Heirs of Cain: Venus in Quarantine

Severin Molochi is in love with a goddess.  She’s not the kind found in a church, or that you can take with you to church for that matter.  She’s of the old, muddy, animal line of Cain: those who gained power in the world’s first murder.  Just as Severin and his goddess Wanda are settling in their new home, setting up her future dominion, her jealous siblings come calling, but they’re not after her.  They want every gods’ most valuable asset, the mortal chosen as the conduit between them and the people, who in this case happens to share her bed.

Heirs of Cain, a gothic horror fantasy erotic thriller novelette series, continues here.

(estimated reading time: 1 hour, 27 minutes)

Heirs of Cain

Venus in Quarantine

After the thirtieth entry or so I realized what was so familiar about the process; it was as if these unsuspecting people were being added to a menu, complete with their prices, and the intention was to serve them all to a solitary but reliable customer who would appear out of the dark and damp at the same time each day without the ring of a doorbell, like a fox fed once and then forever entitled.

And her name was Wanda Blasphemer Pelts. My Wanda. My whole world, to have her tell it and me experience it. She did not permit me what used to be the most basic knowledge of position spatial and chronological, which still prevented a precise understanding of both my location and the year, but I knew that she and I had recorded three months of paradigm-gnawing history together, written in an ink of sweat and a sensual but possession-gnarled hand, our bodies intertwined like two pages stuck together, the words of experience on her, still wet, transferred messily to my blank by rapturous spineless contact.

My name, kept off the menu I was writing purely out of privileged position, is Severin Molochi. If this document was a menu then the restaurant was called Quarantown, a cute name, chosen by a vote too informal to actually be counted. All who had come liked the sound of it, but a sign was never to go up, as any wandering by were not to have their curiosity indulged if relative secrecy was to be maintained.

The project of Quarantown was experimental, funded by some of the wealthy residents but largely by distant peoples, my tailor-magnate uncle Piotr included, who simply wanted the haven to be available if it looked like a diseased push would result in an infected shove. The mysterious illness known as Throng’s delirium was still cracking across Europe, leaving feverish babbling victims in its wake.

Quarantown was free of it, isolated by its position around a craggy mountain like a broken molar, troublesome to circle and even more troublesome to climb. Further surrounded by a forest so dark as to be more black than green, the only roads in and out, serpents of dirt, often snow-cloaked, were further disguised by twists and turns that turned the firs into obscuring walls.

In a sense it was hidden from none more effectively than myself, for though I lived there Wanda kept from me the exact nation and year, though Europe and the nineteenth century were clear, and I’d wager the latter half as far as the century and somewhere near a northerly coast thanks to the ducks.

The ducks were domesticated, kept by the hundreds, their breed native to the sea but accepting of the freshwater lake sunk opposite the mountain’s rise. Gorgeous, glossy, black creatures, with olivine bills, their eggs and meat were consumed regularly by us, yet they avoided my menu entirely. Their owner, a Miss Giselle Ulterrine, did not.

She was near the top, alongside her two teenage sons, their father having decided both not to marry the woman and to use her as his proxy in Quarantown, having her prepare a home and a business with a stock of his waterfowl, like a nest that may never be filled by migration.

This knowledge was built into what I would call Giselle’s ‘price’: my best guess as to what it would take to convince her to give herself over to my Wanda as a disciple. In my initial surveying of the populace, most of them arriving, as the two of us had, three months prior by rail, I had a long conversation with the woman, who, while not widowed, acted as if she was, as if she’d lost the man she’d known entirely and saw the half of her children provided by him as ghosts.

Cynically I stored this information, as a variable in some future tabulating, an act that left me as cold and bitter as some of the frozen roots Miss Giselle’s ducks sometimes pecked at before giving up and waddling away. Socializing is in my nature, and while I’d been known to use it in the course of my uncle’s business (having been told I had charm enough to sell bedclothes to the cadavers at the morgue and make a second killing), that all involved merely the exchange of money among those with plenty to throw around.

What Wanda asked was far more serious. She was an heir of Cain, a fact that remained secret there in Quarantown, held in the confidence of our relationship. What is an heir? An heir is a person, but from the darker more violent lineage. Most of us are victims of murder, heirs of Abel, or the Abel-bodied as the other heirs bitingly joke, their tone suggesting we are as fragile as twig dolls held together with twine.

Heirs of Cain, of Abel’s murderer, hold that oldest and cruelest authority over the rest of us as supernatural abilities. Do not say to their face that, since their primary characteristic is dominance of us, they are thus defined solely by their relationship to us, for they will disagree in a fashion that will typically spill you across the ground.

They have seen what the world serpent sees, and have denied the plucking hand that might put them in a cozy basket with the rest of us. They cannot pretend the world, and the worlds beyond, are just walls and the loving families within. They think they’ve seen it all, and the all of it is much harsher than the misrepresentation of the basket, of love that can only warm with proximity, with being so close it blinds the recipient to everything else.

And so they seek goals more like that gargantuan serpent of legend did: immortality, magics, and mastery of the Earth and its lifeforms. Heirs are long-lived, bear powers unseen yet frequently felt, and see themselves as gods and goddesses.

Which isn’t to say I’m immune from admiration of them, far from it. Wanda is my goddess, my Venus in furs, my lover who would pull me into the brambles and transform me one scratched-out streak of blood at a time, but the most powerful way she is my goddess is the way I chose her to be so.

In so doing I have become her chief disciple. Her greatest treasure. Her emissary in Quarantown, the esoteric qualities of which she has deemed perfect for raising a small civilization in her name, so that she might achieve the demigodhood that none of her kind have fully embraced for some centuries now.

To achieve it she must master the two dimensions of Quarantown, its substance and its citizens. So far she has focused almost entirely on the former, patrolling its borders to reinforce her territory, ritually ingraining her presence in select stone and tree, and establishing herself among the wildlife as a supreme being by way of apex predator.

On the opposite end of the spectrum stand the duties she has allocated to me, tasking me with getting to know the people and warming them to her presence, a series of errands she does not understand the difficulty of, given that I have so far mostly gestured at the idea of her, attempted to convince them of her warmth with nothing to offer but the cold wind standing next to me.

I am afforded a most wonderful thing; it is the ability to call Wanda Pelts my wife. We are not married in the eyes of the law, but under the eyes of the world serpent, and rather than try to explain all that I have abbreviated it to Mr. and Mrs. Pelts. Yes, we have taken her name here. It was not acceptable to her to be called anything else, while I don’t mind being called anything as long as it is not ‘nuisance’.

Several times I had attempted to explain to her the importance of her presence, but it remained low in her priorities. By her negligence I was forced to misuse my social skills, taking stock of the people rather than getting to know them genially, constructing that menu upon her request so that she might ‘purchase’ them when the time came with gifts, threats, or coercion.

Rather than sympathize with Miss Ulterrine my Wanda would prefer to sweep in on one of the deathless widow’s loneliest days and offer her a new partner, or a caregiver for her sons, or bewitch the black sea ducks so that they waddle and paddle according to her schedule with no supervision whatsoever. These things might ease her burdens, but they would never make her happy. Nor would they incline her to worship will a full heart at the idol of Wanda, as I do.

So on I toiled, writing my menu for her to peruse when her appetite turned back to mankind. People became entrees, described with more gourmet terminology the greater their estimated power and position within Quarantown, often with exorbitant prices to match. See for yourself:

Porter Montbel – A vibrant but stringy young man, come to us fresh from a more southerly location, who never intended to stay after helping to transport construction materials for our new homes and shops. He received a telegram via a most ingenious method perhaps unique to Quarantown where electrical signals were passed through the tracks of the nearby railway and decoded at the station. Its contents stated his entire family was down with the delirium, and he best remain for the time being.

Price? Porter and I have become fast friends, almost competitors, as neither of us has clear employment in Quarantown. We flit about like crows and magpies, doing favors in exchange for seemingly random baubles, treats, and trinkets. He could be bought for any permanent position or purpose, as long as the task does not veer too monotonous for him to flourish.

Mlle. Legraff – Almost certainly a pseudonym, and she hardly pretends otherwise. This tight-lipped septuagenarian could be called a mischief maker if she still had a top speed greater than a shuffle. Usually dressed in the loudest orange, served on a bed of self-satisfaction, she has taken it upon herself to manage our subtle telegraph station and expertly transmit, decode, and deliver our messages to and from the rest of the world.

Price? Tattle on her. Despite her advanced age, it’s clear she’s in no position of power with her family back home, and could be recalled if they hear about all the responsibilities she has given herself in Quarantown. She underestimated how much I could discern from idle chatter, and in the process of skirting around certain information revealed to me its entire silhouette. Never skirt with a man who knows how to make them, I should start saying.

Doppler Burstyn – A bloated old beast out of Austria I think. Aged in dry underground conditions, I might guess this pale and boastful creature to be a vampire, if I hadn’t already met and temporarily slain one on the train to Quarantown. He and his mustache, like a broom inexpertly smashed against a dusty floor rather than swept, are among the only financiers of the village to actually live here themselves at this early stage, where many homes are still only half-constructed.

Price? More than his weight in gold. He is a simple man who likes treasure, though not evilly so. The money he fawns over was made in mining, and he has already torn a shaft in the mountain simply to have a few workers poke around in search of profitable minerals. Sometimes he goes in himself.

Many of the citizens can be called his, his workers, his servants, his wife, his lover that she tolerates, and his nine children, several of whom have golden teeth that their father may have placed in there for decoration’s sake rather than medical necessity. Of course they will eventually be Wanda’s citizens, not his, but any number of shiny and heavy things could assist in him getting over the loss of things less permanent.

