Sytiga is what they called her. It meant the mother in the ancient tongue. She came out of her trance, opening her eyes to a dark room. The fire burning under the caldron was the only light. From the rising aroma of gooseberries, she knew that her brew was ready. She stood, stepped out of the chalky circle of protection, and found her cotton swab stick. Using it to catch fire, she lit three candles. The room came alive with ominous shadows against the stone floor. She lit another candle and carried it to an imperfectly round table. On it was parchment. The enchantress stood over the parchment, trying to remember something she saw while in the trance. Then she wrote:
How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?
If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.
If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth.
“Is this the curse?” she asked. “Or a clue.”
Sytiga turned from the parchment and went to the caldron. After a few moments examining the texture, she spooned out the brew to fill a wooden cup. A candle in one hand, cup in the other, she left the room, entering another through a narrow opening.
A young girl lay on a straw bed; her pregnant belly was a hill of flesh under an animal skin blanket. Sytiga moved between the two men. The younger of the two slept, while the other watched Sytiga enter. He shifted and scooted. The enchantress knelt beside him and reached for the child’s bubbled belly.
“Sytiga,” said the man. “Please say you can help us.”
She nodded and slid a hand under the child’s head, waking the child in a fright.
“Islas,” the man spoke gently. “It’s okay.”
The younger man rolled and sat up. His wide eyes told his bewilderment.
“This is for pain and hunger.” Sytiga gave the brew to the girl. Hesitantly, Islas drank. When she finished, she lay again. Sytiga stood and, without a word, allowed her eyes to call the men into the next room.
They sat with folded legs on the stone floor. Gooseberry scents filled the room from the kettle behind them. “Your chief must pay the tribute.” She circled them.
“We brought the tribute,” the younger man sounded impatient. “You have plenty to make your elixirs.”
Sytiga shook her head. She needed more than what they brought.
“What assurances will you give us that the plague will end when we fill your storages?” the older one asked.
Sytiga sat. “I will tell you what brings the plague,” her metallic voice strengthened with irritation. “You sat in that room. You saw her lay peacefully, but I saw the girl’s soul fighting to protect the child in her belly. I saw her in the plane of dreams.”
She read the doubt on the young man’s face, and she leaned toward him. Her thin lips pressed tightly. Her chest rose when she inhaled through her nose. “I walked between the volcanic boulders. A dark cloud moved from the south as if to consume the orange sky. In the shadow of it, I saw the spirit Palden Lhamo. She stood with folded wings across her back, and she pointed. I followed the path at her instruction until I saw the child. She waved a torch with two hands at a retreating four-legged shadow. Behind her was an infant flat on its back.
“I saw that his ankles chained to a box where the girl retreated. She stood on the box and held the torch. She searched through the dark for the next approaching shadow. When it came, shaped like a creeping coon, she attacked with the flames, and it fled.
“’ She chained the child to the box to prevent its theft,’ Palden Lhamo explained to me.
“The child hosts a gabomnoteh. I’ve come upon a great secret the spirits want kept.”
The men sat silently, and their eyes betray their thoughts. The older man wanted more information. His most important question was, however, the most irrelevant. The younger one wanted to disbelieve, but he was too afraid to dismiss what she said.
“The sinister shadow spirits are hinns. The girl can fight them for a while, but she will weaken. The plague is an attack on your people. Your chief’s astrologers have already told him to exile the child. That is why you brought her to me. Such is what the priests of Agaliarept hope will weaken the girl – depress her and break her will to fight. When that happens, the hinn will bring the baby’s soul to the djinni.”
She stood. “Bring me what I ask, and I will save the baby’s soul and your people.” She walked to the door. “The potion I gave her will keep her strong for a time.”
“How long?” The older man stood.
“Two days; maybe three.”
“Islas will mother a soul-less child.” She opened the door, and the frosty night air blew in her hair. She was a beautiful lady untouched by age. With the wind in her hair and the shadows flickering from the flames, she appeared dreadfully ominous.
