Chapter Three: The Crossing
During the night, Jalissa had dreams unlike any she’d ever had. They were dreams of torment and dreams of pleasure. When she awoke just before dawn, the details were hazy. She could recall whispers in those dreams, soft and seductive, as loving as her dead mother’s embrace when she was a child. With the voice came half-formed images of people bowing before her, like servants. Or slaves.
The thing in her head still sat there, but now it felt as though it were awake and watching, like a spider in the dark preparing to skitter forward across its web and ensnare its next meal. When she retrieved her pack from the safe, she held up her small looking glass to her face. She looked like her. Outwardly, there was no sign of the spider.
“Go away,” she whispered into the glass.
There was no reply, but her skin crawled when she could feel it moving, sifting through her mind like a thief going through drawers. The feeling made her shudder and feel dirty. She fought back panic, settled on a sense of cold dread and impending doom, then shouldered the pack and left. She turned in the key at the desk, received back her deposit, and then indulged in some bread and weak beer.
The streets were already busy with morning dock work as she made her way to the ferry. Here, she checked with the counter, found that the weather still looked favorable, and cashed in her ticket. The sun was just coming up as she waited to board.
By the time the ropes were pulled back to allow entry to the ferry, there was a line of passengers waiting, some of them with small carts or hand trolleys burdened with sacks. She boarded, found seating toward the bow of the ship, and waited another two hours for the ferry to depart.
While she waited, she planned the trip. Jalissa had never been to the College of High Sorcery. She wasn’t gifted and had never had any reason. Like most drifters, though, she was familiar with its relative location within the city of Brille. There, she had been, but only as a stop on a trip further inland to scavenge the aftermath of some battle that hadn’t been worthy of being named.
Battles were always good scavenging if one happened to be in the area at the time. Battle scavenging wasn’t proud work, but it did pay if you could locate gems, idols, or other vessels of power. If those still had magic in them, they could be even more profitable. Unfortunately, scavenging the killing fields also came with battles of your own, making it dangerous work.
As she thought out her route to Brille, she wondered if the thing in her head, Succubi, could actually read her thoughts. Did it know what she was planning? Did it know that she was going to attempt to find help to remove it? Was she betraying herself by even thinking about it? Did she have any hope if she couldn’t think about it? The uncertainty of it all was as dreadful as the fact that it was even happening.
Jalissa grew bored as the ferry made its slow way across the calm sea. The sun was well up and the breeze was gentle when she finally grew restless and began to walk about. She drifted idly, listening to the other passengers chatting away their own boredom. One of them was even reading a book.
Books were difficult to come by. Literacy wasn’t all that common amongst the pilferers and other low classes, like her. Jalissa had found it an advantage, though. If you could read, you could study. A literate person could visit the libraries and they could learn. They were able to read histories, find clues, and track down places and artifacts that those who were illiterate would never know about.
Jalissa’s mother had served a minor noblewoman, who had insisted she be able to read. That knowledge, she’d passed on to Jalissa. It was the most valuable thing she’d gotten from the woman. Seeing a book out here, so brazenly displayed, so casually held was striking. Was this man so careless with such a thing as to expose it to the wind and the water?
If so, he must either have more books than sense or he was wealthy enough that the potential loss of one meant little. Either way, this was the kind of person worth speaking with. Such a person might cure her boredom and provide knowledge of some kind. How much that knowledge would avail her, considering a demon was consuming her soul, was not worth thinking about.
“Hello,” Jalissa said, drawing the man out of his book.
He looked up, perturbed at the disturbance, but then he took her in and his expression changed. His face softened at the sight of hers, flickered with a brief hint of desire as he looked at her large breasts, and then he masked it behind a sudden curiosity. His hair was wispy and white, though she could see now that he was not old. He didn’t look much older than her. His features were soft and delicate, hinting at having spent more time indoors than out, and his indigo robe indicated that he was likely some sort of mage.
“Hello,” he said back, now looking pleased at having been approached by an attractive woman.
Jalissa suspected that such a thing did not happen to him often. He placed a thumb in the book and shut the cover.
“I was just curious what you were reading,” she said, helping herself to a seat on the bench next to him. “I like books.”
“You read?” he asked with a hint of doubt.
“Not as often as I’d like, but I can.”
He chuckled and said, “Old fairytales.”
He showed her the book. In silver script across the cracked, red leather cover were the words, On Demons and Dragons. The words made her shiver. The thing in her head shifted. The spider was watching.
“What does it say… about the demons?” she blurted and then realized that she’d said it with desperation.
The man looked confused for a moment and then said, “Um, well, they’re just old stories. I wouldn’t put much faith in them.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m Jalissa.”
She held out her hand. The man clasped his own on her wrist and she returned the gesture.
“Bandric,” he said. “You have a love for old stories?”
“A recent curiosity,” she said more carefully. “I just spent some time in the ruins beyond the pass. In Dir’Kasha.”
