The dimly-lighted dungeon is damp and cold, but my job is almost done. The flickering torchlight creates a wavering, surreal shadow on the stone wall behind the beautiful, voluptuous woman. Her shadow is misshapen and ghastly, revealing what her outer beauty conceals. She has been condemned for witchcraft and must be sentenced. As the Grand Inquisitor, it is my responsibility to pass judgment.
I have already decided; she will be burned at the stake. I haven’t announced my decision yet, so she continues to plead for mercy – unaware of her imminent fate. Her pleading is wasted breath. As always, I am resolute in my holy duty. The Holy Bible is very clear: thou shall not suffer a witch to live. This particular young woman claimed that she only used medicinal herbs to cure the sick, but this was a lie. After less than an hour on the rack, she confessed to casting spells and summoning demons.
It is a shame because she is very beautiful. She is dark-haired and slender; her sun-bronzed skin is as smooth as soft velvet. It is hard to believe that Satan would use such a pristine vessel to do his unholy work. But that is the nature of the world. My responsibility weighs heavily on me, but I must not delay further.
“It is the judgment of this court that the accused be burned at the stake for witchcraft,” I inform my audience in a deep, solemn voice.
The tribunal of priests to my right nods their heads in agreement.
The young woman screams shrilly, which causes a chill to form in my lower back. Why must she make it so difficult? I am doing this for her own good: to save her soul.
Her firm bosom quivers as she trembles with fear and I avert my eyes. She is only wearing tattered rags, so much of her hourglass-shaped body is revealed, but I am a man of God, so I look away. My eyes return to her briefly as she is led away by the jail-keeper. She is fair and dark-haired with the smoothest skin I have ever laid eyes on. It is truly a shame that she turned toward the evil path.
I shake my head sorrowfully as I rise from the judge’s bench. Turning right, I nod at the Priests as they rise from their chairs. I feel tired from the ordeal and I try to imagine that I am relaxing at my comfortable manor home in the country. Hopefully, I will be there soon. After tomorrow’s Auto Da Fe, or Act of Faith, I plan to visit my country estate to take my rest.
The next day, there is an impressive turnout for the Auto Da Fe; all the townspeople appear to be in attendance. Numerous overlapping voices create a raucous noise that reminds me of the roar of a great beast.
I sit on my golden chair alongside the other priests on a high podium overlooking the wide courtyard. At the center of the courtyard is a wooden post surrounded by a large pile of logs and kindling.
Armored knights with pikes push back the crowd of onlookers as they try to get closer to the stake for a better view. A pattern is created where the ring of spectators converges towards the stake like an incoming tide, but the guards push them back as if the tide is receding toward the ocean. The townspeople are clearly anxious to see justice done.
On the far side of the courtyard, I watch the crowd part like the Red Sea did for the Israelites in order to make way for a procession of knights escorting a lone woman, whose hands are tied behind her back. They make room for the doomed soul as she is escorted across the crowded courtyard toward the stake. I hold my breath as they seem to take forever to reach the center of the circle, and then release my breath as they finally arrive at the pile of logs and kindling.
One of the guards unties the woman’s hands and assists her – too gently it seems considering her crime – with stepping gingerly across the uneven wood pile until she reaches the top. The woman raises her head defiantly as she places her spine against the wooden post and the guard re-secures her hands behind her back. The guard, who tied her hands, stumbles awkwardly as he climbs off the wood pile. Joining the other guards, he makes his way toward the section of the mob, which they originally ploughed through. Again, the crowd parts to let them pass.
I stand up and open my Holy Bible to Exodus 22:18. This is the signal. The crowd becomes silent. Taking a deep breath, I gather my strength and shout in a commanding voice, “Our Holy Book gives us this command: thou shalt not suffer a witch to live!” After a dramatic pause, I continue, “Our Holy Book also commands us that whosoever lieth with a beast shall surely be put to death. He that sacrificeth unto any god, save the LORD only, he shall be UTTERLY DESTROYED.” I emphasize the last two words as I gaze out across my rapt audience. “Thou shalt neither vex a stranger, nor oppress him: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt. Ye shall not afflict any widow, or fatherless child. If thou afflict them in any wise, and they cry unto me, I will surely hear their cry; And my wrath shall wax hot, and I will KILL you with the sword; and your wives shall be widows, and your children fatherless. Our Lord is a vengeful God and He will bring down his fury on any who dare disobey these commandments. The penalty for witchcraft is purification by fire.” I pause as I gaze down at the beautiful, but sinful woman tied to the stake. “Does the accused wish to confess again before she is purified by fire?”
