by Nene Adams ©2002
The woman was dry-eyed, but her face showed the haggard traces of grief. "Will you do this for me?" she asked.
"I will do what I can," the witch replied. She was young and pretty - too pretty, perhaps, for the dire employment that had brought her to the mansion in the woods.
Felicity's tangled hair was a whit darker than the flames in the fireplace, and her swollen eyes were hard as green agates. She smoothed down the front of her dress and said, "I will pay any price."
"Be careful what you offer. The price might be higher than you imagine." The witch, whose name was Daphnis, grinned as she spoke. She had a round face, pert as a kitten's; her little greedy mouth was the color of ripe plums. Long brown hair hung loose to her ankles, and she was barefoot.
"I said I'll pay your price, whatever it is." Felicity's lips twitched. "You have a reputation as a hard bargainer, Daphnis. I didn't expect your services to come cheaply. Now, shall we begin?"
Daphnis gave a mocking little bow. "Don't you want to hear my price first?"
"I don't care." Felicity turned to a table, picked up an ivory inlaid box. "Here are the materials you required."
Daphnis opened the lid. Inside were several pieces of bone, a folded sheet of what appeared to be soft leather, a heavy lock of hair, bound with a black ribbon, and a glass vial filled with some dark clotted fluid. "From the source?" the witch inquired.
"With my own hands."
Again, Daphnis bowed, this time out of respect for Felicity's iron nerve. It was not everyone who dared to visit a dead beloved's grave site in order to violate the corpse. She took the box out of Felicity's hands and closed it. "I must return to my home in order to make certain preparations. When I'm finished, I will return."
"No. You will stay here until the task is completed to my satisfaction."
"I think not."
Felicity's teeth were clenched together. When she spoke, it was in a dreadful voice, like the tolling of a great iron bell. "You will remain, for I abjure and bind thee by the power of thy true name!" Before Daphnis could interrupt, Felicity recited a name that caused the curtains to billow outward, as if whipped by a powerful wind - but the windows were fastened shut.
Daphnis' eyes narrowed. The curtains fluttered weakly, then fell limp. "Clever. That information would have been very expensive to obtain. Very expensive, indeed."
"Money can buy many things, witch. I have my sources. What do you think led me to you?" Felicity tapped the box with a finger. "Do what I require, and I will set you free."
"Is my freedom to be the price for my services?" Daphnis drew herself up proudly. "I cannot be compelled to practice my arts."
"I have sworn to pay whatever you ask, and I will do so. The binding is a precaution. You've tricked others, but I'll not be cheated so easily. There's a workroom in the cellar. If anything is lacking, it will be provided. You will not leave this house for any reason until the ritual is complete, and I am satisfied that the requirements are met. Then, and only then, will you receive your payment and your freedom. Is that understood? Deceive me, and I'll ensure your punishment fits the crime."
Daphnis looked into Felicity's face, read the implacable expression, and sighed. "Your desire has become my desire. Show me to this workroom of yours. I warn you, the preparations will take more time if I'm imprisoned here."
"Take all the time you need." Felicity turned towards the door. "I'm in no hurry, and neither is she."
For the third time, Daphnis bowed, this time in acknowledgment of Felicity's temporary mastery. Gathering the box close to her bosom, the witch followed her captor down into the cellar, bare feet pattering on the floorboards.
It was three months before Daphnis stood in front of Felicity again. "The first part is accomplished. Behold, the simulacrum!"
Daphnis stood something on a nearby table. It was an exquisitely crafted and detailed human figure, about eighteen inches tall. The skin was tinted so that blue veins could be traced on the inner arms and breasts. Glossy black hair swept back from the forehead to the shoulders. Tiny curls surmounted the juncture between its thighs. Its face was superb, with black brows arching over wide brown eyes, parted lips revealing ivory teeth.
Felicity fetched a magnifying glass and examined the simulacrum closely. She was amazed at the craftsmanship; there were even discernible fingerprints, and fingernails and toenails like slivers of nacre. She straightened up, took a deep shuddering breath. "This is her. This is Alida."
"Of course. Her skin, her bone, her blood, her hair - as you know, having gotten the items yourself." Daphnis' greedy mouth curved in a smile that was almost grotesque. "From a graveyard at midnight, beneath the weeping yews, while shadows covered the moon. Did you have any trouble breaking into her coffin? I favor a crowbar myself."
"Enough, witch. I will ask the questions. You will answer." Felicity put the magnifying glass away. "Did you have any trouble with the crafting?" she asked
"Heart of garnet, engraved with enchantments," Daphnis said. "A jewel for every organ, each bearing the most powerful spells at my command. Every bone in its proper place, carved with my hand from her own bones. Veins and arteries of incorruptible gold, filled with her blood. Her hairs rooted in place, one by one. The eyes are smoky topaz, the teeth made of pearl. The skeleton covered with her own skin, flayed from the corpse with a necromancer's knife. It requires only a ritual to complete the work."
"And when shall that be?"
"Tonight, I dance." Daphnis' hands described a series of graceful curves in the air. "Tonight, Alida shall live again."
Felicity nodded. "Then you need to prepare, and so do I." Giving the simulacrum one last look, Felicity walked out of the room.
Daphnis cocked her head to one side, reached out and ran a fingernail down the figure's back. The witch let out a breathy little laugh, her gaze glittering with malice. She would give Felicity what she wanted... but the price would be high, indeed.
