The fall became a plummeting drop – the sudden feeling of the world cutting away from her feet like a misplaced step. Ana tumbled, insensate and unbalanced, through inky black for what felt like hours.
Her mouth was clamped shut, her muscles paralysed.
Somewhere in the back of her mind an anxious voice told her that she was already dead. That the witch had killed her in her sleep. That she was now to enter Paradise.
She chased the thought away and tried to wake herself from the dream, to urge some muscle into movement. The full force of her mind pushed against her body, into her chest, her legs, her face.
With a singular push her eyes shot open. Everything was bright, shining like she had stared straight into the sun. Her eyes refocused, and saw a candle, shining bright at the center of a stone floor, red wax melting downward.
Of course, it didn’t make any sense. Ana was now certain that she was dreaming. She brushed her fingers against a smooth stone floor. Her hands were freed from constraint and as she spread and stretched her legs, they gave no resistance. It was dim – in front of her was a small, flickering candle, and in front of that, some ten paces ahead, another candle, illuminating a tiny circle. Another followed it in a long line of shining light. Shakily, she stood, and looked down. The rest was empty black.
She was in half-garb; simple pants and a linen button shirt, sans vest and coat. It was for general readiness, when one expected to be called away shortly. With nowhere else to go, she turned and walked towards the next candle. It was a dream, certainly, but it might have been the last good stretch she got for her legs.
As she reached the next candle, there was a gust of wind behind her. She looked back, and the previous candle was extinguished. Now there was nothing there but the void. She felt as if walking back there would be like walking off a cliff; that if she did so, she’d fall again forever, or until something roused her from her sleep.
Ana turned back to her path, and continued forward. Her steps echoed across the vast distance and the wind gushed behind her as she stepped from one candle to the next. She followed the glowing path for a long time. She lost track of how many candles she had passed after the thirtieth or so.
The wind shifted as she walked; soon it sounded more like the trickling of water down some unseen drain. In the distance, far along the path, she spotted a vaster glow. Step by step it came into focus. It was a door, cyclopean and great in stature. Even from a distance, it towered over her, and after some immeasurable distance and uncounted candles she arrived. It was some thirty feet in height, the stone double-doors surrounded by dozens of red and white wax candles. Each was faintly engraved with the eroded figures of some forgotten era; their faces and detail were lost to the ages, leaving only the vague figure of a woman on one side and a man on another. The air smelt faintly of incense and rain in a way that was oddly familiar.
She pushed lightly on both, and they swung open as lightly as a well-hinged wooden door of a quarter of the size and height.
The interior was a small hall. Pillars of stone spanned to a vaulted ceiling where water trickled from through cracks in the vaulted ceiling. It pooled ankle-deep on the floor, sloshing and rippling under Ana’s boots as she entered. More red candles floated in the water like little flotillas, grouped closely together. Others were placed high on the pillars on little stands. Between each set of pillars, wrecked benches sat cracked and destroyed, wax, water and splintered wood making odd structures. The incense was stronger here.
At the very end of the hall was a small set of steps rising from the water, a small dais above the rest, and beyond that a wall of stone bearing more eroded and faded carvings. It might have been a church, but there were no signs of any religion that Ana knew, and there was no pulpit to preach from. Instead, there was a figure in red clothes sitting on the stone floor, legs crossed and back turned from the entrance.
She was still as a statue as Ana approached. Ana believed she was a statue for a while until she saw her breathe in deeply. A little brazier of incense sat smoking by her side, and she was wearing a dress – a fine red dress, by Ana’s reckoning. It had a sheen that suggested Apisian silk or some other rare fabric, but it had no decoration. Around each shoulder was a silver clasp that kept it in place, her pale arms left exposed. Her hair was straight and black. Ana came a little ways from the steps, and called out.
A high voice came from the woman. Her accent was unplaceable.
“You’re finally here. Come closer.”
Their words echoed for a long time after they finished speaking. Ana walked up the steps, and circled to her front. Her face was mostly absent; instead, there was a hollow where her eyes and nose should have been. Hair stood suspended by nothing at all, and in the hollow was a flat, stony surface, where another little red candle sat, flickering away. Her mouth was pert and stained purple. It wasn’t a bruise, but some faint hint of wine or fruit.
The hair fell away into a faint circle around her, and she spoke again.
“A funny trick, isn’t it? I knew that would make you come closer.”
Ana felt a sudden shift. She didn’t hear things in dreams. She would see people talk, and the words would worm their way into the rest of head without issue, but they didn’t actually speak.
