To Free a Ghost: A Tale of Zodom
by Stuart North
Part 1 appears
in this issue.
“Tea for two?”
“Because you look as if you’re expecting someone.” The slave girl motioned to the empty chair across from me. The sound of her bracelets made me wince.
“No, just the one cup please.”
She frowned and skipped away.
The Talit Teahouse was nearly empty at this time of night but, after that dreadful silence in the temple grounds, it sounded like midday in the Katlash Bazaar. Batalan slave girls skipped about, trays of tea held aloft on dainty arms.
The tea house had three floors, or rather a floor and two interior balcony levels; just a little above me a stained-glass lantern turned gently on its chains, sweeping languorous hues through the dusky gloom.
I’d not given serious thought to failure. There hadn’t been time. Of course I’d known it was a strong possibility, but that flicker of hope... I’d let it burn too brightly.
So now that it had all come crashing down, what now? Go back to my shop and the thing that had been my Hollea and just resume my life? What life?
For twenty years I’d repressed everything that was me, tried to live a normal life, earn an honest wage so that I might one day pay back the debt on my wife’s soul and revenge myself on that vile bastard Ushma whose house I’d had the misfortune to invite open for plunder.
But my reputation as Shaliol Quickfingers was greater than my reputation as Shaliol: Locks and Repairs, though I was as good at making locks as I had been at breaking them. My old acquaintances refused to believe I’d gone straight. They came often, tempting me. I refused every time, even when they threatened me with violence. As the years passed, the visitors dropped, then stopped coming entirely.
And thus Shaliol lived his empty life and tried to be happy to the end of his days. That was my story, and now I knew that it would have no other ending.
“Your tea, sir,” the slave girl said.
I sipped in silence. Around me the other old men did the same, or smoked their pipes or played their dice games. Outside, the mists had started to form.
I was getting up to pay when I felt something clammy grab my wrist.
“Shaliol,” a voice hissed, “It’s me, Berevind.”
“Berevind, the one who came to you about the d... deal. Remember me?”
I looked at the skinny figure standing beside me with incomprehension. He still had one hand on my wrist and he was shivering violently.
“I’m sorry but I don’t—”
“You... sent us to rescue... your wife...” He placed a clay jar in front of me.
* * *
They were all about me then, the three shivering ghosts. Their withdrawal seemed to have lent them some form and, for the first time, I saw them as people, not abstractions. I saw also that they were young: little more than children, though old in the face as all sleen addicts are. They plucked at my sleeves and looked at me imploringly.
Berevind spoke again. “We... helped you. Now... you help us.”
“Wait,” I said. “Wasn’t there another one of you?”
“Yes but he... died...”
“No time... please... come on....”
I shook myself free. “Not until you tell me what happened.”
“One of the wardens... He spotted us... alerted guards... killed Axelis... We fled...”
“Shem! Where are they now?”
“Followed us... coming here...”
I leapt up. “We have to leave!”
It was a foolish outburst, and the three boys said nothing. They merely nodded and continued to pluck at my clothes. I fished in my pocket and palmed down a copper marduk, then hurried out with them into the street.
“Are they close behind?” I panted.
“Close enough... come on...”
“Where are we going?”
“To the jails... to free Oldom.”
“We cannot, not now. It’s too dangerous.”
There was a pause. When he spoke again the voice was faint, so faint. But the words were unmistakable: “You promised...”
And he was right, I had promised. What sort of man would I be now I if I went back on my word? They had asked for my help, I had asked for theirs, and now a boy had died.
I felt beneath my coat to see that the jar was still safe. Then, with a sadness I could not conceal, I said, “Let’s go.”
* * *
We heard them before we were halfway to the jailhouse, the drumming of footsteps on wood as they crossed the bridge on Canal Road and Barking Lane. That meant that they were no more than about two hundred bounds behind.
The night was dark, and we’d kept to the back streets, yet still they came, unerring as bloodhounds. How could they follow us?
Then it hit me. They were following the trail of the soul jar. It must be like a beacon to them. If I threw it away I could save us all... No. I couldn’t.
I clutched my wife tighter and put on a burst of speed. The road wound uphill, and my old legs burned with the strain. My heart kicked in my throat, my lungs were afire. A cold, white light filled my eyes and ears and I felt a deep nausea building in the back of my mouth. I knew I’d be in no state to work another lock, even if I had another five minutes’ head start, and they were right behind us.
The lights of the jailhouse flared up ahead. We were nearly there when my left knee gave way and pitched me to the earth.
