by L.N. Hunter
"Skin Deep" first appeared in Corrugated Sky Publishing’s Obscura anthology in 2019
Click here to listen to this story on the Kaidankai podcast.
“How original,” drawled the tall, black-suited man standing within the pentagram. “You humans! Is eternal life really the best you can come up with?”
He sucked deeply on his cigarette and casually blew several smoke rings: first, a perfect triangle, then a square, and a pentagon and, finally, a hexagon. He flicked the spent cigarette away and ground it out, his shiny black wing tips making scratches on the elaborate parquet floor.
“I want to remain young and healthy, too—I’m not going to suffer Tithonus’s fate, when he forgot to ask to stop aging.”
The young woman knew she looked good. Her inheritance had already paid for a few little nips and tucks, but her youthful beauty wouldn’t last forever, unless she made sure to include that in the bargain. She thought for a moment. “And no tricks about having to find special food or drink. No killing things to absorb their life essence or whatever. I’m vegan, you know.”
The man lifted another cigarette to his lips, where it spontaneously ignited. “You ask a lot, my dear Emilia Beatrice Kilburn.”
He smiled and exhaled a thick cloud of smoke, which grew and swirled around his body. When it dissipated, a red-skinned demon stood in his place, horns grazing the ceiling of the private library. He had the same orange eyes as the man, and the same cigarette dangling from his thin lips.
“Is there anything else?” Smoke drifted from the demon’s mouth as he spoke. “Or is that an acceptable exchange for your soul?”
Emilia knew that dealing with demonkind was fraught with danger, but she was clever and had done her homework.
“One more thing. I don’t want an injury or illness to leave me in any way disabled. I don’t want to suffer any accidents.”
The demon removed the cigarette from his mouth and smiled widely, showing all his yellowed teeth. “Smart girl, indeed. Your Daddy-funded education is paying off, isn’t it?”
He gestured at the elegant oil pictures lining the walls and shelves of antique books. “Would you like more riches to go with your very long life? A country to rule, perhaps? You could be a—what do you mortals call it—a ‘media personality’ with hordes of adoring fans.” He looked around the room. “I can see that you’re used to comfort, but you didn’t think twice about ruining this beautiful floor with your pentagram. Surely you could do with some help to keep you, as they say, in the style to which you are accustomed…”
Emilia didn’t hesitate. She shook her head. “Nope, no way. I’m rich enough already, and sensible investing will keep me going. I’m smart enough to look after my own finances, thank you very much. The more I ask you for, on the other hand, the more chance there is of you finding some loophole.”
The demon heaved an exaggerated sigh. “Some people. All I’m trying to do is make your life much more pleasurable.”
“For you, you mean, not me! I’m not falling for your lies.”
The dark prince pouted. “I could take offence at that. I never utter falsehoods. Your… research… must have told you that. You know, I’ve always thought the title ‘Prince of Lies’ incredibly unfair.” He shrugged. “We just don’t always tell the complete truth.”
Emilia scowled and she shouted, “Tempt me not, foul fiend!” When the demon’s face froze and his stare lanced into her, she felt her heart pause. Had she taken a step too far?
Then he roared with laughter. “The old lines really are the best.”
“Eternal life, that’s what I want,” she muttered. “No physical or mental degradation, no accidents. And that’s it.”
“Perhaps I might be permitted to make one more suggestion?”
Emelia eyed him suspiciously but let him proceed.
“Existence as an unchanging immortal can be a nuisance; I speak from experience. Your friends will wonder why you don’t appear to age and, should you do something to attract unwanted attention, it will be difficult to escape the eye of the oh-so-critical public.” He pursed his lips. “I could give you deliberate conscious control of your appearance.” He paused and let the edges of his mouth twitch upward. “That is, if you think it could be helpful.”
