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.
This Friday, officers Libby and Davis investigated a disturbance at Gerald Winters & Son Book Store in Bangor Maine. They found a disheveled man hurling rocks at the door, screaming “Let me in! Please let me in.”
When confronted the man screamed. “You don’t understand. They have the unpublished manuscript that I need to get home!”
It wasn’t until the officers put the man into the back of their vehicle that they realized he was Stephen King.
Officer Libby recounted the incident. “The plan was to drive King home and break the news to Tabby that he’d fallen off the wagon. On the way we tried to assess his sobriety and gage his frame of mind.”
Officer Libby kept her body camera recording the entire time.
“Hey Steve, isn’t that the restaurant where they found the eyeball in the fortune cookie?”
King grunted in the affirmative.
“Want us to turn on the radio? Which station do you own WKIT-FM or WZON?”
“Both of them.” King muttered out the window. Then he pressed his palm to the glass. “UPS is still delivering? That means we’re still in chapter 1. Shit doesn’t hit the fan until the murder hornets show up.”
Officer Libby chuckled. “Murder hornets?”
“Harbingers of the Crimson King. The third of seven.”
Officer Davis chimed in. “I thought seven was a good number.”
King grew irritable. “Who told you that? Odd numbers are always bad, especially prime ones, and especially seven.”
Officer Libby tried changing the subject. “So these harbingers are all insects?”
“No. The first takes the form of an pandemic. The second appears as armed protests. The third is hornets. The fourth is shootings over masks. The fifth is giant rats. The sixth is children murdering their parents.”
“Yikes.” Officer Davis squeezed the wheel. “What’s number seven?”
“When a crystal ball, known as Black 13, is unearthed from One World Trade Center.”
“Then what happens?” The officers asked in unison.
“The beams supporting the dark tower will break and the Crimson King will be set free. He’ll use the deadlights to find the Key World and begin unlocking things. Phantom doors will appear on every street corner and the Warriors of the Scarlet Eye will spill forth from the Outer Dark.”
“Sounds like a hell of a story.”
“That’s all it was supposed to be. I wrote it in a cocaine fueled stupor around the same time as The Tommy Knockers. I shelved it and the world moved on. That was until I found a door on my front lawn.”
“When was that?” Officer Libby couldn’t help but ask.
Officer Davis later admitted to taking the long way to King’s estate. He wanted to buy the author time to finish his story. In hindsight, Officer Davis admits this was a mistake.
“There was a creaking out front, like the gate was hanging open. I peeked through the drapes and saw something on the path. At first I thought it was a person, a tall man with square shoulders, hunched over in a long black coat.”
Officer Libby spoke over her seat. “I figured you’d have a top of line security. Especially after reading Misery.”
King shrugged. “The system wasn’t making a sound. I thought it was a trick of the light. Something phantasmagorical, like in the stories of Edgar Allen Poe.”
“Do you…see things often?” Officer Libby asked hesitantly.
“The opposite, actually. I’m losing my vision. I have a condition that blurs the center of my sightline. I have to look out the corner of my eyes. That’s why I went outside.”
Officer Davis spoke through the mirror. “When did you realize it wasn’t a person?”
“When I had my hand on the doorframe. It was sturdy, like someone had driven it into the cobblestones. It was a deep rosewood. The color of blood. I looked to where I thought I’d seen a face and my heart skipped a beat.”
“What did it say 1408?”
“No, it was a knocker in the shape of the Great God Pan. It had rams horns, curly locks, and a nasty scowl. Its teeth were jagged, its brow furled, and its nostrils flared. A knocker hung from its septum.”
“Did you knock?”
“I didn’t have to. The door yawned open. I tried to push it shut. I reached for the knob and got a handful of wind for my efforts. My depth perception is horse shit, but something else was throwing it off.
The door moved closer as the path grew distant. I strained to catch my breath. The air felt thin. Reality felt thinner. Then came a light beneath door. It swung open and that light was blinding.
When I opened my eyes it was broad daylight and I was standing in the center of the road. There was a cyclist in a surgical mask. He shot me a dirty look as he passed. That’s when I realized I was in my own Macroverse.”
Officer Libby interrupted. “Stephen, do you mind if I ask how old you are?”
King balled his fists. “I’m not having a senior moment if that’s what you’re thinking.”
