapped no one’s ass, but I have to ruin someone if I’m to see my beloved again.
So alternative facts are you doing?
Sweat heart, I’m the king of misinformation. I ghostwrote the research paper that gave birth to the anti-vaxxers. I founded the modern flat earth movement. Heard any good 5G conspiracy theories? Yeah, those were all me.
I convinced people Nelson Mandela died in the 1980s when he really died in 2013. I’m the reason people think the Monopoly Man has a monocle. I’m the reason you think Freddy Mercury sang, “of the world…” at the end of “We are the Champions.”
Wait, he didn’t?
Look it up. I’ll wait.
(Obsidian takes a theatrical bow.)
But you can’t be the only one spreading false information. There too many other vested interests.
There are, but oil lobbyists are not that creative. They needed an interloper to whisper in their ears.
So you’re responsible for climate change denial?
That was nothing. Getting creationists to think dinosaurs walked with man took some convincing. Oh and getting celebrities to think they should run for government.
Was “Make America Great Again” your doing?
It was when I pitched it to Reagan.
I’ve been on more campaigns than there are nations. And I’ve fostered divisions across every continent. But I’ve never had more success than in American politics.
Your two party system is a work of Luciferian genius. It’s a dyad of dark energy. An alternating current flowing back and forth. Your red and blue tribes always collide. And for what? Intellectual bubbles filled with impossible ideals?
It’s beautiful. Like a black pearl. Elegant and simple.
But systems of oppression were around long before you were born. You were in France when the slave trade was happening. America came up with institutionalized racism all on its own. You say you’ve fostered divisions, but the rise of white nationalist would’ve happened with or without you.
Have you heard of Godwin’s Law?
Yes. The longer a discussion goes the greater the likelihood that someone will be compared to Hitler.
Godwin didn’t come up with that. He just identified the curse I’d slipped into the ether. It’s really Obsidian’s Law and it’s been a wellspring of negative energy for me, especially now the comparisons are no longer exaggerations.
You mentioned a beaker filling slowly with negative energy. It must be close to the brim?
I wish it were, but it isn’t. Celestia was exceptional. She had a spark that drew people to her. The lost souls in Limbo don’t want to let her go. They’re demanding over a quadrillion watts of negative energy. Enough to power their cities.
For that to happen everyone would have to let their intrusive thoughts in. A state of total despair would be declared. Depression would have to win.
Despite this pandemic, and the polarization surrounding it, there are still people who are optimistic. Despite all my best efforts, there’s still hope.
When do you think you’ll be reunited with Celestia?
When everyone feels like it’s their duty to change everyone else’s mind. When every laymen speaks with absolute authority. When obscenity out ways a reasoned argument. When feelings count as facts. When nuance is scrubbed from the debate and every person looks upon the other with hate.
So not too long then?
(Obsidian presses his palm to the observatory window and once again regards the empty streets below. He lets out a long exhausted sigh.)
A man was found skinned alive in what police are calling a “Brutal ritualistic killing.”
In the Tanglewood neighborhood around midnight, a 9-1-1 caller reported hearing screams and seeing candles through the windows of the abandoned Chrome Works factory. When officers arrived they found a crime scene “straight out of a horror novel.”
The victim was chained up between the boilers in a prone position with their spine exposed and lungs stretched back into a pair of wings. “At first we took it to be a Viking Blood Eagle, but then we shined out lights on it and it lit up the room like a mirror ball.”
Both the victim’s skin and organs had been removed “with the pression of a skilled surgeon.” The victim’s musculature was coated in a silver lacquer. Both of the victim’s hands had been amputated and replaced with candelabras. A circle of spoons lined their hips, jewels hung from their ribcage, and mirror shards twinkled from their eye sockets. “It was as if the killers wanted us to burst in and shine our lights on it.”
Six high school-age suspects were found with masks, blood stained robes, daggers, and copies of Drew Chial’s controversial novel Reflective Surfaces. While the author could not be reached for comment the publisher released this statement:
Neither Elephant Publishing nor the author have ever claimed the ritualistic aspects of Reflective Surfaces were based in reality. None of the occult ceremonies were taken from known practices. None of the deities are rooted in a mythology and none of the supernatural elements can be linked to genuine belief systems. They were inventions of the author nothing more.
