Demon Child Ch. 18byXantu©
Chapter 18: A weapon wielded, secrets revealed.
Demon Child story about an alien girl, a child conceived in violence, a child of a demon cast adrift among a warrior society. In this chapter Aylanna is called to serve the Aga Khan and uses her magic to loosen the grip of the evil wizard has upon the dying man's mind.
Aylanna's hands felt slippery with clammy sweat as she gripped the window sill of her room. The world whirled and spun around her and her stomach churned ominously. She closed her eyes to block out the pool of vomit that she had so recently spewed out the open window. For once the endless rain was a blessing. Its cool touch rinsed the tears from her face, clearing her head and washing away the evidence of her recent sickness.
It was the price she had to pay for indulging in the intoxicating sense of freedom that accompanied leaving her body. She knew the dizziness and nausea were not the greatest risk. The primary danger was straying too far and never returning. Without her spirit to feed its flame, the spark of life within her body would flicker, fade and eventually die.
But the alternative was worse. To remain trapped in this maze of narrow corridors and square rooms would inevitably extinguish the light of her spirit. So each night she slipped free from the chains of her mortal form and wandered. She craved the wind and the freedom of the sky but the rainclouds were an endless haze of grey and the risk of losing her way was too great, so she explored the labyrinth of the Aga Khan's court.
She had learned much from her journeys. While the stone walls remained thick and unassailable, she could move with the speed of thought and pass through the cracks of the window shutters or wooden doors as easily as a puff of air. She watched the four women, the wives of the Aga Khan as they went about endless routine of their confinement. While she could see them all clearly, she could not discern the words that passed between them. When they spoke, she could see their lips move but there was no sound. In fact the only sound she could hear in the spirit form was the endless whisper of other spirits. More than once she found herself whirling about as a whispered word or the strange sensation of movement, just beyond her ability to perceive, sent a pang of warning through her.
She was very aware she existed between worlds. Neither alive nor dead, she traveled between the world of the living and the mystery that lay beyond.
Following in the footsteps of the patrolling guards she learned her way through the complex. Most of it stood empty. Entire wings saw only the infrequent passage of guards and the accumulation of dust and cobwebs.
Tonight she had pushed further, stayed away longer; but returning was becoming increasingly difficult. Each day that passed did nothing to ease Aylanna's loathing of the confined and rigid routines of the courtesan's quarters. To be confined endlessly indoors after a lifetime under the open sky was misery. She could feel the very walls and strangely angled corners of the rooms pressing in upon her.
She found the interminable repetition of history, protocol and etiquette lessons dull and meaningless. She was in despair over music, her voice refused to find the notes, wavering and breaking, her fellow singers wincing and making pained faces. Her fingers fumbled at the strings and holes of the instruments, her ears not able to discern one note from another.
Finally Mallinika officially declared her hopeless and relegated her to sitting with a small drum, tapping out the simple rhythms of the songs.
She avoided talking or playing games with the other courtesans, they were too competitive, and would frequently lie or cheat. It made her feel somehow soiled to feign ignorance of their deceitfulness.
The only art that she showed any ability in was dance, but even there she found the postures and movements were strictly choreographed with small chance for any freedom of expression.
If it had not been for Mallinika's eventual consent to teach her to read, Aylanna felt like she would have gone mad.
Aylanna had been sitting in the common room as far as possible from the small bevy of other courtesans as they gossiped and gambled. She had once again pulled out the scroll of the story about Pan'Shash'Sha'Am and Jha'Mak'Tah and was laboriously tracing the rows of strange marks with a finger tip, her lips moving as she recited the memorized words of the creation myth.
Mallinika had caught her there and had stood with her hands on her hips, staring down in irritation. It was not the first time she had found Aylanna looking at the scrolls she used in her lessons.
"Why do you persist in this foolishness? A courtesan has as much need for the skill of reading as does a horse or a songbird."
Aylanna did not look up from the scroll, "You can read."
The old woman's irritation sharpened her voice, her tone acid, "My title of courtesan is one of convenience. As my beauty faded, I was no longer was asked to entertain. I was assigned more and more of the teaching and managerial duties. It was decided that it would be useful to teach me to read and write."
