Issue 26: "Ring of Fire" Oct 28, 2018 8:16:52 GMT -5
Post by Charlie on Oct 28, 2018 8:16:52 GMT -5
Issue Twenty-Six: “Ring of Fire”
Written by Susan Hillwig
Cover by Charlie Wilkins
South Carolina, 1877:
For the past 16 years, the United States military had been making use of Parris Island for various operations with little trouble, so when it was proposed that a permanent naval station be established there, it seemed a simple enough matter. However, the gruesome, inexplicable deaths of some of the surveyors who went out to inspect the area chosen made all involved parties hesitant to proceed. Luckily, one of the men involved with the project recognized the deaths as possibly being the work of something more sinister than the military was used to handling and decided to wire an associate in Canada with more experience in that regard. To the surprise of his subordinates (but not himself), she arrived on the island the very next day, outfitted as always in a simple homespun dress with a mustard-colored scarf covering her short hair, the ends of it wrapped around her neck. A few of those subordinates murmured unkind words over the fact that she was a black woman, but he put a quick stop to that.
“Lieutenant Russell,” Conjura said with a smile and gentle nod. “You’re looking well.”
“Actually, it’s ‘Commander’ now. You can thank the War for that.” He looked at the thin-faced white man accompanying her, saying, “I see you’ve taken on an assistant.”
“Not exactly. Mister Lane has similar experience to my own. My instincts told me his presence here would be invaluable, and I always trust my instincts.”
“Of course. Good to have you aboard, Lane.” The commander shook his hand and took note of how weak the man’s grip was. Between that, the haunted eyes, and the meticulously-maintained dark suit covering his unremarkable frame, Russell doubted the man could survive an attack by whatever had killed the surveyors... not unless he had as many surprises up his sleeve as Conjura always did.
Consulting a map of the area, the commander was able to point out to the new arrivals where the bodies had been found, but Conjura seemed more interested in something else. “What’s all this over here?” she asked, indicating some irregular marks on the map.
“The remains of a Spanish settlement, from back when they owned the island in the 1500s. Santa Elena, they called it. I believe they intended for it to be the capital for their colonies here, but they had trouble with the locals and abandoned it.”
“It was more than ‘trouble’,” Lane said under his breath. He closed his eyes and furrowed his brow as if in concentration. “The natives burned it to the ground. They set Fort San Felipe ablaze, and the settlers ran. Not all of them made it.”
Commander Russell arched an eyebrow. “How do you know all that?”
“It can still smell the fire, and sense everything the flames touched. The people there... they weren’t all Christians by birth. Some were Jews, some Muslim. They were made to convert, to follow new ways, but the old ways still clung to them, followed them here... ”
Laying a hand on Lane’s arm, Conjura asked in a low voice, “Does El Diablo think what happened in Santa Elena is connected to this?”
He nodded. “Something survived the fires, but she didn’t leave with the other settlers.”
“‘She’? It can sense the thing well enough to know it’s female?”
Lazarus Lane nodded again, his attention still focused on the unholy voice that spoke inside his mind. “It doesn’t know exactly what she is, but it can tell that she’s from elsewhere... just like itself.”
* * * * * *
When one thinks of the denizens of Hell, they think only of those sent there: the sinners whose crimes weigh down their souls enough to sink them to the lower depths, and the fallen angels damned to their now-demonic state. But there are those for whom Hell is their birthplace, who know nothing of Earth and Sky and Sun. They are born of necessity, brought to life by dark magicks to serve at the beck and call of the various hierarchies of Hell. They have no names, no gender, no voices, no status, and no desire for such. They perform their duties without complaint, nor do they expect reward. This is the way it has always been. This is the way it shall always remain.
