Penny Blood Side Stories #1

Pleasure Doing Business

By Donna Grey

October 5, 1919

The scent of metal, sweat and gelatin flesh lingers like a perfume for an eternity before it finally sweeps across her palate. Pungent and bitter, but pleasant. It brings with it a sensation that grinds against her tastebuds. It is rough and painful, but delicious.

Her throat fills with tiny spiders of sensation that crawl in a languid wave from the depths of her esophagus upwards and out. Her stomach leaps with them, venomous bile sloshing within, eager to escape. The spiders march, undulating and pulsating as they sew a web of tissue over fresh muscle. A shriek of tantalizing pin pricks clamors across her cheeks and then drowns in a cushion of fat, the spiders meticulously knitting layer upon layer of epidermis over it. The sensation is wet and sticky. It dries before it dampens again with sweat and something else—something warm that refuses to cool. She can feel the warmth of breath against her cheeks and the underside of her tongue leans lax against her bottom lip. A heart thumps against her tastebuds in a rhythm offbeat to her own. It moves her tongue aside.

The frontline of spiders picks up speed as it builds fresh sensation across her body. A weight of pressure pushes against her new torso and her new arms reach out for something, someone—her nails catch on skin and she can feel that ever warm liquid gather beneath them. Large hands paw at her hips and her legs huck tightly against her stomach, pressing down against her. She is trapped, fixed in this euphoria as the hands explore the length of her shins and chase the spiders to her ankles.

Her senses explode the moment the spiders reach her toes, and they scatter. Their prior uniformity dissolves into chaos as they rush back to their home. They disappear behind her lips, stifling a scream as they pass and she slowly relaxes into calm. Finally, she feels ready to open her eyes. His hair is messily tousled and slightly damp. Warm summer sunlight shines through a nearby window against the moist sheen on his forehead, tense from exertion. Nikolay Tyutchev, a gentleman anywhere but in bed. His presence to her is enough to fill an entire banquet hall and she remains oblivious to anything else around her. She gently leads his face closer to hers with a giggle, and feels her heart float in her chest. Then stops.

There’s a pang, a nerve being plucked; something uncomfortable tugs at that buoyant heart. It drags it down, threatens to drown it, fills it with mud. The sun is gone, now the glow of a dying fire. She leans against the wooden frame of a doorway and stares—beyond the too-large room and the man who lies slack in his too-large armchair. Beyond the servants who run to his side and their phantom shadows the fire throws against the walls. She stares at the teacup in the man’s lifeless hand. A servant shakes him and it rolls from his open palm, lands on the ornate kazak rug with a ‘thimp’. She watches the remnants of its contents soak into the rug’s fibers until no trace is left.

He is gone.

A warm hand brushes the side of her face, gently draws her back from that doorway. Back into bed. Back into Nikolay’s arms. The summer sun returns, washes in from a nearby window. It shoos away that gremlin of guilt that haunts her still from 1755, the year her husband passed away. Is it really too soon for her to move on? There is no man she trusts so implicitly as Nikolay Tyutchev. He is one in a long line of potential suitors seeking her attention, but the first to look past what she is and to whom she entrusts her truths, her worries and her desires. Around him, she does not feel like a noble with an unfettered coin purse. Around him, she does not feel her status as a young widow. Around him, she feels like a complete woman.

She continues to gaze at him, her arms hanging possessively around his neck. The curve of his smile fills her with an unshakeable confidence, while his eyes are like voids that threaten to swallow her dare she look at them too long. But she continues to stare, audacious.  She cannot hear her own words but she speaks to him. She lets loose a new truth, a desire for forever that she has been holding close to her chest. And the tightness of his concentration grows lax. And his brow furrows. Oh no.

The muscles across his jaw tense once more, but his eyes no longer meet hers and her heart stops beating. It turns to lead in her chest and that venomous bile leaps in her gut again and the spiders pour from her mouth. They spread a sheet of ice, like armor, across her skin. They want to protect from what comes next but all she feels is the cold. The silence hangs heavy around them like a shade.

His lips part and from them erupts a sound. A song. His mouth moves to shape words but all she can hear is a choir—voices that could be mistaken for angels were their hymn not so sad. It is like an exhalation of raw despair weighed low with grief.

His lips continue and the choir grows loud in her ears. The spiders sting her skin. Her eyes don’t leave his mouth, from its movements foreign, but it is speaking to her. It reminds her that she is still a widow. It brings Nikolay’s genteel nature into question with an admission of a paramour—someone kind and homely. Someone he can marry. Someone who can give him children.

She is abandoned to vicious memories of the day her husband introduced her to their first son, Theodore, visibly ashamed but not so remiss that he couldn’t remind her this wouldn’t have happened could she provide him an heir. She was too kind to him then, as the second son, Nicholas, was left for her to discover at her leisure in the arms of a new wetnurse. That is when she saw those boys for what they were: illusions of Saltykova lineage. Attacks on her femininity. Fortunately, her husband died before he could bring her a third. She thought Nikolay would be different, and now the burning realization sets in. Nikolay truly is different. He strikes low with sweet words and ‘forever more’s. But he is worse for not finding the humility to die with his shame.

The choir clamors into a cacophony of screaming and she presses her eyes closed. She covers her ears to spare them from the racket but it does little to dampen the ache. The screams grow shrill and her skin feels like it will crack in the cold. She keeps her eyes closed, clenches them shut, suddenly aware again that his eyes can swallow her whole. Then she swings, and she can feel the impact ricochet through her arm. Thwump, thwump. She brings her arm down on him again and again. It feels like the bones will shatter from the force. Thwump, thwump. The weight in her chest begins to lift and an icy wind attempts to chill the familiar liquid that refuses to cool coating her skin. Her rage subsides but continues to simmer along the back of her neck. The singing stops.

Finally, she can open her eyes. Snow—fat and heavy chunks of downy ice land on her skin. They stick to it, threatening to sear through it to the muscle. She is surrounded, still, by darkness. Desperate and painful sobs break the silence. Then a name. Her name. Darya Nikolayevna Saltykova. The warmth she felt burns everything but her feet—her eyes rest on the molten white powder gathered between her numb toes. Is it winter already? No. Three years have passed. Long, lonely, miserable, frustrating, infuriating years.


