I carved two of these, one is “mine” and the other at my son’s direction. Feel free to guess which ones.
Also, I reread The Call of Cthulhu today, and it brought his to mind; I have probably linked it before, but you need to see it again.
Welcome to infinitefreetime dot com
The blog of Luther M. Siler, teacher, author and local curmudgeon
I carved two of these, one is “mine” and the other at my son’s direction. Feel free to guess which ones.
Also, I reread The Call of Cthulhu today, and it brought his to mind; I have probably linked it before, but you need to see it again.
I’ve read three of P. Djèlí Clark’s books now, and some commonalities are definitely starting to emerge. Clark does great magic systems and great worldbuilding, and tends to set his books in places and periods of time where you typically don’t get a lot of fantasy and/or horror literature. The Black God’s Drums was set in antebellum New Orleans, The Haunting of Tram Car 015 is somehow a police procedural set in Cairo in 1912, and his most recent book, Ring Shout, is set in Georgia in the early 1920s, as the Ku Klux Klan is experiencing a resurgence and the movie The Birth of a Nation is taking America by storm.
Turns out the Klan is mostly motivated by a demonic force that literally eats hatred, and a surprising number of the members– designated in this book as “Ku Kluxers,” rather than “Klan,” which is applied to humans– are, uh, not really human at all. The three main characters are all part of an organization that can see the Ku Kluxers for what they are, and hunts them. And just in case it’s not obvious, all are Black, and all three are women as well.
I had … an interesting time with this book, where most of the issues I had with it are sort of outside the book itself. First, all three of Clark’s books that I’ve read are from Tor.com’s novella line. Ring Shout comes in at about 180 pages or so of story. And when you have a world that is as interesting as the worlds this guy is creating, I want to know more about them. This story, more than his other work, really felt kind of rushed. The main character, Maryse Boudreaux, has a vision of the Big Bad of the book and meets him just a couple of pages later. One of the main characters is killed off at about the halfway point, but it doesn’t have the emotional impact it ought to because we’ve spent so little time with her. That sort of thing.
I really need this guy to write a full-length novel, is what I’m saying. Or maybe three of them, one sequel to each of the books he’s written so far.
Because when you stop talking about what it isn’t, Ring Shout is pretty damn awesome. Clark’s writing style is as sharp and evocative as ever, and this is the most otherworldly of his books, so he taps into a really Lovecraftian vein that I haven’t seen from him previously, and y’all know I love me some Lovecraft-style horror. Maryse herself is fascinating, and I really enjoy the way Clark handles working in her backstory and the romantic relationship she has with one of the male characters. There is a character who is sort of an advisor to Maryse’s crew who speaks Gullah, and Clark doesn’t translate what she’s saying, and while I did hit up Google this morning to make sure I had properly intuited what “buckrah” meant, you get to a point by the end of the book where you understand what she’s saying pretty well. In the hands of a lesser author, this could have been really annoying; I actually found myself wanting more of Nana Jean by the end of the book. And then there’s Maryse’s sword, which … I’m not even going to tell you about Maryse’s sword. It’s an insanely cool idea, and I gotta leave something for you to find out for yourself.
(Just discovered this is being adapted for TV; I am excited.)
The ending also caught me by surprise. Without getting too far into spoiler territory, you can probably already guess that there’s a big fight against some sort of otherworldly entity at the end of the book (and if you’ve never paid any attention to what the Ku Klux Klan called their officers, it’s like history set itself up for this book to be written,) and you get told through the book that Maryse is going to be forced to make “a choice” during this confrontation, and, well, you are going to form some theories as the book goes on about what that choice is going to be and how it will come about.
And you will be wrong, because whatever you’re thinking, Clark has come up with a moment, here, and it’s a hell of a thing to encounter.