“Oh, catching on already? I guess they did train you well. Yes, I am.”
Ana tried to back away. Instead her legs buckled, and she prostrated herself before the devil. She rushed through a prayer.
“O, Godhead, I beseech you, do not allow me to fall into evil. I am your faithful servant and shall not fail you. O Almighty Master of the Universe, do not forsake me in this my hour of need, grant me my virtues, grant me the vigilance to defeat your enemies-”
“Are you done?” Asked the devil impatiently.
“And take me from this vision of false divinity into the true world beyond, to the Paradise in Every-Nowhere, to not fall into Torment. Saints, gird and protect my virtues and grant me the tranquility to overcome all obstacles.”
She shut her eyes violently, trying to make herself wake. Nothing came.
She breathed heavily, staring at the grain of the stone floor. Half of her still wanted to believe that this was just a dream, and nothing more. The other half was telling her that meeting the wretched thing’s fiery gaze would mean certain death, or something worse for her. That she would be so tempted that she would strike a deal then and there.
“Very well recited,” said the devil, “I’ve heard something like it before. A man once presented it to me two-hundred years ago. I think he used a few different words, though. Is it a personal thing? Do you get to choose?”
“I am not interested in whatever you offer, devil. You are a falsehood made manifest.”
“You will listen to what I have to say.”
“You can’t command me to-”
“You will listen, Ana Metremte,” said the devil with force, “You will listen for the same reason you enjoy interrogation. You will do so because I am the greatest enemy you have ever known, and you wish to know your enemies.”
Something in her words rang Ana like a bell. She was curious. Each witch she had encountered had treated the devil differently. Some as helpers; saviors; means to ends; every motive was separate besides a simple temptation and need for power. If she could resist, it might be invaluable for teaching others to not make the same mistake. That was, if she made it out alive, or at least was offered a chance to make a last record of her existence in the material world.
“If you’re my enemy, I have nothing to hear from you,” said Ana.
“On my heart, I will not lie. But I am less interested in giving you a sermon, and more interested in you. I have watched you for a long time, and now I wish to ask.”
“That’s unfair,” said Ana, sitting up but not meeting the devil’s face, “You’ve brought me to this place by your accord, at a vulnerable hour, and now you’re going to ask me questions? At least let me ask some things of you first.”
“Of course. I knew you’d want some more information. Please, ask away. I give you free reign to ask as much as you like.”
“What’s your name? Assuming you have one, of course.”
“I have had many. Thieves and street urchins across the Great Channel whisper of me as The Hand of Glory. An opener of doors and passages, the one who sets men still with fright when my visage is revealed to them. A Veleda woman called me Im Tsaros Isonak – The Candle’s Light. A Gveert called me much the same. I suppose if you had to give me a name, I would be called Tros, then.”
She thought briefly.
“Here’s a question,” Ana said, “If I blew that candle out, would you die?”
“No. You couldn’t quench me with all the oceans in the world,” said Tros, “Though it would be very funny to see you try.”
Ana sighed. She was tired, even in her dream, and faintly she could feel the ache of her bruises on her chest. Another question burned through. It was the one that she could never have answered otherwise.
“Why were you cast from Paradise?”
“Would you believe me if I said that I loved humanity too much?”
Ana raised her face to meet the devils, and saw the light of the candle again. No eyes met hers. Nothing happened; no temptation took her. It merely flickered in place.
“No, I don’t particularly believe you. Your kind is one defined by hubris. You thought that you were better than the Godhead that created you – that you were a part of – and you were hewn from the whole for your imperfection. You are imperfection, alongside the rest of this wretched world.”
“Hm,” said Tros, “That’s not how I remember it. There was a lot more wheels of eyes and fire, and bows and arrows, and fighting and yelling-”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” said Ana.
“The Godhead is omnipotent. Why would they fight? They could simply cast you out without issue.”
“It doesn’t matter what you think,” said the devil as she shrugged her shoulders, “There was a battle. We were cast out for loving humanity. It’s the truth.”
“Are you satisfied with matters of theology?”
“Frankly, no. You’re obviously lying to make yourself more sympathetic. You deceive people to get them into trouble and prevent them from entering Paradise. All of your kind do. Look at poor Gema. You took her from a battered girl to a murderer and a cannibal.”
“Oh, her,” said Tros, “She was not my doing. My-”
A dozen words splayed over each other – Ana most distinctly heard “comrade,” “sister,” and “father,” but she was certain that there was more.