She has been interrupted. A serf stands at a safe distance behind her, wrestling the wind trying to keep her thin shawl upon her shoulders. She looks panicked, dressed far too lightly for the storm that flurries around them. She is in a hurry. Her expression is desperate, imploring, and she turns her gaze in the direction of the sobs. Darya turns to match, and the simmering rage flushes across the back of her neck as it rekindles.

A young girl kneels in a heap on the ground, her face pressed down in the snow. Her body jolts with every slow, aching cry. She is naked save for her own tattered shawl that the wind seems desperate to rip violently away from her. The girl looks up slowly, snow sticking and solidifying to the cuts and grazes on her face. One eye is swollen shut, too painful to open past the deep gash at its side. It leaks tears nonetheless. Her mouth is so battered she can’t shape the words she seems desperate to say. It hangs limp from her ears, jaw broken. That should put an end to the vicious rumors.

Darya feels the cold wooden cane in her hand. There it is again. That warm liquid that refuses to cool, running rivers along the grain. It creates a small pool in the snow at her own naked feet.

“This is your fault,” she spits, a familiar heat bubbling in her gut. She feels the wind and the snow beat against her own naked body, and she can’t stop her knees from shaking as her body is assaulted by a squall. Their defiance only fuels her rancor further.

The young girl takes a deep breath.

“Ahhyyy?!” she cries a semblance of a word that her jaw is unable to support.

Why? The insolence! Darya is aware of the rumors about her circulating the serf’s quarters; that she has a short temper, that her demands are untenable, that her jealousy knows no bounds… What rights do serfs have to whisper behind the backs of nobility? She hears them laugh at her, mock her. She will put an end to that. She sees them flaunt their romances and newborns before her. She will put an end to that as well. She will remind them of penalties that follow every rumor, every whisper, every reminder of their youth and every reminder of their loves. Serfs have no rights to any of these things.

Her chin burns. The rage, gone unchecked, spills past her teeth and pours from her lips like venom. It peels the skin from her jaw and sizzles as it melts the snow by her cold blistered feet. The spiders reemerge, crawling from the corners of her mouth. They get to work rebuilding while she grips her cane so tightly the wood threatens to dig splinters into her palm. And the reverberations down her arm begin again as she swings from the shoulder.

Her ears ring and rage slowly steals her sight from her again. Thwump. Thwump. Each impact is punctuated by the cry of her name that only infuriates her more—she will deal with the other girl next. Thmp. Thmp. The sound grows dull and it feels like the darkness is ringing in her ears. Tp. Tp.

Then the darkness cradles her. It’s all she has left. So confident was she that no conviction against her would succeed……particularly following Catherine’s coronation—she who sponsored a coup against her own husband. The prize for her hubris is a life of incarceration in the darkness of the Ivanovsky Monastery. Its murk crawls behind her eyelids and coats her eyeballs like tar. It dyes her memories a languid gray. The girl in the snow. Her bastard sons. Nikolay. His homely paramour. Slowly the darkness swallows all of them. The only thing that accompanies her in it is hymn. Not a crying choir of mournful angels but real, blessed hymn. Ever distant. As though God, Himself, goads her. He draws her to Him with the tug of ice-cold chains that sear her wrists, he leads her down pitch corridors of stone. But then he stops her. Keeps her at arm’s length, never allowing her to step foot in His temple.

Oh, but the answers she needs from Him. Demands. She is pious, a charitable benefactor, attends mass. And now, imprisoned layers beneath the earth of His monastery for alleged crimes against humanity, He finally notices her but keeps her at a distance. He refused her the power to bear children. He forced her to raise sons who were not her own. He insisted she live alone and paraded all the youth and the love she could not touch under her own roof. And when she could finally take no more, when she vented her frustrations, when she searched for relief, she was caged. Is this what it is to be a woman? To have her path to happiness concealed? To be villainized in her search for it? To be chastised when she finds it?

Finally, she relents to the despair. The spiders work around the venom that continues to bubble down her chin and bore to the bone, around the welts biting into her wrists and ankles from the icy shackles. From a dark and empty place escapes a groan. Long and guttural. Desperate, unrelenting and so painful.

Cold stone scratches at the skin of her shins, thighs and forearms. She leans forward against her knees, fetal, and plants her face on the ground before her, unable to stop her own cries. They are heavy and wet and trail off into the air. She barely feels the blanket that is gently placed over her naked body, but when she stops crying there is a long pause before her benefactor speaks.

“You’ve had quite the journey, Darya Nikolayevna.”

She slowly, feebly, pulls the blanket across her shoulders and rolls away from the voice. Light howls through her eyelids and the shackles are gone, her wrists clean and untarnished from their searing chill. There were none? She blinks blearily around the harsh lights surrounding her but is blind to anything around them, her eyes now feel tired and unused. She hears a gasp followed by hurried footsteps fading into the distance before the lights dim. Her eyes adjust enough to see the benefactor saunter back to her. It is a man, old. Looking at him reminds her of an old tree in Troitskoe—what little skin she can see poking out from his over-loose clothing and thick, leather apron is reminiscent of the way the tree’s dark bark coiled around its spindly branches. She feels he might be tall if his spine weren’t bent like that same gnarled root. He looms over her like a shadow and his presence fills her attention, like Nikolay’s used to but…not the same. Not even close.

“Apologies. Is that any better?” He skritches with one hand at the receding line to his thin, translucent white hair, the other hand is tucked firmly behind his back. “I trust you studied English? My Russian is near non-existent and I don’t imagine you speak any German.”

She motions to talk but pauses, as though preparing to use a long-rusted skill. “I did,” she says, testing the water. “And I do not.” She touches her fingers to her chin, surprised to find that it still burns. When she pulls them away, she sees blood tainted with globules of yellow that coagulate the liquid around them. The benefactor hisses in concern.

“Oh! I wouldn’t touch that just yet. You must let the darlings finish their work.”

