The rooster didn’t want to die. It raked its spurs and twisted its head halfway around to try and jab at Fiona with its beak. But she kept her chokehold under its head while her free hand shoved a dagger through its neck.

Blood spattered into a ceremonial bowl. Fiona chanted, the words, not Latin or English, phrases of a tongue whisper-taught to her. A dirty mist formed into a bubble in the bowl, but as she continued her incantation, the greasy bubble broke and dissipated.

“Not bad for a first try.”

Fiona tasted vomit in the back of her mouth. “What did I do wrong, Steven? I thought the words were correct.”

“Almost. The lingua diabolica is even more tonal than Chinese. You’re a bit off key. More practice.”

She dropped the dagger onto the altar and threw the dead but twitching bird onto the floor. Steven stood across the altar from her in the wainscoted room. He’d been handsome once, before a ritual gone wrong had ripped open his face. The slashes had been stitched and mouth repaired, but he spoke with a lisp.

The failure was bitter. Fiona had cut herself off from everyone, including her mother, and committed to the black arts. She briefly thought of blaming Steven, wondering if his magic, like his sex, was kinky but banal.

“But the rhythm of the words was okay, Steven?”

“Timing was faultless. We’ll just keep practicing the diabolic tones.”

“Thanks.” Fiona knew he devoted goetic energy to an apprentice because he needed her help, and the thought reassured her. But what happens, she thought, when we both get what we want?

Despite doubts, Fiona had little choice. There were thousands of veggie-Wiccans and orgy-Satanists, but Steven was the only genuine adept she’d ever encountered. He’d approached her, emerging from the shadows of yet another faux-evil gathering. He’d had an air of assured malignancy that had nothing to do with his deformed appearance.

For three months after the failed ceremony she spent an hour a day lips to ear with Steven, whispering tone scales back and forth. Steven refused to record the sounds, and by the time she was consistently on pitch she knew that Steven had seventeen hairs on his left ear.

The entity she summoned that following week looked like a deformed chihuahua, pig nostrils leveled up with rheumy eyes, legs like deformed branches. Fiona sent it off on a minor cursing as a test. There was a blurring and the demon demanded its release.

She knew from Steven that the creature operated alongside time, and hoped it had succeeded. She kept the demon waiting while Steven made a phone call.

“Magda, how are you? Oh.” After a minute of listening and commiserating, Steven hung up. “Magda’s back has erupted in boils. You can let it go.”

Fiona recited syllables and watched the grotesquerie de-form into a slime bubble that popped. “Thank you, Steven,” she said, and meant it.

That night, after convoluted copulation, Steven asked. “How much further do you want to go?”

“There’s more?”

Steven’s laugh was harsh. “How many levels are there in Hell? Of course there’s more. But not in the infernalia social clubs available to us. We have to go into the deep web.”

“Deep web?”

“Some call it the dark web. Most users are after kiddie porn, or street drugs, or snuff videos. But adepts migrated there decades ago to practice unfettered rituals. Robust evil, true achievement in the black arts. The real grimoires are posted there, by magi who provide instruction at a price.”

Fiona was dubious. “I’ve never seen any of this in my scans.”

Steven’s sneer was just perceptible in the dimly lit bedroom. “You can’t Google search for the devil. The dark web is hidden and anonymous. You must learn of a website from another practitioner. Even the money used is untraceable Bitcoins.”

Fiona felt more excitement than she had during their sex. “And we do all this on line?”

Steven was silent for several seconds. “First we continue your training. Then we’ll see. The experience is much more than infernal Face Time. The screen becomes a portal and things pass back and forth through it.”

“So you’ve done this before?”

His words were brusque. “Not successfully. But I know who to reach out to.”

Steven spent three more weeks with Fiona on ceremonial magic, then two more weeks teaching Fiona the keyboard equivalents to the lingua diabolica. then downloaded the Tor software. They practiced by exploring two sites that sold cocaine.

“What if we’re caught?” she asked.

“Very unlikely. And if we don’t make a buy there’s no grounds for prosecution. Okay, from here on out you’re going to be the one to link up and make contact.”

“Why me? You have much more experience and knowledge.”

Steven nodded agreement. “And that’s the problem. My reputation is blotchy. No, I’m presenting you as a peace offering. Sit here, and type in exactly what I whisper to you.”

Fiona sat at the desktop computer with Steven behind her left shoulder. She maneuvered through the Tor protocols, and typed in exactly what Steven whispered. The site was a blank screen. “Now what?” she whispered.

“Wait. No noise.”

Several seconds later text appeared. The translation was: ‘Slit your left index finger tip and while it’s bleeding, put it against the screen.

“Here’s a knife,” Steven whispered.

The screen seemed to undulate slightly as the blood was applied. Then more characters appeared. ‘Fiona Red Hair, we’ve been waiting for you.’

Her finger continued to bleed as she turned to Steven and softly but urgently asked, “How by the Master’s unknowable name does it know who I am?”

Steven’s scarred features were unreadable. “We’re both learning. Now, carefully! Ask to be put in touch with Magus Llewelleun.” He spelled out the name as Fiona typed. The screen went blank again, the blood drying into a vaguely human silhouette.

Several minutes later the face of a haggard old man filled the screen. Diabolic characters read: ‘You have disturbed my service. Why should you not face anathema?’

Fiona typed as Steven whispered. ‘I approach you at the behest of Steven Many Cuts, who offers you my services as promised repayment.’ She glanced back questioningly at Steven, who waved for her to continue. ‘I would hear your voice, Magus.’

The old man’s scabrous skin wrinkled as he changed expression. Characters appeared. ‘Put your left hand on the screen.’

As Fiona did so, a five-clawed talon pressed against her hand on the other side of the screen. A curse-like instruction entered her as the claw flattened.