‘Giggles’ Terroir – Now there is a treat. One grave of gravel younger than myself, she is a vintner by trade, also here as a representative of a family that couldn’t think of anything better to do with her. She is ripe to be given a purpose as I was, to have something expertly made of her. For now all she does is flit about, organizing socials and gifting bottles.

I imagine she delivers compliments and slights by the vintage of those bottles, but my goddess’s all-consuming aura, which sacrifices me to a whirlpool of bed sheets each night, prevents my mind from labeling the year, and I haven’t the skill to identify wine by color or bouquet.

Price? Appreciation. She wants to be seen, and I fear she will fall in love with the first person who does acknowledge her as more than a wine rack, as one falls down a dry well. Again I press the need for Wanda to make herself present, for Giggles is already desperately outstretched.

Martin and Irving Foster – Here is a smudge on my menu where the metaphor breaks down, for these two elude me thus far. Cousins, they live rather privately in one of the earliest houses to be completed, with but one window on the side facing away from the rest of their neighbors.

They also stand completely opposite the dwelling Wanda secured for us, a gorgeous two story and twelve room home with a miniature tower on one side grasping at a third story so that it might overlook the rest of Quarantown. Placed on a hill near Ms. Ulterrine’s pond, always peppered with ducks, we hardly have a view of the Foster home, which is tucked between Burstyn’s blasted hole in the rock and the dark treeline.

I have visited Martin and Irving but once, and found their living space both disorganized and unloved. Securing an invitation over the threshold was most difficult, dismissive as they were of a man who had no official business with them. Darting eyes, like they were looking for the scurrying cockroaches I brought with me, and deep, almost reflexive, scowls convinced me the housewarming gift in my arms would go most unappreciated, as if I was asking them to prominently display a giant stinking owl pellet, so I quickly concocted a lie that it was actually for the next people I would visit that day.

Perhaps the answer lies in the shadows they cultivated and churned like butter, for they busied themselves all throughout my friendly introductions by… busying themselves. Not once did they sit down, or pace without urgency, and always they were bending over to pick something up and returning to their full height with nothing.

Quarantown was isolated, and at this point in time had no official constabulary or courthouses of any kind. It would be an ideal place for the criminal element to hide, and it would not benefit them to give their life stories to the people who could potentially report them to distant authorities.

Obvious paranoia bolsters this theory all the more, for when my irritation with their gruff behavior overcame my manners I intentionally dropped the books intended as gift, just to make the less attentive Irving acknowledge me.

It succeeded, but I got more than his gaze. A yelp came out of him, and a great shudder of his wrists, and a mouse-dodging dance of the ankles. I’ve found that such responses come mostly from people struck often as children, so I regretted it a moment later and made my apology, then my exit.

So I could offer no price for the Foster cousins, but it hardly mattered, for While Wanda looked over the menu she asked me to create as I updated it, a ledger bound in black and embossed with silver, I could see she did so mostly to pretend at effort with the citizens she claimed to desire as subjects.

Already our schedule had become rigid and grating, but she sensed little of that, for I couldn’t help but be overjoyed by her presence when I had it. Always the sun would be setting before I saw her, as if its orange and purple tail filtered through the trees and coalesced to make her.

From out of the woods she came, witnessed from the heptagonal window of our little tower. Her feet were bare, and stones went smooth under her, fully aware their rough edges couldn’t bother her anyway. Loaded up on her shoulders was a pinned gathering of her furs, brown and silver, and though I never found any such garments in her wardrobe they changed frequently; sometimes a fox’s glass eye would peek out from a fold and then disappear again.

Creatures of the woods trailed behind her, sniffing at her furry coattails: squirrels, hedgehogs, weasels, and rabbits. Above them circled crows. The horde of them, already converted to her service as familiars I imagine, only retreated back into the wilds when she reached the edge of the duck pond, harassed as they were by a sudden barrage of territorial quacking.

While it may seem unsanitary to wash one’s face in a duck pond, I assure you Wanda suffered no soiling as a result. The ducks knew better than to foul her waters, and just as with the stones, the weaker aspects of nature knew to clear her path so as not to suffer her efforts at it. Her kneel at the pond was my cue to descend from the tower, arrange our supper as it finished cooking, and set the table.

Only in the sanctity of our home did she ever remove her furs, tossing them to the floor before the crackling fireplace where they unfurled on their own into some flattened chimeric beast, like a bearskin rug slowly changing into a tigerskin rug.

Without them she was devoid of her ruffled pomp, her godly raiment, exposed as her true self. Those outer cloaks were the barrier between her and the world, the only one she ever humored, and only so something could bristle and more aggressively show her discomfort and distaste to those that offend.

Yet she was in no way diminished as she slunk to my set table and sat across from me. I served her, and when I leaned down to pour the wine her face traveled up my neck in one inhaling sweep so that she might identify by scent what I had been doing all the day, and to revel in it, and be lightly amused by it.

Before the first course I would show her the menu, naturally. She flipped through it, one page per sip from her favorite pewter goblet, also taking a glance at me each time, each one praise for my obedience. If only she had praised the substance rather than the raw effort. Some nastiness may have been avoided. Some lives may have been preserved.

But, timidly, I did not air the grievance, so as never to spoil the aromas of the meal. Even as her eyes, green and electric, like bottled lightning overflowing, darted between me and the menu, its contents were the furthest thing from my mind.

For I was in love.

And surrounded by it, since she was in the land, the house, the cookware, and the silver in each tine of the fork I slipped into my mouth. She smirked at me as I took a bite, knowing what sensation she put there. Not the end of the fork, but a few of her fingers, pressing on my tongue, drawing out the saccharine dew drops that were my affectionate words for her.

How could such a scene not pass wordlessly? As mated animals we were sated in every way. Any distant dissatisfaction was nothing but the nagging of our humanity, like a parent’s shouting turned to incoherent barking through closed doors. We were fed, and warm, and together.

In her face was everything I wanted to see: fans of freckles constricted and pinched on the bridge of her nose, impish teeth glittering, tufts of auburn hair draped over her ears as if they wore furs of their own, and those vivisecting eyes.

Following the meal was a mysterious blur, a memory fogged by the throaty lust that came immediately after. Things came into focus once more in the bedroom. For her lovemaking was no duty, no chore, not even an act of maintenance though I’m sure it reinforced her divine investment in me almost mechanically, each thrust a piston.

The center of mass is a familiar idea, but my Wanda has also a center of heat, a molten core, and when she was pressed against me I found it below her heart, below her navel, underneath strong layered thighs like old growth trees and exuding from her pelvic cradle.

When we first kissed on the train her breath poured into me and taught my lungs to breathe anew. Entwined with her in twisting sheets I sensed her center of heat could tip and pour as well, from the spout of life, washing me in the white-hot swelter, a waterfall somewhere in a ravine of a star far more remote than the sun.

One cannot be more present for an experience than I was each and every time with her, but she deliberately obscured one aspect of the process to heighten the sensation. I could never tell when it had ended, like a dream.

Wanda was always there when I awoke, but some nights she subtly removed herself and went back to the woods, for an hour or three, presumably to recruit owls, wolves, and bats. When she was gone but I was awake I reached out and felt her heat on the depressions she left in the bedding. But my curious hand would keep going. Feel it over the side. Feel it near the window. The heat in darkness.

This is how three months passed blindingly fast, exactly how someone is momentarily blinded in climax. Some evenings, when she slipped off her furs, there was no clothing underneath, and she took to her meal as nakedly as her dessert. A spotty pattern, merely alternating thrills and greater thrills, was the most significant variation in our time spent together, and it did not vex me the way her morning ritual did, performed just before she disappeared for the day and left me to two-faced cavorting.

A shave. For it she needed all the usual equipment, razor, brush, strop, soap puck, and a willing participant. Yes, this shave was for me, though I told her many times I was perfectly capable of doing it myself and had been doing so my entire adult life.

“Of course you have,” she told me patronizingly on the first morning she insisted, having already sat me down next to a prepared lather. The antler-handled strait razor glided back and forth across the strop. “But things have changed my love. You were shaving an unclaimed face, a precocious thing running around in fields that was not required to look its best.

This,” she grabbed my cheekbones, turned me one way and then the other as if inspecting the freshness of a flatfish, “is now my face. It is accustomed to my touch, spoiled soft by it, and it will respond best to my knowing sculptor’s hand.”

“This is just a chore,” I assured her. “I know you have more important matters to attend to. You can trust me to manage my own existence.”

“You say that as if I don’t enjoy having you here.” She stood in front of me, waist swaying in the breeze of our repartee. Her full weight landed on my lap, but the wooden chair didn’t creak. Stones rounding, water clearing… “Granted you’re merely in a chair with a strap present, and not strapped to the chair…” Her expression cackled. “But I do have a knife.” She said the word with an edge just as she placed the blunt tip of it against my Abel’s apple. How she found a blunt portion was a mystery; it all seemed very sharp to me.

Her hand came up and started brushing my cheeks, but the razor was gone, replaced with the lathered brush in some sleight of paw that was among the least but more amusing of her talents. While I was certain she had the skill and knowledge to complete the task perfectly even through my blabbering, I added it to the list of experiences that went well wordlessly.

She allowed me the dignity of toweling myself off, but the razor and the supplies all disappeared into her furs; when she walked out the door there was no sound of them clinking against each other in a pocket somewhere. That evening I searched for them, to no avail. Of course that roused my suspicions, but getting part of the answer was as simple as waiting until the next morning.

It came, and there she was, dragging our lightest chair behind her. Whatever room I’d been in, she would’ve been there. The lather was ready as it came out of her furs, despite what a dreadful mess it would’ve made in any normal pocket.