She feels like she is going to throw up as a tingling sensation spills from the back of her throat, across her tongue and between her teeth. The feeling tickles like many tiny feet across her bottom lip and she catches it on her chin, brings it up to her eyes for inspection. A tiny black spider no bigger than her thumb nail, its guts a sludge against her fingertips. The spiders were real. The venom was real. Her brain can’t decide how to feel, how to react. Her emotions clamor amongst themselves; she must scream, no she must gag or cry. Exhausted, she does none of these things and resolves only to look to her benefactor in confusion.

Fascinating, is it not?” He continues. “The malice.”


Malice.” He trails on the end syllable like the hiss of a snake, his accent thick and coarse, and he reveals the hand he has been keeping hidden behind his back. Gripped tightly within it, like a jewel between his fingers, is a palm-sized red cube. Although…the way its surface toys with the light and shadow that touches it makes her question whether it is a cube at all. Whatever it is, the dreadful object makes her feel uncomfortable, like something is pressing on her chest. The man continues.

“There is still much we do not understand of malice, but its potential is astronomical. Why, look at what it’s done for you—to be reborn at a turning point of human history. The signing of the Treaty of Versailles. The end of the Great War!”

“That was a few months ago, Doctor. Doesn’t mean the fighting’s stopped.”

Darya is suddenly aware of the other man who stands at her side—he is an obelisk with hair cropped tight to his scalp and a scowl etched onto his features like stone. She is able to catch the gasp of surprise before it leaves her chest, careful to maintain her composure as he passes her a small, rectangular mirror and…no, this can’t be right. She is an old woman, lived out the last of her days in misery and solitude in a prison cell. But in the mirror, she is young. Staring back at her is a face she hasn’t seen before, perhaps from an age during her incarceration, but she still recognizes it is undeniably her own.

“You couldn’t have made me younger?” she responds and the benefactor releases a high hoot of laughter. The obelisk is unmoving. She fails to see what is so funny.

“My understanding of malice is that it latches on to the darkest moments of one’s life.” He runs a finger across one eye, pretending to wipe away a tear. “Judging by your appearance, I would assume that it took some time for the true despair at your…situation…to truly sink in. That moment where the hope in your heart finally died. But, on a brighter note, the form in which it has chosen to manifest in you is nothing short of extraordinary.”

Her eyes narrow at his enthusiasm. Is he trying to woo her? She is unable to hide her disgust as her shoulders rise to meet her chin, and the benefactor reads her mind. With a roll of his eyes, he shakes his head, and she quickly realizes. Ignoring the sudden flush of relief and incredulity she holds up her palm, black guts still smeared across her fingers. “You mean, the spiders?”

“And the venom,” he adds, magicking a handkerchief from one of his apron pockets and offering it to her. She accepts, but is too wary to take her eyes off either man as she wipes away the grime. “Yes, yes. Quite extraordinary. I will need to run some tests and perhaps…an x-ray or two…but it would seem there are pockets within you capable of producing an immeasurable number of spiders. These spiders protect and repair your body at incredible speeds. Not to mention the venom! My, you’re like the beautiful scytodes fusca, a spitting spider, housing a nest of trillions of tiny babies!”

Darya can’t stop the sneer that draws on her top lip. Her benefactor notices, decides to the change the subject.

“Ah! Yes, introductions! Pardon me. I am Doctor Franz Eugene, although some have come to call me Dr. Organ.” He places his free palm against his chest. “And this is my companion, Sariel.” He motions to the obelisk. “You must have a veritable hurricane of questions raging in your brain, but you must be…hm, cold?”

The chill creeps around the tiny square handkerchief gripped in one hand and the blanket on her shoulders, unabated by any other fabrics. So, the doctor stands, attempts to lead her by the hand at first, but when she refuses to reciprocate, he casually wraps his arms behind his back, one hand still holding that cube. He carries himself forward with long, bow-legged strides, and Darya is careful to follow a few steps behind. She walks in silence, taking a moment’s respite from the doctor’s diatribe. She eyes the chilled, brick hallways with deepening suspicion that she has only swapped one prison for another. The floors are slick cement, scuffed with years of wear from heavy use, and the hallways are punctuated with large, heavy steel doors – dark, illuminated occasionally by large flickering orbs of light that sit high on the walls.

She is unsure whether she is walking deeper into the maze or if he is leading her away from its center, when…

“Here we are.”

He stops to one side of an open steel door and pivots on the spot to face her—a grinning gargoyle with his fingers still locked around that dreadful cube behind his back. She tries to read his expression but gives up and warily moves into this new room. Her room. It is uniformly square, no windows or ornamental decorations, bare if not for the large bed pressed against the back wall and its heavy dark curtains draped in a canopy across the four columns at each of its corners. It is flanked at either side by two more orbs of light and two large bookcases, both so full of literature and any manner of what else that a miniature towers of books stands precariously at their feet. Slowly, she moves toward a desk that is propped against the wall to one side. A few sheets of paper lie on its surface, held down by what she can only assume to be a writing utensil. She runs an unimpressed finger across the woodgrain and leaves a clean track in the layer of dust that has accumulated on its surface.

“Ah, yes, well.” Eugene stutters in anticipation and inches into the room to join her. “This chamber was prepared some time ago in anticipation of your…hm…arrival. But we all know how life likes to interfere with our plans, don’t we?”

Darya rolls the dust between her thumb and forefinger, but she can feel the way his presence floods the entire room like a shadow. Beyond him is the obelisk fencing off the doorway. The spiders tickle her tongue with caution, but she moves on to the piles of books and leers over them. She pauses, untrusting of her initial pass of the English characters on the cover of one book in particular. A mild shame flushes through her as she remembers struggling with English reading—she was always more adept at speaking. She leans forward, lifts the book slowly towards her face to capture its title properly. She doesn’t welcome him, but feels the doctor’s presence suddenly move much closer.

“Oh, good taste. War and Peace, by Leo—”

“Tolstoy.” Darya interrupts him, still looking at the book. “I knew the Tolstoys.”

