She’s got moonglow tits that bob in night waters, perfect round globes like curled-up white rabbits with black peaks of areola and gray nipples because she’s all poison and ebony eyes and milky skin. She’s curled up in my closet in a nest fit for the Zu bird and sweet seraph curses and she crows and speaks the language of birds that are girls, or girls that are monsters, with scaled legs and owl wings from ancient Sumerian carvings, but she’s not perched on two lions, her thin wan legs are jumping on your bed and you’re throwing pillows at each other and painting her lips and talons with a pop of cherry poison. It’s all fun and games until arsenic kisses and slashed throats of words fly, it’s all spin the bottle with succubi until neon lights at your favorite strip mall get busted to splinters by her rage. She’s wailing, she’s railing, and it’s so fun to terrorize the neighborhood with your monster girl. She smells like mothball and tastes like whiskey but it’s all swell, all is well, because you’re gay, just a little bit, for a lot of your pretty murderesses, like that goddess of death whose bone feet you kissed as you rubbed one out on grave dirt. You’re just a shadow drowning in moonlight, really, just a paper cutout in the shape of curves and gold and blue and you seek a black hole to consume you. Void Mother you toast to past the witching hour with a new best friend, she’s in Gaia training sitting on a hill in armor with a sword and donkey, learning from Valkyries the recipe for hurricanes, and she’s a piece of the Mother, just like you are, just like every girl you know is, and men fear us all. Your monster girl is feral, like pine barrens in a blizzard, or the nothingness at the lip of a night full of pain, and she has fangs sharp as a wolf and toes that end in bruises from kicking too many cans barefoot. She’s dressed in bandages, she’s dressed in a gown, and her hair is ratty black tangles. Oh how you love dressing her and prettying her up and confiding in her your soul, for you were raised to be a doll, but not her – no, she is a hyena, and their women are the kings. When you scissor, it’s to old jazz that switches between Frank Sinatra, and as your hands tangle the curls at her parting later on as you drink white wine, you and her watch the rain and know the sky is crying for its lost moon.
(Written by Libby, to troll the everliving fuck out of me with our writer’s group characters, including the immortal toothless vampire baby)
Shannon’s hair was bothering her. She wasn’t the kind of girl who was normally cared too much about her hair – a tucked-back ponytail with a few wisps flying free had always been good enough for her – but since meeting Samael, things had changed. Samael liked to comment on things.
“Your hair matches your name, Worm,” he’d sneered, that time when she met him in Pandemonium with a rope braid.
“Bedroom hair,” he’d said another time, nodding approvingly at the strands she hadn’t bothered to pull back. “Suits you, Maggot.”
Today, Shannon had put her hair in a bun. She knew she was supposed to be thinking about important things – the biology test next Tuesday, how she was going to finish that watercolour she’d started, the future of humanity and her reluctant status as the reincarnation of sinful apple-picking Eve – but she couldn’t stop thinking about what kind of crass object Samael was going to compare her hair to today.
She left her dorm for College Woods, desperately trying to get her thoughts in order. There wasn’t too much Samael could comment on today, was there? She’d gotten pretty good at using her clavic. She hadn’t let Michael or Gabriel get the better of her that time with the hellhounds. She was polite to the wolf pack at Damien’s bar. She’d even managed not to throw up when Beelzebub started in on that horse manure last time – imagine being a fly-demon, of all things –
“Well, if it isn’t my little dung beetle.”
Samael smiled lazily from where he and his sceptre dangled from a tree branch a few feet away. Shannon crossed her arms.
“Dung beetle. That’s a new one.”
“I’ve been thinking up a whole host of endearments in my spare time, little Eve-ling. Now. You’re going to need to prepare yourself. Today is going to be just a little bit different. You see, we have a, slight, uh – well. To phrase things lightly, there’s been a tiny mix-up between the worlds.”
“The worlds,” Shannon repeated. “The worlds we’ve spent months realigning with Earth, you mean?”
Samael shrugged. “Things happen. Doors open. Doors appear that weren’t there before. Don’t get too invested, my sweet-smelling corpse flower. It will only last for a day or so. But you should be prepared while it does.”
“While what lasts?”
“Shannon. You aren’t dull-minded. You are aware that you are a fictional character, yes? Not prone to the monotonies of true flesh-and-blood existence? And that I, too, suffer the same fate?”
“Yes,” said Shannon. “But I don’t see what that could possibly have to do with –”
“The gates between the fictional worlds have opened,” said Samael. “I think it was Michael, that scoundrel. Only a ginger would be capable of something like that. No offense to you, my little blood clot.”
“Blood clot,” Shannon repeated.
“Blood clots are red,” Samael explained, as if to an idiot. “Your hair, too, is red. Therefore, I have nicknamed you –”
“Don’t say it,” Shannon warned. “Go on.”
“Well, when the boundaries between the fictional worlds open, anything can happen. People – and creatures – of all kinds stream into the world where the hole originally appeared. In this case, Maggot, that would be our world. And the rules that usually govern our existences are rendered moot for a time. For example, do you see that girl there? The one running across the field? In the purple dress?”
Shannon squinted. “Yes. But she’s just a college student, right?”
“Wrong,” said Samael. “Her name is Amira Reynolds. She comes from another world entirely. And you are not to cross her, do you understand me?”
Shannon’s hand tightened around her clavic. “Why? Is she dangerous?”
“She very well could be,” said Samael. “I suggest you don’t wait to find out.”
“Samael, she looks exactly like every other college student in this place –”
Samael opened his mouth as if he were about to say something, but then a twig snapped behind him, and his shoulders tightened.
“Be silent, Worm,” he whispered. “It could be anything.”
Shannon stood, with her arms still crossed tightly across her chest. Slowly, she began to make out the sound of footsteps. Samael raised his scythe, his red eyes wild. She began to realize that while pissing off angels and defying the Lord of the Universe were everyday activities for Samael, this was not.
“Samael, I really don’t think that it’s as bad as you think –”
And then a strange cast of characters wandered into their midst.
The one that led them was a teenage girl, maybe seventeen years old, with long wavy brown hair, a thin face, and dark circles beneath her eyes. She was followed by a somewhat younger girl with blonde hair tied back in a chipper ponytail who was chewing a piece of bubble gum energetically. Behind them toddled a two-year-old with the palest-looking face Shannon had ever seen. Finally, at the back of the party, there was a teenage boy with very thick eyebrows who was walking beside a unicorn. A unicorn. Shannon blinked.
“Seth!” called the blonde girl with an air of impatience. “It’s not dangerous out here, you know.”
“I don’t care,” said a petulant voice from several yards away. “You go on without me. I’m staying here until whatever magic this is finds a way to get me back to my garden.”
“So you’re just going to live in the forest until then?” the girl said, rolling her eyes. “It’s going to be boring back there, you know. And it’s spring. The flowers will survive without you for an hour or two.”
“I’m not budging from this log,” the voice proclaimed.
Samael’s eyes grew wide and manic. “I recognize that voice,” he hissed to Shannon. “That’s one of the troll goblins I told you about in Pandemonium. Banished from our world, left to wander in darkness, gifted with powers no demon can even imagine –”
“Troll goblin?” said the blonde girl, wrinkling her nose. “He’s not a troll goblin. He’s just Seth. Who are you?”
Samael drew himself up proudly, though his eyes were still flickering nervously back to wherever this Seth creature might be hiding. Shannon groaned inwardly.
“You may call me Sam,” he said, though not quite with his usual air of superiority. “But if it is my full title you are looking for, my name is Samael, or Sam Hill, aka the Angel of Death, aka Satan, aka your worst nightmare. I am your blood as it drizzles through your arteries, your screams in the blackest corners of the blackest rooms, the songs of your ancestors as their chests gave their final death rattles. I am the darkness, the horror, the fury –”
“You look like a punk,” observed the brown-haired girl. “Not even a good punk. A punk who lives in his parents’ basement and secretly listens to ABBA instead of Norwegian black metal.”
“I have no parents,” snorted Samael. “And this ABBA you speak of, I do not even recognize the name. For I am Samael, the dark lord of the underworld –”
“I heard you playing ‘Dancing Queen’ on the saxophone last week,” said Shannon, smiling. “I think you could use a little more practice.”
Samael’s pale cheeks became spotted with scarlet.
“Since you were so eager to introduce yourselves, we might as well, too,” said the unicorn. “My name is Glorfindas, and I –”
“Wait,” said Shannon, staring. “You can talk?”
“Of course I can talk,” said the unicorn impatiently. “My name is Glorfindas, and I must say, I’ve never been anywhere that looked like this befo –”
“You’re a unicorn,” said Shannon.
“Yes,” said Glorfindas, giving her a hard look. “And you like to interrupt, I see. No matter. Callie, if you’d like to introduce yourself to our dynamic duo here…?”
“Well, it looks like you just did it for me,” said Callie crossly. She snapped her bubble gum. “But okay, fine. I’m Callie. I was hanging out in Seth’s garden before the magic gate opened and we got blown in here.”
“Not that you were invited!” the troll-goblin-or-whatever-he-was shouted from behind them.
“I’ve been friends with you for a whole year!” Callie shouted back at him. “I kind of take it for granted that I can visit you sometimes, okay?”
“Gah,” said the pale two-year-old, beaming at her.
“Shut up,” said Callie. “Seth, we are not having this argument again. Being your friend means I get to come over and hang out with you whenever I want, as long as I don’t upset the flowers. You agreed to that yourself. Just because you’re grumpy right now does not mean that you have the right to change the rules.”
“Gah,” said the baby again.
“I said, shut up,” said Callie. “Seth –”
“You just told that little kid to shut up,” said Shannon, staring at Callie harder than she’d stared at Glorfindas. “You can’t tell a little kid to shut up.”
“Oh, yes I can,” said Callie, glaring at the toddler. “It’s not a normal little kid, okay? It’s – I think it’s a vampire. It was trying to suck Topher’s blood earlier. I think it only stopped because it figured out he was a werewolf.”
Both the teenage boy with the dark eyebrows and the girl with the brown hair blanched.
“Sorry, sorry!” said Callie quickly. “They’re sensitive about it. They’re both werewolves,” she explained to Shannon and Samael.
“I’m not sensitive,” snapped the girl. “I’ve had ten years to get used to it, so on principle I can’t be sensitive. Topher’s the one who’s sensitive, not me. It’s just that we haven’t even introduced ourselves yet and she already knows we’re werewolves. That’s a pretty serious breach of etiquette right there, you’ve got to admit.”
“That’s all right,” said Shannon kindly. “I know some really nice werewolves. One of them owns a bar.”
“A bar?” said the girl, her eyes lighting up. “I’d love to own a bar! Could you hook me up with him? Maybe he could help me set one up – well, once I turn twenty-one, anyway –”
“Hannah,” said the boy – Topher – in a pained tone, “you can’t even make hot chocolate without putting salt in it by mistake.”
“Ye of little faith,” retorted Hannah. “And it wasn’t salt. It was flour.”
“No, I’m pretty sure it was salt –”
“Gah,” said the baby again. It opened its mouth in a wide – and, Shannon could see, toothless – grin.
“That child is not a vampire,” hissed Samael from where he was still sitting defensively in the tree. “Vampires have teeth. That baby has no teeth.”
“I no teeth,” said the baby, nodding with feeling.
“See?” said Samael. “Nothing at all to fear. Just a pure, innocent child, still unblackened by the sin of this world. Although not for long, I hasten to add. Not now that he’s met me.”
