The Scarlet Omen

Prologue

Someone was trudging through the brush. Liana the tree nymph felt more than heard the footsteps slap the muck. Her friend Coo had promised to visit but he didn't travel on foot and she puzzled over who would trundle about like a lost elephant in the middle of her swamp. Certainly no one she knew! They had all learned to move in stealth, wary of the creatures that had lived for the night.

“Evening, Liana.” Her neighbor stopped by her tree.

“Hello, Jasmin.”

“How wonderful it is to sit outside again.”

“Very. I’ve missed it. It’ll take some time to get used to peace and the death of fear, though.” She shrugged, wondering why her senses simply would not let her enjoy their victory.

Jasmin laughed—a sound that echoed through the trees like a long lost friend. “Suriya’s downfall means everything. We can start anew now.”

The swamp fell into the shades of twilight and the night crickets began their evening serenade as Jasmin strode off into the shadows, waving goodbye. Liana dug her spiked fingers into the branch on which she sat and swung herself onto one higher up. The bats would be out soon, emerging from their mountain caves, and Liana did not want to miss their descent—the flapping of wings in a black river high above the trees.

Looking down through the eaves, her green eyes dulled as she realized that her swamp no longer showed signs of the battle that had taken place only days before. The blood of the fallen had already become one with the cycle of things. Screw pine leaves and mangroves with their roots sticking out of the earth like spiders’ legs covered the land, mocking the world as though hundreds of warriors had not perished among their proud blades.

The sprite filled her lungs, savoring the fall of the vampire queen. A salty breeze blew through her braids and rustled her banana leaf skirt, filling the air with a sad kind of whistling. Liana dangled her feet over her branch but started as a green pigeon flew through the eaves and landed beside her.

Shaking out his purple wings, he cocked his head in her direction. “Hear that?”

 “Hello, Coo.” She stroked his berry beak. “Ya, how can I not? The valley; it’s sighing, finally settling in for the night after all this time,” she nodded, stretching her stick-thin limbs. “The suffering has ended.”

“Ya, exactly; that’s exactly what I meant,” the bird squawked, hopping from one pink foot to the other.

Liana had been Coo’s friend long enough for her to know that the valley was the last thing on his mind. He confirmed her suspicions a moment later by mumbling something about the sound of insect wings. Coo ruffled his sunset tail feathers, making himself comfortable while snapping up a passing beetle. The nymph wrinkled her nose; her best friend seldom had anything other than food on his mind.

As though he had just then recalled something, the bird asked, “So is that your gentleman friend visiting?”

The sprite looked up in alarm. “Heh? What gentleman?”

“The stranger bumbling through the jungle like a constipated tapir.”

“A stranger,” she whispered, a shadow passing over her face. She clutched the peridot pendant nestled at the base of her throat. It glowed, warm to the touch. Her mother, a jewel nymph had given it to her during the vampire reign.

Coo watched her for a moment and then went on chewing, filling the night with the sound of grinding crackers. “You know,” he chirped, “gems aren’t the holy miracle workers we once thought they were. You saw how useless they were against the Pontianak.

Liana glowered at him. Coo knew as well as anyone that the precious stones of their world harnessed its magic. “No one could’ve known that the Blood Witch was helping the vampires. The gems did their best to protect us.” She sniffed, picking at the orchid petals of her bustier. “The Pontianak simply had darker magic on their side.”

“Okay, don’t get your vines in a knot! The witch is fish food at the bottom of that swamp now. No use fighting because of her.”

The sky plunged into darkness as the suns went to sleep behind Hornbill Mountain, turning the leaves of the spirit’s tree to coal feathers. Liana nodded at her friend’s peace offering, her eyes still shadowed. It would take a few years to shake off the horror of the last three centuries. Coo was just being his normal bird-brained self. Everyone knew that peridot calmed the nerves. She looked up as swallows flew overhead, flitting toward the swamp to feast on the green fireflies that lit up the trees bordering the mire. One swooped down a little too low and almost went crashing into the swamp.

That’s when Liana saw it: the sight that would change everything.

A mound of shredded cloth and matted hair seemed to rise out of the swamp like a crocodile eyeing its prey. At first, Liana dismissed it as one of the Orang Malam—the Night People who resided in the murk. When she took a closer look, she decided that it was just someone’s old cloak. They must have lost it during the battle, she thought, tears pricking the back of her eyes.

