For those of you who’ve read Neil Gaiman’s American Gods (which by the way is AWESOME), you’re familiar with the magical realism concept of gods, magic, and mysticism hanging about us in the contemporary world, pushing back against the limits we try to set on it.
Well, inspired by this, I chose to write a story that blended paranormal fantasy, myth, and magical realism into something action-packed, thoughtful, and filled with an interesting team of characters. From that, THE BLACK DAGGER GODS was born. Originally published in the New Myths anthology with HDWP Books, it’s been updated and re-published by Creative Alchemy, Inc., as part of the MAGIC UNVEILED anthology which launches in just a few days.
To celebrate, I’m sharing an excerpt of the story. Please enjoy!
Excerpt: The Black Dagger Gods (Magic Unveiled anthology)
She had never seen a god die.
Vesta knew she would experience it firsthand if she didn’t escape from her office closet. She sat on the floor with her legs crossed and her right hand pressed against her mouth to stifle her sobs. Her left hand was useless. It looked like a cancer had eaten it. Just a slash of that black dagger had done this to her, and it made her tremble to think what would happen if it were plunged into her heart.
She calmed her breathing just enough to concentrate and center her power. She grasped at the warmth of her healing energy, clinging to it like a child. It was no longer the burning flame she had wrapped herself in over two thousand years ago, when she would warm homes and ease the ills of women and children. Her strength had been reduced to little more than a spark, and what could a spark do against such Darkness?
She jumped to her feet when a loud crash hit the door from the other side. As soon as the door opened, she stretched out her hands and sent a wave of light toward the inky cloud hovering at her only exit. It flashed and grew thicker in response, and somewhere cloaked in the darkness was another god. A ravenous god. A traitor god.
Without pause, the dark one rushed forward and attacked. This time, the black dagger pierced her side, and the pain seared her body like a hot branding iron. An arm wrapped around her as she cried out, the next strike finding its target. Her breath caught in her throat as she grudgingly lost claim to her strength, and when every bit of it was gone, her final breath left her forever.
Lu Aye snarled at the three punks sitting outside the front entrance of his building. The first day he saw them, he had smiled kindly enough, paying them little heed, as well as the day after that.
Then, he noticed graffiti on the building’s exterior. It was one of the oldest in downtown Los Angeles, and in a single evening it had been marred with reckless and uncaring red scrawls. Just another sign of the times. No one appreciated history and what came before them.
The roar of a bus, belching out smoke and then taking off, swallowed the chuckling of the teenagers as they pointed at Lu. It was 9 a.m., and a Thursday, no less. Shouldn’t these miscreants have been in school? But no, they’d just be torturing some poor teacher and other kids who actually wanted to learn. Perhaps one day he’d teach them a lesson. Perhaps.
“Hey, need help with that?” The white kid wearing a green beanie cap and god-awful ornate sneakers sputtered a laugh. His expression indicated that he would sooner smack the folders out of Lu’s grasp than help him carry them.
Lu paused and clutched the folders, not out of fear, but because it was better than grabbing them by the scruff of their necks and throwing them into one of those mystical dank pits on the far side of the world. He used to enjoy doing that to transgressors.
He rolled his tongue across his teeth and hobbled toward the metal screen door. It was the closest thing to “security” that the landlord wanted to spend money on. As soon as his key slipped into the keyhole, the insults came flying.
“Yo, Quasimodo, do you need crutches or something?”
“My abuelita walks better than that!”
Lu gritted his teeth and faced them. “Three jackasses who’ll be sitting outside the liquor store ten years from now. Why are you in front of this building?”
They raised their eyebrows. It was the first time he had spoken to them.
The Latino kid in the middle looked him up and down. “You’d better watch who you’re talking to.”
The third one, a skinny black kid, started speaking with a mock generic African accent. “Don’t you know, man, this is L.A.? America?” He dropped the accent and added, “You need to get out of here with that.”
Lu shook his head and opened the door. He paused at the final question hurled at him from the white kid wearing the green cap. “Why do you have all those tattoos up and down your face? That’s like, for some African tribe or something?”
Lu leaned toward them so they could see the mischief in his dark brown eyes. He flashed his teeth at them. “They represent all the muck, dirt, and disease I’ve had to put up with over the years. They show that I have the right to punish people.”
Just a little, he lifted the veil. His eyes gave a cold stare, meeting theirs with a sense of otherworldly confidence. He could taste remnants of his powers at the tip of his tongue. It felt like pin pricks and tasted like battery acid. He could speak into existence a punishment of influenza, or riddle their bodies with an ailment far more serious. Perhaps scarring their faces with smallpox would set them straight.
