Malice Prologue



On Saturday, even Jesus must answer to the Baron, Lord of the Dead.


Saturday, July 20th, 1799


The roar of flames.

Desperate shouts.

Prayers. So many fervent prayers.

The chants of the slaves as they tried to enlist their spirits into staving off the inevitable.

Death.

Theirs.

My . . . own.

I ended up trapped inside the cottage with the other slaves. My mother was not with us, but my last thought was about her.

The fervent plea to the cruel gods that she’d escape the wretched fires that seemed to be consuming the entire city.

Then, we were the ones consumed.

I don’t even remember the pain, only that my mind could not grasp it. There is no comprehending such agony.

No fate worse than that of being burned alive.

After . . . silence.

Until now.

There’s a scraping above me, a shuffling—no, shoveling.

I’ve attended enough funerals to know the sound.

Darkness is a suffocating presence all around. Panic explodes, realization dawning.

I’m entombed.

Buried. Even though everyone knows the flooding will cause the coffin to rise back to the surface.

Of course, whoever handled it didn’t care. They were just getting rid of my body. With no money or family willing to pay for one of the above-ground tombs, this was the only option left.

Oh, Lord, help me.

I died.

My spirit remains in the flesh.

I want to open my mouth and shout at the horror of it, yet there is no movement in me.

No sensation.

Because I’m dead.

Dead.

A shattering of my thoughts takes place, an indescribable event that is more traumatizing than dying in the fire. I am disconnected from myself, floating away from all consciousness . . .

The lid of my coffin is torn open.

Light leaks in.

Moonlight.

Two figures stand above, dressed almost identical, their faces skeletal.

It’s . . . it’s . . .

I’m in my own grave, aware, presumably within my charred body, yet it’s what I see above me that leaves me frozen in silent shock.

I know his name.

We all know his name.

He is the one that the slaves pray to. They beg him, solicit him, do everything in their power to try and please him.

The Baron.

The one who decides who lives and dies.

He yanks the cigar from his mouth and sneers at the doppelgänger behind him, the one that looks like a lesser version of him. “I told you to find me a suitable heir. Instead, you dig his grave without my permission.”

“My Lord, he is a mongrel slave. Unworthy.”

Scoffing, the monster closest to my grave dismisses his lookalike with a wave of his hand.

The creature is reduced to nothing.

I watch, terrified, as his body disintegrates into a tower of ashes that is blown away in the wind.

Yellow eyes focus on me. “Insolence. You’ll be dealing with it from every side.” He bends his skeletal fingers, beckoning me forth.

I’m ejected from my grave.

Snatched from that pit by ghostly, invisible hands, until I’m standing inches from this being.

This spirit.

A god.

“Slave you might be, boy,” he grouses, the cigar hanging from the corner of his mouth, “but it’s what’s in here that counts.” Flipping the shovel in his hands over, he pokes at my chest with the end of the handle. “That is what makes you worthy of ascending to my throne.”

I’m shaking.

What’s worse: I feel it.

I have a body.

But out of the corner of my eye, within the grave, is a charred, unrecognizable form—a man eaten by fire—and I know that’s me.

Was me.

What’s happening?

What am I now?

I’m too scared to look down the length of my body and see for myself. Yet that leaves me with my gaze locked on him, and as his name echoes in my mind, it makes my teeth chatter harder.

“You will take my place. As of tonight, it is you they shall call. Worship. Beg to . . . annoy.”

You will take my place. “I—what—I am just a s-slave.”

He laughs, adjusting his top hat, and reaches into his suit jacket to remove a pair of round glasses. All black. Shiny. Obsidian mirrors for lenses that reflect this part of the bayou. “You are a slave no longer, Remy, illegitimate son of Antoine de Marigne.” His arm shoots out in a blur of speed and he grabs my hand. Shoving the glasses into it, he yanks the top hat off his head next, and shoves it onto my own head.

Throwing his head back, he laughs up toward the sky again, a maniacal, relieved sound. As if he just pulled off some sort of scheme, achieved a triumph no one thought he could. “You are the Baron now!”

Baron.

That’s who he is.

Who he’s claiming I now am?

Baron Samedi.

God of the Dead.

“I’m dreaming. I’m dreaming. I’m dreaming,” I mumble, eyes closed, my mind drifting to the body in the grave.

That burnt husk I once inhabited.

I’ve left that body behind, I exist in a new one now.

If this ghastly man with the skull painted face and fingers is right and I am taking his place, then it’s not hard to guess what this new body resembles.

“This is no dream, boy! I have given you a gift!” Hands grab my shoulders, shaking me. “And in return, you give me my freedom.”

“If it’s a gift, why are you giving it away?” I have the audacity to ask, lids squeezed tightly shut. It’s the same propensity that earned me the lash at my father’s hands.

A French aristocrat who owned both negro and Indian slaves alike.

My mother was Indian. A descendant of the tribe that lived in the area where he built his plantation house. He subjugated many of those free people when he arrived here.

Forced my mother to sleep with him and she bore him a child.

A child with no last name.

A child he only acknowledged when he had me at the other end of his whip.

My shoulders are released. I half-expect a blow to the face.

Instead, I’m doused in a cloud of his cigar smoke, and he grumbles under his breath. “Ingratitude. As I’ve come to expect from you mortals. I’ve elevated you to a god, yet you’d rather remain in your lowly status.”

Scrunching my nose, I open my eyes. I always hated the smell of smoke.

Except, it’s not as unpleasant anymore. Powerful, yes, but dare I say I enjoy it?

He catches me eyeing his cigar and chuckles. A new one appears in his free hand and he flicks it at me.

I catch it against my chest. “This can’t be real.” I cannot be dead, in that grave. And if I am, I cannot be here, standing with Baron Samedi, being offered his place.

My mother believed in her Indian gods.

The slaves all spoke of him.

I never truly ascribed to any belief in an afterlife, but he’s supposed to be leading me to the underworld.

Not offering me his job.

“It’s real, boy.” Right before my eyes, his skin begins to shrivel and his outline starts to fade. “The power belongs to you now. Enjoy.”

The fear that shoots through my limbs is worse than what I experienced upon waking in the coffin. Power. The one thing I’ve never had.

I wouldn’t know what to do with it even if I tried.

“Oh, and one more thing: if you see that bitch wife of mine, tell her I’m finally fucking free of her. The abyss is better than seeing her face.” He spits on the ground at the mention of her—and then he dwindles down to ash in a slow, grotesque display that leaves me speechless.

The smile on his face during the entire process is even more heinous.

However ancient he was, those eons of time consume him in minutes, disintegrating everything he once was.

As soon as he’s gone, I can’t contain myself anymore. I turn to finally stare at the body left in the grave.

Remy, no last name, illegitimate son of an aristocratic lord and his enslaved Indian mistress.

I did nothing in my life but survive.

For some reason, I have a feeling that isn’t going to change.