From the New York Times bestselling author of The Atlas Six comes Masters of Death, a story about vampires, ghosts, and death itself.
*Now newly revised and edited with additional content, this hardcover edition will include new interior illustrations from Little Chmura and special illustrated endpapers from artist Polarts.*
There is a game that the immortals play.
There is only one rule: Don’t lose.
Viola Marek is a struggling real estate agent, and a vampire. But her biggest problem currently is that the house she needs to sell is haunted. The ghost haunting the mansion has been murdered, and until he can solve the mystery of how he died, he refuses to move on.
Fox D’Mora is a medium, and though he is also most-definitely a shameless fraud, he isn’t entirely without his uses—seeing as he’s actually the godson of Death.When Viola seeks out Fox to help her with the ghost infestation, he becomes inextricably involved in a quest that neither he nor Vi expects (or wants). But with the help of an unruly poltergeist, a demonic personal trainer, a sharp-voiced angel, a love-stricken reaper, and a few mindfulness-practicing creatures, Vi and Fox soon discover the difference between a mysterious lost love and an annoying dead body isn’t nearly as distinct as they thought.
Please enjoy this free excerpt of Masters of Death by Olivie Blake, on sale 8/8/23
Tales of Old
Hello, children. It’s time for Death.
Oh, you didn’t think I spoke? I do. I’m fantastically verbose, and transcendently literate, and quite frankly, I’m disappointed you would think otherwise. I’ve seen all the greats, you know, and learned from them—taken bits and pieces here and there—and everything that humanity has known, I have known, too. In fact, I’m responsible for most of history’s adoration—nothing defines a career quite like an untimely visit from me. You’d think I’d be more widely beloved for my part in humanity’s reverence, but again, you’d be mistaken. I’m rather an unpopular party guest.
Popularity aside, though, I have to confess that humanity’s fixation with me is astonishing. Flattering, to be sure, but alarming, and relentless, and generally diabolical, and if it did not manifest so often in spectacular failure I would make more of an effort to combat it— but, as it is, people spend the duration of their time on earth trying to skirt me only to end up chasing me instead.
The funny thing is how simple it all actually is. Do you know what it really takes to make someone immortal? Rid them of fear. If they no longer fear pain, they no longer fear death, and before long they fear nothing, and in their minds they live eternal—but I’m told my philosophizing does little to ease the mind.
Not many who meet me are given the privilege to tell about it. There are some exceptions, of course, yourself included—though this is an anomaly. In general, as your kind would have it, there are two things a person can be: human (and thus, susceptible to the pitfalls of my profession), or deity (and thus, a thorn in my side).
This is, however, not entirely accurate, as there are actually three things a person can be, as far as I’m concerned.
There are those I can take (the mortals);
Those I can’t take (the immortals);
And those who cheat (everyone else).
Let me explain.
The job is fairly straightforward. In essence, I’m like a bike messenger without a bicycle. There’s a time and a place for pickup and delivery, but the route I take to get there is deliciously up to me. (I suppose I could employ a bicycle if I wanted, and I certainly have in the past, but let’s not dip our toes into the swampy details of my variants of execution quite yet, shall we?)
First of all, it is important to grasp that there is such a thing as to be not dead, but not alive; an in-between. (Requisite terminology takes countless incarnations, all of which may vary as widely from culture to culture as do colors of eyes and hair and skin, but the term un-dead seems to serve as an acceptable catchall.) These are the cheaters, the ones with shoddy timing, who cling to life so ferociously that I—by some sliver of an initial flaw that widens like the birth of the universe itself to a gaping, logic-defying chasm of supernatural mutation—simply commune with them. I exist beside them, but I can neither aid nor destroy them.
In truth, I find they often destroy themselves; but that story, like many others, is not the story at hand.
Before you say anything, I should be certain we’re both clear that this is not a vanity project. Are we in agreement? This is not my story. This is a story, and a worthy one, but it doesn’t belong to me.
For one thing, you should know that this all starts with another story entirely, and one that people tell about me. It’s stupid (and quite frankly libelous), but it’s important—so here it is, with as little disdain as I can manage.