“Did you really?!” He reels backwards as though dodging a fist, his voice rings with uncanny disbelief. She feigns ignorance at his terrible acting until it dawns on her that this book’s placement may be more than mere coincidence. “I thought it might make for a thrilling read, especially as it chronicles events that passed following your…well, passing. Did you know Catherine the Great had insisted on speaking only French within the palace? Perhaps you did. Still, apparently, the nobility had to study Russian just so they…could order their, hm, yes, well…”

He tapers off as Darya telegraphs her disinterest by dropping the book on the ground. The spiders on her gums scatter back into the depths of her throat with a click of her tongue, and that familiar warmth brews in her gut. Catherine the Great. Is that what they call her now? Darya is aware of the doctor’s knack for raising uncomfortable topics, but despite his stutters, awkward pauses and ‘hm, yes’es, the smile doesn’t once fall from his lips. It does currently scrunch in circles, however, as he formulates a new, undoubtedly sore topic of conversation to raise. Then he finds it, and with an abrupt “Oh, I know!”, begins shuffling through the books on the shelves before proudly thrusting a new in her direction. Her eyes do not struggle this time as they gloss over the familiar Cyrillic characters on the cover—an anthology of Russian poetry—to which she raises a skeptical eyebrow. She is not an admirer of poetry. Nevertheless, the doctor wordlessly raises a finger that first begs for patience before leafing furiously through the books pages and stopping. He presents the book to her again, this time open at a particular poem.

Does he think her a fool? She fixes her eyes on his in defiance, but the heat continues to bubble and the spiders behind her teeth return to scurry in trepidation. He told her not long ago that he does not speak Russian, so how is he able to find the page he needs? Perhaps he is her opposite—a stronger reader than he is a speaker? No, albeit weak, he attempts to mask his intellect with a clumsy demeanor. Why is he showing her this?

She looks to the book and begins at the start. “Silentium!” reads the title, written by Fyodor… Her stomach turns. Instinctively, she drops the blanket from her shoulders and presses the handkerchief to her mouth.

“Tyutchev, yes! My, you had made quite the intricate social web, if you’ll pardon the pun.” His words grow muffled and her vision blurs, rage threatening to steal it once more. “Prolific poet…old acquaintance…grandson…you remember…?” It is all far more than coincidence. She knew it was coming but had let her curiosity get the better of her. And now she can’t see and her stomach burns and her throat burns and her mouth burns and she knows the words that are coming next but she begs him not to speak them. “…Nikolay Tyutchev.”

It brews in her gut and seeps from her pores—the rage. Any consideration of the doctor’s all-too-obvious emotional manipulation is too much to bear, and the spiders run loose. She feels them crawl over her, warming her shivering body, before they ooze across the floor. She uses their eyes to watch the doctor hip and hop out of the way away before the obelisk unceremoniously yanks him from the room. The spiders nudge the door shut, cover it in layers upon layers of fleshy webbing. ‘…a spitting spider, housing a nest of trillions of tiny babies!’ Her heart wrenches at the quote, but squeezing new muscles in her mouth she spits her venom at the orbs of light and plunges the room into comforting darkness. She leaves her ‘babies’ to roam free. Pouring still from her mouth they spread a tensile blanket of webs across every surface. And there she stews until her rage slowly subsides into discontent.

Futile nudges at her door and the occasional smell of a hot meal remind her of the passing of the days. She ignores them both, tries to take refuge in her dreams, but they only mirror those same visions she saw in her reawakening. Nikolay’s body pressed against her own, the sensation of warmth against her bare skin and his tongue exploring the surface of hers. He pins it down and her eyes open and there’s the girl again—a battered corpse lying face down in the snow. She shakes the image away. She beckons the sickly-sweet images of Nikolay return again. They do, his hands searching her body, they run down her back and clutch at her buttocks. He runs his fingers across her stomach, beneath her navel and lower still. Then pain as he thrusts his fist into her abdomen.

The blow throws her backwards and she feels that cold like ice against her back. There’s a hole where his hand was, and she clumsily tries to cover it, embarrassed, bereft, blood oozing around her fingers. Something’s missing. She begins searching, pulling apart the skin as she claws inside her gut, only drawing more blood where there should be something else. Give it back, she despairs, but Nikolay is gone. And she is empty and alone.

Then she dies. She dies and she dies and she dies. She wills the venom in her gut to rise, to flow unabated from her mouth and melt her from the outside in. She welcomes the burn and the sickly odor of her own flesh peeling from the bone and her heart tries to stop, but the spiders won’t let it. They abandon the web and crawl to her. They coat her body in an undulating dusky layer of tiny bodies as they work to repair it. She screams and she screams and she screams for them to stop, but they continue their work in silence on her paralyzed frame.

There’s a crash in the room and she can’t stop her frightened eyes from looking to the door. Light leaks in through the open entryway where the shadow of the obelisk looms at her—Lord, what must he see? A shapeless mess of spiders staring wide eyed back at him? Her despair won’t let her move. Won’t let her reach for some composure in his presence, to sweep away the spiders or fix a strand of her hair. Instead, she just sits and stares, wholly helpless as the spiders finish their work. They gradually crawl back into her mouth, leaving her naked and prone to that shaft of light and its foreboding shadow. But finally, the shadow moves, makes room for the doctor to step in, but his presence feels smaller now. Because of the obelisk? No, something else. She watches him inspect the room as he enters, but she is cautious. She cannot give him the upper hand again.

“I care not for anything. I haven’t for decades.” She speaks first and draws his attention; she takes the advantage. “I care not for Russia for she turned her back on me. I care not for God for all He did was take from me. I care not for my husband, nor the bastard sons he foisted upon me. I care not for my body for the gift it refuses to give me.” She realizes her fingers still dig holes into her abdomen like in her dream—blood, thick as tar, pools around them and spills from the wounds. She wants to exhume the misery that festers in there, but the spiders continue to trickle from the corners of her lips. The doctor takes tentative steps towards her.

“Why am I here?” she asks him.

