Thursday, January 20, 2011

Fiction: The Talisman by Jack Mulcahy

It was no use, the bindings were too strong. The Raheshi bastards had covered my eyes and my mouth with an iron mask with only a small slit to allow me to breathe. Can't have me dying, after all. My arms and legs were similarly shackled, leaving me splayed against a stone wall like a deerskin. Sacrificing a young woman like me to the demons of Thakit would greatly please Skrækja, the Raheshi God of Pain. The only reason I wasn't being flayed alive already was that Piso, Skrækja's priest, was waiting a few days until the moon, the shield of their enemy the Warrior Goddess Fehtan, had disappeared. I had been straining to conjure a spell to escape, but with my mouth bound, I could not summon my Songweaving Magic. First Finola, now me, I thought. I had taken a great risk coming here to Rahesh-the-City when my beloved wife had not returned from performing with her old friend and former minstrel partner Valerian. Perhaps I should have known better than to risk it, knowing that all women in Rahesh are slaves. But when word reached me that Finola and Valerian had been waylaid by Raheshi slave-catchers, I could not abandon her.

Finola. From the first moment I'd seen her, I had known I'd found my one true love. My soul sang out to her, even as I'd seen her walk into that tavern with the man Valerian. He was not for her, and they both knew it. I was Songweaving that night, accompanying myself on my mandola, simple song-spells of joy and laughter meant to keep the patrons in a good mood so they would stay in the tavern. But when I saw Finola, I nearly lost my place in the song. That very evening, she was on stage with me, and soon we were partners in life as well as Songweaving Magic. Valerian loved her, she would later explain to me, and she cared deeply for him. But she knew she could never give him what he wanted and deserved. Until I entered the picture, Valerian had a lamentable notion that he could somehow "cure" Finola of her preference for women. As if she had some disease!

The name sh'gan gareth, is the way people like Finola and I are known. Though the term translates as "unnaturals," most sh'gan, both men and women, use it freely to refer to ourselves. It refers to how we feed the Magic we possess. People gifted with the Magic practice Sex-Magic rituals to call up the energies of that sacred act to feed their own magical powers. Most of them perform the rituals with a gifted person of the opposite sex. Sh'gan, however, perform the Sex Magic rituals with partners of the same sex. Because of this, many people, both gifted and not gifted, call us "unnaturals" and shun and persecute us. In Rahesh, the punishment for this "crime" is to burn one partner at the stake while the other is forced to watch. Hence my rush to rescue Finola.

But I wasn't doing a very good job of rescuing her. I'd tried casting a glamour over myself so as to appear like a male, but as soon as I entered Rahesh-the-City, my spell had failed and I'd run for my very soul through the streets, with a gang of soldiers at my heels. I'd given them a real chase, even lost sight of them, and was starting to think I could find somewhere to hide when I ran straight into the cobweb spell, which is just what it sounds like, stretched across a street or an alley. Raheshi men apparently know some words to say to keep themselves free of the cobweb, but I was not so fortunate.

Hence, this captivity. I mentally cursed myself and the bastards who'd fettered me thus. I couldn't even curse them out loud because of the damned mask. I wriggled my arms and legs, trying anything to free myself, but nothing seemed to work, and I sank into a dark despair.

Then I heard my name. "Suzannah." The voice was Finola's. My heart leapt for joy. She's alive! My darling is alive! But how could I have heard it? The iron mask covered my ears, as well as my face. "Suzannah, you must listen to me." There was no doubt it was Finola communicating, but the voice must have been in my mind.

"Finola?" I "asked."

"Yes, dear heart, it's me," came the voice in my head. "Listen to me. I'm going to try to break the spell that binds the mask to you. When you hear me sing 'Thirty-and-Nine,' harmonize with me. Even if it's only in your mind."

I did not really believe what I was hearing, but at this point I was desperate enough to try any possibility. Moments passed, then I heard Finola begin the melody, and I brought to mind a harmony. It was like being with her again. As our "voices" reached a peak, I felt the bonds loosen, then melt away entirely, and I was free.

