Jade had discovered several traps thus far, nothing to brag about in terms of disarming, but this last one was a challenge. This was the real test. Not only was it nine times as difficult to decipher – once she had found it – but it was more challenging than any trap she’d ever encountered before. This made Jade happy. Just because it was more challenging didn’t make it unsolvable. It simply demanded more patience and more skill, and she appreciated that.
The light of her torches danced within the pale green of her almond-shaped eyes as she studied her handiwork. Pleased, she shook back her raven hair and stretched out on her stomach to guide a wire-thin prong into the slot at the edge of the dais. Three others of varying size and shape already protruded from the narrow opening, along with one of her best daggers. Certainly, the tip could break, but it was a risk worth taking. At the center of the dais stood a pedestal. Upon that pedestal rested the Scroll of Jadugara, the object of her quest.
“Got you, you sahte.” The scroll was as good as hers. She stood, stretching her back, rolling her neck from side to side. Her bare arms and midriff were feeling the chill of the depth now. The torches – one sconced by the stairwell, one laying near her tools – provided enough light but little to no heat.
No matter. She’d soon be on her way. “And taking care of business,” she whispered – not because anyone was around but because she was in a library. When her mother had taken her to the libraries in her father’s halls leagues and years away in the windswept lands of the north, she had impressed upon Jade the need for silence, despite what one may be doing there. It seemed that in the Eastern Empire, learning was more respected. But none of that mattered now. Her home was gone, and her family exiled to the Middle Kingdoms where everything was . . . different. She felt she couldn’t learn or do anything. Wherever she lived, she was constantly reminded she was the one who was different. A perfect mixture of East and North, but an imperfect fit anywhere.
Circling around and back, she examined the scroll and its pedestal. The parchment had aged to the point of looking burnt. Strangely, no dust lay upon it. The pedestal was actually part of the dais. Kneeling before it, she ran a hand lightly – oh, so lightly – across the smooth surface. Satisfied, she stood. She thought the lambent glow in the air had been playing tricks at first, but she had seen true. A soft, golden glow surrounded the scroll. This she studied until she was certain the glow emanated from the item, not from around or beneath it.
Magic, without a doubt. But could she touch it? As she pondered, she fingered the gem attached meticulously to the wide leather choker about her neck. At first glance the stone would seem gray or white or streaked with both. What the keen observer would note was that the colors and patterns swirled deeply within it.
“What to do? What to do?”
She unsheathed another dagger and lightly touched the scroll with its pommel. Nothing. “Time to go then.” She slowly moved her hand toward it, and as her fingers entered the golden glow, they tingled pleasantly. She paused to see if anything more would happen.
She gently took hold of the ancient parchment, using only the tips of her gloved fingers; even as she did so, a deep, booming laughter filled the room. It echoed through each floor, rising to the ceiling somewhere far above. She snatched her hand back and launched herself to the edge of the dais, cursing with every breath. She hated magic – hated it!
Blowing a strand of hair from her eyes, she poised on the balls of her feet and waited, hands gripping the hilts of the short swords freed from the scabbards strapped to her back – waiting for the guards that must surely come. Had she missed something? A trap? A pressure plate? She swore again but had already begun to plan her escape. She would engage, fully commit them to the fight, then flee. “Keep it simple,” she whispered. “Simple usually works.” It was one her father’s favorite aphorisms, and one she’d found to be true.
Well, most of the time.
As the laughter trailed away, however, something a thousand times worse than guards began to appear.
Dread weighed in her stomach like a stone. “Oh gods.”
Columns of pitch black smoke spewed from each end of the scroll; instead of rising like smoke ought to have behaved, however, the columns blew toward the front of the pedestal, entwining together like coils of thick rope – like coils of hard muscle – coalescing into a vague shape – becoming solid. Then it was gone, dissipated as if by a wind Jade hadn’t felt, and in its place stood a creature, nearly seven feet tall, the skin of its corded, hairless body black as obsidian. It was a handsome thing, even with the pointed ears and needle sharp teeth showing through its hideous grin. All of this she had noted in the span of few heartbeats. In the next, she attacked.
She pounced, slicing it twice across the chest. Just as quickly, she had bounded away, blades poised to strike when it retaliated. But it didn’t. The beast looked down at the trails of black fluid steaming from its chest, then as its eyes fell upon her, it laughed that booming laugh that had heralded its coming.