“-took her in. It wasn’t really her fault, yes. I think that her patron wanted something more exciting than usual. Flesh was always an option, and she took it blindly. I can tell you that she’s quite tired of this, and that she would surrender if you somehow got the best of her. At any rate, it’s my turn to ask. First question. Why are you afraid of dying?”
“I am not,” said Ana curtly.
“You are. You’re quaking in a dead man’s bed, a few paces from a cannibal. You are terrified of dying. Why would a good and honest servant of the so-called Almighty, who has been guaranteed a spot in Paradise, be so afraid of death?”
“You might as well ask why a man yells when he’s burned. Pain, physical pain, the pain of being eaten alive – that scares me. More people dying because of my failure scares me. My death is inevitable. I have done good all my life and I have no reason to fear it.”
Tros nodded and said, “Let’s try another question. Who were your parents?”
“Oh, shut the fuck up,” said Ana, “I learned what happened to my parents before I left to study ecclesiastic law. If you really had been paying attention you’d know that my father was an itinerant drunk, and my mother abandoned me when I was six without even a last name. They were never my family, and I have moved past them.”
She could barely remember her mother. She had faint details. The outline of a face, a brush of the hand over her hair, but little else to go on. She hated it when people tried to use her parents as some kind of bargaining chip. She hated it more that she couldn’t get a proper expression from Tros, to see her dissatisfaction that her ruse didn’t work.
The devil cocked her head and stood.
“Most orphans are more concerned with parentage,” she said coolly, “Then again, it has been half a century since I visited the mortal world. Would you come with me?”
“And if I stayed?” Asked Ana.
“You might wake up to a cannibal eating your fingers. If you’re afraid of pain, then I think it wouldn’t hurt to stay in a dream for a little longer. I think I would have some other things to offer you that you would be interested in.”
Ana sat obstinately.
“No. I don’t think I am interested. I would rather die.”
Tros cocked her head to one side, her flame flickering as she did so.
“What a shame,” she said, “You would have learned so much from me.”
She felt strange once more, as if she was floating on water, and when she blinked, her eyes didn’t open.
Oh, she thought, This again.
Ana awoke to the warmth of sunlight. The cottage was empty. The bones rattled in the morning air. Her things had been reorganized and placed on the shelves. It might have been morning, or early in the afternoon – it was hard to tell.
Gema was nowhere to be seen. She was alone again.
She squirmed and tried to get out of her bindings to no avail for quite a while. She discounted yelling almost immediately. At best she’d wear herself out and at worst she’d make Gema angry.
So she sat in place. Half of her wished she had ate breakfast yesterday. The other half was very glad that she hadn’t. The birds outside chirped and tittered in the quiet aftermath of the rain. Crickets and cicadas let loose their incessant whines. She couldn’t see very far out of the window, but it looked quite sunny.
She might have even called it idyllic.
It felt like an age before Gema returned. Ana nearly jumped when she walked in the door. She was in her full form; taller than Ana by far, bow and arrows on her back. She carried a skinned, cooked piece of meat in one hand. She walked to her bedside, slightly undid Ana’s bonds enough that she had some wiggle room, and handed her the meat.
“Rabbit,” said Gema coldly, “Eat it.”
Ana awkwardly took it and did as she was told. It was already cold, and quite bland, but it was more than nothing. Gema moved to the other side of the room and sat on her bed.
“Thank you,” said Ana.
“You don’t like it,” said Gema.
“Yeah, you’re right. It’s not very good. I’ve had worse, though,” said Ana apologetically.
Gema nodded, and as soon as Ana blinked, she was back to her normal form. She was noticeably thinner than when she last saw her and her dress looked larger on her. She slumped and slowly put her weapons away before looking over the shelves with Ana’s things. She slowly produced Ana’s notebook, her pen and an inkwell. Miraculously, none of them had been crushed.
She set them on Ana’s lap one by one.
“You said you wanted to leave a record. This is your chance.”
Ana stared at the feather pen before picking it up awkwardly. It felt like a lead weight in her hand. She pried her notebook open, and Gema unscrewed the cap on her inkwell for her. The black liquid was viscous and thick as she dipped the feather pen in.
Interview with a Witch on an Unknown Date.
“You would like me to interview you, then?”
Gema nodded, but said nothing more. She exhaled.
This might be the last thing I write.
“Your name, for the record?”
“I already told you.”
“I need to ask again. For protocol’s sake.”
“Gema Klaetona,” she said.
She quietly wrote it down. Eighteen. When she was eighteen, she was just starting a career with the Inquisitors.
