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by Lucius Shepard

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by Howard Waldrop

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by Richard Wadholm

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by Terry Bisson

"A Dry, Quiet War"
by Tony Daniel

"The Night of White Bhairab"
by Lucius Shepard

The Night of White Bhairab
(Part Four)

On the third floor the Khaa turned down a hallway, moving fast, and Eliot didn’t see it again until he was approaching the room that housed Mr. Chatterji’s collection. It was standing beside the door, flapping its arms, apparently indicating that he should enter. Eliot remembered the crate.

“No, thanks,” he said. A drop of sweat slid down his ribcage, and he realized that it was unusually warm next to the door.

The Khaa’s hand flowed over the doorknob, enveloping it, and when the hand pulled back, it was bulging, oddly deformed, and there was a hole through the wood where the lock mechanism had been. The door swung open a couple of inches. Darkness leaked out of the room, adding an oily essence to the air. Eliot took a backward step. The Khaa dropped the lock mechanism—it materialized from beneath the black formless hand and clattered to the floor—and latched onto Eliot’s arm. Once again he heard the whining, the plea for help, and since he did not jump away, he had a clearer understanding of the process of translation. He could feel the whining as a cold fluid coursing through his brain, and as the whining died, the message simply appeared—the way an image might appear in a crystal ball. There was an undertone of reassurance to the Khaa’s fear, and though Eliot knew this was the mistake people in horror movies were always making, he reached inside the room and fumbled for the wall switch, half-expecting to be snatched up and savaged. He flicked on the light and pushed the door open with his foot.

And wished that he hadn’t.

The crates had exploded. Splinters and shards of wood were scattered everywhere, and the bricks had been heaped at the center of the room. They were dark red, friable bricks like crumbling cakes of dried blood, and each was marked with black letters and numbers that signified its original position in the fireplace. But none were in their proper position now, though they were quite artfully arranged. They had been piled into the shape of a mountain, one that—despite the crudity of its building blocks—duplicated the sheer faces and chimneys and gentle slopes of a real mountain. Eliot recognized it from its photograph. The Eiger. It towered to the ceiling, and under the glare of the lights, it gave off a radiation of ugliness and barbarity. It seemed alive, a fang of dark red meat, and the charred smell of the bricks was like a hum in Eliot’s nostrils.

Ignoring the Khaa, who was again flapping its arms, Eliot broke for the landing; there he paused, and after a brief struggle between fear and conscience, he sprinted up the stairs to the bedroom, taking them three at a time. Michaela was gone! He stared at the starlit billows of the sheets. Where the Hell . . . her room! He hurtled down the stairs and fell sprawling on the second-floor landing. Pain lanced through his kneecap, but he came to his feet running, certain that something was behind him.

A seam of reddish orange light—not lamplight—edged the bottom of Michaela’s door, and he heard a crispy chuckling noise like a fire crackling in a hearth. The wood was warm to the touch. Eliot’s hand hovered over the doorknob. His heart seemed to have swelled to the size of a basketball and was doing a fancy dribble against his chest wall. The sensible thing to do would be to get out quick, because whatever lay beyond the door was bound to be too much for him to handle. But instead he did the stupid thing and burst into the room.

His first impression was that the room was burning, but then he saw that though the fire looked real, it did not spread; the flames clung to the outlines of things that were themselves unreal, that had no substance of their own and were made of the ghostly fire: belted drapes, an overstuffed chair and sofa, a carved mantelpiece, all of antique design. The actual furniture—production-line junk—was undamaged. Intense reddish orange light glowed around the bed, and at its heart lay Michaela. Naked, her back arched. Lengths of her hair lifted into the air and tangled, floating in an invisible current; the muscles of her legs and abdomen were coiling, bunching, as if she were shedding her skin. The crackling grew louder, and the light began to rise from the bed, to form into a column of even brighter light; it narrowed at the midpoint, bulged in an approximation of hips and breasts, gradually assuming the shape of a burning woman. She was faceless, a fiery silhouette. Her flickering gown shifted as with the movements of walking, and flames leaped out behind her head like windblown hair.

Eliot was pumped full of terror, too afraid to scream or run. Her aura of heat and power wrapped around him. Though she was within arm’s length, she seemed a long way off, inset into a great distance and walking toward him down a tunnel that conformed exactly to her shape. She stretched out a hand, brushing his cheek with a finger. The touch brought more pain than he had ever known. It was luminous, lighting every circuit of his body. He could feel his skin crisping, cracking, fluids leaking forth and sizzling. He heard himself moan: a gush of rotten sound like something trapped in a drain.

Then she jerked back her hand, as if he had burned her.