The room had been cleared of furniture. Daphnis covered the wooden floorboards with sigils drawn in some reeking liquid she had concocted in the cellar. The symbols glowed faintly, a bluish-green phosphorescence that reminded Felicity of rotting mold. Light was provided by candles on the mantelpiece; the flames in the fireplace had been allowed to die to crumbling embers and ash. The candles smelled faintly like roasting pork. After a moment, Felicity realized that they were made of human fat. She did not know whether to be horrified, or admire the witch's theatrical sense.
When she was finished with her preparations, Daphnis put the simulacrum in the center of the floor. She stood up, pushing back her long veil of hair to reveal her nude body. The only ornaments she wore were a belt of silver bells around her waist, and tiny bird skulls strung on threads wrapped around wrists and ankles. The palms of her hands and soles of her feet were dyed red with henna. Thick kohl around her eyes gave Daphnis a wild look.
She cast a handful of incense into the dying fire. The smoke was thick and musty; it made the back of Felicity's throat itch.
Felicity sat where she had been told, in a circle of blue-green sigils somewhat apart from the rest. She was not nervous or afraid. In her quest to restore beloved Alida, she had seen and experienced things far beyond the normal mortal boundaries. In Siberia, she had witnessed a shaman flying to the underworld on the back of his spirit helper in an unsuccessful effort to retrieve the dead woman's soul. From a Romany witch in Hungary, to a mountain sorcerer in Nepal, Felicity had traveled the world seeking to restore the love that had been cruelly snatched away from her.
There was no act too vile, no price too high, no avenue too far afield to be explored. Alida was dead, and without her, Felicity could not live. Every waking moment was a maelstrom of sorrow and loss. Felicity could not, would not, let Alida go without a fight. Daphnis the witch was her last resort.
A tinkling sound roused Felicity's attention. She lifted her eyes to behold Daphnis striking a pose. One leg extended, the other supporting her weight, both arms raised above her head. The witch began to twitch her hips. Each time she did so, the bells at her waist jingled. Her hands came together to mark the beat - three staccato claps, followed by four measured beats. Felicity took up the rhythm while Daphnis danced.
The bird skulls rattled as Daphnis whirled around the simulacrum, feet flickering in a complicated pattern . Her long brown hair flew out in a circle - first revealing, then concealing, her pale body. She thrust out her arms again and again, beseeching some unseen presence. Her nipples were hard; sweat glistened on her flanks. A thin line of blood snaked down her thigh. She spun faster to the counterpoint of bells and bones.
Daphnis cried out in a guttural tongue, a language that Felicity did not know or understand. Although at first not apparent, Felicity realized that the simulacrum was growing in fits and starts. Reaching to Daphnis' knee one moment, the next it had shot up so that the crown of its head was even with her waist. The growth continued, until it was a few inches taller than the witch. Now it resembled a human being, except that it was patently not alive. A mannequin made of leather and jewels - a thing rather than a person.
Felicity could scarcely breathe. Incense fumes constricted her chest, smoky coils winding tighter and tighter until she was light headed. Tears coursed down her cheeks.
"Fire!" Daphnis said, reaching towards a candle. The flame bobbled, leaped from the wick to set her fingertips ablaze. She inscribed a symbol on the simulacrum's forehead with the same hand. Fire dripped and sizzled, scorching the floor. The simulacrum blinked. A rosy flush infused the skin.
The witch danced to Felicity. "Water!" She flicked two tears from Felicity's face; they landed on the simulacrum's breasts. A pulse throbbed in its throat.
"Air!" Daphnis blew on the simulacrum, her breath turning into a mist that crept into the figure's nostrils. It inhaled, then exhaled.
Finally, Daphnis thrust two fingers between her thighs. When she withdrew them, her fingers were smeared with blood. "Earth!" she said, painting crimson dabblings on the simulacrum's belly.
There was a flash of light, a howling wind that clawed at Felicity's face until she had to close her eyes or risk being blinded. Heat seared her skin. She fancied she could smell the stink of scorched hair.
"It is accomplished!" Daphnis screamed, her voice cutting through the noise. The light flickered out, the wind died. When Felicity opened her eyes, Alida was smiling at her.
It was Alida. The knowledge came straight from Felicity's heart. She gasped, choking on a swell of emotion that threatened to overwhelm her.
"Where have you been?" Alida asked, looking at Felicity with a touch of confusion in her eyes. "I've been looking for you."
"It doesn't matter," Felicity answered huskily. The effort to speak was almost too much. She stood up, holding out her arms. Alida came to her, warm and willing and smelling of spice. Alive again.
Daphnis gazed at the reunited lovers, venom evident in her steady stare. "It is accomplished... almost," she whispered, turning on her heel to exit the room, leaving Felicity and Alida alone.
The next seven days were a paradise for Felicity. From the depths of a personal hell, she had climbed to the heights of ecstasy and joy.
Alida had no memory of the accident that had claimed her life. She did not recall being dead for nearly five years. She accepted a lie about a coma, her curiosity held at bay by the fierceness of Felicity's loving. The two scarcely left their bedroom. Servants brought chilled champagne, ripe strawberries, pheasant, lobsters flown in from Maine - all the delicacies that money could buy. During this time of celebration and reunion, Felicity completely forgot about Daphnis the witch.
On the eighth day, however, Felicity woke up to find Daphnis seated beside the bed, nibbling a strawberry. Red juice stained her lips, dribbled down her chin.