One more thing, and I’m putting it after a separator because I’m not really done thinking about it, and I’m not actually sure it’s an issue: I feel like it is a decision to take the Klan’s evil and, to a large extent, attribute it to inhuman, extraterrestrial/interdimensional forces. I feel like Clark knew he was doing this, or at least that he could be accused of it, because there is a lot of talk about choice in this book, and it’s particularly made clear that a certain subset of the (human) Klan are deliberately giving themselves over to this, no spoilers, Thing that they’re giving themselves over to. But D.W. Griffith’s movie wasn’t a huge success because Griffith was a sorcerer. It was a huge success because enormous swaths of America were just as awful and racist as he was. There is a reading of this book, and I think that reading is at least somewhat valid– after all, I’m talking about it– where the Ku Kluxers somewhat exonerate white America’s complicity in the (actual) Klan. I’m not sure it completely holds up, but it exists, and if you were put off by it I’m not sue I’d argue with you about it.
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.
This was my submission to “Swords v. Cthulhu,” and I’m told it was a finalist, but was ultimately not selected. I’ve elected to post it here rather than submit it elsewhere.
The room reeked of rice beer and coconut wine, the odor wafting out even before he brushed open the thick woolen curtain that marked the bedroom’s threshold. The servant listened carefully, letting his eyes adjust to the darkness inside before speaking. The room was sparsely furnished, containing a large bed, a chair, and a couple of small tables, one of which had been knocked over. Clothing was scattered everywhere, along with other items that perhaps ought not to be stored on the floor or haphazardly tossed into corners.
Hm. Too much clothing. He squinted, looking more carefully at the bed. Someone shifted, a beam of light from the courtyard getting past the curtain and landing on a patch of wheat-colored skin.
He raised an eyebrow. The mistress is not alone. Well, it couldn’t be helped. He cleared his throat.
There was a groan, and more shifting from within the room.
“You are needed, mistress. It is important.”
Someone threw a pillow, which glanced off the curtain. Another groan. He pulled the curtain aside entirely, flooding the room with light. There was a squeal, and the mistress’ guest tumbled off the bed onto the floor, pulling a sheet over herself.
“I should take your manhood for that, Mitesh,” the mistress growled. Her voice was deeper than usual, almost sounding congested.
“As you wish, mistress,” Mitesh responded evenly. This threat was issued at last a few times a week and as of yet she had not followed through.
The mistress rolled out of bed, one hand held firmly against the side of her head. She glared at Mitesh, making no move to cover herself.
“And who has arrived to need me at this hour of the day?”
“It is past noon, mistress.”
“There are knives in here somewhere, Mitesh. Do not make me find them.”
“You are about to step on one, mistress.” Her urumi was at her feet, unwound. It was not a weapon one would be pleased to place bare feet upon. The mistress cast her eyes downward and collected the urumi, winding the flexible blades around her waist and clipping the handle to them. It was a most dangerous belt, with no cloth underneath to protect her from the edges.
“No more remarks, Mitesh. Tell me who is here and why.”
“She said to give you this, mistress,” he said, holding out a small wooden box. He took a few steps into the room and nearly tripped over yet another prone figure, this one a man. He had burrowed into a pile of clothing during the night. The man did not react to being kicked.
Mitesh looked more closely. “Is this one dead?”
“I don’t think so,” she said. “Although I expect he’ll wish he was when he wakes up. Can’t hold his liquor.” The mistress took the box, her mouth curled in scorn, and opened it. Mitesh watched as much of the influence of the rice beer drained from her face, replaced with deep alarm and concern. And, unbelievably, something that looked very much like fear.
She closed the box again, handing it back to Mitesh, and glanced over at her other bedmate, who was still curled on the floor by the bed. Mitesh thought it entirely possible that the girl had fallen back to sleep.
“Wh–” She stopped, clearing her throat.
“Who precisely is our guest, Mitesh?”
“The scholar Ansuya, mistress.”
The mistress nodded.
“Feed … ah … feed them both, and get her home somehow,” she said. “Let him worry about himself.” She shook her head, wincing, trying to clear the cobwebs of the night’s revelry from her head and not quite succeeding. “Tell our guest I will meet with her presently.” She turned away from Mitesh, he and her night’s partners all but forgotten, searching for the rest of her clothing among the riot of discarded laundry on the floor.
Then she paused, and stood up, a quizzical look on her face. “There may be a third. Somewhere. See if either of them remembers. You’ll know what to do, right? You always do.”
