SERVANTS OF GOD
CHAPTER ONE: DEATH OF THE WITCH
As Matthew finishes the portrait of the gaunt, pale woman slouching in front of him, adding a little more blue to her dull eyes and red to her cheeks, he sinks into a strong sense of unfulfillment. It took years to perfect the art of painting what he hates most in this world: people. His initial desire to paint was to learn something new and then become good at it, which he has. Now, he paints with looming boredom.
What was fun became a dreadful means to an end; painting portraits of those who somehow obtained wealth in the middle of a global death crisis.
The end… something Matthew often ponders. He’s the last surviving member of his family, and with their portraits hanging up everywhere to remind him of their savage deaths, he is never left without thoughts of his own demise.
“How is it coming along?” his subject asks.
He stares at her unsightly face, wishing he could paint in the brown and gray stains of her teeth, which she begged and paid extra for him to alter. “It’s finished,” he sighs.
“Well, don’t sound so enthused!” she scoffs.
He offers a vacant stare to her crinkled nose and curled lip. “I’m not.”
She raises from the chair and stomps toward him with her raggedy boots. Matthew’s eyes water at her closer appearance. He asks politely for her to take a few steps back, and as she declines with infuriating noise from her rotten gums, he threatens to add her real features to the portrait.
“You wouldn’t–” she gasps. “I’m… I’m beautiful.” She presses a hand to her face. Often, Matthew’s cynicism is often met with hostility that dissipates when his art comes into view.
“Yes. It is beautiful.”
Her beady eyes glare at him. “It’s paid for. I’ll take my leave,” she responds coldly.
Matthew grins. “It’s all yours.”
She grabs the portrait, disrespecting its perfection with her greasy fingers, though saving him the time of varnishing it and wrapping it for her.
The used paintbrushes are dumped in solvent for cleaning, dirty clothes discarded into a bin, and whatever else needed to clean his art station and ignore the woman’s annoying heels clicking on the floor.
“You know, the people of this town are begging for vials of my blood.” She begins her unrequested speech. “I have survived very long in this shit, Mr. Matthew Hurt. You may believe that having talent makes you better than most of us here, and in most ways, it does. You’re able to escape through worlds you can create on canvas, while we…” she covers her hideous smile and chuckles, “… or them, I should say, waste time just living, waiting to die. We can pretend that spending precious time with family will make being ripped apart by a relentless monster is almost worth it, but we all know, especially you Mr. Hurt, that it’s best to depend on yourself because family can be stripped away so easily.”
He could drive a knife through her heart and watch her bleed out.
“Unlike my family.” She continues. “I may not fit your description of the wealthy and long living, but unlike your family, Mr. Hurt, mine is a lineage of gods. And while the rest of you are slaughtered like filthy street animals, we will continue to flourish and decide to die whenever we want.”
Their egos disgust him. Though she is correct about her blood being sought for by the meager and hopeless, she couldn’t be more wrong about her proclaimed invincibility. If not for his older state and lack of care, he’d prove to the smug wealthy how human they are by stabbing them all in their bitter hearts with the sharp end of his palette knife. But, for now, a simple, “leave my house” will suffice.
“Enjoy the payment, Matthew Hurt. You can add it to your bountiful…” her hollow eyes dance around the old architecture of the house, “… inheritance.”
His empty drinking glass shatters against the door on her way out. Most times, his subject’s revolting attitudes don’t faze him, but Matthew would love for that woman’s hideous face to break under his boot. But there’s no time to dwell on that. The house needs to be cleaned before the next pompous subject arrives. Downstairs in the cellar where he keeps his art, there’s a broom to sweep up the broken glass. Upon pulling the string to activate the light, a large, strange painting catches his attention. “I… never…” -he questions his memory; contemplates the prior months and how much alcohol he’s ingested- “… painted this.” He stares at the dark colors that mesh together to create a grim and unnerving creature. A tiny, yellow circle sits in the middle of the monster’s mouth, an uncanny property foreign to his style of work. It beckons him. He steps closer to get a better view. His eye focuses on it, almost touching the paint.
Within a black void dance scarlet figures. The visual frightens him at first, yet he takes another curious glance. Obscure, red shapes move in ways Matthew has never seen. He is compelled to participate in what seems like happiness and liberation. He presses a listening ear to the yellow dot in hopes of hearing whatever tune causes the enigmatic red silhouettes to twirl and jump. A rush of fear settles in the pit of his stomach. His ears go numb from the blaring screams and cries emitting from the painting. He didn’t expect to hear anything, but assumed his mind would create something more appealing to his own taste.
A test of reality. The world is filled with strange occurrences, and outside the death of his loved ones, Matthew, through no real evidence, thought he was shielded from the hands of Hell trying to grab him. The many sacrifices offered appear to have meant nothing, or perhaps it is time for a drink to settle down the hallucinations.
