Brittany Rose James yawned as she woke up, slowly stretching her creaking joints. She smiled wryly at the stuffed dolls lining her wall, saying, “It’s no wonder they call me Granny, huh?”
She slowly swung her feet over the side of the bed, settling them into her slippers before standing up with more creaking and groaning. The alarm clock at her bedside blinked 5:03 AM in big green numbers. She never needed to set it – she snapped awake at five in the morning every day.
“What day is it today?” she asked her zoo, picking up her knitting needles from her nightstand as she straightened the blankets on her bed. She tapped them against a small knit dragonfly, whispering a spell. The dragonfly came to life, zipping over to the calendar hanging next to the door.
“Oh, it’s the twenty-first!” Granny said. “Thank you, Roberta. Silly me, I almost forgot my own birthday. One hundred and nineteen years young, eh?” she chuckled. She stopped to admire herself in the mirror as she went to the bathroom. “But I don’t look a day over eighty.”
Her morning routine took about two hours as she straightened her room, packed certain stuffed animals into her day-bag, washed and dressed herself in a pastel outfit. Today was special, though – she wore her special birthday shirt to see the doctor.
“Good morning, sunshine!” Dale greeted her, referring to the bright yellow suns that dotted her shirt. “Happy birthday to my favorite octogenarian.”
“Good morning to you too, Doctor,” Granny said, smiling at his flirtations. “Though I’m afraid I was an octogenarian when you were in diapers.”
Dale grinned back. “You’ll forever be eighty-three to me, my dear,” he said. “You need your pills this morning?” He held out a cup with six pills in it.
“Wouldn’t hurt,” Granny said, taking it from him. After swallowing everything he prescribed, she went back to her room to get a load of laundry in before breakfast.
When she came down to breakfast, she was surprised to see Haley sitting at the table. “Morning!” she said cheerily.
“Good morning,” Granny said. “I’m surprised to see you down here; the others don’t usually get up until later. Do you have patrol this morning, dear?”
“Oh no, my patrol’s this afternoon,” Haley said. “I just couldn’t sleep, so I came down early today. I hear it’s your birthday,” she added, changing the subject.
“Another year older,” Granny shrugged, shuffling over to the coffee pot. “One year left.”
“Come again?” Haley asked, tilting her head in confusion. “One year left ‘til what?”
“Oh, never you mind, dear,” Granny said, sipping her morning brew. “It’s an old person thing.” She winked conspiratorially at the younger girl, putting a finger on her nose.
Haley giggled. “I’ve never met another ‘old person’ who fights while riding a dragon,” she said. “Instead of ‘old’, why don’t we just call you ‘youth-challenged’?”
“Works for me!” Granny cackled. “Would you like some eggs?”
“That’d be great, thanks!” Haley stood and got a bowl down from the cupboard. Together, the two of them prepared breakfast for the team.
Granny liked Haley. The girl had been polite and charming since the day she started at the Asylum. Haley would often join Granny for tea on days she didn’t have patrol, and she was always extremely helpful. Granny watched as the young hero squirted ketchup on her eggs.
“Would you like some?” Haley asked, offering the bottle to her.
“No, thank you,” Granny said. “Never know who else will show up.”
She thinks I mean the other Asylum folk, Granny thought as Haley shrugged and put the bottle down. Granny had stopped using condiments on her food more than a hundred years ago.
* * * * * * * *
One hundred and seven years ago.
Brittany James, age thirteen.
It was summer vacation, and Brittany was loving every minute of it. Middle school was tough: she had always been socially awkward, and she couldn’t make friends at school no matter how hard she tried. If she was friendly, she was called “weird” – but if she was anything less, kids would say she was being a bitch. There didn’t seem to be a middle ground for her; the other kids in her classes were determined to hate her just for existing.
In the summer, though, she didn’t need to get along with people. She could watch TV all day while her parents were gone, and play video games. She was currently preparing her favorite sandwich for lunch: turkey and Swiss with tomato, lettuce, onions, and mayo.
She squirted the mayo in a thin stream onto the bread in a star shape today. She didn’t know why – it just pleased her to see the shape take form. A star, then a circle around it – the bottle was nearly empty, though. She had to shake it to get the last bit out, and it sprayed a random pattern onto the rest of the pentagram.
