This one’s temple throbs and aches, and nostrils pick up the smell of spilled blood. The body winces involuntarily as I stand it up and reach a hand to the temple. Nasty cut, that, on top of a bruise, a hairline crack in the bone beneath. I press fingertips to the spot and the pain swells. Exquisite. We’d stagger at the agony if I weren’t pushing this body about.
Blood-caked fingertips. A warm metallic taste. This body doesn’t run on it, though it’s nice to have sip of your own brand, yes? But the flesh hungers for something else. Soon, soon . . .
A ride up the elevator, steel cables humming and singing as the cab cranks upward to the top. The apartment is empty; a tangle of ropes and duct tape on the floor roughly outlining where a body would have been held. My brother has already fled, poor broken thing. But I can’t take after him in this, no no no. Need to find the little darlings and bring them along.
Booted feet thump with purpose up the stairwell. Company comes, but not my young friends, no.
I slip into the shadows at the end of the hall—hello, darkness, my oldest friend—as the steel fire door opens, and the big red-bearded one they call Rickard emerges from the stairwell, head swiveling purposefully back and forth to clear the area. A clever beast, yes, but not that clever. A pair of ghouls accompany him, entering and sweeping the apartment. Minutes later, they leave.
“Nothing here,” Rickard is saying into a phone. “Already called Violet, let the little haunt know. One’a your boys thinks he can sense something else trailing out toward—”
The fire door slams shut behind the trio as they depart.
I wait. This one’s stomach rumbles and gurgles. They claim self-determination, but these creatures are at the mercy of a sack of fluids.
Eventually, the elevator hums to life again, descending, bringing up its cargo. Ahh, there you are! Violet, Sascha, Mila, and her pet arrive, entering the apartment.
Give them just enough time to settle in. Knock, knock, knock! Open, open, open!
Voices fall silent inside the penthouse. The door slowly unlocks and opens. The porcelain-skinned scary little doll peers out, those big baby blues widening.
I give her my best winning smile with his mouth and twinkle with his eyes, and she recognizes me.
• • • • • •
This one’s belly has ceased its noises, stuffed full to near bursting. Silence at last, at least from one of its demanding glands and sacs. The little ones know what they have to do for me. “Help me help you help me help you!” And I’m very sure they’ll do their part in this dance, yes, if they want their lost little beast back, especially the scary little doll.
I finish washing up in the bathroom sink, tuck Remy’s cap over his head rakishly to cover up where Violet clouted him. A little fist, beringed in brass, propelled in terror. This one’s lucky not to have died; a lucky glancing blow still left such a nasty mark.
Beyond the diner’s windows and neon lighting, the sky is velvet dark grey, and my little friends have left to hide and sleep. The waitress is finishing up her shift, counting up all of Remy’s money (generosity always makes an impression), and she looks up at me, giving a careful smile. I give her a shy grin in return, and she stands up, heads over to where I wait in the vestibule by the restrooms and payphones. Give us a kiss, dear . . .
The sweet reek of hydrocarbons belches out of a MUNI bus tailpipe as it rumbles by. The air is warming up as the sky lightens. I flex this body’s sore swollen toes in her sensible work shoes, and glance down. From these eyes, I can see the nametag on her apron: ɐssᴉɹɐƆ.
I pluck it free and turn it so I can read it properly, repin it in place. The needle point gouges skin, pricking and scratching, a tiny steel talon. I turn to head down the sidewalk, and as I emerge from the shadow of the building, the first rays of light from that brilliant ball of fire warm her skin. Oh, so very warm indeed. I can’t help but turn fully into it and stand, raising the head, tilting it back and letting that light and heat wash over her flesh. And inside, in the dark behind her eyes, I am safe.
• • • • • •
Seated on a ledge above Redwood Park, the long shadow of this pyramid building behind me is a welcome retreat after such a long, sunny day. Below, the little ones have already gathered. So punctual! Their desperation is almost palpable. I’ve kept them a little overlong, perhaps, but I just couldn’t help it.
I step off the edge of the building, and something in their senses draws their attention to me. Their eyes all widen as I drift (light as a feather!) to the ground, sketch them a little curtsy. They notice the nametag, recognize the body, then recognize me. Every single time, they’re so confused. Poor little dears. But they’ll have to do.
The little doll lunges toward me, shouting in an old familiar tongue while the rest turn their confusion to her. Oh! There you are! An old friend glares at me out of Violet’s eyes.
“Nemesis! Foulness! Corrupter! You seek to ruin us all again!” she spits in the tongue of old Rome.
I can’t help but smile at this chance meeting. She’s fled each time she’s gotten wind of us, and it’s such fun to see her each time, especially with this new trick.
“Domina Tiberia Cassia Alba! Lovely to see you again. Oh, yes, you’re now . . . Miss Antonia Collins these days?”
Violet’s mouth turns down in a cold scowl. “Not any more.”
Oh, yes, that was decades ago. My, my, the time do fly . . .