Once upon a time, there was a couple in poor health, cursed by poverty, who were fool enough to have a child. Now, knowing that neither husband nor wife had much time on earth left to spare—and rather than simply enjoy it—whatever enjoyment is to be taken from mortality, that is—I’ve never been totally clear on the details—the husband took the baby from his ailing wife’s arms and began to travel the nearby path through the woods, searching for someone who might care for his child.
A boy, by the way. A total snot of one, too, but we’ll get to that later.
After walking several miles, the man encountered an angel. He thought at first to ask her to care for his child, but upon remembering that she, as a messenger of God, condoned the poverty with which the poor man and his wife had been stricken, he ultimately declined.
Then he encountered a reaper, a foot soldier of Lucifer, and considered it again, but found himself discouraged by the knowledge that the devil might lead his son astray—
(—which he most certainly would have, by the way, and he’d have laughed doing it. Frankly, I could go on at length about God, too, but I won’t, as it’s quite rude to gossip.)
(Where was I?)
So then the man found me, or so the stories say. That’s actually not at all what happened, and it also makes it sound like I have the sort of freedom with which to wander about being found, which I don’t have and don’t appreciate. In reality, the situation was this: The man was dying, so for obvious reasons and no paternal motivations, there I was, unexpectedly burdened with a baby. They say the man asked me to be the child’s godfather; more accurately, he gargled up some incoherent nonsense (dehydration, it’s murder on the vocal cords) and then, before I knew it, I was holding a baby, and when I went to take it back home (as any responsible courier would do), the mother had died, too.
Okay, again, I was there to take her, but let’s not get caught up in semantics.
This is the story mortals tell about a man who was the godson of Death, who they say eventually learned my secrets and came to control me, and who still walks the earth today, eternally youthful, as he keeps Death close at his side, a golden lasso tied around my neck with which to prevent me, cunningly and valiantly, from taking ownership of his soul.
Which is so very rude, and I’m still deeply unhappy with Fox for not putting a stop to it (“never complain, never explain” he chants to me in the voice of someone I presume to be the queen). Fond as I am of him, he does chronically suffer from a touch of motherfucker—a general loucheness, or rakery, if you will—so I suppose I’ll just have all of eternity to deal with it.
And anyway, this is my point, isn’t it? That this isn’t my story—not at all, really.
It’s Fox’s story. I just happen to be the one who raised him.
Why did I name him Fox? Well, I’m slightly out of touch with popular culture, but I’ve always liked a good fairy tale, and out of all the things he might have been (like dutiful or attentive, or polite or principled or even the slightest bit punctual), like an idiot I merely wanted him to be clever. Foxes are clever, after all, and he had the tiniest nose; and so he was Fox, and just as clever as I’d hoped, though not nearly as industrious as I ought to have requested. He’s spent the last two hundred years or so doing . . . well, again, that’s not my story, so I’ll not go into detail, but suffice it to say Fox is . . .
Well, he’s a mortal, put it that way. And not one I would recommend as a friend, or a counselor, or a lover, or basically anything of consequence unless you wish to rob a bank, or commit a heist.
I love him, but he’s a right little shit, and unfortunately, this is the story of how he bested me.
The real story.
The sign outside the little rented space on Damen Street reads, simply, medium. The building is old, but the street is trustworthy and near the Blue Line stop, meaning that although this is an odd part of town, it’s safe enough to travel freely, and finicky mothers mostly worry about imaginary dangers, like tattoos and the ghosts of old Ukrainians. The street is populated with taco stands and trendy doughnuts (yes, doughnuts) and thrift shops, all which contain old eighties fringe and leather boots; and then, scarcely noticeable amid the others, there is a building above one such shop, and if you took the time to look up at its peeling, black-framed windows, you would see the sign.
The label on the building’s buzzer system is peeling slightly from use, but the intercom works well enough, and were you to buzz the unit marked d’mora, you would likely hear his voice, oddly soothing, as it stretches through the air between you.
“Hello?” he’d say. “This is Fox.”
“Hello,” you’d reply, or perhaps “good afternoon,” were you in a mood to be both friendly and cognizant of Time’s relentless clutches; and then you’d pause, as many do.
