Chapter 1: Death in the Family
The courier walked away and left Vincente staring down at the three crossed swords of the Innocente seal pressed into the red wax seal on the letter. November blew a chill down the cobblestone street outside, lined with student dorms stacked one on top of the other. The gray sky made the red roofs of Vildeo seem dull, students pulled their coats tight around them as they hurried to classes. The cold creeped around Vincente’s bare hands, cutting through his shirt in his state of half-dress.
“Vincente, what is it?” Victoria asked, looking over her shoulder from the nook the kitchen sat in. The kettle on the wood stove steamed, two cups sat on the counter in front of her. Despite the morning hour, her apron was already stained and dirtied.
Vincente turned back inside, dropping the letter on the unsteady parlor table. He pulled out a chair and stood there, considering the consequences of leaving the letter unopened when he already knew what was written within. The sweet smell of chamomile and lavender wafted from a fresh cup of tea as Victoria set it down in front of him. She held her own in one hand and pulled the second chair to the same side of the table and sat down.
Victoria turned the envelope over in her hands. She rested it against Vincente’s arm. “Waiting isn’t going to make it better,” she said softly.
He sighed and tore open the wax seal. He pulled out a sheet of parchment stained in black ink, as though someone cried over it.
Papa Leone passed the night of October twentieth. I regret that you could not be there at his passing. You were in his thoughts in his final moments, and he claimed to see many great things for you in the future. I assure you that he died comfortable and content, surrounded by his family and friends.
I understand that exams will not be over in time for the funeral, but you must be present when his will is discussed in a month. He has left some possessions for you and your brother and sister. You are promised you a set of medical encyclopedias I was not aware he had. Papa is so full of surprises, even now. Your father would also like to discuss the inheritance with you, as it concerns something important bypassing Cassius and going to you on Papa’s wish.
I hope this letter finds you well, and know how hard it is for you to be far from us at this time. Your grandfather is proud of your ambition and will to succeed, and did not blame you for being absent. His last words about you were proud as any I had heard. He calls you a noble, charitable man as none he could himself hope to raise.
I miss you, my dearest son, I’m sure your brother and sister miss you as well. Also, I have been running low on medicine, as we have not had time to make it out to my doctor in Revona with the funeral proceedings, please bring some with you when you come. You will save your dear mother terrible pain. Please arrive by the tenth of December. I look forward to seeing you again soon.
With much love,
Delilah Cavalle Innocente
He dropped the letter on the table, resting his head in his hands and staring at the wood grain. Tears welled up in his eyes. His loose hair fell around his head, a tangled mess.
Victoria squeezed his shoulder. “We knew this was coming, Vin.”
Vincente shook his head and wiped the tears away from his eyes, sitting back in his chair. He looked up at the ceiling and swallowed hard. “I know.”
“Vin, drink your tea. It will help you feel better.” She watched him until he took a sip.
She let the quiet continue as long as he wanted, offering a comforting hand while he choked back tears. Wordlessly, he stood up and retreated to his room. Victoria picked up the letter and read it quickly before folding it and tucking it into the pocket of her dress. She stood and stared at the two cups on the table, listening to the sounds on the street and in the flats above her.
She started at the sound of a loud crash from the back bedrooms. “Vincente?” she called, already running for his bedchamber door. She tried the doorknob, pushing against the locked door, “Vincente, let me in!”
The deadbolt clicked open and Victoria stumbled in. She looked around the room, taking in the overturned washbasin and shattered standing mirror. Blood smeared from the point of impact. Vincente sat against the foot of his bed, knees pulled in. His shoulders shook with quiet sobs and his lacerated knuckles dripped blood onto the wooden floor.
“Maybe you should stay home today, Vincente,” she said. Victoria picked her way around the shattered glass to sit down next to him.
He didn’t respond, but wiped tears away from his eyes with his uninjured hand. He stared despondently at his shattered reflection in the mirror.
“I’ll run down to the Institute and let your professors know what’s happened,” Victoria draped an arm over his shoulders, “you need some time.”
He nodded, burying his face in his arms and biting back another sob.
Chapter 2: Anatomy Lab
Vincente rallies himself to prepare for finals.
Vincente lingered at the front step of his flat and gingerly pressed the gauze bandage into the wound. Prickly pain crept up his wrist, his fingers stiff with injury. His eyes burned from the long night before--still exhausted, no matter how many days he spent in bed doing nothing.
He took a step onto the street, slogging through a mental fog. He pulled his heavy coat more tightly around him against the balmy November sun and prayed that no one he knew tried to talk to him. Other students stepped out in similar fashion, assimilating him into the commuting masses. The relief of being an anonymous face in the crowd washed over him, Victoria’s watchful eye no longer lingering as she had during his few days off.
The buildings of Vildeo’s Institute of Medicine rose higher and grander than the dorms that surrounded them. Meticulously maintained gardens wilted in the throes of autumn: vibrant greens turned brown, orange, and red against the brick and stone. Even in the early hour, students lined the benches with their notes spread about them in an effort to study just a little more before final exams claimed their souls.
The sound of a man announcing his emergency after class study group rose above the drone of conversation. Vincente pulled his collar closer around his face and sank into the wool fabric, hoping that the man would overlook him as he passed. No luck, Paulo caught Vincente’s eye as he attempted to hurry on his way.
“Vincente! Hey, Vincente, wait up!” Paulo strode up behind Vincente with the poise of a charlatan about to make an insufferable pitch, “You’re just the guy I was hoping to see! Why the heavy coat? It’s such a beautiful day out--oh, never mind. I meant to come find you, but you haven’t been in class the last few days.”
Vincente stifled a groan, “Listen, Paulo, I can’t talk right now--”
“I know, I know, you’ve got to get to class,” Paulo interrupted, “but just consider coming to the study group? We could really use your help, you know?”
“Paulo, I don’t know, I have a lot to do,” Vincente pinched the bridge of his nose, inconvenient tears pricked at his eyes and he turned his back, “I need to go.”
“I’ll take that as a yes, Vincente! Don’t be late!” Paulo yelled after him as he trudged off towards the mortuary building.
The facade of the mortuary building sat low to the ground, the gateway decorated like the gates to hades. Angels ringed the top, both humanoid and the many-winged cherubim carved in marble. Human souls followed their trumpeting call to heaven as they circled the heavy metal doors, also ornately carved with heroes gone to the earth and inscribed with the words “MORTUI VIVOS DOCENT”.
Vincente took on the somber tone of the building as he stepped inside. The corridors stifled the words of passing students with an odd heaviness. A faint stench of death and pungent herbs pervaded near the main morgue. Refrigeration runes on the door shimmered cold silver, warding runes watching the students passing with wandering eyes. One focused on Vincente as he approached, and opened the door for him. Locks clicked open as he waited. He wiped his eyes before stepping across the threshold, making himself decent for the dead.
Vincente pulled his cloth mask up over his nose as he entered the lab and joined his lab partners--Flavia, Stefano, and Sylvaine--at the slab where the cadaver of a woman was laid out. She looked the same as last time, skin wrinkled with age and ribcage open to lay bare the viscera within.
“Morning,” Flavia nodded, already poking around in the thoracic cavity of the woman on the table. Sylvaine leaned over, studying her actions with the forceps intently. The bloodstains across her white mask betrayed her tendency to study things a little too closely.
“Morning,” Vincente watched her as she moved part of the diaphragm out of the way in order to probe at the lungs, “what are you doing?”
Flavia glanced up at him, then back at the cadaver, “She has an odd lump down at the base of her right lung,” she poked at the location, “what happened to your hand?”
“It’s nothing,” he quickly changed the subject, “Cancer? She was certainly old enough to develop such tumors.” Vincente suggested half-heartedly. He hung back from the table a little with Stefano.
Flavia rolled her eyes at him. “Fine, don’t tell me then. It could be a cyst. We may just have to cut her open and find out.”
Stefano grabbed Vincente’s bandaged hand and looked it over before he could pull it back. “Did you get in a fight? That’s not like you.”
Vincente took his hand back and cradled it against his chest. “I punched the mirror.”
Stefano chuckled. “Tried to punch yourself in the face. I see.”
The doors shut loudly to silence idle chatter, footsteps demanding attention as Professor Affia Palladino walked up to the podium. Flavia abruptly set down her forceps in the rolling tray and stood at attention. Stefano elbowed her and she glared at him.
“Good morning, class,” Professor Palladino pulled on a pair of thin leather gloves. She waited a moment to ensure she had the class’s full attention before continuing, “today we will resume study of the viscera of the thoracic cavity.”
Flavia hastily wiped her bloody leather gloves off on a towel before raising her hand.
“We’re going to start on the right lung,” the professor began, “same as the heart, be sure to separate the pleural membrane carefully. The underlying tissue is far more delicate, so be gentle with the blade...” she glanced up and finally saw Flavia’s straining hand, “Yes, miss Bosco?”
“Before we begin, professor, I hoped to know what our final exam would entail?” Flavia shifted on her feet as professor Palladinolooked her over. She made eye contact with Vincente, who looked down at his feet immediately to avoid her gaze.
“I can give you no more information than I already have, miss Bosco,” professor Paladino said sternly, “the exam will be comprehensive and cover all aspects of your patient explored this semester in addition to your case study report concerning a pathology your patient exhibits. The exam will be given individually and you are expected to present your findings to me thoroughly. I can tell you no more than that.”
Flavia nodded, tight-lipped, and fell silent.
“I will be coming around to check in on you. You may begin.” Professor Palladino stepped down from the slightly raised platform at the front of the morgue and began slowly walking around each table to observe her students. The room filled with the clatter of metal on metal as everyone picked up their tools and crowded around each slab.