Jade grimaced. That she had not expected. She didn’t dwell on it, however; she had her next attack already planned. If it was like any other male, it would do anything to protect the family jewels – or treasury in this case – but that would merely be a feint of course, while the other blade would be slipping into its lung before it could realize what was what.
“Feisty,” it said in a melodic baritone, grinning even more. She definitely hadn’t expect that – monsters should have harsh, ugly voices. “I’m going to enjoy feasting on . . .” It sniffed the air. “Your . . .” It inhaled deeply. “Your scent. ” The monster strode toward her, growing excited. “I can smell your soul.”
She cursed herself for not attacking already. What a fool!
She tried her maneuver, but it casually turned aside as if Jade had been moving in slow motion – her thrust aimed at its lung missed completely. She tumbled off the dais, rolled to her feet, swords pointed at the beast. Her eyes, however, never ceased searching for an escape route. She wished it’d been four or five guards. Six or seven even. They would have learned to fear her by now.
The creature simply grinned – did it have any other expression? – and licked its lips. “Jadugara has out done himself this time.” And that nearly knocked her off her feet.
As the monster reared up, Jade waved her sword at it like a finger. “Hold on a second.” The other sword, she kept ready just in case. “Did you say ‘Jadugara?’”
“Yes.” The monster puffed its chest, blowing smoke from its nostrils. It inhaled deeply through its nose. “What is it about you, female? Your spirit excites me, but I can smell your soul while you yet live.” He raised a taloned hand as if meaning to swat away an annoying insect.
Jade hopped back. “This Jadugara, he’s a wizard, right? Scraggly beard? Bald? Needs a manicure?”
“Yes,” the demon said, lowering its hand. A chuckled rumbled in his chest.
“Lives here in this city?”
“I suppose.” The words sounded like water hitting wet coals. “He did so when he summoned and bound me to this scroll, though it was not even a city then.”
“Son of a herif,” she whispered, then looked up at the creature. “Can I ask you a few questions before we finish this?”
The demon stared at her several heartbeats through squinted eyes. Then, throwing back his head, it laughed louder and longer than before. “I like you, little one. You are making this feast so much more enjoyable than the usual cowards he sends. They usually fall whimpering before me, pissing their pants, and begging for their lives.” He chuckled once more. “You may ask, but not too many mind you, I haven’t eaten in a many moons.”
She bowed. “Thank you, oh gracious demon.”
“Please refrain from using that – vulgar expression.”
“What shall I call you then?”
“You could try my name.” He crossed his arms across his massive chest. “I am called Shentani.”
Jade’s eyes widened.
“Oh, do not get any ideas,” the demon said. “You cannot gain control of me with it. It is but one of my nine names, but it is not that name. The ninth is the one which holds power over us, despite our own great power.”
“And that’s what Jadugara did to you?”
He glared at her. “Yes, little one. I was cocky and stupid. The wizard drugged me with virginal souls. It dulled my senses and my wits. I should have known better than coming to this world. But I did what I did, and he did what he did. Now I am bound to the scroll, from which he drains my power for himself.”
“So, he is only more powerful than the other wizards because of your power?”
“That is so.”
“How long have you been kept here?”
“By your reckoning, centuries.”
“So this library is his, and he sent me here for you to eat?”
“Yes.” His chuckle was like a rumble. “That is the ruse he has been using all this time. He sends a mortal here with the promise of vast treasure or reward. I eat them. If I am not nourished on this plane, I weaken.”
“And when you weaken, he weakens.” It all made perfect sense now. She paced back and forth then kicked at a small piece of debris. “Curse me for a fool.”
“Yes,” the demon said. “You are cursed. What did he offer you?”
“He promised to return my soul to my body.” She touched the stone at her neck. “It’s been stuck in this bloody thing.”
“Ah,” the demon said excitedly. “A soul-stone! That is what I’ve been smelling. I’m sorry this did not work out better for you, little one. I believe I could like you, but honestly, I cannot wait to eat you. And your soul.” He seemed to drool as he stared at the stone.
She waved her sword like her hand. “Okay, wait. Let me ask you one more thing before supper starts.”
His brows furrowed. “Yes, but only because I like you. And do be mindful that I must soon return to the scroll.”
“You’re on a time limit?”
“Yes. Mere heartbeats by my measure.”
She humphed. “Wouldn’t you rather be free all the time?”
The creature laughed. “Of course, little one, but until I am summoned by name in front of him, I cannot harm him. He knows to keep me away. That is why I am here, and my meals are sent to me.” A frowned formed across his needle teeth. “Unfortunately, little one, I must feast now. If you would do the honor of giving me your name, I will remember you for as long as I am bound to these scrolls. Maybe longer.”
