Chapter 1: Despair of the Marquis
The hour was late when Death arrived in the bedroom of the young Marquis Raymond de Villa. Resting upon his bed, quivering in a cold sweat, laid the Marquis’s newlywed wife. The only other sound as pitiful as her breathing was that of the Marquis weeping by her side. Lifting his head from his hands he looked over at his dying wife. The flickering candlelight made dark shadows dance along the bags under in his eyes, bags that would normally belong to a man twice his age. These past two months had drained the Marquis of his youth. He was once handsome not so long ago, but grief had robbed him of his beauty. His full head of hair, comprised of ebony ringlets, had been invaded by streaks of gray, and his face had grown gaunt from lack of proper sleep and loss of appetite.
“Do not be saddened, my dear,” said the Marquis’s beloved. “My passing is of no fault of yours.”
“But it is, Antonia!” cried the Marquis. “I should have taken better care of you—if only I had been more attentive. Maybe then I could have saved you.”
Antonia bent her dry lips into a slight smile. “I do not wish for the last sight of my husband to be one of despair. Be happy. I have had a good life with you, and I’m sure God’s kingdom awaits me.”
The Marquis caressed Antonia’s face. “You always did have a gift for finding the good in everything. I’m sure Heaven’s angels will welcome you with open arms.” The Marquis held his beloved’s hand adorned with a diamond wedding ring, brought it to his lips and kissed the back of her palm. “I’ll be happy for your sake, I promise.”
“I’m glad.” Antonia reached to stroke the Marquis’s hair, or at least tried to, but was interrupted by a sudden fit of coughing that racked her whole body. Her chest lurched up and down, and in her anguish, finally surrendered her soul to the clutches of Azrael. Antonia’s body fell limp, and the Marquis was left to sit and stare at her beloved for what seemed like an immeasurable stretch of time.
For an entire week the Marquis cloistered himself within the confines of his bedroom, keeping the curtains drawn, shutting the room in darkness. Daily, servants would leave food by the door, knocking at four hour intervals three times a day, indicating breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Upon the request of the Marquis, his meals consisted only of puddles of gray, lukewarm gruel in featureless pewter bowls. Only when the hallway outside his room was silent, devoid of any footsteps or murmur, the Marquis would crack open his door and snatch up the bowl before anyone could notice.
On the seventh day of the Marquis’ lament, he heard a loud knocking on his door. He opened it just a crack, revealing one eye gleaming from the palpable gloom. The Marquis’ trespasser was a young servant, a freckled boy with shoulder-length strawberry blonde hair beaming with a gap-toothed smile.
“How dare you disturb me, Vega,” the Marquis said. “Leave me at once!”
“But, Your Grace,” Vega began, “you have been mourning for a whole week. The world outside continues and it beckons you to fulfill your duties as Marquis. There are rumors within these halls and beyond that whisper you have gone mad.”
“The world be damned!” The Marquis began to shut the door, but the servant stuck his foot out quick to block it. The Marquis glared at the insolent boy with ire so bright that Vega felt his skin prickle with reproach. “And you be damned, boy! I’ll throw you back out on the street if I must!”
“I mean you no offense, Your Grace. But if you intend to grieve until you reunite with your late wife, then you might as well end your life now. You accomplish nothing by sobbing into your pillow day in and day out.”
The Marquis grabbed the boy by his collar and yanked him close. “Hold your tongue! Do you not think I have considered the option a dozen times over? Do you not think I have stood on the brink of death just so that I may see my Antonia again? The very thoughts burrow through my brain like worms in a rotten apple. I long for death, boy, more so than I ever thought possible, and it scares me! The one thing in my life that made me happy was stolen from me before I even had time to fully appreciate her! If all you’ve come for is to mock and prod me into an early grave, then be gone, serpent!”
The Marquis shoved the boy back, making him stumble onto his buttocks.
“Your Grace,” Vega said, getting back on his feet. “What if I told you that there may be yet a way to bring Antonia back to this world? At what cost would you bring her back? What say you?”
“I say you are even madder than I am!” The Marquis slammed his bedchamber door shut, ushering in a length of silence to occupy the hallway.
“But Your Grace,” Vega said after a moment standing outside the door. “There’s news of a miracle worker in town—a Moorish woman. They say she has powers, powers to do all manner of things. Surely, she can bring back your Antonia.” There was more silence as Vega stared at the closed door, studying the engraved grapevine motif. “Your Grace…?”
