Horror & Dark Fantasy

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Fiction

Inspirations

She counts the days by the cuts on her arms. Her captors tell her the year when she asks them—one of the few questions they ever answer for her—but the numbers mean nothing. She remembers the birth of the Industrial Age, remembers men flying like Icarus flew (and falling, falling, so many of them falling, so many melting waxen wings) . . . but oh, even then, the numbers meant nothing. Who measures years by thousands? No empire stands two thousand years; no man measures such a span. Not even scars endure that long, and so she measures out the days in wounds.

On Monday, her arms weep ribbons of blood that wind around her body before falling into the basin below (nothing is ever wasted here). The bleeding stops by Tuesday, cut off by the slowly forming scabs. Wednesday and Thursday bring the unbearable itching of flesh knitting against flesh; she heals quickly. She and her sisters have always healed quickly.

On Friday there is no pain at all.

By Saturday the scabs have dropped away, leaving her arms (her shoulders, the insides of her thighs) white and whole. Saturdays find her as pure as the day they brought her down from the mountain, caught her in their chains, and bound her here. On Saturdays, she is whole. On Saturdays, they bring the new supplicants to view her, showing them the pale, weeping woman bound above the basin of her own blood without the damning presence of her nearly-constant wounds. It’s easier for the new ones if they only see the blood and never see her bleeding; understanding will come later, when it’s too late to run.

The faithful bring the wide-eyed children before her and promise them that she feels no pain. They say she cries only because tears are her natural state of being. They promise those children the world if they will come, just once, to take Holy Communion . . .

Sundays are holy days.

They’re always careful when they come to bleed her. The knife slipped the one time they sliced her breasts, leaving the skin clinging to the wound like a flower that was never meant to open; the priest cut too deeply, bringing her closer to death than she’d ever been. The scars remained with her for a week of Saturdays, turning her flesh hot and raw, giving her ecstatic visions, until it seemed she could almost touch Olympus.

They didn’t dare call a doctor. How could they? They had no way to explain the grooves the manacles cut into her wrists (the only scars that never left her, her only company through the slow dance of days) or the inhuman pallor of her skin. She’d been bound for years (years mean nothing; count by what matters—how long since she’d seen the sun?), and she had never eaten, never relieved herself. What would a doctor find if he examined their bound and weeping goddess? Nothing human. That much, at least, was sure. No, the priest said; no. The infection would have to run its course. They had been careless. The mistake would not be repeated, if she lived. He pulled the faithful away, told them they were being tested, and closed and locked the prison doors.

For two months, she was left alone in darkness while the fever ran its course. She had long since abandoned prayer—who should she pray to? She knew no one was listening—but she allowed herself a moment of hope when the fever broke enough to let her rise to painful lucidity. Please, she begged, let this be enough. Let me go. I have been too long away from the mountain. I want to go home.

Let me die.

The infection ran through her like wildfire and ice, showing her the things she had forgotten (so much to forget; only so much the mind could keep, could hold, only so much, even for the immortal . . .), reminding her of countless horrors and tiny tragedies. It burned until she screamed in the ecstasies of pain, believing freedom to be finally in reach. She was climbing towards the sun, the sun, at last—

—and her fever broke, and she fell.

That week’s communion was the best in years. The blood they took from her was hot with remembered agony, tragedies caught there like flies in amber. They drank, each to each, and fled home to their keyboards and their pens, the chains that bound them to the church and their unwilling goddess. Their wives laughed and whispered, saying they served some dark mistress, some unseen calling that forced them to write their nights away creating horrors no one else had ever seen . . .

But someone else has seen those horrors. Their “dark mistress” knows every word, remembers every second. She never serves them willingly; those tragedies are hers to keep, not theirs to take, but when they come to her, she shares them all the same. When the knife is pressed to her skin, she has no choice but to bleed.

She counts the weeks by the cuts on her arms and dreams the day the knife slips again and the fever returns to court her, love her, and carry her home to the mountains of the sun.

She counts time by the scars.

• • • •

“Where are we going, exactly?”