Officer Davis let out a long patient sigh. “Yeah, but why would we know you’re a writer if this was happening in one of your stories?”
Dejected, King craned his neck all the way back into the headrest. “My stories exist within my stories. I hold the Guinness world record for most film adaptations. It’d be hard for readers to believe a story where people haven’t heard of me. Christ, I’m appear in three of The Dark Tower entries.”
Officer Davis gave that a considered nod. “But if you write all this meta fiction, isn’t it possible this is all in your imagination?”
King waved that notion away. “Who’s the president right now?”
The officers exchanged a knowing look. “Donald Trump.”
“It’s Clinton where I come from. Donald Trump was my invention. He’s a modern spin on Greg Stillson, the politician, from The Dead Zone. Stillson was a charlatan folk hero. With Trump I wanted to see what would happen if a reality star became president.”
“And this pandemic is also your doing?” Officer Libby humored him.
“I came up with The Stand after I read about a chemical spill in Utah. I came up with The Coronavirus after I read we’re no closer to a cure for the common cold.”
Officer Davis smirked. “What inspired Dream Catcher?”
Officer Libby put her palm to her forehead to hide her grin. “So where are we in this coronavirus story?”
“Has Trump gone on TV to prescribe a malaria drug to the general public?”
“Uh-huh.” The officers said in unison.
“Has he told everybody to drink bleach?”
“Has he postponed the elections until 2021?”
King nodded self-assuredly. “Then there’s still time.”
At this point Officer Davis felt certain King was putting them on. He couldn’t help but chide the author over his body of work. “Hopefully this one has a more satisfying ending than Under the Dome.”
“Or Secret Window.” Officer Libby added.
“Or The Mist.”
“Or It: Chapter 2. They killed the clown by calling it names?” Officer Davis scoffed. “That was so lame.”
King raised his eyebrow. “That’s not how the book ends.”
Officer Libby rolled her eyes at her partner. “How does this one go again?”
“Or better yet,” Officer Davis let go of the wheel to look back. “How were you planning to get home?”
“Through a breach in reality.” King looked out the window. “I just don’t know where it is.”
Officer Davis seized on that apparent plot hole. “You ought to know you wrote it.”
King gave that a maniacal laugh. At this point the officers reported feeling uncertain that King was putting them on.
“Have you seen my bibliography? Do you think I know those stories by heart? There’s one copy of the manuscript and you are driving away from it.”
Officer Davis turned the patrol car in the direction of the Gerald Winters & Son Book Store. Later he’d admit to doing this to call the author’s bluff.
“Hmmm.” Officer Davis pondered.
“What?” King crossed his arms.
Officer Davis let the wheel go again. “How could a manuscript exist within the story itself?”
Officer Libby turned back as well. “You’d have to have written it in, but then you’d have to write one into that one and another into that one and on and on and on.”
“Like Russian dolls.” Officer Davis nodded.
King’s eyes widened.
“What is it? Did you forget to write the manuscript into the manuscript?”
King pointed ahead. “Door!”
Officer Davis jerked the wheel. The squad card hit an obstruction and flipped end over end. Footage captured by the on-board camera system show the road was clear. Clear right up until the moment a rose red door materialized out of nowhere. A close examination of a freeze frame reveals a knocker that’s dead ringer for the Greek god Pan.
Officer Davis and Officer Libby came out of the crash, with a few broken bones, more or less unharmed. Both were cleared of any wrongdoing and are aiding with the investigation.
As for Stephen King? He hasn’t been seen or heard from since.
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.)
Europe has been in the grip of fear ever since a strange mist blanketed the globe last January. Romanian authorities found discotheques drenched in blood, freezers stockpiled with corpses, and victims impaled on flagpoles. Investigators found fang-like puncture wounds and bodies completely drained of blood. It didn’t take long for the World Health Organization to declare a vampire epidemic.
President Trump downplayed reports of cathedrals covered in crimson glyphs and blood spattered effigies, dubbing them “The latest in a long line of liberal hoaxes.”
A month later reports of bodies mounted on church spires came from all across America.
President Trump’s tone shifted. “Our first priority is to protect our nation’s menstruating women. These things like blood. I’ve had three wives and two daughters, and let me tell you, that’s a lot of blood.”