The door cracked open again, but this time ever so slightly as to not reveal any part of the Marquis to his on-looking servant.
“See if this woman’s powers are true,” the Marquis said. “Then bring her to me. If you speak false, I will have your tongue cut out for torturing me so.” He then slammed the door once more.
Vega, dressed in a tattered brown cloak as to not draw any attention to his clean, tailored servant attire, maneuvered through the raucous crowds that flowed through the streets like a stream of crude filth. The clouds of dust and stench of donkey dung stung the servants face, reminding him all too poignantly as to why he preferred staying in the Marquis’s palace.
Shouts of awe and excitement clued the boy that he was nearing his target. He pressed onward, digging his shoulders between the huddled masses to carve a way for himself, disregarding the irked stares he received as a result. More and more effort had to be put into his trudge, however, as the crowd became even more condensed. The flowing stream had become a muddy bog of reeking, sweating peasants that impeded the boy with every step. The air was so sour and salty he could taste it in his mouth.
Vega was not so tall and the stifled atmosphere was starting to choke the boy of precious air, and it soon became the simple desire to breathe that spurned him forward. The spirited cries of amazement grew louder, but due to his short stature Vega could only imagine what was happening.
Sensing he was near to his objective, he gave one final push to escape the suffocation and heat of the crowd and stumbled into a small clearing in the town square. He bent over, resting his hands on his knees trying to catch his breath for a moment. After a short moment, he stood up and composed himself, brushing his hair from his face. Before him stood the woman he was sent to find.
She was mahogany in complexion, draped in a short-sleeve blue dress slit down the middle with gold embroidery, revealing her lean, wiry arms and jutting collar bones. He quickly saw that it was not just her scandalous attire that stupefied the crowd. Bold and strange, she danced wantonly. A gold sash was tied tight around her waist, its tail ends trailed her like tail. With every turn of her head her beaded braids clattered together like rain hitting stone. She twirled her hands in the air as paper birds fluttered around her, tracing the arcs of the woman’s fingertips. The throng of spectators, mesmerized, let out in unison a prolonged “ooooh”. By the woman’s sandaled feet was a satchel, presumably containing the stranger’s belongings, and a rusted plate, specked with a few tossed coins. Occasionally a ting of metal sounded as another coin landed into the meager pile.
The woman lifted her hands over her head, and the circling birds rose into an orbiting halo formation above the woman’s head. With a clap of her hands, the paper birds collided into each other, igniting on impact in a small fireball. The crowd gasped as glowing embers fluttered down around the foreigner like fiery snow. Their gasps gave way to a lull of silence, but from the stillness erupted a wave of roaring applause.
The woman took a graceful bow, subtly pointing her hands towards the rusted plate. The cheering spectators were more than willing now to part with their hard-earned coin and within moments the offering plate contained a small mountain’s worth of silver. But inevitably the shower of money ceased and the packed crowd began to slacken and disperse. The woman, with no little effort, lifted her plate full of earnings and dumped it all into her satchel.
“Excuse me!” Vega said, stepping towards the woman.
“The show has ended, good señor,” the woman said without looking at her addresser. Her accent was thick.
“I’m aware of that. I’m here on behalf of my master. He would like to make use of your sorcery. He suffers from ills that can only be rectified by the aid of the supernatural.”
The woman slung her satchel over her shoulder, still refusing to look at young Vega. “My shows are merely tricks, dear sir. How do you say...illusions that fool the senses, nothing more. I bid you good day.”
The woman took one step past the servant, but Vega swiftly grabbed a hold of the stranger’s forearm. The jolt caught her off balance and she nearly fell over onto her back.
“Your reputation precedes you, Moor,” Vega said. “I once lived with charlatans and petty street magicians. I can see what is real and what is false. There are more than mere illusions behind your magic. The amount of silver you made today is nothing, trifling, compared to what my master can offer you. He is the Marquis Raymond de Villa, overseer of this whole town.” His voice was a forceful whisper that seeped into the woman’s ears. Her eyes widened with intrigue and her nostrils perked as if she could smell her fortune. She turned to face Vega for the first time, grinning a white smile on her dark face.