Finola seemed to be gasping for breath. But when I looked around, she was nowhere to be seen. "Follow my voice," she panted, "hurry!" And she chanted more of the song-spell. I looked around, saw that I was in a cell with stone walls, floor and ceiling, and a heavy iron door. A tiny window slot in the door allowed a faint light into the chamber. I breathed some words of another song, and the door unlocked and swung inward.

Stepping outside, I entered a long stone corridor. The light that had shone through the window was from a torch at the far end of the passage, which was otherwise unlighted. As I stepped forward, however, pale footsteps appeared on the flagstones of the hallway, and these I followed. The steps disappeared behind me. More than once, I would hear soldiers' voices and I had to duck around corners or into shadowy niches to avoid discovery. At one point, I ducked behind a door. I tensed, hoping the man would go away, but my spot was the first place he looked.

He looked right at me without seeing me. "By the Lord and Lady, will you hurry up and get out of there!" Finola whispered in my mind. "I can't hold this spell forever!"

They must know I'd escaped. I followed the song, hearing Finola stumble over the words once or twice. "Don't bump into anyone or they'll know you're there!" she added.

"Where am I going?" I asked. "How did this happen? I saw you die!" If I was invisible, I wondered, could my footsteps or voice be heard?

"Yes, they can," Finola told me. "Don't talk, just follow. I'll guide you. And stop asking so many damn questions!" The footsteps continued to lead me. Guards were scrambling, shouting, racing down the hallway I'd just taken. Pressed flat against the wall, I headed for a staircase marked by a tall, arched window. I paused, bathed in the crystalline radiance of the starlight. Low on the horizon, I saw the slender glow of the moon, the edge of Fehtan's shield, and I murmured a prayer to her.

"Come on!" Finola urged. "I can't --" The voice in my head was abruptly cut off. A blast of white-hot pain suddenly shot through me, and I doubled over. Almost as quickly as it hit me, it faded, leaving me trembling.

"Lord and Lady, what was that?" I gasped, heedless of Finola's warning to silence.

There was no answer. The glowing footsteps were my only sign of Finola. I whispered her name. No answer.

Hammered by fear, I padded softly down the steps. Even in this secondary staircase, the halls and furnishings were opulent to the point of decadence, all carved marble with gold inlaid railings and wainscoting, velvet draperies masking the stench of pain and fear that lingered in this unholy Temple. For generations, he Cult of Skrækja had perfected countless ways to inflict pain on the human body, and this place was the center from which that evil spread across Rahesh. Taking the steps two at a time, I approached the landing where Piso had his sanctum. The doorway was guarded by a lifesize jade figure of a woman in chains. Harsh, yellow light spewed into the corridor from the open doorway. I breathed a short prayer to the Lord and Lady that the room be empty.

The Lord and Lady weren't listening.

"Boy, come here!"

I froze. Finola's invisibility spell must have faded. A man came to Piso's doorway, a dark shadow against the glare. I tried to stay out of the light, so he wouldn't see me clearly. He was looking from light out into darkness, after all.

"Sir?" I murmured. I wanted to run, but that would give me away. I kept my distance, my voice low.

"Come into the light, boy," he directed me.

"My lord, I've --" What? I hadn't thought what to say if I were questioned. I'd counted too much on Finola, or whatever that magic was. And what happened to her? "I've an assignment," I faltered, but he interrupted. I could smell the wine on his breath, and his unwashed body.

"Come, come, lad, don't be afraid of the truth. I was young once. You sneaked in here for a little fun with one of the sacrificial slaves, eh? And amid all the commotion, you've found yourself caught out of uniform!" By now, they would be searching the entire Temple for me, and I had to deal with this old drunk. He had a long, thin face, with a hound's nose and a snake of a silver mustache that wriggled when he spoke. As I slowly made my way toward him, his stench became almost unbearable. "Come on, then, I won't bite you. Not a pretty like you."