The crowd maintains its reverent silence as the witch’s bright green eyes lock with mine. I wait for her to speak, but she remains silent. Then, I watch, incredulously, as a smile curves upward on her full lips. The witch is smiling at me? She truly must serve the Devil if she is not even showing the slightest contrition in response to her grievous sins!
A righteous rage takes hold of me as I give the hand signal for a knight to light the pyre. The guard touches his torch to the log pile at the edge of the pyre and then moves in a circle until he has lit the entire perimeter. I smile with satisfaction as the flames consume the pyre’s edge and begin flickering their way toward the evil Satanic witch. My heart hammers in my chest as beads of sweat form on my forehead. Amazed, I realize the witch is still smiling as she keeps her eyes locked with mine.
We’ll see if she is still smiling when the flames reach her.
I lean forward with anticipation as the flames move maddeningly slowly up the pyre toward the witch. As the flames reach her feet, I am sure her smile will fade into an abject expression of pure anguish. But it is not to be. As the flames ignite the logs at her feet, she continues to smile at me. Truly, she is Satan’s harlot! I become dizzy with rage as I watch the sinister smile curled on the witch’s beautiful, but evil face.
Even as the flames consume her body and begin to travel upward on the wooden post, I could swear her malevolent, mocking smile remains in place. The hideous smile continues as the fire envelops her until the furious conflagration disintegrates her once beautiful face into black ash.
It is done, but I feel unsettled by the witch’s lack of contrition. After years of presiding over these Holy ceremonies, I have never seen anything like the sardonic smile on the face of the raven-haired witch. For the first time during an Auto Da Fe, I feel exhausted and I long to return to my country estate to recover from this ordeal.
I realize I have been holding my breath as I finally let my breath out in a rush. The priest seated on my right is staring at me, strangely, but I ignore him. I stand, walk across the podium, and descend the steps where an armored knight meets me to escort me to the carriage. My departure from the podium is the signal for the other priests on the panel to stand up and leave, but I don’t turn my head to watch them do it.
I continue following the guard away from the crowd toward my opulent carriage parked on a convenient side street. The guard helps me into the rear compartment and I make myself comfortable on the plush red velvet seat. I hear a clanking sound as the knight takes a seat in front next to the driver.
I bang on the wooden wall in front of me to signal the driver to commence. In seconds, I hear the hooves of the four chargers pounding against the cobblestone street as the carriage starts to move. The pounding soon transforms into a thundering as the magnificent beasts pick up speed.
Reaching up to feel my forehead, I realize sweat is dripping in rivulets. I wipe the sweat away before it can trickle into my eyes. Never have I been so anxious to leave this accursed city! I lean back, close my eyes, and try to relax as my coach makes its way toward the city gate.
I breathe a sigh of relief as my coach passes through the gate. Forests, fields, and occasional manor houses line the country road. I close my eyes and doze as I listen to the monotonous sound of the horses’ hooves striking the packed dirt. We pass through several small towns on our way. I lose track of time as I lean back in the comfortable seat in the interior of the carriage.
When I open my eyes again, I notice it is becoming dark outside; a somber gray twilight has set in.
Gazing out the window to my right, I recognize the familiar grazing meadow at the southern edge of my property. Gazing left, I spot the green fields and pastures that my peasants work for me. Finally, I feel the carriage slow down, so I assume we are approaching the gate in the wooden palisade that surrounds the manor and its main buildings.
I hear the knight in front converse, briefly, with the knights guarding the gate and then we are on our way again. We pass a barn and several serfs’ houses on our way to the wooden bridge, which spans the wide, rushing stream dividing the property. The sound of the horse’s hooves changes to a hollow thud as we cross the wooden bridge. Glancing out the window, I catch a glimpse of the water mill harnessing the energy of the stream.