His shoes squelch as they plunge and peel across the webbed floor, then he drops to one knee a short distance away. He runs a hand across the tacky ground. She feels a sense of compassion ooze from him, but she knows better than to believe it. She looks at the way he analyzes his fingers, and it all clicks into place. The way he spoke of the ‘darling’ spiders, the handkerchief to wipe the venom from her chin. The books, the poem, the malice. The way his eyes pour over the contents of her room now and the heavy in the doorway. He is observing her, the commodity, and calculating her worth. This isn’t a moment of compassion. This is a business negotiation.

“What do you want?” she corrects herself.

His hawkish eyes land on hers and he seems to already understand what’s going through her mind. That foxlike smile pulls the corners of his mouth upwards to his ears. “I want to propose a collaboration, my dear. An exchange of services rendered for you and your complicity.”

“You cannot have me.” His expression does not change, but she continues. “There is nothing you can give me that would make me want to share these powers with anybody.” She rests both hands against her belly, spiders skitter between them while they hurriedly work to repair the damage, sewing shut the holes her fingers left. She is unable to conceal the resigned grimace that twists her lips. Finally, and for the first time, the doctor’s smile fades in thought. But then a new realization dawns on him. His features twist, his grin more demented than ever.

“But my dear, I already have.” He is reading her mind again and extends his free hand toward her, gesturing to where her fingers rest as the spiders scurry away, her body whole once more. And the realization moves her heart in her chest. How? No. She bids it down, she dares not even dream to hope. But without it, she has nothing. He may as well keep her in a cage…

If he truly has given her the gift she was refused for so long, what is it he needs her to do so willingly?




June 16, 1920

Even as the pink dusk sun shines against its walls, the Saltykova manor remains shrouded in shadow. Its red brickwork shifts uncomfortably in place as though waiting for an excuse to leave. The building, a jumble of short intersectional rectangular boxes lined with tall, narrow windows, with each rectangle overlaid by a portentous, black rooftop. An entrance sits at the east side of the building—a large set of double doors cut from a deep, dark wood laden with ornate wrought iron decoration.

Dim light oozes from each of the ground floor windows into the soup-like fog rolling around the property. A gaggle of faceless drivers huddle in the glow beside the driveway centerpiece, their breaths creating a warm mist from beneath their frostbitten noses. They keep their backs to the centerpiece; dark trickles of water spouting in sharp arches from the center of the fountain like eight frangible legs. They’d rather not look at it.

“I must thank you all again for coming.” The voice of Darya Saltykova croons as the building’s large doorway creaks open. The drivers shuffle to their respective vehicles. A tall gentleman butler holds one of the large doors inward and their mistress braves the chill beside them in a sheer black gown. She bids farewell to the debutantes and dilettantes that file past her. Some stop for a shake of the hand or a cursory hug, all with wide smiles plastered to their faces.

A large gentleman in a pale suit wobbles his way by, nods at the stoic butler on his way to the top of the stone staircase that leads to the row of cars waiting below. He stops, lighting a match and holding it up to the end of a thick cigar pinched between his lips. The man sucks on it deeply before letting the smoke dance from his lips, waves the cigar around with a flexible wrist in dramatic gesticulation.

“Another tree-men-dous evenin’, Miz Saltykova.” His accent is thick, American. Maybe Texan given the ten-gallon hat that sits askew on his head? Darya is not yet familiar with US dialects. He spins to face her. “I’ll be talkin’ to my ‘ccountant soon as I return. Yew’ll be hearin’ from me again!” Darya nods her head graciously as he grins widely, takes another suck on his cigar and flicks its head of ash to the ground. He misplaces his foot as he turns back towards the stairs, but only slides down the first two steps, thankfully catching his balance. He clears his throat to disguise the mishap. Darya acts as though nothing happened.

“Please do enjoy the rest of your stay in Troitskoe,” she calls after him as he braves the remainder of the staircase. She tries to watch for his safe descent when attention is wrestled away by ice cold hands that grip her own. Mr. Peacock stands before her, smiling with embarrassed humility and one arm holding up a rather inebriated Mrs. Peacock—the perpetrator with the witch’s touch. The way her hands are latched on gives the impression she requires both their efforts to remain upright. She sways on the spot, teeters forward as she speaks.

“I see Mr. Webb isn’t in the queue waiting for his car.” The smell of stale wine and tobacco coats her breath. She pauses, ‘pfft pfft’s at strands of fur that stick to her lips from the fox pelt draped over her shoulders. “Come to think of it, I can’t say I’ve seen him for some time. You were talking to him so intently before… I do hope he’s okay.”

“It would seem Mr. Webb allowed the revelry to catch up with him tonight,” Darya’s expression is warm. “I’m lending him use of a guest room until he feels himself.” She squeezes Mrs. Peacock’s hands in her own, tries to pull them away, but the woman grips harder. She shimmies her rather corpulent frame against her husband; a strap from her teal frock falls slovenly from her shoulder.

“Oooh, a guest room! Perhaps—” she hiccups and fires him a look. She seems to be winking at him with both eyes. “Perhaps, you and I should inquire into a night here one of these days? I’ve heard all about the wonders a stay at the Saltykova estate does for one’s concupiscence.” She rolls back into her husband’s arms and cranes her neck towards him with a wet “Hmmmmm?”

Now thoroughly mortified, Mr. Peacock attempts to tug his wife away to the stairs, but this time it is Darya Saltykova who refuses to let go.

“I’m delighted to receive such a glowing review,” She smiles with all of her teeth. “Rest assured; I will remember to ask Mr. Webb’s impressions when I check on him in the morning.” Mind your own fucking business. She caps off her remark with a hollow laugh and concern flashes over Mr. Peacock…but his wife chortles back, heartily and oblivious. Darya acquiesces, allows Mrs. Peacock to stumble back into her husband’s arms with a note of drunken levity that quickly erases any animosity.

“I’ll hold you to that, my dear.” The noblewoman teasingly waggles a finger in Darya’s direction and makes for the stairs. Her husband is visibly relieved. “I expect cupid himself to oversee our sojourn!”

The final, more well-behaved patrons and their drivers filter down the road until all are gone but one—a driver without his passenger. He climbs the stairs toward her, silent, shoulders tucked under his ears and hands dug deeply into his pockets. He stops a few steps short and looks up at her. Darya returns the look from the doorway, and then they each turn away—she towards the depths of her manor, he towards his car.