Emilia stiffened and licked her lips. This was something she hadn’t considered. Her face went blank as she thought about the possibilities. If she always looked the same, she’d have to keep moving every few years, and ensuring continuous access to her wealth would require a lot of effort. On the other hand, she could allow herself to take on the natural appearance of age and, simultaneously, gradually introduce another version of herself as a younger cousin or distant niece to the household. This young relative would inherit everything from her doting elder, and Emilia could perpetuate herself that way. There’d be few awkward questions. She couldn’t think of any disadvantage of being able to alter her appearance but, remembering that the demon said he never lied, she asked, “What am I missing here?”
“Why, nothing at all! You think it, you look it—what could be simpler, my dear Ms. Kilburn?” The demon inhaled on his cigarette, causing the end to glow as brightly as his orange eyes, then shrugged again. As if he’d been reading her mind, he said, “If you’d rather not invent nieces and prefer to spend eternity running from people, that’s entirely up to you. I can do no more than offer it; you make the decision.”
Emilia stared into his unblinking eyes until hers started to water and she had to look away. “Okay then, I agree.”
The demon’s form snapped back to the tall, lawyerly appearance from before, and he dropped his cigarette on to the mahogany floor, once again grinding it into the varnish. He extracted a parchment and an ornate quill from inside his suit. Stepping forward, he crossed the lines of the pentagram with ease and pricked Emilia’s forearm with the quill, drawing blood.
“Ow!” She flinched. Then she paused, rubbing her arm where she’d been stabbed, and asked in a weak voice, “Wait, you could’ve left the pentagram any time?”
“Of course, my dear. Your pretty patterns mean nothing to me. I came because your soul called to me, not because of your spells and scribbles.”
He held the parchment out to her. “Please do verify that this corresponds with your desires.” He offered the quill, charged with Emilia’s blood, and said in a deeper voice that reverberated as if they were standing in a room considerably larger than the library, “and then please sign.”
Emelia read the brief document from beginning to end three times, carefully considering every nuance of language, looking for tricks and hidden escape clauses. She finally concluded that the contract was accurate and correct, and signed. The parchment seemed to suck the ink—her blood—from the quill. Her signature was dry by the time she handed the parchment and now-drained quill back to the demon. She started to speak but faltered with a suddenly dry mouth. She swallowed and tried again, managing no more than a hoarse whisper. “I do have one question.”
The tall man raised an eyebrow.
“If I’m immortal, how will you get my soul?”
The man’s lips turned up at the edges, the smile not reaching his hypnotic eyes. “My dear Ms. Kilburn, your soul is not the important thing here and it never was; the promise is enough. What do you think I would do with a soul? It’s an insubstantial, trivial thing and irrelevant to the physical universe; it can affect me as much as a peanut can satisfy an elephant. No, it’s your torment I enjoy, and that doesn’t have to wait until your death.”
He chuckled as he faded from existence. Emilia was left with the echo of his laugh and the thick smell of cigarette smoke, along with a sick feeling in her stomach.
She expected to feel different, but nothing seemed to change in the weeks that followed. She caught herself wondering if she’d really summoned a demon and exchanged her soul for eternal life, or if she might be suffering from some mental illness. How could she tell? She swallowed an uncomfortable giggle at the thought that all she had to do was wait for a very long time and see whether she died or not.
Assuming she had made a deal with a demon, Emilia considered all the things she could do now: travel the world, learn to play a musical instrument—heck, several. Then she realized that normal people--mortal people—could do, and did do, these things; all that was different was she had more time in which to do them.
So, she did the same as most people, rich or poor. She procrastinated.
And while she procrastinated, she thought about her sister, the initial trigger for her deal-making. Suzanne had died after a battle with leukemia, despite the application of the best medical attention vast sums of inherited money could buy. Emilia wanted to save her sister, or to at least extend her unfairly shortened life. Once conventional medicine had conceded defeat, she followed many paths on the internet and elsewhere in search of treatments. At best, some of the legion of self-proclaimed healers alleviated Suzanne’s pain a little, but most were charlatans, mere purveyors of snake-oil.
A week before Suzanne died, Emilia came across a web site that looked different from the others. Nothing more than an old-fashioned form, white text boxes on a plain black background, inviting visitors to describe what would drive them to make the ultimate sacrifice.