The air around them grew dense, though passersby rushing to get to work or nearby cafes seemed not to notice. Lu felt the moment his superficial facial tattoos melted away to reveal the hideous scars and pus-filled bumps decorating his face. And in that moment, the boys knew. They knew he was someone—or something—different. Their mouths clamped shut, and they rose to their feet.
“I told you this guy was a witch doctor freak!” The Latino kid in the middle looked as pale as his friend in the green cap. He backed away.
“Let’s get out of here,” the black kid mumbled.
Lu smirked as they huddled together and shifted their feet quickly in the other direction. His gloating was ruined when an empty beer bottle, hurled by one of the teenagers, smashed against the other side of the door. If he hadn’t already been making his way inside the building, that bottle would’ve hit his head. Then he really would’ve been pissed off.
He shrugged the annoyance and anger off with a sigh and walked inside. He made sure to lock the metal screen door. He hobbled down the dim hallway and turned the corner. Clients were already lined up against the wall: mothers with colicky babies, old women with offerings of terra cotta vessels filled with grains, a few pieces of jewelry, and one even carried a handmade broom. They came from different walks of life and were of different races—but it didn’t matter to him. No one who came to his little office with its advertisement of “natural herbal remedies” and “spiritual guidance” was ever turned away.
He smiled at the people waiting for him and hobbled toward his office door. He immediately noticed the absence of the elderly Mrs. Watson, who visited on Thursdays. If she didn’t come by at the end of the day, he’d make sure to call her to find out how she was faring. He did a double take at the dark-haired man in a black business suit. His red-coppery skin gave off a subtle glow. Lu rubbed his eyes and studied the man to confirm whether he indeed glowed. No, it was just a residual effect from showing off to those punk kids.
He locked gazes with the man. “Good morning. I see we have some new customers today.”
One of the women with a screaming baby in her arms introduced herself as Nila. She closed in on Lu. “I was here first.”
Lu nodded and unlocked his door. It was odd to see a man here. Most of them laughed in public at the prospect of visiting “Papa Lu,” but would privately send their sisters, wives, or mothers to make requests for them. Perhaps the man had no wife, sister, or mother. Maybe he was desperate.
Nila shut the door behind them and began rocking her little boy. He calmed for a moment before wailing again. Lu unloaded the files onto his desk and faced Nila with a sympathetic glance. He gestured for her to hand over the child.
“How old is he?” Lu couldn’t help but grin at the baby as he wiggled in his arms. The child must’ve been a good twelve pounds.
“Eight months, Papa Lu.”
Lu’s head bobbed back and forth as she began rattling off the list of home remedies and chemical medicines these humans liked to use when they fell ill. He gently laid the baby on his examining table. A tingling flow of energy passed from his fingers as he probed for the source of the child’s discomfort. He slightly kneaded the arms and torso as if feeling for broken bones, but with each touch he was delivering small, penetrating bursts of energy that would hone in on the ailment.
Nila crossed her arms and waited with bated breath. Lu gave her a reassuring nod before gazing at the calmed baby and pinpointing the cause of his distress. “It’s his kidney. Just a little blockage.”
He handed the baby boy back to her and went to his cabinet. He retrieved a small jar containing an herbal mixture of Uva Ursi and a dash of couch grass, for which he had haggled like a madman.
He turned and handed her the small jar. “Give him a teaspoon of this each day for three days.”
Nila nodded and accepted the medicine. Cradling the now sleeping baby in one arm, she reached into her purse with the other. “How much?”
Lu gazed into her eyes. “Do you believe it will work?”
“Yeah, I do.” She brushed aside a wisp of thick dark hair and pulled out a twenty dollar bill.
Lu waved his hand through the air. “Do you believe?”
She hesitated, probably wondering why he didn’t just take the money and shut up. “I wouldn’t have come if I didn’t think you could help.”
“Tell your friends and family about me.” He smiled and gestured toward the door. She grinned and set the money on the counter anyway.
Before she exited, he asked her about the elderly Mrs. Watson, just in case she had seen her in the building or in passing down the street. Nila shook her head and thanked him once more.
As she stepped out, Lu inhaled the scent of his true reward, the only payment he wanted or needed—faith, gratitude, and belief. The more Nila would believe, the better his herbal remedy would work for her. The more she would believe and tell others, the more it would all come flying back toward him like karma, a vibrant field of energy that would nourish him like ambrosia and increase his waning powers.
After seeing Nila, he aided the other clients as well. Some paid, some didn’t. Some were profusely grateful, and others complained that they still had a kink in their necks. Last but not least, the dark-haired man in the business suit entered with his hands in his pockets. He looked a little odd. He was too well-dressed to be a thief, but something told Lu that the mysterious man didn’t come to ask for a cure.
