A devilishly persistent beam of sunlight dragged the warrior Jayashree into unwilling consciousness. She tried to cover her eyes, to snatch a paltry few moments more sleep away from the accursed daytime, only to realize she couldn’t move her arm.
Either of her arms.
It occurred to her that the bed she was lying in was exceedingly uncomfortable, and that her head did not appear to rest on a pillow.
I’m in gaol again, aren’t I?
She forced an eye open. She winced painfully, as the action allowed a bit more of the demon sunrise into her skull.
I’m probably in gaol, and I may also still be a bit drunk.
Drunk was good. It meant she had probably at least earned the imprisonment somehow. Hopefully whatever had gotten her arrested had been fun.
She gathered the dregs of her strength and wrenched her other eye open, trying to look around her cell—for that was certainly what it was—while moving her eyes and her head as little as possible. She was dressed in a light, coarse shift that she was certain didn’t belong to her. She was laying on a stone bench set into a wall, and her arms were secured by bamboo rope tied to a metal ring. The window the offending sunbeam was pestering her through was barred.
Gaol. Definitely gaol.
She tested the ropes. They would break, if she really needed them to, although she might have to accept spraining a wrist along the way. Her legs were unbound. She had enough slack to sit up, so she did. Started to, at least, until a thousand tiny homunculi wielding icepicks declared war upon on her temples and she sank back against the bench again.
Perhaps a few minutes more, before I try again.
She heard motion behind her, and the closing of a heavy door.
“So. What did I do?” she asked. Her voice sounded much more like a croak than she was used to.
“You don’t remember?” The voice was familiar. And quite irritated. It sounded like—
Ignoring her body’s protests, she rolled off the bench and into the closest approximation her muscles and bound wrists would allow of a genuflect. It hurt more than she expected. And in more places.
This isn’t just a hangover. Oh, it was certainly a hangover, and probably one caused by grape sura. Grape sura always hurt the worst the next day. But there was something else wrong. She’d been in a fight.
“Who did I kill?”
“Stand up,” the voice answered, and the ropes slithered away from her wrists like snakes. She turned toward the voice and dropped closer to the ground.
“Mother of Magic. My deepest apologies for whatever has—”
She leapt to her feet, the voice compelling her, her limbs and torso screaming in protest.
The Mother of Magic stood before her, practically glowing in head-to-toe white raiment.
White. White was the color of mourning. The Mother of Magic generally wore ruby-red.
Oh, this is bad.
“Look out the window.” This statement did not carry the compulsion along with it, but Jayashree did not hesitate.
Her cell overlooked a central courtyard, which was not unexpected. The gallows pole standing in the center of the courtyard was, though.
Jayashree cleared her throat, concentrating intensely on willing her hangover away.
“Is … is that for me?”
“At the moment? Yes. And I am not sure I should do anything to help you change that, either.” Jayashree turned, daring to look the Mother of Magic in the eyes. Her pupils were gone, her eyes a shining white void against ebony skin.
This was generally not a good sign.
“May I ask what happened?”
“Do you recall being propositioned last night?”
“I am propositioned every night,” Jayashree said. “I don’t … wait…”
She recalled a particular man, not unlovely to look at, but with food in his beard and the stink of fish on his breath. A man who had loomed over her, trying to intimidate her with his size. She had … what had she done? She genuinely didn’t remember.
“Possibly one. Large. Unkempt.”
“You have bedded the unkempt before, Jayashree. More than once, I believe.”
“I didn’t want to bed this one,” she said, shrugging. “He felt differently. I take it I overreacted?”
“Somewhat. He went through a table on the way to the floor. A piece of the table lodged itself behind his ear. I suspect you did not intend to kill him.”
Jayashree thought about this. It sounded familiar.
“And then … and then, he had a lot of friends, for some reason…” Yes, there had definitely been a fight. She’d clearly held her own; nothing was broken. She tested her teeth with her tongue. Some missing, but none newly so.
“The nephew of the Rajh.”
“It is. The Rajh is rather put out about it.”
I can imagine. “And you?”
The Mother of Magic shrugged, her first human gesture since entering the room. “I have met the nephew. He was a boor. I can see why you rejected his advances.”
She forced more of the alcohol’s aftereffects out of her brain. “Is there to be a trial? Or are we discussing escape and not defense?”
“The Rajh has a proposition for you,” the Mother of Magic said. “I suspect he believes it to be a death sentence of a sort. But he has a proposition.”