Smoke began to fill the room, and glowing red eyes stared at her from across the table. “Who has dared summon me?” came a booming voice. Brittany was coughing from the sulfur-smelling smoke, and couldn’t answer. “Who dares to call upon the great Mališa?”
Brittany stared at the demon’s eyes. At the time, she had no idea that demons really existed; she thought they were just fairy stories to frighten kids into behaving in church. Her first thought was to panic – but then she noticed something strange.
The demon was staring at her sandwich.
It looked back at her, realizing what had happened. “You summoned me… with lunch?” Mališa asked. “You, child – you didn’t mean to summon me here, did you? Why did you write my name with mayonnaise?” The demon stood up, revealing his bat-like wings.
The movement also revealed that Mališa was only two feet tall. He looked bigger because he was standing on the counter next to Brittany’s sandwich.
“Speak, child!” Mališa demanded. “Do not waste my time, or I’ll devour your soul!” He bared his fangs, and despite his diminutive size, Brittany had no doubt that he meant the threat.
“I…” she stammered. “I… I was wondering if you were hungry.” She gestured to the sandwich. “Please, would you join me for lunch?”
The demon blinked at her. “You want me to eat with you?” he asked. “You… you don’t think I will eat you?”
“Well, that would be pretty rude,” Brittany said nervously, hoping he wouldn’t call her bluff, “to eat your host after being invited to lunch.” She shrugged, warming up to the idea as she got out another piece of bread and began making another sandwich for herself – this time without mayo. “Care to join me?” she asked the demon, who was still standing on the counter. She feigned nonchalance, as inwardly she prayed the demon wouldn’t make good on his threat to eat her.
“…I am a bit peckish,” Mališa admitted. The demon grabbed the sandwich already made, putting the two pieces of bread together carefully. Slowly, he took a bite. His eyes widened, and he looked down at the sandwich in his hand. “This is delicious,” he said, surprised. “I haven’t tasted something this good in centuries!”
“I’m glad you like it,” Brittany giggled. “My secret is putting the cheese in between the lettuce and tomato, and the tomato on the meat. That way, the juices of the tomato don’t soak the bread, and the cheese adds flavor to the lettuce.”
“Amazing!” Mališa finished his sandwich, savoring every bite. “I don’t get food like this at home,” he said. “The other imps take the best stuff for themselves, and call me ‘runt’ when I try to get my share.”
“That’s awful!” Brittany said. For a minute, she forgot that Mališa had razor-sharp teeth as she empathized with him. “I have the same problem with the kids at school. They say I’m ‘weird’, or else they ignore me when I try to talk to them.” She sighed. “My parents are always at work, and I don’t have any siblings. It gets kind of lonely around here.”
“I have five hundred and thirty-two brothers and sisters,” Mališa told her, “but they’re all much closer with each other than they are to me. Nobody has time for the runt of the litter.” He sighed, sitting down on the counter as Brittany finished her sandwich. “Even my parents named me ‘Little One’ – my siblings got all the cool names, like ‘Bringer of Death’ and ‘Saberwing’. For a demon, it’s embarrassing.”
“‘Saberwing’?” Brittany asked, giggling. “What, does he have like a sword on his wings?”
Mališa started to laugh, too. “No – but he does have a nose that takes up his whole face!” he told her. They both giggled.
“I think Mališa’s a cool name,” Brittany told him. “Sounds like ‘malice’.”
Mališa looked at her with wide eyes. If he had tear ducts, Brittany thought he might cry. “That is the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me,” he told her.
The demon stayed for an hour before he had to go back home. He told her about life in the underworld as an imp, having bigger demons pick on him all the time. Brittany told Mališa about the kids at school who picked on her.
“I will devour their souls!” he swore when she told him about the girls who would make fun of her lack of chest in the gym locker room. “They will rue the day they messed with… I never did get your name, child.”
“Brittany,” she introduced.
“They will rue the day they messed with Brittany!” Mališa finished.
When Mališa left, it was with the promise of coming back the next day to chat some more. For the rest of that summer, Brittany had lunch with her new friend every day – and suddenly the world didn’t feel quite so lonely.
But she never used condiments out of a squirt bottle again.