“I’m looking to commune with the dead,” you would eventually confess.
And you wouldn’t see it, but upstairs, Fox D’Mora would smile a rather cutting smile, and then he would adjust the tarnished silver signet ring on his right pinky, coughing delicately to clear the mirth from his throat.
“Excellent,” he’d say over the intercom, and then he’d promptly buzz you up.
Fox D’Mora isn’t the only spiritual medium in Bucktown, and certainly not in all of Chicago, but he is the best one, largely because he is a master of disguise. You, apprehensive—as no doubt you are—might enter the unit from which he provides his services expecting to see dusty curtains, flickering tapered candles, perhaps even a glowing crystal ball; but Fox has none of those things, and thus, upon entering the mediumship of a strange man with a strange name and even stranger reputation, you might feel something you’d eventually come to realize is relief.
Because what Fox does have, surprisingly enough, is a state-of-the-art kitchen, and cold brew on tap, and being quite the genial host, he’d likely offer you a glass before leading you to an empty seat in his living room, whereupon he would gracefully place himself across from you, peering at you through unreadable hazel eyes. (Gray around the edges, amber in the center, a sunburst through a hazy wash of sepia. Reminiscent of pressed leaves in autumn, love letters rounding at the corners, other such things of the past.)
“Okay,” Fox would begin. “So. Who is it?”
If you still had doubts before coming here, they would likely have begun to dissipate by now. For one thing, Fox is quite well-dressed, though not so well-dressed as to arouse suspicion. His hands, in particular—expressive, and in constant service to hospitality, pulling out chairs and fetching drinks, adjusting the blinds to your liking—are welcoming, the nails trimmed and clean. His watch is old and slightly battered, but it has a rather nice leather band and looks like it might have been worth something, once. You might consider it an heirloom.
Continuing your perusal of the man before you—this man, with such an odd name, and such an incongruous image, who can (so they say) so easily bridge worlds—you would notice that Fox himself, tall and lean but not too tall, nor too lean, sports a recently trimmed head of dark waves worn fashionably parted to one side, and that in general, he is given to smiling.
Fox is a man who smiles, and undoubtedly, this would relax you.
When he asks with whom you’ve come to speak, you might say your grandmother or your father, or perhaps you are even less fortunate and have lost someone very close to you too soon, like your husband or your child. Fox, hearing this, would gladly sympathize. He would sympathize with a softened look in his sepia-toned eyes, a gentle curving of his mouth, and you would feel that he understands you.
And he does, really. Fox has lost many people in his life and has felt the sting of it sharply enough; and anyway, perhaps it wouldn’t matter to you in the moment that Fox D’Mora has not grown close to another human being in the last two hundred years or so, because whoever he is, and whomever his loyalty belongs to, he sympathizes so deeply, so humanly with your loss.
And more importantly, he is present, and he is here to help.
“Let me call him,” Fox says—or her, or them, or whatever the identity may be of whomsoever it is that you have requested—and then his eyes close, and his hand slips ever so carefully to the silver signet ring adorning his right pinky finger.
“Now,” he murmurs. “What would you like to say?”
The words, once buried in your soul, dance temptingly on your tongue.
You lean forward.
This is communion.
— Ω —
This particular instance of summoning belonged to an unremarkable day of an inauspicious week amid an unimpressive year, no thanks to the economy. The studio—or well-camouflaged den of iniquity, such as it was—was in its usual state of hastily obscured bachelordom (the take-out containers successfully masked with ambrosial Febreze, laundry sitting patiently for the third straight week below the bed, which was itself concealed cleverly behind two bookcases, one stolen, and a decorative tapestry currently unaccounted for by the Metropolitan Museum of Art) when Death materialized with an inaudible pop to stand beside Fox’s covetable Eames chair, which was not stolen. (Having been purchased at an estate sale for which no other buyers had arrived, it was, however, a steal.)
Across from Fox’s usual chair—his long legs crossed, right over left, in irritating service to Fox’s sockless fetish and the loafers he had no doubt plundered from some unsuspecting professorial type—was the usual love seat; vintage, tufted upholstery, exquisitely selected, curated no doubt to set off the subtle undertones of green in Fox’s eyes, because he was many things, vain occasionally among them, but never careless, never unintentional. Never dull.
