Despite my profession, I have never considered myself to be a holy man. Curious about all things supernatural, certainly—ever since I first lowered Darwin’s goggles over my wide-eyes and could see for myself the world I’d been blind to. When I saw the ghosts that day as a boy, I believed. But belief does not equate holiness. Even the demons believe.
No, I am not a holy man. But I have always prided myself on being a practical spiritualist.
My vampire friend knocked at the door, only a few minutes late.
My coughing fit subsided, and I dabbed my mouth with the already-stained handkerchief.
More knocks—harder, and with less time between blows.
My shoulders brushed against the grounders and other amulets strung from the ceiling and walls to protect me from uninvited spirits, sent them clinking against one another. I looped the vial around my neck. Such a simple tool, carved and molded from salt crystals. The dead find grounders to be rude wards, but they view the vials as a particular evil.
I see it as a necessary one.
I twisted open the door handle and found Magdalena waiting on the other side.
The powder-blue hat at a fashionable angle was the most traditional thing about her. Magdalena’s trousers puffed out just above her boots, and both her jacket and vest were unbuttoned, revealing the pale hollow of her neck.
Contrary to superstition, there is no supernatural law requiring vampires be invited into the house. They will not writhe in agony at the attempt, or burst into flame. However, it is courteous and respectful, and so I made the formal invitation to Magdalena. She strode in past me, doffed her hat, and set it on an unlit candelabra.
Then she took my hand in hers, the red-dappled handkerchief still balled in my fist. She lifted it to her face, inhaling as if it was the most expensive of perfumes.
I should explain there was nothing erotic in this exchange, at least not from Magdalena’s perspective, though I admit my own body experienced some confusion at the way she reacted to my bloodied handkerchief. Confusion is natural whenever the physical and the supernatural come into contact, of course. But Magdalena, despite her pixie-like face, was at least half a century my elder, and possessed levels of maturity and experience that my meager life couldn’t fathom. I was very much a child in her eyes, a prodigy perhaps, but still a child. Something that needed to be coddled and doted on, not anything so coarse as a lover.
I looked at the curling papers pinned to the walls of my apartment—studies of unhinged jaws and long, cruel rows of vampiric teeth, and did my best to cool my body’s appetites. Above all else she was my colleague, as well as my subject.
Magdalena let go of my wrist. “I’m worried about you, Elijah. You’re getting worse.”
“Life usually does.” Before she could begin again about the alternatives to death, I asked, “Were you successful in your acquisition?”
Magdalena favored me with a crooked smile and dug through her satchel. Glass vials chimed against one another. She tossed a linen bundle to me, then went to the special decanter I kept for her, and poured herself a glass. She tasted the Primate Red and made a face. “I do wish you’d keep a better vintage for me. This stuff from the iron vineyard leaves such a bad aftertaste, no matter how well they maintain the chimps. There are willing humans, you realize?”
“Illegal,” I said, and unfolded the white cloth. The whittled bullets looked surprisingly plain. “Are you certain of their authenticity?”
She tipped back the glass, finishing it off in a swallow. Then she pointed an index finger at me as if it were a pistol. The tip was black—burned. “Unequivocally. What is this all about, Elijah?”
“I’ve just come from Fossick’s. He confirmed it. There’s an angel in London. A real one.”
She laughed, and poured herself another glass. “A real angel,” she repeated, sounding like a professor mocking a pupil’s thesis.
Darwin had proved much of the supernatural in his Origin of the Spirits. Due to the breakthrough with his goggles, he’d had less trouble seeking out the world’s other paranormal creatures. In certain instances, such as the vampires, they had sought him out. But angels, although long suspected by Darwin, had never been proved. There were tales, of course, but no specimen had ever been secured. With my mortality as evident as the crumpled handkerchief on the floor, I wanted to change that. To leave my mark on the world.
Something in my expression must have caused Magdalena to frown. “You’re serious?” she asked. “Why would Fossick suggest that? One dying man’s secret to another?”
