An old woman's recounted tale on the dangers of black magic
My name is Yohan...
I had journeyed to this desolate part of the surrounding land to talk to a woman long since abandoned - in thought, if not intention - and found myself wondering what I was doing here.
Then, shockingly, a question was uttered from the woman seated across from me that almost mirrored my thinking.
"Why are you here, boy?"
"Ah... my parents sent me. They seemed to think you had powers of exorcism or the like, and they envisioned no other choice when I was caught performing a snce - they said you had experience in such matters and would 'get my head straight'. That is how they put it, I think."
"Well... be that as it may, what compelled you to perform this... snce?" That last was spoken flatly, with a stern voice that brooked no nonsense.
"Ah, that is... basically I wanted to talk to the dead. You see I read this book where this guy spoke to the dead after a snce and I thought if, say, I could talk to one of the great Oriental Masters in his grave I could, you know, learn from him. Learn to defend myself," I uttered somewhat protectively.
"This book," she said sharply. "What is it called?"
"Powers of Darkness and Light, I believe."
The old lady released a noticeable sigh, "I feared it might be something along the lines of the Chrokan Rituals... A disgusting book that I have come across once in my time... In any case, many think of me as seer and attendant to several of the arcane arts, but the truth is that I have merely dabbled in such things, and brushed with those in my life that dealt with that most powerful of ancient artefacts, the Ouija board. It will suffice to say that I came out the other end of the attempt to manipulate it somewhat lucky - not so my friends.
"Come, sit and I will tell you the story of Helena and Cliff.
"If you think snces are interesting - or worse, beneficial - then you might want to listen in. You see, Clifford thought so too..."
"Cliff was a convict, meant to begin a life of hard work in the New Land, but he was also a talented young musician with a whip-like wit and a cache of insidious knowledge.
"Helena meanwhile, was a beautiful but poor lady that worked in the kitchens of the ship to pay for the expense of her journey - she had visions of a hopeful future.
"They met, and fell in love - it was not surprising, Clifford's charm was irresistible and Helena was both beautiful and intelligent. My name, for courtesies sake is Megan, I was one of the more fortunate, well-off patrons of the journey. I am old and forget much, but I recall dimly that we... that they met me and showed me cards and drink and laughter. I visited Helena one day, after inquiring of her whereabouts, to praise her cooking; she had wrought a fabulous feast the night before and I thought to congratulate her.
"Unfortunately, the Captain of the ship - an arrogant man if there ever had been one - had also noticed Helena, and was attempting to ooze his charm onto her.
"Despite these attempts, Cliff, Helena and I became fast friends. The two of us, and Cliff, had met a friend that happened to be his neighbour, sharing the dorm next to his own. His name was Lesley.
"We would often dine together, feasting and drinking - and after a time, occasionally smoking opium pipes in each other's company... - ?
"Ah, I see the expression - you are wondering why we might be smoking opium, yes?
"Well, lad; there was far more convict on that boat than Noble, I assure you. So how else were the rich officials and investors to keep them from mutiny? Some of us were banking on a bright future; to avoid unrest the convicts were given a quarter-ounce of opium per month, murderers and thieves were little different in the eyes of the rich.
"Cliff did not need the dosage to calm his mind - he was already a very collected, calm individual - he had just stolen to feed himself and found luck when his life took a turn for the better - more than life in the Motherland had ever promised him. He also dreamed of a bright future, and decided to share the experience of his 'payment' with his close friends.
"But I lose myself in talk; I must speak of what happened.
"I say we smoked opium occasionally and it is true. It was one such night that Cliff suggested that we perform a snce... The snce. He showed us a book he had, terrible thing, that suggested special 'gifts' could be learned from the spirits of the dead - he was extremely eager to try - and have I not said he was a man of much charm? He won us over eventually.
"That is... an interesting tale... go on."
"With Clifford conducting, we first lit thirteen black candles - a spiritual number, the book claimed, ha! - and put them in a circle, then we each cut the side of our thumbs and placed them, bleeding, on the upturned glass.
"When I say Cliff was 'conducting', it was more true that he recited strange invocations that sounded inhuman and outright terrifying - Rarmja! Ek - ekna masa! Masa! Demtee sluugh!
"This he uttered with a familiarity bordering on the frightening...
"The glass shifted, chose letters - enquired: purpose?
The blood pooling at the bottom of the glass made Cliff's reply simple through slippage. He spelled out his request and life's hopes quickly.
"Someone, something, replied - half-life, not a question; but by this time I had taken my thumb from the glass, as had Lesley - he would not meet my gaze, but I knew what he was thinking... No way, too scary.
"But Cliff didn't stop until he had spelled out deal. That was when the horror began -
"A wind arose, carrying whispered suggestions of death and worse, and the foul stench of the grave. The laughter on the breeze was driving me mad! I suffered delusions of drowning or suffocating, and felt that I dwelt within a blackened castle atop a treacherous island-cliff while storms and seas ravaged any chance of retaining my sanity - I began to fall, and feared that I would never stop - and that thought was more fearsome than any so far - the feeling was so great!
"In their turn, the voices ceased. Unfortunately we had thought that the hideous whispering had been bad enough, but when it faded it seemed to take with it a piece of our souls... certainly it stole more than a piece of our courage. Lesley sat, back straight of a sudden, and croaked the words 'When all the echoes cease, total darkness will reign...', he began to cough, and we panicked at the first dribble of blood to leave his mouth, while he continued to cough more and more violently.
