Image: Plague, 1898, Arnold Böcklin. Tempera on wood. Public domain, from Wikimedia Commons.
Writer’s note: This story, based on the image, was written for a flash fiction contest for the Tales to Terrify podcast. I didn’t win. You can find the winners here.
By Ron Prichard
It’s not that I like striking people down in the streets, infecting women and children and good men as well as bad with plagues, or smelling the decay wafting from the windows of the rooms where they crawl off to die.
It’s like my mother, the thing I slithered out from all those eons ago, told me. Be who you are. Be the most terrible you that you can be.
Had things started out differently, I could have been an angel.
I mean, I’m not passing the buck, or saying I had no control of my own destiny. But sins of the father falling on the kids is a thing. Especially when the sin is that whole rebelling against the lord and father and being tossed from the heavens and glory for all eternal yada yada.
So what can I say, I told the bartendress over a pricey scotch I had paid for. It’s 2020 and it’s Halloween, fright year and fright night. I’m a demon. Demons gonna demon.
All Hallow’s Eve fell on a Saturday night in 2020 and I was in a little pub in an ancient building on the Royal Mile. It was a hot summer night for Scotland. She was in white but wore a black silk scarf over her head. Dark makeup on pale skin.
Oh and the mask, which made her mouth look like the bottom of a skull. Everyone wears masks now, but she probably dressed this way on Halloween and off.
I entertained her with talk of songs I’d written with the likes of Trent Reznor. Goths like that. I mean, Trent’s the one you’d know best, but I knew many and she knew the names.
I thought I was doing well. You never know these days, but Halloween is kind of my night.
It was easier when I first walked Edinburgh, when a few ladies were royal and more than a few were what back then they called fallen women. Judgmental times. But you knew where you stood.
Oh, there were plenty of poor women in between, haggard and hungry but holding to a religion that made their poverty something noble, God’s inescapable will. I just like the hunts and the kills.
Those were good days for demons. When plagues and disaster hit, we got the credit for them. When people got sick or struggled, they’d put on garlic, do some bleeding and even try to exorcise us out. We were front of mind and they kept us occupied.
Not like today. Send a plague now and they say just a virus, just a flu. Or a government conspiracy or a lab creation. Or a damn act of God, or God’s will, or a sin against God.
God, God, God. You get sick of it.
Anyway, the girl, 2020. She was into it. After work, ready to look at my spiky tail. But she wanted another drink and I had that feeling there wasn’t much time to waste.
That feeling said we were going to ride again.
Last time we rode there was a woman dressed in white. We were going to be married. She was royal, so I’d had to convince her family I was Lord Muketysomedamnthing, Prince of Romanisomewhere. I had them fooled. Her sister a bridesmaid dressed in red, her brother in a red cap to play what these days amounts to best man.
A street not unlike the Royal Mile, but older. Medieval, in fact.
The wine flowed and the guests were feasting ahead of the event. A small group. The plague was on, and while there were no masks — no one believed in germs and viruses then; some today still don’t — no one not perfectly healthy as well wealthy got in.
I was upstairs when my pet stuck his head in from the street. I call him Streak now. I used to call him Drago. These days that name seems too cliché for a white dragon with a black streak down his back.
He was probably aloft; I was on the second floor and he’s big but not huge. “Go away,” I told him, trying to be heard by him but not overheard by anyone else.
He stuck that long neck right into the window and let out a sound like a Harley in pain. (I think of it that way now; there were no Harleys for hundreds of years after that, of course.)
Anyway, Streak would not be ignored. Dragons sleep for decades, and when they wake up, they demand attention. I keep meaning to try a don’t-bark-and-devastate-a-neighborhood collar, but sometimes you want a little devastation.
I hoped he’d just stopped by for a few pets so I could finish this whole wedding scene. But with the plague and all? And there had been some floods closer to London, and lightning strikes that led to wildfires in Wales. All bad omens. Or good ones, depending on how you feel about the whole Apocalypse thing.
Maybe he woke up because we were going to ride.
A ride only happens every few centuries. God lets his guard down, the Big Demon Boss gets overconfident and the Horsemen take a ride. I don’t know why we try — we always lose because, you know, he’s Mr. Omnipotent and all — but you don’t question my boss, Mr. Hellfire and Brimstone. The last time I spent a thousand years in his lake of torment and fire was the last time, you know what I mean?
Besides, God does let us demons have our fun. Look at poor Job, loyal to a fault, so the Almighty took out his kids to win a bet with the Devil. Job got his stuff back at the end, but the kids, they were just dead.
Anyway so, I’m outside, patting Streak, and she comes out. My would-be bride. Did I mention Streak is always hungry? Sorry dear. I just wanted a little demon lust. He wants a bite.
Her sister and brother run out and there’s a lot of wailing and flailing and gnashing of teeth. Doesn’t matter. The sky is red, dragons and demons are flying and feeding, and we got a job to do on the town.
Like I said, demons gonna demon.
So back to 2020. Sure enough, Streak is waiting for me outside the bar. The bartendress at first thinks he is way cool, but like I said … he’s always hungry.
Another demon I know, Beelzevith, pulls up on a pale horse. “I got promoted,” he yells at me. From minor demon to Apocalyptic Horseman. It’s great to see friends succeed. And he was too humble to even put it on LinkedIn.
I mount up. “What’s the boss thinking this time?”
“We got endless wars. We got a plague. We got murder hornets, militia plots and a meteor headed this way. Hell, 2020 may be the year when we win.”
And we’re off. Flying near street level, the pavement becoming a dine and dash for the demon seed. All the things always lurking in the shadows had come out to play.
Yeah, maybe we’ll win this year. Or maybe the world will finally end. Or maybe it will just go down as another terrible day in a bleak year in the tragic course of human history. They’ll get over it and write it off as an Act of God.
I tell you, eternity just isn’t fair. God has convinced humans he’s good and pure. But he also gets credit for our best and most terrible work.
We do all the terror, he grabs all the credit. Sucky move, Lord Almighty.
Still, what choice do I have? Am I not going to foment the terrible disasters and tragic decisions that lead human souls to eternal torture and damnation? It’s what I do. Demons gonna demon.