Vincente’s eyes glazed over, watching Flavia cut tissue away from the lung. Thoughts of home tugged at his heart. He stood back from the dissection table until Flavia nudged him with her shoulder. She shot him a sympathetic look and glanced over her shoulder at professor Palladino, speaking to the group one slab over.
“Hold that back for me,” she motioned toward a flap of flesh cut away from the lung, holding it up with a probe for him to grab so she could poke around inside of the organ. He obliged, pulling it back and looking over the incision as she probed at a semi-translucent looking growth.
“It looks like a cyst,” she narrowed her eyes as she gently separated it from the rest of the lung tissue.
“It’s a strange color,” Sylvaine observed, squinting at it.
Flavia nodded, grabbing a pair of tweezers to pull it out and set it on the dissection table beside the cadaver. Stefano scribbled something next to the doodles of various organs in his notebook, leaning over Flavia’s shoulder to get a better look at the growth. Vincente replaced the flap of skin and looked the grayish mass over himself, coming to no conclusions.
Professor Palladino stopped behind Vincente, notifying him of her presence with a hand on his back. He made way for her so she could get a better look at the corpse. She tapped his shoulder with her ungloved wrist and lowered her voice. “Vincente, I want to see you after class,” she cleared her throat and returned to her normal tone, “what do you have there, miss Bosco?”
“We think it’s a cyst,” Flavia said, “but it has an odd color to be a cyst, so we’re not sure.”
“Cut it open,” she said with a flick of her hand, watching with interest.
Flavia cut into it with the scalpel and pulled out a flat, oblong object with the tweezers and stared at it in confusion. Vincente’s eyebrows knitted together as he leaned in to get a better look at what Flavia had extracted. Sylvaine poked at it with a probe and grimaced at the way it jiggled.
“Well, look at that!” Professor Palladino said, holding out her hand for Flavia to place the object on. She turned it over, studying it with curiosity, “It looks to be a sort of flat worm, but I don’t believe I’ve ever seen one like this in a human.”
“A parasite?” Flavia looked excited. The professor passed it off to her, she examined it a bit before offering it to Sylvaine.
“No, no thanks,” she said, wrinkling her nose in disgust at the worm in Flavia’s hand.
Vincente shook his head when she offered it to him, but pulled her hand closer to get a better look at the worm.
“May I see it, please, miss Bosco?” professor Palladino asked.
Flavia tipped it back into her cupped hand. Professor Palladino nodded in thanks and brought the specimen back up to the front of the class. She launched into another lecture on the wide variety of ailments that afflict the human species until a student stopped her thirty minutes later and she dismissed the class.
Vincente lingered behind, waiting for others to air their small grievances about the final exam before speaking to professor Palladino himself. Once the last of them left, she beckoned him over and hugged him.
“I am sorry to hear about your grandfather, Vincente,” she said as she released him, “I hope your few days off gave you some time to mourn him. If you’d like, I’ll excuse you from the final exam--you’ll get an automatic 70 out of 100.”
“That’s not necessary, Affia, but thank you,” Vincente insisted, feeling himself begin to choke up.
“Are you sure? No one will shame you for taking some time,” Her voice filled with concern and pity, noticing the way Vincente’s voice threatened to crack.
He nodded wordlessly.
She patted him on the arm. “Please, Vincente, your father has already been in touch. There is no reason to put on such a brave face. I know the two of you were close.”
Vincente swallowed hard. “I’m fine. I want to take the final exam, same as the others. It would be unfair to simply pass.”
Affia Paladino nodded solemnly, as though she knew what his answer would be before she asked the question. She gave him another hug before sending him on his way.
Chapter 3: Spirit
Victoria brings home a stray.
A blanket of numbness fell over Vincente, muffling the sound of Paulo’s non-stop gossip as he copied Vincente’s notes from that day and Flavia’s from the week before. He carried on without input, allowing Vincente to stare blankly at his notes until the ink swam on the page. The afternoon sun beamed in through the windows to light Paulo’s barren third floor flat. Unwashed linens and clothes sat piled in the corner.
“Are you okay?” Paulo waved his hand in front of Vincente’s face, “Vincente, hey, anyone home?”
“What? Yes, I’m fine, Paulo,” Vincente knocked his hand away.
“Well, if you say so. It’ll be getting dark soon, so if you need to go you can. I think I’ve got enough to get me through finals,” Paulo patted the stack of paper and handed the leather bound notebook he had been copying from back to Vincente, “I can walk you home if you’re scared of the dark.”
Vincente smiled, refusing to acknowledge the dig as he tucked the loose notes into the notebook and placed it into his bag, “No, Paulo, I can walk on my own. Thank you.”
“If you say so,” Paulo hummed, sing-song, and walked him to the door to see him off.
Vincente waved to Paulo as he stepped out the door and let his smile fall as soon as he heard the door shut behind him. He stood there feeling too heavy to move, the muffled noises of the tenants feeling so far away in the cramped stairwell. Finally, he convinced himself to start walking down the stairs. One step at a time.
It was cold in the shadows, far removed from the afternoon sun. An ominous sensation crept up his spine as he hesitated halfway down the stairs, listening to claws scrabbling across bare wood. Something hit the wall behind him with a dull thud and he bolted the rest of the way down and out onto the street. .
Vincente stopped to catch his breath, scolding himself. After all, it was probably just a rat. He saw the little monsters on the street at night all the time. Sometimes he caught a glimpse of their eyes flashing green in the darkness, holding his gaze before continuing to rummage through the rubbish left in the alleys. The thought of encountering one after dark made his skin crawl, and he made a brisk pace for home.
Dusk settled over the street as Vincente arrived home. He spotted a shadow darting into the alley down the road and shivered. Victoria glanced up from the sofa with one of his textbooks on herbal medicines open beside her, a scruffy gray cat settled in her lap.
“Evening, Vincente,” she nodded to the spot beside her, “would you like to sit?”
Vincente leaned against the closed door and sighed, “Victoria, you know what I said about the stray cats.”
“That it’s good luck to have a cat in the house?” She grinned and closed the book, shoving it to the far end of the couch, “I know, I know, ‘no cats’. But I think you’ll like him. His name is Spirit.”
“Good Lord, you named it,” Vincente groaned, sliding down the door to sit on the floor, “Victoria, I cannot handle a cat right now, on top of everything else.”
Spirit made a confused chirrup as Victoria picked him up and cradled him in her arms like a baby. She sat down beside Vincente without letting the cat go, shaking his shoulder to get his attention, “Come on, Vincente, he isn’t your pet. You just get to enjoy him. Feeding him is my job, same as feeding you is my job. Come on, say hello.”
He glared sideways at her and the alley cat in her arms, scowling at his smug face. Spirit’s bright blue eyes stared back at him, tip of his tail swishing back and forth contentedly. Vincente stretched out a begrudging hand to scratch Spirit between his ears.
“Isn’t he cute?” Victoria poked at one of his paws, folded politely against his belly.
Vincente rubbed Spirit’s belly, who promptly latched onto his hand and gave it a playful bite. He yelped and tried to pull away before giving up and letting the cat gnaw on his good hand until Victoria pried Spirit’s claws off.
He studied his scratched hand. “I think he looks like trouble, Victoria.”
She shoved him. “It will be good to have a cat around, you’ll see. They take them on ships to protect against curses.”
“Can he protect me from finals?” Vincente gave her a weak smile.
Vincente’s face fell as the moment passed. Victoria rolled Spirit out of her lap--who went as far as the sofa before hopping up and making himself comfortable on the furniture--and placed a hand on his shoulder.
“You’ve had a long day, Vin,” she said, lingering on the moment in an effort to comfort him.
“Maybe you should sleep early, you may feel better in the morning,” she suggested, “I can bring you dinner if you have an appetite.”
He hauled himself to his feet. “I’m not hungry, Victoria, thank you.”
Vincente stared at the ceiling in the dark of his room, focused on the unearthly chattering outside his bedroom window. Teeth clicked together, creatures chattering in a terrible mockery of human language. Claws scraped against the wall, reaching for the glass of the window. The distorted voice begged to enter with words Vincente didn’t understand. He blindly reached for the prayer beads on his nightstand and rolled them between his fingers.
“O Lord of all mankind,” something thumped beneath the window, “blessed your creation be. Bless the earth,” the creatures outside chattered, sounding agitated, “and blessed be the fruit that grows upon it. Drive evil from the souls of your beloved children.”
The creature screeched and threw itself against the outside wall before falling to the ground with a thud. It barked once and scampered off into the night, leaving the flat in sudden unsettling silence.
Vincente continued to recite the Lord’s Bounty prayer silently, mouthing the words. He stared at the ceiling, trying to avoid the sinking feeling in his chest. He ignored the movement at the edge of his vision. He listened to the wind outside and strained to catch the sound of scampering feet across the floor of his flat.
The ceiling creaked, startling him as his neighbors shifted above his head. He relaxed and chastised himself for being jumpy and suspicious of what were likely just rats--possibly alley cats or dogs. As harmless as the stray cat Victoria brought home.
He thought back on the luminescent green eyes that caught his gaze every time he looked out to the street at night. Why did they always seem to know he was watching? Not that the creatures seemed to mind him, acknowledging and then ignoring him.
A thought nagged at his mind. The thought that somewhere, miles from here, his family were gathered to mourn the death of his grandfather without him. He felt a lump form in his throat and the words of the prayer fell away from his mind. What detail he could make out on the ceiling blurred into a nonsense smear of nighttime blacks and blues. The tears finally spilled over, and he did nothing to stop them.
Chapter 4: Finals Approach
Vincente tries to be normal.
Professor Palladino deftly sidestepped Flavia’s prying questions about the final exam and stepped up beside Vincente. He jumped when she cleared her throat, dropping his glove to the ground. He scrambled to pick it up.