The man behind the wheel smiles, trying to be reassuring. It isn’t working. “I already told you: we’re going to church.”

“I thought you said this was some sort of writer’s group—”

“It is, I promise. This will be exactly what you need.”

“I hope so.” I settle in my seat, letting my gaze wander to the window. The landscape flashes by outside the car, becoming less urban as the inner city slides away. Steel and rust has already given way to carefully mowed lawns and an endless progression of mini-malls, all stamped from the same prefabricated mold. “I haven’t written anything in months.”

“We’re gonna get you fixed right up.” John turns a corner, still chattering; I idly wonder whether he’s ever quiet. “I was in your position when Paul brought me in. Said it was just what I needed, and damn, was he ever right! I went home that night and started the first King’s Hill Slasher book. A little inspiration is all it takes.”

I fold my arms, struggling to hide my interest. “And you say you get inspiration from this . . . church?”

“Didn’t your momma teach you the value of faith?” He laughs, the deep, chesty laugh of a happy man. I bite back my own derisive chuckle, drawing blood from the tip of my tongue. Oh, yes, my mother taught me the value of faith, swearing it was the virtue that suited me best. I learned the pulse of the church, the slow rise and fall of the ecclesiastic voice, the promise and the pain of religion. I remember every lesson. They just don’t do me much good.

This isn’t a world that treats faith very kindly.

“I’m not much of a churchgoer.” I make my voice small and shy, like the frightened innocent he thinks I am. “I guess I lost my faith in, well . . .”

“God?” he offers.

It’s as good an answer as any. “It’s so hard to have faith these days. To really believe in a greater power.”

“Well, honey, I can promise you one thing about our church.”

“What’s that?”

“When it’s over, you’ll believe.” This time his smile is beatific—the smile of a man who has seen the face of the divine. I’ve seen that smile on priests, madmen, and the few true believers remaining in this world. I stare at him, awed and frightened by what I see in his eyes.

What have I gotten myself into?

“Once you’ve taken Communion,” he says, “there’s no way you can doubt what we believe.”

• • • •

She wakes from uneasy slumber and sees that she is whole again; the scabs on her arms have fallen away, leaving her skin as white and smooth as marble. Her tears begin afresh, running down her cheeks and dripping down her chin, her throat, the curves of her breasts, cutting tracks through the blood and washing it away as they fall. If she is whole, there will be a ceremony.

There will be a sermon.

And there will be Communion.

Closing her eyes, she weeps, and damns the cyclic betrayal worked by the calendar of her skin.

• • • •

John parks in front of an old high school. There aren’t many cars; most, like his, are shiny and new, although a few older models lurk around the edges, seeming ashamed to come out of the shadows. Flickering lampposts light the front of the school, showing peeling paint and faded wood. The doors are padlocked shut.

He slides out of the car and walks around to open my door, a true gentleman. I knew what he was when we met in the writer’s group, me reading my tortured prose and wincing at every critique, him providing the smooth ease of experience and the careful guiding hand of a professional, trying to soften the rough edges of my work. He was always proper. He never put a hand on me, never asked me for more than dinner or coffee. In exchange, he critiqued my manuscripts, offered suggestions, and did his best to praise me—not that there was much to praise. If there was mercy there, it was in that we both knew how bad I was.

I have no talent for mainstream writing. I’m too gruesome for fantasy, too fantastic for mystery, and too unscientific for science fiction. Horror is my last hope, my last shot at the big time before I go home to mother and admit that she raised me too well, that I’m not good for anything but having faith.

I take his hand, letting him help me from the car, and he leads me toward the school. He glances in my direction, smiling a small, knowing smile. “Nervous?”

“A little,” I say. It’s closer to the truth than I want it to be. “What kind of church is this? It’s not some kind of cult, is it?”

“Oh, no! Nothing like that.” He shakes his head, looking honestly shocked. We walk in silence for a while, circling the school as we head into the darkness behind the building. Just as I start to think he’ll make me learn for myself, he says, “We just worship a little . . . differently. That’s all?”