When her visitors left, she sighed. There were many things she didn’t tell them. There were other things in the trance that Palden Lhamo reviled. She didn’t speak about them because she didn’t understand them. She spoke as if the existence of a gabamnoteh was common knowledge. Four hours ago, she knew nothing of it. She had two days to learn.
Sytiga returned to the parchment on the stone table. She lit another candle that revealed a stash of buffalo skin scrolls and books. She reached for a book. “Gabamnoteh,” she whispered. “Did the old ones write about it?”
She set the scroll aside and took a book in hand. Differentiating one Sytiga’s writing from the next was difficult. Twenty or so predecessors; she was confident that one had written about a gabamnoteh. Three pages into the book Sytiga realizing that the author was less concerned with the spirits than potions. Such was the preference of Sytiga’s mentor.
“Ah,” she pushed aside the bound parchments. She regretted that her mentor was more occupied with brews and medicines. Now, Sytiga needed a spiritualist. She thought about Palden Lhamo’s comment. She didn’t say that the gabomnoteh was her secret, she said our secret.
Does this mean the spirits collectively keep the secret? She reached for a group of unbound parchment, made from plant leaves. This group of writings told no stories and gave no spells or recipes. They were compositions of individual words, names, and their definitions. They didn’t make for the best reading, but she struggled through the words. After half the night, she came across the first familiar word.
Lemurian ruler. The architect. Creator of portals, cities, keeper of forbidden secrets
Female spirits of nature, growth, rebirth
Encouraged, she continued. Agaliarept is a prisoner. She hesitated to ponder the thought. Why was he prisoned? Who did he harm? She read the words, keeper of forbidden secrets. She continued to read the lists.
Prisoned Atlantean warrior spirits, conquered Kumari Kandam
Anatel king and strategist
She paused to ponder how many spirits were bound or locked away. How many jailers were men? Were any of them Sytiga oracles?
Her distracted thoughts slipped to the spirit realm. A half-day passed since she projected into it. After revealing Islas’ torment, Palden Lhamo took Sytiga to the Krudital Tunnel at the Fjord of Ice Flames. She pointed across the water to a wicket built into the fjord walls.
“Krudital Tunnel is through the wicket.” Her voice fluttered. Was she frightened? “Release the anatel from their jail, and they will run away the hinn.”
Sytiga stared at the words on the parchment. She pondered the consequences of releasing the Anatel. Aside from the hope they’d chase away the hinn tormentors, what dangers did they present? Djinn made few inconsequential promises. Sytiga assumed that Palden Lhamo was no exception. She recalled their meeting again, searching for a clue at the djinni’s intent.
She reminisced, standing at the fjord. Palden Lhamo backed away from the water. To her left, bright jade and sapphire gems formed a semi-circle around a stone slab. Written on the plate were the words she wrote on the parchment.
“Is this the curse?”
“For some,” Palden Lhamo answered. Her voice was soft and distant. “For others, a blessing.” She hesitated as if pondering her next move. Her green eyes peered pass Sytiga to the floating blocks of ice in the water. Captured spirits – jann and ghouls – floated by in ice prisons. After some time, a jade mist that surrounded her feet thickened into a cloud that lifted to her knees. She reached her hand inside of it. There were flashes of silver and blood red energy. When the cloud lowered, Palden Lhamo held in her hand a thin rope.
“This is Oroskelis’ rope.” The rope shimmered as if made of moonlight when she lifted it. “It is the only thing that can withstand the chari. Place it around the bars, and it should open the wicket.”
Sytiga turned to glance again at the wicket. How would she cross the river? How deep was it? When she looked directly into it, she saw that it was not water. Instead, it was sheer liquid energy. She saw beneath it an infernal that burned ferociously.
Returning to the djinni, she asked. “Is there another way?”
“If you understand those words,” she pointed to the slab. “There is a powerful ifrit who may help. But not even he is immune to the chari. You may offer him this rope; he once laid claim to it.”
Decoding the words was a near-impossible task. More challenging was getting the rope from Palden Lhamo. The djinni only revealed the rope; she did not offer it. The twisted ploy was transparent. Chasing away the hinn involved freeing the anatel – an impossible task without the rope. With the rope, the chance for success increased by a small measure, which meant freeing an ifrit. There was no way to know that the ifrit would help without leveraging his desire for the rope.