* * * * * * * *
The other Asylum members trickled into the kitchen over the morning. Frank came back after his night patrol, ready to pass out until the afternoon. Granny always made him eat something before bed, since his rocket-skates took a lot of physical effort to use.
“I don’t know what’s been going on lately,” he said, slowly and dramatically trying to lift his fork with effort. “There were five robberies last night. Five! Two were from Third Gen and Satyr groups, and one was the Fauns.” He took a bite and looked at Natalie, who was eating her own breakfast at the kitchen island. “Parker says hi, by the way.”
“You saw Parker last night?” Natalie asked, suddenly interested in the conversation.
Frank nodded. “He was leading a group of Fauns in a jewelry heist,” he said. “I told him that was cliché. He said that Claw wanted those pieces for some reason.”
“Which pieces?” Granny asked. She was always on the lookout for interesting artifacts; maybe Claw had discovered something.
“A gold necklace,” he said. “Big, pretty gaudy. It had some onyx stones set in the gold.”
“Did they have a pattern?” Granny asked, drawing something on her napkin. “Did it look like this?”
What she showed him looked like a maze puzzle, with certain etchings around the edges. Frank nodded. “I don’t know if that’s exactly what it was,” he said, “but it looks pretty close. Why? Do you know it?”
Granny pursed her lips. “I’ve never seen it in person,” she said, “but I know of it. I’ll check it out later today, dear.” She shrugged, using the back of the napkin to wipe her mouth. “It’s probably just a replica.”
The description disturbed her. A relic, after all this time? she thought to herself. No, probably just a replica.
But she would check it out. Just in case.
* * * * * * * *
One hundred years ago, to the day.
Brittany James, nineteen years old.
“How are your studies coming, Brittany?” her dad asked over dinner one night. “Keeping your grades up?”
“Yes,” she said. “My theology course is amazing! We got to debate over the different religions’ versions of heaven and hell last week.”
She attended a local college for her first years, since her dad said it would be cheaper than going to a university for her basic classes. Brittany had no idea what she would major in, but ever since Mališa showed her some old tomes from the underworld, she wanted to go into a field that dealt with similar books.
Mališa had been teaching her Coptic and Aramaic for years, so she was already at the top of her class in her archaeology and ancient literature electives. Over the last six years he had also introduced her to some higher-level demons, praising her sandwiches as “the best in all the realms!”
She fed anyone who came for a visit, and they taught her different things about ancient history – most of them had been alive for it, after all. She used her allowance for sandwich ingredients, which confused her parents to no end. When she was fifteen, they told her to get a job to learn the value of money, and to stop wasting it on foodstuffs; she just managed to afford better ingredients.
Brittany learned how to make her own bread, and her sandwiches became the stuff of legend in the underworld. Mališa still managed to come almost every day, and the two had grown close as friends.
But dinner was always with her parents, who asked her about her grades and then talked politics for the rest of the evening.
“That’s good to hear, dear,” her mom said. “Did either of you hear about the new serums being tested?”
“Genetics,” her dad said, rolling his eyes. “People keep trying to live longer by any means necessary, even though that stuff never works.”
“Pharos has promised results with this new one,” her mom said. “They’re calling for human test subjects, and it passed the FDA regulations.”
Brittany fiddled her fork around her pasta. “I think it would be nice to never get sick again,” she said. “If it works, this might be a cure for cancer and other stuff like that.”
“If it works,” her father said. “That’s a big ‘if’. Messing around with people’s genes – if it goes wrong, and it could easily go wrong, then all of the test subjects would die. And if it goes right, they’ll just raise the price until nobody but the rich can afford it.”
“May I be excused?” Brittany asked.
“You’ve hardly touched your food,” her mother noted.
“I’m not really hungry,” she said.
“Of course,” her dad waved her off. As Brittany took her plate to the kitchen, she heard him add, “It’s all those damn sandwiches. I swear, that girl could eat a horse at lunchtime.”
Grinning to herself, she went up to her room to study the latest scrolls that Mališa had brought her that afternoon.
The next day at lunchtime, Mališa showed up early. “There’s someone new coming today,” he told her, “and I feel like I should warn you that tensions might get a little high.”
“You know the rules,” Brittany said. “Café Brittany is middle-ground. No feuding houses.”