“So you intend to handle this every day?” I asked as the razor glided across my throat. She couldn’t harm me unless she wanted to, and I always knew when she wanted to. There was none of that about her then, just an undercurrent of concern expertly, but not perfectly, hidden under her playful insistence.

“If you would like it to change, stop growing your beard. Only that will convince me you don’t need my hand.” She kissed me to test the bristle on my lip, revealing as she pulled away a glance that suggested she’d missed something, but not something on my face. “You should enjoy this.”

“I do!” Severin Molochi was no liar and neither is Severin Pelts.

“Yes, but you’re enjoying me, not what I’m doing. You’re tolerating the shave.”

“I just don’t understand what you’re getting out of it, my Wanda. Intimacy? We make batches of the stuff every night, and far more intensely. Or have you ritualized this the way I have our supper? If this is your preamble, then by all means, but I’d rather you didn’t waste your time. Much of my work for Uncle Piotr was predicated on me looking my best. Quarantown can be all the closer to its best if you attend to it instead of me.”

The shave was finished while I was making my case, and the razor gone, but she still had the strop, so she draped it over my neck and played with the ends, pulling my head closer so she could kiss my forehead.

“Severin, do not question my judgment.” She foresaw my quibble. “Or my whim. To you they are one and the same. You know I love your ideas, and have need of them now that we are bound, but any time you think I’ve done something lightly, or haven’t given it proper thought, or weight, you are incorrect. You are too weak to know things the way I know them.”

Her arms crossed, and suddenly the strop was tight about my neck. My breath watched its step, sidled through a narrow corridor. There was no need to panic. This was her true ritual. A regular test. All she wanted was to see how much of me belonged to her, and how much I kept for myself. Previously it had always been just my final breath, the edge of reason, the last word, and as none of those things got caught in my throat just then she knew things were as they had always been between us.

“I will give you a shave each and every day,” she informed me. “You are not to shave on your own under any circumstances. If I am ever not present, then you will go unshaven. Should I vanish entirely, and you manage not to take your own life in despair, you will hold to this, no matter how many times you trip over your own whiskers.”

“Yes Wanda.” A moment later she was gone, and I slowly removed the strop, feeling her hand as it slid across the hairless back of my neck.

For three months I kept to my word, but then I started getting a little too clever for my own good, on top of feeling anxious over her continual delays with the citizens. Not one of them knew her nature, not even enough of her aura for light infatuation. People thought I was married to a bitter and hateful woman, one likely in the midst of an affair since she was so rarely seen on my arm. Hardly a good start for us as the premier couple of Quarantown. Throwing a soiree would’ve been an excellent way to catch up, but not without her, and she would not spare an evening away from the forest.

Cue the cleverness. Now of course I knew I was never supposed to use it in opposition to my Wanda, only in her service, but at a certain level of frustration I can’t help myself. It becomes instinct. Were my leg locked in a trap in the wilderness I would turn not to the will needed to gnaw the limb off, but the guile to open it by disassembly.

Wanda told me I was never to shave on my own. Once that technicality had wet aged in my mind for those months it was ready to use; I only needed opportunity. It came knocking, as our neighbors should have been with housewarming gifts and introductory pastries, when Wanda informed me she would be gone one night, all of it, and then the following morning.

Mum she was on the reason, but a reasonable guess involved the full moon. Surely some of the speculations about its arcane powers, and its association with witchcraft, had roots in truth, just like the bible stories of Adam and Eve. My Wanda was out howling at the moon, or communing with the man who lives inside it tinkering with philosophy, or casting a spell that would cure Quarantown of all its ills every time its full light shone upon it.

Whatever the reason, she was gone. Of course she expected me to go one day without the shave, but there were still social errands for me to do in her stead, and while a man like Burstyn already knew I wasn’t burstin’ with funds myself, I didn’t want to give him any indication I spent even single hours lazing around and growing chin hairs to twang like some yokel in a jug band!

Wanda kept the razor and the other supplies with her, so there were none in the house, but that was no obstacle, especially considering I needed to find a supervisor anyway. Couldn’t shave on my own now, could I?

Since my better half (alright, better nine tenths) didn’t make use of the thorny intelligence in the dossier I made for her, I did. Better than it going to waste. Porter was rarely home, so rather than borrow his shaving kit I made my way to our nearest neighbor, Miss Giselle Ulterrine, to ask for hers.

Surface logic dictated she wouldn’t have one, as her sons weren’t quite at the age where they needed it, and there was no husband in sight. But according to my menu, she wanted there to be. As such she would want everything ready for him, should he suddenly decide to join them. She had one.

“How did you know?” she asked as she brought it to me, smiling, nothing but curiosity in the question. That had become so unfamiliar. When Wanda had a question it meant there was something she did not know, and those black gaps held monolithic dangers.

Giselle was a charming woman, disarming and good-natured. Her troubles stemmed, I imagine, from taking up with men that kept far too many arms about them, so that the full effect of her personality only stripped them of a few weapons, leaving her entirely at the mercy of whatever device they held onto in their most barking mad paranoia.

Her long hair, often kept in a single braid down to her waist, wasn’t graying, instead fading like a broom that stayed on the porch, leaned against the home, soaking up day after day of harsh sun. A long nose, terminating in a perfect bulb like a thermometer, helped to ground wandering daydreaming eyes. They were brown.

Slight of build, turned into a washboard by a boxy dress three sizes too large and a gray house apron over top, she looked at me expectantly, but still smiling. There were no dark plans between us, as far as she knew. Part of me wished to keep it that way. Another felt guilty for involving her in my cheeky little rebellion at all.

So much so that I decided the technicality could be stretched even thinner. Giselle did not need to supervise, for the many beautiful ducks in her pond could do it. The family would be nearby if I suddenly found myself bleeding and shrieking, razor jutting out of me thanks to the toddler’s hand Wanda assumed I was shaving with.

Out on the pond there was a small dock with two canoes tied up, and enough room for someone to set up an easel, with so little foot traffic they would also have time to paint every feather as each thousand glided glossy by. Perfect too for a peaceful shave. Winter had gotten long in the tooth, but it did so by extending the fang with an icicle, as the temperature was still remarkably low.

When I did remark on it, the statement billowed out of my mouth as harassed fog, but I took it as a sign that my skin would be as close to marble as it ever would be, practically inviting the polishing.

Sitting down on the dock in our lightest chair, which I’d been able to drag with me since Wanda’s pockets weren’t quite so expansive as to swallow any of our furnishings yet, I set out the instruments, barely protected from the biting cold by my nightclothes and the heavy fur-lined robe I’d thrown over them.

My supervisors, the sea ducks, did their part. Never was there a moment where less than a flock was watching me, and any disturbance would rile them and draw Miss Ulterrine or her boys.

Lather. Not so much as a quack. Peaceful as the grave. It allowed me to hear the blade across my own skin, every little tree felled in its follicle. After one pass I paused, waiting for whatever Wanda feared, and nothing came of it. The caution did not leave my hand quickly, but I took my time, and around halfway I was shaving just like I used to you, in whatever year was the last one where I’d done so.

A cup of water on the boards at my feet served to freshen up the blade. Everything was going swimmingly until I dipped to drench it again and got only my fingertips. Had I dropped it? Had it slipped between the slats and sunk? Having to explain that to Giselle could’ve caused me to die of embarrassment, but there was a greater threat to my life just then.

For it hadn’t sunk. It was to my throat, and right where I’d left off, but whatever hand held it was unknown to me. That is, unknown in the sense that no name was attached, but as the moments rolled by heavily I was tighter and tighter wrapped in certain information. Despite my hairs being cut short, they still prickled in the fashion that had become all too familiar.

I was once again in the presence of a god. Not my Wanda. Not that bloodsucker Ruthven, who was now buried out near Burstyn’s mine. This one was new. The one who came down from her cooled volcanic pedestal to let me kiss her hand and call her wife had been very clear: many were the heirs of Cain, and any could come calling, but it was practically fate that her siblings would do so. Wanda had only just beaten her undead brother Ruthven into town, and more importantly into a heart like mine.

Seven there were, in total, born over many miserable brooding months at the rainy Villa Diodati in the year without a summer. Names, aside from Ruthven, were unknown to me, with no more explanation needed than the one given. Wanda had warned that all the heirs invested their powers in various things, like the wisdom of a diversified financial portfolio.

They might have power in human and animal familiars, as she did, or in the grave like Ruthven, or in the weather, or buildings, or even something as insubstantial as a name. She had not divulged them to me in order to protect me from any possible influence. And now I’d blundered out of the safety fencing she’d erected like some blithering turkey, running straight into the finish line of the carving knife.

For I was the prize. As Wanda’s chief disciple I had become a greater anchor of her divine power than even Quarantown itself, as I was to serve as the bridge between her and her people, the Abel-bodied who broke bread and bed with the Cain-staking. If any of her siblings could kill me, or even more meaningfully, sway my loyalty to them, all my Wanda’s efforts would be destroyed and she would be supplanted entirely.

In my racing thoughts there was a flash of lip-biting bitterness. If she had listened to me and quickly formed a web of confidantes then Miss Ulterrine would already know who and what I was, and also know to keep an eye on me, and also have both her sons charging into the woods at that moment to fetch Wanda back so she might save me.

Of course, that was hubris. Correct, but not in the fullest context. This situation would’ve been prevented instead of addressed if I’d simply sat still like the statuette she wanted. I invited this invader, offered them a bite to eat in the form of my supple throat, shaved in preparation as if I were about to undergo surgery.

The time for regret was before, or after, or some other time. Now I needed strategy. My opponent had made their move, and was already being generous, giving me silence to arrange a response.