“Differently?” I don’t have to fake the quaver in my voice. There are many kinds of faith, and no matter how nice John seems, I’ve read his books. It takes a certain amount of darkness to write that kind of story. His most successful series—ten books and still going—focuses on a man called “the King’s Hill Slasher.” They’re gory and disgusting, each one worse than the last, and they’ve made millions . . . and most of the Slasher’s victims have been women. I wouldn’t be easy to kill—I’ve had self-defense lessons from the best—but he could hurt me enough to make it inconvenient.

Not that it matters; it’s not like I have anywhere to go. I’m not sure where we are, and I have no way to get myself home. I never learned to drive. There never seemed to be much point. I can almost always find someone to get me where I need to go, and situations like this—where I’m trapped by my own limitations—are rare. I’ll be more careful in the future, but now . . .

Now, whether I like it or not, I’m going to church.

John lets go of my arm, looking at me. “I guess I should give you a little warning. We don’t get many women, but you need it bad enough.”

“Need what?” I ask, warily.

“The inspiration.” He looks uncomfortable. “That’s what we worship here. Pain, screaming, redemption, the old tragedy—that’s what horror is about, right? Old tragedies, written into new shapes.”

“John, you’re scaring me.”

John grins lopsidedly. “Oh, honey, we’re not going to hurt you. We’d never hurt a soul.”

“Then what—”

“I said we’d never hurt a soul. Some things don’t have souls.” He starts walking faster. I watch him, fighting the urge to run. His back is to me. I could get away.

But he’s promised me so much. He’s promised the words and the inspiration I need. And he’s right—I have to have the things he’s offering. It’s not just desire; it’s sheer, aching need. Without the words, I’ll have to go home, admit my failure, and try to live without my faith in a world I’ve outgrown. There isn’t a place for me there. Faith was all I had, and now that it’s dead, I’m scrambling to find something—anything—to fill the holes it left behind. My sisters still have their callings; they don’t understand why I’m so lost. If John can give me what I need, why should I run from him? He won’t kill me. I’m almost sure of that.

If there’s no other choice, I’ve always been able to stand a little pain.

• • • •

The priests come in silence, wiping damp rags across her skin, cleaning and polishing her like a statue. She shivers under their touch. She has given up trying to speak to them, trying to reason with them. They see her as an object of worship (as it should be, as it has always been), but never as a person. They meet her eyes and see only what she can give them. They refuse to see her as a woman; they see only potential for stories without end. She is nothing to them but a channel, and that, too, is as it has always been.

There will be new supplicants tonight. They wouldn’t bother washing her if there weren’t; the existing members of the congregation have seen it all before. The show is only for the new ones, the innocents who stare and wonder what she is. There were always a few who would demand her freedom if they saw her dripping with blood and tears. Freedom. To see the sun . . .

It’s happened before. There are always a few who believe her a woman, who call her confinement torture (and it is, but not in the way they believe), who swear they’ll find a way to free her. She no longer believes any of them will succeed. They shout and demand she be set free, but they all come back the next day. They come to see her, how her bindings are tied, and dream that they can free her.

And they drink, just once, to keep up the masquerade.

And then they belong to her, although she doesn’t want them; they’ll be hers until they die, because once they drink, they believe. She never asked to be a goddess, but she is theirs, and they are hers, forever and ever, amen. They go home from that first draught with all thoughts of her freedom forgotten, and they begin to write . . .

• • • •

“I’m glad you came.” He smiles as he leads me into the maze of halls inside the school. Why are American schools always built along such tangled plans? It’s too easy to get lost in them. “I was a worried for a minute there. And you need this, honey.”

“What is it?”

“It’s, well . . . it’s home.” He stops at the cafeteria doors—the only unlocked doors I’ve seen so far. He pushes them open, and we step inside.

The windows are covered with black paper that traps the light; from outside, I would never have known the room was in use. There are perhaps a dozen people present, mostly men. Small tables are scattered around the room, holding food and drink, and a large jar half-filled with cash sits next to the door. John pulls out his wallet, adding two fifties to the contents. He sees my curious look, and shrugs.

