Summoning The Owl
A Victorian Gothic
There was a certain etiquette that had to be followed when a mortal summoned a denizen of the underworld. Unfortunately, whoever summoned this particular Prince of Hell, the fearsome leader of twenty-six legions of demonic minions no less, had obviously not bothered to do their occult homework.
“The has got to be the dingiest-looking Triangle of Solomon I’ve ever had the misfortune of being sucked into,” The demon spoke in a deep, smooth baritone, pointing one of its jittering multijointed limbs at a space a few feet in front of it. “The proportions are all wrong, your spelling of the names of God - may the Dark One smite His name from my tongue forever - is atrocious and don’t get me started on that wretched excuse of a summoning circle”.
Imagine the voice of a foppishly-dressed dandy of a man armed with a glass of cognac and fat cigar, constantly twirling his moustache while making witty remarks about the world at large. Now imagine if that voice had somehow been transplanted into a creature resembling a large legless barn owl, floating a few feet off the ground, with not two, but three enormous, lethal-looking insect limbs growing out of its pristine white-feathered stomach. Imagine if a small golden crown hovered inches above its feathery head while its eyes - set deep in its heart-shaped white face – were alight with an eerie amber glow. Its breath wafted sulfur and burned ash while the scent of incense and sweet decay emanated from its tawny wing feathers.
That was precisely how Prince Stolos, leader of twenty-six legions of demon legions, master of astronomy and arcane teacher of all things related to mystic gems and magical herbs (yes, Hell had a heavy preference for staff with an eclectic portfolio, unlike boring old Heaven) looked like.
The Prince clucked his hooked beak and shook his white face in a gesture of utter disapproval. “Right, this is going to be one of those nights.” His smooth tones were mocking and jaded.
To properly summon a demon, contain it and keep it from doing nasty things, the summoner first had to draw a large circle on the ground ringed with the various Hebrew names of God. Outside said circle, he or she drew a triangle, the Triangle of Solomon, with yet again, three more names of God on each axis and the name of the Archangel Michael inside it. Yet another circle had to be drawn inside this triangle, bearing the sigil of the demon to be summoned. At least that was how summonings usually went, the logic being that the summoner stood protected inside the summoning circle while the demon was restrained inside the triangle.
The particular triangle of Solomon over which Prince Stolos floated, contained by its power, had been drawn using a haphazard mix of chalk, ink and what smelled like ladies’ lip rouge. The Hebrew names of God looked like chicken scratchings and the various accompanying pentagrams and hexagrams had been drawn hastily in an almost childish hand. In other words, the Prince noted that the work was so shoddy a properly trained border collie might have done a better job.
The room was dark, with only the candles mounted inside the badly drawn hexagrams on the floor to light up its vast interior. It appeared to be a study of sorts, with expensive and rare books lining the impossibly high shelves. A grand window with delicate glass panes revealed glimmering lights in the distance. Some kind of annoying noise was reverberating from outside. There was also a small table carved from expensive pure mahogany barricading the only door to the study. This was obviously the home of a very wealthy individual with many enemies.
The demon Prince blinked his eerie eyes dramatically, sighed and stared at the two human figures standing before him safely inside a large, but equally badly-drawn summoning Circle. Well, technically only one of them - the one that was swathed in a huge mass of taffeta, silk and velvet - was standing; the other was seated, trussed up with cords and tied to a rather fancy chair. He was attempting to scream although all he could manage was a pathetic series of groans thanks to the gag over his mouth (pure silken handkerchiefs no less). His eyes were wide with fear and shock. A small puddle was forming beneath his left shoe; that and the tell-tale stain on his military trousers suggested that he was wetting himself.
The Prince sniffed the air slightly, noting the stench of perfume, urine (but of course!), gunpowder and excessive human perspiration. The sort of aromas one would expect on a busy night.
“Who dares summon me?” He sighed again as he addressed the flouncy, silk-engulfed figure standing within the summoning Circle. “Young lady, I suppose you’d better have a good explanation for this! Such messy summoning skills too! You’re lucky I bothered to heed your horribly mispronounced Call at all!”
The ornately-dressed young woman, dark hair piled up according to high fashion, took a few rapid steps forward, careful to stay within the circle and avoid fouling her petticoats with her hostage’s piss. The darkness of the candle-lit room emphasized her bony frame, further highlighted by her cumbersome court dress and a fancy silky train swishing behind her. She looked for all the world like a tiny but ferocious cat dragging a glamorous dead bird behind it. She looked like she meant business.