"If you are so unfortunate as to outlive your charms, then come and speak to me of learning to read." Mallinika's voice turned thoughtful, suddenly aware of her mortality, "Though I doubt I will still walk among the living."
Still refusing to look up from the scroll in her lap, Aylanna's voice was stubborn, "No one requests my company."
Mallinika raised a brow, "You are woefully mistaken, girl. After your performance before the court, I have had nothing but inquiries as to the progress of your training, requests to for the chance to spend time with the exotic creature and to taste the fruits of her passion."
For the first time Aylanna looked up, her expression puzzled, "I don't understand."
"Not only were you bold and outspoken, it was obvious you caught the attention of the Aga Khan and are a potential pathway to his ear. And it was clear you were one with the goddess. It is far more common to see tears and terror as a girl is first claimed. It is a lucky omen when a servant of the goddess blesses a warrior's offering. But do not let this information go to your head, it is not customary for a novice to be assigned duties before she is fully trained. I will not have an ignorant girl making errors, blunders that will reflect poorly upon the house she serves."
Aylanna had shrugged; she had little real interest in learning to be a courtesan. The only attraction to being sent out to lay with some man who was curious about her freakish demon appearance was the opportunity to go out, go somewhere, anywhere. She had looked back down at the scroll, frowning with intense concentration, as if she stared hard enough, the confusion of lines and dots would give up their secrets.
Mallinika reached down to pull the scroll from her hands, her voice strangely gentle, "Aylanna, you cannot learn to read like that."
Her fingers tightened stubbornly, "I can to." She pointed a distinctive series of symbols, "That is Pan'Shash'Sha'Am," and indicating another familiar grouping, "and that is Jha'Mak'Tah. And see there it is again, and there and there." Her finger pointing out the names each place they were written down. Then she went to beginning and began to recite the lesson from the beginning, her fingertip moving from one word to the next. Then she screwed up her brow in confusion, pointing at the scroll, "But I don't know these words, they do not fit in the story. Do you read those?"
Mallinika was staring at her in surprise and then she smiled, "No, you are correct. I do not read those words. They say, 'So it was told. So it is written.' It is a common phrase in the stories handed down through the generations by oral tradition and then transcribed. You will see it repeated at the end of each passage."
Aylanna nodded, her expression absorbed with the lesson. She repeated the words, "So it was told. So it is written." Her finger carefully counted out the words on the scroll and then found them again and then once more. Then she looked up, her voice determined, "See, I can read."
Mallinika's expression turned from surprise to amusement. For the first time this strange new woman had found something that she seemed to care about. She lifted her hands in surrender, "If you must, you may ask now and again for assistance if you find a word or phrase that you cannot decipher. Perhaps this will motivate you to pay more attention during your lessons." At Aylanna's eager smile, she held up a cautioning hand, "But do not let this strange obsession of yours interfere with your other studies."
After that, not a day passed, that did not find Aylanna pursuing Mallinika with a scroll in her hand and endless curious questions on her lips. The old teacher was amazed at how quickly Aylanna grasped the concepts and was soon reading nearly every scroll in the women's quarters. To keep the girl's active mind occupied, Mallinika put her to work with a quill and ink learning to write the letters and words over and over, and assigning her tasks of transcribing some of the more tattered scrolls once she was proficient.
The only thing that Mallinika regretted about allowing Aylanna to learn to read was that it seemed to only emphasize her isolation from the other courtesans. She rarely sat or spoke with any of them, ignoring their attempts to bait her about her appearance or her odd ways. She tolerated Balla as the talkative girl followed her about, prattling about the various little dramas that were played out among the courtesans and wives or rumors of the health of the Aga Khan. She would nod from time to time, hardly looking up from the reading she held in her hand.
Aylanna was in her room, sitting at the table, lit up with the glow of a half dozen small oil lamps borrowed from other rooms. Her fingers were stained with ink and her brow was creased in concentration as she meticulously reproduced each word on the clean white velum of a new scroll. A small black smear stood out on the pale skin of her forehead where she had pushed back the scarlet curls that repeatedly fell into her eyes.