The president then told a frightened nation to stockpile onions. “Stuff them into your mail box. Lay a bloom on your doormat. Shove them in your gutters.”
Later a spokesperson for the Whitehouse clarified the president’s comments. “Vampires are allergic to garlic, a species of the onion genus, which is what the president was referring to when he said ‘onions.’”
A day later President Trump told the public to invest in silver spray paint. “Spray it on your railings. Your doorknobs. Your neck. I mean lock the doors and windows and just empty a couple of cans.”
That same Whitehouse spokesperson clarified. “Vampires are not allergic to the color silver, but rather the precious metal. It burns their skin on contact. While some paints contain metal flakes they are not concentrated enough to offer any substantive benefit.”
Earlier this April Catholic parishes reported running out of holy water. Experts within the administration urged clergy members to bless the nation’s aquifers. Meanwhile the President suggested Americans dunk copies of Mel Gibson’s 2004 film The Passion of the Christ in their bathtubs. “Fill up a couple of water balloons and go Rambo on these mother suckers.”
As more human totem poles and skin banners are discovered 65% of Americans say personal defense is their main concern. The nation’s timber producers struggle to meet the demand for wooden stakes. The CDC urges rural Americans to whittle branches for home defense. Urban Americans face wood shortages. With their staff furloughed Crate and Barrel reports their dining sets have been stripped by desperate people looking for materials to make stakes.
The president announced a plan to address the stake shortage. He went before the Whitehouse press briefing with golf tees jutting from his knuckles and went into a shadowboxing routine that lasted for a few seconds before he leaned on the podium to catch his breath. When he finished wheezing he lobbed packs of golf tees at the press core and shouted, “Here, use these.”
Climate activists, like Greta Thunberg, insist world leaders must address the mist blanketing the globe before doing anything else. “The only way to stop the vampires is to bring the sun back into the equation.”
The President denies the role of climate change on the overcast. Anonymous Whitehouse aids say he makes finger guns at the cloud cover whenever he passes a window and that he’s asked his generals, “Why can’t we just nuke it?”
“Because the fallout would make the earth uninhabitable.”
“What about solar panels? Why don’t we just blast it from the underneath?”
“Solar panels absorb sunlight. They don’t project it.”
“What about hurricanes? You know how the sun always shines through the eye of a hurricane? Why can’t we do something with that?”
“If we could control the weather we’d start with the mist.”
“Then what’s your suggestion poindexter?!”
South Korea contained the spread of vampirism by urging citizens to disinvite infected family members from their homes, mandatory blood testing, and Ultraviolet light checkpoints.
Last Friday President Trump suggested Americans go out carrying life-sized crucifixes. “I know the fake media will spin this to say that crosses are too heavy, but how badly do you want your groceries?”
Churches report that the crosses they’ve depended on to protect their congregations have been stolen. Cemeteries report record grave desecrations and strip malls are reporting the theft of lowercase Ts from signs.
Rather than address the surge in vandalism the President congratulated himself on Twitter for beating the Pope in TV ratings. “Does the pope shit in the woods? Well he’s shit in the ratings! Sad.”
As for a long term solution Whitehouse aids report President Trump is still spit balling strategies with his generals.
“Can’t we get some werewolf commandos to take these mouth-bleeders out?”
“Then who would take out the werewolves?”
Trump snapped his fingers. “An airborne squadron of witches.”
“And what about the witches?”
“How about some vampire bats?”
“And…we’re right back where we started.”
Last night a high ranking general’s remains were found near the Whitehouse. Witnesses said his intestines were threaded through the gate like tinsel and that his organs were hung like mistletoe.
At 3AM the President Tweeted, “It’s over! Liberate your homes! Throw those doors open and invite the world back in! #CleanYourNecksFirst.”
The President and most of his staff have not been heard from since. Although there were reports of a colony of bats seen defecating on the Lincoln memorial not long after the President’s Tweet.
Welcome to Strange Love (aka Monster Mingle) a place where urban legends find romance, where full moons lead to fuller hearts, and all the thirsty singles have fangs. This is how it works: illustrator Bryan Politte creates the characters and I (Drew Chial horror author) give them a backstory.