"What do you want?" Felicity asked, anxious not to awaken Alida.
"I've come to claim my price," the witch answered. Her greedy little mouth nipped at the strawberry, consuming it bite by bite until there was nothing left.
Daphnis spread her hands apart. "Is there a better time? You have what you wanted. Give me what I want, and I'll go away."
Alida woke up. When she saw Daphnis, she gathered the sheet to her breasts instinctively. "Flick, who's that? Is she one of my doctors? I seem to remember..."
"Never mind," Felicity said, getting out of bed hastily. She snatched up a robe, put it on, and gave Alida a reassuring smile. "Don't worry, sweetheart. Just some business that needs my attention. I won't be long."
Alida settled back on the pillows. Her dark hair was delightfully mussed, a confusion of curls that framed her face. She looked so beautiful, Felicity's heart lurched in her chest. "All right, Flick. I'll wait right here for you," she said.
Felicity bent down, kissed Alida's cheek. "I'll be back soon, I promise."
Daphnis laughed silently, and led Felicity out into the hall.
"You said that you'd pay any price," Daphnis said, as soon as the bedroom door was shut. "Any price at all."
"Yes, I did." Felicity pushed stray auburn tresses behind her ears. "What do you want, witch? Money? Gold? Jewels?"
"Nothing so mundane as that."
Felicity raised an eyebrow. "My first born child?"
Again, Daphnis laughed silently. "Hardly. We both know the likelihood of that happening."
"Your soul belongs to another."
"Look," Felicity said impatiently, "I've had enough of your games. Just tell me what you want."
"And you will pay my price of your own free will? Whatever I ask?"
"A bargain is a bargain." Felicity glanced at the closed door. "Alida means everything to me. Everything! I would gladly give my life for hers, if that's what will satisfy you."
"You're a rich woman. What if I demanded all your wealth?"
"I'd give you every cent I owned."
"What if I desired your beauty? Would you live as a maimed, scarred monster, knowing that Alida could not possibly accept you? Would, in fact, flee screaming from the very sight of you?"
Felicity shuddered, but answered bravely, "Take it. Leave me blind, deaf, halt and mute; make me the most hideously ugly woman on the planet. I'll be content knowing that Alida is alive, even if I can never see her again."
"What if I were to do just that? Steal your senses, leave you aware inside a broken shell that can never respond to Alida or anyone else."
"Do what you will, witch. I said I'd pay your price. Stop toying with me and do it!"
Daphnis wrinkled her pretty nose. "Very well. My price is... a single kiss."
Felicity was taken aback. She could hardly credit what she had heard. "A kiss? That's all?"
"A kiss. That's all." Daphnis flipped back her long brown hair. As before, she was naked except for bells and bird skulls. She gave Felicity a smoldering look. "A single kiss, given freely and without reservation."
"Fine." Felicity moved closer. "If that's what you really want." The witch smelled of anise and lemons, hot sugar and plums ripening beneath a summer sun.
"That is my price. Pay it, and our business is finished." Daphnis pressed herself against Felicity, arms winding around her neck like silken serpents. Her eyes flashed black fire. The bells around her waist tinkled, then fell silent.
Felicity had no time to prepare herself. Suddenly, the witch's greedy little mouth was crushing against her own, a wet tongue sliding between her lips. Without thinking about it, Felicity opened her mouth, let Daphnis inside. It was difficult to concentrate with so much firm, sweet-smelling flesh under her hands. The witch's perfume was dazzling. The arms around her neck were pulling her down, down into velvet softness, into warmth and darkness.
Then she felt it. Something slippery, semi-solid, coated with slickness. Pushed into her mouth, propelled by Daphnis' tongue. Felicity's eyes opened wide. She tried to pull away, but the witch's grasp was stronger. Rancid bitterness invaded, so powerful it made Felicity gag. She could not close her lips. She was paralyzed. A rubbery oval slid across her palate, eased down her throat. It blocked her airway, and Felicity began to convulse.
She heard Daphnis say. "My price is paid in full."
Felicity fell to the floor, unconscious.
When Felicity awoke, Alida was hovering anxiously above her. "Thank God!" Alida said, when Felicity's eyes fluttered open. "You've been out for three days, Flick. How do you feel?"
"Tired," Felicity croaked. She gratefully accepted a glass of water. Other than a slight headache, she seemed unharmed. "Where's Daphnis?"
"Who? Oh, do you mean that woman with the hair?" Alida made a face. "She said you fainted in the hallway. The doctor guessed it was some kind of delayed shock, or perhaps exhaustion. You've been stretching yourself a bit thin."
"Where did Daphnis go?" Felicity was having a hard time remembering exactly what had occurred between herself and the witch. Daphnis had demanded a kiss as payment, and then... but the memory was blurred, too difficult to recall.
"She left about ten minutes after I called the doctor." Alida helped Felicity sit up, piling pillows behind her for support. "Who was she, anyway?"
"Not important. A business associate."
"Well, I'm glad she's gone."
Felicity took one of Alida's hands, kissed the knuckles one by one. "So am I."
That night, the women were watching an episode of The Twilight Zone on television. A black-and-white Rod Serling smirked his way through the introduction, while Alida snuggled closer to Felicity.
"I was lost," Alida murmured, "but you found me again."
"When I was in that coma. I don't remember, of course. I just have a feeling that you were always there, trying to guide me home."
The lights were off. The only illumination in the room was provided by the flickering television screen. Felicity ignored the program, turned her attention to Alida. "You're back, and that's all that matters."