I feel us slow down as we follow the winding path that travels uphill towards the manor house. We pass another grazing pasture interspersed with puffy white sheep and then traverse a short stretch of forest until the walls of the manor house loom ahead. The knights at the gate lower the drawbridge as we approach. We thunder across it and enter the wide courtyard. We pass the stable and blacksmith’s shop as the coach brings me to the front doors of the house.
The impressive, two-story stone house looms above us like a silent sentinel. I wait for the knight in front to climb down from his perch so he can open my door for me before I disembark. The guard accompanies me to the thick, wooden double-doors and pounds on one with a mailed fist. In seconds, I see the familiar lined face of my elderly chamberlain, Jacob, appear in the crack between the opened doors.
“Good afternoon, master. Welcome home,” Jacob speaks, reverently, as he pushes one of the great doors open and bows at the waist before me.
I stride into the Great Hall like a victorious conqueror. After all, I have conquered grievous sin today at the Auto Da Fe in my exalted position of Grand Inquisitor.
The hall is lit by the great stone fireplace at the far end. I follow my aged, stooped chamberlain through the hall into a stone passage lit by flickering torchlight. At the end of the hallway, we reach a dark, winding stone staircase, which is lit by only a single flickering candle about halfway up.
I follow Jacob up the stairwell until we reach the short stone corridor leading to my private chamber, the Solar. Jacob leads me through the arched opening into my spacious room, which is lit dimly by the twilight beyond the row of five tall, rectangular windows carved into the exterior wall. Outside, the twilight is darkening into true night, but the brightness of the moon and stars lets enough light into my Solar so I can see where I’m going.
“Will you be needing anything else, master?” Jacob asks.
“Have the cook prepare a light meal of roast mutton for me,” I instruct Jacob. “Tell him to have it ready for me in an hour. Until then, I must have my rest.”
Jacob pulls the thick wooden door shut as he leaves.
Walking past the massive four-poster bed placed at the center of the chamber, I head over to the tall windows that look out on the courtyard. Dropping down into my comfortable reading chair, I sigh deeply. Doing the Holy Work of the Church can be draining.
The gold cross hanging from its gold chain feels heavy on my neck, so I take it off and place it on top of my copy of the Holy Bible, which rests on the small table next to the closest window. Above me, a thick piece of wood is set into a torch-holder affixed to the stone wall. I could light it if I wanted to read by its flickering orange light, but I feel too tired to open a book.
Leaning back in the chair, I begin to peel off the voluminous black robes of my Holy Office. Reluctantly, I abandon my comfortable leaning position in the chair to stand and shrug off the thick robe. Sitting back down, I fold it and place it on the floor next to my chair. I feel more comfortable now that I am only wearing my rich velvet shirt and pants. The robe felt heavier than usual on my back today.
As I lean back in my plush reading chair, I begin to doze off. The expensive red tapestry on the far wall, which is decorated with bloody scenes of battling knights, begins to fade to black as I drift into slumber.
I awake with a start as I feel a hand shaking my shoulder. My eyes fly open to regard the wrinkled face of my old chamberlain, Jacob.
“I’m sorry to startle you, Master, but your dinner is ready in the Hall.”
Reaching up to my forehead, I feel sweat beading on it. I had a nightmare about the vile witch I put to death today. In it, she had entered my room, naked, and approached me in my chair. She must have cast a spell on me because I became sexually aroused. Only a spell could cause such a reaction because I am a man of the cloth who has taken Holy Vows. In the nightmare, I stood, embraced the wicked woman, and met her lips in an obscene kiss. I woke as soon as she began to peel off my clothes.
To my extreme embarrassment, I realize that I am still aroused. It makes me angry.
“Jacob, I will meet you in the Hall presently,” I say.
“Yes, master,” Jacob replies as he bows to me before turning and leaving the room.
I have to get a hold of myself. Is it possible that the beautiful, but wicked creature that I put to death today has placed a spell on me before she was incinerated by the purifying flames? I may need an exorcism to cleanse me of her foul, unnatural influence.
Standing, I smooth down my wrinkled garments as I try to clear my mind of the horrid dream. The image of the voluptuous, ivory-skinned, black-haired witch finally begins to fade from my mind like an insubstantial phantom. Steeling myself, I head out to the great Hall to eat a well-deserved meal.