“This is a little different,” Mališa said. “This new guy… well, he’s not from the underworld. He’s from the overworld.”
“The ‘overworld’?” Brittany asked, setting out her sandwich stuff. “What’s that?”
“Another realm,” Mališa explained. “I think humans might call it ‘heaven’.”
“Wait a second,” Brittany said, stopping with her hand halfway into the package of turkey. “Are you trying to tell me that you invited an angel to lunch with demons?”
“Oh, not at all,” Mališa said. Brittany breathed a sigh of relief and continued setting up. “The angels are much too busy to deal with a low-level imp like me. I invited a malakhim.”
“A malakhim…” Brittany repeated, stopping again. “Okay, I thought that the demons and celestials have been at war for millennia now.”
“Correct,” Mališa said, grabbing a box of Cheez-Its from the cupboard.
“So how, exactly, do you know a malakhim to invite?” she asked incredulously.
“Malakhim are low-level celestials,” Mališa explained. “Kind of like imps are to demons. I run across them all the time when running messages between realms; this one, Remmiel, I started talking with the other day, and found he’s actually not so bad. So I invited him to lunch with us.”
“What about the other demons who come here?” Brittany asked.
“This is a middle-ground,” Mališa said. “We’ve all agreed to your no-fighting rule; I’ll just make sure it applies to Remmiel.”
“Can you?” Brittany said. “I mean, no offense, but you’re pretty small compared to some of them.”
“We’ll just say that you won’t have anybody around for sandwiches any more if there’s any fighting,” Mališa shrugged. “Nobody will ever risk that.”
He was right. When Remmiel showed up that first time, the other demons nearly went to war in Brittany’s parent’s kitchen, but Mališa shut it down by threatening to take away the food. After that, everyone was civil; a couple of other imps even shook Remmiel’s hand on their way out.
From that day on, Brittany’s sandwiches were known in the overworld, too. Remmiel came back, and brought some friends of his, too. Brittany began meeting celestials as well as demons, and food brought the warring factions together, if only for a little while. It continued like that for another year, before the next big thing happened.
* * * * * * * *
Eon City, a jewelry shop.
Granny’s checking out the necklace.
“It’s a replica,” she muttered under her breath, sighing with relief. “Of course it is.” She bought it anyways, bringing it back to the tower for further study.
On her way back, a man bumped into her. “My apologies,” he said, tipping his hat. He walked on, but Granny grabbed her needles and turned to face him.
“I may look old, sonny,” she warned, “but I’m not to be trifled with. I’m nearly at the end of my hundred years, so my power is many times that of yours.”
“Your hundred…” the man said, turning back to her. “So you’re djinn-marked, like me!”
“Can’t you even sense the other djinn, sonny?” Granny scoffed, twirling her silver knitting needles in her hand. “You’ve been marked for what, less than a decade, then?”
The man rubbed the ring on his right hand. It was a large, gold piece, similar to the necklace he held in his left after picking Granny’s pocket. “I need this necklace,” he told her. “And I’ll be needing whatever your relic is.” He he inhaled sharply, annoyed by something.
“You’re really new at this, aren’t you?” Granny said. “That necklace is a replica; any djinn could smell it.”
“You don’t understand,” the man said. “I’m trying to – ”
“You’re trying to collect the relics, bring them together with the Ring of Solomon to break your curse, along with all of the others,” Granny finished, rolling her eyes. “We’ve all been there. Three of the relics are in use – four, since you’re new. You’ll have to find the other three before someone else gets to them, or else you’ll have to murder the djinn-marked for theirs, and that’s a hassle.”
“You know where the others are?” he asked. “Tell me!”
Granny sighed. “The young are always in such a rush,” she said. “You have a hundred years from the time you’re first marked before your soul is trapped. The ones in use right now are much older than you – it’s easier to wait them out than it would be to kill them, low-level as you are.” She looked at his ring, studying it. “Let me guess – Jessamyn? Or is Rogul the Djinn of the ring?”
He clenched his fist, holding the ring up for her. “You know what this is?” he asked.
“Calm down,” Granny said, making a placating gesture. “Yes, I know what it is. I know all seven of them, though I’ve only seen pictures in books. I’ve been doing this for ninety-nine years now; try to keep up.”