I felt the jar fly from my grasp. Instinctively I grabbed for it, but it was beyond me, first bouncing then rolling toward a guard who looked at it quizzically from the lighted gate of the Fort Street prison house.
I cried out, and nothing but a wheeze escaped my lips.
Then I felt myself rolled to the side of the road, and my leg screamed white-hot pain.
I must have blacked out a moment. The next thing I knew all was chaos. Cries, shouts and the sounds of steel on steel filled the air. I looked up and saw an amazing sight: not ten feet away the guards of the prison house were struggling desperately with what looked like a half-dozen life-size dummies. As I watched I saw a man fall, clutching his guts, saw another drop like a stone, his face a gray mask.
From somewhere down the slope sounded frantic voices.
I remembered the soul jar. It was that which had been lost when I fell, and it had saved my life.
The ‘dummies’, the soulless, mindless ex-criminals who guarded the Gigimintu and who had followed us to the very gates of the prison, had been given a simple order which they were now obeying: retrieve the jar and kill the ones who had stolen it.
Only the ones who had stolen it no longer had it. And the ones who could tell them that fact were still to arrive on the scene.
I felt another ghostly tug. “Come on,” Berevind said. “While they’re occupied.”
The ghosts got me to my feet and helped me forward. The darkness had hidden us from view but, as we approached the gatehouse, we came into the light.
I looked back and saw two more figures join the fray, frantically waving men dressed in outlandish pointed hats and billowing green robes, a pair of green and red goggles on their eyes. Their shrill, breathless voices sounded above the din. We hurried on.
The entrance hall was empty. A taper still burned on a desk where someone had been eating lentils not a moment before. We hurried down a corridor, I limping quite badly by this point, and when we came to the cells I could barely stand.
“This one!” Berevind said. “Quickly! Quickly!”
I heard a grunting from behind the bars, saw something huge and rounded move in the darkness. I ignored it and the pain in my leg and set to work on the lock.
What irony strikes us at times like these! The lock was one of mine. I had it apart in seconds.
The door flew open with a crash, and the man-mountain that was Oldom lumbered out into freedom, stinking of booze and raw essence of sleen.
“Oldom! Oldom! You’re free!” the three boys chanted, mice in the presence of a bear.
He nodded and growled, “Get you fixed up in a jiffy, boys. After I get back to my babies.”
Then he was barrelling down the corridor roaring with joy and in his wake the three boys followed, skipping and dancing and subliming like the ghosts they would soon become again. And once more I was alone.
* * *
The place was empty when I came into the courtyard. There was no sign of fighting, but as I passed through the gatehouse I saw several bodies strewn about the street outside. From their attitudes of death I could not tell which had lived and which had once lived. And I could see no sign of the jar.
One of the dead men groaned.
I drew back against the wall of the gatehouse, and stared at him.
The man groaned again, and started to his feet. “Damn that Oldom. I’ll spill his fat guts the next time I see him.”
He clutched his head, and I saw that an enormous welt was spreading beneath his eye. He waded through the dead bodies as if they weren’t there. His eyes kept refocusing on something beyond the visible world. Then he caught sight of me. “Eh? Whadda you want?”
“I... I’m looking for something that I lost... Captain Anur.”
“Is this i6?” he slurred, and held up a small clay jar. “Found it stuck under my arse when I woke up a minute ago. What the hell happened here anyway?”
“Yes,” I said, barely able to contain myself. “That’s it.”
His eyes narrowed. “How much you gonna give me?”
“I said how much are you going to give me?”
“Please, Captain Anur, I don’t...”
“Ha! I was kidding you, old timer. By Nergal, you look like you’ve seen a ghost. Here.” He tossed me the jar and grinned as I caught it and fumblingly stuffed it back into my coat. Then he winced and held his jaw. “Damn that big lug...” His eyes grew distant again then he turned to me and a look of anger crossed his face. “You still here, old man? Beat it.”
I limped away as fast as my leg could handle. Behind me I heard Anur muttering, “Gotta get all this junk swept up... Who left this here?...”
* * *
It was dawn when I entered my home for the last time. Hollea still sat in the kitchen. I wondered if she’d moved at all in my absence. Her knees were dirty, as if she’d been kneeling on the floor.
I took out the jar, twisted it open, and set it on the table in front of her.
I sat there and waited. I had made up my mind to wait for all time if necessary. I would join my wife and never move again.
I felt time grow fluid, melt into nothingness.