In the myriad firepits scattered across the Hellscape dwell thousands of such creatures, crafted of flame and smoke and undying embers. They each wield various implements of torture, which they use without compunction upon the unending supply of souls tossed into the pits from above. The souls scream and burn and bleed as the fiery creatures rend their flesh with chains and flails. One of the creatures favors a whip, as it allows for a greater reach when performing its duty. Though it is unaware of this, its skills with the whip attract attention from those working above. They roar in approval as it arcs the whip in the air, snatching souls as they fall and smashing them against the sides of the pit before yanking them down into the midst of its flaming brethren. Occasionally, some demons of high social standing pause beside this particular pit to watch it at work, even going so far as to take bets on whether it has the skill to perform certain actions (which, invariably, it soon provides evidence of). Again, this whip-wielding creature is unaware of all that transpires above. For it, there is no life beyond the task of punishing sinners, no concept of rest or leisure, no reason to stop.
Then comes the day when Sonneillon, Demon of Hatred, steps to the edge of the pit to observe. Instinctively, the whip-wielder feels the eyes of its creator gazing down, and turns its countenance upward-- it has no true face, merely a ever-shifting gout of black and red flame, with a pair of glowing embers where most creatures would have eyes-- while its brethren and even the sinners choose to cower. They all know the impossible is happening: one of the nameless is about to be literally elevated above its station. Sonneillon reaches out a hand-- the same hand that brought it to life so very long ago-- and takes hold of the whip as his creation extends it towards him. For the first time since it gained sentience, it is pulled from the pit to kneel before its creator, who says it shall obey a new master from now on, one who also serves Sonneillon. Together, they will further Sonneillon’s mission to sow hate among the peoples of Earth, not resting until all love is snuffed out. Having known nothing else in its entire existence but the pit, the whip-wielder does not fully comprehend what is to come, yet it nods silently nonetheless.
* * * * * *
A quick inspection of the bodies and a talk with a couple of eyewitnesses helped Conjura fill in the blanks in regards to what they were dealing with. When dusk fell, she headed out across Parris Island with confidence, while Lazarus Lane followed behind, holding his suit coat closed against the cool evening breeze. “If we can’t see her, how can we find her?” he asked.
“I said normal people can’t see her,” Conjura corrected. “That’s why she was able to kill those men so easily: they unknowingly walked right up to where she was and got ripped apart for their trouble. The ones who didn’t pass close enough to the spot got away.” She pulled up the hem of her dress slightly and slowed her pace as they began to pass through an area full of tangled underbrush. “Like a trapdoor spider, just waiting for prey to stroll on by.”
“And somehow, everyone’s been lucky the past 300 years and not stepped on the spot.”
“So far as we know. Could be that she’s killed lots of people over the centuries, just one at a time with no witnesses. We don’t have any way to confirm... ” She stopped talking and froze in place, looking straight ahead. “I found her,” she whispered. “About twenty paces to the left of that tree.”
Lazarus cautiously crept up to stand beside Conjura, straining to see something he wasn’t capable of seeing. There was a way to rectify that situation, of course, but then again, he wouldn’t exactly be around to see anything if he did that. Thankfully, Conjura had an easier way: she laid the tips of her fingers against his brow, saying words that made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up, and soon he could clearly see a olive-skinned young woman in delicately-colored robes kneeling in a patch of high grass. The woman’s long, snowy-white hair fell over her face, but he could hear her sobbing.
“Stay here,” Conjura told him, and began to move forward again.
“Wait!” he hissed. “That thing’s killed people! You can’t just... ”
“Yes, I can,” she interrupted. “I’ve done this before with other folk like her.” She smiled and tweaked his bearded chin between her thumb and forefinger. “Besides, if things get rough, that’s what I have you two for.” Lazarus frowned as she continued on towards the sobbing woman. When she was about ten feet away, Conjura stopped and said, “I see you, djinn. I mean you no harm. I just want to talk.”
The thing Conjura called a djinn lifted her head and pushed back her hair to reveal a face of great beauty, marred only by large, yellow eyes with strangely-shaped pupils like a goat’s. Conjura had told Lazarus that djinns had a tendency to blend animal and human features on a whim, but to actually see it was rather unsettling. Then the djinn spoke in a language Lazarus was unfamiliar with, but Conjura’s magic quickly translated the words in his mind: “Stay away from this place. You’ve hurt him enough.”
“Who’s been hurt? Tell me, perhaps I can help them.”