Mitesh nodded, and when his mistress went back to searching for her clothes he looked inside the box. It contained the hand of a small child, roughly torn off at the wrist, set carefully atop a bed of bloodstained white cotton. The nails on four of the fingers were cut evenly and carefully painted. The fifth finger was missing.
The scholar stood, nodding at her host, who bowed deeply. They had met in a sitting room adjoining the courtyard on the house’s second floor. The room had several windows, and a pleasant breeze did its best to dispel the afternoon heat and humidity.
“Warrior Jayashree. I trust you have recovered from your … sudden illness?”
Jayashree winced. Mitesh had been instructed many times to keep visitors away from her, and preferably out of the house altogether, when she was in her cups. That instruction had not been meant to apply to the scholar for any number of reasons, but the man had done his best anyway.
“I am well enough, scholar. What has happened?”
“The hand was carried into the village by a dog. Several girls are missing. That is all we have found of any of them.”
Jayashree raised an eyebrow. “A matter for the authorities, not for a scholar. You are leaving something out.”
“Did you remove the hand from the box?”
“I did not.” She looked around, suddenly wondering what she’d done with it. Wordlessly, Mitesh appeared next to her and silently gave her the box. She opened it again, with far more care this time, and looked at the hand again.
“Look at the palm,” Ansuya said.
Jayashree carefully took the hand from the box and turned it over. There was a symbol carefully carved into the palm. Parts of the hand had been flayed to add detail to the image.
“What is that?” she said. The symbol itself made her uneasy, somehow, even without considering its macabre source.
“Rotate the hand. Point the fingers toward you.”
She turned the hand, and the nature of the shape became clear.
The skull of a goat.
Jayashree’s eyes widened and her nostrils flared.
“Tell me what this is,” she said.
“The work of a cult,” the scholar said. “This was no animal. Do you understand, now, why they came to me, and why I came to you?”
“Let Mitesh know where the dog was found,” Jayashree said. “I will be there within the hour.”
There were preparations to be made.
The day’s heat was already brutal, yet Jayashree felt a chill despite her armor. Mitesh had directed her to the central square of a nearby village, and Ansuya stood there to greet her, surrounded by a small mob of stone-faced villagers. Jayashree surveyed them. The crowd appeared to be made up almost entirely of children and the elderly. Not a man or woman among them had the look of a laborer, much less a warrior.
They are elsewhere, then. Ansuya will have news. She began to dismount her horse, a motion Ansuya halted with a quick gesture. Jayashree directed a raised eyebrow toward the scholar.
“News both good and bad,” Ansuya said. “The good news is that they have located where the girls were taken already. The bad? We have lost another. Come. We must hurry.” The old woman gestured, and a young boy brought her a second horse. She mounted fluidly, an impressively graceful movement from someone of her age, and kicked the horse in the flanks. Jayashree twitched the reins and squeezed her knees together, and her horse followed.
“How well do you know this country?” Ansuya asked as Jayashree’s horse pulled alongside her.
“Well enough,” Jayashree said. Or, at least, she’d have known it well enough if she were fully sober yet. The horse had done most of the navigating. Mitesh had made her his elixir again but it hadn’t fully kicked in yet.
“There is a ravine not far from here,” Ansuya said. “The girl who was taken today has a younger brother. He followed the kidnappers. He says they disappeared into a stone wall.”
“That seems … unlikely,” Jayashree replied. “But the boy was likely terrified. Perhaps he misunderstood what he was seeing.”
“Perhaps,” Ansuya answered.
“What was that symbol, scholar? Who would do that to a little girl?”
“I have heard of this before,” Ansuya said. “But not in a long while, and only from scattered references in song, or from the oldest of my codices. They are called the Young, and their gods are ancient and cruel. Long has human sacrifice been among their rituals.”
“That hand was from no clean sacrifice,” Jayashree responded. “That child was torn apart.”
“We do not yet know what their sacrifice was to,” Ansuya said, “Or what happened afterward.”
Jayashree did not respond, goading her horse into greater speed instead.