“So you know where the others are?” the man asked, calming down. “And where’s yours?”
“Mine was melted down during World War Two for knitting needles,” Granny said, showing him. “They still hold the djinn, and mark the next one. It’s happened with some of the other relics, too.” She turned around, beckoning him to follow her. “Come, join me for lunch. I’ll introduce you to my friends, and we can bring you up to speed.”
The man followed her back to the tower, where Granny had security let him up to visit. They took lunch in her room, and she (along with her friends) explained everything to him.
* * * * * * * *
Ninety-nine years ago, to the day.
Brittany James, her 20th birthday.
“Happy birthday to you!” sang a chorus of demons and angels, happily chatting together in Brittany’s kitchen.
“Congratulations on getting accepted to the university!” Mališa added. “We’re all so proud of you!”
“I’m just happy that this little experiment of ours is working,” Brittany said, hugging her oldest demonic friend. “Just look at this place – so many demons and celestials are hanging out, catching up, and having fun together!”
“There’s talk that even the Archangels might come to visit,” Remmiel added. “This place is known to all as a haven from the war.”
“Lucifer himself has even heard of you,” Mališa said. “He sends his regards for your birthday. Uh-oh,” he added as a chill grew in the air. When he noticed, his red face paled in fear. “Oh no, not today…”
“What is it?” Brittany asked.
“Veliki,” Mališa whispered. “He’s an Ifrit, a high-level djinn. His older brother was trapped in a relic by a human, so he says he hates all of your kind.”
“What’s he doing here?” Remmiel asked.
“He heard about the lunch club,” Mališa said. “He’s been threatening to come shut it down for a while now; nobody told him where it was, though.”
“Well, he’s here now,” Brittany said. “The no-fighting rule is still in effect. Plus it’s my birthday – I don’t want any fighting ruining it if it can be avoided.”
“Looks like a party in here!” boomed the Ifrit’s voice. “It’s the human’s birthday, is it? Well, I brought a gift!”
Sure enough, when the crowd parted to show the Ifrit, he appeared as a lion-headed warrior holding a small, wrapped box.
“Brittany, the rest of us here are low-tier,” Mališa hissed. “If Veliki decides to fight, he’d kill us all!”
“Nonsense, Little One,” Veliki purred with a smirk on his lion’s muzzle, having heard the exchange. “I’m not here to fight. I just want to give the human her birthday present.”
Mališa’s eyes were wide. He hopped up to the counter next to Brittany, saying, “It’s a trick; it’s got to be! The Ifrit are djinn; they’re known as tricksters.”
“It would be rude to refuse,” Veliki said. “Trick or no, she must take it or insult her guest.” He licked his lips. “Nobody would fault me for retaliating against an insult.”
“This is a place of peace,” Brittany said loudly. “Of course I will accept your gift in good faith, and I expect you to follow the same rules as everyone else.”
“Of course,” Veliki said, sickeningly sweet. “Go ahead; open it.”
Brittany picked up the box, smiling back at the Ifrit as she tore into the wrapping paper. Veliki continued talking as she unwrapped her gift. “Centuries ago, my brother met a human wizard named Solomon,” he said. “Solomon was a gifted magician, who also summoned demons to help him rule. He mostly used us for power – to eat his enemies’ souls, and terrify his conquered people into submission.”
“Sounds like an ass,” Brittany said.
“Yes,” Veliki slowly said, a confused look on his face. “He was. If a demon turned against him, he would lock us away. Seven Ifrit djinn tried to stand up to him at once, and he trapped them inside seven relics – knickknacks that the king of men had at hand.”
“I’ve heard a story like this before,” Brittany said. “Was one of them an oil lamp?”
Veliki nodded. “Rogul was trapped in an oil lamp. Jessamyn was trapped in a ring. Ogrlica was trapped in a necklace, Frikad in a perfume bottle, Çapraz in a golden cross, Chiroq in a small pillow, and my brother, Krstot, was trapped in a silver cross.”
Brittany opened the box to find four plain silver knitting needles. “They’re lovely,” she said. “Thank you!” She had been half-expecting to find the silver cross from his story.