“Precisely.” I removed the salt crystal vial from around my neck, handed it to her, and recounted the whole grisly ordeal in detail—my questioning of Fossick, the map he’d provided me of the Underground, the confrontation I’d had with Upton Salazar, my rival, and how I’d escaped.
“And the bullets?”
“A contingency.” An unnecessary one, I hoped. I was desperate but remained practical, even if the thought of using the weapon—something of an artifact itself—made me taste bile. But angels were an unknown quantity.
Magdalena didn’t argue the point. One of the reasons we worked so well together was that she understood the virtue of practicality. “Salazar knows of its habitat?”
“It’s highly probable.”
She sighed and took another drink, then rolled off of my couch, dusting off the sleeves of her jacket. “I wish I had been with you. I would’ve like to have tasted whatever passes for Salazar’s blood.”
I chuckled, cracked open my pistol’s cylinder, and loaded it with the wooden ammunition. “Don’t worry, my dear,” I said, and tucked the gun in my waistband. “There’s plenty of time before sunrise.”
Ghosts floated above the cobblestones, slowing as Magdalena and I passed. Rain slashed through them, caused hissing trails to mist up from their ethereal forms. They stared at us, perhaps struck by how the sway of Magdalena’s trousers looked both unladylike and utterly feminine.
I wiped away droplets beading across my goggles’ lenses and tipped my hat at a pair of ghosts looking for a host.
Magdalena’s cheerful giggle broke off when another coughing fit seized me. She waited until it passed, then wiped my mouth and hands with the tips of her fingers. Sniffed my blood before licking her hand.
I looked away as she sighed.
“Dear Elijah,” she said, laughing again and taking my arm in her own. “Don’t hold such things against me. I cannot be anything other than I am.” Her teeth were no longer retracted, and her smile was sharp and splintered, shark-like.
“Of course not.”
“It would be tragic for something so petty as life to come between us and our studies. Imagine having a certainty in seeing every tomorrow, in having the comfort of an eternity to conduct your studies and experiments. Imagine knowing you’d never have to give up these walks with me.”
It’d used to be me who asked the questions of the supernatural: what happens next? Is there something more than what the goggles allow us to see? Is there something wondrous, beyond this world?
But ever since I’d been diagnosed, my subjects had taken an increased interest in their examiner, dissecting my ambitions and what was left of my life. It was a courtship of sorts, I supposed, and Magdalena fancied herself my favorite suitor.
Perhaps there was something of a vampire in me. It appealed more than any of the alternatives. But the ghosts and vampires already had several spiritualists themselves, and—if my studies suggested nothing else—I was certain that the afterlife of a ghoul left quite a lot to be desired.
I had months left to live, possibly only weeks, and the thought of leaving this world as nothing more than a footnote on its history made me feel sicker than coughing up bits of my own lungs.
“I appreciate the offer, but I’m hopeful I’ll overcome my circumstance. There may be a miracle yet.”
Magdalena cocked her head and made a show of twirling her cane. “Is that what this is all about? You think this angel will somehow cure you, so you can make your mark on history?”
“Don’t hold such things against me,” I said.
Magdalena snorted, tired of arguing the point.
I was dying. But I had no intention of becoming dead. As fascinated as I was by my subjects, I had no desire to become a ghost, or a vampire.
Rain spattered off the low roof jutting out over the Underground station’s subterranean entrance. I traced my gloved fingertips over the soaked wooden tiles and thought of the bloody fingerprints Fossick had used to mark the map.
Trains could be traced through the city lines in the daytime as their steam puffed out the ventilated shafts. They’d finished running hours earlier, but there had long been rumors of trains that ran unscheduled in the deep of night. Some said they were identical to the trains that operated during the days; others swore they looked like scaled wyrms. My colleagues considered the testimonies to have been made by drunkards, and I myself hadn’t put much faith in the sightings until that night. But Fossick had sworn otherwise.
We came to the station’s service door. Magdalena twisted the handle, and it gave without resistance. I heard the dull roar of a locomotive far in the distance, felt the slightest tremor in the earth, but that was just rain drumming the makeshift roof above.