“Actually, I’m quite certain that he is a vampire,” said Glorfindas. “We have vampires in my world – I’ve seen them before. It happens sometimes that a rare genetic disorder prevents them from growing any teeth, but that makes them no less vampiric. He’ll have found some other way of getting blood, I’m sure. Since he’s still alive and all.”
“Gah!” shrieked the baby, holding up a hand. A hand, Shannon noticed with dawning horror, with frighteningly long fingernails.
“I think it’s hungry,” whispered Topher, staring at a place on his arm that looked a lot like a hickey.
The baby toddled towards him, much faster than a baby should realistically be able to toddle. It looked at Topher for a few seconds, considering; then turned and began heading for Callie, its spiky hands held out in front of it.
“Oh no,” said Callie. “No, no. You’re not drinking my blood, demon baby. Seth!”
“I’m still on this log,” said Seth’s voice. “Like I told you I would be.”
“I’m coming to join you,” said Callie, and she zipped out of the baby’s reach, scuttling back into the woods where Shannon couldn’t see her anymore.
Next, the baby went for Glorfindas.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” said Glorfindas mildly as the baby scuttled onto his hoof. “Unicorn blood isn’t good for anyone, but it especially isn’t good for babies. I suppose if you’re looking for immortality, it could help you out, but only if you’re okay with living a half life, a cursed life, all that sort of thing. And you’re immortal already, being a vampire, so I wouldn’t.”
The baby nodded with reluctance. It hadn’t tried Hannah yet, but she smelled like Topher, and that was no good. Shannon had the right scent, but it didn’t drink gingers on principle. However, there was that thing up in the tree. The baby had never smelled anything like it before.
It hesitated for a moment before transforming into a bat, fluttering up onto a tree branch, and seating itself beside Samael.
Shannon watched as Samael held his scythe up in front of himself like a baseball bat.
“Get away from me, leech,” he commanded, although he was unable to keep the slight tremor out of his voice. “You may be from another world, but you are still a leech. I eat leeches for breakfast. If I couldn’t deal with leeches, do you think I would be lord of all Hades today? I certainly would not, you poor excuse for a head louse. You filthy, disgusting, blood-sucking leech –”
The bat seemed to shrug before it bit the blade off of Samael’s scythe. Apparently the baby did have teeth in bat form. It spat the blade out, where it clattered onto the tree stump and buried itself in the ground. Samael let out a deep, primal groan.
Shannon laughed until her stomach hurt. She hadn’t had such a good day in months.
It wasn’t until the baby had drunk its fill, Samael had slunk shamefully back down to Pandemonium, and a golden-haired angel named Vergil had kindly offered to give the guests a lift back through the magic gate that Shannon realized that Samael had never said one word about her hair.
It seemed that a messy bun was the way to go.
(Written by Dana in college to troll me and exorcise Samael, unsuccessfully. Her other methods include yelling at him a lot.)
Grounding Gothic Underlords, or, The Little Angel Chews Out Death
“You can do this,” Zelkova said. He caught my eye in the rearview mirror. “You can. You’ve proven you’re back on your game.”
“Maybe, but even on my ‘game,’ I was never on this level.” I watched my target sit at an outdoor café table, drinking red wine and ogling a group of teenage girls in black spikes and fishnets. I drummed on the wheel while the radio slept. “Not on his level.”
“Just talk to him. Figure out why he’s here. You don’t need to be any more than yourself.”
“Right.” I opened the windows and killed the engine. “Thanks for the pep talk. Don’t wander off, you might need to carry away my body or send me a text so I can excuse myself if things get too awkward.”
Zelkova frowned. “This isn’t a date.”
“I hope not. Why’d you bring Hester?”
“Jhoti wasn’t going to be home to feed her.”
I locked the doors and hurried into the shopping district. Some of the trees’ leaves had fallen without turning, and the goth girls rested and drew Sharpie tattoos on each other in the shade.
A waiter delivered a sliver of chocolate torte as black and heavy as tar to the dark man’s table while I bypassed the hostess. He smirked at me when the waiter left. I’ve been on the receiving end of many demonic smirks, some better than others, but this guy probably set the bar. Maybe all the smaller devils keep a celebrity poster of him on their bedroom walls and practice in the mirror.
“May I sit down?” I said.
He made a gentrified gesture, and I took the opposite chair. Before I could speak, he speared a cream-topped strawberry from his plate and asked, “What brings you to my table, little holy one? How have I earned a visit from one of the bright tyrant’s blessed sons?”
I played his words back in the fussy voice Windermere used to mock her former compatriots and felt more at ease. “That’s kind of my question, actually. Why are you topside, Samael?”
“Oh, Hell is so boring. I’m here for the wine, the food, the scenery.” Death bit into the strawberry and bared his red-stained smile. “And the women.”
“That is creepy, and you’re not supposed to have any of those things. You have a job.”
He laughed. His wan imperial cheekbones briefly gave way to the dry white curves of a skull. The sky darkened. The goth girls glanced up, anticipating rain. My back itched in response.
“My job gets done whether I am there or not.” He tossed back the rest of his wine. “Humans are better at killing each other than I ever was, and more efficient.”
I stiffened, ready to argue, and he flicked his tongue at me, catching a smear of chocolate before it could mar his perfectly sculpted lips. His make-up, his glamour, was conspicuously Greco-Roman.
“You are not very old, are you? And not very powerful. You should respect your elders who have earned their keep and comfort, whelp. If you want to play so badly, bring me a stick to beat you with.”
“Do you even hear yourself?” I demanded. His eyebrows lifted while he popped the rest of the torte in his mouth. What I said was unexpected, and technically my mission was over, and Zelkova tugged on me urgently from the car, but I kept going. “Samael, the Grim Reaper, one of the most powerful beings extant, making excuses to drink and dine and chase high school skirts like a skeezy old man. Maybe you’ve got the right to do whatever you want, but when you start using other people and leaving—”
“I know you,” Samael said, and snapped.
We were somewhere else.
Somewhere else looked like a clouded country road in the South, if the bare crape myrtles and dewy daffodils were any indication. I entered still sitting, and I scrabbled to catch myself before I landed in the gravel.
“How do I know you?” Samael wondered. His black coat had acquired a cowl. “I know, you’re one of the faces on the Sistine Chapel, aren’t you? But are you a cherub or a shepherd?”
I flushed. I couldn’t remember if there were shepherds or not, but I was on the Sistine Chapel. “Why did you take us here?”
“If you were going to have a righteous outburst, we might as well do it in private.” Samael came closer. I held my ground. “Who were your friends in the car, little messenger?”
“My roommate and his cat.”
“Can’t tell lies, can you?”
“I’m choosing not to.”
He gripped my chin. His fingers were long, and a nail lay sharp under my eye. “Tell me your name.”
“Vergil.” Somehow my nerves had melted away. Maybe in my anger I left them behind, because though I didn’t like how he examined me with cold beetle eyes, I could stand it. “I spell it with an ‘e.’”
“The little Renaissance boy,” he murmured. He crooked a finger through my short hair. “Where are your long golden tresses, cupid?”
“I haven’t had those since the 70s.”
He grimaced more than he smirked, and again we were somewhere else. From what I could see past Samael’s head, he’d brought us to a motel room someone had painted over in monochrome and red. His hold on my jaw started to hurt.
“You are young and weak and small,” he growled. “And you are meddling. Why were you sent to me?”
I winced. “Because I’m young, weak, and small.” My hands fit into empty holsters. “And unarmed. I didn’t mean to threaten you. We—the whole country’s angels just needed to know you weren’t heralding a plague or something.”
Samael’s face flickered with the pale lights, like he couldn’t decide between rubies and pearls in his mouth or eager fangs. “As if you could threaten me. You are a drop to dragonfire, a sigh to the hurricane, a pocketbook matchstick in the darkest underground night.”
Camp, Windermere snickered. Demons love drama.
Alan and his chrome electric lighter.
I slipped my fingers through Samael’s and carefully pushed his claws off my face.
An unseen scythe tore the coat from my back and tried prying my wings free. I hissed in pain and rocked forward, holding my corporation together, keeping my feathers immaterial. Death’s cloak turned shadowy and miasmic. It swept over me, and I came out backwards, the underside of my knees pressed to the bed.
I glowed. My wings stayed in place, but my halo light leaked, my whole body cast in shine. The black comforter looked cheap.
Samael wore arching horns and his iron dark hair past his ankles. I don’t know what he looked like normally, but he’d put on every inch a Lord of Hell. “Do you know what I could do to you, lamb?” he asked.
“A lot,” I admitted. “You could do a lot.”
“I could kill you. Swatting a fly would be harder.” His hand on my shoulder was heavy enough to force me to sit. “Or I could strip away your meaty shell, peel back layer after layer until I find what you really are, your pretty ball of light. I could take you home to the Underworld, toss you around for Cerberus to fetch. I could watch you wither in a jar on my windowsill.”
“You don’t scare me.”
He leaned in. His breath smelled sour from wine and chocolate, not from funeral flowers and corpse dirt. “What?”
“You don’t scare me. You can’t. The worst you can do is kill me, because that’s your role, your essence. You’re not even properly fallen.”
He reared back with a snarl.
I laughed. “Look, I’ve died before, all right? I bled out in a trench. I drowned under ice. I got hit by a truck. The last time we crossed paths, I had AIDS.”
I kind of wanted to show Samael the scars I didn’t have on this soft body, the ropes, swords, and bullets I’d been through. “I didn’t think you’d recognize me; seeing you has always been a mix of relief and intimidation. But for all your power, I know more about you than you can possibly know about me. That’s why I’m not afraid of you. I can never be afraid of you.”
The dark cloud drew up, and so did he. I could no longer see his legs through it, and the smog consumed his shoulders and floated with his hair. “So that’s it, then, Vergil full of grace? You would die now without fear if I chose it?”
Honestly, I preferred not to lose this body while my next was still backlogged for twenty years. But I told him the truth. “It wouldn’t make you happy, but, yes, I would.”
To my surprise, his second hand emerged to take my other shoulder. “And if it did?”
“Then I’d hope as a favor you could savor my death at home.” I patted his cold marble fingers gently. “You can’t run around up here with the mortals like any regular, run-of-the-mill demon, Samael. Unlike me, humans are only designed to meet you once.”
Abruptly, he stood across the room. The colors in the carpet and ceiling drifted towards him, gathering like paint around a drain. A skeleton looked down at the motel desk, and a sullen, sharp man picked up the antique phone. “You’ve worn me out with your chatter, angel. This whole planet makes me tired. See if I bring you to my room again.”
He dialed a number on the phone, and I found myself back at the café, sitting in Samael’s chair as a surprised-looking busboy pushed up his cart of dishes. To the waiter’s relief, I picked up my friend’s bill and hurried back to the car.
Zelkova waited in the driver’s seat with Hester in his lap. She meowed and climbed onto my chest after I lay down in the back. I scratched her neck.
“What happened?” Zelkova used the rearview mirror to back out of our space rather than check on me, but I felt his concern and relief tucked around me like a blanket. Hester purred.
“Earth and I bored him,” I said. “I think he’s done for a while.”
“I babbled. We should have sent Jhoti scold him, skip all the ‘lamb’ and ‘little.’ The next time I die I think I’ll have to take a detour to play with his dog.”
Zelkova hummed. “Do you want Starbucks and Indian food for dinner?”
“I would love some Indian food.”