Meet Kadilia Caine. She’s been out of the dating pool for a while, but she’s ready to get her feet wet again. She has the power to glamour crowds into falling in love with her, but she’s never known true love herself. If you’re searching for someone to watch over you at night then look no further than Kadilia. All you have to do to win her affection is invite her in.
If you grew up Romani in the 19thcentury then Transylvania was the place to be, especially if you liked hawking pottery on a bed of splinters in the dead of winter. And if you didn’t? Well I don’t know about you, but I hopped a caravan to London and joined a burlesque troop.
Now Victorian burlesque is not the Vegas showcase you’re probably imagining. Our performances were less about splashing around in giant cocktails and more about telling tales. Less fan dancing. More pantomime. Less high kicks. More hijinks.
We performed Shakespeare (with a few subtle alterations). Our female characters were actually played by women (as were most of the men). And sure, our heroes were scantily clad caricatures, and yes, we did cram Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter full of innuendos: O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo? I need a happy dagger in my sheath.
I never got to utter that one. I had a habit of laughing through my lines. Audiences got a rise out of it, but it made playwrights go bat shit. Nevertheless, my time on stage put a smile on my face and potatoes on my plate, until the theater went family friendly and spat me onto the street. Many of my costars fell back on the world’s oldest profession, but I had loftier ambitions.
I took up modeling, posing for those animated carousels viewers spun by hand. Gentlemen would line up to watch me lift my skirt or tip my corset. They called them zoetropes and they called me a zoetrope trollop, sometimes a stroboscope strumpet, or a praxinoscope pretty, if I was lucky.
I was just happy to be in pictures, whether I was a flipbook floosy or stereoscopic stripper I didn’t care. I was an entertainer. I had a good thing going, until a fan caught up with me in Whitechapel and ruined everything.
LIFE CHANGING EVENT
I was walking home when I noticed something strange. The echo of my heels was falling out of sync. It turned out someone was trying to match my footfalls. It wasn’t long before I saw their shadow creeping up the cobblestones.
I hastened my pace, hoping to find a constable or some local ruffians. Instead I found a gaggle of gigglemugs spilling out of a pub. I weaved my way into the women and walked with them until I was certain my pursuer had buggered off. When I came upon a familiar shortcut, I left the gals to their gossip.
My pursuer was waiting for me there in that long back alley. His top hat cast a shadow down his brow, his mustache framed his muzzle in twin spirals, and his teeth were pressed so hard into his lip it looked like he had an underbite. He reached into his cape with a long leather glove.
I remember him offering me grapes and that the last words out of my mouth were, “Thanks, but I already ate.”
Then he ran a blade along my neck like he was bowing a violin and everything went dark.
When I came to a woman was kneeling over me. I took her for a sister of mercy until I saw the gash in her wrist. Maybe it was the lamplight or maybe it was my delirium, but I swore her blood was moving on its own, shifting and twisting against the wind like a living thing.
Smoke billowed from her wound, over her gloves, and through her fingers. Her skin was as pail as porcelain and her ballgown was a deep crimson red. I couldn’t see her face behind the veil, but somehow, I knew she had kind sympathetic eyes.
Eventually her blood spilled over my wound and ran down my collar. I felt a tickling sensation in the back of my throat, like a knot of snakes squirming down my gullet. I choked, writhed, and spat.
The woman shushed me, raised her veil, and revealed a pair of eyes with a catlike glow. “Don’t breathe. Just swallow.”
I did as instruct. It felt like I was drinking oxygen, like my lungs were thirsty, and my anatomy was upside down.
When the woman pulled her wrist back, I caught it and suckled on the gash. She patted my back, a mother nursing her child back to health, and in a way that’s what she was doing.
It was a while before I had the strength to sit upright. When I did, I saw rainbow trails around the moon. The lanterns seemed like bonfires, and the bricks and stones glowed with firelight.
The women ran a finger along my scar. “We’ll have to do something about that.”
She unclasped the choker from her neck and put it around mine. She leaned into my ear and whispered, “Stay out of the sun baby bat. If he gives you silver, send it back. Only eat for show, but keep garlic off your plate. Only drink from those who wish to drink from you, feel for the hastening of their heartbeat, and never quench your thirst completely.”
In my blood drunk stupor, I ran my fingers through her hair. My sire smirked. “Parting is such sweet sorrow.”
