There was plenty of pain to be found in the city of Malrezo, from the hunger that filled the streets with gaunt beggars, to the fear that spread from the pulpit of the great cathedral. And, deep below the cathedral, beyond the labyrinth of catacombs, into the bowels of the earth, where the sinful expiated their sins by order of the Inquisitore, there grew the most powerful evil of all.
Consuelo Maria de Esperanza had grown among tightly sealed bottles and jars where dark things stirred inside. She had grown up among screams and sobs, and she had grown up among tears of joy and gratitude too, for her father was an apothecary of sorts, of the dark sorts that can cure evil with evil, of the sort that the Inquisitore who ruled Malrezo would have had burned at the stake in the great Square as a warning against what he called "the dark arts". Dark was indeed the knowledge that her father had taught her. Dark, but necessary. And on the day the Inquisitore took him from her, he left her his most powerful medicine: the grief of a girl orphaned by the Just Law.
She kept her tears well, sealed in a crimson vial, just as she kept all the things her father had taught her sealed within her heart. And as she grew older, people began flowing to her for her father's old potions.
At first there was just a trickle of old and trusted friends, then an addition of the very ill, stricken by maladies too powerful for the priests to cure, then finally a steady flow of customers of all sorts that would have drawn the attention not only of the old gossips of the neighborhood, but of the Inquisitore himself, from the great balcony at the top of his mansion that dominated the city. And so Consuelo found herself opening her father's old shop and selling basil leaves and other herbs at the front and her father's old potions in a room deep inside the basement, where only the truly ill could descend by use of a trap door hidden under a rug behind the counter. The Inquisitore's guards came once a week and checked every jar of crushed herbs and every room of the house above and the attic with its dusty air and the musty basement below the kitchen, but the rug behind the counter stayed in its place, pinned to the hollow floor by a small table with refreshments and tiny bags of gold ready to receive the guards' visit. And, for a while, Consuelo waited, week after week, for the new guard that could not be bribed, the one truly devout man who'd take her to the Inquisitore and to the stake in the great Square, just as her father had been taken from that very same shop.
It started on a Sunday, at mass. A man, covered in a worn-out cloak, leaning on an old oak branch crudely fashioned into a walking stick, limped through the gates of the great cathedral and collapsed on the aisle between the rows of wooden benches. The saints carved into the backs of the seats stood impassive. The angels carved into the pulpit supporting the great, gold-plated Bible looked on immovable, as they looked upon all sinners. The Inquisitore, standing before the pulpit, read on, as unmovable as the statues. Yet the people in the cathedral stirred, as much out of curiosity as out of pity, and gathered round the stricken man. For stricken he was, touched by a strange malady that tinted his skin a dark purple and ate away at his flesh so that his bones poked through and his face resembled a dark skull.
The malady had run its course to the end. In a hoarse whisper, he asked for absolution from his sins and he breathed his last. The Inquisitore had been too far to hear his words, too far to grant his soul peace. But the people gathered round the dying pilgrim were touched by his terrible suffering. And, in time, that touch spread over their bodies, tinting them purple and eating at their flesh, and spreading all around them, to anyone touched by their tainted breath.
The Dark Death, as people called it, spread throughout the city, and as it spread people began to seek a cure and turned to God for a miracle. Illness drove them to faith and faith drove them to the Inquisitore. Never had the great cathedral been so crowded, never had there been such long and twisted queues outside the confessionals, never had such a wealth of donations poured into the gilded coffers of the Church. On Sundays, the cathedral was overrun by the eagerly devout, the crowd spreading into the Square outside when the people could no longer fit inside the sacred walls. The sound of prayers spread out into the streets, flooding the city with divine fervor. And, with the prayers, with the same breath that praised the Lord, the unseen seeds of the dark death spread through the crowd until no one was left untouched.
Consuelo closed the doors of her apothecary shop and barred them with heavy boards. This last measure was unnecessary, for the dark stains on her face alone would have kept the crowd of customers at bay, keeping them from drawing unwanted attention to her shop. She could not risk being burned as a witch now that the entire city was suffering.
