The Tale of Shir Shaheen and the Caravanserai – Chapter 9: A Magic Shadow-Show

“Let me wrap this blanket about thy shoulders, dear friend of my heart, for gentle as the zephyr is which brings the perfume of blossom to us, I fear it may chill thee. So is it always, even in the least of things, good and evil ever intermingled. And so Shir Shaheen and Roshan found when once again the vizier of Gorj moved against them.”

Shir Shaheen breathed deep as the breeze played around his tower. He no longer controlled the desert winds, yet still they sought him out, bringing news and the clean smell of the open sands for which he yearned. And if, as now, they brought tidings of evil, he had come to expect no less.

He sat in the shadows of the open-arched chamber atop his tower, not on the parapet where he was wont to sit. Too many eyes now could see him there, for too many people now lived in Paridiz – agreement had easily been reached with the men of the desert towns, and their folk had swarmed to the city.

Rarely now did Shaheen leave his tower, and then only to tend his gardens or to sit with the still-grieving Lady Farzaneh and let her talk of Sima. Many were his reasons. The new humans, for one, for though allowing them to settle in the city was his own idea, yet still did their presence disturb him. Shame was another, for close had he come to murder and betrayal, and guilt stung him when he talked with Roshan.

Yet most of all, fear kept him prisoner, for within the walls of Paridiz dwelt two magics, new-awakened from long sleep. One, age-old, earth and water intertwined, blessed the gardens he created, while the other, embedded in worked stone and brick, burned with malignant craving. One sought healing, renewal; the other gorged itself on blood. And the blood-magic was everywhere in the city, whispering, beguiling; promising power that would destroy him.

Even his tower had pulsed with the blood-magic, and though with great effort he had cleansed it, no longer did he joy in slipping through its stonework, and he sat not upon the bare stone, but on the silken panel the Lady Farzaneh had embroidered with the holy names of God.

And now there was more to fear, and his tower might become not a refuge, but a trap.

Far below, the door to the tower briefly opened. Slowly Roshan climbed, weariness showing in the droop of his shoulders and drawn expression. Upon reaching the top, he sat on the open parapet, his back to Shaheen, and he raised to his eye the far-seeing glass Shaheen had made for him, which served to keep secret the true reason for his visits.

“Friend Shaheen, sorry I am that I have let the work of the city interfere with my duty to thee – more so as only now have I heard news which, had I been attending, I would have learned days ago. Rumours say the vizier of Gorj is seeking powerful sorcerers to send to Paridiz. If true, I fear he means to destroy thee.”

“The rumours are true,” said Shaheen. “Three sorcerers already approach the city.”

Roshan’s body slumped further. “Alas, how I have failed thee.” But in that moment Shaheen understood it was he who had failed Roshan by not sharing with him the burdens of the city.

Before Shaheen could speak, Roshan sat more upright and turned the glass towards Gorj. “Two men upon camels I see, and one upon a carpet that flies, and something else there is, far behind. Canst thou overcome them with thy magic?”

Yes, whispered the stones of the city. Take the power that is thy birthright. Kill the mortals who dare threaten thee and thy friends.

“No,” said Shaheen. “Not as I am.”

Roshan set down the glass and rubbed at his face. “If thou wert hidden, could they find thee?”

“Were they alone, and I incorporeal and hidden in subtle ways, perhaps not. Though magic calls to magic, there is other power within the city which would confuse their search. But they are not alone. They bring with them two who will sense me in whatever guise I take, and track me as a jackal tracks its prey.”

“Demons? I think it is a demon that I saw, like a monstrous shadow travelling in their wake.”

“One is a demon. The other …”

The other was a thralled djinn, captured while emerging from the smokeless fire, its powers then inchoate, leaving it defenceless against wizards determined to enslave it and sell it as a drudge capable of small magics, or as a reservoir of meagre power for a sorcerer who could draw upon it. Yet could Shaheen name such ignominy even to Roshan? Could he speak of the horror all djinn felt for these abominations, which once had led him to join others in seeking out such thralls to kill them, to bring the shame of their existence to an end?

“The other is far worse,” he said.

“Then I shall refuse them leave to enter the city,” said Roshan.

And so he did. Alone he strode out as the sorcerers reached the city of the dead, his men at the gate behind him, weapons at the ready.

“Come no further,” he called to the sorcerers. “None who work magic may enter Paridiz. My grandmother, who owns the city, will permit you to rest here for one hour. Then must you leave.”

The sorcerers raged, threatening him with dire magics, and the black-fanged, howling demon – maggot white of eye and maw, foul shadow-smoke seeping from its ochre-spotted hide – was dragged forward on its long chain, causing the camels to spit and hiss.

