Humans don’t understand magic. Those of you who even believe in it think it is like any other science; that it can be pinned down and quantified. You miss that magic is supernatural, not merely natural. There’s poetry to it, a reaching into the unknown. Magic takes an act of faith, a stepping out, an uncertainty of where your foot will fall.

My story begins like many fairy tales. I was the seventh son, the youngest by a thousand years. My elder brothers would brag about the savagery and burning they left in their wake on their travels to your world, and I yearned for the day when I was allowed to prove my own demonic prowess. In the eyes of my kin, I would be a child until I sojourned to the world of mortals and made men fear me. Only after that journey did my kind come of age.
It was nighttime when I first stepped through a portal onto the cold dewy grass of your world. I gazed up for my first look at the stars and a sliver of the waning moon, my eyes squinting in the weak light. Some of you call my world Hell, for it is both fiery and dark, and at that moment those were the brightest lights I had ever seen.
I found an isolated village nestled next to an old forest and settled in for some amusement. Every night for a couple of weeks I would slaughter a half-dozen livestock and their shepherds, and artfully arrange the remains in front of doorways, in the latrine pits, in the pails for drinking water, and in the town square. Sometimes I turned the bodies inside out, or made them as lifelike as anything until they were touched and their skin sloughed off, or pieced together bits of different animals into one. The villagers set up guards at night, so I worked the same artistry on the guards.
Most of them left the village after that. So I moved on to another village and did the same thing. I repeated this cycle a few times. I was eager to outdo all my brothers before me, and I became enamored of the terror I engendered.
One full-mooned night, some villagers had tied a young girl to a pole in the middle of the town square. The village was musty with the thick silence of humans awake and mute, lying in their beds quiet as they could, straining their ears to listen as I walked toward the girl, knife in hand.
She was wearing a white shift, and trembling slightly at the knees. She was young enough to still have spots, perhaps fourteen or fifteen years. Her eyes fixed on me as I approached, taking in my face that was almost human, staring at my blue-black skin and the small horns protruding from my hair. I smiled, revealing my sharp, unnaturally white teeth.
I came within a pace of her and stared down. She was a head and a half shorter than I was. I used my knife to flip a chunk of her hair off her shoulder.
She looked up at me and bared her teeth in a sneer. I cocked my head, noticed a flicker of movement out of the corner of my eye, and turned to look.
The girl pulled a wicked knife from behind her skirt and plunged it into my chest with a twist. "How like you that, devil?" she whispered. Surprised, I was unresisting when she savagely kicked my legs out from under me, thudding me to the ground on my back and knocking the wind from my lungs. She kept hold of the knife and came down on top of me, digging the blade deeper into my torso. I shrieked in pain and brought my hands up to throttle her.
Strong hands grasped my forearms. Out of the corner of my eye I could see a robed and tonsured monk struggling to hold my left arm, and I could feel his brother on my right. But they’d forgotten to close my mouth, so I stoked the fires in my belly and breathed a powerful blast of flame that burned the girl’s face and shoulder and knocked her off me. As I was still a young demon, this effort took much of my energies, and I slumped momentarily.
The men took advantage of that moment, and I was losing strength with the dagger still lodged next to my heart. Though I continued to struggle and bite, they hoisted me up on my knees and bound me with chains to the pole that the girl had been tied to. The first monk grabbed my black hair and pulled back my head.
"Death is too good for you, demon," he said, and spat on my face. "That’s why we aren’t going to give it to you."
The second monk jerked the knife down to cut a vertical slice across my chest. I hissed through my teeth and strained to spit a measly gust of flame at him. He turned his head to avoid it as if I were a mere nuisance.
The girl staggered to her feet and knelt in front of me, beside the second monk. "Let me do it," she said. The monk looked ready to argue, but after taking in her badly burned, yet resolute face, he wordlessly handed her the knife.
The first monk pulled my head back up, so I could only feel, not see, the girl continuing to slice a circle in my chest. With horror, I realized what was being done to me, and I strained against my bonds. The girl deftly finished carving around my heart and reached into my chest, grasping the black, beating organ. My hand reached up as far as I could stretch my chains. The manacles were beginning to warp. In a few moments, my hand would have been free.
"By God, I damn you," the girl whispered. She pulled, and my heart came out in her hand.
I felt weak, as fragile as a piece of straw. But I wasn’t dead. I wasn’t even bleeding much, though a few black bubbles popped and ran down my chest.
"It worked," one of the men said in wonderment.
The girl suddenly slumped and was caught by the monk closer to her.
The other, his hand still grasping my hair, turned my face toward his.
"You’re a peculiar beast," he said, peering down at me. "I know of no other animal who survives with its heart outside of its body. This, more than anything else, is what marks you as a creature of hell." With his free hand, he crossed himself. "Christ be with us," he said. Then he struck my head until my world went dark.
I awoke underground in a cage. Mercifully it was dark, but for a guttering candle on a stool just past my reach outside the bars. I saw a fat woman in a robe sitting by the candle.
"You’re awake," she said. "Good. I am the abbess of the Order of Oak and Thorn. It’s time we talked."
