“Declan,” Ambrosia said, her lips moving as she came into view. “I was told that was your full name.”
I couldn’t have had a snappy comeback if I wanted to. Only my eyes were mobile. I wanted to ask her why she was doing it, but I had a feeling I knew why. I wanted to ask where Rose was but I had a feeling I didn’t want to know.
Ambrosia stopped walking, her cloak flapping behind her, and raised her hands straight up to the sky, crying out something in a language that borrowed a lot from French but contained a whole bunch of words I didn’t understand.
Suddenly, the darkness on the sides of the streets that I had assumed was foliage or structural remains began to move amidst dots of flickering light. It was the zombies, and they were walking forward, stepping out into the street, holding candles in their steady hands. There must have been forty of them, much more than I had counted earlier. It was the same mob, still moving in unison, their scarred faces glowing from the candlelight, their eyes glinting dully. A mass of people who had died and were brought back just to do this one woman’s bidding. Her power was terrifying, and once again I felt for Perry, the only person who had suspected her from the beginning.
There was no time for my self-inflicted pity party, no time to think about where I went wrong and what the repercussions would be. The python hissed something that sounded like Devil and lowered its head. I prepared for the strike, for its teeth to wrap around my skin, but then I remembered how pythons killed. Not from their bite. From their muscles choking the last living breath out of you. Ambrosia was the one who was poisoning me—the snake would just finish me off. Li Grand Zombi and she were working in tandem.
The snake began to slither across my lap, and I heard a scuffle in the seat behind me. My eyes flew to the mirror, even though I knew I shouldn’t have looked, and there was my mother.
“My son,” she said, a fleshless skeleton hand coming forward and resting on my shoulder. “Come meet your potential.”
I looked ahead, my heart slowing down, my lungs closing up. Ambrosia smiled and blew a kiss at me. All the lights from the candles around her went out. Everything went dark.
A snake tongue slithered across my hand.
“Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream…”
Somewhere in the distance, someone was singing. I was on a small, white boat, peeling paint coming off the sides, flaking onto my feet.
I was alone.
Everything was grey. The sky with its heavy mass of low clouds, clouds that looked too wide and too heavy for it to hold up. The water that lapped along the side of the boat, the dark shapes that swam underneath the steel water, even the flowers that hung from the nearby trees, rising out of the swamp, were absent of any color.
“Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,” the voice went on, pleasant and clear.
I looked around me. There was no sign of where I’d come from, no hint of where I was going. It was like I was in a grey globe, floating in a giant circle. I didn’t even have oars.
There was a splash in the water alongside the boat and I looked over. There was a long, thick serpent wriggling in the waves. Its head was the head of my mother, pale grey skin, dark grey eyes. Fangs for teeth.
She started rising out of the water, that awful smile, that scaly black body.
She opened her mouth and sang in a deep, demonic voice, “Life is but a dream.”
Then she lunged for me, her mouth snapping.
But she didn’t get me. She couldn’t reach.
I stared right into my mother’s soulless eyes and recognized the expression in them. The fear. The failure.
She dropped straight back into the water as if she’d been struck.
I looked up. There was another rowboat in the distance, moving away from me, toward the horizon. A woman sat in it, too far away for me to see. She was sitting still, her body small and frail, and the only thing I could make out were glinting eyes.
She floated away until she was a dot, until she totally disappeared, swallowed up by the grey waves and sky.
When I came to, I was already screaming. The pain was everywhere.
I opened my eyes and saw Ambrosia standing in front of me, a sharp and bloody knife in her hands. I looked down. I was tied down to a chair, totally naked except for my boxer briefs. My bare chest bore a long, deep cut down the middle of it. Red blood dripped from my collarbone, down between my pecs, to just below my ribs. That explained the excruciating pain. I blinked hard and fast at the scene, trying to get my breath. I was in the middle of a darkened room, a circle of salt and candles burning all around me. It looked like the interior of a small cabin, all dark wood and splintering floors. Between a few cracks, I could see the gleam of water wavering underneath. A house on stilts. This must have been Ambrosia’s lair.
It wasn’t just the two of us in the room. At first I thought the shadows were watching me, that I was imagining eyes amongst the black. But then I could see the figures of zombies—her slaves—coming through, standing around against the walls, waiting, and biding their time.
And in one corner of the room was Rose. She was also tied to a chair, stripped to her bra and underwear. She had the same marking as me, a slash made down her middle, though she also had one that ran horizontal, completing a cross. I suppose that was next on the torture agenda. She had another symbol drawn on the tops of her feet, the blood coagulating into dark droplets. Her head had flopped to the side, her frizzy white-blonde hair covering her face. I couldn’t tell if she was breathing or not. I couldn’t tell if she was alive or dead.
I licked my dry lips and tried to talk. It took a few seconds before I could form words. “What have you done to her?”
