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2nd - Blood Debt, by Fadzlishah Johanabas

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Topic: 2nd - Blood Debt, by Fadzlishah Johanabas
Posted By: SFReader
Subject: 2nd - Blood Debt, by Fadzlishah Johanabas
Date Posted: Feb-27-2015 at 1:20pm
Fadzlishah is a Medical Officer in Neurosurgery, born and based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He messes around with brains for a living, though he's never eaten one, even though work makes him feel like a zombie at times. Among his publication credits are COSMOS Australia, Poe Little Thing, Aether Age: Helios, Crossed Genres, Best of Every Day Fiction 3, and Expanded Horizons. He originally wrote this story for a vampire anthology. Pontianak is a Malaysian/Indonesian version of a vampire (female only). But evidential pontianak wasn't the editor's idea of a conventional vampire. He didn't want to write a horror story for the sake of it; he wanted to show monsters can take many forms; it all depends on how we perceive them. Visit his blog at  http://www.fadzjohanabas.com/" rel="nofollow - http://www.fadzjohanabas.com .

==================
Blood Debt
by Fadzlishah Johanabas 

There was blood everywhere.

Two men lay on the forest floor near the village, limbs twitching in a final fight for their lives. Their abdomens had been similarly ripped open, wet entrails slipping out, turning dusky fast in the cold night air. Blood dripped from nearby leaves, brush and tree-trunks, and flowed thickly from where they lay, forming rivulets between saplings and rotting leaves.

A woman crouched over one of the men, her dark eyes intent on watching the life fading away from him. His blood dripped from her mouth and stained her long black hair and white robe. She held his entrails in one hand, and caressed his face with another.

The man gurgled incoherent words, his throat and lungs filled with his own blood. The woman cocked her head, listening. She caressed his face again, and as he choked and convulsed, she opened her mouth wide, revealing rows of sharp fangs, and devoured him.

In a distance, wild dogs of the forest whimpered and yipped. 

###
 
Melur gasped awake. Cold sweat beaded on her forehead, and her breaths came shallow and ragged. Her lower abdomen tightened and she gasped harder. She gripped the bed sheet, damp with sweat, and controlled her breathing until the spasm slackened. This late in her pregnancy, the contractions came more and more frequently.

Just as the contraction stopped, Alias came running through the bedroom doorway. He was drenched in sweat, and grease smeared his hands and forearms, from the motorcycle he was repairing. Melur, Sayang, are you all right?

Grease, not blood. Melur shook her head to banish the gruesome image. She took a deep, calming breath. It's nothing. Just a nightmare, and the baby didn't like it. She gave her husband a weak smile.

Alias wiped his hands with a greasy cloth and sat at the edge of their bed. He smiled back, as if happy with her explanation, but his furrowed eyebrows and narrowed eyes told her otherwise.

Melur leaned forward as much as her bulk allowed and traced her husband's cheek with the back of her fingers. Don't worry so much. I am fine. The baby is fine. It's just a nightmare.

Alias wrapped her hand with both of his, and kissed her fingertips. You are my wife and the mother of my unborn child. Of course I am worried.

Melur relished the comfort of Alias's warm, callused fingers against her smooth skin. She inhaled the musky scent of his sweat, mingled with grease. She took in the sight of his concerned face. Alias was not a handsome man, with acne-scarred cheeks and sparse mustache, but he had kind eyes, eyes filled with his love for her. I am all right. Go finish your repairs before it gets dark. I'll prepare dinner.

Alias nodded and gave her fingers another quick kiss before letting go. Melur heard him whistle as he ambled toward the front lawn, where their old motorcycle stood waiting with parts of its engine dismantled. Alias worked at a repair shop in the village, and though he did not finish secondary school, his father had passed down his wealth of knowledge and experience of motorcycle and car repair, enough to bring food on the table and a house for Alias's little family to live comfortably in. For Melur, it was all she had ever wanted.

Melur heaved herself off the bed and tied her wavy black hair in a ponytail. She contemplated bathing first, to wash off the sweat and all traces of her recurring nightmare, but decided against it. She had heard Alias's stomach growl when he sat close to her, and she wanted dinner to be ready before her husband headed off for Maghrib prayers at the mosque not far from their house. The baby kicked in assent. 