“How did your devil first appear to you? In a dream, a waking hallucination or through a tome or book?”
“Dream,” said Gema, “A dream.”
She scribbled it down, trying not to smudge the drying ink with her chained hands.
“How does the devil appear to you?”
“He is dark-skinned, and he always wears a black robe. It looks very fine. I have not ever seen silk in my life, but if I had to guess what silk looked like, it would be that. He has a wondrous golden crown.”
Ana nodded along as she wrote. Devils often gave impressions of royalty as a way of overwhelming common people.
“And he has this – this strange circle around his head. Like I was looking at the sun, but it had gone all black and red. He’s very beautiful. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a man more beautiful.”
“A mock glory,” said Ana listlessly.
“A mock glory. A glory is a thing that appeared around the heads of some saints when they were martyred, a light like the sun. Sometimes devils make them as a way of desecrating things that are holy.”
“Oh,” said Gema quietly. Shame tinged her voice.
“It’s okay that you didn’t know,” said Ana, looking up at her, “There was no way that you could’ve known.”
She finished marking down the appearance, and moved to the next question.
“Did he give you a name?”
“Endalom,” said the witch very carefully.
A Sondi name, thought Ana. She marked down an additional part to the appearance, saying that he appeared as a Sondi prince.
“What exactly did he offer you in the dream?”
“Many things. He offered to give me a familiar, to teach me the secret names of stars and plants, to make my archery perfect, to give me great riches, all sorts of things. When I told him none of that would help me with my father, he offered to change my shape and let me defeat him, and offered to counsel me in the ways of sorcery. That was what I took. I didn’t even ask about the cost.”
She sighed and slumped on her bed again.
“I- I can do the rest myself. It’s fine.”
Ana slowly wrote out a rough description of Gema’s abilities, what she required, and her cannibalistic tendencies. She finished and signed her name at the bottom crudely. She thought for a second about trying to refine the book into a focus – but what on Earth would she use it for? Even assuming Gema didn’t notice the process, paper was a poor conductor for verdure mana – it tended to burn up after a single use – and even if she could finagle it into a lock-pick of some kind with azure mana, there’d be no point. Gema could overpower her in an instant.
She began to write to Edam instead, then froze, utterly uncertain of what to actually put on the page. Finally, after some consideration, she managed to think of something sufficient.
If you are reading this, I am probably dead and in pieces, and my bones are scattered high in the mountains, or some other awful fate has befallen me. I am sorry for everything I did. I am sorry for hurting you. I take full responsibility for all of this; if an inspector from the Order of Tattered Skin comes knocking, please show them this and say that it was all my fault.
Please give all my things to Tarnye and the needy, as you see fit. If you can manage it, send some of it to the St. Rinda’s Home for Poor Children in Tyeka.
She thought for a moment, then crossed out yours, and replaced it with All Apologies, then signed her name.
“Are you finished?” Asked Gema.
Ana nodded solemnly.
Gema waited a while until the ink had dried before taking her things from her again and tightening her bonds once more.
“I’m going to go do chores,” she said quietly, “I’ll be back.”
She walked out again before Ana could protest.
The boredom got to her more than anything, and it very rapidly became dread. Chores for whom? For her devil? For herself? Was she lying when she said that she would be rationing Ana, and was going to gorge herself again now that she had nothing to fear in terms of reprisal?
More than that, she dreaded Gema’s return. She tried to force the thought out of her mind, but it kept coming back. An incessant little thought about which part would be eaten first. Her fingers seemed like the logical place to start, but Gema wasn’t of sound mind, and she was already thin with hunger. Would she take a whole hand? A foot? A calf?
And at the back of her mind, a horrid thought occurred to her – what if the dream with the devil was not just a dream? What if the devil was real? And what if merely speaking with her had already condemned her to torment?
And so she sat uncomfortably in her chains and bindings and waited.
By her reckoning, it was only a few hours before Gema returned. The sun was setting; it cast the room in a horrid yellow glow. She somehow looked even worse for wear. Her cheeks were sallow and pale; her dress hung loose on her frame. Where Ana could see her chest, she could see individual ribs. Her eyes hung deep in their sockets with cold desperation. Ana had seen the look before when she was young – the hungry, angry look of a person who had not eaten in days.
“I couldn’t find you any more food,” Gema said quietly.
She walked to her side of the room and reached under her bed. She produced an ancient-looking wooden trunk and rifled through it piece by piece before producing what looked like some thin strips of linen.
