Lia Cooper © 2018
All Rights Reserved
One: The Professor
“Today we’re talking about the elision that occurs between Thoth worship in pre-Ptolemaic Egypt and early Greece. Let’s break into four groups for seminar,” Professor Nicolas Littman said, eyeing the half-empty teaching theater. He divided the room with a sweep of his arm and glanced at the clock on the back wall.
“We’ll meet back here in thirty minutes to discuss your thoughts as a group. And I want every small group to come up with a question to pose to the rest of us.”
He felt gratified at the way they began shuffling together into little clusters without further prompting.
“One of you should go use the lounge outside,” he said, waving absently at the small group at the very back of the room.
He didn’t care if they took the direction or not. He trusted in every student’s desire to escape the four walls of the classroom given a millimeter of freedom. All that mattered was that he now had thirty minutes of his own time in which to play hooky.
Nick grabbed a book and the vape out of his bag, and slipped out of the left-hand exit.
Why someone in the administration had decided to give him a corner theater for this class was beyond him. Four credits on Hermetic Mythologies and Cosmologies was hardly in demand. Especially when it was offered as a four-and-a-half-hour option on Saturdays. But if it meant they got a spacious room and the otherwise empty SEM II C building to themselves, he shouldn’t complain. His students could spread out to their hearts’ content, leaving him to steal outside to smoke without anyone around to gripe at him.
“Not even a proper smoke,” he muttered, flicking the round silver device on, warming the metal under his hand.
Nick sat on the concrete with his back to the building’s cement exterior and his knees bent, pressed the tip of the vape between his lips, and held down the button for a long, comforting drag. He closed his eyes to the bright sun and tipped his head back against the wall. Vapor streamed out of his pursed lips in a thick, fragrant cloud and pooled in the air above his head.
“Hiding from the students again?” an amused voice asked from above.
“I’m not hiding,” Nick grumbled.
A thin body lowered itself down onto the ground next to him, all long spidery limbs that folded with the kind of soft careless agility Nick hadn’t felt in a decade or two.
He looked over at his—teaching assistant wasn’t the word. Technically, Josiah didn’t work for him at all. He was just an independent contract student working on an eight-credit history project, but he let Nick use him like a TA so that’s how he always thought of him.
“What do you call this?” Josiah asked, knocking their shoulders together.
Josiah’s face crumpled up with amusement. His flexible mouth stretched into a laugh while his shoulders shook. Nick held out the vape on offer and waited for Josiah to notice.
“Is it peppermint?” he asked.
“I’m not buying cake or whatever it is you like.”
“Are you trying to say there’s something wrong with cake?” Josiah returned Nick’s stony look with a nonplussed expression.
“First of all: I don’t remember tobacco ever coming in ‘peppermint flavor’ before, and second: everything you do is unnatural, so that’s not a valid argument coming from you, Professor Littman.”
Nick grimaced. “Don’t call me that.”
He sighed and took another long drag off his vape, waiting for the nicotine to soothe the flutter in his heart that Josiah’s words had kicked up. Nothing he did was natural. The kid had no idea just how right he was. Nick glanced down at his empty hand, automatically checking his nails for pesky traces of dirt, but there was nothing unusual to see. He’d scrubbed up hard the night before. Done a thorough job not to leave any of those unnatural traces that might have given Josiah a better-formed picture of what his professor and academic adviser got up to in his free time.
Shit, even in his head, he sounded like a pervert.
“You’re wrong. Some things I do are perfectly natural.”
Nick gave the young man a slow look. “You have a very active imagination, Mr. Wexler.”
“The imagination is a hungry organ, seeking perpetual nourishment. I like to think that it’s not so much I’ve got an active imagination, but rather a well-fed one.”
“That you feed on thoughts of me?” Nick smiled, playing the comment off as a joke even though it left something low and hot in his body to sit up with interest. A curl of amused interest that quivered at the thought of a bright young man captivated by thoughts of him, even if they were merely frustrated or prurient or the passing whim of childish fancy, as he suspected was the case.
“Sometimes,” Josiah admitted, looking away.
The two of them sat in companionable silence until the phone in Nick’s pocket hiccupped its alarm to let him know that the requisite thirty-minute small group had passed, and he had to return again to face the lethargy of his classroom.
“Did you need something?” he asked, using the wall to push himself to his feet, and slipped the vape back into his pocket.