(Written at 19 to torment my friends)
Somewhere trapped in Allieworld…
“Hey there, babycakes,” Samael said huskily. He sidled over to Sara, caressing his scythe. His eyes gleamed with lust. “You’re the finest fleshbag this side of the Styx. Let’s say we take my hearse downtown and get acquainted with my guillotine?” He downed his vodka and sighed. “Ah. Aqua vitae. The water of life.”
Sara dropped her hamburger in surprise. She glanced around Five Guys to see if anyone noticed the obscenely pale demon leering back at her.
“We’re all alone,” Samael whispered. His obscenely long tongue flicked suggestively. It was true: corspes slumped in the diner seats. The patrons appeared altogether, well, dead.
“Nice work,” she observed. “But you forgot one thing.”
Samael cocked his brow. “Formaldehyde?”
“You forgot to buy me a drink,” she said huskily, putting false intentions in her voice. The stranger reacted as expected: all men, demon or no, were fools when it came to women.
He snapped his fingers. Chardonnay in a crystal-cut decanter appeared in his hands. He smirked, then poured her a glass. “You’ll have to forgive me. Such a vision as you is bound to distract me.”
Sara examined the glass. She took a delicate sip. “Passable. I like the hint of applewood.” His weapon glinted in the flourescent lights. “Nice scythe. Let me hold it.”
Samael obliged. “Her curves suit you,” he whispered predatorily. His fangs flashed as he grinned. Death’s red eyes strayed to her hamburger. “Such succulent food deserves appreciation, no?” He took a long bite, eying Sara’s assets. “And I?” he snickered. “I know just how to make the juices flow. Be it blood, tears, or certain other liquids. I’m a connoisseur of teasing the tenderness out of life.” He towered over her, his long fingers encasing hers around the scythe’s base. He whispered into her ear: “I trust you thirst for adventure, Miss Suarez?”
They were interrupted by the swish of the door. In sauntered a leanly muscled man clad in leather pants. His hair was literal flames. He grinned like a cat, winking at Samael as he dragged a rather flustered looking blonde after him. “Boniface? Didn’t expect to see you slumming around here. Why the grim face, Corpseboy?” The redhead brushed a corpse off a chair, wiping blood from the pleather seat. “Here, Libby – a throne fit for a dame.”
Libby’s face went chalk white. “I don’t think this is appropriate.”
He clucked. “Don’t be silly, Midgarder. No matter highballer or city sweeper, everyone dances with the grim reaper!” A mug of cider appeared in his hand. Loki laughed raucously. “Ain’t that right, Samael?”
Samael leaned Sara back in an impressive dip. “No dance like the danse macabre, Firecrotch.” She regained her balance, tearing herself away from Death. She smirked, his scythe in hand.
“Not only did you forget the drink, you let your guard down,” she said, brandishing the blade. “You really think that will impress me?”
Samael drew his lips thin. “I enjoy women that bite back.” In a flash, he had Sara cornered against the bar, scythe wrenched from her grip. “I do not dance lightly, Miss Suarez.”
Loki swept Libby off her feet. “A jig, Elizabeth?” he inquired, twirling her madly round. Libby found herself unable to escape the trickster’s grip.
“I thought you wanted a hamburger, Loki! Otherwise Allie would have taken you to Ballroom.”
“I’m always up for a jive. Jig. No matter the music, we all speak dance. Rhythm, Samael!”
The girls found themselves led by wills that were not their own. They Viennese Waltzed round Five Guys. The corpses rose, equipped with fiddles, and bowed a jaunty tune. The floor, slick with blood, sent them skidding to the window.
Meanwhile, Dana and her angelic visitor were meandering down the street. The lanky blond had appeared on her windowsill that morning, looking quite frazzled, then asked shyly to come in. She’d managed to hide him in her closet while her classes ran. Now, they were out on the town.
Vergil admired the falling leaves. He caught one between his fingers. “”Beautiful weather. Reminds me of the time I was in France during the Crusades-”
Something thwacked against the window. “Oh?” said Vergil. He examined the bloody violin . “Well, this puts a damper on things.”
Dana’s expectations for the evening took a sudden nosedive. “So we can’t get ice cream then?”
Vergil scratched his head. “I’m going to need it after this. See that guy in there?”
Dana pressed her face to the window. “Oh my god! That’s Libby and my roommate. Is that- that’s Samael! Allie’s douche-bag character. And Sara has his scythe.” She watched as Sara beat him with the hilt. Samael laughed madly. Dana’s stomach dropped. “Vergil, we have to help them. Oh. Okay. Planning. Well, I have this pencil. We could- we could-”
Vergil looked at the unsharpened pencil. “Where?”
“I didn’t think of that. Where do you poke demons?”
The two set into mad planning. Inside, Libby was trying to talk sense into Loki. “You’re fond of goats, right?”
Loki was too busy singing the polka. “In Heaven there is no beer/Which is why we drink it here!/ La la la la la…”
“Do you like sheep!” Libby yelled.
“Michael does,” Samael sneered, feinting another blow. “The gingers have a passion for farm animals.” Libby shrunk, having attracted Death’s attention. He flicked his tongue suggestively. She screamed.
“Both instances were to save Asgard, Bonebutt. One from Skadi, the other from an angry giant. I’m a patriot. At least my amors were breathing.”
Libby caught Sara’s eyes. Sara nodded to the frying oil by the grille. While Loki wasn’t looking, Libby grabbed it, then proceeded to dump it on his head. His flaming ‘fro screeched like a tea kettle.
“I’m melting!” he hooted. “Put me out, baby!” He ran around madly, hair flaming to the ceiling. Samael rolled on the floor in laughter, staining his cloak in blood.
“Karma slap,” Sara whispered. She beheaded him with the scythe.
Loki was screeching in the bathroom mirror. “My beautiful hair is gone!”
Libby and Sara high-fived.
Dana gasped. “Well. That was unsanitary. Are the gods really that lame?”
Vergil’s face darkened. “For the most part, yes. But they’re immortal. We’ll need the pencil yet.”
“Good thing you’ve been trained for this.”
“They’re out of my league, actually. You can’t tell, but I’m terrified.”
“You look relaxed to me.”
“I look happy to everybody. It goes with the angel thing.”
Sara punted Samael’s head like a soccer ball. He played dead. Libby was suspicious.
“I don’t think we’ve killed him, Sara. That’s not how these things work. We have to burn his heart, maybe. Or drown him in butterflies.”
Sara relented. His head coughed. “How about sacrificing him to the squirrels? Or we could dump him in the lake. He might just make it cleaner.”
Libby considered this. “And what about Loki? He just appeared in the dorm’s fireplace. He wants to be Odin’s wingman tonight. They want to go to the frats-”
Samael’s body loomed behind Libby. He held his head in his hands.
“I’m partial to blondes,” it murmured. “Blondes covered in blood.”
The window shattered. Vergil punched through it, then sailed into the restaurant. He brandished the pencil like a rapier. His eyes met Samael’s. For a moment, he shuddered. Vergil quickly swallowed his fear.
“I’m going to have to ask you to play nicely,” Vergil said. His wings filled half of the room. Dana snuck in after him. She held up a cross drawn on loose leaf. “Toro!” she yelled, as if egging on a bull.
Smoke rose from Samael’s nostrils. “So it’s you,” he said quietly.
Vergil froze in surprise. “Me?”
“No, seagull. The girl.” He stalked towards Dana. “‘90% douche, 8% maggots, and 2% black dust.’ Those were your words, I believe.”
“I meant that as a compliment.” Dana shoved the cross in his face. If it didn’t repel him, maybe he’d suffocate.
The paper burned in her hands. She yelped, then dropped the ashes.
“I’ve been keeping tabs on you. You fascinate me, girl.” He screwed his vertebrae back together. Dana gagged as his head cracked into place. Samael smirked. “The Lazarus Project. It’s notorious now. You’ve robbed me of my men.”
Dana paled. “You mean…?”
Libby and Sara drew blanks. “What’s the Lazarus whatta what?” Libby asked.
“Dunno,” said Sara. “A band?”
“It’s from my story.” Dana said. “Heaven came up with a project to redeem the Fallen, like Lazarus rose from the grave. It’s just something I made up.” She scrutinized Vergil, her main character, and sighed. “Well, I thought so anyways.”
“Truth is stranger than fiction,” Samael hissed. He cracked his knuckles. “Holy boy. Put the pencil down.”
Vergil poked him. “Be unwritten!” Nothing happened. “Well, it was worth a try. You really are Samael.” He blinked. “I don’t know the protocol for this.”
“You know how I like my angels?” asked Samael. “Sunny side up with my eggs.” He began to chant. “’I will not eat green eggs in Hell/I will not eat them, Samael!/I will not eat them in the fire/nor with the demonic choir./I will not with the Sabbath Goat/I will not in old Charon’s boat./I will not eat them here or there/that Vergil guy can have my share.”
Dana was texting someone. “What are you doing?” Samael asked.
Samael hissed. “I’ll string your guts for a jump rope if you summon that abomination-”
Sara whacked him in the head. “No you don’t.”
Vergil watched in disbelief as college girls out-manned the Reaper. Women really were worse than death.
Samael began to wrestle with Sara. “Give me my bloody scythe!”
Loki had fallen silent. Dana noticed Libby was missing. “Oh snap,” she said. “This is bad. Libby’s going to picket the war gods, and Odin will hang her on Yggdrasil.” Her phone rang amidst the confusion.
“Hey Dana! What’s up?”
“Allie? Allie. What are you doing?”
“Cleaning birds. They’re crapping everywhere. Oh god- a starling escaped. I don’t know why I do this.”
“Well, um, there’s a situation. It’s pretty intense.”
“Are you playing bingo again?”
Dana blushed. “No! This is serious-”
“What’s that in the background- my god! Did someone just curse in Enochian?- Ow! Get off my head, you bird! I feed you, you ungrateful skyrat-”
“ALLIE. How do you exorcise demons?”
Allie fell silent. “Are you serious, Dana?”
“Dead serious.” She looked at Samael, who was now engaged in death combat with Vergil. Sara was taking a breather. “Well I might be dead, anyways.”
“I’m not falling for that prank again-”
“It’s not a prank, I swear!”
“I remember the last time you and Libby-”
Samael was in earshot. He bared his fangs. “Allie?” he raged. He flung Vergil to the wall, then tore Dana’s phone from her hands. The angel crumpled on the ground.
“That hurt,” he said woozily.
“Vergil!” Dana rushed to his side. “I’m so sorry. I’ll get you an ice cream sundae after this…”
His eyes glowed. “With chocolate fudge?”
Samael scrutinized the phone. “How does this infernal device work?”
“You’re holding it upside down,” Sara said. He accidentally pressed speaker-phone.
“Dana?” Allie’s grainy voice rang. “Look, the starling’s gonna crap on my head. I have to get it off the ceiling-”
“Hello, maggot,” Samael sneered.
“Dana, that isn’t funny. Let’s be real now.”
“Oh, I’m real, you Procrustean slime. And I have a mountain of bones to grind on your femurs. I’ve a special place in Hell just for you. And it’s lower than the ninth circle and absolutely crawling with worms.”
Allie fell silent. “Libby? That’s a really good impression. Too good. Stop it.”
“It’s Samael, you worm!”
“And I’m Putin.”
Sara grew bored of the conversation. She followed the scorch marks on the ceiling from Loki’s hair. She entered the men’s bathroom. “Libby?” she called, not expecting an answer.