A small crowd of people surrounded an outcropping in the ravine wall. For the second time, Jayashree appraised the crowd. This was clearly nearly all of the able-bodied in the village. Farmers and workers, all of them, strong of arm and back but armed with little more than spears and scythes, with naught a protective garment or steel blade among them. A man detached himself from the crowd and spoke with Ansuya, his voice too low for Jayashree to hear. The group regarded her with a mixture of fear and hope, a few tightening their grips on their weapons as she approached. This was not a crowd accustomed to battle, but they would fight for her if she allowed them.
Ansuya nodded, patting the man on his back with one hand and turning to Jayashree.
“Come, look at this,” she said. Jayashree dismounted and followed the scholar, who was walking around to the blind side of the outcropping.
The stone protrusion concealed a cave entrance. A cold breeze blew from the entrance, carrying with it an unsettling scent of rot and blood.
“They went in through here,” she said.
“And has no one followed them?” Jayashree replied, shocked at their cowardice. “How many could possibly be hidden inside? The child could have been killed while they waited!”
“They sent five,” Ansuya said. “Their strongest, and the most eager to fight. None have returned. Some claim that they heard screams.”
Jayashree listened carefully. She heard nothing. Not so much as the sound of a bird, or the skittering of a rodent from inside the cave. The pounding of her own blood in her temples was the loudest thing anywhere near her.
“Find me torches, and someone to carry them,” she said. “My hands will be full.” She returned to her horse.
She had brought more equipment than she needed, unsure of the challenges that she would be facing. Her bamboo longbow was left with the horse, unstrung. A bow would be nearly useless inside of a cave. She kept her khanda and a dagger with her. The khanda was a two-edged blade, a shade over three feet in length, that widened from the hilt out to a blunted point at the other end. A wicked spike beneath the hilt served as a short-range weapon or a secondary grip to use the sword two-handed. She strapped a buckler shield to her left forearm, leaving her hand free, and placed her helmet upon her head.
She laid a hand on the grip of her urumi, still coiled around her waist, considering. The urumi was a weapon that demanded a lot of room to be used effectively, and with others fighting alongside her it could be just as dangerous to her friends as to her enemies. But it was a mark of her achievement as a warrior. The weapon was considered so dangerous to the wielder that only the most accomplished of fighters dared to learn its use. She still had several scars from inattentive moments during her training.
She left the weapon at her waist, adjusting it for easier access, and smoothed out the plates of her armor, which were sandwiched between layers of silk. Its weight was oppressive in the heat, but the cool of the cave would soon leave her comfortable enough.
“Enough,” she murmured to herself. She was prepared or she was not. Further delay was pointless.
Four men and two women waited at the entrance of the cave. Three of them bore torches. The others carried their weapons only. Half of them were armed with nothing more dangerous than simple clubs. The others bore spears and a hand scythe.
“If there is negotiation to be done, I do it,” she said. “If there is to be bloodshed, I strike the first blow. These are the only rules. If you do not plan to follow them, let me know now.” She made eye contact with each of the six, who returned her gaze, if perhaps a bit nervously. Seven of them, then. A good number. Surely their numbers could not be overmatched inside the cave.
Jayashree turned without another word, striding into the cave and assuming her soldiers would follow her.
It took only a moment for her eyes to adjust to the torchlit darkness of the cave. The entrance was perfectly mundane, as the narrow entryway broadened to perhaps ten feet in width, with enough head room for the tallest man among them to walk comfortably. A quick examination of the space revealed some signs of use: a few discarded animal nests and some signs that people had camped there from time to time as well.
“There’s no way out,” one of the men with her said.
“Patience,” Jayashree replied, an edge in her voice. “They were seen entering. They were not seen exiting. You did not even know this cave was here. Surely another exit could elude us for a moment.”
“Here,” called one of the torchbearers, a woman. She pointed to a wide beam of wood, incongruously embedded in a flat part of the wall. Her torch flickered madly; the odor was stronger here, and a wind blew from somewhere.
“A lintel,” Jayashree murmured. “Good. There must be a way to open it.” She ran her hands over the lintel and the wall below it, seeking some sort of catch or release and finding nothing.