Gema put one around her hand and stared at Ana as she tied it there loosely. She walked to Ana’s side and knelt, carefully pulling up Ana’s sleeve. The air felt unbearably cold, even with the hot night.
She opened her mouth wide – wider. Her jaw unhinged like that of a snake, long canines poking through her gums like spears, pink-white tongue lolling about. Ana slammed her eyes shut just as she bit down.
Ana felt it for only an instant. White-hot pain consumed her as Gema’s jaw clamped down and excavated flesh from her forearm. She felt blood gush and mix with saliva; she felt skin rip from muscle; she felt a tongue probe the wound and suck down some blood. And then, like that, it was over. She opened her eyes again, and looked at what had been done to her. It was smaller than it felt, still bleeding and wet with spittle. The gash spilled dark red onto the bed, but less than she had expected; it only ran about a quarter of the length of her forearm.
She caught the last of it as Gema licked her lips and swallowed.
She could hear the flesh go down Gema’s throat.
Her own flesh.
The weight of it suddenly hit her, and she slumped in shock. She tried to move, but she simply went limp. Her mind went blank. She had taken worse wounds before and yet the thought of being consumed had completely and totally defeated her. Gema silently bandaged Ana as she sat in place like a ragdoll. The linen stained red.
Gema seemed almost instantly more like herself. Her cheeks returned to their fullness. Her eyes lost their sheen. She sat on her bed and shuddered as Ana craned her neck to follow her movements.
Without warning, Gema began to cry. It was not a dramatic or complete outburst; tears simply began to stream out of her eyes and down her face as she shuddered time and again. Her face twisted and contorted as she noticed Ana was watching her.
“Don’t,” said Gema quietly, “Stop it.”
“Stop looking at me. Please. Please stop looking at me. Stop judging me.”
“I’m not judging you,” said Ana quietly, still recovering.
“You think I’m like him. You think I’m like my father.”
“You do,” she choked, “Don’t lie to me. Don’t deny it. I’m like him. Stop looking at me like that.”
She stood. Her face was caught in a deep contrast by the setting sun; her hideous teeth the only thing visible through her tangled hair. For a moment she looked more like a hungry shadow than a person.
“Stop it! Stop looking at me!”
Ana turned away, and clamped her eyes shut. She tried to say an excuse, but no sound came out. Whispers seemed to erupt from all corners of the room.
She could feel Gema walking over to her; standing over her. Another eternity seemed to pass before Gema left her side. Another aeon before her eyes relaxed the slightest amount. Her heart eventually calmed. The whispers faded.
I’m going to die here, she thought to herself, I’m going to be tortured to death over the next month. And I’m going to Paradise after. And it will be fine there. I belong there. I am virtuous.
She repeated it to herself time and again, praying until she fell asleep once more. Then the fall, again; the emptiness; and then a sense of her being half-awake and half-asleep.
When Ana opened her eyes again, she found herself face to face with a flickering candle flame so close that she could feel its heat. She backed away, scowled and spat on the floor. She was back in the false church. With Tros.
“You are real!” said Ana, filled with rage, “Didn’t I already make it clear that I have no interest in you?”
Tros looked to the spittle on the floor.
“Rude,” said Tros, “Is this how you treat all of your hosts?”
“You know full well that you are no host of mine,” said Ana, “And this heathen church is nothing that I can respect.”
“Calm yourself, dear,” said Tros, “I do not ask that you respect me, but at least let yourself find some respite. We wouldn’t want you waking up early.”
Ana scoffed, but did manage to calm herself a little.
“Would you walk with me to my garden?”
“Why should I prostrate myself before you, false deity?”
“Well, you were doing a quite good job of it earlier,” said Tros.
“I was praying to the Godhead then.”
“Mm,” she replied, “But you were kneeling before me.”
“Before the eyes of the Godhead,” she insisted.
“The same difference. But at any rate, I think you should walk with me to the garden.”
She gestured to a plain wooden door behind her with a wide sweep of her arm.
“Again, I find myself asking – why should I?”
“Because as long as you are here, you are not there. You could choose to stay again, and wake before a cannibalistic witch. That didn’t work out so well last time, did it? Humor me, my dear.”
Tros stood once more. Begrudgingly, Ana stood and dusted herself off. She couldn’t find a flaw with that logic. Tros shifted her hands and fiddled with her dress, smoothing it before walking towards the door. Ana followed, watching as the candle wavered and a thick bead of crimson wax spilled into the basin where her brainpan should have been.