A one-eyed man emerged from the stall. He was dressed in a gray traveler’s cloak, with a hat and beard like Gandalf. “Lord of the Ring convention’s not until next month,” Sara said.
The noble-looking man ignored her. “Loki,” he said slowly. “Loki.”
“Yes?” Loki said miserably. A ceiling wall popped open. From it leapt the god. He wore a paper bag on his head. “I’m hideous, Odin. Don’t look at me.”
Odin sighed as he leaned on his staff. “I haven’t had my coffee, git.” He glanced sideways at Sara. “Is this a freshman girl?” The Sorcerer King murmured softly. Sara analyzed him. He was more of a match then Samael.
Loki drowned him out with his wailing. Blind, the trickster bumped into the wall, then proceeded banging his head against it.
Odin’s face grew long. “I don’t have time for this.” He busied himself with his Blackberry. Loki cursed in Norwegian.
A confused looking Libby peeped down from the tiles. “Is there a ladder, Sara?” she asked, lip curled in disgust. She wiped dust from her shoulders. It fell from the ceiling like snow.
“I’ll catch you.”
She did. “That was completely awful,” Libby said, filled with righteous anger. “He dragged me off to some forest and lit the whole place on fire. Some crusty fisherman named Njord came and poured water on his head. I think he was the god of the sea. Anyways, he put his hair out- I barely understood what they said. Thank god I went to Norwegian camp.”
Sara fixed her hair in the greasy mirror. She began to whistle
“And now he’s wearing a paper bag. Because his hair’s put out. Loki thinks he’s ugly bald.”
“There’s always Rogaine you know. Then I could give him a haircut. I cut Allie’s and Crystal’s- they loved it.”
Odin turned to them. “You seem like responsible girls. If it isn’t murderous, I’d have you babysit him. I’m in dire need of a drink.”
“Sure, Gandalf.” Sara saluted him.
Odin tipped his hat to her. “I can tell you crave adventure. You shall have it.” He turned to Libby. She tried to remember which Norwegian camp counselor was Odin in the play. He smiled kindly at her. “I’m not fond of carrots, Libby,” he apologized. “It wasn’t your father who ate the cookies.”
She stuck her nose in the air. “No! Santa doesn’t exist! And you’re certainly not him. I counted the carrots, Odin. There were eight on the plate, then the fridge.”
Odin shrugged. “It is as you will.” He made to leave.
“Wait.” Sara pulled salon scissors from her pocket. “Are you sure you don’t want a haircut? I’d update that beard for you.”
“That’s generous. But I’m traditional. And Loki is withering without attention. Farewell, freshman girls. Stay diligent- knowledge is worth blood. If you need me, I’ll be at the bar.”
Odin exited. Sara ripped the bag from Loki’s head. He screeched. Orange fuzz covered his scalp. “Thor will mock me,” he said sorrowfully. The god hung his head in shame. He shoved his forehead at Libby. “Look,” he lamented, scalp skirting her nose. “Can’t you just see the essence of my manhood dying? Now imagine you, in my lover’s embrace, and this naked head beside you. It would ruin everything, wouldn’t it?”
Libby flinched. “I wouldn’t notice, because you smell like a fireplace,” she gagged, mouth full of smoke. His head sizzled like wet embers. Loki reminded her of Allie. She dealt with him accordingly, which meant she shoved him away.
Sara grabbed a wad of paper towels. “Have you tried drying your head?”
Loki’s head snapped up. “Indeed,” he purred. He grabbed the towels, then polished his head inhumanly fast. His hair sparked like kindling He grinned like the Cheshire cat. “Genius, doll! Pure dynamo. The woman has jet engines for braiiiins.” Sara set to work on his ‘do. Scissors worked surprisingly well on flames.
Soon, his hair looked like a campfire. He smirked into the mirror, then combed it back in a duck’s ass and delicately applied pomade. “There.” He winked. “Sizzling. Eh honey?” he asked Libby. “Do I get Eris’ apples now? Or Idun’s. I’m not too picky with lady-fruit.”
Libby gave him a thumbs up, ignoring the innuendo. “Now, should we see the sheep? And then we’ll happily walk back to the fireplace and you can disappear into the flue.”
“Odin goes down chimneys, I go up ’em. Sure you don’t want to protest the Aesir? They’re the reason the Vikings went berserk on Europe.”
“I was just daydreaming, Loki. And my Guantanamo Bay rally is tomorrow.”
Loki shrugged. “I’m all for prisoner’s rights. I rotted away for millenia. But Odin didn’t blast Britney Spears.” He shuddered. “Poor bastards.” He cartwheeled into the hallway.
“Do we follow?” Libby asked.
“Sure.” She and Sara ventured out, not sure what to expect.
It was chaos. Dana and Vergil were holding each other; they rocked back and forth like toddlers with PTSD. “Make it go away!” Vergil moaned. He hid them behind his wings. The floor was still drenched in blood, and the once-fiddling corpses were nomming on hamburgers.
A rather sadistic blonde was in the midst of torturing Samael. It looked like he’d been roofied and shoved into a pink dress twenty sizes too small. He was laid out on the counter like a science experiment, almost as bare as Eve. Libby understood why Vergil was horrified: she never needed to see Death in such detail. No wonder he wore the cloak.
A butterfly perched on his nose. Samael prayed feverishly to himself, trying to blow it away. It paced up and down the cartilage, proboscis drinking his acid tears. Copies of Cosmo burned at his wrists, and a dollar store tiara crowned his head. Allie coldly sprayed him with perfume. The Reaper shrieked as it melted his flesh. She smiled slightly, and her eyes were pitiless. It looked like Barbie was torturing the Beast.
Loki grinned despotically. He snapped a picture with his phone. “Blackmail, Boneass,” he crooned.
Samael could do nothing but sob.
Allie grinned up at them, removing her goggles. Her lab coat was stained with blood. Proudly, she brandished the spray bottle: “It worked, you guys. Estrogen. Estrogen is anathema to demons. Forget holy water. I gotta sell this stuff!”
Sara looked at the scythe. “Can I have it? I could use it to cut giant’s hair. The scissors worked on a god’s, but if I’m expanding into ridiculous territory, the scythe would probably be useful.”
Allie busied herself with the torture. “Sure. I get dibs on the cloak.”
She tested it in her hands, then pursed her lips at Samael’s black hair. “He really is a metalhead. No wonder the genre’s Satanic.” With a decisive cut, she chopped off the serpentine locks. The strands shrieked. “Hah!” she said, banding them with a scrunchie. The hair curled around her like snakes. She glared at it. It behaved. “This could be useful…” she murmured.
“Do you want anything, Libby?” Allie asked. “He was wearing My Little Pegasus boxers. I think he was being ironic. The idiot thinks he’s a hipster.” She waved a DVD box- Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants– in his face. He barfed. “Not on my dress!” Allie snapped. She motioned to a pile on the table. “I raided his pocket, Libster. Take anything you want, except the magazine. It’s gross. That, and heavily used.”
Libby needed to know what it was. “This?” she asked, pulling it from under the junk. Her face greened. She dropped it like a hot potato. “Oh my god.”
Loki’s eyes flashed. “Is that Sultry Succubi?” He dove for it. “Samael, you cad! Odin’ll love this.”
The Reaper groaned.
Libby cautiously looked through the pile. She found an elder wand and a pebble. She immediately frothed at the mouth.
“You okay, Libs?” Allie asked.
Libby held them like the Holy Grail. “Allie. Sara. Look.”
Sara looked. Allie sang Britney Spears. Samael’s eardrums melted.
“No!” Loki snapped. “See, Libby? Guantanamo. Hit me baby. Torture.”
“It’s a rock and a stick,” said Sara.
“These- these are the Deathly Hallows.”
Dana peeked from behind Vergil’s wing. “No way.” She bolted up. “As a Chaser on the Quidditch team, I think I should safeguard these.”
“But I’m the one who spent weeks playing Pottermore!” Libby protested. “My Twitter’s followed by J.K. Rowling’s best friend. I live on the Leaky Cauldron, and I’m expatting to England- Harry Potter is my life!”
“Okay. You take the wand. I’ll have the stone.”
“But I kind of wanted the stone. I don’t exactly want to kill people.”
Dana looked crestfallen. “I wanted to make it into a necklace.”
Libby relented. “Okay. I’ll use the wand to zap bugs.”
Vergil poked through the pile. “Hey, it’s the Holy Grail. We’ve been looking for that for a while. Oh, and here’s Michael’s poodle. No wonder he’s been so cross lately.” He found something unspeakable. The angel’s cheeks bloomed crimson. “Oh. Oh my Lord.” He made the sign of the cross, then shoved it into the depths of the pile, making sure the impressionable girls didn’t see. Vergil, as an angel of honor, had to protect their virtue. Maidens’ virtue was a delicate thing.
Allie apparently had seen. “Heh. Kinky. You’re worse than I thought, Corpseboy.”
“Please,” Samael rasped. “I’ll do anything.”
“Like my homework? Would you pay for my college? Ghostwrite my novel for me? How about a New England cottage? Y’know, I’ve always wanted a manservant-”
Samael roared. “I’d rather kiss Gabriel’s ass!”
“You could do that too.” She nudged the butterfly closer to his eyes. Death began to babble.
“Fine!” he pleaded. “Your manservant! Just end this madness- agh! Holy Mothers of Rot and Sin, Lilith and Naamah-”
“I swear on the Styx.”
“That’s good enough.” Allie released him. He roared, tearing the dress from his flesh, but not before Vergil shielded their eyes with his wings.
“You have no shame!” Vergil said. His words burned with godly wrath. The girls choked on fluffy feathers.
Loki peered up from the magazine. “Naked time!” He began to strip.
“No,” Samael snapped. “Where’s my cloak!”
“Wearing it,” Allie said, peering through a pinion. “Nice abs, by the way. Even though you’re white as a fish.”
“My boxers,” his voice grated.
“Wearing them,” Loki crowed. “Do they make my butt look big?”
“Samael likes big butts. Look at Eve.”
Allie and Loki high-fived. Vergil stood stoically between them, saying the prayer of the Lord.
“Well what in blazing Gehenna do you suggest I wear then?” Samael said, voice acid. He made ready to strangle the girl.
A scythe poked out from under Vergil’s wing. It nipped a bit of cowlick from his head. “There,” said Sara. “Perfection.”
“You’re all damned!” Samael roared. “As the Angel of the Pit, I condemn you!”
“Even me?” purred Loki. He batted his eyelashes innocently.
“You can’t damn me,” Vergil said flatly. “I’m an angel.”
Samael muttered darkly to himself. He found a potato sack behind the counter, then shimmied into it. He belted it like a Franciscan monk. “If only the Host saw me now,” he said blackly.
“Want a bag for your head?” Loki asked.
Libby dared to look. The nightmarish man was comical now. She could almost forget the corpses that watched them with glassy eyes. Their eyes locked. His glaring red like a viper’s. Bravely, she lifted the wand. “Expecto patronum,” she whispered. A ghostly sheep burst from its bud. Her Patronus attacked Samael. Actually, it just chewed on his clothes.
“I’m trembling.” Death sighed drily. “What is it with livestock- ow!”
A pebble hit his head. Dana shrugged innocently. “What else could I do with it?”
Sara looked at Vergil, bored. “Ah, those curls are great. Very angelic. You’d look good with layered hair.”
“What?” Vergil asked innocently.
“Just hold still, now bow down like you’re praying.” She set to her divine work.