I turned my back to her.
"I know you can live for a good long while like this. No food, no drink, no light." She paused. "No heart."
I shrugged slightly. My wrists were hurting. The iron manacles irritated my skin.
"But that will become wearisome. Your kind lives so very long. They say that the span of man’s life is but a breath in the sight of God. Is that why your kind are so wanton with us? Are our lives no more to you than that of a sparrow to us?"
She was waiting for me to answer. I shrugged again. I didn’t care to think of such things. And it was very cold there. I missed the heat of home.
"With all of your time, I want you to think about something," she said, her chair creaking comfortably. "Consider bargaining."
She stood up, adjusted her robes, and walked out. She took the candle.
I couldn’t tell how much time passed there in the dark. It could have been years. I counted my breaths, my sleeps, the stabbing gnaws in my belly, the slow seeping of my black blood from my chest, and how many times I could walk around my cage. I rapped the bars until my knuckles were bloody and ineffectually chewed at my manacles. Occasionally I screamed, on the slim chance that someone would hear me.
I was between screams when the abbess came back. She walked more stiffly this time, leaning on a cane. A younger woman attended her, carrying a candle. The abbess stood leaning on the cane, waiting for me to speak. I was silent. The moment stretched into a minute, and the abbess turned to go.
"Wait," I said, my voice raspy. "Let’s bargain."
Three days later, we had a contract written out, which I signed with my heart’s blood. I would serve as a subordinate to the Order of Oak and Thorn for the next five hundred years. This mixed and secret order defended humans and their way of life from demons, vampires, fair folk, and the like. My primary purpose was to be a receptacle of secret and arcane knowledge that would survive time’s ravages. But I could be asked to do anything that would not guarantee my death, which was not particularly limiting. I am capable of dying, but it is difficult to bring about, which I am usually thankful for. If all members of the order and their descendants were to pass away before my contract expired, I would die. But if at least one was alive after my five hundred years of service was up, my heart would be returned to me, and I would be free.
I had many masters and mistresses through these years. The order would assign me to one of their members and give me to a new one whenever the old one died. My first mistress was the abbess herself, and she was one of the harshest.
One day she took me alone on a journey. I realized halfway there that we were heading back to the portal where I had first entered this world. My steps slowed, but she called for me to hasten.
We arrived at the portal, and she gave me instructions. She left me there and went a little ways off, settling down behind a knoll out of sight.
Hours passed. Suddenly and soundlessly one of my kin, a demon of a different tribe, stepped through the portal. His eyes narrowed when he saw me. I stepped up and wordlessly stabbed him, swiftly carving out his heart and cradling it in my hand. He shouted in pain, and tried to curse me in our native tongue.
I stepped back and shouted to the abbess, "It is done."
She strode out from behind her knoll and took the heart in her hands, standing between my wounded kinsman and me. "Lovely!" she said, beaming.
My kinsman, blue fire in his eyes, glared at me and spat. He turned around and skittered on his hands and knees back through the portal. The abbess whirled around. Seeing him gone, she cursed. Then she looked back at the heart in her hands, staining them black.
"Well," she said with optimism. "This will still have some use."
A few hundred years later, Evelyn walked as briskly as a young Victorian woman could wearing a bustle and train. I trotted behind her, our lamplit shadows stretching behind us. I was glamoured to hide my demonic-looking eyes, ears, and teeth, and to keep my skin color constant at a ruddy human hue. But worst of all, they had made me put on clothes, which itched, especially my tail.
"Let’s go back," I said, out of breath. My heartless condition did not lend itself to exercise, as I was unable to put on or lose weight.
"Don’t question me," she said. "I know my theory is correct."
That is what I feared. Evelyn suspected that the recent rash of drownings in the Thames had an otherworldly cause, and she was striding off to the river to find proof. As she was my mistress at the time, I was mystically compelled to follow her. She was one of my more foolhardy handlers, so I dreaded her hunches, especially when she was right.
Shortly after Big Ben rang one in the morning, we arrived at the deserted riverbank and peered at the waters below. Evelyn took a scrap of paper from her bag and glanced over it. "If this is what I think it is–" she began.
Two black tentacles burst from the waters. They each wrapped around one of our ankles and pulled. We fell to the slippery ground and slid toward the murky water. Reflexively I pulled my knife from my boot and slashed at the tentacle around Evelyn’s foot. Two hacks. We were half in the water. One more blow, and the appendage was severed.
Another tentacle emerged and pulled the knife from my hand. The first tentacle relentlessly pulled me under. The waves of the Thames closed over my head. Dirty water filling my ears and stinging my eyes, I thought: I am no more than a whipping boy to these people. They are going to let this beast have me. The water became colder as the tentacles pulled me further and further down.
Suddenly the tentacles let go. My ankle burned where they had touched my skin. I swam upward until my head broke the surface. I saw Evelyn standing on the beach, holding a scroll and looking out over the river. I swam toward her.
She caught sight of me as I got closer and folded her arms. I walked out of the water and stood dripping and shaking before her.