Finally, she relaxes and it is as though the entire building sighs. Now bereft of pomp and revelry, a stillness sweeps through its warren of corridors. Had her guests been more keenly aware of their surroundings they might have noticed the scratching of tiny legs skittering beneath the eaves, or spied the web glue between the stonework. But if there is anything Darya is confident of, it’s the willingness of the rich to overlook risk in favor of a good time.

She breezes past the butler who abandons the door to close on its own, pivots on the spot and begins to march behind her. She continues along the hallway, past the dining hall and towards the guest rooms. A handful of sconces weakly illuminate the corridor’s walls in hourglass shapes, creating large cones of darkness that run down the center of the room. The hallway is shrouded in shadow, dark enough for Mr. Webb to convince himself he is properly concealed when he pounces. Darya yelps in mock surprise.

Playfully, he turns her around to face him, wraps his arms around the small of her back. But she gently places her hands against his chest, keeping him at a distance.

“I thought you wanted to stay behind and discuss business.” Her cheeks pinch at the outer corner of her eyes in a vulpine smile. “Or would you rather forgo that and focus on something more pleasurable?”

“Now, now Ms. Saltykova,” Mr. Webb’s voice is a low rumble. He harkens himself a shrewd salesman from…somewhere in England…who happens to have connections her client is interested in. “To me, business is its own form of pleasure.”

His chuckle is coarse like gravel, his dark eyes set on hers with confidence. He probably considers himself a ‘lady-killer’. He releases her and extends the crook of his elbow for her to hold on to. She obliges and leads him slowly down the hall; where to isn’t important. Despite his recovery remark, she notices how he rubs his tongue against the inside of his cheek, trying to swallow mild annoyance. He cocks his head to one side to look back, directs his gaze at the butler who continues to keep in stride behind them.

“Isn’t it time to dismiss the help?” he asks.

The butler is silent. They move as though in slow motion, one arm swaying pendulous at their side, the other tucked at a ninety-degree angle behind their back. Dark brown eyes stare through them both.

“He will accompany us as far as the guest rooms.” She answers, lightly pulling Webb along the hall while his neck remains craned back. He is oblivious to the way the hallway stretches away from them as they walk, how the final set of doors on either side keep their distance.

“Why’s that?” he asks. “You seem to be doing a good enough job of leading me there, yourself.”


“Protection?” An indignant scoff, he twists his neck back around. “What, you don’t trust me?”

“Mr. Webb, one can’t honestly be so surprised that a bachelorette working in a dangerous industry take at least one menial precaution.”

The gravel chuckle again. He purses his lips in consideration. “I suppose it’s because it’s so menial that I—”

“Why don’t you tell me more about these connections of yours?” She slices into his words and Webb quickly perks up. His back straightens, he runs his free hand through his blond curls, then tucks it into the pocket of his pants.

“You mean Vickers? Not sure what there is to tell that I haven’t gone over already, though I can’t help but wonder why your ‘Hellhounders’ are so keen on them. Why the sudden interest in ordnances when they’ve dealt in intel and finances ‘til now?”

She stifles a sigh. “Protection.”

Webb tilts his head back toward the ceiling, his mouth an ‘O’ in realization. It is a dangerous industry, she said so herself. Darya continues on in silence, her eyes fixed on the end of the hallway, she waits for her suitor to complete his mental gymnastics.

“Well, lucky for you, I consider myself pretty close with the gaffers upstairs— Now don’t look at me like that.” Darya is tilting away from him, one eyebrow raised. “I’m being honest! If what you’re promising me is true then I can ensure the Hellhounders are well-equipped to survive a second world war. Hell, maybe even a third.”

“I am impressed.” She purrs, leans back into his arm and presses a dainty hand against his chest.

“Well, I can’t say it’s entirely for your benefit, Ms. Saltykova. I see myself as the next Basil Zaharoff, and I need to start building my web…” he snorts, “…of connections quickly while his attentions are drawn to gambling and petroleum.” A devious smile crawls along one side of his face, his eyes sweep down and across the low neckline of her gown. They linger on the way her cleavage deepens when her breasts press up against him. “And ol’ Zed made his mark by playing benefactor to all the, uh, right people.”

“Didn’t Mr. Zaharoff also deal faulty weapons to the opposition of his beneficiaries? How can I know that you consider my client and I to be ‘the right people’?”

Webb threads his arm from hers. He takes her by the waist instead, grips it tightly and she stops. Everything stops. “That would depend on how well you’re able to uphold your end of the deal.” He leans in towards her—she does not give him this kiss, he takes it. It is forceful, as though attempting to be passionate but overcome by a need to be dominant. He thinks he is in charge, but she crawls her hands up his spine and places them flatly between his shoulder blade. She presses her lips against his, rolls his tongue in hers and he can’t resist her. His fingers paw at her shoulders and her back, frantic to feel the softness of her skin, frustrated by the straps of her dress getting in their way.

He pauses for a moment. Hesitation. He pulls his head back and looks at her, searches her expression for any tell. Furrows his brows and looks at her carefully with deep, dark eyes. “I’m assuming this concludes my part for services rendered?”

“Almost…” she whispers, teasingly. She is serious, and the way she smiles up at him… She can really give him what he wants when they’re done. The thought overcomes him.

He pushes her back against one of the doors, leans his entire body into hers. She feels his desperation, a hardness that begs for her. His hands tug the straps of her dress down and out of the way, they make room for his lips and his tongue to explore her neck and her shoulders. She sighs, one hand lost in the mess of his hair, the other pulling at the back of his shirt.

The door behind her opens.

She leads him in, his body still entangled in hers, and now she can feel everything: his frantic heartbeat, the blood gathered at his genitals. She senses his trepidation, the way the muscles in his face twitch in confusion at the way his shoes stick slightly to the floor. But he ignores that, shrugs it off, overcome he begins working on his bowtie. She works on unbuttoning his shirt.

