Viscera throbbed on the black floor. Weak moonlight rendered the pile of organ and membrane an amorphous glob, the edges of the shape shining wet. The guts, still tethered into the torso by intestine and esophagus, reeked of blood and bile and corruption.
Simon gagged at the stench. The newest priest of the bunch, and the youngest, he stood in the back corner of the room with watering eyes. The smell, along with the sickening slippery thumping sound of the beating heart, was almost enough to distract him. Almost.
Bathed in shadow, barely a sliver of sight in the darkness, was the one they called Semyasa. She was chained to the wall, bound in thick iron by wrist, ankle and neck. She still scared the living daylights out of Simon.
He watched her lungs inflate as she breathed, peeking out from under her ribs as she inhaled. The column of her spine was visible through her hollowed-out stomach, and still, she breathed.
Of course, he’d been taught all about the Mother of Death: a demoness, captured by the Catholic Church some thousand years ago, her sole purpose on earth to spawn chaos and destruction. The Protectorate Curia, Simon’s order, had been guarding her since her capture.
He imagined he could see the blood of a millennium built up in the grain of the wood here.
A part of him wished that they could simply bar the door and leave her to rot. Something about her presence made him feel jittery, like his blood was too bright. Father Arkoum said he would get over that with time, but it was hard to imagine that he would ever hold the scalpel with a steady hand.
Tonight, Father Yolen wielded the knife. His practiced hand peeled the skin back neatly, even in the low light, and his incisions were precise. With most of the Great Whore’s organs scooped out onto the ground, Yolen took his right hand and began to fish for the womb.
Semyasa did not writhe or fight her bonds, but for some reason, Simon felt even more afraid than if she had.
Father Yolen found the womb and wrested it free of its housing. He pressed the tip of the scalpel to the pink-gray flesh.
The room was unnaturally silent.
Yolen made a quick incision, then peeled back the flap of flesh he’d created.
Father Lewis stepped up beside Father Yolen, holding a small leather pouch in his hand. He dipped his fingers in and retrieved a wad of cotton. Simon’s stomach turned as he began putting it inside the demon’s womb.
The cotton was soaked in Holy water, blessed thrice-over by the priests. It prevented the demon from birthing evil into the world.
Still, it was revolting to watch. His father, a lifelong member of the Protectorate, would have been ashamed of him, but Simon closed his eyes.
They called me Semyasa, the Incandescent.
The voice that came was not a voice, but rather a collection of hundreds of voices. Simon heard the rasp of an old woman and the bell-tones of a child. In all of them, he heard pain.
He opened his eyes at the words, and in the darkness, he saw two circles of golden light. They stared right at him, through him, into his soul. His knees began to tremble.
I was the brightest of stars once. You should have seen my wings.
The demon was speaking to him. He ought to speak up, tell father Yolen what was happening. He knew he ought to, but his tongue was frozen in his mouth. He couldn’t break away from her golden gaze.
How long has it been since you broke my radiance? Tore the wings off my back? Centuries? Millennia?
Father Lewis finished, his bag empty, and stepped back.
Yolen began to shove Semyasa’s organs back in, not much caring for the correct arrangement of things. The skin he’d peeled back he now closed, fastening the edges together with a series of sharp pins. Semyasa bled black where they pierced her.
The two men turned to leave, and the others made to follow them.
Simon was still rooted to the spot.
You people, you defile me, beloved daughter of heaven! Your sins will see you cast down!
A hand on his shoulder startled Simon, and finally able to tear his gaze away from the golden eyes, he saw Father Yolen looking down at him. He had a knowing look on his face and simply patted his shoulder again.
“Do you hear her too?” Simon dared whisper. He cast a look back over his shoulder to find the shining eyes still fixed on him.
“Always. The demon speaks nothing but lies and falsehoods. Do not be deceived.” It was Father Lewis who answered, and his voice was flat and serious. He held the heavy door open for Yolen and Simon.