“What will I barter for that rope?” Sytiga asked.
The djinni’s apprehension faded into a smirk on her leather face. Her wings opened, and she held her hands, palm up, in the center of her chest. Sytiga watched a swirling cloud of jade smoke materialize like a tornado. It spun, hypnotically drawing Sytiga to it. She peered deep into it until she saw a glyph. It grew brighter and transparent. Through it, Sytiga saw a woman sitting on a stump of wood. Her red knotted hair dangled over ash-gray eyes.
“A service is all I require,” the djinni revealed ivory white human teeth when she smiled. “This woman is content not to have a child, but she must give birth within eighteen moons.”
Sytiga observed the woman spinning hemp into threads. She seemed too old for children. Behind her was the landscape of the lowlands.
“If I agree to do this, I must know why.”
Palden Lhamo was slow to answer. “The gabamnoteh inside of her must survive. If she has a child, it will pass from her to it.”
When she agreed, Sytiga had no idea how she would do it. She planned to make a love potion from the ingredients she ordered her visitors to bring. She turned her attention to the words on the parchment.
Her heart skipped a beat. She found it!
A soul fragment: it survives from the energy of its host and endows its host with exceptional abilities.
Sytiga moved away from the table. She did not dismiss the written words from a Sytiga predecessor, but she wanted physical evidence. She walked like a cat into the room where the child lay. Sytiga squatted, careful not to awake the expecting mother. She watched the belly rise and fall a few times before she touched the bump. Islas trembled, and Styiga moved her hand inches away. She waited a dozen breaths. Slower and more gently than before, she rubbed the round and warm belly. Sytiga closed her eyes and reached with mental energy far into the darkness of Islas’ womb. She found the baby’s energy alluring and calm.
The peace pleased her, but it wasn’t long before she sensed something strange and fiery. Heat, not of the material world, warmed her fingers. Her hand and then her arm numbed from the energy pulsating from the girl’s stomach. Sytiga sensed the consciousness of it. The energy wanted to know as much about her as she it. When the warmth reached her face, she saw it – the dragon’s head. Its eyes gleamed back at her through an inquisitive consciousness. Startled, she removed her hands.
Is that the gabamnoteh? She opened her eyes and shifted them. Islas looked back at her. The fear that reddened her face when she first looked into Sytiga’s eyes returned.
“Don’t be afraid,” Sytiga stroked the frightened child’s black hair. Seeing the hard stare soften, she turned and reached for the cup.
“Here,” Sytiga extended the cup. “It will relax your mind.”
“Now, tell me about this monster that violated you,” she glanced endearingly at the expected mother.
Islas hesitated as if it pained her to recall the memory. She spoke in a soft, trembling voice. “He had a name,” she glanced into the cup. Her eyes wettened. “Gorgo. His hair was red like blood. He raped me.” She cried. “He raped me!”
Sytiga reached to her. The gentle caress of the shoulders was enough to calm the frightened girl. Soon the potion took effect, and Islas was asleep. Sytiga returned to the parchments.
Atlantean spirit of the dawn – captured and bound by Arelim of Thrones
Atlantean spirit of dusk – bound at Fjord of Ice Flames by Akatriel of mysteries and proclamations.
She reached for the verse she wrote on the parchment. Her eyes focused on the word Jerusalem. Was that the code for Shalem? Was Shalem the name of the ifrit? It seemed reasonable enough for her to assume as much. With such ambition, she waited for dusk. Then she prepared for her projection into the plane.
Red, black, and white candles spiraled around the triangle of manifestation drawn on the cold floor. She placed a clam’s shell in the triangle and stepped into the circle of protection. From there, she poured oil from a vial in the shell and whispered. “I open the door to eternity.”
Reaching to the left, outside of the circle, she took the animal skin sac in hand. Inside was a mixture of powder and flower petals she poured into the shell. “Palden Lhamo, hear my mantra.”
She lit the oil with the candle flame. The fire rose violently. Sitting with folded legs, she peered into the flame and chanted. “Jo ramo, jo ramo, jo jo ramo, tunjo kela rachen-no.”