"Sir, I really must be going," I stammered. In the dark, my short hair and mannish trews and vest would fool him, but as soon as he could see me clearly, I was doomed. "There's been an escape, sir, and I've been sent to fetch the priests!" My mind had been frantically seeking excuses, rejecting them, finding new ones, rejecting those. "I must fulfill my duty!"

Too late, he dragged me into the chamber, and a gory scene met my eyes. The woman lay on her back, a silken cord around her neck. She stared up at me, her face a wax mask of terror. The man saw me looking at her, and his teeth flashed under the silvery mustache. "Don't worry about her, boy, there's plenty more where she came from. Let's have a look at --"

Before he finished speaking, the dead woman rose.

"How dare you do this to me?" she demanded, lurching forward, limbs stiff with death's rigor. "How dare you take my life before my time?" The voice seemed to roll from somewhere else, like the sound of the heralds' horns in the snowy peaks of the Sassaine Mountains.

The Raheshi and I both backed away, his face turning by degrees from sun-bronzed gold to sallow yellow to the color of bleached linen. The room filled with the sickly odor of rotting flesh. My eyes frantically sought some weapon, but the woman ignored me and advanced on him, eyes glowing crimson. "You must pay for my life with your own, murderer!"

His breath rasped in and out of his mouth. His lips moved, but no words emerged. In one hand she lifted him, shaking him back and forth like a disobedient child, then flung him across the room, where his head smacked against the far wall.

I watched his body slide down the wall, trailing a smear of blood. The corpse pointed at him, and I noticed a peculiar sort of pendant around his neck. "Get that!" the revived dead woman directed. It was Finola's voice now. I stared at her a moment, not comprehending. "Don't just stand there! Get that pendant!"

The object was not on a chain, but something else, something gossamer and golden. "Do not break that," Finola whispered. The corpse, no longer animated, collapsed in a heap of cracking bones. "Careful, careful." Her voice was back in my head now, anxious, almost hoarse. My fingers touched the pendant and I recognized what was tying it around the man's neck.

"Lord and Lady, your hair?" I took the thing from the man's neck in fingers that felt like dried sticks, fumbling with it, almost losing it in his long hair. The back of his head was like a melon gone bad, sticky and cloying, and I feared I would break the slender strands.

At last I had it, and I held it up. Dangling from the hair necklace, it looked like a twig shaved of its bark. There was a crook in it, so its shape described a gentle curve, tapered at each end, with a tiny hole for the hair to pass through. When I touched it, I could see an unclear image of Finola out of the corner of my eye, which vanished when I tried to look directly at her.

"Tuck that away, dearest, and let's get out of here."

But I could not stop staring at the thing. "What is this?" I asked, when I finally was able to make my voice obey me. "What happened to you?"

"Not now! I'll tell you later," she said. "Now there's not just you who escaped, there's a dead lord for them to deal with, and the magic will not protect us for long."

The clamor of voices intruded just then, and the tug on my hand now animated my whole body. "Come on!" Finola urged. My legs obeyed before I could think about it. Back up the stairs to the chamber where I was imprisoned, my feet barely touching the floor. They wouldn't think to look there for a while.

The whole Temple came alive. "Who's out there?" "Sergeant, cover all the exits!" "My lord, please don't --" "I told Nejemiya we should have burned that one too!" "Out of my way, slave! Get back in there!" "No sign of them here, my lord."

"What now?" I asked. I collapsed against the wall, stinking of my own fear-sweat, my clothes plastered to my body.

"We wait. With any luck, they'll think you got out and comb the city for you."

"I don't like depending on luck, Pel forgive me." Pel might be unreliable, but I still did not want to offend the Goddess of Luck. "What about some of that magic you used to make me disappear?"

She did not answer. I brought out the talisman and studied it, and Finola's image reappeared at the edge of my vision. "What happened to you?" I asked, not sure I wanted to know.