Josiah pulled out a sheaf of printouts from his backpack and held them up for Nick to take. “Two new chapters. I wanted to get your thoughts on them before I continue. It took a—the narrative took a direction we haven’t discussed before.”
“All right. I’ll see what I can do.”
“Do you want to come in?”
“Nah, I’ve got to meet Jen. Talk to you next week?”
Above them, the sky had dimmed as sure as if someone had taken a dimmer switch to the sun. Dark clouds cast a clear, watery gray light over campus, the edges of the quad hemmed in on all sides by towering dark trees that only helped to feed into the illusion of night creeping over them. The air smelled as though it were about to rain, bitterly cold and damp.
“Do you think it’s going to snow?” Josiah asked, climbing to his feet.
Nick shook his head. “Not a chance.”
He filed back into the teaching theater behind the stragglers. Sixty minutes for discussion and in-class readings, and then he’d be free for the rest of the weekend. Nick perched his feet on the edge of his desk, saw the streaks of mud clinging to his shoes, and dropped them again. He cleared his throat and looked out at the crowd for the first person to meet his eyes.
“Ah, Amelia, why don’t you start us off with a brief summary of what your group discussed.”
He folded his arms over his chest and listened with half an ear while his focus strayed repeatedly to the darkening sky and the promise of rain.
It wasn’t a simple thing, this working, which was why no one had—as far as he could discover—attempted it in over one hundred years. Why no one had succeeded at it in more than four times that many years. Why the only intact description of the process existed on a lonely green papyrus scroll, faded and crumbling from centuries of careless handling. Such was the end for the things most loved and feared by humanity, overhandled as they were, as though peeling back the layers with one’s sticky, sweating human fingers could remove its glamour and spill out all of its ancient secrets.
Nicholas Littman, the last and only surviving son of the late Martin Littman Sr., knew better than all of those cocky members of his lineage. Knew better than his brother, who had treated his inheritance with a casual entitlement, which could only lead to one place.
Nick had no interest in following his brother down there.
This working wasn’t simple, nor was it an endeavor to embark upon lightly. It required, more than simple sacrifices, or the appropriate reverence that he knew all the most powerful things demanded. Which was what brought him here, to the depths of this basement dwelling under the old house. Basements weren’t strictly common here on the point. The ground beneath the family home too hard and formed of old reddish-brown clay that resisted human intervention. And the water tables lay high under the foundations, rising annually for months at a time, the product of a region where rain fell more often than not. The whole earth under Olympia squelched with its overabundance of moisture seeping into every crack and porous surface, both mineral and man.
But some past Littman ancestor had determined that there would be a large underground room beneath the rambling abode, and so there was a space here now, carved out with sickle and bone.
It was into this black space Nick made his preparations. Where he brought the bodies after he finished stealing them away from the graveyard.
At least the damp cold helped with the smell.
It had taken ages to reach this stage, and it wasn’t even the finale. He needed a demon, but no matter how high or low he’d searched, he’d failed to find one lurking in any unseen corners. Even in a town like this, designed and laid down by politics—a taste which usually tempted at least one or two creatures from down below enough to cross over. But his failure at discovering any of his own had set him back.
Bad enough it had taken him over a year to locate an appropriate statue of Asclepius, taken from the right quarry, under the right moon, and carved by the right sort of virginal hands—it was so troublesome finding a chaste sculptor.
But trying to find his own demon to corner had been a monumental waste of time. Another six months wasted while he skulked around the fringes of the capitol building, fingers crossed in his coat pocket and one eye squinted nearly shut. All for nothing in the end.
Now he was stuck doing the bulk of the heavy lifting on his own. It wasn’t every day that you tore a hole in the fabric between worlds and beckoned the darkness to slither out.
Nick poured out the last of the fine, pale crushed alabaster to connect the five-point star delineated on the cement floor and straightened with a groan. The muscles in his back protested so much bending over at his age. Thirty-nine somehow felt like sixty-nine when the temperature dropped into the high thirties and there was nothing but hard, unforgiving cement beneath his feet and the hard work of the evening still to come.
Five lifeless Igors stood with their heads hanging vacantly and chins pressed against their still chests at the five points of the star. They, each of them, could have been further animated for the laborious tasks, but that would have taken more magic and effort than Nick could now afford, this close to the summoning. Instead, they had been relegated to the task of standing silent sentinel, a bulwark against the demon should the vessel lying at the center prove not enough.