After eating, I return to my Solar, strip off my remaining clothing, and climb under the soft covers of my bed. Leaning back on my satin pillow, I stare up at the dark stone ceiling. I observe the complex patterns formed by the cracks joining the stones together with the aid of the dim moonlight and starlight shining in from the tall windows.
Closing my eyes, I hope to drift into a soothing, dreamless slumber.
After tossing and turning restlessly for an indeterminate amount of time, I finally slip into a fitful sleep.
I awake suddenly in the middle of the night drenched in sweat. Even my sheets and pillow are saturated. I feel as if I just had a horrible nightmare, but I can’t remember the details. Was the dream so horrible that I blocked it out of my mind?
Then, I hear a soft hissing sound emanate from the darkness. Clouds must have covered the moon and stars outside because the darkness within my Solar is almost absolute. Holding my hand in front of my face, I can barely make out its black outline. The tall windows glow a dark blue, but provide little illumination.
The hissing sound repeats from within the darkness. I feel a chill creep up my spine like icy fingers crawling on my skin as another noise follows. It sounds like feet scraping against the smooth, interconnected stones on the floor.
“Who’s there?” I ask, straining my eyes to see into the darkness.
“It’s me,” a female voice whispers from the dark.
Throwing the wet covers off, I slide off the bed and stand upright facing the darkness.
“Who’s there? Identify yourself!” I command.
“It’s me,” the female voice repeats, closer this time.
It sounds like she is standing almost within touching distance.
“Who’s there? I did not give you permission to enter my chamber!” I declare as I feel goose-bumps pop out on my exposed arms and legs.
I am only wearing my bedclothes, which consist of a sleeveless tunic and a short pair of breeches. Although early summer, it is a cool night, so my body shivers as if it is winter. For some inexplicable reason, the room suddenly feels unnaturally cold.
Suddenly, a flickering orange light flares up in the darkness ahead. The figure standing before me freezes the blood in my veins; impossibly, a woman resembling the deceased witch stands, naked, on the stone floor in front of me – holding a candle in her pale right hand.
“Don’t you recognize me?” she whispers as a familiar mocking smile curls her full red lips.
“How can it be you? I saw you burned,” I stammer as I take an involuntary step backwards. “Are you her sister?”
“No, I am she who you saw burned alive at the stake earlier today,” the unnatural woman tells me, somberly. “I have used my arcane powers to travel across dimensions to return to you. Unlike other victims of your sadistic inquisition, I really was a witch. Although I was harmless in life, I am harmless no longer….”
“But it can’t be! God wouldn’t allow it!” I exclaim as I take another step away from the naked apparition.
“You would be surprised what God allows,” the woman whispers like a snake’s hiss.
I realize that I can’t retreat any farther as my back presses against the cool, smooth, stone wall. The feeling of coolness on my neck causes me to shiver again. The apparition doesn’t move, but remains standing several feet in front of me. It must be her twin sister! There is no other explanation.
“I am not the witch’s sister,” the phantom whispers, as if reading my mind. “I am the witch herself. I have returned from beyond the grave to seek reparations for the grievous wrong that I suffered today at your misguided hands.”
“But I was only following the law,” I say as I press my back against the wall as if I could push myself through it to escape. “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.”
The female apparition’s lascivious smile widens. To make matters worse, I feel myself becoming aroused as my eyes are riveted to the smooth, pale skin on her breasts, stomach, and hips.
“You must be the witch returned,” I tell her. “Because you have already cast a spell of lust upon me.”
“A spell of lust?” the phantom asks in a mocking tone as her green eyes gleam with fury. “It was your lust that compelled you to put me to death. It is unnatural for a man or woman to be celibate as you are. Your suppressed sexuality is the source of the frustration that caused you to put me to death.”
“I don’t understand,” I say. “You say you are a witch, so that means I put you to death justifiably. Why have you returned to torment me?”
“I told you why I have returned,” the pale apparition whispers as she glides closer.
I tremble as she places a soft white hand on my shoulder.
“If you are a ghost, then how can I feel you touching me?” I ask.
“I am a ghost made flesh,” she whispers, seductively, as she presses her lips against mine.
Against my will, I feel myself becoming fully aroused. Truly, this is the Devil’s work!