“Good morning, I’m Lu Aye.” He held out his hand, never diverting his gaze away from the man’s face. His black eyes watched Lu like a hawk.
“I suppose it’s a good morning,” the man said in a smooth voice. “We haven’t officially met, but I think we know about each other.”
A soft breeze swept through the room and the door shut. The man in black walked over to the left corner where a metal folding chair stood. He took a seat, crossing one leg over the other in a nonchalant manner as he lifted his right arm and opened his hand. A jar filled with peppermint candies slid off the opposite counter and flew toward him.
Lu frowned and caught the jar of candy mid-flight. “These are mine, and so is this neighborhood. Who are you, and what do you want?”
If the man in black thought he’d be impressed by a few telekinetic tricks, he was sorely mistaken. Lu had helped another god or two along the way. He had been generous enough to let them siphon off a little of his accumulated mystical energy, but only because they had come to his office looking like they were on their deathbeds. Their eyes had lost the light of life, and their skin had been clammy and pallid. But the one in front of Lu was robust—almond-colored skin with a tinge of red, and black eyes that gleamed with a fiery light.
Nope, he wasn’t getting anything from Lu.
The man in black uncrossed his legs and gestured with his hand. The jar of candy slid from Lu’s grasp. “You’re a grouch today, Babalu. I’ve been coming in since last month, and this is how you treat me?”
Lu raised an eyebrow. “Excuse me?”
The man caught the jar and opened it. He unwrapped a candy and popped it into his mouth. “Surprise!” His appearance suddenly changed into that of Mrs. Watson, the elderly woman Lu had been keeping an eye out for. His smooth masculine voice turned into a more earthy, feminine one. He adjusted his glasses, and still smacking on the peppermint candy, ran a wrinkly hand through his gray hair.
Lu snorted. “Raven. I should’ve known.”
“You must not be getting that much business if you couldn’t even detect me.” He popped another peppermint into his mouth.
“So, you’ve been stalking me?”
Raven let out a burp that sounded like a groan. It looked ridiculous coming out of what appeared to be a prim and proper woman in her sixties. “Don’t flatter yourself, Babalu.”
“Just call me Lu.”
“Whatever. I had to observe you for a while because we first needed to make sure we could trust you.”
Raven’s mischievous smile reminded him of Kathy Bates from the movie, Misery. He reached into the top of his hideous flower-patterned dress and pulled out a folded sheet of paper. “Have you seen this? Do you know what it is?”
Lu tentatively reached for the page and unfolded it. He tried not to let the trickster god see the slight tremble in his fingers. He’d of course never admit it out loud, but it bothered him that another god was under his nose the whole time and he didn’t even see it or feel it. He thought he had been getting by just fine with his little shop, but apparently even that wasn’t enough. Damn…the next pale and fading god who came crawling to his doorstep might have to die.
“Raven, what is this?” Lu furrowed his brows at the sketch of a black dagger. Runes lined its curved blades, and a handwritten note near the hilt indicated that it was made of a material resembling obsidian.
“So, you’ve never seen it before?” Raven still sported the identity of Mrs. Watson.
Lu grimaced. “If you’re going to wear a dress, then for the love of all that is holy, cross your legs.” He pressed the page back into Raven’s outstretched hand.
“I found the dagger in Vesta’s back last month.”
Lu’s stomach clenched at the mention of her. Vesta had been a friend. Being the Greek Goddess of health and home, she had sometimes shared herbs and other ingredients he needed, and he’d returned the favor. She ran a women’s clinic just twenty minutes away. Or, at least until last month. What was Raven trying to accomplish by telling him this? The Council had never said anything about a dagger in her back.
He gazed at Raven and tightened his jaw. “Vesta faded away. She died the final death because people stopped believing.”
Raven’s face screwed up, and he looked more like an angry toad than an elegant old lady. “Bullshit. She was murdered, and this was the weapon.”
The hairs on the back of Lu’s neck rose. Was this some kind of twisted prank? “But the Council…”
“Stop believing what the Council tells you. Do you think they’re going to risk their cushy status, their authority, and the entire security of our alliance by admitting some rogue god is knocking us off?”
Raven stuffed the page back into his dress and shook his head. “We think the dagger is enchanted, and it doesn’t just steal a little godly energy here or there—it sucks the victim dry. That’s pretty messed up.”
Lu licked his dry lips and suddenly had an acidic taste in his mouth. The gods had all been weakened by the faithlessness of modern man. The entire reason behind the alliance among the deities was to pool their resources, their mystical energy, and make sure none of them faded away—at least not without a fight.