Taking a deep breath, Ricardo struck a match and held it over the crate. He fought to steady the shake in his hand, part of him convinced he would be caught at any moment. What was the punishment for animal cruelty? A fine? A few years in jail? Maybe this was a bad idea. Maybe he should try summoning one of the other, less malevolent loa first.
The match’s flame curled around his fingers and the decision was taken from him. With a string of curses, Ricardo dropped the match and the unfortunate rooster burst into flames. The heat was intense, the suddenness of it making him jump backwards. More shrieking filled the church but there was a new urgency to it, pain mixing with terror. The rooster thrashed so violently that the crate slid across the floor. Ricardo barely noticed. His eyes were on the symbol he’d drawn, the veve he’d outlined in ash. It glowed as brightly as the rooster.
A figure took shape within the veve. No more than a shadow at first, gradually it came into focus, until Ricardo could make out the features of Baron Kriminel, first man to commit murder in life and powerful loa in death. He was exactly as Ricardo’s grandpa had described him – a man in top hat and tails with a crimson shirt and skull-headed cane. Red eyes glinted with cruel amusement as they settled on the sacrifice.
Lightning flashed overhead and the Baron changed, from man to blood-spattered skeleton. Somehow Ricardo knew that wasn’t the Baron’s blood.
“Ba–” Ricardo was interrupted by a deep chuckle as the shadows rushed back in and the Baron resembled a man once more.
“I know you, Ricardo Germaine. I know your heart.” Kriminel’s eyes met Ricardo’s now, though they were no less malicious. “You desire power, yes?”
Ricardo’s heart pounded harder still. He swallowed, his head jerking into a nod.
“And do you understand the cost?”
The cost? Ricardo frowned and gestured at the dying rooster, its limbs still twitching as it succumbed to the flames.
Kriminel shook his head. “No. The rooster’s suffering bought you this meeting. My help is extra, and comes at a far greater debt than any rooster can settle.”
Doubt tugged at Ricardo’s mind. His grandpa had never mentioned sacrificing anything bigger than a rooster…
A lit cigar appeared in the loa’s right hand. He raised it to his lips and inhaled deeply, eyes closed as though savouring the moment. “For the good relationship I had with your grandpa, I will give you a free taste. Then you can decide if you’re willing to pay for more.”
Kriminel held out his left hand and an old, charred finger bone appeared in his palm. Ricardo reached out to take it. “What do I have to do?”
Another chuckle. “You will know.” Kriminel tipped his hat and with that, the rooster breathed its last, the flames went out and the glow in the ash faded. The Baron vanished, leaving Ricardo standing with the bone, gingerly turning it between his fingers.
Ricardo took the bone into work with him the next day. He was pleasantly surprised to find the business manager wasn’t in, but it didn’t last long. Ten minutes later she appeared, looking grumpier and more flustered than usual.
“Lots to do today, Ricardo. I need you to get straight on with finishing that printing, then we’ll see what else you can help with.”
That was it. No greetings, no pleasantries. She wasn’t even his line manager, yet she insisted on treating him like one of her underlings. Something in him snapped.
Power pulsed through him, dark and burning like the anger boiling in his veins. He turned his gaze on Rachel and blood trickled from the corners of her eyes, her face paling as she fell forward, clutching the desk to keep from slipping all the way to the floor.
Ricardo rose to his feet, glaring down at her and feeling the power flowing, the energy in him building. It was such a rush, like nothing he’d ever known before. Her life drained, while his burned hotter and wilder, and he started to laugh the same dark laugh as the loa he’d called on.
The blood was streaming from Rachel’s eyes now. She lost her grip on the desk and collapsed at Ricardo’s feet. Only then did their colleagues notice something was wrong, and they hurried over.
“I’m okay,” Rachel said, letting another woman help her to her feet. “I just felt faint for a moment – must be the stress getting to me.”
The colour was returning to her face. Ricardo clenched his fists but the power in him was fading. And suddenly he knew, just as Kriminel had promised.
The bone was in his hand with barely a conscious thought. He crushed it and was instantly rewarded with a fresh wave of energy, even greater than his first taste. Blood gushed forth from more than just Rachel now, the others falling to their knees and screaming in agony while patches of Ricardo’s skin turned chalky white, forming patterns to give the likeness of the bones beneath.
More colleagues came rushing into the office, and then the company owner himself appeared, and succumbed to the dark magic emanating from Ricardo. The company was his for the taking, but why stop there? Kriminel had given him the keys to the world. He could rule over them all if he wanted to. Ricardo laughed at the thought, and the Baron chuckled with him.
But first, he wanted to share this great gift with his fiancé. He left his former colleagues dying in pools of their own blood, utterly devoid of guilt or remorse. If the price for such power was a few meaningless lives, so be it. What had any of them ever done for him? Rachel had made him miserable and the others had merely watched. No one had jumped to his defence or sought to comfort him. They’d got what they deserved.
The power began to recede as he drove to Marie’s place. Ricardo wasn’t worried. In crushing the bone, he’d accepted Kriminel’s offer and now the debt was paid. The dark magic was his to call on as and when he pleased. It would return to him when he needed it.
He couldn’t help grinning to himself as he parked outside the house. There was a light in the window. It took him a moment to recognise the orange glow for what it was. His smile fell.
“Marie?” He threw open the car door and started towards the building. A ball of fire exploded outwards, the force knocking him back. The entrance gaped wide open now, and on the floor lay a figure, twitching like the rooster he’d sacrificed the night before. His beloved Marie.
Baron Kriminel chuckled louder. Now our debt is settled.