Chapter 19: Innocence of the Soul
The Abyssinian’s spirit was trapped within its bodily prison, gasping for life in a crushing sea of oblivion. The presence of Shub Nigurath was too much for her spirit to resist. It was devouring her slowly, but surely. Soon, there would be nothing left.
Yet, through the opaqueness that consumed all her senses, she heard a voice—Diego’s voice. It called her name, over and over again. Nekayah’s mind stirred to life. Ine iwagalalehu. The void seemed endless, and she feared finding no end to its depths, and wondered if she should give up, but she fought anyway. Ine iwagalalehu. She felt her own arms again and gripped her hands into fist. Her spirit clawed and thrashed at the void. It hurt. It burned like naked skin on freezing ice, but she didn’t care. She felt the beating of her own heart again, and the warmth of her body. Her heart seized and ached with great pain, but that just made her fight harder. Ine iwagalalehu. Light, hazy as it was, cleared her vision. She could feel her whole body, the rush of air fill her chest as she gasped. The burning cold had faded into a numb tingle when she saw Diego standing on the rampart in front of her.
“You’re alive?” Nekayah said. Her voice reverberated with deep, harmonic tone.
Diego looked up and saw the woman, or rather, what she had become. The shadowy aura that enveloped her stretched outward in whipping tendrils. Blood teared from the corners of her eyes.
“What happened to you?” Diego asked.
“She who lies beyond the veil, she flows through me.” She flexed her hand into a fist and five more giant, worm-like tentacles erupted from the ground, shaking the earth as they arose.
“How are you controlling it?”
By now, almost every soldier on the field was dead or gone. Things had grown quiet, except for the eerie groan and booming crashes of the tentacles slamming against the earth.
“With great pain,” she said. “My mind is slipping as I speak. There is no time. I just wanted to say goodbye.” Nekayah reached for her ivory dagger. The burning cold intensified as she caught sight of its smooth, white blade. Shub Nigurath was lashing back to take control. Nekayah pointed the dagger towards herself, but when it came time to do the deed, her arm went numb. Nekayah watched as it tossed the ivory dagger on the floor in front of Diego. “No!”
Diego, confused, picked up the knife. “What are you doing?”
“She won’t let me do it! I can’t stop her, Diego!”
Diego looked at the dagger, then back at Nekayah. “You were trying to stab yourself?”
“The blade will sever the spell that holds us together. Stab me and cast her back into the void.” Nekayah groaned and fell onto the rampart beside Diego, curling up into a ball, gritting her teeth. The cold was growing. She felt herself shrinking back into nothing. “I can’t hold her back for much longer! You have to do it!”
Diego readied his hand, but hesitated to strike.
“Don’t be afraid,” Nekayah said. “You’re beyond fear now.”
Diego gripped the dagger firm in his hand and plunged it into Nekayah. She screamed, but it was not her voice he heard. It was the screeching wail of that horrible thing inside her. Nekayah’s body went still and all around them, heaven and earth seemed to convulse like an ocean during a storm. Those abhorred tentacles on the battlefield withered into dust, leaving the field of corpses and rubble behind. The blackened sky gave way to a purple sheet of evening majesty striped with swaths of burning smoke.
“Nekayah…?” Diego stood over her body, rubbing it gently.
The woman lied still in his arms for what seemed like an eternity before flitting her eyelids. “Diego?” Her voice was her own, and Diego felt a rush of relief.
Nekayah looked at her shoulder. It was bleeding, but not profusely. She laughed weakly. “You fool…here I was thinking I was about to die.”
“There’s been enough of that today,” Diego said, still holding onto the woman.
Nekayah could smell his sweat and the iron scent of blood. Neither bothered her. In fact, she loved the smell. It spurred her to raise her head and see the face of the man who saved her. Despite the pain in her arm, she embraced Diego.
“I know how you must feel,” Nekayah said. “Like your detached from the world, like you feel there’s something missing in your soul.”
Diego’s eyes widened. This whole time he’d been struggling to describe how he felt, but of course this strange sorceress knew exactly what plagued him. He looked at Nekayah, staring at her cold, distant stare. He would never have guessed until now, staring into those dead eyes, he was staring into a mirror.
“Died. Yes. I didn’t want to believe it before, but that day in the cave, I died. My master…brought me back.” Nekayah nudged her head against Diego’s. “When you travel into the abyss, you leave a part of you there. A price is paid to come back.”
Diego listened to the sorceress’s words, desperately trying to follow them.
“I tried to ignore it, but when I look at you, I see the truth. We think, we breathe, we bleed, but we’re still undead. Strangers between two worlds. And because I left something with…her, she was ever present within me. I thought Jarangosa could save me. I thought I could sever my pact with her, reach into the abyss and take back what was mine. I thought I could regain my soul fully, but it was another false hope.”
Tears began to roll down Nekayah’s face as she looked up at the smoke-smeared sky, too guilty to face the young man. It’s clouds, languid and gray, blended with highlighting backdrop of orange and violet. “I’m sorry, Diego. I never wanted you to share my curse.”
“We’re not cursed,” Diego said, holding Nekayah tight.