The basement shone under the light of three bare bulbs, hanging from the floor above, all in a line, glowing strong and bright against the darkness outside, which shaded the edges of the basement in gloom. Under the bare wattage, the Igors’ skin looked waxy and pale—bloodless.
Nick wiped sweat off his brow and clapped the excess dust from his hands. His phone showed that it was nearly time.
There was no neat green papyrus scroll for this ritual. The Order never trekked with demon summoning. They would say it was because they didn’t care to invite trouble where it wasn’t already present, but Nick suspected the reason to be something altogether less altruistic. More a lack of skill, rather than a lack of wanting.
He pressed his lips together in silent amusement and grabbed his black notebook. He picked up a bowl of herbs and holy baubles collected from the pawnshops that lined Martin Way. People were always willing to sell off their religion first in hard times, after God had failed them once. You couldn’t live on holy communion alone. Not better to starve than pass along a medallion or a silver cross from reverent hands into irreverent ones. Into his own hands.
Nick would have preferred to use someone else’s blood for this, but he only had the Igors, and their blood had long since congealed or turned to dust under their sagging skin, and he’d given up trying to steal blood from hospitals when he was a younger man. Too much security to make the effort worth it. Too impossible to explain when you got caught, and unlike the grave robbing, eventually someone always noticed when shit started going missing at a hospital.
So, he was stuck with his own blood, the back of his hand pricked with the slick edge of a silver knife, the thick crimson droplets spattering against the objects in the bowl. Not enough to make anything other than a tempting morsel.
That’s all he wanted, to tempt the tempters.
With the bowl thus anointed he set it down at the top point of the star, between the braced feet of an Igor, and stepped back out of the splash zone. He flicked open his notebook to the page with the incantation, taken not from the green papyrus, but sipped from the lips of a dying nun who had once been a seer. An unpleasant experience he tried not to think about, but necessary. He knew how lucky he was to have found anyone yet living who could recall the information. And she had been very old indeed.
Now he pressed his bleeding hand into the crook of his elbow and raised the book, his mouth moving silently to form the words of the incantation. Gaze reviewing, breath suspended for another moment, and he checked for the last time that he had fixed firmly in his head the correct pronunciation. When he was certain, he planted his feet wide like the Igors’ had planted theirs and began to speak.
The language was not one still spoken upon the earth in polite societies, but especially not by a member of the Order. Nick smirked. Screw the Order. None of them could have gone to all these lengths; none of them would have had the courage or the will to stand here in his place and speak these ancient traditions in such a clear ringing voice.
Reason enough to refuse his place amongst them.
As though he needed more reasons.
Nick shook his head, voice pausing between one line and the next. He had to focus. More than just words and blood and sacrilegious temptation, he needed every ounce of will to ensure nothing went wr—
As was to be expected, the lights overhead flickered and waned in their sockets as the air pressure in the basement intensified. On every side, something pressed in against reality, as though there were a thin skin between what was and what was beyond, and there were hands now stretching that skin fit to burst.
Nick hardened his voice, teeth clacking against the sound of the consonants as he pressed his bleeding hand tight against his bicep, until the muscles there ached down to the marrow and bone of his good right side. And just as he came to the final verse, he saw it, like the foreshadowing of a migraine: the air wavered in a pixilated line and sheered across his vision, tearing. A little tear, which was all he had been asking for, after all.
It was not light that came pouring out of this simple wound—for a wound it was, a wound amongst all of the living, a wound in that perfectly stretched skin—but darkness like the darkness outside, only more. Where the dark of night crept on careful cat’s feet, stealing into the corners, this darkness pulsed with its own sort of life that came closer to death. Those wicked dead hands no longer pushing at the precious skin of existence but digging in their void-like fingers, curling around the wavering pixilated edges, and ripping.
The darkness folded out into sight like a person straightening to their full height.
Nick took an involuntary step back, his arms falling to his sides. The blood on the back of his hand stuck to the edge of his sleeve and pulled against the clotting wound, opening it up again, but that was a distant sort of pain. His mouth sagged open, no more elegant than any of the Igors’. Before him stretched the moment he had been working toward these long years, but it still surprised him in the depth of his animal guts, where primal fear still lived at the cellular level. No degree of magic or science had yet bred humanity completely free of that fear. And it tugged, Nick’s steps faltering away until the backs of his legs bumped up against the work table, which held the proper statue of Asclepius he had worked so hard to find, knocking it around on its base.