Dana searched for her pebble while Libby made things levitate. Loki had ditched for the bar, but not before he jacked Samael’s white Mustang. That, and unspeakable things. Samael tried to stuff his belongings in a trash bag.
Allie leaned over the counter, watching him. “Can I give you a makeover?” she asked. “I always give my guy friends makeovers. Vergil’s getting one. I think you’d look cute in salmon.”
“I am not wearing salmon.”
“What if it was cashmere? Would you wear it?”
Samael threw the bag on the counter. Allie yelped as it clipped her head. The Reaper snarled: “Have you ever fancied what decapitation feels like?”
“Painful, right? But my head would only last twenty seconds. Or thirty. I don’t remember.” She narrowly avoided his claws. “You also need a manicure, Sam. I have nail clippers back in my dorm. Vergil’s nails are impeccable.”
“I couldn’t slit throats as a hand model.”
“Look, Samael, if you’re going to be my man servant, you need a beauty regimen. Girls take pains to look gorgeous. I expect the same of men. That means weekly waxings, daily shaving, and horn trimming by the hour.” She looked at the ram’s horns in disapproval. “Those things grow like mold on my dishes.”
“That’s because you never clean them,” he growled.
“I don’t have a dishwasher! ‘Scuse me. Now clean this place up. Then we’re shopping.”
“I will never obey you-” His blood boiled. Damnable River Styx. He fixed her with a gruesome smile. “As you wish, wench.” He snapped his fingers. The blood disappeared with the fiddles, and people took the places of zombies. The Five Guys returned to normal. The girls and angels found themselves back on campus, in Allie’s dorm room.
Her roommate ran out screaming.
Death’s lips curled in disgust. “Why is everything so bloody pink?”
“To repel demons,” Allie said. “Vergil, can I offer you my chair?” The angel lounged in the fuschia fold-out, quite the novelty. Dana’d already logged onto Allie’s laptop. “The usual video on Youtube?” Libby asked. Dana booted up the Stupid Cat Song.
“Where’s Sara?” Allie asked.
“She was too dangerous,” Samael shivered. “I deported her.”
“Hell. She can rule in my stead, if I’m to play slave to your master.”
Allie threw a pillow at him. “Don’t be crude.” She imagined Sara ruling Hell. “She’s going to replace you, y’know. No one will want you back.” And of course, if she wanted to leave, she would. Sara was just that kind of girl.
Samael watched the cat video on Youtube. He snickered. “Maybe I like it here, sans the potato sack.”
Libby sensed someone tall, dark and dangerous behind her. She switched to Rebecca Black’s “Friday.”
Samael vanished into the closet. His moans were heard from the dresser.
Vergil perked up. “This is my song!” He and Dana began to rock out. Allie’s roommate peeked in through the door. In her mind, this was yet another thing to add to the list of why Allie should be institutionalized.
“Samael?” Allie asked, rummaging through her drawers. One slammed ominously shut.
“I’m trying to nap,” it grated.
“That’s my lingerie, you perv! Now it’s going to smell like formaldehyde.”
A ghost wind slammed the closet shut. The building rang with mad laughter. She tried the knob. “Locked. God knows what he’s doing in there…”
The girls began to part ways.
“We’re going to Baskin Robbin’s,” Dana said. “I owe Vergil a sundae.”
Vergil looked like he had won the lottery.
“I need to de-stress,” sighed Libby. “If I’m giving Loki a tour tonight. I’m going to write in the sheep field. You should join me, Allie”
“I’d love to. But I have bio, and a skeleton in my closet.”
They wished each other farewell. Over ice cream, Dana asked Vergil a question.
“Why did you come today?” she said.
They sat outside on the terrace. Vergil caught a falling leaf. This time, it was golden. “Because even though I’m immortal, Earth still has lessons to teach me.” He plucked a late-blooming rose, then tucked it behind her ear. “You’re young, Dana, a blink to us. But the world can be changed in a breath. I suppose I came here to learn what it’s like to live in a dream.”
“A dream?” Dana echoed. Chocolate melted down the sides of her cone.
Vergil looked wistfully at the clouds. “I remember when I created you. All small and pink like a new idea. I thought you were the most perfect thing I’d ever dreamed up. And then, when you were born, you left me. I’ve missed you a lot, you know.”
Dana’s heart swelled in her throat. “But Vergil,” she whispered. “I made you.”
“You did?” he asked, grinning. “You know, us angels make souls. Gods do too, and spirits. We don’t make make them, but we help them form. Even idiots like Samael need little things to love.” He basked in the taste of a cherry. “The world is a lonely place.”
For a moment, Dana could swear she saw constellations in his eyes. “You say world like it’s something far away. But you’re from Heaven, Vergil.”
“Am I? This feels like Heaven. A single, perfect fall day.”
They ate in companionable silence. Happy as the evening star rose.
The mundane business of dying.
Shadows. Speech. A dream.
“What the Sam Hill is going on in this court room?”
The businessman summons something. The swirling darkness becomes a court room. The ghost of his assistant warns him:
“The prosecutor, sir- he’s not of this world.”
“But I thought he was the judge!”
“He’s that too, sir, apparently. The celestial court room is rigged, and the prosecuting angel has found you wanting.”
“I always knew the Devil was a lawyer.”
“Shh- he’s reached his ruling!”
A third eye burns on his head. The Left Hand utters his judgement:
“Your soul is piss-ugly and dark as Lucifer’s shit. I can, however, be swayed by vodka.”
“And what? Cough up the Play Bunnies and alcohol and I let you off. There will, however, be a cost. Just a paltry thing. Your get-out-of-Hell-free fee.”
“A cost- I see. You want my soul, I presume?”
“Are you out of your rotting mind? Your soul is hideous. No. Your daughter.”
“My daughter? That, sir, is too far!”
“You summoned me to court. Only I can prevent Michael’s shining sword from being rammed up your sinning ass. Trust me, it’s not pleasurable at all.”
“My- my only child? I could never…”
The Judging Angels smirks.
“Eternal torment, human. Do you know how long eternity is?”
So the father sold his child to the man of many names.
Seven winters pass. She has the face of a starving angel. Her mother dies in labor. The father does not remember.
Each night, she has a visitor.
“Daddy, I saw him again. The Shadow Man. He was standing at my door, watching me- daddy, I can’t sleep.”
His daughter stands before him, clutching her stuffed doll against her trembling chest. He tucks his little angel into bed, urging her to sleep.
“It’s just your imagination, sweetheart. Monsters belong in movies. Now shh,” he whispers, stroking her flaxen hair. “Daddy- daddy’s here for you.” He flips on the TV, unable to shake inexplicable fear. She drifts off to sleep.
He curses under his breath. Above, her room is pristine, with a silky pink bower over her bed. He often marvels at how she plays. She sequesters herself in her room, methodical in the perfectly arranged tea sets. She sits there all day, rearranging the china cups and perfect, porcelain dolls. She holds them like relics, smoothing the pleats in their dresses, calming a stray hair.
Then, she will sit and stare. Humming softly to herself, the strain of a violin. Her father can never complain. She is the perfect child. Quiet and obedient. An angel in the making.
“Daddy, don’t leave. He’s coming.”
She will wake with bruises on her thighs. Acid kisses fester. Hidden under muslin, not allowed to show her dad.
“No, darling,” he whispers, stepping past the threshold. “There’s nothing here.” Gently, he shuts the door. He closes it fast so the shadows cannot catch him. A wind creeps under the door slit. Something ices his bones. He stumbles down the staircase and fall into stupor-ed sleep.
A vicious silhouette slinks from behind tf his daughter’s door. It stands by her bedside. A freezing draft teased the lacy curtains.
“Nothing here?” A chthonic voice echoes. “Oh, but of course there is.”
The shadow brushes her hair back. Kisses the child’s brow. It sings a lullaby, somber, like the wind.
She stirs, rosebud lips opening in question. Her cherub nose tilts upward, as if breathing in the moon. He hushes her silent struggle, kisses her asleep.
“In time. In time. In time.”
Rains come. They flood her soul. The world turns, as it would.
Her father lay sdead in the ground, pale and rigid as crypt. She sits in the shadow of his masoleum, crimson umbrella fending off the rain. It pours from the stone eaves like tears from angels’ eyes.
The funeral procession marched away, a ghost train on the wind. She has imagined it in her head- it is only a flock of crows. Three for a wedding, ten for Old Scratch No one had come to mourn him. Only her, in black lace and a nude taffeta gown.
She curses the corpse below her.
Her mourning veil drifts in the stormy wind. The roses she carries wilted, white as the touch of death. She sips pomegranate tea, paralyzed to her fate. The drink mists like a ghost. She waits at the mausoleum’s steps.
“I know you’re there,” she whispers.
A crow caws in the dripping pine.
She draws a doll from her purse, hands clad in calfskin gloves. The shadow takes it from her, brushing against her skin. His touch is like winter’s bone.
“Such a fragile thing. How charming.” The thick shadows recede. They revealing the pale cold one. Sam Hill grins back at her. He holds the porcelain girl, placed it atop her father’s coffin. “We will bury her, but not yet. It is good to look at your rot.” He traces the doll’s cracks. “These are the dead parts of you. You can be her no more. Go ahead-” he says gently, hands on her shoulder. He guides her to the base of the stone. She stares down at the faded doll. “Make peace, dove.”
“What ties you to this world. Your innocence. It was a thin thread cut by death.”
“You know I won’t go with you. I’m taking my life if you do,” she says calmly. She withdraws a silver blade.
“Antique Venetian? Impressive. Either way, dear angel, you know that I will have you.” His voice rasps like an addict’s. His darkness drown her, suffocating like a black cloud. She recoils, tripping blindly down the steps to falling in an icy puddle. He lifts her off the ground.
“Either way, I have you. I hoped it was alive. But dead- dead can work.”
“So I have no choice?” she demands. “Absolutley none at all.”
“Some claims run deeper than blood. Nothing keeps the moth from her flame.”
“It was made before I was born.”
“There is no birth or death. Just change.”
“Then what are you?”
“An end. A dance. A beginning.”
“Sam Hill, rot in Hell.”
“Gladly. If it’s with you.”
Her cheeks burn with anger. She smashes the doll on the stone.
Thirteen crows caw above. She whispers a broken rhyme. She knows what it means. A curse.
They bury the shattered porcelain,. It is a spiriting away of sorts. Mists rise in their trail. Lilies bloom in their wake. His raiment is death, her bridal train crows. He holds her in the crook of his arm.
“You won’t miss much. I promise. This place is cruel and broken.”
“I never loved this world.”
There’s a blackness that coats Snake’s Hollow, like night left her shawl over the entire town. It is thick, it is alive, and to breathe it in is to choke down smoke and the ripe red cayenne peppers left in rum at the peristyle.
Call the blackness an omen, call it sin. Out of all the humans in my small Louisiana home, only I can see it.
The night is full of haints, the church bells toll on their own, and sometimes, you gotta feed the crossroads. That’s what the blackness brings – loup garou, zombies, the Petro Nation – and they stay away because of Raff and Papa Leggie, always on the town’s edge, but someday, they’ll come marching right on in. That I know for sure, that it’s only a matter of time before your shadows catch up with you
Tonight I’m gonna meet them.
The blackness snakes across the woods like Spanish moss then enter people’s dreams every night, and my God-fearing granmamma makes a sound in her sleep that could curdle milk. When I was younger, barely in elementary school, Raff would cover me with his old white wings and sing me to sleep in the tongue of angels, and the next day in church Papa Leggie would have ten more lines on his bark whorl face. Leggie and God, they’re poker buddies, so Raff tells me.
