Chapter 15: The Golden Flower
Nekayah winced as Luciana ran her delicate hands over her broken ones. She could feel the magic pulling at her bones and ligaments, but it was a slow and painful process. Nekayah had always thought healing magic was quick and sharp, like popping a bone back into place, or at least it was when she used it. But now, after spending days watching Luciana hard at work at fixing her hands, she realized not all witches were equal in the healing arts.
Perhaps it was stale blood she was using for her sigils that slowed her healing ability. She’d made no fresh sacrifice, but instead used old, congealed blood from a jar. A petty offering could only amount to petty results. A deliberate tactic, or a sign of an amateur sorceress? Nekayah was unable to decide as to which. That severed head staring at her didn’t make things any easier.
Mounted and preserved, with dried gray skin stretching tight over its skull, was a man’s head. It’s mouth was stuffed with straw, and its eyes had long since rotted away, leaving deep dark sockets from which the Abyssinian felt restless gaze reach out to her. Nekayah always made sure to sit facing away from the gruesome decoration, but that did little to ease her anxiety. She could still feel it staring at her back.
Luciana and Nekayah sat on the bed in the blonde witch’s chamber. A small, but well furnished room near the top of the highest spire still standing in Alcazar del Almawat. Rugs covered the floor, and on the walls were an eclectic mix of tapestries, each a different color, each bearing a crest of a different noble family. Clearly, spoils of a past conquests, as was just about everything else in the castle, Nekayah presumed.
“I apologize again for my king’s rudeness,” she said, looking down at Nekayah’s hands. “I know your pain.” She looked at Nekayah, tapping her eye-patch, smiling slightly.
“Then why do you serve him?” Nekayah asked, impatiently.
“We are equals…partners.”
“If that is true, then why have you not taken his eye?”
“By now my eyes are merely accessories. Through Shub—I mean our Mother Beyond the Veil, I see more than any mortal ever could, and besides…I was actually happy when he marred my face.”
“Happy?” Nekayah, looking at the woman like she lost her mind. “Did her gift make you insane, or were you like this before?”
“You know…” Luciana began, sweetly. “I’m from the village on the other side of these hills. A small, little town called Calebeza. Growing up I heard grandmothers tell stories of the place in the black forest—a place so cursed that the Moors built a giant castle to cover up the horror that they discovered. After all, try as they did, they couldn’t destroy it.”
“An ancient temple, they said. A temple built to worship the devil himself. Even the Moors, who’d laid a hill’s worth of stone on top of it, they still heard the voices whispering in their ears, and so they left the forest never to return.” Luciana spat a breath of air. “What nonsense, I thought. Just a fairytale meant to keep kids away from the woods.”
“So why did you come here?”
“I was a very beautiful girl, you see, and I received quite a lot of attention from men at an early age.” The blonde witch shook her head. “Forgive me if it sounds like I’m boasting, but I’m not.”
Nekayah could care less about another woman’s looks. In truth, Luciana’s current visage was more of an object of curiosity rather than jealousy—a mixture of young and old patched together. What remained of her face, was comely, but her brittle pale hair and wrinkled hands made Nekayah wonder if she was seeing through the cracks of glamoring spell.
“My mother died when I was ten,” Luciana continued. “She was a seamstress, and I wanted her teach me how to sew just like her. But that wasn’t my destiny. My father was, on the other hand, a drunken layabout who worked only just enough to slake his thirst. But, he was a clever man, you see. He saw how the men looked at me…and knew there was money to be made.” Luciana paused, her eye glossing over as she fell into depths of her own memories. She saw things, not through her magic, but through the hideous lens of the past, where she glimpsed her innocence being stolen over and over again. When she spoke, her voice felt distant and weary. “My father became one of the richest men in town, and behind closed doors I was known as his golden flower. Any man with enough coin to spare could experience a taste of true beauty, he said.” Her focus realigned on Nekayah. “So one day I ran away. I came to the one place I knew no one would look for me.”
Luciana nodded. “I hiked deep deep into the forest, and that’s when I found this sanctuary. Here I hid, exploring into the tunnels of this fortress. I heard whispers.” Luciana laughed. “At first I thought I had gone made, you see! A mad little whore dying alone in the dark! But, I decided I’d talk back to them so at least I’d have some company in the end.”
“But you weren’t going mad, were you?” Nekayah asked.
Luciana waved a finger and curled her lips. “No… they showed me things. Visions like paintings appeared in my mind. I spent years—how many, I don’t know—gazing over the world. I saw the temples under the sea of red sand. I saw kings and queens of the East, and the creatures that live behind the moon! I learned everything! Then Señor Pedro came.”
