Outside, wind rattled the wooden chimes in warning. In the distance, waves crashed against the shore; the frantic whispers of water growing louder as if the sea was a mage summoning violence. On this date—for nearly a decade now—the storm followed the same pattern. Next, thunder would roll in quicker than the tide with lightning cracking electric whips across an unforgiving sky. The devil demanded retribution. A blood sacrifice for power stolen.
It wasn’t the first time he’d be cursed by witches, nor would it be the last.
From her rocking chair near the fire, Nonna Maria monitored the twins while they chanted protection charms she’d taught them, a cornicello clutched tightly in each of their little fists. Pushing the howling gusts from her mind, she listened closely to the words Vittoria and Emilia whispered over the horn-shaped amulets, their matching dark heads bent in concentration.
“By earth, moon, and stone, bless this hearth, bless this home.”
It was the start of their eighth year and Nonna tried not to worry over how quickly they were growing. She pulled her shawl closer, unable to ward off chills in the small kitchen. It had little to do with the temperature outside. As much as she tried ignoring it, sulfur snuck in through the cracks along with the familiar plumeria-and-orange-scented breeze, raising the graying hair she’d swept up from her neck. Had she been alive, her own human grandmother would have called it an omen and spent the evening on her knees in the cathedral, rosary clutched close, praying to saints.
The devil was on the prowl. Or one of his wicked brothers was.
A sliver of worry slid in as quick and smooth as one of her paring knives, lodging itself near Nonna’s heart. It had been an age since the last sighting of the Malvagi. Hardly anyone spoke of the Wicked anymore, except in stories told to frighten children into staying in their beds at night.
Now adults laughed at the old folktales, all but forgetting the seven ruling princes of Hell. Nonna Maria never would; their legends were burned into her mind, branding her with a bone-deep sense of dread. The area between her shoulders prickled as if their midnight eyes were upon her, watching from the shadows. It was only a matter of time before they came looking.
If they hadn’t begun to already. One didn’t steal from the devil and go unpunished.
Her focus darted back to the twins. Like the churning Tyrrhenian Sea, there was a restlessness about them tonight. One that spoke of unseen trouble to come. Vittoria’s charms were rushed and Emilia stumbled over hers, trying to keep up.
A twig popped in the fire, quickly followed by another. The sound like wishbones snapping over their spell books; a warning in its own right. Nonna gripped the arms of her rocking chair, her knuckles turning the color of the blanched almonds lying on the counter.
“Calmati! Not so fast, Vittoria,” she scolded. “You’ll have to begin again if you don’t do it correctly. Do you want to gather grave dirt alone in the dark?”
Much to Nonna’s dismay, Vittoria didn’t appear as frightened as she should have. The thought of wandering around a graveyard under the light of a full moon and an angry storm seemed appealing to the child. She pursed her lips before offering a slight shake of her head.
It was Emilia who answered, though, giving her sister a warning look. “We’ll be more careful, Nonna.”
To prove her point, Emilia held up the vial of holy water they’d gotten from the monastery and tipped it over their amulets, allowing one drop to sizzle over each. Silver and gold. An offering of balance between light and dark. A gift for what had been stolen all those years ago.
As above, so below.
Pacified, Nonna watched as they finished their charm, relieved when white sparks rose in the flames before burning red again. Another year, another victory. They’d tricked the devil once more. Eventually there’d come a day when the charms wouldn’t work, but Nonna refused to think of that now. She glanced at the windowsill, pleased by the dried orange slices laid out in even rows.
Lavender sprigs hung to dry over the mantel, and the tiny stone island was covered with both flour and fragrant herbs waiting to be tied into neat bunches. Verbena, basil, oregano, parsley, and bay leaves. The scents mingled pleasantly. Some were for their celebratory dinner, and others for their charms. Now that the protection ritual was done, they might enjoy their meal.
Nonna looked at the clock on the mantel; her daughter and son-in-law would arrive from the family restaurant soon, bringing with them laughter and warmth.
Storms and omens or not, all would be well in the di Carlo home.
The flames settled and Emilia sat back, biting her nails. A nasty habit Nonna was determined to break. The child spit a nail clipping out and went to toss it on the floor.
“Emilia!” Nonna’s voice rang loudly in the small room. The child started, dropping her hand, and gave a sheepish look. “In the fire! You know better than to leave things for those who practice le arti oscure.”
“Sorry, Nonna,” Emilia mumbled. She chewed her lip, and her grandmother waited for the question she knew was coming. “Will you tell us about the dark arts again?”
