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A NineStar Press Publication

Published by NineStar Press

P.O. Box 91792,

Albuquerque, New Mexico, 87199 USA.

www.ninestarpress.com

Death Days

Copyright © 2018 by Lia Cooper

Cover Art by Natasha Snow Copyright © 2018

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any material form, whether by printing, photocopying, scanning or otherwise without the written permission of the publisher. To request permission and all other inquiries, contact NineStar Press at the physical or web addresses above or at Contact@ninestarpress.com.

Printed in the USA

First Edition

August, 2018


eBook ISBN: 978-1-949340-34-1

Print ISBN: 978-1-949340-44-0


Warning: This book contains sexually explicit content, which may only be suitable for mature readers.

Death Days

Lia Cooper

Table of Contents

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Acknowledgements

About the Author



It’s an old story. One he'd heard hashed and remixed a dozen times. But before that evening, one he would have sworn was just that: a story. A figment of the collective Hollywood consciousness salivating at the teat of the supernatural fervor sweeping through their captivated audiences.

Since before the birth of cinema, in the twinkling dark days of science fiction, humanity has been obsessed with monsters. Has been held riveted by this pretend war, first between man and monsters and then later between the monsters themselves as their war became one for screen-time supremacy, striving to see which nightmarish construct would emerge victorious to hold the fickle attention spans of consumers.

But that's all it should have been. A story. A glittering crap shoot of leather and cosmetic effects departments working feverishly to revolutionize the monsters yet again into something desirable.

He knows this shouldn't be real life, and that’s saying something, coming from a man who has raised the dead.

Nick pressed a hand to the side of his rib cage, where it hurt the most, where the pain bloomed as the result of blunt-force trauma. It’s what happened when you got caught between a pissed-off hulking giant and the broadside of a car.

He couldn't breathe, though he tried, gasping fruitlessly around that knot of pain. He couldn't move but for his useless flapping mouth, and he knew that if he didn't move, if he didn't get up right now, he wouldn't get up again. Not ever. And he didn't want to see what this bastard would raise him as.

Nick wasn't going to become just another one of the dead in his own graveyard.

Shit, the ignobility of it all. Wasn’t to be borne.

He pressed his hand to his bruised—not broken—ribs, and shuffled on his knees into the dark.

Part One

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.

“Seminaring.”

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.

Nick nodded.

“No thanks.”

“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.

“It’s unna—”

“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.”

Nick.”

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.”

“Like what?”

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.”

“Thanks.”

“Do you want to come in?”

“Nah, I’ve got to meet Jen. Talk to you next week?”

Nick nodded.

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.

“True enough.”

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.

“Fuck.”

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.

Two: The Student

The next day was Sunday. He had planned that on purpose, thinking he’d be busy testing out his new toy. Instead, he spent it sulking in his lounge, skin scrubbed raw from the hot water and soap of three separate showers. The door to the basement remained locked. He needed to clean up the mess, the bodies, take stock of what had been damaged beyond repair, and make a list of what could, if he were lucky, be replaced.

But Nick worked on none of these agenda items. Choosing instead to plant himself in the leather easy chair in the northeast corner of the lounge with a bottle of whiskey and a cup of coffee that was only ever half-full of coffee. He nursed his drink as a way to nurse the aches and pains that had bloomed throughout his body. He had stumbled out of the carnage the night before, bleeding and shaken, with a head that felt split open and arms that were literally so. Had cleaned himself once under the shower, shivering under the scalding water until the cuts on his arms slowed and ran pale pink, and then bundled his body into scratchy towels and passed out. That morning, however, he’d arisen feeling much like he imagined the Igors felt upon their first awakening under his magic.

Nick rose from his bed and into a second shower, in service to the voice that whispered in the back of his head about infection. He wasn’t sure if you could catch a disease from a demon, but the hands had originally belonged to an Igor, and he had no doubt their bodies could carry and spread pathogens well enough. History slouched along full of plagues carried by the dead. The last thing he wanted, on top of all of this weekend’s other many failures, was to drop dead with some avoidable plague.