Normally, Emilia would have closed the browser window and moved on, but she was desperate—Suzanne had endured a particularly bad episode that day—so she filled in the form. She said she loved her sister and couldn’t imagine living without her. She paused briefly and added, “Please allow her a few more years? Just a few. That’s all I ask.”
As soon as she hit Enter, the page cleared, and a line of text appeared: Your plea has been received; if we deem you worthy, you will receive instructions.
Emilia sighed and turned off her laptop. What had she expected anyway?
A week passed. Suzanne died.
Emilia forgot about the web site but, several weeks after her sister’s funeral, a small, neatly wrapped black parcel arrived in the mail. As she extracted a slim book from the package, a note slid out and fluttered to the floor. She picked it up and read: You, not your sister, have been deemed worthy; follow these instructions.
In disgust, Emilia threw the book in the back of a drawer and ignored it.
Several months passed before she stumbled across it again. She took it out for a closer look and idly examined the cover. How ridiculous, she thought, a book on demonology. But, as she read, she started to wonder if it would work. She tracked down other sources on the internet, some directing her to obscure libraries, hidden bookstores and shadowy museums.
Though she couldn’t bring her sister back, she could at least make sure she didn’t suffer a similar pathetic, painful end herself.
And now, after following the trail to its conclusion, immortality beckoned. If, that is, she believed the demon… If she believed her mind.
As the years passed, Emilia attracted more and more comments from friends about her youthful appearance. She laughed and said, “You can’t believe how much I spend at Gerardo’s and the Spa. It takes a lot of time and effort to look this good.” To her closest friends, she confessed to hiding a lot under make-up, and admitted that the best cosmetic surgery could offer was paying off. However, she realized it was time to think about changing her appearance.
She stared at herself in the mirror and wondered what to do. After a moment, feeling somewhat self-conscious, she commanded, “Get older.”
She remembered what the demon had offered: control of her appearance. But what did that really mean? She suddenly grasped that she had to worry about the details, every single wrinkle and blemish. She couldn’t be vague. Shit!
She also realized that she couldn’t picture what her face should look like at her correct age, quite a few years older than she currently appeared. The only thing that came to mind was a vague impression of the crow’s feet around her friend’s eyes, not having ever closely examined the precise pattern of creases—who really ever looks at a friend’s face in critical detail? She opened her laptop and searched for pictures of women her age. It was harder than she expected, since most people attempted to hide signs of aging in anything they allowed to be made public. In the age range from about 25 to 45, people in the public eye pay ever increasing attention to retaining their youth, before relenting and accepting the effects of time. Eventually, Emilia had a number of photographs of the same people at different ages, so she could study how age affected their appearance.
She placed the laptop beside her mirror and, switching her gaze between her reflection and the screen, concentrated on precisely copying the patterns of small wrinkles from the pictures to the skin around her eyes and lips, willing the creases into place. Eventually, exhausted and with a throbbing headache, she achieved satisfactory results; there was an older woman in the mirror, but one who moved like her and wore expressions she was accustomed to seeing in her reflection. She even managed an amused thought as she went to bed: first thing in the morning, she’d be applying make-up to hide most of this painstaking work.
Something felt wrong when she woke up. Her mouth was numb, and her left eye wouldn’t open properly. There was a sticky, pulling sensation as she lifted her head from the pillow. She staggered to the bathroom and switched on the light. She stared uncomprehendingly at the mirror, then screamed.
Her face had melted; at least that’s what it looked like. It was as if gravity had caused everything to sag while she slept. The skin was tight on the right side, while loose, flabby folds had collected on the left, covering her eye and making her mouth droop and drool.
“No-no-no-no!” she slurred. “This can’t be happening.” She dropped to the floor and fought back tears as she tried to figure out what was going on. It couldn’t be an illness; the demon had promised that.