“Well why did you not mention that particular detail earlier?” the woman said. “For a second I thought you had confused me for a charity-working nun.” She put a hand on her chest. “You may call me Nekayah of Abyssinia. Now, we mustn’t delay—take me to your poor master.”
Nekayah’s head darted about, not so much observing the finely threaded silver tapestries or the glazed oriental pottery, but rather taking into account the unholy silence that pervaded the grand halls of the Marquis’s palace. All sound came from her jingling white beads and her own footsteps. Vega had learned to soften his stride as his heels hit the white marble tiles to not disturb the atmosphere of the Marquis’s living tomb. The colossal windows of the manor’s hallways let in copious amounts of sunlight, yet there still seemed to be a sickly grayness to the place. The doors to the Marquis’s bedchamber were closed, as usual, but after a swift knock of Vega’s knuckles on the polished wood a faint stirring could be heard from beyond the threshold. After some many moments, the door cracked only a sliver to reveal a slit of blackness.
“So you have returned,” said the Marquis. “I assume this is the person you spoke of. The sorceress?”
“Indeed, Your Grace!” Vega beamed his gap-toothed smile. “Her name is Nekayah of Abyssinia, and I have seen her work her magic. Her powers will be perfect to assist you--”
“Speaking of which,” Nekayah interrupted, “what is it that makes the good Marquis suffer so? I was dragged off the streets with nigh a single explanation. I make no promises until I know what you task me with.”
Vega’s grin vanished and he shot piercing glare at the Abyssinian, but the woman merely crossed her arms, still waiting for her questioned to be answered.
“Have you no manners?!” Vega exclaimed. “I did not drag you anywhere—”
“No,” the Marquis said, opening the door further, revealing his gaunt visage, “she has every right to know the situation.” With yellow, bloodshot eyes sunken in misery-wrinkled sockets, the Marquis’s stare was enough to make the sorceress flinch. “My mother died when I was a boy, my father died only a few years after, and now, the Fates have taken my last and greatest love away from me. I ask you to bring my sweet Antonia, my wife, back from the dead. I beg you.”
Upon hearing the request the sorceress turned on her heels and began to walk away.
“Wait!” cried the servant. “We promise you a fortune! Where are you going?”
“The dead are not to be trifled with,” Nekayah said “Ever!” Once again she refused to look at her addresser as she spoke. “No gold is worth committing such blasphemies!”
“Vega,” said the Marquis, calmly, “have the guards kill this woman once she steps outside the palace.”
Nekayah stopped and spun back around to glare at the Marquis. Her seashell beads clattered loudly. “I beg your pardon?!”
“Tell me, is your life worth it? I will let you know that my wife is worth at least ten Abyssinian witches.”
Nekayah stood rigid for a few moments, jaw and fists clenched, but then she smiled and dipped into a curtsy. “It seems you have acquired yourself a sorceress.”
With a torch in hand, Vega led the Marquis and Nekayah down a tight stairwell into the ancestral crypt beneath the palace complex. The putrid air of the subterranean passage was heavy, and the stone walls that pressed against her shoulders were coated with slimy black and blue mold so thick one could mistake the corridor for the intestines of a dead whale. Nekayah had to pinch her nose to keep from sneezing, but it was a vain effort; the woman sprayed Vega’s back again and again with spittle the whole way down.
“What a lovely place,” Nekayah said, wiping her nose on her forearm. “To think, you keep your loved ones down here.”
“I apologize for her rudeness, Your Grace,” Vega said.
The Marquis shook his head. “If she can do what she claims, dealing with her shrewishness is nominal price to pay.”
At the bottom of the steps was a large circular chamber; within the curved wall of the chamber were numerous recesses in which numerous coffins rested, containing the remains of the Marquis’s family. The ceiling was carved with what Nekayah could only assume to be the family crest: a hawk flying over a rising sun. Or maybe it was setting. She couldn’t tell. Nekayah’s eyes eventually locked onto a freshly placed coffin, one that had not been blanketed by uncountable decades of all-consuming mildew. “I’ll assume your wife rests in that one.”
“You assume correctly, witch,” the Marquis said. “Now how do you plan to bring her back to me?”
Nekayah glared at the Marquis. “First, Your Grace, I insist that you refrain from calling me by such a dreadful moniker. I can only bend my pride so far, and if you do not respect me then today will be difficult for the both of us.”