Their dinner was a simple one; Melur had prepared rice with fried fish, vegetable soup, and spicy hard-boiled eggs. Chicken and beef were luxuries they could only afford a few times in a week, but neither Alias nor Melur ever complained. They ate mostly in silence, but not for lack of conversation. Above them, a single orange light bulb flickered every once in a while.

Halfway through her meal, Melur stopped eating and clenched her fists. She took deep breaths until the contractions passed within a few seconds. Alias immediately rushed to her side.

I'm fine, just uncomfortable when my tummy tightens, Melur admonished. Finish your food. You'll be late for prayers.

Maybe I should stay home tonight. We can pray together.

Don't be silly. It's Thursday night. You have Yaasin recital after Maghrib. Besides, the baby is not ready to come out yet.

How do you know?

Melur laughed and cupped her husband's face in her hands. She cocked her head to one side. I've been carrying this baby for nine months. I just know.

I'll come home immediately after Isya', then.

Take your time, Alias. I'll be fine two hours without you.

The creases on his face smoothed as he broke into a lopsided grin. You said you never wanted to spend a minute without me, when we got married.

Well, that was then. Now you just annoy me. Before Alias could react, Melur laughed again and kissed his forehead. Go. The sun is already setting. It's almost Maghrib. 

###

Melur took her time to clear the small dinner table and to wash the dishes. By the time she finished cleaning, it was just past eight o'clock. She did not normally take a bath that late at night, with the toilet and adjoining bathroom separated from the main house, but her body still felt sticky with sweat. She needed the comfort of cold water from the well. With a sarong wrapped snugly around her body, covering from chest to mid-thigh, and a towel slung across her shoulder, Melur left the kitchen door open and walked the few steps required to enter the zinc-walled bathroom.

She was prepared to haul up cold water from the well, but much to her surprise, Melur found that her husband had filled the lidded earthen tub beside the well for her. The tub still retained some of the heat from the day, and the water inside was pleasantly cool.

She did not take a long bath; when she was a girl, her elders had discouraged her from taking baths at night. They had discouraged her from a lot of things, just as their elders had taught them the same values. Even though Melur could not explain the logic behind most of them them, she never questioned these values, and accepted them as wisdom she did not possess to comprehend.

Even though Melur spent mere minutes in the bathroom, when she walked out, night had fully settled in. A fresh breeze felt cool against her damp skin and hair. The sky with littered with stars and a full moon, with shadows of storm clouds looming at the horizon. The forest at the outskirts of the village formed a denser shadow. Melur shuddered involuntarily. The dark woods had always made her uncomfortable, and she never outgrew the fear. Dark spirits roamed the forest, her elders had told her - likely to prevent children from venturing in unattended - but she believed their words.

Just within earshot, Melur heard the mosque's loudspeakers broadcasting the Yaasin recital. She knew the Arabic verses by heart, and could tell that they were midway through. If she judged time correctly, it would not beIsya' for another fifteen to twenty minutes. Which meant Alias would not be home for another half-hour at least. Melur thought about organizing the living area, sparsely decorated as it was, while waiting for her husband to come home with the Imam.

The kitchen door was ajar, opened much wider than she remembered leaving it. Melur assumed the wind had caused it, and paid it little heed. She entered the house and locked the door. Only the kitchen and her room were illuminated by feeble electric lights. The rest of the house was dark; both husband and wife believed in saving electricity to minimize their monthly bill. Melur switched off the kitchen light before entering the narrow corridor leading toward her room, plunging the house further into darkness. The floorboards creaked as she walked, familiar sounds that brought her comfort, having lived in that house since she married Alias over a year ago.

When Melur saw three men in dark, tight-fitting masks waiting in her bedroom, she screamed.

Within heartbeats the largest of the three men grabbed hold of Melur from behind and clamped her mouth shut. Melur struggled and kicked and bit the man's gloved palm, but he proved to be much stronger. The two other men bound her hands and feet with their rough hands. No matter how hard she struggled, she could not free herself. The baby in her womb kicked and squirmed, as if sensing her distress, and Melur felt her breath catch.