“Am I being robbed,” I said as calmly as could be managed, “or is my Wanda?” This heir of Cain’s first response was to slide the razor and continue the shave, as expertly as their sibling had done it, like a glass rod caressing my cheek. Then words.

“I would think it unwise to accuse one’s barber of thievery while in this position.” Male. Melancholy, but with some comfort in it, so a person who could locate the joy in sadness, the key to which was the understanding that it did not have to reside in the self. Already this was valuable information. He sounded more mortal than Ruthven, than my Wanda for that matter.

“Consider it rescinded if you truly mean me no harm. I can feel your skill, but I’m getting very frustrated. All I wished to do was shave myself. First Wanda took over and now you. I see the significance of course, now that it’s too late. You’re invested in the ritual of the shave; that’s where your power is, yes? You know when it’s being done, who’s doing it?”

“Long have I known when people were at their most vulnerable,” was his answer, and he shaved all the while. I feared he was practiced just to finish it quicker, to allow the dead to look their best.

There were more details, and suddenly I recalled them, whether by wit or association with him was unclear. An old ghost story: the specter-barber. It was some muddled moralistic thing about a fellow visiting a haunted castle only to encounter a ghost who invited him to sit down for a shave. He allowed it, and in turn offered the same service to the ghost, in so doing freeing it from some curse or other. Perhaps this fellow was the inspiration? At least a few tall tales of furry cryptic beasts stalking the woods came from my Wanda’s furs, as she often reminded me. If the hands of the specter-barber were on me, then at least one other person had survived the shave long enough to tell the tale.

“What is your name?” He paused. Very few asked, it seemed. Too preoccupied with their own lives I imagine. On the blade went, without so much as an impression to indicate it had stopped.

“Devorgoil Oblivion Goblinry.”

“Out of the three I’ve met that makes three mouthfuls. Is Devor acceptable?”

“Call me whatever you’d like. Just don’t turn around; I don’t want to cut you.”

“What is it I can do for you Devor?”

“Just listen. My sister… she’s so possessive, isn’t she? Always hoarding her things in that coat of hers, never sharing. She has her reasons. While she’s loyal to a fault I think you’ll find she’s far from the most reasonable of us. I’m not out to take or break her toys. Tilt your head forward please. Thank you.

She’s really going for godhood, isn’t she? I’m impressed. It takes a… let’s say Napoleonic mind to manage it all. I’ve no interest myself, in the work that is. The benefits, those would be lovely. My greatest ambition is to count this place as a retreat, where I could rest and restore myself when need be, let another pair of Cain’s eyes keep watch while mine rest.”

The sea ducks were not disturbed by his presence. With my now tilted head I could see through the slats to their olivine bills drifting by underneath. Perhaps they actually were supervising, and telling me this fellow was on the level.

“Wanda would need to approve of such a welcome mat, but I have no objections.”

“People talk to their barbers, me especially,” Devorgoil said as he bent and dipped the razor in the cup. I caught a scent in his hair: crusty bread, malt, charcoal, steam. In catching people at their most vulnerable he must’ve always been awash in the drunken air after a feast, the sleepy smoke trails about a dying campfire, and naked hot soaks in copper tubs. “I’d like to buy my welcome with information, as it comes to me, delivered by you so as to offend my poor anxious sister less.”

“And you have an opening offer?” He sighed, clearly thought over his words. Wanda would never show me such uncertainty.

“I do, but she isn’t going to like it, and I don’t want that hostility to land on me. Will you do your best to protect me from her?”

“I confess I have absolutely no idea what that would entail,” I said, which he must’ve known. Beyond a charitable phrasing I had no power in the situation.

“Just a statement of effort would be enough for me to share it with you.”

“Very well. I will make an effort. You have the word of Severin Pelts née Molochi. What do you offer Quarantown?”

“Catching people at their most vulnerable means that sometimes violence is afoot. Often I’m too late, or in time only to hear their last bloody words. I clean them up, make them presentable, and give them a proper burial.

I’ve left a trail of one-man funerals in my wake, pardon the pun, which means I’m moving just ahead of another trail, and from these gory breadcrumbs I have deduced who is responsible. Another sister of mine. Of ours. Whether or not you’ve legally wed Wanda we’re all family now.”

Toweled dry. No razor glint. Both Devorgoil’s hands were on my shoulders, his somber grip communicating something new with all ten digits. It was unclear whether I was being massaged or lightly wrung, like worry taken out on a twisted handkerchief. His touch bled through my robe, put me at ease. The only apprehensive thorns came from imagining Wanda’s reaction when I relayed all these details. She would demand them all.

“This trail led you here?”

“I was already on my way, but yes,” the heir said. Somehow I knew he was staring off into the woods, perhaps at the ultimate magnetic north: the personality of my Wanda.

“Who is this sister of ours? And what does she want from us?” I had to swallow some fear. Already I had seen what Ruthven did just in the process of taking a train. Enslavement. Chains linking the globs of blood in their veins. Now that Quarantown was settled, wounds would have to be deeper to get anything done.

“Her mouthful, aside from those she covets, is Goriana Perjury Consumption. The baby of us, born last, always trying to catch up and screaming at us for not slowing down. Wanda has no patience, and Goriana has less than that.

Now they will have to meet though, as Wanda can’t just strike out further afield. She must defend this place. So I came to warn you! And if you survive this you can hopefully play host to me as compensation for the early word.”

“I’ll do you one better and play host right now,” I said, springing the only kind of trap a man like me could, constructed from branches of kindness and a net of jabbered interest-taking. Mr. Goblinry caught me at my most vulnerable, so I reversed the procedure on him at his most relaxed. He thought he was safe with a job well done, completely unaware I intended to pamper him right back.

Mortals like me stiffen up in the aura of an heir of Cain, but I was used to it now, and could swim through the air they emitted breast stroke or butterfly. It took him by surprise when I quickly stood and circled around, grabbing his shoulders and directing him into the chair.

“Hand over that razor Devor. It’s not yours, or mine for that matter.” Dumbfounded, at least I should like to think so, he held it up for me to take and open once more. This was how the specter-barber stories went. The thankless service phantom granted a boon when finally treated with the respect he gave, his only financial resource in the afterlife.

In all likelihood no heir of Abel had ever been so forward with him, reaching out to touch rather than cringing from it. By the time the quaint notion had settled on him, like a cat clawing a bed into his lap, I already had him lathered up. A glance down revealed so many green duck bills, like painted nails, now swimming in a circle under the nexus of his demi-divinity.

Haste prevented me from getting the clearest look at his face in the switch, but I found it as I swept away the lather and stubble, like an explorer clearing brush. Of course he was a beautiful man. Eyes of blue. Cleft chin. A wide and deep face like an open bible, one bookmark lock of hair hanging low on his brow.

His clothing was not so outwardly flashy as Wanda’s, but they still told me more of the man. Blues layered on grays. Sadness over acceptance. He dressed to match the gravestones he erected. It also looked like something was missing from his ensemble, an outermost layer. Not like he had forgotten it. Instead as if he had perpetually just taken it off, to give himself room to breathe, like an artist trying to adjust to the rapidly cooling jitters after the final brush stroke.

I could never love any creature as much as I love Wanda, but it was simple to see the difference in their natures. She was forceful so she could take what she wanted in any situation, no matter how long the odds, while her brother Oblivion instead curated his scenes, his vantage points. Never did he need to display power, appearing only to those already brought low or caught stark naked or bleeding their final wishes into the soil. They would just give him things, whether begging for his help or just awed at the closest thing to an angel they would ever see, so much so he might convince them they were on the doorstep of heaven.

People had altogether tried to give him too much; that’s what I gathered. He was tired of it, and hopefully refreshed by the respectful transaction of our mutual shave. If he was, he used it to restore his placid demeanor and get back to those particularly probing Cain questions, the ones only asked if they knew at least part of the answer.

“I could’ve warned you sooner, but you never seemed in danger enough for me to try. Not so much as a trip over a run in the rug so that I could catch you. Wanda has kept her eye on you… even when shaving?”

“Yes she has,” I admitted, seeing no point in denying what he knew. “Obviously she did not want us to meet, not like this anyhow. And I will not be telling her that I’m more afraid of what I’ll say to her than what I’m saying to you right now. She already has me, while all you could possibly do is kill me.”

“The end result of that would be Quarantown abandoned,” he said, almost laughing, but I sensed he didn’t do that much, “and me on the run from her. Her vengeance would see at least one of us dead.”

“There’s more we could discuss,” I said as I dipped the blade into the cup for the final time. The ducks were dispersing, unlikely to be random. “But seeing as I’ve finished no one has a blade to their jugular any longer. Are you already returning to whence you came?”

As answer he stood, toweled himself off and set the item carefully on the chair. With wide arms, a surprising gaping yawn of a gesture, like being swallowed by the night, he embraced me tightly. I think this was to give me a very close look into his eyes, so that I might see some more of his character, which I did.

Wanda talked of the world serpent, and what it has shown her line, but I remained unclear on whether or not she had ridden it herself, or any other heirs after the man Cain. Sometimes she spoke of it as a matter of inheritance, others as a trial she endured. Either way there must be a degree of variance in its effect. How far into the void had each heir seen?

From his pupils I guessed Devor had penetrated deeper into that inky abyss of frozen wisdom than my Wanda. What exactly gave that impression I couldn’t say, but it stirred in me some wondering. Was this a ride I could take? Wanda called the heirs of Abel children of reflection, who looked in where the heirs of Cain looked out. Devor could perhaps do both, indirectly, looking into me and seeing what I saw in myself.

“Welcome to the family,” he whispered in my ear, like a curse, but one he merely diagnosed, inflicted by another. His arms loosened as his corporeal form did the same, so by the time I couldn’t feel him he had vanished.