Bandric looked impressed as he said, “Dir’Kasha? You’ve been? Personally?”
“Gods, you’re braver than I,” he said respectfully, “Some of us only get to see such places as words on a page. Most don’t even get that. What was it like?”
He was genuinely curious, she could see, fully attentive, his book forgotten. Jalissa bit back her need to question him again and decided, instead, to indulge him in order to get him comfortable.
“Truthfully,” she said, “there isn’t much left. The jungle’s reclaimed most of it. What there is of it is mostly just leftover rubble. I found one building with some faded art, but otherwise, just a few gems and trinkets.”
“You do this sort of thing often? Dig through ruins?” he asked.
“It’s really all I do.”
He looked wistful, sighed, and said, “Had I the courage or vigor for such things,” he waved his bony fingers over his body and said, “The Gods didn’t see fit to bless me with the constitution or bearing that such adventures require.”
Jalissa decided that she quite liked Bandric. Most mages were a haughty bunch. She’d sold her findings to many of them. Eldris was an exception. Jalissa had the feeling that Eldris had lived a hard life and that they had an understanding. Other mages tended to look down on her like street garbage, but she was the kind of garbage that found things for them that they needed, and so they tolerated her. Bandric did not see her this way, and she could tell that it was genuine.
“They seem to have blessed you with other things,” she said, indicating his robe.
He chuckled and replied, “I’m middling at best. I’ve a better head for history and penmanship than wielding the power. My magics are more useful for entertaining the children’s parties of nobles than any real use.”
When she laughed, he seemed quite pleased and blushed.
“Watch this,” he said excitedly.
He reached into his robe and pulled out a carved, wooden figure that vaguely resembled a bird. He showed it to her, then clenched it in his fist. Holding it up to his lips, he blew into it, then unclasped his hand, and a gray dove flew into the air. Jalissa grinned and then clapped her hands when the dove exploded with a bang into a shower of fireworks. The other passengers glanced up, muttering at the sudden noise and light. When no further entertainment seemed to be forthcoming, they quickly lost interest.
“You see? I’m more a clown than a mage,” he said.
“The world needs entertainment as much as war mages,” she remarked sadly.
“Where are you bound?” she asked.
“Back to the College. I’ve been in Canilia making copies of one of the patron’s books for months. Now, they’re on their way to join the College’s library.”
Jalissa felt the spider shuffle forth.
It knows what I’m doing
She masked the terror by looking away and pretending to cough, gaining some composure and willing the thing to go back to sleep. If she hadn’t wanted to know more about Bandric’s fucking book, she might have left him right then. She was a danger to him, and she knew it. But she did want to know. Besides the knowledge, there was also the coincidence that was impossible to shake.
Jalissa was not a strong believer in gods. They hadn’t done much for her in the past. Putting her on a ship with a mage, who happened to be carrying a book about demons, and traveling to the very place she was also bound, though? That seemed almost like the will of Ailin the Shepherd, rather than mere coincidence.
“I’m headed that way myself,” she said, instead. “There’s…”
What’s a reasonable excuse?
“There are fabled to be caverns, on the western coast, where gems as big as a man’s head can be found,” she said.
“You’re braver than I suspected,” Bandric said, clearly impressed. “You’re going into The Dying Regions?”
“I like a challenge.”
“That’s not a challenge,” he said. “That’s suicide.”
“Just because no one has done it, doesn’t mean it’s impossible.”
“Well, I for one, will mourn your passing.”
I’m getting quite tired of hearing that.
Aloud, she said, “Well, when I succeed, perhaps I’ll come and bring the College a gemstone as big as my audacity.”
That brought a hearty peal of laughter that belied Bandric’s frail form and otherwise soft voice.
“I find you positively delightful, Jalissa,” he said. “You are the best sort of disturbance a book-cozy man could ask for.”
“I think that’s a compliment.”
“Oh, it is.”
“Will you tell me about your book? You’re not the only one that likes histories. They’re part of what I do,” she said. “I’ve often found that the oldest stories have some grain of lost truth in them.”
“Indeed, they do,” he agreed. “I confess, this one seems to be more for entertainment. Some of it is quite… titillating, actually.”
“Demons and dragons don’t exactly evoke thoughts of the erotic kind.”
“On the contrary,” he said, grinning, “demons are given to all sorts of carnal pleasures. Their form, or lack of form, really, negates any ability to experience physical pleasures themselves. It’s only through possessing human bodies that they get to feel those things themselves. Why, I imagine such a simple act as eating something delicious would be exquisite, had you been denied it for thousands of years.”
The thing in her head seemed to sigh. Jalissa could feel its hunger, its need. It moved again and now it wasn’t so much a presence in the back of her thoughts as it was a looming shadow over them. It hung there, waiting, and while it waited it began to whisper. Bandric spoke, but she couldn’t focus on his words. They were like a buzzing insect. The whispers were tugging at her, and then they were like the song she’d heard when she’d first picked up the chain.