Between muffled screams and tear-filled eyes, Melur saw one of the men taking out a brown bottle and dowsing a cloth with its content. He clamped the cloth over Melur's nose. She had no choice but to inhale the sharp, pungent cloth, and the last sensations she felt before passing out were the stinging pain deep within her nostrils, and the baby kicking wildly in her womb. 

###

Alias walked home with the Imam beside him. They almost always read the Quran at Alias's house every Thursday night. With a flashlight guiding them, Alias talked about Melur's pregnancy, and their plans for the unborn child. The Imam listened to the excited expecting father, only interjecting once in a while to ask a few questions.

When is the baby due?

In a couple of weeks, Insya-Allah.

The Imam nodded. That's good. Is Melur planning to give birth at home or at the hospital in town?

We're not sure yet. Mak Timah comes regularly to check up on Melur, and she offered to be Melur's midwife should she choose to give birth at home.

Don't be fooled by her age and small frame. Timah is a good and highly experienced midwife. She's much better than the young doctors in town.

Alias chuckled and nodded.

The house was in complete darkness when they arrived. Melur would always leave the porch light on whenever Alias was out at night. Alias fished out his set of keys from his pocket as the Imam aimed the flashlight at the doorknob.

A wave of overpowering smells assaulted them the moment Alias opened the door. He recognized the unmistakable smell of blood, as his repair shop was downwind from the local butcher's, but it was only an undertone against something much stronger.

Birth-water, muttered the Imam, sending Alias into panic.

Melur! Sayang, where are you?

Without bothering to turn on the light, Alias bounded toward the bedroom, where the smell was strongest. He fumbled for the light switch, but he soon wished he had not turned the light on.

Melur lay sprawled on her back on the carpeted floor, her eyes and mouth wide open, staring at the ceiling. She was naked; her sarong had been torn open, and her towel lay by her side, soaking up the pool of blood surrounding her. Her abdomen had been sliced open vertically from the belly button downward, with partially congealed blood forming dark curtains that collected by her sides. Her abdomen was flabby, empty. Her limbs were contorted, unmoving.

Melur would never move, never caress his face again.

Melur was dead.

With that realization, Alias crumpled onto the floor. He heard the Imam uttering strings of prayers, first to ease the passing of the departed soul, then to ward off evil. He felt the Imam pulling him back. Alias had not even realized he had collected Melur's cold body into his arms. 

###

It rained during the funeral, but most of the adult villagers attended nonetheless. Alias did not speak much; he still had difficulty accepting the fact that he had just buried his wife. A smaller, empty grave lay beside Melur's. Alias had named the unborn child Abdullah. Melur would have loved the name. The Imam and the midwife stayed beside him long after everyone else had gone home. The much older man with stooped shoulders held a large umbrella over himself and Alias, while the wrinkled, small woman held her own.

Why would anyone do this? Melur had never hurt anyone. She didn't deserve this.

I'm sure the police will catch the murderer, the Imam offered, but even deep in despair, Alias could read the lack of conviction in his voice. Police officers had informed them that there was no evidence of forced entry, they had not found any murder weapon, and they could not find foreign skin samples from the bruises on her mouth, wrists and ankles. There were also no newly registered babies in the two days since Melur's murder. They were without leads.

Who would kill an innocent woman and steal her unborn child?

This happened once, years ago.? Mak Timah's voice was soft, but sure. ?In a neighboring village.

Timah, not now, the Imam admonished.

Alias shook his head. No. Tell me, please.

A woman close to giving birth had been killed on a Thursday night, with a full moon in the sky. Her womb had been slashed open, and her unborn child stolen.

Why?

Mak Timah shook her head heavily. Black magic. Some people believe that the spirit of an unborn child killed on a Thursday night, with a full moon, can be harnessed to do their bidding.

Fresh tears streamed down Alias's cheeks. But why?

Wealth. Power. This practice has been in existence since before Islam set foot on our shores.

Does this mean that my son is -?

That's the reason why I insisted on a proper burial for him, whispered the Imam.

Alias turned to face the Imam. You knew?

I suspected as much when we found your late wife.

Why didn't you tell me. Accusation and anger thickened his voice.