Dazed, his nerves screaming, Eliot slumped to the floor and—through blurred eyes—caught sight of a blackness rippling by the door. The Khaa. The burning woman stood facing it a few feet away. It was such an uncanny scene, this confrontation of fire and darkness, of two supernatural systems, that Eliot was shocked to alertness. He had the idea that neither of them knew what to do. Surrounded by its patch of disturbed air, the Khaa undulated; the burning woman crackled and flickered, embedded in her eerie distance. Tentatively, she lifted her hand; but before she could complete the gesture, the Khaa reached with blinding swiftness, and its hand enveloped hers.

A shriek like tortured metal issued from them, as if some ironclad principle had been breached. Dark tendrils wound through the burning woman’s arm, seams of fire striped the Khaa, and there was a high-pitched humming, a vibration that jarred Eliot’s teeth. For a moment he was afraid that spiritual versions of antimatter and matter had been brought into conjunction, that the room would explode. But the hum was sheared off as the Khaa snatched back its hand: A scrap of reddish orange flame glimmered within it. The Khaa melted downward and went rolling out the door. The burning woman—and every bit of flame in the room—shrank to an incandescent point and vanished.

Still dazed, Eliot touched his face. It felt burned, but there was no apparent damage. He hauled himself to his feet, staggered to the bed, and collapsed next to Michaela. She was breathing deeply, unconscious. “Michaela!” He shook her. She moaned, her head rolled from side to side. He heaved her over his shoulder in a fireman’s lift and crept out into the hall. Moving stealthily, he eased along the hall to the balcony overlooking the courtyard and peered over the edge . . . and bit his lip to stifle a cry. Clearly visible in the electric blue air of the predawn darkness, standing in the middle of the courtyard, was a tall, pale woman wearing a white nightgown. Her black hair fanned across her back. She snapped her head around to stare at him, her cameo features twisted by a gloating smile, and that smile told Eliot everything he had wanted to know about the possibility of escape. Just try to leave, Aim�e Cousineau was saying. Go ahead and try. I’d like that. A shadow sprang erect about a dozen feet away from her, and she turned to it. Suddenly there was a wind in the courtyard: a violent whirling wind of which she was the calm center. Plants went flapping up into the well like leathery birds; pots shattered, and the shards flew toward the Khaa. Slowed by Michaela’s weight, wanting to get as far as he could from the battle, Eliot headed up the stairs toward Mr. Chatterji’s bedroom.

* * *

It was an hour later, an hour of peeking down into the courtyard, watching the game of hide-and-seek that the Khaa was playing with Aim�e Cousineau, realizing that the Khaa was protecting them by keeping her busy . . . it was then that Eliot remembered the book. He retrieved it from the shelf and began to skim through it, hoping to learn something helpful. There was nothing else to do. He picked up at the point of Aim�e’s rap about her marriage to Happiness, passed over the transformation of Ginny Whitcomb into a teenage monster, and found a second section dealing with Aim�e.

In 1895 a wealthy Swiss-American named Armand Cousineau had returned to St. Berenice—his birthplace—for a visit. He was smitten with Aim�e Vuillemont, and her family, seizing the opportunity to be rid of her, allowed Cousineau to marry Aim�e and sail her off to his home in Carversville, New Hampshire. Aim�e’s taste for seduction had not been curbed by the move. Lawyers, deacons, merchants, farmers: they were all grist for her mill. But in the winter of 1905, she fell in love—obsessively, passionately in love—with a young schoolmaster. She believed that the schoolmaster had saved her from her unholy marriage, and her gratitude knew no bounds. Unfortunately, when the schoolmaster fell in love with another woman, neither did her fury. One night while passing the Cousineau mansion, the town doctor spotted a woman walking the grounds: “. . . a woman of flame, not burning but composed of flame, her every particular a fiery construct. . . .” Smoke was curling from a window; the doctor rushed inside and discovered the schoolmaster wrapped in chains, burning like a log in the vast fireplace. He put out the small blaze spreading from the hearth, and on going back onto the grounds, he stumbled over Aim�e’s charred corpse.

It was not clear whether Aim�e’s death had been accidental, a stray spark catching on her nightgown, or the result of suicide; but it was clear that thereafter the mansion had been haunted by a spirit who delighted in possessing women and driving them to kill their men. The spirit’s supernatural powers were limited by the flesh but were augmented by immense physical strength. Ginny Whitcomb, for example, had killed her brother Tim by twisting off his arm, and then had gone after her other brother and her father, a harrowing chase that had lasted a day and a night: While in possession of a body, the spirit was not limited to nocturnal activity. . . .


The light coming through the skylight was gray.

They were safe!

Eliot went to the bed and began shaking Michaela. She moaned, her eyes blinked open. “Wake up!” he said. “We’ve got to get out!”

“What?” She batted at his hands. “What are you talking about?”

