“Put her there,” he commanded Kamau, pointing to the blanket by the shallow pit where fire burned with unnaturally white flames.
“I am Tausele,” the shaman said. Long scars carved a thin line from beneath each black eye to the corner of his wide mouth, as if his face had been scored with the tip of a knife. A snakeskin loincloth wrapped about his hips, shining slickly in the firelight. Black lacing around his left arm rippled. In the flickering firelight, what appeared to be leather strips were two serpents entwined from the shaman’s wrist to his elbow.
“Well met,” said Kamau. “I am Kamau of the Edanye as are you, I see.” The shaman’s bare chest was scarred with the tiger-claw totem of the Edanye tribe. Kamau bore such a scar as well. “My sister Anawe. Ill for two days now.”
Tausele gave Kamau a measuring gaze. The Edanye warrior met the other man’s stare. He fished a hide pouch from a pocket in his cloak. Opening the pouch, he jiggled a few pearls into his palm. “For you. What can you do for her?” He tilted the pearls back into the pouch, pulled its drawstring tight, and handed it to the shaman.
“What the gods allow, I shall do,” said Tausele.
Squatting, he inspected Anawe the way he might look over a slave in the market. Kamau watched anxiously as the shaman touched her forehead, then her chest. Spreading his long fingers, he pressed upon her, grunted, as if satisfied, and went to shuffle about in the shadows. Kamau unbent himself from crouching by Anawe’s side, rising tall. The fire captured his shadow and pasted it against the walls.
“Abadde,” he said, addressing the shaman formally. “She is too close to the fire.” He knelt and slid his arms around Anawe, gently gathered her. He need only move her so that the pale flames were not too hot on her fever-wracked body.
“Leave her be!” Tausele shook a feathered stick at Kamau. “The fire draws the elili from her.”
Kamau lowered Anawe to the blanket. He wiped her face with his fingers, smoothing moisture from her skin, hoping the elili, the evil spirit making her ill, would be forced out of her by the fire’s magical power.
Tausele came out of the shadowed corner carrying something in his hands that glowed in a color Kamau had never seen before.
“Ja’a o jua le’le!” Holding his hands over the fire, the shaman’s voice rose and fell rhythmically with the intonation of sorcerous syllables. The flames leapt, drew the glow from Tausele’s hands and subsided, burning green with the strange color trembling in its midst.
“What is that?” Kamau pointed.
“Her soul,” said Tausele, flames flickering in his eyes.
Kamau’s heart dropped and a feeling like the rush of spiders prickled his skin. Shocked at the shaman’s betrayal, he jerked his dagger from its scabbard. Before the shaman could say another word or perform another trickery, the Edanye warrior grasped a fistful of the shaman's braided hair and jerked back his head, baring his throat to the dagger’s keen edge.
“Give it back to her,” he said. “Now!”
Tausele, his head awkwardly canted in Kamau’s grip, gazed at him without fear. “The bones foretold one such as you would come.” Kamau caught the whiff of bitter marro-seed on his breath. “Do as I tell you, she lives. Disobey me,” he lifted his hands, palms open. “She dies.”
He should have sought a Karan healer as Anawe had asked him to do, but he’d heard Karan healers were even stranger than those of a tribal shaman. He’d feared what a bendau, outlander, healer might do to her. He’d thought he could trust an Edanye shaman.
Feeling like a fool, Kamau bridled his anger, released Tausele, and sheathed his dagger. He glared at the shaman, his hands fisted. How gratifying it would be to break a few of his bones. But Anawe’s soul burned at the heart of the fire.
“What do you want?”
Tausele rubbed the spot on his throat where the edge of Kamau’s blade had rested, giving the warrior a narrow-eyed stare.
“Fetch me the dzomba,” he said. “What men call the ghost stone. Her life for stone.”
“Lying fenga!” said Kamau. “Hurt her and I shall kill you.”
Tausele gave him a grim mocking smile. From a brace of hooks on the wall he took a long spear and tossed it. Kamau caught it with the quickness of a striking snake.
“The spearhead is salt,” said Tausele. “Only it can kill the demon that guards the dzomba.”
“Why do you not go yourself, shaman?”