Returning the evidence swiftly did not matter, for Wanda would know much of what transpired the moment she saw the lack of stubble on my face. More likely she would smell the lather and blade oil on me first, so that the next time I saw her her face would already be contorted by rage.

So my primary concern became where I wished to suffer a dressing-down. Naturally our bedroom came to mind. Those untouched by an heir of Cain might interpret my reaction and my skittish planning as fear that Wanda would attack me physically, or demean and belittle me into submission. I did fear, quite a lot, but neither of those things.

It was a fear of incompatibility, of a rift that could grow between us should we make too many plans with the other in the dark. Wanda could tear me to shreds, but would only ever do so with my permission, and I’d have to giver her a second permission for her to enjoy it.

No, her anger would stem from the same fear, admitted or not. In the process of being overprotective she was keeping me ill-informed, and in the impatience of not being heeded I was lashing out, inevitably licking myself with the whip as surely as if I wandered beyond our borders to contract Throng’s delirium.

“Severin!” she snapped like a bear trap after throwing open the bedroom door. What had wafted off me and under its crack had upset her, sent her furs bristling as if they were attached. The door would have slammed against the wall, but a sleeve that didn’t contain her arm folded around the knob and kept it from doing so. That way no sound could startle me and I could focus on feeling the entire gust she generated simply by entering the room. It left my hair disheveled.

Before I could answer her she pulled out our razor and held it up like something alien, making perplexed faces, less effective in shaming me than they could have been since she couldn’t wipe the fury clean before installing the faux confusion.

“I could’ve sworn this was the razor you used to shave, but now that your face is clean, it’s clear this must be something else! Something still tells me it is meant for you, so it could be a dart, and you the board!” She made a show of spinning and throwing it, trying to convince me she did not have flawless aim.

It hissed by my ear, and I felt it. Technically it did cut, but separated only the thinnest layer of already inert skin from the lobe. No blood, nor dewdrop of crimson, but felt. The blade stuck in the wall behind me, waggling on its tang. Silence can be used to assert oneself, as I demonstrated just then by not flinching and not averting my eyes.

I let her calm some. Once she heard her own breathing, recognized its ragged sound as the only one in the entire house, she let her shoulders slump, though it was barely perceptible under the sable mounds piled atop them.

“Did he hurt you?” she asked, as defeated as I’d ever seen her. On her face was an expression that suggested in the competition of life she could perhaps be convinced to acknowledge the slight technical possibility that someone else might take a turn, and, if the world was ending, score a point.

“Yes… his manners were so shockingly good that I fell and hit my head. When I awoke he’d stolen my mustache!” Now I was the one failing to control myself; there was no need to strike that tone the same way she struck the wall with the razor. Best to moderate quickly. “He didn’t make so much as a threat.”

“My brother’s presence in my home is an automatic threat,” she insisted. It was clear she wanted to close the gap, grab me, check for wounds, but she begrudgingly respected the civility she knew I prized enough to not smother me like an animal and lick the foreign smells off me. “If he got to you that means… it means…”

“-That I was vulnerable?”

“That I failed,” she said, growling at something I couldn’t identify. “If I can’t keep him away from you, how am I going to deter the others? They’ll eat you alive, and stop the moment you’re dead, so that I come across only the bits they played with on the plate.” Her green eyes looked white hot, steam cyclones overpowering turbines underneath.

“Devorgoil told me one of those others is Goriana Perjury Consumption.” Mentioning that name was premature, I recognized when her mood shifted from bad to teetering on the edge of sanity. If my Wanda was rabid she knew how to swallow the foam before it reached the lips.

“Why did he mention her!?”

That was the meat of the situation, not my innards. He stopped by just to tell us that he has no designs on Quarantown… other than as a place to hang his hat and rest his feet.”

“Don’t know as I’ve ever seen him take more than five steps,” Wanda spat, “vaporating everywhere as he does.”

“And he didn’t wish to impose either, bringing with him a peace offering, the first of many I’m sure. At precisely zero haggling over price, he warned me that your sister Goriana was on her way here.” At this I could see my goddess’s focus entirely shift, from one heir to another. After that moment it was as if Devorgoil didn’t exist, and the sister existed all too much: under our rugs, in our cupboards, stuffed in our chimney, and singing a siren song from within our drains.

“I should’ve known,” she admonished herself, surging about the room, checking corners for her influence, though all the pillow-flinging and curtain-ripping was simply implied. I could see she was doing the mental equivalent, perceiving the room in a handful of ways I could not, growing her claws so they punctured various veils of perception. “Ruthven muscling in on my train threw me off. I assumed none of the others would try until my suspicions fully died down, but of course Goriana will not wait. If she ever has a plan it was merely passed to her through a membrane of nightmares.”

“She has some power over dreams?” I asked to remind her that I was eager for information. At least some would have to be gifted to me now, lest I blunder into another situation where an heir of Cain was likely to materialize; perhaps next time would be while I sat on the pot.

“My youngest sister has whatever faculties her victims have, as long as they last inside of her.”

“Inside!?” I repeated, aghast. At least Lord Ruthven had the decency to take the blood he wanted out of the body and into himself discreetly. Fitting I suppose, that someone with the name Consumption would not be so refined in their table manners. “Are you the only heir that doesn’t partake in some form of cannibalism?”

“It’s not cannibalism,” she said with a wave of her hand, as if the whole subject was no more concern than a housefly, “seeing as Cain and Abel are not of the same kind. And she does not eat them… not in any traditional sense.” Wanda took a good many silent moments, shuffling closer to me as they stretched, until deciding to lock me in place with one hand on each elbow so that I felt like a book about to be squeezed into too narrow a space on the shelf.

“Goriana does not have agents,” she eventually explained, impressing upon me with the scalpel tip of her pupils. “She has no trust, paranoid as she is from our mother’s abandoning of her.”

“And of yours it seems.” It was like I hadn’t spoken. A second later I wasn’t sure I had. Was this the same power ever-exerted over me so that I could not remember my time or place? If so it was being used to shush me, which was a misuse. We’d never openly put a name to its purpose, but if we both didn’t know it we didn’t have the relationship we claimed.

“She will not let anything she makes hers escape, and the only way to ensure that is to incorporate it, all of it, into her body. The Abel-bodied she lusts after are drawn in with an innocent appearance, with bombs of effervescent affection.

They are told she can take away all their stresses and responsibilities, which she can. That they will be protected, which is also true. Protected from everything but her. Once she has them ensnared they are consumed bodily, integrated into her… membranous spatial lining.”

“Her what!?”

“We can make whatever we want, depending on how much we put our minds and bodies to it,” she said, of her lineage. “And what my sister wanted was a pocket, one she could not lose, where she could keep all her belongings. Knitted and sewn it was from her own flesh, kept about her rather than inside exactly.

She can step into it, like a room, make it her surroundings, but it is also her interior. She is the museum and the gallery, experiencing her charges as she observes them. Once consumed they are hopelessly lost, inextricable from her lining, set adrift in the maelstrom of dreams, fully at the mercy of their own subconscious weather, as that is not something she seeks to manage.

As they dream, as they nightmare, their physical form slowly atrophies and degenerates, their ultimate fate nothing more than a molehill cyst on the pocked interior of Goriana’s hyper-spherical canvas, take it months, years, or a lifetime.”

“And you were concerned about Devor!?”

“Devor? Don’t use such an affectionate name for him,” she ordered, forgetting him again with a swiftness that made me wonder if someone could twiddle pieces off her memory like putty as she did with mine. “If my sister is coming she can have only one goal: the consumption of my Severin. She thinks that once she has you within her confines I’ll never be able to leave her side.”

“Alright,” I said, swallowing my fears, though the idea of swallowing anything at that time was most unsettling, as any action involving the body is when it’s broken down into a series of steps: spasms, twitches, pulses, and puckers. “What are we to do about her?”

We shall do nothing. You will stay put, exactly where you are told,” Wanda informed me. She served me a kiss, like a legal summons, putting some of her breath in me as a spy, to give me that toasted-lung sensation of anxiety when I did something of which I knew she would not approve. “I will strengthen our perimeter even more, targeting her signatures specifically. Her tantrums will have no power at all if she can’t get through my fencing.”

“Devorgoil did,” I reminded, but in a sullen and defeated tone to make clear I had no illusions about winning an argument with an heir of Cain. Talking to her just then of the people of her town, and how the last thing we needed was more absenteeism, I knew would be fruitless. The scent of her siblings had her frothing.

To indicate my willingness to follow, even down an utterly wrong path, I went to the wall and removed the stuck razor, folding the blade away and tucking it into the front of her coat. Making sure it landed in a pocket was not necessary, as the coat simply accepted it, passing it along into its depths with a silken grip.

“You will at least make time for our shave?” I requested. “I can’t do my job without looking my best.”

“Like I said, we can make whatever we want.”

The next few days passed in entirely predictable doldrums, though my sourness was kept hidden from the people I visited and further cataloged. Wanda gave me a shave, as she saw fit, early in the morning, before the sun had driven away the opaque blues of night entirely, but after that she vanished into the forest until late in the evening.

The intensification of her efforts had effects throughout the town, despite being concentrated on the borders she had dug out with her claws. My new friends told me what they noticed in idle conversation, and how I wished I could just tell them none of these phenomena were idle at all. We were all in the burrow of a god, with a wet floor sinking deeper into fate.

Birds were observed turning away in droves midair. It was my guess that while Wanda had a great many birds among her familiars, these were migratory, foreigners as it were, and they heeded the invisible warnings she had left out, each extending far into the sky like a bonfire’s smoke column.