Now he sought to scrub out his insides as well as he’d scoured his outsides, sucking down whiskey that only tasted harsh for the first couple of swallows before the taste mellowed out even the bitterness of the accompanying Amontillado roast.

He felt old and tired in a way that he could not remember feeling before. He glanced to the side, at the table that held his drink, where a single silver hair glinted next to the whiskey bottle. A kind of nervous fervor had made him clutch that hair tight in his fist and bring it up out of the basement, where he knew he should have left it to molder along with the bodies and, in that way, be forgotten. But even as he avoided the work that would be required to clean up last night’s scene, he knew that avoidance could only last for so long.

Tomorrow, he had a meeting with Josiah about the young man’s independent project, and Nick would have to go out to his adjunct office on campus.

The longer he waited to clean up the sundered remains of the Igors, the more disgusting the task would become, and despite everything he’d done, all the bodies he’d dug up and posed and put to new purposes, he didn’t actually care for the rotting, sticking, mess they made. He hadn’t chosen this skill that resided deep in his bones, as surely coded into his every cell as that primal fear; rather he had flexed his hands one day just above the sad cold corpse of a pet dog, and the shape of things had sprung to a certain kind of life right before him. It wasn’t some sort of sick fetish for decay that he delighted in. As it was, he regretted coming upstairs without cleaning everything up first. Nick always found it easier to do gross tasks right away. There was something about setting them aside that inflated the odiousness in his mind.

But for the time being, he allowed himself to feel old as he sipped the ice-cold dregs in his cup, more whiskey now than coffee, and let his head fall back against the plush leather.

He’d been too slow the night before; he could see that now. Too slow and too easily distracted, and it had cost him at least six months of work, maybe more if a second statue proved difficult to procure. More than that, he had very nearly skinned his own throat against the black edge.

Nick shivered and tugged at the striped wool blanket lying over his feet. He couldn’t seem to get warm, except for the low burn of the whiskey in his belly, but he knew that that was a false warmth, one that would betray the rest of his body if he let all his heat escape.

He brought his hands together just under the edge of the blanket and wound his fingers into a tight jigsaw, grating them together just to feel the blood flowing again. He stared at his hands, cast in shadows that were layered over smaller shadows cast by the veins in the back of his hands. When had he grown old man’s hands?

When he wasn’t looking for them.

That’s how age got you, sneaking in on feet even softer than the darkness, so gradually that you could miss the approach for a long time before realizing that age had caught up to you. In every ache of his body, he felt the ways it had overtaken him. He was only thirty-nine, but that wasn’t the age of a young man anymore.

Nick ran his fingers against the grain of stubble on his cheek. In the mirror that morning, he’d stood for a long time—had it been five minutes or twenty?—cataloging the way silver had crept into the dark brown to match the hair around his temples.

He groaned. The mess downstairs wasn’t going to clean itself up. He pushed himself to his feet, folded the blanket, and left it in a neat pile on the chair. The second he stood, a fluffy gray-and-black streak raced out from behind the couch and leaped up to take his place, curling into the warm indent his ass had made in the leather, two luminous eyes staring up at him from behind the edge of the blanket. Nick grimaced at Copernicus and limped downstairs.

There were bleach and garbage bags stored under the downstairs sink, and he’d recovered enough residual magic to help along the process as he dragged the Igors to the south side of the basement, piling them up next to the ten-foot glass tank housing his collection of dermestidae—more commonly known as skin beetles. It was an ancient method of human disposal, feeding the flesh to insects, and much less messy than a bathtub of acid. But even his extensive collection would take some time to chew through the remains of six bodies. He wore gloves, a smock, a breath mask, and a hairnet while he went about feeding torn limbs into the habitat, covering the rest with a tarp.

After that, Nick changed his gloves and began the backbreaking work of sweeping and mopping up the floor. The alabaster dust had been ruined by the demon’s spittle and all of the blood. It went directly into a garbage bag. The work table was more complicated. The fire had done a good job of ruining the loose papers, but he still needed to sort through the ashes. These represented only a small portion of his library, but he owned too many documents that were one of a kind or originals to sweep the whole lot of them away without at least trying to salvage some of it.