“But heed me you did,” said the dark-haired lady quietly. “Don’t you recognize me, your Highness?” Her “your Highness” sounded downright sarcastic, mocking even.
"Oh dear, not YOU again!" The great barn owl flapped his vast wings in annoyance and clicked his three claw-tipped appendages. His floating crown shook violently from side to side.
“Berengaria Schleiss, it has been some time,” the Prince cooed, recognition making his amber eyes glow even brighter. “Still homicidal? You clearly still have a fixation on punishing powerful men.” He pointed his beak at the whimpering man she kept tied up, young and plump, dressed in a disheveled military uniform complete with medals, ribbons and insignia of all sorts.
Years earlier, a much younger Berengaria Schleiss, daughter of renowned seer, fortune teller and spiritual adviser to high society, Frau Nicolina, had summoned the Prince in her mother’s attic to murder or at least seriously maim her school master just for being a complete ass. They were interrupted by her mother – just back home from a fancy séance - who immediately banished the Prince back to Hell. Although she was a snotty little nuisance, Prince Stolos noted at the time that the girl had inherited Frau Nicolina’s flair for the dark arts.
“And what, can I do for you this time around? Presumably Mama isn’t around to banish me and punish you?”
Berengaria shook her pretty well-coiffed head. “She passed recently.”
The Prince nodded. His crown stayed put this time, settling down at a spot a couple of inches above his head. “So let me guess, you usurped your mother’s position…”
“Hear me out, I need something,” and Berengaria’s voice was now assertive, no trace of the scrawny little schoolgirl from years before. “This tyrant here has to hang, he’s been ruining this country for too long…”
It was at this point that the chubby man managed to free one of his hands from its bindings and reached for Berengaria. She quickly turned to one side and whacked him on the head with the heavy candlestick holder she held in her hand. The young man slumped down in his chair, reeking of urine and bleeding from a gash on his forehead.
The Prince laughed, his beak opening and closing in an almost ridiculous fashion. “I find intelligent people to be absolutely boring. This person on the other hand, is very entertaining.”
After properly tying up the now-unconscious young man again, a disgusted Berengaria made her demand while simultaneously swishing her pretty skirts out of the way to avoid getting bloodstains on them, “I offer you the life of Friedrich Rudolf von Hapsburg, Grand Duke of Schlumpfburg.”
“Easy darling, I prefer my sacrifices intact and preferably still full of blood,” the Prince joked. “Yes, yes, the Tyrant of Schlumpfburg. I know. Starving peasants, tortured dissidents, abused staff and all that. And I assume,” said the Prince in amusement. “That I’m in his palace right now?”
“No one presents me with the life and soul of a Duke as a present just because! My dear girl, what exactly did you do?”
“In case you haven't noticed, there's a revolution going on”.
"Oh? You mean that commotion outside is not normal? Satan’s claws be kissed, you're right!” Now, Prince Stolos was amused, elongated claws clicking together gleefully. “Screaming and burning happen to be the norm where I’m from, as you probably know, so you really expect everywhere to be like home."
From outside the palace, now that she mentioned it, came the faint sound of screaming and gunfire. A man was barking orders of some kind. The Prince turned towards the window and noticed what looked like a raging fire devouring a building in the distance. “Oh my, this is so much fun! You know, my dear, Hell gets so dreary after a while…”
“Can we just get on with it?” She was now beginning to feel more than a little nervous. “The books say you have the power of Insight.”
The sound of heavy footsteps came from outside the study. Loud military commands were being given in German. Despite the mob outside, the Grand Duke’s palace guards must have finally noticed that their master was missing.
“Yes, I do, and let me see if I have it all figured out,” the Prince was still speaking cheerfully, in an oddly human manner. “Over the past few months, you not only replaced your mother as the Grand Duke’s trusted spiritualist and psychic medium but you also plotted to assassinate him together with your rebel friends.” The Prince clucked his beak in admiration. “They started a mini-revolution tonight to distract the army. Meanwhile, during one of your private séances you kidnapped the Grand Duke and tied him up with the intention of killing him!”
"Absolutely, now could we just get on with it?"
“But instead of killing him, you hatched a better plan,” the Prince shook his heart-shaped face and kept on speaking in dulcet tones. “You realized that this cowardly von Hapsburg had sequestered himself in his palace with so many guards and security so tight a fly wouldn’t have been able to squeeze through his windowsill. There was no way you were going to escape alive after the fact.”