“Professor,” he nodded at her, “can I do something for you?”
“I’d like you to stay after class, mister Innocente. I have a matter of grades to discuss,” she said before turning back to the students trying their best not to look like they were hovering.
Vincente sighed. He wiped blood off his leather gloves and shoved them into the pocket of his smock.
“Tough break,” Stefano leaned over, hands in his pockets, “you want us to wait up?”
Vincente shrugged the smock off his shoulders and turned to hang it on the hooks lined up near the doorway. Stefano followed him. His tall form shielded Vincente from the rest of the class.
“No, I think it’s best if I don’t go out tonight,” Vincente said, “and you know how I am about my grades. The last thing I need to be is weepy in public.”
“Given your track record, I thought you’d be over that by now,” Stefano glanced back over his shoulder to see if anyone was watching, “well, tears or no, I was hoping you’d come meet my new roommate. He’s a good time.”
“So you’ve told me.” Vincente checked his notebooks in his bag.
“And you could use a break,” Stefano said in a sing-song voice, “listen, Vin, in all seriousness, when my gramma died a couple years back the one thing that helped me was getting out of my own head. I’m just trying to do you a favor.”
“I appreciate it, Stefano, really, but I think I’m just going to go home,” Vincente insisted, feeling his stomach sink. Tears pricked at his eyes and he quickly wiped them away with the back of his hand.
“And I really think you and Felix would get along,” Stefano whispered in his ear.
Vincente scoffed and shoved his face away. “Stop trying to set me up.”
“Are you coming, Stefano?” Sylvaine asked, bouncing on her toes in the doorway.
Stefano waved at her and Flavia. “You know where to find us if you change your mind, Vin.” He winked at Vincente as he walked away, following Flavia out the door.
The door fell shut behind the last student, leaving Vincente in the near-empty morgue with professor Palladino. He turned around to face the elevated stage she taught from and found her studying the body of his patient on the slab.
“Flavia would make a beautiful surgeon,” she straightened up and cleared her throat, “Vincente, I am sorry for keeping you for the second time in a row. Am I cutting into your plans with your friends?”
“No, ma’am. Please, stop treating me like I’m fragile, Affia,” Vincente didn’t move from the coat hooks.
Professor Palladino approached him instead. “Vincente, as your friend, I need to know if you feel like you’re up to the final. I will deliver the exam if that’s what you want, but given the circumstances I need to know you are prepared for it.”
“I am prepared for it,” Vincente insisted, “Affia, please understand that the best thing for me right now is to try to be normal. The days off… The days I had to myself were bad enough. This at least gets me outside.”
Affia nodded knowingly. “I understand. All the same, I do not want you to overextend yourself.”
“I know, Affia, thank you for your concern.”
“Am I right to assume you’ll be heading home following finals?” she asked.
“Good,” she sighed, “Your father sent me three letters demanding I convince you to return, excused finals or no. Have you heard from him?”
“I got a letter from mama about a week ago, nothing from him.” Vincente shifted on his feet.
Affia Palladino looked concerned, studying the floor for a moment while she gathered her thoughts. “How strange,” she straightened up again, “I wouldn’t worry about it. I know how strained your relationship is, perhaps he simply delegated to avoid speaking to you directly.”
“Affia, I should head home,” Vincente reminded her quietly, “don’t you have a lecture after this?”
She nodded. “I do, I do. Thank you for staying behind, Vincente. Allow me to walk you out?”
“Of course, Affia.” He waited for her to fall into step beside him before approaching the doors. They opened on their own with a creak.
“How are your other classes going, Vincente?” Affia Palladino asked.
Vincente pulled the ribbon holding his hair back tighter to keep strands from falling out. “Fine, fine.”
Affia rolled her eyes. “You are as vague as your father, Vincente.”
Vincente shrugged. “I don’t know, they’re easy enough. Chemistry and Medical Alchemy is a little difficult.”
Affia latched on to the scrap and began interrogating him on the intricacies of heating chemical elements to make them responsive in the body. Vincente seemed to straighten up, a soldier reciting the things he so diligently learned in class, until they stepped out of the building and into the November chill.
Vincente waved at professor Palladino as they parted ways. He pulled his coat tight around him and began to walk in the opposite direction across campus. He passed the old abandoned surgical theater building as he walked. It sat like a small coliseum, latin mantras worn away or graffitied over--closed, after suspicion that unwilling souls were going under the knife hurt the reputation of the surgical department.
He hesitated, catching a flash of movement inside the building. A shadow peered between the boards of a broken window. Vincente’s heart jumped into his throat as his eyes met the luminous green of the shadow. He resisted the urge to run, walking quickly away from the building and not daring to look back.
Chapter 5: Substitute Teacher
A stranger gives the final exam.
Flavia stepped out of her dorm reciting her anatomy notes to herself. She buzzed with excitement for the individual assessment with professor Palladino, eager to impress. Vincente pushed himself off the wall beside the door to walk with her to class. Her voice blended with the wind on the blustery morning. Vincente stared into the horizon, mind wandering. The sky shrunk against the oppressive wall of clouds rolling in from the East.
“Vincente, pay attention,” Flavia scolded, whacking him with her notebook, “just because Professor Palladino is a friend of yours doesn’t mean you can’t fail her assessment. These notes are not just for me.”
“I know,” he said, “I’m just… I’m not all here today.”
“You better be all here!” Flavia punched him in the arm half-playfully before continuing, “Death in the family or no, didn’t you say she put her job on the line to get you enrolled here? Pay attention.”
Vincente’s mind wandered back to the oncoming storm.
Flavia huffed, “You still aren’t listening to me. Are you sure you don’t want to take the 70 on the exam? You’re too distracted for this.”
“I’m fine!” he lied, “I just didn’t get much sleep last night.”
Her expression softened a little. “Worse than usual? No need to lose sleep over some test, especially when you have an easy out.”
“You really should be paying attention, though,” She fell back in stride next to him and resumed her lecture, this time asking questions of Vincente.
He made an effort to respond, though none of his answers came easily. Flavia kept shooting him concerned glances, but didn’t scold him for it. They continued the back-and-forth pattern until they joined Sylvaine, Stefano, and the rest of the class outside the morgue doors.
Sylvaine showed Flavia the flash cards she had made with scrap pieces of stiff parchment. They crowded together around Stefano’s notes to review his sketches of their patient and her notable pathologies.
“What did Palladino call that worm thing we found the other day?” Stefano asked, flipping through his notebook to the most recent dissection.
“Vincente, do you know?” Flavia looked directly at him.
“Hmm?” Vincente didn’t look up from Stefano’s notebook.
Stefano tapped the page. “Lung fluke. It’s a parasite found in sheep.”
Sylvaine took a deep breath. “God, I hope we’re ready for this.”
A hush fell over the class gathered outside the doors as they parted for a stranger. He snuck up on them, quiet footsteps barely making a sound. Many students watched him in confusion. His eyes met Vincente’s, soft and sympathetic, as he passed. A thin smile graced his lips.
“Good morning, class, it’s a shame we have to meet this way.” the man said, fumbling with the enchanted lock on the door. The watching runes on the doorframe briefly illuminated and then dimmed to nothingness as he pushed the heavy doors open, “You may call me doctor Martine, I’ll be proctoring your exam in lieu of doctor Palladino today. I do apologize for any inconvenience. Mister, ah, mister Innocente? You’re up first.”
Doctor Martine held the door open for Vincente and walked with him into the morgue. The door fell shut and locked behind them. Vincente’s patient lay on the dissection table in her usual place, abdominal cavity splayed open with precision indicative of Flavia’s perfectionism. A faint stench clung to the body, it was almost time to bury her again.
“Take a smock, gloves, and a mask, Vincente,” doctor Martine gestured to a neatly folded pile of smocks and a bin of haphazard masks and leather gloves.
Vincente fumbled with the gloves, first picking a pair that were too small, then a pair that were too large. Time dragged on until he finally found a pair that fit him appropriately in the bin. He donned his mask and smock and joined doctor Martine at the operating table.
“There’s no need to be nervous, son. You’re one of Affia’s best students, I hear, and I’m not quite as hard a teacher.” He smiled again, his eyes soft and searching.
“Thank you, doctor,” Vincente said, “I am honored to know she thinks so highly of me. I-I don’t mean to be rude, but where is professor Palladino?”
“Ah! Of course, as your friend, I am surprised she didn’t tell you. I’m afraid Affia fell ill suddenly. I’m sorry if this change is jarring, I understand you are under great strain due to a death in the family,” doctor Martine shifted on his feet, his voice comforting, “and despite everything, you insist on taking the exam fairly. Quite a noble thing to insist upon. Now, with no further ado, show me what you know. Begin with the external anatomy of the head and neck, please. If possible, identify cause of death and any physical ailments the patient suffered before death as you go.”
“Yes sir, of course,” Vincente said. Something about the situation sat wrong with him. Professor Martine folded his hands in front of him placidly, reassuring smile painted on his face.
Vincente shook off his anxiety and began guiding doctor Martine through the features of the woman on the slab. Eventually, the rhythm of the exam overtook his thoughts. He forgot, for a moment, about the world outside the morgue, the strangeness of his teacher’s absence, and the storm gathering just outside the thick stone walls.
Chapter 6: Sleep Paralysis
Something spooks the cat.
Spirit purred loudly on the pillow by Vincente’s head with the sort of contentedness only cats can achieve. He gently squeezed at the pad on the cat’s forepaw, watching his claws extend and retract. The cat didn’t seem bothered. Spirit rolled over on his back and stretched his paws.