“Pick them up,” Veliki said with a sly grin. “See, human history is rather complex. I rescued these from Germany in nineteen-fifty-two. The Nazis had melted down any metal they got their hands on to make things of… practical use.”
Brittany picked up the needles as he spoke, and her stomach sank when he got to the part about the Nazis. “Then these…” she said hesitantly. A sharp pain went through her hand where the needles sat, as if they burned her skin – but try as she might, she couldn’t drop them.
“See, a trick!” Mališa said. “You’re hurting Brittany!” He launched himself at the Ifrit, claws out, but Veliki just opened his mouth and swallowed Mališa whole.
“No!” Brittany screamed, half from the pain in her hand and half from the casual murder that Veliki committed in her home. The other demons and celestials scrambled to leave, disappearing in puffs of smoke and beams of light.
As the world started to go black, Veliki loomed over her. “Let’s see if you have what it takes to free my brother,” he said, laughing as he, too, disappeared.
Brittany blacked out, and nothing remained but the pain.
* * * * * * * *
Asylum Headquarters, present day.
“Mališa was a good friend,” Remmiel said as Granny finished telling the djinn-marked man her story. “I still miss him.”
“He thought my lunches might end the war,” Granny said, smiling fondly as she remembered her best friend.
The man swallowed a bite of his sandwich. “So the Ifrit killed him?” he asked.
“Swallowed his essence,” Xabla, one of Mališa’s siblings, confirmed. “Mališa, as a being in the universe, is gone.” Granny had met Xabla at lunch a few days after Mališa was killed.
They sat in a moment of silence, before Granny continued. “Anyways, that was when I was djinn-marked. I was tested, like you, and came to on my kitchen floor.”
“Only a few minutes had passed,” the man said, remembering his own marking.
“Exactly.” Granny picked up another finger-sandwich. “I haven’t seen Veliki since then, but I’ve had djinn-powers. Anything I make using these comes to life with a simple spell.” She gestured to the zoo of plush animals around her room. “As you can see, I’ve been busy.”
“You joined the Asylum,” the man said, “and you fight crime.”
“Well, for many years I went after the relics like you,” Granny told him. “It was a futile effort. Of the three remaining without a marked human, two are in the underworld and one is in the overworld. The others, like my needles, are in possession of the djinn-marked, and I guarantee you they will not go easily.”
“But if I can do it,” the man said, “if I can bring all seven together, I can break the curse on all of us. We won’t have to be trapped in the relics with the cursed Ifrit after our years are up – we’d be human again!”
Granny nodded. “True,” she said. “That’s why I brought you here.” She gestured to her other two guests. “Remmiel can help guide you through the overworld, and Xabla has volunteered to show you to the two in the underworld. Plus there are other, higher-tier beings that know me and owe me favors. They will help you, too.”
“I recommend going to the overworld first,” Remmiel said. “The seraphim are less likely to attack a human if you don’t stink of the underworld.” He looked at Xabla apologetically, adding, “No offense.”
“None taken,” Xabla said sincerely. “I agree; demons who don’t know Brittany will attack anyone not of their clan, no matter what they smell like. So if going to the overworld first makes you slightly safer there, then by all means go.”
“Now?” the man asked.
“You have someplace better to be?” Granny asked in return. “Remmiel, if you would do the honors?”
“Sir,” Remmiel said deferentially, taking the man’s hand. “If you’ll come with me.”
As the two of them disappeared in the normal celestial beam of light, Granny sighed. “Oh, to be young and on an adventure.”
“You still have a year left,” Xabla pointed out. “It’s not much, but it’s something.”
“I’m perfectly content to spend it here, in the Asylum,” Granny said, smiling. “Something big is happening right in our backyard, and hell if I’m going to miss it.”
Xabla smiled at her with her bat-like teeth. “Happy birthday, child,” she said. “I hope it’s a good year.” She disappeared in a puff of smoke, leaving Granny alone with her thoughts. She didn’t even notice when she fell asleep.
A loud knock on her door woke Granny from her reverie. “Come on, Granny!” Dale shouted through the door. “It’s your birthday, and we’re all going to the pub to celebrate!”
“Be right there!” Granny called back. She smiled at her reflection in the mirror as she put her slippers on. “Not a day over eighty,” she said, before picking up her bag and needles and heading out.
* * * * * * * *