The air stank of smoke and sweat. Rivulets of water ran down the moss-covered brick walls, an ever-shifting map. My foot brushed against something, sent it skittering down a wooden staircase that twisted into the darkness. My lantern light washed over it: a single red slipper.
Magdalena drew a half-smoked cigar from her vest pocket, opened my lantern’s case, and drew on the cigar until the end flared. Due to the angle of the lantern, only her upper lip was visible, and its pucker reminded me of when she diverged from her forced diet into her vampiric one. Magdalena cast no reflection in the lantern’s glass, nor a shadow on the plank stairs or wall. The light seemed to flow right through her. For all intents and purposes, she was invisible to herself.
She exhaled, staining the air with tobacco and chocolate.
“That didn’t do much to improve the smell,” I said, and put the handkerchief over my nose and mouth.
“I’m sorry!” she said, and made to crush out her cigar against the wall’s grout veins.
“Oh, I’m fine, so long as I don’t smoke the thing myself.” I ignored the rasp in my throat and waved her concerns away with the smoke.
“Even so.” She mashed the tip and dropped the twisted cigar to the wood. An odd expression crossed her face, one I wasn’t used to seeing before. Something just shy of embarrassment, I thought. Then without another word she swooped past me, twirled her cane, and descended the knotted plank stairs. They gave no sound as she treaded down them.
On the next level, a whore contorted against the walls in the ecstasy of a ghostgasm. She was wearing the other red slipper, the toes on her bare foot curling, the nails edged with dirt.
Magdalena passed her without a glance. I followed, the wood creaking under my weight, but couldn’t help making the briefest of observations. Through the lenses of my goggles, I saw the ghostly palms and fingertips slip past the confines of her own flesh, gliding up her exposed thighs, only to disappear again like ethereal waves, blurring their host around the edges as the two spirits used her to make love. The woman cried out behind us, her echoing moans retreating like the tide.
At the bottom, my light struck the girders and beams pressed between the tunnel walls, casting sharp geometric shadows over this unfinished area of the Underground.
Running water gurgled—the rain had created a small stream through the winding tunnel. Broken glass glistened on the muddy ground, like diamonds glittering in a dragon’s hoard.
The water was also the source of the stink. Mosquitoes buzzed over the surface, and the patched fur of dead things bobbed.
I consulted Fossick’s map again and nodded upstream. I slipped and staggered through the mud until the channel spread out, engulfing the whole floor. She went first, never breaking stride. I took a tenuous step into the ankle-deep filth; the dark water rushed over the tops of my shoes, flooded up to my calves. My socks swelled around my ankles as I sloshed after Magdalena, stumbled over rocks and other debris that littered the tunnel floor, flailing my hands to maintain my balance.
Suddenly I fell to my knees. Something sharp sliced open my shin, and I cursed. A cold ooze wrapped around my waist.
Magdalena came back to my side, gripped my arm. “Get up,” she said. “We’re here.”
The passage opened up, revealing the water’s origin—a waterfall of runoff from an unseen maw in the tunnel’s ceiling. The tunnel we’d waded through ended against another with tracks running perpendicular to the one we stood in. I didn’t need Fossick’s map to recognize the platform still under construction.
A raven screeched at us from just beyond the water, limping across the ground. It cowered from us, trying to move its broken wing, flicking water.
I watched it struggle for a moment, considered crushing it under my foot, putting the thing out of its misery. But I took pity on the raven and stepped over it instead. Perhaps sparing the broken creature was a cruelty, but it didn’t particularly look like it wanted to die.
My shin burned. I stooped, drawing up the leg of my trousers. Blood dribbled from the laceration.
I realized Magdalena was staring at me, her lips pursed. Trying not to look interested in my wound.
I ground my teeth, refused to allow myself to shiver. “Salazar will be waiting.” I stood, took out the extra salt crystal vial—the empty one from my pocket and gave it to her. “Keep this. Don’t let him see you.”
Magdalena gripped it and smiled her lovely, jagged smile. Her lantern sputtered out as she stepped backward, becoming invisible to me in the shadows.
I stroked the second vial looped around my neck, the salt coarse against my fingers, then tucked it under my shirt. I thought of the woman wearing the red slipper, her body pressed against the bricks, moaning. I shivered with anticipation.