The laptop speakers hissed and the computer screen went painfully hot. The voice was a coarse rasp. “Fiona Red Hair, you are an ignorant slut not even suitable for sacrifice.”

The words dripped hate. Fiona spoke without waiting for Steven’s prompting, and without thought. “I am night soil beneath the Master’s feet, but I have gifts to offer.”

“We listen.”

“I am without redeeming virtue, strong in malice. I am able to summon and dispel, to entice without reservation and curse without mercy,”

“You are the venereal chattel of Steven Many Cuts, who is afraid to directly approach me.”

Steven bristled but kept silent. He leaned forward to whisper in Fiona’s ear, but she was already speaking. “The worth of a servant is not her provenance, but her toil. Give me a labor that will prove my worth.”

“But you serve the scarred one lurking behind you.”

Steven broke silence. “Master, this is the promised handmaiden, trained by me for service to you. Accept both our dedications.”

The face of the old man on the screen had fluxed as they talked, congealing into feral ugliness. But the tone of its voice was dulcet.

“Spread-legged whore, your mother still lives?”

“She does.”

“Kill her as sacrifice.”

The bile rose again in Fiona’s throat. Her mother feared the Satanist that she had become, and they never spoke, but Fiona recognized the care her mother had given. She said nothing and swallowed. “My mother is very old, and of little worth. Perhaps a more arduous test?”

The gargoyle head wordlessly turned away as if to leave. Adrenalin surged and Fiona’s voice rose. “Please wait! Steven Many Cuts is my mentor. Should he be with me?”

The head turned back toward the screen and its upper lip lifted in what could have been sneer or smile. “As you wish. You know what is required. Steven Many Cuts, your offering is conditionally accepted.”

The screen went blank, and Fiona winced, her left forefinger throbbing in pain, as if the magus had infected it. Then Steven grabbed her, pulling her from her chair.

“Bitch. You might have spoiled my redemption. Never speak out of turn again. I’ll tell you what to say.”

Her finger hurt far worse than her pinched arms. “Yes, Steven. I think it’s about time you met my mother.”

The hardest part of their flight to Omaha was the ingredients. Ritual sacrifice requires salve and incense that they couldn’t trust to a suitcase or the mail. Steven supervised as Fiona put portions of each into vials and tubes small enough to make it through airport security in their carry-on bags. A ritual knife had gone ahead via FedEx.

Her mother’s voice had sounded strained but relieved when Fiona called. Fiona tersely explained that she’d been seeing someone, wanted her mother to meet him, and could they stay for a night or two?

Gretchen MacAllister had once told her daughter that she’d rather be hated than ignored. Hatred, she’d said could change over time, but indifference was permanent. Her tone during Fiona’s call suggested wistful hope. “Of course, dear. Bring him out. But you don’t need my approval.”

After Fiona said goodbye, Steven asked. “When do you plan to do it?”

“The second night just before her bedtime, right after we’ve performed the ritual.”

“What about the police?”

“She’ll appear to have passed in her sleep.”

“You’ll be suspected.”

“No, I won’t. I’m using aconite. She’ll appear to have died of asphyxia.”

“Devil’s helmet? Be very careful handling it.

“I will. Anyway, Mom is leaving what little she has to her church. I won’t have any apparent motive.”

Steven took Fiona in his arms. “You don’t yet know the real pleasures of the fallen. But once we’re admitted I will continue to teach you.”

She studied Steven, then kissed him, his scarred lips nubbling hers. “Yes, Steven, I know how you’ll help me.”

Dinner conversation the night of their arrival had been herniated. Fiona implied without admission that Steven was also involved with black magic. The only safe topics were Fiona’s childhood and current events, exhausted by the time they had coffee and tea.

Fiona and Steven spent the next day outside the house, buying needed supplies and avoiding her mother. Gretchen’s evening meal was dosed with an indigestive that made her go to bed early. Fiona went to her an hour later with tea.

“Here, mom, you need to drink this tea.”

“Of course, dear.” As she sipped her tea, Gretchen continued. “I don’t know why we haven’t been close, but I really appreciate your coming all this way.”

Fiona felt a twinge of childhood affection, but it passed. “Of course, mom, just finish your tea, please.”

Gretchen McAllister convulsed and vomited for several minutes before she died. Fiona tumbled her body onto a plastic sheet before stripping the bed and her mother, and replacing sheets and pajamas. She rebedded her mother’s corpse, and would wait until morning to call the ambulance, as if just discovering the body. When she returned to her bedroom, Stephen was still sleeping. He never woke.

The first night back in Providence, Fiona sat once again in front of her computer, navigating through Tor and summoning Steven’s Magus.

“So, slut, you’ve done as commanded.”

“Yes, Magus. Everything. Steven Many Cuts decomposes in a swamp. And my mother lies in her coffin. I know now that Steven offered me to you as sacrifice Why didn’t you accept?”

“He thought to ingratiate himself using your hormonal flesh. But there is no left-handed redemption. You understood my message and sacrificed him adequately.”

“And my mother?”

His laugh was the sound of two stones grating on each other. “The matricide? I lied for Steven’s hearing, so you had a subterfuge for killing him. And to see the depth of your need. Fiona Red Hair, what is it you seek?”

“Knowledge and power through service to you.”

“Place your left palm on the monitor screen,”

As Fiona did so she watched the five-clawed talon approach and press against the other side of the screen. The nerves in her arm enflamed and she almost yanked her hand away. The bowl of her palm burnt and she smelled the charring of her skin. She stifled a scream but had to moan.

“Remove your hand. You are now handmaid to the unnamable one who knows no forgiveness.”

She turned her hand over and saw the rune burnt into her palm. Ignoring the pain, she focused on the leprous image of her Magus. “Teach me,” she asked.

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