She pushed, experimentally, and felt the wall give.
“Here,” she said, waving the others over. Three of them threw their weight against the wall, and the heavy stone gave way, swinging on a hidden pivot and allowing enough room to enter further into the cave. Behind it was a tunnel, barely wide enough for two to walk next to each other, the walls and ceiling heavily reinforced with more wooden beams. The work looked hurried, and dust drifted down from over their heads, disturbed by the motion of the door.
She heard a sound from ahead of them.
“Torchbearers to the back,” she whispered. She pointed at the two who carried spears. “The two of you, behind me. Give me ten feet in front of you. And be silent.” The spearholders nodded, their fear and resolve both clear on their faces.
She unsheathed her khanda and tightened her shield to her forearm, then crept ahead, grateful that she had left her noisy mail armor at home. The torches behind her provided just enough light to maneuver by, and soon enough the sounds ahead her resolved into voices.
Far too many voices.
She held out a hand, palm back, gesturing for those behind her to halt, and belly-crawled forward, peering around a corner into a room that seemed transported underground from a stone building. The floor was tiled, broad marbled pavers that filled the circular floor wall-to-wall. The walls were covered with draperies and, of all things, mirrors, the illumination in the room being provided by a single brazier. Standing next to the brazier was a single figure, cloaked in a black garment voluminous enough to make determining even its gender impossible, a shining golden medallion around its neck. Perhaps a dozen more cloaked individuals knelt on the floor in front of the high priest.
Against the wall to his left lay the shattered bodies of the five people that had been sent in before them.
The girl. Where was the girl?
Nowhere to be seen. Perhaps on the floor in front of the priest, but she couldn’t see past the ones that were kneeling. The figures continued praying. She was close enough to pick out the words, but much of what they were saying made little sense to her.
“So from the wells of night to the gulfs of space, and from the gulfs of space to the wells of night, ever the praises of Great Cthulhu, of Tsathoggua, and of Him Who is not to be Named. Ever Their praises, and abundance to the Black Goat of the Jungles. Iä! Shub-Niggurath! The Goat with a Thousand Young!”
A wave of feeling washed over her, as the last trace of the coconut wine lost its hold, replaced by a nameless dread so deep it turned her bones to ice. For the briefest moment the veil of the world tore away, and what was exposed behind it was naught but madness and terror. Her panic was primal, beyond thought and reason and care and hope. Only one thing could protect her, only one thing could save her from the palpable madness beyond the veil.
“Iä…” she murmured to herself, beginning to let go. With the greatest of effort, she shook her head, pushing the veil away, trying to return to herself.
Two behind her were not so lucky.
“Iä! Iä! The Goat! The Black Goat of the Jungle, Radiant She of the Thousand Young! Iä! Iä! Shub-Niggurath, the Black Goat of the Jungle with a Thousand Young!”
She rolled out of the way just as the spear struck the ground where she lay. Had she still been there, it would have split her spine. Behind her, she could hear combat. Ahead of her, the cultists had become aware of their presence. The man who had tried to kill her stood over her, froth and blood dripping from his lips, unfathomable madness in his eyes, veins bulging in his face and arms. She kicked his legs out from under him and rolled toward him, smashing the edge of her buckler into his larynx as he hit the ground. He choked and died. She leapt to her feet, her khanda in her hand. The others looked at her, the other villager lost to madness dead at their feet.
“That was the signal,” she said. “Defend yourselves.” She spun, meeting the brunt of the cultists’ charge. She split one from crotch to chin with her khanda, then slammed a second out of her way with her shield. She thought of her urumi, still belted to her waist. The weapon was superb for crowd control. Too bad she hadn’t the room to use it.
She was fortunate in one way: the cultists were only armed with daggers, and not very long ones at that. She had the advantage. She felt the spearbearers coming behind her and forced her way into the ritual chamber, nearly skidding in a pool of blood on the way in. She deflected a wild swing with her shield, then took the cultist’s head from his shoulders with a backswing. Another jumped on her back, his dagger already lost, and she threw herself backwards and bashed him into the wall, slamming her khanda’s spike into his ribcage when he lost his grip. She glanced at the spearbearers. They were holding their own, and the club-and-scythe contingent was beating a cultist on the ground. Two of her people were injured, but not badly.