Seconds later, a moan that sent goose bumps riding up her arms echoed through the mist.

“Sounds like someone’s hurt,” she said to Coo, hopping down to the swamp floor. Her elongated toes sank into the mulch and Liana cringed as she recalled how the village children often compared her feet to their hands.

“Well, don’t just sit there like a dazed ox! Help me, Coo,” she called up to the bird still perched in her tree. Together, they searched the ground for whoever it was that had made those hair-raising sounds but only managed to upset a family of dung beetles.

Cocking his head in that way that only pigeons do, Coo announced, “I think your boyfriend’s coming.”

 Liana spun around and squinted into the gloom. The bird had not been fibbing; the man heading their way was indeed a stranger to the valley. She stepped into the shadows, unsure why she felt the necessity to do so—the vampires were gone, all of them. The Nirupita had made certain of that—she had banished the fear.

A cloud of foreboding settled on Liana’s shoulders, nevertheless, as the man rubbed at the stubble along his jaw, his eyes searching.

Her spirit senses flashed currents all the way down her spine and she whispered to Coo, “Hide, now!”

The pigeon hesitated but snuck away into the labyrinth of roots after earning himself a scowl. His tail feathers barely disappeared out of sight when the young man came striding out of the darkness.

“Mama!” He called out, “Mama, where are you?”

Liana glanced around, anticipating a reply although she knew it was ridiculous. She was about to step forward and tell him just as much when the guttural groan that she had heard earlier pierced the air again.

The young man picked up his pace, his hands balled at his sides. “I’m coming, Mama! Just stay where you are.” He then whispered, “I’m here now.”

Stepping back into the shadows, her skin blending in with the tree trunks, Liana watched as he ran to the edge of the waters, hampered by mud. The mass of hair and cloth that the spirit had seen earlier had now been washed up out of the water and lay in a heap among driftwood and rotting vines.

A canine creature with pointed hooves materialized out of thin air and circled the mound, snarling like a caged lion. Liana’s mouth went dry. It was the Blood Witch’s protecting demon—the hideous apparition that used to follow the witch everywhere. What was it doing there? The dog was one of its many forms. It would tear the man to shreds! It had practically devoured the Blood Witch herself only a few days before.

Liana contemplated sending for help but the young man simply dismissed the Blood Witch’s Hantu Raya with a wave of his hand. He fell to his knees, threw off his gloves and cradled the bloody cloth while the demon hissed and pawed at the ground. Murmuring something inaudible, the stranger rocked the lump like a baby.

Pure madness! Liana wanted to hear what he was saying, so she turned the color of a spider’s web and glided over to him. The man did not seem to notice her gossamer form but the Blood Witch’s beast glared at her like the intruder that she was. The sprite’s nostrils flared at its stench.

“Mama, what happened?” The man’s voice shook—his face a picture of fury.

A hand emerged from the heap and brushed his face; the skin looked moldy next to his milky one. Liana’s eyes widened as she realized that the mound was indeed a person. The man had not lost his mind and decided to croon over a heap of old clothing, as she had initially thought. She bent lower to make out the broken syllables.

“I’m not dead?” the mound croaked. “Those night fools. Too stupid. To finish the job.” It drew in a shaky breathe. “My Suriya.” The words came out in a pathetic groan but the pain injected into them pulsed through the whole swamp.

Liana clamped a hand over her own mouth to stop herself from shrieking out loud. The mass of decay was the Blood Witch, Lady Suriya’s mother. The Orang Malam had not managed to kill her. Liana cringed at the sight of the crone. She certainly looked like she was hovering at the gates of Neraka. Liana wished that she could just push the witch straight into hell herself where she belonged.

“Damn it, you’re delirious. We don’t know any Suriya, Mama.” He picked the witch up with ease. “I’ll fix you.” His jaw bone shifted as he clenched his teeth.

“Wan,” the witch managed to whisper. “The ashes. Collect them.”

“You need to rest now. You’re not making any sense.”

“I can bring. Her back.” Her voice seemed stronger now, as though every minute in his arms brought her a little further away from death.