The song was like a lullaby, a humming, a thing that promised pleasant dreams if only she’d give in. It was different from the feeling of control it had exerted over her the day before. That had been like a mind rape, being taken over, the compulsion so strong that she hadn’t been able to fight it. This feeling was like seduction, the whispers like honeyed poison being poured into her mind. An image of Bandric on his back, naked, his hands gripping her hips as she tossed back her hair and rode him to their mutual pleasure, passed through her imagination.
“Jalissa?” his voice said from far away.
Jalissa felt her hand trembling, moving with a sense of agonizing slowness as she forced it into the secret pocket and touched Eldris’ coin. When the pocked metal touched her fingers, the spell broke like black glass and the spider recoiled, bolting back to its hole like it had been burned. Her thoughts cleared and she shook her head. A wave of nausea hit her, and she quickly leaned over the railing of the ship and vomited.
When she settled back in her seat, Bandric was holding out a handkerchief, which she accepted gratefully. She wiped at her mouth.
“I’m... I’m sorry,” she said.
“It happens. I once spent two weeks on a Lamurian freighter. I’ve never been so sick.”
Jalissa pocketed the handkerchief, pulled out the coin, and held it in her fist. She could feel the thing glaring at her from its hole, waiting for her to put it away, to make a mistake. Softly, it began to hum. She clenched the coin so tightly that it hurt and tried to ignore the sound.
“You were telling me about the demons,” she said, with half her mind on her own.
“Um, yes. Ribald tales mostly. If the seven demons ever actually existed, it seems likely that they would have indulged themselves in such a way. Succubi, in particular, was referred to as the pleasure demon. The author of the book seems to have a particular fondness for, um, graphic depictions of her many seductions.”
Jalissa could feel the thing smiling, if that were possible, and it made her stomach want to heave over the railing again.
“I say her, as that’s how she’s depicted,” he continued. “Gender seems meaningless when discussing something that doesn’t have a physical form. In the stories, she commonly inhabits women, though.”
“Interesting. Was there any mention of fending off her advances?”
Bandric laughed again and said, “No. Not in anything I’ve ever read. This book, as I mentioned, isn’t particularly concerned with fending her off as much as inviting the pleasure she gives. As I said, fanciful, ribald tales.”
“You said if they ever existed. So, you don’t believe that the Black Fields were the work of a demon chain?” she asked.
Bandric looked surprised and more respectful.
“My, you’re more widely read than I’d have guessed. One surprise after another! Even some mages I’ve spoken with have never heard of them. Of those that have, only a handful give any credence to their existence. Clearly, whatever created the Black Fields was a potent and terrible magic. Was it a demon? Lucifel the Black, as the legends would have us believe? I don’t discount anything. There’s so much that we’ll never know, so much that’s been lost. I don’t hold an opinion on the matter.”
The conversation turned away from demons, Jalissa surmising that the book held little real value concerning her plight. Instead, Bandric told her of his time at the college, and of other books that he’d read and copied. He was well-traveled, like her, but for opposite reasons. By the time the ferry docked on the other side of the Sorry Sea, she felt that she could count the man among her paltry list of friends. They walked down the gangplank together and clasped wrists again at the bottom. Jalissa turned to go.
“Jalissa,” he said, stopping her.
She knew what he was going to ask, and she wanted it, too. It felt good to have a friend, especially as she had so few. Despite his frail appearance, he was handsome. That white hair suited him well. His conversation was amusing and stimulating, and since they were bound in the same direction, it would be convenient, fun, and safer to travel together. It would not be safe for him, though. She turned back.
“Would you care to travel with me as far as the College? I’ll be booking passage on a wagon. I should say that it’s been an unexpected pleasure meeting you, and I’d… be… remiss if I did not say that I’d welcome your continued company.”
There was a blush in his cheeks that made her think of a bashful schoolboy. Her supposition that he had little experience with women, outside of his books, seemed confirmed.
“I’d like that,” she said. “Only, I don’t know that it would be… safe for you. There are things you don’t know about me.”
“There are things I’d like to know about you,” he countered.
Damn him for being so fucking charming.
“And if it’s my safety you’re concerned for,” he added, “Why, I once faced down a full-grown kithrok with nothing but a shadow ward and a half-conjured fireball.”
“And no bards have yet sung of your deeds?” she jested, amused.
“Sadly, there are no songs of Bandric kithrok-killer,” he admitted, shaking his head sadly.
“Don’t feel bad. No one sings about Jalissa the pilferer, either.”
“Then, you’ll join me? Perhaps we’ll have an adventure that will be worthy of a song!”
Charming and boyishly exuberant. Damn it.
“I need to get some supplies,” she said. “Where are you staying?”
“I have lodgings arranged in the northeast end, at the Will-o-wisp and Wand. Do you know it?”
“I’ll find it,” then she grinned. “It’s what I do.”
He returned the grin, chuckled, and parted company.
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