The bitter tears hidden deep beneath the shop did little to preserve her health. Each drop could only keep her alive for one more day, but the illness remained inside her and spread over her skin in dark purple marks. But there was greater pain hidden deep beneath the city, deeper, darker pain sown by order of the Inquisitore. And Consuelo prepared herself to harvest it.
To go through the cathedral and hope to slip unnoticed down the stairs to the catacombs would have been easy back in the days before the plague. But now, with the afflicted flocking to the Inquisitore's pulpit for guidance and absolution, the crowds would have barely let her pass. Instead, she spent her time scraping at the walls of her own secret basement under the shop, digging her own path to the dungeons beyond the catacombs.
The ground beneath Malrezo was not even. Some parts were of hard rock, and her hands bled in vain on her pickaxe, for she could not break through them. In other places the ground was soft and collapsed at the slightest touch, caving in before she could place wooden planks under it to keep it in place. Thus her progress through the ground resembled a maze, a spiraling labyrinth that circled around the city, drawing ever closer to the dungeons at its center. It took a long time, far too long, and every day her store of tears grew smaller and every night more corpses were set to rest eternally in a common grave outside the city walls. But on the thirteenth day since the epidemic began, Consuelo's spade hit a stone wall and, breaking through it with her pickaxe, she saw the flickering light of torches and heard the cries of sinners suffering at the hands of the Inquisitore. She waited for the cries to stop, for the priests to leave and let their prisoners to rest, but the cries never stopped. She heard the voices of priests greet each other, one voice relieving another of its duties until morning, then another, until they had all been replaced, but the cries never stopped.
Consuelo cleared her way along the wall deeper, breaking through it every now and then to listen. The deeper she went, the fainter the lights became, but the cries grew louder and hoarser, until suddenly they were replaced by a dying moan. Then, one level below, there was silence and darkness. Slowly, cautiously, she removed each stone from the wall until she'd made a hole she could easily slip through. Then she put down her pickaxe and said a prayer to quieten the fears in her heart.
On the other side of the dungeon wall, she felt her way through the darkness. Her hands touched walls and floors, clutched at old human bones and even older chains, until she reached the bottom of a spiral staircase and heard the muffled moans from above and saw, in the dim light that descended from the floor above, a slow trickle of thick blood flowing down the stone steps. From the stairs it flowed on, gathering in a sticky pool in the deepest part of the dungeon. And there, floating over the dark blood that fed it, there blossomed a strange flower, with convoluted petals of a silky black: the evilbloom. Fed over centuries of suffering, it had grown so large that even Consuelo, with all her knowledge, marveled at its size. She plunged her hands into the largest blossom and the petals crumbled between her fingers. They fell as a black dust on the floor and where they touched blood they grew into new blossoms. Carefully, she took the dust to her lips and stuffed it into her mouth, her body convulsing at the bitterness of the pain stored inside it. She swallowed it, fighting hard not to retch it back out, and she felt the touch of the dark death melting from her skin and from her flesh.
For a while, the world turned dark. She woke up on the stone floor, convulsing from the pain she'd swallowed. Too much pain. Her medicine was too powerful, the dose too great. Hours passed until she could stand again. But when she returned to the shop carrying bags filled with the dust of evilbloom petals, she found that her skin, though pale, showed no sign of the dark death.
The following morning, on the doorstep of every house in Malrezo, there was a tiny bottle filled with a murky black water, and a note tied to it that said "Drink this and pray to God". The morning after that, when the guard came to question Consuelo, as they questioned all those who had recovered from the dark death, she answered them with a bitter smile, "I had faith in God and in the Inquisitore, and I prayed. The whole city prayed."
© December, 2014 Diana Parparita
Diana Parparita lives in Romania. She has published several stories in Allegory, Enchanted Conversation, Bards and Sages Quarterly and Mad Scientist Journal.