She sniffed, and I realized she’d been crying. "I thought you were dead, and it was my fault," she said, pulling a handkerchief from her sleeve and wiping her face.
"What did you do?" I asked.
She took a deep breath to calm herself. "I cast a banishing spell. I prepared it before we came. But I didn’t know if it would work." She rubbed her wrist. It was bleeding slightly. It had been a blood spell, then. She had never worked one of those before. My throat caught. Blood spells were powerful, but dangerous.
I put my arms around her shoulders and awkwardly embraced her. She gave a shuddering sigh, but after a moment she said, "You’re getting me wet."
"Oh." I pulled away.
She looked away and began to walk. We both lived at the Order’s current headquarters, as did many other members. We walked home in silence, and when we arrived, parted ways for the night.
We didn’t speak again of that night, but it crossed my mind whenever I saw the scar on Evelyn’s wrist. It felt peculiar to be in debt to someone, and to have that debt ignored. I resolved then to serve Evelyn with renewed vigor in the hope of finding an opportunity to save her life in return. That moment never came.
A few years later, Evelyn married another member of the Order. When she died, I was passed on to her eldest daughter. It became a tradition for me to be passed down her family line, and the line remained unbroken until the present day.
Madelyn slipped on a white lab coat over her blouse and pencil skirt. Despite the modern clothing, she was the spitting image of Evelyn, and at times her manners or phrases would give me pause, the resemblance was so great. Occasionally I wondered if her spirit had found a way to return. In foolishness, I sometimes hoped for that. My contract was in a small glass case tucked under Madelyn’s arm.
"I’m so sorry, but I’ll have to blindfold you," she said apologetically. "They are being extra vigilant since the raid in Milan last year."
I shrugged, holding my hands out palms up. "Do what you need to do. Wouldn’t want you to lose your position."
She laughed at that, and stood on her tiptoes to wrap the thick black cloth around my head. The cloth was enchanted to safeguard against peeking and supernatural hearing. She took me by the hand and led me into the elevator.
We waited in silence for a time. She squeezed my hand, and we stepped forward. She untied the blindfold.
We were in an enormous warehouse full of drawers and boxes, all marked with numbers. There was a sterile metal table in the middle of the warehouse. Madelyn had pulled out a drawer and was holding my heart, which was now in a neatly labeled plastic bag.
She placed the contract and the heart on the bare tabletop and removed the contract from its case. She took a lighter from the lab coat and set the corner of the contract on fire. I took off my white dress shirt and traced the hole in my chest with my fingers.
A sudden boom echoed through the warehouse. Our heads whipped around to look toward the elevator. In the doorway stood my kinsman of old, blue fire in his hands. He walked unhurriedly toward us.
"Uh-oh," Madelyn said. Knowing my past, she looked at me. "Is that him?" I nodded. She grabbed my heart and shoved it at me. The contract was still burning.
Stepping between him and Madelyn, I slipped my heart into my chest and felt it turning, finding its place again.
He raised an eyebrow and said, "I see." He tapped his own bare scarred chest. "I have beaten you there, brother." He lifted his hand and a stream of fire hit me in the face. The fire didn’t hurt, but the force of it knocked me backward. I fell to the floor and knocked Madelyn over behind me. He stepped closer and kicked me aside, blasting me with fire again for good measure.
I flipped over and got back to my feet, only to see his fist deep in Madelyn’s chest, jerking out her heart. She gave a choked gasp as he dropped the warm red organ on the floor and crushed it beneath his heel.
Then he turned to look me in the face. "Not quite an eye for an eye, but we’ll account this settled," he said, casually licking his fingers. I started to run toward him and clenched my fists, ready to blast some fire of my own. But before I could do so, he blasted me one last long time, pushing me back and knocking me against the far wall.
When I could see again, he was inside the elevator. He gave a mocking salute, and the elevator doors closed behind him. I got up and ran to Madelyn’s side.
Her broken chest was still. I knelt and touched the bloody hole. Nothing moved beneath my fingers except her blood, flowing in some spots and thickening in others. Her blank eyes were open.
I looked at down at my heart, just starting to beat again. My skin was growing back quickly, but it had not yet completely covered my heart. I looked at the hole in her chest, and back at my heart. I swallowed. I didn’t know if this would work, or what would happen if it did. This was reaching into the unknown.
I reached my hand inside and with a cry of pain, I tugged my heart back out. I slipped my heart into the hole in her chest and waited.
Nothing happened.
I waited longer. My shoulders shook, and I took in a shuddering breath. I hadn’t been certain if my kind was capable of tears before this, but now I knew. My eyes welled.
A tear ran down my cheek and off my chin, falling on the wound. Then, beneath my hands, I felt a beat. I looked at her face. Her eyes fluttered open, and she moaned.
"Lie still," I said.
She moaned again. "What happened?" she murmured.
"He ripped out your heart and stomped on it, so I gave you mine."
She frowned. "What… exactly… did that do?"
I looked down. The skin was starting to grow back over her wound. "I’m not sure," I said. "But it looks like we will find out."