You are going through enough pain already. Let us bring you home, Alias. You need to rest. You need to live on. Melur would want that very much.

How would you know? My wife is dead. She's-- Alias crumpled on the wet ground and cried. 

###

Four men sat in a small circle in a clearing deep within the forest. A sturdy man with thick grey hair, mustache and beard sat cross-legged at the head of the group, a bowl of incense crackling in front of him. Cold wind howled and leaves whispered secrets all around them, but he alone of the four men remained unperturbed. The rest squirmed where they sat, heads whipping about with every creak of a branch, every thud of wild fruits and boughs that fell onto the dense forest floor.

In the middle, floating in a large jar filled with preservative fluid, was a fully-formed baby boy.

The older man muttered endless strings of incantations, oblivious to the fear in the other three men. Every so often he would spit at the bowl of incense, and it would sizzle and produce a large plume of scented smoke. He had been sitting there still as a statue for almost an hour now. Only his lips moved, voicing a language none of the younger men understood.

One of them, a thin man with a narrow face and a sharp nose, leaned close toward the larger man beside him. I don't like this, Kamil.

Keep quiet, Jabar, he replied under his breath, barely audible with the wind whipping against them. You'll ruin the Bomoh's concentration.

What if we get caught?

It's been forty nights since we killed that woman. The men at the station are nowhere near to solving it.

Good thing we have a Sergeant with us, eh? The man opposite Jabar, the shortest of the three but whose girth strained against his shirt, winked and grinned.

Without a doubt, Lajis. Without a doubt.

You guys would have screwed up if I wasn't there, said Kamil. Now shut up and let the Bomoh finish the ritual.

They said nothing for several minutes, but the oppressive silence proved too much. Lajis was the first to break. I heard about men around here disappearing in the middle of the night the past few weeks since we--. Do you think the woman came back from the dead?

Jabar shuddered. As a pontianak? I sure hope not.

Kamil glared at his colleagues. Only two men disappeared, and their wives think they ran off to marry some tramp or something. Will you guys just keep quiet and stop this nonsense? Pontianak. Old wives' tales. We didn't do all this to be scared by old wives' tales. Concentrate on what we came here to do.

The Bomoh stopped muttering and his eyes snapped opened. Hush. We are not alone.

The three men whipped their heads about frantically, but they only saw trees whose leaves and boughs swayed with the incessant winds. The shadows between the trees threatened to crush them, but none of the men saw any presence beside their own. After exchanging confused looks, the men turned to face the Bomoh. He pointed upward. 

###

Alias paced about in front of the old mosque where most of the men, from teenagers to elders, had gathered after Isya' prayers. In their hands they held flashlights, machetes, and an array of tools that could be turned into melee weapons. Are you sure about this?

Some of the sturdier womenfolk had gathered as well, including Mak Timah. The ritual to turn a child's spirit into a toyol can only take place on the fortieth night after its murder.

Alias shuddered at the word toyol and uttered a prayer to ward off evil. From what he knew about spirits and demons, these particular creatures were used to accumulate wealth by stealing from others while they slept. But Alias had always thought they were just stories, nothing more. To face the possibility that his son's spirit would be twisted so?. Alias shuddered again.

The village chief, who had been conversing with the Imam, pointed at the general direction of the forest, just visible beyond the haphazard layout of houses made of wood and brick. If what you're saying is true, Timah, the murderers would hide somewhere in the forest.

The Imam nodded, but then shook his head, his expression grim. The police will take care of this. We have helped them enough with the information.

If they believe us, interjected one of the younger villagers. These people murdered one of us. We need to take matters into our own hands.

Alias stepped up to face the chief. Please, I don't want anyone to get hurt. The people who did this may be armed. No more killings. Please.

Likely your wife is already doing the killings, Alias, said another villager, who was almost twenty years Alias's senior.

Alias's face suddenly turned pale. What are you saying?

Haven't you heard the wild dogs in the forest barking madly the past few days? My grandchildren wake up crying in the middle of the night for no reason, even when the dogs aren't barking.

More than a few of the villagers nodded and muttered among themselves at this.

I caught a whiff of jasmine when I walked by the forest last night, added another villager. Gave me the chills.