She opened the door, and invited Ana through. To her surprise the other side looked much like an actual garden, though it was in great disrepair. There were two fallow rows of muddy, rich soil set with a black stone pathway. At the center, the path was divided into two in a circle around a dead, dried-out tree. All around were foreboding grey stone walls, and what she could see of the sky above her was no sky at all. There were no clouds, no moon, no stars, not even a hint of light in spite of the fact that everything here was perfectly illuminated as if it was mid-day.
The devil sat itself on one of the benches that was on the path, and patted her hand on it.
“Would you sit?”
“I’d rather stand,” said Ana.
“To each their own. Now I wish to get to the heart of things. Why are you in Erezus?”
“I am here to detain a witch who has been murdering her way across the countryside for the past few months.”
“Allow me to clarify. Why are you here alone? Why is your partner on sick leave?”
Ana froze in place. She couldn’t answer honestly – not while keeping Edam’s confidence.
“I came alone because there wasn’t enough time. We were intending to arrive earlier than the new moon, but the sickness delayed her, and I made the decision to go alone even though it’s frowned upon by the Church and would prompt an investigation. I wanted to see if I could get there before so that I could defend the village and make sure that no one else died.”
“I see,” said Tros, “And why is your partner sick?”
Ana put on a tone of anger.
“I don’t know if you’re aware, what with your state as an immaterial being, but people do get sick for no particular reason.”
“I am aware of that, but Edam is sick for a particular reason, isn’t she? You came here to help, but also to get away. Tell me why, and maybe – just maybe – I can help you out of this.”
Ana straightened her back, trying to brace herself. The devil, as much as she hated to admit it, had a point. She’d been lying to herself more than anything, trying to pretend what had happened hadn’t happened. Then again, she was already speaking with a devil. Confessing wouldn’t hurt her any more; confession would relieve her.
She knows, thought Ana, She knows everything. Or enough that there’s no point in hiding what I did.
“I- I have felt certain passions for her for a long time.”
The devil smiled – a knowing smile made uncanny by her lack of eyes and face. Her candle flickered as she spoke.
“You see her in your dreams, both waking and sleeping, don’t you?”
“I- yes. You cannot live with a person for over half a year and not acquire some affection for them but – I’ve lusted after her. Wanted her. Body, mind and spirit.”
Edam sat in her mind’s eye. It was fuzzy here, in this dream so distant from the rest of her, but the features remained. The way she fiddled with her hair and straightened her clothes out.
“And her sickness?” Asked Tros.
Ana exhaled heavily.
“She’s not sick. She feels the same way. And a bit before we were to travel to Erezus- she told me so. And kissed me.”
It was a long kiss. She had kissed a boy once when she was young¸ but it didn’t even come close. The way Edam had held her and pulled her in made her giddy even now, followed by a wave of shame filling her chest.
“And then we both pulled away. We have an oath to uphold, and being chaste is part of it.”
Tros nodded for her to continue.
“She took a trip to Menale, to be alone for a while, I suppose. And I came here alone. To… impress her, I suppose? To make her think that I was still devoted to our cause,” said Ana.
She wasn’t even sure if her own words were the right answer. In the moment, everything seemed so selfless and easy. That she would come back with a witch or a solid lead in tow, and that Edam would understand that she was still a witch-hunter, through and through, and that everything would be back the way it was before. That they could still be friends and partners.
“Tell me again, why are you so afraid of death?”
Ana was quiet. She tried to compose herself – to save what little remained of her face.
She couldn’t. She sat, and looked at the dead tree.
“I could go to Paradise, but I wouldn’t want to leave her behind. And if I die, the odds are that she’ll recover my body or whatever’s left of it when Gema is done with me. And the thought of her having to pick over my bones hurts my heart. How could I do that? How could I be so cruel as to kiss her, and then go off and die and force her to mourn me as a friend?”
Ana didn’t cry, but she wanted to. She already felt very cruel.
“Poor thing,” said Tros, “You mortals always get yourselves into these odd little paradoxes.”
Her cold hands touched Ana’s cheek, and turned her gaze back to the devil.
“I can give you what you need to see her again.”
Ana’s heart leapt and sunk all at once. To make a deal with her would be punishable by death, for betraying her oath. But the mere idea of it – of seeing Edam even one more time – brought her heart to a race. She wanted to say yes, right then and there.
No. She didn’t want to say yes. She needed to say yes. She felt it in her gut. She needed to go back and apologize to Edam for this whole awful mess, and tell her that she didn’t blame her for coming on to her. She needed all of it, and she needed to live. And after, she could conceal her secret. It would only consign her to torment as long as the deal lasted. Afterwards, she could pray and be forgiven.