And on the love seat, of course, was a woman. Very much to Fox’s taste, which as far as Death could tell began and ended with a pulse. Well, that wasn’t entirely true—the odds of an undead paramour given Fox’s proclivities were low, but never zero. So perhaps instead it was the element of wrongdoing that was so unmissably Fox upon Death’s arrival to the scene.
“Well,” Death sighed, surveying the placement of his godson, the woman on his godson’s love seat, and the hovering spirit lowing mournfully between them. One glance was all it took to determine the whole thing to be—what was the word? Dickery. “I see it’s more of the same.”
“Hush,” Fox sighed under his breath, cracking one eye to smile cheekily, as one might do to a favorite spinster aunt. “Is he here, then?”
“Yes, yes,” Death muttered, tutting softly as he inspected the supplicant on Fox’s sofa (pretty, certainly, very pretty for those who enjoyed such things, and of a variety that Death, certainly not an enjoyer, could only describe as fusion, like the sushi burritos from the truck nearby on which Fox so profligately overspent) before sparing a glance at the spirit still hovering between them. The supplicant, the woman, was frozen temporarily, unable to see or sense Death aside from a stray shiver, perhaps a tingle of déjà vu like a half-remembered dream, or the fleeting sense of having forgotten to turn off the oven. Always best, in Death’s opinion, to remain politely outside the realm of observation. “Let me guess. This is her husband?”
“Fiancé,” Fox corrected in a blandly guiltless tone. “He passed just before they could be wed.”
“How fucking convenient,” Death remarked with a sensation he often experienced but had not felt prior to Fox’s guardianship. It was a mix of things. Not anger, exactly. More like disappointment.
“Papa,” Fox warned, arching a brow in expectation. “What did we say about the cursing?”
Death lifted a hand, dutifully snapping the rubber band he wore on his wrist for the reward (if such a thing could be said) of Fox’s indulgent smirk. “I still don’t see why this is necessary,” Death growled under his breath. “What does it matter what I say when nobody aside from you can hear me?”
“You’re the one who insisted on a New Year’s resolution,” Fox reminded him with—for fuck’s sake—a twinkle in his eye.
“I meant for that to inconvenience you, not me,” said Death gruffly. “And when is the resolution supposed to end? It’s been at least a century.”
“Nonsense, you’ve just lost track of time,” said Fox, who was almost certainly lying despite the essence of beatitude that graced the fine features of his face. “And anyway, all that cursing is bad for your health. Didn’t you read that mindfulness book I gave you?”
Death, being a creature of near omniscience and mostly unquestioned venerability, surmised that he was being mocked, which was itself the branch of a more perennial suspicion that he’d erred somewhat critically during the formative years of his recalcitrant ward. In lieu of pressing the issue, however, Death turned again to the woman who sat curled in around herself on the love seat, waiting patiently for Fox to have called upon her Bradley.
“Well,” Death sighed, “what does she want to know?”
In the same moment that Death was experiencing the usual blow of agonized fondness (and its eternal counterpart where it came to Fox—forbearing remorse), Fox was having two simultaneous thoughts. One was what could best be described as a lurid sort of daydream. The other, critically, was the faint recollection that he
had yet to pay the electric bill. So he cleared his throat, leaning forward to address the woman who’d sought his counsel.
“Eva,” he murmured, and at the sound of her name, that afternoon’s supplicant looked up, blinking herself free of his godfather’s usual chill. Fox, who had a very keen sense of when a client’s love language was touch, offered his hands, summoning a smile when she placed hers delicately in his. “What would you like to tell Brad?”
“Bradley,” Death corrected from Fox’s right shoulder, smothering a yawn.
“Bradley,” Fox dutifully amended, kicking himself as a moment of doubt flickered across Eva’s face. “Apologies. I know he dislikes the diminutive.”
The present tense was very purposeful, though Fox, of course, could not see Bradley where he hovered in the room. (The comparison would not have helped Fox’s already troubling ego.)