"Is it?" Alida's eyes turned yellow. Her canine teeth elongated, becoming fangs. Cruelly hooked claws burst from her fingertips, sank into Felicity's flesh. "I'd say, the only thing that really matters is a good meal."
Felicity screamed... and woke up.
Beside her, the real Alida was propped up on an elbow, staring down at her, brows furrowed in a frown. "I didn't realize you were asleep, Flick. Were you having a nightmare?"
On television, Rod Serling was smirking at her again, a cloud of smoke wreathing his saturnine features. Felicity groped for the remote control and clicked the set off. She was covered in cold sweat, and her mouth was dry. "I'm fine," she lied. "Just tired."
"Oh!" Alida was suddenly pushing at her, rolling Felicity onto her side. "How did that happen?" she asked.
"What?" Felicity craned her neck to see. Four shallow cuts curved along her ribs, barely bleeding. She remembered the dream, and shuddered.
"Poor thing," Alida crooned, getting up to fetch a towel from the bathroom, "you must have scratched yourself in your sleep."
"Yes. I suppose so," Felicity answered, vividly recalling the hungry vampire-like creature in her dream. For the first time, she felt a faint thrill of mistrust. When Alida returned to clean her scratches, it was all Felicity could do not to flinch away from her lover's ministrations.
She must have been looking at Alida strangely, because after a few moments, the dark haired woman put down the towel and stared back at her. "What's wrong, Flick? You look like you've seen a ghost."
Felicity told herself firmly, It was just a stupid dream. This is Alida, the woman you love. She would never hurt you.
An unwanted voice inside her mind insinuated: This is Alida, the woman you rose from the dead. Or is it? Seeing that Alida was still concerned, Felicity forced herself to smile and say, "It's nothing, sweetheart. A nightmare. I'll get over it."
Alida tossed the towel on the floor and got back into bed, tucking herself against Felicity's suddenly chilled body. "I hope you have sweeter dreams," she whispered, her face buried in the side of her lover's neck.
"So do I. Good-night." Felicity put her arm around Alida and tried to relax.
Sleep, when it came, was all too brief before the morning came rushing in.
The dreams continued, but now they were mostly confused impressions: leathery wings brushing her face, distorted water-smeared images, like looking at pictures through a glass filled with crimson liquid. Felicity woke up even more exhausted. as if she had been wrestling with an adversary all night long. Secretly, she checked her body for marks, but could find nothing, not a scratch, or puncture, or cut that might lead her to an unwelcome conclusion.
Felicity also felt bloated, her body too swollen to be contained by her skin. It made her irritable and snappish, unable to concentrate. Loss of appetite added to her frustration. Alida bore this ill humor with a tenderness that caused Felicity to see-saw between shame and gratitude, to a deep resentment that she could barely conceal.
Alida's trust and understanding never wavered.
It was about this same time that the deaths started to occur.
The first to die was a young woman that Felicity employed as an administrative assistant. Her name was Bonnie; she was married, and pregnant with her first child. Since Bonnie had recently become estranged from her husband, Felicity had given her permission to sleep in one of the mansion's extra bedrooms. Bonnie spent a lot of time at the mansion anyway, and had planned to keep working until just before the baby's birth. The arrangement suited them both.
The second week after Alida's return, Bonnie was found dead, apparently having miscarried sometime during the night. The bedsheets were soaked in blood, especially between her thighs. No trace of the child's body was found, however. The police suspected an abortion gone wrong, but out of respect for Felicity's position, put it down to natural causes.
Felicity paid for the funeral, which both she and Alida attended.
Twenty-eight days later, another young woman died, wife of a Congressman who kept a summer home about a mile away from Felicity's mansion. Staying there alone except for servants, she had bled to death from a hemorrhage. An autopsy report provided the shocking news that the woman had been twelve weeks pregnant. No one had known except her doctor.
Felicity wondered, what if Daphnis' magic brought a demon to life, instead of the real Alida? In the beginning, the notion was repugnant to her. Yet as her sleep continued to be disturbed by unsettling dreams, Felicity became more and more convinced that Alida was the author of these troubles. Not her Alida, of course, but the thing that Daphnis the witch had conjured with her unclean enchantments.
That was how she began to think of Alida - the thing. Felicity could not forget watching Daphnis animate a doll made from her dead lover's bone and skin and hair. She could not forget scraping spadefuls of earth from the grave, wrenching open the coffin to behold the grinning corpse. A musty damp odor, stale dirt mingled with the faint scent of decay that had to be denied at all costs to maintain her sanity.
Felicity had removed Alida's body, brought it back to the house in secret. Flayed the skin from her back, cleaned it, tanned it to suppleness. Pulled fingernails and toenails and bones from the softened, slightly discolored flesh. She had steeled herself, blotted out the horror of what she was doing, and gone on with the job in a detached manner. Only once had Felicity allowed the true nature of her business to intrude upon her awareness. After retching until she brought up blood, she had picked up her tools and continued desecrating her lover's body cruelly, as if punishing the corpse for her own lapse.
At one time, Felicity had believed that getting Alida back would soothe the hellish grief, make the pain subside, dilute the memories. The agony of being left behind had made her contemplate suicide, until another option presented itself. Losing Alida was like having half of her body amputated, yet the phantom pain tormented her every waking moment. The hope of real resurrection kept her sane, although some would have argued that obsession begat its own set of mental problems.