“What do you mean?”
“This entire time I was a prisoner, I was thinking of you. That gave me the strength to continue—to do things I never thought I could. I put my trust and you, and even after I died, you brought me back. I don’t damn this second chance. As long as I’m living with you, it’s a life worth living.”
Nekayah smiled and ran her fingers through his black curls. Their faces drifted closer and closer, until finally their lips touched. It was a tender warmth that made Nekayah anxious—a sensation too good to be true. Others had given her this feeling before, and each had spoiled it in their own way. Yet, Diego hadn’t, despite having ample opportunity to do so. He could have ran, but he didn’t.
Nekayah didn’t hold back anymore, she pressed her lips hard against his, and Diego grew more aggressive in turn. Their kissing grew bolder to the point where it seemed they were about to devour each others’ face. They fell into each other, holding tight. The fear, the cold, the pain, all of it washed away, seeming so insignificant now. They were so perfectly entwined and neither wanted to let go.
“How touching…” a voice said behind them.
The two lovers broke off their kissing and turned to look at who could have possibly survived the devastation. Standing hunched, clutching her stomach in one hand, and a familiar skull in the other, was Luciana, ragged and bloody, but still alive. The cuts and scraps across her body were closing up with each passing moment.
“I killed you,” Diego said. “You were thrown over the wall!”
“Oh?” Luciana stood up straight, pursing her lips as she spoke. “That was supposed to kill me, was it? I guess I thought otherwise.”
“It’s over, Luciana,” Nekayah said. “Shub Nigurath’s been banished back beyond the veil, back into the abyss! You cannot make me summon her again! Leave us in peace!”
“Peace? There won’t be any peace! Not now! This world was on the cusp of paradise! No more suffering, no more war, no more…” Luciana cut herself off, biting her lip. “Mother’s glory would have reigned over this world for eternity.”
“Her power would have turned the world into this!” Nekayah pointed at scores of corpses and piles of rubble strewn about them.
Luciana nodded. “And do you not see how peaceful it is?”
“I’m insane? Do not pretend as though you care for any of these people. I watched you! I watched people treat you like trash! They spat on you like a dog! They tried to rape you—hunt you down like an animal! Your own lovers wanted to see you burn! But you wanted to let them live? You are the one who is insane!”
“Perhaps I am insane, but thankfully I’m not a one-eyed village whore.”
Luciana gritted her teeth and screamed, throwing her father’s skull onto the ground, shattering it into pieces. At first, Nekayah saw it as a gesture of surrender, but when she saw the ethereal vapor that rose from the bone fragments, she had to reconsider that thought. Screaming in eternal agony, there were more souls trapped in that skull than just her father’s. The vaporous spirits, wrapped around Luciana, coating the cyclopean witch with a necrotic aura. “You are a coward, afraid of your own gifts! I’ll show you what it means to a be a witch without fear!”
A large clawed hand, the size of a man’s chest manifested itself before Luciana out of the vapor. With a wave of her hands, Luciana sent it forth, shooting towards Nekayah. The Abyssinian had no time to do anything other than raise her arms in defense and brace for impact. The hand was already about to slash her to ribbons, but then it disappeared, evaporating into nothing.
Both women blinked, confused.
Nekayah suspected something, but had to test it. She stood, arms to her side, defenseless, ready to accept the next attack. “If you are so strong, then kill me where I stand.”
Luciana, snarling in feral frustration, slashed at the woman again with an ethereal claw. As it approached, ripping through the air, Nekayah thought of the spell she would use to deflect it. The sigil was in her mind, clear as day. Nekayah lifted her hand as if to greet the monstrous claw, and when she touched it, it melted into a harmless cloud.
“What sort of magic is this?!” Luciana barked. She sent several more disembodied hands out to wring the woman’s limbs from her body, but each was dispelled. With each deflection, the blonde’s snarling temper grew. “You…!”
Nekayah was starting to understand, and with that understanding came a heavy dread that weighed in her stomach. Mother had been dispelled, but she left her a permanent mark. A temptation perhaps. One final mockery of a spiteful god to make all her effort for naught. Or maybe it was just an aftereffect of the many unusual things she’d been subjected to.
She didn’t want to believe it. She had to test her fear. Nekayah thought of her tentacle spell, and almost immediately, the leathery whip-like tendrils erupted from her arm before withdrawing under skin once again.
“Ia Shub Niggurath…” she cursed under her breath. “No!” Hot tears welled up in her eyes and her heartbeat quickened. “No, no, no! You’re supposed to be gone! Leave me!” She collapsed to the ground and beat her fists against the stone until she felt them sting.
Luciana screamed. “Why do you still get her power? You betrayed her! You betrayed us both! It’s not fair! I’ve done everything to—” She stopped herself, rubbing her forehead while snickered. “It doesn’t matter. Her power is wasted on a frightened worm like you! I am the true disciple of death! Even now she tests me to see the extent of my ability! Mother! I shall not fail you!” Luciana yelled a high-pitched wail so shrill that Nekayah and Diego had to cover their ears to try and block the excruciating noise. As the blonde witch screamed the air around them began to glow and turn cold with the anguished souls of a thousand dead. They rose from their corpses and flew into Luciana.
