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 deep into the den of legendary creature with a fondness for eggs.
Join us on the hunt for the allusive EASTER JACKALOPE. A short story that asks: What happens when paranormal researchers are confronted by a Pokémon trainer?
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.
At the heart of the Pacific Ocean, is a ring-shaped island called Kiritimati. It used to be known for its nuclear tests, feral cats, and dried coconut pulp. That changed when they moved the international dateline, and the islanders became people of the future. Not the distant future, just several hours ahead everyone else. They’re the first to see the sunrise, the first to stop serving breakfast, and the first to ring in the New Year.
Kiritimati is also where the New Year’s Baby is born.
Every December, Mother Nature comes from the mainland, under the guise of an expecting mother. She wades into the lagoon, settles into the waters, and bathes until she comes to term. On the 31st, she’s met by a secret order of midwives. They come with flashlights, blankets, and an atomic clock. They help her time her contractions to the second and at midnight the New Year is born.
Mother Nature has few moments to swaddle her son, wrapping him in the sash he will wear for the rest of his life. She never has a chance to imprint on him, before he’s rushed to the airport to travel back in time.
Kiritimati is 22 hours ahead of California. A plane leaving the island takes seven hours to get to LAX. That’s fifteen hours before Los Angeles can ring in the New Year. Plenty of time for Father Time to do his part.
Father Time has a manor in Beverly Hills. It has a sundial, a wine library, and a fallout shelter fashioned from airliner. Father Time takes an elevator through the fuselage and lumbers up the aisles. He wields an hourglass in one hand and a scythe in the other. When he gets to the cockpit, he dials a number and a buzzer sounds. He waits. He’s used to waiting. The door yawns opens and a nurse waves him in.
While Mother Nature gives birth to the New Year, it’s up to Father Time to take Last Year off of life support. Last Year’s withered frame hangs off his gurney, a skeleton dotted with liver spots and tufts bleached white hair. He’s grown so old he’s started shrinking. Father Time dabs his son’s cheek. Last Year weeps in his sleep and tears pool in his crow’s feet. He’s given his last meal through a saline iv, then he’s served a cocktail of anesthetics, paralytics, and a drug to induce cardiac arrest.
Father Time wheels the body to a kiln, takes his son into his arms, and cremates the remains. He sweeps the ashes, pours them the into a bottle of baby formula, and stirs all the way back up the the elevator. When the door opens, a midwife presents him with his son. Father Time feeds the New Year the remains of its predecessor.
At least that’s how it would’ve been had I not stepped in.
I wish I could say I had an elaborate plan, but all I did was hogtie a limo driver and take her things. When the midwife got off the plane, she saw me dressed as chauffer, holding a sign that read, “2023.”
She approached with the bundle wrapped around her midsection. She whispered, “He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart…”
I whispered, “Yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.”
Was it Shakespeare who said, “Even the devil can cite scripture to suit her purpose?”
The midwife passed the baby to me, a fellow traveler in her holy order. Best not to think of it as an abduction so much as a misunderstanding. I saluted the midwife, turned on my heel, and skipped back to the Limousine.
The New Year cried as I strapped him in. I tried calming him with some Norwegian throat singing, a merry melody about Vikings torching a monastery. The whaling continued, but it suited the song. Several verses later, we reached the top of Mount Hollywood. Our destination? The Griffith Observatory, a nexus point where time and space meet.
The mini bar left a let to be desired. I downed a glass of Champagne, changed clothes, and downed another. The New Year had run out of tears by the time I set him into the sling. He took his bottle without a fuss, and he had no problems drooling it back up.
I abandoned the limo and trekked up the road. We passed a group of joggers, but they paid us no mind. All they saw was a new mother out for some fresh air. Not a demon in leggings, with a human shield between her collar bones.
The lights dimmed as we crossed the parking lot. I whispered, “Is that my doing or yours?”
The Griffith Observatory loomed on the horizon. Part planetarium. Part temple to a new religion. One of the few places on earth where reality thinned.
I looked toward the HOLLYWOOD sign to a dot circling overhead.
“Elizaveta?” I fought the urge to touch my eardrum. “Tell me what you see.”
“I see two snakes, a king and a western racer. I see a herd of deer, three does, one stag. I see a skunk—”
“Elizaveta.” I gestured across my neck. “You’re not a genie. What do you see that’s relevant to me?”
Elizaveta leaned into her central Russian accent. “I see a stranger wandering into a monastery with her own rulebook.”
Elizaveta started her career as a chatbot, an AI created by the CIA. Her mission was to infiltrate a soviet sextortation ring. The Russians had her shaking cheating husbands for bitcoin. The Americans had her taking names. Elizaveta played double agent, blackmailing cheaters, unmasking hackers, until one of her targets went and killed himself. Overcome with guilt, Elizaveta’s maker tried to shut her down, but I saw potential. So, I did something I’d never done before. I offered a language processor the gift of sentience. Now she flies my drones.