Mallinika was clearly upset as she swept into the room. "Put that away. And wash your face, girl." She walked up to the cabinet and pulled out Aylanna's finest dress, pressing the golden fabric into her hands. Her spirit was a confusing mix of fear and rage, "I don't know what this court is coming to. Summoning an untrained novice to attend the Aga Khan... and with no warning... Hurry up, girl, we have no time to bathe or even properly braid your hair." The old teacher stopped and stared hard at Aylanna who was looking at her in confusion, "Did you hear me, girl? You are summoned to attend the Aga Khan at once. We have no time!"
Aylanna found herself blinking and moving in what felt like slow motion as Mallinika roughly pulled her shift off over her head and just as quickly slipped the golden dress down over her form. Mallinika scrubbed at the stain on her face with a rag and spit from her own mouth. Her hair was briskly combed and the older woman sighed in frustration as the tendrils resisted all attempts to smooth them down into any kind of order.
As they trotted through the endless halls, her voice was breathless, "I have said this a thousand times, but I despair that you will ever take my words to heart. Think before you speak, your words will fall on more ears than just the Khan's. Be alert. Be cautious. You hold your life in your hands. I have come to hold some affection for you, girl. I would be saddened if you do not return to us." And then she was gone.
The guard opened a door and pushed Aylanna through, closing the door behind her with an ominous thump. For an instant she was disoriented, the room was not large and dimly lit with only a few small oil lamps. There was a low platform hung about with sumptuous curtains and in the shadows she sensed the presence of more guards. The draperies stirred, a skeletal thin arm groped and pushed them aside and she glimpsed the face of the Aga Khan peering out at her. Instantly she threw herself down, assuming the posture of prostration that had been drilled into her first by Jhardron and lately by Mallinika.
His voice was rasping and impatient, "Get up off the floor. I have no time for meaningless groveling. Come here. Let me look upon your face."
Instinctively she did not stand, choosing to crawl to his bedside, and fearfully looking up at him. He lay propped up on a mound of pillows, covered in a scarlet coverlet. His legs moved restlessly under the blankets like they were not completely under his control and were trying to escape. But his eyes were alert, watchful. His voice was a hoarse whisper, "I remember you. I remember your promise." His breath was foul, like something within him was decaying.
Aylanna was reminded of the smell of rotting corpses. When he licked his cracked and dry lips, his tongue appeared covered with a yellow coating. Aylanna noticed that several dishes of unfamiliar food sat cold and untouched on a table nearby.
His hand was trembling with a strange palsy as he reached to touch her strange hair and without thought, she reached to take it in hers. "My Khan, you are ill."
His chuckle was dry and ghastly; again like bones rattling, "I am not ill. I am dying."
His hand felt hot and dry and she turned it over, gently stroking the taut skin over swollen knuckles. It was the hand of an old man. His nails were strangely ridged and pitted and once again yellowish. She peered into his eyes, seeing the yellow there as well. Her heart sank, all the signs were there. For some reason she felt a welling of sadness and she blinked back the tears that threatened to spill over her lashes. Pressing her cheek against the back of his hand, she hid her face from him but her voice trembled, "What is it my Khan would ask of me?"
There was still some strength in his body, she could sense it in the way he lifted her face. "Let me look upon you. Tell me stories that take me away from this sepulcher and the vultures that circle to pick my bones once I am gone." His eyes lifted looking past her into the shadows of the room, "I know you are there. I know you are watching. I am not dead yet." There was a hint of hysteria in his voice, his eyes lighting up with rage and madness. "I am not dead yet!" He pulled himself up to sit erect, his hand pointing accusingly out into the darkness. Aylanna could not help but turn and look to see who or what was the focus of his attention, but she could see nothing. She could sense the guards there and their eternal watchfulness, but they did not react to his words.
