Jim felt more comfortable at night. Admittedly, it was a human construct, dividing the day, as the old song went. After all, the tiny pinpricks above were really no different than the large orb that flew overhead during the day – in fact, in this world, the sun was actually far smaller than any other star, and it did truly revolve around the planet, when in the previous world the sun that gave the humans daylight had been a fairly ordinary star, and the human planet a fairly standard ball of rock – but those pinpricks were far away and dim, and the land was dark, and thus a demon’s time was night. Humans feared the night because when they first evolved, the animals that threatened them hunted in the dark. Darkness became synonymous with fear and death, and thus evil, and thus demons. And thus, Jim.
Retrein was rarely free of rain. Even in the middle of summer, precipitation and leaden skies were common, and during the winter, a clear day was the rarity. The entire country was constantly soaked. The Retrons had adapted their culture to the weather. All the major cities in Retrein were built on hills for drainage, and their architecture was all steeply sloped roofs and channels to keep the rain from eroding the foundations. The old, wooden buildings projected a scent of mould as one passed their doors.
Even in the richest neighborhoods where the aristocracy had their city homes, the scent of rot could not be totally hidden. It was as if the land itself wished to remind the world that this was the nation of thieves.
And Jim loved it. When he had first arrived in this world, he had spent some time tormenting the djinn and the Arizradna. He had passed a few centuries bloodying the darker alleys of Damana, back when he was known as Quiet Jabr, but when he traveled across the Tempestine Ocean and found himself on this rain-swept island off the northern coast of Ganlea, he knew he was home. He had watched the Narcians invade and set up their colony, and he had seen that colony grow into a nation called Retrein around him.
He had not felt this free since Airbright had enthralled him. He drifted through the air, the chilly wind (because even without rain, there was always a chilly wind) rippling through his smoky form. Yet even as he did so, he could feel the dead weight of the cold iron shackles pulling his arms downward.
He wore his slavery. He could not ever be allowed to forget it. Jim had never personally encountered Richard’s ancestor Paul, but for all the modern Airbright’s pretenses, the family had not lost its callous cruelty. Paul Airbright had been infamous for torturing his victims so that they would come back as willing slaves after he murdered them. Jim had always been impressed with his ingenuity. In fact, the elder Airbright was the only criminal in Narcia ever sentenced to death for his crimes. Queen Samanithia had commuted the sentence, instead making the necromancer the first inmate of the prison built out of his own home. In practice, Airbright had traded death for house arrest, which had caused quite the uproar.
But where Paul Airbright had been allowed to live out his life in captivity, no court would have sympathy for Jim. Trials were for humans or djinn, and Jim had never been anything remotely like either. Besides, he had caused far more deaths than his master’s ancestor, though most of them had been indirect. None of the humans of this world knew of the victory their fellows had won in the last one, yet they still carried the arrogance of the triumphant when dealing with demons like him.
So Jim did not feel sorry for what he did to them in return.
It was easiest, then, to think of his current directive as if it had been his own idea. Take Airbright out of the mix, and, well, this Clara person was precisely the kind that he would target anyway. There was a kind of arrogance to putting on a brave face. Denying one’s fear was, in a strange way, a sort of lack of integrity.
Add that to the fact that Clara had sold out the most basic moral principles for her current prosperity, and she seemed ripe for torment. Not to mention that she had been a whore, though that provided more of a cosmetic appeal than anything else. Long ago, he had known a fellow demon named Ripper Jack. Jack had made some bold claims about his actions (and Jim sometimes felt that Jack might be laying claim to someone else’s accomplishments,) but he had a particular fascination with the idea of people selling their physical bodies. Jim had never been so discerning, but he smiled slightly at the thought that he would impress that old rival.
Still, Jim preferred to be subtler than Jack’s beast-like brutality, if he could help it. And besides, his master had commanded him not to kill the woman. Still, a little torment would do him well after so long.