The pieces of Asclepius, however, those he threw into a bin. He could grind them up into dust, but the power in the statue had been lost the second it shattered. Ten thousand dollars reduced to powder.

Half the day passed while he worked, until Nick limped back upstairs and into another shower. He scrubbed hard at his skull, skin prickling from the sight of the beetles crawling all over the remains. It didn’t matter how long he’d been doing this, there was just something instinctual about the way his skin responded to the sight, left him itchy and squirming with discomfort.

His doorbell rang while he was drying his hair. Nick froze. Whoever was at the door rang a second time. It was Sunday, so it couldn’t be a delivery driver. He pulled on a shirt and sweatpants and went downstairs, pushing his wet hair out of his face.

Josiah stood on his doorstep, his book bag hiked up on his shoulder and dark circles under his eyes.

Nick frowned and held the door open.

“Josiah?”

His TA cleared his throat, tense. Josiah reached up and tugged at his dark hair.

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have—”

“Did something happen? You know it’s Sunday, right?”

Josiah huffed.

“I know. I was out driving and saw your light on. I shouldn’t have stopped. Sorry.”

Nick shrugged and stepped out of the way. A quick look showed the door to the basement closed. He held up a hand when it looked like Josiah was going to turn and bolt.

“You want to come in?”

“I don’t have to.”

“You came all this way. Do you have your paper with you?”

“We don’t have to—”

Nick sighed. “Just get the fuck inside.”

Josiah crossed the threshold, shifting his weight nervously between his feet. Nick grabbed his shoulder and angled him toward the living room.

“Go, sit. Work or read or whatever. I have to finish getting ready. You hungry?”

The young man shrugged, but he walked quietly into the other room, and Nick left him to get comfortable while he ran back upstairs to change into real clothes and finish drying his hair. When he was presentable enough to face a student, he went into the kitchen and poked around the contents of his fridge, scrounging up supplies to make ham-and-cheese sandwiches using the end of a loaf of bread from the freezer. He set up the coffeepot to brew while he worked, grabbing a half-eaten bag of pretzels out of the cupboard and a carton of grapes out of the crisper. The grapes looked on the verge of wrinkling, but students who showed up on his doorstep on the weekend could deal.

Nick carried all of this into the living room where he found Josiah staring at a wall, his fingers twitching against the sofa cushion, the little movements having captivated Copernicus’s attention.

Josiah startled when he shoved a plate into his hands.

“You didn’t have to.”

“I was going to make myself lunch anyway. So?”

Josiah took a bite of his sandwich and chewed, nodding heartily. “It’s good.”

“Not the food,” Nick said, hoping that the implied “idiot” was clear in his tone.

“Oh.” Josiah flushed high up on the apples of his cheeks. “Just had a bad morning.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever had a student come over here to make themselves feel better.”

“I didn’t plan it.”

“So, what happened? Someone die?”

“What? No. God. It’s stupid.”

Nick nudged Copernicus in an effort to reclaim his chair, but the cat merely blinked at him, unfazed, and went back to staring with fixed interest at his TA. Nick pulled a piece of ham off his sandwich and dangled it in front of the cat’s nose, wiggling it around enticingly to grab his attention.

“Come on,” he muttered as Copernicus rose up on his haunches, butt wiggling in anticipation. Nick tossed the bite onto the floor as the cat leaped for it, sliding onto the chair as the fluffy Maine Coon went soaring onto the rug. Copernicus glared at him, hunched over the ham in indecision.

Josiah stifled a laugh behind his fist.

“Oh, man. Cat’s gonna murder you in your sleep one of these days.”

Nick pulled the blanket out from under his butt and threw it on the floor next to Copernicus.

“I was sitting here first.”

“Don’t think that matters.”

Nick peeled off a piece of crust and set it down next to the ham as a sort of peace offering. The cat sniffed delicately between the two, shooting him little glares from under bushy cat brows, before snapping up the ham and sauntering off, leaving behind the bread. The beast was not satisfied with obeisance; Josiah was probably right. He was going to pay for it eventually in blood.