Several of Roshan’s men blenched in terror, but Roshan’s courage did not falter. “You and your creatures are forbidden the city,” he repeated, then turned his back upon the sorcerers and returned to the gate.

The sorcerers argued as to what they should do. One was for entering Paridiz at once, scorning the prohibition; another wished to return to Gorj to gather further magic; the third ridiculed them both.

While they argued, the demon scuttled away from the city, as far as the chain attached to its iron collar allowed. The thrall, in the shape of a malformed finch, enslavement like a fiery leash about its neck, went with it, whimpering forlornly.

At length, the sorcerers dragged the demon back and sent it towards Roshan and his men at the gate. The creature inched forward, howling still, but in terror and distress, not the usual hatred of its kind. Twenty paces from the gate, it stopped.

“The wall! It burns!” it screeched, and no amount of pain its master inflicted through its collar could make it move.

Dispute arose among the sorcerers as to what this meant, but Shaheen understood, for the pairika had told him the enchanted feared the barrier which kept him prisoner in the city. But the sorcerers saw only the walls Safar had built, and they resolved to fly both thrall and demon over Paridiz, thus avoiding not only those walls but also Roshan’s prohibition on entering the city.

So the demon was pulled onto the carpet, a shorter chain affixed to its collar and handed to the carpet sorcerer, who now also received the commands for the thrall’s fiery leash. The carpet lifted high into the air and flew towards the city, the thrall flying alongside it.

Screeching, wailing, the demon flung itself from side to side, the carpet rocking with its movement. The sorcerer cursed, pouring pain into the collar to restrain the demon, but still it writhed and bucked and screamed, and the carpet dipped and lurched and reeled. Just as it seemed the carpet must surely plummet from the sky, the sorcerer ordered the thrall alone into the city, then turned away from Paridiz.

Mewling piteously, the thrall flew through the barrier. Across the city it flitted, coming ever closer to Shaheen, then around the tower it swooped, and under an archway, then landed at his feet.

Shaheen reached forward to kill the creature before it could reveal his presence to the sorcerers, yet as he moved, the thrall took the shape of a human child, but broken-backed and bent, unfinished in limb and mind.

Pity overwhelmed Shaheen. He stayed his hand.

“Great One, I have found thee!” cried the thrall, dancing with excitement.

“Child, thou hast. To my regret.”

The thrall stilled, its disfigured face creased in sadness and confusion. “Have I done wrong?”

“Those who use thee wish to harm me.”

It frowned. “Harming thee is wrong. My master must be wicked.” It inclined its head, as though listening, then covered its shapeless ears with half-fingered hands. “A voice talks to me. It says my master is indeed wicked and I must kill him. The voice is loud. It hurts my head.”

“Heed it not,” said Shaheen, seized with dismay. He had not foreseen that others might hear the blood-magic. If the demon were to be seduced …

The demon was wailing still, but the carpet now was stable. The sorcerer, flanked by the others on their camels, turned back towards the city.

“The voice says it can make me a true djinn, Great One. Big and strong and wise and comely as thou art. I wish to be like thee. Please.”

“The talk is poison, child. What is in thy heart is thy measure, not how thou dost appear. Heed me well, for the voice will harm thee else. And set thyself down nowhere in the city, save here upon my tower.”

Louder grew the demon’s howling, and once again the creature writhed and thrashed, pulling on its chain, but the sorcerer was ready; though the carpet swayed, steadily, relentless, it came on towards the city.

Yet now was Roshan prepared, along with his archers. The carpet shuddered as arrows struck it, but the sorcerer cast a spell towards the bowmen, knocking them aside, and on it came. Then, a breath before it reached the city wall, the demon wrenched the chain from the sorcerer’s hand, and leapt from the carpet.

Short-lived was Shaheen’s relief, for malicious laughter rang out around him. Though the demon was beyond the barrier, the wall there had collapsed upon the desert sands, and the demon lay across its fallen stones, listening to promises of power.

Blood-magic flooded through the demon. It sprang to its feet, ripped the iron collar from its neck and hurled it at the carpet sorcerer. Broken, bloodied, tangled in the now-unravelling carpet, the man plunged to the ground.

More and more power the demon took unto itself, growing in size and strength to ten times a human’s height. The shrieking camels threw off the sorcerers and fled. Fearful, shaking, Roshan’s archers turned their weapons upon the demon, but their arrows could not pierce the thickening umber shadow-smoke seeping from its hide.