Then she fell into her own shadow, leaving me to fend for myself.
A few World Wars later I was finally getting the hang of being a vampire. I traveled the French countryside, touring the vineyards and the bunkers, wetting my lips on the blood of fascists.
In London I abided by my sire’s code. If I felt a donor’s pulse quicken I eased off my fangs and sent them on their way. I never left a gentleman hemorrhaging, but those Nazis, well, I drank them down to the vasopressin. The ones I caught rounding up Romani, I drained them down to the sodium. By the time I got to Stalingrad my code had become: if they had German fatigues on, they were fair game.
By the end of the war I’d developed a reputation. The Axis powers called me die rote Witweor the Red Widow. The Allies called me Glinda the Good Witch. Good or bad a reputation meant I had to keep moving. I crammed all of my worldly possessions into a shipping container and left the mainland.
I traveled on a Norwegian cargo tanker chasing the polar night from one hemisphere to the other. When I got lonely I glamoured the sailors into believing I was a crew member. I read their fortunes between poker games and they told me tales of trolls, fossegrimen, and Krakens.
I sipped from two crew members a night, not thinking to clean my fangs between feedings. At the time I knew nothing of bloodborne pathogens. When the captain got sick. The crew followed. I cut to half rations, then a fourth, then an eighth. The crew survived the trip, but they were all blood brothers when I was done with them.
When the time came to settle on dry land, I chose Seattle. The Emerald City had everything I needed: ports, a near yearlong overcast, and great food. People here eat so much salmon that you can taste it in their hemoglobin. I went from starving at sea to overfeeding on land.
MY HOBBIES AND INTERESTS
Not all vampires learn to glamour. Those who don’t rarely last a year. Either they develop anemia or the hunger drives them into a feeding frenzy and they get struck down by the Hellsings.
I’m one of the lucky ones. I have a gift and I do not squander it. Call it hypnosis. Call it seduction. Call it neuro linguistic programming. I call it fun.
It used to be if I wanted to glamour someone they had to be in the same room. I’d beckon a dapper young suitor to the candelabra and challenge him to a staring contest. He’d get lost in my eyes, in the optical illusion of my irises: the slithering blood vessels, the swirling speckles, the strawberry seed patterns. I’d stare daggers into the keyholes of his soul, lift the pin of his neocortex, then his behavioral center, and finally his audio cortex. Then with a quick twist of the tongue we’d click.
Pioneering vampires tried glamouring on broadcast television, not to lure victims, so much as to sell things. The fact that you don’t drive an Edsel is a testament to the limits of those old tube screens. Still they tried throughout the evolution of the medium, but they couldn’t make it happen. So, I thought I’d try my hand.
I was studying neuroscience just for kicks. I convinced my class to do a study on chromesthesia. Chromesthesia is a phenomenon where certain sounds trigger certain colors in certain listeners. My theory was that I could evoke specific images in my subjects, like hypnotic swirls for instance.
I spent months with each subject, reading guided meditation scripts at a soft even pitch, singing Romani folksongs with fast bright tones, and whispering the contents of classmates’ journals.
I explored my subject’s cognitive pathways for days, but each one reacted differently. Each subject had their own color palettes. There was no universal pitch.
I was about to give up when I noticed the effect the sessions were having on my classmates, each of whom were neurotypical. I found them outside the booth rubbing their foreheads on the acoustic panels like they were cats. This happened whenever I’d spent a session whispering. My classmates described an electrostatic sensation, a tingling that ran up their scalps, along their necks, and down their spines.
At the time I thought I’d invented Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (or ASMR), but it turned out Bob Ross had beaten me to it decades in advance. Of course he had, that soft-spoken shaman.
I decided to broaden the experiment. I chose a medium outside of the FCC’s jurisdiction where a live audience was guaranteed to be watching. I started webcamming.
Being a camgirl reminded me of my days as a zoetrope trollop. I was back in tiny top hats, leotards, and corsets, but I wasn’t showing much skin, I was whispering fantasies into a microphone. In this scenario I was a starving vampiress in desperate need of a donor, and I would do anything, I mean anything, for a few drops. Don’t make me beg.
I lured subjects into private chats, met them under bridges, and brought their fantasies to their logical conclusions.
Satisfied with my findings I decided to harness the power of the net to find the Chateau Rothschild of the vampire palette: the blood of virgins, but where would I get it?