“Jen broke up with me. I told you it was stupid,” Josiah said, shooting him a quick look and then stuffing another bite of food into his mouth, chewing slowly.

Nick sighed and sank into the plush leather. Weak, wintry sunlight bathed the room in glowing blues and golds that felt pleasant against his shower-flushed skin. He smoothed one hand down the front of his sweater, feeling the slight give in his stomach. He hadn’t been very diligent so far this quarter about getting out for regular exercise, too caught up in his project. More time wasted.

“I’m sorry,” he said after a couple minutes of awkward silence.

“You don’t have to…”

“What?”

“Act like it—like you…” Josiah cut himself off and stared at the carpet.

Copernicus scaled the back of the sofa with a soft thump and walked the ridge of the worn velvet fabric. He rubbed the side of his body against the back of Josiah’s head, ruffling his hair into wild tufts. Josiah didn’t seem to notice, absorbed by his own thoughts or his embarrassment. His cheeks were still red and flushed as Nick watched him surreptitiously from the corner of his eye, trying not to stare outright.

“It’s fine,” Nick said.

“I’m sure to you it sounds silly.”

“To me?”

“Yeah, young-people troubles. Right?”

Nick closed his eyes, thinking about that silver thread of hair still sitting on the table to his right. Young-people troubles, indeed.

When was the last time he’d been troubled by romantic heartbreak?

Nick sat for a while without replying, listening to his TA chew steadily through the food on his plate and move onto the carton of grapes, trying to recall his last relationship.

It had been, what, 2002? 2003? Just after he returned from an expedition to Upper Egypt—put like that, it sounded glamorous in his head, but the whole thing had been part of a yearlong interdisciplinary Middle Eastern Studies program when he’d still been teaching in Seattle. It had been hard work, a complexity of issues and seminars treading over difficult topics, especially for the early 2000s when tempers ran hot and lent themselves more to protest than drowsy classroom discussion, but worth it for that glorious spring quarter study abroad.

It had been his first time traveling back to Egypt since their father had taken them—Nick, his twin sister, and his elder brother, Martin IV—with him to Cairo as children. Where he’d unearthed a little onyx statue of Thoth that had ridden back to the United States in his pocket, bound for a point of pride upon his mantelpiece at home. Home, which he had discovered gutted, absent his partner and six weeks behind on the rent—after aforementioned partner had decided to move out and stop handling the payments.

The little black baboon statuette had gone on the mantel without anyone to tell the story to, and not long after that, his brother had disappeared, prompting a return trip to the Sinai Peninsula. Afterward, Nick had moved down to Olympia where his life had quietly settled into…this: sitting in an old, familiar chair in a different house, listening to his TA eat his feelings about a girl while downstairs beetles ate the flesh of Nick’s cast-off Igors, and his cat glared at him with luminous yellow eyes from the back of the sofa.

“I haven’t read your changes yet,” Nick admitted.

Josiah glanced at him. One of his hands had snuck up behind his head to sink broad fingers into Copernicus’s coat.

“Obviously, I wasn’t expecting to speak to you about it until tomorrow.”

“No, of course.” Josiah stood. “I should go. Thanks for the food.”

Nick arched a sardonic brow. “You don’t have to.”

“Are you saying you wouldn’t mind if I hung out?”

“You don’t sound like you believe that.”

The corners of Josiah’s mouth twitched, a small light appearing in his dark brown eyes. “No offense, Professor, but I don’t.”

Nick hid a grimace behind his hand and waved at the door.

“Be sure and shut it behind you.”

Josiah left, forgetting his bag. He rang the bell seven minutes later, flushed red and breathing quick. Nick pressed the bag’s strap into his hand with a sigh.

“Thanks,” Josiah murmured.

They were standing too close together. Nick could imagine Josiah’s breath on his cheek, warm compared to the crisp air.

“See you tomorrow.”

His TA jerked a hasty salute and left for a second time, the wheels of his rickety Honda spinning a little against the black, wet pavement.

