Rain poured like piss down onto the streets, funneled by the sharp angles of the steep gables on the slate roofs of Canwick. The water grew foul as it washed up the leavings of horses, dogs, and men.
Whispering Jim hovered over an overflowing sewer drain, admiring a drowned rat as it rose up and out onto the street. He did, truly, admire it. The rats in this city should have learned long ago to stay out of the sewers, where they would drown by the thousands every time there was a heavy rain. Yet they persisted. There was nothing down there for them other than the fallen shit of a filthy city, but they held to the old ways.
Whispering Jim held as well. He had been a demon in the previous world, and he would be a demon in the next. Many of his kind had succumbed to redefinition, styling themselves as gods or dark presences, or simple, beast-like monsters. Some had even decided to take the side of these human creatures, abandoning their purpose entirely.
Whispering Jim knew his purpose.
He slithered through the air, leaving a faint black mist trailing behind him, penetrating the window that had been left slightly ajar in the mark’s house. There was a secret library in the house. The mark was well-moneyed, though by birth he was only tangentially aristocratic. Parents dead, childless and a bachelor, he was a lonesome individual. He hardly left his house, and when he did, it was usually to visit the graveyard in which his parents had been laid to rest.
And the library! What remote, distant and dangerous secrets it kept! The mark had no formal training in the arcane, and yet he had certainly spent a fortune to acquire some of the tomes he now possessed. An amateur was good, and a rich amateur better. Now, if he could discover that the mark was a frustrated, rich amateur, it would be the simplest thing.
Whispering Jim could not believe that he had not noticed the mark before. He had haunted the streets of Canwick for decade now, drawing the humans in, taking that small piece that he desired from each one he targeted. Yet this treasure trove had escaped his vision all along. He was shivering with excitement.
Midnight, and the mark was sitting in his favorite chair, reading from one of the priceless books. A cup of tea had grown cold and the fire had nearly burnt itself out. Whispering Jim coasted toward him, wrapping one invisible arm made of shadow around the mark’s shoulder.
“It’s not enough, is it?” he whispered. He knew that the mark could not hear him, and yet the words would get through. That was how it worked. “How many years has it been? And yet, nothing!”
As if in agreement, the mark slapped the book shut and stood. Whispering Jim cackled to himself. “Yes, let’s go for a walk. To the cemetery.”
The mark put on his coat and hat, then took his umbrella from the stand and opened the door.
Whispering Jim drifted out through the window, fluttering to a stop so that he could lean in to the mark’s ear and do his work.
“The books are useless, aren’t they? You can’t make sense of a single sentence. They must have done that on purpose! To confound you, to make mockery of you.”
The mark huffed in response, his gait accelerating.
“No one could simply produce true magic! If it were so simple, everyone would chance upon it eventually. They must have help… truly, they must have help.” For an instant, the mark almost seemed to turn his head. Whispering Jim pulled back. Had he been noticed? It was far too early for that. Still, the man kept walking, perhaps concluding it was nothing of concern.
“You could call for aid. You must. If you are to succeed in your endeavors, if those who wronged you are to know justice, you must gain mastery over these arcane arts.”
Nearly half an hour went by as the mark made his midnight march, Jim drifting beside him. They passed only whimpering stray dogs and homeless drunks huddled underneath awnings in a futile attempt to stay dry. There was no light except from the gas streetlamps that lined the boulevard and the occasional illuminated window. The stars could not be seen beyond the thick lair of leaden clouds. Finally, they came to the graveyard. It was time. Whispering Jim flew out in front of the mark and revealed himself.
“You have the look of a man who could use a friend,” said the living shadow. “I could be of some assistance in that regard,” he said, grinning.
The man harrumphed and walked past him. Whispering Jim stood perfectly still, shocked at this indifference. He then decided to continue his pursuit. “You do not trust what your eyes see, I know. But I assure you, I am truly here. And I know of your struggles. The strain it is, to untangle the deep mysteries. I am here to help, and I ask only a small price in return.”
The mark kept walking deeper into the cemetery. He plodded through mud and trampled flowers with no regard for the cleanliness of his clothes.
“You are suspicious. You have heard of such deals and you fear that you would have a certain, shall we say, buyer’s remorse? I can assure you that I have put kings on thrones and have brought prosperity to many who remain happy with their deal to this day. Do you know of King Leron, or Nisatha, the Akozona of the Arizradna? Both have had dealings with me, and their legacies speak for themselves.”
The mark just kept walking, passing into an areas where many trees were growing. Whispering Jim swirled through the air, the heavy winds tearing at his body of fog, only for them to reform when there was a lull.
“Mortal, I do not think you yet understand. I will have what I want. That part is not up for negotiation. The question is how we arrange things. You could profit from this transaction, or you could merely find yourself in no better place for all the trouble I will cause. And I can assure you, there will be a lot of trouble.”
The mark finally turned to Whispering Jim, acknowledging his presence with eye contact only. There was no cooperation in this man’s face, wreathed with wild grey hair and a massive beard.
“You mortal fool,” exclaimed Whispering Jim, finally frustrated and ready to make the hard sell. “I have dealt with high priests and kings. I am older than this entire universe! I WILL have your soul! How could you possibly think to defy me?”
“I know your name, demon!” bellowed the mark.
And that was when Whispering Jim realized he was standing inside a circle of willow saplings, each in a patch of fresh dirt that was dark with absorbed rain.
The wild-haired man pulled out a small book from his coat pocket and opened it, beginning to read. “By the circle of life, I entrap this spirit of death. By blood come from blood, and dust returned to dust, I bind thee, demon, to eternal service in my name. Whispering Jim, as you are called, I call upon your true name: Nar’shastakala’xin! Be forever bound by my command!”
With that, out of nowhere, Cold Iron shackles appeared around Whispering Jim’s wrists.
“What?” Whispering Jim looked down at the shackles, then up at the man, then back down. “What?” he cried out, close to a whimper.
“Word of advice,” said the warlock. “Con men make the easiest marks.” He smiled smugly. “Now come along, you stupid fuck. We’ve got work to do.”
(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2012)