Having gone to all the trouble and suffering and expense, Felicity now felt cheated.
What if I killed her? Felicity asked herself. Would it really be murder? After all, she's just a thing... that thing. Made by a witch from a dead woman's corpse. A witch who swore to bring Alida back to me, but by God, I've been cheated. Not my Alida. It never was. It never will be. Demon, monster, killer. How I hate that thing! How I wish it was dead!
Right after the third fatal miscarriage in as many months, Alida looked at Felicity across the dining table. "Flick, I wonder if you can get a copy of my medical records? I'd like to see them."
Felicity did not answer, except for a sullen glance. Her fork stirred the contents of her plate around and around, but she did not eat a bite.
Alida continued, "What hospital? Which doctors? How did I fall into a coma in the first place?"
"I'm trying to eat. Can't we discuss this later?" Felicity growled.
Alida put down her fork and knife. "The servants don't know anything about my illness. I had a little talk with poor Bonnie right before she died, and she said..."
Felicity banged her fist on the table. "Dammit! How dare you question my employees?"
"I'm sorry," Alida replied, clearly taken aback, "I was just curious." Her mouth tightened into a stubborn line. "I have a right to see my own medical files, you know."
"Rights?" Felicity sneered. "Don't talk to me about rights. Things don't have rights."
"What do you mean?"
Felicity was suddenly cautious. Who knew what that thing might do if it knew the truth? With a slyness she did not know she possessed, Felicity smiled and said, "No, I'm sorry, sweetheart. I've had a lot on my mind, and I'm taking it out on you. I didn't mean to snap your head off. We've been having trouble with the Cathcart account. You know how it is."
But Alida was not easily swayed. "You're keeping secrets from me, and I don't like it. Why haven't we gone anywhere together? I'm cooped up in this house all day like a prisoner. You've been acting very strangely, too. Have you seen yourself in a mirror lately?"
Before Felicity could stop her, Alida went to the sideboard and picked up a polished silver tray. She held it in front of Felicity and demanded, "Look at yourself, Flick. What's wrong with you?"
Felicity raised a hand to smash the tray aside. Alida skipped back a step, then forward again, shoving the polished surface in her face. Unwillingly, Felicity was confronted with her reflection.
Her eyes were sunk deep in bruised sockets, her once luxurious auburn hair gone dry and frizzy. Her skin was stretched tightly over bones so prominent, they appeared to be sharp as knives. Her lips were chapped and cracked. Felicity touched her cheek; the flesh had the texture of coarse leather. She stared at herself in a kind of wonderment.
"You're not well, Flick," Alida said gently. "You won't eat. You've told me that you're having trouble sleeping. You've lost weight. I'm worried, baby. I don't want to lose you."
I don't want to lose you. Those were the exact words that Felicity had said in the emergency room, when Alida lay dying. She recalled that moment clearly... and the one before, when their car had skidded on the ice, the truck rushing towards them shockingly fast. No time to react, not even time enough to pray. All she remembered about the impact was a violent blow, like falling from a height onto hard earth. Afterwards, just the blood, the glass, the stench of gasoline. Alida laying on the street, a broken doll on a bed of scarlet slush.
A series of photographs was stored in her memory - the paramedic's bearded face hovering over her; the ceiling of the ambulance; the emergency room, where she had pushed back her own pain to rise from the bed, snatch back the curtain and see Alida lying there in the next bed, surrounded by machines and shouting doctors and frantic nurses. Beeping equipment, squealing flatline on a heart monitor, plastic tubes and everywhere the blood. Always the blood. The nauseating reek of it. They had cut into her chest in a last-ditch effort to save her life. Felicity had seen Alida cracked open like a slaughtered animal.
I don't want to lose you, she had whispered, swaying on her feet. From somewhere, Felicity had found the strength to scream, and keep on screaming, begging, demanding. Finally, a needle in her arm. Blessed unconsciousness... until she had woken up to find the nightmare had only gotten worse.
Alida was dead.
What stood before her was only a thing. The thing.
"Do you want to know the truth?" Felicity said, righteous indignation rising in a tide that threatened to choke her. Caution was forgotten in the need to vent. She shoved the tray away and stood up. "The truth is, sweetheart, that you died five years ago." She spat the endearment, and found some satisfaction in seeing Alida back away from her.
"There are no medical records. There was no coma," Felicity continued. "You died in a car accident. Or I should say, Alida died, because you're not her. Not really."
"You're crazy," Alida said, her face as pale as milk.
"Am I? Let me tell you something..." Felicity came closer. A vein throbbed in her temple; the taste of bile in the back of her throat made her want to vomit. "Alida has been dead for five years, ever since our car skidded out on Route 16, right before Christmas. Hit a truck - bang!" Her hands clapped together, and Alida flinched. "I lost my love that day. For a while, I wanted to die myself. God, despair is a bitch! Then one day I got a letter from a phony psychic, claiming she could raise the dead. Oh, it was an obvious scam, but it got me thinking: what if there really was a way to bring somebody back? Not as a spirit, but a living body animated by the life energies - the soul - of the departed."
Alida repeated softly, "You're crazy."
Felicity ignored her. "I traveled around the world, hunting necromancers, shamans, sorcerers, witches... anybody who could give me what I wanted. What I learned is that real magic has its own price, and there are damned few people willing to pay it. Most of these people were fakes, but there were a few..." She shook her head. "Nobody could do it, until I heard about Daphnis."