“I’m sorry for her rudeness, Your Grace,” Vega said again, putting his torch into a notch on the wall.
The Marquis waved a hand in dismissal. “Don’t apologize for her, Vega. Just help her with the preparations.”
Nekayah and the Vega pried open the coffin containing the withered green corpse of Antonia. The servant’s body trembled as he gazed upon the ghastly remains. But his terrified stare only lasted for a brief second. A rotten stench of decaying meat wafted from the coffin and Vega could not prevent himself from stepping back and vomiting. Nekayah grimaced, pinching her face not at the overwhelming stench, but in regret for both their situations.
“Help me, boy!” Nekayah barked. Vega spat out the last globs of yellow bile before collecting himself. Together they gently lifted Antonia’s body out of her coffin and slowly stepped towards the center of the chamber. Antonia’s flesh felt cold and damp, and her skin felt loose on her bones. With the utmost care they set Antonia’s corpse on the moist stone floor.
“This is vile,” Vega said, shaking his head at Antonia’s body. “This is wrong.”
“This was your idea.” Nekayah pulled a jug of dark liquid from her satchel.
Its contents sloshed loudly, and at once Vega guessed what it was, dropping to his knees. “Lord, save us.” The boy looked over at the Marquis who was patiently waiting in the periphery of the torchlight, staring unblinkingly. His eyes followed the sorceress as she began to draw a circle of blood around the corpse with her hand. Nekayah then began to adorn the rim of her circle with sigils of an unknown language and after some length, her macabre scene was complete.
“There is only one thing left to complete the process,” Nekayah said, looking over at the Marquis. “But first I must know something for the sake of my god, the gatekeeper of my power. Do you love your wife?”
“Do you intend to mock me, or have you been deaf this entire time?!” the Marquis said. “With every bit of my being, I do!”
“Do you want to hold her again, lay your head on her bosom, and embrace her with the fiery passions that intoxicated you when you first fell in love? Are you willing to defy God and his arbiters of destiny? Does your desire boil in your blood?”
“Yes, yes, a million times yes!” The Marquis’s face, once gaunt and lifeless, was now livid and slick with warm tears and tensed sinew. “I am not afraid, sorceress! If I am to be condemned for my love, then so be it! I’m already in Hell! I have nothing more to lose!”
“There is always more to lose, but very well.” The sorceress pulled a dagger out from her satchel and unsheathed it to reveal an ivory blade etched with alien markings like those on the blood circle. With a wave of her finger Nekayah beckoned the Marquis to come close. The young nobleman was hesitant, but was reassured by the Abyssinian’s gentle nod. When he came, Nekayah snatched his hand and slid the blade over his palm. Vega yelped and looked away. Nekayah then held the Marquis’s hand over the circle, letting droplets of blood rain upon his beloved’s rotting face. “That was the final ingredient.”
“Good,” the Marquis said. “Now, call upon your devils and bring my wife back!”
Nekayah grinned. “Devils and demons are, how do you say, fairytales spawned from the imagination, meant only to frighten the ignorant, Your Grace. The powers I draw upon are far more real, far more potent, far more frightening. Now, I urge you to stand back.”
The Marquis, once again, did as he was told, giving Nekayah a wide breadth. The sorceress knelt down before the circle and the corpse within, and began to chant a long string of words that neither of the two men could decipher. Vega could feel the crypt start to shake. The very ground was beginning to tremble in unison with the young servants shuddering heart. Nekayah’s body was suddenly seized by rapid convulsions, and her arms flapped all around while her head whipped back and forth.
“Our Father who art in Heaven…” Vega whispered to himself. He sat in the corner of the chamber, arms wrapped around his legs, tears overflowing from his eyes. “Hallowed be thy name…”
Thunder clapped from within the depths of the earth. Vega caught sight of something on the ground and shrieked. Nekayah’s shadow, which was once a perfect silhouette of her own body, now formed a mass of inky black tentacles, writhing independently of Nekayah’s movements. “By kingdom come, thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven!” Vega’s words quivered as did his blood, iced with incomprehensible terror.
The voice that came out of the Abyssinian’s mouth was not her own. It sounded guttural and deep with resonance of several voices speaking as one. Then suddenly, reaching the climax of her chant, Nekayah fell forward onto the ground. Her shadow once again reflected the contour of her own body, and a heavy stillness had returned to the world.