He drifted in through a window that was open by a crack, elongating his form so he was narrow enough to pass through. Clara was in the washroom. She had undressed and was stepping into the bath. Jim had peered into enough humans’ minds to know that she would be considered physically attractive, but it amused him to know that, alone, her posture was slouched and uninviting. Of course, being technically neither male nor female (even if he conventionally identified more with the former,) and possessing no sexuality that went beyond mere affectation, there was nothing to her body that appealed to Jim.
Enough vapor had risen from the bath to fog the mirrors and windows. Jim chuckled silently to himself. This was an old one, but a good one.
With one thin finger, he drew across the glass of the mirror, writing “I KNOW WHAT YOU DID.”
He waited for her to look over. And waited. And waited. Clara had closed her eyes and settled in for a long soak. By the time she looked up, the condensation would likely have evaporated again.
So he would have to be a little more proactive. He drifted over to a potted plant that stood near the window. It was heavy, but with some effort he could force it to fall over.
“Margaret?” called Clara. “Could you come in and close the window? It’s quite chilly and I’d prefer to stay in the tub.”
The serving-woman, probably not yet twenty, stepped inside. Margaret quickly walked right over to the window where Jim sat and brought the pane down.
Jim was flexible, but he did have something like a physical form. Now, he had been forced to fold over, and about a third of his body was stuck underneath the window pane.
“Anything else, m’am?” asked Margaret.
“No, thank you,” said Clara, and she sighed comfortably as she slipped deeper into the bath.
It took Jim a minute to pry himself out from underneath the shut window. Accidentally, he bumped the plant, and it began to wobble.
Clara’s eyes opened, and she shot up.
Well, not exactly the way I meant to do it, but that got her attention.
The mirror-message was illegible at this point. Instead, Jim drifted over to hover above Clara’s shoulder. He whispered, as he was known for, so that Clara could only hear him subconsciously.
“Well, you have been a wicked, wicked girl, haven’t you?”
Pulse had accelerated, and a shiver ran up Clara’s spine. Good.
Jim could sense the rationalizations that she had used. She resented the rich Arcane Society snobs – the hypocritical aristocrats that had railed against women of her profession in the halls of law but sweated and slobbered over her in the safety of privacy, and that had made it easier to see them die. But not all of the victims had been lecherous old men. Jim could see the ones that troubled her – the ones whose humanity she could not so easily ignore. Jim saw through her thoughts. After all, like all of his kind, his form was drawn from the minds of mortals. Had humans never dreamt of demons, he would never have become one. Most humans had no idea how broadly they projected their thoughts, and thus did not even think to guard them.
“Isolde Matthews. Remember her?” Matthews had been a young one – a kind-hearted feminist who had had to put up with the creaky old men in the society, yet had been killed just the same. “She could have been your sister.”
Clara stepped out of the bath and dried herself with a towel. He could sense Clara’s thoughts swirling now, recalling everything she remembered about Matthews – who she had paid to kill her, where it had been, what had been written around the body. Now he was getting somewhere. He could build on what he had.
As she wiped her face with the towel, Jim brought forth a brief illusion – that the water she was drawing off herself was actually blood. The towel seemed stained with red, and when she saw this, she dropped it, letting out a very quiet yelp.
On the floor, the towel was merely damp, and with ordinary water.
Clara dressed herself in simple clothing. She went to the study. All the while, Jim drifted lazily behind her. Clara sat in her favorite chair and took a deep breath. “Jaquis?” she called. The old man entered the room.
“A brandy. Actually, bring the bottle.”
Clara picked up a book. Actually, it was a fairly trashy novel, despite the projection of class that the room exhibited.
Jim blew the pages so that she lost her place. Sadly, there was nothing in the book that would really serve to scare her, so he had to resort to more obscure symbolism. A few hundred years ago he had done a similar trick with a man who had covered up a murder, and just happened to be reading a book that described a similar crime. The moment the man’s book fell open to the page describing it was the first step toward driving him into catatonic insanity.