He asks her to turn on the light, she closes her mouth around his again. But he wants to see her, he fumbles behind him for a light switch. She feels his fingers make contact with the wall, the twang of sensation when he jerks them away in disgust. Time is up. He grips her shoulders, tries to hold her at a distance but she pushes against them and brushes her jaw against his neck. The wonderful sensation of tiny hairs grazes against the soft insides of her mouth, thick yet delicate legs press through her lips. She gags slightly, audibly, as the creature’s front legs catch purchase on Webb’s neck, they sink their mandibles into his flesh.

“Wha—!” The shock cuts him off. He throws Darya to the ground. “Where is the fucking light?!” She senses his legs falter beneath him but his knees freeze, keeping him upright. One hand is clutched to his neck as a foam of puss oozes from the wound. His other hand swings maniacally around him. “Light, damnit!!”

She remains silent, rises to her feet and saunters across the tacky floor to where Webb fumbles blindly in the darkness. His movements grow slower, heavier. His breathing shallows. She brushes soft fingers against his torso and he flinches at her touch, then he stiffens, and gradually stops. She finishes her work unbuttoning his shirt and tugs the collar away from his shoulders. Up close, she can hear syllables rasp in his throat, determined to get out: “…li…ght…”

Fine. Long ignored sconces slowly begin to glow around them. At least now she can regale in the desperation in his eyes as they flick to-and-fro. He tries to understand his surroundings—this concept of a room. The light from the sconces strain through a coating of thick, fibrous web that covers every surface. Giant slabs of stone that may once have been the walls hang in that same web at odd angles as though squeezed from their setting. The room’s contents—the desk, the bed, the moldy chaise lounge—all lie scattered on the ground, caked and unused. The ceiling spirals like a funnel into darkness the sconces can’t reach. His eyes linger there in particular, then watch how the shadow undulates.

Darya opens her mouth wide with a wet, muffled gag. She guides a palm-sized arachnid from her tongue onto the back of her hand and leans into Webb, one arm curled around his waist, while the other plays with the spider dancing between her fingers. She sighs.

“The doctor will be pleased, at least.” She places the spider on his exposed collar bone, then glances beyond him towards a figure that marches into view—the rigid silhouette of the butler joining her from the hall. They stand a few paces ahead, back facing him.

Darya changes places, crosses the room to the butler, and feels Webb’s frenetic heartbeat again. He must finally see the fourth member of their party: they lie crooked against a corner of a tall-backed chair at the end of the room. He is trying to focus on the stranger, to see more from this distance, but his senses are torn away. His nerves scream to attention at a new, searing feeling between his shoulders. She snaps her fingers at him, pay attention, and removes the butler’s jacket. She tugs at their bow-tie, unbuttons their shirt and draws it away from their shoulders just enough to give Webb a visual example for what is happening to him now. Realization dawns on his face, his eyes dither, staring at the space between the butler’s shoulder blades, at the hairy mound of something buried deep in there, surrounded by hot and angry flesh. It twitches, shudders slightly at the sensation of the muggy air against its spines.

“I imagine this disregards my client and I as ‘the right people’? I would like to clarify, however, that this is a part of the deal we discussed.” She takes a step around the butler, leans an elbow on their shoulder. She delights in tickling the creature’s spines again and the butler shivers. Their skin stretches, pales slightly and pulls back painfully as eight hairy knees squeeze into view around the quivering lump in their back. It threatens to emerge until Darya stops toying. It reconsiders, wriggles its way back under the butler’s skin and settles.

“The immortality I provide isn’t painless, but it is effective.” Darya indulges in the lightest chuckle. “Would you believe I’m almost eighty years old? Perhaps closer to two-hundred if you count the years I spent dead. You might believe if you had done any research considering your connections.” Prideful, she circles her pointer finger around the creature as though about to giving a presentation.

“One of my babies is taking control of you via your cervical vertebrae,” she motions her finger to two large spinnerets hurriedly pump white strings of silk into the butler’s spine. “It needs to in order for this material to course throughout your body unhindered, where it will repair any damage or wear-and-tear, and ensure you do as you’re told.

“Eternity is a long time, Mr. Webb. Please understand that I need to make assurances that you won’t abuse it in order to betray my client.”

She steps away from the butler, their job done, and they begin to finish disrobing on their own. They lean down and remove their shoes, peel their socks from their feet, then thread the belt from the loops of their pants.

Darya returns to Webb, rolls her body beside him and checks the spider making its nest in his back. She purrs, sways back around to face him, rubs both hands up his torso and feels the muscles in his chest slowly begin to relax—the venom is wearing off. She watches him gently, sees realization dawn in his eyes, the silk flushing through his body like cold water in his veins. She imagines the synapses fire in his brain, commanding his body to reach out and attack her, push her, anything.

Poor thing.

Webb’s body grows lax. His arms lower to his sides, his shoulders droop. The rigidity of the venom dissipates, makes room for the string to assume control, and with his limbs more malleable, Darya begins to remove his shirt. She understands the despair that must be welling in his heart, but she doesn’t care. She unbuckles his belt next, paying no mind to the butler who, now free of their own clothing, is moving towards the wall, swifter, with purpose. Not breaking stride, they plant their hands against the moist web wall and effortlessly pull themself up, their knees lurching upwards to meet their elbows. They flatten themselves prone against it and begin their ascent—limbs twitching back and forth, their waist flexing this way and that as they skitter into the obscurity of the ceiling.

She pulls Webb’s belt free like a whip, flings it to the ground behind her. Her movements are sharp, she tugs violently at the front button of his trousers and stifles a moan of anticipation. Finally, once the doctor learns about this one and his generous benefaction, she can stop with the silly parties for a time—finally work on what it is that she wants. The thought excites her, ignites the ferocity of her actions.

A wet sound of crunching bone erupts from behind her. She doesn’t stop working but grunts through the sensation, skin splits like a seam down her back and eight spider legs slowly pry themselves free, wrapped in a moist, translucent film. They stretch, tearing the membrane, and shake erratically, splattering free of the placenta-like remnants tangled in their spines. They take their time to find purchase on the ground around her feet.