He steps away from the painting, glazes over it and notices a change. The yellow dot has grown. It’s no longer a speck—now, a circle the size of his thumb. He fixates on it. “No…” he whispers, steps close again. “I have work to do.” Matthew reluctantly turns away. One step and he’s compelled to face the painting again. It’s all so strange. A canvas he can’t remember attracts him more than any other art piece.
He refuses to stare into the growing yellow circle. He closes his eyes and presses his palms against it, lets his mind drift further into the insanity as he examines the deep breaths and beating hearts of the enigmatic painting. In his relatives’ final days, he wonders if this is what they experienced—infinite confusion and an increasing obsession with a sinister work of art, or perhaps whatever was truly important to them at the time. For his mother, it would have been her work as a nurse, and now that he is reminded, she would stare for hours at a page in one of her texts. She would admit to being intrigued by the way the words were typed across the page. It became concerning as time went on and she never wanted to do anything besides stare at the page. The following to her cruel demise was calm, a blanket covering the work of Hell.
The painting could be alive. Cuts form in his palms at the thought of the woman he painted earlier who threatened him with her black tongue. Matthew watches in awe as his own blood is absorbed by the canvas. Forced to kneel before it, trembling from the amount of blood draining out of his hands, Matthew looks up out of curiosity. His eyes open and are met with the yellow circle that now covers most of the canvas. Once a tiny, bright ball shrouded by dark red and brown and black, it now holds a broader view of the humans covered in blood and flesh, who resembled scarlet shadows, as they dance around a pile of dead bodies. He focuses on the pried open bellies of the dead, unable to shake the fear of becoming one of them.
A loud bell interrupts their dancing. Each piercing red eye stares at his petrified face. In unison, they yell foreign words to him, echoing the same sentence until an unknown force pushes him away. A bell wakes him out of the trance. He looks down at his unscathed hands, scurries to his feet, feels where his scars should be.
A frustrated voice follows a hard knock at the front door. “Mr. Hurt! We arranged an appointment!”
The three hours between appointments are supposed to be spent cleaning, setting up, and clearing his mind to reset his focus. He’s wasted precious time staring at an ugly painting and pondering illogical visions.
She knocks and shouts for him again.
He ignores the painting’s presence and walks up the stairs.
“Shit,” he curses at the broken glass on the floor as he sweeps it into a corner with his foot. He twists the rusted knob and welcomes his guest. “I apologize for the mess, I ran out of time while…” The yellow spot flashes in his mind and speaks his name. “… searching for more paint. I was down in the basement and lost track of time.”
She ambles into his house, making his presence second hand to the portraits hanging in the atrium. “You painted all of these?” she asks.
“Of course I did.”
“The woman you painted before me today, she said you were quite the host. I hope my experience contrasts greatly.”
Matthew directs her attention to the chair to begin painting. “That depends entirely on you, ma’am.”
A lot easier on the eyes, to paint her felt less like a trade and more like passion. She sat perfectly still, her features illuminated by the sunset. He spends the time carefully applying and blending the oil paints to create a perfect depiction, and when it is complete, he applies one final touch—a yellow dot in the bottom corner. A signature was never necessary. No one can paint people as perfectly as Matthew. The yellow dot adds more beauty to the grass of the field she chose as her background.
She checks on his work before accepting, compliments the scenery he was able to capture without having seen it before. “The sunlight captures my eyes perfectly. You actually are a decent painter.” She already paid him food and booze for the week, so the exchange between them after wrap-up was short. She gladly takes her portrait and exits the house in much better spirits than his previous subject.
Now the work day is over, he can actually clean the place and fix himself a meal, with the addition of a warm drink. That pesky painting can continue to call his name and annoy him, but he won’t let it torture him. He will not allow himself to be controlled like the others.
“Mirria! You’re finally back!”
“Yes, sorry, mother. That drunk of a painter was too busy probably drinking himself to death in his cellar when I arrived.” She hands her the painting. “Though I will say, he is quite impressive.”
Her mother gawks at the painting after ripping off the cover. “This is beautiful! How much did this cost?”
Mirria proceeds up the atrium steps of her disheveled mansion and says, “don’t worry. The price was small compared to the reward of our family’s beauty being captured forever.”
A bath to unwind after a day of making her attractive, royal presence known in her bleak and gloomy town is what the end of the day calls for. Mirria feeds the global death crisis and does it with a smile on her face. She and her mother are almost identical because of the lives they have sacrificed to maintain their beauty and youth. Upstairs, hidden to non-blood relatives, is a realm where her human sacrifices lie in a bath of boiling water and melt down into a thick pool of blood. A whisper from her lips and her secret Hell appears before her eyes from a tiny, crimson star that glows as bright as the sun used to. She watches the foolish humans she tricked into her rituals fall screaming from the sky and into the boiling bath. Enduring such a slow death is the misery and suffering her ritual needs to grow stronger, and the weak and poor are easy to gather when food is scarce. Almost a dozen human sacrifices a week to maintain the decades she has survived in this world.