“I accept,” Jayashree said.
“Yes, you do,” the Mother of Magic said. “And then, when you are released, I will kill you. This has been a most inconvenient morning, Jayashree.”
Jayashree bowed her head.
“Mistress,” she said.
“Were this not your creature, Mother Manisha, I would have dealt with her already,” the Rajh said. “You should keep better track of your guards. Her survival is due solely to my high opinion of you.” He fingered his seal of office, which dangled heavily around his neck.
“Your high opinion of my office, at least,” the Mother of Magic replied calmly. There was no love lost between her and the Rajh. They were both fully aware of this fact but of the two he was more likely to pretend to conceal it. “The Potentate will frown upon open warfare between his Rajh and his goddess’ Mother of Magic.”
Jayashree knelt facedown, in a warrior’s tunic and loose pantaloons, trying to stay as close to the ground as possible. The Mother of Magic had released her from her cell and given her less than an hour to make herself dressed and presentable. She had forced herself to have some greasy food and cold coffee to wash away the last dregs of the hangover, and now her stomach complained. Not so loudly, she hoped, that the other two could hear it. Her arms and armor had not been restored to her yet, but if the Rajh genuinely expected a task from her she would surely get them back soon.
“You suggested you had a task for my creature to perform,” the Mother reminded the Rajh. “One that might, somehow, soothe the pain of the loss of your nephew, which you surely feel so keenly.”
“I am shattered,” the Rajh said, and Jayashree realized with a jolt that this had nothing to do with her or even with his nephew. The Rajh was simply looking for someone expendable and she had obligingly provided herself for him. Her loss being an inconvenience to the Mother would simply be a bonus in the man’s eyes.
The Mother did not rise to the bait. “The task, then?”
“Rise, warrior,” he said, and Jayashree climbed to her feet, trying to keep from groaning or wincing too obviously. There were scrapes and bruises mottling the red-wheat color of her skin on her face and arms. She would not let him think they mattered.
“Are you familiar with the pishacha?” he asked.
Jayashree barely suppressed a sideways glance at the Mother. The question was unexpected. “Demon spirits,” she said. “They haunt graves and cremation grounds. They … I do not recall, Rajh, whether they are the type to possess the living, or merely to consume them. I am sorry.” She bowed her head.
“Both,” the Rajh said. “There is a cremation ground not far outside the walls. It has of late become infested with them. They are beginning to spill outside the grounds and bother travelers and others. People are beginning to talk. You are to rid me of these … upsetting presences. Do this task, I care not how, and I will forget your offense upon my family.”
“Upon one of the lesser branches, to be sure,” the Mother of Magic added. Rather unhelpfully, Jayashree felt.
The Rajh ignored the jab.
“How does one defeat a pishacha?” Jayashree asked. “I have never encountered such a thing.”
“Cold iron will do, I am told,” the Rajh answered. “But silver would be better. A pity, then, that I have no silvered weapons to spare to you.”
“The Mother will provide,” the Mother of Magic said. “We will outfit Jayashree properly ourselves, and send a contingent of warriors today.”
“She is to perform the task alone,” the Rajh said placidly.
“And why?” the Mother challenged. “It seems that your problem would be solved more easily were we to send more than a single greenwood warrior.”
“The pishacha are shy,” the Rajh said. “They have not appeared to groups, only to individual travelers. A larger group would likely go unbothered.”
“Then someone more seasoned,” the Mother protested. “A more experienced warrior. One who could, again, solve your problem.”
“The pishacha or the gallows pole,” the Rajh countered. “Those are your choices. Those, and no others.”
Jayashree bowed her head, and made her choice.
“The blade is silvered,” the Mother said, “and the dagger cold iron. You will not need your bow. You will be too close to them to use it, when they finally reveal themselves.”
“Any suggestions on tactics?” Jayashree asked. She tightened the straps on her armor, not sure if she was wasting her time or not. She had been in fights, even a few battles, but none against the undead.
The Mother murmured a few words, pressing a thumb into Jayashree’s forehead. Jayashree closed her eyes as the world opened to her for a moment, then snapped closed again. “The pishacha have their own language,” she said. “And you will feel them talking before you hear it. The word pishacha is an old one; it means chatterers. The spell will help you understand their words, if they wish to be understood at all. Listening to them may save you from battle. If it comes to iron and silver, be merciless. Every blow must be a killing one. Aim for the neck. They are not human, but they will die like humans if they must. And trust all of your senses. If you feel one nearby, swing, whether you see it or not.”