He felt himself begin to drift off to the sound of the cat’s purring. He scratched the cat behind his ears and smiled at him. He hadn’t caught sight of a single rat since Spirit started to haunt their little flat.
“Good kitty,” he cooed, scratching Spirit underneath his chin.
Spirit blinked back at him slowly, squeezing his eyes shut and folding his paws neatly on his belly. His ears suddenly perked up at the sound of something scampering across the floor above their heads. He stared up at the ceiling in interest, before deciding the disturbance was nothing worth chasing and readjusted himself to curl into a ball by Vincente’s head.
He only got halfway through dozing off before something else caught his attention. Spirit’s ears perked up and his eyes went wide to stare at the doorway of Vincente’s room.
“There’s nothing there, kitty,” Vincente tried to comfort Spirit into relaxing again. He didn’t dare look at his door.
Spirit stood up and arched his back, puffing out his fur and hissing at the open door. Vincente pulled his hand away from the cat and gripped at his pillow. He listened intently as Spirit’s hiss grew to a growl and then into a keening yowl before he finally bolted off the bed in the direction of the door. He ricocheted off the doorframe with a thump before scrambling under the bed.
The cat fell silent once he was huddled in the space between Vincente’s bed and the wooden floor. Vincente’s heart pounded in his throat, threatening to choke him. He tried to gather the courage to look. Mindless fragments of prayers ran through his head in a desperate attempt to calm himself. He closed his eyes and sat up, doing his best to convince himself that nothing stood in his doorway. Cats were just jumpy creatures. That’s all.
He opened his eyes.
A distorted humanoid shadow crouched on the floor. Its eyes gazed back at him with a luminous green glow. His heart froze in his chest as it stood up. The thing was the size of a young child. It’s oversized head fell limp against its shoulder and it blinked at him. Its disproportionately long fingers ended in talons, folded demurely in front of its caved in chest. Vincente’s voice caught in his throat. He didn’t dare breathe as he stared back.
A mouth full of gleaming needle-like teeth split its face vertically as it smiled, breaking the barely-there blackness with a swath of white. Vincente screamed. Spirit charged at the thing from under the bed with a crazed yowl. As Spirit launched himself at the thing’s chest, it vanished. Gone like candlesmoke. Spirit tore down the hallway in a panic.
Victoria rushed into his room, shoving the door against the wall with a bang and brandishing a dagger. “Vincente! What’s the matter?”
Vincente sat on his bed hyperventilating into his hands.
“Vincente, what happened?” Victoria relaxed her posture and set the dagger on his nightstand as she sat on his bed, “A nightmare?”
“Are you going to be ok?” Victoria put her arm around his shoulders.
He leaned into her and shook his head “no”.
“Maybe you should sleep on the sofa tonight. We can leave the lamps lit,” Victoria suggested. She eyed the shattered mirror catching their reflections in the dark room, “a change of scenery may do your mind some good. I’ll make some tea.”
Vincente heaved a sob against her shoulder, hands wrung in the fabric of her cotton shift. After a moment, she coaxed him to his feet with a blanket wrapped around his shoulders and helped him down the hallway to the parlor. He sat down on the sofa and curled up as Victoria left to light the lamps.
Spirit jumped up on the sofa with a chirp and balanced on the edge of the cushion in front of Vincente’s face. He gave Vincente’s head a couple licks before turning around to settle against Vincente’s chest and bathe himself.
Chapter 7: Catsitters
Vincente finally meets Felix, and Felix meets the cat.
Vincente looked up from his notes for his last exam and set them aside to address the insistent knock on the door. Marco tumbled through the doorway and shivered before tossing his coat onto Vincente.
“Hello Marco,” Vincente sighed.
“Yeah, yeah, good morning, where’s the cat?” Marco said. He grunted as he was shoved back onto the stoop.
A lithe man stepped through the door and made way for Stefano before closing the door in Marco’s face. He looked around the little parlor with a discerning eye. “Nice place you got here.”
“Yeah, it is, and everything better be where I left it when I come back.” Victoria poked him square in the chest.
He feigned offense. “I wouldn’t dream of it, my lady! In fact, if you show me where you keep your gold and jewels I’ll make sure to keep them safe.”
“Don’t assume I won’t poison you, Vescovi.” Victoria patted his shoulder.
Stefano took Marco’s coat off of Vincente’s head and threw a lanky arm around his shoulders. “Felix, this is Vincente.”
“Nice to meet you.” Vincente tried to smooth his hair out before offering his hand to Felix. Felix reached for it, but he pulled it back to discard a stray hair caught on his fingers before he let Felix shake it.
Felix smirked at him, but his expression quickly softened. “Stefano’s told me a lot about you. I’m sorry to hear about your grandfather.”
Vincente shrugged, “I wish I could have been there for him, but you know how it goes.”
Marco banged on the door. “Let me in or I’ll break it down!”
Felix waited until he was sure Marco’s weight was on the door to open it. He fell across the threshold and glared at Felix from the floor.
“Stefano, I’ll show you where I’m keeping the things for the cat, come on.” Victoria tugged on Stefano’s sleeve, dragging him off Vincente. He tossed the coat on the couch as he passed.
“You said you picked this cat up as a stray, Victoria?” Marco asked, picking himself up and following her into the kitchen where Spirit was perched on the counter. He scooped the cat up in his arms.
“Yep, I just found him outside. He was a mess when I brought him in, mats and ticks and everything. He cleans up nice, doesn’t he?” she grinned with pride.
“Hey Felix, you want to meet the cat?” Marco asked, holding the cat out to Felix.
Felix took the cat, letting him prop himself up against his shoulder. Spirit dug his claws in. It didn’t take him long to decide he was done being passed around. He squirmed out of Felix’s arms to galavant around some other part of the flat.
“So, I usually buy him cheap fish from the market and cook it lightly. He gets that once a day, any leftovers go in the icebox for the next day. I give him a dish of cream in the morning and sometimes at lunch--he likes to eat with people so you can just give him dinner when you have dinner. I’ll make sure we leave you enough money to afford food for the duration,” Victoria explained, jotting notes down on a scrap of paper for Stefano.
“Oh come on, miss Victoria, we’ll remember. You don’t need to write us instructions,” Marco protested, “we’ll remember how to take care of your cat.”
“No you won’t,” Felix laughed.
“Shut up, Felix,” Marco rolled his eyes, “We’ll take good care of Spirit between the three of us, I swear.”
“Maybe I would believe you if you had ever taken on an ounce of responsibility in your life, Marco,” Victoria said. She tugged on one of his curls as she passed, “Stefano, what are your plans? Are you taking Spirit to your flat, or will one of you be staying here?”
“Oh, we’re going to trash the place,” Stefano said, studying his nails.
“I offered to stay overnight,” Felix said, leaning against the wall with his arms crossed.
“How did your anatomy final go, Vincente?” Stefano asked, taking Felix’s spot against the wall as Victoria pulled him away for a tour of the house.
“Strange that professor Palladino didn’t show, isn’t it?” Stefano shoved his hands in his pockets.
“Yeah, yeah. I know. I haven’t heard from her, but I can’t think about it right now.” Vincente ran a hand through his hair.
“Sorry for bringing it up. So, Felix?”
“Can’t think about that either.”
Stefano put his hands up. “Sorry, sorry.” He pushed himself off the wall and followed Victoria and his roommates into the back bedrooms, leaving Vincente alone in the parlor. Their raucous banter played off the wooden walls, muffled by the short distance.
A dish toppled over in the kitchen.
Vincente looked up and wandered over to pick the cup up and put it back in the basket. As he turned it over, he looked into the basin of the cup. The remnants of tea leaves stuck at the bottom began to swirl in a red liquid. Vincente stopped breathing. The liquid filled the cup to the lip and then spilled over onto his hands, hot and viscous. He yelped and jumped backwards.
The empty cup shattered on the floor.
Felix was the first one out of the back bedrooms, light on his feet as he ran. He relaxed as he approached Vincente crouched on the floor, hands shaking as he picked up shards of ceramic.
Felix placed a hand on his back. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” Vincente gave him a nervous smile, “just clumsy.”
“A clumsy doctor, that’s a new one,” Felix chuckled, sweeping the debris into his hands, “where’s your dustbin?”
“Vincente, what happened?” Victoria walked up behind him as he stood up.
“Can you grab the dustbin, Victoria?” Vincente asked, “I just dropped something. Don’t worry about it.”
Vincente collapsed on the couch, knocking some of his notes onto the floor. Victoria finished waving to their guests and shut the door. She walked into the kitchen without saying anything and gathered the dishes in a basket.
“I’d better wash these before you break more of them,” she teased, “I’ll be back soon.”
Vincente nodded at her, looking over a random page of notes. “Don’t get lost.”
“Be back soon.” The dishes clattered in the basket as Victoria trotted out the door. It slammed behind her, catching a gust of wind.
Chapter 8: Maze
The trip home is looming.
Vincente closed the door of his flat to the empty street outside. He stretched and dropped his bag by the door before taking a few steps into the room. A gust of wind howled down the street, shaking the building.
“Victoria, are you here?” Vincente called into the darkened flat.
“Must have gone out,” Vincente mumbled to himself. He shrugged off his coat and tossed it on the sofa.
Vincente walked the long hallway to his bedroom, wrapping his arms around himself against the chill. The light faded to nothing between the lamps lining the walls. He finally arrived at the door to his bedroom, dark wood carved in ornate filigree, and pulled it open.
Vincente stepped into his father’s library. He picked a book off the table and studied the cover, emblazoned with a gold-leaf rendition of an old god with the head of a bull. It bore no title, only a fine leather binding. He flipped through the book, watching the images of lambs with their throats cut dance about on the pages. Festival pyres burned in ink and ochre. He set the book back down.