Mak Timah exchanged a concerned look with the Imam. All the more reason for us not to venture into the forest.

What are they talking about, Mak Timah? Alias's voice broke, his breath caught in his throat.

It is said that when an expecting mother is gruesomely murdered, she comes back from the dead to seek revenge.

The Imam recited a sentence from the Yaasin. Folktale, Timah.

My mother was a midwife, and so was her mother. They did not pass down just the knowledge of midwifery to me, Imam. The tone of her voice challenged those who heard to question her truth. You've dealt with folk from beyond the Veil yourself. Why would you doubt the existence of pontianak?

Alias felt his knees buckle, but he paid little heed to the people rushing to support him. 

No. 

###

As one, the three men faced heavenward. Crouched on a large bough protruding into the clearing was a woman in a tattered white robe. Her wild but wavy hair hung limp despite the wind. Her pale skin was almost as white as her robe, and despite the distance, they could make out her eyes. Dead eyes. She screeched and leapt into thin air.

Lajis, drenched in cold sweat and shaking convulsively, scrambled to stand up. The Bomoh, surprisingly strong for a man his age, pulled him back down, almost dislocating Lajis's shoulder.

No! Do not break the circle. She cannot harm us as long as the circle is intact.

Lajis nodded and kept his eyes clamped shut. The scent of jasmine filled the clearing, stronger and stronger with each passing moment. Kamil and Jabar almost jumped when the woman landed silently behind Lajis, squatting with her knees wide apart, one clawed hand on the ground between her feet. She used her free hand to caress the back of his neck. Lajis whimpered and bit his knuckle until he bled. This close, the stench of decay replaced the sickly-sweet scent of jasmine.

Be strong, the Bomoh commanded. It will be dawn in a few hours, and the ritual will be complete. The pontianak cannot stand sunlight, and she can no longer touch any of us once the spirit of the babe belongs to us.

The woman crawled in a circle on all fours, stopping behind each man to trace a line on their backs with a claw-tipped finger, or to play with his hair. When she reached the Bomoh, she leered close and pointed at the container in the middle of the circle. Mine, she breathed, barely above a whisper, but cutting through the howling wind. 

The men felt her cold breath biting into their marrows. Return what's mine.

Begone, pontianak! The Bomoh's voice was steady and firm. Even with her face beside his, he did not falter. You do not belong here. You do not belong in this world. He uttered a fresh string of incantations.

She threw back her head and laughed. The three men, who had never heard such eerie laughter before, began to shake uncontrollably. Including Kamil, who was the strongest and most resolute among them. Lajis, his pants stained with urine, was the first to scramble and run away.

No! The Bomoh tried to grasp Lajis's hand, but he was too late. The circle was broken.

Mine! the pontianak screeched before burying her fangs into the Bomoh's neck.

The Bomoh withdrew a kris hidden in the folds of his sarong and stabbed at the pontianak to free himself, but she easily grabbed hold of his wrist. She crushed his bones with a sickly snap. The other two men, seeing how defenseless they were, dashed at different directions; Jabar trailed Lajis while Malik ran the opposite way. The pontianak lifted her eyes and smiled, before ripping open the Bomoh's abdomen. As he convulsed in his death throes, she devoured his entrails and drank his blood. 

###

Lajis, out of shape, did not run far before Jabar caught up with him. He screeched when Jabar grabbed hold of his shoulder, and stumbled on a protruding root.

She's coming for us! She's coming for us!

Jabar helped him up and pulled him to start running again. Shut up and run, Lajis! I'll leave you if you don't start running.

Lajis panted and heaved, but ran close behind Jabar. He kept his eyes straight ahead, not wanting to acknowledge the flash of white keeping up beside them and the growing scent of jasmine. When Jabar skidded to a halt, Lajis could not stop in time and stumbled into his friend. Both men fell face-down, with Lajis on top of Jabar.

The pontianak crouched on a large root in front of them, her head cocked to the right. She was drenched in blood. Her dead eyes bored right into theirs, and when she cackled, Lajis defecated where he lay.

