Chapter 20: The Song of Night
The two lovers, weary and bruised from combat, laid embracing each other on the ramparts, too tired to move. They listened to each other breathing, their chests rising and falling against one another, fast at first, then slowing to a stable rhythm. They were still alive, more or less, and they were happy.
Diego fell asleep first, and Nekayah watched him. She observed his stupid smile, how it clung to his face even after he started to snore. She couldn’t look at it without smiling herself. He’d been through hell and back, and he still couldn’t stop grinning. So peaceful.
Nekayah thought back to her time in the village. She thought about how content they all were. She remembered their happiness, and if she was honest with herself, she envied them. Even when their village was burning, she still envied them. Just the fact that they had something so precious to lose. She envied the Marquis’s love for his wife. Even how dedicated Philippe was to Romano, it was touching in a painful sort of way. Each of them betrayed and hurt Nekayah for the one’s to try and save what was precious to them.
Maybe that’s one of the reasons why she always felt like such a stranger—an other. Sure, she was an Abyssinian thousands of miles from home, in a strange land, and that she was bound to an otherworldly monstrosity, but all those things were just additions to the core of what had really been upsetting her. She had nothing to protect. Nothing to live for besides her stupid quest to become normal.
Jarangosa was a lie. A vague promise upon which she hung far too much hope. If anything, she was more a part of Shub Nigurath then before. If it wasn’t for Diego, she’d be screaming right now, alone and in pain.
When the stars were out, the young man awoke to see the witch still looking at him.
“Think we better be on our way,” he groaned, sitting up.
The two collected themselves and made their way to the main gate of the fortress. There, they found that hordes of crows and dog-sized vultures had already descended upon the numerous dead. They feasted noisily, pecking and squawking in hedonistic frenzy. The forest was making quick work of the mess it was left with.
“Do you think the queen will send more men?” Diego asked, stepping over a fallen soldier. “She still hasn’t gotten that golden cross.”
“Yes,” Nekayah answered, “but we’ll be long gone by then.”
Diego looked back at the castle. “Maybe we could take it. We could buy our own fortress.”
“Who would buy it?”
Diego shrugged. “I could think of a guy.”
Nekayah grabbed Diego’s hand and pulled him along. “I don’t care. We just escaped death. Let’s not invite it again so quickly.”
“Ow!” Diego felt his wrist bones pop from Nekayah’s tugging. “I was just kidding. It was a joke!”
They left the smoldering citadel behind them. Thankful to be done with it, they ventured into the twisted forest. The hike was not easy, and the two realized how much of a toll their struggle had cost them when pressed against the elements of nature. They fatigued almost immediately. The darkness only added to the trouble.
Diego made a torch from a branch and a clump of moss to light their way, as no starlight could filter through the dense canopy of leaves.
“When did you become so resourceful, city boy?” Nekayah remarked.
Diego looked at his torch burning in front of his face. “I was just guessing this would work.”
The limits of his craftiness were soon revealed when the torch burned out only after a few brief minutes. Diego found more moss, struck a piece of flint, and made a new one. Again, it only lasted a few minutes. The repetition made traveling slow, and eventually Nekayah just gave up.
“Maybe we should just make a camp for the night,” she said. “I think I hear running water nearby. Let’s set up near there.”
By the time the last torch was burning out, they found a small creek trickling across the forest floor. It was a pitiful vein of shallow water, but they agreed they’d have to make do. Diego made a campfire using the cinders of his torch, and the two proceeded to remove their grimy, stinking clothes and scrub them in the creek.
In the camp fire they observed each other as they washed. There were no mysteries or secrets between them anymore. Nothing to hide, and hopefully nothing left to fear. All the unpleasantries they had to bear to witness to were being scrubbed away with the blood stains on their clothes.
When they were done, they put their sopping clothes on rocks beside the fire. With nothing to do, they sat, Diego holding Nekayah in his arms, watching the steam rise from their laundry.
“I’ve been wondering,” Diego said.
“Hmm?” Nekayah grunted, stirring from a brief nap. She had not realized how tired she must have been, and it was very easy for her to drift off while being held between Diego’s well-muscled arms. It wasn’t just the fight that had caught up to her, it was the thousands of miles she’d trekked over the years that were catching up to her all at once.
“How were you able to beat Luciana so easily?”
“When you stabbed me, Shub Niggurath was dispelled. Her hold over me, how do you say, vanished, but for some reason, I still have some of her power. Our bond, for better or for worse, is permanent, and now it’s even stronger than it was before. She wants me to use her power. Maybe she hopes I will kill more people. I have escaped her twice. Maybe, I think…I intrigue her.”
“Hm.” Diego nodded as if he understood, but his mind was still working out the details. “Well, you won’t need to kill anyone, I think. Not anymore.”
“Who can say. I slaughtered a woman without a second thought.”
“But you didn’t like it, did you?”
Nekayah looked at the fire, looking deep into her own feelings. She sighed with relief when she found the answer. “No. I did not.”