That’s when I discovered Incels. Incels were a community of virgins who came together to vent about being involuntarily celibate. It was like finding a cellar lined with preserves that would never expire.
I used my earnings camming to buy targeted advertisements aimed at Incels. Before long I was as drunk as a tick on top shelf hemoglobin.
So satisfied was I that I left my suitors with a little parting gift. I glamoured them, leaned in close, and whispered. “If anyone asks, you totally got fucked tonight.”
MY INTIMATE DETAILS
I have never been in love. Now I’m no virgin (I’m as far from that as Pluto is the sun), but I’ve never been in romantic love. I’ve drafted sex contracts with a haematophiliacs, embraced archduke elders in citadel spires, and forged blood bonds with strangers, but I’ve never entered into the kind of union described by Jane Austen. I have never felt truly known or accepted by another conscious creature, human or otherwise.
The problem with dating vampires is, well, everything.
We’re polyamorous pansexuals and yet our jealousy is legendary. We’re fickle fashionistas who wear lovers like accessories AND we’re ageist against anyone with less than a century under their belts.
“Oh, you charmed child of Tesla, that stack of tree leavings is what’s known as an encyclopedia.”
First dates with vampires always devolve into the same old ghoulish gibberish. We lie about all the bloodshed we’ve witnessed. We wave macabre merit badges and walk away knowing nothing intimate.
Meanwhile the problem with dating mortals is the hours they keep. We’ll be like ships passing in the night unless my partner is an air traffic controller. When a morning person switches to my routine, they get jetlag on the ground, they contract seasonal depression in the summer time, and they start jonesing for the sun.
Oh, and humans have to eat. Their whole culture is built around it: lunch meetings, dinner dates, brunch. Too bad I don’t own a microwave, utensils, or even a bowl. Worse still my culinary skills start and stop at boiling a potato.
My modeling career ended in that alley back in Whitechapel. Not only had my reflection disappeared, but my image stopped showing up on filmstock. It turns out film contains silver. Silver burns vampires and yet we don’t burn onto it.
It wasn’t until digital cameras hit the market that I could see my face.
I’d forgotten how bushy my eyebrows were, or how my ears peeked through my hair. Not to mention my bulb nose. Then there were the details I didn’t remember. My caramel skin had gone gray, my curly locks had straightened, and my fangs had changed the shape of my lips.
For the longest time my fashion sense was utilitarian: black halter tops and skinny jeans, like Joan Jett on a lazy Sunday. That changed when my webcam turned my TV into a full-length mirror. I started wearing more flair than just a choker.
MY PERFECT MATCH
In addition to never having fallen in love there are two other things I haven’t done. I’ve never had a familiar and I’ve never sired a vampire. I’ll be the first to admit I have issues with the way I was turned: the encounter with Jack the Ripper, the to be abandoned by my master. I chose a life of lukewarm loneliness, because I don’t want to put anyone else through that.
I’ve never had a familiar for the same reason I’ve never had a butler. We Romani are self-sufficient. We’re not used to being waited on. Too many vampires treat their familiars like unpaid interns, dangling the carrot of immortality over their heads.
“I’ll give you eternal life. Provided you pick up my dry cleaning in the meantime.”
Familiars are rarely groomed for the masquerade because they’re rarely turned. They’re glorified gofers, biking with coolers on their backs, hoping their master won’t throw blood bags back at them.
“I asked for type-o negative. This is minestrone.”
“Sorry master I must’ve mixed it up at the deli, which means… Mrs. Clifton got the… uh-oh.”
I don’t need a familiar, a twi-curious role player, or a bondage club fang banger. I need an entrepreneur. A self-made manifestation, like a necromancer, soothsayer, or paranormal podcaster. Someone with an active nightlife. Someone who already conducts their business in the third shift. Someone with the confidence to flirt with death and the kindly manner to open doors for her.
MY IDEAL DATE
My ideal date would be a trek across the Carpathian mountainside, a tour through the seven castles of Transylvania, capped off with a nice scenic sunset, but I’ll take what I can get.
We could shape shift into a pair giant bats and freak out visitors at the Space Needle, go hunting in the subterranean tunnels under Portland, or maybe just have a nice picnic… in the charred skeleton of a deconsecrated church.