The djinn looked down and appeared to be caressing something hidden in the grass. “They forced him to turn away from his faith, but I refused to leave his side. Even when he traveled here to this strange land, I stayed with him. I protected him however I could, but it wasn’t enough.” She began sobbing again, tears spilling from inhuman eyes. “Allah, forgive me! I failed my beloved! I failed... ” She suddenly focused her attention on Conjura once more, a look of rage stamped on her face. “Your people did this! You were born from this land, I can smell it on you! Just like those others! You want to hurt him again!”
The djinn sprang up, her hands transforming into eagle’s talons. Conjura cast a protective shield around herself but was still knocked over by the impact as the djinn had increased in size threefold. Most of djinn’s human features were gone, replaced by a bull-like body above the waist and a reptilian one below. She pounded at Conjura’s shield, roaring,
“I’ll kill you before I let you hurt him! I’ll kill everyone who dares to come near him!”
Lazarus watched all this from afar, terrified not only of what lay before him, but of what he knew was to come. After eleven years, the agony of transformation was nearly as bad as the first time, there was no way to avoid it. He felt the fire inside him rise to the surface and burn away everything he was, reforming into something else as his consciousness faded to nothing. That was the one thing Lazarus was always grateful for: he never had to bear witness to the destruction El Diablo wrought.
* * * * * *
Confined within its strange prison, the whip-wielder shivers. The fire that emanates from its body seems weak now that it’s been away from the pit for so long... or perhaps it hasn’t been very long at all. It has no concept of time, for such a thing was unneeded before. Now everything is different. It is cold and alone and in darkness, its form crushed and compacted to fit inside this tiny prison of bone. It can feel the curved edges, smell the decay... a human smell, one it is familiar with. It can even sense the remnants of the human mind that was once housed in the space it now occupies. The fear that had overwhelmed this particular mind prior to death is not unlike the fear felt by all the souls it encountered in the pit, so it tries to take comfort in that familiarity, even as it wonders what strange new life awaits outside that calcified wall.
Eventually, the answers it seeks are given, as it hears the voice of its new master penetrate its prison. The words cause its form to become like smoke, and it drifts from the skull that had transported it out of Hell. It thinks that its true body of flame and ember will soon be restored, but instead, its smoke-form begins to wrap around a human laying on an altar... but unlike the skull it just vacated, this human is still very much alive. Though it has never been told such, it knows how wrong this union is, and tries to recoil as it comes into contact with the warm flesh, but it cannot. Soon the two are merging, Hellborn and Earthborn becoming one abomination. The human screams and writhes in agony, and the whip-wielder begins to scream as well, the first sound it has ever made in its life, instinctively brought forth by the pain it feels. After a while, the mind of the human it is now merged with falls into a death-like state (being a creature that has never known exhaustion, it does not yet understand the concept of sleep), leaving it in control of the new body they share. It sits upright, staring at the leathery, clawed hands that have replaced the fiery tendrils it once possessed, then using them to touch the human-but-not-human face that has been bestowed upon it.
Standing beside the altar, its new master chuckles at the creature’s bewilderment, then orders it to stand. As it does so, it realizes its new master is human... or at least he used to be. It can sense a massive amount of power contained within the human’s aged frame, enough to rival some lesser demons. It can also sense the hundreds of innocent souls he has slaughtered so far, and it finds itself repulsed by the actions of its new master. This is not the way of Hell: humanity must be tempted into sin, their innocence corrupted so that their fall from grace is natural. To wantonly kill those with unsullied souls only adds to Heaven’s numbers and burdens the lone sinner with more time in the pit. How can a loyal servant of Sonneillon not understand that?
Despite its doubts, it kneels before its new master. Sonneillon is both wise and powerful and would never err when it comes to choosing who will serve him. Therefore, it does as Sonneillon wishes and pledges fealty to this powerful shaman. With its newfound voice, it speaks the name of Wise Owl, and vows to obey all his commands... all the while silently fighting its Hellborn instinct to flay the skin off the bones of this unrepentant sinner.
* * * * * *
The djinn shrieked in pain and confusion as the whip tore across her face. She looked up to see a masked human garbed in black and red striding across the starlit field towards her. No, it wasn’t human, not fully. “You... you are part djinn?” she asked, still pushing her now-massive body down upon Conjura’s shield in an attempt to shatter it. “You protect this human?”