“Don’t you remember?”

“Remember what?” She swung her legs onto the floor, sitting with her head down, stunned by wakefulness; she stood, swayed, and said, “God, what did you do to me? I feel . . .” A dull, suspicious expression washed over her face.

“We have to leave.” He walked around the bed to her. “Ranjeesh hit the jackpot. Those crates of his had an honest-to-God spirit packed in with the bricks. Last night it tried to possess you.” He saw her disbelief. “You must have blanked out. Here.” He offered the book. “This’ll explain . . .”

“Oh, God!” she shouted. “What did you do? I’m all raw inside!” She backed away, eyes wide with fright.

“I didn’t do anything.” He held out his palms as if to prove he had no weapons.

“You raped me! While I was asleep!” She looked left, right, in a panic.

“That’s ridiculous!”

“You must have drugged me or something! Oh, God! Go away!”

“I won’t argue,” he said. “We have to get out. After that you can turn me in for rape or whatever. But we’re leaving, even if I have to drag you.”

Some of her desperation evaporated, her shoulders sagged.

“Look,” he said, moving closer. “I didn’t rape you. What you’re feeling is something that goddamn spirit did to you. It was . . .”

She brought her knee up into his groin.

As he writhed on the floor, curled up around the pain, Eliot heard the door open and her footsteps receding. He caught at the edge of the bed, hauled himself to his knees, and vomited all over the sheets. He fell back and lay there for several minutes until the pain had dwindled to a powerful throbbing, a throbbing that jolted his heart into the same rhythm; then, gingerly, he stood and shuffled out into the hall. Leaning on the railing, he eased down the stairs to Michaela’s room and lowered himself into a sitting position. He let out a shuddering sigh. Actinic flashes burst in front of his eyes.

“Michaela,” he said. “Listen to me.” His voice sounded feeble: the voice of an old, old man.

“I’ve got a knife,” she said from just behind the door. “I’ll use it if you try to break in.”

“I wouldn’t worry about that,” he said. “And I sure as Hell wouldn’t worry about being raped. Now will you listen?”

No response.

He told her everything, and when he was done, she said, “You’re insane. You raped me.”

“I wouldn’t hurt you. I . . .” He had been on the verge of telling her he loved her, but decided it probably wasn’t true. He probably just wished that he had a good, clean truth like love. The pain was making him nauseated again, as if the blackish purple stain of his bruises were seeping up into his stomach and filling him with bad gases. He struggled to his feet and leaned against the wall. There was no point in arguing, and there was not much hope that she would leave the house on her own, not if she reacted to Aim�e like Ginny Whitcomb. The only solution was to go to the police, accuse her of some crime. Assault. She would accuse him of rape, but with luck they would both be held overnight. And he would have time to wire Mr. Chatterji . . . Who would believe him. Mr. Chatterji was by nature a believer: It simply hadn’t fit his notion of sophistication to give credence to his native spirits. He’d be on the first flight from Delhi, eager to document the Terror.

Himself eager to get it over, Eliot negotiated the stairs and hobbled across the courtyard; but the Khaa was waiting, flapping its arms in the shadowed alcove that led to the street. Whether it was an effect of the light or of its battle with Aim�e, or, specifically, of the pale scrap of fire visible within its hand, the Khaa looked less substantial. Its blackness was somewhat opaque, and the air around it was blurred, smeary, like waves washing over a lens: It was as if the Khaa were being submerged more deeply in its own medium. Eliot felt no compunction about allowing it to touch him; he was grateful to it, and his relaxed attitude seemed to intensify the communication. He began to see images in his mind’s eye: Michaela’s face, Aim�e’s, and then the two faces were superimposed. He was shown this over and over, and he understood from it that the Khaa wanted the possession to take place. But he didn’t understand why. More images. Himself running, Michaela running, Durbar Square, the mask of White Bhairab, the Khaa. Lots of Khaa. Like black hieroglyphs. These images were repeated, too, and after each sequence the Khaa would hold its hand up to his face and display the glimmering scrap of Aim�e’s fire. Eliot thought he understood, but whenever he tried to convey that he wasn’t sure, the Khaa merely repeated the images.

At last, realizing that the Khaa had reached the limits of its ability to communicate, Eliot headed for the street. The Khaa melted down, reared up in the doorway to block his path, and flapped its arms desperately. Once again Eliot had a sense of its weird-old-man-ness. It went against logic to put his trust in such an erratic creature, especially in such a dangerous plan; but logic had little hold on him, and this was a permanent solution. If it worked. If he hadn’t misread it. He laughed. The Hell with it!

“Take it easy, Bongo,” he said. “I’ll be back as soon as I get my shootin’ iron fixed.”

* * *

Part 1  Part 2  Part 3  Part 4  Part 5