"In the last moments before his death he was vomiting black blood while tiny black and yellow beetles ate each other ravenously within the mess, and, I suppose, they ate him too. In the morning there was no hint of his body anywhere.
"The only sign we had that he had ever occupied the now vacant cabin next to Cliff's was a report of scores of black and yellow beetles on the ship threatening the food-stores. Helena was especially saddened and the most shocked."
"What happened to Helena?" I asked, my interest peaked. It did not occur to me that I had sympathised with her instead of any other when I asked the question.
"Helena, I believe," she replied, "was afflicted shortly after the snce - we all were, though perhaps not to the degree of Lesley's fate. I developed triskaidekaphobia - a fear of numbers and their connections to each other. Cliff, after his deal - perhaps it was more of an ordeal? - was driven by demon's to become as good as he could on the violin in as short a time as possible, and he also suffered the guilt of Lesley's death and others that were affected by his summoning. He was an extremely talented musician to begin with, but after his pact and the self-resentment he saw in himself he became a rather late, but nonetheless genuine, prodigy."
"I say others were affected by the snce because at least fifty of the convicts and workers, even a handful of the upper-class patrons, had lost their minds overnight - some committing suicide, murder or rape before they were thrown overboard.
"Ever since that day the ocean has left a terrible fear in me.
"There was some good in what we had wrought, however. As I mentioned, Cliff became very, very skilled in his instrument of choice. At first he performed for us alone, but slowly, over time, others below-decks came to listen to him and he became quite the sensation.
"Nightly, after dinner, the people would come to listen and stamp their feet on the floor, creating the beat of the music - some even wept for joy during the more mellow creations. They had something the rich could never take away; one of their own. Cliff had the entire audience's heart in his pocket.
"The stomping was audible, so after enquiring of me what was going on - was there mutiny? - oh, then who was this patriot? The Captain, of course, wanted to know everything. Typically, he saw a lot of money in it - and me being who I was and him being who he was, I had little choice but to introduce the Captain to Helena and Cliff.
"He recognized... Helena immediately as the beautiful cook he had been trying to seduce (with miserable result), but was spell-bound by Cliff's playing up in the Helm-room, and seduced by Clifford's talent. He was literally able to make people weep for the sound of that violin, and he could as easily make them merry, or restless as the crowds had attested numerous times.
"'That... is the most beautiful music I have ever heard,' the Captain began, awe in his tone. He looked at Helena not with lust, but open wonder and for once she was not the center of his attentions, such was Cliff's music. The tale takes a turn for the tragic here, beware.
"Because Cliff had held the Captain spell-bound with his talent, the Captain did not realise that we were slightly off-course, and so the demon struck back. We hit an ice-berg and began to sink.
"The Captain, in full form, was quick to blame Cliff for the destruction of his vessel, that dog, but told him there was a way he could save his betrothed's life, at least; the Captain's yearning knew no bounds!
"Now you might think that women and children would be the first priority in an emergency, however this was not the case; it was the rich first, then the poor." The tone in her voice was spiteful and Yohan had to wonder why such was so if she herself were one of the higher-class citizens of the voyage.
"His proposal was to swap clothes with Clifford, and take Helena to one of the boats as his lady-wife, holding on his person, of course, the Captain's sigil - a guarantee they were at least close friends or family of the Captain - while Cliff died an honourable death and went down with the ship, and I escaped into the night on another boat. Helena tried to talk him out of it, but he would have none of it, stating that an uncertain life with the Captain was better than certain death on the boat - Cliff felt an enormous amount of guilt for his friend Lesley and in an ironically insidious way, also for the madmen that had had to be disposed of. When the Captain blamed Cliff for the shipwreck, the accusation cut very deep.
"Years later, I hear tell, Helena slew the Captain in his sleep..."
"She murdered the Captain?" I had to ask, although I knew what I had heard.
The lady before him arched an eyebrow, "Nay, lad, she slew him - there is a profound difference. Afterward, I hear, she escaped society to live in exile..."
"It is a most terrifying story... if it is true. There is something in your words that makes me wonder."
"Mayhap lad, mayhap. But I assure you, snces and Ouija boards are very, very dangerous. That is not a lie. But my tale is at an end. Beware, and heed my words, boy! I am very tired, and now I must bid you well on your travels."
All this, probably the last words he would hear of her, in no manner changed from this tragedy from when she had first asked him what he was here for... it was true to say that Yohan had more than a little respect for the lady.
And as he walked out on to the traveled (but rarely these days) roads, he heard something which wrenched his heart into attention, and everything made sense!
He realized he had heard almost everything about the sojourns of Clifford and Helena - but what about Megan, the lady, the noble, herself?
Yohan knew that she had instinctively lied to protect herself from vicious rumour - if a woman were to kill her mate, she would have much to suffer - but it was obvious she was the lady that had escaped into exile, and no wonder- the masses would never listen. Not in this time. Megan had never existed.
But the thing that had caught his attention and brought the pieces together had been a violin. A violin!
The music that she was playing was slow, then fast, middling - of every contour and tone she missed little. It spoke of such a longing, a thirst that could never be quenched, and the fear of losing the memory of long lost love. He realised he was crying, and guessed that although the Lady Helena likely had less than half her husband's talent, she also was talented enough to make one weep.
Torin Rutledge, 2006