It doesn’t matter. I am easy to please so long as you hold my interest, and if you don’t, well, there’s always room for a midnight snack.
Another Valentine’s Day is upon us, which means it’s time to lower the storm shudders, draw up the staircase, and make sure the panic room is stocked with non-perishables. You know better than to get caught in the foyer when St. Valentine gets here.
Resist the temptation to try to spot him lumbering beneath the street lamps. Don’t go peeking through the keyhole looking for tattered robes. Don’t press your ear to the door to listen for howling on the wind, the clicking of his inverted kneecaps, or bones dragging along the picket fence. He’s out there, raising his own severed head to scan the buildings for life signs, a mangled manifestation just as Emperor Claudius had left him.
Do not attempt to pilot a drone from your roof in an attempt to capture a glimpse of the specter. Do not affix a GoPro to your mailbox or an infrared system to your lawn gnome. Just let the man serve out his punishment in peace, sacrifice your goat, and leave it out on the boulevard like you do every year.
You don’t want to end up like my friend Zeke.
The Cautionary Tale of Ezekiel Lawson
Ezekiel, or Zeke as we called him, was a trophy hunter. The man kept the town’s taxidermist in business until he took to doing it himself. He didn’t have a piece of furniture that hadn’t once been something living. His rumpus room had more fur than wallpaper, with so many antlers they practically an earthquake hazard.
Zeke was day trader, which afforded him the luxury of going on safari. He knew everything about hunting dangerous game. He told stories at the bar, gave us unsolicited lectures on concealment, wind flows, and paw prints. He claimed he took out an entire pack of wolves without reloading his rifle.
“And I did it on a level playing field. No deer stand, no bait, none of that bullshit.”
We never challenged him. After all he had the heads to prove it and he relished in the opportunity to count all six of them out. Still when Zeke said he was going after Valentine’s dire wolves we were all skeptical.
“Valentine is bound by the code of Lupercalia festival to walk those wolves. His punishment for trying to convert one of lord Februus’s followers. Those wolves are trained to sniff out evil spirits, which stands to reason they’re spirits themselves. Are you sure a bullet would do the trick?”
“They leave tracks don’t they?”
“Big as catcher’s mitts.”
“They shit on your lawn don’t they?
“Every damn time.”
“Then beneath them long mangy hides they’re still squishy on the inside.”
“What about Februus?”
“Please. The underworld is teaming with enchanted beings. You think he’s really going to miss one?”
We conceded that notion into our beers. Every one of us had an encounter with one of Februus’s creature at one time or another.
Still, I wish I’d reminded Zeke where those wolf droppings usually came from.
Zeke raised his mug. “Come on boys. My rumpus room needs a new rug.”
We clinked glasses.
On the morning of February 15thI awoke to my wife’s screams. Melissa had gone out front with the old pooper-scooper, hoping to get a start on those dire wolf droppings, when she spotted a blood trail in the snow. She found poor Zeke’s head in the birdbath, mouth wide open, one eye milky white, the other torn out of the socket with a few out stretched ribbons of muscle trying to cling for it. Half of Zeke’s face was rust colored with dried blood. The other half had been gnawed down to the bone.
That wasn’t what I found most disturbing. Zeke had seen something that night that had turned his raven hair white.
A Word of Caution This Valentine’s Day
You probably already know this, but some of you dumbass thrill seekers need a reminder. February is Februus’s month and Februus is the God of purification. In ancient Etruscan the word februare literally means “a purging.” I know you millennials like to play fast and loose with the old ways, but this is not a date night, not a time for young lovers to go skipping around downtown. Lest you want be ground down to dire wolf droppings.
Lupercalia or “Valentine’s Day,” is a time for Februus to drive dark spirits back to underworld where they belong. It’s not our place to spectate. Our role is to cower in quiet solitude of our fortified vaults, thankful that we’ve been spared for another year.
Now y’all stay safe and have a happy Valentine’s Day.
The devil’s sales pitch from the book HE HAS MANY NAMES.
Noelle is a Hollywood transplant that’s been subsisting on instant ramen and false hope. A dubious agent offers her a gig ghostwriting for an author in a hotel where he claims to have had an unholy encounter. With whom you ask? Well… HE HAS MANY NAMES