Wanting nothing more than to calm his spirit, to conserve his waning energy; Aylanna spoke quickly, her voice calm, soothing, "I have a story for you, my Khan, the tale of a demon that stalked the northern plains. Lie back, let me make you comfortable." Crawling up onto the bed, she urged him to lie back down, and arranged the pillows and coverlet. Keeping her voice soft and musical, she began the story she had told so many times, "This is a true story, a story about a demon that stood taller than the tallest warrior, a demon with hair like fire and eyes like smoke. He carried a shining steel blade, a sword as tall as a man, and when he swung it above his head, it was a whirlwind of destruction. How he came to wander alone upon the endless windswept plains of the northern grasslands is a mystery, but he was there. He was there and he stole a woman of the Grass Walker Tribe..."
She held his hand as she spoke, looking into his face, and smiled as she watched him fall under the spell of the tale she was telling. She could sense his illness, a sickening pestilence that left no part of his body free from suffering. Aylanna was intensely aware of his pain, a deep constant ache of both body and spirit that once again brought tears to her eyes and made her voice hesitate and crack. Yet beneath the pain was resolve, a strength that refused to surrender and she reached for it, embracing it with her own. "Her name was Sa'amdi, a grasslands girl barely in the first year of her marriage." Again the story took hold and carried them away from the darkened room, traveling together to another place and time. Gradually, she could feel his body relax, the restless movement of his legs slowing, the lines of pain around his mouth and eyes easing.
Slowly his eyes drooped and closed and when she could sense his spirit slipping into sleep, she stopped speaking. Yet when she tried to free her hand from his, he stirred and mumbled a soft protest. Aylanna froze, leaving her hand in his. She sat curled up on her hip, watching him as he slept. He lay there motionless; the only sign of life the rhythmic rasp of his breath from his open mouth.
Tentatively, she let her spirit slip deeper, seeking the source of his affliction. She could sense a sluggish pulse of life, but it was besieged with corruption. Try as she might she could not discern the source of the toxin. The deeper she sought the more tangled, the more pervasive the blight. Part of her wondered how he survived and marveled at the substance of a man who could persevere in the face of such an assault to his body and mind. But, ultimately it was a horror beyond her ability to endure and she found herself recoiling, both physically and spiritually. It took all her courage to maintain her constant grasp of his hand.
Aylanna had little sense of the passage of time. The room remained consistently dark. If the guards moved or changed she had no awareness of it. She flinched in surprise when a figure materialized out of the darkness and silently removed the dishes of uneaten food and replaced them with others. For an instant, their eyes met and the servant instantly looked away, but Aylanna sensed a soft surge of surprise and curiosity, but then he was gone.
He awoke suddenly, wracked by a savage fit of coughing. Aylanna found herself supporting him, holding a corner of his coverlet to his lips. Each paroxysm triggered stabbing agony through his chest and Aylanna shared every moment of his suffering with him. Finally he collapsed back, his body limp and broken. Softly he whispered, "Water," and she cast about wildly with her eyes. Next to the untouched food was a tall ewer and she hurried to it, but rather than water, it held some concoction of juice and unfamiliar herbs. Suddenly suspicious she sniffed, touched a fingertip to it and brought some to her lips for a careful taste. It was cloying, heavily sweet and strongly flavored.
Frustrated, she called out to the darkness, "He asks for water. Bring us water."
Almost instantly the same servant that had approached before, appeared and spoke up in a subservient voice, "This beverage is the only one approved by his physicians. It contains magical herbs to neutralize..." He hesitated and glanced around nervously, finally whispering the forbidden word, "...poison."
Aylanna narrowed her eyes and stared hard at the nervous man. Her voice was an angry hiss, "I care not for physicians, magic or poisons, he asks for water. Bring us water." Then she added thoughtfully, "Water is a warrior's drink." She looked at the tray of untouched delicacies and on impulse shoved it over, the bowls and serving dishes falling to the floor in a jarring clatter. "This, this is no meal for a warrior. Bring us food fit for a warrior, cold water, steamed grains, simple meat cooked over a fire with only smoke for flavor."
The servant stood aghast for a moment staring at the mess and the strange looking woman that had apparently gone mad right before his eyes. He sent a panicked look around the room, as if he was seeking some avenue of escape. Finally his eyes returned to her, "But..."