I lowered Darwin’s dark lenses over my eyes and called out my rival’s name. “Salazar!” My voice echoed through the Underground, bouncing off the stone walls. “Salazar!” the passages called to themselves, whispering into the distant darkness. “Salazar!”
Something luminous sparked in the distant tunnel. It shot toward me, flickering. The harsh light made the grout between the bricks look like a wall of pulsing veins. Rats squealed and scurried at the light’s edge. It pulled up inches from my face, the light momentarily blinding my eyes. I blinked rapidly.
“You should be at home, Elijah,” the ghost said. “Beside your bed. Begging God to forgive you for your sins.”
“Is that why you’re still stranded here? You forgot to ask forgiveness and weren’t allowed to move on?”
Of course, I knew better. I’d read Chamberlain’s journal. In truth, Salazar had wanted to be one of the first to continue his explorations in spiritualist studies from the other side. The vain bastard had drank poison so his appearance wouldn’t be marred by half of his face missing from a gunshot wound or his neck forever tilted at an odd angle, a noose hanging around it. Aside from his too-wide, unblinking eyes, he looked remarkably handsome.
“You were uncharacteristically silent about your discoveries after you died, Salazar,” I pressed. “Did you see God? Did you refuse Him your company?”
He didn’t answer, only bobbed in the air on a cool current of air. His great bulging eyes, unblinking.
“No, I thought not. Perhaps because there is nothing more than what we see—nothing more than this.”
“And yet, you’re bleeding out the end of your life looking for a damned angel,” Salazar said.
Something roared deep in the tunnel.
“It’s coming,” I said. “There’s no reason for us to quarrel. All I want to do is study it. We could even work together.”
“Is that what you told Fossick?”
“Yes, poor Fossick,” I said. I forced myself not to clutch the grounder in my pocket. “What a pity. I suppose you’ll have to pay for your ghostgasm studies now?”
Salazar snarled and dived inside me.
Inside my head, Salazar ravaged my memories, like the consumption tearing apart my lungs. I put up mental barriers of my own remembrances, trying to stall him. He hewed them apart, pinned them up in the walls of my mind for him to examine and prod.
There I was—a child of eleven–lowering Saint Darwin’s goggles over my eyes for the first time. What I saw thrilled me. From my window, my friend Angelina—who had died three months earlier—darted along after her very-much alive parents. She saw my goggles and waved. I giggled, so happy to see her again, and she shot through me, into me, possessed me. Even as my body spasmed, excitement and wonder became tempered with curiosity.
Another memory—another wall. Several years later, naked in the twisted sheets of my bed—my hips thrusting furiously, under the throes of a ghostgasm. When I’d finished—or, when the ghosts had finished with me—they left my body, their giggles turning to sighs as they wisped through each other, unable to connect any longer. On the bed, my body shivered, but I stared at them through my goggles, then pushed them off my forehead, reached out for the notepad on my bedside table, and began scribbling notes.
Salazar swiped it aside, reached on.
Now, just weeks ago. In my apartment with Dr. Stuart, his face as sterile and stiff as the cadavers he’d let me dissect and study under his tutelage. He suggested I had perhaps several months left. “Of course, you know better than most what lies beyond,” the doctor said. His breath reeked of whiskey. “Don’t think of it as an ending, so much as a transition.” They were, I suppose, intended as words of comfort.
Salazar pushed past it. I couldn’t hold him off much longer.
The following evening, with a golem, whose company I’d paid for. Sobbing as I came, spilling across its clay skin. The golem’s fire-lit eyes seemed dull and cool as I shuddered then rested against it.
The barriers crumbled. “Here!” Salazar cried out in triumph.
I saw again the scene he’d been searching for: me standing over Fossick’s bloodied body, folding up the map, when Salazar flitted through the walls and screamed, demanding what I’d done. I held up my grounder, warding him off. I didn’t want him to see the glowing salt crystal vial I’d just pocketed. “You’re dead, Salazar. Now, so is he. You should have no trouble finding him in a few hours.”