“You have failed me,” the Marquis said, stepping closer to examine the corpse.
“I can only wish that was the case,” Nekayah said with her original voice. She picked herself up off the floor and glared at the Marquis. “Take a closer look and see what have forced me to bring into this world!”
Antonia’s corpse twitched like an unholy marionette, each limb moving out of sync with the others. Her rotted, hollow eye-sockets glowed with pinpricks of the light of consciousness that was recalled into the dead vessel. Antonia sat up, making skin and tendons locked in rigor mortis stretch and tear loudly. Vega swooned. The Marquis reached out a hand to stroke his beloved’s hair, which death had turned from glossy locks of gold into frayed shafts of brittle yellow weeds.
“What have you done…?” The Marquis said, shooting a grimace back at Nekayah. “She’s hideous!”
“I only did what Your Grace demanded of me,” Nekayah said. She refused to look at the animated corpse or the Marquis, and was instead staring down at the pitiful servant boy sobbing quietly against the wall in a puddle of his own waste.
“But she is--!”
“A corpse? Well of course, it is! What fantasies did you have stored in your little head about the outcome of this? I brought her soul back into this world as you asked! Only God knows the formula to make the union of spirit and body truly complete!” Still without looking at the Marquis, she pointed to the corpse. “This is the best I can do with the body you provided me!”
“Is that you, Raymond?” Antonia said. Her decayed vocal cords were only capable of creating the hoarsest of tones. Antonia’s hand clutched onto the Marquis’s wrist. Her diamond ring sparkled on her blue, bony finger. The Marquis recoiled, pulling his arm away and quickly stepping back from the creature. “Help me! I feel strange!” The monster wailed like an infant calling for its mother, and with difficulty, Antonia lifted herself onto stiffened legs. She teetered about unsettlingly, jerking with awkward movements. “What is wrong? I can’t feel my body! Oh God, help me! Raymond, help me!”
“Undo your magic, sorceress,” the Marquis demanded. Eyes wide with fear and swollen with tears, the young man turned away from his wife, pulling on his own hair. “I have seen enough!”
As the Marquis spoke, Nekayah was already moving towards Antonia with her ivory dagger drawn. With a swift stab to the chest, the ghoul shrieked and fell limp. The moments that followed were dominated by more thick, unyielding silence. It was as if the universe herself had to pause and recollect her thoughts after witnessing what had just unfolded in her presence. The three still-living humans looked at the corpse and then looked at one another.
“Is it safe to say, Your Grace, that our business is quite done here?” Nekayah asked, sheathing her ivory dagger.
“Please, let us be done,” Vega echoed.
“What if we get a fresher body?” the Marquis asked, tapping a finger on his chin. “Something that isn’t so rotted? Will your spell work better in that case—?” Nekayah’s hand struck across the Marquis’s face so hard and fast that the man’s entire torso tilted to one side, nearly losing balance. The Marquis held his throbbing cheek and with glazed eyes stared at the woman who struck him.
“Fool!” Nekayah shouted. “I have lost patience with you and your madness!”
With a swift slap of his own, the Marquis sent Nekayah slamming into the floor. Her many beads clattered against the hard, slimy stones. The nobleman then pressed his boot over the woman’s neck. He revealed a dagger of his own from under the folds of his coat, pointing its steel blade down at the sorceress. “You did not answer my question, witch. Will a fresher body do?”
Only muffled chokes came from the sorceress as she violently tugged on the man’s boot.
“I must side with the woman on this, Your Grace!” Vega said, getting to his feet. “We tried and we failed! No more of this, I beg you!”
The Marquis laughed. “Since when did the opinion of sniveling boy weigh on the mind of a Marquis? Hmm?” He bent down, putting more pressure on Nekayah’s neck. Tears were rolling down across her face now. “Maybe your body would do? You are, in a way, rather attractive. With your body and Antonia’s personality, I believe I would be happy enough.”
“But, Your Grace,” Nekayah coughed, “think clearly! Who would perform the spell?”
The Marquis smiled. “I could still kill you, regardless. A useless witch is as good as a dead one. So for a second and final time I ask this: will a fresher body do?”
“Yes! But who are you going to kill, honestly?”