Three: The Sister

If he thought the rest of his Sunday would be peaceful, fate had something else in mind for Nick. No more than an hour after he’d locked the door behind Josiah, there was another insistent knock. He knew immediately that it did not belong to his TA. It was too firm, too assured of an immediate response, loud enough to shatter his quiet contemplation. Nick stood and approached the door with some amount of suspicion. He didn’t trust the strength of that knock; something about it boded ill. He just knew it.

His suspicions were confirmed when he glanced through the peephole and saw his twin sister, Nadia Littman, standing close to the door with her arms folded over her chest. He breathed lightly through his mouth.

“Open up the door, Nick. I heard you walk over.”

He debated turning around and ignoring her, but he knew too well that that wouldn’t put her off for long. If Nadia had gone to all the trouble to drive down to Olympia, something like a lock on a door wasn’t going to stop her from completing her mission.

Nick squared his jaw and opened the door to meet his sister’s sharp look. They were only fraternal twins, but the resemblance was there if you looked for it, in the coloring of their eyes and hair, the formation of their nose, and the shape of their hands.

“To what do I owe the pleasure?”

Nadia straightened.

“Aren’t you going to let me inside?”

“Don’t you think it’s rude to just show up on someone’s door without warning?”

“I sent you a text.”

“I didn’t get it.”

“It was marked Read on my end.” She craned her neck, trying to peer around his shoulders. “Are you doing something you don’t want me to see?”

Nick pressed his lips together and took a half step to the left, letting her barge inside. Now that he was looking, he noted her clothes: the dirty jeans, ragged shirt, and threadbare purple sweatshirt. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen his sister dressed so far down. Then again, he couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen her in the flesh, period.

“What do you want?”

Her gaze flicked to him, quick and sharp as the crack of a whip snapped against his skin. Her lips—painted with something thick and opaque, two shades darker than her skin tone and dried down completely matte—curled up into a silent snarl. Nick recoiled out of long-ingrained instinct, a young adulthood shaped by differences of opinion that never ended well for him. They were the same height, but she had never had an ounce of magic in her blood. Being so human had made her vicious, quicker to fall back on her strong hands yanking at his hair or wrapped around his throat if he did something to really piss her off. Nadia had never needed one of her brothers to fight her battles for her. And she might have cut back on the domestic violence since they became legal, but that didn’t make the muscle memory vanish from Nick’s body.

“Don’t play dumb. I know it’s what you’re used to doing, but I am so fucking done with your shit.”

He held up both hands, palms facing her like she was a police officer come to clap him in irons. But she was right. He couldn’t do dumb. He knew exactly why she was there. But his position on the matter hadn’t changed since the last time they had spoken. He snorted. Since the last time they’d shouted themselves hoarse over the phone trying to drown the other one out before he’d called her a bitch and thrown his fifth-generation iPhone across the basement. He had a seventh-gen now.

Nadia shoved her finger into his face.

“If you think I’m going to let this drop, you’ve got another thing coming.”

“I just don’t understand why you care,” he protested. “You hate all of this magic shit.”

“Yeah, exactly.”

Nick windmilled his arms in frustration.

“Did you even pay attention to the election results?”

He snorted. “How could I not? Even I think it’s the end of the world. And I can bring back the dead.”

She wrinkled her nose.

“I don’t want to talk about that.” She pulled on a stray thread hanging from her sweatshirt pocket, tugging until the stitching burst out of the old worn fabric and unraveled around the front flap.

“Did you get fired?”

“What?” she snapped, frowning. “No, I got elected, you asshole.”

“Elected? To—to what?”

“Olympia City Council. It’s a big step. Hometown girl returning.”

He stifled a laugh.

“Fuck you. It’s a huge step.”

“Okay. Congratulations.”

Nadia made a frustrated noise. “That’s not—you have to stop pulling this shit. I’m not going to let them lean on me to get to you. Do you understand that? If I have to tie you up and throw you to the fucking wolves myself to get them off my back? I’ll do it. I have too much to lose.”

“Does this mean you’re moving back?” he asked, ignoring the rest of it.

She gestured at her clothes.

“Obviously.”

“I thought you were just going for hobo—” The words died in Nick’s throat as Nadia stepped up into his personal space and set the fingers of her right hand against his cheek, four sharp points of potential fire digging into the bone and her filed thumbnail digging into the notch under his jaw, where the carotid artery pulsed.