He had circled me, prodding for an opening past the grounder. “Dead, yes, but more human than you’ll ever be.”
“Perhaps. But still just a spirit.”
I smiled as I listened to my own words, echoing in my head. How right I’d been.
Salazar—the Salazar sifting my soul—hissed. His grotesquely handsome face contorted with rage as he prodded my memories, pushing. “What did you do to him?”
He pushed back a little further, the night’s events swirling in reverse. He stopped as Fossick gargled blood, with me straddling him, the vial hidden in my hand. Fossick stopped moving.
The scene vanished. Salazar’s face crowded everything else out, swelling in my head.
“My God.” It sounded as if he was actually praying. “You monster! What did you do?”
“You’re dead,” I repeated. “And you’re a fool.”
Salazar screamed and shot up, tried to exit my body. He was much, much too late.
I blinked my eyes open and squeezed the grounder in my pocket hard enough that blood dripped from the broken skin of my fingers, slicking the talisman. But I continued to grip it, binding Salazar to me. He twisted inside me, shrieking.
Magdalena stood over me, the empty salt crystal vial in her hand.
I lifted the grounder and tore Salazar’s flickering spirit out of my body, and bottled him up.
After I stoppered the vial, it glowed sky-blue like its twin, and I allowed myself to gag and cough up blood onto the tunnel’s floor. My body convulsed so violently I thought the whole Underground was shaking. I caught my breath, my fingers clawing into the mud beneath me. The Underground continued rattling. The phlegm and blood and tissue I’d spat up writhed like a worm sliced into segments.
Magdalena said something to me I didn’t understand. She said it two more times, and I recognized my name.
The tunnel howled and seemed to constrict around us. An emerald beam washed through the darkness, drenching everything in a light that made it look as if we were all underwater. Warm air whipped my face and clothes, pushing against me like a wave from sea, threatening to smash us.
Then a train twisted into the station—a locomotive and carriages blacker than obsidian. The darkness shuddered and pained my eyes as it glided toward us. Flames licked from the undercarriage, illuminating scales as it floated above the tracks. I couldn’t help thinking of my namesake, taken up into heaven in a chariot of fire.
Magdalena pulled me to my feet. “Come, Elijah. Time to make our names immortal.”
She threw open a scale-like door, and we climbed aboard.
The violet ribbed walls expanded and contracted as we made our way through the carriage. Luminescent fungus bubbled from the folds in the accordion-like paneling. The segmented floor was uneven, a mosaic of colors and shapes. Chairs and benches made from cable and wire were strung like inner membranes throughout the cabin.
Strange windows punctuated the carriage walls, displaying impossible views. I let go of Magdalena and stepped toward them.
The Underground tunnel walls weren’t visible. Instead, I saw pictures that moved like magic lanterns with a God-like imagination.
The first looked like an image based in reality: a golem constable stepping through an open door from the post-rain fog. The golem knelt beside an unmoving man whose body cast a growing shadow of blood.
Fearful that the corpse would have Fossick’s face, I moved onto the next: the woman in the red slipper, shivering against bricks. She smoothed her dress. The spirits had abandoned her.
But the third window was more fantastical: rust-colored sands battering a feathered cathedral. A flock of great birds swarmed out from the bell tower. I squinted. Beneath the wings, the shape of the bodies appeared human.
“Magdalena,” I breathed.
She moved to my window and laughed. It was a drunken, uncertain sound.
The door at the end of the carriage folded open with a wet rasp, like an orifice parting.
The angel towered before us, his skin the color of unpolished jade. His six wings were dirty and shriveled—possibly atrophied, I noted—but still magnificent to behold. He was naked, save for trousers fitted with patches.
“You are not the one Fossick promised.” His great unblinking oval eyes didn’t waver from me as he addressed both of us. “Not the ghost spiritualist.”
“No,” I admitted. “We’re here in his stead.”
“His fears got the better of him.” I stepped forward, unable to keep from smiling. “Do you have a name?”
The angel cooed, pigeon-like. “It has been unpronounceable in your languages since Babel fell.” He stepped forward, lifted a webbed hand before my face. Three fingers and a thumb. “You are dying, Elijah.”
