Chapter 17: El Valle de Muerte
A bandit sentry, cold and drowsy, stood atop the rampart of the alcazar, watching the sun rise over the green-gray sea of treetops. His stomach growled, making his belly quiver. He reached into his trouser pocket and pulled out his last strip of jerky and started gnawing on it, hoping it would quell his hunger for a few more hours. Could have been worse, though, he figured. Night watches were terrible, but at least he wasn’t digging latrine pits.
Suddenly, a flock of vultures took flight off in the distance, squawking awfully. The sentry rubbed the grogginess from his eyes and looked and listened. The faint march of footsteps, the rattling of armor...was it finally happening?
He grabbed his bullhorn, breathed deep, brought it to his lips, took a deep breath and blew. He blew that horn as though it were his single purpose in life, giving it all the energy his lungs could muster. The horn’s cry signaled to all the other guards on the walls to take action. They each took out their horns and joined in the shout. All their horns blew in unison. A harmonizing roar meaning one thing. The Queen’s army had come.
“So they’ve finally decided to show themselves,” the Bull King said, climbing up to the ramparts. He nodded to his sentinel for good work. The bandit quickly nodded back and pointed in the direction where the trees were rustling.
“My King,” he said, “see for yourself.”
The giant took out a spyglass and extended it to examine what approached in the distance. “Well boys, it looks like it’s time.” He lowered his spyglass. “The Queen has sent us company!”
Nekayah, hands still bound, trudged at sword point down into the winding bowels of the earth. Her wrists burned from struggling against the rough rope. The knot was tied very well. She asked questions, but no one gave her answers. She would fall and feign helplessness, but they’d kick her until she got back on her feet. Being a prisoner did not suit her.
Then she sensed something. They had left the world above, entering into a place much older and fouler. Nekayah could feel it in the air—an unusual chill, a deathly chill. Here, she could tell, the barriers of reality wore thin. This was a very special and terrible place.
The Abyssinian was flanked by Luciana and the Bull King, who had to duck his head more often than not to fit through the winding passages. A few of their most trusted lackeys followed behind them while up above, the remainder of his army manned the walls and prepared for battle with Her Majesty’s battalion.
Diego marched with her as well, and just like her, his hands were bound, but besides that, he had not been stripped of his possessions. Nekayah felt sorry for the boy. His time in bondage had left him bruised and scuffed. This was no place for him. If only he had listened, Nekayah thought, he’d still be safe in Toledo.
No one needed to announce when they had finally arrived at the unholy sanctum of Jarangosa. With its impossibly high rotunda and glossy, almost slimy black walls carved with foreign sigils, the chamber radiated with an aura of unsettling strangeness. In a place such as this, reality held its breath.
Nekayah looked on the ground, analyzing the black stone. It’s surface was so glassy she could see her reflection. It reminded her of the lake under Ras Dashen. On one wall she saw there was carved a familiar image. An unruly, shapeless mass of writhing serpentine arms, mingled with fanged mouths, that seemed to move on the stone.
“Here,” Luciana said, “is where our destiny comes to fruition.”
“I don’t know what you hope I can do,” Nekayah said, staring at the floor. “This is beyond me.”
Luciana wagged her finger. “Don’t be so modest, sister. This whole room is one big conduit, one big doorway to the world beyond—her world. To open the door we just need two things; blood and the right magical stimulus.”
“What do you mean?”
“A certain spell. A powerful one.” She ran a finger along the smooth, black stone wall. “To bring forth our dark mother, we must open the path. We must violate that sacred barrier, that veil that keeps life and death separate. Here, in this place, it’ll be like shattering a window.
Nekayah shook her head. “No!”
“No. I will not do this, and you cannot make me.”
The blonde witch shrugged and nodded. “True, but we can surely coerce you.” Luciana kicked Diego in the back of the knees, making him fall to the ground. She grabbed the boy by his hair, pulling his head back, exposing his tawny neck. The boy cursed, and struggled, but two bandits came to keep him pinned.
“Let go!” he cried.
“Don’t touch him!” Nekayah said.
Luciana drew the masterwork sword from Diego’s sheath and whispered into the young man’s ear. “We’re all born to die, sweet child. Be grateful your death will have such a divine purpose.” She kissed the boy on the cheek and patted his forehead. “Be still, my little lamb.”
“You one-eyed bitch!” Diego barked. “Let go of me!”
“I’ll kill you! I swear, I’ll kill you!” Nekayah came at them, but one of the guards intercepted her and held her back. She thrashed and flailed, trying to shake the brute off her, but she could not break free. “Let me go!”