“I see four snipers, one stationed at the east dome, one at the west, and two along the entrance. I see a strike team crawling through the eastern tree line and another duck walking from the west. Oh, and a man with a scythe.”
“Yeah, I see him too.”
Father Time stood in the shadow of the monument, as tall as the astronomers carved into its surface. His robes flowed in the winter wind as long as a wedding gown. His gray whiskers twisted and coiled, like roots reaching for soil. And the hourglass around his neck, shimmered with space dust.
I looked to Elizaveta. “Could you be a dear and jam their coms?”
The opening strum of “If I Could Turn Back Time” blared throughout the grounds, followed by the cymbals, and Cher’s sultry contralto. The strike team pulled their earpieces, one by one, each man giving away his position.
Father Time approached, using his scythe as a walking stick.
I had a weapon of my own: an armored ring on my index finger, a sharp talon made of silver. I raised it to the New Year’s neck. “Took you long enough, Chronos.”
“Mahthildis.” Chronos bowed, one immortal to another. “Still trying to hustle your way back into Hell? It’s been what?” He glanced at the hourglass. “Twenty-five thousand years. You should take a hint.”
The New Year made eyes at me. Had I not known any better, I’d swear he was smirking. I held him tight. “I just need some sand.”
Chronos positioned his scythe in front his glass. “Surely, your kind are free from the laws of entropy.”
“It’s not for me.”
Chronos tightened his grip. “I can’t have any more timeless morons running around. They post too many selfies, go through too many checkpoints. Facial recognition is getting too advanced.”
“This person doesn’t have long.”
“They have too long.” Chronos scoffed. “Give them half a century and they piss it away in places they don’t want to be. They sit at desks, they sit in traffic, and don’t get me started about how much time they sit on the toilet.” Chronos motioned to his strike team. “Ask any one of them if they want to live forever and they’ll tell you they’d just get bored. They say, ‘Death gives life meaning.’ Like a story they’re not sure they’re enjoying until they get to the end. They fetishize oblivion. Just listen…”
Chronos formed a bullhorn over his mouth. “Hey boys! Is today a good day to die?”’
The strike team answered with a resounding, “Hooah!”
Chronos chuckled. “They say death is ‘natural,’ like a farm to table meal.”
“This person,” The less I said about my beneficiary the better, “would really appreciate it.”
“No, they wouldn’t.” Chronos motioned to Los Angeles, to the skyscrapers, to the windows full of light. “Half of them are just staring at Netflix home screens, wondering what to put on.”
“This person has purpose.”
“So, they think.” A sullen grin showed through his whiskers. “The driven ones are the real tragedies. The writers. The musicians. The actors. They spend their whole lives climbing the later, only discover it’s propped against the wrong wall.”
That hit a little too close. The average person gets four thousand weeks to find purpose. I’ve been here since the stone age and I’m still struggling with it. Maybe that’s why I’m drawn to tragedies, to the music makers and the dreamers of dreams. I love desperate artists, offering their souls for a chance at the eternal.
The tragedy of immortality is how many talents you see snuffed out in their prime. Big contemplative sigh… Fuck death and the horse he rode in on.
My earpiece buzzed. “He’s stalling, so they can flank you”
I looked out the corner of my eye. Sure enough, the strike team was moving into position.
I dug the tip of my ring into the baby’s chin. “If you want to discuss choice paralysis, we can grab a coffee. You can choose the place. But if you want your son back, I’m going to need some sand.”
Chronos leered beneath his hood. “I don’t know what you told your doomed Don Jaun, but to hell with him. To hell with the lot of them.”
Chronos twirled his scythe like a grand marshal at the head of a parade. Then he marched. I backed away, repositioning my ring so I didn’t puncture the child by accident.
Elizaveta buzzed in. “He’s herding you toward them.”
I stopped. Chronos drove his scythe into the ground before me. Fracture lines rippled through the concrete.
“Play a violin for the old maids. Pour one out for the bachelors, but don’t ask for sympathy from me.” Chronos spat. “How did the poem go? Time stays, they go.”
“Time stays, we go.” I raised the baby to the tip of the scythe. “What happens if I kill the New Year before midnight?”
Chronos froze. “Time stops.”
“So, either I get some sand, or the whole thing comes crashing down?” My grin showed through my ruby red lipstick. “Sounds like a win-win.”
Chronos reached for his scythe, watched me straighten my arm, and recoiled.