“My honest mistake,” I reassure her sweetly. She doesn’t believe me, the sad old thing. But business remains to be done. “I’ll be going soon enough, yes. Must keep up with the times, just like you, hmm?”
“You won’t find me, monster. Not this time.”
I wave ɐssᴉɹɐƆ’s hand dismissively. “I don’t want you, withered one. So old, so boring, so set in your ways, and we’ve done this over and over. These new ones are much more fun to see dance about. Besides . . . I’m late for an important date!”
“To Dis and hell and the abyss and perdition with you!” she croaks as her voice grows distant once more. Violet reasserts herself with an effort of will, and the Domina’s gaze begins to fade from her eyes.
I wriggle fingers in a farewell, smile broadly. Perhaps someday I’ll tire of watching her squirm, but then again, some things never get old.
• • • • • •
Delight fills me. A surprise! A genuine surprise after so many years.
“You truly mean it!?” I ask Sascha. Were it not for my plans this evening, I’d have a lovely new toy all my own, but I can only borrow it. Still, it’s almost tempting . . .
He nods, casting a glance over his shoulder down the street to the building where the worshipers of their ‘dark centurion’ await. “Yeah . . . let’s make it quick.”
I give him a broad, happy grin, and slam lips against his. His mouth opens involuntarily in the kiss as I slide arms around his broad torso, and she sags against us. The blood-tainted darkness behind his eyelids is almost too comfortable. He’s learned so much in such a short time, and perhaps he’d appreciate a few more close and personal lessons but, well, promises to keep and miles to go . . .
I hoist up the semi-conscious woman and Mila’s pet, Joseph, slips an arm over his shoulders.
“C’mon, now,” he tells her, helping her stumble down the street and sit at the bus stop bench. He gives me a wary glance as I smile back once more. I guess this means he does remember my visit, my bedtime story!
Within Sascha’s oh-so-welcoming form, I go to church for the first time in years, flanked by Violet and Mila. Downstairs, the locks twist off like thick clay and the door swings back on heavy spring hinges. Oh, this one’s so strong too! But I can’t get through that door just yet. They learned a lesson so long ago, from when a certain Angel of Death passed over Egypt. . .
“Hmm . . .” I peer down at the writing edged around the floor, posts, and lintel. In Sascha’s sight, all the dried blood gleams a dull ruby, carmine, and garnet. “That one. And that one. Aaand that one.”
Mila looks up at me, the weird little shadow hesitant.
“Oh! Yes. And . . . that one there,” I add.
She gives a frown, but wets her fingertips with bloody saliva and smudges the writing. The air grows heavy for just a moment, then the ward snaps. I tip her a wink, and stride into the meat locker as the way opens, opens, opens.
Such a treasure trove! So many asleep here. I could be like the child in the sweet shop, but I’ve got a score to settle. Yes, I do indeed. Where are you, where are you, where—ah hah!
I lean over the body of Livia DeWitt, refined features marred by such harsh mistreatment, and give the sleeping beauty a kiss. Sascha jerks and staggers, falling bonelessly to the floor below the cold steel gurney as I sit her up. Muscles tug raggedly and fragments of her spine and ribs grate and grind at each other when I stand her up. Oh, this won’t do at all; I’ve got to be presentable for this evening’s appointment. Still, I can reach through her slumbering mind, that tangle of sad angry little ape bound up in the lessons we tried to teach them so long ago, and everything she knows about the old ways flows into everything I know too, tributaries merging into a great torrent. Exactly what I need!
I step out of the cold room as Sascha gets to his feet and follows me, dazed. Mila gives him a worried look, but keeps watch on me as we make our way upstairs.
On the ground floor, our little party comes to a halt. Violet has risen from where she sat on the pews, and another has joined our evening’s fun—one of the children of Seth, so very debased from what they could have been. But even as he glares at me with eyes gone black-on-black-on-black and he sees who’s really moving this body about, I can already see something in there we can work with, and I give him a slow smile. As they say, the enemy of my enemy . . .
• • • • • •
As the last sounds of my call, my taunt, my summons to my brother fades into the night sky, I turn and smile back at the little ones, waggling eyebrows upward at them.
“He’ll be here soon!”
Slow, cold minutes pass by. The stars wheel slowly overhead and the cheery red lights of Sutro Tower blink . . . on, off . . . on, off . . . on, off . . .
I can feel him, close, closer, closer still. That’s it, come to me, time to finish up our game and we’re playing for all the marbles.
He lunges out of the dark, a guttural howl from Jan’s throat as his body blurs by, long ragged black claws set to tear the head from Violet’s shoulders. She throws herself aside, turning the killing blow into a row of nasty deep slashes across her face from the corner of her mouth to her ear. He’s so fast!
He lands Jan’s body in a rough crouch, and from the darkness downslope.
“Kill that bitch of yours!” he snarls to Mila’s pet, and stabs a fingertip at me, and the little puppet turns to dance on his strings, hefting that sledge. Tsk. They always bend so easily.
Then my brother beckons to a pack of his little pets as they scramble into view and they charge to me. Such a let down, and such a mistake. This flesh isn’t so frail this time, dear sib. Still, I am beset on all sides by his raving minions, and I have to take the time to fend them off.