“We’ll ask you to contribute if you come back for Mass, just to help pay for the food. We own the school. The church bought it years ago, when the first of us started making it big. Go get yourself a plate. Mingle a little. I’ll come back and get you when it’s time to take the supplicants back to the communion room.”

I give him a sidelong look but do as I’m told, grabbing a soda as I start into the crowd. There are faces here I recognize: authors I’ve seen before, on book covers and flyers. Some are very big names in the business—some are very big names indeed.

I start to wonder what exactly waits in the communion room.

The presence of the women is reassuring. I find myself falling into conversation with one of them, talking about the books she’s writing about the life of Joan of Arc. She plans to explore the demons she believes stalked the young Frenchwoman, making it a story of corruption and seduction.

I sip my drink, hiding my smile behind my hand. I’ve never seen that much complexity in Joan’s story. It was simply a matter of divine inspiration, if you ask me. A matter of faith.

Time slips away, and I’m surprised when John returns, putting his hand on my shoulder. “Come on, honey,” he says, “it’s time to go.”

“But—”

The woman I’ve been talking to laughs, nimbly plucking the cup out of my hand. “Go on,” she says, flashing me her book-jacket smile. “We can talk tomorrow night, when you come back for Mass.”

Looking around, I see only calm expectation on the faces surrounding me. They believe this is inevitable. I nod, giving in, and let John lead me away.

For the first time in memory, I am truly frightened.

• • • •

The priests have left her alone. She shivers, although the cold never really touches her anymore—only the absence of the sun, the glorious sun. Does he even know she’s gone? Does he miss her at all? She stares up at her arms, willing the cuts to blossom there once more, to tear open and let her die. As always, her wish goes unfulfilled.

She sags in her chains, closing her eyes, and continues to cry.

• • • •

“Isn’t anyone else coming?”

“Not tonight, honey. We don’t invite many people to join us.”

“Oh.”

He leads me to a closet, opening it to display a rack of long white robes. “I know you dressed special for tonight,” he says, almost apologetically, “but we don’t want to get anything on those nice clothes of yours.”

I eye him warily as a take a robe. “Does that happen often?”

“Only when she’s feeling frisky.”

“What?” I freeze. “John?”

He pulls a robe on over his clothes. “It’s time to tell you the story of our church. I need you to have an open mind, all right?” He pauses, frowning at my expression, and repeats, “All right?”

I force myself to nod, saying, “All right, John.” I have no idea how to get out of here. There were too many turns, too many dark passages; I didn’t pay close enough attention. All I can do is go along with whatever sickness lives here, smile, nod, and run like hell when John takes me back into the light.

John nods in turn, apparently satisfied. “About twenty years ago, there were a couple of kids who wanted to write. Not little stories—big ones, the kind that change the world. You know that feeling, don’t you?”

Agreement is easy. “Absolutely.”

“These were pretty clever kids. One of them knew a lot about the old religions, the old gods. The Greeks had these girls called ‘Muses.’ They were Goddesses of Inspiration, but—here’s the thing—that was all they did. No thunderbolts. They were as close to harmless as gods get. They couldn’t fight you. Couldn’t defend themselves. And they controlled ideas. Those boys spent two years researching the rituals, searching until they found the perfect words to say, the perfect ingredients to use. When they had everything they needed . . . they summoned a Muse.”

“They did what?” I ask, voice dying on my lips.

John takes my tone for disbelief. He nods. “They did it. Pulled her off Olympus, or wherever it is the old gods live these days, and bound her here. It took them a while to figure out how to make her share the words. After all, you can bet that little lady wasn’t too happy with her captors.”

“So how did they . . .”

“Blood. Holy Communion, just like in church, only what we’re sharing here is something more tangible. It’s inspiration—faith and hope and words. They wrote the stories they set out to write. You’ve probably read a few of them.” He starts walking again. I follow, too stunned to do anything else.

A Muse? Is that possible? And if it is, if they did it . . . which one do they have?

“You drink her blood?” I whisper.

