Updated: Jul 1, 2020
"Careful, I have a very jealous husband," she warned him with a smile.
British Raj, 1904
James looked up from his paper, startled.
The electric fan was poorly ventilating the humid air where he sat on the patio, the smoke from his thin cigar the only thing warding away the tiny gnats drawn to his coffee. He stared blankly for a moment before he blinked, trying to pull himself away from her eyes.
She gave him a forgiving smile, but the gesture only made her more alluring. “I said, do you mind telling me where the library is?” she repeated.
He finally broke out of his stupor, folding his newspaper before bolting to his feet. “Forgive me, miss, I seem to have lost my manners.”
He took her hand, finding it cool despite the midday heat. She was unusually tall, but he was at least a head taller, which still served his ego as he gave her an exaggerated bow to plant a kiss on hand. He struggled not to gape at her, finally understanding why poets call skin like hers porcelain, while trying to understand how a woman can have such dark hair and light eyes or be so tall and elegant without heels. “I would be happy to accompany you there,” he managed.
“That would be wonderful, thank you,” she nodded, lifting her lace parasol back up to shield her skin from the sun.
James left his smoldering cigar and paper, adjusting his jacket while he thanked the Lord above for sending such an attractive woman his way. She projected youth with her impossibly smooth skin and snake-bitten lips, but the way she carried herself offered up the idea that she was mature beyond her years. She was a far cry from the giggling young waifs who often threw themselves his way, especially before he left for India, attracted to his uniform just as much as they were his thick, black hair and strapping shoulders.
He felt a shiver creep along his neck when she took his arm, but it wasn’t unpleasant, almost giddy as he guided her inside the hotel. “Is there someone meeting you there?” he asked.
“Actually, I’m looking for a specific book,” she replied.
“A woman who reads,” he commented in surprise, a bit turned off by the notion.
She simply smiled as they continued on, drawing a few curious stares from the hotel patrons, including several of his fellow officers. He puffed up his chest as he walked by them, hoping the situation he currently found himself in would lead to a new story to tell over drinks.
“How long have you served in the army?” she interrupted his thoughts.
“Since the ripe ol’ age of eighteen,” James said proudly. “It will be five years, two of which have been spent stationed here.”
“Ah,” she nodded as her eyes took in the hotel, sweeping over the stately columns and potted plants, the richly dyed rugs that matched the punkah fans swinging above.
“So you know why I’m here, but what brings you to Calcutta?” he asked.
“Holiday,” she said simply, before she stopped in her tracks. “Forgive me, I’ve left my notebook up in my room. It has the title of the book I’m to find written down in it.”
“No problem, miss, I can walk you to your room,” he offered immediately. “I have the afternoon free today, so I don’t mind.”
She beamed up at him. “You are so kind. It’s up on the second floor.”
He nodded, now completely transfixed by her and the implications of going upstairs to her room. They climbed up the stairs to another, less populated lobby before traveling down a narrow hallway. He knew she was talking, but he wasn’t listening, overcome by the urge to kiss her, wondering what her lips would taste like. He stopped her as they rounded the corner, leaning in as close to her as he could without their bodies touching. “Has anyone ever told you how ravishing you are?”
“Careful, I have a very jealous husband,” she warned him with a smile, artfully dodging his advance.
“Husband,” he snorted. “I see no ring on your finger.”
“Well, he is technically dead,” she informed him, though the smile never left her lips.
James laughed. He didn’t mind when women played games with him, the end result was always the same. “Then I’m sure he won’t mind if I kiss you.”
She pulled him down the hallway, stopping in front of her room. Her body invited him back to her as she studied his face with her sky blue eyes. “Ah, yes. I think you’ll do nicely,” she murmured.
James usually waited before he sealed the deal, but he couldn’t help himself. He pulled her up against him and kissed her, delighted to taste a smoky sort of berry that he would have expected her mouth to taste like. She didn’t pull away, letting him kiss her deeper until he felt himself grow lightheaded with passion.