"The woman with the long brown hair," Alida said.
"Daphnis the witch. Found her in the Philippines. She told me what had to be done before she came here." Felicity's eyes stretched wide in remembered horror. "I dug up Alida's body. Daphnis needed bone, skin, nails and hair to do the spell. Gathered with my own fair hands. Hah!" The horror disappeared, replaced by a hatefully sly look. "I got her true name, bound her here to do the work because I didn't want to be cheated. Daphnis didn't think I knew any magic, that stuck-up bitch. I learned a few things on my travels, though. Wasn't she surprised!"
Alida pressed a hand to her chest. Her cheeks were bloodless; she was breathing in quick, shallow jerks. "What did you do?" she whispered.
"Daphnis made a doll, a simulacrum of jewels and bits of Alida's corpse. The ritual was a success... or so I thought." Felicity laughed, as though something delightful had just occurred to her. "Everything's gone completely wrong! I wanted Alida back, and instead I got this thing that isn't her at all, but it looks like her. Acts like her. Talks like her. Cries like her. Smells like her. But it's just a goddamned magic doll! For this, I paid a kiss!" She gasped, still laughing, and reached for Alida. "A lousy kiss for a lousy doll."
The dark-haired woman drew herself out of reach, her back pressed against the door of the dining room. "You're not Flick," she said in a choked little voice. "Stay away from me."
"Goddamned doll." Felicity stopped laughing. She gazed at Alida from beneath lowered brows. "Goddamned thing."
Alida's hand groped for the doorknob. She found it, opened the door, and sprang out of the room, pelting down the hallway. "You're not Flick!" she screamed over her shoulder. "You're not Flick!"
"And you're not Alida, so I guess that makes us even," Felicity called after her. She closed the door gently, sat down, and toyed with a glass of wine. She felt full, although she had not eaten anything.
"Goddamned thing," she muttered.
Felicity stayed there while an hysterical Alida ordered a cab, threw some clothes into a suitcase, and left the mansion.
When a servant came creeping into the dining room to inform Felicity of Alida's absence, the lady of the manor simply shook her head and laughed until he fled, terrified.
Felicity's mansion was in an exclusive area, surrounded by the homes of other wealthy people, but with enough woodland to give a feeling of total seclusion. Many of her neighbors employed Filipino maids, nannies, cooks and gardeners. These people began showing up to work wearing bright gold and silver jewelry to protect themselves, so it was said, against demonic attack. They clustered together at sandwich shops and bus stations, whispering and making sidelong glances at passers-by.
Several days after Alida's defection, Felicity woke up to find her skin peeling off in strips and tatters. It did not hurt, not anymore than a bad sunburn, and the flesh beneath, while a bit tender, seemed healthy. Felicity took a shower, scrubbing herself hard with a loofah, and got out feeling quite refreshed... until she realized that her hair was falling out, too. Great clumps of limp auburn hair clogged the shower drain. She pulled it from her scalp in painless fistfuls, let damp strands scatter on the floor. Her eyelashes, eyebrows, pubic hair - all gone in about an hour. Strangely calm, Felicity put on a robe, wrapped a towel around her head, and ordered her housekeeper to call a plumber.
By the time the plumber finished unclogging the pipes in her bathroom, Felicity's hair had grown back.
When the man had packed up his tools and gone, Felicity removed robe and towel, examining herself in the cheval mirror in her bedroom. What she saw pleased her greatly. The reflection she had confronted days earlier was that of a sun-dried scarecrow, a tattered hag. Now her skin was like fresh cream, absolutely flawless. Her hair was glossy, her emerald eyes sparkling. She looked years younger, firm and toned and filled with the glow of health. Felicity snickered, admiring her new, improved self. Her stunningly beautiful self.
"That thing doesn't know what it's missing," she said, smoothing her fingers across her taut stomach. A wicked laugh rang out. She licked her lips and smiled.
That evening, another pregnant woman in the town miscarried and died. As with the others, no trace of the fetus could be found.
On the same evening, a Filipino maid claimed to have seen some kind of monster licking her shadow as she waited for the bus. She died of a stroke the next day.
Three months passed, three more miscarriages, one of them further afield in the next town. Several more Filipinos also died of strokes. Felicity's neighbors were having trouble keeping their mansions staffed.
Felicity was in her bedroom, cocooned in silken sheets. She had discovered that naps taken during the day were devoid of the troublesome dreams that plagued her at night, and yet she had no trouble sleeping the evening through. There was no possibility of being disturbed, since the servants had quit en masse several weeks before. Having no desire for company, Felicity was content. Her lack of appetite was proving convenient, as she no longer had to leave home to buy food. Indeed, she did not leave the house at all; company business was conducted over telephone, fax and computer.
She murmured drowsily, burrowing herself deeper into the sheets... and snapped awake as something slithered over her cheek. Immediate panic made Felicity try to roll over. A damp cloth was pressed to her face, covering mouth and nose; acrid fumes made her eyes water. She clawed at the smothering cloth, at the fingers pressing it down, tighter and tighter.
Rocketing stars burst in her vision. Felicity screamed through the muffling layers, but the sound of her own pulse drowned out the noise. Through the tears, she could make out Alida looming above her, blurred but still recognizable. Her head was reeling; she was dizzy, and cold as though her bones were made of ice. At last, Felicity fell headlong into unconsciousness.