At first, the experience is pleasant, but soon her wet tongue begins to dry out as her smooth skin hardens and shrivels like the flesh on a burnt corpse. Opening my eyes, I watch the formerly soft white skin on her cheeks slowly blacken and crack – as if exposed to fire. The hideous shriveled hand on my shoulder clamps down like a claw, slicing through my tunic and drawing blood.
I try to scream, but her dry, withered tongue invades my mouth like a hideous burnt serpent and seals my throat shut. I struggle in her arms like a madman as I realize I can’t breathe with the heinous, shriveled tongue pressed against my throat. An overwhelming panic consumes me as I gasp, desperately, for breath.
Just as I am sure I am going to die, the blackened, desiccated apparition pulls away to stare at me with its gleaming red eyes. The phantom’s cracked, charred skin is stretched tightly over its protruding bones as if it belongs to an ancient, wizened crone rather than the young girl I put to death at the Auto Da Fe earlier today.
Gasping for breath, I scream at the top of my lungs at the sight of the hideous burnt thing standing before me. As my scream transforms into a high-pitched wail of terror, I desperately grasp onto the hope that the sound will bring help in the form of my household servants. Perhaps, my fellow creatures of flesh and blood will banish this demonic creature to whatever Hell it came from!
I cease screaming as I watch another incredible transformation occur. The creature’s shriveled, blackened skin begins to smooth and whiten before my eyes until the apparition resembles the beautiful woman she originally appeared to me as before. The Hellish red light fades from her eyes until they return to their natural green color.
“What do you want from me?” I shout at the changeling – hoping again to rouse someone from my household.
“It’s not what I want,” the beautiful woman tells me as the familiar mocking smile curls on her ruby lips. “It’s what WE want.”
My eyes widen and my mouth drops open as more figures emerge from the darkness behind the witch. The features of a teenage boy of about fifteen years of age and a gray-haired elderly woman become more prominent as they draw closer. Soon, they are standing on either side of the witch.
“Do you recognize them?” the witch asks.
I strain my eyes and mind in search of recognition, but I come up with nothing.
“Maybe you will recognize them now,” the witch growls as her green eyes glow red within her smooth, ivory face.
My heart hammers in my chest like a steel mallet pounding against a hot anvil as I watch the gray-haired woman’s arms and legs begin to stretch unnaturally until her limbs hang limply from her body like rotten fruit. Glancing at the teenage boy, I watch with rising horror as hideous bloody puncture wounds begin to form on his face and body.
I realize suddenly that it is the old woman I stretched out on the rack and the teenage boy I placed within the spiked iron maiden several months ago. The old woman confessed to witchcraft and the boy proclaimed his heretical beliefs after the tortures were applied, so they were able to avoid the stake, but they later died from the wounds inflicted by the dread apparatuses. Unfortunately, it is a risk we take in order to gain Holy confessions.
“You both confessed – you are guilty,” I stammer. “So the torture was just.”
“I only confessed because of the pain,” the old woman snarled as her unnaturally elongated arms reach out for me like swaying tree branches.
“No, please! I was only following procedure!” I shout as her rubbery, wrinkled hands slide down my cheeks. Her touch sends a cold shiver throughout my body.
“Do you think that matters to them now?” the witch asked, her red eyes gleaming with fury within her shapely, ivory face.
I feel like I am going to faint from fright and revulsion until the old woman finally peels her gnarled hands away from my face and steps aside to allow more figures to step forward out of the darkness. The boy steps aside as well as more silhouettes approach, but he continues to glare at me with wounded, outraged eyes. The puncture wounds on his face and body continue to drip hideous coagulate gore.
A middle aged man and attractive teenage girl now stand on either side of the voluptuous, pale-skinned witch.
“Do you recognize them?” the witch asks.
I rack my brain to try to remember, but I can’t recall.
“Perhaps, this will help,” the witch whispers, fiercely, as the bodies of the man and woman undergo a hideous transformation.
The man’s chest opens up into a huge gash that leaks blood, gore and internal organs, while the woman’s stomach explodes outward in a horrifying splash of blood and then disintegrates until I can see through the gaping hole to the darkness on the other side.