“I think his soldiers are going ram their way in here any minute now!” Berengaria was now getting hysterical, her eyes tearing up.
But Prince Stolos took his time, calmly ruffling his neck feathers. “So, you summoned a high-level demon using your mother’s old books, planning to present the Grand Duke as a sacrifice and his soul as an offering to the forces of darkness. In which case yours truly swooshed in.”
“Make haste, I beg you! They’re almost past the door!” Berengaria shouted at him.
“Patience dear, you have absolutely nothing to worry about.”
“Is this some kind of infernal joke?” She stopped herself and not for the first time, felt like smacking the demon.
“Let me continue! So, you wanted to give him to me as a sacrifice while bargaining for your own safety and welfare. Smart girl!” If owls could smile, Prince Stolos would have been beaming.
Berengaria rolled her eyes. Beside her, Grand Duke Friedrich Rudolf was starting to snore.
“He may be a greedy tyrant, but my dear Berengaria, you are a true mastermind par excellence!”
A loud boom reverberated through the room. The soldiers were almost inside.
“But I can’t help you,” said the Prince apologetically.
“What! What the Devil are you talking about?” Berengaria was now furious. “We’re about to be killed!”
“My dear – well, technically I’m immortal – but, the Grand Duke’s late father had already made a pact with another demon long ago. One which guarantees the well-being of the current generation of the family line.”
“You have got to be kidding me!”
“Berengaria Schleiss, it’s the 19th Century. Everybody who’s anybody has made some kind of infernal deal or other! Social climbing's for the well-heeled, but usually those heels are propped up by the clawed hands of demons,” said the Prince sarcastically. “How do you think frumpy old Victoria manages to hold her empire together?”
For some reason, the booming sounds stopped. Something was happening outside the room, but in whose favor?
“What deal did his arsehole of a father make?” Her coiffure was now threatening to come apart, loose strands of hair flopped wistfully about over her slender shoulders.
“Let’s get the information directly from the horse’s mouth.” Prince Stolos used another of his claws to carve a complicated sigil in the air, glowing strands of yellow light trailing from the clawtip. “I sense the handiwork of someone I know all too well.”
The air to one side of him seemed to shimmer and what could only be described as a large opening appeared. It lead somewhere, and the one-eyed thing at the other side of that somewhere was part shark, part leech, part eagle. Its fearsome tooth-lined sucker mouth rasped, predatory claws clacking. The air was heady with the stench of sulfur.
“What do you want this time, Prince Stolos?” The creature’s voice was deep and gravelly.
“Marquis Forneus, I believe you made a pact with the father of this human?” He pointed at the Grand Duke, who for his own sake was thankfully still unconscious, slumped down against the chair like a lumpy rag doll.
From his side of the rip in reality, Marquis Forneus took one look at the Grand Duke with his single bloodshot eye before staring briefly at Berengaria. He then said, “Yes, and I am currently fulfilling every stipulation.” His voice was surprisingly high-pitched and breathy.
“I’m busy, Prince Stolos. I will send you a copy of the deal. You may read it yourself.” With a loud swish, the rip in space and time vanished, along with the Marquis.
A large piece of parchment materialised in front of Prince Stolos. He clutched it in one his claws, his keen owl eyes perusing every letter of the text. “Ah, I’ve figured out what’s going on.”
“Finally!” gasped Berengaria. “Can we just try not to get killed?” For some reason, the noise from both the palace guards and the soldiers battling revolutionaries outside had died down.
The Grand Duke was still comatose, although he did groan miserably every now and then. Blood continued to trickle down his forehead, collecting into a small pool on the floor.
“Right, this was the deal that the Grand Duke made with my colleague,” the demon said excitedly, pointing at a line of text on the parchment that been written in what looked suspiciously like blood. “After an offering of no less than nine souls was made – goodness, no one’s that desperate - the following stipulations were set: health, protection from harm, prosperity and a peaceful transition of power when the time came, to be conferred upon the firstborn of Grand Duke Maximillian von Hapsburg. No force in Hell can break this pact, I’m afraid.”
“No!” Berengaria screamed. Her plan was unravelling. No point dallying about now, she had to escape somehow. She began to seriously consider climbing out the window in her bustle gown and train.