“Show me your power, witch!” With that, Luciana slid the blade over Diego’s throat. Blood poured out like a crimson waterfall as it cut across his neck, and the boy collapsed to the floor, choking, gurgling, tears dripping from his fading eyes.
“No!” Nekayah roared, crumpling to the ground, sobbing. Her despair echoed up the walls of the chamber, through this world and into the abyss.
Luciana stepped over Diego’s corpse and walked to Nekayah. She stared at the Abyssinian for a brief moment, shaking her head in pity. “This does not need to be the end of him. You know that.”
Nekayah shot her an icy glare. “That spell is wrong!”
“It is godliness!” Luciana corrected. “The only thing wrong is you fearing that power! If I could, I would do it, but I need you, sister. She gave her deepest blessing to you! She chose you!”
“I…I won’t do it! I can’t!”
“You can, and you will!” The one-eyed witched stepped back over to Diego and nudged the dead boy with the toe of her shoe. “He’s still fresh. It’ll be like nothing ever happened, if you hurry. The longer we wait…well, we both know that makes it more messy.”
Nekayah shook her head, rattling her beads. “Whether it’s ten seconds or ten years, the dead should not return to the living!”
“So you’ll bear the life of this innocent young man, the man you loved, for the rest of your days?” She paused, staring at Nekayah. The witch trembled with anger.
The Abyssinian slammed her fists into the ground and screamed until she felt her throat tighten up, straining from the force of her rage. Where once the air had been still, a slight breeze started to swirl in the room. A new presence had arrived.
Nekayah stood, drawing her dagger from her sheath, spun around, and cut the throat of the guard behind her. It all happened so fast that even Luciana stepped back in surprise.
The Abyssinian took the blood from her victim and scrawled up and down her arm. Then with the utterance of an incomprehensible word, her forearm exploded in a blossom of slashing tentacles, each cutting its way through the air towards Luciana, the Bull King and their remaining guards.
Luciana retrieved a familiar skull from her robes, holding it before her, and as the danger raced towards her, the spectral blue light of her cursed father’s spirit spread over them like a shield. The tentacles ricocheted off the astral barrier, veering in random directions, piercing into the walls, and a few unlucky guards.
“You can play these games, Nekayah,” Luciana said from behind her ghostly shield, “or you can save your mongrel. It’s up to you.”
Nekayah seethed, her body heaving with every breath. She looked at Diego, still on the floor, lifeless as a clay doll. He died because of her, and he’d stay dead if she didn’t do anything. There was no way out. Somewhere in Hell that damned marquis must have been laughing at her now.
Nekayah retracted her tentacles, absorbing the inexplicable mass of corded tendrils up into her arm. Took a deep breath, spiting that subtle grin on Luciana’s face. She looked at Diego one more time. Was this all she was? Death? Pain? Jarangosa was supposed to be her salvation, but now she realized it was just a mirror, a cruel smack in the face, reminding her of what she already knew all too well.
Nekayah shrugged. There was no way out. No way to escape what she was. If death was to be her domain, then it was time to accept it…and control it.
Nekayah knelt down and stuck her hands deep into the gash in the dead guard’s throat, pulling out globs of fresh blood. She slathered the floor in that blood, creating a wide circle, scribbling archaic runes along its perimeter.
When she finished, she stood up and pointed at that vile witch and her brutish lord. “Bring me his body.”
The Bull King gestured the two remaining guards, splattered with the blood of their mutilated comrades. They looked at each other, hesitant, then went to retrieve the corpse of the swordsmith. They brought it to the center of the circle, laying it down gently, then quickly backed away.
“Diego,” Nekayah whispered, kneeling beside him, running her fingers over his forehead. “I will save you. I’ll make things right.”
She bowed her head and started to whisper, mumbling her ancient spell. As her chanting went on, it grew louder, and as it grew louder, the walls began to moan. The boundary between the world of the living and world beyond began to thin. The blood sigils started to glow, faintly at first, with a purplish red light, then grew brighter and brighter. Finally, Nekayah’s chant reached a screaming crescendo as she threw her head back. Voices beyond the veil of reality screamed in unison, tearing at the sanity of those who listened. The Bull King and his men covered their ears, yelling at the pain to stop. It was too much.
Then silence. The magical light faded from the blood on the floor, and all returned to normal.
“Well,” the Bull King grumbled. “did it work?”
“Hush!” Luciana said. She was transfixed on the black witch. Something had changed.
Nekayah looked at Diego. Nothing had changed. The gash on his neck still oozed, and he remained very much dead.