They’re fun in their own way, but too simple. Too limited. Too boring.
He gathers himself to leap at me, and Sascha, that brave, brash deviant, charges at him. What a good boy! The two collide like stormfronts, snarling, clawing, kicking, punching, biting, ripping, tearing.
Violet seizes onto one of the mindless pets, hurling it aside bodily, and batters at another with bare fists. Bone crunches with each blow.
Red scorching light blossoms, streaking by and burning into the flesh of another as Mila fires at it. A flare gun! Apparently didn’t learn her lesson before. But, so long as you don’t shoot-shoot-shoot that thing at me . . .
Mila’s little boy swings at her, and she dodges away in a blur. His toy slams into the ground and its head cracks off, leaving just a stick for him to play with. She shouts at him to stop, her voice full of cold, ringing command, and he staggers to a halt, his puppet strings cut for now. But she has other fish to fry, she does indeed, as the one she burned streaks at her, all fury and no subtlety.
At the corner of my eye, I see the little asp fumbling in his pockets for something as another of my brother’s minions bounds toward him. He’ll keep for now.
Pain lances up my arm as another of the stupid beasts bites down, shredding skin and muscle and cracking bone. No more playing with these ones. I raise my other hand and yank its mouth free, jawbone cracking, and throw it in the direction of the little boy playing priest. Time to tend to my kin!
He’s gotten the better of Sascha, hands locked around his throat as they tussle in the road, slamming his head against the pavement with bone-crunching force. You’ve left yourself wide open! Never were one to watch your back, were you?
As the two tear at each other, I stride closer, reaching out, calling on that old knowledge, that old time religion, that truth of what’s really out there past the light of campfires and streetlamps and cities aflame, and stroke my hand down Jan’s back, tearing away leather jacket and shirt and skin. Beneath, the poor young savage’s blood burns away, and I reach deeper, feeling for my brother’s presence. Elusive, but not that elusive.
Caught between Sascha and myself, he can only struggle, pinned as I tear away what protects him, shred by shred, in talons-full and beak-fulls. Poor, stupid sibling, you should have just let them take you all at once. It would have meant so much more fun, and now you’re just so weak you can scarcely resist!
And then, you finally burst free of the little beastie’s body, and as he throws his head back and vomits you free into the night, I shed the priestess’ skin to follow. She collapses like the sack of blood and bones that she is, the true part of her still asleep deep within. Into the night sky I follow you, and at long last, we dance.
You claw and bite and beat against me, but you’re too weak—you gave up just enough to make it convincing, but just enough was too much. From below, the crack of something whiplike, but red and black and almost fluid, as the little centurion-lover has finished his prayers, and tries to strike at one of us, either of us, and reaches you out of pure luck! Oh, I shall remember you when this is all over, yes, I will. Time is on my side, yes it is . . .
He drags you closer, tangled in his little toy of blood and shadow, and takes a flailing talon for his trouble. Your strike tears away at his being, and flesh blackens and withers to match. But you’ve let down your guard, so very single-minded in your hatred.
I stoop, and dive, and enfold you in my wings and drive in beak and talons.
And now, brother dearest, you’re mine, in every way.
I can taste your fury, your wildness, but you haven’t been very clever or cunning enough in so long. And now all that fury and wildness and strength is mine, as we flow into one another, as I bind you to me, as I take all that you are, all that remains of you, to make me more of what I am, more of who we always are . . .
Below, Sascha, that nasty, tricky boy, has dug into his pocket, and hurls something into the gusting night winds. The fistful of ashes is borne aloft, shredding apart into a swirling cloud, and as my brother’s essence fades into me and I swell to bursting with this last supper, I am surrounded. Trapped! Consumed! Hoist by my own petard!
. . . But for that sudden break in the currents, right there.
And at last, I am so gloriously ready. The armies of those I love engirth me and I engirth them. I am large and contain multitudes. Our name is legion, for we are so very many . . .
I pour through the wind currents as the cold remnants of old fires and funerals courses around me, and I can contain us no longer. Some few are caught, consumed, a smattering shatters and scatters . . . but what matters is the latter . . .
• • • • • •
Later . . .
We perch on a telephone pole, watching the shadow, so self-assured in her new hiding place as she makes all her little plans, and, drawn by the dark within, she peers out to meet our gaze.
We roost atop the iron railing of a fire escape, and the cat hisses and leaps away from us into the apartment’s window, where the surprising deviant who showed so much promise looks first at the animal, then at us.
We alight on the sill of the apartment window, after ensuring each and every one is first open, open, open . . . and at last, the battered savage and the haunting little doll enter, then come to a dead (hah!) stop, seeing us darkly, face to face.
You’ve all been so very much fun—and ohhh, so helpful. We couldn’t have done it without you. Parting is such sweet sorrow. It’s a shame to leave you.
That’s why we’ll be coming back some day.
We take wing, swirling into the dark sky all together, and as we have always done, as we have always been, we are one with the night.