Nekayah did not have to ask who Pedro was, but she was a little disappointed to learn the minotaur had such a bland bland name.
“His men wanted to make me into their bed-wench, but Señor Pedro stopped them. He did what no man had ever done. He saw beyond my face and looked deeper, seeing my potential. He saw my gifts. He cut across one of my eyes with a hot knife so that I would not have to worry about any of his men coveting me, and that way I would only be his.”
Nekayah laughed. “You must understand if I fail to sympathize with your plight.”
“You mock me, sister?”
“We’re not sisters. I’d never be kin to someone as, how do you say, idiotic as you. You say you were born too pretty, that it was a curse that ruined your life. Bullshit. You could have gone to one of the big cities and become a rich courtesan. Wealthy nobles and merchants would have paid for your life a dozen times over. But instead you dwell among lice-ridden brutes in a drafty ruin. I swear, the women of this kingdom are without sense. I wish I had your curse.”
“And I wish I had yours! You think I’m concerned about such petty things as money? We’re building something greater, we’re making a kingdom, and we need your power.”
“A kingdom?” Nekayah echoed. “Do you really think you can do that with a handful of illiterate bandits and an old castle?”
Luciana laughed. “We are so much more than what we appear. We’re a family. Misfortune is what brought us all here… including you.” Luciana ran her thumb across Nekayah’s cheek. “What drives us is a hope, a vision of a pure land where we can take back what life took from us.”
“And what is that?”
Nekayah grimaced. She had no interest in obscure niceties. Her goal was tangible. Real.
“So far, everything is going exactly as planned. Father can attest to that.” The blonde witch tilted her head towards something behind Nekayah.
Nekayah turned, seeing that poor bastard’s skull staring back at her. She then looked back at Luciana, mouth slightly agape, as though we was about to vomit.
Luciana nodded, erasing any lingering doubt in Nekayah’s mind. “Señor Pedro raided my village and slaughtered every single man, including dear father.”
“The Bull King destroyed your home and yet you serve him so loyally?” Nekayah had figured by now she’d seen all the depravities of the human spirit, but to her surprise, she saw it descend one rung lower.
The cyclopian witch smiled. “I was the one who suggested he raid the village, and on my command he spared every woman and child.”
“And that makes everything alright?”
“If you knew what those men did to me…”
“Well it’s no secret what men do to whores—” Nekayah felt the woman’s hand whip hard across her face, but she barely flinched. It was nothing compared to having her hands crushed into dust. She continued after a moment, like nothing had even happened. “You are not the only one who has been wronged in this world.”
“But I am one of the few who has the power to fight back—not just for me, but for everyone. That is my purpose. And now that you are here, we have all the power we need. You, Señor Perdo, and me…the three of us will bring about a second Eden, a world cleansed of mankind’s sin in the burning chaos of our Mother Beyond the Veil.”
“You said you would free me of her!”
“And I will. The temple beneath the fortress has a name you might know. Jarangosa. Yes, that name I’ve been whispering in your head all this time. It was me who planted that hope, and you came just as I knew you would. Down in that holy sanctum you will toss aside your life to make your a body a vessel for her magnificence. Me and our mother have been planning this for a very long time.”
Nekayah felt her heart skip a beat. She was here this entire time and hadn’t realized it. Her hands, although they still ached, were well enough to grip. She lunged at Luciana, ready to wring her milky neck, but something stopped her. Something cold had gripped her arm in mid action. The Abyssinian gasped seeing a spectral hand of glowing ether holding her back.
“Thank you, father,” Luciana said, waving a hand in dismissal. “Let her go.”
Nekayah looked behind her to see the yellowed skull was floating just over her shoulder, and where its eye sockets had once been empty and dark, two pinpricks of pale light now glittered in their depths. The hand compelled Nekayah back into her seat. Then, the ethereal hand dispersed, dissolving into fading wisps of trailing light, and the skull floated back to the wall, it’s light vanishing.
“You will be free,” Luciana said. “A battalion marches on us as we speak, and when the time comes, you will become the vehicle through which our dark mother, being obliterated in the process! You will no longer no pain or suffering or fear. Oh, you’ll be free. She will feast upon the legions of dead we’ll offer her and in exchange we will become the new gods! Ia Shub Niggurath!” Luciana turned and stared at the door. “Ah, speaking of feasts, it looks like supper has finally arrived. I don’t know about you, but all this talk has made me quite hungry.”
A sudden knock, as if on cue, came rapping from the chamber door.
Luciana opened the door to receive the tray of bread, boiled eggs and cabbage from the wiry servant standing outside. His bloodshot eyes scanned the room briefly, resting on Nekayah’s shaken visage for a lingering moment as Luciana closed the door in his face.