“There’s nothing wrong with what we’re doing. We worship her, like she needs to be worshipped, and everything we do to her heals right up again. She’s not human. She’s just an idea given pretty flesh.” He stops in front of another door. “No one will believe you if you try to tell them what you see here tonight. We’re a writer’s group. We own this school. They’ll think you’re a groupie and a crazy woman, and when you bring them here, we’ll open our doors and show them that everything is perfectly normal. And you’ll never have a chance like this again. Understand?”

I swallow, and say, “I understand.”

“Good.” He opens the door, tugging me into the presence of his tortured goddess. I freeze in the doorframe, trying to justify what I see. The image is disjointed by its very nature: the brain, even mine, refuses to admit what it sees when reality becomes too unkind. This is too much. It’s impossible. And it’s real.

The chains that hang from the ceiling gleam like tarnished silver; they must have shone like stars in the darkness when she was first bound. Ancient glyphs are hammered into the concrete floor, some in Latin or Greek, some in older, stranger tongues, rough, but readable. Dried blood cakes the crevices of the lettering. This is old magic, even older than Olympus. And there’s so much blood . . . I guess when you’re bleeding a goddess, you can keep going forever.

A basin no larger than a child’s wading pool sits at the room’s center, half-filled with blood curdled almost black. It must fill and overflow from time to time, washing over the glyphs and renewing them. The prisoner binds herself. She bleeds, and the metaphysical chains remain as strong as the manacles around her wrists. It’s both beautiful and terrible in its simplicity.

I force my eyes upwards.

I see the goddess.

She is naked, and perfect. Her arms are bound above her head, leaving her weight to dangle from her shoulders. The pain must be immense. Her feet taper toward the basin, and her hair falls to her knees in a snarled wave. Tears run down her cheeks, falling inexorably to mingle with the blood beneath her. Blood and tears. Nothing is wasted.

“What . . .” I breathe, and her head snaps up, eyes opening.

Her features are classic, so flawless they may as well have been carved from marble. Wisps of hair have tangled around her cheeks and chin, black streaks against the white. Her eyes are pale gray, the color of clouds, and bleak with exhaustion, agony, too many years and too many hours of witnessed pain.

I step back and wonder if John will realize that her eyes are like mine.

• • • •

She lifts her head, eyes glazed by the long slow years of abandoned prayer, and stifles a gasp as she sees the woman below her. The newcomer stands behind one of the long-time parishioners. They gaze at each other across the gulf of time, and for the first time in years, the tears she cries are tears of hope.

She knows that woman. She knows her as well as she knows herself (as well as she knows the sun), even if she is wearing different clothing, even if she has dyed her hair a pale and unflattering blonde. She knows her, no matter how long it has been. She knows. And she believes.

• • • •

I lick my lips. “What’s . . . what’s her name?”

“Melpominee,” John says. His voice is soft, awed. He dreams of her at night; I can see it in his eyes. When he touches mortal women, he’s really touching her. He was drawn to me not because of any talent he thought I possessed, but because he could see his goddess echoed in my face. Why can’t I hate him for that? “The Muse of Tragedy.”

“And you’ve bound her.” I raise my voice to hide the recognition I’m certain he can hear there . . . but no, no. All he hears is reverence.

“For twenty years,” he speaks like she can’t hear him, and oh, sweet heavens, he doesn’t believe she can. She’s nothing but a living altar to them, a font of endless creativity and knowledge.

But isn’t that what the Muses always were to man?

“Why a church?”

“So that we can share the bounty. There are enough editors out there for all of us; we can all live on what her gifts provide. This way there’s no jealousy, no reason for the ones without any real talent to try sniffing out what makes us stars when they can’t force their pen to the paper. We just bring them home, if they’re the sort to try, and they join the congregation. And this way there will always be someone to take care of her.”

“Forever?” I ask.

The broken goddess hanging from the silver chains closes her eyes, going limp with despair. It suits her.

“We can’t let her go. The Muses were harmless, but they weren’t the only gods on Mount Olympus.” He shakes his head, almost regretfully. “This church has to stand forever. We can’t have her telling her parents.”