She jumped and landed beside them, and peeled Lajis off Jabar. Before Lajis could cry out, she ripped open his abdomen, splashing blood on tree trunks, brush, and leaves. His entrails slipped out, and she lowered her head to devour them. Lajis convulsed, his life blood spilling onto the forest floor. The pontianak stuck out her long, sinuous tongue and licked the blood spurting from the jagged wounds.

Jabar took the chance to escape, but the pontianak flung Lajis's body away and landed atop him. In his last moment of life, Jabar prayed to God.

But God was no longer listening. 

###

Kamil, with his police-trained discipline and stamina, knew that he would not stand a chance if he followed Lajis. His two accomplices were weak, and that made them easy prey. He thought he heard them screaming in a distance, but he kept his concentration straight ahead. Secure in his hands was his bargaining chip should the monster come his way.

For endless minutes he ran toward the general direction of the village. He was convinced he would be safe once he was out of the forest. Surely the pontianak would not attack a village full of people. Kamil kept on running even though he stumbled a few times and sprained his ankle.

Eventually the trees spread further apart, and the floor was less dense. He had neared the edge. He would soon be safe.

Straight ahead, Kamil saw flashes of light coming from the direction of the village. The villagers, he thought. They must have suspected. He veered off to the side, toward the outskirts of the village, where the main road had cut off the forest into two to link one village with another.

The pontianak jumped off a branch and landed silently in front of him.

With the sudden scent of jasmine warning him, Kamil managed to stop a few paces away. His breaths came ragged, and his injured ankle throbbed furiously. He refused to let fear control him. Let me go, monster!

She pointed at his chest. Mine, she breathed, and the overpowering stench of decay made him gag. Return what's mine.

Kamil held out the canister in front of him. The preservative fluid sloshed noisily, and the small body inside bobbed up and down. You want this? Let me go and you can have it!

The pontianak cocked her head to one side, as if contemplating his offer. Then she threw her head back and laughed. Kamil laughed back, louder than her, his voice filled with contempt.

How about it? Do you want your baby back?

She stopped laughing and bore straight into his eyes. Her pale face was no longer filled with mirth. No. Blood.

Come and get me, monster! Kamil snarled in challenge.

The pontianak leapt toward him, her arms outstretched, clawed fingers extended, fangs bared.

Melur, stop!

Kamil whipped back to face a young man who was running toward them, with a few more people including the village Imam and midwife. It took a moment for Kamil to recognize the man as the pontianak's husband. Kamil was prepared to face his death, but not this. He could not afford to live and be captured.

The monster actually stopped attacking and glided toward the young man.

Please, Sayang. No more killing. Please.

The pontianak loomed close, preparing to strike, but he stood his ground and reached out as if to embrace her. A monster. Kamil almost laughed, but stopped short as he studied the man's eyes. Kind eyes. Loving eyes. There was not a hint of fear in them despite the monstrosity before him, threatening to end his life. In that moment, Kamil respected the young man as he had never respected anyone else before.

The pontianak must have recognized the look in his eyes too, for she stopped and wailed instead. It was heartbreaking, even for Kamil. Driven by greed and desperation, he had never regretted his actions before. What have we done, he asked himself. What have I done?

Mine, she breathed again, and pointed at Kamil. In a flash, she squatted in front of him and leered less than an inch from his face.

Melur, don't! Why was the young man persistent in saving his life?

The pontianak reached for the canister and ripped it away from Kamil's trembling hands.

Mine, she repeated as she held the canister against her face and caressed it.

Yes, Sayang. Our baby. I named him Abdullah, after your grandfather. His grave is beside yours, and I promise to give him a proper burial.

Alias. It was as if she finally recognized him. She wailed louder this time.

Kamil used the opportunity to run away, but two villagers grabbed hold of him. For a moment he fought them, but with his energy spent from running, Kamil could not overpower the younger men. Slumped between them, Kamil could only watch as the monster handed the canister to Alias and caressed his face.

We will bring your murderer to justice, Melur, said the Imam, who now stood beside Alias. Your blood debt is paid. You can rest now. No more killings.

The pontianak kept her eyes on Alias, who was openly crying as he cradled his dead child in his hands. She backed away a few paces and reached out to trace the contours of his face one last time.

Her heart-wrenching wails reverberated throughout the forest long after she disappeared into the darkness.



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