“He does,” Eva whispered, and blinked, moisture suddenly drawing to the corners of her eyes. “You can see him?”
“I can,” Fox confirmed with a nod, glancing into a random distant corner of the flat. He ignored the rude gesture from his godfather in his periphery, presumably intended to indicate his showmanship was incorrect. “Band,” murmured Fox before adding to Eva, “What would you like to say to Bradley?”
She bit her lip, considering it. (Death gave his wrist a perfunctory thwap, then flicked the back of Fox’s head.)
“Tell him,” she began at a murmur, and then swallowed, overcome by emotion in much the way supplicants usually were. Which, Fox reminded himself, was very much the purpose at hand, along with paying the electricity and come to think of it the Wi-Fi (his neighbors had recently changed their password; disappointingly, Death was not so helpful there), more so than the looks she’d been holding overlong. (His imagination, surely, except Fox’s imagination was not so much overactive as it was aspirational. The difference, one might suppose, between an artist envisioning an underpainting and the more common sin of pure delusion.) “Tell him that I love him, and I miss him,” said Eva to what Fox could have sworn was his mouth, “and that I hope everything is going well—”
“It isn’t,” Death cut in sharply, looking sour. “Bradley committed several different kinds of tax fraud and is currently floating around in the Styx. Oh,” he added flippantly, “and he cheated on her.” A pause. “Twice. Though, to be fair—and these are his words, not mine—he was torn up about it.” The last bit Death delivered with a mostly straight face before adding privately to Fox, “Not torn enough to pull out, one assumes—”
“He misses you, too,” Fox assured Eva, running his thumb comfortingly across her knuckles as she bowed her head, fighting tears. “He wishes you all the sweetness life has to offer—”
“Nope, wrong,” Death said. “Relatedly, do mortals still gym, tan, laundry?”
“—not in those words, of course,” Fox corrected smoothly when Eva looked up, a crease of confusion between her manicured brows. “But Bradley never did find the words to tell you how much he loved you,” he added on a whim, increasingly certain her posture had shifted in quite a promising way, “and he’s asked me to give you the poetry he always thought you deserved.”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” Death muttered as Eva’s full lips parted in earnest. The love seat was ever so slightly higher than the chair in which Fox presently sat, a shift in elevation that afforded a rousing sense of escalating stakes when Eva uncrossed her legs, leaning forward to close what little space remained between them.
“What else does he say?” Eva asked, fascinatingly breathless. (Fox’s two thoughts had by then suffered a slight rearrangement of priorities. Passwords were guessable, and even if not, the internet was mostly the newest rendition of grand-scale collective shame.)
“What does who say? Bradley? Nothing,” Death helpfully supplied. “He says ‘Eva who’?”
“He says,” Fox began, matching Eva inch for inch, “that you were the only woman who ever understood him. Who could read him with a look, and who could fill him with joy in the same breath, and who made of him someone of consequence—of worth,” he murmured, squeezing lightly against her hands. “He says he would look into your eyes and know the value of his own soul, and that he is grateful to you for that; and he tells me that because you were in his life in his final moments, he can rest eternally in peace, knowing that you—” and here, a slight moistening of one poet’s lips “—will go on to be . . . happy.”
Eva’s gaze softened, her pupils dilating slightly.
“Happy?” she echoed, her breath suspended.
“Happy,” Fox repeated. “And he says that he knows you will go on to make someone else as happy as he was with you, and that although it’s time for him to move on and find rest, he wishes you all the blessings of heaven and earth.”
“Oh,” Eva whispered, letting out a breath, as beside Fox, Death announced, “Oh, FUCK.”
“Hush,” Fox muttered out of the side of his mouth, flicking a glance admonishingly to where his godfather stood. “That’s a rubber band for sure, Papa.”
“Oh, fuck you,” Death said with a theatrical snap of the band, and then another, presumably as a form of preemptive strike. “You’re going to sleep with her now, aren’t you?”
Fox, who did not believe in pointing out the obvious, ignored him, turning Eva’s hands over in his to draw his fingers gently over the creases in her palm. “You know, you have such a beautiful heart line,” he told her, tracing it as it ran across the top of her palm and danced off, disappearing between her fingers. “There’s so much love you have yet to give, Eva.”