The rows of shelves seemed to go on forever as Vincente wandered. He stroked the spines of the books. This far back, they looked ancient. Shelves gave way to racks holding scrolls in gilded metal cases. The floor twisted uneasily beneath Vincente’s feet. Volumes toppled from the shelves behind him. He fled, barely outrunning the cascade.
He stopped at another intersection, staring at the mess left in his wake. Shelves continued on in each direction.
“Vincente?” His mother’s voice, muffled by so many books, had a panicked edge to it.
He ran in her direction, each path random and disorienting. Her voice called out to him, increasingly worried, her cries drawn out as he turned each corner. She seemed to drift with some unfelt breeze, voice getting closer then distant as he turned a corner. Each blind corner, he stopped to check, sure she would be there.
“Mama!” He yelled, his voice swallowed by the books. She called back to him, voice muffled and pleading. He turned another corner and ran into his father’s chest.
Vincente looked up at his father from the floor, his severe visage made of stone. His chest heaved with fear under his father’s marble eyes. The statue assumed a stately position, lit from above, eyes glaring down at Vincente.
He backpedaled and hit the cold stone wall of the room. The dirt floor offered no purchase as he attempted to push himself back further. Heat pricked at his fingertips as the dirt beneath him shifted. His stomach growled, aching with hunger.
His father stared down at him, emotionless.
Vincente scrabbled against the loose dirt as he began to sink. Flames licked up around his face. “Papa, please!” he wailed in the voice of a child. His nails broke against the unforgiving stone of the wall as he tried to hold on.
His father turned his back as talons reached up from below and dragged Vincente into the earth. He choked on the dirt pouring into his mouth, clawing against the pressure bearing down all around him.
The voice was muffled by the dirt.
“Vincente,” the voice repeated.
Vincente jolted awake. Victoria stood over him, shaking his shoulder. His blankets were tangled up around his face. He shoved them off.
“The carriage will be here soon,” Victoria said, “I wanted to make sure you had time to get ready.”
Vincente yawned and stretched. “Thanks Victoria.”
“You were talking in your sleep again,” she cocked an eyebrow at him, “more nightmares?”
“It’s fine Victoria. I’ll be out in a minute.”
She lingered in the doorway. “Fine, fine, but hurry up. I want to stop by that street vendor in the market for breakfast. The one with the little dumplings.”
Vincente rubbed the sleep from his eyes. “Be out in a minute, Victoria.”
Chapter 9: House sitting
Felix goes poking around.
Sorry I'm late! This chapter was supposed to go up Friday.
Felix turned the key in the lock of the quiet flat and stepped off the street. The door closed behind him. Heavy drapes blocked out what little sunlight there was as the storm bore down on the city, rumbling in the east. He wondered if Vincente and Victoria were travelling through the thick of it already.
Spirit trotted up to him with a pleased chirp and sniffed at his legs.
“Hello, kitty,” Felix said. He shrugged off his threadbare coat and hung it on the coatrack before pulling his boots off. Spirit chased the loose laces.
He scooped the cat up in his arms. Spirit purred loudly, tail thumping against Felix’s arms as they took a few steps into the parlor. Spirit squirmed away and dashed to the kitchen, sitting expectantly beside an expensive-looking icebox. He meowed insistently.
“Breakfast?” Felix chuckled to himself, “if you say so kitty.”
Felix poked at the ice box. The flat was chilly, but the metal of the box felt like ice to the touch. Runes etched into the metal swam like mercury. Felix flipped the latch and it hissed, billows of cold mist rolling out.
He glanced at Spirit. “Fancy, fancy,” he mumbled to himself. He pulled out a portion of fish, pulled apart with a fork on a small covered dish, “they don’t spare expense for their pets. My god, you’re spoiled rotten.”
He set the dish down on the ground and watched Spirit devour it with the desperation only a stray could have. Within seconds, the little dish was licked clean and Spirit wandered away, licking his lips. Felix felt a twinge of envy as the cat hopped onto the sofa and curled up on a blanket left there just for him. He put the dish in the basket beside a deep basin.
Felix looked around the kitchen for a candle and a match, finding a box of them tucked within a drawer of miscellaneous notes and letters. He lit the oil lamp sitting on the kitchen counter and sifted through the papers in the drawer in the light. He picked out a letter, written on fine stationary in an unsteady hand.
Papa Leone passed the night of October twentieth…
The letter began. Felix looked it over, brow furrowed as he tried to decipher the sloppy handwriting in the light of a single lamp. He tucked it into a hidden pocket, stitched into the lining of his undercoat. Felix picked up a couple more pieces of paper and looked over their contents, finding nothing, until he picked up an envelope with a split wax seal. The three swords of House Innocente stared back at him accusingly in two parts. He tucked that away too.
Felix dug through another couple of drawers for a candlestick and lit it from the oil lamp. He used it to light his path down the dark hallway, lighting the sconces along the walls. It cast the white plaster walls in a flickering light. The doors to each of the two bedrooms were shut and unadorned--one in front, and one on his right.
Felix pushed open the door on his right and peered in, looking around the room. A rack with women’s clothes stood in the corner, ghostly white. The bed sat stately and humble, plain and stripped for the time away. A candlestick and a dish sat on the nightstand, and a basin stood upon a stand in the corner. There were no shelves, but a sizeable stack of books at the foot of the bed and a vanity with a chair pulled up to it.
Felix closed the door and moved to the other room. This door creaked horribly as he opened it. A solid desk stacked with books and notes spilling over the edge and onto the floor stood against one wall with the chair askew. A shattered looking glass reflected its image, fracturing the darkened room.
Felix stepped across the threshold and paused, listening to the wind howl down the alley outside. He jumped as Spirit sped past him with a chirp and settled under the bed. Felix laughed and clutched at his chest before walking into the room with more confidence. He stood over the desk.
All of the pages he could see were medical notes, written in chicken scratch handwriting. It resembled the hand on the letter--steadier letters with characteristic looping g’s, slanting like the author was rushed in his hand. He picked up a page of anatomical notes and a rough sketch of a body splayed open. Vincente labelled lumps within the body with the names of organs, notes ran up the side. In the margins, Vincente had written prayers of thanks for the woman depicted in the drawing. He wrote her name no less than seven times.
Felix smiled, and set the notes down.
Chapter 10: Homecoming
Vincente arrives home.
By the time the ancient aqueducts of Revona loomed on the horizon, the sky had opened up and rain came down in deafening sheets across the roof of the carriage. The streetlamps reflected off the wet cobblestones as dusk fell early, some extinguished by the downpour. The town felt deserted if not for the dim light in the windows of red-roofed houses, dwarfed whenever lightning illuminated the sky between peals of thunder.
They passed through the city on the main thoroughfare, heading for the aqueduct ringing the Eastern edge of the city. Just past it, the hills rose towards a forested mountain. The white walls of the Innocente estate cut across the brown fields, separating their realm from the common folk of Revona.
“Awful dreary,” Victoria muttered, watching the lightning out the window.
He nodded, dread sinking in the pit of his stomach with each click of the horses’ hooves against the street.
“I think we might have missed dinner,” Victoria said.
“The storm makes it feel later than it is, we may still arrive on time,” his words shrunk against the dramatic weather. A chill crept into him even though the covered carriage and his coat were warm.
Victoria didn’t respond, staring out the window as they stopped at a massive iron gate. The driver and guardsman’s exchange could barely be heard above the clamor of the storm. The gate swung open and the cart jolted to life again, scenery changing from the fields of wheat and grapes just outside of the city to a sprawling garden and courtyard leading up to the main manor.
Lights in the windows of the mansion seemed to twinkle with a far-off light. He saw a shadow dart about at the corner of his vision outside the cart and tried to convince himself it was the driving wind distorting the path of the downpour. The cart had slowed down the muddy path. The wheels slogged through the mess. A shadow flickered past his vision again, but he made a point to spite the jolt in his chest and ignore it.
The carriage halted by the front doors. Victoria and Vincente gathered their belongings, strewn around the compartment during the ride. They stuffed objects into their bags indiscriminately, leaving the sorting for later when they were both dry and warm inside.
“Victoria!” Fiona, Victoria’s mother, exclaimed with open arms, awaiting them just beyond the threshold of the ornate wooden doors.
Victoria ran to her with her bag only half-closed, dropping a stocking in the process. She embraced her mother with her free arm, “Mama! It’s so good to see you!”
“And you, my love, and you,” she squeezed her daughter tightly before freeing her to hug Vincente, “Master Vincente, it’s good to see you too.”
He returned the hug, but parted more quickly than Victoria had, “I’m glad to finally be home, Fiona, it’s a shame I couldn’t be here earlier.”
Fiona shook her head, “Nonsense, he would have been proud of you for having such ambition and drive. He tried to wait for you, you know, but when the Lord calls there is naught we can do but answer,” she paused for a moment of respectful silence, “Now go on, your mother and father have been waiting for you.”
“Thank you, Fiona,” he faked a smile, but knew she could see the exhaustion in his eyes. To his relief, she didn’t comment on it.
She shooed him away, “Go on, leave your bags here. I’ll see that they’re brought up to your room soon.”
He thanked her again and turned toward the staircase leading up to the second floor of the manor. The marble stairs echoed beneath his feet, and the wood floors on the second level creaked. He avoided the loudest boards out of habit. The patter of rain emanated through the house, mixing with the footsteps of servants and distant relatives alike.
He found his parents sequestered away in the library, sitting across from one another at a distance and speaking softly. Their conversation ceased as he entered the room. He stood in the doorway, waiting for their express invitation.
“Vincente,” his mother breathed a deep and sad sigh, forcing a smile that didn’t reach her eyes as she stood up, “I’m glad you’ve finally arrived.”