The Marquis’s eyes turned to Vega.
Vega flinched and bowed to avoid eye-contact. “I’ll fetch another woman for you immediately, your grace.”
While the servant’s eyes were lowered, the Marquis raised his dagger. “I do not see it necessary to bring others into this affair. Sneaking kidnapped women into my home would not be healthy for my reputation. Let us just keep all of this between ourselves. And besides, you have such a fair appearance…” The Marquis stepped towards Vega, taking his foot off of Nekayah’s neck.
The Abyssinian only had a mere second to warn the poor boy of the dagger overhead. Vega, who had already begun to realize the Marquis’s intentions, had looked up, but had no time to avoid the cold steel blade enter the side of his neck. He grasped at the spurting wound as if he could put the blood back in. The sharp pain was quickly numbed, his hands fumbled as his body lost all feeling, then he collapsed to the floor.
Nekayah snarled. “I have seen many monsters in my day, but you…”
“But nothing, you black whore!” The Marquis waved his still-dripping dagger at the woman’s face. Droplets of blood splattered on her cheeks. “You will see this through to the end. Now, with this fresh body, bring my wife back, or so help me, Lord, I will not let you see the sunlight again!”
Nekayah heaved her shoulders in a heavy sigh, running her fingers through her jingling braids. The Marquis’s breathing was hard and fast, excited from taking the life of his closest servant. Seeing no choice, she repainted the circle with a fresh coat of blood, placed Vega’s body in the middle, and asked for the Marquis’s palm. This time, however, the Marquis held his dagger to the sorcerer’s neck, making sure Nekayah only drew enough blood necessary to complete the spell. Once again the walls of the catacombs shook and mystic’s shadow took on a shapeless form of wriggling tentacles. After a few moments, the walls ceased to shake and sanity was restored the world around them.
Vega’s corpse kicked its limbs out straight and quickly sat upright. Nekayah stood up and stepped back from animated body, letting the Marquis observe her work. The Marquis approached assuredly, seeing Vega’s body move with more grace and coordination than Antonia’s foul cadaver. This body was indeed a much more suitable vessel for his wife’s spirit, the Marquis thought.
“Antonia?” The Marquis asked. “Can you hear me?”
Vega’s head nodded with subtlety that mimicked any living individual well enough. “Yes, my dear Raymond, I have missed you.”
The dagger fell from the Marquis’s slackened hand and the young man fell to his knees, tightly embracing Vega’s possessed body. The nobleman’s warm tears drenched the shoulder of Vega’s tunic. The grown man wept with sobs so visceral that they made his whole body shudder. “Thank you, sorceress! Thank you--” Vega’s hands grabbed hold of the Marquis’s neck and began constricting like a vice. The Marquis coughed, trying to pull the animated corpse off of him as the pricking sensation of fingernails digging into neck deepened, drawing blood. His voice was squeezed down to a shrieking whisper. “Antonia!”
One of his hands found the dagger he had dropped on the floor and he desperately started jabbing it into Vega’s flank, only to prove how futile his efforts were. The Marquis rolled his eyes to see Nekayah standing, watching the murder with a distant, cold stare. Staring back into Vega’s eyes, he saw only rage. It was not Antonia’s spirit that possessed this vessel. He then realized, all too late, what the witch had done.
Nekayah noticed the glint in the dying man’s eye and finally spoke. “I think you understand. May this be retribution of a sort for all three of us.” She said nothing else, and waited patiently for the Marquis’s eyes to roll into the back of his skull. When the nobleman ceased to struggle, Vega let go and turned to face Nekayah.
“Do you wish to return to death, or stay with me?” Nekayah asked, ivory dagger in hand. “I did not wish for you to bear the price of your master’s sin. That is the only reason why I offer you this choice.”
Vega said nothing, but Nekayah could see the burning rage behind those dead blue eyes. In a flash, the cadaver lunged at the Abyssinian, but ran straight into Nekayah’s outstretched blade. The body, now once again devoid of life, fell to the floor. The sorceress was left alone to stare at the three corpses sprawled out before her in the dancing firelight. She shook her head, knelt down by Antonia and slipped the diamond ring off her lifeless finger and held it up closer to the torch; examining its countless glimmering facets. “Well, I didn’t get the silver I was promised so I guess I’ll consider this due payment for my trouble.”