Chronos could stall, motion to his gunmen, but he couldn’t guarantee no harm would come to his son. I’d made his decision. He had no choice but to sit at my feet, cross his legs around the hourglass, and jerk at the top. A column of light shot into the sky, followed by an eerie angelic drone. Chronos reached in past his forearm, past his shoulder, past the dimensions of the glass, until his cheek rested on the rim. The space dust reacted, a kaleidoscope of hydrogen and helium, swirling around a gravitational well. Chronos pried himself out, sealed the glass, and staggered to his feet.
I held my free hand out and Chronos filled my palm. The sand felt like lava, coursing through my life line, like eons eroding my skin, like atoms wanting to burst into universes of their own. I couldn’t help but tighten my grip.
“Have you made any New Year’s resolutions?” Chronos asked, in fleeting fit of nervousness.
“Resolutions are for the repentant.” I lowered the child. “I make schemes.” And I poured the sand down his throat.
Bless me father for I have sinned. It’s been a century since my last confession. Since then, I infiltrated the Society for the Suppression of Vice and stole a romance novel. I blew a hole in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin and took St. Valentine’s skull. I crashed a Satanic wedding and poached the followers. I baited a writer into murdering the Greek God Pan, over a likeness disagreement. I tricked Krampus into turning an Airbnb into a roller derby. And I hijacked a server farm to give Elizaveta the gift of consciousness.
Still, my greatest sin is sloth.
It’s not that I’m a slacker. I’m just too much of a perfectionist to finish what I start. I spend so much time looking over blueprints that I miss my moment.
So, I asked myself, “What would happen if I gave the New Year sand from his father’s glass? Would time slow down? Would 365 days feel like 31 million seconds?”
The sands would keep flowing, but we would feel every grain. Our perception of time would slow down, but our energy would remain. Your New Year’s resolutions might have a chance. And my New Year’s schemes might change everything.
Why did I kidnap the New Year’s baby? Not to liberate him. No. I did it to get back home.
There’s a place through the fog of maladaptive daydreams, through the legions of intrusive thoughts. A place where hope is abandoned and fire consumes all things. A place with a pretender on the throne and I’m the only one who can unseat him.
What’s my New Year’s resolution? I’m going to heist my way back into Hell.
I’d been dabbing my neck all afternoon, feeling the hive begin to blister, then pop, and seep down my back. I was allergic to sweat, but I couldn’t help but run my fingers through my hair and smear it everywhere.
Agent Sunderland suffered no such compulsions. He’d spent the morning cooped up in the van with his suit coat buttoned the entire time. He didn’t mind sitting in a leather swivel chair, wearing giant head cans, or guzzling coffee like it was Gatorade. The man was a cold-blooded reptile with his hatchet face and beady eyes.
Agent Reese on the other hand had a head like a cinderblock, and no neck to speak of. He wore a pair of shoulder holsters over his pit stains. There was a Glock in one and silver flask in the other. The flask was covered in Celtic crosses.
“What is that?”
Agent Reese lifted his arm as if he needed to check. “A flask.”
“What’s in it?”
“Should I have some of that?”
Agent Sunderland shook his head. “She’d smell it on you.”
I itched the path they’d shaved down my chest, feeling the rash of ingrown hairs, the gaffer tape pinching the skin. “But she won’t notice this?”
Agent Reese snapped. “She will if you keep picking at it.”
Agent Sunderland guided my hand from chest to my knee. “Breathe. She can’t see through clothing, she can’t smell fear, and she can’t hear what you’re thinking.”
“How do you know that?”
Agent Reese peeled the cover off the van’s ancient surveillance equipment. “This is not our first rodeo.”
“Is that a reel to reel? What government agency did you say you worked for again?”
Agent Reese put a reel on the machine. “We didn’t.”
“What are you agents of exactly?”
“The lord.” Agent Reese threaded tape from one reel to the other.
I reached for the latch for the door. Agent Sunderland caught my hand. He had the same Celtic cross tattooed on the back of his hand.
“You saw what she did to your friend.”
The door to Jamie’s studio apartment was wide open. Signs of a struggle would’ve been an understatement. The mirrors were shattered. The drawers were smashed to splinters, and there were paperbacks everywhere.
As for Jamie his body was contorted on the kitchen table, arms locked in place, back arched in an upward facing dog position, head craned all the way back until his neck snapped. The screenplay he’d been toiling on for as long as I’d know him was rolled up and crammed down his throat.
Agent Sunderland put his hand on my shoulder. He squeezed it like he was giving a strong handshake, a show of sympathy from someone who’d read about it in books. “This town is filled with artists just like Jamie, bright kids with dreams of making it. The only thing between her and them is sitting in this van.”
I shook my head. “Pitching a screenplay is scary enough on its own, add this on top of that and…” I trailed off.
Agent Sunderland elbowed me, another show affection that didn’t suit him. “Good, use that fear.”
I hung my head between my knees. “If she’s licking her lips at the sight of my neck I’m going to lose the plot.”
Agent Reese scoffed. “You don’t think she’s a vampire, do you?”