With a rush of panic, he turned to steady the pale milk-alabaster statue, the carved stone cool to the touch of his hands. He left a smear of blood across the cocked hip of the Grecian deity. Nick grimaced and looked around for something to use to clean it up. Sloppy.
Something rumbled behind him. The sound resonated through his ears though he registered the noise in his bones.
Nick spun and took in the sight of the sixth Igor rising from the floor to meet the unfurled shade in the air, the two entities shimmering where their essence elided and sank into one another. The Igor—he couldn’t remember her name now—tensed, muscles jerking in quick movements. The shoulders straightened; the arms bent; the knees flexed and popped with a wet sound. And then the head snapped up, the eyes flicked open, and the whole apparatus swung around to stare at him. The eyes cleared as they focused on his, the white film receding against a spreading black stain that swallowed the dry orbs from lid to cheek. The mouth slit itself, popping the stitches sewn in after death to help keep the visage beautiful for an open-casket funeral; there were still traces of red lacquer dried into flakes along the widest part of the bottom lip. The mouth slit itself and then curled into something that had the shape of a smile but none of the feeling.
The whole picture put together made Nick shiver, half excitement and half that primal fear again making itself known. But Nick was not a man to be ruled by anything animal or base inside his genes.
He licked his lips and swallowed, his throat bone-dry, and then brought the notebook up to his eyes and flipped the page. Too late, it must have been the moment of hesitation, that span of breaths between tearing and turning again when he’d been distracted, but the floor rattled beneath his feet and fault lines appeared in the alabaster powder, scattering the fine grains in little ripples and waves until they no longer appeared as a white star, but more akin to a child’s spilled sandbox. And the moment that image took a hold in his mind, the primal fear hooked itself in the side of his mouth, dragged his lips apart, and stole his breath.
The Igor, which was no longer just an Igor, gnashed its teeth and brought up both wicked hands. They were not hands. The dark bubbled out of the tear and reshaped them into claws, fixed, splayed and angular and wicked sharp. A demon’s eyes glinted out of the Igor’s face.
It lunged, and no amount of scattered alabaster powder or shambling sentinels were enough to hold it back. Nick’s hand flew out for the statue of Asclepius and missed. The pure white stone tipped for real this time and hit the table with a resounding crash that made his teeth ache as he scrambled out of the path of the animated demon.
There were words on the next page of the notebook, these also carefully copied down and traced over in his own handwriting until they stood out stark and sure.
Nick ducked swinging claws, his eyes wide when he realized that the claws were not just a trick of the light. There was real lethality in the calciferous structures now where before they had been black and blue from slowed decay. He rolled over the table and shoved it hard with his hip, knocked the edge into the belly of the demon whose hands came down on the wood and gouged long trenches in the grain, its mouth snapping, spittle flying where there shouldn’t have been enough moisture left in the Igor’s body to form any saliva. The droplets sprayed between them and lay glistening along the tops of Nick’s papers and tools that he had left haphazardly on the table. Rings of smoke curled up everywhere the saliva rested, and burning filled his nose.
He tucked his notebook protectively to his chest and grabbed for the statue. Blood marred the deity’s face, and one bent upraised arm had cracked lengthwise down the stone bicep.
A rasping voice slithered across the air and into his ears, cool as a trickle of winter rainwater sliding down the back of your raincoat in January.
“Pretty trick, little man. What is your name?”
Nick’s stare snapped to the demon, and he swallowed his tongue, pressing his lips tight together to ensure no sound escaped him, either voluntary or involuntary.
The demon flicked its tongue against yellowed front teeth.
“Why so quiet? For what purpose did you call me forth, hmm?”
Its eyes slid over the statue and narrowed.
“You think a trinket like that is enough to bindddddd me?”
It leaped onto the table, back bowed, weight balanced on claws and arched feet.
Nick shrugged and held up the statue as his focus fell to the careful conclusion written in his notebook, all but tripping over the words as they tore their way off his tongue, hot sinuous things that lanced the darkness gathered around the demon’s shoulders like a cloak. But before he’d managed to mutter more than the first line, a hard blow struck against his wrist, enough to make something small snap and all of the feeling vanish from his fingertips. The statue fell from his hand and broke into three pieces against the unforgiving floor.