The words were heavy on her lips. She forced them out with unusual difficulty. Was something inside of her unwilling to see the spirit, or was there something in the room with her? She sensed a presence – a djinni, no, she guessed an angel. Did it know her intent? Was it trying to stop her?
More focus, she told herself.
“Ramo aja, dajia tunjo, rulic rulic hum jo hum.”
Her skin shivered as if a cold hand touched her naked shoulder. She repeated the mantra despite the difficulty. Her tongue was fat in her mouth; still, she continued.
She spoke louder. A pale mist came from her mouth with each word. Frost condensed on her eyebrows. She recited the mantra one hundred times before the fire in the clam weakened. It was a dull blue flame, barely noticeable, and Sytiga with a dry throat grew silent.
Then without warning, the blue flame exploded and spilled out of the shell. It burned inside the triangle and left a bright spark high above her. The bitter cold left as suddenly as it came. Sytiga closed her eyes. The heat from the fire licked her face. She grimaced. When she opened her eyes, she saw a dark figure standing in flames.
“I welcome you, Palden Lhamo.” She whispered. “Thank you for saving the world from destruction.”
“My work is not done,” the voice was soft like a dozen whispers speaking from the fire.
“I seek your advice and offer my help.”
Palden Lhamo lifted her hand. Pale smoke became jade green before she, with a flip of the wrist, cast the smoke from the flame. It floated across the room to the wall and formed a glyph. The glyph was an illumination of jade embers against the black bricks.
“Stare into the glyph,” she encouraged. “Pour your soul into it and step into my world.”
Sytiga obeyed. It was the same glyph from the previous night. Sytiga narrowed her eyes on the glyph’s impositions of squares and circles. The longer she gazed, the more it appeared three dimensional. The heat and darkness around her condensed and squeezed her shoulders. Her focus narrowed and her flesh with it – tight against her bones. She was unaware if she moved toward the glyph or if it moved to her. When it was as close to her as her nose, it vanished into the darkness. At that moment, she realized that she stood on smooth pavement, slippery like glass. The heat that surrounded her was now at her rear. She turned and saw the glyph behind her. The jade smoke was now transparent glass hovering in front of her. Through it, she saw into the room—her fleshy body sitting inside the circle amongst the wax candles.
She sensed Palden Lhamo behind her, staring with her green eyes. The coal-black skin on her face squeezed into a welcoming smile. She turned and led the way down the glass declining path.
Sytiga followed, taking the spirit’s folded wings into full view. She stopped abruptly and revealed the shimmering rope. “You materialized the rope from nothing. Will you teach me?” Sytiga asked.
Palden Lhamo obliged. “All is energy,” she said. “This is no different from a thought.” She held the rope with two hands across the length of her chest. “When you hold an object, it lies in your thoughts.” She lowered her hands, and the rope disappeared. “When you put it away, it remains in your thought until you reach for it again.” She lifted her hands, and the rope appeared again.
Sytiga did not know how it was that she understood. She knew that she could not articulate it or write down the procedure, but she somehow knew that manipulating the energy was no different from moving air with the wave of a hand.
They stopped at tepee. Sytiga remembered that once through the straw door, she would be at the fjord. “What happens after I release them?”
“The anatel are fierce warriors, but I can control them.” The djinni grinned. “The child will have peace.”
“Will you not join me?”
Sytiga sensed that something about the fjord frightened the djinni. Whatever danger Palden Lhamo avoided, Sytiga understood she must face. The rope was the only help she’d expected from the green-eyed spirit.
When she reached the riverbank, Sytiga stretched out her hand over it. The current radiated chilled energy that rose above like a mist. She peered into the fog. The density of it increased as she stared, pouring into it, her emotions triggered by memories: old Sytiga spells, happy childhood thoughts from creating brews and potions that worked. She sensed a presence and, for a moment, assumed that she had connected to the trapped ifrit. Soon she realized she had not. The mist cooled, and frost formed on her fingers. Sytiga recalled the frosty touch. Rising from the water came a dull old-gold shaded light. It was narrow, and in it, she saw the face of a child. A second light appeared and then a third. Before long, there were five such beings aligned in front of her.