The demon strode towards the sorcerers. Lightning flashed from their hands, fire and burning stone rained down upon the demon. Nothing harmed it.

“Child,” said Shaheen, taking up the silken panel. “Canst thou change thyself into the shaft and fletchings of an arrow?”

The thrall transformed, floating in mid-air before him. Shaheen fashioned the panel into an arrowhead and sent prayers that his magic would hold beyond the barrier, where now the demon, amid more arrows from Roshan’s archers, picked up the sorcerers, one in each giant hand, and squeezed.

Swiftly Shaheen fastened the panel to the arrow shaft. “Fly fast and true into the demon’s left eye, child, and let the holy names pierce its brain.”

Mewling in fear, the thrall shivered in his hand.

“Do this well,” said Shaheen, “and the demon dies, thou shalt be a true djinn.”

The thrall flew.

The demon was laughing as it crushed the sorcerers to pulp, but then the thrall-arrow pierced its eye and the creature’s screams were like a thousand afrits shrieking and bewailing as the names of God scourged and burned it from within. It fell to its knees and the city shook. And in the instant of its death, the blood-magic drained utterly away, returning to the luminiferous aether whence it sprang, just as with the monstrous scorpion Roshan once had killed. And Shaheen breathed again.

Fluttering above the demon’s corpse, a misshapen finch once more, the thrall cried, “Is the demon dead, Great One? Am I now a true djinn?”

“It is, and thou art,” called Shaheen.

Triumphant, the thrall flew to return to him, but an archer’s mistimed arrow struck its wing. It fell to the tumbled wall. And as the stones drank its blood, cruel laughter stabbed Shaheen.

“Child! To me! Now!” he called. Too late.

The finch that rose flawless from the stones became a falcon, then a mighty eagle. Landing beside Shaheen, the thrall took mortal form – no longer a child, no longer deformed, but a youth, hale, handsome, and growing in strength.

“I am strong, Great One! I am like thee! I can kill my master. Kill all the humans!” Power flooded the thrall, and it danced clumsily around the tower, singing, “Kill! Kill! Kill the humans!”

Pity again seized Shaheen, but he struck. As a dagger, he thrust himself into the thrall’s heart, there expanded his form, and the thrall’s body burst asunder. The blood-magic dissipated on the instant, the laughter of the stones turning to a scream of rage, and only a dead, mutilated child remained.

Once again in human form, Shaheen took the child into his arms. Still was he cradling the child when, hours later, Roshan appeared beside him holding the silken panel. No questions did Roshan ask, but gently laid his hand upon Shaheen’s shoulder.

“Dear friend, I crave forgiveness for intruding on thy grief, but we have need of thee. Dead are the sorcerers taken by the demon, and though the one who rode the carpet yet lives, his injuries are mortal. I beg thee, come and heal him.”

“Let him die,” said Shaheen.

“Grandmother wishes him to live. Among the sorcerers’ belongings have we found a crystal which she believes may be used for scrying and communication. She desires the sorcerer to use it to speak with the vizier of Gorj.”

“For what reason?”

“She means to bargain with him. The profits of the caravanserai shall be his, if he gives his word unbreakable that never again shall he attempt to assail thee or the city.”

“No!” said Shaheen. “This cannot be.”

But Roshan and the Lady Farzaneh would not be moved, and indeed Shaheen well understood that further assaults against him would bring harm to the city and its people, so he did as they asked and healed the sorcerer.

Many hours did the lady spend in negotiation with the vizier, and complicated was the settlement they agreed, replete with clauses and legalities and caveats. But it tied the vizier’s profits to the lives of the lady and Roshan and Shaheen, so no reason now had he to kill them save his pride, and that was far outweighed by his love of wealth.

But such agreement was yet to be reached when, in the dead of night, Shaheen took the body of the djinn child and burned it, returning its soul to the aether with the smoke of the pyre. Yet if the child’s blood cried out for vengeance, it was not against the vizier, mean and insignificant as he now appeared to Shaheen, but a more deadly foe.

Two great gouts of power had the blood-magic lost. Time would it need to renew itself; time Shaheen could use to cleanse the city with the waters of the earth-magic. The child’s death had given him a respite from fear and temptation, and cause indeed for revenge, had he only courage enough to take it.

“Hark, dearest of friends, once again the sons of thy grandchildren acclaim my tale, delighting at this further proof of Roshan’s great courage. But thy hand in mine tells me of thy compassion for the poor djinn child, the evil of whose slavery turned to good for Paridiz. But what next shall I tell of Shir Shaheen and Roshan? For to be sure, ever shall their tale continue.”

© Damaris Browne

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