The jar remained a jar. It had always been a jar. It had never been anything else. There had never been any such thing as a soul jar, or a soul prison, or a man called Shaliol who had once had a wife and had once known happiness. There had been only the dark, only the inanimate matter that is this all we will ever know of this life. The glow emerging from its top was only my imagination, only my desperate hope. Why then was it growing stronger? Why was it filling the room?
Why could I not resist giving in to hope?
From the top of the jar, a blinding tendril emerged. It moved from left to right, questing, unsure, then suddenly branching, growing, an incandescence searing itself into my eyes, my very being.
I cried out with joy. This was my Hollea! This living thing of brilliant blue light and fibrous tendrils and joy and fear and wonder was indisputably my wife in a way that the unheeding body sitting in the chair was not.
Unheeding? No, it was looking up, and in its eyes was something like longing. It raised up its hands and like a mantrap in the jungles of Punt the tendrils shot toward them. Hollea gasped, there was a blinding white flash, then darkness.
* * *
“Shaliol, Shaliol, is it you?”
“Yes, Hollea, it is I.”
“Shaliol, I’ve had the strangest of dreams.”
“That doesn’t matter Hollea. We’re together again.”
“It feels like such a long time has passed.”
“An eternity.” I held her as tightly as I could and the tears streamed down my face. Outside, the city was coming alive with the rising of the sun. But it was a city I no longer wanted to wake up to.
“My dear,” I said, drawing back and wiping away the tears. “We must go.”
“Go?” she said. “Go where?”
“Away from here. Gather your things. This city is no longer a place for you and me.” I got to my feet, wincing again with the pain in my knee.
“Dearest,” she said, “what happened to your leg?”
“Later, please, Hollea. We don’t have much time.”
“Then we must hurry.”
There wasn’t much for either of us to pack. When we were done I set everything down on the kitchen table and counted out our savings.
“Two hundred and eighty three marduks,” I said with dismay. “I thought I’d saved more than that.”
“It’ll do, won’t it? We can make do.”
“For a while, maybe, but I’d hoped for so much more for you.”
“So long as we are together that is all that matters...”
A strange look passed across her face.
“Wait! I remember now.”
“The dream, only it wasn’t a dream, I think.”
Slowly she knelt by a corner of the room and began burrowing like a rabbit, her knees scuffing the dirt.
“Hollea,” I said, feeling a cold horror rising in my gut. “Hollea, my darling, what are you doing?”
She said nothing. The burrowing continued. I heard the sound of a brick grinding free of its fellows.
“Wait... yes, here it is!”
She stood up, smiling. Something gleamed in her hand: a solid gold chain. I gaped.
“Where... where did you get that?”
“I don’t know. But you still haven’t heard my dream, and I think it might clear the fog a little.”
“Then tell it to me.”
“It was just like the old days, only you weren’t there and everything was so dark. I was wandering through forbidden places, room after room of them. And the doors dissolved before me like smoke. And sometimes the rooms were dark and dusty, and sometimes they were filled with riches just like this chain, and all these other things”
I knelt where she knelt. Stuffed in a cubicle of my own house that I had never known existed was a fortune of gold and gemstones.
“It was you,” I said. “You were the one behind the robberies.”
“Robberies? Is that what they were?”
I drew out a medallion. On one side was a star with five points, on the other the stern face of Ushma.
“It was you!”
“Please Shaliol, it was all so strange, I never knew—”
“Oh to hell with them!” I burst out. “To hell with them! We’re rich! We’ll never have to work again. We’ll never have to scrimp and save, never have to toil like beasts under the yoke, never have to crawl in the shadows and the dirt like worms of the earth. To hell with them all! We’ll be able to do all the things we’ve ever dreamed of doing...”
She listened to me rave, listened as I spewed out all my venom, all my anger and frustration that had boiled and condensed and hardened within me, and a smile began to spread across her beautiful face.
Then she laughed, and I stopped dead, confused and embarrassed. Then I laughed with her, and we collapsed once more in each other’s arms, two wrinkled old gray hairs gasping and guffawing like young lovers without a care in the world.
At length I drew back, exhausted, and wiped my eyes. “Tell me,” I asked, “how did you do it? Break the locks, I mean.”
She shrugged and looked again like a lost child. But there was a twinkle in her eye, the familiar twinkle that I had loved and cherished all these years. “It just seemed so easy. I didn’t even have to think about it.”
And why should she? After all, she had learned how to do it from the best teacher there was, a teacher so engrossed in his work that he had never before known she was his student.
For where had my beloved wife been during all those perilous exploits of my long ago past? Beside me, of course.
Copyright © 2016 by Stuart North