Diego hugged her tight like a doll, rocking from side to side. “You see? You’re not a bloodthirsty demon. So don’t worry about Stub Shiburath.”
“Shub Nigurath,” Nekayah corrected.
“Yeah…that. Do you think there are other witches out there? Real ones like you?”
“I’m not sure.” Nekayah twirled one of her braids around her finger, considering the questions. Up until recently, she would have sworn to be the only one aware of the arcane arts, but it was clear now that if one other existed here of all places, there may be more. That thought gnawed on the corners of her new-found bliss. “My master taught me, and he learned from someone else, so there might be others, but maybe not. The sanctum beneath the alcazar was destroyed when I lost control. No more sad young girls will wander stumble upon such dark secrets again. So, I think not. I hope not.”
“Will you take on an apprentice?”
“God, no.” Nekayah shook her head, rattling her beads. “If I am the last, I hope her secrets die with me.”
Diego scratched his head for a moment. “But let’s say you’re not. Would you kill a witch again?”
Nekayah did not like this questioning. “I would, if she were mad and could not control her power. But it is my greatest hope I never meet another person like me ever again. Now, can we please stop talking about this?”
“Sure.” Diego stood up, dusting the leaves off his butt. “I just had to know, that’s all. Wouldn’t be able to sleep at night otherwise. Now if you’ll excuse, I think I felt an ant tickle my balls. It’s time to put my pants back on.”
They dressed themselves and continued on their way. The forest was big, but they could feel fresh air blowing in from one direction. They followed it, using another series of Diego’s torches to light their way. By the time they reached the edge of the forest, it was like stepping out of a hazy dream. The world was stretched out before them, under a black velveteen carpet encrusted with the diamonds of the cosmos. A cool, fresh breeze swept over them, licking the sweat off their skin and filling their lungs with clean air.
Nekayah looked at the constellations and sighed. “The night really is beautiful.”
“Enjoy it while you can,” Diego said. “It’ll be dawn soon.”
“And with it, a fresh start. A chance to have a normal, happy life.”
“I think it’s best if we both don’t cling to hard to what’s normal, you being magical and me being a runaway and all.”
Nekayah yielded to his wisdom. “That’s probably true.”
“Well then, where shall we go?” Diego gestured to the broad horizon. Any direction seemed just as feasible as any other. “I have a friend in Madrid, or maybe Valencia. Lots of moriscos there, I hear. It’ll be easy to settle in. We could go somewhere by the sea. Do you have a preference?” Diego looked back at Nekayah. A quietness had taken her, and her stare seemed adrift in a different reality. “Nekayah?”
“For the past four years of my life, I wandered the world. I’ve gone from the desert of Rub’ Al Kali, to the Mediterranean Sea. I’ve seen so many things most people would never believe. I’ve seen ruined cities of glass, sleeping gods, and worlds beyond the stars. I saw things that would make you cry and laugh and scream all at the same time. I’ve come back from the dead twice. All I want to do now is find a place to rest.”
Nekayah nodded and smiled. “Sure. And Diego…”
Diego felt his face become warm, his mouth curl into smile, and his heart beat extra hard. “Ha! Well—its nothing—really. I just…uh…Anyway, where were we?” Diego pointed in the direction he believed was east, judging on how it seemed a little less dark. “Valencia! It’ll be a long walk, but we’ll manage.”
Nekayah took Diego’s outstretched hand and gently lowered it, shaking her head. “We don’t have to walk.”
“What do you mean?”
“There was this one spell, you see, that I was never able to accomplish, but now it just might work. Promise you won’t get scared, though.”
“I’ve come with you this far, haven’t I?”
“Alright then.” Nekayah raised her hands and murmured to herself in an incomprehensible tongue. Then, screeching from the night sky came a hideous chimera, the likes of which Diego had never even conceived of. It soared down on leathery wings, with its wrinkled, vulture-like head at the end of a serpentine neck that attached to a giant, wasp’s body, complete with chitinous armor, and dangling from its thorax were four slim legs, each ending in four sharp talons. As a whole, the monster was about the size of a horse, and even when it landed, it never quite touched the ground.
“Holy Mary, Mother of God!” Diego shouted, running his fingers over himself in the sign of the cross. “What is that thing?”
Nekayah pouted. “You said you wouldn’t be scared.”
Nekayah climbed onto its back, gently putting her legs behind its wings. “With this we can go anywhere we want. So what do you say? Will you come with me?”
Diego looked at the monster and it looked back with beady red eyes. He shuddered, but then saw Nekayah sitting on top, arm outstretched, waiting for him to grab it. She waited patiently, with a genuine smile on her face. Such a sight was even stranger than the chimera underneath her.
Diego shrugged. “I just killed a giant, what do I have to fear from a…whatever this is. Let’s go!” He took Nekayah’s hand and climbed atop the unholy amalgamation. Once he was on, he held tight to Nekayah, for the beast wasted no time in lifting off into the air, beating its mighty wings, pushing them ever higher. The night sky grew closer with each second, and together they flew up towards the stars.
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