Porter mentioned in passing an unusual situation in which he felt a breeze early in the day, after stepping outside, and felt one again in another part of town a few hours later that struck him as having ‘an identical whisper and character’, notable only because he’d never experienced such a thing before. From that I extrapolated that even something like a light wind could be made into a spy of hers: an invisible serpent flicking its tongue as it weaved between all the houses on its patrol.

My eyes were sharpened, on the lookout for more such anomalies, which is why I was probably the only one who noticed that blankets of moss were moving across the outlying stones of Quarantown absurdly fast. It was like watching continents take shape on the map. The foot of the moss must be very sensitive, able to detect the slightest chip in any stone kicked by a trespassing foot, but without eyes they had to wander across the spot to actually take notice and send a letter on our friend the snaking breeze to be delivered to my Wanda.

All these precautions did nothing to address the town itself however, only its perimeter. Our permeable bubble was hardened into iron, staling the air, darkening a sunlit sky, which was not an easy atmosphere for our residents to interpret. Most of them kept saying ‘it looks like rain’, wincing a moment later because they knew it not to be true. They didn’t know what it looked like.

At the time it seemed Wanda’s oppressive security was to account for the worsening shut-in behavior, and no one suffered more than the already-asocial Foster cousins. Normally they went to our market every other day to buy a plucked hanging duck or some such thing, presumably for their suppers.

A week passed where they didn’t, my own unwitting spies informed me. So what were they eating? They had no garden on their property, and they didn’t luncheon socially. My Wanda had a dark effect on my warm stewing personality, I realized, when I entertained the thought that one of the cousins was perhaps eating the other.

If that was the case the disturbed man would certainly need some company, before the cell or the noose, to remind him what life looked like and return to him some illuminated perspective. I knew I would be unwanted, but I resolved to check on them regardless. As an excuse I brought along a bag stuffed with tailoring supplies, the pretense being that I was growing bored without an established job in town and I was going around offering to do simple clothing repair.

The day was as good as it could have been, given the stifling wool cloak pulled over us. My shave was fresh, Wanda’s breath was still in my chest like a hot drink at the back of my throat, and there wasn’t so much as a mud puddle on my way to the Foster home. Before I knocked, I stopped and listened.

There were sounds coming from inside: shuffling. One man. Nothing else. Very curious, considering how eager they were to look busy the first time I visited. Whoever this shuffler was, they were not accompanied by the sound of turning pages, or a tuning musical instrument, or even nervous muttering. The sound of sleepwalking.

If so, I successfully roused him with my knock. A light sleep it seemed, for he transitioned into rather forceful and consistent footfalls all the way to the entryway. The door opened the way a mousetrap closed.

“Mr. Pelts,” Martin said, giving me the most peculiar look, as if he couldn’t blink because he’d just polished his eyeballs and didn’t want to ruin their shine. He gripped the jamb grimly, leaned forward, but had his feet deeply rooted indoors, practically woven into the rug.

All of this suggested he was present, focused, even expecting someone, except for the fact that he was without trousers, bare legs surprisingly hairless for a man such as him.

“Ahh, Mr. Foster… have you forgotten… let’s talk inside.” Flustered on his behalf, I pushed my way in and closed the door. A quick look around showed a slightly more dismal dwelling than before, thoroughly explained by a week of idleness. If both cousins came down with an unlucky depression at the same time, leaving them unlikely to, say, properly dress themselves, of course they wouldn’t go so far as to dust or sweep either.

“Why have you come?” he asked me, back to his shuffling, nearing at a glacial pace, but with that affixed stare of a taxidermy pike.

“People are worried Martin,” I said as softly as I could. “You haven’t been doing your shopping, which has me wondering what you’ve been eating, and if you have enough of it. Naturally. Now, where’s Irving? And for that matter… your trousers?”

“I took them off. The bugs were crawling up the legs, trying to get to my orifices,” he explained, hands bent into claws and hovering over his eyes and ears. “I shaved, so they can’t climb the hair either. Greased the pole.”

“Martin what bugs are y-” In my earlier survey I had neglected to properly look at the floor. In correcting that I was horrified to see a great many insects, and some of those things that have an amount of legs exceeding that identifier, which are no doubt called something that twists the tongue of any non-naturalist into a stubborn knot.

None of their species were clear to me, and many body parts looked out of place, like their segments had been separated and rearranged the way some jointed children’s toys allowed them to build absurd chimeras. Scorpion claws on centipede faces. Earwig tails on lethargic crickets. Every individual was different, though in color they were nearly black, a sort of lustrous purple like an excessively varnished painting of a bruise.

The swarm trundled in all directions listlessly, pincers poised, but not snapping. They ignored me completely, and while they did walk over the top of Martin’s bare feet, his shuffling kept from disturbing them.

“Where did these little monsters come from?” I asked, appalled less at their existence and more by their unwelcome nature in the home. No sooner had I asked than a theory came to mind. Wanda. Every creature of Quarantown was hers, as demonstrated more and more with each passing day.

Guilt washed over me. The Fosters were, by my own accounting, my only failure so far. I knew nothing about them, not even professions, and if Wanda had attempted to order them off my menu I would’ve played the humiliated waiter, hanging my head, averting my eyes. ‘Oh, so sorry madame, but that dish is not available this evening. Can I interest you in something that reeks less of rotten failure? My own heart perhaps, served so rare that it still beats shamefully.’

These vermin might have sensed the blind spot, felt an instinctive need to put eyes on the Foster home since I’d failed to do so. And the result was they’d driven Martin mad with their unblinking surveillance. He’d turned not only to partial undress, but the shaving of his legs.

“Yes, well, I’ll get this place sorted out for you until you’re feeling more yourself,” I offered. Determined, I hunted down a broom and began sweeping the creatures away, telling them under my breath that they should return to whatever crevice Wanda found them in, and that these were direct orders from their goddess’s chief disciple, thank you very much.

In this I found some success, so I took my authority to be properly appreciated. Martin was still shuffling and muttering, so I moved to addressing his ills. Firstly sunlight was in dire need, in short supply though it was, but when I went to throw open the curtains I found the glass dreadfully filthy, so that I succeeded only in turning the room a clearer brown.

“Pants,” I said. If I couldn’t provide sunlight I could provide pants (perhaps there was never a clearer statement of my capabilities). Searching around did not turn any up as it had the broom, and I was coming under the utmost frustration. With my bag at my side I could make all sorts of alterations, could make a cat a top hat out of its own hairball; a demonstration was in order.

Rod and ring clanged in protest as I ripped the curtains from the window and tossed them onto the coffee table. Far from ideal, the material was still leagues better than the nothing all over Martin’s legs. Out came needle and thread, with which I began to reshape the items into trousers. Immediately my patient reacted to the sight of the needle, covering his eyes and yelping weakly as if he was being stuck in the side with it.

“Ahh! I don’t like needles,” he said, pacing behind me now with his face turned away.

“Don’t worry. This fellow is very busy over here. You can stay right where you are. Give me just ten minutes, no… eight, no… the devil?” The point had come through in the wrong place, which wasn’t such a misstep, but it had done so in the correct position as well. Had my tailoring skills suffered so much in my age of clandestine information-gathering that I had forgotten how many tips a needle had?

Carefully I withdrew the item and held it up in what little dusty light there was. A branch. A branch in my needle. And it was growing, splitting continuously into smaller and smaller deviations. In seconds I held a tiny silver tree. A root must have formed as well, for something punctured my thumb and made me cast it aside.

A single drop of blood, of which I was very aware, as if it was a crystal vase containing my soul suddenly knocked from its pedestal, fell to the floor. As it struck it effected a most disturbing change in my surroundings, scored by a sobbing Martin who retreated close to the wall: the last place I would want to be just then.

The crimson droplet infected the floorboards, erased their seams, conjoined them all in a new fleshy consistency that spread, spread, spread. Up the walls it crept, the inverse skin of a deep gash, welling up with blood until it was saturated with itself. The curtain rod could have fallen, Cain knows I loosened it plenty, but instead it let itself be absorbed into the crawling moist flesh.

“Martin, get away from the wall!” I urged him, realization spreading faster than our disturbing prison.

“Keep that needle away from me Miss, and those nasty bugs,” he whimpered, leaning into the new materialization. A most horrid transformation was witnessed then as the rest of his clothing disappeared and his legs curled up into his chest. Already he was sufficiently fused to the wall not to fall. A membrane pulled itself over him like he was being tucked in, finishing as his eyes closed and cut him off from the world entirely.

Nor was he alone. Other pustules emerged floor, wall, and ceiling, erupting like barnacles that had failed to harden their shells. Each contained a person too degenerated to discern age or sex. Curled phoetal forms twitched, scowled, mewled, and in this ill body language I saw the crumpled physicality of a dreamer in active nightmare.

Dire truth had come to me before the corners of the home had disappeared completely, leaving just me and the furniture in a wretch-studded geode tumor. The bugs had not belonged to Wanda at all. In a sense they belonged to Martin.

They were one of his fears, manifested in the waking nightmare that was now his de-born life inside a bewitched cavity. Also among his fears were needles, which was why the one I produced quickly exaggerated into a ridiculous yet terrifying form. That is what fear does: propagate.

Gorily painted across this neglected carbuncle of Quarantown, my own worst nightmare was unavoidable in my heart and mind. Through my failure, through Wanda’s failure, her sister Goriana Perjury Consumption had already infiltrated our operation. It now seemed likely she had done so very early, shortly after our arrival, before my goddess had taken to putting up fences hexed, cursed, and arcane.