Mirria floats down into the pool. The half-dead survivors begging for help try to pull her down into the boney depths. She laughs at their determination and weakening flesh. “Your dying essence heals me–” she screams as a chunk of her ribs is ripped out by one of her sacrifices. “What are you doing?” she cries. Their groans become louder as a crowd of them hovers over her and tears at her flesh with their burned and blistered hands. One reaches for her face. She yanks the bone of their arm out of the socket and stabs them in the eye with it. “Get off of me! I own your bodies! Your youth is mine!” Her screams fade into soft cries; her skin wrinkles, and with every blink, the bright crimson hue of her precious world becomes a similar gray to the outside. “I… I don’t understand,” she sobs. “I did everything right.” The faces of those she conned make an appearance before her aging eyes.
“Daughter!” Her mother comes sprinting from the portal. “Mirria!”
“Mo… mothe–” The brittle bones of her face crack like glass from the pressure of the angry horde. They bury her in the thick liquid. Her lungs become overwhelmed with their blood and burst. The pain kills her again and again, cycling through the many lives she accumulated. Too weak to swim to the top or fight back. Her death replays, and as her soul dies, so does the world she created.
A black hole forms above the pool and vacuums every source of life and matter around it. Nothing escapes.
Matthew supposes one more glance at the painting will stop the tingle in his fingers. But after this final one, it is time to take it down. He knows for certain he never painted it, and, most importantly, it’s ugly! Nothing in comparison to his sought-after work. It is similar to a child’s first painting, with the only entertaining stroke of paint being the growing yellow circle. He ponders the yellow dot. “Did it actually grow?” he asks himself. The news reports death by the uncanny and evil every day, yet in his home he’s naïve to the idea of it being a wicked encounter. He can’t remember having a hard drink, though he knows he did. He always does. While thinking of explanations, he blacked out the entire process of walking from the kitchen where he was cleaning silverware to standing in front of the mysterious painting, glaring at the big yellow circle. “I… I was just…” The bright spot has become the sole viewpoint. “Why do you taunt me?” he asks, laughing at himself for pausing for a response.
A witch’s cry, heard many times in the night, echoes in the cellar. The wails bring him to his knees, and when he opens his eyes, he notices a drop of blood leak down from the middle of the canvas. The canvas becomes thin from the amount of liquid pouring out of it. It tears open. Matthew, bewildered, walks to it with his hand reached out. It’s thicker than paper–like leather between his fingers. He inserts his hand further. The texture of mushy food startles him. He tears the painting more, creating hole shrouded by what looks like the inside of a human body. Down below are people dancing in a dark room lit by a dim red light, passing someone’s head back and forth. Matthew pushes the skeletal spine, blocking his view. It falls down, attracting the attention of the now staring dancers.
The eyes of the severed head are frightened and oddly familiar. He sticks his body out further to get a closer view. “M… Mirria? I painted you.. What? Ho… how?” Something pulls on his shirt. He falls into the pit, a soft landing to his surprise. He turns to lift himself up, an eyeball staring at him frightens him. He scurries backward on his palms. Heart races as eyes set on the pile of bodies underneath him. Missing limbs, cut-open bellies, gouged eyes, holes in their flesh—the mutilation sours his stomach.
He examines his surroundings, no sight of the people who damned in unison. The room is cavernous, can hardly make out what the walls are, but it isn’t any material he’s seen before. He looks up at the hole he fell from. He didn’t think the leap was far, but when he peers at the entrance, it’s like gazing at a star. A scratching noise brings his attention behind him, then another from his left, then forward—he loses track. Thought of screaming for help crossed his mind, but no one would hear him in the big empty house, and no one from outside would care.
“Master.” A strange voice brushes past his ear.
Tears erupt from his eyes. He can’t control his breath.
“We killed her,” says the one holding the chest of a woman.
“For you,” adds a person carrying a set of pale and bruised legs.
Matthew is speechless at the row of people offering body parts in his honor. “I… I am not your… master.”One of them steps closer. Matthew remains consumed by fear. Numb legs and erratic nerves keep him in place. No resistance to death.
“Your human eyes gazed into the magnificence of the yellow orb. You did not perish. You have made great sacrifices to achieve this.” “Sacrifices? What sacrifices? As much as this town stinks of death and curses, I never once saw Hell as an escape. I–” Images of his family portraits flutter, each one a hammer to his chest. “I never…” The calm of defeat ceases the confusion.