“Or the Malvagi?” Vittoria added, always interested in stories of the Wicked. Even on nights they were forbidden from uttering such names. “Please?”
“We shouldn’t speak of dark things aloud. It invites trouble.”
“They’re just stories, Nonna,” Emilia said quietly.
If only that were true. Nonna Maria traced a protection charm over her heart, finishing it with a kiss to her fingertips, and exhaled. The twins exchanged triumphant grins. It was impossible to keep the legends from the girls, no matter if it filled their heads with dreams of the seven princes of Hell. Nonna feared they romanticized demons too much. It was best, she decided, to remind them why they should be wary of beautiful creatures without souls.
“Wash your hands and help roll the dough. I’ll talk while you make the busiate.”
Their matching smiles warmed the chills still clinging to Nonna brought on by the storm and its warning. The little corkscrew pasta served with tomato pesto was one of the girls’ favorite dishes. They’d be pleased to find cassata already waiting in the ice box. Though the sweet ricotta sponge cake was an Easter specialty, the girls loved it on their birthday.
Even with all of their precautions, Nonna was unsure how much sweetness would remain in their lives, and spoiled them often. Not that she required extra incentive to do so. A grandmother’s love was its own sort of powerful magic.
Emilia pulled the mortar and pestle from the shelf, face strained in concentration as she gathered up the olive oil, garlic, almonds, basil, pecorino, and cherry tomatoes for the pesto alla Trapanese. Vittoria removed the damp cloth from the mound of dough and began rolling the pasta as Nonna had taught her. Eight years old and they already knew their way around the kitchen. It was unsurprising. Between their home and the restaurant, they practically grew up in one. They both peered up from thick lashes, their expressions identical masks of anticipation.
Vittoria said impatiently, “Well? Are you going to tell us a story?”
Nonna sighed. “There are seven demon princes, but only four di Carlos should fear: Wrath, Greed, Envy, and Pride. One will crave your blood. One will capture your heart. One will steal your soul. And one will take your life.”
“The Wicked,” Vittoria whispered, her tone almost reverent.
“The Malvagi are demon princes who stalk the night, searching for souls to steal for their king, the devil, their hunger ravenous and unyielding, until dawn chases them away,” Nonna continued, slowly rocking in her chair. The wood creaked, covering the sound of the storm. She nodded toward their tasks, making sure they held up their end of the bargain. The girls settled into their work. “The seven princes are so corrupted by sin, that when they cross into our world, they can’t bear being in the light and are cursed to only venture out when it’s dark. It was a punishment sent from La Prima Strega, many years ago. Well before man roamed the earth.”
“Where is the First Witch now?” Emilia asked, an edge of skepticism creeping into her little voice. “Why hasn’t she been seen?”
Nonna thought carefully. “She has her reasons. We must respect them.”
“What do the demon princes look like?” Vittoria asked, though she must have had this part memorized by now.
“They appear human but their ebony eyes are tinged red, and their skin is hard as stone. Whatever you do, you must never speak to the Wicked. If you see them, hide. Once you’ve caught a demon prince’s attention, he’ll stop at nothing to claim you. They are midnight creatures, born of darkness and moonlight. And they seek only to destroy. Guard your hearts; if given the chance they’ll rip them from your chests and guzzle your blood as it steams in the night.”
No matter that they were soulless creatures who belonged to the devil, or they’d kill them on sight, the twins were enchanted by these dark and mysterious princes of Hell.
One more so than the other, as fate would have it.
“But how will we know when we meet one?” Vittoria asked. “What if we can’t see their eyes?”
Nonna hesitated. They’d already heard so much, and if the ancient prophecy held true, she feared the worst was yet to come. “You just will.”
Steeped in family tradition, Nonna Maria taught them magical ways of hiding from both humans and the midnight creatures. Each year on their birthday, they gathered herbs from the tiny garden behind their home and made charms of protection.
They wore amulets blessed in holy water, freshly turned grave dirt, and sparkling shafts of moonlight. They recited words of protection and never spoke of the Malvagi when the moon was full. More importantly, they were never without their amulets.
Emilia’s cornicello was made of silver, and Vittoria’s gold. The girls weren’t allowed to bring them together, or something terrible would happen. According to Nonna it would be like forcing the sun and moon to share the sky, bringing the world into an eternal twilight. There, the princes of Hell could escape their prison of fire for good, murdering and stealing souls of the innocent until the human world turned to ash—like their nightmare realm.