SPEAK MY NAME, YOU COWARDS! AND BEG THAT THE FATHER FORGIVES YOU OF YOUR TRANSGRESSIONS!
The voices were unbearably loud. Simon winced at the torrent of noise.
He turned back one more time and met the eyes in the darkness.
Please, she whispered. Simon.
Semyasa pleaded now in a single voice, a desperate one, soft and clear like morning dew.
An image came to him: the waters of a great azure lake, passing quickly underneath him. The sunlight played off the little waves, and the breeze tossed his hair. He heard a laugh, high and bright and beautiful, and as he looked down he saw his reflection. Pure, and radiant, an angel with golden eyes.
Simon hesitated. He knew, somehow, that if he was to do as she asked and speak her name, he would give her the power she needed to free herself. He would undo the work of a thousand years; his father’s work, his grandfather’s work.
But their work had been blood, and as the coppery bite of it stung his nose, Simon found that he had no stomach for it. He took a quivering breath.
“Semyasa,” he whispered, barely loud enough for himself to hear, “the Incandescent.”
He felt the other priests stiffen behind him, and a moment later, there came a great crack. The room began to tremble, and there came a roaring as if a fierce storm was bearing down on them.
“Simon!” shouted Father Yolen. “What have you done!”
A deep crimson glow rose behind him, stretching out further and further into the room. Simon thought he heard the frantic pounding of drums, but the noise may have been his hammering pulse. The wall ahead of him groaned, creaking and whining until finally – snap!
There came the sound of metal chain hitting the floor, and Semyasa stepped out into the light.
She was hideous to behold. The flesh had been stripped from her cheeks, exposing the raw and bleeding muscles underneath. Her irises glowed golden, but the whites of her eyes were red. Thick black horns spiraled from her forehead up towards the ceiling. Her skin, from neck to navel, was a forest of scars and gashes, and her limbs twisted and bent as if they were broken in many places.
She smiled, and Simon saw hellfire behind her teeth.
The other priests turned to run, scrambling over each other towards the door. Before any of them could cross the threshold, it burst into flames.
Semyasa began to laugh. “Not so fast, little Adams,” she said.
A new image sprung into Simon’s mind: buildings toppling into dust, cities burned to ash, wailing children tossed into a boiling sea.
“You men, so desperate for even a freckle of my divinity… do you not want me now?” Her voice was mocking, bitter. “Am I not still beautiful, now that you’ve sewn these horns to my head and burned my hair black?”
None of the priests spoke. Simon didn’t make a noise. The building continued to shudder around them.
“No matter,” she said, stalking toward them on splintered legs. “You will have my mercy.”
A rotting black claw of a fingernail traced the underside of Yolen’s jaw. He swallowed visibly.
“Yes, I was a creature of heaven, and you will have every bit of mercy I possess,” she whispered, her voice menacingly sweet. “Unfortunately for you, after all of your cruelty and humiliation, all the mercy I have left… is none.”
Yolen’s jaw ripped cleanly away from the rest of his skull in a way Simon wouldn’t have thought possible. His tongue flopped grotesquely against his throat as he made a helpless gargling sound. He hit the ground with a thud.
Semyasa waded through Yolen’s blood, and one by one, the rest of the priests died. Her body seemed to grow bigger and stronger with each crushed bone, until she was forced to stoop to avoid brushing her horns against the ceiling.
The smell of death was ripe in the air when she turned to Simon. Her face was alight with some savage joy, and he saw the scars had begun to fade from her skin.
Something ruffled behind her, and with shock, he saw that she now trailed massive obsidian-black wings.
“Were you really an angel?” he asked her, barely finding the breath to speak.
Semyasa merely smiled, and Simon felt teeth close around his neck.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
R. M. Carpenter is a writer and artist, born and raised in the small Midwestern town of Columbia, Missouri. There, she developed a deep love of fantasy and the wild outdoors and can often be found drawing, painting, sculpting and writing about the strange worlds and people in her head.
Find more of her art and writing at rebeccasextonart.com.