In promoting Reflective Surfaces, Elephant Publishing did not run an alternate reality campaign. We never built dummy websites for our characters, never toyed with readers on Reddit forums, and never doctored Wikipedia entries to reflect the universe of the story. While Reflective Surfaces had several book trailers none of them contained supposed “found” footage. We explicated marketed the title as a work of fiction.
The suspects were not known to us, our street team, or the author. They acted alone and of their own volition. We were just as shocked as everyone by their painstaking recreation of the chapter titled: The Chrome Plated Angel. From the handmade comedy masks to the snakeskin robes, they got everything right. From the twinkling crime scene to the raven hilted daggers they were holding when the S.W.A.T. team stormed in. These kids thought of everything.
And yet they brought the text to life entirely on their own. It just goes to show the power of fandom.
We join together with the community in applauding this ritualistic reenactment from the sidelines. They say that imitation is the most sincere form of flattery and everyone in the office here is positively blushing. Chial and everyone at Elephant Publishing tips their hats to these self-motivated suspects. In an era where book marketing proves more and more elusive this has been an absolute breakthrough.
Born when Mars crashed into Venus, he’s left a path of destruction across the Earth. He’s an agent of conquest concealed beneath a baby face.
He’s antisocial, known to fly solo, too far removed from his victims to regard their suffering. He targets isolated individuals, striking from above because he knows even sitting ducks can be flighty. He cheats, doses his arrowheads with neurotoxins so that his quarry always make bad decisions.
You’ll never catch him. His attack pattern is random. He chooses his victims with a blindfold on.
He compartmentalizes, careful to hide his secret life from his wife. The one time he tasted his own medicine his Psyche went to hell and back again.
Some say they knew his work at first sight, but no one ever sees him coming. He will change you fundamentally. You will think of your life in terms of who you were before he stung you and who he allowed you to be.
It happens to the best of us. You set out to write a story with fiercely original characters, but then a life event compels you to write yourself into the plot. Maybe you just had to get something off of your chest, but now you’re story has a you sized problem… and it might just do something to the real you to deal with it.
I’ve been writing in coffee shops for the last eighteen years. I wish I could say I did it for clever creative reasons, like I was dressing my characters in my surroundings, eavesdropping for dialogue, and reading faces for subtext, but really, writing in public just feels less lonely.
At first I entertained the fantasy that a manic pixie dream girl would pull up a stool beside me, glimpse at the wall of text on my screen, raise her eyebrow, and ask, “What are you writing?” (Which did happen… once.) At this point my goals have more to do with my word count for the day.
But I have been that guy, that guy that pitches his stories to baristas washing dishes at the bar, that guy whose day dreaming eyes lingered in the wrong direction a little too long, that guy whose head is so far up his own ass that he gives out his blog address instead of his phone number. You know, that guy, the writer who wears his identity on his sleeve.
Sure, I might have been a caricature, but at least I did the work. I was writing. I was a writer. I did the noun so I got to call myself the verb. Still I met my share of people who did one but not the other: men adopting the persona of a writer as a pretense to hit on women.
I call them “idea men.” They’re fun, charismatic, and commanding. They’ve honed engaging elevator pitches, but they don’t have the attention span to sit their asses in the chair and do the work. Their bibliography is but a theory. They’re the modern equivalent of the medieval minstrel, carrying on an oral tradition for the sake of flirtation.
I shouldn’t let these idea men get to me, but I do. Writing is hard. Finishing a novel is tough, selling it is tougher, letting an editor kill all your darlings can be even tougher still. If you’ve spent years crafting something that didn’t connect with anyone it’s hard to coax yourself to try it again, but those are the responsibilities that come with calling yourself a writer. It takes talent, training, and tenacity (and you’ve still got to get lucky).
It irks me when I overhear a pickup artist slip on the identity of a writer when it’s clear they haven’t done the work. It irks because I’m afraid that’s what other people assume I’m doing. I feel guilty by proxy.
That having been said I’ve written a how-to guide just for the fakers, the idea men, the pick up artists. I dare you to indulge me as I role-play with misogyny (and if this leaves a bad taste in your mouth, that’s kind of the point). Continue reading How to Pretend to Be A Writer→