I’m far too old to feel horror, but I can taste its semblance beneath my tongue. It’s sharp and metallic, the anticipatory tang of a blade seeking blood. Thousands of years and I’ve seen it all — the horrors men do to each other — and yet, I’m still fighting to unclench my fists every time I look at the photos on the table.
Nykteria was meant to be impenetrable. Located on the grounds of the Olympus Administration Complex, the massive stone building that houses my nightclub has no doors or windows. At least not on the outside.
That’s because the doors are elsewhere. In London and Barcelona. Paris and Sydney. New York, Toronto, Hamburg. Tokyo and Moscow. Just the doors though. My patrons don’t realize that when they step through any of the Nykteria entrances around the world, they step out in Greece. Nykteria is a true crossroads of this world. One club. Nine entrances.
And now, nine gruesome messages scrawled in flesh and bone from someone whose days are now numbered once I find them.
I allow my eyes to come back into focus on the nine black-and-white glossy prints. I don’t need color to see the blood. Despite the graffiti in the alleys and the weathered billboards, I know the deep black smears and splatters are someone’s life turned into calling cards.
In London — a decapitated corpse in a silk suit, holding its own freshly stripped skull in its hands, a single gold coin between its teeth.
In Barcelona — a garland of freshly severed female hands, each one sewn closed around the body of a crushed songbird.
In New York — a wide, black run of liquid from the outer door to the main entrance, some kind of magic barrier holding it perfectly in place, like invisible lead framing panes of blood-glass.
In Tokyo — a special delivery of large vases of thick and lush lilies, petals made from tongues, with sinew stamens heavy with the pollen of bone dust.
I fumble through the photos again for the hundredth time as I wait for the phone to ring again. Wait for another Keyholder to tell me which of their staff didn’t show up for work that day because what’s left of them is in one of the pictures in front of me.
I can feel my anger pacing in its cage, hungry. It needs to stay that way until I can piece together what this means. And who. And why.
Actually, I don’t give a fuck about why. Whatever that happens to be, I’m going to find a way to reenact every single violent image in this tableau of gore, even if I have to beg Dinlas to heal the asshole up a hundred times until I get each little detail just right.
I’m so lost in thoughts of vengeance that I don’t hear the phone ring. I suddenly realize I have it against my ear and I’m talking.
“Did you find it?” I whisper.
I can feel Edward, my London Keyholder, flinch through the phone as my voice slithers into his skull like a snake. I hear him audibly swallow over the line, tucking his edges back in place.
“Yes, Mistress. It was directly across the street from the entrance, as you suspected it would be. Like they wanted to make sure we saw it from our doorstep. Just like the other one.”
I grind my fingertips into my forehead, thinking. I don’t know of any coven, temple, or cabal that uses a red crescent as its sigil. Though there are many who seek to brave the Between spaces of this world, too much has been lost for more than a few to do it successfully. And those I track carefully, in case I need to give Hades a heads-up that another fool has stumbled into the Underworld, still rudely attached to their mortal coil.
“Do you know…?”
There’s no need to finish the sentence. Edward knows I’m asking who ended up having their head handed to them, literally, for the sole purpose of sending me a message.
“Layton. I just hired the guy yesterday, too. You’d have liked him. Asked the right questions. Knew when to shut up and live with the answers.”
I sigh and push my chair away from the table. I need a drink. “Hell of a first night. Family?”
“A Rottie. Not sure beyond that.”
“Find out,” I say, pouring three fingers of bourbon. “Let me know if you need help. I’ll send someone. And make sure you get the dog.”
“Will do. What about the bobbies?”
Despite the broken-down tone of his voice, Edward is handling this well for such a new Keyholder. He’s been with me less than three months, this incarnation anyway. I suppose going through the rite of kardiodaitos creates a new baseline for the macabre. Once a goddess has eaten a piece of your heart and threatens to come back to eat the rest if you betray your oath, most mortal oddities look like a Sunday outing in the park.
“What about them? Have the police come poking around?”
I throw back my drink like it might actually do something to my immortal constitution. Since it won’t, I fill the glass again.
“No, not yet.”
“And they shouldn’t. Not if you handled everything the way I told you.”
The muffled bleat of a car horn and the hiss of rain beneath car wheels seeps through the speaker of the phone. Edward has gone outside for some reason. Which means he’s left the club.
“Where are you going?” I ask with a deliberate edge in my voice.
“To get the dog.”
“Send someone else to get the goddamn dog! You stay put. And let me know if anything, and I do mean anything, else happens.”
The call ends with a cold, dead click. I twirl my again-empty glass on the green marble bar top. We won’t be opening tonight. But twenty-four hours is as long as I’m going to play along. Let them come at me again. I’ll make it clear as writing on the wall.
Writing on the wall.
The image of one of the photos flashes through my mind, illuminating words I missed the first time. I fling an arm toward the table and summon the picture of Nykteria: Toronto. The large photo proof curls up from the table and flies on an invisible gust of wind to settle in my hand.
As my fingertips pinch the white edge of the paper, my eyes go right to the layers of graffiti, to the newest layer, painted in black. No — painted in blood.
The Godfather comes
Those that rose shall fall
Beneath it, low and curving like a young, dark moon on the horizon, is the sweeping curve of a blood crescent, sharp as a scythe. I run my thumb along the base of the crescent moon and realize that what I thought was a wide drip of blood ink is a deliberate brush stroke — a handle.
That’s not possible, I think to myself. Not after all this time.
Ever since the Titanomachy, the Titans that fought against Zeus have been imprisoned in Tartarus. Those keys are well-kept and for good reason. In the years that followed, I routed more than a few cults seeking to restore the worship of the Fallen Father of the Gods. Horrible, violent sects of devotees raided any temple they could find, leaving nothing but chaos and carnage.
I stare at the photo of the Toronto gateway in my hand, at the carnage pruned and shaped into spectacular chaos, at the scythe and the ominous proclamation written in blood. And I realize this is more than just me.
Every pathway I walk, threads back and forth between the mortal world and the Underworld, like laces in a dress. Those pathways hold the realms together like invisible stays. Undo one, and everything comes undone.
I look down and realize the photo in my hand has burst into flames. I drop it onto the stone bar top and watch the glowing heat of my rage crawl across the page in an undulating line. I take a lesson from its slow burn and smother my anger before I reduce everything else around me to ash along with the photo.
This isn’t the first time that some human with access to magic has attempted to go where they shouldn’t go, or tried to pick the lock on something the Gods imprisoned for good reason.
Attempted. Tried. And failed.
The last remnant of photo paper curls in on itself. I stare at the scrap of ash as my hand curls up in a fist. My mind follows suit, folding inward around a singular, terrifying thought.
What if they succeeded?