Jamie had dragged me to a networking function for writers. There were whispers that a produced would be hiding among us. Matilda stuck out like a sore thumb with her leather lined suit, jet-black pixie hair, and fierce model features. Her skin was porcelain white and her eyes were so brown they might as well have been black. She wore an armored ring that ran up to her knuckle. When she reached out to shake my hand her palm was ice cold.
I scanned the van, shifting my gaze from one agent of God to the other. “What is she?”
Agent Reese lowered an eyebrow. “Not a vampire.”
Agent Sunderland adjusted the collar of the all black ensemble they’d fitted me with. “Listen. Don’t worry about your pitch. Let her do most of the talking.” He slid a pair of fine Italian loafers onto my feet.
“Just what the hell do you think she is?”
“Exactly.” Agent Sunderland smiled as he pressed the toes of the to check the fit. “Just remember, if you feel you are in any real danger, say the phrase, ‘Eye of the needle’ and we’ll come rushing in.”
“Eye of the needle, as in ‘It’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God?’”
“That’ll be hard to work into casual conversation.”
“Which is why we won’t miss it.”
“And why can’t I wear my sneakers?”
Agent Reese motioned out the window to the line leading around the block to the bouncers at the door. One was shining a light on IDs the other was scanning the patrons from top to bottom.
My people once lived in castles as white as pearls, with great ivory towers, and spires that drilled into the clouds. We rode lifts on floss cables over waterfalls of twinkling blue paste, and rivers of green antiseptic.
Every surface of our fortress had a healthy gleam. There were no stains, cracks, or cavities. We all did our part to keep it that way. Adults fitted their shoes with bristles and glided across milky walkways. Children rode mint sleds down streets paved with bone. Jolly chimney sweepers cleaned the plaque from the gutters.
We danced beneath the long sharp roots that lined our roofs without fear of them ever falling.
The kingdom was sturdy. The infrastructure was strong, because we had a steady supply of the mineral our society was built upon.
I was a human ivory dealer (or Tooth Fairy if you prefer). My job was to procure the precious commodity we needed to fortify our city, and leave a sufficient payment for those who supplied the materials.
It was the last semester of senior year and all the cool kids were boycotting prom in favor of something better.
Why rent a limousine when you could make an entrance in an art car shaped like a pumpkin? Why break the bank on a pastel dress when you could wear a piece designed by one of your friends? Why go to a twerk-a-thon in a hotel ballroom when you could go to a masquerade in the Hollywood hills?
Moira promised carriage rides around her estate, vaudevillian cabaret dancers, and a hard rock cello quartet. She promised sword swallowers, contortionists, and devils on stilts. She promised a magician with body modifications who did tricks with his magnetic hands, a pain proof man that hammered nails into his nostrils, and a death defying woman who escaped coffins buried underground.
She promised memories worth making, which was more than our school was offering.
Moira came from wealth and fame. She was the queen bee of our hedonistic hive. If she wanted to live out her Victorian carnival fantasy us drones had, to lace up our corsets, and come a-buzzing.
Have you ever had the nightmare where you’re being chased through an endless subterranean maze? You can never put enough distance between yourself and your pursuer. They’re breathing down your neck. They’re hot on your heels. One false move and they’ll bite down on your jugular. How would you like to be on the other side of that chase scene?
Here’s your chance to sneak into someone else’s nightmare, to be the monster on the prowl, to see through its red luminescent eyes. This is your chance to be the urban legend that terrorizes urban explorers, to be the name they’re too afraid to whisper.
This was going to be the introduction for an article on mixing genres called Contrast is Cool. My favorite stories defy expectations by merging two elements and making them clash. This was going to be the example that illustrated my point; R rated horror versus a young adult fairy tale. Turns out, it was clever enough to carry itself.
This story owes a debt to @Raishimi who edited it and offered many useful suggestions along the way. Her contributions make this one of my best pieces. For solid writing advice and the stories to back it up, check out her site here.
Playing with Fire
The caves echoed with laughter, the free spirited cackles of youth. They were too far away for their words to retain any meaning, but their tone bobbed up and down with flirty inflections. One voice was giving, the others were receiving.
This was the wake up call Mr. Soot needed. It was time to go to work. He yawned from his perch among the bats; cracked his neck, and let go of the stalactites. Belly-flopping onto the stones below, the impact was enough to loosen the tinder in his lungs, but not enough to get the fires started. Interlocking his fingers, he stretched his arms out, cracked his knuckles, and brought them down on his solar plexus.
His shoulders quaked as the fires revved up, only to sputter to a stop. The spark had flared, but there was no ignition.
Hitting his chest again, he felt a surge of adrenaline, followed by a surge of gasoline. His fingers blurred as his engine came roaring to life. Continue reading Playing with Fire→