#REVIEW: The Affair of the Mysterious Letter, by Alexis Hall

I first encountered this book through Twitter, and I’ve completely lost track of how; I’m not even sure if it was specifically recommended to me or whether I just happened across someone being enthusiastic about it. At any rate, I’m mad at everyone else who has read it. Why? Because all of you should have recommended this book to me– yes, to me specifically, whether you know who the hell I am or not– because I’m pretty sure this book was written for me and me alone.

This is another “tell you the premise, and then I’m done” sort of book. The Affair of the Mysterious Letter is a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, starring a bisexual, amoral sorceress named Shaharazad Haas in the Holmes role and a transexual gay man(*) named John Wyndham in the role of Watson. The book starts off as a clear homage to A Study in Scarlet, as Wyndham arrives in the city of Khelathra-Ven as a wounded veteran of a war in another dimension, in need of a job and housing, and ends up answering an ad for a place at 221B Martyrs Lane, where he meets Haas.

Who immediately attempts to shoot him.

You may have noticed the word sorceress. Wyndham is very Victorian British in his comportment and his morals, and Alexis Hall’s ability to mimic the writing style of the Holmes stories is flat-out uncanny, but the rest of the book is pure eldritch horror, where I want to compare it to Lovecraft but the simple fact is that I think Alexis Hall out-Lovecrafts Lovecraft. He does forbidden knowledge Man is not meant to taste very, very well, and Haas might be the single most memorable practitioner of magic I’ve ever encountered. They end up in Carcosa for a while. There are byakhees. And vampires. And Wyndham fights a shark. Their landlady is an intelligent swarm of bees inhabiting a corpse. Well, two, actually, as one rots away enough to become useless over the course of the book and she needs to acquire another.

It’s absolutely delicious.

So, yeah, while it goes without saying that this book gets one of my highest recommendations; I will admit I have some slight criticisms of the overall structure of the story. Affair starts off with five suspects for a blackmail and then has basically five sub-quests where people are progressively ruled out; it sounds weird to both say that I loved a book and that it could have been a bit shorter, but any time you build in that structure where there are Five Things to Be Accomplished, you end up with a book that sort of has the feel of a video game and by the end of it the reader kind of wants to get to the point. I combatted this by reading the book somewhat more slowly than I might have expected from something I was enjoying as much as I was; I actually dragged this one out a bit rather than devouring it at a sitting, which is my normal move.

But … God, you need to read this. I think right now it’s planned as a one-shot, which is a damned shame if it’s true, because (much like Watson) Wyndham is writing this story from the perspective of twenty years in the future, when Haas is actually dead, and there are tons of references to other mysteries and other adventures. I want to read these stories; I have got to have more of Shaharazad Haas in my life, because she is utterly fascinating as a character. Another thing I haven’t mentioned is the humor; there’s more than a little of Douglas Adams’ DNA in this book. In fact, I took this picture and sent it to a friend of mine who I was pitching the book for, and I might as well include it here as a quote:

Wyndham’s unwillingness to swear or repeat profanity in the text of the story, and his squeamishness around women, and his frequent asides to his editor are all fantastically dry humor, and I laughed out loud several times while reading the book, once loud enough that my son emerged from another room to ask me what was so funny. The boy notices nothing, so this is quite an achievement.

Anyway, yeah, you want this one. Go pick it up.

(*) I actually need to have a conversation with someone about the trans angle, because, I admit, I completely missed it on my first read, and upon seeing some references to it on Goodreads went back and reread the first chapter, where a single sentence refers to Wyndham “becoming himself for the first time,” or something very similar. I don’t think I missed a ton of references, and that sentence strikes me as something that’s going to have immediate salience for a trans reader that it might not for a cisgendered one. Then again, I read Gideon the Ninth twice and Harrowhark the Ninth once before realizing that Harrowhark was Harrowhark and not Harrowhawk, so occasionally I am absolutely a blinkered idiot.

Pumpkins scream in the dead of night

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.

#REVIEW: The All-Consuming World, by Cassandra Khaw

First, the obligatory “My God, LOOK AT THAT COVER” moment. Go ahead, take a few, they’re free.