The Fosters had become her thralls, their worsening hermit qualities tied to their progressive consumption by what was now revealed to be metastasized to the bedrock of my future. From Martin’s state, and that of the others, I knew there was no way back for them. When Ruthven enslaved two poor souls on the train they became forever tied to him, but not absorbed body and soul. We sent them away, and my Wanda assured me there was a nugget of hope for them, especially the more distance they put between themselves and the vampire’s temporary grave out by the mine shaft.

Had I already been consumed? On my feet, I turned to find the door had disappeared, not so much as a seam amongst the blue veins that came into relief all about me. Trapped, yes, but not consumed. This place was both inside and out of the entity Consumption, but as with Ruthven’s bite and Wanda’s kiss I knew there had to be a more direct act involved. One did not simply tumble into pitfalls dug by heirs of Cain. They had to make you theirs, and you had to know it.

In order for that to happen, Goriana had reveal herself, the rest of herself anyway, which she wasted little time in doing. Half-expecting her to rise like a blemish and burst into view with a cascade of pus, I was relieved, if no less aghast, when she just faded into sight, standing behind the couch with an impish smile upon her face.

Four samples now in my possession, there was something else I could safely say about the heirs of Cain I had met from the litter of Diodati. Between them there was no family resemblance. None existed with Wanda and Ruthven initially, but I thought that could be explained by his partly-deceased status, as some are unrecognizable after the undertaker has their way.

But Devorgoil too looked entirely different from his siblings. Age, race, features, build. There was no consistency, which led me to believe that an heir of Cain spends their lives shaping themselves physically, body becoming the perfect representation of the soul by adulthood. That idea was in keeping with Wanda’s notion of the heirs as outward-looking creatures. If they wanted to see their spirits at all, it had to be worn on the sleeve of skin.

Perhaps my Wanda had been indistinguishable from the other six at one point, each born as a pink, bald, and blind squirmer like a mouse of the field, but now she could not be more different from the creature Goriana before me, with her petite dimensions, cherub face, and upturned piglet nose.

Dressed all in white, lined all in lace, with a matching parasol on her shoulder, Goriana was like an illustration out of a children’s book, someone come to the door to fetch some jam for her sick grandmother. The only indication of her inner ugliness was, well, the inner ugliness that encapsulated me right then.

“We finally meet, dear sister,” I sputtered, straightening my collar in the hopes that would make my fear fall all the way down and out my pant leg.

“Severin,” she said, words splitting open and oozing something, cake with a molten filling. “Don’t call me sister. You and Wanda aren’t really married.”

“It’s common law.”

“She isn’t common and she has no laws. And besides, we’ve met before. I was here the first time you entered this house.” Her parasol popped open with an unnatural gust. “The first time you entered me.”

“Normally I ask permission for such things, but you didn’t announce yourself.”

“How could I?” she pouted, spinning and worrying the handle. “Wanda does not share her toys. None of them share. I just want us to be a big happy family, so I snuck in. I hear when you say ‘goodnight’ and I whisper it back as I lay in the dirt under your floorboards.”

“Your family looks plenty big,” I said, gesturing at those imprisoned in the walls. One hanging from the ceiling drooped lower from their flailing: a nightmare of drowning. Given how Martin’s fears had manifested in the open there seemed a possibility that rupturing the membrane above me would result in a torrent of water, and that if submerged the head would not break the surface again.

“They are where they belong,” she said demurely, almost forlorn, stepping over to the wall and stroking the slime on one cell; the captive shuddered. “Freed from all responsibility, facing only the dangers I face, which are few.”

“Some look very diminished. Are they free when there’s nothing left?”

“Of course. Then they are completely me, transformed into an heir of Cain without the labors of murder and abandonment. The cosmos they get to see is loving, warm, and red.”

“What is it that I can do for you Goriana?” I asked, with little hope she would be as benign as Devorgoil, seeing as I’d already triggered the trap of her subcutaneous hothouse morgue. Both her brother and sister had given a one note characterization, so her answer was disheartening to both predict and hear. Goriana was a less wise creature than the others; she wanted only a captive audience. Already I could see the twitching tension in her face at having to keep a conversation going. Her jaw was for swallowing, like a python.

“Only what you have already done for her, undeserving witch to the squirrels. Be mine in a way that can’t be shared. I know she works you to the bone. All your time is spent corralling these useless people so that one day they might sing hymns dedicated to her. Whereas I want you to relax. Leave the corralling to me. There’s plenty of room in here for all of your friends.”

“I know heirs of Cain such as yourself see people like me as mere objects, perhaps finicky at times like an old stove, but ultimately idle. But I am not idle, sister. I can’t serve my purpose locked up or dwindling away in an ampule, lost to evaporation. My Wanda treasures me; she does not consume me.”

“I can keep the bones intact,” she offered, knowing full well that would convince me of nothing. She took a step forward, not-so-secretly delighted at banter’s close. What exactly the process of consumption looked like I dared not discover, for if I did it would likely torment me as nightmare over and over again.

But I sensed touch was key. She had to taste me, gnaw me, stew close upon me as two chunks from different animals did in the same pot. I was only safe as long as I did not know her touch.

Her parasol spun again as she slowly approached, up to a frightening speed that caused it to shed accumulated blood from her humid interior. Cascading rings of the stuff flew off it, slapped and splashed upon the fleshy floor. The flowing stripes obscured her face, making it more difficult to tell exactly how close she came.

One splash on my eyes would blind. The moment after that she would have her teeth in me and the best I could do in rebellion would be a slight case of indigestion. Now was the time to employ strategy, but there was precious little to work with in her ‘membranous spatial lining’ as Wanda had named it.

Of the furniture only the sofa and coffee table remained, with the curtains I’d begun altering kept safe from the changing floodwaters by their place on the table. Those aside, the space was featureless, all doors, windows, and stairways sealed up by tissue.

These poor people are no longer complete, but I should not ignore them, I told myself as I snatched up the curtains, little room left to back away from Goriana’s approach. The blood spiral emanating from her parasol painted itself across the front of my shoes. With luck the curtain could buy me a moment, held up as a screen between us to block her touch, but soon as it worked she would shred it.

Distraction. The danger was only that until I was consumed. Think, Severin. Surrounded I was by people, each one a rich well of knowledge, experience, and emotion. They were not merely spectators; Goriana had claimed as much. They were part of her, and so active in this encounter.

I thought back to my battle with Lord Ruthven, where he was defeated by a quirk of his own dark magic. Goriana was not the sort to learn a lesson from his story. She would think her pocket, made from her own substance, already immune to everything. It was, after all, the flesh of Cain, and anything of Abel would bounce off or be assimilated.

Connections, associations. These table scraps of logic were strewn about whenever an heir of Cain altered natural law, messy eaters as they were. What aspect of Goriana’s eating habits could be turned against her?

Then it came to me, mere seconds before my sister-in-law did the same. Technically, any tool could be at my disposal in her lining, as long as it was the subject of a phobia in one of her prisoners’ minds. Martin had manifested grotesque insects and thirsty branching needles, his fears exaggerating their characteristics in a loop of terror that only stopped expanding when it found the ceiling of his sanity.

Was there another fear somewhere in there that could be used? All of them were invisible at the moment, so how was I to search them? Couldn’t. And no time. Necessity dictated that I knew them already. One possibility shined in the bramble of catching thoughts. Irving. The other Foster cousin was the only person I knew.

All her other victims had to be from before her arrival in Quarantown, as no one else had fallen off my menu. Where was he? My head whipped about, searching. Luckily Goriana enjoyed looking upon the slow smoothing of her prey’s features, for if the membranes holding them had been opaque I never would have been able to recognize what remained of his face.

I found him just behind me, stuck on the wall a touch lower than one might hang a portrait. In so finding him I was pushed up against him by the confined space Goriana’s spray created. Shoulder touched shoulder, with membranous screen between, where I felt his very bones bend out of the way, weakened by absorption to a state rather like a shark’s skeleton. In response he crumpled in on himself further: a phoetus seeking an ouroboros demise in fear of its own birth. Could he hear me?

Lost in a nightmare, surely, but again Goriana had boasted of her own greatest weakness. She could hear me, and if Irving was part of her than so could he, as a voice cast down from the rain cloud heavens of the nightmare realm.

The first time I had visited the Fosters Irving had been startled, rather exaggeratedly, by the sound of something suddenly dropped. At the time it had struck me as a peculiarly violent reaction, like that of an abused dog. Now I imagined he had his fear of sudden loud noises well under control by adulthood, but then Goriana had come along and fed its fire so that he could not help but react.

If so, if the breadcrumbs of my new sister’s shameful table manners had been followed properly, then a sudden loud noise, right in his shrinking ear, would draw an immediate reaction so out of proportion as to create the fear physically, all the worse and more powerful, like Martin’s bugs and needle.

A stripe of blood embraced my midsection, then another on the collar. She cast her parasol aside, leaned, mouth gaping like a demon after a soul flitting about in the air. All I could do was throw up the curtain to block her and ignore the wet impression of what had to be a tongue, despite it not being able to fit in the mouth I’d just seen.

I turned my head, cheek to cheek with poor Irving, unable to request his assistance, about to traumatize him in the taking of it. If there was time I would’ve thanked him for having a fear I could simulate with nothing but judicious use of my own interior spaces, chiefly the lungs. Quick as I could I filled them up, stirred and disturbed the dust left there by my Venus in furs, and converted it all into a piercing shout. The name of my weapon. The name of my wielder.

“WANDA!”

The sound rippled not just across Irving’s deformed ear, but the rest of his flesh as well. My voice echoed all about us, except an echo was not supposed to be louder than its parent. Her name, layered aggressively as a series of boxer’s blows on the concussing world of Goriana’s guts, grew so powerful that it pressed Irving’s fleshy wall outward. Then it ruptured.