It wouldn’t work here, though.
Delving back into the images that were burned into Clara’s mind, he could make out the writing that had been left around Isolde Matthew’s body in chalk. The carpet here was the kind that would have two very distinct tones if one rubbed its fibers in one direction or another, which allowed him to draw out symbols.
Once he had drawn the figures that had surrounded the body, he would shift himself to appear in the young woman’s form in the center of the room, throat slit and pouring blood out in a pool around her. And then he would stand up, march over to Clara, slowly, pointing an accusatory finger at her, and then say something deeply creepy like “You did this to me” or “This is what you did.” And as soon as he got a reaction out of her, he would once again become invisible, leaving only the writing on the carpet, and letting her panic do the work for him. After that, he might simply call it a night and head back to Richard’s house.
Clara’s attention was focused on the book as Jim did the drawing. It took him very little time – these symbols were not unlike the ones that people had sometimes drawn to attract his attention. He had dabbled with invocative magic for a time, but he found that he lost patience with the practitioners who acted as if it were some exact science – that the glyphs and runes they presented compelled him to act in one way or another, when in fact they were merely a set of requests and instructions.
And it was as he was rubbing the carpet to spell out the words “Mournful Emperor” in Chinese that Jim realized something. That’s what these were – messages to someone far more powerful than the writer. Jim read his own writing – he had memorized it from Clara’s plucked thoughts by rote, and he had not had any reason to read or write Chinese since he had come to this world, so it had been easy to see the writing as mere lines and abstract symbols.
It was not a simple matter to read the scrawl, as it did not follow the linear pattern of ordinary writing. Every word did a sort of half-turn around the spot where the body would be positioned. But once Jim had figured out the pattern, he was able to read it.
“You have shown me what I truly am. You will be the mournful emperor of my rebirth. I will take my place in history. This is my becoming.”
Then, in smaller script, which Jim now vaguely remembered from the newspaper photographs, as opposed to Clara’s imperfect memory, as being made out in Isolde Matthews’ blood: “I am nearly complete. My friend will send his slave to mine. I will transform it as you have shown me.”
Jim read this once again, and was then connected the words with his present situation.
Time to go.
Jim drifted upward, but it was as if he had hit a wall even invisible to himself. To either side of him stood a faceless man. Jim had heard of these beings, but never had he laid his own eyes on them before. The faceless men were there and not there. They each stood as if they were solid forms, yet in another way, all Jim could see when he looked at them were holes in space – each a dark abyss. Jim struggled, but somehow, without touching him, even though Jim could usually see the essence of projected magic force, the faceless men held him still. The longer he remained there, the more constrained he felt, until he was utterly paralyzed.
Clara gasped, but it was not at anything Jim had done.
“Mr. Thall, you surprised me!” She sat back in her chair. It was clear by her eye-lines that she could see the faceless men as well, but not Jim.
Henry Thall strode past Clara and walked directly toward Jim. “Show yourself,” he commanded, and Jim felt himself become visible once again.
“Oh fuck,” exclaimed Clara. Thall put up a quieting hand.
“Don’t be afraid. Here, come, take a look.”
“What is it?”
“A demon. His intention was to frighten you. That was very discourteous of you.” He turned to Clara. “Did you notice anything strange this evening?”
Clara nodded. “Yes, a few things out of place. And now that you mention it, I thought I heard whispers.”
Thall nodded. “Clara, this demon is called Whispering Jim. Richard Airbright sent him to torment you.”
Clara regarded Jim with a mix of curiosity, fear, and revulsion. “He did?”
“Yes.” Thall now pulled Jim’s head up toward his own, looking directly into the part of Jim’s form that served as eyes. “Now, Jim, let us begin.” Then Thall nodded to the faceless men.
And then Jim felt nothing but pain.
(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2014)