“I am not a djinn,” El Diablo replied, the edges of its cloak fluttering in the breeze. “My creator resides far from where your creator does. But yes, this woman is under my protection.” It gave the whip a slight flick, causing a ripple of flame to travel the length of it. “So I advise you to step away from her.”
“She’s not worthy of protection. Her people are killers, destroyers.” The djinn let out a painful bellow. “They killed my beloved!”
“The ones who killed your beloved are long dead, as are their children and grandchildren. Their descendants no longer reside near this island: they were driven west by the same people who wish to build here now. Your desire for vengeance is targeting innocent souls you have no true quarrel with.”
“I DON’T CARE!”
El Diablo staggered as the djinn’s fury began to stir up the air, turning a simple breeze into a whirlwind.
“YOU HAVE NO RIGHT TO JUDGE ME! I CAN SMELL INNOCENT BLOOD UPON YOU AS WELL! YOU HAVE SLAUGHTERED SO MANY MORE HUMANS THAN I, YET YOU DARE TO CALL MY WAYS WRONG?”
She rose up, letting her body dissipate and become one with the whirlwind, then concentrated her new form tightly around El Diablo, buffeting it from all sides.
“IF I MUST PAY THE PRICE FOR MY CRIMES, THEN YOU MUST ALSO PAY FOR YOURS!”
* * * * * *
It tightens the whip around the man’s throat, disgusted by its own actions but unable to stop. Behind it, the small house burns, roasting the flesh of the dead woman laying within. Both bodies will soon be brought back to Wise Owl, who will perform unspeakable rites upon them, just as he has done with scores of others. The shaman is overwhelmed by hatred for all of humanity, making him a perfect follower of Sonneillon, but instead of spreading that hatred amongst others so they also turn from the ways of Heaven, he spreads only chaos and death, using the whip-wielder as an unwilling instrument for his machinations. Every night, Wise Owl sends it out to wreak havoc upon whomever it comes across, sinner and sinless alike, and every day, it is locked away inside a prison of flesh and bone, a powerful binding spell keeping both the whip-wielder and its human host frozen in place until needed.
That is what galls it most: while Lazarus Lane is guilty of some sins-- which is true of all humans-- none are serious enough to merit the living death Wise Owl has inflicted upon him. Whenever Lazarus is awake within their shared body, his soul screams incessantly, begging for a death that it cannot provide. He calls it a monster, he curses its very existence... and it has begun to curse itself as well. Though it was created by Sonneillon to be a blindingly-obedient servant, it was also instilled with a strong sense of Hell’s peculiar morality, and it knows that, even by a demon’s standards, what its being forced to do is wrong. So it tries at every turn to resist Wise Owl’s insane commands, to fight back, but the shaman holds its reins with an iron grip. It cannot make any move to oppose him without paying dearly.
Once the last bit of breath leaves the man’s body, it loosens the whip and lets him fall to the ground, then turns towards the house. The flames clear a path as it approaches, for they are an extension of itself, just like the whip and the char-crafted steed it can call forth when needed. It bends down to grab the charred corpse of the woman, but before it can do so, it hears a cry coming from the back of the house. It follows the sound and finds an infant laying in a crib, coughing and crying as smoke fills the room. Never before has it come face-to-face with such a pure soul, unscathed by even a hint of sin. It recoils, uncertain if it can even touch the tiny, pink-faced newborn, while flames lick the walls around the crib. Wise Owl ordered it to bring back the bodies of all who lived within that house, but it knows that, should it hand over this infant to the shaman, the whip-wielder’s actions will confirm Lazarus Lane’s condemnations of it. It also knows that, if Wise Owl discovers it intentionally left someone behind, both it and Lazarus will endure suffering unrivaled since their original merging.
The infant cries even louder as the whip-wielder plucks her from the crib.
* * * * * *
Conjura climbed to her feet, keeping the shield up to protect her from the debris flying loose from the djinn’s whirlwind. Hoping she would be unnoticed, she moved over to where the djinn had been kneeling earlier and found exactly what she expected. “I’m sorry,” she whispered to what lay before her, “but I’m going to need a little extra help here.”