“An abaje marks my soul,” he said. “Were I to cross, I would not be able to return.” He pointed to Anawe. “Fail me, she dies, her soul becomes mine.”
Kamau stumbled drunkenly, his belly roiled, his senses lost in the sorcerous wind. He found himself at the threshold of a doorway, an arched opening engraved with glyphs that wriggled like worms. Gray radiance shadowed the air. He shivered, his leopard-skin cloak robbed of its warmth in the penetrating cold. Against his chest he felt the icy touch of the charm on its leather cord. The shaman had used it to send him into Odaalei, the vale of damnation.
Hefting the spear, Kamau stepped into an unfathomable darkness. He was grateful to feel ground beneath his feet. A whisper of wind swirled around him. His ears strained for a sound beyond his thumping heart and the rush of his breath. He could be standing on nothing more than a finger of ground, about to step into the yawning throat of a chasm.
A glow stole through the dark, dissolving it to smoke, mist, light. Crouching, ready to fling the spear at whatever came, Kamau looked left and right, expecting to see the demon the shaman had spoken of. He heard the shimmering tintinnabulation of bells.
Before his eyes the air whirled, a gathering of mist. From it spun a girl, dancing; black as obsidian, her braided hair swinging at her waist, bangles and bells around her ankles and wrists sang silver.
“Welcome!” She bowed to him, speaking in a voice as bright as the song of her bells. “Welcome to my abode, mortal.”
Kamau regarded her, glanced beyond her, his gaze sliding along the chamber’s vaporous walls.
“You be not the demon,” he said.
“ I am Njen." She pranced a few steps and shook her tambourine. “You have come for the dzomba.”
Another lie from Tausele. He’d come prepared to fight a monster, and was faced with a dancing girl.
“How do you know that?”
“You are not the first.”
“Where lies the demon?”
“There be no demon here,” she replied. “Only I.”
“Then you must be the demon,” he said.
She laughed. “Then it must be so.” She raised her tambourine and shook it rhythmically. “Demon am I, demon am I,” she sang, dancing around the chamber, bells ringing with mockery. “The dzomba is easily found if you answer my riddle.” She lifted the tambourine, tapped it rhythmically against her palm, gazing at him. “Will you answer my riddle, mortal?”
“Shrouded in the living, caged in bone, through blood is the dzomba found. Answer truly and you will know its name,” she said.
“What manner of evil be this stone?”
“The dzomba gives power over the living and allows great command of the dead. Brings them back clothed in flesh as they were when alive. None can tell the difference.”
She clapped her hands. An hourglass appeared, floating in the air, filled not with sand, but with water. As he watched, a single drop dangled and fell, followed by another. Kamau thought of Anawe, beaded with sweat, swaddled in fevered sleep from which she might never awaken, if he failed. Yet it was unlikely the dog of a shaman would set them free once the dzomba was his.
“You must answer before the last drop falls. If you fail, you will be taken.”
“Your soul into Odaalei,” she said. She twirled away from him, and vanished, bells fretting the air.
The mists closed about Kamau, obscuring everything but the patch of ground he stood on and the water-filled hourglass. Curses sprouted and flared in Kamau’s thoughts. He could only return from this place once he had the dzomba in his hand. He avoided looking at the hourglass. He strode forward, his gaze fixed on the ground with each step. Njen’s riddle floated in his thoughts. He considered it but the words were as meaningless as the wind. Yet meaning hid within them, like scent on air. Once he found the dzomba and was back in the world, he’d wring blood from Tausele, he swore. Kamau paused, stared into the roiling mists. After a moment, he looked down and away. Unwholesome images trembled at the edge of his consciousness. If he stared too long at them, he’d start laughing or yelling or moaning. Neither was a welcome.
“Shrouded in the living, caged in bone,” he muttered. He glanced up in irritation and caught sight of the hourglass. Liquid glossed its bottom. “Through blood is the dzomba found,” he said, trying to see meaning in the words.
Carefully he turned around, and retraced his steps. Stopped. It made no difference where in this place he was. Njen had not denied his accusation, he recalled. She’d mocked him. He recalled then the other thing Tausele had told him.