Ambrosia passed the knife from one hand to the other. “Considering I just made you bleed and I’m still standing here with a knife, you should be more concerned about yourself, Declan Foray.” Her eyes went over to Rose and back to me. She smiled. “But for all intents and purposes, Rose is dead. Just like you’ll be once I’m done with you.”
With deliberation, she stepped forward and placed one hand on my shoulder, holding herself steady, and raised the knife. I tried to squirm and headbutt her, tried to break free of the ties, but I couldn’t. My muscles strained, sweat covered my brow, but the ropes only dug more into my flesh. She worked fast. With one agonizing swipe, she drew the blade across my chest.
I bit my lip, trying to hide my scream. The fresh cut bled profusely, just underneath my tattoo, as if And With Madness Comes the Light was underlined in red.
“Trying to be brave are we?” she said with amusement. “Dawlin’, you have no idea what you’re in for, do you? This is just the beginning of the ritual. Once I start removing pieces of you, you won’t be so brave anymore. You’ll have to scream, even if I remove a piece of your tongue.”
I tried to not let my eyes widen at that part about “removing pieces” but it was hard not to. With any other person, I would have called her bluff, but I knew Ambrosia had it in her.
“You’re one ugly bitch, you know that?” I snarled at her.
Her face jerked back momentarily before she appeared smooth and calm again. “So I guess I can’t compel you anymore, can I? Well, that will change when I’m done with you. All your precious willpower will be out the window. You do know what’s out the window here, don’t you? Many, many alligators. Swimming rats. Snakes.”
My mind flashed back to being in the boat amid the grey, the Beetlejuice version of my mother. Had that been the Thin Veil?
“You intrigue me Declan,” she said. She crouched down with the knife and began carving intricate patterns on the top of my foot. The pain was blinding. “Your energy is unlike anything I’ve ever seen, anyone I’ve ever met. I knew the moment I met you, that I needed you, I needed it.”
“It?” I grunted as she went to the next foot.
“Yes, it. Your essence. What makes you, you. Your mother told me some wonderful things.”
I was so disgusted, so angry, that I could barely feel the pain as the blade dug slowly into my foot, scraping along the bone. “What do you know about my mother?”
“I know she was easy to conjure. I know she’s been trying to reach you. I know what she wants with you.”
“What?” I seethed.
She looked up at me and smiled. “That’s for her to say. I wouldn’t want to step on any toes. Speaking of toes…” Her gaze went to my feet. “I wonder if you’d miss yours.”
“What do you want with my toes?”
She stared at them for a moment before shrugging. “Nothing actually, they don’t hold much. Though they’re pretty large for your height.” She smiled at me. “I already have my sacrifices worked out for me.”
She crouched and began drawing the blade from my ankle bone up my inner calf and thigh, hard enough to draw blood. She paused, the blade dangerously close to my balls, and I sucked in my breath, daring myself not to move.
Quick as a wink, she swiftly took the blade back down and did the same up the inside of my other leg. Then she cupped my balls in her hand and squeezed them lightly.
She leaned in and whispered into my ear, her hair smelling sickly sweet. “If I were a lesser woman, I’d cut off your balls and make good use of them. The amount of power and testosterone you carry is enough to fuel a small city.”
I winced as she squeezed them even harder. “It’s too bad you weren’t weak enough to give me a good time, because I would have given you the best time. You can’t even get hard.”
I narrowed my eyes at her and hoped she could hear the venom in my words. “There’s only one woman I’ll get hard for.”
She rolled her eyes, her lip curling slightly. “Oh, of course. This Perry. Well, I hope you had fun with her while it lasted, because when this is all over, you’ll be no different than the men over there. You’ll be mine, you’ll do as I say, and any memories of this life will be gone.”
I watched as she straightened up and walked around the circles of candles, the flames licking at her ankles. The eyes of the dazed men in the shadows followed her every move.
“Why are you doing this?” I asked, my voice dry and hoarse. If I was going to die here, I might as well get some answers. “What’s the point?”
She stopped and glared at me. “What is the point? I thought that was pretty obvious. People underestimate me, they always have. They don’t even believe that I’ve descended from Voodoo royalty. The Voodoo Queen’s blood runs through me! But everyone thinks I’m a sham, thinks I’m nothing but a stupid, delusional girl.”
She was definitely delusional.
“Only Maryse took me under her wing. She was the only one who believed in me.”
“And then you got her shunned.”
Ambrosia pursed her lips. “Well, yes. She didn’t want to have anything to do with the dark arts. But the dark arts is where all the power is. It is what Voodoo is. All these years it’s become white-washed and weak. All the real traditions, the rituals, the real power had been stripped. It’s become commercialized. I want to take that power back, back to who started it, to those who deserve it, those who can make the world whimper.”