“Fine, whatever you want,” he placated, clearly not intending to grope around in the mud for anything.

The witch’s head wobbled to the side as if trying to locate something. “Shedu?”

“It’s right here.” His emerald green eyes swam with tears as he eyed the witch’s demon. “You’ll be as good as new again.”

“Take it as yours.”

Drawing a breath through gritted teeth, the man stared at her as though she had burned him. “The only way that you’ll die is by your own hand. And when that day comes, I promise to take over your demon as any good bomoh would.” He took a deep breath, his voice thick. “Today is not that day.”

“You take Shedu now,” she hissed, pulling on his cloak with the last of her strength. “Please, Wan. I can’t feed it like this.” The witch choked, spitting out swamp water. “Do you want it to take over my body?”

“I can’t leave you unprotected without a Hantu Raya.”

“Who needs a demon when I have you, my Sorcerer.”

The silence that followed was as heavy as crashing waves. Although it was dark, anyone could have seen the internal battle that the sorcerer was having. He finally laid the witch back onto the earth as though she were made of porcelain. Standing up, he retrieved a dagger from the folds of his cloak and dug its end into his left palm.

Liana gagged as scarlet drops spilled from his hand as though it were a punctured melon.

The bomoh looked up at the demon and his nostrils flared; the demon was licking its lips in anticipation.

“Shedu,” he proclaimed, the tears spilling over now. “This is my blood as an offering for your loyalty and protection.” He faltered and looked down at the Blood Witch. “I ask you to leave the service of the Blood Witch and join me as my Hantu Raya.”

The witch began to shiver on the ground, her skeletal form going into spasms. It gave Liana some satisfaction to watch the evil bomoh suffer. She had caused enough pain and destruction over the centuries which only the Nirupita had been able to end.

The Blood Witch deserved every bit of despair that came her way.

The Hantu Raya snarled and switched to its serpent form. It moved so quickly that Liana had not noticed it towering over the man until she had heard its rattling breath beside them. Shedu lowered its head and watched the sorcerer with a mixture of curiosity and caution as he offered his hand to it. Its tongue flicked toward his wound; it looked as though it was finding it hard to resist the smell of fresh blood. As the seconds filled with uncertainty, the demon at last placed its lips to his hand and drank. Staggering back, the sorcerer’s skin turned the color of fog as his knees buckled and his eyes went dull like the ocean during a storm.

Once it had had its fill, the demon changed into a wisp of smoke and without invitation rammed into the man’s torso, throwing him backwards into the mud. Liana reached out to him but halted, her hand hovering above his shoulder; this was not her battle. The man’s chest heaved as he coughed and spluttered, spitting up blood. His body convulsed as the demon worked its way into his skin, leaving behind symbols that glowed like the stars.

Finally, just as Liana thought that she could not bear to watch any more, the demon left the man’s body. It stood in front of him and bowed almost comically, taking its place on his left. “Master,” it said in a voice that sounded like echoes in a tomb.

Liana covered her nose from the smell of burning hair and choked back a sob; why couldn’t evil just die and leave her valley alone?

Once the man regained his strength, he gathered the witch in his arms and set off at a run. Shedu the demon bounded in the shape of panther at his side lighting their way through the jungle with eyes that blazed like torches.

As they disappeared into the darkness, the nymph let the weight of the evening’s events wash over her. Every one of her nerves was frayed beyond recognition, and she had to lean against a nearby tree before her legs gave way under her. Coo the green pigeon squeezed out from his hiding place in the bushes.

“That,” he said, panting, “was the scariest thing I’ve ever seen.” The pigeon placed a wing over his heart. “What on earth did we just witness?”

“The Blood Witch has been rescued.” Liana clamped her hand over her throat, hoping to still the quiver in her voice. Her pendant seemed to beat with a pulse of its own. She took a step forward and then broke into a run.

Swooping under low hanging branches, trying to keep up with her, Coo called out, “What’re you doing? You can’t go after them. That thing will have you for dinner!”

“I’m not going after them.” She ran, ignoring the glances she was attracting from the other nymphs as she raced pass their trees. “I’m going to the pygmy settlement.”

“What on earth for?”

“The Elders must be warned,” she called over her shoulder, tears cascading down her cheeks. “They’ve praised the gods too soon.”

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