He pulled away, breathless, hoping she’d open the door and invite him inside, when he realized with a start that he was more than lightheaded - he was dizzy. He put his hand on the wall to steady himself, but his legs had turned to rubber. He tried to tell her it was okay, that he would be fine here in a minute, it had to be the heat, but when he looked up at her, she seemed unconcerned, crossing her arms as if she was patiently waiting.
He didn’t have time to register what was happening, for he was falling, hitting the ground with a painful, blinding thud.
When he opened his eyes, he was groggy, as if something heavy sat on his forehead. He struggled to focus, but his eyes refused to open, the dank, earthy scent in his nose and the chill on his skin letting him know he was in a cave. He heard echoing voices, recognizing the pitch of the woman from the hotel and a man’s, densely baritone. “Are you sure you want to do this?” he asked her.
“It is the only way,” she told him firmly.
“How are you so certain that I can even do it? This is unlike any kind of necromancy I have ever done before.”
“Together, we are strong enough.”
“Cahira should be here.”
“You know she cannot be. It must be us - after all, we are his closest family.”
James stirred, silencing their conversation. His vision finally resolved itself, revealing that he was indeed in a cave, the ground scattered with candles. They threw their flames across the stone walls and the raven haired woman who approached him. “You’re awake,” she said.
James suddenly realized his arms and legs were in ropes, his body splayed out and tied to a wooden x.
He struggled, dismayed to learn how tight his bounds were. His heart began to race, slamming against his chest and pushing up into his throat. “What’s happening? Why am I here?”
She smiled sadly as she drew up to him, cupping his face with her cold hand. She wasn’t as enchanting as she’d seemed before, her eyes now distant, her teeth appearing sharp as her lips glided over them.
“Forgive me, child,” she murmured. “I promise we will take good care of your soul.”
“My soul?” James was growing frantic, wondering what awful sort of thing he’d gotten himself tied up in. He watched as she retrieved a slender knife and fell apart inside as it glinted in the candlelight, all of his training and confidence lost to the wind. “Please,” he begged her. “I didn’t mean anything by it - I was only flirting with you! It was harmless.”
“I know,” she said, not unlike a mother who looks with loving regret towards her naughty child, about to receive his punishment.
Her dark waves now spilled freely around her shoulders, shocking against the ivory of her dress as she moved quickly, arranging things to her liking. The male voice she had been speaking to surfaced from the shadows, a indiscernible silhouette only made visible by the scanty candlelight. “Are you sure you want to do this?” he asked her.
James began to shake. “Please,” he begged the shadow. “I didn’t know she was married.”
“Is there some way we can silence him?”
She clucked her tongue in response. “He is only a boy.”
“You know I have little tolerance for colonial regimes,” he reminded her. “He is a soldier first and foremost.”
She sighed, tearing a piece of fabric off her dress. “That is my son,” she explained to James as she headed back towards him. “I know this seems frightening, but believe me when I tell you that your soul will be cared for. It has reincarnated many times already. You tend to pick the same story - a young, strapping cad with delusions of grandeur. You often take wives, but you prefer promiscuity. I will make sure you find a similar arrangement again.” She began to wind the cloth around his mouth, despite his protestations. “In this life, you have little family to leave behind and no children. You are relatively smart, healthy,” she tightened the gag, “and incredibly handsome.”
James was beginning to feel lightheaded again, afraid he was hallucinating. He swore the shadowy man was wearing the head of a dead jackal, that the cave had suddenly filled with garbling crows.
The woman looked otherworldly herself, her pupils large as she stood at the crux of the candles, spreading her arms wide as her jackal-headed son joined her. With her knife, she tore open her perfect pale flesh at the wrist, spilling her blood onto the earth. The air grew syrupy and hot as the ground began to shake in response. He watched it crack open where the blood pooled, dozens of charred skeletal hands reaching out of it, as a piercing, inhuman shriek dominated the room.
He wasn’t sure if he’d fainted and dreamed the emergence of a leathery black creature with bat wings and a dragon’s mouth, or if it was real, if they’d really pulled a beast out of Hell itself, but he felt his wastes let go, and a dark maiden pulled him up into the sky, taking him away from it all, soaring through the clouds with him as she let out the call of a crow.