The demon threw back its head and laughed. Fucking cackled. And Nick could honestly say that he’d never understood what the word meant before that moment. No Hollywood villain had ever encapsulated the true extent of that sound before, nor would they. A human throat could not produce those flutterings of muscle and air and bone.
“Useless words,” the demon hissed.
Nick’s gaze snapped up, and he glared with all of the hot, thick outrage he could feel bubbling up under his breastbone.
“They were good enough to bring you here.”
The demon cocked the Igor’s head with a crunch of tendons and brittle bones.
He looked away, over its arched shoulder, at the five Igors still standing around the points of the swept-away star and barked an order in another language no longer spoken amongst the politest practitioners of the earth. From the table, the demon launched itself at him again, arms and legs spread spiderlike and grasping. Nick threw up his hands and caught the worst of the thing’s grasping claws with his forearms, white-hot pain searing eight neat lines into his flesh. Across the room, the Igors straightened their heads at his command and turned, shambling on rotting feet around the table, bumping into one another in their awkward haste to come to their master’s aid.
Nick clung to his notebook, bashing it spine-side against the demon’s face as he tried to keep the claws away from his throat. Air escaped his straining lungs just as the demon’s weight, heavier than the Igor it possessed, lifted away from him. He scrambled out of range. His knees creaked as he pushed himself to his feet, scraping lank hair out of his eyes. He looked back once to make sure the Igors had the demon, but he could tell, as the monster’s claws scored their fleshy shells, that they wouldn’t stand up long under the punishment.
The statue was broken. The circle was broken.
He could move the demon to another body, but what good would that do? He’d lost his moment, and now it had his blood under its nails.
Nick stared at the freely bleeding lines running up and down his arms, a little lightheaded.
“Yissssssss, let’s,” the demon murmured, pulling its mouth away from one of the Igors’ crumbling face, visage smeared with blood and clinging grayish flesh. Its bottomless stare raked over his body, possessive as a lover’s, and Nick shivered in disgust.
“I wasn’t talking to you!” he snapped.
The demon shrugged and slithered out of one set of viselike hands into another. It undulated with the grappling limbs, biting and snapping and raking, until they began to fall away.
Nick froze in indecision. All these years of planning and preparation, but it hadn’t been enough. His gaze swept the dark room, skimming over the mess and destruction. This was more than just a wasted effort. Without the statue, he’d have to start over again. Assuming he lived through the night. Plenty of men had been killed by less for smaller blunders before.
Bones crunched behind him, and a body thumped as it hit the floor. The ring finger of his right hand tingled, and something ephemeral snapped as the magic animating one of the Igors snuffed itself out. A second thread, this one wrapped around his right thumb, snapped shortly after, and then the pinkie.
There wasn’t time for indecision.
Nick crossed the room in two jerky strides, focused on the wavering tear. It hurt his eyes to look directly at it, as though someone were driving an ice pick into his brain.
Without any more hesitation, he stomped down on the bowl of holy objects until the thin pearl shattered.
The tear winked and flared before winking again, smaller this time. Nick began reading the summoning incantation, backward this time, the words awkward on his tongue. Like an old fool too full of his own cleverness, too sure of his ensured success, he hadn’t practiced the words in this order or combination.
A fourth thread snapped from his middle finger.
He spit out the last line of the spell, and something tore in the back of his throat.
Nick coughed and there was blood on his bottom lip as the tear flashed and the demon behind him screamed and it didn’t stop screaming as the tear pulsed, growing smaller. Wind that was not formed in the natural way—through a process of hot and cold meeting somewhere in the middle—whipped Nick’s dark hair into his eyes and tugged at his clothes.
The strings connecting him to the last two Igors snapped at the same time, and he threw himself to the cold floor as something went whipping by over his head.
The wind dried up, the tear sealed itself, and Nick pressed his damp face to the ground, shivering from head to toe.
It wasn’t until his notes on the table burst into flames that Nick dragged himself to his feet, head thrumming with pain enough to rend the house in two, like a rock cracks beneath an inexpertly wielded chisel. He scrambled across the basement, seeking water to save the rest of the flammable artifacts.
When the little fires were doused and the books and papers on the table turned into a smoking pile, half ash, Nick stood back with his pounding head and sighed in defeat, all of that prideful vim from before drained out of him.
He ran his hand through his hair, and a strand—shining silver under the dull lights—came away, caught between the lined skin between his first and middle fingers.