"I was burned at the stake," she began. The pain in her voice matched the pain in my heart. "In agony beyond imagining. Yet a part of me knew that it would end, that I would cross the Plain of Death to be reunited with the Lord and Lady.

"As my life ended, I could see Death's approach. I saw the passage open, glowing golden and glorious as the dawn. There were spirits about me of those I had known in life, waiting to embrace me when I crossed. The pain seemed to depart and a new sense of rest came over me.

"When the moment of death came, I felt my soul leaving my body. For a brief, joyous instant, I floated among the souls who had come to greet me. I was no longer of this world, but elsewhere, in a vast, open place filled with golden light and the sound of voices singing. I could see the world I'd left, receding from me like the shore from a boat, and felt the touch of my father's hand, and my mother's kiss. But as I turned to embrace them, the golden light blurred and the passageway I traveled darkened, as if from an approaching storm. The spirits who had come to greet me scattered, and something else burst onto the scene like a bolt of lightning.

"At the very moment of death, the spirits of the Qabbraya sorcery invoked by my Raheshi torturers took my soul and made it their prisoner. I fought them, but they were too powerful. And before the priests burned what was left of my body, they removed that shard of bone from it. It is called a vetandus. Here my soul resides for all eternity. Denied forever the peace of death and kept in constant torment to feed their hideous magic."

A tiny gasp escaped my lips, and I loosed my hold on the talisman, remembering the sudden wave of pain that had swept over me earlier. The vetandus hung before my eyes from its golden thread, glowing with some unholy light. I wanted to fling it away, this emblem of my beloved's imprisonment, but the same love I felt for her in life prevented me.

"But you made me invisible…" My lips could barely form the words.

"At first, I was completely enslaved by the pain," Finola continued. "Sihon, the high priest who fashioned my prison, used my magic in the most horrible, cruel ways, and often. Each time he did so, the agony returned, far worse than anything I suffered while burning.

"Gradually, however, I learned that I could resist the pain, and could even master the magic in limited ways. To use the sorcery my pain fueled was a matter of focusing will power, and I found that my will was often able to change the spell cast by Sihon. It did not seem to occur to him that I could do this. He believes that any flaws in the magic result from my weaknesses. After a while, it was not difficult to plant in his mind the idea to give me to that weak-willed fool --"

A distant shout told me Piso had discovered the fool.

"I used the magic to find you. And now we're getting out of here."

"Wait," I said. "You told me you can use this magic in limited ways. How limited?"

I did not like the way she paused. "It's fueled by pain," she said. "The amount of magic I can summon depends on how much pain I can stand. Sometimes…" She paused again, then changed the subject entirely. "Put the vetandus on. That will enable me to link magically with you, and we can draw strength from each other."

I stared at the thing, then reluctantly put it on, telling myself that at least I could be sure it wouldn't fall into the wrong hands. Light shimmered faintly around me when the talisman settled against my breastbone, and for a moment my vision blurred, then all was as before.

Except I was more keenly aware of Finola's presence, as if she had become a part of me. "Let's go," she said, her voice so loud in my head that I jumped. If she noticed that, she gave no indication. "They'll be back before we--"

"Not so fast," I interrupted. "How do we get out of here?"

"I can make you invisible. Or even change your form to fool them."


Did she breathe? I could have sworn I heard a sharp intake of her breath. "What do you mean, 'no'?"

I saw her fully, standing with her hands on her hips, jaw set, as stubborn as I remembered her, and I longed to take her in my arms. But that longing forced my next words. "I won't use the magic. Not if it causes you that kind of pain."

"'Zannah, it's our only way out! I can --"

"I said no! Damn it, Finola, I can be just as stubborn as you! I won't be a part of torturing you!"