“Her parents?” I say.

“Her mother was a minor goddess. But her daddy was Zeus himself.”

• • • •

She shivers inside her skin, which has become as much of a prison as her chains.

Forever?

• • • •

John leads me back to the main room, and I join the crowd, laughing, drinking too much and listening to stories directly from the lips of some of the greatest writers of this decade. Most of them write horror, like John, like me. Horror must be the simplest genre to pull from the blood of the Muse of Tragedy—most of the details are already there. They just need someone to put the pen against the paper.

We leave when the clock strikes midnight; John promises to bring me back for Communion, and the others applaud. They approve of his choice of supplicants. I hear one of them whisper, “She has eyes just like—” But he’s cut off before he can finish, and I don’t hear the rest of his statement. It doesn’t matter. I know what he was going to say.

We drive back to the city in silence. John stops in front of my apartment, looking at me with something close to fear in his expression. “So, honey . . .” he begins.

“What time are you picking me up tomorrow?” I ask.

His relief is almost physical. He expected me to refuse; he thought I wouldn’t return. As if that was an option. We make our plans and I clutch my purse against my chest, watching him drive away. Before long, he’s out of sight.

And I call a cab.

• • • •

It takes no effort to find the school. I paid attention on the ride home; I have an excellent memory, and the aura of faith around the place is unmistakable, now that I know what it means. I pay the driver and get out, suppressing a smirk. What would my father think if he saw such an obvious manifestation of belief in today’s world? Would he auction off the other Muses to the highest bidder?

I think he might.

The locks on the door aren’t an issue; none of them are. It takes more than steel to bar me. I make my way through the school without pausing, trailing my hand against the wall. The building is abandoned, except for Melpominee, buried deep, far away from the touch of the sun. Poor thing. She always loved the sun. It must have been driving her crazy to be sealed away from it.

Her eyes open when I step into the room. “You found me. I knew you’d find me. I knew it.” The words are Greek, as ancient as the letters on the floor.

“Yeah, I did,” I say in English, folding my hands behind my back so that she won’t see them shaking. I won’t admit that I wasn’t looking for her, or that I rejoiced when she disappeared. She doesn’t need to know.

“Can you get me down? Can we go home?”

“Not tonight, Mel.” Her eyes dim, and I add, “Mass is tomorrow, remember? I can’t get you out tonight. They’d notice. Tomorrow . . .” I don’t finish the statement.

She seizes the assumed promise, suddenly smiling. “Thank you.”

“Don’t thank me.” I glance over my shoulder, feigning nervousness. “I should go. I don’t want to get caught.”

“Tomorrow?”

“Yeah, Mel.” I nod, fleeing the room. “Tomorrow.”

The taint of faith is impossible to ignore as I walk through the empty halls of the school. They truly believe. How could they not? The proof is in front of them, immortal and bleeding; the proof is on their printed pages, in the inspirations flooding their minds. I remember when my inspirations lit those sorts of fires, when I could make men scream for the touch of my hand, for just a glimpse of my eternal flames. I remember being a goddess.

Now she has the chance to get it all back, and she wants out. How can she be that stupid?

Melpominee always was the dumb one.

• • • •

The door closes and she is alone again, waiting for the holy day to come. But this time, she does not wait in fear; she waits for freedom.

In the small hours of the morning she closes her eyes, and dreams of Olympus.

• • • •

John meets me at sundown, and we drive back to the suburbs together. Neither of us speaks. In a way, we’re both going to meet our faith head-on.

The atmosphere at the school is different tonight. Last night was a social gathering, but this . . . this is holy. The faith in the room is so thick I can feel it on my skin, hot and needy and pleading to be let inside. I fight the urge to open myself completely and let it flow over me like wine. There will be time later. There is always time.

We dress in white robes, and a quiet man I recognize from a hundred book covers leads the congregation to the room where Melpominee waits. He walks slowly, and I feel the faith burning in him like a fire, using him as much as he uses it. He’s spent his life worshipping her. The taste of his belief is intoxicating, like spoiled milk and honey on my tongue. He believes . . . they all believe. How long has it been since so many believed? Too long. I have missed their faith.