Finished, she motions at Webb to follow and the legs raise her upward. Powerless, he shimmies out of his pants and steps out of his shoes, following her lead like a lost child. The spider’s legs march on the spot for a second or two, turn her around and walk to the center of the room—towards the stranger in the tall-backed chair.

Her heart flutters with each featherlight step, unbidden anticipation at finally, finally getting her own way. A chance to realize the dream that has haunted her over two lifetimes. Unable to bear children for so long, the luxury suddenly thrust upon her… She was paralyzed by choice. What to make first? Boy, girl? Both? And with whom?

Inspiration came from the doctor, surprisingly, following yet another lecture about the Hellhounders’ costs to remain operational, the materials required to continue their research, the munitions recommended to ensure their safety… For a moment, she ruminates on the long, tedious list of excuses for her revivification, for her cooperation. About her darling baby spiders he knew a disturbing amount, and would wax lyrical at her frequently. He would go into alarming detail about their diet and behaviors, their habitats and their mating procedures. She drowned most of it out; the thought of a man telling a woman how to look after her offspring made her eyes hurt from rolling. But on one serendipitous day where she cared to listen, he educated her on the female spider’s propensity for collecting the semen of the males—how they contained a special pocket in their reproductive system where it could be stored until needed. An interesting solution to her problem… Did she have this as well? No.

Ah, well, no matter. She was nothing if not resourceful.

She stops in front of the chair, waits for Webb to approach the side and then lowers herself down beside him. The spider legs fan out from behind her, curving over them to create a skeletal dome. The air within is warm and muggy, it seems to vibrate and purr. She points beyond the chair, deeper into the room and Webb’s head obediently turns to follow. Behind it lies a small hill of limp, lifeless torsos. All males for the most part, their arms and legs missing, the stumps seared and sewn shut, unnecessary. Their chests rise and fall rhythmically; asleep. Their heads loll back against each other in a mound of useless flesh and exposed genitalia—she may need those later. The source of the purring vibration, the air from their lungs rasps against the rooves of their half-open mouths, less a snore than a low drone.

Each of them came to her following rumors of immortality. She welcomed them for their connections, their money. Every one an assignment, she wooed their collaboration as part of the debt she must repay, and while she had a flair for lauding over bureaucrats, aristocrats and the occasional celebrity, the tedium of it all… The same conversations, the same cued laughter, the same unwelcome gaze, the same unwelcome touch, the same antagonizing encounter; everything a woman in her position should come to expect, she refused to accept. This is what became of those who shadowed her for too long with too little to offer; a benefit she keeps a close guarded secret from her benefactors.

Now Mr. Webb is also privy to the secret. Another tall, handsome man with deep, dark eyes to add to her other collection. She feels the weight at the back of his throat, the desire to gulp back tears his custodian will not let rise. She almost feels badly for him; not for his situation but for his naivety. From now he will only cry when she needs him to. He will only laugh when she needs him to. And when she doesn’t need him, he will remain hidden in that undulating darkness of the ceiling with the others.

“Try not to despair too much,” something unsolicited urges her to console him, “this isn’t your fate quite yet. I will need to put you to use in other ways; signatures, soirees, and such, while we utilize your connections. In the meantime…” She pauses again, motions Webb to come closer, come around, and see who sits in this tall-backed chair. But he won’t know who it is. He didn’t do any background research into her so why should he know this man; this man with no sordid history of murder or corruption; this man who died old and contented, like surrounded by loving family. He wouldn’t know the bastard Nikolay Tyutchev. Nobody would know him, the way he looks now.

The doctor discovered, in his research, that malice needs something to latch on to. Nikolay lived a fulfilled life, abundant with love and children. It wasn’t able to rebuild him the way it was able to rebuild her. He had no malice for the malice.

What sits in this throne now is a beleaguered wraith, all raw bone and sinew, permanently doused in a film of sweat from the exertion of staying alive. His skin hangs from him, drooping heavily like melting wax. His arms lie in the rests of the chair, his boney hands cup the ends like claws. One leg hangs from the seat of the chair, its knee a futile stump where the rest of it failed to materialize.

It took several attempts for the doctor to bring Nikolay back into being. Darya never fully understood the doctor’s enthusiasm for helping her beyond his grim curiosity, but she accepted it nonetheless. Time and again the doctor would pull Nikolay back to life as a globous mass of screams and gelatin flesh only for them to expire minutes later. But every scream, every cry, every deathlike rattle gave Darya life. In her mind, he did not deserve the peace she was denied. No, she would fill his waking moments with the same pain and emptiness that she felt at his betrayal.

She traces a finger along his jaw, remembers the feeling of rough stubble he can no longer grow. She sighs, blissfully recalls their final attempt at giving him life. The scream, before his beautiful face emerged from the quibbling, viscous pile of lumpy flesh. The horror was fresh on his features then, the familiar voids of his eyes staring into another no one else could see. His scream was a shriek, his jaw and strong neck stretched skyward, and his collar bones audibly cracked as they merged with his shoulders. She can still feel the way her heart panged with hope hearing his ribs crunching into row, watching his hips fuse into being. Eventually his screaming stopped, dominated by a low groan-like beg, and the doctor approached her, wanted to console her. He apologized; the malice wasn’t able to bring Nikolay back whole. Perhaps she could use the spiders to—? No, thank you. She doesn’t need him whole.

Lost to memories she approaches the chair, the convergence of the spiders’ legs at her back lift her ever so lightly from the ground. She hitches the hem of her dress up to her thighs, lowers herself down to mount the chair, then reaches out to Webb. He offers her a hand; she uses it to draw him closer, places it against her breast. Surely, he doesn’t want to. His mannequin stare looms down on her expressionless, his erection betrays his heart’s true desire. But as far as she is concerned, he still has services to render.

The darkness in the ceiling begins to click, clack and buzz. It grows louder, the air in the room thickens as her collection shambles hysterically in an impassioned understanding of what is to come. She raises her other hand to cup the spongey skin hanging from Nikolay’s jaw, rouses him awake. He looks up at her, his eyes oh so tired. He blinks languidly, and she smiles down at him.

“Good evening, my love.” she croons. “We can finally begin…”