"It's time." The voice was clear. Smiling to herself, Camille felt a sublime relief as she finished pushing the last small button through its loop. She stared at herself in the tiny mirror and adjusted her veil.
"You're a vision in white," her father said.
But he wasn't here, was he? He wasn't walking her down the aisle. No, no, of course not. He'd died, years before. At least that was what she thought. But then her father wasn't her father . . . only by law. Right? She blinked hard. Woozy, she tried to clear her brain, wash away the feeling of disembodiment that assailed her.
It's because it's your wedding day; your nerves are playing tricks on your brain.
"Your groom awaits." Again, the voice propelled her, and she wondered if someone was actually speaking to her or if she was imagining it.
Silly, of course it's real!
She left the small room where she'd dressed and walked unsteadily along the shadowed corridor, lit by only a few wavering sconces. Dark, yet the hallway seemed to glisten.
Down a wide staircase with steps polished from thousands of feet scurrying up and down, she headed toward the smaller chapel where she knew he was waiting.
Her heart pounded with excitement.
Her blood sang through her veins.
What a glorious, glorious night!
One hand trailed down the long, smooth banister, fingertips gliding along the polished rail.
"Hurry," a harsh voice ordered against her ear, and she nearly stumbled over the dress's hem. "You must not keep him waiting!"
"I won't," she promised, her voice reverberating from a distance, as if echoing through a tunnel. Or only in her head.
She picked up her skirt to move more quickly, her feet skimming along the floor. She felt light, as if floating, anticipation urging her forward.
Moonlight washed through the tall tracery windows, spilling shadowed, colored patterns on the floor, and as she reached the chapel, her legs wobbled, as if she were wearing heels.
But her feet were bare, the cold stone floor penetrating through her soles.
Poverty, chastity, obedience.
The words swirled through her brain as the door to the chapel was opened and she stepped inside. She heard music in her head, the voices of angels rising upward through the spires of St. Marguerite's Cathedral on this, her wedding day.
Night... it's night.
Candles flickered at the altar, and overhead a massive crucifix soared, reminding her of Christ's suffering. She made the sign of the cross as she genuflected, then slowly moved forward.
Poverty. Chastity. Obedience.
Her fingers wound around the smooth beads of her rosary as the music in her head swelled.
As she reached the altar, the church bell began to toll and she knelt before the presence of God. She was ready to take her vows, to give her life to the one she loved.
"Good . . . good . . . perfect."
Camille bowed her head in prayer, then, on her knees, looked up at the crucifix, saw the wounds on Christ's emaciated body, witnessed his sacrifice for her own worldly sins.
Oh, yes, she had sinned.
Over and over.
Now she would be absolved.
Closing her eyes, she bent her head with difficulty. It seemed suddenly heavy, her hands clumsy. The chapel shifted and darkened, and the statuary, the Madonna and angels near the baptismal basin, suddenly stared at her with accusing eyes.
She heard the scrape of a shoe on the stone floor, and her lightheartedness and joy gave way to anxiety.
Don't give in. Not tonight...
But even her wedding dress no longer seemed silky and light; the fabric was suddenly scratchy and rough, a musty smell wafting from it.
The skin on the back of her neck, beneath the cloying veil, prickled with anxiety.
No, no, no...this is wrong.
"So now you know," the voice so near her ear reprimanded, and she shrank away from the hiss. "For the wages of sin are . . ."
"Death," she whispered.
Sheer terror curdled her blood. Oh, God! Scared out of her mind, Camille tried to scramble to her feet.
In that instant, Fate struck.
The rosary was stripped from her hands, the beads ripping over her fingers and flesh, only to scatter and bounce on the floor.
Camille tried to force her feet beneath her, but her knees were weak, her legs suddenly like rubber. She tried to stand, pushing herself upright, but it was too late.
A thick cord circled her throat and was pulled tight.
NO! What is this?
Needle-sharp shards cut deep into her flesh.
Panic surged through her.
No, no, no! This is all wrong.
White-hot pain screamed through her body. She jerked forward, trying to throw off her attacker as her airway was cut off. She tried to gasp but couldn't draw a breath. Her lungs, dear Jesus, her lungs strained with the pressure.
Oh, God, what was happening?
The nave seemed to spin, the high-domed ceiling reeling, the monster behind her back drawing the deadly cord tighter.
Terror clawed through her brain. Desperately, Camille tried to free herself, to kick and twist again, but her body wouldn't respond as it should have. The weight against her back was crushing, the cord at her throat slitting deep.
Blood pounded behind her eyes, echoed through her ears.
Her fingers scrabbled at the cord around her neck, a fingernail ripping.
Her back bowed as she strained.
She fought wildly, but it was useless.
Please, please, please! Dear Father, spare me! I have sinned, but please—
Her feet slipped from beneath her.
Weakly she flailed, her strength failing her.
No, Camille. Fight! Don't give up! Do not! Someone will save you.
Her eyes focused on the crucifix again, her vision of Christ's haggard face blurring. I'm sorry. . .
She was suddenly so weak, her attempts frail and futile.
Her strong body grew limp.
"Please," she tried to beg, but the sound was garbled and soft, unrecognizable.
The demon who dared set foot in this chapel, the monster who had defiled this holy ground, held her fast. Pulling on the cord. Unrelenting. Strong with dark and deadly purpose.
Camille's lungs were on fire, her heart pounding so loudly she was sure it would burst. Through eyes round with fear, she saw only a wash of red.
Oh, Dear Father, the pain!
Again, she tried to suck in one bit of air but failed.
Her lungs shrieked.
Brutal strength, infused by a cold, dark wrath, cinched the garrote still tighter.
Agony ripped through her.
"Whore," the voice accused. "Daughter of Satan."
Eyes open, again she saw the image of Christ on the cross, a film of scarlet distorting his perfect face, tears like blood running from his eyes.
I love you.
The deluge of sins that was her life washed over her, quicksilver images of those she had wronged. Her mother and father, her sister, her best friend . . . so many people, some who had loved her ...the innocents.
This was her punishment, she realized, her hands falling from her neck to scrape down her abdomen and linger for a second over her womb.
Zzzzt. Snap! A bright light flashed before her eyes; then all was dark.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, wash my soul clean.... Forgive me, for I have sinned....