“You think?” she asked him, and he smiled.
“I know,” he said softly, and she gazed at him with wonder.
“Do you think that I was meant to find you?” she asked. She wore a beguiling perfume, something botanical but not too nauseating. A bit like a walk in the woods, branches snapping underfoot. The call of a bird on the wind somewhere, like the thrill of a promise kept.
“I genuinely hope,” Death sniffed, breaking Fox’s momentary reverie, “that she gives you a terrible Yelp review.”
He doubted it. As a practitioner, even a fraudulent one, Fox had something of a satisfaction guarantee, though not always so mutually beneficial.
“I believe Bradley guided you to me,” Fox confirmed for Eva, and Death let out a groan.
“I’m leaving,” he announced. “Wear a condom, you twat.”
“Band,” Fox muttered to him, and Death gave a long-suffering scowl before once again giving Fox the finger, enigmatically (and with, quite frankly, the usual unnecessary theatrics) disappearing into time and space.
“Bradley’s gone now,” Fox offered comfortingly to Eva with a rehearsed look of regret. “He’s passed into the next stage of existence, but he’s happy, and y—”
He broke off as Eva leaned forward, catching his lips with hers.
“Eva,” he gasped, feigning breathless astonishment. “I mean—Miss—”
“Fox,” she whimpered into his mouth, half-clambering onto his lap in a fit of epiphany, or possibly acceptance, akin to running the five stages of grief in one fell swoop. (Fox D’Mora, a credit to his vocation!) “This,” Eva murmured, speaking between kisses as she slid his top buttons undone with an admirable dexterity, “this is—this has to mean something—”
“I’m—” Fox paused, glancing down as she ripped the remainder of his shirt from his torso “—quite sure it does,” he continued, casting about for something that a moderately… What was the word? Moral, ethical, something implying a modicum of restraint? Memory, as ever, failed him—man would say, “but still, you’re vulnerable, and you’ve suffered a loss, and so perhaps we shouldn’t—”
“Oh, but we should,” she very reasonably insisted, grinding her hips against his and tossing her head back as Fox, finding her argument logically sound, brought his mouth to the bit of skin beneath the parted neckline of her blouse. “Bradley, he—he would have wanted me to—”
There was a soft pop from somewhere over Fox’s right shoulder.
“I forgot to mention,” Death announced, and then promptly covered his eyes, making a face. “Oh, Fox. Fox.”
“What?” Fox mumbled impatiently as Eva, effervescing with brilliance, shoved his hands under her skirt. “I’m busy, you know,” he pointed out, gesturing to the grieving (albeit faultlessly sensible!) woman in his lap, and Death rolled his eyes.
“You know what? Never mind,” Death told him. “I’m sure you’ll find out soon enough.”
“Find out what?” Fox asked, and then grunted incoherently as Eva’s fingers (nimble! inventive! worthy of—and he could not stress this enough—great and profound celebration!) made their way to the clasp of his trousers. “Fuck, just—” Fox groaned. “Tell me later, Papa, would you?”
“Band,” Death said with prodigious smuggery (begging the question of where, indeed, Fox had learned it) before disappearing, leaving Eva to slide between Fox’s legs, positioning herself between Fox’s parted knees.
“Shall we?” she asked, teasing her hand under the lip of his boxers.
Fox D’Mora, man of prizeworthy restraint and probable feminist hero, slithered down the chair’s leather upholstery, hoisting her up to fit his shoulders snugly between the curves of her enviable thighs.
“One second,” he whispered to the satin-softness of her skin, shifting to snap the rubber band on his left wrist (in service, of course, to the New Year’s resolution some epochs ago that had bought him one or two alternative sins). “Okay,” Fox permitted, nuzzling what he was delighted to find was silk, “now we shall.”
And when, eventually, Eva What’s-Her-Name’s luxuriant heart line—and the rest of her palm—closed virtuosically around him, Fox closed his eyes with a sense of philanthropic satisfaction, reminding himself to give her a 10 percent discount for his services.
Copyright © 2023 from Olivie Blake
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