I wonder if they gamble over which town’s turn it is to vanish into the blackness next.
Winter down here is chill and muggy, and maybe I’m riled up on Maya Angelou’s poetry that sweet momma loves to read to me before our dinner prayers, but I’m brave, and Raff is asleep on the roof, and not a soul is awake in this silly town. They’re all tired out from church where they tried to get slices of salvation just like apple pie, and they’re clearly ain’t enough to go around like at church picnics, or the damn shadows wouldn’t be here watching me.
At the end of Still I Rise tonight, momma said “Be brave May Octavie Laveau, be strong, ‘cause this world will beat stubborn women down, and you ain’t worth anything if you ain’t stubborn as a mule.” I wish I was like Storm in X-Men and could clear this place of the darkness, but it’s more than weather.
The blackness is in the bones of this town, fabled for Calf Springs that will heal and Snakes Springs that will curse. There are so many heroes in my comics and movies – Leia, Nubia, Black Panther, Vixen – and I got a cape and light-up plastic light saber from a few years ago from when I still used to play make believe. I put them on as a shield of sorts, full of sweet childhood memories, then crawl out the window, onto the gutter, and down the widow’s walk –
Wings in my face, strong hands at my waist. I’m hauled from the widow’s walk back into my room like a lil girl picking flowers.
Raff just popped up like a daisy from a grave. Jack’s rabbit if he ain’t fast as a hare. I could have sworn I lulled him to sleep with momma’s chocolate chip cookies. No one can see Raff ‘cept me, and he’s been with me since birth. Love him but he’s a pain in my tush sometimes.
His scarred face is all stern, and he sits me down on my bed and dang it am I in for a talking.
“May! What did I tell you about going out at night? It’s too dangerous for you to even fathom! I didn’t raise you to lose you, girl.” His voice gets all gentle in the end, and he scratches his shaved curls.
I squint at Raff in the darkness of my room. He’s got skin brown as me, and I used to not believe that he was an angel when I was younger. I would say angels were only blonde women that played harps flying round the manger of baby Jesus, but Raff has a flaming sword and ain’t very good with babies. He thinks they’re cute and all, but he’s been a bachelor since Literal Day 1.
“You didn’t raise me to be a scaredy cat either, Raff. I’ve seen the Baron come down at fetes and watched my uncle get ridden by Ogou and swallow fire. There’s a magic to my town, a curse of some kind that only I can see, and I’m going to save it. I won’t let Snake’s Hollow be another of Leggie’s bets.”
“Legba isn’t trying to gamble Snake’s Hollow away, May,” Raff sighs, sitting down next to me. “He’s trying to protect it. We all are.”
The blackness exhales outside my window – it always comes at the stroke of 3:00 AM, the witching hour, then leaves by dawn, and the sun is coming up. The howls of the loup garou on the bayou kept me awake all night. When it breathes, it sounds like the whistle of a ghost train, and when it leaves, it’s like a tea kettle burning.
Raff makes the sign of the cross, only his fingers draw holy fire on the air, and the cross floats to me where it kisses my heart. Blessings from angels never hurt, but I ain’t in needof his protection. I need his answers.
“You’re funny, Raff, you ain’t a proper man, and you ain’t a good angel. Angels don’t lie, after all.”
Raff narrows his sunny yellow eyes, the irises an unearthly amber. “What am I lying about?”
“Bets. The lwa make bets all the time. Leggie’s a trickster, after all.”
“Legba loves you, May. He’s keeping the blackness away. We all are. Now go to bed. You got school tomorrow.” He hugs me then takes off my cape and tries to tuck me in.
“I don’t need you pulling the blankets up Raff, I’m eleven, not seven.”
Raff smiles like river pearls are in his mouth, then laughs. “’Night, May-flower.” He climbs up onto the roof and soon I can hear him snoring like a foghorn.
I watch the blackness until dawn drives it out.
The night is alive in Snake’s Hollow.
In the dark, the Dead have names.
Baba Yaga had seen many chubby cheeked babies with skin like milk and eyes like blueberries in her time. Humans loved their babies, and Baba Yaga loved to eat them, perched atop the food chain like a hoary owl knobbed with age.
There were many predatory birds in Russia, from the mournful Gamayun to the songstress Sirin. Baba Yaga was more woman than bird, and her chicken-legged hut squawked almost as loud as she. Eat like a bird she did not, as her paunch showed, but her eyes were avian, deep and endless. They saw every thread of Russian fate as she flew on her pestle and mortar over hill and harrow, gleaming threads she would spin upon her loom of tendons and bone in due time.
Babies’ soft skin was perfect for basting to brown perfection, their eyes succulent as appetizers. The cheeks were lovely to pinch hard enough to elicit a satisfying cry or angry wail. The single sight of one always made her ancient stomach quiver, great maw that it was.
This baby, however, was different. She was as quiet and perfect as a blooming rose, and her mother was no human, but a goddess. Clearly not designated as the main course for dinner, but a much grander purpose indeed.
The baby girl had a scruff of hair dark as wet ebony, just like Morena, the Slavic goddess of night and death, and latest Russian expat to leave the Soviet Union. Of the immortals, only Baba Yaga remained.
The Revolution had driven out Russian royalty, and atheism had taken root across the Slavic lands. A godless country was no home for any god, old or new, and certainly not for Morena, the queen of witches, where her covens were sent to death camps and her village wise women were starved of supper and secrets. The old ones had stopped telling stories of bogatyrs and Prince Ivan to the children, the land spirits were forgotten, and many a domovoi went hungry.
Baba Yaga had stayed behind because she liked blood, and there was much blood to be had in the Soviet Union. Indeed, Baba Yaga adored chaos, and she was Russian through and through, comrade to peasant or oligarch or KGB be damned.
Morena cradled Anastasia, her only daughter, as if she were a basket of pearls. Baba Yaga and the goddess sat in Morena’s herb garden on the new shores of the land of the free, America, where so many Slavs had come: Poles and Serbians, Russians and Bulgarians. They carried their old Orthodox beliefs and superstitions with them, alongside the dvoeverie double faith, making room for the old gods in their icons and church hymns. The Poles remembered Morena in their spring festivities, drowning her icon in rivers to rejuvenate her for the warming earth. Not many gods were as lucky in this day and age, where man had forgotten who had made them.
For every healing recipe or potion passed down from mother to daughter, for every love spell cast in the bathhouse, Morena was there. She watched the Soviet Union from afar, waiting to return when belief once again seeped from the ground like mist. And Baba Yaga? She was Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, the night terrors of children, and shadows that swallowed everything on All Soul’s Eve.
Morena was just another immigrant in the vast melting pot of America, her curiosity and fickle love for a mortal Russian expat the biggest draw to these shining but tarnished shores of liberty. Gods were mercurial in choosing their lovers, and they took human wives and husbands from time to time. That, in fact, was how demigods like Rasputin were born, and Anya was no exception.
“She is beautiful, isn’t she?” Morena cooed, tossing her baby girl Anastasia’s hair. “Eyes like her father, and hair like her mother. I cannot bear to part with her, but I must for the sake of Buyan.”
Morena’s eyes steeled. “The Black God rides, growing stronger as the old beliefs rot and peasants starve, and he will be our doom if Anya cannot master her witch fire.”
Morena rocked her child and stared up at the cratered moon. “She is the light of my brother Jarilo, nothing at all like my darkness. To have birthed the sun is strange indeed.”
Baba Yaga puffed on her pipe and blew smoke snakes that slithered up to the sky. “Dear Morena, was it not I that taught you that all magic has a cost? To birth the light of the gods, you must pay in a million tears. Give Anya to me and I promise she will be protected until the time comes for her reunion with you, along with her intended.”
Morena laughed, and Anya burbled, toying with a lock of Morena’s curls. “This bastard prince of Father Frost seems too immature to love even himself. I wonder how you will work your magic on him to make him see Anya’s light.”
Baba Yaga chuckled. “I have my ways. Frost and fire are the primal elements of the world after all, enough to purify the rot of Chernobog himself. We will be the ones to end this cycle of war between the immortals and Chernobog’s deathless lands. All it takes, in every fairytale, is true love, and I know a prince whose icy heart may yet be melted by Anya’s fire. In the end, it will have all been for him. No daughter of yours would not be selfless, Morena. That has always been your flaw.”
A sapphire of a tear formed in Morena’s dark eyes. She held Anya closed, sang her to sleep, then handed her to Baba Yaga. “Take her then, my witch-mother. May the Zoryas be with you, and deliver my daughter to a life of peace I cannot give her in this, or any, world.”
Baba Yaga’s grin was a crevasse deep as the Marianna Trench. “My dear Morena, so it shall come to pass that Anya will know the best peace Buyan can provide, with the best family beyond you I can give her. My wings will be over her at all times, anyhow. Nothing I do is not without reason.”
Morena bit her ruby red lips. “I know.”
Anya cooed a word like salvation in her sleep, but it was so quiet even a goddess could not hear. Morena’s eternal heart was filled with sadness, but her ineffable will stood strong. She kissed her babe’s forehead and bid her and Baba Yaga goodbye.
Morena watched the chicken hut gateway between worlds spin on its axis and vanish: “Return to me, dear Anastasia. I would wish upon a thousand firebirds that we shall meet again.”
BUYAN, KIEVAN RUS
And in my dreams I see myself on a wolf’s back
Riding along a forest path
To do battle with Kashchei
In that land where a princess sits under lock and key,
Pining behind massive walls.
There gardens surround a palace all of glass;
There Firebirds sing by night
And peck at golden fruit.
– Yakov Polonsky, “A Winter’s Journey”
In a little dale in the heart of Buyan, where Baba Yaga made her home, was an inn for misfits and magicians. It was three stories tall and majestic as a merchant’s house. Tsar Dmitri, its leshy lord, was known for his bookish habits and gentleness. But above all he was famed for his love of his forests, which he tended with utter care.
He was close to the first eldritch witch to enchant Buyan, and Baba Yaga was taking afternoon tea on his porch as they watched the flowers grow. There was no today or tomorrow in Buyan, just seasons to grow, harvest, and lay fields fallow. They had all the time in the world in their wolfskin rocking chairs.
There were snowdrops and daffodils, goldenrod and hibiscus. Leshys had a magic for plants and animals, and whatever flora and fauna Dmitri desired, his kingdom had in abundance. His pampered squirrels darted about as the kitchen maid Elizaveta watered the plants by wringing her wet rusalka hair.
Baba Yaga stirred her tea with her dusty pinky. “So your bannik died. The old dotard drank himself to death. We all love our vodka, but your bannik made the milk of potatoes his wife. Wives always kill their husbands in the end,” Baba Yaga chuckled. “I’ve murdered many a husband in my time, after all. Perhaps I should consider myself through a shot glass, addictive and deadly in large doses.” She picked her teeth with a sparrow spine.
Dmitri was peeling an apple round and round as the rind came off. It fell in spirals onto his porch and he bit into the yellow-white flesh. “Gods curse the man who marries you.” Dmitri gave a forlorn look at his empty bathhouse. “Yes, I am in need of a bannik, but they are often lecherous drunkards and lazy to boot. Where can I find one that is as industrious as I?”