She assumed these were the spirits who interfered with her projection. She withdrew her hand.
“You must stop,” spoke the first. Its voice like a preadolescent.
“You must not release the ifrit.” Spoke another one.
Sytiga looked on them curiously. The appearance of sheep’s wool covered their heads, and dull golden lights gleamed at her from deep eye sockets. Their bodies faded from the shoulders down into the light column that rose from the water.
“Why do you stop me?”
“No mortal soul can rule the ifrit.” Spoke the first spirit.
“War,” spoke the second. “War will ensue.”
“Shall I allow the hinn to take the baby from its mother?” Sytiga spoke with an impatient voice. “Shall I allow men to suffer and die in the material world?”
“Suffering and death are prescribed for men.”
Sytiga shook her head. “No.” She lifted her hand again. “I will release this creature.”
“As you wish.” The lights faded. “You are warned.”
Sytiga felt the mist rise again. It rose quicker and covered her hand. After a short while, the hand disappeared in the haze. She spoke the words, an ancient Atlantean language – the meanings she barely knew. Still, she believed in the lyrics. She foresaw the spirit rise, its scaled skin dripping with the water. Its eyes reminded her of Venus just after sunset. With large three-fingered hands, it pulled its enormous body from the river. When it stood erect, the water was chest high. The ifrit inhaled and released a loud cry like a dozen enraged elephants.
It looked around like a man lost in a strange land.
With a firm, demanding voice, Sytiga called to it. “Shalem!”
It took another step away from her.
“Shalem, the keeper of peace. I freed you.”
The creature turned to her.
“I demand that you…”
“You demand?” His voice was defiant. “No mortal demands from me.” He turned to her and moved one step closer to the bank. “I am to be worshiped. Not instructed.”
Sytiga did not expect the defiance over gratitude.
“I do not submit to the whims of men.” He leaned his mud-brown leather face closer to her. “Or their daughters.”
Sytiga watched Shalem walk away. He reached the center of the river and spied an approaching iceberg. He studied it as it floated to him. Then with two powerful hands, he smashed it. The ice shattered. The creature, a winged jann, inside limply sank. Moments later, it sprang into flight and vanished in the dull sky.
Another ice prison approached. The ifrit would release the all unless Sytiga stopped it. She understood the angels’ warning and contemplated the ifrit’s thirst for revenge. She was desperate. “Would you agree to hear me if I knew of Shahar, you brother?”
Shalem turned to her.
“You’ve been locked away for some time,” Sytiga announced. “Your brother as well.”
“Then, I will release him.”
“As you should,” Sytiga agreed. She pointed to the wicket above. “He is there, but you may not free him. The wicket is chari.”
Shalem turned to see the wicket. His thin lips tightened into a line under a disproportioned nose. “For my brother, I will break the wicket and shatter it.” He turned away from her.
“Oh, mighty Ifrit,” Sytiga called to him. “If you touch the chari, it will imprison you again.”
He continued away from her. “I will bring down the walls around this river. I will bury it beneath the rubble.”
Sytiga called to him. Her voice was desperate. “You will need this.” She materialized the rope and held it above her head.
Shalem turned to see it shimmering in her hand. He hesitated. The leather face wrinkled into a dozen curious wrinkles.
“I will give you this rope to open the wicket if you grant me a favor,” she called.
With no intention to grant any favor, he snatched the rope from her. It grew longer in his grasp. It dangled for a moment, and he searched it over. “You bargain with what is already mine.” He yelled. Sytiga stubbled backward three steps and watched as the Ifrit holding one end of the rope threw the other high above to the wicket. He was perfect in his efforts; the rope twisted around the bar. He pulled at it, but it did not give way. He walked closer to it, and then in one mighty leap, landed on the ledge.
Sytiga watched amazed at the ifrit’s power and size. He pulled the rope harder, yanking at it again and again. He was close enough to take the bars by hand, but he did not touch it. Sytiga watched, waiting for the moment to steal the rope. It is my rope now, she thought.