"Not even if it means we're recaptured? 'Zannah, I can never escape from this prison of magic. I'll be trapped here forever. Don't you see? Sooner or later, Piso will die, Lord Sihon will die, Magister Nejemiya will die, Rahesh will die. I will continue in this life that is no life, my destiny governed by the whim of whoever holds that vetandus. You must understand. For you I will put up with the pain! But if you don't escape, then neither do I!" Something touched my arm, as light as a breath. "I can stand the pain. Don't deny me the chance of some freedom, love."

"Don't make me promise what I'm not sure I can give," I finally answered.

# # #

I won't use the magic, I told myself. We had made our way to the pits below the Temple. The air was foul with garbage and sewage. Occasionally the hard stone under my feet gave way to something soft that made me grateful for the darkness. As I had suspected, Piso, not having found me, had apparently dedicated the main force of searchers to the streets immediately surrounding the Temple. I was feeling my way along a damp stone wall.

"At least let me light your way, darling."

"Shut up," I answered. Wearing the talisman bound her to my will. "We'll do it my way. There must be a sewer outlet along here. I'll crawl through and we'll get out."

"I could make you invisible," she said. "Or able to pass through walls. Who knows what might be crawling around in this filth?"

My lips split in a grin. "You mean there's something down here that might be filthier than me?" Finola always hated to get her hands dirty. But she was right about one thing; it smelled like something died down here. "Anyway, what could be any worse than being fed to the demons of Thakit?"

"What's the harm --"

"So I was right. You did make for the pits." Suddenly the chamber was ablaze with torchlight. Blinking in the glare, I saw Piso emerge from a doorway, at the head of a company of soldiers. He strode boldly up to me and eyed me up and down in a way that made me feel even dirtier than I was. "I can see which of you two played the man," he said, grinning broadly at his own jest. I kept silent, my hands knotting into fists. "You look quite the part, I must say. In fact, you've given me an idea for a new amusement before we turn you over to the demons."

"You're a pig!" I snapped. Between me and the doorway stood a dozen men. Unarmed, I had no hope of breaking free, but perhaps I could make them kill me.

"And leave me to Piso?" Finola murmured in my ear. "I can take them all out, if you'll just let me."

"No!" I cried, and swung my fist at Piso as hard as I could. But I was too slow and he was able to duck, so my blow hit his shoulder rather than his face. He roared and lunged for me, but I avoided him. I could not avoid the rest of them, however, and soon they had me spread-eagled on the floor.

Piso loomed over me, his face a mask of rage. "The demons will force you to pay for a long time," he said. He reached for my tunic, then stopped short when he caught sight of the vetandus. "What is this?"

He took hold of the strand, my only link with Finola. "Now?" she whispered.

I unleashed the magic. My mind filled with Finola's screams, mingling with my own as by body grew to thrice its size, an unthinking engine of rage that flicks aside the soldiers like fleas. Their bones snapped and crunched as they struck the wall, their cries echoing off the hard stones. I leapt to my feet, rage burning through me like liquid fire.

Piso turned the color of dust in the face of my fury. He backed away, his eyes darting back and forth, inchoate sounds streaming from his throat, then stammered, "We could make a deal. I could give you privileges --"

"Deal?" I roared. "Damn you and your deals!" I shook him back and forth, while the storm winds of Finola's pain screamed within me. "Damn you for forcing me to do this!" Finola's voice joined with mine, a wordless shriek of agony. With the heel of my hand I snapped his head back, delighting in the way his eyes rolled back in his head. "There's your deal!" I howled, wishing I could make him live longer and force him to suffer as Finola and I had.

And then, as quickly as the fury rose, it was over. The last embers of Finola's pain flickered and died as the magic left me and my body returned to normal. I stared at the carnage I had caused. The soldiers lay sprawled in various positions like flotsam after a storm. From the open doorway, I could smell the night breeze, clean and pure. I was neither.

"Come on, darling, we're free now," Finola said. "Those monsters can't keep us any more."

I stared at the ventadus a moment, all I had left of my beloved, and wondered who was truly the monster.

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