She moved her hands parallel to the ground, incanting a rather simple spell, while keeping her eyes on El Diablo, who fought in vain against an enemy it couldn’t touch. The djinn pelted it endlessly with stones and branches while she shrieked in anger at it-- had El Diablo been human, it likely would’ve been just as dead as those surveyors by now.
Still, Conjura wasn’t about to tarry in her task, and the moment it was complete, she hunkered down and called out in the deepest voice she could muster, “Beloved! I am here!”
The djinn turned to look in Conjura’s direction and saw a luminous figure in the shape of a man standing in the high grass, his arms outstretched. She immediately let El Diablo to fall unceremoniously to the ground as she abandoned her whirlwind form to once again resemble a white-haired young woman. She floated over to the figure and cupped his face in her hands-- she could sense the bones she’d guarded for so long laying just beneath the surface of his glowing skin.
“You’ve come back,” she sighed. “I’ve missed you so much... so very much.” Her yellow eyes slipped closed as she leaned in for a kiss.
Silently, Conjura stood up, a small glass bottle in one hand and a concoction of finely-ground herbs and salt in the other. Tilting the mouth of the bottle towards the djinn, she cast the concoction over the distracted creature, then quickly recited a containment spell. The djinn shrieked and tried to back away, but her body was already changing into a thick white mist, which was soon drawn directly into the bottle-- the moment the last wisp of djinn was inside, Conjura corked it tightly. Once that was done, she began to gently dissolve the illusion she’d cast over the bones, saying, “Thank you, and I promise to take good care of both her and you.”
As the remains settled on the ground, El Diablo stood up from where it had fallen. The cloak and hat that normally manifested with it had been torn away, and the black hair on its head-- one of the features it shared with Lazarus Lane-- was in disarray.
Staggering over to Conjura, it asked, “The djinn... where is she?”
“Safely tucked away.” Conjura held up the bottle to show off its milky contents.
“And what about you? Did she... hurt you?”
“Not a bit, but I appreciate your concern.” She reached up and tried to smooth down a few unruly locks on its head. To her surprise, its expression softened for a moment, then it suddenly flinched away from her. Before she had time to react, the form of El Diablo faded away like smoke, leaving behind an unconscious Lazarus Lane, who Conjura was just able to catch before he collapsed next to the remains of the djinn’s beloved.
* * * * * *
Every step is a labor, but knows what it must do. The infant in its arms has stopped crying, and at first, it thinks she has died, then it realizes she is merely asleep. It still does not fully comprehend the purpose of this human trait, but knows Lazarus Lane finds a small amount of respite from his torment when he sleeps within their shared body, so it presumes the same of the infant.
Another step, then another, each one more difficult than the last, but it is nearly there. When it reaches the broad stone slab, it lays the infant down, then bangs its clawed fist upon the wooden door-- with each blow, it feels as though countless thorns are ripping into its flesh. Finally, it can stand the pain no longer, and races back the way it came, until it falls in a heap upon the safe, unconsecrated ground below.
As it recuperates, the door opens-- it cannot look directly at the room beyond the door, that sight is blinding to it-- and a priest comes out to stand at the top of the church steps. He spots the infant laying at his feet, and gently scoops her up, a smile coming to his lips as she stirs and begins to coo. Then the priest sees the unholy creature kneeling in the dirt at the bottom of the steps. His eyes widening, he staggers back and utters two words in a hoarse whisper: El Diablo. It has heard these words before from others who’ve laid eyes upon it. Some whisper like the priest, some scream, but the meaning is the same: they’ve deigned to bestow upon a lowly, nameless worker from the pits one of the highest titles in all of Hell. Those who dabble in magic are aware of the power of names, both in the knowing and in the receiving. Creatures such as it has no names so as to render them powerless, to prevent them from becoming more than the obedient slaves their creators expect them to be. Even Wise Owl knows to only refer to it in the vaguest of terms, but the humans he sends it after show no such caution. When they see it, they see the Devil, and with each utterance, they unknowingly grant it a small measure of dignity that it has never received from any other sentient being. Secretly, it has begun to embrace the title of El Diablo as its own, to think of itself as an individual worthy of respect. Such thoughts help it to endure the abuse Wise Owl inflicts upon it... and it is certain there will be more abuse to come after this act of defiance.