“They’re not giving you a choice, Nick. And I’m sick of being the go-between. They want you; they can have you.”

“You’re wrong. They think they’re not giving me a choice, but they can’t make me do anything I don’t want to do.”

“Who’s the delusional one? Stop fucking around and get over yourself.” She squeezed gently, a threat, and then let him go.

Nick forced his body to remain calm, pushed down the urge to suck in air and scramble away. His skull thudded painfully as blood beat too fast through his veins.

“What could they possibly have on you, anyway?”

Nadia made an angry gesture at the house—the Littman family’s old house that Nick had inherited from their brother.

“You do enough for there to be plenty of dirt to go around. How would it look if someone found out my little brother spent his time grave-robbing Thurston County cemeteries and playing with the corpses?”

“You’re such a cliché,” he sneered.

His sister threw up her hands and turned to the door, kicking the edge of the sofa in her anger. The piece of furniture shuddered, and from the backrest, Copernicus bared his sharp teeth and hissed.

“I’m serious,” she muttered, her back to him. “If I have to, I’ll hand you over to them. It’s time you sorted your shit out.”

“That’s some real family loyalty you’re showing there.” Nick felt a hot wash of anger color his cheeks.

Nadia glanced at him, her hand on the front door. “I remember when you would have been honored by the chance to join the Order.”

“Times change.”

Her mouth pursed. “Oaths don’t.”

And then she slammed the door closed.

Nick made a wordless noise of frustration and dug his nails into the palms of his hands until he drew blood.

Four: The Forest

On Monday evenings, Nick met with a small group of seventeen students in one of the smaller classrooms in Building D from five until nine thirty in the evening to discuss Astrology of the Ancient World in Contemporary Context. At least a quarter of the students were only there to learn more about their zodiac signs, and the rest of them were working on philosophy or religious studies concentrations. It was an easy class. They spent a lot of time discussing ancient religious texts or sitting outside on clear evenings to stargaze through the three telescopes at his disposal.

That night, Nick let them go half an hour early with an extra handout to read by the following Monday and trudged upstairs to his shared office. At least this time of night he had the tiny seven-by-ten room to himself. During the day, it was anyone’s guess whether he’d be able to find a free seat between the two other adjunct professors who shared the space or all of their students.

He pushed open the door, expecting to find Josiah waiting for him. Josiah was a night owl and had a class on Mondays that let out at eight, so it wasn’t unusual for him to crash in Nick’s office to work before their weekly check-in. But when Nick stepped inside that evening, the office was cool and dark, no sign of him.

“Huh,” he murmured. The folder of short response essays he’d left out were untouched as well. He didn’t feel much like reading them, but Nick supposed it wouldn’t hurt if he hung out for half an hour to see if Josiah was just running late.

He collapsed in the saggy chair behind the room’s sole desk with an accompanying groan and pulled the folder to him with the edge of his finger. He stared at the handwritten paper on the top of the pile: wide-ruled, blue lines, and pen ink that looked too light in the half gloom to be black or blue. He blinked and realized he’d forgotten to turn on the overhead light.

“Damn it.”

Nick stomped across the office and flicked the switch, wincing at the brazen light, shading his poor eyes with one hand as he returned to his seat. He had been right: the paper was written in purple with soft, looping handwriting that made full use of the extra line height.

“For crying out—”

He stole a red pen out of the top desk drawer, stuck it between his teeth, and began reading as he shrugged out of his peacoat and scarf.

While he read and made little comments in the page margins—paying more attention than usual to watch his tone—his phone remained quiet in his jean pocket. No messages from Josiah explaining his absence or asking for a reschedule, which left Nick’s mood spiraling lower the deeper into the stack of essays he progressed. When he looked up again to check the time, he saw that more than an hour had passed. He still had half of the pile to go. He supposed he could leave, but then he’d have to take the folder home with him to make sure they were all marked up by Saturday—he had no plans to return to campus for the rest of the week. He only taught the two units, and Josiah was his only contract student that quarter.


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