A bit of baby meat dislodged from Baba Yaga’s canines. She chewed it thoughtfully. “I may have an inkling. I will do you a favor, Dima – I will find you the best bannik in all of Buyan. Take it as a token of appreciation for your wonderful willow bark tea. It eases the pains of my eternal old age.”
Dmitri narrowed his emerald eyes. “Your gifts always have a price, dear babushka.”
Baba Yaga chuckled darkly. “Oh dear Dima, let go of your apprehension and revel in my favor. You are a king among tsars, dearest leshy, and it is partially due to my blessing that your lands flourish.”
“Lands that many are jealous of,” Dmitri said slowly, finishing his tea and then picking up a volume of Old Russian epics concerning Prince Vladimir Bright-Sun and his fearless bogatyrs. “They have brought me many enemies, enough to need the largest vila army in all of Buyan.”
“Then let us hope my favor does not falter, bookish nechist! Either that or marry that vila general you’ve been lusting after for centuries, maybe then you will not need my protection much longer. Love fortifies armies, I am told.” Baba Yaga squawked.
Dmitri blushed blue. “I have no interest in a consort, or Liliya. I am married to my land.”
“Pssht. Married to your romantic novels, you are! Yes, you have my favor indeed, enough to read as much as you do and still have your lands flourish. Find you a bannik I will.”
“Yes, but sometimes I wonder at your tastes in company.”
Baba Yaga watched the kitchen maid water a patch of sunflowers with her riverine hair. “Is not Elizaveta a lovely employee? I brought her to you a century ago and she has been nothing but sunshine, pah!”
Dmitri nodded. “I suppose so, though she is a bit… airheaded.”
The rusalka danced and sang then tripped over a squirrel and screamed as the vicious squirrels exacted their revenge, nibbling her scales.
“As rusalka are. You cannot expect a bannik not to love his vodka or a vodyanoi not to smoke his pipe. Nechist rarely go against their natures.”
That night, at home on her loom of past present and future, Baba Yaga wove a tale. Gold for a princess, blue for a prince, red for love, and black for death. The human tendons wove taut and true. Baba Yaga examined the tapestry.
“So that is why the winds told me to settle in dear Dmitri’s realm. Father Mountain and Mother River, that is not at all what I expected – fairytales are rarely practical, and seldom true. But you so often choose the unexpected, Father and Mother, and that shall do, that shall do, that shall do…”
For every princess, a prince. That is how fairytales go.
The lovers can span ages between meeting, many are enchanted, locked in towers, or enchantress’s children, and seldom is their union sweet. There are talking wolves, long arduous quests, arrows and swords, robbers and bandits, witches and black steeds that are the Devil’s own demons.
True love often ends in insults and tears, and many an empty bed, but Russian songs were never sweet, and firebirds do not make their roosts in anything but a king’s garden. Most firebirds in Buyan made their homes in Tsar Dmitri’s royal garden in fact, in a dale just perfect for a couple that might wish for an impossible union on the flames of a fiery tail.
The prince Baba Yaga foresaw was born at the beginning of recorded history, in the northernmost kingdom with the aurora borealis for his bower. His mother was Snegurochka, the Snow Maiden, who once long ago had lost her heart to a village boy. This time she had lost it to a bannik. Perhaps it was the curve of the bathhouse spirit’s strong arms as he chopped wood for the banya that had done Snegurochka in. Perhaps it was his rascal smile. Whatever it was, it had worked. Taking unattainable lovers was a snow maiden habit, after all.
Time tended to move in cycles in Buyan, home to the Slavic spirits. Buyan was a land a bit west of the morning and evening star Zorya goddesses and a bit to the north of dreams. Its residents’ actions were no exception to the mythic circles of their fairytale land. Snegurochka’s heart was notorious for wandering and it too fell victim to Buyan’s ebb and flow.
Just like his mother’s heart the prince, a strange mix of steam and snow, was born a traveler. After birth, he toddled his first steps out of his mother’s womb into the wilds. Snegurochka had to catch him in her snowflake-spun arms before he disappeared for good.
He was named Morozko after Snegurochka’s Father Frost, or Ded Moroz’s present-giving ways. Ded Moroz was the Winter King that wanted little to do with a bastard prince and much less to do with the rabble-rousing bannik that had sired him. Snegurochka melted with bliss at the sight of her newborn boy and in doing so scared away her lover. Banniks were never good fathers anyways. They were too concerned with steaming saunas and overseeing the rituals of the banya to make attentive parents. Banyas were the heart of Russian communities and banniks, overseers of the rituals of the bathhouse, had little care for their offspring. They considered the banya their only children.
So Morozko grew up fatherless save for Ded Moroz’s stern gaze. He was half of frost, half of fire, and nothing at all like his family.
“Mother, why does dedushka hate me?” Morozko asked before Russia was little more than a land fought over by pagans erecting poles the to snakeskin Veles the chthonic god in the underworld below and thundering Perun the king of the gods above. The people still swore on the Earth Mother Mokosh in those days. They still spilled blood on the death goddess Morena’s altar. And Baba Yaga, fabled witch of the mountains, devourer of wandering children, was watching. The hag of the iron teeth was young, though she never remotely looked it.
After asking about his grandfather, Snegurochka had enfolded the sparks in her son’s hands and molded them into a rose of fire encased in ice. “You are a treasure, Kolya. That is why Ded Moroz does not understand you. My father showers treasure down upon girls in need like ice crystals from clouds but never keeps them for himself. He gave me away once to the people and only took me back when I was on Morena’s doorstep. Ded Moroz is known for winter’s barrenness, not summer’s warmth, and you are your father, all heat. My father does not know what to make of such a rare jewel as you, my dearest prince.”
Tsar Vladimirs came and conquered, ambitious princes of Kievan Rus uniting Russia. The capital city was rechristened St. Petersburg in the Eastern Orthodox faith. The rulers burned the wooden idols of the old gods and erected crosses for the new. The kings and magistrates dunked the pagan Slavs in the capital’s river to baptize them in impromptu fashion.
Baba Yaga watched from her chicken hut all the while stroking her chin hairs, smoking her pipe, waiting. The pagans, now Christians, still paid tribute to the old gods as saints and renamed them. The peasants of dvoeverie double faith renamed the gods but never forgot them. Veles and Perun retreated, the Zoryas abandoned their shining star thrones, and Mokosh slept deep below the mountains at the base of the Tree of Life.
And one god with a rotting black heart took another name. He watched, coveting, always waiting. He had a thousand princesses kept under lock and key in his palace of ice and glass. It was lit only by flitting firebirds and jewel fresh diamond fruit. Still, it was missing a crucial light in all the dead magnificence. It was something that would haunt Morozko in due time.
Morozko paid little attention to the rise and fall of immortals. He was too busy growing. He watched cranes fly across the northern wastes and shot arrows of steam at elk to be dried and cured in the smokehouse. His grandfather barely tolerated him, Snegurochka loved him, and that was enough to churn butter for a small while.
Morozko gave little heed to the passage of the gods into history.
One day he would remember his mother’s stories of Chernobog the Black.
Nechist – what the farmers in fields called land spirits – continued life in Buyan unaffected by Christianity, like Snegurochka and Morozko. Peasants still left out kasha for house elf domovois. Humans continued avoiding the rivers in the evening lest they stray upon the drowned human suicides. The dead girls, now siren rusalka, would sing and seduce them to a freezing watery death. The peasants prayed that the Amazonian vila, guardians of the weather, would not drench crops in rain. Once in a blue moon, a wild girl would wander back to her village covered in moss and half-mad having escaped from an ill-fortuned marriage as a wood wife to a forest king leshy.
Thanks to shifting belief, Ded Moroz became something like Santa and rebranded the family business to deliver presents to children across Russia at New Years. Father Frost was nothing if not good at giving away gifts like blizzards. He and Snegurochka worked with the efficiency of a snowstorm.
Still Morozko couldn’t summon a single snowflake, much less command the winds to carry him to merchant’s homes and give their daughters baubles. So he set out with his mother’s blessing and grandfather’s disgrace. He sought his fortune in cities and the wilds when nechist still walked Russia and beyond alongside humanity. Morozko threw his icy crown off the ends of Buyan’s glaciers and renounced Ded Moroz’s heritage. He was fully content to be a bannik, not a prince.
“To hell with princehood,” he muttered, “I’m a bastard through and through, and I would rather have nothing to my name and be free than be bound by convention and a court.”
So Morozko set off past the glaciers, to the land of evergreen and birch, and Snegurochka wept tears of ice.
Baba Yaga was aback her mortar and pestle with her witch-daughter Morena, the wind-wild goddess with a body like a birch. Morena flew aback a broom in a red velvet cloak and black rags of a dress. They were flying as fast as an eagle over the Caucasus Mountains, sending their flocks of crows and owls to harvest ingredients: poisonous herbs and dwarven treasures, alongside a fair amount of children’s first breaths and mother’s last words.
This spell would be one in a long line against Chernobog, the Black God, who longed to unseat Morena and her consort Jarilo from the heavens and spread sterile, cold perfection with the infection of his cursed deathless lands upon Buyan. Nature abhors a vacuum, but vacuums abhor nature, and Chernobog was the void that ate all he drained of blood and left his victims cold and lifeless.
Russia was both light and dark, poison and honey, and black Morena was the queen of immortals. Passionate but feral, she carried madness with her like a worm in her brain. Watching her bare milky-breasted, nipples like pink daggers as she beat at her chest with venik branches to guide the winds, Baba Yaga was proud of Morena’s ferocity. Her witch-daughter was all wolf, all wild, and the best hope at destroying Chernobog for good.
If Morena was a wolf, then Chernobog was a vulture, circling in the sky waiting for a feast. Would this spell or the next seal the coffin in his box? The Zorya’s whispered in their prophetic trills that Morena would birth Bilobog, the remedy to Chernobog’s destruction, but so far her union with the sunlit god Jarilo had proven tempestuous and fruitless.
Baba Yaga had tried spell after spell to make Morena’s inhospitable womb of ice and night a planting ground for Jarilo’s seed, but stillborn embryo after bloody abortion followed. It drove Morena deeper into her madness and desperation, and it drove Jarilo farther from Morena. They failed again and again, Chernobog’s blackness spread, and Buyan was growing darker. The crops failed more, the spirits thirsted, and the deathless maidens haunted the outer boundaries, hunting for ungiven comfort.
It was time for Baba Yaga to tell Morena, her dearest godchild, a heartbreaking truth. They had sent a fetch in the form of a giant to Chernobog’s deathless lands with the fruit of that night’s labor, enchanted to wreak havoc on his palace of glass and ice and tear the oak tree of his heart from its roots. Each egregore and familiar that died at Chernobog’s hands infuriated him more, and drew him further into no man’s land, where they might strike him in earnest with spells and curses, but Chernobog was wily, and deathless to boot. It would take a mortal to kill him, and a mortal man to bring life to the goddess of death, as only humanity tasted of the black cup of destruction and passed on into the great unknown no god or nechist knew.
Baba Yaga told this to Morena, that her marriage to Jarilo would prove fruitless, and that she should seek a mortal’s bed. There were rats on Morena’s shoulders and crows in her black black hair. She gave a ragged sigh, moths leaving her mouth as she exhaled.
“I suppose it is true, witch-mother. Burning day and dark night are never on earth at the same time, and for Bilobog to walk the earth, my child must have mortal blood. All the heroes, from Ilya Muromets to Dobryna Nikitich, were partially human after all. They were the ones to slay dragons, not insipid Jarilo or my stubborn father Perun.” Morena looked out the window of Baba Yaga’s chicken hut and the darkness of the night shuddered under the death goddess’s gaze. “I will travel Russia for however long it takes to find the father of Buyan’s avenger, though my trek may span centuries.”