The priest stares as El Diablo draws itself to its full height and, with a voice unlike any he’s ever heard in his life, asks him to watch after the infant. A soul so young has no place in the unending war between Heaven and Hell, it says-- the temptation of sin will increase with age and knowledge, so if it’s her fate to be ensnared by darkness, let it happen with her eyes open and mind aware.
It turns away from the church and disappears into the night, leaving the priest with countless questions and a child in need of protection.
* * * * * *
When Lazarus awoke, the first thing he saw was the vast expanse of stars stretched across the night sky. Then he saw Conjura’s smiling face gazing down as him-- his head was resting in her lap. “Hello, sleepyhead.”
“How long?” It was a question he’d gotten used to asking over the years.
“Ten minutes, at best. The djinn gave El Diablo a run for its money, though.”
“I think that’s the quickest turnaround we’ve ever had.” He sat up with a groan, saying, “I’m surprised it didn’t stay out longer, considering I haven’t given it a chance to stretch its legs for a few days.”
“Might’ve had something to do with what the djinn was yelling at it.” She recounted what Lazarus had missed, then told him, “It’s been five years since Wise Owl was destroyed, but I daresay that, despite all the good it’s done since then, there’s still just as dark of a cloud hanging over El Diablo as there is over you.”
“Maybe.” He looked at her, his eyes appearing to be a little less haunted than usual. “I’d like to think that the one hanging over me’s been fading a bit lately, thanks to you.”
“I do my best.” Conjura reached over and clasped his hand in hers, dark and light-colored fingers interlacing, then leaned forward to kiss him. Lazarus returned it in kind, his other hand coming up to slip beneath the scarf around her neck-- he felt a tingling sensation run through his body as he brushed his fingertips over the golden, tattoo-like birthmark upon her soft skin. “We should... we should wait until we get home,” she said, somewhat breathless. “For all we know, Commander Russell is already organizing a search party to find what’s left of us.”
Reluctantly, Lazarus agreed. It was bad enough listening to the snide remarks some of the enlisted men made earlier about Conjura, he certainly wouldn’t want to hear their opinions on her having a relationship with a white man. As they stood up, he asked, “What should we do about the remains?”
“We’ll take them home with us for now. I want to consult with an imam first before we do any sort of interment. If this man was born into the Muslim faith but forced to convert to Christianity against his will, then his soul might be in a state of confusion. The imam could help the djinn find some peace as well.” Conjura gazed down at the bottle, sitting in the high grass next to the weathered bone fragments and scraps of moldy cloth. “From what I understand, it’s not unusual for djinns to fall in love with humans-- some even conceive children with them-- but due to their nature, there’s a chance this man wasn’t even aware of her existence.”
“But she still stayed with him. For three hundred years, she stayed by his side and protected him.” Lazarus felt a lump form in his throat, and he took hold of Conjura’s hand again, squeezing tightly.
* * * * * *
Lurking in a dark corner of Lazarus Lane’s soul, El Diablo tries to ignore the emotion welling up within itself. The man’s feelings for the sorceress known as Conjura have grown slowly over the years, starting as simple friendship, then affection, and finally intimacy... all aspects of love, the very thing its creator wishes to snuff out. It knows how wrong this is, and that it should be doing everything it can to discourage their love, yet it cannot help but find pleasure in the intensely-positive rush that courses through their shared body whenever Lazarus so much as looks at her. Today, that same rush occurred when El Diablo alone felt her touch, causing it to bolt away in fear and confusion. It has seen how destructive love can be to a creature like itself-- love drove the djinn to the brink of madness, after all-- to indulge in love directly as opposed to vicariously could spell an end to its very existence.
And yet... the longing to feel her touch again is still there. It tries to stir up a hatred of Conjura within itself in order to quash the unwanted emotion, but it cannot. The spark of love continues to burn, the first flame in its existence that it has been unable to control. It does not know what to do, save to bask in the warmth and hope the fire does not consume it.
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