But rushing got her into this mess. It wouldn’t get her out. She’d be careful.
“What are you offering?”
“Two things: firstly, no lock will prevail against you; they will fall before you the instant you touch them. Secondly, I shall grant you counsel three times over the course of the contract, when you need it most. This contract will last for six months. I could offer you other things besides that, of course, but those seem the most pressing to your issues, so I presume you wouldn’t want me to go at length. There’s only so much time till sunrise, after all.”
“And the price?”
“I would only ask for a little favor,” said Tros slyly, “You only need to worship me.”
A distant, bassy rumble rocked Ana’s body. She was suddenly made very aware of her sleeping body’s reaction to the proposition. Her muscles, sore and bruised, tightened and contracted at a distance, separate from her dreaming mind but reacting to the stress. Six months spent distant from praying.
And on the other hand, she was exhausted. She was almost too tired to say no to it.
“I won’t abandon the Godhead. I can’t.”
“You won’t have to. Feel free to continue with your little god. But you will worship me first, before you give any prayer to them.”
“How would I even go about that? I presume you don’t have any cults or the like amongst mortals?”
Tros laughed; a high-pitched, haughty, hyena-like laugh that echoed into the emptiness around them.
“How do you worship me? Well, it’s simple. Pray to me. Sing praises to me. Drink wine and water consecrated in my name. Make idols of me with a sculptor’s eye, bring statuettes of me into the world and treat them as you would I, feed me, clothe me, wash me with fine perfume and oil, kiss my feet in prostration. Or, do none of that. Worship me in quiet meditation, or in raucous yells, or in the delicate art of sitting by the sea and thinking of me. If you do not worship enough, you will know. Once a week ought to be enough.”
This was heathenism, of course, heresy of the highest degree. The Godhead was the only true divinity; the Founding Saints and the Prophet the only true conduits of that divinity. To worship otherwise would make her a sinner three times – once for impiety in lusting after Edam, once for impiety by worshipping at the feet of a false god, once for making a deal with that false god and breaking the Church’s protocols. The very thought revolted her and made her body itch and burn.
And again, Edam’s face came to her. The little smirk she made at a job well done. The way she walked, the way she spoke with a lilting accent. Every beauty seemed to coat her mind, and set her heart racing faster.
“If I fail to worship you?”
“First, I will sabotage your worship of any gods you take before me. If you should persist, then I will scour your skin as if it laid under the desert sun and send evils upon you. But that needn’t happen.”
Ana sat, and thought. That didn’t sound pleasant, and “evils” was an incredibly broad phrase, but if she could still worship the Godhead and the Saints while she was at it that’d surely mitigate things. It was the only option she had.
She hated that it was the only option she had. Hated that the devil had put her into this position.
“I’ll do it.”
“I’m so glad you made this choice,” said Tros.
Tros slowly reached for a silver clasp on one of her dress’ straps, and undid it, followed by the next. Instead of revealing a bare chest, she revealed a hollow that took up the whole of her ribcage, terminating at her belly. The interior looked as if it was the bark of an ancient tree, gnarled and covered with deep gashes and grooves. From its roof a long branch extended, from which grew a single plum. It had a waxy sheen that made it almost glow against its own purple-red skin. She plucked it from the hollow and gently offered it to Ana.
“Eat, and you will have all that I promised.”
She took the plum in her hand, and felt its weight, rolling it. Her real body twisted with familiar warmth. The first signs of an emergence from rest.
She bit down, and the sweet taste and soft flesh coated her mouth. It slid down her throat as easily as water on a hot day. The last thing she saw was a smile, and the flickering of the flame, before she awoke.
She was still in the cabin, thin streams of sunlight filtering in through the opened window. A bird called frantically outside, and when she looked to her side she saw Gema asleep in her bed. She looked peaceful.
The manacles made a clicking noise, and fell loose off of her wrists. It wasn’t just a dream.
She stretched them, and began on the knot around her waist, then her legs, setting her free. Her belongings and coat were still on the table. Ana swung her feet over the edge of the bed. She rose, and step by step walked across the room to her coat, being careful to step over the board that creaked. Once there she reached into the coat’s pocket, the right.
The witch hadn’t touched the flintlock. It was unloaded and uncocked. She picked it up, half cocked it and put the powder flask to the pan, just enough powder to ignite before pouring more down the barrel. She opened the other compartment, grabbed a ball, and pushed it down the barrel with the ramrod. The lead cinched in place smoothly.