Then, I realize who they are. The man was subjected to the devastating swing of the razor-sharp pendulum as it progressed slowly downward until it eventually sliced into his body and stilled his heart. I also remember the woman. A rat in a cage was placed on the woman’s bare stomach and a torch was applied to the back of the cage, which compelled the rat to eat through her body.
“You both died because you did not confess to your horrific crimes!” I exclaimed as sweat drips down my face in streaming rivulets.
“We were innocent,” the twin apparitions spoke in unison like a congregation repeating the holy words of a priest.
“I’m sorry – I was only – I was only – ”
“Following procedure,” the witch snarls as her withered, charred tongue flicks in and out of her mouth like a tiny black snake.
The shriveled tongue contrasts hideously with her full red lips and flawless ivory skin.
“Yes! Yes!” I shout as my eyes dart around the chamber seeking an avenue of escape.
The man and woman step aside as more shadowy figures emerge from the darkness on either side of the witch.
My eyes dart, wildly, around the chamber. Then, I see it. An opening. If I dart quickly to my right, I can climb over my bed, scurry across it, and circle around the wall of the chamber until I reach the door.
I make a break for it and cross over the bed until I reach one of the tall windows. I turn toward the doorway, and I am about to sprint in that direction when I find my way blocked by a line of hideous apparitions. The same spirits of the tortured souls that had surrounded the witch before and numerous others emerge from the darkness. I would have to break through them to escape. They will never let me. They will lay their hideous, mutilated hands on me before I can make it through.
Instead, I climb onto the window sill and look down upon the growing horde of phantoms. The chamber has become crowded with hideously scarred and mutilated heretics, groaning in abject pain. I recognize the marks of various torture devices on the ravaged bodies and even identify some of the heretics and witches among them.
I spot a victim’s eyes dangling on stringy red tendons from a pair of bloody eye sockets – a victim of the skull-crusher. Others have hideously burned hands and feet – victims confined to the stocks, who had blazing braziers placed on their extremities. Others had horribly distended abdomens from being forced to consume large quantities of water, which eventually ruptured their stomachs. Others’ had the underside of their chins and the top of their chests bloodily punctured from “wearing” the “heretics’ fork.” Finally, many were covered from head-to-toe with swollen, purplish bruises from being beaten unrecognizable.
“Please, I was only doing my job!” I shout down at the growing mob of undead spirits.
The hideous phantoms at the vanguard of the mob reach gnarled, grasping hands toward me as I stand perched on the edge of the precipice. Nothing can be as bad as being torn apart by those unnatural apparitions, so I turn and fling myself over the edge. I feel a sensation of falling several stories and then an intense pain wracks my body as I strike the ground and blackness closes in around me.
An indeterminate amount of time later, I wake up to find myself staring at a bright blue sky. I am lying flat on my back on the smooth courtyard stones of my manor house. The upper half of my body is wracked with pain, but I can’t feel anything below my waist.
After that time, my legs never worked again.
Jacob found me about an hour later and called several other servants to help carry me up to my Solar. I kept expecting to see evidence of my nocturnal visitors, but my chamber was devoid of any supernatural markings. My servants put me to bed and summoned a leech, who informed me that I had broken my back and would never be able to function below the waist again. I found it ironic that my suppressed lust would never be stimulated again by another so-called “witch.”
After that, I had to be carried everywhere by servants, but I was able to continue my job as Grand Inquisitor. However, I was never the same after my experience in the Solar that night. The Church retired me shortly after my return to work because I never again proscribed torture or death for accused witches or heretics. In fact, after briefly questioning an accused witch or heretic, I always let him or her go free.
The Bishop attributed the change in my demeanor to the severe injury I received while sleepwalking during that unforgettable night in my Solar. I never told anyone about my encounter with the witch and the other phantoms.
I now live as a simple monk in a remote monastery in the country. My job is to copy ancient Church manuscripts. I do an excellent job and provide an artistic flourish to my work. On rare occasions, I am asked to copy a manuscript that advocates the use of torture or death as a punishment for witchcraft or heretical beliefs. I do my job and complete the work to satisfy the Abbott. However, after the manuscript has been shelved, it soon disappears and finds its way into the all-consuming flames within the fireplace in the Great Hall of the monastery.