“What…?” Nekayah said. Her voice was a frightened whisper, shaking with confusion. He was still dead. Her magic had failed her. How?
Suddenly, the walls of the chamber started shuddering and cracking. The jagged fractures ran across its surface, revealing the same kaleidoscopic cascade of purplish red light that came from the spell. The light poured into Nekayah. It hurt more than anything she’d ever felt before.
“Aaaaaaaggghhh!” she screamed, rolling on the ground. The glowing light changed in hue from, turning whiter as it intensified, melting Nekayah’s insides into glass.
“She’s coming,” Luciana said. She breathed deep. “Ia! Ia!”
“Should we stand so close?” one of the guards asked.
“Flee if you will, coward,” the Bull King said. “but I will stay and witness this, the birth of my new world!”
“Our new world,” Luciana corrected. Just as she spoke, a horde tentacles exploded out of Nekayah’s back like the wings of a profane angel, shooting into the sides of the chamber walls, shattering the stone, sending chunks of ebony stone showering hard over their heads. Luciana flinched. “On second thought, my love, maybe we should retreat to a safe distance.”
The Bull King nodded. “My men will be needing me on the battlefield. You watch over this. I’ll be on the ramparts.” The bandit lord turned and left, taking his men with him.
Luciana stood, watching the Abyssinian writhe in agony. Arcs of arcane energy lashed out like bolts of the lightning, and her back tendrils flailed in obscene undulations. Debris rained like black hail all around them.
Finally, the calamity ceased. The walls, splintered and ruined as they were, returned to their inactive state of sheer black stillness, and Nekayah, or what remained of her, stood tall. Her eyes, though, did not hold that familiar gray hue Luciana had come to recognize, but rather, a harsh white glow.
“Mother!” Luciana said, cautiously approaching the being that now took Nekayah’s form. All around her orbs of light started to manifest, phasing into existence like giant orange eyeballs suspended in midair. Nekayah’s fingers twitched uneasily, as though some remnant of her original self still fought for control.
“Luciana,” Nekayah spoke, but it was not her voice. This new voice boomed from that tiny mouth it now inhabited, low and resonating with harmony of a dozen voices speaking as one.
“Yes, Mother. It is I who made this so. I have given you means by witch to exist in our world.”
The entity looked at her vessel, raising the ebony limbs in front of her face. “She was my greatest servant…”
“Yes, well,” Luciana began, her voice twinged with dejection, “her ultimate purpose has been fulfilled, she has become your container, by my genius.”
Nekayah’s lips curled into a smirk. “Your genius…”
Luciana fell silent, and her face which a moment before was beaming with hubris, was now fully sullen. “My arrogance was unwarranted. My apologies.” She gestured to the tunnel. “Now if we may, we have arranged a fitting gift for you.”
Nekayah glanced at the tunnel entrance, then snapped her fingers. Immediately, the two of them were transported from the dark chamber and into the burning sky above the fortress.
Black smoke choked the air and blocked out the sun, while embers floated through the sky like hellish fireflies rising from the Devil’s inferno. Battle cries and clanging metal erupted from below, where the bodies of men churned like meat in an organ grinder. The siege was well underway. On the rampart above the gate, they could see the Bull King shouting commands at his men. Archers flanked him on either side, pelting the poor souls bellow with iron bolts. Mighty catapults were being pulled into view, emerging from the forest, primed to bombard the walls into rubble.
“We brought these men here for you to feast upon, Mother,” Luciana said. “These mortals have worshiped false gods for too long. Show them what true divinity is.”
“Is that a command?” it asked.
“No, Your Grace! Merely a suggestion!”
The arcane being smirked and with a wave of Nekayah’s hand, Luciana disappeared, and reappeared below on the ramparts.
The being raised her hands over her head and the ground beneath her began to rumble. The sky, already dark with the smokey debris of war, turned a shade of rancid bile and a scratching, rasping hiss echoed on a gust of wind that swept across the forest. Now, the men below started to notice something was amiss.
Like the arms of subterranean kraken, colossal, leathery tentacles started to burst from the ground, sundering as though it was nothing more than a pie’s crust. Men, horses, and catapults went flying through the air, tossed like pebbles. Scores of men were crushed each time a massive arm slammed against the ground, sending shock waves that leveled scores more.
The shouts of battle quickly turned into shouts of terror as grown men fled in every direction, crying to the Lord to save them.
From the ramparts, Luciana and her master watched this awful majesty play out. The Bull King turned to his lover and smiled. “Today, we change everything!”