“I am too, Mama,” he said, embracing her in a tense hug. Her eyes focused on him in the dim light--distant and rimmed with red. Her hands trembled on his shoulders and a thin sheen of sweat graced her brow.
“We were waiting for you to arrive before we called for dinner,” she told him, her voice shaking like that of an old woman, “I’m glad you arrived in time, your father was considering starting without you.”
Of course he was.
“I’m glad, Mama, thank you,” he said, hands on her arms and unwilling to pull away so quickly, needing to find some comfort before he did so. She appeared so thin, fragile.
She leaned in closely for another hug and whispered in his ear. “Did you bring me my medicine, my favorite son?”
Vincente’s heart sank. He nodded and they parted, his mother stepping aside with a thankful smile.
His father stood up, and approached a bookcase, his back to Vincente and his wife. Vincente hesitated to address him until his mother ushered him on with a nod and a glance. He approached his father, placing a tentative hand on his shoulder. His father didn’t acknowledge him, but did not shrug his hand off either.
“Papa, how are you doing?” He asked softly. The door closed gently behind them, leaving him alone with his father.
He sighed deeply, pausing before responding to his son, “We are coping,” he said, patting his son’s hand and brushing it off without looking at him. He fingered the spine of an old leather bound book, pulling it off the shelf in a cloud of dust that betrayed how rarely the books were read. Another grand display of history and wealth.
Vincente shrank against the tension in the room. “I am sorry I wasn’t here.”
His father didn’t speak, flipping through the book at a painfully slow pace. The awkward quiet in the room punctuated by the rustle of pages as his father scanned them. Even though his father’s eyes weren’t on him, Vincente felt like he was being watched by the stone gargoyles sitting on platforms along the walls and above the bookshelves. House guardians. When he moved beside his father, he could have sworn their eyes followed him.
“Vincente, do you know what this is?” His father pointed to an illustration of a strange, serpentine creature with three human heads bearing down on a knight wearing armor that had seen better days.
“The dragon?” he guessed, not entirely sure, “the one Loreto killed.”
His father shook his head, “This is the demon Nazzaria, that our firstmost ancestor slain. He brought back it’s heads and presented them to the king, do you recall?”
Vincente cursed himself internally for not recognizing it on sight. “Yes, of course, I’m sorry I must be a bit strained from the journey. I remember it well, grandfather always told me the story.”
His father nodded. “Delilah is waiting for us to come to dinner, I’m sure,” he slid the book back into place on the bookshelf and lead his son out of the library room. He shut the door behind him, “Go on, Vincente, I’ll catch up,” he said, hand still on the doorknob.
Vincente knew better than to argue. He left his father in library and hurried to the dining hall for dinner. The smell of spiced meat wafted up the stairs and around the entire manor, mingling with the smoky scent of fire-roasted vegetables.
The table was piled up with a feast, including an entire boar. The gloomy weather and the mourning was all but lost on the party, dressed in all black but jovial enough that they might well have been celebrating a birth. A seat beside his brother Cassius was left vacant for him, and the table seemed to be divided with his immediate family at the end, and the distant relations and close family friends seated on the other. The importance of the individual was marked by their distance from the table’s head--his father’s seat.
He took his seat beside Cassius and was immediately bombarded by inquiries from his family. He answered them all in good faith: yes, his grades were fine, no he had not found a wife at university, no he had not found a husband either, yes he was still sure he wanted to be a doctor. His father’s arrival warranted the same excited response, as well as some minor exchange of gossip concerning his newest political endeavor.
“Evonne,” his father addressed his sister, “how is your youngest coming along? I hear she fled to dump her dreams on the big city.” He took another delicate bite of pork.
“Bah,” Evonne, a portly woman, leaned back in her chair, “I give her a month before she writes that she wants to come back. Either that, or she comes back with some no-good rat of a man trying to take advantage of her good God-fearing spirit,” she scoffed through a mouthful of carrots.
Her eldest daughter nudged her. “Come now, mother, let her have her chance. I came back from the city just fine, why wouldn’t she?”
“Ah, yes, but you went and joined the convent. I wish you had brought back a man--you could learn to live a little!” she quipped, nudging her daughter right back.
“Mama, you wound me,” she protested, taking a sip of wine and trying her best to look pious at a table full of family on their worst behavior.
The subject changed, swapping back to their father’s recent political encounters. He was dealing with a strange family from somewhere up north.
“It’s like they consider every day a funeral, I’ve never seen a pair so grim,” he criticized, gesturing with his goblet of wine, “Even our funeral attire has more joy than their daily wear, I can’t make sense of them.”
Vincente felt better knowing that his father wasn’t too dark to joke. The wine took hold of many of them as they feasted late into the night. Eventually, one by one the crowd began to thin--first Vincente’s mother and father, then most of the distant relatives, until only Vincente, and his siblings remained.
“I hear papa’s finally letting you in on the family curse,” Christiana slurred. She stared at the portrait of their great-grandfather across the hall. She had his eyes. Severe.
“Christi…” Cassius warned, nearly spilling his drink.
She slammed her glass down on the table. “He ought to know . He ought to have known earlier .”
“Christiana, papa doesn’t tell me anything. You know that,” Vincente said, patting her hand on the table before downing the last of the wine in his glass, “The only thing I ought to do is go to bed.”
“I knew by the time I was twelve, Vin,” Christi continued, “but he kept it from you until he literally could not hide it. Why so afraid?”
“He is soft-hearted, Christi,” Cassius stared at the wine in his own glass.
“Less so than you, you disgrace of a firstborn,” Christiana hissed at him. Cassius wilted under her gaze.
Vincente stood up. “I’m going to bed.”
“They aren’t nightmares, Vincente!” Christiana called drunkenly after him, tipping back in her chair and staring up at the chandelier, “but I suppose you’ll know soon enough.”
Chapter 11: Summons
Some quality time with dad.
Vincente woke in his childhood bedroom with a splitting headache. He squinted at the gauzy drapes surrounding his bed. Sun shining through the large windows on the wall betrayed the late hour of the morning. He groaned and rolled over, holding a pillow over his head to block out the light. The door creaked open.
“Master Vincente?” a girl asked in a small voice he didn’t recognize. She was accompanied by the clatter of a rolling metal serving tray that mocked his sensitive head and made his stomach turn.
“Leave it, leave it,” He grumbled, voice muffled by the pillow.
The door closed behind her quietly as she could manage. He was not the first she had come to rouse today. He lay half-conscious in the plush bed, cursing the birds singing in the tree outside his window. They were punctuated by the harsh caw of a crow, attempting to join in on the songbirds’ fun.
Vincente cursed that crow in particular.
He rolled away from the window to stare at the serving cart from a distance. The tray was covered by a silver dome with no way to tell what it concealed. His stomach protested at the very thought of food. He pressed the pillow around his ears and tried to ignore the symphony performed by the songbirds featuring solos by the crow who, on occasion, would add a “pretty bird” to its song for good measure. Vincente hated whoever taught it to speak.
He glared at the serving tray, it taunted him with the idea that he might have to wait until it had gone cold to actually eat it. Vincente took a deep breath and sat up with his eyes squeezed shut. The serving tray still sat just out of reach off the bed.
He groaned again and cursed at the minor inconvenience, stretching his arm out feebly. He rolled his top half over the side of the bed and stretched out again, grabbing one of the legs of the trolley and pulling it closer to the bed. The headache reasserted itself and he winced.
He set the cover aside, a simple breakfast of bacon and eggs waiting to greet him along with a glass of Fiona’s signature hangover cure. He threw the glass back with no hesitation, choking down the noxious beverage. Vincente stared at his steaming breakfast, caught somewhere between starving and nauseous.
After a moment, the pain in his head dulled and his stomach was no longer turning, although it seemed to be unhappy with him regardless. He felt good enough to eat, and that was all that mattered. Before he had a chance to dig in, someone knocked at the door.
“Yes?” Vincente sighed.
The maid’s small voice barely carried through the door, all but inaudible to Vincente.
“I’m sorry, what? Come in, please,” he set down his silverware on the tray.
The maid pushed the door open a crack, “Master Vincente, your father is asking for you.”
“Can he wait until I’m done with breakfast?” Vincente asked.
She shook her head, “It seems urgent.”
He groaned and pushed the tray away from the table, “Fine, fine, tell him I’ll be down shortly. Where does he want me to meet him?”
“The library, I believe,” she lingered for slightly too long before asking, “may I take your breakfast tray?”
He took a few more bites then reluctantly nodded. His stomach growled in protest. She swept into the room and hurried the cart away with a clatter, shutting the door behind her. Vincente fell back on his bed once she was gone, staring daggers into the ceiling and sinking back into the plush comforter.
It was on mornings like this that his grandfather would come to wake him years ago, breakfast tray confiscated from the staff and a book under his arm. The book sat neglected on the bed as his grandfather spun tales of the adventures of his ancestors, of prophecies guided by the Lord and the demons that tried to thwart them--sometimes, of demons that spurned their creator and tried to assist.
He would always leave the book behind for Vincente under the pretense of forgetting it. Not a story book, Vincente would discover, but a medical text. His grandfather seemed to be the only honest supporter of his ambition, even in those early years. Emptiness constricted his chest.
Shaking off the grief, he stood up and opened the wardrobe to throw the first acceptable combination of black clothes on the bed. He let his mind wander into unimportant nothingness as he dressed, fidgeting with laces and buttons on his clothes. Despite the bright light in the room, he was dimly aware of the corners cast in shadow and what appeared to be moving in them. He assumed they were particularly brave mice, and made a mental note to tell Fiona about it next time he saw her.