She replayed what exactly he’d said: deliberate conscious control. Then she understood. She had conscious control of her looks, but no-one had said anything about unconscious effects. The bastard! The bloody bastard! No wonder he’d been laughing. Was this going to happen every night? More importantly for the moment, could she fix it?
She quickly pushed and pulled and thought her skin back to a face shape, but it still wasn’t her own face. Something looked not quite right, but she couldn’t tell what—some almost imperceptible detail was wrong, throwing the whole out of shape. As with most of her friends, her phone was full of selfies, so she had plenty of material showing what she looked like. She pored over the photos; move this freckle here, sharpen that line there, compare the results with her photographs, and move on to the next patch of skin. An hour later, she recognized herself. Then she set about aging herself again.
She got to work very late that day, carrying with her the worry that the backs of her ears might not be quite right, along with other areas she didn’t have any photos of or couldn’t see in her mirrors. She couldn’t tell if people were staring at her, or if it was merely her frantic imagination.
The following morning, and every morning after, she discovered the answer to her first question: yes, this was going to happen every night.
She gave up her job; it wasn’t as if she needed the money. Instead, she spent most of her days working on her face.
Emilia stopped going out in the evening after that incident with Steve. Or was it Stefan… or possibly Scott? She couldn’t remember; she never paid much attention to their names. A cute surfer blond with a hot body, whom she’d picked up in her favorite nightclub while wearing the face and body of her younger self.
Fueled by tequila, they lurched from the taxi and made their way through Emilia’s house. They passed the door to the library, a room Emilia hadn’t entered since her demonic visit, and staggered up the stairs, giggling and discarding clothes along the way.
At first, Steve—or whoever he was—took control, and Emilia let the tingle of pleasure run up and down her body. After a while, growing impatient, she pushed him back on to the bed and stroked and fondled and sucked and pinched until the world shrank to contain just the pair of them. It didn’t take long before she was on the brink of orgasm.
“Yes, yes, yes, yes,” Emilia panted, eyes closed and hips moving in time with the thrusting beneath her.
Steve slowed, then halted completely.
Eyes still closed, Emilia licked her lips and murmured, “Don’t stop.” When nothing happened, she opened her eyes to see a shocked expression below her.
“Your body…? What’s happening to it?”
Shit! She could feel her face sagging and looked down to see her breasts stretching across the bed, drooping over the sides. “Wait, it’s nothing. Wait!”
She pulled her breasts into a bundle in her arms and concentrated on bringing her body back to normal, but the mood was shattered.
Steve pushed her away and scrabbled out from underneath, thudding onto the floor. Mouth flapping soundlessly, he stared at her for a moment longer, then ran for the door, not even taking time to collect his clothes.
In any case, she thought afterwards, when she stopped crying, it’ll be easier if I go to bed earlier; I’ll have more time the next day to fix my face. And my body. She started crying again.
Another year passed, with Emilia getting better at pulling her face and body back into shape. She spent fewer and fewer hours on the task each day; but daydreaming could be disastrous.
Maybe it was time to finally start her journey round the world, though out of necessity rather than desire. Now, she’d stick to places where few people would see her.
Over the next few decades, Emilia contributed to cryptozoological legends of strange semi-humans sighted in various parts of the world. She was adept at snapping back to a normal person now—she had a repertoire of appearances—but she found it impossible to make her mask persist when her thoughts strayed. She became accustomed to being a wrinkled, sagging creature most of the time.
In her eighth decade, she caught herself wondering why she had asked the demon for eternal life. She’d only thought of avoiding pain and death, but could those be much worse than her current lonely life? Emilia smiled wryly at the thought of rejecting his offer of riches and comfort because she thought she knew better. What did all the money from her investments mean now?
Sometime during her second century, she spent several months unsuccessfully trying to kill herself. Wounds closed up within minutes; poisons sweated themselves out of her body; drowning just left her feeling very thirsty.
She entombed herself via a cave explosion and existed for thirteen years as a blob of human porridge squeezed beneath heavy rocks, until she finally got bored and oozed free. She had only the dimmest recollection of that time. She might have gone insane for some of that period. Or maybe a human brain doesn’t work properly when it’s spread pancake-thin.