When she woke up, it was early evening, perhaps a half-hour until full dark. Felicity was aware of a few unpleasant sensations. She was naked. Her skull was aching so hard, even her teeth seemed to be throbbing in sympathy. Her lips felt blistered. There was a tearing agony in her shoulders and wrists. Still somewhat groggy, Felicity raised her head and looked up. Her hands were bound together with a stout piece of rope. The rope was looped over a tree branch, and tied off to give her just enough slack to stand. She managed to stagger to her feet, and the pain in her shoulders immediately eased.
Alida stood in front of her. "I'm sorry it had to be this way, but I was sure you wouldn't consent," she said, squatting down to feed a small fire in a nearby brazier.
Felicity did not reply, simply glared at the other woman. She was not afraid. Felicity was consumed by a blazing rage that blotted out all other concerns. Lips pulled back from her teeth in a snarl, she began pulling on her bonds.
"I did a little research after I left," Alida said, unbuttoning her shirt. "I still had access to the bank accounts, so money wasn't a problem. Do you remember how you mentioned the Philippines that night? Well, after a little investigation, I ended up on Siquijor, an island east of Dumaguete. Interesting place."
Felicity tried to pull her wrists down close to her face, with the idea of gnawing the rope apart. She was growling like a trapped animal, but the sound seemed natural. In fact, she enjoyed it. Growling made her feel powerful. That thing may have trussed her up, but it could not dominate her. Straining, she raised herself up a few inches, until her toes left the ground, but she still could not gain sufficient purchase on the rope with her teeth. Felicity's growls turned to those of frustration.
Alida went on, "I couldn't find Daphnis, but I ran into a woman - a mananambal, healer-magician of the isle - who knew all about her."
She drew her shirt off, folded it, and laid the garment on the ground. Her single black braid hung over her shoulder, the curling end tickling the nipple of her bared breast. "Daphnis is a witch, and a powerful one," Alida continued, "but she owed a favor to an aswang. Know what that is? A type of vampire. Stunningly beautiful by day. At night, the aswang's body splits at the waist, and the upper part grows wings so it can fly around in search of prey. Prefers pregnant woman as victims."
The sky with smeared with streaks of rusty oranges and golds. Felicity panted, resting from her struggles. It was getting difficult to think. She did not want to be rational. She did not want to listen to that thing's voice. She wanted to be free, not bound here when cloudy shadows crept across the ground. She wanted to curl up and sleep, sink down into leathery-winged dreams. Scarlet-tinged dreams.
"The aswang's tongue is thin and hollow, with a needle-like tip." Alida stood up to remove her jeans. She sounded calm, as if delivering a lecture in front of an audience of rapt students. "It perches on the roof of a house, and worms its tongue through cracks and crevices until it locates the sleeping victim. Here's the nastiest part, by the way. The preferred victim isn't even the mother. It's the child inside of her. That tongue slithers into the womb, and crushes the fetus into an edible slurry while the mother is rendered paralyzed by the aswang's power. The poor woman bleeds to death. Can you imagine anything more horrible?"
Felicity snarled defiance, twisting her body this way and that in an effort to loosen the rope that held her. She was no longer human, merely a collection of impulses and instincts. Alida was not even identified as that thing anymore; the beast-Felicity thought of her as a nameless enemy who had to be destroyed. She was no longer capable of asking herself why, no longer capable of logic or reasoning. The sun was disappearing, and with it went her humanity.
Alida peeled off her jeans, laid them on top of her shirt. She was now as naked as Felicity. "It can also kill by licking your shadow, but that's strictly for kicks. What I found most interesting was the way an aswang reproduces. It lays a black egg, which it then forces a mortal woman to swallow. In a while, the woman transforms into an aswang herself." Alida bent over, opening a bag at her feet.
"I'm not sure if can understand this right now, Flick, but when Daphnis asked for a kiss, it wasn't because she had the hots for you. She saw a way to pay off her debt to the aswang, and get revenge against you at the same time. Binding Daphnis to the mansion must have really pissed her off," Alida said, standing upright again. She had a coiled whip in her hands. This was not a toy, but made of glistening black strands plaited together to form a flexible, formidable leather length.
The moment Felicity saw the whip, she began to howl mindlessly.
"I'm sorry, Flick. You see, I know you were right when you called me a thing." Alida's lips curved in a wry smile. "I've seen the records from my last emergency room visit. Out of morbid curiosity, I even went so far as to open my own grave before I left for the Philippines. It was very kind of you to return my remains when you were finished with them. They were still recognizable, too. I was dead, even if I don't remember the other side. You should have left me there."
She shook out the whip and crossed behind Felicity, who turned to follow her progress, howling all the while.
Alida sighed. "You sold your soul for me. Innocent babies and their mothers have because I live again, thanks to Daphnis' magic. People have died. I don't want this, Flick. Neither should you." She came forward, stroked Felicity's cheek. The woman stopped howling, snapped at her like a vicious dog. Alida barely managed to snatch her hand away in time.
"I love you. That will never change. Do you hear me?" Alida leaned in close, careful to avoid clashing teeth. She could see herself reflected in Felicity's eyes, but the image was inverted - another sign of demonic possession. "I love you, and I'm going to save you," she said. "When the spell is broken, the aswang will be dead... and so will I. Daphnis planned it that way, I guess. Maybe she didn't think I'd be strong enough to give up a second chance at life. She was wrong. I know what I have to do, and what it'll cost me."