The wicket flung from its hinges and at the ifrit’s chest. The bars brightened and flared upon contact. The ifrit cried an agonized below that shook the fjord. Its body spasmed as it kicked inside of a sphere of smoke and fire. The ground beneath Shalem gave way, and the ifrit plummeted.
Amazed, Sytiga wanted the chari. If only she could bring it into the material world. She extended her hand and called for the rope. Within a moment, it was in her hand. She watched as Shalem’s body merged into the brown landscape. A hole formed, and he dropped into it.
Satisfied that the ifrit was trapped, the oracle shifted to see into the tunnel opening. The darkness inside was spotted with various shades of orange spieling eyes. It was not long before one of the spirits stepped out of the cave into full view. It was not as large or intimidating as she expected. The anatel’s stubby legs moved taloned feet cautiously. Its oversized hands reached to the fjord wall. A muscular back glistened as it climbed the wall five paces higher than the tunnel opening. A second followed, and then a third. In a short while, two dozen dark figures clung to the fjord wall. When it seemed that they were all escaped from the tunnel, one last warrior appeared. He was taller.
She looked at the spirit. His lavender eyes peered across the river at her. She held the rope in hand, hoping it signaled that she caused their release. “Dakwan,” she called to him. She hoped he was their leader. His upright posture and the profound, analytical way he stared at her was her only evidence. “I summon you,” she confidently called. Now the rains will come, she thought.
When she exited the trance, she realized that she had been under for a full day. The potion given to Islas was to last a day. Sytiga’s belly rumbled and she assumed the expecting mother had a ferocious appetite – just the same. She listened to hear her moving in the back room, but instead, she heard frightened birds outside her door. Their flight told her that someone approached. She assumed Kolenta and Cuetzpalli were a day early.
They breathed heavily. The bags carried over their shoulders hit the ground with a thud when they entered the sorcerer’s hovel. They sat on the uneven floor, legs folded. Sytiga did not look at them. She busied herself rummaging through the sacks until she found what she sought. Then as she ground a sugar cane into a liquid, she questioned them.
“You say you found this girl already pregnant?”
“Yes,” answered Kolenta.
She turned to make eye contact with Kolenta. “And she is your slave, yes?”
“I’ve come to see her as one of my daughters,” Kolenta answered and shamefully lowered his eyes to Sytiga’s moccasins.
Sytiga nodded her head. “She mentioned rape, is that right?”
“Yes. By a giant far to the north.”
“Sytiga,” Cuetzpalli humbly called. “Do you have answers for us?”
She turned to her work, now crushing something into a powder. “Your chief was correct. The girl is the reason behind the drought and the plague. “
“So, the child is evil?”
“Evil is a choice.” She turned to Cuetzapalli. “Did she choose rape over love? Did she choose fertility over infertility?”
They remained silent while Sytiga placed her mixture in a leather pouch. Then she poured her brew into it. Turning, she sat facing them; her legs folded the same as them. “The child is not evil. Nor is the baby she carries. Yet the spirits have come against you. The drought is their weapon.”
“Shall we sacrifice to them?” Kolenta spoke with reverence.
“Yes. But this sacrifice does not require death.” Her pale eyes gleamed at Cuetzapalli. “You are to visit the lowlands.” She extended the leather pouch to him.
Cuetzapalli was hesitant to take the pouch. He looked on the brown leather with disdain. “The lowlands?”
“You are to find a woman who makes clothing from hemp. She has hair, red like the setting sun. Her eyes gray like the wolf’s fur. You will bed her, and she will produce for you an offspring.”
His brow wrinkled. “I don’t understand.”
“It isn’t for you to understand anything more than this.” She leaned in. Her eyes were like daggers. “I remember you as an infant. I named you, and I prophesied that you would save your people. If the hag does not bare your child, I am a liar. If she does, the drought and the plague will never return.” Her eyes shifted to the pouch in his lap. “If you cannot charm her with your brown eyes and white teeth, give her that to drink.”
She watched him stare at the pouch.
“This is called destiny,” she said to him. “Your destiny is at hand.”