Candles light the room from a hundred different angles like stars. One of the supplicants, faceless in his white robes, begins to turn a tiny crank beside the door. The chains scream.

The goddess descends.

How many years did it take to carve the binding sigils, to string the chains from the ceiling? How long did they work to be certain she was properly bound, that she would never, ever leave them? That’s faith. That’s love. They were willing to re-create the world for her. Melpominee must have been blind if she couldn’t see that.

The chains stop her just above the basin, her toes almost touching the blood that pools beneath her. The priest draws a knife from his robes. I know what has to come next. Ritual is so easy to predict.

I still flinch when he presses the blade against her arm.

The cut opens her flesh from wrist to elbow. She whimpers, but doesn’t scream. I have to respect her for that. She doesn’t scream. Several members of the congregation push their way forward, holding cups beneath her elbow to catch the blood that runs down the inside of her arm. They believe in her. They believe so much it hurts. I stop fighting. I let their belief flow through me, remaking me, and I know what I have to do.

The cups make the circuit of the room, passed from hand to hand as each of them shares the sacrament of a goddess’ blood. It comes finally to John’s hand. He drinks, and hands the cup to me, eyes filled with a quiet anxiety. This is the moment when he learns whether he has chosen wisely. This is the time when he learns whether I will betray them.

I take the cup in numb fingers, head ringing with an over-abundance of faith. She’s staring at me from behind her chains, eyes pleading for release. I could give it to her easily enough—either death or freedom. I could slice her throat and be gone before any of the fools around us had a chance to react. I could refuse communion, pretend disgust, and sneak back under the cover of darkness to set her free. I could flee with her back to the slopes of Mount Helicon, where our mother and sisters were waiting.

I could let her go, free the Muse of Tragedy in a world obsessed with dying. I could go back to being the one that was outdated, unneeded and unremembered.

It hurts to be forgotten.

Mom can keep waiting.

“Sorry, sis,” I whisper, raising the cup to my lips, “but tragedy is so much easier to come by these days than faith.”

And I drink.

• • • •

She counts the days by the cuts across her arms. The new priest is more skilled with the blade than the last; she knows how deep to cut, how to force infection and how to control it when it blooms. The blood that flows from those enflamed cuts is hotter, richer with unspoken promise. She is sick almost all the time now, but the cuts still bloom and wither like hothouse flowers, leaving her ready for each week’s communion.

The others rarely come to her anymore. It is always the new priestess who brings the washing cloths and empties the basin, giving them a sense of ritual and awe they never had before. She wonders (does the sun still shine?) what became of the old priest, but fears the results of asking. She knows too well what her sister is capable of doing in the name of religion.

She also wonders (is Olympus standing?) if any of them realize what they have invited amongst themselves; if they see the Olympian madness in their new priestess’ eyes. If they realize they have not one goddess among them, but two?

Polyhymnia, Muse of religion, who has finally found a faith strong enough to sustain her.

Sometimes, late at night, Polyhymnia comes to her. They whisper old stories to each other, and Melpominee wonders when the love in her little sister’s eyes became hatred. She would tell her, if she thought her sister, her priestess, her supplicant would listen: she would tell her faith is as eternal as tragedy, even if it is always so much harder to find.

She would tell her she believes in the gods again; that Polyhymnia has filled her purpose, that she has restored her sister’s faith. She would tell her, if she thought she might listen.

She counts the days by the cut across her arms, and dreams of dying.

Seanan McGuire

Seanan McGuire

Seanan McGuire was born and raised in Northern California, resulting in a love of rattlesnakes and an absolute terror of weather. She shares a crumbling old farmhouse with a variety of cats, far too many books, and enough horror movies to be considered a problem. Seanan publishes about three books a year, and is widely rumored not to actually sleep. When bored, Seanan tends to wander into swamps and cornfields, which has not yet managed to get her killed (although not for lack of trying). She also writes as Mira Grant, filling the role of her own evil twin, and tends to talk about horrible diseases at the dinner table.