Regaining at least the semblance of a human form after that, she travelled from country to country, from continent to continent, looking for a solution to her problem. She ventured to monasteries high in the Himalayas, grateful for the warmth of the shaggy coat of fur she grew. She visited hermitages deep in arid deserts, where she found her dwindling wealth could still open doors. She conferred with occultists and sorcerers, witches and warlocks, in the hope that they could fix her physical form. Despite most being as ineffectual as the medical snake-oil peddlers from so long ago, Emilia gained knowledge from those who were true. She came to understand many mystical secrets and esoteric magics, but there was no cure for her condition.
Perhaps, then, she could find a spell to call the demon back to her, to plead for a renegotiation of the deal, a trade of some of her life for her appearance, but the closest she got was hearing the whisper of his laugh on the wind. She learned that the only currency demons were interested in was souls, and she’d already promised the solitary one she owned.
She trained herself to tune and modulate her senses. With her ability to change her shape, Emilia could grow ears which could hear better than a bat’s, and eyes which could see farther than an eagle’s. She found she could travel without being seen, making herself a pale, insubstantial cloud which could pass through any gap. She could even detach small fragments of her body and morph them into other objects. But she still had to concentrate on maintaining a human appearance most of the time she was awake, and she had to rebuild her body after every period of sleep.
She could be a comic book superhero, if she cared, but Emilia Beatrice Kilburn no longer considered herself a part of humanity. She even resented those dumb humans who had never suffered as she did.
Emilia eventually returned to her home city, which seemed to have changed very little in the centuries since she was last there. Wandering the streets like some homeless bag-lady, she stumbled across a library which still had retro computer terminals. She was surprised that such a place still existed—probably the result of a bequest from some wealthy, old-fashioned reader unwilling to give up the past. Smiling wryly at that thought, she entered and sat down at one of the terminals, conscious of stares from the librarian and the handful of other occupants.
She typed in the address of the web site which had started her journey, intending to ask for help again. Hoping for more than a ‘site not found’ message, she hit Enter. Instead of the empty form from before, the screen displayed an already filled-in request. There was a name, Ernest Roberts, and a street address on the page. A map site gave her directions to a gated community in the suburbs.
She made her way to the man’s house, her morphing abilities enabling her to pass by the community’s security guards with ease. It was a large, blocky building with tall casement windows and a solid oak front door, and reminded her of the house in which she’d first met her demon. Did she still own that house, she wondered. Her memory didn’t seem to be as good as it used to be; the demon had promised mental health, but it seemed that didn’t include memory.
One of the windows on the first floor showed some light, so she peered in. She stumbled back at what she saw, but then laughed and immediately knew what she had to do next. If it worked, she would gain another soul—another chance.
She eased her form through a gap in the window frame and appeared in a cloud of smoke within the pentagram chalked on the floor.
The man stared at the tall black-dressed woman in surprise.
Emilia materialized a lit cigarette and popped it between her lips. She inhaled deeply, paused for a few seconds, then let the smoke escape in a long slow breath. She took the cigarette from her mouth and studied the glowing tip for a few seconds, before looking at the man.
“What do you most desire, my dear Ernest Oliver Roberts?”
She let her eyes glow orange, as she smiled, showing all her teeth.
L.N. Hunter’s comic fantasy novel, ‘The Feather and the Lamp,’ sits alongside works in anthologies such as ‘The Monsters Next Door’ and ‘Best of British Science Fiction 2022’ as well as Short Édition’s ‘Short Circuit’ and the ‘Horrifying Tales of Wonder’ podcast. There have also been papers in the IEEE ‘Transactions on Neural Networks,’ which are probably somewhat less relevant and definitely less fun. When not writing, L.N. unwinds in a disorganised home in rural Cambridgeshire, UK, along with two cats and a soulmate.
Linktree (publications list): https://linktr.ee/l.n.hunter
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