Vincente knocked on the closed library door before opening it. It creaked ominously on its hinges and revealed a room brightly lit with morning sun, illuminating the gargoyles lining the tops of bookshelves. His father sat in his chair flipping through a book, a stack of others beside him on the table. He acknowledged his son’s presence with little more than a wave over the chair’s high back and didn’t bother to look up from the book when he beckoned him over.
Vincente closed the door behind him, moving to stand across from his father. He lingered awkwardly in front of him. His father ignored him for a few seconds more.
Finally, he spoke, “Vincente, will you visit your grandfather’s grave with me? It is not too late to pay your respects.”
“Of course, father, I would be honored,” Vincente nodded. He paused, the awkward silence settling over the room again, “was there anything else you wanted to discuss with me?”
He snapped his book shut, shattering the silence. “Yes, but not here. We will take a walk down to the cemetery. I’ve asked that your brother join us as well, he should arrive momentarily.”
His father set the book down on the stack and picked up another. Vincente sat down across from his father and tried to avoid looking at him. He grabbed the first book he could reach off the table beside him and flipped through it, looking for something to do in the silence. Something creaked deeper in the library room.
Diagrams and artistic interpretations of exorcism broke up walls of text concerning the theory behind exorcism and behavior of demons, including examples of magic circles used to force demonic possession on others or the self. He flipped past a section concerning the division of divine possession and demonic possession, as well as tables full of arcane symbols and their meanings. Vincente wondered what purpose such a book had.
After a few tense minutes, Cassius finally appeared in the doorway. Before he could take a step inside, their father stood up.
“Let’s be off, then.” He said.
Cassius made way for his father and held the door open for Vincente, giving him a reassuring smile. The door fell closed behind him.
Chapter 12: Spirit Sight
Felix goes on a walk.
Sorry for the late upload and rough chapter! I'll go back and revise this later, but I wanted to get it out before I go on hiatus over Thanksgiving.
“Who wants some wine?” Marco asked, pulling out a sealed bottle from a cabinet, “or maybe some liquor?”
“You’re going to drink Vincente’s alcohol now?” Felix sneered at him, laying back on the sofa with his legs over the armrest, “while his grandpa lies dead under six feet of frozen dirt?”
Stefano stifled a laugh, teasing Spirit with an ostrich feather.
“He’s rich, man, he can buy another bottle.” Marco took a swig directly out of the bottle before looking for the cups.
“He’s going to visit family, and you’d deny him the small mercy of drinking himself to an early grave as soon as he gets back? You’re cruel Marco.” Felix snatched his hand away as Stefano brushed it with the ostrich feather, narrowly avoiding Spirit’s eager claws.
“Sorry,” Stefano mumbled, redirecting the cat away from the furniture.
Felix shrugged. “Not that I would expect any less from a stand up man, such as yourself. After all, Marco, you’ve only spent your entire life preying on the kindness of others. His wine, your wine, what’s the difference?”
“That’s hilarious coming from a criminal,” Marco scoffed, “you want some or not?”
Felix stood up and stretched. “Maybe I was raised by criminals, but at least a thief worth half a penny knows you save that kind of mooching for something you really need. Like a warm place to sleep, or, you know, an honest paying job.”
“No wine for you, I get it, pretentious ass,” Marco rolled his eyes, “what about you Stefano?”
Felix walked up behind Marco and snatched the bottle from his loose grasp, backing up as he chugged as much of it as he could manage before Marco could wrestle it back.
“Hey!” Marco snapped.
“He can afford another bottle of wine,” Felix chuckled, “I’m going for a walk.”
“I’d like a glass,” Stefano raised his hand.
Marco scoffed and turned around to fish a second cup out of the cupboards. Felix left, taking his coat under his arm and stepping down onto the front steps. The warmth faded as the door closed behind him, a cold wind stinging his cheeks. He looked both ways down the street--nearly abandoned. Most tenants had fled home for the warmth of family and food, leaving only those too far away or too broke to pay passage.
He shoved his hands in his pockets and started walking. Quiet dorms passed him by until he turned the corner. The square opened up, a grassy lawn surrounded by a wrought iron fence greeted the dreary sky. Headstones lined in neat rows lead up to the back of a church serving the area, old and in disrepair. Felix glanced over his shoulder at the deserted street before slipping between the bars of the fence where rust rotted it through.
Dry grass crunched under his feet. Mist began to stir from his steps as he walked across the bodies buried deep below, fuzzy shapes peering at him from behind headstones. Some grabbed at his legs, their words garbled in languages lost to time. Felix pulled away from them, edging towards a crypt at the center housing fresher souls.
Felix settled behind the rough-hewn marble, a chill seeping into his bones. Spirit mists swirled about him, whispers and requests filling his head. They settled as he remained silent, a hazy shape taking form in front of him.
“Reverend.” Felix nodded at the mist without looking up, plucking at the dead grass.
The shape settled in the grass in front of him, frost blossoming on the grass it touched. The features of his face were hazy, shifting and skeletal, but kind.
“What brings you here, my son?” the old priest’s voice echoed.
“Oh, pleasant company, conversation, the usual,” Felix smiled, “care to hear my confession, father?”
“Of course,” the ancient priest said, “what troubles you, son?”
“I have terrible roommates,” Felix laughed, “other than that, very little. They seem to be… misunderstanding the significance of the loss of another friend of ours.”
The old ghost listened patiently.
“They’re trying in their own way, but I don’t think they understand the weight that comes with losing the family patriarch,” Felix wrung his hands, “I feel I should offer some comfort, but I am unsure how.”
“You wish to get into this friend’s heart?”
Felix leaned back against the mausoleum and shrugged. “We only just met, it isn’t my place, but I feel like I ought to do something for him still.”
“How do you know him?”
“I’m watching his house while he’s away for the funeral.” Felix closed his eyes and felt the spirit’s presence vanish suddenly, replaced by footsteps around the other side of the mausoleum. He didn’t move, waiting for them to make the full circuit around it.
“Goodness!” The man jumped as he rounded the corner, “I didn’t see you there.”
Felix stood up, preparing to leave. “Oh, it’s no problem. I’m sorry for startling you.”
The living reverend, Nicholas Merlo, stood with his hand pressed to his chest. Thin and frail, Felix thought he may not be living much longer. He smoothed back his thinning hair and composed himself.
“I wasn’t expecting anyone,” he said, laughing his reaction off, “what brings you here, my son? Can I assist you?”
Felix shook his head. “I was just leaving.”
Reverend Merlo stopped him with a hand on his shoulder. “Come now, few people find themselves in the church yard with a quiet mind.”
“I was just--”
“Speaking with the dead, yes?” Reverend Merlo turned to go inside, “come, I’ll make us some tea. It’s been some time since I encountered someone like yourself, I would very much like to know how old Joseph is faring.”
Felix kept his head down and followed the reverend into the warmth of the chapel. The warmth of wood and candlelight swam with the scent of stale frankincense from the last mass. Felix cautiously admired the windows--not stained glass, simply wrought iron with small frosted glass panes between them. Reverend Merlo lead him into the back office.
A small fire burned in the hearth, a kettle of water already steaming above it. The reverend gestured to a chair in front of a wobbly desk. He picked up two chipped cups from a small cupboard and began preparing the loose tea. Felix stood uneasily.
“Sit,” Nicolas Merlo prompted again, “do not be so nervous. I make no judgements based on who I do and do not see on Sundays.”
Felix thought that was a lie. He sat down anyway. “So, how long have you been here?”
The reverend sat across from him, pushing a steaming cup of tea in his direction. “Five years or so. My predecessor was a mentor to me during seminary, buried in the mausoleum outside. What is your name?”
Felix glanced around the room. “Lucas,” he lied, “Lucas Gori.”
Merlo nodded. “You have spirit sight, Lucas?”
“I do, but I try to keep that… under wraps, Father. You understand,” Felix folded his hands on the table in front of him.
The reverend chuckled. “Of course, I imagine you’re busy enough without people showing up on your doorstep asking you to find out where grandma hid the family jewels. It’s been quite a while since someone with your talents came through, I was simply hoping you were speaking with an old friend of mine.”
“The old priest.”
“Yes, him. How is he doing?”
Felix shrugged. “I admit, I came around for selfish reasons. I didn’t ask, but he seemed well enough.”
“That’s good, I’m glad. What brings you seeking advice of the dead?” The reverend eyed him with amused suspicion.
Felix took a sip of the tea,letting the cup warm his hands. “Missing family, is all. My roommates are rowdy company, makes me homesick.”
“I would imagine,” the reverend glanced over Felix’s shoulder at the door, “excuse me a moment.”
A feeble knock on the doorframe prompted the reverend to stand up. “Doctor Martine, I nearly forgot you were coming by today.”
The blood drained from Felix’s face.
“My apologies, Father, I didn’t mean to interrupt your… counsel.” Doctor Martine’s gentle voice was barely audible outside the office.
Felix stood up too quickly, the chair scraping across the ground. He braced himself before turning and walking out.
“Sorry to leave so soon, Father, I really should be going. Thank you for the tea.” He forced his voice steady, avoiding eye contact with either man.
“Anytime,” Nicholas Merlo waved, confused, before turning back to doctor Martine, “a strange young man, perhaps I’ll see him more often.”
“Yes, perhaps,” Doctor Martine said, “now about that book.”
“Of course, I found it for you last night.” Nicholas Merlo lead Doctor Martine into the back office. The door closed behind them.
I'm back! Not gonna lie, this chapter is just me buying time to fix the next chapter. Revisions are hard.
Their father let the silence sit, as he was prone to doing. His sons walked on either side of him, Cassius looking straight ahead and Vincente looking down at the gravel path. The sprawling property ended on the ancient grounds of the cemetery, watched by the stained glass windows of the chapel on the grounds staring out at the mausoleums with red eyes. The manicured path ended in a trimmed lawn that grew wild with ivy around the older monuments to the dead.