DISCLAIMER! Cassandra Khaw’s new novel The All-Consuming World does not actually come out until August 21. I found out that copies of this and her other upcoming book were available through Netgalley the other day and jumped, immediately, and got lucky, and then rearranged my reading schedule so I could get to it as quickly as I could. I have read three previous works by Cass Khaw, including her Hammers on Bone, which was #3 on my Top 10 list for 2016. I think that The All-Consuming World is her first novel; it’s definitely the first novel-length work of hers that I’ve read.

I’ll not bury the lede: my favorite thing about Cassandra Khaw is not her characters or her stories, but her writing. Of all the writers I currently consider myself a fan of, and there are dozens of them, she is the one whose writing abilities I would most like to completely absorb and use for my own dastardly purposes. Her writing is gritty and visceral and verbose in a way that is perfect for either Lovecraftian body horror or what we used to call cyberpunk, and All-Consuming World has elements of both, and my God was this book a joy to read.

Now, that’s kind of a problem as a reviewer, because it’s highly unlikely that I’m going to dislike anything Khaw writes because what she’s writing about is almost irrelevant to me. I’d read a recipe book cover-to-cover if Cass Khaw wrote it. But precisely because she is so stylized an author, I can easily imagine my opposite as a reader out there; I’ll read anything she writes because of how much I like her writing, but there are going to be people out there who are going to bounce off of her style, hard. Toss in the legitimate body horror elements (one character keeps a gun in her ribcage for part of the story) and the fact that the word “fuck” is at least a quarter of one particular character’s dialogue and this becomes a “not for everybody” book. But for me? My god, smear it on my face.

Right, the plot. As if that matters. Here’s the blurb, it’s as good as anything:

A diverse team of broken, diminished former criminals get back together to solve the mystery of their last, disastrous mission and to rescue a missing and much-changed comrade… but they’re not the only ones in pursuit of the secret at the heart of the planet Dimmuborgir. The highly-evolved AI of the universe have their own agenda and will do whatever it takes to keep humans from ever controlling the universe again. This band of dangerous women, half-clone and half-machine, must battle their own traumas and a universe of sapient ageships who want them dead, in order to settle their affairs once and for all. 

And, like, okay, that’s what it’s about, I guess? But this book is more about how it tells its story than the story it tells. The description leaves out that all of the members of the team are at least nominally women (one of them is nonbinary in a way that is either immensely sloppy or really interesting, because I could not figure out what the deal with … that person’s pronouns was at any point in the story*) and most of them are immortal and several of them die during the book and that’s not a spoiler because it’s also not a problem. I think Maya alone goes down at least three times. I think one of them is technically dead for the entire book? Maybe two? No more than two characters are dead for the entire book.

There’s a lot going on here, is what I’m saying. Pre-order this book and read it immediately when it comes out. If you like good things you will like it.

*The character is sometimes he and sometimes she, and will bounce back and forth between both sometimes in a single paragraph, and I either missed the explanation or just couldn’t figure out what the rules were.

#REVIEW: THE OUTSIDE, by Ada Hoffman

The headline for this piece is a lie– which would have been a clever reference to the events of The Outside, had I meant to do it when I started writing the sentence rather than realizing it halfway through. I actually have no intention of writing a full review of this book, which is really good and which I started reading last night and finished today. I’m tired and my thinkmeats are all askew and I’d rather just give you the basic genre of the book and then if you aren’t reaching for a credit card with one hand and navigating the interwebs to Amazon with the other we probably can’t be friends.

The genre, according to author Ada Hoffman, is “queer autistic cosmic horror space opera.” It may also be relevant to your interests to know that Hoffman is both queer and autistic.

That’s all. You may go now; I know you have more important things to do.

“Warrior Jayashree and the Gallows Pole”

     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.

GaolDefinitely 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—

Oh, no.

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—”

“Stand.  UP.”

     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.”

Ah.

     “That’s bad.”

“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.

     you

     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

     no

     soon

     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

     to kill

     to listen

     it fears

     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

     fear

     fear

     it fears

     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.

lies

     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

     no

     not yet

     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.

quiet

     silence

     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

     will you

     kill it kill it kill it kill it kill it now

     will you bring us

     the quiet

     “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.

him

     always him

     he was the one

     all of us hurt

     all blood

     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.

do it

     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.