“It sounds like you are telling me not to trust my eyes,” Jayashree said.
The Mother considered. “Not quite. They can make themselves invisible to your eyes. They cannot create illusions of themselves. If you see one, it is there. If you do not see one, it may still be there.”
“I am not ready,” Jayashree admitted.
“None of us ever are,” the Mother replied. “But I have faith in you, daughter. We will meet again, I promise you.”
Jayashree nodded, and strapped the silvered khanda to her hip.
The old cremation grounds were a few miles outside of town, at a sharp bend in the river. For generations, bodies had been ritually burnt on the muddy spit of land the river encircled, and any cremains not borne away by the wind were commended to the water a few days later. The Grove of the Children was across the river; the bodies of the young were buried, not burned. Jayashree found herself hoping the pishacha were on the cremation side, as killing the reanimated spirits of children felt like a task heavy enough to break her.
She considered riding and decided to walk. She suspected the pishacha would not emerge until nighttime, which meant she had several hours. The day had grown hot but dreary, a thick layer of clouds rolling in over the bright sun that had awakened her in the morning. It would rain soon enough. I may as well die in the rain, Jayashree thought, and considered simply continuing past the cremation grounds and never returning. The Rajh would likely assume she had died. The Mother of Magic would know, of course. The Mother of Magic had a way of always eventually knowing everything. Jayashree was not sure she would go to the trouble to track her down again.
No. She had killed before, but always intentionally. The Rajh’s nephew was the first whose death she had caused by accident. She felt shame as she realized she had not bothered to find out the man’s name. He had likely introduced himself, but the drink had erased the memory. The Rajh had not bothered to use his name, either. If this was the task she must perform to atone for the death she had caused, she would try her best to do it, even if it felt a bit unreasonable.
She ate a light meal a few hundred yards from the cremation grounds, enough to keep her strength until well after dark. She had seen no one since leaving the city, and it looked as if no one had passed by here in some time. The path was overgrown, no tracks of horse or man or cart beating down the underbrush.
Odd. The Rajh had said the spirits were bothering passersby. There was no sign there had been any for weeks, at least. Not for the first time, Jayashree wished she had spent more of her time learning woodcraft.
She looked up at the sky. The rain would come soon, before nightfall.
I will not die today, she thought. That day would come eventually, but she would not die wet and cold. At least being at the cremation grounds meant there was plenty of wood available to build a fire. She set out to prepare for her vigil. The fire would have to be large, to keep the rain from extinguishing it.
She felt a cold touch, a brush across the back of her neck. She had been meditating by the fire for hours, cross-legged, the expected rain never growing stronger than an annoying sprinkle. She opened her eyes and rose to her feet in one motion, one hand on her khanda.
She saw nothing, but she heard whispers all around her. They were almost understandable, as if the pishacha were deliberately concealing their words from her.
“Show yourselves,” she said. Her words vanished into the silence, as the spirits around her stopped speaking.
Then they started again, and this time she could understand them.
what what are you
what is this
it has a sword it has a sword a weapon a weapon to kill
kill it bring it down into the ground
it hears us
do you do you hear us do you hear our words
we must kill it
no not yet
do you hear us
“I hear you, honored spirits,” Jayashree said, cold fear working its way up her spine.
you were sent to kill
no not to kill
it was sent to listen it hears and understands
it was sent to kill it carries a sword the sword bites and shines and bites and shines and bites and shines and bites
to kill to kill to kill
Jayashree unsheathed her sword, plunging it into the embers of her fire. There was a sudden storm of noise around her, then a withdrawal. She waited, making no further movements, and felt the spirits growing closer to her again.
“I was sent to kill,” she said. “But I have free will. I will listen if you will speak. I was told you had become a danger to the living. That you should be removed from this place. That you have killed travelers, and menaced the living.”
She felt more cold touches, but nothing caused her to reach for the sword again. A shape coalesced in front of her, a swirl of smoke slowly forming into a familiar shape. The babble of voices began again.
your words are lies
it will kill us take it take it now
it will not
it speaks lies
but it wishes for truth
kill it kill it kill it kill it
Jayashree felt a pressure at the back of her neck, a beckoning, an invitation. Trust all of your senses, the Mother of Magic had told her.