Baba Yaga gave a weak smile. “This war is tiring for us both, and you have a heavy cross to bear, dear Marzanna.”
Morena plaited her tangled hair. “If I could but have one child, one witch-babe to suckle at my breasts and coddle under the starlight and winds, it will have been worth it.”
Baba Yaga did not want to tell the daydreaming Morena that to keep a half-mortal child in a house of immortals at war would be a death sentence, but for once in her long long life, she kept quiet. Baba Yaga would ensure any child of Morena’s was like a second limb to her, the mistress of the chicken legged hut, and would want for nothing.
But those nothings could not be fed by Bilobog’s birth mother, and so it would come to pass as Baba Yaga had seen during that summer at Tsar Dmitri’s: that a bastard prince and motherless princess would somehow save Buyan.
Morozko became famed for his treatment of guests at banyas and his divination prowess. Word traveled of the tenderness with which he beat bushels of green peeled venik against patron’s backs. He could steam and ice the different pools just so, and his reputation began to precede him. Morozko worked for different leshys in different kingdoms who had carved Buyan up between them in a patchwork thanks to games of chess and war. Leshy tsars sometimes lost half a forest to an ill-thought bet. Winners led their pampered squirrels in great migrations to their new lands.
First Morozko traveled on foot, then on horseback when he had saved enough money. He possessed his mother’s wandering heart, always searching for a place to belong but never finding it. He was camping by the Volga River one night when he heard the click-clack creak of a hut on chicken legs. A hag with iron teeth and a fence of bones sat smoking her pipe in a rocking chair. Her wood-dark eyes were like kindling.
She smiled like a shark.
“You are lost, Prince Morozko,” Baba Yaga observed.
Morozko stood up and dusted off his trousers of snow. “I have no compass to guide me, babushka. Every day that I wander farther into the wilds I find that I am losing my way. I do not know what I am looking for still! After all these godforsaken years, I am alone.”
“Family, a home, a father, love – I can give it all to you if you give me something precious.”
Morozko peered up at the famous witch who Snegurochka had sometimes entertained in his grandfather’s kingdom. “I have nothing of value – I threw my inheritance away, I travel with only a quiver full of cheap arrows and a doddering broken horse. What could you possibly want?”
Baba Yaga took a gigantic pestle from beside her rocking chair, set down her pipe, and pointed the pestle in Morozko’s direction: “Your word, half-blood bannik. One day I will ask you to do me a favor. If you value your life, you will not refuse me. If you accept my offer, I will give your wandering heart a home.”
“Where? I have searched nearly every inch of Buyan and I have found nothing but petty leshys. I know warring vila and seductress rusalka and absolutely nothing that suits me. I have had my heart broken by a vampir with hair like autumn leaves. My money was stolen by leshy tsars that shortchanged me and my services. My name has been lost to the wind. All I know is that a bastard belongs nowhere!”
“Pah, soap shavings! Everyone belongs somewhere, even a down-on-his-luck half-breed. Come, sit on my porch, drink my vodka, eat a pierogi, and stop wallowing in your misery. I will take you to Tsar Dmitri’s emerald forests where I make my home. There is no place kinder or sweet as baby’s bubbling marrow in Buyan.”
Morozko’s eyes widened. “I thought Dmitri was a myth. He is the famous leshy that won his woods from Saint Vladimir the Great when Russia was first formed. The one with an army of a thousand vila and an inn famed for its beauty. Its banya must be splendid…”
“Hah!” Baba Yaga laughed like a crow. “A banya that needs tending. The old bannik died. Climb up my steps, I promise the snakes do not bite.”
“Hut, hut, turn your back from this wintry waste and your face to Dima’s realm!” Baba Yaga commanded, smacking her pestle on the porch.
The chicken-legged hut spun like a drunk duck; their surroundings blurred. Morozko steadied himself on the femur railing. When they landed, they were in a hollow tucked away into autumn woods. Ferns bordered the fence next to an herb garden raked with spines.
Baba Yaga ambled along the porch using her pestle as a cane. “Come come soap shavings! I told Dima he would have a visitor. His staff are excited to meet you – that or scared of what I may bring. They never do like my presents very much, especially the squealing children.”
Morozko followed Baba Yaga – the crone moved faster than her hobbled appearance let on. She mounted her hovering mortar, churned the air with her pestle, and was off. Morozko ran to keep up.
“Hah! The wind in my hair makes me feel young again. Being chased by a pretty boy, why, it’s just as in my youth!”
Morozko frowned. “I cannot imagine you were ever much to look at,” he muttered between breaths.
They came to a wooden three-story inn fronted by a millpond with the most perfect banya Morozko had ever seen. He quaked at the sight of it. His smoky magic reached out and sensed the power and enchantment of the bathhouse. He measured the potency within its wall and suddenly knew how it would bend to his will. It would be his work, bread, and soul.
Tsar Dmitri and his staff waited in the meadow fronting the inn. The smile on the leshy’s face was like sunlight on water:
“Welcome home, my son,” Dmitri said.
“Tsar Dmitri, it is an honor,” Morozko said, kneeling before the forest king.
Dmitri’s blue face crinkled in a smile. The bells on his antlers chimed as he extended his hand to help Morozko up: “No use bowing, dear lad. Here we are all just keepers of the woods, wayward souls in the haven that is my forest. Here you will find lecherous vodyanoi mermen that can outdrink you by ten gallons of vodka. There are witches who will steal your heart away if you are not careful. Here, come, Liliya, help Morozko to his quarters.”
Morozko found himself inside a banya that was built for him. The fire in his belly simmered to a gentle steam. He stretched on his wolfskin bed and looked up at the ceiling, which would look just so studded with trespassing human’s souls. Dmitri’s wolves called to salute the rising moon.
He got up and settled at a rickety desk, dipped a quill into an inkpot, and began a letter to Snegurochka:
“Mother, I am finally home. My wandering heart is now, despite all my dreams, content.”
Centuries passed, but Buyan stayed the same. Morozko settled into tending the banya and thought of Dmitri as his father and the staff as his brothers and sisters. He delighted in Dmitri’s annual councils with his leshy noblemen and the celebrations in the village that followed. He would chase after vila warrior women and flirtatious, dangerous rusalka on St. John’s Eve, searching for fern flowers that would lead to an evening of lovemaking. Many times he sat with Dmitri in the kitchen by the woodstove on rainy evenings and read from Dmitri’s collection of human literature.
Baba Yaga watched, waited, and smoked her perpetual pipe. She took Morozko under her hoary wing to become the babushka he never had.
It could have been today or tomorrow when Morozko got the letter of a present to deliver. Perhaps a package just like Ded Moroz and Snegurochka carried on the winter holidays. He had not forgotten his word, and it was in his blood to fulfill letters requesting parcel delivery.
After so many years and so many moons Morozko had lost track it had come time for Morozko to make good on his promise to Baba Yaga. She summoned him in the dead of night. He was hoping to get some cigarettes from her storage.
What he got was nothing what he expected.
Night played like a worn balalaika, strumming stars across the sky. Firs bent like widows in the wind. It was a familiar scene in Buyan, minus the human visitor.
Morozko unwrapped the so-called present, unfolding bits of tissue paper to reveal swaddling. He was surprised to see that he held an infant in his arms. “A baby?” he asked, thinking it one of babushka’s pranks. “Smells tender. I bet she tastes like chicken. Is this your afternoon palate cleanser?”
“You wish! Hungry for baby soul sashimi, eh?” Baba Yaga’s iron teeth flashed. “Spill a drop of her blood and I’ll cook you in my pot.”
“Yeah right.” Morozko pulled back her swaddling and examined the child’s face. “Her soul is too appetizing to be anything but a snack.”
“Her name is Anya. That is all you need to know.” Baba Yaga laughed. The wrinkles on her skin were like furrows in brown earth. “Take her home to your tsar courtesy of your babushka. Bathe her in the banya and ruddy her flesh with birch bark. Make her a child of the woods. When she has ripened like fruit from the love of your inn, send her to me.”
Morozko looked at Baba Yaga in confusion. “What? Dima will never stand for this. The borders to Earth are all closed save your world-hopping house. It’s unheard of for mortals to come to Buyan anymore.”
“Pfft. Your tsar will see my way, even if I have to pluck his eyes out and wear them so he sees my point of view.” She cackled like a crow as she rested on her hovering mortar.
“No buts! Go, Kolya: back to the banya with you.” Baba Yaga took her pestle, ground it into the air, and flew away.
Morozko looked down at the infant.
“Well, mooncalf. Looks like you won’t end up in my stomach after all.”
“You think this is a joke?” Morozko brought his face close to Anya’s. “I could swallow you in one gulp. Your soul would be all mine to play with. A trinket I could use to light the banya, hung from the rafters with my other meals.”
Anya reached out and touched Morozko’s nose.
“Get your grubby hands off me,” Morozko said, clutching the infant close as snow crunched under his boots. “Forget babushka’s dried up hide. That hag has gone senile.”
He walked through pillars of birch. Scant clouds brought snow. Patches in cirrus allowed the moon to shine through. Morozko’s fur coat sheltered him from the falling white. Snowflakes steamed as they hit his exposed skin.
As a bathhouse spirit Morozko carried the sauna with him. Anya nestled close to his skin and babbled. “Eee?”
“Yes Anya, I see your point.” Morozko softened, peering into her eyes. “So where exactly did you come from? Or is that a secret too?”
Anya cried out in hunger.
Morozko thumbed her lips, and she sucked his finger. Anya nipped the soft flesh under his nail with wet gums.
“I am guessing Baba Yaga did not give you dinner,” Morozko sighed, accidentally jostling the girl as he plucked his finger away. “She does not have a very good track record with children. Neither do most nechist. We either steal them as thralls, eat or drown them – sometimes both – or abduct them to be our brides. I can’t imagine Dmitri would want a wood wife not yet out of diapers.”
Morozko frowned. “I cannot give you milk, but I might just have something better.”
He reached for a flask at his waist, unscrewed the top, and offered her nectar pressed from fern flowers that bloomed on Ivan Kupalo, or St. John’s Eve, the summer festival of love, beauty, and magic. The flowers the fern flower bore were rarer than a five-leaf clover.
“So that is how I get you to shut up, eh?” He rocked Anya as she nursed. “Witch’s brew. There is nothing sweeter, except perhaps your soul,” he teased.
Anya squirmed, burrowed into his coat. Morozko smoothed her coal-dark curls.
“Eating you would be like killing myself. You have drunk half my mixer anyways. Good thing Baba Yaga did not see me steal it from her fridge. How is that for an introduction, mooncalf? Alcoholic baby food, Mother Mokosh have mercy.” Morozko adjusted his collar. He peered into the future, as banniks are wont to do, and got hints of what was to come. This ability did not often work. When it did, his visions were clear as crystal lattice icicles.
“You will call me many things: ‘Bannik,’ ‘bastard,’ ‘terror.’ But however cruel you think me, remember it was I that carried you through the darkness. The banya now runs through your veins. Let it cleanse you of human weakness. I will raise you in the strength of the nechist. I have taken a liking to the girl who survived Baba Yaga’s hut.”
She burbled. Morozko clutched her close.
“Anya, you are mine. I promise to forever protect you, especially from Baba Yaga’s cauldron.”