She cocked it fully¸ and Ana cringed at the clicking noise it made as it came into place. Gema shifted in her sleep, and groaned something.
Ana didn’t waste any time. She walked to Gema and pointed the barrel at her chest.
Gema’s eyes fluttered open, and her tranquil expression went through many phases in short succession – from confusion to fear to anger to an unexpected tranquility once more.
“I suppose I didn’t tie you well enough,” said Gema, “You win. Take it.”
“Take my life,” she said, plain as day, “Kill me.”
“You’d rather die than-”
“I would. I would rather die than starve again,” she said, “Give me the dignity of dying here, at my home. If you take me to prison, it will be torture. I vomit up any normal food. I tried.”
Ana was silent.
“Please,” she said, desperation creeping into her voice, “You said I could help people. Help me help myself. You did it for that blackblood. Do it for me. I can’t do it to myself.”
Ana wanted to take her in alive. To make this right, with Edam and the Church, even in spite of her sin. If what she said was true, she couldn’t allow herself to do it.
“Stand,” said Ana, “We’re going outside.”
She rose from bed, still wearing the same clothes from yesterday, the cut on her arm scabbing over. She walked towards the door whilst Ana kept the pistol trained on her back. The outside of the cottage was a quiet glade, a clearing where green glass and clover grew, little white-pink flowers blooming after the rain. The trees swayed lightly in the wind. The morning sun was hot on Ana’s skin, seeming to make up for the lost time it had been raining. Gema staggered out and then took a few paces more, Ana close behind.
It was a beautiful day. It should have been, at least.
“Are you certain of this?” Asked Ana, “There is no other way?”
Gema shook her head.
“I won’t stop you from taking me in. I know I deserve it, but the thought-”
“It’s like I said. I’ve no desire to be a prisoner again. I’m tired. I don’t want this anymore.”
Ana approached Gema. If she was going to do it, she’d do it right. It was the least she could do for this poor sinner.
“Kneel,” said Ana.
Gema did so, getting onto her knees. Ana approached, and placed a hand onto her back, feeling her heartbeat before rising again and taking aim.
“By the law and authority of the Ecclesiastic Court and the Church of the Sepulcher, I sentence you to death by fusillade, and by my authority as a Inquisitor, I hereby begin the proceeding of this execution. I have counted your heartbeats. Do you have any last words?”
“If I pray, is there any chance I will be forgiven? That I can still save myself?” she asked.
She was pitiful, and Ana took pity.
“Yes,” Ana lied, “Praying for forgiveness will help.”
“O, Godhead,” she began, “I know I have sinned greatly. I have lain with your enemies, and made covenants with false gods. I have murdered and desecrated. I am sorry for all of them. For all of it. For murdering Tarel, Mishka, Benam, Sareg, Nuna, Kvel, Igat, Weomil, Savil, and Damav. I am choosing to be forgiven not by labour but by blood. Please show me charity. Please let me see my mother again in Paradise.”
She knew their names, thought Ana, Every single one. Of course she did. It was a small town. Perhaps her father used to let her come there to play. And she asked for forgiveness for her father’s death too. She didn’t need to.
“In the name of Saint Gelon the Just, I render this sentence. May the Godhead have mercy on your soul.”
Ana pulled the trigger, and barely felt the shock of the recoil. The shot echoed through the hills, a plume of grey smoke emerging from the barrel. Gema slumped and turned her face skyward. She was dead before she hit the ground. Her eyes were clamped shut as well, hands clasped in prayer. Blood coursed into the ground beneath as the scent of sulfur filled the air.
Ana’s head spun. She felt dizzy. She was going to need to report this to a higher authority. Explain what had happened, and lie to them about her deal, how she got out. She tried to swallow her feelings. Instead, a dry heave came, bile devoid of food spitting up into her throat and mouth. She walked away from the body, and swallowed the foul sickness.
She stared up at the sky, to the distant peaks that led to Veleda and Agora, rising ever higher. There was no majesty left in them against the harshness of the morning sun. They said that the mountains were a godless place. The place where one was furthest from the divine, places where the fertile and good earth gave way to sheer stone and cliffs that could bear no fruit or divine inspiration. The furthest place from the Godhead.
She didn’t fully understand what they meant until today.
One thought on “Hungers of Their Iniquity 1.4”
Heya! Just started reading after I saw you on tumblr, wanted to say this is stellar so far.