Magdalena moaned, or maybe growled, but I only said, “You know why I have come?”
“You believe death can be avoided.”
“Yes,” I breathed. “I believe you have avoided it for quite some time now.”
“For quite some time, yes. You wish to be healed. That is why you have searched me out. Yes, I know why you have come.”
“You can do it, then? You can save me?”
“It is in my power.”
I laughed aloud, blinked back tears of joy. “A miracle,” I breathed. “Such a discovery. We’ll lift you up, out of this darkness. The articles we’ll publish, Magdalena!”
The creature cooed again. “You would make a display of me? Show me to the world?” He laughed. Rough, and full of disdain. “No. I am not a trophy to be won and paraded.”
“No,” I replied, as I realized my error. I was dealing with a prideful creature. “Of course not. I apologize. I misspoke.” My palms went slick with sweat. The inside of my fingers burned where the skin had been broken. “No, you misunderstand. Not my trophy. Not anyone’s trophy. I want the world to observe your glory. There’s so much we can learn from you. We would be your disciples.”
Magdalena said, “These windows—you can take us to these other places? These other worlds?”
The angel smiled at her. “Would you follow me? Would you leave your home?”
“I would study these places,” Magdalena said. “Yes.”
“Leave?” I echoed. Something hollow ballooned inside me. How could I leave? My studies, my research, my legacy. If I disappeared, I would be forgotten. My work lost. But if I refused, if I stayed, then he would refuse me. I couldn’t die. I wasn’t ready to die, and I couldn’t let him go. He had to save me.
“No.” I wheezed. Tried to stifle another cough as the bile rose in my throat.
“What?” Magdalena asked.
“You were banished, weren’t you?” I demanded of the angel. “You’re an exile, or refugee. There’s no holiness to you, is there? Only blasphemy.”
The angel’s wings bristled. I thought of the way a cat’s back arches, hackles raised. It cooed again. “The only devil here is you. You who have seen such wonders, who have written and recorded and hypothesized about them—you who did only believe because you saw them. What does your scripture say? ‘Blessed are those who have not seen, and believe.’”
“Yes,” I said, shaking my head. I knew what I had to do then. That I would have to save myself. “But the scripture is wrong. ‘Blessed are those who have seen, and do not believe.’”
The pistol shot barked, an unexpected thunderclap at sea. The angel staggered backward, as the echo rang through the carriage. Blood as bright as sunlight splattered the floor and wall, glistening. I pulled the trigger two more times, and the wooden bullets slammed into him.
The holy wood that had once been saturated with the blood of Christ.
Magdalena shouted. Her cane snapped against the back of my legs, and I toppled. She grabbed my arm, swung against one of the windows.
“This is it, Magdalena,” I gasped. “Immortality. Not just for our names. For us.”
She hissed at me, baring her sharp, splintered fangs. “Is that meant to tempt me, Elijah? My own immortality is already well-established.”
“Perhaps. But securing and studying this specimen will make you one of the foremost spiritualists–recording something Darwin himself failed to capture. This is unlike anything we’ll ever again see. We must study it. Document it.”
She relented. Of course, she relented. I had spent years studying with her, studying her.
“My children-” the angel sputtered. “My children will avenge me.”
“Children?” I repeated. “The Nephilim? Splendid.” Even to my own ears, my voice sounded ragged. “I hope to study them as well. Now, Magdalena, a vial, if you would please?”
She stepped back, rooted through her satchel. Glass clinked against glass. She withdrew one of the vials, held it. For a moment, I doubted her.
Then she nodded and tossed the vial to me.
I placed it beneath the crippled thing, collecting a sample of its blood. The vial filled remarkably quickly.
She passed me another, but before I positioned it, I ran a finger across the creature’s wound. The blood glowed and tingled against my skin. I put it in my mouth, sucked it clean. The taste—I’d never tasted anything so pure.
It tasted like life, a second chance, redemption. My legacy.
I licked my lips, and tasted it again.
I have never considered myself to be a holy man.