Explosive force took with it their home’s wooden gate, chunks of meat and splinters of wood now intermingled. Some of those pieces were undoubtedly Irving himself, as nothing so large as an intact man landed anywhere within the blast radius. Air rushed into the stale vacuum and buffeted me, whipping me, thankfully, free of the Foster home and tossing me out into the grass, drooling and temporarily deaf.

Though I heard nothing I felt Wanda’s name fly a final time in all directions. Out into the surrounding woods. Into the ears and tympanic membranes of every creature on or in her soil. Supernatural senses were not needed to hear it.

Goriana Perjury Consumption stepped to the threshold of the meaty eruption, gently holding her side, having suffered nothing more painful than a runner’s stitch. But she did not cross. We both knew the inevitable result of my outburst; it was just a matter of how many seconds until-

Had I witnessed the rupture of the Foster home from the exterior I imagine it would’ve looked something like the poor trees at the edge of Quarantown just then, a little too close together and a little too in the direct path of a vicious, snarling, possessive heir of Cain. Ah my Wanda: the heat in the dark. Out of the raining leaves she bounded, flanked by hundreds of rodents, weasels, crows, and songbirds that only knew dirges right then. She too looked positively bestial, transformed into a shape I had not seen before, unsurprising given that our only previous battle was aboard a confined locomotive, and this new form would’ve cracked its floors as it scared all the passengers into throwing themselves out of a speeding caboose.

She came on all fours, though that was not apparent until she first landed in the open, her leap having covered ten times the distance of a typical human’s. Each finger was a spade, penetrating deep into the earth with each step, with the palm never so much as touching a blade of grass.

Her cloak of furs clung to her body as if wet, but most of it billowed and trailed far above and behind her as a flag does in the strongest battlefield gale. Its whipping could not disguise that it was a great deal larger than it usually was, an inflated posturing I conflated with the bristling of a wildcat.

Always her vivisecting, electric, green eyes enchanted, threatened, promised, chained, sat in your memory like shelved crystals watching you back, but now their character was blinding white through and through, her speed dragging minute bolts of lightning across her cheeks like tears. Fully extended fangs glinted in pure refined hostility. I found it impossible to tell if she roared, or if that was merely her presence as she loped nearer.

“Wandy!” Goriana bubbled, throwing open her arms for a hug. Wanda pounced, carried the both of them back into the broken cyst of a living room. Here I should remind you that the heirs of Cain are not capable of killing each other, having earned the right with a rock for the Abel-bodied only. It is one of the reasons they operate through us so frequently, why I was sent in against Lord Ruthven.

However, they are perfectly capable of fighting. This includes all manners of injury, but rest assured that the final result would be two wheezing, limp, bloodied things scowling at each other a breath apart, with nothing more to say on the matter. From my peering position, standing awkwardly just outside with absolutely no intention of getting my shoes any bloodier than they already were (I eventually had to discard them), it was nonetheless plain to see that our little sister was perfectly willing to get to that pathetic state.

Any time spent that way would be togetherness to her, and the fighting itself was the only play she likely ever had with her siblings, a tragedy I cannot make my Venus understand, with such efforts angering her faster than you might crack an egg.

My goddess had considered all this long before, no doubt discussed many war scenarios with her furry generals deep in the moss and undergrowth, acting on those considerations immediately by vaulting out of her tumble with Goriana and clawing her way up the inflamed wallpaper.

Her next strike took out one of her sister’s entombed morsels, obliterating their head and ending their nightmares once and for all. Yes, she had killed them, but the process had been begun by the woman Consumption, and the only ends to it now were pained fading or merciful execution. I had unwittingly provided Irving with the latter as well.

Adhering to the walls like a gecko, Wanda made her way from one thrall to the next, freeing them systematically. They were Goriana’s power, just as myself, her furs, and her woods were Wanda’s. For Goriana to let it continue was to see her own strength diminish, her siblings pull further and further ahead in the race to a life that completely excluded her.

Enraged, our poor sister tried to stop the assault, but my Wanda was much slipperier. The next time they clashed it produced a great volume of blood, a surging wave, that caught me by surprise and washed me further afield. As it drained I sat up (now all of my clothes would have to be discarded) and saw that Goriana had used the expulsion of her own fluids as cover for escape. That route was one way. Once she passed our borders Wanda’s protections locked her out.

Irving was dead by my hand, or vocal cords I suppose: an iron chandelier fact hanging heavy in my heart. Wanda later mentioned that Martin was among the ones she destroyed, making sure to do so lest his connection to Quarantown provide Goriana any kind of immunity to our defenses.

It was in this lull, the silence of our mutual isolation, the quiet of the animals in awe of their god (myself included), the tension of the other townsfolk still cowering in their homes in case a second exploding name rang out of the mountain, that I looked over and saw her in the wake of the struggle.

Her furs lost their phantom’s buoyance and rested so heavily on her shoulders that they slumped. The sharp lines of a predator’s face as it draws its saber teeth disappeared like shadows sucked into a corner while her eyes faded to green. In her hand was a flat smooth stone plucked right from the ground, untouched by the chaos.

I watched as she curved her wrist, flicked and tossed, her spite going with it I think. The object skipped several times across the pond of blood yet to be sucked into the earth. At its edge it paused, hopping in place, memorizing its own ripples, before it continued across the dry ground until it disappeared into the forest.

Asking would only have her confirm my idea, that it was some sort of magical device, hexed right then and there, meant to track Goriana’s scent and report something back. Perhaps she was not gone forever, which led me to wonder if Wanda would ever allow me to leave Quarantown, now safer than anywhere else on the planet for me.

‘Allow’ here is an interesting word, for I do not mean she would chain me to our bed if she caught me fondling compasses and walking sticks. I mean the granting of permission, for she knew as well as I that I would never disobey a request to stay, not after that day. Trusting not only in Wanda, but in what we built together, would be the only thing keeping me alive at several points in the future: knots in the rope of my life only two hands from two people could untangle.

“I worry the people here are too weak,” she said to break the silence. She was the only creature who could. Not a duck would’ve quacked until she spoke.

“Without you,” I said to actually complete the thought. To demonstrate our need I remained plunked down in the muddy blood, hair and stare disheveled.

“You were right my Severin. She was only able to trespass because they were giving out invitations on my behalf.” She turned away from her woods, to me, expression full of possessive love, like she smelled a loaf of bread at the same time her mouth tore into it, trying to anticipate and experience at the same time because one could never be enough. “Only you can act on my behalf.”

“I should like to act on all of you, not just half,” I said. Now you might think it crass for such a comment to be made while soaking in a lagoon of nightmare-contaminated blood, and I would agree, so I must admit that was something of a lie.

I did say that exact thing, but much later (actually I have no idea how long it was. The greatest certainty the new me can muster tells me it was at least the next day). The true place was in our bedroom, with a floor full of guests beneath our feet. We were getting dressed for the first of many soirees we would host.

Obviously I dressed myself perfectly, but still submitted to inspection from Wanda, who made a show of straightening what was already straight and dusting off what had never known dust, all to touch me while I was giddy with the prospects of the evening, to pluck berries of enthusiasm off me and taste.

Gorgeous couldn’t begin to describe her. Out of her furs, in a bold gown of green and orange taken from a sketch of mine that she’d found, she succeeded in taking away any excuse her guests would have to call her otherworldly. Yet they would still feel it. That night was her first true introduction to her people. After it they would all seek her approval and shy from her scorn.

“You’ve supplied them with enough to drink?” she asked. Not nervous, not my Wanda. Just fidgeting. Impatient. Trying not to devour the evening in one bite.

“Giggles is handling that; she knows what she’s doing.”

“And the food?”

“…Yes, there is food.” She growled a little, looking up at me, bending my lapels like iron bars, but it was an amused growl.

“Do enjoy this one night Severin, where you are more skilled than your goddess. By the time I take you to bed I will have this partygoing business mastered.” It was here that I made my comment about acting on all of her, trusting that she would remember the reference, and that she would accommodate for my temporal drifting by picking up the conversation right where it was left off.

But I will not report what she said in response. There were many things, all snappier than mine, and really meant only for me. Suffice it to say that we said aloud the things we had learned in the quiet wake of Goriana barging in on our lives. Wanda could listen to me, when necessary, and I would do well to remember that I can’t talk my way out of every encounter with an heir of Cain. Only luck got me out of one with nothing but a close shave.

Shuffling conversation underneath swelled. We were missing our own affair, but some of the phrases I plucked out of the noise gave me pause. I thought I heard something about a new year, about a new goal.

“What… no, it can’t be.”

“What can’t it be my love?” Wanda asked coyly, pretending at a much lesser mind.

“Is this… are we throwing a new year’s party? It can’t be. We crossed the new year after we got off the train and… three months. I was counting! Three months! Wanda how long have we been here?”

“All our lives.” The cold had lasted too long, into what I thought was the spring. Were Wanda and I in bed while the summer whizzed past?

“Oh you must tell me! How do you expect me to make my way down there if I don’t even know the occasion? And it couldn’t have been so long, could it? Or have my feelings been getting ahead of me and it’s only weeks from the train?” Her eyes caught like green suns. “Days!?”

“Come darling, our public awaits.” She towed me by the hand. So that was it then. Time was a lost cause. Wanda Blasphemer Pelts marked our shared progression with nicks in my bone, rising as we grew together. If there was any order to my life now it was all a rope stretched out by Cain, interrupted in uniformity only by his heirs.

Two knots. The potential for at least three more. Trusting in the hand holding mine and guiding me, I hoped there was no noose at

The End

Wanda and Severin will return in

Heirs of Cain

Venus in Labor

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