The woman’s flesh started to shift and quiver. Faces of the dead began to press up from underneath her skin, moaning. Every soul taken in added another face until she was some grotesque conglomerate of tortured expressions.
Smiling, and pulled up her eye-patch.
When Nekayah looked into that pale, dead eye, she felt her stomach churn and the world around her melted away. Everything went black. The alcazar, Luciana, Diego, the forest, and even the smell of burning soldiers, all disappeared, as though she had been teleported to a realm of pure, empty darkness.
It was a place she was all too familiar with.
Nekayah looked in every direction, but everywhere was the same. Just darkness.
“Where am I?” she asked. Her voice echoed into infinity.
“It’s a little pocket of Hell I made just for you,” Luciana’s disembodied voice said. “If I cannot kill you, then I’ll let you destroy yourself!”
Then, from the darkness, a young woman stepped forward. Nekayah recognized that porcelain face, and her heart skipped a beat. It was Sofia.
“Witch…” she hissed under her breath.
“This is an illusion!” Nekayah waved her hand in front of her, expecting it to pass through Sofia’s body, but instead it struck solid flesh. “…A very good illusion.”
Sofia continued to step forward, shoving Nekayah back. “Witch…”
Others began to emerge from the darkness, coming from every direction, encircling the anxious woman. Philippe stepped forward, dressed in fine clothes, smelling of lavender. Then came Romano, with his charred eye sockets. Then came the Marquis, and Vega with his bleeding throat, that hideous corpse bride, and more. Ghosts of the past, each of them glaring at her with a burning hate, hissing the same word under their breath. Witch. Sofia grabbed at her braids and yanked her down. The Marquis grabbed her from behind, wrapping his arm around her neck, crushing her throat. The others pounced on top her, punching, scratching, pulling, choking. Nekayah tried to fight back, but couldn’t. She couldn’t move her arms nor her legs and her magic did not respond to her will.
When she looked down, she found herself tied to a stake, her hands and feet bound tight with course rope.
“No…” Nekayah said. “Let me go!” She struggled and squirmed, but it was of no use. “Let me go! This isn’t real!” Those who stood around her had torches in their hands now, and what had been at first a few people, had grown into a massive crowd. Standing at the forefront was man in a scarlet robe with his face obscured by large hood. Only his chapped lips and wrinkled chin were visible. Witch...witch...witch… Their chanting grew louder and louder. Nekayah strained against her bonds, wailing—sobbing. “Stop! Please, stop! I’m sorry!”
“You will burn tonight for the sins you’ve committed,” the robed man said from under the shadow of his hood. “What do you have to say for yourself?”
Nekayah scanned the crowd of vengeful faces, thinking of what to say. Then she gave up and drooped her head. There was no more need for tears. There was no more need for self-pity. She could only accept the truth. “Just kill me and be done with it.”
“Very well.” The inquisitor tossed the torch onto the pyre, and the tiny flame burst into a column of fire that rose up over Nekayah’s legs. It scorched her skin, causing it to burn and blister.
Nekayah screamed, tears rolling down her cheeks. Even though she felt the pain of the fire, she grinned, and her screams turned to laughter. “Yes, I am a witch! I’m an ungodly, terrible monster of the abyss! I am terror, I am death, and I’m too strong to be killed by my own nightmares!”
“What?” The robe fell back off the man’s head, revealing Luciana’s face. The world as Nekayah knew it came back into view, with the blonde witch swinging a sword at the Abyssinian’s neck.
“You’re right!” Nekayah said, catching the sword with a release of arm tentacles. She yanked it from Luciana’s hand and tossed it aside. “I used to fear my power because every time I used it to help someone, I ended up making them fear me more. But I realize that’s not my fault. I did the best I could. I did what they asked, I saved people. Their fear is their burden, not mine! I was not at fault, it was them. Thank you, Luciana, you have shown me my potential. That was Mother’s goal for you all along.”
Luciana frothed with rage. “Then show me! Show me what you really are!”
The witch raised a hand towards the heavens. “I am Nekayah of Abyssinia, the last unholy disciple of our Mother Beyond the Veil. Ia! Shub Niggurath!” Nekayah brought her hand down, and with it came a lightning bolt streaking down from beyond the sky, and struck Luciana, engulfing her. Every bit of her was incinerated in the torrent of overwhelming energy.
The cyclopean witch had been reduced to a charred corpse, barely recognizable.
Nekayah looked at the smoldering corpse, with its burning embers traveling across its surface like molten glow worms. “I hope you’ll find the peace you were searching for…sister.”
From behind, she heard Diego groan, waking up from his own hallucinations.
Nekayah turned to face the young man. “Are you alright?” Nekayah helped him to his feet.
Diego looked at the smoldering corpse. “Did you do that?”
Nekayah nodded. “Yes.”
“Good.” Diego took Nekayah’s hands, pulled her close and kissed her gently. “She was a bitch.”
Nekayah wrapped her arms around Diego, throwing her weight on him. They fell to the ground, continuing where they left off.