In a chamber swathed in mist Njen sat still as stone, one hand on her knee that rested on the floor and her other arm up, elbow resting on her raised knee. Her eyes were closed, her bells and bangles silenced. She remembered. Her life had not been long as such time was counted. She’d been a court dancer, trained in the sensual arts practically from birth. She’d been as entrancing as the black lilibar-flower and as poisonous as its heartbud. The son of the prince had truly loved her. So much the fool was he. His weakness had made it easy for her to lure him to the ruined temple, to push him into the nest of vipers in an abandoned well. The Consort had promised her freedom and wealth if she rid her of the crown heir.
But she, whose heart knew neither loyalty nor honor, had been betrayed. Bound hands and feet in a sack of wool, she was thrown from the wall of the palace into the sea. She’d awakened in Odaalei, eternity her prison, condemned to spend endless time, guardian of the dzomba. She wished for the peace of death, but no mortal, those shamans and other seekers who disturbed Odaalei with their greedy efforts, had ever answered the riddle correctly. In her endless span of empty time, moments of seeping regret for her evil deeds assaulted her. Ancient words, an echoing cry in her darkness, roused her from her bitter memories.
“Call the demon,” Tausele had said. “Command thrice that it come.”
Kamau set the spear on his shoulder and shouted into the mists, “O’le’le ngahe!” The alien syllables tore from his throat and a knife danced in his mouth. He tasted blood and metal on his tongue. He spat. Twice more he had to call.
“O’le’le ngahe!” His throat burned as the syllables fell into the mists. Nausea coiled in his stomach. He leaned on the spear and cursed the shaman. Drawing breath he shouted the razor-edged command a final time. “O’le’le ngahe!” Kamau spat a gobbet of blood, the last syllable twisting out of him. He fell to his knees, heaving dryly, gripping the spear tightly. Bells sang around him. Getting to his feet, he steadied himself, and raised the spear.
Njen swayed out of the mists. “What is your answer?” She pointed at the hourglass. “Odaalei waits.”
Kamau saw that the bottom half was nearly full.
“Shrouded in the living, caged in bone,” he said. “You are indeed the demon. The dzomba is your heart.”
He glanced at the hourglass and saw with relief that no more drops fell. He looked at Njen, expecting her to transform into a gruesome thing. But she did not.
“You have saved yourself from Odaalei.” She gently shook her bells.
Kamau held the raised spear, felt the weight of it in his hand. Reluctance stayed his arm. Compelled by rough circumstance, he’d sliced the life out of men, but to strike down this dancing girl, who appeared to be no more than sixteen summers old, no older than his youngest cousin. Yet she was a damned soul and if he had failed to answer the riddle, no doubt she would have torn his heart from his chest.
“My sister dies if I return without the stone.” He raised the spear again.
“You have answered the riddle truly,” she said, gazing at him without fear.
But still Kamau hesitated, caught by her calm wait for true death. She sat down, cross-legged, in a jingling rain of bells, and patted the open ground in front of her, regarding him solemnly.
“Sit, O Mighty One with the Spear,” she said.
Kamau sat and laid the spear across his thighs.
“Tell me of the one who sent you here.”
He told her about his sister’s illness, about his seeking the shaman Tausele’s help to heal her, about the shaman’s betrayal.
“That one!” said Njen, her laughter high and ringing. “The mists whisper of that one. He is marked, did you say?” At Kamau’s nod, she said, “Long has his soul been forfeit.” The bells at her wrists jangled. “If you would have the dzomba, you must kill me. Then you shall know its true name.”
Kamau stood, leveled the spear at her. On the field of battle, he’d killed; in defense of his life, he’d killed, in defense of someone else’s life, he’d killed. Here he faced a creature of darkness and could not find it in himself to send her into eternal death. His hesitation mingled with his disgust at having to do the wicked shaman’s bidding.
“I long to pass to my next life, should the gods will it, or rest forever.” Njen rose to her knees, a breath away from the sharp tip of the salt crystal. “I would throw myself upon the spear, but I cannot. Were I to do so, I would become a wraith in a far worse place than this. Spare me that, warrior. Free me from this damnation.” She spread her arms, her bells jangled. “Please.”