She assumed a fighting stance, not looking forward to see how she was going to fare with this foe. “Jade,” she said. “Daughter of Stephen Harrowden, Warden of the North, and the Lady Kwan Yin.”
“An unusual genealogy for an unusual mortal.” It actually smiled this time. “I like it.”
She had to stall it long enough to figure things out. “My father ruled as Baron in the Northlands, while my mother hails from the Eastern Empire. He won her as a prize on some sort of crusade, but they fell in love. And . . . well, here I am.”
“Remarkable,” Shentani said. “A child of two worlds who walks yet in a third. How came you to this one?”
“My father was betrayed by one of his kinsmen. We fled south and ended up here. And I’ve just been wandering, trying to fill in the gaps of what my tutors had told me about the world.”
“And have you succeeded?”
“Enough to know that the world can be as harsh as it is beautiful and that some people can be real pooh-du.”
He laughed long and loud. “That describes much of my realm as well. But tell me one last thing. How came your soul to be separated from you?”
“Never trust wizards.”
“Oh, I’m seeing that more and more.” She laughed with him. It seemed odd to be doing it, but it felt good. She then positioned herself to strike or dodge, whichever proved most prudent in the next few seconds. But she supposed it wouldn’t hurt trying to buy just a little more time. “What about you? Don’t you get bored being in a scroll?”
“Yes and no. I do mathematical equations, consider philosophical problems. I have composed two poems of epic length, but . . .”
Jade shook her head. “Yeah. It’s painful not to be able to share them with anyone.”
“Yes.” Sorrow tinged his voice.
“You’re not how I pictured a demon at all. I expected something less sophisticated and something more . . . well, evil.”
“We of the Nguvu are beyond human conceptions of good and evil and a mere glimpse of our world would sear your mortal brain, but . . . that’s of no consequence. I must feed.” It rose to its full height, its face becoming the monster Jade had first encountered.
The creature swatted with one hand, and as Jade lunged aside, attempted to grab her with the other. She rolled behind it and drove her sword toward its lower back. It twisted easily away: it was simply too big, too quick, and too smart. For the first time in her life, Jade was unsure about her chances of escaping.
She needed time. Time to think. Time to plan. And she could think of only one thing that might buy her that time: “Let me free you!” she shouted. Her breath came in puffs as she prepared to dodge and attack again if this didn’t work. And then she would probably die. “I can free you.”
The Nguvu hesitated, lowered its arm. “How?”
“Let’s make a bargain – isn’t that what your people do?”
“What do you have to offer?”
She paced back and forth, wracking her brain. Finally, she shrugged. “All I got is me.”
“You are comely, but I am afraid you would not survive the experience.”
“My services,” she said, but thanked all the gods her father worshiped, all the ancients of her mother’s people, and the thousand myriad gods to whom the people of the Middle Kingdoms bowed because that was not even one option she would consider. Maybe. “I will take the scroll to Jadugara, and you will force him to release you.”
“It is not that simple. I can do nothing unless summoned, and he, I do not think, would choose to do so.”
Jade straightened and lowered her weapons as an idea came to her. It would be her last ploy. It was all she had left. “I could.”
Shentani’s eyes widened. “But you do not know my dokuz name.”
“Tell me.” She was nearly giddy with excitement as the idea formed. “I will take the scroll and summon you before him. You zap him or whatever. We go our separate ways.”
“Should I give you my name, you would hold power over me once the wizard is slain.”
“I’ll tell you to go home.” This had to work. If not, she was dead – or worse than dead. “Promise.”
Shetani smiled. “It is not that I do not trust you, Jade of North and East – I have not had the best experiences with your people. What assurance can you give me that you will set me free?”
She had only one item that the Nguvu would find worthy of a bargain. She unclasped the necklace and held it toward him. The soul-stone sparkled in the flickering lights of the library. “I have this.”
Its eyes widened as if of all things, this would be the most impossible to occur. “Intriguing,” it mused, rubbing at its sharp chin.
“You hold my soul. Once I summon you, avenge yourself. Return my soul, and then I will free you. Or vice versa. Doesn’t matter to me.”
“You are very brave, and very trusting with such a precious object.”
“To tell you the truth, I’ve never been sure that it was actually in there until now. I’ve learned something, so I’m good with that. Plus, I don’t want to get eaten.”
The demon’s laughter shook the walls of the room.