She looked around for the girl. There was a hole in the floor in front of the high priest, who had not joined the melee. The priest dipped a torch into the brazier and lowered it into the hole. Jayashree could see him chanting as he did so, the words coming from him sounding like no human speech she had ever encountered. The chanting grew louder, drowning out even the sounds of the fight.
Oh, no. No.
Cold blue flame erupted from the pit, and Jayashree could no longer tell whose screams she heard: those of the dying men and women around her, her own, or those of the child who, she now hoped, had been dead long before the rescuers ever made it into the room. Jayashree prayed that she had died of anything other than that obscene otherwordly fire.
A sphere appeared in the air above the fire. Darkness poured from the sphere as light from a lantern, and the mirrored walls now no longer kept the room as brightly lit as it had been. The brazier still burned, but not as strongly, and her warriors had dropped most of their torches. A cold wind blew, and Jayashree realized that the bad air, still stinking of rot and blood and burning flesh and hair, was being swept from the chamber by something far fouler.
The cultists reacted as one, disengaging from the fight and turning their faces to the hole in the air, their eyes wild, fixed on nothing, chanting in the same inhuman black speech as the priest. She had three fighters left, two men and a woman. They cut down the remaining cultists as they howled their prayers.
Jayashree leapt for the priest, her khanda flashing. The priest met her with his own dagger, and sparks burst from their weapons as they met. She kicked him in the chest, tossing him across the room, and lifted her blade above her head, screaming a wordless battle cry. The priest laughed, a repellent gurgling sound more animal than human, and crawled to his feet, barely evading another wild blow from Jayashree’s weapon. He reversed his grip on his dagger and stabbed at her again. She blocked the blow with her shield, then pinned his arm against her side. The next swing from her sword took the arm off at the shoulder, a gout of black blood spraying from the wound. The third attack split his ribcage, embedding the shattered pieces of his medallion into his heart. The priest collapsed to the ground, dead.
His hood fell back from his face as he died. The sight caused Jayashree to step back in shock. Two goat’s horns protruded from the forehead of a face that had forgotten how to be human some time ago, a putrid combination of features from man and goat that called to mind something born dead and quietly buried in the night.
“The Young,” Jayashree whispered to herself. “They’re not even people.”
A keening sound filled the room, and the blue fire died down. She turned. The sphere was still there, the death of the mad priest of the Young having no effect on it. It shimmered, and she realized that she could see something inside it.
“It’s a portal,” she said.
“What do we do?” one of the surviving men asked.
She looked closer, fear gripping her entrails with an icy hand. The sphere looked out into a great city, far in the distance, but a city such as none on Earth had ever seen. Buildings of impossible geometry scraped the clouds, and a black sun somehow shone in the sky. Beyond the city, mountains, their summits knife-sharp. Before the city, a field, as broad and plain and flat as could be imagined, and in that field was an army. An army of the Young, their misshapen faces uncloaked, their weapons long and sharp and steaming with unholy poisons.
The army roared, a sound that shook the rock around them, and advanced toward the portal.
“Go,” Jayashree told the men, a strange calm falling over her. “Use your clubs. Take them from the dead if you need to. Bring down the tunnel behind us. I want a million tons of rock between the world and … that.”
“We won’t have time,” one of them said.
“I will gain you your time,” she said, and hurled herself into the portal.
A cold knife lacerated her skin, the world flashed away, and yet she somehow landed on her feet.
She looked around. The portal hung in the air behind her, larger on this side than on hers, and she watched as the warriors on the other side scavenged clubs and fled for the safety of the tunnel. She turned to face the army, and for the first time saw what was at their center: a two-hundred-foot monstrosity of tentacle and horn and scale and tooth and claw, many-mouthed, gibbering incoherently and roaring at the sky. She felt its gravidity, and knew that the horrors around her were its true offspring.
Somewhere, a flute was playing.
Jayashree smiled. She would die today, and soon.
But there was finally room to use her urumi.