“So, father, I hear you called off your meeting with Leopoldo this morning,” Cassius prompted, adopting a cordial tone.
Their father nodded. “Yes, I thought better of a political meeting today. None of us were at our best so early this morning, It wouldn’t do to make a poor impression on him.”
“I doubt Leopoldo’s opinion of us would be swayed so easily, father.” Cassius stood up straight, hoping to lead by example.
Vincente stared at his feet, avoiding confrontation in his own way. He let his mind wander in the sadness welling up inside him at the thought of visiting his grandfather’s grave. He didn’t want to read his name on the newly-erected mausoleum. He could already see it--whiter, sharper cut than the others.
“Yes, I agree. It was the only time he had to meet with me today, so I’m sure it is much appreciated on his end,” their father conceded, mercifully allowing Vincente to remain in his thoughts.
Their conversation faded into the background until Cassius shook Vincente out of his head and brought him back into the moment. He straightened up and gave his father his attention.
“Vincente, I know this entire situation has been hard on you, but there are things you must understand,” his father began, “I need you to give me your word that you will be patient, and allow me to say my piece once we’ve arrived.”
Unnerved, Vincente hesitated for a moment before speaking, “I’m unsure what you’ll be saying your piece on, father, forgive me?”
His father sighed, as though he expected Vincente’s response, “I cannot say yet, but I am not asking for your acceptance, only your patience.”
Vincente narrowed his eyes and considered his father’s request. “Alright,” he said finally, “you have my patience.”
“Thank you, Vinny,” his father smiled, teasing him with the childhood nickname.
Vincente troubled over the brief conversation as his father and brother resumed their small talk and wandered through the sprawling cemetery. A sick feeling brewed in Vincente’s stomach.
“Shall we?” Their father made a sweeping gesture to follow with his hand as they stood in front of the newest mausoleum. The ground around it was still disturbed, the marble door not yet sealed.
Cassius stepped into the mausoleum first, followed by Vincente. Their father left the door open behind them, but lingered in the doorway.
“I have already paid my respects but, please, take your time. I’ll be waiting for you in the chapel,” their father said. Soon after, the weight of his presence vanished.
“Why would he come to leave us alone here?” Vincente asked, dropping to his knees in front of a slab or marble inscribed with his grandfather’s name. The shock of hitting the marble radiated up through his legs.
Cassius placed a hand on Vincente’s shoulder, taking a knee beside him more gracefully. He had their mother’s features--delicate and nervous, honeyed eyes always fretting over something. “It’s important that you pay your respects first,” he whispered.
Cassius pressed his hand against the cold marble. He bowed his head and said a prayer under his breath, raising his eyes and standing up again once he was done. He dragged his hand off of Vincente’s shoulder and left, his footsteps muffled by the grass.
And Vincente was alone. Kneeling on the cold stone floor with his hands clasped in front of him, he searched for a prayer to say. When the words wouldn’t come, the tears welled up in his eyes instead. He wiped them away, afraid of what his father would say if he left the grave tear-stained. They spilled over anyway.
“I’m sorry,” he said, feeling stupid in the silent tomb, “I’m sorry I couldn’t be here sooner.”
The stone said nothing to him.
“I wish I could have told you how much you meant to me,” Vincente thought the words sounded hollow, “I know you told me to finish school, but I should have been here. I’m needed here.”
Vincente wiped the tears away from his eyes, sobbing into his sleeve. He took a deep breath and stared up at the vaulted ceiling.
“This isn’t the goodbye I wanted to say,” his voice trembled, “I’m so sorry.”
Vincente sat in silence until his knees started to ache. He forced himself to breathe slowly and steadily, rubbing the tears away from his eyes. He hoped his father wouldn’t notice that he had been crying. He left the mausoleum and pulled the heavy stone door closed. A cold wind blew across the cemetery, and the chapel door stood open at the top of the hill. He made for it.
Chapter 14: Family Ties
Vincente makes a visit to the oldest part of the family estate.
Vincente and Cassius sat in the first church pew, listening to their father extrapolate on family history. Vincente listened politely, feeling uneasy. It felt like test review, and Vincente already passed his exams.
“You recall Daniella Innocente, who lead the king’s army at the age of no more than fifteen?” His father reminisced, “Daniella’s single request to the king was to free our family from an unfair treaty that bound our actions, provided she eliminated the neighboring kingdom in its entirety.”
“Yes, father, I do. She razed the entire kingdom in three days and returned, declaring a miraculous victory, without a single casualty,” Cassius finished the story. His father responded with a satisfied nod.
“Miraculous or no, that’s many lives lost at Daniella’s hands,” Vincente mused. He stopped immediately as he realized what he was saying.
His father’s lips pressed into a tight line. “A small price to pay to save the lives of our own people, isn’t it, Vincente?”
Vincente’s stomach dropped. “Of course, my apologies,” he swallowed, “Daniella did what the Lord required of her, however terrible it may have been. He works in mysterious ways.”
“Our family’s history is steeped in blood,” his father looked at Vincente, judging his stooped posture and hands folded in his lap, “something you would do well to respect, for the time may come again when we are called upon as warriors and not merchants. Or healers.”
Cassius stared straight ahead, but nodded in agreement. He shot Vincente a frightened look, eyes pleading with him not to start a fight.
“I know my place,” Vincente said.
His father stood up and sighed. “No, no you do not. Leone hid that knowledge from you. You know nothing of your place, Vincente,” he walked toward the altar, “come, both of you.”
Cassius stood up and followed him without hesitation, but Vincente rose more slowly. E joined his brother and father in front of the gilded tabernacle, a large ruby set at the center above the small door. The red stained glass windows cast a sinister light on the slate that made up the floor.
“Cassius, if you would.” Their father nodded at him.
Cassius opened the empty tabernacle, face pale. His hand shook as he reached in, but he gave Vincente a reassuring smile. A button clicked, stone ground against stone, and Cassius’s smile vanished under the weight of his father’s stern neutrality. The slate began to shift behind them, dust puffing up into the red light, as a staircase leading downward opened for them.
Vincente stared at the staircase, dumbstruck. He peered down over the edge, watching it take a turn into total darkness. Cassius picked up the sanctuary lamp and lead them down the narrow steps, into the void.
Vincente hesitated at the top of the stairs, fingering the prayer beads in his pocket. He jumped as his father placed his hand on his shoulder, holding him firmly and pushing him towards the steps. Vincente followed the candlelight down the flight of stairs and into an open room. Cassius walked around the space, lighting sconces with the sanctuary lamp. The statue coiled at the center of the room writhed in shadow.
A breeze whispered by Vincente’s ear, speaking in distorted tones. He shuddered, shuffling closer to the wall. Cassius approached the statue and lit a torch at the center. It flared up, lighting the faces of Nazzaria as Loreto offered the light to the demon. His stone face looked into the demon’s eyes, it’s serpentine tail coiled protectively around him. His sword--the real one--stood beside him on the pedestal, buried in the stone.
“Vincente, there is something you must know about our family,” his father began, approaching the statue and genuflecting at its base, “You will not understand today, nor tomorrow, but you must know regardless.”
“What is this?” Vincente choked out. His stomach twisted in knots, he clutched the lapel of his coat tightly.
“VIncente--” Cassius began, stopping himself when their father held his hand up. He stepped back, standing beside their father.
“You do not understand the weight of the gift you’ve been given,” Vincente’s father said, “you don’t know our true history, and I was happy to leave it that way so long as my father was alive.”
Dread slammed against Vincente’s chest, black and sick. At his father’s words, the shadows seemed to surge toward him--waves reaching for shore. Distant hisses and whispers chattered around him. He looked around, trying to find the source, and seeing the shadows scurrying at the edges of the light.
“It’s time you met our Master,” his father said, voice resonating in the empty chamber. The whispers fell silent as he said so.
The shadows stilled, waiting. They watched Vincente with keen interest.
“Wh-what am I… supposed to do?” Vincente asked, voice cracking. He locked eyes with the raised head of Nazzaria--its gaze removed from the statue of Loreto to watch him, teeth bared in a draconic facsimile of a grin.
“Vincente Atticus Innocente,” his father raised his voice, “you step forward and introduce yourself. You do not cower like some common vermin!”
Something shoved Vincente forward, silent and hot against his back. He took the few more leaden steps up to the statue. All three heads had shifted slightly, tilted to look at him with the blase interest of a lion after a meal. Vincente shrank from it, avoiding its eyes as he reached out to place his hand on one of the coils, expecting to feel cool marble.
Vincente’s stomach dropped like the floor had fallen out from beneath his feet. He collapsed, watching the world swim around him. When he focused again, he was cradled within Nazzaria’s coils. A large claw tipped his head up, caressing his throat. Smoke curled from the demon’s mouth as it grinned down at him.
“A long, long time…” one of the heads hissed.
Vincente trembled, a scream dying in his throat. He braced himself against Nazzaria’s coils, only to have them wind tighter around his body. He gasped at the suffocating pressure around his chest.
“I have so much to teach you, and so little time,” another head mused. The demon brushed a strand of hair away from his face, “Leone assures me you’ll learn well.”
Vincente fumbled in his pocket for the prayer beads and thrust them in the demon’s face. “I will--I will not be tempted!” his voice cracked.
Nazzaria tapped the crucifix dangling in front of it, watching it swing with amusement. “I am older than your god, child.”
Vincente pulled the prayer beads close to his chest, his hands shaking. He fell silent as Nazzaria shifted, the coils moving like liquid around him as it moved behind him and grasped him by the shoulders. A head rested by each of his ears and spoke in unison:
“Allow me to show you your legacy.”