Alida stepped back, a sorrowful but determined expression in her brown eyes. "Remember that you aren't responsible for the deaths, Flick. That was the monster inside, controlling you. I think that perhaps you retained just enough of yourself to try and drive me away, save me from the aswang, or it could be because you haven't fully transformed. Either way, I hope you know how much I love you, and how grateful I am for the chance to say good-bye."
Foam dribbled from Felicity's lips.
There wasn't much time left. When the last rays of sunlight were swallowed up by darkness, the aswang would emerge in all its foul glory. Alida whispered, "Forgive me," raised the whip, and began.
Sharp leather slashed across Felicity's back, stomach, breasts, buttocks, raising red stripes that puffed into tender welts. Stroke after stroke rained down until the welts opened and bled. Felicity squealed, feet scrabbling in the dirt, trying to avoid the whip. Her wrists were chafed raw where the rope cut into them.
Alida continued beating Felicity. Her jaw was clenched tight, her arm never faltered though tears spilled down her face. She had learned this from the old woman on Siquijor, how to drive the aswang's egg from its human host, if the transformation had not gone too far. This was a brutal cure, but necessary if she was going to save Felicity. If it did not work, Alida would have to kill the woman she loved. She would have to chop off Felicity's head, then cut the body into pieces with the hatchet that was hidden in her bag. That would probably not be enough. The mananambal had told her that adult aswangs were almost impossible to destroy.
It was dusk. Rusts and golds were fading into deep purple, a blaze of magenta in the west marked the sun's final glory. The sky was carpeted with faint stars, and a glimmering sliver of moon already rising. Alida whipped faster, harder, showing no mercy. Between one stroke and the next, a deep crack opened on Felicity's back, just above her waist. Moist, dark but bloodless flesh within the cavity, from which a pair of leathery wings were unfurling. The wings were damp and crumpled, but exposure to air made them flutter feebly.
Alida cursed, and whipped Felicity more desperately. The crack yawned wider, spidery black lines running from both ends, across her back and over her hips, to meet below Felicity's navel. The lines thickened, grew bolder. Her mouth opened, showing a tongue that was thinning and lengthening, coming to a sharp needle-like point. For a moment, Felicity's eyes met Alida's.
Alida realized that the aswang was not totally in control. Felicity whimpered. In that bare second, her human self managed to throw off the beast long enough to send a silent message to her lover. That message was written clear in her suffering gaze: Please kill me, because I love you, and if you do not, I will be your death. Save yourself. I'm already damned.
"No!" Alida said between gritted teeth. Her arms were aching, muscles cramped into knots, but she aimed the whip at the emerging wings. Snap! Snap! Snap! The hardened tip of the whip caught the wings, and Felicity let out an agonized shriek that echoed through the woods. The aswang assumed control once more.
But it was weakening, Alida saw. The separation had halted. Was it her imagination, or was that horrible black crevice getting smaller? She continued striking the bat wings, blow after blow. There was no visible damage, but they quivered as though trying to escape the whip. Sweat stung her eyes, but Alida did not stop.
Snap! Snap! Snap! A particularly vicious stroke made Felicity scream, an impossibly shrill sound that wavered on and on. The wings pulled back into the protection of her body. The crack closed up, flesh knitting back together until her body was perfectly whole again. Even the whip marks vanished, leaving not a scar behind.
Felicity began to retch, convulsions racking her body. Alida dropped the whip, ran to support her. Vomit spewed out of Felicity's mouth like a fountain, splattered on the ground between her feet. It was a disgusting mess of pulped flesh and blood, a wet mound of pinkish-gray fragments that stank abominably. Alida had to control the urge to vomit herself. At last, Felicity finished and sagged in her bonds. On top of the foul steaming heap was a glistening, slimy black egg.
Alida quickly scooped up the egg and ran over to the fire. It was rubbery, jelly-like but firm, and altogether nauseating. She threw the egg into the brazier. Flames ate at it greedily; the egg sizzled and popped, accompanied by a thin keening that was barely audible. Alida watched until it was completely consumed, and collapsed into glowing ash. The aswang's threat was finished. After the ordeal she had been through, the end seemed almost anti-climactic.
She was tired, oh so tired, but there was still something she had to do.
Her heart thumping more slowly in her chest, Alida moved back to Felicity. She used the hatchet to cut her loose, and managed to drag the half-conscious woman away from the tree to a patch of soft grass. It was almost dark; twilight time, when soft gray light fell like a muffling blanket over the earth.
Felicity roused herself, touched Alida's face. "Don't go."
"I have to go back. It's over, Flick." Alida lay back stiffly. Her skin was tightening, her flesh shrinking as unnatural life seeped out of her. Daphnis' magic was dying.
"But I love you!" Felicity began to weep, a hopeless sound that cut Alida to the core. "I love you so much..."
"And I love you. Let it be, honey. Let me go. Don't bring me back again. The price is too high. I'll wait for you, I swear."
Felicity kissed Alida's face over and over, desperately clinging to a body that was growing colder, harder, smaller. "I can't live without you."
"You will. You must." Alida's voice was getting fainter. In the gray twilight, her face was rigid, her eyes like stones. "We'll be together again, someday."
Felicity cried, "What will I do when you're gone?"
Alida made a supreme effort. She raised a creaking arm, touched the back of her fingers to Felicity's wet cheek. "Just... live, Flick," she breathed. "Forget death a while. Just live."
And in an eyeblink, she was gone.
Felicity cradled the lifeless doll in her arms, covering it with tears.