“Your mother was the one who brokered the deal with the Marquis Forneus.”
Berengaria froze. “What?”
Prince Stolos’ white-feathered face flared up in curiosity. “She was the old Grand Duke’s chief medium and spiritualist for a long time, his personal confidante, did you not realize the connection?”
It took a minute or so before the young lady’s jaw dropped. “Impossible!” Her crazy world suddenly became a lot crazier.
The demon Prince bent one of his limbs in order to scratch his belly. “She hid the obvious from him: that you are in fact his illegitimate daughter, born months before his legitimate heir, this oaf over here.” He made a dramatic flourish with his wings in the general direction of the current Grand Duke, like a feathery storyteller finishing his fantastic tale.
“Think about it.” Prince Stolos said smugly, now crossing his legs in a surprisingly lascivious manner. “When the sickly Friedrich Rudolf was born to his legal wife, your mother sneakily suggested getting supernatural help to procure him health, wealth and power. The deal with Marquis Forneus was made to guarantee all those and more to the firstborn. Of course, your mother also conveniently made sure the old Grand Duke never found that his firstborn was in fact, you.”
“No, it can’t be…,” Berengaria felt like screaming.
“I guess the future wasn't all that your mother was revealing to him. I imagine they had numerous long private sessions? Crystals balls weren't the only orb-shaped objects being stroked and played with then? And wasn’t she married to your father at the time?”
“Enough, I feel faint” she trembled and felt the urge to kick the unconscious Grand Duke and stab him with something sharp.
“Your rise to power, your popularity among the elite, your influence within the revolutionary party, your surprisingly skilled summoning abilities despite being the most incompetent demonologist I have ever met – are all the perks and benefits resulting from a high-level demonic pact,” insisted Prince Stolos. “And now I must leave you.”
“No, wait! Where do you think you’re going?”
The Prince bowed. “Duty calls. You’ll be more than fine. Until next time!” He then disappeared in a puff of sulfur-tinged smoke with a few stray white feathers theatrically drifting about.
The door finally budged. The mahogany table that held it shut was smashed, the loud crash overwhelmed by the sound of a battalion of soldiers marching into the study.
The last thing Berengaria heard was someone calling her name…
Three weeks later, Berengaria was sitting at the terrace of her favourite café. The sun was shining brightly and a robin chirped from a tree branch somewhere above. An older gentleman clad in a white frock coat was also seated at her table, cradling a cup of tea in his hands.
“What did I tell you?” said the man between sips of orange pekoe. “You made it out alive and well.”
Berengaria smiled. “When they broke in, I thought I was done for. Didn’t even realise the revolutionaries had beaten the Ducal army. Most of the soldiers actually switched sides immediately. My friends were the ones trying to bust open the door that night to rescue me!”
Prince Stolos smiled, a proper one this time. His wrinkled human face held a cheeky grin, like a child planning something naughty. “And what about your half-brother?”
“When they found us, he was already awake,” she said calmly. “But immediately went stark raving mad from all the things he saw, especially you.”
“He’s been properly disposed of?”
“If by “properly disposed of” you mean “banished to a sanitorium for the rest of his life while his Chief Minister takes over” then yes. He’s been “properly disposed of.”
“I heard your Chief Minister is a good man, sympathizes with the revolutionary army and all that. Wants to make things better.”
“That’s true,” Berengaria sighed while reaching for some sugar for her black coffee. “And it’s back to entertaining gaggles of society ladies with crystal balls for me. Of course, I occasionally summon an actual spirit just for the fun of it!”
“Imagine the amount of smelling salts you’ll need to revive the good ladies after they faint from fright,” the Prince laughed. “But now, I have some information...”
“Oh? You with the power of Insight! What does your great mystic ability tell you?”
“My dear, the Chief Minister is going to declare this country a republic. Elections will be held as early as next spring. Why don’t you run for office?”
“Are you mad? A woman president? What is this world coming to?” Berengaria laughed.
But the Prince kept on talking, “The deal with the Marquis is still in full force as you well know. Health, protection from harm, prosperity and a peaceful transition of power when the time came, to be conferred upon the firstborn of Grand Duke Maximillian von Hapsburg. Ergo, you.”
“I’ll think about it.” Berengaria was now toying with her coffee cup.
“Don’t dally! In the meantime, my dear, I must go. Someone else is summoning me.”
“No idea, but I can tell you she’s doing a much better job than you did last time!”