“I like you, little one.” He took her soul. “I accept your bargain.”
Jadugara was waiting for her.
It could have been the shouts of his guards as they had died. It could have been the death-screams of the jackal in the previous room. It could have been something magical. It didn’t matter in the end. She stood before him, blood dripping from her two blades. Her sweat-drenched hair clinging to her face. Her left sleeve ripped off below the shoulder.
“You survived?” At least he wasn’t playing coy. That really would have rubbed her the wrong way. In reply, she held out the scroll.
He did not act shocked or surprised. “You cannot destroy what my magic has created.” A smug smile crawled across his lips. “Harm me and you will never get your soul back.” He stepped toward her. “However, I suppose you deserve something. Hand me the scroll, and I’ll work the spell to return you your soul. What say you?”
“Sorry, wizard, but for some odd reason, I just don’t trust you.”
“Do you think to coerce me with threats? You cannot harm me.”
Jade smiled. “Oh, I don’t plan on it.” Then she spoke the name. Three syllables. The softness of the sound made it seem like a whisper and a hiss at the same time, but its power could not be denied. Once spoken, all reality seemed to tremble then smoke began to pour from the ends of the scroll. Jadugara cowed in fear. He stumbled back and collapsed onto a divan.
The smoke coalesced into Shentani. The wizard whimpered as the Nguvu loomed over him. Jadugara raised an arm in a feeble attempt to ward the creature off then began pleading for his life, offering wild bargains, but all in vain.
“Know this, wizard,” the demon said, “once I’ve devoured your soul, you will suffer nine times nine thousand years before I will allow you to die.” It spoke not another word or waited for any kind of response but casually pushed its hand into Jadugara’s chest. Jade cringed but could not help but watch. Instead of the bloody organ she expected, Shentani pulled a milky wisp from within the body, a ghostly reflection of the wizard himself. The shadow’s scream echoed as if miles away, and it squirmed as the Nguvu leered at it. Then its jaw opened wide, much wider than it should have been able to do, as it shoved the shadow and its own fist into his mouth.
Afterward, it stood as one savoring a fine morsel, the delicacy of a lifetime, and let out a deep growl of delight. Its jaw dropped once more and a long deep brown, sinuous tongue slithered from its mouth and around the wizard’s unmoving body, which stared wide-eyed into nothing, and pulled the lifeless husk slowly into the cavernous maw. The Nguvu had to toss its head back, bird-like, several times to get it down. Its neck bulged and convulsed grotesquely as the body passed into the broad chest and was gone. Jade watched fascinated and shuddered to think that could have happened to her. Still could, she feared.
The eyes hungered when they turned upon her. She held the scroll out to remind him of his bounds. “We had a bargain,” the Nguvu said, pulling her soul-stone from nowhere.
“We did,” Jade said more calmly than she felt. “And I intend to honor it. I said your name which gives me power over you. With that power, I release you from the scroll. Return to your home.”
Shentani took a deep breath, every muscle tensing with relief. The light of the scroll dimmed then faded. All that was left was crumbling, brittle parchment which drifted to the ground.
“You would make an excellent Nguvu,” he said, handing her the soul-stone. “Our bargain is fulfilled.”
Jade reached tentatively for the stone. It could still choose to change the terms of the bargain. And then what? What could she do? Go down fighting. Die. Suffer for eternity. Not very pleasing prospects.
As she was lost in thought, the demon clutched her trembling hand. She gasped. Its powerful, taloned hand dwarfed hers, yet it was surprisingly silky and radiated warmth. It smiled its needle-teeth smile and gently placed the soul-stone in her palm.
“Take care of this stone,” it said. “What is inside is more precious than all this world.”
“I will,” she whispered.
“Goodbye, little one.”
The Nguvu tossed its head back and laughed until the floors vibrated. The next instance it was gone. No smoke. No flash of light. Just gone. Jade was sort of disappointed.
As she turned to leave, she wondered if Shentani had had the power to restore her soul. She could call him back. She did know the name . . . but better to not press her luck.
Oh, well. Maybe sometime she’d use it. If she ever got too desperate.
©September, 2016 Jeffery A. Sergent
Jeffery A. Sergent is a high school teacher in southeastern Kentucky and a lifelong fantasy fan. He sponsors. edits and contributes to his schools fantasy fanzine Fantasm. His work has appeared in Alienskin and previously in Swords & Sorcery Magazine. He has also written a novel, Absent, and is a regular contributor to Nerdbloggers.com.