“If you would have it so,” he said, still hesitating. Then added, “You will be free of Odaalei. No longer damned.”
“Everything I have ever known has long been dust,” she replied.
Kamau thrust his spear into her chest, stepping back as green flames sprang over her. She spoke the name of the dzomba as she burned, her body swirling into ash. Where she’d knelt lay a glistening black stone. Kamau closed his fist about it.
As before, great prickly wings of wind wrapped about him, tore his senses from him, casting him into a black void like that of dreamless sleep. He dropped stumbling into the world he knew, back in the fire-bright cave. He gripped the dzomba tight in his fist, its weighty cold freezing his hand. If the shaman thought Kamau would simply hand it over, he’d soon know better.
“Oai’ ga’hla‘ai’ le’le!” shouted Tausele.
Kamau’s limbs became as stone. One of the serpents freed itself from Tausele's arm and streaked toward him, piercing his chest, its tiny head hard as an arrow. His heart thumped sluggishly, the serpent coiling about it, trailing ice. Anawe lay as he’d left her, locked in the fever’s death-like grip, her soul caged in Tausele’s green fire. Kamau strained against the binding chant, but his effort was futile.
Tausele’s hands inscribed the air with shimmering glyphs. More sorcerous words slithered out of his throat. Kamau felt the dzomba gripped in his fist burn with an icy heat. His thought of holding it back to win Anawe’s freedom was no more than dust now. Though his body was frozen in Tausele’s spell, his hand opened like a flower. Tausele snatched the falling stone.
“Soon all the world will know my name, all will come to know Tausele, Death’s Master.” The shaman smacked his lips. “Even Death will fear me.” He went to the fire, holding the dzomba on his palm. “The fire will reveal its name to me, thus its power will be mine.”
He dropped the dzomba into the flames, knelt and leaned closed, his face limned by firelight. He frowned, drew back, leaned once more toward the fire, peering at the black stone in the flames. He spoke a word, reached and snatched it out. He studied it, turning it over and over in his hand, and lifted his gaze to Kamau.
“Is this not the dzomba?” He got to his feet. With a sharp gesture at Kamau, he said, “Speak!”
Kamau felt his throat soften, the meaning of Njen’s final words coming clear to him. Without hesitation, he intoned the true name of the dzomba in the way Njen had spoken it. Blood welled in his mouth. He spat it out, not minding this time.
Light, black-rimmed and as keen-edged as a sword, lanced from the dzomba, slicing the air with serpentine lines. A rushing wind whirled through the shaman’s cave, the cold gray mists of Odaalei wrapped about Tausele like pythons. He cried out, his terrified shout dying on the edge of the vanishing void. The cold petrifying Kamau melted from him and his limbs lost their heaviness. He felt something leathery crowding the back of his throat and heaved, hawking out Tausele's serpent, dead. Disgust and repulsion shivered through him. The glaucous flames burning near Anawe flickered out, and the white glow at their heart disappeared.
“No!” Kamau searched the ground for the black dzomba. It too was gone, and…he could not remember its name.
He knelt by Anawe, who lay as if dead. He cursed Tausele, hoping the shaman fell into Odaalei’s deepest, darkest, most demon-infested abyss. Grasping Anawe by her shoulders, he shook her as gently as he could, willing her eyes to open.
“Wake, Anawe. Wake!”
But she did not awaken. Kamau sat back on his heels, not believing, grief rising in his heart. The light of dawn touched the moss-mottled walls of the shaman’s cave, and he heard the strident bird-calls of bharies, winging in the day. The glazed blue bead of Anawe’s necklace, nestled in the hollow of her throat, trembled, and she opened her eyes. She pushed up on her elbows, her gaze flitted around the shaman’s cave and arrowed suspiciously back to him.
“Next time I shall do as you say,” he promised.
Kamau grinned, and inhaled deeply the pure green scent of the morning’s first breath.
©February, 2017 Debra Y0oung
Debra Young has published an anthology of dark fantasy, Grave Shadows. Her work has also been seen in The Horror Zine and Dark Fire Fiction. This is her first appearance in Swords & Sorcery.