“Tell me what you want,” she said.
we wish quiet quiet the grave the silence the sound of peace
but not by the sword no not the sword not hurting not biting not silver
can you bring us this
can you can you can you
kill it kill it kill it kill it kill it now
will you bring us
“Tell me how,” she said, and felt the pressure at the back of her neck again.
She had asked the Rajh if the pishacha were creatures who possessed or merely killed. Both, he had answered. The shape formed in the smoke again, and the rain fell harder.
This is not the day I die, she thought to herself again, and let the pishacha have her.
The visions came upon her all at once in a wave. She panicked and tried to push them away, and they abated for just a moment. The pishacha appeared to understand that she could not cope with them all at once. But then the memories began to arrive one at a time, no pauses in between, and every memory ending in death and blood, and that was almost worse, for when those who had become the pishacha died, Jayashree died with them. If she had caused one death by accident, she had atoned for it fully within minutes, as she died over and over again in their visions.
And each time, the same face. Sometimes wielding a dagger, or a spear, or a garrote. Sometimes standing nearby and smiling as an innocent swung from a rope. Sometimes giving orders that, followed obediently, led to painful death at the talons of his other victims. The same face. The same hands, bloody from murder upon murder. The same result, as the spirits of the unjust dead rose again, waiting for the one who could understand them, the one who could end their pain, who could avenge them.
he was the one
all of us hurt
all murder all blood all death
trapped here in the cold and the wet and the cold and the wet
do you understand
do you do you do you do you see
do you see
“I see,” Jayashree said.
will you help
“I will,” she answered.
Everything went black.
She felt herself flying, moving faster than she could imagine, and hurtled into a building, through halls and up stairs. She finally came back to herself back in the city, standing in a room, at the foot of a bed. The storm roared outside. The bed was opulent, surrounded by a gossamer curtain. The room furnished as if for a man of wealth.
And she knew where she was, somehow. The Rajh’s bedroom. She shuddered. How had they brought her here? And so quickly?
They cannot see us, the pishacha told her, speaking as one voice for the first time. The pishacha are hidden to groups, she thought. And she had been, for a time, one of them. She dropped a hand to her hip, feeling the khanda hanging back at her side again. Its pommel was still warm, the metal still retaining some of the heat of the fire, unaffected by the cold and wet of the storm.
“He had guards,” she whispered. “Did we kill them?”
They sleep. They cannot see us, and they sleep. He is yours.
She unsheathed her khanda, and swept the curtain aside. The Rajh slept peacefully, wrapped in expensive silk pajamas.
The pajamas tore as she grabbed him by his tunic and lifted him above her head one-handed, undead energies bolstering her strength.
His first reaction was to call, panicked, for his guards. She let him, staring into his eyes. No one would hear him. Let him call.
“You lied to me,” she said.
“I did nothing,” he said. “I sent you to kill spirits. You let them have you. I can see it in your eyes.” He struggled against her grip.
“And the Mother of Magic let me understand them,” Jayashree answered. “They showed me how they died. They showed me who killed them. Your symbol of office. All of their deaths. You, responsible. And you’d have added me to their ranks without a second thought. You’ve been executing any who cross you for years, making them disappear at the old cremation grounds. None of them with a trial. And few for any real offense.”
“As is my right,” the Rajh replied, choking. “I rule here. I. Not the spirits, and not the Mother of Magic’s lapdogs.”
“They seem to disagree,” Jayashree answered, and there was a crack of lightning, and suddenly she stood outside, the rain now falling so hard it hurt. The gallows pole still stood at the center of the courtyard, seven steps leading up to the platform. She held the Rajh two feet off the ground as if he was a kitten, her muscles feeling no strain. The voices of the pishacha were legion again, echoing in her head.
yes yes yes
hurt him burn him kill him
he was the one
we died he dies
give him to us
give him to the ground
do it do it do it
Realizing where he was, the Rajh began to scream.
“You said to rid you of the spirits,” Jayashree spat. “You cared not how, do you remember? The spirits will trouble you no longer, Rajh. There is just this one thing to do, first.”
Jayashree hauled the struggling man up the seven steps. At the top, the rope beckoned.
“The pishacha or the gallows pole, you told me,” the warrior Jayashree said, wrapping the bamboo rope around the Rajh’s neck. “I made the wrong choice at first. I have changed my mind. I choose the pole.”
She kicked the Rajh in the back, sending him flying off the platform.
The wet snap of his neck echoed like thunder in the empty courtyard.